Sunday, July 6, 2014

Excerpt from AUF WIEDERSEHEN, LAMPIONE

CHAPTER TWO
Portrait Of A Miscreant

I was a Catholic School brat.

My school, my elementary school, at least, had a strange look. It was a squat, four story, block-wide, brown brick building devoid of exterior ornamentations. It could very easily have been a factory or, if you believe those of us who went there, a prison. The school had two entrances, both double-wide steel gray doors. My entrance, the boy’s entrance, was through the back of the building. The girls entered through virtually identical double doors on the opposing side of the school; wooden crosses were affixed to their doors though I couldn’t say what they guarded against. None of the girls looked like vampires from a Peter Cushing film. There was never anything that exotic entering Our Lady of Perpetual Pain.

The girl’s portal opened onto the main office and the auditorium. More thought was given to design and appearance on this side of the building. This was the public face of the school. A half-story marble staircase rose to a wide landing. A Sacred Heart of Jesus statue commanded the landing and oversaw everyone entering the building.

There have been any number of movies featuring miscreant students kneeling before a statue with books balanced on upraised hands. They are all, with some variations, historically accurate. At my institution, we were not allowed to kneel. The good sisters were not about to allow any resting – even if only against the heels of our feet during brief, unsupervised moments. No, at Our Lady of Perpetual Pain, the offending student was required to stand before the statue. Feet together. Shoulders back. Arms extended forward in a supplicating posture. The Mother Superior or one of her minions drew a tight circle around our feet in chalk (similar to those chalk outlines on crime dramas); we were required to stay within that circle at all times. Two nuns then placed two old, heavy and fragile looking leather bound bibles on each outstretched hand. God help the student who dropped the word of God on the floor. There were always more creative ways to instruct a wayward soul. Thank you, Torquemada. 

On one occasion – there were several – when I found myself staring up into the mournful eyes of the Son of God, I had to pee. I have a medically-certified weak bladder. I was provided a note from a Board Certified member of the Urological Sciences after a series of seriously embarrassing tests involving an indeterminate length of hose and gallons of water. Said note was filed and forgotten as soon as it left my Mother’s hand. Straying from the path before lunch and getting caught was an unfortunate miscalculation. Lunch was our proscribed, pre-ordained, tolerated and permitted bathroom time. Anything else was covered by one of the seven deadly sins (Hubris and Sloth were probably inscribed on my permanent record) promising a discussion with the Mother Superior. Knowing that I could not leave the circle without permission – which might not be granted in any case – I kept to my post casually shifting my weight from one foot to the other, doing the pee-pee dance while I desperately prayed for salvation. Salvation was not forthcoming. I voided before the statue that greeted parents and bishops.

The urge to urinate is sort of like having an itch and trying not to scratch. As soon as I knew I had to go, my whole body began working against me. My casual soft shoe quickly became vigorous. I began bouncing from one foot to another – always keeping within the circle – at an increasingly frantic pace. I could not have moved faster had the nuns placed hot coals under my feet. To protect the bibles, I crossed my arms tightly clasping the awkward, unbalanced tomes to my chest. I began to pray.

Please, no…God, please, no…Oh, God, please, please God…Oh, Dear God, please not now…please…SHIT!

When it started, there was no stopping. I lacked the muscles or strength of will to simply leak, to dribble. My shame was abrupt and dynamic. My pants darkened from zipper to ankle. Water gushed over my sock and shoe and pooled around my feet. The urge to dance passed and I found myself standing before the Sacred Heart of Jesus, head back, eyes closed in reverie (there is a lot of relief when you really…really…oh dear God…really have to go); every drop held by my magically and miraculously bottomless bladder spilled onto the marble floor.

If Catholics do not believe in Karma, they should. As if on cue, Sister Magdalena appeared on the stairs. Her entrance was timed not only to witness my disgrace but to focus the attention of the entire school – and perhaps the universe – on my most spectacular indiscretion; within seconds, everyone knew of my personal oasis in the center of hell. Her first reaction was to scream. She could not have screamed louder had she stumbled upon Pope Paul VI and the convent’s ancient mastiff Domingo engaged in intense, interactive prayer.

“What in God’s holy name do you think you’re doing!!!” echoed up and down the stairwells and along each hallway.

Sister Magdalena was a thin, forty-five year old soprano. She spoke in that same screechy, high pitched whine whether giving a lesson, raising her voice during choir practice or chatting on the phone with a parent. The only reason no one laughed during class was that she taught religion. No one laughed during religion.

My heart nearly crashed into the Pearly Gates at the sound of her voice. The bibles tumbled from my arms. A disjointed attempt to catch them in mid-flight failed miserably. One landed with a splash, further parting the seas and increasing my shame and humiliation. Fear reached new levels. What was left for me? The sign they would hang around my neck this time was Heretic. They burned heretics once upon a time. Our Lady of Perpetual Pain had at least one nun old enough to remember the recipe.

I was not allowed to go home to change my clothes or to wear any of the castoffs that the school collected. My Mother was called. The situation – as it pertained to me – was explained with sincerest regrets. Mom was informed that they would call again when I was ready to go home. She should be ready to collect me then. I spent the rest of the school day balancing bibles – that sin had not been paid for yet – while my urine stained pants dried. After school, after the entire female student body got to walk past me towards the exit – making note of the unpleasant scent of sin – I was required to wash and dry the stairs from top to bottom. When I was done, Mother Superior had me place my nose on the cold marble and sniff. While I was bent low snorting damp stone, she informed me, in her standard monotone, that a clear thinking Christian boy would not have to be told what to do next. A good Christian soldier would do the right thing and make sure the steps were clean – for the glory of God. She obviously thought – and maybe knew – that I wouldn’t do the right thing. I was ordered to wash them again before I had a chance to answer.

Mom came to collect me when the job was done; not once did she protest my punishment.

*

There was a rumor – a Catholic School urban legend – that insisted sucking on a copper penny gave you a fever. It was a rumor I needed to be true. More than anything, I wanted to be sick. More than anything, I wanted to stay home and serve my time for a day or two – or even a week or two – in my room. I sucked on that penny all night. I slept with it under my tongue and spit it behind my bed in the morning. I complained about fever and begged to stay in bed tucked under the covers.

I was sent to school without as much as a cool hand on my allegedly enflamed cheek. Mom was not one to end punishment early. I guess time off for good behavior wasn’t Christian.

*

The Mother Superior’s office was to the right of the statue of Jesus just outside the auditorium. She spent her days behind a solid mahogany door that was never left open. A brass door handle, brass nameplate and a golden crucifix, symbols of her office, were all highly polished. A single, simple and uncomfortable (take it from me) chair sat to the side of her office door. Apparently couples were not expected or encouraged by the Mother Superior. Anyone who came in pairs – parents, for instance – had to stand.

Inside, the walls were lined with mahogany book shelves. The bibles were in there somewhere. Hiding. Waiting. The Mother Superior sat behind a suitably ornate, authoritative, mahogany desk. It is where visitors to the school stopped before being escorted anywhere else. I do not know what she did behind that door; every time I was sent to speak with Mother, her hands were clasped around her rosary. I had the impression that I disturbed her prayers a lot; every time she looked up there was a tired, forlorn look in her eyes.

Twin staircases rose from either side of the lobby toward the second floor. The marble ended at the top – just out of sight.

Mahogany was a theme throughout the building. It was dark and impenetrable. Very little light made it into Our Lady of Perpetual Pain.

*

The entrance on my side of the building, the boys’ entrance, opened onto a small foyer barely wider than the doors. Twin steel staircases scissored back and forth towards the upper floors. Hallways on each landing provided access to the classrooms on the second and third floors and the teacher’s rooms on the fourth. Unescorted students were never allowed on the top floor.

Since boys and girls shared these stairs and passageways to get around the building – the girls’ entrance was only used to enter the school – steel mesh walls, the same heavy gauge, heavily painted metal that covered the windows enclosed the stairwells and divided the halls, keeping the sexes apart on the stairs and in the classrooms. I have a habit of mentioning movies and television shows to describe everyday activities; navigating Our Lady of Perpetual Pain reminded me of Stalag 17.

In the third grade, I developed a crush on a fourth grader from the other side of the wire. Most of the time, when the girls walked the halls, they marched as if in a processional, eyes fixed on the shoulder blades of the girl directly ahead, faces either naturally blank or lost in introspection. Mary Ellen Coffey was different but I cannot define how. She walked, talked and acted like every other girl in her class. Shedidn’t wear her plaid uniform skirt shorter (or longer, for that matter) than anyone else. There was never an extra button undone on her blouse. Her pleats were always starched and perfect. I noticed both. The silver cross she wore around her neck was the prescribed length and worn in exactly the same way as every other girl.

Mary Ellen’s cross was always perfect. It was the ID badge it was intended to be. Mary Ellen was a poster child. On the surface. That’s what my brain kept telling me, anyway. When I was near her I felt it, like some sort of individuality pheromone she let escape or allowed to slip past the facade. The reality, maybe (or probably), was that I had discovered horny ahead of the curve.

The boys wore similar crosses through the boutonniere hole on their jacket collar. Mine was always twisted or turned upside down. Sometimes it fell off altogether. I was always being told to stop fidgeting when I tried to fix it. I was never going to be asked to pose for photos in The Tablet or for any of the pamphlets the school mailed to parents. Somehow I never fit in. The occasional growth spurt left my pants too short. My shirt tails never stayed properly tucked. I had a permanently wrinkled, permanently disheveled look (made worse by the fact that Mom was never good with an iron). My differences were always on display or made public knowledge by ever vigilant teachers; they repeatedly felt the need to correct my slovenly deficiencies through mindless, repetitive exercises and lengthy punishments publically administered. I was often called to the front of the class to read some specifically tailored exercise. Why God Cries When My Shirt Tails Flap in the Breeze? was a personal favorite. I read it as the opening act to one of Mother Superior’s assemblies.

On one occasion, when the entire school was heading towards the auditorium for an assembly, I saw Mary Ellen’s class approach from the opposite direction. I tried to catch her eye and caught a fleeting glimpse of a smile and, less probably, a wink. I stuck my fingers through the wire mesh and wiggled them. A little secretive wave at the enticing Mary Ellen. It was an action without thought – at least what the nuns would call Christian thought – but not without consequence. I was fixated on the fourth grade love of my life but failed to take note of her teacher; nuns travelled with every class. The ruler was as much a part of her uniform as was her floor-length black robes and her beads and it struck my intruding fingers with a force only an eighty pound, eighty year old Bride of Christ can produce. I withdrew my digits with a yelp – repressing more than a few tears – and fast-stepped after my class. I was removed from the assembly for a talk with the Mother Superior. It was not my first; in truth, I was a regular on that seat outside her door.

I never got to speak to Mary Ellen. With my fingers red and bruised, I headed home. A block from my house, and away from the watchful eyes of the Good Sisters of Perpetual Pain, Bill Coffey passed me a note from his sister. Bill was in my class. A fellow third grader. He was shorter, squatter and heavier than me. The note offered a little encouragement. You didn’t cry. Good for you. The note came with a PS. Bill delivered a quick, powerful sucker punch straight to the gut. It knocked the wind out of me and doubled me over. I would like to say that he caught me by surprise but, in truth, I was never athletic. The only muscles I owned were in a Charles Atlas exercise book under my bed.

While I was still spitting and gasping for air, Bill added his own brief warning.

“Stay away from my sister, wop!”

I watched Bill Coffey trot off without a care in the world. When he turned the corner, I cried. Third graders do cry…when they can get away with it. I stayed on the street until I could dry my eyes and headed home.

*

Mom greeted me with a swift, and firm, slap to the face as I walked through the door. It, too, was a sucker shot. The Mother Superior had called. It was the fourth time I was struck in just under three hours. Hand, belly and butt still hurt. My face stung and burned red. I was beginning to run out of body parts.

“Why can’t you just behave?” Mom asked in her shrill, no-nonsense voice.

I wanted to say I didn’t do anything wrong. I wanted to protest. All I did was wave at a girl, for Chrissakes, but I would never have added the Chrissakes! Mom’s second slap would have reverberated throughout the neighborhood. Sinning before the Mother Superior was one thing; sinning before the Son of God…fuck, I would have been lucky if they still burned sinners at the stake in our Brooklyn neighborhood. I wanted to tell my mother that I liked this girl. She was cute. Your little boy is growing up, but I never got the chance. First of all, guys don’t talk that way to their moms and secondly, it wouldn’t have mattered. Mom was already in full rant mode screaming about embarrassing the family.

“Do you have any idea what they think of us?”

No, I thought to myself, but you’ll tell me. You always do. I grabbed my bag, an imitation leather case that buckled across the top and headed up the stairs towards my bedroom. I left Mom’s tirade behind me.

“That’s right…go to your room…and stay there…stay there until your father comes home…I’m sure he’ll have something to say…”

They certainly would have something to say. Mom would still be angry when he got home and the speech would be revisited but not with me. Dad would think it was all silly. That would be the word he’d
use. Silly. He might even wonder what all the fuss was about: his son waved at a girl. So what. I didn’t think Dad would come up the stairs. Dad rarely reprimanded me – I had to really…really work hard to get his attention; I was capable but waving at Mary Ellen just wasn’t Dadworthy – and he never cared what they thought of us at the school.

I lay on my bed and waited for the pain to go away. I fell asleep before it did.

https://www.createspace.com/4671978

Thursday, March 27, 2014

THE GOOD REVEREND DOCTOR PARKER

[excerpted from a larger work-in-progress, Revelations.]

...THE REVEREND ELLISON PARKER was everyone favorite pastor.  He offered the invocation at the beginning of every Town Board Meeting, sponsored teen nights in the church basement and gave the benediction at most community gatherings.  He officiated at weddings and funerals, was present for baptisms and stood in uniform and prayed every Memorial Day and every Veteran’s Day. He rolled up his sleeve and got dirty whenever Mother Nature or some less impressive human counterpart dealt injury to his flock.  At night, he knelt by his bedside and read from the bible before sliding under the covers for an evening of well-deserved, gratifying peace.

We later learned that the good reverend’s wife slept in the smaller bedroom down the hall. That didn’t matter to the Reverend Dr. Parker.  Every night, he pulled the covers high around his neck.  He lay on his side and spent a few minutes bending his knees just so and shifting his back and shoulders until he found that perfect place on the mattress.  It was old and all the dents and imperfections accepted his body perfectly.  When he was completely comfortable, his arm, the upper one, the right one, slipped across the body of his young daughter and pulled her to him.  She began sharing his bed when she was four; the practice continued until she was twelve years old. 

There was an early frost that October, but Ellison didn’t feel the cold.  He never felt cold at night.  What he felt instead were curves that weren’t there before.  When he touched her, he felt her breath hitch.  He heard, or imagined, the tiniest moan slipping past his daughter’s lips.  He felt her move, or thought he felt her move or envisioned his young daughter moving next to and against him and he was appalled.  This was not right.  This was sin.  Every evil ever visited upon men by women found entre into his bedchamber that evening.  The good Reverend Ellison Parker could not abide sin.  Sin had to be dispatched quickly.  Decisively.   And so, just one week before Halloween, in the nearly morning hours well before dawn, evil was quickly and quietly returned to the shadows.

The Reverend’s car ended up in Barker’s pond.  He sent it off the end of the pier and let it sink into the water and the mud.  Barker’s pond is not very deep but it was just deep enough to cover the trunk.  Only the red of the tail lights broke the surface of the water.

I was there when we opened that trunk.  Little, twelve year old Emily Parker, lay in that trunk stuffed behind the spare tire.  She was naked. And broken.  There were bruises on her thighs and her chest and her neck.  Her hands and her ankles and her mouth were taped.  Her eyes were wide open.  They were the biggest eyes I had ever seen and I was convinced that she saw everything when he carried her into that trunk.  In that desperate part of my mind, the part that now needed to retire, I believe she saw everything as we carried her to the ambulance.

The good reverend locked her in the trunk alive.  He let her die in the dark without a single creature comfort. He let the icy water bubble in and take her slowly.  The Most Reverend Doctor Parker left his daughter to the most sinister death imaginable.  There may be more evil ways to kill a person but when I stared into that trunk at the bloating body of young Emily Parker, I could not think of any.

When the car was removed from the murky waters, Ellison Parker was not behind the wheel.  The evidence suggested he slipped into the woods behind the pond and disappeared for a while. 

The Reverend never stood in a courtroom to answer for his crimes.  Rumor has it that he was shot trying to break into a barn.  It was December by then and he was probably trying to keep warm.  I do not know the circumstances.  I did not investigate Ellison Parker.  I am ashamed to say I put my papers in the morning after we opened that trunk; I left that duty to someone else but I was glad to know he was gone.  The bullet that took him was up close and personal.  It was the type of closure that comes from a trunk slamming shut.  That was enough.

WATCH
FOR THE
RELEASE OF A
NEW THRILLER
COMING
April, 2014

LCCN: 2014903373
ISBN-13: 978-1495959967

Tuesday, March 11, 2014




You’re never too old to have one more adventure 

Brought to life by Steve Ferchaud’s vibrant drawings, this story for all ages by Dan O’Brien lets us know that it is never too late to have one more adventure. 


An Excerpt:


Robert Pendleton opened one eye as the light of a passing car flashed over the window, shattering the darkness into prisms. He rolled onto his back on the beat-up couch and yawned as he reached his hands up and rubbed his eyes unceremoniously. 

He looked out over the darkness at the digital clock. The red digits spelled out a quarter ‘til midnight––nearly fourteen hours of sleep. He smiled and grabbed one of the cushions of the couch, burying his head in it. Just enough sleep, he reminded himself. Robert felt that anything less than twelve hours of sleep was very nearly too little. 

He grasped blindly for the TV remote. 

Groaning as he lifted his head, he looked at the empty table––his eyes drawn by another flash of a passing car. He couldn’t see clearly, but he knew that the remote had been there before he had fallen asleep nearly half a day ago. 

“Could have sworn….” he mumbled as he pushed himself up and brushed his hand around the top of the table, finding nothing. “Where did….”

Another groan escaped his lips as he lifted his body to a sitting position and threw aside the cluster of pillows that he had gathered around himself. He reached out for the lamp, but instead knocked it to the floor with a resounding thud. 

Robert muttered as he stood up from the couch, and then sank to his knees to search around in the darkness for the fallen lamp. Reaching around on the shadowed floor, shards of the broken lamp scattered like pieces of light. 

He turned his head, peering beneath the large space underneath the couch and saw the reflection of the buttons on the remote. The off-gray piece of machinery was underneath the couch––only darkness lingered beyond it. He reached out as he spoke again. 

“How did it get all the way down there?” 

Robert flexed his hand and strained as he twisted his back to reach farther; yet, the remote remained just out of reach. He pulled his arm away with a huff and craned his neck to the side, staring underneath into the darkness below the couch. 

His eyes widened as he saw the impossible: there was something beyond the remote. He shook his head and closed his eyes, whispering to himself that he didn’t see what he thought he had.

“I saw a little man,” he whispered to himself as he opened his eyes once more and nearly gasped as he did so. 

The figure was closer now and he could make out the outline clearly. A tiny man rested just beyond the remote. 

“What in the name of…?”

“Not here in the name of nobody, laddie. I be a friend though,” crooned the miniscule figure as he interrupted Robert and stepped forward, placing a hand on the darkened and slick surface of the remote. 

A tam-o’-shanter crested his bright red hair, the shaggy mane blending perfectly into his equally crimson, neatly trimmed, beard. 

A billow of whitish smoke drifted from the long-stemmed pipe that he held clenched between his lips. 

Robert fell back and knocked aside the adjacent table. Rubbing his eyes, he spoke a single word: “Leprechaun.”



About the Author:


Dan O’Brien, founder and editor-in-chief of The Northern California Perspective, has written over 20 books––including the bestselling Bitten, which was featured on Conversations Book Club’s Top 100 novels of 2012. Before starting Amalgam, he was the senior editor and marketing director for an international magazine. In addition, he has spent over a decade in the publishing industry as a freelance editor. You can learn more about his literary and publishing consulting business by visiting his website at: www.amalgamconsulting.com. Contact him today to order copies of the book or have them stocked at your local bookstore. He can he reached by email at amalgamconsulting@gmail.com



Would you like to win a remarked copy of Conspirators of the Lost Sock Army and Loose Change Collection Agency signed by the author and illustrator?

Simply follow the author here and here and a few winners will be randomly selected on March 20th!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Shameless Self-Promotion Apology

I have a friend who has a cause very near and dear to his heart.  Day in and day out he goes on Facebook (and other social media sites) posting links that explain the cause and encourage others to support the cause.  There are times I want to tell him to shut the front door!  Find something else to post.  As much as I hate friends who feel the need to discuss the minutiae of their lives I almost wish he'd write about grabbing the sports section and heading off to deal with constipation.  Even an obligatory "at Starbucks" status would be less nerve-wracking.

This post is not about him.

As a self-published author, I am obliged to be a self-promoting parasite.  It is as much a part of the job as the actual writing.  Worse, it takes more time than I wish to invest and depending on the day and season takes much needed time away from that next brilliant insight the next project desperately needs.

I hate feeling redundant.  I struggle to post the same status messages desperately trying to find different words each time.  On some level, it feels less intrusive and less like cold-calling (a job I held for about four hours once upon a time) if I work off a varying script and resist beating the reading public over the head with the same buy me...buy me...buy me mantra.

That said, allow a shameless plug.  Black Friday is upon us.  While enjoying the warm afterglow of a holiday meal (assuming you survived the storm and made it to love ones and turkey), think about sitting in front of the fire enjoying a good book.  (Self-published writers have enough ego to add "good" before "book".)  If you order on Friday, it might even be there waiting for you when you get home.  There are no storms lurking that would delay you or the delivery of your book.

As a Black Friday special - and because the new novel will be coming out in early 2014 - I am offering "This Little Piggy Belongs to the Devil" at a 50% discount.  That's Friday.  All day Friday.  I don't care what time zone you live in, where you are ordering from, if you celebrate Thanksgiving or not...if it is Friday, the discount is yours.  Just enter the code.  It's already on Facebook, Google and Twitter - and cut and pasted below.

I will be back after Christmas shameless beating a drum for "Auf Wiedersehen, Lampione".  Until then, enjoy "This Little Piggy Belongs to the Devil" - with my apologies.


As posted on Facebook at 9AM 11/26/2013:

50% OFF Black Friday Discount.  "This Little Piggy Belongs to the Devil".  List Price $11.99.  50% savings all day Friday - ANY TIME ZONE.  Just enter code 7Q73LJZD.  Createspace store only. https://www.createspace.com/3678792

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Just Joking, Honey

(A few years ago, I tried my hand at stand-up comedy.  I won't pretend I was good at it but I enjoyed the writing.  Every once in a while I have a thought I find amusing and I add it to the joke file.  Here's one of them.)


I cannot tell you how many times, in 37 years of marriage, I have heard the word “mine” from the wife.  You may feel that I should say “my wife” – or at least be tempted to say “my wife” – but I am “the” husband; I do not have possessions.  The wife has never used the word “our” – as in “our children” or “our car”.  She has certainly never used the word “your” – as in your pants, your socks, your shoes.  When the time comes, I will be put to rest in “her” plot.  I am not sure if that is generosity or punishment.  If you are married, you will hear your wife say: my couch, my table, my pots, my pans, my television, my computer, my condoms, my husband…

The wife will say – when she is mad at me – that she will not take any of my shit.  You may think she is giving me ownership of my shit but she is not.  It’s her shit; she just wants me to hold it for her.  In fact, she insists on it.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Flash Fiction


            (I am a creature of habit.  I write on a schedule – even if I do not know what I am about to write.  I get up every morning and, with that first cup of coffee, pound on my computer.

            The other morning, I was forced to reinstall the computer; my grandson or my daughter visited a site they shouldn’t have and the laptop started acting like it was swimming in molasses.  This, needless to say, impinged on my work time.  I filled it, while I waited for Norton and Office and whatever updates Microsoft insists I needed, by doodling in my notebook.  The piece that follows wriggled to the surface without any pre-planning.  I like it for its brevity and its tone.)

▬▬▬▬



The Martini, Extra-Dry

             My doctor suggested that I stop drinking as part of his post-physical comments.  I invited him home for dinner – I am quite the imaginative cook – and made us both a Martini to whet his appetite and to introduce him to a more reasoned, evening routine.  There is nothing more civilized that a chilled Martini at the end of a long day.
            My doctor passed away soon afterwards.  Cardiac dysrhythmias.  It was quite unexpected.  It took his wife and family completely by surprise when they received the call.  He was only – if I had to guess – forty-something.  Fit, forty-something and dead.
            The Martini is a classic drink, one that has withstood the ravages of time.  It is not easy to make and must be served in the appropriate glass with sufficient preparation to honor the drink.  Do you see how I have frosted our glasses? And the olives, three each, carefully pierced through the center with silver skewers.  I do not abide anything stuffed into the olive.  Nothing extraneous should be added to the liquor.  Just a hint of brine to compliment the gin.
            I find salt heightens a great many sensations.  I have been watching the tiniest droplet of sweat gliding down your delicate neck.  I don’t know if you can even feel it but it is enchanting.  I have an almost irresistible urge to kiss you.  To kiss your neck.  It is not the salt that makes me want to do that – that is all you, by the way – but that hint of salt, the thought of that special taste, magnifies the experience.
            See what I mean?
            You are quite beautiful.  I am sure you aware of your beauty; you must see it every morning in the mirror and men – myself included – cannot help mentioning it.  It is the nature of human beings to appreciate beauty. 
            Don’t get me wrong.  This is not some tawdry attempt at seduction.  I do not enjoy pick-up lines.  Look around you…I prize beauty.  I collect books and old records, mostly classical compositions, and art.  Small pieces.  Little sculptures.  Little porcelain pieces that are so incredibly delicate that you crave touching them but fear breaking them at the same time.  Their fragility makes them…well, I guess you could say…exciting.  I find holding them positively arousing. 
            But, enough of me and my things.  The Martinis are done.  I have taken extraordinary pains with yours.  My doctor would claim I am being cavalier with our health but he is not here.  I do not mean to be insolent, but his absence speaks volumes.  If you ask me, there are quantitative benefits to the occasional vice.  I do believe they have extended my life.  Would you like to try it now or should we retire to the bedroom?  I have never been a particularly doctrinaire host; you are so beautiful I would gladly forego my favorite addiction…or, at least, delay it until later.
            The choice is yours.  I am your servant.
            I understand completely: the drink.
            It would be an absolute shame to waste such a perfect Martin

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE MUNCHAUSEN ENTERPRISE

["The Munchausen Enterprise" is the core idea of a longer work-in-progress]
 
 
THE MUNCHAUSEN ENTERPRISE

a short story by

Vincent A. Palazzo

 

 

            Maggie O’Connor drags her small metal cart and one uncooperative leg up Cooper Hill towards Greeley Gardens.  At the corner, she turns right and walks the entire length of the park on the opposing side, dutifully stopping at very meter to collect the town’s parking tariff.  The coins are just as dutifully deposited in the cart designed for that purpose; in almost fourteen months on the job, the sixty-four year old Maggie has not lost or misplaced so much as one quarter.  In a previous life, before a stroke made speech difficult and her left leg lazy, Maggie taught High School English and led the Community Theater.

            Her route takes her to Palmer Circle and the entrance of the park.  She crosses, taking a moment to observe the monument to the town’s war dead, as she does every day, and heads back in the opposite direction.  She enjoys the downhill walk and looks ahead to the bench at the corner where she will have her lunch.  At a silver Volvo, parked by an expired meter, she hears the first sounds of trouble coming from inside the park.  There is a series of quick explosions, like firecrackers but somehow hollow.  Maggie is reminded of the sounds of men hunting in the woods by her childhood home.  Those reports had a hollow muffled sound just like the explosions in the park but Maggie does not have the time to make the connection with gunfire.  Her damaged mind jumps from popping sounds to the screams that follow and then to the squealing of car tires.  She turns in time to see a late model SUV fishtail out of the park entrance and head in her direction at high speed.  She has just enough time to think about writing down the license plate number, just enough time to reach for the pad she keeps for remembering what her brain forgets too quickly when a single bullet crashes through her skull.  She is literally dead on her feet until the good leg finally catches on and she crumbles to the pavement.  She is discovered with her hand still on the handle of her metal cart.

            I have no trouble shooting her.  She was a bitch in High School.


            A group of young children enter the park tethered to a length of clothes line.  They are all young students from Ms. Edith’s morning kindergarten class and they are all excited to be on their first field trip.  Ever!  Each kid dutifully holds a loop in the rope and marches in lockstep towards the amphitheater.  Allie King, the smallest in the group, walks at the head of the line holding the rope with one hand and Ms. Edith’s hand with the other.  She can see the performers setting up the stage and grows animated.

            “They’re starting! Ms. Edith, they’re starting!”

            “It’s okay, honey.  They’re just getting ready.  They know we’re coming.  No one is going to start without us.”


            The man in the black SUV is dressed in a black sweatshirt and black cotton pants.  He sits behind black sunglasses and tinted windows watching from the parking lot as the children get settled on the grass.  He has been there for thirty minutes, well before the kids crossed the street and entered the park, but no one pays any attention.  He is just some guy sitting in his car sipping a cup of hot coffee.  Just some guy enjoying the morning. 

            I cut quite the dashing figure.  The Man in Black in the black SUV may be a little stereotypical but I enjoy the image.  A Clementi symphony flows from my Bose sound system; my hand conducts the music through the open car window as I casually scans the pathways and roadways that lead to the amphitheater.  The rest of the windows are closed; the tint provides just enough cover.  No one notices my .44 caliber Bulldog or the Mac10 pistol sitting on the passenger seat.  A large digital countdown timer sits next to the weapons.  It now blinks “2:08”. 

Time.

            Ms. Edith is standing behind her charges facing the puppeteers as the car pulls to a stop.  She is drinking her own cup of coffee.  There are only a few yards of grass separating us as my Man in Black raises his Bulldog and fires.

The first shot is wide.  It hits Ms. Edith but not as planned.  The bullet catches her in the shoulder and literally spins her around.  Just like in the movies.  As she drops to one knee, she sees the Man in Black.  She sees the black glasses.  Sees the little boy smile.  Her mouth flops open.  Shock.  Amazement.  There is no time for fear or recognition.  There is no time to cry out.  The second round is true.  Just as planned.  The kill shot hits her in the chest and destroys her heart.  She is dead before anyone realizes.  Before the children start to cry. Before the performers, the spectators, the vendors, the joggers and the occasional lover recognize that the real drama is parked in a black SUV. 

In that moment between murder and understanding, my Man in Black drops his Bulldog and fires the MAC10.  I immediately miss the smaller pistol.  It is much lighter, a mere 23 ounces, and much easier to control.  The MAC10 feels like trying to hold an angry big mouth bass by the tail.  My aim is high; my hand shakes under the weight and sheer power of the weapon.  Its magazine empties in less than two seconds – I think about screaming as I squeeze the trigger – but the spectacle has the desired effect.  Anyone moving in my direction has reversed field.  Everyone is running for cover.  Terror has taken center stage.  There is screaming and confusion and chaos.  The kids are now crying almost with one voice.  It is pandemonium and it is perfect; exactly the scene I imagined when I first decided to act. 

The Man in Black does not wait to see if he has hit anyone else.  It does not matter.  The play is proceeding as planned.  The morning is not over; there is more to do.  The car is in gear and gaining speed.  The digital clock continues to count down.  1:18. The play may be behind schedule.  Just a few seconds, but today seconds matter. 

The car hits the turnabout fast barely slowing to prevent a skid.  I hear the sound of metal on metal as the older Honda I cut off loses control and strikes a parked car.  That should slow pursuit!  For the moment it does.  I am now travelling at highway speeds on Palmer Avenue.

Maggie O’Connor is doing her coin collecting thing as I raise the Bulldog. I sees her stop and shudder, almost as if a bug flew into her eye, but I can’t pause to evaluate my work.  Three. I make a mental note and plow through a controlled intersection against the light. 

There are pedestrians in the crosswalk up ahead.  An old man with a walker, his wife with their cart of wet laundry and some kid on a skateboard threaten to block my path. The Man in Black switches hands and fires a single shot out the driver’s side window.  This time I miss completely but the effort has the desired effect.  As bits and pieces of asphalt spray into the air, the old and infirm fall backwards; the kid on the board propels himself forward creating a hole for the SUV.  I click off another bullet – four – and glance at the clock. Less than half a minute remains.


            The rail lines are up ahead.  The Man in Black hears two sounds at the same time – the horn of an approaching train up ahead and the wail of police sirens closing in behind him. The cops took up the chase just after I shot at the old man in the intersection.  They didn’t even stop to help the old guy.  He sat on his ass until some neighbors pulled him from the street and helped him into a lawn chair.

            The train whistle sounds again.  At one hundred feet from the corner I can see the silver engine and the cars that will cross in front of me.  They are coming fast.  The countdown clock beeps and blinks 0:00.  The SUV is just a second or two behind schedule and Amtrak, miraculously, is on time.  I will not make it past in time. The barrier is down, the lights are blinking and I do not have the courage to ignore the warnings.  The Man in Black would make the leap but he is not driving.  Not really.  He will have to listen to me.  The long train will not provide cover; the cars will not allow me to escape.  It is time for Plan B.


            The SUV fishtails onto the gravel service road, gains purchase and barrels forward at dangerous speeds.  The SUV bounces furiously over the uneven surface, forcing the Man in Black to drop both guns on the floor; this is two-fisted, white-knuckled driving.  To my left, the train glides past at an almost similar pace.  Up ahead, I can see where the rails curve away from the road.  I can see the tunnel in the distance and I can just barely make out the next intersection.  It is paved but crosses the rails at a difficult angle. The train will clear it before I gets there.

            The police cruisers are having some difficulty on the gravel service road.  They are unable to close the distance, promising a little breathing room at the corner.  The Man in Black moves the vehicle to the left but does not attempt the hard turn.  He uses the paved intersection to guide his vehicle onto the rails.  This is not the movies.  The car’s tires do not ride the rails like a train gliding effortlessly towards the tunnel.  Instead, I find myself bouncing over the rail ties with the right rail running under the car.  Steering is complicated; every time the vehicle drifts left, the rail rubs against the inside of the right wheels causing the SUV to buck insanely.

            It is an impossible ride but the tunnel is only a quarter mile ahead.  The Man in Black gets there ahead of the police cruisers. 


            Patrolman Michael Granger was one of three officers involved in what was a very short high speed chase.  He piloted the car closest to the black SUV, flying through city streets at dangerous speeds that would have been dangerous on an open highway.  His position leading the chase had more to do with luck of the draw or right place at the right time than it did with driving or police skills.  The rookie had little of both.  He was responding to a call involving the SUV when he heard a single gunshot right in front of him.  He saw the subject vehicle fly through the approaching intersection.  He saw an old man with a walker fall backwards into the roadway and thought briefly about offering assistance.  The chase simply had more appeal. Granger bore down on the accelerator and took the left turn at speeds well above published safety limits.  Surely someone else would stop and assist the old man.  Besides, this was why he became a cop.  In his mirror, he saw two other patrol cars speed past the old guy.  They validated his decision.  The man in the SUV came first.  The radio reported injuries and fatalities; this guy was not getting away.

            The turn put Granger within shooting distance of the gunman.  He was certain he could put a stop to this quickly but there were rules to high speed chases.  Discharging a weapon risked collateral damage…a big no-no.  If he got the guy, no one would care.  If he clipped a civilian in the process, the family would be all over the papers.  His badge would be worth less than already chewed gum.  There would be a PR nightmare for the department and probably a lawsuit.  Shit-heel lawyers would be all over the place.  Granger ending up out on his ass would be the least of his worries.  No, there were other ways – by the book ways – to stop the gunman without damaging the indigenous population.

            Granger bore down on the accelerator bringing his cruiser closer to the SUV.  The railroad crossing was only a few seconds ahead.  The open space would afford him an opportunity to stop this perp – god, he loved the word perp – and eliminate risk to civilians.  Granger could take him down single handed.  When the newspapers showed up, he’d be standing next to the Commissioner.  Granger’s mind drifted back to his training.  Quickly, he reviewed the procedure for deliberately clipping a fleeing vehicle causing it to spin out of control.  If he did it right he could end up with one dead mother-fucker or a bloodied killer in handcuffs.  Both made a good picture.

            Granger’s focus was shattered when the SUV’s window exploded outward in his direction.  His cruiser was close enough to be pelted with glass. Worse, Granger heard and felt a small thud near his left elbow.  His rear view mirror – driver’s side just a couple of feet from his head – blew apart.  What remained was a jagged piece of navy blue plastic.  Nothing more.  Granger was taking fire.  Instinctively, he eased off the gas.  Both hands tightened at ten and two.

            Granger took the turn onto the gravel service road at high speed.  He fishtailed all over the place before regaining control.  The heavier SUV was handling the rough road better than his cruiser.  The two other vehicles in pursuit followed with greater caution increasing distance between the lead vehicles.  Granger cursed and complained that his Academy driving classes were nothing like this but he kept going.  This sonovabitch was not getting away.

            Granger was taken completely by surprise when the SUV bounced onto the rail bed and started riding the rails towards the tunnel.  You’ve got to be kidding me and cunt-lapping-mother-fucking-sonovabitch and quite a few more colorful expletives filled the officer’s head.  What he shouted out loud was not as imaginative – No Fucking Way! – but it managed to force him forward.  Granger took the turn in much the same way as the perp, positioned his vehicle like the SUV, with one rail running under his cruiser, and bounded after the shooter.  It was a stupid thing to do.  The patrol car bounced so violently that Officer Granger’s face kept hitting the driver’s window.  He would have a nice bruise to show when this little bit of police work was done.

            At this point, the rookie should have called in but Granger did not dare take his hands off the wheel.  Ten and two had become a sick joke.  He would have to rely on his fellow officers – behind him – reporting his position.  Had Granger taken a moment to look in the mirror, he would have noticed that they had stopped at the intersection.  Other cars were now entering the area.  They all stopped at the intersection.  No one followed him onto the rails.

            Ten or fifteen very painful seconds later, his front wheel hit a particularly deep rut.  The tire hit the rail tie but the wheel did not roll out of the hole.  The physics of force and immovable objects took over.  The car stopped abruptly but not before metal bent, the axle broke and the cruisers wheel assumed a very unnatural angle.  Inside the vehicle, the patrolman was thrown forward.  The seatbelt lock caused a nasty burn diagonally across his chest.  The airbag deployed blooding his mouth and breaking Granger’s nose.  When he wobbled out of his car, more than a little disoriented, the pain in his back almost dropped him to the ground.  His right arm, thrown over the top of the door, kept him from falling.  He hung there like an old Raggedy Andy doll while his fellow officers ran down the tracks to offer assistance.

            Granger was still a quarter-mile from the tunnel. The SUV had disappeared into the darkness.  It was no longer visible.  For the moment, there was nothing for him to do.  He watched the black maw ahead and listened to the pounding of black boots behind and waited.  One officer was closer than the rest.

            “Hey, Mike! You okay?”

            There was something whimsical in his tone.

            Yeah, sure!  What do you think; Granger wanted to answer but didn’t get the chance.  A huge explosion literally burped out of the blackness.  A plume of red and yellow flame shot skyward across the stone face of the tunnel.  Debris, the flotsam of rail walkers and derelicts, took flight and flew towards the officers.  And empty beer can cracked the windshield of Granger’s cruiser.  The concussion knocked him to the ground; he screamed in pain as his ass hit a rail tie and pain shot upward through his back.

            For the first time in his short career, Officer Michael Granger thought of disability as a blessing.


            The Man in Black stands in the dark next to the SUV.  If the police give me two minutes, Plan B will still work.

            I work in near darkness.  The only light comes from the interior of the car.  I remove the Man in Black and toss him into the car.  The black sunglasses have already been discarded.   Black boots land on the floor next to the firepower. A new uniform, baggy running shorts and a well-worm t-shirt, recast my main character.  The new actor is closer to reality.  The play, for the first time is more autobiography.  The Man in Black entered the tunnel; Eddie McDermott was about to walk into the sunlight.  I climb a concrete utility shaft.  Everything else is left behind.

I exit an abandoned utility shed less than a ninety seconds after losing the SUV.  I am well on my way, just an average guy jogging in baggy blue shorts and a red pocket “t” when my watch chimes a two-minute warning.  I feel vibration in the ground as the SVU and the tunnel explode but keep my pace steady and calm.  A half mile further along Crescent Street, I stop at a mustard yellow, late model Ford Mustang.  I get in and drive off without incident.  Plans C or D will not be necessary.


            There were no redemptive, hand-of-god hiccups.  I drove to the airport at posted highway speeds without incident, top down, elbow slung out the window.  It was a completely enjoyable ride.  Twenty minutes later, I slid into a rent-a-car parking lot, dropped my paperwork and keys into the rapid check-in box, avoiding unnecessary, casual conversations with extraneous humans, before taking the shuttle to the long-term parking lot.  The family CRV, Hermione, sat waiting patiently.  She has been waiting for the last five days; my most recent business trip was about to end.


            The police were not at my house when I pulled into the drive.  They will come – I left enough victims to keep them busy for a while – but, for the moment, I planned to relax, collect myself and enjoy a tall whisky. Neat.  When they come, I will be ready.

            My briefcase and keys are dropped by the front door.  My coat is tossed carelessly over a wing-back chair – signs that there is a new sheriff in town.  I plop down on the sofa and drop my feet on the cocktail table.  I take a deep pull on my drink; the remote in my other hand finds the Chicago game.  The Cubs won’t win the division but the season is still young; at least, they might win the day.

            In the quiet of my living room, adrenaline drains away.  I feel the need to sleep.  When the police come, they can wake me.  That would look more natural, anyway.  In the meantime, I will sleep my most peaceful sleep in years.  As I sink into the cushions of the couch, I see my wife Edith drift by on the digital frame.  She is surrounded by snow, bathed in the steam of a hot tub.  It was a shot from our winter trip to Breckenridge.

            Just like a ghost, I think.

            Eddie McDermott sleeps.

            I smile.


            I wake to a dark house and a somnambulant neighborhood.  The police have not come to express their condolences and ask a few questions.  It is after one and this surprises me – and maybe offends me just a little.  You’d think my work deserves a bit more attention.  Oh, well…in the morning, then!  I lumber up the stairs and onto the bed without changing.  I never liked pajamas anyway.

            The alarm wakes me at 6AM.  Half asleep, I go into the bathroom, strip off yesterday’s clothes and climb into the shower.  The water refreshes me and brings me back to life.  I step out of the tub ready to face a new day.

            Edith is sitting on the toilet.  Her panties are at mid-calf.  Her black nightgown covers her knees and most of the view. I cannot conceal my surprise; I stand there dripping on the bathmat, my mouth agape.

            “Sorry,” she giggles, “when I wake up I need to pee.”

            “It’s okay,” I shrug, shaking the shock and confusion from my face and voice.  “It’s not like you’ve never seen me naked.”

            Edith shrugs, changing the conversation.

            “You were talking in your sleep…”

            I still haven’t reached for a towel.  Edith has my complete attention.

            “Sorry.  What did I say?”

            “I’m gonna kill you, Dotty…”

            I laugh.  The truth makes answering easy.

            “Seriously? She’s a character.  I was working on her big scene all day.”

            “Dotty must be giving you a hard time.  You were really tossing around last night…”

            I watch as Edith grabs some paper and finishes up.  She pulls her panties up and rises in one motion.  Not once is she exposed.

            “She’s a little difficult…:

            I watch her leave the bathroom.  When the door closes, I reach for a towel and dry quickly.  Only dampness remains.

            “Don’t worry,” I muttered, “I’ll work on it…”

            Maybe something simpler.