Category: Stories

original short stories by your’s truly

Pennies {essay}

pier

Pennies

 

The tide rises, the tide falls,

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;

 

Mommy holds my hand tightly as we clomp across the wooden planks. Every time we get close to a shadow I jump so my shoes will light up. Daddy stops us and points at a fisherman. He is unhooking a shiny fish from a hook, just like Great-grandpa did the time we went fishing at the lake. The fish flaps around. I think it wants to go home.

“Daddy, the fishy’s bleeding.”

“Yep. He has a little scrape, but he is going to be fine.”

“Is the man gonna eat him?”

“No. That fishy is too small to eat. The man will probably throw him back.”

“So he can go home?”

“So he can go home.”

The man carefully cuts the invisible fishing line and tosses the fish off the pier. Its scales shine. Maybe the fish wants to fly. A pelican with a big, wrinkly bill swoops out from under the pier and catches the fish. He’s gone.

Along the sea-sands damp and brown

The traveller hastens toward the town,

 

Mommy tugs on my hand.

“Come on. There’s a machine outside the restaurant at the end of the pier that sells candy for a penny.”

I know a penny is not very much money because I’ve tried to buy things with pennies from under the couch cushions. Not enough, Daddy said.

Most people do not care about pennies, but I do. I pick them up. Great-grandpa told me that if you pick up enough pennies and keep them in a jar, you’ll have one-hundred dollars. Daddy won’t say not enough to one-hundred dollars. That’s why I pick up pennies.

I haven’t found any today, so I watch the ground, waiting, but there are too many rusty rivets that aren’t pennies, too many gaps between planks—slits of ocean—where pennies fall, too many bird droppings that shine like metal. I am running out of time.

 

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

 

“Look. Here’s the machine.”

“But I haven’t found a penny yet.”

“That’s ok. You can have this one.”

Mommy presses a penny into my hand and helps me put it in the slot and turn the crank. She shows me how to cup my hands to catch the jellybeans when she opens the little silver door.

I keep the jellybeans on my tongue as long as I can, trying to make them last as we walk alongside the restaurant. We keep walking around the restaurant and I don’t pay attention to anything but the taste of jellybeans. I think how the jellybeans are like little fish who want to go home. They want to dive off my tongue and fly down my throat, but I won’t let them.

Then we walk off the pier and I realize the jellybeans have vanished from my mouth and we have appeared on the sand. It is like some sneaky pelican snatched the seconds from my memory—the ones where the beans dove and I walked—and now I have just snapped back into myself to continue from where I left off.

Maybe Daddy knows what happened.

“Did we ever turn around or did we walk across the whole ocean?”

“What do you think?”

“I think . . . maybe?”

“I’ll let you figure it out.”

Mommy and Daddy hold my hands until they help me into my car seat and I fall asleep as we rumble away from the jellybeans, the fish, the pelican, and the beach on the other side of the ocean.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;

 

I remember Great-grandpa’s hands. You could see each vein like a river, each knuckle like a mountain, each wrinkle like a road—the way the earth looks from the windows of a plane. Once we took a plane to see Great-grandpa. That plane was fast—superfast—but not as fast as Great-grandpa’s hands. They were farming hands, hands of earthwork and sky-breathing. Living hands.

Great-grandpa taught me to play slap-hand. He would rest his elbows on the arms of his wheelchair and turn his palms upwards. It was an invitation, a prayer of sorts. I would stretch out my hands, soft and tiny, like stars above his earth-hands. I never knew when he was going to flip his hands, but he always got me, caught my star. I could never get my hands away fast enough, and when it was my turn to be underneath, to catch his stars, he always got away. It was infuriating, but I loved it. It was us time.

 

The little waves, with their soft, white hands

Efface the footprints in the sands,

 

            Why did Mommy button my new shirt all the way up to my throat? I don’t like it. I don’t think I could swallow anything wearing this. It wouldn’t fit. If the pelican yesterday was wearing this shirt, it couldn’t have swallowed that fish. Mommy slides me a piece of paper from the middle of the table.

“Write something to Great-grandpa.”

“Why, Mommy?”

“So he can read it when he wakes up.”

“What do I write?”

“Your cousins are writing him little notes.”

“But I don’t wanna do it.”

“Think how happy he will be when he reads it.”

“Ok. If it makes him happy.”

I choose a blue marker, my favorite color. Mommy helps me fold the paper up when I finish writing, and then I write my name in my best handwriting on the front.

 

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

 

We stand in line, Daddy, Mommy, and me. I never had to stand in line to see Great-grandpa before. Is everyone playing slap-hand today? I thought it was a special game for the kids. Adults not allowed. They should get out of line so the kids can play.

We move forward slowly and some of the adults are crying. I didn’t know slap-hand was so scary for them. Maybe it hurts them more than me.

“Daddy, where’s Great-grandpa?”

“He’s over there.”

“I can’t see. There’s too many flowers. Is he hiding?”

“No. I’ll show you when we get there.”

 

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;

There is a big table with a white tablecloth, with a big wooden box on top. Mommy is crying. She slips a note into the box. Where is Great-grandpa? What about slap-hand?

Daddy lifts me up in his arms so I can see better.

“Put your note in the box.”

“But Daddy, why is Great-grandpa sleeping in a box?”

Daddy is crying. He whispers to me, because he can’t talk, just cry.

“Because he has gone to heaven.”

“Heaven?”

“They are going to bury him in the ground so he will be safe until Jesus comes to wake him up.”

“But Daddy, why are you crying? He’s going to be ok if Jesus can wake him up.”

Daddy doesn’t say anything—he just kisses the top of my head and holds me, even when we go outside to sit down on the grass. He holds me.

 

The day returns, but nevermore

Returns the traveller to the shore,

 

I didn’t cry until we got home. I was on my bed thinking about Great-grandpa. I thought about slap-hand and how fun it was. I thought about the funeral and the flowers. I thought about how sad I was that I would never get to see him again for a long time. That’s when I started to cry. I never got to say goodbye.

So I cried. The afternoon was quiet and I sat on my bed, looking out the window and cried.

Then it was finished.

I sat there for a minute, before I remembered my promise—the promise I wrote on the note to Great-grandpa. I dug through my closet where I stored a collection of odds-and-ends, things like empty toilet paper rolls, rubber bands, and empty tissue boxes that were useful for projects. I found the jar I was looking for and put it on my dresser. I pulled open the top dresser drawer to find the box where I kept all my money and sat on my bed, sorting. I scooped up all the pennies and tossed them into the jar. They shined like the scales of a fish as they fell. Then I found a blue marker and labeled the jar in my best handwriting.

Finally, I smiled.

Great-grandpa would be so proud.

 

And the tide rises, the tide falls.

 

 

Work Used:    “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173917

Ryan’s Courage {narrative essay}

old-ship-on-the-sea-73395

Credit: www.glogster.com

Ryan’s Courage

 

Have I not commanded thee?

Be strong and of good courage;

be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed:

for the Lord thy God is with thee

withersoever thou goest.

—Joshua 1:9

“I am sorry that your father could not come to say goodbye. It would arouse the Russians’ suspicions if he did not arrive at work on time,” she said. The tears were already threatening to spill from her motherly, bright blue eyes.

“I understand,” her son said. “Give him my love.” He adjusted the rough satchel on his shoulder, the only possession he would take to America.

“Come here,” she said, wrapping him in her arms. As the two stood on the dusty road listening to the grass rustling in the predawn glow, they let the warmth of their embrace penetrate their woolen coats. The words that had been building up inside her came rushing out. “I wish the Russians would just leave.  I wish they would not conscript eighteen-year-olds to do their dirty work. I wish that Lithuania was free from their vile…”

“I know. I know, but there is nothing we can do,” her son said. The silence hung in the air as they continued holding each other, the son patting his mother’s back gently.

“Promise me this,” she whispered into his ear, “that you will never again try to contact us, that you will never again use your true name, and that you will never forget our love for you.”

“I promise.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

After a time the two let go of each other. “Can we say a prayer?” his mother asked, her eyes wet.

“Of course.”

They bowed their heads and his mother spoke to the sky. “God in Heaven, I have tried to be a good mother. I have struggled at times, but I need you now, more than ever. Please bless my son, that angels will safeguard his journey and future. We love thee and thank thee. Amen.”

“Amen,” her son said.

They gazed at each other for a moment, letting the quiet speak the words their hearts could not.

“Be brave and trust God, that he will send His angels to be with you, my son. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” he said, turning. “Thank you, Mother.”

Before he had walked five steps his mother called out, “One last thing—” He turned back, taking in her sturdy confidence and love-worn silhouette one last time.

“Happy birthday.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

And then she watched her son walk down the road toward the docks. The docks where the ship that would take him far away from Lithuania forever waited patiently in the hopeful haze of dawn.

*****

His small, cold hand slips into mine and I give it a little squeeze to let him know I am listening. Parents and teammates crowd the deck cheering Go! Go! Go! as the next heat of swimmers churns their way through the water, but my ears listen only for the uncertain voice of my youngest brother, Ryan.

“How do I be brave?” he asks. I turn to look down at his blue eyes and white-blond hair sticking up in a soggy porcupine crown. His name, Ryan, is a family name. It is Gaelic for ‘little king’, though, in that moment, he looks more ‘little’ than ‘kingly’ to me.

Barging into the conversation, my middle brother, Matthew, makes two fists. “You got to get mad. Angry. Like the Hulk.” Matthew flexes his stringy arms and swings at an invisible adversary. “And then you just do it. Nike-style. You feel the rage and DOMINATE.” In his best slow motion, Matthew punches his fist into his palm. “Ryan SMASH.”

Ryan grips my hand tightly, and I shake my head and raise an eyebrow at Matthew, whose name is Hebrew for “Gift of God.” Perhaps imagination is his gift.  I strain to picture Ryan as a meaty, green eight-year-old with domination on his agenda. Chuckling to myself, I feel a tug from Ryan’s hand.

“Why are you laughing?” Ryan’s eyes are searchingly honest and confused. I stop. Nearly choke, incredulous. He doesn’t actually believe Matthew, does he? He must know that bravery is not about compulsive rage, right? But the question in his eyes tells me otherwise.

I suppose it takes experience to understand where true courage comes from.

*****

“Success comes with experience, Walter,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “Starting a new life here in Iowa, starting a tailoring shop in our garage,” she pulled his hand to the tiny heartbeat in her stomach, “and starting a new family with me—it seems like you are doing a whole lot of starting. That means the success and experience are still coming. Just be patient.”

“I am not the patient type and you know it,” her husband said, leaning in to whisper in her ear, “but since it’s you… well, I might be persuaded—just this once,” and he planted a quick kiss on her cheek, smiling.

She reached behind her back, grinning, and smoothly swiped an envelope from their tiny kitchen table. “This came in the post today, forwarded from the government,” she said. “It looks important, but I don’t recognize the recipient. It says ‘Wladislaus Roniceros’.”

The smile disappeared from his face. “How?” he muttered to himself grabbing the letter. “They knew better than to contact me. No one is supposed to know that name!”

His wife planted her hands on her hips. “What are you talking about, Walter?”

“That was the name I used coming to America. It was made up. Only my family and I knew it. Contact was a last resort because we couldn’t risk the Russians discovering that I had left.”

“What does this mean then?”

“It means something is wrong.” Walter’s hands were shaking as he held the letter.  “You should open it,” he said. He held it out to her.

“Are you sure, Walter?”

“Yes. Take it.”

Slipping the letter gently from his grasp she asked, “Do you want me to read it to you?”

“Yes,” Walter answered, making his way to the corner to sit in the old rocking chair. She opened the letter with a knife and he closed his eyes, eyes the same bright blue as his mother’s. She read:

 

Dear Mr. Roniceros,

I am sorry to inform you of your mother’s passing. She drowned when she fell off the docks on her way to return several sailors’ coats your father had tailored.

Condolences,

 

-R.

 

“Oh Walter! I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. It’s …” and her voice trailed off. The letter dropped back to the tabletop.

Walter just kept his eyes closed and rocked. And rocked. And rocked.

And rocked.

*****

“What event are you racing today Ryan?” I ask.

“The 200-yard freestyle” he mumbles, shooting a glance at the pool where the older kids are confidently taking their mark.

“You want to know how to really be brave?” I ask. His eyes slowly rise to meet mine. “Let me tell you.” The starting blast sounds.

“In sixth grade I was terrified of butterflies,” I begin. Ryan giggles. “You know what I mean: swimming the 100-yard and 200-yard butterfly races.” As I continue, he begins shifting his weight from foot to foot.

“I spent all week praying that I would survive race day. When the school bell rang on Friday, everyone else celebrated the start of winter break; I didn’t want to leave school and have to face the butterflies.”

Ryan bounces from foot to foot.

“What’s the matter? Do you have butterflies in your stomach?” I ask. Ryan nods. “I know exactly what you are feeling.” I remember just how it felt as I stood on the icy pool deck that Saturday, the wind snaking around my knobbly knees and bare chest. My stomach felt full of boiling peanut butter—thick, goopy, and sick.

I remember focusing on one thought as I warmed up for my first race: Breathe. Just breathe. Then my coach was yelling at me, “Hey! Stop breathing so much! It’s slowing you down.”

“But I need air!” I yelled back.

‘You can breathe when you’re dead!’ he said and blew his whistle.

Ryan interrupts my thoughts with a question. “How do you get rid of butterflies in your stomach?”

“You swallow a butterfly net.” Ryan cocks his head to the side. “I’m just kidding. Anyway, the meet began and I swam the 100-yard butterfly. By the time I hit the finishing wall I felt like I might pass out. I did some quick mental math as I climbed from the pool.

100 yards x 2 = 200 yards

100 yard butterfly = me, breathless and near complete exhaustion

200 yard butterfly = me + 1 headstone reading:

EVEN IN DEATH,

HE HELD HIS BREATH

The little joke does nothing to relieve Ryan’s nervous rocking. He asks, “So what did you do?”

“Well, I ran to my coach, sobbing, and told him, ‘I can’t do the 200-yard butterfly, Coach. I just can’t do it.’ In my head, I said a little prayer. Please God, all I want for Christmas is an angel to help me.

“My coach grabbed me by the shoulders and stooped down to look me in the eyes. ‘Ok. That’s fine,’ he told me, ‘You don’t have to swim.’ I felt a glorious moment of relief. ‘But you still have the choice,’ he continued. ‘You can either swim this race and leave knowing you had the courage to try your best, or you can not swim the race and leave knowing you never tried.’

“That did it for me. My coach was the angel I had prayed for. He stood at the end of my lane hollering Go! Go! Go! for all eight lengths of my race. To me, it was a miracle. I asked God for help and He delivered. It’s just like the scripture says: Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.

When I finish the story, I can tell that the gears in Ryan’s head are turning. Turning, turning, turning.

*****

“Papa?”

“Yes, Helen Marie?”

“Why don’t we celebrate your birthday?” The little girl in overalls and pigtails sat down on the bottom of the stepladder, resting her chin in her hands.

“Because I don’t know what day it is,” her papa said, carefully smoothing the pants he was ironing.

“That’s silly. Everyone has to have a birthday!” Helen said.

“Yes. You are right. I just cannot seem to remember which day is mine.” Her papa looked up from his work and knew by her face that she didn’t believe him; it was the same face his wife made when he told her he didn’t have too much work left to do. “How about this, princess: why don’t you choose a day to celebrate my birthday?”

“Me?” Helen’s eyes grew wide, “Ok.” She scrunched up her nose and stuck out her tongue in concentration. The two stayed like that for a minute or so, the father ironing clothes and the daughter pondering dates, as fleck-filled sunlight spilled through the garage’s open windows.

The girl’s head popped up off her hands. “How about March fourth?”

“Mama’s birthday?”

“Yes. So you can celebrate it together!”

“I like it,” Papa nodded.

“We can have the party here, in your tailoring shop!”

Amused, he said, “You better talk to your Mama about that one.”

“Yes sir!” little Helen said as she stood and skipped out of the garage into the Iowa spring air.

A few weeks later, Helen skipped back into the garage and handed her father a piece of paper. “What is this?” he asked.

“It’s an invitation to your birthday party tomorrow!” Helen nearly shouted.

Her papa held the paper at arm’s length. “Ah! Now I see it. Yes, indeed it is.”

“I made it all by m—” and then Helen let out a sudden shriek of terror and scrambled up the steps of the stepladder, clinging to the top. Quickly setting down his needle and thread, her Papa came around his desk. “What is it?”

“SPIDER!” she screamed, pointing, while her papa calmly planted one boot on top of the scurrying bug, no larger than a penny.

He lifted his daughter into his arms. “It is all right. The spider is gone. You are going to be fine.”

Wiping her eyes and nose with grubby hands, Helen began to calm down. “How were you not scared?”

“I’m not scared of spiders.”

“Oh,” she said in a small voice as he walked to the corner of the garage where the old rocking chair now rested. Propping her on one knee, they rocked together. “Are you scared of anything Papa?” she asked, laying her head against her papa’s shoulder.

“Yes. Of course I am. Everyone is scared of something.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Water.”

Helen sat up straight, bewildered. “Water? That’s silly.”

“Not to me. You see, I have seen a great deal more water in my time than you may ever see in your entire life.” She still looked skeptical. “When I came to this country, I came in a big boat. It took many days to travel the whole ocean, and all I had was a satchel with my tailoring supplies and some money, neither of which could help me with my fear—my fear of drowning. I did not know how to swim.”

Understanding seeped into the girl’s eyes. “How did you do it then? How were you brave enough to travel the whole ocean?”

He closed his eyes, gently rocking the chair, breathing in memories. “I remembered something my mother had said to me: Be brave and trust God, that he will send His angels to be with you. So I said a little prayer. I said, ‘God, I am scared. I do not want to be scared anymore. Help me.”

“What happened then?” Helen asked.

“Well, God answered me. He sent me an angel. A friend. The man’s name was Ryan.”

“Hey! That’s our last name!” Helen said, surprised.

“Yes, it is. Ryan was a Scottish sailor aboard the ship, and he knew the most wonderful stories I have ever heard. Throughout the trip, whenever Ryan could spare a moment, we would meet and he would tell me stories that would take my mind far away from my fear. That’s why, when I had to choose a new name in America, I chose ‘Ryan’. The name reminds me that I can always be brave when I have God on my side.”

“I like that story very much Papa,” she said, resting her pigtails once again on his shoulder. “Thank you for telling me.”

Together they rocked, enjoying the silence in the cozy garage, until Helen whispered something that her papa couldn’t quite hear.

“What was that?” he murmured out of the corner of his mouth.

“Happy birthday Papa.”

“Thank you, Helen. Thank you.”

*****

“You know what words can be spelled with the letters of ‘courage’, Ryan?”

“What?”

“The words ‘race’ and ‘grace’,” I say.

Matthew, who possesses the gift of eavesdropping as well as the gift of imagination, holds up a hand. “Wait. How do you spell ‘grace’ from ‘courage’? There isn’t even a ‘g’ in ‘courage’.” He screws up his nose. Then he smacks his forehead. “Oh. Never mind.”

Ignoring Matthew, I turn to Ryan. “You know the story about how God helped Great-great-grandpa Walter Ryan have courage when he came to America, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, we can have courage too. When I raced my first 200-yard butterfly I learned how to be brave—you say a little prayer, and God sends an angel. The angel can be a person, an inspiration, or even a feeling of peace. God’s grace is shown when he sends us angels to lift us to success, even when we fall or doubt. If God helped Great-great-grandpa and me, God can help you too, Ryan. Would you like to say a prayer now? I’ll help you if you’d like.” His soggy, blond porcupine crown bobs.

Off to the side we three brothers kneel together, a sanctuary amidst chaos, and I cannot help but smile as the little king asks the Great King to send him an angel to help him be brave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Used

The Holy Bible, King James Version, Joshua 1:9. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979. Print.

The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Section 88:63. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979. Print

 

-M.M.

Why I Am Who I Am {experimental flash essay}

beach campfire

Why I Am Who I Am

I.

The campfire was dawdling and people were beginning to go to bed. I listened to the sound of waves as I followed my flashlight through the park. The air smelled like the black of stars, the grey of sea salt, and the puce dampness of brick. It was the smell of living halfway in civilization and halfway out. The smell of frogs and raccoons and trees. The smell of evening awake.

II.

  1.  scissors
  2.  red paper
  3.  mine
  4.  nice job
  5.  kissing is gross
  6.  glue sticks
  7.  wood chips
  8.  tire swing
  9.  kiss her
  10.  no
  11.  uncertainty
  12.  bliss
  13.  running
  14.  a chain-link fence
  15.  whispering parents
  16.  car accident
  17.  student in the hospital
  18.  new teacher
  19.  library
  20.  tree house
  21.  friends
  22.  no school today
  23.  empty backpack
  24.  new school
  25.  grass
  26.  monkey-bars
  27.  numbers
  28.  pencils
  29.  paper with lines
  30.  scissors

III.

My brother had an extra incisor. Five front teeth. When his adult teeth began to grow in, the dentist recommended he have the surplus tooth removed. When he got back from oral surgery he showed me the tooth. It was as long as a mini-paperclip and faded like a bony sunset from yellow to white to pink to red. The tooth looked so sad, like an uprooted flower. Though I still hope his life is better without it, I sometimes wonder if the dentist stole an important part of my brother that day.

IV.

“Mom! I just saved a baby lizard!”

“What?”

“It was drinking from the hole in the base of the basketball hoop—the one Dad filled with hose-water last night so it wouldn’t tip over—and it fell in.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. So I put my finger in the hole and it grabbed on.”

“And where is it now?”

“Outside on the sidewalk. It’ll be fine soon.”

“I’m sure it will. Now go wash your hands. It’s time for lunch.”

-M.M.

Antimetropia {flash nonfiction}

monocle

Antimetropia

When my younger brother got glasses for the first time, I pitied him. The glasses looked so silly on his first-grade face, too big. They had zigzag, glow-in-the-dark lines along the sides and he thought they were cool. I didn’t.

My freshman year of high school I worried that my eyes were slowly going blind. Words blurred, lights smeared, and I couldn’t read the digital clock in the kitchen from the couch anymore. Entropy, it seemed, would serve fate on a silver platter and I wouldn’t even be able to see it coming. The future depended upon my ability to counteract the inevitable, so I went to see the optometrist.

After submitting myself to the air-puff retina photography machine, and a tedious game of lens-swapping—1 or 2, 3 or 4, 5 or 6—I sat in an office awaiting my verdict. Guilty. It had to be guilty. Poetic justice for thinking my brother looked dorky when we were both in elementary school. Dorkdom called and they want you to come to lunch. I sat on the sticky teal examination table and closed my eyes in resignation.

“You have an unusual pair of eyes, did you know that?” the optometrist said, straightening the papers in her file.

“I do?”

“You have one near-sighted eye and one far-sighted eye, a condition called antimetropia.”

“Is that bad?” An image of having to carry around two monocles filled me with dread.

“In your case, no. You have a very light case of antimetropia. Some people have operations done on their eyes so they have what you have naturally.”

“Really?”

“Your eyes compensate for one another. That’s probably why you didn’t notice much until high school. You don’t have to have glasses, but they will help you see more clearly. You will need two pairs of glasses, one for near activities, like reading books or using the computer, and one for far activities, like driving or reading the board in class.”

There it was. My sentence. Not to merely be a four-eyes, but to be a six-eyes.

When my younger brother saw me wearing glasses for the first time he smiled. I think he guessed at my secret pride and reveled in my newfound humility.

“Nice glasses,” he said. His sarcasm tasted like strawberry lemonade, sweet and biting.

“Nice glasses-es,” I corrected him, pulling the second pair from my pocket.

“I’m so grateful you won’t be bumping into the walls at night anymore.”

“Me too,” I said.

“It’s about time you saw the light.”

Yeah, I thought. About time.

-M.M.

Out to Lunch {Flash Fiction}

diner

Out to Lunch

“Can I get you something to drink, Mr. Randal?” the waitress asked.

“No thanks ma’am,” he said, “I got some juice boxes out in the truck.”

The waitress clicked her pen into her apron pocket and forced a smile while three boys in flannel shirts at a nearby table raised eyebrows at each other. That old man in jeans and work boots couldn’t possibly be the Mr. Randal. That old creep never came into town.

The three boys fell silent when they heard the bell over the door jangle as Mr. Randall returned to his table through the empty restaurant with a six-pack of juice boxes.

They couldn’t hide their silence and neither could he as he slurped the bottom of his juice box. Setting the empty box down on the table, Mr. Randal turned to the three boys.

“Did I ever tell you about the time them crickets chewed a picture of the Mona Lisa herself into my wheat field?” The three boys shook their heads no, so Mr. Randall launched into story.

He was just finishing another story, one about the time his rooster decided to crow at sunset, when the tired waitress returned to take his order.

“Yes, I’ll have them kid’s chicken nuggets on an adult-sized plate. The old gizzard can’t handle more than six or seven nuggets at a time anymore.” Mr. Randal patted his stomach and the waitress hurriedly jotted down his order.

Mr. Randal kept on telling stories to the boys as the mid-afternoon haze crept in through the windows, even when the waitress brought his food. With nothing to do in the empty restaurant, the waitress sat down at a table in the corner pretending to read Gone with the Wind. Soon though, Mr. Randal’s home-cooked stories filled the air and she gave up the pretense of reading, undid the string of her apron, and settled into her chair with her eyes closed, listening to a story about the time his neighbor’s pig jumped the fence on Halloween and chased away the trick-or-treaters.

The waitress chided herself for dozing off on the job, but no one would care. The restaurant was still empty. She stood up, stretching her arms and moved to clear the tables. As she was clearing Mr. Randal’s table she discovered a napkin with the word TIP scrawled on it alongside an unopened juice box. The waitress just shook her head and smiled, tucking the juice box into her apron pocket for later. What a story to share.

-M.M.

The Capillarity of Truth [Mystery Short Story]

rain

Credit: www.wallpapersgalaxy.com

The Capillarity of Truth

 

The bedside table was ringing.

No.

The phone on the bedside table was ringing. Jim fumbled in the dark and pressed the cold, plastic receiver to his face.

“Hello?” he said.

“Jim. It’s me. Lance.”

Jim sat up in bed as a flash of lightning illuminated waterey veins crisscrossing the window. “Sir?” The digital clock read 3:00.

“Jim, a call just came in and I need backup. We’re short manpower with all the flight delays.”

“I’ll be at the station in ten.”

“Seven if you can.”

“Sir—“ Jim began, but the other end of the line clicked dead. Jim rubbed his eyes and felt his way to the bathroom to brush his teeth and throw on some clothes.

Twenty minutes later, Jim was sitting in Lance’s police cruiser. The streetlights whizzed past outside the window like fireflies in a wind tunnel.  Flipping on the overhead light, Jim pored over Lance’s notes. At 2:54, the station had received an emergency call from Mr. Perry Perkins who said that his 11:00 flight had been cancelled and that he had returned home to find his wife, Ramona, dead in bed. Jim shook his head as they paused at a stoplight, watching as the puddles in the street changed from red to green.

Puddles. The puddles reminded Jim of his first case with Lance. A call had come into the station that a man was living in the pool basement of the Waterbury Aquatic Center near the underwater viewing windows. Jim remembered how the man, a wanted burglar, had nearly bashed in his head with a crowbar. If Lance hadn’t heard the man’s step in a puddle and tackled Jim out of the way, Jim might not—he didn’t really want to think about it.

Jim massaged his forehead trying to clear his mind. The Waterbury Case was months ago now, but he still vowed he would never be so careless again.

*****

The door to number 1220 Raudona Street eased open a crack and the round face of a man appeared. “What do you want? Who are you?”

Effortlessly, Lance flipped open his badge from his breast pocket. “I am Lance Throckton, Arberton Police Detective, and this is my associate, James Blakely. Are you Mr. Perkins?”

“Yes. Yes, I am,” the man with the round face said. “What do you want?”

Jim raised his eyebrows at Lance.

“You called the police. . .” Lance said.

“I did?”

Lance continued, “. . . concerning your wife?”

“Yes,” Perkins nodded, “Yes, I did.”

“May we come in?” Jim asked.

“Sorry! Of course!” Perkins said, shaking his head and flinging the door open.

Revealed in entirety, Mr. Perkins was a rotund man with disheveled grey hair. He wore a white shirt, suit pants, and one black sock. Jim chose not to remark upon his missing sock.

“Right, this way,” Perkins said, turning down a carpeted hallway.

“Do you think he’s in shock?” Jim whispered to Lance as they followed the squat man down the hall. Lance chewed the inside of his cheek, thoughts elsewhere.

Mr. Perkins gestured for the two detectives to enter the bedroom on the left. “There she is. My Mona. She—” He stopped. “Mona,” he breathed, eyes wide. He stumbled backward into the hall like he had been shoved in the chest. “My Mona,” he mumbled, sinking to the carpet, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Mona.”

“If you don’t mind,” Lance said, “I am going to close this door while we work.” Perkins didn’t respond. He just sat there hugging his knees while Lance closed the door.

Jim and Lance stood, taking in the room: the motionless ceiling fan, the wooden dresser with a purse on top, the square mirror on the wall, the bedside table, the open bathroom door revealing a cluttered counter, and the travel-sized suitcase standing beside a king-sized bed.

A woman lay in the bed, her face a grey-green pallor. Jim couldn’t help thinking that she looked familiar.

“Well Jim,” Lance said, “why don’t you take a crack at this room. Show me what you’ve learned.”

Jim obeyed, moving to the bedside. He bent over the body, searching for clues. He held two fingers to her neck and listened to her chest. He sniffed for alcohol only to find the pleasing aroma of mint. He examined her body for bleeding, bruises, swelling, or bites, but found no immediate cause for her death. Jim pulled out a leather notebook and began making notes.

“Mind if I have a look?” Lance said, coming to the bedside.

“Sure,” Jim said, turning his attention to the woman’s immediate surroundings.

He examined the black, travel–sized suitcase next. Unzipping it, he found a couple of changes of clothes, a razor, a toothbrush, deodorant, a boarding pass, a comb, a bar of soap, and a manila folder of official-looking papers. He made a list in his notebook before crossing the room and entering the bathroom.

Jim caught his own reflection in the mirror and thought that he looked frightened. He needed to get used to this kind of situation. On the counter lay a comb, a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, a tissue box, a hand-soap dispenser and a hair dryer.  Opening the mirrored medicine cabinet Jim found a purple toothbrush, a bottle of tricyclic antidepressants, some over-the-counter painkillers, fingernail clippers, and cotton swaps. Each item found a home in his notebook.

Jim turned back to the bedroom and crossed the carpet to the purple purse on the dresser. He snapped open the silver clasp and removed the contents one-by-one: a key ring, a tube of rouge lipstick, a hairbrush, a checkbook, a tin of mints, four ballpoint pens, a hand mirror, blush, a paper-clipped wad of receipts, a pack of gum, a garage clicker, a matching purple alligator-skin wallet, and a gum wrapper with the gum still saved inside for later. Leafing through the pack of receipts, Jim found a small scrap of paper with scrawled pencil words, smeared and hurried.

“Hey Lance,” Jim said, “Come take look at this.”

Jim stared at the note, mind whirring. He read it again.

I’LL COME TO YOU TONIGHT WHEN HE’S GONE

*****

Jim rapped three times on Lance’s office door. “Come in,” Lance’s voice called. The office was simple: a bookcase, an uncluttered oak desk, a flat-screen television on the wall, and a couple of wooden chairs. Lance reclined in a leather swivel chair, watching the flat-screen television intently. Jim pulled up a chair across from him.

Gesturing to the screen, Lance asked, “What do you know about boxing, Jim?”

Jim paused a moment to think as the two men on the screen pommeled each other. “Nothing much Sir.”

“Ah,” sighed Lance, “that’s too bad. It is a wonderful sport.” He smiled at Jim. “I wasn’t half-bad at it back at Arberton High, you know.”

Jim chuckled, “You? A boxer? I would have pinned you as more of the science club type.”

“Yes,” Lance said, fingering the arm of his chair, “ but boxing, boxing was fun—the movement, the contact, the adrenaline. They called me the ‘South Paw Smasher’.” He clicked off the television with the remote on his desk. “Now, down to business. What do you need, Jim?”

“Well Sir, I have the results of Ramona Perkins’ biopsy.”

Lance swiveled to face Jim. “And?”

“The lab concluded ‘cyanide poisoning’ as the cause of death.”

Lance nodded, placing his fingertips together. “Jim, I have a proposition for you.”

“What is it?” Jim asked.

“As you well know, to become a full detective you must present a case to the police council. I believe you are ready. You’ve come a long way since Waterbury. Why don’t you take the Perkins Case? Full use of the forensic lab, complete case report, the works. What do you say Jim?”

“That sounds great, Sir.”

“Please,” Lance said standing to shake hands, “Call me Lance. ‘Sir’ is for trainees, not real detectives with real cases. Just stop by if you would like my help with anything.”

“Yes, S— Lance,” Jim smiled, “Thank you.”

“No,” Lance said, “Thank you.

*****

“May I see them?” Jim asked.

Mr. Perkins silently handed over the bag of requested items. His hands left humid ghost prints on the plastic. He wiped his hands on his black suit pants and said, “Sir?”

“You can call me Jim if you like,” Jim said, inspecting the bag before setting it on the desk.

“Jim,” Mr. Perkins began again, “What do you need?”

“I just want to have a little conversation so that I get all the details straight for the police report,” Jim answered.

“Where should I begin?”

“Why don’t you tell me about yourself—your profession, your life, and the events leading up to the . . . incident,” Jim said, pulling his notebook from his pocket.

“Well,” Perkins began, licking his dry lips, “I am an accountant at Sterling Insurance & Co. I started as an intern for the company in high school. The company asks me to travel quite often. On Thursday my flight was supposed to leave at 11:00—the boarding pass is in the bag.” He nodded quickly toward the bag before continuing. “It was a rough night: security gave me a rough time and then I had to wait for two-and-a-half hours before they announced that no planes would be available until Friday afternoon. So, I returned home and—” Perkins choked on his words and burst into a coughing fit.

Jim reached into his suit jacket pocket. “Would a piece of gum help, Mr. Perkins?”

“What flavor?” Perkins managed between coughs.

“Spearmint.”

Wiping his mouth, Perkins said, “No thanks. I don’t really care for mint. Mo—” her name caught and his eyes watered. “She always liked mint, but I didn’t.” He sniffed once and cleared his throat.  “She always carried a pack of strawberry gum, just for me. She was always so good to me, Jim. She was so strong. She had depression, you know, but she always tried to make everyone around her happy. Even when we were high school students, she was filled with kindness.  She was a good woman, Jim. I just—” and Perkins covered his face with his hands.

Jim finished making notes and sat in the quietly, unsure what to say to the sobbing man. Soon enough, Perkins straightened up and wiped his face with a handkerchief.

“Thank you, Mr. Perkins,” Jim said. “That will do. I will return your belongings after I examine them.” Both men stood, shook hands, and then Jim showed Perkins out and dropped off the plastic bag at the forensic lab for testing.

*****

“Yes, please. Have a seat,” Jim said, welcoming Sterling Hoban into the small room. Hoban wore a blue, pinstriped suit with silver buttons.

“What can I do for you Sir?” Hoban asked taking a seat in the chair across the desk from Jim.

“Just call me Jim, Mr. Hoban,” Jim said, pulling out his notebook.

“What would you like to know?” Sterling Hoban said, spreading his hands wide. “I am an open book.” He brushed imaginary dust from one sleeve before crossing one leg over the other. “As a newscaster, I happen to know a great deal of information, if that’s what you’re after.”

Everything about Sterling Hoban was a great theatre act. “Mr. Hoban,” Jim said, “why don’t you start by telling me a little about yourself.”

“Well, let’s see,” Hoban stroked his chin. “I grew up here, in Arberton. I decided early on that I wanted to be a television newscaster. I have family in town, but I haven’t married. Who wants to marry the guy who reports car accidents and neighborhood scandals for a living? No one, really. When I am not working, I enjoy reading science fiction and thrillers, taking walks into town, and meeting up with friends for lunch. Come to think of it, I haven’t eaten lunch yet today.”

Jim finished taking notes before asking another question. “Tell me more about the news station.”

Sterling Hoban smiled a brilliant, plastic smile. “Well, the station is pretty small but we have our fair share of characters. There’s Bethany Tibbits, the executive producer. She has to have her coffee or she turns into a nightmare. Eduardo Marias, the assistant producer, is really the backbone of the whole station. Anton Ellis runs the teleprompter, a little too quickly in my opinion. There’s Remy Canto, the street reporter who I don’t see much. There are several others, but I can’t seem to think . . .” Hoban counted silently on his fingers, mouthing names. “Oh! I nearly forgot, Harold Berts, the meteorologist. And . . . well . . . we used to have another newscaster, Mona Perkins, but she recently died.” Here, his voice became softer, confidential. “No one at the station knows why, but we’re all very sad. Mona was a gem.”

“That’s precisely what I wanted to talk to you about. When was the last time you saw Mona Perkins?” Jim asked.

“Let’s see,” Hoban squinted his eyes, “it was on Thursday. We were meeting in the conference room with the whole team for an evaluation discussion. I remember, she asked me if I had any gum and I gave her my last piece of spearmint. Other than that, I don’t remember running into her afterwards.”

“One more question, Mr. Hoban,” Jim said. “Where do you keep your phone?”

“Right here” Hoban said, reaching with his right hand to pull a shiny black rectangle from his left breast pocket. “In my pocket of course.” Hoban slipped the phone back into the pocket. “Why would I keep it anywhere else?”

Jim smiled and clicked his pen once he finished scribbling. “I believe that will do. Thank you for coming in, Mr. Hoban.”

“That’s it?” Hoban said, standing. “No secrets? No tricks?”

“No tricks,” Jim said. “I just needed to have a conversation, that’s all.”

“Ok,” Hoban said, flashing the plastic smile again as they shook hands.

“Have a nice day, Jim,” Sterling Hoban said, opening the door.

“You too.”

The door to the small room closed with a satisfying thump.

*****

Tomorrow. Tomorrow was presentation day. Jim knew there was no way around it; every detective trainee had to pass the final presentation. Tomorrow, he would stand in front of a board of the highest-ranking law enforcers in Arberton and present the entirety of the Perkins Case: his methods, reasoning and conclusion. It’s just telling the truth, Jim reminded himself, adjusting his pillow. He thought back to Waterbury and his conversation with Lance in the car on the way to the Aquatic Center.

Truth, Lance had said. Truth is our medium and reasoning is our art. Truth has capillarity—it always finds a way to the surface of things. In science, capillary action is a special property of water. When water touches, say, a piece of paper, it will seep upwards against gravity until it feels satisfied with its result. Truth is like that; it has a way of making itself known against all odds. Never underestimate the virtue of truth.

If Lance trusted the truth, so would he. Jim rolled over.Tomorrow would not be another Waterbury. Jim covered his head with his blanket to drown out his thoughts.

Just take deep breaths, he told himself. Deep breaths.

*****

Jim stood at the front of the police council room. Twelve men sat around the grand table, all of them wearing pressed uniforms, all of them serious and business-like. In the back corner, Lance Throckton sat gazing out the window, listening, but not looking.

Jim cleared his throat to begin. “Thank you all for attending this case report. I will do my best to portray the facts as I have come to understand them. With your permission, I will begin.”

One of the officers nodded. “At approximately 1:30 in the morning on Friday the 15th of November, flight 232 was cancelled and Mr. Perry Perkins was forced to scrap his planned business trip. As you will recall, the weather that night was terrible, so the drive home to Arberton took him nearly an hour. When he arrived home to number 1220 Raudona Street, he found his wife, Ramona Perkins, dead in bed. He immediately phoned the police.”

Jim slipped his hands into his pockets and began to pace.

“Detective Throckton and I responded to Perkins’ call. There was nothing unnatural about Mrs. Perkins’ death.  that seemed unnatural aside from the distinct aroma of mint about her person.”

Jim stooped to pick up a briefcase from the floor and placed it carefully on the table. He pulled latex gloves from his pocket, slipped them on, and clicked open the briefcase. He continued, “An examination of the room yielded a note scrawled in pencil of a scrap of paper.” Jim lifted a piece of paper from the case. “It says: I’LL COME TO YOU TONIGHT WHEN HE’S GONE.”

“This note,” Jim continued, “was the first concrete evidence that something more was involved in this case. The second was the biopsy report, which concluded cyanide poisoning as the cause of death. This, of course, immediately suggested suicide. Ramona Perkins was, after all, diagnosed with clinical depression. She had either ingested or injected the poison. The lack of a puncture wound ruled out injection, so she must have ingested it. Since cyanide acts in minutes, the poison’s source had to be nearby. I concluded that there were a four suspicious items in the room and tested each of them.”

Jim removed a bottle of pills from the briefcase. “First, these tricyclic antidepressants. I thought she might have switched out the pills for cyanide to hide them from her husband, but lab results indicated that these were just plain depression meds. Second,” he lifted a tin of mints from the briefcase. “These mints were doubly suspicious because of the ease of hiding cyanide pills in a mint tin and their smell. Unfortunately, the lab test was negative for cyanide. Third, I suspected the chewing gum from Mrs. Perkins’ purse.”

Jim removed a pack of strawberry gum from her purse. “This pack of gum tested negative as well, and I learned from interviewing Mr. Perkins, that she kept the gum for him, not for herself. Fourth,” Jim produced the tiny wad from the briefcase, “this piece of chewed mint gum, saved in a wrapper in Mrs. Perkin’s purse. I learned from an interview with Sterling Hoban, a colleague of Mrs. Perkins’, that he gave her this gum. The gum tested positive for cyanide, and I began putting the pieces together.”

Jim glanced over at Lance, still looking out the window. “Hoban yearned for someone to love. He passed Mrs. Perkins a note at work one day indicating he would pay her visit that night while her husband was away. Hoban, who had prepared some cyanide gum he hoped to plant somewhere where Mr. Perkins would find it later, was furious when Mrs. Perkins turned down his request. He turned on her and thus, Mrs. Perkins was found dead in bed after having chewed cyanide gum.” For a brief moment, the corner of Lance’s mouth shifted. Was that a smile or something else? A murmur of approval spread through the room.

Somewhere inside Jim’s mind a voice screamed, You would ruin a life? What kind of man are you! Don’t you care at all? Are you a cold-hearted logic machine? Jim closed his eyes. Never underestimate the virtue of truth.

“But,” Jim said, “that conclusion was incorrect. Cyanide acts in minutes; if Mrs. Perkins had taken the gum at work, she would have been dead before she reached her car. Additionally, a left-handed person must have written the note because the writing was smeared to the right. However, Sterling Hoban was right handed, as indicated by his preference to keep his phone in his left breast pocket, an awkward location for lefties. This led me to test the items a second time, personally, so I could be sure of the results. The chewed mint gum tested negative.”

Lance continued looking out the window. He looked bored, chewing on the inside of his cheek.

“This left the question unanswered. How did Mrs. Perkins ingest the cyanide that caused her death?” Jim reached into the briefcase and removed a final item. “This travel-sized mint toothpaste tested positive for cyanide. If we estimate that Mrs. Perkins brushed her teeth before getting into bed using a blob of toothpaste with a mass of 1.5 grams, it is entirely likely, that she could have ingested the 0.075 grams of cyanide necessary to end her life.”

Jim returned the toothpaste to the briefcase and pulled off the gloves.

“Cyanide toothpaste would have been too much of a hassle for any suicidal individual. The poison was designed to be taken by accident.”

Jim tapped his head as if pointing out his exact train of thought. “I wasn’t long before I realized what was missing from Mr. Perkins’ suitcase: his toothpaste. He had a toothbrush, but no toothpaste.

“Mr. Perkins toothpaste must have been confiscated by security at the airport. This means that the toothpaste he took contained more than 100 mL of paste and was not travel sized. He must have taken the wrong toothpaste, the home-sized toothpaste. The cyanide toothpaste was meant for Perry Perkins, not his wife.” Jim snapped the briefcase closed and forged ahead with the analysis.

“I gathered all the evidence together and constructed a list.” Jim counted off each point on his fingers. “1. According to the note, the murderer had, or wanted to have, relations with Mrs. Perkins. 2. This person had access to cyanide. 3. This person was left-handed.”

“I was left with one suspect: a ‘south paw’ boxer with access to cyanide and the ability to tamper with test results. His file suggested that—”

There was a crashing noise from the back of the room and everyone turned to see Detective Lance Throckton sprawled on the ground, his chair overturned. Someone screamed and the room burst into chaos. Jim tried to reach Lance, but there were too many people in the way. Somewhere, an alarm was going off. No. No. No. Jim’s mind yelled in time with the alarm. Jim watched helplessly as Lance was placed on a stretcher. As the stretcher passed Jim on its way out the door, something dropped onto the floor. Jim stooped over and picked it up. It was a pack of gum labeled ‘Cyanide Gum’.

Lance’s words passed through Jim’s mind. Truth is our medium and reasoning is our art. Jim shivered and slipped the pack into his pocket.

 

He might need it for later.

 

 

 

References

http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/3-1-1-carry-ons   {Airport Security}

http://www.colgatesensitiveprorelief.com.sg/faq   {Facts About Toothpaste}

http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/cyanide/basics/facts.asp   {Facts About Cyanide}

http://www.careerpage.org/jobtypes.php     {News Stations}

 -M.M.

Miner Discovery

13878983-cartoon-mine-entrance

 

Miner Discovery

 

The miner was mining (as miners will do)

With a pick in his hand and a foot in each shoe,

Chipping away in the dark at the stone,

Humming a melody, lost and alone,

With naught but the minimal light from his hat,

Searching for anything new to look at—

A flecklet of gold or silver would do,

Or rubies or diamonds or sapphires blue,

Still chipping away in the colorless light,

Which never was day nor ever was night.

 

Then with a swing his pickaxe struck home,

The wall so soft that it might have been foam.

“Hoho!” he cried, “I seem to have struck

My very first underground vein of good luck!”

Then pulling his pickaxe out of the crack,

He saw it was covered in something, not black,

But white—a goopy glue, frothy and slick.

It poured from the crack, clumpy and thick.

It formed a small puddle around his old boots

And came to a stop. He let out three hoots.

 

After tasting the tip of his pick with great care

He knew he had found something yummy to share.

So he scampered away to call the whole crew,

Barefoot, of course, for his boots stuck like glue.

And that is the story of how it was found

That marshmallows come from under the ground.

-M.M.

Thump, Thump, Splat!

Thump, Thump, Splat! 

Each autumn when the leaves began to turn from green to orange, the small town of Ravensberg in the Bracken Valley would earnestly prepare for the Great Fall Festival. Wreaths of orange, yellow, and red leaves would appear on front doors, grandmothers would begin practicing their pie making for the Great Pie-Pickin’ Contest, and kids would whisper schemes to win the Great Costume Competition. By tradition, one thirteen-year-old would have the honor of picking a pumpkin for the top of Graveyard Hill and overseeing the carving ceremonies at the Great Fall Festival.

This year, a fiery, redheaded boy, one Asher Rash, was chosen to fetch the Great Pumpkin. “I’ll get the biggest, best Great Pumpkin Ravensberg has ever seen!” Asher boasted to his grandmother one day as she was baking her (more…)

Gum Control

Gum Control

 a short, comedic piece for two actors

The entirety of the action of this short script takes place in a generic school hallway with lockers. A Hall MONITOR paces the stage, waiting for the bell to ring. When it does, kids stream across the hall silently, allowing the Hall MONITOR to deliver lines audibly. Among the rabble is the STUDENT who is chewing gum.

MONITOR:         (breathing in deeply) Ah. This is when I love life. The smells of the school hallway in passing period are always so … illuminating.  (To STUDENT)  Halt.

STUDENT:          Who? Me?

MONITOR:         Yes. You. Don’t move a muscle. (MONITOR sniffs

                              STUDENT excessively)

                              (Aside) They always think they can sneak it past me. But they can’t. We can do this the hard way, or the easy way. Which shall it be?

STUDENT:          What? … Excuse me, but I’m going to be late for class. I have to… (Tries to walk away)

MONITOR:         (stopping STUDENT) Fess up. You have it.

STUDENT:          Have what?

MONITOR:         Don’t play games with me. Is it a substance or an item? You know the answer.

STUDENT:          You are really creeping me out. What is this all about?

MONITOR:         Order is built on slave labor. Schools need order. Schools have students. Students are slaves. Slaves need hall monitors to keep them in order.

STUDENT:          Are you just trying to validate your existence?

MONITOR:         You…. (doesn’t say anything) You ask what this is all about? This is about keeping the peace. You are disrupting that peace. This is about… GUM CONTROL.

STUDENT:          Gun control?

MONITOR:         Gum control.

STUDENT:          Gun control?

MONITOR:         Gum-m control.

STUDENT:          Gum control? Gum control? Are you serious?

MONITOR:         Completely. Spit it out.

STUDENT:          Here? In front of all these people?

MONITOR:         Yes.

STUDENT:          Do I have to?

MONITOR:         YES.

STUDENT:          But…

MONITOR:         DO IT!

(STUDENT bends over as if to spit the gum out onto the ground)

                              Not on the ground! Here. . . (MONITOR pulls out a piece of

                              paper and hands it to STUDENT. STUDENT spits out the

                              gum into the paper and returns it to MONITOR, who

                              pockets the gum.)

STUDENT:          There. Are you satisfied?

MONITOR:         No.

STUDENT:          No?

MONITOR:         No.

STUDENT:          Why?

MONITOR:         Because.

STUDENT:          Because is not a reason.

MONITOR:         Why not?

STUDENT:          Because it is.

MONITOR:         Exactly.

STUDENT:          What?

MONITOR:         You just said that ‘Because’ is the answer. ‘Because it is.’

STUDENT:          No! I… I … This is beside the point. You are harassing students.

MONITOR:         Harassing them? Never. I protect them.

STUDENT:          I feel harassed. Bullied even.

MONITOR:         How ungrateful! I just saved your life!

STUDENT:          Doubt it.

MONITOR:         There was once a girl who went to this school. She chewed gum every day.  I must have caught chewing, chewing, chewing, chewing every day. Chewing on Monday. Chewing on Tuesday. Chewing on Wednesday.

STUDENT:          OK.

MONITOR:         Chewing on Thursday. Chewing on Friday. Chewing on Saturday.

STUDENT:          OK!

MONITOR:         Chewing on SUNDAY!

STUDENT:          Gasp.

MONITOR:         That girl would blow bubbles right under my nose. So I told her: stop chewing gum or else it’ll be the end of the line for you, sister. Then one fateful May day little miss bubble gum comes skipping along the school hall and trips. Next thing you know, she’s blowing bubbles backwards. How do you feel about that?

STUDENT:          Well… uh… I

MONITOR:         Exactly. (MONITOR pulls out identical looking piece of gum

                              and begins chewing.)

STUDENT:          But chewing gum is harmless.

MONITOR:         That’s what they all say. The truth is gum is a gateway chew. First it’s juicy fruit, then Hubba-Bubba, then Trident, then 5, and then tobac…

STUDENT:          Toba…?

MONITOR:         To baseball chew. Then jail, where all you can chew on are the metallic tasting bars of your cell.

STUDENT:          Do you have personal experience with that?

MONITOR:         Of course not. I’m a hall monitor, not a felon.

STUDENT:          You know chewing gum isn’t that bad. People have been doing it for ages.

MONITOR:         Until they die.

STUDENT:          But that doesn’t count! Everyone dies sometime.

MONITOR:         But it doesn’t have to be from gum! Do you know how many kids die from gum each year?

STUDENT:          I have no idea.

MONITOR:         Me either.

STUDENT:          Chewing gum fights halitosis which causes kids to lose focus in school. Even the teachers appreciate it.

MONITOR:         Ha! You think the teachers are any kind of authority at this school? Well, I have news for you. They’re not. I am.

STUDENT:          And you would pick on a poor, innocent little student like me, whose worst crime is nibbling gum. You wouldn’t pick on a child.

MONITOR:         (aside) I hate when they give me the puppy-dog eyes. That pity card won’t work with me. I don’t need the stats to tell you the trouble gum causes. Take, for example, the bullying gum causes.

STUDENT:          Bullying?

MONITOR:         Yes. Bullying.

STUDENT:          Really?

MONITOR:         Yes. The big kid wants the little kid’s gum. The little kid won’t share. The big kid chews out the little kid. Horrible. Truly, horrible.

STUDENT:          But, with all due respect, gum doesn’t chew out people. People chew out people.

MONITOR:         Exactly.

STUDENT:          What?

MONITOR:         All this chewing wouldn’t be happening if gum was regulated the way it ought to be.

STUDENT:          But…

MONITOR:         No buts.

STUDENT:          Well, there should be buts.

MONITOR:         But…

STUDENT:          No buts!

MONITOR:         Touché.  (MONITOR spits gum out into paper and pockets

                              it.) So what’s it going to be: the hard way or the easy way?

STUDENT:          The easy way.

MONITOR:         There is no easy way.

STUDENT:          Then why did you offer it?

MONITOR:         So the hard way then.

STUDENT:          What do you mean?

MONITOR:         The hard way of the law.

STUDENT:          Which means…?

MONITOR:         Your punishment. In order to convince students to cease their evil ways of chewing gum, I have concocted a fiendishly effective plan.

STUDENT:          A plan?

MONITOR:         Well you see it’s quite simple really. I do a little explaining, give you a gift, and you never chew gum again.

STUDENT:          Ok. Sounds good.

MONITOR:         Oh, it is. You see, the mouth naturally secretes saliva. Everyone has saliva, for better or for worse. In your case, it would be the worse. When humans speak, their heads are usually within a six inch height difference of each other. It is scientifically known that the average human spits at least twice per sentence, releasing saliva into the air at speeds so fast the naked eye only sees small shooting stars. Of course, these are not shooting stars, but globules of spit. Now, picture, if you will, that spit landing, as in all probability it would, in your mouth when you happen to bechewing gum. The gum soaks up the saliva and you are left chewing on someone else’s spit. Sounds tasty, eh?

STUDENT:          That’s just a tall tale. That can’t be true.

MONITOR:         Oh yeah? Well why don’t chemistry teachers let you chew gum in the lab?

STUDENT:          Because Mr. Bubbles hates gum?

MONITOR:         No! Because Mr. Bubbles knows the truth! He’s a chemistry teacher. He would know.

STUDENT:          Oh.

MONITOR:         So now I am going to give you back your gum. It really wasn’t that good. (MONITOR returns STUDENT’s gum

                              to STUDNET.)  There. Chew on. You run along to class and remember that when you’re chewing gum, well, you know…

                              (STUDENT tentatively puts gum back in mouth and walks away.)

                              (Aside) How’s that for gum control?

-M.M.

Mr. Babbage’s Cabbage

Mr. Babbage’s Cabbage

Mr. Babbage was world-famous for his skill in vegetable cultivation. World famous in Freesaw County, that is. When it came time for the Freesaw County Fair, you knew the whole world and their kittens would turn up to see Mr. Babbage’s latest vegetable monstrosity.

Last year Mr. Babbage’s giant potato was late to the judging tent because the workers took it to the rodeo ring because it was stubborner than a bull to move, and larger than one too. The year before that, Mr. Babbage unveiled a colossal carrot, so big Jenny and I mistook it for a moon rocket from the space exhibit. And the year before that, Mr. Babbage wheeled out a tomato so ginormous that the mothers of Freesaw County made three-hundred and three-quarter jars of tomato sauce from its hulking mass.

I had no doubt in my mind that Mr. Babbage was fixin’ to win first prize at the fair this year with a new behemoth, bigger and badder than any of our most terrible vegetable nightmares. Except this year was different. This year the Fergusons were fixin’ to win too.

The Fergusons moved into the Ichabod House on Redrick Street on Halloween last year. Everything about that house spelled bad luck. They say old man Ichabod was murdered in that house and that his soul still moans around the house and you can hear his ghost creakin’ about most any night of the week. The kids at school said that you got bad luck for two weeks for lookin’ at the Ichabod House for more than seven seconds and, if you did, you had to wear your shoes on the wrong feet the rest of the day to fend off the bad luck. The bigger kids would dare each other to put things—apple cores, leaves, or eggshells—into the mailbox. They say that the next day, all that was left inside was ashes and cobwebs. Jenny and I always avoided the Ichabod House at all costs, if we could. And then the Fergusons moved in.

Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, the most pinch-faced, strict-lawed, spindly-legged, grey-haired screech owls I ever met. And they were obsessed with winning. They would tell anyone sorry enough to listen that, “That batty old Mr. Babbage won’t stand a jellyfish’s chance in the desert in the fair this year if I can have anything to say about it!” They stayed indoors most of the time, which was fine by me, because whenever they were out in town they snapped at us kids for playin’ marbles and red rover and “dressing like young ruffians”. By their account, you’d believe we were a bunch of pyromaniac circus performers set to bring the whole county to ruin with our foul language and shenanigans.

But this story isn’t about them. Yes, they’re in it. But this is about Jenny and me, and Mr. Babbage, and taking the long way home, and a vegetable of relative largeness.

“Can we please, please, please, take the long way home to see if we can see into Mr. Babbage’s garden? I bet we could find a peephole this time.” Jenny was milking her brown-eyed puppy-dog-face again. Each year the kids in town would do their best to see into Mr. Babbage’s garden to find out his latest plan, but the fence was always too tall or Mr. Babbage would catch you just startin’ to stand up on your best friend’s shoulders.

“Seriously. That face only works on Dad, and you know it,” I said, brushing my hair out of my eyes.

“Pretty, pretty please with a mountain of cherries on top. Come on, Sam. Just this once…”

I pretended to think it over. “Well, I don’t know. It’s getting’ pretty dark. And Mom’ll be waitin’ for us.”

Jenny kept her act up. She knew that I wanted to go too. “Oh, all right,” I finally caved, “but just this once!”

We set out down Redrick Street, the October leaves crunching across our path. I knew we were passing the Ichabod House, so I picked up my pace staring pointedly at the ground.  “Look!” Jenny said pointing and tugging on my arm.

“Jenny! Are you crazy! Stop looking! Do you want bad luck for the rest of the year?”

“No. Something’s moving back behind the Ichabod House!”

I tugged the sleeve of her green jacket, forging ahead. “Come on. It’s just the dusk playing tricks on your eyes. Stop looking. You’ll ruin the rest of the month!”

“Sam.” She stopped walking altogether. “Look.”

I stole one glance at the house. And then I was full-on staring. Mouth open. Tonsils showing. Staring.

In the ghostly light of the half-risen harvest moon I could see the silhouettes of the Fergusons, thin and bony, rolling the most enormous, most gigantic, most hugo-ginormous onion around the back of the house.

Jenny and I looked at each other, looked back at the silhouettes, then back at each other. “What do we do, Sam?” I was still processing what I had just seen, not quite believing it when Jenny whispered, “Do you think that was Mr. Babbage’s onion?”

“No. It was an onion from the moon.”

“Really?”

“Of course it was Mr. Babbage’s! Who else do you know that grows vegetables bigger than livestock?”

“Oh.” Jenny said in a quiet voice, slipping her hands into her pockets. “The Fergusons keep saying they are going to win this year. Maybe they grew it?”

“Jenny. Look at their yard. Do you see anything resembling a live plant?”

“No.”

“They are not the kind of people who grow things. Anyone could tell you that.”

Jenny looked at me, worry in her eyes. “What should we do then?”

“We have to tell Mr. Babbage. He will know what to do. Come on.” I grabbed her hand as we hurried down to the other end of Redrick Street and Mr. Babbage’s house. The moon was nearly all the way up over the edge by the time we reached Mr. Babbage’s house. It was hidden from the street by a huge mess of plants which stretched up to the sky… We fought our way through the jungle of his front yard and knocked. Mr. Babbage opened the door. He was a small, mousy old man who smelled like leaves and walked with a light hobble. “Come in! Come in! It’s getting too late and too cold for sprouts such as yourselves to be out on the streets!” We entered, following Mr. Babbage down a creaky, wood-floored hall to a small room with a crackling fire, worn rug and a mushy couch. “Sit down! Sit down!” He said, settling himself into a rocker by the hearth. “So what brings you two here? Tell Mr. Babbage! He doesn’t bite. He doesn’t even have”—here he spit them out on to his hand—“real teef.”

“Oh!” I said. He slurped his dentures back in, pretending not to hear. I continued. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, and you might not believe me, but I just saw a giant onion rolled back behind the Ichabod House.”

“Ah.” said Mr. Babbage in one short syllable, not upset, surprised, or angry.

“Ah?” said Jenny.

“Yes. Ah.” said Mr. Babbage looking into the fire.

“It was your onion, wasn’t it? The Fergusons. I saw…” Mr. Babbage held up one hand.

“Thank you for visiting me, young Sam and Jenny. Would you like some hot chocolate? I always like hot chocolate in October, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, a bit confused. “But Mr. Babbage, the Freesaw County Fair is in two weeks! What will you do?”

“What do you mean what will I do? I will go to the fair as usual. Is there something the matter with that?”

“No.”

“Good. Now which one of you sprouts wants some hot chocolate?”

Mr. Babbage walked us home that night under the light of the harvest moon. He told our parents that we had been helping him and he was sorry that we were late for supper. Jenny and I didn’t argue or say otherwise, so we got off the hook. Still, we wondered night and day and lunchtime too about Mr. Babbage, the giant onion at the Ichabod House, and the Freesaw County Fair.

Before we knew it, the day of the fair had come and we were all gathered in a big tent. Nearly the whole town was crammed into that tent. There was a buzz going around about the Ferguson’s entry. They wheeled it in on a cart with a blanket covering it. Some said it was a giant turnip. Others thought it was another pumpkin. One particularly blind old lady was certain that it was an asparagus. “Edna, it can’t be an asparagus. No asparagus was ever shaped like a ball like that.”

“It’s an asparagus. I never smelled a smell I hate so much as that asparagus smell. It brings back terrible memories of my childhood.”

“But you had no childhood.”

“Ah well, yes. You got me there, Helen.”

The announcer was in front of the crowd now. The Fergusons wheeled their screechy cart into the center of the tent. “Next we have the Fergusons!” the announcer cried, “with their entry: The Giant Onion!” In one swift movement, Mr. Ferguson grasped the blanket in one bony hand and unveiled the mega-onion and the crowd cheered. The Fergusons wheeled the monster onion away and the announcer was shouting over the crowd. “And last, but certainly not least, last year’s champion: Mr. Babbage!” The applause was loud, but died quickly as Mr. Babbage hobbled on stage with a covered silver platter. “Mr. Babbage has submitted for you this year, the world’s largest Brussels Sprout!” He lifted the lid. The applause was uncertain and unenthusiastic. Turns out I’m not the only one who avoids that specific vegetable.

“Arg!” The old lady called Edna cried. “The asparagus! It’s nauseating.”

“It’s a Brussels Sprout. Not an asparagus! How deaf are you Edna?”

“Ninety-seven. Thanks for asking. But oh, that stench! I may die here and now!”

The announcer was talking again. “Our judges will have their results in a few moments.”

And then the buzz was back. I looked over at Jenny. She had one eyebrow raised, not quite sure how to respond. “Do you think Mr. Babbage has a chance?” I asked, not wanting to get my hopes up.

“Probably not. Did you see how puny that thing was compared to the onion?”

“I just don’t think it’s fair. How come the Ferguson’s get to win, when they stole that onion from Mr. Babbage!”

“We don’t have any proof, though.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

“I don’t know.” Jenny said shaking her head. “I don’t know.”

Just as quickly as he disappeared, the announcer was back. “Results! Results! I have the results!” he called over the crowed. There was a hush. “In third place we have… Mrs. Edna Green with her giant asparagus!” The old lady wobbled out with her cane to accept her ribbon. After a polite applause, she to her place.

“I told you I was sick of that smell. It’s been growing for five years now, and I don’t think I could

stand it much more. And you thought I was crazy!”

“I’m sorry Edna! I didn’t realize you actually brought an asparagus. Congratulations!”

“Yes. It is really too bad I had beans for dinner, but ah well. The past is past, eh Helen?”

“And in Second Place we have…” The crowd stood silent. “Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson!” The crowd couldn’t believe it. Murmurs spread. It wasn’t right. But how? Was there a mistake? I looked and Jenny and she looked at me and we both laughed not sure what to do. “Which means that our first place winner at this year’s Freesaw County Fair is Mr. Babbage!” The crowd cheered, unsure whether they had been cheated or seen a miracle. The winners lined up with their vegetables and ribbons while the man from the newspaper snapped a bright picture. The Fergusons looked especially uncomfortable. And Mr. Babbage just stood there, smiling into the camera.

After everyone had moved on to see the other exhibits at the fair, Jenny and I approached Mr. Babbage.

“How did you do it? How did you win?” I asked Mr. Babbage as he was packing up his cart to head home.

“Sprouts! I wondered when I might see you again.”

“But how?” Jenny asked.

“It’s all in knowing the rules,” he explained. “The competition is judged relatively; how large is your vegetable in relation the second largest specimen produced that year. The onion the Ferguson’s turned in was only twice as big as my usual onion.one of which I kindly donated to the judges for reference. However, the cabbage I entered was twenty times bigger than the largest Brussels sprout they could find.”

“It was a cabbage? Not a Brussels sprout?”

“It’s all a matter of perspective, you know. A Brussels sprout and a cabbage are really the same thing. And when you have to deal with unscrupulous people, well, what’s the difference anyway?”

“Nothing, I suppose.”

“No. Everything. The difference is everything and don’t you forget it!” And Mr. Babbage finished packing up his cart and rode off into the autumn sun. “Life is fairer than you think—it’s all a matter of relativity.”

And, in a way, I believe that Mr. Babbage was right. Life is fairer than you think. It just takes a bit of perspective to see it that way.

 

-M.M.