Friday, September 17, 2021

THE RECONSTITUTED MAN

          Clausen blinked his eyes repeatedly before the unexpected brightness. He was suddenly here when his memory held him elsewhere. He remembered a doctor, an anesthesiologist. Then, nothing. An absence of sensation, and light. Without knowing, without being. He turned suddenly, aware of someone‘s presence.. “Huh. You.”

          He was looking at a man who had been around for years without being his friend. They had crossed paths at continuous junctions, yet rarely had spoken to one another.

          “What are you doing here?” he said.

          Peter Corbin smiled. “I work here.“ 

          He was wearing a white lab coat. His pink skin went perfectly with his blond wispy hair and blue iceberg eyes.

          “Which do you believe in? Miracles or science?” he added.

          Peter’s attitude and the nature of his question clued Clausen that something was going on. Something of which he was a part. 

          “Science? Miracles? I don’t know. Both I guess.”

          Peter‘s eyes probed deeply into Clausen‘s. 

          “The situation here is a bit of them both. So, tell me, Clausen: What are your last memories before just now?”

          Clausen blinked away the eye contact. He turned his face down to avoid reestablishing it. 

          “Why do you want to know? Why am I here?”

          Peter let his gaze roam proudly about the lab, with all its tubes and vials and solutions. Furnished with cabinets and contraptions such as no other lab in the history of humankind had the merest whisper of knowledge of.

         “The explanation I have for you is both simple and complex,“ he said. “I want to ease into it as gently as I can. Will you answer yes or no? Is your last memory of the day you went in the hospital and was operated on to put a stint inside you?”

          Clausen said yes. “I confess I am confused. I should recall leaving the hospital and getting on with things. But I don’t.”

          He looked around as had Peter. “And then I am here.”

          “I must tell you. No more pussyfooting,” Peter exploded, unable to further contain himself. “You left on a gurney. I intercepted your body on the way to the morgue. As you had no discoverable family or friends I petitioned for the right to make all the arrangements.”

          His suddenly wild eyes also showed cunning.

          “Before the mortician could despoil your precious fluids or turn your body parts into useless refuse, I took what I needed. The mortician turned a blind eye. He was no friend. I had to bribe him plenty.”

          Transfixed, Clausen failed to move and otherwise respond when Peter suddenly put his hands on his body.

          “I grew this,” Peter said, exulting. “You are the first reconstituted human being.”

          He stared feverishly into Clausen’s eyes.

          “You are a replica of your former self while at the same time being your original person. Unlike Porkly, you turned out perfectly.”

          “Who’s Porkly,” Clausen replied weakly.

          “He’s a hog I have in the far back. The original prototype. I learned from my mistakes before growing you. It took three long years to turn you out. A perfect specimen. I took possession of your belongings, including the clothes. They still fit you perfectly.”

          “Aa-urk,” came an agonized cry from the back of the lab.

          Clausen knew it had to be Porkly.

          “Poor boy,” Peter clucked. “Wasn’t formed correctly. He needs his pain meds constantly.”

          “Why,” Clausen said - “Why do you keep him alive if his existence is unending pain?”

          “My scientific colleagues. When I go before them to prove my work I need Porkly as well as yourself for display.”

          Instead of clarifying, Peter had gotten Clausen still more confused.

          “But why choose me,” he said, “for a subject? Why not a close friend or relative? Someone you would actually like to see again?”

          “It was too late for them. The raw material needs to be fresh. Besides. My mother? Bring her back for what? So she can grieve herself to death a second time over losing her firstborn to a vicious murder? Her dead son? So he can be wracked with guilt for causing her death? No. Better to choose a stranger. At least near stranger. Someone who appears to have lived a constant even flow, not harming, not defrauding. In my judgment you are perfect.”

          Clausen snorted. “This isn’t what’s called cloning is it?”

          Peter had regained his self-control. He waved a flat palm. 

          “No. No,” he said. “Cloning is just another way to have a baby. Reconstituting may not be exact for what I have done, but it is what I am calling it. My processes grew the bones and the meat and the spinal chord and the brain and everything else strictly from the material harvested from you.” He paused, then looked significantly across the space between them. “I am the greatest scientist in the history of the world.”

          “If you could do all of that on your own I’m certainly not going to argue with you,” Clausen said.

          “Well,” Peter said, assuming a bit of modesty, “my work rests upon the shoulders of thousands of scientists who did their work before me. But I made the follow through on the science.”

          He took several steps before poor Clausen and said, “Would you like to meet Porkly? He’s very sweet.”

          Clausen refused. He had begun having urges and so needed to leave the lab to resume living the life he had left behind. “It’s been very nice,” he began.

          Peter was quick to intercede. “Oh, no. You mustn’t try to leave. You owe me a few weeks of your time. It’s my fee for snatching you from the jaws of death. Once I present my thesis and allow them to inspect the evidence - you and Porkly -  you will be free to leave or accept my help at rehabilitation.”

          “Will you end Porkly’s suffering if I stay? I mean end it now?”

          Peter’s face showed anger. “I expect you to be reasonable. If you don’t have more questions for me I will show you to your quarters.”

          Clausen hoped he would not have to fight this man. He hoped Peter would not try to block his way. Instead of falling in beside Peter, his feet took him to the door, a massive metal construction that he found locked with no visible mechanism for making it unlocked. He turned away from it to confront Peter, who with his hands on his hips watched him like the parent watches the rebellious child.

          “Now will you go to your room?” Peter demanded.

          Reluctant Clausen bowed his head. “Show the way,” he said.

          Suddenly ebullient Peter bounced away with Clausen several paces behind. 

          “Oh, you will love these quarters,” Peter gushed. “My onetime partner, Ed Slaine outfitted it for himself before he met that bimbo and sailed for Europe. Yes indeedy. Here it is.”

          He flung open the door. 

          Clausen cautiously peeped in. It was, as Peter implied, more than just suitable. He stepped inside. Peter immediately tried to slam the door shut. Clausen’s foot blocked it.

          “No you don’t,” he said. “If I go in there it’s on the condition you don’t lock me in.”

          Peter stood clasping the door, blinking.

          “All right,” he said at last, obviously knowing better than to test his strength against the healthier man. “But please stay in there so I can work.”

          Clausen waited for Peter to go. Then he looked for a screwdriver with the intent to remove the door lock. There proved to be one in an odds and ends drawer. After that, it was a simple exercise to remove the screws from the lock. He hid the parts inside the water tank of the toilet - obvious place police would search, but not someone like Peter. He looked the place over.

          It was not bad at all. In fact, ultra-comfortable. It even had a fireplace and a wonderfully comfy chair from which to admire the flames or to read a good book or listen to an extensive library of music. Clausen opted for the flames. He needed some reflection time. First, he went to the kitchen where he discovered bottles of wine. He selected a chiante and emptied half of the bottle into a large goblet. Then, drink in hand, he settled to mull the mostly unbelievable situation in which he found himself.

          It felt odd to know there was no gratitude within him. No feeling at all. Perhaps because there was no forewarning, no awareness inside the process. The only personal involvement was, he simply continued being alive, just as though nothing consequential happened. There were other considerations. 

          Firstly, he could not decide if Peter was a deranged individual. Could he qualify as a mad scientist? Clausen concluded not. It seemed more he was just a driven individual who spent all of his time alone. 

          Secondly, it felt wonderful to be alive. If he had to wait two weeks to reestablish himself he could wait.

         But thirdly, he began to consider a world in which selected people need not stay dead while multitudes would be denied. There was no getting around it. For every reconstituted person at least thousands were sure to die. And if word got out, as it was sure to do, there would be riots. The police would soon be bound to shoot.

          The sort of person to stand at the line’s head likely would be the ultra-privileged. He could envision regeneration being monopolized away from the most deserving.

          After a silent twenty minutes, he knew he could allow no further attempts at regeneration. It was his duty as a human to defend the sanity of people, also guard the gene pool. 

          Clausen was no hero, in the comic book sense. He just knew he had to try. Plucking the fireplace poker from the stand, practicing swinging it with both hands, imagining a forceful blow shattering the skull beneath that wispy blond hair. Facing the lock-deprived door. “Go. You’ve got to do it,” he commanded of himself.

           

     

              


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Children of the Ward

I watch the children playing,
See them dancing in the yard.
Preserve the words they`re saying,
Like a fancy Christmas card.
The moments that betray them
Are the moments caught off guard;
Yet the dragons cannot slay them,
Not these children of the ward.
I hear their mothers calling
As they empty out the yard,
Echoing their footsteps,
Like bells tolling in my heart.
I gaze upon the portrait
Of my brother who`s been gone:
Time itself cannot prorate
The memory and the song.
To see you I would kiss you;
And give hugs until you groan.
Mama`s off to find you,
I must go it all alone -
I`ve been across some borders,
To describe my private hell;
In deep and shallow waters,
Like a bucket in a well.
Each story has an anchor;
Yes I dragged mine through the bay;
I was lucky just to find her,
Fortunate she went my way.
The sun is like a prism:
See it straining through the glass.
My mind`s not like a prison;
I`m no prisoner to the past.
There`s a beauty in the foment,
And a rage to top the crest;
Got to have myself a moment,
So I`m ready for the rest.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Pinto Horse

 I wrote this when I was very young. Nearly 60 years ago. I don't have a copy of it, but I recall word for word and want to make a record of it.

ride the pinto horse
across the pampas plains
ride a steady course
don't pull on those reins
the pinto can see 
beyond your plans
you've got to look closely
through your hands

I rode the pinto horse
I was a gaucho plain
unto the very source
of any man's pain
the pinto could see
beyond my plans
I had to look closely
through my hands

tonight the moon is full
in steady force
to light on its way
the pinto horse
the pinto can see
beyond your plans
you've got to see closely
through your hands


Thursday, September 2, 2021

A POSSE FOR MEXICAN RED

 1

          Maxie Berger sat back comfortably on the dirt, using his blanket roll to cushion his back. He had his black hat pulled back on his head and his boots were off. He was enjoying a smoke while waiting for the coffee to boil. A high blaze of fire hugged the side of the pot, making the boil imminent. Maxie’s attention was caught by a bird attacking its rival in a fight that took them to the ground and back up in a cottonwood tree. They arced over the tree and quickly away. 

          He liked birds. 

          He caught the cigarette in his lips, preparatory to getting up with the intent to rinse out a tin coffee cup. As he put his chin up a simultaneous rifle report and the destruction of the cigarette took place. The wiry cowpoke dove to the cover of a bush. He wished his rifle was not so far away. 

          A second shot zinged past his ear so near that if a bug had been sitting on top of it the bullet would have taken it away.

          Maxie smiled. Just one man could shoot like that. “Mexican Red,” he called. “Come out from where you’re hiding.” 

          He returned to his goods and located a second cup. As he busied himself cleaning them out and then pouring the coffee, a giant of a man silently approached. The man though Spanish-dressed had the red hair of a Scot. His dress had been fancy in its early days, but months of hard riding had taken its toll. Two fancy pistols always caught the eye of people when he approached them. Red pushed back a great sombrero and smiled. “One of these days I’m just going to miss. You’re going to look funny with no lips and ears.”

          “That’s the day I would have to plug you,” Maxie joked. “How much are you worth?”

          Red watched his friend pour out the coffee into the cups. “Nearly ten thousand, I think. At least.”

          “That much? Don’t ever turn your back on a friend. Any friend,” Maxie cautioned.

          Red took his coffee. He ambled to Maxie’s blanket roll and had a seat. “What are you doing in these parts? I thought you had a stake in that lady’s ranch,” he said casually enough.

          “Still got it,” Maxie replied. “I’m just shaking out my legs. Married life keeps me nervous.”

          “I would have thought the town saloon would be the place to relax that off,” Red allowed. 

          The two sipped their coffee until it cooled enough to be drank right down. Then Red produced two fine cigars. “Like a smoke?” he said. “A real one?”

          Among Red’s friends, these cigars were famous. There was no finer tobacco to be had in the southwest. The two smoked in silence.

          At last, Red spoke again. ”I’m told there is a posse being made up in my honor. A day’s ride from here.”

          Maxie grinned. “Wouldn’t be surprised,” he said.

          Red too grinned. “It’s a lot of money,” he said.

          Maxie’s composure slipped, little by little, and then it crashed. “I’m busted, Red. She took up with Billy Pearsall. Together they ran me off with naught but the bills in my britches and this horse and saddle. I got nothing and no place to go.”

          “You thought to take it out of my hide? Look, I can stake you several hundred if that will make you more sensible. That much ought to carry you until you get a situation somewhere. I will give you a few extra of my cigars even.”

          Maxie’s pride would not let him accept such an act of charity. “Say I take it. What kind of a man does that make me?”

          “Alive, for one,” Red said gently.

          “Alright. I’ll give it up. But I don’t want your damn charity,” Maxie insisted.

          He was getting annoyed little by little that Red had taken his resting spot away from him. He finished the cigar and dropped it near his feet. He took the tin cups, now empty, and rinsed the coffee grounds out of their bottoms. Playing through his mind was the thought, “While he’s down like that. You could kill him.”

          He knew better than that. Red was the sort of wizard who would always come out on top. He would only ever be taken when finally surrounded with no way out. When he turned toward Red he saw the man had shifted his position. He had drawn one leg around, making it easy to access the gun on that hip. Their eyes met and Maxie saw that Red was reading him perfectly.

          Then Red came to his feet. He stood before Maxie and looked down at his face. “You took my free cigar. Why not my money?”

          Maxie pulled on his chin whiskers, thinking. He knew it was different, just didn’t know how it was different. With a short little shake of the head, he said, “I’m ’bout to break camp.”

          Under Red’s watchful eye, the abashed cowboy began gathering his goods. He rebooted his feet. Then as he unhobbled his pony, he glanced around to find the outlaw was gone. He stared at the empty space where Mexican Red had been. 

          “It was a good cigar,” he said at the emptiness. “Thanks.” 

          He settled his gear on the pony and took to the saddle. Having no place better in mind to be, he continued his journey to the settlement where the posse was being formed. He didn’t know if it had a name yet. It really didn’t matter. There he could ask around for work. At worst he could refill his water before heading on southward.

          At the Buford fork, he found the way diverted by bob wire. It cost him nearly half a day of extra riding. He considered bob wire a curse. He understood that his world was being transformed by seemingly small things, all multiplied and irreversible. The wire changed the world for everybody and everything. It restricted buffalo from grazing land and water. It blocked food for many who lived off the land. It made him feel less free. He felt a little threatened to know somebody might invent a horseless carriage. He supposed if they did it with trains and boats they could do it with carriages. His melancholy lifted a bit when eventually his path returned to the original trail. The settlement could not be far off.

          As he approached the outskirt of the settlement by early afternoon he saw a new sign. “Parched April, population 412.”  The number had been altered already, more than one time. Well, first things first. He still had about twenty dollars in his pocket. He hoped the saloon would have food. 

          Like all buildings in Parched April, the saloon had been tacked together with no thought of making a permanent presence. No one tried to put in a wooden walkway, probably not thinking it worth the trouble for a temporary enterprise. The settlement was originally a gathering spot for railroad workers. Then a few men opened some mines and kept it going. Maxie watered, then tethered the pony and went inside. 

          Inside, the saloon was equally crude, with a dirt floor covered by what appeared to be peanut shells.. The bar was a makeshift of planks laid over barrels. There were shelves of bottles but no mirror on the wall behind. One could stand at the bar or sit at a table on a bench. Maxie saw the group in the far corner who likely were members of Red’s posse. He found the barkeep.

          “Where can I get some food?” he said. 

          The barkeep wore a croupier’s visor. With four days worth of growth on his face and a torn shirt he looked more like a bum than respected businessman. He said, “You want biscuits and gravy I can get ’em. Everything else, down the street at Ma’s House.”

          “Get ’em,” Maxie said. “First give me a bottle and a glass.”

          The barkeep, whose name was Sam Harmon, barked at a snoozing fellow leaned over a table, “Fred. Get the man some biscuits.”

          Maxie caught the bottle and glass between an arm and his body and used his free hand to drag a table next to the ones the posse occupied. After settling the items on the table, he got himself a bench and took his seat. He saw one familiar face, a pock marked visage with mixed white and black hair and eyebrows and a persistent slack jaw. A peculiar squint that drew attention to one eye being glass. 

          “Hey, Waco Jimmy. I thought you was dead,” he said by way of greeting. 

          Waco Jimmy pulled a pair of heavy-rimmed glasses from his shirt pocket, slipped them over his eyes, saw it was Maxie speaking, and turned his head back to the conversation. “There’s no way to run Red down and take him,” he continued saying as he moved the glasses back inside his shirt. “We are going to have to set up a trap.”

          Sitting across the table from Waco was Jesse Swaggart, a handsome ex-railroad worker looking to make an easy dollar. “So we’ve heard you say four times already,” Swaggart said impatiently. “If you have a plan lay it out or shut your mug.”

          The rest of the group, a sober-faced ex-sheriff and a dusty looking wrangler, nodded assent, tired of the talking. 

          Waco Jimmy talked on, unperturbed, as his face took on a sly leer. “I’ve got a friend coming today. He knows Mexican Red’s weakness. It’s a senorita that lives near Del Lobo. He says if we hold her he is bound to give hisself up just to free her.”

          The ex-sheriff, Bo Higgins, said, “In the event he does surrender we’ve got to kill him immediately. Because if he goes to jail he is damn well going to escape and hunt us down one by one.”

          On that point they all agreed. Whether Mexican Red had his breathing permanently cut off or walked in on his own, the reward money stayed the same. And the money would be no good if no one was alive to appreciate it.

          Maxie had received his biscuits and gravy but was having a hard time eating them while listening to these men plan an attack on a member of the female sex, coupled with outright murder. He knew that even with his pledge to Mexican Red not to ride he would have forsaken these coyotes. He drank a few hurried drinks of whiskey and stretched the familiar stretch of the weary. 

          “Anybody know a place I can stretch out for free?” he said. He turned to Sam Harmon. “Do you?”

          Harmon, looking annoyed, said, “I have a cot in the back I sleep in. You can do it until I get tired. Tomorrow you could pay me by working a few hours.”

          Maxie shuffled off without a farewell to the posse. Going around the bar and to the door-less opening. “Obliged,” he said before slipping through, scratching himself as he went. 

          He found the cot tempting. Maxie instead sneaked out the back entrance. His recall told him a telegraph wire was attached to a shack just where the street began on the way in. Taking a track behind the line of buildings, he came to the shack and pushed inside. The telegraph operator sat drinking coffee while perusing a month old newspaper from Tombstone. He pushed back his specs to look at the intruder. “Yes?”

          Without speaking, Maxie took a sheet of the operator’s paper and wrote out a message addressed to the town of Del Lobo. The pinch-faced telegrapher tried to read as he wrote, but it was not possible. Even after the note was finished the telegrapher had to clarify the cowpoke’s meanings. 

          “It will cost you a nickel for me to send all of that,” the telegrapher explained.

          Maxie dropped his nickel into the man’s palm and went outside to retrace his path to the room at the back of the saloon.

          He was sleeping soundly when a pair of rough hands spilled him out on the floor. He struggled to see the man attached to the hands. The rough hands belonged to Jesse Swaggart. 

          Maxie feigned innocence. “Not funny, Jesse.”

          “You wrote a message at the telegraph office.”

          Jesse wadded the sheet Maxie had written his message on and dropped it on Maxie.

          “Get up,” he said. 

          “Don’t push me too far,” Maxie responded.

          He knew himself to be the man’s inferior regarding physical strength, but, despite his backing down before Mexican Red he was good with his gun. That made them equal, for the moment. 

          Three more of the posse crowding through the entry canceled his chances. “Bring him out front,” snarled Waco Jimmy. 

          The cowpoke meekly arose and went with the crowd into the barroom section. At the posse’s table sat the pinch-faced telegraph operator drinking beer. He studiously avoided looking in Maxie’s direction. Maxie wondered if the man had paid for the beer with his nickel.

          After Maxie was installed on a bench, the posse leered at him. 

          Waco Jimmy said, “We’ve got two ways we can deal with this bastid. One is to take him along until we have Mexican Red in our sights. The other is to kill him out on the trail. Makes no never what you boys choose.”

          Bo Higgins insinuated his gun from the holster. 

          New with the posse was Andy Carroll, who had been fired for his laziness from the ranch where the targeted female worked as a housekeeper.

          “I say we kill him,” Andy said.

          Bo nodded his assent.

          Maxie shook his head to indicate his disagreement with that decision.

          Pouring himself a drink, Waco Jimmy expressed the opinion the posse could finish the day, then sleep comfortably before heading out before daybreak. 

          Maxie spent the night on the floor behind a bench, bound hand and foot. The posse had bullied Sam Harmon to lock up with them sleeping inside the bar.


2

          Waco Jimmy astride his pony looked like a classical fierce warrior waiting for the others of the posse and Maxie to mount up. Cold winds were raking the plains this morning, signaling perhaps an early fall. Bo Higgins and Andy Carroll were next to arrive and Jesse Swaggart rode alongside Maxie. Bo Higgins led the pack mule.

          Once they set out the terrain was dry. The stiff winds eased off. Bo insisted the horses have water at regular intervals even if it meant rationing themselves. No riders disagreed. As they left the plain and came on the rocky hills Maxie began looking for places to fall off of his pony and lose himself among the rocks. He doubted his captors would want to utilize a great deal of time searching when he would likely die out there on his own. 

          Andy Carroll took them to a waterhole at the foot of the hills. When Maxie fell on his knees beside his pony to put his face in the pool, Jesse pushed him over. 

          “How about it, boys?” he said, with his iron pulled half out of the holster. “Should I plug him here? He’s about to waste water.”

          “Let him drink,” said Bo. “Don’t put him down at the waterhole to stink it up for the ones next to come here.”

          Waco Jimmy came up from watering himself. After wiping his sleeve across the lower part of his face he said, “I’m thinking now we ought not kill him. We don’t need illegal blood on our hands.”

          Maxie scrambled back to the water’s edge and plunged his face in the coolness. Then he drank deeply. As he pushed himself to a stooping position Andy Carroll presented him with the perfect chance to escape. Andy pulled his pony back from the water and in so doing presented his backside to Maxie. His gun butt presented itself perfectly to Maxie’s hand. 

          Grabbing the iron as he came to his feet, he said, “Nobody move.”

          Waving the weapon, he demanded they throw down their guns. The posse awaited their cue from Waco Jimmy, who waited stoically without moving to comply. “I would put that gun down, old son,” he said. “You may kill me but I swear I will take you with me. And while you are dealing with me one of these bastids is going get his gat out in time to fire.” 

          With his free hand, Maxie readied his pony. 

          “Just you try going for it,” he said to Waco Jimmy. “I got a start on plugging at least half of you before I go down.” 

          The pony shied as Maxie attempted to mount. He lost his train of sight only momentarily but it was enough to make Waco Jimmy braver. By the time he could see him good enough he had cleared leather. Waco Jimmy’s draw was quick. Maxie’s response was quicker. His bullet pierced Waco Jimmy’s neck below his chin. The dying man’s bullets went wildly flying and could be heard to ricochet among the rocks. 

          Maxie steeled himself for further action, but the rest of the posse remained still. 

          “One’s enough dead,” said Andy Carroll. “But I swear I’m going to test you again if you don’t lower that weapon.”

          “We can’t let you ride out of here,” said Bo. “If a bloodbath is what it takes, we will have one right now. Put it away and ride with us or start your action.”

          As he spoke the posse went for their guns in a single motion. Maxie was able to mortally wound Bo and Andy Carroll. He and Jesse traded less lethal wounds and were rendered unable to finish the war. After losing their guns they stood regarding each other weighing the possibilities before them. At last, Andy spoke.

          “You know we are going to need each other just to survive and get back to town?”

          Maxie nodded yes. “I have rawhide to tie off the wounds,” he said. “Where did I get you?”

          “Upper arm. Cracked the bone, likely.” Andy’s attempted grin turned into a grimace.

          After putting a tourniquet on Andy’s arm, Maxie looked to his own wound. Turned out he was painfully grazed and barely bleeding. He regarded Andy a minute, rolled a cigarette and handed it, lit, to him. 

          “I’ll take care of the horses,” he said.

          He stripped the saddles and bridles off of the dead men’s ponies, then set them free. He helped Andy to mount his before taking to the saddle. He wondered how Mexican Red would have viewed his handling of an entire posse as he had been known to do.

              

          

          

              


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

THE GOOSE THAT MOOED

          “So, look, I wrote a book called The Goose That Mooed, for what d’ ya call the little bastards? Children. A-A-And I know if you could publish it you’d make a real shit pile of money. I’m going to let you read a copy of it, but I gotta warn ya. You’ll have to bid for it.” Rackly knew exactly what he was doing. The world was crying to have a book like this and his genius would have to be rewarded. He plopped a tattered sheaf of papers before the astonished agent. “Read it. Now.”

          Peters the agent tried to push the papers back at this idiot but Rackly slipped out the top sheet and laid it before Peters. He grabbed the sides of Peters’ head and held it so that the agent couldn’t look away without squeezing his eyes shut. He read.

          “Well, you porker at the trough. What do you think?”

          Peters swallowed. “Feed me another page.”

          The agent intently studied the second page. At last, after a protracted internal dialog, he remarked, “Let me have the full manuscript, Mr. -?”

          “Rackly. Barnwell Rackly.”

          Rackly had loosened his grip enough that Peters could look up full into the idiot’s face. No, genius author’s face. What a beautiful persona they could build around that face.

          “I have a great deal of money for you, Mr. Rackly …."




          Rackly was shaken from his reverie by the sound of an ambulance siren racing with flashing lights through the haze of the Long Beach night. He checked his watch. Ten fifty-three. In eight minutes he would be duty-bound to leave the dry confines of his auto to brave the six inches of rainwater to punch a series of clocks to prove he was on the job as a night watchman. With no rubber boots, the experience became more distasteful with each passing hour. He didn’t understand why it had to rain every day when it had rarely rained in Long Beach when he was stationed at the nearby naval base. Well - The naval base was gone and the rain was here. He looked down at the spiral notebook in his lap. At least the time spent just sitting was not going to waste. He was writing.   

          Sitting in the passenger seat, severely hunched over, he was able to read and write in the light of the car light. This was a nearly thankless task. He found it daunting to read his own writing, for nearly every sentence had been scribbled over and rewritten so many times that scribbles were nearly all that was left.

          He looked at the watch. Time to make his round, then return to write. And daydream. "One day, Peters -"








          

    


Sunday, August 8, 2021

A METALLIC GLEAM

          Henry sipped a brackish liquid from a thermos, poured from a jug sitting on a chest of drawers, mindful the jug was nearly empty. Rain pouring from the blackened sky was his only hope to refill it. The liquid was harsh going down. His stomach reluctantly kept it in. He looked around his "kitchen." 

          There was no food. Not even crumbs to pinch with his fingers to push in for his tongue to taste. There were just flat bags and an empty sardine can.     

          Even more than food and water, he mightily desired rest and sleep. Only on reaching a sufficient stage of exhaustion could he pass out, to remain oblivious of the raucous sounds of war until consciousness returned. Such interludes were unpredictable. Sheltering in the one standing room in the back end of a furniture store afforded the softness of mattresses. But no sleep. This morning he noticed an influx of rats. He feared the rats even more than the incessant explosions. He tightened the cap on the thermos and set it next to the jug.  

          Aware of heaviness inside his lungs as he moved, Henry went to the door and stopped. He dreaded to brave the floating debris and smoke outside. Plus, fearing the drones would come back. After screwing up his resolve, he forced himself outside, for he must go shopping. He should be wearing a mask, except it was too late for that.

          The Cory's Supermarket had been a place to avoid in the past, but now he didn't know where else to go. After doggedly walking the eleven blocks, he gazed wistfully over the bombed-out building, wondering where to start.      

          Finally, he went stumbling over the wreckage, digging past rubble in search of cans of food. Any such prize would be an overlooked item from hundreds of forays, dozens of which he had undertaken himself. After just five minutes of looking, Henry pulled back a mangled shelf to investigate underneath it. He saw a metallic gleam. Yes. Bingo. A nice, undamaged can. The label was off it. The content was incognito. It made no matter. Whatever, it was bound for a feast. He looked up at the smoky sky, his act of thanksgiving before climbing beyond the twisted metal to rescue the forlorn can. Clumsily, he went down to pick it up. From out of nowhere, a heavy weight blindsided him. He listed to the side enough that the person whose whole body struck him slid down to grab his can. Henry clutched the two wrists of what proved to be a child, holding on and taking it back. As he struggled to get free of the shelf, the boy climbed atop his back and began pounding his head with hard little fists.

          On firmer footing, Henry shook the kid off. “Hey,” he said, looking down at the ragged little savage. “all you have to do is ask. I’m happy to share with you.”

          The kid lay back in the shattered building, eyes burning, clearly unhappy with the sharing idea. “I’ve got a sister,” he said. “I can’t eat until she does.”

          “I don’t believe you,” Henry said, reaching in his pocket for the can opener. “Do you want some of this food or not? I’m prepared to open it right here.” 

          Dejected, the kid got up to go. “No. I guess not.”

          That struck a blow to Henry’s esteem. “Wait, kid. We’ll share it three ways. Do you have plates or bowls where your sister is?”

          “Yeah. Come on,” the kid said, leading the way.

          “My name’s Henry,” he said, catching up.

          “Mickey,” the boy answered. 

          “What’s your sister’s name?”

          The boy turned his surly face away. “You don’t need to know,” he snapped.

          Henry gave up on starting any conversation. “Sure, Mickey.”

          They went furtively, hoping their movement would not be detected by a drone. They crossed an open lot, running, with Mickey sprinting ahead, then waiting in a recess in the remnant of a wall. When Henry caught up he asked, “How much further?” 

          “In the church at the corner,” Mickey replied. 

          Henry froze. He stared at the boy. “That church has been bombed, bombed, and re-bombed,” he said, growing angry. “Listen, kid; if you’re lying to me -”

          The boy’s face became pleading, insistent. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you. You’ll see.” 

          His approaching the ruins of the oldest church in town moved Henry to a lower sadness. He’d known a few church members. He brooded as he studied the product of numerous explosions, noting that no scrap of wall or roof rose out of the craters. He followed Mickey to where the back of the building had been to learn that a section of wall had fallen intact over a bomb pit. The kid and his sister had fashioned an entrance that let them into a room the destruction created. Mickey climbed in and stood straight in the room, waiting to show it to Henry. Henry had more difficulty slipping in and he had to stoop a little once inside. He looked around at cushions and boxes. Sunlight broke through in a number of spots. The floor was nearly as large as a normal garage space. He noted as he looked it over that they were alone. Mickey already showed signs of concern and near panic. 

          “Leah,” the kid shouted.

          He scrambled back to the entrance and climbed out of the hole. Henry followed watching the kid look wildly about. The adjoining blocks had just a few bits of wall and roof. There were few places to hide her if anyone had made it their mission to do that in any of those places. Then Mickey spotted a bracelet in the powdery black dust.

          He put the bracelet in his pocket. The dust was scuffed in a trail that seemed to point to Second Street, where bombs had been sporadically pounding for days. But it ended at the curb, where tire tracks showed a sharp U-turn. Likely the car had gone straight up Main Street.

          Henry stood nearby as Mickey raged, trying to formulate a plan. 

          “I bet that's the only car in town with gas,” he said. “If we walk that way, any car we spot is likely it. Not sure what we could do -”

          The kid bent over and came up with a pistol that had been attached to an ankle. “There is plenty I can do,” he said. “And I have boxes of bullets.” 

          At that point, Henry was seized by a violent fit of coughing. His lungs were heavy with dust and congestion. After looking on with concern for a minute, Mickey said, “You will stay behind. I don’t need a sick man dragging me back.”

          When Mickey began stalking down the street, Henry moved to follow. More violent coughing waylaid him. “I’m going to rest up in your place,” he shouted at the retreating kid. 

          The kid held up one hand to show acquiescence, continued to walk away.

          Henry bent over, hacking up the corruption.

          Spent, he struggled inside Mickey’s shelter. After selecting a soft cushion, he hid the can underneath it and lay his head in the softness, immediately losing consciousness. In quieter times he might have thought of his family as he eased into slumber. Mercifully he did not have to think of how each one died seeking medical help but being denied, because hospitals were overwhelmed. Victims of successive pandemics. Alternatively, he might have considered the sudden moving of the theaters of war to the United States by an angry world and the destruction of major and lesser cities by bombs and missiles. He could possibly have slept for days, but the boot kicking him in the side made him come too by degrees. It might have been two minutes later, might have been two hours. He was never to know.

          The boot revived the coughing choking. He spilled an ugly mess on the dirt floor. His antagonist jumped away, protecting his boots. For it was a man, with recessed eyes and a scarred face, as Henry came gradually to see. “What do you want with me? he croaked.

          “I know you have food,” 

          Henry stared stupidly until the man said, “The girl told me.”

          “Told you what, exactly?” Henry managed to say. “The boy went looking. He found nothing.”

          The man grimaced. “She promised he had some food.”

          “Under torture?” Henry, who had nothing to lose, said.

          “Under torture. What are you going to do about it?”

          The man began nosing about the space, tossing around everything he encountered. On finding nothing, he returned to Henry, sitting awkwardly on his cushion. 

          “Get up. Let me have a look,” the man directed. 

          Henry put his hand on the can and lurched to his feet with it. As the man came forward to grab at it Henry swung the can with all the strength he could muster. The rim of it struck the man above the brow. The man paused, then swayed. Henry struck him again and when he fell smashed his head over and over with the can. Not sure, but thinking the man could be dead, Henry exited the shelter. The first thing he saw when he looked about was a car with half of the cab top missing as if blown off by a bomb. The trunk end was twisted, but the wheels all seemed intact. He immediately went to look for the key, hoping he would not need to go through the man below’s pockets for it. He tossed the can on the seat as he looked in.

          It was still in the ignition switch.

          Then he saw her on the back seat. A precious girl of about twelve stared back, her eyes telling him she was weighing the likelihood she would again be assaulted. There was horror in those eyes that he was certain would never be quelled. 

          “You’re safe now,” he said. “Let me help you out of there.”

          She was of the tiny boned sort and almost a midget. She shrunk from his touch, preferring to do it on her own.

          On her feet, “Todd? My brother?” she stammered in a tiny voice.

          “Not Mickey?”

          “He tells that name to strangers. The mouse.” She half-shrugged.

          “Your brother is walking to find you. With this car, we might be able to catch up to him.”

          Their attention was diverted to a sound coming from the shelter and a man with a bloody head staggering out of it. The bloodied one wiped at his face with a sleeve. He turned to locate the car and started that way.

          Henry launched himself at the car’s window, putting his upper half inside enough it enabled him to snatch the key. The man hugged him from behind, reaching for his hand. Stuck, Henry evaded the grabbing for a few moments before pitching it to the floor on the passenger’s side. He hoped Leah might come around and take it before the man knew it had been tossed.

          She was still, immobilized with fear and confusion, momentarily. Then she snapped into action. She pulled open the door and slid inside, taking up the key as she came in and immediately jamming it into the slot. She gave the key a turn and threw the started car into gear. Then falling to the floorboard she pushed the gas pedal with her hands.

          The car jumped into reverse, swinging around and swiping the man against a signpost, brushing him off to the side. They went in a circle hitting a bump that was the man and continued the turn. “Cut off the switch,” Henry with his butt high in the air and his feet dangling shouted frantically.

          Eventually, Leah managed to get the car to stop. 

          Henry let himself down to the pavement and looked at the crumpled body on the street. He crossed off checking the man for vital signs. Finding any would mean he had to kill him. He looked at Leah shutting herself in on the passenger side. She held the can gingerly, avoiding the blood on it. 

          After seating himself and starting the engine, he took the can and slipped it into the console. He said, “We can eat what’s in it once we find Todd.” 

          The gas tank was full. It was not likely he would learn where the fuel came from. As he turned the car into the street, he noticed for the first time that the epicenter of the bombing had migrated off a considerable distance. The fighting might well be over for his town.

          The radio only brought static, so, no news. He turned it off. 

          “Do you have more family, Leah?”

          She was silent for a spell. “Dead. The bombs,” she said at last.

          He wanted to ask about her ordeal being kidnapped but as he had no expertise in these things and there were no resources to help her, he remained silent. Silent also because it would be so painful to know one more tale of woe.

          They rode in silence, with Henry slowing at intersections to look, but always going straight. Then they took to circling blocks. They were chased by random pedestrians four times. At last, Henry turned back. They would have to wait and see if Todd returned on his own. He made a detour to pick up the five-gallon bottle, for it held the only water he knew of. There wasn’t much else to take. 

          ’This car will enable us to look farther afield for food,” he told Leah. 

          When they reached the shelter beneath the church rubble, he suggested Leah go inside and rest. He had to dispose of the dead body and then park the car. He looked around for a chain or a rope. After considerable effort, he discovered a long cord of nylon and attached the one end of it to the man, the other end to the car. Later he came in to rest and to sleep. He was getting weaker. The coughing returned. After a short time, he saw through the haze of his bleary eyes Leah holding her nose and exiting the shelter. Too weak to do ought but continue to cough up an ugly mess, he couldn’t protest.

          Eventually, sleep came. He awakened to find his can of food gone. Leah must have taken it. He couldn't blame her if hunger drove her to eat it. His sympathy rooted for her. Thinking she must have taken refuge inside the car, he went topside, thinking to drive about in search of more food. But the car was gone. He sat on the curb, looking at the empty space where it had been left sitting.

          He couldn’t fathom one so small as Leah driving off on her own. What seemed logical, Todd or Mickey or whatever had returned, taken his food, and left with his sister. He felt no blame or anger welling up. Time was limited for Henry. Maybe those two would survive the war and go on to grow up and find mates. He sincerely hoped so. He hoped the war was over. As for himself, he would go seeking another can at the destroyed supermarket as soon as his legs were capable of supporting him on a walk that far. He held his eyes tightly closed and saw a gleam of metal in further store debris. 

             

          

          

           


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

XI-321

 INVADERS FROM THE SHADOW PLANETS OF TWARR

1

          “Negats, kid. Zephyr doesn’t do that. We might make a little jaunt across the Milky Way to deliver bags of parcels a few times a year. We may send a single drone to the stars nearest the Sun. But, no, we do not deliver missives to the Lone Ranger on Earth. That is simply beyond our capabilities.”

           After explaining for nearly an hour, the frustrated clerk, Mix, threw down his pencil and came around the desk. He wrapped an arm about the boy’s shoulders in an attempt to guide him out of the office. The lad balked, making the harried clerk feel desperate to have him gone.

          “Now, see here. This Lone Ranger would be too busy to answer your call. Anyway, what good could he do? The man’s transportation is some kind of animal, for crying out loud.”  Close to tears, Mix begged, “Give me a break. Get out of here.”

          The kid wavered. His pouting lower lip trembled. “But, my uncle will be angry.”

          His disappointment moved like a knife into the Zephyr Quicksilver Messenger and Freight Service agent’s overly tender heart. “Kid -”

          “Call me Xmill.”

          “All right. Xmill.” Mix looked out the tiny porthole at six silvery satellites hanging over the purple mountain range. “Kid - Xmill - You have touched me deeply. Healer alone knows why. Leave your uncle’s written plea to the Lone Ranger here with me. For sixty-thousand brookas, the next drone that gets close to that neighborhood, I will intercede. Perhaps it can drop a pod. But be forewarned, we don’t have a formal address to send it to. If he even receives your missive it will be something akin to winning the Intergalactic State Lottery. In short, he likely will not read it.”

          But Xmill was beaming. “He will. I know he will. In all of history, the greatest champion of justice. The Lone Ranger hears every cry for help.  Here is the note my Uncle Sneezer wrote. He will gladly pay.”

          Mix frowned, his conscience pricking him for taking these struggling farmers’ money. He nevertheless made out the forms and put them in Xmill’s grip. Extending a hand, he wished the boy luck. "May the Healer guide you.”

          “Thank you. The Healer right back at you.”

          “Do you know how to get on the shuttle to your asteroid?”

          “Yes, sir. I have a map right here.” 

          As Exmill searched himself for the map, Mix said, “Well, add two hours to the departure time and you can’t go wrong.”

          Frustrated in his search, Exmill paused to reply to Mix. “I will. Thank you so much.”

          “Don’t thank me, kid. I just work here.” 

2

          Uncle Sneezer was ancient, and although his countenance was crustacean and his voice a gargle, his thought remained lucid, his gaze keen. All for the moment fixed on his nephew. The enraged old tyrant danced about the floor, arms flailing, having but one thought: Strangle Exmill. His gnarled fingers glanced off the boy’s throat and he was thrown into a spin that almost cost him his balance. Recovering, he again threw out his arms, and shouted, “Sixty thousand brookas you will cost me. Damn, boy.”

          He paused in his tirade and approached the great wooden desk he had imported from the home planet. He reached in a lower drawer and pulled out a sheaf of cash. “All right. Here it is.”

          Uncle Sneezer snapped his wrist, causing the bills to blossom into a yellow bouquet that fluttered ingloriously to the floor. “Sixty thousand brookas for the masked rider of the plains. The cost of justice. Always steep. Always worth it. Go and pay that little maggot clerk and get my list of demands on its way. Don’t let me down.”

          Suddenly deflated, Sneezer turned away.

          He seemed extremely tired, withered, and old as he moved to look out the porthole. His hawk eyes swept the land that he held dear, now menaced by cretins from the Shadow Planets of Twarr, known to Sneezer as Jackarillos. Squatters. Interlopers. Usurpers of the law. Stealers of crops. Disrespecters of women and families. Deniers of the authority of the Old Healer.

          Beyond his limited gaze lay the jagged mountains that had temporarily kept the Jackarillos at bay. Both he and Exmill knew that as soon as it suited their purpose they would cross those towering peaks and that Sneezer’s empire might quickly cease to exist. The youth’s hand came to rest on a bony shoulder, but he shrugged it away. “When I was a boy,” the old fossil recited, “my pa owned the entirety of XI-321, along with the chain of asteroids trailing it. He caused deserts to bloom, after installing the Tanner atmosphere and gravity machine that keeps the whole shebang functioning. Horizon to horizon, all was crops and greenery. Then came the dam blasted homestead act. Good for nothings and scoundrels built towns on his prized farmland. Miners took possession of the asteroids.

          “Well, it was a bitter pill, but we swallowed it. But when the federation crumbled and was forced to declare each of the frontiers free and independent, that is when things went south permanently. The authorities hauled tail, lock, stock, and barrel. Since, them Jackarillos been steadily crowding in.”

          His feeble body shuffled to a rumpled old chair, where he sat and then reached from there to the knobs of the consol radio he had inherited from his grandfather. “Lone Ranger. Faithful Indian companion Tonto.” He looked up sharply. “You think I’m a fool to believe in the Lone Ranger. Well, go, boy. Go and be proved twice over the brain-deprived meat puppet that you are. Get that message off or don’t dare set foot on XI-321 again.”

          Exmill already had gathered up the loot and tucked it safely inside his shirt. He opened the door to leave. Looking back, he met Uncle Sneezer’s red-eyed glare with boldness. His voice laced with bravado, he said, “I will get it to him, Uncle. I am your hands and feet, but I wish him here as badly as you. For one, I just want to see what an Indian is.”

          Sneezer made a guttural sound and looked about for a hurtful object with which to strike the boy.

3

          Port Silver, widely referred to as the rectum of the planet, had been designed to harbor an armada of warships, warships never built, to fight a war that never started. Exmill, after paying the clerk, came away with fifty blugers. More than enough to buy a soft drink, if he could find a machine. Mix had informed him one stood in a dank lower hallway near the loading dock. He came to level five, looking with wary curiosity at the dingy mildewed walls and the occasional passerby. The port workers were a ragged, unshaven bunch, of the sort one might have mistaken for derelicts on any skidrow. Drunks, most of them. Xmill walked into a stretch of the corridor with no exit, no hole to drop into, as there appeared a wedge of haughty Jackarillos, bearing down with long booted strides. He was certain to be trampled and ground into the floor if he did not retreat quickly enough. Running, flying nearly, Exmill finally stumbled into an open hatch and very nearly ended up shooting through a tube to the Healer alone knew where.

          He found the drink machine. He tried sending a bluger into the slot.

          “Zzzmmmm,” the machine cautioned. “I accept zins only. Deposit five zins. Zzzmmmm. Fork it over, please.”

          Looking for someone who could exchange his blugers for zins, he saw just a rust-covered maintenance bot rolling aimlessly down the corridor. Then something great and bronze intruded on his vision. It was a Jagual-syrne, one of the only non-humanoid species to have evolved enough to engage the human species without becoming, abruptly, extinct. He was bipedal, virtually naked, a savage, tattooed on the nose and face, hairless, lizard-like, lofting enough tail to appear ungainly and out of balance.

          Xmill gaped and moved to the side, standing in awe of the seven-foot creature. It was an oddity that blinked at him, an unappetizing alien, whom the kid feared and instinctively despised. The beast paused to look down at the boy. He seemed intrigued, moving in close to measure up the quaking kid. He spoke, sounding like a rusty train explosion from deep in a cavern. “Good lad. Strong. Almost a man. Mohaw like.”

          Exmill overcame his feeling of revulsion enough to ask for change.

          “Change? Mebbe want Fizzy Soda, mebbe?”

          “Yes. It takes five zins.”

          “Mohaw got zins.”

          The monster scratched behind his ear hole and some coins mysteriously appeared in his hand. He waved Exmill back. “Mohaw’s treat. Mohaw do anything for new friend.”

          Crusty fingers pushed zins into the slot, then jammed the button.

          Nothing happened.

          Mohaw shook the half-ton of metal and beat the button without mercy.

          “Zzzmmmm. What are you doing? My seams are loosening. Zzzmmmm. Back away. I will signal the authority.”

          “Mohaw paid for drink,” Mohaw insisted.

         “Zzzmmmm. You have been photographed. You will pay for the damage, sucker.”

          Enraged, the creature took hold of the machine with both hands, roaring so loudly that Xmill considered running for his life. Fingers were forced into the seams, popping bolts and rending metal.

          “Zzmmm” was the machine’s final utterance.

          Dozens of plastic bottles cascaded, falling all about snarling Mohaw, who continued punishing the defeated piece of machinery. With a shout of triumph, he sent the remains crashing against the wall. After, he clucked and trotted his dance of victory. At length, the Jagual-syrn turned and faced the dumfounded Xmill and stopped. He picked up a Fizzy Soda, grinning. “Want mebbe two?”

          Exmill drank the first with gusto. He took a second and sat on a bench to enjoy it more leisurely. Then a great laughter welled up in him. He howled so hard his sides ached. Tears rolled from his eyes. Mohaw’s grin broadened. Xmill found himself enjoying the alien’s company.

4

          Abruptly there came on silence of soft-soled shoes the crew of a ship about to depart. Four stalwarts flanking a stout pepper-haired man, one Commander Charlis Blade. Blade issued an order to halt.  Theirs was a presence as commanding as the ancient gods who preceded the Old Healer, for they were masters of the stars; the gods could claim no greater accomplishment. The crew waited as the Commander inserted a card, which opened the gate. They marched efficiently up to the ramp and began the ascent that would allow them to step into the belly of the starship. Blade broke away to confront the still grinning Jagual-syrn. His voice was crisp and stern. “Mohaw, I presume? You are hereby ordered to accompany me on board my vessel, to be confined to a room, until such time as we set down on your home planet. On landing you will be given over to the civil authorities, to be dealt with for crimes of which you have been adjudged guilty by they and neighboring planetary governments.”

          Seemingly against his will, Mohaw lost his grin. He brushed as at an insect, impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His eyes followed Blade’s gaze, which surveyed the wreckage-strewn corridor.

          “Your reputation as an escaper artist, while legendary, will become a source of embarrassment to you should you put it to the test.”

          Blade tried to intimidate Mohaw by casting a penetrating stare into his lizard-like eyes. Mohaw burned a look that cut into the Commander’s very mortality. For one moment, Blade wavered. The gun on his hip reassured him and his steely eyes recovered to counter the challenge. “Your little temper display will be duly noted. I assure you, it will be costly.”

          Mohaw sneered, said nothing.

          From his seat on the bench, Xmill watched Mohaw disdainfully take to the ramp, closely followed by Blade, whose hand rested on his weapon. Then it became shuttle time and Xmill had to leave. The boy trotted up all three levels and scrambled through a fast collapsing portal to fall into his capsule.

          The shuttle rattled like a very old bus as it whooshed into space.

5

          The harvest came and went. The animals were herded into the canyon before the fanged beasts of winter could begin stalking them. Storms raged. Ice sheets were thrown across the range and farmlands for the bitter two months of winter. Exmill often escaped from his wintertime studies to care for and practice drive his father’s Y-Wing fighter plane, practicing the maneuvers he had been taught from an early age.

          Sneezer blathered. “Fuel, boy. Don’t be using up the reserves like that,” to no avail.

          Impatiently they awaited spring’s gentle thaw, dreaming of the moment when a masked visitor would appear at the door, waving a silver bullet in evidence he was indeed the “masked rider of the plains.”

          Soon enough planting time came, but not so the Lone Ranger. Xmill split his time between controlling the machinery that tilled, raked, and tended the soil and watching the sky. He never really surrendered hope, until the day the Jackarillos decided to cross the mountains. They sent a team to disrupt farming and to mark specific locations to build settlements, as the old codger lived in his chair, searching the radio for news of the Lone Ranger.

          “When I was a boy,” Sneezer recited.

          Exmill tuned out the litany. His mind churned options. In the final analysis, it fell to him, Xmill, alone to deal with the Jackarillos. He took to cruising over the fields in his Dad’s plane, buzzing low if he detected the aliens’ shapes. Once he caught two aliens at once in the crosshairs. The button didn’t work. Uncle Sneezer must have emptied out the ammunition to keep him from hurting himself. He parked the plane intending to never take it up again. His uncle met him as he hopped down from the cockpit. 

          As usual, he interpreted Xmill’s use of the plane as loafing. “You dam-blasted son of a weakling father,” he bellowed. “Sneaking off like that in the height of growing season. I vow to wreck that thing next time you get in it. Now go to the barn and see to the animals in there. Some are ready to deliver.”

          Knowing better than to try to explain, Xmill grabbed the delivery tongs and wasted no time becoming involved in the bloody birthing process of several feathered slingnats. The slingnats were essentially helpless meat bags, who could not deliver their own offspring. Exmill clamped the tool about the head of one hundred-pound baby and pulled with all his might, dragging a bruised and slimy body out onto the floor. He crammed a hand down its throat to remove blockage that would have asphyxiated the beast. It lay like a pool of flesh, looking at him through trusting eyes, assigning to this human primary parental status. The boy moved on. The next “slingy” as he called it would not come forth, no matter how hard he pulled.

          “Want help, mebbe?”

          A huge bronze arm reached over Exmill, gargantuan hands grasped the baby and it came forth. The slingy choked then spat. It was all right.

          Exmill spun around. “Mohaw. How did you -?”

          The monstrous alien good-humouredly brushed a hand down the boy’s face. He poised a moment, grinning, then dragged a finger across his throat. “Blade - No more.” 

          The thought gave Xmill’s stomach some queasiness. “Won’t - Won’t they come here to find you?”

          Mohaw broke into his victory dance. “Mohaw send ship into hyperspace. Them look - Where? Ho-oh-oh-oh. Milky Way mebbe? Here? Me not think so.”

          “Well, gosh dang it, Mohaw, around here that sort of killing is frowned upon.”

          Mohaw guffawed. “Blade no like.”

          “If you’ve got to kill anybody, there’s Jackarillos around.”

          That statement caught Mohaw in the solar plexus. 

          “Jackarillo. Much bad.”

          The monster thrust his ungainly form out the door. He scoured the landscape, nostrils flaring, as though he actually expected to see even a trace of the hated fiends. Finding nothing but a whiff of feathered slingnat offal, he rejoined his friend to deliver another five babies. “Where we find Jackarillos?” he demanded.

          “I can take you in a plane later to look for some,” Xmill said.

          “Mohaw make war song. You, friend, make plane ready.”

          The alien sat cross-legged on the floor, lit a pipe, took long slow drags from it. His eyeballs turned inward and the chant began. “Tya-tya-tya-tomay-tome. Tya-tya-tya-tomay-tome.”

          Exmill, watching from near the entrance, suddenly was inspired. “He’s like Tonto.” That is when he hatched his half-baked plan.

          The boy raced inside the house to change his clothing and to fashion a mask out of a pair of briefs. He dug through a drawer to locate a silver marble. He found the marble, polished it. Minutes later he approached Sneezer in his chair, fiddling as always with the radio.  

          In a voice deepened to mimic the one heard on Lone Ranger broadcasts, Exmill proclaimed, “Yes, my man Sneezer. I am the Lone Ranger.”

          The old curmudgeon started. His best eye rolled up and down the masked figure. “Who the hell are you?”

          The masked man flashed his silver marble and stuck it quickly back in his pocket. “Come, you know who I am. Didn’t you send a note requesting help from me?”

          “I thought you’d be taller. ‘N’ lithe as a panther.”

          “Sneezer. We’re wasting time. The Jackarillos are going to overwhelm you and your nephew if you don’t listen to me.”

          “Where’s Tonto? If you’re the Lone Ranger where’s Tonto?”

          Xmill sighed. “All right. I will get him to come in.”

          Effecting an exaggerated saunter, the would-be heroic figure moved to fetch his sidekick.

          “Wait.”

          The boy paused. 

          “Well, what are you waiting for?” Sneezer had risen and begun waving his arms. “You say he’s out there?”

          Xmill nodded.

          “That’s good enough for me. Go, Lone Ranger. Get every last one of them varmints.”

          “Another thing. I had to leave my horse at home. Lame leg and all. I need to use your fighter plane to scout them out.”

          “Take what you need. Don’t come back until every dad gasted son of a bitch has died or else gone back home to the Shadow Planets.”

6

           Gar Splan melted control panels and ripped out wires as his brother, Spler, rolled over wheeled structures, severing underpinnings and burning off rubber treads. Two other Jackarillos, Brung Stekian and Mael Grom, studied the system of water pipes. Having gotten used to operating with impunity, they discounted the darting actions of Exmill in his fighter plane, expecting it to buzz impotently and then retreat homeward, as had been the case daily. They were mildly surprised that the plane chose this occasion to swoop down and suddenly land. Grinning at one another, they anticipated torturing the foolhardy pilot to death. 

          They saw there should be double the fun when not just the boy jumped down, but also a Jagual-syrne. They mocked the outlandish costume and the ungainly look of the lizard man, as they called him. 

          The Jagual-syrne bounded across the field, his powerful legs driving him to almost a blur as he closed in on Brung Stekian. He literally plowed the Jackarillo into the soil. Turning his attention immediately to Spler Splan, the next intended victim. Gar Splan at the same time went after Xmill with a long-handled wrench, until Mael Grom intervened. Gar launched himself onto Mohaw’s neck, pulling him away from Ger. Ger fell away. He pulled from the wreckage a ragged spear of iron.  Exmill, caught in the clutches of Mael Grom, heard Mohaw’s scream of death. He twisted his head around in time to see the bronze monster vomiting blood, lurching away, then falling full length on the freshly tilled soil. He twitched once, then lay still. A blow to the back of the head laid the boy out also.  Gar ripped the mask away, snorting derisively. “Dumb ass kid,” he said. “Wake him so he will know when and how we kill him. Only if he sees it coming will the Old Healer credit us with yet another death.”

          Mael grabbed the boy with one hand wrapped about the neck. He dragged him like a sack of tubers over the uneven ground.

7

          Xmills eyes were slits. He pretended to be unconscious while studying the Jackarillos. They had piled Brung Stekian’s corpse on top of Mohaw’s and built a huge fire over them. Soon they were sniffing, enjoying the aroma, cracking coarse jokes. The boy almost vomited when Gar pulled off Brung’s arm and ripped out a healthy chunk with his teeth. His discomfort was met with laughter. “The farmer’s awake,” he chortled.

          Mael snatched a string of meat that had settled on Gar’s chin whiskers and forced it into Exmill’s mouth. He held it in there while puke tried to occupy the same space. “Let him breathe,” Gar commanded. “I want him to take the walk of death on his own two feet. Get him ready.”

8

          The slingnats needed to be in water to survive for very long. Sneezer managed to float them out of the barn into a large pond where they would reside the entirety of their lives. Unable to swim, slingnats relied on their feathers to keep them on top of the pond. Cursing because this ought to have been Xmill’s job, the old man looked down the slope into the water for a bit, anticipating the slaughter when the market for slingnat meat opened up. He felt regret for allowing Xmill to get away with masquerading as the Lone Ranger. He turned to go when a dark form suddenly confronted him. They each were startled by the unexpected encounter. A Jackarillo cruelly smiling, because he had before him a weak old man, reaching for his pistol. Sneezer reflexively sent the point of the slingnat hook he was carrying into the Jackarillo’s eye. Shocked, jumping away to avoid pain and further damage, the Jackarillo stepped into the sluice that carried the slingnats to the pond. His foot slid on the moist slingnat oil, causing him to fall on his backside in the groove and glide all the way to the water. He flailed in the water like one under heavy shark attack for three minutes. Sneezer gawked in amazement as the water reddened around the splashing and then still body. He gasped in wonder to discover that the water was dissolving the Jackarillo. After a mere fifteen minutes, the water began to clear. All that remained of the struggle that had taken place was Jackarillo clothing.  

9

          Hauled to the Plank of Great Guessing, Xmill found himself balancing on two inches of grease-coated steel. 

          “Walk,” Gar barked. “And if you fall you take a beating. Then walk again.”

          The boy’s feet went on either side of the plank before he made the first step. 

          “Haw haw haw,” the Jackarillos laughed.

          “Family jewels,” Mael shrieked. 

          Spier whacked him with a paddle, but Gar intervened. “No. He’s not on the ground.”

          At first, Xmill struggled to regain his footing, until he realized it was hopeless. “Best drop to the dirt and let them finish me,” he muttered. “End the humiliation.”

          He made a show of struggling, then falling. Blows rained all over his limbs and body; just not the head. His eyes were being saved that he might see death when it came. He tried making himself into a tight ball, to no avail. “Old Healer,” he bellowed at last.

          At that point, Gar stopped the proceeding. “Just put him on the rack. I think he is too bright for the walk of death.”

          The boy found himself lashed upon an X-shaped frame, X being the Old Healer’s favorite religious symbol.

          “Cut away his eyelids, then bring the ax.”

          Giggling mischievously, Mael pulled a shiv and approached the quivering boy. He quickly showed frustration as he tried to make the blade follow Xmill’s bobbing head and cut without puncturing an eye. In frustration, he turned away, pouting, until Spier seized a fistful of hair, jamming the boy’s skull against the frame. Mael returned with his eager knife, going, “He he he.”

          This moment chose to be filled with torrents of water.  Suddenly and without warning the watering system had went on. The drenched and no longer haughty Jackarillos rolled and writhed on the ground in great agony.  Xmill looking from his bondage on the X frame saw that the sun had created a circular rainbow through the mini storm. Moving into the circle’s center came a lone figure. A costume-clad man wearing a mask. 

          Barely twitching, “Who is that masked man?” Spier wondered with his final breath.

          “The Lone Ranger,” Xmill breathed. “Given us this day, Great Healer. Thank you very much.”

          As the sprinklers continued to rain, splashing past the dissolving marauders, the newcomer approached the X frame. Somewhat roughly, Xmill thought, he sawed through the bonds, allowing Xmill to slide to the ground. 

          The boy was hurt. His rescuer had not the strength to move him. It was up to him to crawl, roll, or whatever to get himself home. 

          The dadgasted mask kept shifting, blocking the man’s vision. Finally, he snatched it off, flung it in the puddled water. Xmill smiled, pleasantly surprised. “Uncle Sneezer.”

          When finally they made it home, in the course of a conversation, Xmill asked his uncle, “But, tell me, Uncle Sneezer; how did you know it was me and not the Lone Ranger?”

          “Spotted it right away, you idjit. That was my underwear you had on your face.”


Saturday, July 3, 2021

EXCERPTS FROM 'APPLES AND GARLIC'

 EXCERPTS FROM APPLES AND GARLIC-


A HEART TO SING

I have a heart to sing

Though my tongue is twisted leather

I give my song to the wind

Where the bird is the king

An airplane of faith and feather

Where our souls do rise and blend

In serenade forever


A CHILD’S DRAWING

The bold crayon figure child scrawl

Pinned on its paper against the wall

Has a grin that cracks its head

Wide-open four teeth tongue of red

Arms too short, hands two scribbles

Feet lost in grass of dots and dribbles


YOU

I love to look upon your gentle face

I laugh when you upset my vision of grace

That I’ve set up for you

It makes you the more complex and human

It puts me aware I’m dealing with a woman

 From whom no debt is due


BLOOD

I saw a god with a rifle and I wondered, “Who is to bleed?”

I went into seclusion and meditated in my pool of blood

I saw a woman behind a plow planting seeds of love

I saw her children, naked skeletons on furrowed ground

I went into the city where I saw mountains of men

Walking like rats over mountains of men

I looked to the desert for an answer but had my eyes blocked with sand



THE NIGHT IS A NECKLACE

The night is a necklace

Each day is a pearl

Adiaphorous but for the gun

Playful like a squirrel


The gulls beam winged bullets

At the bat of an eye

Spitting out fire from their gullets

Lighting up the sky


Mama has ten children

Bathed, ready to dine

Winged bullets strafe to kill them

Taze their spirits divine 


The night is a necklace

Each day is a pearl

Adiaphorous but for the gun

Playful like a squirrel


OF ARTHROPODS AND MEN

To write with fingers like gods

The fortunes of men and arthropods:

How good it is to be fundamental,

To place straps of harness to hearts;

To explode the dissenting into millions of parts.

So demanding to be fundamental.


(In the rush to amass power and cash,

Who promote poverty, pollution, and trash

All to consolidate further godlike power:

Wretches worshipping at foot of Mammon’s tower)


TOWER

He stood like a tower at the crest over the valley,

His eyes like moving streams, his breath like mountains.

Long he did contemplate and long did dally

Before bending west of the fountains,

To the gullies and springs and great stone alleys.


BUDDHA MOMENT

And I in the Buddha moment will live

And I in the Buddha moment will not live

And the tree will shake its leaves to the wind

And the quiet snow will cover the river’s bend

And I will enter where I may not enter

Entering, I will not enter



Monday, June 28, 2021

My New York Blues

 I arrived in Greenwich Village and waited about two weeks before my brother came to New York to join me. It was 1967, the year I turned twenty-five. Out of the Navy less than three years, I had issues tormenting me, the same ones that had made a feast out of my childhood. I just hadn't been able to shake them off. Walking McDougal Street, wondering how people I read about found each other. Knowing I didn't fit in if I knew. My hotel was a tall one, with no elevator. It was a long trip, and I soon planned my activities to avoid going in or out unnecessarily. When my brother came to town, his first act was to go deeper into Manhattan and rent us a better home. I never saw him wrinkle his nose at a place like that, before or since.

One morning, I had gone to the Manpower center, but the man behind the desk chewed me out when I approached to converse about possible work. "All these people are in front of you. Fill out the form and take a seat out there. If we need somebody when your turn comes, I will call you."

I was miffed. As I sat on the bench, facing the rear of the room, someone leaned in front of me.

"Are you interested in a job?"

Turns out, the man was intrigued, because I was sitting in opposition to the flow of Manpower's whole operation.

He was, he told me, Vince- -his last name eludes me, after over four decades- -and he owned a panel truck. A re-purposed mail truck. Advertising in the Village Voice to rent one truck and driver, for $50 hr. He needed someone to assist with labor, in the event customers were willing to shell out an additional $4 hr. And, it happened that virtually all of them were averse to doing their own work.

We drove the streets of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. He kept telling me he thought I reminded him of George Gobel. "I'm not like that guy," I said. "People are always ascribing bogus traits to me, based on what subjective fantasy they are engaging. I've been accused of being like James Mason, and before that, Frankie Avalon. Women are always telling me I am just like their boyfriends. None of it's true."

Doubtful at first, Vince became a believer, later that same day. The customer, a woman near my age, told us I was identical to her boyfriend. Every word I spoke elicited the response, "Stop, you're blowing my mind."

One customer, of seventy years or so, told me he was Lee Van Cleef's first acting teacher.

This job was wonderful, in the beginning. Vince; solicitous, generous. When my brother arrived, he invited us over for a steak dinner. That man fed us meat the size of a platter. We staggered off to our beds that night, with guts straining and miserable.

He was, I learned, harshly judgmental of others, and he relied on his knowledge of Astrology to form these conclusions. He smiled at the customers, asked their birth sign, then whispered in my ear the entirety of the job, "That one's no good." He filled in all their bad traits, based on the fact of their birth.

Once, he took me with him to visit with his mother, in the Bronx. On the drive over, he filled me in on his family history. "My parents are Jamaicans," he said. "Black people there are as prejudiced as white people are over here. Parents expect their children to marry light-skinned people, the lighter the better. My mother is very light. She ran away to New York to marry a man with black skin."

She was really light. Her flesh had an almost alabaster hue. Compared with her, I was the dark one. Vince had a milk chocolaty color.

He told me on the drive back that he had attended a nearly all white college, where he was popular. The white kids always complimented him and assured him he could go far. Eventually, he turned against his background and ended owning the truck business.

On one occasion I went along when he visited a lady friend. He suggested I might try to be the lady's daughter's boyfriend. I didn't get the daughter's name. But it stuck on me like ugly on a rhino that it seemed to physically hurt her that a white guy like me was in her presence. She did her best to be nice to Vince while ignoring me. She, unfortunately, thought that he was Charles and I was Vince. Awkwardness.

Vince's closest friend was some sort of a priest. One hell of an example of a priest. Once, after a night spent partying, this priest recalled he had to be at a church affair. A wreck, of hangover and fatigue, he showed up, only to be told the event was canceled. He conversed with church members a while and came back to where Vince and I waited, in his Mercedes. "Those bastards," he said. "I thought they would never leave."

My brother's business in New York was with the art industry. He applied for jobs involving his skill but kept getting rejected. One night we went to a performance by The Fugs. During the singing of Kill For Peace, Tuli Kupferburg held a doll with a torched rubber face. He bayoneted the doll, and, at the end of the piece, jammed a chocolate bar into its blackened caved-in face. Brother said Tuli seemed to be looking directly into his eyes the whole time. 

Later on, Vince treated me to Hugh Masekela and James brown concerts.

Vince wanted me to see how civil rights demonstrations were conducted, and he paid my way onto a bus with Jesse Jackson, for an adventure in D. C. When we arrived that morning, only six other persons, besides Jesse, showed up. One was Flo Kennedy, Civil Rights lawyer, and some were from a church I forgot the name of.  

I sat in one seat alone, immersed in my thoughts when a voice spoke from the seat behind me.

"Why are you here?"

I saw Jesse looking me in the face, waiting for an answer. I marveled at how smooth and young he was, almost like a high school kid. I was not precocious in those days. In fact, was an introvert, who exhibited symptoms of autism.

"I wanted to see how these things work," I replied.

"You're going to see how they work, all right," he said, beaming.

He hesitated to see if I had more to say, but I had exhausted my store of talk with the one sentence. He moved away.

The object of the trip was multiple. First on the agenda, we went to the White House, bearing a tent. We placed it on the grass with the avowed intent to erect it and then paint it black. "The Black House." The police filled the area, outnumbering us by seven or eight, I would guess since memory fails here. The women passed out buttons proclaiming the cause. When they approached Vince, he backed away, suddenly frightened. I guess he expected the law to take us to jail if we went too far. His fear communicated itself to me, and I too backed away, feeling ashamed because I wouldn't wear a simple button.

Jesse announced that we had accomplished our goal after about fifteen minutes of negotiations with the police. We left and went to the Lincoln Memorial, where the 1967 Mothers March on Washington, protesting the Vietnam War, was about to get underway. We fell in behind the people. Senator Percy of Illinois, his secretary fell in beside me.

"I'm here, because my son is over there, and I want him safely home," she said.

She was very pleasant, and she kept trying to convince me I ought to apply at the Smithsonian to be a security guard. 

At John Kennedy's grave, they made speeches, and then we marched back to the Memorial.
From there, we eight were taken to a prominent black church, I don't know where. The minister was named Floyd McKissick. We waited about a half hour in an outer hall. I don't know where Vince was. I stood on the floor alone, feeling vulnerable. I heard a woman's voice speaking.

"I would like to ask a question." I saw a beautiful young woman, with fire in her eyes. She waited until she had all our attention. She pointed at me. "What's he doing here?"

They all showed by their actions that they were also curious. I was morbidly shy in those times. Feeling as though I might sink into the floor, I forced myself to speak. Stammering, I told how I had come with Jesse and how I was opposed to the war. They mostly smiled with understanding, and the tension melted away.
We went in to listen to Floyd.

"Don't come to our neighborhoods to teach about civil rights," he said. I followed his gaze and saw a sprinkling of white liberals in the pews. "We know about civil rights. Stay in your own neighborhoods and teach. That's where they don't understand about civil rights."

One white man was outraged. "Where does that leave us, after all our years of hard work?"

"If you really are our friend, you will understand."

Jesse canceled the tour bus and bought train tickets for the journey home. As we boarded the coach, Ms. Kennedy handed us each a Sunday paper. Our White House adventure had gotten us a small square at the bottom on page one.

Back to the regular routine with Vince. Whenever he would see a successful, or just semi-successful, black person, he would remark, "Yes; but, what is he doing for his people?" Hearing a few of his tirades, my brother began calling him, behind his back, Daddy Warmonger.

Once, a white panhandler approached the truck and demanded money. Vince told him in no uncertain terms to beat it. The guy persisted and began grabbing at our cargo in the back of the truck. "And you people want peace," he sneered.

Vince clipped the panhandler's jaw, causing him to drop down hard on his rump. "Oh," he said, as he sank.

Discouraged, my brother returned to Kansas City. I stayed on, and Vince invited me to room at his place. I did so, thinking my job with Vince was secure. Gradually, though, I began to detect little criticisms, possibly based in Astrology, or maybe he thought of me more and more as a white establishment guy. Whatever, he went back to Manpower and picked a new helper. He rented a sleazy apartment for me for one month and abandoned me there. Compared to this one, the hotel in the Village was first class. The first evening, a girl down the hall knocked at my door and solicited me. Got up in the morning and went out in time to see a man shitting on the sidewalk. Oh yeah. I went out and found a job at Schrafts and later in the week moved to a clean apartment in Brooklyn, on 31st Street.

I went to see the movie Don't Look Back, about Bob Dylan. People in New York didn't know what to make of my ethnicity. As I was moving among the movie crowd I saw a young man look at me and say, "What's he doing in here?" Doing my job at Schrafts, a coworker kept trying to find out what kind of Hispanic I am. Walking the street, a man told his wife, "Make way for big Louigi." A black man thought I as a Jew would "have it all anyway," as he put it. Some Gypsy looking people asked me what I am. I enjoyed the confusion.

A few weeks later, I was in a formation with a group of anti-war demonstrators, in the middle of the street, when, who should approach, but Vince. When he caught my eye, he began walking my way. I did a deliberate back turn on him, however, and he vanished. Never saw him again.

I flirted with the idea of becoming a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, a fledgling party that withered almost immediately after inception. Also joined the SDS, but quickly became disillusioned and gave them back my membership card.

I made friends, of a sort, with some of the people around me, but was essentially alone. I walked the streets a lot, visited a museum in Manhattan a few times, but the overwhelming mass of humanity was beginning to wear away at my equilibrium. It made me unable to hold conversations, and I developed a phobia about being in public. I tried to hide in a coat when walking on the streets.

My new friends in Brooklyn were a childish, infighting bunch. I stayed around them until Martin Luther King was assassinated. One of the so-called friends jumped up with a grin. He kissed his hand, kissing the man off, then ran away to celebrate with his buddies. I began making plans to leave and did so a week or two after Robert Kennedy was shot dead.

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