What Service Does Your Dog Provide?

By Karen Walasek

Finn has “officially” been my medical assist service dog since May in 2011. In broad terms what that means is he helped me with my physical health concerns in ways that no human can. His relatives have been known to smell diabetes and cancer. They can be trained to respond in ways that save the lives of people in their care. They provide the blind with mobility. But for me, the most amazing feat was Finn’s undying focus (on me and others in need) and his drive to respond as he saw fit. As my relationship with Finn grew he took on responsibilities beyond the narrowly defined physical aspects of my personal well-being. Long before his death he became a ritual maker, time keeper, and guardian of balance extraordinaire, tuning into the needs of those within his chosen sphere of influence in ways that eventually taught me to mostly just sit back and watch. I say mostly, because Finn had a way of pushing the limits that caused me to question my own unexamined mistaken loyalties to the propriety of sacrilegiously protected social constructs. All that barking at the Bread and Puppet theater threw me for a loop, I never saw him do anything like it, but Finn knew disruption when he saw it and the need to seek balance.

Finn didn’t care if you were a professor lecturing a class after running a marathon who needed a lick on the leg because your muscles were threatening to cramp, or a student teacher who needed to be reminded to take your meds. He didn’t care if I knew why he had decided to jump up from beneath my seat, bark and paw at a student until the student responded. His sense of purpose was unshakeable. Afterwards he would sit with what I came to know as his official stance, head tilted up slightly, sitting proudly with a look on his face that could only be seen as satisfaction with a job well done. To be sure, I would be embarrassed often, trying to honor the special privileges a service dog owner is supposed to respect, but when human after human would confide in me what service Finn provided for them I learned to accept that Finn chose his service in ways that were beyond my ability to comprehend and I learned to let him take the lead.

When I was a graduate student at Portland State College classes which were held in circles with all the chairs pushed back leaving the center open, became an invitation for Finn to begin and end our gathering with a ritual roll on his back. It became such a known ceremony that students would ask him if there was a problem if he refrained.  Class just couldn’t begin unless Finn did his roll, and it wasn’t over until he said so. Before long people began thanking me for bringing Finn and the best part of sharing my life with him became listening to these stories. I would be pointed at on the escalator of a mall by a teenager yelling proudly, “I know that dog!” Finn as service dog to the world was a teachable moment for children to learn about service dogs and to learn they should always ask first before you reach to touch a dog. They also learned that animals should have their sovereignty respected when I would ask Finn if he wanted to say “hello”, and sometimes he would turn his head away in an obvious “no”. He was the ambassador for veterans with PTSD who would randomly walk up to us in a book store to ask about getting their own service dog. Struggling high school students needing individualized learning plans, elderly couples who recently lost their dog, travelers nervous about flying, unruly teenagers who needed to be told rough housing is for outdoors only, I have lost count of those he touched.

All the while Finn never lost track of me. He filled the cracks and crevices of my life with love and devotion, tucked under my desk, the dinner table, a restaurant booth, at my feet during a cross country flight, I was never alone. He was always there, watching out for me. What this did for me was allowed me to become healthy. Finn willed me to get better. I went from being someone who could barely get in and out of a car to someone who does farm chores. I went from someone who felt defeated by my health to someone who knew no fear to find the next step whenever I reached a plateau. Wherever I went, whatever I needed to do, I could regain my sense of courage and feel safe.

These things will always be with me, even as I am constantly met with the places where Finn is no longer there. No need to ask if my buddy-buddy needs to go out, no need to make sure the water bowl in the bathroom is filled in case he wants to get a drink in the middle of the night. It’s the mundane empty places that hit me unaware and I uncontrollably grieve his loss. I expect that. Finn taught me that, who cares what rules might claim different. Needs must be met; all rules be damned. How could I not? On his last day I only left him once to go to the barn to milk the cow. He had been on the back porch so that he could take in the fresh air of his farm. Though he could barely stand, when I returned he had managed to make it to the edge of the gate closest to the barn so he could keep an eye out for my return. In his last hours he wanted me close, never to lose physical contact so that I sat in my chair with my foot pressed against his side never to allow for a break in touch. I read to him, Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community by Sobonfu Somé. Somé told tales of the specialness of each child being born in this world, each with a special gift to share, it made the most sense to read. When it was time to put the book down, and I placed my hand on his head, Finn was ready to let go. Like it or not here I was once again, following his lead. What service does your dog provide?  Hell, I don’t have a clue; I don’t think I will be ever to fully answer that question. Ask Finn, I am sure he knows better than me. Don’t worry; I talk to him all the time. He doesn’t mind. And when you are done listening to what he has to tell you with his presence, he will get that look on his face, head tilted just so, all-knowing, with the satisfaction of a job well done. Finn will always be service dog to the world and beyond.

Finn 1/7/04 – 9/25/18

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Out Like a Lion

This was an excerpt from my novella: In the Neighborhood Named for the Stars. It did not make the final cut, but still has a place in my heart.

As the winter released its full-nelson on the land and the ground water began to seep up through the soggy lawns, I sat alone on the wrought iron furniture on my mother’s front porch, in the early evening just as the glass-sliver stars began appearing in the broad blue wash of sky over the houses across the street. I saw a large, low shadow move between the houses, and being that age, you know, the age before fear? I did not resist my curiosity and went to seek out its source. I saw his long thick tawny colored tail in the patterned lawn light of the Older’s backyard and froze. Before vaporizing into the forest, he turned his impossibly huge head to me and slowly closed his amber searchlight eyes.

I knew well enough not to follow him, turned around and returned to my house. But I wanted to reach out and touch his fur, to speak to his unimaginable wildness. Unable to articulate ideas of this scale, I simply let my mind move on to the present concerns of my young life, dinner and television, content to process it when and if I could, later.

I know now that Puma concolor, is called by 40 different English names. By that count, it is the animal with the most names found anywhere in the world. People in the Midwest call him a cougar or a mountain lion, but he is more kin to a common housecat than any sort of lion. I have witnessed his scream and it sounds more like a woman being dismembered than the roar of any big African cat.  Imagine him, glowing golden eyes hunting the tar black night. Loose furred pelt, undulating over taught muscle wrapped bone. Sinew and cartilage stretch connective tissue; silent, predatory and cautious.

More than a century ago he roamed in our woods; reclusive, nocturnal, solitary.

His range is still vast, known to cover up to fifteen hundred miles. One spotted in Connecticut was thought to have been a released exotic pet. A day later, the unfortunate animal was killed by a car: DNA tests proved he came from the Black Hills.

I saw him that night, but I never thought to say a word. Even then I could understand he traveled the underground arteries in secret, flowing between broad rural tracts and narrow wildlife reserves, avoiding the human encroachment that blots up every natural space like a sponge absorbs a pesky spill, An animal like that collapses the distance between present and past; stalking, ambushing, gorging; advancing.

If the man I am now could be in the blackness then, I would speak to that ghost of our Eastern lion and tell him, “You know our woods do not go on forever. You can remember where forever began and can see the end, just over the next daybreak. Your habitat is like a mirage evaporating in the sun of human progress. Yet still you come, traversing interstates in secret, pressed against clapboard siding, crouched beneath closed windows, passing unknowing inhabitants within, gathered around hearths believing their superiority. You know they’re just whistling past the graveyard of a crumbling civilization propped up on thinning supplies of fossil fuel.

Marten and fox will beware your unstoppable procession, set into orbit at a time before time when earth spun on a different axis; they know, in this vernal hour, their season is ended. Puma Capricornensis, proud messenger, driven into secrecy and unaffected by time. I welcome you on your sacred mission. Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

Signed Copies Available

HeacockCover.inddMy short story collection from Libros Igni is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

You can also get (while my supply lasts) a signed copy.

Click on the cover image above for the direct buy page which includes all three options.

 

Veterans Day 2014: Sharps Rifle

This is a Repost from January 20, 2014

sharps rifle

I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.

There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land. You might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.

That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not been sleeping at all.

In late June the sun comes up before five and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. Usually the lazy mutts will not even come downstairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door-scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.

Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yip.

It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered. Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-aged boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach open, apparently attempting to reload a long barreled rifle. Without thinking I called out, “Hey, what the hell…”

He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard to him: “There’s no need for that son.  Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”

His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.

And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue and the jacket buttons were bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high-resolution photo: green grass, blue boy, red barn.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and, standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one. Lower your weapon and let’s you and me have a talk.”

You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees. The bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.

I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.

I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look.” He held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”

He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge. He’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.

When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out-of-phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.

Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and, replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s thousand acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half-dragged, half-walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “Mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “We need all the mercy we can get, William. Come on now, you’ll be better soon.”

Loki trotted along at his heel, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.

My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.

I could take no more.

I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself: a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.

When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open. I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear and a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and two brass hat buttons.

Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me.

The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action three-band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably, William actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts. It has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet, are new. They show no sign of age and no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.

After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children. I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.

As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.

Sharps Rifle is part of the short story collection, Hey, This is It, I’m Going to Die, due from Libros Igni on November 15, 2014. Contact me for signed copies. Pre order on Amazon:
HeacockCover.indd

Kindle Version of Hey, This is it, Now available for preorder

I read an article the other day that said once you publish a book you become an employee of your former self. I think it’s begining.

HeacockCover.indd
Anyway, the plugs will now begin. Please tell your friends.

I can send review copies to anyone who actually wants to write a review. Leave a comment here or post a comment on my Facebook Writer’s Page.

You can also Email my publisher, Libros Igni for a more formal communication.

I will have printed copies after the workshop I am doing at PubCamp in Seattle on November 15. You can register on their site.

Reviews are welcome.

Distance

1-

Facing ocean
overlooking East
a hillside

Mist is boiling,
over the edge

like cream

Breathing deep salt air
warmed by an unseen sun

Refrain: Opening my heart, to the distance of the stars

2-

A seabird
dives the satin mists

above me

With my heart
Swooping to the waves
below

Sees the fishscale flash
hidden from my eyes

Refrain: Opening my heart, to the distance of the stars

Bridge:

For a moment I am someone else
Standing here before the rising sun
and shrouded by
the silver mist

Another body in another time

When I stood upon this same lands end
Searching far into the deepened green
awaiting here
my loves return

Tears that burn
my eyes

3-

The longing,
lingers though the vision
is past

As though the vessel,
might return
to claim me

To this worlds keen edge
splitting the mists to light

Last refrain: Opening my heart, to the distance of the stars

©1991 R.L. Heacock –
Creative Commons License
Lyrics by RL Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at ronheacock.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.
mist

NOTE: These are the lyrics to a song which is on my 1995 CD Out of my Love. You can find the CD on Amazon – but don’t buy the new one for $69 (as if anyone would). Contact me if you want one.

Other music for download can be found here 

On Passing

I know how this feels
Something’s wrong
Something’s gone missing
My heart is tender
My eyes water without warning

And every so often,
something I see or read or hear reminds me
And I want to tell you,
but of course you are not there to tell

I know how this feels

I can be grateful that I knew you,
that you are no longer bound and tied to pain
or locked in that cooling lump of clay

But I am selfish, really
I don’t care for your freedom
I only know that I will not have you,
hear your voice,
your song

How is it
I didn’t realize how
I would miss you
until you were gone?

I know how this works,
I don’t need consolation
don’t want to feel better

I just want you back

jimmy trees

Why is this man Smiling?

laketahoeIf Warren Frank had spoken to anyone about his plan they would have told him it was a bad idea. Hell, even Warren, if he had thought a little, might have admitted it. But seeing as how Gilda, his wife of twenty years had been gone for months, (the number of months eluded him, as did more simple, basic data like; where his matching socks were and what was rotting in the cellar) and Warren’s only co-conspirator was an obese orange tabby named Melvin. Though Warren spoke to Melvin incessantly during the plan’s gestation, Melvin withheld his comments. Melvin’s silence should have given Warren a clue to the efficacy of his plan. It did not.

He and his captive sat hunched in a steel oil tank. Warren’s breathing was restricted by the expanse of his girth and the confining dimensions of the musty metal room. The milky yellow illumination of a $2 Eveready flashlight he’d almost forgotten to buy on his drive to the Wilcombe Estate was nearly expended already. What air was left smelled strongly of mold and diesel fumes. Though they had only been in the tank an hour the batteries in the cheap light were about spent.  Warren had run the non-replaceable batteries down while he was hiding in-between the plaster walls behind the Presidential toilet.

“Ze Presidential bach-hous,” Raymondo had called it with an effeminate flourish of his right hand. He put on an accent too; some kind of French-Spanglish concoction. Ray’s name was not really Ramundo. But that is what Warren and the other contractors called him. He was the lead foreman on the Wilcombe Estate job. Warren and four other craftsmen labored on the restoration of the 18th century Tudor-style mansion for eighteen months between 04 and 05. In two thousand and four Warren was considered a Master Trim Carpenter. That was before The Black Times covered him like a blanket. Warren could not bring himself to consider that period in any more detail that to label it black.

Fucking Black.” His voice reflected back in a close metallic echo.

“Huh?” The other man muttered.

Warren’s captive sounded as though his mouth was full of cotton. He had been sitting, hunched semi-conscious in a pair of burgundy silk paisley pajamas for nearly the whole hour that they had been imprisoned together. The Old North Dock area had been neglected after the renovation was complete. It was thought that guests would rather board the river yachts from jetties closer to the new boathouse at the front of the house. Consequentially, the Old North Docks were largely ignored by everyone except the trades’ men. The wooden docks themselves were grey and splintered. An unearthed oil tank sat obscured by shoulder high marsh weeds. After Warren dumped Pajamas through the hatch and jumped in after him the tank listed and rolled forward and back several times as it sank before coming to rest at the bottom of the lake. He had calculated that Tahoe was only fifteen feet deep at this marshy edge and left ample wire to reach. A moment after the rocking stopped the lights and heater he had rigged blinked out. Now it was getting cold.

The pajama man slurred, “Where the hell am I and who the fuck are you?”

Warren ignored him.  He looked at his cell phone. No bars. He checked out of habit, but the battery was running low too. He reasoned that the wire he’d rigged as an antenna broke the same way that the electrical extension cord must have, it’s frayed end dangling in the murky water. He hadn’t figured in the depth of the mud. That’s what sunk me. He momentary imagined the lake water becoming charged with deadly voltage but quickly realized it would simply trip the breaker in the Old North Dock tool shed. The Flashlight blinked out.

“We are at the bottom of Lake Tahoe,” Warren replied quietly. This part of the plan was not going at all well. He was supposed to take control. Demand changes. Bully the bully. Actually, nothing was going as planned.

“I have kidnapped you Mr. President, but I screwed it up.” He wrapped the flashlight on the curved floor of the metal tank. It sounded a dull ringing. The time was quarter past midnight, but even if the secret service was crawling all over the dock they would find no trace of Warren or his captive.

The flashlight glowed sickly. It hardly cast enough light for Warren to see pajama man’s receding grey hairline or ashen skin.

The older man, now wearing filthy oil stained paisley pajamas, began to scuttle around trying to stand and smacking his head on the low ceiling. He cast from one end of the twelve foot tubular room to the other, coming to rest, sprawled across Warren’s numb legs.

“They will find me, you know, I’m the President of the United Fucking States of America,” he bellowed, trying to convince himself.

“No. It’s no use,” Warren said quietly. By this time he realized how truly bad his plan was. The man he had kidnapped was only just beginning to grasp the situation. He knelt next to Warren and tried to grab the lapels of his flannel shirt.

“Were cut off sir,” Warren began, but using the title felt surreal. He forced the words out trying to ignore the feeling. “See, I was gonna use my cell to explain my demands.” The useless flip phone was still open, the light blinked off. “But the tank here is sunk into the mud now and all the ‘th wires must have pulled out.”

“You have to call them. You MUST!” His captive was staring into his face. His small eyes widened. Warren figured, Yup, the truth of the matter has finally struck the bone. The President’s eyes darted like he had lost all control.

“What the hell have you done to me you bastard?” spraying spittle into Warrens’ face. It smelled like Crest toothpaste. The President’s trembling fingers were wrapped around Warren’s neck. But the grip was weak, more like an embrace than a threat. The hands were cold.

“With no ‘lecticity and no phone we’re going to die down here Mr. President. You keep thrashin’ around like that and you’ll use up what oxygen we got left.”

The older man slumped onto his side. His thin hair hung into the dirty residue at the bottom of the tank but he only rested for a moment.  He sprang up and just missed hitting his head. “Help Me!” he shouted. “Anybody; I’m the President, I’m being held captive. Help me, please!”

The flashlight light faded. Silence seeped in as the light seeped out. The two men wheezed. Warren was calm, but short of breath. Not much time left, he mused.

“I guess my beef with you is kinda besides the point now huh?” Warren didn’t wait for an answer. The air was definitely running out. His captive was making short shallow sobbing sounds, muttering. Warren couldn’t make out what he was saying. He really didn’t care.

“You know you killed us both actually. You and your rush into those damn wars. First I lost my Jamie. Then I lost m’self. Before I knew what was going on my Gilda was gone.” He reached out and felt for the sobbing man’s head and stroked his greasy hair. “I had to do something, don’tcha see? You was killin’ everything I ever loved. My son, my country, my self…” He trailed off.

The President sobbed louder, whining and mumbling. He sounded to Warren like Jamie when he was a toddler. Warren continued to stroke his greasy hair. Somehow the older man had moved his head into Warrens lap. It was hard to speak. Warren slumped back against the cold curved steel wall and went over the plan in his mind, realizing where he had miscalculated, and making mental notes as though he would do better when he did it again.

“I got a call from Raymundo telling me you was taking a hiatus at the “Wilcombe Estate” up to Lake Tahoe. That was when my plan began to form.  I said to m’self, ‘I knows that place like it was my own.’ I nearly rebuilt that whole building with Barney Sofjet and Harry Skillington all through two thousand four and five. We was the team, we was. I lernt about the passages behind the walls where servants could deliver hot toddy’s without nobody even knowing where they came from. They’d move between the kitchens and the bedrooms in quiet; in secret. There’s a whole shitload of staircases and dumb waiters that was never in any plans.”

The man in the soiled silk pajamas was muttering incoherently. Warren mused that it was some kind of justice that he just up and lost his mind. He wondered about how the ruler of the free world could be such a weak man. All that power, no strength.

“I knew that I would never get away with it. I just thought that if I talked to you face to face I might make you see reason. Hell, maybe I could make some kind of statement with my life, like Jamie.

“I remembered the tank and the tool shed. I set up the cords and the heater and lights and antenna days before the secret service even arrived to case the place. Then I hid in-between the plaster walls behind the commode in the Presidential suite for 4 days. I peed in a grape juice bottle and ate stale peanut butter crackers. I could hear anything anybody said throughout that big old house. I knowed when you checked in and when you ate your dinner.  A’course I knowed when you took a dump and when you brushed your teeth too.

I brought an old can of ether that I found in this very house – must have been left behind by the millionaires from the last century. Some rich drug addict doctor I s’pose. It was still good though, I tried it on myself. I calculated how long it would keep you sedated by timing how long it made me sleep.

“I just stepped out of that secret door and hid in the shower while you put on your PJs. Then when you was sittin on the john readin’ that titty magazine I just stepped out and held an ether soaked rag on your face. Out like a baby. It weren’t no big deal to put you in a laundry cart, cover you with old sheets and push you to the dumb waiter.

Once I got in the cellar it was a pretty straight shot out the lower loading doors and down the cement walkway to the old north dock.

I sank that laundry cart and in a blink we were in the tank. I rocked her into the shallows, sealed the door and, well, I don’t think anyone even knowed you was gone.

“Me and Barney joked about makin’ this thing into a submarine. Played around with the sealing doors and even wielded a bunch of 55 gallon drums to the side sos it could sink. But Barney got a long term job with the state and I forgot about the whole damn thing until I heard you was coming up here to visit.”

He paused, thinking about what he expected from this man. The president, dying with his head in Warrens lap.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you mister. I never hurt nobody my whole life. I guess, what I mean to say is, I’m sorry…”

When Warren tried to take a breath he didn’t feel like he was getting any air even though his lungs filled up. Flash bulbs appeared to pop across the dark screen of his vision. He thought that he saw the news boys taking his picture – sticking microphones and cameras in his face and excitedly asking how he had done it.

“Mr. Frank, Mr. Frank, tell our viewers how you single handedly stopped the war and brought the most notorious, treasonous criminal ever elected to Justice.”

Warren Frank did not notice that the President’s sobs had ceased along with his breathing. And he did not feel the lurch or hear the clank of chain against steel as the dredging crane locked on to the sunken tank. He wore a wide grin basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd. When the Secret Service, the Nevada State Police and the FBI split the tank open with acetylene torches they found what appeared to be the former President of the United States of America dressed in dirty silk paisley pajamas sleeping peacefully in the lap of an overweight bearded man. There was no indication as to why the fat man was smiling.

///

I am reposting this story because my Twitter account was hacked and Twitter did not distribute this back on March 5 when I originally put it up. Forgive the copy.

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Why is this man smiling? by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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Where They Go

“Mom, where do they go when they die?”

She was loading bags of groceries into the trunk of the car. She did not answer. I walked over to the bird lying on the brown mulch piled up next to a skinny tree. The mulch was surrounded by a concrete curb in the FoodMart parking lot. The bird, one dull beady eye staring, was some kind of brown and grey sparrow-like thing. One wing was stretched out, and its neck bent the wrong way.

“Mom?” I repeated, looking down at the bird.

She must have thought I was going to pick it up. Because she grabbed my shoulder and pulled me toward the car. I might have already bent down. The sun glinted off the chrome bumper.

“Don’t touch dead birds, Sammy, they carry diseases.”

“Where do they carry them?” I asked.

She didn’t answer, just pushed me into the back seat and closed the car door. I could hear her through the rolled up windows, “You didn’t touch it did you? Buckle up now, you know, seat belts save lives.”

///

“It’s a sin to tell a lie,” she said.

It was a different day, the weather was cooler. We were in the garage, having just returned from the eye doctor. After she closed the garage door the sun shined through the cracks between the door panels, painting lines on the cement floor. It smelled like fertilizer, motor oil, and gasoline. I told her that I dreamed I was in the backyard, but then I woke up, and I really was in the backyard. The grass was wet. I was in my pajamas looking up at the cold, black, starry sky. I started to cry, and I wished I was back in my bed. So that’s why there were leaves and stuff on the sheets this morning; ‘cause my feet got dirty in my dream.

I asked, “What’s a sin?”

///

The water is freezing. The bathroom has blue tiles on the walls and the tub is blue too, just lighter. They must have filled it with ice cubes and then they put me in. My skin burns, all over my whole body. My hands and feet feel huge. I am fighting with strong hands. Everything in the room is tilted and wrong­­­–the toilet looks too big; the shower curtain around my dad’s face looks tiny. He is speaking, but I can’t understand the words. I can see up his nose, smell the cigarettes on his breath. I wonder: why are you killing me? I am crying, pleading for my mommy. “Mommy, get me out!” I was so cold before, and now I am on fire. When I close my eyes everything is orange with yellow at the edges.  I want to be out of the water, but I am confused and afraid. As I gasp for air, I hear someone say, “Shush, it’s okay,” And then the little tiled room fills with screams again; the screams are coming from me.

///

I am sitting on my grandfather’s rocking chair on his porch somewhere far away from home. My feet do not touch the floorboards where the grey paint is peeling. It is summer, and flies are flying around the dirty rug in front of the screen door where Chester, my grandpa’s dog, sleeps. It smells hot and dirty like old cooking grease. Chester is mean, I have been bitten, but he is nowhere around now. I want a Good Humor. I want to be home watching cartoons. I want to be anywhere but here. The flies land on me, in my face–on my hands. My mom has warned me about the germs. I am afraid to touch the grimy railing or the grimy doorknob. I squeeze my eyes shut. I remember Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of OZ. I whisper, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” I hold my breath; I strain and push and grit my teeth. Sweat runs down my forehead, into my eyes. It tickles my nose; I wipe at it with the side of my hand.

When I open my eyes I am still here. The air is so hot and still that the fence in the front yard looks like it is a reflection in the lake. I remember the lake. The water is cold and dark and deep. I think about the splintery wood on the dock, the metal boat tied up with a thick, scratchy, knotted rope, a black tire tube floating. I can hear the little waves splashing against the posts and the boat banging against the dock.

I no longer want to go anywhere. The idea of the lakeside is just like being there. I relax. I hear other kids playing nearby. When I open my eyes I am sitting on the little sandy beach by the water. A motor boat skims by out in the middle of the lake.

///

She is old. We have had her ever since I can remember. I put my face into the wiry brown fur on her heaving side and listen to her insides; breathing, panting. Like a city of noises gurgling underground. Shallow breaths, up and down–in and out.

They tell me she is dying. I know that it means she will go away.

Somewhere.

I ask, “why?” There is no answer. I ask, “Where will Brownie go?”

My dad walks away. My mom says, “Heaven dear, she is going to heaven.”

I have heard this before. I know they don’t know where that is.

I lean in near her ear, it is very soft. She is panting little pants. I say, “it’s okay now, you can go.” Her tail lifts and falls once, twice. The muscles in her shoulder tighten, and her head lifts off the floor just a little. I think for a moment that she is going to get up, and I move away to give her some space. But she drops back onto the floor and sighs–a long whistling exhale. The panting stops. Her eye is closed, like she is asleep, but I know she isn’t. She’s gone. Brownie’s body is there but not Brownie. I think, I wonder where she is?

///

Wallstone’s Black Duchess. She was the one. I could just tell. One in a jumble of black, tan, and white fur; wobbling on unsteady legs. It was hard to imagine that this little fuzzy rat would someday grow into a dog. Her brothers and sisters squeaked and growled, tumbling over one another in the open cardboard box.

Mom said, “She will be bigger than Brownie, you know. Collies are big, athletic dogs; you are going to have to walk her every day.”

I was hardly listening. I held the little puff ball with my thumbs hooked under her front legs, and raised the tiny black nose to mine. Her puppy eyes were still blue, sort-of unfocused.

My dad said, “I think we’re going to take this one. Sammy? You can call her Duchess.”

The puppy stopped squirming. Her hind legs hung limp. Her little pink tongue flicked out and kissed me. I thought: is that you?

I said, “Mom? I think she recognizes me. It’s Brownie! She’s come back home to me.”

///

My 6th period math teacher, Mr. Mulligan, was the most boring man on the planet. If I wasn’t drawing a battle between the Cylons and the Federation on the inside cover of my math notebook, I would have been asleep. While Mulligan droned on about multiplying negative fractions I saw the janitor, Joe Stern, out the window, riding around and around in circles on the Columbia Middle School lawn mower.

I thought he had to be getting dizzy, just going in circles like that. Mulligan’s voice, the low humming of the motor through the closed windows, and the hot room became too much. I watched a fly land on the windowsill and crawl around, buzzing on and off. Outside, Mr. Stern went around and around and around. My eyes began to close.

I must have fallen asleep, because when the breeze hit my face, I woke up standing in the fresh cut grass outside. The janitor turned just in time to avoid running me over. I stood there blinking. I didn’t know how I got there. I told them, but they didn’t believe me. I got three days of detention for leaving the building without a pass.

///

By the time I was in high school, it had happened enough times that I realized I might end up wherever my attention focused. I was jumpy and nervous, worrying that it would happen unexpectedly. My grades were horrible, I wasn’t sleeping.

I met Alice in the cafeteria. She sat next to me and said, “I remember you from middle school. I was in Mulligan’s class that day, and I saw you disappear.” We became pretty good friends. She told me, “You have a gift, Sammy; you should practice it to make it stronger, like a muscle.” She wanted to help.

My mom had gone back to work, so there was nobody to bother us at my house. Alice suggested I try simple moves at first, like from the den to the bathroom. I discovered that all I had to do was to clearly imagine one detail, like the pattern in the counter top or the way the chrome around the sink drain was chipped, and I would find myself sitting on the toilet or on the edge of the bathtub. A moment later Alice would call after me: “Hey Sammy, you in there?”

I wanted to teach her how I did it, but she didn’t want to try. Once I grabbed her hand just before I moved, but she yanked it back and stormed out of the house. We never talked about it, and I didn’t bring it up again. Alice was my only friend.

///

One afternoon just before Christmas my mom and dad showed up at school together. I was called down to the office; they told me to go by my locker and collect my stuff. We drove all night to a hospital in Saint Louis. My grandpa was very ill, and he might not live through the night. When we arrived in the morning the priest was just leaving. My grandpa was a big, gruff man; I used to be afraid of him. But he looked small and pale in that hospital bed. His color reminded me of an old shirt that has been washed too many times.

My mom said, “Dad? Sammy’s here, and Paul… We’re all here to say goodbye, dad. Can you hear me?” She motioned me to come closer.

I really wanted to get away from that room. If I let myself, I could be somewhere else in a moment, but it would be hard to explain. I moved up next to him, and he mumbled. I asked, “What did you say grandpa?”

I sat down in the chair next to the bed. My mom said, “Listen Sam, you stay here with him for a bit. Your dad and I are going for coffee. Do you want anything?” I shook my head.

I sat there listening to his breathing; he had those little tubes under his nose, and he would wheeze on every exhale. I looked around the room. There was a plastic bed pan; a vase of wilting flowers, the TV remote–it seemed so sad and superficial that my big strong grandfather was dying in such a cruddy little room.

He suddenly opened his eyes, but he wasn’t looking at me. He said, very clearly, “I don’t know how to do this.”

“Do what grandpa?”

“I can’t find it; I can’t find the door…”

I thought of the time in the ice bath. My mom told me that I had a 106 degree fever, and they were afraid I was going to die. It gave me an idea, I said, “Can you see an orange light, grandpa?”

“Where’s the light? I can’t find the light.” He was only taking short, little breaths.

I imagined the pulsing orange light with the yellow around the edges. I looked into the image in my mind and noticed that it was like a flame. Little blue sparks shot out of the center like ribbons. I was standing in front of an open doorway with the orange light radiating from the room on the other side. It wasn’t hot or anything. My grandpa was standing next to me looking off to the side. I took his big, soft hand, and pulled him forward.  I said, “Look Gramps, there’s the door, you want to go through it? It’s okay you know. I think that’s where you’re supposed to go.”

He didn’t look at me. He said “Oh yes.” Then he walked through and disappeared into the light.

I watched for a moment; my heart pounding, but not because I was scared. I wondered where he was going, and I wanted to follow, but I remembered my mom and dad. The next moment I was sitting in the chair. I looked over at the body on the bed. A faint smile curled the corner of his ashen lips, but my grandfather was already gone.

›š###

NOTE: This piece was graciously published in Connotation Press (and I am in pretty good company there!). Please check them out and SUBMIT!

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Where they Go by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.connotationpress.com/fiction/1757-ron-heacock-fiction.
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To The Telling

I was looking at my newsfeed and I saw this embedded video of a television advertisement for vitamins. In short, it showed a couple of couples playing strip poker; glowing young folks, fully developed and semi-clad. One voluptuous female loses the hand and begins unclasping her radiant red brassiere, but is frozen mid reach by an older janitor-type in white scrubs – is it worth noting that the guy is stereotypically black and grisly? – he snaps on the lights and says, “Go back to bed!”

When we pan back to the mostly naked poker people, they are all in their seventies. The voice-over says: “Feel young again. Take bla bla bla.” It was cute. The first person I thought of was you, nothing strange about that. We’d often claimed that sharing was the cement that glued us in our long marriage. And Facebook makes this sharing act very simple; there are just so many ways to share! I selected the proper link-button, typed your name in the “Write Something” space and clicked “post.” I could have made it private to you, but I want My Friends to see my stuff. There was nothing private or too risqué about this message.

Knowing where my mind will next go, I scramble to avoid thinking about it. But the well-traveled neuron connections are too ingrained and the next step sends a shock through my head and heart. I guess that’s the way we remember to mourn. We surprise ourselves into grief. Repeatedly.

After two years I am cored in the same cold way. Isense the approach, like the smell of a distant storm, and try to sidestep the dread epiphany, it still surprises. I have almost found a way to live with it. At first I tried to talk myself out of it. Then I went through a period of wallowing – you know, where you try to squeeze all the pain out of your heart like a fat, oil saturated sponge. As if there is a bottom to that bitter well.

Even in the beginning the surprise of your absence burst upon me when my attention drifted– even though really, I thought of nothing but you. Somewhere around one year, I fell into a long mediocre stretch punctuated by these occasional gut dropping shocks. As the time between them grew, I actually began to feel normal – or at least as normal as I’ve been since you vanished – well, maybe normal isn’t the proper word – neither is vanished, exactly. Maybe it would be better to say I became accustomed to the new muted color of life.

Then, in this blur of non-descript exhaustion, something happens and I think (without thinking at all I realize after the fact,) geez, I bet you’d really get a kick out of… and ping! There you would be. I wondered if I was just so tired of the shock, the shock of your loss, the shock of what being really alone was, my brain, in an attempt to save me, was masking the area around your memory like a segment in a tape recording that’s cut out and spliced with scotch tape. Not a very good splice either, the kind that alerts the listener that something was removed – something about a change in atmosphere. Or maybe a stray bit of the expunged sound got left behind, enough to alert the ear that a part was skipped, but not enough to tell what it was. And of course that detection would connect to the whole memory, big and garish and red, just as inflamed and sore as when the wound was made.

I got mad at the phenomenon for a bit. But I know anger is one of the stages, so I worked to let go fast, transmuting the threat of violence into more sustainable emotions. Numbness won out, slow to morph into what your non-being has now become, dull and jaded, yet unexpectedly bothersome as a steel wire splinter in the fingertip.

In addition to experiencing the re-shock of your loss every time I get excited about something, I often find myself waking up from immersive reminiscences. I am not aware of entering into these states, only leaving them, when I realize, again, in less of a balance-robbing way, that oh, yes, we are no longer making new memories together. Though reliving them is a convenient refuge, I am at my core a realist; I see the futility of growing accustomed to escape.

pumping stickyWhen you still breathed, we had an ongoing argument about life. I always thought of it as a disagreement about gusto, but I never mentioned that title to you. And truth be known, I agree with your point. I was taking the side of the devil in order to tease out the details – and I think you knew that. I based my position on a quasi-Hemingway stance, though I have not closely studied his work. From what I have read and pondered, (and why shouldn’t I wonder on Papa’s life and times? He was A Great by many standards, even as the lifetime chairman of the Dead White Guy’s Cannon.) I’ve formulated a simplified philosophy.

Take life by the horns, Hemingway’s carefully crafted image implores, experience all she has to offer with gouged-open, suicidal glee. We are at end, food for worms, and once gone only the echoes of our shrieking in abandonment will remain. Even then, not for long.

But you had a different read on the question. For you, the idea that the physical life was the end-all of reality was a ludicrous notion. Sure, you were an earth mother woman, and lived as close to the center of your power as possible. You’d tell anyone who seemed vaguely receptive that, “Woman is most feminine when she is pushing a fresh lanugo-coated human between hips made oxytocin flexible, expelling her from the largest muscle in the human body, past stretched, slippery vulva lips, grunting radiant into this drafty world.” I have witnessed this, I agree.

It doesn’t get more physical than that, friends. And yet, for you the inner spaces of life offered a more worthy challenge for a cartography of your stature to decipher. You argued that my Hemingway-esk model of standing tall in the rarefied natural world, battling death in the form of big game with big guns, was an illusion.

To be fair, you recognized that an aerial view of the heart, the architecture of human emotion and the fair lands of thought and logic, were all just as imaginary. The main rub, you maintained, was these inner workings supplied the real power. Invisible to the fleshy eye, they are the actual animator of our love, pumping life’s sticky fluid deep into the capillaries of our bodies. For you, recognition of that unlimited world was what powered the true machine.

You would say, “It isn’t important to quantify your worth. It is proof enough to understand your value.” And we would go around and around, playfully: you like a mama tiger circling her den, me poking fun at your nebulous concept of reality, all the while admiring your strength of heart.

Hey, even Hemingway chose the typewriter ribbon over of the thirty-aught-six to tell his story. We are not talking about how he signed the last page of the manuscript, because that is best left to others knowing him and his demons better than I. All writers know that they birth life from imagination. Even attempting the task calls foul on the physical world. The writer casts hopes and dreams out for a depth-sounding in this, our shared solid reality.

We creative types are a conundrum, stumbling through this metaphoric world. Dabbling in the ethereal, we grind pigments from flesh and bone to paint an invisible canvas before an audience of ghosts. Who can say what is actually real?

Probably you, my dear.

From your bodiless vantage, I imagine you have a clearer view this soupy mess. I wonder if you told me, would I understand? And maybe you are telling me, dictating your vision though our unbreakable silver cord, what remains of our bond, in a language only love can decode. As I dip deep into the shimmering void, trolling the currents of the unformed, behind a curtain that only death presumably strips away, maybe I am syphoning your wisdom. Fashioning it into literary sculpture, polished. Lovingly precise, still only revealing the barest essence of the powerful nectar you have become.

I wanted to explain how it feels. Why I post videos on my dead wife’s wall. Maybe I will understand it myself someday; my excitement at discovering a twist or beauty, some new logic that I know would touch your spark. Without a hint or whisper of that familiar precipice, the bottom drops out. And I am shocked again to realize why you will no longer respond.

###

For Karen.

NOTE: Karen asked that I publish this for Valentine’s Day 2014 – It is still very fresh and will probably be revised. This is an early draft. But I think the sentiment comes through. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

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To The Telling by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-1g.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.