Short Story: The Book of Joshua

by

I usually don’t post entire stories, but I seem to be getting enough hits on this blog to warrant publishing a finished piece. So, for your amusement, derision or what have you  I present The Book of Joshua, a five-thousand word tragedy. Or perhaps it’s a comedy. You decide.

The Book of Joshua
©2014   J Hardy Carroll

americinn

AmericInn

Whosoever he be that doth rebel against thy commandment, and will not hearken unto thy words in all that thou commandest him, he shall be put to death: only be strong and of a good courage.

The man at the AmericInn would not take cash.

“I am afraid I need a major credit card, sir,” he said in an Indian accent.

He looked like he was afraid, quite literally, his eyes white and jutting like a panicked horse. His skin was coffee colored, his lips thick, his mustache thin.

I realized I had been staring at him for some time. He was being polite, his hand poised above the keypad of his AmericInn computer, ready for my credit card and other supporting information.

I had a credit card, but I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to leave a trace.

I was staring at him, my palms flat on the counter, spaced evenly apart. He blinked. Obviously, there was no choice.

“Of course,” I said, and hauled out my wallet from my back pocket.

My wallet was heavy with all sorts of junk. A credit card, two debit cards, business cards, receipts for wine and electronics and bookstores and dinners out, drawings by both of my daughters, pictures of my wife with and without my daughters, punch cards from coffee shops, flower shops and the local burrito stand.

It came out with a little pop, the pocket of my jeans loose in its absence.

mattress

Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law

And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it.

I could tell it was a cheap mattress just by sitting on it. The sound it made was cheap, and it sagged in a cheap way.

I read on the internet about bedbugs and how to check for them by pulling off the bottom sheet and mattress cover next to the headboard, how to examine the piping and stitches of the mattress itself looking for tiny black specks embedded in the fabric. The article also said to never set your luggage on the carpet, but instead to find a hard, clean surface like a dresser.

I didn’t have luggage, so this didn’t apply.

I also pulled the bedspread off and tossed in on the floor because I saw a TV show where they sent a hotel bedspread to the lab. It was disgusting.

There was no evidence of bedbugs, so I pulled the mattress cover and sheet back up.

The mattress tag stuck out from the bottom. I pulled back the sheet and cover again and knelt to read the mattress tag.

UNDER PENALTY OF LAW
THIS TAG NOT TO BE REMOVED
EXCEPT BY THE CONSUMER

Was I a mattress consumer? Did anyone consume a mattress? I read further:

ALL NEW MATERIAL CONSISTING OF

URETHANE FOAM   95%

SYNTHETIC FIBERS   5%

Then in big letters

2004

I tore the off the tag and threw it in the trash.

 

table

We Have Champagne

And it shall be, when ye have taken the city, that ye shall set the city on fire: according to the commandment of the LORD shall ye do. See, I have commanded you.

That morning I had come downstairs  with the second worst hangover of my life.

We had had a few of my wife’s friends from her master’s program over for dinner and had cocktails followed by many bottles of wine, so many that nobody really ate anything. I had built a huge fire outside in the yard, and after we’d run out of wood I had grabbed chairs off the porch, the girls’ wagon, the wooden handles to rakes and shovels—anything that would burn. I had pulled the redwood picnic table across the yard to straddle the blaze, pouring first lighter fluid and then gasoline from the mower to help it catch. We hooted and clapped when the table finally collapsed into a pile of bright coals and ash, pushed the two halves in so they would both burn at the same time.

At some point, my youngest daughter came down to see what all the noise was about. I put her in my lap and told her about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern and starting the Great Chicago Fire while I sipped Ezra Brooks from the half gallon I kept out in my shop. I don’t remember anything after that.

I woke up shirtless and alone in bed with the acid taste of vomit in my throat. My head felt hot, brimming with pain. Cup of pain, I said to myself, and sat up.

I was dizzy and sick and decided this was it. I’m never going to drink again.

I stood in the shower and let the water run over me until there was no hot water left, not bothering to soap or shampoo or do anything but just stand there with my head bowed and the water racing over me.

I got out and dried myself with the pink towel, stepped over the bucket of bath toys and bent to drink right from the faucet. I was terribly thirsty, but I knew better than to wallow myself with water, so I drank just enough.

I dressed and went downstairs.

I the kitchen I made an Alka-Seltzer in one of the little whiskey glasses that I kept from my bachelor days. I watched the little tablets dissolve for a while, waited until they were just gone.

I picked it up and drank it down.

My wife sat on the living room couch with my youngest daughter and our friend Dmitri. She turned to me, eyes swimming. She held out a bottle of Korbel.

“We have champagne!” she said, waving the bottle and her glass, a wedding flute engraved with our initial. “Dmitri and I went to the Hartig and got some! Sit down!”

Dmitri turned and smiled at me, waved his glass too. They were watching a collection of old Fleischer color cartoons from the 30s, a DVD I ordered off Amazon.

“These old cartoons are great! Come watch them with us. Grab a glass.”

I stood watching the screen. An old couple from the sticks was going to the World’s Fair. A bunch of robots were sprucing them up, the robot brooms and powderpuffs and hair clippers circling around them and making them look shiny and new. Even the old dray horse was changed, given a hat and a seat of honor on the new car that had once been the wagon.

I was filled with a sudden, ungovernable rage.

I turned without speaking and went to back door. I strode across the yard, past the still-smoldering fire pit with the wreck of the table collapsed across it, the plastic chairs strewn about in a rough circle.

I got into the car and picked the keys off the dash, started it up. I fiddled with the CD player until I found something I wanted to hear.

I gunned the motor and peeled out, the spume of gravel and dust hiding the house behind me as I sped away.

porsche

Kelley Blue Book

And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day.

My car is a 1982 Porsche 911 coupe. It is a color that Porsche describes as “beige,” but I like to think of as “bronze.” It has a sunroof and a three liter engine with a single overhead camshaft. The spoiler is broken because my wife fell against it last summer, and my attempts to repair it with Bond-O only made it worse. The sunroof cover went missing, so I only drive it when it’s nice out.

It has a lot of miles. When my daughter was very little she would only sleep in the car, so I got in the habit of driving for hours through various small towns in Southern Iowa near where we live. I would pick up a bottle of schnapps and a few cans of energy drink, put an audiobook on my iPod and head out, my daughter in the car seat next to me.

Quality time, I called it.

The Porsche was running rough because I couldn’t afford to take her to the Porsche mechanic any longer. The other guy—the guy who works on my wife’s old Volvo wagon—said he doesn’t have the special Porsche tools to do the job right.

The car was a gift from my father-in-law. It was his baby, very low miles and superbly maintained. He broke his back playing tennis and was advised against driving sports cars, or maybe he got a DUI in it.

He gave it to us right after we got married. He whispered to me to try and never let my wife drive it. We both know she’s a terrible driver.

I don’t let her drive it, but I don’t say why unless we’re fighting. Then it’s just another thing I say and apologize for later.

I am glad my father-in-law hasn’t come to visit. I would hate for him to see her now.

 

shells

Save Money. Live Better.

And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law.

 

I had no destination in mind. Chicago, maybe. I  knew that I was done with drinking. I didn’t know what was next.

I stopped at the Kum n’ Go and gassed up. I went inside and grabbed two diet Rockstars, a bag of peanuts and some of the good local beef jerky. I  bought a quart of oil. I went to the ATM and withdrew the maximum amount. I paid cash.

As I drove away,  I knew that the Mossberg was still in the trunk of the car, right up front. In a Porsche, the trunk is in front. I had gone shooting the week before, gone out to knock holes in an old water tank sitting in a neighbor’s bare field. I had gone through all the ammo I had, three boxes of shells.

I needed ammunition. The exit for the mall was just ahead. I could swing into the Walmart and buy a box or two of twelve gauge shells. Buckshot and slugs. Not the big boxes. Just enough to meet my immediate needs, whatever they might be.

The parking lot was full, and I remembered it was a Sunday. After church, too. I found a space way off in the corner behind  a shrinking glacier of black ice left by the plows.

I walked across the lot, past minivans and a camper or two. My light jacket was inadequate in the chill air, but the weather was getting warmer every day.

The doors snicked open.  I strolled past the pyramids of Easter baskets and candy. Groups of Amish pushed shopping carts. The men wore collarless shirts and severe jackets, the women in dresses and doilies on their heads. All the Amish were in the back, near the electronics. Somebody once told me the Amish bought  burner cellphones and were allowed to use them in certain circumstances.

 cookie

The Secret to Staying Young

That they feared greatly, because Gibeon was a great city, as one of the royal cities, and because it was greater than Ai, and all the men thereof were mighty.

In the parking lot I opened the bonnet and set the bag of shotgun shells next to the quilted shotgun case. I closed the hood and got back on the freeway. I rolled east.

The next exit, I stopped at another service station and went to the ATM to withdraw my limit. The hangover was creeping up on me. I was getting tired. I popped open a Rockstar and drank a little. I chewed on a piece of the peppery jerky.

The highway had many signs marking roads to tiny towns I knew from experience were a long way to the north or south. Sometimes there would be a gas station and then nothing for miles and miles, but eventually you would come to a town.

Sometimes there was a restaurant in these little towns, and always at least one bar. I liked going into a bar after my daughter woke up, taking the car seat in with me and setting it on the bar, dipping a straw into the chocolate milk I ordered for her and eye-dropping it into her little mouth.

When she got a little older, we sat in a booth. She would have her own Styrofoam cup. I’d order her fries and maybe a grilled cheese while I had a whiskey and a beer or two before we’d set out for home again. Often she’d be asleep by the time we got back, and I’d sit idling in the driveway until she woke up. I’d carry her inside in my arms and tell my wife of all the things we’d seen and done that day, while she’d stayed home.

I knew I wasn’t going to make Chicago.

I saw a sign announcing a county road ahead, but it also said there was a hotel and food.

Another sign said:

NEXT EXIT—AMERICINN

with a little red, white and blue AmericInn logo.

The motel was right off the highway. It looked brand new, the parking lot shiny black with glacier-white lines ghosted with spray-painted halos. I pulled in to the front and walked in. The lobby was a tiny version of a waiting room with a counter, two gold-upholstered chairs, a coffee table with a vase of artificial flowers and a rack of tourism brochures for attractions around the Quad Cities.

There was a doorbell mounted on a little wood platform screwed to the counter with a sign that said

RING BELL IF UNATTENDED

I heard a TV in another room. Somebody was selling something to a lot of cheering, enthusiastic people.

I rang the bell and the Indian man with the bug eyes came out. He wore a light blue shirt of a thin semi-translucent fabric that looked good with his skin.

I told him I wanted a room, preferably in a corner. I told him I was only staying for one night. He said if I wanted to stay longer, I could save ten dollars. Then we had the discussion about the credit card.

After I signed the slip, I saw that a fortune had fallen out of my wallet. Whenever I eat Chinese food, I read the fortune cookie and I always save the fortune in my wallet. Over the years I have amassed quite a number of them. I picked up the fortune off the carpet and read it.

THE SECRET TO STAYING YOUNG IS LYING ABOUT YOUR AGE.

I remembered getting that fortune and laughing about it, reading it out loud to my dinner companion. I don’t remember who I was with, or what restaurant we were in. I don’t remember if I really thought it was funny or if I was laughing just for show. It didn’t seem funny now. I put it back in my wallet.

motel

Reason for Leaving (Required)

Ye have not left your brethren these many days unto this day, but have kept the charge of the commandment of the LORD your God.

My  bag contained a sketchbook, a few pens, a toothbrush and my old laptop. I forgot my power cord.  I opened the laptop. The battery was three-quarters full.

There was a card on the nightstand that said

FREE WIRELESS INTERNET

There, written in Sharpie, was what I assumed was the password

AMERICINN_guest

I tried the password and it worked. I opened Gmail. Nothing.

I opened Facebook. There were several photos Dmitri had posted from last night. He had tagged me in two of them. In one, I was barely visible, a hulking, blurred figure pulling a picnic table toward a campfire. In the other I was sitting in my dining room, a full wine glass in my hand, my mouth wide open and my eyes closed, my hand up in a karate chop.

I looked at my face. It was blurred, too, like I’d been whipping my head back and forth. I had a large wine stain on the front of my white shirt. The table was a mess, bottles and glasses and messy plates. Off to the side I could see my wife’s shoulder. On the table was somebody’s hand.

Other than that, I was the only one in the picture.

I decided that I’d had it with Facebook. Fuck Facebook. I hated that shit. I didn’t even want to go to the trouble of untagging myself. I typed into the search bar

Delete Facebook Account

Google came up with a whole page of results. The first one read

How do I permanently delete my account?

I clicked on it.

If you deactivate your account, your Timeline disappears from the Facebook service immediately. People on Facebook won’t be able to search for you, though some info, like messages you sent, may still be visible to others. We also save your Timeline information (ex: friends, photos, interests) in case you want to come back.

I followed the instructions and clicked on the link that said

Deactivate your account

I read the next page.

Are you sure you want to deactivate your account?

Deactivating your account will disable your Profile and remove your name and picture from most things you’ve shared on Facebook. Some information may still be visible to others, such as your name in their friends list and messages you sent.

Your 1,602 friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with you.

Then it listed a few of the people who would miss me including my wife, Dmitri and a couple of people I didn’t know in real life.

I also had to give a reason for leaving.

After some debate, I checked

I don’t feel safe on Facebook

A window popped up telling me I could alter my privacy settings, but I was having none of it.

I opted out of receiving future emails and clicked confirm. Then I had to re-enter my password one last time. Then I was done.

I closed the window.

I closed the computer.

I felt cleansed.

 

restaurant

Both the Book and Movie

And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat.

I was ravenous. I looked at my watch. It was almost five o’clock. Aside from the jerky, I  hadn’t eaten all day. I took my room key card and walked out into the hallway, through the door and out into the lot.

From this angle, I couldn’t see the broken spoiler and the Porsche looked pretty good. The tires were almost new and the paint, though dusty, was in very good shape considering the car’s age. I walked around the front and didn’t look at the spoiler as I got in.

I headed north on the rural road that fronted the motel. I passed a sign

DONAHUE–7

A few miles later, I saw massive grain elevators and then a water tower that said in blue letters:

DONAHUE

I drove past neat houses with lawns still brown in the early spring, the numerous trees still bare. Along the main road was a low red building with an enormous Dutch windmill at one end. A florid sign across the front with huge red letters said

OLE’S LITTLE DENMARK INN

I wondered what windmills had to do with Denmark. The country of origin was further confused by a plywood cutout of a painted Dutch boy and girl bowing to one another that graced the parking lot entrance. The parking lot was almost full. Three long vans with handicapped license plates were parked in a row out front.

I pulled open the door and was greeted by the powerful smells of cooking meat and cabbage, of pies and strudel and hot milk, of boiled onions and baking bread. The hostess wore a scarlet dirndl dress with lace sleeves. She was in her mid-seventies and wore black support hose tight around her calves. She showed me to a narrow table with two chairs facing one another.

She removed the silverware and scalloped paper placemat opposite my chair with one hand while the other reached an amber colored water pitcher.

She filled my glass.

“The morbrad with rodkal is very good tonight,” she said. “We also have frikadeller and medisterpolse, plus the prime rib special. Shelly will be over with you in a minute.”

She turned and left, deftly refilling waters as she went.

There was a low shelf next to my table with many different books, mostly about Iowa. I picked up the one on the end. It was a gold and white book about the size of a high school annual. On the cover was a red bridge that looked like a barn spanning a river. Beneath that it said:

IOWA’S COVERED BRIDGES: A HISTORY AND GUIDE

By

STEPHEN G. MEANS

There was a sticker affixed to the front in the shape of a glowing sun. It was red with white letters that read:

THE INSPIRATION FOR THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

(BOTH THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE)

It had slick pages with black and white photographs of every covered bridge in Iowa along with dense text outlining the history of each. The book had been signed by the author with the inscription

To Ole and Donna—thanks for the wonderful meal. Velbekomme!

                                                                                                              –Stephen G Means

His signature was enormous and looping with a John Hancock flourish beneath it.

The waitress came. She wore regular clothes and looked tired. She told me the specials again.

I ordered one without asking what it was. She asked me if I wanted something from the bar. I said no.

As she left, I asked for a cup of coffee. She brought it along with rolls and butter and soup.

When I was done with these she brought me a little dish of pink cabbage and a little dish of cottage cheese along with more water. I ate the cabbage and cottage cheese together, sprinkling them with liberal amounts of pepper. She cleared the dishes and brought me a big plate of little meatballs in a brown sauce, mashed potatoes with horseradish and gravy and pickled beets.

She asked if I wanted another roll and I said I did, and when she brought it I slathered it with butter and dipped it in the gravy.

Everything was delicious and I ate it very fast. She brought me more coffee and told me to save room for dessert because they had a special Dansk Lagkage.

“It’s made for spring with spring colors!” she said.

I ordered this too, also without asking what it was. When I had finished, she brought me over a dish of what looked like rice pudding with almonds. It was white and showed no sign of spring colors.

I looked up at her in question and she winked.

“This comes with the dinner, I’ll be back with the Lagkage in a sec.”

She came back with a gigantic slice of multicolored layer cake, green and red and vibrant orange. It was the size of a toaster and the top was decorated with edible flowers. She set it down in front of me.

“I can give you a box if you can’t finish it, honey.”

I thanked her and fell to eating it. It was  the best cake I had ever eaten, and even though I was so full that I thought I might be sick, I ate it all.

When I was finished I sat back and sipped my coffee, now cool in the cup.

The old couple across from me had been sitting there when I arrived, their food in front of them, a half pitcher of beer by the man’s elbow.

They sat there now, their plates full as ever.

The man poured the last of the pitcher into his glass.

The woman stared at him through thick glasses.

Neither of them said a word while I was there.

face

Choose From Photos…

Now after the death of Joshua it came to pass, that the children of Israel asked the LORD, saying, Who shall go up for us against the Canaanites first, to fight against them? 

It was still light when I got back to the motel. The traffic hissed along 80.

I got out and went around back. I checked the oil and added a little. When I pulled out the dipstick, I didn’t have anything to wipe it on so I made a kind of squeegee with my thumb and forefinger, wiping the excess on my sock.

I opened the hood and looked at the shotgun and the bag of ammunition.

I looked around the parking lot. There was a white Ford truck, a big one with dual rear wheels, idling in the parking space in front of the office. A big husky sat in the passenger seat. He was panting and staring at me standing there in front of my beige Porsche with the hood open. His eyes were startling, a blue so bright they seemed to shine through the tinted window of the truck.

I watched him for a while, not moving.

A man came out of the office and lit a cigarette. He was a tall, burly guy with a mullet and little gold glasses. He wore a hat that said

HAWKEYE SEWER & DRAIN

in gold letters. He nodded at me.

“I think the motor’s at the other end in a Porsche.”

I smiled. “Yeah, I know. I was just looking in my trunk.”

“Is it called a trunk when it’s in front? Isn’t it a boot or a boot or something?”

“No, I think that’s British. Maybe in a Jaguar?”

He shrugged. “I guess you’d know. Have a good night.”

I called after him “I like your dog.”

He nodded.

I closed the trunk and went back inside. My room was just as I’d left it.

I pulled the blackout curtain tight around the window, trying to seal out the light.

The computer was still on the bed. I opened it up.

The Facebook page refreshed itself, my username and password already filled out in the login area.

I clicked ok.

At the top it said

WELCOME BACK, JOSHUA.

I had no new notifications.

I clicked on my photo and went to my profile. The photo I used was at least five years old. I right clicked it.

Edit Profile Picture

I selected

Take photo…

The little light atop my laptop glowed blue. In a second, I saw myself on the screen.

I looked dark and grainy, like an El Greco or a Goya. I leaned in and out of the shadow. The only light came from the computer, but the way it looked on the screen was brown and smudged.

I clicked.

I saw the countdown

3    2     1…

It flashed and my picture was there. I

I looked at the picture and had that same feeling when you look at pictures of people you know have been murdered, pictures of the Clutter family or Sharon Tate or Anne Frank.

You could barely see my face, but it was still recognizable.

I clicked ok and it became my picture.

I got up to go to the bathroom. The mirror ran across the whole wall to the edge of the shower. I stood there pissing.

I got a good look at myself in the yellow bathroom light. In the mirror, I didn’t look like I had been murdered. I just looked tired and unshaven and a little sad.

My eyes were red and my hair was stringy and windblown from the sun roof. My nose was running, too.

Maybe I was getting sick.

When I returned to the computer I saw that three people had liked my new photo.

The computer flashed a warning to me:

Change your battery or switch to outlet power immediately
Your computer has a low battery, so you should act immediately
to keep from losing your work.

I closed the lid on the computer.

There was a little bit of light in the room. I reached over and switched on the lamp next to the bed. I pulled open the drawer.

There was a King James Bible with a white cover placed there, it said, by the Gideons.

I shut the drawer and turned out the light.

I was glad that the Bible was there in case I couldn’t sleep.

Ash Wednesday

by

 

The priest dips his fingers, makes a cross

on my grandmother’s forehead.

She smells like face powder,

L’aire du Temps, her fragrance.

 

I once asked her

where they got the ashes,

imagining priests with cigars

emptying sacred ashtrays

into a special chalice.

 

“You know the little crosses

from Palm Sunday?” she said.

“They burn them for Ash Wednesday.”

 

Now

Now I imagine a great room

filled with palm crosses 

once worn by old ladies in church clothes

who brought back the tidily tied

frond crosses pinned by the priest

at the 7am service.

 

All the holy days

all the old ladies kneeling and praying

the old prayers learned by rote

when they were young girls

remembering to save

their palm cross for next year

 

Posted in response to the Daily Post’s Fragrance prompt

Neverland

by

In the spring of 1953,  an immigrant farmer named Ünger Möller was hit by inspiration while mowing a hayfield. He was convinced it was the voice of God as heard by Noah and Moses before him.

God commanded Ünger to create a spectacular carnival on his property. The modern amusement park had not yet been invented, so it seemed an insane notion. But Ünger Möller knew God’s voice when he heard it. He borrowed a bulldozer and tore up thirty acres of cornfield. He constructed a log ride out of grain chutes and iron scaffolding. It took him a year.

That June, he took out a full-color advertisement in the Des Moines Register. He called the place Neverland.

Not a soul came.

Undeterred, he set to work building a village of cast concrete. Gingerbread houses, a miniature castle, dwarves and unicorns and gnomes and a twenty-foot giant, all painted vivid colors. Over the next decade, he added a ferris wheel, a lake with miniature sailing ships, a carousel, bumper cars. He conscripted his sons and daughters as a free labor force. He borrowed money from every bank he could, from his friends, from wealthy relatives in the Old Country. He installed a funicular ride he bought at auction, lit the midway with a hundred thousand bulbs so you could see the glow for miles.

The townspeople stayed away, more convinced than ever he was a madman.

By the time Ünger died in 1983, Neverland covered six square miles and featured custom-designed roller coasters, gravitational slings, centrifugal wheels, all in excellent condition because they were so seldom used.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

 

The Fetching Party

by

Braniff mopped his face and wished for the thousandth time he had not come on the fetching party.

Digger Blake had tried to discourage him. “Not necessary, Colonel. Me and my boongs will find ’em for you. See Charlie there?” He had pointed to the black-skinned aboriginal squatting on the dirt, a tin cup of rum pinched between finger and thumb, pinky ludicrously extended like an auntie with a china teacup. “He may not look like much, but that boong never failed to bring one back yet.” Then Blake had grinned.  “Occasionally even alive.”

Still, Braniff had insisted, and here he was. This was too important. The leader of the absconders was none other than the disgraced Royal Navy Captain Fish, and he must certainly be brought back alive. The newspapers in New South Wales were waiting. The townspeople expected a proper execution and by God  he’d give them one.

 

What Pegman Saw

 

Historical note:

New South Wales was founded in 1788  as a penal colony for Great Britain. Those convicted of capital crimes, usually some variety of petty theft, would sometimes have their death sentences commuted to “transportation.” The unfortunate felons wold be crammed aboard a ship and taken on the arduous voyage to Australia. It was a horrific place.  Patrick O’Brian wrote of the colony circa 1815:

“It is squalid, dirty, formless, with ramshackle wooden huts placed without regard to anything but temporary convenience twenty years ago, dust, apathetic ragged convicts, all filthy, some in chains – the sound of chains everywhere. And turning into an unpaved, uneven kind of a square I came full upon those vile triangles and a flogging in progress, the man hanging from the apex. Flogging I have seen only too often in the Navy, but rarely more than a dozen lashes, and those laid on with a relative decency: a bystander told me that this man had already received 185 out of his 200; yet still the burly executioner stepped well back and made a double skip each time to bring his whip down with the greater force, taking off flesh at every blow. The ground was soaked with fresh blood, and there was a red darkness at the foot of the other triangles. To my astonishment the man was able to stand when he was untied: his face showed not so much suffering as utter despair. His friends led him away, and as he went the blood welled from his shoes at every step.”

Those who tried to escape, or “abscond,” as the penal government referred to it, were almost always caught. The savage landscape of the Australian outback offered little protection to a European, and the native Aboriginal people were excellent trackers who would sometimes work in exchange for rum. Once recaptured, the absconders were usually flogged to death in the public square. This spectacle was a popular diversion and usually drew a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.

Australia is generally circumspect about its origins as a hell on earth for British criminals.

 

Hemingway’s Birthday

by

For Hemingway’s birthday, a bit of his flash fiction (before it was called that). Cat in the Rain, from 1925, is a remarkable study of using the unsaid to tell a powerful story. This is similar to the more famous Hills Like White Elephants. I like this one more.

CAT IN THE RAIN

There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also faced the public garden and the war monument. There were big palms and green benches in the public garden.

In the good weather there was always an artist with his easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.

Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the square by the war monument. Across the square in the doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the empty square.

The American wife stood at the window looking out. Outside right under their window a cat was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was trying to make herself so compact that she would not be dripped on.

‘I’m going down and get that kitty,’ the American wife said.

‘I’ll do it,’ her husband offered from the bed.

‘No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry under a table.’

The husband went on reading, lying propped up with the two pillows at the foot of the bed.

‘Don’t get wet,’ he said.

The wife went downstairs and the hotel owner stood up and bowed to her as she passed the office. His desk was at the far end of the office. He was an old man and very tall.

Il piove,” the wife said. She liked the hotel-keeper.

Si, Si, Signora, brutto tempo.

He stood behind his desk in the far end of the dim room. The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands.

Liking him she opened the door and looked out. It was raining harder. A man in a rubber cape was crossing the empty square to the café. The cat would be around to the right. Perhaps she could go along under the eaves.

As she stood in the doorway an umbrella opened behind her. It was the maid who looked after their room.

‘You must not get wet,’ she smiled, speaking Italian. Of course, the hotel-keeper had sent her.

With the maid holding the umbrella over her, she walked along the gravel path until she was under their window. The table was there, washed bright green in the rain, but the cat was gone. She was suddenly disappointed. The maid looked up at her.

Ha perduto qualque cosa, Signora?’

‘There was a cat,’ said the American girl.

‘A cat?’

Si, il gatto.

‘A cat?’ the maid laughed. ‘A cat in the rain?’

‘Yes, –’ she said, ‘under the table.’ Then, ‘Oh, I wanted it so much. I wanted a kitty.’

When she talked English the maid’s face tightened.

‘Come, Signora,’ she said. ‘We must get back inside. You will be wet.’

‘I suppose so,’ said the American girl.

They went back along the gravel path and passed in the door. The maid stayed outside to close the umbrella.

As the American girl passed the office, the padrone bowed from his desk. Something felt very small and tight inside the girl. The padrone made her feel very small and at the same time really important. She had a momentary feeling of being of supreme importance. She went on up the stairs. She opened the door of the room.

George was on the bed, reading.

‘Did you get the cat?’ he asked, putting the book down.

‘It was gone.’

‘Wonder where it went to,’ he said, resting his eyes from reading.

She sat down on the bed.

‘I wanted it so much,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why I wanted it so much. I wanted that poor kitty. It isn’t any fun to be a poor kitty out in the rain.’

George was reading again.

She went over and sat in front of the mirror of the dressing table looking at herself with the hand glass. She studied her profile, first one side and then the other. Then she studied the back of her head and her neck.

‘Don’t you think it would be a good idea if I let my hair grow out?’ she asked, looking at her profile again.

George looked up and saw the back of her neck, clipped close like a boy’s.

‘I like it the way it is.’

‘I get so tired of it,’ she said. ‘I get so tired of looking like a boy.’

George shifted his position in the bed. He hadn’t looked away from her since she started to speak.

‘You look pretty darn nice,’ he said.

She laid the mirror down on the dresser and went over to the window and looked out. It was getting dark.

‘I want to pull my hair back tight and smooth and make a big knot at the back that I can feel,’ she said. ‘I want to have a kitty to sit on my lap and purr when I stroke her.’

‘Yeah?’ George said from the bed.

‘And I want to eat at a table with my own silver and I want candles. And I want it to be spring and I want to brush my hair out in front of a mirror and I want a kitty and I want some new clothes.’

‘Oh, shut up and get something to read,’ George said. He was reading again.

His wife was looking out of the window. It was quite dark now and still raining in the palm trees.

‘Anyway, I want a cat,’ she said, ‘I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any fun, I can have a cat.’

George was not listening. He was reading his book. His wife looked out of the window where the light had come on in the square.

Someone knocked at the door.

Avanti,’ George said. He looked up from his book.

In the doorway stood the maid. She held a big tortoiseshell cat pressed tight against her and swung down against her body.

‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘the padrone asked me to bring this for the Signora.’

Doc

by

When I met Doc
he shook my hand like a man,

told war stories in
a southern accent.

My best friend Reno
introduced him to me.

Doc, he said, was cool.
Doc had a nice house,

a marble sculpture
of Greek boys wrestling,

masculine furniture,
heirlooms and aged books,

a Colt’s revolver on the nightstand
next to a photo of Doc in uniform

A crucifix hung
over his bed.

I was fifteen, my father, all our
fathers, elsewhere.

Doc said this is a safe place.
He let us smoke cigarettes

and drink whiskey. He said
what starts here, stays here.

About this he was absolute,
experienced, desperate.

A Most Unusual House

by

First off, there was the name. A name designed to catch your attention, three words that you never hear together juxtaposed into a single improbable object. The first word of the title is a common one, used by government and citizen, said every day by babies and toddlers and postal workers and carpenters. The last word of the title is rarely said, and never in polite company, perhaps the second-most offensive word in the English language (and thus appropriated by British punks.)

She is sometimes asked: why that name? Why that word? And the co-founder, a tall and ravishing redhead who was winner of children’s beauty pageants and a Japanese dance team competition  before moving on to sing Janis Joplin songs at the annual memorial concert, smiles.

She might tell you the etymology, or she might take the feminist line and point out the misogyny of attitude toward the word itself. “The way people think of that word is the way men think of women,” she might say. “As though the worst thing you can call somebody is an organ possessed by half the population.”

And then there was the show itself. Before she moved to New York and became a much-valued member of the downtown cabaret scene featured in the New Yorker and Time Out, the co-founder lived in Portland where she found other like-minded performers. They worked in restaurants and took catering gigs to pay the rent while they worked on their act. Skits, comedy, characters, music, dancing, all performed in the dining room of the restaurant where they worked. The performers engaged the dinner guests, brought them up and made them part of the act.  It was a big success, selling out show after show.

It was not enough to save the restaurant, not enough to keep the group together, but while it lasted it was unique.

 

Written in response to The Daily Post:Unusual

Arguing with Moshe

by

“I appreciate Eretz Yisroel,” she said, “but not Medinat Yisroel.”

He raised his eyebrows over the black glasses frames. Aside from the tan, he looked exactly as he had in Brooklyn. “A difference you see? Please,” he said, beckoning. “Enlighten me.”

She saw she had offended him, but this was a cherished opinion, a debate she’d had many times in coffee shops and bars. “The state is a creation of a secular body which has produced a secular state often at odds with traditional Jewish values. The Holocaust shouldn’t forever define us.”

The kind eyes watched her with tolerant amusement.

 

Friday Fictioneers

Grandaddy Cat

by

Grandaddy Cat was likely the smartest man in North Carolina. It was him outsmarted old King Duke and put himself at the top of the heap of tobacco growers, him who made the most money a season, year after year.

So why you never hear of him? Why you see that King Duke name on university buildings and stadiums and in the tiny print on most every pack of smokes in a newsstand?

Well, on top of being smart, Granddaddy Cat was stubborn. What he knowed, he knowed and God himself could not change his mind. One thing he knowed was that men—real men—was never gonna smoke no fancy machine-rolled cigarettes. Real men smoke pipes and cigars. Always had, always would.

So when that fellow Bonsack come down here with his automatic cigarette rolling machine and try to sell it to Grandaddy Cat, why that old man don’t even let him into the house. So Bonsack goes up the road to the little King Duke house. I tell you, that house ain’t little no more. When old Duke’s grandson died last year, they donated it to the university. Now the president stays in it when he come to town.

This here is Grandaddy Cat’s house. They  fixin’ to tear it down.

 Sunday Photo Fiction

 

 

This story is based on the 2003 Ross McElwee Documentary Bright Leaves, a short film well worth watching.

A Superstitious Lot

by

Scott looked up from the heap of papers as Lieutenant Shackleton came into the cabin. “Well?” he asked, his voice brittle.

“The dry dock did some good, Captain, but she’s still taking on water.”

Scott passed a hand over his tired face, glanced at the barometer. “How’s the tide?”

“We’ve about a half hour until the flood.”

“The dogs are all aboard? All hands accounted for?”

“Yes sir,” said Shackleton. Then, with some asperity,  “Since yesterday.”

Scott glowered at the tone. “No ship I command will ever set sail on a Friday, Lieutenant. We’ve enough bad luck as it is.”

“Of course not, sir.”

“Let us weigh anchor, Lieutenant.”

On deck, Scott was astonished to see the docks packed with cheering crowds. Perhaps this voyage would be have some luck after all.

The crowd gasped. A sailor capering atop the mainmast lost his footing and fell, smashing into the deck.

 

What Pegman Saw

 

Historical note:

The Discovery Expedition was the first official British exploration of the Antarctic regions since James Clark Ross’s voyage sixty years earlier. Organized on a large scale under a joint committee of the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), the new expedition carried out scientific research and geographical exploration in what was then largely an untouched continent. It launched the Antarctic careers of many who would become leading figures in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott who led the expedition, Ernest Shackleton, Edward Wilson, Frank Wild, Tom Crean and William Lashly.

On 21 December, 1901, as the ship was leaving Lyttelton to the cheers of large crowds, a young able seaman, Charles Bonner, fell to his death from the top of the mainmast, which he had climbed so as to return the crowd’s applause. 

You can read more about this amazing adventure here.