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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Alibi

Read Time: 1 minute

DEAR READER:

X-ray of hip replacement. Mikael Häggström. Public Domain.

Your New Favorite Writer will undergo hip replacement surgery Wednesday, January 13. It’s not that big a deal. I’ve been through it before, and my surgeon is first-rate. 

But there is a lot of folderol involved in preparing for, undergoing, and then recovering from this kind of an operation. It also involves the use of drugs that may conjure a state of confusion more pronounced than my usual state of confusion.

I was going to post a new short story this week, but what with everything else, I have not had time to finish it. So I have given you instead a sour commentary on the shenanigans in Washington and what they might signal as far as the rest of us are concerned. That will have to hold you for the time being.

WATCH THIS SPACE. I will be back before long (two weeks? a month?) with a new short story for your entertainment. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my other stories or my nonfiction commentaries.

See you on the other side.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

No. We’re not.

Read Time: 7 minutes

We are not “better than this.” 

Rioters storm Capitol. VOA News.

Would you please stop saying, “We are better than this”?

Where have you been living?

“This” is who we have become. It did not happen yesterday. It does not date from 2016, when we elected Donald Trump. It does not stem from 2000, when Bush and Gore arm-wrestled for the Florida vote all the way to the Supreme Court.

I have watched us devour ourselves for more than fifty years. It has all been out in plain sight.

One expletive at a time, we have destroyed all trust in our most important institutions, which is to say we have destroyed all trust in one another.

We have become a nation of character assassins. Oh, so casually. As if the words we use to describe one another do not matter. In reality, they are practically the only words that do matter.

The Mirror Test

If you feel incensed about some political issue, and you express your moral outrage by calling a politician you have never met “an ignorant f*ck,” you are not solving the problem. You are the problem.

If you recognize yourself in the paragraph above, and you say, “Well, what else can I call someone who approves of starving the poor?”, you have not brought light to an important issue. You have only defended your calumny by blaming its victim. 

If you are stalwart in your casual infamy, I suppose this feeling of self-righteousness reflects your internal fear that someone will disapprove of you. You signal your virtue to deflect attention from the void within.

Were your outrage at the opposition truly righteous, you would accurately describe the problem, analyze and dispel misguided attempts to protect the problem, and work at building relationships of trust with those who can help solve the problem. You would not start by calling names.

Death of Civility

There was a time—we who witnessed it are shrinking in number—a time when people generally addressed one another in terms of dignity and even a bit of formality. 

When politicians disagreed with one another, they said things like, “I would like to point out to my Learned Colleague . . . .” 

Of course, these studied phrases, like “Learned Colleague,” “Distinguished Opponent,” or “Esteemed Friend from the Other Side,” were deliberate euphemisms. They were consciously inserted in place of what the speaker may have really thought—“liberal jerk,” “conservative bastard,” etc. 

You may call such circumspection insincere. I call it wise. Politicians in those days knew that words can calm or inflame, and that your opponent of today may be someone you need to call on tomorrow for help in a larger cause. Harsh words can burn bridges.

On account of a war held in the 1960s, I was removed from the United States for a period of time. When I returned in 1969, donned civilian clothes, and began to resume my education at a major university, the culture to which I returned smacked me in the face like an arctic tsunami.

The most vulgar terms of personal abuse had become common currency in the mouths of otherwise cute coeds. The students and campus-hangers-on around me were more interested in heckling, belittling, and humiliating those in positions of power than in reasoning with them. Their exemplars were Chairman Mao’s Red Guards. And they had been reading Saul Alinsky, who said, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. There is no defense. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.”

All this “ridicule”—not to mention snarling hostility and physical intimidation—was justified under the exalted rubric: “The Politics of Confrontation.” Sounds like a book title, or an undergraduate seminar, doesn’t it? 

This bombastic, bellicose barrage of invective was justified as the verbal equivalent, at home, of the incendiary bombs being dropped on Vietnamese villagers. It was fighting fire with fire. Because of the moral horror being fought, no weapon was too crude to use in fighting it.

Nobody—or at least nobody virtuously fighting the Establishment—bothered to note the toll that the incessant berating of strangers would take on the moral fiber of our nation, and on the previously sacred notion that a person’s public character was an important personal possession not to be trifled with.

Self-Hatred and 500-Pound Chickens

Since then, we have been through repeated waves or cycles of public sentiment, some to the Left and some to the Right. Partisans of both sides have been tempted to substitute casual slanders for reasoned arguments. They have almost invariably succumbed to the temptation. 

Character assassination has gone from being the sport of self-styled revolutionists on campus to being the common currency of elected officials when talking about one another, and even when talking about masses of people seen as the Other Side’s Base. One’s political opponent is always seen as playing exclusively to his or her base, who may be dismissed as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, mind-numbed Zombies, or “Deplorables.” 

All of this bad-mouthing, whether from high politicians or ordinary people, has the inevitable effect of making us hate ourselves as a people. We can’t even see how much self-hatred is involved in all this—because everything is the Other Side’s fault.

That’s the dynamic that enabled the left-wing disgraces in Portland and yesterday’s right-wing disgraces in Washington.

Our chickens have come home to roost. They were such cute yellow fuzzballs when they left the nest. Now they are 500-pound bombs, and they are sitting on all our heads.

Stop This World, I Want to Get Off

I mention these things not because I wish to be a Cassandra. 

I want us to get better as a nation, to become a more responsible people. But we ought to understand that we’re not going to flip some switch and suddenly gather around a campfire with guitars, singing “Koom-Bah-Yah.” 

We have made a mess of ourselves over the decades. If it can be undone at all, that too will be the work of decades.

What must happen is the regeneration of kindness and the rejection of reflexive malice in our hearts.

Sorry to have to tell you that.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Huff, Puff

Read Time: 5 minutes

STOP THE PRESSES!

Or start the presses. At any rate, do something with the presses. 

This week I will miss the regular Tuesday unveiling of my latest short story for your comments and critique. You’ll see the story—I hope—on Wednesday. Maybe Thursday.

“So what’s such a Big Deal, New Favorite Writer, to interrupt the stream of new stories? You can’t just feed the chickadees and then leave off in the middle of a cold, dark winter, you know. We want our stories! Rumble, rumble rumble! Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny!”

I beg of you, Dear Readers, get hold of yourselves. Chill out. Keep your collective shirt on.

My Lame Excuse

You may recall I’ve been bravely storming the bastions of literary lionhood, as noted hereherehereherehere, and here. Oh, and here.

Though my historical novel, Freedom’s Purchase, has yet to secure a locked-in publication contract, it has come close more than once. I made the momentous decision, about two-and-a-half months ago, to decline a publishing contract that was offered, because I just didn’t feel the contract, and the business relationship which would develop around it, were a good fit. 

Since then, I received another request for a full manuscript read. The publisher in question ultimately passed on my manuscript—but they gave it a chance and gave me some reasons for their pass. I set about improving it, moving from fourth major draft into fifth major draft.

Late last week I got another full manuscript request from an independent publisher. It looks like a good company to be published by, and their request was cordial and businesslike. But, yikes!—I was in the midst of the latest revision. With no time to spare in filling the publisher’s request, I had to rejigger page numbers and such, so my book would appear smooth and professional, even though it’s not yet fully revised. An editor is never pleased when she finishes Chapter 13 and immediately bumps into Chapter 15, with no Chapter 14 in between. I had to make sure there were no little oversights like that in the manuscript I sent. 

The time spent responding to this new read request could not be spent working on this week’s story. That’s why I’m running behind.

The Silver Lining

I cannot predict whether the new publisher will like my book well enough to offer a contract. Only time will tell—probably a month or even two. But one thing that’s apparent is that my query materials, synopsis, etc., are becoming increasingly fine tuned. That’s why I’m getting read requests. Sooner or later, one will result in a published book. 

The manuscript itself is one of the query materials. Publishers and agents want to see the first chapter or two, to help them decide whether they’d like to read further. My manuscript is stronger now than it’s ever been. 

Meanwhile, I write these weekly short stories as a way to sharpen my narrative skills, which remain rudimentary. None of this comes easy. At least, not to me. I have to work at it.

Putting in the Time

Which brings up another topic: Time spent. Nothing writes itself. The only way to get it done is to sit in one’s chair and bang away on one’s keyboard. I believe my esteemed spouse thinks it foolhardy to spend as much time writing and revising as I do. And I’m positive it’s giving me a more sedentary lifestyle, which is not good. But you do have to put in the time. For me, it’s urgent that I do it now, before my literary impact becomes posthumous.

So I’ll put in the time to finish the first draft of the next story, which is about an old man and a little boy. You won’t want to miss it.

Once it’s posted, I may not have a chance to post another before Tuesday, January 13, when I am scheduled to have my hip replaced. If all goes well, that may slow me down for a few days.

But have no fear, Gentle Reader: I’ll be back. You can’t get rid of me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What Time Is It?

Read Time: 4 minutes

WHAT! 2021, ALREADY?

Swept up in the mad whirl of life, I did not see this coming.

It was Milo Bung who informed me. 

He stood on my front stoop in casual clothes and formal mask. Even Milo has learned to mask up. He shivered in the pool of arctic air we have lately inherited from the Canadians. “Well? You just going to stand there and let me freeze to death?” 

“Oops, sorry.” I opened the door and let him slip inside. 

He stamped his feet and adjusted his mask. That is to say, he took it off. He’s been in a bubble for months and so have I. We’re both of an age where we’ll be next in line for the vaccine.

“What’s got into you?” Milo demanded. “Did you actually not know last night was New Year’s Eve?”

“I slept through it, like most other things. To tell you the truth, I was preparing to suck the remaining joy out of 2020, but now you tell me the chance is gone.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee, pardner.” That was a hint.

François Villon. Public Domain.

“Come on, I’ll make some.” I led him into the kitchen and sat him down. “The years go by too fast. Où, I ask you,  sont les neiges d’antan?” This was a bit of Gallic ju-jitsu, intended to trap him into a long-winded discussion of an irrelevant subject. 

Dear Reader, perhaps I’ve neglected to mention that after his unfortunate stint in the Marine Corps, Milo picked up a master’s degree in French Medieval Literature. So he would know I merely meant to ask, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” But he would not be able to resist a mini-lecture on François Villon. That was my theory, you see.

Milo surprised me. “? I’ll tell you . They’ve been piling up around our ankles and knees for years. Now we’re up to our ribcages in them, and I can tell you, they’re going for the throat.” I had never seen such intensity from my old school chum. But I shared his concern.

Let me explain, Dear Reader, in case you, through no fault of your own, are among the metaphor-impaired. My old friend the French scholar was referring to years. The separate snowfalls are just harbingers of time. And indeed the years do pile up around one, just as successive snows will eventually swamp the hardiest mountain cabin.

Cabin in Snow. Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash.

I poured coffee and set it before him. “What do you propose we do about them, Milo—all these neiges?”

He took a sip, made a grateful face, and gave me a canny look. His eyes measured me, from the top of my snowy head to the gnarled hand resting on the curved handle of a cane, and on down to its rubber tip, planted on the linoleum near my questionable legs.

“You’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ve got baggage to throw overboard yet. Go up to the hospital in a couple of weeks, get that hip replaced, and by spring you’ll be good for another fifty thousand miles.”

I smiled. “It’s wonderful what they can do now, isn’t it?”

He frowned. “Me, I got nothing like that left to improve. I’ll just have to get by on sheer force of personality.”

“Gee, Milo, what if you run out?”

He scowled. “I’ll make up something else, you slippered old pantaloon.” 

I stared at him through the spectacles on the end of my nose. He had assured me of fifty thousand more miles, but from where I tottered, fifty thousand didn’t seem like all that many. 

Nonetheless, when he took his homeward way, I was cheered. After all, I had received encouragement from no less than Milo Bung, direct lineal descendant of Aethelred the Unready, and third cousin to Slats Grobnik.

Happy snowfalls to you all.

Larry F. Sommers,

Your new favorite writer