Posts Tagged ‘old man



02
Jan
10

Cantankerous

The time for breakfast came and went-
You were still in bed-
So sweep all thoughts of bacon and
Waffles from your head.
Would you like a bologna sandwich?
Damn! I can’t find a clean knife.
There’s chili but Mom said
No beans for you so no way. Not on your life.
Cheesy broccoli soup which you hated.
I give up! I throw up my hands.
You wanted it, here’s a fork you can have it-
Cold spaghetti right from the can.

18
Dec
09

Senate Smackdown

Joe L. left his seat; he started to speak
about his health care amendment.
He talked and he blabbed till his time had elapsed
then asked for an additional minute.
But A. Franken cried, “Extension denied!
I’m in charge and you’ve talked much too long!”
McCain rose, looking hurt, said, “I’ve been here since dirt.
I’m not sure what went down but it’s wrong.”

[Dedicated to @kaijuisme who wanted to spend all day rewatching the video of The Showdown but couldn’t.]

02
Dec
09

Fishwife

“You would like coffee.”

It was more a pronouncement than a question and the unfamiliar tone drew my thoughts and my eyes from the surf sparkling at my feet to the old man who had spoken. I watched his weathered hands as he scooped Nescafe from the jar, adding sugar then hot water nearly to the top of the mugs. He handed one to me and I stirred it in silence. I watched a sailboat disappearing beyond the horizon and, much closer, fishermen setting their nets and lines.

“We will drink coffee,” the old man said. “While we drink, I’ll tell you a story. When I’m done, you’ll have the answers you seek.” He lifted his mug to me and, smiling slightly, took a big gulp of his coffee. Following his example, I raised my own mug then took a drink. The coffee went into my mouth then out again in almost the same instant as I scalded my tongue. I thought I heard the old man snort. To cover my embarrassment, I pretended to study the mug. The old man had told me they were handmade in the next town and the solid, simple design and bright paint reminded me, as the coffee’s taste had, how far I had travelled to reach this shore.

A week ago I had closed and locked my apartment for the last time before slipping the keys through my landlord’s mail slot. I had given my mother a Power of Attorney, given a last farewell to friends and colleagues, and exchanged my life savings for traveller’s checks, travelling clothes, and a pair of sensible shoes. I had left behind all the familiar, but unhappy, trappings of my life to journey by plane, boat, and donkey -my butt still hurt- to Coriano where I hoped to teach, to write, and to learn. Most of all I had come to find the sense of community and belonging I’d never known at home. Where I came from the weather and the people were cold. They bundled their hearts as tightly as they bundled their necks in scarves. Maybe coming to Coriano was wrong. Maybe the people would reject me and close me out because I was a stranger, but I couldn’t help feeling that it would be better to knock and be turned away, empty-handed, from the door of a stranger than that of a friend.

“You must understand,” the old man said, refilling both our mugs, “We are very simple people. We believe in the old ways. The power of the Evil Eye or a burning candle. The omen in the yolk of an egg. You have your magic, too, where you come from even if no one acknowledges it.” I looked at him and he said, “The things you don’t ask for in case someone should discern your heart’s desire and tell you ‘no’.” I nodded silently. “Your answers.” I turned my face to the sea again and sipped cautiously from my mug.

“Many years ago, there was a fisherman who was not much concerned with the business of catching and selling fish. He didn’t want to go hungry and he didn’t want his wife to go hungry but he cared much less about the fish than about the fishing. The sun kissed the tips of his ears and the back of his neck. The breeze caressed the planes of his face. The waves rocked him gently, gently until the motion of the boat matched the rhythm of his heart. He learned to tell when the fish would come and when he would have to wait. He learned the moods of the sky and the wind and, especially, the sea and he came to love them. But he was a fisherman not a sailor and it was hard on his wife and hard on him on the many nights when he reached shore without a fish to show for his day.” The old man reached into a basket on a table behind him. He pulled out two oranges and began peeling and segmenting them. A bit of pulp squirted into the air where it mingled with the salty tang rising from the sand under our toes.

“On one evening, after a great many such days, the fisherman came home to find his wife and her sister waiting for him with great anger in their eyes and their voices. The sister said that the wife should have married someone with more ambition. She said that perhaps the fisherman didn’t love her after all and was trying to starve them both. The wife said that perhaps the fisherman didn’t love her as much as he loved the sea and that maybe he would have more ambition if he went to work in the next town making mugs and plates. The fisherman was ashamed and afraid. He told his wife that he would go back to his boat and only return when he had a fish, no matter how long it took.” The old man placed an orange on the table in front of me. The juice filled my mouth as I bit through the membrane. I closed my eyes, focusing on the sweetness running down my throat as I chewed. I could sense the old man smiling at me and I could hear it in his voice as he continued the story.

“The fisherman did go back to his boat. He stayed out all night even through a violent storm. Some of the other fisherman came out to the beach and called to him that he was risking his life, but he trusted the sea. Just before dawn, his faith was rewarded. He pulled in his line and there on the end was the largest and most beautiful fish he’d ever seen. As he pulled it into the boat and prepared to whack it, it spoke to him.” A bit of my orange tried to go down the wrong pipe and I sputtered and grabbed my coffee.

“It spoke to him,” the old man said again, not seeming to notice my distress. “‘If you will spare me my life,’ it said, ‘I will give you whatever your heart most desires.’

The fisherman thought for a moment then said, ‘I will spare you but it breaks my heart for my wife will surely leave me if I come back in the morning with no fish to give her.’

‘Throw me back over one side of your boat and your net over the other, ‘ the fish replied, ‘and you will have more fish than you can carry home.’ The fisherman did as he was told. He rowed back to shore with his boat so loaded down with fish that he feared for his life as he hadn’t done the night before during the storm.” I held my mug out to the old man to be refilled.

“So his wife was happy then?” I asked. “Because they had so many fish?” The old man turned away to get more hot water and I read my answer in the slump of his shoulders.

“She was happy for a time,” he said, measuring out more Nescafe, “but her mind was working even when her mouth wasn’t. She began to wonder how the fisherman had come by all those fish and whether he couldn’t get more the same way. A plan was forming in her mind and one day she brought it to the fisherman. ‘If you could get so many fish in one night,’ she said, ‘think how many you could catch if you spent more nights out on the boat. We could sell those fish as well and move out of this shack. Maybe we could move to the city.’ The fisherman looked around at the little house he and his wife had shared all the time they’d been married. He looked at their bed with the sag at one edge. He looked at the table, at which they ate their meals, with its fourth leg shimmed by a brick from the road. He looked out the window to the hill where he had sat as a boy and waited for the fog to lift so he could catch a glimpse of the sea. He looked at his wife for a long time. Then he nodded and went out to the boat for the night.” A woman, much younger than the old man, whom I hadn’t noticed before approached the table to set a plate on it. She bowed deeply to the old man, and less so to me, before moving away with the grace of a Balinese dancer. The old man uncovered the plate and placed a still-warm ball of dough in my hand. Nearly crisp on the outside, it was filled with bitter chocolate and a creamy cheese that dribbled down my chin before I could catch it.

“Just before dawn, the fisherman once again pulled the large, beautiful fish into the boat. He told the fish of his wife’s plan and the part she intended him to play in it. ‘Is this your heart’s desire?’ asked the fish.

‘It’s not what I would have chosen,’ said the fisherman, ‘but it will break my heart if my wife must live in a little house by the sea when she would be happier in the city. She is, after all, my wife.’ So the fisherman and his wife moved to the city. Many times he returned to the sea to fish and each time he caught enough to maintain the house and the clothes and the parties that his wife now loved.”

“Then she was happy?” I asked, taking another bite and rolling it around on my tongue to savor the blending and contrasting of the flavors.

“She was happy for a time,” the old man said. “But then she began thinking of all the time the fisherman wasted by living in the city with her. She started to think that if he had a second boat and even a third he could stay at sea most of the time and send the fish ashore in one of the other boats. One day she brought her plan to the fisherman. ‘If you were at sea, I would handle the selling of the fish,’ she said. ‘We rarely see each other now and you’re not fond of the city so why not spend your time on the water. We will both be happy that way and there will be even more money.’ The fisherman looked around at the luxurious house he and his wife now shared. He looked at the plush bed with its satiny sheets and velvet coverings. He looked at the marble and ebony table weighed down with the finest fruits and meats. He looked at the textured, insulated drapes which protected the inhabitants of the house from the sights and sounds of the city. He looked at his wife for a long time. Then he nodded and went back to the little town where his boat was waiting.” A tear was about to sneak from my eye and I tried to hide behind my hand as I raised my mug. I felt embarrassed because the old man had made me cry and embarrassed because I couldn’t let him see that he had. I wondered if there would ever come a time, here in Coriano or somewhere else, when I would feel free to show my tears to the person who had caused them without fear of appearing weak and at a disadvantage. The old man pulled a soft, faded cloth from his pocket and laid it over my hand. He hadn’t been fooled but he knew that I was so recently come from the city myself that I would be uncomfortable with his doing anything more.

“Did she miss him?” I asked hopelessly. “Please tell me she wasn’t happy.”

“She wasn’t happy for a time,” the old man said, as I blew my nose and snuffled into the handkerchief he’d given me. “The fisherman sent fish to the city and his wife sold it. The more he sent, the more she sold and the more she demanded that he send. The fisherman loved the sea and, because that love was returned, his fish was the best in the market and sold for the highest prices. The fisherman’s wife knew a lot about the business of selling fish and soon she had created an enormous, fish empire. A factory was built, trucks were purchased, roads were improved. Then a truck arrived at the factory and it was only three-quarters full. The next one was only half full and in a few more days the fish stopped coming entirely.”

“He wasn’t dead?” The old man reached across the table to place his warm, broad hand over my cold one. To my surprise, but not his, I didn’t pull away.

“It wasn’t the sea that took him,” the old man said. “Not in the way you’re thinking anyway.”

“But what then?”

“It was love.”

“Love?”

“One night the fisherman was in his boat waiting for the fish to come. The moonlight kissed the tips of his ears and the back of his neck. The breeze caressed the planes of his face. The waves rocked him gently, gently until the motion of the boat matched the rhythm of his heart. All at once, the large, beautiful fish jumped into his boat. ‘What is your heart’s desire?’ it said.

‘My wife,’ began the fisherman.

‘Your wife has all she needs for her happiness,’ said the fish.

‘What is your heart’s desire?’

‘I would like to live in a little house with a view of the hill,’ the fisherman said. ‘I would like a small bed with a sag at one edge and a table shimmed with a brick from the road.’

‘And love?’ Asked the fish.

‘I guess I don’t know about love,’ said the fisherman, ‘but maybe there could be someone to pick oranges for me and to rub my shoulders when I’m tired and to
hear me talk about the sea.’

‘That is love,’ said the fish. And a great storm blew in and the sea turned black and the fisherman’s boat was dashed against the rocks until there was nothing left but splinters that the townspeople carried to the city to show the fisherman’s wife.”

“So she had nothing then? No husband? No empire? All because she was greedy?”

“No,” said the old man. “The fisherman’s wife was greedy and smart. She, too, knew a bit about the ways of the sea and she had insurance in place just in case something like this should happen. In time she found a new source of fish with new men to catch them and her life went on as it always had.”

“But the fisherman?” The tears came again and this time I made no effort to hide them. The old man patted my hand and gave me another cream-filled bun.

“The same wind that had smashed his boat on the rocks carried the fisherman over them. He awoke under the bed in the little house he had shared for so long with his wife. He was wondering if he had fallen and it was all a dream when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find a young girl with an armful of oranges. ‘I picked these along the road,’ she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I just arrived a few days ago. I’ve lived all my life in the city and I’m looking for someone to teach me how to love the sea.'” The woman who had brought us the buns had returned. Standing behind the old man, she squeezed and pressed the muscles in his shoulders with obviously experienced and practised hands. Leaning forward she winked at me as she dropped a kiss onto the tip of one leathery ear. Looking at them, I realized I didn’t even wonder if the fairy story the old man had told was true.

“You will have the answers you seek,” the old man had said. I would find many answers during my time living in Coriano, but most of all I would discover which questions were worth asking. Sometimes the old and simple ways are the best and believing is all that’s necessary.

[Found this in one of my old notebooks. I was surprised how much I still liked it just the way I’d written it. See what you think…]

06
Nov
09

Northwestern Gothic?

Cade Caldwell had lost two fingers on his left hand. This was painful to look at but no big deal really. You see, the year after his accident one of his granddaughters was born with six fingers on each of her hands.

“See?” his family said, “The Lord taketh away and the Lord giveth.” They figured on waiting until her fingers grew to about the size of Cade’s then relocating them. “Make do or do without” was another popular saying among the members of the Caldwell family and they settled back to watch until Nature would take her course.

06
Jan
09

From the Horse’s Mouth

Hugo was not at all sure he believed in God. He had never really given much thought to religion. If there was a God though it must be one who practiced Karmic retribution for surely Hugo had done something atrocious in his previous life in order to deserve the one he was living now.

He looked over at Malcolm, his partner in this latest business venture, who whistled tunelessly through the gap between his front teeth. The drone of the flies in the back of the truck had at times rivaled the thrumming engine for noise, but now they had quieted down and Hugo could hear the blood pounding behind his eyes and the buzz of the thoughts in his head.

“Tell me again why we’re not doing this with a refrigerated truck,” he said to Malcolm. Malcolm sighed and turned to Hugo.

“We’re not using a refrigerated truck because it costs a lot of money,” he said slowly. “When you’re starting out you have to cut a few corners to get going and then you can move up.”

“But the UPS guys have refrigerated trucks.”

“That’s right,” Malcolm said. “They can afford refrigerated trucks because they have a big company behind them. They have a name that people recognize. They have stock and investors so they can buy the latest equipment. We were very lucky to get a good deal on this truck.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Hugo said.

“Of course I am.”

“But I can’t help thinking that they’d be fresher if we had another way of keeping them cold. Isn’t the dry ice expensive? Couldn’t we have bought a chest freezer and plugged it into the cigarette lighter?” Malcolm sighed again.

“You can’t freeze them. If you freeze them, you have to wait for them to thaw which we don’t have time to do. And if you freeze them they might get freezer burn and they won’t be as attractive.”

“But they’re not attractive now,” Hugo whined.

“If you freeze them there’s a good chance they won’t bleed properly,” Malcolm said. “There are two things that really make this work. One is the surprise of seeing the thing and the other is the terrible mess, which it is practically impossible to clean up, the incredible grossness of all the blood and knowing it’s on you and you’ve been in it. Ya see?”

“It just seems like there are a lot of flies back there. Are there supposed to be so many flies?” Hugo asked. He lowered his head and pulled as hard as he could on his hair.

“What are you doing?” Malcolm had turned his head again and was watching Hugo yank on his hair.

“I’m getting a headache from the buzzing and this helps.”

“Howzit do that?”

“It stimulates the nerve endings in my head and confuses them,” Hugo said. “The nerve endings in your head confuse very easily. That’s why if you eat ice cream really fast your forehead hurts. There really should be pain in the roof of your mouth because the ice cream was too cold but your head gets confused so your forehead hurts.”

“So how does this work? Does it make your head think the roof of your mouth hurts?”

“Naw, don’t be stupid. It spreads the pain all over your head instead of it just being in one place. Then instead of having a huge lot of pain behind your eyes there’s a little bit of pain in a lot of places.”

“And that’s better?”

“Argghh! Those damnable flies!” Hugo said. Malcolm took his right hand off the steering wheel and belted Hugo in the shoulder. “What are you doing?” Hugo snarled, clutching his arm.

“I’m helping you,” Malcolm said. “I confused your nerves even more. Now your head won’t hurt at all since there should be a pain in your arm. Or maybe the nerves won’t know where to send the pain.”

“Maybe I could give you a pain and then I wouldn’t have any at all,” Hugo said reasonably.

“No time for that, ” Malcolm said leaning away from him, “We’re almost there. Start looking at the map.” Hugo unfolded the map and flapped it around trying to find their location on it.

“I do like this job better than my last one though,” Malcolm said.

“Repossessions, wasn’t it?” Hugo said.

“Yeah,” said Malcom. “Organ repossessions.”

“Like instruments?”

“Naw, like spleens and livers and so on.”

“You took them out of people?”

“My partner did that. That was a rough job though. People would get really angry with us for trying to collect, but you know an agreement is an agreement. If you stop paying on something then the person who sold it to you has a right to take it back. Same as with a TV. Right?” Malcolm looked at Hugo for affirmation but Hugo appeared to be engrossed in his mapreading.

“Did you find us?” Malcolm asked.

“No, there’s no mark on the map where we are but I did find the place we’re supposed to be going,” Hugo said, laughing. “You know, Malcolm, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been pretty rough on you about the truck and all and the thing is… The thing is I think you’re doing an um good job and err,” he trailed off and Malcolm reached over and patted his shoulder.

“It was a job,” he said. “Just a job. I’m not violent and I’m not crazy and I don’t attack my friends. The truck’s not so good. I know that. As soon as we get paid for a couple of these jobs, we’ll get something better. Okay?” Malcolm smiled at Hugo then nodded to the map. “We’d better find the address and make the delivery before those flies give me a headache too.”

Eight miles later they turned off the main highway onto a private road that led to a circular driveway. Malcolm pulled up to the front steps while Hugo climbed into the back of the truck to get the package ready. Hugo jumped out with the bundle in his arms. He was met at the next to the top step by an imperious Black maid who would have been at home in a 1940’s movie.

“All deliveries around the back,” she said holding her arms out to bar his way.

“But this isn’t an ordinary delivery,” Hugo said.

“I don’t care if it’s salvation on a platter sent by the Almighty Himself,” she said. “All deliveries go around the back.” Hugo looked pleadingly at Malcolm.

“Look, ” Malcolm said stepping forward to take Hugo’s place on the stairs, “I know you’re just doing your job. Well, we’re just trying to do ours. This package needs to go in the house. It’s supposed to go to Mr. Cannoli and I’m supposed to take it in to him.” The maid shook her head.

“All deliveries go around the back,” she said. “Furthermore, I don’t know you and Mr. Cannoli don’t take things from just anybody. Now if you would like to leave that with me I will check with Mr. Cannoli and see if he is interested in receiving it.”

“No!” Hugo blurted. Malcolm recalled later that he could pinpoint the moment that Hugo had snapped. Hugo had been balancing the bundle in one arm and snatching at tufts of his hair with the other, but all at once he lowered the package to chest level and barreled into the maid, knocking her to one side. It took her a few seconds to recover and in that time, Hugo had reached the top step then the porch and wrenched the front door open. Hugo blinked several times. The foyer and living room were like Carlsbad Caverns after the bright motion light outside and he hoped his eyes would adjust before he tripped.

Flickering light led him to a bedroom at the top of a winding staircase. Hugo found a very wrinkled old man propped up in the bed watching the Public Broadcasting Station. The old man felt among the three pillows beside him then fumbled a pair of glasses onto his face. He peered at Hugo through their filmy lenses.

Hugo could hear the heavy breathing of the maid as she reached the top of the stairs and stomped into the room behind him. Hugo held up a hand to halt her just inside the doorway then walked toward the bed.

“I tried to stop him,” the maid said, “but he just wouldn’t listen.”

“It’s okay,” the old man said. “Please clean my glasses and then make me some toast.” The maid shook her head at Hugo then swished past him.

“Mr. Cannoli?” Hugo asked. The old man nodded. “I’ve got a package for you. I was supposed to put it in your bed so you’d find it when you woke up but you’re not sleeping so I’m not sure what to do.”

“I assume it is a horse’s head.”

“Yes, sir.” Malcolm had come into the room just after the maid had departed and he stood leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Hugo stepped towards the bed and held the bundle out. The old man peeled back the wrapping and sniffed.

“Am I the first person to receive this head?”

“Well, yeah, I mean. Something wrong with it?” Hugo asked.

“Usually they are fresher than this,” the old man grunted. “This looks like it has been to several other houses before mine. And there is no blood. There is supposed to be lots of blood. This is disgusting.” He tried to return the package to Hugo but he backed away.

“I know, sir,” Hugo said squinting and tugging at his hair with both hands now. “I’m awful sorry but we’re just starting out and a refrigerated truck is real expensive. I mean, you’re a businessman so you know how it goes.” The old man nodded.

“Yes,” he said gruffly. “I am a businessman. My father was a businessman also and his father before him. All of our lives we have minded the business. There are rules and when a rule is broken then we send someone the head of a horse to remind him. To remind him that a man is potent like a stallion and just like a stallion his life can be cut short. To remind him that even now when so many people are turning away from tradition and technology is more important than human beings, there are some of us who remember the old ways. Now it seems that even the delivering of the horse’s head is done poorly, by amateurs with no respect for tradition and no understanding of the ways things should be done.”

“I’m sorry,” Hugo said.

“Everyone is sorry,” the old man said. “Things change. In the old days you would have found me asleep and you could have slipped that sorry excuse for a horse’s head into my bed and I would have been none the wiser until I woke up in blood. Instead I am awake in the middle of the night and watching a program on how to use the Internet. Maybe I’ll send an e-head the next time I need one.”

“You gonna sign for this head or what?” Malcolm asked.

“Of course,” the old man said. “And let me give you some advice.”

“Here it comes,” said Malcolm half under his breath. “Get out of this business before it’s too late.”

“That’s right,” the man in the bed said sharply. “Get out of this business. You are young. You have ambition. You could go far. This delivery business, anyone can do it.”

“What’dya have in mind then?” Malcolm said.

“Car bombing. If I was a young man I would go into car bombing. It takes timing. It takes intelligence. It takes skill. It would be much harder to replace you with cheap foreign labor and, best of all, it cannot be done by computer. But delivery… Pah! Two guys and a U-Haul truck could do it.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Hugo said. He was grinning at the old man and at Malcolm who wanted to smack the smile off his face.

“You’re welcome. And speaking of tips,” said the old man, “Here.” He reached into the drawer beside his bed and pulled out some money which he handed to Hugo. “Take this and buy a good truck. Learn your business. You’re part of a noble tradition. Honor it.” He pinched Hugo’s cheek then patted it. He called to the maid who took the horse’s head and tossed it into the garbage at the back door before she hustled Hugo and Malcolm back to their truck.

“He was a nice old guy, wasn’t he?” Hugo asked when they were back on the main highway.

“Oh yeah. A real peach,” Malcolm growled.

“And guess what? My headache’s gone. This is gonna be a terrific day.” Malcolm balled up the map and tossed it at Hugo.

“Just read the map,” he said. ‘We’ve got a lot of deliveries to make and it’s not getting any darker out here.” He started to whistle through his teeth again and this time Hugo joined in.

01
Jan
09

Toast of the Town

Bob Cox rolled slowly over to the edge of his bed then sat up. Sliding his feet into his slippers, he shuffled stiffly down the hall to the kitchen and switched on the light. He was going to have to pack up the dogs and make a trip to the store. There wasn’t much in the cupboard or refrigerator besides some wilted lettuce, a crusty jar of mustard, a few blackened and shriveled hot dogs, some questionable margarine and some bread which had seen better days. His ex-wife lived next door and he considered raiding her cupboards but she waved so cheerily at him as she set out for her morning walk that he had second thoughts. He scanned the bread for obvious mold then popped two slices in the toaster. He found a carton of milk, shook it, opened it, and set it in the sink. He had just set a pot of very weak coffee to perk when the phone rang.

I was standing in my driveway wondering if the tulips were ever going to peek out of the soil, never mind blooming, when Delores pulled up. Of all the parents of all the children I babysat, Delores was the most irritating. Maybe the reason was a small one like the fact her daughter knew none of her colors or numbers at the age of four. She could sing the Barney Song, complete with gestures, for hours on end. There was a serious lack of talent scouts cruising the local Safeway so colors and numbers would probably be more useful in the long run.

Or my reason for disliking her could have been something bigger such as her superior attitude because she had left the city three months before I had and was now an authority on country living.

“Whatcha doing?” She asked brightly.

“Looking for tulips,” I said. “I must have done something wrong. I don’t think they’re ever going to come up. The stores are full of tulips and look at this.” I pointed to the bare brown beds.

“Is this the first time you’ve grown flowers?”

“It’s the first time I’ve done it out here and if they’re all going to turn out like these it’s going to be the last time too.” Delores patted my shoulder comfortingly and gave me something like a smile.

“The ones in the store are from California. Probably raised in greenhouses,” she said. “Ours won’t be up for another three or four weeks.”

“Oh.”

“How was Jenny?”

“Um… Delightful as always,” I fumbled. “She learned a new song?”

“Oh, yes. She loves singing and dancing and she loves her Barney. How’s your neighbor?”

“Fine,” I said. Delores looked like she wanted more so I added, “I mean as far as I know he’s fine. He’s on vacation for a month in Klamath Falls.” Delores nodded then cocked her head like the RCA Victor dog.

“What’s that beeping noise?”

“I dunno. Probably somebody’s car alarm going off.”

“People out here don’t have car alarms,” Delores said, smiling again. “Hardly anyone locks their cars even.”

“Oh.”

“I should get Jenny and get moving but you might want to check out that noise.”

“Oh, of course.”

“We all look after each other out here on the frontier and it truly sounds like it’s coming from across the street.” She took a few steps into the yard, past the sad brown flower beds. We could see Jenny under one of the cherry trees bowing to an invisible but no doubt very appreciative audience. Delores called her daughter and they fell into a hugging and kissing fit as if she’d been away two decades rather than two hours. Eventually they were able to stumble to the car and, wrenching themselves apart, climbed in and drove away.

The street was quiet except for the strange beeping sound Delores had noticed. It really did seem to be coming from my neighbor’s house across the street. Suddenly the light bulb went on over my head and I ran into my own house shouting to my husband.

“Bob’s house is on fire!”

“What?”

“I said that Bob Cox’s house is on fire. His smoke alarm has been going off for quite a while now. It must be a big one. I’m going to call 911.” My husband lurched groggily up the stairs from where he’d fallen asleep in front of the woodstove.

“Did you check his house?” he asked reasonably.

“I’m not going over there if there’s a fire.”

“But you don’t know for sure it’s a fire, do you? Maybe it’s a car alarm.”

“They don’t have car alarms out here. Delores says they don’t even lock their cars.”

“Somebody should go over there…”

“There’s no time,” I said as I was dialing. “Look, if you want to go over there then go over there. He’ll be happy to see you in something besides that swimsuit he thought was underwear.”

“What? When was that?” I waved my hand to shush him. He drifted out of sight and the dispatcher came on the line.

“And the location of the fire?” she asked after I’d given her my name.

“I don’t know. I haven’t gone over to look. I thought it was better to stay out of the way.”

“Street and house number for the residence in which the fire is occurring?” I wracked my brain and tried to picture the house number beside the door across the street.

“Look, I can’t remember. Can you just tell them it’s down the street from the church and the graveyard out here on Prairie Lane?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my husband toss on his coat and head out the back door.

“Yes, ma’am. Please continue to monitor the fire from a distance and call us if anything changes.” Just as I was replacing the receiver my husband burst into the kitchen.

“Call them back and tell them not to come,” he said.

“What?”

“Bob’s house is not on fire.”

“How do you know?”

“I was just over there. You know how the back door opens into the kitchen?”

“Yes.”

“Well, it was unlocked so I pushed it open and there he was talking on the phone.”

“Talking on the phone? But what about the beeping?”

“Well, there was some bread charring pretty good in the toaster and he’s been gone almost a month. I’d guess the battery in the smoke alarm is probably getting low and that would beep and then he burned the toast and that probably set off the ones that still have good batteries.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I didn’t say anything. His back was to me and he was talking on the phone and I was so embarrassed that I just backed out the door and closed it.” I called the dispatcher back

“I’m sorry, ma’am but the emergency vehicles are on their way now.”

Even before my hand left the phone I heard a truck come squealing off the road. It crunched to a stop in my driveway. We walked out the back door. A tall young man stepped out of the truck. He pulled off his Kobayashi cap and ran his hand through his hair.

“Can I help you?” my husband said. “I live here.”

“I’m Bob Cox’s grandson and I heard his house was on fire so I came as quick as I could.”

“Funny thing about that,” I said but I didn’t get to finish the thought.

Two trucks pulled up and parked behind the grandson and more men in billed caps got out. Then a highly-polished car parked partly on our lawn. Debarking from the car was one of the most sharply turned-out ladies I’d ever seen.

“I don’t think we’ve met. My husband is the minster of the church over there,” she said extending her hand to me. I shook it reluctantly. I had seen her at church and it had made me ask myself a couple of questions. Should they be spending so much money on her clothes when they could be buying books for kids whose folks were in prison? And if going to church and seeing how well-dressed the preacher’s wife was caused me to envy her and envy is a deadly sin then what was the point of going to church anyway?

“I didn’t see any fire down there,” she continued, “so I drove up here. I don’t see any fire here either.”

“Yeah, well, the thing is…” I began. But no one could hear me or was trying to. More trucks had arrived including, finally, a small fire truck and an ambulance. Since they were the only ones supposed to be there and our little street was looking like the lot outside of Red’s Barbecue I was really confused.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me. Can I have your attention please?” I waved my arms. Nobody noticed except the preacher’s wife. She put two fingers to her mouth and whistled smartly like she was hailing a cab in downtown Someplace Bigger. “How did you all end up here? All I did was call the 911 dispatcher.”

“I got a call from Mrs. Henderson. She’s one of our church members,” the preacher’s wife said. “She heard on the scanner that there was a fire in or near the church and she was worried.”

“We heard it on the scanner too,” said one of the grandsons.

“I met somebody at the barber shop and he said he’d followed the trucks for a little ways,” said another.

“You know, way out here we’re a long way from help.” The lady who lived at the far end of the road and had three large dogs that liked to run in traffic had walked down and joined the conversation. “We’ve got to look out for each other.”

“That’s true,” one of the men said.

Then I explained to everybody several times that there was no fire other than the one in the toaster. But the firemen insisted on inspecting the house to be sure. And just as their last footfall was drowned out by a cacophony of dog barks and they reached to open the door, Bob Cox himself opened it and stepped onto the porch. Needless to say, he was mighty surprised to see the assembled throng trampling his grass.

“What’s all this?” He asked. His former wife having left an hour earlier for a quiet walk up the hill and missed the initial excitement, now arrived just in time to answer his question.

“I think,” she said, “that they’re here to welcome you back from vacation. I’m not sure about the firemen though.”

“That’s it,” I said gratefully. “We all got together to say we missed you.” The preacher’s wife harrumphed but one of the grandsons gave her a look.

The old man took off his glasses and swiped at his eyes. Probably the bright sun was making them water.

“Well if this doesn’t beat all,” he said. “This is really nice. I didn’t think anyone even noticed I was gone.”

“Of course,” I said. “We’ve all got to look out for each other you know.”

“This surely was nice,” he said. “But maybe next time you could just bake me a cake or something.”

Bob Cox looked over his shoulder into the kitchen and saw the incinerated toast, the curdled milk in the sink and the black half-eaten hot dog on the counter. Then he took a few steps towards the preacher’s wife.

“You know a small slice of cake would go down pretty good right now,” he said.

“I believe we have some at the house.”

“Coffee to wash it down with?”

“Almost certainly.”

“Then it’ll just take me a second to get my real shoes on. I did a lot of thinking on the ride back about the rules for leprosy in Leviticus and I know you’re hubby’ll want to hear about it.” The preacher’s wife might have cringed but it might have been a shiver from the chilly morning. Either way, Bob Cox didn’t see it. He was too busy imagining a plate with a big piece of chocolate cake on it. And winking at his young neighbor.

24
Dec
08

Out of a Molehill

Bob Cox stood by his kitchen window watching the birds flitting around on his lawn. He had just eaten his breakfast and was feeling his oats. What he needed, he thought, was a project. But even better than starting his own project would be to help someone else with theirs. Looking across the street to where his new neighbor stood, he realized he’d just found the opportunity he was seeking.

I was kneeling beside a small mound of dirt when I felt someone standing behind me. I turned to find the old man from across the street regarding me intently.

“Whatcha doin’?” He asked.

“I’m putting gum down here to get rid of the moles,” I said.

“Naw. Don’t waste no more gum on ‘em,” he said. “Why don’t you put down some candy bars or nylons? Something they could use.” He chuckled then leaned closer to me and said, “Say, I was gonna ask you… Was that your husband out here the other day sneaking around in his underwear with a pistol?”

“No,” I said, “that wasn’t.”

“That wasn’t your husband out here? He walked around for a while then he’d drop down to a hunker next to one of them molehills and just sit there watching it for a while.”

“That was my husband,” I said. “That wasn’t his underwear. It was a swimsuit.” The old man whistled.

“Hoowee! Swimsuit? Why, my kids had diapers bigger than that.”

“Besides,” I said. “He wasn’t out here all the time with that pistol. Sometimes he had a shotgun.” The old man had followed me to the next molehill and stood behind me, blocking the sun, as I scooped the dirt up with a spoon and put it into my bucket. Then I opened a packet of gum, slipped the piece in my mouth and started chewing. The old man shook his head at me.

“You can’t kill moles with gum,” he said. “Not broken glass neither and you can’t shoot ‘em out. There ain’t no person as fast as a mole.”

“Then how do you get rid of them?”

“To catch and kill moles,” he said leaning close again, “you need a special mole-catching dog.”

“I didn’t know you could train a dog to catch and kill moles,” I said.

“Of course you can. We had us a real good one. Say,” he said then paused, “Why don’t you come on over and I’ll tell you all about it?”

“What about your wife?”

“Former wife,” he said. “‘Sides she don’t have to like everything I do. We’ll sit right out on the front porch where everybody can see us and know there’s nothing wrong about it.”

“I guess that’d be okay,” I said. I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a bag of coffee and a carton of milk then crossed the street to the old man’s house. Once the coffee was brewing, we settled into sunny chairs on the porch and he began.

“About ten maybe fifteen years ago, but not more than that, I had me a real bad mole problem. I mean you couldn’t walk from here to the mailbox without tripping over half a dozen hills.” I looked out over the now parklike lawn then nodded for him to continue. “I heard tell from a man down to the store that his brother had a dog that was specially trained to catch and kill moles. I asked him could I borrow the dog and he said his brother wouldn’t part with it but they were gonna breed her and I could have one of the pups. Now that was a generous offer but I told him that I was desperate. He finally agreed to ask his brother to call me, which he did, and we were able to come to a financial understanding and this brother agreed to loan me his dog.” The old man went into the house and brought back two cups of coffee. I fished a dog hair from mine while he scrunched himself around in his chair till it was comfy again.

“So what happened then?” I asked. “Did the dog come here and get rid of the moles?” The old man waved a pacifying hand at me.

“Now hold on,” he said. He took a big sloppy sip of coffee then sighed with happiness. “The dog did indeed come. She arrived in the back of a pick-up like most dogs except…” He stopped for another sip of coffee. “Except that instead of running around loose in the back she traveled in one of those crates like they have for dogs on airplanes. I’d never seen a dog going around like that so I asked the man ‘why?’ and he told me that if she wasn’t kept penned up then she’d jump out the back of the truck and start trying to chase moles even before he got stopped. He said that one time she done it riding down the highway and that’s how come she limped like that. Now I didn’t entirely believe him but she did favor one of her front legs a bit so I decided I’d wait and see.”

“And?” I prompted.

“They was all tuckered out from the long drive and it was getting on towards suppertime so we figured it’d be best to start out fresh in the morning. So everybody sat down all around the table and in the living room and we ate everything there was and then called it a night.”

“Did your wife do the cooking? Were you still together then?” The old man looked over my shoulder to where his former wife, who lived next door to him, was weeding her garden.

“Yes and no,” he said almost in a whisper. “Yes we was together and no she didn’t do the cooking. She never was much of a cook. Didn’t like to use spices in things. Nope, I did the cooking this night and that’s why everybody licked their plates.”

“And in the morning?”

“In the morning we all got up and had a real tasty breakfast and some good hot coffee.” He took a big gulp out of his own cup. I thought I saw him stick his tongue out but he must have had a hair in his coffee, too. “Now maybe that dog was feeling unsettled because she was about to come into season and there were so many other dogs around. Because, you see, word had got out that I was having a mole-catching dog visit my house to rid me of those critters so all morning, and partway through the night before, men had been driving up here in their trucks hoping they’d get to see a demonstration and there ain’t no pick-up around here that doesn’t have a dog in the back. By the time we filed out of the house after tucking into those blueberry pancakes and venison sausage, there must have been fifty trucks parked out in front.”

“That’s a lot of people,” I said. “How did everyone find out?”

“I’d assume some of ‘em heard about it down to the store same as I did and probably some of ‘em heard it on the scanner.”

“The scanner? I thought that was just for emergencies?”

“Or other important information,” the old man said. “And believe me, a mole-catching dog being in the area is very important information. As I said, maybe she was unsettled on account of all the other dogs or maybe her owner got a bad piece of meat the night before, though I don’t know how that could have happened with me cooking it, and it’d been nagging at him all night. In any case, what eventually happened never should have and it was a shame that it did.”

“But, what?” I goggled. The old man paused to raise his hand in a jaunty wave and I wondered at all the traffic we were having on our little country lane. There’d been three cars just since we sat down.

“Maybe you’ve heard that moles have a very sophisticated way of communicating. But do you know how they do it?”

“No,” I said.

“Well the thing is moles live underground but they’re a lot like bees.”

“Bees? But bees live in a hive.”

“So do moles. The only difference is that the hive is underground. Since it’s dark down there the moles can’t see each other so they talk by bumping up against each other. Every day scout moles go out and gather information and bugs and bring everything back to the main part of the hive where they pass it along to the other moles. ‘There’s lots of good bugs over on the North side of the greenhouse,’ they say and then the moles will dig tunnels over in that direction or ‘The people at such and such a house are putting out peanut butter. Let’s all go there.’”

“But I thought moles were poisoned by peanut butter,” I said. The old man shook his head.

“No. That’s what the moles want us to think. See they got ways of getting messages to us too. In actuality, peanut butter is considered a true delicacy to moles.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” I said. The old man nodded.

“You do that. If you listen to me you’ll learn everything you need to know about living out here in the country. Some of it’s stuff you can’t learn anywhere else,” he said smiling. For a second I’d have sworn that he’d winked at me but it was probably a trick of the light. “Now then. After that fine breakfast we walked out onto the porch and there were all those trucks parked out here and all those men a-sitting in ‘em waiting for us to come out so they could see the mole-catching dog. Her owner put her on long leash, must have been forty feet or so, and he walked her down onto the grass so she could take care of her business and then get started. And she did. No sooner had she ceased to squat than this dog took off for the nearest molehill and started digging like Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. The dirt was flying over her shoulders and she started baying and then all at once she disappeared into the hole and came back out with a mole in her mouth.” I clapped my hands.

“It was true then. She really was a mole-catching dog.”

“Yep, she truly was,” the old man said bowing his head.

“But what happened? What was the shameful part?” I said. “Did she catch any more moles?”

“She did indeed,” the old man said. “She caught moles all through the morning and pretty near all through the afternoon, too. The first few were easy because they were near the surface and she’d just dig until she found one and then bring it on over and drop it at her owner’s feet. As the day wore on though she had to go deeper and they worked out a different method. She’d dig until she found a mole, just like before, and she’d be baying, just like before, but now she was going underground and we couldn’t see her. Sometimes if she wasn’t too far under then we could see the dirt moving but if she was down real far then we’d wait for her to stop shouting and we’d know she had a mole in her mouth and we’d pull on the leash until she was back up to the top.”

“Why didn’t she just turn around and come back up with the mole in her mouth on her own?”

“Mole tunnels are very narrow,” the old man said. “There isn’t room to turn around in there even for moles never mind a dog. Moles just run right over the top of each other if they need to get past. So we had to pull this dog backwards out of the tunnel, after she got a mole, so she could get out.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.” Then the lightbulb went on over my head because I remembered something I’d heard about bees and I had a funny feeling how the story might end but I still wanted to know for sure. “So she was going further and further down,” I said.

“Yes, she was. More and more of that leash was disappearing down the hole and I was wondering if we was going to have to add some when the dog’s owner said this was going to be the last trip she’d make down the hole. By this time she was going so far down that he asked his brother if he’d get down on the ground above where we thought the tunnel was and kind of keep track of where she was since it was getting hard to hear her.” A cloud rolled in front of the sun and the sudden chill made me shiver.

“So this man’s brother was lying by the hole listening, like you do on the train-tracks, and giving us a report on the dog’s whereabouts. ‘She’s about three feet down and headed downhill,’ he’d say and then every little bit he’d tell us the new spot she was at so we’d know when to pull on the leash. He was flat on the ground listening to the dog and we was standing on the porch listening to him and all the men was sitting in their pick-ups listening to both. (Some of ‘em had tried earlier to listen to the ballgame but we told ‘em to turn the radio off since there’s a ballgame pretty near every week but you’re never going to see a mole-catching dog twice in a lifetime.) Everything was real quiet and our ears were sticking out from our heads with the listening. I wished I could’ve rotated mine around like my dogs do but there wasn’t any good to it. All at once that man on the ground jumped up and hollered, ‘She’s coming back. She’s coming back.’ We was all surprised, of course, and we figured he’d gone around the bend. Then we all heard it. The most horrible terrified howling you’ve never heard in your life. And, I’ll be darned, but that man was right as rain. Just under the sound of the howling and yelping we heard scuffling and shoving noises and it sounded for all the world like a dog running backwards up a narrow tunnel.”

“Why was she running and howling?” I said.

“In another minute we found out. It seemed like we’d been hearing these strange noises for over five minutes, but it couldn’t have been more than four, when all of a sudden that dog came flying backwards out of the hole like the Devil himself was after her. But it wasn’t him at all. In the fading afternoon light we could see that that poor old dog had been chased out by the biggest, meanest looking mole I’d ever seen outside of the County Fair. It was the old Queen Mole herself come to wreak vengeance on the creature who was destroying her hive and her home.”

“Oh my goodness,” I said.

“Your average mole runs to about four or six inches,” he said. “If you get a big male he might be eight. But this Queen Mole was nearly two feet high. She’d been down in those tunnels so long her fur was white and she had three inch long teeth growing out of her face and these huge paddle-shaped feet with razor-sharp claws. When she’d driven that poor dog out of the tunnel, she stopped and reared up to her full height. Then she raised her head and looked all around, sniffing at us. Her eyes were hidden in her fur so it looked as if she had no head at all.” He looked sadly at his empty mug. “Then she turned around and went back down the hole before any of us could get a shot off.”

“What happened to the dog?”

“Well, needless to say, the whole experience put her off of chasing moles. I don’t know as she ever did go back to it. Last I heard she was chasing cats like a dog is supposed to. Course I had to pay the man extra for ruining his dog when it was his fault for letting her go down that far by herself. Luckily though she’d put a scare into that queen too and no more moles came back to my lawn.”

Feeling more than a little shaken myself, I thanked the old man for the information and the coffee and climbed slowly and carefully down the front steps. I had only walked partway back to my house when his former wife stopped me.

“He been filling your head full of nonsense?”

“No. Actually he shared a very sad story about a dog and why he doesn’t have any moles in his lawn.”

“He’s an old fool,” she said, “and you’re a young one for listening to him.” I took a step back. “There never was any mole-catching dog.”

“But his lawn…?”

“He runs a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the hole and gasses ‘em,” she said. “Same as everyone else around here does and same as you’ll do if you got any sense.”

Bob Cox watched his former wife and his neighbor talking for a few moments then he walked through the kitchen and turned down the hall. After all the helping he’d done this morning he deserved a good nap. Maybe after he’d caught forty winks he’d have his energy back and be more helpful in the afternoon.