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Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, vol. 2

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[[||]] from the [virtual] inside flap …

All thirty-nine short stories from calendar year 2016 are gathered in this digital collection. Just like Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, Volume 1, these little tales run the gamut from the maniacally meta-real to the sometimes surreal to the oddly ordinary. Most fall between 1,300 and 2,500 words, with 1,700 words being the average run (perfect for the coffee/tea break or the train/bus/ferry commute).

The two primary characters in these tales of extricated intrigue are Agents 32 and 33 of a nebulous entity (which has an interactive Facebook page) known as psecret psociety (yes, with silent p’s). Agent 33 is the author (Parkaar) and Agent 32 is the author’s very-much-involved wife (Monique).

So, if you find yourself in need of some interesting (or at least different) reading material to fill those ten-to-fifteen-minute gaps in your earthly day, this may very well be your ticket to slide … into knowhere. [sic]

Moreover, may the mirth lay with yew for an oddly spun pun.

“The last time was once the next time … and so much for this time.”

– Galerie Parcouer

Psecret psociety pshort pstories

Vol. II (2016)

by Mike Bozart

1st Edition

(with gallery graphics)

© 2017 Mike Bozart, all rights reserved

And now for some somber legalese … [Yes, I heard that yawn.]

First and foremost, this collection of short stories is a volume of fiction, and is not an entirely factual account of any slice of the space-time continuum on Earth or anywhere else. Names, characters, places, events, incidents, and situations are either the product of the author’s warped imagination or are used in a purely and wholly fictitious fashion. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or their otherworldly spirits, or any locales or proprietary objects, is entirely, and without exception, coincidental.

cover art by M. van Tryke

This collection of tales

is dedicated to those

of you who pause

to flagrantly wonder

on the outdoor scene

through a dirty window

as a lone leaf

f

a

l

l

s

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Table of Contents

Cover

Inside flap

Title page

Disclaimer

Dedication

Foreword

Preface

Acknowledgments

Epigraph

About the Author

1. On the Gold Line

2. A Novella Idea

3. Powerballed

4. The Vault

5. The Mound

6. An April Fools’ Day

7. High Peak Revisited

8. Chimney Rocked

9. Uber and Under

10. RíRá Ruckus

11. The Pea

12. Common Dogs

13. Air Shafted

14. Strange Lady of the Woods

15. Waterfall Horror

16. The Well

17. The PKG

18. Channelling Kate Logue

19. Neutral Buoyancy

20. The Paper Route

21. Jane’s Final Piece

22. A Spring Hike

23. An Autumn Hike

24. A Winter Hike

25. A Summer Hike

26. 21 Park Place

27. Glen Park Girl

28. Fern Park Man

29. An Orlando Saturday

30. Memories of Malloy

31. Ball in the Creek

32. Slurpee Man

33. Tewahedo Woman

34. 10 Degrees at Random

35. PhragMeant

36. Drama and Kale

37. Tiki Wiki

38. Failed to Ignite

39. Eureka!

Foreword

So, now another collection of weird-ass short stories has arrived in my Gmail inbox. Lovely. Just what I needed – more clutter. I was really hoping that Mike would stop after the previous installment. [Volume 1] I mean, why dig a deeper moat around an abandoned house of forgotten cards? (Yeah, I bet he uses that line in a story.)

Well, our scribe really has no sense of what people like to read nowadays. Mike claims that he’s filling a niche of a niche (playing to an audience of a dozen, I bet). But, oh boy, it’s all just oh-so- hopelessly out of step with the times. Yes, I told him to do more media-tie-in pieces, but, I digress (and hopefully can digest).

It was during a late February snowstorm that I went ahead and read them. All of them. Groan. There were times when I wanted to slap him back to his senses. The puns, suspected thoughts, improbable inferences, stilted conversation, and overall suspicion of words grew almost tiresome. Well, almost. He kept me reading all the way through no. 39. Now, I am demanding a refund. I was had. Fooled. Fell into his open-pit, poorly guarded ruse. And, what’s worse, these strange vignettes have stained my brain. You see, I can’t un-remember what I read. I suspect it was intended. Bastard!

What is the subject matter you ask? Well, once again, most of them are rambling travel pieces with his wife, who he still insists on calling Monique (her code name) for some unbeknownst reason. And, why he needs to be called Parkaar is beyond me. It’s nuts.

Oh, and another thing: This psecret psociety gimmick is still in full force – or full farce. (I just had a nice chuckle.) The addressing of each other as Agent 32 and Agent 33 in public settings continues ad nauseam. I mean, really? That gag got old five years ago. Stop! What’s more, if these are the stories of a genuine secret society, why is he publishing them for all of the internet to read? It really makes no sense. But, who’s counting anymore? Certainly not me.

– Herman S. Goetze [Taos, New Mexico, USA]

Preface

Short stories. Poems expanded. Novels reduced and miniaturized. Succinct structures that spare the author’s blitheful blathering (if we’re lucky, maybe not). Perfectly sized literary vessels for this hectic, not-much-time-to-spare modern world. Oh, wait, my cell phone is beeping again.

Yes, I love the 1500-meter race. I mean, the 1500-word pace. It’s a nice distance. A nice section of the stream.

I really do enjoy composing them so that every word fits just right. An economy of tale. Ok, maybe there are a few misshapen clunkers. And, maybe I leave out just one piece of the puzzle and claim that the forever-staring-at-me bird took it. I just know that you will find it … and place it into your own teeming morpheme tapestry. It’s looking good so far.

These 39 short stories were posted online on various websites, completely independent of each other. Thus, some characters are explained in brackets and parentheses over and over (e.g., Parkaar, my ailing alias). I’m so very sorry about that repetition (as Herman Goetze has sorely noted).

Volume 1 comprised six years of short stories, spanning from 2010 through 2015. Volume 2 was filled in just one year: 2016. The Dell desktop keyboard was quite active those twelve months. The space bar’s spring has lost some.

I hope you enjoy some/most/all of them, and I surreally hope they spark some dormant neurons in your brain. Maybe a life-changing/money-harvesting idea emerges. Or, maybe a quarter-hour disappears from the clock. Win, lose or draw.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank his co-conspiratorial wife, code name Monique, for partaking in – and greatly expanding – these meta-real tales.

All appeared to be ho-hum, dumbly dumb-dumb …

1. On the Gold Line (Jan. 2016)

It was a snowy Sunday morning, the 17th of January 2016, which found Monique (Agent 32) and me (Agent 33) at the CATS (Charlotte Area Transit System) Gold Line’s eastern terminus on Hawthorne Lane at East 5th Street. It was 9:12 AM in the inner eastside neighborhood of Elizabeth. We were the only ones waiting under the plexiglass-covered shelter.

“Well, Monique, the green trolley dog should be here in less than three minutes,” I announced.

“Green trolley dog!” she exclaimed. “That’s so funny, Parkaar.” [my ailing alias] She then looked at my hands. “You forgot your gloves, didn’t you, 33?”

“I did, but I remembered my digital audio recorder! I’ll be ok. Thirty-six Fahrenheit [2.22º Celsius] is not that bad. And, anyway, the snow and sleet is forecasted to end by 11 AM.”

Just then we spotted old streetcar no. 91 turning onto Hawthorne from Elizabeth Avenue. It slowly closed in on the berth. Once stopped, the front and rear doors opened. We hopped up the front steps and sat in the middle of the electrically powered trolley. Ah, nice and warm in here.

The middle-age African American male driver was talking to two older white men – the only passengers who didn’t get off – who were sitting in the front bench seats. One was on the far left; the other, far right.

“I can deal with the one or two snow events a winter down here,” the trolley operator said from his front and center position. “No, I don’t miss Buffalo [NY, USA] in January at all. You can have that four feet [1.3 meters] of lake-effect snow.”

Monique wondered aloud: “What is lake-effect snow?”

“I’ll tell you later, asawa.” [wife in Filipino]

The older of the two white guys (on the left side), who had pony-tailed gray hair, just nodded.

The guy in front of us on the right side of the trolley then spoke up. “I don’t miss those winters in Brooklyn, either. Nope.”

“Snow is just a novelty down here,” I interjected, launching myself into their conversation as the vintage streetcar took off in a herky-jerky manner. “My dad was born and raised in Brooklyn. He doesn’t miss it, either.”

“Oh, whereabouts in Brooklyn?” the passenger in front of us, who also had gray hair, but shorter than the other fellow, quickly asked.

“Avenue D – East Flatbush,” I said.

“Oh, yeah, I know that area well,” the man in front of us said as the trolley rounded the curve onto Elizabeth Avenue.

I looked straight ahead through the windshield. “Well, Monique, there’s where we’re headed. It’s now a straight shot to uptown.” The Charlotte skyline was shrouded in low, gray clouds, interspersed with snow squalls.

The man in front of us heard my comment to Monique. He looked back at us. “Are you guys going to the Panthers-Seahawks game by chance?” Only by a lucky chance.

“No, we’re just going to RíRá to watch the Liverpool – Man United match, and then we’ll watch the Panthers game in another sports bar,” Monique explained.

We had Liverpool T-shirts on over our sweaters. Monique had an LFC beanie on and a Liverpool FC backpack in her lap (which had Panthers shirts inside for a changeover at 11:00 AM). The man studied these items.

“RíRá?” he asked.

“It’s an Irish bar on North Tryon near 5th Street,” I said. “It’s the official Liverpool FC bar in Charlotte. They show all of their games. It’s a fun crowd.”

“So, you guys like both kinds of football?” He smiled at us.

“Yes, we most certainly do,” Monique said. “We root for the Reds and the Panthers.”

“The Reds? Cincinnati?” He seemed honestly confused.

“No, the Reds are the nickname for Liverpool’s soccer team,” I told him. “Though, I loved the Big Red Machine in the ‘70s.”

“And, LFC stands for Liverpool Football Club,” Monique said as she pointed to the front of her red beanie.

“I see. You learn something new every day. Soccer is really growing in popularity in this country.”

“Are you going to the Panthers game?” Monique asked as the streetcar clanged to a stop at Charlottetowne Avenue.

“Me? Ha! I wish. I’m just hoping to link up with a guy so that I can watch it at his house.”

“I see,” Monique said.

“We’d love to be in Bank of America Stadium at one o’clock,” I said. “But, those ticket prices are way too rich for our blood. We is [sic] just plebs.”

“Yeah, no doubt. Playoffs are for the well-heeled patricians.”

“Or, the lucky,” Monique tacked on. “Winners of tickets.”

The conversation ceased as the trolley went by CPCC (Central Piedmont Community College) and crossed Kings Drive. I watched the overhead bare wires as we passed under I-277 and noticed the yellow warning signs. High voltage. 600 volts of direct current, I think. That sure would warm up one’s chilly body.

The streetcar then stopped at McDowell Street for a red light. I looked to the left, spying the Mecklenburg County Courthouse. There’s that focking [sic] edifice that’s been the bane of my recent existence. I could have more time with my son, much more time, if it wasn’t for their crooked system. That worthless, immoral lawyer is probably giving that corrupt judge kickbacks. Ah, my son will chose to live with me very soon. He hates the witch’s new live-in boyfriend. Just a matter of time. Just be patient.

Suddenly my raging reverie was broken by the trolley stopping at Davidson Street. The man in front of us looked back at us again. He sneezed and wiped his nose with an old white handkerchief.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I’m having a hard time shaking this cold.”

“Same with me,” Monique said.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“John,” he said as he looked at his small cell phone and shook his head. “Not looking good for the game.”

“Is your buddy ducking your calls?” I asked.

“Not sure. Maybe he’s hungover and not awake yet. I gave up the drink three months ago. I had to. I was headed for the grave.”

“Hey, more power to you,” I said with genuine encouragement.

“I don’t miss it that much. I just sip iced tea now. The next morning is a lot easier.”

“I hear ya, man,” I added.

The streetcar crossed Brevard Street and came to a stop at its uptown terminus, which was between the CTC (Charlotte Transit Center) and Time Warner Cable Arena (where the NBA Hornets play). The stop was at a median in the middle of the street. We all rose to get off the trolley.

“It’s been nice talking with you, John,” I said.

“Likewise,” he said.

“Where will you watch the game if you can’t link up with your pal?” I asked.

“Yeah, which sports bar is your backup plan, John?” Monique quickly asked before John could answer.

“Uh, no money for any sports bar,” John said and then sighed. “I’m homeless,” he quietly announced as he wiped his nose again. “I just hope that they will show the game at the shelter.”

Neither Monique nor I said anything as we all got off the streetcar. Just silence chopped up by footsteps.

John and his buddy headed for the CTC and we walked towards the arena, en route to RíRá.

“John didn’t look homeless,” Monique said to me as we crossed the light-rail tracks at 5th Street.

“No, he didn’t,” I replied as we headed towards College Street as the snow picked up in intensity.

“I guess you just never know.”

“No, you really don’t, Monique.”

“I wonder what his story is, 33.” I just know that he has the recorder on.

“Well, soon part of his story will be made public, 32.”

“What do you mean, 33?”

“His snowy Sunday morning ride on the Gold Line. I’ll write it up later at the office.”

“And, what are the chances of John ever seeing that short story, Parkaar?”

“Oh, maybe one in a million, Agent 32.”

“We should have got his full name and contact info.”

“I don’t know, Monique. I think most homeless people don’t want to be bothered. I think they prefer to lie low in anonymity.”

“But, what about that guy with the smooth radio voice. He became famous. He struck gold!”

“Yeah, I know.”

Then we heard a shout from a car window as we walked under the public library overhang to stay out of the snow: “Fuck Liverpool!” Ah, a United fan.

2. A Novella Idea (Feb. 2016)

 

It was a cold, overcast, foreboding February day with an occasional fluttering snowflake at the midtown Charlotte (NC, USA) office when I got a text from an unsaved New York City phone number.

Any ideas for my next screenplay?

I was smartly dumbfounded and paused to consider the source. Who in this wacky world could this be? Wait … ideas … screenplay. That must be Al Niño [Agent A~O] Yeah, it’s got to be him. He must have a new number.

I texted him back.

Screenplay ideas? Why yes, Al, as a matter of fact I do have a few novel notions clanking around in the old cranatorium. [sic]

He texted back just one minute later.

Cranatorium. Ha. You crack me up with your neologisms, Michael. [He insists on calling me Michael for annoyance reasons.] Let me guess, Michael, you’re writing a novel about an insane asylum.

I returned textual fire two minutes later.

Close, but no green cigar, Al. No, it’s a novella involving sex robots.

Five minutes went by. No reply from Al. Maybe he thinks that I’ve totally lost it and doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore. He’s living the good life now, jet-setting between New York and L.A. If I were him, would I want to get entangled in my nonsense? Probably not.

Then, twelve minutes later, he replied.

Sex robots? Well, I must admit, M. van Tryke, [my nickname and art-name] you completely lost me there. But, please do expound on the interface.

I paused to ponder his text. On the interface? Does he want graphic details about the robots’ genitalia?

Al, it’s set in the year 2080. All of the sex robots are just like humans. They’re very advanced. Anatomically identical. No plastic holes or lead pipes.

Three minutes later, Al’s reply popped up on my small smartphone’s screen.

Lead pipes? Michael, we’re already way beyond metal Frankendongs. [sic] Have you been in a sex shop lately?

I looked out my left window as a lone, tiny ice crystal swirled around in the air, and then disappeared when it contacted the asphalt parking lot. I composed a reply to Al.

Yes, Monique [Agent 32] and I were in one last November. You know, for research reasons. Well, let’s just say that the latex-hybrid creations 64 years from now are much truer to human actuality.

Al’s rejoinder was immediate.

Can I call you now, sex-robot-man?

Wait ten minutes, Al.

Why, still cleaning up?

Very funny, Al. Hardy-har-har-har. No, the boss will be gone then.

Al then called sixteen minutes later.

“So, sex robots, Michael,” Al said teasingly. “Does Monique allow you to have one? Do you guys have threesomes with it – or her?”

“Always the comedian. Always a zinger. No letup. And, no, we don’t own a sex robot, Al.”

“Well, how does a novella revolving around sex robots get into your head, my dear friend named Michael?” This Michael stuff is already getting really old. But, I’m not going to let him know that it is grating on me.

“Al, I got the idea while watching a news report on CNN last October. Malaysia was banning sex robot conventions.”

“They actually have sex robot conventions?”

“Apparently so.”

“Do prospective buyers get to try them out for free?”

“I have no idea, Al. I’ve never been to one.”

“Oh, you can tell me, Michael. I won’t tell anyone.”

“No, I haven’t been to one yet. Is that adverb good enough for you, Al?”

“Carry on.”

“After seeing the news report, I did some research online. Some of these higher-end sex robots are already up to the manikin level in appearance. I image that in six decades, with such rapid technological advances and tactile improvements, they will be hard to tell from humans. It will be a very strange world. Maybe very isolated.”

“I see where this is going. I sniffed your angle out, Michael. We will find out if most men are content with just an artificial female. Is that it? Is that the thrust of it?” He laughed.

“No, Al, that’s an angle for your book. Remember that one you promised to write, All You Need to Know about Women: A Guide for the Single Guy. And, how far have you gotten on it, if I might ask?”

“It’s been tabled for the time being, but I must say this gives me some ideas.”

“I’m sure it does.”

“Well, tell me more, Michael. Will the novella be told from the perspective of a sex robot?”

“That’s a great idea, Al. Very sci-fi there. However, I was thinking of telling the story from a couple’s perspective.”

“Oh, so in 2080 it won’t be unusual for every adult to have a sex robot?”

“Well, I don’t know about that.”

“Well, what do you know about your sex-robot saga?”

“Well, it starts off with a very ordinary human couple, male and female, heterosexual relationship, both in their late 20s.”

“Ok, when do the robots come out of the closet?”

“Come out of the closet? You’re not missing any hanging curveballs. You must be on your fifth cup.”

“No, I don’t drink coffee anymore, Michael.”

“Fifth bowl of weedies [sic] by chance, Al?”

“Fourth. Back and forth. Reciprocating motion.”

“Ok, Al, do you think you’re coherent enough to hear the rest of the synopsis?”

“Fire away, Michael. Aim high, shoot low.” Yes?

“Well, our average American couple splits up for one common reason or other. I haven’t figured out the exact issue just yet.”

“Ok …”

“The guy then decides to experiment with a sex robot. He likes it. A lot. So much so, in fact, that he decides not to date anymore.”

“Woah. I already see the hate mail clogging your inbox. Here come the zero-star ratings.”

“Yeah, maybe so, Al. Maybe so. But, in my tale the young lady gets word through mutual friends about what her ex is doing. And, you guessed it, perhaps: She decides to experiment with a male sex robot. She likes it, too. Though, she still wants a real male in her life. Maybe for a future baby.”

“ Woah, woah. Let me stop you right there, Michael. You’re making a big false assumption. Women – 99.99% of them – would never be completely satisfied with just a sex robot, no matter how good the orgasms were, or whether they wanted a baby or not. There’s just no drama with a robot. There has to be ongoing human turmoil behind the sensations.” Huh?

“Al, are you saying that women require drama? Can I quote you on that?”

“Sure. Go ahead. My girlfriend knows it.”

“You know that I record everything for future short stories, right?”

“I suspected as much, Michael.”

“What about you – are you recording me now, Al?”

“Uh, you’ll know later.” Huh?

“What?” Who knows where this conversation will end up? Probably in one of his screenplays.

“Well, Michael, what is the climax of your sexbot [sic] tale?” Sexbot? Wow, I’ll have to use that word in the novella. Of course, I won’t give Al credit. Internal chuckle.

“Amazing one, the climax of the story occurs when all four of them – the couple and the two sexbots – get together one evening. I will just leave it at that.”

“You will just leave it at that? I thought we were friends, Michael. Now, please, do tell.”

“We are friends, Al. But, let’s be honest now; we would scoop each other in an instant. You’re a crafty enterprising fellow.”

“Listen, Michael, I’m not going to screenplay what you just told me and sell it. Well, not this year.” He chuckled.

“See, I have already told you too much. If you run with my idea, I’ll sue you. Of course it will be nothing personal.”

“Oh, go fuck your bot, Michael!”

3. Powerballed (Feb. 2016)

 

The alarm clock went off at 6:00 AM sharp on a cold Valentine’s Day in east Charlotte. Monique (Agent 32) rolled to her left and turned it off.

“We don’t have to get up this early,” I told her. “As long as we’re out the door by 8:25, we should be ok to make kickoff.” Yeah, 8:25 is early enough to allow for a stopover at QuikTrip for coffee. I know she’ll want that.

“It takes longer for me to get ready. Have you not noticed that yet, Parkaar? [my ailing alias] Girls can’t just jump out of bed and be out the door in five minutes.”

She quickly marched her pinay [a Philippine woman] body to the shower, giving me a flirtatious wink.

I then examined the EPL (English Premier League) table on the tablet computer. Wow, United is still on 41 points. They must have lost to Sunderland yesterday. Maybe Liverpool can make a late charge. Leicester is in uncharted territory; their wheels could come off. Probably Arsenal or City ends up winning it, I bet. Though, Tottenham is right there.

Monique was back in the bedroom twenty-six minutes later. She dried her hair and did her makeup in the near-full-length mirror. I guess I should get up before I get a headache.

We were out the back door at 8:23 AM. And, at 8:33 we were in the QuikTrip on Eastway Drive.

The friendly raven-haired Latina cashier remembered us.

“Is that all, guys? Just two small coffees and these tiny chocolate doughnuts?”

“Yeah, that will do it this time,” I replied.

“No lottery ticket today?” she asked. The drawing was last night. We haven’t checked the ticket yet. Who has the ticket? Me or Monique?

“No, we’re all good for now,” Monique stated.

We paid up and began to leave the counter.

“Have a great day, guys!” She sure has an upbeat attitude on a frigid Sunday morning. Maybe her boyfriend is taking her out to dinner later. Valentine’s chocolates and something extra. Internal chuckle.

We got back in the gray Kia and headed for Monroe Road. As we passed over the Independence Expressway (US 74), I remembered the Powerball ticket. Maybe she has it.

“Monique, do you have the Powerball ticket?”

“Yes, it’s in my purse.”

“Can you check the numbers on your smartphone?”

“Sure, Parkaar.” She knows that the audio recorder is rolling.

“Thanks, Agent 32.” He’s recording. I knew it.

Monique got the Powerball website up on her screen and viewed the winning numbers from last night. She sighed.

“No, we didn’t win, 33.”

“That’s ok, 32. Another couple of bucks for the schools.”

She kept looking at her phone. “Darn! My numbers were the winning series for the drawing last Wednesday night. Even the Powerball number of five was correct.”

“What?! You are kidding me!” She must be mistaken.

As we came to a stop at Monroe Road, Monique passed her cell phone to me. On her just-cleaned screen, my sleep-encrusted eyes saw:

2/10/16: (2) (3) (40) (50) (62) (5) [|*] Power Play: *2x

It was the supreme horror that I always feared: Our numbers win on a day that we fail to buy a ticket. Well, that’s it: I’m cursed. I’m going nowhere. The gods hate me. I’ll be haunted by this blunder for the rest of my unlucky life. Why did we stop buying tickets for the Wednesday drawings? Probably because I was too damn lazy to get them after coming home from work. Boy, am I incredibly stupid, or what? Malloy said that once you decide to play the lottery, you must play every drawing. You can’t skip any. He stated that very clearly. I didn’t stick to the plan, and this is the result. Where is my brain? It’s cooked, and has been for a long time now. Man, this is unbelievable. Gaspingly unbelievable. After taxes, Wednesday’s jackpot was probably over $80 million. And, we would have been the sole winners. Well, it’s gone now. Can’t rewind the clock. And, don’t expect to hit again. That would be like one in ten trillion. We blew it. No way around it. No, I blew it – just me. It’s only my fault – not Monique’s in any way. I completely blew it. How utterly deflating. Where’s the hemlock? It’s a good thing that we don’t have a garage.

I dejectedly handed the cell phone back to Monique without saying a word as the light turned green. I made a right turn and drove towards uptown in silence. [_ Why did this happen to us? I would have given away over 60% of that money to family, friends, and even deserving strangers. Make that 70%. I was going to pay everyone who liked, posted or commented on the psecret psociety page. I was going to be able to increase my ‘Gold, a summer story’ [my novel] Adwords budget to $100 a day, instead of the measly $1 a day. Well, so much for all of that now. Damn you, Zeus, I wasn’t going to hoard it or blow it on expensive cars, houses, or drugs. This is just un-fucking-believable! There was a 50-50 chance of winning with those numbers. Saturday or Wednesday. And, wicked Wednesday won out. Of course, someone like me wasn’t going to win such a coin toss. I’m not the lucky type. Never have been. Though, I did get real lucky when I met Monique. Well, February 10, 2016 will never be forgotten: my day of dastardly doom and eternal gloom. The big stack of money was on the long conference table for the taking, but I just walked right on by. I know that Monique believes in God, but I don’t. I guess I never did. Oh, wait, is this my punishment for not believing in God? Ah, fuck it! Whatever! _]

I made a left onto 5th Street. We passed through a series of 4-way stops in the older, now-quite-upscale Elizabeth neighborhood, finally approaching Hawthorne Lane. I steered the car over towards the curb to park.

“Parkaar, remember that the trolley doesn’t run on Sunday until 9:15.” Yeah, she’s right. I can’t think anymore.

“Ok, we’ll just drive to our free parking spot uptown, Monique.”

“Don’t dwell on it, mahal. [love in Tagalog] Remember you told me, ‘don’t cry over spiIt milk.’ Don’t worry; I can pick another set of winning numbers.” Bless her heart; she just doesn’t know about probability. Or, maybe she has the power of naïveté?

“I think the chances of us having a winning set of six numbers again is about as good as getting struck by lightning in Linville Caverns … seventy times.”

“But, that’s underground, 33.”

“Exactly.”

Our preferred parking area on College Street between East 7th and East 9th had no vacant slots. We ended up parking on West 5th Street.

It was a five-block walk to RíRá Irish Pub. We passed a very old cemetery on the way. Did any of them suffer lottery heartbreak? Did they have lotteries back then?

We soon arrived at the tavern at 9:04 AM. The thick wooden front doors were locked. Other LFC fans gathered with us. A face-freezing wind howled down Tryon Street.

Someone texted someone inside. The doors opened. The game was in the 4th minute, still nil-nil.

Monique and I took a seat. A dark-haired Irish lad (his accent was a giveaway) came over to our table and took our drink order.

“A Guinness Extra-Stout for me and a Guinness Nitro IPA for the lady.”

“Sounds like a lucky combination.” Did he really have to use the adjective ‘lucky’? Jeez.

“Yes, maybe the Reds get back on the winning track today,” Monique added.

“Hope so,” he said.

“If we can’t beat Aston Villa, we’ve really got some problems,” I said. “They’re in last place, buried deep in the cellar.”

“I agree. Hey, your beers will be coming right up.” He smiled, turned and departed for the bar.

Before he came back, Sturridge scored with a nice header from a beautiful cross from Coutinho. No one in here has any idea that we missed out on $80 million dollars. If we would have won, would we be in this bar right now? Yeah, probably so, if we were still waiting to publicly claim it. I would just be buying everyone a round. Several rounds. All rounds. All the way around.

We ordered some Celtic carrots. While waiting for them to arrive, Milner scored on a free kick.

The carrots were tasty. I wonder how they cook them.

The match was 2-nil at the break. The upstairs was happy, but not giddy, as Liverpool had blown a two-goal lead against Sunderland at Anfield last week, ending in a draw.

After Emre Can scored, it got pretty raucous. Everyone knew that Liverpool wouldn’t be drawn this time. They would go on to win 6-nil. Aston Villa looked like a shadow of last year’s FA Cup finalist team.

Upon our exit down the wooden steps, a fellow LFC fan shouted: “Come back! You guys are our good-luck charms.”

4. The Vault (Mar. 2016)

 

Note: The following tale is based on a true story. Names have been changed. Also, the dates and places are not exactly correct.

A few days ago, the name of his dad came up in an informal office hallway discussion. John Lowenstein, indeed, was no longer at the college; he had retired over the Christmas break I was told. “But, did they ever find his missing 30-something son?” I asked.

Heads shook. No one had an answer, or even a mild idea.

Thus, when I returned to my desktop computer, I did some searching online. John Lowenstein’s lone son, Rupert, a 33-year-old, brown-haired Caucasian, went missing on March 7, 2008 from his house on Wyanoke Avenue in east Charlotte. Several news articles confirmed this on the first page of the Google search results. However, none of them had anything about him – or his body – being found.

When I changed the keyword phrase to ‘Rupert Lowenstein found dead’, the fourth hit had the bizarre answer to this man’s mysterious disappearance.

Apparently, Rupert Lowenstein, a fluvial engineer with Mecklenburg County, had been fired on a Friday afternoon, some eight years ago. The reason for his summary dismissal was not disclosed in any of the online articles. Did he cuss out his boss? Was it due to an altercation with another employee? Did he say the wrong thing to an irate homeowner after his crew had dug up the guy’s back yard for a new storm drain line?

However, after rummaging around on the internet a little bit more, I found out that Rupert and his live-in girlfriend got into a heated argument after he returned to their residence on that fateful date. A neighbor had even called the police to report a ‘domestic situation’ that evening. However, Rupert stomped out the front door before the Charlotte cops pulled up.

His girlfriend, a pretty, 32-year-old, blonde-haired Caucasian named Doris Milwald, was not assaulted in any way by Rupert that evening. She stated that they were both just screaming at each other. It was just a heated verbal spat, nothing more.

Doris went on to tell the two CMPD (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department) officers that she was mad at him for losing his job and just venting her supreme disappointment, and that her anger just elevated his anger, causing him to go out for a walk to cool off. In fact, Rupert had walked off after arguments on numerous occasions, and usually returned within an hour or two.

CMPD seemed to believe her explanation. Thus, no canine unit or helicopter was dispatched that night. The police left twenty minutes after arriving. However, Rupert Lowenstein never returned.

Where did Rupert go? Well, Doris last saw him walking down Wyanoke Avenue towards Chantilly Park, which was only 500 feet (152 meters) away. Another neighbor corroborated this.

Somewhere in the ether-o-sphere, [sic] Frank von Peck (the late, great Agent 107) just nodded. Well, maybe so.

Ok, back to the story. Pardon that diversion, though it is a psecret psociety pshort pstory after all, and such is to be customarily expected. Already, enough is enough, already. I hear your thoughts loud and clear. Trust me. “Pun off!” one of you just shouted in Kansas. Or, was it from Kentucky? Yes, we do have some clever readers.

Well, the years went by. “2009, nothing. 2010, nada. [nothing in Spanish] 2011, nichts. [nothing in German] 2012, rien. [nothing in French] 2013, ingenting. [nothing in Swedish] 2014, niente. [nothing in Italian] 2015, nimic.” [nothing in Romanian]

Well, if nothing else, you now know more about nothing. So, welcome to the ever-nothing-green club. Though, we were expecting yew. [sic]

Moving right along. Then in 2016, Leap Day to be more precise, the mystery of Rupert Lowenstein’s whereabouts was revealed by CMUD (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department) workers near Briar Creek. His human remains (skull and major bones) were found in a storm water, vault-style, sediment trap off of a culvert just 800 feet (244 meters) from his residence.

Exactly how did Rupert wind up in a subterranean storm-water vault? Any ideas going through your mind? Was there foul play of some sordid sort? A plausible guess for sure. Was his ‘cooling-off walk’ intercepted by someone whom he had recently crossed? Did he owe someone money? Was it just a bad time to take that therapeutic walk?

Well, here’s what the police surmised. After leaving his residence in a huff, Rupert Lowenstein walked southeast one tenth of a mile (161 meters) to Chantilly Park. Then he started to walk southward next to Briar Creek (downstream), passing under the railroad overpass. When he came to the East 7th Street creek tunnel (just 328 feet – 100 meters – further), he entered the westernmost culvert which had just recently undergone some reconstruction to replace missing and crumbling bricks and blocks, something that he would have been aware of, given his job – or most recent job.

In a distraught state of mind (his plum gig was now gone and his relationship with his girlfriend was ending), he entered a large, concrete, sediment-trap vault. He laid his body down and covered his legs and torso with old bricks and blocks that were left behind. Then he took some poison or a lethal dose of some drug, probably a strong pain killer like hydrocodone or oxycodone, or possibly even heroin, and died. Yes, it was an über-strange, corpse-hidden, secret suicide.

I can hear your questions as I type this. Believe me, I can. Well, some of them from some of you. Those of you in Barrow, Alaska … well, the connection is not so good right now. Barrow [sic] with me a moment. I know … not really that funny. Sorry, I’m an easily distracted storyteller.

Anyway, the first – and far and away the most popular – question seems to be: Why did he not want his body to be found?

It seems so cruel to his family, friends, and even his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. Such a nefarious, insidious, evil parting shot. His parents must have been tormented by horrific thoughts night after night until his body was found 2,900 days later.

Then I heard footsteps coming down the corridor. An undisclosed female psecret psociety agent walked into my not-quite-at-a-right-angle corner office. She read what you have read thus far.

“ Maybe he actually wanted to exit this world with a benevolent parting gift for Doris,” Agent *{* said.

“A benevolent parting gift for Doris?” I repeated.

“Yes, you heard me correctly, 33.”

“Why would you characterize his secret suicide as benevolent?”

“Well, because he chose to hide his body in such a way that would preclude anyone from finding it for at least seven years.”

“Why seven years?”

“After someone is missing for seven years, they can be declared legally dead. And, suicides void life insurance payouts in most cases.”

“So, Rupert’s intent was to hide his suicide for his ex-girlfriend-to-be’s future benefit?”

“That’s just my theory, 33. But, I’m sticking with it.”

“Well, I wonder what Doris Milwald is doing now?”

“If she buys a nice house or an expensive car this summer, I would bet my theory is correct.”

I quickly poked around on the internet, searching for anything about a Doris Milwald in Charlotte. It wasn’t long before I found a local news story about her.

“Oh, no,” I said.

“What?”

“She died in a car accident in South End [an area south of uptown Charlotte] last November,” I announced.

“Such a shame. She missed her big payday by just a few months.”

“How do you know that Rupert had her named as the beneficiary in a life insurance policy?”

“You do ask too many questions, Agent 33. You really do.”

“But, you said it was just a theory.”

“I see that my theory has riveted itself onto your primary neural screen.”

5. The Mound (Mar. 2016)

And then his lanky, now a bit of a wiseacre, dark-haired, thirteen-year-old son kicked the new size 4 ball over his head – and over the goal – into Dutch Buffalo Creek, which formed the farthest property line of their Mount Pleasant (NC, USA) back yard. The father had been practicing soccer/football with his son for about twenty minutes on a mild March Saturday morning before the ball went splash in the sediment-laden, slow-flowing drink.

“You toed it again, Billy,” John told his son. “You’ve got to strike the ball higher – and without your big toe – to keep it down, son. Even a regulation soccer goal’s crossbar is only eight feet [2.44 meters] high.”

“I know, dad.”

John, a 47-year-old Caucasian father of one with a brown-to-gray Van Dyke beard, was soon parting the brush on the creek’s western bank. He then stepped down to a flat rock and turned to his right to look downstream for the ball. And there it was, merrily floating away at a knot per hour (1.15 MPH; 1.85 km/h), already about twenty feet (6.1 meters) from him.

Dad quickly began to rock-hop down the wide, yet mostly shallow, piedmont creek. He caught up with their red-and-white soccer ball in sixteen seconds. As he plucked it from the ruddy stream, he noticed a mound next to the eastern bank with a yellow arrow stuck in it. Was someone hunting deer around here? Maybe that crazy dude in the blue shack.

He had a flash of déjà vu. He stood transfixed as a thought parade commenced. I’ve seen this very mound before. I know I have. But, where, though? Wait, it was in my dream last night! Yes, that’s it. And, it looked exactly like this. Wow! This is eerie. Is this some kind of augury? Is there something special about that mound? An auspicious omen? Well, there are white quartz rocks on the creek-side of the mound. Might there be a nice gold nugget somewhere in that mound? Ha. Maybe just wishful thinking. I’ve been thinking about gold ever since Scott panned out a half-ounce [14 grams] of fines a mile [1.61 km] upstream from here. Jeez, what am I thinking? It’s probably just a pile of rocks and sand. There aren’t any creek-embedded gold nuggets left in North Carolina. Or, are there?

Suddenly his reverie was broken by a very familiar voice. “Dad, what are you looking at?”

He was startled, as he didn’t even hear his son following him downstream. “Oh, nothing, son. Just admiring the scenery.”

“Dad, you have been staring at that mound for the last thirty seconds!”

“Really? I guess I got lost in a daydream. Just getting old. Sorry about that, son.”

“Well, what were you thinking about? Is there a body buried under that mound?” He must have recently watched some crime show on TV.

“No, I don’t think anything sinister like that, son.”

“Hidden treasure?” Getting warmer.

“Close. I had a dream last night, son, and this very mound was in it.” He saw this mound in his dream?

“Well, what happened in the dream, dad?”

“I started digging up the mound and found a large gold nugget in it.” Wow!

“Really?!”

“Yes, son. It looked just like this mound. Exactly like it.”

“Hey, let’s get some shovels and see if your dream is correct! This could pay for my first car.” What?!

“But, son, this isn’t our property. I could get arrested and you could be sent to some juvenile delinquency camp.” I doubt that. He’s just trying to scare me.

“It’s just overgrown county-owned property, dad. No one comes back here.” He’s probably right.

“No one but us.” And bow hunters.

“Exactly, dad. Let me run back and get a small shovel. I’ll do the digging. That way if the law comes, you’ll be in the clear.”

“Ok, ok. But, the digging will have a time limit of ten minutes.”

“Just ten minutes?!”

“Ok, make it fifteen. Final offer. Fifteen minutes max.”

“Make it twenty!” Oh, boy. So demanding. Just like his mom.

Billy then dashed back upstream to go fetch a shovel. I guess I secretly want to see if anything of value is buried in that mound. What if there were really a gold nugget six inches down, and we lived and died without ever taking a spade to it? Must rule it out.

The father turned his gaze back to the arrow-struck mound. I guess at this moment, this mound is kind of like Schrödinger’s cat, the quantum physics paradox. The gold doesn’t and does exist in that mound until we do some digging and alter its indefinite state. I guess we could get the old metal detector out of the shed and run it over this mound before wasting time digging. Ah, it will just be a good life lesson for him: Don’t get lost in a crazy dream; stay grounded.

Three minutes later the son was back with a medium-size garden shovel. Billy quickly began to dig away at the downstream side of the mound. This is pretty easy.

It was mostly sand at first. Then he hit some clay. And then his shovel struck a hard object. Billy paused.

“I think I hit a rock, dad. Or, maybe it’s the gold!” I sure hope it is! / It’s probably just a chunk of quartz.

“Let me shovel it out for you, son. Take a break. You’ve earned it. I got it from here.”

“Ok,” the son said as he handed the shovel over to his dad.

John then jumped onto the top edge of the shovel’s pointed blade with his right shoe. It sliced through the sand, silt and clay like a cold knife going through hot butter (or maybe the reverse). And then there was contact, quickly followed by a loud BOOM!

John had cleanly severed a flexible polyethylene natural gas line and ignited the rapidly escaping methane as the metal shovel blade sparked against a piece of white quartz. His body was launched twenty-two feet into the air. Unfortunately, he landed head-first on a large piece of slate in the stream. John was dead on contact.

Billy was knocked back, too, by the ferocious fiery explosion. However, he was only knocked back ten feet (3 meters), landing on a soft, muddy, undercut bank in a curve in the creek. He was dazed, but still conscious, and not hurt that bad.

A ten-foot-high, narrow, hissing, bluish flame raged out of the mound. Interestingly, the yellow arrow was still where it was, as if nothing had happened.

Eleven minutes later, Billy’s mental faculties returned. He got up and looked for his dad. Soon the tragedy was realized. He freaked out.

Billy then began to run upstream back to the house. About halfway there he noticed a yellowish rock in the water. He reached down and grabbed it. It was a four-pound (1.8 kg) gold nugget that had been sent airborne by the natural gas explosion. He now had $80,000 in his hand.

Billy, controlled his grief enough to act smartly. He hid the gold nugget in his bedroom closet. Then he called his mom, who was at work in Locust, and told her what had happened.

Five years later, at the age of eighteen, Billy returned to the infamous creek mound on a warm April afternoon. The gas line explosion, excavation for repairs, and sixty-one months of rainstorms and high water levels had worn the mound down to half its original size.

He looked at the creek. The water level was way down, and the color was more of a translucent light green, as it had been rainless for a week.

Suddenly a young robin alighted on the mound, searching for a shallow worm. Billy then noticed that the yellow arrow was gone. Dad never knew that that arrow was mine. He never knew that I secretly bought a beginner-level bow-and-arrow set. I remember shooting that arrow on that February night five years ago. I can still see it striking the underside of that large branch. And then it deflected straight down, just like a hard soccer shot nicking the bottom of the crossbar. Funny how I couldn’t ever find it. But then, dad sure did. And, he’s gone. Died exploring his dream. Gosh, I miss him. He sure left a nice gift for me. Maybe it’s time to sell it.

A gust of wind rippled through the new leaves on the willow trees. Billy’s mind began to drift with the languid current as he watched a leaf floating … and then sinking … to a soccer ball remnant.

 

6. An April Fools’ Day (Apr. 2016)

 

We, Monique (Agent 32) and I (Agent 33) slinked into the One Stop (55 College Street) in downtown Asheville (NC, USA) at 10:27 PM. It was a cool and refreshing April 1st of 2016. Tonight’s musical act of our supreme interest was Blackbird Blackbird, aka Mikey Maramag, the Filipino-American musical wunderkind known for lush psychedelic folktronica. [sic]

We handed over our tickets and then stood at the far end of the bar. I ordered two local microbrew IPAs (India pale ales). There were about two dozen people milling about, murmuring about different April Fools’ jokes that they had heard over the course of the day. I wonder if any of them heard the one about the red rabbit that could no longer hop, and just stood with a shocked looked on its face, as it had eaten an Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom by mistake, became transfixed on a fractal display, and, well, it was just an actor on the lawn, and, yeah … my oh my, those granules are already grabbing hold of my bean.

Seven minutes later we noticed a shadowy personage on the dark stage. He started to tune his guitar. That’s probably Chad Valley, the opening act. I wonder what tune he will open with.

While studying the wall ornaments in the bar, I heard: “Hello Asheville. It’s good to be back.” Woah! That’s Mikey! He’s going on first. Maybe Chad’s bus was running late. Glad we didn’t wait until 11:11 PM to show up.

“Monique, that’s him: Mr. Blackbird Blackbird.”

“Yey! Let’s move up front!”

We slithered through the beer-drinking, mostly Caucasian, 20- and 30-something crowd to a vacant space, stage right, about twelve feet (3.7 meters) from Mikey.

Suddenly the first notes of Keep it Up rang out as the spotlight came down upon him. Ah, he got a haircut. / Glad we made it.

There was a spattering of applause after the initial song. Mr. Maramag then paused to make some adjustments to his laptop and effects boxes. Soon the opening loops of one of my hallucinatory faves, Tangerine Sky, reverberated out of the large speaker to our immediate left. The three-hour, wreck-detoured, manic drive from Charlotte was worth it.

“Oh, yeah!” I shouted.

Mikey nodded.

Monique then started to do her ‘pinay [a Philippine woman] spider’ dance. It was a kewl [sic] scene all the way around, and in the neural interior.

When Love Unlimited started, Monique walked up to the stage and encouraged Mikey. “Go pinoy!” [a Filipino man] she shouted repeatedly.

Mikey turned and smiled. Then he refocused on the front audience.

After the song was over, we decided to sit down in some vacant chairs by a small table. I settled my torso in a position where my Sciatica wasn’t too severe. (I blew my lower back out a week prior.) Ah, this aint too bad. I think I can deal with this. I know Monique is going to want to dance, though.

The next tune, Happy with You, advanced the mood. People were now getting into the groove. Flip flop, drip drop. Why do I always have to change the lyrics in my head? Endless amusement, I suppose.

And very soon our unobstructed view was no more. Slow gyrations commenced here, there, and in between. Well, I knew it was only a matter of time. I think I’m better off in this chair, though / I want to dance, but my bana [Cebuano for husband] is not up to it, I can tell. He needs to stop playing football with Agent 666. [now Agent 66]

When Mikey launched into Pure, the joint was freed of extraneous thoughts. Well, except for mine. So sublime. Great stuff. He’s sure-really [sic] in the zone. No doubt about that. He’s been to knowhere [sic] early and often.

Then with Blind, our inner eyes were opened. It was music for the perfect cosmic trip. He’s certainly tuned in to the astral airwaves. What a succulent sound. What a fabulous frequency he’s riding.

After that tune, I then implored Mikey to play an older, little, two-minute vignette called Ups and Downs before he could start his next song.

He just smiled and said, “I only play that one on Friday the 13th.” He let out a slight chuckle.

I quickly thought about the Friday dates in April and May. Let’s see … 1-8-15-22-29-6-13. Wow! May 13^th^ is a Friday! Where will he be playing then? [was not playing on that date]

Then he tore into Tear. Nice pulsating progressions. He just may be the neopsychedelic prodigal son.

Next up in this hypnotic flow was Darlin’ Dear. I got lost in a sentimental sequence of thought. Monique is my darlin’ dear, that’s for sure. What a find. What a wife. Such a darlin’ dear.

I then became hyper-granulated [sic] and couldn’t make out the exact songs for the rest of the 62-minute set. I was immobilized in the chair. Monique was dancing in place, thoroughly enjoying the sounds and sights.

Then as the house-trance atmospherics faded out, Mikey said: “Thank you, Asheville. Until next time …”

I joined several others in yelling, “One more!”

Mikey obliged with an encore: the seven-minute masterwork, It’s a War. (Interesting note: This song was used in car commercial – Buick, me thinks.)

Near the end of the tune he invited the audience to sing the refrain. “It’s a war,” was enthusiastically chanted by about a dozen folks.

After the show was over, Monique approached Mikey as he completed his repacking of musical equipment and effectual apparatus.

“Hey, could we take a picture with you?” she boldly asked.

“Sure,” Mikey replied. He sure is approachable and friendly.

“Hey, Parkaar, [my ailing alias] come over here. It’s picture time.”

I joined them at a side wall and a patron snapped our pic. (Click here to see it.)

Next, a casual conversation began.

“Mikey, you have a great sound,” I said. “A surreally kewl [sic] auditory groove.”

“Thanks a lot,” Mr. Maramag replied.

“We have been listening to your songs for over two years on our laptop and now on my smartphone,” Monique said. “I have these speakers that flash colors to the beat. When It’s a War plays, it’s a battle of hues.” A battle of hues? Might have to use that phrase someday.

“Why, thanks!” Mikey exclaimed.

“Where can we buy your CDs?” I asked. “We’re old school, or middle school.” I chuckled.

“Check with the girl at the table over there,” he said while pointing to his left.

“What do you guys do?” Mikey then asked.

“I mainly write now. I wrote an erotic, noir-esque odyssey of a novel in 2013: Gold, a summer story. I’ve written a couple of novellas since then and over 50 short stories. But, I’ve still got a day job in Charlotte. Not exactly buried in royalties.”

Mikey and I had a short laugh.

“He likes writing up our excursions,” Monique added. “I help him with the females’ thoughts.”

“Oh, really?” Mikey asked, sensing that he might be part of a future short story.

“Mikey, I used to do visual art, the standard paint-on-canvas deal,” I said. “But, I found out that my niche market was way too narrow for comfort.”

Mikey had a chortle. “Too narrow for comfort. That’s funny!”

“I used to do needlepoint,” Monique then said. “But, I ran out of this really fantastic, multicolored, sparkly, metallic thread.”

“Couldn’t you just buy some more?” Mikey asked Monique.

“I’ve never seen it in any store or online. I found in a basement closet on April Fools’ Day 2012.”

“Very interesting,” Mikey said.

“Well, where do you play next, maestro?” I asked. Wish he would schedule Charlotte. Snug Harbor in Wigwood [slang for Plaza-Midwood] would be perfect.

“Atlanta, at a place called The Masquerade.”

“Well, hope it goes well, and the rest of the tour, too,” I said.

“Thanks,” Mikey replied as he glanced at the stage. We need to wrap this up. We are taking too much of his time. We might delay Chad. [Valley]

“Hey, did you hear any good April Fools’ jokes today?” Monique asked Mikey.

“Just the one about a red rabbit. I saw him in the 2nd-floor window above the front door as I entered. What about you guys?”

We just looked at each other. Ernie, the enigmatic electronic earwig is at it again.


Parkaar -------- Mikey ----- Monique

(Click here to return to story.)

7. High Peak Revisited (Apr. 2016)

 

“Where are we going, dad?” Agent 666 (now Agent 66) asked from the right backseat as I turned the gray Kia Rio hatchback left onto Etowah Park Road (from US 64 West in Etowah, NC, USA).

“High Peak, son. It’s where I lived from December of 1997 through November of 2001.” High Peak? Sounds like the top of a tall-ass mountain.

“How far is it from here?” my son then asked. Gosh, I hope it isn’t more than five minutes. I have to pee.

“Four miles,” [6.44 km] I replied.

I made a left at the stop sign that came up in just 700 feet (213 meters). We were now going south on Etowah School Road. The old elementary school quickly came up on the left. A mile and a half (2.4 km) later we were crossing an olive-green stream.

“What creek is this?” Monique (Agent 32) asked from the shotgun seat. I bet my geo-nerdo [sic] husband will know.

“It’s the French Broad River,” I replied. “The same river that flows through Asheville. We’re probably about 30 miles [48 km] upstream of the Craven Street Bridge.” I knew he’d know. / What bridge was that? Gosh, dad is such a geography freak.

I turned right at the stop sign onto Pleasant Grove Road. We stayed in the river valley for one mile (1.6 km), passing farms and a small creek. Then we turned left onto Pleasant Grove Church Road. Next, after just a tenth of a mile (161 meters), I turned right onto a wide dirt trail: High Peak Road.

The orange-red clay roadbed was severely rutted. I had to drive very slowly to carefully maneuver the car around the pits and craters so as to not bottom out and get stuck. It’s just as bad as it ever was. Some things never change in this land that time forgot.

We began to pass a string of rundown mobile homes. Many of these old trailers looked like they were barely keeping the elements out; they were in very rough condition. Everyone has got to live somewhere, but this looks even bleaker than before. / Did dad live in one of these? / This is poverty acres. Was Parkaar [my ailing alias] really that poor back then?

“Damn! There’s a confederate flag, dad!”

“Yeah, I just ignored those people, son. I think this area is now more Mexican than redneck.”

“That’s an improvement,” my son added.

“I agree,” Monique then said.

“Me, too,” I concluded.

The luckily dry road (was a complete nightmare to traverse when muddy) began to ascend. Then it became a grade C gravel road. They must have just had another load of gravel dropped on it. I wonder how many of the homeowners actually pitched in. 40%? 30%? So many deadbeats on this mountain. I sure don’t miss this road.

I slowly swung wide in the first switchback. Then we began to climb the mountain in earnest. There were no residences in this section. What an insane road! / I wonder how high we have to climb.

The second switchback was a tight hairpin. I dropped the manual transmission into 1st gear, as this was a very steep ascent now. Hope I don’t shoot gravel.

“Back in January of 1998, snow and ice sat on this road for several weeks,” I said.

“Why did it last that long?” Agent 666 asked.

“Because they cut this road on the northeast side of the mountain, son. With the low winter sun angle, no sunlight ever hits the road surface. Thus, minimal meIting occurs during cold snaps. Oh, I almost slid off the mountain in this section in my old green Plymouth Voyager minivan.” Yikes!

The Kia successfully scaled the incline. I then turned the steering wheel slightly to the left.

“We called this curve ‘the elbow’,” I announced. “There was a collision here one winter. One car went halfway down that ravine on your right.” Woah!

“Did anyone die?” Monique asked.

“No, just bruises.”

I carefully negotiated the third switchback. We climbed on. Then we rounded a left curve to see a nice log-style home for sale on the right. Well, it’s definitely nicer up here. / Glad to get out of that valley.

We passed some average-looking mobile homes on the left as we curved around the pond known as Banks Lake. Wow, I remember walking with my little dog around that pond 18 years ago. I sure miss that dachshund-feist rescue mutt.

Next, I made a hard left turn. Another very steep climb on loose gravel commenced. Two hundred twenty feet (67 meters) into the ascent, I slowed down and pointed to small, gray, black-deck-wrapped house on the left.

“Well, that’s where I lived,” I said. “1085 High Peak Road. 1.085 miles [1.75 km] from where we left the asphalt.”

“Were you alone there for those 47 months, Agent 33?” Monique then asked. I know that he’s recording this. / She knows that I’m recording this. / Agent numbers again. Dad is so crazy.

I stopped the car across from the house as the late afternoon sun dropped below the western rim. I grew to loathe this drive, but I always liked arriving back here. So peaceful. So serene.

“Very much alone, 32. A few dates and visitors from Charlotte. Some neighbors would stop by, who you will soon meet. But, mostly just me and my four-legged companion, Viche.”

“What did you do there, dad?”

“I did technical writing for money and creative writing for fun. I also did a lot of wall art while in that house. Took lots of nice hikes around the mountain, too. Did a lot of exploring. Found some odd things in the woods.”

“It seems so lonely, dad.”

“Yeah, it was at times, son, but I grew to mostly like it. I was a lone wolf back then.” Lone wolf?

“A perfect place for an antisocial hermit,” Monique then added. Zing!

I let out a half-chuckle. “No, no, I wasn’t a Ted Kaczynski. I wasn’t making bombs.”

We had a chortle over that. Then I let the clutch out and we continued climbing the hill. We curved right at the top and passed some mobile homes in good repair. I wonder how Don and Fay are doing. So many of these people up here are former Floridians. Maybe they couldn’t take the humid heat anymore and traded a few chilly weeks in the winter for escape from six months in the saunasphere. [sic]

We then arrived at a three-point intersection. I veered to the right and we descended. After braking for 333 feet (best guestimate; 101.5 meters), I turned into a gravel driveway: Angeline and Kelvin’s house. It still looks about the same. I wonder if Kelvin is already drunk.

“Well, we’re here,” I said. “Time to get out and put a face to Angeline and Kelvin.”

We slowly got out of the car and began to march down a gangplank-style wooden walkway to their cozy, two-bedroom house. Their new dog detected our approach and excitedly greeted us with a wagging tail and body. When did their old dog Jay-Jay die? Was he still alive in ‘06? My memory is fading fast.

Once on the 1st floor deck, Kelvin, a 60-year-old Caucasian dude, originally from Indiana but a longtime Miami resident, sporting a Hulk Hogan mustache, stepped out to welcome us. (I had called ahead.)

“Well now, Mr. Single-Dingle is a party of three,” he said. “Come on in.”

We entered their living room. Angeline, an 81-year-old Caucasian lady from Miami, was leaning against the wall.

“Hello Michael,” she shouted. Michael? Just like Al Niño.

“Hello Angeline. Looks like you’re holding up well.”

“Michael, I think you have some introductions to make,” she demanded.

Everyone then said their hellos. I later updated them on my life changes. And then Angeline and Kelvin started telling me about the deaths on the mountain over the past decade: several suicides (one in the mobile home below my old house via a shotgun blast to the face), a pair of drug overdoses, a homicide, an accidental fatality, and a couple of natural old-age passings.

“Want to go for a hike to the point, [the actual High Peak on the USGS topo map] dudes?” Kelvin suddenly blurted. “It’s totally different now. They bulldozed it flat. The rock is gone.”

“Sure,” I said. “We can see the sunset.”

“How long is the walk?” my son asked.

“Just ten minutes,” Kelvin answered.

“It’s an easy walk, guys,” I assured them. “Kelvin and I hiked it numerous times with our dogs.”

“Ok, go on before it gets dark,” Angeline said as she playfully shoed us out of the house.

Soon we, the four us (Angeline is too old for hiking now), were walking northwesterly down the gravel road. My son had brought a plastic American football. We began passing it around as we hiked. Kelvin kept trying to catch it with one hand without much success, as he had a drink in his right hand.

We passed the house on the right where Mitchel, a Caucasian Vietnam War veteran, had lived. He ran for county sheriff and lost, but then he won, but then he didn’t take office for some odd reason. Very complicated. Never was sure about the details. He was the first person that I spoke with on a cold post-Christmas December day in 1997. Too many oxies (oxycodone pills) took him out. Laura, now three years a widow, still lived there. However, it seemed very quiet as we passed their residence.

Next house up was the chiropractor from Mocksville’s weekend getaway. It had an incredible west-facing view: postcard sunsets over 200 evenings a year. It was vacant now. John, who was also a single-engine pilot, had died of a heart attack about six years ago. His now-widow Jill didn’t come up here much anymore according to Kelvin.

Kelvin then led us towards the empty house. Halfway there, he turned his ruddy-from-the-cold-air face to us. “Let’s walk the house’s perimeter. Jill likes for me to keep an eye on it to make sure that no person or animal has broken in.” Or animal? Dad was practically living in the wilderness. Why?

“Are you sure that it’s ok?” I asked.

“Oh, c’mon,” Kelvin quipped.

We all walked to the rear of the house. The view was just as I had remembered: an incredible Appalachian vista.

“I remember having a New Year’s Day dinner in this house with the old couple who owned this place before John and Jill,” I said. “I think it was 1998. They were very friendly folks. Yeah, it was before you guys got here, Kelvin.”

“Yeah, we arrived in late March of ’98,” Kelvin added. “Just three months after you. And, by the way, that couple is dead now, too.”

“What is it with High Peak and dying?” I asked while chuckling.

“It’s in the well water,” Kelvin then said somewhat stoically.

All looked ok: no broken windows or open doors. We exited the property. Kelvin re-latched the front gate as I stared at the adjacent radio tower. Then we began the last half of the hike.

There were no more domiciles in the final stretch. Now it was just a dense forest canopy with rhododendron on both sides of the now-ridgeline, hardly ever used, gravel road.

Five minutes later and we were standing on the point. It had been cleared and graded; it was a homesite lot ready for construction. And, man, the view was nonpareil – 220 degrees of Blue Ridge Mountain peaks.

“Why didn’t Franz build his dream home up here?” I asked Kelvin as my son chased after his dog, who challenged him: Tag me if you can!

“Not sure,” Kelvin said. “But, you knew about his son dying a while back in an automobile accident, right?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Well, I think that took the gas out of his house-building plans,” Kelvin said.

“I see,” I sighed and looked to the west.

We had timed it right. The sunset was in a word: awesome.

“You guys see the highest peak out there, the one with the antenna?” I asked Agents 32 and 666. “Well, that’s Mount Pisgah. Its elevation is 5,722 feet.” [1,744 meters] How does he know that? / Why does dad memorize all these numbers?

“Are you sure that it’s not 5,725 feet, [1,745 meters] Agent 33?” Monique asked with a smirk.

“Well, if the Atlantic tide is out, maybe so, Agent 32,” I said.

“Agent 32, Agent 33 … what the hell have you got going now, dude?” Kelvin asked.

“A clandestine cabal,” I said, suppressing an upwelling bubble of laughter.

Kelvin raised his eyebrows. “An anti-New World Odor [sic] campaign?”

“No, nothing like that, Kelvin,” Monique said. “It’s just his silly online art project. It’s called psecret psociety with silent p’s in front of the s’s. It’s on Facebook.”

“Facebook?” Kelvin asked rhetorically. “I think I’ll pass. I’ve got enough problems already in the real world.”

“Are you sure?” I asked Kelvin. “Lots of great prime numbers are still available. Once you have a number, the number has you. It changes the trajectory of your life.” He must be back to sniffing glue.

“You sound just like a cult leader,” Kelvin barked. “No thanks. You can keep that Kool-Aid.”

Monique and I laughed. My son had grown bored. The dog was sitting down now, all tired-out.

Kelvin turned his gaze to the east-southeast. “And, if you look right through there, you can see your old house,” Kelvin said while pointing through some distant oak trees. “See the shiny metal roof glimmering?”

“Yeah, I see it,” I said. “I never knew that you could see my house from here.”

“That galvanized metal is reflective as hell, and in the mid-afternoon it looks like a giant solar panel,” Kelvin added.

“Can we go back now?” Agent 666 meekly asked.

“Sure,” I said as I took one last look at the tremendous twilight scene. What a homesite this will be for someone … someone with a four-wheel drive and high ground clearance.

We hiked back down the gravel road, still occasionally throwing the football around. When we were almost back, Kelvin walked off to the right on a gravel driveway. There was a van-style RV (recreational vehicle) parked in it, which belonged to Angeline.

“You guys are welcome to crash here tonight,” Kelvin said. “There’s no propane, but it has 110-volt electricity. I can bring you a space heater. Tonight’s low will only be 40º.” [Fahrenheit; 4.44º Celsius]

We surveyed the inside of the RV. I could immediately tell that my son wasn’t too keen on this idea, as he would have to sleep in a bunk above the windshield.

When Kelvin drifted outside, I lightly touched Monique’s right shoulder. “What do you think, honey?” I asked her quietly.

“I don’t know, bana; [Cebuano for husband] can your back deal with that thin mattress?”

“Probably not,” I said. “We’ll just get a hotel room in Hendersonville. I will tell Kelvin.”

We all ended our tour of the RV and stepped outside. I told Kelvin that my back probably couldn’t take it.

He then proclaimed: “Old man, the back is the first thing to go. Just wait until you’re my age.”

I nodded and smiled.

Angeline heard us and came outside. I told her that we would be going into town. We hugged and said our goodbyes.

We got back in our car and slowly climbed the gravel-crunchy incline. Once at the top, Monique looked over at me.

“You have a question, Agent 32?”

“I do, 33,” she replied. “What exactly is Angeline and Kelvin’s relationship?”

“A platonic, mutualistic one,” I answered.

“What do you mean?” Monique asked.

“Angeline always wanted to live in the mountains of North Carolina. It was her longtime dream. However, she knew that she couldn’t manage at her age in a house alone up here. So, before leaving Miami, she made Kelvin an offer. If he would be the maintenance man, chauffeur, and general caretaker, he could live rent-free, food and utilities included. And, after a whole quarter-hour of thinking about it, he decided to take her up on the offer. His bedroom is on the offer side of the house, if you didn’t notice. They’re like college roommates. Ok, advanced-age college roommates.”

“Very interesting,” my son said from the back seat.

We began descending towards my old abode. There were still no cars in the driveway. Abandoned, just as Kelvin said.

I stopped and Monique snapped a pic. (See story cover at end.) Why is that light on?

My mind meandered as the engine idled. I probably slept 1,212 nights in that front bedroom. Exactly 1,212? That alphabet-soup pattern in the vaulted popcorn-stucco ceiling. It spelled out a single word: LOST. What was I expecting to happen by living alone up here? The next great American novel? The next great American artwork? Some ingenious scientific discovery? Some plant-based concoction with sublime highs without any nasty side-effects? I remember smoking moss and elf ears. I’ve probably shortened my life twenty years. Oh, well. Pretty damn humorous now.

“Dad? Hello dad!”

8. Chimney Rocked (Apr. 2016)

 

We (my Filipina wife, Monique, Agent 32; my twelve-year-old Amerasian son, Agent 666, who would later drop a 6 and become Agent 66; Angeline, an 81-year-old Caucasian widow; Kelvin, a 60-year-old Caucasian truck driver and general screwball; and I, Agent 33) finished our Sunday brunch at Fireside Restaurant on Sugarloaf Road in Hendersonville (NC, USA). We walked up to the cash register and nonchalantly paid our bills. Once out on the asphalt parking lot, we discussed plans for this splendidly crisp April day.

“I think that we will do Chimney Rock today,” I said to Angeline and Kelvin. (Angeline and Kelvin both appear in the previous short story High Peak Revisited.) “Want to join us?”

“Michael, you know that I can’t do that kind of strenuous walking!” Angeline exclaimed. She sure loves to call me Michael.

“But, it has an elevator, Angeline,” I said.

“The elevator is not working,” Kelvin interjected. “I checked their website. It will cost the three of you $32. They’re giving a discount because of the elevator being down.”

“That’s kewl,” [sic] I replied. “You don’t want to go with us?”

“No, I think I’ll pass, too,” Kelvin answered.

And with that we said our farewells. Angeline and Kelvin headed back to High Peak Mountain, about 15 miles (24 km) to the west. We (Agents 32, 666 and 33) headed east on US 64. Ah, such perfect weather.

“Dad, how far away is Chimney Rock?”

“Only 16 miles, [25.75 km] son.”

“Have you ever been there before?” Monique asked.

“One time, back in 1989 with Frank [the late, great Agent 107] and a guy we called ‘the mighty Hev’. [at last check in Arizona] But, it didn’t end well, Agent 32.” Agent 32? Ok, it’s open-mic[rophone] time.

“What do you mean, Agent 33?” Monique asked, suddenly very curious to know more.

“Well, we didn’t enter the park the proper way. To avoid paying the hefty-to-us-at-the-time entrance fee, we hiked in via the waterfall.” Via the waterfall? / WTF did dad do?!

“Dad, you guys hiked up that waterfall?! [He had seen pictures of Hickory Nut Falls in brochures.] That’s totally insane, dad! How in the world did you guys do it? Did you use ropes and hooks?”

“Not the 400-foot vertical drop, son. We just boulder-hopped up the Falls Creek cascades from the Broad River to the base of the main waterfall.” Dad sure was adventurous in his younger days. / I bet they were high or drunk. Probably both.

“Dad, it’s 404 feet – not 400.” He’s right.

“Ah, you remembered that palindromic number. Good job, son.” What? / Palindromic number? Huh?

“Well, what went wrong up there?” Monique asked.

“The sun suddenly dropped below the ridge,” I began. “Therefore, we started to rush our descent, as we didn’t want to be hiking on the mountain in the pitch-dark. Frank then stopped to survey a very steep deer trail, but then passed on it, thinking it was too risky. I then went over to it and said: ‘Let’s not be wussies. [sic] We can do this!’ Famous last words. I grabbed a hold of a tree branch to steady my initial drop-down. The limb was dead and immediately snapped off the tree trunk. I then slid feet-first in near-free-fall down a 70-degree, leaf-covered slope, coming to a sudden stop when my left shoe slammed hard into a granite outcrop. When I looked at my left foot, it was flopped over 90 degrees. I had broken my ankle in seven places.” Ouch! / Wow!

“How did you get out of there?” my son asked.

“Frank and Hev helped me hobble down through the woods to an old logging road,” I said. “Then Frank ran down to his pickup truck and drove it up to where Hev and I were.”

“How bad did your ankle hurt?” Monique then asked.

“Surprisingly, it wasn’t excruciating,” I replied. “On a scale of zero to ten, about a seven. I was able to make it all the way back to Charlotte, [a 1:45 drive] where I got medical attention in the old Mercy Hospital’s Emergency Room.” What a ridiculous misadventure. / I’m glad that we are going in the proper way. This place sounds dangerous.

I slowed down as we crossed the boulder-strewn Broad River and approached the Bat Cave T-intersection. At the stop sign, I turned right onto US 74-A/US 64. We followed the brook downstream, southeasterly, for a few miles (about 5 km), finally arriving at the Chimney Rock State Park entrance on the right. Ah, we’re already here. / So, this is where it will begin. / I don’t see the Chimney Rock.

We entered the park and began to slowly climb the base of the mountain on the old, narrow, asphalt-missing-in-spots road. Three fourths of a mile (1.2 km) later, we were paying our entrance fee at the gatehouse. Wow, Kelvin was right: $32 exactly for the three of us.

The park employees directed us to an overflow parking lot. (The upper lot was apparently full.) We then exited the car and walked over to a bus stop. Three minutes later we were boarding a reconditioned school bus.

Up we climbed, switchback by switchback. Inside the fourth (or fifth?) hairpin turn was a house.

“Imagine if that were our house,” I offered.

“No thanks, dad. No yard and traffic going right by the windows.”

We did a couple of more switchbacks and then arrived at the upper bus stop. We jumped off and began walking towards the upper parking lot (which indeed was completely full). Then the steps started.

We marched up the twisting wooden stairway, flight by flight, sigh by sigh. After climbing maybe 80 feet (24.4 meters), we took a break at an unoccupied landing.

“How much farther?” my wife asked between gasps.

“Just look up there, mahal,” [love in Tagalog] I replied.

Monique and my son looked up the side of the official Chimney Rock, a 315-foot (96 meters), cylindrical, gray, granite monolith. There was a large American flag waving on top. We could see hordes of people looking out over the black metal railing. Never trust a railing. [reference short story ‘The Balcony’] / I’d hate to fall from there. Certain death. / Wow! We still have a lot more stairclimbing to do.

“We might be a fourth of the way there,” I said.

“Gosh, let me catch my breath,” Monique said. “I didn’t know that there were so many steps.” I should have worn athletic shoes. These boots are killing me.

Soon we were mashing the wooden steps once again. I heard German and Japanese as we ascended the galvanized-steel-supported stairway. They must be advertising this internationally. Looks like they redid this stairway fairly recently. Nice concrete footings. Completely rock solid.

Four minutes later we were done climbing the steps on the Outcroppings Trail. Now there was just a narrow walkway to cross to get to the Chimney Rock. I walked ahead twenty feet and then looked back. Agent 666 was still on the bench. Monique was talking to him.

She then looked up at me. “He doesn’t want to go up there,” Agent 32 shouted. “He’s afraid.”

“C’mon, son! It’s not that bad. There are railings all the way around. If you don’t touch the flagpole, you don’t get the checkmark.” What?!

He then got up and started walking towards me beside Monique. They crossed the slanted bridge together. Once across, my son immediately walked to the flagpole and thumped it.

“Ok, I heard that,” I said. “Credit to Agent 666.”

Some tourists then looked at us. Maybe I shouldn’t have said ‘Agent 666’. Someone will probably report us for being devil worshippers. Ha-ha.

“Has anyone ever fallen off here, Agent 33?” Monique asked me as she looked down, backing away from the railing. Good, she called me Agent 33. I can hear the mental gears grinding up here.

“I’m not sure, Agent 32,” I answered, while looking eastward, studying the shoreline of Lake Lure. “Maybe a Native American in the distant past. However, I did read about a toddler falling off the Skyline Trail in 2008.” Another agent number for the tourists to process. / He’s enjoying the agent-number nonsense, I can tell. / Oh, boy … dad with the agent numbers again.

“What trail is that?” my son then asked.

“It’s the one over there, triple six,” I said while pointing to another series of steps that went higher up the mountain.

“Let’s not go over there then,” my son said.

“How did it happen?” Monique asked. “Did the child climb over the fence?”

“No, from what I remember, Agent 32, the two-year-old Hispanic boy slipped through a gap between the railing and a rock outcrop, or maybe it was the face of the mountain.”

“I noticed a face on the Chimney Rock, [study front cover] and the face was not happy,” my son quickly added.

“That’s so terribly horrific!” Monique exclaimed. “The mother must have been traumatized for life.”

“I imagine so,” I said. “Not sure if I could go on.”

My son then gazed across the Broad River Valley to another ridge. “What is that mountain called, Agent 33?” Wow, my son is even playing along now, hip to psecret psociety mode.

“That’s Rumbling Bald, 6-6-6. It got its name due to recurring low-magnitude earthquakes – little rumblers [sic], or temblors would be the correct word – and its treeless, curved-rock pate.” Pate?

“Earthquakes in North Carolina?” Monique then asked, somewhat shocked.

“Yes, small earthquakes occur in these mountains from time to time. I felt a little shaker [magnitude 3.7] when I lived in Asheville. I believe that it was in the summer of 2005. [August 24] The epicenter was in Hot Springs, about 30 miles [48 km] northwest of our house behind City Hall.”

“Well, I’d hate for an earthquake to hit right now,” Agent 32 said, now looking scared of the height.

“Yeah, if it was over a magnitude 5, it might topple this rock,” I said. “We would then ride Chimney Rock to our deaths.” Ride chimney cock. I’m glad that he can’t detect my thoughts. / What a frightening scenario, dad. Thanks for scaring me! / That would be the last ride for sure. Cue up the Todd Rundgren tune. ‘It’s the last –’

“I think I’m ready to go back down,” my son then said.

On our descent we checked out adjacent outcrops and features, signed as Opera Box, Subway and Grotto.

When we reached the intersection with the Hickory Nut Falls Trail, my son stopped to read the sign.

“Let’s go to the waterfall!” he exclaimed.

“Are you ok with that, Agent 32?” I asked.

“How far is it?” she asked. It had better be under a mile. [1.6 km]

“It’s under a mile,” I replied. Is he reading my mind again?

“How far under a mile?” Monique asked. “It’s not .99 miles is it?” Huh?

“No, it’s only .55 miles,” [.89 km] I said. “Remember your kilometer-long [.62 miles] walk to grade school in Lazi? [Siquijor, Philippines] Well, it’s even shorter than that. And, best of all, there are no steps! It’s an easy hike. Not much elevation change.”

“Ok, sure, let’s do it,” Monique relented.

We then walked the trail that was at the base of the rock-face cliffs, but still way above the Broad River. In just sixteen minutes we neared the towering waterfall’s plunge pool.

I stopped. The steep slope to the right looked familiar, even after 27 years. This is it – where I went for that ankle-shattering slide. It looks like I flew off a short cliff on the way down. I could have easily died. What an über-foolish move that was. I got away with one for sure.

“Do you see a bear down there, dad?” What is he looking at?

“No, son. No bear.” A fox?

“Well, what do you see?” Agent 666 demanded.

“I see where I went on that ominous slide, son. My mishap all started on this exact spot, on Saturday, March 11, 1989.” Dad remembers the exact date?

“You thought that you could hike down this?!” Monique exclaimed. How crazy! / Did dad have a death wish?

“I can’t believe that I attempted it now,” I continued. “However, it was dusk at the time. I couldn’t see the slope as well as now.” I remember being in freefall for a second or two. That’s probably when I was sent airborne off that cliff down there. I’m lucky that I landed on my back and not on my head. Real lucky.

We then checked out the base of the waterfall and took some pics. Our eyes drifted up the granite cliff. A strange bird was riding a thermal. (See cover.)

“It would suck hugely if a large rock suddenly fell off the edge of that cliff,” my son then said. Suck hugely? The kids have their own lingo. I guess we did, too. / Absolutely suck!

“Even a pebble would do major damage from that height, Agent 666,” I said. “It might go right through a skull.” Another lovely thought from dad. Gosh! / He always has to bring up some grim fatal scenario.

“Ok, I’m ready to head back,” Monique then announced.

We retraced our steps back to the intersection with the Outcroppings Trail with not so much as a single utterance. There, an idea came into my head as I looked at the steps. We can stay on this trail to avoid that climb.

“Guys, we don’t have to go back that way. We can take this trail to the switchback near the bus stop.”

“Ok, sounds good, 33,” Monique said. I sure hope that he is right. / Dad had better not make this walk longer.

In just a few minutes we arrived at a switchback. The white shuttle bus was descending, approaching the tight turn.

Monique stepped up to the edge of the pavement and began hailing the bus. I doubt he’ll stop here. He’s probably not allowed to stop in between. / What is she doing?

To my amazement, the bus stopped. The driver waved us across the street.

Monique clapped her hands and yelled, “Yey!”

We boarded the bus and thanked the late-20-something, bearded, hipsteresque, [sic] Caucasian driver.

The bus then wound its way back down the mountain as each of us sat in our own seats, lost in assorted recollections of the day. I’m glad that dad finally brought me here. That waterfall was awesome. But, the Chimney Rock area was scary. Couldn’t imagine falling from there. That poor little boy. / That lower Four Seasons Trail looked intriguing. Maybe next time we can do that one on a cool fall day. / Nice hiking trails here, but I sure wore the wrong shoes. Feels great to give my sore feet a rest.

As the bus pulled into the lower stop, I saw that strange bird again. It cut a loop-de-loop … and then … it dove … and disappeared … into a cirrus cloud.

 

9. Uber and Under (May 2016)

I was reading an online article about Uber, Lyft, Juno, etc., when I remembered that Agent 889, a 33-year-old Caucasian dude, drove for Uber. Having no other ideas for a short story at that sparsely parsley-free moment (though, we still had thyme; ok, I’m punning out), I decided to have this particular agent pick me up, and once in his vehicle as his lone fare, I would hopefully gain a candid assessment of the popular quasi-taxi – or, ridesharing as its popularly called – phenomenon.

I tilted my cheapo LG semi-smartphone to reduce the glare on the screen and then punched in his 10 digits. After a few seconds, a phone-to-tower connection was made. On the third ring, he answered.

“Is this you, Mr. Gaytheist, [sic] aka Agent 33?” Here we go. He’s already in not-so-rare form.

“Gaytheist? You know that I’m just a fence-walking fagnostic, [sic] Agent 889.”

“Fagnostic? That’s hilarious!” Shep (an alias for Agent 889) started laughing. Five seconds later he had calmed down enough to continue talking. “Well, how is non-fagnostic Agent 32 [Monique, my Filipina wife] doing?”

“She is doing well,” I replied. “And, how about your better half?”

“Agent 890 is doing fine, 33.”

“Good to hear. Listen, Shep, are you still driving for Uber?”

“No, I quit driving for Uber about two months ago. Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“Uh, no. Just curious, why did you stop?” I bet that he’s recording this call. He’s probably going to use what I say in a future short story. Agent 33 had better not print my real name. I’ve heard that they go after people who make negative comments about the company.

“I quit because I couldn’t make any decent money. I was just wearing out my car for chicken feed.”

“Oh, so you weren’t making the advertised $25 an hour?”

“Not hardly. After the deductions, not even close. Some drivers may gross that, but I sincerely doubt they’re netting that. With us living in far eastern Mecklenburg County (NC, USA), and me only being able to drive weekdays between 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM, Uber just wasn’t cutting it. I still work at the restaurant practically every night. It’s still my fulltime and primary job. Uber was just going to be for supplemental income. It’s funny, I made less money – not more – the longer I did it.” The law of diminishing returns?

“Maybe you weren’t doing it right, 889.” I chuckled. “You know that there are manuals out there with diagrams and pictures.”

“Very funny, 33. Now please go fock [sic] yourself.”

We both started to chortle … and uncannily stopped at the same time. Right on cue.

“Are there too many drivers now, you know, like real estate agents?” Or, cockroaches in a cheap motel room?

“I don’t know, 33. I think it’s just that my locale and available times weren’t an ideal fit. I think the best place for an Uber driver to live in Charlotte would be somewhere between the airport and uptown, or maybe between uptown and UNCC. [University of North Carolina at Charlotte] And, you really need to be able to work the weekend nights, which I couldn’t.”

“Are Uber drivers allowed to pick up customers at CLT?” [Charlotte-Douglas International Airport]

“Yes, they have a designated pickup area for Uber and Lyft.”

“I see. Hey, did you ever have any strange riders?”

“A few, but they were harmless. Never had any threatening types. No attacks or robberies.”

“Well, that’s certainly good to hear.”

“Just had some oddballs from time to time. Mostly calm, overly medicated, prescription-drug addicts and early-starting alcoholics.”

“Any interesting conversations?”

“I’m not a big talker, especially with complete strangers. If they didn’t initiate a conversation, I was content to let the ride go by in silence.”

“You didn’t even switch on the radio?”

“Well, sometimes I would ask what they wanted to hear if I thought they were radio types.” Radio types? What in the world?

“So, how did you dress, Chauffeur 889? A nice, sharp, black tuxedo with top hat?”

“Ha-ha. No, not that formal. Just casual pants and a collared knit shirt. A tuxedo is way overboard for UberX.” UberX?

“UberX sounds like some gothic-crotch superhero or cryptic cipher.” Gothic-crotch superhero? He’s obviously zonked [sic] on something … something that I need to get a hold of.

“Might we be high on those magic granules again, Agent 33? Would we have some left? Don’t lie to me. Tell me the truth.”

“No, I’m not granulated, 889. Now, please grant me a minute of forbearance.”

“Ok, dissertate.”

“Let’s see … über is a German word that is commonly used to connote a supreme example of something; however, its precise German definition is also used, which is over or above. Thus, over and above letter X on a standard QWERTY keyboard are the letter keys S and D. Sex and drugs. I knew I would crack the code!” I started to chuckle. What in the hell is he talking about now? He must be back on the nitrous, [oxide] I would laughingly bet.

“Jibber-jabbering the gibberish already, 33? It’s not even noon. If you can’t make it to the PM before imbibing, you definitely have a major problem, my friend. Please get some help. Seek medical attention before it’s too late.”

“Thanks for that PSA, [Public Service Announcement] pal. Now, back to UberX.”

“UberX is the baseline, lowest-cost, economy service.”

“I see. Got it. Hey, Shep, did you hear about that Uber lawsuit settlement?”

“Which one, 33?” How many are there?

“Oh, I forget.” He’s baked like yesterday’s cake.

“Well, I’m sure that the law firm made a nice haul and the drivers got a nickel.” He’s probably right.

“In your opinion, Shep, would it be better if the drivers were actual Uber employees instead of independent contractors?”

“I didn’t mind being a 1099-er. [sic] I wasn’t locked into a schedule with Uber. If I woke up with a hangover, I didn’t have to work. However, I know that some drivers are seeking that. These are the drivers in the big cities wanting to make Uber their sole, fulltime job, I think.”

“Last question.”

“You promise, 33?”

“Hmmm … maybe. And, maybe knots.” [sic] Naughts?

“Is your battery light not flashing yet?”

I chuckled. “No, not quite yet, Shep. You’re still on the meter. Taxi humor, get it?” Oh boy …

“Please end this agonizing mind-grind, 33. Go ahead and give me the closer, and let’s cease this inquisition.”

“Ok, if you could change just one thing about Uber, what would it be, Agent 889?”

“ That’s an easy one, 33. More money for the drivers. A bigger chunk. We’ve got to pay for the fuel, maintenance, wear and tear, insurance, and taxes. If Uber reduced their commission slice from 20% to say 12 or 13%, they still would be making zillions of dollars back in their posh San Francisco offices. And, it would probably help quash, or at least subdue, drivers’ push for employee status.”

“ That’s funny, Shep; I think I read that the trend is going in the opposite direction. Some new drivers are agreeing to give up 30% of the fare to Uber in some major cities.”

“Well, I guess that I’m not really surprised, 33. It’s always investors first and foremost. I knew that before I started. Though, I think they may be reaching a point where they can be undercut by local copycats.” He might be right.

“Well, I’ll let you go now, 889. Thanks for your prime time.”

“127.” Huh?

“127 what?”

“127 times 7 is 889. It’s not a prime number, 33.”

“Is 127 a prime number?”

“It is, 33.”

“So, both of our agent numbers are the products of primes.”

“Yes, that is correct.” How did we get on this topic?

“Now, tell me, Agent 889: When will you launch your Charlotte-centric ridesharing application?”

 

10. RíRá Ruckus (May 2016)

It was a cool, cloudy, windy Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) that found me scurrying to get to RíRá, an Irish bar in uptown Charlotte (NC, USA), by 3:05 PM, the start time of the Liverpool – Villarreal Europa League semifinal match. I took the Gold Line streetcar from CPCC (Central Piedmont Community College) to the final stop, across from Time Warner Cable Arena (now Spectrum Center). From there I quickly hobbled (lower back still not fully recovered from a herniated disc; sciatica still nagging) across the brick plaza to 5th Street and then crossed the light-rail tracks, eighty feet (24.4 meters) in front of a slow-moving two-car train.

Soon I was fast-limping it across College Street and up to North Tryon Street. A right turn and few more hitches in gait, and I was at the black double doors of RíRá. I pulled the right door open and walked inside and heard the game. I looked at my phone before going upstairs. It was 3:14. I hope I haven’t missed anything. Oh, it’s probably still nil-nil.

There were two dozen or so LFC (Liverpool Football Club) fans in mostly red jerseys on the upper floor, already quite giddy. When I saw the score on the large projection screen, I knew why. It was 1-0 for Liverpool. Wow, they’re already ahead! Darn, I missed the first goal. Should have left ten minutes earlier. The story of my life.

“Who scored?” I asked the core of the group.

“An own goal,” a bearded, 40-ish, Caucasian guy answered.

“Villarreal were under severe pressure,” a familiar, thirty-something, Indian American dude added.

“We came out like a blitzkrieg,” a twenty-something, husky, African American fellow said.

I just nodded, smiled, walked over to the front end of the bar, and ordered a Guinness Nitro IPA. I remained standing next to the Exit door, as it felt better than sitting. I settled my mind on the game. Wow, Anfield sure is loud and lively once again. Klopp has got them fired up.

The first half ended with no more scoring. There was an omnipresent lull as the LFC fans dispersed for cigarette breaks and private phone calls.

I ordered another beer, which arrived as the second half kicked off. In the 63rd minute, Sturridge got a nice pass from Firmino and scored a second goal for Liverpool with a well-placed low shot. Thunderous applause erupted. Stomping, chanting and singing soon took over the second floor. Two-nil is a nice lead, but it’s not a safe lead. If Villarreal score, they would advance based on away goals. We really need one more to be out of the woods.

“Let’s get an insurance goal!” I yelled.

“Hell yeah!” someone retorted.

Then in the 81st minute, Sturridge squibbed an attempt that bounced right in the box for Lallana to niftily shoe in. This time the reaction was even louder than last time. Everyone knew that we were safe now. Villarreal now have to score two goals in the remaining eleven or twelve minutes. That aint gonna happen. We’ve got this. We’re moving on to Switzerland.

“Basel, here we come!” a fan in the back yelled.

The match ended 3-nil. A much-needed, well-deserved clean sheet for Mignolet.

We all then sang the LFC anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone, as patrons of a private Cinco de Mayo party began to trickle upstairs, somewhat startled by what was going on. These soccer fans are bonkers!

Soon the projector screen was retracted. It was 5:00 and our time on the second floor was over. Many of the LFC fans then left the pub, but some went downstairs for the public Cinco de Mayo party, including me. Well, I don’t have to pick up Monique (my wife, aka Agent 32) until 9:30. Really don’t want to drive back to the eastside. Might as well chill out down here for a while. Maybe record a conversation.

I surveyed the lower level. It was almost completely full now. Wow, this place really filled up over the past two hours. I hope that I can find a chair. Tired of standing. I think that I can now manage sitting down for a while. I’ll just sit on my right hip. Yeah, just don’t put any weight on the left side.

I spied an open bar stool and made my way towards it. There was a white guy in his mid-50s with grayish white hair, wearing black-rimmed glasses, seated next to my targeted azz- [ sic] parking spot.

“Anyone sitting here?” I politely asked.

“No, take it; it’s all yours,” the man, who kind of looked like the actor-comic Steve Martin, cheerfully said.

“Oh, thanks,” I said as I strategically positioned my pelvis on the cushion. This aint so bad. I think I can do this.

“You got a good seat,” he then said. “If you drink too much, you can just lean against that divider wall.” [on my immediate left]

“Yeah, you’re right,” I concurred. This guy seems intelligent and just may be recordable-worthy. Let’s switch on the mic[rophone]. There we go. It’s on. I hope he’s interesting.

“So, what brings you here this evening?” the smiling man to my right asked. “Cinco de Mayo?” He really could double as Steve Martin.

“Uh, no. I came for the Liverpool – Villarreal match upstairs.”

“I heard you guys after the goals. What a freaking ruckus! You guys scored twice, right?”

“No, we scored three times. I was a little late and missed the first goal, which was an own goal as they call it. A Villarreal player accidentally knocked it into his own net.”

“I see. I got here at about a quarter to four. I must have missed that one, too.”

“This tavern is the official Liverpool and Arsenal bar for Charlotte,” I informed him. “We share it. It’s big enough for both of us. If our games are on at the same time, they divide us up by floors. We get along pretty well with each other. We used to share a bar with [Manchester] United and Chelsea fans. It didn’t work out so well.” I began to chuckle.

“Get tossed out?”

“Yeah, you know, Liverpool fans are always getting thrown out of somewhere. We’re just no damn good.” I started to chuckle again.

“Ah, I know you soccer – whoops, I mean football – fans are very passionate about your teams.”

“It really is on another level for whatever reason. They have to segregate the fans over there in England. Typically, a visiting team’s fans may only be offered a block of a few thousand seats in a designated section of the away stadium. And, they will be guarded by police, who will stand in the aisles around them for the whole game. Away fans are not allowed to buy tickets anywhere they want like in the NFL. If you are caught cheering in the wrong area, you get removed, regardless of the seat listed on your ticket. One kewl [sic] thing that comes out of this is the ability to sing and chant in unison at high volume. There’s nothing like this at NFL games. Don’t get me wrong; I like the NFL and our home team, the Panthers, but there’s really no comparison.”

“I agree. There is definitely a higher level of passion and organized merriment. And, the isolation of away fans may be a good idea for the NFL to adopt, especially in Philadelphia.” He grinned.

Then we both chuckled for a few seconds. He must have experienced a game there.

“Yeah, I would rate Philly as the most hostile environment for an away-team fan. Oh, by the way, what’s your name? I’m Mike.” No need to go with the Parkaar alias here.

“I’m Ted. Nice to meet you, Mike. So, what do you do besides root for Liverpool FC in Irish bars?”

“I have a safety gig at a local college and do a little writing. Well, actually a lot as of late. I wrote a novel a few years ago: Gold, a summer story. It hasn’t exactly made the New York Times bestseller list.” I let out a short nervous laugh. “I also wrote a couple of novellas and I write short stories based on real-life events. What about you, Ted?” I wonder if he will write about this encounter. I bet he will. He seems the type. Wonder if I am being recorded.

“Would you believe that I sell prosthetic limbs? In fact, I have a sales pitch to make in about an hour and a half to some orthopedic surgeons.” At 7:00 PM?

“I see. Well, I guess you are always well-armed.” How corny.

He laughed. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Where are you from, Ted?” Does this guy know my ex?

“Well, I lived in San Diego for 32 years.”

“Ah, the city consistently voted to have the best weather. Go lightning bolts! A Chargers fan, right?”

“No, just a fan of a well-played NFL game. I honestly don’t root for any single team. Never have.” How odd.

“C’mon, Ted; you are kidding me.” An NFL fan with no favorite team? How weird!

“No, I’m serious. I’m just not into all the tribalism and slandering of American cities. Oh, by the way, I just recently moved back to Frederick.”

“Where is Frederick?” Pennsylvania? Delaware?

“It’s in Maryland, some forty-five miles [72.4 km] northwest of Washington, DC.”

“I see. Is there a Metro station there?”

“No, the nearest Metro station is Shady Grove, about 29 miles [46.7 km] from Frederick. There’s been talk of extending the Red Line all the way to Frederick, but it got voted down. The town doesn’t want it.”

“Why not?” I asked. “I thought all of the train-less towns in the DC metro area were clamoring for, and craving to be on, one of the to-be-extended lines.”

“Well, Frederick is already served by a MARC [Maryland Area Regional Commuter] train line. The town knows that once a Metro station goes in, everything will get more expensive, much more expensive, especially real estate.” But, a higher tax base?

“I hear ya. I have a friend in south Charlotte who grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, who said that after the two Metro stations went in, real-estate values doubled overnight. Which is great, I guess, if you already own and are looking to sell.”

“But, not so good if you are looking to buy or rent something decent,” he said with a wry smile.

“It’s like a double-edged sword, isn’t it, Ted?”

“It really is, Mike. Listen, I love the Metro, and still use it when I have appointments in Washington. I’m fine with driving to Derwood and getting on the train at Shady Grove. But, if/when it gets extended to Frederick, well, that’s when Frederick will be a part of DC for all intents and purposes, and no longer in the sleepy, reasonably priced Maryland foothills.”

“I hear ya, Ted. Hey, got any artificial spines in your bag of medical tricks?”

“Are you over 50?”

“Yeah, I’m 51.”

“Sorry, can’t help ya.” Ted then had a laugh.

“Growing old is so wonderful, isn’t it?”

“It’s a many splinted and splintered thing, Mike.”

I chuckled. “How long are you in town, Ted?”

Ted swilled down the rest of his golden-yellow pilsner beer. “Just tonight, Mike. Just tonight. Tomorrow I take my ossified song and dance to Jacksonville, Florida. Say, where can I find your writing online? It would be nice to have something to read on the airplane other than SkyMall.”

“Free-ebooks.net and Shakespir.com. Just put Mike Bozart in as the author.”

“With a z instead of a g?” Not Bogart?

“You got it. It’s a Flemish corruption.” A Flemish corruption?

“Hey, there’s your next novel’s title!”

“Maybe so, Ted. Anyway, that should cue up a queue of free downloads.”

“Cue up a queue. Use that line in your next short story.”

“Ok, Ted, I will. And thanks for your interest. Feel free to rate the stories honestly.”

“Honestly?”

“Ok, lie and give them 4.5 stars.” 4.5?

We both had a mighty guffaw.

“Well, my time’s up here, Mike.”

“Break a leg tonight, Ted!”

________________________________________________

March 2017 update: We (Charlotte LFC Reds) got tossed out of RíRá two months later (now Arsenal fans have it to themselves). Valhalla Pub is the official Charlotte LFC bar for the 2016-17 season. After that, well, who knows? 

11. The Pea (May 2016)

It was back in 2008 or 2009 in east Charlotte. Yeah, one of those years. It was a mild spring day. Most likely it was a Saturday morning in early May. It wasn’t too buggy yet.

My son, future Agent 666 (his number choice, not mine; he would later go with 66 when it became freed-up after a rude agent was ejected), was only 5 or 6 years old at the time. We, just the two of us, were sorting out the forty-odd spray-paint cans in the back-yard shed (which was incidentally built by the late, great Agent 107).

We would shake the aerosol cans and then give them a quick discharge. Many of the valves were clogged. If they seemed to have a fair amount of paint still inside, we put them in a designated box. (I would later clean the valve caps with a solvent.) If not, we chucked them into a trash can. If they sprayed satisfactorily, we put them back inside the broken, nearly antique, dining-room-style, cherry-colored, four-shelved, cobwebbed, plate display case.

I began to shake the ninth or tenth can. Before I depressed the valve, my son had a question.

“Dad, what’s that noise? It sounds like there’s a marble inside that spray can.”

“It just might be a marble, son. The correct term would be a pea. The pea helps mix the paint; it gets the pigment and vehicle to combine with the propellant. Sometimes they used glass marbles.” Vehicle?

I depressed the valve cap. No paint came out. It was clogged shut. I then tossed it into the trash, since the can was very light (almost empty).

“Hey dad, is it possible to get the pea out of that can?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Why, son?”

“I want to see what it looks like.”

“Well, I think we already know what color it is: pea green.” [the color name on the label]

My son then picked the spray-paint can back out of the trash. “C’mon, dad, let’s open up this can and see what the pea is made of.”

“Ok, sure. Let me get a hacksaw, a hammer, and a nail.” A nail?

“Are you going to nail holes in the can, dad?”

“Just one hole, son, to relieve any remaining pressure.”

I left for the house and quickly returned with the three items. I pierced the can with a galvanized 10d nail. There was no audible or visible release of any propellant. Good, totally dead. Pressure equalized.

I then cut the top of the spray can off with the hacksaw. It only took about a minute. Some green paint leaked onto the old plywood floor as I pulled the top off. When I tilted the headless can downward, the little pea wobbled out, leaving a medium-green paint trail.

The pea was completely coated in green paint. I wasn’t sure what it was made of, but I suspected a cheap metal. It was also the same size as a common salad pea.

Then the excess paint slowly ran off the pea, exposing its true shape, which was not a perfect sphere. It had numerous flat spots and tiny dents, and was obviously made of a soft metal. Moreover, the little, green, metallic ball looked just like a real pea that had fallen out of its pod.

“So, that’s what makes that rattling sound when you shake the can?” my son asked.

“Yes, that is our culprit, son. This one is made of metal, not glass.”

My son then plucked the green pea from the oil-stained – and now green-streaked – wooden floor. He wiped the paint off with a shop rag. He then studied the banged-up, hollow, lightweight ball for a while. Then he seemed surprised.

“Dad, there’s a design on this pea. It looks like LFC’s [Liverpool Football Club] liver bird.”

“Let me see that, son.”

My son handed me the dull, gray, metal, oblate orb. I saw what he was talking about. It kind of looked like the LFC liver bird design. Wow! Well, look at that.

“Yeah, I see it now, son.”

“Why would anyone take the time to engrave a liver bird onto a paint-can pea, dad? Most likely, no one would ever see it.”

“Well, we are seeing it now. Maybe this spray paint was made by Crown Paints. They were the LFC jersey sponsors from ’82 to ’88.”

“Was that after Candy?”

“No, son, that was before Candy.”

“So, this pea is over twenty years old?”

“Yes, son. My dad gave me all of this spray paint when he gave me his tools. Some of these cans are ancient, almost as old as me.”

“Dad, you’re not ancient. Dinosaurs are ancient. You are not fossil fuel yet.”

“Why, thanks, son.” Not fossil fuel yet. But, eventually.

“Dad, I wonder if the man or woman who carved the liver bird onto this paint pea is still alive.”

“Yeah, I wonder, son. And, supposing that he or she is still alive, I wonder if they would ever suspect that a father and son in Charlotte – somewhere in America – would be discussing their miniature, seemingly forever hidden away, artistic creation right now.” And thinking: Dad’s a pea brain.

“Somewhere in America? What do you mean?”

“You see, son, this spray paint can was not made in the US. Crown Paints is in Darwen, England. It’s up in the northwest, not too far from Liverpool. Though, it’s closer to Manchester.”

“Well, I want to keep it.”

“Are you sure that you don’t want to plant it in the vegetable garden? A new spray-paint can may sprout after a few weeks.”

“Dad, I’m not stupid! Spray-paint cans don’t grow from seeds.”

“Just checking.” I chuckled.

“Where was this pea made, dad? Was it made in England, too?”

“Maybe. Or, they may have imported them from Asia.”

“Why?”

“Cheaper.”

“Oh. Hey, I wonder what the person who made this pea was thinking when it was finished.”

“Well, son, these little peas are made by the thousands at a time. I doubt that anyone stopped to think about one pea.”

“Well, this is a special pea, and I want to keep it!”

“Sure, son. Place it in one of those plastic cubes that we use for rare coins so that you don’t lose it.”

“Dad, you didn’t put this liver-bird pea in the spray paint can, did you?”

“Now, son, how could I have done that?”

“Well, my friend showed me how a ship-in-a-bottle is done. The ship is assembled outside the bottle and slid in flat. Then, by pulling a thread, the ship rises.”

“There’s no tricking you, son.”

12. Common Dogs (Jun. 2016)

It was a balmy Thursday evening in east Charlotte. The four-day, 10.5-hour-a-day, late May workweek was now over. It was time to go looking for a new vignette.

Monique (my Filipina wife, aka Agent 32) and I (Parkaar, aka Agent 33) decided to eat dinner at Portofino, an Italian restaurant in a strip mall on Eastway Drive. The food was delicious as usual. And the service was superb. However, nothing of psecret-psociety grade seemed to be going on. Though, the joker-waiter gave us an odd smile as we passed him on the way out. Should I have asked him a few questions?

The next stop was The Peculiar Rabbit for an after-dinner drink. It was just 2.2 miles (3.54 km) away in the heart of Plasma-Wigwood (slang for Plaza-Midwood).

After nursing a beer on the first level for 11 minutes, a table opened up on the rooftop terrace. The 30-something, blonde, tattooed hostess led us up the two flights of wooden stairs. Once seated I surveyed the scene. There was the usual grand view of the ever-budding Charlotte skyline. I noticed that a first date was in progress behind Monique’s chair. To my right, a business discussion chattered along. And along the western railing, patrons were already taking their obligatory pre-sunset photos.

We then took some photos, too. Then we watched the sun drop just north of the tallest buildings. Solar touchdown would have appeared to have been around 13th Street from our vantage point.

“Do you remember, Monique, the December sun setting to the left of the Duke Energy Building?”

“Yes, I do. It was way south of where it is now.”

“Yeah, winter solstice is way down the scale,” I said as I pointed.

“And the summer solstice is way up there,” Monique added as she pointed with her nose. “June 21st will be the furthest the sunset will go up North Tryon Street.”

“June 20th this year, Agent 32.” Agent 32? Record mode.

“I’ll take your word for it, 33.” She knows that the microphone is hot.

Our conversation died in the heavy, humid, hazy air. Though, others went buzzing on around us. However, nothing short-story-worthy was detected.

We paid our bill and walked out to Gordon Street in the near-darkness.

“Hey, want to check in at Common Market, Monique? Maybe Blake or Agent 23 is there.”

“Sure! Why not? We’re on no schedule, and I can tell that you’re still looking for short-story material.”

“Indeed I am, Agent 32. Our readers demand and deserve better than what we have relayed thus far. We can take this alley to save steps.”

“To save steps and condense the procedure, 33?”

“Exactly, Agent 32. But, watch your high heels on this randomly dispersed gravel.” He’s already talking for the recorder and his next short story.

“I’ll be fine, Agent 33, putting my pair of narrowly hewn gavels to the widely strewn gravels.” She’s already playing her words.

Soon we were passing through the Common Market’s front patio scene: an assortment of about three dozen hipsters. We entered the old, saddle-roofed, brick building and bought a couple of microbrews. We alighted on some stools at the bar in the back of the grocery store/deli/lounge.

Within eight minutes, an older, very light-skinned African American gentleman had taken the stool to my right. He was in a very gregarious way. I made sure that the digital audio recorder was still on. Good. Still a green light.

“So, how are you two doing tonight?” he suddenly asked.

“We’re doing fine,” I replied. “My name is Mike.” Let’s just pass on the Parkaar nonsense.

“I’m Tony, and tonight is my sixty-second birthday!”

“Merry mirthday!” [sic] I exclaimed. Mirthday? This guy must be some kind of joker.

“Happy birthday, Tony,” Agent 32 added. “I’m Monique.”

“A pleasure. I’ve come a long way. I made it from Earle Village [a low-income, low-rise, 1st Ward project in uptown Charlotte] to a PhD. Remember Earle Village?”

“Indeed I do,” I replied. “It was in First Ward.”

“It certainly was,” Tony said. “The family did quite well from the sale of our house on East 7th Street. I held out longer and made another $220,000 off my small house on 8th Street.”

“Wow! Nicely done, sir. I guess you’ll be buying the next round.” I chuckled.

“Certainly, if there’s still time,” he said. “Say, how old are you, Mike?”

“Fifty-two in another moon,” I answered.

“ Well, you only look 47,” Tony said. “And your Asian lady- friend looks to be 30. Am I close?”

“I’m his wife, and I’m 36,” Monique said. “Thanks for the compliment, Tony. I’m from the Philippines. I’ve only been in America for about five years. We met on Facebook.”

Tony looked at me. “Ah, you were quietly waiting by the overseas cradle, you sly dog. But, hey, I have a younger overseas wife, too. I share your method, partner.”

He then showed us photos of his wife and three adult children. They were all very photogenic.

“A nice-looking family,” Monique said.

“Thank you so much,” Tony replied.

“Where is your wife from?” I asked.

“She is from Puerto Rico. Did you know that the island is bankrupt?”

“I heard something to that effect on the news recently,” I said. He seems like a news freak.

“Billions of dollars in debt,” he said. “Just crazy. Astounding fiscal mismanagement. A breathtaking blunderment. [sic] So, tell me, what are you two doing in here? Mike, you seem to be on the high end of the age demographic for Common Dogs.” [sic] But, if I am, what about him? He’s off the scale.

“Common Dogs?” Monique asked with a surprised look. Woof!

“Oh, I overheard a 20-something dude outside call it that,” Tony replied. So, he notes what he overhears, too. Is he a writer, as well?

I took another gulp of my dark porter. “Well, Tony, to be perfectly honest, we’re just hanging out waiting for a short story to show up, and I think you are it, man.” I’m just a short story? Not a full-length novel?

“Ah, a short-story writer,” Tony said. “I wrote a long story for academia on passive-aggressive transgressive modalities.” Huh? / What?

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “Passive-aggressive transgressive modalities?” What in the world are they talking about?

“Yes, a scholarly analysis. My thesis paper. Very boring stuff, really. I’m sure that all 101 hardback copies are already collecting dust on faculty office bookshelves across American academia. But, enough of me; what’s your hot topic? Let me guess: sex.”

“Well, there is plenty of that in my novel [Gold, a summer story] and in one of my novellas. [Mysterieau of San Francisco] But, I noticed that when I write short stories about real-life suicides, I get a lot of downloads. This loon was able to write a whole novel? I wonder how coherent it is. Maybe it’s just a fuck-book. [sic]

“Hey, I’m not taking the gas pipe or the bullet tonight,” he said as he began to chortle. How about the pills? Why did I think such a thought? I’ll pay for that one down the line.

“Glad to hear it,” Monique said. “Tomorrow always has a surprise for us.” I wish that tomorrow would surprise me with a winning $7,000 scratch-off ticket.

“Have you written a tale about the young lady who died from a heroin overdose in her car in a Walmart parking lot?” Tony then asked me.

“No, I haven’t, Tony. But, I think I heard something about her in the news. Out in California, right?”

“Yes, in Salinas,” he said. “Her body wasn’t discovered for three months due to her car having dark-tinted windows and a windshield sunscreen. She was pretty and from an affluent coastal area. [Marina, CA] You would think that she had a bright future ahead. But, one never knows, I guess.”

“Yeah, Tony, no one ever knows what occupies one’s mind.” I wonder what occupies his.

Monique had quickly done a Google search on her smartphone, and had found the news articles about whom Tony was talking about. “Her name was Lauren Moss, and she was only 22 years old and quite cute. Apparently she left a suicide note with her family.” I wonder what it said.

“So, she and her car were missing for nearly three months,” I stated. “It’s very odd that no one noticed her car in the same spot in a wide-open, high-traffic, parking lot.”

“Hidden in plain sight,” Tony stated.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I concurred.

“Tony, what is your job?” Monique then asked.

“I teach a little world history at the local colleges,” he casually answered.

I sensed an opening for an easy joke. “A little world history? Isn’t there now a whole lot of world history?” I guffawed heartily, feeling the effect of the beers.

“He’s a joker, isn’t he?” Tony asked Monique.

“Well, sometimes, he is,” Monique answered.

I scratched my missed-shave beard stubble. “I’m just a low-number card, Tony. I wish I were a genuine joker.”

“I went from being a deuce to a king,” Tony then said. “I don’t like to brag, but you know what Earle Village was like, Mike.”

“Yes, I do, Tony. I certainly do. Quite an achievement. Good on you.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Tony repeated. He scratched his right ear and then downed the last of his lager beer. “Well, I’ve got a party to go to. It’s been nice chatting with you fine folks. It really has. Let me give you my number.” He then handed me a business card.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Listen, listen. We have socials from time to time. You know, casual get-togethers. Don’t worry; everyone is cool. They are all good people. Many interracial couples like us. I really do hope you’ll join us sometime.”

“Sure,” Monique said.

And then he was gone.

13. Air Shafted (Jun. 2016)

Note: The idea for this little tale was a tragic real-life event that occurred in uptown Charlotte (NC, USA).

John Wizemann, a 29-year-old, somewhat husky, brown-haired, Caucasian photojournalist from a Raleigh (NC) TV station, arrived at the uptown Charlotte Nestin Hotel at 5:05 PM on Wednesday, March 12, 2008. He was sent to the Queen City to get some outside-the-arena photos of the ACC Basketball Tournament, which would start the next day.

Once inside his 18th floor room, John crashed on the fluffy queen-size bed and took a 98-minute nap. He was beat-tired. The usual three-hour drive from Raleigh to Charlotte had taken four, thanks to a truck-car collision south of Lexington on Interstate 85, just before the bridge over the Yadkin River.

He awoke feeling refreshed. At 7:17 he called up an old buddy from his college days, who just so happened to live in a condo nearby.

“Hello, this is George.”

“George, it’s me, John. I’m in town for the basketball tournament. Want to meet for dinner and a drink?”

“Uh, I’ve already eaten. But, I can meet you for a beer. Where are you staying, John?”

“I’m at the Nestin.”

“Is that hotel on College near I-277?”

“Yes, that’s the one. I thought you knew this town by now. How long have you lived here?”

George chuckled. “Almost four years. I guess I need to get out more.” He laughed again.

“Hey, I’ll just do room service for dinner. Want to meet me here at nine in the first-floor lobby bar?”

“Sure, John. That sounds great. I’ll put on my velvet lounge-lizard outfit.”

“Oh, please spare me.”

“Ok, I will.”

“Well, I will see you there and then, George.”

“Cool deal, John. Oh, can I bring along my new girlfriend?”

“Why, certainly. Where did you meet this one, George? At the Greyhound bus station?” What did he just say?!

“Oh, go fuck a duck, John.” George laughed.

John then laughed, too. “Ok, I’ll see you two later.” Then he terminated the call. I bet that she’s another Latina caliente. [‘sexy Hispanic lady’ in Spanish]

The chicken teriyaki dinner that John ordered at 7:24 arrived at 7:42. He devoured it while watching the last segment of the PBS News Hour. This recession may become a depression. It sure looks mighty grim.

He then took a shower and got dressed for the bar. While electric-shaving, he slid his expensive camera under the bed to reduce the chances of it being stolen. Then John walked over to the northeast-facing window. He parted the thick curtains and saw a myriad of rectangular lights: the offices and hotel rooms in the nearby towers. This sure would make a great shot just before sunrise. I wonder if there is any way to get on the roof. Would love to get a shot without any glass panes in the way.

John was down at the bar in the lobby at 8:57. It was moderately populated. At 9:03 George was tapping on his right shoulder.

“Ah, great to see you again, George.”

“Let me guess … you have been down here since 8:30, studying the drink menu,” George, a thin, dark-haired, 28-year-old Amerasian, submitted.

“No, just a few minutes in front of nine. And, thanks for not being as late as you usually were, George. Say, are you going to introduce me to your new girlfriend?”

“John, this is Lisa. Lisa, this is John, an old friend from college.”

“Pleased to meet you, John,” Lisa, a cute, curvaceous, 5’-2”, raven-haired, sensuous Costa Rican in her mid-20s, softly said with a Central American accent.

“Likewise, Lisa,” John said. I wonder how a dork like George met such a hottie. I’ll get the details later.

George and Lisa then sat on barstools on John’s left (with Lisa betwixt). John then slyly noticed Lisa’s perfectly bronzed legs dangling from her blue miniskirt. I bet she’s wearing his rod out.

“John, what are we drinking tonight?” George then asked.

“A round on me,” John replied. “Just tell the bartender what you want.”

“Why, thanks, my collegiate colleague,” George said. Then he looked at Lisa. “John is now making the big bucks at a Raleigh TV station.”

“Big bucks?!” John exclaimed. “Oh, please! Far from it. I’m just a peon with a camera.” Pee on?

“You really work for a TV station?” Lisa asked, seemingly amazed.

“Yes,” John answered. “But, I’m just a guy taking pictures. I’m near the bottom of the totem pole.”

“It sounds like a cool job, though,” Lisa continued.

“There certainly are worse jobs. I am always looking for unusual vantage points for my pics. I would love to take a photo just before sunrise from the roof of this building.”

“Sorry, but stairway access to the roof is locked,” Lisa then stated in a matter-of-fact manner. Huh?

“How do you know this, Lisa?” John asked.

“I once worked here as a housekeeper,” Lisa replied. “I now work at the Omni.” I bet George met her in that hotel.

“You can always get on the roof of a building if you really want to,” George then said.

“What do you mean by that?” John asked George.

“You can get into the HVAC ductwork,” George said. “It all goes up to the roof. In buildings this tall, the vertical shafts are wide enough for humans. Often there are ladders bolted into the walls. All you have to do is find a good access point. But, remember to pack a flashlight.” How in the world does he know about this?

“George, have you joined the CIA?” John asked.

George then laughed. “No, I took a couple of architecture classes. Don’t you remember when I kept telling everyone that I was going to be the next Frank Gehry?”

“Oh yes, it’s all coming back now, George.” John then looked at Lisa. “He was quite delusional the first two years at the university, but I humored him, Lisa. I wasn’t one to stomp out a dream.”

“Oh, spare me, John,” George retorted. “You were the one who was taking all those mumbo-jumbo, postmodern philosophy courses.”

They all had a laugh. Their conversation sauntered along. Then they had another round. When Lisa finished her cordial concoction, John thought it was time to blow the whistle. I need to wrap this up so that I can get to sleep early and wake up early without a hangover. Must be spry. I’m going up on the roof tomorrow. I’m going to do it.

“Listen, guys, I’m going to have to call it a night,” John announced. “Just charge it all to room 1818. I’ve got an early morning assignment. Thanks for meeting up with me. It was a pleasure meeting you, Lisa.”

“Ok, John, later,” George said. “I think we might stay here for one more.” George then put his right arm around Lisa and kissed her. “You want one more, baby?” Baby? Never thought that I’d hear George use that word for a girlfriend.

“Sure, honey,” Lisa said, sounding sauced.

“I now bid you lovers adieu,” John said as he dismounted the barstool. He waved to them as he went around the corner. He sure seems up to something. But, what?

John fell asleep in bed as the hyperactive Caucasian, fast talking, gesticulating, local TV weatherman said, “Tonight’s low will be 38 [º Fahrenheit; 3.33º Celsius] and tomorrow’s high will be a picture-perfect 74 [º Fahrenheit; 23.33º Celsius] under fair skies.” Picture-perfect. A perfect picture. Hope mine is tomorrow.

John then had a dream in which he was climbing what seemed to be an endless air shaft. He stopped, held onto a rung, and looked down. There was a small light-gray rectangle far below. Ah, that must be the bottom of this shaft. Sure is a long way down. How high up am I? How much farther to the top? All I see is black. My fingers are tensing up. Oh, no …

Then he awoke at 1:51 AM in a cold sweat. John turned the TV off and drank a cup of water. He was back asleep at 2:04. His next sleep session was seemingly dreamless.

The cock-radio alarm chirped at 6:30 AM. John jumped out of bed, got dressed, and made some coffee. He then peeked through the slit in the curtains. It was still dark outside. Sunrise is not until 7:36. I’m on schedule.

At 6:51 AM John was out the door and in the hallway with his camera slung over his left shoulder. Once in the nearest elevator, which was vacant, he pressed the 24 button. The 25^th^ floor must be private. Is this going to be a problem? Well, just another 11 feet [3.35 meters] to climb.

The elevator stopped at the 24th floor. He exited and looked down the corridor to the left and then to the right. Nothing but a series of closed hotel room doors. Hmmmm … which way to go? Where might an HVAC plenum box be? Would a mechanical room be on this floor?

He turned to his right and quietly walked down the hallway. John noticed an EXIT sign with an arrow. He opened the stairway door. On the landing, inset two inches into the wall, was a three-foot-high (about a meter), 30-inch-wide (76 cm), white door with red words:

RESTRICTED

ACCESS

DO NOT ENTER

John crouched down. He pushed lightly on the metal door. It flexed. He saw some daylight. This metal is pretty thin. Maybe if I pushed it really hard, I could force it open. The locking mechanism seems pretty chintzy. Just push harder, boy. Yeah, that’s what she said.

And with that thought, John lunged at the access door with a hand on each elbow. The force of his forearms blew the thin-gauge metal door inward. However, John’s momentum was too great for him to stop. His body was launched into the air shaft. Oh, no!

He frantically grabbed at the walls, but could not get a hold off anything substantial. John began to freefall. Ten, twenty, forty, eighty feet (24.4 meters). It’s over. Why did I do that?

He felt for his camera, grabbed it, aimed it upward, and depressed the shutter button one last time. My final departing shot.

At two hundred sixty-four feet (80.5 meters) down, his back slammed into a concrete slab. John was dead in a millisecond.

Five days later at his Raleigh TV station, John’s damaged digital camera was analyzed. Since the camera was on his stomach at the time of impact, it dodged wholesale destruction. In fact, in just two hours, a tech whiz nicknamed Razz had been able to download the images.

“Hey, Bill, come and look at this last one. You’re not going to believe this.”

“Holy flying cow! Razz, this means that John depressed the shutter button just before he …”

“Exactly.”

14. Strange Lady of the Woods (Jun. 2016)

The first time that I ever saw the strange lady in the woods was when I was seventeen. It was back in late March or early April of 1974, when I was still living with my parents in Idlewild Farms, a newer subdivision in outer east Charlotte (NC, USA), off Albemarle Road.

After entering the woods on foot at the northern end of Pepperhill Road (now Summit Ridge Apartments), I began walking up a lightly worn fox path. Once I was about 60 feet (18 meters) into the dense patch of mostly deciduous forest, I stopped to fire up a pre-rolled joint (marijuana cigarette). I wasn’t a major weedhead per se, but I Iiked to puff the green once in a while when out in nature.

I started walking again while smoking the cannabis. Life was good. What a splendid spring day in North America. Where did I hear that before?

I hadn’t gone but another 60 or so feet when I came upon her – the strange lady of the woods – a Native American woman of about 35 to 40 years with long black hair, crouched down beside a very small pond. A silver amulet dangled from her neck.

I then discreetly put the joint out and placed it in my right-front jeans pocket.

I should tell you that this pond was actually more like a 15-foot-diameter (4.6-meter-wide) crater pool. Perhaps it was the root divot where a giant oak tree had toppled.

The water was dark and still. A few brown leaves floated languidly on the surface. I wasn’t sure how deep it was, as I couldn’t see the bottom or anything below the oil-like surface.

Well, there she was, just looking down at the water, intently studying something. A fish? The sky?

I saw her dark eyes in the surface reflection, and I think she saw my brown-haired mug. I now felt compelled to speak. “Hello. I’m just passing by. Sorry to disturb you.”

“Oh, you’re fine,” she said as she rose and zipped up her bluish gray jacket. “I’m Amadahy. I’m a Cherokee. My name means forest water. I’m collecting memories.” Collecting memories? Maybe she’s coo-coo. [crazy]

“Oh, I see. Well, I’ll let you be.” He’s afraid of me. Why? Silly Caucasian boy.

“Where are you in such a rush to go, young man? And, what’s your name?”

“I’m Adam. I’m just going for a walk in the woods.”

“What are you hoping to find on your walk in the woods, Adam?” What a question!

“Well, I certainly was surprised to find you here.”

“Really? Why?” Is this his family’s property now? Am I trespassing as American law calls it?

“Well, I’ve never seen you here before. I’ve been walking around in these woods for over a decade now, ever since I was a kid.”

“I’ve seen you before, Adam.” She has? How? When? And where?

“Ok. Well, nice meeting you. Maybe I’ll see you out here again. Take care.” Let’s get out of here. She’s weird as hell. / He sure seems odd.

She didn’t say goodbye, or anything. She just tilted her head down and stared at the water again. She’s really strange. I wonder if she has some kind of mental illness. Does her family know that she’s out here? Does she have a family?

Anyway, I continued on my little walk in the woods that spring day, and got quite stoned in the process. I then sat down on the lip of a recessed clearing (which some of my neighborhood friends called ‘the dome’ for some reason; it was more of a large, gullied, red-clay bowl) and imagined that she was some kind of real witch, and that she might cast a spell on me. In fact, I got so paranoid that I returned to my home on Red Carriage Lane via Idlebrook Drive, some 1,000 feet (305 meters) to the east of the tiny pond.

Fast forward a year and a half. It’s now the fall of 1975. It’s one of those crisp, dry, cool, windy autumn days, right after a cold front punches through. It’s was just before Halloween, I believe. Yeah, that sounds about right. I recall that the leaves had just started to change colors. (Fall foliage colors don’t peak in Charlotte until mid-November.)

I once again entered the woods via Pepperhill as dusk neared. And, to my astonishment, she – the strange lady of the woods – was right where she was the last time I saw her, nearly 19 months ago. Does she come to this pond every afternoon? Is this some kind of daily ritual?

I looked at her facial reflection in the water, and she caught my eye. “It’s me again – Adam. Remember me?”

“How could I ever forget you?” she asked, but more so stated.

“Oh, thanks.”

“The memory of you is now associated with this pool.” Huh?

“Ok.” Just humor her.

“Have you had dreams about this memory pool, Adam?”

“Uh, no, I haven’t.” Why should I?

“You will.” What?

Adam then studied her black dress. There were some rips and runs in the thin linen fabric. “Listen, do you live out here in the woods?”

“Maybe.” Maybe? / Will he search all over for me?

“Is the place where you stay close-by?” He sure is inquisitive. / I wonder what kind of structure it is. Is she living in a bat cave?

“I’d rather not say. It has to remain a secret, Adam. Nothing against you, but no one can know.” Is she involved in some illegal activity? Where does she get her food?

“Ok, no problem. No offense taken.”

“You’re a good young man, Adam. I’ve seen your future. It’s a great one. You’re going to do good things and leave great memories in many people’s minds.” Is she clairvoyant?

“Why, thanks, Amadahy.” Good, he remembered my name.

“Did you know that people had conversations around this memory pool one hundred years ago, just like we’re having now?” How does she know this? Is this pond even that old?

“No, I didn’t. What did they talk about, Amadahy?” I’ll just play along.

“Oh, nothing earth-shattering – just talk of conversations prior.” I see where this is going. Back and back and back.

“But, how old is this little pool?” It has to be under 100 years old. Fifty years, max.

“I haven’t been able to calculate that yet, Adam. I’m still sorting out the memories.” Ok, so she is totally bonkerville. [sic] [crazy]

“Well, I better be going. Until next time, stay safe, Amadahy.” He’s afraid to know more.

And just like the previous time, she didn’t say goodbye. She just lowered her face and peered at the water. I think she wanted to continue the conversation. Was I rude to cut it off?

Jump ahead three years to November 23, 1978. It’s Thanksgiving Day. I had my own apartment now, but my parents still lived on Red Carriage. I had come over for the customary turkey dinner, but had tired of the 7-7 Denver – Detroit NFL game at halftime.

It was now 2:02, but we would not eat until 4:00. Thus, I had two hours of free time. What to do? Should I call up a friend? Maybe just go for a walk. Yeah, walk up to the woods. Maybe the Cherokee lady is up there.

At 2:12 PM I was stepping over a new galvanized steel guardrail at the northern terminus of Pepperhill and marching back into the woods. The trail had been widen by increased foot traffic. It even looked like equipment had rolled down the old footpath.

At about 40 feet (12 meters) into the woods, I was shocked to see that the forest had been cleared. Foundations for a new apartment complex had already been poured, just 40 feet in front of me. Wow! So much for the enchanted forest. I wonder if that pool is still there.

I walked over to where I thought the old pond was. The cup-shaped depression was still there; however, it had been drained. A large breach had been made by a backhoe on the west bank. It was now a crater of orange-red muck.

Though, something sparkled on the far bank, despite the gloomy sky. I walked closer. Resting atop the mud was a silver amulet. Is this hers? Did Amadahy drop it?

I bent down and plucked it. I rubbed it with my thumb and noticed feathers engraved around a lone word:

Memories

I placed the amulet in my knit shirt pocket and retreated from the drained pond. My mind was a whirlwind of questions. Is she still alive? If so, where does she live now? Did she purposely place her amulet in the pond for me to find? Or, is it intended for someone else? It seems like it was placed there very recently. Was it placed there this morning? That’s crazy, though. How would she know that I would visit the pond today? How many people encountered her at the dark reflecting pool over the years? If she was here every single day, probably dozens. Was it really meant for me to find? But, I never came out here on a Thanksgiving Day before. I hadn’t even been out here in years. Well, now I have it. What in the world am I supposed to do with it?

When I reached Riding Trail Road (95 feet – 29 meters – from the guardrail), I saw a lady in black walking east down the sidewalk, some 50 yards (46 meters) away. I watched in silence as she turned and walked up to a house’s front door. She unlocked it, entered, and closed the door.

And then it started to rain.

15. Waterfall Horror (Jun. 2016)

We were heading north on Main Street through the village of Blowing Rock (NC, USA), when I turned our gray Kia Rio hatchback left onto Laurel Lane. Monique, my Filipina wife, said nothing. We then crossed a heavily shaded Wallingford Road. And less than 200 feet (61 meters) later, I turned left into the small Annie Cannon Gardens parking lot, which appeared completely full on this cooler-than-normal Saturday, mid-June morning. However, we managed to find a spot beside a split-rail fence. It was a tight fit, but we were licitly ensconced.

“Well, we’re in safely, Monique,” I said as I sighed with relief, glad to be done with driving for a while. “Today’s mission will link Charlotte with Blowing Rock.” What in the world!

“Why, did you tie a 100-mile-long [161 km] string to our mailbox before we left Charlotte, Agent 33? [my psecret psociety no.] That spool must be mighty hot.” I just know that he is already in record mode. / I’m glad that she said ‘Agent 33’. Yes, it’s time to turn the audio recorder on. Hikers can say the damnedest things … and so can we.

“Actually that piece of virtual thread is 101 miles [162.54 km] long, Agent 32.” [Monique’s psecret psociety no.]

“Did you measure, Parkaar? [my ailing alias] That’s ok; don’t answer.”

We disembarked from our car and began walking down a gravel road that paralleled a small stream. We soon came upon a wooden sign: Glen Burney Trail 

The trail looked more like a steeply descending goat path, replete with exposed roots. I could tell that Monique wasn’t too keen on going down it.

“Do we have to go down that, 33?”

“No, the directions on the internet said that we could just stay on the gravel road. That trail loops back.”

“Yey! It looks snaky down there by that rivulet.”

“That rivulet is New Years Creek, 32.” What?

“Did it just form on January 1st of this year?” Monique asked and then started laughing.

“It stated on a New Year’s Day many centuries ago.” Yeah, right.

“Yeah, right! I’m calling B.S. [bullshit] on that, Parkaar.”

We both had a chortle as we continued walking down the gravel road. Soon we were passing a metal-signed lift station.

“What does this station lift, Agent 33?”

“Sewage, Agent 32”

“Holy crappers!” Monique exclaimed and laughed.

We tip-toed across the shallow brook. We were now on a dirt trail. Not too much farther, we had a wooden privacy wall on our left, right next to the four-foot-wide (1.2 meters) footpath.

Monique stopped to peer through the gaps in the vertical slats. “Wow! What a huge house!”

“Yeah, somebody scored bigtime. No financial crisis there.”

“Are you sure, 33?” I guess one never knows.

We continued on the still fairly level hiking trail for a hundred more feet (30.5 meters). Then it began to descend. Soon we had to step over and through a notch that was cut into a giant oak tree that had fallen across the now-eroded path.

“Look, Monique, you can see where they started to cut this big tree in half. See this diagonal line here?”

“Why did they stop, 33?”

“Maybe their chainsaw’s bar wasn’t long enough. The diameter of this trunk must be over two feet.” [61 cm]

“The Six Pence’s [an English pub in Blowing Rock] bar was long enough.” She’s punning for the future write-up.

Not much further down the trail, we came to a footbridge over a now-wider New Years Creek.

“The French would call this a passerelle, 32.”

“But, we’re not French, 33. Let’s just call it a chain-link-fence-sided, wooden, pedestrian-only stream overpass.”

And with that we were across the little bridge, continuing our descent into the ravine of rhododendron.

In a few minutes we had arrived at another wooden sign: Cascades.

We took a few pics. However, it was more of a winter-view vantage point. With all of the leaves back on the trees, it was hard to get a good shot of the large slanting rock.

We gulped down some iced tea. A Caucasian family of hikers, who were coming back up, accosted us.

“How much farther is it?” I asked.

“You’re more than halfway there,” the father said.

“Sixty-one percent,” the pre-teen son blurted. How did he come up with that figure? / Is he wearing a pedometer?

“Thanks,” Monique said.

We regathered our things and were off again. It was now decidedly downhill. This hike is going to feel very different when we have to climb back out.

We soon came upon our next wooden sign: Overlook.

I ventured out on the granite rock that protruded towards the creek. “Come on out here, Monique. It’s a nice view.”

“No, I’ll stay here. Thank you very much.”

I then noticed some more hikers coming up. They were a multigenerational mixed-race group.

“Are you sure, 32?”

“I’m very sure, 33. Be careful! Come back here, kano.” [American in Philippine slang]

I then realized that one misstep could result in a fatal fall. They really need an extreme-fall-hazard warning sign here.

“Ok, 32, coming back.” Why did he call her 32?

“Good idea, 33.” Who are these two?

We marched on. It was relatively level for a while. Then we began to switchback towards the creek, finally arriving at yet another wooden sign: Glen Burney Falls   Glen Marie Falls

“Well, it’s decision time, Monique. Which one first?”

“Which one is linked to Charlotte, Parkaar?”

“Glen Burney, 32.”

“Ok, lead the way, 33.”

We hiked less than 70 feet (21 meters) to the base of Glen Burney Falls. It was a convex waterfall; the water trickled over a massive curved rock. It was about forty feet (12 meters) tall.

“Well, way up there is where the tragedy began 85 years ago, Monique.”

“What tragedy, Parkaar?”

“The tragedy that ended in the death of a true heroine, Agent 32. Her name was Lillian Arhelger. She was a University of Texas graduate who came to Charlotte to teach physical education at the old Central High School. [now a part of Central Piedmont Community College’s Central Campus] She had taken the Myers Park Girl Scout troop up to Blowing Rock on a Sunday in June of 1931.”

“She slipped and fell?” Monique asked while looking up the waterfall.

“Yes, but she did so while trying to rescue one of the girls who was starting to slide off. She grabbed the girl’s hand, but it was too late. They both went over the curve. The girl survived, but Lillian wasn’t so lucky. Her body slammed into these rocks. A branch in the plunge pool protruded through her skull.” How gruesome!

“Oh, my God! How awful.”

“I believe the girl survived, because she landed on Lillian; thus, she was spared impact with the boulders and large limbs at the bottom.”

“I bet those girls were traumatized for life. I bet they replayed the fatal slide scene every night before falling asleep. And, I bet they had nightmares for a long time, 33.”

“Yeah, probably so, Monique. That moment when they knew they were going over the edge must have lasted for an eternity in their minds.”

“The fall must have felt like forever, 33.”

“Yeah, the forty feet must have felt like forty seconds, 32.”

Unbeknownst to us, an older Caucasian couple had come up behind us and overheard our conversation.

“A lady and a girl fell off this waterfall in 1931?” the white-haired, ball-capped, lanky man asked.

“Yes, the girl lived, but the lady died,” I said. “There’s a reflecting pool in Charlotte in her memory.”

“Oh, we’re from Charlotte,” the older, neatly dressed lady announced. “Where is her memorial?”

“In Independence Park,” I said.

“Oh, we know where that park is,” the older gentleman barked. “We live in Eastover.” [a posh neighborhood near Independence Park]

“The reflecting pool is just west of Hawthorne Lane,” I said. “If you go up to the miniature waterfall, you’ll see an old brass plaque with her name on it. However, a word is misspelled.”

“We’ll certainly check that out when we get back,” the older lady said. “Thanks for telling us about this. These waterfalls are too risky to walk on.”

“They certainly are. I’m in the safety field, so I can’t help but see hazards everywhere. But, you want to keep it as natural as possible.”

“Yes, you do,” the older man agreed.

“We’ll get out of your way now,” I said. “We’re going to check out Glen Marie Falls before we hike back.”

“Hey, when you notice the misspelled word on the plaque, post it on the psecret psociety Facebook page,” Monique requested as she handed the senior fellow a card.

“Ok, but I really don’t do the Facebook thing that much,” he replied.

“I’ll post it,” the lady said.

We said our goodbyes. Then we went down to Glen Marie Falls and stood on the top of the large gray rock. I bet they are now wondering: What in the hell is psecret psociety?

“Hey, Parkaar!” Monique shouted.

“What, Monique?”

“Don’t get too close to the edge.”

“It’s dry. I don’t see any moss or slippery algae, 32.”

“Neither did those girls back in ‘31, Agent 33.” 31-32-33.

16. The Well (Jun. 2016)

 

October in 1588. Almost dusk. The northern tip of Roanoke Island (in present-day North Carolina, USA, between the Outer Banks and the mainland). Englishman Gerald Smith, 34, is one of the 118 settlers that make up the Roanoke Colony (later known as the Lost Colony).

Gerald is running through a maritime forest. He arrives at a clearing of sand dunes. He is being chased by several Croatoans (a Native American tribe of this area).

Mr. Smith scurries into some brush in an attempt to elude his pursuers. I’m safer in this understory. They can’t get a clear arrow or spear shot at me in here.

He carelessly trips over a cypress root and goes sailing through the air. Gerald jumps back up as he hears the Croatoans gaining on him. He looks backward as he runs forward … and falls … into an abandoned well.

Gerald is lucky: He lands feet-first on some soft, damp sand, after falling only sixteen feet. His only injuries are a sprained left ankle and a scraped-up right elbow.

After a few seconds, he realizes what has happened. Holy shite, [sic] I’ve fallen into a goddam well!

Two minutes later he hears footsteps near the top of the well. Oh, fock [sic] me, John White! [the appointed governor] This has gone from bad to worst. I’m going to end up like George Howe. [a Roanoke Island colonist; was killed by an angry Croatoan while searching for crabs]

Suddenly, three tan-faced Croatoans were peering down at him. No one said anything or even made an utterance. Everyone was frozen. Time hung on the moss-covered stones. I’m royally screwed. Make that, natively screwed. They’ve got me. They know it. So, what will be my fate?

Then the presumed leader smiled as a feather fell from his long, shiny, black hair. The Croatoans all stood back up and walked away. I guess they know that they really don’t have to do anything to me at this point. I’m doomed here. This is my vertical sarcophagus. The walls are way too slippery to climb. The diameter is too wide to ‘back up’. I’m going to die of dehydration in a couple of days. And they are fine with that scenario.

Twenty minutes later, it was dark. Incredibly dark. It was a new moon night. Fortunately for Gerald, it wasn’t cold (61º F / 16º C at sunset).

He became uncertain of his gauging of time. Is it midnight?

Two hours later at 8:28 PM, a lone star appeared. Gerald’s mind was a mile a minute. Well, little star, I have one big wish. I think you know what it is. Dearest God-star, I never aggressed those Indians! Never. Not once. John and William deserve this fate for what they did with that girl. Wait, maybe John and William were killed in the raid. If so, they deserved it. Hell, they brought all of this on us. I wonder if anyone survived. Surely they didn’t kill the women and children. Gosh, I hope Mary is ok. Will I ever see her again? I sincerely doubt it now. This is about as grim as it gets. It would have been so much better to have just been killed while trying to defend the compound. This is bollocks! Why does my life have to end like this? Death by dehydration? Nothing noble in that. You must be having a laugh, Chief Powhatan. And you, Raleigh, [Sir Walter Raleigh, the landed gentry-man who dispatched the expedition] I didn’t sign up for this. I should have stayed in England. Why? Yes, why? What was I thinking? The great New World, where gold is for the taking. What an idiot I was. Now I will die in a slimy well. Why the hell couldn’t someone cap this well? Probably too rushed. Or, just couldn’t be bothered. Well, no longer working, just abandon it. In fact, that seems to be the motto in this New World: Things not working out where you are? Abandon and move on. Jesus Christ, you never leave a well uncapped. I could strangle the focker [sic] who was too lazy to cover this column of death. I wonder what my last thought will be. Does it even matter?

He eventually sat down in the cool sand and leaned his back against the stone wall. Gerald actually fell asleep shortly after midnight. He got in five hours of broken slumber before awaking just before dawn. Luckily for him, the temperature in the bottom of the well didn’t dip below 54º F / 12º C.

The birds were already chirping and cawing. He could see the gray sky. It was very cloudy. Probably the last sky I will see. The dulling color of lead. The dullness of my demise.

Gerald was now feeling the motor-skill-debilitating effects of dehydration. He was lethargic and unsteady. When he stood up, he almost fell down. However, while upright, he noticed a missing block that had allowed sand to fill the bottom of the well. I wonder who forgot to put that block in properly. If he would have built this wall correctly, it would still be a functioning well, and I wouldn’t be in this sandpit. Bastard!

He sat back down. He was hungry; the pangs ripped at his stomach. And now the mental effects of dehydration were setting in. He screamed: “Hello! Are there any bloody Englishmen out there? I’m down here with the gold. I’m willing to share it.” He repeated this four times at full volume. Then his voice box cracked.

Next, his mind buckled and went into warp mode. Well, it was too high and too cruel. The well, I mean. Get it? Ha-ha. Yep, the joke is on me. Always has been. But, I’m wearing it well. Well, oh well. That’s how it goes in this well. And, aint that just swell? Well, mister, you’re not doing so well. Because I’m in this stinking well, Miss Welles. When the well was left open, this is what is left: an unwell bloke like me, welling and wailing. Well, I’m not doing so well. Yeah, you said that. Well, of course, I know it so well. Well, hell. Sell the well. Which well? This well to hell.

Suddenly, the sound of footsteps. It momentarily stopped his spiraling madness. Who could it be at this time of day? Ah, maybe the chief wants to shit on me before I die. At this point, why not? A parting defecation. Or, maybe it’s time to skewer the white man in the pit. Yes, hell is real, and it’s right here. Just let me die quickly. That’s all I ask.

To his complete surprise, the face that looked down at him was no other than Lewis Walkerton, a fellow colonist. Oh, so it’s that weasel.

“How the hell did you get down there, Gerald?”

“I was being chased by Indians. I didn’t watch where I was going. How’s the colony, Lewis?”

“Very bad. It’s terrible. I’m the only man who survived. We tried to fend them off, but fighting was going to be futile. There were over 400 of them. I hid under the floor. They took the women and children away. Then they started to take apart the structures. That’s when I slipped out. I slept in the woods last night.”

“Oh, my God!”

“I’ll be back shortly with a rope to get you out of here, Gerald.”

“Ok, but do be careful, Lewis. There still may be Indians around here.”

“Yeah, ok, will do. Just stay quiet, old pal. Just relax.”

“And, bring some water back!”

“Absolutely.”

Lewis departed. All was quiet.

Gerald’s spirits rose. I’m really going to get out of here. I’m going to live! Thank you, Lord! I guess Mary never told Lewis about our wanton night of wild sex. Thank, God! But, poor Mary! Those savages are probably already raping her.

Lewis returned 17 minutes later. “I’m back, Gerald. Here, catch this canteen of water. You’ll need some muscle strength to grab a hold of the rope.”

Gerald caught the canteen, opened it, and guzzled the water like it was the last bottle of the finest champagne. “Thanks, Lewis. No hard feelings, right?”

“Hard feelings about what?” Darn, why did I say that to Lewis? My mind is all messed up from dehydration.

“Oh, nothing. Just a wee disoriented from lack of water, mate.”

“Gerald, perhaps you were referring to that night that my Mary slipped away with you?” Oh, no.

Gerald’s face froze. Damn, she told him! Never trust a cheating woman! Why did I?

Lewis now had a maniacal face. “We could have tried to live out our lives here in this New World as a team of two, Gerald. No doubt that the odds would have been long. The Indians may have killed us next week. No king’s ship maybe for ten years. But, as it is, you’ll never know about that kind of future, compatriot. Here is where I put an endcap on your little story, Mr. Smith.” Oh, dear God, no.

And with those words, Lewis began covering the well opening with planks from the disassembled colony. It took him about three minutes. During the capping of the well, Gerald screamed various pleas for reconsideration. But, Lewis never replied to any of them. When finished he just walked away … with a Secotan (another local Native American tribe) squaw.

Gerald would die 61 hours later. But before he passed away, he found a human metacarpal bone in the sand. He used it to scrawl obscenities on the wall.

 

17. The PKG (Jul. 2016)

 

Miles M^c^Macken, a 57-year-old Caucasian accountant, had taken Friday, July 1st (2016) off to give himself a four-day 4th of July weekend. He wasn’t planning on doing anything outdoors, as it was typical Charlotte summer weather: a sauna. Miles wanted to use the time to repair an N-scale Santa Fe locomotive that he ran across in the attic while looking for a box of old coins.

After eating a slice of yesterday’s Portofino (an Italian restaurant on Eastway Drive) takeout, he got back to work on his project. Various parts of model trains were laid out all over the dining table. He began testing the locomotive’s motor with a voltmeter. Maybe one of these hair-thin red wires has become disconnected. But, which one? This may take all weekend.

Suddenly Miles hears a knock on the front door. Is June [his wife] coming home for lunch? That’s odd. Why didn’t she tell me that last night? Maybe she wants to surprise me.

He gets up and walks to the foyer. Miles looks through the peephole and sees an African American UPS (United Parcel Service) driver walking back down the asphalt driveway to his brown van. Oh, he must have left a package. Has my Z-scale boxcar set already arrived? That was fast. I thought that the arrival date was Tuesday, July 5^th^. Maybe the seller shipped it immediately.

He opens the door as the UPS van pulls away. Miles grabs the craft-paper-wrapped package and brings it inside. He places it on the table and carefully cuts the packing tape with an X-acto knife.

To Miles’ supreme surprise, the cardboard box’s contents are several zip-lock plastic bags inside shrink wrap. He looks closer. Oh, my eyes! This is a package of pot! [marijuana] It’s probably a kilo. [kilogram; 2.2 pounds] of weed. Who would send me such contraband? Dave knows that North Carolina is not Colorado. This stuff is still illegal here. And he knows that I don’t smoke anymore. Wait, maybe it was mis-delivered.

Miles then looked at the eBay shipping label. It was addressed to NXT WRLD Concepts, 1668 Carolyn Drive. (Miles and June’s address was 1686 Carolyn Drive.) Ah, the UPS guy transposed the last two digits. 1668 is three houses down. Ah, that’s the new couple from California. [He had seen their cars’ front plates.] NXT WRLD Concepts? What a cover name. Do vowel-less company names really look less suspicious? Ah, weedheads these days.

Miles then opened one of the zip-locked bags. The marijuana odor was pungent. He felt one of the buds and gave it a pinch. Oil was secreted onto his right thumb and index finger. He licked it off. Wow! I bet this stuff is primo. When was the last time I smoked any herb? Eight, nine years ago? Can’t remember. A few puffs wouldn’t hurt. Might even be fun. June won’t be home until 5:30. That’s five hours of high time. But, I can’t smoke it in here. And, what am I going to smoke it with? I gave all my pipes away. Wait! In the shed, there’s a vaporizer. Yes, that’s the ticket! I’ll smoke a gram [.035 oz.] in the shed with the vaporizer. That solves the lingering odor issue. June never goes in that old shed because of the spiders.

And with that line of thinking, Miles clipped off a piece of a bud and put it in his shirt pocket. He then resealed the opened zip-lock bag, and then rewrapped all of them in the shrink wrap. Next, he hid the package of pot in the basement behind the water heater.

Miles then marched out the back door to their metal storage shed. He unlocked the padlock, slithered inside, and slid the doors shut. Hope the neighbors didn’t see me. But, if they did, so what?

He found the vaporizer right where he had put it a decade ago: behind a large can of bolts. I remember ordering this from Australia. Hope the plug adapter [for American receptacles] is still in the box. Yep, here it is. We’re good to go.

He placed the budlet [sic] on the little tray and set the clear, glass globe over it. Then he plugged the vaporizer’s cord in. Six minutes later, the little circular plate had reached its maximum temperature. A light gray mist soon filled the globe. Well, it’s toke time.

Miles took a deep draw from the flexible hose that was connected to the base. He coughed. Woah, that was too much. Need to go a little lighter. We’re not 22 anymore.

He inhaled seven more times over the next 13 minutes, until there was just an ash corpse on the round tray. Well, I am definitely high. No doubt about it. Time to get back in the house. It’s hot as hell in this shed.

Miles packed away the vaporizer. He then locked the shed and started walking back to the house. I sure hope that no one came to the front door while I was in there. Did UPS tell the California couple that the package was inadvertently left on our porch? Oh, crap! Oh, no. Calm down. That’s most unlikely.

A neighbor, a recently unemployed 40-something Caucasian man named Mark, saw him just as he reached the back door. “Take the day off, Miles?” he asked.

Miles was startled to hear a human voice. He turned towards the sound and saw Mark at the edge of the four-foot-high chain-link fence. “Uh, yeah, Mark. Decided to extend the holiday weekend.” He sure had an extended stay in that shed. Why would he close the door on such a hot-ass day?

“Did you hide the gold?” Mark asked with a silly grin. So, Mark saw me go in the shed. Damn!

“I wish,” Miles replied. “Well, I’ve got to get back inside the house. The stove is on.”

“Baking green brownies again, Miles?” Why did he say that?

“No, just some white chocolate cookies. Have a good one, Mark.”

“You, too, Miles.”

Miles then entered the house, closed and locked the door, and sighed. Such bad timing. / Old man Miles is up to something.

Miles went to the front door, opened it and looked around. He saw no one, not even nosy Mark. The coast looks clear. Maybe I should just walk the package down to their house. Both of their cars are gone. Now would be the best time to place it on their porch.

Then Miles heard his cell phone ringing on the dining table. He rushed inside and closed the door. On the fourth ring he answered it. “Miles here.” Hope I didn’t miss any calls.

“My man Miles. How have you been? It’s Steve.” Steve who? Oh, Steve from Ohio. I’m so high I’m forgetting people.

“I’m ok; still mutilating model trains when not crunching numbers for the bank. Are you still in Cleveland, Steve?”

“Yes, I am. Hey, did you see where we finally won a freaking championship after 52 long-ass years?”

“I did see something about the Cavaliers winning in seven, Steve. Did you go to the parade?”

“No, I just watched it on TV. I’m too old for that now. So, what have you been up to?”

“Like right now?”

“Sure. Like right now, Miles. Is your wang [slang for penis] in a knothole?”

“You always were a funny guy, Steve. That’s why I moved down here: to get away from you.” Miles then started laughing.

“Remember when the Browns won the NFL title in ’64, Miles?”

“Vaguely, I was only five.”

“I was six, but I remember it. I was beginning to think that would be it for national professional championships in my lifetime. What a sweet surprise. The upbeat vibe is a refreshing change. Not so many downward-looking faces in the city anymore.”

“Well, that’s great to hear, Steve. Our old town needed some joy, especially after the Indians lost a pair of World Series in the 1980s.”

“Are you ok, Miles? We lost two World Series in the ‘90s, not in the ‘80s.” Oh, yeah; he’s right.

“Oh, what was I saying? I meant a pair in the 1990s: ‘95 and ‘97. Atlanta was tough, but losing to the Marlins in an 11-inning game 7 was the worst.”

“And we had a 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, Miles. Remember?” That’s right.

“Yes, I remember now. Gut-wrenching stuff. I remember you saying that Cleveland would never win at anything ever again. You were incensed, Steve.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t a happy camper that night. Well, enough of sports. So, what’s up?”

“Well, I’m not at work. I took the day off, Steve, to work on a model train locomotive. You can insert a nerd joke now.”

“No, I think I will wait until later. Continue.”

“Well, a package got delivered to our front porch just about an hour ago.”

“Let me guess: HO-scale train stuff?”

“No, I only fool around with N and Z scales now. It saves layout space. June doesn’t like these train layouts taking over the house. But, no, it certainly wasn’t model train stuff.”

“Was it the Maltese Falcon?”

“No, but that was the size and weight, I would guess.”

“Was it ticking?”

“No, it wasn’t a bomb, thank God.”

“Well, I’m stumped. What was it, Miles?”

“It was a kilo of high-grade pot.”

“And you opened it and smoked some?”

“How did you know?”

“Your speech pattern, Miles – it’s all over the place.”

“Oh.” I guess I should avoid people for the next few hours.

“How did the package of dope get left at your door?”

“The UPS driver got the last two digits mixed up.”

“I see. What kind of label was on the package?”

“An eBay shipping label. What do you think I should do, Steve?”

“Somebody’s going to be regally pissed when they don’t get their $8,000 weed shipment, Miles. I would seal up that package as professionally as possible while wearing gloves – no fingerprints now – and somehow get it on the addressee’s front porch.”

“You think so, Steve?”

“I know so, Miles. Since they used an eBay shipping label, the package was scanned when it was dropped off at your front porch. It is now in the system as ‘delivered’. The sender and the receiver can both see this now.” What product is actually listed on eBay?

“Ok, thanks, pal. The addressee only lives three houses away. They aren’t home now.”

“Then get off the phone with me and deliver it pronto!”

“Ok, over and out.”

“Good luck, Miles.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

Miles quickly got the package from the basement. He put on some latex gloves and wiped down the zip-lock bags and shrink wrap with an almost-dry sponge to remove his fingerprints. He then carefully and neatly cut out a torn area in the shrink wrap with his X-acto knife. I think this looks much better now.

Three minutes later Miles was exiting the house with the rewrapped package under his left arm. He looked down the street. Miles was in luck: There were still no cars at the addressee’s house. Steady your nerves, old boy.

He quickly walked up the driveway and left the package on the true recipient’s front porch. Miles then turned to retreat back to his house … and he saw a California-plated blue sedan pulling into the driveway. Oh, crap! Get ready for some fast talking. Stay smooth. Don’t panic.

A slender, 30-something, brown-haired Caucasian lady stepped out of the car. She had a red skirt on with a high slit up the left side. “Can I help you?” she plainly asked.

“UPS dropped your package off at my house by mistake.”

“Oh, thanks for bringing it over.” She seems very nonchalant. She’s either very good, or her husband has her in the dark.

“Sure, no problem. My name is Miles. My wife’s name is June. We live three houses down.” I think that sounded ok.

“My name is Beth. My husband’s name is Ben. Glad to meet you.”

“Likewise. Well, take care. I guess we’ll see you around.” I hope not.

“Sure. Bye.”

Miles was still riding a nice premium-cannabis high, yet he felt that he had performed exceptionally without a single blunder. When he got back in his house, he sat down at the dining table and started to work on his locomotive again. Ok, where is that darn X-acto knife?

He looked everywhere in the house for the round-handled, razor-blade-holding knife to no avail. He even searched the shed. No luck. It’ll probably turn up somewhere crazy, like in the refrigerator.

He then checked the refrigerator. And the freezer. Still, no luck. I’ll just buy a new one tomorrow.

The California couple would stay in their rented house for six more months. In that time, neither Miles nor June spoke to Beth or Ben. They would casually wave when their cars passed, but that was it.

Two days after the Californians moved out – Wednesday, January 4, 2017 – Mark saw Miles in his front yard and accosted him. “Miles, Ben said that this is your X-acto knife. He asked me to return it to you.” Damn, it was in the package!

“Thanks, Mark.”

“So, what’s the story, Miles?”

18. Channelling Kate Logue (Jul. 2016)

The Kate Logue of concern today is the unique Irish lass who had an intense ten-day affair with André Breton in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland in 1923, a year before his seminal work, Manifeste du Surréalisme (Surrealist Manifesto) was published. She was known as ‘Faraway Kate’ by the townsfolk, as she had a peculiar mental illness, anosognosic schizophrenia, which caused her to be unsure of who she was. In fact she would often walk along the River Foyle asking passersby: “Who am I?” And Kate was not being facetious; she really wanted to know, as she had no idea. Though not nearly as renown as Kiki de Montparnasse, Kate ó Doire [‘of Derry’ in Gaelic] deserves more than a shadowy footnote in the annals of surrealism. After all, Breton stated: “I could spend my whole life prying loose the secrets of Kate Logue. She is honest to a fault and her naïveté has no peer but my own. Christopher Columbus should have set out to discover America with a boatload of Kate Logues.” [Colin Darke, André Breton, The Derry Years]

Well, after reading about this most intriguing Kate Logue two years ago, I hoped that she would appear in one of my dreams. And then she did just that the other night. In this most splendid dream, we were sitting together on a bench looking at the swift-flowing, dark-colored River Foyle. She was ghostlike, in her mid-20s, wearing a ragged peasant dress, and noticeably shoeless. Kate hovered, raising and lowering ever so slightly in the downstream breeze. It was 1924, but there were only the two of us. The town was eerily abandoned.

I was thoroughly entranced. After maybe five or so minutes, I cautiously commenced the conversation. “So, is this where you once walked, Kate?”

“Yes, this area here. This is where I walked and walked, day after day, looking for the right answer. The fishermen were useless, but quite lecherous. Bastards!”

“Did you know that they thought you were crazy?”

“Yeah, I suppose so. I heard plenty of ‘crazy lady!’ shouts. Sure, I knew I was different when I had to stay at that mental hospital. [Gransha] I couldn’t understand why no one else was wondering who they were. How could they all be so sure of who they were? It completely baffled me. I really had no idea of who I was. Oh, I knew I was a human female, who had parents and siblings, and was on planet Earth. But, beyond that …”

“So, your question was much deeper than just a forgotten name.”

“Precisely. It was like my ‘me-ness’ had been stolen one night when I was very, very young.”

“Kate, do you remember the day that you started wondering who you were?”

“I sure don’t. It just seemed like I was always like that. It was if I was just some test case. Sometimes I thought that some mad scientist had done something to my brain. His staff was watching my every move and listening to everything I said. They were documenting me. Yes, I was convinced of it. Sometimes I thought that I was just a mind experiment gone horribly wrong.”

“Wow! I’m so sad to hear you say that.”

“It’s ok. I’m done with the mortal phase now. You’ve still got to get up and go to work.”

“Hey, don’t remind me.”

“Sorry. No, I don’t miss being human at all, 33. That is your number, right?”

“Yep, that’s it.”

“Agents with randomly assigned numbers in a psecret psociety spelled with silent p’s. Yeah, André probably would have liked that, I think. He was quite suspicious of music, but the strangeness of numbers fascinated him, I think.”

“And you met Mr. Breton down here by the river, right?”

“Yes, very close to where we are now. He was an odd duck himself. I think he was unnerved by the sectarian strife. You know, the Irish wars.”

“Oh, yes. Northern Ireland was being partitioned out. Not the nicest of times on the emerald isle.”

“No, it certainly wasn’t. I wasn’t the only one without shoes. And I was most certainly aware of that.”

“What was André like?”

“In the spud sack?”

“No, no, not that. I mean, his demeanor, his outlook.”

“He had this intense shyness, yet had incredible focus and desire. He was very attuned to nuance. Why, one day a string of butterflies passed over us, and I swear it was like he had an epiphany right then and there. When I asked him what he had thought, he just looked at me with his mouth agape. One thing that I know is that he hated that God-forsaken world war – totally despised it. He really distrusted the ruling elites after that.”

“I see. I guess he was further saddened when there was yet another world war.”

“I’m sure that he was.”

“Kate, what did you think about in the mental hospital, all those hours?”

“All kinds of things. I couldn’t get my mind to stop. No matter how far one line of thought went out, it always came back to the ‘Who am I?’ question. I could never get a good answer. Though, André’s was pretty good. It’s what caused me to walk with him on that overcast day.”

“What was his answer?”

“I’m sorry, but I promised him that I would never tell.”

“Ok, I won’t pry.”

“Thanks, you’re a polite American.”

“Well, sometimes.”

“Ok, you have one more question, Agent 33. Make it a good one. Your dreamtime is almost up.”

“Miss Logue, when you look back at this place and time from your postmortem perspective, is there any realization that you arrive at regarding this human life? Might you have any advice for an old sod like me? Is there something different that I should be doing?”

“Woah, you slyly slid in a three-part question.”

“Sorry, not sure when I’ll be able to converse with you again. I have a hard time of steering my dreams.”

“Ok, you see those ants down there?”

I looked down and suddenly saw some tiny ants crawling to and fro over a discarded, rotting potato. “I do now.”

“See that one ant strangely wandering out of line?”

And with a gust of wind, she was gone. I was suddenly aware that I was dreaming. What a five-star dream that was. Must write down some notes before I forget.

Then my cell phone chirped. I awoke and grabbed the LG semi-smartphone. It was a text message from Agent X35.

Do you still have ants in your basement, Agent 33?

 

19. Neutral Buoyancy (Jul. 2016)

It was a tolerably warm noon on a Thursday in June of 1995. John Q. Ladd, a 27-year-old Caucasian from Charlotte, had just arrived in his burgundy 1989 Dodge Caravan minivan at the Bear Creek Lake public boat ramp off of Canada Road (NC 281). The four-hour westward journey to the mountains had been fairly uneventful, save for a mumbling man at a gas station in the college town of Cullowhee.

John pulled up beside the unoccupied dock and parked. He then extricated his new polypropylene kayak from the rear of the van. It was short enough (9’-5”; 2.87 meters) to fit inside when laid diagonally across the seatbacks.

Five minutes later, the van was properly parked, and he was paddling away. Ok, which way to Flat Creek Falls? Need to head southeast to Mill Cove.

After initially heading towards the dam, John got himself oriented correctly, and was soon paddling like a champion towards Mill Cove. This two-mile [3.22 km] water transit won’t be that bad. There’s hardly any wind. I bet I’m almost halfway there. Piece o’ cake.

Nine minutes later, John saw the little island in the hard left-hand turn. Yes, we’re making great time. Might as well take a water break. Don’t want to get dehydrated.

He then reached behind his seat and removed his backpack. The ice-water was refreshing. When putting the water bottle back, he felt a smaller plastic bottle. What is this? Oh, it’s the ‘heavy water’ that Ken gave me. How could I forget? Should I do a little ‘zap’? Oh, why not? We’ve got all day. No one to meet. No one to check in with. No place to be. If not now, when? These are ideal conditions. Fair weather. What could go wrong out here? I’ll even wear the life jacket for additional safety. [John was a good swimmer.]

Suddenly a bass boat with two middle-age Caucasian fishermen accosted John just as he swallowed a big slug of the neural water. Just my luck.

“Doing some fishing?” the obese man sitting on the bow’s swivel chair asked.

“No, just some flatwater sightseeing,” Mr. Ladd said.

“There’s some good kayaking on the Tuckasegee River, just on the other side of the spillway,” the bearded man at the helm said.

“Oh, thanks for the tip,” John courteously replied. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“So, where are you headed?” the man on the bow then asked. Darn! He just had to ask. Must not tell them ‘Flat Creek Falls’, as it is surrounded by private property and they won’t like my technically legal way of getting to it. Think up something fast!

“Sols Creek. I heard that there’s an impressive rock face on the mountainside.”

“Indeed there is,” the helmsman agreed.

“I’ll just snap a few pics,” John said. “No mountain climbing today.” Mountain climbing?

“I would warn you to watch out for submerged logs, but I think that your craft only draws three inches (7.6 cm), and without a motor, it’s no issue for you,” the bowman said. “However, we just nailed big timber at twenty miles per hour, [32.19 km/h] and I almost got tossed in the drink.” He chuckled.

“Ok, thanks for the warning,” John said. “You guys have a nice day.” He then continued paddling towards the small, verdant, sylvan island.

Soon he was paddling past the islet that was the peak of a short mountain. On his left he soon noticed the truly remarkable exposed rock ledges known as River Cliffs. He stopped to take a few pics. Should I try to march up Sols Creek to the waterfall in that book? [‘North Carolina Waterfalls’ by Kevin Adams] No, let’s stick with the plan. Just Flat Creek Falls today. Anyway, I am already feeling some voltage in my bean. Yeah, starting to get those ‘worlds away’ thoughts. Whirled worlds away.

John’s soaring cosmic reverie was jarred back to Earth instantly, when his drifting kayak bumped into something. He peered into the dark olive-colored water. John saw a submerged tree trunk, the top of which was only 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) below the water’s surface. I’d hate to hit that at 40 miles per hour [64.4 km/h]. That’s quite a water hazard for the motorboats.

He looked back up at the rock face. I wonder what the Cherokee did up there. Did anyone ever get tossed off? Native American justice, cliff style? Well, time to get over to Flat Creek before I get lost.

John rounded the bend to enter Sugar Cove. In about a quarter-mile (402 meters) he was at the mouth of Flat Creek.

He then dragged his kayak up the stream for a hundred feet (30.5 meters), and then on a faint streamside deer path for another two hundred feet (61 meters). And there John hid it in some tall grass. This should be good enough. Doesn’t look like anyone walks around here often. Maybe only two hunters per month. I’ll take my chances.

He started to hike upstream in his waterproof hiking boots. When there was an animal trail paralleling the creek, he took it. And when the trail ended or veered away from the mountain stream, he jumped back in Flat Creek. I feel like I’m on some mission: Mission Improbable.

After splashing and sloshing about for a half-mile (805 meters), he heard the waterfall. As John made a hard turn to the right, he arrived at the rocky base and saw the impressive lower drop. (The whole series of falls and cascades is not visible from any single point on land.) He took some photos. His mind was really going now. I wonder how old this waterfall is. Millions of years? Humankind time is just a split-second in geologic time. Ah, those negative ions. I wonder if my kayak is still back there. If someone takes it, I would have an impossible swim back. I would have to thumb a ride from this side of the lake – while tripping! What a nightmare that would be. Let’s get out of here now.

John retreated down the creek. He thought he heard a large mammal – a bear? – in the woods. This made him run. Then he stepped into a deep hole in the creek. The chilly water was suddenly up to his waist. Whew! An unholy immersion. Baptized in the realization. The realization of what? Man, I’m flying. I better be careful. Must not get injured out here. If so, I might become the wolf’s next dinner.

In just sixteen minutes John was back at his kayak-hiding spot. He parted the three-foot-high (meter-tall) cattail grass. Ah, yes! It’s still here. Yey! Thank you, God, or whomever, or whom-never, or whatever, or what-never, or whatsoever, or what’s-now-is-forever. Never. Enough. Stop. Let’s get refocused before we get hurt.

He dragged his kayak back to the mouth of Flat Creek. John got in and began paddling back to the boat ramp. He was feeling the full effects of Ken’s psychoactive serum now. Wow! This kayak-on-water feeling is so strange. Paddling is going to be an adventure. One super-surreal adventure.

John finally managed to get a decent paddling stroke going. Soon he was facing River Cliffs again. He stopped paddling to take another water break.

A slight breeze gently pushed his kayak along the shore. He focused on the cumulus cloud reflections on the lake’s barely rippling surface. It really is an amazingly bizarre existence. Humans are the most bizarre lifeform. And, Earth is such a bizarre place itself. What could it all mean? Anything?

Then he noticed a particular grayish cloud reflection. It looked like a mummy. And then he realized that it wasn’t a reflection; it was a fabric-wrapped corpse! It was in a state of neutral buoyancy, about a yard (meter) under the surface. Am I really seeing this?! Is this what I fear it is?

He took his paddle and lowered it into the water. The paddle’s nylon tip struck the corpse. And then, the old mummy began to sink. But, just as the mummified corpse sank out of sight, the head’s covering unwrapped. The skull’s eye sockets were the last thing that John saw.

He was frozen in pure shock for several minutes. The kayak silently ran aground. John looked down. What the hell did I just see?! Was that real? I’m high on Ken’s concoction, after all; thus, maybe it was just a macabre hallucination. But, it seemed so real. My paddle touched something, though. I felt it. Well, it’s time to get off this morbid water.

John would make it safely back to Charlotte. Though, he did see some ineffable things in the evening sky as he passed Kings Pinnacle on Interstate 85.

Twenty years later on a hot summer day in July of 2015, John was reading a news article about missing persons. It stated that approximately 90,000 Americans are missing at any one time. Wow! That’s a horribly high number!

Mr. Ladd then ran across an online article about a suspected murder during a boating expedition on Bear Creek Lake back in April of 1993. It said that the authorities searched the bottom of the lake with divers and mapping sonar, but never found a body.

20. The Paper Route (Jul. 2016)

Back in 1978, at the ripe old age of 14, I had a paper route. It was bequeathed to me by a two-grades-older, same-street best friend named Scott, just before his family moved to Philadelphia (PA, USA). The newspaper was the now-defunct Charlotte News, the city’s six-days-a-week (no Sunday edition) afternoon newspaper. I delivered it to about 80 customers in the Idlewild Farms neighborhood in east Charlotte (NC, USA).

This paper route was my first job, and I took it seriously. I even made a pegboard map of my neighborhood route and hung it in my closet. Each active address had a golf tee next to it. I wonder where it is now. Probably under 30 feet (9.14 meters) of earth in Renaissance Park (formerly a landfill site). Why, maybe it’s under the 14th green.

The best way to ‘route the route’ was always on my mind. I was constantly trying to figure out the best – least mileage – Pacman-esque path. It was like a game-theory problem. Not sure if I ever solved it correctly. But, I certainly learned the safest way to weave my bike along those curvilinear streets.

As soon as I got home from my parochial school, typically around 3:30, I would get on my saddle-basket-outfitted chestnut-brown Schwinn Continental 10-speed bicycle and head for the drop site on Hitching Post Lane (unless it was raining; in which case my ever-helpful mom would drive the route with me). It was only about a kilometer (.62 miles) from our house, which was in the middle section of Powder Horn Road.

Another paperboy lived where the newspaper bundles were dropped. They were left off at his house, as he had seniority. Tony had been doing his route, which was primarily in Easthaven (the adjacent neighborhood), for over two years, and he was older than me. When he sometimes saw me, he would say hello, but we never really became friends. I wonder what became of him. Maybe an auto dealership owner? Not sure why I thought that.

The paper route usually took about 50 minutes to complete. That is if there were no adverts to insert. In such case, it could tack on another 15 minutes, even more if there were multiple inserts. There was no additional pay for doing the inserting. Needless to say, I really despised inserts.

Doing the route had its scary moments. I remember a German shepherd chasing me in the bend of Fox Hunt Road. Even though I was able to increase my speed in the slight decline, he caught up to me. I kicked at his head with my right foot to fend him off. However, doing that made the dog more aggressive: He suddenly bit the heel of my boot! I jerked my right foot back and forth a few times before the large, growling, black and tan canine released the boot’s heel from his mouth.

That episode sure got the heart pumping. I was very cautious in that street curve from that day on.

Then there was the time that some preteen boy threw a bottle at me on Idlebrook Drive (near Helmdale Avenue). The juice bottle crashed into my left-side metal basket. It was like a bomb hitting my bicycle. Glass shattered everywhere, but I didn’t get cut. I stopped and yelled at the giggling urchins: “Who did it?!” But, all the nefarious rascals ran away, hopping over the back yard chain-link fence.

I then knocked on the front door. No one answered. There were no parents at home. In fact, I would notice over the schoolyear that there were never any parents at home before 5:30 PM. Thus, it was a two-hour after-school free-for-all, Monday through Friday. I wonder what other mischief found them. Did the neighbors ever alert their parents? Did the little monsters straighten up later in life? Maybe the bottle thrower became a quarterback … who got crumpled.

And there was the time when I was descending the steep hill on Riding Trail Road (upon which you can see the tops of the tallest buildings in uptown Charlotte). I must have been going 25 MPH (40 km/h) when a car backed out of a driveway, right into my line. Luckily, I was able to find some open lawn to take evasive action and slow down. Though, I still raked my knuckles under a mailbox.

Oh, speaking of mailboxes, the newspapers were placed in proprietary black plastic boxes or black metal tubes that were mounted under the curbside mailboxes, which were on a four-foot-high (1.22 meters) square post. I would reach back into a side basket, pull out a paper, fold it, and then stuff it into the newspaper box/tube without stopping. I could usually maintain a speed of 10 MPH (16 km/h). Though, I didn’t make them all. I’d have one or two misses a day on average.

Missed ride-by stuffs really aggravated me. I can remember screaming, “Motherless whore!” in the middle of the street on more than one occasion. Yeah, that’s where my dad’s colorfully vulgar language was first re-expressed. Damn our red hair.

Of course there were many days when kids, usually teenagers, yelled a slew of names at me. Some would even demand a free newspaper. I just kept riding. I wasn’t much of a fist-fighter back then. Nor ever was later in life.

Now, about my newspaper customers. What a varied assortment. This was a real life lesson for my inchoate adolescent mind. I found that 85 to 90% of them were consistently paid up, and that 10 to 15% were in arrears, as the bankers say. I once wondered if everyone, as in 100%, in Myers Park (a high-end historic neighborhood) were paid-in-full at all times. But, I’m sure that there was ‘that’ one.

Now, get this: One of the deadbeats had a last name of Fink. No, I’m not making this up. The odd little things that one remembers. Maybe Mr. Fink went on to invent a Ponzi scheme. Or, maybe he’s doing time, thinking about the paperboy he stiffed. Ok, I doubt both, too.

These deadbeats were listed as ‘delinquent’ on the weekly report that came atop the Friday bundle. Guess who had to try to collect from the delinquent customers? Yes, you guessed it: me. This could turn into a real cat-and-mouse game. Some wouldn’t even come to the door when I knocked. I wonder where that lot of folks are now. On relief?

Most of my customers had pay-by-mail prepaid accounts. I wished that all of them were like this. However, about 30 to 35% were PTC (pay-the-carrier) accounts. I was the carrier. This meant that I had to collect from them in person.

The receipt that I gave them was a little red tear-off tab measuring ⅓” x 1” (8 mm x 25 mm). I wonder if any of those little tabs have survived. Probably not. But, maybe one fell into an HVAC vent in some home, and is lying in the dusty ductwork right now.

I still remember the monthly subscription rate: $3.90/month. Yeah, the odd things that lodge in one’s cranial crevasses. Most of the PTC-ers would let me keep the dime as a small tip when they handed me four singles. And some would even give me a $5 bill. “Keep the change, sir,” they would say. I tend to think that their success in life continued to the grave.

My district manager was a porn-stachioed, hard-charging yet jovial, sandy-haired Caucasian fellow in his late 20s. I forget his name, and it really bothers me that it has slipped my mind. I would love to look him up on Facebook. Anyway, he encouraged me to try to get more subs (subscriptions), as he called them. Since the whole neighborhood had already been carpet-bombed by the newspaper’s marketing team, I tried a nearby office park on Executive Center Drive.

In the now-razed Rotunda Building, I signed up a lone customer. He was a one-man operation in a small office. I was never really sure what his business was, but I believe that he had an Eastern European last name.

“What shall I do with your Saturday paper?” I asked him, as the building was locked on that day. He told me to hold it until Monday’s delivery and instructed me to always slide the newspapers under the door, fold-side first, and to never use the mail slot. He cogently stated that he didn’t want any pages to get ripped.

One Friday afternoon on a collection run, I stopped by the Rotunda Building. After knocking several times on my customer’s paneling-veneer door, I looked around and noticed that everyone in that wing of the building had already gone home for the weekend. It was 4:55 PM, just before security would lock down the building.

Curiosity got the best of me. I pushed open the mail slot in the middle of the door and peered inside. And here’s what I saw in a frame, leaning on the desk:

21. Jane’s Final Piece (Aug. 2016)

 

Jane McLyndun was a slender, 28-year-old, half-Caucasian/ half-Makah (a Native American tribe of northwestern Washington), black-haired, struggling visual artist. After painting on canvas with oils and acrylics for a decade with minimal success, she shifted to projection art when her dad, the white parent who now lived in Tacoma, showed her an ultra-high-lumen digital projector one evening.

She experimented with the outdoor-grade projector and came up with her own comical surreal style. Jane loved the fact that there was no cleanup with this art form, and that it didn’t illegally mark a surface like graffiti.

Soon she was invited to present her first projection – on the side of a municipal building – in Hillsboro, Oregon, a Silicon Forest city, twenty miles west of Portland. Her projected artwork was just a static whimsical image at first, involving geometric shapes and assorted mustaches. Then the droll assemblage’s objects slowly moved. And then stopped again. There were long, irregular pauses. It was strange, yet guffaw-inducing surrealism.

It was a well-received debut. There was a most favorable review in the local weekly by an art critic named Art Z. Sportzee, who said that her work ‘revealed the innate hilarity of our modern absurdity’. Such excited Jane immensely, and she started to think that maybe she was finally on the cusp of something big.

However, after a few more amusing neosurreal projections in Beaverton, NoPo (North Portland) and Vancouver, Washington, the invitations strangely ceased. And, the local critics seemed to turn on her. The reviews went south. Way south.

One particular critic, an acerbic fellow named Rudolph Z. Spietzmann, characterized her work as ‘deliberately canned from a most derivative tract of pop culture clichés with no meaning for any sentient being.’ And another dissenter named Judith V. Owensbury called it ‘a nursery rhyme that didn’t.’ Ouch.

That latter review was the stinger that really got to her. She got distressed and then depressed. Jane stopped creating her wryly humorous projection loops. She started drinking and taking sedatives. Jane wondered where she was going next. It seemed that her just-recently-soaring art career was now nail-in-the-coffin kaput.

Jane had been creating under the art-name of č̓apaccaqil, which translates literally to ‘it looks like a canoe’ in Makah, as she once overheard someone say that about one of her canvases at a co-op gallery opening in east Seattle. She had an internal chuckle when she heard it. Immediately she knew that it was a keeper for future deployment.

One thing that Jane especially liked about this particular art- name was its androgyny: No one knew if the artist was male or female. And her work reinforced this: It was decidedly bi-gender, and often times gender-neutral. It wasn’t laced with flowers or rage. Moreover, Jane tried to keep her sex a secret as much as possible. She had been slighted by an avant-garde group, and was convinced that she was discounted just for being female.

However, when the bad reviews started rolling in, she began to wonder if word had got out in the Pacific Northwest about her identity. She imagined that her unstable, comic artist, meth-head (methamphetamine addict), ex-boyfriend from six years ago was behind it. It would be just like him to sabotage her art career when she finally started to gain some notoriety, she thought. After all, he was insanely jealous. She remembered how annoyed he would become when anyone liked her art.

And then twenty minutes later, with a change of rooms, Jane would tell herself that such was completely irrational. She resolutely renounced the unwarranted paranoia.

However, those menacing, doubt-creating thoughts began to steadily perforate her confidence. When mid-October arrived with its cool all-day rains, it felt like a dense, all-is-hopeless doom-cloud collapsing on her head. She would sit, slowly sip herbal tea, and ponder. What was I thinking? A famous artist? Me? I only graduated from a community college for goodness sake! I really have no high-level art gallery contacts. No one in my family was an artist. Why in the world did I choose such a path? I know my dad is really concerned about me. Twenty-eight and still waiting tables in a decrepit diner. Going nowhere and arriving ahead of schedule. It’s just like that nonperformance artist Galerie Parcouer said: “You only live once … if you’re lucky.” Aint that the truth. Would never want to replay this life. That’s for sure. Once is more than enough. My mom is so kind to me, but I know that she is wondering about what I’ll become. Or, what I’ve already become. Or, failed to become. Just another drip. Yet another descending alcoholic. Another drug addict? This area sure is loaded with them. I don’t want to end up on painkillers or heroin like most of my artist-friends. But, what to do? I’m not the corporate type. Face it, girl; you iz focked! [sic] You put your chips on the wrong square. Game over. You lose.

Jane slithered into the shower with her vibrator. None of the five men that she had had intercourse with came close to matching the hyper-orgasmic pleasure imparted by the Ultra-Vibrathon 4000. It had a genuine skin-like feel and pulsated in multiple directions with exquisite throbbing. The clitoral massager beat any tongue. It was a 9-inch column of heaven on Earth – worth every penny of the $89 that she paid for it online.

Jane knew that she didn’t want kids when she was fifteen. And now, thanks to modern technology, she knew that she didn’t want another boyfriend, either. As far as lesbian curiosity, there was that 30-ish Caucasian lady that slid up her skirt while seated at her restaurant, and then stared at her a second too long. She returned every week. Perhaps she would take her up on her nonverbal proposition one night, she thought. Well, maybe.

As she toweled off, she suddenly felt nauseous. She vomited in the toilet.

Then her belly started to ache – all the time, every single day. Jane lost her appetite and dropped 14 pounds (6.35 kg) in just two weeks. She needed a belt now to keep her jeans from falling off.

Her mother noticed the weight loss and demanded that she see a doctor, suspecting anorexia nervosa. Jane relented, even though she despised the American medical system. Even with so-called Obamacare, she felt that the out-of-pocket expenses were exorbitant, especially the astronomical cost of prescription drugs, and that profiteering off of a person’s bad health was just plain immoral.

Three days after her visit to her mother’s female Asian physician, she got a shocking diagnosis: She had advanced pancreatic cancer. The prognosis: Terminal – she would most likely be dead in a matter of weeks. There was no cure. She was devastated, and yet in some weird way, relieved. She thought: Now I have a natural out.

Jane didn’t tell her mom. She kept a brave face at home. When her mom asked what the doctor had said, she told her, “Oh, just stress.”

Then two days later, a Saturday, her dad called. Jane didn’t tell him about her dire health situation. However, she did ask if she could spend some time at his vacation condo on Cannon Beach (67 miles – 108 km – from her mom’s house). Her dad told her that she could stay there for three weeks, as he wouldn’t be using it or renting it out before Thanksgiving.

The very next afternoon found Jane heading northwest up US 26 in her twelve-year-old, green Subaru Legacy. She had told her mom that she would only be up there for a week. She explained to her mom – convincingly, she thought – that it would de-stress her. Her mom had given her $300 of her hard-earned money as she walked out the door, and told her to just relax and meditate on the sea, and to forget everything else.

It was a foggy November Sunday when Jane rolled up to her dad’s condo at 3:53 PM. The two hydros (hydrocodone pills) had taken care of the pain on the 80-minute drive. She was determined to only use the oxies (oxycodone pills) when the pain was acute and unbearable.

Her dad’s condo was a one-bedroom end unit on the third level, which was the top floor. It was oceanfront with a view of the iconic Haystack Rock.

Jane walked out on the balcony and listened to the surf. She saw the white spray fly in the air as the waves crashed into the mightily defiant monolith. Her mind began to wander. That big rock would make a great natural screen for a projection. Tomorrow morning I’ll go down there and make some measurements, check the angles and sight lines. It will be my last projection. My final piece. Wait, do I have the projector and laptop? Oh, yes, I do! Yey! They’re both in the trunk. And so is the hundred-foot-long [30.5 meters] extension cord, the high-wattage bulb, the digital protractor/distance measurer, the compass, and the special long-range lens; they’re all in there! We’re all set for one last one.

Jane ordered take-out from a local Italian restaurant. She had a glass of white table wine and fell asleep at 9:19.

She dreamed of being atop Haystack Rock. It was sunrise. The horizon jumped up an inch. A tsunami was fast approaching. A two-hundred-foot-high (61 meters) wave was getting ready to crash into the 235-foot-tall (72 meters) intertidal sea stack. And then it hit. The splash of sea foam rose to her feet.

Jane grabbed the headboard and woke up. Whew! What a dream! Well, no doubt about it: I will make Haystack Rock the focus of my last artwork.

She quickly got dressed and had a light continental breakfast. She popped down a couple of hydros and was on the chilly, fog-enshrouded beach at 7:37 AM. The seagulls were already cawing away, sometimes hidden in the low, gray cloudbank.

Halfway to Haystack Rock, now only 500 feet (152 meters) away, Jane began to wonder about the evening weather conditions. Is it going to be foggy all day, and into the night? Is it going to rain later?

She checked the weather forecast for Cannon Beach on her old, dinged-up smartphone. The weather site stated:

Low 45ºF / 7.2ºC | High 59ºF / 15ºC | Morning fog, clearing by late afternoon

“Perfect!” she thought out loud.

Soon Jane was surveying the area around Haystack Rock and the much smaller monoliths known as The Needles. A good projector location was easily located. She made her measurements and recorded them on her cellphone’s notepad application. She was all ready to leave when a troubling thought bounced through her gray matter: Where is an electrical outlet?

She looked around. Then she walked along the vegetation-sand border, which was essentially the back-yard property line for the bungalows. Sure enough, she saw an outdoor receptacle next to a shed that was only ten feet (3 meters) over the boundary. Jane paused to think. Well, it’s my last night on this planet. Stealing a dime of electricity won’t be a cardinal sin. He or she may even like the show. Hell, they’ll get a free extension cord. They’ll come out ahead. And, if they happen to retrieve the projector and laptop, too, they’ll be way ahead.

Between 8:08 AM and 11:11 AM, Jane diligently worked on her last projection piece in her dad’s condo. It was a 7-second gif (graphics interchange format) loop of a blue ball rolling down a bright green slope on the right. In the middle of the composition was a gray oval that the ball rolled towards. And on the far left was a ghastly red-eyed creature with a small magenta-colored cigar-like object below.

Once completed, she ran a simulation on her photo of Haystack Rock and two of The Needles. Then she removed her dad’s large framed René Magritte print and projected the simulation onto the living room wall. The spacing was correct with no under/overlaps. Jane was satisfied. She clicked save and turned the laptop and projector off.

Jane then switched on the flat-screen TV and watched the midday news out of Portland. A stabbing on Mount Tabor. A drunk hits a pedestrian and then an old brick building in the Pearl District. An embezzlement scandal in the run-up to the city-county elections. Jane mused. My last newscast, I suppose. It will be the same nonsense tomorrow. And the day after. And the year after. And the decade after. And the ever-after? Well, time for my last lunch.

Jane walked over to The Wayfarer Restaurant & Lounge. It was moderately crowded. She was quickly seated and ordered a bowl of clam chowder. It arrived piping hot and was delicious. Though, she only ate half of it.

The Monday lunch scene was desultory, except for one remark made by a 40-something, brunette-with-a-red-tinge, tired waitress to a table of Japanese tourists behind Jane: “This afternoon might be the last time we see the sun for a long, long time.” Yes, for a long, long, looooong [sic] time.

Back at her dad’s condo, Jane made some minor changes to her projection. At 2:02 PM she felt severe abdominal pain, like acupuncture was being performed on her stomach. She took two oxies with some Chardonnay that was in the wine rack on the counter.

At 3:03 PM she dropped her last three hydros and finished off another glass of wine. At 4:04 PM Jane had one stupefying buzz going.

She packed the laptop, projector, the thirteen remaining oxycodone pills and the wine bottle in a duffel bag. She stumbled outside and added the other accoutrements from her sedan’s trunk.

The sun would set at exactly five o’clock; twilight would be thirty minutes later. Jane had everything ready to go at 4:44 PM. She then sat on the sand next to the projector and watched the sun descend towards the Pacific horizon. Well, girl, you picked a winner of a night to go out on. Won’t be long now.

At 5:05 PM Jane downed all of the remaining oxies with slugs of wine. She then walked over to where the shallowly buried yellow extension cord reappeared from the ground. She plugged it in. Then she just laid in the lush maritime ground cover … and passed away.

It all worked out just as Jane had planned. Beachcombers watched her projection in amazement, taking pictures and videos, which were posted to social media sites.

The projected loop replayed with random pauses until 9:09 PM. That’s when the projector overheated and cut off.

Jane’s parents would read her explanatory send-delayed e-mail the next morning.

 

 

22. A Spring Hike (Aug. 2016)

After finally getting settled in at my small High Peak Mountain abode (on the cover of the short story High Peak Revisited), it was time to do that long-anticipated spring hike along the South Fork of the Mills River in nearby Pisgah National Forest, just north of Etowah (North Carolina, USA). Tomorrow, Saturday, April 18, 1998 would be in the 50s (Fahrenheit, that is; 10 to 15º Celsius). Great hiking weather, even if there was a slight chance of a shower.

At 8:38 AM the next morning, I was parking my white 1991 Plymouth Voyager minivan in the Turkey Pen Gap Trailhead gravel parking lot. There was just one vehicle, a maroon Toyota Corolla with a Go Vegan bumper sticker, and no people to be seen. I thought: Good deal. It’s not crowded. At least not yet.

I turned off the van’s engine, but let my Wings Greatest cassette tape play on. You would think that people would have had enough of silly love songs …

Then I rummaged through my green backpack until I found a black 35 mm film canister. I opened it and poured the blue-speckled white granules into the remaining four ounces of coffee. After a stir, I gulped down the mud-colored solution. Well, in twenty-five minutes things will get real interesting, boy. Hope we don’t get hurt out there. Need to keep my wits about me. Help could be hours – or even days – away.

I hoisted the backpack onto my bony shoulders, locked the van, and caught a glimpse of my unshaven red-haired Caucasian mug in the side mirror. Ok, sport, let’s not do anything ‘too’ foolish today.

I walked towards the trailhead sign. Soon I was marching on a wood-planked pedestrian-only suspension bridge that spanned the wide mountain stream. I gave the steel cables a shake. Stop playing around, you loon. Just walk across it. With your luck it may break.

The river-hugging, densely forested trail was like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Completely canopied. Luscious vegetation; mainly rhododendron, mountain laurel and witch hazel, but with ferns and bamboo stands, too. Lots of conifers, especially hemlocks. Deciduous trees already getting their leaves back. I almost expected to see Hansel and Gretel around the next bend of the sometimes-narrow auspicious footpath.

I quickly fell into a brisk gait. It was like I was being drawn towards something important. And then, there it was. In the deposition side of a hairpin turn in the river, in the light brown sand, someone had scratched with a stick:

Remember Linda 1941-1998 R-I-P

I stood and stared, remaining motionless for several minutes. My mind was awash with thoughts. Wow. Linda McCartney is really dead. [Peter Jennings had announced it on yesterevening’s ‘World News Tonight’ broadcast.] And John Lennon taken from us in 1980 by a madman – a mad fan. The end of that idealistic, psychedelic era. Even with all of her money, Linda couldn’t beat the scourge of cancer. I wonder who scratched that – that reminder of inescapable mortality. Probably a hiker from that car in the parking lot. She sure lived a full life, though. Wonder if her spirit is looking down on this right now. Wonder if there are any spirits or souls at all. Wonder if I should get going. How long have I been standing here? Has anyone been observing me in this trancelike state? Yeah, I think those granules have reached my bean. I’m incoheriated. [sic]

Then I heard a splash in the river. A baby sunfish had leapt out of the water. Probably being chased by a large trout. Eat and avoid being eaten. Live and let die.

I continued on my now-portentous hike. The etching in the sand was now suffused into my 33-year-old brain. It had become the talisman of the day. I couldn’t stop pondering on Mrs. McCartney and The Beatles. I wonder what it’s like to be world famous. People treating you like a demigod. I bet that it can actually be annoying at times. Though, the money sure aint bad. Jet!

Then I heard a noise in the woods. It sounded like a medium-size mammal running fast. Sure enough, I soon saw a doe leaping over some brush and sprinting away. I wonder if a wolf was chasing that deer. And, is that wolf now tracking me? Let’s not get paranoid. It’s just another day. Another day on this planet of life and death, whirling about somewhere in the cosmos.

After another fourteen minutes of hiking, I came upon a wide, slow-flowing section in a curve of the light green river. I stopped to take a water break. A fallen tree made for a great bench to park upon. My brain was fully saturated by those magical granules now. I bet that Linda never knew that someone would scratch her name and dates on a river bank in southwestern North Carolina. I wonder if the person who scratched those letters and numbers in the sand is wondering who has seen it. And is he or she now wondering what I’m wondering? Not even sure what I’m wondering. Wonder if any of this matters. If I’m not careful I’m going to wonder my life away. I’ve now got the perfect setup to write that novel. Lots of quiet time. A surfeit of solitude. Maybe too much. This alone-on-a-mountain phase is going to be interesting. Just hope that I don’t become a drug addict or an alcoholic. So much free time. Must use it wisely. Well, with a little luck …

Suddenly a group of three late-20-something Caucasian hikers, two females and a male, accosted me. They were headed in the opposite direction. The brown-bearded, stocky, baseball-capped dude spoke first while the ladies took a hydration break.

“Good day for a hike, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is,” I said, noticing my breath in the dank air. “It’s not too warm.”

“That’s for sure!” the brunette woman exclaimed.

“Did you guys hike all the way up to High Falls?” I asked.

“Man, that’s way up by the Pink Beds,” the dude responded, shocked by my question.

“Oh, yeah,” I muttered, realizing my error. “I guess that would take all day.”

“I’m sure it would,” the blonde lady said.

“Well, we’ve got to get going,” the dude then announced as he scratched his face. “There’s some rain coming down the mountain from the [Blue Ridge] Parkway.” From Soapstone Ridge? We’ll all be washed-up soon!

“Oh, thanks for the heads-up,” I solemnly replied.

“Have a nice day,” the brunette said with a big smile. Maybe she’s the unattached one. Seems like the blonde and the dude may be on a first date. Maybe the brunette is just tagging along to ease the nerves. Or, are they a threesome? Oh, what am I thinking? They’re all just good friends, I bet.

The merry trio then sauntered along, heading back towards the parking lot. My mind was a million thoughts a minute. I wonder if they will see that message in the sand. Of course they will: The trail goes right by it. Remember? That’s why you saw it. Hello! Wake up. I wonder if one of them inscribed it. Probably so. I bet the brunette is a big McCartney fan. She probably had a crush on Paul and had a vicarious affair via Linda. Jeez, why am I thinking such stuff? Maybe both girls are Wings/Beatles fans. Maybe all three are. I should probably get going before I get soaked. It does feel a bit mistier now.

I stood up and felt a neuronic [sic] rush. The gray overcast sky was pulsing. The tree limbs were conductors of ancient notions, and were tingling at the twigs. Am I going mad? Let’s start walking. Being stationary leads to too many insane thoughts. An idle body begets … oh, we forgets. [sic]

I then began plodding back towards the parking lot. Though a lot of scenes (semi-hallucinations) in the forest looked inviting, I managed to stay on the trail.

Soon I was back at the Linda sand inscription. I was surprised to see that someone had added a heart shape under it. Ah, very nice. I wonder which of the three did that. But, why would they add the heart later? Why didn’t they include it when they initially wrote the message? Hold on! Maybe none of them wrote the Linda message. And maybe they now think that I wrote it. I wonder who wrote it. Oh, why am I thinking so much about such a trivial detail? Because your brain is zapped, pal! That’s why.

The first few tiny raindrops sat down on my head. I put my wide-brimmed Australian field hat on, which had been hanging on my backpack. It was pretty much waterproof, as I had coated it with clear acrylic a few months ago.

I retreated back towards the van. The path became dark and damp. And just before the suspension bridge, it was muddy.

Once across the swaying bridge, I expected to not see the maroon Toyota sedan. But, there it was! And there were no other vehicles, except my minivan, looking lonely. Where did that band of three go? Are they ok? Did they take another trail? But, there are no other trails between here and where we were. Did they pull off the trail to watch me pass? Kind of strange. Oh well, let’s get rolling. Pants are already wet. Someone’s knocking at the door … pneumonia!

I opened the driver’s door and got in the van. As I drove away, the trio emerged from the woods. Huh!

23. An Autumn Hike (Aug. 2016)

I met Areum, a short, sexy, jet-black-haired, 20-something Korean American lass, at a headshop in Charlotte (NC, USA) in the summer of 1994. After making small talk with her at the pipe counter for several weeks, I asked her out to a casual lunch at the sandwich shop across the street. She consented and we immediately struck up an engaging conversation. However, when she sensed that I was angling to ask her out on a date, she quickly informed me that she already had a boyfriend (a self-absorbed flake who I had run across). I was decidedly deflated. I thought: Just my rotten luck. But then, Areum offered up an enticing proposal.

“Mike, how would you like to ask my sister, Hye, out on a date? She’s two years older than me; taller, thinner, smarter, and prettier.” So complimentary.

“Why, sure,” I replied. “Would you happen to have a photo?”

“I sure do,” Areum answered. She then extracted a wallet-size photograph from her purse and showed it to me. Yes, her sister is quite pretty. Plenty pretty for a bloke like me.

“Both of you are cover girls,” I proclaimed.

“Stop that, Mike. You’ll make me blush.”

“Areum, how old is Hye?”

“She just turned 26. How old are you, Mike?”

“I just hit the big ‘three-oh-no’ a few weeks ago.”

“Perfect. Your ages are closer and you’re both Cancers.”

“Treatable and terminal?” What did he say?

“Gosh! What a morbid sense of humor you have – just like my boyfriend.” Just like my boyfriend … bleh!

“So, do I just call her up?” Does he really expect me to do it for him?

“Sure! I’ll give you her phone number. She gets home from work at 5:45.”

Areum then handed me the corner of the just-written-on napkin and looked directly into my green eyes. “Mike, there are some things that I need to tell you about my sister.” Ok, here comes the catch …

“Ok, go ahead, Areum. I’m all ears.” What?

“All ears? What does that mean?”

“Sorry. It’s just an American expression that means that the person is intently listening.”

“Oh, ok. There are so many idiomatic expressions in English.”

“Yeppers.”

“Well, I’m going to be frank about this, Mike. Hye was sexually abused by our dad. It went on for several years. When my mom found out, we headed to Charlotte to get away from him. He’s still in Albuquerque.” [NM, USA]

“Damn! That’s horrible.” Poor girl.

“She’s in therapy now. Hye has never had a boyfriend. Our father has sexually traumatized her. She’s afraid of sexual intercourse now. If you date her, don’t expect to be rolling around in the sheets. At least not for a long while.” She certainly is frank – boldly blunt.

“I see. Thanks for telling me. I’ll be hands-off. If anything physical happens, she will initiate it. And lead it. You have my word.”

“Thank you so much, Mike.”

“By the way, does Hye get high?” Let’s get Hye.

“Absolutely not. Never has. Don’t even ask her to.”

“Ok, I won’t.”

“Thanks, Mike. I tried to get her to take a draw off a joint [marijuana cigarette] one day to relax her mind, but she was afraid that it would make her bad memories more painful.”

“I see. Say, does Hye like mountain hiking?” Hye-king.

“She does. But, I wouldn’t suggest that on a first date.”

“Ok, I will hold off until date number six, Areum.”

“Thanks, Mike. If I didn’t have a boyfriend …”

“Oh, just stop the torture, Areum.”

She giggled. I paid the bill. Then we got up and marched back across the street to her marijuana paraphernalia emporium.

“You will call her, won’t you?” Areum asked as she opened the front door to the headshop.

“I will,” I answered. “Promise.”

“Ok, I’ll tell her that a tall, kind-hearted, though strangely humorous, red-haired gentleman will be calling her tonight.”

“Thanks, Areum. Don’t toke too hard.” I quickly did a fake cough. “I mean work.”

She smiled, turned, and went inside the weed accoutrement store. Her tight black shorts were my last image of Areum on that hot and hazy day. Her ass was simply to die for. What a hottie she is. Well, time to focus on Hye. She’s not chopped liver by any means. And you’re no Johnny Depp, pal.

That evening at 6:06 PM, I called Hye from my rented two-bedroom house in the Chantilly neighborhood. She had a very soft voice that was timid yet direct. We agreed to have our first date at a Korean restaurant on Monroe Road (now out of business) on Saturday, September 3rd.

We met in the restaurant parking lot at 1:01 PM. She looked even better than advertised. Wow! I’m way out of my league once again. Remember what Areum said. Go slow.

“Hello, you must be Hye,” I said to the slender, attractive, 5’-6” Asian young lady standing next to a silver Nissan Sentra.

“Yes, that’s me,” Hye said with a reserved smile. “And, you must be Mike.”

“That is I.” That is I? Is that correct English?

“Nice to meet you, Mike.”

“Likewise, Hye. You look great!”

She extended her right hand. I shook it gently.

“Let’s continue our conversation inside, Mike. It’s hot and I’m hungry.” I’m so ready for this infernal summer to end.

“Lead the way, lovely lady.” Lovely lady? I hope that he doesn’t make a play for sex. Didn’t Areum tell him?

And with that we walked into the darkened restaurant. We were promptly seated as there was no line. There were only three diners and one older Korean American guy at the bar sipping a beer while watching a baseball game. Go Giants!

Hye explained the menu to me. I told her that I was mostly vegetarian now, but would consider scallops or clams. She suggested a spicy grilled seafood dish and I agreed to try it.

The cute Korean American waitress took our order and winked at me as she left. What did that mean? Does she know Hye? Or, does it mean ‘nice date, dude’? Ah, the mysteries of this strange life.

I reignited the conversation. “Have you been here before, Hye?”

“Yes, one other time, Mike. The food was only so-so. But, I told them how they could cook it better to make it tastier.” She actually told them how to improve their cooking? Wow! I’m sure the chef loved that.

“Really, Hye?” Does he have a hearing problem?

“Yes, I know true Korean food. I was born in Seoul and lived there until the age of 12. They Americanized it too much here. Too bland. Hopefully they took my advice.” Woah!

“I guess we shall see.”

“We will,” she said with an impassive expression.

The conversation didn’t flow as easily as the one with Areum. Beneath Hye’s stoic countenance, I could sense the emotional hurt and the psychological damage. It made me feel immensely sad for her. How could a father do that to his daughter? So much despicable madness in this human race.

The food finally came. I thought it was pretty tasty. Hye agreed.

“They must have implemented your suggestions, Hye.”

“I’m sure that they did.”

We finished our plates. I paid the bill and gave the waitress an ‘I got this’ look before leaving, even if I had my doubts.

I invited Hye over to my house to check out my artwork. She followed me in her car. My house on Kingsbury Drive was only two miles (3.22 km) away.

Once inside, Hye took a seat on the couch and drank some Korean beverage from the restaurant.

I walked around the living room, telling her about my neosurreal artwork on the beige walls. She seemed mildly interested. Then she perked up.

“How many do you sell per month, Mike?”

“One is a good month – a very good month,” I replied.

“You’ll never make it at that rate, Mike.” She’s right.

“Yeah, I know.”

“Well, what do you do for real income?”

“Technical writing on safety issues.”

“Mike, I’d expand that into a consultancy. I’ve never met a single artist that could live off their sales. It’s a rainbow-chasing longshot proposition. You’re 30 now. Time to get practical.” That was brutally honest.

“Yeah, you’re probably right, Hye. It’s a disease that’s hard to beat.”

“Art’s a disease! I like that, Mike.” Hye then laughed uncontrollably. It was a manic, alien laughter, which surprised the hell out of me. So much for impressing her with my art or my artist ambition. Dead in the water on that score.

Hye then got up to leave. We hugged lightly. I didn’t dare try to kiss her, and she certainly didn’t solicit such. However, we agreed to go on another date next weekend, which we did (a lame, instantly forgettable, romantic comedy movie).

Over the next month we had a total of five platonic lunches, dinners and picnics. Hye seemed to be trusting me more. This was confirmed when she called me from work on Thursday, October 13th and asked if we could go to the mountains on Saturday to do some hiking and leaf viewing. I immediately thought: Ah, Areum must have suggested that to her. I owe her … a pinch.

At 9:19 AM Saturday, Hye was knocking on my front door. She was in running shorts and a tank top with brand-new white tennis shoes. The temperature was 54º (Fahrenheit; 12º Celsius).

“Are you not chilly, Hye?”

“Chilly? In Korea this is mild for a fall morning.”

“Well, come on in and have a cup of coffee while I round up my hiking stuff.” He wasn’t ready. Or, am I early?

Seated at the antique dining table, Hye drank the coffee with a blank stare. She would occasionally gaze out the window above the air conditioner. Something was obviously playing on her mind.

Once I had finished loading my backpack, I looked at her. “Are you ok, Hye?”

“You’re not going to rape and kill me up there, are you?” She delivered this line with utmost seriousness. What the hell!

“Me? Are you kidding? I’m afraid that you may be a man-killer. You don’t have a weapon on you, do you?” I was just as serious.

My ploy worked. She smiled and even chuckled. Hye’s body language became more relaxed.

“I was just testing you, Mike!” I got him good.

“I knew you were.” Doubt that. / Just be patient with her.

Soon we were in my Plymouth Voyager minivan, heading west on I-85 South. We were listening to some jazz-pop music (Swing Out Sister?). Hye was quiet until I took Exit 10 for US 74 West.

“How far away is that waterfall from here, Mike?”

“Big Bradley Falls is only seventy-five minutes from where we are now, Hye.”

“Oh, that’s not too far.”

“No, not at all, Hye. It is one of my favorite North Carolina waterfalls. It should be super-nice: The leaf colors are peak this weekend, I believe. Get your camera ready.”

“How long is the hike?”

“Under a mile. [1.61 km] But, we have to cross a stream. It’s not too strenuous overall. At least not to the overlook. To get to the base of the falls is another story, though. Very dangerous. There are ropes and ladders. Rappelling is required.”

“Oh.”

The conversation died. We crept through the traffic lights of Shelby.

“Need to stop anywhere for food or drink, Hye?”

“No, I’m all set with protein bars and energy drinks.”

“Ok, good deal.”

Soon we had cleared the western city limits of Shelby. We continued on US 74 towards Forest City in silence. After passing by Forest City, the highway became a fast-moving freeway. The majestic Blue Ridge Mountains loomed in the distance. Approaching autumnal splendor.

As I took the exit for I-26 West, Hye looked at the sign.

“So, it’s near Hendersonville,” she said while surveying the colorful mountains.

“Not that far, Hye. It’s just east of Saluda.” I turned and looked at her. She trusts me. Feels good. Don’t do anything stupid to ruin it.

Eight minutes later we were exiting onto Holbert Cove Road. There were a few houses interspersed in the densely forested area. Soon we came upon a pond next to the road.

“Want to take a swim?” I asked.

“Are you crazy?!” Hye shouted.

“Somewhat,” I replied.

She just shook her head and sighed.

We continued down the curvy mountain road. Then it went from asphalt to gravel. Dear God, where is he taking me?

A few minutes later, I turned off onto a dirt parking area, just before a small creek (Cove Creek). I turned the engine off.

“Well, we’re here,” I announced. “Ready for it?” For ‘it’?

“Sure. Let’s do it!” How I wish we could. / Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.

We stepped out of the van and got ourselves outfitted for the hike. There were two cars in the little lot. I’m glad that there are other vehicles; other people being around will relax Hye. / This looks like a real trailhead. Mike wasn’t lying. He’s been trustworthy … so far.

And then we were off on our hike. The first part had us crossing an overgrown field that was once an apple orchard. Next, we entered the woods on a logging road that led to the creek. I wonder if we can rock-hop this stream. The water level is down. I really don’t want to take my hiking boots and socks off.

“What are these cables for, Mike?”

“Hye, at one time there was a sliding conveyance.” A what?

“Ok, let’s use it to get across.”

“I think I’m too tall to use it. But, go ahead. Just be careful. I’m going to cross it boulder-to-boulder style. I think my legs are long enough to span the gaps.”

“Ok, suit yourself, Mr. Artist.” Mr. Artist?

Both of our stream-crossing techniques worked: We both got across without getting wet.

Our hike wound through the fabulous fall-colored foliage on a wide dirt path. Then we heard the waterfall below, though we couldn’t see it.

“How far down is it, Mike?”

“Quite a ways, Hye. Let’s walk out to the overlook first.”

“Ok, lead the way, painter.” Painter? She’s letting her guard down. I think she’s enjoying this hike with me.

I then saw the blue blaze and crude arrow on an oak tree. We descended towards the overlook rock.

“Grab the roots for safety, Hye. Don’t worry; it’s not cheating.” It’s not cheating? He’s an odd one.

“Ok, thanks for the suggestion, Mike.”

We safely alighted on the granite outcrop that allowed for an expansive, awe-inspiring view of the gorge and the left side of the waterfall (right side blocked by a tall hemlock tree). It was red-orange-yellow overload. Postcard material.

“This is amazing!” Hye exclaimed.

“I know. What a splendid day to be alive.”

“Thanks for bringing me, Mike! I’m going to take some pictures now.”

“Yeah, sure. Go ahead. Just watch your step. There are no do-overs if you fall from here.” [It was 95 feet – 29 meters – straight down.]

“You won’t push me off now, will you?”

“No, I will wait ‘til later.” I chortled.

Hye frowned, but then a smile overtook her makeup-less face. “Mike, you are what we Koreans call a babo babo.” [바보 바보]

“That didn’t sound flattering. What does it mean?”

“Silly fool.”

“I had to ask.”

Hye had a hearty guffaw.

We ate, drank, and got lost in our thoughts on the overlook for probably an hour on a remarkably resplendent fall day in the Blue Ridge. Then the question.

“What do you want from life, Hye?”

“Good man and happy family.” Darn, she wants kids. [I saw myself being childless then.]

“Children are a must?” Is he sterile?

“I couldn’t imagine not having any. Not now, but someday.” Well, we’re incompatible long-term, but we can enjoy each other’s company for the near future.

“I see.” Does he not like kids? But, he’s from a large family. He’s weird.

Several Caucasian hikers approached.

“Ready to head back, Mr. Mike?” Mr. Mike? She feels at ease around me.

“Sure. Let’s not hog this rock. Lead the way, Miss Korea.” He’s flirting with me.

“I’m not a beauty pageant type. I’m not that pretty.”

“I beg to differ, Hye.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” Hmmm.

We marched back down the trail. I was a few paces behind Hye. I couldn’t help but stare at her sexy rump. She doesn’t know how bad I want to have sex with her. / I know that he is checking out my ass and getting aroused. Typical male dog.

When we got to a faded red blaze on the right, Hye started down a faint trail. Before I could say anything, she slipped, fell down, and started sliding on the fallen leaves towards a precipice. It was like a horrific scene unfolding in slow motion. She was headed, feet-first, for a cliff. It was at least a forty-foot (12.2 meters) drop. Oh, my God! She’s going to die! It’s going to occur right here and now. This is a real-life tragedy happening right in front of my eyes! I’m going to have to tell her sister. Will she believe me? I’m going to have to go to the police. Will they believe it was an accident? Will anyone believe it was an accident? Ever? If she goes over that cliff, I’m next. I can’t deal with this.

But then, with just a yard (meter) to spare, her left leg caught a pine sapling and her body came to rest on the edge of the ledge. She was stunned and lay motionless. Thank God she didn’t go over! / Am I still alive?

I hurried down the slope to Hye. I helped her up. She was shaken but generally ok. There were a few scrapes and bruises on her legs, but all things considered …

“I’m so glad that you are alright, Hye. Your slide scared the crap out of me! I thought you were a goner.”

“Let’s not talk about it ever again, Mike. It was my mistake. I did wrong. I’m so sorry. You warned me. I’m very lucky.”

“Ok. But, don’t feel bad. I shattered my left ankle at Chimney Rock in 1989 on a risky descent.” [mentioned in the short story Chimney Rocked]

The ride back was mainly in silence. We kept replaying the near-fatal slide in our minds. Tragedy narrowly averted.

In Shelby we stopped at Chen’s on US 74 for some Chinese fare. We were faces-down at the table. Hye felt ashamed for having attempted that path to the base of the waterfall. Pervasive sorrow. It was if the worst had truly happened. Hye was now a ghost and I was the most doleful diner in the restaurant’s history.

We exited Chen’s in silence and got back on the road again. We were soon going by Crowders Mountain in the dying late afternoon sunlight. I looked up at the gray cliffs on the right and thought: Fatal falls have also occurred up there. We got away with one today. Yessiree, we got real lucky.

Hye and I would go out a few more times, but relationship momentum fizzled due to lifestyle differences. Also, Hye’s aspirations seemed incongruent with mine. I think that she sensed – most presciently – that I was an incorrigible creative class clown (hyphenate as desired), and that I would wind up in my mom’s basement one day. Additionally, given her awful teenage years, she needed a more regular kind of guy to aid her recovery – a much safer bet than me.

Areum soon quit the store. By chance I saw her in uptown Charlotte in 2006. She told me that Hye was now married with two kids. Hearing this made me smile. I told Areum that I was very happy for Hye.

24. A Winter Hike (Aug. 2016)

It was back in January of 2000 when I lived alone on High Peak Mountain (near Etowah, NC, USA) that some Caucasian American friends from Charlotte (Frank von Peck, Agent 107, and Burke Braun, Agent 2) came up for a cool-air waterfall hike. I’m not sure of the exact Saturday, but there was still some snow on the ground in the shady spots. The high temperature was forecast to be 43º (Fahrenheit; 6º Celsius) in the Brevard area under mostly cloudy skies. I thought: Ah, perfect hiking weather. Should be fun. No bugs. No sweat.

We had a breakfast bowl (not Cheerios) and some coffee in the living room. A few minutes later, perhaps around 9:30 AM, we were joined by my zany, white, long-dirty-blonde-haired, former Floridian, up-street neighbor Kelvin (refused to take an agent number; is suspicious of all numerical identification).

“We should do DuPont [State Forest] today, dudes,” Kelvin suggested emphatically. Do-do pont.

“From the bridge?” I asked. Huh?

“From the bridge?” Kelvin repeated, looking puzzled.

“That’s what DuPont means in French,” I said. Oh, no, he’s on with the French translations already.

“Get out of here, old man,” Kelvin retorted.

“Hey, you’re older than me,” I barked back. (I was 35 at the time; Kelvin was 43, I believe; Burke was just shy of 36; Frank was 34.)

We got our bodies and minds satiated and then piled into my white Plymouth Voyager minivan. Burke, sitting shotgun, put in an early ‘70s art-rock cassette tape as we began to ease down the steep, gravel, switchbacking road.

When we arrived at the valley plateau (.62 miles – 1 km – from my driveway), the two Charlotteans were noticeably shocked by the ratty old trailers and assorted makeshift housing.

“Man, I don’t know how you ever bought that house up there, Tryke,” [my nickname and art-name] a reddish-brown-bearded Burke said. “I would have turned around as soon as I saw this.”

“I hear ya, Burke. I was sitting in Beanstreets [now out of business, but the focus of a short story with the same name] in downtown Asheville in late October of ‘97, when I saw the house advertised in IWANNA (a free buy-and-sell weekly). It was just your basic three-line text ad. I wasn’t really considering the Etowah area, but a two-bedroom house on a mountain for only $39,900 ensnared my curiosity. I thought, ‘oh, let’s at least check it out’ – which I certainly did that evening.”

“The first time you came up here it was dark?” Frank asked from the backseat, sounding shocked.

“It wasn’t pitch-dark, Frank,” I replied. “Though, it was advanced twilight. I had called the homeowner before I left Asheville. He said that the house was just a smidgen under 1.1 miles [1.77 km] from the paved road.” Smidgen?

“Did he really say the word smidgen, Tryke?” Burke asked.

“He did, Burke. You know me; I remember such trivial, non-revenue-generating things.” What?

At the bent, shotgun-blasted STOP sign, I turned left and we bounded onto the asphalt road (Pleasant Grove Church Road). Everyone was happy to finally be done with the bumpy, severely rutted, cratered High Peak Road. Jesus Christ! That is the road from hell!

Just 500 feet (152 meters) later, we were at another STOP sign that only had one bullet hole in it. I turned left again. We were now on Pleasant Grove Road, which paralleled the sinuous French Broad River. At some point the road changed names and became Talley Road.

Everyone seemed to be lost in Burke’s musical selections. A cut from Gentle Giant was playing as we rolled up to the STOP sign at Crab Creek Road. School days together, why do they change?

“Are we there yet?” Frank mocked from the backseat.

I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw his dark brown hair flanking his black shades. “Only six miles [9.66 km] to go, Peckmeister.” [one of Frank’s nicknames]

With that answer, Frank fired up another bowl. Oh, jeez.

“We’ve made three consecutive left turns, Tryke,” Burke then said. “Are we going in a circle around the mountain?”

“A semicircle,” I said. “Then we’ll break away to the west.”

Burke just shook his head. He’s already cooked.

Kelvin, who had been mute – possibly from being hungover – finally spoke up. “We’re now on Crab Creek Road, boys. You know why they call it Crab Creek Road?”

“No idea,” I replied.

Neither Burke nor Frank offered up an answer.

“Time’s up!” Kelvin blasted. “They call it Crab Creek Road because it runs next to Crab Creek.”

“Booooooo,” I muttered.

“So, the lame comedy hour has already started,” Burke commented.

“Let me out now,” Frank demanded.

Kelvin then tacked on his hardy-har-har laugh.

Soon I was turning right onto DuPont Road (which becomes Staton Road). “It’s the homestretch now, guys.” No reply.

Three miles (4.83 km) further, I turned right into the Hooker Falls Access Area parking lot. There were only two other vehicles. I parked near the river, away from the pair of SUVs.

“Well, we’re here, guys,” I announced. “Get ready for eight grueling hours of hiking.”

“Fuck that!” Frank retorted.

“Calm down,” I replied. “I’m just kidding. We can take in several waterfalls and be back here in under three hours.”

“Ok, what’s the first waterfall?” Frank asked.

“Hooker Falls, dude,” Kelvin answered for me. “Did you not see that brown sign?” No response from Frank.

“Hooker Falls?” Burke queried. “I guess you have a joke for that, Kelvin.”

“Not really,” Kelvin softly said. “A previous landowner’s last name was Hooker.”

“Ah, but we all know what Mrs. Hooker did for extra income,” Frank said as he took another toke from his chrome pipe. What in the world?

“Ok, enough!” I quipped. “Let’s get out of this smoky van before the cops catch a whiff. It’s time to start hiking.”

With that we all disembarked and began marching towards Hooker Falls. The trail was only .31 miles (.5 km) long. We were soon looking at a corner-ledge waterfall. The drop was only 12 feet (3.66 meters). There was some ice on the edges of the plunge pool.

“That’s your basic Hooker Falls on a winter day,” I announced to the other three. Basic?

“Basic?” Burke questioned. “Why, is the bedrock alkaline?” Huh? / What are they talking about?

“You said bedrock, dude,” Kelvin stated and then began to guffaw in his most unique way.

I then heard some hikers coming towards us. “Hey, reel it in, guys. We’re not alone.”

The hikers, an older Caucasian couple with a Chinese girl accosted us. I bet they adopted her. We said our polite hellos and were soon heading back.

At a trail intersection near the parking lot, we stopped to read the signs.

“Next up is Triple Falls,” I said. “It’s less than a half-mile [.8 km] from here.”

“It’s not straight uphill is it?” Frank asked, seeming very concerned.

“Just the last 1,000 feet,” [305 meters] Kelvin replied.

“What?!” Frank spouted, dreading a steep ascent.

“It’s not that bad, Frank,” I said. “Kelvin and I did this hike last year. A little climbing, but even your truncated lungs can make it, Captain Stacks.” [another one of Frank’s nicknames as he was a chronic smoker] Truncated? What the fuck!

Frank consented. Soon we were passing under the road next to the cold stream (Little River). We noticed tiny icicles hanging from the boulders in the stream.

“I’d hate to fall into that creek,” Burke remarked.

“It would be a cold bath that you wouldn’t forget,” I added.

“Or remember,” Kelvin concluded. Huh?

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You’d be dead in no time from hypothermia,” Kelvin stated. “Nothing to remember.”

“Kelvin, are you an atheist?” Frank asked.

“I’m just a realist,” Kelvin replied.

We continued on the rocks-and-sand trail to the base of the impressive Triple Falls. Like its name implies, the waterfall was a series of three main drops that totaled 122 feet (37.19 meters).

The spray was cold on my face. I moved over to the right side of the plunge pool, out of the line of fire.

“Afraid of a little chilly mist?” Kelvin asked me. “It’ll wake your sleepy ass up!”

“I’m sure it will, Kelvin,” I said. “I just don’t want to be stoned, cold and wet.”

“Hey, two out of three aint bad,” Kelvin said without missing the cue for a pun on the famous Meatloaf song. He sure loves that gag.

We each settled on a dry boulder, looking up at the mighty waterfall, lost in our inebriation. Frank packed another bowl and we passed it back and forth. Man, I am really zonked now. / How does Frank do it? / These guys are toasted. / Glad I don’t have anything to do today.

Then after maybe ten speechless minutes, Frank shouted at me: “There’s a bear behind you!” Oh, shit!

I spun my head around. All I saw was a patch of drooping rhododendron (typical in cold weather). “You got me again with that one,” I confessed to Frank.

“You fall for it every time,” Frank said.

“You should have seen the look on your face, Mike,” Kelvin said. “You bought it, hook, line and sinker.” He’s right.

“Yeah, I guess I am pretty gullible in this hyper-suggestable state of mind,” I said. What did he just say?

Frank then stood up, feeling a rush of newfound energy. “Let’s do one more waterfall!” he exclaimed. “I’m game for it now. I’m going to hike your asses under the table.” His energy level is inversely proportional to the amount of weed that he smokes. No, wait; that would be for me, Burke and Kelvin. With him it is directly proportional. I could take a nap right now. How does he do it? / Time to hike again? Already? / Did I leave the car battery charger on? Hope it shuts off automatically. Last time it didn’t.

We marched on. The trail stayed beside the river for a quarter-mile (402 meters), then it broke into the woods and began to rise. Hope there are no wolves around. / Hope there are no rednecks up to no good. / Hope I can make this climb. / Hope no one gets hurt. A twisted ankle would suck.

After about ten minutes we had scaled the ridge. With no leaves being on the deciduous trees, we were able to see High Falls, a forty-yard-long (36.58 meters) slanted chunk of granite, as soon as we heard it. A few minutes later we were nearing the base.

“Hey, look at that!” Frank exclaimed. “There’s a covered bridge up there.”

“Wow,” Burke uttered.

“Yeah, this area was going to be the focus of a high-end, gated, residential development,” I said. “I think the State got an injunction to stop it. It’s all tied-up in court now.” [Governor Jim Hunt would invoke eminent domain in October of 2000 to protect this area from private development and restricted access.]

“No one should own these waterfalls; they should be public,” Kelvin opined.

“I agree, Kelvin,” Burke said.

“Me, too,” I added.

“Are those balloons up there?” Frank asked as he studied the covered bridge with his right hand shielding a ray of sun.

“Not sure,” I said.

“Let’s go up and see,” Kelvin suggested.

“More climbing?” Frank asked, now appearing low on energy. Let me get recharged first.” Again?

Frank puffed another bowl with Burke. Kelvin and I just gulped down some Gatorade. I am still high as a kite. No need for any more. / Man, that Frank guy loves to bake it. / I’m running low. Need to conserve for the trip back to Charlotte. / He’s too generous with his weed. I owe him.

After an eight-minute break, we were hiking again. The clouds had moved back in, obscuring the sun. A brisk breeze whispered down the ravine.

Once at the top of High Falls, we walked onto the newly constructed covered bridge. The colored orbs that we saw from below were indeed balloons. We each took one down from the posts. They were ordinary air balloons – not helium.

“Hey, let’s let them all go over the falls and see which ones survive,” I offered for entertainment.

“Sure, dude,” Frank said. “This purple balloon will be the sole survivor. You can give me the gold medal now.”

“We’ll see about that, Frank,” Burke countered. “This greenie can’t be touched.”

“Don’t underestimate this over-plump blueberry,” Kelvin contended.

“My steroidal cherry will be ‘Le championne de la chute d’eau’,” [The champion of the waterfall] I proclaimed. Oh, no – not French! / What? / Huh?

We walked back down to the top of High Falls and released the quartet of balloons in the main channel. They all went over and down the dangerously deceptive cascade.

Then we retreated to the base of High Falls to survey the fate of the balloons. Surprisingly, three of the four had survived the falls, and were just floating around in the plunge pool like rubber duckies. However, Frank’s purple balloon was nowhere to be seen.

It was a pensive walk back to the van.

Note: Frank would be the first one to leave this mortal realm, departing on January 6, 2013.

25. A Summer Hike (Aug. 2016)

 

Summer solstice and Father’s Day shared the same desk calendar square in 2004 (Sunday, June 20). I noticed this in my Dundee Street curbside office in near-downtown Asheville (NC, USA), while sipping some tepid tea.

Having knocked out the last item (replacement of a faulty electrical receptacle) on the to-do-while-they’re-away list (my first wife and 38-week-old son were in the Philippines) at 7:07 AM, it was time to finally do that Kitsuma Peak hike. A decent-for-June high temperature of 77º (Fahrenheit; 25º Celsius) was forecast for Black Mountain (15 miles – 24 km – east of our house). I thought: That’s not too bad for summer. Might as well head out now while it’s not hot. And, let’s bring Viche, [my dachshund-mix rescue dog] too; she will enjoy getting out of this old fixer-upper.

At – would you believe? – 08:08:08 AM, we were rolling east through the Interstate 240 Beaucatcher Mountain blast-cut. Traffic was light. We soon passed over Tunnel Road and took the exit for I-40 East. Should be a great day. What could go wrong? Darn, why did I have to think that?

Thirteen minutes later I was taking Exit 66 for Ridgecrest. I turned right at the STOP sign onto Dunsmore Avenue. We were almost immediately going over a pair of railroad tracks. Wonder if I’ll see a train today. Do they run on Sundays?

I then made a quick left onto Yates Avenue. Viche, previously asleep in the shotgun seat, looked up, trying to discern our whereabouts. Where on Earth is he taking me now?

Yates Avenue, a quasi-rural two-lane highway, paralleled I-40 for a mile (1.6 km), and then crossed over it. Just after the overpass, I turned right onto Royal Gorge Road. We tootled down it for 689 feet (210 meters), where it ended as a small parking lot. Only one vehicle was there: a dark blue Jeep Wagoneer. Good deal. It’s not crowded.

“We’re here, Viche,” I announced to my curious canine. “Are you ready to do some hiking?”

Viche looked at me with an excited expression on her little black-and-tan face.

We got out of the van. I got my backpack adjusted, and we were off. We soon arrived at the official beginning of the trail. An old wooden sign read:

YOUNGS RIDGE / KITSUMA PEAK

4 MI

I wasn’t planning on doing an 8-mile (12.9 km) roundtrip hike. That would be way too much for Viche and her short legs. We would just take in some overlooks within the first two miles (3.2 km).

The narrow, dirt-and-grass trail was bordered by I-40 on the right (southwest) and a ravine on the left. After walking 984 feet (300 meters), we began a steep climb that consisted of a dozen switchbacks. The trail became a trench with numerous rocks, some loose, and bicycle tire tracks. Wow! People mountain-bike this? Their bikes must have ultra-low granny gears.

Halfway up the incline, we stopped at a little granite overlook for some water. Viche lapped it up. Her nine-year-old body was already feeling the burn; she was panting hard. My heart was pounding, too; I had already broken a sweat. Let’s take a 15-minute rest. Don’t want to give her – or me – a heart attack. There’s really no rush. No need to turn this into a race.

We both parked on some semi-comfortable shaded spots on the gray craggy outcrop. Interstate 40 and the eastern part of the town of Black Mountain were visible in the distance. A pair of hawks soared on a thermal.

Then I heard a freight train to my right, chugging up the steep, winding grade from Old Fort. My mind meandered, just like the loopy railroad track layout to the north. (You really should see it: an array of clover leafs.) When was the last time I was here? It was in the wintertime. The winter of ‘96? Late January? Sounds about right. I remember sitting right here, hoping that I would be married by 2000. Well, that happened. But, it looks like I married the wrong one. Moving to Asheville got her away from her pernicious sister in Charlotte, but that damn cellphone remains an unbreakable link to Miss Evil. I’ll always be coming in second place to the slut-witch in terms of influence. She completely controls my wife’s mind; programs her like a robot. Oh, what does it matter? My wife is really not my type, nor the Asheville type. She has no interest in kewl [sic] art or music. She doesn’t like hiking, kayaking or cycling. She would never hike up here with Viche and me. She only likes spending money on shoes in Asheville Mall. She’s not going to change. I’ve truly married the wrong woman. I was naïve. Got played. And now I have a child with her. Man, I really fucked up. This don’t end good. [sic] I need to look out for my dear son, though. If we divorce, she might shack up with some real knuckleheads. [She would.] Maybe I could get primary custody. Ha! In this state? Are you kidding? I’d have to have a photo of her sucking on a crack pipe or a dude’s crank. She’s not a drug addict or alcoholic. This is going to get tricky and stressful. I’ll probably have to deal with an unethical lawyer at some point. [I would.] It will also get costly, I bet. [It did; still haven’t recovered financially.] ‘It’s cheaper to keep her’, they say. Keep a cheater? No wayI’m done. I’m sure that she’ll cheat on me again. [She would.] She’s probably screwing her old boyfriend in the Philippines right about now. [Never verified.] Yes, I bet we’re divorced before too long. [She would leave for her sister’s house on Christmas Day 2006 after being confronted about another affair; we would be officially divorced in February 2008.] Ah, such a lovely day for crappy thoughts. Time to get moving. Maybe that will clear my head out.

“Ok, Viche, did you have enough of a break?”

Viche just raised her head and looked at me. I hope we’re going down and not up.

We continued our upward trek. Why are we going up? What is up there? Tons of food? This had better be worth it.

In the penultimate switchback, Viche barked. A pair of hikers were coming downslope. When they got to us, I could tell that they were a couple. The man was a mid-20-something Caucasian collegiate type with reddish blonde hair; the female was Asian, Vietnamese perhaps, and about the same age. (My age: 39.) What a perfect pair. Why couldn’t we be like this? They seem so happy together. So content. What a sublime present for them. And what a fabulous future must surely be awaiting them.

“Hello!” the young lady said with genuine cheer. “Nice day for a hike.”

“Yes, it is,” I replied. “Not too bad for summer.”

“My thoughts, too,” the dude said in a non-American accent. Is he from England?

There was a semi-awkward pause. I wonder where they will be in ten years. Probably still on Happy Street.

The female finally spoke. “You have a cute dog.”

“Oh, thanks,” I said. “I got her from the Charlotte Dog Pound. She was just 72 hours away from being put to sleep.”

“Good on you, mate,” the dude said, now sounding Australian. Is he really an Aussie? Maybe an exchange grad student at UNCA. [University of North Carolina at Asheville] Maybe they both are.

“Well, don’t let me hold you guys up,” I then said. “Have a grand day.” Grand?

“You, too,” they said in unison as they sauntered along.

I watched them disappear into the dense greenery. Another ephemeral moment vanishes.

“Well, come on, Viche. We’re almost there.”

Her head tilted. We’d better be!

Ninety-nine seconds later, the back-and-forth ascent was over. We alighted on another west-facing granite outcrop. This overlook was larger than the last one. I undid Viche’s leash and lay down, utilizing a fallen tree as a pillow.

The sound of the freight train’s churning diesel engine grew louder. It was almost out of the curly-Q section now. And then the black locomotive appeared, billowing gray exhaust smoke up with such force that the bright-green-leaved tree limbs above it were rippling. Wow! What a sight. I’d still love to be a train engineer. Probably too late now.

The train was now on a straight shot, gaining speed, heading for the long tunnel that went under I-40 at Yates Avenue. Another successful climb. I guess that it’s much hairier going down. ‘Check those brakes! Check ‘em again, Ed.’

Six minutes later and the mostly-boxcar freight train had disappeared to the west, en route to the Asheville yard. I looked around for Viche. But, I didn’t see her … anywhere! She was gone.

I stood up and yelled, “Viche!” Nothing. “Hey, Viche! Viche, I’ve got treats!” No dog sounds. Oh, crap! Where’d she go?

I put my backpack on and walked to the trail. I kept calling her name. Nothing. Only the sound of leaves rustling in the late-morning breeze. Oh, man! Where is she?

I would walk down the trail to the van, calling for her, and back up, all the way to Kitsuma Peak (way beyond the second overlook). I didn’t see or hear her anywhere. I would then go off the trail into the woods. Still nothing. Did she fall off a cliff? Would I have heard anything if she did? Maybe, but maybe not. Or, did some animal, like a wolf or fox, suddenly attack her and carry her away? But, she would have yelped. Did she go off with a passing hiker that had food? Would she really do that?

I would keep searching until sundown. I asked several hikers that I came across, but none of them had seen her.

I resigned when it got dark. It was a morose, dispirited drive back to Asheville.

The next morning I returned to look for her. No luck.

Not finding her, I posted flyers in the area. I even placed a Lost Dog announcement in the local weekly.

However, it was all to no avail. I would never see Viche again.

 

26. 21 Park Place (Sep. 2016)

 

New York City on a cold, cloudy afternoon in late January of 1860. William ‘Bill’ Carter, age 16, is at work in the warehouse of a bootery located at 21 Park Place in lower Manhattan.

“Bill, I’m leaving now,” his wiry, middle-age, Caucasian boss said at 3:05 PM. “I think it may start snowing at any moment. Mr. Hall won’t be in today. Jane has already left. Just string a few more pairs of shoes with Mary. It should be slow. You two can then leave at four o’clock. Remember to put the CLOSED sign on the front door. And, make sure that you lock the back door with the bar.”

“Ok, thanks, Mr. Benedict,” Bill replied. He’s a good kid. I think he’ll go far in life.

After Mr. Benedict left, Bill gathered some boxes of women’s boots out of the second-floor stockroom and then went down to the front of the building where the retail store was. Mary, a 19-year-old lass with brownish red hair, was seated behind the checkout counter, reading a newspaper.

Bill set the boxes down on the counter. “Mary, Mr. Benedict said that we could lock up at four and go home.”

“Ah, that was nice of him. I have a lot of washing to do.”

“I need to get a high school education, but I don’t think one early exit from here is going to help with that.”

“Hey, at least we are in America. My parents told me that they were literally starving to death in Ireland after the potato crop failed. I’m grateful to have food to eat every single day.”

“Yes, having a full stomach is great, Mary. But, do you ever aspire to anything better than just being hired help?”

“I’m happy to have a job here, Bill. The owners treat me nice. I have two young mouths to feed. I’m very appreciative. What about you?”

“I want to go to college, but that is never going to happen. Getting a high school diploma isn’t even going to happen. My fate has been set: I’ll just be an errand-runner and a shoe-stringer. I can already see myself being old and bitter.”

“Oh, don’t say that, Bill. This is New York! Anything can happen. You don’t know who you might meet. Just maintain your good work habits and things will fall into place.”

Bill looked down. His dark bangs dangled as he opened two boxes of boots. They then began to lace them in silence. Why is he so down today on his future here? He just got a raise three weeks ago. Everyone likes him. / I wish I could be as positive as Mary, but I just can’t pretend away the bleakness of my prospects.

At 3:57 PM, Bill put the lid on the last box and looked at Mary. “I’m tired of this world. I’ve had enough of it.”

“Oh, Bill, don’t be like that. You’re still quite young. You can’t expect a king’s ransom in just nine months. You never know where you might be several years from now.”

“I’m afraid that I do, Mary. I’ll take the boxes upstairs now.”

“Ok, thanks, Bill.” What has gotten into him? Why is he so gloomy all of a sudden? Did a girl reject him?

“You can go out the front, Mary. I’ll lock up and leave the key under the counter on the secret hook.”

“Alright, Bill. See you tomorrow with a smile back on your face. Ok?”

Bill didn’t reply. He just turned and walked away.

Mary set the lock on the front door and then exited the store. A few flakes of snow were now coming down. Horse and buggies were scurrying to get off the already-muddy streets. I hope Bill cheers up. He’s too young to be so down on life.

Bill walked to the rear of the first floor and barred the back door. Then he marched up the steps with the boxes of stringed boots and put them back in the second-floor stockroom. Well, that was my last visit to that stockroom.

Next, Bill marched up three flights of stairs to the top-level damaged-shoes room, which was really a loft. There he arranged the numerous wooden crates so that there was a narrow passage between them, right below the apex of the 7-foot-tall (2.13 meters) roof trusses.

He then tied a shop towel around a roller-rod and placed the loop around his neck. Next, he stood sideways on a crate in the aisle. Then he slowly twisted a quarter turn so that each end of the roller-rod was resting on opposing stacks of crates, both sides being 74 inches (1.88 meters) above the hardwood floor. Well, this it.

Bill readjusted his feet so that all of his weight was on the crate edge that was 11 inches (28 centimeters) high. He then looked out the far-corner window and saw the snow coming down, quite furiously. Well, this will be the last time I see snow. I wonder if there will be wars in the 20th century. Seems like one is ready to break out any day in America. I wonder if anyone will remember me in the 21^st^ century. Will humankind make it to the 22^nd^ century? I wonder if I have a soul, and if there really is an afterlife. Well, I am going to find out right now.

With that final thought, he kicked the crate backwards. His body dropped. His neck snapped. Bill lost consciousness in seconds from asphyxia. His body’s life was completely choked away in 161 seconds.

A moth stirred and alit on a cold pane of glass.

When Bill didn’t arrive for supper, his parents assumed that he had spent the night with a friend, like he had done many times in the past. But, when he still hadn’t arrived the next morning, his dad trudged down to the bootery, an 11-minute walk through three inches of soft snow.

Mr. Hall, a rotund, bespectacled, vest-wearing, middle-age Caucasian, was in the retail store section of the bootery when Mr. Carter arrived at 9:09 AM.

“Hello. By chance, have you seen my son, Mr. Hall?” Mr. Carter asked. “He didn’t come home last night.”

“No, I didn’t see him yesterday. I was away on business, Mr. Carter.”

Mary, who was back behind the counter, overheard their conversation. “I saw Bill yesterday,” she interjected. “I worked with him until we closed up shop at four o’clock.”

Ed, the porter, then entered the retail space from the first-floor warehouse. “Someone forgot to close the upper-level shutters,” he announced.

“Bill must have forgot to do it,” Mary said.

“Was Bill acting normal yesterday, Mary?” Mr. Carter asked.

“Actually, he was in an unusually dour mood. He told me that he was tired of this world.” Oh, dear.

“I will go close the shutters now,” Ed said.

“Thanks, Ed,” Mr. Hall replied.

“So, no one saw my son after four o’clock?” Mr. Carter asked just to be clear, and to confirm his fears.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Mary said.

Eighty-eight seconds later, Ed was shouting down the stairwell. “Oh, dear God! Mr. Carter, please come up here at once!” Oh, no.

They all rushed up the four flights of stairs. Mr. Carter, the first to the loft, saw a horrified look on Ed’s ashen face. This isn’t going to be good.

Ed, with his left hand over his 30-something Caucasian mouth, pointed with his right index finger towards the crate stacks.

Mr. Carter then walked around the nearest phalanx of crates. He saw his son’s lifeless, 5’-4” (1.42 meters) body hanging with his shoe tips only four inches (10 centimeters) above the floor.

Note: This short story is based on a New York Times article dated January 27, 1860.

 

27. Glen Park Girl (Sep. 2016)

It was a sunny Monday afternoon in June of 1992 at the Glen Park BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. The time was around four o’clock. I had just returned to the station via San Francisco Muni bus route 36 (Teresita), having done some hiking and scouting up on Mount Davidson. I was thinking of having a small 28th birthday party up there in a few weeks.

As soon as I cleared the turnstile to enter the fare area of the platform, a Japanese-appearing female with purple- highlighted hair, probably 21 to 24 years old, accosted me.

“Hey, you like get high?” [sic] she brazenly asked in chopped English. What the hell? Is this a setup by BART police? Or, is she a prostitute? Better answer carefully.

“Uh, maybe,” I mumbled, even though no one was in earshot. Hope this isn’t a sting. Was that recorded? Is she wearing a wire?

“If you help me to boyfriend, we get high,” [sic] she clarified. So, she has a stoner boyfriend, and is too stoned to figure out how to get to him.

“Ok, I’ll help you,” I stated. “Where does your boyfriend live?”

“We live in the Oakland,” [sic] she said while twirling her hair.

“What part of Oakland?” I asked, doubting a workable reply.

“In west of that Oakland,” [sic] she answered with a smile. She’s really cute. Lucky dude. I wonder how they met.

“Ok, you need to take a train to the West Oakland station.”

“Yes. Thank you, sir.”

Just then an eight-car Richmond-bound train slid into the station. A pressure wave of air from the tunnel blew her hair across her face. Such a cutie. A baked cutie.

“We can take this train,” I said.

She followed me and we boarded the seventh car. We sat down together in the third seat on the right. The car was only 25% full.

“Oh, by the way, my name is Mike,” I announced from the window seat. “What’s yours?”

“I’m Sayuri. My name means lily. I am from Okinawa. My boyfriend was in United States Navy. We marry very soon.” [sic] Oh, I get it now. She was probably a ‘base girl’.

“I see. Very nice. Congratulations in advance.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome, Sayuri.”

“Mike, is your red hair natural?” she then asked, seeming genuinely unsure.

“Yes, it’s natural. Irish genes. Is your purple shade natural?”

She laughed. “Of course not! You silly boy, Mike.” [sic]

“Many say that.”

Sayuri giggled. “I like a guy with sense of humor. Serious type no fun. [sic] My boyfriend is a joker like you.” Maybe he laughs as he shoots people. Why’d I think that?

The train slithered into the 24th Street Mission station. More people got on than got off. The train was now 32% full. Maybe 33%.

“Tell me, what does your boyfriend do in Oakland?” I asked as a Latino dude sat behind us.

“He grow weed.” [sic] Wow! She sure is loose with her tongue. Boyfriend needs to have a talk with her.

“Oh, I see. Green for green.” Huh?

“Green for green? What does that mean, Mike?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sayuri. I just like playing with words.”

“You write book, Mike?” [sic]

“Maybe someday. Just phrases for now.” What?!

“Just phrases for now? Mike, you sound mental!” She then had another laugh as the train screeched into 16th Street Mission.

Once again, it was a net increase of passengers. Our car was now 42% full.

As the train rolled out, I suddenly thought about seismic activity. “It would suck if an earthquake happened right now, as we are underground,” I said.

“Yes, very terrible,” Sayuri replied. “We have earthquakes in Japan.”

We were then silent for a few minutes. Then the train zipped into Civic Center station. A net wash: The train remained 42% full.

“This is where I normally get off,” I said. “I live on Hyde Street, about halfway up Nob Hill. But, I’ll stay onboard with you to make sure that you get to the right station.”

“Oh, thanks, Mike. I still new to BART train. [sic] And, remember, we get high. It’s primo shit, man!” Spoken just like an Oaksterdammer. [sic]

I just smiled and the conversation died. A couple of minutes later we were pulling into Powell Street station. This was a big net gain. Our car was now 75% of capacity.

At the next station, Montgomery Street, all of the seats filled up. And at Embarcadero, they were standing in the aisle.

“Remember the long tunnel?” I asked Sayuri.

“Is this where we go under the water?”

“Yes, this is where we go under San Francisco Bay for two miles.” [3.2 kilometers]

“The worst time for earthquake,” Sayuri said with a frightened face.

“But, since we thought of it happening, it won’t.”

“What kind of philosophy is that, Mike?”

“I don’t know, Sayuri, but so far it has worked.”

“Are you superstitious, Mike?”

“Only in this Transbay Tube.”

“Look. I cross my fingers like you Americans do.” What cute petite fingers. Ah, and there’s her engagement ring. I wonder where they’ll get married. Probably in a hot tub in Marin.

After a few minutes we shot out of the tunnel into the industrial west side of Oakland. It was still a sunny day as the train eased into the West Oakland station.

“Well, here’s your stop, Sayuri.”

“Yes, this it. [sic] I recognize it.”

“Listen, I’m just going to stay on the train.” Huh?

“You not like get high with us? [sic] You helped me. Now you get reward.”

“No, that’s ok. I’m going to take care of some business further up the line.” He’s lying. Why is he afraid to join us? / I wonder if she believed that. I don’t want to show up with the dude’s fiancée at some clandestine grow house. No, it’s just too risky. He would wonder how we met, and probably suspect some funny business.

“Well, here; have this, Mike,” Sayuri said as she handed me a lavender-colored, bulging, miniature envelope from her fuchsia purse.

I put it in my front pants pocket. “Thanks,” I said. I wonder what’s in there.

She stepped into the aisle and made her way off the crowded train. At the doorway she paused to wave goodbye. Then the doors slid shut. Well, that’s that.

The train soon took off for downtown Oakland. I waved as my car passed Sayuri, but I wasn’t sure if she saw me, as she had just turned for the steps. I wonder how life will turn out for her. Hope they don’t get busted. Hope they don’t overdo it and get addicted.

I stayed on the train to El Cerrito Plaza. There I got off and began walking west on Fairmont Avenue. I then plucked Sayuri’s envelope from my front jean pocket as I strided down the sidewalk. I carefully opened it. Ah, just as I suspected: a nice hydroponic bud. Need to get some rolling papers and a lighter.

At a corner convenient store (San Pablo Avenue), I got what I needed. I then continued to Carlson Boulevard, where I turned left. In a tenth of a mile (161 meters) I was going around a guardrail barricade and beginning the Cerrito Creek Path. I continued west through the eucalyptus trees to Creekside Park, where I was able to ford the shallow creek on stepping stones. On the other side, the trail led up Albany Hill, linking the dead ends of Jackson and Taft Streets.

My timing was propitious. When I arrived at the summit, I was the only one there. San Francisco Bay was glistening in the late afternoon sun. Though, a fog bank was already engulfing and passing the Golden Gate Bridge, grasping for Angel Island.

I rolled a joint (marijuana cigarette), sparked it, and took a deep draw. Man, it don’t get any better than this. [sic] This is super-sublime. What a view. Marvelously majestic.

I then opened up Sayuri’s homemade tiny envelope all the way. There was some Japanese on the inner side:

 

いつか今かもしれません

Itsu ka ima kamo shiremasen.

[translation: Sometime could be right now.]

 

I would take it all in until a troupe of mid-30s Asians and Caucasians arrived for the approaching sunset. I graciously yielded the prime spot to them. Never good to be a view hog. Time to get moving along.

The BART ride back to Civic Center station was a stream of pleasant thoughts. It’s not as insipid as it often appears. There’s still magic in this world. Jon Anderson [of Yes] once drove a milk truck. And, when you least expect it … Shazam! It leaps out. It’s not all mapped-out. Life’s mystery remains. Assumptions are inevitable, but boy can they be wrong. Beautifully wrong. Blissfully incorrect. Well, every once in a while. This day’s a keeper. Must make some notes.

Once back at my studio apartment at 737 Hyde Street, I placed Sayuri’s flattened envelope in a Zen koan book.

28. Fern Park Man (Sep. 2016)

After a lively late lunch (the first NFL Sunday of the 2016-17 season) and engaging conversation with Agent 37 (Dave) at the Altamonte Springs (FL, USA) Duffy’s Sports Grill, we headed across the multilane boulevard to the Lynx bus stop. About a half-hour later, Agent 32 (Monique) and I (Agent 33) were boarding a green bus (route 436N). We soon arrived at the Fern Park Superstop, a nondescript bus shelter where four lines meet.

“Well, this is where we change buses, Monique.” I stood up and resituated my green backpack in the aisle.

Monique, sitting next to the window, then packed her smartphone. “What bus do we take to get back to the condo in Casselberry?”

“The 436S. It should be here shortly.”

Sure enough, a pink 436S Lynx bus pulled in behind the bus that we were on just two minutes earlier. We quickly boarded it to escape the steamy Florida heat and blazing sun. (These buses have good air conditioning.)

The driver allowed eight more people to get on. Then he walked out, closed the door, and went off to presumably get something to eat and/or drink.

“How long will he be gone, Parkaar?” [my ailing alias]

“Probably not that long. Maybe five minutes, Agent 32.” Agent 32? I guess he brought that darn digital audio recorder with him from Charlotte. He’s such a sneaky thing.

Our gaze soon focused on a conversing pair of waiting passengers: a skinny, 30-ish, light-brown-haired, extremely tanned Caucasian lady and a wobbling back and forth (most likely drunk), husky, ball-capped Caucasian dude in his late 30s. The duo were standing thirteen feet (4 meters) from the bus-stop sidewalk on the edge of a motorcycle-driving-instruction parking lot behind a jai-alai building. What an unforeseen pairing. Wonder what their stories are. Did they know that they would meet here today and be in a future short story? Probably not. But, as they now have …

We couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but their body language was amusing. The man would lunge forward when he spoke. Then the lady would smile, laugh, and flap her hands about. When she would reply, he would stumble backward. We watched this go on for six or seven cycles. Gosh, she’s so unnaturally thin. I bet she’s on crack. He’s drunk and trying to pull a date, but he couldn’t even pull his sausage out in his condition. / She’s a crack whore, I bet. Dude smells an easy lay. He’s stumbling in for the thrill. She’s just sizing up his wallet.

Then my attention shifted to a silver-haired, bronze-faced gentleman in his 60s. He was wearing a thrift-store-looking plaid suit, a yellow dress shirt, tweed slacks and brown loafers. He was totally oblivious to the inebriated pair six feet (1.83 meters) behind him as he sat on what appeared to be a milk crate. He must have earplugs. Or, maybe he’s deaf. He still hasn’t even acknowledged the intoxicated tandem behind him.

He had his routine, too. He would stare out to his left for maybe ten or so seconds, look down, rub his eyebrows, and then rake his right hand through his long bangs. Then he would look up at the sky and sigh, before looking back down at the sand in front of him. He must have had a major financial reversal. Something big went bust. But, he still has his dignity. Even if now destitute, he’s not going to go around looking like a bum. He still has his pride in this sauna-like heat. I wonder if I’m on the right track with my hunch. He would be one interesting interview. He’s a living novel.

On his third iteration, Monique noticed me studying him and not the other two. “That man sure seems pensive. What do you think is on his mind, Agent 33?” Maybe some of the bus passengers heard that. Hope so.

“I’m thinking that he’s replaying 2008 in his mind, Agent 32. He must have lost it all. That’s when the Great American Recession began, Monique. Though, some back it up to late 2007.”

“He is certainly troubled by something, Agent 33. That’s for sure.”

I looked back at him just as he looked skyward. “I can tell that he had it all within his grasp and that it suddenly slipped away.”

“Maybe his business venture suffered a Gerrard slip.”

“Maybe so. That would be the worst, and would explain it. He’s a haunted man now. Probably all the way to the grave. But, as for Liverpool, they sure looked good yesterday against Leicester City at the enlarged Anfield.”

“We finally met Kerry and the Orlando group at The Harp. That was a fun time, Parkaar. You know, that old man looks like the guy at Lake Eola.” Huh?

“You saw him yesterday, 32?”

“Yes. Or, someone who looked just like him.”

“Oh, I must have missed him.”

“Because you were hiding in the shade, Parkaar.”

“I can’t deal with the Florida sun, Monique. My skin just wasn’t designed for this climate.”

Monique then looked back at the old man, who was now looking down again. “Maybe his wife died recently, 33.”

“That could be the case, 32.”

“I really think so.”

I caught the old man sighing again. “Something is really eating at his psyche.”

“I feel sorry for him, 33. Maybe his whole family has abandoned him.”

“Maybe he had no family, Monique.”

“Ah, that’s so sad, Parkaar.”

“Or, maybe he’s just dreading the arrival of the 102 bus that will take him back to his assisted-living center in Winter Park. Maybe he despises the routine there.”

“It’s kind of fun trying to guess what people are thinking; isn’t it, Agent 33?”

“It is as long as one is in a cool-enough-to-think place, Agent 32. If we had a thought interceptor like the one mentioned in [_ Galax_ Galaxy, _] [a short story from 2012] we’d be rich.”

“Or, dead.” Quite possibly.

Then the old man rubbed his right eye as the 436N and 103 buses pulled away.

I then saw our driver quick-footing it across the parking lot with a pizza box in his hands. Ah, so he went to Venice. [an Italian restaurant a block away] Looks like it took too long. / So, our driver went out for pizza on his break. I wonder if that pizza is any good. The one from New York Pizza, Baby was just average the other night.

The stocky Cuban American bus driver passed the improbable pair and the old man. He opened the front door of the bus and set his pizza box down next to the fare box. The driver turned and smiled at us. “Did everyone have enough time to collect their thoughts?” He chuckled to himself. What a joker. / Maybe his girlfriend works at Venice.

Our bus driver then sat down, buckled up, and opened the front door for the eleven waiting passengers, including the delirious duo. All aboard. All a-bored a board. Jeez, what am I thinking?

Before we pulled away from the curb, the 102 bus – which had parked behind our bus, completely unbeknownst to us – passed our bus and headed for US 17/92.

The old man was still sitting on the milk crate. He was still going through the same series of mannerisms. Well, he didn’t care to get on any of these buses. Maybe he’s suffering from some form of dementia. How sad. / That old man is still just sitting there. I can tell that he is ‘buang’. [crazy in Cebuano]

The bus lurched forward. I saw the old man stand up. He waved to the bus (and to us?), and started walking towards Oxford Road. How odd. Does he just like to watch people get off and on the buses here? Very strange. Probably some mental issue. / I bet he and his wife used to ride the 436S bus. Maybe that’s it. Poor old man. I really pity him. I wonder what becomes of him. Where does he live?

Our bus made the half loop with a right on US 17/92, followed by a right on Semoran Boulevard (State Road 436). When we came to Oxford Road (on the right), I looked down it, hoping to see the old man in the plaid suit. However, he was nowhere to be found. Maybe he slipped into that corner convenient store back there. [Pelican Discount Beverage] I really doubt that he went in the nail salon, [CCS] recording studio, [Real Feel] or that vacuum cleaner repair shop. [B&C] Ah, maybe he slipped into that massage parlor. [Star Massage Therapy] Yeah, the old sly dog. A happy ending to close out the day. Maybe he was secretly taking mental notes on everyone for his novel. Maybe Monique and I will be in it. What an insane thought. Need to lay off the granules. / I wonder what nonsense my agent-in-space-time husband is thinking now. I’m sure that I’ll read about it soon.

29. An Orlando Saturday (Sep. 2016)

This particular Saturday – September 10, 2016 – started at the McDonald’s on State Road 436 in Casselberry (Florida, USA). Monique (Agent 32) and I (Agent 33) were sitting, sipping our McCafé coffee concoctions at 7:47 AM, when Steve, Monique’s 39-year-old pinoy (a male Filipino) brother walked in the side door of the fast-food restaurant.

“Hey, bro, we’re over here!” Monique shouted to Steve.

Steve walked over, hugged his younger sister, and shook my hand. He then sat down across from Monique and me.

“Steve, would you like something to eat or drink?” I asked. “It’s on me.”

“Uh, sure,” Steve replied. “Maybe just an egg biscuit and some coffee.”

I went up and ordered while Monique and Steve chatted away in Cebuano (the dialect spoken in Siquijor).

When I returned with the food and beverage, Steve was patting his forehead with a hand towel.

“It’s just as steamy as Manila; isn’t it, Steve?” I posited.

“Yes, it’s about as hot,” Steve said. “It’s not even 8:00 AM, and I was sweating while walking over here from my apartment across the street.”

“Well, Orlando does cool off, bro, unlike Manila,” Monique stated.

“Yeah, just wait until November, Steve,” I added.

“I’ll be gone early Tuesday morning,” Steve announced between chomps.

“Wow! I’m glad that we came down here this weekend,” Monique said.

“Where are they sending you, Steve?” I asked.

“West Texas,” Steve replied. “Some little Podunk in the middle of nowhere.”

“Say, did Ernie give you a [psecret psociety agent] number, Steve?” I inquired. What?

“Not yet,” Steve answered.

The conversation died. Monique and I finished our java infusions as Steve devoured the final third of his biscuit.

Thirteen minutes later we were at a bus stop on the other side of Semoran Boulevard (SR 436). We were able to wait in the shade, as the eastern sun was still low in the sky.

“So, where are we going again?” Steve asked.

“The Harp & Celt in downtown Orlando,” I replied. “They’ll be showing the Liverpool – Leicester [City] game. They’ll have a ten o’clock game on before it. It should be fun. They are expecting us.”

Right then a 20-something Hispanic dude on a fixie (a modified single-speed bicycle) passed us on the sidewalk. “Fanks,” [sic] he muttered as we moved aside.

The Lynx bus came eight minutes later. We boarded and sat in the middle, on the left side. The bus was only 20% full. Traffic was still light.

Soon we were at the Fern Park Superstop, which was just an ordinary bus shelter where four local bus routes began and terminated.

“Well, time to switch buses,” I announced. I hope we get on the right one. His thinking in the morning is not the best.

“Which one do we get on, Parkaar?” [my ailing alias] Monique asked.

“The bus in front of us – the 102,” I answered. He had better be right. I don’t want to end up next to an alligator pond.

We all rose from our seats and marched off the bus. We then sat down in about the same place on the 102 bus. I wonder how long it will take to get to downtown.

Just as the bus started to pull away, a 25-ish, tanned, sandy-blonde-haired, shirtless lad with a long wooden skateboard, banged on the front doors. The driver stopped the bus and allowed him to get on. He sat down on the right, a few rows in front of us. He seemed very agitated; his head kept twisting back and forth. Is he on something? / He sure is acting odd. / Stange kano [Filipino slang for American] there.

Four stops later he got up and exited the bus. Once outside, he turned to the driver and asked, “Will another bus be here in twenty minutes?”

“That sounds about right,” the somewhat obese African American female bus driver said.

As our bus pulled away, I saw him with this very confused look on his face. I wonder what he’s on. He seems extremely disoriented. It’s like he ingested a box of Marezine tablets. [an over-the-counter motion-sickness medication that can cause delirium in high doses]

We were soon winding through Winter Park. I suddenly remembered that a long-brown-haired girl that I once worked with at the Pier 1 Imports store on East Independence Boulevard (now razed) in Charlotte (NC, USA) went to Rollins College. So, this is where Caroline went to school back in the mid-80s. I wonder what became of her. Hmmm … maybe she became a potter.

Five minutes later and the bus was in Orlando proper. We lumbered towards downtown in silence. Soon we were disembarking at the Central Lynx station.

We meandered around the downtown area, occasionally stopping to take pictures. Eventually we alighted on Magnolia Avenue and started walking south towards our destination.

“Well, guys, we have a lot of time to kill; we’re way ahead of schedule,” I announced. “It’s only 9:53. Our game’s kickoff isn’t until 12:30. Let’s look for a coffee shop to duck into.”

“A coffee shop?” Monique questioned. “We just had coffee.”

“Hey, there’s a lake over there,” Steve said as we were crossing Washington Street.

“Ok, let’s check it out,” I said.

Once across the street, we turned left and strided down to Lake Eola (just two blocks east).

I walked up to the primary bronze-plaqued monument. “This is Orlando’s first city park,” I shouted back to Monique and Steve. “It was established in 1883.” I then pointed to the large fountain in the middle of the large pond. “The fountain was added in 1957.”

“Thanks for that report, Agent 33,” Monique said with a grin.

The sun was well above the tree line now. It was in a three-letter word: Hot! I found a shady spot near the band shell and sat down. Monique and Steve followed suit.

“What is that for?” Monique asked, while looking back at the band shell.

“It’s for music and theater events, Monique.”

“Is there an event today?” Steve asked.

“I don’t think so, Steve,” I replied. “Just lizards humming about the stage.”

“A reptile rhapsody?” Steve suggested, and then chuckled.

I laughed for a few seconds with him. “Seriously though, you don’t want to get in any pond, lake or creek in Florida, Steve. There is a good chance that hungry alligators and dangerous snakes will be present.”

“You’ve already warned him about that, Parkaar,” Monique reminded me.

“Sorry about that, Steve. Senility is setting in. I’m 52 now, and I wish I knew what I thought I knew.” Huh? / What?!

A Latino American family of four strolled up to the Lake Eola plaque. They were really enjoying their morning together.

“Ready to go?” Monique suggested.

“Sure,” I said, getting the hint. She wants to get somewhere cool. I wouldn’t mind that, either.

In just six minutes we were entering The Celt (the sister restaurant of The Harp), as The Harp was still closed. There were seven Spurs fans at the bar watching the Stoke City – Tottenham game. I know that we’re early, but I don’t see any Liverpool fans.

We sat at a four-top table. Kathy, an Irish waitress (and owner?) came over and took our food and beer orders. We watched the game on the large projection screen over the front door. Then I noticed the score of the Manchester derby in the top-right corner. Wow, City beat United at Old Trafford.

“Hey guys, did you see that score?” I asked excitedly.

“No, Agent 33,” Monique replied.

“City beat United 2 to 1,” I said. “I’m sure that a Mourinho meltdown ensued.” I chuckled.

“Would it have been better for Liverpool if the game had ended in a scoreless draw?” Steve asked.

“Maybe so, Steve,” I answered. “But, any time United loses at Old Trafford … well, that’s hard not to like.”

Halftime came and went. The game turned into a complete rout by Tottenham. Their fans were loving it. Hotspur would go on to win by a score of 4-nil.

Then the British NBC announcers began to pump up the upcoming Reds – Foxes clash for the American audience. They were now showing a video clip of the enlarged main stand at Anfield. Where the hell are the LFC [Liverpool Football Club] fans in this town? I only see one liver bird shirt in here.

Kathy then stopped by our table. “Need anything else?”

“No, that’s ok, Kathy,” I replied. “Just one check. By the way, do the Liverpool fans show up right at game time?”

“No, they’re already here on the other side of the bar. [which was actually in between – and common to – both pubs] Just exit to the sidewalk, turn right, and enter through the red door.” Is the door red for Liverpool? No, don’t ask.

“Ok, thanks,” I said.

“Will you be ordering more Guinness over there?” she asked.

“Probably so,” I answered.

“Ok, I’ll keep your tab open. See you on the other side.” We’re going to ‘the other side’. / I guess we look trustworthy.

We left The Celt and marched north about twenty feet (6 meters). I opened the red door. The other side, The Harp side, was indeed full of LFC fans, save for one young, white, male, unsteady Manchester United fan who was throwing darts. He must be pissed. Why is he hanging around? Maybe he’s hoping that Liverpool loses, too. Yes, that’s got to be it. Then he can get a dig in. Well, we shall see.

We sat at a booth that offered decent sight lines to an overhead flat screen. Kerry, the leader of the Orlando LFC Fans chapter, then walked up and we exchanged greetings with her.

After a rousing You’ll Never Walk Alone, the match started. It was a Liverpool onslaught from the get-go. Firmino scored the first goal via a nice pass from Milner. Then a Henderson-Sturridge-Mané combination had the Reds up 2-nil, and seemingly in total control.

I turned to the late-50-ish Caucasian guy (John) on my right and said, “It’s looking really good.”

“Yes, so far, so good,” John said in an unmistakable New York City accent. “But, Lucas makes me nervous. He’s playing out of position.”

A few minutes later his words would prove to be prophetic. Lucas, typically a midfielder, was playing centre-back due to backline injuries. When he was pressured in deep, he made a big mistake by casually passing the ball to where Mignolet was no longer residing. The result: Vardy had an empty-net slam dunk. Oh, fuck! / Goddamit, Lucas!

I grimaced. John shook his head. Monique frowned. Darn!

“Well, John, you predicted it,” I said. “Could you tell me what stocks to buy, or maybe the next winning lottery number?”

He grinned for a half-second, but his rage quickly returned to his face. “I don’t know why Klopp kept him. It baffles me. He got old fast, and is now clunky. Plus, why is he playing him back there? That’s foreign territory to him. I know we have injuries. But, playing him as the central stopper?”

“Well, you know that Skrtel is gone.”

“Yes, and that’s fine by me.”

“He had heart and a furious passion, though.”

“Too much reckless passion. Too many yellow cards that became red cards. He was a loose cannon on deck. A liability late in games.”

The match reached halftime with the score still at 2-1 for LFC. Our discussion continued as they replayed the goals.

“Well, John, on a positive note, Firmino scored a nice one.”

“Yeah, that’s true. He certainly was due. But, why is his last name not spelled F-I-R-M-I-N-H-O, like Coutinho? He’s Brazilian, too, ya know.”

“You know, John, I wondered that, too, when they signed him.”

The conversation died. John wandered outside to have a smoke. I sat back down with Monique and Steve.

“This is an exciting scene,” Steve said. “You guys are really into this Liverpool team.”

“When you get settled, bro, you should join the nearest LFC chapter in Texas,” Monique suggested.

“I’ll do that,” Steve replied.

“Yey!” Monique exclaimed. “My bro is the newest Liverpool fan.”

“Great, Steve,” I replied. “The Reds nation has one more. You’ll never walk – or be – alone.”

Then the second half commenced. Any fears of the Foxes making a comeback were extinguished when Adam Lallana scored. A late, extra-insurance goal was tacked on by Firmino, after getting an assist from a most unselfish Mané.

As the triple-whistle sounded, the bar erupted into cheers. Beer glasses clinked together.

I then stood up and walked over to John. I noticed that he didn’t have a drink in his hand. “John, a teetotaler, are you? You’re a better man than me.”

“Teetotaler? No, not me.” John then moved aside and pointed to the table that was behind him. There were six empty beer steins.

“Oh, I see. You slugged them down earlier.”

“I just don’t like standing with anything in my hand.”

“I hear ya. Well, a nice win, huh?”

“We’ll take it,” John said with a burp.

“Hey, I wonder when we play [Manchester] United.”

“I think we play the evil empire in mid-October [scheduled for October 17] at Anfield.”

“Evil empire? Now, that’s funny, John.”

“I’m dead serious.”

30. Memories of Malloy (Sep. 2016)

This mild Saturday morning – September 24, 2016 – found Monique (Agent 32) and me (Agent 33) at a front-window table in the Starbucks on East 7th Street (Charlotte, NC, USA). We were drinking some cold bottled coffee and watching the joggers and cyclists pass by. Just another summerish [sic] morning in Elizabeth. When does the fall weather ever get here? I’m so sick of scummer. [sic] / I can’t wait to ride our bikes again in October. It’s still way too warm for me – way too sweaty.

Monique then began to study the bay window our table was inset within. “Was this always a Starbucks, Parkaar?” [my ailing alias]

“No, Agent 32, this building has been many things over the decades. In the late ‘80s it was a bar called Ty’s, which had live music in the window.”

“They had their backs to the street?” Monique asked.

“Yes,” I replied as I started to devour the moist slice of pumpkin loaf. “Correction: It was Crisp next door.”

“Did Mr. Malloy [appears in numerous short stories and the novella Mysterieau of San Francisco] ever come here, Agent 33?” I am sure that he’s recording by now.

“I’m not sure, Agent 32.” This agent-number stuff has piqued the interest of the table next to us. Most excellent.

“What were Malloy’s religious beliefs, 33?” Wow! Where did that come from? The female brain is like a quantum chip.

“Well, that very issue came up one foggy June afternoon in 1992 at Sidle on N. [in the Outer Sunset of San Francisco, CA, USA] Malloy told me, as he scratched his white beard stubble, how he went from being Lutheran to Pentecostal to atheist. Then he said that he settled at being a blissful agnostic.” Huh? A what?

“A blissful agnostic? He was happy being unsure?”

“He was quite joyful after winning the lottery, as you might expect. He would say things like ‘God wasn’t for or against me, and the omnipresent non-god was equally indifferent’.” What in the world? How ludicrous! What a nalisoan og utok! [lunatic in Cebuano]

“That sounds completely loko, [insane in Cebuano] Parkaar. What were his politics?”

“He never made any overt political-leaning statements to me, Monique. However, there was one evening in mid-October of ’92, when the national news was replaying snippets from the first Bush-Clinton debate on the small Sidle on N above-bar TV. Of course the old TV was muted for Tsula’s [a female bartender at Sidle on N] low-volume, haunting, ambient music. Well, Malloy just looked up and said, “Their body language is too loud.”

“Oh, my … that’s funny, 33!”

“Yeah, Malloy would spout off some real gems, Monique. Unfortunately, many weren’t recorded or written down.”

“Lost to the fog?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid so.”

“Where is he now, Agent 33?”

“I have no idea, Agent 32. For all I know he could be hiking the northern section of the Appalachian Trail, heading south, and leaving $100 bills in the shelters. He planned to give away all of his millions before he died, one hundred dollars at a time.”

“Oh, yes, I remember you telling me that he liked giving away C-notes.” [$100 bills]

“Tsula collected quite a few in her time,” I added.

“Did Malloy have an ongoing sexual relationship with her, Agent 33?” That got some genteel ears up in here.

“He never told me as much, but they seemed to have some kind of agreement.” Agreement?

“Well, I’m sure that they did,” Monique said with sexy raised pinay (Filipina) eyebrows.

Some more neighborhood customers shuffled up to the counter to place their orders. People at the other five occupied tables all seemed to survey the scene at the same time. That was almost Zen-like. The oddness of the collective human mind.

I then looked at Monique’s neatly folded, craft-paper pastry bag. “Are you going to eat your pumpkin cream muffin, Agent 32?”

“No, I will wait until we are at Valhalla.” [Charlotte’s current LFC (Liverpool Football Club) pub in uptown]

“I hope that we continue our good run of play against Hull City, Monique. We have a bad habit of letting our foot off the gas pedal when playing lesser teams. Remember the Burnley game?”

“How could I forget, Parkaar?! That game sucked ass. LFC came out looking hungover.”

“Well, at least we’re at Anfield today. That should be a big boost. The crowd won’t tolerate a lack of effort.”

“Say, Parkaar, did Malloy root for any team other than the San Francisco Giants?”

“I believe that that was it for him, Agent 32. Never heard him mention any other teams or sports. He was just a longtime orange-and-black [the San Francisco Giants colors] baseball supporter.” Huh?

“Did he have any family members in the Bay Area, 33?”

“Not that I was aware of, Monique. He never mentioned any brothers or sisters, nor anything about any parents. I got the feeling that he might have been an orphan, but I was too shy to directly ask him.”

“I see. But, he was once married, right?”

“Yes, remember … he won what he called ‘the treble’, before winning the lottery.”

“Oh, yes! The treble being divorce, foreclosure and bankruptcy. Did I get the order correct, 33?”

“Yes, I think that was it, 32.”

“And, he claimed that this then allowed him to win the lottery. Am I right, Parkaar?”

“You’re correct again, Monique. Those were what Malloy called his propitious prerequisites.”

Monique chuckled. “That is completely bonkers, Parkaar! I think that he is a bit mental myself.”

“Maybe so, 32. But, he was harmless and quite interesting. Idle after-work time could have been spent much worse. The conversations with him always had a few takeaways.” What?

“Takeaways?” Monique questioned while rubbing her pretty face, checking for a nonexistent pimple.

A dark-haired, young, Caucasian barista then came by and gathered up our plates and empty bottles. Before walking away she looked at us. “Did you guys say ‘agent’? Are you in some secret club? Is it a game?”

“It’s called psecret psociety with silent p’s,” I said.

“You could get a two-digit agent number,” Monique told her. “A lot of people have quit.”

“Why did they quit?” the barista asked, looking very intrigued.

“Something about the checks not arriving,” I said solemnly.

“It’s all just surreal-spy silliness,” Monique added.

“Cool!” the barista exclaimed. “I want to join.”

“Certainly,” I said enthusiastically.

“Please do,” Monique followed for encouragement.

“I will send a friend request on my next break,” the barista said. “How often is the page checked?”

“Very rarely on weekends,” I said. “But, on Monday mornings, Ernie, the ringleader, gets everything caught back up. Well, usually, unless he’s in a void.” A void?

“Is there a goal or an object to it?” the barista asked as she strategically rebalanced the trash on the plates.

“Now, that’s the $64,000 question,” I remarked. Why $64,000? Why not the $100,000 question?

“Well, you’ve spiked my interest. Have a nice day, agents.”

“Oh, by the way, has an older, 70-ish, white guy wearing a SF Giants ball cap, going by the name of Malloy, stopped by here recently?” I asked.

“I don’t recall such a customer,” the barista answered. “But, maybe he came through when I wasn’t working. Well, nice talking with you guys. I can’t wait for my first psecret [sic] assignment.”

We waved and smiled. I wonder what kind of agent she will be. / Will she really join? Will she summon Malloy? Will she be the one who posts the strangest stuff?

I then looked down at the windowsill. An aphid was snagged in a small corner cobweb. Further down the black metal, someone had scrawled a dated phrase with a penknife:

Yep, yep, yep. 8/8/16

Wonder if Malloy is watching us now.

31. Ball in the Creek (Oct. 2016)

It was yet another warmer-than-normal day in Charlotte (NC, USA) – Friday, September 30, 2016 – that found me, Agent 33, walking southward on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway – going with the flow – from Elizabeth Avenue. It was almost 11:00 AM and the sun was already blasting, as if still in scummer [sic] mode. I was headed to the nearby Target to pick up some lunch items, when I saw a small, plastic, azure-colored playground ball in the creek near the bank. It was caught in an eddy. Ah, why not snag it? It would be perfect for indoor soccer/football with my son and wife in the hotel room in Lumberton [NC, USA] tomorrow. Yeah, let’s go down there and get it.

I parted the tall streamside grasses with my black, steel-toed safety shoes, while continuously looking down, staying on the lookout for a possible copperhead (the only venomous snake – presumably – in Mecklenburg County). However, once I had reached the bank, I quickly noticed that the little ball had sprung free from the countercurrent, and was now floating merrily downstream again.

I ran down to the concrete weir to intercept it. However, I was too late; the ball eluded my grasp. It was now heading towards the East 4th Street overpass. What the hell am I doing? I’m a 52-year-old man in dress clothes trying to catch a 79-cent ball in a swollen urban creek. Shouldn’t I just let it go? No, this a challenge. We’re going to get that evasive little orb. This is future-story critical. Mustn’t let it escape.

I then dashed through the greenway tunnel below the one-way street. When I looked back into the middle culvert, I saw the small blue ball bobbing in the main current. With a four-foot-long (1.22 meters) branch that I found in the washed-up silt next to the sidewalk, I was able to corral it and then pluck it from the caramel brown, sediment-rich, turgid stream.

The little ball didn’t have a leak; it was still at maximum air pressure. As I rotated the slightly translucent cerulean orb in my right hand, I saw some writing on it:

V = 4^/3πr[^3]

My brain’s now-cracked-and-missing-teeth-in-a-few-places mathematical gears started grinding. That’s a geometric formula. I know it is. I’ve seen that before. But, a formula for what? Something involving pi would be round, I bet. What is V? Voilà! V is for volume – the volume of a sphere, like this little ball. It must have come from a school upstream. The recent heavy rains probably washed it into the creek.

I brushed it off in the dew-covered grass. Then I continued my trek to Target. But, I now had a minor dilemma. I can’t bring this ball into Target. What should I do with it? I need to hide it somewhere and then retrieve it on the way back. But, where?

Nothing on the Wendy’s side of Target looked suitable. I marched up the two flights of steps. When I arrived at the Kings Drive front corner of Target, I saw the solution to my quandary. I discreetly placed the little blue ball under a small bush. I don’t think anyone saw me. If so, I’m sure that it looked suspicious. I’ll have to write this up in the near future.

I went into the store and expeditiously got my groceries. Seven minutes later I was approaching the same bush again. Wonder if it’s still there. Why would it not be? Maybe security cameras saw me. Maybe security then disposed of it, thinking it was something nefarious. That’s nuts!

I was now looking down at the diminutive, insignificant, tiny-leafed bush. I didn’t see the ball. I bent down and reached under the nondescript shrub. Hope I don’t get bit by a snake, like a copperhead. That would suck. Even with insurance, I don’t have the money for a trip to the ER. [Emergency Room]

My right hand didn’t have to feel around for long. I soon felt the small ball and retrieved it. Perfect. Got it!

A 40-something, sandy-haired, Caucasian lady in a pink jogging outfit, who was rounding the corner, saw me grab it. How did he know that there was a ball under that bush? There’s no way that he could have seen it. Did someone in a passing car throw it at him? Strange world.

I smiled at her and moved along, heading north up Kings Drive on the sidewalk. I bet that woman is wondering how I knew that there was a ball under that shrub. And, I am sure that she does not know that there is the formula for the volume of a sphere written on it. Or, is she a math teacher upstream? Probably not, but who knows? I won’t.

Soon I was at 3rd Street, waiting for the traffic light to change. I noticed that a 50-ish, white, baldheaded man in a stopped Audi sedan was staring at the blue ball in my left hand. I felt awkward and looked skyward. Might he be a math teacher? And, might this be one of his teaching aids that got away? I wonder what he is thinking.

The light changed and the Audi driver sped past me in the Kings Drive crosswalk. Why does that red-haired guy have a cheap toy ball in his hand? There’s a story lurking around here. / I wonder if that guy knows that he will be mentioned in an upcoming short story.

Once safely across the four-lane street, I walked along the shaded sidewalk next to the new five-story apartment building (Midtown 205). I heard a baby crying above me, and then he spoke: “Mama, I want that ball!”

I looked up. The toddler and his late-20-something Caucasian mother waved from a third-floor balcony. Hope he doesn’t fall off.

Then I quick-footed it across Cherry Street. It seems like everyone that has seen me with this little ball from the creek has had some thought that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Why did I not put it in the grocery bag? I guess that I should do it now before entering the Circle K. [an American chain convenience store]

I bagged the blue ball as I passed the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) store (a state-run liquor store) and some drunks sprawled out on the grass at the adjacent city bus stop.

Once inside the Circle K, I bought a Cow Tales candy bar and a $1 scratch-off ticket. Maybe the blue ball will bring some good luck today. [It didn’t.]

I then dashed across the 3rd – 4th Street Connector. Once in the college’s administration parking lot, I opened the hatchback of my old Kia Rio and put the small blue ball in with the other sports items that my son, wife and I occasionally employ in the parks and fields that we come across.

A fellow employee saw me and asked, “What in the world do you want a small ball like that for, Mike?”

“Small ball yields big fun,” I replied.

“Mike, you aint right,” the 50-something, African American female said and chuckled.

“Do you remember the formula for the volume of a sphere from your 10th-grade geometry class?” I asked Jacqueline as she made her way to her car.

“No, but I recall the formula for the volume of a hemisphere,” she said.

“Really?”

“Yes, only because I had to use it for a dome-volume issue. The volume equals two-thirds pi times the radius cubed.”

“Two thirds of a radially cubed pie? I think I would pass on that,” I said with a laugh. “Well, unless it was key lime with an inch (2.54 cm) of whipped cream.”

“Mike, should I ask you where you got that ball?”

“No, probably not, Jacky. It would take up the rest of your lunch-break. And, I really don’t want to waste any more of your time.” Or make a risible short story needlessly longer. / Huh? What has Mike been up to today?

She shook her head, sighed, and then walked over to her red sedan. Jacqueline got in and drove off.

Back in the office, I thought about the series of events. Should I write this up as a psecret psociety pshort pstory? [sic] Nothing of import really happened. Hardly any suspense. No violence. No sex. No Mr. Malloy. Minimal surreality. I think my readers might be disappointed. Well, they probably don’t expect much anymore. It’s just time filler. Just a way to get the minute hand from one hash line to the ninth. Eight minutes of mental fluffery. [sic] Yeah, that’s about what it’s all devolved to. Eight minutes of neural meringue. Well, if nothing else, the volumes of various balls could be calculated. Let’s see, a regulation men’s basketball is 9.55 inches (24.26 cm) in diameter. And, the radius is half the diameter in most countries. And, the circumference is equal to 3.1416 diameters. Or, 6.2832 radii. I guess that would be radical pi.

And then my desk phone rang as I looked at my flickering LED satellite clock (11:33). It was Al Niño (Agent A~O), calling from his Manhattan (New York City, NY, USA) penthouse condo. I wonder what he wants now.

“Michael, what will you write about next?” Al asked. Oh great, he’s already on with the ‘Michael’ bit, trying to get a rise out of me.

“A small blue ball, Al.” He has dove into a drained pool.

He laughed hysterically for twenty seconds, stopped, and laughed again for ten seconds. “Mr. Blue Balls!”

“No, Al; just a lone, small, blue ball.”

“One blue ball? You might want to see a doctor about that, Michael. Don’t let that go untreated.” Oh, boy …

“Very funny, Al. Another deftly delivered zinger by the amazing one. Bravo!”

“Strapping, too; wouldn’t you say?”

“Uh, speaking of strapping, have you got a Go Strap^®^ [his patented product for cell phones and tablets] affixed to your jock strap?” I got him. Score one for me.

“Affixed? Nobody says affixed anymore, Michael. Strap up!”

“I’m looking at one pinned to the wall. It’s from the first run. I’ll sell it on ebay in 2030.”

“You won’t be alive in 2030.”

“With my health issues, you may be right, Al.”

“So, what were you doing before I called, Michael?”

“Roughing out another short story in my head.”

32. Slurpee Man (Oct. 2016)

I, Agent 33, was walking up Elizabeth Avenue towards Charlottetowne Avenue (in Charlotte, NC, USA) on a splendid October late morning, when a black-haired, full-bearded, late-20-something, grinning, Latino-appearing dude began shouting at me. Oh, no.

“Hey, hey, hey!” he kept chanting until I locked my gaze in on him. He had this beaming, though somewhat crazed, smile that stretched across his face. He seems a bit off. Make that way off. This city sure has the loonies now.

“You need some help?” I politely asked as I rubbed my sleep-encrusted left eye. I sure seem to attract the crazies and the inebriated. And to think, just a couple of hours ago, I had no ideas for my next short story. Sometimes they just walk into you.

“Hey man, do you know where a 7-Eleven [an American chain convenience store] is?” A coherent question. Maybe he’s not ‘that’ wasted.

“There’s a Circle K [another American chain convenience store] two blocks that way,” I answered as I pointed to the southwest with my right hand.

“Yeah, I know that Circle K, man. I’ve been there before. But, I want a real Slurpee, man.” This guy is high on something. Maybe primo weed. [strong marijuana]

“I hear ya, pal.”

“I gotta-gotta-gotta [sic] have that Slurpee, man. No substitute. Only a real Slurpee will do. I’m going to mix all the flavors together. I saw a 7-Eleven next to a park the other day. There were tall buildings around. Do you know where it is? Do you know, man? I want that Slurpee. I must have that Slurpee.” He’s baked and going into a hypoglycemic crash.

“A 7-Eleven somewhere in uptown, next to a park?” I asked as I studied him. What style is his dementia?

“Yes, where is it? I’m dying for that Slurpee, man.” ‘That’ Slurpee again. He kind of reminds me of the guy who was going to ‘the’ Florida two years ago. [in the short story ‘One October Day’] Wonder if he made it. These two would surely have a most amusing conversation while having ‘that’ Slurpee in ‘the’ Florida.

“Let me think for a second. Is there one in Epicentre?”

“No, man; there’s no 7-Eleven there.” He’s right. But, I’ve been in a 7-Eleven somewhere in uptown. Darn! Where was it? My memory chip is shorting out. Oh, yes! Near BB&T Ballpark.

“I just remembered where it is. It’s across from Romare Bearden Park in 3rd Ward.”

“Yes, that’s it, man! Does the trolley [Gold Line streetcar] go there?”

“No, the trolley only goes to Epicentre. But from there, it is only a six-block walk.”

“Ok, what street is it on?”

“It’s on West MLK, [Jr. Boulevard] just down from Church Street. Just walk south on College [Street] from Epicentre.”

“Thanks, man. Are you going to get a Slurpee today, too? You know, there’s nothing like a real Slurpee.” He’s like a living advertisement for that famous frozen beverage. Was he dropped off here by a Southland Corporation nontraditional advertising manager? Does Southland Corporation still own 7-Eleven? [not since 1999] Is 7-Eleven paying him to ply the city sidewalks? No, he’s way too kooky acting. But, he’ll make for a good short story, though. Just need to keep recording what he says. Batteries don’t fail me now.

“No, I have to get back to my office.”

“But, a nice, extra-large Slurpee is going to be killer.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. But, I’ve got to run along. Work calls. Enjoy your Slurpee.”

“You mean that you’re really not going to have that Slurpee today?” His cult-like grin showed no signs of letting up. He really didn’t want to end the conversation. Suddenly, it felt weird – kind of like a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in convert-or-die-trying mode. How to nicely end this?

“I think that I will have a Slurpee after I get off work,” I said, hoping that this statement would terminate our sidewalk discussion as a few college students passed by.

“What time do you get off work?” he asked, looking very concerned.

“Four o’clock,” I replied.

“Can you really wait that long?” he asked as his mouth went agape.

“Sure. Listen, I really must be going. Have a great day.”

“I may drain the Slurpee machines. There may be none left at four o’clock, man.” This is utter madness. Why am I still talking to this guy? For short story reasons, I guess.

“Well, I’ll get mine at a 7-Eleven in east Charlotte.”

“Which 7-Eleven in east Charlotte?”

“The one on Central [Avenue] at Eastway.” [Drive]

“That one has the best blue raspberry. I went to that one last Thursday. That was a mighty Slurpee, man. A perfect multicolored swirl.” Oh, my … This is never going to end. Did Agent A~O plant this guy here? This is beginning to feel like a spoof. Am I being punked? [pranked] Is anyone filming us?

I looked around. I saw the green vintage-replica trolley coming down the tracks – headed to uptown – in the white concrete, two-lane street. This is my chance to end this.

“Hey, here comes the trolley! If you run, you can make it to the stop in time.”

“Thanks,” he said, almost normally. He then turned and dashed off to the streetcar stop that was about 120 yards (110 meters) away. Whew! I’m glad that’s over. Though, he sure broke up a ho-hum day. I never got his name. Another one to go uncredited. Wonder if he’ll ever read the short story after I write it up and post it online. Nah, he probably never visits any of those sites. But, one can never be totally sure. Maybe I will get an e-mail from him someday, asking if I really stopped and got ‘that’ Slurpee. Such would be outrageous – too much.

Back in the office, the day sputtered along. An overly demanding architect’s assistant tried to make his crisis mine, but other than that it was fairly halcyon.

At 3:33 I glanced at my cellphone … and it rang! Wow! Incipient precognition?

It was my wife, Monique, Agent 32. “Hi, how are you, mahal?” [love in Tagalog]

“I’m fine, lovely Agent 32.” Agent 32? He must be recording yet again. I guess I will play along.

“Might you be recording for another short story, Parkaar?” [my ailing alias]

“You got it, Monique. It will start off with a guy looking for a 7-Eleven Slurpee, which is directly based on recent reality. I recorded this whacked-out dude a few hours ago on Elizabeth Avenue.”

“You just started talking to some unknown guy on the sidewalk, Agent 33?”

“No, he just started talking to me, Agent 32.”

“Oh, I see. Well, what is the crux of the story?”

“At this point, it’s quite nebulous, Agent 32.”

“So, you’re just going to transcribe a random conversation that you had with some unknown guy on a Charlotte sidewalk. Is that it, Agent 33?”

“Yes, Agent 32, that’s about it. But, I will add our phone conversation – the one that we’re having now – onto the end of it. I’ll inside-out it.” Inside-out it? What did he just say?

“That’s buang! [crazy in Cebuano] There’s no real story there. You’re just wasting people’s valuable time, Agent 33.”

“It’s a folly they expect.”

33. Tewahedo Woman (Oct. 2016)

It was a splendid 54º (Fahrenheit; 12º Celsius) mid-October, Sunday morning, leisurely bike ride in east Charlotte. After making a right turn onto Wilora Lake Road (from southbound North Sharon Amity Road) on my single-speed, steel-frame Thruster, I heard a woman screaming. What now? Is this a setup for a robbery? Better stay wary.

“Can you please help me, sir?” the slight, elderly, gray-skinned woman in an ornate, full-length, red dress with a burnt orange shawl and a white, head-wrapped, linen scarf shouted. She was standing beside a 15-year-old maroon sedan that was parked on the curb, 100 feet (30.5 meters) away. Oh my, what has happened to her? Is she injured? Is this some kind of health emergency? Or, is there a burly guy lying in wait, ready to jump out of the back seat with a machete?

I rode up to her, peered into the car, dismounted my bike, and pushed down the kickstand. I quickly noticed that she was very distressed and very much alone. However, she seemed to have no health issues. She immediately trusted me enough to push her cell phone towards me, imploring me to look at it. Ah, a Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Hope it doesn’t explode in my hand.

“I no speak English,” [sic] she said. “I’m lost. The map is walking.” [sic] The map is walking? Must remember that one – a gold-medal winner.

“Your English is fine,” I said, trying to calm and reassure her. “I understand you. Where do you want to go?”

“Church. I Ethiopian Orthodox Christian.” [sic] She was frightened and thoroughly flustered. “Please help me.”

“I will. Don’t worry; it’s going to be ok.” I then looked at the screen of her thin silver phone in my left hand. Ah, there’s her church: Ankise Miheret Batalemariam Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. What a mouthful. “So, that’s where you need to go?” I asked very slowly and deliberately, while pointing at the little icon.

“Yes, but the map is walking.” [sic] She said it again. What does she mean? Oh, wait; I see what she’s trying to say: Her Google map is set for walking and not for driving. That’s why it has the route in dots. Even though her church is nearly within eyesight, she can’t get there as easily by car. She’s going to have to make a U-turn on [North] Sharon Amity. [Road] This may be a challenge communicating this to her. Oh, why not just set the map mode to automobile? Wake up! Don’t make this into a Cecil B. DeMille production.

“I’ll change the map for car,” I placidly and slowly stated.

“Yes! Please do that!” She was very excited about me fixing this issue. Does she really not know how to change modes of travel on Google Maps?

I then tapped on her phone. But, nothing happened. I tapped the glass screen again. Nothing. None of the touch options were working. It’s frozen. Actually, it feels a little hot. “Listen, we better turn your phone off. It has locked up and is getting hot. I can show you how to get there.”

The poor lady looked very confused, and said nothing. Ok, none of that registered. Let’s just use hand signals.

“Ok, just follow me on my bike,” I said while pointing to my black bicycle.

She nodded. Ok, good; she understands … I think.

I walked back to my bike and she got in her old car. I started to pedal back towards North Sharon Amity Road. She then made a three-point turn and caught up to me at the STOP sign. There I used my left hand to let her know to turn right. I then raced down the level sidewalk at about 20 MPH (32 km/h). She followed beside me with her hazard flashers on.

Even though it was only 7:58 AM on a Sunday morning, there was still some traffic on the four-lane road that connected east and south Charlotte. Soon, horns were beeping. This freaked her out. She then sped ahead of me to the traffic light at Central Avenue before I could signal her to get in the left turn lane for a U-turn. Oh, great! She’s going way off course now.

I was able to catch up to her as she made a right turn onto Central Avenue. I waved her into a restaurant parking lot (El Rey Del Pollo). There I used both hands to communicate an upcoming U-turn and a left turn to her. She nodded as if she understood, but I had my doubts as she drove off. She may end up in midtown.

Her U-turn was about 1,000 feet (305 meters) away at Rosehaven Drive. So, I just waited to see if she would come back past me in a few minutes. I saw her car move into the left lane in the distance. Maybe she will navigate this correctly after all.

Two minutes later, her maroon sedan was slowly passing me on the other side of Central Avenue. She moved into the outer left-turn lane. She caught my gaze and gave me a thumbs-up. I reciprocated. Good deal. She did the U-turn and is in the correct lane to go to her church. Mission accomplished. Well, maybe.

She made the left turn onto northbound North Sharon Amity Road, and disappeared from view as I pedaled up to the intersection. When I got a white crosswalk signal, I walked my bike to the QuikTrip convenience store, hoping to get some free air in my rear tire (feeling a little soft). However, when I arrived at the air compressor, I immediately noticed that the hose was gone. Darn! Just my rotten luck. Some moron ripped the hose off. Idiot!

I got an amaretto-flavored coffee and gulped it down outside. Then I continued my bike journey across the old Eastland Mall (demolished in 2013-14) parking lot, thinking about the merry mischief that my friends and I partook in back in late ‘70s. Getting ripped and swinging from a flagpole’s ropes on a November night after the mall had closed. Sailing over that twenty-five-foot [7.6 meters] drop-off. Amazing that none of us got hurt. Wow, that was almost four decades ago. I’m ancient history.

In the southeast corner of the crumbling asphalt parking lot, Latino vendors were already setting up their counters and canopies for an open-air market. Trucks and vans were unloading wares. However, I didn’t see any LFC (Liverpool Football Club) shirts or flags, so I kept riding.

I exited to Wilora Lake Road behind where a Hannaford’s grocery store had once stood (razed). I continued around the back of the mall property, eventually crossing between dead-ends of the segmented street. When I arrived back at North Sharon Amity Road, I decided to go left down the sidewalk to see if the old lady’s maroon sedan was in the church’s parking lot. I wonder if she made it. What was that church’s address? 39-something. An even number. 3924? No. 3918? No. 3912? Yeah, that’s it! It’s right here.

I stopped pedaling and looked at the cars parked in the large dirt lot in front of what looked to be an old house that had been converted into a church. No one was outside. The church service must have already started. Hmmmm … I don’t see her car.

I rolled up another twenty feet to get a different sight line. And, there was her car. She had made it to her church safely. Excellent.

Then I turned my bike around and prepared to go back home (about two miles – 3.2 km – away). I looked at my bike’s odometer (20278) as I started to pedal away. When I glanced back at the church, I saw an Ethiopian man at the door giving me a thumbs-up. Ah, excellent.

34. 10 Degrees at Random (Oct. 2016)

It was back in 2010. A mild Sunday autumn evening. Halloween in east Charlotte (NC, USA). I, Agent 33, was taking my 7-year-old son, who liked to be known at the time as Agent 666 (but has since shed a 6 – is now Agent 66), trick-or-treating in our Windsor Park neighborhood.

We started out around 7:00 PM, a few minutes after sundown. He quickly started to fill up his plastic jack-o’-lantern with various candies. I noticed that his haul was mostly the only-seen-at-Halloween types like Dots, Smarties, Bit-O-Honey, Mike and Ike, Charleston Chew, candy corn, and Mary Jane briquettes. Wow! Mary Jane. Why do they still make that? Does anyone really like it?

After walking a few blocks, we arrived at Somerdale Lane.

“Well, which way do you want to go, son?” I asked, wondering if he was ready to go back home and call it a night.

“Which way to that house with the scary front yard, dad?”

“Which one, son?” How could he forget?!

“Oh, you know the one, dad! It’s like a haunted jungle. The one that is all overgrown.”

“Oh, yes! That one. It’s to the left.”

“How far away is it?”

“About a quarter-mile, [402 meters] son.”

My son paused for a few seconds to think about the distance. “Ok, let’s go to it.”

“Are you sure that you won’t be frightened?”

“No, not with you with me, dad.” That sure was nice to hear.

We then proceeded to march down the curvy street, stopping at lighted houses to take in more sweets. Then we climbed up a slight rise, and there it was: the house with the spooky front yard.

There were a plethora of half-size, motionless Halloween creatures – werewolves, vampires, goblins and witches – along the walkway to the front door of the house that had an orange porch light. Some eerie music was playing, but the source was nowhere to be seen.

Once on the black-matted front porch, my son looked at me. “Dad, can you push the doorbell?” I can tell that he’s afraid.

“Sure, son,” I said as I pressed the yellow-lighted circle.

Five seconds later, a 40-something Caucasian man in zombie makeup answered the door, and then laughed maniacally. “Well, what do you say?” he asked menacingly, sounding a bit like a drugged Vincent Price.

“Trick or treat?” my son stammered.

Zombie-man then put a handful of small candies in my son’s faux pumpkin pail.

“Thank you,” my son said as we turned to leave.

Suddenly, another man in ragged clothes wearing a black ski mask came charging out of the front woods with a red chainsaw! It was on. He lunged at us and revved the engine.

We ran back down the walk to the street. When we looked back, he was gone. Where did he go?

My son was genuinely scared. “Was that a real chainsaw, dad?”

I saw his eyes through the two holes in his gold skull mask. He was freaked. “It was son, but it had no chain on the bar. So, it couldn’t have really cut us. Remember that haunted house that we went to last week?”

“Oh, yes.”

“It’s a common Halloween scare-prop.”

“Ok.”

I then looked to the left side of the front yard before proceeding to the next house. There was what appeared to be a life-size female mannequin in a long black dress standing in front of a dim floodlight. How did I miss that before? Did that light just come on?

“Did you notice that before, son?” I asked as I pointed at the ghoulish silhouette.

“No, I didn’t. That’s creepy. Let’s get out of here! I’m ready to go back now.”

“Ok, you’ve got candy aplenty, and you’ve got school tomorrow,” I said. As I looked back before we started to walk away, the mannequin’s head appeared to have turned oh-so-slightly towards us. However, I didn’t say anything to my son, as he was already scared enough.

Seven minutes later we were back inside our house. My son was soon chomping down on some Milk Duds as I scanned the TV channels. Then the doorbell rang. It would turn out to be the last batch of trick-or-treaters.

“It’s eight o’clock. Let’s watch a horror movie, dad.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want you to have nightmares, son.”

“If it’s on TV, it’s not super-scary.”

“But, you have to go back to your mom at nine, right?”

“No, she said that I can come back late tonight, since it’s Halloween. Ten-fifteen is fine.”

“Ok, then. Will you be able to get up in the morning?”

“Dad, I have a late-starting school. Remember?” Oh, yes.

“Just checking.” Just checking?

We settled on an edited-for-television version of the first Halloween movie. We watched it in silence.

I took my son back to his mom after the movie. We talked about who the scariest Halloween character was. He thought that nothing topped the dude in Hellraiser. Of course I asked him where and when he saw that movie. He said something like ‘all the kids have seen it’.

When I picked up my son 12 days later (typical post-divorce dad custody: every other weekend), he had an interesting question about the recent Halloween evening.

“Dad, how did the head of that woman-statue in that scary yard move?” So, he noticed it, too.

“There was most likely a small motor inside the chest of that mannequin, son. An axle probably went up through the neck to the head, onto which it was fastened.”

“But, it barely moved, dad.”

“Yeah, it probably just nudged it every once in a while.”

“At random?”

“Yes, maybe so, son. Perhaps at random intervals. Maybe an RNG dictated the frequency of the head movements.”

“An RNG? What is that, dad?”

“A random number generator. The guy probably had the limits set between one and ten minutes.”

“So, it picked a number between one and ten at random?”

“Or, maybe between 60 and 600.” Huh?

“Oh, I got it – down to the second.” He caught that fast.

“Perhaps, my keen son.”

“Well, I thought it was the scariest thing in the yard, because you weren’t totally sure if it moved or not.”

“Me, too, son. He’s probably a techie – a computer geek. Random time intervals between 10-degree head movements is ingenious.”

“Exactly ten degrees, dad?” How does he know?

“Just my guesstimate, son. Certainly less than 20 degrees.”

“So, about ten degrees of arc at random time intervals, dad?”

“Yep, ten degrees at random, son.”

35. PhragMeant (Nov. 2016)

 

One cool November afternoon, way back in 1992, when I somehow managed to live in über-expensive San Francisco (CA, USA), I stumbled upon a small, scruffy convenience store/head shop/florist on Geary Boulevard in the Outer Richmond area. It was on the corner of an avenue in the high 30s, but I forget the exact one now. The store’s exterior was decidedly nondescript and passively rundown. I remember thinking: How does a ragtag operation like this make enough money to afford the high rent? Maybe it has been owned by the same family for generations.

I pulled open the heavy steel door, looked around, and headed for the soft drink cooler, as I was thirsty from walking from Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park (a remote-control model sailboat regatta). After grabbing a bottle of Gatorade, I turned and headed for the front counter. Out of the corner of my left eye, I saw an Asian man topped by a brown beret in his mid-40s sitting behind a small display. I stopped and turned my 28-year-old redhead and saw an array of small pill bottles on the glass shelves. What in the world is this guy selling? This must be the head shop part of the store.

I walked over to his counter. “Hello, what are we selling today?” I asked him as he looked up at me.

“PhragMeant,” he said with a grin. Fragment? What a crazy name. I bet it’s some kind of synthetic marijuana knockoff.

“Ah, artificial weed in a bottle,” I posited.

“No, it not marijuana. It much better.” [sic]

“Is it legal?” I asked as I caught his eye.

“Totally legal. Old Chinese natural remedy with the postmodern deconstruct.” What did he just say?

“Ok, could I see a bottle?”

He then reached into the display case, plucked a white pill bottle, and handed it to me. I read the label, which was actually spelled PhragMeant. I had an internal chuckle. What joker came up with such a daft spelling? Was it him?

“So, what does this PhragMeant stuff do?” I asked.

“It give you fragmented clues to higher meaning. No boring long sentence. Your mind span the gaps. No side-effects reported. Many happy customer. All like. Only $19.95.” [sic] Twenty bucks for some high-strength aspirin? What a racket.

“Fragmented clues to higher meaning, eh?” This guy could have been a Beat poet.

“If not satisfy, return unused portion for full refund.” [sic] Oh, what the hell. Let’s give it a whirl.

“Ok, you sold me. I’ll take a bottle.” Hope it’s not toxic.

“Thank you, sir,” he said as he began to ring me up on his small Casio cash register. I sure was an easy sell. He probably knew that I was on every sucker list.

“How long do the effects last?” I asked as I rotated the plastic bottle in my right hand.

“Only three hour.” [sic]

“Do I take it on an empty or full stomach?” I hope this isn’t emetic like those damn morning glory seeds back in ‘83. I wonder where Chuck Markey is now. Is he dead like Frank? [Agent 107] Or, did he hit the bigtime? Did he marry his Southern belle and settle into a genteel existence? Did he have another automobile accident? Though, that one on Sharon Road [in Charlotte] on that cold February night wasn’t his fault.

Five seconds later, an answer. “Both either ways.” [sic] So unintentionally cryptic.

I left the little shop with my bottle of PhragMeant, my blue Gatorade, and a lone deep-red rose that I bought with the intention of giving to some strange single girl at random. I wasn’t sure if I would actually do it, though.

I marched north one long block to Clement Street. The sky had become mostly gray while I was in the corner store. At 40th Avenue, I took an inviting foot trail beneath the windswept overstory. Only 40 feet (12.2 meters) in, I stopped behind a large bush and popped down one of the white PhragMeant pills. It was slightly chalky. I chased the aftertaste away with the Gatorade. Well, we’re committed now. Wonder how strong it will be.

The well-worn dirt path led me right to the Legion of Honor, an art museum in Lincoln Park. It happened to be open with free afternoon admission. This is too good to pass up. I feel ok – not zooming out of my gourd by any stretch. Yeah, let’s check this out. I bet I just ate an acetaminophen tablet. I bet nothing happens. Another yawner.

I walked into the courtyard and immediately saw a casting of Rodin’s famous sculpture The Thinker. Surprisingly, no one was gathered around it, so I moved up close to the striking artwork. Wonder what Auguste was thinking when he created this. Thinking about thinking. Upon further pondering. The human dilemma. No escape. Thoughts she knew. He didn’t. And then a turn for the worse. Oh, m’eyes! [sic] The pill. Fragmented thoughts. Remember. Once. It. Starts. Camille Claudel. Dark despair. That growing paranoia. Reclusive years. Deceptive dementia. Unaccepted initially. But, this time. And that time. And not enough time. Dithering differences. A way out. Just a trapdoor. A dank dungeon. Slow months. Low-flying moths. The steel-gray war machine. Stupid with fear. Cracks. Chips. Crumbling decades. Vanishing memories. Forgotten notions. Gone.

“Sure is a nice day to think away, isn’t it?” an Asian lass in her early 20s suddenly remarked to me. Whence did she come? She’s probably an art student.

“Quite,” I replied. Quite cute.

“What do you think The Thinker was thinking?” she asked.

“Was?”

“Ok, ‘is’.” He’s baked.

“Yeah” left my mouth before I could construct, or attempt to construct, a coherent sentence.

“Yeah, well, what do you think?” Mind fast. Time slow. Pretty young lady. Question. Answer. Quick.

“PhragMeant,” I said like a robot. Fragment? He’s on something good. I want it, too.

“A fragment of what?” she asked, appearing to be very intrigued by my inebriated state of mind.

“A rose,” I said as I handed it to her.

She took it and smiled. “Why, thank you, sir!”

“Welcome,” emanated from my lips, but the source was deep in my discordant neural network.

“How did you get here?” she then asked.

“From there?” I sought clarification.

“Tell me; where is there?”

I pointed south. “Corner store. Back counter.”

“What corner store?”

I knew that I would never be able to satisfactorily give her directions in fragments; thus, I looked around. No one appeared to be watching us. I then reached into my jeans pocket to extract the pill bottle. I handed it to her.

She took it with her small left hand. “Thanks!” She seemed to know the score, and quickly swallowed a PhragMeant tablet. She chased it with her mineral water. Now what?

The fog was billowing in now. It felt like I was in a dreamscape. Pleasantly surreal. Caution: mishap ahead. But, so far, so much to the good. So good, so much to afar. Anomalous day. Wondering astray.

“Hey, we should go somewhere,” she then suggested.

“Right,” I replied, sounding like a recording.

“It won’t be good if we are both fragmented here. So, what’s your name?”

“Mike.” So high. Now. So something. Else. Too.

“I am Yùwén.” You. Win.

“Oh.” Speech difficult. De-enunciated. [sic]

“I am from Taiwan.” Red skirt. Cardigan sweater. Nice style.

“Ok.” He sure is short on words. Massively fragmented.

“Let’s take a short hike on the Lands End Trail.”

“Yeah” was as good as I could do.

We walked out with Yùwén leading the way. She turned left on 34th Avenue and I followed, feeling like a lost dog. Then we crossed El Camino Del Mar to arrive at the trailhead. Step by step. Journey to knowhere. [sic]

After walking less than 800 feet (244 meters), we arrived at a nice overlook with a commanding view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Splendid scene. That creeping fog. Those crashing waves. / I’m safe with him; he’s way too fragged [sic] to make an unwanted move … or even a wanted one. Hee-hee.

“So, Mike, tell me what brought you to the museum today?” Yùwén asked. “Was it the free admission?”

“Just walking,” I replied.

“Just walking?!” She then guffawed. “You studied that Rodin sculpture for over fifteen minutes, Mike. Yes, I saw you. You must be a big fan of Rodin.”

“Just looking.”

“Just looking?!” Yùwén laughed again. “Listen, Mike, how long until I get fragmented like you?”

“Maybe five minutes. Maybe four.”

“Ah, very soon. The countdown is on.” Can’t wait!

Then the conversation ceased momentarily. We gazed at the Pacific Ocean. A large cargo ship was headed west.

“Where do you think that ship is going, Mike?”

“That ship?”

“Yes, ‘that’ ship.”

“Far away,” I replied, proud of my answer.

“Mike, you are no help.” She then laughed once more. It was a very hearty laugh. Her right elbow bumped my left side. She – from good family. / He – silly boy.

“Feeling how?” I asked.

“Yes. The effects. Now. Ok. Commencing.” Oh boy.

“Safe here,” I stated as I looked around.

“Yes. On land. Not in cold sea.” What a thought!

“Away from cliff.” Certainly!

“Good,” Yùwén said, looking a bit zapped.

“Yes,” I muttered.

“Yes? … to what?” She’s fragmented.

“Here,” I said calmly.

“And now,” she concluded.

Gusts of wind buffeted our grassy knoll. The fog increased in opacity. I laid my torso down, feeling drowsy all of a sudden.

“Just resting,” I stated.

“Sure” was the last thing I heard Yùwén say.

I fell asleep for two hours. When I awoke, I was in dense fog. It was almost dark. And Yùwén was gone. Was it just a dream?

I returned to the corner store in a stupor. Once inside, I strided over to the Chinese male florist.

“Sir, did I get a rose in here, say around one o’clock?”

“You sure did,” the effeminate florist stated.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Who got that cerise fresh-cut?” he asked.

“A young lady who I met at the Legion of Honor.”

“Was her name Yùwén?”

36. Drama and Kale (Nov. 2016)

It was a mild November Friday afternoon in Charlotte (NC, USA) when I arrived home from work on my one-gear, $69, rebuilt bicycle. The six-mile trek had no traffic incidents worthy of mention. The time of day was 4:51. After three knocks on the back door, my wife, Monique (Agent 32), let me in to the basement area to park the bike.

“Thanks, mahal,” [love in Tagalog] I said. “You look great in that beige dress. So, where did you want to go tonight for dinner?”

“It’s up to you, bana. [husband in Cebuano] Surprise me!”

“Taco Bell?”

Monique frowned.

“Hey, I’m just kidding,” I said with a grin.

She chuckled. “You really got me, hon!” She then sighed. “I’ll take a Cantina Bowl tomorrow, though.”

“Sure. Say, let’s finally try that vegetarian restaurant on Independence [Boulevard] – the one we pass when we head out to the mountains.”

“Bean?”

“Yes, that’s it. Bean Vegan.” Bean vegan … how long?

“Ok, let’s do it!”

Neither of us were currently vegans, but I liked going animal-less several days a week (stopped eating pork and beef decades ago) and Monique loves tofu if it’s cooked to her preferred firmness. Thus, we got in our old Kia hatchback and tootled over to Bean (only four miles – 6.44 km – away). We were in the sparsely occupied parking lot in 11 minutes.

We entered the building that appeared to have once been a Mexican restaurant (the giveaway: widely arched portals). Then we went through another set of doors to arrive at the front desk. We were seated promptly and given menus, which we began to study.

“What were you thinking of eating, dearest asawa?” [wife in Tagalog and Cebuano]

“Oh, maybe a salad,” Monique replied.

“Hey, they have something called the Bean Bowl. It has kale, mushrooms, red beans and rice, plus tofu.”

“Where is that?”

I pointed to it on her menu.

“Oh my, that’s $13, hon.”

“That’s not bad for a Friday night entrée.” Actually, it seems kind of high for greens and beans on the eastside. / I bet they only have two dollars of food in that bowl.

“Ok, I’ll try it. What will you have?”

“I don’t see any soups on the menu, mahal. And, I really don’t want a $10 veggie burger. I’ll just pick some sides.” This place sure is heavy on the burgers. / What’s wrong with him? I bet his stomach is gurgling again.

“The menu is not as expansive as The Laughing Seed in Asheville,” Monique stated. That’s for sure.

“No, it’s not, honey. But, maybe the food is tasty.” I hope.

A sprightly, mid-20-something, blonde-haired, pony-tailed, baseball-capped lass then took our order. She sure is peppy. I wonder if she is on something.

I then studied the inside of the restaurant. Yeah, this was most definitely once a Mexican restaurant. Now, what was it called? My memory chip is quite corrupted now. / What is my dear husband thinking of now? Maybe I’ll find out if he writes up this outing someday.

About five minutes into the wait for our meatless food, two Caucasian females, both appearing 18 to 20 years in age, were seated directly behind me. They were very chatty. I decided to switch on my DAR (digital audio recorder), hoping to pick up something that I could incorporate into a future short story. Maybe we get lucky.

Nearer female diner (four inches – 10 cm – behind my back): “And, how is your life going now?”

Farther female diner (four feet – 122 cm – to my rear): “It’s going ok, I guess, Carol. My part-time job is a breeze. My college courses are no sweat – all A’s. And, my boyfriend is great; in fact, he’s applying for grad school.”

Carol: “So, what in the world is wrong, Faye? What’s with the ‘I guess’? Is the sex not that great?”

Faye: “No, the sex is great. He’s an untamed beast in the bedroom. Tim is really a great guy. You’ll have to meet him, Carol. He cares about me and my feelings so much, and he’s going to be a success; I can tell.”

Carol: “What more could a girl want?”

Faye: “A little drama once in a while.” [She giggles.] Oh brother. So glad that Monique isn’t like this.

Carol: “I know what you mean, sister.”

Faye: “It’s just all too perfect. I need some grit to make the gears grind.” What the fock [sic] did I just hear?!

Carol: “I hear you, girl! Drama is how we grow. It’s how we enlarge our circle. It increases our emotional IQ.” [Intelligence Quotient] Am I really hearing this?

Faye: “Oh, yes; I agree. Who said that?”

Carol: “An author of a book I read recently. Oh, darn! I can’t remember her name. Sorry, Faye. Maybe it will come to me.”

Faye: “Without any drama, you can’t be sure of the relationship’s strength.” So glad that I’m recording this.

Carol: “Oh, yes, Faye; I certainly agree.”

Faye: “Drama is a girl’s litmus test of her man. It’s how we go about gauging where we are – our standing.” I can’t wait to play this back for Monique later. I wonder what her take will be. I think I already know.

Carol: “Well, don’t whip up too much drama, Faye. You don’t want to run a good one off.”

Faye: “Carol, if he blew up and left, would that mean that it wasn’t meant to be, you know, long term?” Let me vomit. Glad the food hasn’t arrived yet.

Carol: “Could be. I will find that book and let you know what the author said about that.”

Faye: “Thanks, Carol. It’s great seeing you again. Glad that you could make it down to Charlotte to see me tonight.”

Carol: “Absolutely, my BFF. [Best Friend Forever] Ok, what will we be having tonight?”

I then switched my DAR off, as I already had more than enough dialogue. Also, their conversation was leaving the drama theme for the cuisine theme, of which I had no interest.

Our food came less than a minute later. The red beans were cooked perfectly; they were quite delicious. The kale was crisp and refreshingly drama-free. We devoured the spread. I wonder if Monique heard any of that ‘drama conversation’ behind me. Well, if she didn’t, she’ll hear the playback soon enough.

“Hon, taste one of these portobello mushrooms. They are sarap!” [Tagalog for deliciously zesty]

I stabbed one with my fork and pulled it off in my mouth with my front teeth. It was indeed very tasty. “Good stuff! A fresh ‘shroom.” [mushroom] And, they cooked it perfectly.”

Later, back at our humble abode, I replayed the two female diners’ drama conversation for Monique in our little sala (living room in Spanish, Tagalog and Cebuano) as she often calls it. She listened to the whole recording without interruption. At the end, I looked into her pretty brown pinay (Filipina) eyes.

“Well, hon, you are most certainly a female. So, what is your take on that dramatic conversation? Be honest.”

“Immaturity,” she stated sans hesitation. I love this woman.

“I’m so glad that I married you, Monique.”

“So, let me guess, hon – another short story?”

“You got it! I’m thinking of writing another short story with that recorded conversation being the crux of it.” I knew it.

“Do you really think that that three-minute recording on the topic of drama is enough for a short story?” That that.

“Yes, most astoundingly prescient Agent 32.” Agent 32? Hmmm …

“Well, make sure that you change their names. We can’t afford a lawsuit.”

“I will, and I know, honey.”

“You wouldn’t be recording our conversation right now, would you, Parkaar?” [my ailing alias]

37. Tiki Wiki (Nov. 2016)

 

We, my wife Monique (Agent 32) and I (Agent 33), checked into the Golden Sands, a mid-rise oceanfront hotel on Carolina Beach (NC, USA), at 3:33 PM on Wednesday, November 23, 2016. The friendly, middle-age, Caucasian female desk clerk gave us a card key for room 223. She looks familiar. / I’ve seen them before.

“It’s a nice private end unit with a king-size bed,” she said.

“Does it have an ocean view?” I asked, wondering if it was blocked by lower structures, since the room was only on the second floor.

“Yes, it has a nice Atlantic Ocean view, sir. The balcony is just above the indoor swimming pool building’s roof. No visual obstruction.”

“Sounds great!” Monique exclaimed.

“You two look very familiar. Have you stayed here before?”

“Yes,” I answered. “We were here exactly two years ago. [chronicled in the short story The Balcony] It’s another family Thanksgiving on the coast.”

“Well, I’m glad that you guys came back. Enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you,” Monique said as I began to shuffle away.

Once inside our room, Monique unpacked the luggage while I poured a couple of cordial liqueur drinks. I then wandered out to the narrow balcony that had accordion-style storm shutters just behind the railing. I began to close one of the heavy-gauge metal screens a little bit, which was difficult as the leading edge had come out of the track. The scraping of the front peg on the concrete made a lot of noise.

“What in the world are you doing out there, Parkaar?” [my ailing alias] Monique asked.

“Oh, just shielding my chair from the solar rays. You know that I’m a vampire when it comes to the sun.”

“As am I. Pull the other side out, too.”

“Sure thing, mahal.” [love in Tagalog]

“Salamat, [thanks in Tagalog and Cebuano] my bana.” [husband in Cebuano]

Monique came out a few minutes later and took her seat on the other side of the narrow balcony.

“A little chilly goo-goo,” [sic] she opined. (It was in the upper 50s Fahrenheit – 14 to 15º Celsius – with a slight breeze.) “Glad I brought my jacket.”

“I’ll take it over scummer, [sic] though.”

“Likewise, Parkaar. No complaints.” I bet he’s recording.

“And no bugs. Funny how the summer lovers conveniently forget about the millions of annoying insects.”

“Agent 33, are these blinds really just for blocking the sun?” she questioned.

“No, honey; they are storm shutters. They are pulled together and locked when a hurricane or tropical storm is approaching. They protect the sliding glass door and windows from shattering.”

“Well then, they serve at least two purposes,” Monique stated.

“They certainly do,” I concurred.

We had a chuckle. Then I got up and looked at the flat rooftop that was only about six feet (about two meters) in front of us, and about three feet (about one meter) lower than our balcony.

“You know, if we really had to, we could jump from this railing onto that roof,” I posited.

“Why in the world would we want to do that, 33?”

“Well, what if some violent meth-heads [methamphetamine addicts] were kicking in our door …” Why does he come up with such scenarios?

“Hold on, Parkaar! Once we leaped to that roof, we would be trapped. There’s no ladder or stairway to the ground. We would have to drop 15 feet [4.57 meters] to the hard sidewalk, leading to a broken foot or ankle.” [Coincidentally, Liverpool Football Club’s Philippe Coutinho would suffer an ankle injury three days later against Sunderland at Anfield.]

“But, if there were a fire engulfing the hallway …”

“Ok, in that case I guess it would make sense, 33. But, please don’t attempt to jump that gap tonight. I don’t want to have to call 9-1-1 for a medic.” I wonder if he sprinkled some of those ‘granules de grandeur’ into his drink. He’s such a sly thing sometimes. Wonder if he put some in mine. I guess that I’ll soon know.

“Hey, Agent 32, look at that little bar on that short pier.” He’s definitely recording.

“Might you take a long walk, Agent 33?”

“Ah, you remembered that old American zinger.” Does he really think that my memory is as bad as his?

“Of course, I did. Let’s go check it out.”

We strolled across the parking lot to a three-story, lurid green, shake-sided, yellow-trimmed building. The sign read:

Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar

There was a white, 20-something, ball-capped, long-brown-haired dude sitting on a railing smoking a cigarette. We walked towards him.

He then looked up at us when we were 17 feet (5.18 meters) away. “No, this isn’t the dining entrance. Go down the little wooden alley to the right.” Oh, that’s just an employee entrance to the kitchen. / What was he thinking? / Tourists.

We found our way to the correct entrance. Once inside, Monique looked at the trinkets for sale. She settled on a refrigerator magnet of a marlin with spring-mounted fins that flipped back and forth when thumped or suddenly moved.

After paying at the gift-shop register, we moved towards the central stairway that led up to the main dining room. There was a 50-ish Caucasian woman wearing a black windbreaker with the Carlsberg logo on the back. That was once Liverpool’s sponsor. Need to see the front of her jacket.

We walked past her and a mid-40-something Caucasian couple that she was conversing with in a Scouse accent. There was a red LFC (Liverpool Football Club) crest on her jacket. I knew it! A Reds supporter.

“Hello, we’re Liverpool fans, too,” I announced to her. “Our Reds gear is back in the hotel room. Where are you from?”

“Wirral, it’s just across the River Mersey from Liverpool. You are American?”

“Yes, from Charlotte, some 200 miles [322 km] inland,” I answered. “My wife is from the Philippines.”

“Ah, I see. Very pretty.”

Monique smiled. “Thank you,” she said.

“Well, I just wanted to say hello to a fellow LFCer,” [sic] I said. “I’ll let you go now.”

“You’ll never walk alone,” she then said.

“That’s for sure,” I replied. “We have run into Liverpool fans all over the United States and in Asia. Take care.”

“Likewise,” she said with a smile. She then turned and rejoined the conversation with the couple.

Once upstairs, seated at a whole-wide-ocean-view table, I realized that we didn’t have enough time to eat a full meal (an appointment that we couldn’t break). I looked down at the chopped-off pier and remembered our initial idea: Check out the bar on the planks.

“Hon, we are short on time,” I said to a travel-weary Monique. “Want to just grab a beer on the pier?”

“Sure. Wasn’t that our original intention, 33?”

“It was, 32. My mind got distracted by the seafood aroma.”

“We’ll just eat here tonight, Parkaar.”

“Ok, sounds like a plan.” Agent 107 [deceased] used to say that. I’m stealing his lines. Hope he would approve.

We marched out to the stand on the short pier. It was a wooden hut, the Tiki Bar. We ordered a couple of Unknown Brewery (based in Charlotte) IPAs. There were a few people watching sports on the TV screens.

Three minutes later we wandered out to the end of the petite wooden pier, which was above two whole inches (5 cm) of surf. Well, no fishing off this pier.

“Parkaar, why is this pier so short?”

“See those broken pilings in the waves, Monique? It was once a hundred yards [91.44 meters] longer. However, they shortened it due to the drunks who kept jumping off.” What?!

“Sorry, 33; nope, I’m not buying that – not for a minute. What’s the real reason?”

“Hurricane Fran lopped it off in 1996, 32.”

“Twenty years ago. Wow.”

“Yep, yep, yep.”

“Please don’t start with the Mr. Malloy [a character in other stories] impersonation yet, 33. It’s way too early for that.”

We hung out on the storm-truncated pier for seven minutes, watching petrels mutate their flying formations, which looked like small, quickly appearing and disappearing, human figurines. Tiki wiki.

Then we headed back to our car and took care of the scheduled business.

Ocean Grill closed early. So, we ate at The Deck House.

Back in our hotel room, we found no clues. Though, as I searched, I wondered who found the cards on the 7th floor.

The next morning was mostly cloudy. Then the sun emerged. It turned out to be a warm Thanksgiving.

Our feast time was at one o’clock; thus, we just hung out in the hotel room. At 10:23 AM, housekeeping was knocking on the door.

Monique let in two white-uniformed ladies. One was from Estonia and the other was from Ecuador. I engaged them in some small talk as they changed the sheets and restocked the towels.

“How long does it take for you to completely clean a really messed-up room?” I asked the 30-something Estonian lady.

“Forty minutes if it’s really bad,” she answered.

“Are you planning on trashing this room tonight?” the late-20-something Ecuadorian lady asked us as she emerged from the bathroom.

“Oh, certainly not!” Monique retorted.

“No, not us,” I added. “We’ll leave it as tidy as possible.”

“Thank you,” the ladies said together.

Then the Estonian lady noticed our LFC shirts. “Is Liverpool playing today?”

“No, they play on Saturday,” I said. “We met a fellow Liverpool fan from England yesterday at the Ocean Grill. Maybe a fellow fan will strike up a conversation with us today when they see our shirts. It could be the source of another short story.”

“Oh, you’re a writer,” the Ecuadorian housekeeper said to me as she grabbed a trash liner and tied it closed.

“Don’t be surprised if this conversation is mentioned in his next tale,” Monique inserted.

“Have you ever written the long story – the novel?” the Estonian housekeeper asked as she replaced the last pillow case and prepared to exit.

“Why, I certainly have,” I replied. I then gave them a cash tip with two Gold, a summer story (my e-novel) cards.

“Is it a sweet story?” the Estonian lady asked.

38. Failed to Ignite (Dec. 2016)

 

It was a sunny yet cool December 1st, a calm day after a harrowing night of tornadoes in metro Charlotte (NC, USA). I had just finished an exhilarating online test on DOT (Department of Transportation) HazMat (Hazardous Materials) Shipping Requirements. I passed it in flying colors with a little help from Mr. and Mrs. Google. To the common office microwave I then went to heat up a mug of water for some Taster’s Choice hazelnut instant coffee: my victory cup. Yes, living large at the community college.

When the microwave’s green LED (light-emitting diode) countdown display was at 0:04, I received a text alert on my LG semi-smart cell phone. The sentence read:

Hope you and your lovely wife had a nice Thanksgiving, too, Maikus van Trykus. [sic]

My mind’s rusty gears started clanking away. Why did I just get this text now? He [Al Niño, Agent A~O, a black-haired, suave, sly Caucasian fellow in his mid-40s] sent it a week ago. Maybe a cellular transmission tower in Manhattan [New York, NY, USA] got a week off for exemplary performance. There’s a thought to write up later. Hope I don’t forget it.

I promptly texted him back.

Al, guess what? Ah, you’re too late. Buzzard makes a buzzer sound. Hey, I just found out that I’m part Jewish, too. Just a slither. Maybe a sixteenth or one thirty-second. Apparently there was some philandering in Flanders back in the mid-1800s. Yep, I’m a fellow partial schmuck running amok.

He texted back just 35 seconds later.

How did you find out? Did you do an ancestry[.com] search?

I re-texted Al two minutes later.

Yes. Also did DNA. A birth defect that only runs in Hebrew clans was the clincher. What are you up to?

Six minutes went by. No reply from Al. Maybe he’s busy with his lady. Or, maybe he’s trying to promote his goStrap^®^. [an easily attachable security band for cell phones and tablets]

Then, thirteen minutes later, he replied while I was gazing out my window at a bus stop on East 3rd Street. I remember riding the Route 20 bus. Was it 2008?

Michael, I’m up to nine inches. How about you? Keep it pumping! And remind Agent 32 [Monique, my wife] that’s she’s now Jewish by injection.

I paused to ponder his text. Injection? Oh, boy. Hold on. Here we go.

You’re quite the funny guy, Al, even in the mid-day hour. But, I don’t see myself going to a synagogue anytime soon. Moses will do just fine without me.

Three minutes later, Al’s rejoinder popped up on my small cell phone’s screen.

It’s optional. I don’t see myself going, either. And, Moses is dead, you putz. I need to make you a yiddisher kop by sundown.

I looked at a stack of miscellaneous safety papers on my desk as my mind meandered. A yiddisher kop? Funny, Liverpool’s Anfield has that famous stand: the Kop. Need to research the word ‘kop’ later. [kop, Yiddish for head; in England, the loudest terraces in a football/soccer stadium, or the home team supporters in said area]

Then my cell phone rang. It was none other than Al Niño on the line. I wonder if he’s high or cranked on caffeine.

“Michael, Michael, Michael,” Al said annoyingly, knowing that I hated being called by my full first name.

“Ah, so the amazing one is coming up for air,” I countered.

“Did you ever write that novella on sex robots, Michael?” [discussed in the short story A Novella Idea] Ah, he would remember that.

“No, not yet, Al. Have you already written the screenplay, ripping off my idea?”

“Ah, how to answer?”

“Truthfully?”

“You’ll know in twenty-four months, Michael. Just wait two years. It will pass by quicker than you think.” Did he really do it? That dastardly dirty dog!

“I had better get a nice cut, or get ready for a friendly lawsuit. Nothing personal, remember?”

“Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael van Schmeikel … you are becoming more litigious than Donald Trump.”

“Well now, Al, you’re already sitting pretty in a multi-million-dollar penthouse apartment in Manhattan. I’m still living in a moldy, roach-infested basement apartment. And, I’m riding a $69 Walmart bike to work.” Though, I actually like the calorie burn.

“Is this a prelude to a sob story? Because if it is, I’ve got to go. I don’t have time for it, Michael.”

“No, it’s not a sob story, Al. It’s just that once you hit the bigtime, you seem to have forgotten about the daily drudgery and existential exasperation of a plebian existence. Remember when you were just a waiter? I bet you’ve already forgotten those meager days.”

“Hmmm … The daily drudgery and existential exasperation of a plebian existence. I like that, Michael. In fact, I’m going to add that to the screenplay. I’ll fit it in somewhere, I promise.” I bet he’s bluffing.

“You’re just winding me up, Al.”

“Feeling taut, Michael?” He sure knows how to get a barb under the skin, and yank it.

“Well, Al, I’m going to have to call ‘time’ on this babbling blather. This conversation is most convincingly going nowhere. We’re wasting each other’s temporal commodity.”

“Wasting each other’s temporal commodity. Ah, I do like that, Michael. Yes siree! I’ll use that one, too. Oh yes, I will. Please do continue. Don’t stop. Spew out a few more gems, van Trykester.” [sic]

“No, I’m done, Al. Time’s up. Have a marvelous day. And, stay on the lookout for a letter from a North Carolina lawyer. I trust you, sport; but, well, you know. I’m 52 now, Al. We’re both too far along for unenforceable verbal agreements.”

“Some fine friend you turned out to be! I’m really surprised, Michael. Where’s the trust? I’m actually hurt.” Yeah, right!

“Listen, I know that I’ll get screwed. I’m not that naïve. I’m just going to make sure that I’m not totally screwed. I deserve a nice slice. I’ve earned it, Al. I’ve done my time in the ditch. You can afford it, and you owe me.”

“Owe you? I don’t owe you a damn dime, pal. Don’t be such a shlimazel, Michael. Don’t blame your bad luck on me. You’re the one who failed to buy that winning lottery ticket last February, even after you spelled out the winning strategy. [revealed in the short story Powerballed] Face it: You couldn’t even follow YOUR own directions. And, don’t blame me for your artistic and literary career bombs. No, don’t blame me just because your schemes failed to ignite.”

 

39. Eureka! (Dec. 2016)

Manuel Oscar Ortiz, a 26-year-old, struggling Hispanic American actor, opened the coffee-stained, crumpled, dingy, return-address-less envelope in his cramped and cluttered East Hollywood (California, USA) studio apartment. The three o’clock December sunlight slithered through the old Venetian blinds into his kitchenette and illuminated the sheet of notebook paper. He read softly aloud:

Man, oh Manuel! Yes, finally, ‘Daring’ has successfully formulated Mysterium! [sic] And boy does it enhance neurotransmission inside our 3-pound [1.36 kg] intracranial jelly lobes – our brains. Dude, I inhaled a big blast last week, and let me tell you, I’ll never be the same. No, I haven’t become a homicidal rapist, but I have become painfully aware of humankind’s fate. I won’t spoil it for you; I’ll let you ‘see’ for yourself. You won’t believe it! Anyway, since I no longer trust USPS, [United States Postal Service] I hid a small container for you in Eureka. [California, USA] Let me close with these clues for discovery:

*
p<>{color:#000;}. from the Canadian Atlantic he came

*
p<>{color:#000;}. easier to fell trees than find gold

*
p<>{color:#000;}. Queen Anne would be proud

*
p<>{color:#000;}. waterfront is worth the walk

*
p<>{color:#000;}. where the rain trickles out, I put it in

*
p<>{color:#000;}. on a line between turret and sign

Manuel then carefully folded the note back into thirds and re-inserted it into the right-edge-torn-off envelope. As he held it in his right hand, his mind began to race. I wonder who sent this. Probably Charles. Yeah, it has to be Charles. He’s too paranoid to own or even use a cell phone. That’s why he sent this letter anonymously. I wonder if there’s anything to this Mysterium stuff. Charles claims that he’s seen the fate of humankind. What an outlandish remark! But, that’s just like Charles. Well, I probably won’t have any work this weekend. Maybe jump a flight up to Arcata. Yeah, why not?

Next Saturday morning found Manuel at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), boarding an Alaska Airlines flight with just a backpack. Once in his window seat in the middle of the coach section of the Boeing 737, he looked at the cracks in the tarmac. His mind meandered. Have to go to PDX [Portland International Airport] first. A nonstop would have been nice, but it’s just too expensive on short notice. Well, the extra time can be used to start deciphering the clues in that letter. Oh crap! Where is the letter?! [It was in his left hand.] Oh, there it is. Gosh, that letter has got me so hyped-up that I’m losing my mind. Need to relax. I wonder how impressive that Mysterium mist is. Hope I can find it. Clue 1: ‘from the Canadian Atlantic he came’. That could be any one of a hundred thousand gents. Hmmm …. Let’s start with the third clue, a proper noun – Queen Anne. Let’s do a Google search on Queen Anne and Eureka, California together. Bingo! The old Carson Mansion. The first two clues further confirm this. But, what does the fourth clue – ‘waterfront is worth the walk’ – happen to mean? I’ll just get a hotel room near that Victorian mansion and find out this afternoon.

The flight to Portland was relaxingly uneventful, save for a small boy who lost his tiny toy under his seat. Once inside the south terminal, Manuel went to a newsstand that proudly stated that they sold ‘everything from porn to granola bars’. He drifted over to the map section as Nick Lowe’s Christmas at the Airport suffused the dusty air from a ceiling-tile speaker. A cute, petite, raven-haired Latina in her early 20s looked at Manuel and smiled. Well, there’s an opening. Should I talk to her? I’m single once again. Hell, why not?

He walked up to her, feeling insouciantly assure of himself. “Did you find something to read?” he asked prosaically, sounding a bit tired.

“No, they don’t have the romance novel that I’m looking for,” she said, sensing his interest in her … or her body.

“Which novel is that?” Manuel asked, and then realized that he might be prying. Romance novels can be like porn for women. Why am I asking her for the title? I wouldn’t know it anyway. Would she ask me for the title of my favorite porn site? Let’s wake up, boy. / He sure is feeling bold.

“The title is Kathy’s Barbarian. It’s girly stuff.” I am sure that it is. / I wonder if he’s a speedy pumper.

“Would the barbarian in that novel happen to be named Ingomar?” Huh? Ingomar? What a name!

“No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“Oh, it’s a long story,” Manuel said with a slight sigh. I need to hear it.

“Tell me this long story over a tall cup of coffee, mister. I’ve got twenty minutes to kill. There’s a coffee shop next door.” Hard to pass up an offer like this. She’s very cute and incredibly sexy. Just don’t tell her about the Mysterium.

“Ok, sure. Why not?”

“Exactly! Why not? There’s no harm in it.” I hope not.

They then moseyed over to the espresso stand, ordered and took opposing seats at a 4-top table.

“Oh, by the way, my name is Lucia.” She then put her large brown handbag down in the chair beside her.

“I’m Manuel. Do you speak Spanish?” I guess that I look more Hispanic than I thought.

“Hardly any. I’m second generation. My family came to San Diego [California, USA] from Guatemala back in the 1980s.”

“I see. My roots go back to Costa Rica. I attended Humboldt State University in Arcata – studied acting. I’m headed back to Eureka now.” Another movie-star wannabe.

“Going to link up with the old college gang and burn a few blunts?” [hollowed-out cigars filled with marijuana]

“Uh, no, just going back for old time’s sake.” That’s a lie. He would suck as a politician.

“Oh, stop with the coyness, hombre. [man in Spanish] You’re going back there to bang your old girlfriend. Am I right?” Wow! Why did I have to start talking to this woman? Must not be like that David character in ‘Gold, a summer story’. [the 2013 novel by yours truly] Should have never struck up a conversation with her. Need to watch my tongue.

“No, nothing like that. So, where are you off to?” He’s quite evasive. Something is up. It’s obvious. I should track his sly ass. I’ll drop a GPS [Global Positioning System] chip on him.

“Actually, I’m flying down to Santa Rosa to visit a college friend. She graduated from San Diego State last May.”

“I see.” Is she lesbian? If so, she’s definitely the femme.

“Flying to Portland saved me $300.”

“Same with me. I’m just here for the price break. I like Portland, though. Last time I was here, things got pretty wild.” I’m sure.

“You were going to tell me about Ingomar.” Be vague.

“A brutish fellow, I’m afraid.” It’s useless.

“Well, I’ve got to go now. Nice talking with you, Manuel. Safe travels.” I’d love to see her again.

“Likewise, Lucia. Take care.”

She then got up and walked behind him. His bright yellow backpack was almost completely zipped. Almost.

They both got on their respective flights without incident. Lucia landed in northwest Santa Rosa at 2:39 PM. Manuel had already landed at ACV (Arcata-Eureka Airport) in McKinleyville at 1:43 PM. The weather was much nicer in Santa Rosa: mostly cloudy and 59º (Fahrenheit; 15º Celsius); it was nonstop drizzle and 48º (Fahrenheit; 9º Celsius) on the Humboldt County coast.

Manuel took an uber (ride-sharing car) to the Town House Motel, a modest inn at 4th and K. He and the 30-something, red-bearded, brown-haired driver were silent the whole way until he stepped out of the car. That’s when the uber driver solemnly announced: “Good luck going forward.” Do I really look down on my luck?

Manuel got a room on the upper floor of the two-story building. He quickly settled on the queen-size bed and took a nap. When he awoke an hour later, it was still raining and quite gray. I’ll search for that Mysterium first thing in the morning. The rain will have moved out by then.

At 7:05 AM, Manuel jumped out of bed feeling refreshed. He actually had a good night’s sleep on the budget-motel bed. After a quick shower and coffee, he was out the door. The sun was rising over the southeastern ridges at 7:31. This is going to be a life-changing day. I just know it.

Manuel started walking north on K Street. The sidewalks were vacant. When he crossed Opera Alley, K Street became a brick walkway. And when he emerged at 2nd Street, he looked right and saw it: the impressive Carson Mansion towering just two blocks away. Wow! What an edifice. That dude was the kingpin of the village. I wonder how he treated his workers.

He walked up to the short, black, wrought-iron fence that ran along the property’s perimeter. He stopped to read the letter from Charles again. Clue 4: ‘waterfront is worth the walk’. Well, the waterfront side is that way. The street down there is even named Waterfront Drive. Yeah, I need to go this way.

Manuel turned left and walked to the end of M Street. There he stepped over the barricade and waded through a sea of shrubbery. Then he came to the top of a concrete retaining wall that was six to seven feet (two meters) high. He leapt down successfully. The soft earth prevented an ankle sprain. He looked at the slatted, yard-tall (about a meter high) beach fence just in front of him that ran along Waterfront Drive. I’ve got myself into some kind of no-man’s land. Hope a cop doesn’t drive by. Where to go now? Clue 5: ‘where the rain trickles out, I put it in’.

Manuel looked back at the Victorian-on-steroids manor. He could only see the rooftop peaks and spires. Then his eyes drifted down to the seepage outlets in the retaining wall, from where water oozed out and dripped down. Ah, these holes in this wall allow the rainwater to leak out. I bet that Mysterium container is in one of them. But, which one? Clue 6: ‘on a line between turret and sign’. Hmmm … Which sign?

He continued walking in the lush, grassy strip until he saw a green sign to the left that read: KEEP DOGS ON LEASH

Manuel then looked back at Carson Mansion. He saw the main turret. Maybe this is the line. Maybe it’s in the hole right up there. Hope it didn’t get washed away by yesterday’s deluge. I guess it might be on the ground now.

He slowly walked up to the suspected seepage hole, searching the overgrown grass as he advanced. Once at the rectangular hole in the wall, he ducked down and looked in. There was a small, black, plastic spray bottle inside. Eureka! I’ve found it.

Manuel gently extricated it from the soggy earth and fine gravels. The spray bottle had a security-sealed clear cap. On the bottom, the word Mysterium was in raised, thin-font letters in a spiral pattern. Wow! This is it! I have actually found it. Can’t wait to take a mighty blast. Should I do it right here? No, just do it in the safety of the hotel room, you fool. Who knows how long it lasts? You don’t want to become discombobulated in this private planting strip. Don’t want to alight in the town jail.

He then turned back to face the channel known as Inner Reach and Woodley Island beyond it. A red sedan was stopped on the curb of Waterfront Drive. An unmistakable Latina was staring right at him. Oh, gosh! It’s her – Lucia. Holy crap! How in the world did she follow me here? Did she see me grab the bottle? How long has she been there?

“Come on, Manuel; get in,” Lucia entreated.

Manuel walked up to the passenger-side window. “How did you tail me?”

“Never mind. That’s not important right now. Just get in and we’ll go back to your motel room and get properly reacquainted. I couldn’t let you get away. We’re going places, baby.” She winked at him and salaciously licked her lips. She knows where I’m staying? Baby? Is she psycho?

Manuel slowly opened the car door and crawled in. “So, you planted a tracking bug on me. Is this your usual dating technique? How long have you been doing this, Lucia?”

“We’ll discuss it at the motel,” she said sans emotion.

They remained silent for the final three blocks. She’s nuts.

Lucia parked the rental car under the second floor. She then walked with Manuel up to his room. When Manuel opened the door, he was instantly conked by a long-handled rubber mallet and rendered unconscious.

He awoke 28 minutes later with a splitting headache. Both the Mysterium and Lucia were long gone. However, his wallet was untouched. Ouch! What train hit me?

Five weeks later, back at his humble East Hollywood abode, Manuel was scanning the in-state articles on a weird news website. A familiar photo was next to this shocking headline:

San Diego Woman Claims Humans Extinct by 3000

 

[]About the Author

Mike Bozart was born in the tidewater area of Virginia (USA) on a hot, hazy, humid afternoon in July of 1964. He attended a mix of public and Catholic grade schools in North Carolina. After graduating with an Earth Science degree from UNC-Charlotte in 1986, he started doing technical writing on various safety issues.

Former residences in North Carolina include Raleigh, Greensboro, Wilmington, Carolina Beach, High Peak (Etowah) and Asheville. Charlotte is his current residence. He has also lived in downtown San Francisco (the infamous Tenderloin district in the early ‘90s).

Mike has now written over 100 quasi/meta-real short stories – his forte – under the psecret psociety heading. Gold, a summer story, his first (and to-date only) novel – an erotic, suspenseful, deceptive, noir-esque odyssey – was e-published in 2013. Two novellas followed: To Morrow Tomorrow (2014) and Mysterieau of San Francisco (2015). A novelette, Kron by Night, was also included in Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, Volume 1 (2015).

The author is happily remarried with a tenacious teenage son.

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Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, vol. 2

[[||]] … from the [virtual] inside flap … All thirty-nine short stories from calendar year 2016 are gathered in this digital collection. Just like Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, Volume 1, these little tales run the gamut from the maniacally meta-real to the sometimes surreal to the oddly ordinary. Most fall between 1,300 and 2,500 words, with 1,700 words being the average run (perfect for the coffee/tea break or the train/bus/ferry commute). The two primary characters in these tales of extricated intrigue are Agents 32 and 33 of a nebulous entity (which has an interactive Facebook page) known as psecret psociety (yes, with silent p’s). Agent 33 is the author (Parkaar) and Agent 32 is the author’s very-much-involved wife (Monique). So, if you find yourself in need of some interesting (or at least different) reading material to fill those ten-to-fifteen-minute gaps in your earthly day, this may very well be your ticket to slide … into knowhere. [sic] Moreover, may the mirth lay with yew for an oddly spun pun.

  • ISBN: 9781370537228
  • Author: Mike Bozart
  • Published: 2017-03-17 16:50:42
  • Words: 66816
Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, vol. 2 Psecret Psociety Pshort Pstories, vol. 2