Posts Tagged ‘short story’

Old Perry

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

“The backers accept that they don’t know what they are going to get.” Mike Leigh

Forty years ago, I wrote a short story called Old Perry. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, made a valiant effort to sell the story to various magazines, and three interested editors could not convince three disinterested publishers to run the story, so the fable was never published. A few years later, I showed the story to Richard Marks and he thought Old Perry would make a fine movie.

Richard was, and still is, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. I first met Richard those same forty years ago when he was working at the late great Ziegler, Diskant, and Roth Agency, an agency specializing in representing novels to the movie industry. Following the demise of that agency, Richard and I remained friends and he endeavored to interest a movie producer or two in Old Perry, to no avail.

Somewhere along the winding path of my life, I lost track of Richard and also lost my few copies of Old Perry, and until a few weeks ago I never thought I would see that story again. Every once in a while something would remind me of Old Perry—the running of the Kentucky Derby or a visit with a friend’s horse—but I remembered little more than the gist of the tale.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I was in need of a little advice from an entertainment lawyer. Richard is the only entertainment lawyer who has ever befriended me, so I looked him up via Google, sent him an email, and we restarted our friendship after thirty-some years. He inquired about Old Perry and I told him I lost the story long ago. Then a few weeks ago, Richard wrote to say he found a copy of the story while cleaning out his garage. He scanned the story and sent me a copy of the scan and I had the fascinating experience of reading a story I penned forty years ago—fascinating because I can’t imagine present-day Todd writing such a story, yet I enjoyed the energy and spirit of the tale.

Here for your reading pleasure is Old Perry.

Old Perry

It hurt me because he was too good for that and I always said we could make more money if we just let him win his races, but Jackie said he was too good not to use him as our bread and butter horse and he also said Old Perry didn’t mind losing. But I never believed that, or that Jackie believed it.

Okay, now what a bread-and-butter horse was to Jackie was a horse that could win almost all the time in low stakes races, but you didn’t let him win. You held him back in five or six races in a row, or maybe even ten races if your other horses were makin’ money, and you built up the odds against that horse until he was a real long shot, say twenty-five to one, and then you’d bet four or five hundred on him, win, and there was your money for keeping seven horses in good shape for a couple months anyway.

Course you had four or five people bet a hundred each so the big take wasn’t so obvious, and you had to move your horse around to different tracks all the time, which we did anyway, and you had to talk down his workouts if they were too good, and maybe once in a while you let him Place in a couple races or Show a couple times, so people didn’t get suspicious, when actually Old Perry could have won every race he ran at those second-rate tracks, and I always thought he could win at the best tracks, but Jackie said he couldn’t and was just a damn good bill payer.

But it still hurt me. I couldn’t ever look Old Perry in the eye after a race, even if he won, because I’d ridden him some mornings when he felt so strong and smooth and powerful and came in way under his fastest official time, close to the track record, and I would tell Jackie, though I didn’t have to because he was there most of the time watching it happen. But he would say, “No, we can’t ever let him race like that or we’ll be in big trouble.”

And that’s also why Jackie named him Old Perry (he’s only three now) because when people saw that Old they backed off, because old means slow, right? Most people are so damn stupid and superstitious, including horse people, you can scare’em off easy. They don’t take the time to really look at a horse. If they’d ever really looked at Old Perry they would have seen he was good, because sometimes people who really knew horses would watch him work and say to me, “Man, that’s some animal. Wonder why he doesn’t win? No guts, huh?” Which would hurt me.

But Jackie had a point because you had to have a really good horse, a winner, if you were gonna put down a big chunk of cash so you could keep your operation going. And Old Perry was perfect for that. He’s a real big horse and bettors don’t like real big horses in low stakes races. They like peppy little horses that come out snorting. And Old Perry walks with his head hung low, which bettors hate. And he always had a geek for a jockey because Jackie wouldn’t put anybody good on him or word would have spread fast how good he really was.

He ran thirty-two races as a two-year-old, which was crazy for an animal that fine, but he did, and we bet him to win in seven races and he won all of’em easy. I know because I was that geek jockey and I was holding him back even when he won.

But it got to hurt me so much I couldn’t sleep thinking about it. I’d keep Floss up late, talking to her, whining actually, and she’d try to calm me down by making love to me, but I couldn’t even do that after a while because Old Perry and Jackie were screwing me up so bad.

So I decided to let him go in his first three-year-old race, even though Jackie told me to hold him. That was in May at Golden Gate fields, last race of the day. I’ll never forget that race. Triple Jump, a big black monster from New Zealand was the heavy favorite and Jackie thought this would be a good race to bring Old Perry in second and maybe we’d win a little cash that way without wrecking the long-shot buildup. But I told Floss to bet a hundred on Old Perry to Win since I knew Jackie was betting a hundred on him to Place and the damn odds were thirty to one before the race and jumped to forty-five to one at post time because nobody there had seen him run, so nobody bet on him at all.

I swear to God I just let him do whatever he wanted. Didn’t whip him, didn’t push him, but I didn’t hold him back and he won by twenty-five lengths and came within a half-second of breaking the track record, which we coulda massacred if I’d even touched him a little.

Naturally Jackie was pissed. He was pissed when he got the purse check for five thousand and even more pissed when I gave him four thousand more and he was really pissed when the reporters came around and asked him how it felt to have a turkey like Old Perry win at forty-five to one odds. He tried, oh God he tried to smile for them, but he couldn’t, and if he’d killed me that night I would have been surprised.

Next day he calls me in and says, “Listen you little shit, if you ever do that again I’m gonna kick your butt so hard you’ll never sit on a horse again.” Then he scrunched up his ugly face like he does so you don’t know if he’s in pain or just pissed and says, “Jimmy, I wish I could make you understand about that horse. He’s gonna keep us in chips for a long time, and we can’t screw that up. He can’t ever make us rich, but he can keep us going.” Then he stalked around the stall (his office was always a stall he fixed up) and he says, “Cause if he wins too much down here, I gotta move him up, right? If I move him up, I gotta pay more to enter him, keep him, insure him, everything…and he ain’t gonna win up there. He’s a good horse, Jimmy, but he’s not a great horse, and we can’t take any chances because I might never find such a sure thing again in my life.”

And that’s when I saw for the first time that Jackie actually thought Old Perry might be a great horse, but he was afraid to admit it because he was scared shitless of winning big. Which is true of lots of little time trainers. And Jackie was definitely in the little time habit. He was a sweet guy, but he just never saw himself as quite good enough for anything. That’s why he got divorced three times, because his women got sick of him not liking himself. That was pretty obvious.

And so here was this horse that was really something, that Jackie and I had made into whatever he was, that even a two-bit, too tall, scaredy-cat jock like me could win with, and Jackie didn’t have the balls to try with him.

So I said it wouldn’t happen again and then I went out and ran a couple of our nags and tried to figure out how I was gonna convince Jackie to let that horse really run. And then as I was going by Witherspoon’s fancy pants part of the facility, I realized maybe Jackie was right. You get a champion or a near champion and you’re suddenly talkin’ huge operating fees. Which I knew we could win by betting on Old Perry, except it’s crazy to bet much on your own horses. Nobody stays in business for long betting heavy on their own horses. I mean you bet a little, naturally, because that’s what it’s all about in a way, but you’re not supposed to bet big, whatever big means to you, except we were betting our own horses, Old Perry in particular, which is why, I guess, we were considered scum by the class trainers. They looked down on us so much they didn’t even think about trying to buy Old Perry, either outright or in a claiming race.

So then I figured, who cares, I’d let him win again the next race and see what Jackie did then. Except two days later, Jackie told me he wanted me to win, that he’d entered Old Perry in a big purse race and we were gonna load the windows, too.

I was high as a kite for the rest of the week, and the night before the race I took Floss out to dinner and to a show and the next morning early I went to see my horse, to work him light before the race that evening, and he was sick. I checked him over and could see he’d been doped, and I just wanted to kill Jackie.

But I didn’t say anything because we still had thirteen hours until the race, so I got Floss to stay with him so Jackie couldn’t give him anything else, and I got Pike over. Pike wouldn’t tell on a doped horse but sure knew how to undope a horse if anybody could. He gave Old Perry something to make him piss extra and something else that made him shit extra, and then I gave him a long walk and chanced a little more water than usual, and by race time he wasn’t perfect but he was okay, pissing steadily, all the way out into the paddock.

And Jackie was there acting like nothing had happened. I tried to ignore him while he saddled Old Perry, but I couldn’t believe he had the nerve to be there. He was whistling, making wisecracks, pretending not to see the horse wasn’t lookin’ so good. I coulda killed him.

Then I got on and we got out on the track and I wondered if we’d cleaned out most of the dope. And then I thought to myself What kind of a man would poison his own horse just to keep a dumb jock from letting him win? I mean I knew I was important to Jackie. I’d been with him for six years. He liked me and he needed me because I was a jockey/trainer/stable boy/everything sorta guy, and me and Floss were just about all the family he had. But still, what was he trying to prove? That he was boss? Was he trying to put me down so I wouldn’t buck him anymore? He must have known I knew he’d doped my horse. I couldn’t figure him out.

But anyway, there we were out on the track, and I was thinking as I headed Old Perry down to the starting gate, Holy shit, I’m in a serious horse race. It hadn’t even occurred to me how big a race this was. I hadn’t ever ridden against horses like those. Blue Light, Queen’s Four, Cat’s Eye. A damn fast field. Fact is, I shouldn’t have been out there at all because I was a hack. I knew horses and I could feel their moods, but my body was all wrong and I couldn’t move with the horse the way the real artists do, the real pros.

And then I had to swallow to keep from crying, thinking about how if Old Perry hadn’t been doped I mighta had a chance against those bastards. Might, but now I didn’t because he’d been doped, and I hated Jackie and cursed him and cursed his rotten soul that he would do that to a good animal like Old Perry and to me and to Floss. I hated him and all I could think about was how much I wanted to do well, how much I wanted Old Perry to run a proud race and not to fall. Please God, I prayed, don’t let my horse fall, and for a minute I thought about pulling him out of the race, because I’d seen horses fall and later on found out they’d been doped.

So I did something I’d never done before and something that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble if I didn’t have a good reason for doing it. I reined him in and got off out there on the backstretch and I looked him over. I looked him in the eyes and in the mouth and patted him and checked for shivers or anything that might have told me he was too sick to run. But he looked okay. He usually looked great, but at least he looked okay and I knew he wouldn’t fall.

And even though he hesitated a little as we came into the gate, something he’d never done before, I knew he’d make a good run, maybe not a great run, but he’d get around okay and then I’d go into Jackie’s office and I’d say, “Go to hell you rotten bastard. Go to hell and goodbye.” Because Floss and I could get work somewhere else, and I might even report him and try to get Old Perry taken away from him so the horse would have the chance to be the horse I thought he might be.

But then for the few seconds before the race I tried to clear my brain of all my bad thoughts. That’s something Floss and I learned from this book on meditation. I got really calm and relaxed and I looked up at the stands full of people and colors and looked down the row at the other jocks, all so flashy and colorful, and I looked for beauty, like the book said to, and I saw it everywhere, and then I looked down at Old Perry, at his beautiful brown skin, and I patted him and squeezed him with my legs and felt the miracle of life rush through me, and then the bell sounded and we flew out of the gate and we didn’t touch ground for a long time.

The whole first half of the race was like that—floating, flying, and I felt stoned, like all the energy of the lights shining down was being concentrated into me and into Old Perry and the race seemed like a fantastic dream, at least the first half of it.

But then I came out of the dream and saw where I was, a tight third, right on Cat’s Eye’s tail, and Lobato was holding the Cat back a length behind Blue Light, just waiting for the home stretch to take it. And I could feel Old Perry working, struggling to get into his rhythm, but not really being able to because he just didn’t feel fine to himself. Which is when I got mad again, thinking how we hadn’t let this horse be himself, and I wasn’t allowed to be myself and Floss wasn’t herself and Jackie wasn’t himself and almost nobody was themselves because we’re all playing these shitty games to win, to pay bills, to not be ourselves because for some stupid reason we’re afraid. And I got so mad, I just went crazy and laid the crop on harder than I ever have and I could feel Old Perry brace against the blows because he didn’t like that, didn’t ever need it, but I needed it and I couldn’t hit myself, not then anyway.

But then we started to move and we seemed to lock into Cat’s Eye’s pace as we slid by Blue Light together, like a matched pair, and it wasn’t like we were trading the lead, we were sharing it, moving step for step perfectly down the run and I didn’t whip Old Perry anymore because I could feel he was locked into that other horse and all we had to do was run that last two hundred yards—no, not run, fly, because we were flying and it was like a dream again and I didn’t even feel it when we touched down. So I guess I didn’t really have to, but right at the end I touched him a little and he moved ahead by a length at the wire, just so there wouldn’t be any question.

And as I stood up in the stirrups as we slowed on the turn, I thought Holy shit, we won. Old Perry and I won. And all the bastards in the world couldn’t undo that.

But you want to talk about a surprise. When I rode Old Perry into that winner’s circle and Jackie was there crying his eyes out and hugged that horse and looked up at me and said, “Jimmy, we did it! You were right!” I about fell off. Because he wasn’t kidding. He wasn’t bullshitting. He didn’t know about the dope.

Later on we put it together that somebody from one of the class acts must have doped Old Perry so we’d yank him. It figured because since he almost broke the track record a few days before, they knew he had a chance to win and that must have screwed up somebody’s big plans.

So I worried for a while they’d try to poison him, and me and Floss slept down there with Old Perry for a few weeks after. But we stopped doing that after a while, after he won three more races. And he hasn’t lost since. He’s too well known now for somebody to poison him.

Sure sometimes I wish I was racing him still, but I know if he’s gonna be as great as he can be then we’ve got to have a great jock riding him. I still run him in the morning and walk him and groom him and talk to him, cause he likes me and I can look him right in the eye now and say, “We really are what we are Old Perry. We might lose tomorrow, but not on purpose.”

Hey Baby

Monday, March 26th, 2018

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Petit point for Night Train cover by D.R. Wagner

“Listen to the wind as it blows through the trees, listen to her and listen to me, listen to your heart and listen to your brain, listen to the sweet song of the rain. Oh my darling, I know this is hard for you to hear, but you are the one everybody wants to be with tonight.” from Todd’s song You Are the One.

My recent article about singing to the seals at Big River Beach and remembering my first paying gigs as a musician elicited several fascinating comments, so I thought I’d write a little more about my music. By the way, we’ve disarmed the Comments feature on my blog, so if you’d like to communicate with me about my articles, please send me an email.

So…having supported myself in minimal style for a couple years as a singer/songwriter in my early twenties in Santa Cruz circa 1973, I moved to Menlo Park and got a job as a janitor and teacher’s aid at a day care center in Palo Alto for children of single working mothers. My girlfriend G and I had broken up in Santa Cruz, but G rejoined me in Menlo Park, and after a year of saving our pennies, we moved to Eugene, Oregon where we lived in a converted garage while G attended the university as a music major studying piano and composition. Shortly after we arrived in Eugene, I sold my first short story for what was a fortune to me in those days, nine hundred dollars, and that allowed me to focus entirely for some months on writing short stories and a novel.

My relationship with my girlfriend was not mutually supportive. Which is to say, until I had some effective psychotherapy when I was forty, I routinely partnered with women who disapproved of me and my life choices, yet depended on me to encourage and support them. Why did I do this? To summarize volumes of emotional history, I was programmed by my disapproving and punitive parents to partner with disapproving others, and I didn’t know how else to go about life.

Lest you think I exaggerate my malady, check this out. For the entirety of our three-year relationship, G was adamant, and frequently shouted adamantly at me, that I was using my singing and songwriting and the adulation they brought me as emotional crutches to feel okay about myself and if I really wanted to face the truth about who I was, I would get rid of my guitar. So after we’d been in Eugene a month, I sold my guitar.

Now as it happened, we also had a piano in that garage because G was studying music theory and composition and wanted a piano handy for theorizing and composing. Because I make music as reflexively as ducks swim, I frequently played her piano. I don’t read music, but I had been improvising on pianos since I was sixteen, so in the absence of a guitar, I played her piano several times a day. This drove G bonkers because she struggled to compose anything she liked, while I reeled off hours of groovy-sounding music with no conscious knowledge of music theory.

Nine months into our Eugene sojourn, G and I broke up for good and I moved to Medford, Oregon where I worked as a landscaper for two years. While living in Medford, I was contacted by my old high school chum Dan Nadaner who was a fan of my guitar playing and singing. He had written some rhyming verses for the soundtrack to a little film he made called Stripes and asked me to sing his verses in the manner of a country tune while accompanying myself on guitar. (Watch Stripes on my web site.)

To make that recording for Dan, I borrowed a small steel-string guitar and a little cassette recorder from my friend David Adee. Dan was pleased with how I sang his verses, and after making the recording I bought that guitar from David. Having gone two years without a guitar, songs began pouring out of me and I wrote several new tunes in the next few months. A year later, in 1977, I moved from Medford to Seattle, and while living a lonely life there, I wrote a nostalgic bluesy love song called Hey Baby.

In 1980, having had a large success with my first novel Inside Moves, I was attending a party in Sacramento, songs were being shared, and when the guitar came to me, I sang Hey Baby. When I finished the song there was much hooting and applause and a woman asked, “Who wrote that? Wasn’t that in a movie?”

I said, “No. It’s one of my songs.”

“Sounds famous,” she went on. “That’s like a song you hear in grocery stores, you know, the instrumental version of a classic.”

As of this writing, Hey Baby is not famous, but I never forgot what that woman said about the song, and her praise emboldened me to play Hey Baby when I gave readings at bookstores and cafés, and the song eventually became a mainstay of the one-man shows I performed for some years.

Fast forward to the first year of my first marriage, 1984. My wife introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, which I enjoyed, but there was one song on that album I absolutely with every cell in my corpus loved—Night Train (not the blues standard, but Rickie’s song with that title.) After listening to her Night Train countless times, I wrote a novel entitled Night Train that sprang from dreams inspired by Rickie’s song.

In the novel, the down-and-nearly-out narrator Charlie is haunted by the one success he ever had, a hit song he wrote called Hey Baby upon which hinges everything that happens in that wild crazy chase love story.

I eventually published Night Train with Mercury House, a San Francisco publisher, and they took the book out-of-print shortly after publication. Thus few people ever heard of my Night Train, though the following review by Tom Nolan ran in the LA Times in 1986.

“In his fourth novel, Todd Walton, author of the critically praised Inside Moves and Louie & Women, delivers an unusual and gripping tale that begins like a hard-boiled crime story and becomes something resembling science fiction. Walton evokes a paranoid romanticism reminiscent of Craig Nova, Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon as he tracks the fate of Lily and Charlie, two down-and-out musicians on the run from an army of ‘very well-connected’ thugs out not just for blood but for spirit. Fleeing by car, foot, air, bicycle, train, covered wagon and dirigible, the two make their way with Lily’s baby from Sunset Boulevard to a mountain retreat in Oregon. Eluding all manner of physical and mental danger, Lily and Charlie take their final stand with a commune of utopian artists.

“Their odyssey is seedily realistic, wildly surrealistic, often erotic and only occasionally a bit precious. What seemed like a simple pursuit story has become an engaging parable of the responsibilities of creativity, the nature of self-worth, the redemptive power of love—perhaps the Meaning of Life itself. And the message, as Charlie reads it? ‘No matter how far down you get, you got to get up.’”

And now, thirty-three years gone by since Night Train was briefly available in a handful of bookstores, I love recalling the myriad threads that came together to make that book—Hey Baby a tune I wrote for my favorite singer in those days: Bonnie Raitt. And though I never got the tune to Bonnie, in my imaginings, her version of Hey Baby makes the song an instant classic, thereby fulfilling the long-ago prophecy of Hey Baby becoming a soundtrack for grocery shopping.

Night Train is available as a Kindle and iBook, and used copies of the hardback abound online.

The News

Monday, March 27th, 2017

metaphors

(a story from Todd’s novel of stories Under the Table Books)

I don’t have much, but there’s one thing I treat myself to every Wednesday, and that’s a newspaper, fresh from the rack. No one else has touched it. The news is absolutely fresh. You can smell its freshness. The folds of the pages are sharp and clean. This is my greatest luxury, my last strong link to civilization. It may not seem like much to you, but for me buying the Wednesday news is absolutely, without question, the zenith of my week.

Furthermore, it is absolutely essential that I pay for it. If someone gave the newspaper to me, it would have no importance whatsoever. I must get my news through ritual.

Every Wednesday I wake up early, wherever I happen to be, and I take a bath. Sometimes I bathe in the river. Sometimes I use a garden hose, if there’s no one around to tell me not to. Sometimes I am somewhere with a shower, and now and then I find myself in a house with a bathtub. That, of course, is the ultimate luxury, to soak for a while in a tub full of truly hot water.

Then, once my body is washed, I put on my cleanest clothes and set forth to find a newspaper rack. I do not buy my papers from vendors or in stores. I want my news direct, no middlemen. When I have located a rack I like the look of, I approach it slowly, with solemnity. I do not allow myself to read the headlines. To know anything at this point would destroy the purity of the experience.

I take three quarters from my pocket. Seventy-five cents still buys the news in this town, thank God. I will have had these quarters since the day before, at least. I will not beg on Wednesdays. No, the day I buy my paper is a day of dignity for me. On this day I am as good as any other man, even the President, even the Pope.

I hold the quarters, heads side up, between the thumb and index finger of my right hand. I read aloud the dates on each coin. Lately, I’ve been getting lots of those bicentennial ones. 1776-1976. George Washington on one side, a Revolutionary War drummer on the other. On the George side it says LIBERTY up above his head, and then in smaller print under George’s chin it says IN GOD WE TRUST. If we didn’t know better, we might think George was a mannish-looking woman, hawk-nosed and severe, with silly curls and sillier ponytail, with a ribbon in it yet. There is no mention anywhere on the coin that this person is George Washington. Somehow we know. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, somehow we have not yet forgotten.

I put the quarters in the slot, give the handle a pull, and listen carefully as the quarters roll, then fall into the change box. Sometimes the chamber is empty and the quarters clonk against the bottom in a sad hollow way. Other times the coins settle gently onto a good pile of fellow coins, making a beautiful clinking sound. I sometimes think the sound my quarters make going in is more important than getting the paper itself. If I am sad, that beautiful soft musical sound can cheer me up. And if I’m happy, that hollow clonking can leave me doubting everything.

There are times when the paper on top of the stack is damaged, dog-eared or torn. I take the next one down, or the next. I want perfection of form if I can’t get it from the contents. And sometimes only one paper remains, the paper held against the glass by the metal frame. I do not like these papers as well. They have been looked at by countless passersby and handled roughly by the person stocking the rack. I take them, but those Wednesdays are never quite as good as the Wednesdays when the quarters fall just right, and the papers are many and fresh, smelling strongly of ink, hot off the presses, still warm from the ovens of thought.

I tuck the paper under my arm and go in search of a place to read. I need a table, sunlight and good coffee. I will not drink cheap coffee on Wednesday. Fortunately, there are many good places to go in this town, many good cups of coffee to be had. I am known in these places. On Wednesday I am not a bum, a freak, a shopping cart person. My shopping cart is hidden somewhere safe. I am free of my few things on Wednesday. I have a dollar to spend, a morning to dedicate to my god, the news. If all my days could be like Wednesday there is nothing I couldn’t accomplish.

I read the paper in order, front page to back. I read every word, save for the Classifieds section, and on a rainy day I will read that, too. I study the advertisements. I ponder the editorials. I read every comic strip, every statistic in the sports section, every letter to the editor, every shred of gossip. I meditate on my horoscope. I scrutinize the photographs and wonder at the movie reviews. I fall in love with the fashion models, devour the food section, second guess the business experts and check my stocks, the ones I would have bought a year ago when the market was way down and the time was right.

All in all it takes about four hours. Then I carefully reassemble the paper and carry it to my friend Leopold who meets me in front of the library, downtown, every Wednesday at one o’clock. Sometimes I get there before him. Sometimes he is waiting for me, leaning against the old stone building, holding it up with his strong little back.

I give him the paper. He always asks, “Anything good?”  I usually say, “A few things.”  Though once I remember the paper was as empty of anything good as I have ever seen it, and I said, “No, Leo, not a god damn thing.”  To which he responded by putting it directly in the recycling bin without so much as a glance at the sordid headlines. And once, yes, once I said, “Oh Leo, it’s incredible. You won’t believe all the good news.”  To which he responded by hugging the paper to him like long lost best friend.

And then, with or without Leo, depending on his mood, I walk to the Post Office where I purchase a postcard on which I write a brief note to the President, which I then send. Now and then I’ll include a poem, if a good rhyme comes to me. Sometimes I’ll quote an editorial or a news item. Whatever I write, it is inspired by the news I have just read.

One time I wrote him a postcard that said, “Dear Mr. President, it is clear from the news that you have lost touch with the will of the people. As they grow more and more desirous of a peaceful world, you grow more and more vituperative, angry and irrational. I urge you to take some time off to search your soul, to listen to the inner voice, lest you drift too far from your purpose.”

And the very next week the headline read PRESIDENT IN SECLUSION. Had he heard me? Did he read my note? I don’t know. I only know that he cancelled all appointments for three days and went into seclusion. To think. To ponder. Perhaps to study the news.

I like to think that he reads all my notes, and that he looks forward to my postcards as I look forward to the Wednesday news. He listens to me. He didn’t at first, but now he does. Now his aides sort through the avalanche of mail to find my cards. They know my handwriting now. And I mark my notes in another way, too. I take a quarter, with the bust of George face up, and I press the postcard down onto the coin and then I take a pencil and I color in over the quarter, so that George and LIBERTY and IN GOD WE TRUST and the date come through, like a temple rubbing.

I’m not insane. I don’t believe the President listens to me. I am a man who lives for Wednesdays. I once owned fleets of cars, now I push a shopping cart, which I did not steal. I found it by the river where the shopping carts grow. I will return it someday. Perhaps the day before I die. I have never stolen anything. I fathered three children. I had tens of hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars. I lived with a woman, my wife, and could not love her.

What am I saying? Why have I told you this story? Because though the news itself may be a mass of lies and half-truths, rising above it, every Wednesday, is a tone, a feeling, a universal hum. And it helps me. It allows me to go on, to hope.

Some find salvation in prayer, some in music. I am not saved yet, but if I am ever to be saved, if I am ever to find the peace I seek, I know where I’ll read all about it.

 

Beautiful hardback copies of Under the Table Books illustrated by the author are available from Todd’s web site for just seven dollars plus shipping.

A thirteen-hour reading of the novel by Todd is available from Audible and other audio book sites.

The Beggar

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Beggar

Buddha Statue photo by Todd

a story from Buddha In A Teacup

Each morning on her way from the subway to her office in the pyramid building, Cheryl passes hundreds of beggars. And each evening on her way home, she passes most of the same beggars again. And there are beggars in the subway station, too.

Every few weeks, moved by a compulsion she has no explanation for, she empties the kitchen change jar into a paper bag and carries these hundreds of coins with her to work. On her way home at the end of the day, she gives this change to the only beggar she has ever admired. She has never told her husband or children what she does with the money, nor have they ever inquired about its repeated disappearance.

The man she gives this money to is tall and handsome, olive-skinned, with short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard. He is, she believes, close to her own age—forty-nine—and he wears the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk. He sits cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the Costa Rican consulate, a stone’s throw from the subway entrance. His back is perfectly straight, his head unbowed, and he sits absolutely still. He is not there in the mornings, but he is there every evening of Cheryl’s workweek, except Wednesday evenings.

His large brass bowl sits on the ground directly in front of him. When money is dropped into the bowl he does not alter his pose in the slightest, nor does he make any outward gesture of thanks.

As the weeks and months and years go by, Cheryl finds herself thinking constantly about her favorite mendicant. He has become something of a hero to her, though she knows nothing about him. She begins to wonder where he lives and what he does with the money he collects. She has no idea when he arrives at his begging post or when he leaves. She doesn’t know if he is mute or deaf. Does he beg on Saturdays and Sundays, too? She only knows that he is there at six o’clock on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings, sitting very still and gazing straight ahead, receiving alms.

When she begins waking in the night from dreams in which she and this man are fleeing together from some unseen terror, she decides to change her path to work. She tells herself that if she stops seeing him four times every week, she will eventually stop thinking about him. So she chooses another subway stop, one a few blocks further from the pyramid building, but with only the rare beggar along her way.

For the first week, her new route gives her sweet satisfaction. She feels as if an enormous weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She hadn’t realized what a tremendous strain it was for her to pass by all those poor people every day. And she no longer sees him—that impeccably silent man in his golden robe. She no longer sees his piercing eyes or his sensuous lips or his beautifully formed hands resting palms up on his knees.

Still, she thinks of him constantly. She wakes exhausted from dreams of making love to him, of being his wife, his judge, his executioner. But it is only when she fails to sleep at all for three days and nights in succession, and feels herself dissolving into madness, that she decides to learn all she can about him.

She takes a week off from work, though she doesn’t tell her husband she is doing so. On a cold morning in November, she rides the subway into the city at her usual hour. She stands on the sidewalk across the street from the Costa Rican consulate and waits for the object of her obsession to arrive.

At noon, his spot still vacant, Cheryl goes to a restaurant and fortifies herself with a meal, though she has little appetite. She has lost several pounds during the weeks of her growing concern about this man. Her husband believes she has finally discovered a successful diet.

Tired of standing, she is sitting on the sidewalk, her back against the wall of a bank, when he appears a block away—a golden flower in a river of darker flowers. He walks with stately grace, his begging bowl in his left hand, and a small rug, tightly rolled, in his right. When he has attained his place, he bows slightly in each of the four cardinal directions, places the bowl on the sidewalk, unfurls the rug, sits down upon it, and assumes his meditative posture, his eyes fixed on his bowl. He takes a deep breath and exhales, after which his breathing becomes imperceptible.

A moment passes, and now money begins to rain down, the bowl filling so quickly Cheryl is certain the monk will move to empty it, but he does not.

A man in a filthy black coat, a beggar Cheryl has seen a thousand times before, approaches the man in gold, nods to him, and empties the overflowing bowl into a small cardboard box.

A few minutes pass and the bowl is full once more. Now the veteran with one leg who sits in his wheelchair by the fire hydrant with a cat on his lap, rolls up to the man in gold, and leans down to dump the rich bowl into a red tartan sack.

And so it continues hour after hour until the last commuter has gone home and the bells of a distant church chime eight o’clock—seventy-seven beggars of every age and sex and color gifted by the begging bowl of the man in gold. Cheryl has tallied them in her notebook, the ink smeared by her tears.

A few minutes past eight, the man rises from his rug and stretches his arms to the sky. Now he bows to each of the four cardinal directions, rolls up his rug, picks up his empty bowl, and crosses the street to stand in front of Cheryl.

She looks up at him, speechless with love.

To which he replies softly, and with the force of a hurricane, “Hello my dear friend.”

Mr. Bosman

Monday, September 5th, 2016

twin falls winkler and nolan tw

Twin Falls painting by Winkler and Nolan

Tim Bosman, forty-seven, boyish and playful and a superb acting coach, has been the Drama teacher at Carlyle High in Rincon, Idaho, for the last fifteen years. And though he has been happily married to Sarah for twelve years and they have produced two lovely children together, many people in Rincon still think Mr. Bosman is gay.

When he was twenty-one and freshly out of college, Tim moved to New York City and spent four years striving to succeed as a stage actor before moving to Los Angeles and spending six years laboring in the lower echelons of the movie business. And though he came close on several occasions to landing juicy roles, he never did get a big break and finally gave up his quest for stardom and became a high school Drama teacher.

His bitterness about not succeeding as a professional actor eventually evaporated and nowadays Tim loves his job, loves his wife, loves his children, loves his students, and could care less that some people think he is gay. He directs three plays a year at the high school and one play every summer at the Rincon Community Center, last year’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum a huge success.

Many of Tim’s students are so inspired by working with him that they major in Drama in college, and one of Tim’s students, Rip Morgan, is now a regular cast member of the mega-popular sit-com Get Outta My Face. Thus for aspiring thespians at Carlyle High, Tim is a god, his approval sought by dozens of insecure teenagers, mostly girls, who make casting the school plays a hellish ordeal for Tim and his wife Sarah who lives through the anguished hours with him as he decides who among his charges to make deliriously happy and who to reduce to emotional rubble.

Today is the last day of school before the blessed summer break; and the tradition at Carlyle High for as long as anyone can remember is for the five hundred students, forty-three teachers, nineteen administrators, and seven maintenance people to convene at day’s end on the football field for a mammoth barbecue. Staff and students and parents and former students gather to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and wish each other well until next year, or to say goodbye to those going to college or entering the work force or leaving town.

And it has become Tim’s tradition to use this finale on the football field as the time for speaking privately with each of his Drama students and thanking them and encouraging them and wishing them well. The graduating seniors who have taken Drama from Tim especially look forward to this day, for they have been told by those who have gone before them that Mr. Bosman becomes uncharacteristically emotional with his seniors at the end-of-the-year barbecue and says things he would never say in class or while directing a play. Mr. Bosman, as one former student declared, becomes a fountain of loving wisdom at the barbecue, and loving wisdom is what his students crave.

This year’s barbecue is an especially poignant affair for Tim because the two finest actors he has ever had the pleasure of working with are graduating. Consuela Valdez—tall, curvaceous, loquacious, and drop-dead funny—is going to UCLA, while Aaron Goldberg—short, stocky, and screamingly droll—is going to Reed. Consuela and Aaron have been in thirteen plays together since their freshman year and are inseparable pals, though they have never been sweethearts.

So after Daisy Alexander, a ditzy junior, is surfeited with Tim’s praise, Tim decides to bestow his fond farewells on Consuela and Aaron together.

Now as it happens, the moment Tim raises his hand to summon Aaron and Consuela for their grand denouement, Aaron is at the apogee of a seminal conversation with Didi Schlesinger, a lovable squeaky-voiced ingénue who has the regrettable habit of forgetting her lines at crucial moments in front of large audiences. Aaron and Didi are finalizing their plan to meet tonight to climax three years of relentless flirting by going all the way with each other.

Also as it happens, in this same moment of Tim’s beckoning, Consuela is reveling in an erotic tête-à-tête with Larry Spangler, the blue-eyed bad boy Tim cast in Rebel With A Toothache—Larry brilliant in rehearsals but so drunk on opening night he ruined the play. Consuela and Larry’s conversation is also about going all the way together tonight, an experience Consuela has imagined several hundred times since Larry kissed her during the dress rehearsal of the ill-fated Rebel With A Toothache and she nearly passed out from the pleasure of their lips coalescing.

And so when Aaron and Didi and Consuela and Larry converge on Tim—his two finest conjoined with his two most disappointing—Tim is more than a little chagrined. But before he can settle on an appropriately kind way to ask Larry and Didi to leave him alone with Aaron and Consuela, the unexpected occurs.

“I’m honored, Mr. Bosman” says Larry, speaking in his marvelous smoky tenor, “truly honored you would call me over here with Connie and Aaron and Didi. I seriously screwed up. I let you down. And I let myself down, too. Yet you still include me with these two who never failed you.”

Tim is about to reply to Larry when Didi proclaims with nary a trace of squeakiness, “Me, too, Mr. Bosman. I’m honored, too. But more than honored, I’m determined to prove you right for believing in me despite my screw-ups. You make me want to keep going, keep trying, keep working to bring my unafraid self to life on the stage. And I will.”

“Ditto moi,” says Larry, putting his arm around Consuela. “I’m not going to UCLA, but I am going to LA, and make it or not, I’m gonna try. That’s what you gave me, Mr. Bosman. For which I can never thank you enough.”

“Nor can I thank you enough,” says Didi, winking at Tim. “And now we’ll leave you alone with your stars.”

“Oh don’t go,” says Tim, seeing himself getting off the bus in New York City twenty-five years ago. “Everything I say to them is meant for you, too.”

 

Thanksgiving

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

thanksgiving

Marcia’s Best Ever Blue Hubbard Squash Pie

(This story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

Henry Abbot is not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, though until eight years ago he very much enjoyed giving rides to strangers and dropping them at the best hitchhiking spots in Fort Orford.

Oh, he still stops for Miles Larsen when he comes upon Miles walking home burdened with groceries, and he still gives the Collison boys rides when he sees them trudging home in the twilight after football or basketball or baseball practice, but they aren’t hitchhikers, they’re his friends and neighbors.

Youthful at fifty-nine, strangers guess Henry is in his late forties. A big sturdy man with sandy brown hair and pale blue eyes, Henry is a former lumberjack, now the manager of Dorfman’s Hardware, the only hardware store in Fort Orford, a town of three thousand hearty souls on the north coast of California. Henry was born and raised here, and except for five years away when he was in his twenties—two years of military service and three years peddling his songs in Nashville—Henry has never gone away except for the very occasional vacation.

A bachelor until he was forty-two, neither he nor anyone who knew him expected he would ever marry. Friendly, intelligent, and handsome, Henry liked women and women liked him, yet he seemed incapable of more than fleeting intimacy. And then he met Katy, the new veterinarian in town, fifteen years his junior, and they married three months after her arrival. They had two beautiful daughters, Cecily and Diana, and when the girls were seven and five—eight years ago—Katy fell off a ladder, struck her head, and died instantly.

Now Henry’s primary goal in life is to live until his daughters are able to fend for themselves, which is why he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers anymore—to lessen his chances of encountering a crazy killer.

But on this cold November morning—driving to town in his old white pickup—when he comes to where the country road he lives on meets the coast highway into Fort Orford, he sees a woman standing by the road with a backpack, violin case, and a small brown dog, and this woman is so much like Katy, Henry cannot help but stop for her.

Everything about her reminds Henry of his wife—her dark brown hair in a three-strand braid, her white Guatemalan blouse embroidered with red and blue and green thread, her loose-fitting blue jeans, her pointy chin, her light brown eyes, and her radiant smile. That she also has a violin and her dog is the twin of Leo, Katy’s constant companion, makes the similarity uncanny.

She opens the passenger door, looks in at Henry gaping at her, and asks, “Are you okay? You look stunned.”

“Haven’t had my coffee yet,” he says, his voice catching in his throat. “Still a little dreamy.”

“How far you going?” she asks, scanning him with a practiced eye and judging him safe, her accent Midwestern, as was Katy’s.

“Just into town. Fort Orford. Four miles.”

“Mind a dog?” she asks politely. “We can ride in back if you do.”

“Love dogs,” he says, smiling as she makes the same clicking sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth that Katy made—the little pooch jumping up onto the seat and gazing intently at Henry.

The woman lifts her big pack into the bed of the truck with remarkable ease, gets into the cab with her violin case, puts on her seatbelt and says, “Thanks for stopping. I’m Jolene. The mutt is Crawford.”

Henry caresses Crawford’s head, and the little dog hops onto Henry’s lap.

“Now that is truly amazing,” says Jolene, frowning at Crawford. “He’s never done that before.” She turns her gaze on Henry. “What are you? Some sort of dog whisperer?”

“We have a couple dogs,” says Henry, scratching behind Crawford’s ears. “Probably smells them on me.”

“No,” says Jolene, shaking her head. “He doesn’t even do that with people he knows. Only ever does it with me.”

“Maybe I remind him of someone,” says Henry, pulling onto the highway—Crawford leaving him to sit on Jolene’s lap. “I’m Henry. Where you headed?”

“Portland,” she says, embracing her violin case. “Unless something better manifests along the way.”

“Are you a classical musician or a fiddler? My wife…she’s no longer alive…she played the violin, too.”

“This is not a violin,” says Jolene, smiling sweetly at Henry. “Mandolin. I play folk songs and my own tunes, too. Some jazzy Brazilian things.”

“I used to play guitar,” says Henry, remembering his days in Nashville, how so very close he came to selling a song. “A million years ago.”

“So beautiful here,” says Jolene, sighing with pleasure as the dark blue waters of Prescott Bay come into view. “You know a good place to have breakfast in Fort Orford?”

“I know the best place,” says Henry, looking at Jolene and realizing she is quite a bit older than he first took her to be, her eyes pale blue not light brown, her skin dark olive, not white and freckled as was Katy’s, her hair not brown but black with strands of gray, not braided but in a pony tail, her blouse pale yellow and not embroidered, her jeans brown not blue. “Stuyvesant’s. Excellent omelets, strong coffee, brilliant waitresses.”

“Then that’s where I’m going,” says Jolene, tickling Crawford’s chin. “And aren’t you a lucky dog it’s not raining, so you won’t be getting wet while you wait.”

“I just realized,” says Henry, laughing, “you’re not American. You’re…”

“Irish,” says Jolene, nodding. “What a remarkable ear for accents you have.”

“If you’d like, you can leave Crawford with me,” says Henry, feeling perfectly at ease saying so. “I’m two doors down from Stuyvesant’s. The hardware store. I’m the manager. Dogs allowed.”

Jolene considers this offer and says, “Only I was hoping you’d have breakfast with me. My treat. I made a bundle busking in San Francisco.”

“Then we’ll bring Crawford with us,” says Henry, slowing way down as they enter the town, his eyes full of tears. “They won’t mind him if he sits on your lap.”

“Or yours,” says Jolene, gazing at Henry. “He loved you the minute he saw you.”

Stealing

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Giants Mendo Hardware

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2014)

Angel Pagan, the switch-hitting leadoff batter for the Giants, one of the swiftest outfielders in the game, takes a short lead off first base and tries to ignore his inner dialogue about base stealing while keeping his focus on the pitcher. Angel has reached first base with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning by beating out a slow roller to third. The Giants are trailing the Padres one to nothing. This would be, as everyone in the ballpark knows, the ideal time for Angel to steal a bag and get into scoring position. However, despite his blazing speed, Angel has had little success as a stealer of bases.

Quackenbush, the Padres relief pitcher, a hefty right-hander with a decent pickoff move, hates throwing to first because it messes with his mechanics. Angel knows of Quackenbush’s aversion to throwing to first because Roberto Kelly, the Giants’ first base coach, just reminded Angel of said aversion while Angel was taking off his batting gloves after safely reaching first. Thus informed, Angel widens his lead, though not enough to tempt the reluctant Quackenbush.

Quackenbush’s first pitch to Joe Panik, the Giants second baseman, is an eighty-mile-an-hour slider right down the middle, Joe taking all the way to give Angel a chance to steal. But Angel isn’t going anywhere. Strike one.

Angel returns to first base, toes the bag, and waits for Roberto to give him a sign or a bit of advice. But Roberto keeps his distance and barely makes eye contact, which Angel interprets as Roberto implying If I’d had your speed when I was playing I would have stolen a hundred bags a year, though that is not at all the sort of thing Roberto would say.

Angel takes his lead again, and Gyorko, the Padres’ first baseman, positions himself at the bag in readiness to take a throw from Quackenbush. Gyorko taps his glove and smirks at Angel as if to say Go on. Stretch out that lead. Quack’s got a better pickoff move than you think.

During batting practice, none other than the legendary Willie Mays approached Angel and said, “I got a bet with Cepeda says you steal twenty more bags this year once you get your timing down.”

Timing thinks Angel, unaware that he is slowly shaking his head as he watches Quackenbush come set. It’s not about timing. It’s about trusting my instincts.

Panik, having failed miserably as a switch-hitter in high school, only bats from the left side and rarely hits for power. He is, however, an excellent contact hitter and against a finesse pitcher like Quackenbush looks to pull the ball. Having double checked with Giants third base coach Tim Flannery that he has permission to swing away, Panik turns his full attention to the pitcher and tells himself not to swing at anything except something off-speed on the inner half of the plate. Panik has no problem with Angel staying put at first because Angel is so fast he can score from first on a deep single and trot home if Panik hits one to the wall.

Angel takes his role as leadoff man very seriously, some might say too seriously. In practice, he steals bases with ease, whether the pitcher and catcher know he’s going to steal or not. But in games, doubt makes him tentative and devours those precious tenths of seconds that make the difference between Safe and Out. For Angel there is nothing more humiliating than being tagged out while trying to steal.

In the dugout, Bruce Bochy, the Giants skipper, scratches the gray stubble on his spacious chin and ponders whether or not to signal Roberto to signal Angel to steal, knowing that commanding Angel to steal always makes Angel give away his intention by rising onto his toes and holding his hands out to the sides like a kid pretending to fly. So Bruce decides not to command anyone to do anything and just hope Panik knocks a single or better.

Meanwhile, from his seat eleven rows up behind first base, eighty-one-year-old Willie Mays, one of the greatest base stealers of all time, gazes intently at Angel and suddenly realizes why Angel has so much trouble deciding whether and when to go. He’s trying to figure things out with his head instead of letting the momentum of the game carry him.

And in the split second after Quackenbush checks Angel and begins his pitching motion, Angel takes off, the pitch way too high for Panik to swing at, Angel beating the throw with ease and springing up from his slide to stand atop the second base bag like he’s king of the mountain.

What was that? wonders Angel. How did I suddenly know? 

August Fable

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

August Fable

Water Lilies by Max Greenstreet

When I was in my early thirties, I lived on a monthly disability check from the state: two hundred and sixty-eight dollars. My rent for a small room in a boarding house in a scary neighborhood in downtown Sacramento was one hundred and forty dollars. That left me one hundred and twenty-eight dollars for food and not much else. And I was sure the woman I loved—Maria Escobido—wanted a man with a good job, and I didn’t have any job so I rarely spoke to her except to say hello and thanks.

I would go into Maria’s little grocery store and buy a carton of milk or a beer or anything just to be close to her. I wanted to ask her to have coffee with me, but I never asked because I was afraid she might say Yes and I would have to tell her I had nothing.

My recurring fantasy was that I saved a wealthy man’s life and he hired me to be his chauffer and live above his fancy cars in an elegant apartment with a view of majestic trees and a curving drive. With my ample pay, I bought fine clothes and went into the little grocery store and said, “Maria. I have a good job now and live in an elegant apartment over my employer’s Rolls Royce. Would you like to go out to dinner with me?” And she would say Yes and we would become lovers and live happily ever after.

That was how I started my days, lying alone in my bed dreaming about Maria inviting me with her beautiful eyes to kiss her. Then I’d get up, grab my towel and razor and go down the hall to the bathroom. We had a system on our floor. I was in first since I got up the earliest. When I was done I’d rap on Larry’s door and when he was done he’d knock on Shirley’s door and then Shirley would knock on Sheldon’s. One day I woke up so sick I couldn’t move and Larry didn’t get up until eleven because he was waiting for me to knock and Shirley and Sheldon both slept in, too.

Sheldon was a cartoonist, Shirley worked at the Lesbian Crisis Center, and Larry collected books about astrology, tarot and the I Ching. They were as poor as I was, but they were happy, whereas I was miserable because I was a failed writer and didn’t believe Maria Escobido would ever want to be with me unless I could get a decent a job or save somebody’s life and then get a decent job. And, of course, I would have to stop smoking pot because Maria was definitely not a pot smoker. However, whenever I stopped smoking dope I wanted to die.

I told myself I had to buy something before I could speak to Maria so she wouldn’t think I was a dead beat. She was always nice to me, sometimes effusively so, and one day we talked for a long time about our favorite movies and she gave me a smile that seemed to say I like you. I like the way you think.

I came out of her store after our movie conversation feeling elated and hopeful and sure she would say Yes if I asked her to have coffee with me. But when I got back to my little room and looked in the mirror I thought No. She only spoke to me because I bought something. Why would such a marvelous full-of-life woman want to have anything to do with a loser like me?

I’ll never forget the time—a broiling hot day in August—I decided to splurge on a beer and went into her little store and she was on her tiptoes reaching up to get a case of Heineken and she was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and the case started to fall and the next thing I knew I was beside her bringing down the case and her breasts brushed my arm and she blushed and said Thank you in the sweetest way and I lived for weeks in a frenzy of love for her.

So…every day I would shower and shave, put on a clean shirt and jeans and running shoes, eat a couple bananas and hustle over to Plaza Park to see if anybody wanted me to make a dope delivery. I was a presentable person, and because I would deliver lids in exchange for joints, dealers liked using me.

One spring day Marcus asked me to deliver three lids to someone in the capitol building. I said, “Marcus, I love you, man, and I greatly admire the quality of your product, but three lids is a large felony. What say I deliver a bag at a time? Then it’s only a misdemeanor if I get caught, which I will gladly chance for my usual fee.”

“Talkin’ hazard pay,” said Marcus, a colossus with a deep rumbling voice. “Hundred bucks and you just come and get it for a month. Sound good?”

“A hundred bucks and I just come and get it for a month?” I echoed, loving the thought of Marcus keeping me in fat joints for an entire month—no need to run dope to get dope.

So I combed my hair, made sure my fly was up, and took possession of those three baggies of glistening bud hidden in a hollowed out law book. Then I merged with a crowd of drones swarming into the capitol building, and nobody thought I was anything but a casually dressed servant of the state as I hurried past the Governor’s office and caught an elevator to the third floor where legions of ambitious men and women hurried to and fro with piles of folders and steaming cups of coffee—the perfect moment to deliver dope.

I located the appointed suite, told the receptionist I had something for her boss, and a moment later he emerged from his office—a boyishly handsome man in a snazzy gray suit—one of the most powerful politicos in California.

He came close and said, “Hey. How are you?”

“Fine,” I said, wondering how he could be so calm with his career in the hands of some stranger off the street who might be a narc. “Here’s that volume you requested. Hope this does the trick.”

“Saved,” he said, taking the book from me and hugging it like a long lost friend. “Just in the nick of time.”

Riding down in the elevator I thought What a joke. The ultimate loser bringing weed to the guy who rules the world—both of us wanting to get high, him in his mansion and me in my hole.

For delivering that weed to a head of state, Marcus gave me sixty bucks and a bag of rag and I did not complain. Life went on. I bought my food at Maria’s little grocery store and went to movie matinees a couple times a month and saw three or four movies for the price of one, sneaking around when the ushers were looking the other way. I bought a six-pack of Heineken every month when my benefit check arrived and shared my beer with Larry and Sheldon and Shirley. I lived that way for five years and saw no way out but suicide.

For my thirty-fifth birthday Sheldon and Larry and Shirley bought me a tarot reading from Larry’s friend Diedre, and when I looked at the gift certificate I decided that after the reading I would put an end to things.

Larry had assured me that Diedre was a gifted seer, but he hadn’t mentioned she was as beautiful as Maria Escobido. Diedre’s skin was white alabaster, her eyes emerald green, her long brown hair in a pony tail tied with a green scarf, her blue silk blouse embroidered with shimmering silver fish, turquoise rings on her fingers, her voice songful and free of doubt.

We sat facing each other across a small round table, the room lit with candles. She asked me to shuffle the deck and hold the cards and think about my life. So I shuffled the cards and closed my eyes and there was Maria Escobido smiling at me. And I realized it wasn’t true I had to buy something if I wanted to talk to her. Maria liked me whether I bought anything or not. I had invented that lie to defeat myself.

I handed the cards to Diedre and said, “Thank you. The revelations are coming fast and furious.”

She nodded graciously, turned over the top card and said, “This is you.”

“I always wondered who I was,” I said, reading the words on the card—The Magician. “Nice robe. Is he a chemist?”

“Alchemist,” said Diedre, searching my face with her brilliant green eyes. “You possess great power, but your power is unavailable to you because you don’t realize who you are.”

She turned over the next card—The Lovers—started to say something, shook her head and turned over the next card—The Tower. She frowned at the image of a burning castle, touched The Magician, touched The Lovers, touched The Tower and said, “You need to take immediate action or you will lose everything. This is definite. You can’t wait another day. You must act.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, wondering if she knew I was planning to kill myself. “Take action. How?”

“Live your dreams,” she said, tapping The Magician. “Take a chance.”

I got back to my scary part of town at dusk—fog cloaking the streets. Benefit checks were late that month, people angry and desperate. I passed a shiny new Cadillac parked in front of a vacant lot, nothing unusual about such a car being parked in my neighborhood, a drug dealer’s car, no doubt.

And though I knew never to look into parked cars because men with guns did bad things in parked cars in my neighborhood, something made me look and I saw a man sticking a needle into the arm of a girl with her mouth taped shut, her arms tied behind her back—and my rage erupted in a scream and I yanked the door open and the man fumbled for his gun and I kicked him in the face before he could shoot and kicked him again as the driver’s door swung open and somebody huge got out to kill me and I ran away screaming bloody murder and people came rushing out of their houses and swarmed over the car and caught the two men and got the girl out and she was Maria Escobido’s sister.

****

That was thirty years ago. I live far away from Sacramento now in a blue house on the outskirts of a coastal town. I own the village bookstore and my wife Sierra is a chef in the finest restaurant for many miles around.

I would love to tell you that Maria Escobido and I became lovers after I saved her sister, but that didn’t happen. I ran back to my room, stuffed a few precious things into my knapsack, and left a note for Sheldon and Larry and Shirley thanking them for being my friends and explaining if I stayed I would surely be killed. Then I caught a bus to the edge of the city and from there hitchhiked eight hundred miles to the north and got a job as a dishwasher in a café. The owners liked me and eventually gave me a job as a waiter.

One day I charmed a customer who owned a gourmet restaurant and he asked me to come work for him, which I did. A year later he promoted me to maître d’ and I kept that job for many years until I saved enough money to open my bookstore and buy our house.

Sometimes when I’m standing at the bookstore counter reading or writing and the bell over the door jingles, I look up expecting to see Maria Escobido.

In my fantasy, she does a double take, smiles her radiant smile and says, “Oh my God, it’s you.”

And I say to her what she always said to me when I would enter her store after a long absence. “Where have you been hiding, mi amigo? I missed you.” Only I will use the word amiga.

Heaven and Hell

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

Little Sparrow Nolan Winkler

(This short story from Buddha In A Teacup appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2014)

On their way to a matinee of the San Francisco Ballet, Roger and Susan must stand for the entire journey in a crowded subway car. They are wearing heavy coats on this chilly November day, though inside the slow moving train it is a veritable sauna—the air conditioning having failed.

Susan is twenty-six, a fetching brunette, and Roger is forty-nine, a strikingly beautiful former ballet dancer turned fashion designer. They have known each other for exactly one year, Susan and her two young children having moved from homelessness into the collective household where Roger and his lover Paul have been mainstays for more than a decade.

Paul and Roger were friendly and cordial with Susan for the first few months after she moved in, but they did not become close friends with her until they undertook their annual production of the community musical and Susan became their indefatigable assistant—Paul directing, Roger the choreographer and costume designer.

Rehearsals for the play—Guys and Dolls—proceeded splendidly until a week before opening night when the lead actress—with three big songs and two extravagant dance numbers—fell seriously ill. Paul was about to cancel the show when Susan shyly suggested she could play the part.

“I was a pom-pom girl in high school,” she told them, blushing at her confession. “Back in Tennessee? And I’ve been singing since I was a little kid. Mostly in the shower. But I can sing on key, and I know all the lines, so…”

To their great relief and astonishment, Susan was not only good in the part, she was fantastic. The play, which traditionally ran for two weekends, played to sold out houses for five weekends, and Susan became both a local star and the apple of Roger’s show business eye.

Susan was not as awed by her success as Roger and Paul were, and she returned without complaint to being a breakfast waitress in a nearby café and a mom afternoons and evenings.

Roger, however, was eager for Susan to pursue a show business career, for he saw her as a modern hero triumphing against all odds—with talent worthy of the professional stage.

Paul cautioned Roger about transferring his own frustrated ambition onto Susan, but Roger waved the warning aside, saying, “Oh, I’m just having fun. I just want her to see things so she can get a feel for the magic of it all.”

A voice crackles over the train’s public address system. “We apologize for the delay. We will be traveling at half-speed due to construction work. The air conditioning outage is due to an electrical problem. We apologize for the crowding. Two trains ahead of us went out of service unexpectedly. Thank you for your patience. Have a nice day.”

Roger, sweating profusely, shakes his head in dismay. “And they want to encourage the use of public transportation? Ha! This is a farce.”

Susan takes off her coat revealing her newly created dress, a svelte blue sheath designed and sewn by Roger. The train screeches to a halt and Susan is thrown against a burly man in a gray business suit. “Sorry about that,” she says, righting herself. “Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry.”

“Not at all.” The man smiles wearily and wipes his brow with a white handkerchief. “This is insane.”

“I’ve never been on the subway before.” She grins at him. “I think it’s wonderful.”

“This is not wonderful,” says Roger, running a hand through his perfectly coifed silver hair. “This is hell.”

“At least we’re moving again,” says Susan, nodding hopefully as the train lurches forward. “I’m not at work. And I don’t have the kids, much as I love them. And it’s my birthday. I’m going to the ballet. What could be better than that?”

“We could be sitting in an air conditioned train going fast.” Roger closes his eyes. “This is a nightmare.”

 *

They detrain an hour later in downtown San Francisco, Susan following Roger through the bustling throng to an escalator blockaded with a big Out Of Order sign.

“This is too much,” says Roger, starting up the stairs. “A four-story climb after sweating like pigs for an hour? This is criminal.”

“Yeah, but we’re here!” Susan tugs at his coattails. “I’m so excited, Roger. This is just so great.”

The automatic turnstile won’t let Susan exit the underground. So while Roger waits impatiently on the other side of the barrier, Susan approaches the station attendant in the big glass cubicle to find out why her ticket has been rejected. The attendant—a woman with sad brown eyes and silver fingernails—is talking on her mobile phone, oblivious to Susan.

Roger shouts, “Hurry up! We’ll miss the opening piece!”

The attendant doodles on a notepad and says into her phone, “No, baby, we went there yesterday. I’m tired of Chinese. Let‘s do Mexican today. Chile rellenos sound real good to me right about now.”

“Excuse me.” Susan nods politely to the attendant. “I’m late for a ballet show and my ticket…”

The attendant snatches the card from Susan and sticks it into a slot on her computer console. “Not Maria’s,” she says, continuing her phone conversation. “Let’s go to Cha Cha’s. Better margaritas. Hold on.” She hands the card back to Susan. “There’s no credit on this. You need to add three dollars and seventy cents at the Add Credit machine.”

“But I paid ten dollars in Berkeley,” says Susan, her eyes filling with tears. “And I don’t have any more money with me.”

“Sorry,” says the attendant, yawning. “Machine says that card is dead.”

“Jesus!” cries Roger, waving his arms at Susan. “What the hell’s going on?”

Susan shrugs helplessly. “She says my ticket doesn’t have any credit. And I didn’t bring any more money.”

Roger storms up to the cubicle and shouts through the glass. “Now wait just a god damn minute. We put ten dollars on that card in Berkeley. Our train was a half hour late, the air conditioning didn’t work, the escalators are broken, and now…”

“You want to talk to my supervisor?” The attendant glares out at Roger. “You want to file a complaint?”

“No, ma’am,” says Susan, speaking softly. “None of this is your fault. We know that. But the thing is, it’s my birthday and Roger is taking me to my first ballet. I just love to dance. And he was a ballet dancer. And we’re awful late, so…”

“Okay, go on,” says the attendant, buzzing open the gate. “And teach your friend some manners.”

 *

They race along the crowded sidewalks, arriving at the theater just as the performance is about to begin, and despite Roger’s anguished protests, they are compelled to wait in the lobby until the first piece is completed.

Roger falls onto a sofa and buries his face in his hands. “But this was the piece we wanted you to see. This is the main reason we came. This dance is about you, about your life.”

Susan sits beside him and puts her arms around him. “Roger. It’s okay, honey. There’s four more dances after this one. And this is the most beautiful theater I’ve ever seen. Look at those stairways and those chandeliers. Isn’t this amazing?”

He looks up at her, his cheeks streaked with tears. “But we wanted so much for you to see this piece. Paul will be crushed. We wanted this day to be perfect for you.”

“It is,” she says, smiling at the usher, a grim little man in a gray uniform barring their way to seats in the seventh row. “It is perfect. I love everything about it.”

The door behind the usher opens a crack and a wizened face appears, its twinkling eyes meeting Susan’s, its lips communicating something that causes the usher to beckon to Susan and Roger.

“Come in,” says the usher. “There’s been a slight delay. You have just enough time to get to your seats.”

The Gift of the Old Guy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

1

Ray, a slender man of eighty-two, his white hair sparse, gazes out the bus window at the passing fields. He is lost in thought, truly lost, unaware of who he is or where he’s going. Ray’s wife Vera, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. A buxom gal of seventy-nine, her fantastically curly hair tinted pinkish blond, Vera is Flo’s mother and Otto’s grandmother, and she and Ray are on a Greyhound bus going to Ukiah to be with Flo and Otto for Christmas, which is only two days away now. She sits so her shoulder touches Ray’s as she knits an orange and black afghan, her mind crammed with gift lists, recipes, and words of wisdom for her grandson.

“We should have driven,” says Ray, frowning at Vera. “How are we gonna get around without a car?”

“We don’t have a car anymore, dear,” says Vera, smiling at her husband. “Remember? We sold it three months ago. Since I don’t drive and they took your license away, there wasn’t much point in keeping it.”

“Must you remind me?” he says with mock indignation. And then, straining to remember, “Why did they do that?”

“You had another accident. And thank God no one was hurt.”

Ray frowns. “The light was green. The light was not red. I don’t care what anybody says. The light was not green.”

Vera nods. “Yes, dear.”

Ray glares out the window and remembers the light was red and that he had every intention of hitting the brakes. But his foot went to the accelerator pedal instead of to the brake pedal and…he closes his eyes and braces himself for impact.

Vera watches Ray for a long moment before returning to thoughts of turkey and pies and gingerbread and all the stores she wants to go to when they get to Ukiah.

On the edge of sleep, Ray hears a man’s voice, a voice his doctor calls a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Ray thinks the voice is God, but other times he knows the voice is his memory.

“Hello Ray. Would you like to be Santa Claus again?”

Ray shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not?”

Vera looks at her husband and sighs with relief to see him temporarily content.

Ray is a department store Santa again, sitting on his red throne, a line of children stretching out of the toy department and snaking past Sporting Goods before making a sharp turn at Beds, which is where Ray loses sight of the line, though he knows there are kids lined up throughout the store and out the doors and down every road to the sea.

A little boy climbs onto Ray’s lap and says, “Where’s my candy cane?”

Ray says, “Ho ho ho! Have you been a good little boy?”

The boy grabs Ray’s cotton beard and pulls off a big chunk. “You’re not really Santa Claus!” shouts the boy. “You don’t even know where I live!”

Ray wakes with a start. Vera puts a calming hand on his arm.

“I could kill him,” says Ray, looking at his wife, unsure of her name, wondering if she can be trusted.

“Time for your pills,” explains Vera. “That’s why you’re cranky. I thought we could wait until we got there, but we can’t.”

 2

Otto, verging on seventeen, pushes the old station wagon up over seventy. His mother Flo arches an eyebrow. Otto slows the old wagon to sixty. He wants to stay in good with his mother because he needs the car tonight for his big triple date with Zak and Josh and their respective Awesome Babes.

“Think Gramps will like my blue hair?” asks Otto, making sure to signal when he changes lanes. “Remember when I had it real long and he said I looked Arthurian?”

“Fortunately, your grandfather is color blind,” says Flo, finding it impossible to relax when Otto is driving. “And your grandmother thinks anything you do is fabulous, so…”

“Um…” says Otto, clearing his throat, “about tonight?”

“I said you could have the car,” says Flo, rummaging in her purse for lip balm. “I want to take mom on the bus. That way she’ll be limited to buying what we can carry.”

“Um, mom?” says Otto, exiting the freeway at the suggested speed and hoping Flo is impressed by his magnificent show of self-restraint. “I was wondering about a slight advance?”

“On your inheritance or your allowance?”

“Very funny,” says Otto, flooring it through an intersection to beat the red.

Flo winces. “Since when is it a sin to stop at a yellow?” She clears her throat, remembering the family therapist’s admonition: Try not to be too hard on Otto. What with his father moving out and the ensuing emotional confusion…“How much do you need?”

“Forty?” he says, forcing a hopeful little smile.

Flo forgets all about the family therapist’s admonition and says, “Who do you think I am? Donald Trump? You think I’m made of money? I gave you forty dollars two days ago.” She sighs. “Long gone, I’m sure.”

“My skateboard was shot,” says Otto. “It’s how I get around. I needed…”

“Nothing,” says Flo, unable to restrain herself. “You get nothing more from me. And I want you to fill this car with gas before you bring it home tonight. Zak and Josh can chip in.”

Otto frowns deeply. “Are you serious? It takes fifty dollars to fill this old hog.”

“That’s right,” says Flo, her eyes narrowing. “And I work forty-eight hours a week. I bring home nineteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month, from which I pay the rent, insurance, utilities, food for you, clothes for you, music lessons for you, school supplies for you, an allowance for you.” She’s screaming now.  “…and every time you take the car out, it comes back empty, which means fifty more dollars, doesn’t it? And every time you go out with your stupid friends you want forty dollars on top of the fifty I just spent to fill the fucking car. And I can’t afford it. Okay?”

Otto is confounded by the intensity of his mother’s anger. “So you want me to get a job? Flunk out of school?”

Flo squints furiously at him. “No. I want you to get a job, stay in school, stop watching television and diddling your cell phone every second you aren’t skateboarding, and start being some HELP!”

Otto thinks for a moment and replies, “Okay, then. How about thirty dollars?”

 3

Ray sits up front with Otto, while Vera sits in back with Flo. Quietly, so no one up front will know, Vera hands her daughter a wad of cash—five hundred dollars. Flo kisses her mother’s cheek and whispers, “Thank you, mama.”

Vera holds Flo’s hand, gazes at Otto’s blue mop and says, “I find your coiffure positively daring.”

“You should see my friend Zak,” says Otto, relishing her praise. “He totally shaved half his head and dyed the rest magenta.”

“Daring, indeed,” says Vera, feigning delight. “Will we be meeting your girlfriend tonight?”

“You better believe it,” says Otto, winking at his mother in the rearview mirror.

“And her name is?” asks Vera, already knowing from Flo.

“Natasha,” says Otto, nodding emphatically. “Natasha Svetlana Jones. Her mother is like half-Russian and her dad is like Ukrainian or something, and, uh…I should warn you she’s got a massive gold spike in her right nostril.” He pauses dramatically. “Well…massive is like a relative term.”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” says Vera.  “And I just love how colorful and poetic your speech has become.”

“Is this girl a cannibal?” asks Ray, unsure of what anybody is talking about.

“No way, Gramps” says Otto, grinning. “On the contrary, man, she’s actually a vegetarian.”

“So why the spike?” asks Ray, touching his nose and wincing.

“It’s the fashion these days, dear,” Vera explains. “A fashion statement.”

“Or something,” says Flo, rolling her eyes.

“A statement of what?” asks Ray, frowning at Otto.

“Like her personal statement,” says Otto, nodding thoughtfully. “You know, like her personal belief about being able to like…express yourself.”

Ray surveys the suburban sprawl and he thinks they’re in Los Angeles in 1976. He frowns at Otto and says, “Jesus, Frankie, we’re supposed to meet those guys on Wilshire in ten minutes. Step on it.”

“What’s he talking about?” asks Otto, confused by his grandfather’s confusion.

“Don’t ask her,” says Ray, slapping his grandson’s arm. “Listen to me. This deal is as good as made.”

“His Alzheimer’s,” says Vera, nodding sadly. “He thinks you’re his old business partner, Frank Lazuli.”

Otto looks at his grandfather and says, “Gramps. I’m not Frank. I’m Otto and it’s two thousand and twelve and we’re in Ukiah. Okay?”

Ray blinks a few times as he returns to the present, turns to look at his wife, and says, “Like I was there again, honey. Just like I was there.”

 4

After supper, Otto’s girlfriend, Natasha, petite and pretty, her long hair maroon, her purple belly shirt revealing a big silver ring piercing the rim of her navel, explains the thrill of thrash dancing to Vera.  “It’s like…” she says, staring into Vera’s eyes, “it’s a way to get past societal repression into a state of physical bliss. I mean…after I thrash for like ten minutes I’m just totally free. I’m like totally…uninhibited.”

“We had Elvis,” says Vera, taking Natasha’s hand. “And then going wild at the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the Airplane.”

Flo shows her father how to operate the automatic channel changer. She points the device at the big screen television and the images jump from starving Africans to the Marx Brothers to somebody selling used cars to a woman taking off her clothes to a Canadian weather report to Australian soccer and back to the Africans.

“Can’t I just get up when I want to change channels?” asks Ray, sneering at the little plastic thing.  “It’ll be the only exercise I’ll get today. We missed our walk.”

“But dad, there are over two hundred channels to choose from. Part of the fun is channel surfing.”

“Fun for you maybe,” says Ray, reluctantly accepting the changer.

Otto, wearing his razor blade earring, ripped combat jacket and purple combat boots, gets the car keys from Flo and proclaims, “Hey everybody, be happy. I’ll be back by midnight for sure. Or so.”

When the young ones are gone, Vera says, “I like Natasha. She has a wonderful energy. Says she wants to be a veterinarian acupuncturist. Do you think they’re having sex?”

“What?” says Ray, glaring at the television. “Who?”

“Sex,” says Vera.

“Not now,” says Ray, winking at her. “I’m busy pushing little buttons.”

5

Vera and Flo catch a bus downtown, and when they are settled in their seats, Vera brings forth her list of things she wants to buy. Flo leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and says sadly, “He’s much worse, isn’t he?”

“Day by day,” says Vera, nodding. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to handle him by myself.” She shrugs. “Two weeks ago, he got up in the middle of the night, went outside without his pants on and tried to flag a cab. He thought it was 1973, the year he lost a fortune on all that desert land.”

“What will you do?”

“What can I do? I’ll have to put him in a home.”

“Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.”

“Let’s not think about it now. It’s Christmas. Let’s spend some money.”

6

Back at the television, comfortable in a recliner, Ray is stuck on MTV, dazzled by beautiful young women with long legs and perfect bodies. He forgets he’s watching television and thinks it’s 1972, the Starlight Lounge in Vegas. He and Frank Lazuli and Murray Cornish are celebrating closing a big deal—a new shopping center. They’ve got money to burn. Vera and Tammy and Twyla have gone to bed and left the boys to blow off steam and chase girls.

The phone rings and rings and rings until finally Ray emerges from the past to answer it, a voice saying, “Gramps? It’s Otto. Is Flo there?”

“Flo lives in Ukiah now,” says Ray, feeling rather proud to have remembered this new information.

You’re in Ukiah,” says Otto. “Remember? You came up for Christmas. We picked you up at the bus station today.”

“But of course,” says Ray, remembering nothing. “Hold on a minute.”

He wanders through the house, but finds no one. He vaguely remembers that Flo and Vera went somewhere, but by the time he gets back to the phone he thinks Vera has left him for another man.

“Hello, Frankie?” says Ray. “You still there?”

“This is Otto.”

“Where’s Frank?”

“I don’t know. This is Otto. Your grandson. Is Flo there? My mother?”

“No!” says Ray, glowering at the television—someone dunking a basketball in slow motion. “And if you don’t stop harassing my daughter, I’ll have the police on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

And with that, he slams the phone down and goes back to the Starlight Lounge.

 7

Otto, Zak and Josh come up with a plan for getting money so they can fill the station wagon with gas and take their girlfriends to a dance club in Santa Rosa. The plan centers on Ray. Otto parks the station wagon in Zak’s garage and jogs the seven blocks home. He finds his grandfather transfixed by The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda, a little green person with pointed ears, is speaking to Ray.

“Hey Gramps,” says Otto, full of false joviality, “you figured out how to use the DVD player. Cool.”

Ray says nothing.

Yoda says, “You will only find what you take with you.”

Ray replies, “Your color is bad. You should see a doctor.”

“So…Ray,” says Otto, “I’ve got a little business proposition for you.  Interested?”

Ray clicks off the set, turns to his grandson and says, “Frankie, I’ve had it.  Vera’s left me. I can’t do this anymore. The Wilshire deal wiped me out. Took me months to find a steady job. It’s not much, but it’s steady, and I want her back.”

“Okay,” says Otto, taking a deep breath, “but if you can front me a hundred dollars, I’ll turn it into ten thousand by Christmas morning and wrap it up in a little blue box and put it under the tree. Promise. It’s an absolute sure thing.”

“I’ve heard that line a thousand times,” says Ray, shaking his head. “Hell, I’ve said it a thousand times.” He grins at Otto and winks. “But okay.”

He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket and gives Otto all he has—five twenties. Otto tries to thank Ray with a kiss, but Ray shoves him away and says, “Don’t get queer on me, Frankie. Just make the deal, okay?”

“Okay, Ray. Okay.”

8

On Christmas morning, Vera is in ecstasy and Ray has become addicted to watching Otto play a video game in which he attempts to conquer an alien civilization. Flo is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“We have some big news,” says Flo, smiling wanly at Otto as they gather in the living room to open presents. “Vera and Ray are moving to Ukiah, and so for a few weeks…until we get them settled nearby, they’ll be living here.  Won’t that be great?”

“Here?” says Otto, shocked at the prospect. “We only have two bedrooms.”

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” says Ray, winking at his grandson. “And now we can turn that ten thousand into a million. Right?”

Otto blushes, stunned that the old man remembered that two-day-old con job. “Whatever, Gramps,” he says softly. “Whatever you say.”

Flo hands the first present to Vera. She unwraps it carefully to preserve the wrapping paper.

Ray peers at the presents under the tree and sees no little blue box. He frowns at Otto and says, “So…things didn’t work out so well, huh?”

Otto stiffens. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just his Alzheimer’s.”

“No, it’s not,” says Ray, feeling remarkably lucid. “I may forget a lot of things, but I don’t forget a business deal.” His eyes fill with tears. “You promised me, Otto.  You promised me.”

“This is too weird,” says Otto, standing up. “I didn’t promise him anything.”

“I’m sorry,” says Vera, bowing her head. “Maybe our staying here isn’t such a good idea.”

9

Otto sits on his bed feeling guilty and cruel. He talks quietly to a large smoky quartz crystal, a Christmas gift from Natasha. She says the crystal has the power to convert negative reality into positive reality.

“I never should have lied to him. I hurt him. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it would matter to him. I always loved him when I was a kid. I really did. So please, please make this all okay.”

Having said this, Otto has a vivid memory. He is seven years old, walking with Ray along a beach at Lake Tahoe. Suddenly a huge dog rushes toward them, murder in his eyes. Otto wants to run away, but Ray holds onto him and says, “It’s okay.”

Now the old man squats down, holds out his hand to the dog, and makes kissing sounds. The dog becomes docile and friendly. Otto is astonished by the transformation of the beast. Ray explains, “They get aggressive like that because they’re afraid, not because they really want to hurt you.”

Someone knocks at Otto’s door and he expects his mother to come in, angry with him for robbing his grandfather, but it’s not Flo, it’s Vera.

She sits beside Otto, runs a hand through his blue hair and says, “We’ll only stay if you want us, honey. We certainly don’t want to intrude on your life.”

And Otto is about to confess his crime and ask for forgiveness when Vera adds, “Oh, and by they way, did Ray give you the money I gave him to give you? The hundred dollars? Or did he forget?”

fin