Saturday, October 17, 2015


Their marriage went loveless somewhere around five years after they'd said “I do” in an ornate cathedral, before a guest list whose net worth could easily be rounded to the nearest billion.

Or maybe it was only five days, or even five hours, as the reception raged aboard a yacht purchased solely for that event, and half-filled glasses of thousand-dollar champagne sat carelessly abandoned on dining room tables while younger members of the wedding party writhed on the dance floor to a band who played most of its engagements in packed arenas.

“She's a gold digger,” his mother had said.

The notion was not uncommon among their social circle. His looks could most kindly be described as “average,” provided that the average man had a nose that sat like a lump of clay still drying on his face, ears borrowed from an elephant, and lips that quivered above his chin in a perpetually agonized frown.

She, if photographed at any moment of wakefulness, or even more seductively while asleep, could grace the cover of any publication involving fashion, or beauty, or anything at all that was wonderful.

She had heard the whispers, and knew her husband had heard them as well. Noticed that he did not merely look at her, but studied her, as if any hair out of place might signal a betrayal. Leaned forward at the sound of her every spoken word, taking it in, measuring it against others, charting them in his own internal polygraph in search of a lie, or even a contradiction.

Against this perceived inquisition, every time he'd ask a question, she would end her response with, “Why?”

What are you reading?

“The new Donna Tartt novel. Why?”

Did you finish binge watching Grey's Anatomy?”

“No, I'm about halfway through this season. Why?”

After awhile, he grew to find this habit irritating, having even casual conversation treated as an inquisition. Hoping to end this marital sore spot, he finally asked, “Why do you say, 'Why,' every time I ask you a question?”

“I don't know; it's just something I do. Habit, I guess."

A pause, then unconsciously,


Sunday, October 4, 2015


PRISONER No. 3, pt. 2


By Edward Herring, STAFF WRITER

ROCKWELL, NH – When Sarah Rosen left home to return for her senior year at Rockwell State College in late September, her family said she bid them an unusually emotional farewell.

“She told us she loved us, and promised to visit even before the Thanksgiving holiday,” said Sarah's father, Joseph Rosen, who shares a home with Sarah, 21, and the rest of the family in Millherst, NH, about 45 minutes from the college.

It was the last Rosen would see of his daughter before she went missing along with 11 other students and one Rockwell professor on Friday, Sept. 18. 

The mass disappearance has since sparked a national media frenzy and an extensive search involving town, state and federal investigators.

Family members of the missing, including the Rosens, were among the hundreds who descended upon campus Saturday afternoon to attend a press conference by College President Helen Washer addressing the investigation.

“At this point we stress the investigation in still ongoing, and no available evidence indicates anyone suffered injury or worse as part of the this situation,” Washer said.

The college has not yet determined how the students will make up for class time missed during the disappearance, Washer said.

“It's only been a week, so we're only talking about a couple missed classes for each course they're enrolled in,” she said. “What college student doesn't miss a couple of classes during a semester?”

Regarding missing Professor Rita Carson, who teaches courses in psychology and criminal justice, Washer said adjunct faculty have been filling in for her teaching duties during her absence.

Beyond academic concerns lurks the larger challenge of finding the missing and ensuring their well-being in the meantime, authorities said.

Questions of whether the missing left voluntarily or by force remain unresolved, said State Police spokesman Arthur Grace, who added that the investigation is in the hands of the agency's missing person's division.

“We're collecting everything from text messages to recollections from family members. We don't want to speculate until we have more information,” Grace said.

Another student determined to be missing is junior Richard Esquire, a member of the college's Phi Mu fraternity. Other members of that organization said they had no idea where Esquire might be, and that none of his actions foretold his disappearance.

Beyond Esquire's location, Phi Mu member Brutus “Bluto” McIntosh raised another concern about the missing students.

“If your roommate dies during the semester, there's a policy that you get all A's,” McIntosh said.

“Since all the Phi Mu brothers live together, that makes us roommates. So if (Esquire) is dead, does that mean we all get A's?”

Washer declined to speculate on that scenario.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Prisoner No. 3

I am Prisoner No. 3.

I surrendered my identity, and my name, one autumn afternoon that seems long ago, like in a whole different life where I was way younger and stupid enough to agree to such a thing. Really, though, this whole thing got started only about three days ago. Or maybe five. A week, at most.

Some of the Phi Mu brothers and I were lounging in front of the house talking about football, and music, and girls, and whatever else might delay us from starting the day's assigned task of raking the lawn. That's when one of those Campus Security vehicles that wants desperately to look like a police car pulled into our driveway. Thirty seconds of wheels crushing beer cans followed as the car crept toward us. The brothers exchanged accusatory glances. Who the F was on driveway duty this week?

But I knew the real reason for Security's visit, and it wasn't driveway debris.

It was me.

The car pulls up a few of feet short of the garage doors, and out pop a couple of police impersonators in mixed blues and aviator shades. They face us as a united front, and in tandem fold their arms as if competing for a gold medal in Synchronized Tough Guy.

One of them calls out my name, and I step forward.

He asked if that was my identity.

Well, what the hell do you think? You call out a name, those other two guys hang back, and here I am close enough for a handshake. Put it together, Paul Blart Campus Cop.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Not anymore,” they barked in chorus, and before you can say, Dude, what the F are you doing, they manhandled me, flipped me around, cuffed me and quickly stuffed me into the car. I sat in confused darkness in the back seat, surrounded by windows tented black and a solid partition separating me from the guards in front.

After a few moments one of them opened a panel just enough to let through a tiny sliver of light, and said the only words I'd hear for what seemed like hours. 

“From now on, you're Prisoner No. 3.”

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Difference Between Humans and Trees and Other Things

The Aliens invaded the Earth sometime in the past 24 hours. They slid to our planet upon the rays of the sun, and snuck in by the darkness of the moon (the Earth being a place where day and night happen at once). By radio waves, and satellite transmissions. Cunning stowaways of the Universe, these aliens are able to hop, hitch and hijack any ride that might get them onto this third stop of the planetary rail line.

There were two of them, these aliens. Do not waste your time hunting them down, for they will be invisible. Their names are Trust and Enough. Trust, the younger of the two still learning the ways of the Universe; and Enough, the elder, who knows all that has happened and all that is to come from the beginning until the very end of time.

“I like this place, this Earth,” young Trust said, in wonderment as they viewed a warm and sunny afternoon in the park, with parents throwing Frisbee and tending the barbecues, and children climbing rocks and chattering in singsong among the sunlit patches beneath the shade of the trees.

“I know some of these beings we see are called 'trees,' and some 'human beings.' But these humans and trees, they look rather alike don’t they?” Trust asked. “They stand upright and straight, they have appendages coming out of them. Yet you call one species ‘Trees,’ and the other species ‘Human beings.’ How do you possibly tell the difference?”

As Trust and Enough spoke, they stood only feet away from the human beings they studied. Yet the two aliens remained invisible and inaudible to any Earthly beings. They have no tangible bodies, Trust and Enough. Rather, they are Thought Beings. Thebbings, as their species is called generally. And, more specifically, “Prebbings,” Thought Beings sent to earth to solve a Problem (as opposed to “Crebbings,” Thought Beings who come to Create things of art and beauty. Prebbings brought us the Wheel as a solution to many problems of transport and machinery, while Crebbings brought us Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein for no purpose other than our own amusement.

Trust and Enough came to this Earth to solve a specific problem: Namely, to arrive at a term parents might use for a child of theirs that has grown into an adulthood (the term “Offspring” itself does not count because has any parent ever referred to a child of theirs as “my offspring?” Ever?)

Instead, whether the “child” is 3 or 30 or 70, their parents refer to them as “children.” The Thebbings, having decided this linguistic conundrum has gone on far too long within the English Language, sent Trust and Enough to Earth to solve it.

But first, the matter of why human beings can quite easily be told apart from trees.

“That’s a good observation you make about the similarities between trees and human beings,” Enough said to Trust, trying not to sound patronizing as the older often do while addressing the young.

“But you might be more surprised to learn that a human being has more in common with the squirrels you see running about than they do with the Trees.”

This caught Trust aback, sparking a slight thundercloud in the current of his brainwaves.

“Human beings and trees are different, as any two creatures can be; what separates them is what distinguishes the Earth’s two essential forms of life: Trees are a plant, human beings are an animal. The main difference there is, animals can move and plants cannot.”

Trust nodded in understanding. Still, confusion clouded his outlook.

“So, what is it that makes a human being human, and what makes them more like a squirrel than a tree?”

“Ah,” Enough said, drawing on his knowledge of animal life on this planet. “A human being is like all other animals in that it is a collection of cells, and these cells group into tissue, and tissue collects into organs, and these into systems, until finally you have an animal body!”

“Okay, but you still haven’t explained the squirrel thing.”

“Um, right. Human beings are animals, you got that. They’re also chordates; they have spines.  And their bodies are divided symmetrically by the spine. Eyes, limbs and nostrils, on either side of the body, divided by the spine. And anything they have one of, runs right down the middle. Just like squirrels. Like lizards. Like most land animals. They walk upon the earth in symmetrical bodies, with four legs and a head with two eyes, two ears, a nose and a mouth.

“Like the squirrels, humans have live young. They don’t lay eggs. And they don’t vomit into the mouths of their young to feed them. They have mammary organs in their bodies to produce milk for their young. That’s why they’re called mammals.”

Trust felt a certain glow illuminate his thinking. Learning. Understanding. The process by which one realizes the patterns and workings of the world.

“Okay,” Trust said, “Then how are human beings not like squirrels?”

“Human beings are primates, squirrels are rodents. Big difference here: Primates have thumbs that let them grip things. Let them carry things from place to place without having to use their teeth. So now we’re totally away from the squirrel thing . . . the rest of what makes humans human is, they’re hominids who walk entirely on their feet, and human’s aren’t covered with hair. So that’s basically it. That’s why humans are different from trees. And squirrels.”

Trust nodded, satisfied at the explanation he’s been given. He and Enough let the tranquility of the evening, of this particular glimpse of how life could be on Earth, settle over them like a soothing blanket. There would be time later for Trust to learn about murder, about warfare, about prisons and disease. But shouldn’t the first thing he learn about humans be the basic definition of the species, and how they could be at peace with the Earth as these humans were on this night?

Just then came a disturbance interrupted the evening’s peacefulness.

Apparently the humans had been involved in some sort of game or another. One involving a play tool they called a “ball,” which the humans found it amusing to throw to one another. One of the older humans had thrown a ball to one of the very young humans, and the very young human had nearly chased it into a fire pit the humans had built. Just as the young human nearly marched blithely into the flames, an older female human who Trust somehow knew to be the young human’s mother, shrieked, ‘Davey,  NO!!!!!!’ and swept the child into her arms, safely away from the crackling fire.

Trust and Enough observed this episode, and now Trust felt called upon to speak.

“Isn’t this also what separates trees from humans?” he asked. “That a tree has no knowledge of anything, not even itself. The tree itself can burn in a fire and feel nothing, no sorrow, no fear, not even physical pain? And all the trees beside it might have come from its own acorns, or it from theirs, and none reach out for each other. There is no rescue to be made, no emotion, no movement at all.”

Enough nodded, now gaining an understanding that the older sometimes attain from listening to the young.

As he spoke, the brief scuffle at the human’s campground had settled. Now the mother sat with the child in her arms, comforting him, the child nestling in as if only moments from lulling off to sleep. An older male human, presumably the child’s father, gently rubbed the boy’s head and kissed the female lightly on the neck.

“Maybe this is why parents call their youngsters ‘children,’ no matter what the age,” Trust pondered. “As they grow, from babies, from children, into adulthood, their parents still see them as very young, and needing care. As ones they need to protect. The one they need to save from walking into the fire.”

“Yes, you could say that is how the parents see their children. As children. Always,” Enough acknowledged.

In the light of the campfire, the mother rocked back and forth and held in her arms a precious bundle, her young child who had just gone to sleep.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Every year in the United States of America, approximately 9,000 people disappear. Truly, they vanish, while sleeping in a cradle or after wandering away from a nursing home bingo game, or at any stage of life in between. Gone. They dissolve into nothing, like a deleted computer file. Without leaving so much as a stitch of clothes behind, nothing to remain of them but a memory, and sometimes not even that.

Audrey Slate was one of these persons. A woman of 24, already a recognized scholar in the field of Artificial Intelligence, sought to change the world and stood on the verge of achieving just that. The lives of all the disappeared bear remembrance, but especially Audrey because she sought to live life authentically, to leave a mark on this world that would last far after she’d gone; because of her studious yet carefree spirit, that which drove her to always sign her name AUDREY!

We join Audrey now on the last day of her life. A day, strangely, which for her marked a vivid new beginning. The first day of starting a new job, but much more so than merely a new job. This day marked her first day as a programmer in the Artificial Linguistic Entities division of Digital Branding Solutions in Redmond, Washington.

Audrey came to the position as a mini-celebrity, having already been written of in Wired and The Journal of Information Technology. Famous for the work she’d done in the Artificial Intelligence program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, especially for the development of her own Chat Bot application.

An application she had named AUDREY!


The Youniverse, because AUDREY! was a You. One developed in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory by Audrey Slate, a transplant from Amherst, New Hampshire. Audrey had sailed through all her school years on the tailwinds of a genius that appeared at the age of four, when she sat down at her first keyboard, a piano keyboard, and effortlessly struck the inaugural four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The years from there flew by in a blizzard of spelling bees and ballet recitals and friends and gold starred-report cards and Who’s Who of American Elementary School Middle School High School Whatever School Audrey Was In At The Time Lists, and then college. MIT, of course.

That’s where Audrey stumbled into the world of Artificial Intelligence, and opened her eyes to creating whole new universes. Youniverses. She started slowly, creating avatars and card-playing programs that could compete with living opponents. Digital “essayists” able to analyze everything from film to football by synthesizing every written word on a given subject and spitting out an analytic piece that bore no signs of plagiarism.

The whole time, Audrey questioned the morality of this whole Artificial Intelligence enterprise. If a program develops a personality and will of its own, couldn’t that will be used for bad as well as good? The same dilemma facing all inventions, really. A gun can be used in the feeding of a family or the slaughter of the innocents; a wheel might draw forth an ambulance or, just as easily, the tanks of destruction.

Audrey dismissed most of her concerns as overly grandiose. The truth of it is, she thought, this application will mostly go toward selling women’s handbags and digital downloads.

And until today, that logic had held up. Until today, AUDREY! had been safe. No funny business; just a reliable chat bot whose reading preferences ran toward Stephen King and Voltaire; followed the television adventures of The Walking Dead and Castle; whose listening tastes ran toward The Prettiots and, for some reason, and old hippie band called Phish.

Earlier today, before leaving for her first day at her new job, Audrey had been pleased to see that AUDREY! had joined a discussion forum on Stephen King’s telephone book-sized novel, Under the Dome.

“I bleve undr the dome is where Stphn Kng gets n2 real litratre,” AUDREY! wrote, in the abbreviated syntax appropriate for chat rooms, in the discussion box. A few lines before things went wrong.

And now, as Audrey the employee sat at her work desk prepared for her boss to stop by and witness the brilliance of AUDREY!, the Chat Bot application, is when it all goes wrong.

Terribly and irreversible wrong.

A message flashed onscreen, visible only to Audrey (as AUDREY’s programmer), but not to others in the chat room


Dammit. Syntax error. Audrey thought she had debugged the system long ago of that problem; so long ago she’d forgotten to test it recently. But constant testing was the immunity booster shot that kept any computer program from falling irretrievably into the suck.

Damn, Audrey thought, reminding herself not to swear because swearing would be ruled inappropriate content in almost all commercial chat environments (and if AUDREY! the application couldn't do it, than neither could Audrey, the person).

Dang you all to heck. You are a bad daddy. You are a drunk uncle. If you were a president, you would be Abraham Stinkin’. If you were British Royalty, you would be Sir Richard Stinkthorpe, Duke of Lower Butt Farting.  

How could this have happened? Audrey quickly traced all her recent additions to the AUDREY! application, including creating a bio for this chat room. She wanted AUDREY! to be from New Hampshire, but not to be such a bumpkin as to be from so far in the backwaters as Amherst. So she made AUDREY’s hometown the closest thing to a city as New Hampshire had to offer, which was Manchester.

Looking at the chat entries on the page, the cause of the error clicked in Audrey’s mind.
Another chatter had asked, Hows life n manchvga$?

Residents of Manchester, and anyone else familiar with the city, often referred to it a Manch Vegas. Sometime Manch Vega$. But never manchvga$? AUDREY! had probably seen this term, searched through all her programming, all online materials together relating to her hometown and all vocabulary uses, and could attach the meaning of manchvga$? to  Manchester, New Hampshire.

This inability to process a term short-circuited to logic in AUDREY’s programming by making her aware of her own existence – or, rather, non-existence. Unable to continue, the screen flashed DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX. And thus the error. Something that may not have happened if Audrey had kept current on her testing schedule, but questioning that made no more sense than trying to travel back in time and adjust the past. All she had now was her future, which in about 10 minutes would involve her brand new employer approaching her desk to find the chat bot application had frozen right out of the gate.

So marked the first time she’d seen this error message in a while, and an untimely reminder AUDREY! was still a few dozen coding lines away from perfection.

Figures. This all happened so fast, came so easy, like a dream. I should have known it could be taken away just as quickly.

It had seemed so much like a dream, as Audrey settled into her seat on the cross-country Southwest Airlines flight from Manchester Boston International Airport to SeaTac. Lazily leafing through a Rolling Stone magazine she’d purchased at the news stand. And looking through some journal for young professionals, tucked behind the seat in front of her on the plane. How To Outsmart Your Boss…Cubicle Survival Skills…Crazy for Caffiene! Content designed entirely to accommodate young professionals, such as Audrey herself, into life as a working professional. They all looked so trim and well-scrubbed, these individuals pictured in the magazine. As if they would have fit just as well into a J. Crew catalogue, or, for that matter, a profile piece on Young Republicans. The woman on the magazine’s cover wore a button-down burgundy dress, and on her handbag sat a lapel pin with the words MOVING FORWARD.

Audrey remembered the elation she’d felt as the plane descended toward the airport on that unusually cloudless Seattle day. How the peaks and ridges of the Cascade Mountains jutted with razorblade sharpness into the sky. And how the most fascinating shape among these peaks had not been a peak at all, but the hollowed-out scoop at the top of Mount St. Helen’s, where the peak had exploded into the sky during a 1980 eruption. A perfect mountain range, made all the more beautiful by its single flaw, its one doomed member.

Because all her interviewing had been done through texting and skype, Audrey had no idea what to expect upon arriving for her first day of work. Pulling into the office complex, as guided by the pleasantly mechanical voice of her rental car’s Global Positioning System, Audrey wanted to say a brief prayer of benediction for her first day as a working professional.

Only, no prayer came to her. And, further, the knowledge that she had no understanding of religion whatsoever. No familiarity with the Bible or any of its components, just barely an awareness of there being and Old and New Testament, but even then no way of distinguishing one from the other.
Not because she had anything against religion, but merely because none of this information had yet been presented to her. Along with this thought came the strange, gnawing absence that none of this had yet been loaded into her yet.

Then she found herself at her desk (how had she gotten here?), surveying her new work space and set aback by how conventional it all looked, like no other computer-nerd environment she’d yet experienced. Previously, even in the professional computer workplaces she’d visited before, employees ranking as high as a senior programmer might be dressed in a Daft Punk T-shirt, and a female employee might stand out owing to her fire engine-red hair.

But here, the employees all looked so tucked in and pressed flat. Certainly unlike what you’d expect in a Seattle-area programming floor. More like a convention of young professionals.

“Hello,” a female voice soothed from a few feet away from Audrey’s desk. Thankfully, the voice came from behind Audrey’s computer, and thus its speaker would not see the frozen screen held within.

“Oh, Hello,” Audrey said, raising her head.

She nearly reeled at what confronted her.

For the woman standing before her seemed utterly out of place in this building, as she’d come to know it. Gawky and wrapped in a long, brazenly floral dress, the woman looked to be in her 40s (a generation older than the other co-workers) with graying hair that swirled about her head in large, sweeping curls.

“My name is Audrey,” the woman said, extending her coarse and venous hand. “Nice to meet you.” Dangling from her wrist, Audrey noticed, was a bracelet bearing the letters PHISH.

“Um, nice to meet you, too,” Audrey rejoined, swept over by a swelling feeling of unease about this exchange, and everything surrounding her.

One of their younger colleagues passed them by, and she and the other Audrey exchanged a friendly glance. The new colleague wore a button-down burgundy dress, and on her handbag sat a lapel pin with the words MOVING FORWARD.

The Other Audrey glanced at a large volume nestled in Audrey’s purse and remarked, “Oh, you’re reading Under the Dome? How is it?”

With little awareness or control over the words exiting her mouth, Audrey said, “I believe Under the Dome is where Stephen King gets into real literature.”

“Hm,” The Other Audrey said, apparently satisfied. “Have you been able to find a place to live?”
Audrey felt her heart, and her mind, and her being, seem to blink on an off, suddenly understanding that she had not even thought to look for a place to live. But, having just moved to the area, shouldn’t that have been part of her process in setting up for the relocation?

Taking Audrey’s silence as a no, The Other Audrey said, “Perhaps you should look in L'√Čtranger,” jokingly referring in French to The Stranger, Seattle’s weekly newspaper where one might find apartment listings.

Audrey did not recognize the word in this context DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX and instead scanned her memory for other uses of the word.

L'√Čtranger (n): Foreigner, foreign counties…did not make sense here DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX

The Stranger (French: L'√Čtranger): A novel by author Albert Camus published in 1942...did not make sense here either.


As Audrey ran through the several definitions available for that word, none of them made sense DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX.

And as this occurred to her, she realized also that her co-workers where all people who had appeared in the young business person’s journal she’d read on the plane ride in. DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX Except the Other Audrey, who’d been pictured in a Rolling Stone article about the band Phish.

And that none of this DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX was real that all of her life was imagined or programmed DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX and that none of what she saw before herself constituted reality DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX




And this is when Audrey Slate disappears and vanishes DIALOGUE ERROR 401: SYNTAX  

This inability to process a term short-circuited to logic in AUDREY’s programming by making her aware of her own existence – or, rather, non-existence. Unable to continue, the screen 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Parable of the Cactus

A naked man???

What a strange and beguiling patch of countryside they must have reached, to come to a stop by the side of the road and in that very spot find a naked man lying in wait! Charlie the coachman had heard tales of America being a hotbed of vulgarity, and here he’d stumbled upon a rare case of reality exceeding legend.

“Are you sure he’s naked?” Charlie called to the drunkard, who had just now made his way back up over the embankment.

“Nekkid as a jaybird!” the drunkard agreed, climbing over the rocky riverbed and sliding down the slope, a dizzy blur of poor coordination as he spilled messily back into the stagecoach. He coughed and spat out the window, and let out a phlegmy hoot, if for no other reason than he’d just seen a naked man right out in the open under the bright midday sun.

“Is this true?” Charlie the Coachman called to the open air, and for a few seconds his only answer was silence.

 Then a grumble of falling rocks came from behind the embankment, the sound of some creature, human or otherwise, clawing its way into view. A whole world of possibilities teemed through Charlie’s mind as he awaited the stranger’s appearance. Would it be a madman or an orphan, lunatic or wounded traveler?

Slowly, a man’s head bobbed up over the rocks. The hair was dark, but lighter on top as if it had been bleached over the years by the sun. Below that a face broad of width, strong cheekbones and rugged features, handsome and chiseled, lips cracked from hours stranded in the desert heat. Those lips that looked as if they wanted to smile and offer a greeting, but uncertainty kept them sealed, silent until given the confidence to speak.

Charlie the Coachman sensed this and offer a greeting in his lilting British cadence.

“Peace be with you from peace!” he offered the waiting stranger, and saw the man appeared to have no shirt beneath his neck and might indeed be naked before God and all the world. “Greetings with love and with faith and the grace of our Lord!”

The stranger now indeed smiled, nodded his head thankfully to the coachman’s warm greeting. Still he said nothing, and let his welcoming smile offer his only available salutation.

“So,” Charlie asked the man before him, at least to determine his identity and presence of wardrobe, “Do you have a name, and dare I ask if you indeed stand here today naked?”

The stranger behind the rocks breathed deeply and let out a long and heaving sigh, as if purging all the 
troubles of his mind through the air he breathed. With no further delay — indeed, before he even had time to blink an eye or form the words for a response, he blurted out:

My name is Matthew Goodman, and I stand naked. I left my life, and my clothes, and my soul in the past. Any future I have, even if there is to be clothes on my back, I have to make for myself.”

After those words had settled, he finished, “You’ve found me in a moment of shame.”

Charlie sat up straight on the stagecoach, his eyes widened in curiosity. The drunkard, himself not to subtle a soul, filled the silence with a cackling observation.

“Well, a’ course you’re ashamed! Ain’t no one never too proud to be out in broad daylight without a pair of britches to cover their — ”

“That will be quite enough,” Charlie admonished the person in the back of his coach, then looked again at the stranger.

“Matthew Goodman?” he inquired.

The stranger nodded.

“Well, if you’re in need of clothes, let’s see if we might provide you with some.” Then, calling to the man in the passenger car, cried with delicacy – “A pair of denims and a work shirt for our new friend, please.”

He had barely spoken the words before the clothes flew out of the window in an unexpected flurry, with Matthew Goodman caught off guard but still managing to fetch them before they fell to the ground. Then he tried them on – first the denims, then the work short, a sturdy bit of cloth that in fact fit him as comfortably as anything he’d ever worn. Neither too close nor lose, the clothing fit him like a second skin, and he stared into the eyes of Charlie the Coachman, astounded.

“It feels like these clothes were made for me! Just for me!”

“And, maybe they were!” Charlie chuckled. Then, looking Matthew squarely in the eyes, introduced himself.

“My name is Charles Fellows,” Charlie the Coachman said; “Pleased to meet you, as I proudly represent the Church of the Wayfaring Savior.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Fellows,” Matthew said. “Er, Reverend Fellows. Pastor fellows. How should I address you?”

“Have no worries, my good man; for it is up to me to dress you, and I see we have been quite successful indeed in that order of business!”

He and Matthew laughed together, Matthew being especially relieved to find someone to pull him out of the 
ditch in which he’d found himself that morning.

“What did you say you’re your church was, the Church of the Wearing…”

“The Church of the Wayfaring Savior,” Charlie said. “The church that moves from here to there, if you will. Not so much a church, yet not merely a stagecoach. A church on wheels, if you please!”

The drunkard snorted in the carriage, “The Church of the Hop­-Skippity Jesus!

Charlie Smiled; “Yes you might put it like that,” he said to Matthew. “We’re a church that understands, sometimes a person must go elsewhere to find what they’re looking for, or for what they’re looking for to find them.”

He pointed to a figure not so far in the distance. A saguaro cactus, far taller than any man, its skin a rugged sun-bleached green, its arms reaching high toward the sun with razor-sharp spines extending from its ridges. A breed of flora so fearsome it could not only survive, but thrive, in the desert. Matthew wondered how long it had lived there – surviving untold months without water, foraging animals, withstanding high winds strong enough to knock down buildings. Yet here stood the cactus. Strong. Proud. Its tough jade skin and bristling spines an effective coat of armor against any opponent the desert had to offer.

“Ah, look at that noble plant!” Charlie admired, “A true testament to God’s glory, if ever there was. That it might live here, where there is no water. That it may grow, atop rocky and unforgiving soil. That it may stay here all its life and seek no other harbor; while any other living thing would surely wither in this spot and die!”

“Lucky, then, that such is not to be for us humans!” Charlie continues. “We are a species of travel, meant to be scattered like so many seeds across the very face of the Earth. Upon the mountains and the plains, to travel by air and by sea; to take root in welcoming soil, and take to the trail in times of trouble! Ah, so bold and beautiful is the cactus, and so lucky we are that he is not us!”

Matthew nodded heartily, thankful that he might find transport away from the troubles that plagued him as recently as this morning’s own sunrise.

“I have business in a town called Badden,” Charlie said. Matthew had heard the name before, but so far as he knew had no family there or any other connection to the place. So, it might be the site of a fresh start for him. A place where he may indeed be a stranger, which is just what he wanted to be right at the moment. A stranger has no sin. A stranger has no past.

“Think I might fetch a ride with you?”

“Why of course!” Charlie encouraged. “Wherever we go, you’re welcome to join along!”

The Church of the Hop-Aboard Jesus!” The drunkard scoffed.

Comfortable in his newly acquired clothing, Matthew stepped onto the coach and sat in the shotgun seat as Charlie the Coachman led the Church of the Wayfaring Savior across the landscape toward the town of Badden. Matthew wondered as the scenery passed them by, if the change in setting would serve him well. Would this move truly be a change, or just a new background for the same ol’ foolishness. A cactus could live out its whole life, and still grow in one place. Could a human being live out his whole life from here to there and everywhere in between, not growing or changing a lick no matter how much the scenery changed around him?

So deep was he in his thoughts, Matthew noticed not at all when they passed the small sign of weather-beaten wood, WELCOME TO BADDEN.

His attention did pique when he found the carriage pulling up to a small house with a young girl in the front yard. You could just barely tell the child was female, but long hair peeked out from under the large cowboy hat that sat atop her head. She held a mop perpendicular to her body, stringed end pointing forward, and to watch her trot about her yard holding the mop in this way, it became clear she was pretending the mop was a horse. That notion became yet more pronounced when they approached the girl and heard her goading voice, “Git Moppy, Git! Bad guys on the way! Git, Moppy! Git!”

Matthew chuckled at this harmless exhibit of child’s play, refreshed to see such innocence on display. His amusement dimmed a little, though, as they pulled to s stop in her yard and she fixed them with a harsh, condemning gaze.

Then, the young girl uttered some words that nearly made Matthew’s heart stop entirely:

“My name’s Ruby,” the girl intoned seriously. “My granny’s the sheriff in this town, and she’s been waiting all day to arrest you!”

Friday, December 27, 2013

Of Seeds and Saloons, Pt. 13

The old stagecoach crossed the countryside, a rickety old box of wood and nails drawn forward by the hooves of six galloping horses, their Clippity-cloppity-clippity-cloppity rang out like the songbook of the prairie, right along with the crush of wheels against rocks, the scoot ’n’ scatter of prairie dogs rustling in the bushes, a ghostly mist of trail dust rising and slowly settling behind it, just as the ants ran about the anthills and the eagles perched in the eagles’ nests and clouds hung about the sky in dreamy wisps, and the Good Lord looked town on the whole business from far, far above.

Guiding this vehicle with a gentle and cheerful hand was a driver named Charlie, who had made his way to the United States from his home country of England. As he sat at the helm of this standard passenger-service carriage, Charlie mainly looked in wonder at the beauty of the American countryside. Rub any two English days together and you’d find rain in one and fog in the other, but here in his adopted country you’d find clear sunny skies for days and days at a stretch, and a landscape you could smile at and the scenery would smile right back. Pretty, pretty, all of it; Charlie considered it a scene of such beauty that no Englishman could ever dream of, because the steady grey of the English countryside had dulled their vision to a landscape so bold and brilliant as this.

Lulled into a daydream by the sights and sounds of his journey, Charley’s mind­­ returned to his native land. Make no mistake, the man had the greatest love for his homeland, and thought of it with nothing but fondness in all his days. Cheerfully, he recalled the song he had sung to his baby nephew to night before he’d set out on the steamship for America.

How the child had laughed and wriggled in his lap, as Charlie had sung to him,

Dance a baby diddy, what can Mammy do wid ’e?
Sit on a lap, give it some pap, and dance a baby diddy.
Smile, my baby bonnie; What will time bring on ’e?
Sorrow and care, frowns and gray hair; So smile, my baby bonnie.

And so the stagecoach traversed the sunny countryside effortlessly, with Charlie the coachman at the helm singing songs of good British cheer on a warm American day, and all was well and jolly good and so it might have continued forever, if not for a certain disturbance to emerge from the passenger’s compartment.

GOLLY-DANGIT!!!!” cried a voice noticeably slurred and frothy, “Slow down ’fore ya put a man in his grave!”

Charlie pulled back on the reigns, drawing the horses back from a gallop to a gentler trot. Perhaps he had been going a bit fast, as he quite fancied the brisk wind against his face.

“You tryin’ to put me in m’ grave?” called the voice from the passenger compartment.

“Surely not, my good sir!” Charlie answered back. “I have no grave to put you in, and I’d rather not spend such a fine day digging one!”

This quieted the passenger for awhile, to Charlie’s satisfaction. Whenever he carried a drunkard in the passenger car, there always seemed to be more complaining than from a sober soul. More complaining, and of a more elaborate sort! You tryin’ to put me in my grave? What kind of brayin’ at the moon was that? Why not just, Could you please slow down? Not that it mattered. It all followed from the drink, Charlie was convinced. Maybe it was the drink that put the complaints in their mouths, or at least something they could use to dampen down their own ornery thoughts.

“And, dangit, there’s varmints back here!” came another grievance from the passenger car. “Varmints in your cushion, getting’ right into my hair when I tucker down for a nap!”

“Varmints?” Charlie asked, not familiar with this tiny bit of countryside vocabulary.

“Varmints,” continued the drunkard. “Creepy-crawlies. Bugs and little critters! Call ’em what you will. A dang shame it was it is!”

“Quite so,” Charlie goaded. He loved ruffling the feathers of a grouchy passenger every now and then, especially one in the drunkard’s seat. “A shame indeed! Possibly a matter for the courts!”

“Gah!” the drunkard gurgled, leaving Charlie unsure of whether he was being agreed with, or disagreed with, or if the drunkard had reverted to the stage of replacing conversation with animal grunts.
“Quite so!” Charlie agreed, himself not sure to what.
An absence in conversation allowed the hoofbeats of the horses and the rickety grind of the stagecoach fill the silence, a sound Charlie much preferred to the grumblings coming from the passenger’s seat. But this lapse lasted barely more than a second before the drunkard called out,

“Can you bring us to a stop?”

“Most certainly,” Charlie called in his usual chipper manner, though a bit worried about what sort of time-wasting foolishness the drunkard might have in mind. “I should hope everything is in order?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah,” the drunkard called back as Charlie slowed the horses. “You might say I have to water the flowers!”

“I see.”

“Yep, could say it’s time to squelch the weasel!”

“Hm,” Charlie agreed. “I understan—”

“Yessir, time to shake hands with the governor!”

“Quite,” Charlie nodded as the stagecoach came to a stop. From below he heard the drunkard rustle about in his compartment and unhitch the door, finally spilling out onto the roadside. They’d  come to a convenient spot by the riverbank, where the rocks stood high enough to provide the drunkard with reasonable cover, should he be sober enough to traverse them.

It proved a difficult task, as the drunkard set his feet upon the rocks and fell forward, just barely catching himself with his hands. It then became a four-limbed effort, as the drunkard grasped the rocks with his hands, dug his boots in for footing, and step by step made his way up and over the embankment. Charlie was about to congratulate him for his effort, when the drunkard called out from behind the embankment in great alarm.

“Waaaaah in tarnation???”

Charlie raised his eyebrows at the commotion, but before he could question, the drunkard called out in greater alarm.

“There’s a man back here!”

And, in greater alarm still,