Final Review

The reviewer finished reading the book “Cosmic Rays; Stellar Empire Series, Volume 1” and deactivated his ebook device, pushing the button in an almost angry way.

Turning to his laptop computer, he logged into the service to start writing his review. He found the author to have a juvenile sense of character development, well seasoned by a lack of both scientific knowledge and the English language. Perhaps the reviewer was old school, but he felt that someone writing science fiction should at least have a working understanding of physics. Failing that, a consistent rule set within the novel itself would have been an improvement.

The brave new world of Indie book publishing had opened the flood gates for every poseur at art to see their works in print. The reviewer suspected that most of the new breed of authors spent their time work-shopping with other equally skilled authors or engaging in online contests that were thinly veiled marketing scams by publisher services companies, rather than actually writing. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! These authors enjoyed saying they were authors, more than having something within them which had to be written.

The reviewer used his customized online tools to learn everything possible about the author. Good, the neck-bearded idiot has an author page on social media! he thought to himself, That makes it easier. Right click the mouse, save his photo into the Final Review folder. His bio said that he lives in Covina, California with his parrot and Maine Coon cat. Nice. He’s twenty-nine, lives in Covina; Ah! here he is. The reviewer copied the address and telephone information onto a text document and saved. He also made a new folder with the author’s name and added it to the rest. Photo and text files were moved to the author’s folder. Time for a road trip, he told himself.

The reviewer mapped his route to Covina, and estimated that it would take two days to get there. Two days to conclude his business and two days to return. His bags were already packed, as his decision was made when he read the first chapter of “Cosmic Rays”. One bag contained clothing and incidentals; the second bag was a long soft-shell case. He saved the review in draft form, as there was more that he would need to add before it was fully complete. Setting his home alarm, the reviewer loaded up his camper van and set out for Covina.

During the drive, he listened to randomized songs from his extensive music collection. His collection was eclectic, with one exception. He had no rap or hip-hop music as he maintained stolidly that it wasn’t music. Artists who couldn’t play instruments, were unable to sing without an auto-tune, excessively sampled other real musicians or were little better than glorified DJs, did not receive his custom. Those artists all sang alike, used the same approaches, and often were barely discernible from their competition. The reviewer liked artists whose singing or playing would be uniquely recognizable within the first few bars. The reviewer had a standard, and it was all his own.

Upon arrival near Covina, the reviewer paid cash to park his camper van at Arrow Glen Manor RV Park and hooked the van into the electric power and Internet services provided. He unhooked his small Honda Civic from the tow rig, and set out to put the author under surveillance.

The reviewer found the location easily, and parked along the street several blocks away. Putting on his walking shoes, the reviewer walked the neighborhood where the author lived, hoping for a sighting in the daylight. As he walked he appeared to be any resident out for a stroll. He made several rounds of the neighborhood and finally approached the small house. Taking a $50 dollar bill out of his wallet, he folded it in half and rang the doorbell.

The door opened a crack and a middle aged woman asked, “Yes, what can I do for you?”

“Hello, I was just out walking for some exercise and found this sitting in your driveway. I wanted to see if it belonged to you.” the reviewer said holding up the $50.

“No, I didn’t have it to drop, I mostly have ATM $20s.” she said.

“Is there anyone else living here who might have dropped it? I know it isn’t mine, and would hate to keep it without at least trying to find the owner.”

“It might be my son, but I cannot imagine him having lost $50, since he mostly mooches my $20s. He’s at work, but should return around 6pm. If you want, I’ll leave him a note.”

“Thanks, here, you should hold on to the bill. I’ll check back tomorrow when I take my exercise if you don’t mind. I’m staying with relatives down the street.”

“You know, it is pretty rare around here to find someone so honest. Thank you. If it isn’t his, I’ll have it for you tomorrow.” she said.

The reviewer waved and walked back down the street. Clearly he would have to come back today around 6pm so that he could see the author. Getting into his car, he headed back to the RV park for some lunch and a nap. Since he had a few hours prior to meeting up with the author, there was ample time for more research.

Let’s see, he said to himself, poseur authors often spend a fair amount of their time reviewing other authors’ work. Maybe he has an account with the online marketplace and reviews books there. Ah, there you are. Let’s read of few of his reviews, shall we?

The reviewer read for a while, shaking his head periodically when reading something particularly trite. He found a review of a fellow science fiction author, who was a nominal competitor. The author criticized his peer for poor character development and lack of scientific knowledge. Hah, talk about the pot calling the kettle black! The review went on to note the author’s use of haibunish forms, which piqued the reviewer’s interest. He downloaded a copy of the book and searched for the referenced section. Reading through it, he laughed. What a pretentious wanker! Establishing himself as an expert and then miscategorizing the verse form. The book section was simply free verse without the trappings of haibun, no matter how much you squinted your eyes. He must have heard the term in a workshop and applies it to any unusual verse. This just gets better and better.

Getting out his hacking tools, he determined the current IP address for the author’s home. Running a scan, he could see that they owned several smart appliances which were hooked to the Internet. The reviewer found a TV, security system, thermostat, garage door opener, and video cams. The new Internet of Things is making this almost too easy! He compromised the security system, garage door opener and the multiple video cams. Running his commands through a proxy server in Ukraine, he set several events to occur around 9:35 pm.

At 5:45 the reviewer parked his car on the author’s street, so that he had good sightlines to the garage and front door. While he waited, he read the book the author had criticized on his ebook device. Contrary to the author’s views, the reviewer felt that the character development was fine and that, while the competing author didn’t have a scientific background, he was consistent throughout the book. Definitely not bad enough to be a candidate for one of his final reviews.

At 6:10, the author pulled his car into the empty garage. The reviewer, seeing him in person for the first time, had to hold back a chuckle. The pudgy author was wearing a 7-11 clerk smock and a fedora. The hat definitely took the curse off the indignity of being a store clerk. The garage door closed and the reviewer switched to internal video to see the author going about his business. He watched the author read his mother’s note, look at the $50 and put it in his pocket. Going into his room, he fired up his computer and brought up a document which appeared to be Volume 2 of the Stellar Empire Series. The reviewer rolled his eyes and closed things down. There were a number of restaurants close by and he had little to do until 9:00.

At 9:00, the reviewer headed back to the neighborhood and parked on a dark portion of the street. Utilizing the internal cameras remotely, he confirmed that the author was still at home. The reviewer donned his dull dark coverall and assembled the black sniper rifle with suppressor. There was a small hedge made up of poorly kept trees that formed a dark corner in one front yard. The house had dark windows as though no one was home. The reviewer crawled under the hedge and placed the rifle on a brace facing the author’s closed garage. Using the range finder, he made adjustments to his scope, then settled in to wait.

At 9:35, several things occurred in quick succession; the reviewer published his review of the author’s Volume 1, titled “Final Review” and the author’s garage door started cycling open and closed. The author looked up from reading the bad review and got up angrily to see what was happening in the garage. Nothing the author did seemed to affect the cycling garage door until he finally got a ladder and unplugged the unit.

Waiting for his moment, the reviewer fired with a sharp crack one round into the author’s torso, which dropped him to the floor. He then shot one additional round into the author’s head. His final review was complete.

Staying in place for a few more seconds to make sure that the muffled shots were not noticed, the reviewer gathered the two spent shell casings and disassembled the gun before placing the parts into a shopping bag. He then walked at a normal speed on the sidewalk until he got to his car, then he drove away.

The next day, the reviewer hooked up the car to the camper van and headed back for home a full day early. During the stops along the way, he looked for more candidates deserving of a final review.

After winning the lottery several years earlier, the reviewer had a lot more time for his favorite hobby, reading. Unfortunately, the authors he followed could only write new books so fast, thus he was forced to consider new authors. Being somewhat methodical, he would finish even the badly written books, and was offended that the bad authors would waste his, indeed everyone’s, time and money. Taking a cue from the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lechter, he had resolved to improve the quality of the Indie publishing space by removing authors who failed to meet his standards. In order to fail, the author had to be markedly lazy, not spending the time or effort to do a workmanlike job, or have nothing whatsoever to say. If they spent more time in workshops than they did actually writing, they would likely qualify once published.

The reviewer had all the time in the world to be methodical, but it had not escaped his notice that killing bad authors one at a time might not be the best approach in terms of efficiency. As he thought through the problem, he asked himself where such authors congregated. Book clubs and workshops. There the authors sat around stroking each other’s egos with no one ever saying, “Your work is crap, you should stick to your plumbing day job!”

The reviewer experienced an epiphany, What was it that every faux author wanted? Simple, a publishing house to discover them and come calling, even though they would pretend otherwise. So what if he posed as a talent scout and invited himself to their meetings? Genius!

He sat down immediately and starting working on a hack of the biggest ebook publishing platform’s author database, looking for author names, addresses, titles, revenue generated, and reviews. He was briefly amused that he had used the publishing platform’s own cloud computing service for very little cost to hack into their own databases, through multiple remote proxies. Downloading the data, he parsed it by geographical locations and started identifying clusters of potentially bad authors. Now he had a list that supported working on group removals.

He focused on Kansas City for his first group to investigate. Perusing social media he was able to look for commonalities and page subscriptions for writing clubs or workshop groups. Slowly, but surely, a list of candidates was compiled. Figuratively holding his nose, he ordered a copy of each candidate’s latest book to read, which doubtless sent them into a frenzy when their online account registered the sale in real time.

Over the next two weeks, the reviewer read each of the books, making notes for his reviews. As he finished a book, he would either circle the author’s name on his list or cross it off. Very few were crossed off but, for those that were, he wrote an online review stating that their book was not terrible. Choosing the largest group of six authors, who met regularly at their writing club Writer’s Muse, the reviewer called the organizer of the group, Patty Brauner. Patty had written three simply dreadful books about her childhood rise from abject poverty, but all with great cover art and misleading back cover marketing text. He doubted there were many repeat sales.

“Hi Patty, my name is Judge Smith, I work for a division of Bertelsmann and evaluate Indie authors for possible publishing contracts. The reason I am calling is that I’ve noticed a cluster of likely authors who are affiliated with your Writer’s Muse group.” the reviewer said.

“Yes, that is the group I founded. What is your interest?” Patty said.

“Well, Patty, it seems to me that whatever you’re doing there is working. There are a number of published authors in that group that I would like to speak with, yourself included. Is there any way that I can attend a typical meeting to meet everyone and see how things are done?”

“Why, certainly. This is so exciting! We have a meeting coming up in a couple of weeks. We meet in my home. We generally work for an hour and a half then socialize until it ends.”

“Patty, one thing I must ask of you. It must be confidential as to why I am coming to the meeting. Let’s just say I am another aspiring author. The reason is that I want to see how your journey works, undisturbed, before people start acting strangely because I represent a publisher. We can break the news during the social hour, if that works. Landing a cohesive working group into contracts is much more interesting to me than simply finding sole artists.”

“I know what you mean. Together we are greater than the sum of the parts. I’ll keep it confidential until then, Judge. If I may ask, were you named after the actor?” Patty asked.

“I get that question a lot, especially in the United States. No, the answer is much more mundane, I am afraid. My mother thought I looked far too serious for a newborn baby, thus the name,” the reviewer said thinking fast as he changed the subject. “Are you aware of any agent representation issues that I should be concerned with prior to the meeting?”

“No, none of us have used agents up until now. So far we haven’t wanted them,” Patty divulged.

“No need for it at this point, I’m sure agents will approach all of you once our interest is made plain.”

Patty provided the reviewer with the date, time and location of the meeting, and they concluded the call.

The reviewer then ordered a small batch of business cards for Judge Smith and his fictitious division of Bertelsmann to be delivered to a drop box on the way to Kansas City. He also prepared a disguise that incorporated a temporary change of hair color, close trimmed mustache, beard, accentuated cheekbones, an expensive fedora, and European-cut business attire with patches on the elbows. Should fit right in, he thought to himself.

The day before the meeting, the reviewer packed up his camper van and car with everything he might need. Checking through his list, he then set out for the Walnut Grove RV Park in Shawnee Kansas with a short stop to pick up his business cards. Upon arrival, eight hours later, he disconnected the Honda for ease in transportation.

Hooking into the RV park Internet services, he established the usual secure access to international proxies and started to review what had taken place with Patty during the last 24 hours. Had she been able to keep her mouth shut? Without too much effort, he was able to enter her email server and started reading. Patty didn’t do too badly, but she did reach out to all of the authors and urge them baldly to come, without providing any details. Good girl, he thought, you’re still a candidate! My God, she subscribes to about fifty daily writing sites. No emails to Bertelsmann checking into my credentials, good. I think we are a go!

The reviewer pulled out the package of chocolate chip cookie dough that he had prepared the night before, his own special recipe. Cutting the dough in half, he made the first few perfect batches of cookies and set them aside to cool. The final half of the dough required special treatment. These cookies were to be larger than the rest and included macadamia nuts, and a variety of chocolate chip types. The reviewer readied a small HAZMAT chamber for the completed cookies. As they came out of the small oven, he carefully dusted each of them with a powder that he kept in a small vial inside the chamber. He watched while the powder was fully absorbed and the cookies cooled. Once he was sure that none of the powder had escaped, he purged the chamber with compressed air for several minutes and loaded the cookies into two plastic containers which were placed in the refrigerator. Now he could eat some dinner and relax with a glass of wine.

The next day, he monitored Patty’s compromised email account as well as her text messages. So far, she was living up to the compact. There was no unusual traffic amongst the group other than to all confirm that they would be in attendance. As the sun started to go down, the reviewer started the process of becoming Judge. No one at the park noticed his transformation and he drove off for the meeting.

Arriving in Patty’s neighborhood he parked down the street, positioned for an easy exit. Gathering the cookies along with a Moleskine notebook he headed for the front door and rang the bell.

Patty opened the door as if she had been watching for him. “Judge? Hello, I am Patty. Welcome to our group. What do you have there?”

“Hello Patty, it is a pleasure to finally meet in person. These are some special treats I prepared for the social bit of the evening. It’s a little something that I like to do.” Judge said as he handed the containers to her “No nibbles until after!”

“Certainly, I’ll put these in the kitchen for now. Come in and meet the group. Group, this is Judge Smith a prospective new member to Writer’s Muse. Sit, Judge, we’ll introduce ourselves as we go through the meeting.”

Judge smiled and did a small hand wave to the group while sitting down. The meeting kicked off much as Judge had expected. Each person introduced themselves, made various excuses as to why they hadn’t written much during the last week, then read several hundred words of what they had written. Then the group would give constructive feedback. As each person on Judge’s list spoke, Judge would write notes within his book. Judge smiled as he imagined the meeting to be much like that for Alcoholics Anonymous, “My name is Joe Blow, I’m an author. Last week was very hard for me and I was unable to write because …” The room would respond with vocal encouragement, as payment for what they would receive when they too rendered their excuses to the group. Some of the authors had decent skills, like Patty, but nothing interesting to say. Authors who persist even when they have nothing to say are as bad as those without the skills, Judge thought. Regardless, cleaning up this nest will be a service to the arts.

Finally the meeting closed, and Patty opened up the kitchen for refreshments.

“Patty, do you mind, my process is to make the conversational rounds while handing out cookies?” Judge picked up his containers and opened them. “Patty, as hostess and one of the main reasons I’m here tonight, you get the first one of the special cookies I prepared with my own hands.”

“Thank you, Judge! I do love chocolate chip cookies.” Patty said as she took several bites. “These are so good! What is your secret?”

“Butter, tender loving care, and my secret ingredient.”

Patty announced to the group why Judge was there, creating a buzz of side conversations. Judge reiterated what he had said earlier to Patty and went on to add that he looked forward to speaking with each of them. As he passed by each person he offered up cookies depending on whether they were on the list. If they were not, he would pass them the standard chocolate chip, telling them to take more than one if so inclined. If they were on the list, he would pass the special cookies and insist that they take one.

“I must confess that my feelings will be hurt if these aren’t appreciated,” Judge said in a self deprecating way, “Consider these special cookies the same as receiving a rose, in a different kind of contest.” The authors laughed appreciatively and tucked into their respective cookies.

One person on his list refused, citing an allergy to macadamia nuts. There’s always one, Judge thought, I’ll have to deal with him in a more conventional way. He was one of those citing writer’s block during the meeting, but now he was itching to get away from the meeting, saying that he had an idea that needed to be set down before he forgot it. Judge made an appointment to meet with him the next day.

Judge stayed and made conversation with the remaining authors. He assured the persons that didn’t get the special cookie that they should stick with the group, as it was clear it was headed somewhere good. Finally, Judge thanked his hostess Patty saying he would be in touch within the next few days. Gathering his containers together, he made his way to his parked Honda. Driving away, he pulled into the parking lot of a small convenience store and became the reviewer again by eliminating beard and makeup using a container of quick wipes. Looking for any security cameras and finding none, he threw his containers, cards and the spent quick wipes into the dumpster next to the building. Running down his operations checklist, he returned to the RV park and took a thorough shower, washing out the temporary hair coloring.

The reviewer then logged into the ebook platform site and wrote final reviews for each of the authors who had eaten the special cookies. The poison they had ingested would not kill them for several days, which was more than enough time to finish what business he still had in town. The final author would require a solution utilizing firearms, given the time constraints, but the reviewer was well prepared for that eventuality. He wrote the author’s final review, as well, but did not publish it.

Using his hacking tool kit, he was quickly able to determine that the author lived alone but was a bit of a throwback when it came to new technologies. The author’s computer, which he was currently using to write, didn’t have a webcam nor did the reviewer see one within the author’s home network. It did appear that he was listening to death metal as he wrote. Of course, the home network had been compromised almost immediately due to the author not changing the router default passwords. He didn’t even seem to have an active mobile phone, or at least one on the network. The reviewer went on to social media, and found the author’s business page to be mostly dedicated to his novels without much day to day activity.

Taking a deep breath, the reviewer decided to go out once more and see if there was an opportunity to close things out that night. Failing that he would have to plan something for the next evening. Putting on his dull black jeans and long sleeved black turtleneck, he got back into the Toyota for another drive to the author’s neighborhood.

This was a much seedier neighborhood than where the Writer’s Muse group met, gang graffiti adorned any wall that would stand for it, but there did not appear to be much foot traffic by that late hour. Cruising by the author’s house, he could see a light in what looked to be a bedroom window. The street was very dark, as it appeared that no street lights were operational. The few lights illuminated the homes willing to have paid for them, but there were not many. Perfect, he thought, I guess we can finish tonight. The reviewer parked about half a block down the street, opened his laptop and checked the status of the author. Still listening to death metal and writing.

The reviewer took his semiautomatic 9mm pistol from its case, and screwed a new canister silencer onto the end of the barrel. Everything in his kit was a dull black, the final touch was to place his black balaclava into his front pocket and the pistol into a shopping bag. That wouldn’t be needed until he was off the sidewalk and inside the house. The reviewer exited his car, and calmly walked the half a block to the author’s house. Looking around, there was no one out, so the reviewer moved swiftly to the outside wall of the home. Putting on his balaclava, the reviewer tested the front door which was locked. The back door was locked as well. The author was sitting in a bedroom on the first floor.

The in-ground basement had a window well which was perfect to hide a forced entry. Scoring a circular scratch onto the glass using a special key with an industrial diamond tip, the reviewer then tapped gently inside the circle until it popped into the basement room with a small clatter. Reaching in through the hole, the reviewer unlocked and opened the window. Using a small flashlight, he looked around the room. It was finished but was apparently used for long term storage. Gently stepping down, the reviewer entered the house.

He took out the pistol and placed the empty bag folded, into one of the open boxes.

Holding the flashlight in his mouth, he walked quietly towards the basement stairs. He walked up the steps slowly, hearing each creak of the stairs as loud as thunder. He paused and realized that he could not hear the author’s death music, then realized that he hadn’t heard it at all. Perhaps the author was wearing earphones? Turning off his flash light, he slowly opened the door to the basement stairs and entered the kitchen.

The only light came from nightlights, several in the kitchen and one in the hallway. At the end of the hall, there was light coming through a partially open doorway. Listening carefully, the reviewer could hear tinny death metal music, confirming that headphones were being used.

Holding his gun in firing position, the reviewer looked through the open sections of the door. The author was against the far wall, typing and listening to the music. The reviewer slowly opened the door just wide enough to admit him, and walking softly aimed the pistol at the back of the author’s head as he approached. At two feet the reviewer stopped, braced his hands on the gun and pulled the trigb6tyg5ytnui8..

[Published posthumously from files discovered by the author’s estate]

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin

 

 

 

 

Budget Demon

“I’ve got a mojo box,
with your head on top”

Southern Culture on the Skids, 2004

Stuart could not accept Bella’s abrupt departure, even after a long month had passed.

She had played the old “I need to understand who I am becoming, alone and I have to honor my process.” card rather than just stating that the relationship had ceased to work for her. Also left unsaid was that she expected Stuart’s sole contribution to the process to be his continued absence.

Stuart was the type of person who was seldom noticed in a crowd. Not handsome or ugly, reasonably fit, forgettable haircut, decent but not expensive tastes in clothes. Non-threatening, but with a nimble mind and wit (when he chose to use it). Stuart was a fixer or strategist by profession. His core talent was being able to evaluate the opposition (however defined) and help his clients prevail by whatever creative means were most effective. He could find an exploitable weakness in almost anything.

Bella in marked contrast was an artist, volatile, wildly creative and delightful in conversation. Her look was angular and thin, but not too terribly fit. These days she sported short Goth-black hair with upscale hippy clothing, that actually had to be paid for rather than having its origins in a bargain bin. Completing the picture was an abundance of art jewelry, mostly silver. Everyone noticed Bella, wherever she went.

There wasn’t lengthy discussion before she left. No heated arguments or other unpleasantness as her things were loaded and moved to the truck. Just a quick hug, a kiss on his cheek, the admonition to “Take care of yourself” as well as an “I’ll always treasure what we had!” and she was gone.

Stuart thought that what he objected to wasn’t so much what Bella did, as the way in which she did it. Abrupt, unilateral and final. He had expected something of the sort eventually, but simply wasn’t ready to take such a drastic decision himself. They had mostly run out of things to say to one another for some time, but had continued to be comfortable and warm in each other’s company.

Of course, it hadn’t helped his peace of mind to later hear from mutual friends that she had moved in with one of her male occult group friends. Why couldn’t she have just said she was doing that, rather than an artful dodge which felt like a lie?

In the days that followed, Stuart reclaimed all of his things that she had shared, the extra closet space, refrigerator shelves, and the demands on his time. However, the hole in his heart persisted and still rankled.

So one day when she telephoned, unexpected and irrational hope had blossomed.

“How have you been? For some reason I have been thinking of you. How has your work been going?”

Stuart had been spending more time with clients, preferring to be paid if he was going to be miserable anyway, but didn’t really want to talk much about that.

“I’ve been fine, working mostly. I did write a short poem last week which I thought had some legs. Do you want to hear it? It’s short.” he said.

Several beats of silence and “Sure, let’s hear it.”

“Every day, missing
Every day, hating
Every day, loving
Every day, waiting
Every day”
,

Stuart recited, with pauses in all of the right places, as that is always important.

“What do you think?”, he asked.

“I liked the theme repetition, and the order of the activities. It begs the question as to whether the waiting is actually for love or hate? The best verse doesn’t always lend certainty, in my opinion, so well done!”, she said.

Yes, Bella, those things are certainly observable, Stuart thought to himself, but how do you feel about it?

That question was not going to be answered by Bella, not least because she hadn’t heard it. Stuart found that he had no further interest in casual conversation. Casual conversation, after such a long mental intimacy, created even more wounds which could not be overtly acknowledged. Stuart saw no benefit or future in being a friendly acquaintance, plus he had higher intimacy expectations for people he considered friends. So he thanked her politely for the call and, inventing a client meeting for which he was late, rang off.

Several days later, he met his friend Brian at a local brewpub for happy hour. Over the loud Two-Drink-for-One ambient bar atmosphere, he shared his inability to move on from Bella, with Brian.

“Stu, the real problem here is that you were too civilized. The bridge between you two isn’t well and truly burned, so you don’t know what to do next.”

Stuart thought he understood but, being thorough, asked “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“It all comes down to a difference in the way that men and women view past relationships. Women have an imaginary curio cupboard where all of their past loves are kept as figurines. Women will periodically take one down in remembrance, dust it off, heave a deep meaningful sigh and then put it back in its place on the shelf. They then will continue their day as though nothing had happened. Men, on the other hand, tend to break the figurines as well as the shelf (and perhaps the wall behind it) in order to move on. Remembering all of the good things only exacerbates the loss, for men.”

“You, my friend, have not broken the figurine and cannot therefore move on.”

Brian said this with the certainty that comes from self knowledge, and being halfway through his second round of happy hour beer.

Stuart thought for a few moments and said, “I’m not really interested in hurting her just so I can burn a bridge. I wouldn’t mind doing something that would make her appreciate, or provide a taste of, my feelings in all of this. We didn’t work out, that happens. She should feel some of the disconnect and accept some of the negative as well. Not sure how I would go about doing just that.”

“The answer is staring you in the face, Stuart. What do you do for a living? You find and exploit the weaknesses in things. Why don’t you treat her as an opponent? You already have your rules for the proper types of revenge, and yes what we are talking about here is revenge. How would you create enough cognitive dissonance or angst to make her uncomfortable and recognize what she lost in you? How much effect is needed before you feel some closure?”

Brian drained his glass, “Look, Stu. I’m about done with the New-Age-Sensitive-Guy routine for tonight. In fact, I’m planning to go ugly, early. You might want to consider that as an alternative to my suggestion, nothing like a new romance to cauterize the loss of an old one!” With that Brian lurched off towards a loud gaggle of women on his own mission.

You know, Stuart thought as he headed home to his empty house, Brian might have a point. Where would I find such a weakness in Bella? What is there about her which could lend itself to creation of discomfort, rather than tangible injury? She was honest, for the most part, so dishonesty was not an opening. Greed or avarice provides an avenue for many people, but neither really applied to Bella. What about her belief in the occult and supernatural? That might be a good choice, but how?

Stuart considered this aspect of Bella’s life to be nothing more than superstitious nonsense. While he hadn’t made it an issue during their time together, he viewed it as one of her little quirks. During the entire time they were together, he had never seen anything tangible that would support such a belief. Bella wasn’t concerned about his views on the topic other than to state that there were many more things in the universe than ever met the eyes of someone prone to skepticism. Usually, she would follow that up with a hug or a kiss as though to prove she wasn’t bothered or being critical.

She believed in spells, how about doing something along those lines? Spells probably weren’t the best choice, he decided, as spells seemed to be fairly predictable in effect. Stuart was really striving for something that created persistent anxiety or non-specific angst. The best result, from his perspective, would be for Bella to be uncomfortable or anxious, without being able to prepare against or counteract an imaginary threat. No, a spell would just enable her, or her new roommate, to simply cast a “counterspell” and consider the issue dealt with. He chuckled an aside to himself, that the counterspell would work just as well as the spell itself. i.e. not at all. No, this had to be something that would linger in her mind, even in the absence of tangible effect.

What about demons? She had mentioned on more than one occasion that she and others from her family could “see” demons. She also maintained that all demons were dangerous and should not be engaged for frivolous ends. Since Stuart didn’t believe in the supernatural, he heard those cautions as stories, little different from those of the religious. You either had faith, believing the stories even in the absence of tangible proof, or you didn’t believe them at all.

I think I will summon a demon to bother her, that should blow a cold wind up her skirt, Stuart thought. Of course, I can’t just say I have summoned a demon, she has always been able to know when I am lying. Therefore, I must do some preliminary research, follow the guidelines or process of summoning/tasking a demon, tell her what I have done afterwards and let the fun commence.

Having a plan felt better than not having one. Stuart fired up his computer and started researching online. Unfortunately, most of the search engine returns were fansites for various television shows which featured the supernatural. Clearly, those were not the right sources. He even checked the website of the occult group to which Bella belonged, SealsofFate.com, but there weren’t any obvious resources for spells or summonings, just a lot of member conversation threads on where to best find ingredients that would be put to unspecified uses.

Stuart was about to give up, when a popup advertisement appeared for “Blazin’ Bob’s One Stop Occult Shop – Locations near You!”. Stuart thought, why not and clicked the banner marked Shop Locations, entering his zip code into the form. A new browser screen opened with details of a local store which, oddly enough, was located within the Streedle Beat Mall, near Stuart’s home. Perfect and convenient.

Thinking that there was no time like the present, Stuart walked over to the mall concourse, looking for a directory. The Streedle Beat Mall had the usual assortment of retail establishments, a food court, and about a million teenagers no matter the time of day. Looking down the directory, he found the listing. The store was located in the space formerly occupied by a Radio Shack, and a motley crew of successor firms which never seemed to last long.

Dodging teenagers the entire way, Stuart walked across the mall towards the store. He noticed that the teenager density gradually diminished as he approached the door. That’s odd, he thought, I would have expected a place like this to be a magnet for teenagers, Goths if no one else.

As he entered the shop, an old fashioned bell hung over the door rang.

“I’ll be right out” a voice shouted from the backrooms of the store.

Stuart headed over to the occult book shelves and started browsing. The first few he looked through were written in Middle or Early English, without notes or references of any kind. No table of contents either, clearly these books were meant to be read cover-to-cover. Stuart was the impatient sort of reader when it came to how-to books, he generally referred to the table of contents or index prior to turning directly to the section he needed. Facing the prospect of reading through the tomes, sifting for the important information, did not appeal to him.

“Can I help you?” a voice from behind him asked.

Stuart started and turned. The small thin man was dressed in clean but shabby clothes, covered by a store smock with the Blazin’ Bob logo foremost. On a small pocket, which had several writing utensils parked, almost as an afterthought was a name tag labeled “Bob”.

“Yes, I believe I do need some help with my project.” Stuart said. The name tag registered at that point and he asked “Are you THE Bob?”.

Bob laughed and replied, “I get that question a lot. No, I am not THE Bob, merely one of the many Bob’s which run a Blazin’ Bob franchise. Blazin’ Bob only sells franchises to persons named Bob, something to do with the franchise branding and name tag economies of scale. Of course people could always change their name to Bob, as some have done, to get round that requirement. But enough of that, how can I help you today, sir?”

“I’ll get to that in a sec, because I have another off-topic question. Isn’t it odd that there aren’t any teenagers hanging around the store, I would have thought they’d be everywhere, since this kind of thing would appeal to a large number of them?”

“Not odd at all, sir. What you are seeing is the result of Blazin’ Bob’s standard Teenager Repelling Ward Kit. We find that most of our target customers are put off by having teenagers around, therefore we make sure teenagers don’t interfere with our business. Since we are in a mall, the issue is even more pronounced. We are also a responsible corporate entity, in that we don’t think non-adult persons should be involved in occult matters.”

Stuart laughed, “I may want to buy one of those as well. Several of the neighborhood children are getting on into their teenage years and you never know how that will turn out.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll make a note. Now, how else can I help you?”

“Well, I’m a bit of a novice, but I want to summon a demon. Looking through some of these texts, it is difficult to find that section based on what I seen so far. I’d prefer not to have to wade through a lot of extraneous text before I get to demon summoning.”

Bob took out a handkerchief that had seen better, and cleaner, days and blew his nose soundly. “That, sir, is fairly advanced magic. Furthermore there is a wide range of what types of entities can be summoned, as well as what it takes to do so. It might help a bit to know what type of entities for which you are aiming.”

“Can you give me some examples?” Stuart said, “I’m not familiar with the specific names or types that would be available.”

“Certainly. In general, they can range in power from small imps, say, to a prince of Hell, and the difficulty or cost increases more or less proportionately with the power. The risk to the summoner is also more or less proportional. Here, let me show you some examples from the tome you’re holding. So, if you are summoning a run-of-the-mill demon, you need something to scribe a ward which restrains the demon from attacking you (very important). For small demons, common household chalk would work. Large demons might require something as rare as charcoal from a saint’s bones. Sometimes the ingredients have to be gathered over time, such as nightshade leaves harvested in Cornwall under the light of a gibbous moon using a pure silver knife untouched by human hands. We have a standing policy at Blazin’ Bob’s that we never inquire as to why  a customer wants something, but in this case it would be helpful to understand the scale for which you’re striving.”

Stuart thought for a second and mused, “I don’t really have a need for large scale, in fact I think it should be something that only requires a reasonable amount of effort. I’m looking to do this as soon as possible, so travel to far flung places and the need for special timing should be minimized if at all possible.”

“Thank you, sir. I think I have just the thing. Have you heard of Mystic Mort’s ‘Summoning for the Mostly Moronic’, part of the Mostly Moronic line of how-to books? It’s even indexed so that you can easily find what you want.”

“I have the Mostly Moronic books on French Cuisine and HTML Programming, so that should do very well I think, they’ve always been very helpful in the past.” Stuart said.

“You’ll likely want the section for summoning an imp. That is the least difficult both in terms of both risk and the materials needed. As for materials, you can probably find everything you need at Stallmart, my cousin Robert runs a mystic materials stall there. Tell him I sent you, if it is not too much trouble.”

“Thanks, I’ll take the book! And throw in a couple of Teenager Repelling Ward Kits while we are at it, one extra in the event that the first one doesn’t take.” Stuart took out his credit card and handed it over. Revenge had never been acquired at such a reasonable price.

Bob placed the items in a shopping bag and handed it over to Stuart. “Don’t forget to be very careful on the instructions, even small demons can be a handful if not careful.”

“Thanks, I will.” Stuart replied as he walked back to his home.

Stallmart was close by, and since Stuart had decided to get everything the same day, he turned to page 187 of the Summoning book and quickly copied the list that was shown in the box labeled, “You’ll Need:” onto a convenient sticky note.

Frederick Stall of Gothenburg, Nebraska was the founder of the Stallmart national chain of shopping stores. Stall had always been fascinated by the concept of rural marketplaces, and resolved to create little stores within the enclosed spaces of large buildings across the nation. The idea was similar to an indoor shopping mall, with an important difference. Instead of just leasing space to smaller stores which managed their own business, Stall’s vision was to provide identical services and products in every Stallmart, and selling franchises to operate the “stalls” to operators. Stall’s parent company set operations and product standards, marketed, managed inventories and drove high level economies of national scale. The franchisees ran the stalls.

Every Stallmart had grocery, home goods, electronics, pharmacy, optometry, and automotive stalls. Each Stallmart also had a wide assortment of lesser known stalls, such as the Mystic Materials stall managed by Bob’s cousin Robert.

Stuart parked his car in the “Stallmart Car Detailing” stall and went inside the grand promenade to reference the store directory. I get lost every time I come in here, he thought to himself. Normally, Stuart only did his weekly grocery shopping there, as the pricing was excellent, but didn’t walk the entire store for non-specific window shopping.

Looking through the listing he found the Mystic Materials location, it was a small stall next to a wireless device boutique. Skirting the aggressive tout at the wireless device stall he scuttled into the Mystic Materials shop.

Looking around, the closely spaced row shelves which were jam-packed with small containers and the room itself smelled slightly musty. Seeing a counter bell, Stuart rang it.

“Hello? I’ll be right there” a surprisingly resonant voice spoke from a small slightly framed man. “Ah, here you are. My name is Robert, what can I help you find?”

Robert pronounced his name ‘Row Bear’, which amused Stuart. Thinking there might be an additional discount available he asked, “Yes, I have a list of the ingredients needed for a project of mine and I was referred to you by your cousin Bob over at the Blazin’ Bob shop.”

“Which Blazin’ Bob shop are we talking about? The one at the Streedle Beat Mall or the one off of Highway 15?” Robert asked.

“Why, the one at Streedle Beat.”

“Thank you, I have two cousins with Blazin’ Bob franchises.”

“Both named Bob, I suppose?”

“Of course! All the males in our family are named Robert. Some of us change how it is pronounced in order to maintain some semblance of the individual, not to mention it being a convenient conversational shortcut when talking in-family. One cousin even pronounces his name as ‘Frank’, but that is less common than simple plays on the same name like Rob or Bert.”

“Interesting, Row-Bear. Here is the list of items I’ll be needing. Do you have all of them available?” Stuart said, handing over the sticky note.

Robert read down the list, nodding his head with each entry. “Yes, we do have all of these items, however, you will also have a fair amount of each left over. While the sold quantities come in small amounts, your project doesn’t require very much. One of the minor issues imposed by working with Stallmart is that we only sell pre-packaged items, but you’ll find the prices are quite comparable to competitors selling by the unit. Is this list from the Mystic Mort’s ‘Summoning’ book? Yes, I thought so. Then you’ll have plenty of leftover ingredients for other uses, Mystic Mort specifies a lot of the same ingredients in his formulations.” As he spoke, his hands were picking items off of the shelves as he ran down the list.

Stuart shook his head, “I am only working the one project, but I’m sure your pricing will not be an obstacle. Was there a referral discount connected with Bob’s reference?”

“Absolutely, very little I wouldn’t do for dear cousin Bob. I’ll include your discount when I ring up the charges. Now, will you be paying with cash, debit or credit card?”

Robert deftly worked the register, processing the transaction. Stuart declined being added to the list receiving a newsletter, but was nice about it.

Robert handed the bag over to Stuart, “Thank you for your business, please refer your friends to us. Have a great day, and if it isn’t great, the spell for fixing that is on page 287.” he said with a wink.

What an odd experience, Stuart thought. He quite enjoyed the conversations with Bob and Robert, it reminded him of the slightly off-kilter effect that Bella always had on him. Of course, that thought dampened his mood somewhat as he remembered why he was engaged in the summoning of an imp in the first place.

He picked up his newly clean car and drove home. He resolved to do the summoning the next evening, which should give him adequate time to read and fully understand the instructions.

As Stuart read the instructions, he realized that his old photography hobby equipment would be useful, as he already had beakers and various other chemical handling equipment readily available. He hadn’t previously thought about it, but not having to use the dishes he ate off of was probably a better approach.

The next day was filled with expectation. Stuart planned to contact Bella shortly after the summoning, checking in to see how “she was doing”. He would casually drop the comment that he had summoned something that should keep her up at night, with an evil chuckle. He longed for a mustache to twirl. He’d then listen for the first indications of concern and then ring off. That would put paid to all remaining angst concerning her abandoning him, and he could move forward with his life. Who knows, maybe Brian would then be available for a late dinner?

The first step was mixing a cleansing bathing fluid. Stuart had a magnetic mixer from his photography kit that served the bill nicely for mixing things in a glass beaker. As he dropped each ingredient into the swirling mix, he solemnly spoke the prescribed words. Once that was complete, he set it aside in a fresh flask and started on the priming solution after he had washed the mixing beaker. This one required simmering heat during the preparation, which Stuart supplied using his kitchen gas cooktop. It too was set aside in a separate clean glass beaker.

So far, so good. He thought as he reviewed the next step. I guess I need to decide where the ritual should take place. Someplace convenient to the kitchen, I suppose. The granite countertop is quite expansive, although probably too slick to accept the necessary chalk ward lines. I’ll just use a portion of the last large cardboard box I got from Amazon over the countertop.

He cut the box into a 24 inch by 24 inch square, which he set atop the granite countertop. Getting his masking tape from the workroom, he taped the entire cardboard square down so that it wouldn’t slip or move. Stuart then lined up the balance of the ingredients next to the square for easy access.

Drawing the pentagram ward design was fairly simple exercise for Stuart. He took the special drawing stick, which acted like chalk even if it was not strictly speaking chalk, and drew the interconnecting straight lines into the familiar pentagram design. The center of the five-sided design was approximately 4 inch by 4 inch, plenty of room to center the provided special candle. Looking it over, Stuart considered it a credible effort, and went on to complete the full circle around the pentagram. He then poured salt onto the entire circle.

Stuart placed the candle and holder in the middle of the pentagram, dipping his fingers into the cleansing solution which he then flicked over the complete tableau while saying the words specified in the instructions. He dried his fingers on a clean hand towel, and picked up the candle lighting taper. He lit the wax taper, moving it slowly to the candle centerpiece, which caught almost immediately.

Blowing out the taper, a small tail of smoke wisped up past his nose. There was an unusual smell in Stuart’s kitchen. Must be a fragrance in the taper or candle, he thought.

Now for the final step, he dipped his fingers in the priming solution and this time flicked the solution into the flame while saying, “I summon you to bedevil, Bella my lost love, and be a blight on her happiness from this day forth.”

Stuart was rather proud of the text he had come up with and couldn’t wait to tell Bella about it. As he flicked the solution onto the flame, it flared several feet towards the ceiling and receded to just the normal candle flame height. Must have been something in the priming mix to do that, but a nice effect, thought Stuart. He flicked a few more drops onto the flame but this time didn’t see any unusual effect other than the candle sputter.

Well, that doesn’t matter, it’s time call Bella! he thought.

He dialed Bella’s number and after a couple of rings she answered.

“Hi Bella, this is Stuart! I wanted to check in on you to see how you are doing?”

“Hi Stu, things have been just fine here, how are you?” Bella asked.

“I’ve been busy on some new projects. Throughout, I was thinking of you and all of your occult studies and it occurred to me that you could use a demon around your house. So I went ahead, summoned one and ordered it to head your way.”

“Demon? I thought you didn’t hold much stock in the topic.” Bella said.

Before Stuart could answer, a large crash was heard through the phone. Bella yelled something unintelligible before she turned the same vocal volume at Stuart, “Stuart, you complete idiot! What have you done?”

Stuart was about to answer, but the phone connection went dead in his hand. He redialed Bella, but evidently she was not picking up. This had gone even better than he had imagined!

His mood lifted, he walked over to the refrigerator to pour himself a glass of wine. He lifted the glass and readied a toast to himself.

“Oh, what occasion are we toasting?” asked a cavernous deep voice behind Stuart.

Stuart whirled, spilling just a bit of wine, and saw something coming through the wall of his kitchen. It was approximately human in shape, but very hard to see as the edges seemed to be blurry. The air within the kitchen seemed to also be under greater pressure as the dark figure fully entered the room.

“Who are you?” Stuart cried, “You’ve given me such a start!”

“My name you couldn’t pronounce and I likely wouldn’t tell you regardless. You can call me Buz if that matters to you. Are you the one I have to thank for the delightful snack I just had?”

“Snack?”

“Yes, someone sent a smallish imp over to Bella’s. They aren’t much good for anything except a quick bite, but as hungry as I have been, it was quite welcome.”

“What are you?” Stuart inquired as panic started to have its way with him.

“A much better question than who I am. I am a greater demon, currently under geas to serve as Bella’s home security system. Evidently, it was easier to summon me than spend $39.99 a month for a human-monitored system. Luckily for me, my self-worth isn’t tied to that information. Did I mention I am still hungry?”

“I also see from the apparatus lying about that the imp indeed came from here. I knew that already having tracked it back, but it pays to follow the forms when engaged in this type of activity. Based on the rules under which I am bound, I am now permitted to eat you for breaching Bella’s home security. When last I saw her, she was unconscious underneath a fallen bookshelf, so I should probably get on with the eating as she might stop me, were she awake. Nothing personal, and I did appreciate the snack.” said Buz as he slowly moved towards Stuart. His form seemed to expand with each step.

Stuart backed away from the oncoming presence, running into his countertop. His mind, unable to comprehend matters, searched wildly for any option. Maybe this person, who thinks he’s a demon, is also superstitious. Quickly, he grabbed the beaker of cleansing solution and poured it all into the primer flask. A bubbling rose up and Stuart threw the entire contents of the combined fluid onto Buz’s chest.

Buz, looking down the front of his body in stunned disbelief, “You are the luckiest son of a bitch I have ever met! That’s Mystic Mort’s Geas Remover Potion or I’m a prince of Hell!”

“Now I have even more for which to thank you. However, I am still very hungry. Therefore I will still eat you, but I’ll show you a mercy and make sure that you don’t suffer more than absolutely necessary. Win-Win. How does that sound?”, Buz asked, resuming his advance towards Stuart.

Stuart’s mind was in disarray, nothing presented itself. Finally, just as the shadow of Buz’s fingers touched Stuart’s body, he cried “But I don’t believe in demons!”.

Buz chuckled, “Skeptics taste the best of all!”.

The screaming was abrupt and mercifully short lived.

The sound of chewing, however, went on for quite some time.

“Now that was a meal!”, a deep voice exclaimed accompanied by a lengthy belch. “I do have some room left for dessert, though.”

Several minutes later, in a kitchen not too far away, the deep voiced words “Bella, I’m home!” were heard.

 

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin

Breakfast with Howard

“Is that you, Danny?”, I heard as I entered the side door of my grandfather’s house in the early morning.

“Yeah, it’s me” I answered, thinking that if I were anyone else it was too late to do anything about it.

“Come in the kitchen and pull up a chair.”

I had walked the several blocks from our Bloomington, California home on Lynwood Street, crossing Valley Blvd and over to their home on Portola Avenue in the dark of the early morning. Mom always insisted that I had to report to work early, so I generally got there well before Grandpa was ready to leave. That meant a second breakfast most days. Grandpa would be sitting at the kitchen table, smoking pretty much nonstop and drinking black percolated coffee. By the time I arrived, Grandpa was polishing off most of a can of biscuits and whatever bacon Grandma had prepared. Grandpa’s biscuits of choice were the store-brand ones which came 10 chunks of biscuit dough to a can, which we could get on sale at twelve cans for a dollar at the Safeway on Valley Blvd. The bacon, could be any kind as long as it was pork. Is there a wrong kind of pork bacon?

During summer vacation and school year weekends of my early high school years I had many opportunities to work for Howard Sharp, my maternal grandfather. At the time, I wouldn’t have necessarily labeled it an “opportunity”, but with the improved vision one attains only with age, opportunity is exactly what it was.

The way my mother presented it to me, was that I had to help my grandfather. That was an argument I always fell for, as I dearly loved this particular grandfather. I made a little cash, but also learned house framing, drywall, painting, plumbing, piping, and landscaping. So yes, it was an opportunity.

My sister, brother and I were fortunate to have seven grandparents for much of our childhood (four regular and three greats). So just saying Grandpa and Grandma would have created some confusion. My Dad always referred to our maternal grandparents as Howard and Odessa. We, on pain of early death, were not allowed that verbal shortcut. To us children, they were just Grandma and Grandpa Sharp.

Grandpa was always telling stories and cracking jokes. Grandma was always deadly serious. Grandpa was an adult friend. Grandma represented the forces of order and discipline. My aunt, years later, decried that Grandma was all too often the straight person or butt of Grandpa’s jokes. That was certainly true, but as my daughter pointed out, those roles were established by the two of them long ago and it created a cohesive entertainment team. You never see a partnership where the straight person swaps places with the joker periodically, it would likely confuse the audience. Plus, a straight person isn’t usually capable of making the necessary personality switch in an effective way.

“Have some biscuits and bacon. Odessa, cook up some more bacon for Danny.” He’d flash a mischievous grin and point out an empty chair at the stainless steel trimmed dinette table.

Grandma would greet me, with as few hugs as I could reasonably manage, and then start cooking a whole new batch of bacon on the stove. One of the reasons we all resisted hugs from Grandma is that she usually wore a lot of rose fragrance. The closer you got to her the more stifling it would be. One had to hold their breath when getting a hug and kiss, if you were wanting to avoid sneezing and coughing fits. Grandpa referred to it as her “chemical warfare”. Truth told, she probably just didn’t like the smell of cigarettes which permeated their home. If you had a good sense of smell, the combination was enough to make you choke. Adding bacon, biscuits and whatever else was being cooked to the mix wasn’t sufficient to lift the curse.

Grandma was fairly short, close to five feet tall and built solid. We used to joke that she was probably five feet in circumference as well. However it was not today’s classic flabby obese look, she was farmer’s wife solid with large shoulders and legs like pillars, not a lot of jiggle. In those days, she was usually dressed as though she was going to church, with dress, fake pearls, girdle, rollup nylon stockings and sensible dress shoes. The fake pearls came off when she was being casual. (Many years later she started wearing pantsuits, well before Hillary Clinton, but that was long after I was an adult.) I can’t remember ever seeing her in shorts or a swimsuit, and I think that would have been memorable, even in the 70s.

Grandma was lacquered down, but never liquored up. Hair up and done all the time, held strictly in place by gallons of lacquer hairspray. The hairstyle was that of the Primitive Baptist Church in Texas where she grew up. As a younger child, my cousins and I would throw paper airplanes at her hair. Once, a particularly well-crafted effort crash-landed into her hair nose-first and it stuck. Grandma went through her whole day around the house not knowing why the grandkids were paralyzed with giggles. Grandpa saw it happen, just shook his head and smiled. Grandma was so straight that a whole family of jokers could work with it.

Baptists, as a general rule, are not huge fans of alcohol consumption. In fact they are primarily responsible for the continued existence of most of the dry alcohol-free counties left in the United States. Grandpa liked to have a drink on occasion, but didn’t keep it in the house in order to enjoy some semblance of marital peace. Of course, I maintain that Grandma was in fact a secret drinker and that she simply never acknowledged it. Why? Because she drank Nyquil (10% alcohol) by the gallon in order to help her sleep. Saying something is “just medicine” when it has more alcohol content than beer is difficult to justify with a straight face. Grandma had evolved to the point where she was merely a Baptist, but maintained the sartorial look of the more conservative branch. One step more liberal than the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues Pentacostals (although we have some of those in the family as well).

“Odessa doesn’t need any more of these biscuits and bacon. One of these days, her girdle is going to burst and kill everyone in the room with shrapnel!” japed Grandpa.

Grandma would wave her spatula at him half threatening, he would just laugh, cough and keep up the running dialog.

Grandpa wasn’t much taller than Grandma, not overweight but solid as well. Grandpa’s daily uniform consisted of steel-toe work shoes, belted khaki pants, tucked-in single pocket short-sleeve cotton shirt. Grandpa’s signal that he was ready for “bidness” was whenever he put his cigarettes in the shirt pocket. But that was some time later in the morning generally.

Since Grandpa didn’t ever leave until the beginning of the normal workday it left ample time for stories at the breakfast table. Later, I better understood that he was treating the tenants respectfully by starting maintenance activities after their morning routines.

Looking back though, I can’t imagine I was all that helpful. I had to be taught every task prior to being useful and Grandpa was still stronger than me when it was most needed, assuming he was wearing his trusty truss (as he referred jokingly to it). Most of what Grandpa did was manage and maintain his many rental properties as well as renovate new ones. So the tasks could range from home construction to yard maintenance, depending on what was needed at the time. Grandpa was like a vulture, always on the lookout for single family homes that had been purchased under eminent domain and scheduled for demolition. He would swoop in, place a bid to remove the home, generally buying a framed house for pennies on the dollar. He would lift the house frame up onto a trailer truck and move it to a vacant lot that he had previously prepared to receive it. Once placed, he’d reconnect and renovate the home, find a new tenant. The house I lived in was one of his better efforts. At one time, Grandpa had relatives living in about half of his rentals. Talk about underperforming investments!

“Danny, did I ever tell you about the time I tangled with the croton oil?”

“Howard!” Grandma harrumphed, “That isn’t a story for the breakfast table!”

Grandpa just raised an eyebrow, grinned and pulled on his cigarette.

I had heard this story many times before, but it was funny every time and I was not about to put a halt to it. Grandpa changed his stories just enough to make them new and interesting each time. Grandpa liked to tell stories about growing up in Oklahoma just prior to the Depression, but he also told dirty jokes once we got old enough to appreciate them. Of course, he wasn’t telling the dirty jokes in front of Grandma, as that would have brought her over the counter! In later years, long after he had passed, my aunt asked whether Grandpa ever told us dirty jokes. She seemed surprised when I confirmed that he often did, and that we told him our dirty jokes too, which he always seemed to enjoy. We knew he enjoyed them because, besides choking and coughing when he heard the punchlines, he would sometimes tell us a joke we had previously told him, only doing it better. Her question was also ironic, because this aunt was one of my main sources for dirty jokes. In fact, I would tell Grandpa jokes that she had told me, and I would tell her jokes that he had supplied. I thought it was pretty safe being a middleman, as they weren’t likely telling the same juvenile jokes to each other.

“You see, Danny, when I was a kid I used to steal our neighbor’s watermelons. Actually it was worse than stealing, we used to just crack them open and eat the hearts right there. We’d eat the heart, because that was the best part and it didn’t have any seeds to slow you down, throw away the rest. Whether you’re stealing watermelon or chickens, you have to move fast! The farmers used to have rock-salt shotgun shells and were not reluctant to put a load into your backside if they caught you stealing.”

Grandpa had an accent that I had always associated with Oklahoma. But later I would hear something very similar from Lakota Sioux storytellers. Similar in the way he formed his spoken English. It added a cadence to the stories and was quite unusual for Southern California. Occasionally I still listen to Lakota storyteller recordings and hear Grandpa’s voice.

“The farmers weren’t happy about losing their crops, so they used to leave traps for us. That is where the croton oil comes in.”

“What’s croton oil, Grandpa?”

“Croton oil is a cattle laxative, for cattle that get constipated. A very powerful, fast acting laxative. Danny, you’d think that cattle, eating all that fiber like hay and grass, wouldn’t get constipated. But they do and they can die from it. You get constipated, you feel like you’re dying, right? In a cow, all of that hay sometimes gets compressed into a plug which just won’t move. One approach is to reach up into the cow’s ass with your arm and try to stir things up by hand, breaking or extracting the plug. That isn’t always successful, you could break your arm and at a minimum it definitely leaves you feeling dirty for a couple of weeks. Or you can just give ’em some croton oil. That takes care of bidness right directly. Makes a mess though.”

“What is the farmer doing with the croton oil?” I asked.

“I was getting to that. You understand that a laxative powerful enough to work quickly on a cow is a darn sight stronger than Ex-Lax? Good! Anyhow, the farmers had a problem losing watermelons to local kids and they have a liquid laxative that is very strong. So what they do, Danny, is choose a couple or really big ripe watermelons still on the vine that are close to where we have been coming in to steal them at night. Roll them over a little, cut a core in the rind, pour some croton oil into the hole, put the plug back on the melon, setting it up so that you can’t see the plug. Then leave it there for our night visits.”

At this point, I’m day-dreaming ways to get my hands on some croton oil and who I’d like to share it with, as he goes on.

“So after dinner one night, I get a taste for some ripe watermelon. I make my excuses, and fade away into the night over to that farmer’s place. The coast looked clear, so I hopped the fence and looked for a good place to start. In the moonlight, you can see pretty well, but you still have to thump ’em to check for ripe. I found a likely prospect, broke her open, scooped out the heart and ate the first one. Delicious, so I started looking for a second one, bend down to pick it up and then I couldn’t stand up for the cramps. The flood gates opened up in the backside of my trousers and I thought I was dying right there. As much pain as I was in, I knew I couldn’t make too much noise because of the farmer’s shotgun and his dogs. So I stumble back to the road, collapsing in cramps every few feet, while that croton oil tried its best to reunite the watermelon heart with the field it came from.”

As always at this point of the story, I am already snorting with laughter in between bites of biscuit. So he moves in for the kill.

“If that farmer had wanted to, he could have tracked me home next day, as I left a pretty clear trail.”

He tucks the pack of cigarettes into his shirt pocket, “Time to get to work, Danny. We can’t sit around like Odessa, eating biscuits and bacon all day.”

And off we went to meet the demands of the day.

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin