Faces False and True

Iroquois False Face Mask

The lab smelled of dirt and plaster. It reminded Dr. Jacqueline Bird of the houses around the Akwesasne Reservation her father would help renovate on weekends to help pay for her education.

Jacquie smiled at the memory of her dad coming to the door covered in plaster dust save for his hands and eye sockets when she’d arrive with his lunch and a beer. Later, she’d spot the empties tossed in the haul-away dumpster. Their brown glass cast an amber glow onto the broken wall lath within, like browned ribs of the long-dead man arrayed before her on her work table.

“Daydreaming, Dr. Bird?” Jacquie’s boss Dr. Raoul Dumont said as he popped up behind her in the archeology/anthropology department lab in Syracuse. Her reverie disappeared like a puff of white dust from the protective plaster covering she blew off the remains of this soldier. She’d unearthed them herself from the dig site on the western shore of Lake George.

“Not exactly, Dr. Dumont. And I wish you wouldn’t jump up behind me like that while I’m cleaning and examining these remains. This man suffered enough without me further torturing his bones,” Jacquie said as she removed her safety glasses and appeared as the dusty echo of her father.

Dumont moved closer to Jacquie and reached out to move his finger down the page of her notes. As he did so, his hand once again brushed against Jacquie’s. His head floated just behind her right ear.

“So you believe this subject was scalped, Dr. Bird? You yourself have said that even postmortem head wounds can leave behind signs of hemorrhaging in the cranial etching. I do not see any signs of such hemorrhaging here. What proof do you have he experienced such torture? Couldn’t these just as easily be postmortem predation caused by scavenging…,” he paused and breathed “animals?” into Jacquie’s ear.

Jacquie recalled a conversation with her bachelor’s school friend Edie Blaine in the instant the hairs on her neck assumed an upright and locked positions.

Edie, a professor of anthropology at Dumont’s previous university, had warned her of Dumont’s reputation for harassing female students and colleagues alike.

“He gets away with so much because of his connections in the World Archeological Conference and the Society for American Archeology,” Edie told her. “Plus his uncle’s a ranking member of the Senate Education Committee. Connections and direct access to the money tree make him a tough little bastard to cut off for any university. Yours has more shine, so he jumped at the chance for more professional prestige and fresh sweater meat.”

“My report will prove my theory, Dr. Dumont. But let me show you how I believe my subject suffered at the hands of people may have been some of my ancestors,” Jacquie said.

Sliding from her stool, Jacquie looked Dumont in the eyes as she held a pointed probe in one hand and a scalpel in the other.

“I believe the man was a French Marine or Canadian like your forebears, sent down to stir up distrust among the Mohawk and English settlers on the southern end of the lake. I’ve seen wounds like this before and read documentation of their sources,” she said.

“And what, pray tell, was that, Dr. Bird?” Dumont said with an amused grin.

“In the documented case, the raiders kidnapped, raped or killed both white and native girls. My Mohawk ancestors captured one of them. As you know, theirs was a matriarchy of sorts and such crimes were often handled by the women of the clan. In this case,” Jacquie jabbed at Dumont’s crotch with her probe, “repeatedly piercing his pelvis with sewing needles, before removing his genitals. Very effective deterrent, don’t you think?”

Dumont recoiled from the probe poking at his crotch.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“They let him bleed out, hung from a rack like a deer. Before he expired, though, they removed the scalp from his exsanguinated skull, sewing it to his crotch, like a merkin. Hence, more pelvic scratches. Total demasculinization. Like to see the method they used?” Jacquie said, putting down her probe and reaching for Dumont’s toupee with scalpel still in hand.

“No! Thank you, Dr, Bird. I’ll leave you to your work,” Dumont said, looking like he’d seen a ghost. He scurried from the lab with his hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Jacquie returned to her work with a small smile. She saw the reflection of her dust-covered face on her blank computer screen and wiped the plaster from her cheeks.

“Have to call Daddy later to tell him how Granny’s stories of her grannies’ grannies’ grannies cut off another white dick today like they did in the old days,” Jacquie said to herself. Then she blew more dust off the bones of another man who didn’t recognize who he was dealing with.

Wanted to write up a quick flash piece for my friend Dan Mader’s weekly 2 Minutes. Go! flash fiction feature on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Wanted to keep it under 4,000 characters, but some first drafts just take on lives of their own. Not exactly sure where this came from, maybe a subconscious mashup of the current news and my penchant for frontier New York history. It’ll do in a pinch for a writer in the depressed doldrums.

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A Honeymoon in May

“Oh, Eddie, I’ve wanted to take this trip since I saw her at the Hudson-Fulton Celebration six years ago,” Agnes Voorhees Smithfield said as she held up one her dresses before placing it in the steamer trunk.

“Aggie, you were thirteen years old then. A girl from Albany would be thrilled with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry at that age,” her new husband Edward replied. “Now you finish packing, or should I say re-packing. My art school friend Bill Glackens is holding us a corner over at his favorite table d’hôtes in the Village for some real Italian food.”

“Oh, Eddie, a husband, a honeymoon, a bohemian night in New York City, a cruise to London. I just might be the luckiest girl in the world, or at least Pine Hills,” Agnes said. She put her dress into the trunk and walked over to kiss her husband, who had been sketching her all the while they spoke.

“You just might be, Aggie. But I’m pretty lucky, myself. I mean it’s not uncommon for an artist to fall into, shall we say, a relationship with one of his models. But to fall into not just a relationship but outright love? And now a baby, too? That’s just
unheard of,” Edward said, giving his new wife a pat on the tummy.

“Edward!” Agnes said in feigned indignation. “You’re scandalous.”

“I’m sure your father would think me more than that. Of course, coming from such a bourgeois family, I would expect nothing less. I’ll yield to unconventional, certainly where they’re concerned, suffer bohemian, definitely accept artistic. But I truly love that feeling in their world of being scandalous.”

“One of the many reasons I love you.And I guess I’m scandalous too, now. The sisters at St. Patrick’s would each and every one faint dead away if they knew I was pregnant ‘without benefit of clergy,’ as they’d say. And while I always wanted to be a June bride, circumstances ruled otherwise. But there’s just one thing though…”

“Okay, okay, I promise to take you to Paris when all this blows over,” Edward said. “We’re taking just about the biggest, fastest, safest ship in the Cunard Line. It’ll be the equivalent of the most posh version of about a hundred Hudson Day Line cruises.” He paid for this voyage, as was all the Smithfield’s new life, with money his Agnes received from her doting father, Delaware & Hudson Railroad executive Leland Voorhees.

“But, I do worry. You know me, Eddie.”

“I do, my dear Aggie. That’s why I booked us on Cunard’s finest. The Heinies tend not to bother passenger ships anyway. We’ll be slipping into Liverpool while they’re still having their morning kaffeeklatsch. Now let’s get over to The Village and spend some more of your father’s money on the best cheap meal you’ve ever had.”

“Okay, my love. I’m sure it’ll be the last Italian food we’ll eat for a long time. I’ll bet it’s hard to find good Italian in London and Cunard serves only French and English dishes on this magic carpet ride of a liner you’ve booked for us. What’s the name again, Eddie? The Lucrezia Borgia?” Agnes said with a laugh.

“Yes, dear Aggie. We’ll be sailing on the HMS Lucrezia Borgia,” Edward replied, as he tapped the tickets in his fine new wallet. The tops of the tickets peeked above the Italian leather. They read: RMS Lusitania.

“Poisonous femme fatale that she was, Darling, we’d better be careful of that tea and claret they serve us or we’ll never make it to London,” Edward said as they strolled arm in arm out into Fifth Avenue.

A lightning first-draft effort penned while my new granddaughter slept off her 7:00 AM feeding. It’s based on one of the final week’s prompts for Story a Day September 2017. the characters are supposed to discuss their honeymoon. Suffice to say, I’ve been otherwise engaged in efforts other than writing this past week or so.

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold

Albany from the Helderberg Escarpment

Lew “Ruby” Rubio hadn’t cased this place before deciding to break in. But he’d been on the run from the cops in Albany for two sleepless days and nights and figured he could hide up in this cottage in the Helderbergs for a spell while everything cooled off down in the city.

Lew figured no one had been home in at least a week from the number of newspapers that peppered the apron of the driveway. He decided to jimmy the sliding door on the side away from the road, even though trees blocked view of the most of house from County Rte. 10. With a screwdriver he discovered in the garden shed and twenty years’ practice in the Bronx and Albany, he was standing in the kitchen in thirty seconds.

Once inside, Lew found his suspicions were correct. The place had been buttoned up for some time. A check in the bathroom showed the electricity on and the water off. He found the main, gave it a good twist to the left and he figured he was set for as long as he wanted to stay there. As long, that is, as he remained vigilant for any visitors from the County Sheriff’s Department or the State Police.

But first thing’s first.

“I’m frigging starving,” Lew said as he walked to the refrigerator. Inside, he found jars of pickles, olives, condiments, three cans of Mountain Dew, two bottles of Nine Pin Cider, a large unopened bottle of Ommegang Rare Vos ale and a half-bottle of 2016 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Well, this is all very nice, but where’s the damn real food?” Lew said, shoving the refrigerator door closed and moving to the cabinets that lined the wall above the sink. In the dim moonlight, he found cans of Progresso Chicken Noodle and Minestrone soups, some boxes of Kraft Mac and Cheese, envelopes of Brown Sugar and Cinnamon oatmeal, a jar of peanut butter and three tubes of Pringles barbecue potato chips.

“Jesus, maybe something’s in the freezer. Aannnnd…two scrawny frost-burgers, half a bag of Tater Tots and two bottles of vodka. What the hell is up with these drunks?” Lew said, as he closed the freezer door, casting the kitchen back into darkness..

He froze when he thought he heard the crunch of something on the gravel driveway out front. Then he dropped low when he saw the headlights.

“Shit, not already,” he said, catching his breath as a car-mounted spotlight swept the exterior of the front of the house and the woods on both sides, its beam cutting off a slice of the darkness in the kitchen. Lew crawled toward the sliding door again, ready to make a run for it if necessary. But the Sheriff’s patrol car backed out onto Rte. 10 and once again he was alone.

“I’d better eat something now, in case they come back,” Lew said to himself. So he opened two bags of oatmeal, tossed the contents into a bowl, added water from the now-functioning tap and put it in the microwave for a minute. While it cooked, Lew poured a can of Mountain Dew into one of the red Solo cups he found on the shelf, and topped it off with some of the icy vodka.

“The Dew for the caffeine and the hooch for my nerves,” he laughed. He pulled the steaming bowl from the microwave, gave it a stir and slowly ate it, washing it down with the fortified Dew. Finished with his oatmeal, he dug a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar he left open on the counter, sucked down a hard cider and decided he’d better try getting some rest.

Slowly, he climbed the stairs up to the shed dormer, where he found two bedrooms and a half-bathroom. But, since the dormer was on the side away from the road, he thought he’d better get back downstairs just in case the cops made this place a regular stop on their patrols.

“You never know who might break in on you,” Lew said with a laugh.

Lew decided to crash on the futon by the sliding door, just in case. He opened the glass slider to allow some cool air into the pace through the screen. He then propped himself up so he faced the driveway and settled in for what remained of the night.

“Maybe I can steal a day or two here before I hit the road,“ he thought. Within two minutes he was sleeping soundly.

He never saw the headlights, nor any spotlight, but the sound of someone moving around outside coming through the open slider roused him around 3:00 AM.

“Shit. Where the hell did they come from,” Lew thought as he eased himself off the futon and padded over to the wall next to the slider. He peeked out one side of doorway, saw the shadow moving toward the doorway.

“I ain’t going back for them to put in the county lockup. I either gotta make a run for it into the woods when this dude moves to the other side, or I have to take care of him, myself…right now,” Lew thought.

He looked around for something to use as a weapon, if he needed it. Once again Lew heard the rustling sound and a chill ran through him, his heart began pounding, his mouth dried so much he could barely swallow. He saw the wrought-iron poker leaning against the wood stove and knew what he had to do. If someone came through the slider, Lew was certain he could take them down and put some distance between himself and this cottage before daybreak and any more cops could come along.

But he still hadn’t seen any sign of a vehicle out front, hadn’t heard the crunching gravel. He wondered if what he heard was another breaking and entering star looking to steal whatever of value he could find. Lew suddenly felt more superior to this interloper and figured it was time to put end to his stay here one way or another.

He’d eaten the owners’ oatmeal, drank their cider and vodka, made use of their futon and now he was going to use their fireplace poker. The intruder was now moving closer along the wall to the sliding door.

“This is it,” Lew said, taking a deep breath. “He’s right there and now’s the time to confront this asshole one way or another. One, two thr…”

Lew slid open the door and jumped out of the house and turned dead right, his poker above his head. He saw the silhouette of the intruder and raised his poker high, saying, “Get out of here, asshole, if you know what’s…”

But that was it. The brown bear, leading her cubs in a raid on the bird feeders and trash cans of the neighborhood, rose on her hind legs, stepped into Lew, and with a swipe sent him reeling bloody into the forest. She then burst through the slider doorway and went straight for the open peanut butter jar on the counter while her cubs licked the unwashed oatmeal bowl.

State Police found Lew lying beside County Rte. 10 about a mile east later that morning. They transported him to the emergency room at Albany Medical Center, where doctors reattached the blond-haired flap of scalp the mama of the three-bear rural crime spree flayed off him on her way to breakfast.

During his three-year stint at Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Lew picked up a few nicknames. Early on, the other inmates called him Zipperhead or Ruby. But as his hair grew back and word of how he was apprehended got around the yard, Lew Rubio was known by inmate and corrections officers alike as Goldilocks.

First draft of my first chance to try crafting a story for Week Two of Story-a-Day September. (I’m doing best I can, but  it’s been a true time crunch.) Since I may not get to all five of this week’s prompts, I decided to messily combine two:  1) Write a gender-swapped version of a previously-told story, and 2) Set a story in the opposite setting to what it was originally (in this case, contemporary vs. non-contemporary and realistic vs. fantastic). Suffice to say, it ain’t easy to draft a cohesive story while minding three-year-olds and on four hours’ sleep a night. But here’s my best-stab first draft.

Widow’s Walk

“I see she’s still up there, Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth,” Enoch Steele said, jerking his thumb toward the tower that craned its neck above all other roof ridge lines that peered out at the entrance to Cloister Cove.

“Aye, been there every day for three years now, rain or shine, breeze of gale, waiting for the Cloisters Gardenia to turn-to ‘round the breakwater and deliver her Cap’n Matthew Rawlins back to her pining bosom,” the chandler’s clerk Martin Smoot replied while brushing a smudge of tobacco ash from Steel’s black wool coat.

“That ship’s as good as gone, wrecked on the Horn, scuttled by pirates off Java, its hull stove in by some rank bull off the Galapagos. We’d have heard something by now. A shank of driftwood, a bit of flotsam, a story passed from sailor to sailor, nothing. That woman waits for naught but a memory. G’day to you, Mr. Smoot,” Steele said as he grasped Smoot’s wrist, pushed it to the chandler’s chest and transferred the ash on the clerk’s fingers to his own apron.

As Steele walked to the wharves, Smoot ambled toward the peeling white house with the barred windows where Cap’n Matt’s lady stood on the widow’s walk, like one of Columbus’ crew in a crow’s nest, searching for any sign of Cathay on the horizon.

Though only moved to Cloister Cove three years before, Loretta Booth had become as much a part of the local scenery and color in town as that great old house, the bells in St. Augustine’s and the First Methodist Churches and the stench of whale blubber reeking from the harbor. Each had their places in the heartbeat of Cloister Cove, he thought. They were there, they were special, but no one paid much attention to that which made them so anymore. Each man, woman and child went about their business, neither looking up or down, nor wrinkling their nose at that which might make a manure-crusted farmer puke out his paunch.

A week later, while making a delivery of a fine German chronometer to the Masonic Hall, Smoot stopped in the middle of Captain’s Way, the town’s main thoroughfare, and decided to take stock of his senses and this little burg’s inventory of lives and property.

The onshore breeze still carried the gagging ghosts of sperm whales harvested from off the coast of Peru by men who could leave pregnant wives when they set sail and could return just as a child who knew them not celebrated its second birthday. He knew the inexorable lure of the sea for them, though.

“It’s best this business be so foul and dangerous, lest they just decide never to come home,” he muttered to himself.

The bells in St. Augustine’s chimed in four pairs of bong-bong, eight bells, just as the Methodist Church’s steeple pealed the requisite twelve times. Each was signaling noon, though that might confuse inlanders not steeped in the argot of the seaman.

Smoot smiled at how he and his fellow Cloisterites were a different breed even from other Connecticut Yankees. And above it all were the cries of the seagulls, a cacophony so constant that it was as easily ignored as the sound of waves lapping the shore or slapping the hulls of the vessels moored in the harbor.

As he walked toward the wharves and the chandler’s, Smoot looked up at the high roof of Captain Matthew Rawlins’ house, to assure himself that all was right in this little world within the greater world. That world then tilted on its axis. Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth was not manning her post on the widow’s walk.

Being a man of numbers, ledgers, balance sheets, Smoot saw this error in Cloister Cove’s books of life and couldn’t let it go without finding a good reason for this blatant discrepancy in his day-to-day.

He trotted up to the expansive front porch that sat like the lap on the old dowager that was Cap’n Mattie’s home away from his home on the seas. Smoot cupped his hands around his eyes to cut the glare and attempted to look inside for any sign of Miss Loretta Gardenia. But he saw no movement, not even the form of the captain’s West Indian cook, Sophie-Maude.

Now Smoot’s eccentricity was turning to a kind of fright, as if gravity would dissolve and all of Earth’s inhabitants would lose the tethers to their mother’s breast and be cast like seed into the void. He rapped urgently on the window light in the top of the heavy front door made of teak the Captain had salvaged from an English frigate that had not made it round the Horn in ’35. When he heard not a sound from within, Smoot pounded powerless on the seasoned planking that had resisted French shot at Trafalgar.

He shouted, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, are you there? It’s Martin Smoot from Bennett and Tinch. Are you well?”

When again he heard no reply, nor any sound, from within, Smoot ran to the back of the house where he found not only the barred windows extended, but the security-conscious Captain Mattie had installed a steel bulkhead door. He also found the firewood axe left in the cutting stump by Sophie-Maude.

Axe in hand, Smoot ran back to the front of the house and attempted chopping his was through the great front door, all the while screaming, “Miss Loretta Gardenia, get to your post or come to the door. We need you on that walk.”

As Smoot raised the axe for one more ineffective blow, a rough hand grabbed it, while another spun the chandler around and pushed him to the porch floor. Smoot looked up and saw a young man in a naval officer’s dark blue uniform jacket and white trousers, the axe held high and threatening as if leading a boarding party.

“What in blazes do you think you’re doing, sir?” the young officer shouted. “How dare you. I should box your ears, or better yet, take you down to my ships and have you bound to the mast for taste of my bosun’s cat.”

“Andrew stop!” came a woman’s voice from the street.

“Mother, please don’t hurry. I’ve got this madman under control. Look what he’s done to…”

“Matthew’s door! Why would…? Mister Smoot?”

“Oh, Miss Loretta Gardenia, I was so worried. You weren’t at your post looking for Captain Matthew and I thought the worst,” Smoot said.

“What could be worse, Mr. Smoot? That Matthew has not been heard from in all these years? That no sign of the Gardenia been found in any of the whaling grounds from Patagonia to the Sea of Japan?”

“Then…then why have you been up on the widow’s walk all these years for, madam?” Smoot said, more confused and addled than he had been when running around the house, axe in hand.

“Why, my son here, Andrew Booth. This young apprentice officer headed for the first class of the National Naval School in Annapolis. He’s been three years at sea.”

“But Cap’n Matthew…everyone thought you were…”

“Waiting for the Captain? No, Mr. Smoot. That ship, if you will pardon the expression, has indeed sailed. But no one ever thought to stop by and talk, to ask how I was, if I’d heard from Matthew,” Loretta Gardenia said.

“Well, we just figured…I just thought…”

“No, Mr. Smoot you did not think. You saw a woman pining for her son, not her missing paramour. Now, if you would kindly remove yourself from my front porch, my property. My solicitor will be contacting Mr. Bennett about what can’t be replaced — my door. Good day, Mister Smoot,” Loretta Gardenia said.

Her son, Midshipman Andrew Booth, hefted Martin Smoot as he might half-full seabag and set him on Captain’s Way toward Bennett and Tinch and an uncertain rest of that day and tomorrow.

As he walked toward the wharves, head down and trying to see where his figuring had gone wrong half an hour before, Smoot didn’t notice the wind had shifted from off the sea to from the hills surrounding Cloister Cove, blowing the perfume of pine and oak over the stench of the whale ships. He didn’t hear St. Augustine’s ring the bong-bong of two bells, 1:00 PM. He didn’t notice the change in the sound of the keening gulls that climbed and swooped all around him.

Loretta Gardenia handed the front door key to her son and said, “Come, Andrew, let’s go in for some tea. You can tell me more about school, your voyages and how you found Matthew in Alta California. I can’t believe he would scuttle the Gardenia in, where did you say?”

“Yerba Buena Bay, Mother. He and some of his crew hauled the hull ashore and, with a certain Señorita Veronica Valdez, turned it into a tavern and bordello, catering to and robbing the gold seekers headed to the Sierras. With no law to speak of out there, and his obvious lack of conscience, he had become a man of high regard in the darkest, lowest places.”

“Did you express your displeasure with his abandonment of your mother?”

“I did, mother, and when we parted, I can assure you he was weeping in contrition,” Andrew Booth said with a tight grin. “The day before our frigate set out again for the Baja, the Captain was not commanding the Gardenia. He was not to be found. Señorita Veronica’s brother told me the Captain must have decided to join the argonauts in seeking his fortune in the gold fields. A man could disappear in the Sierras in a heartbeat, Mother. I do not expect you — or anyone — will be hurt by his selfish, sinful ways again.”

“I see,” Loretta Gardenia said, composing herself for a moment. “My brave boy, I’m afraid all of today’s news and excitement has rendered me a bit tired. Would you mind if I retired to my room for a short rest? Sophie-Maude will be back from the market in Mystic within the hour and we shall have a lovely dinner celebrating your safe return.”

But Miss Loretta Gardenia Booth did not go to her room. She climbed the stairs to the roof of the house and mounted her widow’s walk. She looked out over the harbor, cocked her ear at the sound of the gulls, whose circling flights and weeping cries she stood observed from her lonely perch all these years. She above all could discern the change that had at least momentarily come over Cloister Cove and her life.

She knew the sound of seagulls crying. Now she wondered, were they laughing?

This is my fourth story based on one of the five prompts I was given for Weeks One of Story-a-Day September. Don’t know as I’ll make all five now, what with Week Two’s prompts in my mailbox, but I may make a run at it over the weekend. The prompt here was pretty much the last line of this piece. I guess I’ve written this story backwards, from the back end to front.

On the Rocks

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon as Andi Simkins positioned the empty glasses in the dishwasher, poured the detergent into the dispenser, clicked shut the door and pressed the buttons to bring it to whirring life. Other than the one in her hand, she’d run out of clean rocks glasses.

Andi fished a handful of ice from the freezer and clinked them into her tumbler. From the liquor cabinet she withdrew a new bottle of Ketel One, gave the black top a vicious twist to break its seal and poured enough into her glass to turn the pile of crescent-shaped cubes into miniature icebergs.

She walked into the family room and settled into the sofa, took a large sip from her glass and placed it on the cocktail table next to the copy of Jami Attenberg’s “All Grown Up” she’d started three times (because her sister insisted she read it) but never got past its first thirty pages. She picked up the book for Try #4, but after six page-flips she gave a resigned sigh, picked up her glass and took another great sip.

Andi looked into her glass as the vodka rested for a second in her mouth then slid down her throat. She was surprised at how the sunlight sifting through the vertical blinds was converted into rainbows by the cut glass, the ice and the vodka. But then the glow changed to neon tangerine and Andi’s eyes grew wide at the color and quality of of the light that painted the gray room a citrus hue, but locked it and her behind the black bars of the blinds’ shadows.

Pulling aside the blinds, Andi gave a little gasp and shaded her eyes. She finished her vodka and thought she’d pour herself another. She turned and took a step toward the liquor cabinet, but stopped and faced the scene playing out beyond the patio again.

Lifting her glass to her lips, she sucked in the dilute dregs of the vodka and a couple of ice cubes, which she crunched between her teeth.

“Joel, you’ve got to hurry up here and see this,” Andi called to her husband down in what Joel Simkins called his Subterranean Lair.

“I’ll be up as soon as I finish this part of the Times crossword, hon,” Joel replied from his leather lounger. And I could hear a football game providing Joel’s background soundtrack from his 50-inch flatscreen Samsung. She often wondered why he needed a drive-in movie screen down there when he used the television primarily for ambient noise.

I guess because he can, she thought.

“Lemme see…54 Across…seven-letter word for skyline,” Joel mumbled to himself, just an Eagle player intercepted a pass directed toward a late-afternoon sun-blinded Giant receiver. That sent the Philly crowd into a high-decibel frenzy. Joel looked up at the screen and recalled his last trip to the City of Brotherly Love. Business. Always business. But Philly was where he struck up his special relationship with Patty Diana, who’d since become known as his “work wife” around the office.

Andi, still watching the sunset, transfixed and hopeful, called one more time, “Joel, please, you’ll miss this if you wait much longer….”

And when he didn’t answer, Andi sighed once again, stood by the patio window, watching the spectacular demise of another day in the overall autumn of things.

It reminded her of all those afternoons spent looking out the back window of their third-floor walkup. Bathed in their own glow, Joel would comb his fingers through the tangle of her auburn hair as she’d beam at him with her gold-flecked blue eyes. Over the expanse of apartment buildings, they watched the sun sink, a searing communion of light and heat, beyond the southwestern horizon.

The sunsets were dazzling, Andi recalled, as well as how the encroaching darkness would be spangled in sprays of stars, even with the bedroom door closed. In tonight’s gloaming, the shadowy bars had expanded into an overall darkness of nebulous freedom or solitary confinement.

Andi had to admit, though, tonight’s sundown had its own melancholy charm — like a fire decaying into glowing coals — when viewed through a fresh glass of Ketel One on the rocks.

The third of my efforts based on one of five Story-a-Day September 2017’s Week One prompts. This one called for using or being inspired by the phrase “The sunsets were dazzling.” I remembered an old Five Sentence Fiction outline I whipped off one afternoon back on the job. I rewrote it with a bit more meat on its protagonist’s bones. Photo by the author.

Like Sun Flashing Upon the Mohawk

It was the smell that caught my attention first.

Not the usual smell of woodsmoke you’d expect from a farm settlement back along the Hudson. Nor the aroma of your mum’s cooking or baking on the breeze. No, this was an earthier smell, more like burnt meat, a grease fire and boiled out vegetable pots. This was the Mohawk town called Teatontaloga.

Strange how the longer I kneeled there in the hills above the north shore of the Mohawks’ River among the hemlock, hickory and spruce, the less offensive the smell became, tempered, as it were, by the scent of nature. I almost felt like dozing in this odd perfume, transfixed by the sparkle of the sun on the river.

But I could not afford the time to sleep. I had been sent out here to scout for the German colonists on their way up the Hudson with designs on settling land patents purchased from the old Dutch burghers in Albany. Traveling through the valley, for the past six days, keeping a cold camp, always alert lest I run across the trail of some Mohawk hunting party, I never allowed myself to sleep more than a few minutes at a time.

One more look at the sun flashing on the mouth of Schoharie Creek joining the river and I was ready to go. I’d seen what I needed to see. Then came that one big flash.

I awoke not feeling like I’d slept, but more like a a trussed up Christmas goose that had been dragged behind a wagon on Albany’s cobblestone main street. It was dark and smoky.  That smell I’d discovered from the hill above the river was stronger than ever and there was no forest to soften it. A dog growled next to me when I stirred.

“Finally awake I see,” said a voice in perfect English, if a Yorkshireman’s accent could be called perfect.

“What happened to me? Where am I? Who in the name of God are you?” I said, my head dully aching except where I imagine a rifle butt sparked the big flash then darkness.

“I should think what happened would be quite evident, young scout. I suspect you know where you are, as well. As to who I am, my Kanien’kéha family here call me Karawase, their word for ‘A New Way’.” Who I was back in Sheffield doesn’t much matter anymore,” the silhouette outlined by the glowing fire said.

“What do they plan to do with me?” I said.

“First, you are lucky to be alive to ask that question. Secondly, that is still being debated. Before the clan leaders make any decision on that, they want me to find out what you’re doing here,” Karawase said. “I suspect it might be something of the nefarious ilk, knowing my greedy and unconscionable English brethren as I do.”

“You appear to be an educated man, sir. I would hope that we could reach an understanding that the people who sent me here to scout this country would be more than willing to parley with your leaders to reach an accommodation in terms of…”

“Stealing their ancestral homes? I don’t believe that is possible, young scout. By the by, youngster, what is you’re name?” Karawase said, edging closer to me so finally I could see his features.

“My name is Jacob Brown. Actually, Jacob Braun. But since the Huron killed my Papa, my mother went back to her English roots and translated it.”

“I see. You’re also a man of two camps.”

“I suppose you could say that. But, my two camps aren’t making war against one another,” I replied.

“Not yet. But they will. It’s the way of the world, young Jacob Brown,” Karawase said, rubbing his fingers on a new tattoo he sported on his cheek. “So you’re representing English or German interests?”

“German. Families of Palatinites are coming upriver to Albany, looking to establish homes out here in these valleys. And they would like to make sure they can do that, raise their crops and families, without having to fear attacks from your people,” I said, figuring my recognizing his current status might soften him to my plight.

“It’s true that some of my people have taken a shine to the English trade representative, Mister Johnson. Or, should I say, he has taken a shine to us. But these Dutchman you describe will only foul our rivers and streams with their hogs and cattle, use up the land with their constant planting, never letting our Mother rest from her labors of feeding the people.”

“Not if I can spell out terms that the Mohawk can make, allowing them to come here and live in peace. Their coming here is a definite thing. The peace will be up to you.”

“That is quite true, Jacob Brown. For we are a great people, the Guardians of the Eastern Door of the Five Nations. It is our place to see that your western-advancing floods do not drown us with their foul smelling beasts and fouler smelling progeny.”

The entrance to the longhouse opened and a tall, lean man entered. He walked toward Karawase, ignoring my bound-up form on the mat next to the fire. He spoke softly but forcefully to Karawase, who replied in kind. This surprised me, for I never expected a white man to be so familiar with the savage red man.

Karawase leaned down after the man left, and said, “My brother, the son of my Kanien’kéha mother, asked me what we have been discussing. I told him what you told me and he would like to see you roasted over coals and fed to the dogs. Strictly as a means of ensuring you not only never return to Albany with your scouting account, but also to ensure your spirit never leaves this place, as well.”

His words turned my empty stomach into knots. I had already seen what the Abenaki and Seneca could do to a man, his color notwithstanding. I had also seen what the English could do to Delaware, Huron and even the unfortunate Mohawk who crossed the trail the whites were determined to own, as well as the hectares on both sides of it for miles.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, Karawase.  You could be the man who helps the Mohawk become the wealthiest of the Five Nations, accepting tribute from the Palatinites for the meager amounts of land they need for their farms. They truck in fine silver and fabrics from Europe. The guns they make are legendary for their small size but powerful kick. Perfect for your people to defend, if not expand their reach to the south and west.”

“Jacob Brown, we can take those treasures from your Dutchman any time we have a mind to. We are not only Kanien’kéha, which you call Mohawk, but one of a confederacy of five nations that rule the lands from the north river you call Hudson’s to the biggest of the western lakes, from the northern mountains to the lands of the Cherokee. We are stewards of this country, given that charge by the Creator himself. We have never been defeated and never will, save for if one of our own nations aligns against us. And why would they do that? They wouldn’t. So, you Jacob Brown, man of two camps, I would prepare to see the light of the Creator this day. You seem to be a brave boy, but my brother has broken brave men many times. He is a fearsome warrior. I will ask him if I may kill you before he lets you suffer. You seem a nice enough chap,” Karawase said. And then he left the longhouse, the dog following him.

I looked down the smoky, dim length of the longhouse, realizing that the last smell I would inhale on this earth was the one that drew me to where I would die. I was both intrigued and repulsed that I would soon be another source of that burnt meat smell. I felt just the same about that German silver waiting for me back in Albany. How it more than likely would end up dangling from the ear of some Mohawk warrior. Or it could be pounded and shaped and used to decorate the fine Jaeger rifle he took from its Palatine owner.

If I was to fail in my mission, as I indeed had, I was happy for the promise of Karawase to dispatch me before I succumbed to the fires of hell on earth. I wondered if I would be able to see the flashes of light on the river once more before I went before the light of the Lord’s judgment.

Karawase threw aside the cover of the longhouse entrance and stood in the doorway, the light of dawn surrounding him like he was a saint, instead of a traitor to his people, which is what I imagined was why he lived among and abetted such savages that would cook a man for looking at where they lived.

“I have spoken with the elders and the old mothers who hold sway over the clans. They have decided you will not die the slow death my brother spoke so stridently for. At my claim for leniency, they wish to see you run through a long gauntlet from the center of the village and the river,” Karawase said. “Reach the river and you may float back to Albany.”

“This is good news,” I said.

“Depends on how quick and shifty you are, Jacob Brown. By my eye, the distance between here and the river is twenty rods if an inch. Easily half a furrow-long,” Karawase said.

“I’ll take my chances.”

“Aye, and a chance is all ye have.”

“When do I begin?”

“I’d say when the sun clears the hills to the east. Perhaps another hour or so.”

“I’ll be ready.”

That hour passed and I could hear a crowd milling, laughing, shouting outside the longhouse. Karawase and his brother entered and loosed my bindings, setting me on my feet for the first time since someone, I imagine Karawase, brought that musket butt down upon my head.

The crowd of people had strung themselves out in two lines snaking from the center of the village to the shore. I could not see the river from where I stood, nor would I until I made it to nearly the end of the gauntlet. If I made it.

“Are you ready, Jacob Brown?” Karawase said above the din of warriors hooting, women keening and youngsters laughing. All but the women were carrying switches of birch or elm. The men and older boys had something more resembling weapons, clubs or the like.

“I don’t expect I’d better not be ready, Karawase. I should thank you for saving me from the fire.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure this is going to have any better ending, Jacob Brown.”

“If I may, could you tell me what your name was before you became one of these barbarians?”

“You wouldn’t believe me, Jacob Brown.”

“Please. In case we don’t have another chance to talk.”

“You might not believe me, but it was Brown, Simon Brown. Now prepare yourself, boy. My brother and I will be waiting at the far end to see you make it to the river. Godspeed, Jacob Brown,” the man called Karawase said.

“I will, Simon. I will.”

And then he was gone. Two warriors ripped off my shirt, took my arms and stood me between the long lines of impatient savages looking to mete out their worst punishment on the white man who represented all the whites encroaching on their country. They didn’t know I was but one drop in an ocean whose tide was coming in from the Atlantic.

“Kanónhsa raksà:ʼa,” the biggest one grunted, and pushed me so hard I fell to the ground between the first couple of pairs on my run. They were older women with switches and they hit me with a fury of decades of pent-up anger. I rose to my feet and grabbed one of the switches and lunged forward, using the slender branch as one might a sword in warding off the cutting blows of the women and children.

My skin was aflame with small welts and scratches, but I was still alive. Up ahead, I could see I was coming to the older boys and men, who were waiting with angry faces and hooting and howling in such a frightening manner I almost soiled myself. But I plunged into their forest of branches and clubs.

I whipped my switch in the face of one of the boys and grabbed his club and swung it wildly around me to again deflect the worst of the blows. By now, my lungs were burning, as I had run a long way as fast as I could, bouncing from one side of the gauntlet to the other. My legs felt like tree trunks and I could taste blood. From where I did not know.

I looked up and could see the end of the lines ahead. And there was the Mohawk River. It sparkled like German silver and I had to fight to maintain my composure and best defensive parries and feints. I held off one warrior’s blow with my club, but felt the sting of a blade on my back from another. I turned for an instant and caught him a blow on the arm, whereupon his knife bounded to the ground ahead of me.

I ran best I could and picked it up and fought my way to the very last six men on the end of the line. Four of them crowded me and I battled my way through them and ran into Karawase’s brother, standing there in my path to the river.

The sun had climbed well above the hills now. I could feel it on my face. I could smell the mud and water waiting behind the savage in front of me. To my left, I saw Karawase, a club resting in his crossed arms. I dove at his brother, screaming like I was one of the Mohawks now. Perhaps this is how Simon Brown became Karawase. I’ll never know.

I charged the final warrior, as quickly as a desperate man could. I must have surprised him, because I got close to his body and his club came down dully on my back. I slashed his ribs with the knife and he went down, the smell of him, that same earthy smell from… Was it only day before yesterday?

I could see the river only a few yards away, see the sunlight flash in my eyes. I half-ran, half-staggered to its muddy margins. The sun above glared in my eyes and the moist smell of the Mohawk spoke of escape.

From the corner of my eye, I saw an Indian, a familiar form, rush toward me, his club raised above his head. The world suddenly lit up around me like a lightning flash. Then came the feeling of water on my face, beautiful, cool, like meine Mutter’s hands after drawing it from the creek called the Krum Kill.

Burning Ring of Fire

I’ve come to the realization the problem with going through life one day at a time, each in order, is not so much the order part as the living. The sun wakes you from the east and entrances you from the west. And if you’re lucky, that trance will overtake you until that magical sun does its great misdirection act and reappears in the east again. And again. And yet again, in the round and round ring of our life.

So bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

“Why do you always do that?” Alison asked one night while I washed my hands in the kitchen sink after I got home from work.

“Do what?” I said and shrugged, which I came to learn was as bad as saying, “What the hell are you bothering me with this crap for, woman?” to that emotionally fueled and attuned half of humanity.

“You know damn well what I mean. You take your ring off and place it on the back of the sink. What if it fell down the drain? And please don’t tell me that you do the same thing when you wash your hands in the filthy restroom at work,” Alison said with the cold stare that’d chase off even snowmen.

“Well, yeah. Of course I do. I don’t want it slipping off my soapy fingers into the sink. This way, it’s safely sitting there right in front of me the whole time,” I said, drying my left hand and returning the ring to its rightful position.

“Gahhh, you infuriate me so sometimes Robert!” she said, stalking from the kitchen into the living room, leaving behind chopped up onion, relish and other condiments I suspected had to do with my eating hotdogs this evening.

“Aw, c’mon, Allie. What’d I do wrong this time?”

“You take your ring off in any number of unsavory places. Why even wear it? Why even be married to me in the first place?” she said.

“Well, I was working under the theory that graduates of Smith would have more sense than mere, you know…women.”

“How dare you! How dare… Whatever possessed me to allow you into my life, allow you to coerce me into going out with you, let alone saying yes to the man who so cavalierly removes the sign of his eternal love and fidelity five days a week,” Alison said with a mist forming across her eyes.

I learned a long time ago never to tell a woman not to cry. Do not force them into an embrace when they’re in such a state. Just stand there and look noble, open and a little sympathetic. Don’t fawn, hover or lay a finger on them until they overtly let you know they’d accept it now…except for the telling them not to cry part. That’s always a no-no.

“How do I know you’re not pulling off your ring and chasing some cute little hoochie-coo secretary at your office, or that bisexual amazon Stephanie when you’re at work? Huh?”

I sighed.

“Allie, one, none of the compliant hoochie-coos give a shit if you’re wearing a ring or not. Unless, of course if your ring has a healthy supply of gemstones in it. Then their interest is geometrically piqued. Secondly, have you taken a close look at this mug of mine lately? Looks like I got socked with a bag full of years, quarters and dog asses since I hit a half-century . And finally, Stephanie has a steady girlfriend, so you can forget her altogether,” I said.

But not-so-deeply inside me lived a more-than-passing affection and long-suppressed lust for that buff beauty. And I’d drop and give her a strong twenty and then fifty more if she asked for them, as long as a shot at her kind attention was incumbent on my successful completion of her Herculean task.

And I lied about the girlfriend.

“Well, all right,” Alison sniffed. “But please don’t take your ring off anymore. Please. And I think your face is fine. Full of character.”

“Yeah, like all you women say about this white hair. I know the half-assed code. ‘Old Bob has grown obsolescent, if not completely exceeded his shelf-life.’”

“Oh stop, Robert,” Alison said with her crooked little smile. “You’re my lovely man and I love you above all others. Just never take your ring off, okay?”

“Sure, I’ll be careful. Maybe I’ll just carry a supply of Handi-Wipes around with me instead of using soap. How’s that?” I said with a laugh. You know, break the ice with some levity.

“Now you’re teasing me,” she said with a frown.

And we were off to the accusatory and running defensive races again. This was our circular state of being, happening like this so many days that it became almost as certain as the sun’s rotation that brought and finished each of those orderly days I was talking about.

If not for the fact that every night we’d make up 9:00 PM and never went to bed angry with one another—in fact, quite the opposite—I think I very well might have decided to seek the gentle look-at-me-Bobby dressed women of our administrative staff.

I most definitely would have taken a shot at the Holy Grail of womanhood that was Stephanie Stoneman. She’d even given me the green light, though not in so many lumens or words, three years ago while some of us executives were on a touchy-feely retreat in the Adirondacks.

But no. I played by the rules, even if Stephanie was willing to suspend them in my case.

“Why don’t you come up to my room, Bobby?” she asked in that seductive voice of hers. The one that hooked men and women of all ages without ever losing at her classic features and athlete’s body. Even still at forty-seven.

And so went the order of Alison’s and my lives together. I maintained my ring in position as that sign of high fidelity and low testosterone. That is, until the day I came home to an empty house. Even the cat was gone. No loss there; I hated that cat.

There on the kitchen table, propped up against the napkin holder Alison’s nephew made in shop class and gave to us as a housewarming present ten years ago, was an envelope with “Dearest Robert” in Allie’s script on the front.

I won’t entirely share what the note inside said, except for the phrases, “you don’t know who I am,” “I don’t know who you are” and “a man I can trust,” were the ones that sat me down and punched me in the gut. The fact that this dude and my wife were the ones being untrustworthy was lost on the woman I realized years ago was as shallow as piss in a platter.

The envelope also contained her wedding ring, since she no longer needed nor desired any sign or memory of love and devotion for me. I noticed she kept the $3,000 engagement ring, but I guess that’s considered a gift without any significant magical meaning to some women.

All in all, it was great load off my mind when my heart wasn’t cracking and my face wasn’t burning in a kind of embarrassment only the cheated upon understand. Most especially those cheated-upons who eschewed the occasion of salacious sin when it not only tempted you, but sent an engraved invitation.

The other day, I dropped off an envelope with the receptionist at Allie’s office. In it was not a note that mentioned trust, devotion, disappointment or any of the verbal finger pointing and breast beating you might expect from an aggrieved ex.

Actually, I placed my wedding ring and a card in the envelope. It was a thank you card for giving me back a life of opportunities and choices instead of trying to live the day-to-day doing the right thing for someone who who didn’t do right by you.

Okay, I also included a photo of me and Stephanie Stoneman we had taken on a recent weekend retreat—this one for two. It seems she is a very perceptive and patient woman. And I’m a guy who now can’t wait for sunup to see what new little or big adventure life has to offer me that day and for sundown to see what Stephanie does.

As in last September, I’m trying to create a five stories a week in a 2017’s Story-a-Day celebration. However, instead of responding to a different prompt for each of those thirty days September hath, Story-a-Day boss Julie Duffy is giving me five prompts each week to try to craft a story around. This is the first, a quickly penned first-draft response to the prompt asking to use the phrase/idea “The problem with going through life one day at a time, each in order…” Tune in tomorrow and see if I can rattle off another quick draft that might even be readable.