Overheard on a Train


The couple managed to squeeze into a small seat on the train just inside the door beneath the fire extinguisher. Across from them sat older three ladies, returning home from a day’s shopping in Portsmouth. Their numerous, multicolored bags crowded the overhead rack. They contained the day’s bounty and proclaimed the various merchants patronized.

Crowded train from Portsmouth to London

David and Lyn sat with their backs to the wall nearest the coupling, unable to stuff their suitcases beneath the seat. Lack of space forced them to ride with their legs twisted on top of their luggage. The three ladies facing them droned on in high-pitched tones about their dreadful shopping excursion. Each complained more dramatically than the next.

“Everything is so pricey.”
“Too dear for most people, don’t you think?”
“And the crowds. Every queue is a mile long.”
“It was never that way when my Albert was alive. It was all so much more peaceful then,” said the lady in the middle. Her gray curls looked frazzled. She wore clear rubber rain boots secured with a strap over one button, protecting her thick black pumps from dampness. “Back then, it was like a holiday for us, you know. Now, it’s all so harried; not at all what it once was.”
“I remember coming down as a young girl,” sang the pudgy, white-haired dear on the right. Her tweed coat was beaded with raindrops while her ankles swelled above her laced, navy blue shoes. “The town was virtually desolate then, apart from sailors of course. But then one expects a port town to be cluttered with young men in uniforms. We rather fancied them, all clean and well-dressed, tipping their hats and holding the door for a lady. Now, it’s all chocked full of out-of-towners, isn’t it?” she asked in a condescending tone. Her friends assured her she was correct, never thinking of themselves as the offenders as they rode home on the train.

Older laides on a train

“Once the ferry docks, one never knows what arrives from across the channel, does one?” chimed the third and youngest. David and Lyn exchanged guilty looks. The speaker’s hair dyed honey blonde was ill suited to her years. Her soft white skin flushed red in blotches from the close quarters. Operatically, she continued. “Dear me, I’ve lived here all my life and now I feel as if I am being driven off. It is all rather frightening. It was never like this before the war. Oh, no . . . Back then, people were more content with a simple life. Bangers and mash for dinner; maybe gooseberry pie and cream for those special days. Not today though. Oh, no . . . People are eating food they can scarcely pronounce.”
“Or spell,” said the lady with the swollen ankles.
“And they way they dress. It’s as if the whole country has run amuck.”
“Oh, yes . . .” added the other two in harmony. They all agreed the strange eating habits of an oddly dressed few always preceded social collapse.

David and Lyn sat quietly for most of the ride, their legs cramped as they listened by default. They both smirked as the ladies lamented their sing-song woes. Complete with luggage and straight off the ferry, they were no doubt among the very people who frightened the sweet old dears.
Bright stations flashed past in the early November darkness. In the overcast evening, the landscape faded to twinkling lights on either side of them. Overhead, the moon raced them to Crosham, shining through a fuzzy web of angel hair clouds.

The Old Wooden Bench

There used to be an old wooden bench by the side of the road near Greenfield, California. Behind it lay a field of lettuce with head after head of leafy green pearls strung in perfectly straight strands. The rows spread wide at the road, like an open fan, and joined at a point in the distant foothills. A small, white house sat beside the field, and I passed it each day as I commuted up the highway splitting the Salinas Valley.
Some mornings, the fog barely lifted to the tops of the eucalyptus trees that stood like bristled hairs on the flat landscape. Those mornings, the bench was not occupied. Other mornings were bright, especially after a crisp spring rain. The air buzzed with cropdusters and rainbows arched from the hills to the valley floor.

On those good mornings, a man and a woman would come to the bench. The walked slowly as their age dictated. He was a large man, wearing a faded brown jacket and a hat with a sweat-stained band. He walked surely, even with a cane. Staring straight ahead behind beneath the shadow of his hat’s brim, his eyes remained fixed on his destination.

She was tiny and wore all manner of garments, usually at the same time. Several pairs of socks, sensible dark shoes that laced, and a dress that changed only in the color of its small flower print. She wore one or two sweaters, occasionally topped with a coat.
She always carried the same size brown paper bag. I imagined she saved it after each use, smoothing its wrinkles with matching hands and refolding it. No need to waste it. Depression era habits die hard.

They were never early, but I was often late. When I was, they would already be seated on the bench. He, always on the left, she on the right. He stared straight ahead with his hands crossed on his cane, probably guessing the makes of cars that sailed past on Highway 101. She sat dwarfed at his side, chatting away or reaching into the bag and offering him something to eat. Probably a homemade tidbit that had made their kitchen smell of cinnamon and butter.

Each day, they were there, weather permitting. Then, one day, they weren’t. Vacation, I wondered? Vacation, I hoped. Then they were back, and I smiled and waved like a fool. They never waved back.

Two weeks later, they disappeared again, and I tried to be impartial. It’s their life. None of my business. Day after day, the empty wooden bench waited in front of the row crops which were nearly ready for harvest. I tried not to care, but I did.

Another week passed before I saw him, alone, standing at the gate of the white house. Maybe she had a cold. The next day, he was alone again, venturing as far as the end of their white picket fence. The third day, I was late, and he was seated on the old wooden bench. Alone.

Too many days passed, and he was still without her. He gave me no clues, still staring straight ahead. The long summer had changed the velvet green hills to long blond grasses with rusty weeds. As autumn approached, the field behind the bench was disked into naked rows that looked like brown corduroy.

One day, he sat with a small bag in his lap. As I passed, he pulled something out and turned to his left, as if to offer something to someone who wasn’t there. I never saw him again. Weeds grew tall in front of their small white house, and the bench was eventually knocked over. It made me think of my husband and our time together. It was time to quit commuting and go home.

Between Corduroy and Tourmaline – A Short Story

     In its long journey up from the center of the Earth, the gemstone tourmaline passes over a rainbow, assumes its colors, and creates the Aurora Borealis, or so the legend says. Outside a pub near Donegal Square in downtown Belfast, Liam looked up at the sky and waited for the legend to manifest. The Northern Lights were supposed to put on a show that night, but with city lights all around him he could easily miss it.

     The bus ride from the pub to Liam’s mother’s house took only ten minutes. He knew the route like his own heartbeat. It wandered through the downtown streets and passed over a bridge. There, the Statue of William of Orange, his brass horse tarnished green, guarded an intersection. The street narrowed and made a curve. Tall homes stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the edge of the road. Their upper stories leaned toward the top level of the double-decker bus where Liam sat.

     Liam stood as his stop approached, maintaining his balance like a sailor onboard a ship. His height, dark hair, and love of the drink came from his father, but his blue eyes, tart humor, and kind nature were all from his mother. He moved down the stairs toward the driver and waited, grabbing a pole in anticipation of an abrupt stop.

     “I’ll be leaving here, Patsy,” Liam said, calling the driver by his nickname.

     “And wouldn’t I know it now?” Patsy answered, gliding toward Liam’s stop and opening the doors with a whoosh. “Haven’t I let you off here every evening for the last five years?”

     “Aye, but you aren’t getting any younger, man,” Liam teased. “You could forget and take me to the end of the line. And me with no coat tonight.”

     “I’d toss you off before the end of the line,” Patsy answered. “There’s a beautiful lass waiting for me there, and I won’t have you stealing her.”

     “Would I?” Liam asked, heading for the door.

     “It wouldn’t be the first time now, would it?”

     “Ta,” Liam answered, hopping from the bus and heading down the street to his mother’s house. The early spring evening was crisp and, at half past six, dark out. It wasn’t like summer, when the day seemed to hang on to the sunlight, keeping it late and bringing it early.

     Liam took the long way home through a park with a view of the Ardoyne Cathedral. To the north, the cliffs of Cavehill towered over the city limits. He couldn’t look at them without thinking of the treasure his ancestor buried there—or so the family story went.

     Away from the city lights, cameras atop the police station operated 24 hours a day. They filmed the area around the murals, which depicted stories of “The Troubles” from both sides, Catholic and Protestant. Politicians said The Troubles were in the past, but the camera told a different story. So did the subtle signs of the divided neighborhoods. A Union Jack at the corner marked where a Loyalists section began. The Irish flag down the street hung at the edge of an invisible line where the neighborhood’s sympathies changed.

     Such was the place where Liam lived now, different enough from the past. The change allowed a Catholic like himself to be out at night, but old habits die hard. He kept watch over his shoulder, glad he still had a good arm for flinging the odd rock. Liam waited at the edge of the park, hoping to catch the nighttime show of lights. From there, he spied the silhouette of someone near the playground equipment.

     The swings and the play structures stood like black wire frames against the fading twilight. The person beyond them ran back and forth along the edge of a precipice, chasing a big dog. A man? a woman? Liam couldn’t tell. He started to walk on but stopped when he heard the person calling the dog’s name.

     “Patch,” a man’s voice called. His form followed the big dog’s silhouette. “Come, Patch.”

     Liam watched for a few more seconds, and then realized the owner was limping, his ragged gait no match for the dog’s long, easy strides. The animal looked like a cross between an Irish Wolfhound and a horse.

     Liam started toward them, hoping to help corral the animal. It was just his nature to be helpful. It was why he still lived with his mum. His father’s passing had left her a widow. She, along with his three aunts, all unmarried, needed a man around to help with their three separate households. It wasn’t how he had envisioned his life, but they were always quick with a warm cup of tea on a cold night, and plenty of encouragement, no matter what he faced in life. Others had it much worse.

     Beyond the park, Liam could just see the Lower Ardoyne in the fading light. He knew it well. The peaked roofs of identical houses lined up block after block, forming straight lines like brown corduroy fabric. Lights from the streets below began flickering on one by one. All the little chimneys poked the night sky, each like lit pipes, spewing smoke from peat fires. As Liam drew closer to the edge, he recognized the familiar face of the limping man. He was the postman who delivered at his mother’s house each day. He was the same man who used to make his mother’s dog bark. The man who was part of a running joke.

     “Go ahead and bark, Grouser,” his mother used to say to the overgrown mutt. “He’s a Protestant.” The big black dog had almost seemed to smile and then he had barked more.

     In fact, when Liam realized who he was going to help, his progress toward the runaway dog slowed. The limping man had nearly given up.
“Patch, come back,” the Protestant postman called, a broken leash dangling from one hand.

     Liam pushed aside the thoughts of prejudice and started to sprint in the dog’s direction. Oddly enough, it was against his teachings, but not his nature. Life was changing so much all over Northern Ireland. He could remember being searched before entering downtown area—the same area he had just left without seeing a copper for miles.

     When peace was first announced several years ago, people entered the shopping area with caution. There were still the odd Protestant marches down the main street toward the city hall in Donegal Square in the heart of Belfast. The Orangemen always seemed to pick a route through a Catholic neighborhood. But more and more, the participants were growing older, and the next generation was more interested in the goods in H & M or Boots or the food court at the new mall. Even the wee ones, whose grandfathers told them to march with the old men, looked over their shoulders at the abundant temptations shining in the store windows.

     The dog came loping toward Liam. He extended both of his strong, rock-throwing arms and did his best to herd the dog back toward its owner. Instead of turning away from Liam, the dog jumped into his arms, landing Liam flat on his back.

     “No, Patch,” the postman called, trying to quicken his hobbling pace.

     Liam was able to get a hand under the dog’s collar, hoping he was a friendly old boy. Only last week, Liam’s mother’s dog, Grouser, the Protestant alarm, had passed on. Liam had lifted him from the floor in the entry way, loaded him into the back of his car, and driven him out to the old family farm for a proper burial. Yet another of many changes.

     “I’m so sorry,” the out-of-breath postman said when he drew closer.

     Not only was Patch friendly, he was downright affectionate, licking Liam’s face. Apparently, the Protestant dog didn’t know Liam was Catholic. Albeit not a good Catholic, more of a genetic Catholic, inherited from the generations before him. Though Liam rarely attended mass, he could say Hail Marys in his sleep and made the sign of the cross every time he came up to bat in a game of hurling.

     “Good boy,” Liam was saying as he tried to push the dog to one side and stand up. He kept one hand on his collar, while the owner tied the broken leash to it. The dog seemed happy to see Liam, as if they were old friends.

     “Are you hurt?” the owner asked Liam, standing over him with his dog now in tow.

     “A bit wet,” Liam said, wiping the slobber from his cheek and looking up.

     “I wouldn’t have caught him without your help,” the postman said, offering Liam a hand. “I’ve buggered up my knee chasing this beast. 54 Duneden Park, right?”

     Liam stood with the postman’s assist, nodded, and brushed the grass from his pants.

     “You’ve got the cheek of the devil,” Liam said, giving the dog a pat and turning to walk away. It shouldn’t have unnerved Liam that the man knew his address. He was the postman after all. They had spoken on occasion, if a package came when his mum wasn’t home. When the postage wasn’t right. When they were forced to.

     “The leash gave out,” said the postman, following him. “You’re Liam, right?” Liam only nodded. “Peter Mahoney,” the postman said, introducing himself. “And this bad fellow is Patch.”

     “We’ve met,” Liam said with a smile. It seemed odd then after all these years, he had never known the postman’s name. “Just a lark that I was out to catch him,” Liam continued, a little uneasy that the postman was walking beside him. Liam paused at the edge of the park and looked toward Cavehill. “I was hoping to see the Northern Lights.”

     “As was I,” Peter said, also facing Cavehill. “At least until the leash broke. Do you think we’ve missed—”

     His sentence was still hanging between them when the green and yellow flashing began over the mountains at the edge of town. They both watched, wordless. Patch laid down between them, seeming to enjoy the show as well. It was a grand display, lighting up the night like reflections off heavenly tourmaline stones.

     “Ah, ‘tis grand indeed,” Liam said, smiling at the postman.

     “Will you look there?” Peter said, pointing to the horizon. “It’s a bloody miracle. Lucky it is we weren’t still chasing the mutt and having our backs turned to it.”

     “Aye,” Liam agreed, surprised that he was enjoying the postman’s company. Liam looked over his shoulder, thinking maybe someone would see them together and believe they were up to no good. Peter saw his gesture and stepped away. It was an unintended affront on Liam’s part—a habit picked up for survival during The Troubles.

     “It’s grander still to point at it, and have someone else to see it,” Liam added, hoping to erase his inappropriate behavior. All the rules were new now. It would take time.

     “Indeed,” Peter said, adjusting the short leash in his hand. The lights subsided on the horizon, and they both knew the show was over. They shared an awkward silence before a soft rain began and broke the spell.

     “Best be off for home,” Peter said.

     “True, true,” Liam agreed, nodding and starting his walk home.

     “Thanks again,” Peter said, nodding at Patch.

     “Not a problem,” Liam said, pausing and looking back at Peter. “Would you care—” He started, and then stopped himself. There was a pub at the corner, but that was a Protestant pub. There was one a block beyond that, but it was for Catholics. There was beer at the Chinese take-away, but there was nowhere to sit down. Peter was waiting for him to finish his sentence. “I will see you later,” Liam said, giving a faint wave.

     “Yes, sure,” Peter said with a smile. “Give my best to your mum.”

     “That I will,” Liam said. “That I will.”

FLYING BLIND – Chapter 1

      Life made sense when Tony was alone in the cockpit. He slowed the plane on approach. His gloved hand nudged the stick, he pressed the rudder pedal with his boot, and the plane banked. He cocked his head to follow the horizon. The plane leveled out, and he straightened his neck. The narrow airstrip centered in his windscreen had a single hangar at the far end.

Weatherly Dash

      The shadow of the plane passed over the boss’s pickup. It was racing up the dirt road that connected the airstrip to a singlewide mobile home. Seeing the pickup surprised Tony. Velma Lee had told him that R.J. wasn’t supposed to be back from Dallas until tonight. Tony tapped his shirt pocket, then remembered his pack of Kools on R.J.’s nightstand.

      “Shit,” he muttered. He hoped Velma Lee had thrown them out with the vodka bottles and the Polaroids. He pushed those thoughts aside. He knew distractions and landings didn’t mix.

      Tony picked out his touchdown spot. It was halfway down the airstrip, near the company sign that boasted: “R.J.’s Cropdusters, Beaumont, TX — Two planes to serve you better.” Only 10:00 a.m. and he had polished off the last load on a 600-acre rice job. That was almost $250. In 1972, at 28, that felt like getting rich. Should he get a new car? A round waterbed? At least some expensive booze. He brought the Weatherly in for a picture-perfect landing.

      “I can’t get no sat-is-fac-tion,” Tony sang and flared out the plane to slow it down. “I can’t get no girlie action. But I try, and I try, and I try, and I try.”

      The wheels of the low-winged monoplane kissed the ground. Landing was bittersweet. He liked doing it well. He hated returning to earth. The tailwheel touched down, the horizon disappeared behind the engine, and he began the familiar bumpy roll down the runway.

      “I can’t get no-oh-no—”

      The right rudder pedal wilted beneath his foot. No brake.

      “Oh shit!”

      Tony steered using the tailwheel while he had speed. The aircraft slowed and he jabbed at the dead brake pedal over and over. The end of the runway was approaching in slow motion.

      “Not the fucking hangar,” Tony groaned. The tin structure and the plane parked beside it grew larger.

      Tony sucked on his dark, thick mustache with his lower lip and rolled on helplessly at five miles per hour. The plane was a breath away from the building and he was just along for the ride. The landing gear hit a small rut. The craft veered left. The wingtip snagged the corner of the hangar and turned the plane.

      R.J.’s other plane was now dead ahead. Tony’s spinning prop chewed into the wing of the other plane with the noise and fury of a giant can opener. Tony listened and winced. Seconds later, finally at a standstill, he scowled at the pool of brake fluid on the cockpit floor. He unlatched his seat belt, and the clicking sound broke the menacing silence.

      Tony popped open the canopy, pulled his long body out of the plane, and climbed out to stand on the wing. The pungent smell of gas hit his nose and crawled down his spine like electricity. Was there fire? It was always his first thought after a sudden stop. But there was no smoke, no open flame. The fumes rose from the severed gas tank in the shredded wing of the other plane.

      He exhaled, snagged the helmet from his mop of black curls, and shielded his blue eyes from the sun. R.J. wouldn’t be happy. The curled propeller blades were tangled in the half-eaten wing of the other plane.

      “These two are history,” he said. He wanted to brush it off or fix it. He couldn’t stand the sight of a plane that couldn’t fly.

      Trembling spread through his body to his fingertips and toes. He threw his scuffed white helmet halfway to his ragtop ’68 Mercury Monterrey. Twenty minutes ago, sulfur dust had swirled behind the single-seat Weatherly. The landing gear had skimmed over shuddering blades of rice. Tony had felt safe in the yellow plane, even flying fence high at 100 mph.

      R.J. always assigned the worst fields to Tony. The one he just finished had been a damn obstacle course. Trees, stand pipes, a shed, barbed wire fence, power lines. For Tony’s first day on the job, R. J. had made him fly that field. Later, R.J. had slapped him on the back and called him “a pilot’s pilot.” R.J. had even admitted he couldn’t put the plane under the low wire on the south end. R.J. probably wouldn’t remember that now. Tony just hoped he would remember that pranged aircraft were part of cropdusting.

      Tony stood on the wing and looked back at the tangled mess. This would come out of his paycheck. Hell, it was an accident. The only thing that could make it worse would be if R.J. found out Tony was doing his wife. The sound of rubber squealing against asphalt made him look over his shoulder. The quick stop of R.J.’s pickup caused a cloud of dust to envelop Tony’s boss’s truck. R.J. threw open the driver’s door.

      Maybe R.J. wouldn’t call the NTSB. Tony didn’t want to deal with the National Transportation and Safety Board again if he could avoid it. They could separate the two planes, and Tony would offer to work on the mangled wing for free, just to keep it all off his record. He raised his hand over his head, signaling to R.J. that he was okay. The next thing he knew, R.J. had a shotgun propped on the truck door’s open window. Both barrels were aimed at him.

Shot gun pellets peppered the fuselage. Holy shit! Tony jumped from the wing and ran behind the hangar. He kept his back pasted to the hot, corrugated tin building. Two seconds of silence prompted him to peek around the corner. He saw R.J. break open the weapon and empty a box of shells on the front seat of his pick-up.     Damn, he was reloading.

      “It was an accident, R.J.,” Tony yelled, venturing from behind the building, but not far. “Fluid leaked from the cylinder. I didn’t have any right brake.”

      R.J. took aim again. Tony stepped back, spun around, and lunged behind the hangar just before R.J. started yelling.

      “Bang my wife.” KA-BOOM! “Wreck both my planes.” KA-BOOM! “I’ll kill you, Tony Damascus.” KA-BOOM! KA-BOOM!

      Tony dashed behind the conjoined planes, the blasts following him. He snagged his helmet from the ground and dove head first into the front seat of his car. The gear shift stabbed him in the ribs. Damn. A shot hit his windshield. Shit. Shit. Shit. He yanked off one glove and fought to remove his keys from his pants pocket. Another shot. He fumbled with his keys. His shaking hand struggled to make the key penetrate the ignition switch.

      “Come on, come on,” Tony urged the key.

Welcome to the Olympics of Incompetence

The word of the day is "incompetent."

Incompetent. . . can you say that?

Is it me?

I’m at the bank. My dad is with me. I want to be added as a legal signature to my dad’s trust account. We have a copy of the trust. We have the first and the second amendments of the trust. (Hey, people die.)

We both have two forms of ID. We have a notarized power of attorney for me over the trust. We have a reappraisal of the house, and my mom’s death certificate.

Four hours later, they can’t actually confirm that I have been added as a valid signature to the trust checking account. For heaven’s sake, I just want to be able to pay the heating bill if my dad can’t write a check.

Four days later, they are still checking the validity of the power of attorney. Seriously?

There isn’t one legal document they have asked for that we didn’t provide. We are related. We are citizens. We both have had accounts at that bank for 30 years. I can’t imagine how difficult this would be if one of us was from another country, if we were unrelated, or if we were, God forbid, unprepared.

Pulling a fast one

Plant me!


what do

they think

we are trying

to pull?

Incompetence has an attitude. It says: “Don’t ask questions. Don’t expect results. It’s not my fault. I just work here, sort of.”

No one is fooled

Are you questioning my authority?

Guess what? No one is believing your act. If you divide the world into learners and non-learners, I am running into all the non-learners. Some have college degrees. Some were raised by wolves. Some are too poor to pay attention. Some are too entitled to care.

Just do your damn job. Better yet, go get a job you can do. Ar-r-r-gh!

The Great Turtle Rescue of 2017

Everything I know about turtles, I learned from Alice Hoffman:

“People in Verity like to talk, but the one thing they neglect to mention to outsiders is that something is wrong with the month of May. It isn’t the humidity, or even the heat, which is so fierce and sudden it can make grown men cry. Every May, when the sea turtles begin their migration across West Main Street, mistaking the glow of the streetlights for the moon, people go a little crazy. At least one teenage boy comes close to slamming his car right into the gumbo-limbo tree that grows beside the Burger King. Girls run away from home, babies cry all night, ficus hedges explode in flame, and during one particularly awful May, half a dozen rattlesnakes set themselves up in the phone booth outside the 7-Eleven and refused to budge until June.
At this difficult time of the year, people who grew up in Verity often slip two aspirins into their cans of Coke; they wear sunglasses and avoid making any major decisions.”
– Alice Hoffman, Turtle Moon

So, it surprised me that my morning bike ride took me past newly posted “Turtle Crossing” signs along the perimeter road of my condo’s complex. Even more surprising were the number of folks pulling turtles out of the hedges and out of traffic. Our man-made pond contains almost 20 turtles, a good number of which are female. They took a clue from nature last night and made a beeline (turtleline?) away from the pond to nest. I found one next to the fire lane curb near the main road, a fair distance from the pond.

Have to say it was the closest I’ve come to seeing a look of confusion on the face of a turtle, unless you count Mitch McConnell.

Turtle facts: Beginning in late spring through summer, female turtles leave the safety of their ponds and creeks to find a dry spot to dig a nest. Nesting habitat is typically located on sparsely vegetated, typically south- and west-facing slopes at distances of up to 500 feet from the water’s edge. Ideal sites are free from artificial irrigation (sprinkler systems) because the western pond turtle’s hard egg shells can explode when wet. While most western pond turtles nest somewhat near water, they have been documented traveling long distances (more than 500 yards) to upland habitat to lay eggs.

At any rate, I was proud (and a little crazy) to be a part of the great turtle rescue of 2017.

The Boy Who Hung the Moon

Light streamed into the solarium over the wicker-backed couch with the flower print cushion of pink and lime. Sedona Lakes, the four-year-old son of a hardware engineer and a plant lady, was holding a crystal up to the window. It was a clear tendril from a broken chandelier. He liked the way it made a rainbow across his mother’s computer keyboard. He like how it could scatter light. He liked the way it floated when only he was looking. And the way it fell out of the sky when someone else came into the room.

“Did you drop something, Seddy?” his mom asking, seeing the crystal lying on the floor.

Sedona didn’t answer. He just picked it up and held it up to the window again until it bent the light that was split into colors across the room.

“Should we get ready for school?” his mother asked, grabbing his coat from the hall tree. “It’s almost time to go.”

Sedona kept looking at the prism and the light while his mother manipulated his arms into the sleeves of his coat. The winter sun was always the brightest and the coldest. It spun around him like a lost whirlpool seeking an unknown shore.

“Dad will pick you up tonight,” his mother said, holding him by the hand as she took him to the car. “I am going to my meeting.”

Sedona knew what “my meeting” meant. It meant that his mother would not come home for dinner. His dad would cook hot dogs, and then they would split an orange for dessert. Then his dad would take a can from the refrigerator, go into the living room, and turn on the TV. He would be silly and play for a little while, then he would tell Sedona to be quiet and go away. He would change the channels frequently, get more cans from the refrigerator, and start yelling at the TV.

Usually, Sedona would go upstairs and put himself to bed. Other times, he would go upstairs, but couldn’t fall sleep because his mother would come home and his parents would start arguing. On those nights, he would take his crystal and climb out the window. Sitting on the tree branch, he would hold the glass up against the night sky. Sometimes he pretended it was a star, and on the darkest night, he would pretend he was in charge of hanging the moon in the sky, and he would attach his glass tendril to a string and hook it to the branch above him.

His mother strapped him in the car seat and drove to him to the special school. She asked him what he thought he would do at school that day, but he didn’t answer. He was busy staring at the paper on the floorboard. He liked the big letters across the top of it. AL-ANON. He liked the tall peaks in the letters and the pattern. A something A. N something N. It had an A like the word Autistic. A something T. I something S.T something. That word didn’t have a good pattern.

His mother parked in the usual place between two white lines. She walked with him to his classroom, but she stopped at the door. She kissed him on the cheek and he walked in alone.

“Good-bye, Sedona,” his mother said. He didn’t answer her. “Remember, Daddy will pick you up tonight.”

He didn’t want to think about that. He went straight to the colorful blocks on the floor in the corner. His teacher would try to make him do other things, or talk, or play a game with the other kids, not that they wanted to play with him. But he preferred to line up the blocks, the way that one other boy in class just wanted to color only with a red crayon. Or the way the little girl would draw only circles on the chalkboard. Sometime he liked the patterns that she made with big and little circles, but not enough to leave the blocks.

Lunch and naptime came and went, and the teacher put the ball in his hands and asked him roll it to her. He did once, and then walked back to the blocks. They were better. She tried again, but soon, she went to the circle girl and tried to have her play with the ball, too.

At the end of the day, the circle girl went home with her mother, and the red crayon boy went home with his. He sat in the room alone with only his teacher and played with the blocks while she read a book and looked at the clock. His father came later and helped him put on his coat.

“Ready to go home, Sport?” his father said, but Sedona just looked back at the blocks, all red, green, blue, and yellow, until his father led him out of the room and he couldn’t see them anymore. There were no papers on the floor of his father’s red car. No patterns to look at.

“I thought maybe we could have hot dogs tonight,” his father said, when the car stopped. Sedona didn’t answer. He looked at the light on the pole across the street. It had a red circle on top, which went away. Then, a green circle appeared below it. “I bought oranges, too,” his father said. “You like oranges.”

His dad didn’t ask questions with big quiet spaces after them like his mom did. She would stare at his face and Sedona wouldn’t look back at her. His dad never seemed to look at him. He just said his words and drank from the can.

Oranges were good, so orange and round. Inside, they had soft segments that made a pattern. After dinner, his dad opened one up like a flower and pulled the pieces off one by one.

“There you go, Sport,” he said, giving all the pieces to Sedona. That was different. Usually his dad ate some too. “I’ll just have a beer.”

It wasn’t long before his dad was yelling at the television. Sedona had gone upstairs and crawled out on the tree branch with his crystal. That’s where he was, looking at stars, when the headlights from his mother’s cars sweep across the front lawn. She put the car in the garage and closed the door. His father’s voice was loud.

“What are you going to those fucking meetings for?”

Sedona did not hear his mother’s voice. Across the hall, the bedroom door slammed.

“Answer me!” His dad’s voice echoed up the stairs. Again, Sedona did not hear his mother’s voice. Just the muffled sounds of crying.

“To hell with you!” his father said, and there was no yelling after that.

The moon shown big and round that night, which was good. Sedona did not want to have to hang up his crystal. Instead, he liked to swing it back and forth, just to watch it move. The rhythm made him feel peaceful inside. He rocked his head back and forth to follow the movement until it started to make him sleepy. The crystal slipped out of his hand.

Sedona watched it fall to the ground, tumbling and twirling until it bounced on the grass below him. He looked down at it, and then tried to look at the moon and the stars. They weren’t as pretty as his crystal. He would need it the next time the moon didn’t come or the stars wouldn’t come to bed with him. Some nights, the moon didn’t come at all.

He wanted to fly down and get it, but he was afraid. The tree was friends with his window, but the ground was not. He crawled back in the window and lay on his bed, watching the patterns on his ceiling. He could not take them out to the tree. He could not hang them like the moon. He pushed his blankets aside and headed down the stairs.

“Where do you think you are going?” his father said, when he walked through the living room. Sedona kept walking toward the front door.

“I asked you a question, boy,” his father said. His father got off the couch and walked past him, standing between Sedona and the door. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Sedona’s father was looking at him across the big quiet space just like his mom did. Sedona reached for the door knob, but his father pushed his hand away.

“Talk to me,” his father said, his voice growing louder. “Why are you going outside?”

“My moon fell from the tree,” Sedona said, and his father stepped back.

Sedona opened the door and headed out to the front lawn.

“Wait,” his father said, following him and calling over his shoulder. “Liza, Sedona talked to me.”

“You’re drunk,” his mother’s voice called from her bedroom.

Sedona picked up the crystal and wiped it on his shirt until it wasn’t wet anymore and all the blades of grass were gone. His father stood beside him, watching what he did and looking up at the tree.

“How did it fall?” his father asked, using a quiet voice.

“My hand let go when I was sleepy,” Sedona said, walking past his father and back into the house. His father followed him in, calling to his mother.

“He’s talking, Liza,” his father said, while Sedona headed up the stairs.

“You’re drunk!” came the voice from behind her door.

Sedona was already out the window and sitting on the tree branch when his father entered his bedroom.

“Sedona, come back inside,” his father said, using his calm voice, but Sedona was too busy hanging up the crystal. He made his way to the very end of the branch, where he tried to put the crystal up between two twigs to be a second moon, but the crystal slipped from his hand.

“Sedona, please,” his father said, reaching out the window as far as he could. Suddenly, his father lost his balance and fell to the ground, twisting and tumbling on the way down the way the crystal had.

Sedona waited for his father to move, but he didn’t. Then, he looked back at the crystal, now catching the light from a passing car and making a rainbow on the side of the house. Sedona smiled and went back to bed. No matter. He would leave his crystal on the lawn. He could get it in the morning before school.

Scaffolding over Invisible Odds

Mabel Lansted used to live in Minnesota before her second husband took her to Arizona and then California in search of warmer weather. Her first husband had died in World War II leaving her alone with two babies, which is when she first learned to “just carry on.” Now, outside Mabel’s living room window, the sun was shining at 9:00 a.m. She was going to write “SUNNY” on her calendar, but forgot when she smelled toast burning.

More and more Mabel seemed to forget little things. She had heard that you could buy more memory for computers and thought it sounded like a good idea. Computers were not part of her life, but her son and his wife used them, as did her granddaughter in college.

Mabel pulled the toast from the toaster and carried it to the sink to salvage it. No sense throwing it away, when she could scrap off the blackened part. That was how she was raised. She saved used bags. She collected cans and bottles when she went for a walk, which was less and less these days. Still, the sun was shining and she decided to go for a stroll before the afternoon wind came up and headed straight for her bones.

The walk to the bus stop on the corner was just long enough. She felt grateful that the bench was there. She was pretty sure she wanted bus 52, but it might be bus 51. They had changed the route number recently, or at least she thought they did. Last time she had ridden the bus, she had ended up on the bad side of town, though she couldn’t remember how. A nice young girl had called Mabel’s son to come and pick her up.

After that fiasco, her son had taken her to see her doctor, who had asked her a lot of silly questions. What year is it? Well, if her doctor didn’t know, why should Mabel tell her? Her doctor was much younger, and it wouldn’t take her nearly as much effort to recall the year. Mabel had almost said “1953” since her son was born that year, but she didn’t. Next her doctor had asked Mabel who lived next door to her. Well, she knew that. That lady with the funny name. She could never remember it, but she was very nice. In the end, Mabel had been happy to go sit in the waiting room while the doctor had talked to her son in private. She could rely on him to get the details while Mabel was happy to watch people coming and going from the office.

It was still sunny when Mabel sat down on the bench, waiting for the #51 or #52 and watching the cars go by. They weren’t anything like the old Studebaker. That had been the first car she and her second husband had bought. It had been cream-colored with lots of chrome and very sturdy. They had taken their summer vacations in it, stopping at road-side rest stops to make sandwiches and use the bathrooms. She could remember that long-ago vacation better than her bus route number.

When the bus arrived, she climbed the steps with care. In fact, she was so focused on the steps that she really didn’t look at the bus number. But it didn’t matter. The bus driver would remember. He had a tattoo on his neck and an earring in his lip. He could have been such a nice-looking man.

She put her token in the slot and headed the nearest seat. The bus started rolling before she could get to her row. The moving vehicle didn’t help her shaky balance, and she was relieved to sit down safely. She would just ride right there until she came back by her stop. When everything looked familiar again, she would get off.

At the next stop, a lady with two little children boarded the bus. They took the seat next to her. She smiled at the little girl with the big brown eyes. She was such a cute little colored girl. Mabel’s son always said not to call people “colored,” but she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to call them. The young mother had her hands full with the little boy, who wasn’t interested in staying in his seat. Mabel tried to help by talking to the little girl.

“And what is your name?” Mabel asked, looking at the little girl with the many braids and peeling fingernail polish.

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, and then left her seat to move to the one behind her mother.

That’s right. She was a smart little girl. These days, people stole children right off the streets. Not like when Mabel was little back home. Streets were flashing by outside her window, but Mabel was thinking about the old days. Back then, when she was little, she used to walk into town from the family farm. If anyone with a buggy, a car, or a sleigh offered you a ride then, you took it. You never questioned their motives. You just hopped in the back and thanked your lucky stars that you weren’t wearing out your shoe leather.

The bus came to a stop in front of a gray building with blinds on the windows and a sign out front. “Planned Parenthood.” Yes, people could plan parenthood now. Why, if that had been available when she was young and married to her first husband, she just might not have been left a young widow with two mouths to feed. But no one ever heard of the idea of “planning parenthood.” You just got married like you were supposed to and had as many children as the good Lord wanted you to. For Mabel and her second husband, that was only one. Her son.

They left the medical buildings behind, and the bus started driving by multi-storied buildings. They didn’t look familiar to Mabel, so she decided not to get off. She would just watch them go by and remember what she could. Back home, when she was young, there weren’t hardly any buildings with more than three stories, and most with only two or one. What were people doing with all those floors? Her son probably worked in one of those of buildings using a computer, but she wasn’t sure.

The big buildings changed to smaller ones housing pharmacies, gas stations, and restaurants she had never heard of. Why didn’t people eat at home? Were they too busy to buy food and cook it? They just lived in their cars, ate on the go, and never bothered to say hello to anyone. That’s just the way it was now. Her son had told her not to talk to strangers on the bus.

“They’ll only think you are a loony,” he had told her. She had seen some “loonies” on the bus, but they usually only talked to themselves.

Before she knew it, they were passing that gray building with the blue sign again. Planned Parenthood. And the lady who had exited there with her two children was getting back on the bus. Maybe that meant Mabel had missed her stop. If so, she really hadn’t noticed. The young lady was more relaxed now, and settling her children into their seats.

“Well, hello,” the lady said, her brown eyes a tired version of her daughter’s. “You were here the last time we were.”

“Yes, I think I missed my stop,” Mabel said. “But it doesn’t matter. I’m not in a hurry.”

“Oh, I wish I wasn’t,” the young mother said. “I certainly didn’t have time for another child.”

Apparently there was something Mabel missed, but that wasn’t surprising. She seemed to miss more than she caught these days.

“Why, yes,” Mabel said, since she felt she should say something. “I think you have a handful here.” Mabel knew from experience. “I remember when I was all alone and raising two children. It was everything I could do to keep them warm, dry, and fed.”

“So true,” the lady said, casting an eye on her son who looked about three and had decided to sit by himself. “I just couldn’t handle one more. Do you think that makes me a bad person?”

“Of course not,” Mabel said, shifting her purse to her lap so she could twist in her seat and talk to the young mother across the aisle from her. “You are just trying to do the best you can with the two you have. Why would that make you a bad person?”

“Well, so many people think that life begins at conception,” the young woman said. Her son had lain down in the seat and had fallen asleep. Her daughter was puffing warm breath on the window and drawing faces with her fingertip.

“Those people are not raising children by themselves,” Mabel answered frankly. “I remember trying to keep the fire going, do laundry, hang sheets on the line, cook dinner, and then clean the house. The coal for the furnace was in the basement, the clothes line was outside, the washer was in the garage, and we lived on the second floor. I remember clearly—which I never do—that there were nights that I went to bed in my clothes because I was too tired to undress.”

“Exactly,” said the woman.

“And my in-laws, my husband’s people, were asking me if I was making sure the children were happy and asking me if I was sure they were eating healthy meals, when I was lucky to keep them safe and didn’t have enough money to feed them much at all.”

“Oh, sister, you are preaching to the choir.”

“It is not for other people to know your business. You certainly can’t live your life so they sleep well at night. For heaven’s sake, there are orphans they could take into their homes. If they are so full of advice about how to raise children, they should be helping those children who don’t have parents. That would keep them busy enough to stay out of other people’s lives.”

“You’re right,” the mother said, and she seemed to be crying and smiling at the same time. “You know, the next stop is mine, so this one coming up could be yours.”

Mabel looked out the window and there was the bench near her corner.

“Why thank you,” Mabel said. “I would have missed it again. Me just talking away and not paying attention.” She reached over and pulled the string to stop the bus.

“No, I’m glad we talked,” the young mother said. “I feel much better now.”

“Well, good,” Mabel said as she rose to leave the bus. It was hard to talk and walk at the same time, so she stood still to talk to the young mother. “You know, don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t doing the right thing. It’s all we can do sometimes to just carry on. But that’s what’s important. You just carry on with your head up.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the young mother answered.

Mabel smiled at her little girl, who smiled back. Colored children were so adorable. She turned and focused on the steps that led from the parked bus. Yes, that was her stop after all. The bus pulled away with the little girl waving at her from the window. Mabel waved back, and then looked up and down the street. She was pretty sure she knew the way home from there.



Policies for Trump’s Second 100 Days

putindollarbillYou’ve heard a lot about Trump’s policies for the first 100 days of his presidency. There were a few ideas that didn’t make the list. Here are the ones that got bumped to the second 100 days.

  • Vlad will replace George on the dollar bill. October 7th, Putin’s birthday, will become Fearless Leader Day.
  • A second wall will be built on the California border. In this case, California has actually offered to pay for it.
  • It will be legal to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. It will be illegal for people to change their opinion of you just because you shot them.
  • Presidents’ Day will be moved from February to June 14th (Trump’s birthday). All citizens will be required to wear red baseball caps and celebrate bigly.
  • Women will be required to wear their number. If you’re a 10, great. If not, well, not so great. You’ll probably be deported.
  • The reality show “Guess the Nuclear Codes” will start filming. Contestants will be selected from the KKK membership list. Winners who guess correctly will pick the country to be obliterated. (Hopefully the contestants will be informed that other countries exist besides U-S-A, U-S-A, and U-S-A.)
  • A new cabinet will be selected every six weeks. The live firing of the previous cabinet will be televised. May or may not include a firing squad. Depends on what Ivanka thinks.
  • All Army generals will take training from Trump on how to win a war. There will be a test. Those who fail will participate in the next round of ex-cabinet member elimination mentioned above.
  • Cat videos will be banned on Facebook. Apparently, cats don’t like Trump and Trump doesn’t like cats.
  • All future elections will be cancelled. Who needs ’em?

Questioning USADA’s Doping Allegations Against Lance Armstrong: A Fan Weighs In

Is he or isn't he?I follow cycling, not religiously, but almost. I follow the Tour de France in particular for a number of reasons, some of which can be traced back to Lance Armstrong. He won his first tour in 1999, but I didn’t know it. I was in France on vacation in the summer of 2000. Some friends who live there took us to the start of a stage. Lance was there. I didn’t know who he was. Our French hosts couldn’t believe it. They knew him all too well.

I soon found out who he–and a lot of other cyclists–were. I also discovered the most beautiful, terrifying, and addictive race in the world. Not only was Lance in the prime of his career, but the whole race had a melody all its own. The names of the riders rolled off the tongue: Mario Cipolini, Sylvan Chavanel, Alberto Contador, Fabian Cancellara. The names of the places are nearly as melodious: L’Alpe d’Huez, Le Col du Tourmalet, Pla d’Adet, and Le Champs-Élysées.

This has been a hard week for racing fans, particularly fans of Lance Armstrong. The United States Anti-doping Agency (USADA) released its findings against Lance to the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA), the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the sponsors of the Tour de France. Those 200 pages of damning evidence supposedly proved beyond doubt that Lance Armstrong was the kingpin of the world’s largest and most successful doping ring.

People who know me know that I am a huge Armstrong fan, and it’s not just his on-the-bike performance that I admire. His accomplishments in the area of cancer-fighting are to be applauded. He made the world sit up and take notice of pro cycling. He is responsible for half the adults who ride a bike today. His influence is huge.

Now, if I were a reasonable human being, I would believe all the “evidence” presented by USADA and admit that Lance isn’t a superhuman. He was a cheat and a liar. But for me, a few things are not adding up.

There were a lot of professional cyclists who were glad to hear that USADA had pressed charges against Lance Armstrong, but not for the reasons you might think. The USADA conviction rate–with their judge, jury, and executioner style of justice–is 100%. As a career cyclist, if your name was mentioned by USADA in connection with doping, you were going to be suspended for two years. Guilt or innocence had nothing to do with it. No one was ever able to successfully defend against USADA doping charges. Former and current cyclists were hoping Lance could change that. He had the money and the influence to either get fair shake or expose the flaws in the system. He could not. He tried initially, but he could see the writing on the wall and like any reasonable retiree, he opted out.  He had better things to do with his time and his money.

Now USADA’s 200-page report claims to expose the largest drug ring in the history of cycling. Or does it? Let’s look at some of the claims:

  • For seven years (1999-2005) and for two more years (2009-2011), Lance was the mastermind of a systematic doping of his teams (US Postal Service, Discovery, and Astana).
  • Team members have testified that they heard Lance admit to using performance enhancing drugs or saw him use them.
  • Lance was assisted in this system by his coach, Johan Bruyneel, and several medical doctors, the most prominent was the Italian physicist Dr. Michele Ferrari.

What USADA is asking us to believe is that not only did Lance dope for years, but all of his teammates doped, all of the “wags” (wives and girlfriends) were in on it, as were the ancillary support members of the various teams that Lance rode for. If I were trying to estimate how many people that entailed, it would be more than 100 people, multiplied by the nine years in question. In some ways, methinks USADA over-padded their story. There is almost too much evidence.

In addition, USADA has said Lance never had as many drug tests as he claims to have had and he was able to avoid them by:

  1. Not answering the door when they came to his house
  2. Running out the backdoor when they knocked on the front door
  3. In one instance, dropping out of a race when he had supposedly doped and then was warned by a teammate that the drug testers were at the door. (I’m not sure why he didn’t run out the back the way he usually did).

For me, this promotes a visual of a Keystone cops-like testing force that was obviously less than diligent.

I think it’s important to say a word about the average cyclist. Lance is not average. The majority of cyclists in the peloton are on par—-intelligence-wise—-with the average surfer dude. Like Rocky, most of them went into a profession where they used their body. There are exceptions of course, but the majority of them are just average guys, not moral icons or brainiacs.

As far as I’m concerned, USADA has some ‘splaining to do. How could 100+ people over a nine-year period of time get away with “rampant drug use” and not get caught. Not one questionable drug test, not one snitch.

When it comes to the riders confessions, those who rolled over and admitted doping with Lance and by Lance got a six-month suspension. If you know anything about USADA and their conviction rate, these guys would normally be facing a two-year suspension. This six-month suspension did not start until the end of the 2012 cycling season, and ends well before the big races of the 2013 season start. Here’s the drill. Cop to your drug use and Lance’s and you race next year. Don’t, and you won’t see the start line until 2015. Tough choice? Not really.

One more thing I don’t understand. Folks who use blood-doping and EPO usually have health problems. Enough blood-doping thickens your blood to sludge. It causes heart attacks. None of Lance’s team members had health problems. A lot of them, now close to 40 years old, are still participating some of the hardest racing in the world. Unlike the before-and-after doping pictures of Barry Bonds, these guys don’t look any different today (except for a few more wrinkles) than they did before they met Lance.

Lastly, let me propose my theory to you, which is completely without proof, but comes from the eye of a beyond-casual observer of cycling and Lance Armstrong.

I watched how Lance won. It wasn’t just pedaling really hard and hoping for the best. He was a math wiz and a supreme strategist. If you believe the doping allegations, they would even prove he had to be of above-average intelligence to coordinate all those riders, team members, and medical personnel for all those years without ever getting caught.

Over the years, through different races, I have seen Lance pull off some pretty impressive maneuvers–mostly psychological warfare–in his attempts to defeat his opponents. I’ve seen him pretend to bonk (be tired). I’ve seen him get in front of the media and deride his teammates to convince his competition his teammates weren’t working for him. I’ve seen him pull in the front of the peloton in time for a turn, catch the wind, and leave his opponents behind. He wasn’t just fast, he was cagey. Maybe you think that proves he doped.

However, Lance was coming into the Tour de France at a time when the use of performance-enhancing drugs was starting to be questioned. Long before he started racing, it was a given. All the riders were doing it and, frankly, it was considered part of the sport. Lance re-entered the sport (post-cancer) during the “clean up” transition. Doping was out and inspectors were (supposedly) becoming more zealous. The conviction rate for using was on the rise. Still, some cyclists were old school and didn’t believe you couldn’t win without it.

It is my theory that Lance pretended that he and his whole team were doping, right down to the “blood in the fridge” and the EPO next to the butter dish. This would have worked to the team captain’s advantage in several ways. His team members gained power from the placebo effect. His competitors would believe he was doping and be at a psychological disadvantage. This belief may have prompted some of them to dope (and get caught) and be eliminated from the race. Perhaps the best part, is that all the drug tests came back negative. For me, this is easier to believe, in some ways easier, than USADA’s scenario for all those years.

Until USADA explains why they were unable to detect this huge drug ring year after year when “everyone knew” about it, I am sticking to my theory. Long after this doping scandal fades into history, the Tour de France will remain the ever colorful race it has always been. In its beginning, riders didn’t carry water or food . They didn’t ride fancy bikes or have team cars following them. They raced across the French countryside, grabbing wine from the tables of outdoor cafes for hydration and smoking cigarettes as they went. They stopped at blacksmith shops to repair their bikes. This is the history of this multi-faceted race. It will always be legendary and beyond the rules. That is what makes “Le Tour” the great race that it is. And I will always be a fan.