The Five Double Eagles

CHAPTER 2

ALPHONSE EXPLAINS ALMOST EVERYTHING

Mary and Ruth lifted the old cardboard box from the table and set it against the wall.

“Where did you get these plates?” asked Mary. Miss Anna handed her 7 cream colored dinner plates with pink roses around the rims. “They’re beautiful.”

“We got them from Mama when she passed,” Miss Anna replied. “She and Papa got them as a wedding present.”

“They’re from the Montgomery Ward catalog,” added Miss Hannah. “We still have the complete set, so please be very careful with them.”

Paul disappeared from the kitchen and came back in a tank top and flip flops. He washed his hands, dried them, wet his hair and combed it. Tenseness seemed to leave his body and he walked over beside the box with the diary. “What is a box of Great Uncle Alphonse’s things doing at your house?”

Sam lowered his Idaho Register newspaper. “That’s a good question Paul. Do either of you girls know how it got here?”

Miss Hannah paused from removing a large roast from a blue speckled roasting pan. “I’m not sure.” She forked the big piece of meet out onto a platter, and slid the roaster over to one of the Monarch’s burners. “Do you know how it got here, Anna?”

Anna was handing small matching bowls, each with two canned peaches to the twins. “You know I think that’s one of the boxes Sophie gave us. There were mostly clothes on top. The book was on the very bottom.” She handed the last bowl to Ruth and grabbed a large matching bowl of mashed potatoes and carried it to the table.

“Are you just about done with the gravy, Hannah?”

“Yes, it’s done. Mary or Ruth, please come pick up the bread and butter. We have a bowl of good peas from the garden too. Oh, I forgot the spoons.”

“I’ll get them,” volunteered Paul. He picked up a small blue pitcher with spoon handles sticking out of it’s throat. He carried it to the table and sat down.

Miss Hannah cleared her throat and we all made the Sign of the Cross. This was different than our weeknight dinners at home. This was more like a Sunday dinner. I had three plates full.

After Paul and I were done with the dishes, he tapped me on the shoulder. “Let’s go walk to the rock pit.”

“Me?” I was surprised he asked. He usually seemed to avoid me. I got the impression he thought I was just a dumb kid, I mean I was only 11 and he was a teenager.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

“What about the diary?”

“It’ll be here when we get back.” He goaded me with his eyes.

“Miss Hannah, John and I are gonna walk to the rock pit.”

“Don’t you want to look at the diary?” asked Ruth. “We waited ‘til after you were done with the dishes so it’d be fair.”

I looked hopefully at Paul. Like maybe he’d change his mind and wait to see what was inside it.

“We won’t be gone very long.” Paul promised, walking toward the door.” I thought we’d go throw some rocks, or something. Maybe try and catch a frog.”

I could feel my jaw drop. He saw my expression and nudged me toward the kitchen door.

“Don’t be gone too long,” cautioned Miss Hannah. “Remember, we get up early.”

“We won’t,” said Paul. Paul ushered me out the door and headed to the back of the house. His cigarettes, with a pack of matches slid into their cellophane, were laying in the weeds under our bedroom window. He bent down and handed them to me.

“I’m glad the chickens didn’t eat’m. Put these in your pocket until we get away from the house.”

I shoved his smokes in my pants. “Is this why you wanted me to come with you? So I could hold your f**king cigarettes?”

He shook his head. “No, I need to talk to you.” We walked past the house and headed toward the old rock pit. Mom said they dug it to make gravel for the road, but that was a long time ago. It was full of water now. Paul looked over his shoulder.            “Ok, you can hand me my cigs.”

He tapped the pack and pulled a cigarette out with his lips, juggled the matches and struck a light. He took a deep drag and exhaled a cloud of smoke. “God, I needed that.” He took another drag and handed the cigarettes back. “Here, stick these in your pocket.”

“Why don’t you carry them yourself?”

“They won’t fit.”

“They would if you were wearing your new overalls.”

He turned toward me and shook his head. “F**ker.”

Paul smoked and walked in silence looking at his feet. “You don’t want to throw rocks or catch frogs, do you?” I asked.

“No, I wanted to ask you something, and don’t be a little f**ker about it.”

“What?”

“How would you like to go to the World’s Fair in Spokane?”

“I don’t know. I guess so? How are we going to get there?”

“Roy.”

Roy Wilson was a man Paul met on his paper route. He was over 21 and worked as a waiter at the Three Willows. According to Paul it was the highest class restaurant in town. Paul and I used to go to Roy’s apartment sometimes. He always had cold Pepsi. I think Paul liked him ‘cause he bought his cigarettes. When Dad found out he said we couldn’t go anymore, but I think Paul still did sometimes . They talked on the phone a lot. When Roy called, Paul stretched the headset’s curled cord into the broom closet and shut the door.

“You know Dad doesn’t like you hanging around with Roy. He thinks he’s a Nancy Boy.”

“I told you not to be a little f**ker about it.”

“He won’t let you.”

Paul took a last drag on his cigarette, tossed the butt in the dirt and ground it under his flip flop. “He might if you say you’ll come along.”

“I don’t know.” I looked at the crushed butt. “I guess so.”

“Ok, so when we get back you’ll say you’ll go with us?”

I looked toward the rock pit. “Yeah, but I don’t have any money.”

“Roy said he’d have money. He gets like $100 in tips everyday.” I started to walk toward the rock pit again.

“Let’s go back.” He turned toward the house. “You’ll like Spokane. It’s a big city, it’s not like Livingston. Roy says he’s gonna move there. He says he could get a lot more tips, and there’s something to do all the time.”

I caught up with Paul in a few steps.

“I can’t wait until I can drive.”

“Hey, maybe if we find these coins you’ll have enough to buy a car?”

Paul nodded. “Yeah, that’d be cool.” We walked the rest of the way back in silence.

When we got to the old picket fence, he leaned over and exhaled in my face. “Can you smell any smoke?”

“It’s not too bad. I can barely smell it.”

Mary and Ruth were sitting at the table with the diary open in front of them. “You guys find out anything?” I asked.

Ruth picked up a old beat up book that had the pages hollowed out. “This is why nobody found it before we did. He kept it in here. When Miss Anna got our aprons it must have just fallen apart. I think he glued the pages with flour and water paste.”

Paul and I moved closer. The cover said, Adventure Stories for Boys. He’d done a pretty neat job. Instead of hollowing out the pages so you just opened the cover. Alphonse had cut the bottom of the book and used a long hairpin to keep a plug of glued pages in place. It looked like a quarter of the Adventure stories for Boys first pages were kept original. He’d hollowed out the rest of the pages and pasted them together. Removing the plug was the only way you could get to the diary. It was pretty tricky.

Mary turned back to the first page and handed me Alphonse’s Diary. It was written in pencil, his handwriting was a lot better than mine.

January 1st, 1912.
It’s hard to believe Christmas is over and it’s the start of a new year. I wonder what 1912 will bring? I guess God’s the only one who knows . I’ll turn seventeen this year, so it’s only four more years until I’m my own man. I better start trying to make some money if I want to see Paris and the pyramids. I’ll ask Papa if I can buy a calf to raise. I’ve got two dollars saved. If that isn’t enough, maybe I can do extra work in trade for the rest. I’ll ask him tomorrow.

January 2nd, 1912
Talked to Papa about buying a calf with my $2.00. He said he couldn’t sell me one for less than $2.50, that’s what they’re paying at the Livestock Sales. I didn’t tell him I was trying to raise money for a trip. I’m not sure how he’d take it. Sometimes I feel if I leave the farm, I’ll be letting him down. It’s still four years until I’m 21, I guess I’ve got plenty of time left to tell him.

I looked up from the diary. “Did you find anything about his secret hiding place?”

“Oh yeah, he tells all about it,” said Mary.

“He tells how he got the cows too,” added Ruth.

“Well? Where is it?” I ask.

“You’ll have to read it for yourself,” they replied in unison and walked away.

I turned to Paul, “I hate when they do that.”

He nodded, took the book from me and sat down at the table. I tried to look over his shoulder but he flipped the pages to fast. “Hey, listen to this.”

April 15th, 1912,
Our neighbor, Mr. Elliott, stopped by on his way home from town. I overheard him talking to Papa about an ocean liner named the Titanic. Apparently it hit an iceberg and sank early this morning or yesterday in the North Atlantic. He said the news is all over town. I thought I heard him say something about it being unsinkable. I guess it sank anyway. I hope there weren’t too many deaths.

April 20th, 1912
Papa, Mama and I went into town today. We got some oyster shell, chicken scratch and picked up this year’s chicks from the depot. Mama got mostly Plymouth Rocks, but she also got a dozen Buff Orpington to see how they do. More news on the Titanic. It seems there could be as many as 1500 passengers dead. 1500! It doesn’t seem possible there could be ships that big. I hope that doesn’t happen on my crossing. Still need to figure out how to earn some money.

“Wow, the Titanic, that must have been something.” I exclaimed. Paul nodded and scanned more of the pages. “Listen to this.”

April 27th, 1912
Big news! Mr. Elliott subscribes to Colliers and National Geographic. I saw him at the post office when I was picking up the mail. Papa only subscribes to the St. Anthony Messenger and The Wanderer. I told him about the trip I planned and he said I could borrow some of his old Geographic’s if I wanted to. He said I could borrow the Colliers too. I don’t know what Papa will say? I should probably ask, but then he might say no.

“It looks like great grandpa only subscribed to Catholic magazines,” said Paul. “I wonder why Alphonse was worried about borrowing National Geographic and that other magazine?”

“Colliers Magazine. I don’t know? Maybe he thought he wouldn’t approve of them.”

“National Geographic?”

“I don’t know?” I replied. “I know as much about this as you do.”

“Ok, here’s something that tells about the hiding place.”

June 3rd, 1912
Mama and Papa left for the Saint Joseph’s Verein State Convention in Boise. They’ll be gone a week. This is the perfect time for me to make my secret hiding place. I found the extra wallpaper Mama had saved and some tin to enclose the inside. It should be perfect for the magazines Mr. Elliott loans me. I’ll start on it Saturday when Willie and George go to town.

June 4th, 1912
Everything turned out perfect! All I have to do now is wait for the paste to dry. It’s similar to the hollow book I keep my diary in, but I think I did a better job this time. I can hardly see it. Haven’t put anything in it yet.

“He must have cut a hole in the wall,” said Paul. “It sounds like he’s made a cover, and cut the scrap wallpaper to match it.”

I nodded. “Come on, read more.”

June 8th, 1912
I borrowed two Colliers and two Geographics. They fit perfectly. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s kind of a blessing I had a problem with bed wetting when I was younger. It was embarrassing at the time, but at least I don’t have to share a bed with George and Willie. I haven’t done it for years. Now I just shut my door, light my candle and nobody knows I’m reading.

“It’s in his bedroom!”

“His bedroom. Yeah, that makes sense,” I agreed.

“Whoa! Listen to this.” Paul flattened the diary out on the table.

June 20th, 1912
Mr. Elliott died. Nobody is sure when. Papa heard his cattle lowing and thought it didn’t sound normal, so he had George go check on him. George said he must have been dead at least a day. We fetched the Sheriff and Doctor Orr. The doctor said it looked like his heart gave out. I guess the coroner is going to come from Grangeville to do an autopsy. Papa said he was a good neighbor even if he didn’t go to church. I know I’ll miss him. He was the only person I could really talk to.

“Man I bet that was something. Imagine finding somebody dead.” Paul shook his head.

“Especially someone who was so nice to you,” I added.

Paul sat quietly for a few minutes. “I bet that was tough. I mean Mr. Elliott was the only person he felt comfortable telling his dreams too.” He blinked a few times.

Maybe it was the same with Roy? I thought. Maybe Paul had things he could only talk to Roy about?

Paul flicked through more pages. “Listen to this. This is where he got the cows.”

July 20th, 1912
Mr. Elliott left me 5 two year old steers in his will. I can’t believe it! I didn’t expect this. He left everything else to his brother in Humphrey, Nebraska. He never married and he didn’t have any children. I’d never thought to ask. Now I wish I would’ve talked to him more about himself. Mama and Papa wanted to know why he would do such a thing. I had to be honest, so I told them about the magazines I borrowed, and the trip I planned. They didn’t seem surprised. I should have told them sooner. I guess I wasn’t as good at keeping secrets as I thought.

July 22nd, 1912
I talked to Papa about pasturing the steers. I guess legally he could take them because I’m still a minor, but he said he wouldn’t. However, I would need to pay him for pasturing and feed. I thought that was fair. He said I could pay him after I sold the steers.

August 7th, 1912
Sold the steers Mr. Elliott left me today. I got five Double Eagles! I think I’ll buy a few yearling calf’s and raise them to sell. If I keep this up I’ll have plenty for my trip, and more. Need to talk to Papa about renting more pasture. I want to keep everything businesslike and proper. Willie and George are jealous. I think I’ll buy them each a calf of their own. Until then, I’ll put the Eagles in my special place until I decide exactly what I want to do.

“That’s all there is,” said Paul. “At least we know where his hiding place is.”

“Well, at least where it was 62 years ago,” I added. “That’s a long time.”

Paul nodded. “I bet they’re still there though. Great Uncle Alphonse was pretty clever.”

The Five Double Eagles

I’m publishing this as a serial. It’s a quasi children’s story that also deals with budding adolescent sexuality.

Chapter One

Great Uncle Alphonse

“He’s as guilty as sin. I don’t care if he says he’s not a crook, he’s definitely a crook.” Dad put the newspaper down and took a sip of his morning coffee. “They’re going to impeach him, you just mark my words. Tricky Dick knew all about this Watergate business. Then there’s that gap in the tapes. Come on, how much more proof do you need?”

I look down at my bowl of congealed oatmeal and milk. I never liked oatmeal. Maybe, if Mom put raisins in it or something, but she never did.

“John?”

“Yeah Dad?” I answered

“Finish your breakfast and go get Prince Charming out of bed.” He checks his watch. “I’ve got to be going to work.”

Dad pushed his chair away from the table and kissed my little sisters on their cheeks. As usual they’re dressed the same. Mary and Ruth were twins, and my Grandma Larry loved to sew them matching outfits.

“I’ll miss you girls. You be good for the Hertz sisters. You do what they say. You’re going there to help them. John, I’ll miss you too. Now, you better get Paul out of bed. Mom will drive you over to Pommerville as soon as she gets back from taking me to work.”

The Hertz’s were my aunts in-laws. They raised a garden and sold fresh produce, sweet corn, potatoes, fruit, eggs and preserves to help pay their living expenses and taxes. They gardened on an almost industrial scale, and had several plots of corn they planted at different times so the harvest would be staggered. Me, my brother Paul and sisters Mary and Ruth were going to spend the last two weeks of our Summer Vacation helping with the harvest.

“Ok Dad.” I use the edge of my spoon to cut the cereal into bite size chunks. I shovel them into my mouth and chew each a few times before swallowing. Mom comes out of the bedroom dressed in her nice summer blouse and blue pants wearing lipstick.

“I’m going to take Dad to work.” She told us again. “Be sure and be ready when I come back because we’ll need to leave right away. I want to get back in time to pick him up for lunch.” She turned to me. “Make sure your brothers ready to go.”

I picked up my empty plastic bowl and get up from the table. “Yeah, I was just going to go get him.”

“Good, now I’ll see you when I get back.” Mom hurried out the door to join Dad in our light blue and white 1972 Volkswagen Van.

I climbed the stairs to the bedroom we shared and kicked the side of my older brother’s bed. “It’s time to get up Paul. We’re leaving when Mom gets back from taking Dad to work.”

“Go away.”

I kicked the bed a few more times. “Come on. You gotta get up.” He doesn’t move so I start kicking the bed to the beat of, Row-Row-Row-Your Boat. Paul’s thirteen and thinks he’s boss of the world.

“Ok, ok, I’m getting up.” He threw the covers off and glared at me. “You’re a little f**ker aren’t you?”

“I don’t care if you sleep all day. But, Dad and Mom said I was supposed to make sure you were ready to go when she got back.”

“F**k,” he throws his legs off the bed, stood and stretched. “I’ve gotta take a pee.” He walked out of the room, I eventually hear the toilet flush. He walked back in and takes his pack of Marlboro from their secret hiding place under his nightstand. He turned to me again, “f**k.”

“I’m going downstairs.” I replied. “You probably have about twenty minutes before Mom gets back. Just hurry, that’s all.”

Paul’s already standing in the closet with his head out it’s small window. There’s a Marlboro between his lips. I think he looks stupid. He thinks it makes him look older. Whatever.

Mom walks into the house just as Paul emerges from the downstairs hallway, the smell of toothpaste wafting through the air. He’s dressed in cutoffs, flip flops and a tank top. “You can’t wear that.” She says. “You’re going there to work.”

“I’ll change when I get there. I have some long pants and work shirts in my bag.” Paul holds up the bag he uses for his gym clothes.

Mom shook her head but didn’t say anything. She looked at me and Ruth and Mary. “Come on, let’s get going. John you carry the suitcase.”

I nodded and picked up the old brown Samsonite she’d packed me and my sister’s clothes in. I thought I was getting to old for that, but it didn’t seem important enough to make a stink about it.

“Dibs on the front seat,” called Ruth.

I opened the van’s back hatch and tossed in the suitcase. Paul sets his bag beside it and climbs into the very last row of seats. Mary and I get in the seat behind Mom and Ruth. The van doesn’t have a radio, so the only sound for the whole trip is reminders from Mom to be good and do as the Hertz Sisters say, and the wind whistling through the open windows.

Pommerville is small. It straddles highway 95, the main North and South route through Idaho. It takes us about an hour to get to their house. It doesn’t look impressive. It’s two story, with weathered gray cedar siding. It hasn’t been painted for a very long time and is surrounded by tall unkempt trees. It looked like a farmhouse from the 1900’s, not something from 1974.

Mom parked in front of an old picket fence lined with rusty chicken wire. Behind it, dozens of small chickens scratch and peck at the ground. “They’re Bantams,” Mom tells us. “Listen to what happens when we open the gate.” The little chickens howl and screech when we enter and Miss Hannah and Miss Anna Hertz hurry out to greet us.

I’m not sure if it’s correct these days, but they used to be called Spinsters. Miss Hannah and Miss Anna were both old, and had never been married. They kept to themselves and only went into town to go to church on Sundays. Otherwise, their brother Sam, who lived with them and had also never married, delivered the produce, hauled home the groceries and mailed their letters.

Both women looked like something out of a 1940’s Farm Wife magazine. Cotton print dresses, full aprons, round metal rimmed glasses and gray hair wore in buns.

“Hello Helen,”said Miss Hannah smiling at Mom. “Hello children. Oh, aren’t you adorable.”

She was talking about my sisters. They were looking especially angelic, a skill they used mostly to get out of trouble.

“You must come inside and visit a little before you leave Helen,” ordered Anna.

Mom shook her head. “I need to get back to pick up Ed for lunch. I will use the bathroom, if you don’t mind.”

“Come in, come in,” they invited.”

I hauled the suitcase, and Paul his gym bag. After checking our shoes for chicken poop we walked into the house from the back porch. It was like a museum. Everything was old, but perfect. The only sign of wear was the rose patterned gray linoleum. It had trails worn into it where they’d walked and stood. There was a polished Monarch wood cook stove, big Monarch white electric range, round top refrigerator and a bent chrome metal dining table and chairs. All looked like they were brand new.

Mom went to the bathroom and reminded us again to be good, and do as we were told. Then she was gone. Hannah and Anna took us to our rooms upstairs. They were just as perfect as the kitchen. Hannah told us to change into our work clothes because Paul and I were going to hoe in the garden, and Mary and Ruth were going to help make plum jelly. I dug through the suitcase and got my old pants, then came back to the room Paul and I were sharing. All he’d brought along were his church clothes. The rest were cutoffs, tank tops, socks, underwear and a pair of tennis shoes.

I shook my head.

“I can work in these,” Paul said, when he saw me shake my head. “Besides, I can get a suntan while I’m doing it.”

“Yeah right.” I changed my pants and went back to the kitchen. Paul followed. He was met with questioning stares. The Hertz sisters were no longer alone, their brother Sam was there. He was eating a cookie and drinking a cup of coffee. I think Sam was younger than his sisters, but I couldn’t really tell. He was kind of chubby, with a bald head ringed in short gray hair and dressed in bib overalls.

“Aren’t you going to change?” He asked my brother.

“I can work in these.”

“Didn’t you bring any other work clothes?

Paul shook his head.

Miss Hannah’s brown eyes flashed sparks. “Sam, you need to go get him some proper clothes.”

Paul started to protest but thought better of it when he looked at Miss Hannah’s face. The last time I saw him before lunch he was sitting beside Sam in his old red International pickup being driven to town. I, on the other hand, was given one of Sams old straw hats, a hoe, and told to start in the cabbages.

I laughed when Paul finally showed up at the garden. He was wearing new bib overalls, a new long sleeve work shirt, an old straw hat and his tennis shoes. “On your way to play a few sets?” I asked. He told me to f**k off and started chopping at the ground with his hoe. That’s pretty much all we said to each other the entire day.

When Sam finally came and told us we could stop we were both beat. We put our hoes in the garden shed, followed Sam to the house and scrupulously checked our feet for poop before walking into the kitchen. Dinner smelled good and Mary and Ruth were sitting in front of an old cardboard box on the table.

“You guys need to see this,” called Mary. “It’s Great Uncle Alphonse’s stuff.”

“Great Uncle Alphonse? The one who got bucked from a horse and fell on his head?” asked Paul.

“Yeah,” replied Ruth. “This is his stuff. I think he had a treasure.”

“A treasure? Why do you think that?” I asked.

“Because Miss Anna found his diary when she was looking for aprons for us to wear,” Ruth answers. She points to the pages of a little book.

August 7th, 1912
Sold the steers Mr. Elliott left me today. I got five Double Eagles! I think I’ll buy a few yearling calf’s and raise them to sell. If I keep this up I’ll have plenty for my trip, and more. Need to talk to Papa about renting more pasture. I want to keep everything businesslike and proper. Willie and George are jealous. I think I’ll buy them each a calf of their own. Until then, I’ll put the Eagles in my special place until I decide exactly what I want to do.

“Everything after that’s blank.” Ruth picks up the book and flips through the pages. “

“See, there’s nothing else written.”

I look over her shoulder. “I wonder why he didn’t write anymore?”

“Because,” Miss Anna answered, from the big white Monarch. “The next day he fell from the horse. He was never the same after that.”

“What are Double Eagles?” said Paul.

“Do any of you children know?” Sam asked.

I raised my hand. Sam nodded. “They’re twenty dollar gold pieces, aren’t they?”

“Yes, but they could be worth a lot more by now. Maybe even thousands of dollars.”

My brother and sisters and I looked at each other. “Can we try to find them?” I asked.

The older siblings turned to each other. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.” Miss Hannah replies. “I don’t think any of us mind.”

“Cool.” I said with a big smile.

A Gift more valuable than Gold

We are not beauty queens
Or captains of the football team
Nor the sons and daughters of the rich
We are the invisible ones
God did not bestow on us the superficial
Our gifts lie below our skin
Not outwardly apparent
But they are there
However You
The ones who feel worthless and picked on
You are blessed
In you grows empathy and compassion
Though the soil is rocky and the manure of vicious taunts
Seems foul and stings
in time the manure will mellow
your skin thicken
But only enough
You see God did not bestow on you the superficial
Your gift is much to precious
Your gift is a pure heart
Something much to valuable to lay exposed

Aunt Sophie and the Miracle in a Bottle

This is the story of unwavering faith, a seemingly worthless gift, and a miracle that happens over 80 years after it was first foretold. I’m calling it:

Aunt Sophie and the Miracle in a Bottle.

I got the little brown bottle from my Aunt Sophie along with a gold Seiko watch my Uncle Matt was given when he retired. Uncle Matt and Aunt Sophie had married late in life and never had any children of their own. Instead, they were godparents either alone, or separate, to dozens of nieces and nephews. I however, was the only one they had in common. I was their only common godchild. That’s why I got the watch and the bottle.

Uncle Matt died when I was about thirteen. He’d had diabetes for years and I remember him having to pee in a can after every meal so Aunt Sophie could measure the sugar in his urine with litmus paper. Then, depending on what the paper showed, Sophie filled the chrome and glass syringe with insulin and injected it into him. Matt went blind first. A few years later the disease finally killed him. My brothers and sisters and I would take turns visiting in the summer and help her around her house.

In my family, High School Graduation was celebrated like a birthday. We invited the relatives, Mom made a cake, and a special dinner after which we opened cards. Just like a birthday, but without the candles. Anyway, I’d never graduated before, so this was fine with me. Now, Aunt Sophie didn’t have much money but always sent a few dollars, a stick of gum and a card for our birthdays or Christmas. But this time, she made the trip in her old blue Oldsmobile to attend in person.

Sometime after I’d open the cards, and eaten the cake, Aunt Sophie came and sat beside me. She was a tall woman with smart blue eyes who always wore a hairnet. She was my Mom’s oldest sister and almost like a second mother too her.

“John,” My aunt said, while putting her hand on my knee. “I have something else I want to give you.”

“Oh, Aunt Sophie.” I replied. “The watch is more than enough. You really don’t need to.”

Her eyes suddenly looked more intense than I’d ever seen them, and her brow furrowed. “John, I’ve never told this to anyone but it’s time I did.” She looked over her shoulder an instant and reached into her purse. She pulled out a small brown bottle with a black screw on lid. It had a plain manila paper tag fastened around its neck with a string. The words, Spark of Life – Do Not Open were written on it in thick black pencil. “Here, this is for you.” She held it out, then withdrew it shaking her head. “No, I need to tell you something about it first.”

The tall old woman took a deep breath. “You’re Uncle Matt and I prayed and prayed for a child, but were never blessed.” She sighed. “One night after years of prayers I was visited by Saint Jude.” Her eyes looked sad. “Matt said it was just a dream, but I know it was real.”

“How did you know it was real?”

“Because the Saint gave me this.” She stared down at the bottle in her hand.

“Saint Jude?”

Sophie didn’t take her eyes from the bottle but slowly nodded. “Yes, he’s the Patron Saint of lost causes.” She looked up into my eyes. “I prayed to him everyday. Finally, he answered my prayers with this.” She reached out and put the bottle in my hand. “Its the Spark of Life for the child we never had.”

I thought my Aunt had lost her mind. I turned the bottle over in my fingers and read the label, Nembutal 100 capsules, may be habit forming. “The child you never had?” I asked unbelievably. “This is the life of the child you never had?”

Aunt Sophie sighed. “John, Saint Jude said Matt and I were good people, but would never have children of our own. Then he handed me that bottle.” Her hand indicated mine. “He told me it contained our child’s Spark of life. The Saint said I’d know what to do with it.” She touched it lightly and nodded her head. “I must have had it for forty years. Now, I’m giving it to you.”

I held the bottle closer and read the label. Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium, Abbott) may be habit forming. ‘Did Aunt Sophie take any of these pills? Was she on drugs when she had her visit from Saint Jude?’

“John?”

“Yes Aunt Sophie?”

“I’m not just a crazy old woman. I know what’s in that bottle, and I know I’m supposed to give it to you.”

“But why? Why do I need this?”

She shook her head and looked at me with kind blue eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. All I know is that you are supposed to have it.” Her body stiffened and her gaze became more intense. “Somehow I just know it’s meant for you.”

I shook my seventeen year old head and smiled. “Thanks, Aunt Sophie.” I reached over and hugged her. “I’ll go put this and the watch in a safe place.” I went upstairs to my dresser, put it in my sock drawer, and forgot all about it.

Aunt Sophie died penniless about two years later. The little bit of money she had was eaten up with nursing home fees. It was Medicare after that. Her remaining brothers and sisters paid for her funeral. That was almost forty years ago.

I hadn’t thought of that little brown bottle for years. Then two weeks ago it fell out of a box I was shifting in the basement. It landed at my feet just as the cellphone rang in my pocket.

“Dad,” it was my daughter Emily’s voice. She sounded panicked.

“Hi honey. How’s that new baby doing? Are you sleeping through the night yet?”

“Dad…”

My heart stopped in my chest. “What’s wrong?” Sobs fill my ear. It’s something genetic is all I heard. “Hold on honey. We’ll be there as soon as possible.” I flipped the phone closed and looked at the bottle at my feet. ‘Why now? I hadn’t thought about it for years. Why now? I suddenly remembered the look in Aunt Sophie’s eyes, and the words she’d told me all those years ago. “Somehow I just know it’s meant for you.”

Now, I am not a religious man. My faith has lost its dogma, and I consider myself more of a secular humanist, but this, this was too coincidental. The very second I receive the news that my grandson was in danger it just happens to fall at my feet? The odds must be astronomical. I picked it up and looked at the handwritten tag. Spark of Life – Do Not Open. I put it in my shirt pocket and went to tell my wife the tragic news.

“Martha,” I said to my wife. “It’s the baby…it doesn’t sound good. We need to go now.”

“The baby?” The expression dropped from her face. We made the trip as fast as we could, but it still took nearly nine hours of driving.

Lissencephaly, that’s what it was. I’d never heard of it, but the doctor said it was untreatable. It caused the brain’s cortex to develop into four layers instead of six. She said babies born with this defect are never normal, and seldom lived longer than their second birthday. Some died sooner.” I looked at my daughter Emily and her husband Steve. So young. Nobody should have this happen to them.

Emily looked down at her baby. He looked normal, no sign of the flattened head that sometimes accompanied the defect. It hadn’t been caught with any of the prenatal tests either. She looked at me with tears in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter Dad. We’ll love him for as long as he’s with us.”

“Yes,” added Steve. Stroking his cheek. “We’ll cherish everyday.”

I was more proud of her than I’d ever been, of them both.

I’d kind of winced when I heard my grandson’s name for the first time. Steinbeck, Beck for short. He was named after John Steinbeck, author of East of Eden. My daughter even had Timshel tattooed on her foot. Apparently Steve was also a fan. Now it seemed ironic. Timshel, Thou mayest, the theme of the book. It had to do with mankind overcoming sin. Was it our choice, or was it a certainty? I thought of the bottle. Was it a gift from a saint, or a deluded woman’s dream?

I looked at the young couple, and my wife. “Let’s go where we can talk.” Nobody believed me. Hell, I didn’t believe it myself. After I explained about Aunt Sophie, Saint Jude and the bottle falling at my feet everyone was silent. I took the bottle from my jacket pocket and sat it on the table. I looked at Emily and Steve. “What have we got to lose?” Nobody said a word.

Steve picked it up, read the tag and turned it over in his fingers. He looked at his son, then into my eyes. “I say we try. After all, like you said, what have we got to lose?”

Emily’s eyes lit up like she’d just been thrown a lifeline. It was a slim one to be sure, but a lifeline none the less.

“Please,” I reached out for my only grandchild. “I think I need to do this in private.”

I went into the room she and Steve had fixed up as a nursery and sat in Emily’s mother’s old rocker. I cradled Beck in the crook of my left arm, and put the mouth of the bottle under his nose. I unscrewed the cap, but hesitated before I removed it all the way. When I lifted it away there was a snap, and a thin spark like you get in the winter from static electricity. It jumped between the bottle’s mouth, and the tip of his nose. Beck’s eyes snapped open, but they weren’t his, they were Aunt Sophie’s. They smiled at me, then disappeared behind Becks and he began to cry.

Emily continues.

“My Dad died last September, but this is the first time we could get up to help clean out the house. Martha’s doing ok, but she really needs to downsize. Steve, Beck, Olive and I are only here for a few days but we think we can get most of the stuff out of the house and either taken to the dump or Saint Vincent DePaul. I hadn’t thought of that little brown bottle for years. But there it was, tucked in the back of Dad’s sock drawer. It had contained the spark of life. Beck was cured, it made all the medical journals. It was an actual miracle.

It was in a box that used to hold a cellphone charger. It still had the tag around its neck with the words, Spark of Life – Do Not Open, but there was also a note. It was in Dad’s peculiar style of printing, I could tell by the way he made the letter “a”.

“To whomever finds this bottle. Follow the instructions written on the tag and don’t unscrew the cap. Please make sure this gets to my youngest grandchild, be it male or female. I got this as a gift from my Aunt Sophie. They will know what to do with it…Eventually. Until then, all I can tell you is that Aunt Sophie and Uncle Matt were destined to have more than one child. This is a genuine miracle in a bottle. Treasure it with all your heart.”

The Journey Begins?

Ideas. Those firings of neurons in our brains that created every piece of technology we use today. “Would a rose smell as sweet by any other name?” Or, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” Nothing but patterned electrons flowing from the mind of a writer to the tip of a pen. We are an exceptional animal, we humans. So different, the Christian Bible says we’re made in the image of God.

Who am I to say we aren’t? I think all of us are exceptional. That’s  why I get so upset when I see people coasting through life, or settling for mere subsistence on a government handout. Humans were never meant to have it easy. Our brains crave input. We need problems to solve, challenges to conquer and a reason to exist. A purpose to our lives. A job.

Now, we all can’t be an Einstein or a Shakespeare, but we can all be productive. We can all add something to society, no matter how small. The next time you’re near a calm pool toss in a tiny pebble. If it’s not windy, and your vantage point is good, you’ll see that one little pebble covers the whole pool with very small concentric rings. That one little action changes everything around it.

We humans are greedy, lustfull, violent, evil and selfish. But, we are also compassionate, generous, selfless, kind and loving. Ahh, love. That immeasurable commodity. That almost magic sensation that transcends our basic human instincts.   We may not be the only sentient beings on the planet.  However to a human, love can be the epitomy of joy and contentment. Or, cause a pain so deep we loose the will to live.

My journey has begun. I am full of ideas. Neurons are flashing in my brain. Electrical impulses travel from my mind at the speed of light to the tip of my finger. Then finally to you. Marvelous isn’t it. To my daughter and wife, who I love with all my heart. Join me on this journey. The trip will do us good.

Pop Bottles

 

 

By Mark Ready

 

“What do you do with the empty bottles?” I asked Lyndon, the manager of the little convenience store in the dining center where I work.
“You put them in the recycle bin,” he answered, pointing to a counter with cutouts.
“But these could be reused!” I replied. “They’re made of glass, and they use the kind of caps that need an opener. All you have to do is sanitize it, refill it with pop and stamp another cap on it. Why, when I was a kid we used to return these and get a nickel.”
Lyndon is a barely thirty something millennial with a degree in psychology. He looked at me like I’d just told him the earth was round. “Really?”
“Yes, really,” I replied. “We returned all kinds of bottles when I was a kid. Beer bottles were worth anywhere from 1 to 3 cents. Quart pop bottles were worth a dime! That’s how we got our spending money. If we wanted to go to the store and buy some candy or something we went looking for bottles.”
“Wow! You were really into saving the environment. Imagine, walking around picking up old bottles.”
“Oh no, we didn’t have an environment when I was a kid Lyndon, the environment wasn’t invented until the 70’s. We just didn’t like throwing things away that were still good. Plus, we got money for doing it.”
“But, that’s recycling,” he insisted.
I thought for a second. “I guess it was…, but that’s just the way we were raised. You know, we recycled a lot of things when I was a kid. When my older brother outgrew his Sunday shoes Mom gave them to me. If they had a hole on the toe, or in the sole, she would take them to the shoe shop and get them fixed. My younger brother got them when they were to small for me.”
“We did the same with clothes,” I continued. “I remember my aunt bringing over a huge box of clothes. She and mom went through it and found new things for all of us to wear. Well, new to us anyway. Mom even made pillow cases from a dress that had nice embroidery on the hem, but was too big for anybody in the family.”
“Oh, yeah. There’s a shoe shop over in Moscow,” Lyndon replied, arranging the 5 Hour Energy Drinks. He looked down at his athletic shoes. “These can’t be repaired. I just throw them away when they’re worn out…It’s neat your mom made pillow cases out of that dress.
My mom doesn’t know how to sew.”
“Yeah, I throw my shoes away too.” I admitted. “My wife can sew, she made curtains for our house out of bedsheets. She’s from South Africa, she used to make all her own clothes too. It was cheaper than buying them.”
He nodded his head. “Maybe I should learn to sew?”
“I’ve thought about it myself.” I replied, nodding. “It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
I looked at the pop bottle, it had ‘made with pure cane sugar’ hi lighted on the label. “Pure cane sugar, that’s all we used to have,” I explained. “Well, sugar anyway, but it could’ve been made from sugar beets, not just sugar cane. U & I Sugar, that’s what mom bought. It was made from sugar beets. U & I stood for Utah and Idaho, just like C & H stands for California and Hawaii.”
“I know about C & H Sugar, but I didn’t know it stood for California and Hawaii.” He paused “I’ve never heard of U & I Sugar. It’s pretty much all hi fructose corn syrup now,” Lyndon noted. He pointed to the pop bottle. “That’s throwback Mountain Dew. They make it in Mexico. I think it’s healthier than the stuff with the corn syrup. It tastes better too.”
“We used to have Karo Syrup in the cupboard, that was corn syrup. I think mom used to mix it in baby formula if one of her babies was constipated. “
Lyndon looked up from the order form he’d started working on. “Constipation?”
“Yeah. I think that’s what she used it for.”
He paused from ordering and looked like he was thinking. “Like a laxative?”
“I guess so,” I replied.
He raised his eyebrows, pursed his lips and went, “hmmm.”
“You know, my dad didn’t let us buy colored toilet paper.”
“Toilet paper”, Lyndon shook his head. “Why’d you think of that?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Constipation, I guess. Dad said the dye in colored toilet paper wasn’t good for the environment.”
“I thought there wasn’t an environment when you were a kid?”
“This was the seventies.”
He looked at me and shook his head. “Sure, the seventies,” he replied skeptically. “You know, I’ve only ever seen white toilet paper.”
“I think doctors said colored toilet paper could also irritate your skin.”
“I can see that,” he answered nodding his head. “Wouldn’t be a good place for skin irritations.” I nodded in agreement.
“It’s funny,” I changed the subject. “My baby pictures were black and white. But when my youngest brother was born in ’69 they were in color.”
“What year were you born?”
“1962.”
“My dad was born that year too. He looked up from his work. Why’d you start talking about baby pictures?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “It just seemed bizarre that toilet paper was colored, but my baby pictures were still black and white… A lot has changed.” Lyndon nodded and turned back to the form.
“Our tv was black and white too,” I added. “It was a seventeen inch diagonal Zenith. Seventeen inch!” I shook my head in amazement. “I have a fifty five inch flatscreen at home, I can’t imagine watching a seventeen inch tv. One thing about it though, if it broke down you could fix it.” I laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“I remember once when the tv didn’t work and Dad took it apart and pulled all the tubes out and put them in an egg carton. We took them to the drug store and used their tube tester to see if one was bad.”
“Vacuum tubes, right?”
“Yeah, vacuum tubes. One was bad. Luckily the tester had the one we needed in its little supply cupboard. I think it cost about five bucks… I’ll probably have to throw the fifty five inch away when it quits working. Oh well, that’s progress I guess.” I looked at the pop bottle in my hand. “It seems ironic though.”
“Ironic?”
“Yeah, ironic. Today everyone is talking about sustainability and locally produced food but here’s a pop bottle from Mexico made with sugar from I don’t know where. We used to reuse pop bottles and the sugar we bought came from Utah and Idaho. Most of the time sugar isn’t even used anymore! It’s all hi fructose corn syrup, and my mom used corn syrup as a laxative. I shook my head. “I throw away my old shoes when they used to be repaired and passed down. Well, then there’s tv’s…, all electronics actually.”
“They recycle electronics,” Lyndon volunteered. “Besides, technology changes so fast there’s no point making things repairable like your old Zenith.”
“I know. I think they ship our old computers and such to China. I saw an article in National Geographic about it. The peasants burned and broke away the plastic, then melted the components loose in the same woks they use for cooking. Their children have very high lead levels in their blood. The lead affects their ability to learn and dooms them to a meager future, their children too.”
Lyndon looked up and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s too bad.”
I set the pop bottle down and took a deep breath. “Sometimes I wonder if we’re really advancing, or actually going backwards… Well at least there’s toilet paper.”
Lyndon squinted his eyes and looked at me. “Toilet paper?”
“Yeah, toilet paper. At least now it’s all white so colored dyes won’t irritate your skin when you wipe your ass. It also breaks down easier so it’s better for the environment. That’s something anyway.”
Lyndon shook his head and looked at me like I was an idiot.

 

 

 

.

College Life and Death

By Mark Ready

It’s usually in the first few weeks of school that the oddest and most heartbreaking things happen. Kids away from home for the first time, away from Mom and Dad. Kids eager to experience all the opportunities college life has to offer. They pledge sororities and fraternities. They try on different persona seeing which fits the direction they want to go in life. Oh, and they try on different persona to see which one gets them the most action. You know, SEX. Boy-girl, girl-girl, boy-boy. Action! It’s expected, accepted and available. Anything their morals allow, along with drugs and alcohol.

This year we had an incoming freshman get drunk and fall out of a 2nd story window. The young man suffered a head injury that will change his and his families lives forever. Now there’s a big push on at the university for window safety. There’s even talk of installing toddler locks on all the windows. Toddler locks, like they use with two year olds. I never thought I’d see the day you would need toddler locks on university student’s windows… Don’t get me wrong, I feel terrible about what happened to that young man, but actions have

consequences…, and sometimes they’re tragic.

There’s also been a murder.

You’re surprised you haven’t heard about it, aren’t you? Nothing in the papers or on television. It used to amaze me too, how things like that can be kept quiet. Let’s just say there’s a lot of school pride, and a lot of graduates in positions of authority. Well, and the university is the biggest employer in the area, and a murder would be bad for business. What parent would send their child to a school where there was a murderer running amok? The only reason I know about it is because I work there, at Western States University.

My job is repairing and preventing…, floods, fire and famine… I work in the dining centers. Thousands of meals are prepared everyday and my job is to help make sure they get done. Hot food, a comfortable place to eat it, and clean dishes. That’s my job in a nut shell.

Emily Carlson was the victims name, she was nineteen. She worked in Eastside, one of my centers. I met Emily her Freshman year and I saw her most everyday, a slight young lady with a ready smile and an understated sense of humor. She had braces.

When she came back as a Sophomore they were off and she’d, as they’d say in the olden days, bloomed. More developed, more a woman. But it was her eyes that’d changed the most. They were still brown, but they looked more worldly, not as innocent.

She was an R.A. this year, Resident Advisor. R.A’s got to move into the dorms a week earlier than the other students. Emily was assigned to Williams-Davis Hall and that’s where she met Rodger Rodgers. No, I kid you not, that’s his real name! I think he’s even like Rodger Rodgers III. Man, his ancestors must have had a deranged sense of humor. Anyway, Rod was the Williams-Davis Maintenance Mechanic, the guy they called when something needed repaired. He was in and out of the dorm everyday this Summer. That’s how he met Emily.

If I had to guess I would say Rod was in his mid forties. Tall, slim and lose jointed. He shaved his head, but has a full head of hair and he wore one of those beards that only covered his top lip and chin. He was also newly married…, for the second time.

It’s been a little more than a week since Emily’s body was found. It was in her dorm room and it looked like a suicide. You’d be surprised how many suicides the university has every year. It’s not like we expect them, but…let’s just say they happen. First love, lost love, immature emotions, drugs, alcohol, alone and away from home, it all contributes. Emily died with a garbage bag fastened around her neck with a cell phone cable.

It would have stayed a suicide. I don’t think it ever would have been questioned, except that I borrowed some pipe fittings from Rod’s van. That’s when I saw Emily’s pendant, it was a Saint Hedwig medal. I’d seen her wearing it once. I’d recognized it because of the research I’d done for my book. Emily and I had talked about it. It’d been her great-grandmothers, and it was sitting in Rod’s cup holder.

I’m probably the only one who could have put Emily and the pendant together. The only person in the Maintenance Department who knew her, and had access to Rod’s van. I was shocked when I found it. I thought about calling the cops, then I thought again. What if Rod found it laying someplace? I find things the students lose all the time…still, this seemed to coincidental.

Speaking of coincidences. Well, not really a coincidence, it was more like kismet or divine will. Just when I was trying to decide what to do about Rod the answer came walking by, her name was Lori. I know because she was wearing a name tag, she showed me.

I must have seen Lori a thousand times walking around the campus always with two or three photos in her hand. She was one of the ‘special people’ who wandered amongst the throngs of students. Except that Lori was always taking pictures, and they always seemed to be of the same places. Why, I’d seen her photograph the same side of Williams Hall a hundred times. The side with the back door.

Not having a personalized license plate would have helped. I mean, it’s kind of hard to deny it’s your vehicle when it says Rod Rod in the middle of the bumper. Yes, Lori had a picture. She also had a new digital camera with a time and date stamp. There was no reason for Rod to be there at 7:23 PM on a Sunday, the day before Emily was discovered, but there he was.

We all carry radios, and we all have cellphones, so all I needed to do was radio Rod, and call the cops. I told them to both meet me in the same place…, Eastside Dining.

Have you ever thought how you’d tell a person you knew they’d killed someone? I hadn’t thought about it either, so I bought Rod a cup of coffee and a cookie to buy time. It was chocolate chip.

I started talking about Emily, general stuff mostly. Then I brought up Saint Hedwig. Rod looked at me blankly. That’s when I mentioned the pendent, the photo and the police. His face drooped, all the color and expression washed away like the logo on a cheap tee shirt. He’d worn the same pants two days in a row, that’s how the medal ended up in his van. It’d come off in his hands.

He didn’t deny it, and he looked sad. I won’t blame Emily, but I could…, just a little. Rod should have known better, but so should she. Apparently, the building wasn’t the only thing Rod had been in and out of that Summer. Emily was pregnant. “It just happened,” he explained forlornly. He stared at me with a crestfallen look. “ She was walking around in her bra and panties…. She knew I was there, but she didn’t care. I, I started to leave, but she said I didn’t have to…, then she asked if I liked what I saw. Well…, then one thing led to another…We only did it once.” His voice trailed off and his eyes fixed on the table.

You’re going to say he’s lying. You’re going to say no young woman would ever do that…, alone in a dorm. But I’ve seen other girls do it, and I believe Rod was telling the truth. I just don’t understand why Emily would put herself in that position. Still, Rod should have left, he’s a grown man after all. He should have known better.

But why’d Emily do it? Maybe it was exciting for her? After all, she wasn’t the skinny girl with braces anymore. Perhaps it was exhilarating to see how she could control men with her body? I don’t know. I’ll never know.

Anyway, Emily wouldn’t have an abortion, and impregnating a student would ruin Rod’s life. The cookie was still on his plate when the cops showed up. Like I said earlier, actions have consequences…, and sometimes they’re tragic.