Dozer, the bulldog

Dozer, the bulldog
Dozer: Spring training is upon us!

Caught in the headlights...

Caught in the headlights...
The author of Mark's Work, at the botanical gardens inFort Bragg...

Baseball been veddy good to me

Baseball been veddy good to me
SmallBoy doing his thing in the outfield...

HappyDay Farms bees are happy bees.

HappyDay Farms bees are happy bees.
C D B's... D B's R G's

Gluten-Free Mama and Ben-Jam-Man

Gluten-Free Mama and Ben-Jam-Man
Love is the greatest power.

Beauty abounds!

Beauty abounds!
Butterflies know what's up.

If you've seen one skink, you've seen 'em all, said no one ever.

If you've seen one skink,  you've seen 'em all, said no one ever.
Hands R Us

Marigold

Marigold
June gems

Foxy lady.

Foxy lady.
Foxes are back.

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

markyboy1231@hotmail.com

Monday, April 30, 2012

Worse Things Than Cages


Worse Things Than Cages
“Guess who is about to go on a walk and buy some nice ice cream.  Guess.”  Barbara looked sideways at her granddaughter.
“If I were going to buy ice cream, I would buy chocolate, not nice ice cream.”  Nikki looked back at her grandma, and then started giggling.
“Oh, I see.  You haven’t guessed yet.  Fine and dandy. Shall we go out and weed the Dichondra?”  It was always on the agenda, pulling the tough devil’s grass out from the midst of the tender Dichondra.  David versus Goliath, the eternal struggle, the impossible dream, however you wanted to classify the ongoing landscaping efforts, it was always available.
“Can we go see Daddy?”  Nikki hadn’t asked once since she had last seen Duane, the previous weekend.  Living only one apartment complex away, about a two minute walk, made matters more complicated.  Nikki had even attempted to navigate the route by herself one time, simply walking out of the apartment, while Barbara was drying her hair.  Five minutes of panic had ensued, until Duane had found her, wandering one flight of stairs down from his.  And Barbara had kept her fingers crossed that the question would not come up, and a ready response, for when it did. 
“Your mom and dad have worked out a schedule, and we need to stick to it.  I know you want to go see your daddy, and I don’t blame you.  A little girl needs to spend time with her father, and didn’t you two go to the beach just last Saturday?”  Asking questions was her first go-to strategy for the tough questions.  
“Yes, we went over to Fort Bragg.  We got to see the birds on the headlands, while looking for whales.  We didn’t see any whales, but the pelicans were so funny.  They fly along the water, and dive for fish.  I wouldn’t want to be a fish.”  She paused to think about the unfairness of it all, swimming along one second, and then finding yourself in the ample mouth of a pelican, the next.  Nikki viewed it as a cage.
“Well, which is better, being scooped up by a pelican, or caught on a hook?  I’d rather go for a ride than get hooked myself.  C’mon, let’s go get some...rocky road, and ease our rocky road.”  
When Nikki laughed and jumped up, Barbara was relieved.  The walk to the convenience store was lazy and warm, with ten-year-old Nikki jabbering away, asking questions, and making comments on the state of the good ship, Nikki-Pop, as her Dad often referred to her.
On the way back they had bumped into Miss Gertie, the retired schoolteacher, who lived in the front, downstairs apartment.  Nikki had a love/hate relationship with Miss Gertie; she loved to hate her, and resisted the attempts by the elders in her life, to steer her in that direction.  Miss Gertie felt that young ladies should be more refined than the bouncy Nikki, and Nikki thought Miss Gertie should stick an egg in it.  She had picked up that quaint little expression at school, and though there were worse, it sort of made Barbara think that Gertie might be a good influence.
Take sewing, for instance.  Miss Gertie made her own clothes, and had suggested to Grace, more than once, that sewing, including embroidery, were excellent pursuits, for a young daughter.  Additionally, she had a piano, and thought that rudimentary instruction in the playing of the piano, would further stimulate little Nikki’s creative impulses.  And of course, these interests were all young ladies’ interests, as far as Miss Gertie was concerned.
The way Barbara looked at it, she herself was not going to be the one to tame Nikki.  She loved the little girl’s spirit, and thought that to do anything to stifle it was a crime.   It was a crime, unless it was a Miss Gertie-type who did the stifling.  But that was as likely as Barbara was to fly.  When she spoke to Grace, all Nikki’s mother would say is, “I don’t think anyone is going to dim that girl’s light.”  Conversely, all Nikki would say about Miss Gertie  was, “Gertie, Gertie, saw a birdie, put it in a cage.  Nikki, Nikki, stays away, she don’t like that cage.”  Despite the double negative, there was a certain catchy tone to the little ditty, thought Barbara.
“Why is our road rocky?”  Again, the question came out of nowhere.  Barbara knew she ought to have been more careful.  
“Oh, Honey, everyone’s road gets kind of rocky sometimes.  It’s called life, and whereas there’s lots of time for laughter and games, you know as well as I do, that things can get sad, sometimes.”
“You mean like between Mommy and Daddy?  Like that?”  Nikki had been spared the worst of the troubles, but no child escapes it all.  The arguing that goes on behind closed doors, overflows into the fabric of any family, and creates an ongoing tension, that is not so much solved by separation, as it is ameliorated.  But being better than before, is still not not as good as being the way it was in the beginning, back before Duane lost his position at the firm, in a down-sizing move, that left him battling for a job, at half of his original salary.  
Half of a pay-check was not adequate to make the house payment, and the move into the apartment had taken its toll.  Much time had been spent in the back yard of their house, with Nikki helping turn the soil for the garden, and with Duane playing catch in the side yard, a nightly ritual during the baseball season, and extending through the summer and not ending until school once more opened its doors.  Transitioning to a new job, relocating living situations, and a new school, had all taken their toll on Nikki.
Barbara was a huge stabilizing factor, because she had stayed the same.  Grace and Duane relied heavily on her, even if she allowed Nikki more freedom than she got at home.  Wasn’t that what grandmas were supposed to do?  Wasn’t Nikki expected to be up before six, waiting for Saturday morning cartoons to appear?  That didn’t happen at home.  Walks to the store to get ice cream did not happen at home, not with Grace still working that noon to nine shift, which meant that Barbara played such a vital role, in making it all work.
In response to Nikki’s question, Barbara said, “Exactly.  Your mom and dad are sad, and it’s sad to think that things change, but the memories of what we had are happy ones, and there will be more happy memories to come.”  It was the best she could do.
“But Daddy is happy when I visit him, so why can’t...?  Sorry, I already asked.  But if I stop asking, Daddy will think I don’t care.”  Her logic seemed clear to her.
“Daddy won’t know whether you keep asking or not,” Barbara knew she was not on solid ground.  
The phone rang and Barbara picked up the receiver.  Her face registered surprise and she said, “Wait just a second and I’ll access my account.  Can I call you right back?”  
She hung up the phone, saying to Nikki, “I’ll just take a minute, Honey.  Why don’t you see if you can draw a picture of that pelican snatching a fish?  We can put it on the refrigerator when it’s finished.”  She turned back to her desk, and started to fiddle with the keyboard, while Nikki went back out into the front room, of the apartment, where here paper and markers were.
These incredible hoops I have to jump through, thought Barbara, having redialed the phone, as she waited on hold for the person on the other end, to verify the information she had presented.  She went to FaceBook, for just a minute, as the music droned on in the background, and a voice repeatedly assured her, that her call was being handled with the utmost of urgency.  Twenty minutes dragged by, and then another twenty.  It was very quiet in the apartment, and Barbara was engrossed in a link to Guardians to the Sea and she was investigating it, with the thought that Nikki would get a kick out of the whale pictures, so that she would know what she was looking for, while standing on the headlands. 
Finally the interminable wait was over, and the person was back on the phone, and Barbara was able to put the matter to rest.  Hanging up the phone, she felt a guilty pang, and went in search of Nikki.  It was awfully quiet, she noted again, and suddenly a real sense of urgency and fear, coursed through her, kicking in the adrenalin.  
“NikkI?  Honey?  How’s your picture coming?” but she knew from the empty feeling of the apartment, that she was alone.  Talk about going from zero to sixty in a heartbeat.  Visions of every possible horror flooded over her, making her suddenly realize that this was how it always seemed to happen.  Caregiver gets distracted, panic ensues, and the next thing you know, you are trying to explain to cameras, why a tax return could ever have taken precedence over the safety and care of her granddaughter.  Her precious Nikki, out of her cage.
Who to call first?  Whose trust was she going to shatter first?  Who would be the first to say, ‘What were you thinking?’ when she meant, ‘Why weren’t you thinking?’”  
Barbara’s mind stayed calm, even if her fingers were shaking as she reached for the phone to call Grace.  Her own daughter should have first rights at the slaughter.  Didn’t she deserve it?  
The shrill ring nearly gave her a heart attack.  She snatched up the receiver, blurting out, “Nikki?  Is that you?”
“Not the last time I checked,” responded the disapproving voice of Miss Gertie.  “But you may speak to her if you wish.”  The phone dropped with a clang, while Barbara felt herself begin softly weeping.  After all, there are worse things on earth than cages.  Check your local newspaper for details.
 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Business As Usual


Business As Usual
If there was a scale employed to rate middle school popularity, Jenny would have been a ten, easily.  She was pretty, she was vivacious, and her parents ran the mercantile in the center of town, and were part of the framework of the community.  Her friends were the children of the movers and shakers of the small rural town, in which she was born.
There were only 120 kids in her school, 42 of them in her eighth grade class.  They had been together since pre-school, with kids coming and going, but with a certain percentage of them ending up in the same class all the way through eighth grade.  That made the social scale pretty hard to climb.  You were who you were, until you got out of town, and went off to school to carve your own niche in a world that was yours to create.
Until then, if you were Jenny, you had it good.  If you were Nigel, you had it good if you made it through the day, without somebody calling you Gelly Belly or Nigel the Nerd.  He actually liked his first name but the kids did not.  At least they weren’t going to let him know they one way or the other whether or not they liked it; they were just going to use it to make fun of him.  The way Nigel saw it, if they didn’t make fun of his name, then they would laugh at him for his clothes, or more likely, they would make fun of him because he was a computer nerd.
Actually, he was more of a technology nerd than a computer nerd.  He knew about the latest phones, especially the ones with internet capabilities.  He was well-versed in the social networks, and he used technology religiously, when it came to school assignments.  His language arts teacher gave him extra credit, every time he word-processed an assignment, and his science teacher regularly commended him on his ability to be able to google relevant information, to supplement what was being taught in the lab.  On the popularity scale, Nigel was a four.  
He wasn’t shunned, he wasn’t bullied, he was’t tortured, but he wasn’t sought out, either.  No one hollered across the quad, when he first walked in through the gate, and made his way up to the lockers, “Hey, Dude, did you SEE that sick video on u-tube that...”  No one asked him as he approached his locker, “Are you going to the dance on Friday, or not?  I need to know.”  No, Nigel was not on call, to be the next elected king, of the middle school social set.  More like the doormat, er, doorman.  He was there when they got there, and he was there when they left, and all points in between.  It’s just that no one noticed him.
When he ran for homeroom treasurer, he got three votes, including his own.  He had no clue as to where the other two votes came from.  It’s not even that no one talked to him, or anything weird like that.  He wasn’t a loner.  There were other kids who were in kind of the same boat.  They weren’t part of the popular set, so they were willing to hang out with anyone who was available, but they weren’t friends either.  No one was kidding anyone about that.
Maybe if Nigel had been here since preschool, like so many of the others, it would be different.  But he had come in at the start of sixth grade, because his parents figured the move would be less traumatic, since all kids had to switch schools when the went to middle school.  They just did not take into consideration, that in a small rural school, they kids would all switch schools, all right, but that simply meant, they moved as a group, across campus, from where they had spent the first six years.  Nigel was more of an outsider than ever.
So Nigel and Jenny were both in the same eighth grade class, and yet in as different positions within that eighth grade as could be.  If they found themselves standing next to one another in line for the pencil sharpener, it is unlikely they would have engaged in conversation.  What would they have talked about?  Homework?
The little school had quite a reputation regionally, as a result of an ambitious teaching staff, which had collaborated back in the early nineties, to write a grant covering a technological facelift to the small school, that focused on a computer lab, and a class set of Apple Computers.  Staff had been consistently in-serviced in the latest technological strategies, and were invited to participate in workshops and conferences, that were tech-oriented.
With techspertise being the ultimate goal, frequently conferences included a student component, which featured workshops offered to middle schoolers, so that they could learn strategies and take them back to other students.  Participants in these student-attended workshops were carefully chosen, for a balance of tech-knowledge, and social acumen.  It was probably a moot point if a kid knew all there was to know, if the knowledge remained inside that kid, because no one wanted to get near to him or her.
A kid like Nigel would do fine, because he was comfortable in his knowledge, without being socially inept.  When the school was invited to a regional tech conference, Nigel was a natural selection as far as boys were concerned, and Frances from the girls, except that when the day came to drive down to San Francisco, Frances was in bed, with a temperature of 102 degrees.
The school had learned the previous day that Frances was ill, so a search was begun for a replacement.  It was a quick search, because the computer technician was a good friend of Jenny’s parents, and they had been touting a particular college, that they were interested in for Jenny. This college required a thorough knowledge of technology, as it applied to higher education.  So not only did Jenny need to be conversant in computerese, she needed to be able to use it to produce top level work, in competition with her peers.
Accommodations at the hotel in which the conference took place were very straightforward.  Nigel was assigned a room with another middle school eighth grade boy, for the two nights they would be there, and Jenny was assigned a corresponding room, with an eighth grade girl.  Jenny and Nigel were free to coordinate their schedules or not, depending on their own level of interest.  They had driven down in the same vehicle as the computer tech, and had been immersed in their own reading material, much of it on their respective laptops.  
About the only thing that engaged all three in conversation, was the  upcoming conference.  The had the syllabus in advance, and had outlined the workshops that interested all three, with at least three over the two days, being ones that both Nigel and Jenny were interested in attending.  There had been some discussion of meals, with continental breakfasts and  simple sack lunches being offered by the conference, so everyone would do his or her own thing at these meals, but they agreed to have dinner together.
They followed through on that plan, an hour after they had arrived, and had checked into the Hiatt Hotel in South San Francisco.  They convened downstairs and met in the hotel’s restaurant for a light dinner, before retiring for the night.  They enjoyed a relaxed meal, once more scanning the conference agenda, reading the descriptions of the different presenters, and talking about the elements of the conference that excited them.  As it turned out, Jenny and Nigel would be attending the same presentation the following morning at 10:00, so as they went back up to their respective rooms, they had agreed to meet a half-hour earlier, and attend the event together.
Accordingly, they met as planned, and proceeded to the venue for their ten o’clock class, chatting easily about the hotel, the other kids, and their respective roommates.  They got in and seated without a minute to spare, as the room quickly filled to capacity, and people started to line the back wall.  Afterwards, they went directly to the main lobby of the hotel, where the sack lunches were offered, along with a choice of beverages.  After each had chosen a juice, they went outside and ate while sitting on a brick wall, that ran along the entire length of the hotel, facing out onto the Pacific ocean.  There was a light breeze, to go with the mid-sixties temperature, and they ate together comfortably, discussing the recently completed workshop.
“I thought that presenter dude was pretty classy.  Did you see the way he made sure that those people who were sitting along the walls, each got one of the packets?  I mean, I would have given mine up, but it was nice that everyone got one.  Is it going OK for you?”  
Nigel looked expectantly at Jenny, who automatically responded, “Yeah!  It’s going fine.  I am surprised that I don’t even mind giving up my weekend, to do, you know, school stuff.”
“Yeah, it’s funny how much I resist the temptation, normally.  I guess it’s being in the City.”
“Yeah, my parents weren’t even going to listen to an argument from me, not that I would have.  They wanted me to go to this conference, and I kind of wanted to go too.  How often do you actually agree with your parents, you know?”
It was the first thing she had ever said to him, that seemed as though it were a shared moment.  Until this time, all exchanges had been polite and may as well have been scripted, for all of the originality and animation involved.  
I think I could like this girl.  She may come from the popular sector, but her roots are home-grown.  She’s actually talking to me.  Interesting...
“You mean you don’t get along with your parents every minute of the day?” Nigel asked in mock astonishment.
He can actually communicate.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard him talk.  OK, I probably have, but I never bothered to listen.
“The days are fine; it’s the nights that suck.  I am never let out of my dungeon, once the sun goes down.”  
Well, that was easy.  I mean, it sounds mean, but Daddy is such a tyrant, when all I want to do is chill with my friends.  Besides, it’s not like Nigel is ever going to actually speak to the ‘rents.
“Huh, that’s funny.  I can go out after dark, any time I choose.”  Long pause.  “Of course, I don’t choose to very often.”  They both laughed.
Sure I go out after dark.  I go out to shut off the generator, I go out to empty the trash and I go out to empty the compost, but that’s probably not what she’s talking about.
“I know all about ‘choice.’  My dad’s always telling me to ‘make wise choices.‘  I say to him, ‘Ok, fine.  When can I start?’”  
Lol.  And I go out after dark all the time-out of my mind.  Nigel has a quick mind-I like his sense of humor.
“At least you’re talking.  That’s a good sign.  What else do you talk about?”
I can’t believe I asked her that.  As if she’d ever tell ME what she talks to her father about.  Probably he tells her what jerks guys are.  It’s not like I am going to be interested in what she and her daddy blab on about anyway.
“We talk about the Giants a lot.  He’s old school, you know, been a Giants fan for a million years.  Hates the American League, especially the Yankees, but it’s so easy to do, you know.  Hate the Yankees...”  She giggled.
WTF!  She talks about the Giants and HATES THE YANKEES!
“Kind of like breathing, you know.  Comes real natural.  You know, I actually met a real Yankees fan, an old fart who actually went to games when the Babe was alive.  I guess I just didn’t realize that some Yankees fans are the real McCoy, rather than, well, you know.”
He talked to someone who saw Babe Ruth in person?  I would like to have asked him a question or six.
It’s fun to hate the Yankees, but you get to do it more often with the Dodgers.  We play them 18 times a year.  With the start that Kemp and Ethier are having-it’s unworldly.  No way can they sustain it.”  They shared another chuckle.
This girl knows her shit.  How many girls can even name a player on the Dodgers?  I could get to liking this little sweetie.  Too bad she’s part of the popular circle.  She’ll never speak to me back at school.
“Yeah, that’s the beauty that is baseball.  It’s a marathon, just like life.”
“SIMILE!” They both called out the word at the same time and laughed again.  They had a language arts teacher that paid them in school currency, when they identified literary devices.
Funny how such a silly thing can make me laugh so hard.  I think I like this guy.  He’s right about baseball being a marathon, and he’s right about life... Sigh...Why is he so invisible at school?
“Oh, shit!  My next workshop is in fifteen.  I am going to have to run.  Thanks for..this.  It’s been fun.”  she took off, but only got about seven steps away, before she stopped and looked back at him.  “See you at dinner?”  
“Yeah, OK, sure.  I mean, Yeah!  OK!  Sure!”  She was gone.
Yeah, I’m supposed to be somewhere too.  The difference is I don’t care if I make it or not.  I wouldn’t exchange this past hour for the world.  I don’t even care if she pretends we never had this weekend together cause nothing can take it away.  And she asked me to dinner?  OK, seriously, Dude, lol.
It ended all too soon, and the trip back up from San Francisco, was a lot livelier than the trip down had been, including a stop at the local Mexican food restaurant, an oasis of culinary excellence, in a desert of mediocrity.
Monday morning at school, Nigel was there early as usual, his dad having dropped him off, on his way out to the mill.  He saw Jenny as she got out of her father’s car, and came across the lawn to her locker.  She was talking animatedly to her friends, as she dumped her backpack in her locker, and slammed it shut quickly, to prevent any attempt on the part of the overflowing contents of her order-challenged personal school space, to escape.  He strolled in her general direction, letting his eyes flick over to her, to gauge her reaction to seeing him.  She did not appear to notice.  OK.  He could deal with that.  He didn’t expect anything different.  Why should it be?  He was still the new kid, and she was Mistress of the Universe.
Well, it’s Showdown at the OK Coral, and I am the soon-to-be victim, of a shoot and run... or a shoot and shrug...is there any difference?
He continued on his way, oblivious to really anything but his own inner angst, at what he perceived as business as usual.  It was all an illusion, and he was still invisible Gelly-Belly.  The weekend was nothing but a dream, and he was nothing but a dreamer.  Why had he thought anything would ever come of his weekend in another country, in another dimension, in another universe?  
He was so immersed in his own created vortex of despair, it took Jenny two tries to penetrate his bubble.  After the second attempt, he realized that she had asked him, “Hey, you!  Nigel!  How about Timmy?”  And she gave him two thumbs up, and a radiant smile.  “I have to go hunt down Sue, and give her my schedule, but we’ll compare notes at break, on the game.   Are you down?”
AM I DOWN?  No way, I am sky high!
“No, I mean, Yes!  And you’re right, Timmy is...yeah, well, how about Timmy?”  For once, he didn’t care if the words would not come out of his mouth.  They would; he knew that.  Especially if Jenny would be there to hear them.
 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Long Gone by Then


Long Gone by Then
Leroy and Walter were friends from way back when.  They had worked together at the factory.  All of those years they were buddies while they were raising babies, coaching Little League, and attending the high school football games together, to watch their sons play, while cheering the team to victory.
Now they sat together out in the screened-in-porch, alongside Walter's 1950’s style home, overlooking the driveway leading back to the garage, and the neighbor’s driveway and side yard.  Sipping their black coffee, and talking over old times, they got together two or three days a week, spending time over their mugs, before setting out for the town square. There they would take advantage of the community center, to sit out on the bricked veranda, and play either chess or gin rummy.  The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
“Nothing ever happens, at least not anything that I want to talk about.  I can’t even remember the last joy ride I went on,” said Leroy, using their pet name for the rather [now] exciting act of making love.  Both were very fortunate to still have their wives part of the picture.
“Tell me about it,” muttered Walter.  “A joy stick is pretty pointless, if there is no joy to be had.  We used to make things happen, just because we wanted them to so bad,” said Leroy, shaking his head.  “Now the only thing I seem to want to happen, is to start my stream when I gotta pee.”
“Ugh.  My doctor says I should be timing myself when I go.  Why? I ask.  He says that way we know who won the race.  When I ask what race, he says never mind, just jot down how long and how much.  I guess it all means something in the big picture; I just don’t know the name of the film.”
They heard a car door slam and the sound of an engine starting up, the throbbing growl telling them it belonged to Hector, the twenty-something resident next door, who drove a throwback to earlier times, when gas still cost two-bits a gallon and you could fill your ten gallon tank for two fifty.  Now they watched the vintage Pontiac Firebird zipping past them, backing the length of the driveway in a quick burst of speed and confidence, which belied the presence of a backpack on the roof of the car.  As he neared the front, being able to see that it was clear in both directions, the driver slid into the street, shifted gears, and peeled out. He was obviously too impressed with his own sense of power, to note the backpack’s rapid slide along the roof of the low-slung vehicle, down the sloping back windshield, and onto the ground.
Leroy reacted first, as befitted the former linebacker’s instincts, and was on his way to the screen door, before Walter’s front chair legs had even hit the floor.  After all, offensive linemen, are known more for brute strength, than for speed.  He watched as Leroy retrieved the backpack, in the bright June sunshine, and brought it back up the dozen steps, and into the porch.  “Well, looky here,” Leroy exclaimed.  “Numbnuts screwed up,” he chortled.  “I mean, besides living and breathing.”  He had unzipped the top of the backpack  and was peering inside.  His smile evaporated, as though he were looking at severed body parts.  Without speaking, he upended it, and dumped the contents onto the table.  The neatly bundled packages of twenty dollar bills, made a low thumping sound on the surface of the table.

       If they were surprised, they did not show it.  Hector had long been on the radar for several reasons, the loud music and the constant flow of visitors, only two of them.  Now to see a pile of money that came from this source, was to be expected.

       Walter’s first thought was, why couldn’t they be hundreds?  His second thought was obviously similar to what Leroy’s expression reflected.  He said,  “This is not good.  That thug is going to know exactly what happened, he’s going to come straight here, and he’s going to kick some geezer butt.”  His freckles seemed to stand out in his pale face, making him seem younger than his 68 years implied.
Leroy’s black features rearranged themselves, from a frown, to a slowly forming smile.  “He may come here to kick some geezer butt, but he’s not going to want to leave without this backpack.  What we need to do, is relocate this loot, and then take a few precautions, before he comes back.  We may have hours, or we may look up in ten seconds, and see him roaring back.”   
Leroy continued, saying, “As I see it, we have three choices.  We can give the money back; we can turn it over to the cops, or we can keep it, probably for a very short time, before Hector comes back and kills us.  Take your pick.”  Leroy paused and then continued.  “Or there’s a fourth choice.  We can convince Hector when he comes, that it is in his best interests to direct his attention elsewhere.  Where do you suppose he got all of this loot?  Let’s go do a little investigating next door.”
They went through to the rear of the house, and across through the back gate into their neighbor’s yard, where they found a locked back door, and little chance of gaining entry through any of the dual-glazed lower windows, not without making a lot of noise.  They turned their attention to the back door, and examined the door handle and quickly determined that it was a matter best handled by a hammer, one of the ten pound variety.  
Whereas glass breaking suggests burglary, an unidentifiable, generic crash, of a mall obliterating a door handle, and exposing the inner workings, would blend in better in a neighborhood.  After Walter’s clumsy, but effective use of the mall, the back door stood ajar.  Upon entry, the first thing they noticed was the heady fragrance of skunk, that had them disconcerted, until they discovered the source, a sealed room, which turned out to be a grow site for marijuana.  The room was ablaze in grow lights, and the pungent smell permeated everything.
They knew that the house was rented, because for the previous thirty years, the couple who had lived there, had exchanged pleasantries with Walter and Agnes, and so it was hard to accept that this house had been treated so disrespectfully by Hector.
“Well, now,” speculated Leroy.  “Hector would probably like to keep this operation under wraps.  Wouldn’t you think?”
“I would think yes.  Bit Hector is also going to want his money back.”
“HIS money?  I just found that money in the middle of the street.  That makes it my money.”  Leroy was trying to make a point.
“Fine. Your money.  Your money and your dead ass.  What are you going to do with all of that money when you’re dead?  Hard to spend money when you’re six feet under.”  Walter waited.
“What Hector wants is not necessarily what Hector gets.  But it will serve to help us out, until he is put away.  Then we will not have to worry about the money.”  They went back next door and stashed the money in Hector's garage, where they figured it would be safe, until they had had a discussion with the money's previous owner.  They then returned to the kitchen, where they each had a shot of Jameson's.
Any further discussion of money was put on hold, as they heard a vehicle come screeching to a halt out front.  They waited.  Two minutes later, when the pounding on the door let them know the time had come, Leroy dialed 9-1-1 and set the phone on the top of the refrigerator, and the rest is history.  Hector’s appearance was brief and volatile, and went uninterrupted for close to three minutes, before sirens were heard approaching.  Hector ignored the sirens, until it was too late to do anything but spring outwards, into the hands of the awaiting constabulary.
Afterwards, as Leroy and Walter were counting the money, they thought about what the detective had said about Hector’s past, about how he had a long record and that the illegal grow operation was going to keep Hector put away for at least twenty years.   
“Should be long enough,” mused Leroy.  “After all, I would be close to ninety.  We won’t have to worry about giving no money back.  It’ll be long gone by then.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An Eye on the Little Ones


An Eye on the Little Ones
Katie took the kids to the park every day that the weather permitted, and even then, sometimes she bundled them up and took them out in the rain, to show that sometimes you just have to.  The park was one of those rare gestures, on the part of the developers of the tract of homes, that actually worked out according to plan. 
The park was designed around a stand of black oaks, which were too majestic for the powers-that-be to remove.  Thus they formed the backdrop for a comfortable place to take the children, which was no more than seven minutes’ stroll from their home, even in a drizzle.  And when it was mid-July, and blistering out, there was always some degree of comfort, beneath the shade of the oaks.
There was a corner of the park fenced off with a waist-high chain-link fence, and a gate on each of the four sides, in which an assortment of playground equipment was available for play.  Katie found that Sadie and Johan played well in the neutral zone of the park, and that their close age-thirteen months’ difference-made it seem at times as though they were twins.  She’d been asked that a number of times, Johan being the older of the two, at four years, eight months.
So it was nice that she could bring the two to this part of the park, bring along her book, and get anywhere from a half-hour, to more than an hour, to just let her body relax.  The kids were old enough to function, for the most part, independently of her, if they were of a mind, but also young enough that she still had to stay very close to the surface of her book, to keep an eye on them.
There were others at the park, for the most part familiar personalities, that she had long since categorized as either acceptable playmates/guardians, or at least non-threatening to her or her kids.  About the only questionable source of concern in the arena, was a homeless guy, Zack, who had been a part of the scene for so long, that he really did not seem homeless, so much as he seemed at home in the park.  
Katie had never spoken with Zack, but she had spoken about him a lot in the beginning, asking around and not hearing anything that made red flags appear.  That did not mean she trusted him, just that there was no reason to think that he should prevent her from frequenting the park.  Phone calls to the local sheriff’s station had brought the response that the station was well aware of his presence, but that there was no record of any criminal behavior or complaint.  The worst that had ever happened was he spent the occasional night in the drunk tank, when he ended up sleeping it off in an inopportune location, generally in the center of the outdoor shopping strip nearby, much to the annoyance of the merchants.
If Katie was sitting there on her bench, and she should happen to see Zack on his rounds through the park, or even just hanging around watching the people in the park at their leisure, she did not give it much thought.  She did not exclude him from her mind, nor did she give him undue focus.  He was just a part of the backdrop.
Thus it was that Zack was very much around one mid-August Sunday morning, the heat already oppressive and still, no breeze in effect in the back yard of their home, when Katie made an earlier-than-usual appearance at the park, already a little more populated than normal.  She kind of liked the slower pace of fewer kids to sort out, while looking for her two, but still, there was comfort in numbers.  What could happen when there were so many witnesses?  Exactly, nothing.
Flip the coin over, however, and inspect the other side.  Numbers tend to blur events.  There were so many colors, so many guardians, each concentrating on his or her charges, incapable really, of following everything going on in the busy recreational setting.  There was parking on all four sides of the park, with the side bordering the busy thoroughfare, being the least popular side on which to park.  Naturally, people sought to avoid the busier option, out of concern for the safety of their kids.
On the other hand, it was convenient for a quick pick-up or delivery of older kids, to have one side of the park not usually filled with parked cars.  You could almost count on being able to pause for just a minute, and then be able to go on your way.
Over time Katie had seen enough of Zack to take no more note of him, than that he was around.  This morning however, he stood out because he was wearing a red t-shirt, and a red bandana, obviously to keep the sweat off his face, but it made him seem a little like a pirate, with his scraggly beard and his ill-fitting clothes.  Of course, in this heat, anyone and anything could be slightly blurry; the pace seemed to slow down just a bit.
Whether it was a slow pace, the heat, or the cosmos in action, Katie did not know.  Events distracted her, actions occurred with electrifying speed, and outcomes were determined at breakneck pace, the resolution presented to her, before she even had time to react.  Even in relating all events, it must be remembered that each was occurring simultaneously with the others.
Katie had brought her book, but she was still on the same page she had been on when she arrived.  She saw how filled the playground was, and liked the fact that both of her kids had on the same color shirt, white today, to try and block the sun as much as possible.  The two had separated, with Johan and a playmate rotating through the tall slide, and Sadie absorbed in her sand-digging since shortly after their arrival.  They were on opposite sides of the compound, so Katie could not keep the two within her range of vision at the same time.  It just meant that she kind of ping-ponged her head back and forth, allowing her to feel assured that all was well.
Suddenly that sense of wellness disappeared.  Johan had been clambering up the steel ladder to the top of the slide, when he’d slipped and fallen down five or so steps, not dangerously high, but high enough to cause him to shriek out, and draw her attention, and certainly high enough to demand immediate investigation.  Katie sprang up from her bench, leaving her book on the seat, and dashed into the enclosure from the most immediate gate.  She was at his side in an instant, attending to his needs, and determining that there was no structural damage.
Simultaneously, Sadie had looked up from her sand-play, and had dashed over to the fence, where a little puppy could be seen on the other side, wagging its tale enthusiastically, its yipping audible over the din of the park.  As Sadie stretched her arm though the fence,  A man came streaking from an idling van, parked on the curbside, and snatched Sadie from the other side of the low fence, and turned back toward the van.  Sadie screeched, just as if Johan had just pinched her, and that was what caught Katie’s attention.
As her head swiveled in the direction of her child’s cry, she saw a flash of red cross her view, and before she had time to even call out Sadie’s name, Zack came out from nowhere, to trap the man between the door of the van, and the van itself, slamming the door from behind, as the man thrust Sadie into the passenger side of the vehicle.  The force of the door banging the back of his head, jolted the man into realizing that he was not going to be able to carry out his plan, and he abruptly bailed out, abandoning child, van and everything else, in a pell-mell escape run, across the busy street, and down an adjoining avenue, to parts unknown.
Having left his van behind, Katie was assured by the investigating officer, that they would be able to trace the creep down and apprehend him.  Zack was sitting over on the bench, between Sadie and Johan, content to be out of the sun, and sitting between his two small friends.  For they were his friends, now and forever, and Katie was OK with that. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Constance and the Variables


Constance and the Variables
I picked up the phone after one ring.  “What can I do you for?”
“Hey, Randy.  It’s Kyle.  The old man wants you to make an appearance before he takes off for Mexico.  He suggested 8, so I figured we head over at 7:30.  That good with you?”
“Sure, whatever, man.  It’s Friday night, though.  It’s not like I have a life, or anything.”  I was just blowing smoke.  I’d known what I was getting into when I signed up for this gig.  No one was kidding anyone.  If the old man wanted me to sit on the roof, and cackle like a chicken, I would be getting into my chicken suit.  When it comes to having a life, mine was still missing in action, as it was with most of the guys who worked for Kevin O’Brien.
Known for his expertise in imports and exports, O’Brien was also known for employing men, who put their needs second to those of O’Brien.  He liked that, and if it seemed as though an individual did not go along with that mindset, said individual was asked to seek employment elsewhere.  But it didn’t come down like that, because if you were here, it was because you had inquired about the pay, the hours and the work.  After finding out what the pay was, the hours became a moot point, because they already knew what the work was.
Now I was going to earn that pay.  I was standing in front of the old man’s office door, at one minute to eight, with Kyle along for the ride, just pausing long enough for the chimes to start tinkling in the lobby, before tapping lightly on the door.  It was opened immediately by Bruno, a man often found in the same venue as the old man, himself.
“Come in and have a seat.  Bruno, shots for the gentlemen.  Jameson OK?”
It was sort of an in-house joke.  The old man always asked, and no one ever said no.  The old man got right to the point.  “I have a problem, but you’re going to take care of my problem, Randy.  Now, I’ve heard that you are the best, and that you have a lot of what we used to call moxie.  You’re going to need it for this next job.  You up for a challenge?”  The old man’s face was hard and expressionless.  You’re going to need all of your tools.”
I looked at him evenly and said, “Bring it on.”  
“OK, that’s what I like to hear, cause you got you a tough job ahead, working with the kid.  I need a tough hombre, because what we’re dealing with, is a commodity known to stiff the best of them, and the hell with the rest of them.  Yeah, we’re talking about Rodney.”
And then it all made sense, the subterfuge, the innuendo, the skirting around of the big issue.  I was about to be blindsided by a force that had brought better men to their knees than I.  Yes, I was being ordered to help his thirteen-year-old son complete all of the intricacies of a science fair project.  Of all the daunting tasks that present themselves in the life of a busy crime boss, dealing with his middle school aged kid, was the one that most frequently stymied Kevin O’Brien.  
He’d been told in no uncertain terms, by Rodney’s mother, that if this kid was ever going to actually make it through middle school, he would need to complete a science project.  Hence the presence of yours truly.  Now as I waited further directions, the old man signaled Bruno, and the hulking figure disappeared and returned a moment later with all of the necessary paperwork, including a list of possible suggestions, a booklet detailing the intricacies of all procedures, and a selection of foam board. This last was the latest in aesthetically pleasing formats, for science fair projects, and Rodney’s mother was certainly going to expect the best.
I was tap-dancing my way through some treacherous terrain, just now, scrambling desperately, to determine the extant of this entrapment.  The old man kept glancing at his watch, and I could feel the noose tighten.
“So, Mr. O, what you’re saying is I gotta make the kid do his homework?  I just wanna get this straight.”  I was glancing through the booklet describing variables and constants.  “What’s constants?”
“Homewoik?  Dis ain’t homewoik.  Dint you never have to do no science project?  It’s like turning the screws to your head, dat’s what it is.  Who’s Constance?  Never mind, I got a plane to catch.  I don’t want no confusion here.  You take any steps needed, to get the kid to do his school work.  Bribe him, connive him, use a gun-whatever it takes.  Whatever.  You get this thing squared away, you’re a made man.  You don’t?  You’re a marked man.”
To Bruno.  “Let’s get out of here, before I lose sight of what’s important here, and it ain’t the science project.”  He glanced meaningfully one last time at me, and swept imperiously out of the room, leaving me with an impending sense of doom.  “What have I gotten myself into?” 
The next morning I presented myself at the main house, and was admitted by none other than Shirley, Rodney’s mother.  When I explained why I was there, Shirley stepped back and appraised me.  
“Well, I hope you know what you’re getting into,” she said.  “Rodney’s not up yet, but it’s time he was.  He’s not really a morning person, anyway.  Shall we convene to the kitchen for a cup of coffee?”
“Well, he’s going to become one, if we’re going to get anywhere on this project.  We only have weekends, or after school.”
Shirley asked, off-handedly, “Have you met Rodney?”
“No, but I guess this must be the lucky guy himself,” I said, as a sleepy-looking, bad-hair-day youth staggered into the kitchen.  “Hey there, are you ready to conduct the experiment of your young scientific life?”  I asked with a feigned excitement.
“What’s for breakfast?”  Rodney added a contorted facial expression, to go along with one last prolonged yawn.  “The only experiment I want to see performed this morning, is a plate of bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast, sitting in front of me in fifteen minutes.”
“How do you want your eggs, Honey?” Shirley was already keeping pace with the orders, leaving me to recognize that I was going to have to establish some ground rules first. 
“Fine.  Breakfast first, and then the science experiment.  Maybe we can get a few things squared away, here, while you are waiting for your food.  First of all, have you read the information, that your teacher provided for you?”  I held up the booklet that explained the scientific process, and gave the parameters of the whole activity.
“No.”  Rodney was fiddling with his “Droid.” 
“OK, that’s first, then.  Have you given any thought as to what kind of experiment you would like to conduct?”
“Yes, I would like to determine which kind of condom is best suited for sexual pleasure?  I’d like to experiment with your girlfriend.”  He stared owlishly at me.
I backhanded the little bastard a good one, and then realized that fantasizing wasn’t going to get me anywhere.  Shirley, of course, had left the room, the second before he had made the crack, but she wasn’t back yet, so I said, casually, “You talk about my girlfriend like that again, and I’ll use this razor sharp utility knife to cut off your-Hi there, Shirley.  Rod and I were just discussing the the apportionment of the foam board.”
“Oh, that’s marvelous!  I could tell you were getting down to business, as I came back through the door.  This is so exciting.  Rodney, what are you going to do your experiment on?”  She looked expectantly at her son.
“We’re going to evaluate the properties of latex, Mother, and the effect on the-”  
“Actually, Mrs. O, we’re still in the planning stages.  The young man has demonstrated that he is in need of sustenance.  His questions are still not properly formed.”  I glanced at Rodney, and he looked away.
I won’t bore you with all of the pedantic details.  Suffice to say, the whole thing came off as smoothly as a fixed horse race, with Rodney even garnering a second place ribbon, for his scintillating project on the effects of different additives on the growth of fresh radishes.  Nothing profound, mind you, but done to the letter of the instructions, and earning a ribbon to boot, at the science fair.
Needless to say, Shirley and Kevin were ecstatic, and even Rodney was persuaded to allow the ribbon to be affixed to his shirt, for a quick snapshot.  I got a substantial bonus, and a guarantee that, like chicken pox, it was a one-time deal.  Besides, the kid would be out of the eighth grade in only six weeks.  
As I lounged around, not too long afterwards, Kyle was interested in the details.  “OK, Dude, how did you do it?  How did you get the kid to do his experiment?  And radishes, of all things.  What’s your secret?”
“No secret.  Mr. O said to use any method I wanted.  Remember?  He even suggested that I use a gun.”
“Are you shittin’ me?  You used a gun on the kid?”
“In a manner of speaking I did.  I used my .357 as bait.  For every successful step of the science project, he got time on the shooting range.  All it cost me was the ammo.  I had to restrain the kid from doing too good a job.  As it was, he settled for second place.  I settled for new pair of headphones, ones that were effective enough that I didn’t get a headache, from all that time on the range.