Customer Service

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A new story to help bring in the New Year.

Stumbled across the idea for this story last week, talking with a neighbor and his wife. This is kind of tongue in cheek, a not too serious look at changing keys in the middle of a song.

I’ll have a few parting thoughts after the story, so read on!

 

Customer Service

+++++

In the still of the night

As I gaze from my window

At the moon in its flight

My thoughts all stray to you

In the still of the night

All the world is in slumber

All the times without number

Darling when I say to you

Do you love me, as I love you

Are you my life to be, my dream come true

Or will this dream of mine fade out of sight

Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill

In the chill, still, of the night

Like the moon growing dim, on the rim of the hill

In the chill, still, of the night

In the Still of the Night | Cole Porter

+++++

“Customer Service, this is Tracy,” the woman answering the phone said, “how can I help you this evening.”

“Yes, well, I was just down at your store and I think I left a bag of groceries on the check-out stand. Could you check for me, please?”

“Could I have your name, please?”

“Eunice. Eunice Gibson. I was there about an hour ago.”

“Yes, Mrs Gibson, I have your bag here at the customer service desk, just inside the main entrance.”

“Look, there was some butter and yogurt in the bag…”

“Yes, ma’am, I put your perishables in our ‘fridge, and both your bag and the stuff in the ‘fridge are labeled with your name on them – in case I’m not here when you come by.”

“Thank you so much. Is this Tracy?”

“Yes, ma’am, and I’ll be here ‘til six this evening.”

“Well, thank you Tracy. If I can get a ride, I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

“Do you need a ride?”

“I don’t drive anymore, Tracy,” the woman said. “Too old and too stupid for all that nonsense, I suppose.”

“Well, if it can wait ‘til six, I could drop your things off on my way home?”

There was silence on the line for a moment – like the woman was hovering above the plains of a vast indecision – then she said: “You wouldn’t mind, Tracy?”

“Not at all, Mrs Gibson. We have your address on file as 233 Maple Avenue; I assume that hasn’t changed?”

“No, no it hasn’t.”

“Alright, I should see you some time after six, probably around six-thirty.”

“Thank you, Tracy. I appreciate this, I really do.”

“You’re certainly welcome, Mrs Gibson, and I’ll see you soon.” Tomberlin put the phone in it’s cradle and turned to a customer just walking up to her desk. She knew him, and his two daughters, had known him since high school, and she could tell something was wrong; even his girls looked out of sorts. “Can I help you, Tom?”

Tom Stoddard’s eyes were watery, and he looked way beyond out of sorts – he looked genuinely depressed, or worse. “I bought these shrimp last night,” he said angrily, slapping a receipt down on the counter, “and they smell like ammonia – mixed with a healthy dose of dog turds.” Tomberlin couldn’t help it – she grinned, started to giggle, and this seemed to anger the Stoddard even more. “Look, Tracy, I don’t happen to think this is all that funny…”

“I’m sorry, Tom, it’s just that I’ve never heard that particular odor described, well, so perfectly…”

“Okay, but what are you going to do about it?”

“Well, what would you like me to do about it?”

“What?”

“Well, Tom, we can refund the purchase price, cash or store credit, or I’ll get the department head over here and you can go with her and find some fresh shrimp. Your choice.”

“That’s it? No paperwork to fill out, no ‘wait two weeks while we process your complaint?’”

“Simple as that, Tom – no muss, no fuss.”

“I’ll be dipped,” Stoddard said. “Well, guess I’d still like some shrimp…”

Tomberlin nodded her head, picked up the phone and called the seafood counter, told the manager what was going on. “Tom, if you and the girls could just wait over here,” she said, pointing to a spot out of the main line, “someone from seafood will be right up, and I’m so sorry this happened…”

“Certainly not your fault, Tracy. Thanks for helping me sort this out.”

“My pleasure.”

She helped the next woman in line buy a few lottery tickets, waved “bye!” when the seafood manager led Tom and his girls away, then she noticed ‘him’ in the checkout line across from her desk.

But then again, almost everyone in the store noticed him. They always did.

He was Hollywood royalty – or had been, anyway, once upon a time. He’d retired, written his memoirs and discovered he liked writing – and had been writing ever since. Three novels – all about movie studio treachery, torrid, behind the scenes love affairs, and an occasional murder thrown in for spice – and now he was seemingly more famous than ever. He lived on a ranch outside of town these days, but all kinds of Hollywood types came up on weekends to visit him; just now he had finished checking out and looked her way, smiled and came over to her desk.

“Howya doin’, Tracy?”

“Robert! Fine…so nice to see you!”

He smiled. “You still get off at seven?”

“Six tonight.”

“Wondered if you’d like to go out to a movie?”

“You know, a customer left a bag of groceries and I was going to run them over when I get off.”

“You still taking the bus home?”

“Yup.”

He shook his head. “Nope. Not tonight. I’ll be out front at six-o-five.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Tracy, the only thing I mind is you won’t marry me.”

“Robert?”

“Yes, Tracy?”

“If you asked, I missed it,” she said, grinning. This was there long-established routine, and he feigned memory problems next, then muttered his way out the front door, out into the snow…

“You know,” Wilma Brinson said, leaning on the counter, “one of these days you ought to say yes. Just to see what he does, ya know?”

“I’m way to old for him, Wilma.”

“Really? Aren’t you fifty something?”

She laughed. “I sure am, Wilma. Thanks for reminding me.”

“How old d’you think he is?”

“I don’t know,” she lied.

“You two look so good together.”

“Wilma, that man would look good with a dancing prairie dog turd.”

The woman screeched, her laughter sounding almost like a low-flying jet airliner as she walked back to her cash register, and Tomberlin just sighed and turned away. She helped a few more customers then closed her register and cleaned up her cubby, then got Gibson’s groceries together and clocked-out before heading out the door.

She wondered if the bus would be running on time, but no, there he was, in his cinnamon brown Range Rover, looking just like a freshly-minted Hollywood matinee idol. Sunglasses, sheepskin gloves, salt-n-pepper hair freshly groomed. And it would smell – overpoweringly so – of Bay Rum cologne when she opened the door, too.

He was out his door and and jogged round to get her’s, and she squinted, rubbed her eyes when the cologne washed out of the Rover’s interior – the flood almost knocking her over.

He took her hand and helped her up, then closed the door behind her and walked around. “So. Where to?”

“Maple Avenue, down by the old courthouse.”

“Okay. Nice neighborhood.”

“Eunice Gibson. Her husband represented the district in Washington for more than thirty years.”

“Morris Gibson? I didn’t know his wife was still here…I thought she moved back to Georgetown after the funeral.”

“You knew him?”

“Not well, but I gave some money to his campaign when I bought the ranch. He helped me with some water rights issues.”

“Well, let me warn you…she’s still a real firecracker.”

“Oh?”

“Says what’s on her mind. Has a sharp mind, too, in case you were wondering.”

He pulled onto Main and drove through slushy ruts in the wet snow, and she thought he seemed preoccupied. “How’re you doing, Bob? I mean really. Not the bullshit version.”

“Tracy! I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use colorful language before! What’s come over you?”

“Arthritis.”

He laughed, almost whispered “I hear that” – and with more than a little understanding. “What’s the street number?”

“233”

“Ah, better turn here.” He flipped on his turn signal and the Rover slipped in the slush a little – then the traction control system dug in and he powered gently through the turn. “Think it’s gonna get cold tonight,” he said, his voice a little rattled from the skid. “I mean, think you could make it through a seven o’clock movie?”

“Doubtful, but I’m willing to try. What do you have in mind?”

“New Woody Allen flick at the Odeon.”

“Oh, God.”

“What? You don’t like Woody?”

“I can take him – in small doses. Midnight in Paris was good, though.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I thought so too. Just quirky enough to be interesting. Did you like Back To The Future?”

“I liked Michael J Fox.”

“Yup. You’re a chick.”

“So glad you noticed.”

“I noticed, Tracy. Long time ago, as a matter of fact.”

“Here’s Maple; make a left.”

Turn signal on, he paused for traffic then turned.

“It’s the big one, there, on the left,” she said.

“Now that’s a house,” Robert said, turning into the drive. “They don’t build ‘em like that anymore. Mind of I go up with you?”

“No, not at all.”

He parked and set the brake, then came around to her door. “Slippery as eel-snot out here,” he didn’t need to say, then “Be careful” as he took her hand and helped her out into the cold.

She stepped gingerly to the sidewalk, waited for him to close the car door, then they walked up together and stood on the porch, rang the bell and waited.

She was coming down the grand staircase a moment later, but two steps from the bottom she caught her shoe on the runner and started to fall.

“Oh, no…” they heard through the glass, and each watched helplessly as the woman – arms outstretched – fell to the hardwood floor.

He watched her left arm buckle under the impact, her face bounce off the floor, and tried the door. “Locked” he cried, exasperated, and in one smooth motion he stepped back and literally kicked the front door off it’s hinges – then rushed into the house. He got to her side, put his hand on her shoulder: “Mrs Gibson? Can you hear me?”

“Eunice?” Tomberlin said gently. “Are you alright?”

“Well goddamn, sunovabiscuit!” Gibson said, though her voice was detached, almost a distant moan. “My arm hurts.”

He repositioned himself, helped Gibson roll over and sit up; “Oh, Hell’s bells,” he said when he saw blood pouring from her broken nose. “Tracy? Kitchen towel, or even some paper towels?”

“Got it.”

“What’s wrong now?” Gibson said, then she looked up, saw that face kneeling over her and gasped. “Are you…?”

“Robert Rankin, ma’am,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Well, goddamn!” she cried. “Here I’ve been, wanting to meet you for something like twenty years, and when I finally do I have to go and fall on my face!” She looked like she wanted to laugh, then she shook once, and started to cry – just as Tomberlin arrived with several towels, one damp with tap water.

“Here,” Rankin said as he took the moist towel, “let’s see if we can’t clean this up a little bit.” He worked on her solicitously, cooing reassuringly as he cleaned the blood off Gibson’s face and neck. When he finished he dried her carefully, slowly, then reached for her arm, gently ran a finger to the spreading bruise he saw under the distorted skin near her left elbow. “That arms broken,” he said at once, then: “Looks like you’re going to the hospital tonight, young lady.”

“What?”

He held a finger about a foot in front of her nose and moved it from side to side: “Ma’am, follow this finger as it moves, and he watched her eyes jerk erratically as she tried to follow, but he put that hand in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, dialed 911.

“Yes,” he said when the operator answered, “I’m at the Gibson residence, 233 Maple Avenue, and Mrs Gibson has fallen, broken her left arm and possibly her skull. Yes, we’ll stand-by right here. Okay, about five minutes, and I’ll stay on the line ‘til they arrive.”

“Oh God,” Eunice said, beginning to swoon. “I don’t feel right.”

He was by her side again, held on to her and let her down to the floor gently as she passed out, then he picked up his phone again: “Ma’am, better tell those paramedics to step on it; she just lost consciousness.”

They heard the siren moments later, then saw pulsing red and blue strobes racing down the street. Firemen and paramedics scrambled up the walk and into the house and swarmed over the woman, and less than a minute passed before they had her on a gurney and carried her from the house.

“Tracy? You better go with them,” he said, looking at the splintered front door. “I’m going to get this door secured, then I’ll be along and meet you at the ER.”

“Okay, Bob.”

He stood, helped her up. “You know what, darlin’? You’re top-shelf. I mean that…none better.”

She looked at him, nodded her head, but she’d seen it in his eyes from the beginning. The empathy, the pure compassion, the willingness to help, to give. And she was pretty sure he’d just fallen in love with Eunice Gibson. “Thanks, Bob. I’ll see you there,” she said, then she turned and jogged down to the ambulance and stood by the open back door.

He watched her standing out there, snow falling on her shoulders, and he was pretty sure he’d just fallen impossibly in love with the girl. He took out his phone again and called his ranch foreman.

“Bert? You busy? I’m in town, 233 Maple, at a friends. She fell down the stairs as we got here and I kicked in the front door…” He listened for a moment, then: “Yup, one of those old Victorians. Door must be four feet wide, nine tall, looks like solid mahogany planking with a big oval window set in it. What was that carpenter’s name? Higgins? – that’s the one. Look, give him a call, would you? – get him over here as soon as possible. I need to run to the ER. Fine…fine. I’ll stand by ‘til you get here. Yup, the Rover’s out front. ‘Kay…seeya in a few.”

He moved around the entry, cleaned up spatters of blood from the floor – and the bigger splinters of wood, too, then he saw the groceries and ran the bag into the kitchen, put stuff in the ‘fridge before he went out to the porch and waited.

His foreman’s Suburban pulled up a few minutes later, and they lifted the door into place to help keep heat in. “What about Higgins?” he asked. “Did you get hold of him?”

“Yessir. He lives out on the north side of town, snow’s getting’ deep but he should be here in a few minutes.”

“Could you hold down the fort here for a while?”

“No problem.”

“Thanks, Bert. Look, as soon as I know what’s going on I’ll give you a call.”

“Don’t worry about it, sir. You better get going before the roads get too deep.”

+++++

He sat looking across at Tracy, at the calm serenity in her eyes, wondering where such reserves of strength came from, then he looked down at the menu on the table. “I’ve never been here before,” he said at last. “Have you?”

“A few times. It’s diner food, but Donny has become a sort of local institution. Lots of grease and runny eggs, but the chicken fried steak is famous. People come from all over for his cream gravy.”

They’d just left the ER, after the docs took Eunice to surgery to repair her fractured humerus, and when he’d realized the lateness of the hour he thought they’d better grab some chow before everything closed down for the night. This old diner was on the edge of downtown, across from the old railroad station, and it stayed open late year-round.

“Well,” he sighed, “any port in a storm.”

“You should have been a doctor,” she said, looking him squarely in the eye.

“Yeah, probably so, but it was the little things, like failing algebra – twice – that interfered with my application to medical school.”

“Yeah,” she smiled, “I guess that would do it.”

“I meant what I said, Tracy. You know, the whole top-shelf thing.”

“Oh, well, I wish I knew what that meant?”

“They way you didn’t panic, they way you seem to care about people…”

“Hey, that’s my job…good ole customer service, reporting for duty.”

“No, Tracy, that’s not it. There’s something different about you, the way you wrap yourself around people. You care, and it’s not an act; I could feel it as I watched you around Gibson.”

“I could say the same thing about you, Bob. You’re decisive, you know? Most people would’ve looked on helplessly, maybe called 911, but not you. You didn’t hesitate, not for an instant – you saw what needed to be done and did it. That’s actually pretty rare, when you get right down to it.”

“I doubt that…”

“I don’t. I grew up here, but went to a college in Boise. I didn’t graduate; decided to move to New York City, got a job with TWA…”

“You were a stewardess?”

“Yup. For twenty five years.”

“I’ll be damned.”

“Anyway. I’d been flying for a couple of years when I was involved in an accident…”

“A crash?”

“Uh-huh. In Rome. A 707 taking off, lost an engine – I mean it literally blew apart, knocked out the hydraulic systems and the wing went into what’s called an asymmetric configuration. We weren’t quite airborne yet, so the aircraft began, well, almost cartwheeling – but sideways – down the runway. Anyway, what I remember most about the whole thing was how people reacted when the aircraft came to a stop. A few people, a couple of men, a woman I remember, kept it together and helped, but most people simply panicked…or froze up like a deer caught in headlights”

“I remember that one; did many people make it out?”

“Less than half,” she said – her eyes watering. “There were sixty three survivors…”

“Jesus…”

“I remember the captain, during those first few moments, most of all. He was hurt, real bad as it turned out, but he secured what he could in the cockpit and came out, helped get people out the galley door and onto the slide. He pushed me out, too,” she said, pulling down the sleeve on her sweater, revealing old burn scars that, she said, covered her back and left shoulder, “just in time.”

“What happened to him?”

“He got out, but was very badly burned. He died a few days later, of internal injuries.”

“So, what’s this got to do with this evening?”

“You’re one of those people, Robert. One of those who help people find their way out of the chaos.”

He looked at the easy grace in her eyes, then looked away quickly and shrugged. “I don’t know…maybe. What about you? What kind of person are you?”

“I know who I am.”

“I think I fell in love with you tonight.”

She shook her head. “No you didn’t. You fell in love with her.”

He seemed surprised, but didn’t say anything for a while, then a waitress came to their booth and asked what they wanted.

“I hear the CFS is pretty good here,” Rankin said, but when he looked up the girl was staring at him.

“Are you that actor?” the girl asked.

“Well, I’m an actor,” he said uneasily, “or, well, I was once, anyway.”

The girl turned around and called out to the cook behind the counter, “Donny! It’s him!” The cook smiled and waved, and Rankin waved back. “So, yeah, the chicken fried steak is our specialty. We make our own cream gravy, too.”

“Mashed, or fried?” he asked.

“Both, and we got hash browns, too.”

“Tracy? What’ll it be?”

“Chef salad, please. With Italian, on the side.”

Rankin smiled. “Guess I’ll try the steak, with hash browns.”

“Wet or dry.”

“Oh, well…wet as hell, please.”

“Yessir!”

“Oh, what’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Becky, Mr Rankin.”

“Nice to  meet you, Becky.”

“Do you ever get tired of it?” she asked as they watched the girl walk away.

“No, not really. It would be worse, I guess, if all the attention stopped.”

She nodded her head. “Understandable.”

“So, you kept flying after the accident?”

“Yup, ‘til I retired.”

“Where’d you live?”

“Boston, a little place on the North Side, above an Italian bakery. It was heaven.”

“Why’d you move back here? Parents?”

“That’s right. What about you? Why Idaho?”

“Far enough away, but close enough, too, I guess. I couldn’t stand LA any longer, but I still need to go there from time to time. So, what makes you think I like her?”

“The look in your eyes when she lost consciousness.”

“But – I was thinking about you. So, what does that tell you?”

“I’m not your type, Robert. I’d bore you to tears.”

“How so?”

“I’ve seen the world, and I wasn’t all that impressed. I like staying at home now, curling up with a good book by the fireplace at night, and I like taking care of customers at work.”

“And you like living by yourself?”

“I do.”

“Never get lonely?”

“My dad’s dogs keep me grounded. And taking care of him can be a chore.”

“How old is he now?”

“Eighty-something. He’s old school, ranching’s in his blood.”

“Does he still run cattle?”

“A few. Not as many as you do, though. Maybe a thousand head.”

“I’ve wanted to meet him, ya know? Just to shoot the shit.”

“Go out and do it, then; most mornings he’s out running hay, but he’s usually in by noon.”

“I reckon. Winter’s are tough out here.”

She shrugged. “I guess. Do you write all the time now, or go out and work the fields?”

“A little of both, but Bert runs things. I think I just get in the way when I go out there.”

“Is that the way you want things to be?”

He chuckled. “You know, Tracy, I grew up in Brooklyn. What I know about ranching wouldn’t fill that coffee cup.”

“Well, Bert’s a top hand. You’re in good hands.”

“You know him?”

She nodded her head. “A little. We dated all through high school.”

He looked at her then, a hard, penetrating gaze. “Oh?”

“We were going to get married. He wanted to work for my dad in the worst way back then.” She sighed, looked back through stacks of memories. “I guess everyone wanted to work for my dad, the kids who wanted to stay here, anyway. I figured out early on I didn’t want to. I wanted all the bright lights, the faraway places, so I left.”

“How long have you been back?”

“Not quite five years.”

“I’m sixty two years old, Tracy. Sixty two, and I’m tired of living out on that ranch by myself. Tired of the superficial types in California. I want a woman to wake up next to me in the morning, to help me write, to think. I think you’re that woman, Tracy.”

“I wish I was, Bob. I really do.”

“Could we date a while?”

She looked at him, smiled. “Why?”

“Because I like being around you, Tracy. You make me feel good inside.”

“We’ve known each other a few years. Why are you asking now?”

“Because I’ve known you a few years,” he said, smiling, then his eyes fell. “You’re not seeing someone else, are you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Is it Bert?”

She almost laughed. “Oh, God no.”

“You’re not into, like, women, are you?”

She burst out laughing, an eye-watering, rip-snorting laugh, then took a sip of water while she wiped her eyes with a napkin. “Oh, Jesus, Robert…you’re such a – guy!”

“What?”

“If she’s not attracted to me, she must be a dyke…!”

He looked crestfallen. “You’re not attracted to me?”

“I told you – you’re attracted to Eunice Gibson. You just don’t know it yet.”

“I don’t get it, Tracy. Why do you think that?”

“You’d be good for each other. She’s a real prime mover, Robert. You want someone to help shape your world? You won’t find any better woman around here to help you do that.”

“I…I just…”

“And there’s something else,” she added.

“Oh? What?”

“She needs you, too. Badly.”

“Who do you need, Tracy?”

“Ah…here comes your steak,” she said, and when Becky put the overflowing platter down on his placemat he gasped. “Jiminy Cricket! I wanted a steak, not the whole goddamn cow!”

“This is the small order, Mr Rankin,” the waitress said, perplexed.

“You mean…there’s a bigger one than this?”

“Yessir, but you got to ask for it.”

“Holy smokes. This is enough for three people…”

The girl smiled. “Can I get you anything else?”

“Tums? Rolaids? A cardiologist?”

“At the check-out counter, Rob,” Tracy said.

“Thank God. Well, no, this oughta do, for now.” Becky walked off, grinning in triumph.

“Most of the ranchers around here would send that back,” Tracy said. “Too small.”

“I know. You can work up an appetite out there.”

They ate in silence for a while, then he came up for air. “You know, this is the real deal,” he sighed, letting his belt out a notch.

“Donny’s a good cook.”

“You know him too, I suppose?”

“High school. Two years behind me. He went into the Navy, cooked on a carrier for twenty years, or so he tells it.”

“Well, he can cook a mean chicken fried steak, that’s for sure.”

“He’d love to hear that.”

Rankin looked at her, at the way she said it and he nodded his head, then picked up his phone when it chirped. “Yo, Bert, how’s it lookin’?” He listened for a minute, then: “Sounds good. Did you cut him a check?” Pause. “Alright, just have him bring it by the house in the morning; I’d like to talk to him about building some more bookcases in the study, and some stuff downstairs. Yeah. That’ll be fine.”

“What was that all about?” Tracy asked.

“Had Bert get Ronnie Higgins out to fix that door. He couldn’t match the stain, so’ll have to get back over to refinish the wood in the morning.”

She nodded, “That was nice of you.”

“That door is priceless, and I knocked the hell out of it. Solid mahogany, too. Don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“They don’t make a lot of things like that any more, I guess?”

“No. Reckon that’s true.”

“That’s what I like about living here. I think people appreciate what we had, what we still have, and they’re not willing to let go just yet – simply in the name of progress, anyway.”

“And I’m not from here, am I? I’m the rich outsider.”

“You do like to reduce things down to a framework you understand, don’t you?”

“But that’s it, isn’t it?”

“No, not really. Look, Bob, I like my life, don’t really want to change anything right now. I’m comfortable, and I’m with people all day long, so I’m not lonely. I help them, do things for them, and when I get home I just want to lean back and wrap up in my cocoon. I don’t want, or need, anyone to take care of…”

“What if I wanted to take care of you?”

She laughed, because he still didn’t get it. “You want a woman to take care of, go back to California, or get a dog? The women around here are pretty self-reliant.”

“What does that mean?”

“Another word for someone who wants to be taken care of is lazy. Not many lazy folk left around here. They tend to move to the city, get on disability, or welfare. Life’s hard out here.”

“I see.”

“People are different, Bob, out here. Self-reliance isn’t just some tag-line from a John Wayne movie. People live it, because there’s no one else you can count on when the chips are down. There’s yourself, and maybe family, if you’re lucky, anyway. You can afford a foremen like Bert, and to hire people to get what you want done, but that’s not really the way life is out here. It’s not the way I grew up.”

“Sounds like you resent me – in a way.”

“No, I just can’t relate to you, the way you live. And I don’t feel like I need to live that way. Like I said, I’m comfortable – with where I am in life. That doesn’t mean I don’t like you, or that I don’t want to go out to a movie with you every now and then. I does mean I don’t think we’d be a good fit. I think you’d be unhappy with me after a few weeks.”

“How’s your salad?”

“You know? Not bad. You gonna make it through that side of beef?”

He nodded, then shook his head. “No way. One more bite and I’m off for a triple by-pass.”

“They’ll box it up, if you like.”

“Can I drop you at home?”

“Could you? Not sure I want to wait for the bus this time of night, not out in that snow…”

+++++

She was behind the customer service desk the morning when Tom came in again.

“Tom? Did the shrimp work out last night?”

“Hmm, oh, they were fine. I just wanted to apologize for yesterday. I was rude, and there’s no need for that.”

“You look sad, Tom. What’s up?” His wife had passed a year ago, ovarian cancer, and he’d had a hard time ever since, and his girls were still off on holiday, hanging protectively behind their father.

“My dog,” he said, his eyes watering. “Had to put her down night before last.”

“Oh, Tom,” she said, taking his hand. “I’m so sorry.”

He started crying, and she motioned to a floor manager to watch her desk, then came out and walked with the girls over to the Starbucks in the far corner of the store. She sat him down, waited for the darkness to run it’s course.

“Which dog? Lucy?” she said a while later.

“That’s right.”

“She was one of Brigit’s, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah…”

She pulled out her phone, dialed her father’s landline.

“Dad? You mentioned Sally was going to have a litter? Oh, she did? Yeah? Well, Tom Stoddard’s here. Yup, that’s right – Lucy, one of Brigit’s. She passed last night. Oh? Okay. He’s having a tough time – yeah, with me at the store right now. Okay, I’ll tell him. Thanks, Dad.”

“What was that all about?” Stoddard said.

“Dad kept a couple of girls from Brigit’s last litter; one of those had a litter last week, and Dad’s got three females not spoken for.”

The change was instantaneous, and complete – even his girls looked excited. “One of Brigit’s granddaughters? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“That’s what I’m telling you. He mentioned he’s got one that looks like a clone of Lucy – think you could run out and and take a look?”

He stood, made as if to run for the door but stopped. He grabbed Tracy by the waist and pulled her close, kissed her on the lips – then sprinted for the front door. “Thanks!” he yelled, just as the three of them cleared the door on their way out to the parking lot.

“Your welcome,” Tracy whispered, as she made her way back to the customer service desk.

+++++

Rankin and the carpenter, Ron Higgins, finished looking over the repairs to the Gibson house’s door, and he thanked the man for his work then walked through knee deep snow down to his Rover. Checking his phone, he made a few calls then drove the few blocks to the hospital and walked to Gibson’s room. A knock on the door, a cheery “come on in,” so he slipped in quietly, peeking his head around the door before he stepped fully into the room.

“Hello,” he said, looking at Gibson’s bruised, raccoon-like eyes.

“Hello, yourself.”

“I just wanted to drop by, see how you’re doing. Also, I’ve had a carpenter over to fix your front door.”

“My front…why?”

“I’m afraid I kicked it off it’s hinges when you fell, made quite a mess of things.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. The way you hit the floor, well, I was afraid you’d really done some damage and I guess that got the adrenaline flowing.”

“I guess I should be grateful you were there. I shudder to think what might have happened had no one seen me fall.”

“Well, we got your groceries put up, so you should be in good shape once you get home.”

“My, my. So, you were with Tracy?”

“I was at the store, she told me she needed to drop some things off at your house after she got off, and as it was snowing pretty good I offered to drive her over.”

“That was sweet of you. Damsels in distress? Is that your thing, Mr Rankin?”

He laughed. “Not hardly.”

“Are you two dating?”

Again he laughed, though he shook his head this time. “Not hardly.”

“Tracy’s a nice girl, but she’s been different since she got back. Not quite herself.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Hard to put my finger exactly on what I’m getting at. I’d say she’s more resigned to her fate than she was before she left. Like she’s seen death, and is waiting for it to come for her.”

He stared blankly at the woman, wondered how much she knew about Tracy’s accident. “Do you know her well?” he finally asked.

“I used to, yes. Quite well. Her mother was a close friend, and I watched Tracy grow up over the years. Her father was always one of the big movers and shakers in the valley, I guess you’ve figured out by now, so big things were always expected of her.”

“Oh?”

“In another age, perhaps, she would have understood these expectations, moved to secure her family’s legacy. As it was, she became the rebel. The loud music, the late night parties, and she developed a reputation, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I suppose I don’t,” he said, suddenly despising this sanctimonious woman.

“Oh, she became quite the little slut, then she was – poof – gone. First to Boise, then off to New York City and jetting around the world all the time. Her mother was quite embarrassed by the whole thing.”

“I see.” He looked down at his watch and sighed. “Well, I just wanted to drop by, tell you about the door. It has a fresh coat of varnish on the inside; too cold now to tackle the exterior, but we’ll get it come springtime.” He turned and moved to leave – “If I can lend a hand with the door, give me a shout.”

“Thank you, Robert.”

“Good day,” he said as he left the room, and he shivered when he was out of view, felt like he’d been cornered in that room by a rattlesnake – though he’d heard just enough to wonder what the hell was really going on with Tracy Tomberlin.

‘What is it,” he wondered to himself, “about this girl that’s so captivating? She’s just cute as any gal in Hollywood I’ve ever known, but that’s not it. No…there’s something deeper going on, like  she’s found some kind of inner peace.’ He thought about books he’d read about finding such a place, notably Hesse’s Siddhartha and Ullman’s And Not To Yield, but they were no help. No, she was an enigma, hiding behind that desk helping people – when it was she who more than likely needed help.

His help.

And he was as suddenly determined to get to the bottom of all this.

He picked up his phone, found the number for the Tomberlin ranch and called, spoke with her father. A few minutes later he was headed south out of town, heading into the unknown. Searching, he knew, for what might prove, in the end, to be completely unknowable – yet he felt powerless to ignore the call he heard from this woman – powerless to ignore the hold she already had on his heart.

+++++

Deke Tomberlin put the phone in it’s cradle and chuckled.

“What the devil is that girl up to now?” he sighed. First Tom Stoddard in full blown grief over the passing of that dog, now Rankin, that silly actor – who everyone in town said was in lust with his daughter. Everyone said he’d been after her for months – to no avail – and he wondered why.

He felt her on his thigh just then – and reached down to scratch behind her ears.

Sadie moaned, looked up with grateful eyes and let him scratch away, then he patted his thigh, bid her to come up on his lap – and she wasted no time springing up. She put her paws on either side of his neck and looked him in the eye, reading his mood, then she put her face on his right shoulder and sighed.

“I think you hate this snow about as much as I do, don’t you, girl?” He cupped her head and scratched for a while longer, then ran his hands down to her shoulder and felt the lingering wound.

He’d gone into the hay barn two weeks ago to load the wagon and a rattler had struck out at him, but Sadie had intercepted the strike in midair. Yet somehow the rattler recovered, for a moment, anyway, and managed to get off a weak, ill-timed blow – and Sadie had taken a few drops of venom in a shallow wound. He’d killed the snake, stuffed a couple of Benedryl under her tongue and loaded her in the pickup, then gotten her to the vet’s office in record time, and while the wound turned black a few days later, the vet debrided the area and pronounced her fit as a fiddle.

And of course, that’s when Sally went into labor.

Now he had seven Springer pups writhing around in their whelping box, in addition to Sally, Sadie and Max. He’d decided to keep a male this time, as Max was getting on now, so he had three males and three females to find good homes for. Tom Stoddard was a natural – and as the man’s two daughters had loved Lucy more than anyone could have hoped, he had reason to think he’d be a good match once again.

He looked up, saw Stoddard’s old Ford coming up the drive and put Sadie down.

“Come on, girl. Company’s comin’,” he said as he walked over to the entry off the kitchen mudroom. He layered up: two sweaters and a heavy jacket, then walked out into the swirling snow – Sadie by his side, a stately, calming presence.

Stoddard stopped behind his pickup and got out, the girls followed and Sadie walked over and sniffed the strangers’ ankles, her stumpy tail barely moving. A few sniffs and the tail started beating away, then she fell in beside Deke as he came over to shake hands.

“Sorry to hear about Lucy. What got her, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Kidney failure, came out of nowhere.”

Deke nodded. “Thirteen years, about right,” he sighed. “You think you’re ready for a pup?”

“I think without another pup around the house I’ll up and die, Zeke. The girls graduate this summer, and I’m going to be alone for the first time in thirty years.”

“Well, I reckon puppies are cheaper than women. Still, have you considered finding a wife, giving that whole thing a go again?”

“Nope. Never will. Just couldn’t, you know. Jill was the love of my life, and I’m not going to sully her memory by taking another woman into my life.”

“Oh?”

“Well, lookin’ around this place, I sure don’t see a new woman around here…”

“Nope, but then again, I’m almost eighty. Sarah was seventy five when she passed. You’re what? Not even fifty? You’ve got twenty five years until you’re where we were when Sarah got sick. That’s a lot of livin’ you’ve yet to get around to. You might want to give that some thought, you know.”

“Yeah, okay.”

Deke noticed the girls looking at their father just then, the concern in their eyes, and he wondered what they thought. “Well, you wanna stand out here and freeze our asses off, or head over to the Hilton.”

“The Hilton?”

“The puppy shed,” Deke said, winking at the girls.

They all laughed. “Lead the way, Deke.”

The ‘Hilton’ was the newest, and arguably the nicest, building on the property. Tiled floors and walls, central heat and air conditioning, there were kennels for ten dogs, two tiled whelping boxes and facilities to wash and dry dogs of all size, and another larger room off the main to handle bovine emergencies. They walked in, shook snow from their clothes and boots, then sidled over to the nearest whelping box.

Sally lay curled on the floor, seven squirming puppies sucking away on her breast.

“See that one, second from the top?”

“Yup.”

“If that one’s not a near twin of your Lucy, I don’t know what is.”

Stoddard leaned close, looked at the pup. When he stood up there was tears in his eyes, but Deke was watching Rankin’s Range Rover as it pulled up to the main house. “You stay here a minute. That Rankin fella just pulled up.”

“The actor?”

“Yup.”

“He still after Tracy?”

“Yup. Mind if I bring him in here?”

“Hell yes, but do it anyway.”

They laughed as Deke put his coat on again and walked out into the howling storm.

Sally was looking up at Stoddard when he turned back to the litter; she seemed to be measuring him against memory for a while, then she lay her head back down and closed her eyes. The door opened a moment later, and a wave of icy air surged into the room – Sally looked up and yawned, then plopped her head down again, clearly annoyed with the universe.

“What’s this?” Rankin said as he came over and looked down at the brood. “Springers?”

“Yup. And Robert, this is Tom Stoddard. Tom? Robert.”

The two shook hands, and Stoddard introduced his two daughters. “This is June, and this is Judy,” he said.

“Twins?” Rankin asked.

“That’s right,” Stoddard said. “They graduate this year.”

“Ever taken drama class?” Rankin asked.

“Last year,” June said. “It was real fun.”

“Think you’d like acting?”

“Oh, yeah,” the girls said in unison, and he laughed, then he looked at the two Springer females: “Are these two sisters?” Rankin asked Deke.

“Yes, that’s right. You like dogs, Mr Rankin?”

“Been a while, but yes. Damn, they’re gorgeous…”

“Yup. We’ve been breeding Springers out here since right before the second world war. Good field dogs, not bad with cattle, too.”

“You hunt with ‘em?”

“Yup. Lots of pheasant, even a few quail along the creek beds.”

“Lots of rattlers, too, I imagine.”

“Yup. Lots of rattlers.”

“Ever lose one?”

“What? To a rattler?”

“Yes.”

“No. A couple of close calls, but Springers are about as quick on their feet as any breed out there. Sadie here got hit a few weeks ago, didn’t you girl.”

“In this snow?”

Deke and Stoddard just chuckled. “They hay-up this time of year, Mr Rankin,” Stoddard said. “That hay barn of yours has at least fifty rattlers in it right now, unless Bert has put some cats in there at night.”

“Is that what they’re for?”

“You got any snake-proof boots?” Deke asked, pulling up a leg on his khakis.

“No? What brand are those?”

“Danner snake-proof boots. They’ll last you more than a few years; good in mud, too.”

“Wonder if Amazon has them?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Deke said, frowning. “I reckon Phil down at the dry goods store has your size, though. So, what could I do for you today, Mr Rankin?”

“It’s Bob, please.”

“Okay, Bob. What’s on your mind?”

“I wanted to talk to you about…uh…what about these pups? Are they for sale?”

“Sometimes.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know, Bob, I tend to look at Springers as being about two steps higher than most humans on the evolutionary scale. My pups go to people I know, and trust, to not only take care of them, but who know a little bit about love, too.”

“Oh? And, so, what’s the punch line?”

“I don’t know you, Bob. You’ve been my neighbor for five years, and I don’t know you. Now, is there anything else you need to get off your chest?”

“I wanted to talk to you about Tracy?”

“Oh? What about?”

“I’ve just heard a few things, things that don’t sit well with me, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”

“You ask her yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, her life’s her business, not mine. You have something you want to know, I suggest you ask her first. If she doesn’t want to talk about it, then I’d guess it’s probably none of your business, too.”

“I see.”

“There’re a lot of busybodies in this life,” Stoddard said, “and more than a few in town, too. I doubt there’s one among ‘em that can tell the difference between a good apple, and a rotten one.”

“Bob,” Tomberlin added, walking towards the door, “there’s another way of lookin’ at Tracy.”

“Oh?”

“Kind of an old saying, and you may have run across it before, and it goes something like this: if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t womp it’s ass every time it hops.”

“I don’t get it,” Rankin said. “What’s that got to do with…”

“Some folks never do, Bob. Some folks just can’t learn from their mistakes. They keep askin’ ‘what if’ and ‘why me’ until their ass falls off…”

+++++

His house was something else. At least that’s what folks who came up from LA said.

All made of logs and milled pine, with granite here and there, his home was fifteen thousand square feet of pure sybaritic bliss – every convenience known to man woven into a tapestry of excess that had, frankly, bothered him when he contracted for it’s construction. The guest wing alone had five bedrooms, five baths, it’s own indoor swimming pool – as well as a small gym – while his side of the house was even more extravagantly appointed. The kitchen would have been ample for a small restaurant, and he had over five hundred bottles in his cellar.

So what, he said.

He’d been married once, thirty years ago, though they’d not had children, so he was it – the end of the line. There was no one in line to pass the torch to, no one waiting to take over after he was gone, and he looked around this monstrosity, and he’d been wondering what would become of it after he was gone. It would go on the  market, he assumed, and some tech mogul in Silicon Valley would scoop it up – it was, after all, less than hour from Sun Valley – and that would be it. There’d be parties out on the flagstone terrace by the pool and people would talk about how this had been built by that actor, ole What’s-his-name, and people would look around blankly, wondering who the hell ole What’s-his-name was – before tossing down another Campari and soda.

So, maybe that’s why he’d done what he’d done. Why he’d begun thinking about the day after tomorrow more and more.

He looked across the valley at the Tomberlin spread, at lights glowing in the little ranch house. Why had he not been over to Deke’s house before? Why hadn’t he introduced himself? Maybe he figured that, being an outside, he wouldn’t have been welcome? But no, that didn’t ring true – yet that’s what he’d made of his life out here. He was alone, and he was an outsider – and a few months ago that had begun to bother him…more than bother him.

He picked up his phone, called Bert, his foreman.

“Bert? Can you come up to the house? I just want to bend your ear about a few things. Sure, come on in, door’s open.” He walked to the kitchen, poured another scotch and water and walked out to the living room, warmed himself by the fire for a minute, then went and sat at the piano. He started winding his way through Cole Porter’s Night and Day, then drifted into Begin the Beguine, his melancholy mood inflecting the progression of notes with an unnatural, sleepy beat.

“That’s nice,” he heard Bert say a few minutes later, and he turned around a little at the voice.

“Go fix yourself a drink, Amigo.”

“Yessir.”

He sighed, worked his way into In The Still Of The Night, lost inside the music for the moment, then he heard Bert sit down by the fireplace and stopped. “Enough of that nonsense,” he said as he picked up his scotch and went to the sofa.

“Bert? What am I gonna do with this place? When I’m gone, I mean.”

“You won’t need to worry about that for a while, will you, sir?”

“No, I reckon not just now, but it’s been bothering me.”

“You need to find a good woman, have a couple of kids.”

“Plenty of women out there, Bert. Few of ‘em are worth a damn, especially when it comes to someone my age.”

“You still thinkin’ about Tracy?”

“Night and Day, Bert.”

“Damn. She too old for all that.”

“I think that’s what she said, just last night – as a matter of fact.”

“Oh? Well, she probably thinks you need a woman who could have some kids with you.”

“I did everything but get down on one knee, Bert. Asked her to move out here, told her she’d make me happy.”

“You ask what might make her happy?”

“Can’t ever get her to open up about things like that.”

“That’s Tracy. Still waters and all.”

“You dated? In high school?”

“Guess she told you that?”

“Yup. Has she always been this way?”

“No sir, not always.”

“Did something happen?”

Bert looked away, took a long pull from his drink. “Not my place to say, sir.”

He looked at his foreman, appreciated his integrity. “Okay.”

Bert relaxed, looked at Rankin. “There’s not an evil bone in that girl’s body, sir. I’d kill anyone who tried to hurt her.”

“Does she know how you feel?”

He laughed a little. “Only since second grade, sir.”

“Oh, so this is a new romance, huh?” he asked, laughing too.

“I’m not in love with her now, sir. Got over most of that by the time she moved to New York, but she’s one of those people you just can’t shake, not completely.”

“I can understand that. Let me ask you something, Bert. I visited Mrs Gibson in the hospital this morning, and she as much as called Tracy a slut, at least back then. You know what that’s all about?”

He nodded his head, took another pull from his drink. “Yup, sure do.”

“Something that happened in high school?”

Again, Bert nodded his head. “Yessir.”

“And it’s not your place to say? Is that about the size of it?”

“Mr Gibson. I think he tried something. Tracy left after that.”

“I see. And Mrs Gibson? She had something to do with her leaving?”

“Yessir.”

“Figures. Uh, Bert, about a month ago I revised my will. Assuming nothing changes, if I die tomorrow the ranch goes to you…”

“Sir? No…”

“Bert, shut up and listen, will you?”

“Yessir.”

“I don’t talk about shit like this often, and this’ll be the only time you hear this from me. Like I said, I don’t have any family, any kids, and, well, over the past couple of years you’ve become like a son to me. You’re about the only person I trust, and the only person I’ve respected more than you, well, he’s been gone a while. I don’t want this place to go to some city-slicker, but neither do I want you to get a hold of this place and sell it off. I want you to keep it, work it the way you have for me, build it up into something special, something worth passing on.”

“I don’t know what to say, sir.”

“Well then, don’t say anything. Just don’t start calling me ‘Dad’ – or some such bullshit, alright?”

“You ready for a refill, sir?”

“Yup. Maybe one more.”

When he came back a minute later he looked at Bert again. “What about you? You dating anyone now?”

“Yessir. A gal at the bank, for a few months now.”

“Looking serious?”

Bert nodded his head. “I hope so.”

“She’s special?”

“Solid, sir. Not a mean bone in her body.”

“Ah. Like Tracy.”

“There isn’t anyone like Tracy, sir.”

“No, there isn’t. There sure isn’t. Well, why don’t the two of you come up to the house for dinner this Friday? I’ve been wanting to ask a few folks for dinner, and that might be fun. Sound like a plan?”

“Yessir. She’d love that, been a big fan of yours for years.”

“Good. I’ll look forward to seeing you both. Say around seven?”

“Yessir. Thank you sir.”

+++++

He looked across at the Tomberlin spread again, ignoring his scotch, his hands hovering over the keyboard – and he turned, reached for his phone. He pulled up Tomberlin’s number and called it again, waited for him to answer.

“Deke? Bob Rankin again, across the way. How’re you this evening?”

“Fine, Bob. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, it seems Bert has a new lady friend and I’m going to have a little dinner for them here at the house this Friday. I wondered if you’d like to come over for supper, maybe have a scotch or two around the fireplace.”

“This Friday, you say?”

“Yes. We’re going to meet up here around seven.”

“You know, that sounds good to me. Count me in.”

“That fella out there today, Stoddard? Could you call him and give him the invite, those two girls, too?”

“I will. But you’re sure you want the girls to come?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

“Never more, Deke.”

“We’ll see you Friday night, then. ‘Night.”

“Good night, Deke.”

He rang off, looked at his phone again, and pulled up her number. He hit send, and crossed his fingers.

“Hello,” he heard her voice say and his heart skipped a beat.

“Tracy?”

“Robert?”

“I need a date Friday night. You free?”

“A date?”

“I’m having a little wing-ding here for Bert and his new gal. I have a feeling things are getting serious between them, and, well, I just wanted to throw a party for them. I’ve invited your father and a few of his friends, but it just wouldn’t be complete without you here. So yes, I’d like you to be my date.”

“Who’s cooking?”

“Why, me of course.”

“You?”

“I do know how to cook, Tracy.”

She giggled. “I’m sure you do, Robert. Look, I’m off Friday – can I help?”

“Sure. I was going to the store around nine, pick up what I need then. Could I swing by and pick you up?”

He heard her thinking, calculating, then: “Nine sounds good, Bob. I’ll be out front, nine sharp.”

“And I’ll be there, at eight fifty nine.”

“Thanks, Bob, seeya then.”

“Night.” He rang off, pulled up his contacts and dialed another number. “Matt? Bob Rankin here. I wonder if you’re free this Friday night. I’m having a few friends over, and you might liven things up a bit.”

“Well, I, uh…”

“I think they’ve got about 2 feet of new powder at the Roundhouse, in case you want to head up for a few runs.”

“I’ve got to be in London on Monday.”

“You can catch the five thirty out of LAX on BA.”

“You still have the Falcon?”

“Can you manage to find your way to Santa Monica? About ten Friday morning?”

“Look, this isn’t for a bunch of Hollywood bozos, is it?”

“Nope. Locals, ranchers for the most part.”

“Oh, well, that sounds fun. Count me in. So, ten o’clock, Friday, Santa Monica?”

“Be there, or be square.”

“Oh, mind of I bring a friend?”

“Hell, no. Bring two.”

“Ben’s in town too. Can he come?”

“I don’t know, can he?”

“Okay, Bob,” Matt said, laughing, “sounds good.”

“Night.”

He pulled out his wallet, looked at the receipt from the diner last night, found the phone number and called.

“Donny’s Diner, this is Becky.”

“Becky? Bob Rankin. I think you served me the biggest chicken fried steak in human history last night…”

“Yes! Robert Rankin! How are you?”

“I’m still full. Uh, look, about that guy, Donny? Is that the fella behind the grill who waved at me last night?”

“Yes, that was him.”

“If he’s there, think I could talk to him?”

“Sure, hang on.” She heard her calling his name, whispering ‘It’s Robert Rankin, for you!’ – then he heard all kinds of commotion as the man ran for the phone.

“Hello! Mr Rankin?”

“Donny, I was wondering what you and your gals were doing Friday night? I’m having a party out here…”

“Oh, gee, I’m sorry Mr Rankin, but we don’t do catering.”

“Well, gee, I was going to ask if y’all wanted to come out for a party I’m throwin’ for my foreman…”

“For Bert?”

“Yup.”

“You don’t want me to cook?”

“Not unless you want to. I was planning on cooking.”

“Well hell, I’d do anything for Bert. How ‘bout me and the girls come out and just lend a hand.”

“How ‘bout y’all come out around seven and have dinner, take the night off? How many folks can I count on?”

“Five alright, Mr Rankin?”

“You got a wife?”

“Six, then. Is that okay?”

“Okay, that’s Donny, party of six?” They both laughed. “See you then, Donny.”

“Yessir, and thank you, sir!”

“Night.”

He looked at his phone, at the time, then thought about the next call long and hard. “Every fire needs fuel,” he sighed, then he pulled up the hospital’s number and entered the number. “Eunice Gibson, please,” he said to the operator, then he waited, listening to the ring on speaker.

“Hello?”

“Mrs Gibson, this is Rob Rankin. I just wanted to see how you’re doing this evening?”

“Why Mr Rankin! I’m fine, just fine. Thanks for calling…”

“So? How’re they treating you? Letting you out anytime soon?”

“Tomorrow morning, I think. Assuming I can, well, I…”

“I understand, Mrs Gibson.”

“Eunice. Please, call me Eunice.”

“Well, Eunice, assuming you feel up to it, I’m having a few friends over Friday night, kind of a dinner for my foreman and his gal.”

“You mean Bert?”

“Yes ma’am. Dinner, cocktails, some music, and I wondered if you’d feel up to coming out?”

“Well, Robert, I’d love to. I hate to ask, but I may need a ride.”

“I’ll have someone pick you up around six-thirty. Think that’ll work out?”

“A quick question? Shall I dress for a casual event?”

“Eunice, might you dress a little more seductively than that?”

“What?”

“You’re a most attractive woman, Eunice. I’d love to see the effect you have on some of the guests that will be here.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Oh, I see,” she cooed.

“Eunice? See you Friday.” He rang off and called his housekeeper, then his pilot, and filled them in, then picked up his scotch and walked back to his Steinway. “Yup, it’s a Cole Porter kind of night,” he said as he started in on In The Still of the Night again, but he shifted keys – from major to minor – and he liked this new vibe. He tossed a little Brazilian beat into the flow and shook it up a bit, and with his eyes closed he swayed in the new rhythm – a little smile coming to life as his fingers danced through the night.

+++++

“You’ve never been out to the house?” he asked Tracy as she climbed up in the Rover. He waited until she was buckled in, then closed her door and walked around.

“No,” she said, though he knew she didn’t need to say why.

“Oh, well. I talked to the grocery manager yesterday and ordered most of the things I think we’ll need. She said to just come on in and they’d help load things up, but I thought we’d make a walk-through first, maybe pick up a few things – just in case.”

“Okay. Do you have a list of things you’re making?”

“Not really. Thought I’d shoot for something between Oscar Meyer hot dogs and The Four Seasons.”

She laughed. “My dad thinks hot dogs are the best thing on earth. What did you order?”

“A couple of beef tenders, some shrimp and lump crab meat for starters, stuff for a caesar salad, and I’m going to make a couple of bourbon-fudge-pecan pies.”

“You are – going to bake pies?”

“I am.”

“Do you, uh, like to cook?”

“I do.”

“Do you like being deliberately vague?”

“Yup.”

“I see.”

“Good.”

She laughed, shook her head and looked out the window as the Rover pulled into the store’s parking lot. “It feels like I just left this place,” she sighed, her breath frosting the glass.

“Maybe because you did?”

“Yup.”

“Maybe you need to take some time off. I mean real time, not just a day here – a day there.”

“Not on my paycheck, I don’t.”

“I can imagine.”

She looked at him then: “Can you?”

“I worked in restaurants and clubs in New York City for years, then moved out to LA and did it again for a few more years. I was in my thirties before I made a real buck, so yeah, I know where you’re at.” He pulled into a space near the front, set the brake and came around for her door.

“You know, you don’t have to get my door. I’m a big girl, can manage that by myself.”

“Oh? Well, yes I do have to. Sorry, but I’d hate myself if I didn’t.”

“Well programed, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea. I have a biological need to worship women.”

“All women?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh, well, glad I’m nothing special.”

He held her as she got out, but he didn’t let go of her hand just yet; neither did he say a word. Instead, he simply looked into her eyes…

And, unaccountably, she felt herself going weak in the knees.

“Come on,” he said after he finally let go of her hand. “Lots to do, not a lot of time to do it all.”

‘Now what the hell was that all about?’ she said to herself as she fell in beside him. They got a cart and walked the aisles; she pointed out a few things her father liked and he picked up a couple of cases of Budweiser longnecks.

“Funny, I wouldn’t have taken you for a beer drinker?”

“Funny? Well, you don’t know me all that well, do you?”

An assistant manager was waiting for them at the customer service desk and he settled the bill, then a couple of kids rolled carts out to the Rover and he helped them load it, then he gave each a twenty. They smiled, said thanks, and he walked around, opened her door.

“That was nice,” she said. “Ostentatious, but nice.”

“I give ‘em something every time I have a big load like this. I think it’s fair, not an empty gesture.”

“I didn’t say empty…”

“‘Ostentatious’ is empty, Tracy. I’m not into either.”

“What are you into?”

“Do unto others, if you know what I mean.”

He helped her up, then stood in the Rover’s open door. “You okay?” he said at last.

“Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well, the hard part comes next.”

“Let’s go, then.”

They drove out in silence, and Tracy felt a sudden tension building between them as she watched the town slip by. When they got out to the house he backed into the garage, and it took them a half hour to get everything unloaded and put away in the kitchen. When they were finished he asked if she’d like a tour of the house.

“A tour? By any chance, do you sell tickets?”

“Haven’t had much call. So, wanna take a look around?”

“Sure, lead on, oh master of mine.”

“You’re impossible,” he smiled. “But I guess you know that.”

“Yes, it’s something I’ve been working on – for years.”

“Well, practice makes perfect.” He took her to the guest wing first, showed her a room, then the pool and the gym, then he backtracked to his side of the house, took her to his bedroom.

“Wow, this is almost like a monastic cell, only bigger,” she said as she walked in. “Not what I expected.” There was a small library off the main room, four walls lined floor to ceiling with books, and with a single overstuffed chair on the slate floor – flanked by a reading table and two lamps. “You like to read, I take it?”

“I do, but it’s a risk nowadays.”

“A risk?”

“Yes. I find, when I’m writing, anyway, that quite often I imitate styles of the author I happen to be reading at the time. Sometimes I think it’s an unconscious process, other times I’m not so sure.”

“Who’s your favorite author?”

“The one I happen to be reading at the moment.”

She laughed at that. “If you had to pick one book in here as your favorite, which would it be?”

He walked over to a shelf, more like a case, really, and this case had a locked glass door protecting the books inside; he entered a code, opening the case, and he pulled out a book and handed it to her.

“Meditations? Marcus Aurelius? I remember the name.”

“Just another old, dead white guy.”

“Patronizing, aren’t we?”

“Sorry. Succeeded Hadrian in Rome, colloquially known as ‘the Philosopher King.’ Richard Harris played him in Gladiator.”

“Ah. Killed by his son?”

“Possibly, but I’d almost say that version is conjecture. Anyway, the empire hit the skids after his death, dissolved into decadence and corruption.”

“Kind of like America, huh?”

“There are parallels, but more differences than similarities. Personally, I’d say we have a way to go to equal the Romans, at least as far as out-and-out debauchery is concerned.”

“Not if you listen to my Dad. The second coming is at hand, at least in his worldview, it is.”

“Lot of people feel that way. Did he go to college?”

“Yup. Dartmouth.”

“So, he’s not stupid. Why do you think he feels that way?”

“You’ll have to ask him. Do you? Feel that way, I mean?”

“Nope; simplistic answers to complex problems lead to dead ends. Anyway, you can get out to the deck from here, and there’s a soaking pool…”

“What’s that room over there?” she asked, pointing to a door off the bedroom.

“My special room,” he said, grinning.

“Special? How so,” she said as she walked over to the door. She tried the knob, found it locked. “Don’t tell me…it’s your dungeon…like in that Fifty Shades movie…”

He chuckled at that. “Kind of, but not quite,” he said as he came over. “You want to see? I mean, really, really want to see what’s in there?”

“Sure,” she said, her voice sounding anything but.

He entered a code and the door clicked; he pushed it open and walked inside, and lights came on automatically as he entered the room.

There were shelves everywhere, several rows of shelves along two sides of the room and more freestanding in the middle of the room, and she walked over, looked at the contents arrayed neatly on them. “Models?”

“Yup. Airplanes, but mainly trains, for the most part, and buildings too.”

“Buildings?”

“Yup. I make stuff over here, on this desk,” he said as he led her to the back of the room. There was a twenty story building under “construction” on a worktable that stretched along two sides of the room, and a couple of railway passenger cars scattered in pieces along another portion of the tabletop.

“You build model trains?”

“You want to see?”

“Yes,” she said, now very curious indeed, and he led her over to a small door set between two shelves; it was unlocked and he turned on more lights, led her down a small stairway. He turned on more lights and he heard her gasp… “Good grief!? Is that New York City?”

“Yup. Circa 1940.”

She looked over a model of the city, guessing there must have been at least a hundred skyscrapers in view, and literally hundreds of smaller buildings everywhere she looked. There were elevated railways between tenement buildings, long passenger trains pulling out of tunnels, heading for bridges or other tunnels that led out of the city, and she looked at a street scene – an open air market of some sort, detailed right down to horse-drawn vegetable carts and sides of beef being carried into ice-houses.

“Bob…this is incredible. How long have you been working on this?”

“Hard to say. Some of the buildings I started on when I was in grade school, some of the trains, too, but I just kept collecting as I went along, waiting until I had a place where I could build all these things, and then put it all together.”

She kept walking around, looking at little nooks and crannies…

“Some of these scenes are really quite funny. Almost comical.”

“Meant to be. Some are scenes out of my childhood, others are more like wishful thinking. A child’s wishful dreaming. Everything you see is a memory.”

“So…this is like revisiting your childhood?”

“No, not ‘like’, not at all. It IS my childhood. I come down here to turn off the real world, to get away from all the noise. I bask in memory’s glow, lose myself for hours on end – in what was.”

“And what should be?”

“Nope. Not that kind of escape. I’m not rebelling against all the changes that have taken place during my life. Hell, I’m really pretty happy with most of what’s happened, but…what’s that old saying? Don’t sweat the things you can’t change?”

“It’s taken me a long time to get there, Robert.”

“What? Accepting change?”

“Yeah. In a way.”

“Like what, for instance?”

“Is there someplace we could sit for a minute?”

“Sure,” he said as he led her around a corner to a small sitting area – that overlooked Central Park.

“This really is incredible. You’ve got to bring Dad down here…he’ll flip out.”

“I will.”

“So. Let me see if I have enough courage to talk about this stuff.”

“Tracy? If you don’t feel comfortable talking to me, I’d rather you didn’t.”

“What?”

“Just that, Tracy. If you don’t feel you can trust me, don’t. Another old saying: when you feel doubt, there is no doubt.”

She nodded her head again. “Can I, well, can I trust you, Robert?”

“With your life, Tracy.”

She nodded her head. “I thought you might say that.”

“Oh?”

“After the other night. You talk like someone obsessed, or in love.”

“Pretty much the same thing, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Have you ever been in love, Tracy?”

“Once.”

“And? Was it an obsession?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so – at least I didn’t then.”

“And now?”

“Sometimes I think it became something like that, for a while, anyway.”

“What changed?”

“He was a pilot, for the airline. But he was in the reserves, was called up for Desert Storm.” He saw her lips quivering, an eyelid tremling, and he knew she was close to the edge.

“He was killed?”

She nodded her head – just a little – then looked away. “It was stupid. He was in Frankfurt, and his jet lost power on take off. Crashed a few miles from the airport, ejected, broke his neck. Died a few days later.”

“And what are you not telling me?”

“We were engaged. I was pregnant.”

“Uh-huh. And?”

“I tried to kill myself.”

He just looked at her, willing her to go on, to let it all out, but she was looking at the floor now, trembling like a leaf.

And he went to her, pulled her up into his arms and held her, held her as the wave broke. He cupped her head, stroked her hair, whispered in her ear.

She nodded, tried to pull herself together.

“The baby?” he asked.

“She passed. I miscarried, and she just left. Things fell apart.”

“You continued to work?”

“For the most part. I went back to school, thought about getting my degree. I stayed in Boston, ‘til Mom got sick.”

“Mind of I ask you a question?”

She looked up at him, her eyes a reddened estuary of tears, and he took a handkerchief out and dabbed her eyes and cheeks – then, without thinking, he kissed her once, gently, on the forehead.

She looked at him still, her eyes almost at peace now. “Why do you think you love me, Robert? You don’t even know me?”

“It’s the way I feel when I look in your eyes,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper. “I don’t need to know you, Tracy. What I need most is, well, that I want to get to know you. I want to spend the rest of life getting to know you. Does that make sense?”

“Not really. What if you don’t like what you find?”

“That’s the gamble, isn’t it?”

“You were married once, weren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Did you feel the same way about her?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never felt the way I do when I’m around you.”

“You think…do you think you really love me?”

“If love is wanting to be with you, to take care of you, to let you take care of me, to spend every waking moment of every day with you by my side, and for the rest of my life, then yes, Tracy, I’m in love with you.”

“Did you say you wanted to get married?”

“I did.”

“Would you mind asking my dad tonight?”

“Ask him what?”

“Ask for my hand, things like that.”

“Did I miss something?”

“Yup. I think I just said yes, somewhere in there, anyway.”

He laughed. “Tracy?”

“Yes.”

“When you’re sure, let me know.”

“I’m sure, Robert.”

“Wait’ll you spend a day with me in the kitchen before you say that.” His phone chirped and he dug it out of his pocket, saw Bert on the line and hit the button. “Bert?”

“Yessir. Did you say they’re coming into Friedman?”

“Yup. Got a text a few minutes ago; they’re east of Mountain Home, in their descent, so running about fifteen minutes late.”

“Okay. I’m here now; should I just run ‘em out to the house?”

“Unless they want to grab a few runs.”

“You have everything you need for tonight?”

“Yup. Tracy and I ran by the store this morning.”

“Oh? How’d that go?”

“Fine. Let me know when they’re down, what they want to do.”

“Yessir.”

“Later.”

“Is Bert picking up someone?”

“A couple of friends coming to dinner.”

“Hollywood friends?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, God.”

“Yup.”

“Do you like stirring the pot, or are you just sadistic?”

“I’ll let you know.” He stood and helped her up, but he held her by both hands and looked into her eyes again. “You think, maybe in time, you could love me?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Guess I deserved that one.”

“Yup, you do.”

“Mind if I tell you that I love you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Oh?”

“You have to kiss me first, and not one of those brotherly kisses on the forehead. I mean…”

He was on her in an instant, and when she came up for air a few minutes later she looked at his lips for the longest time, then into his eyes: “If you tell me you love me right now, you better goddamn well mean it…”

He leaned in, bit her ear gently before he whispered – and a moment later she had him down and pinned to the floor. She was staring into his eyes just then, then she took off first her sweater, then her blouse, before she started doing things – weird and wonderful things – with her mouth and hands.

He was laying still a few minutes later, looking at her drifting by his side, and he could just see the part of Brooklyn he’d recreated on the layout just above her head, the little street where he grew up, where once upon a time he’d dreamed a dream that had felt a little like this moment, and he was pretty sure just then that dreams could come true, with hard work, and a little luck, anyway.

“Don’t ever leave me, Tracy,” he said softly, and while he didn’t want to sound like he was pleading, he knew that’s exactly what he was doing.

Because sooner or later, that’s what every woman he’d ever known ended up doing, and he knew he wouldn’t survive if it happened again.

+++++

Everyone was in the living room – except Matt and Ben, and Eunice Gibson. They were en route from Sun Valley, with Bert and Maria driving them after a quick stop to pick up Eunice on the way.

Deke and Tom Stoddard were over by the window, looking out over the valley to the Tomberlin ranch across the way, while Tom’s twin daughters were behind the piano, playing a hunt ‘n peck rendition of Chopsticks. Donny and his wife, as well as all the diner’s waitresses, were gathered in a corner, looking around the living room in wide-eyed wonder, while Bill Higgins, the carpenter who’d fixed Gibson’s door, was with his wife in Rankin’s study, with notepad and tape measure, taking measurements for new bookcases. They returned to the living room a few minutes before seven, just as Bert’s Suburban hove into view, charging up the drive ahead of a cloud of swirling snow.

Rankin and Tracy were in the kitchen, getting ready to set out huge bowls of iced shrimp and cocktail sauce, as well as sautéed crab canapés on sourdough toast, so, when Bert and his girlfriend Maria came in they started setting stuff out on the bar that separated the kitchen spaces from the living room. Matt and Ben followed a moment later, still dressed in their ski clothes, and a sudden hush fell over Donny’s waitresses and Stoddard’s girls. Hushed whispers and nervous giggles ensued, words like The Martian and Batman drifted across the room while they walked over to Rankin and gave him a hug.

“Ah, my favorite yankees,” Rankin said –

“Ah, our favorite cowboy,” they said.

“Need to shower?”

“Nah,” Matt said. “I enjoy smelling like a goat.” Ben, however, was already headed for the shower. He, of course, liked to brag about showering three times a day, so Robert wasn’t too surprised.

Then Eunice Gibson walked in, and he was surprised.

She was wearing an outrageously sexy LBD, complete with black stockings and sky high heeled pumps. He looked admiringly at her legs – while she looked past him at Tracy Tomberlin – and the look she saw in her eyes was like watching liquid ice coalesce to form rigid daggers of hate.

Tracy, on the other hand, had just laid out a platter of canapés and was turning to look for Bert and Maria – when she saw Gibson. Her face turned red, her lip started quivering – again – then she turned and looked at Rankin, molten fury beginning to boil to the surface.

Rankin looked at the platters on the bar and decided to lay out more shrimp, then went over to Gibson. “Eunice? Let me take your coat,” he said as he leaned over and kissed her cheek, whispering in her ear: “You look absolutely divine! I could eat you up right here!”

She absolutely glowed when he took her coat, and as she walked over to Tracy she seemed to float in the afterglow of a personal victory.

“Good evening, Tracy,” Gibson smiled.

“Eunice! You’re looking, well, much better than I expected. How’s your arm?”

“Ah, the joys of oxycontin. I can’t remember anything ever hurting as bad as this.”

“Did they have to put a plate in?”

“Yes,” she said, holding up the black fiberglass cast. “Six weeks in this moronic thing…at least…”

“My, how fashionable. I’ve never seen a black cast before.”

“It is, isn’t it? I think so too.”

“Eunice?” Rankin said as he got back to the kitchen. “What can I fix you – that goes well with morphine, anyway?”

“How about a scotch and soda, minus the scotch?”

“Comin’ right up.” He went and poured her a Perrier, garnished it with lime and took it to her. “Do you know Tom Stoddard?” he asked.

“You know, we’ve never met,” she said, and he took her by the good arm and led across the room, to Stoddard – and Deke Tomberlin. Deke turned and looked at Gibson – and his face turned to pure admiration.

“Deke, Tom? May I acquaint you with Eunice Gibson? And if she doesn’t have the best goddamn legs in the valley, y’all need to go get your eyes checked.”

He turned and left the three of them in open-mouthed speechlessness, smiled and winked when he saw Tracy staring at him.

“I see you’re not going to be content to just stir the pot tonight,” she whispered when he got back to the kitchen. “You’re gonna toss in a few sticks of dynamite too, aren’t you?”

“Why, Tracy? What makes you say such a thing? Oh well, time for me to tickle the ivories,” he said as he walked over to the Steinway.

“You play?” she asked as he came up to the twins – who were staring up at him now in wonder.

“Were you that actor,” June Stoddard asked as he asked to take the seat.

“I was, yes,” he said, “but that was a long time ago. Are you taking piano lessons?”

“Yes,” they said in unison. “Do you play?”

“A little. Do you know Cole Porter?”

“Does he teach piano?”

“You know, I think he did. How about the Moody Blues?”

They both shook their heads and he started a soft rendering of Are You Sitting Comfortably, singing in a remarkably clear tenor. By the time he let Merlin cast his spell they were hooked, and Donny’s waitresses and wife came over and stood around the piano, mesmerized by the song – and his voice. Tracy watched as Eunice turned and looked at Robert, and she too walked over, with Deke and Stoddard following her like Pointers on the scent.

‘He’s playing at Merlin tonight,’ Tracy thought, ‘and he’s playing with fire, too.’

He finished Comfortably, then launched into Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick out of You, doing his best to sing Porter’s lyrics – and not Mel Brooks’ somewhat less appropriate version – which happened to be his favorite, then Ben came in and watched him before sitting by his side.

“Can you take it from here, Ben?” – and he saw that all the women were almost drooling now –

“You feeling like this is a Cole Porter kind of night, Bob?”

“You know it, Ben.”

Who of course started in on My Heart Belongs to Daddy – while he looked at the twins.

“Let’s go check on those tenderloins,” Rankin said to Tracy as they made for the kitchen, then, after he grabbed some tongs, on out to the deck. He lifted the lid on the smoker, checked the meat with a thermometer. “Another ten minutes at this temp,” he said, then he checked the foil packets full of roasting vegetables. “About ready for the finishing touch,” he sighed as he poured a mixture of melted butter, soy, lemon and grated ginger into the steaming bags.

He shut the lid and turned to her. “Do you know, you have the most incredible eyes in the universe?”

“Do I?”

He leaned forward and ran his tongue along her eyelashes – and the shiver that ran down her spine nearly caused her knees to buckle – then he kissed her – once, and deeply – on the lips.

“You do that again,” she purred, “and I’m going to have to clean your clock again.”

“Promises, promises,” he sighed – before he kissed her again.

“You’re playing with fire tonight, Robert.”

“I’m running low on matches; think you could…”

“Light your fire?” she smiled. “Count on it, bucko.”

“I am. Say, did you know that oxycontin releases inhibitions?”

“Robert? No. Whatever is it you’re…NO? Listen, I don’t like her, but…”

“My guess is her husband, the congressman, tried to put some moves on you back in high school. And she’s been trying to put you in your place ever since.”

Tracy looked at him, her eyes full of questions. “Who told you?”

“No one. I was visiting her the other day, and among other things she called you a slut.”

“She – WHAT?”

“So, who do you think’s hornier? Your father, or Tom Stoddard?”

“Robert? What are you going to do?”

He leaned over and whispered in her ear again, and she turned bright red, then burst out laughing.

+++++

Ben was in the middle of Anything Goes when Matt came in, and when one of the waitresses sidled up next to him, Ben drifted into Let’s Fall in Love. She was kind of cute, Robert saw, and he observed Matt had noticed, too. He caught Eunice’s eye and motioned her to come to the kitchen.

“You’re looking pale, Eunice. How’s the medicine holding up?”

“It hurts, Bob. What should I do?”

“Has it been four hours yet?”

She looked at the clock on the refrigerator door. “Is that time correct?”

“Yup.”

“Four hours in about twenty minutes. Should I wait?”

“Hell yes, but we’ll be sitting down for dinner then, and taking that stuff with food ought to help prevent stomach upset.”

“Oh, thank you for keeping an eye on me.”

“My pleasure.”

“You really like my legs?” she asked, but he was looking at Tracy just then – talking with her father by the fireplace.

“Do I like your legs?” he asked. “Are you kidding? If I was twenty years younger, darlin’, I’d like to help you curl your toes.”

She brightened, turned beet red. “Anytime you want to try, just let me know.”

“Really?”

“Um-hmm,” she cooed.

“What’s with Deke? That man’s been staring at your legs ever since you walked in the room.”

“Oh? Has he?”

“Has he? Eunice, the man’s drooling. I mean positively drooling, every time he looks at you.”

She turned and looked at him; Deke was standing next to Stoddard now, staring at her legs.

“See what I mean?”

She did. And she was now an even brighter shade of red, too.

“Well, I’ve got to get our dinner off the grill right now, but how ‘bout I put you next to him at dinner? Think you could, well, handle that?”

She turned and looked at him, her eyes a sleepy kind of sexy – then she licked her lips.

“Yes, Eunice. I think I’m getting green with envy.”

“Good,” she said, then she turned and went back to the living room.

Tracy met him at the smoker. “Mission accomplished,” she said. “I think he’s about ready to explode, matter of fact. How was she?”

“Like a piranha. A hungry piranha.”

“Oh, God. My poor father.”

“Are you kidding? They’re going to be perfect together.”

“Uh, you’d better remind Matt those girls are seventeen.”

“Eighteen, last month.”

“You checked?”

“Of course. Matt’s a good friend. Besides, he’s getting ready to cast a movie next month, and he needs twins. Girls, as a matter of fact. And guess what, they took drama last year.”

“You mean, you planned this?”

“Of course not. What makes you say that?” he said, lifting the lid to the grill, the air filling with dense, hot smoke.

+++++

“Damnit all, Mr Rankin,” Donny said from the far end of the table, “this is the best goddamn steak I’ve ever had in my life. What’s your secret?”

“I plug the tenders with garlic, then let them sit in a marinade of orange zest, soy, honey and ginger. Once the tenders are on the fire, grind a bunch of fresh peppercorn all over everything. Smoke until the meat hits 165, and that’s it. Deke? How’s yours? Too well done?”

“No sir. This is the perfect steak. Hope you don’t mind if I borrow your recipe, though.”

Tine, one of Donny’s waitresses was sitting beside Tom Stoddard, and she apparently had matters well in hand, while Matt was talking to the twins about his next project. Ben was talking to Bert about the merits of mixing alfalfa with summer grasses, though Eunice had barely touched her filet – she seemed preoccupied with something under the table, and Deke seemed a little preoccupied, too.

Indeed, Deke wiped a line of perspiration from his brow, his eyes crossed a little.

“Deke, you pull a muscle this afternoon,” Rankin asked.

“Oh, Bob, you have no idea.”

“I hate it when things stiffen up after the sun goes down.”

“Do you?” he grimaced. “Well, I know just how you feel.”

“Yes, well, the trick is to just let things go, try not to hold back.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, just stretch out that leg – then let her fly, maybe give it a little rub to get the circulation going again.”

“Oh, God…”

“Eunice? Think you could help him massage that out?”

“Certainly, Bob. Deke, where’s it hurt?”

“Oh, GAWD!”

“Tom? How’s your steak?”

“Just great.”

“You know, there’s a big hot tub out back. Maybe you could take the twins out there, relax for a while before you go home.”

“Wish we could, but we didn’t bring bathing suits…”

“Matt, could you show ‘em where I keep the spare bathing suits?”

“Dad? Could we come too?”

“There’s plenty of room,” Rankin said. “Enough for a dozen or so, anyway,” he said as he handed Eunice a spare napkin. Deke’s eyes were hooded over now, his breathing deep, while Eunice looked around the room, smiling and contented. “Eunice? How’s that arm? Feel like a swim?”

“Hmm?”

“Want to sit in the hot tub for a while? Or would you like some dessert?”

“If you’ve made those bourbon-pecan pies,” Matt said, “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Well, I’d better get to slicing,” Rankin said. “Donny, can you give me a hand?” They walked to the kitchen, and Tracy did as well.

“I’d say mission accomplished, one more time,” she said as she got some dessert plates out from the cupboard.

“Yes, a sticky situation.”

“What is?” Donny said.

“How’s that wife of your’s, Donny?”

“Hmm? Oh, fine. What can I do here?”

“Could you slice a few pies?”

“Sure could.”

“Great. I always make a mess of it. What do you think? Think your wife would like some time in the tub?”

“I dunno…I think she’s had to much to drink?”

“Ah, well, maybe she could just dip her toes?”

“You wouldn’t mind?”

“Hell, no,” Rankin said as he took the first few slices out to the table. “I just asked her,” he said when he came back to the kitchen, “and I think she’s ready.”

“Ready?”

“For some hot tub fun, Donny!” he added as he and Tracy carried the last plates out to the table. ‘Yup,’ he said to himself as he looked at Eunice, ‘things are heating up nicely…’ He looked around the table as he sat, and said, “Well, bon appetite, y’all…dig in!”

Donny’s wife chimed-in first: “This is so good!”

“It’s the pecans,” Rankin said. “Have to soak ‘em for a few hours in bourbon, then I take ’em out and roll ‘em in honey. That seals in the bourbon, helps give it a little kick. Eunice, you be careful now.”

“If it was baked, there’s no more alcohol,” she said knowingly. “Not enough to hurt, anyway.” She took a bite, and sighed. “This is heavenly. Where’d you get this recipe?”

“Oh, I just looked at a few and combined the best of this, a little of that. You like it?”

“It’s so rich, but so light,” she said.

“Just like you, darlin’,” he said, and he watched her turn red again. Deke seemed to look up at that, his eyes taking on a possessive note, and Rankin smiled. “Deke, think you can convince Eunice to hit the hot tub?”

“Well, I don’t know about that…”

“Dad? Robert’s got something downstairs you really need to see.”

“Oh, no,” Matt said, grinning. “We’ve lost Robert for the night.”

“What’s that?” Deke said.

“Come on, Robert, let’s show him…”

“Show him what?” Eunice said. “Can I come, too?”

“Yes, Eunice,” Rankin said, “I think you need to come.”

“Ooh, goody. I love a surprise!”

Rankin stood. “Matt? Think you can herd all these people down to the hot tub?”

“Sure. Is the pool heat on?”

“The indoor pool is set at 85, the outdoor at 75.”

“Splendid!”

“Y’all have fun. Eunice…Deke, follow me.” He led them to the main staircase and down to the train room, then he opened the door…

And the room filled with the deep rumble of a locomotive, a conductor calling out “All aboard!” Then across the room a headlight came on, then all the windows in the passenger cars lit up – and all New York City’s lights came on, then her street lights . The sounds of people on sidewalks, cars and trucks rumbling down streets, and the room shook as the 20th Century Limited pulled out of Grand Central Terminal…

Deke and Eunice, even Tracy – who’d never seen the display come fully to life – looked on in awe. Street cars ran, subways crossed town on an elevated line, and Long Island Railway commuters crossed bridges over the East River.

“My God in heaven,” Deke muttered as he came over. “You built all this?”

“Yup,” Rankin said, his eyes full of pride. “Started when I was seven years old.”

“This is impossible!” Deke added, his eyes taking on a faraway, searching look. “I always wanted to do something like this…”

“Come with me,” Rankin said, and he led Deke and Eunice to the next phase of the project in the next room. The bare bones of the next expansion had been formed in this room, but nothing was visible aside from markings where future tracks would be placed.

“What is all this?” Deke asked when the scope of the project became apparent.

“Three main lines will leave New York, come through here on their way to Chicago, over there. In the next room, down here,” he said as he walked across to the far room, “the lines will continue, on to San Francisco and LA.” He turned on the lights in the last room, revealing another bare bones layout – though the Rocky Mountains were complete, and all of the track had been laid. “So, I was wondering. What I need, Deke, is another set of hands. Interested?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I need help. Wanna come over, anytime you feel like it, of course, and help out?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yup.”

“Well, hell yes, I’d like to help out!”

“Outstanding! Well, look, there’s something I need to ask you.”

“About Eunice? Are you interested in her?”

“Are you?”

“Well,” Deke began, “I didn’t think so a few hours ago, but right now, well, I’m not so sure.”

“I think you two look good together.”

“You do?”

“Yup. But I need to ask you about Tracy.”

“Tracy? What about Tracy?”

“Well, she wanted me to ask you, well, for permission, for us to get married.”

“She what? Oh, did you ask her?”

“I did.”

“And she said yes?”

“She did.”

He looked away, wiped a tear then turned back. “Well, Robert, you have my permission. When? When do you think you’ll tie the knot?”

“Soon as we can, I reckon. No time like the present,” he said as he looked at this room full of his past – and maybe his future, too.

“No, I reckon not,” Deke said, clearly thinking about that woman in the other room.

“So, what about the hot tub, sir.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I think I ought to get on home.”

“Well, Eunice needs a ride, in case you want to take her – into town.”

“Does she, now?”

“That’s a fact.”

“Hmm.”

They walked back to New York City, to Tracy and Eunice still standing trackside – looking at men’s obsessions and laughing at the folly of it all, perhaps – but looking in awe nonetheless at what had been accomplished – so far.

And Eunice looked at Deke as he came to her: “Deke, what about you ‘n me? Want to hit the hot tub?”

“I was thinkin’ I’d drive you home now, Eunice.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, before it gets too late.”

“Oh. Well, alright. Let me go get my things.”

They all walked upstairs together, and while Rankin helped Eunice on with her coat he leaned close and whispered in her ear. She smiled, kissed him in the cheek, and Deke walked her out to his truck. They watched him drive down to the main road into town, but he didn’t turn that way. No, he turned to the other way, and drove on to his house, and Tracy turned to him just then and smiled.

“I’m curious,” she said. “Did you have all this planned out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you?”

“Well, one more more piece of the puzzle I want to help into place.”

“Oh?”

“Those girls.”

“Tom’s girls?”

“Yup.”

“Is that why you invited…”

“Yup.”

“I didn’t want to ask, but what did you say to Dad in the other room?”

“Oh, I told him I could use some help. With the next phase of the railroad.”

“Oh.”

He smiled. “And I asked him about us.”

She turned to him, looked into his eyes. “And?”

“Oh, all he seemed to want to know was when and where.”

“When and where?”

“Where we’re going to do it.”

“Ah. Well, we’re going to do it in there,” she said, pointing to his bedroom, “right now. I think he’s going to miss this performance.”

“I reckon we better tend to our guests first, don’t you think?”

“They can manage for a little while.”

“Oh, well, okay – if you think so.”

+++++

He went out to the pool deck a while later, saw Matt and Ben still talking to the twins, this time with Tom listening carefully, so he walked into the hot tub grotto and found Donny and his group sipping wine with Ronnie Higgins and his wife. He walked over and dangled his legs in the water, and noticed they were all staring at him now.

“How’s your evening been?” he asked.

“Just something else, Mr Rankin,” Donny said.

“Like some kind of dream,” Donny’s wife added.

“Oh? Well, I hope this isn’t the last time I see you all out here. Matter of fact, Tracy and I have decided to get married, and we’ll probably have some kind of reception here. I hope you know you’re all invited, but we’ll get invitations to you soon.”

There were congratulations, invitations to come to the diner – “Anytime! Anytime at all!” – and Rankin basked in their glow for a while, then walked out to see how things were going with the twins.

“So, what do think, Matt? Find them an agent yet?”

“Yup.”

“I thought they’d be perfect for the parts,” he added. “You too, I take it?”

“Yup.”

“Tom, once you get to know Matt a little better, you’ll see he can speak more than one syllable at a time.”

“Yup. Figured that one a while ago. Plays it pretty close to his vest.”

“He does at that. If it gets too late, Tom, just bunk out in one of the spare bedrooms.”

“Thanks, Mr Rankin. Appreciate your hospitality.”

“My name’s Bob, Tom. Ben, I’m off to bed. Think you can shut things down?”

“Yup.”

“God, it’s catching.”

“Yup,” all five of them said.

“Monsters…I’ve created monsters…” he said as he trudged off to the kitchen, then back to his bedroom. She was still there, waiting, and he’d never felt happier.

So, let’s speak of endings.

Right after graduation the twins, the twins flew to Boston and started on Matt and Ben’s latest movie, about two girls – twins, of course – at Boston College in the sixties. Tom Stoddard was nervous as hell when he watched them leave, but he busied himself training his new pup, Lucille, for the coming bird season. Tina, the waitress from Donny’s place, started spending nights once the girls left, and Tom started putting on weight. Too many chicken fried steaks, he said.

Becky, another gal from the diner, moved into one of the spare bedrooms at Rankin’s place. She still worked evenings at the diner, but worked mornings at Robert’s helping clean house. She’d developed a crush on him, a bad one, and was biding her time, waiting for an opening. Who knows, she thought from time to time, maybe she’d have to make an opening?

Eunice Gibson? Oh, where do we start?

She developed an oral fixation. And Deke had never been happier.

Most days he finished up work in time for lunch, then he showered and drove over to Robert’s. He was concentrating on the western lines in the far room, modeling the Feather River run the California Zephyr made on it’s way into Oakland, and when he finished up what he was working on he’d get in his truck and drive into town, where he’d find Eunice – upstairs in garters and stockings and heels – ready and waiting.

Robert got his snake proof boots at the dry goods store, and had an early breakfast most days at Donny’s. When he walked the sidewalks downtown, the locals said ‘Howdy’ when he passed, and he finally began to feel like he belonged.

And Tracy still worked the customer service desk, still took care of people who needed taking care of, which is why, of course, she decided to marry Robert Rankin. They set a date for next Christmas, and she could hardly wait. She still had her apartment, of course, but she spent most nights at his place, and she didn’t care if people talked.

One night, when she was over at her father’s after work, he was sitting at the piano playing In the Still of the Night once again, and he remembered that night. The night he’d decided to change keys, the night he shifted from a major key, to a minor. The same music, but different. The same life, yet nothing like it was.

Just a little shift. So funny. So unexpected.

He looked across the valley, looked at the Tomberlin ranch and smiled as he played, then he felt a gentle tugging on his socks and reached down, picked up the little Springer and held her close.

(C) 2016 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, and although there are slight inferences to a few real world characters sprinkled about, these references in no way represent any events, real or otherwise. hope you enjoyed.

+++++

So, celebrities and model railroads. You’ve heard of Rod Stewart, I reckon?

rsrr-4

Yes, that Rod Steward. Maggie May and all that…

rsrr3

Turns out he’s into the hobby. And not in a small way. His efforts formed the basis of Rob Rankin’s obsession in the story.

rsrr-1

He said of this article in Model Railroader that it meant more to him to be in this magazine than in any other fan or music magazine. Odd, don’t you think?

rsrr2

Kind of interesting, nevertheless. The effort fills the third floor of his house in Beverly Hills.

Anyway, I worked on this tale thinking about the various keys of life, and how we need to change up from time to time, shake things up a little.

So…Happy New Year! Keep warm and drive safe.

And we’ll see you next year. Thanks for reading along.

Aa

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Ferris Bueller’s Night Out

mc2016

It’s that time of year again! Merry Christmas to you all, wherever you may be. We hope all of you have a grand holiday, if not a very white Christmas.

We are, of course, having a white one. Eighteen inches of white on Thursday alone, as a matter of fact. Here’s the aftermath. Any volunteer snow shovelers?

So, as mentioned in my last post, a new story, and just in time for Christmas. I hope you enjoy.

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Ferris Bueller’s Night Out

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” – attributed to ‘Ferris – I feel a fever coming on – Bueller’ 

quoted in the New Trier High School Class of 1986 30th Reunion Yearbook

“What do I remember most about the Class of ‘86? I don’t know…but for some reason, a Rottweiler comes to mind.”

Retired School Superintendent Edward R. Rooney, when interviewed by the New Trier High School Class of ‘86 30th Reunion Committee

+++++

So, yeah, like basically, once upon a time there was a land of milk and honey that existed on the shores of a great lake, and vast, amber waves of grain beckoned beyond all her fair horizons. The land was called Illinois, or so French Catholic missionaries reported in their first written descriptions of the region. In time a great city arose along the water’s edge: Chicago, home to great football teams, art museums and wondrous architecture the envy of all the world, as well as rail-yards and slaughterhouses and, of course, Abe Froman’s Wonderful World of Sausages. Chicago in time became a veritable microcosm of the United States, and by the late 20th-century home to a peculiar suburb called Winnetka. This village has long noted in film and literature as the locus of an ongoing experiment in teenaged angst, a petri dish ladled full of jock straps and tampons, testosterone and zit creme, Colt 45 Malt Liquor and ‘The Pill.’ So we look at Winnetka through rose colored glasses, and as such it is a most glorious village if ever there was one, with a Ferrari in every other garage, a swimming pool in almost every back yard, and at least one Starbucks on every corner.

The locus of all Winnetka’s teen angst is her high school, New Trier, and this venerable institution voices a respectable, even a noble motto: ‘To commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity.’ Which no doubt explains why so many of her graduates move on to Ivy League business schools, and end up working for investment banks and hedge funds. And which in no way explains why one graduate of the Class of ‘86 opted instead to go to the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

His name was, of course, Ferris Bueller.

Ferris ‘the free spirit’ Bueller. Voted least likely to succeed by his peers – twice – but we’ll get back to Ferris in a minute, because you already know him well enough, don’t you?

The great love of Ferris Bueller’s life in those faraway, halcyon days was his best friend, Cameron Frye. There wasn’t a day that passed in high school when Ferris and Cameron weren’t together, and they did all the things boys in high school usually do together: they listened to music together, they talked about girls, they went to movies together and talked about girls after and, well, you get the picture. Girls figured into most of their conversations, one way or another. A hypochondriac by nature, a child of neglect by circumstance, Cameron was destined for great things – until he failed to gain admission to an Ivy League school. Without the intervention of an uncle in Los Angeles, it’s doubtful he’d have made it into the University of Southern California, but three weeks after graduation he received his admissions letter and for the first time in his life he began thinking the unthinkable – about what Life After Ferris would be like.

The other great love of Ferris Bueller’s life was, of course, Sloane Peterson. They broke up two weeks after graduation, though she dated Cameron for the rest of that summer, and when Cameron took off for LA she split for Oregon, headed to Reed College. After graduation, she lived in a commune north of Coos Bay for several years, then moved to Portland and took classes to become a licensed massage therapist, and when not so engaged she taught classes on using crystals to deal with illnesses as varied as osteoporosis and hemorrhoids.

No account of Ferris Bueller’s life would be complete without mention of his sister, Jeannie. Within a week of Ferris’s graduation she disappeared, apparently on the back of a Harley Softail ridden by a leather-jacketed young man – and by all accounts headed south at an exceptionally high rate of speed. Tom Bueller, their father, was summoned to Nogales, Arizona in early August to bail her out on drug smuggling charges – after five balloons of heroin were discovered “up there” by an inquisitive border patrol agent. Her companion on the Harley disappeared over the border and was never heard from again, and eventually, after her return home, she went on to Loyola Chicago where she took a degree in English Lit. Gaining a PhD from Northwestern, she eventually took a position at a boarding school in western Massachusetts teaching Women’s Studies, and eventually lived with a domestic partner who coached the girl’s wrestling team.

Of course, the center of Ferris Bueller’s universe was his mother, Katie, and so she remained, right up to events leading to the night in question.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

+++++

When Ferris arrived in Madison in August, 1986, he had not a care in the world, yet when he was placed on academic probation after mid-terms were posted, he had the second epiphany of his young life. The kind of revelation that occurs when one’s father advises that funds will be cut off – unless at least a 3.0 GPA was maintained.

Oh, yes. His first epiphany? Really, need you ask? Abe Froman? The Art Museum? Twist and Shout? A crumbled Ferrari and Cameron’s catatonia?

Ring any bells yet?

Anyway, he went home for Christmas holding a 3.1 grade point average – which annoyed his little sister Jeannie no end – and with his reprieve in hand. After talk about the relative merits of girls in LA versus Wisconsin, Ferris and Cameron lost no time getting caught up on life in the fast lane – the future, in other words. Cameron had decided that Hollywood was the life for him and told Ferris he’d decided to major in screenwriting, maybe take a minor in philosophy, or perhaps SCUBA diving, which sounded kinda fun if you ignored the whole shark thing. When Cameron asked where Ferris might concentrate his studies, he replied, seriously too, that dental hygiene was the thing.

“Dental hygiene?” Cameron replied – looking almost cross-eyed.

“Yes, Cameron. I want to explore the endless ways female pubic hair can be used as dental floss.”

“Ah. I think I see where you’re headed with this.”

“Yes, and I see a lot of openings in this field.”

When his father asked what he might be interested in studying, Ferris could only offer a sort of rough, non-committal shrug – followed by a grunting noise that sounded a little like: “Ahum-grumble-ort.”

“Feel a fever coming on, son?”

“Ahum-grumble-ort.”

“Of course, you know how I feel about the law. Can’t go wrong there. And don’t forget, Ferris, law school is where the big bucks are.”

“Ahum-grumble-ort.”

“Then again, we could use a physician in the family.”

“Ahum-grumble-ort-fart.”

Still, in the greater scheme of his unfolding universe, these things have a way of working themselves out on their own, and with no help from anyone at all. Fascinated by a horoscope Jeannie had shown him one morning after Christmas, he decided then and there that he wanted to take a class in Astrology, assuming UW offered such a course, and when he showed up (late, as usual) for registration four days into the new year he signed up for AST 101.

Which was, as luck would have it, Astronomy 101. The course was titled Celestial Mechanics, which Bueller thought must have something to do with horoscopes, but the text was thicker than all three Chicago area phone books put together, and the first chapter didn’t even mention stars in House of Uranus…

And yet, oddly enough, Bueller loved the class, even the physics – which after 17 years in Winnetka offered a kind of certitude he found at once comforting and exhilarating. He continued to go home for Christmas, always giving his father a Brooks Brothers tie, his mother a box of Godiva chocolates, and Jeannie a scarf of some sort, usually from K*Mart. Cameron’s father divorced his third wife somewhere in there, and though Sloane had literally disappeared from their world by then, she was usually in their thoughts.

Eight years later he left the University of Arizona Tucson with a PhD in Astronomy – bound for the University of Hawaii and Mauna Kea’s pristine airs. Not exactly a lawyer or physician, he knew, but he’d found his niche in the world and was reasonably happy, so he hoped his father was, as well. Cameron settled in at a production company in Beverly Hills – cleaning up scripts for a few years before working as an assistant director on a Spielberg film. After that his career took off, but a curious thing happened along the way.

Sloane Peterson showed up at Cam’s one night, broke and at an end. Cameron picked her up and dusted her off, carried her along for a few months, but then she disappeared again. Cameron didn’t tell Ferris about the encounter, though they still spent quite a bit of time together, usually over the holidays. The entire event had rattled Cameron, however, seemed to shake up his sense of humanity. He started writing more serious pieces after those weeks with Sloane, and even Ferris wondered what had happened. Jeannie and his folks came out to LA one Christmas, and they all had Christmas together at Disneyland together, and Cameron took them to the famously invisible 33 Club. They went on all the rides, yet Ferris thought Jeannie looked frail that trip, her spirit almost broken. So did Cameron, and he wondered what had happened to these two girls. He wondered about it a lot, as it turned out.

Jeannie, like Ferris, was living alone, and her first year teaching was proving difficult, and to Ferris she seemed fundamentally different. She’d been almost bi-polar during high school; full of anger one day, seemingly in love with life the next, yet after her Mexican excursion she’d grown inward-looking, seemed perpetually introspective – which Ferris always suspected was why she majored in literature. He recalled seeing Kate Chopin’s The Awakening on her bookcase one day, thought about all her banked down anger and wondered where she’d end up, but he realized he really didn’t know her all that well – and that realization troubled him.

He bought a house far out Manoa Road the next year, and life slipped into patterns of a new familiar. Years passed and he dated occasionally, came close to falling in love with a grad student once – but nothing came of the affair and he retreated into his work after that. One day he looked up and noticed a little gray in his hair, and because he worked at night many times a week his skin had grown pale. He went home for his father’s seventieth birthday and was unsettled when he saw echoes of himself in his father’s wizened features, yet as he looked around the old house on Walden Road he realized he was looking at everything still missing from his life.

Would he take a wife, perhaps? Become father to a child, make all the memories he realized you’re supposed to make as you work your way through life? Memories, he knew, he’d yet to make? And then the thought hit him: why had he never thought these things important before? Was it some sort of biological clock ticking away – or something more?

Was there, he wondered, really something missing from his life? He’d had more than a few academic accomplishments already – with one book published and another in the pipeline – but nothing so wonderful as what his father had created in this house on Walden Road. No, he spent his days talking about the cosmological origins of the universe, his nights out under the stars – looking for those telltale signs of ‘beginnings’ – yet the question echoed in the night: ‘what about my origins, my beginnings? What does my solitary existence say about the end I’ve apparently chosen?’

“Or did I choose this life?” he asked the sky one night.

He looked at his parents after that awakening with something akin to respect in his eyes, maybe for the first time, too, and yet even so he wondered when he’d stopped taking ‘all this’ for granted? When he realized how hard they’d worked to create the life they’d given him? Or when he began to think about how far short of their mark he’d fallen? But…had he, really?

He thought of Cameron and Sloane and that faraway day – pretending to be Abe Froman, then Jeannie’s furious, passive-aggressive pursuit of his deciet, lip-syncing his way through the parade downtown…and a passing moment of something like grief came for him as he drifted among his memories of those lost moments…

Had he, he wondered, been lip-syncing his way through life even then? Pretending to be the rebel, but – what had he been if not the proverbial ‘rebel without a clue?’ He was one of the most popular professors on campus, but in the end, what, really, did that say about his life? Wasn’t he still just lip-syncing his way through life, still pretending, still trying to be the class clown? Trying to be popular, in other words, and never completely realizing how utterly vacuous pretenders usually are?

He looked at his father’s house – at his father’s life – and knew the answer to that and a million other questions had been staring him right in the face all his life. He left Winnetka after that Christmas with the repercussions of that moment, his own little awakening, haunting him all the way back to Hawaii, and Ferris Bueller knew it was finally time to take stock of life.

Which, of course, he promptly forgot to do.

+++++

It was December already, with Christmas break just around the corner, now only a few days between him and three weeks off. Three weeks when he could just kick back and relax. Maybe call Cameron and hop over to LaLaLand, take his new Ferrari out for a spin up the PCH? Talk about girls again, maybe go to a movie or three?

But not today. No, today he was holding a review session for his senior seminar, and picking up research papers from his freshman survey class, which meant he’d be grading papers all through the night and into tomorrow. “Better run by the Don Quijote for some fresh coffee beans and cookies before class,” he said to himself, “and stop by the ATM for some cash…”

He felt his pocket vibrate and sighed.

“Time flies when you’re havin’ fun, darlin’,” he said to the latest love of his life – a brand new iPhone – as he pulled it from his pocket. He looked at the screen, wondered if he had time to talk to his mother and decided he had to take the call.

“Mom?”

“Ferris?”

“Yeah, Mom. What’s up?”

“Ferris, we need you to come home…”

Something in the tone of her voice. Something different, full of dark shadows.

“Mom? What is it? Is it Dad?”

Then his father’s voice was on the line and he felt a flood of relief: “Ferris, I have you booked on Virgin tomorrow morning, you should be getting an email with the information.”

“Dad, I have papers to grade…”

“Bring ‘em with you, son.”

“Mom?”

“One of us will meet you at the baggage claim. And it’s snowing, so bring warm clothes.”

“Mom?”

But the line was dead and he looked at the time, decided he didn’t have any to spare so grabbed his messenger bag – and his phone – and walked out to his silver Prius. He drove in on Oahu Avenue, took University to the faculty lot off Maile and parked, then walked across campus through the mall, then on inside the Physical Sciences Building. He was still ten minutes early so went to his office and turned on his iMac, checked his email and saw the entry from Virgin America. He opened it, printed out the boarding passes and entered flight times on his phone, then grabbed his bag and walked to the seminar room, all the while wondering what the hell was going on back at home…

After the review session he walked with his TA and a couple of students over to The Nook and ordered his ritual pork belly Benedict; he sat with them and listened quietly while they probed each other for answers to tricky problems – all while looking to him for hints about what might or might not be on the final exam – and he toyed with them mercilessly, before he explained to his TA that he had to leave in the morning for a family emergency.

“Really?” she asked. “Nothing serious, I hope.”

He shrugged, then explained the nature of the call. She was bright, cute as could be and had made it known more than once she was willing to help him make it through the night. “Br-r-r…Chicago,” she shivered, “in December. That’s my idea of hell.”

He laughed at that, remembered the wind coming off the lake, but he also remembered all those faraway Christmases with Jeannie and Cam and Sloane. The snow falling on silent trees, the street after street of Christmas lights, Santa perched on front porches handing out candy to kids driven through their neighborhood by young parents dreaming about all the Christmases to come. Driving to his grandparents house on Christmas Morning, the second round of opening presents, turkey and his grandmother’s stuffing, looking at his grandfather – and wondering what it was like to be so old.

“Oh, it’s not all that bad back there,” Bueller said to the girl – almost wistfully. “I don’t even remember the cold. In fact, I’m not sure it ever bothered me.”

“I guess you can get used to anything, huh?”

“Maybe,” he said, but he was thinking about Jeannie just then, and how they’d teased one another about stealing the other’s Christmas presents, about sitting by the tree on Christmas Eve when they were little, speculating who was getting what from Santa that year.

“You look kind of lost…what are you thinking about?”

“My kid sister.”

“The one back in Massachusetts?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“What about?”

“How I used to torment her…how we tried to tear each other down all the time.”

“I think that’s what brothers and sisters are supposed to do to one another.”

“Is it? I wonder.”

“Well, I had two brothers, and they sure tried to tear me apart more than once.”

“I wish I never had,” he said with a faraway look in his eyes, but the sudden thought had startled him. “I’d like to know her now, know about her life.” He sighed as he looked up through the ceiling, beyond the veil of stars. “She’s all I’ll have after my parents are gone.”

‘Truer words,’ the TA said to herself, ‘have never been spoken.’ She looked at him for a while, then turned away quietly from his words. She’d never known a more self-isolated soul, not ever, and she found herself wondering once again what had happened to him. And who had hurt him so much that he had turned to the silence of the stars for solace.

+++++

He looked out over the wing to the city below: he could just make streets and houses through patchy clouds hovering under the aircraft, lines of yellow streetlights and little patchwork quilts of dark gray sprinkled over a snowy landscape, and he had to think hard to remember the last time he’d been in Chicago in winter. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again the Boeing was far out over the lake – and fleet-footed memory ran from him. The jet made another turn – hard this time, and to the right – and he smiled at Orion, now high over South Bend and the turn of the lake. Another turn and the Airbus settled onto it’s final approach, and he looked at the Navy Pier and the Field Museum beyond the wingtip, at the planetarium and Soldier Field between sprints through clouds – until they entered a solid wall of snow and everything suddenly disappeared.

Just seconds passed, really, and then he saw the reassuring pulse of strobes ahead, the light guiding them down, then the jet’s landing lights popped on and he saw how heavy the snow really was…and what did he think, what word sprang to mind?

“Blinding?”

‘Is the way ahead really so obscure?’ he wondered. ‘Is this what Shakespeare meant when he spoke of winter and discontent in the same breath?’

He’d tried not to think about what lay ahead, the sense of urgency in his mother’s voice, the raw edge of latent anger in his father’s – all the fears he had ritually chosen to ignore?

Then the ground rushed up and he heard tires making contact with the earth, the engines as they roared their arrival to the world, and he saw the terminal buildings as they turned off the runway – the sight filling him with sudden dread, and yet hope. He was seated two rows from the front door, yet waited until people from the last rows made their way off before standing, and he walked up the Jetway wondering if he should make his way to a jet returning to Hawaii within the hour. He sighed, put his coat on and tramped off towards the baggage claim, depressed and unsure of this unfamiliar terrain.

His father was standing in the baggage claim, waiting impatiently as he looked at the nearly empty carousel circling endlessly around the room. When they saw each other, dark shadows passed over their faces as each struggled with the consequence of unwanted memory.

“Ah, there you are,” his father said  – of course looking at his watch. “You know, I got you a seat by the front so we could avoid all this hoo-hah.”

“I had to help a little old lady off the plane, Dad.”

His father stared at him, then shook his head. “I guess the idea growing up…” – but Tom Bueller stopped, held his tongue in check as he stuck out his right hand.

Ferris looked at the gesture, then took his father’s hand in his own, and he thought the exchange perfectly summed up their relationship. There’d never been any real intimacy between them, and he realized there never would be anything – beyond, perhaps, a series a constantly shifting grudge matches. They walked in silence through the falling snow out to his Audi, and he put his bag in the trunk while his father got in and started the car, but he turned and looked at the falling snow, at all the holiday travelers coming and going, and he wondered if they felt as barren inside as he did just then.

“Could you brush the snow from the glass?”

“Sure, Dad.”

If you think that’ll really help us see.

His dad took the 294 north out to Willow Road, and he stared out the window in the stifling silence, waiting for his father to say something – anything – but his old man seemed intent to simply push on through the night.

“Quite a snow,” Tom Bueller said at last. “First good one we’ve had this year.”

“Oh?” Ferris said, turning to look at his father. “Is that so?”

But nothing. Not even a ‘How are you doing, son?’ – so he turned and looked at time passing bare trees, their snow covered branches beginning to sag under the weight of so much…what? So much memory? Expectation?

“Got a girlfriend yet, Ferris?”

“No, but I’ve been thinking seriously of adopting a Pitbull.”

“Don’t worry, Ferris. We won’t be visiting you out there any time soon.”

“Phew. One less thing to worry about.”

They turned on Hibbard and the contours of this part of the world seemed less changed to him, more comfortably familiar, and when his father turned on Pine the landscape seemed to pop into sharper relief – and the word “Home” kept slamming into consciousness. Home, as in ‘I belong here.’ Home, a life sentence with no parole…

‘And I did belong here, once, but I turned away from all that, didn’t I? Like I turned away from – him. From everything he represented, everything he wanted me to be.’

Passing Rosewood, then Blackthorn – and feelings of the familiar engulfed him as they turned on Walden Road. Houses he had known since childhood looked resolutely unchanged, even the Christmas lights looked transported from the 70s to the present, and he saw a snowman in their front yard and wondered who the hell had made it…

Yet all the lights were off inside, save for the Christmas tree in the living room, and as he got his bag out of the trunk he wondered if his mother had gone to sleep early. He cut across the yard – a simple gesture he knew infuriated his father no end – heading for the front door, and he waited while his father walked along the freshly shoveled walk for the front porch, and he stood aside and waited while his old man fumbled with the keys to the door – dropping them once before he managed to open the door.

He followed his father into the dark house, and put his bag down and reached for a light switch when –

“SURPRISE!”

Every light in the house flipped on, party-poppers popped and confetti arced through the air, and as Ferris Bueller jumped back in shock he noticed that about half the Class of ‘86 was in the living room – iPhones out, cameras flashing away – and he turned and looked at his old man.

“Happy Birthday, Ferris,” his father said, trying to make himself heard over the roar – and just as gravity is an inescapable force, so too was their overwhelming need.

He flew into his father’s arms, then felt his mother beside them and he turned and gathered her into their enfolding embrace, and he didn’t want this moment to end, this feeling of belonging to something so good.

But soon enough gravity pulled him out of their grasp and into the living room, and he made his way through his friends – until he came to Cameron. Then he flew into Cameron’s arms, too…

“Bastard!” Ferris cried. “You knew? And you kept this a secret!?”

“Dickhead! Of course I did – your mother would have killed me if I hadn’t!” And Katie came over and hugged Cameron – again – and then the three of them walked through the crowd to the kitchen together…

…and there was Sloane Peterson, standing by an open oven door, taking a fresh batch of her infamous brownies from the oven…

+++++

Thirty years.

Thirty years since he’d seen her, and the wave of emotion that rolled over Ferris Bueller was unsettling enough – until he saw her eyes. Again, and for the very first time. Just like the last time he’d looked into her eyes.

Thirty years, and the wave of anger that hit him hadn’t subsided even a little bit. Thirty years since she’d shown him the letter. From the boyfriend she’d never let on she had. The other boyfriend – she’d had for over a year. The boyfriend out in Oregon.

“Ferris! Hi!” she said, but she was measuring his reaction as closely as he was gauging hers.

“Hello there.”

She put the pyrex baking dish down on a trivet and came to him, gave him a little hug, and the slightest kiss on his chin. “You’re looking pretty good,” she chirped.

“Uh-huh. You too.” He turned to leave – but Cameron was blocking the way.

“Ferris? Come on…it’s been thirty years…let bygones be bygones…” Cameron whispered, but he saw his mother standing in the dining room, looking at him carefully now, and once again he felt something wasn’t quite right in this little corner of the universe. No, something was very wrong, something badly askew.

And as his father walked over and stood beside his mother, all the tumblers started falling into place…

“Jeannie,” he whispered inwardly, then: “Where’s Jeannie?” His voice was louder now, his words now full of concern.

His father came to him then, and he felt Sloane by his side, too.

“Ferris, she’s upstairs. In her bedroom,” his father said. “You need to know – this – was all her idea – she wanted to do this for you.”

And he saw his father was having a hard time speaking now. “What? What’s wrong? What are you not telling me?”

Sloane had him by the arm now, Cameron too, and his mother came up to him and led them all into the kitchen. Once the door was closed his mother came to him: “She’s sick, Ferris. Our Jeannie’s very ill.”

“What do you mean, sick? How sick?”

Tom Bueller looked away, and in that moment he knew his sister was in trouble, and with that he broke free and ran for the back stairway, the one that led straight to their rooms. He bounded up the stairs two at a time, then he stood outside her door, listening. And now very afraid.

Voices, he heard voices. Jeannie’s and…who else?

He knocked on the door, waited a second then opened it and stuck his head in.

He saw a nurse adjusting an IV in the gloom, and another woman, about their age, blocked his view of the bed as he started to come in…

“Ferris,” came the disembodied voice he knew so well, “not yet, okay?”

The other woman came to the door and ushered him out into the hall.

“You must be Ferris. I’m Deb,” the woman said, holding out her right hand.

He looked at it and took it. “Deb?” he asked, clearly confused.

“Jeannie and I are, well, we’re together.”

“Together?”

“They’re married, Ferris,” Katie Bueller said, now standing by her son’s side.

“Married? I didn’t get an invitation?” – and he turned and looked at this woman anew.

“No one did,” Tom Bueller said. “They eloped. Isn’t that right, Deborah?”

“Yes, Dad,” this stranger said, and the word rocked him – then the nurse opened the door and asked Ferris, and only Ferris, to come back inside.

He turned, looked at his father – who nodded his head gently, mouthed ‘it’s okay’ as he motioned to her room with his head – and Ferris Bueller closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath…

“Hey, it’s Dickhead!” Jeannie said after he’d closed the door behind him.

“Hey, Fuckface. What’s with all this nonsense?” he asked, pointing at the IV stand by her bed. “You know, you don’t need all this bullshit if you’re just trying to cut classes…”

“No one would know better than you, Ferris.”

“You got that right. Now really, what’s this all about?”

“Oh, a little problem with my pancreas.”

“Cancer?” he asked – quietly trembling now. He didn’t see her hands shaking, or her lips trembling. Neither did he feel his own world shaking, starting to come apart.

She nodded her head and he started to cry. Slowly at first, then almost uncontrollably.

“Come here, Dickhead. You’d better sit your fat ass next to mine and give me a hug.”

They held on to another for the longest time, then she told him to go downstairs, join his party, and that they’d talk again later.

“Dad said this was all your idea?”

“Uh-huh. One more Christmas together, Ferris. You and me and all of us. Let’s make this one the best ever?”

He nodded his head. “Okay.”

She wiped another tear from his face and he kissed her forehead, but the ground felt unsteady now, all life suddenly a very tenuous, precious thing…

The nurse went back in as he left, but no one was waiting for him now so he walked back down to the kitchen. Deb and Sloane were cutting brownies, his mother leaning into his father’s shoulder, smiling very bravely now as he came over.

“I take it she asked you to not tell me?” Ferris said when his father was by his side again.

And his father nodded his head slowly. “She only told us right after Thanksgiving, Ferris. She came home two weeks ago, and we’ve been getting hospice care set up since then.”

“Hospice? Now? How far along is this?”

“She has a week, maybe two, Ferris,” his mother said, tears falling freely now.

“I see,” he said in a daze, but he didn’t, not really. He just couldn’t accept these words as real, then he turned towards a voice he’d never expected to hear again. “Is that – Rooney?” he said, now clearly exasperated.

“None other,” Cameron said, suddenly standing by his side. “Darth Rooney, in the flesh.”

“Who the hell invited him?”

“I can not tell a lie,” Cameron said, pointing to his mother. “She did.”

“Of course I did, Ferris,” Katie Bueller said. “This is an important night for him, too. He’s been invited to speak at your thirtieth reunion this summer.”

“Oh, joy.”

“That’s exactly what he said, Ferris. Isn’t that strange?”

“Here Ferris,” Sloane said, handing him a brownie. “Try one of these,” she said before she disappeared into the living room, handing out fresh brownies as she went. He watched as she handed Rooney two of her potent bombs, and he groaned inwardly, dreading what surely had to come next. Her marijuana brownies had been the stuff of legend since their sophomore year, and he turned in time to see Deb carrying a couple up to Jeannie’s room.

“Oh, swell,” he said – but Cameron was already giggling.

“Mow-ee Wow-ee,” Cameron pantomimed, then: “I can’t wait to see Rooney with the munchies.”

“You’re sick, Frye.”

“I know. Ain’t it grand?”

Then he watched his father take two of the brownies – and when Sloane grinned at Ferris he rolled his eyes – and for a moment wished he’d never been born.

+++++

The party wound down sometime after midnight, some time after his red-eyed father downed a bag of Doritos, some time after the old man stumbled off towards his bedroom – dragging Katie behind him – all the while muttering something about taking Viagra this late at night – leaving Cameron, Sloane and Ferris to hold down the fort. Ferris – on Hawaii time and a confirmed night owl – wouldn’t be sleepy for another five or so hours, while both Cameron and Sloane, being long-time west-coasties, weren’t in much better shape. Ferris turned off all the lights save for those on the elaborately decorated Christmas tree, and the three of them sat in the living room – staring at the tree’s amber glowing memories – and all their dancing implications.

“You know,” Ferris said after several minutes in the zone, “my earliest memories are right here in this room. In this very spot, I guess – I don’t think Mom has even changed the furniture arrangement in here since third grade. Most of the ornaments on that tree…I recognize most of them from grade school.”

“I think I’d be kind of grateful to have those feelings right now,” Cameron sighed.

“I don’t think your folks were ever into Christmas,” Sloane said. “Not like Ferris’s parents, anyway.”

“No one’s into Christmas like my Mom is,” said Ferris.

“I love her so much,” Cameron sighed, and Sloane leaned over and gave him a hug. “She was always the mother I wished mine would be.”

“She’s like glue, I guess,” Ferris said, still not looking away from the tree. “She’s the thing that bound us all together, one way or another. I think she still does, like it’s been her purpose in life.”

“Remember when she taught us how to bake cookies?” Sloane said. “After my father died?”

“What year was that?”

“I can’t remember.”

“We need to get the fire going again,” Cameron said, standing to go get a few logs. Ferris went with him, then they stoked the embers and added a log, waited for it to catch, then he added another – to get the fire going again.

“Good call,” Sloane said – yawning, and Cameron smiled at her as he sat beside her on the sofa. Without any pretense she scooted away a bit, then lay her head on his lap, and Cameron visibly relaxed for the first time all evening.

“Why don’t you two get married?” Ferris asked as he watched Cam let go. “Just stop all this pussyfooting around and, well, go out and tie the knot?”

“I think, Ferris,” Cameron began, sarcastically, “maybe it has something to do with her still being in love with someone else.”

“Oh? What do you have to say about that, Sloane?”

“It’s true,” she said, then she yawned again. “My god, I’m sleepier than I thought…”

“Go upstairs, take my bed,” Ferris said. “I won’t be sleepy ‘til noon tomorrow.” Seconds later he saw she was out cold, her head still planted firmly on Cameron’s lap. Ferris shook his head: “Have any idea how much pot she put in those brownies?”

Cameron bit his lip, snickered: “A shitload, man.”

“You know, my dad is 82 years old, for God’s sake – and I think he’s upstairs boning my mom.”

“Hope springs eternal, Ferris,” Sloane purred, a smile buried within her sleepy features.

“Sloane?”

“Yes, Ferris?”

“Go to sleep, Sloane.”

“Yes, Ferris.”

“How’re things going in LA?” he asked Cameron after Sloane started purring again.

Cameron leaned back, looked at the ceiling for the longest time, then shook his head. “It’s high pressure, Ferris, and not at all fun. I always thought Hollywood would be fun, but it’s not. The actors I’ve met are like something out of a nightmare, all ego and drugs and manic parties…and everything is always money-money-money.”

“What did you expect?”

“Something less…superficial.”

“Any bright spots?”

“Yeah, the composers. Zimmer is cool. I could see hanging out with him someday.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Paramount approached me to direct a remake of Now, Voyager…”

“The Bette Davis flick?”

“Yup.”

“Who’d play…?”

“Mindy Mahan.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me…?”

“Nope,” Cameron sighed – and Sloane was grinning now, trying to stifle a laugh when Cameron continued. “She’s really gotten her act together, and when you get right down to it, she’s not a bad actress.”

“Been getting’ any?” Ferris asked.

“Any what?”

“Any what? What the fuck’s wrong with you, Frye? Have you been going out any, or did you join an order?”

“The Franciscans, Ferris. Years ago.”

“So, why don’t you ask her to marry you?”

“Who? Mindy?”

“Who are you talking about, Ferris?”

“Maybe you have another ear infection, too?”

“Sloane?” Cameron asked as he looked down at the girl with her head on his lap. “Sloane, honey, would you like to get married?”

Her eyes popped open and she turned to face Cameron: “You serious?”

“Yup. What do you think? Wanna hop on a plane, go to Vegas and tie one on?”

She turned and looked at Ferris, a million questions hanging in the air, apparent. “What do you think, Ferris? Should I marry Cameron?”

“Would that make you happy, Sloane? Happier than anything else in the world?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“What would make you happier?”

“If you asked me to marry you.”

He looked at her for a long time; his eyes danced around the room and he looked at the fear and longing in Cameron’s eyes, then he smiled and shook his head. “I’m too old for you, kid.”

“Then I’ll marry you, Cameron,” she said, grinning.

“You better be sure this time,” Ferris added, “because I think he is.”

And Sloane sat up when she heard the import in Ferris’s words, then she rubbed her eyes as she looked around the room. “Cam, do you mean it? You really want to get married?”

“Only for the last thirty seven years.”

“Seriously?”

“Yup.”

“I think I’d like that,” Sloane added. “Ferris? Do you think your dad would stand up for me?”

“Yeah, if your goddamn brownies don’t kill him first.”

“You think we could do it here?”

“Where?” Cameron asked incredulously. “Here?”

“Yes,” Sloane added. “Right here in this living room. That way Jeannie could be here, be a part of everything. Cam? What do you think?”

“I like it,” Cameron said as he pulled at his chin. “Ferris? You in?”

And Ferris Bueller looked at the two people he still loved most in this world, and he nodded his head. “Yeah. Why not. I’m sure Dad knows a JP we can get to do it. When? When should we shoot for?”

“Christmas Day?” Cameron said, his voice cracking now as the turn of this evening’s events caught up with him.

“Ooh, I love it!” Sloane added. “Ferris? You really think we can pull this off?”

“Hey,” Ferris Bueller said, pointing to himself with both thumbs, “you’re talkin’ to Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago. Now get upstairs, both of you, and get to work, try to make some babies or something…”

+++++

An hour later Ferris was still sitting alone in the dark, still looking at the Christmas tree, still thinking about Cameron and Sloane and smiling to himself when he heard voices coming down the back stairway, and he turned in time to see Jeannie – with Deb rolling the IV stand behind her – and he stood and rushed over to her.

“Are you okay for this?” he asked as he took her forearms and steadied her.

“Yeah,” she said – her voice tremulous, beyond weak as she looked in his eyes. “I needed to sit with you for awhile. Like old times, ya know.”

He helped her over to the big chair by the tree – always her favorite – then sat on the sofa across from her as Deb disappeared back into the kitchen…

“What’d you think of Rooney?” she asked as he settled in.

And Ferris sighed as he thought back to their encounter now almost thirty years ago – and their latest only a few hours gone. “You know, it’s hard to think we were ever afraid of the guy. He seemed so much bigger than life back then. Now, he just seems…”

“Small.”

“Yeah, Jeannie, that’s it. Like, why were we so concerned about something so small. So…”

“Insignificant.”

“Yeah,” he grinned. “Exactly.”

“Kind of like all the differences between us, huh?”

He looked at her then, saw something wonderful in her eyes. “Yes. That too.”

“When I was diagnosed,” she began as she drifted, “I was sitting in the docs office waiting for her to come in – after all the MRIs and blood work – and I just knew it was going to be bad news.” She sighed, looked at the tree while Ferris looked at the glow on her face. “I was sitting there thinking how much I needed you with me just then, that you’d know just what to do, that you’d know how to get me out of this, take me away from everything I knew was about to happen. That you’d make everything all better again.”

“I wish you’d called me.”

“I wanted to.”

“Why? After all this…?”

“Time?” She turned and looked at him again. “Time hasn’t been that kind to you and me, Ferris, or maybe…”

“Or maybe we haven’t been too kind to time.”

She nodded her head again. “You know, when I wasn’t so busy hating you I looked up to you like you wouldn’t believe. My big brother, the kid with the plan, the man I knew I’d always be able to count on to get me out of anything bad.”

He smiled at the irony within the thought, of her emotions. “I’ve never loved anyone as much as I loved you that afternoon. When Rooney…”

“I know. I’d never hated anyone as much I hated you that afternoon, then I realized all that hate was just envy. That you were the person I’d always wanted to be, yet somehow never could be, and I realized that wanting to destroy you was just a way of destroying myself.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. It was that one moment in my life when everything became crystal clear. I wanted to be like you – just like you, in every way, if you know what I mean. And I knew I never could be, so I just let go for a while. I let go and started to drift.”

“Tell me about Deborah.”

“We met at school, right after I started my third year at Deerfield; we were house mothers in one of the dorms. I’d never thought of myself that way – you know, liking women – but I liked talking to her, had never felt so comfortable with anyone, and all the rest was easy after that. It was like all the stories you hear growing up, finding a soulmate, finding someone to grow old with, to talk with, to hold in the middle of the night.”

“Lucky.”

“What about you?”

He shook his head. “No such luck.”

“Why not?”

“You know, I think I finally convinced Cameron to ask Sloane to marry him tonight, and I think she said yes.”

“What?”

“I think they’re going to do it, too. Right here, in this room, on Christmas Day.”

“WHAT?”

“Yup.”

“Ferris? Not you? Why didn’t you ask her?”

“Because.”

“Because what?”

“Because if I did I’d end up losing them both, forever. This way I can have them and hold them in my heart, the way I’ve always wanted them to be. The way we were back then.”

“But you’ve always loved her, since second grade, anyway. It just doesn’t make sense, Ferris. You two belong together. You always have.”

“That’s the beauty of it, Jeannie. I always have, and this way we always will be.”

“That doesn’t make sense, Ferris, and you know it. What’s the real reason? Cameron?”

“I’d like him to be happy, for once in his life. She’s always been the only thing that could make him happy.”

“You love him that much?”

“I guess so, in a way, anyway. He was the one person I always felt most comfortable around when we were growing up. I think I always wanted to just grow old with him, sit around and read books and shoot the shit by a fireplace somewhere. I always thought I’d be happiest if I knew he was around. Weird, isn’t it?”

“Have you? I mean, are you…?”

“No, no, that’s not it at all. I’m not attracted to men…and never have been.”

“Just to him?”

“No. Again, I’m not talking about the physical, nothing like attraction; it’s more about knowing what happiness means – to me, where it comes from and accepting what is. Knowing he was happy always made me happy back then. Still does, I think.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Did you ever see that film about C S Lewis and Joy Davidman?”

Shadowlands? Yes, but that was his brother, Ferris?”

“Yes, but don’t you get it? Cameron’s always been my brother.”

“Oh.” And his sister nodded her head. “I guess I can understand that. Geez, married – right here – in this room.”

“Yup. Think you can stick around that long?”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world, Ferris. Oh no, not for the world.”

“Mind if I give you your Christmas present now. I know it’s a little early, but…”

“Sure.”

He went to the entry closet and got his bag, opened it up and took the package to her. “I was going to mail it, then I got that call from mom and didn’t know what to do,” he said as he handed it to her.

She looked at the wrapping. “Hermes?”

He looked away, looked at the Christmas tree as she opened the present, heard her gasp, then cry.

“Oh Ferris, it’s gorgeous…”

“I know it’s just another scarf…”

“Nope, this is anything but ‘just another scarf.’ Oh Ferris, thank you so much.”

She held the silk up to the glowing tree and Ferris smiled inside.

“Ferris, would you do me a favor? It’s a biggie, so don’t answer to fast.”

He nodded his head. “Anything, Jeannie.”

“My ashes. Grand Canyon. North Rim, at the overlook. And white roses. Whenever you think of me, think of white roses, and throw one with my ashes.”

“Okay,” he said instantly. “Consider it done.”

He looked at Christmas lights dancing in her eyes, and after a moment he turned and looked away, wiped a tear or two from their brief existence. He thought about a world without his kid sister in it, and as he watched her leave he wondered if he could accept so much heartbreak in one night – then he thought about Deborah and the impossible emptiness she must have felt swept aside all his fears.

He looked at the tree until the sunrise came for him, and he fell asleep moments later.

+++++

And his little sister passed a week later. Two nights after Cameron and Sloane tied the knot. Two days after she watched her brother stand beside his best friend, after her father stood with Sloane and gave her away. After all their friends came to her and said their goodbyes.

Her parents were with her, of course, but so was Ferris and his two best friends. And the love of her life stood back in shadowlands of her own, hiding her fear, her disbelief, but she too watched as Jeannie Bueller passed from this life and on to the next.

And she too watched the smile form on Jeannie’s face as her eyes closed one last time.

Maybe Deborah would have been surprised to see those last thoughts forming in Jeannie’s mind. Wind-blown, sun on bare shoulders, she was on a motorcycle headed south, her arms wrapped around her brother’s waist, her face resting on his back. She was free at last, and she’d never been happier.

“So, this is eternity?” Jeannie Bueller said into her brother’s back, and then she smiled.

He was holding her hand as his sister left, and he felt her squeeze as that last smile came to life, and he felt the night pushing in as he never had before.

+++++

He felt the sun on his wings as he turned on a breeze, and he caught a thermal and soared higher and higher, looking down on the rim of the canyon – and the river far below. The red-rocked earth seemed small from up here, small to the point of insignificance, but he looked out at his wings and knew he was wrong. His survival depended on these wings, on his eyes, on his ability to see prey on the rocks far below, to streak down and snatch life away to sustain his own, but even so he looked out over the vast canyon and banked into an even steeper turn…

– chime –

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be landing in Los Angeles in just a few minutes, and the captain has just turned on the seat belt sign, so it’s time to stow those tray-tables and bring those seats backs all the way forward. It’s 68 degrees and foggy at the airport, 90 degrees downtown with nothing but sun, and it looks like we’re going to be at the gate about five minutes ahead of schedule. We’d like to thank you for flying Virgin America this morning, and we hope to see you again real soon…”

Ferris shook the cobwebs from his mind and lifted the window shade, looked out over the endless city floating-by down below. Everything seemed adrift in an ocean of brown haze, then he turned and looked at Cameron and Sloane sitting across the aisle, still hand in hand, still chatting away non-stop. Cameron still happier now than he could ever remember, Sloane still a mystery, all intent cloaked behind veils of inscrutable imagination.

A little jolt, whirring thumps as the landing gear dropped to meet the earth again, flaps drooping, the palpable feel of slowing down very pronounced now, freeway traffic on the 405 moving – naturally – at a crawl, then the runway…and another easy, uneventful touchdown. The roar of thrust, then a slow taxi to the gate on the far side of the terminal complex, and Cameron was on the phone as soon as the wheels hit the ground, talking in hushed tones to God only knew who; Sloane looking at Ferris now, that sly grin still on her face.

Once they were out the Jetway Cameron leaned over: “Ferris, you remember Mary Simmons?”

“The actress in My African Dream? Yeah. Sure.”

“Well, I’ve been trying to get the studio to agree to her for the part of the mother in Voyager. Anyway, she’s here, in the limo, and she’s going to ride home with us, then go out to lunch. Hope you don’t mind.”

Ferris Bueller felt his palms start to sweat, a hammering pulse in his forehead. “No, I don’t mind,” he stammered.

And now Sloane’s grin was huge.

The limo driver got their bags and led them out to the VIP stand, and Cameron got the door for Sloane and let her climb in, but then he shut the door behind her and turned to Ferris. “Sorry about this, but it’s something I really can’t put off any longer. She meets with the studio tomorrow morning, and I need to go over things with her today.”

“Like I said, Cam, no problem.”

“Oh, just in case you start wondering, she’s single. But she’s kind of fierce…”

“Right.”

“So be careful. She’s one of those Ivy League types…smart as hell, and she can spot a phony from around three miles out.”

“Right.”

Cameron opened the door and stepped in, and Ferris followed. The only open seat was, of course, next to Simmons, and he said “Hi there!” as he plopped down and fiddled with his seat belt.

“Who’s this?” the actress said – clearly annoyed.

“Mary?” Cameron said. “This is Ferris Bueller. Ferris, say Hello, Mary.”

“Hello, Mary.”

“Is he an actor? He looks like a fucking actor.”

“No, Mary, he’s a fucking astronomer.”

“An astronomer?”

“He’s also been my best friend – since kindergarten – so be nice to him.”

“Oh.”

Ferris noticed Sloane looking at the woman just then, looking at the actress almost possessively, almost like she was judging the woman.

“So, Mr Bueller…”

“Mary,” Cameron sighed, “it’s Doctor Bueller. He’s a professor, for Christ sakes, at the University of Hawaii.”

“Really? How…fascinating. We filmed at all those observatories on the volcano once, for a few weeks. Were you up there?”

“I was, one day anyway,” Ferris said. “You were in Keck I, looking at the alien mothership, if I’m not mistaken, through the ten meter. And I was trying to get ready to make some observations that evening, watching all the excitement.”

“And very put out, I assume?”

“No, no, not in the least. It was – fascinating, watching all the action, and I was fascinated watching you, too.”

“Oh, really?”

“Of course. When you’ve had a crush on someone for twenty years, and then finally see them, if only in passing… Well, anyway, you made an impression on me.”

“Did I?”

“Yes, but I think Cameron is drumming his fingers right now because he wants to talk to you. Cameron, be nice and stop throwing hate bombs at me. I’ve still got papers to grade, so I don’t mind.” He pulled out the FedEx package and pulled out the next exam in his stack and began reading through the essays…

And an hour later they pulled into Cameron’s driveway, just off the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Ferris had been there a few times over the years, but the house, and the house’s setting, were still as overwhelming as the first time he’d seen them. Long and low, perched on a series of exposed rock ledges, the house seemed to have grown out of the earth itself, but that was to be expected. Cameron had grown up in an architectural masterpiece, so he’d inherited his fine sense of design from his father.

Yes, of course there was a red Ferrari in the garage, but it was parked next to an old, tan Chevy Impala, built sometime in the mid-80s – though still in excellent condition. That’s what he drove to work, or so he’d told Ferris once. Nothing flashy, nothing ostentatious, just reliable transportation that didn’t draw attention. No flashy watch on his wrist, just an old Timex, and never more than a few bucks in his wallet. That was Cameron. Midwest values, as incorruptible now as they had been in grade school. Ferris smiled at the thought as he led the way out of the limo and out into the salt-laden beachfront air. He sighed and stretched lis legs as…

“Oh God,” Sloane said, her voice full of evident relief, “the sun! Feel that sun! I forgot how much I hate winter, and – snow!”

“I hate to rain on your parade,” Cameron said as he stepped into the light, “but we’ve got reservations in an hour, and a forty five minute drive to get there. Could we get the bags inside and head back out?” he said to the limo driver.

“Uh, Cam, mind if I stay here? I want to get through this stack of exams…?”

“Why yes, Ferris, I do mind. Put your fucking papers in your fucking room and get in the fucking limo!”

“Whoa, who’s this? The assertive Cameron? I had no idea he existed,” Ferris said, smiling. “Sloane, you may have bitten off more than you can…”

“Oh, don’t worry Ferris,” she said. “I can chew him just fine.”

“Interesting friends you have here, Dr Bueller.”

“You have no idea,” Ferris said to the actress.

“Come on,” she said, “get your stuff inside, then I want you tell me your sexiest story about heavy metal concentrations in Type II globular clusters.”

And Mary laughed when she saw the look on his face. “Google’s a wonderful thing, Ferris Bueller,” Mary said as she turned and disappeared inside the limo, leaving a very confused Ferris standing out there under the sun.

+++++

She was an interesting sort, he decided sometime during their lunch together. All business with Cameron one minute, then playful, almost flirty the next – when she turned her attention to him, anyway. Once, when she excused herself, Cameron smiled at Ferris as he stood and helped Mary with her chair…

“I think she likes you, Ferris,” Sloane said, grinning inscrutably once Mary was out of view.

“Yes,” Cameron added, “but the real question is, does Ferris Bueller like Mary Simmons?”

“Oh, he does,” Sloane said. “Notice how he has to keep wiping his hands? He’s got sweaty palms, and we know what that means, don’t we, Ferris?”

“Oh yeah,” Cameron said. “Remember Mrs Dunsworth, in fourth grade?”

“The one who always wore those sky-high heels?” Sloane giggled.

“Yup, she’s the one. That was a real sweaty palms year, wasn’t it, Ferris?”

Bueller shook his head. “You’ll never let up on me about Dunsworth, will you?”

Cameron turned to Sloane. “All year long, every time we got to gym, he was popping wood…I mean real redwood timber type wood…”

“Well, you have to admit,” Ferris interjected defensively, “she did have great legs.”

“What do you think of Mary’s?” Sloane asked. “I mean, tennis shorts and gym socks aren’t the sexiest thing…”

“Oops, here she comes,” Cameron whispered, though he smiled when Ferris hopped out of his chair again to help her in. And he noticed that Mary had taken note, as well.

‘This is going better than expected,’ Cameron said to himself, but even so he wondered if Mary would be a good match. Still, it just wouldn’t do to have Ferris live this way much longer, as he was in real danger of becoming used to living alone. No, that wouldn’t do, and even Sloane had said as much last summer…

+++++

He took her hand and helped her out of the limo, yet she didn’t let go after she was clear of the door.

“So, you’re only going to be in town a few more days?” she asked.

“Until Friday, while Cam and Sloane run up to Oregon for some of her things.”

“How about dinner tomorrow night? Just you and me?”

“That sounds fun. Where’d you like to…”

“Oh, just you leave that to me. How ‘bout I pick you up around three or so?”

“Sounds good,” he said, yet still she didn’t let go of his hand.

“Good,” she said. She was staring at him, like she was coming to a decision of sorts, then she leaned in and kissed him, just once, and gently, on the lips – then she turned and ran up he walk to her house.

“Jesus H Christ, Ferris,” Sloane said with a smile as he got back in the limo. “Was that a smacker – on the lips?”

“Yup.”

“Not bad, Bueller,” Cameron sighed. “She’s got kind of a Star Trek reputation around Hollywood. You know, where few men have gone before?”

“You should have warned me, Cameron. She irresistible, you know?”

“I know, but this has been too much fun…watching you squirm, hide your woody – and besides, you’ve got papers to grade, remember?”

Bueller groaned as they pulled into Cameron’s driveway, when he saw another FedEx package leaning against the front door. He rolled his eyes, knew what lay ahead, because those were the term papers from his senior seminar, just waiting for his perusal.

Cameron laughed just then. “Maybe it’s time you finally left school, Ferris. You know, grow up and get a real job, in the real world.”

“You call what you do ‘in the real world?’”

“Hey, it beats working for a living.”

“Uh-huh. Sure,” Bueller said as he picked up the package.

“Heavy enough for you, Ferris?”

“Oh, why don’t you two go make some babies or something…?”

+++++

He walked out onto the deck sometime during the evening, saw Cam and Sloane down on the beach with a fire going, and he stood there and looked at them for a while. He thought they looked happy, like they belonged together, like time had stopped for them all, once upon a time, and had only just now restarted – then he saw their faces in the firelight and he drifted back to other nights. Summer nights at the beach on the lake. Tower Road, wasn’t it? The little park on the water’s edge, with all the fire-pits? How he’d watched her there, the way her face danced in the firelight.

He watched her now, Cameron too, and in the flickering light it was as if nothing had ever changed. Time had stopped for all three of them.

“Maybe now time can begin again,” he said to the night. “For me, too,” he didn’t bother adding.

+++++

She pulled up a little before three, in a blazing red E550 Cabriolet, and he came out the door dressed in a sport coat and slacks.

She hopped out of the Mercedes – wearing shorts, running shoes and a golf shirt – and came up to him. “Sorry, I should have warned you. We’re going casual tonight. Have you got any shorts?”

“I’ve got some gym shorts? Will that do?”

He ran in the house and changed as fast as he could, then reset the alarm and bounded back out the door to her car. He looked at his phone, confirmed the alarm was set and got in – just as Mary dropped the top – and once he was belted in she pulled out onto the PCH and made for Sunset Boulevard, then headed south on the 405 – at speeds somewhere just south of Mach 2.

“Where to?” he asked over the roar.

“Disneyland!” she shouted.

“What? Seriously?”

She grinned like a fool as she made her way to the fast lane, her hair fanning out wildly in the slipstream. “I always wanted to go on a first date to Disneyland,” she said over the subdued roar, “and I figured nobody would ever think that’s something that I’d like. So, if this is ever going to happen, I’ll have to make it happen. Hope you don’t mind?”

“You’re probably right,” he said, “but I can see the appeal.”

“Can you?”

“Yup. We went to Disney World a couple of times when I was a kid, but Cameron took us to the 33 Club out here once, a few years ago, then we hit a few rides. I like it out here more, I think. The weather’s nicer.”

She shrugged. “Anyway, I wanted this to be our first date.”

He looked at her as she drove along, then he looked down at her legs for a moment, then her hair. “You know, I think you’re better looking now than you were twenty years ago.”

“Oh?”

“Well, I was madly in love with you, all through the nineties, anyway?”

“What happened to us?”

“Grad school, then Hubble.”

She laughed. “I guess I was no match for a space telescope, huh?”

He laughed too. “Nothing has been.”

“Nothing? You mean, as in – no one?”

“As in no one.”

“How long has it been?”

“Been? Since what?”

“Since you’ve been with someone?”

He leaned back, looked up at a passing thought as it drifted by. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it was before Obama. Maybe even Clinton…?”

“You’ve got to kidding! How on earth…?”

“You know who runs one of the biggest networks of observatories in the world? The Vatican, and for good reason, too. Astronomy is a breeding ground for celibacy, because we do all our best work at night, while every one else is home…”

“Makin’ babies.”

“Exactly.”

“So, you’re saying it’s been ten years since you popped your cork?”

“Probably. At least.”

“Does it still work?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Well, just so you know, but before the night’s over that’s gonna happen, so wrap your head around that.”

“It is?”

“As a red-blooded American female, Ferris, it’s my sworn duty. Twice, at least.”

“And we have to go to Disneyland for this?”

She laughed hard now. “You’re goddamn right we have to. I told you, I want our first date to be one for the history books.”

“You know, Mary…I think it already is.”

She smiled, then turned serious. “I spent all morning over at Paramount. Looks like I’ve got the part, if I want it, anyway, so I wanted to ask you something.”

“Sure, fire away.”

“You’re familiar with Now, Voyager? The Bette Davis film?”

“Yup.”

“Well, Cameron’s idea is an update, set in current times, with me playing the mother, the part Gladys Cooper played.”

“Uh-huh…?”

“Well, my concern is simply this. I’ve never played anyone so utterly and sincerely evil before. Not once, and I’m afraid it could be a career wrecker for me.”

“I think it would almost have to be fun, but I see what you mean.”

“Do you?”

“Sure, but people know you, know what you’re capable of. I think most people would just see this as simply extending your range, and maybe having a little fun with it along the way. And let’s not even mention that you look about half Cooper’s age…”

“You know, Ferris, if say one more flattering thing to me I’m going to pull over and give you a fucking blowjob, right here on the side of the road!”

“Did I mention you have the legs of a twenty year old?”

She almost lost control of the car at that point, then settled down again. “So, could I ask you something off the wall?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“You find me attractive?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, Ferris, I’m serious. I’m also needy, insecure, and more than a little narcissistic. You have to be in this town, but yes, I’m really serious.”

He thought about how to answer that one for a moment, then: “Cam and Sloane know me better than anyone else in the world…well, maybe my mother knows me better…but they razzed me yesterday about my sweaty palms.”

“Sweaty palms?”

“Since I was a kid, whenever I see a really gorgeous woman I get sweaty palms.”

She thought about that one for a moment too. “And I gave you sweaty palms?”

“Like two fire hydrants, Mary. I ran through two napkins at lunch. Soaked right through ‘em.”

She nodded her head, flipped the right turn signal and made for the far shoulder, and when she stopped the car she unfastened her seatbelt and leaned back, looked him in the eye. “If you don’t get over here and kiss me right now, well, I’m gonna die. I’m just gonna lay back and die.”

And Ferris took his seatbelt off and crawled over the center console and kissed her. Semi-trailer drivers honked their horns as they passed, and still they kissed. A few years later she came up for air, then leaned over and ripped her sneakers off, scratched the bottoms of her feet…

“When I get horny, I mean really, really turned on, the bottoms of my feet turn to pure fire.”

“We’ll make an interesting couple, I think. We can use my sweaty palms to soak your flaming feet.”

“You think we’ll make a couple, you and I?”

“I sure hope so.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“I haven’t fallen in love since second grade, and I was kinda hopin’ I might one more time, before it’s all over, anyway.”

“You’re falling in love, Ferris Bueller?”

“You had me at the whole Disneyland thing.”

“It’s been fifteen years since someone made my feet itch like this.”

“So, what’s it gonna be?”

“Let’s go ride a few rides,” she said, laughing, “then what say we fly up to Vegas and get married?”

“Sounds like a plan to me…”

A moment later she pulled back into traffic and drove on to Anaheim, both of them lost in furious thought, both of them wondering if they’d really said the things they’d just said. He looked over at her bare feet and smiled, then wiped the palms of his hands on his shorts and knew he was lost, a total goner.

She, of course, belonged to the 33 Club and pulled into a reserved lot and up to a valet stand. Park Security met the car and escorted them to a special entrance, and they were escorted through the park to the French Quarter, to that storied gray door next to the Blue Bayou, and their escort rang the bell. Another girl met them and walked with them up the broad, curved stairway to the dining room, and they sat quietly and had a light dinner, not once speaking about what was now magically dancing in the air between them. She’d ordered Grand Marnier soufflés ahead, and they sat with their coffees looking out over river and the crowds below…

“You know, they have rooms here,” she said. “For people who need to – take a rest.”

“Bedrooms? In Disneyland?”

“Yes. I, uh, well, I booked one. Just in case.”

He looked at her and he couldn’t help but smile at the insecurities playing over her face.

“What are you grinning at?” she said, her lower lip sticking out about a mile and a half.

“You. You’re so goddamn cute it’s driving me nuts.”

She reached down, untied her shoes as she stood and turned to their waiter. “Jimmy, could you bring the soufflés and coffee to my room, in about an hour?”

“Yes, Miss Simmons.”

“Ferris? You’d better come with me…”

And he did. Several times, as a matter of fact.

+++++

“Do you want to keep teaching?”

They were sitting in the driveway in front of Cameron’s house in Malibu, and it was almost two in the morning; they’d been talking – and holding hands – for at least a half hour when she asked that, and he leaned back and looked up at the night sky.

“I can’t imagine not teaching now,” he said, “and not doing research. It’s who I am, I suppose.”

She nodded her head, though she hadn’t mentioned flying to Las Vegas since that first wild kiss. “Is there room for someone like me in your life?”

“‘Someone like me?’ What does that mean?”

“I’m needy, Ferris. Clingy, possessive, self-centered. And I’ve lived alone for a long time. I don’t want to live like that any more, but I don’t want a part time husband, either.”

“Okay. What’s your point?”

“What I’m saying, what I’m asking you is simple. If you want to teach, if you want to go on with your work, would it work for you if I moved to Hawaii? If we moved in together?”

“I know you were joking earlier…”

“No, Ferris, I wasn’t.”

“Oh.”

“And it doesn’t matter much to me now where I live. It’s a four hour flight to Hawaii, and I could keep my house for a while, for when I’d need to be here for work.”

“Did Cameron tell you about Jeannie? My little sister?”

“No?”

“Oh. Well, Cam and Sloane got married last Sunday so she could be there. They got married in the living room at my folks house, by the way, again – so my sister could be with us. She passed away on Tuesday…”

He heard the sharp intake of breath, the whispered “Oh, God…no,” then: “Ferris, I’m so sorry. This must all be so confusing…”

“You know, Mary, the only thing not confusing right now is how I feel about you,” and he felt her hand then, squeezing gently, so gently, and he felt Jeannie’s hand squeezing his and he wanted to cry again…

…but no, not now. Please, not now…

“So, the truth of the thing, Mary, is that sometime in the last few hours everything changed. My life – changed – and you changed it. I’m afraid I really don’t care about anything else right now – except you. You being a part of my life, and me, being the center of your universe. I don’t think I could ever be happy again without you, and I know that sounds silly and infantile…”

“Ferris?”

“Yes?”

“Ferris, shut up and kiss me.”

He went around and opened her door, pulled her out into the night and carried her to the front of the car; he pulled her shorts down and hoisted her up on the hood in one easy motion, then put her legs over his shoulders and went down on her, while fifty feet away traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway zoomed by blissfully unaware that two time Academy Award winning actress Mary Simmons was getting laid ON her car, and that her feet were “fuckin’ on fire” so many times she lost count.

+++++

“So, how was Oregon?” Ferris asked when he saw Cameron in the kitchen early Friday morning.

“Fuck Oregon, Ferris. What’s up with you and Mary? Pictures of you two all over the tabloids, a grainy video of you two screwing – in my driveway, no less?”

“Oh? I missed that one. Is it any good?”

“I’d give you a six on form, maybe a 10 on longevity, but hell, Ferris? On the hood of a new Mercedes? Have you no sense of decency? You probably scuffed five thousand bucks of paint off the resale value!”

“On the other hand…”

“You’re right. The notoriety alone made the value of that car increase by at least fifty grand. Maybe I should take Sloane out front…?”

“What? On the Impala?”

“Right. That wouldn’t do, I suppose.”

Sloane padded into the kitchen, yawning and rubbing her eyes. “Coffee?” she moaned.

“Brewing,” Ferris replied, checking out the dark circles under her eyes, the bow-legged walk.

“What’s with all the paparazzi out front?”

“Ferris and Mary, sittin’ in a tree…” Cameron sang. “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Ferris with a baby carriage.”

“Screw you, Frye.”

“Ferris? So the stories are true?” Sloane added, still rubbing her face as she reached for a coffee cup.

“I’m going back to bed,” Bueller said.

“No you’re not, Paco.” Cameron said, looking at his watch. “Airport, in two hours. You packed?”

“Last night. Ready when you are.”

“Can I come too?”

“You’ve come enough already,” Cameron grinned. “Sure you’re UP to it?”

“If you are?”

“Oh, God,” Ferris groaned, “get me out of here.”

“So,” Sloane said as she poured a cup, “is it true? Is Ferris Bueller finally in love?”

He looked down into his coffee as if divining an answer, then he simply shrugged. “I don’t know, Sloane. Maybe. It kind of feels that way, but…”

“But?”

“I guess looking at the stars for so long has taught me to be patient. To evaluate things, prove the theory sound…”

“Ferris,” Cameron said from across the kitchen, “love’s not a theory. It either is – or it isn’t. You either feel love…”

He nodded understanding. “That’s not it, Cameron. If I went by how I feel right now we’d have gotten married yesterday, but I’ve known the woman for what? – five days? I’m too old to be this impulsive, there’s too much at stake to be so completely irrational.”

“Is there, Ferris? Really?” Sloane said, looking him in the eye. “And is love ever really rational?”

He shrugged again. “Maybe. Maybe not. We’ve agreed to let things simmer for a week or so. She’s coming over next weekend, and we’re going to take a look at things then…”

The doorbell rang and Cameron went to a panel and looked at the video feed. “Sorry, Ferris,” he said, “guess who’s here?”

“What? Fuck!”

“Yes. Fuck. Right there, by my front door.”

“Fuck-a-doodle-do!” he said as he jogged off towards his room. “Would you let her in…I’ve got to shower, get dressed…”

He went and hopped in the shower, yet not a minute later he heard the bathroom door fly open, and she came into the bathroom.

“Bueller? Bueller?” came a voice from within the steam…

“That’s me.”

The shower door opened and she stepped in – still half dressed – then she slipped into his arms.

“I wasn’t ready for you to leave just yet,” she said after they came up for air. “I’m not ready for a life without Ferris Bueller in it.”

“I see.”

“I’m not sure you do, Ferris, so I want to make things clear…” She was doing weird and wonderful things with her hands just then, and he was suddenly finding it hard to think of anything else, yet her eyes were so close now, her breath a needful caress, and he held her close – “closer than forever,” he sighed. Her breasts pressed against his, her tongue mingling with all his hopes and dreams – then he felt himself inside a fleeting moment and he wanted to hold on to the feeling – forever.

“There’s nothing to it now, I suppose.” he said after a long while. “Will you marry me?”

Her’s was the face of a little girl on a Christmas morning full of love and warm puppies, and he saw water running off her nose as he looked into her eyes, then he kissed her forehead.

“So?” he said a minute later.

She nodded her head, kissed his chin – then took a playful bite.

“Closer than forever,” she whispered. “I like that.”

“What?”

“You whispered that, just a moment ago. I like the way that sounds, the way those words feel.”

“I love the way you feel.”

“Do you?”

“I do.”

“You’d better get used to it then, because this is where I want to be. Right up against you, with nothing between us. Ever.”

+++++

And so it came to pass that not a month later, in a house on Walden Road not far from the shores of a lake in the fair state of Illinois, a man and a woman held hands again, and they repeated sacred words in the living room of that house.

Not far from where the man and the woman stood there was an empty chair, and in the chair there was a little scarf neatly folded, and across the scarf a single white rose. When the ceremony ended, the assembled guests took their white roses and laid them with the first.

When he returned from the reception later that evening, Ferris Bueller took the scarf and the roses upstairs to his sister’s room, and he flipped on the light switch and went into the room of a million memories and he stood there for a time. The room hadn’t changed much over the years, even Ed Rooney’s tattered necktie was still folded neatly on top of her copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. He stopped then and smelled the roses, then laid the scarf and the roses on top of her pillow before he turned and left the room.

Sloane was waiting for him out there in the hall, and she wiped a tear from his cheek then kissed him just once, if ever-so-gently, on the lips – before she took his hand and led him down stairs. His parents were waiting for him there, as was his best friend – and his wife. They walked out into the snow and headed for cars and the drive to the airport, but Ferris stopped before he got to his father’s Audi, and he turned to look at the house he had grown up in one more time, and then at his parents.

Would he ever see this image again, he wondered? In his mind, perhaps, in another memory, stored away with Jeannie sitting in the living room by the Christmas tree…

He felt her arm sliding around his waist, felt her by his side again and she came over him as a breaking wave of relief.

“Are you ready to go home?” she asked.

He looked at the house and the snow, at all that ever had been – and all that was yet to be – then he turned to her and kissed her forehead.

“Yes,” Ferris Bueller said, “I’m ready.”

And he noticed he hadn’t cut the corner this time. He’d stuck to the path, had followed his old man, and maybe that’s why his father smiled all the way to the airport.

+++++

Two Years Later

He was just out of the shower, wiping steam off the mirror in her bathroom, getting ready to lather his face and shave, and he thought about the evening before. With Cameron and Sloane, at the old Bistro in Beverly Hills. How good those two looked together, how everyone stood and applauded when Mary came up the stairs into the main dining room. She’d won her third Academy Award the night before, for her portrayal of Charlotte Vale’s mother in Now, Voyager, and the restaurant’s patrons were almost beside themselves that she was there – her star now shining brighter than ever.

After dinner they’d all gone down to Cam’s house in Malibu, and sitting on his deck they had watched the stars out over the Pacific. Mary surprised them all by letting slip she was ready to retire, ready to call it a day. She’d never been happier than she had been these past two years, never felt more alive than when she was with Ferris at their new house in the hills overlooking Honolulu – looking at the stars together, walking rainforest trails or snorkeling off the surf.

Cam was disappointed, however. He had several roles in mind for her, but Sloane had simply shut him down, cut him off, and Mary looked grateful for the reprieve. The girls were of course best friends now, the two of them, which was only fitting.

He leaned forward and looked at himself in the mirror: a few more gray hairs here and there, especially in his beard, but, he thought, what did he expect? “Life’s like that, I guess. You roll with the punches, and meet each day with an open mind,” he said aloud, if only to himself.

“Did you say something?”

“No, just rattling on, talking to myself.”

“You do that a lot, don’t you?”

“Always have. Guess I always will.” And, as if talking to himself once again he looked in the mirror and continued: “And you meet each day with an open heart, because you never know who’s around the next bend in the road.”

He thought of the North Rim, of saying his goodbyes to Jeannie one more time, and he thought of snow falling on a house by the lake in Winnetka. Snow, falling like petals from white roses. Falling like tears into a canyon. Snow falling, falling like love.

(C) 2016 Adrian LeverKühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | Ferris and his friends were the creation of John Hughes, and they first appeared in 1986s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This story is an original, crazy-headed sequel based on the original screenplay by Hughes, to whom I dedicate this story.

Merry Christmas, and I hope you enjoyed the night.

Blood (v1.0)

apod-12-5-16

(image: Lightning Over Colorado, Joe Randall, APOD)

So, well, uh, it’s beginning to feel a lot like…

a) Christmas   b) winter   c) just cold as hell   d) all of these

…up here on the mountain. Zero degrees F last night, of course with blowing snow and 60mph winds. Nice sunbathing weather, I assume, for penguins – and those with a loose grip on reality.

A few new books on the bookshelf came in recently, a few you might want to consider as this winter blows in. “The Nicene Heresy – Christendom and War: Reverence and Critique” by Blasé Bonpane, a priest of all things, with an interesting take on Just War theory. “At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others” by Sarah Bakewell, concerning the origins of post-war liberation movements. Food for thought, anyway. Both available on Amazon, or at your “local bookseller” (if there remains such a thing).

Prozac deprived James Howard Kunstler, over at his “Clusterfuck” blog, provided an entertaining read this morning, as did the always entertaining  Chris Hedges, over at Truthdig. Hell, I think they may both be severely Prozac deprived, but their thoughts on current events are certainly off the main trail of current journalistic practice, and therefore worth a look from time to time.

Which brings us to the main subject of this post, Politically Incorrect Thought and the tolerance (or lack thereof) of viewpoints different than one’s own. This would seem to be an issue of greater relevance now than at any time in my somewhat long life.

We have Native American protesters in North Dakota being hit with water cannons while protesting drilling and pipeline construction in and around their land(s), and we have the Klan staging a Trump Victory Parade in North Carolina, yet once again it’s Yeats to the rescue:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The problem, as I see it, is two-pronged. The first is that standards of dialogue in pluralistic democratic societies is breaking down. When dialogue is no longer possible, violence tends to be the next logical course of action (see Yemen, Syria, et al), and as so-called ‘populist’ strongmen take power all over the world, in the process stifling dissent, I think it’s possible we’re seeing a major paradigm shift occurring as we speak, so to speak, and I think there’s no better spokesperson for this concern today than Nadya Tolokonnnikova of Pussy Riot, and I think her recent piece in the New York Times is worth a minute of your time, too.
The second part of the problem? We seem to be living in an age of rampant ethical relativism, where concepts of such things as basic as good and evil have devolved in a floating realm where the concept of goodness is relative to the beholder. The basic problem here is that truth itself has been lost in clouds of relativism, and this will become a huge problem for journalists moving forward. Take a look at this recent essay from the Brooking Institute for more on the issue. Thoughtfully non-partisan, it’s a trip down memory lane as well as informative.
That said, after I posted Blackwatch over at Lit, I was hit with a few interesting comments, comments I (uncharacteristically, I have to add) deleted as soon as I read them. Ugly words. Sarcasm out the ass. Alt-right, perhaps? Who knows. But these readers mentioned they had read a few pages and stopped, then felt compelled at that point to add their two cents – before finishing the story. Okay, fine, I get partisan anger, but can we agree right here that tossing flames when you really don’t know what the story’s all about is a little, well, silly? And for goodness sakes, it’s a story! A sci-fi mish-mash of paranoia and projection, it’s food for thought, not the gospel according to St Pithy Comeback, so check your insecurities at the door and come on in, take a look around, challenge some cherished assumptions for a few minutes, then go back out into the night and stand around the bonfire shouting “Heil Trump!” while you lynch another liberal.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
So, a concluding note before the story. Consider the following: is “Leverkühn” (whoever the hell that is) a liberal? Is he a conservative?
Does it really matter?
Hell, no!
I considered myself an Eisenhower Republican, once upon a time, and was a moderate Republican most of my life. Socially somewhat liberal, in other words, conservative when it came to use of the armed forces – and the conduct of foreign policy. I’m a Cold Warrior, at heart an anti-communist Cold Warrior. I’m also an historian, and better make that with a capital H, because I think History trumps ideology every time. I lost interest in the Republican Party, however, in the 90s, after the obstructionism following the Gingrich takeover in ’94, because I saw then that the party had little interest in governing by consensus any longer. Moderates were pushed aside in an ideological fervor that bordered on hatred, and the policies they’ve pursued ever since – to gerrymander districts and disenfranchise people who disagree with their agenda – seems to have a lot more in common with an organized criminal empire than a party that claims to represent the people. So, I registered Independent. That said, I look on the Democratic Party as a band of miscreant elitists, like a statue of the three monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) intent on serving their own interests above the people they claim to represent. Somewhere in time, Ayn Rand must be laughing her ass off, while George Kennan sits by a fireplace reading Buddenbrooks for the millionth time.
On to the story, told hopelessly tongue in cheek, and the errors in grammar are mine, dammit, all MINE!.
+++++

Blood

If thus thou speakest, thou wilt have hatred from me, and will justly be subject to the lasting hatred of the dead. But leave me, and the folly that is mine alone, to suffer this dread thing; for I shall not suffer aught so dreadful as an ignoble death.

Sophocles  |  Antigone

+++++

October

He was tired. He had been all week, but there was nothing new about being tired. Not these days, not in these times.

Being tired went with the job. The endless day-in and day-out of life on the streets. Minutes to hours, hours to days. Days into weeks, and on and on into months. Endless, pitiless time, time without end, streets without end. Jackals dancing around fires at midnight, jackals with their faces aglow, glowing with the blood of innocence dripping from their red-eyed, snarling lips.

His name was Mathias Polk, though almost everyone called him Mattie, and he’d been with the department for – what? – almost fourteen years now? Long enough to have looked on helplessly as one marriage washed away in floods of doubt and recrimination, long enough to know his second marriage was weakening under new, freshening tides of doubt.

No, he knew he was more than tired, and the knowledge wasn’t always so easy to hide from these days.

Hiding in plain sight, wasn’t that what he’d thought once? That’s what it felt like, this being a black man – in a white man’s world. Enforcing the white man’s law, playing by his rules – even when they turned their backs to you. When you walked into the briefing room and you felt their eyes burning into the back of your skull; when you walked through a store and could feel the hate growing all around you…surrounding you, choking you off?

But it hadn’t always been that way.

No, he remembered a time not so long ago, perhaps not so far away, when things had been different. When differences had been papered over; before animosities, banked down and seething, had resurfaced – boiling up like black tar from deep within the earth, waiting to spread out over the land and smother everything again.

And he was beginning to hate the projects again, hate the way his own people turned away with sidelong glances when they saw his patrol car turn into their neighborhood. Hate the way his Brother Officers, his Brother – White – Officers grew quiet when he joined them on the street at a hot call. Hated being black, because in their eyes he couldn’t be trusted.

But it hadn’t always been that way, even just a few years ago. No, everything had changed – to the way things had been a long time ago.

He felt that same kind of tired, the kind of tired he’d hoped to never feel again – the kind of tired you feel when something evil you thought was long dead and gone suddenly, unexpectedly, returns in the night. The kind of tired you feel because you’re black, because you were born with black skin, and you can’t keep running from the kinds of differences people force on you, ram down your throat until you choke.

But he was tired of being a black cop most of all. Tired of the whispered, sidelong glances. Tired of being cast aside by his own people, tired of waiting for acceptance he knew would never come from his Fellow – White – Officers, and not just because his skin was a different color than their’s. No, not just that.

Because it HAD been better, and then overnight, in a flash, it was all gone.

‘It’s like no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I’m always gonna be on the outside – always on the outside, lookin’ in…because that’s where they put me, where they say I belong.’

And it would always be that way, he didn’t have to add, because that’s just the way things were. There’d been a brief flowering of acceptance, then all that hate had come welling back up from the deepest, darkest places of the soul.

Fourteen years and still a patrolman, despite having aced the Sergeant’s Exam – twice. As in: two years running, beating out everyone else. As in, being passed over – because in their eyes I’m just a Nigger, a Second Class Citizen not worthy of rank. And I’ll never be more than that in ‘their’ eyes. ‘I’m not an African-American, and I’m not even a black man. I’m a Nigger, plain and simple. Nothing’s ever really changed, not really, and nothing ever will.’

Yet he’d graduated near the top of his class at Ole Miss – the University of Mississippi – with a major in Sociology and a minor in Political Science. He’d grown up in Oxford and wanted to be a politician, too, or at least that’s what he’d told himself all those years ago, before he’d seen the light. “You’re either a part of the problem – or a part of the solution,” the old saying went, but by then he’d begun to see politicians as just one part of a bigger problem. He’d never be able to change human nature, so he’d decided to help where he thought he was needed most.

He turned on the radio, started singing with the music…

Out here in the fields

I fight for my meals

I get my back into my living

I don’t need to fight

To prove I’m right

I don’t need to be forgiven

He wanted to make a difference, and the only place he could was out here – out here in the fields, and then he was screaming the lyrics:

Teenage wasteland

It’s only teenage wasteland

Because that’s what it felt like now. A wasteland. Drugs everywhere, no personal responsibility. Politicians at every level had sold us out – not just his people, but everyone, the entire country. Idealists all, once they got in office they acted like whores, they spread their legs for anyone with money, and the more life ‘educated’ him, the more aware he became of this one self-evident truth: Money is Power. Democrat, Republican – didn’t matter: ‘We, the People’ was an abstract promise that held little relevance today, and the rising tide of mediocrity that had flocked to public service as a result was a joke, a new class of self-interested charlatans.

Clinton sold out black people just much as Reagan and Bush had, only when he sold welfare reform to – ‘We, the people’ – it turned out welfare reform meant prison privatization. Don’t give a man on the ‘down-and-out’ a hand-out when it was much more profitable to stick his ass in prison! Why give a black man twenty large when you can give sixty to your cousin – so long as he’s in the prison biz? And who cares if the judges are invested in the system up to their eyeballs, the prosecutors, too. No sir, the rich get richer and the poor get – children? Always been that way…always will be, too. Might as well get used to that, boy, so harness up and get ready to pull that plow. Maybe they get us to pickin’ they cotton again, and real soon, too.

Yet he’d just bought a house out on the east side of town, and he had a daughter in middle school now, another kid on the way. “Isn’t that funny?” he said as the music ended. “Or is that what you call irony? Because haven’t I sold out, too?” he continued, talking to himself now as he drove down one bleak street after another.

Because he knew that, now, going on forty years old, being a cop was likely all he’d ever be. He’d never be mayor, never run for congress – and he’d never teach at the university – but he’d contribute as best he could, even if that meant being out here, driving these mean streets day in and day out, if that’s what it was going to take to feed and clothe his kids, then so be it: that’s what he’d do.

He turned on Locust Street, saw his mother’s house ahead, the house his great-grandfather’d built almost a hundred years ago. Two spare little rooms, wood frame on cast concrete blocks, copperheads nesting in the uncut grass. A cinder block chimney to the wood stove for heat in the winter, a couple of ceiling fans for air conditioning in summer, and as he approached he saw his mother in her rocking chair on the front porch, sitting in the shade with a glass of lemonade by her side.

GiddyMay Polk’s hair was white now, white as driven snow, and he saw she was reading the newspaper as she rocked her morning away. He checked out on the radio and parked along the street, then walked up to the porch.

She looked up when she finally heard him come up, and the smile he saw brightened more than just a little. “Ooh, look at you! So right and proud in that fancy uniform!”

“Hi, mom,” he said, smiling, “anything good in the paper?”

“Oh, ain’t much good in the paper these days, no sirree, but that President Carpenter coming to town sure has things riled up, that’s for sure…”

He smiled, tried his best to ignore the very idea of Carpenter coming to the University. The man was considered by most – even by many in his own party – to be a bigot of the highest order, and though the Klan loved him, the Southern Poverty Law Center ranked him the most racist American president since, well, since whenever. But none of that mattered now, not in the least, not after the past several years of police crack-downs and renewed urban pacification, yet he’d somehow felt even more ostracized since Carpenter’s re-election bid was announced. It was like he was living in a different country now, and he expected a renewed campaign of lynchings and church burnings to come to Oxford any day now.

“What was it like, Momma, back then?’

“Back when, Mattie?”

“Back, you know, when the Klan was around?”

“Boy, you must think I’m older than Methuselah!”

“And you were born when?”

“Ooh, you! You know you ain’t s’posed to ask your momma things like that…”

“1936, wasn’t it?”

She looked away, looked away from those memories, away from all the feelings in her gut she’d tried so hard to forget –

The hiding behind trees when boys in pickups cruised the neighborhood, looking for someone to rape…

The walking into stores, everyone’s eyes following her every movement, because they just knew she was there to steal something…

Sitting in the back of the classroom, not bothering to raise her hand because all her teachers ignored her…just like she didn’t even exist – because, she knew, she didn’t – not in their world, anyway.

And she turned to her son and looked at him. “What do you want me to say, Mattie? What can I tell you, hmm? – that you don’t already know?”

“But he’s coming here, Momma…”

“He’s the President, son. It’s his country now, and I kinda think he’s entitled to go wherever he wants…”

“I know, Momma, but…”

“But nothin’!” she said, her voice full of anger. “This is the way things are, the way things always have been. You best get used to it, Mattie, or you ain’t gonna last out here. It’s like that song, ‘cause there ain’t no place to run, no place to hide.”

“Get used to it?” Mathias Polk sighed. “Get used to all that hate again, Momma, because my skin’s black? You sayin’ that’s all there is, that’s all there’s ever gonna be…?”

She shrugged, looked him in the eye: “You got to lay low when times like this come ‘round again, Mattie…like them poor Jews, back in Germany…”

“Lay low?! Momma, we been layin’ low ever since creation! You tellin’ me we always gonna be layin’ low? When does our layin’ low stop?”

“Mattie, hate’s like that. It’s not just born to some folks, waiting for release.” She paused, took a deep breath. “No Mattie,” she continued, sweeping her hand across the universe, “hate’s out there, always. You too, Mattie. Hate’s waiting to catch you unawares, so it can fill your heart. That’s the way it’s always been, so yes, Mathias, that’s all there is, all there’s ever gonna be. Nothin’s gonna change what is. Besides, I don’t think God wants it that way – because he wants us to struggle.”

She started rocking again, picked up her paper and started reading again, and he turned away in despair and walked back to his patrol car.

She watched him out of the corner of her eye, then she shook her head and wiped away her fear. “But don’t you forget about love, Mattie,” she whispered. “Love’s out there, too, watching over you, and waiting.”

+++++

The man held the Colt M4’s receiver up to the light, making sure he’d oiled the slide for the umpteenth time, and that he’d not smeared any residue near the ejection port. Oil got hot in there, got sticky and caused jams, so he ran his rag over the area again, just to made sure he was down to dry, bare metal.

His name was Cleetus Owen, but he went by Mohamed Ali these days, because he’d always respected the boxer – until things had turned again, that is. He’d seen action in Desert Storm, then pulled a long stretch in Croatia and Serbia, and he’d lost count of how many ‘ragheads’ he’d killed in Kuwait. After twenty years service he went home, home just in time for the bottom to fall out, but he didn’t think about all the people he’d killed over the years.

“Until the bottom fell out,” he said as he reassembled the receiver.

He’d known respect in the Army, and nobody had cared about the color of his skin in combat. He’d learned that when you bleed, you bleed the same stuff no matter what color your skin is. White man, black or brown, makes no difference, ‘cause underneath all our apparent differences we’re all just the same.

“Blood is blood, ain’t it?”

Then the crash on top of 9/11, and all of a sudden fear was the name of the game. The age old game he’d seen in Serbia and Croatia came home to roost; control the masses by injecting fear everywhere the public gathers. Distort all news to fit the new paradigm. All the old jobs are gone, so blame that fact of life on all “the others” – the people different from “us” – so when there’s no money you know who to blame.

“Hates a good thing,” he said. “Hate keeps you warm in winter, don’t it?”

But a lot of the people getting out of the military were sick, many more had suffered life-altering injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet the VA turned out to be just another joke, another political piñata tossed around in the culture wars. Go there with a cold and you might get seen – in a few months – if you were one of the lucky, chosen few, that is. If you were white, maybe, just maybe your chances were better, but not much.

When the dreams started – the vivid, nightmarish dreams about killing or getting killed started – when he couldn’t even sleep away the depression that had come for him, he’d gone to the VA and asked for help, again. And again. And been turned away again, and again. “Get in line,” someone told him, half in jest, “take a number.” But there weren’t numbers for niggers, were there?

“Because we’re all niggers now, no matter what color our skin is.”

So much talk about inequality, then the courts legalized political bribery and what was left? Then one day he was walking out of a convenience store – when the cops pulled up, guns drawn.

“Stop!” the first cop yelled as the man scrambled out of his patrol car. “Hands where I can see ‘em!”

“What?”

“Down on your knees, mother fucker, and get your hands on top of your head!”

“What?”

Tackled, cuffed and transported – not charged with robbery – but with resisting arrest. Sent to Central Mississippi Correctional. Two years down that first time, but oh, the lessons he’d learned in there. He’d finally gotten the education he needed at Central, because all the bitter truths he’d never heard before were revealed inside that old, worn out cage, and the truth came easy to someone who’d only seen the lessons applied overseas before. How rights became privileges doled out by the men in charge, how you controlled a population first with fear, then with starvation. If it worked over there, why not here?

The brothers ran Central’s school, lot’s of ex-military in there too, and class was usually held out in the rec yard, sometimes in the weight room – and always at night, just after lights out. Martin Luther King had been the white man’s stooge, he learned, King’s message of non-violence just the con the white man needed to help put the black man back in his place, boarded-up in their ghettos – out of sight, out of mind one more time. All the gains blacks won under Kennedy and LBJ came at the point of a bayonet, from under the barrel of a gun, then through the black smoke of Molotov cocktails. Cities were burning in the sixties – weren’t they? – and suddenly Whitey had grown very afraid. And when Whitey was afraid, he negotiated, didn’t he?

But they weren’t negotiating anymore – no, not now? Not after 9/11. Lines had been drawn in the sand, and the dividing line between the Haves and the Have Nots had never been more razor sharp, but then people on the inside started seeing a new way forward. These people were taking up the challenge, men in uniform mostly, angry men who’d been betrayed by a crumbling system. They started recruiting in places like Central, ex-military for the most part, building a movement, stoking fires too long banked down.

Because these powerful men had finally figured out the civil rights movement had been a sham, a well planned ruse, a dodge to keep slaves bottled up in their new Sowetos. And that’s what this prison was…a new ghetto. A place to warehouse the malcontents and dispossessed this culture grew…like bacteria.

He’d lay out there in the prison yard thinking about all he’d just learned in class, about the things he wanted to do when he got out, the impossible life he wanted to make for himself on the outside. He lay out there under the sun, looking up at clouds passing by overhead, wondering what it was like to be as free as a cloud. Like a lily white cloud, free to go wherever the winds carried him. And yet here he was – locked up in the Man’s mother-fuckin’ cage – because he’d asked – ‘what?’

When Clinton came in the nineties, he made a lot of noise promising real change. And yeah, there’d been change alright, and that change had landed on his people like another Plymouth Rock. Welfare gone, private prisons erected in it’s place. Look at Whitey the wrong way and you went down, ‘cause Whitey wasn’t gonna take your lip no more. Then the stories started coming out in the news, how judges and prosecutors were invested in these new private prisons…and with all the politicians bought and paid for there was no way to change a thing. The people were trapped, only they hadn’t figured it out yet. Maybe the news would come out during the halftime report, between beer commercials?

And so, like as it had with many of his brothers-in-arms, Owen’s anger turned inward, inside to that much darker place – where nightmares are born and like to hide. And as he listened to all those lessons in the prison yard – with all that darkness now close to his heart, growing day by day – he listened to his brothers as they plotted revenge, and his anger had an outlet now. His hate had a place to go. Sitting in his cell at night, hate kept him company, talked to him, filled him with all sorts of new ideas.

And yet, right after his release a black man was elected president and suddenly all that hatre just kind of disappeared under a wave of hope. Hope You Can Believe In, or some such drivel. But that Hope was palpable, something he could feel, something stronger than Hate he could, indeed, believe in.

For a while, anyway.

Then one day he watched a brother get gunned down in the street by The Man, and then he saw the black president was just like all the rest, maybe even worse, because his was two faced. Telling the people what they wanted to hear, then going along with The Man’s agenda – and his Hate started bubbling back to the surface. And then one night he was stopped again – for Jaywalking this time – and he was arrested for resisting arrest – again. Second offense, aggravated, so three years down this time, three more years of school, three more years of honing the dark edge of his Hate.

And after three years, his Hate had a very sharp edge indeed.

When he got out he laid low this time – laid low with his brothers – waiting. Waiting for just the right time – and when Carpenter was elected everyone knew it was time. Hate had been turned loose by all sides with his election, but the battle lines had been drawn ages ago. The battle would be joined, this time, with more organized opposition. Starting with a lightning strike to the heart of the beast.

And Cleetus Owen was ready. Ready when men in green uniforms came calling, ready to answer the call of duty once again. There was still time for a little revolution, the men who recruited him said, time for some payback, if that’s what he wanted. To remind all the Monday morning patriots they couldn’t shit all over constitution – without some payback? Yessiree, every dog has it’s day, and the politicians had lost touch with the people and served a new master, but their payback was comin’ soon enough.

He was taking the bus home one afternoon and looked up, saw a billboard beside the road – Carpenter For President – all there in red, white and blue, and then he looked up at the clouds drifting free on carefree winds – and he smiled at his chosen fate.

‘Oh my,’ he thought. ‘I wonder if my edge is hot enough to cut a cloud?’

+++++

Richard Krumnow tried to ignore the sounds of his wife in the other room. The calculator spitting out numbers, the pen scratching out checks, paying bills they could hardly afford to pay. Always paying bills – and never enough money to balance the books.

Always enough work, but half his customers these days were stiffing him. Same story, different chapter, but the money just wasn’t comin’ in like it used to, and he almost wondered how bad it would be this week, but not really. No, not really. You have to care to wonder about things like that. You have to know, really know, that things are getting better, that things are going to change. You have to believe the promises politicians make, instead of realizing that all their promises are empty, that your despair means something, really means something to the people he voted for.

But times had changed once again, and people didn’t take responsibility like they used to – and he felt the thought oddly funny. Given what had happened…

Because something inside snapped a few weeks ago, and after that he’d stopped caring about everything. So what if he did work for people and they didn’t pay him? If they didn’t care – well then – why should he? If they called at two in the morning when their toilets overflowed, when they called after their hot water heater fractured and spilled layers of rusty sludge out on their new carpet…well, if it was so important then, why not when it came time to write the check? People didn’t care so much anymore when that time rolled around, did they? No, things were breaking down, people felt no responsibility to anyone but themselves. The things that used to hold communities together were rusty now, crumbling before his eyes.

“Dick? Looks like we’re about three hundred short this week…”

“That’s nice,” he said. He stood, went to the kitchen and got another beer from the ‘fridge, walked back to the sofa and picked up the remote. “Well, what’ll it be this fine afternoon? Kelly’s Heroes – or, let’s see, looks like True Grit?” Did he want his virtue soiled this afternoon, or shining pure from beneath a layer of Hollywood corn?

“Dick? You hear me?”

“Reckon I did,” he said to the fat shrew in the next room.

“What do you want me to do? I can’t call the bank – again…?”

“Okay…?”

“Remember,” she said – her reply at the ready. “We need to get another collection agency.”

“Why? They’re all thieves.”

And he heard her then, muttering the same words under her breath, “They’re all thieves, aren’t they, Dick…they always are, every one of them…all out to get you…”

How had he ended up with such a raging bitch? Nag-nag-nag, and always about money, too. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the cunt hadn’t gained four hundred pounds since she’d gone into menopause, but she’d gained so much tonnage he’d had to buy two seatbelt extenders for her side of the car – and the fucking freezer was full of ice-cream bars! A box a day, 3,000 calories in fat and sugar, then another 300 bucks in monthly copays for her insulins. What the fuck was wrong with her? Had she lost all self-respect? Had EVERYONE lost all self-respect?

And how long had he been cheating on her?

He had to stop and think about that one for a minute. Three years? Maybe four? Usually girls after their shift at Burger King come over to Joe’s Place for a drink or two before heading home to their vibrators, but more than a few of his customers who wanted to renegotiate their bills, too. And why the hell not? He had needs, didn’t he? He needed love as much as anyone, but all love was gone when he walked in the front door these days. Love was a cold memory that offered no comfort, just the stinging bite of her shrewish voice nagging about money…

And that’s when it all hit the fan. When need exploded and found him wanting.

One of those nice houses out on Exbury. Stopped-up sink, cute little blond, flirty as hell. He guessed she’d clogged the sink deliberately, maybe because she wanted a little work done on her own plumbing? She’d gone down on him so fast it wasn’t even funny, and she’d been the best little cocksucker he’d ever run across in his life. She took him to the edge and let him drift down, then brought him all the way back up again. When he couldn’t stand it any longer he told her he wanted to fuck her, that he NEEDED to fuck her, and when she said “Only in the ass, Dickie…” he’d sworn he’d died and gone to heaven. He plowed his raging hard-on up her ass and for the first time in ages felt an ethereal love for this vixen, the siren’s song of a million better tomorrows dancing through the cobwebs…

And after he’d filled her ass she’d turned over, and the little bitch had a nice little six inch cock dangling between her legs…

And so, yeah, something inside the cobwebs snapped, gave way, and he drifted over the edge for a moment – then pulled back.

He’d turned and gone for his tool belt, and the little bitch looked like she, or he, was just waiting for it…like the kid had always wanted to be knocked around a little bit…but she couldn’t see the danger she was in, could she? She wanted her place in the world, a place without prices, without due dates…a place without consequences…

He’d taken a three inch pipe wrench from his face and turned, swung it into the kid’s face.

About fifteen, maybe twenty times.

He stopped and looked at the kid when his own breathing became erratic, but he didn’t even have to check for a pulse. Brains all over the room, on his uniform, in his hair…so he’d cleaned himself up as best he could and left. He got to the truck and sat there in shock, crying for a while – until he knew he had to get the fuck out of the neighborhood, had to wash away the evidence. When he drove home he thought about words like responsibility and consequence and suddenly saw this little murder as symbolic of the age he lived in. Nothing was what it was supposed to be anymore…love and desire had grown into dark, inverted things.

But so what? There would be no consequences, would there? Because that too was the way things were now.

But he’d been waiting for a knock on the door ever since. How could the cops not put two and two together? Just look at the phone records and bam, they’d have him.

Then he’d figured it out. The murder was on the evening news the next night, and they’d identified the kid as a habitual crossdresser, a transsexual and a troubled teenager, his parents out of town on business. And that was that. Nothing more about it on the news, no knock on the door. The kid was a fag and he’d gotten what he deserved, and that was the end of the story. Hell, they had about a million gallons of his cum up the kid’s ass…what the fuck else did they need? Apparently nothing, because his had been a crime truly no one cared about. Even the kid’s parents seemed like they knew an end like this was coming, and they seemed almost glad their ordeal was over.

But his ordeal wasn’t over. No, not in the least.

Because he’d never enjoyed himself with a woman like he’d enjoyed his time with that kid. He’d been working up the nerve to ask if she’d like to, maybe, you know, go out on a date or something sometime? He’d been attracted to everything about the kid, hadn’t he?

Maybe that’s why he snapped?

Because he’d been so shocked and disappointed?

Or maybe because he wasn’t so disappointed? Because maybe the kid being a tranny turned him on even more, and when that inversion finally registered in his mind – when everything he thought he knew about himself grew distorted and ugly – he broke in two. And when he saw Doris once he got home that night he knew something inside was broken beyond repair. There was no going back this time. No excuses he could make to himself.

And he’d been haunted by that kid ever since, in his dreams mostly, but more often now he saw the kid smiling at him just before he came…and she came to him in his dreams pure as driven snow every time now, a girl so gorgeous it took his breath away, then he’d see himself in the dream, a caricature of himself, really, like he only existed inside a carnival mirror. His body all wavy and distorted, his face a mishmash of lies and betrayals, then the kid started turning over – revealing himself anew in each dream, that little cock waving in the air like a battle flag. He tried to fight his desire but there was only one end – swinging that pipe wrench over and over until he woke up gasping for breath again.

And yet, when he woke up he knew the only person he’d ever lied to or betrayed was himself. Why else had he remained married to that loathsome creature beside him in his bed?

And now he heard her in the other room, grousing about not having enough food in the house, and his lips quivered in feral rage as he thought about her ice cream and insulin in the ‘fridge. He sat in indecision for a moment, wondering if he’d rather beat her face in with the same wrench he killed the kid with, or just go to the bedroom and do her with his old Kimber 45 ACP.

He figured putting her out of his misery wasn’t really worth that much effort on his part, so decided to go for his trusty old Kimber. ‘Two rounds,’ he said to himself, ‘ought to do it…assuming a hollow point can get through all that fucking blubber…’

+++++

The quarterback took off his helmet and walked to the sideline, flexing his right shoulder as he walked. He looked at the coach standing there – clipboard in hand, deep scowl etched on face – getting ready for the inevitable barrage of sarcasm just waiting to boil over.

“You’ve got to get out of the goddamn pocket quicker than that, Dalton, if you’re going to get that pass off, before the strong-side L-B nails your pussy ass.”

“I know, Coach.”

“You know? Do you, really? If Walker had hit you any harder we’d be straining the remains for pieces of your brains into the night.” Coach was mad today, like he was for every Wednesday afternoon practice. Tomorrow would be ‘build ’em back up for game day’ day, while Friday would be filled with Skull Sessions – so-called strategy and tactics sit-downs, but all he could think about right now was the pain his shoulder.

“Why’re you moving your shoulder like that?”

“Feels like gravel in the joint, Coach. Don’t feel right at all.”

“Doc!” the coach shouted.

He waited while one of the trainers jogged over, still flexing the joint – and not enjoying what he was feeling. Not one little bit.

“Yo!” the trainer said. Her name was Mindy Mendenhall, and she was a physical therapy intern, one of a half dozen working on the field right now. Everyone liked her, wished she’d stay on full-time, but she was already applying to medical schools for next year so this would probably be her last year working with the team. And John Dalton, Ole Miss’s senior quarterback, thought she was about the most gorgeous creature who’d ever drawn a breath on this or any other planet.

“Get this lug-head to the locker room and call Doc Holliday; see if we need to get a new MRI of that goddamn shoulder.”

They walked off the practice field together and Dalton was uncharacteristically silent as he shuffled along beside the girl, thinking only about her now, his shoulder hardly intruding on his thoughts as he looked at her short, blond hair.

“The same gravelly feel?” she asked, bringing him back to the present.

“Same, yeah, only more pronounced now, and in a different spot. Like there’s something hanging up inside, a clicking kind of feel.”

“Pain?”

“Shooting, down the arm,” he said, pointing to his right forearm.

She nodded. “I’ll call the doc, but we’ll need another MRI. Sounds like more cartilage has broken loose.”

“Did you hear from any of those med schools yet?”

“Nope. What about you? I heard the Packers talked to you after the ‘Bama game.”

“Yup, sure did. I think they want me, too, assuming the shoulder holds up.”

“That’d be kind of a dream come true, wouldn’t it? Playing back near home?”

He shrugged, thought about holding his tongue – or about saying what he really wanted to say – and then he saw her looking at him. “Maybe,” he said, but he was holding back and she knew it.

“‘Maybe?’ That’s kind of evasive, don’t you think?”

“Playing football is fine, but right now I’m more interested in finding the right partner to share my life with.”

“Right now? That seems a little backwards, John. You ought to be concentrating on…”

“I know, I know what I’m supposed to be thinking about. It’s just that part of my life seems missing right now, the most important part, and I want to change that before I get too set in a rut. You know – when you’ve met someone, someone who feels right – well, your outlook changes? Like maybe your life won’t be complete, or even headed down the right path without that person by your side?”

“You’ve met someone?”

“Oh, I know her, but apparently she doesn’t date football players.”

She stopped walking, turned and looked at him. “Oh?”

“Yeah, so I haven’t asked her out, because it’s like there’s this wall and I’m not sure how to get around it.”

“Maybe the best thing right now is to just let things be.”

“I don’t want to take that chance.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, well, because I know she’s one in a million, and I’ll never meet anyone like her again. She’s the type of person that could be my best friend – for the rest of my life. I suppose I’m just being selfish, but to me that’s a big deal. A bigger deal that playing football.”

“Wow. Sounds like you have high expectations for this person. Do you think she knows how you feel?”

He shook his head. “Like I said – what’s the point?”

They resumed walking. “I guess I see what you’re up against, but if she doesn’t know…? Seems like you need to make the first move, John. Let her know how you feel.”

“I’ve known you for almost three years, Mindy. Are you telling me you don’t know how I feel about you?”

“No, not really,” she said as she looked away. “Look, John, I know you like me, but you don’t know me, not really. Not what I want out of life, even who I am. And I don’t think you should spend all your energy worrying about things like this right now, because you’ve got more important things to think about…”

“Do I?”

“Yes, John, you do. You’ve got to finish school, get through the draft next spring, find a team and make it on the roster. So yes, you have a lot to…”

“You won’t go out with me?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Okay. But at least you know where I’m coming from?”

“I do.”

He chuckled.

“What’s that for?”

“Hmm? What? Oh – the ‘I do’ thing.”

“Why?”

“You said ‘I do.’ Those are the two words I think I’d most like to hear you to say with me one day.”

She laughed a little at that. “That’s sweet.”

“Yeah, well, just so you know.”

“Let’s get those pants, uh, pads off. I want to feel the inside of that joint before I call Doc Holliday…”

+++++

Carpenter finished reading through the script for tonight’s performance, underlined a few sentences he thought went too far and looked up, shook his head at a passing thought, then looked out the window as the 757s wing sliced through wattled clouds. ‘No, let’s rattle a few cages tonight,’ he said to himself. ‘It’s time. I’m beginning to sound too much like a politician, and less like an outsider. And oh, how I miss Imogen…’

Imogen…he looked at the empty seat by his side and sighed. She’d have known what words to change…what tone to strike…where to stick the dagger for most effect.

He’d been, of course, a New Dealer – just like his father – once upon a time. He’d believed in government, in the role government could play creating a fair and just society. But reality had had a way of dealing with that.

No, he’d seen the reality of modern politics in the state legislature first. How well intentioned politicians soon turned into grifters, con-men raking in cash as quickly as they could. Lobbyists writing drafts of laws the slugs couldn’t even be bothered to read, then taking cash for getting the package to the house floor. He’d stepped back from such idiocy, returned to creating residential housing developments northeast of Sacramento – and done well at it, too – until, in his fifties, he’d been approached to run for the Senate. The US Senate, this time around. He’d almost wanted to laugh at the offer, but not Imogen…no, she was ready, like she’d been waiting all her life for this.

“I’m not qualified,” he’d said at one point, boasting for the cameras that had suddenly appeared everywhere he went, “for that bullshit palace!”

And the reporters had caught all his bluster on camera, and the next day images of his ‘straight-talk’ went viral. Soon it was ‘Carpenter For Senate – Straight Talk, Not Double Talk’ and he’d easily beat an eighteen year incumbent, a woman who just couldn’t escape the appearance of being on the take.

“Jesus was a carpenter,” he’d said in the speech accepting his party’s nomination for President four years later, “a carpenter who fashioned souls from the driftwood of human misery. I will be a carpenter, fashioning a renewed American Spirit from the wreckage of American liberalism!”

And then he had proceeded to tear down all America’s social safety nets, declaring that anything not earned through hard work was worth having. He’d increased law enforcement’s presence on the streets to unheard of levels, telling the people that under a Carpenter administration people would feel free to walk the streets of their neighborhoods once again. He systematically tore apart the Constitution, and with a friendly Congress, not to mention a placid Supreme Court, he established Christianity as the Official State Religion. He opened his arms to all immigrants, yet had only this to tell each new arrival: “You are welcome here,” he cried, “so long long as you embrace America. You will convert to Christianity, you and your children will speak English, and you will not band together in the enclaves of your old worlds and lives…”

And he had been as good as his word, too.

When the first secret mosques were found, worshippers and their families were rounded up and taken to air force bases and flown to Mecca, their assets and belongings distributed to churches within days, and neighbors looked on in shocked awe as bulldozers demolished each new mosque. Wealthy Jews stood aside and watched again in horror as their synagogues and temples were razed; non-mainstream Christian denominations fared no better, and they too watched in meek silence as their places of worship disappeared.

The original Mexican wall was fortified; it’s height was increased to forty feet after one man successfully pole-vaulted the original structure, and soon minefields buttressed the approaches to the wall, making it impossible for future pole-vaulters to make the attempt. When machine gun emplacements were – finally, at last! –added, the nasty hordes of rapists slowly stopped making the attempt. Dejected pole vaulters from as far away as Peru turned and walked south again.

Children of illegal immigrants born in the United States were rounded up with their parents and transported en masse to France, a fate most found worse than death. Operating a Taco Truck was turned into a first degree felony, while Taco Bell restaurants around the country were either bulldozed – or hastily renamed Bubba’s Bronco Burgers.

When signs of rebellion began to appear, primarily in urban, minority communities, Carpenter sent brigades of regular troops in to the cities to deal with them, and he sent them in with orders to sweep aside rioters with force, lethal force if necessary. When several thousand were killed in the Compton and South Central riots, not one single voice of opposition was heard anywhere in the land.

In fact, just the opposite occurred.

Raised fists were seen everywhere in torchlight, followed by roars of triumph in this new night, while shouts of “Carpenter! Carpenter! Straight talk – not double talk!” were heard all across the land. Mass book burnings took place and, in an homage to Pleasantville (and perhaps to all things Tobey Maguire), tight pink sweaters were banned from high schools all around the country.

“Mr President?”

“Hmm, what’s that?”

“We’ll be landing in ten minutes, sir.”

“Fine, fine…”

“Could I get you anything?”

“Maybe a mineral water, slice of lime. Better make it a big one, Carol.”

“Yes, Mr President.”

And then the most devastating thing in the world happened.

She’d gotten sick, and his world had started to come apart. Imogen, his very own Lady MacBeth, the woman who’d been by his side since college, struck down in just a few months…and the love of his life had simply – and finally – slipped from his grasp. She’d been his soulmate, his conscience, the woman who urged restraint when the impulse to lash-out was most overwhelming – yet in a curious way her passing had come to him as an emancipation of sorts – at least for a time. He no longer felt constrained when so-called allies crossed him, or when certain politicians interfered with his plans.

The first time that had happened, just a few weeks after her death, when Senator Pauling objected to his use of the military in Compton, well, the senator’s airplane had been in a little accident, hadn’t it? Kind of like when Tower and Heinz crossed Reagan over Iran-Contra, he sighed. And he’d even attended the Senator’s funeral – tacky, he supposed, but necessary. He’d glowered at the man’s casket, then smiled as the man’s scorched body was lowered into the earth – and those assembled knew then not to ever cross this president – and everyone knew too that Bob Haldeman had finally met his match.

Yet now, with reports of domestic terrorist cells growing in number by the day, he was sending squads into the ghettos, rooting all the vermin out of their underground nests, sending them to hastily prepared camps in northern Alaska – and letting them freeze to death, or so the last vestiges of the evil press reported.

Because something else had happened with Imogen’s passing. The press had seen him as some kind of monster before – but now? No, now he was the stoic, faithful leader, carrying on under the most adverse conditions imaginable, but with the roaring admiration duly noted after the Compton riots, reporters were now, suddenly and completely on his side! The whole country was on his side, wasn’t it? Ah, the sympathy vote!

And Imogen?

Well, she was with him again too, and all the time now, telling him what was coming next. Talking to him, advising which people were loyal to him, and pointing out those who might be plotting behind his back. She’d come to him in the night at first, whispering in his ear, then as suddenly she’d been with him all the time again, by his side counseling him as though nothing had changed. She had defeated death to remain by his side! What couldn’t they accomplish together, working side by side like this?

And she saw other things, too. She saw the future. She’d tell him about things that were going to happen later that day, or even a few days ahead – and she’d been correct, every time! At first he’d been nervous about her reappearance, unsure of her presence – let alone her motives – but he had embraced her return soon enough and she became his most trusted and indispensable counsel. Again.

Yet last night she had disappeared. Without a word, gone, leaving no trace of her ever having been by his side. But then, who could say what her reasons were?

Yet had she ever, really, been there? And as questions like these mounted in the hours after her second passing he’d begun to doubt himself, to doubt his own sanity. And then there was…

Carol the flight attendant returned with his water and he looked up at her. “How are you doing, Carol? How’s Elizabeth?”

Carol had been on Air Force One for seventeen years, was almost an institution in and of herself by now, and for some reason everyone doted on her.

And in time he’d been no exception.

Though, oddly enough, she’d been the one to offer him the most comfort after Imogen passed. Very comforting, indeed. He thought of her silky thighs and dancing, moon-swept kisses more times than he cared to admit even now, but it had been the girl’s open acceptance of his grief that had sealed the bargain. She’d even spent a month in the White House, until guilt overcame his physical needs and he cut her off from his vital essence.

Yet she harbored no ill will after she was dismissed; indeed, she was still the same guileless, sensible Carol she’d always been. Open – to whatever, whenever – until her seven year old girl was diagnosed with leukemia. He’d mobilized every medical resource at his disposal to help the girl, too…and he’d remained by their side during the worst of it.

“Fine, Mr President. Thanks for asking,” she said as she put his glass down on the armrest. “Here you go, sir.”

“Carol? I’d like to talk to you later, on the way back to Andrews, if I could.”

“Yes, Mr President. I’d like that.”

He turned back to the window and looked out over the rolling hills of northern Mississippi gliding by in the evening below, yet wondered if Imogen would be out there, too, waiting for him – in this night. Still, he looked at Carol’s reflection in the plastic as she walked away, and he knew what he had to do. Do what Imogen had told him to do. He’d be nice about it, though, and see to it her death came as quickly and painlessly as possible.

+++++

Cleetus Owen sat with three friends in the facility’s sub-level maintenance room; they’d just set up 1500 extra folding chairs on the main floor, and it would be their job to clean up after the President’s speech tonight, but he doubted he’d be alive by that point. They’d moved heavy weapons into secret storage compartments weeks ago, even before the President’s speech had been publicly announced, and they had four men on this level ready to move once the ‘Go!’ order was given, while another eight would be scattered in the audience to create confusion just before the main assault began.

Another Secret Service agent came by and poked his head in the door, shook his head then left.

Ali looked at the agent as the man turned and walked away, took care to memorize his features and clothing. He wanted to kill that mother fuckin’ cracker right away. Yessir, that mother fucker was first on his list…

Ooh, his Hate felt SO good tonight…

+++++

He’d been drinking for hours, beer for the most part, but bourbon for the last half hour or so, while he finished field-stripping his Kimber, then as he carefully put the weapon back together again. He’d rubbed Hoppe’s No 9 over every part, even a little behind his ears, then used a Dremel to buff each piece to an ultra high sheen, and now the old 45 looked brand new again. He admired the form just as much now as he had the day he’d bought her – now so many years ago. Brutally efficient, yet gorgeous even so, he turned the pistol over in his hand – admiring his work, admiring the way light played off the polished stainless steel frame, the black slide, even the frank, sexually expressive shape of the short, three and half inch barrel. He took one of the pistol’s magazines and caressed it lovingly, drying it off carefully, then took a fresh box of Winchester SilverTips and quietly, purposefully slipped each cartridge through the spring-loaded gate. He took a second magazine and wiped it down as carefully, as admiringly, then loaded this one, too, and then slipped the spare rounds in his pocket – “Just in case,” he told himself, grinning at the prospect of so much…fun!

He smiled as he looked around his belongings one more time, at the meaninglessness of his life’s trinkets and mementos arrayed around the living room. They stared back like an insinuation now, and then he smiled at the emptiness of it all, as if he alone was in on the joke that had unfolded in this room over the years.

Time for the punch-line, he reckoned.

Time to get this road on the show.

He took another pull from his bourbon, then chambered a round – wondering why he hadn’t done this years ago. He thought of that poor kid – and how much he’d desired her in the moments before he killed her – then he thought of the flatulent bitch rumbling around in the next room and scowled.

“Oh, Doris?” he called out sweetly. “Could you come here? Prettyplease?”

+++++

“Mr President? If you could ride in the second Suburban this evening, sir?” Denny Eliot, his chief of detail commanded. Carpenter knew they rotated which car he rode in – sometimes he even sat in one of the marked escort vehicles – but Oxford was considered a ‘friendly’ venue, one without an overwhelming variety of ‘unknowns’ lurking out there, so this would be a direct, easy ride to the Ole Miss campus. The local cops had been told to keep their distance on the ride in, too, ‘just in case.’

He turned, saw Carol at the top of the stairs – waving – and it crossed his mind just then that he loved her. That he’d grown to care for her, and Elizabeth, too. Imogen had been barren, and they’d never had a child, and for some reason when the girl fell ill it hit him much harder than he’d expected. Now he stood there looking up at Carol, wondering what Imogen would make of these new feelings – when he felt her whispering in his ear again.

He was almost relieved she was back – until she spoke…

“The darkness you’ve sown has grown too powerful,” she sighed. “I’m watching…but other forces are in control of your destiny now. You must be very careful tonight, and in the nights ahead, because something black is coming for you…”

And then she was gone – again.

“Other forces? Black?” The President of the United States said to the evening sky.

“Sir?” he heard Eliot ask.

“Denny? I want you to be extra careful out there tonight. I have a bad feeling about this one…”

“Mr President? Perhaps we should get you back onboard, return to The House.” Eliot had taken note of Carpenter’s recent, sudden ‘hunches’ – and how ‘right’ he’d been about things like this since the First Lady’d passed – so when the President talked like this, he listened.

Still, Carpenter was just standing there, looking up at the 757s entry door – like he was coming to a decision of some sort, Eliot thought – and he looked up, saw that Templeton woman waving and sighed.

‘So, he IS in love with her…’ Eliot thought as he looked up at the woman in the doorway. It had been hard enough keeping their affair under cover before, but what would happen if Carpenter decided it was time to ‘go public’ with his feelings?

“Denny?” Carpenter said, his voice now full of manifest authority. “I’d like Ms Templeton to ride in with us tonight.”

“Yes, Mr President.”

Carpenter got in the Suburban and buckled up, watched as Carol came down the stairs with his detail, smiling at the swiftness of his decision.

And as he watched, he heard Imogen laughing into the night – and icy fingered dread ran down his spine when he thought about what was about to happen.

+++++

“Do you think the pain’s affecting your ability to throw?” Doc Holliday asked Dalton.

“It was this afternoon, Doc.”

“Well, that’s this new fragment – right here,” the physician said, pointing at the new image on his screen. “Not too big, but it’s new and I suppose that has to be the cause. I could go in and take it out, but you’ll probably lose a week, maybe two. You want to do that now?”

“Any other options, Doc?”

“Sure. I can shoot some corticosteroids and anti-inflammatories into the joint, and you should get a couple months relief, unless the fragment is bigger than it looks here. Probably enough relief to get you to the bowl games.”

“Sign me up!”

“Roll up your sleeve.”

“What? Now?”

“Yup, unless you’re saving the pain for some other special occasion…”

“You mean…that’s it? No surgery?”

“I didn’t say that, John. What this ought to do, assuming no other issues crop up, is get you to January. We can revisit the surgical options then.”

“Okay. Any side-effects to the injection?”

“Yup. The shoulder will feel full, kind of inflamed for a couple of days, but Tylenol will handle that. Should all be over by Saturday, at any rate, and you should be ready to go by game-time.”

And during all this, Mindy sat quietly in the room – looking at the MRI on the screen, then back at John – trying not to show too much concern, or pay too much attention. She’d been so overwhelmingly attracted to him, and for so long, and now she was sure he knew. Yet he hadn’t seemed to express much emotion in the car with her on the ride over. He seemed so innocent, almost chaste, yet virginal was the word, she’d told herself more than once, that ought not to come to mind…because one look at John Dalton simply dispelled that idea. He looked like Apollo, perhaps a rock star, or whatever passed for a God these days, and when he’d talked about the ideal soulmate a while ago she’d grown so weak in the knees she almost fallen to the turf.

Now she watched as Holliday prepped the injection site with Betadine, then as he slipped the huge syringe into the joint. At first she thought John was handling it well enough, but when he looked at the ‘needle’ she saw the blood run from his face; she smiled as John took a few quick, deep breaths and swayed like a tall pine in a mountain breeze, then Holliday pulled the mile-long syringe from Dalton’s arm and wiped the area down with huge alcohol swabs. “That’s it. Did pretty good – for a jock, anyway.”

“Huh? Why’s that?”

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” the physician said, grinning. “I gave one to that giant linebacker, what’s his name…Simons?”

“Simmons, sir?”

“Yup, that’s him – he passed flat out, I mean like a sack of potatoes dropped on the floor, then his bowels cut loose. Helluva mess.”

“No shit?” John said, puffing up, but both Mindy and Holliday were looking at his color now.

“Why don’t you lean back for a minute or two, John, and let that stuff settle in the joint. You can get up in a few minutes, when I come back.” And after the physician left the room Mindy came over to the exam table and stood there, looking directly into his eyes.

“Okay,” she said, the faintest trace of a smile on her lips.

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, I’ll go out with you.” Now she was sure he was going to pass out…so she bent over and kissed him once, gently, on the lips.

When she pulled back he looked into her eyes, his mind racing now, a fevered pulse hammering away in his temples. “I do, you know,” he said at last, running his fingers over her face. “You’re who I want by my side, always. I hope you can see that.”

She kissed him not at all gently now, and they were still at it when Doc Holliday returned.

+++++

She was standing in the dining room – in those goddamn pink, furry slippers that made him want to puke every time he saw them – glaring at him, but with a tape recorder in hand. Recording, she told him, everything he said.

Which was a lot, as it turned out.

He’d already told her about all the women he’d screwed over the past four years – not a lot, he thought, but enough to get her attention – and he’d just told her about the kid, the tranny he’d killed, the kid that had been on the news a couple of weeks ago – and that petulant, pouting smirk of hers had suddenly turned cold and empty after that.

She’d started paying close attention to his words, then her eyes went to the Hoppe’s No 9 bottle, then the box of 45ACP on the table by his chair.

“Dick, why are you telling me all this?” she’d asked then, her voice sweet and contrite.

“Oh, I just wanted to clear the air between us. Just so we know where things stand.”

“Oh?”

“So, tell me, why’d you want to record this?”

“I been thinkin’ about talkin’ to a lawyer, ya know?”

“About what? Adopting another kid? Seems to me, last time I heard that didn’t work out too well.”

She looked away.

“In fact, last time I heard, Doris, when you got a kid around the house, you got to actually, you know, take care of it. Can’t just sit around watching the soaps and eating ice cream all day, ya know? Can’t just wait around for Protective Services to come round and take it away.”

“I know, Dickie, but I couldn’t help it.”

“That’s an understatement, Doris. You looked in the mirror recently? What are you up to, now? Four? Four-fifty?”

“Fuck you, asshole!”

He pulled out the Kimber and stood from his chair, left the pistol hanging limply, impotently by his side. “What’d you say, sweetheart?”

“Oh, Dickie, I’m sorry…you make me say things I can’t control…and I don’t know what I’m sayin’ no more…”

“Well, the truth comes out at last, Doris. You ARE a moron. I knew it, but just never could admit it to myself.”

“Don’t call me that, Dickie.”

“What? Moron? Isn’t that better than fat and lazy? At least if you’re a fuckin’ moron you’ve got a good excuse…”

But she was throwing the tape recorder at him now, and it smashed into the wall beside his head.

“That’s just typical,” he sneered. “You can’t even throw straight.”

He raised the Kimber, took a step towards her while he sighted in on her face. “Any thing else you want to say to me before sleepy time?”

She was staring at the end of the barrel, her lips beginning to quiver… “Oh, no, Dickie. You ain’t gonna do this? Say you ain’t gonna do this to us?”

“To us? Look what you’ve done to us, you fuckin’ cow? Why the fuck did I stay married to you?” he asked quietly. “Come on, bitch, TELL ME?!”

“I dunno, Dickie, I dunno, but I love you, really, I love…

He lowered the pistol, sighted in on her belly and pulled the trigger.

She saw the belching yellow flame erupt from the end of the barrel, felt searing, rippling pain under her left breast and screamed when she realized what’d just happened, and in her panic she bolted for the front door. She heard the next shot, and thought she felt the bullet pass right beside her left ear before she crashed into the door, knocking it off it’s hinges as she tumbled off the porch and into the front yard.

He took closer aim this time, and squeezed the trigger carefully – and watched the bullet slam into her ass as she tried to stand up – and he thought this uproariously funny as she staggered to the ground and started laughing – then he reached down and picked up his bourbon and Coke and took a long pull from the glass.

“Better finish this up before I disturb the neighbors too much,” Krumnow said to no one in particular, then he bent and carefully put his drink down on the table – and almost fell over in the process. He steadied himself, then snorted derisively at the incongruity of what he’d just said, then shook his head and sighed. He looked around the living room once again, then stumbled drunkenly after his wife – as she ran screaming into the night. He walked out into the night and he raised the Kimber, readying himself for the end of things.

+++++

Polk was cruising the neighborhoods now, deep in the middle class section of town, the part of town experiencing the worst decline, the most upheaval, listening to the oldies coming on the radio, singing along from time to time…

Communication breakdown

It’s always the same

I’m having a nervous breakdown

Drive me insane!

…when he heard the pop-pop of gunfire nearby.

“134, we have reports of gunfire, and a woman screaming, in the vicinity of Eighth and Filmore,” Mathias Polk heard on the radio – but his window was down and he was trying to figure out where they’d come from.

“134, show me in the area, and I’m hearing gunfire, too,” he replied.

“110, show me en route, notify CID and the WC.”

“134 Code 5 at 2040 hours. 10/4, 110.”

+++++

They were headed up Lamar, Mindy behind the wheel of his Silverado, just leaving the Medical Office Building and he could see the traffic signal at University was flashing red again.

“Why don’t you turn here – on Fillmore – we can cut over to Eighth and miss all this mess.”

She put on her signal and moved to the left lane, and after waiting for a couple of cars made the left. I was dark out now, and Fillmore had kind of a ‘trick-or-treat’ feel – within it’s bare trees and shadowy streetlights –

Pop-pop – pop…

“What the fuck was that?”

POP – and screams…

…as the windshield in front of Mindy’s face exploded in a hail of glass fragments…

+++++

Polk saw the man chasing the woman, the 45 in his hand, then as he exited his patrol car he felt something slam into his shoulder.

“134, Signal 33, shots fired…I’m hit, repeat, I’m hit…!”

+++++

Dalton’s Chevy rolled off the road at twenty miles an hour and slammed into a tree; the airbags detonated – filling the cabin with dense, white smoke – and Dalton pushed his door open and jumped out into pools of spooky blackness, and he found himself adrift in someone’s front yard. He saw people in the house looking at him, the man inside indicating danger, pointing down the street…

Dalton turned, saw a man with a 45 shooting at a woman running in the front yard of the house next door, and then he watched as the man turned and began walking towards a police officer. The officer was crawling towards his patrol car, and it was obvious the man with the 45 was going to come up from behind and shoot the officer in the back…

Dalton was maybe twenty yards away when instinct kicked in, when he began his sprint towards the man with the 45.

And he watched as the man stopped and fired once at the officer, then the man with the 45 must’ve heard him running – because he turned his direction.

All John Dalton saw now was the 45 in the man’s hand. Raising, coming up. Coming up – to – shoot – him.

Head down now, and shoulders square, he executed a near textbook full body tackle, driving his right shoulder into the man’s sternum. He heard bones in the man’s chest giving way, felt the bones in his own shoulder coming apart as he drove the man’s body into the back of the patrol car. He was aware of a fearsome, heavy blow just then, and the sound of another gunshot, this time very close, and he felt himself sliding to the ground…and the last thing he remembered thinking was that the man smelled of bourbon and Coke…and Hoppe’s No 9 gun solvent…which he found oddly comforting.

+++++

The lights were down when he walked out onto the hastily erected stage, and he looked up as the last few moments of his latest video played out on the Jumbotron above the audience. The production values were first-rate, the points made direct and to the point. No one looked away as he walked out on stage – they never did.

Starting with a Norman Rockwell view of the past, the video outlined what had gone wrong with America. Multiculturalism. Political Correctness. Too generous social safety nets, radical Islamist terror out of control. Jobs shipped overseas, no good jobs left for hard working Americans. Fear, decay, self-loathing…leading to more and more decadence, more and more decay, sex on the internet, drugs in public schools…

Then the images turned to African-Americans rioting in cities all across the country, tearing down their own neighborhoods, setting police cars on fire, rampaging through the night until no one felt safe out on the streets anymore, these final scenes playing out to a discordant, bleak rendering of America, The Beautiful in the background, as images shifted to Africans in their villages tearing their own homelands apart. Warlords, beheadings – the message was clear. Let the Africans hordes loose in this country and this is what awaits…

And then all the house lights focused on the stage, on him, the President of the United States standing behind the presidential lectern, and a vast chant arose: “America – love it or leave it!”

“We had a beautiful country, once upon a time,” he began as the frenzy faded, and speaking in warm, certain tones, even more images of America from the 1950s rolled across the screens overhead, and he watched as the people’s eyes went from him to the screens and back to him again.

The imagery blended seamlessly into the 60s, rioters in Berkeley and Philadelphia figured prominently, while African-American radicals, often Muslim, danced in the streets as they looted buildings to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze…

Purple haze, all in my brain

Lately things they don’t seem the same

Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why

Excuse me while I kiss the sky

And the last 60 years played out on the screen as one immense, prolonged – and decidedly logical progression, from one scene of liberal policy generated mayhem to the next, while at key points the images paused and he laid some “straight talk” on the audience – and they roared their endless approval…

“America – love it or leave it!”

The images, indeed, the entire progression of imagery was derived from Strauss & Howe’s generational theory, and as the presentation ended the entire audience sat in silent, tear-swept silence – looking up at Carpenter with rapt adoration in their eyes. The Gray Champion, Carpenter was now their one and only Hope. Only He Could Save Them. Only His Vision Was Pure Enough to Restore America.

Carol Templeton watched from the side of the stage, as completely mesmerized as anyone else out there in the Pavilion. She’d never seen anything like this audience’s reaction, not ever. He was a master manipulator, she saw, like he knew every effect his words were going to have before he said them, and he twisted the audience’s emotions around in the air like a sorcerer might an apprentice’s brooms.

Yet she knew this man’s predecessors, knew they were good men, knew this man was mischaracterizing their work, twisting meaning and intent, manipulating emotions around a false narrative, and she looked at the back of the man’s head, recognized him for what he was.

He was evil. A monster.

His was a monstrous evil, the twisted realities he presented were as shadows of pure deceit on a cave wall, yet the measure of his power could readily be seen in this audience’s rapt adoration. They had eaten up his lies as if taken in by The Rapture, and she felt a profound sense of anomie settle over her as she watched the crowd stand for one sustained ovation after another…and she remembered scenes like this from a History class…

And then she thought she heard the word “Go!” come from a small radio’s speaker…

+++++

Agent Denny Eliot saw someone pushing through the crowd for the stage, then the small pistol in a black woman’s hand –

“Gun!” he shouted, and he turned for President Carpenter…

+++++

On hearing the “Go!” order, Cleetus Owen and his six man team had surrounded the stage from the rear, and he watched now as Carpenter’s detail moved to cut the president off from the assumed threat – from the wrong direction – and he looked at his men one last time.

And when he heard the first gunshot from within the dismayed crowd he shouldered his M4 and flipped off the safety.

“Okay, let’s roll!” he whispered through grimaced teeth, then he turned and ran for the stage, his finger holding the trigger down as he pushed through falling bodies, running towards the president.

+++++

Templeton saw the men behind the stage, heard their weapons discharge, became all charged instinct as she ran out to protect her president…

+++++

Eliot saw the charge from the rear of the stage and turned his detail to face the real threat. The entire stage area, packed with local dignitaries, was awash in suddenly erupting, isolated firefights, and women began screaming as they were hit and fell to the floor.

His first back-up team of 40 agents was just seconds from arriving, so he concentrated on picking-off attackers trying to push through to the podium.

+++++

Carpenter felt something bite into his shin and reflexively bent down just as his closest assailant let loose a barrage from an M4. He felt his shoulder absorb at least one round and groaned, then fell to the floor – curling up protectively in a fetal ball. He felt a body fall and cover his own, and looked up in time to see the light flicker and leave Carol Templeton’s eyes.

+++++

Owen saw at least 80 agents converging on the stage and slipped off through the shadows, pulling two of his men with him, and they made their way through the mayhem to the pre-established escape route and were outside within seconds, lost in the running running swarm, walking slowly through the parking lot to their van. Minutes later they were northbound on Highway 7, heading for their safe-house east of Abbeville when two helicopters appeared overhead.

He didn’t see the missiles slam into their van, but he looked up and smiled before the flames consumed him. He looked up at the clouds and smiled.

+++++

Carpenter felt men carrying him, then recognized the bright lights and swarming paramedics of an ambulance. A siren piercing the night, men struggling with their footing, a sharp pain in his arm – then flooding warmth. Movement, sharp and jarring, as his gurney was pulled from the box. A glimpse of moonlight, hissing doors and strobing lights as he was pushed past the ER straight to an operating room. Frantic orders shouted, then he felt something snaking down his throat and all is dark.

+++++

The world waited in hushed silence – even as the true contours of this attempt were quickly brought to light. Members of the military, both retired and active duty, had taken part in a multi-pronged assault against the civilian government. A coup d’tat, and the Vice President was dead, so too the Speaker of the House. Attempts had been made on other members of the presidential succession, and at least two arch conservative Supreme Courts justices lay in the morgue at Walter Reed Army Hospital. There were reports of open warfare on the streets of Washington D.C., and heavy rioting was reported in Newark, Boston, Los Angeles and Houston. Rail terminals disappeared in a series of violent explosions, vital interstate highway bridges went next, and so food and energy distribution systems around the country began grinding to a halt.

People stayed up through the night waiting for word of Carpenter’s condition – but there was scant news now, only a growing body count amidst a subtly stoked hysteria gripping the land.

By dawn’s early light it was apparent the military had gained control of the reigns of government, yet a vast backlash against the coup was already underway – when word filtered out that Russia had moved against NATO forces in Europe, and that China was moving ground forces into South Korea and Taiwan. Hong Kong was overrun, and Chinese forces were reported moving into Vietnam and Thailand When word came that North Korea had launched missiles at Japan and Guam, people began looking slowly at one another, wondering just what had happened to their little world.

The Morning After

It’s quiet here.

Too quiet.

And why is it so dark?

I’m sure my eyes are open, so why can’t I see anything?

+++++

Tanks and mobile rocket launchers screamed towards the Baltic; Riga and Tallinn fell first, Warsaw by that evening. Western leaders, used to bluffing their way out of military encounters with Russia, tried to bluff again. The maneuver didn’t work well, this time.

+++++

“His pupils are equal and reactive this morning, and even his EEG seems improved…”

“But still no signs of consciousness?”

“No, no signs of improvement, none at all. It’s like he’s frozen in time.”

“Why are there still military personnel stationed in the corridor?”

“I don’t know. Maybe there are still people out there, you know, trying to get him.”

“Better him than me.”

“Yes, everyone seems so paranoid, yet no one seems to have any idea what’s going on?”

+++++

I’m singin’ in the rain

Just singin’ in the rain

What a glorious feelin’

I’m happy again… 

+++++

The main thrust of the Russian attack drove straight for Berlin, secondary impulses ran for Hamburg and Köln, then word was received in western capitals that Russian aircraft had been observed throughout the Persian Gulf. Reports of paratroopers in Bagdad and Riyadh followed within the hour. Iranian troops moved south and west, for the Saudi oilfields.

+++++

“He was tapping his toes again.”

“Oh? When?”

“About an hour ago.”

“I read one of the nurses last night heard him signing? Singing? Can you believe that?”

“Yeah. I heard it was one of those old musical numbers. Gene Kelly, someone like that.”

“Don’t that beat all? Well, just goes to show, you never can tell.”

+++++

Chinese forces took the Philippines within the next day, Vietnam fell a half day later. Japan looked to take a little longer, but North Korean missiles took out Hiroshima and Nagasaki, again, only this time there looked to be no honorable surrender.

+++++

In a gadda da vida, honey

“What’s with his EEG?”

Don’t you know that I’m lovin’ you

“Beats me? Maybe he’s having a seizure?”

In a gadda da vida, baby

“Uh-oh. Sounds like he’s playing Iron Butterfly again.”

“Better call neurology – STAT!”

Don’t you know that I’ll always be true –

+++++

Oh – no! What happens when I get to the DRUM SOLO?

“Wasn’t there a long drum solo in one of their songs?”

FUCK

+++++

“Is it just me, or is he beginning to sound a little like Marvin Gaye?”

I used to go out to parties

“One of the nurses last night said he was dancing. In the bed, right there, dancing!”

And stand around

“That ain’t right.”

‘Cause I was too nervous

“You know, he does kinda sound like Marvin…”

To really get down

“I know, and I think his skin is getting darker, too…”

And my body yearned to be free

December

“It’s sure good to see you up and around, Mr President.”

“Thanks, Denny. Good to be seen,” Carpenter said as he turned to his Chief of Staff. “Oscar, what’s my day look like?”

“Looks like you’ve got a fairly busy day on the books,” Wilde said, “at least ‘til noon, sir; and don’t forget, you’ll be lighting the White House Christmas Tree tonight at seven.”

“Can I do that? From this wheelchair?”

“Yessir. Internal polling shows a considerable uptick on the sympathy scale.”

“Fine, fine. Think you could have someone rustle up some pulled-pork sammies for lunch, and maybe some of those fried pork rinds that came in?”

“I’ll see to it, Mr President.”

“And root beer. Lots of root beer.”

“Yes, Mr President.”

“So, who we got up first this morning?”

“The President of Mexico, Mr President.”

“That fucking loser, again! What’s he want now?”

“To renegotiate interest payments on The Wall, Mr President.”

“Fuck him. If he has any further questions, have him to look it up in the dictionary.”

“Sir?”

“Yeah. The word Sympathy; tell the prick it’s in the dictionary – right there between Shit and Syphilis.”

“Yessir.”

“Who’s next?”

“The Chancellor of Germany, Mr President. She wanted to ask…”

“That I use more butt lube this time. Don’t matter none; told her I was gonna fuck her up the ass big time if she came back with all those Russia problems. Guess the bitch wants what I got, huh, Oscar?”

“Yes – Mr President.”

And with his morning appointments now so swiftly dispatched, Carpenter asked if little Elizabeth Templeton could join him for lunch in the West Wing, and he waited for her until she came before starting-in on his pork rinds and sweet pickle relish dip.

“Good morning…Dad…?” the little girl said.

“Look, Lizzie, I know your momma wanted you to call me that, but listen, sweetheart, I get it. You call me what you want, okay?”

“Does Asshole apply?”

He looked up and coughed, then laughed. “You bet your sweet ass it does, darlin’. Asshole it is, because that’s just what I am.”

She looked at him like he was out of his mind – which of course he was – then she smiled. “Yeah, you know what? I think I’ll try that for a while.”

“Whatever floats your boat, sweetmeat, but Frito-Lay flew up these pork rinds this morning, special for you. Better dig in while they’re fresh.”

“Pork rinds?”

“Oh yeah. Bush 41 loved ‘em; the bastard got me hooked on ’em, too. Worse than potato chips…‘betcha can’t eat just one!’”

He ate in silence for a while, and the little girl seemed to grow pensive, almost sad as she watched him shovel food down. “I miss my mom,” she said at last, looking at the untouched food on her plate.

Carpenter stopped eating and looked up, right into her eyes. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t miss your momma. Not a minute, really, but I can’t imagine how awful this must be for you.”

“I think she loved you too, for a while, anyway. Before you broke up with her.”

“That was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life, sweetfeet.”

“That’s what she said, too.”

He laughed a little at that. “I bet she did, my little pumpkin.”

+++++

They came for him in the night now. Imogen, and Carol Templeton, too.

His wife whispered in his right eat, while the woman he loved spoke beguilingly into his left. Then one night, while Imogen was busy telling her husband about all the new plots to kill him, Carol pulled down the bedsheets and looked at the massive python coiled up on Carpenter’s lap.

“My word,” Templeton said, looking at the foot and a half long pecker coiled-up there. “It IS bigger!”

Imogen drifted down and looked at his pecker, then took the beast in hand and began playing with it. “Hmm. He was never this hard before…”

“How does it taste?” Carol asked.

“Not too bad.”

“Save some for me, would you?”

“Sure. I’m certain there’s more than enough of him to go around.”

“Imogen, look! I think his fingers are longer now, too! And look! He’s dancing again!”

+++++

I’m singin’ in the rain

Just singin’ in the rain

What a glorious feelin’

I’m happy again… 

+++++

“So, who’s on first this morning, Oscar?”

“A representative from the Sudan, Mr President.”

“Oh, swell.”

“Yes, Mr President. One of – them.”

“Well, send him in.”

“He’s a she, Mr President.”

“Okay. So, like, go ahead – make my day.”

The woman was shown into The Oval Office and Carpenter was duly impressed. Her skin was as black as night, and at six feet tall the woman could not have weighed ninety pounds. ‘Bet she fucks like a mongoose, too,’ he sighed as he stared at the woman’s worn, bare feet…

And as the woman spoke of conditions in her homeland, about the persistent drought and failing crops and the almost constant conflict between competing warlords, she noticed he seemed to be listening first with one ear, then the other…like he was listening to two competing counselors, each intently whispering contrary advice directly into his mind. He would, apparently, grasp one idea, only to have it pushed aside as another idea rushed in to take the first’s place, yet she saw he was growing more confused with each passing idea.

And at one point he paused, summoned someone to bring him a fresh bag of pork rinds.

“Want one?” he asked the Sudanese woman as he tore open the bag.

“What is that? It smells dreadful?”

“Fried pork skin, darlin’. Lite and vacuous, just like me. A staple of the party’s diet for more than thirty years now.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I’m afraid I don’t either, but could I ask you something?”

“Yes, of course, Mr President.”

“May I eat your pussy, please?”

+++++

The new President of France was next on his list, and this woman was pudgy, with fake blond hair, too.

“Have we been accommodating enough, Mr President?”

“Yes, Madame President. Prince Vlad is most pleased with the turnaround you’ve affected. Care for another pork rind?”

“Ooh, yes, please! They’re so light and tasty!”

“Yes, just like me.”

Her eyes sparkled seductively… “May I, Mr President?”

“Yes,” he said, standing and pulling down his trousers, “you may, but I was wondering?”

“Yes, Mr President?”

“Is blond your natural hair color?”

She blushed as she got down on her knees.

+++++

And yet, he seemed most happy on those days when Elizabeth joined him for lunch in the West Wing.

“You know, I know you’re only seven, but I find you extraordinarily attractive.”

“Thanks, Asshole.”

He smiled, took a sip from his frosty mug of root beer. “So. What have you been up to this morning?”

“Me? Oh, I was talking to Mrs Polk.”

“Who?”

“Mathias Polk’s mom.”

He shrugged. “Like I know who Mathias Polk is?”

“He was the cop killed in Oxford, the same night you were shot.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, you have his heart now, and she wanted to visit it, you know, to see how it’s doing in it’s new home.”

“I have a new heart?”

“Like, duh?! A black heart, too.”

“Black?”

“Sure, how else can you account for all the changes…”

“Changes?”

“Sure. You know, the ‘wink-wink, nod-nod’ longer fingers, the darker skin, the unquenchable desire for pork rinds?”

“But I’ve always liked pork rinds!”

“Yeah. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it? Anyway, she wanted to drop by for a visit.”

“A visit? To visit my heart?”

“No, to visit me.”

“You?”

“Yes. The night you were shot I was flown down to Oxford to say goodbye to my mother, and I met Mrs Polk that night.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, we talked. Became friends.”

“Ah.”

“Wouldn’t you like to know what we talked about?”

“I think you’ve very attractive, you know.”

“We talked about love, and hate…”

“Care for another pork rind?”

“…and the choices uninformed people make,” but as she looked at Carpenter now, she saw he was listening to those voices in his head again, and then he burst up and started pirouetting around the room…singing manically as he danced round and round:

I’m singin’ in the rain

Just singin’ in the rain

What a glorious feelin’

I’m happy again… 

And then he blew out the main office door, singing and dancing his way towards the swimming pool. Moments later she heard a shout – “watch out, there he goes!” – then him thrashing away in the pool – and then Secret Service agents diving in after him and she laughed, looked at his unfinished her pork rinds and wondered what the voices said to make him dance like that.

+++++

Television cameras from one of the major networks were set up in the Oval Office, aimed at Carpenter’s desk – which was flanked by two huge Christmas trees and several Secret Service agents. Jenna Jameson, the network’s latest, most highly qualified star reporter, came and took her seat in front of the desk, just before Carpenter entered the room. Once he was seated the camera’s red light blinked on, and Ms Jameson began her introductory remarks:

“Good Evening, America! Yeah! Woo-whoo! And a big welcome from our studio audience with us tonight! Wow, look at that excitement! And here he is, President Carpenter! Yeah!”

“Merry Christmas, Jenna!” Carpenter exclaimed, then, turning to the camera and pointing: “And to you, America, a Merry Fuckin’ Christmas!”

They paused for the cheers to die down, which took a few minutes.

“Mr President, a big Thank You for inviting us to the Oval Office this year!”

(Pause – cheers)

“You’re welcome, Jenna, but I must say, with legs like yours – well, I couldn’t NOT invite you!”

(Pause – cheers – catcalls)

Jameson crossed her legs and Carpenter began drooling.

“Like those, do you, Mr President?”

“Jenna, you have no idea!”

(Pause – cheers – whistling – salacious stripper music heard on background audio)

“Well, Hell, Mr President! Look at that pecker!”

(Pause – cheers – catcalls – rampaging chimpanzees heard in background)

Then Jameson turned serious. “So, Mr President, about world events. It’s not looking too good out there, is it?”

Carpenter looked somber, stern, grandfatherly. “What do you mean, Jenna?”

“Well, look at Australia?”

“Australia? Why would anyone want to look down there?”

“Well, the Chinese annexed Australia today. Some people have said that’s kind of a big deal.”

“Bah, humbug. That was a wonderful deal – just wonderful!”

“Well, renaming Sydney Mao City was seen as a little over the top!”

“Not really. Look, Jenna, the Chinese already own have the real estate down there, so what’s the big fuckin’ deal? That’s the beauty to the free market! Am I right?! Huh? Am I?”

(Pause – loud applause, a few cheers)

“Yes you are, Mr President! So right!”

(Loud applause)

“But,” she continued, “some are saying events in Europe represent a failure of American leadership, and that the post-Cold War Pax Americana is now dead.”

“Dead? Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me? It’s never been healthier! Look, me and Prince Vlad made a deal, see, and things have never been better. You’ll see. Never better!”

(Thunderous applause)

“And Jenna, did I mention I love your shoes? Six inch heels? KA-BOOM!”

(Pause – cheers – whistling – salacious stripper music)

“Really, ladies and gentlemen, look at those fuckin’ shoes! OUTRAGEOUS!”

(Pause – wild applause – whistling – sounds of braking cars and a wreck in the distance)

“Could I lick your toes, Jenna?”

“Maybe after the show, Mr President.”

(Arms crossed, glowering) “Fine, be that way, see if I care.”

(Pause – boos and moans) “Well, maybe just a little lick,” Jameson said, lifting her foot to the desk.

Carpenter begins licking and moaning. “In case you were wondering,” he said during a pause and looking into the camera, “she tastes a little like…pork rinds!”

(Thunderous applause)

“Now, Mr President, on the domestic front, as you know many people, many seniors, are upset about losing their social security and medicare…”

“Listen, Jenna, I’ve about had it with the whiners and complainers. Sick people are parasites, and so are the elderly. They don’t produce a thing, so they’ve got to go! They’re only here to drag the rest of us down, and I’m just not going to allow that to happen any longer!”

(Pause – cheers – thunderous applause, mutters of approval in background)

“But Mr President, even many of the voters in your own party say they never knew something like this would happen?”

“Listen, we’ve got a lot of brainwashed morons out there that vote how we tell ‘em to vote. The issue has always been front and center in all our campaign literature.” Now he turned and faced the camera, his expression turned menacing as he pointed directly into the lens. “But remember this, if you get sick, we have a special plan for dealing with deadbeats like you.”

“Thank You Mr President!”

(Pause – cheers – thunderous applause)

“You’re most welcome, Jenna. Most welcome! So welcome,” he said, standing now, taking a bow.

“Now one final concern tonight, President Carpenter, and that’s these reports about zombies. Zombies appearing everywhere.”

“Zombies? You mean, like…”

“Yessir. Just like in that silly TV show.”

“I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen those reports just yet,” but Jameson thought it odd that Carpenter suddenly seemed to be listening to someone else. TWO someone elses, she soon saw, because he was now – out of the blue – talking with two different voices.

“You can’t listen to these vile lies anymore, Dennis!”

“What lies?”

“But they aren’t lies! He has to, or how else will he know what’s really going on?”

“Going on? What’s going on? Where?”

“Mr President? Are you alright?”

“See, she’s onto us Dennis. Shut up, NOW!”

“Onto us? Who’s onto us?”

“Mr President?”

“It’s alright, Mr President. The truth will set you free!”

“Carol, is that you?”

“Yes, Mr President…”

“Who’s Carol?” Jameson said looking around, because she was sure SHE heard the voices, too. If the president was hearing voices, then she had to, too. Right?

“Carol, I miss you so much. So does Elizabeth.”

“I know you do, Dennis, but I’m here with you…just listen to me, listen to my voice…”

“Dennis, don’t listen to that liberal cunt! Listen to me, listen-to-ME…”

And then the music began to play again, to drown out the voices, because he found music the only thing that helped him cope.

Right by my feet, lay broken glasses

Your Skeleton Boy

“Mr President? Where’s that music coming from?”

Sweat from the walls, drips on my shoulder

Let’s face this night, and see it through

“Mr President?” Jameson asked again. “Why are you dancing?”

Your love is out

Believing despite the loss

Give me your hand

Let’s face this night, and see it through

But the voices suddenly stopped, the music too, and Carpenter sat down behind his desk again.

“Ahem, yes, where were we?”

“Mr President, I hate to say this, but I heard voices just now. Two women, talking to you.”

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes Jenna. Fantastic voices. SO fantastic. You had another question?”

“Yes, Mr President. A difficult question, I know, but there have been rumors circulating recently that you have, well, a black heart…”

“A black heart?”

“Yessir. When you were, well, during that awful incident in Mississippi, you received a donor heart. From a black man…?”

“I did?”

“Yessir. That’s the rumor, anyway.”

“I’ll have to have someone look into that. We have fantastic people here for just this sort of thing. Fantastic people, believe me.”

“Well, see, the thing is, according to the reports we’re getting, well, anyway, whenever your supporters hear that you’ve got a black heart, well sir, they turn into zombies.”

“Seriously? Is this a joke of some sort?”

“Yessir, serious as a heart attack. So, you don’t know anything about this?”

“First I’ve heard of it, Jenna. Really, really great shoes, though.”

“Sir?”

*

“Mr President? Are you hearing those voices again?”

“What voices, Jenna?”

“Those voices,” the reporter said, pulling the earpiece out of her ear. “I can hear them through the speaker in my ear…”

“Now, now, Jenna. It’s alright. We’ve got people here, fantastic people, by the way, who can help you with this little problem…just relax and we’ll take care of you.”

+++++

“Yes, Joe, it’s a great day down here in New Orleans. This year’s Sugar Bowl should be a terrific match-up between two great teams, two perennial power-houses, Notre Dame and Ole Miss.”

“Yes, Bob, and what a story we have this year – what with Ole Miss’s star quarterback, John Dalton, getting injured in that dramatic takedown, the same night President Carpenter was shot.”

“Yes, Bob, and I’m sure it’s an old story by now, one everyone’s been talking about for weeks, but John Dalton’s failed attempt to rescue Officer Mathias Polk led to Carpenter’s own personal rescue.”

“Yes, Joe, and don’t forget, we have word that Mindy Mendenhall, Dalton’s injured fiancé, will apparently be with him on the sidelines this evening.”

“Yes, Bob, and what a terrible tragedy this has been, for all of us…all of us.”

“Yes, Joe, the gunshot to the face, the loss of sight…just terrible, terrible…for all of us.”

“Yes, Bob, terrible, but without Dalton’s bravery, Carpenter might not have gotten his heart transplant…”

(Joe covers his mic, whispers to Bob) “You know we’re not to supposed to mention that stuff anymore!”

(Bob covers his mic, leans over and whispers) “Why not?”

(Joe leans closer still) “Because every time someone mentions the transplant more zombies appear.”

(Bob leans closer still, and falls out of his chair) “Fuck!” (camera pans over audience while hundreds of new zombies stand, staring straight ahead now, drool running from vast fangs)

“Yes, well said, Bob! And remember folks, tonight’s pre-game show has been brought to you by K*Y Personal Lubricants. Remember, use K*Y when you’ve absolutely, positively got to get it in the first time – every time!”

+++++

“Joe? Joe? This is Jenna Jameson, down on the sidelines with John Dalton. Can you hear me, Joe?”

“Yes, Jenna. How are you?”

“Why Joe, how nice of you to ask!”

“Yes, Jenna, well, I think a lot of inquiring people wanted to know how things went after the interview with President Carpenter. You’ve remained remarkably silent about that?”

“Yes, Joe, I have.”

“Yes, Jenna, well, is there any truth to the rumor that the president’s penis is over a foot long now, and black?”

“Yes, Joe, as you can see, I’ve got John Dalton down here with me now.”

“Yes, Jenna, thanks for confirming that!”

“Yes, Joe, you’re welcome. Now, here’s Ole Miss’s star quarterback, John Dalton. John, we understand your entire right shoulder had to be rebuilt. How have you recovered so quickly?”

“Just got to work, Jenna, because that’s what you’ve got to do when the chips are down. But Mindy’s the real hero, you know, the real deal.”

“Yes, John? This is Joe, up here in the booth.”

“Yes, Joe?”

“Yes, John. Look, I was a quarterback in the NFL for ever a decade, and if I’d been forced to change arms like you have, throwing right-handed all my life then having to switch to my left, I, well, I couldn’t have done it. To what do you owe this success?”

“Yes, Joe, I was a big fan of yours?”

“Yes, John, thanks for that! Say, what do you make of all these rumors? About President Carpenter’s cock?”

“Yes, Joe, you know, he visited us in the locker room an hour ago…”

“Yes, John, you mean – the President’s here?”

“Yes, Joe, he sure is. And he took a leak while he was talking to some of us, and I’d have to say his pecker is about two feet long now, and as black as a cottonmouth’s ass.”

“Yes, uh – no shit?”

“Yes, Joe, that’s a big no shit, right back atya.”

“Joe, Jenna here…and I think Carpenter is up in the stands, and yes, he’s working the crowd. Yes Joe, there he is, coming down the aisle, heading right for us…”

“Yes, Jenna, and it looks like The Presidential Podium is being wheeled out to mid-field, right on the fifty yard line, so we may have some opening comments from The Man Himself before the coin toss.”

“Yes, Joe, that’s exactly what it looks like.”

“Yes, uh, well, something’s not right.”

“Yes, Jenna? What is it…what do you see?”

“Yes, Joe, well, uh, yes, well, let’s see. How do I put this? Well, uh, he’s, uh, well, it’s Carpenter alright, but, well – he’s – black.”

“Yes, Jenna, it kind of looks like that from up here too. That’s, uh, well, kind of – incredible.”

“Yes, Hey Joe, it sure is incredible.

“Yes, Jenna, any idea who that is with him?”

“Yes, Joe, none at all…wait! Well, Hey, Joe, I think it’s Mindy Mendenhall and, well, yes, I don’t know who the other woman is.”

“Joe? Jenna? John Dalton here…that’s LiddyMay Polk! Officer Mathias Polk’s mother!”

“Uh, yes John? Who’s Mathias Polk?”

“Yes, Joe, Jenna here, that’s the police officer who was killed the night President Carpenter was s-s-shot. It’s P-P-Polk’s heart beating away in C-C-Carpenter’s c-c-chest…”

“Yes, Jenna…uh…are you alright?”

+++++

“I’m not so sure about this, Dennis…” Carol Templeton whispered.

“Don’t listen to her, you putz!” Lady Imogen cried. “We must declare, tonight, before all is lost!”

“Are you crazy? Haven’t you seen what’s happening to him?”

“No? What’s happening to him?”

“He’s turning – BLACK – you moron!”

“Black? What do you mean, black?”

“I mean it’s not just his two foot long pecker anymore, you bitch! His skin’s turning black!”

“Black? You mean…like a…?”

“YES!”

“Oh, shit.”

“No kidding, oh shit! When the zombies see this, they’re gonna go bat-shit crazy!”

“There’s gonna be real trouble tonight,” Imogen sighed thoughtfully. “But, Dennis, I still think we’ll get good coverage from the networks.”

+++++

Carpenter stood on the hastily erected stage – in front of the podium – flanked by Mindy Mendenhall and John Dalton on one side, and GiddyMay Polk on the other. His arms were stretched wide, an inclusive gesture of the warmth he felt in his heart for the crowd assembled around him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen! My Fellow Americans!” he bellowed into the microphone. “What a great night to be alive!”

He paused, expecting yet another thunderous reaction from his rapt audience, but all he heard now was a sprinkling of polite applause.

“Ahem,” he coughed, “well, yes, I’d like to introduce you to some fine Americans tonight…fine Americans. Of course, you all know John Dalton, Ole Miss’s star quarterback and the hero who almost saved Officer Mathias Polk. The miraculous recovery of his right arm is now the stuff of legend, but the real story here tonight is his love. His towering, pure love of Mindy Mendenhall, now blind, now totally disfigured –” and he turned to John and Mindy as spotlights shone on them, and the crowd did react now. There were more pockets of applause, some cheering, but nothing like he’d expected.

+++++

“There’s something amiss here,” Carol Templeton said to Lady MacBeth, er, Imogen.

“I see it too. Something deep in the land stirs… ”

“We must take great care if we are to survive this night…”

+++++

“And I’d like to introduce GiddyMay Polk to you tonight, who’s become like a mother to me over the past few weeks…”

And there fell a deafening silence over the crowd in the coliseum, and even the gladiators assembled on the sidelines turned and looked at the stoney reaction, for just then the zombies stood – in unison – and there arose a deep rumble from deep within their bowels.

+++++

“Uh, yes Jenna, can you make out what those zombies down there, the ones near the 50 yard line, are saying?”

“Yes, Joe, let me get c-c-closer…I c-c-can’t quite make it out from where I’m s-s-standing.”

The cameraman followed Jameson towards the sidelines, and she held her mic up to the crowd while the cameraman filmed their faces. He saw that one by one, people were turning into zombies, standing as they mutated and joined their fellow zombie mutants, their skin turning blazing white, their eyes vengeful red, and he looked on with a growing sense of alarm as fangs sprouted from their mouths. Huge, venomous fangs, dripping with fury – red, white and blue fury – then the cameraman focused on the thousands of zombies on the top deck, hundreds of feet above the coliseum floor. They were pushing forward, pushing towards the edge of the stands, and he gasped as zombies piled into each other, then started falling, tumbling onto the zombies standing below. There was a growing mood that things were changing, changing for the worse, but then the fallen zombies stood and straightened out their crushed and broken bones, and started shuffling towards the sidelines again…

“Yes, Jenna, any word on what’s going on down there? Can you make out what they’re saying yet?”

“Yes, J-J-Joe, it s-s-sounds like ‘A-A-America, l-l-love it or l-l-leave i-i-it…!”

And the cameraman turned his camera on Jenna Jameson as she stuttered to a halt, and he zoomed in on her face as her skin turned blazing white, as her eyes turned vengeful red, and as dripping fangs sprouted from her foaming mouth. Huge gray circles formed under her eyes, and her lips turned gray as well, then blood started running from her ears as she turned and started shuffling towards the voice coming from the middle of the field…

+++++

And Carpenter stood before the shuffling hordes, talking about the need for inclusiveness, telling the stumbling zombies that what the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…

“Tell them, Dennis! Tell them while you still can!” Lady Imogen cried.

“Tell them what?” Carpenter said, clearly confused.

“No Dennis, you can’t! Don’t do it!” Carol Templeton said.

“What! It was you! You set this up, didn’t you? You fucking liberal whore! Dennis! Tell them now, before it’s too late!”

“So, well y’all,” Carpenter said, turning away from the voices in his head, “the purpose of my little speech tonight is to tell you that I’ve appointed myself King. King of America. Congress is gone, the courts, too. Because, here’s the thing…democracy is a load of horse-shit, and you all know it. You know it, because you take it for granted. You take it for granted because you’re two young to remember a time when democracy was a fragile thing, considered weak by totalitarian regimes around the world, and too weak to stand up to…

And the first human wave hit the stage, causing it to shake, then buckle under the onrushing load.

+++++

“Yes, Jenna? Jenna, can you hear me?”

– * –

“Yes…Jenna?”

– * –

“Yes, Bob, Joe here, down in the stands, and it sounds like Carpenter is starting to sing.”

“Yes, Joe, I think you’re correct. He’s singing…whoops…looks like he’s dancing now, too!”

“Yes, Bob, I think he’s dancing! Wasn’t that a Stevie Wonder song? The one he’s singing?”

“Yes, Joe, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m white, so how the hell would I know?”

+++++

He’s a man 

With a plan 

Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand 

He’s Misstra Know-It-All 

“Yes, Bob, I noticed that, but look, I think there’s some kind of disturbance down there…the stage seems to have, well, disappeared.”

“Yes, Joe, and m-m-my, but that c-c-crowd really s-s-seems to be getting into the f-f-festivities!”

+++++

Carpenter looked into the heart of this surging tide of zombies, but all he saw now were snapping teeth and foaming mouths…

“I think we’d better get out of here,” Lady Imogen said, her voice coming now like the moaning of a winter’s wind.

“I think it’s too late for that now,” Carol Templeton said, laughing.

“Oh, ouch, ooh, ahh, no – right there, a little bit to the left,” President Carpenter said as a zombie began gnawing on his right leg, “but still, that kind of hurts.” Zombies were piling into him now, snapping away, devouring their creation, pulling him limb from limb, ripping him to shreds as chants of ‘love it or leave it…’ washed over the coliseum.

And GiddyMay Polk shook her head and walked over to Carpenter when it was all over, and she picked up her boy’s heart and cradled it to her breast once again. “I told you love was comin’, Mattie, didn’t I? You got to have faith, that’s all, ‘cause sometimes love is the most powerful thing in the world, even if most people forget that.”

Coda

Elizabeth Templeton sat behind the desk in the Oval Office, looking at the paintings arrayed around the walls in the room, then she walked out into the main part of the building and looked at the portrait of John Kennedy for a long time, then she walked down and looked at another portrait, this one of Franklin Roosevelt, and she wondered what those men would think of what had happened in this building over the past few years…

The dispossessed had finally given up on the whole “hope” thing, hadn’t they? So they decided to burn the whole thing to the ground. Then she noticed a soldier behind her, following her, watching her.

“It’s funny what people will do when they lose hope, lose their faith in things,” the soldier said.

“Did you know this man?”

“Roosevelt? No, I’m old, but not quite that old.”

“He has kind eyes. I wonder if he was…kind?”

“I don’t know, but from all I’ve read about him over the years, he was at the very least a wise man, wise enough to surround himself with people who always had the best interests of the working man in mind. So, yes, I’d say he was a kind man, at heart.”

“What about him?” she said, pointing at Kennedy.

“He wasn’t so lucky,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said.

“Why?”

“He surrounded himself with smart people, but in the end many of them betrayed him. There are some that say the United States of America died the day he was killed, but America is an idea, and it’s very hard to kill an idea.”

“President Carpenter? Do you think he killed the idea?”

“Him? No way. He was a circus clown, someone the owners of the circus sent in to distract the crowds while costumes were being changed.”

“Huh?”

“Oh, never you mind – it’s not important. But you know what is important?”

“What?”

“Well, President Carpenter declared himself King, and he’s gone now, so guess what?”

“What?”

“You’re the Queen now.”

“The Queen? What’s that?”

“Well, it means you’re in charge now.”

“In charge of what?”

“Everything.”

“Oh. It’s past my bedtime now, but if I’m in charge, does that mean me and you could go to the kitchen and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?”

“Grape or strawberry?”

“Huh?”

“What kind of jelly? Grape or strawberry?”

“Grape is yucky.”

“Good,” The General said as he nodded his head, then he held out his hand. “You know what? I think you and I are going to get along just fine. Real good, as a matter of fact.”

And when she took his hand he swung her up and carried her against his chest, and they walked off together, towards the kitchen – while he whistled the last refrains of a song he used to love when he was younger, and perhaps more impressionable: Singin’ in the Rain.

She put her arms around the general’s neck – and smiled.

(C) 2014-16 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

This is, of course, fiction, and nothing but. Several pieces of music are referenced, quoted under ‘fair use’; they are, in order of use: 1) “Baba O’Riley” (1971) P Townsend; 2) “Communication Breakdown” (1969) Bonham, Plant, Jones, Page; 3) “Purple Haze” (1967) J Hendrix; 4) “Singin’ In the Rain” (1929) Freed, Brown; 5) “In a gadda da vida” (1968) D Ingle; 6) “Skeleton Boy” (2008) MacFarlane, Gibson; 7) “He’s Misstra Know It All” (1973) S Wonder.