MEMORIES OF A TEXAS PRISON FARM BY JOHN X

DON'T STICK OUT!

Almost all prisons have an “orientation” period, usually a couple of weeks, to prepare a new inmate for what is to come when they enter the prison population.  In federal prisons, they will tell you that you will have to fight.  In the state prison farms, the emphasis is more on total brutal submission of the inmate.  That’s the heads up.

In the Texas prison system, the rank of captain carries a lot of power.  They are important.  One gave a class for new inmates during their orientation period.  I found it quite revealing.

He began by saying, 

“‘They’ really don’t care if you are robbing and stealing on the streets.  They really don’t.  They would much rather, of course, that you go do your stealing in Oklahoma or Louisiana.  So just go ahead with your robbing and stealing.  But if you stick out and become known to them they will get you.  That’s their job.  And you will be here.  No hard feelings.  Just the nature of the game.”

Having spent four and a half years in some tough federal prisons, I was considered to be a hardened con.  I was sent to the ‘Big Ham’.  The Eastham Unit.  The wagons carrying us to the fields would pass by the old unit where we could still see the .45 slug holes in the walls sprayed by Tommy guns during the famous Bonnie and Clyde prison break.

There were several two floor cell-block rows within a large building.  Each had a TV room on the lower floor by the entrance.  The blocks were ruled by inmate guards.  Each cell-block had a reputation determined by the inmate guards in control.  I was sent to K-8, the cellblock with the worst, most violent reputation.  

When I walked in I met the two inmate guards.  I knew one of them.  Donny.  As a kid, he had grown up as a member of a violent street gang. He slid easily from there into a criminal lifestyle.  He made his living hustling in the East Dallas pool halls.  He was dangerous.  He had several murders as his claim to fame.  In 1967 I gave him some LSD in Houston.  We sat and listened to news coverage of a riot at a local black university.  The first policeman through the door received a bullet between the eyes.  I remember hoping this bad assed killer had a good trip.  He has loved me for it ever since.

I went to my cell on the second floor.  The cells were open and Bobby was sitting on a bunk.  I had never met Bobby before, but he was famous in my crowd.  He had been stopped with a VW van packed full of pot by a state trooper.  He left the trooper handcuffed to a telephone pole and drove off.  Years later an Austin policeman pulled a gun on him in a parole revocation case.  He took the gun away from the policeman, handcuffed him to a pole, and rode off on his motorcycle.

He said the latter incident was so traumatic he shit his britches.

He was just a scrawny Louisiana coon-ass kid, but whatever you do, don’t put a gun in his face.  He became my exercise workout partner.  Every night we would each do two hundred pushups in sets of fifty to keep the muscle tone required for the field work.

He was a founding father of the Bandidos motorcycle gang.  These were not ‘bad’ guys.  They were a group of motorcycle racers who learned of peyote long before the heyday of hippies and their LSD.  They weren’t bad.  They were just crazy.

Donny seemed to have aged.  The youthful enthusiasm of his pool hustling days had been replaced by a solemn gauntness.  We filled in the gaps of our experiences since last seeing each other.

He had studied how one of the local supermarket chains, handled their deposits and had learned of a certain hour when the safe was open.  He would just show up in the checkout line in his trench coat, expose his sawed off double barrel shotgun to the teller, and take the cash from the safe.  It had worked so well for him he had a shoe box stuffed with over forty grand in his closet.

A kid friend of his who visited him often kept asking,

“Let me  go on the next job, I’ll drive.”  

Donny was hesitant at first but finally relented.  Donny was inside pulling the robbery while the kid sat outside waiting in the car.  The robbery could be seen through the large plate glass windows of the store.  At that very moment the grandfather of the teller pulled up outside to give his grandson a ride home and saw the robbery taking place.  He immediately went to give help and met Donny as he opened the door to leave.  Donny shot him in surprise.

The kid took off in the getaway car, leaving Donny alone on the sidewalk.  He saw an open field across the street but was cut off by a squad car which had just come around the corner.  Donny fired both barrels of buckshot.  It terribly injured one cop but no one died.

By that time more cops were arriving and Donny was chased down as he tried to make it across the field.  As they held him on the ground, beating him with their rifle butts, an officer walked up with his pump shotgun.  He was judge, jury, and executioner.  He pumped the shotgun to throw a shell in the chamber.  It was a moonlit night, and Donny saw the shotgun shell jam.  It had flipped sideways and was sticking out, its brass cap reflecting the moonlight.

He got two forty year sentences.  That is equivalent to a life sentence.  One does the same amount of time.  He was studying Zen.  The image of that shotgun shell jammed and frozen in the moonlight had given him something to contemplate. 

 

At the time, Zen was my favorite religion so we had lots to talk about. This  was the most violent and feared prison guard in Eastham.  

The first day out on the farm, I felt I had stepped through some time portal into the 1800’s. I found myself in a plantation worked by slaves.  And I was one of the slaves.  The guards were all on horses, complete with heavy leather chaps, jingling spurs, and a pistol at their side.  They were real movie cowboys underneath their Texas Stetson hats.

Each squad assembled at a tool shed, where they grabbed their aggie, a large heavy hoe, and hurried to their wagon.  If someone tried to get your aggie you had to fight.  Then a large tractor pulled the train of wagons full of inmates to the fields.   A short distance off the road, we could see the water wagon.  It looked like the old chuck wagons in the cowboy movies.

Once in the fields I realized how vast a farm this was.  Standing at the beginning of a row you could not see the end of the row.  It disappeared over the horizon.  Each squad had its own guard.  Field bosses, we called them.  A scan of the horizon showed the dog boys with their hounds.  Harder to see but still there were the high-riders on their horses.  They were good old boy East Texas deer hunters with their 30-30 Winchesters.  Anyone trying to break and run would be an easy shot for these marksmen.

Few inmates ever considered escape.

Usually one would see the Captain in the distance.  He might drift over to speak with the dog boys, or just ride haughtily in his saddle as he oversaw the overall field operation.  He was the king.  He was brutal.  He was sadistic.  He was to be avoided.

Once I saw a captain on his horse walking a young black man in front of him.  This was a big strong youth, but tears were flowing down his cheeks.  

“Where are they going?” I asked a friend.

“The Captain is going to put the dogs on him.”

I guess I would have been crying too.  

Captains were known for being sadistic.  All inmates feared them.  One well known story told of a Captain who pulled up to a four way stop sign in the middle of nowhere and had his head blown off by a released inmate who did not forget……… nor forgive.

I would assume that most of my readers have seen the movie Papillon.  If not, there is a scene in which the inmates are hauling logs out of a swamp, ass deep in crocodile infested waters.  In Texas we did not have the crocodiles, but we did have the cotton-mouth water moccasin.  

One day, I found myself standing ass deep in mucky water staring at a huge log.  Thirty inmates were lined up down both sides of the log, tightly scrunched in elbow to elbow, fifteen to a side.  We reached into the mud and grabbed the log best we could.  Then on count we all yanked.  The log chuckled.  It didn’t budge.

Someone whispered, 

“The Captain.  Here comes the Captain!”

Knowing the rule of not sticking out, the number one person you don’t want to stick out to is the captain.  We stuck our hands once again into the mud, grabbed, and yanked.  Then we realized that this huge heavy mud slimed log was above our heads. It could break legs or crack skulls if it slipped out of our grip.  We had to walk it up out of the ditch and carry it to the large burn pile.  And toss it. Don’t speak to me about limits.  

I guess one could say that there is something aesthetically pleasing about seeing thirty men all dressed in white lined up in a straight line, working their tools in unison.  Some straggler falling behind or stepping out of line blows the beauty of it, no?  The fields we were working were in river bottom land, and there were many critters who did not care for our sense of beauty, however.  There were many skunks.  There were many snakes.

I remember one day when we were flat-lining a field of waist high grass.  Flat-lining is when the squad hoes down the high grass leaving only a field of stubble behind.  

“Skunk, Boss.  Skunk!” an inmate shouted.

The boss leaned back in his saddle and grinned.

“Skunk, Boss!  Skunk!”  Then a shout, “Ahhh, the son of a bitch sprayed me!”

The boss laughed.

The bosses weren’t totally cruel.  If you found a water moccasin wound about your legs you could jump out of line and not be considered as sticking out. But the bosses still considered that sport and laughed.

One day I stuck out.  Being new to this type of work I had not yet learned the secrets of how to work a hoe.  I began to drop behind.  Suddenly, I found one of the squad leaders in my face giving me a severe tongue lashing.  He helped me catch up, however.

When we had our next water break I went to speak with him.  I told him I saw where he was coming from, but all this verbal abuse shit has to stop.  He was friendly in his response, and I felt we had everything back on track. Until we returned to the unit that evening from work.  Donny was waiting for the squad leader who had dared to give me a hard time.  It got pretty ugly. No one ever gave me any trouble in the fields again, but I was left with a strange feeling to have been cast with the prison guards.  That was a social circle quite apart from the general population.

Years later after I was released, I noticed just how pervasive the “don’t stick out” rule was in the underworld.  A good example would be the kid Billy, who lives on the corner in a nice suburban residential area and sells five hundred pounds of pot per week.  The police know he is doing it.  They do nothing.  Money is being made up and down the line on his enterprise, so it is good for everyone.

Unless, that is, for some reason the granny lady across the street calls in to report a disturbance or maybe too much traffic in the wee hours of night.  Or maybe he was involved in a bad drug deal or ripped someone off.  If he breaks the golden rule and suddenly sticks out the police come and grab him.  They don’t want anyone rocking the boat of such a lucrative business.

I hear the words of that captain to this day.  The police are not who we think they are.  They could really care less about your moral or ethical character.  Go ahead and rob and steal.  They could give a crap less.

Just don’t stick out.     

 

A LESSON FROM THE PAST FOR THOSE WANTING REGIME CHANGE IN THE US

A memory of 1968 by John X

People’s Park

Few people today realize the significance of the drama that played out on the streets of Berkeley during the tumultuous days of the late sixties.  The nation was locked into a cultural war that threatened the very foundations of the democracy.  Our leaders, from the president on down, were caught in brazen lies that were feeding our youth into the war machine that emerged supreme after the assassinations of the early sixties.  They were caught in their lies and were obviously guilty of serious crimes against humanity.  They were scared of judgment.  Rightly so, I must add.

Berkeley was a center of opposition to the status quo of American politics.  It was the home of the prestigious University of California.  It was a community of highly intelligent youth with a yearning for truth, honesty, and fairness, values held in ideal to the youth of that day.  We did win WW2 because we were the good guys, right?  

In particular was a certain segment of Berkeley known as the “south campus” area, a community of “long hairs”, pot smokers, LSD enthusiasts, and radical left wingers.

The US at that time had a long history of dealing with what leaders considered to be problematic communities, the Tulsa massacre being the most terrible example.  The leaders of the country had at their disposable many tools to wage what can only be called a war against any community that they felt to be a threat.  A good example would be the fate of a once very vibrant black community in Baton Rouge.  Its clean wide tree lined boulevards lined with small shops and businesses gave a sense of pride and accomplishment to its residents.  A strong sense of community had developed, and this frightened the status quo.  So what to do?  Destroy the community, of course.  Today that part of Baton Rouge is home to a very ugly freeway system that ripped the heart out of the area.  And killed the once vibrant black community.

Get the point?

Berkeley during the sixties was an even greater threat to the powers that be than any racially defined community.  It was a community that valued truth and did not fear voicing its opinions.  We still were the good guys, right?  The battle began to brew when the local police department started sending its officers into the center of the south campus area in what at first seemed to be solely an effort to harass its citizens.  A simple jaywalking offense could get one a trip to jail along with all accompanying legal costs.  People were getting arrested and sent to jail for violating laws that did not exist.  It was getting to be untenable for the residents.

There was, however, just down the street a highly recognized law department in the University of California.  There was a large body of highly trained future lawyers with a conscience readily available to join in the fray.  Many joined.

These law students had already uncovered the real reason for the harassment.  The mechanics of govt. at that time allowed for the local governments to step in and dismantle a community that had been proven to be a high crime area through what was called “urban renewal”.  It was all legit, and accepted by the nation as a whole as a good thing.  Who qualified for this “cleansing” better than this motley scraggly long haired bunch of drug addicts?  

All these arrests being made on the streets ended up in huge stacks of papers on the desks of the local officials.  In a short time they would have more than an adequate paper trail to pull the lever and make this community of misfits disappear.

One can imagine the shock the police department had when suddenly hordes of law students hit the streets monitoring and recording all police actions with the citizens.  These were law students who were taking notes of the police actions.  They carried their clipboards.  They understood questions of legality.  They shined a bright light on the misconduct of the police.  They documented.  Those huge stacks of papers on the desks of the local officials turned into smoldering embers of futility.  Truth remained supreme, at least on the streets of Berkeley.  At least for awhile.  

Momentum can be a terrible thing, however.  The people felt a momentary sense of relief thanks to the efforts of the law students.  The city council was able to bludgeon through its request for urban renewal, however.   They pulled out and dusted off a law giving the university right of dominion over a ten square mile area surrounding the campus if they could show that the university actually needed the land.

The media jumped into the fray.  Suddenly the airwaves were cluttered with stories of the university’s dormitories being seriously overcrowded.  The people on the street laughed.  No one wanted to live in the dormitories.  In fact they were running about twenty five percent occupancy.   So what’s with this lie about dormitories being overcrowded?  But the story filled the evening airwaves.

It turned out to be the establishment’s ace in the hole.  It could not be defended against.  The lie had been absorbed into the minds of the public and there was no resistance.  Soon a large four square block of beautiful old classical homes fell to the onslaught of bulldozers.  They left a horrible scar.  There were piles of dirt and trash, and during rains they became large mud puddles. The university obviously did not need the land for any real purpose, especially the construction of university dormitories, so the land just sat there in all its ugliness.

The local residents knew that the demolished lots would just sit there as a constant eye-sore reminder of how the establishment thought of them.  They decided to turn lemons into lemonade.  Volunteers turned out in droves to landscape the barren lots and create a beautiful park for children to play in.  Soon there were trees, flowers, park benches, plus swings and see-saws for the children.  It gave a strong sense of pride to the community at large.  

Enter stage left Ronald Reagan.  Ronnie was a B-grade movie cowboy who always resented playing second fiddle to John Wayne.  He now saw his chance to show the world who was the real tough guy.  He would squash these motley long hairs under the steel boot of authoritarianism.

Much of what the US is currently struggling with in regards to our police forces originated with Reagan.  He formed militias of sheriff’s departments and outfitted them with the most modern of riot control arms.  Swat teams and armored personnel carriers became an accepted form of policing.  The sheriff’s departments became private armies for the establishment.

In the wee hours of the morning Reagan’s private militia surrounded the People’s Park and threw up a constantino wire fence around the property.   It was guarded by sheriff’s officers in full riot gear ready for action.

The citizens recognized the blatant “fuck you” in the actions of the police and decided to hold a protest rally on the university campus.  This attracted a huge crowd which spilled out onto the streets in a protest march.

That was when the fun began.  Helicopters appeared in the sky and began to spray a nausea gas developed for use in Viet Nam.  This had little effect on the crowds below but it did manage to gas a kindergarten school and a hospital ward.  All this was, of course, in the evening news.

Officially the number of deaths from the onslaught of armed police on the crowd stands at two, but the degree of violence went far beyond that.  I remember seeing an evening news blip of a long hair tripping happily along several blocks from the melee stopping at a street corner, looking towards the camera in astonishment, then turning to run before being felled by gunshots.  

There was much violence and bloodshed on the streets of Berkeley that day.  Reagan was happy to have made his point.

During those hectic days there were many incidents of this new form of policing occurring on the streets.  Once a several block area was surrounded by armed police and everyone in the perimeter forced to lie on the ground as they were arrested and hauled off to fenced camps.  A grandma on her way to a doctor’s appointment would find herself frantically trying to find a lawyer that would free her.  She would also be wondering how she could pay for these unexpected and unjust legal fees.  

Such were the glory days of Ronald Reagan.  He surfed the turmoil all the way to the white house.

The point of this short little story is to point out that many of the problems we are presently experiencing with police today were created by Reagan long ago.

All this leaves some thunderous questions in my mind.  Just who do these militias work for?  Who gives them their orders?  

        



JOHN X WROTE THIS-

Adam’s Lament

Come, let us look for this truth called Love.

Let us walk beside the freeways and sit quietly

Beneath the roaring jets and towering buildings.

Our minds playing childlike among the concrete and steel railings,

Spinning, wheeling, rubber squealing

Through smog clogged avenues of dead trees and neon desire.

Come, let us sit quietly and try to remember

The taste of the apple.

 

From A Daughter of Liberty

The Attack of the Murder Hornet

Johnny was a prodigy. Since his earliest years, he was intrigued by electronic gadgets.  As a baby, he destroyed several cell phones, chewing them.  His father joked about that being how Johnny acquired a taste for electronics.

He was thirteen now.  In the basement of their large home in DC was his own special room.  It looked more like a TV repair shop than a normal teenager’s hideout.  One wall was lined with a work table littered with spools of wire, several oscilloscopes, soldering materials and irons, a desktop computer, a couple of laptops, and bins of electronic parts. His family was wealthy.

A small table on the opposite wall contained a large glass terrarium, filled with soil and crawling with ants.  Alongside was another. It housed a miniture landscape, a sandy floor, a small pool of water and tiny tropical plants with leafy branching limbs. A small golden frog clung to a branch. Through the glass it watched intently as the ants scurried about. 

Johnny enjoyed dipping a stick into a jar of honey on the table, loading it with ants and dropping it into the frog’s box.  The ants ran around in desperation, but the frog was always hungry.  Escape was impossible.

Through a powerful magnifying lens, Johnny gazed intently at a nanosized glass tube. It was clasped firmly by a spring loaded clamp, mounted on a swivel bracket.  He had inserted a mini solenoid pump into the tube, sealing it with a dab of silicone.  He was reaching for his soldering iron when his cell phone rang.

Excited he asked, “Did you get it?  How soon can you bring it?”

It was Jill, his girlfriend, his lover.  She lived in Alexandria, just across the Potomac.  She could be there in an hour or less.  “Has your dad missed it?” he asked.  

“Too right! The minute he came home.  Kinda freaked out some. I told him  I was playing with it and the cat ate it.  Ohhh, he was pissed.  He went running to a vet to see if he could get some laxative for the cat. I guess he’ll spend the night poking through cat litter trying to find it. I might be in deep trouble.  But I have it. See you in a little.”

“Hurry up then.  See you.”  He finished soldering the small connection to the solenoid, fitting a small hollow needle into the other end of the glass tube. Completing that, he smiled to see it worked. 

Getting up, he walked over to a shelf on the wall. It held a beautifully engraved stone urn.  He ran his fingers over the lettering spelling his father’s name. It contained his ashes.

He mused, “Just one person from China, huh?”  His father died from corona-virus.  Everyone thought he contracted it from working in the White House. 

There was a tap on the door. He hurried to open it. Jill stepped in holding a small box in her hand.  He kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek, grabbing the box. 

 “Your mother let me in,” she said.  “She isn’t looking very well, but I guess I know why.” She sat in a chair, quizzically gazing at Johnny. Rushing over to his work table, he opened the box, dumping the contents on the bench.  He swung an overhead spot lamp over it looking through his lens.

What lay on the table appeared to be a large bee about two inches long.  

Jill’s father worked with DARPA. This was the project he had been working on for several years.  He had been so happy to finally have a successful working model.  Against all regulations, he brought it home to show his kids. He felt they’d enjoy seeing the great little toy daddy had made, a small drone.

Johnny studied it for a while. He picked up the miniture syringe, seeking a suitable insertion site. “Yeah, if I can just remove this top plate on the back, I think I can fit it in here on the tail.  The bee’s head is full of video camera, so that area isn’t available.  Shouldn’t be a problem though.  I think a dab of yellow paint on the head and a couple of black dots for the eyes will do the trick.  I want it to look real.”

“I still don’t see what you want this thing for.” Jill said.  She got up and walked over to the glass box holding the frog and tapped on the glass.  The frog just climbed up on a branch glaring at her.  “Have you fed your little baby here?  He looks hungry?”

“He’s always hungry,” Johnny replied.  “Hope you have some time.  I want you to help me with little froggy.”

“I don’t want to touch the little bastard!”  Jill retorted.

“You won’t have to touch him. I will. I just want you to help me with something.”

He walked over to the table holding the frog and the ants. He opened a small drawer beneath the table.  He pitched two pairs of surgical gloves onto the table, got out a small glass vial and opened it. Reaching in, he brought out a small flat metal scraper placing it beside the vial.

Jill joined him asking, “Where did you learn all this stuff?”

“I know a lot about a lot of things, Like how to find the prettiest girlfriend in the world for example.”  He patted her on the butt, making her smile.

“Put those gloves on.”

He extracted a short stick and a roll of black electrical tape. Reaching into the terarrium with gloved hands, he grasped the unsuspecting frog. He spread its legs by taping a hind foot to either end of the stick.  It took both hands to hold it steady, stretching it out. A milky substance exuded from its back.

“Now, take that metal scraper there. Scrape off some of that milky stuff.  Wipe if off on the inside edge of the glass vial.  Be careful!  You don’t want to get it on you.”

Several days later came the news he was waiting for. The President was flying out on Marine One. He would be giving another of his chopper interviews. Perfect!

The evening news that day was wild, to say the least.  It was all caught on camera.  “On stepping out of Marine One, the President was attacked and stung by a large yellow headed hornet. Wittnesses say it must have been one of those new ‘murder hornets’ from Asia.”  The right wing media immediately began blaming China.   

The President's face was a mask of panic. He swung madly at it for a moment. He tried to turn and run.  He screamed frantically waving his arms. He was too fat and slow. The hornet stung him in the ass. The sound of the chopper gave it all a rhythm, like a drum beat to the mad man’s dance.  

Several cameramen tried to get close-ups of the hornet, but it zig-zagged off into distance.  Dark-suited secret servicemen pulled their guns, looking around for someone to shoot.The President moaned, collapsing on the manicured grass. 

The scene, tragic as it was, made the whole world laugh. They laughed even more later.

The VP resigned in fear. Nancy Pelosi became president. Justice Ginsburg sighed in relief and died with a smile on her face.

 

Albert. A. Correia

Albert A. Correa is a former US journalist. Now living in Costa Rica, he has published several books and written many short stories.

Enjoy!

 

PROMPT: Cupid has been out drinking with Dionysus the night before Valentine's Day. Aphrodite tells him he went on a arrow shooting frenzy and paired a few people who shouldn't be together. The assignment is for Cupid to undo the connections. Or, he could make the mistake of uncoupling people he managed to make a right connection with and now has to go back and undo that.

THE RESTORATION OF TRANQUILITY,

It was a violin playing minstrel (many believe it was Paganini himself) who was responsible for restoring harmony to Tranquility, a village nestled within the highest peaks of the distant, ancient Alps. Oh, it was Cupid who did the actual restoring, of course. No one else could have. But he was in no condition to even see the problem on his own. And, as you shall see, it was he who promulgated it in the first place.

As was his custom, the minstrel made his way to Tranquility in the early morning of February 14, in the year 1812, A. D. The citizens of Tranquility were the most content on earth, and no others could be more appreciative of the sweet strains of his music on that day of love than they. They were that way on all days, for the deceits of the modern world had not yet reached that lovely village, so high and so far away from the turmoil that infests large civilizations. However, Valentine’s Day held a special significance for a people steeped in love. It was the perfect place for him to perfect his compositions. He quietly tuned his violin before rounding the last hill before the village came into view. He would not let one note be out of tune on this tranquil day of peace. Not here, not in this bastion of unparalleled serenity.

“Get out of this house, and never come back|” the minstrel heard a woman scream as he reached the first house at the outskirts of the village. The door of the abode flew open and a frightened man escaped through it, a flying frying pan conking him upon the head knocking him down as he tried to flee.

Thrusting his violin close to his chest and turning away from the fracas to shield it from being damaged should any other objects be thrown, the minstrel stopped abruptly, shocked. He’d never heard a single ill word uttered in this village before. This could not be happening. Yet it was, right before his eyes.

“You ugly witch,” the man with a lump on his head retorted, fist raised, once he’d managed to get back on his feet, “you’ll be lucky if I don’t burn the place down with you in it.” He stormed off toward town. The shaken minstrel trailed behind him . . . at a safe distance.

The violinist walked along, his eyes shifting from side to side and his violin was now hanging uselessly at his side. He heard disputes erupting in every house had to avoid several fistfights that had spilled out onto the street. There were already two men and a woman sprawled unconscious on the street.

A growling dog chased a shrieking cat down the street and over a fence. Coming over the fence in the opposite direction, a cat chased a dog.

Two windows were broken out as he passed and the confused minstrel had to avoid falling glass while at the same time dodging thrown eggs. Children threw balls and rocks at one another, using language they most likely, he hoped, didn’t know the meaning of.

The village’s lone police officer's single duty had previously been to make sure pigeons didn’t get into the food that was left out nightly for anyone who had stayed longer at what they had been doing than anticipated. This day, he was chasing a man down the street. “Stop, ah, in the name of the law,” yelled the cop. The minstrel could tell the cop had to reach into his memory to come up with the words to use in that situation. He'd probably never had to use them before.

“Law?” the fleeing man called back. “I spit on the law!”

The minstrel recognized the man as the court clerk. He hurried, as best he could in such a situation, to the village square, dodging around squabbling men and women, keeping low to avoid flying objects. The square is where he usually performed, always in the past to applause and words of encouragement. Today he found it to be in an uproar. Flower vendors pushed and shoved to get in position to sell their flowers . . . although there was not a buyer in sight on this stressful day.

“What, pray tell, is happening here,” the minstrel asked a man who was standing aside, uninvolved in the melee. The fellow wore a neat, dark suit, and stood quietly, watching the free-for-alls that were spreading throughout the village with what appeared to be mild interest. “This has always been such a peaceful village.”

“Shut up, you meddling fool,” the man ordered.

“What?” cried the minstrel.

“You heard me. Stay out of it and let them have at it.”

“Somebody is going to get hurt, maybe killed, if this keeps up,” the violin player reasoned. “You certainly don’t want that, do you?”

“Of course I do,” the man replied, smiling evilly, his eyes shifting from potential victim to potential victim. “Being undertaker in this town hasn’t made me a rusty farthing until now, but it looks like I’m finally going to start doing a landslide business.” He turned his attention to a woman chasing a man with a cooking iron, and yelled, “That’s it, Lucretia, nail him good.”

All the minstrel could do was try to get out of the way. He didn’t see anyone fighting near the closed courthouse, so he began to very carefully edge his way toward it.

He heard a “Pssst.” It seemed to be coming from the courthouse. He saw that the front door was now partially ajar. He moved a little closer, and saw a hand come out from behind the door. An index finger curled and moved back and forth, beckoning. He wasn’t sure what to do, afraid that he might get involved in something he would regret.

“Come,” came a hoarse whisper from behind the door. He dared to take a few steps toward the wall, where he could get a peek at who was behind the door. He saw a man with spectacles hanging from a chain around his neck.

“Mayor?” The man was too well hidden for the minstrel to know for sure who it was.

“Shhh. Step sideways toward me, but be quiet about it,” said the man behind the door. “You must not be seen or heard entering this place.  More important, I certainly don’t want to be seen.”

The minstrel did as he was told. When he was almost at the door, the man, who was indeed the mayor, reached out and grabbed him, pulling him quickly into the courthouse. Once he was inside, the mayor closed the door firmly, turning the key to lock it and slamming the deadbolt into place. He then put his ear to the door, listening intently. He turned to the minstrel. “We must use caution, but perhaps it is safe for us to do what we must do. It has to be.”

“Do what we must do?” cried the minstrel.

“Shhh,” hissed the mayor again, his worried manner increasing to out and out fright. He rushed to peek out a window. A few moments later, he returned, slightly more calm. He whispered, “It appears that with the uproar out there no one heard that unwise screech, but we must be very, very discreet.”

“I have no idea what is going on,” the violinist whispered back. He crossed his arms in front of himself, hugging the violin to his chest. “What do I have to do with it?”

“I have been waiting for you,” the mayor confided. “I knew that you normally come in after daybreak on this day, so you would not have been hit by one of Cupid’s arrows.”

“Cupid’s arrows?” That further confused the minstrel. “Legend has it that Cupid’s arrows infuse love in anyone they hit, but these people are behaving as though they feel nothing but hate.”

“The legends are true as far as they go,” the mayor admitted, “but it is not always so.” His eyes swept the area to be absolutely certain they were alone before he continued. He lowered his voice even further. “I shall share with you a thing that has been a secret since our village came into existence many centuries ago. It has remained secret because our people do not leave, and we have few visitors. However, you must first swear yourself to secrecy.”

The minstrel hesitated.

“The future of our village, our very existence, depends on it,” said the mayor, his voice still low, but the emotion in it clear.

The minstrel turned to listen for a moment to the riotous noise outside, then turned back to look directly into the mayor’s eyes. He saw the unmitigated fear in them and knew this was not a ruse. “Very well,” he said, “I swear it.”

The mayor moved close to the minstrel and said to him in a low voice, “Legends have it that the gods reside on Mt. Olympus, in Greece, but we know the truth of the matter. They – perhaps not all, but many – reside right here, in the peaks that are hidden in the clouds right behind us. They are but a rock’s throw from us. More to the point, an arrow’s flight away. You see, the reason we are always so loving is because Cupid uses us for target practice on a regular basis.”

The violin playing minstrel did not doubt the story, but it created an even bigger question in his mind. “But mayor,” he protested, “those people outside are not loving. They are as hateful as any people I have ever seen.”

“Yes, and it is for that reason I awaited you. You are not only the most gifted musician in all the land, you are adventurous, for you found us here, so far away from where humans mingle. I, we, need you now more than ever before.”

His eyes again darted about before he continued. “Let me explain our current situation. Last night, Dionysus visited with Cupid, and they joined in a drinking match. As the evening wore on, they became quite intoxicated, and began looking for entertainment. They entered into a bet. Dionysus claimed that Cupid was not as expert with the bow and arrow as he was reputed to be. That upset poor Cupid to such an extent that he would do anything to prove Dionysus wrong. He told Dionysus that he could hit everyone in this village without a miss. However, how could he prove he had, for every one of us was already as happy and loving of anyone in the world? You may not know this, but Cupid has two kinds of arrows. The ones he uses almost exclusively, the ones with the very pointed gold tips, bring love. The others have tips of blunt-nosed lead and they have the opposite effect. He agreed to use those terrible arrows to prove his skill. In his drunken spree, Cupid hit everyone here with the lead-nosed arrows. I only escaped because I was away until almost dawn, and the two gods had passed out by that time.”

The minstrel listened in horror, and when they mayor had finished with his tale of woe, he cried, “I now understand the dilemma, but what can I do?”

“You must go to Cupid’s mother, Aphrodite. Convince her to have Cupid shoot us all with the gold tipped arrows. Today, immediately. If not, our village is doomed.”

“Me? Why do you not go?”

“I am only a mayor. I have no talent. No real ability at all.”

“But . . . ”

“Go, please.”

“Where is she? How do I get there?

“Take the stairs that are not there. They will take you to the great hall. On this day, she should be there.”

“How can I take stairs that are not there? This is most confusing.”

“I will show you,” said the mayor. He took the minstrel’s arm and turned toward the back door. “Come, we must go quickly.”

The mayor pulled a curtain aside at a window next to the back door. Although he was in a great hurry, his fear outweighed his impatience, and he peered out for a full fifteen seconds. His eyes shifting from side to side, then back again, and again. When he felt it was clear enough to chance opening the door, he did so, but just enough to stick his head out to survey the area once again. In all his years in Tranquility, he’d never encountered anger, but he’d seen enough this day to determine that avoiding people in such a state was essential to continued good health.

“Follow me,” he said to the minstrel, and he hurried toward what appeared to be the base of a rocky incline. The minstrel could not tell for sure, because all he saw was clouds above the base.

“I cannot go any farther,” said the mayor. “I know what is up there – I am the only one in the village who does – but I am forbidden to enter unless invited by one of the gods.”

“Up there?” said the minstrel. “I see nothing but clouds, and even when my mind soars into the heavens when listening to the music of the masters, I cannot actually fly.”

“No need to fly. Take the stairs.”

“I see no stairs.”

“That is because they are the stairs that are not there.”

“You sound like a concert master I once studied with,” the minstrel told the mayor. He stuck his head into the clouds, but still saw nothing. “I should advise you, he now resides in an asylum.”

“I am not crazy. The stairs that are not there, are there.” He pointed just ahead of where the minstrel stood. “Right there.”

The minstrel saw nothing but a misty cloud. “You aren’t making your case any stronger,” he said to the mayor.

“Listen closely,” said the mayor. “Lift one foot and step up, in the manner you would step up to the first stair in a staircase. You will not be able to see it, but the stair will be there. Then take another. And another. Take a total of fifty steps. Do not take more, or less. Do not linger. For your safety, I must warn you, do not step to either side. The stairs only accommodate straight up ascensions, so swaying to either side can be disastrous. Remember that, also, when descending. Dionysus dares not take them most nights. When you have taken fifty steps, you will be near the doorway to the great hall. Take five steps forward, and put your hand to the great door. It will open at your touch.”

“What does the great door look like?”

“It is the door that is not there,” advised the mayor.

“Look, mayor . . .”

The wandering violinist stopped in mid-sentence when he heard a commotion coming from the courthouse. He looked back to see several squabbling villagers round the corner. When they saw the mayor and the minstrel, they stopped quarreling with one another and turned their attention to new foes.

“Look, it’s the mayor and that silly music man,” one called out.

“Get them,” yelled another.

In a matter of moments, there were ten hate-fueled villagers running toward the cloud, all carrying shovels, or brooms, or whatever they had been able to scoop up to use as weapons.

The minstrel looked from them to the cloud above. He knew not what danger lay in that mist, but it could not be greater than what he faced if he stayed where he was. He took a step up. His boot came down on something firm. He could not see it, but it held his weight. He stepped up another time, and again his boot stepped on something solid. He took another, and another, and he kept going up. He could hear the mob below, and saw an arm or two grabbing at the cloud, coming up with nothing.

“Where did he go?” he heard one villager ask.

“Keep looking,” another responded. “We want him, too. Meanwhile, we’re taking the mayor to the square a where we all can have some fun pelting him with rotten vegetables.”

“That’s all?”

“Oh, no, that’s just how we’re going to warm up for the real fun. We will see how he enjoys running the gauntlet.”

“At his age, he can’t survive a gauntlet,” the first said.

“So be it,” said the other.

The minstrel did not wait to hear more. Time was of the essence. He tried to remember how many steps he’d already taken. Was it seven? Eight? He settled on seven, and went up forty-three more, holding his violin in front of him as if he was following it. It steadied him and kept him going straight. Half-way up, he could no longer hear the commotion below, so he could concentrate on his steps alone. That was good, because he felt odd, walking up a cloud, seeing nothing else. How high was he? He tried not to think about what would happen if he made a misstep. When he got to fifty – he thought it was fifty – he put a foot falteringly out in front of himself. He had no idea what would happen if he had miscounted but feared it would do him great harm.

His foot came down on a floor he could not see. He took five steps and put out a hand. It touched something, and when it swung open at his touch he realized it was a large door. Open,, it revealed a great hall. The violinist viewed the hall in awe. Gleaming marble floors extended more than one hundred feet in front of him, and as far to either side. Polished granite columns, their upper parts painted in gold leaf, held up a ceiling consisting only of gold beams so that it was open to the stars. Bad weather dared not enter the domicile of the gods.

Ten stone chairs that were wide enough for persons to recline upon stood against the walls on either side, and there were two on a stage at the far end. All were empty, except for one at the far end. A woman reclined there upon fluffy cushions. She watched him as he entered and raised her upper body slightly to rest it on an elbow.

“Come,” she called.

Her voice was melodic, not gruff, yet he had no doubt that it was a command. He had never seen her before, yet there was no question in his mind but that this was Aphrodite. He hurried to the stage. There were three marble steps leading up to the stage level. He was not certain if he should remain at the lower level or go up to where she reclined. Now much closer, he was even more impressed with her beauty. She was magnificent in a white gown of pure silk. A large shell lay at her side.

“Join me up here,” she said. “One cannot stand on formality on Valentine’s Day.” She folded her legs up at the knees and patted the spot thusly left open beside her.

The minstrel cautiously stepped up. He took a seat up against the side of the large stone chair, being careful not to touch her.

She smiled at him. It was the most radiant smile he had ever seen. “Have you come to play romantic music for me on this day of love?” she asked playfully.

“I . . . ah . . .”

“Please do not be frightened of me,” she said softly. “Not on this day, certainly, for on this day all thoughts are on love. Go ahead, play me a tune.” For reasons he could not guess, and she did not explain, she lightly touched the shell.

He did as she asked, playing a composition he had written only weeks before, intending it to be played for the first time for the people of Tranquility. He'd never dreamed it would instead be played for the first time for Aphrodite. This palace in the clouds might not be heaven, but he felt that's where he was.

It was not a long piece, but it was as beautiful music as she had ever heard, and this woman had access to all the music in the world.

When he lay his bow aside, she said, “You are even better up close than when I hear you play for the villagers below, and that is as good as any I have heard. But, alas, as much as I would love to hear you play all day, I fear you did not come to serenade me. Tell me, please, what is it that would cause you to venture into the home of the gods?”

He gulped, and said, “I’m afraid a problem has arisen in the village. Today, of all days, all thoughts are not on love. There is much turmoil. Worse. Terrible violence!”

“Oh my,” said the goddess. “I have just risen and have not looked down there as yet. I had planned to later. In fact, I’d planned on listening when you played for them. Please tell me what the problem is, and perhaps I can do something to resolve it.”

“You can,” the minstrel said, emboldened by her praise. “You see, it is your son, Cupid, who is the cause.”

“What am I going to do with that boy?” she asked. Her tone was one of bemusement, as though she was dealing with the antics of a small child. “Never mind, it is not your concern. But, please tell me, what kind of mischief did he get into this time?”

The minstrel related what the mayor had told him, and told her of the mayor‘s plight.

“Oh my,” she repeated. “I can see why the mayor sent you. When Cupid is in the state I’m sure we’re going to find him in, the only thing that can get him moving is music.”

“I have my violin right here.”

“He likes guitar.”

“Guitar?”

“The youth of today have no appreciation for the finer things,” she complained.

“I play the guitar as well as the violin,” said the minstrel, “but I do not have one with me.”

“You can use one of Cupid’s,” said Aphrodite.

“He plays?”

“He tries, but he has a tin ear. When he and Dionysus get together, Dionysus usually brings his trumpet and they make the most awful racket you’ve ever heard. A band of bagpipes sound like a Beethoven symphony compared to what those two come up with. Still, I suppose that’s better than what those two scalawags did last night.” She arose, taking the shell with one hand and taking his hand in her other. “Come, we’d better right the situation before someone gets seriously hurt down there.”

The minstrel tingled with the greatest pleasure he’d ever felt at her touch, but had no time to relish the joy of it, for he had to almost trot to keep pace with her. They passed through a doorway on the right side of the Great Hall, and took a hallway to what the minstrel guessed were the sleeping chambers. She opened the third door down, and they found two men passed out, one sprawled across a bed, the other on his back on the floor. Both were snoring loudly.

Aphrodite walked over to the bed, still leading the minstrel. “Help me sit him up,” she ordered the violinist.

The minstrel hesitated. “He’s naked.”

“Don’t be alarmed, Cupid never wears clothes. Just as well, the way he’s lying, limbs all distorted like they are. Clothes would be so wrinkled I’d never be able to iron them out.”

The musician set his violin down by a wall and went over to the bed to help, not getting any closer than he had to.

Aphrodite laughed. “Men!”

“Wha . . . what’s happening?” mumbled Cupid, shaking his head.

“It seems you were naughty last night,” his mother told him.

Cupid thought for a moment. “Oh, yes, the bet.”

“You must right the wrong.”

“Not now,” Cupid grumbled, holding his head. “The way I’m feeling, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

“It cannot wait,” said Aphrodite. “The mayor is in danger, and I have no desire to break in another.” She went over to a closet and took out a guitar.

“You want me to play for the villagers?” said Cupid, brightening a little. “Well, that I could do.”

“Good heavens no,” cried Aphrodite. “They’re in enough pain. This gentleman is going to play while you shoot your golden arrows.”

Cupid was still holding his aching head, but could not help but brag, “I hit every shot with the lead ones last night.”

“I’ll bet you can’t repeat it with the golden ones today,” said his mother, knowing her son could not resist a challenge.

Cupid looked with bloodshot eyes at the minstrel. “Can you play that thing?”

“There are those who say I play it as well as I play the violin.”

“But how good is that?” grumped Cupid.

“Listen,” said Aphrodite. She set the shell upon a stone dresser and touched a spot on the inside, smooth surface. The very music the violinist had played for her only minutes before in the Great Hall came from the shell.

The minstrel stared in shock at the shell. “What magic is this?”

“I made a recording so that I could listen any time I want,” said Aphrodite.

“A recording?” The poor minstrel was once again confused by what was happening around him.

“Mortals will not have such things in your lifetime,” the goddess told him, “but it is handy for me in my idle time. Naturally, I prefer a live performance, but I know you will have many in your own society who will thirst for your music, so I shan’t detain you only for my pleasure. Come, we must save the village.”

She led Cupid over to the same closet from which she'd taken the guitar and took out his bow and several quivers of golden arrows. She gave them to him, and then marched out of the room, carrying the shell with her. At the door, she issued a simple order. “Come,” said the goddess. Neither man hesitated, obeying immediately. Cupid carried the bow and arrows. He was bent over, not as the result of their weight, but as the result of his really bad hangover. The minstrel carried the guitar. He was adjusting the strings as he went. plucking them and listening intently to their sounds.

They were outside a moment later. Aphrodite reached up and pulled the clouds aside in the manner mere mortals do with curtains. The village lay below them. Fights were going on everywhere. They could see that a gauntlet had been set up, villagers on either side with all sorts of home utensils ready for use as weapons. The mayor, his hands tied behind him and his clothes and skin splotched with rotten vegetables, was being prepared to run it.

“Better hit the guys holding the mayor first,” the minstrel said. “He’ll never survive if he has to run the gauntlet.”

“This is my show, and I’ll hit who I want,” snapped Cupid.

“Cupid!” said Aphrodite.

“Yes, Mother,” the archer said sheepishly. “But, my head hurts, terribly, and I can’t abide taking orders from a mortal.”

“Then accept that it is I who suggests it,” she said softly, but in such a way that it could not be mistaken for being a mere suggestion. “The mayor is quite useful to us.”

She nodded to the minstrel, and touched the shell, which he assumed, correctly, that she was turning it on. He began to play. He played the same new tune and it was as inspiring coming from the strings of the guitar as it had been coming from the violin.

When he heard the music, Cupid straightened up. He turned to look at the minstrel with admiration. The man did, indeed, play the guitar as well he played the violin. Renewed, Cupid turned back to the village below. He pulled out an arrow, inserted the slot in the bow’s strong string, and pulled it back. When he let go, the arrow flew true, hitting one of the men holding the mayor. He immediately dropped his grip on the mayor. He looked around, puzzled by what he saw around him. He was clearly wondering what these people were doing. Before he could utter a word, another arrow hit the other man, who reacted in the same way. Then another hit the next man, and then the woman next to him.

Up in the cloud, the minstrel could see that Cupid’s aim was excellent, and he was quick. He stepped up the beat of the music, and Cupid’s movements sped up to keep pace. In twenty seconds, the gauntlet was gone, the people who had been in the lines looking at one another questioningly, curious as to why they had tools in their hands. Cupid had soon hit everyone in the square, and he turned his attention to the houses. Arrows flew through windows and doors. They hit people on porches and in chicken coups. With every pluck of a guitar string, an arrow flew. Soon, the men and women of Tranquility were holding hands. They danced, and they sang.

“You did it,” the minstrel said, talking both to Aphrodite and Cupid. “You brought love and happiness back to Tranquility.” To Cupid, individually, he said. “You hit them all without a miss.”

“It is true I did not miss,” said Cupid, “but of course I expected that.”

“I believe,” Aphrodite said to her son, “that you need to shoot one more arrow.”

“At me?” cried the minstrel. “There is no need, for I am already loving and happy.”

“Not you,” she advised him. “I’m talking about the mayor.”

“There is no need. Cupid did not hit him with one of his lead-nosed arrows.”

“One can never have too much love and happiness,” she said, nodding at Cupid.

He shot the mayor, who at that moment was being freed from his bindings. He kissed the woman who was freeing him.

Aphrodite pulled the clouds shut. She took the guitar from the minstrel and said, “Come, we shall retrieve your violin so that you may play for the villagers. They will be expecting it, this one last time.”

“Last time?” said the perplexed violinist. “Why do you say that?”

“I know you humans. It is your nature to go on to other things.” She took him by the hand and led him to the bedroom to get his violin. She then took him to the Great Hall’s front door.

“I will take you to the top step,” she told him. “Remember, there are fifty steps. When you reach the last one, step forward, and out of the clouds.”

“May I come back some day?” he asked.

“I do not believe the future foresees such a visit,” she said. She kissed him upon his cheek and guided him to the first step, gently prodding him on.

The kiss sent shivers throughout the minstrel’s body, and he almost floated down the fifty steps, his head more in the clouds than was the rest of him. At the bottom, he took one step forward, and emerged from the clouds. He turned around. Why had he left so quickly? He needed to go back, for there was so much he needed to know, to learn. He must talk more with Aphrodite. He stepped into the cloud at the place he had stepped out of it, and attempted to take one step up. His foot fell all the way to the ground and he stumbled forward. He put his foot out again, feeling for the step. There was no step. He went forward and tried again, and again there was nothing. He kept at it until he finally realized that the stairs simply were not there.

He walked around the courthouse and was pleased to see that the villagers were happily going about their Valentine’s Day activities – lovers walking hand in hand, children sharing little cards with hearts on them, flowers and candy being exchanged by all. He saw the mayor laughing with a group of villagers just as the village leader turned and saw him as well.

“Look,” said the mayor, “our violinist has arrived. Come, let’s all sit and listen to the sweetest music in the world.”

The minstrel took the mayor aside and whispered, “It appears all is well here.”

“Of course, all is always well here in Tranquility.”

“I mean, now that the people are no longer angry and hateful.”

“Angry and hateful?” said the mayor. “The people of Tranquility? That’d be the day.”

“You know, now that I had Cupid shoot them with gold-tipped arrows.”

“Your imagination is as vivid as your music,” the mayor said, slapping the minstrel on the back and laughing, “but today the latter is what is in demand.”

The violinist played to a most appreciative audience the rest of the day. The mayor was busy with little matters involving his people the whole day, happy matters, and the two never talked again. The minstrel left that night.

*****

The villagers never saw the minstrel again after that, and they never knew what he’d done on that Valentine’s Day.

They never knew his name, nor did any try to find out. There was no need. They loved him for what he was, and that was enough for them. They'd known enough about the outside world to know that the man must buy things, so they'd given him what little they had. Mostly, that was the small gold objects that they'd found lying around the village. There seemed to be a never ending supply of those, and they had no need for them.

Those who know the story speculate that the musician most assuredly was Niccolo Paganini. He was both a violinist and a guitarist, after all, and he went on to fame and fortune soon after the year of that Valentine’s Day event. Was that the work of Aphrodite, a reward for what he did that day? Did the gold arrowheads give him his start? None of Paganini’s records indicate that he’d ever been anywhere near Tranquility. But, his records don't cover every day of his life, or even every week, especially when he was younger and not yet famous. There were periods when friends did not know where he was or what he was doing. He always seemed quite content when they saw him again.

So, no one knows, or will ever know, who it was who entertained the people of Tranquility. For that matter, few know that Tranquility exists. None know where it is. It is not on any map, and no census bureau has a record of people living in such a place.

It is known, however, that many, adventurers and laborers alike, who have hiked for extensive periods at the highest altitudes of the Alps, have reported a strange phenomenon. From time to time, melodic music echoes throughout those high peaks. Even pilots of small planes who fly low in that area have reported hearing the tune. Sometimes the music emanates from a violin. At others, a guitar. Whatever the source, it is always the same lovely tune. Many have searched for the source, each certain they knew the location. Some were sure it came from a certain valley. Others, a different valley. Still others would bet it had come from a mountaintop. Over time, each valley and every mountain peak has been investigated. The source has never been found.

Yet, without question the music was heard and although those who have heard it disagree on where it originates, all agree on one thing. After hearing that sweet music, a single sense has been constant in each of their lives. One word describes it. Tranquility.

 

 

 

 

 

Books by Albert A. Correia

LEGEND OF THE OCEAN QUEEN

SEEKING LIFE AND LIBERTY

SEEKING SAFE HARBOR

SEEKING  a SANE SOCIETY
EVEN IN EDEN

Available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble
and all other major book seller locations
GREAT NEW AND FUN HOLIDAY STORIES
FUN TALES
St. Patrick's Day, Ides and April Fools' Day Stories.

 

MARSHALL COBB

 

Marshall Cobb was born in Colorado and worked in the financial industry, mainly in Houston. He enjoyed living for some years in rural Costa Rica. He is in the process of moving to Victoria, British Colombia.

Marshall nails some of the issues we all face in life, in the introduction to his next book. It is under the working title of ‘ Gringo, Tico, Tango’. It is also hilariously funny. The opening line grabbed my attention. This introduction appears below. I can’t wait to read the book.

          Aaron Aalborg

 

Introduction to Gringo, Tico, Tango- By Marshall Cobb

“I believe Thomas Wolfe was a coward. 

First, his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, was a work of fiction. The protagonist, George Webber, was a writer who earned the wrath of his hometown when they felt abused by his depiction of it, and them. As this was a work of fiction it created no actual ill will for Mr. Wolfe.

The second, perhaps most important aspect of Mr. Wolfe’s gutless effort is the fact that he died before the novel was published. It is easy to offend posthumously (see Confederate statue debate) but I suspect it is difficult for the offender herself to feel the pain she created from beyond the grave.

Note: in an effort to minimize the use of he/she, himself/herself, and the nebulous they (who do they think they are?) this author will randomly assign he and she as the pronouns. I am aware that this too creates offense as genders and related pronouns are now a complicated affair but assure all involved that I too will one day soon be dead—what I’m calling the Wolfe maneuver—and therefore get a pass.

Should members of the living persist in their efforts to persecute the dead and their surviving family members, society itself applies gentle pressure on the inflamed and encourages them to be still. It is, for some reason, considered indelicate to speak ill of the dead. Death is not only a marketing ploy for the starving artist--it is also its own absolution.

“Yes, old Grandpa Cobb had a lot of strange ideas, but he was always nice to me. Mostly.”

That type of posthumous description seems like an attainable goal. 

I recall attending a funeral where the pastor waxed poetic about how the deceased, confined to a closed casket below the pulpit, so loved his fellow man. All his fellow man. A young man sitting in the pew in front of me turned to his father seated next to him and whispered (he thought), “But Daddy, I thought cousin Steve was racist.”

“Shush Billy. Now isn’t the time for talking.”

Billy, not to be denied, pressed his point, “Aren’t there going to be black people in heaven? What is cousin Steve going to do when he has to live with black people?”

The father, trying to his to look forward and avoid eye-contact with anyone in the crowd trying to follow Billy’s commentary, muttered, “I’m not so sure cousin Steve is going to heaven, Billy.”

I was mesmerized by the exchange. The pastor kept extolling the many virtues of good-old Uncle Steve while Billy pondered the weighty verdict his father had just passed. The pastor’s confidence grew as he wove a tale of a man beyond reproach. This was textbook stuff. No one goes to a funeral expecting to hear the actual details of the deceased. Give him a good send-off and let’s hope the widow isn’t stingy with the liquor at the after party. Anyone listening to the pastor had no doubts that heaven was the final destination for the racist piece of crap that was cousin Steve.

Anyone, that was, except Billy, who muttered to himself, “Well, I bet it’s not just white people in hell.”

At that point, several heads turned the direction of little Billy, and his father grabbed him by the arm, apologized to those he was stepping over as he and Billy made their way to the exit, and said, with a cheerfulness that bordered on shame, “Kids say the damndest things.”

My wife, who is better and kinder than I, does not need the expiration of life to reformulate her views of a person. In her case, the simple passage of time applies the rose-colored glasses of remembrance. Recently she stated that a particular politician whose acts once inspired her to pace the house at night venting her displeasure now seemed, “Nice.”

“Nice? You hated his guts!”

“Yes, but he has grandkids now and he’s doing a lot of good things with other former presidents—”

“The one who schtupped the intern?”

“Yes,” she replied without missing a beat, “But he’s also gone on to do so many good things.”

I assessed her mood, then chanced a counter.

“If I schtupped a 20-something would you still say kind things about me?

“You’re not the President, dear, and you wouldn’t have the first idea of what to say to a 20-something.”

I was once a kid. I remember being stuck at a long dinner involving my parents and a couple they’d been friends with many years ago. The friends were in town, visiting, and it did not take the advanced degrees held by those friends to figure out that the adults did not have much to say to each other. Time, politics and preferences had created a gap between them so deep that no amount of wine could fill it. 

I would have much rather slunk off to my room to read a book, clip my toe-nails or spend more time ogling the lady’s underwear catalog that had come in the mail and opened a new world to me. This dinner, however, was back at a time when children did what they were told (at least in public). My sister and I were required to sit through the meal regardless of the number of refills or after-dinner coffees involved. We were expected to be engaged—listening to a degree that we actually might be able to answer a question in the rare event that one was posed. I, being nearly eight years older in the full, awkward blossom of my preteen years, had a much harder time with these regulations than my sister—who could rely on cuteness and the ability to occasionally slide under the table. 

At long last, with the perfunctory artificial pleasantries of applause during a State of the Union address, it became clear that the dinner would soon end. The over-educated liberals, particularly the man with the patches on the elbows of his sports coat, would leave and order would be restored.

“Well, thank you again for this excellent meal. I’ll give you a call in a couple of months and we’ll return the favor if I can get you to take a trip our way.”

That should have been the end of it, but my lady’s underwear obsessed brain was exhausted from all the pretending and the white lies. The universe, at least “my” universe, was unbalanced from this obvious fib. These people were never going to call my parents. My parents were never going to call them. These people had vague memories of one another. It was all in the past. There was no future.

I heard myself quietly, but confidently state, “You’re not going to call.”

I realized I had said this aloud via the collective gasps from the adults around the table.

My mother, attempting to defuse the situation, laughed nervously and said, “Marshall, why would you say that? That’s not funny.”

Looking around the table, I could feel all the adults willing me to admit that it was my attempt at a bad joke so that the socially acceptable ending to the farce could take place and they could all get back to their lives. My sister, sensing tension, again slid under the table.

I should have gone along with the script, chuckling and blushing as I admitted that I had chosen tonight’s dinner as the launch of my ill-fated career in comedy. It would have been easy. It was expected, and I did the opposite.

“It’s true,” I stated. Everyone, even my sister now messing with my feet, agreed with the veracity of my statement. No one, including me, knew why I had said it.

There was yet another awkward pause, then shuffling noises as the adults pushed back from the table and tried to salvage a respectable conclusion to the meal. I recall hearing a variation of “kids say the damndest things” and the requisite, awkward chuckling. I also remember the death stares I received from both my parents for voiding the social contract.

All involved knew that kids may say inappropriate things, but only a senior citizen truly gets away with it. Case in point: my grandmother slapped the table one Thanksgiving and announced, to the fifteen or so family members assembled, that, “I’m sixty-five now, and I’m going to say whatever the fuck I want.”

She was already my hero, but that outburst sealed the deal. A moment passed, and everyone returned to eating. The lesson was further ingrained in my psyche: do not engage the elderly when they jump the verbal shark. Grandma was now a truth-speaker. I don’t recall her dropping any particular bombs that night as a follow-up, but we were all on notice. 

Unfortunately, in the case of my grandmother, her compulsion to say whatever was on her mind ending up taking a toll on her friends—who exited one-by-one over the years after receiving a truth-blast from Grandma. 

Old people can, I think, say whatever they want and those younger than they are, for the most part, stuck chewing on that gristle. The social contract does not extend to their peers, however--at least not in person. Those kinds of things are now, for most, done via e-mail, text, and social media. How many relationships have been destroyed by the electronic communication of opinions and ideas that would never have come up in person?

I ask because I don’t know. I was hoping you had the answer. I assume it’s a lot.

Rest assured, the karma boomerang for my indelicate dinner recently hit me squarely on my giant forehead. I loaned a children’s novel I’d written to a friend of Thing #2’s. The eleven people in the world who had already read it found it to be interesting, deep, and entertaining—or so they said.

When Thing #2’s friend returned a week later and handed back my book I couldn’t resist asking, “So, did you like it?”

I suspect the look on my face when he said “not really” probably matched the ones I had created at the adult dinner about thirty-eight years ago. This particular child, this Cretin, couldn’t leave things there and added, with a wince that conveyed the pain caused by the act of reading, “I couldn’t get into it. It’s not for me.”

I looked over at this monster’s father, who opened his mouth, then thought better of it and simply shrugged in a “kids say the damndest things” way. I stood, my crappy book dangling in my grasp, and thought of how I wished I was quicker, smarter with pithy retorts that would lay waste to this excuse for a child and his puny father. 

Instead, I spent the evening stuck in a mental rut. Couldn’t get into it? I’ve seen the garbage you guys read. You can’t even diagram a sentence. What do you know about literature? 

This child, this awful, horrible child, had broken several different social contracts. A typical, polite response would have been something to the effect of, “It was interesting, thanks.” I would’ve received the hint that he wasn’t eager to see a sequel, and his pride at speaking something close to the truth while not overtly hurting anyone’s feelings would have remained intact.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was wrong and he was right. I’d asked him a question with the expectation of an answer and he had answered honestly. He hadn’t, to my knowledge, posted derogatory comments about it on social media. He, like me at his age, just felt the need to speak what he felt was the truth.

With all of this as a backdrop, the novel you are about to read involves the four years my family and I spent in a small, yet tourist-laden town, in the Monte Verde district of Costa Rica (Question: isn't it called Monteverde? Answer: it's complicated, read on). This particular novel has been on my mind for years. I contacted several agents about a year after we arrived with the idea of generating interest. 

“Are you still there?”

“In Costa Rica? Yes. Still here.”

“Then, no. No one wants a book about living in another country if the author still resides there. People want the whole ‘journey is the destination’ business. The arc of the story. The fond memories mixed with the mess that was life as an ex-pat. Call me when you leave.”

“But Peter Mayle still lives in Provence!”

“You’re not Peter Mayle.”

This point was well taken. The more I looked at the genre Mr. Mayle helped to create the more I realized the agents were right. People did appear to want an arc to the story that ended with the author back home, or somewhere other than the original destination.

Some of these, such as The Sex Lives of Cannibals, are fantastic reads. Others, which shall go nameless, are more like an extended, tiring family blog. 

The good news, at least on the submission front, is that my family and I left the cloud forest and Costa Rica in the summer of 2019. The bad news is that I have to find more bravery than Mr. Wolfe was forced to muster and craft an interesting (to someone other than myself and eleven people I already know) tale of our time in Costa Rica WHILE REFERENCING ACTUAL PEOPLE AND EVENTS! There is, to be clear, no shortage of material. 

I endeavored to weave this story without going full Grandma. I’m not writing a tell-all nor am I saying whatever I want regardless of the potential impact on others. I would like to come back and visit Costa Rica, and I don’t want to dodge rocks when I do. I also don’t want to write what amounts to a blog that states that everything was great, trees are pretty, and how yoga--and repeating the expression “Pura Vida” thirty times a day--changed my life.

 

And, for the record, I was right about my parents and their former friends.”

 

Marshall Cobb has published several works, for children, young adults and the rest of us. These are described on his web site. Go and visit it: www.marshall-cobb.com/

Try one of his books. They are well respected by other writers and a great read.

 

 

 

JOHN BLOUNT

John is an interesting author with many tales to tell.

He was originally from Texas. After an exciting life, he moved to Peru.

The circumstances of his writing the first poem are fascinating. He writes,

 "Ode" was written by light of a cigarette, in federal prison after "lights out".  I would fall off to sleep and the next stanza would lift me like a cloud back to consciousness. I had to write it down, then off to sleep again only to have another stanza lift me back awake.  Interesting night.  Hard to write by cigarette light.

                 Ode to a Berkeley Street Freak

                      I’d heard of Don Quixote

                    Of how this famous warrior

                      Was mighty and so bold

                   So I located the local library

                    And opened the dusty book

                    Thumbed through the pages

                       And took myself a look

               Well, Ol’ Don Quixote amazed me

                  He stood with sword in hand

                  And with fits of imagination

                   He proudly took his stand

         There were towers of toil and struggle

                Damsels in distress did abound

               There were green-eyed demons

                        And fiery dragons

                   And bloody battle grounds

           Returning the book to its dusty shelf

                 I realized I’d learned a lot

                     Like way back then

                   There must have been

                  Some mighty groovy pot

                                ****

                  ADAM’S LAMENT

Come, let us seek this truth called love

Let us walk along the freeways

And sit quietly

Neath the roaring jets and towering buildings

Our minds playing childlike

Among the concrete and steel railings

Spinning squealing rubber squealing

Swiftly through smog-clogged avenues

Of dead trees and neon desire

Come, let us sit quietly and try to remember

The taste

Of the apple