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

Snow Angel

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 11 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?

§

STARBRIGHT, AGE SEVEN, LAY FACE UP IN NEW SNOW. She waved her arms and legs with all her might. After six sweeps, she sprang to her feet and leapt clear to the sidewalk.

Snow Angel. Unknown author. Public Domain.

She turned to look. It was a perfect angel, though small because she couldn’t make it any bigger. Even so, it filled the square of terrace between sidewalk and fireplug in front of the four-story building where she lived. 

She prayed it would be enough.

She went in and, holding her red rubber boots in her hands, ran up the stairs. Thirteen steps each flight, for a total of fifty-two, like the suits in her deck of worn cards. 

“Hi,” said Uncle Dave as she entered. “I saw you down there. What did you make?” 

She stood over the rubber mat. “An angel. Do you like it?”

Uncle Dave brushed snow off her coat with his fingertips. “I do.” 

“How come you’re here? Where’s Wanda?” 

“She went across town to be with her family. So I’m filling in.” He went to the window and peered down. “Of course. That’s an angel all right. Look here what I made.” He pointed to a scraggly green tree.

“Only God can make a tree.” She enjoyed pointing out Uncle Dave’s errors. 

“But I made it stand up in the corner. And I’m going to make it pretty with balls and lights and tinsel. You can help.”

Uncle Dave’s coat was draped on the end of the sofa. Shirtsleeves rolled up, tie loosened, he lowered a string of lights over the scrawny tree. Starbright grabbed a fistful of tinsel and reared back to throw it.

“No, wait. Ornaments first.”

“Oh.” She giggled. “I forgot. Uncle Dave, I did something bad to Mommy.”

He paused and looked at her. “Yes?”

“I called her a mean old lady.”

“Not nice.”

“I want to tell her I’m sorry, but I’m not. It’s true, and people should say true things.”

Uncle Dave squinted. “Uh huh. Why is she so mean?”

“That’s what I’d like to know!”

“But why do you think she’s mean?”

“She won’t take me to see Grandma and Grandpa for Christmas.”

Uncle Dave draped the lights with care. “We’ll have a jim dandy Christmas here. I’ll come over, and you and your mommy and I can open presents and sing songs and—”

“We never see Grandma and Grandpa!” 

“Now you can start hanging ornaments. I know your mom would feel better if you apologized to her first thing tomorrow.”

“But what I said was true, and true things should be said.”

Uncle Dave mmphed. When the tinsel was hung, he warmed a pizza he had brought with him. They played war and slapjack with Starbright’s dog-eared cards until late. 

“Oops! Look at that, it’s past nine. Time for you to go to bed.” 

They hung her stocking on the coat tree by the front door, because there was no chimney. Uncle Dave said that in multiple-unit apartments Santa Claus used the front door like anybody would. She believed Uncle Dave because he knew all about apartments. 

#

Dave sat in the arm-chair, the one with the displaced spring in the seat cushion, lost in thought. 

After a while he got up, opened Starbright’s door a crack, and listened. Satisfied with the sound of her rhythmic breathing, he got a small tumbler of ice cubes from the tiny kitchen and poured in a shot of Laphroaig from the slim silver flask in his inner coat pocket. It was his one indulgence, although he could easily have afforded others. 

He held the bitter Scotch whiskey in his mouth, savoring the taste of smoldering peat and creosote. Life was like that. Some of the vilest things could turn out to be all right.

What did the Old Man have against Candy, when all was said and done? Dave had gotten to know her better since Willard’s passing, and she was all right. She was doing her best. What more could Dad and Mom demand? 

#

Starbright stood in a field of snow. Clean, white snow that sparkled like diamonds. Not a house or building or car or fireplug in sight. There were only trees, evergreens half-buried in hills of snow.

She had grown incredibly tall. She seemed as tall as the distant trees. 

Then she saw Santa coming across the fields toward her. He was walking, taking big steps in his black boots. She wondered where his sleigh was, and his reindeer, and his pack.

When Santa got closer, she saw that it was not Santa, but a woman, or maybe a man, in a long, flowing robe. He, or she, had a very peaceful look on his, or her face, and said, “Fear not.”

Starbright looked up to see the figure, who was much taller than she, even though a moment ago she had been as tall as the trees. She suddenly knew it was an angel, because she saw the wings on its back, six of them, fanning the air just the way she had fanned the snow in front of the building with her arms.

“When you wake, you must go and ask your mother’s forgiveness.” 

“But what I said was true!”

“The lips of the wise do not tell everything they know to be true.”

“Oh.” Starbright had never thought of that.

The angel nodded. 

“But,” Starbright said, “when will I ever see Grandma and Grandpa?”

“You are not meant to know by what means your needs shall be provided.” 

Starbright stared up at the angel. She could not fathom what the angel had just said, but it was too late to ask, for the angel was gone.

#

Candy rose early so she could shower, dress, and run a brush through her hair before Starbright woke. Dave would arrive early, and Candy did not want to be caught in night dress. It meant she didn’t get much sleep after coming home from Tiny’s, where she waitressed until bar time. But what else was new? 

Starbright, pajama-clad, toddled in. “Oh, Mommy, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Candy stared at her surprising daughter. “You’re forgiven, you know that. What am I forgiving you for?”

“Oh . . . you know.” 

Before Candy could reply, there was a knock at the door. Good heavens, Dave was here already. 

“Come in,” Candy said. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”

Dave carried an armful of packages, which he tumbled down onto the sofa. 

Candy took his overcoat. “I haven’t started cooking yet. Sit down and relax. I’ll rustle up a big breakfast, and we can open presents after that.”

Starbright looked disappointed at the order of things, but she might as well start learning about delayed gratification.

“Here. This might help.” Dave dived into a sack on the sofa and pulled out a tray of store-bought cookies. He held them out to Candy as she returned from hanging his coat.

“Cookies? Thanks, but how’s that breakfast? Both of you just cool your jets, and we’ll get around to treats after—”

Another knock sounded at the door. 

Dave looked at Candy. “Are you expecting someone else?”

She shook her head, and with an expressive shrug went to the door and opened it.

Her father-in-law, Thomas Campion, the Thomas Campion of Campion Realty, stood there, his height and breadth filling the doorframe, a sour look on his face. “Well, Candace? Can we come in?”His wife, Marge, in fur, stood behind him. She elbowed him aside and shoved her way in. “What he means, my dear, is Merry Christmas. It’s so delightful to see you again.” She smiled a thousand watts, including about forty watts of real warmth. She shoved a stuffed bear out ahead of her and wiggled it at Starbright. “Here you are, Bright! Santy left him at our house for you. His name is Geoffrey.”

, thank you!” Starbright stepped forward grinning and hugged the bear, nearly her own size. “I just knew you’d come.” 

Candy’s gaze shifted from Starbright’s radiance to Tom’s discomfort and Marge’s tension. “Yes. Do come in. Sit down.”

Dave swept his packages off the sofa. “Right here, Dad. Get comfortable.” He held out the tray Candy had just ridiculed. “Want a cookie?” 

The old man reached forward, inspected the assorted cookies peevishly, finally pinched a ginger snap between thumb and forefinger. “Thank you.”

Marge held her arms out to Candy and folded her in a clumsy embrace. 

“Candy was just about to make breakfast,” Dave said. Then, to Candy, “Weren’t you?”

They all stared at her.

“Yes, indeed.” She had bought enough ham and eggs for three. “Pancakes. How many can you eat?” 

Tom, holding a half-eaten cookie, looked up from the couch. “You needn’t cook for us, Candace. I mean, it’s a nice thing—”

“What the old fool means is, how can we impose on you, considering . . . .” 

“Considering both of you cut me and Starbright out of your lives when Bill died?”

At the word “died,” Marge winced.

“I know what’s wrong with me, but she’s your only granddaughter.” Candy found she was breathing heavily.

Starbright caught her by the sleeve and pulled her down. She cupped her hands around Candy’s ear and whispered. It sounded like, “Wise mouths don’t blab everything, even if it is true.”

Candy smiled. “Pardon my manners. Of course you’re welcome here. Tell Dave how many cakes you can eat and I’ll get cooking. Starbright, go to your room and get dressed.”

#

Starbright made a detour to look out the window. Four stories below, the snow in the little square lay undisturbed. 

A presence loomed above her head. Uncle Dave.

“No angel,” she whispered. “What happened to it?”

Uncle Dave craned his neck so his face was up against the glass and looked down. “Mmph,” he said.

#

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Christmas Traditions by Smith & Wesson

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 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?

§

MAMA KEPT THE GUN MY FATHER USED TO END HIS LIFE, which is how it came to be in the pocket of my ratty overcoat twenty years later as I stalked down St. Paul Avenue with murder in my heart.

It was a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber Police Special, a six-shot revolver made of blued steel. It took years for Mama to part with the simplest of Dad’s personal effects—clothes, underwear, socks, watch, cufflinks. She never did get rid of the gun. 

She kept it hidden in a box on her closet shelf, above the limp, dispirited dresses. At age twelve, I snooped all over the house. I fancied I knew all Mama’s secrets. Often when she was still at work, I climbed up on a chair, lifted down the Thom McCann shoe box, removed its lid, and stared at the blue revolver. It had its special place, like a treasured heirloom, kept safe to be handed down to the next generation. Sometimes I played with the bullets in the little box beside the gun. I always put things back before Mama got home. 

Lucille, my older sister, had left to make her own way in the world. She had put all the distance she could between herself and us. I can’t say I blame her. 

All that was long behind me on this cold Christmas Eve. I was now the star of my own drama. 

“I’m leaving,” Angie had announced in the small kitchen of our crappy little upstairs flat. 

“Where you going?” I asked in all innocence. “We need milk or something? I can go.”

“No. I mean I’m leaving you, Eddie. For good.” 

“What! Leaving me?” Then, a moment later, “Who is it?”

She picked up her tiny overnight case from under the kitchen table. “None of your business. But if you must know, it’s Sal.” I had not even noticed the overnight case.

“Sal the saloonkeeper? You’re dumping me for him? What’s he got over me?” I grew hot under the collar, shouted right in her face.

She stood there, bold as brass. Then her eyes softened. “I’m carrying Sal’s child.”

At that I exploded. 

I’m not sure what all I said. I am sure I did not lay a hand on her. 

But she laid me out with words, just as surely as David slew Goliath with a stone.

“A woman wants children, Eddie. I got tired of waiting. Sal gave me what I wanted. You wouldn’t, or couldn’t.” 

She walked out with that tiny case, leaving me alone with Bathsheba, the snappy little Pomeranian bitch I had given her last Christmas. I never wanted a dog. But better a dog than a little hotheaded boy.

I yelled down the hall. “What about the mutt? Don’t you want her?” 

The empty hallway bounced my voice back at me. 

The nerve. The sheer, unmitigated gall. She can’t treat me that way.

I pounded my fists on the wall until the little red fur-ball started yapping. I walked circles on the floor. Then I remembered. 

I went to the bedroom, pulled out my bottom drawer, and lifted out the gun, which had become mine when Mom died. Funny thing, I never could bring myself to get rid of it either.

Those bullets were still in the little box. I loaded the gun, jammed it in the pocket of my overcoat, and went out. 

Angie had left me for Salvatore Balistreri, the tavern-keeper. Now I was gunning for him. Somehow I always knew it would come to this. Dad was a hothead and I was a hothead. Like father, like son. 

My mind was clear as I sloshed through the snow to Sal’s place. It had calmed me some to slide the bullets, one by one, into the chambers of the rotating cylinder. I only loaded five, because I’d heard it’s bad luck to carry a gun with a live round under the hammer.

We lived in a run-down section of Milwaukee known as the Third Ward, an old Italian neighborhood. Now, in 1976, they were building highways through it. One of the last holdouts against progress was Balistreri’s bar. 

I couldn’t help notice the tavern seemed festive. Evergreen boughs draped its lighted front. The door had a fresh coat of red paint. You could call it fire engine red or church door red. Same difference. 

I pushed in through wall-to-wall celebrants, who all had the advantage of me by several drinks. The swirl of tobacco smoke and alcohol fumes was baptized by the smell of garlic as Sal’s sister Loretta danced by with a tray of hot pizza. Merry-makers toasted a small Christmas tree that sat on one end of the bar, hung with lights, tinsel, and small pictures of Italian saints. 

All this warmth around me, but I was an icicle.

Angie, on a stool at the bar, turned her face away when she saw me. Never mind that. 

I rounded the end of the bar to confront Sal. “Who the hell you think you are, loverboy? Who are you, Casanova?” 

I went to grab his collar. He fended me off. He was half a head taller than me, maybe a couple years older. His dark face turned darker, as if he knew to be ashamed of himself. 

He softly placed a white towel on the little shelf behind the bar. “Let’s have this talk outside.” 

He led the way out through the back door, into the alley behind the bar. 

I jumped him. “You’ve been screwing my wife!” 

He threw me back off and held up his hands. “Look at yourself, Eddie. No wonder she don’t want you.”

“Yeah?”

He glowered. “What kind of man is it, won’t give a girl a little bambino?”

My hand dug for the gun. My finger found the trigger guard.

“Angie don’t wanna see you any more. Neither do I. Beat it.” He turned and walked back into the bar as I pulled the gun out of my pocket. 

I raised it to fire just as the door closed.

Standing there, a bewildered baboon, I couldn’t believe it. I had come on purpose to kill him and frittered it away in talk. 

What if I went back in right now and shot him dead behind the bar, right in front of Angie? 

But I should go in the front way, like a man. I ran down the alley, turned the corner, and walked half a block to St. Paul.

I slogged down the street, went on past the front door of Balistreri’s, and found myself on the southbound ramp of the new Hoan Bridge. The city fathers wouldn’t connect the freeway that led to it, so people called it the Bridge to Nowhere. How fitting.

There I was, trudging up the long slope of the bridge, a pedestrian in the middle of an interstate highway with no cars on it. I saw a yellow flicker far away—maybe a hobo camp on the south shore under the south end of the bridge.

It was a long walk, like a mile, to the top of the bridge. But having started, I kept on to the highest point, dead over the Milwaukee River where it entered Lake Michigan. 

I looked down at the black water, a hundred and twenty feet below me. If the fall didn’t kill me, I’d perish soon after in the frigid water. The river would push me out into the lake and I’d never be found.

I felt the weight of the gun in my pocket. A surer way. Quicker. Less terrifying.

“Say, buddy, I hate to bother you . . . .” 

“Huh?” I turned away from the rail. A man stood there. 

A hairy old face, a Packers stocking cap, a bundle of heavy layers. The top layer was fur, like an old-time raccoon coat. “I wouldn’t bother you. It’s just, the pup ain’t et in a coupla days.” A ragged white snout poked out the top of his coat. A dog, some kind of terrier, with a big black nose and dark, hungry eyes.

“You carry it in your coat?” 

“He can run and jump all right, but it’s mighty cold tonight.”

How had I missed this bum’s approach? The moonlight showed his tracks in the snow, coming up from the south end of the bridge.

“You walked all this way to ask for a handout?”

“If you could just spare a coupla bucks, we could have us a meal.” 

The dog made no comment, just stared at me. 

I gave the old tramp all the cash in my wallet. “Here, you might as well have it.” 

His face lit up. “Thank you kindly.” He tucked the bills inside his coat. “God bless you, sir.” He turned and hiked back the way he had come, stepping in his own footprints.

I pulled out the gun. Now was the time. 

The bullets were old, from Dad’s era. I wondered if they would still shoot. Perhaps I should fire a test round.

I had never fired a handgun, so I held it in both hands, afraid of the kick. I aimed down at the river, squeezed the trigger. BAM!

Yes, the bullets were good. And no, the kick wasn’t too bad. 

I looked around, wondered if the gunshot would bring the old panhandler back. But he was gone, footprints and all. Already back at his campfire?

Imagine a guy like that owning a dog. At least the mutt would get a bite to eat, if the old guy could find a store open around here this time of night. I thought of Bathsheba, back at the apartment. I imagined her doggy impatience and felt a twinge of guilt.

Maybe that first shot was a fluke, the one good bullet in the box. I squeezed off another shot into the river. BAM! That settled that. 

Three rounds left. I only needed one of them to work.

Bathsheba could fend for herself. Maybe somebody would find her.

Here I was, the hothead son of a hothead father. In my hand is the gun he used on himself. I have it because my mother saved it for me. A family tradition.

A proper end to a crappy life. I couldn’t even make my marriage last. My wife dumped me because I couldn’t face the thought of another kid like me. Then that Dago bartender moved in on her, so she used him to get what she wanted.

What a sap I am, to kill myself for Sal Balistreri

I pointed the gun at the river. BAM! Take that, Sal. BAM! There’s one for you, Angie. 

I heard a whimper. Nobody closer to me than a mile.

There had been no sound, but it had sounded like Bathsheba. 

If I had been Dad, I would have plugged big Sal back at the bar, and then plugged Angie for good measure, and then shot myself on the spot. 

But I’m not Dad. 

Bathsheba whines to be fed, to be taken outside. Nasty little bitch, none of this is her fault.

BAM!

I fired the last shot into the river. 

I squeezed the trigger once more, to be sure. Click. 

The shakes came over me. I opened my hand, let the gun go. It fell one hundred and twenty feet into the dark water. The night was so still I could hear the splash.

I turned and stomped back in my own footprints, headed for home. Warm little Bathsheba needed me.

Photo by Biswarup Ganguly, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

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The Fiddle

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 13 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?

§

THE FIDDLE WAS SWEET, because it was subtle.

Rounding errors, applied in not-quite-random fashion to millions of accounts. Half a cent here, nine tenths of a cent there. Billions of times. 

“Two Cents” by opensourceway is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Chuck himself would never have stumbled upon it, if he hadn’t known where to look.

The rabbi dumped earth on Morton’s wood coffin. Who knew the company’s chief information officer was Jewish? He hadn’t looked Jewish. But it was a bit of great luck. Jews had to go into the ground within twenty-four hours. Chuck would have preferred cremation for Morton, but it hardly mattered. 

At this point, delay was victory.

As mourners dispersed, Grayson stood by his huge black SUV. He  lifted an eyebrow. Chuck drew in a breath and headed that way, the plain, useful Stephanie just behind him. Grayson’s driver stood watchful at the left front door. A second young stalwart, equally watchful, hovered at the right rear fender.

“Get in,” said Grayson. He dived into his steel cocoon wihout a backward look.

Chuck climbed in, the driver closing the door behind him. Stephanie stood outside. 

Grayson had already perched in the right-hand seat as Chuck settled himself on the left. The blunt-faced CEO pierced him with an accusing stare. Standard operating procedure. Annoying, but it apparently served him well. As the underling, Chuck would have to speak first.

This was his first visit to Grayson’s mobile command center. It was plush. Folded into the door was a small work table, which he doubted Grayson ever used. The windows did not look thick enough to deflect machine gun bullets, but Witherspoon swore they would do just that. Witherspoon ought to know. As CFO, he had paid for it. 

Chuck met Grayson’s eyes. “Roomy.”

“It’ll do.” Grayson frowned. “Is that all you’ve got to say?” 

“Sad about Morton. I thought he was healthy.”

“Yes. What about this Jamaican alert?”

Chuck sighed, spread his hands. “Nothing’s been compromised, I can assure you of that. All our accounts are clean as a hound’s tooth.”

“Don’t give me hounds’ teeth. External hacking is not the issue. They’re alleging fraud on our part.”

Chuck held up a finger. He opened his door.

His drab assistant stood just where she had been left.

“Stephanie, anything further on Jamaica?” 

She glanced at her tablet, fingered it, narrowed her eyes. “Our correspondent finds two of the Jamaican bank’s partners have underworld interests. He thinks local regulators are bearing down on them, so their claim on us is a smokescreen for irregularities of their own.” She opened her eyes wide, threw her shoulders back, and stood at attention to await further orders. 

Chuck closed the door, shot an inquiring look at Grayson. The man raised his eyebrows. “Your Miss Pinsky seems on top of things.”

“She’s the best there is. My secret weapon.” 

Grayson rubbed his chin. “Don’t let this get lost in the shuffle. Our good name is involved.”

“Of course.”

“Meanwhile, there is a hole in the org chart.” Grayson stared at him.

Chuck sat mute and stared back. Two could play that game. 

After an eternity, Grayson smiled. “You’ve done a good job, Chuck. I know your background is in cybersecurity, but I’m giving you the whole information slice. You’ll be CIO.” 

Now was Chuck’s time to speak. “Thank you.” 

“I won’t say you’re welcome. More like, don’t let me down.”

Chuck nodded.

Grayson reached for his copy of the Journal. “It pays half a mil. Get with HR Monday and work it out. I’ll sign whatever.”

The driver, alert to some obscure signal, pulled the door open, and Chuck stepped out. He and Stephanie walked to where his Jaguar was parked.

Chuck accelerated smoothly away from the graveyard. “He’s going to make me CIO.” 

Stephanie guffawed.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. 

“Oh, the irony.” Tears of mirth rolled down her face. She arched an eyebrow. “If you don’t know about irony, I’ll be happy to explain it to you later . . . in private.” She fingered her cell phone.

Chuck’s blood raced whenever she talked about private things. But back to business. “He’s likely to retract the offer before the weekend’s out.”

She met his eyes and laughed merrily.

They left the Jag in a city lot two miles from the cemetery.

A gypsy cab pulled into the lot. Stephanie gave the driver a thumbs-up. “Right on time. Gus is famed for his poor memory.” 

The driver, Gus, got out and stowed their two backpacks in the trunk. “Where to?” 

“The airport’ll do,” said Chuck.

#

The Hotel Carrasco dining room was the most elegant place in Montevideo, but it was Stephanie who made it sparkle. Nothing about the real Stephanie was drab or unexciting.

Chuck raised his glass in a toast. “To us and our . . . how much was it, again?”

She smiled. “Fifty million, give or take.” 

“One third in Credit Suisse, one third in the Cayman Islands account—”

“And seven hundred pounds of gold bars, at this moment flouting the waves in the hold of a tramp steamer.” 

“Hope she makes port. I didn’t pack SCUBA gear.” 

Stephanie giggled. She raised her glass of cabernet. “Fifty million keys to a better life.” Her gaze told Chuck he was the only man in the room. Maybe on the planet.

Stephanie was the only woman who had that gift, as far as Chuck knew. His rapid climb from nowhere had bypassed girls entirely. They had been outside his focus.

About when the firm hired him to guard its data, Stephanie had come into his life. They met at the chess club. Chuck was a sharp amateur player. Stephanie, on the other hand,  could have been a grand master. She beat him routinely with no word of apology. She just smiled that secret smile that melted his heart. 

He hired her as his assistant. Over long dinners she started to share herself. Like Chuck, she came from a hazy past and coveted success. Her tastes were unrestrained by cost. 

He realized the company would never pay him the amount needed to give Stephanie a life that would satisfy her desires. But he began to see a way. Bit by bit he worked out his special algorithm, the one that skimmed fractions of cents from billions of transactions in such a clever way that no one noticed. Of course it couldn’t last forever, and it had not. But here they were, fifty million richer. Grayson, eat your heart out. You can keep your fucking half million a year.

With Chuck absorbed in the programming details—refreshing the fiddle often to keep obvious patterns from emerging—Stephanie was mistress of all logistics, from the practical to the romantic to the downright steamy. Seven years had flown by in a delightful way.

She was staring at him. “Penny for your thoughts.”

He smiled, “Grayson may already have tumbled. But he’ll lose our trail in Sao Paulo.”

“I told you those backpacks would come in handy.”

“I’m still winded from hiking around the border stations,” he confessed. “And when does our ship depart Uruguay, exactly?”

“Eight a.m. tomorrow. We’ll have just enough time for a little . . . irony. Followed by a good night’s sleep. You’re not as young as you used to be, you know.”

Chuck stared at her with admiration. “You’re like a Swiss train conductor. Everything comes along exactly when needed.” 

“Easy-peasy. It’s a slow freighter with a skipper willing to bend his schedule for us.”

“Yes? What kind of skipper is that?”

“He’s—you remember Gus, our taxi driver?”

“Yes.”

“Well, good, because he doesn’t remember you. The captain of the vessel is like that.”

#

Stephanie pulled the Russian fur closer about her shoulders. Nights near Sochi carried a chill, never mind the palm trees and Black Sea breezes. But that was the very reason why those cute little black sables scampered through the Siberian woods: To be slain so that Stephanie could stay warm on cool nights.

Chuck came around and opened the Lamborghini’s passenger door. “Who was that gorilla ogling you at Victor’s party?” 

“Gorilla?” She levered her Manolo Blahnik alligator boots out of the car, then stood up.

“You know, the hairy guy in the cheap suit.”

“You are wrong about him, my dear. That was a very expensive suit. Italian.”

They climbed the steps of their dacha. Chuck, with a nod, tossed the car keys to Sergei, the silent majordomo. “So who was he, this well-heeled Italianate fashion idol?”

“Arkady Maximovich Greshkin.” 

“The billionaire?” he asked as they entered the front room.

She slipped off her boots. “Multi billionaire, if you must know.”

“Funny. When he was drooling over you, he looked like some stevedore from the Jersey docks.” He loosened his tie, undid the collar button, and sighed as imprisoned neck flesh sagged out. 

Stephanie pouted. “I can’t help the effect I have on men.”

 “Speaking of which . . .” He rounded on her, wrapped her in his arms. As always, she swayed into his embrace and prepared to play the little tongue games that so easily stoked his libido.

She could have become bored with his endless demands for sex, if it weren’t for her workmanlike approach to it. But she was spared the bother, as the door crashed open and four gorillas in genuinely cheap suits grabbed Chuck. 

“What the hell—” 

One of the goons smacked his head with a short club, and Chuck sagged unconscious. Each taking one arm or leg, the four hauled him out the door. 

The swiftness of the action left her breathless. 

Arkady’s men, of course. 

She followed them, peeked out the window by the front door. They were bundling Chuck into a battered ZiL sedan. 

You had to see it as predestined. Chuck and Stephanie were already down to their last twenty million. Soon the only thing between Stephanie and starvation would be the seven hundred pounds of gold locked in the cellar vault. Before long, she would have had to do something. 

It was thoughtful of Arkady to take care of this for her. She would not have to arrange anything special for Chuck, as she had for the late Morton, whose only fault had been curiosity.

And then, of course, there was the fact that Arkady would prize her more, having seized her as a trophy from another man, than if she were merely a sexy millionairess on the loose.

One of the gorillas came away from the ZiL carrying a sledge hammer, which he used to smash the parked Lamborghini’s windows, doors, and fenders. I wonder if Arkady’s commanded them to piss on the upholstery. But no. The automotive symbol of Chuck’s manhood now fully depreciated, they got in the black sedan and drove away. 

Poor Chuck. 

The butler Sergei, among other duties, oversaw the security men who invisibly guarded Chuck and Stephanie in their lovely dacha, kept the riffraff away. Sergei’s obvious lapse in loyalty to Chuck would of course not apply to the bereaved Stephania Mikhailovna Pinsky. But just in case, she would give him one of the little gold bars.

Meanwhile, she had better freshen herself up. There was always the possibility the oil and gas tycoon would show up unannounced to claim his prize.

I’m ready for my close-up, Mister Billionaire-ski.

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Encounters With Monsters

A Short Story

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

Read Time: 16 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?

§

PRISCILLA FLEW BEHIND SEAMUS, just above him, off to one side, safe and carefree. Her filoplumes, tiny feathers that tracked the angles of her plumage, signaled neither discord nor danger.

Everyone honked for joy, as usual in migration. Priscilla loved honking her way south beside Seamus, their offspring behind them, their friends all around them. Even more, she would love flying back home in spring to raise a new brood of fuzzy goslings. Seamus would be with her all the way, to father her chicks and guard them.

The long V of the squadron veered, flew lower, wheeled. They came down on a pond of water that had a broad field of grass beside it. Priscilla had been here before. It was a good place to rest. An open place, where you could see scary visitors when they were still far away. Scary animals, scary birds. Or monsters.

Priscilla feared monsters most. They walked on two feet like geese but had no feathers. They had long legs, ungainly bodies, gangling wings. Their call was not a proper honk but a garbled bellow. Priscilla had seen monsters many times and had always steered clear of them. It comforted her to know that Seamus and the other ganders kept lookout.

The squadron stayed at the pond three days, eating grass from the field and weeds they plucked with their beaks from under water. On the second day, monsters came near to throw rocks. Their featherless wings useless for flight, the monsters used them instead for mischief. They could pick up stones with their forked wingtips and hurl them great distances.

The geese near the rock-throwing monsters leapt into the air and honked.

Bigger monsters came then, twice as big as those that threw rocks. They bellowed. They shook their wings at the smaller monsters. The big monsters chased the little monsters away. When all the monsters had gone, the geese settled back down on the field and pond. 

Priscilla was glad the rock throwing had ceased. It would be nice to stay another day or two. She wandered to the very edge of the field, where stood a thicket of woods. 

Night was falling. Soon it would be dark.

Seamus honked suddenly, as loud as he could. Priscilla’s filoplumes prickled.

A red fox trotted out from the woods, his head low. Priscilla was nearer to the woods than any other goose. Seamus flew right past her and landed in front of the fox. He stretched out his neck and honked. Other ganders joined him. They all hopped forward, hissing. The fox turned tail and trotted back to the woods.

Priscilla stood spellbound as Seamus and the others drove off the fox. A dark form swooped into view above her. She honked out a scream. 

Sharp claws jabbed her wing. A huge owl was trying to carry her off in its talons, to make her his dinner. She honked and beat her wings as hard as she could.

Seamus heard Priscilla’s screams. He flew straight at the owl, who struggled to lift Priscilla off the ground. Seamus crashed into the owl, pecked with his bill, and beat with his wings. 

Priscilla was pulled off the ground. The strong talons squeezed her wing. Something broke, her wing jolted. Help! she honked. 

Other ganders joined Seamus, bashed at the owl.

The owl opened his fist and flew off, chased by honking ganders. 

Priscilla fell to the ground, crying. 

Seamus landed beside her. He touched her hurt wing with his beak. Then he huddled next to her to keep her warm while she shivered from fright and pain. The two of them hunkered in the field, beside the pond, away from the fox’s woods. Seamus kept a sharp watch on sky and ground all night long.

Geese leaving. Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash.

The next day, Schuyler, the squadron commander, said it was time to fly south again. When the sun sank low, Schuyler took off from the pond. A hundred geese rose with him.

Priscilla was not in the squadron as it circled over the pond, ready to fly south. She could not fly. She lifted her head with longing as her friends stretched out their wings, formed a long V, and departed. 

Seamus remained on the ground beside Priscilla. He stayed to guard and protect her.

The squadron had left them lonely.

And in peril. Seamus did not stray far from Priscilla’s side. He stood sentinel, his white chin strap sweeping both ways as his head swiveled to scan field, pond, and sky.

If the fox came back, it would be hard for the two of them to fight him off. 

What if the monsters came again? That could be even worse, because monsters were bigger than foxes or owls, and they could throw things. The thought made her filoplumes itch.

As one day led to another, Priscilla could only walk around the field, her limp wing trailing on the ground. When she swam in the pond, it was better. The water held the wing up nearer her body, where it hurt less.

She ate grass and weeds, but still she got weaker. Seamus brought her food. He gave her a shiny, wiggly thing that he caught in the water. She gobbled it down. 

But the air was colder. The ground was colder. The water was colder; at the pond’s edge, it turned to ice. What would they do when the whole pond froze over? How would they get through the winter with all their friends away in the south?

A lone monster loitered one day by the fox’s woods. Seamus stood erect, alert, his head level at the top of his long neck. He honked.

The monster frowned and watched the two of them. Then it took a scary black thing in its wingtips. It held the black thing before its eyes. Priscilla shivered. 

Seamus honked again, twice, and took a step forward. The monster slouched away. 

The next day, Priscilla weakened. She could not get up to drag her broken wing over the ground. Seamus brought weeds from under the pond. He laid them on the ground near her beak and made a hopeful noise. Eat.

She did not feel like eating, but she tried. 

More monsters showed up. A gaggle of monsters came into the field from all sides. Priscilla and Seamus were alone in the field. They knew who the monsters were after.

Priscilla struggled to her feet and stumbled toward the water. It was her only way to flee the monsters, since she could not fly. Seamus stretched out his neck, bobbed his head up and down. He ran back and forth from one monster to another, honking, hissing, beating his wings. But the monsters kept coming on.

Priscilla collapsed. A monster threw something large over Seamus. A moment later, Priscilla’s world went dark. 

She felt herself lifted, then dropped into a small, dark space. She tried to move, but walls enclosed her. She was bumped. She heard a strange sound and felt more bumping. 

She heard a gander’s honk. She knew it came from Seamus. He did not sound happy, but it made her happy just to hear his voice. 

After more bumps and swaying, light chased the dark away. Priscilla blinked and saw a monster in front of her. She honked in terror. She had never been so near one of them. 

It squeezed Priscilla with its wings. Pain shot through her injured wing. The monster lifted her out of the small, dark space into a bigger place. Roomier—but it was still a monster place under a monstrous sky—a sky of white, full of small black dots. Parts of this monster sky held strong lights, like little suns but not so bright.

Two monsters stood her up between them on hard, shiny ground. The monsters bellowed at each other. Priscilla quaked.

One monster reached out its wingtip to torment Priscilla’s broken wing while the other one held her still, throttling her neck just below her white chinstrap. She saw that the tips of their wings forked into many branches that could move together or apart to hold things. The monster holding her bad wing wiggled it, moved it this way and that. The pain was intense, but it went away when Priscilla fainted.

When she awoke, she was tied up. But the monsters had made a poor job of it. She found she could stand and move around. Her bonds only trapped the one bad wing. Priscilla smiled to herself. The monsters’ cruelty had actually made her feel better, because the bound wing now clung to her body and did not drag on the ground.

They picked her up and carried her to another place that had a different kind of monster sky. They put her down on a bed of soft straw. But Priscilla paid scant attention to that, because Seamus was there.

The two geese came together neck to neck. Seamus wiggled for joy, and Priscilla did too. The monsters left to do their dark deeds. By evil magic, the light left at the same moment the monsters left. 

Priscilla did not care. She did not need light. She snuggled up by Seamus and went to sleep. 

The light came again, bringing the monsters with it. Priscilla and Seamus honked at them. The monsters bellowed back at them, but Priscilla thought that in this case they bellowed just for show. By honking, Seamus and Priscilla had shamed the monsters into bringing food. They left corn and wheat on the ground, then went away again. 

Priscilla and Seamus ate. They had earned this meal by standing up to the monsters. 

Priscilla heard a splash. Turning her head, she saw Seamus swimming. Even though this prison field was not very big, it had a small pond. Seamus and Priscilla ducked their heads under the water but found no delicious weeds. Of course. The monsters had made this pond as a place of torment. But the chance to swim pleased Priscilla.

One day followed another. Sometimes the monsters took Seamus and Priscilla to a different field, a big one with fresh air, sunshine, and a normal sky of blue. But the air was cold, and there was snow on the ground. When the monsters chased them back into the smaller monster field, Priscilla grieved the loss of open air, but at least she felt warmer.

The days piled on each other. The monsters sometimes untied Priscilla’s bad wing, but then after they looked at it they tied it up again. After many times, they seemed to give up on the idea of binding her wing at all. Priscilla stretched both wings for the first time in ages.

But now, just when Priscilla had regained the use of both wings, the monsters no longer took the pair of geese to the place with the open blue sky. They kept them under one of their monster skies all the time. 

Priscilla began to lose hope that she would ever see the blue sky again. She would never fly through that sky in a squadron of geese, never reach home, never raise a new batch of downy goslings. Why even try to eat the grain the monsters brought?

Seamus waddled around their little field, looking up at the strange, bumpy sky in this monster place as if he hoped to see a V of homeward-bound geese. But this bumpy sky could not hold such a thing.

One day, when the monsters came, Priscilla’s feathers stiffened in alarm. Something was amiss.  

The monsters chased Priscilla and Seamus around their small field, drove them into a corner, and grabbed them with their hideous unfeathered wings. They stuffed the geese into small places, like before—separate small places for Priscilla and Seamus. 

But these places did not seem so dark as before. Priscilla could see out in front. She stuck her beak out, but something stopped it. Something thin and cold, with square spaces between. Still, she could see. Maybe she could see a way to escape.

The monsters lifted the geese in their small places and put them down on something. Then came strange noises and a lot of bumping. Then they were lifted back down. 

Priscilla peered out and knew where she was. 

It was the pond with the field beside it and the fox’s woods. The place where the monsters had seized them so long ago. Blue sky above the pond. Warm air filled with sunshine. And all over the field—geese.

Priscilla must act. At last, a chance to escape the monsters. She flapped her wings and honked like mad. Seamus, from his small place, did the same. 

Their raucous protest must have confused the monsters, because the thin, cold grid in front of her swung outward, and then nothing blocked her from the sky.

Priscilla burst out, all fury. The monsters bellowed, but she flew right past them.

Seamus broke out too. 

They flew away from the monsters and landed among a hundred geese who waddled around the field. They looked for friends, listened for voices they knew. 

But they saw none, heard none. They did not know this squadron. 

Strange ganders approached, necks coiled, heads low, and hissed at them.

Then Seamus raised his head and swiveled it around. Priscilla scanned the sky. She heard a far-away honking, one which included their friends’ voices. She heard a clear call from Schuyler.

Their own squadron came and circled the pond. Priscilla leapt upward and climbed the air toward the squadron, honking in joy. Seamus flew just behind her. 

Schuyler! called Seamus.

Schuyler honked a return greeting. 

Their friends opened a space on one side of the V. Seamus and Priscilla claimed it. With the field and pond occupied by another squadron, Schuyler gave the command to fly on to the next rest area. Priscilla followed right behind him. 

Priscilla’s heart raced as she rose with her friends to cruising altitude. All foxes, owls and monsters defeated, she was back where she belonged, headed with Seamus for their northern home and a new brood of fuzzy goslings.

#

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Wicked Bloginations

Read Time: 4 minutes

“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926

King Lear and Cordelia, by Benjamin West (1793) / Folger Shakespeare Library, Wikimedia Commons.

Dear Reader,

When Your New Favorite Writer began blogging nineteen months ago, his declared purpose was to “cultivate my author platform . . . so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published.” 

The blog was an auxiliary to my budding late-life career as a fiction writer. It was supplementary, not central, to my calling as a teller of tales. Therefore I proposed to fill it with ancillary content such as:

  • “Ruminations on ‘the writer’s life.’
  • “Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
  • “Mentions of good books recently read.
  • “News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
  • “Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
  • “Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.

and

  • “Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.” 

Every Tuesday since then, I’ve been approximately hitting one or more of those targets.

But a funny thing happpened on the way to literary lionhood. 

I started to take fiction writing as a serious challenge. The smug conceit that I was just around the corner from stardom wore off in the literary ball mill of submissions and rejections. 

What remained was this: A passion to keep on making up stories and pitching them until somebody noticed.

I had completed two novels not yet published in book form. I vowed to take Ray Bradbury’s advice and write a short story every week for a year. (His explanation was: “If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”)

And, Gentle Reader, since you’ve been with me these nineteen months, it seemed churlish not to let you in on the fun part. 

So I’ve been posting those stories, in first draft form, for your comments and suggestions. I am serious. Help me out. Let me know what you find appealing and what you find boring or distracting or otherwise off-putting in these stories. We’ll have this fun together.

You will find the stories by clicking this link or by selecting Short Stories under the Fiction in Progress tab at the top of my website, https://LarryFSommers.com

Which brings us to the next news item: The website has been re-jiggered.

To make it easy to navigate straight to the short stories, or straight to the ancillary content if you prefer, I’ve set up separate tabs on the top menu for Fiction in Progress and Commentary. If you want to see both, mixed in together, just click on Blog.

As an added bonus, I rearranged the other tabs so that the Home Page now introduces what this site is all about, and the About Page has bio notes on me, Your New Favorite Writer.

So now you know. Happy surfing!

And don’t forget to leave comments.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Another Story

Read Time: 7 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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Bob’s Trees

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

BOB, OF BOB’S TREES, stamped his feet to warm himself. The Wisconsin cold froze his bones this year because business sucked. 

Most years, Bob sold trees, bundled trees, fresh-cut their butt ends, and carted them to people’s cars, hardly aware of the weather. After twelve hours on his feet, he gorged himself on the calorie-laden supper that Peg kept on simmer for him, then lapsed into a coma till dawn. Sometimes he fell into bed on arrival, leaving Peg to simmer for the both of them. From Thanksgiving to Christmas Bob could lose twenty pounds. 

Most years, there would be a few days with gaps between customers, welcome respite. Then he would sit in his little office shack and listen to the carols on the radio. 

But this year, trade slumped so that he stood in the elements and waved to motorists to remind them they needed a tree for Yule. This cajolery drew in every hundredth car, so it repaid the vigil in the bitter cold.

Here came one now—a black Lexus SUV that turned left into the mall parking lot, then continued around to the square of pavement occupied by Bob’s Trees each December for the past twenty years. The driver backed into a space against Bob’s curb blocks—a good sign. Backer-inners meant business. They came to buy a tree and would not go home without one.

The car sat idling while Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the motor died and the doors swung open. Out stepped a middle-aged woman, a lanky teen boy, and a slender girl who came up to the boy’s shoulder. Their black face coverings prompted him to remember the plague. He slipped his Packers-themed COVID mask in place. 

“Merry Christmas!” he called. “Welcome to Bob’s Trees.”

The woman, cloaked in a long cashmere coat over Italian leather boots, gave a curt nod. Her green eyes skipped his face to scan the trees ranged on his lot. “Are these the tallest you have?”

That voice. Bob peered at the patch of face above her mask but nobody came to mind. “How big a tree were you looking for, Ma’am?” 

“The tallest you have.”

“That would be these in the corner.” He strode across the lot. The woman followed. The boy stumbled along behind, thumbs on his smart phone, while the girl hugged herself and chattered her teeth.

Bob plunged a hand into the wall of greenery and pulled out a nine-foot Norway spruce.

The woman’s brows beetled. “I don’t know. I was hoping for something taller.” She leaned back to view its top. “What do you think, Rory?” She nudged her son’s calf with the toe of her boot. “Will it stand out in the great room?”

The boy jerked at the touch of her toe, rolled his eyes, dived back into his phone. She put her hands on her hips, head forward, and glowered.

“Maggie!” It came to him. “You’re Maggie Flensgaard, aren’t you?”

She snapped her head toward Bob, green eyes round with surprise. “I am Margaret Prescott.” She sniffed. “I haven’t been Maggie Flensgaard for . . . ever so long. And you”—her eyes flashed with recognition—“Bobby! Bobby Achtemeier. Is it really you?”

“Rory, look!” The girl’s eyes glowed with interest. “It’s Mom’s old boyfriend.”

The boy looked up from his phone.

“Shush, you. Mister Achtmeier happens to be an old school chum. From way back, isn’t that right, Bobby?” 

“Not all that long ago, Mags. But things are way different now, I guess.” Your tangled brown hair has become smooth and chestnut, with hints of auburn and whispers of silver. What was wild is now controlled, and controlling.

The girl looked up at Bob. “Hi, I’m Veronica. You can call me Ronnie. All my friends do.” Her brown eyes sparkled above the black virus mask.

She must be thirteen. Going on twenty. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Ronnie punched Rory in the arm. “Dolt! Show some respect to your elders.” Whoops, back to thirteen.

Rory raised his hand to slug her back.

“Stop it, you two.” Maggie sighed. “What’s it been, Bob? Twenty years?”

He snorted. “Good deal more than that, my dear. I won’t say how long. Little pitchers have big ears.” 

“They know I had them late in life,” she muttered. “They may not know exactly how late.” Her eyes rested on him, took him in. “Look at you. I thought you’d wind up a tycoon.” 

He spread his arms to span the Bob’s Trees empire. “Exhibit A.”

She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. Touché.”

He saw himself reflected in her eyes: A thickset old guy doing roustabout work out in the weather. I won’t tell her about our winters in Florida.

“I kind of lost track of you after we . . . after high school, Maggie. What became of you?”

She gave him a weird sideways look.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You know. What have you been doing with yourself all these years—besides raising these two delightful children, I mean?” 

Veronica giggled. Rory pinched her.

Margaret Prescott waved her hand self-consciously, the very gesture Maggie Flensgaard would have used. “Just the usual. Went to college. Worked in New York for a while. Then I came back home and married a guy that owns a lumber yard.” 

Bob smiled. “Guess you got into the finished end of the tree business. Me, I’m closer to the raw product.” 

“But you can’t sell Christmas trees all year. You must do something else.” She looked desperate for him to explain this was only a hobby.

He shuffled his feet. “Oh, Peg and me got a few rental units up in Door County. Keeps us busy in the summertime, you know.”

“Peg. You married Peggy Schneidermann?” 

He put a finger on his nose. “You’re good. First guess.” 

“I didn’t even know you two were an item. What a lovely girl.” 

“We kept it kind of low-key.” Of course she hadn’t known. Why would she take an interest? 

“And how is she?”

“Peg? Oh, she’s fine. Keeps the home fires burning.” Warming a stew that I’ll be grateful for tonight and will eat before I fall asleep, so help me God.

Rory and Ronnie now giggled like toddlers over Rory’s smart phone. What were kids all about these days, anyhow? Walter would not act that way. Of course, he was ten years beyond them, well-launched in life as a freelance accountant.

Margaret sighed: that long sigh that sounds like the satisfaction of shared memories but signals it’s time to wrap things up.

Bob shook the Norway spruce, spread its lower branches with his free hand. “It’s taller’n you might think.”

Margaret reached a hand out, touched the upright needles. “What do you think, kids? Good enough?” They both nodded. “Okay, I guess we’ll take it. How much?”

“All of these here are a hundred and fifty.”

“Really? That much?” Her question dangled in the frosty air, a gambit best declined.

Maggie Flensgaard might have got it for seventy-five. But Margaret Prescott will need to fork over a fistful of those finished lumber simoleons.

Bob smiled. “You wanted the tallest,” he said with a shrug of apology. 

“Well, yes. I did.” She nodded defeat.

“Let me square off the end for you.”

 “No, leave it. Don will want to cut it fresh himself. Just help us get it in the car.”

He led her into the office shack, scanned a QRC from her phone, printed a receipt for the tree plus tax. Then he helped Rory shoehorn the spruce into the back of the Lexus. They tied the tailgate down gently over the three feet of crown that protruded out the back.

“Keep in touch,” he said.

With a casual nod, Margaret drove off.

He visualized a svelte shape under her tapered woolen coat, considered the upscale tilt of her nose, the sheen and understated elegance of her hair. He gave thought to the half-formed Rory and Veronica.

He remembered Peg, waiting for him at home. His mind’s eye saw her solid form limp over to the kitchen stove, turn on a burner. She ought to get that knee replaced. She kept a dinner warm for him every night, whether he ate it or not. 

He smiled to think of Walter, their stolid son, with his year-in, year-out accounting practice.

Would Bob and Peg manage their usual Florida rental, this COVID winter? 

Sure we will. We’ll figure it out somehow. And then the vaccines will take hold, the virus will go away, and by June all Door County businesses and lodgings will be having a banner tourist season.

Maggie Flensgaard, eat your heart out.

A Story

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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My Own Special Touch

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

SHE SQUANDERED HERSELF IN PROTEST and fell to the ground, undone.

“Damn!” Roger set the inner cover, sticky side up, on the grass. He flicked her sting from his wrist with his steel hive tool. You’ve got to scrape them out quick. One time his whole hand had swollen hard and red like a red lobster claw for half a week, from a sting left too long. 

He felt bad for this little darling, who had been squeezed as he laid the cover on the top box, whose alarmed response had spelled her doom. Workers are sacrificial creatures, not built to survive long. Any sting is a suicide mission. 

“Damned bees,” Roger grumbled. “Don’t know why I put up with them.”

Wellthere’s one reason, staring me in the face. Melvina Foster stood by her clothesline, there across the fence, sour as a crabapple. She grimaced as if in pain. A bit of a wasp herself.

He gave back her stare, then turned away sublimely indifferent, picked up the inner cover, and placed it back on hive number six. 

He was dead sure that Melvina had authored the anti-bee ordinance proposed last week in the town council. “Bitter, vindictive old bitch,” he muttered under his breath.

“You! Roger!” An eldritch screech. Did the old bat have super-hearing, too?

He approached the fence with all the swagger he could muster, which he had to admit was considerable. His smooth, untroubled stride pleased him no end. 

She pointed at a lump of wood in his yard. “I see you steer a wide berth around that old stump. I should think you’d have sense enough to remove it.”

“Tain’t a stump, it’s a log. I’ll move it when I’m good and ready. Was there something else you wanted, Miz Foster?” 

She stood sideways, laundry basket under one arm. She shifted to stand a bit taller, winced as she did so. Maybe she was in actual pain.

He pursed his lips. “You all right, Melvina?”

“I was just wondering how many more of those death traps you plan to install.” 

“You mean my apiary?” He scrunched up his face and scratched his chin. “Well, let’s see, I’ve got plenty of fresh cedar boards for new boxes. I do enjoy the woodworking. Keeps me out of mischief all winter, you know? Who knows how many new honey factories I’ll be ready to deploy next spring.”

Her mouth set in a firm line. “You’re baiting me, Roger Fjelstad. I won’t rise to the bait. But consider yourself warned. Some day your bees will attack a small child or somebody with an allergy and put them in the hospital. Or worse.” She clucked with concern for her purely imaginary sting victim. “How will you feel then, Mister Honeycomb?”

“These are the gentlest little Italian honey bees in the world, Ma’am. Don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”  

“That’s what you always say.”

“Because it’s always true. Listen, Melvina Foster, you’ve got no idea what honeybees are about, how they work, or how to coexist with them. Why don’t you come over some time? I’ll introduce you.”

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He spotted her as soon as she turned the corner. Since the fence between their backyards had neither gate nor stile, she had to scuttle around the block. Roger couldn’t help but notice she looked more off-kilter than usual.

When she turned up his front walk, he rattled his newspaper. “And how are you today, Melvina?” He leaned back in his wicker chair and looked down his nose at her.

“I’m calling your bluff,” said Melvina Foster. “I’ve come to meet your bees. Bet you thought I wouldn’t.”

He laid down his paper. “Ain’t you scared you’ll get mobbed to death by a swarm of African killer bees?” 

She threw him a spiteful look. “You said yours were from Italy.” 

He sighed and stood. “Benvenuto alla nostra domee-chee-lay.” He spread an arm in welcome.

Limping through the house en route to the backyard, Melvina said, “This looks just like it did when Doris was still with us.” 

Roger stopped and stared at her. “Yeah?”

“I mean, you haven’t changed one thing.”

“Maybe I like the way she had it.”

“Except you’ve let it go to seed.”

 “There, you see? I have changed things. Added my own special touch.” He gave her a grin that he hoped was savage.

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In the backyard, she wouldn’t go near the hives.

“Come on, what’s to be afraid of?” Roger asked, standing smack dab in the flight path of a hundred foragers. “They’re just bees.”

“I can see them fine from over here.”

He lifted a hive lid, removed the inner cover, pulled a frame partway out.

She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Don’t you have one of those veils? Don’t I see you over here sometimes in a regular beekeeper’s outfit?”

“Veils are for sissies.” 

She made a wry face.

He pinched a fat drone between thumb and forefinger. “Yes, I do have protective gear. I admit I’m a sissy sometimes. Mainly when I do something invasive, like collecting honey or giving mite treatments. The girls can get a little tetchy.” He carried the drone over to where Melvina stood.

As he came near, she poised for flight, like a sprinter on the starting blocks.

“Relax, he can’t hurt you. No stinger. This one’s a drone.” He opened his hand to let the bee crawl around on his palm. “Go ahead, you can pet him. See how fuzzy he is?”

Eyes open in wonder, she leaned over his hand, within a foot of the confused drone. 

“You might spare him some sympathy. He’s an orphan.”

Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “An orphan? You’re pulling my leg.”

“I would never pull your leg, Melvina.” Heaven forfend. “All drones are fatherless. They grow from unfertilized eggs.”

“Is that a fact.” 

He flicked his hand and the drone flew off toward the hive.

She looked uncertain. “I guess I could stand closer. If you’re sure I won’t get stung.”

He gave her a frankly evaluative stare. “There are no guarantees in life, Melvina.” He led her back toward the hives. 

Halfway there, she stopped and looked down. “Just a rotten log, didn’t you say?”

She gave it a sharp kick. Dozens of insects flew out from underneath.

“Ow! Help! Oh, help!”

“Run, Melvina!” He sprinted away from her but still felt a couple of nasty stings. “Come on, quick!” 

Waving her hands in panic, she flung herself crabwise into the screened back porch as he held the door open for her. 

Roger slammed the door shut behind her. He swept his hands around her face and shoulders as she swatted at her bare legs. He grabbed a magazine, rolled it up, and chased down a couple of mad aggressors. 

“Sit down,” he said. “How many times you get stung?”

“Hundreds!” She lowered herself onto a battered hassock.

He frowned. “No. Not hundreds. Breathe slowly. Can you do that?” Pink blotches had blossomed in several places on her face and neck. 

He kept an epi-pen in case one of his bees should ever sting someone with a real allergy. He wondered if he should get it now. 

She took a deep breath, in and out. “It hurts, you . . . degenerate!” 

“Nobody said it didn’t. Couple of ’em got me, too—I just run faster than you. Listen, can you breathe okay?”

“Of course I can breathe.” 

“I mean, your airway isn’t closing up, is it?”

She opened her eyes wide. “Airway? Am I in danger?”

“That’s what I’m asking. Do I need to get the epi-pen?”

She concentrated on her breath. “No. I just hurt all over. My heart is fluttering a bit.”

“You maybe took thirty or forty stings. Once they start in on you, all you can do is run. Each one of those little bastards can sting you over and over again.” 

“Well, you and your damned bees owe me a big apology.”

He bridled. “That’s defamation. Wasn’t my bees. Them were yellowjackets that stung you. Not bees. That’s why there’s no stingers to remove from your hide.”

“Yellowjackets?”

“German wasps. Ground dwellers. They’ll attack anything, anywhere, any time. You uncovered their nest. Now you see why I haven’t moved that log.” 

She bolted up from her hassock. “I see that you’re a menace, is what I see! Bees, wasps, whatever, they’re a danger to the neighborhood. We’ll put a stop to it. Good day, Mister Mayhem.” 

She marched out of the house, down the street, around the corner.

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From his front porch he watched her go. She steamed down the sidewalk straight up-and-down, nothing off-kilter now. Propelled by righteous indignation.

His bees were threatened, through no fault of their own, by a vindictive bill on the council’s agenda for next week. It was sponsored by Matt Grosswisch, one of the five council members. But Matt never had an original thought in his life. Melvina had put him up to it.

She had not always been this way. Roger remembered when Melvina had been a vivacious, even daring, young woman. Sociable, too. It was her husband, Jack, who had been the town’s chief pain-in-the-ass in those days. Self-important, officious,  hidebound, and narrow-minded—he had it all. 

When Jack died of a heart attack at age 50, Melvina seemed to have been passed the torch of self-righteousness. She lost her amiable qualities, traded them in for the responsibility of making others’ lives miserable at every turn.

He sighed and went inside. 

As he stood in the center of the living room, looking all about him, he had to admit that Melvina was right. He had let it become shabby. It would not have gone downhill like this when Doris was here. She, and she alone, had made this a home to live in. 

Oh, God, how he missed her.

Well, at least he had his little Italian darlings. Until next week.

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Roger stood on Melvina’s front stoop. He rang the bell. Having heard no sound of a chime inside the house—and his hearing was extraordinarily good for a man his age—he banged on the screen door. He knocked again, scuffing his knuckles in the attempt. He began to fear that she had come home, gone inside, suffered a delayed allergic reaction, and died. Maybe I should have brought the epi-pen.

The door swung open. There stood Melvina. Frowning, as best she could with her nose and lips distorted and swollen. 

He presented a pink bottle with a flourish and burst into song: “You’re gonna need an ocean . . . dum, da-dum, da-dum . . . of calamine lotion—”

“Have you gone crazy?” She bunched up a fist and shook it in his face, but he did not flinch.

“Take it, Melvina. Right now it only hurts, but in a day or two those stings’ll itch like crazy. You’ll need this. Plus all the Benadryl you can tolerate.”

She uncurled her fist and took the bottle. 

With his other hand, Roger presented his second gift—a heavy jar of golden liquid. “Here. This comes from the bees. They want you to know there are no hard feelings.” 

She snorted. “That’s big of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should harbor a grudge.” 

“God dammit, woman! Are you going to go around that way all your life?”

Her mouth fell. “All what way?” 

“Chip on your shoulder.” He stood, holding the jar of honey, in what amounted to a posture of pure supplication.

She let out a sigh. “Well. To tell you the truth. It seems I may owe your bees a little gratitude after all.”

He resisted the urge to ask.

She looked almost shy, like a school girl. “Ever since, I would swear, almost since the moment of the attack, my knees have been free of pain. First time in years. I’m at a loss to understand it.”

“Funny you should say that, Melvina. Exact same thing happened to my knees when those yellowjackets stung me last month. Instant pain relief. And long-lasting.”

She smiled, nodded. “That’s good to know.”

“It’s such a benefit,” Roger said, “I’m ashamed to admit it was those damned yellowjackets done it, not my bees.”

“Whatever,” she said. Her hand closed over his offering of honey.