Thursday, December 19, 2013

On a Cold Wintry Day

December 19, 2013

I walked into the Post Office today, leaving the cold behind me, and when I looked up, all the world went dark, all I could see were the flowers in her eyes.  In an instant she was by me and gone, but I'll always remember, on a cold wintry day, the flowers in her eyes.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Soldier's Story

This here story ain't easy for me to tell, but I've had enough of the corn liquor Dewey Tucker sells out the back door of his dry goods store over in Moberly to float the anvil I use to do my own blacksmithin' out in the barn.  It's a story from the war that I ain't never told nobody who weren't kin, but with me bein' liquor-brave and all, well, it's about time I tell it to y'all and prob'ly tell it for the last time.
     When I was young, long before the old set in and bent my back and made my fingers crooked, I was a private in the Fifty-first Iowa, the fightin'est regiment in the whole damned Union army.  We was at Shiloh, Donelson, Vicksburg, Atlanta, all them battles Grant and Sherman led us through.  Now I'm a straight talkin' man, not prone to exaggeration, so you can believe it when I tell you that in all them battles where I stood my place in the line and fired my Springfield, I weren't never as scared as I was at Shiloh.  Them Johnnys come at us hard under their flags, come right up on us so's we was near to firin' muzzle to muzzle.  Whole regiments of our boys couldn't take it, ran like rabbits, but I'm proud to tell y'all the ones of us who didn't run, we stood stubborn in our place and would not break no matter what them Johnnys threw at us.
     Here I get to an important part of this story, the part when I looked yonder through all the gunsmoke and killin' and seen the feather in a Johnny's hat that was not new to me.  I was hopin' I was wrong, that it was just one of them coincidences, but I knew in my heart that feather come out of the tail of a rooster pheasant I had shot before the war, that it was a match to the rooster feather I wore in my hat.  You see, Missouri was a confusin' place to be in those times.  Folks didn't know whose side to be on.  I made my choice to fight for the whole country, not just part of it, but my brother Jamie, he seen it different, and went off to fight for the Rebs with some other boys from over Moberly way.  The day before I left to go north, Jamie and me was huntin' and I shot a fine rooster pheasant, and Jamie and me decided to put a long feather in our hats from that rooster's tail so's when we looked across the battlefield we'd recognize each other and not shoot each other down.  I ain't goin' to get mushy here, but I want y'all to know I loved my brother Jamie and that's another advantage to drinkin' this corn liquor 'cause it brings back all them times when we went fishin' and huntin' together, all them times when we was rascals and got whippin's from Pa'r with a hickory stick...enough of that.  I can feel that grabbin' in my chest that all the corn liquor Dewey Tucker sells out his back door can't make go away.  So give me a minute so's I can get myself outta Ma'r's kitchen where the apple pie she just took warm from the oven is smellin' mighty good and me 'n Jamie 're at the table waitin' to eat a slice.  Ain't easy to leave that kitchen with Ma'r and Jamie, and with Pa'r just comin' in the door sayin' the smell of warm apple pie had reached all the way to the barn to make his nose twitch.  Ain't easy gettin' my mind back to all the blood, all the screamin', all the death of Shiloh.
     There, that last chug of corn liquor done the trick, I'm back to it.  I can hear them minie balls zip by my head, smell the gunsmoke.  After an all out brawl, them Johnnys finally fell back, slow like, just like good soldiers do, firin' as they went.  I was glad to see 'em go, glad to still have all my parts and not have any new inconvenient holes in me.  And I was mighty glad to see Jamie had made it through the fight, too, that I could still see 'im far across the field.  I was smilin' my thanks to the Lord, not joinin' in with the boys around me still firin' to make sure them Johnnys didn't get no ideas about comin' back, and that's when I seen it happen.  Jamie gave a hard jerk and fell flat to the ground.
     It was like a mule kicked me in the head.  The sense of bein' part of this world left me and I stood there just disbelievin'.  Not seein' the welcomed sight of Jamie jumpin' up to rejoin the other Johnnys still fallin' back, I handed my Springfield to Wilbur Banks, my friend and the man in line beside me.  Snatchin' a tree branch off the ground, I began to tie my handkerchief to that branch to make a white flag.  Wilbur kept askin', "What the blazes you doin', Eustis?"  I said not one word in return, I just made sure my knot was strong and went walkin' toward where I saw Jamie fall, holdin' my white flag up and wavin' it.
     Now those Johnnys took exception to me walkin' in their direction, even under a white flag.  Minie balls was hittin' the ground around me, kickin' up dirt, and the air was lively with the sound of angry hornets.  But with only the thought of gettin' to Jamie in my head, I kept goin', and after walkin' through a field of dead and wounded men, that's what I done, I found my brother.  Jamie lay still as a stone and starin' up at the sun.  A minie ball in the chest had stopped his good heart forever.  That the sound of angry hornets had stopped did not escape me, and for that I was thankful, otherwise it could have been an even harder day for Ma'r and Pa'r.  Now here you're expectin' me to speak on how I stood over my dead brother and cried, but if I told y'all that I'd be lyin'.  Some will call me a hard man, but my eyes were dry and my constitution steady.  As I closed Jamie's eyes for 'im, I ignored the grabbin' in my chest.  The onlyest thing I would allow myself to think about was how I was goin' to get him buried proper.
     I'd already started scratchin' at the ground with my bayonet when some Johnnys come up pokin' at me with their muskets, and a man among 'em said, "Billy Yank, what you doin' buryin' one of ours?"  Not botherin' to look up and still scratchin' at the ground with my bayonet, I answered, "'Cause long before he joined up with you Johnnys he was my brother."  Right then the butt of a musket made a rapid connection with my head, and layin' there on my back I looked up into a face that near made me piss myself.  Killin' is foreign to most men, but there are those who enjoy it, and I knew by the look of the man starin' down at me that he liked the killin' part of soldierin'.  The skin on that man's face was so tight his eyes looked ready to pop out of his skull, and that tightenin' made his mouth wide and thin and curled his lips to an evil grin.  I was sure I was lookin' up at the devil hisself and that I was about to die.
     Then came a sound I heard many an officer make with the flat of his sword on the backside of some soldier who weren't doin' as told.  It was a hard slap, and the devil man lookin' down at me gave a jump, a holler, and dropped his musket to grab the seat of his pants with both hands and start dancin' a jig.  Then to my amazement, a face I knowed well was lookin' into mine.  "That you, Eustis Warren?" said Riley Slocum, my friend and neighbor from back home.  "It's me, Riley."  I answered, powerful glad to see him and proud, too, 'cause he was wearin' the gold bars of a captain on the collar of his uniform.  "Y'all shoulder yer guns!" Riley barked at the Johnnys around me.  Not a musket was now pointed in my direction, and Riley was askin' what the damnation I was doin' there when he seen Jamie layin' a few feet away.  Riley let out a yelp loaded with hurt, and understanding why I was scratchin' at the dirt with my bayonet, he turned on them other Johnnys barin' his teeth like a hound dog ready to bite, orderin' them back to their line and for one of 'em to bring back a shovel.  Riley gave me his hand and helped me to stand.  "God damn this war," Riley said just as a boy came back and handed him a shovel.  "Skat!" Riley barked at the boy to send him scurryin'.  Turnin' back to me, Riley said, "You know we Slocums consider you Warrens our kin, and I want you and your family to know that Jamie was the bravest man under fire I ever did see.  I would consider it an honor to help you bury your brother, Eustis, even if Richmond tells me you're my enemy."  I answered, "It's fine of you to say that brother Riley, but you know I can't let you help me, that we Warrens is proud folks and we bury our own."
     I went to shovelin' and while I did, Riley told me, "Twelve of us boys left Moberly that spring, Eustis, and we joined up with this here Tennessee regiment.  Oh, we was happy, gonna lick you Yanks in a month, send y'all bawlin' home to your mamas.  But here it is a year later, and now with Jamie bein' dead, it's only me left of those twelve.  All the rest 're dead and buried or shot to pieces never to be whole again."  I stopped diggin' and looked up at Riley to comment on that tragedy, but I got no chance to say a word.  Some Johnny began to shout at me and I was sure it was the devil man 'cause of all the mean in his voice: "I feel no sorrow for you, Billy Yank!  My daddy's buried at Donelson, my brother at Mill Springs.  I hate you, Billy Yank!  And when the dark angel comes for you, I pray it's 'cause I done ran you through with a bayonet!"  Now Riley began to bark like a hound gone rabid.  He was frothin' at the mouth when he ordered a corporal to shush the devil man.  I could hear the flat of a sword strike three times before the yellin' quit.  I went back to diggin'.
     I dug that grave deep so the hogs and other critters would never get to Jamie, and with my brother at rest at the bottom of that hole, I took the pheasant feather from his hat and handed it up to Riley.  I said, "Riley, you wear that feather in your hat so's I can tell it's you across that deadly space and not shoot you down."  Riley put the feather in his hat, and he tried to talk to me while I put dirt over Jamie, but all his words came out strange and meanin'less to me.  After a brief prayer over Jamie, I shook Riley's hand, wished him luck, and took out walkin' back to the Union line, holdin' up that tree branch with my handkerchief tied to it.  I left Riley standin' there still tryin' to talk, but all I could understand was him sayin', "God damn this war."
     It was twilight when I walked back across that field, the time of the evenin' when the light flickers strange and things don't quite seem earthly.  The ground was muddy with the blood of many good men, and the cries comin' from the wounded were loud in my ears and frightenin' to hear.  I didn't want to believe such sounds could come from a human bein'.  I didn't want to believe the terrible sights I was seein'.  It was like the ground had opened up and I was in the pit of hell.  I weren't far from my line, still wavin' my white flag to make sure some boy in blue didn't shoot me by mistake, when the strangest thing happened.  A breeze come up and on it weren't the smell of blood and death like you'd expect.  No, sir, and I swear what I'm about to tell y'all is true, I swear it on Ma'r and Pa'r's graves, and Jamie's too, that on that breeze was the smell of warm apple pie.  The grabbin' in my chest was fierce and I could not stop what happened next.  I was knowed in my regiment for bein' a man not to be triffled with, and when I reached my line there was many a boy starin' owl-eyed at the sight of Eustis Warren cryin' like he was a youngun just switched good with a hickory stick.
     Well, that's my story, and now, if y'all don't mind, I'm gonna chug the rest of this here corn liquor and maybe sleep through till mornin'.  Most nights that don't happen.  I dream you see, I dream about the war, but I'm a lucky man, got me a good understandin' wife of over fifty years who gave me three strong sons, and when I wake up screamin', my sweet Nellie is always there to wrap her lovin' arms around me and say in her gentle voice, "Hush now, Eustis, it's a dream, and Shiloh was a long time ago."
     G'night, y'all.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

An Angel's Wings

An Angel stood before God and was persistant in her request that she be assigned a challenge that would allow her to achieve her wings, for an angel's wings are not just given, they are earned.  God, on this particular day, was busy in the extreme.  There were uncountable prayers that needed to be answered, and awaiting His attention were more wars, famines, and other catastrophes than was ordinary in the vastness of His universe.  God loved the persistant Angel, as he loves all his angels, but so distracting did she become that He decided it to be in the best interest of all His creation that she be kept busy by indeed giving her the challenge she desired.  The challenge He gave her was one He considered to be the most difficult He'd ever given to any angel: the Angel was to go to Earth and search out and bring back to Him the single most precious thing she could find there.
     Delighted to at last have the chance to earn her wings, off the Angel went.  She searched among the jewels of kings and queens, searched through the treasure of dead emperors and pharohs that lay in tombs yet to be discovered by archaeologists, searched through all the galleries and museums where art, the glory of man, was collected.  As her search took her far and wide, she came to understand the difficulty of her challenge, for she was unable to find that one thing worthy to be called the most precious thing of all.  So hard and long did she search that she at last took time to rest in a garden, a garden where fall was beginning to burnish leaves into reds and golds.  There she happened to hear a conversation between a White Hummingbird and a Red Rose.
     "But it's not winter I fear," said the White Hummingbird, his delicate wings a blurr.  "It's the thought of being away from you that torments me so."
     "But I've given you my heart to keep," answered the Red Rose, "so that wherever you go, my heart will be there too.  Now please, my dearest White Hummingbird, you must leave me, for the gardener will soon come and cover me with straw to protect me from the cold."
     "I will not leave you."
     "If I promise to dream the winter away dreaming only of us together again in the spring, will it convince you to fly south and there be safe from the cold?"
     "Your promise is sweet," said the White Hummingbird, the dazzling sheen of his feathers making him so very handsome.  "But no matter the danger to me, I intend to stay by your side."
     "Winter gives no mercy to hummingbirds."
     "Don't you understand?" the White Hummingbird said with all the love he felt for the Red Rose sounding in his voice.  "To brave the winter here with you is my only chance to live, for to leave you only assures me a death by broken heart."
     The Angel was drawn to watch this drama play out, and soon cold winds were upon the garden.  The cold withered the Red Rose, put ugly brown spots on her petals, but that she was no longer beautiful meant nothing to the White Hummingbird.  He still refused to leave her.  Then came the gardener with the straw, and even with the Red Rose warm and safe beneath this blanket, the White Hummingbird still would not leave.  The Angel saw in the days that followed that what the Red Rose had said was true, that winter gives no mercy to hummingbirds.  The White Hummingbird suffered in ways terrible to behold.  His flesh disappeared until his bones were knobs beneath his feathers, and a haze dulled his once sparkling eyes.  One night in the late days of November, there came a storm of sleet, and with the first morning rays of a cold distant sun, the Angel saw that the White Hummingbird was dead.  He lay covered with ice atop the straw beneath which the Red Rose slept.
     The Angel tenderly cupped the White Hummingbird in both her hands, and returned to heaven.  Once there, the Angel laid the White Hummingbird before the feet of God.
     "My Lord, I have searched the Earth over, and it is this hummingbird that is the most precious thing to be found there.  I pray to you, Lord, to please do something for this sweet bird, for the story of his love for a rose is the saddest I know."
     And God said, "My Angel, what you ask of me is but my way and is already done."
     With this the White Hummingbird stirred with new life, and the very first thing he saw was that which he loved most.  Because the years are but a sigh in the scheme of God's eternity, the Red Rose, too, had arrived in the garden of heaven, and in all her beauty was waiting for her love.  The joy the White Hummingbird and the Red Rose now shared would last until forever.
     And God asked, "What have you learned from this, my Angel?"
     There was not the slightest hesitation when the Angel answered, "That in my Lord's kingdom, all stories, no matter how sad they might seem, will have a happy ending."
     God was greatly pleased.  "You have accomplished your challenge and learned you lesson well.  And on this day, my Angel, you have earned your wings."

(fiction, and thank you, Oscar.)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Will They?

Intergalactic explorers will come, I suppose, long after we as a species have gone the way of the dinosaur.  I wonder how these explorers from another world will judge us?  Will they judge us by the litter of plastic bottles and the disparity between the hovels of the poor and the palaces of the rich?  Will they judge us by their discovery of cemeteries where rank after rank of our young, the casualties of our wars, lie buried beneath little white crosses?  After such discoveries will these explorers just climb back into their spaceships, and in disgust, leave the planet that was once our home?  Or will these explorers make a larger study of us?  Will they translate the books of Voltaire and Nietzsche, and hence be inspired to translate all the masters of our written word?  Will they take the time to absorb the art of Rothko and Rembrandt, indeed to absorb the thousands of years of art we will leave behind?  And if they do translate and absorb, and thus glimpse into our souls through the portal of our art, will they forgive us for the plastic bottles and the disparity between the poor and the rich?  Will they forgive us for all the little white crosses?


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Story so Beautiful

In the beginning, that beginning which was the beginning of all beginnings, science tells us there was an explosion of unmeasurable force and the universe came to be.  Science also tells us that all matter that exists today existed prior to the explosion, that all matter that was, still is, and, in one form or another, will always be.
     Stop now, think long on this...
     ...has there ever been a story so beautiful?  So poetic?  For if we are to believe what science tells is true, then you and I, all of us who live and breathe, can trace our origin to stardust.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013


It's difficult to watch her last interviews with Paar and Cavet, to hear her talk in that boozy slurr, to see the drug-dulled gleam of her once bright eyes, to watch her staccato movements, like responses to fingernails scratching at a blackboard.  Watching these interviews, her nerves seem to writhe beneath her skin like snakes pinned to the ground by a pitchfork.  Judy, didn't you understand that you weren't in Kansas anymore?  Of course not, you were too busy enthralling us with despair-driven performances that approached frenzy, too busy stunning us with that one-in-a-generation voice that reached far over the rainbows.  And we, your audience, were too busy listening, too busy watching in spellbound fascination the spectacle of your breakdown to be of any help to you at all.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013


It's always the same.  When I begin a new story I'm convinced I'll never be able to find the right words, never be able to express myself with the clarity a good reader demands.  But slowly, as the blank sheets of paper fill, I feel a hope that carries me on, and by the second or third rewrite, when my characters finally come to my rescue and take over the telling of their story, I feel such a relief.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sleeping in the Bathtub

When I was born, my mother and father lived in a small apartment.  The landlord lived in an adjoining apartment and controlled the thermostat.  In the morning, after a cold winter's night, there was always a thin layer of ice on the dog's water dish.  The warmest room in the apartment was the bathroom, and so on those cold nights when my twenty year old father went off to work the late shift at the DuPont factory, my nineteen year old mother would bundle she and I up in blankets, and we would sleep in the bathtub.  Sadly, there's no family picture of a young mother and her baby snuggled together there in that porcelain tub.  Such a picture would be a treasure to me now, and such a picture might also prove whether a recurring dream I've had for as long as I can remember is fact or fiction.  In this dream I'm frightened by a little square of darkness that hovers above me, and then happily dazzled when that little square of darkness becomes a brilliant display of golden sunshine refracting through a little window covered with delicate patterns of frost.


                                  Patty Lee Jensen, December 2, 1929 - August 29, 2012.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Only a Cat

One morning, during the last week of the Arlington Park meet, I'd heard the laughter of a Neanderthal.  Knowing such howling could only be coming from a groom who worked for a trainer at the other end of the barn, a trainer who paid more attention to Jack Daniels than he did his horses, I stepped out from under the shedrow to investigate.  The groom, a slope-headed giant, was in hysterics as he used a hose to squirt water at an orange tabby kitten he had cornered.  I went into an arm-waving fury that made the horse Neanderthal was holding throw its head up and shuffle backward away from my rapid approach.  Neanderthal dropped the hose and used both hands to hold onto the horse's shank.
     "It's only a cat!" Neanderthal yelled.
     My fury doubled, and words came from my mouth that would have scorched the tongue of a saint.  As if to seek safety back in the stone age, Neanderthal jerked on the shank and hurried away, the horse at a trot behind him.
     I picked up the half-drowned kitten, and while she mewed and shivered, I took her into the tack room.  She was half-starved and in terrible shape.  Most of her tail was gone, and when she looked up at me, her right eye blinked.  It took no veterinarian to know the involuntary blinking was due to the quarter-sized bald spot on her head.  I dried her off, cleaned the mud from her matted fur, then gave her a saucer of milk.  After that I placed her on a horse blanket.  She sat there looking up at me, blinking and purring.  Now, I've always prefered dogs over cats, after all no cat ever led anyone to safety during a snow storm or drove off an intruder, but this cat winked her way into my heart.
     In the next few days, she recovered, gained weight, and entertained me with her antics.  She crept up on the wiggling end of a leather shank as if she were a mighty tigress stalking a python.  She navigated the hazards and obstacles of the shedrow with ease, going in and out of stalls to visit her new horse friends.  She made it known that the tack room was her domain, and with a wave of a paw, reprimanded anyone who wanted to use the horse blanket she claimed from that first day as her own.  Then there was the morning I discovered a box of donuts on my desk had been plundered, bites taken out of every donut.  To find the culprit all I had to do was turn around.  She was sitting on her horse blanket winking at me, her little whiskered face white with powdered sugar!  I swear she could eat half her weight in donuts.  Besides being a donut thief, she also presented another problem.  In a short time she became so special to me, I couldn't come up with a name for her.  I just couldn't bring myself to give her a name like Tangerine, Orange Juice, or some other thoughless label like the suggested name Donut.  So I gave up for the time being, deciding I wouldn't give her a name until I came up with one that suited her.
     At the race track, you don't measure time by a calender, you measure it by race meetings, and the Arlington Park meet was over.  The horses were loaded on the van, everything was packed, and the van driver was waiting for me because I was going to follow the horses down to Gulfstream Park in my car.  The problem was, the kitten was nowhere to be found.  I called for her, using the generic "Here kitty, kitty" because I still hadn't come up with a name that suited her.  But no bouncing orange fluff of a kitten came running.  My voice only echoed in an empty shedrow.  Finally, after going through all the stalls and tack rooms once more, I had to admit she was gone.  All the way to Florida the thought that Neanderthal had gotten even caused a sickness in my stomach.
     The Gulfstream meet passed, and after running some horses late at the meet at Sportsman's Park, we were back at Arlington Park.  One of my grooms had gotten his foot stepped on by a horse, and I was on my way to visit him in the dormitories Arlington provides for backstretch help.  I climbed the stairs and began to walk past the row of doors when I went by one that was open.  Out of the corner of my eye there was a flash of orange.  Without turning around I took two quick steps back.  There she was, full grown yet recognizable, lapping at a saucer of milk.  But I didn't go in, didn't make demands to have her back, for when she looked up at me and winked, I could tell by the pretty red collar she wore that someone else had already given her a name.


Monday, June 24, 2013

Madame O


I first heard her real name spoken during a whispered conversation between my mother and aunt, for they deemed it inappropriate that a boy of thirteen should hear about such a woman as her.  But hear I did from my hiding place in a huge leather chair that had its back turned to the dining room where the conversation continued for some time over continuous cups of coffee.  The woman they spoke of, I'll call her Madame O, lived directly across the street from my aunt and uncle.  Let me explain that my aunt and uncle were wealthy and lived in a neighborhood where the broad lawns were manicured and gardened with flowers, a neighborhood where the homes were monuments to wealth.  Madame O's home was the grandest of them all, a mansion with columns and tall windows.  I listened enthralled to my aunt and my mother.
     Madame O had been a prostitute in her youth.  Stunningly beautiful, she entertained only the richest of the rich older men.  To the few she accepted as clients, she became more than just a glitterinig ornament that sated their sexual appetites.  She charmed them with clever conversation about literature, music, and the other arts, and when it came time, the nymph she was would lead these older men to her bedroom where she practiced an art that made of them young satyrs again.  One of her clients, a baron of industry whose name won't be mentioned here, became possessed by the worst demon a man who's involved in such a liaison can be possessed by...that demon was love.  He showered her with gifts from Tiffany's, bought her the finest designer clothes from the boutiques of Paris and Milan, and gave her stock in a new and upcoming electronics company.  Madame O was wise, she saved those stocks, secured them safely away, and over the years this small electronics company became a global giant.  Her shares of stock became worth a vast fortune.
     She quit her old life, changed her name, and traveled the world.  She was a regular at the Savoy in London, the Ritz in Paris, and her luck at the gaming tables in Monaco was the marvel of many a gambler.  While smoking Cuban panatelas from a platinum cigarette holder, towers of chips would accumulate in front of her at the baccarat table.  She attempted to conquer Everest, and gained the admiration of her Sherpa guides when she was the last of her party to give up the climb in the face of a driving blizzard.  She kept a stable of thoroughbreds and was a frequent visitor at the race tracks where they trained and raced.  She explored the jungles of the Amazon, and was bitten by a rare and tiny spider whose venom was known to kill crocodiles.  But a young French doctor, doing Christian missionary work nearby, was hurried to her side and he saved her life.  As if in a Hollywood movie, they fell in love.
     They were married in the south of France, and within the year she gave birth to a boy who was said to be as beautiful as his mother.  The traveling continued, there was nowhere she, her husband, and young son didn't go.  They walked the Great Wall of China, stood in the Roman Coliseum where gladiators had once battled to the death, frequented the winner's circle of race tracks where her horses ran.  It was an African photo safari, however, that made Madame O a worldwide sensation.
     Deep in the bush of Kenya, Madame O and her husband, along with their camp-bearers, came across a remote village.  The Chieftain there told how all the villages in a wide area were being terrorized.  In the last six months forty-two people had been dragged off and eaten by a lion.  The Chieftain struggled to keep his calm as he spoke of the latest victim, an eleven year old girl who'd last been seen still screaming as she disappeared into the night clenched in the big cat's massive jaws.  The girl had been his granddaughter.  Madame O put aside her camera and took up her W.J. Jeffery .450-400 double rifle, and with the village Chieftain himself as a guide, the hunt began.  It was on the twelfth day that her husband caught sight of the big cat.  He fired into the tall grass and missed, then his gun jammed.  Just as the five hundred pound lion made a rush and was about to reach him with fangs and claws, Madame O fired both barrels of her .450-400 and brought the big cat down.  Upon inspection, it was found the high-powered bullets had hit the lion's skull only one inch apart.  The grateful Chieftain and his entire village celebrated Madame O, as did all the other chieftains and people of the villages she passed through on her journey back to Nairobi.  She had killed the lion that became known in the history of big game hunting as the Wajir Man-eater.  The news of what Madam O had done was picked up by the wire services.  Magazines wanted to do stories about her, television wanted her on the late night talk shows, and when she turned them all down, journalists
followed her like a cloud of locusts.
     Despite her silence, the journalists did just what she feared most: they uncovered her past.
     The divorce was headline news.  In open court, Madame O unexpectedly stood and immediately brought to silence furiously arguing attorneys, and in this silence, when she told her husband in a trembling voice how much she still loved him, the gasps and cries of sympathy from the packed room caused the judge to pound his gavel.  But the French Christian missionary doctor now did to her what the lion in Africa had tried to do to him.  He clawed and devoured, took half her fortune, and when it came time to decide parental custody of their son, it was he who won even that.  The greatest blow came when the judge ruled that a woman with her past should even be denied visitation rights.  The last time Madame O saw her French doctor and her son, they were boarding a plane for France.
     She stopped traveling and came back to her mansion.  She dismissed seven servants, keeping only one, a native woman she'd brought back from Brazil, a woman who was said to practice the magic of Voodoo, and was reported to know the guarded recipes of ancient potions that were a balm to a woman who wandered elegant rooms grieving the loss of a husband and son she loved.  She became a semi-recluse, leaving the confines of her self-imposed prison only to see her stable of thoroughbreds.  My aunt told my mother that Madame O suffered a wound that the touch of man only aggravated, and that the presence of her horses always soothed.
     I was fascinated.  I began to read everything the writers wrote about Madame O, for they still dwelled on her, discovering still more astonishing things she'd done in her early years.  She'd been granted a rare audience with the Emperor of Japan, and when presented before the Chrysanthemum Throne, Hirohito raised his eyebrows at this woman from the West who spoke fluent Japanese, and, without being told, knew the protocol of his Imperial Court.  Upon her return to the United States from this trip, in October of 1941, she told President Roosevelt in the Oval Office that the Japanese were intending war.  After the hostilities of World War II, she set off to sail solo across the Pacific, and, like Amelia Earhart, disappeared.  After an ocean-wide search failed to find her, she was accidently discovered months later by an expedition from the British Museum on the island of Borneo where she had shipwrecked.  The British explorers found that she was being worshiped by a fierce tribe of headhunters as a diety and only because of this did their British heads remain attached to their British bodies.
     I became obsessed.  Every time I visited my aunt and uncle I would spend hours watching the columned house where no visitors were ever received.  There were nights when not a window was lit, and other nights when the house was illuminated with electric light as if a grand party was in full swing.  But mostly the house stood solemn and still with the drapes closed.  Using my uncle's binoculars, I once saw into a large room where there were book-lined shelves and a huge marble fireplace above which hung a painting of a man and a boy.  While peering at the painting, a dark-skinned, turbaned woman appeared phantom-like in the tall window.  She looked directly at me with dark slanting eyes that blazed.  I ducked down, predicted the chanting of secret rites, a ceremony where chicken's feet, entrails of rat, and goat's blood would be blended, and I would become a toad.  In all the hours I watched and waited, I never saw Madame O.
     Decades Passed.
     I was visiting my aunt and uncle at their winter home in Bal Harbour, Florida when I saw in the sports section of Saturday's Miami Journal that Madame O's stakes winning horse, Defiant, was to run that afternoon in the featured handicap race at Hialeah.  Would she be there?  In minutes I was in my car, and, after an Indy 500-style drive through traffic, was standing against the paddock fence where the horses for the handicap were to be saddled beneath the palms.  Owners and trainers were already in the saddling ring, a fashionable and bejeweled crowd.  The horses arrived, brush-polished and gleaming, and so did the jockeys, colorful in their silks.  Valets began to assist trainers in the saddling ritual.  Defiant was being saddled by a valet and a young man I knew wasn't Defiant's famous trainer.  My disappointment was huge.  Madame O was nowhere to be seen.
     Then, coming from the clubhouse in company with the man I knew to be Defiant's trainer, I saw a woman, and knew at once it could only be her, Madame O.  Even at a distance I knew the clothes she wore came from a designer in Paris or Milan, and the closer she came, a straight and slender figure moving with slow grace, I became so entranced I stood as still as if life itself had left me.  I couldn't even seem to breathe.  I could only stare.  As she came nearer I saw beneath the wide brim of her hat that, despite the years, she was still beautiful.  Her face was gently lined and polished like ivory.  Her green eyes, locked on her horse, sparkled like emeralds.  If Garbo herself had chanced an appearance at Hialeah that day, I doubt she would have commanded greater attention.  Heads turned.  Conversations died.  Madame O was the focus of all.  Then, as she passed me by, I heard a voice say, "She was once a whore, you know."  Her trainer looked in the direction of the voice with the glare of a mafia hitman, but Madame O kept her eyes on her horse and continued on.  This came as no surprise to me, that she seemed not to hear the voice, for the writers had written that she never does.



Friday, May 31, 2013

How Sublime

How sublime Art is when much is done with little.


                   Lysistrota, Chinesias et sa Myrrhine, c1934, by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Saturday, May 25, 2013


I thought it strange that I should be thinking of Petey at a time like this.  I mean, there I was, sitting on a stage with my classmates, waiting to receive my high school diploma, and I was thinking of my first pet, a little stripped caterpillar.
     I was six when I woke early one morning to see tiny glass-bright eyes staring at me from the windowsill of my bedroom.  Blue jays are ornery birds, malevolence on wings, and my fingers twitched for a rock.  Not that I was a mean little boy, not particularly that is, but this jay was one of a pair I'd been battling all summer.  My tire swing hung from that elm tree in our backyard long before they built their nest there!  With no rock, I threw my voice instead.
     What came out of my throat was bloodcurdling.  The jay was gone in a flurry of wings and I heard our neighbor, Miss Millie, a flinty little spinster who was always amongst her roses that time of day, say, "Thank heaven!  Someone's finally murdering the brat!"
     Bandits in the neighborhood!  Maybe even pirates!  And they were working their skills on some brat!  I darted to the window and hung half way out, feet kicking in the air behind me, a little breathless about witnessing villains practicing their dark arts.  But the neighborhood was quiet and serene in the morning sunlight.  There was only Miss Millie amidst the color and tangle of her rose bushes, hands on her hips, staring at me with sparks in her eyes.  Where was her tomcat, I wondered.  Again my fingers twitched for a rock.  Jeez, but her tomcat was fast!
     I gave one last look around for a brat in distress, then happened to look down at the windowsill.  Moments of awakening come at odd times in a child's life.  Suddenly, the world was an amazing place, and a caterpillar one of the most amazing things in it.  I squinted my eyes to take a closer look at the way he rippled as he walked along on all those little feet.  When he willing took a place in the palm of my hand and curled up, seeming to trust me to protect him from marauding blue jays, I felt something strange inside me.  At first I thought it was just my stomach sending me signals, reminding me about breakfast.  But the signals weren't coming from my stomach.  Once a heart has loved, it is forever changed, and I named my new pet Petey.  From that day forward I had an affection for all living things, and Miss Millie's tomcat had nothing more to fear from the little rock thrower who'd been making his life so miserable.
     Dubious about having a bug in the house, but feeling guilty because I'd never been allowed a dog or even a hamster, my mother and father let me keep Petey.  To everyone's surprise Petey thrived, grew fat, and we were seldom out of each other's sight.  I took him for long tours of the neighborhood onboard my Radio Flyer wagon, pointing out historical sites: the bush where I'd once found a hummingbird's egg, the drainage pipe where I'd gotten stuck and then rescued by firemen.  We swung for hours on my tire swing, him clinging to my shoulder while I kept a wary eye out for blue jays, and many were the nights, when I should have been asleep, that Petey would munch a blade or two of grass in the comfort of his glass jar there on the pillow beside me, while I told him every secret I had to tell.
     Came the day that Miss Millie served Petey and I milk and brownies at the little wrought iron table in her garden.  Without sparks, her eyes reminded me of Grandma's.  After finishing the first brownie, I told Miss Millie what Mother always said about her garden, that her roses smelled like the breath of angels, and a second brownie was promptly served that seemed even more chocolaty and chewy than the first!  It was then that I noticed Petey was acting very strange.  Though I pleaded for him to stop, he wouldn't, he just kept spinning thread, seemed to be slowly pulling a blanket up over his head.  Was Petey sick?  Dying?  Was he upset because I hadn't shared the brownies?  I was suddenly blinded by tears, and a frantic Miss Millie fetched my mother and father and the three of them crowded around me, telling me not to cry, that change was good, that change was part of life.  Comforted by hugs and kisses, I rallied and the waterworks shut down, but this change being spoke of left me feeling unsure and watchful, for Petey, my dearest friend, was at its mercy.
     The ancient mysteries of the cocoon took place, and then came the day of magic.  My mother was holding the back door open for my father who had his arms wrapped around sacks of groceries.  They stopped where they were when they saw me standing in the kitchen.  Perched on my fingertips was Petey, now a magnificent monarch butterfly.  And while he spread wide his wings and winked them open and closed, I said, "Isn't he beautiful!  Isn't he so very beautiful!"  We all stared in star-struck wonder as Petey gave a sweep of his delicate wings and lifted gently into the air.  He hovered there as if to say his good-byes, then, floating by my mother and father, he sailed the breeze out the kitchen door.
     Now on stage with my classmates, waiting to graduate, it suddenly came to me that it wasn't so strange after all, me thinking of Petey at a time like this.  I kept saying to myself, Aren't we beautiful!  Aren't we so very beautiful! as one by one we crossed the stage toward our futures, not unlike butterflies sailing the breeze through an open door.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

That Girl

June 5, 1981
Cafe du Monde
New Orleans

The sidewalk cafe's waiter, his head a tangle of blond curls, sat the iced latte down in front of me with that crisp click that glass makes against marble.
     "Just the thing on a hot day," he said.
     I answered with a smile and a "Yes," and as he turned away I raised the frosty glass.  I came to an abrupt stop.  What was this sudden terror I felt?  This sudden burst of joy?  What could possibly be filling me with such excitement?  Then, gazing over the top of my iced latte, I understood, for there she was..."that girl."
     How can I describe her?  I can't, it's beyond my ability to make words do such work.  Let me rather liken the experience of seeing her to the same exquisite rush and delightful chill I get when I hear Van Cliburn play "Clair de Lune" or gaze upon a canvas by Renoir.  Beautiful people affect us in the same manner as art.  They can change our mood, lift our spirits.  But there are also those, the most beautiful of the beautiful, who can instill in us a certain terror when they come into sight.  Why?  Because it is they who can stop our hearts, for that briefest of moments murder us.
     "That girl" began to make her way around the tables of the cafe with a graceful swing of her hips.   She passed a group of teenaged boys sitting around two tables pushed together.  The boys looked like a gathering of princes, not a toad among them, and how they stared at her.  After they recovered from what was obviously their own chills and spasms of excitement, they whistled and called out to her.  She gave them not a glance.  Watching "that girl" come toward my table, her eyes looking neither right nor left, just straight ahead, I felt another exquisite rush of joy and excitement, and, yes, another rush of terror.  Knowing my risk, I stood up.
     "An iced latte, just the thing on a hot day," I said to her, pulling the other chair away from the table as an invitation.
     She stopped, her eyes swerved to meet mine, focused.
     A butterfly poised on a nearby palm stopped winking its wings, the whistles and calls of teenaged boys ceased.  Then her smile and "Yes" stopped my heart, and I was, on that afternoon in New Orleans, for the briefest of moments, murdered by "that girl."


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Use of Kindness

Those who use kindness only as a deed to be repaid will know the scorn of angels.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

My First Visit to the Art Institute

"...let's go on to the next gallery, we have so much more to see today."
      They moved too fast for me, and I fell behind. How could I give just a glance to portraits that lived and breathed, to landscapes the artist had meant me to get lost in? I lingered, and while I did, art did just as it intends to do, it taught me how to see. There were paintings that robbed me of my breath, paintings that made my pulse loud in my ears, paintings that put a tightness in my throat. Some paintings had the quality of being a dream, others the quality of being a memory. Some paintings were so beautiful that after I left them they remained in my mind like the fragrance of a garden, and some paintings told terrible tales and taught me that art is not always beautiful. Art attacked me in my mind, attacked me in my heart. Art awakened me...

Recollection of my first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, included in my short story collection titled "Stories of The Boy with the Yellow Socks."  The book is available on Amazon under the pen name J. Carter Swift.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Errand

The errand of love is to please.


Refuge From Reality

Through my experience as a writer, I've found there is only one refuge from reality, and that is to wedge myself into the space between my words and think only of my story until I forget who it is I am.


Sunday, April 28, 2013


Why a writer?  I should have been a surgeon or a mechanic, for surely a scalpel or wrench couldn't cause me the anguish words do.


Francis Bacon (1909-1992), self portrait.  The portrait, deliberately
meant to disturb, illustrates that the price of making meaning is anguish.

A Single Word

A single word on a sheet of paper is but a stain.  It is with the second word that the writer's story begins.


Just Exactly How?

Just exactly how is this harmony intended to work, between a universe that explains its story with numbers and math, and a humanity that explains its story with words and books?


                                          Andromeda Galaxy

Saturday, April 27, 2013

For the Love of Beauty

Look!   Do you see?  Someone cared.  Someone made something beautiful.  Not for money, for there is so little of that in art, but rather, they made it for the love of beauty.  This is why art restores, lifts our hearts, why beauty gives us hope.


                                   Cafe Terrace at Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)


Writing is a noble pursuit, yet often I end up equating myself to a rapist, a brute who has forever ruined the beauty of a virgin white sheet of paper with words that are worthless drivel.


Army of the Sleepless

4:07 A.M., March 3, 2013

Sleep, oh sleep, where art thou?  Is this Mephistopheles at work, the demon which always denies?  I know it is thee, Demon!  I now recognize your trickery.  You keep ancient arguments fuming in my head, and keep mistakes made long ago like new so they prick and sting and rob me of peace.  Oh merciless Mephistopheles, it is thou who stirs memories of sorrows that thrive in the night when sweet dreams should bring bliss.  I challenge thee then, Demon, and call upon all the sleepless this night to form ranks!  Onto the field of battle we the Army of the Sleepless march, our banners high, our armor, swords, and spear points flashing in bright moonlight.
     Let Battle begin!
     Swords thrust, spears launch, demon claws slash, demon fangs rip.  Then sudden, above the fray, I hear it ring out, the shouted word "Victory!"  The sword of some sleepless warrior has found its mark and is driven into demon breast!  But no time!  No time for jubilation!  For rotation of earth brings nearer the morn.  So rush now Army of the Sleepless!  To home!  To bed!  Yet before we sleep away the remnants of this night, let us pray together that Mephistopheles not die of his wound.  Yes, pray for him to live!  Pray for God to bring down His judgment, to imprison Mephistopheles in flesh and bone with beating human heart, to condemn the demon to dwell with sorrow and heartache as his only companions for a lifetime of sleepless nights!



Greatest Gift

As the decades pass, I've learned that the greatest gift one person can give another is mercy.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Leaving Us to Grieve

Her presence is like a light floating in the absolute darkness of the canvas.  In her eyes a silent invitation shocks us.  We want her.  We want to touch her, to touch that smooth white skin, to touch her half-opened lips with our own lips.  But we can never have her, for she is protected from us by the centuries...and with these years as her fortress, she seems to mock us, leaving us to grieve over a kiss that can never be.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)


Happiness is fragile, and so often shattered before we recognize it for what it was.