Showing posts with label pets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label pets. Show all posts

18 February 2020

All Dogs BETTER Go to Heaven


When I started writing this I thought I’d make it funny. But for the most part that didn’t happen. I guess I’m just not feeling too funny right now.
Pepper and me

We recently had to put our dog Pepper to sleep. It was hard and, unfortunately, not the first time we’ve lost an animal and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Many writers have dog or cat companions. Ours is a lonely life sometimes and it’s good to have other beating hearts around. I’m pretty good being alone and very disciplined about getting work done. But when my wife is gone it’s nice to have animal companions around. Over the years we’ve had various combinations of dogs and cats. Most recently Pepper and Buster, who is still with us.

Pepper was great company, got along with all our other animals. And, of course, loved to walk. And if I wasn’t on the ball she’d nudge my elbow saying, “Hey, bud, it’s time to go for our walk.” And we would.

She was old for a big dog, 14½, and she had a good life. When she came into our house at around 8 weeks old we had another dog, Audie, who immediately fell for her. We also had two cats, Curley and Moe (I wonder who they were named after). The cats had grown up with dogs. They were feral when we brought them home as tiny little black balls of fur. We had a dog at the time, Bogey, a Rottweiler. And my wife, Amy, was afraid to let the cats and Bogey be together. But on that first day, I insisted that we put them on the bed and let Bogey sniff them out. Not only did she do that, she cleaned them up and they became fast friends. Then, when we brought Audie into the house as a puppy, the cats took to him like ducks to water. And Moe, the female, especially loved him and loved playing with his tail. Which he tolerated…barely.
Pepper at the creek
When Bogey died, we waited a while and then got Pepper as a pound puppy only a few weeks old. We brought her home in a cat carrier—that’s how small she was. Audie sniffed around but decided she was okay and they became the best of friends. She even brought out a maturity in him that we hadn’t known was there as Bogey was always the alpha dog with him. It reminded me of the scene in Bambi, if I remember correctly, where Bambi’s father tells him he has to grow up after his mom is killed. Bambi did—and Audie did to take care of Pepper.

Audie (left), Pepper (right)
But the cats, Curley and Moe, were scared of this new Pepper creature in the house. Pepper was having none of that. She insisted that they be friends. She drove them nuts, in a friendly-playing way, until they decided if you can’t beat her and can’t hide from her you might as well join her. And she and Curley, the male cat, became great friends. I think they bonded over tearing our family room couch apart. We’d come out of the bedroom in the morning, before Pepper had the run of the house, and it would be like it snowed in there there’d be so much couch stuffing all over the place.

Pepper and Curley

When we lost Audie, Pepper was pretty depressed. But shortly afterwards we got Buster. He was three years old or so when we got him from the German Shepherd Rescue and we—and they—think he was abused before they got him. Pepper accepted him into her house no problem. And they became friends, if not as good friends as she and Audie had been. Curley and Moe were curious, but both died before they could really bond with him. And now he’s all we have left, though we’ll probably get another dog and maybe more cats in the future.

Pepper (left), Buster (right)
She was a particularly wonderful dog in every way. Of all our dogs I explored more with her than with any other dog. We walked up into the forest and down by the creek. She was curious and fun and playful. And when we got surrounded by a pack of feral dogs, which was a pretty scary situation, she was cool and calm. She didn’t seem scared and she didn’t act aggressively. We just stood there until the dogs started peeling off one by one. Then we began to head home. Some of the dogs followed, but they also peeled off until the only one left was the alpha. He followed us almost to our house, but he, too, eventually peeled off. I’m glad to say no blood was shed on either side that day, and I think a good part of the reason for that was Pepper’s demeanor, calm and steady. On other occasions we came across coyotes, and let me tell you the feral dogs were much scarier than the coyotes, who never bothered us at all.
On the road again...
Pepper, whose full name is Sgt. Pepper (I’ll let you figure out what that’s an homage to), was a warm and wonderful and welcoming dog. She just wanted to be friends with everyone. She was good for inspiration and a terrific writing buddy.

Pepper (front - after an operation), Buster (behind) and me
When Pepper or some of our previous animals have gotten sick or injured some people would say to put them down and just get another. But we don’t see it that way. We don’t see our dogs and cats as interchangeable cogs. They’re very much individuals with distinct personalities, and very much part of the family. And you can’t just replace one when the parts start to wear out.

And some people say that the only reason they like us is because we feed them. I read an article once where a woman argued that and it made me crazy. Yes, they like to be fed—don’t we all. But they, just like us, want more than that. They want companionship and security. And, imo, what they really want is what most of us what: to love and be loved.

But the point I’m leading up to here is the title of this piece: Pepper, and all our other critters, better be up there in heaven waiting for us—this of course assumes there is a heaven, but I think that’s a question for another time. Because if all dogs and cats don’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go there either.
My girl
And my idea of heaven, not that I’m in a hurry to check it out, is a comfortable place, with Jacopo’s pizza on their best day flowing freely, abalone and other goodies—cause I think in the other place all you get are C rats. And, of course, Amy and I and all our critters would be there. But then I start to wonder: what the hell (oops, maybe not the best word to use in this context…) do you do up there for all of eternity? Would you get bored? Would you have TV? And if you do would you get Turner Classics on a big screen? And would the History Channel or whatever it’s called these days still be running endless reruns of Forged in Fire (or maybe that only plays down below—hope so as it seems appropriate). Or the other “history” channel running endless reruns of black and white Nazis. Hmm… And would the Beatles be creating any new songs? Now that would be heaven!

Or is it gonna be like Meat Loaf’s* Paradise by the Dashboard Light, where I’m prayin’ for the end of time… Let’s hope not.



~.~.~


And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


***
Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

01 April 2019

Cats and Writing


I've had a few weeks to adjust to Daylight Savings Time now. I like driving to and maybe even home from an open mic with some light in the sky. At my age and with cataract surgery several years behind me, night vision isn't one of my strengths. And getting up in the morning isn't an issue because our bedroom isn't on the sunny side of our condo.

Besides, the time on the clock isn't an issue. We arrange our lives around our cat.

Ernie came to us as a rescue nearly ten years ago, along with his adopted sister Jewel. Ernie was just over a year old--he'll be eleven in April--and Jewel was seven months older. They were a bonded couple and amused each other--and us--constantly with their telepathy. Unfortunately, as often happens, they both had health issues. Jewel died about sixteen months ago and Ernie, who had been with her since he was eight weeks old, was even more devastated than we were. He's a Maine coon, which means he pretty resilient, but he needed about a month to reinvent his bearings. Fortunately, he's also creative and social.

Now, even more than before, Ernie decides when it's time to get up. During the night, he'll knock my alarm clock off my nightstand because it's redundant, and he walks across me and chirps when he wants attention. He doesn't need that clock or sunlight to know when it's time for breakfast because his stomach is more accurate than the Naval Observatory. At 6:45, he tells me he's hungry, even though it's not true.
He munches on prescription dry food all night so the dish is practically empty when I go downstairs. I'll refill it and put out prescription canned food (He has stage two kidney disease, which he's held at bay for two years now), but he won't come downstairs until my wife does so he can help her read the newspaper. Since he's a guy, he prefers the sports section, but he'll settle for the comics.

 After that, he wants me at my desk writing.

That's not negotiable. An hour later, he wants me to run a cup of water for him in the bathroom. Yes, he has a fountain downstairs, but now's not the time for that. He wants me at my desk for between 60 and 90 minutes, then he want either me or Barb to lie on the bed so he can cuddle for about 15 minutes. It recharges both of us.

In the afternoon, if I'm typing, he'll try to crawl into my lap between 1:50 and 2:10 because that's snack time. No argument. He may not have even been downstairs all morning, but now we put out dry food. He wants his non-prescription canned food (Which contains the cleverly-crushed blood pressure pill) at 4:30, but we try to stall until 5:00.

After that feeding, we get by without further guidance or supervision. He'll hang out in the office if one of us is at the computer, or he may come down to join us if we're watching TV (He doesn't get the point of women's basketball at all), but the evening is basically our own.

The plus side of this, besides having a very affectionate cat who likes to take care of us, is that we've learned to work in increments of 75 to 90 minute and then take a short break to replenish the energy. Granted, if I'm in the middle of a scene, I don't want to stop, but he's trained me to keep thinking about what I'm writing while he walks across me, and sometimes that few extra minutes gives me time to think of that snappy comeback that you always think of after losing the argument. If I'm not going to the health club or an open mic or shopping that day, I can do five or six 60-to-90 minute stretches of writing. Getting out of the chair to move helps my less than pristine back, too.

When Barb is rehearsing lines for a play (She averages about five productions a year), he's willing to sit and listen to her. He never gives her direction, but if she can't hold his interest, he'll curl up, tuck his tail over his nose, and go to sleep. Tough critics, cats.

But they train us well.

I know O'Neil has a cat or cats, and I think other writers on this blog have dogs, cats, or both. How many of them help you write?











30 October 2017

Odds and Ends


Jan Grape As usual on Sunday morning, afternoon and evening, I'm wracking (or is it racking or wrecking?) my brain for something cogent to write for my blog article. All you other Sleuthsayers, who have two or three articles already scheduled and two or three emergency articles online, are just too good for me. I envy you all. 

As I reject one thought after another it occurred to me that maybe I've just written all that my brain file cabinet holds. If it's true that each of us only have so many cells in our bodies before we die then perhaps my brain only has so many words, I've just used them all up already.

So I decided I'd share the odds and ends of thoughts that came to me today. None of which could possibly be a full length article. 

First I thought about cats and dogs. You can kill off any number of people in a book but heaven help you if you kill a dog or a cat. We are all a bit crazy about our pets. Some folks are total dog people. Others are total cat people. And a huge percent are equally in love with both canines and felines. Personally, I love both dogs and cats although I haven't had a dog is over twenty years. It's just easier for me to have  cats that I don't have to walk. I know it's good exercise but I don't live in a neighborhood with level ground or sidewalks. 

Another thought was reading about how several years ago when the color pink - especially the sickly pink of Pepto-Bismol made men feel weakened. Could this calm prisoners down? A couple of commanding Naval officers at a correctional facility in Seattle painted the holding cells a pink color. The name became Baker/Miller Pink, named after the commanding officers. For five months it did seem to work. 

Soon prisons, visiting teams locker rooms and even housing projects all over the country turned up pink. Did it really work?  Probably not. Maybe people just got ill from the color or decided they didn't like it but it soon disappeared. Have any of you ever used color as a calming effect on your bad guy in your book?

Another idea.  Marriages; is having an affair better than getting a divorce? There are divided thoughts on this from psychologist and psychiatrists. We mystery writers think murder is the quickest solution except the perpetrator must be caught. We all know you just can't GET AWAY with MURDER. 

Of course, you  get away with murder if you come up with a perfect murder plot in your book. I think a few writers have but then along comes, Agatha Christie, or Jack Reacher or Sam Spade who solves the crime.

Please let me know if y'all have any thoughts on these odd subjects. And my apologies to Time magazine for any ideas from their pages.

Happy Spooky Day






17 July 2017

Cats and Gats


by Steve Liskow   

Last Friday, my wife Barbara and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
For 31 of those years, we've had from one to three cats, and knowing that Ernie and Jewel will probably be our last pets is disconcerting, especially since both are developing health issues at a much younger age than we expected. Jewel has been on steroids (forfeiting her football scholarship) for nearly two years to fight her asthma (yes, cats get asthma!) and she's beginning to exhibit some of the side effects that the drug can cause.

Ernie has developed stage two kidney disease. So far, he loves his diet food--he has always eaten like a teen-aged boy--and is responding well to the blood pressure meds he takes because of the kidney problem. But both cats are only nine years old, and they've been together almost from Ernie's birth.

Barb and I met at a theater audition not long after I'd adopted a cat from someone who couldn't keep her. Many of out theater friends pointed out that cats fend for themselves more easily than dogs--which we both grew up with--if their servants have a schedule that involves late rehearsals or travel.

Cats are better teachers, too. They can demonstrate everything an actor needs to know about concentration, and they help me with my writing now because they give me a sense of proportion. Dogs may pretend they like a chapter because they want you to feed them. Cats don't care. If you don't feed them, they'll go out and kill something...or tear up the couch and stare at you so you understand it was your own damn fault.

A character in Jodi Picoult's House Rules claims that all cats have Asperger's syndrome, and it may be true. If you have a cat, you know it's always about them. Cats are narcissists at heart, and that fits well with some of the great villains in literature: Moriarty, Goldfinger, Hannibal Lector, or Edmund in King Lear. When cats stalk their prey, they model a focus that can be truly frightening, but the also convey a calculation that works with either villains or sleuths.

Cats can help you depict character quickly in other ways, too. What does it show you if a person doesn't like animals--or, better yet, if animals don't like him? Fran Rizer's Callie Parrish has a Great Dane. Robert Crais gave Elvis Cole a feral cat. He's just called "Cat," which says it all, doesn't it? Linda Barnes's PI Carlotta Carlyle has a cat, too. Megan Traine, the female protagonist of my Chris "Woody" Guthrie novels, has two cats. She named the tuxedo with double paws Clydesdale (usually "Clyde"), and calls his calico sister Bonnie.

Remember the Disney film That Darn Cat (I know I'm dating myself here)? Dean Jones's character was allergic to cats, and it helped deepen his character. Clint Eastwood played a New Orleans detective with two children in 1984's Tightrope, and a crucial scene shows the family dog stuffed into a clothes drier. What does that tell us about the bad guy? Don't worry, he gets what's coming to him.

Many publishers and contests stipulate that an animal can't be killed or tortured in the story, and that just shows ho much most of us value pets. Watch the memes and petitions on Facebook if someone mistreats an animal. Some of my neighbors complain when a rabbit or raccoon gets into their garden, but sometimes I think I'd rather have a raccoon, rabbit, skunk, fox or coyote living across the street instead. We wouldn't talk politics and they take care of their space.

10 April 2017

Do Pets Enhance Your Stories?


I live in a small town, that in reality could just be called a community. Except we have a City Hall, a City Council, a volunteer fire department  and a Police Department. We now have four sit-down restaurants, a marina, a Subway sandwich shop and a Sports Bar and Grill, where you can order great hamburgers or Wings and there is a sit-down dining area if that's your thing. We have an auto-motive shop,a gas station, a Hill Country Community Playhouse for live theater productions and a Dollar General Store. Just a mile from my house is Lake Marble Falls, which was formed by damming off the Lower Colorado River. And part of the chain of seven Highland Lakes in the Texas Hill Country. So we have a mixed community, high-end houses with a lake views or lakefront properties and a small section of single-wide or double wide trailers.

 Most of the area where I'm located is what I would call a middle class neighborhood. We also have a fairly large number of vacant lots which are wooded and because of that and the proximity to the lake we have a large population of deer. It's not unusual to walk out of my house in the afternoon or evening and find six or eight deer grazing on the lawn or even bedded down for the night in my yard. I enjoy seeing the deer. Especially this time of year when the does have produced babies and I get to see little fawns as they learn to use their little legs to hurry across the street and get out of the way of cars or trucks. The speed limit is 35 MPH but you know how that goes. Everyone seems to be in a hurry and sometimes they hit a deer.

My love of nature and watching the animals and the fact that my feline companion, Nora just turned twenty years old on March 30th, got me to thinking about animals in our stories and books. How many people have pets in their books? Not a specific Cat or Dog series just your main character's personal pet. I think it adds an extra dimension to the characterization. I love both cats and dogs but have have more cats myself for the past twenty-two years. Had a wonderful little dog up until a couple of years before I got Nick and Nora. Nick was with me for 17.5 years and Nora still is with me They were eight weeks old when they came to live with me and my husband.I laughingly tell people she's been with me longer than any of my kids, because the kids went off to college or got married.

For a number of years I wrote short stories for many of the Cat Crime books, And there were different fictionalized cats in each story. Some of their names were, Willie, Snowflake, Sam Spade and Domino. Snowflake was a black kitten with a white star-shaped design on the top of her head that looked like a snowflake had landed there. Domino was a white kitten with two black dots on her face above her eyes that looked like the dots on a domino. Willie and Spade were just cats that sorta helped the story along, Don't remember if I described them too much.

Then I wrote a story about White House Pet Detectives and discovered that Abe Lincoln had a cat named Tabby and they had goats and several other animals. I wrote a story with Tabby. I also visited the White House Pet Museum in Virginia. I was in the area for a mystery con and it seemed like I should definitely make a visit so I went.

Nick and Nora appeared in a story in an anthology titled Midnight Louie's Pet Detectives, edited by Carole Nelson Douglas's Midnight Louie. Nick and Nora were still little tykes who could type...well, Nora was able to read and write and type but she had not learn how to make capital letters. They both told the story and since they were black cats and lived in Texas where Midnight Louis lived they claimed a kinship to "Uncle Louie."  But they also claimed to have experienced a bit of detective training from Uncle Louie and used that knowledge to solve a case. Don't know if that was cat telepathy or Paws Express mail service.

In my first Zoe Barrow, police woman book, she had a couple of cats, named Melody and Lyric. Those were the cat names of two cats that at one time belonged to my daughter. They did nothing to help with the mystery, just gave Zoe a couple of pets to mention as animals to round her character out a bit. Characters can talk to the pets about the case, using them as a sounding board. Or they are useful to show how the writer can slow the action just before building up an scene of tension or unwinding after a scene of tension.

Cats and dogs both can be very accurate in their reactions to people. More so than the character themselves at times.  Animals often sense the good or bad or fear in people. They also can feel the true feelings of liking or love for them. That can be very useful to the character in certain situations.
I have a feeling that birds or fish or horses or alligators or snakes help to show a character's demeanor or even to help readers like or dislike a character.

Do any of you use pets at all and what do you think about it for your writing?  

24 July 2016

Albert 3: Gator on Vacation


Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo © Walt Kelly
Two weeks ago we told how Albert the Alligator came to live with a family in an Indiana farmhouse. Last week, we related his successes upon the stage and in public appearances. But, like many celebrities, Albert needed time away from his adoring fans.

Albert Takes a Vacation

Anyone could tell a teenage Albert was the product of a university environment. Each summer he’d clamor for the 5Bs: beach, babes, bikinis, beer and bratwurst. After intense negotiations, Dad compromised by giving him outdoor baths that the gator loved— hosed down then scrubbed belly and back with a stiff-bristled brush.

One day, Dad became distracted by a phone call. Never before had Albert shown any inclination to do a Kerouac, but when Dad returned, Albert was gone. Vanished. Poof. Without a trace.

My parents searched the yard, then the barnyard. The farm dogs, who hadn’t been trained to track overgrown reptiles, stood around looking bewildered and chatting among themselves. Like many teens, Albert failed to call home. My parents worried that if he returned, his little dinosaur arms weren’t long enough to reach the doorbell.

As evening approached, my parents had to admit the gator was decidedly missing.

The sheriff was known as a gossip, but my mother put aside her qualms and phoned his office, begging for discretion. Her concerns were this: An alligator in the house made them feel safe. See, knowledge that Mom and Dad kept a cold-blooded carnivore might have given a typical burglar or home invader pause. My parents felt his absence, both as a pet and as a guard dog.

Did I mention the sheriff wasn't known for discretion? Within two minutes, the sheriff issued an all-points bulletin, a BOLO:
Be on the lookout for a scaly renegade who answers to the name of Albert. Height between five and fifteen feet. Dark green, yellow eyes. Charming smile, big toothy grin. Known associates, the Lundin family and childhood friends. Subject is known to wear alligator shoes. Suspect is considered armed to the teeth and dangerous.
And as you might suspect, neighboring counties circulated the bulletin. Local newspapers picked up the story. A farmer in Hancock County called his sheriff to report an alligator had killed his sheep. A Shelby County rancher claimed a huge varmint– most probably a loose gator– had killed cattle and attacked his dogs. Word got out amongst door-to-door salesmen that pedlars known for wearing alligator belts and shoes had inexplicably disappeared without a trace. Talk started circulating about bringing in a professional tracker and hired gunslingers.

At that time, Albert was 40-inches long (a metre for you Pokémon Go participants) but about the diameter of the average cat, assuming either creature could be bribed to stand still long enough to apply a tape measure. Even by hitchhiking, Albert would have been hard-pressed to roam a dozen miles into Shelby County and another ten to Hancock.

Initially we fretted some hunter might shoot our Albert, but as the weeks dragged by, we guessed Albert had gone to ground. As autumn settled in, we grew concerned about winter, knowing Albert couldn’t survive a Midwestern freeze.

Our farm supported a small grove of fruit trees near the house. Sometimes Dad mowed the orchard and sometimes he didn’t. He’d neglected it that season but near the end of summer, he fired up the mower and attacked the tall grass between the trees.

Dad stopped the mower to pick up a thick branch and– you’re way ahead of me– it wasn’t a tree limb at all but Albert himself nestled deep in the high grass. The critter had dozed the entire summer no more than fifty feet from the house.

All parties celebrated the return of the prodigal son. Dad hugged the rascal and Mom cried. Albert croaked happily and asked about dinner. With Albert over 18, we broke out the champagne.

To be accurate, some ranchers still believed he stole a Dodge pickup truck to gallivant around in a tri-county crime spree slaughtering livestock, then sharing his ill-gotten ribs and roasts with hobos down by the railroad tracks. If so, nobody was talking.

Albert the Mighty Dragon

The years passed. Kids moved out and moved on, and Albert stopped appearing in public. He gave up saloons and dance halls and even church picnics. Worse, Dad, his best pal, became terminally ill, slowly dying of a rare lung disease. Albert spent hours listening to an old song popular when he first came to live in the house.
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys.
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
Winter came once again. Albert’s best friend, our dad, faded fast, succumbing to a rare, incurable cousin of tuberculosis.
One grey night it happened, his best friend came no more.
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
The now-grown children had long since dispersed, the rooms echoed emptily. Mom soldiered on, caring for the household. Albert felt bereft.
His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain,
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane.
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave,
So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.
That’s how he died. An old bedroom led off the living room, a cold, unheated chamber my parents used for storage since my departure. Mom had gone to and fro, fetching odds-and-ends with the door propped open. Unbeknownst to Mom, Albert crawled under the bed. He was still there when she closed the door.

As a blizzard blanketed the region with snow, it took Mother a day or so to realize Albert had disappeared. Initially she wasn’t too worried… He occasionally hid behind the sofa when my father wasn’t around. He’d come out when he was hungry.

Except this time he didn’t.

In an echo of his first winter on the farm, Albert froze, only this time there would be no recovery, no artificial respiration, no heat lamps or restorative massages. Albert had joined his ancestors in that big bayou in the sky, that place where the days are always balmy and June bugs a’plenty await.

17 July 2016

Albert 2: A Gator's Grand Adventures


Pogo and Albert
Pogo and Albert
Last week, I introduced Albert, the family pet alligator. People often ask if he ever bit anyone– just my youngest brother and he deserved it. It’s not nice for strangers (which my brother was then) to tease a baby dinosaur, especially constructed of armor and weaponry. Initially we treated his jaws and tail– part whip, part club– with respect, but gradually Albert grew used to us. He actually liked to cuddle with the alpha male of the house, but more on that in a minute.

Reptiles can go days, even weeks without eating, but when hungry, it’s not wise to stand between them and the drive-thru window. He wanted burgers and beer, but hamburger is too fatty and no one under 18 was allowed beer. On professional advice, we fed him ground horse meat supplemented with baby mice we occasionally discovered in the barns. His favorite treat was June bugs, which he ate like popcorn. We discovered he also liked cheese cubes, which we offered sparingly.

Dad obtained an industrial-strength plastic pan that he set behind the living room stove with an inch or so of water. The gator liked the living room. He’d doze in the sun behind my mother’s chair and, when he wanted food or to dump, he’d visit the pan. He became, you might say, litter box trained.

Albert Wins a Speech Competition

My freshman year of high school, I took part in a state speech competition. The contest was judged upon the number and variety of talks before local groups and television and radio.

I was a young mad scientist and I thought some topics were pretty boring, so I incorporated a robot I’d built into presentations. After the arrival of the alligator and, considering his surprisingly good behavior, I brought Albert along.

As it turned out, Albert won the boy’s division pretty much on his own. I went along for the ride, but I didn’t complain– lots of cute girls came up to visit with him and his brave, brave homie sidekick.

Albert Stars in a Play

Occasionally Albert visited school. During Show-and-Tell, he’d sit on the desk, one leg crossed over the other, and discuss logic and rhetoric. He won over faculty and students with smooth manners and sonnet readings.

Then came time for the school play. It was a dramatic comedy set in a spooky mansion. Miss Buchanan, recognizing fine talent when she saw it, invited Albert to star in the production and gave him credit in the school playbill. Because of Actors Equity rules, he didn’t get his share of lines but he garnered the longest laughs of any of us as he stalked my dramatic classmate Karen around the stage. Quite the applause hog he was.

Albert Adopts a Father Figure

Our reptilian lodger developed an attachment for my father. No, not the teeth-in-the-ankle kind of attachment, but a genuine liking. In his tiny brain, he adored my dad. Hey, I hear your eyeballs rolling from here, but Albert enjoyed being around my father.

When Dad came into the living room to read, Albert noticed. Once Dad settled on the sofa or in the easy chair, Albert crawled over to Dad and rested his chin on the toe of Dad’s shoe.

Dad ignored him.

He’d slide his chin up Dad’s ankle.

Dad ignored him.

Then up his shin until he rested his muzzle on Dad’s knee.

Dad paid no attention.

Albert would keep sliding up until he pressed his nose against Dad’s book or magazine. Finally he pushed so far up, Dad could no longer read. He would haul Albert onto his lap, roll him over and scratch his stomach, which was what the alligator wanted all along.

Albert and the Salesmen

My parents taught the alligator to come to their whistle. Really, truly. If Lauren Bacall wanted Albert, she could just put her lips together and blow. And Albert would arrive.

My mother posted a placard on the door that said ‘Beware of Alligator.’ From time to time a door-to-door salesman would arrive and remark how hilarious that was.

“Ha-ha, very droll,” they’d say. Okay, salesmen never said droll, but we hoped one might.

“Really?” said Mom. “You think that’s comical? Do I have to call the gator to get the message across?”

“Sure, sure, lady. That’s funny stuff. Listen, I’m here to tell you about new Amazo-Perq, the fabulous, fashionable, tasty tonic, scalp treatment, all-purpose cleaner, and gardening aid that comes with a free necktie and Fuller brush if you purchase tod— Jesus! What the hell’s that!”

“Mr salesman? Oh, Mr salesman! Yoo-hoo! You dropped your sample case. Mr salesman, come back.”

Next week: Albert Takes a Vacation

10 July 2016

Albert 1: Granny and the Gator


Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo © Walt Kelly
Those who frequented the Alfred Hitchcock / Ellery Queen original forum might remember an appearance of Albert the Alligator, a family pet for 25 years. Recently friends asked about Albert and, since the Dell Forum is no longer available, I’ll recount the life and times of the riparian reptile.

A farmhouse is headquarters of a working farm and its kitchen is its nerve center.  A farm’s kitchen serves as boardroom, family conference center, planning office, homework study hall, lab, small parts repair shop, hospital, and oh yes, cookery, cannery, bakery, and breakfast room.

For my family, our farm’s ‘new’ house was built during the Civil War,– not the structure before that or the original log cabin built by my mother’s distant ancestors. Antique houses don’t have central heat, which meant two things: (1) the main kitchen (as opposed to a scullery or summer kitchen) provided the main source of heat during winter, and (2) peripheral rooms might or might not have stoves. Bedrooms weren’t heated at all. You’re a wuss if you haven’t slept where hot-water bottles freeze overnight.

Granny and the Gator

My sophomore year of high school, a local college student brought home an alligator from his university lab. It was a little less than two feet long. After showing it off during his autumn break, he realized his mother wasn’t going to give it pet treats or, for that matter, treat it to small pets. The student didn’t know what to do with it. I volunteered to take it off his hands.

I rose early, met him and picked up the gator. Carefully. Anything that isn’t armored on an alligator is a weapon… teeth, tail, and talons. I drove back humming to myself. The gator, tossed in the trunk like a common mafioso, was not amused.

Back at the ranch, I pulled into the farmyard and opened the trunk. One of the barn cats sauntered up… you know that saying about curiosity and the cat. I deposited the alligator on the ground and learned– along with a surprised feline– an important factoid about certain reptiles. When their elbows are bent, they drag along slowly, but when they straighten those legs and rise off the ground, they can run.

As the rubber met the road, the cat levitated off the ground, its wheels spinning like a cartoon character. It screamed something about “holey sheet” and took off like it had a rocket in its bum. The gator, in an immense show of self-satisfaction, buffed his nails and said, “That’s all you got? This joint maybe got a beer?”

I escorted him indoors. The bathroom was the only place that could at present accommodate him. I ran an inch or two of water for him to soak in.

Instead of appreciation, he complained. “You station me next to a toilet? Where people do their business? Oh please, gouge out my eyes now.”

My father typically slept only two hours; my mother could sleep ten or twelve. Unfortunately, I inherited her sleep genes. When she got up later that morning, I gave her a word of warning as she blindly stumbled toward the bathroom.

“Mom, er, there’s something in the bathtub.”

“What, an alligator?” I swear, she actually said that and to this day I can’t imagine how she guessed.

Thing is, I knew my mom pretty well. She and my father accepted the latest addition to the household. (You can’t imagine the range of creatures over the years.) Dad named the beast Albert after the friend of the cartoon character Pogo. The Indianapolis Zoo shared dietary information with us. Hamburger contained too much fat, so they recommended ground horse-meat. I insist that any missing ponies were not the fault of my dark-green-and-yellow friend.

Things went swimmingly until my grandmother arrived for her seasonal Christmas visit. She feared only two things, God and reptiles and possibly not in that order. We hadn’t yet figured out hotel accommodations for Albert, so he continued to doze in the bathtub between baths.

Granny sat in the living room, endlessly crossing her legs until she’d finally ask, “Will one of you boys pleeeease remove that… that creature out of the bathroom so I can go?”

“Aw, granny. It can jump only three feet.”

But we loved our granny so while she was untangling her mistreated bowels, Albert grew used to the living room. Poor granny didn’t get her share of baths. The idea of her tender parts sharing the same tub as a hardened, cold-blooded beast didn’t sit right with her.

Just before New Year’s, disaster struck.

My dad woke me about six; he’d risen a couple of hours earlier. He said, “Son, I’ve got bad news. A power glitch last night caused the stoves to go out and the alligator froze. I pulled him out of the ice and have been thawing him, but I’m afraid he’s gone.”

He’d ignited the burners and, to speed warming the kitchen, he’d turned on the kitchen's gas range. Albert lay lifeless on a tray, a trace of water drooling from his mouth. Rural folks test for signs of life by touching an animal’s eyeball. Albert never flinched.

I picked him up awkwardly, kind of upside-down. As I did so, a trickle of water dribbled from his muzzle. I squeezed his abdomen and again water seeped out. Compressing his chest like a pump, more water drained. Suddenly, his little abdomen moved once on its own.

Dad and I stared… 10 seconds, 20… 30… then a faint tremor. I squeezed again and once more. Slow and laborious, the billowing of his lungs took agonizing ages. We waited on edge, not sure if the next breath would come, but he began to breathe on his own, one or two ragged breaths a minute, then three, then four.

But Albert was clearly not conscious. We hoped his primitive medulla and the severe cold might save him, but brain damage was not only possible, but highly likely.

Other household members rose and made their way to the kitchen wrapped in blankets and robes. Granny was conflicted. She didn’t like the idea of living in a house with a cold-blooded carnivore, but she also felt badly because her grandchildren’s pet lingered on the verge of death.

During that day, Mom marvelled that Grandmother sat holding a heat lamp over the comatose critter. By evening, it began showing further signs of life and its eyes flickered open. Like many birds, some reptiles have two eyelids, a protective outer one and a transparent lid. Within a couple of days, Albert was ambulatory and Granny went back to tucking her feet up in her chair.

Next week: Scratch my tummy… Oh yes, right there

27 June 2016

Who Is At Fault?


A judge ruled this week that the six dogs that mauled and killed a woman near Austin, TX this past week will be euthanized.

A thirty-six year old woman was attempting to serve Court papers, on June 15th, at a northern Travis County home when she was attacked by six dogs. The attack resulted in her death.

The woman's family and the dog's owners were present at the hearing.

She didn't deserve to die and these dogs don't have a license to kill, the Judge said in making his ruling.

The Travis County medical examiner's office ruled that the dog's mauling caused the woman's death.

After the judge made his ruling the dog's chief owner said he would appeal the ruling.

No mercy was shown to our daughter so how can we show any mercy to these animals, the woman's parents said in a statement. She was innocent, doing her job. These dogs do not deserve to live. To euthanize them will be a small justice. Also it may prevent them from harming another person.

The dog's owner said his uncle and his wife were chief caretakers for the dogs and claims they are the victims. If she had heeded the warning signs that say, "NO Trespassing." This wouldn't have happened. The caretaker uncle is who found the woman's body.

Texas law states it doesn't matter whether or not a person has a right to be on a property in fatal dog maulings.

Four of the dogs are Labrador mixes and two are Australian cattle mixes. They range from two to six years old.

No word on when the dogs will be euthanized.

This was all taken from the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, Saturday, June 25, 2016

Maybe I'm strange but, personally I'm upset with the dog's owners and caretakers. Maybe they should be the ones euthanized. Somehow these owners trained or a least let the dogs understand that anyone who came on the property were to be attacked. I don't think dogs want or even think about harming a human. I suppose we'll never know if the dog owners's actually commanded the animals to "get" the woman.

I'm assuming this case isn't over and probably won't be for some time. I know other state's have laws that hold owners responsible for dog biting, mauling or killing a person. And unless I'm mistaken Texas law is that you must have your dog in your house on inside your fenced yard. The law also states you cannot have or keep your dog chained up.

I'm interested in knowing how my fellow sleuthsayers feel about this so please comment.

01 March 2016

Leap Dog on a Leap Day


The dog ate my homework. It's a well known expression, supposedly used by children because it's so easy. No worries if you didn't do the assignment. Blame it on the dog.

Alas, this week, I really am blaming it on the dog. I have no words of wisdom about writing for you today. No editorial insights. I'm stressed because I have a project I expected to finish today (Leap Day, as I write this post) and I'm behind schedule because of ... you guessed it ... the dog.

Pay attention to me now!
This is my dog, Jingle. He's probably part beagle and part dachshund. He's one hundred percent escape artist.

I have a large backyard for him to run in. He loves it. It backs up to woods filled with foxes, deer, squirrels, and other enemies that he loves to chase. The yard is surrounded by a split-rail fence covered with wire built into the ground. The fence is probably around five feet tall. Jingle is probably one foot tall. Yet he escapes the yard repeatedly.

I've seen him walking the perimeter, pushing at the wire, looking for weak spots he can exploit. He must have once crawled under the gate, because when a neighbor found him, his front paws were covered in dirt. And lately, he has figured out how to jump on an old stump, jump on the top of the fence like an acrobat on a high wire (I kid you not--I saw him standing on a rail with my own eyes), and jump to the other side.

Making himself taller
When he creates weak spots, I get them fixed or blocked. When he crawled under the gate, I had it lowered so he couldn't fit through the hole again. When he started using the stump as a springboard, I had a friend bring over a thick, tall, and heavy tree slab to sit on the stump, assuming the stump's new height with the slab would deter Jingle.

Nope. Somehow my twenty-five-pound dog pushed the slab off the stump and has continued his wily ways.

Panting after too much running
In fact, coincidentally, as I was writing this blog, Jingle ran away. I looked up and saw him in the woods behind the house. I stopped writing the prior paragraph, ran outside, called for him repeatedly, saw him run across the cul de sac toward a neighbor's house, got in my car, drove around calling for him, and finally found him running into a neighbor's garage. If this were a novel I was editing, I'd tell my client to cut the coincidence--no one would believe the dog escaped the yard while you were writing about him escaping the yard. But as we all know, truth can be stranger than fiction.

This little incident took twenty minutes of my time, and I've had many of them over the last few months. So that is why I'm behind schedule on my client work and didn't have time to come up with any writing wisdom for you today. But if there was any day for Jingle to leap over the fence, it was today, Leap Day. So that kind of makes it okay, right?
It's a good thing he's so cute.

I hope your Leap Day yesterday was less eventful than mine. And if you have any dog escape stories you'd like to share, please do. We can commiserate together.

BREAKING NEWS: A little Tuesday morning addition: Congratulations to my fellow SleuthSayers for being named finalists this morning for the Derringer Award given out by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In the Long Story category, John Floyd, Robert Lopresti, and former SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin all have nominated stories. John is also a finalist in the Novelette category--a twofer. Very cool. I'm so happy for you all. And, I'm happy to add, I'm a finalist in the Flash category for my story "The Wrong Girl" from the anthology Flash and Bang. This is my first Derringer Award nomination, and I'm thrilled.

15 June 2014

Reptilian Florida


Albert and Pogo
Albert and Pogo
A couple of incidences have caused me to connect again with my first published story, ‘Swamped’.

For one thing, I caught an alligator. Over my dock spreads a marvelous shade tree. I enjoy meals there watching the animals and the birds– herons, anhingas (snake birds), ducks and egrets. An amazing delegation of white pelicans visited, first combing the lake in a straight line and then moving into the canal, tightly bunched, fishing as a coordinated group. Not long ago, a fish eagle, an osprey plunged into the water a few feet from me, carrying off a bream for lunch.

I flip scraps to the fish, especially the minnows, although bigger fish and turtles pull themselves up to the table. Recently, an uninvited visitor began showing up whenever I stepped out on the dock.

It was an alligator, a juvenile a little less than four feet long. A couple of people suggested my neighbor was feeding gators and others said teens flipped them food near the bridge. Someone obviously was feeding the beast because it not only showed no fear, it arrived with a dinner napkin.

Floridians are instructed never to feed gators because they come to associate people with food. An alligator fifteen inches long might seem cute, but when it’s fifteen feet and hungry, that’s another matter. Pets and people have been killed by gators that lost their instinctive fear of humans. Unchallenged backyard gators could cause bigger problems later.

The alligator continued to visit and aggressively shouldered aside turtles to get close to the pier. On Mother’s Day, I carried lunch out to the dock and there he lounged, serviette tucked under his chin ready to celebrate.

East meets West

Setting down my tray, I picked up a rope. I lassoed the guy and pulled him out of the water despite unpleasant protests and naughty words about my ancestry.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure of handling alligators, one has to be careful of both ends– the powerful jaws are only half the story. The tail is armored muscle, part whip, part club. In or out of the water, a twist of the tail can roll a gator faster than a person can move. The claws can be nasty too, so one has to act with certainty.

A guy who should have known better.

With the help of the lasso, I grabbed him behind the shoulders, letting him thrash his tail until he tired. Opening a large trash can, I lowered Fuzzy inside. I poured in a couple of litres of water so he wouldn’t dehydrate and phoned Wildlife Services.

Albert
Pausing for a moment, readers of the Dell Magazine Forum may remember my saga with my pet reptile, Albert. When I was a teen, I brought home an alligator and it lived in our living room for twenty-five years. Named after a character in Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip, he was a good pet and loved my dad. Albert proved particularly beneficial keeping salesmen away from the door. Over the years, he appeared in ads and our high school play. I hasten to add this was up north and not in Florida.
Actually, I called Animal Control first, the cat and dog people. They said, “You got a what? Really? On purpose? What’s it’s name?”

“Fuzzy,” I said. Apparently their forms have a slot that require a pet’s name.

“Really? How big is he?” she said. “Does he bite? We don’t handle alligators. You’ve got to call Wildlife Services.”

So I phoned Wildlife Services. To my surprise, they sent an earnest, very competent officer on Mother’s Day to pick up Fuzzy. He taped Fuzzy’s mouth shut, which muffled the cursing. He seated Fuzzy in the back of his truck. I like to think Fuzzy is basking in the sun in a secluded marsh with lots of girlie gators to flirt with.

And then… and then about a week later, TWO of Fuzzy’s siblings showed up for breakfast. I’d like to say they wore fedoras and shoulder holsters, but they were about the same size as Fuzzy, a little over a metre long. I spotted a five-footer cruising the middle of the canal although it ignored the local hospitality. He could have been smoking a ‘see-gar’ like Pogo’s Albert. I’m certain I’m in an alligator reality show.

Other Reptiles

If you think Fuzzy might have been a scary creature…

Transcript
Judge: If I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Stop pissing me off! Just sit down! I’ll take care of it. I don’t need your help. Sit… down!
P.D. : I’m the public defender, I have the right to be here and I have a right to stand and represent my clients.
Judge: Sit down. If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.
P.D. : Let’s go right now.[In corridor, judge sucker-punches PD; scuffle]
Judge: You wanna ƒ with me? Do ya?
When I wrote the story ‘Swamped’, I worried readers might not think the mad judge was realistic. He was based on an actual Orange County judge whose bizarre behavior made the news. The incidences of citing people in a diner for contempt and ordering a cop who stopped the judge for DUI to appear before him in court truly happened. Throughout, the powers that be seemed powerless to stop him.

Although that situation proved weirder than most, other judges have slipped the rails including one who harangued jurors and threatened them with jail. Often other judges will set matters right after the fact, but it shouldn’t have to be that way. With a state as punitive as Florida, who wants to take chances?

Now another central Florida judge has lost it, swearing at and slugging a lawyer. I hear some of you applauding the judge for pummeling the lawyer, doing what most of us want to do at one time or another, but remember virtually all judges are lawyers. Anyone other than a judge would be arrested for punching and verbally abusing any citizen. But in Florida, at least, judges act as if they're immune from such mundane concerns, merely cajoled to seek treatment for 'anger management'. Ironically, the defendant was in court for assault charges.

I doubt the applause in the courtroom will get defendants very far.

A judge who should have known better.

Reporting from Florida…

Pogo and Albert

13 May 2014

Animal Attraction


Shortly before Christmas our dog died.  Silke, our ancient corgi, was just shy of her seventeenth birthday.  Robin and I were heartbroken at the loss of this venerable and uncompromising herder of Deans.  We had all come a long way since the kids discovered her in a pet store in Virginia.  Naturally, we had not gone to the great commonwealth in order to get a dog, but to check out a college for Bridgid.  She did not select the school, but she and her little brother did select a wee doggie that was too young to have been properly weaned from her mother.  As it turned out her mam had been killed by a car. 
I said no.  The kids pleaded and promised good behavior for all their natural lives (they lied).  Robin interceded on their behalf.  The dog was purchased for a whopping thirty dollars American, and the die was cast.

This is what a corgi looks like
For the next four months, Silke (so named because her fur was...yes, silky to the touch) made not a sound--not a whine, whimper, bark, or growl.  Nothing.  I was convinced that she was mute.  Then one day as Julian was roughhousing with her on the floor, she emitted a tiny squeak of a bark.  We were all thunderstruck.  It might have been the roar of a mighty lion!  She looked as surprised as we. 

She never shut up after that.  Her vocabulary of barks, whines, snorts, moans, sighs, and even sneezes of impatience, were never-ending.  Having found her voice she became a full-throated participant in all things Dean.  Intensely opinionated, critical of innovation, and ever the protector of the status quo as she saw it, she set about keeping order within our family through both rigorous physical and mental efforts.  She despised a closed door and was intolerant of privacy in general.  She never tired of testing our rules while ruthlessly enforcing her own.  Anyone exhibiting uninhibited behavior was subjected to her racing around them in ever-tightening circles while being barked at incessantly.  I suppose this worked on cattle back in Wales.  She had no love of spontaneity.  Affection expressed with restraint and a proper sense of decorum was allowed and even encouraged--especially if that affection was directed at her.  All others need get a room. 

She never met another dog, cat, squirrel, or rabbit, that she liked.  She was completely indifferent to birds, however; even the large flock of turkeys that swept through our yard from time to time.  Didn't care.  It was like they didn't exist.

She also hated cars.  Not those passing by, but any vehicle someone might want her to get into.  No, thank you very much.  If she couldn't get there by walking she didn't want to go.  The only places a car took a corgi was to the vet's or the kennel--both bad places.  She didn't like veterinarians or kennel owners. They were added to the list.

In spite of all this, she was just what the doctor ordered for our little family.  She had arrived at just that moment when we needed her most--that juncture of adolescent angst and turmoil that rocks families and sows discord.  We had two teenagers and couldn't stop bickering,fighting, and challenging one another on every issue known to man, and some that passed human understanding altogether.  Silke would have none of it.

Either by crawling beneath the coffee table and peering out fearfully, thereby shaming us, or by interjecting her thick body between the warring parties, and reminding us to keep our distance, she did her part.  If all that failed, she would simply console the person most visibly upset and lay across their lap like an old-fashioned car rug.  Even during some of our stormiest times, we always found common ground in Silke.  Her antics, behavior, health, and happiness were subjects that we could all agree on and discuss civilly at the dinner table.  She was our family touchstone.

After the children went away to college and their adult lives, Silke became "our" dog--mine and Robin's.  She still went berserk when the kids came home, totally throwing us over for them, but as I grew grey, so did she.  More and more, she was content to be where I was, and go where I went around the house and yard.  I found she crept into a number of my stories; her character full-blown and ready to go.  In "Spooky" a dog tries to warn her master of something evil coming.  In "Whistle" a corgi goes missing, and when her mistress goes in search of her she finds the same fate.  "Little Things" features a corgi that helps fulfill her master's paranoid imaginings.

Silke is now buried in our back yard, watched over by a small statute of the Virgin Mary.  I'm not sure that's theologically correct, but that's the way it is.  What follows is a St. Francis Day joke that captures how I feel and provides some comfort: 

A priest was asked by an elderly widow, "Father, can my dog be with me in heaven?" 
After thinking it over for a moment, he asked in turn, "Would you be happy there without her?"  When the old woman shook her head emphatically, he added, "Then she'll be there." 

I hope so...I really do.



      



 

              

30 August 2012

My Favorite Characters, Part I


Since I live in a small town and write about a small town, there are some people who claim that they recognize every character as a local.  They're wrong.  Most of my characters - and I assume most of yours, dear readers, as well - are a mixture of people I've met, people I know, people I've seen, people I've read about, people I've invented, and, of course, myself.  Some characters grow on me more than others.  Some I use more than others.  And some I like more than others.


Martha Jane Stark, better known in Laskin, South Dakota, as Matt Stark, is a sixty-something woman with a bad past. The first line I ever wrote about her was that "when she was 16, she ran off with the lion tamer from the circus, and he finally met his match."  The first story I ever wrote with her in it, she had just returned to retire in Laskin, after about a 20 year absence, and got into a huge fight with a former lover.  Since at the time of their affair she'd been in her 40s and he'd been in his late teens, now that she was in her 60s and he was in his 30s, he really didn't want to be reminded of the old days when they couldn't get enough of each other in the back booth of the Norseman's Bar.  Things happened.  I haven't sold that story yet, and I am beginning to suspect that it isn't that good - time to take it out for a rewrite, perhaps.  I figure the world must be ready for a hard living, hard drinking, unrepentant, bad-tempered woman in her 60's:  Think Bogart with sagging breasts...



Today, Matt still drinks, still smokes, still gambles (a bit), but has given up men.  Instead, she sticks with dogs, who she admits she likes better than people.  She is mostly honest, and she is loyal.  She drives her brother Harold - a dyspeptic accountant - absolutely nuts, but then he plays life very safe.  For very good reasons.  He is an accountant, and years ago, their father robbed the Laskin bank, and his mother turned into the town hermit.  Harold's been trying to live down his whole family for years.



My source material for Matt is two-fold.  Calamity Jane (whose name was Martha Jane Canary) is a definite inspiration, but even more than that colorful woman is my Aunt Katt, who never married, loved dogs, and lived wild.  Aunt Katt was the one who, while living in Chicago, woke up late one night to find someone either had killed or was killing her dogs.  Whichever it was, she got up and, dressed only in her nightgown and a hatchet, went out to find the dog-slayer and have vengeance.  I'm not sure what the outcome was, but in our family the story always ended with "and everyone got out of her way."

Matt Stark is one of my favorite characters, because she is who she is.  She is my truth teller:

Matt about the victim in "Death of a Good Man":  "He was the type that leaves everything behind.  Walks away clean.  Or so he thinks."  And of one of the victim's lovers, "Maria can't believe a man loves her unless he sleeps with her."

Matt on two juvenile delinquents she tends for a while in "School Days":  “They’re okay.  They kept stealing stuff at first, but I nailed them on it.  Now they know they can have toilet paper for the asking, they can eat anything I got, and I turn a blind eye when they snitch a smoke.  Anything else, there’s hell to pay.”

Matt when Carl Jacobsen shoots Jack Olson in self-defense in "Rights":  “Look, a lot of people think you got to take sides.  Cause if Carl made a mistake, then Jack’s dead for nothing, and that just pisses everybody off.  And if Carl’s wrong, that messes with being able to defend yourself.  So Jack must’ve done something, because otherwise Carl wouldn’t have shot him, so Jack’s a son of a bitch, and all’s well with the world.” 


I use her sparingly, but I always enjoy it when she shows up, usually having a red beer at the Norseman's Bar, playing euchre at Mellette's, or walking her last remaining dog, Whisper, down the street.  She will do something outrageous, and then she'll say what no one else will.  And order another beer.  And light another cigarette.  And walk her dog.  As long as I'm writing her, she'll never change. 

07 June 2012

The Asparagus Bed


I've had out of town guests the last week and a half.   New composition was out of the question.  So, for your reading enjoyment (I hope), a story of mine that was published in "Green Prints", a gardening magazine, in August of 2002.  Also, historically, the first appearance of Officer Grant Tripp...


     By the end of May, Mary Olson’s future asparagus bed was five feet wide by eight feet long and getting deeper every day.  It looked, we all agreed, just like a grave, and the only question was what to bury in it.  Most of us put her husband at the top of the list, but not Mary.
     “Not on your life!” Mary cried.  “I plan to be eating from this patch for twenty years, and that means I’ve got to lay down enough fertilizer to feed it all that time.  Now you tell me, would you want to be eating off of Ed for twenty years?”  You couldn’t argue with that.
     Nobody had ever seen Mary work so hard.  She’d come home from working at the water treatment plant at four, and head straight for the back yard.  Felix, her cat, was right behind her as always, silent and stiff-legged. He was eighteen years old and he followed her like a dog.  She’d pet him a bit, set her beer can on top of the fence post, pick up the shovel, and have at it.
     She dug it all by hand.  The shovel was way too tall for her, but she wouldn’t use the short kind because they threw her back out.  She wore big heavy work boots and tied her head up in a bandanna to keep the mosquitoes out of her ears.  Her hair, linen yellow and tightly permed, poofed up over the bandanna just like a poodle’s.  From the neck up she looked like Rosie the Riveter; from the neck down like Roseanne.

     You never saw anyone dig so carefully.  She kept the sides straight as a ruler, sifted the dirt clean of trash, and clipped the roots away instead of hacking them with the shovel.  The cleaned dirt went into a big pile by the hole, the roots and trash into a paper sack.  She took her time, and since Ed always lingered down at Mellette’s Lounge, she had plenty of it.  Two hours and two beers, with Felix curled up in his favorite spot under the lilacs, watching her sweating hard, creating the ultimate in cat boxes.  Well, don’t you think that’s what he thought about it?
     God knows what Ed thought about it.  Maybe he didn’t.  As long as he had his dinner hot and ready whenever he floated on home, he didn’t care.  Mary said his favorite meal was frozen fish filets, microwaved to perfection, so the menu wasn’t hard to plan.  She bought them by the case, along with boxed macaroni and cheese dinners and canned green beans, and that’s about what they lived on, because Ed wouldn’t eat anything else and neither would Mary.
     Which is why I wondered about the bed.  I mean, if Mary had finally developed a yen for fresh asparagus, all she had to do was go out and hunt it in ditches like the rest of us.  Instead, there she was, every afternoon except rain and Sundays, digging away.  Oh, well.  Actually, it turned into quite a tourist attraction.  Everyone dropped by sooner or later.  Mary would stand back and sip her beer while Felix hid and we all looked and nodded and wondered, by the time it was a foot and a half deep, if it wasn’t deep enough.
     “I’ve got to go down another foot or so,” Mary said.  “That’s what double digging’s all about.  Then I can work in a couple of good thick layers of manure covered with dirt, and then I can lay out my roots.”  We all nodded like we’d just finished doing the same ourselves.  “I want it to last my lifetime at least, so I’ve got to do it right the first time.”  And we all nodded again like it was gospel.
     She dug the bed two feet deep.  She dug the bed three feet deep, and the kids started asking if she was digging to China.  She dug the bed four feet deep and we started worrying a little, especially when Ed went off to the VFW one night and never came back.  No one even remembered seeing him arrive.  After he was missing three days, Mary called the police and Grant Tripp came out and talked with her while she worked the bed.  They talked about the weather, Ed’s gambling, asparagus, Ed’s drinking, Mary’s cousin (Grant’s wife’s brother-in-law), Ed’s gambling, the weather, and Ed’s drinking.  It was only after Grant got back in his car that he realized Mary had been filling the asparagus bed in instead of digging it out.
    Things got a bit strange after that.  Folks started giving Mary funny looks everywhere she went, like they were trying to gauge if she was big enough to lug a dead man around, and she certainly looked like she was.  After a while she quit going out much, except to get groceries and beer, and when she did she jerked and snapped and glared at you when you spoke to her.  She was way too sensitive about everything, I thought.  I mean, it wasn’t our fault we couldn’t quit thinking about that hole in her back yard.  
     That’s why it was a real psychological relief when Judge Dunn okayed the warrant to search Mary’s house and property.  Grant was there the next day, with two officers, two workers from Hegdahl’s Construction, and a back hoe.  The officers went inside while the back hoe went to work outside.  Mary stood by her back steps and watched them with a face like granite.  And her face collapsed like a mud slide when they dug up Felix.
     We’d all been so worried about Ed that no one had noticed that Felix hadn’t been around for a while, either.  He was so old he must have just died in his sleep, and Mary had buried him in the back yard, the way most of us do, in his favorite spot.
     Well, everyone felt awful, looking at poor Felix, lying in the middle of all that mess.  Mary’s back yard looked like someone had taken an egg beater and whipped dirt everywhere.  It was piled two feet deep in the lilacs alone.  Grant and the back hoe boys offered to help clean it up, but Mary said she thought the cure would be worse than the disease, so everyone went home and left her to it.  It wasn’t until after dinner that it finally dawned on people that Felix’s favorite spot was under the lilacs, not in the bed.  The back hoe was back out at Mary’s the next day.
     This time Mary didn’t come out, and I can’t say I blame her.  I mean, she knew what was out there, and she knew they’d find it, even if they had to tear those lilacs apart.  But Mary hadn’t had time to dig under those tough, tall lilacs.  She’d dug beside them, and the backhoe didn’t have far to go before Ed’s body was found. 
     Mary went to jail, and her sister sold the house to the Corsons, a farm couple from Canova.  They’ve lived there for ten years now, and every year, that asparagus bed comes up thick and lush and mouth-watering.  Not that anybody picks any of it.  I mean, we all know Ed wasn’t under there that long, or that near, but as Mrs. Corson says, you can’t be too careful. 
But I’ll tell you what, Mary knew what she was talking about.  You do your asparagus bed right the first time, double-dug and heavy on the fertilizer, and it’ll last a lifetime.  

THE END


NOTE:  The inspiration for this story was that I dug an asparagus bed in my back yard, by hand.  I have no living resemblance to Rosie the Riverter or Rosanne (yet), but other than that, it's fairly accurate, down to the beloved cat watching me dig the world's largest litter box.  Many, many people came by and watched me dig, because around here most people get their asparagus wild, from ditches.  Many people, beginning with my husband, commented how the bed looked remarkably like a grave.  Many people suggested that my husband watch out.  My husband is still on the right side of the soil, but the asparagus bed did not make it - a winter from hell killed almost everything, including my lush, thick asparagus bed...  It almost broke our hearts.  Back to the ditches...