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.

Pablo

penguin

Mike found a penguin on the beach.  It wasn’t moving much and looked like it might be sick.  

“Don’t touch it,” a passerby insisted.  “It might have a disease.”

“All the more reason for me to check it out,” thought Mike.  “Maybe I can help it.”  So Mike gently lifted the penguin into a small sack and carried it home.  The penguin did not resist.

Mike started by giving the penguin a shower with the hose to wash off the sand.   He pulled open a can of sardines and offered one to the penguin, but the penguin just turned away.  

“Maybe you just need some rest,” Mike said.  Then he put an old pillow in a box and cut a hole in the front.  He carefully placed the penguin inside.  

“I’ll call you Pablo,” Mike said to the penguin as he turned out the light and got into his own bed.

*

The next day before dawn, Mike was awoken by a loud rolling honking sound.  He hopped out of bed with his heart pounding.  The penguin was standing nearby and staring up at him.  

“You want some fish?” Mike said, to which Pablo responded with a light growling noise.

Mike walked to the fridge and pulled out the can of sardines.  Pablo quickly

gobbled down every last bite, after which he fluffed his feathers as if in delight.

“You like that eh,” smiled Mike as he served himself his own breakfast of black toast and scrambled eggs.  

After cleaning up, Mike grabbed his watering can and opened the door to head for the garden.  Pablo shuffled after him, and as Mike did his chores around the yard Pablo stayed with him.  

Around lunchtime, Mike turned on the hose to give Pablo a shower.  “You’ve earned it buddy,” Mike said as Pablo shook the water from his feathers.

*

Several days went by this way with the two eating together and spending the day together in the garden.  Pablo seemed to be getting stronger every day and even begin to help out by snatching beetles and slugs away from the vegetables.  

Then, one day after Mike had a Reuben sandwich for lunch and Pablo gulped down a dozen peeled shrimp Mike looked at Pablo and said, “It’s time to take a walk to the beach.”  So off they went.

As the duo trundled down the street toward the beach, people could not help but stop and stare.  Mike’s annoying friend Benny happened by.  “What da hell is that?” He nearly screamed.

“This is Pablo,” Mike simply said.

“Well pleased to meetcha Pablo,” Benny laughed as he reached toward the penguin.  Pablo reared up, snatched Benny’s fingers into his beak, and shook them violently.

“Damn! That crazy bird’s got rabies!” Benny shouted as he lept back.

“Nah,” Mike shook his head.  “He’s just shy of strangers.”  To which Benny responded by marching off in a huff.

“You’re a good judge of character,” Mike winked at Pablo.  “Benny usually only comes around to borrow money or something.”

When they finally got to the ocean, Mike stood a long time just watching the waves flow in and out.  Pablo stood next to him preening his feathers with flicks of his beak.

“You can go if you want to,” Mike said without looking at Pablo.  There was a sadness in his voice.  Mike had forgotten how lonely he was until he met Pablo.  The thought of him leaving filled Mike with an empty feeling of dread.  

Pablo looked up at Mike and made a few soft squeaks.  Then he ambled slowly toward the water.  When he reached the edge of the surf, he cocked his head toward Mike as if inviting him to come along.

“You take care of yourself,” Mike called, as he wiped away a tear.  And just like that, Pablo was gone beneath the waves.

Mike went home to a lonely dinner of spaghetti and meat sauce.  He stowed the leftovers and cleaned everything before brushing his teeth.  Not knowing what to do with it, he stowed Pablo’s box under his bed.  His sleep was fitful, and when he finally did sleep he dreamed he was in the ocean swimming side by side with Pablo.

*

A few days later, Mike was pulling up weeds from the garden.  He was thinking about what to make for dinner when he heard Benny’s voice in the distance.  

“Hey Buddy!” Benny cried as he pranced into the yard.  “Gotta a favor to ask ya.”  Mike cringed at those familiar words.  He stood to greet his so called friend with a handshake.

“I just need a hundred bucks,” Benny grinned.  “You know I’m good for it.”  But of course Mike knew Benny was definitely not good for it.  

Mike was reaching for his wallet with a frown when the unexpected happened.  There was a popping boom like a note from angry trumpet player.  The sound made Benny jump as Pablo bolted out of nowhere with his wing outstretched.

“Get that thing away from me!” Benny squealed as he ran for the gate.

“Great to see you,” Mike smiled as Pablo rubbed his leg gently.  He reached down to stroke Pablo feathers.  Pablo made a rumbling purr in his throat.  

“I have some filet of sole for you,” Mike said excitedly.  One of your favorites as I remember.”  And together the duo made their way toward the kitchen.  

These Hands 

These hands, they labor, toiling day after day in the blazing hot sun.  They are hard and callous, impenetrable to pain.  They fight when they need to with a punch like steel.  They keep the peace by laying strongly to the side.  They are wisdom, holding the knowledge of all these things and more.  But most of all, when they hold those most dear in their tender embrace they are love. 

Scenes from a Trip to Rite Aid

Rite-aid

1.

Smiley Guy sits out front and greets everyone who passes by:  “Help the homeless!  We got tons of hungry mouths to feed!”  When someone slips him a dollar, it’s an open invitation.  As the person drops the bill in the box, Smiley Guy says with a grin, “Five dollars will feed a hungry family for a week.  If you don’t got change, we take credit cards too!”

Inside Smiley Guy gets more and more angry as people saunter on by without even a glance, ignore his charming please.  Smiley Guy was homeless once himself, so he knows the desperation that hunger brings.  Sometimes he imagines spitting in the faces of the people who walk away, or tripping them till they fall to the ground, kicking them in the ribs, punching them in the face till they bleed.

Instead he swallows his pride and moves on.  “Isn’t worth it,” he mumbles to himself.  And quickly remembers that that kind of shit lead to the streets.  And ain’t no way in hell Smiley Guy’s going back to the streets.

2.

“ATTENTION RITE AID SHOPPERS!” the Twitchy Man booms into the mic.  “IT’S FLU SEASON AGAIN, AND YOU DON’T WANT TO BE CAUGHT UNPROTECTED!  SO GET YOURSELF OVER TO THE PHARMACY COUNTER TODAY TO GET YOUR VACCINATION!  ONLY 39.95 AND YOU’LL BE CAUGHT PREPARE!  SO DON’T BE CAUGHT UNAWARES!”

The Twitchy Man shuffles over to the ice cream counter, quickly washes his hands, and pops a paper hat onto his head.  “WHAT CAN I DO FOR YOU TODAY!” he says much to loudly.

“THAT’S A DOUBLE SCOOP OF BIRTHDAY CAKE ON A CAKE CONE!” he shouts before digging into the brightly speckled ice cream.

“THAT’S A SINGLE SCOOP OF ROCKY ROAD, AND A SINGLE SCOOP OF PECAN PRALINE IN A CUP!” he hollers, causing the Manager to walk over to have another talk with him.

The Manager explains to Twitchy Man how the loudness of his voice disturbs the customers.  For the umpteenth time, the Manager implores him to tone it down.  The Manager wonders how he can get rid of the Twitchy Man who has more complaints than any other employee.  But he can’t.  The Twitchy Man is autistic, and he can’t really help his behavior.  The Manager walks away thinking how he never really wanted to manage a Rite Aid in the first place.

3.

The Big Burly Dude with the mop of messy hair holds his seven year old in one hand and a fifth of vodka in the other.  He keeps twisting his body around with the movements of his kid.  It’s obvious he doesn’t want his kid to see the bottle.  As if children do not know.

The Kid clutches at toys on the shelves near the register.  “Put um back,” the Burly Dude grumbles.  The Kid grabs bags of chips with sounds of delight.  “Leave em alone,” the Burly Dude growls.

The Kid pulls Burly Dude toward a rainbow display of candy bars.  “Ooooh!!!” he coos.

“Don’t touch!!! Burly Dude commands yanking the Kid away as he plunks his bottle down on the counter in front of the wide-eyed cashier.

So so close to sweet relief.

4.

The automatic doors fly open with a rolling crunch as a Frantic Lady bolts toward the nearest cashier.

“Are you the manager?” she stutters, out of breath.

The cashier shakes his head and calls the Manager over.

“Can I help-” the Manager tries to say before he is interrupted by the Frantic Lady.

“There’s a silver Escalade out there,” she says in a shaky whisper.  “And all the winds are up.  And there is a dog trapped inside.”

There is an awkward pause while she waits for the Manager to respond.

“It’s against the law,” she says much louder.  Then ducks down a little and looks around.  “I don’t want the drive to see me.  Last time I did this, the driver got really mad at me.”

“I’ll handle it,” the Manager says with with a half-smile and a slightly exasperated sigh.

The Manager picks up the mic and breathes before pressing the button:  “Will the owner of a silver Escalade please come to the front of the store.”

Then to the Manager’s chagrin but not his surprise, the Frantic Lady shuffles down an aisle and disappears before anyone can actually come to the front of the store.

5.

The Young Cashier is having a really hard time at the register.  Barcodes are not working for her when she tries to scan them.  And when she goes to type the number codes in, she gets a number or two wrong which brings up an entirely different product.  Bacardi Dark instead of dark chocolate Snickers.  Jujubes instead of a multi-colored umbrella.  Ham in a can instead of People Magazine.  The more she gets it wrong, the more flustered she gets-then the more she gets it wrong.

The Manager rolls his eyes as comes over to find out why her register is emitting a prolong beeeeep!  “All you have to do,” he explains slowly as he take a bag of Doritos out of her hand and holds it up of her to see.  “Is look at the numbers, and type them in.”  He taps a few numbers.  Doritos Kool Ranch appears on the screen.  He steps back to let her take care of the next item, M&Ms.

The Young Cashier slowly pecks each number onto her keyboard.  Her hands are shaking as she double checks each number, even changing a 5 to a 2.  She tentatively presses enter.

Icy Hot Gel.

6.

The Obnoxious Lady on the phone is talking at full volume.

“And then she said some bullshit like-”  She is completely uncensored, using words like “fuck”, “shit”, “sonofabitch”, “asshole”.  Children around her alternate between expressions of outrage and fascination.  Adults around her stand frozen like proverbial deer caught in proverbial headlights.

They start by trying to give her mean looks.  Totally engrossed in her conversation with her hands flailing through the air, Obnoxious Lady does not even notice them.

A man clears his throat loudly and even stamps his foot a little.  The Obnoxious Lady laugh at the person on the other end and shouts:  “You a crazy motherfucker!”

“Unbelievable,” another lady shakes her head in disbelief.  Again, to no avail.

Even at the register, the Obnoxious Lady continues her profane diatribe.  She pays for her items without even acknowledging the baffled cashier.  She clutches her bad and rushes out the door.  But not without one finally hoorah!

“That stupid ass cock sucking bastard is crazy than you!!!”

7.

An Elderly Man looks very lost, and in fact he is.  He has suddenly forgotten where he is.  He realizes he is in some sort of super market, but he cannot remember why he came here.  He stands at the crossroads between two aisle, blocking the passage of other customers who huff loudly as they squeeze past him.  He hears a voice yelling over the mic.  A man yelling at kid.  A lady yelling at her phone.  Everyone is yelling and yelling.

The Elderly Man picks a few things off the shelf, things he is not even sure he needs.  A box of Cheerios.  Some Pringles.  A bottle of Windex.  He doesn’t want to leave empty handed.  It would be embarrassing if anyone know how confused he was.  How lost he was.

So he buys the items he is not sure he needs, and walks out the door.  But then he cannot seem to remember what his car looks like.