Freedom Rings

Freedom held the tiny bell in her palm. She knew she wasn’t supposed to have it, but she didn’t care. She was attracted to its shininess, its smallness. Small like her. Most of all, she wanted to hear it ring.

“Freedom!” Sister Mary shouted in an unmistakable angry tone. “Come out now!”

Freedom could hear Sister’s heavy footsteps above her. She dragged herself deeper into the darkness under the porch. Sister’s footsteps stopped for a few agonizing moments. Then the clomping sound continued until it receded into the house.

Freedom clasped the bell hard as she ran from under the porch and into the nearby woods. She did not know where she was going, only that she wanted to get away from Sister Mary.

Sister Mary slammed her fist into the table between two girls who were giggling in their soup bowls. They jumped in fright, sloshing soup onto the table.

“What’s that?” said a third girl.

Suddenly everyone went to the window, including Sister Mary. Everyone was quiet so that they could hear the tingling of Sister Mary’s bell off in the distance. There was an uproar as Sister Mary quickly laced her boots. The girls watched as she stomped out into the forest. But by the time she got their, the sound of the bell was long gone.

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Rabbit Was Dead

Rabbit was dead.

Cat knew everyone blamed him. The unnatural quiet and the steady stare of the others sent a shiver down his back. No one moved for a long time, Cat included. It was the worst silence Cat could ever remember, and Cat usually enjoyed the quiet.

Suddenly Turtle raised his head, presumably to get a better look at Cat.

“The real question is,” Turtle said slowly. “How did you do it?”

“Yes,” squawked Parrot. “No sign of blood.”

“No cuts, no bites, no holes,” Turtle nodded.

“No ifs, no butts, no coconuts,” said a gravelly voice. “There are many ways to kill. Not just with tooth or claw,” Snake said as he slid from out of the shadows.

“The People kill with things they call weapons,” Snake continued. “Things that are more deadly than rocks or sticks. There are, in fact, countless ways to kill. Almost as many as there are stars in the sky.”

“And how do you think Rabbit died,” Turtle said with a frown.

“A hard blow to the head. Loss of breath. Stopping of the heart. The body shutting itself down. Poison,” Snake said with a gleam in his eye.

“Stop!” Turtle said in a shaky tone. “You’re scaring the others.” Indeed Hamster, Fish, Duck, and Chicken were all displaying acute signs of stress.

“I was only trying to educate,” Snake said with the hint of smile as he crawled back into his place in the shade. “Elucidate. Indoctrinate. Demonstrate. Explicate. Eradicate,” he said, his voice fading away in the darkness.

“He’s certainly an odd duck that one,” Rat said pointedly.

“I resent that remark!” quacked Duck.

“My apologies,” Rat said quickly. “I merely meant it as a figure of speech. Such as ‘free as bird’. Or ‘a fish out of water’. Or ‘don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched’.”

“Enough of these digressions,” Turtle huffed. Rat’s wit always annoyed him. “Back to the matter at hand.”

“The matter at hand,” Parrot agreed.

“Cat,” Turtle snapped. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Cat, who had been licking his paw in embarrassment, stopped and blinked a few times before responding.

“It’s true in the past I have done things for which I am not proud,” Cat began. “But on my honor, as a cat, I did not do this thing.” There was a quiet murmur from the rest. “Some of you know Rabbit and I are friends,” Cat continued. “Or were friends. I may be a cat, and therefore include to stalk and hunt, but one thing a cat will never do is kill a friend.” The second murmur was louder than the first.

“I say we put it to a vote!” shouted Lizard who pictured himself feasting on Cat’s dead carcass when the vote went sour.

“Yes, a vote! A vote!” the rabble called.

“Order!” cried Owl, and everyone quieted. Owl was a big and mighty creature who was not intimidated by much. He often acted as police, judge, and executioner in cases such as this. Cat again felt the shivers up his spine as Owl stepped up to speak.

“As always,” Owl stated. “We need a fair and impartial jury to listen to the case of Cat.” Through a series of questions, Owl chose his jury. There was Weasel, a cunning hunter in his own right. There was Deer, who was much too large to be hunted by the likes of Cat. There was Dog, who was equal to Cat in some ways, better in others, and lesser in others. And there was Dung Beetle, whose stink was something the most of the others had a difficult time abiding.

“Very well,” said Owl. “We are ready to try the prisoner.”

Cat was placed in a box before the jury of his peers. The four animals of the jury stared at him with shining eyes.

Hedgehog was appointed as his lawyer. Songbird was named as the prosecuting attorney. Songbird pranced about, trilling with his persuasive voice. Hedgehog, who was nearsighted, fumbled with his stack of papers. Cat was beginning to feel unnerved.

“Now then,” Owl cleared his throated. “The prosecution may call his first witness.”

Songbird stood up tall and called out: “Bring Mrs. Rabbit to the stand!”

A murmur surged through the courtroom as the sobbing Mrs. Rabbit was gently accompanied to the stand.

“Now Mrs. Rabbit,” Owl said kindly. “We can forgo your questioning if it is too difficult for you-”

“No, no,” insisted Mrs. Rabbit. “I wish to speak.”

“Very well,” Owl nodded in admiration of her bravery. “Your witness,” he said to Songbird.

“Tell us about your husband’s relationship to Cat,” Songbird said.

“They were the best of friends,” she said, eliciting a fresh murmur from the crowd. “They did everything together. They especially enjoyed long walks in the forest. Rabbit use to say he could have no better friend on this green Earth than good old Cat.”

The uproar in the courtroom was so loud that Owl was forced to strike his gavel. “Order, order,” he cried. “We must have no more of these outbursts. Let the witnesses tell their stories without unnecessary outrage.” With that, he eyed the entire assembly which seemed to calm them down.

“Continue please,” Owl insisted.

“Was there ever a time Mrs. Rabbit,” Songbird said. “That your husband made any complaint against the defendant.”

“Oh my no,” Mrs. Rabbit shook her head. “They were just the best of friends. Cat would do anything for my husband. Including…” Mrs. Rabbit hesitated.

“Including?” Songbird prodded.

“I’m not sure it’s my place to say,” Mrs. Rabbit blushed.

“Might I remind you, my dear Mrs. Rabbit, that you are under oath,” Songbird grinned.

“Well,” she said reluctantly. “My husband use to say that Mr. Cat was a very sneaky fellow.”

Cat nearly yowled in defeat.

“Go on,” said Songbird with a gleam in his beady little eye.

“My husband and Mr. Cat use to do business together,” she said almost innocently.

“What kind of business did they have?” Songbird prodded.

“Oh my all kinds of things,” Ms. Rabbit said. “They were the best pest catching team. My husband would dig out the vermin and Mr. Cat would catch them.”

“Catch them,” said Songbird. “And do what with them?”

“Why kill them of course,” said Ms. Rabbit which was greeted by murmurs in the jury. “It is after all his specialty.”

“Exactly,” said Songbird smuggly. “No further questions your honor.”

Owl blinked his eyes as he stared toward Hedgehog who looked like he was half-asleep. Owl cleared his throat loudly.

“The witness is yours Hedgehog,” Owl said. Hedgehog jumped up from his seat as Cat gave a desperate look. He ambled toward Ms. Rabbit who was still in the witness box.

“My good Mrs. Rabbit,” squeaked Hedgehog. “Tell us about these pests your husband and Mr. Cat were tasked with killing.”

“Oh all manner of nasty critters,” Mrs. Rabbit said with a crinkled nose. “Things that bite and suck your blood.”

“Insects, you might said,” Hedgehog nodded.

“I say!” gasped Dung Beetle from his place in the jury box.

“Objection!” called Songbird. “The defense is leading the witness.”

“Be careful of your words Hedgehog,” Owl frowned for he did not tolerate shenanigans in his courtroom.

“So sorry your honor,” Hedgehog bowed. “Mrs. Rabbit, can you tell us what these creatures were.”

“Of course,” Mrs. Rabbit said. “Ants, wasps, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, chiggers, leeches-”

“Very good Mrs. Rabbit,” Hedgehog smiled. “The court now understands I’m sure. Let it be known that Rabbit and Cat were known far and wide as the best pest control duo in this part of the country. I myself utilized their services several times to flush nasty things from my burrow. I submit that the work good Mr. Rabbit and good Mr. Cat were doing, although involving the nastiness of killing, was necessary to the betterment of everyone. For it is well known that even the worst jobs need to be done by someone. Therefore we should be thanking Mr. Cat for his services. Not condemning him.”

More loud whispers blanketed the courtroom causing Owl to tap his gavel once more.

“Mr. Songbird,” Owl said above the din. “You may call your next witness.”

“Very good your honor,” Songbird peeped. “I call Mole to the stand.”

Mole was known as an unsavory fellow. He spent most of his time hidden underground eating worms and grubs. When he did come up, it was to spy on other animals. He would use any information he found to his own advantage. He was also well known as a notorious liar.

As Mole shuffled toward the witness box, Weasel licked his lips. All those worms and grubs made Mole meat one of the tastiest of all. Deer stamped his foot. Whenever he saw a mole, he was wont to trample it. Dog barked because moles are particularly fun to chase. Dung Beetle merely watched quietly. His kin had often been pray to moles. In his mind, moles were animals to be feared.

“Now Mole,” Songbird began. “I understand you spoke with Rabbit the night before he was murdered.”

“I did,” said Mole with a twitch of his nose.

“Can you tell us about that conversation,” Songbird said.

“If I must,” Mole frowned for he did not like giving up information without getting something in return.

“You are under oath,” Owl said sternly.

“He said he was angry at Cat,” Mole said absently. “That he was thinking of breaking off their partnership.”

A third eruption of murmurs caused Owl to bang his gavel and call out.

“If I cannot have quiet in my courtroom,” he shouted. “I will dismiss the spectators!” Quiet quickly fell again.

“Did he say why he was upset with Cat,” Songbird said pointly.

“Yes, he did,” Mole smirked.

“And?” Songbird prompted.

“He said that Cat was having an affair with his wife.”

The noise of the spectators was louder than ever.

“Order! Order!” yelled Owl. “Bailiff clear the courtroom! Bailiff clear the courtroom!!”

Horse was marching animals out of the courtroom as Mrs. Rabbit cried loud tears. Cat was twitching his tail in his growing embarrass as the jury of animals whispered among themselves. Mrs. Rabbit was doing her best to try to hide. Weasel in particular was very amused by the whole situation.

“No further questions your honor,” he peeped triumphantly.

“Your witness,” Owl said to Hedgehog

“Tell me Mr. Mole,” Hedgehog early took up the inquiry. “Was good Mr. Rabbit distraught when you spoke with him?”

“Oh yes, severely,” smiled Mole for he wallowed in other’s misery.

“Dare I say, brokenhearted,” Hedgehog added.

“About as brokenhearted as one could be I suspect,” Mole agreed.

“And what did he do next?” Hedgehog asked because he knew Mole could not help himself from watching a creature such as Rabbit in such misery.

“He crawled into a ditch and died,” Mole simply said to which members of the jury gasp. Poor Songbird slumped in his chair.

“Mm yes,” Owl said. “I see,” he added sadly. “Very unfortunate.” Then after a short speech about the effects of a broken hear on the average animal, he instructed the jury on how to deliberate. But before he could excuse them to do so, Weasel interrupted him.

“If it please your honor,” he said through his sharp teeth. “We the jury have already reached a verdict.”

“Highly unorthodox,” said Owl with wide eyes. “Very well, I will allow it. What say you?”

“We say, not guilty,” Weasel said quickly. “It was obviously a broke heart that killed Mr. Rabbit.”

“So it was,” Owl said. “The defendant is free to go.” He bashed his gavel one last time.

Cat thought it wise to leave the courtroom as quickly as possible, especially to avoid Mrs. Rabbit. He knew he could never show his face around these parts again, but being a cat that hardly matter. He was independent and solitary. He could make his way anywhere he went. Despite this, the guilt of betraying his friend was a feeling he could not leave behind.

I Write

I write because from the very first story I wrote at eight years old, it has felt like exactly what I am supposed to do. I write because I love writing. I write because it is it is as natural to me as breathing or walking. I write because it feels like the most important thing in the world. It feels like it is the most meaningful thing in the world, and the only thing that really makes sense. I write because in my heart and mind I know it is the only thing I can do well. It is the only thing that I truly care about doing. I write because my imagination never stops. The stories never end. They beg to be told. They are as much a piece of me as they are a piece of the world. I do not have the right to keep them to myself, and I would not want to keep them to myself. I write because the true joy is in sharing these stories. I write because doing so continues to inspire me to be a better writer. I write in hopes that I inspire others to write. I write because to not write would be to deny who I am. I write to defy those who have told me not to write. I write in honor of those whose fundamental right to write has been stolen from them. I write to prove that the marginalized can write. I write despite being told most of my life that I am retard, I am dumb, I will never succeed at anything all because of the way I look. I write with the conviction that discrimination of any kind is bullshit, that diversity of all types should be celebrated, that everyone must be allowed to express themselves freely. I write because I can. I write because I must. I write because I will until the day I die no matter what.

Saving Ansel

Ansel Goldwaith was a writer of scifi/fantasy whose stories were about bold knights and clever wizards that got sucked into transdimensional universes where they fought mysterious insectoid beings to save helpless fairy princesses. “Mediocre,” one critic wrote of his work. “Subpar,” penned another. “Derivative,” scribed a third.  

While his fictional work was very popular with a subset which consisted of aging fanboys and prepubescent boys, Ansel Goldwaith was perhaps most notable for his author’s notes, sprawling diatribes chronicling his everyday comings and goings that went on for seventy or eighty pages.  

It was the scifi/fantasy worlds that first attracted 14 year old Rick to his work. It was the journalistic, extremely personal author’s notes that absolutely enthralled him. Rick was an only child who had never known his real father. His mother had married a succession of bad men, the latest worse than the last. In high school, he was a complete outcast because he was overweight, wore thick glasses, and read scifi/fantasy novels.

Rick’s only friend in the world was Ansel Goldwaith. When he read those author’s notes, it was like the author was speaking directly to him, as if he were telling only Rick his most intimate of secrets. That was why it came as a complete shock to Rick when he read Ansel’s final line in his final book: “I went into the garden today in a terrible mood.  Feeling so lonely.  Feeling so sorry for myself. I could not stop thinking about Deborah and all the time we had spent in the garden together. Why had she left this Earth so early? Why has someone so wonderful been lost forever and ever? Wading through the turnips and onions, picking tomatoes and pulling carrots gave me no solace.”

Ansel Goldwaith’s wife Deborah had died of breast cancer 10 years before. She was the love of his life. They had been married for nearly 30 years. Ansel Goldwaith stopped writing shortly after her death. The fourth book in The Cycle of Light series ended with a cliff hanger and went on to become a best seller. Even the critics called it his best work. Naturally the publisher was hungry for book five, but the world was left to wonder if Ansel Goldwaith would ever finish his epic opus.

No one was more desperate for Ansel to put pen to paper than young Rick. He had dreams about what came next in the story. Sometimes he even wrote his own version of what would happen to the characters of his favorite books. The story had ended with the main character discovering a long sought artifact.  Just as he was about to pick it up, he was surrounded by a band of angry gobloids–a kind of goblin, spider creature. In one of Rick’s continuing versions of the story, the main character grabs the artifact, an ancient book of spells, and fortuitously opens it to a fire wave spell. He hastily reads through the incantation sending a blast of red fire over the offending monsters. In another, the main character is suddenly rescued by his love interest, an elven warrior, who puts an arrow through the head of the gobloid leader sending his minions scattering in a panic. When he was in a darker mood, he wrote an altogether different possibility. The main character is suddenly overwhelmed by the horrendous band of gobloids. They kill him and cook him and eat his flesh. Thus ending the story of The Cycle of Light once and for all.

Things took a turn for the worsen in Rick’s life when Rick’s mom met a new man named Steve, a man who wore football jerseys and a military haircut. Steve would yell at Rick with an obnoxious, booming voice:  “Getcher head outta yer ass, ya whiney little panty waste! Ya can’t go around the resta yer life like a fat, stupid turd!” He would throw a ball at Rick’s face as hard as he could, usually leaving a few angry, stinging welts. “Pussy!” he would spit in disgust before punching Rick in the arm leaving a large brown bruise. Steve pounded down twelve packs of Bud Light while he watched whatever sports game was playing on TV. If the team he liked won, Steve would whoop and dance like a drunken chicken. If they lost he would curse and smack things–including Rick’s mom. Rick tried to talk to her about this, but she refused acting like nothing was wrong. “He’s all I have,” she would say with weepy pleading eyes. “Don’t ruin this for me.”

Then one day at school, the biggest bully of them all, a monster they called Buster because he enjoyed busting things (even busting a guy’s jaw once), took it upon himself to gather up some bully friends to hunt Rick down. When they found him, they pulled him into the nearest restroom and forced his face into a dirty toilet and flushed it liberally. “Swirly! Swirly!” Buster cackled like a maniac. When the vice-principal found out, it was clear he was trying to hide a half smile. Buster and the boys denied everything, so it became a matter of Rick’s word versus theirs. In the end, they got off with a warning. “Next time there’s gonna be a floater,” an angry Buster promised in the hallway.

Needless to say, Rick had enough. When it came down to it, Rick had only one friend in the world, one person who understood him and who cared about him, or so he wanted to believe.  And that one person was Ansel Goldwaith.
Rick did not make plans, he simply acted. On a Friday after school, he went to the bank and withdrew his life savings, $1546.38. He walked four hours until he ended up at the airport. By then it was late in the evening. He bought an economy class ticket on an overnight flight to San Francisco California. While waiting for the plane, he picked up a map of California from the gift shop. He sat on the ground and unfolded it to search for Sonoma, the city Ansel lived in. He had no address, no phone number, not even a street name. He would somehow have to find Ansel Goldwaith using his wits. This was his quest.

 

Rick fell asleep on the plane missing the inflight movie as well as snack/beverage services. When he finally awoke, the plane was landing and it was 4:15 in the morning. It felt as if he had just closed his eyes. The flight had cost $518 leaving him with a little over a thousand dollars.  

Rick was completely exhausted, and the only thing he could think of to do was to get a hotel. Surprisingly the Motel 6 allowed him to pay for a room without ID. Most likely because he was paying with cash. He paid for two days and slept all day and night, waking up at around seven in the morning on his last day in the motel. Suddenly he felt a pang of guilt about leaving his mother. He really had no idea what he was going to do when he found Ansel Goldwaith, but the least he could have done was left his mother a note.  Rick took up some Motel 6 stationary and composed a letter:

 

Dear Mom,

 

I’m sorry I did not say goodbye. I want you to know that everything is fine. Please don’t worry about me. I hope you have a good life.

 

Love,

Rick

 

Rick checked out of the hotel, walked to the nearest post office, bought a stamp, and sent out his letter.

Rick spent about a hundred dollars on an Uber ride to Sonoma that some hipster at Coffee Bean helped him to set up. After reluctantly telling the bearded gent, whose name was Max, his story, he was given Max’s number just in case. “To contact for emergencies and stuff,” Max grinned. He offered to buy Rick a latte, but Ricked hated the taste of coffee.

The Uber driver dumped him off unceremoniously in downtown Sonoma. It was the most beautiful place Rick had ever seen. Humongous old buildings nestled amongst sprawling streets lined with enormous green trees, nothing like the small, unremarkable town he came from. Of course, he had no idea where to find Ansel Goldwaith.

So he started to ask people around town.  

For the most part, his inquiries were regarded with unmistakeable suspicion. But then he stumbled upon bits of information: a country road, a large red house in a glade of oak trees, a big black dog behind a seven foot fence, a gravel driveway, and an empty garage in the back of the property. Unfortunately none of this gave him an idea where the house actually was. Until he met an elderly lady working in a tea shop, a lady named Elizabeth Dodsworth.

 

Elizabeth Dodsworth was quite the storyteller. She was a wrinkled but smiling woman in her late 70s who still ran her own shop in downtown Sonoma. People used words like “feisty” and “plucky” to describe her, descriptions Ms. Dodsworth herself resented. Ms. Dodsworth had been a widow for nearly twenty years, choosing not to remarry after what she called her life’s biggest mistake, also known as her ex-husband George who had left her for a gentleman lawyer. Ms. Dodsworth had been born and raised in Sonoma and knew everything about the comings and goings of her beloved town. Naturally she knew exactly where Ansel Goldwaith lived, and in fact had been a close friend of the family at one time.

“But that all ended when Mrs. Goldwaith died,” she frowned.  “An angel she was. The apple of Ansel’s eye.”
The problem was, Ms. Dodsworth liked to embellish her stories and trail off on multiple tangents well before getting to the point. “Never had kids,” she trailed off. “Not me. Not Ansel. Never saw the use in it, I guess. Ansel wanted only to focus his attentions of Deborah. And of course in my case, I married a man who didn’t know what to do with a woman.” Rick tried several times to politely interrupt her, but on and on she would go. As if no one had paid attention to her in years, which they probably had not.

“Truth be told,” Ms. Dodsworth continued. “Many years ago, back when we were in elementary, I had a raging crush on Ansel Goldwaith,” she smiled. “But then Deborah moved into town,” she said with a faraway look. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Can you tell me where he lives?” Rick finally blurted out when Ms. Dodsworth was in the midst of a pause.

“No I can’t,” Ms. Dodsworth said. “But I can take you there.”

So she closed the shop early, about 5 o’clock. She walked Rick to her car, a pristine ‘58 Impala, like no other car Rick had ever seen. She set the keys in the ignition but did not start the car.

“First you need to tell me what this about?” Ms. Odds worth said with a very serious look on her face.

Inside, Rick was panicking. He felt as if his stomach was going to turn inside out and spill itself all over the floor. His mind scrambled to think of a lie, but nothing came to him. All he could think of to say was the truth.

Rick told Ms. Dodsworth his story, everything.

A silence followed during which Rick had no idea what Ms. Dodsworth would say, or do. It was her turn to make a choice. Should she help this strange boy, or send him back home? Something told her that the right thing to do was the least practical, that both Ansel Goldwaith and Rick the runaway needed to meet each other. And, if anything, it was an excuse for her to stop by Ansel’s house to see if he was still okay. It had been much too long since anyone had checked in with him.

Without a word, Ms. Dodsworth started up the Impala which gave a loud puffing rumble. She drove the short distance from town to the Goldwaith house. Rick’s heart was pounding hard in his chest as they stopped in front of the unassuming home surrounded by an unremarkable fence. Ms. Dodsworth opened her door and met him on the gravel driveway. She ushered him forward without saying a word, watching him slowly shuffle toward the front door.

Nervously Rick gently rapped on the door. He glanced back at Ms. Dodsworth who was standing at the end of the drive with her arms folded and her brow crinkled.

Then the door slowly opened.

“Yes?” said a man with white hair and beard.

“Hello Ansel,” Ms. Dodsworth greeted. Ansel looked from Rick to her.

“Beth?” Ansel said with a puzzled frown.

“Seems this boy has come a long way to speak with you,” she said. “Why don’t you take him inside from some tea, or lemonade. Whatever you drink these days.” As she said it, she walked to her car and stepped inside to drive away.

“Um,” Ansel was more confused than ever. “Come in.” Rick reluctantly followed him into the house.

Ansel sat Rick down and brought him some lemonade. After a painfully awkward silence, a long conversation ensued during which Rick did most of the talking with Ansel peppering in a question here and there. Rick told his story for the third time that day. He even presented his ideas for Ansel’s next book, and talked about how important the books were to him. He ended by saying the he had come to escape his horrible life.

“Maybe I can live here,” Rick said almost absently. “I can help you with things. I know how to cook lasagna. I can mow the lawn and clean the bathroom. Maybe even fix some things…” Rick trailed off as he suddenly became aware of how ridiculous he sounded. “I can help you write your book!” he added desperately.

“Is my book that important to you?” Ansel asked with a tone of bewilderment.

“Yes! Yes it is!” Rick nodded. “It’s important to a lot of people.”

“I see,” Ansel simply said. He took the opportunity to pour Rick some more lemonade.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t stay here,” Ansel finally began. “I understand your situation, mine was not much better growing up, but you need to go back to your family.”

Rick responded by looking down at the floor.

“I know it’s hard to believe,” Ansel said softly. “But things will get better. Just keep reading books, and do your best in school.” Ansel stopped as he realized how stereotypical that sounded. “Find what you like to do,” he began again. “And be the best at it.”

“What about your book?” Rick said as he looked up at Ansel.

“I don’t know,” Ansel sighed. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Ansel let Rick stay the night. In the morning, he had Rick call his mother who was hysterical. Ansel bought Rick a ticket home and gave him a few signed copies of his own personal favorite books. There was an almost tense quiet as Ansel drove Rick to the airport.

When he dropped Rick off, Ansel said: “I’ll keep your ideas in mind okay? Some of them are actually pretty good.” Rick couldn’t help but smile. It was the biggest compliment anyone had ever given him.

“Take care of yourself,” Ansel said as he shook Rick’s hand. Then he drove out of Rick’s his life for good and all.

 

Years later, things were actually going pretty good for Rick. His mom finally divorced Steve, swearing off marriage and boyfriends for the time being. He was a senior in high school, an editor on the yearbook, with several short stories published in some of the local universities literary journals.

Rick had all but forgotten about Ansel Goldwaith when the next book in The Cycle of Light series came out. His mom surprised him with a copy as a graduation present.

“He wrote it!” Rick nearly screamed when he opened the wrapping.

Rick read the book in less than three days, and it was better than anything he had ever imagined. The main character escaped the gobloids with the book which took him on a quest to find a wise old wizard. In the exciting climax, it became clear the main character’s act of finding the wizard had been the only way to save the wizard’s life. Then Rick got to the author’s notes:

“I met a mystery young man today who showed me the path my life needed to take. For so long, I was beseeched with darkness. It was by his light that I was able to pick up the pen and write again. But more importantly, It was by his light that I was reintroduced to Beth. And now we are very happily together. She is the new love of my life. There is really no telling where wisdom and insight can come from.”

Rick closed the book with a satisfied smile. His own path was more clear than ever. Rick only hoped that he would write as well as Ansel Goldwaith.

Rose, a homeless story

“You’ll want this,” Elvin said as he pulled a pack of gum from his pocket and handed me a piece. I took it from him, unwrapped it and popped it into my mouth. A familiar sickly sweet minty taste flooded my senses.

“The smell can be overwhelming,” Elvin explained. “Mint gum helps block it a little bit, but you’re going to want to breath through your mouth and stand downwind as much as possible.”

It was my first day at a new job. I was a therapist on a homeless street outreach team. Our task was to find and connect with severely mentally people who lived on the streets. The team leader wanted to test my mettle, so he told the nurse Elvin to bringing me to meet Rose.

Elvin took one last drink from his water bottle, then opened his car door to step out. He waited for me to follow. It was hot on the street that day, somewhere near 95 degrees. My back began to sweat immediately as I walked with Elvin toward the street corner where an enclosed bus stop stood.

The odor hit me like a brick from fifty yards away. It was like nothing I’d ever smelled before, old sewage mixed with rot. Instinctively I sucked air through my mouth and covered my nose with my shirt. As we got closer, I could see piles of trash that looked as if they had been meticulously organized. There were mostly candy and chip wrappers, as well as bags of fast food and half empty soda bottles.

“Wait here,” Elvin stopped me about ten yards away. I was expecting this. The team leader told me that Rose was very suspicious, especially around men. Too many strangers made her nervous. Elvin was one of the people with whom she seemed to be developing trust. The plan was that he would introduce me to her, if she was willing.

The minutes passed slowly as I became conscious of breathing in and out of my mouth. Just one slip, and the pungent aroma would momentarily overcame everything to the point of nausea and confusion.

Eventually Elvin stuck his head out of the partition and waved me over with a grin. One thing about Elvin, he was very enthusiastic about his work. As I walked toward them, I saw through the tinted glass the silhouette of a large woman slumped over, half laying on the ground.

How to describe Rose in most respectful way possible? Maybe it would be best to start with her personality. She was very sweet and soft spoken. If you were willing to take the time to sit down and talk to her, she would regale you with amazing stories about the comings and goings of West Hollywood the place she had chosen as her home. She could be feisty, and wasn’t afraid to tell you when she felt like you were out of line. She called herself a street person and balked at the word “homeless”. In her mind, she was making a choice to live on the streets. She had lived on or near this corner for nearly thirty years and had no intention of leaving. But she was also extremely ill.

According to the team doctor, Rose was suffering from chronic and acute diabetes. She was grossly overweight with extreme high blood pressure, adding to the stress on her body. Her legs were swollen red with gaping sores weeping with infection. The fact that she spent days, weeks, even months at a time laying on hard concrete without moving literally sitting in her own filth exacerbated her condition. She was crawling with maggots, gnats, lice, and scabies. Undoubtedly she suffered from anemia and any number of other ailments associated with poor nutrition. Her life on the streets would surely be a death sentence.

When I finally met her, I was taken aback. The skin on her face and arms was a grey muddy brown presumably from many years of not washing. Her upper body was covered with similarly colored tattered and torn layers of old clothing. Her lower body was wrapped only in a blanket allowing her festering wounds to be exposed. Most remarkable of all was the long tangled braid of hair that trailed behind her, a four foot dreadlock as big around as my arm and hard like a board. She reached a hand toward me in greeting, to which Elvin responded by blocking the way trying to protect me from possible illness.

“It’s okay,” I said, and took her hand and held it for a few long moments. Her nails were long and gnarled, blackened by dirt. There were gold rings on every hand, more than one on some, and she had several large gold bracelets on her wrist. The story was that she had a large trust fund, but for whatever reason she had decided to live on the streets.

“You think you know me,” she said to me in a serious tone as she withdrew her hand. “But you don’t really know me.”

“No I don’t,” I agreed. “But I’d like to get to know you.”

“Why?” It was a good question. Why did I want to help her?

It was the first question the team leader asked at my interview: “Why do you want to work with the homeless?”

I told her the truth: “I have been marginalized in a thousand ways for being different because of crossed eye. And it’s given me a deep understanding of what it was to be judged by your appearance. The worse possible thing you could be in our society is homeless. No one is looked down upon more than the homeless, and that is why I would like to do whatever I can to help them.”

“Because you seem lonely,” I answered Rose’s question.

She invited me sit down with her, and we had a long talk about nothing in particular. By the end, she was smiling and laughing. She was disappointed when Elvin said it was time to go. And she asked me when I was coming back.

Pecker

woodpecker

Al moved back into his parents house shortly after his mother died, leaving him alone.  Al was an only child and his only remaining family were distant in blood, geography and heart. He was an unintentional loner, and now that he was retired he had hardly any friends to speak of. He never had children, and his wife left him behind many years ago.

The family home was a 100 year old Craftsman nestled in the country. Perhaps its most distinguishing feature was the siding which Al’s father had always proudly claimed was the original wood. Unfortunately it was overdue for a sanding and repaint, so that was the first thing Al planned to do.

No sooner did Al purchase supplies and pull out his ladder when he noticed a track of small holes along the southern side of the house. “Damn peckers,” he muttered angrily.  He counted the damaged boards. There were at least 25. He checked the rest of the house. Thankfully the other walls had been spared. But Al knew it was only a matter of time before the woodpecker would be back to ruin some more wood.

Al took an old shirt and some pants. He stuffed them with socks and used a flat basketball for the face. He watched from his screened porch as the offending woodpecker flittered into the oak tree in his backyard. It sized up the scarecrow standing close to its holes. It gave a loud twitter and then vanished into the woods.  “Stupid pecker,” Al chuckled, pleased with himself.

A few weeks later, Al woke up to an unmistakeable sound. Half asleep, he stumbled into the yard where he caught a flickering glimpse of black and white. The woodpecker chittered at him from the nearby oak tree. Several fresh holes were bored into the side of the house, the useless scarecrow smiling close by.

Al shouted “Shoo pecker, shoo!!” and waved his arms and ran at the bird in the tree sending it darting back into the woods. This became his tactic for the next few days, until he realized it was impossible to be ready at all times to chase the woodpecker away.

Exacerbated once more, Al went to the local hardware store where they recommended plastic owls.  He took a half dozen home and lined the eaves around the house with a small army of the stern looking statues. The effect lasted about a month, but woodpecker eventually returned to his drilling. Al was so shocked and surprised to hear it that he nearly tripped on his way out the door. The woodpecker bolted when Al appeared. Al’s eyes followed him as he landed on top of one of the nearest plastic owl’s head. It was the perfect vantage point for the bird to see the entire yard.

“Blasted pecker!” Al shook his fist. He now counted about 52 damaged boards. “Fucking pecker!”

The next day Al went into his father’s old gun closet. He picked out one of the shotguns.  He meticulously cleaned it with oil and a rag before loading two shells with a heavy click.  Al had reached a threshold that all of us walk at sometime in our lives, a place somewhere between madness and desperation where we are much more apt to perform uncharacteristic and reprehensible acts.  Even do things we might regret.

Al carried the shotgun onto the porch and spied the woodpecker creeping along the side of the house. It was brazen and unafraid, shifting its body to a fresh board and returning to its relentless hammering. He leveled the gun and aimed it toward the hapless woodpecker. His finger danced on the trigger as his teeth gnashed in his mouth. Then suddenly a light shone in his eyes causing him to blink and lower the gun. Al shielded his eyes with his hands and tried to see where the light was coming from.

Al caught a glimpse of a young boy in the window next door.  The boy was holding up a hand mirror and using the reflection of the sun to aim a beam of light into Al’s face.  When the boy realized Al saw him, he gave a startled expression and disappeared into the house. The boy’s face seemed so familiar.  He reminded Al of himself as young boy, when he use to live in this house with his mother and father. He loved to watched the birds in the yard. He would put up feeders. He even made a list of the ones he saw: bluebird, mockingbird, blue jay, robin, oriole, and his favorite… woodpecker. He would have done anything to protect those birds.

Al watched as the woodpecker found a new spot and began to pound away with its sharp beak.  He shook his head, rubbed his neck, took a deep breath, and muttered “God blessed pecker” before stepping back into the house.

The Brothers War

For as long as I can remember my brothers had a contentious relationship.  They both loved sports which simultaneously connected them as well as fueled their feuding.  As the one who was ambivalent about sports, I was often caught in the middle.

My brother Felix relished teasing my brother Allen, primarily because he was an easy target. Allen reacted, much to Felix’s amusement, by yelling and screaming and stamping his feet.  They created a game together that somehow combined the rules of soccer and baseball.  I remember watching them switch back and forth between feet and hands in a bid to score against each other. To this day, I have no idea how the game was played.

Being the larger one, Felix held the advantage in every way.  His win was inevitable, and so was Allen’s vocal response.  His tears of frustration caused Felix to jokingly call the game “Cry”.  The name stuck, and despite his continual losses Allen would continue play–always with the same outcome. I think he was just desperate for that connection, even if it meant the game ending badly.

The competitive ire between them only expanded as they got older. I remember playing intense  games of Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly with my brothers that built with a crescendo of fighting and climaxed with Allen clutching the game board in his hands and tossing it up toward the ceiling.

By high school, their relationship was strained to the limit.  It seems like not a day went by without some sort of argument or fighting.  Then one day, Allen had enough. Whatever it was that Felix said to him caused him to jump off of his place on the couch and smack him in the face.  Felix bounded for his seat, and suddenly they were facing each other with fists held high like boxers in the ring.  I remember shouting something like “Don’t! Stop!” but by then it was too late.  

Allen, who had gained a lot of height and muscle, swung hard as Felix dodged the blow. When he came back up, Allen clipped him in the chin with his other hand to which Felix responded with a hard blow to Allen’s cheek. Allen spun back kicking at Felix as he nearly fell.   Felix moved away giving Allen time to collect himself.  He dove into Felix. Felix wrapped his arms around his neck and tossed him over an end table, knocking down and shattering a lamp.  

And then it was over. They exchanged a few heated words through puffs for breath as Allen left the room.

If not the end of their battles, it would be their biggest fight.  Looking back, I was in awe at the time that they could actually do something like that to each other, baffled that my parents stayed quietly in their room when it all went down, and spooked by the memory of their balled up hands–adult hands intent on causing adult damage and pain.  
Then another memory flashes back of my own hand, the hand of a 10 year old jabbing a pencil into Allen’s knee.  The lead breaks off and sticks into his skin.  He screams, and I am jarred from whatever trance I was in.  I know I have done something terribly wrong.  I do what I can to fix it by removing the lead and cleaning the wound.  All the while, I am dreading the moment my father walks in the door.  It’s hard to think about this now, hard to imagine what drove me to such violence.  It’s even harder to accept that the truth is I was a part of the brothers war.