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To Hell With This

TO HELL WITH THIS

 

Monday, June 1, 2015

It was on a Monday, June first, her first day as a tour guide, a few minutes past noon, when Mandy looked up at the Statue of Liberty and noticed something was not proper. She sat in the sunny grass with her cheese-stuffed bagel, and as soon as she was able to chew and swallow, she said, “That’s not proper.”

Mandy’s job was to inform her tourists the statue was a gift from the people of France. She was designed by Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor, and the interior support structure, one hundred and thirteen tons of steel tubing, was the work of Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel tower fame. She stands three hundred and five feet and one inch from her base to the very tip of her torch, and her skin and robe are made of twenty seven tons of eighth-inch copper cladding. They listened, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, and awe-struck. They all agreed it was remarkable.

Mandy informed her supervisor. “There’s something that isn’t proper,” she said.

“And what might that be?” he asked without even taking the cigar out of his teeth.

“It’s quite obvious,” she explained. “Her torch-bearing arm is slanting a tad forward.”

“Impossible. Quite impossible. Sheer Nonsense,” he said. His telephone rang and he dismissed her with a wag of his hand that said, “Out. Out.”

 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On Tuesday morning, Mandy could see clearly the statue’s torch-bearing arm was now becoming slightly bent at the elbow.

“Oh, this is surely not proper,” she said. “This is not proper at all.”

Something was amiss. Mandy was sure of it. And it could very well be a danger to her tourists, so once more she approached her supervisor with the added detail of the bending elbow, upon which she was promptly given notice and relieved of her name badge, her ferry pass, and her job.

Women are not well-regarded in the workplace, she mused, but men like him suffer. I shall let him suffer, and I shall return to waitressing where I’ll be tipped daily and fed squarely at least once a day.

 

June 10, 2015

The matter of the Statue of Liberty went unnoticed for days until June the tenth when it became obvious from across the river. People in their office buildings gazed curiously now at the statue with an attention she had not known since since the day of her dedication in 1886. They arrived at work and gathered at the windows with their coffee to see the lady’s torch was no longer held high. Her elbow was indeed bent, and the danger of her collapse ended all tours until further notice. The structural engineers who were hired for exorbitant amounts to brave the interior found no stressed joinery or twisted metal that would account for this strange phenomenon. The Statue of Liberty soon became the talk of the town, and then the country, and then the world. Something was happening with the Statue of Liberty.

 

June 15, 2015

On June the fifteenth, in the dark of night at a very early hour, a clatter was heard, said to originate from Liberty Island, and rumored to have registered a three point seven on the Richter scale. Someone along Brighton Beach said it sounded like the pots and pans of Hell’s Kitchen had fallen into the streets of New York, and as the sun rose, all the world could see our Lady of Liberty had dropped her torch, her books of the Rule of Law, and her robe. Some said there was a pleasant smile on her face. Others said it was mischievous, and the morning sun shone down on the exquisite nude form of our sweet Lady Liberty.

 

June 15, 2015

It was scandalous. What could anyone do? She couldn’t be covered for decency’s sake. Those who were not amused looked away. Hundreds of boats crowded the waters with cameras and news teams from every country on earth. A team of Japanese, multi-lingual lip reading experts trained their lenses on the statue’s face, waiting for an utterance. It was agreed, late in the day, the giant woman was beginning to bend at the waste and knees, and her arms were moving slowly away from from her sides. As night fell, no one knew what they might find in the morning.

 

June 22, 2015

On June 22, a general agreement was reached. She was beginning to squat. “My God, she’s beginning to squat,” someone whispered. The authorities were running around in circles. Everyone had an opinion, but the consensus was the statue was about to leap from her pedestal into the water, and it was on this assumption all the boats were ordered clear of Liberty Island.

 

June 30, 2015

But the Lady of Liberty was a lady. By the end of June she had stepped carefully off her pedestal and dipped one foot into the water as if to test the temperature. By then the Japanese lip readers had recorded on film a clear statement from the lips of the Statue of Liberty. It was in all the papers. “The Statue of Liberty Speaks”, ran the headlines, and the sub head printed her words in red: “A l’enfer avec cette.”

 

July 4, 2015

On the fourth of July, the Statue of Liberty was last seen ducking under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge where a squadron of F-16 fighters locked their rockets on her before she could get to open sea.

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The French Underground

THE FRENCH UNDERGROUND

Hunter said, “May I ask how you and Margaret met? I love a good love story.”
Gamar smiled his handsome smile. “A skeptic and a romantic, eh? What a combination. Well, I’ll tell you. It was a rainy night. I was up on a hill overlooking a French  village south of Cherbourg.”
Margaret said, “And there was a tree. A wonderful, old tree.”
“Oh, yes,” Gamar laughed. “ A very big, sheltering tree, but not from the rain. It sounds like a wonderfully romantic setting, doesn’t it? But let me begin at the beginning. I can even tell you the exact moment I knew this was the woman for me.
“It was August, 1944. I was with four of our brave citizens. We were behind the front lines of the German defenses. We knew the 101st. Airborne was coming from the southeast, from what you now know as Utah Beach, barely twenty kilometers away, but the Nazis did not. You should have seen things change when they got the news. One minute they were eating our food and having their way. The next minute they were scurrying around like cowardly vermin, moving their men and machinery into defensive positions. They were going to meet the Americans head on. The advanced German lines were only a day’s drive to the south. They could have fallen back to strengthen their own lines, but they did not. What fools.
“We hid ourselves around Nazi checkpoints outside the town. We were determined no Nazis would get out alive. My group was watching a gated checkpoint the Nazis had fortified with sandbags and two heavy caliber machine guns on half-tracks. We were at the front door. The war would be over for us when we heard the first American tanks at our backs. I can’t tell you how we felt, knowing the Americans were coming.
“It had begun to rain just before dawn. We were wet and cold and miserable, cursing the Nazis even for the weather. We blamed everything on the Nazis. Then we were discovered by a German patrol. Bullets were flying everywhere. It was every man for himself. I got away and took a position behind a fallen tree, smashed and uprooted by a bomb. It was a perfect vantage point overlooking the square down below. A rugged cart path a stone’s throw to my left sloped down into the village a half kilometer below. I could see everything.
“As I approached the tree I was startled to see a dark figure already hiding there. It was still very dark, and I could barely make out anything in the rain. I froze and waited. He was alone and he wasn’t a German soldier.”
Hunter said, “In the dark? How did you know he wasn’t a German?’
Margaret spoke up. “This person was facing the village. A German soldier would be facing the other way, you see, watching for the Americans.”
Gamar said, “One must experience such things to know such things. It’s one of the secrets of survival.”
Hunter said, “I’m curious about something.”
“What might that be, my dear?”
She said, “This is 1986. If you fought with the resistance, you’d have to be at least sixty years old by now.”
“We are,” Gamar said. He took Margaret’s hand. “Margaret is sixty-three, and I am sixty and two months.”
“Geez,” Hunter said.
It was at this moment when I began to wonder about Gamar and Margaret. Gamar was, as I have said, a much healthier man than I remembered him to be. It was obvious they were both very well preserved. They were more erect and much more limber than the usual sixty-year old. You could see by their movement, their general demeanor that they were much more physically capable than the usual restrictions of aging would allow. One makes mental notes of such things without thinking, but I had taken for granted that Margaret was little more than half of Gamar’s age. And, Gamar, I guessed him to be pushing fifty at the most. It was the fresh food, I thought, the healthy Mediterranean air, their easy life here.
Gamar went on. “I had to make contact with this person crouching under the tree. I couldn’t take any chances. He could turn and shoot in a second if I coughed, or if my knee popped. I gathered three pebbles and tossed them in quick succession close to his head. Had he been a German soldier he would have shot first and asked questions later, as they say, but the three pebbles was well known among our people. He turned and waved me in. I heard a cork squeak out of a bottle. What a relief. And Voila! That very person sits here beside the lovely Hunter.”
Margaret smiled and nodded.
“As I said, we were cold and miserable, cursing the Nazi bastards even for the weather. Margaret shook me awake and motioned toward the bottom of the hill. Five German artillerymen had harnessed the starved skeleton of a horse to a small field Howitzer. They were coaxing the animal up the cart path toward us. The rain was muddying their way, making it impossible. Their progress was a slippery, agonizing struggle.
“The horse, pitched against a load completely beyond its means, was being brutalized by the officer in command while the others manhandled the wheels over the slippery ruts. We watched them struggle and curse for half an hour as we finished up Margaret’s sausages and wine. In the meantime, the rain had become a downpour by the time the Nazis had barely made half their way. Finally, Margaret raised her rifle and released the safety. There was enough light now for a clear shot. She took careful aim, and I must remind you the target of a man at that distance is no mean feat. I asked her, ‘Will you kill the one in command?’ I had a particular dislike for German officers. I still do. She said, ‘I am the one in command.’
“I knew at that moment this was the woman for me.
“I watched, breathless, as she took aim. Which of them would fall?
“The shot spat out and the horse crumbled, relieving itself of its entire intestinal tract as its body was so suddenly relaxed under the strain. The Germans had no idea what had happened. They were left supporting the entire weight of the cannon. It was impossible for them. The cannon careened back down the hill, dragging the limp carcass of that pitiful animal and its steaming entrails along with it.
“The officer was furious, screaming and struggling to stay on his feet. Margaret took aim and dropped him. His body slid down to the foot of the path and became a thing in a mud puddle beside the road. I can tell you, when men march off to war, they’re not thinking about the ditches they’ll die in. She let the others escape so as not to reveal our position. The Germans were very good with their mortar fire. They ran for it when the Americans rolled in. Their command had collapsed. The resistance people picked them off.
“The people of the village filled the streets. They gave gladly to the Americans what they had hidden form the Nazis. It was all they had left. That shows you how people are.
“After that, Margaret and I became inseparable. We’ve been together ever since, as you can see. And that, my dear Hunter, is how Margaret and I met.”
Hunter shook her head. “That poor old horse.”
“Ah,” Gamar waved his hand. “We decided it must have been a Vichy horse. That made us feel better.”

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A JOURNAL ENTRY

A JOURNAL ENTRY
R. HARLAN SMITH
Steve and his business partner Dave, a jazz singer, invited me along for the ride on a drive down to Purdue to visit another jazz musician, Hans Bessel. Hans taught classes there. He was a vibes man and very good. He was better known by other musicians and jazz afficianados than he was by the big labels in jazz. He had played with all of them; Gillespie, The Messengers, Brubeck, you name it, he played with them. Hans had some arrangements from the American Songbook for Dave, and we took off on a frigid, gray Saturday morning in Dave’s cluttered, old Pontiac.
The fields and forests of Indiana in winter give me the feeling everything on earth is dead, except humanity, which hardly seems fair, but is none the less frozen into truth on the brittle horizon. What could be more dreary than a road trip on such a day? Hans Bessel’s house.
We followed Dave’s crude map to the address he had written on a soup can label, and there was a problem of threes and fives with the address. With his scribbling, there was no telling which was which, and the name of the street was entirely unintelligible. Dave and Steve argued in a place called The Coffee Stop.
“Who taught you to write, Helen Keller? You raised by a fuckin’ crocodile, or somethin’?”
“I had nothin’ to write on, and he was in a hurry, alright? I wrote what it sounded like he said, alright? So fuck off, already.”
The waitress brought our coffee and waddled away.
“Lookit that. What is that, Grfleminin? That ain’t even a street, for Christ sake. There’s no Grfleminin.”
“It’s Garfield Street.”
“Oh, Jesus, throw me a rope.”
I left the booth and headed for the phone on the wall by the washrooms. The phone book listed Hans Bessel at 3558 Garfield. It would be at the end of the block on the right. I wrote it on a page from my notebook and brought it back to Dave. “He’s in the book.”
Steve wanted to know what Bessel’s wife was like.
“How should I know, man? I never met her.”
“Didn’t you say she was an artist, or something?”
“Yeah, but I never met her.”
The Bessel house was a two-story, wood-frame monstrosity, built for the upper class in turn-of-the-century Indiana. It was typical of the houses in that area, probably for one of the professors. It had weathered a century of rain and snow and humidity, and it sat shrugged on its foundation like a fat, slate-roofed toad. We had to take our shoes off at the front door.
Hans welcomed us quickly inside to keep the weather out as he explained the furnace was out and would be replaced next week. They, he and Paula, were living in their cluttered, cubby hole kitchen with electric heaters and the smells of coffee and chicken soup and tobacco smoke. There was barely space enough for all five of us, but Hans managed to fit an extra chair from the back porch for me, and we sat around the table and got acquainted amidst the mess of sheet music and books on music theory.
What peaked my interest was the interior of the house. The rooms had been refurbished with reworked walls and fresh paint; white walls and sky-blue ceilings. The garnishment around the doors and windows, which had been enlarged and replaced, was fresh and unfinished, and the floors had been sanded and varnished and polished to a museum gloss. The room to the right of the entrance had the statue of an exact replica of Paula seated on a wooden stool in the nude with a pleasant smile on her face. The room to the left had another in a different pose and a more mischievous smile. There was no other furniture. They were very well done and very revealing of Paula. Steve and Dave hadn’t seemed to notice. They began talking music right away and who had a gig where and what was the scene in Old Town, Chicago and have you heard Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk”? Crazy, man.
I asked Paula about the statues. “The house looks great,” I said, “and I love the figures. Did someone local do them?”
“I did them. The rooms upstairs have two more. I’m going to cover all the walls with paintings by my friends.”
“Really. They’re very good.”
Her smile was genuine, and when she turned her attention on me, I was genuinely excited. “Thank you. Yours is the first compliment I’ve heard. Are you an artist?”
“Yes. I’m a painter. Oils.”
“What do you paint? I hope you’re not the Jackson Pollock type.”
“I do landscapes.”
“Not the dreary Hudson River stuff, I hope.”
She made me laugh. “No. I’m more of an Impressionist. I like sunlight.”
“Ah, I like that. A lot of my friends are Impressionists, I’d love to see some of your work.”
“Well, perhaps…”
Suddenly, the time had passed and we were leaving. We said our good bys and were on the road back to Glen Park. I waved to Paula and she smiled and waved back with what I thought was some enthusiasm. Neither Dave or Steve were speaking until Dave said, “The son of a bitch didn’t even have’m ready. We drove all that way for nothing.”
“Well, he said Paula kept him busy on the house. He apologized.”
“Yeah, well, he said he’d have’m ready.”
“Turn on the heater, for Christ sake. I’m freezin’ over here.”
“It is on.”
Dave thumped the dashboard. The glove compartment fell open and the heater fan whirred. He looked at me through the rear view mirror. “I can’t believe you made a move on Bessel’s wife, man.”
I didn’t answer. He can think what he wants.
I wondered if I’d ever meet a woman like Paula some day. Maybe I’ll put a wooden stool up in my apartment and imagine her there.

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The Life Givers

The Life Givers

by

R. Harlan Smith

   Planchette met the old man down by the landing at dawn. It was cold and there was a mist on the lake. The water lay calm like a sheet of metal.

“Get in the boat,” he said. “Sit mid ship, child, between the oars. I’ll load the tool chest.”

“But I’ve never rowed before, sir.”

“You’ll row today, child, and the next, and the day after. The fourth day, I’ll row so your hands can heal. From the fifth day on, you will row.”

The old man followed her into the boat and set the tool chest between his boots. He sat at the prow, looking into Planchette’s eyes.

“What’s your name, child?”

“Planchette, sir.”

“How old?”

“Ten, sir.”

“Man your oars. Put them in the water. Good. Now take a heading to the middle of the lake.”

Planchette found the oars unwieldy.

“Take an even stroke,” he said. “Not too deep, not too shallow. That’s it. That’s very good.”

The boat glided easily along.

“Your left is port,” he said. “Your right is starboard. Pull on the port, push on starboard to bear to port. Do the opposite to bear to starboard. Don’t mind the-”

The old man paused. His eyes closed and his hand went to his chest. He sighed and his body slumped. Planchette watched him, curious, a bit frightened. He recovered and took a breath.

“-the mist,” he continued. “Don’t mind the mist. It’ll go with the sunrise. We’ll see the floaters easy enough.”

Planchette rowed on and on, pulling the weight of the boat with little aching arms and shoulders.

“There’s one,” he said. “Pull alongside. Easy as you go, child. Ah, that’s good. Ship your oars, child. Always ship your oars aft. We don’t want water in the tool chest.”

He gave Planchette the net. “Come up under him and let him drip. We want him dry. Put this on your lap and dry him with it. Now, heave him aboard. Dry him thorough and turn him over. What do you see?”

“There’s a red line running its length, sir.”

“That’s fore and aft, child.”

“It’s glowing, sir.”

“Ah, so it is. Run your finger along that line. It’ll open up.

Planchette ran a finger along the glowing line and the fish opened.

“Do you see the little blue box?” he said.

Planchette was breathless. “Yes.”

“Take it out. What do you read on it?”

“It says ‘C dash One’.”

“Good. Take it out. Take a C dash One from the tool chest and snap it in.”

Planchette replaced the old C dash one and felt the fish stir in her lap. It closed automatically. She felt it humming.”

“Now lower him over the side, gently, now.”

The fish wriggled and lunged deep into the water.

“Good,” the old man said. “Get under way, child. We’ve a full day ahead.”

After a full day of C dash Ones, and C dash twos and threes, and several tens, the tool chest was near empty.

“Take us in,” the old man said. “Our day is done.”

Planchette rowed back to the landing with little trouble. The oars were heavy now, and tiresome. The boat moved easily to the landing. Planchette pulled on the starboard oar and held fast on the port oar. The boat bumped against the stanchion.

The old man heaved the tool chest onto the dock and slumped back onto his seat.

“Oh, blast!” he said. His voice weakened to a whisper. “Quickly, child. Unbutton my shirt.”

Again, he slumped in his seat. His face went pale.

Planchette unbuttoned the old man’s shirt. She saw a glowing red line down his stomach. It opened easily like the fish.

“Hurry, child! It’s a C dash one hundred! I keep one in the tool chest! Lively, child! Make the change!”

“Oh, sir!”

“No tears, child. Move!”

In seconds, the old man was sitting up straight. His color had returned.

“There, now. There’s an old Seaman back at you,” he whispered.

They made the boast fast to the dock, and the old man carried the tool chest to the boathouse. “Well done today, Planchette. You did well. Be here at dawn and we’ll have another day. Good evening, Planchette. And not a word.”

“Good evening, sir. Not a word, I swear.”

Planchette’s mother was smiling at the door. “How was your day, dear?”

“It was good, mum. I rowed.”

“That’s wonderful, love. Have your soup. There’s fresh bread for you.”

Planchette finished her soup. It felt warm and comforting.

“Your father came by with a C dash one hundred for you. It’s a mystery you’ve lasted this long. We’ll put it in before you go in the morning. Now go to bed, little love, and pleasant dreams.

“Good night, mum.”

“Good night, little love.”

END

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WHY I DIRECT MY WRITING TOWARD WOMEN –

Recently, during the post-Hangout conversation of a Rakestraw Book Design Hangout, a friend was surprised to learn that I direct the narrative voice of my writing toward women. It isn’t obvious, and neither men nor women realize it in the reading, but I do it. I believe it is one thing to develop and use a writing voice, and it is another to direct it when a writer writes. To be honest, I prefer talking to women rather than to men, with some rare few exceptions, of course. My friend, in fact, is one of the exceptions.

My friend’s concern was that I was leaving out half the population of any given demographic. And he was right. In my mind, when I’m writing, that’s exactly what I’m doing. There may be men then who will refuse to read what I write. On the other hand, there may be additional women who choose to read what I write. I don’t know. I will still direct my narrative voice to a female reader, rather than to the reader in general. 

There are millions of women in the Unites States and millions more to come. If I can count my sales among these millions, I’ll be content with that. A man can’t have too many women, either at once or in sequence. I’ve experienced both, and I’ve determined in-sequence is less tiring (or tiresome, either one will do). A plurality of women in a man’s life is imperative to his education and his world view. Otherwise he is doomed to a life of Prufrock mediocrity, measured in teaspoons, and leaving a wealth of intelligence gone to waste. I have known only a measurable few of the millions, but enough to realize their value in my life.

In the event there is nothing a man can learn from his last woman, there is invariably something he can learn about her. And what he learns about the last one is the enabler to what he can learn from the next. There is no other rule.

I am not one who worships women, or a god for that matter. There are rules for worshipping a god, and there are rules for worshipping a woman. A man can sing all the praises and offer all the tithing he can come up with, but he won’t get any closer to either one if he doesn’t obey the rules. So worshipping women is out of the question. I prefer to write to them.

They’re a worthy readership. I can rely on an honest evaluation. And I’ll get a point of view that translates to furthering the use of my voice. So, all of the above is why I direct my writing voice to women.

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A MURDER SCENE FROM ROBIN OF TUDOR GABLES

One day when Robin was tucked away in his hideout, he was listening to Mrs. Silverman playing her organ. He knew it was making his mother mad and he didn’t care. Suddenly, the basement door opened and Robin froze. He could barely see a large man in a dark suit. His hair was dark and greasy and it stuck out over his collar. He didn’t look like anybody who lived in the apartments. He was too dressed up. Robin smelled a cigar. The man crossed the basement and stood at the sinks just inches away. He looked at Robin’s escape window and locked it. Then he put a plug in the sink and turned on the tap. He paced the basement until the sink was filled to the top. He turned off the tap. Then, slowly, he paced the basement again, back and forth, puffing his cigar. Robin could hear the man’s shoes squeaking.

The man stopped suddenly. He cocked his head, listening. Robin heard footfalls on the back stairs. They stopped at Drew’s apartment. There was a rapid knock and Larry’s voice.

“Drew? C’mon, baby. Open up. I know you’re in there.”

Larry waited and knocked again. “C’mon, baby! Let me in!”

Robin listened for Drew’s footfalls, but he heard nothing.

The man in the suit carefully opened the basement door. He crept out and up the stairs to the court way.

Larry continued to plead. “Drew, baby! Open the damned door!”

Robin heard a scuffling as the man grabbed Larry and struggled to drag him down into the basement. Larry whined and cursed and twisted around, furiously fighting the man all the way as he dragged him across the basement. The man spun Larry around like a doll and plunged his head into the sink. Larry’s hands clamped onto the sides of the sink as he strained against the man’s hand at the back of his neck.

“Please! Please!” Larry squealed, but the man took out a large, black pistol and hammered Larry’s fingers. Larry strained upward with all of his bodily strength, screeching frantically even with his head under the water. His legs quivered with the effort, but to no avail. His legs kicked and stomped as he struggled frantically to brace against something, anything, to defeat the iron arm that held him under. He knew it was almost too late. There were only seconds left, but he tried to steal a slight breath.

In a minute Larry was still. The man pulled him out of the sink by the collar and reached into the water to pull the plug. His suit sleeve was soaked up to his shoulder. He dragged Larry out like a heavy suitcase and closed the basement door.

Robin was paralyzed. He heard the man dragging Larry to the alley. A car pulled up. Robin heard the trunk open and close. He heard the passenger door open and close, and the car drove away.

The basement seemed to hiss with silence. There was not even the shallow breathing of a child. There was only the laundry sink with an inch of water, and then the slurp as the water and Larry’s life went down the drain, and Mrs. Silverman’s organ reached peaks and highs Robin had never heard before.

 

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Excerpt from “Donny Wilder” a work in progress

Donny is telling his father what it was like “over there.”

“It must’ve been pretty bad over there. I was worried sick, watchin’ the news.”

“Well, that’s all pretty much in the past for me now. I’ve had six years of college to put all that behind me.”

“I could see on the news it was awful.”

He wanted to hear about it. People don’t want to talk about it, but they have a morbid curiousity to hear about it. I felt like a kid, telling my father how I had been abused.

“It’s a shitty place to kill and be killed, and thick; you have to hack your way through it. The sky clouds up and the trees get nervous and it rains, comes down like crazy, and it goes on and on. You think it’ll never stop. It’s hot and it stinks and it’s always humid. There’s always slithery things and aggressively curious rats, and insects like you’ve never seen before moving around you. I lived with my weapon in one hand and my knife in the other. I used to wake up in L.A. still feeling my rifle and my knife in my hands…”

I watched my father looking into me as I spoke. I knew he saw a change in me. Of course, I was not the same boy they had hugged and kissed good by. What I had done, what I had seen, what I had endured in the bloody, rotten, filth of those jungles had roughened me. He saw I had become a grown man, but he could see what had come with it. He saw that war is a test a man takes and then carries the results around with him for what’s left of his life. You can’t describe it. That’s why they say, “If you weren’t there, then you don’t know, so shut the fuck up.” Men who don’t go to war are victims of their own slovenly complacency, preserved for them by heroes who resent them.

“…the pure obscenity of war.”

“Ah. That’s my educated Donny talkin’ now.”

“Maybe. The obscenity begins where the marching and the brass bands and the relentless training leave off. That’s when the education begins.”

“Now, you’re getting’ over my head.”

“War is over everyone’s heads, pops. It’s a lesson. Not everybody gets it.”

“A lesson. What’s the lesson?”

“For whom? The governments that finance it? The generals who plan it? No. It’s for all the young, baby-faced guys who endure it and pay for it with their lives. Their receipts are written on their faces and their psyches. The lesson is desperation.

“One of my friends, Bobby Whitson, just a young kid from North Carolina, he had been blown to pieces, and as I held him, his life pulsing out of him, he said, “It ain’t so bad, Donny.” His grip loosened on my hand and… and he was gone. I could see by his eyes… I could… Oh, God, he wasn’t in there anymore.”

“I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry.”

A drowning man forgets all he’s ever heard or been told about swimming. His desperation forbids it. Only when he stops thrashing and realizes it’s not so bad is the lesson learned.”

“If there’s a lesson, why in hell does it go on?”

“Every generation has to learn the morbid desperation of war. When the crippled no longer walk the streets and the battle-beaten men who sit in the wards, blank and vacant-eyed like clocks that can never be wound again are gone, it’s the next generation’s turn…”

And he saw what I had become in the loftier, more civilized state of learning at U.C.L.A., and how the more cosmopolitan society of Los Angeles had polished me. He knew it was that dichotomy with which he had now to become acquainted, and he would. My father had always been patient with me. He could see well into people, and that’s what he was doing as I matched a gruesome description of Viet Nam to what he had imagined. My father doesn’t see who I see in the bathroom mirror.

“… and the sound of a helicopter can be the answer to a desperate prayer, or the sweaty, merciful awakening out of a brutally bad dream .”

“Damn.”

“It could have been worse. I made it through in one piece.”

My father stared at the floor, picturing what I was telling him. We sat quietly for a while. Then,“The Army treat you okay?”

“The Army doesn’t treat anybody, pops. You keep up or you’re kept out. You have constantly to qualify to die for your country.”

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Excerpt from “The Factory Worker”

Patty was excited on the morning of her departure. She was dreadful about the vast change ahead and leaving the people she loved behind, but she was exhilarated to get on with it. She stood in the driveway with her father beside a stack of luggage, waiting for Victor.

“You be sure and call your mother as soon as you land. She’ll want to know you got there in one piece. Do you have everything, your aunt’s address?”

“I will, and I have her address in my purse, in my pocket, and in my cosmetics bag.”

“I’m sorry I can’t drive you, babe. I have an all-day meeting today I can’t miss. We’re covering a lot of ground.”

“I know. It’s okay. It was sweet to give Victor the day off. That’s the best going away present you could have given me.”

She hugged her father. It was a loving grip with her head to his chest. Her eyes welled with tears.

He patted her back. “Now don’t start sniveling. You’ll stain my suit.”

“I love you, daddy.”

“Daddy? It’s been years since you called me daddy. When you were little I used to hold you when you cried. You ruined more shirts and ties for me. Now look at you, grown, a woman, going off on your own.”

She straightened her father’s tie and patted it in place. He offered his handkerchief. She laughed and sniffed and blotted her nose. “And still ruining your ties.”

“All I want from you is to come back a professional woman, ready to hit the ground running. You’ll probably make more money than I do. I’ve been buying you things all your life. I’m going to make you buy me something.”

“I will. I’ll buy you anything you want. Anything.”

“Victor bought your house?”

“Yes. He loves it.”

“Here he comes now. I have to go or I’ll be late.”

She gave her father a hug. “Good bye, dad.”

“Good bye, babe. Take care.”

The ride to the airport was heartfelt and quiet. She sat close to Victor, hugging his arm. There was nothing either of them could say to make the ride easier. Time seemed to ooze up on them with its threat of the inevitable. Time can be relentless.

They didn’t know how to say good bye, not with so considerable an amount of time attached. The man who checked her baggage was fast and efficient and completely oblivious to the two aching hearts watching him. They had a forty minute wait, and when her call to board was announced, they faced each other. She was terribly brave and Victor wanted to sink into a crack in the floor. Victor looked into her eyes, and as a man will do when taken with great beauty, he must touch it, he put his hand to her cheek.

“Your face, God, how I’ll miss your face. I love you, Patty.”

He put his hand to her cheek as if it were a passionate kiss, and she felt it as such, her tears streaming. He kissed her, and afterward, after the minor tension of accelerated speed and the floating sensation of lifting off and away from everything she loved, she wept quietly into her father’s handkerchief.

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REPETITION AS LITERARY MISCHIEF

REPETITION AS LITERARY MISCHIEF

I read something a while back on the use of repetition: that is the use of a word or a sentence too many times for emphasis. The rule seems to be “no more than twice”, especially with a sentence. Rules can be frustrating. They can be inhibiting for a writer. So, one way to get a bit of gratification out of rules can be to break them, which I do often. I’ve written this to demonstrate how practical, gratifying even, it can be to break a rule.
All the great painters broke rules to introduce the next period of painting style, and since I’m a painter as well, it rubs off into my writing (and, of course, other things). Nothing ever happens at only one level.
Here are four examples by which I’ve repeated a sentence. My reason for breaking this “no more than twice” rule is to set the reader up for the last time the sentence is used. It’s a bit of literary, rule-breaking mischief.
The following excerpt from the book, “Kirsche” introduces Mitchell’s relationship with Burns. The reader will recognize the sentence.

He was sitting on my bed with his feet up, a bottle of wine on the side table, again with one glass. He had a fresh haircut. He stood and walked across the room to show me his suit. “How do I look?”
“Very German.”
“Of course.”
I sat in his place on my bed. “Why are you here, Burns? How did you know we’d land in Lausanne?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya. I’m here to brief you on the next step.”
My mind closed and exploded open again. “The next step? What step? There is no step. I got her to Switzerland, and now you have her. I’m done. That was our deal, Burns.”
“I know. I know, but that wasn’t all the deal. We got you out of France and we’ll get you out of Switzerland.”
“When. When God damn it, Burns.”
But it’s going to be via Singapore.”
“Singapore?”
“Yep.”
“Burns, you son of a bitch. That’s why she chose me. Of course, to get me to Switzerland, too. To deliver me to you.”
“Now, don’t get riled up, Mitchel. It was the safest way out. She didn’t know why. She was following orders.
“No. I’m not going to Singapore. Are you out of your mind? I’m not going to Singapore. You son of a bitch, Burns. Tell me why. Why by way of Singapore? It had better be good. Burns.”
Burns relaxed in a chair and proceeded to tell me in detail everything I didn’t want to hear. I was glad to see him.

In the preceding passage I’ve used the sentence twice, once with a slight variation. It may or may not have gone unnoticed. In the proceeding passage I use the same sentence once more for emphasis. The reader is now “set up” for the last time I intend to use it. This last time is the bit of literary mischief I referred to. The rule is broken. Again, the reader may or may not notice.

“Of course. We have to know how it works if we want to defeat it. It’s a secret weapon, Mitchel. It flies to its target and it doesn’t need a pilot. There’s never been a weapon like that before. The first to have critical information are the first to bargain with it.”
“You son of a bitch, Burns.”
“Mitchel, it’s not the same back home in Wisconsin. Most of the men are gone. They’re fightin’ or bein’ trained to fight. Most of the women are workin’ in factories day and night. The entire might of America’s armed forces is in the hands of our women.”
Burns scratched his head. “Kinda like the wives who loaded their husband’s rifles when the Indians were circlin’ the wagons.”
“How do we leave here, plane, car, dog sled?”
“You’ll be driven to the airport and flown to an airstrip where you catch a Lib out of Switzerland.
“A Lib?”
“A B-24 Liberator, long-distance bomber. Ford makes’m. Makes’m one an hour, twenty-four hours a day. It’s a hell of a piece of work. You’ll only touchdown for a few refueling stops, so you can figure on bein’ on a plane for a good while. You’ll land in Singapore at Changi. It ain’t much, but it’ll land a B-24. We’ll have a man there to meet you and put you up. He’ll give you a weapon and all the papers you’ll need. And the appropriate clothes. That’s the last you’ll see of’m.”
“A weapon? God damn it, Burns… ”
“You hang on to it. Might do you some good. Get used to wearin’ it in your pant waist in back. Always keep it on you. Y’got that? Always keep it on you.”
“Yeah, right.”
“Say it.”
“Look, Burns, I-”
“Say it.”
“Alright, I’ll always keep it on me, for Christ sake.”

Now the reader is set up. He’s read the sentence three times. That’s enough to make it repetitive, and as I said, the rule is broken. In this last passage the sentence is used again. By now it is understood the sentence is used to reveal how Mitchell is manipulated by Burns, and how Burns is an irritation to Mitchell. In the following passage the repeated sentence is the pay off in which Mitchell is faced with the grand frustration brought upon him by Burns. Mitchell’s escape to England and Kirsche’s life are at stake.

I walked the streets for hours, sweating, cursing Burns and the doctor. I searched for his bent figure plodding in the heat. I checked every sidewalk table, every restaurant. My anxiety became a dripping desperation.
When I had no other option, my only hope was he would be back in my room, waiting for me. It was my only hope. I swore I would never leave the United States again.
I ran into Burns on the street on my way back. “Gather up the old man and get out here, fast. We got about fifteen minutes to get out to the airfield. Them flyboys ain’t gonna wait unless they see us comin’.
“He’s not here. I’ve been everywhere to find him. Maybe he’s back by now.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ. Did Ulrich get him?”
“How should I know?”
“Okay. Get your things. If he’s in there, drag his ass out. We’ve got to move, now. They’ll wait if they see us comin’.”
I ran to my room and that’s where I found him. He was cowering on his bed. His nose was bleeding, his hands covering his face. Kirsche stood over him with a pistol aimed at his head.
“You hit him? You hit this old man?”
“Mitchel, Ulrich is dead. I shot him. I’m free, Mitchel. We can be together now. We can go anywhere.”
“Put the gun down, Kirsche.”
“He betrayed the Fuhrer.”
She sneered at him. “Traitorous, Jew pig.”
A car horn sounded. Burns was fired up.
The doctor was shivering with fear, his hands covering his bloody face. I could have shot him myself.   “You fool. Why did you leave?”
He could barely speak. “N-no. I w-went to the la-lavatory.”
Burns laid on the horn.
My hand went back and grabbed my gun. I drew a bead on her ear. “Drop it, Kirsche. Please, don’t do this. Let him go.”
“You won’t shoot me, Mitch. How could you hurt me?”
Burns, you son of a bitch.

And that’s that’s the last time I repeat the sentence. The rule is broken, the reader is set up, my literary mischief is done. The practicality is how Mitchell’s frustration is transferred to the reader. I guarantee you’ll feel the frustration.

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What Follows

 

by

R. Harlan Smith

   On the night Frank Pearls died, he gathered his little congregation around his chair and gave each of them a little snack like a priest giving Holy Communion. They received their snacks gleefully and smacked their lips to show their appreciation. Then he settled back in his chair, swallowed another glass of whiskey, filled the glass again, and in his calm, pleasant voice,  proceeded – sometimes he would read to them from Joyce, or Kierkegaard, or Al Capp, or sometimes he would just talk to them about philosophy, but he would never tell them it was philosophy. Tonight he would talk.

   “My dear friends.” He smiled at them. He loved them.

    “There ain’t any valid rationale to treat folks badly. There’s  reasons enough, of course there’s reasons, but reasons ain’t explanations of any real substance. Hold on a minute.”

   Frank drained his glass and refilled it.

   “There’s always a cause behind this sort of thing, treatin’ folks badly,  and cause is multi-layered, ain’t it. One act causes this or that, which triggers this, which leads to that, which brings this about, etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum, don’t you see, until you come to our particular act of treatin’ folks badly, which, in turn becomes an act itself to foster endless other more of’m. Nothin’ ever happens at only one level. Every bit of behavior is segmented to one previous and one following. That’s the one to look out for, the ‘what follows’ one.  Now, you can’t help what come before, but you are in charge of what follows, so always bear in mind you are responsible to and for what follows.”

   With that, Frank Pearls laid his head back to the chair and closed his eyes. His arms sagged to the sides of the chair and the whisky glass slipped from his hand, and he sighed. The little congregation tensed. They had never seen Frank do  this before. A flutter of wonder stirred among them. They kept their eyes on him, waiting, but Frank stayed very still.

   Frank Pearls earned enough money as a Dog Sitter  to supplement his monthly check. There were fifteen, sometimes twenty, dogs. Some were kenneled separately, others  together because they had a merry time together. Every evening, he would gather all the dogs into his house where they would sit obediently before his chair, tails thumping. Then Frank would take out his whiskey and proceed to get drunk, and he would talk to them before the owners arrived.

   The owners liked greeting their cherished beasts at Frank’s front door, leashed and ready to go. It assured them of his personal care and concern. Some of them swear their dogs have become smarter since they’ve been in Frank’s care. They all agreed Frank was the only other owner of their dog.

   The young Miss Hazelton was the first to arrive. Miss Hazelton drove her new Volvo thirty minutes out of her way to leave her little Butch, a long-haired, miniature, female Dachshund, with Frank. She dressed smartly and worked as a product manager for a big company in the city. She knocked several times and when there was no response, she opened the door a little.

   “Hello? Frank?”

   There was no response.

   She opened the door just enough to fit her head and looked around, her eyebrows up, her eyes wide, with a perfect inquisitive expression. The house was still. She stepped inside and called out to Frank, and again there was no response.

   “Frank?” she called again.

   Strange, she thought, there were no dogs in the kennels and no dogs wandering about the house. She wondered how that could be.

   She found the dogs lying about in front of Frank in his chair. She thought he was sleeping. Some of the dogs raised their heads sadly to look at her and lowered them again. Others just mournfully rolled their eyes to watch her. Butch came to her immediately. Miss Hazelton caught her up in her arms with a hug and a kiss.

   Miss Hazelton had never seen a dead person and she was not sure how to tell if a person is dead. She thought she should walk on the tips of her toes and be as quiet as possible, although she didn’t know why, but she did. She looked very carefully at Frank Pearls. His eyes were partially closed and his jaw sagged open. She felt embarrassed for him, and she wondered if it was rude to stare at a dead person, as fascinating as it was.

   Miss Hazelton felt it was her duty to stay and explain to the others. She called the police and they called an ambulance to take Frank away after the Coroner declared there was no foul play and Frank’s passing was a death of natural causes. Frank’s clients were shocked and disappointed. Their dogs dragged at their leashes and walked reluctantly to their owner’s cars with their heads down.

   The county auctioned Frank Pearls’ house and everything in it. What did not sell was donated to the Goodwill Center. His ten year old niece in Ohio was delighted to hear she had inherited three hundred and thirty-eight dollars from her uncle Frank. Frank’s belongings went everywhere.

   Maria and Carlos Ruiz found Frank’s chair at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena. Carlos liked it right away.

   “This is still a pretty good chair,” he said.

   Maria agreed. She examined the cushion. “We don’t even have to patch anything up.” They brought it home in the trunk of the car.

   “A man should have his chair,” Maria said.

   Carlos liked to sit and have a glass of beer when he came home from delivering heavy jugs of water all day. He could put it right across from the television for the soccer tournaments and. Don Francisco.

   It was Friday and hot, and Carlos Ruiz drove his route and dreamed all day of sitting in his chair with his beer while Maria set out dinner. He smiled on his way home, charmed by the image of little Zapata, Maria’s Chihuahua, running into the living room and leaping up onto his lap to welcome him home with a shower of loving licks and anxious whining. “Que Bueno perro,” he said. Sometimes his love for little Zapata brought tears to his eyes. Just a little dog.

  Maria kept him leashed in a corner of the kitchen where he spent most of his day. She didn’t like animals on the furniture. It made a smell. So little Zapata was comfortably leashed with a reasonable length so he could stretch his legs, and a thick folded blanket which Maria religiously vacuumed and laundered every Saturday.

   When Carlos was settled in his chair with his shoes off and his belt loosened, Maria unleashed little Zapata and delivered a cold glass of beer to her Carlos; always Zapata and the beer at the same time; two pleasures at once for her beloved Carlito. She kissed him on the forehead. He worked so hard. However, little Zapata, instead of leaping up on Carlos’ lap, sat on the floor in front of him and looked up at him as if waiting for something.

   It was at about that time when Maria heard a scratching on her kitchen door. She moved the curtain and looked. It was Cooper, the Villalobos’ Bull Dog. She opened the door and he and two other wiggly little mop heads pushed  past her to join little Zapata on the floor in front of Carlos. Then, because Maria, in her surprise, had left the door open, the rest of the dogs rushed in, nine of them.. Maria noticed more dogs gathering in the yard. And when she crossed herself, “Mio Dios,” she heard Carlos say, “My dear friends…”

   He smiled at them and became overwhelmed with a deep fondness for them. “Now I will tell you the story of how my ancestors discovered all dogs are singers…”

end

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All Dogs Are Singers

 by

R. Harlan Smith

   They sat wrapped in their cobijas around a quiet little fire that made dancing shadows on the Sajuaros. Cocopeli, the coyote, watched them from the brush with great curiosity, trying to think of a trick to play on them. He kept an eye on Dolores.

   Manuel opened another beer. He was going to tell them about the Secret of the Dogs, but he kept putting them off. Sometimes Storytellers do that. Finally, he said, “Whoever said there are no stupid questions had the monopoly on stupid statements.”

   Ricardo was on his sixth beer. The emptys were lined up between his feet. He liked the feel of a bottle under his foot. “Manuel, what’s the dog’s secret? C’mon.”

   Ricardo was Dolores’ little brother. She was there because he was there. She looked after him. They were excited, Ricardo and Alberto and Alex, because they knew Manuel’s stories were told to aggravate Dolores and bait her into an embarrassment. Manuel’s mother was a curanda and they thought Manuel knew things a brujo knew, so they gave him a walking stick to stay in his good graces. Alex made it and carved a crow at the top. Manuel kept it with great pride. He loved his friends and they loved him.

   Manuel took a long drink and settled into his rickety old chair. He had a captive audience. “The secret is, all dogs are singers.”

   They went silent then, waiting for Manuel to start his story. It was a silence a Storyteller used with great skill to take up any errant slack in attention. He let them wait and spoke.

   “The reason dogs don’t sing so much is because cats sing, too. But dogs don’t usually like cats as a rule, so they won’t do anything cats do. But all dogs are singers. Once in a while, a dog’ll sing somethin’ to a siren, or a train whistle. They like singin’ with accompaniment. It’s kind of irresistible for’m. Cats, they like to sing in duos or groups, but they’re strictly A Capella. Another difference is, cats sing to each other, but when a dog sings it’s a prayer.”

   Dolores was nodding, not so much in agreement as in a fixed state of aggravated tolerance. Manuel was pissing her off by putting off getting to the story. The younger set was not so tolerant of the old techniques of Storytelling the old men used, but that’s the only way Manuel learned. She swore she was going to put a bullet in Manuel’s lip someday, and everybody believed she’d do it. She was the only one among them who wore a gun belt. Manuel thought she looked so hot in her jeans and her gun belt and her sleeveless top that hid her marvelous tits that he could only dream about. He dreamed about them and longed like a dog praying to the moon for the privilege to kiss them. He was convinced she had the greatest pair of tits since Eleanor Roosevelt. Manuel was nice to Ricardo, so he would hang around and Dolores would be there, too. She was twenty years old and just the sight of her took Manuel’s breath away.

   Manuel took another drink to swallow his desires. “Yep. Their secret is, all dogs are singers.”

   “Tsk, Uhh!” Dolores rolled her eyes up into the universe.

   Manuel winked at Alex. “My father and his twin brother and some of the other old folks used to drink their home brew around the fire at night and tell stories.”

   “Your father had a twin brother?” Alberto said. “Were they identical?”

   Manuel stopped to think. “Well, they went before a magistrate once for fightin’ with each other. The magistrate looked at my father’s straight hair and his brother’s kinky hair, not to mention my father was handsomer and taller, and the magistrate said, ‘You don’t look much like twins.’ My father said, ‘Yep,’ and his brother said ‘Nope’, and since both answers were right, the villagers thought they must be  Storytellers; them and an old Indian named Pete.

   “Pete? Who’s Pete?” Dolores said.

   “Yeah. One of my father’s friends was an old Tohono O’Odham guy. He kept his hair long and parted in the middle, and his face was dark and all wrinkled and rutted. His cheeks had little craters between the creases from when he had the pox as a little kid. He was ugly. We were scared of him. The fire made shadows on his face that made him look like an old Sajuaro stump with long, white hair. And every hair in his mustache was as thick as a pencil lead.”

   “Oh, geez!” Dolores said.

   “He said his name was Pete, but everybody knew his name wasn’t Pete. His real name was so hard to say you could swallow your tongue just tryin’. His name in Tohono O’Odham meant, ‘Some snakes you go around, some snakes you make a U-turn.’ The people who could say his name were his friends. The ones who tried, but couldn’t get it right, he’d just go around’m. The people who didn’t even try, he’d turn around and go the other way. There were others who said no Tohono O’Odham would have a name like that. They said Pete was an Israeli.”

   More or less through her teeth, Dolores said, “Manuel, will you get on with it? Please?”

   Manuel was delighted. He had her attention. Manuel loved Dolores in secret; her and her Reservation Pig sun glasses she wore even now in the middle of the night. It made the fire easy on her eyes. “Okay, okay! Man. You’re gettin’ to be a mean drunk, Dolores!”

   “What?!”

   “Let him talk, Dolores. Let him talk,” Ricardo said.

   “I am not a mean drunk!”

   Manuel went on. “Sometimes they told stories everyone could hear, even the women and children. Other stories were exclusive, only the elders could hear. Some of the older boys could listen from outside the circle. And when Pete began to tell us his story with the fire makin’ shadows on his face, very seriously he said, ‘All dogs are singers.’ He usually started with the names of all the relatives and family who were there when the story happened. It’s the custom, but I’ll pass that part up.”

   “Thank God!” Dolores shifted in her chair.

   “Well, it was the early part of the twentieth century, nineteen aught somethin’. There was nothin’ left of the old West except Buffalo Bill, and he was in England.

   “Why’d they call him Buffalo Bill?”, Ricardo said. “Buffalos don’t have bills.” Ricardo Ortiz was the youngest among them. Dolores glared at him. He hunched his shoulders and looked at his foot. He was only wearing one shoe.

   Manuel ignored Ricardo. “There was a scientist named Percy.”

   “Percy?” Dolores said. “Why do you have to give him such a sissy name? Why not Bob, or George, or something?”

   “Or Alice,” Alberto said.

   “Or Eduardo,” Alex complained. They’re not all gringos.”

   Manuel leaned over toward Dolores and looked through her sun glasses into her gray-as-gray-can-be eyes. “Because his mom named him Percy. That’s why.

   “Yeah, Percy, he liked numbers. He said his numbers could prove there was another planet, but nobody could see it yet. They laughed at him, the other scientists. They said he was makin’ things up. He said, ‘No, I’m not. When it goes by the other planets, it makes’m wobble a little and slows’m down,” and he said his numbers could prove it, and they did, but still they wouldn’t take him seriously.

   “Then one day somebody made a better long eye that could see farther out into the stars.”

   “What’s a long eye?” Alberto said.

   “That’s what Pete called a telescope. And, sure enough, some farm boy from Illinois saw Percy’s planet. They said it probably wasn’t a planet at all. It didn’t obey the rules the other planets obeyed. It didn’t go around the sun on the same plane with all the other planets. But what scared everybody was what they saw out there with it. There was somethin’ movin’ around Percy’s planet. ‘It must be a moon,’ they said. But it wasn’t a moon because they saw it move form Percy’s planet to the planet Neptune and it circled around Neptune for a while. Then it went to  Uranus. By then they were positive it was bein’ steered by somethin’ intelligent. It looked like it could go anywhere it wanted, and it was lookin’ at all the planets.

   “This was an important discovery. They didn’t think they should tell the media and everybody right away, but after a few months they did tell the president. The president took one look and said, ‘It’s lookin’ at Mars. It’s comin’ here next.’ “

   As Manuel spoke, he reached into the cooler and took out the mason jar. He motioned to Dolores with it. She held her glass out to him and he poured more wine for her. She looked at him them in a very gentle way that made his heart jump. He screwed the lid back on and returned the jar to the cooler. He wiped the icy water on his jeans.

   “By then people in other countries saw it, too. They all agreed it was comin’ to the earth next.

   “When the word got out, people got scared. Somethin’ was comin’ from outer space, man. Who knows what it would do when it discovered people? Anything could happen. Everybody got real worried, and since dogs were man’s best friend, they got worried, too. Everywhere dogs began to sing. Rich dogs, poor dogs, city dogs, country dogs, even dogs that didn’t have voices, suddenly they could sing.”

   Dolores said, “Dogs that don’t have voices?”

   “He’s right,” Alberto said. “There’s an African dog, the Basenji, it doesn’t have a true bark.”

   They all wondered how Alberto knew that, but they were too interested in Manuel’s story to ask.

   “Right,” Manuel said. “The singin’ went on for days, hyenas in Africa, wolves in Siberia, dingoes in Australia, and every other conceivable kind of other dog in all the cities, hamlets, and villages of the whole world. What a racket they made.

   Alberto pointed a finger at Manuel. “A hyena ain’t a dog, Manuel.”

   “Yeah, well. You know how hyenas are. They try to muscle in on everything.”

   “Chihuahuas in the Sierra Madre,” Ricardo said.

   “Bulldogs in Boston,” Alberto said.

   “Corn dogs in Coney Island,” Alex said.

   Dolores closed her eyes and shook her head.

   “Yeah. And that’s how they discovered all dogs are singers, and the planet Pluto at the same time. Pete said this planet was known for uncoverin’ things that were long time secrets, and it was no wonder they found out all dogs were singers. That was almost a hundred years ago. And, y’know, old people die and new ones are born, and if the story don’t get passed on, people forget. That’s why today everybody knows about Percy and the planet Pluto, but hardly anybody knows all dogs are singers, except the Storytellers.”

   Alex was barely holding back a smile. He looked over at Ricardo and Alberto who were doing very well in keeping a straight face. They were waiting for Dolores. She was seething, staring out toward the stars. They knew she was getting angrier by the minute. She had to ask the obvious question. Alex thought her teeth were clenched as she took the bait.

   “Manuel… ?”

   Manuel waited. There was not a peso’s worth of patience left in her voice. He knew she would sound grim. Although she wondered if it was a stupid question, in her anger she barreled over the thought and demanded to know, “What about the God damned thing that was coming toward earth, Manuel? Jesus Christ.”

   “Oh, it went away.”

   “What?” Dolores sat up. “It went away?! What the hell am I supposed to do with that?! It went away.”

   Manuel shrugged. “Dolores, everybody knows if there’s dogs, you don’t go there.”

   Alberto and Ricardo and Alex screamed with laughter. They stomped their feet and shook their heads, and Alex said, “Tu comer te la,” and they laughed even harder.

   Dolores leaned back, muttering. “Pendajo. Estupido pendajo.

   She twirled the wine in her Mason jar. “He’s insane! He’s freakin’ loopy!”

Manuel smiled.

end

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Rosa and Cleopatra

by

R. Harlan Smith

Rosa’s Canteena did not belong to Rosa. It was the property of one don Louis Ortiz Ornellas, but he disappeared one day. He drove out of Dos Cruces in his fine gray and black Lincoln Zephyr and never came back. No one knows what happened to him.  Some people say they never heard of him. All Rosa knows is she doesn’t have to make high monthly payments anymore. Rosa was the only citizen of Dos Cruces who had a job and still she was as poor as everyone else. But no more. It has made life easy for her, keeping all her profits to herself. She was inspired to make chili and sell tacos to make even more money, but the farmers didn’t have enough money to buy anything and eat at Rosa’s Canteena. Instead, she kept a pot of beans warming and a stack of tortillas. It brought in a few pesos more, and she was happy with that, but sometimes she felt lonely. “There is no one who loves me,” she would say, but only to herself. Rosa Magdalina was aching lonely for a close friend.

   There were times when Rosa would shut down the bar and leave the rest open for the people. The villagers would share their food and Father Franciscus would bless everything. It was nice for everybody to eat together while Rosa went up to her place high up in the rocks. It took over two hours to walk up there. She built it herself and it was nice on a  flat rock and she put deer hides down to walk in her bare feet. It was cool up there and the smell of the village was only a memory. People were saying Rosa Magdalina was getting old and old people like to be alone, which wasn’t true. Old people don’t like to be alone.

   The only trouble was the Montez brothers liked to hunt up there with their rifles. They were young boys; noisy, clumsy louts, and Rosa hated them. Hunting was a game to them. They didn’t take it seriously. She warned them; “When you see smoke from my chimney, you stay away.”

   They taunted her. “We’re gonna come get you,” they sang from the rocks. “We’re gonna come get you, Rosa Magdalina.”

   “I’m telling Father Franciscus,” she shouted.

   Hector and Nestor Montez stayed away, but Rosa kept her ears open. “There’s no animal moves over rocks like a man,” her father, Miguel, told her. “You can hear a man a mile away. When I was younger, I could hear a snake comin’.” Then he would add, “Even with your mother snoring,” and they would all laugh, her and her brothers.. She wondered where Esteban and Emilio were. She hated Emilio, always fighting. She called him a vomit dispenser. They must be big now. Things were nice in those days.

   Rosa Magdalina could do a lot of thinking for a few days up in her place. Sometimes it brought tears to her eyes, remembering, but it made her feel good. It was good to be alone for a while.

   Rosa heard shooting and shouting just before the light of dawn. She pulled the blanket aside from her door and stood  to listen. She heard distant shots again and ricochets. It must be the Montez boys chasing down some poor creature.

   A large shape crept quickly over the rocks and hurried past Rosa’s hut. It saw her and stopped dead in its tracks and looked up at her with troubled eyes. She could have taken a step and touched an old mountain cat. The shooting and whistling and shouting was getting closer. The old cat was haggard and beat up. There were two wounds, her hind legs. It looked like the same bullet had hit both legs. The wounds weren’t bad, but they were slowing her down. She had lost blood and her wounded hind legs were giving out. The Montez boys were getting closer, shouting and whistling to keep her on the run till she dropped. She looked up at Rosa with such desperation in her eyes, Rosa said, “Why don’t you come in.” Rosa stepped aside to offer the cat a way to come in. The cat grumbled and she dropped her head to see past Rosa into the hut, then managed to drag her hind legs through Rosa’s door. She was breathing hard and testing for scent through her mouth. She scurried immediately across the room and crouched, panting and blinking behind Rosa’s little stove. It was the only thing in the room to hide behind. She might have been losing her eyesight, the way she blinked. That would scare her even more.

   It was a lucky thing Rosa Magdalina didn’t have the strength to kill a man with a broom handle, because she hit them to kill them, not to hurt them. They held their heads and hissed and paced and stomped with the pain. Rosa wanted to hurt them and she was pleased they were bleeding. She kept their rifles and beat on their legs to make them leave. She told them if they want their rifles send their father to come get them. Miscreantos.

   The cat kept a leary eye on Rosa as she filled a bowl with water and placed it within reach. Then she sat on the floor on the other side of the little stove and talked to the old cat as she continued to lick her wounds and grumble.

   Rosa talked to her: “I know, little cat. The legs are hurt easy. A woman’s legs are sensitive.”

   The bleeding had stopped.  She stared, blinking  at Rosa as Rosa talked, then she laid her head down and groaned, she was so exhausted.

   The next day Rosa could only get her to eat a little bit of chicken. When she yawned, Rosa could see she had teeth missing. In time, Rosa was able to pet her and scratch her chin, which she enjoyed very much. Rosa assured her she was beautiful again, and she looked like the great cats beside Cleopatra’s throne. Her eyes were a little clouded. Rosa thought she wasn’t much more than a blur to her. She was able to stand on the second day, but it made her grumble, and it tired her out. Rosa coaxed her with meat to walk a few steps and eventually she was following Rosa around the room. They took long walks together through the rocks and across open stretches of grass. After a few days she was able to run and she tripped Rosa by grabbing her skirts. They sprawled in the grasses and wasted  the days away. Rosa was laughing out loud and feeling joy for the first time in a very long time. Cleo’s legs were healing fine, and at last Rosa Magdalina felt like her entire soul was filled with love.

   One morning, when Rosa woke up, Cleo was gone. All the better, Rosa thought. She can’t live in a hut. She has to be free to hunt. Rosa worried. How could Cleo hunt if she could barely see? Rosa worried all day and fought back her tears.. Her concern for Cleo’s welfare worked her over like a nagging tooth. It was terrible not to have her around, watching all the things Rosa did, as if someday she might do them. And all the while Rosa talked to Cleo. She talked about things she hadn’t thought of in years, and it seemed the more she talked, the more she remembered, and she saw things differently afterward. She came to realize she had had a good life. Rosa Magdalina was not so lonely anymore. Cleo sat and watched her, and Rosa looked at her regal figure with loving eyes and an almost uncontainable fondness flooding her heart.

   When Cleo returned late in the morning and climbed onto Rosa’s bed to be with her, Rosa wept. For the first time in years, she cried like a child. “You came back,” she whispered. “Oh, my Cleo, I thought you were through with me.” She hugged her Cleo and wept and kissed her about the ears and head and breathed deeply the familiar musky smell of the grumbling Cleo. “My friend,” she sobbed. “My wonderful old friend,” and she wept so hard she could barely speak. Soon, they fell into a fine slumber with Rosa holding a large paw to her chest, their foreheads together.

   One morning, Cleo moved softly out of bed and crouched in front of the door. Someone was sneaking up on the hut.

   “Oh, Rosa-a-a-a. We’re coming to see you, Rosa.”

   When the Montez boys stepped into the room, grinning with evil intent, Cleo met them with a screech of outrage so loud it was heard down in the village. The Montez boys were paralyzed where they stood. Now, everyone in the village knew there was a puma near by and it scared them. They had their children and their penned stock to worry about. They reached for their machetes and their old guns.

   “Nestor, don’t run,” Hector said.

   “If there was ever a time to run, I think this is one of’m, Hector.”

   “No. Don’t run.”

   “Hector, I’m runnin’, man.”

   “No, Nestor. Don’t run.”

   “Oh, man. What are we gonna do, Hector?”

   Cleo sniffed the air. These were the ones who shot her. She remembered  them.

   “Hector, just back out real slow.”

   “I don’t know much about slow right now. We gotta get outta here, man.”

   “Just back out real slow.”

   They backed out slowly and took faster and faster steps until it was safe to break into a full run. They got to Rosa’s Canteena just in time to see Dolores Ortiz drinking her first beer of the morning. “A puma,” they shouted. “We tracked a puma to Rosa Magdelina’s house and it’s in there right now with Rosa. It must have killed her by now.”

   Dolores Ortiz was the first one to reach Rosa’s hut. It looked quiet enough. She slipped the rawhide loop off the hammer of her .44 and took a deep breath and rushed in. She saw the cat standing over Rosa on her bed. Rosa was scratching Cleo’s chin. Dolores drew her .44 and killed the cat straightaway, thinking it was attacking her friend Rosa Magdalina. They heard Rosa’s scream all the way down to the village, as if Dolores’ bullet had exploded through her own heart.

   Cleo whimpered in a terrible way and went limp and collapsed shivering onto Rosa’a chest, and Rosa moaned and hugged the great cat as if to keep her life from rising out of her.

   “Oh, my Cleo, my Cleo. No, no, no, my Cleo,” she cried. “I love you, my Cleo. Don’t leave me. Oh, please, God, don’t leave me my Cleo.”

   It was over. Old, half blind Cleo died being loved, and there was no explanation for anything. Rosa Magdalina hugged her beloved Cleo and rocked back and forth with her, aching and crying with the greatest, most agonizing injustice she had ever known. It was a terrible mistake that could not be undone. The old men who gambled for matches had to pull Cleo out of Rosa’s arms. They carried Cleo down to the village. They agreed she would make a fine skin.

   “What about Rosa?” someone said. “Maybe we shouldn’t leave her that way.”

   “Let her be. She needs to mend. Someday she’ll come back.”

   But Rosa didn’t come back. Her heart couldn’t take it. It was no use beating anymore. She curled into a ball and stayed that way until she died on the next full moon. Anyone brave enough to go up there would swear Rosa and Cleopatra still ran and played and frolicked among the rocks and the grasslands. You could hear her joyful laughing.

   Dolores Ortiz put little Ricardo on the back of her motorcycle. She took the smooth, paved road to Chihuahua, her tears streaming from behind her dark glasses.

   “Where are we going?” little Ricardo asked.

   “Anywhere we damned well please.”

   What a good answer little Ricardo thought. He loved his big sister. Hers was the only face he looked to for true love.

   The people of the village of Dos Cruces never saw them again.  And that was how Rosa Magdalina learned the joy of life is in the journey, and it is sometimes impossible to endure the end of it.

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Don Louis Ortez Ornellas, the Benefactor

by

R. Harlan Smith

   It was the monsoon season. All it did was rain. Even when it didn’t rain, clouds kept hiding the sky as far as you could see. The people of the village of Dos Cruces east of Chihuahua in the Sierra Madre sat under their ramadas and in their doorways, trying to keep their matches and tobacco dry, and the kindling for their stoves so they could smoke and cook. Sixty-six people lived there with their goats and chickens and little gardens. Even the dogs moped around impatiently with nothing to sniff at. It was one of these days when don Louis Ortez Ornellas drove into town in his nice black and gray Lincoln Zephyr and his fine beige suit.

   As usual, don Louis pretended to be in a good mood, smiling and waving his greetings. He was used to the somber response they gave him, so when he parked at Rosa’s Canteena and hurried in, he didn’t expect much. He took off his hat and whipped a spray of rain on the floor. Rosa put a glass and a bottle and her payment on the bar and stood back with her arms folded across her chest. Don Louis cursed the mud on his ostrich skin boots and looked around the room. There were four old men gambling for match sticks in the back. Dolores, the big sister of little Ricardo Ortiz, sat alone at a table near the bar where she could see out the door. When she saw don Louis, she put her muddy boots up on the other chair at her table. It was a motion that hid her thumb as it slipped the rawhide loop off the hammer of her .44. Don Loius didn’t notice. She sat with her feet up, one hand in her lap rubbing two coins together, her other hand held on to a glass of beer on the table. Don Louis couldn’t tell she kept her eyes on him behind her sun glasses, or that she was willing to kill him.

   Don Louis gave Rosa a nod and took up her payment and his glass and the bottle. Rosa just looked at him as if her were a fly and there was nothing else to look at. Don Louis crossed the floor to Dolores’ table, grinning. He was happy to see her.

   “You don’t mind to join me with a drink, eh, Dolores?”

   Dolores didn’t speak. She put her boots down and smiled to herself as don Loius sat in the mud she left on the chair.

   “Such a pretty smile for me. How is little Ricardo?”

   “You saw him last month?”

   “Of course, I saw him last month.”

   “He’s the same this month.”

   Don Louis downed a drink. “Good. That’s good.”

   “Did you like the present I sent to you?”

   Don Louis won a motorcycle in a poker game from a man in Chihuahua. Two of his men had to beat the man to get it away from him. Don Louis instructed the two men to find a woman named Dolores Ortiz in Dos Cruces and give it to her. They found her in Rosa’s Canteena at her table. When they came toward her she slipped the loop off the hammer of her .44 and stood up to face them. She didn’t know who they were, these men in suits, but they looked like bad news. The fat one who rode the motorcycle put up his hands in a peaceful gesture: “Tranquillo, tranquillo,” he said, holding up the keys. “Don Louis sent this to you with his respects.”

   “I don’t want it,” Dolores said.

   Where was there to go in Dos Cruces on such a big machine?

   The man threw the keys and the papers for it on her table. The two men looked at her for a minute and grinned at her, shaking their heads, then they jumped into their pickup and headed back to Chihuahua. The people gathered around it to have a look at such a big shiny machine. It had the name of a gringo on the gas tank. They wondered who Harley Davidson was and why he would give his beautiful machine to Dolores Ortiz. The muffler ticked and clicked as it cooled. Dolores drove it up to her hideout in the rocks where she lived and left it there in a cave. She walked back down the hill and sat at her table with a fresh beer. Rosa smiled and shook her head. Dolores nodded and smiled. Dolores closed her eyes when she smiled and it drove men wild. They all felt cheated and frustrated by her sun glasses.

   “It’s a very nice present, don Louis, but there’s no gasoline in Dos Cruces.”

   Don Louis turned to the men in back. “Carlos,” he called out. “Carlos Ramirez. Come here.”

   An old man rose from the table and came over to don Louise who handed him the keys to his Lincold Zephyr. “Bring the gas cans from my trunk and put them inside the door.” The old man obeyed without a word. The five gallon cans were too heavy for him, but he struggled with both of them one at a time and went back to his friends.

   “Did little Ricardo like the sandals I brought for him?”

   “No.”

   “No?” Don Louis was visibly disappointed. “What does it take to please that boy?”

   Dolores shrugged. “He wants a shoe.”

   “A shoe? One shoe?”

   “He already has one. He’s waiting to find another one.”

   “But the sandals-”

   “They were too big. He gave them to Daniel Aguilar who keeps goats up in the grasslands.”

   “Yes. I know Daniel. That’s a day’s walk from here.”

   “Daniel gave him some meat.”

   “Meat? I can bring him all the meat he wants. Stupid boy.”

   “You be careful how you talk about little Ricardo.”

   “Are you making a threat to me, your benefactor?”

   “No.”

   Don Louis tensed his jaw. His face swelled red and he took a deep breath and let it out through his nose like a bull. He looked down at his boots and cursed the mud again. “I have to go back,” he said. “It’s not raining so bad in Chihuahua.”

   Dolores stared out at the rain on the street.

   “You and little Ricardo could live in Chihuahua. He could go to school.”

   Dolores didn’t answer.

   Don Louis stood up and threw a handful of bubble gum on the table. “For little Ricardo,” he said.

   Dolores sat very still.

   “I’ll see you next month.”

   “Maybe.”

  Don Louis put his hat on and walked out of Rosa’s Canteena. Rosa laughed quietly at the mud on the seat of his pants. He raced his motor and sped out of Dos Cruces, swerving back and forth and throwing mud everywhere.

   Dolores slipped the loop back over the hammer on her .44.

   But that wasn’t the end of the story. There was more to it than that. It was easy to see don Louis had a soft spot for women. He got them to do things for him for money. He didn’t know what to do with a woman that had no respect for money, a woman like the stubborn but pretty Dolores Ortiz. Things were different the following month when don Louis came to Dos Cruces.

   Don Louis came to Dos Cruces late Saturday afternoon in his fine Lincoln Zephyr on a day when the sun was bright and there were great white billowing clouds piled high in the sky like ice cream, and Father Francisco was making kites with long tails for the children and coloring the sky with them. Everyone agreed it was a day fit for a fiesta. There was music coming from Rosa’s Canteena and the fragrances of pork cooking; sausages and bacon, and there was plenty of rice and beans steaming in pots, and heated tortillas. It was the first time don Louis had ever heard joy coming from the hearts of the people of Dos Cruces.

   He parked close to the door and got out with a little bag with a pair of shoes in it and walked into Rosa’s looking for Dolores at her table, but his face fell into a frown when he saw she was not sitting there. The music stopped and the crowd went silent.

   “What’s the matter?” he said. “Go on. Go on with your fun. What’s the occasion?” he asked Rosa.

   “It’s a celebration of things to come.”

   “Things to come.” Don Louis nodded. “Things to come.”

   Rosa stood as usual behind the bar. Her hair was up and she had a bit of rose color on her lips. She smiled openly to show the little bit of gold in her tooth, and that was not common. What was also not common was the glass and bottle on the bar for him, and his payment. They weren’t there.

   Don Louis looked at Rosa. “Well?” he said.

   “Well what?” she shot back angrily.

   Don Louis was surprised and a little scared with the silence in the room. He looked at Rosa: “Where is your payment, Rosa Magdalena?”

   Rosa stared right back at him. “Dolores took it,” she said.

  Don Louis’s eyes got very big. His face swelled red again and his mouth fell open. Then in a low angry voice he said, “Where is Dolores Ortiz?”

   Rosa shrugged. “Who knows?”

   Then she called out to the crowd. “Does anybody know where Dolores Ortiz is?”

   They all shrugged and looked at each other. They didn’t know.

  Don Louis twirled the bag and slammed it onto the bar to scare Rosa, but she was not scared. He walked to the middle of the room and unbuttoned his jacket to cool off. They could see he wore his shoulder holster with the shiny little snub-nose six shooter. He loosened his shirt collar, and the crowd moved back away from him.

   He walked to the table where the food was spread and dipped a heap of guacamole with his fingers. He put it in his mouth and spat it on the floor and wiped his fingers on the table cloth.

   “Okay,” he said. “Okay. I know where she is.”

   Don Louis backed his Lincold Zephyr away from Rosa’s Canteena and sped up the hill to where Dolores’ hideout was. It was a hard climb for his car and the tires spun and one of them gasped the air out and flopped all the way up to where he disappeared over the top of the hill. Everyone went outside and watched the top of the hill. They didn’t know what to expect. All they could see was the dust that followed him up there.

   Little Ricardo ran around to the back of the hill and climbed up to the top of the rocks where he could see don Louis and his Lincoln Zephyr with a flat rear tire down below.

   Don Louis skidded to a stop and got out of his car. He squinted his eyes and wiped the sweat away from his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief.

   He called out. “Dolores Ortiz. I know you’re up there.”

   Only a dead silence came back to him. He strained his eyes to see where she might hide, but there was nothing. He paced back and forth cursing and waving his arms. Then he lit one of his little cigars and leaned against a fender and smoked for a while. He had never been so angry in his life. Only a woman could make him so mad.

   “Dolores Ortiz,” he called again, and there was no response.

   The people in the village watched and listened, but there was nothing to see or hear. Someone said it was not a good idea to make don Louis angry. He would take it out on anybody. “Not today I don’t think so,” someone said.

   Don Louis finished his little cigar and threw it down and crushed it angrily with his boot. It was the hottest time of the day, so he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to change his tire. When he was finished, he stood with his hands on his hips and called out to Dolores Ortiz.

   “Dolores Ortiz, just give me Rosa’s payment and I’ll go away.”

   He waited and still there was no answer.

   “Puta,” he said, and he took out his shiny little pistol. “I’m coming up,” he said, “I will kill you, Dolores Ortiz. And when I’m finished with you, I will find your stupid little one-shoe brother and kill him, too.” And he started up the rocks. Dolores’s thumb slipped the little rawhide loop off the hammer of her .44. She rested the barrel on her forearm and shot don Louis’ hat off. The bullet burrowed into the top of the Lincoln Zephyr and whined off down into the canyon on the other side of the hill.

   Don Louis’ voice was hysterical. “You shoot my hat? And you shoot my car? Now I will kill you for sure.”

  Don Louis fired several shots at the puff of smoke, hoping a ricochet would get her. He heard a little squeal. He would never have dreamed it was a squeal of glee and not the squeal of zinging pain of a hot little bullet. Dolores moved quickly to the side and took a position off to his right. She watched him clamber over the rocks and stood up in plain view. She whistled and when don Louis looked, her bullet went into don Louis’ eye. His arms went up and he fell backwards to land beside his car with a big pink mess at the back of his head. It was ugly.

   The villagers outside Rosa’s Canteena heard the gunfire; the little pops of don Louis’ shiny pistol and the two explosive shots of Dolores’ .44.

   Little Ricardo helped his big sister load don Louis into his car and they pushed it over the edge. It fell over and over and settled upside down into a crevice two hundred feet below. A landslide of boulders and debris followed it down and buried it forever.

   “Did you take his money?” Ricardo said.

   “Yes.”

   The people outside Rosa’s Canteena waited for more gun shots until one of them pointed to the top of the hill.

   “Look,” someone said.

   A tire was bobbing up and down toward the top of the hill. Then under it they saw Dolores Ortiz holding it over her head. She gave it a heave and bounced it down the hill. The villagers watched as if hypnotized as it rolled toward them and past them and clear to the other end of the village where it ran out of momentum and fell over into the weeds. Then Dolores Ortiz fixed her hat smartly on her head. She put her arm across little Ricardo’s shoulders, and she and little Ricardo Ortiz came down the hill side by side.

   That night, after everyone was full of food and the musicians could play no more and they were all full of home brew, they made a fire behind Rosa’s Canteena. Little Ricardo wore a brand new pair of shoes. He threw his old shoe onto the fire and tonight, the night of the festival of things to come, little Ricardo was the one with a story to tell.

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