The members of the Sturgis Library Writers Group were tasked to write a story, poem or memoir to a photo of the Painted Desert in the Petrified Forest National Park. My story follows.
The Painted Desert
Even the early blush of the rising sun brought the vivid colors of the Painted Desert to life. But it wasn’t the lightening of the sky that jolted Frankie Pollard awake. It was the sudden sharp pain in his ribs. Blinking the sleep from his eyes he focused on a collared lizard, staring back at him from less than a foot away.
“Was that you that bit me on the ribs?” queried Frankie.
“It was me kicking you, Frankie!” The angry voice hissing behind him also frightened the lizard. It disappeared in a slot between two rocks. Frankie winced and wished he could join the lizard in its hiding place. The voice behind him continued its harangue, “What am I gonna do with you Frankie? You were supposed to be on watch! I let you sleep first and now I catch you sleeping. Anybody could have snuck up on us!”
Frankie stood and turned to look at the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. Even with her auburn hair all wild from sleeping in the car, she was lovely. The emerald eyes he always melted into were a shade darker because of her anger, but it only made the flecks of gold surrounding her irises even more prominent. “Aww Trish, I had just nodded off as the sun was coming up, I was keeping watch.”
“Yeah, watching the backs of your eye lids.”
Patricia, or Trish, Stoddard was really worried about Frankie. She was attracted to him by his charm, his carefree attitude, and, ok, his resemblance to Errol Flynn. But he was proving to be too carefree and not a very deep thinker. They had left Flagstaff with a satchel full of cash from a savings and loan, heading for a new life in Chicago, when Frankie pulled off Route 66 and stopped in front of the Painted Forest Inn. “What are you doing?”, she demanded.
“I’m tired, all the excitement you know, this place is supposed to be nice.”
“Frankie! We can’t stay anywhere near Flagstaff; don’t you think the cops may be looking for us? Especially the car! I told you to Jack a black Ford or Pontiac. But a blue Studebaker? Think, Frankie! Think!”
“But I like the color blue.”
“Go! Here comes the valet!” With a spray of gravel and a cloud of dust, Frankie zoomed out of the lot. “I’m worried now Frankie, really worried.”
They didn’t get much further when the Studebaker sputtered to a halt. “Yup, out of gas.”, declared Frankie.
Trish helped him push the car to a spot not easily seen from the highway. Disgusted to the point of being near speechless, all Trish said was, “You’ll have to walk back and get gas from the station at the Inn. I’ll take first watch, you take the second. We need to get on the road as early as possible.”
Seeing Frankie asleep at dawn the next morning instead keeping a lookout for intruders, mostly cops, added to Trish’s fear that they may not make it to Chicago. But his cheerful disposition and eyes filled with love, after being kicked awake, warmed her heart. He turned and waved an arm at the pastels of the desert. “Look at this view Trish! This is beautiful! Why don’t we just build a place here. Nobody will bother us. It’ll be just you and me, and this lizard.” The collared reptile had re-emerged and was watching them from his rock perch.
“We can’t Frankie, even if we wanted to, it’s a National Park..”
Trish’s words were cut off by the demands being shouted from the rocky outcrops surrounding them. “Put up your hands! Don’t move! We have you covered!” Their hands flew up. Tears began to course down Trish’s cheeks.
Men in police uniforms and suits, all pointing pistols at them, slowly emerged from behind the rocks and walked towards them. One of the uniforms was leering at Trish. “Well, we’ll. I believe I’m gonna have to pat you down for a weapon. Heh, heh.”
“Don’t you lay a hand on her!”, Frankie snarled. Before Trish could stop him, he laid a fist squarely on the jaw of the cop. Two pistol shots and a scream “NO!” resounded across the desert. The collared lizard scurried back into its hideout.
There was not a specific prompt for the Chatham Memoir Writing Group for last Friday, which means we can write about anything. My friend, and creative writing group colleague, John Chamberlain and I were talking about old movies, which genres we enjoyed and the fact that certain independent TV networks broadcast many movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s on a nightly and weekly basis. I recalled when I was a kid how my friends and I would get together on Saturdays and play act the action movies we had seen. The more I thought about our conversation the more I liked the idea of writing about the fun we had. My memoir follows.
Super Adventure Theater/Super Adventure Saturday
When I was a kid, one of the advantages of living in close proximity to New York City was the fact that we could get seven TV channels. In addition to the big three networks, there were three independent broadcasters and a public TV station. One of the indie stations, Channel 9, would broadcast a Saturday morning program called Super Adventure Theater. Hosted by a guy named Claude Kirchner, who for some reason dressed up as a circus ringmaster, he would introduce classic, and not so classic movies from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. There was a type of rotation of genres – westerns, sci-fi, horror, comedy, war, adventure, crime, no romance films – hence the name Super Adventure.
For us kids, a good Super Adventure movie led a super adventure Saturday of play. We would analyze the channel guides on Friday to see what was going to be broadcast on Saturday morning then establish the scenarios we would re-enact. “OK guys, it’s King Kong! Dress the part and meet at the Cherry Hill woods at 10:30.” Adjacent to the Cherry Hill playground was a large pie shaped wooded lot that would serve as the setting for many of our re-enactments, especially jungle or wilderness type settings. Although we enjoyed the Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Olson & Johnson comedies, you just couldn’t re-enact a comedy sketch. It was more fun trying to outwit a giant gorilla or bank robbers.
For some reason the adventure movies of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s seemed to feature quicksand. It had an influence on my grandmother because she always cautioned my brothers and I to be on the lookout for quicksand if we played somewhere other than in the backyard of our house. Some of the trails through the Cherry Hill woods had sandy patches – not quicksand, mind you – but would suit the purpose in our imagination. With the advent of the nuclear age, there were a plethora of movies released in the 1950’s that employed the gimmick of a nuclear accident being the catalyst for the creation of giant ants, giant crabs, crawling eyes, a 50 foot woman, melting glaciers that released carnivorous dinosaurs. With the exception of the 50 foot woman, we encountered all of these things in the Cherry Hill woods.
Horror movies were also fun to re-enact and it was fairly easy to recruit someone to play Wolfman or Dracula. One of my friends wanted to be the Invisible Man – “pretend you don’t see me as I try to throttle you” – but that didn’t work. It was hard to find someone to be Frankenstein though. He lurched along slowly with extended arms, kids wanted to be something that ran or flew like a bat. We tried to talk one of our friends into playing Frankenstein, we pointed out with his square head and peculiar haircut, he resembled the monster. He took exception, got upset and told his mother. No more Frankenstein re-enacting.
There was always that one kid who was so fixated on a single character that he always wanted to be that character. That one kid was my friend Chris, who lived in the house behind my grandparents. He loved Tarzan and always wanted to be Tarzan, no matter what the scenario. It taxed our imaginations to fit Tarzan into unfamiliar situations; Tarzan and cowboys, Tarzan thwarting Al Capone, Tarzan fighting a T-Rex with a sling-shot and Bowie knife. Chris would actually swing on a rope hanging from a tree branch and scream that Tarzan yell. This never worked well and at times we would end our re-enacting in disgust and go play kickball or baseball.
This nonsense came to an end in rather dramatic fashion for Chris. We were actually playing a scenario suitable for the Tarzan character, a jungle setting involving archeologists who discovered some ancient, bejeweled statues. Chris, as Tarzan, was to swing in and rescue an archeologist, played by a friend named Kathy, from quicksand. Kathy was on her knees in the middle of one of those sandy patches, pretending to be sinking. Chris began his rope swing, emitting his Tarzan call. The call became a scream when the branch his rope was attached to broke. He landed on his back, still gripping the rope, a cloud of dust from the fake quicksand rising over his prostrate form. Astonished, we stood with mouths agape. The wind was knocked from him and he was gasping “Help”. Regaining his breath he stood up slowly, a little shaky on his feet. He muttered, “I quit, I’m going home.”
Although he continued to be part of our Saturday Super Adventures, he never played Tarzan again. Instead he he became Robin Hood. All the time, Robin Hood. Robin Hood and cowboys, Robin Hood and gangsters in Chicago, Robin Hood and Wolfman, dinosaurs, martians, giant crawling eyes. Robin Hood. Robbin’ us of our fun on a Super Adventure Saturday.
The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group last Monday was to write about a summer job. My story follows.
My First Real World Job
I started working my first job the summer after I turned nine, delivering the Bergen Record. For the next five years, neither rain, nor snow, nor sun prevented me from completing my rounds, six days a week. A stint at McDonald’s followed and that proved to be a fun job because just about all of the people working there were friends of mine from high school. The only thing I didn’t like about working there were the days the Sergeant of the Lower Swatara Police Department would show up for his free dinner. When I was first introduced to him, he shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Boy, when you see my cruiser pull into the parking lot, there better be a Filet O’ Fish, an order of fries and a chocolate shake sittin’ on this desk (the restaurant manager’s) when I walk in. Yeah, you do that and me ‘n you will get along just fine.” He was a real piece of shit. Ironically, he would dress up as Santa Clause each year and greet kids at the Christmas Tree Farm, the farm that I frequented in the dead of night seeking trees for special clients, but I’ve already told that story. My next job, and one that I would work at for the next three years, was staffing the booth of the Harrisburg International Airport Parking Lot. I sat in air-conditioned luxury collecting parking fees, all cash, no charge cards yet. On occasion I would have to let an inebriated businessperson know their briefcase was still on the roof of their car and sometimes I would have to call the airport PD when some scofflaw would race past the booth without paying.
My first real world job was the one that I worked the summer between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college, assembling 40-foot truck trailers for the Fruehauf Trailer Corporation. I had been somewhat insulated from the harsh realities of the working world in my previous jobs, but the dog-eat-dog environment at Fruehauf made me feel like the proverbial deer in the headlights. My job interview went well, the people who talked to me seemed pretty nice. I was hired on the spot, most likely because I was breathing, and I had assured everyone that I was not going to quit in August to go to college. I was instructed to buy a pair of steel toe work boots and a hammer. Reporting to work the following Monday, I shuffled into a small auditorium-like room with about 50 other people and took a seat in a folding chair. The moment everyone was settled, a bowling ball with arms, legs, and a crew cut head barreled into the room. After introducing himself as Mr. Geib (I went to school with his brother) he began to berate the new hires. Anyone with hair longer than his was addressed as “Hippie”, recent high school grads were called “fresh meat”. He especially doled out his malevolence on those he perceived as Hippies, accusing them of having their brains turned to mush by constant marijuana consumption and they better pin up their ponytails or suffer the consequences of them getting scalped by some piece of moving machinery. He predicted by the end of the first week, of the 50 people in the room, only 15 would remain. He was right. I need to mention Mr. Geib was the HR manager. Curiously there were no employee grievances. Everyone was so pleasant at Fruehauf. A co-worker had strongly urged me to take my hammer home at the end of my shift. I didn’t have a toolbox, if I left it laying out in the open, “Someone will rip it off, there’s a lot of assholes working here.” As I approached the gates that exited to the parking lot, one of those “assholes” I was warned about told the security guard I was trying to leave the premises with “company property”. I was supposed to have a note from my supervisor stating the hammer was indeed mine, a policy I was unaware of, and one I was now violating, as was stated on the deviant behavior form the security guard issued to me, “With a copy going to your shift foreman. You will be dealt with tomorrow.” My hammer was clearly not one supplied to me by the company, I believe Fruehauf issued Stanley hammers to employees once they were past their 90 day probation period. My hammer was an inexpensive TruTemper acquired from the Middletown Merchandise Mart, referred to as “The Big M” by us locals. I was not dealt with severely, my supervisor apologized for not making me aware of the policy and gave me a tool pass the next day.
I was assigned to the refrigerator trailer assembly department as part of a two-person team fastening panels in the nose of the trailer. There was almost no air movement in the nose and by the end of the second week I had sweated away 15 pounds. I was supposed to report to my college football team in mid-August weighing between 220 – 225 pounds, but I weighed in at 198 on the first day of training camp. 198 pounds, I need to go back and work in the nose of a trailer for a few months. But back to the work environment. It was hot and loud, profane, medium profane and super profane. Some people were very eloquent in their profanity. In the employee caste system, the color of one’s hard hat revealed where they fell in the hierarchy. White hard hats were the managers, from department level to executive level, shift supervisors wore brown hard hats, welders wore green, painters wore blue, maintenance staff orange, and the worker bees yellow. All supervisors and managers had to wear white shirts and a dark necktie. The manager of my department fell into the eloquently profane conversation group and would walk along the production line swearing at the teams toiling inside the trailers. “Lazy bastards, lazy hippie bastards (it was 1972), lazy F’ing hippie bastards, dope fiends, and stupid asses” we’re his trademark berate lines. His florid complexion and gin blossom nose stood out in contrast to his brilliantly white shirt. When he finished verbally kicking all the yellow hats and went back to his office, our shift supervisor would come by and apologize for his boss’s behavior and tell us to pay him no mind, he was either drunk or “bad hungover”.
I got pretty good at my job and earned the respect of my co-workers. After missing one day of work because of the major flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes, they were glad to see me return and hoped my family didn’t experience any storm damage. One hot, humid day in mid-July, my boss called me over and asked, “What the ‘f’ are you doing here?” I thought I had done something wrong. He clarified by telling me I didn’t belong there and that I better make enough money so I could go to college and not work in such a “shit-hole”. My co-workers had begun to echo his comments. Two weeks after my boss had queried me, I gave him my notice. I would be leaving for college in mid-August to report for football training camp.
He smiled a wry grin and said, “You bastard.” High praise from my supervisor.
Hammer Post Script
My hammer drew a lot of attention on my first day at Fruehauf Trailer. In addition to being accused of stealing it, my team leader heaped a load of scorn on it. Just before we walked into the trailer to start attaching wall panels, he said, “Let me see your hammer.” I handed it over to him. He examined it like a jewelry appraiser and began to laugh, “Hah! What a piece of shit hammer! This won’t last two hours in here, and I ain’t gonna loan you one neither!” He proceeded to wave it at the other members in the work crew, who took turns expressing their opinions on the apparent low quality of the work tool. Well, they were right in a manner of speaking. The Big M, TruTemper hammer didn’t last 2 hours, it would survive many projects for the next 51 years and is still in use as of this writing, as evidenced below.
I scramble over the crest of the hill, trailing a spool of electrical wire behind me and drop to the ground next to my wife. I cut the wire and attach the loose ends to the terminals on a small box.
“Clear?” asks my wife.
I raise my head to peer over the crest of the hill, “Clear!”
“Fire in hole!”, shouts my wife and twists a handle on the small box.
There’s a muffled pop and we wait a few seconds for any dust to settle. We stand and walk over the crest of the hill to survey what destruction we have wrought. It’s heartbreaking. There are a few cracks in the ground extending from the hole where the stick of dynamite had been placed. Rising above the sparse patch of grass is the dandelion we had hoped to eliminate. Swaying back and forth in the gentle breeze, it taunts us, like a symbolic middle finger. “Hah! Is that the best you’ve got?”, it seems to say. My wife and I look at each other, steely determination etched on our faces, “More dynamite!”, we both shout.
Okay, so maybe I am exaggerating a bit here, but the hard clay soil made doing any yard work at our western Pennsylvania home a daunting task. We didn’t have to resort to dynamite to remove dandelions, in Pittsburghese “Dandy Lions”, or other weeds. But one couldn’t just yank them out of the ground, you would end up with just a handful of weed tops. Even after a rainfall, the weed roots would remain steadfastly imbedded in the ground, essentially needing to be dug out.
Speaking about digging, the clay soil was near impervious to the sharp bladed spade. Within a year of moving to our house, we began a series of landscape projects involving moving some existing trees and shrubs and planting new ones. Compared to getting rid of the weeds, it was surprisingly easy to dig up an existing item, planting it was another story. Once a new planting site was determined, the soil would have to be loosened by chopping at it with the blade of the shovel, then scooping up and dumping the loose clay. I wore the point off of one shovel digging in this manner, turning it into a flat bladed spade. I broke two other shovels. To make the job of digging easier we would loosen the soil with the sledgehammer end of a maul and a pointed pry bar, then scoop out the clay. We eventually invested in a rototiller. Before replanting anything, we would amend the soil with peat moss to encourage root growth.
Digging in this soil would uncover some interesting artifacts from the region’s past history. We would find coal, ranging in size from small chips to large chunks. When we closed on our house, we were urged purchase a peculiar item called “mine subsidence insurance”. From the Bureau of Mines, we discovered our home rested about 350 feet above the abandoned shafts of the Penn Mining Company which had closed in 1923. Coal mining had been so extensive in the region, there were abandoned mines everywhere. On occasion, the old shafts would collapse, shifting the soil above it. Roads would be closed and buildings condemned due to severe subsidence. We would constantly be on the lookout for big cracks in our yard or, even more ominously, in our foundation. Between the clay and the coal, I believe we could have had a strip mining and pottery conglomerate.
An interesting topographical feature of the region surrounding Pittsburgh is it is almost impossible to find any land that is naturally flat. The nearby community of Level Green was anything but level. Most of the flat areas of land were man-made creations, and these efforts sometimes had a deleterious impact. For instance, our neighbors had decided they wanted an in-ground pool. All of the homes at our end of the street had about a 20-degree slope so quite a bit of fill and leveling was needed to make the pool area flat. When the project was completed, the new slope of their yard caused rainwater to flow down into our yard and give us a pool as well. It also caused the roots of two trees and several shrubs to rot. We were unable to plant anything in a 6’ x 15’ section of the berm we had created.
It was tough work maintaining and caring for this hardscrabble yard, but we eventually had it looking quite nice. After my wife had detailed the efforts in maintaining our yard to a co-worker, her colleague said, “Wow! How many acres of land to you have?” To which my wife answered, “Oh, about a quarter of an acre.” Size wise, it was the smallest yard we ever had. But work wise per square inch, it was the biggest yard we ever owned.
Getting behind in posts again. This one was written for the Chatham Memoir Group prompt to write a story with a joyful, or happy ending.
Ode To Joy
It’s a Friday night. My wife, Barb, asks, “What time is it?”
I look at my watch and reply, “11:45.” As in 11:45 PM.
“I’d really like a baked potato. Would you like one too? Do you think you can make it to Wendy’s before it closes?”
The answer to Barb’s question comes in the form of screeching tires as I zoom out of the driveway and leave a trail of burning rubber smoke as I race to get to Wendy’s before they close at midnight. I’m exaggerating a bit here. The car in this memoir is the 1981 Buick Skylark I wrote about previously. The four cylinder, four speed stick shift model was an engineering marvel that was designed and built as the antithesis to the word “cool”. The only rubber that would be left on the road for this car was if one of the wheels fell off. But I did race, rather chug, over to the Wendy’s and arrived with 7 minutes to spare to get our baked potatoes. The look on the faces of the crew members, who had begun to clean up before closing, was priceless, dripping with disgust. I was happy to have parked the Buick in a well-lit area, or I may have been waylaid by a Wendy’s employee.
It was the Summer of 1984, Barb was pregnant with our first child and the pregnancy made her a real night owl. The Stop & Shop near us was open 24 hours, it is amazing how few people are shopping at 4:00 AM. Barb mostly shopped there alone I did tag along a couple of times. The Pathmark grocery store was also open 24 hours, but it was quite the opposite of the Stop & Shop. We made one 4:00 AM shopping trip there and felt like we had walked onto the set of a Fellini movie. People were just around hanging around, talking in the aisles, not shopping. There were a group of teenagers playing in the seasonal goods department, playing basketball with beach balls. I never saw anyone dribble an inflatable ball so deftly, even to this day. I think they were all there to enjoy the air-conditioned store on a sticky summer night.
The craving of the Wendy’s baked potato with butter and shredded cheddar cheese also began that summer. We became regulars at the one on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden, close to our home, and I made several visits in the minutes before closing. The crew at the store began to expect my frantic entrance and began to greet me with smiles and ask how Barb was doing. I think if Edward Hopper were still alive, he would have made another Nighthawks painting set in a Wendy’s.
Through that summer into the fall the baked potato cravings led us to many Wendy’s along the I-95 and I-91 corridors in Connecticut. On a mid-September trip to visit Barb’s parents in Vermont, a baked potato craving led us to a Wendy’s in Enfield, CT, right off the highway. After satisfying the craving, we resumed our journey to Vermont, unaware of the drama yet to unfold. Arriving at the home of Barb’s parents, we were just settling in to relax when she realized her purse must still be in the car and asked if I could get it. The purse was not in the car! We must have left it at the Wendy’s in Connecticut! Using directory assistance, I got the restaurant number and spoke to the store manager. He said they did find a purse and asked me to describe it. It was Barb’s purse! Happy, I hung up the phone and said I would drive back to get it. My father-in-law cheerfully said he would go with me. I managed to disguise my scream as a cough. I looked at my wife and she saw my entire repertoire of facial expressions: shock, horror, fear, despair, resignation. I croaked out a weak, “OK.” Four hours in the car with my father-in-law, I felt like I was going on a mission that I had small chance of returning from.
The story has a happy ending. The purse was, indeed, my wife’s. The round-trip ride with Barb’s Dad was surprisingly uneventful. The happiest ending was the arrival of our son Geoff 5 weeks later, on Halloween night. A true Ode to Joy!
The prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing Group was “A Cabin In The Dunes”. I set my story in the Algerian desert before the start of World War I. My characters are in the French Foreign Legion.
The Cabin In The Dunes
Sergeant Dagineaux lowered his binoculars, wiped the perspiration from his brow and passed them to the man lying on the ground next to him.
“Between those two sand dunes, Corporal Reynaud, at about one o’clock, tell me what you see.”
Reynaud peered in the direction Dagineaux had pointed to. He pulled his head back, blinked several times, and peered through the binoculars again. He passed them back, a puzzled look on his face.
“I see a bloody cabin, Sergeant! It’s not a mirage, our eyes aren’t playing tricks on us. What’s a bloody log cabin doing in the Algerian desert?”
“Well Corporal, we need to find out now, don’t we?”
Dagineaux and Reynaud stood, unslung their rifles and cautiously approached the cabin. As each step brought them closer, the strange building became clearer in the shimmering reflections of the sun off the sand. It was indeed a log cabin. Nestled as it was between the two dunes, they hadn’t seen the well and small garden flanking the cabin with the binoculars. Vegetables were growing in the garden. Standing exposed, there was no place to hide in the desert, but they didn’t sense danger. It was surreal, Dagineaux felt compelled to knock on the cabin door. He and Reynaud were startled to hear a voice croak, “Come in.” The Sergeant slowly opened the door, its hinges squeaked in protest. An ancient looking man was seated at the head of a table. A broad toothy grin appeared in his bearded face. “Ahh! My relief has arrived! Sit gentlemen, sit! We have much to discuss, and very little time to do it in.”
Completely baffled, Dagineaux asked, “You were expecting us?”
Pointing to a thick book on the table in front of him, the old man replied, “Yes, of course, the manifest states Sergeant Claude Dagineaux and Corporal Victor Reynaud, of the French Foreign Legion, will arrive to assume my duties on the ninth of May, 1905. That is today gentlemen.”
“But we must return to our fort in Adrar, sir. A member, or members, of our patrol drugged the Corporal and I, then deserted. Taking six camels and all of our supplies. We have to report this to our commander.”
“None of that is necessary now, Sergeant. A higher power has deemed you’re needed here. It’s all in the manifest.”
“Umm, what is it we are expected to do?” asked Reynaud. He thought he would humor this man, who was obviously daft.
The old man stood, every joint in his body cracking with the effort. He motioned for them to follow him to a desk in the corner of the cabin. An even larger book sat on it. Books of similar size were arrayed on shelves lining the wall. Each book had what appeared to be a range of years stenciled on the spine, 1875 – 1900, and so forth, back to the 1700’s. He opened the book on the desk to a marked page. “From time to time, you will have visitors, seeking to go through that door,” he pointed to a padlocked door on the wall opposite the desk. “You must ask them their name. If it doesn’t appear in this logbook, they can’t go through that door. Send them on their way, no matter how much they protest.”
Dagineaux and Reynaud looked at the names listed in the columns on the open page. “Parks, Robert”, was the last name in the column. “That’s me,” said the old man, “When I am done here, you will unlock that door and let me pass to the other side.”
“And where does that door lead?” asked Dagineaux.
Before the old man could answer, the door to the cabin swung open. Another legionnaire stumbled in.
“Gastineau! You bastard!” howled Reynaud, “You left us to die in the desert!”
The old man put his hand on Reynaud’s shoulder to calm him. Gastineau had a bewildered look on his face. “I’m sorry. Something went terribly wrong, Berber tribesman ambushed us…,” looking at the locked door he continued, “I assume I pass through there?” He took a step towards it.
“No! You’re not in the register. Run along now, go back the way you came.” ordered the old man.
Gastineau sobbed, dropped his head and shuffled back out the front door, closing it behind him. “It’s as simple as that,” said the old man. He pulled a key from his pocket and handed it to Dagineaux. “Unlock that door please, it’s time for me to go.” The Sergeant complied. When the door was open, a bright, golden light bathed the room. There was a stairway on the other side of the door. The old man stepped into the light. He was no longer old! He appeared as young and robust as the two legionnaires. “It’s the stairway to Heaven, my friends, guard it well.” He paused for a moment and smiled, “Stairway to Heaven, I envision someone writing a song about it someday. Goodbye my friends.” And with that he dissolved into a cloud of golden dust, the door slammed closed.
Dagineaux reattached the padlock and turned to look at Reynaud, “Bloody h….”
“Don’t swear Sergeant! You sure don’t want to scotch this sweet assignment.”
Two summers ago I joined a fiction writing group that was designed to provide guidance and insight for writers intending on creating a novel. Over that summer I wrote six chapters of what I hope to become a historical novel set during the American Civil War. Besides needing to get back to that effort, I have written three stand alone stories using the same characters. The prompt for the Tuesday Sturgis Library Writers Group was “I Heard That…”. I went back to my historical novel characters and wrote a fourth stand alone story, which could be incorporated into the novel. I italicized and emboldened the prompt in the following story.
The Picket Line
Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 12, 1862
The waning Gibbous Moon illuminated the rutted path to the Rappahannock River crossing. The temperature had dropped as the sun set making the path icy in spots. Fearing his horse may slip, the rider dismounted, tied its reins to a sapling and walked the rest of the way to the river.
A voice with an Irish brogue called out of the shadows of the trail, “Halt! Who goes there!”
“Captain James Bartlett, Corp of Engineers, and aide to General Burnside.”
The guard called for Bartlett to approach. After exchanging salutes, Bartlett noted the brass numbers and letters on the guards’ cap, “69th New York Volunteers, cheers to the Irish Brigade!”
“Thank you, sir. How can I be of service?”
“Can you direct me to the sergeant of the guard?”
“Follow the path to the river sir, Sergeant Quincannon’s ‘is name.” Bartlett thanked the guard and continued towards the river. Soon he could hear the river gurgling over the stones at the crossing. The guards at the crossing had lit a small fire. There were blankets tied to the tree trunks and branches to conceal its flickering flames. Quincannon, sitting near the fire and sipping from a tin cup, stood and saluted Bartlett, then offered him a cup of tea. Inquiring about the Captain’s visit, Bartlett answered, “I heard that men on the picket lines engage in commerce with our Rebel opponents across the river.”
Quincannon stammered, “That’s against regulations sir.”
Bartlett chuckled and said, “Don’t worry Sergeant, I know it happens. I need to get a message to a friend on the other side. How do I arrange for that transaction?”
Quincannon hesitated a moment, leaned out from the cover of the blankets and called into the dark, “Corliss, you over there?”
A voice called back, “Howdy Quinn, what can I do fer ya’ll?”
“There’s an officer of engineers here says he needs to get a note to someone, can you help?”
“And what’s this officer of engineers have to offer us to be his messenger?”
Quincannon gave Bartlett a questioning look. “Coffee and some brandy.”
Quincannon called back, “He’s got coffee and brandy Corliss.”
“I’ll be damned! Send him over Quinn.” Corliss told the other Rebels with him to not shoot.
Bartlett splashed across the cold, shallow river and walked into a circle of rather seedy looking Rebel soldiers. Corliss stepped forward and gave a lazy salute. Bartlett saluted back and handed over the brandy and coffee. The circle of Rebels gasped. Reaching into his coat pocket, Bartlett withdrew a letter and asked Corliss if he could get it to a cavalry officer named Captain Redmond Downes.
“T’aint no cavalry here Captain”, said Corliss.
“I know there is, I saw them from the observation balloon today,” replied Bartlett.
Corliss was astounded. “You were in that thang? I saw it today! What’s it like to be so high up?”
“Scary as hell when it’s windy. But you can see for miles. Please get this letter to Captain Downes,it is about a mutual friend of ours. A young woman named Lizz.. Miss Elizabeth Haw.”
Corliss’ eyes narrowed, then his mouth twisted in a wry grin. “Mutual friend, eh? Soon to be closer to one than t’other I’m guessin’.”
“Please see that he gets it Mr. Corliss. I’d also like for him to know that I am still alive.”
Corliss became serious again, “I am sorry Captain, I was just joshin’ with ya’all. I’ll do my best.”
A Rebel burst through the brush startling everyone. “Officers approaching”, he blurted out breathlessly.
Corliss turned to Bartlett, “You have to scoot sir. I’m gonna to count to 10 and then we will fire off a volley. Tell Quinn we’ll be shootin’ high, we’d be much obliged if ya’ll return the favor.”
Bartlett slipped, tripped and scrambled his way back to the Yankee side of the river, counting to 10 as well. Reaching for Quincannon’s outstretched hand he told him what was about to unfold. Sure enough, a volley rang out from the Rebel side of the river, the bullets humming through the branches high above their heads. The Yankees aimed high and fired off a volley into the heavens over the Rebs. A few insults were hurled back and forth.
Catching his breath, Bartlett thanked Sergeant Quincannon for his help. Reaching into his sack, he handed the Sergeant a flask of brandy.
“Be’Jesus, you’re a saint sir. You surely are!” Sergeant Quincannon exclaimed.
Bartlett shook the Sergeant’s hand and walked up the moonlit trail to his tethered horse.
The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group this week was to write a piece that includes the following words: envy, beauty, hatred, insecurity, icon, compromise, reconciliation. My brief tale follows, I emboldened the words we needed to include. Also, I am working on trying to improve my skills writing dialogue, so this story is largely a dialogue between two people in a coffee shop, an actress and an entertainment reporter.
The couple sat in a corner booth in the coffeehouse, away from the lights over the counter and entryway. The air was rich with the fragrance of hazelnut coffee and cinnamon rolls. The other patrons thought the woman looked familiar, but all they could really see was her back as she leaned forward to talk to her companion. Then she would lean back and disappear into the shadow of the booth wall. The man she was with would take a sip of his coffee, then lean towards her, a bemused expression on his face. They were not really a couple, he was asking questions, then jotting things down in a little notebook.
“So, tell me, why were you and your sister not on speaking terms?”
“I never said we were not on speaking terms. We exchanged birthday wishes, holiday greetings, things of that sort. We spoke.”
“Were you envious of each other? I don’t understand why that would be the case. You are both confident and accomplished actors, of equal beauty.”
“Perhaps, there was some envy…”
“But why? You’ve each been awarded two Oscars, been nominated two other times….”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“My sister has three Oscars, she co-wrote a screenplay and won an Oscar for that.”
“Uh, oh, I’m sorry, I had forgotten…”
“Two Tony awards, and Emmy, Golden Globe..”
“So, are you envious of her achievements then? I mean, you have been recognized as a leading actress for several years now. Your sister has never had a leading role. She has primarily been cast in character actor roles, or as a supporting actress.”
“She is SO DAMN GOOD in those character actor roles. She is a greater scene stealer than Alan Hale ever was. He was her favorite actor! She got such a kick out of watching him steal scenes from Errol Flynn in all those old westerns and swashbucklers.”
“You acted together in one movie. Did her presence, her being in the same scenes make you feel insecure?”
“I suppose. Her comedic timing is precise, she is as skilled as a neurosurgeon in those comedy roles.”
“But that was a wonderful movie, you both displayed great comedic timing, you played off each other so well. The roles of two women who were the play-by-play and color announcers of a minor league baseball team became iconic roles. It led to a TV series and a Broadway musical. What was the problem?”
“She stole my scenes! I was trying to use a dry wit to describe the incentives in the game program magazine. What the fans would win if a player hit a home run in a specific inning, like a meat tray from a local deli. Then it would be her turn to describe incentives there were if the players on the home team accomplished a certain goal… like ‘Any Royalton Yankee who pitches a no-hitter, will win a free, rebuilt fuel pump from Tarducci’s Junk Yard’. But she did it with such great flourish. She got all the laughs! I hated her for it.”
“Why? That seemed insignificant. And you were both nominated for Oscars. You were both great.”
“That was her screenplay Oscar. Do your research.”
“Ummm… I, …”
“Never mind. I felt she wrote the best jokes for herself.”
“So that led to the falling apart.”
“What happened next?”
“A major studio expressed an interest in reviving the characters. The two women had become so popular, they made it to the major leagues, broadcasting Pittsburgh Pirate games. The city and team were all in for it.”
“Then what happened?”
“Our publicists and agents met and attempt to get us together for the roles. I was reluctant, I promised to never star in another role alongside my sister.”
“A compromise was reached. My sister wrote the entire script this time and mailed it to me. I was blown away. The story line kind of paralleled our lives. The two characters had gone through a falling out over a minor slight. They reconciled and teamed up again, even better than they were in the minor leagues. My character had become cynical and tough with the male ball players and coach. I have some really good lines!”
“Wow. That is fabulous news.”
“Ahh, here comes my sister now, I’ll let her fill you in on the plot details and when filming begins.”
The prompt for the Monday Chatham Writers Group was to start your story with the words “Good Bye”. My fictional piece follows.
“‘Good bye.’ Those were the last words she said, just good bye.”
“Wow, with great finality it sounds.”
“I suppose.” Detective Jerry Mullins shrugged and glanced at his wristwatch. He reflected on the past two hours. He had entered the hospital cafeteria, his detective shield clipped to the pocket of his sports jacket. A woman in uniform waved to him. Next to her on the table was a cap with the familiar black and gold checkerboard pattern above the bill. Pittsburgh PD. He walked over to her table and introduced himself. She had a firm handshake and said her name was Fran Parker, a Sergeant in the Oakland Precinct. The Sergeant’s name sounded familiar to Mullins, but he couldn’t recall from where.
He noticed there were two coffee cups on the table in front of her. She pushed one in his direction and asked him if he was working a case. When he answered affirmatively, Sergeant Parker asked if he could tell her about it. He looked around to make sure there wasn’t anyone who could overhear them. The cafeteria was nearly empty save for a group of hospital staff huddled at one table too engrossed in their conversation to pay attention to anyone else. Nonetheless, Mullins leaned in a bit closer and laid out the details of the case to Sergeant Parker. It was a white collar crime case and it involved a childhood friend.
He told Sergeant Parker his friend had introduced him to Laura, his new girlfriend. “She was stunning. Now mind you, Curt’s a super guy, however he makes Steve Buscemi look handsome. The new girlfriend seemed to really like Curt.”
“I sense a but here, Detective.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Mullins, “a couple of days ago we received a bulletin from the Cleveland PD to be on the lookout for a con artist who’s MO was to establish relationships with men in order to obtain their financial info and empty their bank accounts. The photo that accompanied the bulletin was Curt’s new girlfriend. Different color hair and wearing glasses, but it was definitely Laura, which apparently was one of the five names she used.”
“So did you tell Curt?” asked Sergeant Parker.
“Yes. And, Oh God, did he fall apart. The timing was great because he was ready to give Laura 25 grand. Tonight as a matter of fact. Curt told me where Laura was staying and my partner and I went to arrest her.”
“That was tonight?. How’d it go?”
“Laura, or whatever her real is, was a great actress. She feigned innocence, then she hugged herself as she was crying real alligator tears. Suddenly looking up and laughing maniacally, she pointed at me, a glint of metal, then, “‘Good Bye’. Those were the last words she said, just Good Bye’.”
“Wow, with great finality it sounds.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“So what’re you doing here at the hospital?” asked Sergeant Parker.
“Waiting for word on a gunshot wound victim.” Mullins took a sip from his coffee cup. He thought, “When did I get a refill?” Looking at Sergeant Parker, he asked, “So, what are you doing here?” Before she could answer, it dawned on Mullins where he had heard her name before. “I know who you are…” his voice trailed off.
“I’m always here detective, but you have to leave now, you’re going to be alright.”
“Wait, Sergeant Parker, what did you say?”
“Glad to see you’re awake! I said you’re going to be alright Detective Mullins. You’re going to have a bad headache, but your going to be alright. Who’s Sergeant Parker?”
“Who are you?” Mullins groggily asked.
“I’m Doctor Sinclair, the one who removed the small caliber bullet from your skull. Instinctively, you put your hand up for protection. It absorbed most of the impact otherwise we wouldn’t be talking. Now who’s Sergeant Parker.”
“She died in the line of duty last year, but I saw her in the cafeteria.”
Doctor Sinclair nodded, “Get some rest Detective Mullins. You’re going to be alright.”
This story is loosely based on an actual incident that occurred to a friend of a friend. An attractive woman tried to bilk this guy out of thousands of dollars. Although the guy truly would make Steve Buscemi appear like Brad Pitt, he was no dope and figured out what the deal was. The woman who tried to grift him did not have an APB out on her – at the time, who knows now – and this happened over 40 years ago. Nobody was shot, there was no police involvement, the dialogue was made up. I fell back to the familiar haunts of Pittsburgh to set the background for my story.
I selected the photo of the Old Bethel AME Church as the topic for the Monday, 3/13/23, meeting of the Chatham Writers Group. I tried my hand at writing creepy, horror type stories this week (see Philadelphia Alley). I started writing my story and got carried away. I had several characters, some deaths and more gore, a couple of different locations, etc, and was approaching 2000 words on a story that was supposed to be no more than 1000 words. I eliminated characters, body count and scenes to concentrate on events at the church. At the end of my story, there will be a brief history of the Old Bethel AME Church.
The Old Bethel Church
Sheriff’s Deputy Claire Simmons shifted uncomfortably in her chair and glanced at the business card in her hand, “Bennett Sisters Consulting”. There was a phone number, and a satanic symbol with a red X through it.
She made a quick inventory of the two African-American women sitting opposite her. Identical twins, they appeared to be in their early 50’s, and were dressed almost identically with light blue denim shirts, jeans and walking shoes. The only difference was one sister wore a navy blue bandanna around her neck and the other wore a pink one. “And what type of, um, consultation do you provide?”, she asked.
The sister who had identified herself as Mae answered, “My sister, Lena, and I consult on matters of the occult. We provide a cleaning service of sorts in that we remove demons, phantoms, those sorts of things. They sometimes take over abandoned places of worship. What’s your story Deputy Simmons?”
Choking back her emotion, the Deputy described how her Dad and his friend were walking past Old Bethel Church on their way to the pond to fish. Her Dad suddenly stopped and started acting strange. He was looking at the church and told his friend he needed to talk to someone, said to go on, he’d meet him at the pond. His friend looked to where my Dad had been looking and saw the back of a man wearing overalls go into the side door of the church. When my Daddy didn’t show up at the Pond, his friend went to look for him and found him behind the church with his throat ripped open.
“Coroner said it was a rabid dog, but I believe the man in overalls had something to do with it. Something ain’t right with that church.”
“And your father’s friend didn’t tell his story to anyone else?”
“He was terrified Miss Bennett, so he only told me. The man in the overalls didn’t appear to be real, he kind of shimmered. My Daddy is buried in cemetery alongside the church. When I go to visit him, the church seems to be mocking me. I hear laughing and whistling coming from the slats on the belfry. I told my Aunt, my Dad’s sister, she told me about the two of you, and here we are.”
“Well, let’s go have a look see then.”, declared Lena.
“Now?” Deputy Simmons was incredulous.
“No better time than now.” The three of them piled into the Bennett’s old Range Rover and drove off.
A pine tree lay across the dirt road that led to the Old Bethel Church. The Range Rover clattered to stop and the three women climbed out to look at the tree.
“The pine must have fallen during the night,” said Deputy Simmons, “the road was clear when I patrolled it yesterday.”
“It knows we’re here.”, said Mae.
The Bennett sisters opened the tailgate of the Land Rover and removed a few items. Deputy Simmons was startled to see Mae carrying a viola case and Lena with a guitar gig bag slung over her shoulder.
Without a word, the Bennett sisters climbed over the tree, and trudged down the dirt road. The Deputy scampered over the downed pine and followed behind the twins. A gentle breeze picked up, the moss draping the oaks that lined the road began to sway, seeming to beckon the three women to the church.
The dirt road ended at a clearing. Confronting them was the Old Bethel Church. Deputy Simmons shivered, the air had gotten noticeably cooler. “I feel it,” she said, “that church is looking at us.”
Not only did she feel as though the church was staring at them, she swore she could see it breathing. The red tin roof and sides of the old building appeared expand and contract. She sensed movement to the right of the church, shook her head and rubbed her eyes. “Did those headstones just turn to look at us?” Deputy Simmons inhaled deeply, she could see her father’s grave, his old fishing cap resting on it’s headstone.
“We’ll take it from here Deputy Simmons. You need to walk a ways back down the road,” ordered Mae.
“You’re kidding!”, exclaimed the Deputy. Mae stood holding a Super Soaker. From her gig bag, Lena had assembled a 5 foot chrome rod with a cross on top and a spear point at the bottom. Reaching for her pistol, Deputy Simmons said, “You’re gonna need more than a damn Super Soaker and a steel bar. I’m going with you.”
“Suit yourself,” said Mae calmly, “You can figure out later how to explain what ya’ll will see. And put that away, it won’t work,” she added, pointing at the officer’s pistols. “ This Super Soaker has a mix of Holy Water and salts blessed in the Holy Land. Lena’s rod is pure silver. These things are demon killers.”
The side door flew open and slammed against the building, momentarily startling them.
A figure wearing blue overalls appeared in the door. Two bright, yellow orbs glittered in the shade cast by the wide brim hat on its head. Waving a dismissive hand, the figure went back into the church. The women looked at each other, then stepped through the door. They stood for a few moments waiting for their eyes to adjust to the gloom. Deputy Simmons thought the inside of the church had a metallic smell similar to that of a dead deer found along the side of the road. Snapping on their on their flashlights, they circled the pews. Lena broke away and began to move up the center aisle, holding the cross topped staff in front of her. Mae and Deputy Simmons continued along the wall. A shuffling noise came from behind them. Simmons turned her beam in the direction of of the sound. She gasped. The form shuffling towards them was her father, or what used to be her father. A gaping, raw wound ran from his throat to just under his ear. The dried blood from the wound had left a huge brown splotch on his fishing jacket. His fishing hat, laced with lures, sat tilted on his head.
“Daddy?”, her voice choked with emotion.
“Claire! You’ve come to help me! Help me…” the apparition groaned and extended its arms.
Mae shouted, “No!”, and yanked the Deputy back. The father/demon opened its mouth to reveal jaws lined with long piranha teeth, and began snapping at them. Releasing a high pitched, fiendish giggle, it rapidly approached them. The spear end of Lena’s silver staff jabbed through the front of its shirt, cutting off the laugh. The demon looked down in surprise at the spear. It turned a parchment brown color, broke apart and fluttered to the floor like tree leaves.
A long howl ripped the air. Lena aimed her flashlight toward the front of the church. Caught in the beam of light, the yellow-eyed thing in bib overalls howled again, exposing a line of those piranha teeth.. It jumped from the pulpit and raced towards them, bounding along the backs of the pews, snarling. Mae let loose a stream of the Holy Water concoction from her Super Soaker and stitched a line across the creature from right hip to left shoulder. Without another sound, the thing fell apart in two pieces, dissolving into a pile of parchment leaves as well. Except for the sounds of their rapid breathing, the church was silent.
Two days later, Deputy Simmons and the Bennett sisters visited her father’s grave in the Old Bethel Church Cemetery. The church was silent, the cemetery peaceful. Her father’s fishing hat rested on his headstone. They were not certain if it was because of a sudden puff of wind, but it seemed as though the hat tipped, grateful for what they had done.
The Old Bethel AME (African-American Episcopal) Church is the first AME Church created in McClellanville. With the end of the Civil War in 1865, former slaves were now allowed to build their own places of worship and the first congregation met under an oak tree in MClellanville in 1867. The Church was constructed in 1872, damaged by a hurricane in 1916, repaired and continued to host services until 1979, when a new Church was built for the growing congregation. In 1986, the Old Bethel Church was lifted off its foundation by Hurricane Hugo and almost all of its stained glass windows were shattered. It was supposed to be converted to a community center in 2002, but for some unexplained reason, it never happened. Old Bethel Church was used as a backdrop for a 2019 min-series called “Lowcountry”, but then was vandalized. The remaining windows were boarded up and it has remained vacant.