Storytime – Strange Woods

Here’s another Writing Exercise I submitted for one of my writing groups:
(p.s. ever want to try some writing, but don’t know where to get started? Leave me a note in the comments below).

Writing Prompt:

You’re enjoying a quiet evening at home, but then you hear a scratching sound at your front door. Upon opening the door you discover an unfamiliar dog there, and the dog seems agitated. You turn on your porch light, and then step out onto the porch to see if you can determine the dog’s owner. As you are examining the collar of the dog, you find a piece of paper tucked in and held with a piece of string. It is a note, and on it there is a hand-drawn picture of a house with an oddly-shaped roof with several gables, and below that it reads, “I may be in danger – I think there is a …..”.
———————————–
Strange Woods
cottage

I’ve only been in my new place for about seven months, but now that I’m here I realize that this is the place I’ve been needing, hungering for. For years I’ve been running inside one of those corporate treadmills, just trying to please my boss, his boss, the company, but now, no more! Yes, I’m in a wheelchair now, but these are wheels I can deal with. My new haven, my cottage in the woods, has the ramps I require and a few extra conveniences that make it possible for me to be here in the woods, away from it all.
With my savings, I had ordered my new house from a catalog, and I was especially taken with the wonderful line of the roof, lots of gables, plenty of character. My contractor assembled the whole thing in a remote spot in the north woods, and now I’m here, listening to the trees grow.belgian malinois My good dog Maximus, whom I chose and named after seeing that Russell Crowe “Gladiator” movie, is my constant companion. He is a Belgian Malinois, and has the fierce look I wanted that might dissuade evil-doers out in my part of the lost woods. Sometimes, when I talk to him, he has a set to his head that makes me think he might understand me. Maximus loves to roam, and I’ve let him out to follow his nose whenever he wanted, so he could satisfy his canine curiosity and get some additional exercise. He always returned, and I know he enjoyed his outings. Also, I have a path through my woods that is wheelchair-friendly, and Maximus allows himself to be leashed up to pull me, which is a great help. I sometimes say, “Mush!” when he’s pulling me, and he’ll usually just give me that, “What the hell are you talking about” look, but he just keeps on with the job.
Just recently I started a new project, and I’m kinda excited about it. I never really considered myself a writer, although I’ve dabbled in short stories and the like, but now I have launched my novel. The idea has been rattling around in my head for some time, although I never actually used the ‘novel’ word when I thought about it. But now, I’m doing it, and it feels good! This quiet environment really does allow me to lose myself in thought without interruption. Maximus helps by lying on his comfy rug in front of the hearth, thinking about the novel he may write someday. We are quite the team, I must say. I wonder who’ll get published first?
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was busily typing away when I heard a rustling noise outside – not loud, but just enough to get my attention. It was like something was skittering across my wooden porch, something with claws, something that sounded very much like a dog. The odd thing was, Maximus didn’t seem to be alarmed at all, and he hardly moved until he saw me roll back from my keyboard. He came over to me and looked at me, as if asking, “Time for a trip down the path? I need to catalog some new smells.” I sat still where I was, listening intently, but heard nothing further. I rolled slowly back to the table.T-rex5
A few days later, it happened again. This time I was in the kitchen, trying to assemble some lunch, which always mesmerizes Maximus. Just because I dropped a small piece of chicken one time, he thinks I’ll be doing it as a part of my routine always. I paused at the noise, straining to see through the thin curtains toward the porch, but I saw nothing. The noise quit as suddenly as it began. I sat there like a statue, wondering if I should be alarmed. I do have a ham radio set up, in case of emergencies, but I didn’t have any real evidence yet, just those noises on the porch. Maybe it’s a playful wolf cub, or maybe….. hmmmm, I just don’t know.
Autumn was in full swing now, and those few deciduous trees in the woods were shedding tremendous quantities of leaves. I was not able to rake the ones in my yard, so I didn’t worry about them – they’d decompose on their own, anyway. There were leaves gathering on my porch, also, but the wind should disperse those without problem. But, three nights ago, I heard something on the porch crunching around in the leaves, and there were a few tentative scratches on my front door. I managed to get from my bed to the wheelchair, but by the time I got to the door, I saw nothing. Maximus was at my side as I surveyed the dark yard, but his hackles were not up, so I got us back inside and locked the door.
A couple of nights ago, there was something on the front porch again, and I also heard similar noises from the piled-up leaves near the back door that had been put there by the swirling winds. Now I was wishing I had put in those security lights, but it was too late now. I resolved to keep my big flashlight by the door, and I also put my heavy pistol there, just in case. Whatever it was, I was pretty sure I could dispatch it, if necessary.
Last night, more noises, front and back, and this time, Maximus wanted out, so I let him – it was time for him to earn his keep as my protector. He didn’t seem alarmed, just curious, so I wasn’t worried either. I only got worried when I happened to notice that my pistol was gone from the table near the door. The flashlight was still there, but no gun. I had either had a burglar, which didn’t seem likely, or my dog had taken the gun somewhere and hidden it. Why would he do that? I was getting nervous now, as the noises increased outside, with no sounds from Maximus, who could be quite the barker.
I rolled to the door, picked up the flashlight, opened the door quietly, and went out onto the dark porch. Moving as surreptitiously as possible, I switched on the flashlight and saw them.
In my yard were scores of young men, dressed in dark slacks, white shirt and tie, and carrying copies of “The Book of Mormon.” They sat on their bicycles, staring at me with empty eyes. Nervously, I called to Maximus. I saw him there, right in the front row, but he was reluctant to come. Did they have some strange power over my dog? At last he came, tail between his legs, and the two of us went back inside. I slammed the door and hurriedly penned this note and tied it to his collar:
“I may be in danger – I think there is a missionary invasion going on at my place, and I don’t have any money to appease them. Help!”
I pushed Maximus out the back door, possibly tearing the note in the process, but I got him going. I hope he finds someone to save me from this hell.

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Storytime – The Missing Miners

coalmine1The newspaper article was buried on page seven, just beyond the obituaries. It could hardly have drawn much attention, and it was only a fluke that I saw it. The newspaper had come apart on the subway, and that torn page happened to be at my feet. I picked it up, just something to kill the time while I traveled mile after mile under the city. The first thing on the page that pulled me in was the big ad for winter coats, and boy did I need one of those. After I read the fine print on the ad, I moved on to other things, and it was then that I saw the headline, “Miner Disappears in Infamous Coal Mine”. Well, you never know, I say, so I started reading the account of the disappearance.
Apparently this particular coal mine had achieved a certain level of notoriety after it was revealed that a number of miners had disappeared there over the years, and this latest one brought the total to eight. Now, this was becoming interesting. If the headline had said something like, “Miner Falls to Death in Coal Mine”, or maybe, “Miner Crushed When Mine Collapses”, it just couldn’t be termed ‘news’. But, a disappearance, now this had the seeds of a mystery in it. Were there hidden holes or passages in that mine? Not likely, since the place had been in operation for over seventy years – it had to be well-mapped. What could account for a disappearance? Or eight of them?
A few things about myself: I’m just an average Joe, as they say. I work in an office downtown, helping put together boring city directories. I live in the suburbs with my wife and 2.3 children – got one on the way, you know. I have the usual hobbies: fishing, camping, bare-handed wolf strangling, all that mundane stuff. But, I do have one other thing that consumes a lot of my ‘daydream time’.
I like to think about travel to other times, or perhaps to other dimensions. And, since I have never read about anyone producing an actual time machine, or a machine that allows us to travel between dimensions, I have been thinking that maybe there are ‘doorways’ to these other places, and all we had to do was locate one, and we could step into…… hmmm, I wonder where or maybe ‘when’, we might wind up, beyond the doorway.
So, as I wander through my ordinary life, I like to keep my eyes open for unusual things, unusual events, anything that might be waving a little flag my way that says, “Hey, something ODD is going on here. Maybe it’s one of those DOORWAY things!”
And, this is what the missing miner article did for me. I had a mental picture of a fellow down in the earth, swinging a pick, driving a tram, doing any of the various things that miners do, and all at once he stumbles at the right point or leans on the wall at the right place, and BINGO, he’s ‘elsewhere’. It could happen, as they say. Maybe there is a ‘time nexus’ or a ‘dimensional nexus’ down there. Maybe I could find it. Maybe.
Of course, now we have to wonder, “How can Joe Average go exploring in a coal mine?” I decided to check it out, see what the possibilities might be. The mine location wasn’t terribly far away, just a three hour drive from home. I’d concoct a story for the wife, something about needing to go to check out one of our company printing locations, and I’d be gone for a few days. I think she’d buy it, I mean wives aren’t suspicious, right?
A few days later, I was in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, and I started hanging out in a few of the blue-collar bars, checking out the miners who frequented the places. I started engaging some of them in conversation, telling them I was writing a story for my local newspaper, and trying to find out exactly where the disappearances were taking place, as near as they could tell. It wasn’t long before I found an agreeable foreman who had knowledge of the location, and who could get me a visitor’s pass. All I had to do was show up at the mine entrance with that pass, and he’d meet me there tomorrow morning. This was going great!
Next day, there I was, hundreds of feet underground, feeling very claustrophobic and very dirty. I already had coal dust smeared on me, I mean the stuff was just naturally everywhere, and I could even taste it. I wondered if you could get black lung disease after only one day of inhaling the stuff.
The foreman, Ed Turley, explained that he’d have to leave me there alone for awhile because he had things he had to do, and he’d be back for me in a few hours. Sounded good to me! I was near the tunnel that was gobbling up miners, so maybe I’d hit my own kind of paydirt.
I was somewhat unsure how I might pursue this, but as he left I steeled myself and started walking slowly down the tunnel, following the small illuminated patch ahead of me that was created by my helmet lamp. How do you recognize a nexus, anyway?
After walking for maybe one hundred fifty yards, or possibly eighteen miles, hard to tell in the dark, I noticed a shimmering patch on the tunnel wall ahead, maybe five feet off the floor, on my right side. I slowly approached, testing my footing every bit of the way and shining my flashlight at every bit of the tunnel wall as I got closer.
I reached the area of the shimmering patch and leaned in toward it, peering, trying to see if it was some kind of a window, as well as a doorway. There were indistinct shapes there, slowly moving around, but I couldn’t make out anything that was familiar. Slowly, I extended my hand, hoping I could touch it safely, and still withdraw without committing. My fingers made contact.
A hand came through the patch and grabbed my wrist, pulling me in with tremendous strength. It was a dirty hand, appearing to be smeared with coal dust, just as mine were. It happened in slow motion, with the hand pulling, and me pulling against it, but losing ground, sliding across the gritty floor of the tunnel, feeling myself being dragged into the shimmer. A brief moment of bright light, then….
I was face to face with the owner of the hand, and he was shouting into my face, trying to be heard over the roaring and clanging of the monster machines that towered over me. It appeared to be a long row of boilers, with countless sweating men shoveling coal into those ravenous, roaring maws.
He was shouting at me again, and this time I was able to hear him say, “Here, you lazy Irish scum, take this shovel and get back to work. I’ll not be having you sneaking off again, I guarantee you that, me bucko!”
I opened my mouth to answer him, and was immediately knocked to the floor by his massive fist. He leaned over me, glowering, and said, “There, does that answer your question? Now, get to work or you’ll be getting no water for the next three hours, by God!”
I struggled to my feet and took the scoop shovel he thrust my way. I quickly stripped off my shirt and jacket, grabbed the shovel and started moving the chunks of coal, feeding the inferno in front of me. In short order I was exhausted, with rivers of sweat coming off my body. I kept at it as long as I could, then I apparently collapsed, because everything became dim and confused and I fell to the floor.
I woke up, sitting against the hard steel wall, just back from my assigned work station, and a fellow in a grimy white jacket was pouring more water into my mouth. I gasped and choked, then sat up and shook my head, trying to understand what was going on. My angel of mercy leaned in close, then said, “You better get back at it, laddie. This ship, this ‘unsinkable Titanic’, has a mighty hunger for coal, and we need everyone to do his duty!”

How Green Was My Roadster

How Green Was My Roadster
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This is the story of a whim, which started innocently enough during our drive after church, about a week ago. I made some remark about a favorite car from years ago, and Kate was asking me specific questions about my cars of yesteryear, and what would be my dream car. I first said, “Well, I always wanted a 1956 Ford Starliner convertible.” 1956 Ford StarlinerAs I drove along, she was amusing herself by looking up things on her smartphone, and began to enter search terms into EBay, including “1956 Ford Starliner”. She reported, “Hmmm, no hits.” No problem, we’re just entertaining ourselves while driving. She said, “What other cars have you loved or wanted in the past?” I said, “I really enjoyed owning and driving that 1964 MGB roadster, and I kinda hated having to give it up, but we had to have good transportation for work. That 1964 car had LOTS of problems, so it just wasn’t reliable enough to keep.” I didn’t mention the dream about owning a Rolls-Royce 😦 Rolls-Royce-Phantom-I-Jonckheere-Coupe_3
Nothing much was said as we drove along, with me listening to the radio and Kate fiddling with her smartphone. After a bit, she reported, “Well, there are several MGB’s on EBay – how much would you consider spending on this dream? I think you should pursue it, it’s something you really like and it’s something we could both enjoy.” I thought for a bit, and then came up with a figure, then said, “We could take the money from the IRA account. That amount won’t put us in the poorhouse, and it’d be fun, like you said.” So, Kate was back on the smartphone, looking at MGB ad postings. “Here’s one that has a lot of bids, and they are closing the bids soon. Wanna try it? I thought for a bit, then said, “Sure, why not?” mg links She entered a bid, while reporting to me that the “reserve” had not yet been met, meaning that the seller really wanted somewhat more that the bids were showing, but we’d try it, anyway. The bids were due to close in about 3 hours, so we waited out the afternoon for results. As it happened, ours was the high bid, but the seller elected not to release it at that price. Oh, well.
Later that day, Kate found another car listing in Overland Park, Kansas, so we tossed out a bid on that one. The photos showed a beautiful 1980 MGB, with a shiny green finish (British racing green), really looked nice. And, when the bidding closed, guess what? WE GOT THE CAR! WHOOPEE! 🙂
I knew it was going to be a “project car”, and would require a lot of fiddling and repairs to keep it running, but this time it was to be just a fun car, without the pressure of keeping it running for commuting purposes. Just a little trivia – “MG” stood for “Morris Garages”, the early name of the company which was to manufacture the cars.KC
We made a down payment on the car to seal the deal, using Pay Pal, then waited for Monday morning to get the funds transferred into our checking account to finalize everything. We phoned the sellers, Larry and Patty Zerrer in Overland Park, and told them to expect us Wednesday evening.
Monday morning, trip to the bank, very helpful folks down at Chase Bank in Corydon. Thanks, Marti Jo Scott for all your assistance! The funds would be available on Wednesday morning, no problem. Kate had to work her night job on Tuesday, so the plan was for me to get things ready so that when she arrived home from work on Wednesday morning, we’d throw everything in the truck (so we’d have a tow vehicle) and head first to the bank to pick up the cashier’s check, then head out on our road trip to Overland Park.
And, that’s just how it worked out. The money was there, as promised, and we got the cashier’s check and headed west. The computer said it was approximately an 8-hour drive, so it wasn’t going to be terribly taxing. Since Kate was “running on no sleep”, the driving would be all up to me, so 8 hours seemed do-able for one driver.
Our drive was uneventful, and we showed up at the Zerrer house that evening, and, after introductions all round, went immediately to their garage, where our new purchase was parked. They had another MG parked alongside it, and out in the driveway was an MGB-GT that belonged to their son. Quite the MG family 🙂 Larry explained that he had big plans for the car, initially, but he had some health issues that would interfere, so they decided to sell it. I know they hated to see it go. Larry and Patty were very nice folks, and were a pleasure to visit with. So, the time came to say goodbye, and I backed the roadster out of their garage, then followed Kate over to the hotel for our one-night stay.
We had already discovered one aggravating problem with the car, and it was that the headlights were behaving strangely. Kate had told me when we arrived at the hotel that my lights were going on and off as she observed me in her mirrors, so I needed to look at that. As it turned out, the lever switch on the left side of the steering column was somewhat floppy, and if you bumped it, the headlights would come on. Also, if you closed the driver’s door too firmly, they would come on. Hmmm – I needed to address that problem so the battery wouldn’t go dead at some inopportune time.
We had some minor fears about the safety of the car, because there’s just no way you can really lock up a convertible to keep out a determined thief, but our fears were unfounded, and sure enough, it was still parked right where we left it, next morning.
IMAG2760
After breakfast, Kate drove the pickup and I followed along behind, as we went over to the U-Haul place to pick up the tow dolly we had reserved. We got hooked up there, no problem, then I rigged up some miniature tie-wraps to hold the balky lever switch in place. Time to hit the road! It seemed like the drive home took about 16 hours, but that’s how things go – it’s always more exciting and interesting on the way, but time dragged on the way home. I was kinda nervous about the tow dolly thing, never having done that before, but we had no problems.IMAG2763
We were heading home on July 3rd, and had an invitation to visit friends that evening to watch fireworks at their home, so we hoped we’d arrive in time to enjoy that gathering. We had something of a late start that morning, plus losing an hour by driving east, so it soon became apparent that we’d be arriving after 8PM, but figured we’d still have time to make it before the show began.
As we came into Corydon, we pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot, and then disengaged the MG from the tow dolly. Kate had been chatting with a friendly truck driver who was out walking his dog and stopped by to watch the tow dolly action. He was nice enough to offer to watch our truck and tow dolly while we were gone, since he had planned to sleep there in his truck anyway, and would be nearby. Very nice fellow!
We whizzed over to our friend’s house, got there in plenty of time, and enjoyed several hours of fireworks and fellowship. Our friends were all excited to see the new addition to our family, and all approved! 🙂
After the fireworks ended, time to head for home and get some rest. We climbed into the little car, and I cranked it up. No major problems presented themselves, but the dash lights were not working, and I wasn’t sure about the tail lights. We took off for home, and then my cell phone rang – it as one of our friends, telling me that we had NO tail lights! Dang! I elected to just ‘go for it’, and we drove back to Wal-Mart without incident, left the MG there overnight, then retrieved it next morning. It’s now safely in the garage. 🙂 Kate observed that “everything went without a hitch, except for having to hitch up that tow dolly!” 🙂
That’s our saga, hope you enjoyed reading about it. By the way, Kate already has plans to enter our fun vehicle in some car shows, so, go get yourself a fun car – we’ll see you at the car shows, ok? 🙂
pssst, maybe we can call the little car “The Green Hornet”, whaddya think?
p.s. I figured out the lighting problems next day – I finally found the headlight switch, which was mounted on the side of the steering column, somewhat hidden under the steering wheel, so that’s why I didn’t see it at first. The ‘floppy’ switch has to do with “flashing the headlights” to indicate that you wish to pass. Anyway, now the headlights/taillights work fine 🙂
pie chart300

Storytime – another Writing Exercise “The Old Desk”

temple

 

Prompt:

The moving van is gone now, and the old desk, actually a type of desk called a secretary, is now in your den. Many times over the years you had seen your grandfather at that desk, working on correspondence or household finances, and it always seemed to be a thing of mystery – all those little pigeon holes, all those bits of rolled-up paper. The other kids liked running and playing on the old tire swing, but for you it was sitting at the desk, imagining great things. And, now…. it is yours.

Now, the mystery has come home to roost, because you have found a small secret drawer containing tantalizing pieces of a family puzzle. There are a few pages torn from a diary, where the writer, an unidentified young woman, describes a secret rendezvous with her lover. Also, there are a few old photographs, perhaps from the 40’s, of a young man, perhaps Grandfather, in various poses. There are no photos that might be Grandmother – was Grandfather perhaps indiscreet? Did Grandfather remove the diary pages? And, what is the significance of the locket in the drawer?

I decided it was time to put on my ‘detective hat’ to try to unravel this enigma. Surely there was something in the diary pages or perhaps there in the photographs that could point the way. And, that locket – it resisted my initial efforts, but finally it opened, revealing a small woman’s ring, with a French postage stamp stuck to it, wrapped around the band. Inside the gold band, I could just make out the inscription, “To my Effie”.

For now, the ring could wait. I laid out the photographs, three of them in all, and used Grandfather’s magnifying glass to examine them closely, trying to locate clues. The first photograph was the worst of them, poorly exposed and somewhat out of focus. I leaned down and peered at it, section by section, but was unable to find anything of real interest. It was the image of a young man, but it would be difficult to say who it might be, due to the poor quality of the shot. There was a large structure in the background, but even though it was evocative, I could not place it. I pushed Number 1 aside and pulled Number 2 over for my perusal.

 

The photo showed a young man, again, and this time I could see certain characteristics that led me to the assumption that it was indeed Grandfather. His high cheekbones and distinctive ‘widow’s peak’ hairline was pretty much proof positive. He was posed with one foot placed upon the step of a small conveyance, oh what was it called, yes, a rickshaw. How had I not noticed it before? Perhaps the thing blended in too well with the background, so a casual look wouldn’t reveal it. A rickshaw – now where could this have been? Somewhere in Asia, most likely. The photograph was a street scene, with buildings crowding in all around, with only a few in the distance sticking up to form a skyline. One of those had the look of a pagoda, but very tall and slender. Shanghai, or Hong Kong? Not enough evidence to say. Enough of Number 2, now for the last.

Number 3 was the best of them, and I was prepared to spend even longer with it, slowly examining every square millimeter. The same man, presumably Grandfather, was seen seated at a table of an outside cafe, or bistro. I leaned down once again, squinting and slowly moving the glass. After an hour or so I was rewarded with my best clue. In the middle distance was a sign in French that read, ‘Something something Indochine’. From my limited knowledge of that language, I deduced that the photograph must have been taken in Indochina, perhaps in Tonkin, now known as Hanoi, or in Saigon. The French stamp in the locket was certainly a good link, since that part of the world was under French rule at the apparent time of the old photographs.

Well, now I knew the approximate time period, and I knew that the man in the photos was Grandfather, but who was the author of the diary entries? It was likely Effie, but who was she, really? Time for some more modern research, so I pulled out my laptop and started punching in questions. I wasn’t having much luck at first because I didn’t know my grandmother’s full name. Hmmm, how could I figure this out? Was she Effie?

Then I remembered a family Bible that had been inside one of the drawers of the secretary. The first page was pre-printed as a family tree, with blanks for all the relatives. At the top there was space for two names to represent the start of the tree, and there I found Grandfather’s name, right alongside his wife’s full name, “Anastasia Euphenia Archambault”. His birthplace had been filled in as “Vienna, Austria”, and hers as “La Rochelle, France”. I had no idea that I was part of such an international family!

I tried again to use the internet to tie some of this together, and I learned that “Effie” was a nickname for many given names, one of them “Euphenia”. Bingo! It was her ring! I was quite happy, but I still wanted to know about the diary pages.

I re-read the torn-out pages, but still could not find any link to the ring or the photographs. I resolved to read them one last time, slowly, measuring each reference to place or person. It was then that I finally realized that the young woman had been using a secret special name for her lover, and I had thought it was the name of a place. She had written several times that she loved “Renault”, but at first that meant nothing, since I assumed it was a village name, but I could not locate such a village in my researches.

I went back and looked again at Grandfather’s full, legal name, “Auguste Renoir Baptiste”, and then I realized that Effie had twisted his name slightly to keep her references guarded within her diary, in case someone came snooping. Grandmother was the author, and there was no mystery woman!

I decided not to share any of this with family, lest they come to a different conclusion. I honored the memory of Grandmother and Grandfather by keeping it to myself and cherishing the thoughts of their love that spanned the world.

 

Movie Magic

Movie Collage

Movie Magic

I was feeling a little bored last night – wasn’t in the mood for reading, just wanted some popcorn and a little drama. No, I don’t mean picking a fight with the missus, I mean watching a play – the missus was at work, anyway.

When this particular entertainment desire comes upon me, I’ll click on the tv, see what’s on the (cheap) Encore channels, or visit my DVD library. Same as you, yes? Well, here’s how I often imagine this sequence happening, perhaps you could imagine it the same way.

 

So, I picked up the phone, in this case it’s the BLUE phone I use for special occasions. I called up the Character Storeroom, where they keep all the players from the movies. You know, the guy who says, “Round up the usual suspects”, or that one who says, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn!”

The Chooser Helper answered the phone, and I began to describe what I wanted to see. Miss Helper started trying to read my mind as we progressed into the conversation.

I told her I wanted to revisit that scene where the one guy was telling another where he could find something buried under a piece of black volcanic glass. She hemmed and hawed, then punched a few buttons. Without further delay, my tv switched to the scene in “Shawshank Redemption” where Andy DuFresne is telling Red to look for a particular hayfield near Buxton – “You know where Buxton is, right, Red?” Wonderful! Always love seeing that scene. So glad the Characters weren’t busy when I needed them.

Later, I picked up the BLUE phone again, and the lady promptly agreed to assist me. I began, “What was that scene where the fellow carrying the briefcase seemed to be walking across the surface of a lake?” This time, hardly any delay at all – she remotely turned my tv on, and the final scene from “Being There” popped up, with Chance Gardener dressed in his dapper suit and carrying that briefcase. I’ve discussed that final scene with others, by the way, and we always wondered what that last scene signified. I guess I should have asked Jerzy Kosinski – he wrote it, after all. So glad to see that played out, again. I was on a roll now, watching my favorite parts without having to spend hours waiting for them. It’s so nice, having this Character Storeroom, and the Characters are always willing to re-play their parts for me.

I picked up the BLUE phone once more. Pleasant as ever, Miss Chooser answered, ready to serve. I’m often amazed that she is ever so helpful, never short-tempered or exasperated. I rarely remember the movie titles I want, only the scenes or perhaps the character names, but she gets it right, every time. For this part of the evening, I started my description of a scene with, “ You know that one where the guy is the minister for this mining village in Wales, or Ireland, or someplace, and he is reading to the boy who is sick in bed. Does that sound familiar at all?” She chuckled a bit, then said, “Why, of course, you are talking about Mr. Gruffyd, and he is reading some of the classics to young Huw, now bedridden after his fall into the frigid stream. No problem at all!” And, in a moment, “How Green Was My Valley” was on-screen, and kindly Mr. Gruffyd was right there! How wonderful!

My evening was well gone by now, but I elected to make one more choice for my bill of fare, and I gave it a bit of thought, then picked up the…… wait for it….. BLUE PHONE, again. It was as if Miss Chooser was waiting for my call, because after I was only a few words into my request, she, without interrupting me, channeled “Zulu!” onto my screen, and the warriors on the hillside were rhythmically beating their assegai spears against their shields and chanting, making a sound much like a very large locomotive coming down the track. Ah, Rorke’s Drift, you’re in for it now!

Finally, eyelids drooping, I decided to head for the bed. I gave Miss Chooser one last call, just to thank her, and in way of parting, she directed my tv to come on, and Richard Collier and Elise McKenna walked away into the clouds, hand in hand, forever together, “Somewhere in Time”.

Pleasant dreams, Miss Chooser!

Storytime – A Night in Clanton, Alabama

old hotel

The writing prompt:

You’re on a long auto trip, heading down to see Aunt Mabel in Panama City, Florida.  It’s been a long, hard drive down I65, but you’re halfway through Alabama now, and in the home stretch. About this time, steam erupts from under the hood and there’s also a terrific howling sound coming from the engine. Some hours later, you find yourself in Clanton, Alabama, checking in to a ‘low rent’ hotel to wait out the repairs. You collapse into bed and pass out.  Later in the night, you awaken suddenly, and you’re confused at first – strange room, strange bed…. and, what woke you up?  As you sit in the bed, gathering your thoughts, you hear the sobs of a little girl, accompanied by the low growls of an animal. You rush to the window, look outside.  The street light has everything illuminated, but there is nothing to see.  You quickly check outside your door in the hallway – nothing. The sobs start again, seeming to come from inside the wall by the door.  What’s going on here?

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A Night in Clanton, Alabama

In the morning light, it seems that this was all just a dream, perhaps bordering on a nightmare, although there was no feeling of fear during the episode. Even so, I wonder, “Is this place haunted? How old is the building, anyway? What’s its history?”

So, a hike to the library is in order. But, I certainly have the time – it’ll be three days before the car is repaired, so why not? After a quick chat with the librarian, I wind up with one big reference book that just might cast some light on this – “A History of Clanton, Alabama, Including its Ghost Stories”.

Well, this was going to be easy. Unsettling, perhaps, but easy. But, after an hour of reading, nothing has turned up about the building itself, since it is only twenty-eight years old, and the book doesn’t say what was on this site before the building went up. Maybe time to stroll the neighborhood.

Fortunately, Clanton is not that big a place, which is fortunate, since the car is still up on the rack down at the service station. Nice day for a walk, so off I go. It’s a quiet neighborhood, with the storybook white picket fences, roses twisting around arbors, wisteria in glorious bloom, and a few folks sitting on porches, or getting in some yard work.

As I slowly walk along, wishing for a stick to run along the pickets, I wave at a few folks, speak to a couple more, just pleasantries. Then, I catch sight of an older denizen of Clanton – a spry old lady coming down the sidewalk toward me, almost creating a wake as she barrels my way. I step aside as she nears, then say, “Pardon me, but have you lived in this area long?”

She pulled up short, peering at me suspiciously, then asks, “Why’d ya wanna know?”

“So sorry, ma’am, I was just being friendly, and was looking for a little local history information. You looked like one of those friendly locals, so I thought I’d risk it.”

Her face relaxed a little, but her sharp eyes still had me pinned. “Humphhh, what kinda information, anyway? Are you sniffing out the dirt on my friends? If so, you can fergit it, Bub! I ain’t a gossip, no siree!”

I try again. “No ma’am, nothing like that. I was just wondering if you remember any stories from long ago, maybe about a missing child that never showed up, that kinda thing. No names required, if you’d prefer. I just had one of those ‘haunting’ experiences down at the hotel, and was trying to see what I could find out.”

Now a smile actually began to form on her deeply lined face. “Well, why didn’t you say so at the start? Come on down here to my place – we’ll set out on the porch with some iced tea and swap tales, whaddya think? It’s right over there, number 425.”

A little while later, after introductions and the pouring of iced tea, I sat on a comfortable chair on Lettie Ferguson’s big front porch. We were both apparently having just tea, but it’s just possible she slipped some peach schnapps in there, because it was very pleasant tea, indeed! After she had quickly guzzled a large glass of tea and poured herself another, she became quite garrulous, indeed!

Lettie continued, “Yep, it was back in ’27, I think, that one of the local chilluns went out to play, maybe wandered off into the woods, and just flat never came back. She had her big ole dog with her, so we always thought that she was protected, but whatever happened, that dog just couldn’t save the day. Nope, Agnes Murphy stayed gone. The state troopers came, there were lots of volunteers in the search party, too, but nothing ever came of it. No bits of clothing, nuttin’ at all.”

I pressed a little bit, and asked, “And there were no suspicions raised, no rumors of strangers in town, hobos in the woods, anything like that? Strange that she should just evaporate like that.”

Lettie took another long pull on her tea, eying the pitcher for her next refill. “Sorry, that’s all that ever came of it. I wish I had more, but I guess that’s about all. I’ve enjoyed our little chat, would you like to stay for dinner?”

I apologized, making up an excuse about important phone calls to be made, then thanked her and went back to the main part of town, looking for a newspaper office. No luck on that quest, so I went back to the library and pestered the lady about back copies of area papers. Bingo! They had microfilms of old papers that went clear back to the early 1900’s. I requested 1927 and then settled in at the viewer station with the spool of microfilm.

After an hour or so, I had found the news item about the missing child and the subsequent uproar and numerous search parties. After a few weeks, the stories dwindled away, since there were no new facts in the case. It was as Lettie had said, the girl wandered off, big dog in tow, and was never seen again.

Next morning, I decided to take a walk in the woods. I knew it had already been combed time and again, but it was something to kill the hours while I waited on the service mechanic to apply the defibrillator, or whatever they do.

I walked slowly along, eyes and ears attuned to try to find something that might bring the little girl from out of the darkness. I don’t know how many hours I wandered the forest trails, nibbling on my sandwiches and sipping my water, but it was a cool day and the hiking felt good. I found a wide spot on one of the trails and sat down on a big flat rock and brought out my water bottle again as I took a breather.

I was aware that the forest had become very, very quiet – no bird sounds, no droning insects, even the noises of the breeze were stilled. I lay down on the big rock and closed my eyes for a bit, then fell fast asleep. As I slept, I dreamed of little Agnes and her big, faithful dog. I had one dream sequence where she crept up to me and tapped me lightly on the shoulder and whispered to me, “I’m here. Don’t give up. Listen for Rex, he’ll point the way.”

I jerked awake, sitting straight up on the rock. I don’t know how long I had been there, but the quiet remained. I strained my senses, hoping to see or hear something. I was about to pack it in and head back to the hotel when I heard the faint noise of a large canine, either dog or wolf, making whimpering noises. I slowly rotated my head, trying to pinpoint the location of the sounds. The animal was somewhere directly off to my left, so I stood quietly and walked slowly in that direction, senses still highly tuned. I walked about a hundred yards, still hearing the whimpering noises from time to time, then came across a large tree with a tangled outgrowth of roots at its base, looking almost like a cage at the bottom of the massive tree. I leaned into the darkness, finally having to use my flashlight, and was able to make out the form of a small child’s skeleton, and nearby the skeleton of a good-sized dog, with one of its legs placed over the child in a protective pose. The whimpering sounds had ceased as I approached the tree base. I guess the faithful spirit of the dog had done its job, led me there, and then was able to finally still its voice.

A week or so later, Lettie called me to pass along the thanks of the townspeople, and to let me know that a special marker would be placed in the town cemetery that recounted the story of Agnes’ disappearance and eventual discovery. Rex would receive full credit in the story.

 

Storytime – Writing Exercise, Man at the Door

There is a light tapping at the door of your hotel room. You approach the door, somewhat hesitantly, and ask, “Yes, what is it?” No answer, just a scratching sound outside in the hallway. You open the door, carefully, and a man slumps into your room, almost across your feet. He looks up at you then, pain written in his face, says, “The pawn ticket is in my breast pocket. Don’t let them see you. Pick up the lamp, take it to Grunwald before Friday.” He sags to the carpet, face-first, dead. A quick search of his pockets turns up the pawn ticket, a pocket watch with “To Andre” inscribed on the back, and a strange key. What’s going on here?

 

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Man at the Door

I looked down at the dead man, and remembered. I hadn’t recognized him at first; it had been too long. Andre and I had been on many missions together, from Algiers to South Africa, to Mozambique, even to the killing grounds of Argentina, and we had cheated Death. Now, Death had brought him to my door. Poor Andre, my friend, my helper, and yes, almost my brother. Why had he not called out to me from the hallway? Was he trying to protect me, at the last?

I looked again at the pawn ticket. I recognized the name of the street – it was near the wharves of Marseilles, in the bad, dark section of a bad, dark, international miasma of a city. I knew I had little time left to grant my friend’s last request, his last demand of me. I stepped into the hallway, carefully, and picked up the phone there. After a moment’s delay, I whispered into the mouthpiece. Someone would come for Andre’s body and see that it was tended to. He wouldn’t have wanted an elaborate sendoff; we gave up all those niceties when we chose the path for our lives. I hung up and stood there, listening. Had someone been listening? No matter, he wouldn’t learn anything of Andre nor I from that short phone exchange, and Andre was beyond caring.

I stepped out, into the dark Rue Michel Gachet, then moving carefully from shadow to shadow I made my way toward the jumble of old warehouses at the port. I knew that the pawn shop was likely to be open, even at this late hour. The seamen who wandered the streets there would need to be served at all hours for their needs. A drink, a lady for the evening? All required cash, no promissory notes taken.

I stood in a doorway, watching the entrance of the pawn shop. After half an hour I ventured quickly across the cobbled street and into the dim recesses of the store. Amazingly, old Auguste was still there, still cheating the sailors who hadn’t heard of his reputation.

Auguste eyed me suspiciously. I was too well-dressed to be here, in this place at this hour. I made the sign, discreetly, and his face relaxed. I stepped closer and silently placed the pawn ticket on the grimy counter. He put on his equally grimy glasses and peered at the number on the ticket. He came around the counter, squinted up at me and said, “So, you’re the one. I wondered who might come to claim it. Do you have the 2,000 francs? I cannot operate on charity, you know.”

I gripped his throat, one-handed, closing my fist, trying to make my fingers meet at his spine. He gasped, made strangling noises, and struggled, trying to get free. At the last possible moment, I turned him loose, watched him collapse to the floor. After a prolonged bout of coughing and wheezing, he gasped, “I am sorry, don’t do that again, I’ll go get it. Wait here.” I glared at him, then said, “I believe I’ll accompany you.” He nodded, with resignation.

I followed him to the rear of the dusty mausoleum where he kept his small treasures. He stopped, pointed up to the top shelf, said, “There it is. Either you reach it or I’ll have to get a stool.” I brought down the old lamp, wondering briefly about its intrinsic value. It couldn’t have commanded much of a price, but then again, it wasn’t really about the lamp itself, was it?

I nodded my head toward the front of the store, then followed the old man, making sure he didn’t have any little surprises arranged for me. If there had been a ruffian there, I’d likely have smelled him, but everything seemed alright.

 

 

We paused at the counter, where I grabbed up an old shawl there, his, probably, and wrapped the lamp. I fished out a few franc notes and threw them down. “Take these, and be happy I let you live. I may be back.” He drew back, as if he thought I might attack him again. Then, I made my way out, still with a wary eye on the deep shadows. These street lamps must have been installed a hundred years ago, and they put out little light.

Grunwald, yes, I remembered the name. He ran most of the waterfront, had his fingers in everything, squeezed the lenders, the pimps, even had leverage on the gendarmes in this arrondisement. Grunwald would not accept excuses, wouldn’t accept less than promised, and was merciless in his punishment for those who displeased or disappointed him. And, yes, I looked forward to confronting him again, after all these years. I quickened my pace; no need to delay the inevitable. It was Friday morning, almost time for someone to pay the piper. Time for someone to discover the purpose of the strange key I now had in my pocket.

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Now, on this peaceful morning as I enjoyed my coffee and croissant, I idly watched the passers-by at Chez Madie les Galinettes. A perfect day, a perfect resolution to the problem of Grunwald. His men would never trace the messenger, the newspapers wouldn’t whisper anything of the affair because of fear of retribution by his replacement. I smiled as I envisioned the look he must have had on his face after I had delivered the lamp. The look he had, briefly, as, alone in his room, he turned the key, then heard the ominous click from within the lamp. Did he have any inkling of doom? I think not, he was just too greedy.

Perhaps another croissant. Yes, perfect.