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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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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