Shady Acres

This is not a new story.  I wrote it a number of years ago and published it in one of my short story collections.  An event today reminded me of it.  So, thought I’d share.  The story, in its entirety, is more than 14,000 words.  So, over the course of the next few days, I’ll share it a couple of chapters at a time.  Hope you enjoy it.  (By the way, that event today has given me a thought for another piece to add to this story.  We’ll see if I do anything with it.

Shady Acres

Chapter 1.  100 Years

On his 100th birthday, it begins when he doesn’t put his dentures in.  For twenty-two years, after rising from the pillow in fits and starts into a sitting position on the edge of the bed, he had reached to the nightstand for the porcelain representation of his age.  Creaks and pains in his joints complicated the process until now, when he must catch his breath before grabbing for his false teeth.

First, at the side of the bed, covered with the comforters and thick blankets preferred by Elisa, it did not trouble him.  The wearing of dentures.  The daily ritual continued through the years.  When Elisa passed shortly after her eighty-second birthday and three months before their 58th anniversary, it went on, from the bed at Shady Acres Home, where the bed was covered with nothing but a sheet and a couple of thin blankets.  Upon Elisa’s death, his children insisted that he move to Shady Acres.  Bless them for they knew not what they were doing.

It was only recently, confronted by the end of the first century of his life – let that roll around on your tongue for a bit, a century of life – that he began to struggle with these stark and daily affirmations of the deterioration of his body.  False teeth.  Hearing aids.  A walker.  And every once in awhile, a wheelchair pushed by one of the nice young ladies in the nurse’s whites.

Once upon a time, he landed on the beaches of Normandy and fought the Germans, the toughest SOBs at the time.  Well, almost.  The good ol’ boys of the U.S. of A showed the Krauts who was really tougher.  He boxed in the army.  His fighting name was the Stone.  Yes, even in the military, fighters have such names.  His represented his body and mind, his character and will.

At least then.  But, as all such things must, his stone eroded with age.  Worn by years of work, of drink, of abuse he could no longer recall.

Now, he protests, beginning with his dentures.  The faintly chemical taste of the cleaner that they soak in is something he will not miss.  If he cannot chew his food, he will gum it into submission.

Once he has refused the habit of his dentures, he will move on.  When Mackenzie comes in, he will reclaim another part of his soul.  Five days a week, for several years now, she has bewitched him.  Her black hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, remind him of Elisa so many years ago.  The way her breasts fill her uniform and her hips move when she walks.  The white nylons that cover her legs.  Her quiet laugh that fills her conversation.

On his 100th birthday, when Mackenzie helps him stand up, he will put his arm around her narrow waist and feel the curve of her hip under his hand.  “You are ravishing, my dear,” he will say to her with a wink and slide his hand down to her ass and give it a pinch.  He hopes that she blushes with embarrassment.  Maybe she’ll even bat his hand away.  Or better yet, maybe she won’t.  Might she look at him, in that moment, smile, and recognize that he’s not just a dirty old man looking for a cheap thrill.  That there is something more to him than the old sack of bones that he has become.  He may be 100 years old, but he is still alive.  Who knows?  She may even let his hand stay there for something more than a few seconds.   He has no dreams or hope of anything more, but he will do it anyway.  To show Mackenzie that he is still a man.

When his interlude with the lovely Mackenzie is over, he will engage in the third and final protest of the day.  Once cleaned, brushed, and dressed, he will refuse his walker and a wheelchair.  He will walk.  Without assistance.  Without any form of physical support.  It may take him three hours.  He may fall and break a hip or dislocate his shoulder, as he did the last time he walked without any help.  But he will not be afraid.

Mackenzie may insist on holding his elbow for support.  He will refuse her help.  One foot in front of another.  Each step taking him past other units, down a hall, around the corner, through the quad, and into the dining room, where a table and chair await him.  His bones tired, his lungs burning, he will sit down and eat his breakfast.  He will destroy it with his dentureless jaws, confident that he is a man.  He will remember the feel of Mackenzie’s hip under his hand.  He will feel more alive than he has in years, knowing that another one hundred years await.

Tomorrow.  On his 100th birthday, as his first century draws to a close, he will reverse the tide of deterioration.  The beginning of a second century of life, demands a statement.  It will begin with his dentures.


Chapter 2.  Feeling a Chill

“Ma, what are you doing?”  She sat buck naked on the sofa.  It was a good thing Stephanie had closed the door.  Stephanie shuddered at the thought of a nurse or orderly walking in on her mother.  Or worse, one of the old guys who was constantly having walker races out in the hall.

“Having dinner.”

“What are you eating?”

“A cupcake.”  Ma giggled then and held it out for her to see.

“Ma?!  A cupcake for dinner?”  Stephanie walked further into the room, ready to take charge.  First, she had to flip the blinds closed behind her.  “And why don’t you have any clothes on?”

“Mr. Robertson, that nice man in 17C, it was his 100th birthday today.  I decided to wear my birthday suit in his honor.”

“You can’t sit here without any clothes on.  Let me get your robe.”

“Why not?  If I want to sit and enjoy a cupcake as our dear Lord made me, why can’t I?”

“Because … because … well, you can’t.  Where’s your robe?”

For a moment, Ma’s face darkened before she giggled again.  “Don’t know and don’t care.  What time is it, Steph?”

“It’s almost 5:30.”

“You know what Mr. Robertson did?  He walked in here a little bit ago and brought me this cupcake.”

“That was very nice of him.”

“No.  That’s not all.”  Ma took a bite of her cupcake, leaving a bit of white frosting on her upper lip.  “He walked in here all on his own.  I haven’t seen him without his walker in years.  But, he came right on in here with the cupcake in his hand and handed it to me.”

“That was very nice of him, but Ma, you need to put some clothes on.”

“He told me I take his breath away.”


“Mr. Robertson.  When he handed me the cupcake, I wished him a happy birthday.  He placed his hand on my cheek and said, ‘Betty, you take my breath away.’  He’s such a sweet man.”  Ma slowly licked the frosting off her lip and, opening her mouth wide, stuffed the last half of the cupcake into her mouth.  “Ummmm,” she mumbled through her mouth full of cupcake.  “He almost fell when he was walking out.  That would have been a shame.  Such a nice man, but so old.  Probably would have never got up again.”

“You didn’t take your clothes off while he was here, did you?

“Of course not!”

“Good.  There’s still hope.”

“Well, not completely anyway.”


“Oh, Steph, don’t you worry a bit.  What’s a 100-year-old man going to do?”

“Jeez, Ma.  What did you do?”

“N-o-t-hing,” she sighed.  In the gloom of her room Stephanie could just barely make out that her mother had rolled her eyes.

“Mama?  Listen to me.”

“What time is it?”

“It’s just about 5:30.”  This is what Stephanie hated most.  Some of the quirks she could handle, but the endlessly repetitive questions were tiring.

“Do me a favor.”

“Uh-uh.”  Ma wiped her lips with her thumb and then licked it, looking for the last bit of sweetness from the cupcake.

It was pointless really.  She was going to do what she wanted now.  The woman whose hair was always perfect, whose home was a shrine to the human existence, and who ruled her two children with a list of rules set in stone, no longer had the inner guide that had controlled her life.  “Nothing.  Never mind,” Stephanie sighed.

“What time is it?”

“It’s 5:30.  I just told you that.”

“Honey, I’m feeling a chill.  Where’s my robe?”

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An Untold Story

It’s a process.  A mission.  To do it exactly right.  It begins across from Westminster Presbyterian where I enter the circuit.  Once across the crosswalk, where the camellias bloom under the shady canopy of a group of redwoods, I turn left.  To the west.   One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five. Each step.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Nine.  Ten.  Must be counted.  Measured.  Eleven.  Twelve.  Thirteen. Fourteen.  Fifteen.

Why does that woman in 112 always look at me like that when I leave?  I hate it.  Her brow wrinkled and one eyebrow slightly raised.  I can hear her sigh when she closes the door once I get to the stairs.  Then I hear her talking.  But, to who?  I’ve never seen anybody else come in or out of her apartment.  Maybe her husband is bed-ridden.  Cancer.  Maybe in the lungs.  She hacks like she smoked once.  Maybe he did, too.  I dunno.  A child.  That could be it.  At her age, though, it’d have to be a grandkid.  The mother a meth addict and she’s taken him in, but the meth was there when he was born, so his disabilities keep him housebound.

After a couple of blocks, I reach the first challenge.   Where 12th cuts into Capitol Park and snakes into the basement garage of the State Capitol.  If the sign says “WALK” in its faint white lettering, I’m good to go.  On track, I’ll hit 400 there.  401.  402. 403.  404.  And, I’m back on the sidewalk.  405.  406.  407.  408.  Trouble arises when the sign is orange.  “DON’T WALK,” it screams silently at me.  Naturally, I slow my pace and shorten my steps.  I may hit 402 or 403 before I reach the street.  Steps to catch up later.  Across 12th and on towards the corner at 10th, I can continue.  410.  411.  412.  413.  414.

The counting becomes routine and I begin to look at the walkers going in the other direction.  I don’t let them know I’m looking.  I keep walking in my line, along the grass, but still on the sidewalk.  Who knows what would happen if I weaved onto the grass?  I keep facing forward, but I can’t help but glance their way.  The women in their silk blouses, skirts and nylons.  And walking shoes that completely change the look.  I’d rather see them in heels.  Ah, here comes one now.  Wavy auburn hair, a snow white blouse that almost sparkles in the morning sun, and a skirt that hugs her hips and stops inches above her knees.  No comfortable shoes for her, she walks in heels with a man, his tie loosened, the top button of his shirt undone and his sleeves rolled up.  As they pass, I’m tempted to look back, but I don’t.  With a last quick flick of my eyes, I see the metal on their fingers.  Married.  Yes, but, there’s something about them.  To each other?  No.  But…

At the corner, I turn to the North.  If I’m on pace, I should be right at 800.  Two more blocks, past the water fountain, surrounded by rose bushes, and spraying water twenty feet in the air, I reach L Street and turn right.  1,200.  1,201.  1,202.  1,203.  These two blocks can be a problem as well.  If there are demonstrators that I have to work around.  Even if I do, I still have time to make it up.

Yes, my cheeks are red.  Bright and shiny.  Particularly late in the day, after I have walked the circuit.  How many times?  Most days I have lost track.  As the days progress, my face is not just sunburned.  It is chapped and peeling.  “Stop staring at me,” I want to yell at the other walkers.  The judgment bleeds off of them.  Too many times, I see walkers approach and move towards the outer edge of the side walk, while I keep my line on the inside.  I know they see and wonder what’s wrong with me.  The regulars and I know each other only by sight.  No words are ever exchanged.  If only they knew the importance of my task.  They don’t, so I don’t yell.  Instead, I scratch absentmindedly at the scabs.  And walk.  And count.

Four blocks later, I hit 2,000 steps.  And, a block later, I reach the home stretch.  The corner of 15th and L.  2,200 steps if I have managed this the right way.

On my last circuit in day light, I’ll turn left and walk the mile to Loaves and Fishes for a free meal.  I don’t count those steps.  Nothing to prove there.  Just an empty stomach to fill and more strangers to avoid.  The walkers stare at me in judgment.  The homeless and druggies at the shelter are whacked.  And stupid.  The help isn’t any better.  More nights than not, the women behind the table ladling out the slop, making sure nobody gets more than their share, speak to me of Jesus and the Lord.  They do it quietly because they aren’t supposed to preach.  They know it.  I know it.  I don’t need their beliefs.  Did Jesus ever count his steps?

A right turn though leads me to continue.  2,201.  2,202.  2,203,  2,204.  2,205.  Left foot.  2,206.  Right foot.  2,207.  Left foot.  2,208.  Right foot.  2,209.  Four hundred more steps and I turn right at N.  A block from home.

It’s all of the other walkers who are fools.  I may come out in the same pair of jeans and white shirt every day, adding layers of burned skin to my already damaged cheeks.  But, I know that the circuit is not a mile.  I’ve heard them say it.  Some old, fat lady saying to her partner, “One lap,” while she huffs and puffs, “and we’ve put a mile in.”  Fools.  A mile has 2,000 steps.  You walk around Capitol Park, you’ve hit 2,800 steps.  Almost a mile and a half.  I know.  I walk.  I count.  Each step.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Nine.  Ten times a day.



I work in downtown Sacramento.  A few years ago, I started a project based on some of the characters I have seen there over the year.  Tentatively titled K Street Stories, I view it as a collection of short stories that connect to tell a larger story.  As with most of my projects these days, I got to a point and then got bogged down.

One of those characters was a man I saw regularly in and around Capitol Park, the beautiful park that surrounds the State Capitol.  Weather permitting, he was always walking around the park in a white t-shirt and blue jeans.  Weather not permitting, he was always walking around the park with a winter jacket on.  Over the years, he deteriorated.  His face showed more age, his shoulders were more stooped.

As he walked, he rarely looked at those walking by him, other than furtively.  And I never saw him talk with anybody.  He seemed to be in his own world, walking endlessly around the park.  Turns out he had a story and I got it wrong.


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Rifat Had A Dream

“Papa.  I’m scared.”  Sami whispered.

“Ssshhh,” his Papa whispered back.  “There is no reason to be scared.  We will be going soon.  Where we will be safe.”

They whispered in the dark.  In the cold.  Their breath creating misty clouds.

Once upon a time Papa was a baker.  He owned a little shop on Nile Street, just down from the Alforat traffic circle.  For years, Papa’s kollaj and zarda fed the masses.  Lines at Rifat’s were not uncommon.  They came for his halva and stayed for his awameh.  They took home Rifat’s baloza.  And in the darkness of an Aleppo night, they shared it with their families, their friends, their neighbors.

Whether Alawi or Sunni or Shia.  Druze or Christian.  Sect didn’t matter.  Religion was what one did in one’s home.  In one’s mosque or church.  This was Aleppo after all.

They came for his pastries and his treats.

Until they didn’t.

* * * * *

Refugees from Syria over 10k plus more coming. Lots young males, poorly vetted. @RealDonaldTrump

* * * * *

At first Rifat thought that maybe it was just one of those swings.  Sometimes things slowed.  Sometimes things picked up.  In moments, he wondered if he might make it.  In others, he thought he might need to hire help.  That he surely needed to keep the lines moving faster.  Those other times — when the line formed early in the morning with workers, replaced later by government clerks, and then filled in by the women of the neighborhood who wanted a treat for the table– were more than they weren’t.  Rifat was successful.  He dreamed of an education for his little Sami.  Maybe of a little house in the wooded hills of his childhood, where he could return in his final days.

Then there was a bomb.  An explosion.  Just down the street.  Past Alforat, but close enough that he felt the shock.  The windows of his little bakery shook.  Flour dust rose and then settled again.  And for a moment Rifat worried about his family.  About his wife, Rima, and the little one, Haya.  And Sami, his son.  His legacy.  The little boy who laughed in the light and trembled in the dark.  Rifat could tell the explosion was not near his home, but still.  An explosion in Aleppo.  The rebels.  The fight.  He supported it.  He wanted it.  An end to Assad and his treachery.  His brutality.

But he was a simple baker who wanted nothing more than to make a living, love his family, and see the next day.  And dream his dreams.

He ran to the door.  To the street.  To Alforat.  He saw clouds of dust thrown into the cloudless sky.  Heard the wailing sirens ululating and echoing down the cement corridors. He ran no further.  He had seen enough.

Rifat closed his bakery for the day.  He returned home and held Rima and told her it was temporary.  That Assad would soon be gone and life would be better.  He quieted Sami and Haya.  He heard the stories later of the dozens killed.  One day he walked past the rubble.  Little did he know that day that the rubble would remain for years to come.

In the morning, before the sun rose, he returned to the bakery.  He kneaded the dough.  Mixed the spices.  Opened his doors.  And the line wasn’t there.  Instead, somebody on a motorcycle sped by and a man on the back threw a brick through his window.

* * * * *

If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain

* * * * *

Rifat closed early.  Boarded the window and prayed that it would be all.  He had seen the stories of Tunis and of Tahrir.  He knew of the treachery of his own government in years and decades past.  Of chemical weapons and of villages leveled. He wanted a change, but his bakery was his everything.  He prayed that the revolution would come but that its damage would pass him by. Stay in Damascus.  Or in the hills and villages.  Aleppo was a cosmopolitan city of tolerant people.   A boarded window was nothing, he knew.  He hoped.  He prayed.

Soon though Rifat’s business changed.  As the fighting grew closer, as lines were drawn, Rifat did what he could.  Instead of the pastries and treats he had been known for, he began to make pita by the basket and handed it to those who stumbled by his shop.  Far too many of them were children, coated in dust, shell-shocked expressions on their faces.

The bombs fell more frequently.  The sirens wailed all too often.  Chlorine gas that left so many choking and gasping.  Families wiped out.  Children orphaned.  Those that remained knew nothing other than hunger and fear and despair.  The least he could do was turn his dwindling supplies and what he could gather from the bakery’s back door in the dark hours of the morning into bread to feed the hunger.

* * * * *

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* * * * *

Haya was the first.  The dark days of a cold winter, while the war raged in other places but Aleppo lay in mutual states of siege.  Rebels on one side of the line, the government on the other.  Nothing got in.  Nobody got out.  More days when he had nothing to bake with than those when he could.

When his little girl began coughing and burning hot, Rifat searched for medicine.  He begged at the makeshift clinics, where the wind whistled through tarps that covered the holes in the walls, and nobody was warm.  Rifat offered bribes to doctors who looked at him out of haggard faces, their eyes sad.  All he got was a shake of the head and little Haya coughed some more.  Wheezing and rattling, the skin around her rib cage sucking in when she tried to take a breath.  Her eyes sinking into dark circles.

Rima pleaded with Rifat, “You must do something.”  He could only beg some more.  His baking could not heal Haya.

And so she died one cold, dark night, bundled between Rifat and Rima.  Her breathing labored, her eyes rolled back into her head.  Sami slept nearby.  In the morning they bundled her up.  Sami sobbing.  Rima in a quiet daze.  Rifat stone-faced.  They took her to the hospital where they said she was dead. There was nothing they could do for her.  “But we will take her body for you.”

Haya’s body was taken to the basement where it was left with the others.  Rima sat in a corner of their home where she could look out the window.  It seemed she never blinked.  It seemed she didn’t see a thing.  Rifat didn’t know how to reach her.  He could only walk through the room, slowing as he went, thinking of something to say.  But no words came.  He moved through to the kitchen.

* * * * *

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* * * * *

Rifat returned to his bakery, making pita when he could.  When he had the ingredients for it.  When he didn’t, he sat at his counter and counted the hours.  The minutes.  The seconds.   What was once a busy street now stood mostly empty.  People rushed from corner to corner, huddling in doorways, looking to the sky.  Sure, the men gathered in his bakery and sometimes he closed his door and walked down to Akram’s grocery where the men huddled amidst the empty shelves and the coolers that no longer had power to keep their empty spaces cold.

They talked of Assad and the rebels.  Akram’s son had joined the Islamic State and was in Raqqa.  Majd’s was with the Nusra Front.  His brother-in-law was on the other side of the line, fighting for Assad.  Fathi’s son was dead.  As was Tarek’s.  And Marwan’s.  Ali’s.

They talked of escaping, but they heard the stories of those who had tried.  Camps where refugees gathered and stayed hungry and cold, if they were able to survive the gauntlet of Hezbollah fighters, government troops, of bombs and land mines.  Besides, Aleppo was home.

They remained and grew hungrier and sicker and more and more dead every day.  Rifat could do nothing more than trudge from his home to his bakery and back.  To speak tonelessly with the men who gathered.  Stare while Sami played.  Look at Rima from a distance and wonder if she would ever smile again.  Would he?

The streets grew more desolate.  The buildings, one after another, were turned into rubble.  First it was buildings, then it was blocks.  Neighborhoods laid in ruins.


Their home was safe.  Or so it seemed.

When the helicopters came and the barrel bombs were pushed out their doorways, Sami was with Rifat at the bakery, playing with a ball of dough.  Flour on his nose and in his hair.  For a moment, a strange noise rose from Rifat’s belly.  He laughed.  And then he heard the booms and the ground shook and the noises came from the wrong direction.  He picked his little boy up and he ran, holding his breath.  Around the corner, down the street.

All he found was an arm, with the tattered sleeve of the thawb he had seen her wearing when he left the house that morning.

* * * * *

Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!

* * * * *

A year passed.  Truces came.  Truces went.  When the Russians arrived, it only got worse.  Promises made.  Promises broken.  The bombs grew bigger, the destruction greater.  They got hungrier and sicker and colder and more and more dead.  The rebels and civilians who occupied their little corner of Aleppo were broken.  Only they didn’t know it yet.

Sami had shrunk.  Instead of growing as little boys are supposed to, his growth had stopped.  He rarely played anymore.  He mostly sat on Rifat’s lap, where they could keep each other warm.  To Rifat, his little boy felt as light as a bag of twigs.  He feared he would lose Sami too.

The men began to talk of a new agreement.  The rebels would be allowed to leave.  Assad would retake their corner of Aleppo.  Civilians could decide to stay or to go.

Rifat had no delusions about what would happen to the civilians who stayed.  After years of bombings and snipers and thousands of civilians dying in the streets of Aleppo, he had no doubt what the Assad government thought of the civilians.  He would never feel safe under Assad’s thumb.

He agreed to leave Aleppo.  To re-settle somewhere else.  For Sami.  For himself.  He needed to dream again.

In the quiet, Rifat hushed Sami.  He tried not to shiver.  But the morning was cold as the sun rose to chase the dark away.  There were buses lined up to take them and others out of Aleppo.  To one of the camps the men used to talk about.

Soon he was in a line at one of the buses.  And then they were in the bus and they were leaving Aleppo. It was only thirty minutes before the bombs began to fall.  All along the row of buses, snaking through the hills to a camp.  Rifat saw flames shooting out of other buses and then the bus they were in was struck and the flames engulfed him.  He didn’t know whether it was Hezbollah or the Syrian Army or the Russians.  But for a second or two, he knew he would never be cold again.  That he would never be afraid again.  That he would never dream again.

* * * * *

“@TigerWoods: Can’t wait to get back out there and mix it up with the boys. –TW  #heroworldchallenge” Great to have you back Tiger – Special! @RealDonaldTrump


* * * END * * *

To the people of Aleppo, the rest of Syria, and all of the other places where humans slaughter each other while the rest of the world does nothing, my humblest apologies at this ridiculously feeble attempt to write a story that expresses my rage at your suffering.  No words I can put together, no story I might weave can possibly portray accurately the horrors of your lives.

But I needed to write this.  For much of the last few years, I have turned a numb, blind eye towards Syria.  My youthful idealism and belief that “something must be done” in situations like this has been replaced by the exhausted belief of an older man who recognizes that we can’t right every wrong or protect every innocent against evil.  As I’ve come to this realization, my frustration at the many brutalities humans inflict on each other has been replaced by numbness.  There is nothing I can do.  I will live my own life and do what I can to raise my kids right and love those around me.  And not do harm to others.

But something happened over the course of the last year.  It was the picture of the little boy covered with debris and blood, sitting in a chair.  It was other pictures.  And finally a post a friend put up on Facebook where she essentially screamed at the heavens about this outrage.  And I felt it again.

What bothered me the most, beyond the needless death and destruction, the human brutality, was this.  That our next President has been remarkably silent about this tragedy.  With all of his tweeting and everything else, I cannot find any reference to him commenting on Aleppo other than in one of the debates when he said something along the lines that “Aleppo was lost.”  As though it’s nothing more than a country on a Risk board.

Sorry, Donald, but it’s not whether Aleppo is lost or not.  The people of Aleppo are not like the little plastic pieces in a game of Risk — and they aren’t Skittles either.  It’s whether the Syrian government is committing war crimes and destroying a people.  And more importantly for you, Donald, it is whether they are doing that with aid and resources and support from Russia.  It’s a question of why you remain silent about this, while commenting on everything else under the sun.

All of the tweets included in this story are from Donald Trump, except for one.  The tweet comparing Syrians to Skittles apparently is from one of his sons.

If you want some real reporting on the recent tragedy in Syria in which Aleppo residents accuse the Syrian government going in and executing civilians, go here.

If you’ve got this far.  Thank you for reading.


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“Papa.  I’m scared.”  Sami whispered.

“Ssshhh,” his Papa whispered back.  “There is no reason to be scared.  Someone will come for us.”

They whispered in the dark.

Once upon a time Papa was a baker.  He owned a little shop on Nile Street, just down from the Alforat traffic circle.  For years, Papa’s kollaj and zarda fed the masses.  Lines at Rifat’s were not uncommon.  They came for his halva and stayed for his awameh.  They took home Rifat’s baloza.  And in the darkness of an Aleppo night, they shared it with their family, their friends, their neighbors.

Whether Alawi or Sunni or Shia.  Druze or Christian.  Sect didn’t matter.  Religion was what one did in one’s home.  In one’s mosque or church.

They came for his pastries and his treats.

Until they didn’t.

At first Rifat thought that maybe it was just one of those swings.  Sometimes things slowed.  Sometimes things picked up.  In moments, he wondered if he might make it.  In others, he thought he might need to hire help.  That he surely needed to keep the lines moving faster.  Those other times — when the line formed early in the morning with workers, replaced later by government clerks, and then filled in by the women of the neighborhood who wanted a treat for the table– were more than they weren’t.  Rifat was successful.  He dreamed of an education for his little Sami.  Maybe of a little house in the wooded hills of his childhood, where he could return in his final days.

Then there was a bomb.  An explosion.  Just down the street.  Past Alforat, but close enough that he felt the shock.  The windows of his little bakery shook.  Flour dust rose and then settled again.  And for a moment Rifat worried about his family.  About his wife, Rima, and the little one, Haya.  And Sami, his son.  His legacy.  The little boy who laughed in the light and trembled in the dark.  Rifat could tell the explosion was not near his home, but still.  An explosion in Aleppo.  The rebels.  The fight.  He supported it.  He wanted it.  An end to Assad and his treachery.  His brutality.

He supported these things, but he was a simple baker.

He ran to the door.  To the street.  To Alforat.  He saw dust rising.  Heard the wailing sirens ululating and echoing down the cement corridors. He ran no further.  He had seen enough.

Rifat closed his bakery for the day.  He returned home and held Rima and told her it was temporary.  That Assad would soon be gone and life would be better.  He quieted Sami and Haya.

In the morning, before the sun rose, he returned to the bakery.  He kneaded the dough.  Mixed the spices.  Opened his doors.  And the line wasn’t there.  Instead, somebody on a motorcycle sped by and threw a brick through his window.

Rifat closed early.  Boarded the window and prayed that it would be all.  He had seen the stories of Tunis and of Tahrir.  He knew of the treachery of his own government in years and decades past.  He wanted a change, but his bakery was his everything.  He prayed that the revolution would come but that its damage would pass him by.  A boarded window was nothing, he knew.  He hoped.  He prayed.

Soon though Rifat’s business changed.  Instead of the pastries and treats he had been known for, he began to make pita by the basket and handed it to those who stumbled by his shop.  The bombs fell more frequently.  The sirens wailed all too often.  Lines were drawn.  Neighborhoods turned into rubble.  Families wiped out.  Children orphaned.  Those that remained knew nothing other than hunger and fear and despair.  The least he could do was turn his dwindling supplies and what he could gather from the bakery’s back door in the dark hours of the morning into bread to feed the hunger.



To read the complete version of this story, go here.

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Aunt Millie

When I first started blogging, I found a large community of writers and poets.  Some of them undertook efforts to post writing prompts and other ideas for writing stories.  Somewhere along the line those prompt efforts seemed to have dried up.  Or maybe I’m just not aware of them anymore.

Last month, Anna Beguins posted a few prompts and promised to post more prompts each month.  Here’s the link for the stories that resulted from her November prompts and the prompts for December.   If you’re a writer, I highly encourage you to join in the fun over at Anna’s blog.  Many of my stories have come out of prompts provided by others.

And here’s my entry for one of the November prompts.


Aunt Millie

“She could start an argument in an empty house,” goes one Southern expression. It pretty much describes my mother. Momma was a never-ending bitch machine.  Always complaining.  Arguing about this.  Fussing about that.   She could argue about the sun being too hot and the wind too cold, all at the same time with equal force.

I’m no longer sure if I ever saw her crack a smile and if such a thing did happen, I’d hate to think what brought it about.

Momma endlessly harangued Pops. He worked too much. He didn’t make enough money. He stayed out late. He was home all too often for her taste. It didn’t matter what the man did, she found something wrong with it.

“Stanley,” she’d shriek.  “You’re just not good for anything.”  This after he came home late at night after pulling an extra shift at the factory to earn a little more pocket change for her.

“This house is falling apart and you just sit there,” she’d sneer.

Pops was sitting there.  In a kitchen chair trying to bend his body to a position to get his shoes off.  “Yes, dear.  What needs fixing?”

And off she’d go, rattling off a list of things while she left the kitchen and went into her room, slamming the door on her way.

I always liked those moments the best. Once she left the room, he’d look over at me and smile just a bit, a corner of his mouth barely rising.  “Well, Vicki, there is that, I suppose.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by “that” but to me it meant that she was gone from the room. The quiet that followed her was always a blessing.

* * * * *

“Charlie,” Aunt Millie started at a whisper, “what’d you go and do that for?”


“Now, Charlie, you know what Momma says about the cookies.”

“Don’t you?”

“No cookies before dinner.  And look here, you done eat up all the cookies.”

“What am I gonna do with you?

* * * * *

Aunt Millie was a different story though. Her sister, my mother, may have had a fundamental character flaw. Aunt Millie was the opposite. The sun was always shining in her world. Even if she couldn’t see it.

Aunt Millie was born blind, but it never stopped her.  Never took her down. “Why, Vicki, ain’t the world beautiful?” was how she always greeted me when I visited. We had a routine. I picked her up. We went into town for lunch at Morton’s Diner. She always got the grilled cheese and tomato soup. I got a salad. Then over to Zippy’s for a sundae. And back to her house, where we sat on the porch. With ice cold lemonade on the wicker table between us, a breeze rustling the leaves and may be a cow or two in a distant pasture mooing low and long, that’s when she would say it again, “ain’t the world beautiful?” with a long sigh, a sip from her glass, and a pleased smile on her face.

When Charlie, her only child, was run down by a drunk driver, his bike going in one direction, his body in another, Aunt Millie withdrew a bit.  She got a little quiet. Uncle Jack told me she stayed in her bedroom for a couple of weeks. But when she came back out she was almost all the way back to normal. She had the smile and the happy words for everybody, but there was something different about her eyes.

* * * * *

“Jack, you just hush.”  Aunt Millie rolled over in her bed.  I could barely see her in the darkness of her room.  “Sssh, you’ll wake Charlie.”

“Jack … oh, don’t be doing  that.”

“None of that.  You stop it.”

“Jack, I said no!”

* * * * *

I wondered how two such different women could have been created out of the same gene pool and grown up in the same home.  Momma, who could see flowers and sunsets and her beautiful children, but could actually see none of it because of her overwhelming dissatisfaction and unhappiness with what she had.  Aunt Millie, who couldn’t see any of it, but could only see, even in the face of tragedy that the people around her were good, life was better, and all of it should be celebrated.

Until she started seeing other things. Until her world started closing in on her.

When Uncle Jack’s smoking led to lung cancer and death, Aunt Millie soldiered on. Once again, she disappeared for a few weeks, but when she reappeared, her optimism was still there.  It was always a beautiful day in her world.  She knew her house better than anybody. Nobody needed to care for her for some time, but then things started to change. I spent more time there and eventually moved in to care for her. Momma caring for her would have been a catastrophe. Her bitterness could have only caused some greater destruction than was already occurring.

My Aunt Millie even started an argument with a frog.  She was sitting in the front room, Jeopardy was on.  Just before Alex Trebek began reading the final answer, from outside the front door she left open to let in the barest hint of a breeze on that humid night, the frog croaked.  It was loud and it didn’t stop at just one.

“Well, you just hush up,” she yelled at the frog. “I can’t read the answer.” As though the frog would even know or care.

“Crrrooooaaaak,” the frog replied.

Aunt Millie fumbled for the remote, but couldn’t find it.  “Oh my dear, you horrible frog.  Hush, hush, hush!”

The subject was Men of Science. Alex Trebek began, “The symbols for …”


“… phosphorous & erbium.”

“Well, damn you,” Aunt Millie rose from her seat and pushed open the screen door.  “Where are you, stupid frog?  Messing with my Jeopardy.  Come on out where I can see … oh, never mind.  Just shut the hell up.  7:00 to 7:30.  That’s all I ask.”


Aunt Millie wiped the sweat from her brow.  “Get on outta here.”  She stamped her cane on the wooden porch a couple of times.  “Go on.”


The sound of something wet plopping on the porch, sounding like it was right in front of her, maybe right on the top step just a couple of feet away, stilled Aunt Millie.  She wiped at her brow again and took one quiet tentative step forward.


It was there right there.  Aunt Millie lifted her cane and took a swing, a vicious swing.  And missed, nearly upending herself before catching herself with the porch railing.  “Damn frog,” she muttered at it.

Another wet plop followed by another and then silence.  Blissful silence except for the crickets chirping, which had never been a problem.  Back in the front room, the Wheel of Fortune music came on as Aunt Millie stomped back in.

“Turn the damn thing off.”  I told her what the final answer was.  “It don’t matter now,” she grumbled.  “It’s too late.  Turn the damn thing off.  The Wheel’s no good for me.” This wasn’t the Aunt Millie I had loved since I was a child. She was an imposter.

I turned the TV off and I helped Aunt Millie to bed.  Before I made it out of the room, she argued with Uncle Jack. Even swatted like he was there and she was keeping his hands off her.

In the morning, I woke to find her in the kitchen already. She stood in front of the sink, looking at the kitchen table, reaming Charlie for stealing some cookies.

In the afternoon, she slept with a smile on her face.

And at night, once again Uncle Jack came to her. I left my Aunt Millie with him. Maybe he could bring back her happy memories.

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The President’s Men

Months ago, I had a dream.  The only part of the dream I remembered was this — my sister calling me and telling me she was taking the jump.  That brief memory of a dream turned into The Jump.

I liked writing the story.  It gave me a chance to go a little weird.  To create a bit of a different world.  Maybe with a different set of rules.  But still keep it in the world of America and humans.  I decided to see if I might be able to take it a little further.  I think there’s a novel here.  Or maybe just a novella. But, there’s at least a part two now.  Go back and read The Jump and come back here for …

The President’s Men

They came in the dark of the night. They always did. In their crimson blazers and starched white shirts. Black slacks and Chuck Taylor high tops with their tartan pattern. The only variation in their uniforms was in those shoes. Some were the traditional red and green, like the old Scottish kilts. Some were yellow and blue, or combinations of other colors. Their shoes were the one place the President’s Men could be different. The one place where conformity was not the end all of things.

The knock on the door came just when I was about to turn in. Ceci had long ago gone to bed. A habit I had noticed was getting earlier and earlier. While she slept in more and more. I didn’t know what to do about it. I understood what she was doing. She was giving up.

The knock came again and I rose from my chair. I looked around to make sure things were right.

Out on the street, the lights were out, having been shut off years earlier due to yet another energy crisis. Porch lights were off and windows blackened as well, all by edict from the government to “lessen the risk” we would be targeted in our own homes by the rebels. We knew though that the rebels only targeted government buildings and military bases. None of their crudely designed bombs and rockets ever landed in residential areas. We followed the orders so we wouldn’t draw attention to ourselves, not from the rebels, but from those who now stood just outside our front door.

As I walked to the door, the knock came again. Louder and faster. It was joined by a voice. “Mr. Bell. Open the door.”

I did.

On the porch, dimly lit from the interior light that leaked out through the open door were three men. In the uniforms of the President’s Men. I couldn’t help but look at their shoes. Two wore the traditional red and green patterned Chuck Taylor’s. The third, who stood slightly behind the others, had a black and white pattern. And a matching tam o’shanter on his head. I knew then that he was the captain of the crew. It would be his decision how things would go.

“Mr. Bell,” he said now. “We’ve received a report that you have contraband.” His voice was quiet. His eyes piercing.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We follow the rules.”

“A neighbor reported that you were handing out fresh tomatoes. Like this.” He pulled his hand out of a pocket and held it out in front of him. In the palm was a cherry tomato, just like one I had given to Mrs. Geraghty earlier that day. Sweet ol’ Mrs. Geraghty who wouldn’t have stood a chance if they came to her house. And why would they?

Because they were the President’s Men and that’s what they did. I said a silent prayer for her and hoped I would find out in the morning that she had survived the night.

I stepped aside and allowed them to enter my home. “My wife is sleeping. I’d … I’d appreciate it if we didn’t have to wake her.”

The captain looked at the others and back at me, sneering. “That’s pretty much up to you, Mr. Bell.”

“I’ll do whatever you need, Mr. …”

“I know you will,” he said, tossing the tomato into his mouth and then holding his hand out to shake mine. His hand was warm and damp, but his grip was firm. “It’s Tim. No need for titles. I’m sure we’ll get along just fine. Right, boys?”

The other two nodded their heads and smirked. “You betcha, cap’n,” one said, while the other began leafing through a stack of magazines on the table behind our sofa. Every one of them with the Old Man on the cover.

“Let’s have a look around, shall we?”

They fanned out. One went into the kitchen. Tim stayed in the family room by the front door. The third went down the hall towards the first floor bedroom. I couldn’t keep track of all of them. I stuck with Tim.

“Nice painting,” he said, motioning at the only painting in the room.


“Thanks. I kinda like it, too.” Truth is that I did. When I was a kid, back in the 70’s a couple of the pictures hung on our garage wall. When the Old Man put one up behind his desk in the Oval Office, it was one time I didn’t mind the thoughtless impulse forced on Americans to do as he did. I happily went out and got a painting. It reminded me of the smell of grease and the ticking of a cooling car engine and the pop of a can of Oly as I took it to my dad, sitting in a lawn chair and watching his street.

I placed it above the fireplace, where the family portrait used to be. Ceci was none too happy with that, but I put the portrait on the wall in our bedroom. Maybe that was why she spent so much time there now. My girl couldn’t stand the things that had happened, were happening. She couldn’t stand the painting, but I knew what would happen if we didn’t have one. I’d heard enough stories. I had no choice and now that they were in my house, I was glad I had done it.

“Eh. I never liked them,” Tim admitted. “Seems kind of silly to me.” It was all I could do to not agree and point out that there was a whole lot of silly going on. While I pondered that, he began walking towards the back of the house. “Boys, you finding anything?” I took a quick look back at the painting before I followed him. I wondered if I’d need somebody slipping me an ace before the night was over.

“No, boss,” said the one from the back of the house.  “Nothing sir,” replied the other.

Tim approached the sliding glass door that led to the yard. It had been barely an hour since I had turned the lights off and stored them.  It was so dark, you couldn’t even see any shadows. Without turning to me, he asked. “Why don’t you show me your tomato plants?”

“I don’t have any …”

He held up his hand. “Please, Mr. Bell. None of that. The tomatoes.”

“Sir, we don’t have any lights.”

“I understand.” He drew a flashlight from his pocket. “We’re good.”

Outside, I took him to the two tomato plants. His crew members joined us. While Tim inspected the plants, they wandered about, going as far as they could in the glow cast off by Tim’s flashlight. I could only hope one of them might fall in the pool, long dried up, but still a deadly hole that might surprise them. I also hoped they wouldn’t find what was behind the pile of trash that had accumulated on the other side of that pool. Where the rose bushes were, and the tomato plants I fertilized, and a few other things I preferred they not find.

There wasn’t much for Tim to inspect. “Tsk, tsk.  Mr. Bell, what am I going to do about this?”  He wagged his finger at me. “I wanna honor your request regarding your wife, but we’ve got a problem here.”

“I understand.”

“These plants are illegal. Been illegal for years know. You know that, right?”

“Yes, but …”

“Yet you have them anyway.”

I felt beat. “Yes.” My face burned in the dark. Humiliated by two measly little tomato plants. At risk, because I tried to give Ceci something good and helped out old Mrs. Geraghty every now and then since her husband passed.

“Hey, boys, why don’t you go on and check upstairs.” I caught his wink in the dark. “You know they say where there’s smoke there also is fire.”

“Please, sir … Tim … there’s nothing up there … just my wife …,” the words spilled out like diarrhea and wouldn’t stop, “she’s sleeping … not feeling well … I’ll do anything … here … I’ll rip them out.”  And I started to, in my desperation I reached for one of the plants and began pulling and yanking. It ripped out, the dirt clodding in the roots.  “Here … I’ll never plant them again … ever … please … just let Ceci alone … there’s nothing up there … I promise.” I began pulling the ripe tomatoes of and tried to hand them to the man.

“Honey, what’s going on down there?” came the drowsy voice of my Ceci.

* * * * *

Oh Ceci, if I had only known, I would have done something. If I had known that was the hidden ace. The hole card. I would have never sat down to play the hand. Or I would have folded long before. But I thought there was a way, that I could work it out and Tim and his men would leave, maybe taking a patch of me with them. A little loss of pride, maybe a piece of skin, or a few bruises here and there. I would have taken that and bore it for you.

I had heard the stories, but I didn’t want to believe them. That our President was capable of such a thing. Of employing men who could do such things. This was a thing that happened in the Third World, in lesser civilizations, where war raged and evil reigned. America was not that place, was it?

Turns out it was. I’ll never stop crying, never stop bearing the damage done.

* * * * *

A week later, I began to make my plans. In the basement, where Tim and his crew never went, I began to build a wall. Behind the wall, I stored a few things. If I were to run, there were things I wanted. Things that might see me down the road a bit. Maybe Ceci would join me.  And the kids, Nicole and Cameron. We’d leave together. Find the rebels. Join the fight. Enough was enough.

A week after that, while the wall was only half built, but the supplies were in place, I let Cameron know. He came over. I showed him the backpacks and told him there were things in them he would need. I wasn’t yet ready to tell him my plan. I wasn’t ready to even acknowledge it was my plan. Maybe I was still crazed by the events of that night and I’d come to my senses. I’d stock our shelves with marshmallow fluff and Fritos when they showed up on the Old Man’s desk. When orders came out that we could no longer have pets, I’d hand over the cat and bury the hamster in the backyard.

I might, just might, find a way to get through this. Just in case, though, I wanted Cameron to know.

Another month and Ceci walked out one day.

“Honey?” I said as she made her way to the front door. “Where are you going?”

She barely paused, only slightly, and turned to me. “Oh, out for a walk, I guess.” Her eyes were vacant, empty husks. Her voice barely above a whisper. I should have suspected something. I should have known, but I thought the idea that she was finally willing to go out, to get out of the house, was progress.

Ceci walked off the bridge that day.

And several weeks later, I cracked and took a backpack and walked off myself. I don’t know why I didn’t gather Cameron and Nicole with me. I wasn’t thinking straight. I … don’t know. I needed to get out of Omaha and find a reason to hope again. I crossed a bridge and made my way through the ruins of Council Bluffs.

I wanted revenge and I thought I knew where to find it.

*** END ***

For now at least.  I have chapter three mostly written.  I’ll likely share that here once it’s complete.  And then this story will be going dark while I see if I can take it somewhere good.  Thanks for reading.

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The Smokers Club

While I struggle with writing new stuff, I’m working on submitting existing stories.  One of my current projects is to put together a collection of short stories for consideration by Willow Springs Books, which is running a contest for the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.  All I need is a collection of short stories that totals at least 98 pages.  What I’ve got so far is a collection of about 120 pages and I may add one or two very short pieces to it just to provide a little variety.

In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote a number of years ago.  It was my first story accepted for publication by The First Line.  I post it here as a good luck charm for my current and future efforts to get noticed and published again.  Hope you enjoy it.


The Smokers’ Club

When my brother, Andy, went away to college, he left me his fishing pole, a well-read copy of The Wind in the Willows, and a stack of Playboys.  “Tyler,” he said, in his eighteen-year-old voice that still cracked occasionally, “these are all you need to understand life.”

“Thanks, Andy.”  I wiped the tears from my eyes, brought on by the knowledge that he would be leaving the next day.  My big brother, my idol and protector, the guy who had taught me how to make armpit farts, burp the alphabet, and eat a chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone without getting a brain freeze, was leaving me.

Unlike other big brothers, Andy had rarely used the six years that lay between us to his advantage.  He didn’t make fun of me for the things I didn’t know and he didn’t care if I tagged along with him and his friends no matter how much they complained that his snot-nosed little brother was slowing them down – or worse – was going to tell on them.  Andy knew I’d never tell on him.

Andy and I had formed a brotherly bond when I was eight.  Our parents weren’t home and Andy was supposed to be watching me.  He wasn’t.  He was in his room.  Growing tired of watching the television, I walked up the stairs towards his room hoping to talk Andy into playing catch.  “Andy,” I said as I turned the corner and walked into his room.  My thoughts of a game of catch were immediately washed away when I saw him hunched over in a chair next to his half open window.  He had a cigarette in his right hand and he was blowing smoke out the window.  “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like?” he replied, snuffing the cigarette out on the ledge and flicking the butt out the window.  I could tell by the arc of its flight that it would land comfortably on the other side of the fence we shared with the Swansons.  For a brief second, an image of an ever-expanding pile of butts on the Swansons’ side yard flashed across the movie screen of my mind.  I wondered when Mr. Swanson would realize those butts weren’t his and come talk to our dad.

“I’m telling,” I said and began to back out of Andy’s room.

“Oh, no, you aren’t.”  He was on me before I knew it, grabbing my arm and squeezing so hard it hurt.

“Ouch!” I yelled and tried to pull away.

“You can’t tell mom and dad.”

“Let go of me.”

“Not until you promise not to tell.”

“Let go of me,” I said again, regretting the whine of my voice but not able to sound stronger.  Andy’s fingers were digging into my arm and he was starting to shake me back and forth.


I shook my head.  I was afraid I was going to cry.  Andy had never hurt me before and the anger that I could feel in his fingertips and hear in his voice was a new experience for me.  “Lemme try one,” I said.

The suggestion shocked Andy into easing his grip enough for me to wriggle my arm free.  I stood there, rubbing my arm where his hand had left red marks in the shape of his fingers, waiting for his response.


“Then I tell,” I said, backing one more step towards his door.  I knew I was another step from being able to turn and flee.  One step from turning and dashing down the stairs and out of the door, where I could roam the neighborhood until mom and dad got home.  Andy ruined my escape plans.


“Huh?”  I turned back to Andy.  “You’ll lemme try one?”

Andy didn’t say a word.  He just went back to the chair and leaned over his desk.  Moving a couple of books out of the row that lined the back of the desk he pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a book of matches.  Andy motioned for me to sit down in his chair – what we would refer to as his “smoking chair” in the years to come.  Andy stood before me, shaking a cigarette out of the pack, and then removing a match.

“Ya sure?”

Unable to speak, I nodded my head and then watched the match strike the sulphur strip and flare brightly.  Andy put the cigarette in his mouth and touched the tip with the match’s flame, sucking in as he did so.  He blew a small puff of smoke out the window and then looked back at me.  “Last chance,” he said, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth and offering it to me.

I took the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and guided it, shakily, to my lips.  When the filter end touched my bottom lip, I encircled it and sucked in.  The immediate hit of the nicotine on my mouth and lungs brought tears to my eyes and a coughing fit so severe I thought a lung was going to come sliding out of my mouth.  “Easy, easy,” Andy said, patting me on the back.  “You ever want to do that again?” he chuckled.


“Here’s the deal, Tyler.  You can’t tell mom or dad about this.”

“I won’t.  But, you can’t keep throwing your butts outta the window.  Mr. Swanson’s gonna figure it out.”

“Aw, hell, ol’ Mr. Swanson smokes like a chimney, and Mrs. Swanson does, too.  They’ll never figure out those are mine.”  And Andy was right, either they never figured it out or they never let on that they did.  As far as Andy and I knew, mom and dad never found out about our little smoking club.  Until Andy left, I’m sure he smoked whenever he had a chance.  Occasionally, I would, too, just to make sure Andy knew I was still on his side.

Before I left his room, Andy turned back to his desk and rummaged around in one of the drawers.  “Here it is,” he mumbled to himself.  Turning to face me, he commanded, “Hold out your hand.”

I did and he put his closed hand over mine.  “This is a gift from me to you, Tyler.  We are brothers forever.  We must be loyal to each other above all else.  I will never hurt you again as long as we remain brothers.  This is a promise I make to you.  In exchange, you must promise to always be true to me.  To trust me and defend me.  Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said.  I was awed by his words.  In my young eight-year-old mind, this was serious stuff.   Andy opened his hand and released what he held inside.  It was a small pocketknife.  As it dropped and I reflexively closed my hand around the knife, I knew that we had a bond that couldn’t be broken.

From that point on, Andy taught me about the ways of the world.  He taught me to smoke and not cough up a lung while doing so.  He told me that Pabst Blue Ribbon was the best beer there was.  When I asked him how he knew, he just looked at me and said with a sly smile, “You’ll have to wait a couple of years for that.”  Andy took me on day-long adventures in the woods that surrounded our town, telling me things about the wildlife that I’m sure he made up as he went along.  I’m still not sure if it’s safe to drink water from a mountain stream or if it can make you go blind if you do so.

When I was in the sixth grade, I developed my first crush.  Her name was Olivia.  She had dancing blue eyes and the most beautiful cascading blonde curls.  I couldn’t approach my dad to seek his advice.  He was an impenetrable wall of silence, sitting in his chair, drinking a martini and watching the news, talking only when he needed to tell me to be quiet.  But Andy was imminently approachable and helpful.  He told me how to treat a girl right.  How I should act interested, but not so interested that I looked desperate.  When we talked about Olivia, I learned the meaning of the word “aloof” for the first time.  That was what Andy said I should be.


* * *


I’d like to say that the first thing I did the day Andy left for college was crack open The Wind in the Willows and read it cover to cover.  I didn’t.  I started reading it, but after reading a few pages about Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I’ve never liked stories that give animals human qualities.  Even all of the Disney movies that have been made over the years turn me off.  There’s something about those stories that disturbs my sense of logic.  Animals are animals, not humans, and they can’t have human qualities.  They can’t talk and don’t have the same range of emotions that we do.  Stories that try to suggest otherwise are just ridiculous.

Similarly, I leafed through a few pages of one or two of the Playboys, but the titillation I felt looking at the pictures was unsettling and something I wasn’t ready for.  I was fascinated by the breasts of the women pictured on those pages, but not knowing what to do about the stirring I felt in my groin, I shoved the magazines into a box and hid them in the back corner of my closet.  Soon The Wind in the Willows found its way into the same box.

Two things Andy gave to me I didn’t hide — the pocketknife and his fishing pole.  The pocketknife was always right where it belonged, in the right front pocket of whatever jeans or shorts I was wearing at the time.  Since the day Andy gave it to me I kept that knife near me.  It was a talisman.  It would ward off evil and protect me from harm.    As I grew into adulthood, I was able to leave it behind occasionally, but never too far.  It sits now, more than thirty years later, in my bag of toiletries on my bathroom counter and goes with me in that bag whenever I leave town.

The fishing pole was what really captivated me.  Andy caught his first fish with it, a three pound spotted bass.  It wasn’t much of a fish, but he had caught it all by himself.  He beamed for a week afterward telling anybody who would listen about his catch.  And as with any fish story, by the time Andy left for college, that fish he caught so many years before fought him for over an hour before he was able to haul it out of the water, had grown to twelve pounds, and was the “largest bass caught in these parts.”  That’s how Andy would always describe it.  The fact that Andy had given his fishing pole to me meant more than anything else he had ever done.

Once Andy left, I initially took every opportunity to go fishing.  I knew where Andy had caught his first fish and was convinced that if I kept going back to that spot, I would catch a fish, too.  Much like the pocketknife was a talisman that kept me from harm, the fishing pole was a charm that would bring me good fortune.  Soon, though, as with most things for a twelve-year-old, I grew tired of fishing, which didn’t have the same lure for me as it had for Andy.  After a few weeks of regular trips to the creek behind our house, I gave up the pursuit for a fish.

* * *


It was August 1968 when Andy went away to college.  He went to the state university in Charlotte without much of a plan, only the vague notion that he wanted to do something more than work at the mill where our dad worked, along with virtually every other able-bodied man in Stewartsville, our little town on the eastern edge of North Carolina.  My protector was gone, temporarily he claimed.  He promised to come back every holiday and during summer breaks.  And, then he’d see what happened once he finished college.  But he promised me he’d never really leave me.  The fishing pole, the book, and the magazines were one way that he’d always be nearby.

It was the spring of 1969 when Andy flunked out of college and returned home.  After a month or two of aimlessness, Andy took a job at the mill.  Nobody ever really knew what happened.  In high school, Andy had been a top student.  Once he got to college, though, he lost interest in his studies and was gone after that first year.  Years later when I really became aware of what was going in the late ‘60’s, I came up with my own theory.  Andy’s smoking in his room, puffing the smoke out the window, and flicking the butts across the fence into the Swanson’s yard, had turned into something more potent.  He had found something more interesting than sticking his nose in a book and he had succumbed.

It was October 1969 when Andy got his draft notice, calling him to serve his country in Vietnam.  At the ripe old age of thirteen, I knew that there was a war going on, that it was growing increasingly unpopular, and, most of all, that U.S. soldiers were dying in a country far, far away.  Once again, Andy was leaving me.  This time he had nothing to give me other than a ruffle of my hair and a “take it easy, little dude,” before he got in my dad’s car for the ride to the train station.

It was May 1970 — a week after my fourteenth birthday — when Andy’s remains came home in a body bag.  He had stepped on a booby trap somewhere in the jungles along the Laotian border.  There wasn’t much left of him to put in the bag.  To this day, not having had the opportunity to actually see that it was Andy that we buried in a closed coffin on a muggy Thursday afternoon in the little hillside cemetery that overlooked Stewartsville, I wonder if Andy is really dead.


* * *


Thirty-five years later, I rediscovered my box of Andy’s things.  It was a sweltering August afternoon and my eleven-year-old son and I were cleaning out the garage.  At the bottom of a stack of boxes in the corner, was a box that had gone through several generations of packing tape to hold it together.  “What’s in this?” my son, Andrew, asked, picking it up from the floor.   As soon as I saw the box, I thought of his namesake and the journey the box had taken from my parents’ home, to college, to an apartment I shared with a girlfriend, to the first home I bought with my wife, and to its current resting place.

Andy started to open the box, trying to rip the layers of tape off of it.  “Don’t open it,” I ordered him, immediately remembering the stack of Playboys that resided inside.  He was only eleven, not quite as old as I was when Andy first gave me the magazines.  I wasn’t ready for him to discover their contents.  I knew something else I could give to him.

“Hold on a sec.  My brother gave me what’s in that box years ago.  I haven’t looked in there for years.  I have something else for you, though.”  I climbed the ladder up to the rafters and pulled out Andy’s old fishing pole.  When I got back to ground level, I handed it to my son.  “Here, this was your Uncle Andy’s.”  I remembered then what the fishing pole taught me about life.

After Andy’s death and days of listening to my mother’s grieving wails and observing the wall of silence my father surrounded himself get thicker than ever, I pulled the fishing pole out of the corner of our garage and went to the creek.  I learned that day that the point of fishing wasn’t actually to catch a fish.  Instead, I discovered that the solitude of the endeavor is all that is important.  That first day back at the creek, I sat by the rushing water, paying little attention to the pole and the line that led off of it.  I listened to the leaves rustling in a slight breeze and watched the sunlight dancing through the canopy of trees.   I allowed the gentle peacefulness of the woods to envelop me and came to terms with my brother’s death.  With the fishing pole by my side, Andy was there with me.  His death was something that couldn’t be reversed.  I accepted his presence in whatever form it would take.

When I got home, I gave my dad a hug and accepted his silence.  It was the last time I would ever hug him, but I no longer would be troubled by his mood.  It wasn’t my fault and I knew that.  It was a silence that he needed.  I gave my mom a hug, too, and gradually her grief lessened and she came back to me.  Two or three times a week until I left for college, I would find a way to get back to the creek.  I would cast my line into the creek’s waters and then sit quietly, paying no attention to the pole.  I couldn’t tell you now whether a fish ever even nibbled on the hook, but I can tell you that whenever I was there on that creek I felt my brother.


* * *


I think I’ll give my son the box when he turns twelve.  I’ll tell him the same thing my brother told me, that the contents of the box will provide him with all he needs to understand life.  I will tell him what the fishing pole taught me, but I hope that my son does what I wasn’t able to do – read The Wind in the Willows and discover its secrets.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to sit down with Andrew and tell him about his uncle Andy and he, in turn, can tell me about that book and what it meant for my brother.

As for the Playboys, I have a few ideas about what Andy meant but I’ll leave those for my son to learn as well.  Those secrets are ones that every boy needs to figure out on his own as he becomes a man.  Maybe he’ll learn something different from the pages of those magazines than what I did when I finally cracked them open a few years after Andy gave them to me.

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