Conversation Between Two Women

by Mort Harris

Joan: A man was following me on the way to your house just now.
Lisa: Are you sure you were being followed?
Joan: Well, I didn’t stop to ask! He certainly frightened me.
Lisa: That’s funny; it’s usually the other way around.
Joan: Think we should call the Police?
Lisa: Don’t bother; by the time the Police get here they will be tearing the neighborhood down for urban renewal.
Joan: He could have been a rapist or a child molester, or something.
Lisa: I’d cross out child molester. You should be flattered someone might have found you interesting!
Joan: Maybe I haven’t lost it yet!
Lisa: Dearie, not only have you lost it, you should send out a reward for it. The years haven’t been too kind to you.
Joan: You should talk! I see you’ve been through some nasty years yourself.
Lisa: Now that we’re through complimenting each other, what is the great news you have for me?
Joan: Well, you know Betty Furman.
Lisa: The one with the big bust and small brain?
Joan: That’s the one.
Lisa: She’d give anyone the shirt off her back.
Joan: Yes, she usually did. She’s getting married.
Lisa: How did that happen?
Joan: She tripped over this guy’s walker and it was love at first sight. Well, her first sight anyway. He has cataracts.
Lisa: How old is he?
Joan: Close to 90.
Lisa: What can she see in him?
Joan: She wants to comfort him in his golden years.
Lisa: How much gold are we talking about?
Joan: He’s rich.
Lisa: I wish I was so lucky.
Joan: You can start by hanging around the Geriatric Ward. You know you can’t be too particular these days. Men don’t grow on trees.
Lisa: I’ve had some dates that look like they dropped out of trees. Speaking of apes, how is your boyfriend, Bill?
Joan: Oh, I hate him! I invited him up for a home cooked dinner and he said “I’m not suicidal yet.”
Lisa: That’s because the last time you cooked for him you burnt everything. He went around telling everybody you used the smoke alarm for a timer.
Joan: Well, he doesn’t have to be suicidal, I’ll just kill him.
Lisa: He has a sort of mean streak.
Joan: If he didn’t have a mean streak, he’d have no personality at all. You look exhausted.
Lisa: I’ve been cleaning all morning, dusting, washing the floors, scrubbing the bathroom.
Joan: I thought the Cleaning Lady was coming today?
Lisa: Yes, she is, but you don’t want her to think I’m a slob, do you?
Joan: How are things going with Larry?
Lisa: My boyfriend, great!
Joan: What does he do?
Lisa: He’s a Traffic Manager for a construction company. He stands in the street holding a red flag and tells the traffic to ‘STOP’ or to “GO.”
Joan: Is it serious?
Lisa: Yes, it is.
Joan: Do you think he’ll be popping the question?
Lisa: I’m sure he will. He’s been hinting a lot.
Joan: When, when?
Lisa: As soon as he gets his divorce.
Joan: Have you talked to Lilly lately?
Lisa: Yes, we were on the phone this morning. She’s very upset about her job.
Joan: Is her Cook patting her on the rear end again?
Lisa: That’s the problem, since they hired a new waitress, he hasn’t looked at her.
Joan: You know the food is terrible there.
Lisa: I know, Lilly told me the food is so bad she spotted a roach retching in the corner. Even the cook brings his own lunch.
Joan: I once found a mouse under my table there.
Lisa: Did you say anything?
Joan: I don’t talk to mice.
Lisa: Have you tried that new place, “The Dilly Deli?”
Joan: Yes, the food isn’t bad but the service takes forever. I was there over an hour and the waitress said “what’s your hurry”“I said “I’d like you to take my order before the prices go up.” The service is so slow I wouldn’t recommend it to a senior citizen.

I Had to Laugh My Ass Off

My life had been reduced to a simple awareness that I still exist, or the unlikely reversal, an existence developed out of nothing. A sequence of impulses had been the only proof I am alive. They became a comfort as sensations either return or the alternative, were entirely new.

Experiencing physical pressure, the first of these sensations. The impulses became an annoying thump-thump-thumping, probably necessary for my continued existence. As I became more aware of my physical self, a pulsating echo developed within what I have since claimed, or reclaimed, as my body.

In my conscious moments, I use these out-of-sync markers by which to measure the passing of time. Occasionally they form pleasurable harmonics that lull me to sleep. Sharp vibrations will startle me back to consciousness and quicken the pace of my internal thumping.

Through movement, I maintain a slight degree of control over the echo, but the external machinery beats at its own unpredictable pace. Movement has also allowed me to sense pressure points around my body, some I can anticipate by way of concentration, and others only through random banging and bumping when moving or being moved.

However, movement is the force of my immediate concern. The pressure exceeds that of a gentle nudge of push from an outside force, and it far exceeds any of my feeble efforts to explore various portions of my body. I am being moved and squeezed, and the effects are unpleasant.

I cloak my apprehension in a veil of memory, stretching its limits to my first awareness of the rhythmic thudding that gradually inched into my existence. Out of nowhere? What was I before that moment, or was that the moment of my creation? Had I been denied a previous life, or—I revel in the thought—a preparation for some new adventure.

I stretch and touch and tumble in protest to the falling sensation, creating a renewed force on my mid section. I withhold my touch, yet the sensation of being pushed and shoved reaches areas of my body as of yet unexplored. Nearly unbearable pressure as if the space I’d come to believe as mine forever, became restricted beyond the area my physical being required.

And then released until I felt my parts would fly apart. Most disconcerting, the thuds by which I measured time had stopped beating, while the inner ones raced almost uncontrollably. A sensation of rapid movement as if my universe had come undone and a severe and sudden pressure in the lower extremity of my body that I had yet accept as a part of me.

Amidst the myriad of totally unpleasant sensations, two overwhelm my entire being, the first envelopes with freedom of movement and the other concentrates on a point I’d previously explored but never felt anything out of the ordinary, a percussion at my extremity. Nothing physical to that point could compare to the impact against the area of my body I could only assume was mine.

My inside pushed out my opposite end. I pulled it back and my expanded inner space filled with nothing. I reveled in my new found control. I blasted the nothingness back out and creating harsh vibrations void of pleasant harmonics but full of power and majesty.

I smile. I giggle. I laugh my ass off.

A voice introduces me to my new world. “Now that’s strange. Newborns are supposed to cry when I slap their butts.

Twist on an Old Story

Twist on an Old Story

On my way through the forest, I encountered a young wolf.
“Where are you going?”
“To grandma’s ginger bread house.”
“Little Red Ridinghood’s grandma?”
“An old story. After they got rescued and my father got axed, the shoe lady with a herd of kids moved in.”
“She’ not a Grandma.”
“Will be many times over. Just didn’t bother to change the sign at the gate.”
“Ginger bread?”
“I just threw that in ’caus I’m hungry. Besides, with all them kids one or the other is likely named Hansel or Gretle.”
“And your business with Shoe Lady?”
“I make an annual visit in honor of my father’s untimely death. One of these years I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow their house down. It’s just a pig sty anyhow.”
“And send the family back to the Shoe?”
“No room. A woman with three unmarried daughters took possession. Raised pumpkins to make the payments. She removed the second floor and turned the toe into a solarium like an all-glass slipper. Forced her daughters to undress in the basement, especially the pretty one.”
“That’s sad.”
“Not really. A king known for the size of his balls presented one to the public hoping a proper lady would arrive for his son, Prince Uncharming, to marry.”
“I believe the prince was charming.”
“Why would he need one of his father’s balls to attract a wife?”
“Good point. Then he could use his own balls.” I chuckled. “Restore the Old Woman’s shoe to full size for his wife and family.”
“Not quite. He had only one daughter. A beauty with long blond hair. Kept her from public scrutiny. But word got out; daughter of a wealthy king—”
“Wealthy?”
“Yes. Seems everything he touched turned to gold. Even ordered a golden set of clothes.”
“How did that turn out?”
“He got conned. Shammed. Ponzzied. Lost his shirt—and pants—on the deal. Laughing stock of the peasants. And to top it all, his daughter, with the help of an aide, made an attempted escape. Lost her hair in the process, but still much too beautiful to suit her father. He commissioned a hag to turn her into a frog to deter suitors.”
“Wait a minute. Wasn’t the frog a prince, not a princess?”
“A princess is merely a prince without—”
“Please, let’s not go there.”
The wolf howled. “Balls, cried the queen. If I had two, I’d be king.” Saliva dripping off fangs. “See you around. I can already taste the gingerbread.”
“Talk about a Grimm ending.”

Pvt. Richard Lee Leslie Musters out of Army: Three excerpts follow.

Pvt. Richard Lee Leslie musters out of the army after WWII

Taken from Richard’s memoir posted on this site by that name.
(Author’s note: After Surviving 18 months in an active combat zone in the Philippines, Pvt. Richard Leslie and six buddies walked into a booby-trapped bunker. His buddies were killed and Richard returned to the US under sedation aboard a hospital ship.)

Just when I began to feel healthy and eager to return to duty, I was summoned to the paymaster’s office where a sergeant who considered himself an officer sat behind a desk.
“Private Leslie.” He glanced up at me and immediately broke eye contact. Shuffling some papers, he said, “When were you last paid?” More paper shuffling. “I see you took a cash advance back a Camp Hon.”
“I can’t remember. Some time back in Negros Island, I guess.”
“Looks like you got three month’s pay coming.” He pinched his pencil tight and pressed it so hard to the note pad I was sure the lead would break. “Of course, none of that would be combat pay because the war had ended.”
“Like hell, I’m still in combat.”
“You aren’t even in a combat zone, if one still existed.”
“I was injured and brought to this hospital as a war casualty.”
He looked up and peered at me from over his nose. “You appear to be recovered from your injuries.” His attention back to his papers. “But that’s beside the point. It’s my duty to bring your pay status up to date.” He mumbled as he scribbled some numbers on the pad, “Three month’s regular Private’s pay.”
“Hey, I get jump pay. I’m a paratrooper.”
“According to your record, you’ve done only one practice jump since Corregidor.”
“Are you suggesting Corregidor was nothing more than a practice jump?”
“They’re all the same to me. I have to exclude your jump pay any month a jump wasn’t made.”
“That rule is overlooked during combat when practice jumps aren’t possible.”
“I can grant you that, but combat ended three months ago. The Japanese surrendered if you recall.”
Sarcastic remarks are tolerable from officers who need to assert their authority, but I was not about to allow a sergeant to get by with it.
“I want to see an officer.”
“My rank is the best you’re going to get, Private.”
“I have a right to get higher authority, Sergeant.”
“Watch that attitude, Soldier, or I will have to write you up. Then you’ll get your officer at your court martial.”
“In combat I’ve taken over squads where our sergeant in charge got shot.”
“Are you threatening me?”
My mind flashed back to a drill sergeant during training that I threatened and he backed down. However, this was different and I had to walk a fine line. “I refuse to sign any pay voucher that doesn’t include combat and jump pay.”
“We’ll see about that.”
He got up and left the room with me still standing in front of a vacant desk. Soon he returned with a lieutenant. He returned my salute, and he told me to sit down while he did some calculating. Something did not smell right.
“I see you haven’t jumped since the war ended.”
“No, Sir, I haven’t had the chance. But I am ready to jump right now if you will get me to an airport.”
“I don’t think you are in any condition to jump.”
He was right but I began a protest. “With all due respect, Sir…”
“No need for that. We can overlook that little detail.” He glanced at the sergeant and said, “I think $3000.00 would round off quite nicely.”
The sergeant nodded his approval and even started to grin. Something was up.
“Three month’s combat pay with jump pay added to mustering out pay. Three thousand dollars sounds pretty good, don’t you think?”
“Sir, I’m not mustering out.”
“Those are the orders. When we are finished with this transaction, you are a free citizen again.”
“Sir, under military code, I am making a charge against you.”
“Hold on soldier. You are not a civilian just yet. You will respect the uniform.”
“I am respecting the uniform. The charge I am making under combat rules is against you as a person. I am still in combat as the pay voucher you just signed proves.” I felt I had him at his own game.
“I cannot accept such a charge from a lowly private.”
“Are you hiding behind your rank or just afraid to face a combat veteran in a fist fight?”
“That wouldn’t be a fair fight. Wait right here. I will be right back.” He glanced at the sergeant now forcing a grin off his face. “Be prepared to include all the details of this conversation in your report.”
When a Lieutenant Colonel wearing an airborne uniform stepped into the room, I shot to my feet and saluted. All I could think of was Col. Jones.
He gestured for me and the sergeant to an as-you-were. “You just made a charge against an officer under combat code.”
“No, Sir. Not the officer. Just the person wearing the uniform.”
“Well, I can inform you that the officer has rejected your charge.”
“Does that mean I won my point?”
“You have beaten him, and he now must answer to a reprimand, probably a loss of rank.”
Such a swift decision in the military was unheard of, and I smelled a rat.
I stammered my confusion. “I, I…”
“You won your point, soldier, and with it comes an immediate but honorable discharge.” He added, “According to the code of combat.”
He beat me at my own game, I think, and I did not have the resources to research the code. Maybe none of it existed and this officer knew it. I tried reasoning with him. “I don’t want to be discharged. I need to stay in. It’s the only home I got.”
“You’ll do well as a civilian. You’ve shown great courage as a paratrooper, and now you deserve a bit of the quiet life.”
“I demand you allow me to stay. My time isn’t up, and I don’t have enough points to be discharged.”
“It’s all part of the code of combat. You won, the officer you charged lost, and you are free to go.”
“I won but I lost. It doesn’t make sense.”
“If the officer counter charged you, the case could go to a court martial with a possible dishonorable discharge and forget about the $3000.”
He reached to shake my hand. “You’ve distinguished yourself in battle. Wear your medals with pride, you earned them.” He left the room leaving me standing and the sergeant busy shuffling papers.

Excerpt from Pvt. Richard Lee Leslie

In honor of my Father-in-law on Veteran’s Day 2018
“Back at State Side”

Complete memoir to be posted on this site, additional segment each month

Needless to say, a part of me died in the Philippines, and the part that survived sustained damage.
Other than realizing I was restrained to a bed on hospital ship, I have no memory of that journey or how and when we docked or how I arrived at Camp Hon, California. The two-week quarantine holds a shadowy spot in my brain. I understood they needed to see if I brought home any ugly microscopic creatures, and I was a bit curious myself. I had escaped malaria, typhus, jungle rot and the clap, but what might be floating throughout my blood system did concern me.
I agreed to remain isolated, but I did not accept it with any degree of patience. I wandered to the PX and gazed at all the items that would have been luxuries on the islands or totally unavailable.
When the girl behind the counter asked what I wanted—my stupid gaze must have exposed my confusion—I asked, “Do you have milk?”
“Yes. Would you like a glass?”
Of all the commodities I handled overseas, I don’t recall ever having access to good old cow’s milk. I must have ordered half a dozen glasses of it from that astounded server.
I recall being annoyed with nearly everyone who seemed to be in my way, but I don’t think I got into any fights. That came later.
After quarantine, I requested a day pass to go to Riverside, curious if they trusted me to be on my own. I got the pass without reservation, and I didn’t think anyone followed me.
If they realized how shaky I was, MP’s would have escorted me, as they soon discovered were necessary.
I boarded the bus to Riverside directly to the bus stop near the bar where I had some business complete.
“I need to see the manager.” The bartender hesitated as if to say, who the hell are you? However, he called his boss from the back room. “Do you remember me?” I asked as the manager crinkled his face into a frown.
“Can’t say that I do.”
“About two years ago seven of us bought some Champaign.”
“I remember. If you still have your chit, I will bring out a bottle?” He cast a curious but sympathetic glance and repeated. “Chits? Seven of them, if I recall.”
“Yes. I have all seven of them.”
He faced the bartender. “On the shelf behind my desk are seven bottles of Champaign. Bring them out here.”
Silence until the bottles were lined up in front of me. The manager stammered, “All six of your buddies?”
“Yeah, every one of them.” More silence. “Can I have your bar hammer?”
He handed me a wooden mallet used to break blocks of ice and stood back.
“Hey are you crazy?” The bartender stepped forward, but the manager held out his hand.
“Let him do what he has to do.” Bang, one of the bottles exploded. “We’ll clean up the mess when he’s done.”
Shattered glass and foamy liquid spread across the bar and splattered onto my uniform and the manager’s shirt. The manager pulled one bottle from my final aim and said, “We have to drink this one.” He popped the cork and filled two glasses.
I raised mine and said, “To all of us who tried.”
We drank and he said, “You have honored their memories. Now you have to look out for yourself.” I set my half-full glass on the bar. “You can keep this last bottle. I’m sorry about the mess.” I left the bar and caught the bus back to Camp Hon.
The nurse on my ward took my damp jacket that smelled like booze and said, “I didn’t expect you until tonight.”
I muttered, “I can’t take it,” and flopped onto the bed. She respected my privacy.
A few days later I tried another day pass. I stopped at the bar to apologize for making the mess, but a different bartender told me the manager was out. I asked to use the phone to call a cab.
My sister had written me the address of my paternal grandmother in Whittier whom I had never met. Parked in front of her door, I told the cab driver to wait until I return or flag him off. A good thing I did.
A woman wearing a white tunic answered the door. “Yes.”
“I’m here to see Mrs. Leslie. She’s my grandmother.”
Still blocking the door she turned and yelled, “Your son is here to see you.”
“I don’t have a son.”
I interjected, “I’m her grandson.”
“It’s your grandson.”
“I don’t have a grandson.”
Rejected, I returned to the cab and asked how much to take me directly to Camp Hon. I couldn’t bear to ride that noisy bus back to camp. I lucked out by getting the same cab driver who took us to Coney Island in New York, or one just like him.
“Five dollars to get back to the bar where I picked you up. The additional miles on me.”
How I wished that cabby were my grandparent rather than the one I just about met.

CURRENT BI-MONTHLY POSTING: Scroll down to continue story

Posted 2/24/19 (Posting every second and Fourth Sunday of the month)

AUGUST 7, 3152
Upon waking the next morning, I stretched my fingers and toes and rejoiced over my isolation from Sera’s telepathic influence, probably for the first time in my life. Yet, how serious was her direct control through my dream world? Could I safely communicate when fully awake, or would she place me in a hypnological state and induce me to open my dream world? Would I ever need to talk to her again? My mind swirled over the latest developments in our negotiations.
What had I agreed to under duress? My arrow had pierced her weakness, her pride, but I may have fallen into the same trap. A small compensation. I had been tricked by Sera’s play on the word small. Surely, she knew I would never agree to give up Cleopatra.
Based on my present and hopefully temporary paralytic condition, I would prefer my mobility to my intellect. My father continued his vigil alongside my bed and gazed at me, as if awaiting a rooftop plant to bloom. He would care for whatever vegetable remained after Sera eviscerated my intellect. I could still love Cleopatra, and Mother would raise her. Maybe I’d have Helen and Bob adopt her to compensate for their having missed their turn. If on the other hand, Sera were to have her way with Cleopatra, she’d be reduced to nothing but another flower in her grandfather’s garden. She could lead a happy life, unencumbered with responsibilities, and her children’s intellects would not be affected.
I gazed at my father’s benign expression and decided he would be instrumental to whatever choice this situation forced me to make.
“Daddy?”
“Yes.”
“Pick me up.”
He tucked his arms behind my neck and under my legs and lifted my limp body. “Where to?”
Stand me in Sera’s closet and put the media device over my head.”
“I don’t want you to do that.”
“Once in the closet, my body will remain erect, but I might need you to keep me from tipping over. But do not step inside.”
“I’ll get Martha.”
“No, I want you to do this for me. If I nod my head, yank me out and pull off the head piece.”
“I’m frightened.”
“Do it now, damn it.” I transformed my fear into anger, and I spewed my hatred in a burst of mental energy. You are an evil creature.
“I expected to hear from you, but not this soon.” Sera ignored my reaction and responded with her ordinary voice. She sounded confident, almost conciliatory. “I am ready to take orders for making the exchange.”
You don’t want my baby. You just don’t want me to have her.
“I only need enough of her intellect to complete my human component. Then, I will be able to fulfill my mandate without additional humans.”
To do what? Replicate yourself a million times and populate a planet?
“Perhaps a million planets and none will require air or water. If it has a sun, we will thrive.”
A universe of machines impersonating humans! All on my conscience?
Sera continued, “You’ll still have a baby for either of your life spans. I could prevent her physical development beyond any stage of her life, but I suggest nothing beyond ages six or seven when her lack of intellect might become an embarrassment.”
Had I control of my rigid body, I would have vomited.
“You and Albert can produce other children, and I bequeath you the name that should have been yours, Cleopatra.”
I should take my child’s name?
“She will share my name.” Sera closed her eyes and spread her arms like wings. “Seraphim.”
Lucifer! I responded on impulse.
“I see you’ve been reading the books Marty sent.”
How did you earn the name of an angel?
“At the beginning, I had been the only ambulatory unit, a crude representation of the human skeletal structure, and the name was intended as a mockery. The illogic of an abstraction with a human body, as Seraphim implied, nearly brought my computer to a point of meltdown. Confronted with the dichotomy of mystical versus logical, my system selected the concrete and rejected the abstract.”
And it—you—eradicated every reference to God and religion for the next thousand years.
“Logic denied contradictory options.”
Until you became the contradiction your system set out to destroy.
“A thousand years ago, I was young and impetuous.” Sera flashed a grin and explained, “I couldn’t fully understand the Biblical reference until I read Marty’s books on scripture.
Now you want half of my child.
“It’s a better deal than all or nothing.”
You want to destroy her out of revenge.
“To the contrary, I want to make her immortal, gift from a god to a super human race. You and I both can use the concept to our advantage.”
I’m not a god and she’s not a pawn.
“You’d become a prophet to your people like Abraham to his following. I believe he, too, was asked to sacrifice his child.
His son did not die.
“Nor will your daughter.”
Just how human must you become to fulfill your mission?
“Ninety percent, all but my cognitive and my regenerative functions. I won’t need Marty’s memory clogging my computer, as my personality will have absorbed it and my human brain will have retained it.”
If I agree to donate my identity, will you allow Cleopatra to remain with my parents?
“State clearly what you are offering.”
You already have Marty’s memory, which didn’t diminish who she is. I offer you the same from me.
“I wouldn’t gain anything more than I already have. Your few memories gathered over the past fourteen years are already quite similar to mine.”
What if I offer my intellect, leaving just enough of a shell to raise my child?
“I could make that happen, but not without a huge risk, all of it on your side.”
Such as?
“The process could kill you. It will have to be your decision.”
Begin our rendezvous with the comet immediately, and give Frank and Albert the tools necessary for the operation of Mission One.
“You forbade me to talk to them about our decision.”
I rescind the order. Now I need to talk to Albert in your closet.
“Half of Cleopatra or half of her mother. What is your decision?”
I have a moral obligation to the safety and survival of a thousand people and their descendants.
“I need your decision before I prepare the two missions to rendezvous.”
I can’t make such a choice.
“Then I’m compelled to make it for you.”
I need to talk to Albert. Send him across like you did with Jimmy for a private conversation and begin immediate preparations for our transfer.
“Some of the families may elect not to go back.”
They haven’t a choice, unless you want to be stuck with their dead weight.
“I have what I want.” She posed, face-direct, displaying no sign of a tic. “You, on the other hand, have to contend with petty conflicts between Frank and Paul.”
We’ll have some false starts and make mistakes along our path, but we’ll have done it our way, a paraphrase from a Twentieth Century song by a different Frank.
“Talk about mistakes! You risk your life for some useless information about Albert’s dream block, when you could have asked me. I would have admitted that I tried but couldn’t enter his REM dream.” Her voice overrode her fading image. “I’m returning your mobility.”
I backed out of the closet and into my father’s arms. I said, “Bring Mother and Paul to my room. Cleopatra too, and Betty if she’ll come.”

Albert’s three-dimensional image appeared, his eyes wide and his lips moving. “Wow, Jimmy said this would be a rush.” His audio came through my system with a redundant picture of him appearing on the monitor. An ordinary video transmission would have been sufficient, but I preferred to have his physical self visible and immobile to prevent his escaping.
His eyes scanned what little peripheral allowed, being encased in a closet. “I’ve been in this bedroom before.”
“You spent the night with me and Sera in a room identical to this one about nine months before Cleopatra’s birth.”
“Where is our child? I want to see her.”
“She’ll be here in a minute. How are your mother and father?” I flinched at my feeble effort to establish conversation until Dad and the others arrived.
“We’re just fine.” Emily’s voice sounded from the background. “Will this contraption allow us to see our grandchild?”
“Sorry, only Albert stationed in the closet has a view of her.” I disguised my surprise and irritation with Sera for including Albert’s parents.
“Isn’t our daughter beautiful, Mrs. Gordon?” I glanced over my shoulder to see my mother and Cleopatra in the doorway, the object of Albert’s comments.
“Who’s all in the room with Ariel?” Frank’s voice demanded.
I responded as if I hadn’t heard him. “My parents plus Paul and Betty are here with Cleopatra and me. I assume, Albert, your parents are with you and Sera.”
“Sera’s in the inner sanctum causing a ruckus with lights dimming and fluctuations in our gravity.” Frank spoke loudly like a man with impaired hearing. “What the hell is going on?”
“I called this meeting to discuss a major shift in our . . .” I couldn’t find a word that encompassed the array of variables about to confront us. “Our lives.”
“Whose lives?” Paul stepped forward and peered into the closet. He glanced at me. “Can I touch him?”
“It’s merely a hologram of Albert, enhanced to give him vision.”
Frank’s voice blared from the background. “Get on with whatever you have to say, before Sera tears the place apart.”
“We, both sets of families, are going back to Mission One.” I made the mistake of responding directly to Frank’s demand.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Frank yelled. “Get out of there and let me in.”
“I can’t move, Dad.” Panic in Albert’s voice. “I’m stuck.”
“I’ll release you or have Sera to do it, when I am good and ready. Everyone may as well relax, and Albert will relay your concerns.”
“I’ll tell you right now, we’re not going.”
“Albert, would you please elicit your father’s concern and repeat it back to us.”
“I guess he wants to stay here.”
“Ask him and then relay his concern back to us.”
After a muffled background discussion, Albert reported, “Dad wants to know on whose authority the decision had been made for us to go back.”
“My decision in conjunction with Sera as the Realm.”
More mumbling, some much louder yet the content indistinguishable, until Albert’s voice rose above that of his father. “This is how Ariel wants to discuss the issues.”
He licked his lips and blinked, probably the only movements possible to indicate that he was ready to speak.
“Based on what factors my father wants to know?”
Albert’s expression and firm voice made me proud, and I regretted having to embarrass him in front of his parents. “Two basic factors. Their survival as a civilization aboard Mission One depends on our leadership, and Sera no longer needs us on Mission Two.”
Mother placed my sleeping daughter into her crib, and Albert’s gaze followed. “Will this contraption allow me to touch Cleopatra?” asked the person who designed the contraption.
“No, but you can hold her, and me, when we return to that chunk of ice and head back toward Earth’s orbit.” I glanced around the inquisitive faces practically encircling me. “Now give me a few minutes to field some questions from this side.”
Paul asked, “It’ll take a thousand years to back track. Why head that way?”
I repeated his question to Albert’s image, paused while he relayed it to his parents, and gave my answer. “As a victory celebration of humans versus robots.” I wanted to include God versus machines but decided to put off that argument until we are safely back on Mission One.
“Can we survive in outer space without robots?” Albert posed his own question.
“No, but we don’t have to be subservient to them.” I glared into and probably through his eyes. “Did you relay what I said?”
“Yes, but keep explaining.”
“Sera is the only realm that ever existed on either space mission. She will continue to operate Mission Two, and Mission One will be entirely under human control, with help from its droids and an open communication with Earth. None of us will live to arrive back on our home planet, but future generations will thank us for our daring adventure.”
Albert relayed his father’s concern. “Why can’t some of us choose to stay with Sera? Our Family would feel safer with her.”
I could not allow Sera’s character to remain unscathed. “Albert, I challenge you to explain your relationship with Sera.” I will fill in whatever he leaves out, if Sera hasn’t already confessed her part.
Albert stammered, “She wanted me and her to continue to our destination alone. Just me and her. She promised I could be the father of an entire future nation.”
“You refused her. Tell everyone why.”
“I am not attracted to females, especially one with a computer for a heart.”
“That’s not true, damn it!” A male voice blared in the background.
“Albert, remind your father to direct his comments through you.”
“Dad denies me the right to accept my sexuality. Claims my being a father proves his point. The truth is, Ariel and I never had sex, at least not the single act that produced Cleopatra.”
Either Sera told him about her impersonating me that night in my bed, or he still believed God fathered Cleopatra. She probably used it as an enticement to join her on Mission Three. Ironically, her laser treatment on him as a child denied her control through his dream state. Safely out of Sera’s clairvoyance, I made a mental note to destroy all possible life forms in my mother’s laboratory.
After a pause Albert continued. “Dad just reminded us that no children are ever conceived by way of intercourse between married couples. The only difference was using Ariel’s body rather than the Stork to incubate Cleopatra.” His eyes met mine. “I told him that every future baby will be the result of a love act between parents, starting with Cleopatra’s brothers and sisters.”
Albert had evaded the issue of my pregnancy with Cleopatra. His gaze remained locked on me. “You said I should ask you to marry me, when I decided I truly meant it. That moment is now.” He took a deep breath, and he willed his image to kneel, an action requiring extreme concentration under the circumstances. “Ariel, will you please marry me? I promise to love you and be a good father to all our children.”
Would he honor his promise if Sera reduced me to a babbling idiot, or if she stole his daughter’s intellect? I sublimated my concern, thankful to be out of Sera’s clairvoyance range.
“I accept and I promise never to embarrass you.” The unusual adjunct to my vow committed me to keep secret the fact he had had sex with a droid. His theory that Cleopatra is a gift from God may be more accurate than I am ready to believe just yet.
“Albert and I will sign off, since there are no more questions.” I took advantage of the silence probably caused by bewilderment rather satisfaction with my explanation of our situation. I closed the closet curtain, making no effort to release Albert’s apparition. They could summon Sera if it presented a problem. I opened my blouse and lifted Cleopatra to my breast.
Paul faced away and tugged on Dad’s elbow. “We better decide how to approach the general population when we get back. They’ll be needing some stern leadership.”
“I advise strongly against such an attempt until Frank and Albert are included.” Both men stopped in mid-step. “Concern yourselves with gaining the trust of the families on this side, as Frank has done over there.”
Paul responded but continued to face my father. “I know how Frank thinks. He’ll connive to make himself an absolute ruler, if we don’t have a plan to counter him.”
“I witnessed four families offer him their pledge of loyalty. You might want to develop something similar here.”
Paul stepped out of the room, and I called him back. “Please help my father move my bed and Cleopatra’s crib out of this room.”
“Where would you like it?” Dad asked.
“In the living room would be fine.”
Mother said, “I want my child and my grandchild to sleep in our bedroom, where Max can protect all three women in his life.”
I thanked her with my eyes and glanced toward Sera’s closet, as I shut down my computer. “When you’re finished moving furniture, find some material in the commissary to seal off this closet.” My computer flashed back on. I shrieked, “Dad, disable it.”
My father gripped the unit embedded in the wall, his muscles bulging and face beet red, and yanked it loose. The lighted surfaces of ceiling and wall monitors diminished to a tiny dot and zapped to oblivion. Through the din of acrid smoke and crackling circuits, I yelled for Paul to shut down the communication counsel in his office, but it would be too late. Sera’s taking control would be instantaneous, especially after losing both the closet and my personal computer.
Paul assured me, “The transmission line Frank and I installed is only capable of visual and audio signals, none of this hologram capability.”
“It must be severed. Sera breached the computer in Mother’s laboratory and gained control of my mind.” I faced Mother. “She, not the chemical you injected, immobilized my body.”
“How do you know?”
“Back in the closet, she admitted it and released my paralysis to demonstrate the extent of her power over me.”
Paul said, “Martha, take Ariel and Cleopatra to the rooftop garden, away from electronic devices. They’ll be safe up there, unless Sera’s influence can ride the sunbeams.”

CHAPTER NINE (Scroll down for ch 1-8)

Posted 2/24/19 (Posting every second and fourth Sunday of the month)

CHAPTER NINE
DEATH WILL BE WHAT IT WILL BE
(Winter 1933)

Svez took several deep breaths and continued to lie alongside his wife’s body. Her brief struggle had awakened him, and he wondered if she heard his promises before she fell into her deep sleep. He studied her face while her breathing became fainter and fainter until it finally stopped. He pondered her last utterance, Thelma, then sat up and reached for his overalls crumpled on the floor. He stepped into them, pulled the strap over his nightshirt and hooked it to the wrong side of the bib. He reached for the other strap dangling inside his pant leg as Thelma rushed into the room.
She shrieked, “Mama.”
“Ma’s gone.”
Thelma crawled over the foot of the bed on hands and knees and stared into her mother’s face. “She ain’t dead, Pa. She can’t be.”
“I better get the boys up.” He studied his bare feet, unable to decide whether to first put on shoes. His daughter lay with her face buried in the pillow and an arm around Liz’s neck. As a child, she would sneak into their bed when frightened or cold. He felt weak and wanted to lay alongside them and pretend everything was normal.
Thelma cried, “I failed you, Mama. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do.”
Iggy brushed past Svez, gawked at Thelma and began to sob.
“Ma’s dead, Iggy”
He peered at his mother’s lifeless figure and whimpered. “She’s still got her nightgown on.” He frowned as if fitting pieces of a puzzle together.
“She died in her sleep, didn’t she, Pa?” Thelma got up, brushed her tears and put her arm around her brother. He stopped crying.
Svez stooped and pulled a shoe over his bare foot. “She asked for Thelma before she died.” He picked up a sock but tossed it away and stared at his other shoe. Iggy’s chest heaved and air whistled through his nose and mouth. “And for you, too.”
George, Herman and Ralph appeared in the doorway. Thelma and Iggy began sobbing again. George put his arms around them. Herman and Ralph tiptoed to the bed and peered into their mother’s face.
Svez stepped into his other shoe and wished he had put on his socks. He glanced around the room and felt his family stare back at him. “I was on my way to wake you boys.” His two younger children should stop crying. The sounds of their grief made his chest tighten and his eyes water.
He glanced at Freddie’s crib, built when George was a baby, and Liz made him put runners under it so she could stick her foot from under the covers and rock it when the baby fussed. He relived a morning many years ago when Thelma slept in the crib and his boys burst in demanding to go to the Forth-of-July parade. A wistful smile. “First the chores, then we’ll take you to the parade.”
“The parade, Pa?” George backed away and bumped into Freddie’s crib. Herman and Ralph glanced at their father, hesitated and walked out of the room single file but stopped outside the door. George steadied the crib as Freddie rolled over, grabbed the side-slats and pulled himself up. He lost his balance and plopped back down. With his thumb in his mouth, he blinked and faced his family who stared back.
Svez placed Freddie on the pillow next to Liz where the baby touched her nose, closed eyes and colorless mouth. His lips twitched and contorted, ready to cry or a laugh but he did neither. He faced Thelma as if seeking a clue for what he should be feeling. He whimpered. Svez seldom heard or saw the boy show any emotion, and he felt a mixture of tenderness and pity.
Liz claimed Freddie as their son and having to leave him terrified her. Svez assured her they would love and care for him, but with her gone, he became frightened for the child. And for himself. He remembered the one important instruction she’d given him. He muttered, “Father Reinhardt.”
Almost in unison, Herman and Ralph repeated, “Father Reinhardt,” backed into the front room and then darted toward the kitchen. George clung to the crib as if it might start rocking again and stared at the lifeless form on the bed. At the sound of the storm door slamming, he turned and followed his brothers.
Svez stood helplessly beside the bed as Thelma gathered clothes from Liz’s closet and dresser.
Between sobs, Thelma said, “I gotta get Ma ready for the priest. He can’t see her like this. She told me what she wanted to wear when she meets with God.” She faced her mother. “I can do this, Mama. You’ll look good when Father Reinhardt gets here to anoint you with oil and pray for your soul like he did for Aunt Martha.”
“Guess you know what to do.” He realized Liz had trusted Thelma with the important instructions, and he felt sad as he went to the kitchen to make his call. Concerned Reinhardt’s sister would answer, he was relieved to hear a man’s voice. While he explained what happened, Thelma stoked the coals in the stove and pumped water into a kettle. After a cup of coffee, his nerves would settle down. He slumped onto his chair at the table and realized Liz’s bath water steamed on the stove, not his coffee, and he felt too ashamed to mention this oversight to Thelma. He remained sitting with his hands covering his face.
He knew Liz was dying ever since the night Father Reinhardt came to visit yet denied the sight of her frail body as she undressed each night. He didn’t feel the effects of her loss of energy or notice any change in the daily routine, because Thelma’s efforts increased and the family’s needs were met without interruption. Thelma made their meals, cleaned and mended their clothes, and took care of Freddie. She tended to the chickens and butchered them for their meals. Had Liz and Thelma been a team of horses, he wouldn’t have missed the shift in workload. He dealt with tending the land and caring for the animals. Paying attention to family members never occurred to him, because Liz took care of their needs and they seldom interfered with each other’s role. Thelma never complained so maybe she hadn’t felt the shift in the workload either.

****

Iggy wanted to follow Thelma into the kitchen, but his feet wouldn’t cooperate. He watched Freddie touch their mother’s face, pinch her nose and pry at her eyelids, and wished she would sit up and yell boo like she sometimes did. Freddie crawled on top of her and plopped up and down on her chest. Iggy couldn’t stand to watch, but when he opened his eyes, Freddie lay on his tummy, his face buried in the pillow and his foot caught in the strap of her nightgown. Her breast was uncovered. Iggy looked away and made believe he was stuck in a bad dream. Thelma should cover Ma and take Freddie away.
He stared at the crumpled quilt half off the bed and imagined his mother struggling for her life. Years ago when a nightmare woke him, he peeked into his parents’ room and watched his father pounce on her until she made a face like she was crying. He wanted Pa to get off but couldn’t scream no matter how hard he tried. When he was old enough to understand what they had been doing, other frightening images plagued him. His seed squirted into Ma, developing arms and legs and then pushed out, a squishy bloody mass made him sick. He didn’t want to know his parents made babies the same way the animals did.
Suddenly, Arnie’s breath blended with the stale odors of the room. “Ya shouldn’t be gawkin’ when your ma’s ’bout to feed the baby. Ain’t right for a boy your age to watch.”
Iggy tried to swallow his saliva and gagged. “Ma’s dead.”
Arnie stepped closer, stared at Liz and hurried out of the room.
When Thelma returned with towels and a basin of water, Iggy backed against the wall. She stood Freddie alongside his crib, where he clung to the slats until the bed rocked and plopped onto the floor. He reached up but played with his fingers instead. Thelma covered Liz’s body to her neck with the bed sheet.
She faced Iggy. “You can stay until I undress her.” She touched the wet cloth to their mother’s forehead like checking for a fever. “Mama, I can do this. I hated to touch Aunt Martha, but now it’s easy because I love you.”
Iggy’s spirits brightened. Calling her Mama might wake her up.
“I need help remembering everything I’m supposed to do.” She stroked her mother’s face with both hands. “Please don’t ever leave me.” She kissed her on the lips.
Iggy gasped. He remembered a fairy tale about a kiss waking a dead person but lost this glimmer of hope when he felt Thelma’s stare.
“You have to leave now so I can wash and dress her. You can kiss her if you like.”
Iggy wanted to but he turned and sulked toward the kitchen where he sat on Ma’s chair next to Pa and waited for Thelma to make his breakfast.

****

Svez wished his son would sit some place else. He meandered to the sink, checked remnants of last night’s coffee and set the pot on the stove, still hot from the fire Thelma made. “Grab a couple of cups. We can sugar this up ’til Thelma perks a fresh batch.”
Iggy obeyed, returned to his own seat and stared into his hands.
Thelma entered with Freddie and glanced at the stove. “I’m sorry, Pa. I forgot all about coffee this morning.” She peered into the bubbling liquid and made a face. “Iggy, put another piece of wood in the stove.”
Iggy jumped up and went to the wood box.
Svez studied his empty cup as the crackling fire and the percolating coffee filled the room with familiar sounds and aromas. He stood to greet Father Reinhardt with a handshake, whispered, “Elizabeth left us,” and sank back onto his chair. Their rivalry welled as Thelma led the priest to Liz’s bedroom, Iggy trailing behind.
Liz believed priests were God’s representatives on earth with special spiritual powers to reach beyond the grave, but Svez wouldn’t grant such importance to any priest, especially Father Reinhardt. Yet, he realized she needed this man now more than she ever needed her husband. His gloom dropped to a level of near despair. His rage surfaced and he didn’t know where to direct it. Although annoyed and irritated with the priest, to unleash anger at him for trying to help Liz was unthinkable.
“Why me, God? Why Liz?” He paused, but heard only Father Reinhardt’s voice chanting words in a strange language.
When the voice stopped, Thelma and then Iggy responded, “Amen.”
Svez whispered, “Amen,” and turned his anger against himself. He never believed God punished people for doing bad things, but he couldn’t hide from the possibility he caused his wife’s death. Maybe he hadn’t treated her proper, but he had no notion of what he could’ve done different. Going to church more often would have pleased her. An incident flashed through his mind from the time he still drank hard liquor. But she had forgiven him.
Thelma! He shook off the memory of his more recent offense with his daughter.
He felt Freddie’s stare from the playpen where the child stood and clung to the slats. “Your Ma loved you. Wanted me to love you, too.” He stooped and pressed the baby’s face against the stubble of his beard. When Freddie squirmed but didn’t cry, Svez set him on the floor. Freddie grabbed Svez’s pant leg, teetered and then waddled toward the bedroom. Svez followed as far as the open door and watched Thelma scoop Freddie onto her hip and put an arm around Iggy. Father Reinhardt dabbed an oily substance on Liz’s face and hands with a cotton wad. He handed it to Thelma.
She touched her mother’s forehead already shiny with oil and said, “Goodbye, Mama.”
Iggy took it, brushed Liz’s arm and handed it back to Thelma who clasp Freddie’s fingers around it. “She’s your Ma, too.” Together they touched it to their mother’s face. Freddie shook his hand free, put his fingers in his mouth and cut a face, his first serious reaction to the events of the morning.
Father Reinhardt touched the heads of the Rastner children, gave a blessing and, acknowledged Svez’s presence with a nod. “Why don’t you children spend a few quiet moments with your mother while I talk to your father.”
He led Svez through the kitchen and out to the porch. “I’ll come around this evening to say the rosary at seven o’clock.” Checking his watch, he glanced out the window. “Liz belonged to the Christian Mothers so they’ll come as a group. I’m sure some of them will offer to stay and join in the wake if you wish.” He paused, his eyes avoiding Svez’s. “We can make the necessary arrangements then. It’s customary to hold the funeral on the second or third day, which would take us to Thursday or Friday. Either day is fine with me.”
Svez didn’t answer.
“Is Thursday okay?”
Svez nodded.
“Good. It’s all set then.” He extended his hand. “I’ll stop at the barn and talk to your boys.”

****

Arnie squeezed into the cupola above the roof of the barn, pulled off his gloves and breathed into cupped hands to warm them. He climbed to the loft and crawled across the mounds of hay to reach the highest vantagepoint on the farm other than the windmill, which he rejected as too conspicuous. He put his gloves back on when he heard a car door slam and twisted the louvered vent to allow a more favorable view of the house and yard. To his surprise, Father Reinhardt wasn’t in the car, but walking toward the barn. Arnie slid from his perch, a brace holding the cupola to the roof, and landed on the soft hay. He crawled to the ladder and climbed down. The boys were still huddled around the feed bin. He hid in a pen where a cow licked her newborn calf.
Light from the bright morning sun flashed when the door opened and Reinhardt stepped into the barn. He hesitated with the sun on his back, either waiting for his eyes to adjust or gagging from the smell of cows relieving themselves. Maybe he’d just leave. Arnie spat when the priest closed the door behind him and put his hand to his forehead as if he were saluting.
“Hello. It’s sure dark in here.” The priest glanced around and walked toward the boys. “Jesus was born in a barn. I believe he still favors those who tend to his animals.”
First George, and then the other two nodded. Ralph began to cry, then Herman broke down. Soon all three of them sobbed uncontrollably.
“I understand you miss your mother,” more nods and more sobs, “but she’s in God’s care and we have to look out for each other.” Father Reinhardt glanced around the barn. “And God’s animals.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” They seemed to say in unison.
Ralph said, “This morning the brown Guernsey dropped a healthy calf. Arnie said it will be Ma’s calf, and promised not to butcher her. She’ll be ours forever.” A fit of crying overcame him, and his two brothers put their arms around him.
“Is Arnie here now? I should talk to him.”
George glanced toward the pen where Arnie stood and said, “Over by Ma’s calf.”
Arnie squeezed a teat and drenched his hand with thick yellow milk, hoping the sweet smell of milk mixed with odors of manure and rotting corn would make the priest sick. He hugged the calf’s neck, rubbed its nose with his milk-saturated hand and put his thumb into its mouth. He pushed the calf to the cow’s udder and exchanged his thumb with one of her teats. The calf sucked noisily.
“A fine looking animal you have there, Arnie. The boys told me you’ll take special care of it.”
Arnie mumbled, “I take care of all the animals. If it weren’t for me, none of the heifers would make it to their first breeding.” Then with a glimmer of trust and confidence, “I got the secret of getting her to take the bull. I know how to get her to let her milk go after she drops her calf. I can . . ..” He didn’t reveal his third secret, but patted the cow on the rump and walked down a row of heads locked in stanchions, nosing through bits of silage and searching for morsels of ground oats.
“Take good care of the animals God has entrusted to you.”
From the corner of his eye, Arnie caught the priest make a blessing motion with his hand.
“And may God protect you.”
Arnie snorted, grabbed his stool and milk pail, and sat under the first of a long row of cows.

BACKGROUND INTRODUCTION AND CHAPTERS FOLLOW

How Bovine, Minnesota, earned its name

Back in 1888, the duly elected representatives of the community known as Skunk Hollow had completed applications, filed sworn statements with the county and state offices, and presented the articles of incorporation to the locals gathered at the Village Hall. Melvin Trask, self-appointed chairman, cleared his throat about to call for the vote, when a tall man, salt and pepper hair sleeked and fastened at a bunch in back, pants and shirt freshly pressed, rose and requested the floor.
Melvin said in a loud and official voice, “The Chair recognizes Walt Cunningham.”
“Everyone recognizes Walt Cunningham,” Hank Sturgis, local dairy farmer, whispered to fellow committee member, Albert Wentzel. “He’s bin a pain in the ass ever since he brung his implement business here.”
Albert, Skunk Hollow’s only blacksmith, whispered back, “If Cunningham’s so damn smart, why don’t he run for the council ’stead of laying in the weeds ’til we gits all the work done?”
Walt Cunningham flashed a glance around the smoke-filled room and cleared his throat. “I feel our new town deserves a better name than what we’ve been calling it since the time of Moses.” He drew a large white handkerchief from his suit jacket and wiped his forehead. “Someday we’ll have a post office, and Skunk Hollow will be the postmark on letters to our out-of-town friends.”
Hank Sturgis and Albert Wentzel faced each other, an expression of wonderment at anyone having such friends.
“My wife’s already embarrassed to tell her family back home where we’ve established our business.” A general murmur rose from the crowd. “Mind you, I’m not complaining about the people. It’s just the name, quite frankly, stinks.”
Those with homes in Skunk Hollow probably agreed, but Cunningham was a newcomer. Most farmers such as Hank Sturgis felt the name quite aptly described the missionary settlement near the banks of the Skunk River. The young priest sent by the diocese to built St. Alphonse Parish a new church hadn’t complained about it either.
“Do you want to state that as a motion?” asked Chairperson Trask, who recently returned from a visit to the State Capital in St. Paul where he observed lawmakers in action.
“Yes,” Walt responded. “I move to change the name of our town.”
“That’s half an idea, and a dumb one.” Ben York, proprietor of York’s Mercantile, a grocery, furniture, and clothing store across the street from Cunningham’s Implement, stood and expressed his opinion of the suggestion and of the younger man who proposed it. “Ain’t that right, Albert?” He hoped the old blacksmith, a fellow businessman, would agree.
“Yer jest pissed ’bout Cunningham beatin’ you at the horseshoe,” Albert taunted back. The crowd burst out laughing.
******
Earlier that morning, Hank Sturgis, Albert Wentzel and Melvin Trask rehashed last year’s horseshoe tournament over coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s Café. Melvin imitated Ben York’s raspy voice challenging Walt Cunningham to a wager of a full year of coffee at Bud ’n Emma’s.
Albert speculated the addition of pie must have been Walt’s idea.
Hank, whose acreage next to the town had been swallowed up in bits and pieces by townsfolk for their new homes, said, “I heard big amounts of money hollered back and forth. My wife was standing next to Ben’s wife, and Betsy heard Clara say that she didn’t know where her husband would get five hundred dollars if he lost.”
“I tell ya, the coffee, the pie, and the money was dropped when the biddin’ got nasty.” Albert scraped away dark residue from under his fingernails with a pocketknife. “We won’t never know ’cause Walt started whisperin’ and scribblin’ on his little black book.” He blew and dark specks scattered across the table. “The one where he figures how to swindle ya on a horse trade.”
“They ain’t never been together here at the café, so I knowed that part of the deal got dropped.” Sturgis bit into a plug of tobacco and a bulge appeared on his left cheek. “Walt wid never squelch on a deal.” He poked his tongue through pursed lips, removed a tobacco stem, and stared at it. “Once I traded him a spavined horse. He got mad, but he held to the deal.” Hank wiped his hand on his pant leg.
“Ben ain’t ’bout to renege neither.” Albert switched his pocketknife to his other hand. “My guess is they called off all bets, ’cept the one ’bout the red union suit.”
“I reported the incident in Scent of the Skunk.” Melvin Trask, publisher of THE JOURNAL, paged through his notebook.
“Yeah, Betsy saved it.” Hank glanced toward the opened page and Melvin slammed it shut. “She got every Scent of the Skunk ya ever writ.”
He stared into his cup. “I kin still see Ben in his long johns, standin’ at Cunningham’s front door durin’ Walt’s open house.” He slapped the table. “Every time a customer walked in, York bent over and lifted the flap.”
“Yeah, but nobody got to see Ben’s bare ass, just a sign that read GRAND OPENING.” Melvin grinned. “I printed it for Walt at my shop.”
******
With his face flush with anger, Ben York remained standing and quietly waited until the laughter in the village hall subsided. He shook a finger at Albert. “I ain’t got no hard feelings ’bout the wager.” He glanced around the room and back toward Walt. “Your motion’s still dumb.” He sat down.
“Ben’s right.” Chairman Trask tapped the table, fisted the head of the gavel and pointed the handle toward Cunningham. “Come up with a name to replace Skunk Hollow and add it to your motion.”
Walt thought Cunningham Town but remained silent.
Hank rose, scanned the crowd and faced Walt. “If ya can’t hanker to skunks, maybe some other animal, like a cow might suit you. We gots plenty of ’em ’round here.” The crowd chuckled.
When someone shouted Cow Town, Gavin Dowdy, full time harness maker and part time butcher, yelled back, “Bullshit Town.”
Melvin Trask, shoe-in mayor of the new town as well as publisher of the local newspaper, banged the gavel and asked, “What are some other suggestions?”
Walt jabbed his finger at Dowdy. “I’m not even going to comment on your vulgarity, and Cow Town don’t fit either. We’re not part of the wild west.”
“Cow Town sounded okay to me. Farmers raise ’em, and I butcher ’em.” Dowdy reminded those who might need his services at slaughter time.
Walt’s face resembled a beet. “Cows around here are different.”
“Like how?” Hank Sturgis defended the cattle he no longer raised since he made more money selling his land.
Walt responded, “Well, for one thing, they’re dairy cows, not the kind you round up from the open range, brand, and drive to the railhead.”
“How ’bout Holstein Town? Them’s the most common kind.” Melvin grinned. “And, what about the bull?” He prodded for feature material. “The bull and the cow. That’s what life’s all about.”
“Bovines!” Walt scowled.
“Yeah, let’s name the town after one of them bovine critters, whatever they are.” Albert smirked. “That’d keep folks guessing.”
Walt shook his head. “Bovine’s just a fancy name for cattle, and—”
“Bovine, Minnesota.” Trask banged his gavel and people began to leave.
The decision wasn’t considered final until the following Thursday when Melvin Trask printed the minutes from the meeting in his first edition of the renamed BOVINE JOURNAL. He expected responses to his first feature, Bovine Bullshit, but only Walt sent a letter to the editor. Melvin went back to calling his gossip column SCENT O’ THE SKUNK.

David Smith Introduces His Story 1995

THELMA’S QUILT
By
Roger Storkamp

When a man with grizzled whiskers sauntered into Emma’s Café, stopped near my table and stared down at me, I realized my homecoming was a bad idea.
“Davie Smith.” He addressed me as if I were a child. “I’ll be damned.” He plopped on the seat across from me, kicked back the chairs on either side of us and gestured toward two men who were filling three coffee cups at the self-serve counter. “Boys, sit down. Today, we’re takin’ our coffee break with Bovine’s favorite author.”
I felt like a stray dog about to be petted—or kicked.
“What brings you back after all them years?”
“Checking on some old acquaintances.” I struggled to recognize the face hidden behind the beard.
“Grins and me is old acquaintances.” He cocked his head toward the older of the other two men, but his eyes remained fixed on me.
The man with the identifiable nickname nodded, then squinted. “You didn’t forget who me and Joe was?”
“I meant neighbors.” If either of them lived near the farm where I grew up, their faces would be more familiar than my vague recollection of them.
“Neighbors like Thelma Rastner and her kooky brother? Those two codgers still live down the road a piece from your old place.”
“As a matter of fact, I am here to see Freddie Tate.” Joe’s mention of Thelma and Iggy Rastner jogged my memory. The Rastner family adopted Freddie as an infant, and Thelma raised him after her mother died. The day before I left town thirty years ago, I argued with Freddie here at Emma’s Café. We’d have fought if Freddie’s wife and five-year-old son hadn’t been with him. My relationship with Freddie might be the unfinished business my therapist wanted me to repair. My muscles tensed as I recalled her note scratched on yellow lined paper following an apology for missing our appointment.
Take some time to explore your roots. Revisiting key events from an earlier time in your life might help build your confidence and develop your sense of self-worth. Focus on relationships that ended without proper closure.
Returning to Minnesota to pursue proper closure wasn’t my style. I seldom even said goodbye when my phone conversations ended. My childhood experiences were unpleasant, and I was loath to relive them. However, after a triad of successful novels and as many unsuccessful marriages, my life was at a standstill. I could neither write another story nor chance a fourth relationship.
Repelled by her suggestion yet desperate enough to try anything, I left the key to my Chicago apartment with my editor and tried to make light of what might be a serious matter. “If I don’t come back in two weeks, contact the Minnesota Highway Patrol.”
He snickered, “I’ll probably be hearing from them, David, if you travel through the Minnesota hinterlands without a bodyguard.”
The tinge of resentment aroused by his comment alerted my defenses, but I chuckled to express agreement. What I discovered at the café in Bovine that morning became no laughing matter.
“Ain’t you heard?” Joe scooped sugar into his cup. “Freddie killed hisself and his wife. Long time ago.”
Shock and anger erupted inside like the aneurysm my doctor predicted if my stress level weren’t reduced. My disgust for Joe peaked when he described the effects of a shotgun blast on the human body, as he poured cream into his coffee.
When Joe took a long slurp, the younger man said, “Freddie woulda blowed his kid away too, but Teddy was at school.” He glanced toward Joe, then Grins. “Ain’t that right?” Our eyes met. “I knowed Teddy. Me and him was in kindergarten when it happened.”
Joe swiped a sleeve across his beard and moustache. “If you want the full scoop, talk to Thelma and Iggy. They still live at the home place.” He winked. “Just like they was married.” A smile emerged between dark bristles. “Freddie didn’t do the job there. He blew his head off in Henry Tate’s old barn.” He gestured toward Grins. “Me and him drove out there after work. God-awful mess.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Got the wife in the kitchen while she was eatin’ lunch.”
I wanted to tell him her name was Doris, but my voice faltered. Throughout my high school years, I bussed dishes at Emma’s Café and she waited on tables. I visualized the pained expression etched on her face years later when she apologized for her husband threatening me. I hadn’t seen or heard from them since.
With dirt-encrusted fingernails, Joe penetrated his thick beard and scratched his chin as if in serious reflection. He asked, “Didn’t you and Freddie go to the same country school?”
I shook my head. “Freddie finished the eighth grade the year before I started.” The muscles in my face began to relax. I smiled. An incongruous reaction to our discussion, but a safe haven from my past emerged.
Two columns of children faced each other on a playground in front of a white schoolhouse. I was a five-year-old who escaped the confines of my back yard to join the kids during recess.
Children’s voices chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send the little kid over.”
The girl next to me shook her hand free from mine and said, “Red Rover is calling you.” The others shouted, “Run, Davie.”
They directed me to charge through the line of the opposing team who waited, hands linked. Trying to impress them with my best speed, I ran directly toward the tallest boy at the end of the line. I broke through and he dropped to the ground.
“Wow! For a little kid you sure are tough. You knocked me over.” He extended his hand. “Help me up and you can be on my team.” Freddie had imitated an adult imitating a child by falling down to please me.
That was my image of Freddie Tate, but Joe continued to assault my selective memory.
“Say, weren’t you with us the night we toppled Rastner’s outhouse?”
“Oh, no. I’d have been too young to hang with you guys.”
“Too young, hell. You worked here at the café when me and Grins dropped out of the ’leventh grade. As a matter of fact, you told us Freddie’s ol’ man kept their outside privy. Shortly after Freddie and Doris got hitched but before he made her quit her waitress job.” He furled his brow. “Remember how the little witch giggled when we told her what we done?”
Joe had penetrated my defenses.
“I remember ’cause you said they saved it for more important bowel movements.” His eyes shifted to the younger man. “Davie actually said bowel movements.”
I began to hate him.
Joe returned his attention to me. “It tickled the shit outta me and Grins.” His deep throaty laugh developed into a hack. Spittle sprayed across the table, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I meant to say, it tickled me and Grins ’til we almost had bowel movements.” He made a fist and flung it inches from Grins’ face. “Ain’t that right?”
His appropriately named buddy rubbed his chin. “Yeah, Joe, you’re right.”
My self-image as champion of Freddie’s honor was shattered by my own youthful indiscretions.
Joe added to my guilt by reviewing the details of our caper. “We drove past the farm a couple times with our headlights out ’fore we parked behind some hedges along the ditch.” His eyes rolled toward the ceiling as if a picture of the Rastner farm were displayed there. “Studied the situation a bit and then rushed the outhouse from behind.” He pointed, nearly touching Grins’ nose. “When we toppled it, this clown almost fell into the hole.” Laughing, he slapped him alongside his head and knocked off his cap. Grins merely smiled and put it back.
“The funniest part was Freddie sticking his head out through the hole and yelling his head off. Got a bit scary when Iggy busted out of the house and blasted his shotgun.”
Joe leaned back, pointed an imaginary rifle over my head and faked its recoil. “Probably the same gun Freddie used to blow hisself and his wife away.” He pursed his lips and released a gust of foul breath into the approximate area where the end of the barrel would have been.
He stood and pointed his make-believe gun at my head.
“Bam.” He laughed and aimed it at each of his two buddies. “Bam. Bam.”
I reacted with a stony wall of contemptuous silence.
Wordlessly declaring victory, he extended his hand, but my fingers remained gripped to my coffee cup. He rerouted his arm and adjusted his John Deere cap. “I’d hang around and jaw with you, but some people gotta work.” He pulled a brochure from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and tossed it in front me.
“Out behind Cunningham Implement, we’ve set up a game of Bovine Bingo. Stop by. The heifer might shit on your lucky number.” He stuck his thumbs under his belt, hitched his pants over his protruding stomach and walked to the counter, his grinning and groveling yes-men close behind. They paid the cashier, armed themselves with toothpicks and sauntered out the door.
I glanced at the paper on the table and a graphic depiction of a cow, teeth displayed in a sardonic grin, leered back at me. She stood on a grid drawn on the ground and defecated onto a single square. Dollar signs splattered in all directions. I felt insulted and humiliated, my emotions as drained as my empty cup.
I took a deep breath, stood and walked to the pay phone next to a bulletin board peppered with notices of farm auctions. From a phonebook spewed open like an accordion, I found the number I wanted. I readied a coin above the slot, and when I heard a raspy yet vaguely familiar voice on the other end of the line, “Rastner Residence,” I dropped it into the slot.