The Particle Theory

©2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 8 minutes

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

MOM WAS A SCURLOCK, once a respected name, but folks in town just called her Annie Screwloose. I knew this from an early age, and I knew what it implied. 

She must have been aware what people called her, but we never spoke of it until one day, in battle, I shot it as a bolt to her heart.

She puckered her mouth and carried on. “People speak ill of others thinking it will make them feel good about themselves. You picked up their mocking name because you’re mad and want to hurt me.” She shoved a cat off a kitchen chair and sat down. “I understand your anger more than I understand their meanness. I wish you could partake of the joy all around you.”

I groaned. “Not this again. About the particles.”

She smiled. “Yes, the particles. Particles of joy in the air about us. I can feel them, see them, hear them, even taste them—and they transform my life.” Her face was radiant. “Why can’t you do the same?”

“Get my life transformed by particles? Mom, that’s crazy talk. There are no particles!”

“You needn’t shout.”

I glanced around the room at the gas stove she had had installed right next to the disused woodstove, never discarding the woodstove, which had loomed there for as long as I could remember—after all, there was “oodles of space in this kitchen.” My glance took in the stacks of newspapers and magazines on top of that old woodstove, mingled with cookbooks of the world’s great cuisines, and a line of motley dishes on the floor holding several kinds of pet food, which spilled onto the patchy linoleum. 

I capped my survey with a loud sniff of the air around us, which held an odor I never smelled in anyone else’s house. “You’re not some solitary saint protecting her only son. You’re a loony-tunes who drove her husband away and keeps all knowledge of him from me. What was he like? I don’t know. I never met him.”

“The less you know of that man, the better.”

 “I’ll be eighteen soon, Mom. I’ll find him.”

#

“Hello, Dad.” 

“Don’t give me that bullshit.” He spat out the words, then launched into a fit of coughing that made me wonder whether he would live out his latest sentence.

“You ought to get that looked at.” 

He gained control of his breathing and glared at me across the amored glass barrier. “Don’t be a wiseass with me. I didn’t have to come out here and see you at all.” He rose from the straight-backed chair on his side of the glass.

“Wait,” I said. “I’m sorry I offended you. I just need—”

“Yeah, what do you need, sonny?” He sank into the chair again, more slowly than he had risen. “Nothin’ I can give you.” His eyes were dead.

“When you said ‘sonny’ just now, was that ‘sonny’ as in ‘son’? It took me years to find you. Can you at least acknowledge I’m your issue?” 

He made a sour face. It puckered the wrinkles around his mouth. I was still in my twenties, so there’s no way he could have been the age his wrinkles testified.

“Look,” he said. “I got no issues. You wanna be my son, what’s in it for me?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Forget it.” I got up to go.

“That’s right, just cut me loose. Forget I ever existed.” His eyes suddenly sparked with fire. “You tell Miss Annie Scurlock: Thanks for nothing.” 

“Tell her yourself, you son of a bitch.” 

I went to the secure door and tapped on the glass. The deputy on the other side saw me and buzzed me through. “Get what you came for?” he asked, his face impassive.

“Got what I could get.”

#

I didn’t want to come home. I’ve been doing just fine on my own—learning a trade, paying my way, traveling light. I have no attachments and want none. I do better as a solo. But she was my mother. 

Her neighbor, Mister Johnson, got in touch with me. I drove overnight to get here, took my stuff into the empty house. It still had the old smell. I sat in the kitchen, depressed, for a few minutes, then got up and went to the hospital.

She had shrunk to a mere wisp. Her eyes were bright when I came into the room, and she looked at me with recognition.

“Hello, Mom.”

She smiled and blinked. They had said at the nurses’ station that she no longer had the power of speech.

“I found the old bastard a few years ago. In jail, naturally.”

The light went out of her eyes.

“You were right about him.”

She closed her eyes and that was that.

The funeral director asked whether I wanted to specify a charity for memorial gifts. I thought of all the cats and dogs that used to be around our house, and I said the humane society.

“That’s very fitting,” he said. He looked down at the blotter on his desk, then raised his eyes again. “I suppose you know they took her cats away a few months ago.”

I gulped. “No, I didn’t.” That explained why I found no animals in the house. “I suppose it was for the best.”

“Frankly, they were getting to be a problem. After they took them away, a few volunteers from the church came by and helped clean up her house. Did the best they could, anyway, to put it right.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that, either. Keep the humane society for the memorial gifts, but I’ll send a donation to the church.” 

“I’m sure it will be appreciated.”

So I came home. Now I sit here staring at the old woodstove. There are only a few magazines and newspapers on it. There are large patches of rust on the cast iron, but it’s a real antique. I’ll bet it could be restored and sold to somebody for real bucks.

It occurs to me to wonder what it would take to fix up this old house. It’s a large Victorian, in the family since the glory days of the Scurlocks. Now it’s mine. It might be worth the investment.

Now I notice a dish on the floor in the corner by the pantry door. Something’s in it that looks like dog food. 

A scratch and a whimper at the back door. I get up, open the back door, and there stands a scrawny-looking mutt, some kind of a terrier I guess. He backs up and gives a half-growl, because he doesn’t recognize me. But his tail wags. I’ll bet this is where he comes to get fed.

I open the door. He scurries in, still half-suspicious, yet hungry. 

He makes a beeline for the dish with the dog food and gobbles it down. 

I watch him. “Hello, Mutt. My name is Frank.” 

He finishes the last morsel, looks up at me, and gives a sudden, whole-body shake. A beam of sunshine slants down through the window, and the dog’s shake sends up a thousand motes of dust, dander, and debris. They rise and swirl, tiny specks in the golden light. 

Something makes me think of Mom, and I realize for the first time in my life I’m seeing particles of joy.

The End

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An Episode

©2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 10 minutes

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

WAYNE MATCHED HIS STEPS TO THE ROTATING GLASS DOOR of the Ultra Star Boston Back Bay Convention Hotel. He walked out into warm summer air and took a deep breath.

Kop van een man (1906)  by Reijer Stolk (Dutch, 1896 – 1945). Public Domain.

Eleemosynary this and eleemosynary that—he had left all such talk behind in the hotel’s lobby. It was just a fancy word for charitable. It did not apply to the Society for the Support of the Classics, since the group aided no persons in actual need. Yet “eleemosynary” was always on the lips of Caedmon Truescott, silver-haired czar of the Society. For Caedmon Truescott nothing was more important than virtue. 

Wayne, having no agenda outside the hotel, drifted with the traffic toward Boston Common. The Society would applaud when he ousted Truescott as chairman of the executive committee. He could hardly wait. Maybe it would happen in tonight’s plenary session.

Truescott’s prime asset was Charmayne, his second wife, young and blonde. Charmayne, always at Caedmon’s side, bedazzled everyone. Wayne could not place Charmayne in the same thought with Mavis, his own stalwart wife of four decades. Give Mavis her due: She studied Greek and Latin to read Homer and Ovid in the original, something none of the other well-heeled classicists of the Society could claim. But Mavis was no Charmayne.

The white spire of Park Street Church loomed ahead. Wayne belatedly realized he had walked past Boston Common barely registering its huge green presence. Well, he would start paying attention, now that he was downtown. 

“Not a care in the world.” A voice pierced the babble of passersby. Wayne turned his head. A man in the shadow of the church stared straight at him. “Fat and happy, aren’t you? Probably from out of town, you have that stargazing look.” 

Wayne halted. “Are you talking to me?”

The man was young and shaggy, his clothing foul. The man’s dark skin challenged Wayne as much as his words. “Bet you never missed a meal in your life.” 

“I don’t suppose I ever have. No apologies. I work for a living.” 

The man smiled. “As would I, my friend, if I could.”

“What do you want?”

The eyes looked down, then up. “The price of a meal would help—not just for me, for my wife, too.” 

Wayne looked around, saw no woman nearby.

The beggar scowled. “You think I’m a liar?”

“No. I just—” Wayne pulled out his wallet. “Here.” He handed the man all his cash. He did not know how much he was carrying. It did not matter. 

The man glanced at the bills, shoved them in a pocket. He looked at Wayne appraisingly. “The Bible says, ‘If a man takes your coat, give him your cloak also.’”

Wayne’s jaw dropped open. “You want my coat, too?” People hurried by, stepping around him and the young beggar.

The beggar’s eyed glittered as if enjoying a rare bit of sport. “Do I look like I have a coat, brother?”

Wayne sighed. He took off his suit coat—two hundred at Men’s Wearhouse? But did it matter?—and handed it to the beggar.

“Thanks, man.” Accepting the gift with his left hand, the beggar swung a roundhouse right and connected with Wayne’s nose.

A brief spasm of pain. The man sprinted away, carrying Wayne’s coat, dashing into the street between cars and vanishing into a warren of buildings on the other side. 

Wayne’s world spun. He breathed heavily. 

Where was he? Why had the man punched him? 

He felt hands on his shoulder.

“Oh, my God, that man’s crazy. What did he do? Are you all right?” A middle-aged woman with a creased face stared into his eyes.

“I . . . it’s all right.”

“No, it’s not. Look here, you’re bleeding.” She squirreled into her shoulder bag, brought out a wad of Kleenex, and shoved them under his nose. “I’ve seen him before. He’s not right.” 

He took the Kleenex from her hand. Bright red stains. He dropped the Kleenex on the sidewalk, fished out his pocket handkerchief, and held it on his nose.

“Look, it’s down your shirt.”

“It’ll wash. It’s no trouble.”

“That man got away with your coat.” 

Wayne felt cornered. “Maybe he needed it more than me.”

“Nonsense. You should call a cop.” She looked up and down the street. “Where are they when you need them?”

Spectators formed a knot around Wayne and the aggrieved woman. 

“Listen, “ Wayne said, “it’s no trouble. I’ll just go to my hotel, the . . . Hilton Something . . . it’s right up here.” He parted the onlookers and walked away, past the church, toward the tall buildings beyond.

“Well, I never,” said the woman, her voice fading behind him.

He only had to get back to the . . . place. The place where Mavis was. Hotel. Yes.

The Hilton Something. No, no, not Hilton. But something of the sort. 

He thought as he walked: he had been in Cincinatti before, surely he could find his way back. No, not Cincinnati. 

Paul Revere memorial. Photo by Daderot at English Wikipedia.

Toledo. Was that right?

There was green on his left. He went through an arch and found himself in a shaded garden. No, not a garden. There were tombstones. Old tombstones—thin, dark tablets with names incised in square letters. Here was a big white one: PAUL REVERE. Imagine that. 

He left the cemetery and continued, up and down city streets. One block, then another. 

The place he was looking for must be close by. Maybe it was just beyond the next block. With tall buildings intervening, it was hard to see your way. 

Bystanders stared at Wayne. What was there to stare at? A cop directing traffic in the middle of an intersection gave him the fish eye as he limped by. 

The sun angled sideways. It threw long, blue shadows between buildings. 

Wayne wearied. He started to fear that he would never find his way. 

He almost gave up hope. Then it was right in front of him: The Hilton. No, not the Hilton. Something else. Back Bay something, the sign said. But it was the right place. He remembered the wide, revolving door. 

He marched carefully to stay ahead of the door. Then he was inside. 

He looked around. Some people in the lobby were familiar. One man gave him a little one-handed salute. Wayne knew him well but couldn’t think of a name. He waved back, smiled weakly. 

What now? Find Mavis. 

Where would she be? 

A key. He needed a key. In his wallet. He remembered putting it in his pants pocket after the gypsies made off with his coat. Gypsies? Whatever. 

It was there. Good. He pulled out the wallet, opened it, and found the key card. The back of the card had the hotel’s name and a pattern of diamonds. 

No room number. Of course. They didn’t do that anymore. 

He was stumped. 

A young woman in a powder-blue coat eyed him from the front desk. 

Of course!

He walked over to the counter. “Can you help me? I have this key, but I can’t seem to remember my room number.” 

She smiled, her white teeth setting off her smooth chocolate skin. “Happens all the time. I can help you.” 

He almost burst into tears. She could help him. 

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Wayne. Wayne Purvis. Mister and Missus.” 

“You’re booked in here with Missus Purvis?” 

Wayne nodded. 

She studied a screen. “Here it is.” She smiled again. “I’ll just need to see some ID.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

Wayne pulled his driver’s license out of the wallet and handed it over. 

The young woman looked at the license, then at him.  She frowned. Squinted at the license, then squinted at Wayne’s face. She bit her lip.

“Very good,” she said. “It’s you, all right. Looks like you met with some mishap?” She did the thing with her eyebrows again.

“That’s why I want to get back to my room.”

The young woman studied him another moment. Then she wrote something on a slip of paper. “Eleven twenty-three. You can take the elevators over there.” She handed him the paper and pointed across the lobby. 

“Thank you.” 

Wayne saw Mavis.

“Wayne!” She rushed to him. “We’ve been looking all over for you. What’s happened?” She gawked at his appearance.

“I met somebody.”

“I guess so.” She looked dismayed, then threw her puffy arms around him. It felt good. 

“I’ll explain” he said. “Can we just, just go to our house, first?”

“In Chippewa Falls? Wayne, this is Boston.”

“Yeah, yeah, I mean . . . our room. Go to our room.” 

“Of course, darling. That’s a good idea.”

Over her shoulder, across the lobby, that silver-haired guy looked on. 

Caedmon Truescott. 

Wayne saw the dour look on Truescott’s face and knew that this moment was the end of his dream to unseat Truescott and become chairman of the . . . the Classical something or other.

Well, let him stare, thought Wayne as Mavis steered him to the elevator.

It was good to be home. 

The End

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Dispatch from the Northern Front

Stop the presses! I went for a walk. Outside.

A polar vortex has hovered over Madison for a month or more. Last week it sagged south enough to humiliate the Lone Star State. Blasted with snow, ice, and temperatures in the 20s and 30s, the Texas power grid collapsed, causing several days of misery and danger for some three million Texans, including friends and relatives of mine. I hope and pray for their safety.

There is, believe me, no gloat in it when I say: Our snow is deeper, and our temperatures are colder. We in Wisconsin are better prepared for winter, that’s all, since we are blessed with so much of it every year. Still, the past month has been a trial, even for us. 

Our house

We’ve been continuously below freezing, below zero much of the time—rivaling the record winter of 1978-79. We’ve had forty inches of snow, which is only a little above average for this time of year. But most of it came in January and February, and during this long cold stretch practically none has melted. It towers up to four or five feet on both sides of every street and sidewalk. Even in the dead center of our yard, it’s probably two feet deep.

With day and night temperatures clustered around zero, I’ve chosen to huddle indoors. Even in my house it’s cold. But yesterday the mercury rose to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun shone. It was past time to exercise my new hip, so I walked all the way around the block. 

A neighbor’s window sign exhorted me: FIND JOY.

My friend Bill Martinez once told me: “Even if an experience is not particularly enjoyable, or even if it’s perfectly miserable, we can still enjoy it.” I’ve thought about that for more than fifty and have concluded he is right. 

We enjoy something by taking joy in it. And the only way to take joy in something is to put joy into it. Joy comes from us, from within. It’s already there, a free gift from God. Use it or lose it. If you don’t exercise your joy muscle, it goes to flab. 

So my neighbor’s sign reminded me to work on that as I walked. I’ll admit there are circumstances under which it might be harder to find joy. But strolling yesterday through a snowcape with my face turning red from the cold was a piece of cake. Joy enough for anyone.

My neighbors had shoveled their sidewalks, making my trek easy. The new hip limbered up well. With my Duluth Trading Company jacket, my scarf, gloves, stocking cap, and my sunglasses against the snow-glare, I was the perfect neighborhood tourist. The scenes through which I passed made me proud to be a Madisonian.

Southerners see photos of snow-covered landscapes and marvel at the beauty. Northerners know that a day or two after it falls, the snow is gray-brown, dingy, slushy—befouled by man, machine, and pet. This month, however, is an exception. Our neighborhood really is beautiful.

Forty inches of snow has fallen two or four inches at a time, once or twice a week. With continuously low temperatures it does not melt. A weekly or semi-weekly dusting of new snow keeps our city decked out like a New England Christmas card.

I saw neither hide nor hair of my old school chum, Milo Bung. Too cold for him, no doubt.

The telltale cord.

A neighbor has a nifty black Ford F-150 pickup truck. It sits outdoors in his driveway. I suppose other things occupy his two-car garage. Still, no worries. An orange heavy-duty drop cord ran from under the garage door to the front of the truck. He has what we all had in the old days: An electric tank heater, dipstick heater, or lower radiator hose heater to make sure that warm water or oil circulates through the engine block and keeps the engine primed for a trouble-free winter start. Good man.

I rounded the corner near home, and boy, was it good to get back inside. Baby, it’s cold outside.

Mute appeal. Could this be Milo?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Author

Ultra-Gnomic

©2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 12 minutes

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

PANADON, A GNOME OF THE INFERIOR GRADE, WAS GOBSMACKED. He had never seen a creature so bewitching as the one who admitted him to the back office of Novotny’s Pizza Palace. 

It was taller than he by half, though not generally so wide as it was tall. It looked down at him from a round, freckled face and pierced him with a thrust of its violet eyes. 

His granite composure crumbled to such a degree that he felt the full weight of the 247 pounds of gold in his left hand.

Where was he? What was he doing? What was his mission? 

Oh, yes. “Novotny.”

“Mister Novotny is out.” The creature fluttered its eyelids. “I’m Lucinda Potts, his assistant. How may I assist you?”

Did Panadon look like one who needed assistance? If the creature assisted Novoty, why did it offer to assist Panadon instead? Irregular. It made him nervous. But he must make the delivery. He teetered on the wood threshold.

Pizza with fresh Mediterranean herbs. Photo by Sahand Hoseini on Unsplash.

Lucinda Potts frowned. “Are you dizzy? Perhaps you should step inside.” Lucinda backed away from the door with that gentle, swaying grace that Panadon had imagined would be the way of she-gnomes. Not that he had any practical experience with she-gnomes. But, more to the point: Could this be a she-human?

He stumbled into the little office room. To stand near Lucinda Potts in cramped quarters was a delicious sensation, compounded of fresh Mediterranean herbs and essence of Lucinda. But, back to business. “I brought the gold.”

She zeroed in on the case at the end of Pandon’s arm. “You had better set it on Mister Novotny’s desk.” She glided across the room, swept a pile of papers from the desk. 

Panadon laid the case down and opened it for inspection. Inside lay one bar of pure gold,  about the size of a large paving block.

Lucinda gasped. “Close it, please.” 

He did so.

Panting, she placed a hand at her throat. “Forgive me. I’ve never seen so much gold.”

“Four million, six hundred eighty-two thousand, eight hundred seventy-three dollars’ worth,” Panadon said. A pointless precision, since no receipt was to be given; his orders had been explicit on that point. So why did he state the amount? To impress Lucinda Potts?

He felt hot and stuffy. “Why do you stare at me?”

“You’re not like the others.” She smiled. “They have pointy heads, but yours is flattened, as if it wanted to spill over the sides.” 

He groaned. Why fixate on the shape of his head? The very reason all the hosts of the Gnomic ovals—or, rather, those few who took note of him at all—ignored his proper name and called him Muffintop. Must she, like they, pounce on a mere deformity? 

He drew himself to full height, gazed upward, and spoke straight to her face. “Pay no heed to my head, Miss Lucinda Potts. I assure you I am all pointy inside.”

And why did she make a purring sound?

#

Malkebart stood before Clanbert Wabengner, Chief of Precious Metals Underwatch, Europe Division. He stood upright and trembled at proper intervals, though filled with glee.

“Malkebart,” the old gnome whined, “can you comprehend what a threat this was—is—to me? I was forced to dispatch a dolt with three full warkins of aurum lucidum to buy this Novotny’s silence.”

“A dolt?”

“Muttonchop, or Bufflehead, or some such. One of our toilers in the Far Beneath.” 

Bufflehead? “Muffintop, you mean, perchance?”

“Yes, that’s it!” cried Clanbert. “Trufflescap.”

“Why him?” 

“The most convenient dolt, you see, Malkebart. Detailed some ages ago to mind the slow congealment of a drift of gold some miles below Cisalpine-yet-Transpanadine Gaul, he watched over an inconspicuous lode large enough to make an impression on our pizza man.”

“Yet small and remote enough, I suppose, Your Slyness, that the Ultra-Gnomic Council’s auditors might easily overlook it?”

Clanbert Wabengner coughed. A look of pain settled on his conical old face. “Well, what was I to do? How did that Novotny get wind that I was connected to his scheme? There is my position to think about!”

“Calm yourself, sir. Apoplexy does not become you.” Malkebart raised his brows as if struck by a new thought, which was really only one that he had already thought and had conveyed to his cohort Novotny. “Those long-bearded ultras who run the Council pretend everything we do is for the good of humanity. If they thought you were using subterranean vectors to convey contraband—”

“Precisely, Malkebart. They would have me pickled in brine and replaced by one of their grand-nephews. Then they would crown one another with laurels for their virtue in the matter.”

#

“Nerves” Novotny crashed through the front door well before opening time. He shouted “Get to work! Put some zip into it!” as usual and rushed through the kitchen to his office.

There he stopped cold, because the oddest three-foot courier he had ever seen stood toe-to-toe with Lucinda Potts while she made strange, bubbly sounds. “What’s this?”

Lucinda swiveled her chubby head. “He has brought something you ought to see, Myron.”

“How many times I gotta tell you, it’s Mister Novotny in front of the help,” he said, not taking his eyes off the gnome with the big head. 

“Nonetheless, you ought to see.” Lucinda turned away from the creature, waddled over to Novotny, grabbed him by the left hand, and dragged him to his desk, where a small leather case lay.

“Open it,” said Lucinda.

He lifted the lid and staggered back. “Is that . . . what I think it is?”

“Pure gold, Mister Novotny,” piped the gnome in a treble, not unpleasant, voice. “Raised and harvested it myself.” 

“Raised. You grew it?”

“After a manner of speaking. Metals take form, as Mister Aristotle so clearly explained,  when vaporous exhalations are condensed underground. I cannot make gold grow, but I have attended its growth since youth. It has now ripened and is yours.”

“Mine.” Novotny stepped up to the brick and tried to lift it. “Ow, it’s so heavy I can’t get my fingers under it. That’s a lotta gold.”

 “Four million, six-hundred-some thousand dollars, he says,” noted Lucinda.

Novotny looked Panadon in the eye. “What’s the catch?”

“Catch? There is no catch. We earth-cruisers delight in supplying worthy humans such as yourself with as much wealth as they can use. It is our duty.”

“Right.” Novotny frowned. “Lucinda, how we gonna get this in the closet? I can’t even lift it.” 

“I can help you with that,” said Panadon. He stepped forward, closed and latched the case, and hoisted it by its handle with ease.”Where do you want it?”

“Over here.” Lucinda opened a door. She pointed inside. Panadon began to set the case on an overloaded wooden shelf beside a lot of whitish, cakey things, then thought better of it. The shelf might collapse. 

He set the case of gold on the floor. “You have a lot of white powder, in cake form,” he said, by way of conversation.

Novotny slammed the closet door. “We, uh, use it in the pizza dough.”

Panadon, whose head had just missed being pinched as the door slammed shut, wheeled to face Novotny. “No. You don’t.”

“What?”

“You do not use those white powder cakes to make pizza. You use them for something else. Something nefarious.”

Nerves Novotny grew red in the face. “Nefari—Listen, buddy, go back where you came from. Tell your boss thanks for the gold. I don’t need you around here with insinuations about drugs.”

Lucinda gasped.

“So, drugs, then, is it?” said Panadon. “That’s illegal and immoral. You’re not a fit recipient of our largesse. I must take the gold back.” He reached for the handle of the closet door.

Something clanged against the narrow side of his flat head. Ouch! 

Panadon looked around and saw that Novotny had whacked him with a large pizza tray, then tossed it aside. Now he held a nasty-looking pistol, aimed at Panadon. “Over your dead body, Shorty.”

At that moment, Lucinda gracefully swooped over and bit Novotny on the gun hand.

“Ouch!” cried the crook as the gun fell to the floor.

Panadon stepped forward, picked up the pistol, crumpled it in his hand. Then he advanced on Novotny. Nerves fled his restaurant the way he had come in.

Lucinda gaped, awestruck, at Panadon. “All those powdery cakes were delivered by pointy heads. They kept bringing them, but the stash in the closet never got bigger. I wondered about that. Almost like somebody came and took them away in the night. How did you know they were illegal drugs?”

“I did not know. I only sensed a great wrong. We have, ahem, a certain intuitive gift.”

“Aw, gee,” said Lucinda. 

“I’ll take my gold now,” Panadon said, almost apologetically.

She opened the closet door. “It’s a shame you had to come all this way.”

#

Crime does not pay. So stood the unanimous view of the ultra-gnomes gathered in the Council chamber forty miles below The Hague. 

The head of the Ultra-Gnomic Council? Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash.

They had polished off today’s agenda rather handily: Ousted the poltroon Clanbert Wabengner from his post and banished him, with his henchman Malkebart, to the quasi-pre-Cambrian lead mines in the deep crust; appointed one of their own number, Grizedek Bomf, in his place; and bestowed a Certificate of Merit plus a nice promotion on the oddly-shaped gnome who had uncovered Clanbert’s vile subterfuge.

As Panadon left their august presence, assured of the opportunity to supervise a dozen underwatchers on a large platinum deposit beneath Saskatchewan, he thrilled at the thought that some of his new colleagues would be she-gnomes. Perhaps one would remind him of the gracious Miss Lucinda Potts, now installed in his mind as Permanent Dream Girl.

“And what was that young fellow’s name again?” asked an aged member of the Ultra-Gnomic Council. “The one with the flat head?”

“Mumblestump,” said the member on his left as each awarded the other a fresh laurel wreath, in cognizance of their mutual virtue.

The End

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Boot Camp for Uncle Max

© 2021 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

#

MOM BROUGHT UNCLE MAX HOME FROM THE STATION. 

He stepped through the front door, looked around, smiled at me and Dad. He seemed less tall than I remembered, hunched forward a little, with the collar of his overcoat turned up against the cold. The forelock of dark hair pointed down to his eyes, which nested among dark lines and baggy skin I had not seen before. 

“Hello, Bob.” He dropped his kit bag on the floor and stuck out a hand. 

Dad shook it. “Nice to see you, Max.” 

I rushed forward. “Hi, Uncle Max.”

“Hello, kid.” It was like a slap in the face. I had been about to hug him.

Mom pushed from behind. “Don’t just stand here letting the cold air in. Come on, out of the way. Shoo, shoo.”

Dad, Uncle Max, and I made way for the boss. She closed the front door, took off her coat, and started fussing over her kid brother. “You’ll have to wait to hear the latest adventures. He’s tired from his trip, aren’t you, Max?”

He gave her a grateful look. “Tired,” he said.

She took him to the guest room.

#

Later, at supper, Uncle Max talked. Not his usual line of chatter about hunting and fishing, wrangling horses or exploring the Australian outback. No long recollections of the time he worked his way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat, or the sharpshooting competition he won. Still, he was more like his usual self. Better rested, anyhow. “That’s great meat loaf, Doris. You can’t get chow like that out in the boondocks, where I’ve been.”

“Then you might honor the cook by eating more than one or two bites.” 

“So, Max,” said Dad. “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“Oh . . . I’m kind of in between things right now.” He shook a Camel out of its pack.

“Not in here, you don’t,” said Mom. “No smoking in my house.” 

Max frowned. Not guilt or even shame, but of frustration. 

He smiled, slid the cigarette back down, and returned the pack to his pocket. “Sorry, Sis. I forgot. I s’pose you’re teetotalers, too.” 

Mom said nothing.

Dad handed Max a bowl of mixed nuts from the buffet. “You were saying, ‘in between things’?” 

Max took a couple of walnuts. “Air transport business isn’t what it used to be.” He pulled the little chrome nutcracker out of the bowl and besieged a walnut.

 “You’re no longer with Clancy?”

“All this globe-trotting. Grain for starving villagers, Kalashnikovs for mercenaries. No good for a man. I’ve been thinking about settling down.” He fumbled the nutcracker. Mom snatched it from his hands and cracked the nut for him.

Uncle Max laughed. “Thank you, Dorrie. You always had a way with hand tools.” He looked over at Dad. “I’ve got a job out west. Chance to settle down in a nice part of the country.” 

“Ahh?” said Dad.

“Working for an FBO.”

Mom squinted. “FBO?”

“Fixed base operator. I’ll be the manager of ground operations.” 

Dad raised his eyebrows. Mom scratched her chin.

“Course, it doesn’t pay near what I’ve been making, but the cost of living’s cheap out there, and there’s lots of fish and game.”

“Sounds like an opportunity to me,” Mom said. “What kind of work is it?” 

“Like running a filling station for airplanes.” He gave a snarky grin, the first time since he walked in the door that I recognized my uncle. “Hello, Mister Pilot, Sir. Top her up with jet fuel? Can I check your oil? Rotate your tires? Rent you a little hangar space?” He looked at me and winked like he was letting me in on a joke. Just Uncle Max and me, like the old days.

“Oh, it’s perfect,” said Mom. “Good honest work, in one place.”

Max got the other nut loose by himself. “You understand, I’d be the executive in charge of the service operation. We got other guys for grease monkeys.”

“Of course,” said Dad, nodding wisely as if accountants automatically knew all about airport operations. 

#

After supper, Uncle Max put on his coat and took his pack of cigarettes to the backyard. I grabbed my parka and followed him.

He sat balanced on the edge of our snow-covered picnic table. “Jim, boy! You’re a sight for sore eyes. How are things in school?” A wisp of smoke rose from the glowing tip of his Camel.

“Uh . . . okay, I guess.”

“Those girls gettin’ after you?” He sniggered like there was some deep male knowledge between us. There wasn’t, at least on my part, but this at least was the Uncle Max I knew.

“Not half the problem for me as they are for you,” I said. This was nothing but sass. Since he was the only one in our family to be married and divorced three times, I figured I could get away with saying it.

He blew out a cloud of smoke. “Don’t let them get the better of you. That was always my problem. They get you where they want you, then you gotta cut them loose. And you pay.” 

This was too deep for me. I looked at my feet. “Tell me about your new job.”

He threw his cig on the ground and lit a new one immediately. “Nothing to tell, really. Guy I know from the war runs the whole operation—Grand Tetons Aviation. Said I could work for him.”

“How long will you be staying here with us?”

“I got a week before I have to report out there. Tell you the truth, it’ll be like boot camp for me.” 

“Boot camp?”

“You know your mom. She went through my bag and confiscated my nice silver flask. Don’t matter, it was empty anyhow.” 

Could I picture Mom putting Uncle Max through such humiliation? Sure I could.

“It’s okay,” said Uncle Max. “I’ve been through boot camp before.”

#

We all accompanied him to the station. He stepped onto the platform to meet the train, a different man from the one who had slinked in the door a week before.

He was all jaunty fedora and shiny new wingtips, and everything in between had been remodeled. Mom had taken him downtown on a shopping expedition Wednesday. Under his new tan trench coat he wore a gray suit and striped tie. His bulky aviator’s watch had been replaced by a slim gold Bulova with a matching expansion band. 

Even the comma of greasy-looking hair was gone, the lines and eyebags banished as if they had been massaged away. Maybe he had gained a few pounds.

He set down his brownSamsonite suitcase, yanked the leather glove off his right fist, and shook my fourteen-year-old hand just like I was a grown man. “So long, Jim. Come on out and see me. I’ll take a few days off and we’ll go bag ourselves one of those bighorn sheep on a mountaintop.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

He shook Dad’s hand likewise, then turned to Mom. “Thank you, Dorrie, for all the good food. And, well, for everything.” He leaned in to hug her.

“Just go make that airport hum. Make us all proud.” 

“Airports don’t hum, Sis. They buzz.” He looked embarrassed at the lame joke. “But yes. I will, Sis. I will.” 

I wondered who had paid for all this new clothing and luggage, his fresh haircut and nice-smelling cologne—him, or Mom? At no time in the past week had Uncle Max taken us all out for a big restaurant dinner, as on past occasions. He always enjoyed putting on a show and being extravagant, if he could.

Then the train came. Uncle Max stepped up into a gleaming car and was on his way to Wyoming.

#

A few years later, after he was well settled, we paid him a visit. It would turn out to be the last time I saw him. 

He had married a fourth time, to Ruthie, a woman who looked like a better match than his other wives had been. 

He showed me the camping and sporting gear he had collected: hunting rifles, fishing rods and reels, nifty little tents and camp stoves and backpacks. It was great equipment and well used. But he did not take me out in the wilds to hunt or fish with him. 

“Sorry, Jim,” he said. “I’ve just got too much work to do at the airport.”

“That’s all right, Uncle Max.” By that time, I had other things on my mind, anyway.

He looked over at Mom. “Always remember how important your family is, Jim. Someday you’ll need them, and they’ll come through for you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Mom’s boot camp must have been a success.

He died a year or two later, from too much hard living, and left Ruthie a nice house and a modest pension.

The End

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Watch This Space

Dear Reader,

Thanks for your patience. You may recall that I was attempting to write one short story a week, as recommended by Ray Bradbury, and was posting those stories each Tuesday on this blog. 

I was eight stories in, doing just fine. But a funny thing happened on the way to story number nine. I had major surgery to replace my left hip, and my brain was blitzed by opioid painkillers. The fuzz in my head made it impossible to start a new story.

Good news: The logjam has broken. I’ve got a good start on story nine, but it may take a few more days to complete. As soon as it’s ready, I’ll post it, and will add a hyperlink here to guide you to it. Then I’ll try to get back on the regular Tuesday schedule.

Here it is! Better late than never.

Thanks for reading.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Writing Therapy

Even without all this wealth and fame, I would still be a writer.

Writing is a form of therapy for me. I have not always appreciated my blessings. I have cherished slights, nurtured grudges, and entertained low opinions of people, simply because  I did not understand them. Harboring resentments against those close to us can become a life-long way to avoid developing a more mature and understanding attitude.

Sometimes, writing gives me an unexpected window into someone else’s world—an opportunity to get outside myself and see a larger picture. 

A recent medical concern curtailed my writing for several days. When the ability to write returned, I penned this little memoir that showed my own father—a man I did not always appreciate—from a different perspective.

I thank God for the opportunity to discover my own story in writing.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Life on the Vermilion

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Trivial? Maybe.

Moot? If you say so. 

Nonetheless, my acknowledgment is overdue: No father was more earnest, more dedicated in his fathering, than my father.

Dad in WWII.

He was the second-youngest in his family and felt “left behind the door.” His parents raised him up, in the Great Depression, to use little and want less. He survived combat in the Pacific, then joined the ranks of veterans striving to build a chrome-and-formica utopia for their young families in postwar America. 

I know these things now but did not know them then.

All I had to go by was details: The sun blazing down on an August afternoon in 1956, drops of sweat glistening on my father’s forehead.

“Come on, Dad, pleeeease. At least we’ve got to try her out.” 

Dad sighed. He had just spent his last pre-vacation morning at work, running test titrations so bags of chemical fertilizer could roll out to farm co-ops around the Midwest with accurate numbers on their labels. 

“It’ll be her maiden voyage,” I pointed out, to enhance the expedition’s appeal.

Wooden shipping pallets. Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash.

He mopped his face with a handkerchief and looked down at the maiden in question: A wood-and-rubber raft. 

Not just any raft. A river raft. 

She had no name—though, come to think of it, why would she, with no champagne to christen her? But she was a trim vessel, based on a wooden shipping pallet of the commonest variety. Since a few strips of wood could not buoy up two young men on a riverine adventure, my neighbor Jon and I had augmented her with inner tubes. In those days, all automobile tires had inner tubes to hold the air in. We had lashed four black rubber tubes between the pine slats with clothesline rope and inflated them using a bicycle pump.

We dreamed we would take her down to the Gulf, à la Huckleberry Finn. Neither Jon nor I had read that book, but you couldn’t grow up a boy near a river and not know the concept. We would launch our craft in the mighty Vermilion. We would float down to the Illinois and thence to the Mississippi, where there were adventures to be had; adventures just vaguely surmised. If we had not read Huckleberry Finn, what are the chances we had even heard of Don Quixote?

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré. Public Domain.

But before we could get the raft in the water, Jon went off with his family on a driving vacation. He okayed my attempting a solo test voyage, “just to make sure she floats okay.” 

Dad in the 1950s.

Knowing that we were about to leave on a vacation of our own, I ambushed Dad when he came home from work, still in his dress pants and white shirt. He had laid down his slide rule and loosened his tie, but that was it.

Dad frowned. “How are we going to get it from here to there?” With the negativity rampant among grown-ups, he saw the three-quarters of a mile between our driveway and the river as an obstacle. 

“We’ll put it on my coaster wagon and wheel it down there.” Voilà! Problem solved.

My plan worked fine until we hit the rutted, pock-marked shale road that led to the river. The wobbly front wheels and tongue of my wooden Radio Flyer wagon immediately bogged down in surface debris. 

By this time, however, Dad was committed. He stood the raft up on its end, inched himself underneath, and hoisted it onto his broad back. Off he trundled, bent double by the weight of the raft. The thing was heavier than it looked.

Caught up in the romance of the voyage, I skipped along happily beside Dad. I was eleven years old. He was thirty-four. Once upon a time he had humped a forty-pound U.S. Army field radio over steamy  jungle trails. Later he had been the centermost center on the Knox College Siwashers football team. But his recent pursuits had been sedentary, and he smoked. While I cleverly flailed and swished our paddle, made of two small boards, through the air, Dad staggered down the shale road under the weight of a huge vessel.

Twice, once each side of the Stink Creek bridge, he had to set the raft down. Twice he lifted it again and stumbled on through clouds of mosquitoes and swarms of gnats, regaled by my cheerful commentary at his side.

We reached the launch point, a shelf of sandstone that jutted over the sluggish green river. Dad dropped the raft beside the water, and between the two of us we shoved it into the stream. I clambered aboard. The raft crept away from the sandstone ledge, pulled by a current of about a quarter-mile per hour. 

An eyebolt sunk on the front of the raft anchored fifteen feet of white cotton clothesline, the other end of which Dad held firmly in his hand.

“It’s okay, Dad. You can let go.” I waved my clever little paddle in the air. “I’ll take it from here.”

He peered across the water at me. “I don’t think so. You mother made me promise to keep you on a tether.”

Curses. Foiled again by Mom. I looked about me, upstream to where the old iron bridge crossed the river near the National Guard Armory, then downstream to where the river bent beyond a fringe of willows on the low bank. It was a hot summer afternoon in Streator, Illinois. It was almost impossible to detect a quiver of motion anywhere. No birds swooped low. No fish leapt for joy from the water; none even cut the surface with their lips, seeking food or air. There were a few bubbles on the green, soupy surface. If I looked very closely at them, I could see they slowly changed position against the background of the opposite shore. 

“Dad,” I asked, “what if I fell in the water?”

“Why would you do that?”

“Well, I wouldn’t. But I mean if I fell in by accident. Do you think I’d drown?”

“Not if you had the presence of mind to stand up.” Squatting on the ledge, he lit a cigarette, took a drag, and exhaled a stream of smoke over the water. “This time of year, I doubt there’s a place between here and Quincy with more than two feet of water or a current faster than a turtle’s walk.” 

“Yeah, that’s what I figured.” I dipped the paddle in the water and propelled the raft back along its fifteen-foot line almost to the bank; then let it drift back out, then paddled it in again. “I guess that’s it. We can go.” 

Dad carried the now fully-tested watercraft back all the way on his back, huffing and straining, his face turning red as he broiled in the afternoon sun. He was a good enough citizen that he would not have simply left a junked raft sitting by the side of the Vermilion River all by its lonesome. 

I figure now, looking back on it, that he probably knew I would not be needing the raft for any actual river exploration. I had sucked out my fill of the adventure that was to be hand from the thing. Maybe Jon would want to give it a try when he got back to town. But by that time I would be on to something else, and Jon would probably be along with me on that. Jon was a year or two older than me. Sometimes I think he just followed my lead because he enjoyed my company and wanted to see where my curiosity took me. He was like Locomotive 38 the Ojibway, in that story by William Saroyan.

We went on our vacation, the inside of our Buick Special smelling of Ben-Gay as Dad drove us out of town over the new bridge on Highway 18. I can’t tell you just what happened next.

That was 65 years ago. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to be a dad myself, and a granddad; to spend myself foolishly, from time to time, indulging the whims of my offspring, or bailing them out of some little mess or other. I probably never did anything as foolish as carrying an 80-pound raft on my back a mile and a half on a summer afternoon in downstate Illinois.

But then, my dad’s dedication to the art of fathering was in a class by itself. I guess that’s what I’m getting at.

Thanks for listening.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

The Magic Well

Lord, save me from Creativity.

The Muses ClioEuterpe, and Thalia, by Eustache Le Sueur, c. 1652-1655. Public Domain.

Writers know that when pen touches paper, magic happens. But if we have any sense we deny it. We do our best to ward it off. Far better to develop a craft—a set of skills that give us a place to go and a map to help us get there—than to blithely follow the Muse. 

So we plop our best writing pants in our best writing chair four hours each day. We bat out five hundred or five thousand words per session. We outline our story. We biograph our characters.

And, Lo! the magic happens. 

“Naturally,” we say, explaining: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” 

Ho hum.

Were we to admit that writing is what Red Smith said it is—sitting down at the typewriter, opening a vein, and letting it bleed—we would abandon the quest altogether, for few could bear sitting down to write with no surety that anything at all would come out.

We cling to our practical, scientific methods because we think they will at least yield a concatenation of words on paper. From there, it’s only a matter of revision.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash.

When something halts the magic, even when something blocks the flow of those humble superstitions we use to summon the magic, we plunge into despair. We can’t get the juicy stuff out of writing, because we can’t even rattle the dry bones from which the magic is to sprout.

Last week I went to the hospital and got my left hip replaced. I have been through this with my right hip, and, earlier, with both knees. The surgery is traumatic but not beyond endurance. The problem it causes for a working writer is the operating room anesthesia and the opioid drugs prescribed for post-surgical pain. These divine formulae wipe out, for days, the mind’s ability to concentrate. 

Nothing now impedes the fresh flow of literary magic. But an ineffable fuzziness keeps my brain from forming a few simple sentences to get the ball rolling. I’m stuck.

There is nothing to do but wait it out. Sooner or later the drugs will wear off.

I am still waiting. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Lost in the Woods

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

[Larry pic]

Read Time: 18 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

§

AN OLD MAN NAMED CARL SAT ON HIS PORCH, idly carving on a piece of wood. Nothing had come to him.

He studied the dog at his feet, Chief, who lay across the top step of the porch and snored peacefully. Chief was one of those fire-company dogs, white with black spots now gone gray. “Sleep well, old damnation. Reckon you got it coming to you.”

Carl’s gaze leapt to the pickup truck that stood by the road, dwarfed by tall trees on either side. He could not recall what color it had been, but it was nothing like that color now. Except where rust showed, it was muddy gray, not much to look at. But it still got Carl down to the store for supplies and back up the mountain as soon as he had filled his order. He knew the town people watched him, scratched their heads, and probably thought him a crazy old coot. But he couldn’t help that. Nothing could help.

Wood. Photo by Charlotte Harrison on Unsplash.

He sighed. He had carved Chief plenty of times, in all positions, and the pickup more than once. Maybe he should whittle out one of those fairy tale princesses. He used to carve them for Celia, who was partial to them, but had not done one in years. He shook off the shreds from his aimless whittling and took a new interest in the wood. Where in this block of pine would he find a princess? He saw a line and pressed the tiny blade where he wanted it to cleave.

“Hiya!” said a young, chipper voice. “Whatcha doin’?”

Carl looked up and saw a boy, standing a few respectful feet from the bottom of the steps. He stood fearless, looking up at Carl with eyes that pierced his heart.  

Chief raised his up ear but showed no other interest. He knew about boys.

“Just whittlin’, I reckon,” Carl said. He looked the lad over—six or seven years old, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. “Where’d you come from?” 

“From home.”

“I mean, how d’ye come to be here, right now?”

“Walked.” He marched around in a circle, showing how. 

Carl pressed his lips together. When did kids get to be so sassy?

“We’re renting a cabin. Down the road. Me and Mom and Dad. For two weeks. It’s a vuh-cation.”

Carl examined his carving. “Is that a fact?” He drew another stroke down the block of pine. 

“Yessir. Can I pet your dog?” 

“Why ask me? He’s the one you’re addressin’.”

The boy frowned in perplexity. “What’s his name?”

“Calls himself Chief.” Oughtn’t take too much off the lower end. Princesses need room for their full skirts.

“Chief. Hi, Chief.” The boy sidled ever so carefully toward the spraddled dog. Chief raised an eyelid. The boy placed placed a hand in front of his nose, which hung off the top step along with his downside lip. Chief sniffed the hand, then licked and yawned. Courtesy rendered, he resumed his nap.

“He’s a nice dog,” the boy said in a tone of awe.

“He’s a ball of energy today,” said Carl. “Not this perky when he’s tired.”

#

“Where’s Kit?” It came to Genie that she had not seen her son for—how many minutes? Too many, here in this wilderness. She stopped stuffing food into the cupboards and looked out the kitchen window. Seeing no boy, she looked plaintively at Gus. “I told him to stay close.” 

“When did you ever know Kit to heed instructions?”

“Not yet.” She giggled nervously.

“Well, he’s only seven. Plenty of time yet for growing up.”

“If a bear doesn’t eat him first.” She shuddered.

Gus sighed. “Relax. I’ll go find him.” He strode out the door, down the steps, and out toward the gravel road that wound past the cabin. 

Genie felt mildly reassured. If Gus was not concerned, why should she be? He knew the woods better than she. Where did all that confidence come from? She longed to explore that, but all her experience told her to tread carefully. 

When they were dating—he first asked her out across the circulation desk at the library—he had been a handsome, impertinent young man. “Who are you?” she had asked. “Call me Gus,” he replied. “Now how about that movie?” She had countered, “I still don’t know who you are.” He spread his arms, offering himself for inspection. “I am a humble design engineer.” She looked at him quizzically. “And you want to see Pride and Prejudice?” He feigned confusion. “Something wrong with Jane Austen?” She knit her brows and questioned herself inwardly. “I guess my first thought was, for an engineer, you have a taste for the finer things.” He smiled from ear to ear. “That’s why it’s you I’m asking out, Marian.” “It’s not Marian, it’s Genie. And it’s a date.”

At dinner, after the show, Gus had chatted amiably about Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy, measuring the film against fine points of the book—another shock to Genie’s system. But when she asked anything about his background—his youth, where he grew up, were he went to high school, he clammed up. He shunned all her questions in the nicest way, referring her to his employer, a design-build construction company, who he said would vouch for his honesty.

While falling in love with him, she assumed he would someday share his personal story. But now, eight years and one son later, she still knew nothing of his life before they met. Something had wounded him terribly, and he had walled it off. 

She was hurt that he would not share. All in good time, she thought, as always.

Gus was gone a long time in search of Kit, and she began to worry. Then she saw him coming up the path from the road. Alone, but not upset. That could mean anything.

She ran out on the cabin porch to meet him. “Yes? Tell me. Quick.”

“Relax.” He grinned. “There’s an old sawyer’s cabin a mile up the road. I thought that’s where he’d go.”

“Why did you think that?”

He shrugged. “Because that’s where the road leads. Anyway, I snuck up, hid in the road, screened by bushes, and saw him holding quite a parley with the old man and his dog.”

“Our first day here, and he’s out bothering the neighbors. But you didn’t you bring him home with you?”

“I wouldn’t say he was bothering the guy.”

“You said he’s a sawyer. Doesn’t he have work to do?”

Gus sighed. “Was a sawyer, years ago. Right now, it looks like he’s just a whittler. Probably hungry for any human contact.”

She squinted. “How do you know he was a sawyer?”

“Why else would anybody live up here? He doesn’t rent tourist cabins, I’ll tell you that. In fact, we were lucky to find this one.”

How deftly he changes the subject. “Speaking of which, what prompted us to come to this out-of-the way place for a vacation, anyhow?”

Gus frowned. “I, uh, found it in the paper.” 

“It’s our first vacation ever. You know Kit would have been delighted with Disney World.”

“And he’ll be delighted with these woods, too. You wait and see.”

“I won’t feel good until he’s back in my view.” 

“Well, here he comes now.” Gus pointed. “And all on his own. No coercion.”

Kit skipped in from the road, a smile on his face and an object in his hand. “Hi, Mom. This is for you.” 

He gave her a small wood figurine, less than six inches tall. “It’s a fairy princess. He said you’d prob’ly like it.”

“Who said?”

“The old man up the road.”

“Does this old man have a name?”

Kit shrugged. “His dog’s name is Chief.”

“Aren’t you afraid of dogs?”

“No. I like ’em now.”

“How much money should I send back with you?”

Kit gave her a look of incomprehension. 

“You know, to pay for this fairy princess.”

His eyes widened. “Oh, you don’t have to pay. He said it’s a gift.”

She stood perplexed.

Gus swatted her playfully with a dish towel. “There you go, Genie. One day in the woods and already the forest gnomes are giving you gifts. That wouldn’t happen in Orlando.”

#

When the lad showed up again the next day, Carl was working on a dog. 

The boy’s eyes moved from the real dog reclining on the porch to the wooden dog in Carl’s hands. “Is it Chief?” 

“I reckon it is. He’s the only dog I’ve got to model by.”

“But—”

“I know what you’re gonna say. The real Chief is just like a lumpy rug on the floor. Sometimes I wonder if he’s drawing breath. But this Chief I’m holding is standin’ up and rarin’ to go.”

“Yeah.”

The lump of basswood, on which the old man had worked all morning, had started to show a fair likeness to its original, except for posture. The flop of the ears and the hang of the dewlaps were dead on. Tiny striations from Carl’s blade gave the impression of Chief’s hairy coat, with even the dark spots suggested by minute cross-hatchings. The dog rose on his back legs, front paws flailing the air, as if leaping to snatch a treat from Carl’s hand. 

“You see,” he told the boy, “this is how old Chief looked a few years ago, when he was a gay young dog.”

“Chief is gay?”

“Happy. Playful. That’s what I mean. Just like this.” He held the object for the boy’s admiration. Carl was proud of his work. He might be just an old buffoon in a cabin in the woods, but he knew a thing or two about beauty.

The boy, who had told Carl his name was Kit, asked, “How old is Chief?”

Carl scratched his chin, as he often did when ciphering. “Well, let’s see, it’s about fifteen years ago I got him, and he was just a wiggly puppy then.” 

“Did you buy him at the pet store?”

Carl chuckled. “Oh, no. When you live in the right kind of place, people give you nice dogs like this for free.”

“For free!” Kit jumped up and down on the porch, causing Chief to turn back over his shoulder and protest. 

“Let’s go inside a minute, and I’ll show you something.” 

The boy followed Carl into the dim, cool cabin. Carl switched on a light. “Look at that.”

Kit’s eyes roamed the room. Every surface held carved figurines—in all woods, painted and unpainted, varnished and unvarnished, stained and unstained. They were in two or three subtly different styles, which the boy would not notice, but all bore the fine marks of Carl’s favorite tool, his simple, two-bladed jackknife. He had heard that there were knives especially made for woodcarving, but as long as he had a good, sharp pocketknife, what did it matter? 

Kit roamed the room, looking at dozens of forms—deer and badgers, Chief, the pickup truck, miniature tree trunks of the species from which they were carved, even beetles and toads. He reached out to touch a magnificent stag, and Carl wanted to shout, “Don’t!”—but he bit his tongue. What did it matter? The boy might as well touch them.

Carl picked up an eight-inch carving of a strikingly attractive young woman in a simple dress, looking back over her shoulder. He showed it to the boy. “This was my wife, Celia. When she was young. I lost her before I found old Chief. He never had the chance to know her goodness.” 

“How did you lose her?”

“She died.”

“Oh.” Kit’s eyes were big and round. Carl did not know whether the boy had any idea what death meant. Still less how quickly a fast-growing cancer could destroy a life.

Carl set the carving of Celia back down and picked up a smaller one, a little boy in cherry wood, an impish smile on his face. “It’s our boy, Otto. When he was little. He was fifteen when I lost him.”

“Did he die?” 

“No, no. At least I haven’t heard if he did. No, I lost him by sending him away. I was bad to him.” 

#

Gus wondered what he had gotten himself into, and how he would get himself out. And whether he wanted to get himself out.

“This is the forest primeval,” Genie said, spreading her arms as they hiked up the road. 

“That sounds like a quote.”

“Longfellow. ‘Evangeline.’ ” 

“If primeval means original, then Longfellow was talking about someplace else. This is all second-growth timber.” Gus stopped and gazed up at the canopy of trees. “Old second-growth.” 

“And did you just happen to know that?  Or are you an expert forester as well?” 

He shrugged.

“Anyway,” she said. “It feels primeval.”

“Well, there may be something in that.” He grinned. “Lots of primeval feelings up here on this mountain.”

Genie sighed as they walked on. “Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Gus pointed to a bend in the road ahead. “Now hush up. Just beyond here is where the old man lives.” 

“And we’re hushing up because?”

“Just take a look for yourself, and you can judge whether Kit’s in any danger from this old geezer.”

“More likely the other way around, I’d think.” 

“Shh. Lower your voice.”

#

The planes of Otto’s face, caught in a large piece of cherry wood, revealed a smoldering anger. The anger became more focused as Carl worked. Clearly the anger was aimed at him, the carver. Accusatory woodcarving. Will wonders never cease.

He had begun work in the wee hours, unable to sleep. Now it was mid-morning. He whittled calmly but with weariness. 

Chief and the boy watched in silence until, at last, Kit could not contain himself. “I thought you said this was the same boy.”

“It is.”

“But he doesn’t look the same.”

Carl met the boy’s eyes. “The one you saw yesterday—Otto was about your age. I’ve made lots of carvings like that. But I’ve never before carved Otto when he was fifteen.”

“Why not?”

“Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.” Carl brushed a few crumbs of cherry off Otto’s face. “That’s why you think he looks different. He’s older.”

“But he’s not happy, like the other one.” 

“I’m afraid you’re right. He’s not.” The boy nodded, frowning, and Carl wanted to explain. “Nothing can make him happy. That’s how he was at that age.”

“Why?”

“His mama passed away. I didn’t know how much that hurt him.” 

“Why not?”

Carl sighed. “I was unhappy too. So I could only see my own grief. Not his. I’m afraid I beat him.” 

“Beat him?” The boy’s eyes showed shock. “You mean . . . ?” His hands formed small fists and plowed into his own thigh as he sat there on the porch step.

Carl hung his head. Finally, he picked up the knife again and continued work on the anguished figurine of his son. “Anyway, that’s why he looks unhappy.” 

“What happened after that?”

“He left home. I never heard from him again.”

Kit’s head whipped around at a sound.

Carl looked up. 

A woman walked in from the road. “There you are! I found you, you little rascal.” A young woman. A city woman, he guessed. A bit noisy, but she couldn’t be all that bad, raising such a fine young son. “Sir, I’m sorry. I hope he hasn’t been bothering you.” 

Carl set down his knife and the block of cherry and stood up. Now he could see the young man trailing behind the woman. He looked furtive, or embarrassed. As if he would like to reel her back in. “Genie,” he said. 

“Mommy,” said Kit. “This is the man who gave you the princess.”

She smiled warmly into Carl’s eyes. 

The young man came up even with her.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” said Carl. “Hello, Otto.” 

“Hi, Pop.” 

Her mouth dropped open and she stood there looking first at Carl, then at Otto. 

Otto turned to face her. “Otto Augustus,” he said. “Named after my grandfather.”

Carl cast his eyes downward. “God rest his soul.”

Kit jumped up and down. “Dad’s name is Otto? Cool!” 

Otto put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s a long story.”

They all stood a moment, letting their thoughts settle. 

Chief scratched his ear listlessly. 

“Well, don’t just stand there,” said Carl. “Come on up here, where I can get a good look at ye.” 

The End

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