Harry T. Loper’s Difficult Day

Dear Reader: I am immersed in a demanding rewrite of my novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Thus I cannot offer you a fresh post this week. Please enjoy this reblog of a fictional/factual treatment of a major historical event, the Springfield race riot of 1908.

Anarchy, Loper thought. 

Crowds of men, women too, ran through the afternoon streets of Springfield. Shouted. Shook fists. Spooked horses. Snarled teams and rigs. Loper had witnessed the Cincinnati riots in 1884. Now those bloody scenes flashed back across his mind.

He frowned and crushed the horn bulb, steered his touring car through the lunatics, trying not to bump flesh. Loper’s 1906 Dorris was his pride and joy, but as a National Guard member and community leader, he knew his duty. He drove toward the county jail, the same place the mob was going, but on a different mission. 

Out of nowhere, six of Springfield’s new motorized fire engines came roaring down the street. Loper swerved, nearly killing some moron walking in the gutter. Bells clanging, the fire trucks raced northward, beyond Union Square Park—and the mob in the street followed them. Loper turned down an alley between Washington and Jefferson Streets and approached the jail from the back. 

“Took your time getting here,” said Sheriff Werner.

“There was a mob in the street, and by the way, the North End seems to be burning down.”

“Don’t worry about that fire. It’s a little invention of mine, to draw people away.” The sheriff barked back over his shoulder: “Come on, hustle!”

Two black men in prison stripes and handcuffs stumbled into the sunlight, surrounded by four armed lawmen. 

“Harry Loper,” said the sheriff, “meet Deputies Kramer, Hanrahan, and Rhodes, and Sergeant Yanzell of the city police. The famous desperadoes climbing in behind you are Joe James and George Richardson. They may hang for their crimes next week, but by God we’ll keep them safe tonight.” 

Loper turned in his seat to look at the prisoners. Both men stared bleakly at the floorboards. The Dorris was spacious, but two of the gun-wielding deputies had to stand on the running boards. Loper drove all six, prisoners and officers, five miles to Sherman, where they caught a train for Bloomington. 

He drove fast on the return trip, anxious to get back to his restaurant—even though a big supper rush seemed unlikely. Decent folk would not venture out this night, even for a Friday feed at Springfield’s finest eatery.

But that was the least of it. He turned into Fifth Street only to find his place beleaguered by an ugly mob. He parked in the street and leapt from the car. 

“There he is!” shouted someone as he ran in the door. “That’s Loper, the dirty nigger-lover!”

Loper made straight for his office and got the rifle he kept in case of robbers. He came out and stood in the doorway, brandishing the gun as broadly as he could. 

“You hauled the negro out of town,” shouted a voice, female this time. “Now we will haul you!” The crowd surged forward.

Loper ran for his life.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Loper postcard, interior.
Loper postcard, exterior.

Back in Business

My Grandma, Millie Marie Gunsten-not-yet-Sommers, lived in Low Point, Illinois, in 1908 and collected postcards. In her collection are two cards with no written message, no address, no stamps, no postmarks. They were never mailed. She must have been acquired them hot off the press. 

These cards were printed and distributed for an urgent purpose: To get Harry Loper back in business after the riot. But theywere no doubt kept by Grandma simply as mementoes of the riot.

I remember her, from the 1940s and ’50s, as a homely old woman in a shapeless dress, who wore big button hearing aids, smiled a lot, rocked me in her rocking chair when I couldn’t sleep, and gave me a spoonful of honey when I had a cough.

In 1908, she would have been about twenty, a shy and socially awkward telephone operator still living with her parents and younger siblings in a very small town. What would she have thought of the distressing and notorious events in nearby Springfield? Did the big riot stay in her memory? She had enough things to occupy her mind in the intervening years, with marriage to a profane and pugnacious railroad telegrapher, the raising of five children, the loss of two sons in World War II. She never mentioned the riot in my hearing, and I never asked her about it, since I had never even heard of it. Long before I came along, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 had been buried in society’s willing forgetfulness. 

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

But our haunted past has been resurrected. We now know that Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln’s home, the city from which he went to Washington to preside over a Union torn apart by slavery—was the site of one of the worst, and also most significant, race riots in the post-Reconstruction period.

On August 14, 1908, a young white woman, Mabel Hallam, charged George Richardson, a black construction worker, with raping her the night before. “I believe you are the man,” she said after hesitantly identifying him at the sheriff’s office in the Sangamon County Courthouse, “and you will have to prove that you are not.”

“Before God, I am innocent of this crime,” Richardson said. “I can explain her identification of me only by the theory that all coons look alike to her.”

An angry crowd formed outside the courthouse. Armed guards marched Richardson three blocks to the county jail and locked him up. Soon the mob re-formed at the jail.

Sheriff Charles Werner resisted using National Guard troops the governor placed at his disposal. He figured that getting the prisoner out of town would calm the mob. He telephoned Harry Loper to commandeer his car and arranged the diversionary tactic of a fake fire alarm. Perhaps as an afterthought, he added a second black prisoner to Loper’s cargo—one Joe James, languishing in jail for the July 4 murder of Clergy Ballard, a white mining engineer. 

Loper and motoring friends in 1910. Loper, in light-colored suit and black hat, sits in the passenger seat. Photo courtesy Sangamon County Historical Society.

But the mob would not be placated. Learning that Loper had driven the two men out of town, hundreds converged on his restaurant, utterly destroying it and Loper’s car. The restaurateur escaped through a rear basement entrance, but Louis Johnston, a white factory worker, was hit by a stray gunshot inside the restaurant and died.

Black Districts Pillaged

The mob then turned to the Levee, a black business district, and the Badlands, a nearby neighborhood where blacks lived in mostly run-down houses. Many African American residents fled to any available refuge, although some defended themselves with revolvers and shotguns, firing from upper stories of businesses in the Levee.

The white mob lynched two black businessmen—Scott Burton, a 59-year-old barber, and William K. H. Donnegan, an 84-year-old shoemaker. Both men were beaten, slashed, and hung, their bodies mutilated. 

In three days of rioting, at least thirty-five black-owned businesses were destroyed and riddled with bullets, and a four-square-block residential area was put to the torch. Local police, fire, and sheriff’s office responses were ineffective or nonexistent. Order was eventually restored by National Guard troops, deployed too late to stop the destruction and carnage. Accounts differ as to how many Springfield citizens, besides Burton and Donnegan, were killed or injured. At least several people, both black and white, died. Some estimates are higher.

Legal Penalties

Within a few days, a special grand jury “issued a total of 117 indictments and made eighty-five arrests for murder, burglary, larceny, incitement to riot, disorderly conduct, concealed weapons, and suspicion” (Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, by Carole Merritt [Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, 2008], p. 59). 

However, in the trials that followed, only one person faced serious punishment for participation in the riot—Roy Young, 15, who confessed to “shooting at negroes” and helping burn 15 or 16 houses and was sentenced to the state reformatory at Pontiac. Another rioter, Kate Howard, a boardinghouse owner known to have led rioters in the destruction of Loper’s café, was released on $10,000 bond and subsequently re-arrested in connection with the lynching of Scott Burton. “Before leaving for prison, Howard secretly took poison and died at the door of the county jail.”

Negro prisoner Joe James was convicted of the murder of Clergy Ballard and was hanged October 23, 1908. However, George Richardson, the man whose alleged rape of Mabel Hallam was the actual spark for the riot, was fully exonerated and released from jail two weeks after the riot, when his accuser admitted to the grand jury that she made the story up. According to Wikipedia, “He received no restitution or apology for his time away from work or harm to his name. He went on to work as a janitor, and lived until he was 76, when he died at St. John’s Hospital. His obituary did not mention the events of 1908.”

Catalyst for Founding of the NAACP

Richardson’s vindication would seem to be the only good thing to have come out of the Springfield riot. But it was not.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Wealthy white Republican Socialist William English Walling traveled to Springfield in the aftermath of the riot, visited hard-hit areas and spoke with survivors of the riot. He penned an article, “The Race War in the North,” for a New York weekly, The Independent.  Journalist and social activist Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article and wrote to him in response. They organized a January 1909 meeting in New York, attended also by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, which became the founding meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Prominent black and white leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Villard and his mother Frances Garrison Villard, Ray Baker, Mary Church Terrell, Archibald Grimké, and Ida B. Wells joined the initial organizational efforts. 

Thus the Springfield riot became the catalyst that led to the formation of the NAACP early the following year. 

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Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

COVID Wednesdays

Each Wednesday of COVID, our grandchildren’s school releases them on their own recognizance, with the vague injunction to pursue “independent studies.” 

Pish, tosh. What do grade-school children know from independent studies? 

Ours—Elsie, 11, and Tristan, 8—fortunately have something available that’s better than independent studies. They have grandparents.

Their mom and dad both work Wednesdays, so Elsie and Tristan spend all day with us. 

They choose one of the world’s nation states in advance, and we come up with a lesson. We’ve done Egypt, Spain, Uruguay, Fiji—just to name  few. We start by bombarding our grandkids’ heads with random facts about the chosen nation. Then we cook some food alleged to be typical of the chosen nation. They participate in both the bombardment and the cooking . . .  at varying levels of excitement. 

Sometimes they abandon Mormor—the Swedish name for their grandmother, Jo—when she’s in the midst of an exciting recipe. They just run off and do something else. Turns out, it was exciting to her, but not so much to them. On other occasions, they stick throughout the process. 

Our kids are fickle and changeable. But, thanks to Mormor’s dogged persistence, we always end up with something original and tasty to eat. Often it’s a sweet dessert, and we detect no reluctance to consume it.

Afternoon is literature time. That part of the curriculum varies a great deal, too. I’ve gone radical by introducing poetic meters—the various kinds of rhythmic “feet,” iambic pentameter and such. Or sometimes we discuss what a piece means. Elsie and Tristan both like Robert Frost. And it turns out they’re capable of memorizing whole poems, if only they are challenged to do so.

On other occasions, the curriculum may be less formal. Last week we regaled one another with silly songs. Needless to say, their silly songs are sillier than my silly songs. Then we read a few Paul Bunyan stories, including one about the time Paul Bunyan tried to drive his logs down a Wisconsin river that ran around in a perfect circle. It took a while for Tristan to realize that such a thing is impossible—but he figured it out on his own. 

Much of my teaching is stuff and nonsense, of the basest sort; but I have a nagging fear that if not for Bapa—their non-Swedish name for me—they would miss out on such things entirely.

These days, children’s educational and recreational opportunities are meted out, trimmed, and balanced to a stupefying degree. We all know kids need exposure to the world of their grandparents, but we commonly neglect that need while we pursue other goals that are less vital. 

Should you have the opportunity to spend extra time with your grandchildren, rejoice. And use the time wisely. Don’t fritter it away in certified, approved, and educator-recommended lesson plans. This may be your one chance to give them something different.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Re + Vision

re•vise . . . 1 to read over carefully and correct, improve, or update where necessary [to revise a manuscript, a revised edition of a book] 2 to change or amend [to revise tax rates]

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster’s second definition, “to change or amend,” suggests a process that may be nonchalant, whimsical, or mysterious, as when the legislature metes out taxes. 

The first definition, which applies to a manuscript or a book, specifies a careful reading and only necessary corrections, improvements, or updates.

Friends, Romans, and countrymen—I am not here to raise your taxes. But I do have a manuscript to revise. (See last week’s post.) 

The Varieties of Revision

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Among literary lions, there are some who actually revel in the process of revision; who feel more comfortable and capable when improving a story than when thinking it up in the first place. Happily, I am one of those.

Revision, however, comes in different flavors:

  • There is the final polish, when you go through a solid manuscript to weed out extra spaces, an occasional poor word choice, or potentially embarrasing typos.
  • There is a thorough stylistic edit, where you change a lot of words, phrases, and expressions, with the aim of making the prose a joy to read.
  • But there is also another kind of revision. The term “structural” comes to mind. That is, a serious revision of the story itself.

My dictionary says “revise” comes from Latin re, meaning “back” plus visere, “to survey” or  videre, “to see.” (“See vision,” it adds, helpfully.) 

I am now embarked on what is sometimes known as a tooth-to-tail revision of Freedom’s Purchase. It’s clearly a case of re + vision.

More than simply supplying a few missing commas, it’s an attempt to supply what is missing in the story, and in the narration of the story, so that it will become a riveting read. It’s a re-working of the original vision.

What Will Change

Elmore Leonard. Peabody AwardsCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some characters will be lost in the shuffle. Many scenes will be redesigned or omitted entirely, and new scenes will be added. The main character will become more clearly a protagonist—the person who drives the developments in the story. Whereas the original manuscript had long sections of pastoral description or complex explanations of the historical context, my aim for the new version will be to put conflict or tension on every page.

It should be a book you’ll not want to put down, for fear you might miss something important while you’re making a sandwich.

The late Elmore Leonard had a simple explanation for his vast success in producing major novels and screenplays throughout a long career: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

That, Gentle Reader, is what I’m trying to do, so that when you buy my book, you won’t have to skip any part of it.

The process reminds me of Michelangelo looking at a block of marble and chipping away everything that’s not a horse.

Keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Back to the Drawing Board; OR, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #7

Only last summer I regaled you with a series of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Perhaps you recall it, Dear Reader.

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I clearly issued the following caveat:

“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.  If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:

Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)

Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)

In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchasea historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.

It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.

Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write  a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.

Ups and Downs

It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript. 

Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)

I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:

I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.

It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.

Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:

I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.

Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.

What to Do?

A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.

My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.

Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me. 

The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.

So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?

Parting Thought

Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read. 

It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t. 

He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.

“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”

He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns. 

Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

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?

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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?

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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