Big Brother – A Serial – Part 2

I started writing this story in September and let it sit on the shelf until now. This second part is taking some twists and turns. Initially, I thought I would just mention this candidate in passing as a casualty of the smear campaign of the ACA, but now it’s turned into something different. It will be interesting to see where it goes.

You can catch up on Part 1 of this story HERE.


Big Brother – Part 2

Samantha Agnew sat in the desk chair of her suite at the Hartford Downtown Marriott hotel with her campaign manager, publicist and proposed candidate for lieutenant governor. As she looked around at the the pillars of her all-female campaign team she marveled at their ability to bring her gubernatorial campaign from cocktail party chit-chat to her leading in the polls in the state of Connecticut.

The state was solidly blue as was most of the northeast in terms of political leanings, but Agnew knew her platform was dark blue. After all, she had the three strikes that usually spelled doom in the world of politics. She was a woman, a lesbian and a celebrity.

Here campaign manager, Helen Reuben, was a political veteran in the state of Connecticut. She had worked under some of the most successful campaign managers in both state and and national elections including the last democratic presidential campaign that came as close to toppling the heavily favored conservative candidate as any candidate had in the past three elections. Helen was ready to be in charge of a campaign and the results of Agnew’s campaign for the highest office in Connecticut were indicative of what she could achieve.

Agnew’s publicist, Zoe St. Moritz, was her friend of 25 years. She had been with Agnew since her first staring role on the soap opera, Memories of our Life, back in the late 1990s and had followed her through her television and movie successes. She always new the right way to spin events in Samantha’s life so that she came out on top.

Catherine Meyers was the sharp, former state attorney for the State of Connecticut. When Samantha decided to become involved in politics eight years earlier, Meyers had been the first candidate that she had endorsed in her home state of Connecticut. While working in show business, she had endorsed other candidates for Senate and Presidential campaigns, but Meyers was the first candidate where she was all in canvasing neighborhoods and making telephone calls. Meyers had won the state attorney election by a landslide and was not only Agnew’s choice as her running mate for governor, but she was also her choice as a partner in life. The two had officially married three years prior and had an adopted baby daughter named Jasmine.

Agnew contemplated running for office. Her celebrity made choosing the right foray into her first campaign difficult. Obviously, the presidency was a monumental uphill battle with little chance for success. A position in the Senate or Congress, although more realistic and potentially attainable, might find her lost in the sea of others on Capitol Hill.

She remembered that night, almost two years ago, when she sat down with Catherine and explained to her that she wanted to run for governor in her home state of Connecticut.

“You’re serious about this,” Catherine asked. “Turner is in his last term but he’s all but anointed Jameson as his successor.”

The current governor had served for five consecutive four year terms and, even though Connecticut has no term limits for the top state office, at 76, Robert Turner wanted to retire to spend time with his grandchildren. His lieutenant governor for the past two terms was William Jameson, a 45 year-old privileged native of Connecticut who seemed destined to carry on the Turner legacy for the foreseeable future. He had been deemed unbeatable by those in the know in Connecticut politics.

“I am serious. I think change is needed in this state and with my national name recognition and your knowledge of the inner workings of the state, I think we can do it.”

“We?”

“Of course. You could run as my lieutenant governor. Really, though, we’d run the state together as partners.”

“Partners…interesting choice of words.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think the stodgy old state of Connecticut is ready for two lesbians married to each other and running the state?”

“We won’t know until we try. We just need the right team helping us out,” Agnew said.

“Well, I think I know just the person that can help us figure out if this is even possible.”

That was how Helen Reuben became involved. It was the right situation at the right time. Helen was coming off of working for a “close but no cigar” democratic presidential campaign as the second in command to the campaign manager and was licking her wounds. She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that if her boss had taken some of her suggestions, the outcome might have been different.

Now, a mere 18 months later, Agnew was the front-runner in the election, leading Jameson in the polls by double-digits. That was, until her campaign manager and publicist received an anonymous email with a link to photos and a video.

Helen Reuben had been the first to click on the link. At first she thought the photos and video were doctored or fabricated until she checked with her candidate.

“It was 5 years ago. I had just wrapped a movie in Greece. Practically everyone is nude on the beaches there. I didn’t give it a thought. You remember it, don’t you Cathy?” Agnew said trying lighten the tension.

“I remember. I didn’t know there were pictures,” her partner said, sounding deflated.

“Neither did I. It was probably some American with a cell phone. They’re everywhere.”

“I would be fine with that,” Reuben said, “but what about the video.”

The video, although grainy, showed Agnew giving a topless lap dance to a well known actor.

“That was a long time ago. We were both single and had hit it off when we filmed a movie together.”

“But, I thought you were gay,” Reuben said innocently.

“During that time, I was not sure what I was. I reacted to attention and the fame of the people I was with.”

“The video could be a problem. The pictures might offend the conservative voters, but they weren’t going to vote for you anyway.”

“I’m not sure how they’re different,” Agnew said.

“The video represents you as a distinctly heterosexual woman. Much of your base and the reason for your lead in the polls is the solidarity of the LGBTQ community behind you. That video might shake their confidence.”

“So what do we do?” Catherine Meyers asked the room.

“Well, that depends,” Zoe St. Moritz said. She had been silent until this moment.

“Depends on what?” Helen Reuben asked.

“It depends on the credibility of the second email I received.”

“What second email,” Agnew asked.

“It was from someone who says their deep within the ACA, you know, the American Conservative Alliance. The email said that Samantha was being set up based on orders from their leadership.”

“And you believe the email?” Catherine Meyers asked.

“Well, think of it this way, who else knows about the photos besides us?”

While the team pondered the question, Samantha Agnew finally spoke up.

“I think we should embrace it and use this as a way to fight the ACA. They can’t get away with this. If I were a man, this would be played off as youthful mistakes or an invasion of privacy. As a woman, I should have the same fighting chance.”

“It could get ugly,” Helen said.

“What do I have to lose?” Agnew asked. “I don’t want to turn and run unless…”

“Unless what?” Catherine asked.

“Unless it makes you uncomfortable. I don’t want to hurt our family.”

Catherine rose from her chair, walked over to her partner/friend/running mate and placed her hands on her shoulders as she looked her directly in the eyes. “It will hurt our family more if we turn and run from this. I’m all in if you want to take this on.”

“Then it’s settled. We will have a press conference in the morning,” Zoe said.

The other women nodded in agreement.

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Reflecting on my early work: A fourth short story

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m getting ready to release my second collection of stories soon.

This week’s story was one that I wrote at the urging of a marketing person I was working with at the time. It was Christmas time and he convinced me that writing a holiday-themed short story that included some characters from my detective series would be a good marketing tool.

I was skeptical, but actually wrote this entire story during a flight from Atlanta to Boston that was repeatedly delayed due to weather. By the time I landed, the first draft of the story was done.

This tale is included in my short story collection, Random Tales,  a collection of unrelated stories.

My next collection, releasing on March 29th, will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in four years.

I hope you enjoy,Lucy’s Christmas Miracle, posted here as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story. Note:If you’ve read any of my Frank Rozzani books, you’ll spot some familiar locations and names. A quick note on the cover: I had this cover designed so the story could be a standalone on Amazon. The dog and the girl in the picture look eerily like my dog, Lucy, that I had for many years and my daughter. The cover artist never saw photos of either one, but this was what she came up with.

Lucy’s Christmas Miracle

A Frank Rozzani Private Detective Short Story

Authors Note

I wrote this story completely on a flight from Atlanta to Boston. It was about a two hour flight in rough weather. It was inspired by the dog, Lucy, in my Frank Rozzani Detective Series books. It’s a light-hearted story about a child that goes missing and the events leading to locating her.

It was meant to be a quick tale to get readers interested in my books and as a special Christmas bonus to those who have read the books to whet their appetites for the third book.

I had written the dedication to my youngest daughter who is sometimes wise beyond her years. A freaky thing occurred when I asked my usual provider to create a cover for the story. It came back with a picture of a little girl being guided by a dog. I had to take a second look at the picture as the little girl has a strong resemblance to my daughter mentioned in the dedication. The designer has never met or even seen my daughter, so the coincidence was interesting.

I hope you enjoy this tale and the message that it brings about what is important in life.

Dedication

This story is dedicated to my youngest daughter Lilliana who believes in the magic of Christmas. She doesn’t see Christmas as a time for toys and presents. When she was five, her Christmas list started with wanting to be together with her family on Christmas. We can all learn a lot from little ones who are pure of heart and spirit.


“She’s missing. I can’t find Ruby anywhere.”

“What do you mean she’s missing? She’s only three. How could she get away from you?”

“Armand, I don’t know. I just went into the laundry room for a second. She was watching Barney on TV in the living room.  I came back and she was gone.”

This was the conversation between Raven and Armand Bigtree. Armand had just finished playing bass with Frank and Jonesy at the annual Sun Dog Christmas party. Fat Sam hosted the party every year for his employees, their children, and the children from the community. Fully decked out as Santa Claus, Sam gave gifts to the local kids and provided music and food for their parents.

“That’s why you didn’t bring her to the party. What if she comes home while you’re gone?”

“I asked Judy next door to stay at our place in case she comes home. I need you to come and help me find her.”

Jonesy was dismantling his drum kit and overheard the conversation.

“Is there someplace that you think she might go?”

Armand’s wife, Raven, turned to face him.

“I’ve checked all of those places, the playground, the park, the pond behind our house, that’s why I’m here. I thought Armand and whoever else is around can help me look.”

Raven began to tear up and then sank into a chair.

“I feel so bad. She wanted to play and I was so busy getting ready to come to the party that I turned my back on her for just a split second.”

Armand stood like a 6’7″ tree behind his petite wife and put his gigantic hands on her shoulders.

“It’s not your fault. Let’s just find her,” Armand said with a quivering voice. He idolized his little girl, but wanted to be strong for Raven. “She couldn’t have gone too far.”

Armand, Raven, and Jonesy left the Sun Dog to split up and look for three-year-old Ruby Bigtree. It was three days before Christmas.

********

The little girl was zigzagging down the sidewalk. Lucy had never seen one this small just wandering out here without a larger human or two controlling where it went. She stopped to pick a flower then was off to stand next to a tree. There was no adult with her. Lucy thought she better follow.

This little human was interesting. She wasn’t as sure-footed as most of the taller ones, kind of unstable like the older humans, but much faster and unpredictable. This one also smelled different. A combination of sweat, dirt, indoor, and outdoor smells made this human easy to follow. Lucy could always sense the feelings of people by how they moved and how they smelled. She knew when they were scared, dangerous, friendly, or sick. She didn’t think about why, she just assumed all creatures like her could do this.

The little one wasn’t afraid of her. Lucy just instinctively followed.

********

Frank Rozzani arrived at his trailer after playing at the annual Sun Dog Christmas Party. He was home to shower and change so that he and his dog, Lucy, could head out for dinner. He was disappointed, but not totally surprised, when Lucy didn’t emerge from the doggie-door in the trailer. She was spending an increasing amount of time outside now that the weather was cooler. He was about to go into the bathroom to shower when his cell phone rang. It was Jonesy.

“Did you miss me already?”

“Frank, it’s Ruby Bigtree. She’s missing. Raven and Armand asked me to help look for her and I thought we could use help from you and Lucy.”

“Missing? Did someone take her?”

“We don’t think so. We think she wandered off from their house.”

“Well, I can help. Lucy isn’t around. She’s probably out exploring”

“Okay. We’re starting at Armand’s house and fanning out from there.”

“I’ll see you there in a few minutes.”

Frank headed back out to his car and drove the two miles to Armand and Raven Bigtree’s house. He phoned Anita to fill her in.

“That’s terrible Frank. I’ll meet you over there. I haven’t seen Lucy either. She’s probably found something interesting to dig up or sniff out in the woods.”

“Too bad. She might be able to help us.”

The Bigtree family lived in a rented house near the corner of East Coast Drive and First Street. It was only a short two block drive from the Sun Dog. They loved the community and had become part of the extended family that Fat Sam, had attracted. In fact, Sam owned the house and rented it to Armand and Raven at a reasonable price.  When Ruby was born three years ago, Sam actually surprised them with a fully equipped nursery and lowered their rent because of the extra mouth to feed.

********

Frank, Jonesy, and Anita met in front of the house. They decided to split up for their search. Jonesy went west along East Coast Drive. Anita went north on First Street. Armand and Raven went south on First Street. Other friends and neighbors combed the beach area. Frank took the wooded area near the back yard of the Bigtree house that spread between First and Second Street and was bordered by Sherry Drive. There were some paths, but it was mostly overgrown evergreen trees and undergrowth. He wished Lucy was with him not only to help find Ruby, but to alert Frank of any creatures lurking in the woods.

Frank knew as he searched that locating the child quickly was of supreme importance. Although not cold during the day with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid 50’s, the temperature tonight was supposed to drop into the upper 30’s with a chance for rain. The odds of survival would decrease drastically. Darkness was only about three hours away.

********

Following the little human was proving to be a challenge. She did not seem to know where she was headed. She changed directions and speeds based on new things that she wanted to touch. Lucy had been around puppies and the behavior was not that different. She had to divert the small human from the busy hard path that all of those rolling metal things moved on. Lucy had seen both animals and humans lose battles with those things when they got in their way.  This little human wouldn’t stand a chance. Lucy had followed her quite a distance from when she saw the child coming out of the house. Lucy felt a sense of relief when she saw it head for the woods. She could protect it much better there where only the elements and other animals were the threat. Lucy felt the cold, wet weather that would soon be coming.

********

Jonesy’s walk on East Coast Drive took him past the back of a couple of local businesses. The first was the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theater, or ABET, as it was known by the locals. ABET was currently running a holiday family play based on the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. It had played before packed houses for both matinees and evening performances. Jonesy found some of the set decorators touching up pieces of scenery behind the building. He stopped by to talk to them.

“Hello there. I was wondering if you can help me.”

“Sure,” the big burly male that was painting a plywood fireplace said to Jonesy. “You’re Cliff Jones, aren’t you? I’ve been in your surf shop. You have some primo gear.”

Jonesy was trying to picture this nearly 300 pound man on a surfboard.

“Thanks. I’m looking for a little girl that’s missing. She has dark eyes and dark hair. She’s three years old. She lives over on First Street right at the corner.

“Oh man, that’s not Armand and Raven’s kid, Ruby, is it?” asked the red-headed female.

Yes,” Jonesy said. “Have you seen her?”

“No, but we will be on the lookout for her. My name is Gretchen. My sister works over at the Sun Dog. This here is Orson.”

“I think I know your sister. Does she have red hair also?”

“She does on most days. Sometimes it’s purple or blue.”

“It was just red and green for the Christmas party today. Anyway, if you see Ruby, will you please let me know right away?”

Jonesy handed Gretchen a card.

“I will. Orson and I will help look for her as soon as we cover this paint. We’ll get whoever is here to help too.”

“That’s great,” Jonesy said as he moved to continue on his way. The sun was beginning to get pretty low in the west and he didn’t want to waste any time.

********

Anita covered the area between the beach and Sherry Drive on First Street. She stopped every bicyclist, skateboarder, jogger, and dog walker that would listen and showed them a picture of Ruby that she had borrowed from Raven. She didn’t have any luck until she stopped an elderly couple riding a tandem bicycle. The husband passed the picture to his wife.

“I don’t know,” the wife said. “I’m pretty sure we saw this girl playing in the front yard of a house about a block away. It was a dark blue two story house with gray trim.”

“I think you’re right Ellie,” said the husband. “She was playing with a doll out there and then some woman brought her in the house. She wasn’t too happy to be going in.”

“And you both think it was the same girl in this picture?” Anita asked.

“Well, we can’t be one hundred percent sure with these old eyes, but, yes, I’d say she was pretty close. Don’t you think so Ellie?”

“I do. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to be sure.”

Anita agreed and made her way to the house that Ellie and her husband described. The couple had dismounted their bike and were following a short distance behind Anita. She was a bit nervous to knock on someone’s door and asking them if they had kidnapped a child. She decided to go ahead and knock and then wing it from there.

Anita climbed the stairs to the porch. The house was decorated for Christmas and was neat and well landscaped. It didn’t look like the house of a kidnapper, but it wouldn’t hurt to check. She rang the doorbell and immediately heard the barking of a small dog and the scamper of little feet.

“Don’t open the door until I get there, Zoe,” came a woman’s voice from inside.

When the door opened, a twenty-something year old woman with dark hair and eyes was standing there with a young girl, three to four years of age, clinging to her leg. It wasn’t Ruby. Anita improvised and held up Ruby’s picture.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you’ve seen this little girl. She’s been missing for almost an hour and she was last seen in this area.”

“Is that Ruby Bigtree? She’s friends with my Zoe. Oh my gosh, she’s missing?”

“She is. A group of us are out looking for her.”

“Well we will join in the search. Zoe was just playing with her yesterday.”

“Thank you. The more people we have looking, the better our chances of finding her.”

Anita turned to leave and the elderly couple was just getting back on their bicycles.

“We will help look for her too. We may be old, but we can cover some ground on our bike,” the husband said.

“Great. Every pair of eyes will help.”

*******

Frank had covered most of the wooded area that was bordered by Sherry Drive and First Street. He found several beer cans, some wine bottles, and various other signs of temporary occupation, but nothing that would indicate that a three-year-old had recently been here. It was beginning to get quite dark. Frank had grabbed the flashlight that he kept in the trunk of his car, but, in the woods, the darkness was almost absolute and the flashlight only lit up a small area around him. It was time to head back to the Bigtree house. It was likely that Ruby was already back, but if not, it was time to call in the cavalry.

When Frank got back to the small house on First Street, the cavalry had already arrived. He saw Anita’s Jacksonville Police Department cruiser. He also recognized Fat Sam’s SUV and saw that there were several other cars, motorcycles, and bikes near the house. Jonesy and Anita were already back and Sam was in the kitchen cooking food for everyone. Jonesy and the Bigtrees were huddled around listening to Anita as she laid out the game plan. Frank moved closer to join the group.

“What we need to do now is form a search grid,” Anita said. “I have mobilized just about every officer on duty and several that have volunteered to come in that were off-duty. I am bringing in all of our canine units. These dogs are trained to subdue bad guys, but they can also do a pretty mean job of tracking when we need them to. We also have a lot of volunteers that just showed up. We will get people going door to door with pictures of Ruby. I’ve had the volunteers take a picture of one of her recent photos with their cell phones.”

“I checked the woods over by Sherry and First,” Frank interjected. “I didn’t see any sign of her.”

Anita motioned for Frank and Jonesy to join her outside. They followed her into a remote corner of the front yard.

“I won’t lie to you two. If we don’t find her close by, that might mean that somebody snatched her. It’s already been two and a half hours since Raven noticed her missing. If she’s been taken, we’ve got a whole new situation here. Do either of you know if Armand and Raven have any enemies that would use Ruby to get back at them somehow?”

“I seriously doubt it,” Frank said. “They are the nicest people I know. They are both hardworking and well-liked in the community.”

“That’s what I thought, but I have to ask in these situations.”

“How big of an area are you going to search?”

“Based on the manpower we have, we can search a five mile radius from their house. That will cover most of Atlantic and Neptune beach from the ocean to the Intracoastal,” Anita answered.

“Okay,” Jonesy said. “We are in this for the long haul. Let us know where we will be most useful.”

Anita’s silence meant that she had to think about this for a minute.

“Jonesy, why don’t you cover the beach? You know every inch and every wave up and down the beach. You know all of the hiding places in the dunes. Take a few people with you and fan out through that area.”

“Frank, I want you with me. We’re going to drive around that five mile radius and make sure every inch is being covered. I’ve got the radio so if anything happens, we’ll know about it first. I want you with me when we find her.”

“That makes sense. In this one, you’re the boss. Just let me know what you need.”

Anita went back into the house. She had designated members of her department to lead squads of civilians. They were in the house awaiting direction. The members of her force were searching maps of Neptune and Atlantic beach on laptops on the dining room table. Anita used them to give direction to her team. When she was done, everyone headed for the front door to put the plan in operation. Armand and Raven had asked to be part of the teams. They felt like sitting and waiting at their house would be unbearable. Anita insisted that they stay at home. She knew that finding Ruby might not be the happy reunion that her parents hoped for and wanted to spare them from that possibility.

Frank slid into the passenger seat of Anita’s cruiser. Anita joined him and let out a big sigh.

“How are you holding up?” Frank asked.

“How do you think? Armand and Raven are friends. Their precious little girl is missing. It’s raining and in the upper 30’s out here. The temperatures are falling. She can’t survive out in the elements for very long. We have a lot of area to cover in the dark. We will probably find her, but I’m nervous about how we will find her. The odds aren’t on her side.”

“That’s where I figured you were at. I’m going to give you some advice that I use on my cases. What I’m going to tell you is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn. When my wife died, I was immediately filled with negativity. I looked for bad in everyone. When I first started working cases in Jacksonville, I approached every client as if they had something to hide and expected a bad outcome to every case.”

“Hey, great pep talk so far.”

“Just let me finish. You know what I found? There is a lot of good in the world. You just have to stop looking for the bad and let the good find you. I share your dread that Ruby can’t survive long out here, but we have a strong community looking for her. Let’s not start looking for her expecting the negative. That negativity has a way of spreading like a cancer. Let’s look for Ruby and we will handle whatever comes of it. I can’t promise that she’ll be okay, but, if I’ve learned nothing else, we have to have faith that things will turn out in a positive way.”

“Thanks. I can see where expecting the worst will burn someone out quickly in this line of work. When it’s friends, it makes it twice as hard because of the potential long-term effects of tragedy.”

With that, Anita put the car into gear and they drove silently through the streets of Neptune and Atlantic beach.

********

It was getting cold and lots of water was starting to fall out of the sky. Lucy’s fur kept the cold and dampness at bay, but she could see the little human’s clothes getting soaked as it began to shiver. Lucy knew that it was time to go into protection mode. She edged closer to the little girl. She didn’t want to scare her. When she was close enough, she bit down firmly on the little one’s outer layer of covering on her arm, careful to make sure that no flesh was in her clasped jaws, and she pulled the child toward shelter. There was a group of tall live oak trees that bordered the clearing they were in. The dense leaves would keep the water to a minimum as it continued to fall from the sky. Lucy would do the rest to protect the child.

********

The search continued throughout the night. They had been driving around for six hours. It was now about four in the morning and Frank suggested they get some coffee to shake off the drowsiness. They had several false reports come in, but nothing had turned out to lead them to Ruby.

“Hey, it will be light in a couple of hours. That will make the search easier,” Frank said in an animated voice trying to maintain an upbeat mood.

“Frank, it’s been a long time out in the cold. The rain has stopped, but, unless she made it inside somewhere, I just don’t want to think about how this is going to end.”

“Maybe someone took her in and she wasn’t able to tell them where she lived.”

“I doubt it. Armand and Raven told me that they work with her frequently having her recite her name, their names, her address, and phone number.”

“At three years old? Seems kind of young.”

“Even if she can tell them her own name, that’s a big help.”

“Well, let’s get back at it. I’m worried about Lucy too.”

Frank and Anita had stopped by his trailer a couple of times during the night and there was no sign of Lucy. Frank knew she could survive on her own, but it was very unusual for her to be gone all night.

“The K-9 units had a heck of a time finding Ruby’s trail. The rain washes away all of the scent. Hopefully, as things dry up, they’ll have better luck.”

“We’ll have some fresh volunteers in the morning. I know we’ll find her soon.”

Frank kept visualizing positive thoughts to keep himself going as much as to motivate Anita. He was no stranger to having family members and loved ones in danger. It could be grueling on one’s psyche to go through the uncertainty. He could empathize with what Armand and Raven were going through. Once they were back in the cruiser with some coffee and donuts, Anita pulled out into non-existent traffic and began cruising their search area again.

********

Jonesy and his surf shop manager, Dusty, were leading a search group on the beach. He had one group searching the sand itself while others carefully used walkovers and other vantage points to check the dunes. Jonesy didn’t want to disturb the delicate dunes and he also didn’t want to send his companions into them in the dark. The dunes were a favorite resting spot for rattlesnakes and other pleasant creatures in Florida. He didn’t want to put them at risk and have them end up with a poisonous bite for all of their trouble.

They were on a stretch of beach not too far from the Sun Dog when someone in the group shouted for them to come to the spot they were checking out. As Jonesy approached, he saw a small lump in the sand that seemed out of place. He started to move faster, but as he did, his mind filled with dread.

“It’s covered with sand,” Dusty said as Jonesy reached the area.

“I’m not surprised, the tide just went out and this area was covered with water just a little while ago.”

Jonesy and a few others worked to remove the thin layer of sand. When they did, Jonesy realized that the lump was made by a canvas bag. The bag was soft and was about three and a half feet long. It was tied at the top. The collective beams of flashlights lit up the top of the bag as Jonesy steeled himself to untie the rope so they could see what was inside.

As he loosened the rope, he opened the top of the bag just enough to see dark hair just inside the bag. He felt deflated, but they had to be sure. He opened the bag and a one foot diameter object covered with dark hair fell out of the bag into the darkness at his feet startling him and eliciting a collective gasp from the group. As he shined the flashlight on the object at his feet, he began to laugh. It was an uncontrollable belly laugh that hits someone when they’ve had little sleep and are under a great deal of stress.

“What’s so funny,” Dusty asked as he gazed down at the object in the flashlight’s beam. When he saw it, he began to laugh as well.

“Looks like this bag fell off of a cargo ship from China,” Jonesy said as he picked up the teddy bear with the dark fur. He then shined his light on the side of the bag and noted the Chinese characters stenciled on the side of it. The rest of the bag contained soggy duplicates of the initial bear. The sigh from the group was palpable, but Ruby had still not been found.

*******

It was six in the morning and the sun was starting to come up over the Atlantic. It was going to be a cloudless winter day in North Florida. Anita and Frank sat in her cruiser in front of the Sun Dog, a place of so many good times. Today’s mood, however, was not good.

“I think it’s time, Frank. We need to call in the FBI. I don’t think she’s still in the area. Some sicko probably picked her up and took her miles away.”

“I hate to admit it, but I think you’re right. Let’s call it in and then we’ll go back and tell Armand and Raven.”

Anita took out her cell phone and called the local FBI field office in Duval County. She was on hold briefly, but then began to talk to someone in the appropriate department.

“That’s right. Missing three-year-old. Native American features. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Last seen wearing a red jumper with a green turtleneck underneath.”

Just then, Anita’s radio began to squawk loudly. She motioned to Frank to turn it down.

“…Lieutenant Velasquez…you’ve got to see this…”

Anita turned to look at Frank. He turned the radio back up. Anita told the person on the phone that she would call back and she ended the call.

“Say again Drake. What do I need to see?”

“I can’t explain it Lieutenant. Just come to the wooded area over by the elementary school just past the playground. You’ve got to see this for yourself.”

They were only about half a mile from the spot. Anita put on her lights and siren and they sped there at light speed. When they arrived, the K-9 unit’s SUV and Sergeant William Drake’s cruiser were parked at the elementary school. A crowd was moving toward the woods. Anita was filled with dread as she moved toward the spot. There is no way that Ruby could have survived the cold, damp night in the woods.

When she and Frank walked past the playground and down the little trail to a clearing, she was filled with sadness at what she saw. Ruby’s body was curled up next to something black under some live oak trees. An animal must have attacked her and dragged her here. As she got closer, she saw the K-9 officer seated near the body and a beaming smile on Drake’s face.

“Why are you smiling, Drake? What’s going on here?”

“Shhh,” Drake said. “She’s asleep.”

“Asleep?”

All of a sudden, Lucy’s head popped up from where it was curled around Ruby. The look on her face could only be described as a dog smile. She didn’t get up, though, as she didn’t want to wake the peaceful child.

“Apparently Rozzani’s dog spent the night in the woods with her keeping her warm. The K-9 officer found her and just sat there and let the kid sleep.”

Frank walked over to his dog. Lucy’s tail immediately started to wag.

“Good girl Lucy,” Frank said in a wavering voice. “You’re a good dog. That’s where you were all night, Lucy. I guess I’ll have to give you a pass on this one. You’re a good girl.”

Lucy wagged her tail gently. As she did, Ruby stirred and let out a huge yawn. She opened her eyes and then looked around at all of the people gathered in the clearing near the trees. She stretched and put her head back down on her new canine friend. Frank called Armand and Raven’s house to tell them what was going on. The collective screams could be heard over Frank’s phone.

“Just bring our little girl home to us. Bring Lucy too. We want to thank her.”

When Frank and Anita got back to the Bigtree house, there were people everywhere. The applause broke out as soon as Frank carried Ruby to her waiting parents. The volume of applause increased when Lucy emerged from the back of the cruiser and shook herself dry. Sam had prepared a breakfast feast for everyone. Not to be forgotten, he had prepared a special treat for Lucy, a huge bowl of chicken gumbo, which she ate happily in between pats and words of praise from everyone present.

Reflecting on My Early Work – a third short story

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m getting ready to release my second collection of stories soon.

This week’s story was one that I wrote specifically to include in my first collection. It was never published as a single.

It was a story that came from a trip to New Orleans for work. I’m a musician and I was able to hear some of the best jazz musicians around and watch them play for tips in bars along Bourbon Street and beyond.

This tale is included in my short story collection, Random Tales,  a collection of unrelated stories.

My next collection, releasing on March 29th, will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in four years.

I hope you enjoy,Play it again, Des, posted here as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story. Note: If you’ve read my book, Let Me Be Frankyou’ll spot some familiar locations and names.


Play it Again, Des

Author’s Note

This story is about the consequences of taking shortcuts. In my career, I have reached heights higher than I thought I would, but it has been a slow and steady climb. I have refused to play politics or to “sell my soul” to get ahead. I don’t golf. I don’t go to cocktail parties. I would rather color with my seven-year-old than hang out with a bunch of “Masters of the Universe” at a country club on a Saturday morning.

The main character of this story, Desmond Brown, takes a shortcut and suffers the consequences. His shortcut is the result of youthful impatience and coercion by an evil entity. In my corporate career, I have seen both of these at work and have somehow failed to succumb to either. My career ascension may have been slow, but I am able to sleep at night.

Note: If you’ve read my novels, you will see other common threads in this work from the “Frank” universe. Pay attention to the location in New Orleans in particular.

Please enjoy “Play it Again Des”.

2014

The pain in Desmond Brown’s back and shoulders was nearly unbearable. His arms, and especially his fingers, were those of a young man. His fingers flew over the keyboard with speed and dexterity unmatched by any other jazz pianist in New Orleans, the United States, and probably the world.

The pain. The pain in the rest of his body made him wish he was dead, but the sound coming out of the Steinway over which his fingers moved expertly almost made him forget  the cause of the pain. They say that death and taxes are the only sure things. Apparently the suffering that three quarters of his body was experiencing because of an arrangement long ago added a third item to that list.

Again, the questions came into his mind. Was it worth it? Would he do it again? Did the price match what he received? For the past three decades he had been able to answer yes. The fame, fortune, and fulfillment of his dream outweighed the price he gradually began to pay. As the years flew past, the answers to these questions took longer to frame in the affirmative. Instead, he began to ask himself other questions. What good is fame and fortune when you are too sick and crippled to enjoy them?  What good is a dream fulfilled when it cannot be enjoyed or shared with others? These questions became more relevant to him as he descended further into a debilitation that could not be explained by doctors. He came to accept the explanation, but he could not share it with anyone or they would add mental illness to his list of ailments.

He was coming to the end of this triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was time to call it a night and go back to his hotel where his doctor would carefully put him into a sedative induced sleep. The sedatives were the only thing that could get him close to sleep and force the pain and nausea just below the surface of consciousness.  He wasn’t sure if it was the drugs or his mind. For the last five years his pseudo-sleep was balanced by the most vivid dream that was a recollection of his past.  This was one dream, not dreams. It was the same dream over and over each night on a continuous loop. It reminded him how he got to this point,and each time a new detail seemed to be added to make the recollection more vivid. Whether he was on the road, or at home in New Orleans, he silently prayed that the dream would not come. Each night, as the sedative took him into quasi-sleep, he was disappointed. Somewhere, as he prayed, the person, or whatever he was, that got him to this current state, laughed.

1970

New Orleans is known for music.  Just as California is known for beaches and earthquakes, music is an indigenous product of The Big Easy. Everyone knows about the music pouring out of the doors of every smelly bar on Bourbon Street. The list of famous musicians from this area is endless from Pete Fountain and Al Hirt to Harry Connick, Jr. There are entire families of musicians. You can’t throw a stone in New Orleans without hitting a Neville or a Marsalis. Musicians from all over the world traveled to this Mecca to learn from the masters and try to break into the business. There were plenty of places to listen to good music. If you were a good player, you could sit in for a song or two and begin to get some recognition. Recognition led to gigs, money, and in rare cases, stardom and even immortality.

Desmond Brown came to New Orleans in 1970 as a bright-eyed 16 -year old aspiring jazz pianist from a working class family in Pennsylvania. Instead of playing football, he listened to jazz records. Instead of working toward college, coal mining, or the steel plants, he lived and breathed music. His idols included Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, and other notable musicians that the average teenager would not be aware of. His father worked in the steel mill. His mother was a cashier at the local super market. Any aspirations of college would only be acceptable if he got there through athletic or academic ability. There was no recognition of his musical ability even though his parents had been told repeatedly by Desmond’s middle school and high school teachers that he had a gift that should be cultivated. His parents didn’t view music as a viable career and wouldn’t even consider scrimping and scraping to send him to college for a vocation that, in their view, had no future.

Desmond had no intention of either going to school for business, whatever that was, or working at the steel mill like his dad. He wanted to be a musician and nothing would divert him from that dream. That is what caused the argument that drove him away from Pennsylvania to New Orleans.

One Thursday night, his last night in his parents’ home, Desmond came home from school at about 6:30 to find his mother cooking dinner. The garbage was already out by the driveway of their small one-story house. This was not a good sign because putting out the garbage was his job. One of his parents had done it and that he would likely get lectured about responsibility and helping out. To top it off, he was late coming home because he had stayed after school to hang out with the high school band director. His high school had a regional reputation for assembling a decent jazz band each year and the band director, a somewhat accomplished jazz pianist in his own right, had recognized Desmond’s talent and had spent time after school with him providing tutoring. They listened to all of the great jazz piano players and Desmond learned how to emulate their styles. This particular night, after listening to Oscar Peterson, Desmond was later than normal and his father was already home from the mill.  This would not be pretty. He cautiously walked into the kitchen.

“Hey mom, sorry I’m late. Mr. Pritchard was showing me some cool new chord inversions.”

“Desi, I’m glad you are learning and enjoying this music stuff, but you’re pretty late. Your dad is watching the news in the living room and he wants to talk to you,” Desmond’s mother said as she gave him a look that warned him to listen and not talk.

Desmond crossed the small kitchen and walked through the archway where his father watched John Chancellor and David Brinkley deliver the NBC Nightly News.

“Hey Dad,” Desmond said cautiously. “Mom said you wanted to talk to me.”

“That’s right,” his dad growled. This would not be pleasant. “Where the hell were you tonight?”

“I stayed after to learn some piano chord inversions.”

“Chord what? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. What I do know is that I came home after working a 10 hour day and found your mother heaving those heavy trash cans out to the road. If I wasn’t here to help her, she might’ve thrown out her back or worse. And do you know whose job haulin’ the trash out on a Thursday night is?”

“Mine?”

“You mean you’re not sure? That’s probably true because you are only here to do it once or twice a month if we’re lucky.”

Desmond could feel the lecture train starting to pull away from the station.

“When I was your age, I already had a job that I went to before and after school. My parents didn’t give me a free ride like you’re gettin’ from us. I don’t get it Des. You’re 16 years old, almost a man. You need to start acting like one and put this stupid music thing aside. It’s not gonna get you anywhere.”

“But Dad, I’m gonna be a jazz pianist.”

“A what? You mean like Liberace or something? I don’t see no diamond rings on your fingers. You’re chasing somethin’ that just isn’t gonna happen. You need to either get your grades up so you can be a business man or start toughenin’ up so you can work at the mill this summer.”

“I’m not doin’ either one Dad. I’m gonna be a piano player. It’s not up to you what I do with my life.”

“As long as you live under this roof, it certainly is up to me. You’re not going to live here and be some long-haired, filthy musician that can’t carry his own weight.”

Desmond’s temper started to flare up. He knew this day would come, but he didn’t think it would be this soon. Finally, the words he couldn’t take back escaped from his mouth.

“Fine. Then as of right now I don’t live under this roof. I’m outa here.”

Desmond turned to head to his room. His father exploded.

“If you leave this house, there’s no comin’ back. You’re done.”

Desmond’s mother had about enough and she emerged from the kitchen.

“The two of you need to settle down before someone says something they will regret.”

“It’s too late,” Desmond’s father snapped turning toward her. “The boy’s made his choice.”

Desmond came out of his room with a bulging backpack and headed for the door.  His mother tried to stop him.

“Desi, this is crazy. You can’t just walk out. What will you do? Where will you go?”

Desmond knew the answer to both of these questions. He had known for quite some time that when this day came, there was only one destination on his mind. He hugged his mother and left his family home for the last time.

Desmond hitchhiked from Scranton to New Orleans in just two days. He had enough cash to get truck stop food along the way and landed in The Big Easy with twenty dollars in his pocket. He only carried a backpack and was not concerned about room and board.  He had one thing on his mind, music. He immediately headed for Bourbon Street and into the first bar with live music that he found. The name of the place was The Devil’s Dew and it had a large picture of the dark one himself painted on the sign that hung perpendicular to the street above the door.  The evil one was painted as a bright red silhouette complete with horns, a tail, and an ominous looking pitchfork.

The bar had a heavy, seemingly permanent, cloud of cigarette smoke and smelled of stale beer and perspiration.  Desmond noticed none of this.  His only focus was on the age-worn stage and the musicians that occupied it. He heard magic and was immediately absorbed by it.

He soon learned that the composition of these musical ensembles that played for tips in French Quarter bars consisted of whatever musicians showed up. There was no set instrumentation with a rhythm and horn section and rehearsed arrangements. You might have a piano, banjo, washboard, and tuba backing up various saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, or trombone players that wandered from bar to bar looking to sit in for a couple of songs and score some tips and some connections with other musicians. Everyone seemed to know the standard repertoire of Dixieland, blues, and jazz standards with some Cajun-influenced Zydeco thrown in for variety. Desmond immediately felt at home but also intimidated by what he saw. Of the fifteen to twenty songs Desmond heard, he knew about four well enough to play and could play another four or five by ear. He had some work to do before he could even approach a piano in one of these places. He continued to listen while he moved closer to the grizzled piano player hunched over the ancient Baldwin upright. Desmond watched as his gnarled fingers flew over the yellowed keys with amazing speed. The old man used chord substitutions and inversions of chords that Desmond had never seen before. They were well beyond what Mr. Pritchard had shown him.

Desmond watched for another couple of sets before the realization hit him that he didn’t have a place to sleep and it was getting late. He left ‘The Dew’ as he would come to call it and wandered around Bourbon Street taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the area. Not all of them were pleasant. After about an hour of wandering, he glanced down an alley and saw a sign that said ‘Rooms – Five Dollars’. That was within his current budget, so he ventured down the dark corridor to see if accommodations were available. He walked past trash and heard the rustling of living things as he made his way to the door near the sign. When he rang the bell, he heard a slow, shuffling movement from inside. After what seemed like an eternity in this dark alley, the door creaked open and a face older than the earth itself peered out.

“Who’s there?” came the question in an ancient Cajun growl.

“My name’s Desmond,” Des said in a voice barely above a whisper.

“What you want?”

“I’d like a room. I’m new in town…”

“You must be. You tell too many people that, you won’t be old in town.”

Desmond then heard a dry cackle that was either a laugh or a lung trying to jump out of the speaker’s throat. Then the chain on the door rattled and it briefly closed before reopening more fully.

“Well Desmond, get yourself in here before you get hurt.”

Desmond cautiously entered and was immediately greeted by the smell of incense and delicious food of a variety that he had never encountered before. It was a saucy, spicy cornucopia of smells that would be amazing if they tasted as good as they smelled.

“Where you from, Mr. Desmond?”

“I’m from Pennsylvania. Desmond’s my first name. My last name’s Brown.”

“Well Mr. Desmond, you’re in the South now and we call everyone Mr. this or Miss that along with their first name. It’s our way.”

“Oh. OK. I’m sorry Miss…um Miss…”

“Ramona, sugar.”

“Ramona Sugar. That’s a nice name.”

Another dry cackle, this one longer and louder than the first, erupted from the old woman’s body which could only be described as a leathery bag of bones.

“My name’s not Ramona Sugar. Sugar’s one of those terms of endearment. My last name is Deveraux, but you can call me Miss Ramona. Now come and sit down so we can decide if I’m gonna take your five dollars or not.”

Des was confused, but did as he was told and followed Miss Ramona into a small, but well-appointed living room that looked like it had been furnished in the 1940’s except that everything looked brand new. As he looked around the room, his eye was drawn to several posters that advertised a band called “The Alley Catz”. A few of them had a tag line after the name of the band. He had to look at it for a while before he realized that the tagline read “Featuring the vocal styling of Ramona Deveraux”.

“That’s you,” Des blurted out.

Ramona saw him eyeing the posters.

“That’s me alright. Only 40 years ago. That was another lifetime.”

Desmond settled into an ancient leather wingback chair that was remarkably comfortable. Ramona settled into an identical chair across from him. She seemed to disappear into it due to her diminutive size.

“What brings a young man such as yourself to a scary place like Nawlins?”

Desmond struggled with the question at first and then realized she had said New Orleans.

“I’m a musician. I’ve wanted to be here since I learned how to play.”

“Well I figured you was a musician. Nobody else shows up at my place unless they play. My question is what made you run away from home to be here, of all places? You look like you come from a good family. You got clean clothes that are not bad quality. You must be a runaway.”

“My dad won’t let me play music. I had to get away. This was the only place I wanted to be.”

“It’s a big step to come here from family life. Lots of people come here to play, but only some got the skills. You got the skills, Mr. Desmond?”

“I thought I did, but after hearing those guys at The Devil’s Dew, I’m not so sure.”

“You must have seen old Horace Boudreaux. He’s known as HoBo. He’s been playin’ there since I was a little girl. I’m not sure how he gets those old crooked fingers to move like they do. He played out on the road a lot in his younger days with a lot of big names, but always ended up back here when the money ran out. I think his road days are over now. He’s ninety if he’s a day.”

“Well, he can sure play.”

“What about you, Mr. Desmond? Can you play?”

Ramona pointed to the ancient Steinway upright against one of her walls.

“Right now? I’m not sure…I mean; it’s been a long day.”

“Oh, Mr. Desmond. One thing you gotta learn quick is when the chance comes, you gotta take it no matter how tired or sick you are. The chance might not come again. Besides, it’s just me, a harmless old lady.”

The smile that crossed her face was the opposite of harmless and somehow made her look younger. This had been a crazy day and Desmond was where he wanted to be, so he decided to take the chance. He got up slowly from the ancient chair and tentatively walked to the piano. It was an old model and he expected it to be out of tune and difficult to play. What he found was that the keys and innards of the piano were in premium shape and it sounded both well-worn and brand new simultaneously if that were possible. He warmed up a little bit and then went into a stride piano version of All of Me. He could feel Ramona’s eyes on his back as he played and he was more nervous playing for her than he had been for anyone in his life.  After the first time through, he relaxed a bit and did some improvising over the second time. As he jumped back into the melody for the third and final time through the song, he heard a quiet, but confident voice singing the lyrics. It was Ramona. Her voice was in tune and played with the melody just enough to reveal the considerable talent that she once had and, to a good degree, still possessed. As they got to the last four bars, Desmond did a standard turnaround and Ramona followed him flawlessly.  When they finished, she put her hands on his shoulders and stood silently for a minute that seemed endless to Des as he waited for a reaction.

“Well Mr. Desmond, the potential is there. You’ve got the rhythm and the chops. What you lack is the soul. You have to live the music.”

“That sounds like a long process. Is there any hope?”

“Maybe. Maybe there is. Why don’t you settle in for the night? Tomorrow we’ll go see HoBo. That’s one man who’s lived the music enough for two people. Maybe he’ll show you a thing or two.”

Desmond’s face lit up.

“You’d do that for me? You just met me. That’s great.”

“Settle down now. I told you we’d go see HoBo. The rest is up to you. He may tell you to get lost. I can’t control what that man thinks. You need to understand that goin’ in.”

“I understand. Thank you for doing this.”

“Don’t thank me. You got music in you. That makes you family. I always believe in helpin’ family. But then you got to help yourself.”

“I will. So, can I have a room here tonight?”

“You can. First you need to eat. You got to put some food in that skinny body so you don’t keel over.”

Ramona brought Desmond into her kitchen and dished him out some of the best food that he had ever tasted. He assumed it was traditional New Orleans fare, but was so hungry, he didn’t ask what any of it was. He discovered later that he had eaten shrimp gumbo and muffuletta sandwiches. Ramona then directed him to one of the two empty rooms she currently had. She had four others that were occupied by musicians that had not come home yet. She always made sure she had food ready for their arrival as they often came home hungry or full of enough alcohol that they needed some heavy food to soak it up.

The room was furnished with sturdy furniture from the same time period of what was downstairs. It was also in pristine shape and the linens were of good quality and felt as if they were freshly laundered. He shared a bathroom with the room next to his, which was vacant, so he decided to take a shower before he crawled into bed. It was only when he stretched out in bed that he realized just how tired he was and fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.

The next morning Desmond awoke feeling refreshed. He was apparently the first one in the house awake so he got dressed and ventured out into the bright New Orleans early morning. He walked around a bit and then decided to return to Ramona’s. He entered to the sound of loud conversation coming from the kitchen. He found Ramona serving breakfast to four men of various ages and races sitting around the table. The smell, like dinner the night before, was incredible. Ramona introduced him to the four others. They were Stu, Moses, Gabriel, and Paolo. They played trumpet, alto sax, drums and guitar. They were from Chicago, Detroit, Italy, and South America, respectively. They all greeted Des and he sat down and was given a plate of grits, eggs, and sausage and a cup of strong coffee with chicory. The coffee was bitter and only slightly less so with cream and sugar. Ramona saw his face and told him it was an acquired taste.

They sat around and talked about who and what they saw the night before, who they played with, who had played well, and who had an off night. They also talked about the talent they saw, meaning the attractive women. That was when Ramona jumped in and reminded them that this was a reputable house and that they couldn’t bring any of those hussies back to their rooms. If they broke her rules, they were out. Stu asked Des where he was from and where he played the night before.

“I’m from Pennsylvania. I just got in yesterday and I haven’t played anywhere yet except for Miss Ramona. I only had time to listen to three sets at The Devil’s Dew last night.”

“What did you think of HoBo?” Moses asked.

“He’s amazing for someone his age, or any age for that matter.”

“He can play,” Stu agreed and the others nodded their heads in agreement around the table.

“Ramona is going to take me to meet him today.”

Eyebrows around the table were immediately raised with this revelation from Des.

“What?” Desmond asked wondering if he said something wrong.

“It’s just that you must play pretty good. Ms. Ramona doesn’t take just anybody to meet HoBo,” Stu said. “He’s the one that gave her a start when she was a struggling singer. You must have made quite an impression on her.”

“You stop that drama Mr. Stu. The boy’s got something and I think HoBo can help him bring it out. It’s up to him to convince that old man to spend some of the little time he has left on him,” Ramona said sternly.

The conversation continued and Des felt right at home with these strangers who had all arrived on a pilgrimage to this mecca of jazz just as the religious traveled to the Holy Land.  Breakfast then stretched into a jam session in Ramona’s living room. Des discovered this was a frequent event, especially when a new guest arrived. It was a great way of getting to know someone new and helped to establish the pecking order in the house. Des was impressed with the caliber of all of the musicians, especially Moses on the alto sax. He had command of his instrument and played a rousing recreation of Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee that capped off the jam session and took them up to the time when Des and Ramona had to venture over to The Devil’s Dew to see HoBo.

The Devil’s Dew had been around since the early 1900s in different incarnations. During prohibition it was a combination restaurant and speak-easy. Many things about the place had not changed since that time. One of the remaining fixtures was Horace Boudreaux. He had played piano in The Dew since the early 20s. His actual age was always a subject of debate. Not many people knew that he was part owner of the place. He lived in an apartment over the bar.

Ramona and Des walked in at about one in the afternoon.  The place was empty if you didn’t count the few locals that came in for a simple lunch or to start their drinking early. They found HoBo at a table in the back eating a bowl of gumbo and drinking some strong coffee.

“Well, if it ain’t the prettiest magnolia in all of Nawlins,” HoBo said as Ramona and Desmond approached.

“Your eyesight must be failin’ you, you old buzzard,” Ramona said with a smile in her voice.

Desmond could swear that the each looked younger by 20 years as they joked with each other with a deeply comfortable familiarity.

“Who’s this young man you brought in here? Your new boy toy?”

“Come on now, you ole goat. He’s just a baby. I brought him here to meet you. He’s got the gift, but he needs some refinin’. I thought you could show him some of your tricks.”

HoBo seemed to consider this for a while as he spooned some gumbo into his ancient mouth and wiped his snow white goatee with a napkin.

“Comin’ from you, that’s somethin’, Ramona. I’m too old to be a music teacher, though.”

“He don’t need no teacher. He just needs some guidance.”

“Well, before we talk about what he needs, how about we hear him play?”

Desmond suddenly became nervous. Here he was, living out his dream, but he felt like he was going to revisit today’s breakfast.

“Go play him what you played for me last night, Mr. Desmond. Remember the things I told you.”

Desmond slowly walked over to the ancient piano and sat down. He felt like he was driving a classic car or sitting on a valuable piece of furniture in a museum.  The piano cabinet was as old as The Dew. The insides, however, were pristine and the old thing sounded like a concert grand. Des played a stride piano version of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and after a couple of times through went to more of a Dixieland Jazz version of “All of Me”. When he finished, the silence in the old bar was daunting. Finally HoBo spoke.

“Not too bad for a white Yankee boy. You need to relax and let the music take you. You don’t drive the song; the song needs to drive you.”

The confusion Des felt must have shown on his face. HoBo suddenly got up from his chair and motioned for Des to give up the old circular piano bench. HoBo sat down and started playing the same rendition of the same songs, but they sounded different to Des. When HoBo finished, he turned to Des.

“What did you hear, Mr. Desmond?”

Desmond hesitated at first.

“I heard the same songs, in the same key, and the same style, but they sounded totally different.”

HoBo cackled with what Desmond guessed was a laugh, but sounded like ancient gears that were stripped and badly in need of oil.

“What was different besides mine was right and yours was wrong?”

“Well…for one thing, your baseline was stronger and just a little bit behind the beat. For another, you were able to make the melody stand out more. Those were the two biggest things I noticed.”

HoBo looked at Ramona.

“The boy has a fine ear. Now we’ve got to get what’s in his ear to travel to his fingers.”

“How can we do that?” Des asked.

“It takes two things, listenin’ and time.”

“Where do I start?”

“You start by takin’ a bus boy job here at The Dew. You can listen while you work. Your payment will be food, board at Ms. Ramona’s, and gettin’ to listen for free. After a while, when you sit in and play, you will get some tip money.”

Des couldn’t believe his ears. On his second day in New Orleans, he had a job, a place to live, and a chance to listen to, and eventually, play the music he loved.

Des worked at the Dew every night and on Sunday mornings when they had the gospel brunch. He was amazed at the array of talented musicians that stopped in to play a set each night. They were local legends, and even some national names trying out new techniques before recording them or taking them on the road. 

After about a month, HoBo came up to him before a set that was midway through the night.

“Des, I need a break for a little while. Why don’t you sit in for me? The band is hot tonight and even you can’t screw up the sound,” HoBo said with a devilish smile.

“Do you think I’m ready?”

“You’re as ready as you’re gonna be. It’s time for you to give it a shot and let the people tell you if they like it.”

Des felt a mix of excitement and anxiety. He strolled over to the piano and sat down.  Tonight’s lineup was a frequent one in the Dew. Tom Taylor, from the Midwest, was on acoustic bass, Bob Davidson, from Atlanta, was on drums, Slim Boudreaux, a local and distant cousin to Horace, was on the washboard, jelly jars, and other homemade percussion. Phil “Mad Man” Miller was on the trombone. They looked at Des as he sat down. It was the piano player’s call what they would play in the Dew.

Des decided to start out with the “Basin Street Blues” to get warmed up. Each of the musicians took a verse and chorus as a solo and then ended with the melody and Miller’s tasteful tailgate trombone licks. The growing crowd applauded each of the solos, including the one that Des played, and they ended the tune to strong, but polite applause.

They played their way through a number of other standards and the crowd seemed engaged, if not overwhelmed. Des played everything flawlessly, but as he listened to his own playing as it blended with the more seasoned musicians, he felt like something was off. It was almost time to end the set and he looked forward to HoBo’s take on his playing.

Des decided they needed to end on something upbeat, but he also wanted something comfortable. He decided that “All of Me” would be the last tune. Bob Davidson started the tune with a marching band street cadence on his snare and bass drums followed by a roll off to launch the tune. They flew along at breakneck speed and Des felt like he was in heaven as he played the familiar melody and chord changes. After extended and four bar traded solos, they launched back into the melody and played the song out. The applause at the end of this tune was significantly stronger. Des felt a sense of accomplishment that he had made it through, but he still felt that something was missing.

As the group took a break, Des made his way to the back of the bar where HoBo sat holding court.

“Not bad Mr. Desmond,” HoBo’s scratchy voice said as Desmond approached him.

“Not bad, but not quite there either,” he continued. “You sounded like an actor doing a play for the first time. The lines were all there, but you don’t feel the story yet.”

Desmond understood what HoBo meant.

“So how do I get there?”

“Keep listenin’ and keep playin’. It ain’t gonna happen overnight. It’s gonna take years.”

That’s when it began to sink in for Des. He didn’t want it to take years. He wanted to reach his dream now while he was young enough to enjoy it. For now, though, he had no choice but to follow HoBo’s advice. And he did. For the next five years he bussed tables and sat in for HoBo. He became more confident and began playing more sets. There were even nights when HoBo took the night off and let Des play when his health began to falter.

Des was 21 now and he had been patient, but inside he wanted to fast-forward and reach his dream, but that didn’t seem to be in the cards…until one cold New Year’s Eve.

The Sugar Bowl always brought rowdy college crowds to New Orleans which

only multiplied the craziness from the usual New Year’s Eve crowd. The Dew was crowded to overflowing with Alabama and Penn State fans and a larger group of musicians gathered to play. New Year’s Eve was a great night for tips from the large drunken crowd, and the musicians knew it. This particular night would be one that would change Desmond’s life forever. HoBo was suffering from the unusually cold weather and told Des he would be playing the whole night. Des had never played a big holiday like this on his own before, but his repertoire and confidence had grown to a level that would meet the challenge. The usual suspects were playing with the group along with some familiar additions on saxophone and guitar. Just as the group was about to start their first set, an unfamiliar musician walked into the Dew. He wore a dark suit and a fedora and carried a trumpet case under his arm. A trumpet would round out the group nicely, but taking a gamble on an unfamiliar musician on a night like this was risky. This musician, however, had the bearing and look of confidence that dispelled all doubt. When he took out his flawless silver horn with mother-of-pearl valve caps and began to play, all doubt vanished. He had the ability to mimic famous trumpet players or play with a confident style of his own. His improvised riffs and extended solos were exact replicas of complicated solos by Miles Davis, Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong and others. He appeared to have no difficulties with keys and obscure tunes. He could make his standard trumpet sound like a flugelhorn, cornet, or piccolo trumpet. The members of the group were blown away by his abilities and by the fact that they had never heard of him before. When he introduced himself, he said his name was Lou. He also said his last name was too intimidating for most, so he just went by Lou. Des thought this was pretentious, but after hearing him play, the pretentiousness was well earned.

As is often the case with superior performers, they can raise the performance level of those around them.  This is true in music, sports, and many other professions. This was definitely true when Lou joined the regular musicians at the Dew for that New Year’s Eve. The crowd felt it as well and reflected it through their applause and tips. As with all great performances, the time flew by and the crowd was left wanting more. Lou the trumpet player elevated and enhanced the talents of each member of the group, Des included, and they didn’t want this to be a one-time thing. Des approached Lou at the end of the night as their unofficial spokesman.

“Lou, I just wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed playing with you tonight.  Where do you usually play?”

Lou laughed to himself and turned to face Desmond. In the harsh, closing time light, Desmond couldn’t help noticing the intensity and unusual color of Lou’s eyes. They seemed to alternate between hazel, brown, and an intense shade of burnt orange with bright flecks of light that almost looked like burning coals.

“I don’t usually play in any one place. I travel all over the world and play where I’m needed.”

Desmond bristled at the unusual response and felt uneasy for some reason.

“What do you mean, where you’re needed?”

Lou’s face broke into a disconcerting smile.

“You’re group needed a trumpet tonight, so I showed up.”

Again, Lou’s response did little to answer Desmond’s questions. But it didn’t matter, because Lou took over the conversation.

“So, you’ve got some talent and some potential on the piano. Right now you’re ten years away from being extremely competent to play in this lovely bar. Is that what your dream is?”

Desmond was a bit flustered by the backhanded compliment and the fact that Lou had mirrored his thoughts and his frustration. He didn’t say anything in reply. Lou continued.

“If I were a young man with potential like yours, I would want some kind of shortcut. Is that something you’re interested in?”

Desmond knew in his heart he should say no and end this conversation, but something about Lou’s eyes and the hypnotic tone of his voice had Desmond’s full attention.

“You can make it happen, Desmond; all you have to do is want it bad enough. Do you want it bad enough, Desmond?”

All Desmond could do was stare blankly and nod. Lou just had to reel him in.

“Desmond, it can happen if you want it bad enough. You just need to tell me what that dream is.”

Internal warnings were going off like a five-alarm fire, but Desmond could not protest. He was too far gone.

“Tell me your dream.”

Desmond mumbled something that sounded like a phrase in a foreign language.

“What was that Desmond?”

“To have the best hands.”

“Hmm, that’s an interesting way to put it, but I think I understand exactly what you’re saying. You want the best hands on the piano. You want to match that great technique that you already have with the missing ingredient to set you apart. Is that right Desmond?”

Again, Desmond could only stupidly nod his head.

“I’ll take that as a yes. All it takes, Desmond, is soul. Do you know what I mean? That’s what will provide the missing piece.”

Desmond thought this made sense in his current state. “Soul” was the missing ingredient that HoBo was talking about. Lou was saying the same thing, he thought to himself.

“It will come to you Desmond. You will have the best hands. Of course, you will pay a small price now and a larger price over time. It’s like buying a house; a down payment now and gradual payment of the larger price over time.”

“But I don’t have any money,” Desmond was able to blurt out.

Lou laughed at this.

“And I don’t need money. The price will be automatically exacted over time. In fact, you will not see me or need to pay in person. It’s that easy. All you have to do is say that you agree.”

Desmond again felt that internal turmoil, but he could also see his dream within his grasp. He also had the feeling that he was about to do something he would regret. Still, he looked into Lou’s molten orange-brown eyes and said, “I agree”. And he felt…nothing.  Had he been the butt of a joke? Was he being exploited as a fool by this slick operator? He watched Lou turn and go out the door and said nothing. Desmond sulked his way back to Ramona’s and went to bed. 

Desmond slept late into New Year’s Day. The Dew was closed and he didn’t roll out of bed until 1PM.  He felt hung-over even though he didn’t take a single drink. He slunk down the stairs and immediately smelled Ramona’s jambalaya cooking in the kitchen.  Instead of making him hungry as it usually did, he felt sick to his stomach. He went into the kitchen long enough to pour a glass of sugary sweet iced tea hoping it would settle his stomach and reduce his headache. He trudged back up the stairs and fell into bed. He didn’t wake up until the early morning hours of the following day.

He stayed in bed until the sun came up. Then he got up, took a shower, and went down to Ramona’s kitchen for some breakfast and strong coffee. He felt only marginally better but decided he better eat something. Ramona poured herself some coffee and sat down across from Desmond.

“That musta been some New Year’s Eve. If I didn’t hear you movin’ around yesterday, I might’ve thought you were dead.”

“I just felt awful. I came home from the Dew and felt like I had been up for two days straight.  Guess I needed the sleep.”

“Well it sure wasn’t beauty sleep.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You look like you’ve been up for four days straight. What happened? Did someone give you some bad drug to take?”

“No. I didn’t even drink.  Maybe I’ve got the flu.”

“Maybe. You might want to call in sick today and get some more sleep.”

“No. I need to go in. I need to play tonight. HoBo might not be up to it yet.”

“That old cat has at least nine lives.  He’ll be fine.”

“Well I’m not sick. I’ll be better once I get there.”

“Whatever you say Mr. Desmond. There’s just something about you today.”

“What do you mean?”

“You look…different. Not in a good way.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Desmond helped Ramona clean up the kitchen and then left for the short walk to the Dew. He had to admit that he felt a little achy, but he didn’t feel ill. When he got to the Dew, he saw HoBo sitting at the piano looking much better. He was playing some old rag time style tunes and Desmond went over to listen.

“Hey HoBo,” Desmond said as he finished up. “How are you feeling?”

“Mr. Desmond, I feel so much better. The rest did me some good. I’ll be back playin’ tonight, but only for a set or two. I don’t want to end up in bed again for a while.”

“Why is that?”

“A man my age doesn’t need to be alone with his thoughts. It gives me too much time to think about what I didn’t do with this life.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“It sounds like I wasn’t missed too much. It was a profitable New Year’s Eve without me. That Sugar Bowl crowd filled this place up.”

“Well, you were missed. We had a great crowd and the group sounded hot.”

“So I hear. Sounds like you had a great horn player sitting in, although I must admit, I thought I knew everyone that plays in this town, but I can’t place this guy from his description.”

“He was good. Really good. It made the rest of us sound better than usual.”

Desmond helped the kitchen crew get ready for the night’s dinner rush. It took longer than usual because of the day off. Before he knew it, dinner was over and the combo out in the bar was starting their first set. It was the same core group that had played New Year’s Eve, minus the trumpeter, of course. Although the band didn’t reach the heights of the sound from New Year’s Eve, they did sound good, especially HoBo on the piano. He was back with a vengeance. He went on to play a second set with the band and sounded better than he had in a very long time. Desmond thought that the rest had rejuvenated HoBo. When the second set was over, he went to compliment HoBo and found the ancient pianist smiling from ear-to-ear.

“You sound great tonight. That rest did wonders for you.”

“It’s not just the rest. My fingers feel like they belong to a young man tonight. I hate to stop.”

“You don’t have to. I don’t need to play tonight.”

“No. One thing I’ve learned with this old body, if I push too hard when I feel good, I pay the price later. You take the next set. I’ll get some dinner.”

“It’s going to be hard to follow you, but I’ll play if that’s what you want.”

“It’s not what I want,” HoBo said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s what I need.”

Desmond sat at the piano for the third set thinking about what they were going to play. They had an alto sax player from New York sitting in who was itching to play some Charlie Parker tunes. To shut him up, Desmond decided they would start with Donna Lee, which was essentially an improvised solo that Parker had played over the old song, Back Home in Indiana. It was a challenging melody that Des and the group would make more challenging by kicking up the tempo. Des decided to warm up a little bit since he hadn’t touched the piano since New Year’s Eve.  All thoughts of that bizarre night and his encounter with Lou the trumpeter were out of his head…until he put his fingers on the keys. It was a sensation like touching a live wire. He felt voltage pass up through his fingertips and through his whole body but could not remove his fingers from the keys. The sensation lasted for about five scary seconds and then was gone. Desmond felt fine.

The other members of the group had assembled and they kicked off the song by playing Back Home in Indiana as a slow dirge. When they finished, Des nodded to Bob Davidson on the drums and he kicked into a very fast street roll off and Donna Lee began with reckless abandon. The alto sax player held on for dear life and made it through the melody and a breakneck solo without any casualties. Then it was the guitarist’s turn. Finally, the solo came to Desmond. That was the moment when everything changed. The solo that came from the piano was being played by his fingers, but the technique, speed, and musicality was unbelievably foreign to his brain. He felt the music rather than thought it. When he made it through the chord changes for one turn, everyone nodded to him to take another. He flew around the changes again making complex substitutions with his left hand and playing runs with his right that seemed to flow like electricity from his fingers as they blurred across the keys. After this run through the changes, they were back into the melody and ended the song, keeping up the high speed with which it started.

When they finished, the silence in the bar was eerie. Then, one by one, bar patrons jumped to their feet and began applauding and shouting Desmond’s name. Tips began filling the bucket on the stage like never before. Desmond looked to the band members who also were standing, applauding, and pointing at him. The situation was surreal. The rest of the set was similar. Desmond played one amazing solo after another taking familiar tunes to places they had never been before. It was like a repeat of the New Year’s Eve performance only Desmond was the star instead of the mysterious trumpeter that no one had seen before. When the set was over, Desmond found himself mobbed by the patrons in the bar, slapping his back, shaking his hand, and even asking for autographs. There was only one person in the Dew whose opinion mattered to Desmond at that moment and that was HoBo. He made his way back to the old man’s usual table and found him asleep. The two sets must have worn him out. Even though he was not conscious, a slight smile seemed to be frozen on his face. Desmond went to gently wake him up so that he could help him to bed in his apartment above the bar. He gently nudged HoBo’s shoulder and the old man slumped to the table. He was not asleep. He had died sitting in the place that was his life. Desmond’s first thought was whether or not he had heard Desmond play this amazing set. His second thought went back to the words that Lou had told him regarding a “down payment” for realizing his dream. He quickly dismissed the thought. He then snapped back to reality. Other Dew employees were ushering patrons out of the bar so they could deal with HoBo’s death discreetly without causing a panic. The local undertaker had already been dispatched and, within thirty minutes, HoBo’s body was taken away. The bar was closed for the night and Desmond decided to walk around and clear his head. After about an hour, he returned to Miss Ramona’s place and found her and a group of current boarding musicians solemnly sitting around the table. Desmond poured a cup of strong coffee and joined them. They were sitting around reminiscing about HoBo. Most of the stories that Miss Ramona was telling were about his younger days when she was a singer in his band. HoBo was a mentor and a father figure to her just as he was to many other musicians, Desmond included. Eventually, the stories turned to how well HoBo had played earlier that evening and how full of life he was. Miss Ramona addressed this.

“The Lord wanted him to have one more moment of joy on this Earth before he called him home. From what I hear, it almost sounds like HoBo passed his gift on to you somehow Mr. Desmond. These gentlemen just got done talking about how your playing was amazing tonight. Maybe HoBo figured his work with you was done and he passed fulfilled.”

“I don’t know about that,” Desmond said, looking down at the floor. I just wish he was around to hear it and tell me what he thought.

The stories went on for a bit longer and the musicians began to leave one by one. Finally it was just Desmond and Ramona that remained.

“You look like something heavy is weighin’ on you, Mr. Desmond. What is it?”

“I’m just sad about HoBo’s death.”

“That man had a long and happy life. There’s no reason to sulk. In New Orleans, we celebrate the life a whole lot more than we mourn the death. I think there’s more to it than that.”

Desmond decided to tell Ramona about what happened on New Year’s Eve. When he was through, she had an amused look on her face.

“You sure you weren’t drinkin’ some of the special moonshine that night?”

“I didn’t drink at all. Why do you say that?”

“Well, for one thing, the Devil’s Dew was founded by a trumpet player named Lou who used to hang out with King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton back in the early 1920’s. He’s been dead for nearly 50 years. His picture is hangin’ in the back of the bar at the Dew. Somebody’s been messin’ with you.”

Desmond described Lou and Ramona opened her eyes wide.

“That sure sounds like somebody who looks like him, but they could have seen the picture and dressed up like him for the holiday.”

“You’re sure about that?” Desmond asked. “How did he die?”

“There was a terrible fire at the Dew. The upstairs burned out totally. He lived in the apartment HoBo lived in. All they found was some burned up bones. The place got rebuilt with bootleg whiskey money.”

Desmond didn’t know what to think. He knew he saw ‘his’ Lou and he knew what happened when he sat down to play. It was a strange night.

The Devil’s Dew was shut down for a few days out of respect to HoBo. In pure New Orleans style, his death would be marked by a funeral procession beginning at the undertakers and passing by the Dew to the cemetery where HoBo would be laid to rest in a mausoleum. Underground burials were not possible in New Orleans due to the elevation of the city which was actually below sea level. The water table was so high, that digging a hole to bury a body would result in a hole filled with water.

A marching band of all types of instruments formed along and marched down Bourbon Street to accompany HoBo’s body. Musicians and other mourners came from far and wide to celebrate his life. The band played a mournful rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” as the body was carried toward the cemetery. Once HoBo was laid to rest, the procession went back the way it came to finish it’s parade at the Devil’s Dew for a reception/celebration. As was the custom, the trip back started with a lively drum cadence and then a roll off that began a true Dixieland version of the same old Christian spiritual, but with a beat that encouraged those not playing instruments to dance and strut toward the bar. It was not disrespectful, quite the opposite was true. They were honoring HoBo in true New Orleans style.

Once back at the Dew, a who’s-who of musicians assembled to play HoBo’s favorite tunes. Food was put out in a buffet, and a party like no other was thrown to honor him.  Other piano players sat down and played for the first couple of sets while Desmond helped manage the party and greeted guests. As the band assembled to play the third and final set, one of the trombone players, Phil Miller, stepped up to the microphone to make an announcement.

“You know, HoBo was a legend in this bar. He played here for nearly 70 years and taught many of us to appreciate the music and culture of this great city. To show that his teaching spirit was there to the end, we want to call up his latest, and last, protégé, Desmond Brown, to play the next set. Desmond, come on up here and show us what you learned.”

Desmond walked up to the piano. His legs and back seemed a bit sore for someone in his 20’s, but he figured the parade had taken its toll on him. He sat down and the band launched into a medley of classic Dixieland jazz standards. Like the last time he played, minus the electric shock, Desmond’s fingers danced across the keys with reckless abandon as he redefined the chord changes and melodies of each tune. The band and the crowd were awestruck by his technique and his fusion of old and modern jazz textures. The crowd was on their feet applauding and shouting after every solo in every song. Desmond had never felt so alive while playing the piano. When he finished, the applause, back slaps, handshakes, and requests for autographs were numerous. He made his way to the back and slid into the booth where HoBo had sat and passed away so recently. As he sat there, the admirers continued to approach him and shower him with compliments. He simultaneously felt uneasy, but he was also enjoying it. As the crowd thinned, a man in a very expensive suit approached him. He asked Desmond if he could sit down.

“Sure. I’m about to go help in the kitchen,” Desmond responded.

“Well, actually I’d like to talk to you first, if you don’t mind.”

“OK. What do you want?”

The man folded his well-manicured hands.

“My name is Howard Ballantine. I represent Blue Note and I have a proposition for you.”

“Blue Note, as in The Blue Note record label?” Desmond asked in disbelief.

“The very same. I’ll get right to it. I don’t know where you came from, or where you’ve been, but I want to sign you to an exclusive deal with our label. I’m prepared to give you $25,000 up front to sign you to a three album deal and then cut you in for a substantial piece of the profit. I have the contract with me. You can have your agent and your lawyer look it over and then sign it. I’m not leaving New Orleans until I have your signature.”

“What? A lawyer? I don’t have a lawyer or an agent.”

“Well I suggest that you get both. You’re going to need them. Here’s my card. If I don’t hear from you within three days, I’ll come and find you to get your signature. Blue Note wants your talent on its label.”

“This is unbelievable. Thank you. I’ll call you.”

“I’m counting on it,” Ballantine said as he got up to leave.

“Mr. Ballantine,” Desmond said as the man turned to go. He turned back and looked at Desmond.

“Please call me Howard.”

“OK. Howard. How did you know to come here? Were you a friend of HoBo’s?”

“No. I never knew the man. I’m here, strangely enough, because of a phone call that came in to my private office line. No one has that number except for our company executives and the agents of certain artists or the artists themselves. The voice on the phone told me I needed to get to New Orleans with a contract and sign up one of the best new talents on piano since Thelonious Monk or Oscar Peterson.  I was about to hang up, but the voice on the phone was very convincing and I felt compelled to come here. I sat through the first two sets and was about to leave when they called you up to play. You are a unique talent and you need to be heard. I want you on Blue Note so that your gift can be shared on a large scale.”

Desmond was feeling strange as he heard Ballantine’s story. He knew he had to ask the next question, but also knew the answer beforehand.

“What was his name? The guy who called you, did he say his name?”

“He didn’t tell me his full name. He just said to tell you that Lou said good luck. Does that mean anything to you?”

Desmond hesitated and then said “No it doesn’t.” He wanted to avoid more questions. When Ballantine left, Desmond got up from his seat and left the Devil’s Dew for the last time. He could not resist a look over the bar at the pictures that hung there. Among the pictures of notables that had visited the bar was a previously unnoticed black and white photo in a dusty frame. The picture was of Lou. It was the same man from the New Year’s Eve party and, as Desmond started to look away, he could swear that the eyes of the man in the picture flashed a brief brownish-orange at him.

2014

Now, as a nearly sixty year old Desmond Brown lay in his luxury suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, he was a mass of pain. The pain had started in his legs and spine in his 20’s. As he progressed through his 30’s and 40’s, the pain got progressively worse and spread to his chest. He had been to the top orthopedists, neurologists, internists, and, later, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and holistic healers. No one could explain the pain. He began to take pain medication in ever increasing amounts. They would just dull the pain, but could not make it stop.

Amazingly, as the rest of Desmond’s body withered away from the effects of the pain and lack of use, his arms, from his shoulders to the tips of his fingers, remained pain free and toned as if he were in his 20’s. The doctors were baffled that these appendages that he used to create classic jazz piano music had been spared while the rest of his body had been so cruelly punished. Desmond knew the reason, however, he just couldn’t share it with anyone or insanity would be added to his list of afflictions. So now, on this night after a triumphant concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Desmond Brown lay in his luxury suite wondering if the price he had paid for his gift was truly worth it. He wondered if the suffering that he experienced was worth the fame, adulation, and immortality of the music he had created. He used to answer ‘yes’ unequivocally to this question, but now, he wasn’t so sure. He had taken the short cut. He had skipped paying his dues for the easy way. But he also knew that, even with several years of hard work, the alternate path may not have landed him here. He might still be playing at The Devil’s Dew and bussing tables. At this low point in his life, he would gladly trade his health for his abilities. After all, the fame he had achieved and the body of work he had produced was enough to fill several lifetimes. He had plenty of money. He was still relatively young. He wondered to himself if there was a way out. As he drifted into another wave of sedative induced pseudo-sleep, Desmond thought about this as he was suddenly brought back from the edge of sleep by a presence in his room.

“Ron, is that you?”

Desmond’s doctor was Ron Perrino, and he, as always, had the adjoining room so that he could monitor Desmond’s condition through the night and take action as needed. No one answered, however, but Desmond could still feel a presence.

“Who’s there? What do you want?”

Desmond wondered if he was hallucinating or hearing voices as new symptoms. But finally, a voice spoke quietly.

“Well hello old friend.”

A face emerged from the shadows and Desmond wondered if he was dreaming.

“No you’re not dreaming. It’s me, your old pal.”

“Lou. How did you get in here? Why are you here?”

“One question at a time. The first question is silly, don’t you think. I have been alive for a very long time. I gave you the talent needed to become the greatest jazz piano player of all time, and you question how I could get into your hotel room.”

Lou let out a laugh that was chilling yet made the temperature of the room increase noticeably. He was wearing the same outfit that he wore that New Year’s Eve so long ago. It also was the same outfit he wore in the photo behind the bar at the Devil’s Dew. His face had not changed and his intense eyes seemed to glow like the ends of twin cigarettes in Desmond’s darkened room.

“As for the second question, you asked for me?”

“No. I didn’t. I’d never ask for you.”

“I’m sorry Desmond, but you’re mistaken. I clearly heard you ask for an amendment to our agreement. If nothing else, I am a forthright businessman and when a customer is unhappy with an arrangement, I like to find a way to give them what they ask for, or ‘wish’ for. You distinctly expressed the desire to make your body whole again. To have the same feeling throughout your body at the expense of your piano playing, am I correct?”

“I was only thinking about it. I didn’t ask for your help.”

“Well I am here to offer help if you want it, Desmond. All you have to do is agree that you want this to come to pass. Your body will be whole. The rest of your body will match your arms and hands.”

Lou moved his face close to Desmond’s as he continued.

“Is this what you want, Desmond?”

Desmond squeezed his eyes shut and said, “It is”.

When he opened his eyes, Lou was gone. Desmond was suddenly exhausted and concluded that the whole episode was just another dream and a result of the chemicals circulating through his body. He drifted off to a dreamless sleep for the first time in many years.

He was awoken by the sound of voices and activity in his room.

“He’s opening his eyes.”

It was Dr. Perrino that Desmond saw first as he began to wake up.

“Desmond can you hear me? Blink if you can. Desmond tried to speak, but his vocal chords would not respond. He then realized there was an intubation tube in his throat that prevented speech. He blinked.

“Good. You’re responsive. Something happened during the night. Your condition has changed. Can you squeeze my hand?”

Desmond tried to squeeze with both hands but found no feeling in his body at all. The pain was gone, but with it, so was his ability to move. He was paralyzed.

“Desmond, we think you might have had a stroke that is affecting your movement. You are having trouble breathing on your own as well. We’re going to have to move you to a hospital.”

Desmond’s next memory was of more activity and of somber faces surrounding his bed. They were the faces of people accepting that the end was near for him. Desmond’s immediate reaction was anger. He was angry at himself. He was angry at Lou. Lou, in his dream (or was it a dream) had promised to make his body whole at the price. Suddenly, Desmond’s anger turned to amusement and understanding. Lou had delivered on his promise. His body was whole again. None of it functioned. Instead of amazing hands that flew across the keyboard with unreal dexterity, his arms and hands now matched the rest of his body. His lungs and heart were catching up as well. His final thought as his body finally gave up was, “be careful what you wish for”.

Reflecting On My Early Work – Another Short Story

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m getting ready to release my second collection of short stories soon. As a way to familiarize myself with Amazon’s publishing process my second work that I ever published way back in 2014 was a short story, August, 1963.

It was a story that was written to commemorate the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

I read through this story as I was getting ready to post it and it struck me as a timely tale for today’s climate in the United States. In an effort to avoid the appearance of being political, I will just say that. although the events in this story take place nearly 60 years ago, we still have a long way to go in many aspects of our society.

This story also comes from my short story collection Random Tales which is a collection of unrelated stories.

My next collection will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in nearly five years.

I hope you enjoy August, 1963, posted here in its entirety as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story.


Author’s Note

This story was written to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There are a few things to note about this story. First, the main character tells the story in first person, which was something I wanted to try. Second, the character is a transplanted northerner moving to the south at a time when the Civil Rights movement in the US was at a fevered pitch. Although I was less than a year old when this story takes place, I experienced some of the same issues that the main character faced during my own move to the south over 30 years later. Finally, if you’ve read “Frankly Speaking” or “Let Me Be Frank”, you might notice some familiar names and references. This is something that I’ve started to do in my work. I want to have a common underlying thread or universe of characters throughout my work.

This story very much echoes my own feelings on prejudice and racial inequality. One theme that rings through is, no matter how enlightened we think we might be on either side of the race issue, we don’t truly understand what is going on in the hearts and minds of others involved in the struggle. I was able to weave in music as a common thread that binds the characters together. You will see the use of music in many of my stories. Besides writing, it is another passion in my life.

Note: One change that I made in this version of the story from the original is using the actual n-word instead of masking it. I received some reviews and messages saying that this would make the piece more authentic. I struggled with this as the word has become so controversial and I have always viewed it as offensive. I was convinced when I recently re-read my favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. When Scout uses the word in the book as a young child, her father tells her not to use the word because it is “common” meaning “low class” in the context of the time and place. I am using it in my story even though, like Atticus Finch, I consider it “common”.

I hope you enjoy this story and I hope that it makes you think a bit.

August 1963

August 1963 was a pivotal month in American history.  James Meredith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Mississippi. A costly first, his protection cost over five million dollars. The South was much slower to recognize the equality among the races. It had been nearly 100 years since the end of the Civil War, but some Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line were still licking their wounds and holding onto traditional views that had been passed down from generation to generation.

Integration during this time period was a slow and painful process among adults. There were individuals among the more enlightened Washington politicians that believed racial harmony could be achieved more quickly among children.  This harmony came in the form of mandated school integration which was adopted in slow drib and drabs across the South.

Just as James Meredith was receiving his degree in August of 1963, three young black children were venturing into the previously all-white Booth elementary school in the town of Indian Trail, Florida.

I remember that day clearly as I was one of the students in Mrs. White’s class when the students joined us.  The names of these brave souls were Molly, William, and Isaiah. They were driven to school by the pastor of the local black Baptist church, and two policemen waited to walk them to the front door. As we all looked out the window, I could see the scared look on the children’s faces. Isaiah was a tall, thin boy and appeared to be the leader of the group as he bravely walked to the entrance of the school with the posture of a marine and the face of a frightened child. William wore glasses and looked small and bookish next to the much taller Isaiah. Molly looked somber in contrast to her multiple pigtails and colorful dress.

Once in the school, the new additions entered Mrs. White’s class and were seated at three adjacent desks at the front of the room. Sitting in front of the classroom was not desirable; in the rear of the room it was easier to hide from the prying eyes of the teacher.

As soon as the three were seated, the murmurs began.

Mrs. White cleared her throat and said, “Class, it’s time to begin our day.”

The murmurs stopped but the uneasiness in the class was palpable. The morning routine began with the Pledge of Allegiance and then on to mathematics. Surprisingly, the novelty of the new students wore off quickly as the routine of the school day took over.

As a transplanted ‘Yankee’ in the South, the idea of being in a room with black children was not a new experience for me.  I spent my early years in Catholic school where integration had begun organically in the late 50s as common faith was a stronger determinant of equality than skin color.  As I looked at these children, I felt empathy as they were uprooted from one school environment in which they felt comfortable and were forced into a new school where they felt out of place.  This had happened to me three years earlier as I was ripped from the Assumption Catholic Academy in Syracuse, New York, and whisked away 1,200 miles south to a faraway land called Florida. In some ways, my situation was more traumatic than the “Booth Three,” as they would come to be called. When the school day was over, they could return to the comfort of their own neighborhood, family, and friends. I only had my mom and my baby sister Lillie. My Dad was in the Navy and spent months at sea. There was little common ground between me and the other kids in the neighborhood. They played tackle football, hunted, and fished. I read books, wrote stories, and played the piano. They were Southern Baptists and I was “one of them Roman Catholics.”

My best friend was my dog Rusty, a German shepherd mix my Dad given me before his latest deployment. I tried playing with the neighborhood kids, but the taunting I endured due to my lack of athletic ability, cultural common ground, and a common religion resulted in my quick retreat to my room to read under Rusty’s watchful eye. I tried to live a stealthy, quiet existence, with the hope that my Dad’s deployment to this horrible place would end and we would return to the more civilized North. This hope (and my obscure existence) both disappeared during 1963 thanks to the Booth Three.

Lunchtime at Booth Elementary School was always an ordeal for me. I didn’t fit in. According to my peers, I had three strikes against me. I was a Yankee, I talked funny, and I was one of those Catholics. I wasn’t sure why Catholics were treated as outcasts in the South. It was only later that I would learn about the Ku Klux Klan’s hatred for other groups based not only on skin color, but also other ethnic origins and religions. I was Italian-American and Catholic, which I later found out were two strikes against me. I often sat alone or with the special-education kids who, in spite of their so-called handicaps, were far less judgmental. When the Booth Three arrived on the scene, they faced the same precarious situation at lunch time and recess. They sat alone. They were blocked from the swing set and other playground equipment. Their only consolation was that they had each other. I had only myself. As a result of my ten-year-old logic, I assumed they would welcome me to their group with open arms. I was wrong.

Just as southern whites had their misguided preconceptions about blacks, the black community had preconceptions surrounding the motives of whites that reached out to them. They viewed these types of gestures as condescending, insincere, or downright dishonest. The Booth Three were no different. When I approached their isolated lunch table one September day, they eyed me with suspicion, curiosity, and fear. I gestured toward the remaining empty chair and said, “Can I sit there?”

Isaiah looked at me and in a quiet voice laced with anger said, “Why do you want to sit with us, peckerwood?”

I had been called many names since moving to Florida, but that was a new one and I had no idea what it meant. Isaiah’s tone, however, let me know it was not a term of endearment.

“I just need a place to sit, and this seat is open.”

Something in my pitiful voice stirred some sympathy from Molly.

She said, “Let him sit down Isaiah. Those crackers don’t like him either.”

Isaiah rolled his eyes.

“Have a seat peckerwood. Every garden needs a weed sometimes.”

Isaiah flashed a quick smile. I had no idea that all eyes were on us at the time, both adults and children.

We sat in silence and unpacked our lunches. My lunch was a salami sandwich in homemade Italian bread with provolone cheese. I also had some cookies that my mom had baked. The Booth Three unpacked fried chicken and corn muffins. They were as curious about my food as I was about theirs. I could see Isaiah glancing at my lunch.

“Do you want to trade?”

“Why, so you can poison us or make us eat something nasty?” Isaiah asked.

“No. I just thought…” I trailed off feeling my face and ears flush like they always did when I was embarrassed.

“I’ll trade,” Molly’s quiet voice piped up.

She offered me a chicken leg and a corn muffin, and I gave her half of my sandwich and a cookie.  As I bit into the chicken, I felt as if my taste buds had died and gone to heaven. It was the perfect blend of crunch, spice, and juicy chicken.

“This is…” I was going to say delicious when a hand tightly clamped down on my shoulder.

“Mr. Rozzani”

It was Mr. Perkins, the school principal. He pronounced my name as “Rose Annie” with his thick southern drawl.

“That will be quite enough. You return that food, gather what is left of your lunch, and come with me,” Perkins said.

My face flushed again. I had done something wrong, but had no idea what. I followed Mr. Perkins to his office.

“Mr. Rozzani, just what did you think you were doing?”

I had no idea what answer he wanted, so I tried the truth.

“Eating lunch sir.”

“Eating lunch! Don’t get wise with me son.”

Mr. Perkins furrowed his brow, which disturbed his intricate comb-over that seemed to start from his sideburn hair.

“You were eating that other student’s food. That’s not acceptable.”

I was confused, assuming that he thought I had stolen it.

“But sir, we traded.”

“Traded? With one of those students? That just isn’t done son.”

“But sir, the other kids trade all the time and I…”

He cut me off.

“It’s not right to trade with those students. It just isn’t done.”

“I…I don’t understand sir.”

“Well maybe detention with Mr. Faber will help you understand. Now just sit there for a minute.”

While I sat, Mr. Perkins angrily scrawled a note, put it in an envelope, wrote on the envelope and handed it to me.

“I want this signed and brought back to me tomorrow,” he said with a dismissive wave.

Lunch was now over so I returned to Mrs. White’s class and took my seat. I could hear whispers as I sat down. Obviously word of my trip to Mr. Perkins’ office had spread.

As the day went on, I started to dread my impending trip to Mr. Faber’s detention session. It was where the bad kids went. If there was a group I wanted to be associated with, the bad kids were not it.

When the 2:30 bell rang, I slowly packed my books and headed down the hallway to Mr. Faber’s classroom. Mr. Faber was the 4th and 5th grade history teacher. The 4th grade was treated to his take on European history. His view somehow rationalized that Hitler was a misunderstood and benevolent leader. The Fuhrer was criminalized in World War II by being lumped in with the evil Japanese in their attacks on the allies. Mr. Faber also believed that Hitler was viewed as a malevolent dictator due to conspiracy theories perpetuated by a certain non-Christian religious group.

His 5th grade American History class revolved around a retelling of the Civil War, in which the South was persecuted for its beliefs by the arrogant North. In his view, the war was not over, but merely in a holding pattern until the South rose again. He prominently displayed the Confederate Flag alongside the Stars and Stripes in his classroom. I was only 10, but suspected that his teachings were skewed to fit his own beliefs.

His detention sessions were notorious for their usual participants and for the way he ruled them with an iron fist. He didn’t literally use his fists, but anyone who misbehaved during detention was subject to encountering what he called his ‘board of education’, a well-worn wooden paddle that hung from a hook next to the blackboard. It was about three feet long by eight inches wide and 3/4 of an inch thick. He had fashioned it himself and had drilled several holes in it so that it could be swung faster with reduced air resistance. Anyone dumb enough to be disruptive during detention would be asked to bend over and place their elbows on Faber’s desk so he could deliver a number of blows to their vulnerable rear end based on the severity of the infraction.

As I settled into detention, Mr. Faber handed each of us a blank sheet of notebook paper and a pencil upon which we were instructed to write the Pledge of Allegiance over and over until we were told to stop. He reminded us of the consequences of being disruptive during this exercise which elicited a barely audible snicker from the back of the room.

“Is there something amusing, Mr. Grant?”

Mr. Grant was Rufus Grant, the biggest 5th grader at Booth. Legend had it that he had failed every grade since kindergarten at least once. He was not only the tallest and heaviest student in the school, but it was widely rumored that he was already shaving.

“No sir,” Rufus answered. He was a frequent past recipient of whacks from the paddle.

“OK then, let’s begin,” Faber said.

The detention session only lasted 45 minutes. It felt like an eternity. As I sat their writing, my mind also wanted to how I would explain detention to my mother who wielded a smaller, but painful version of Mr. Faber’s paddle in the form of a wooden spoon. I also wondered what information Mr. Perkins had written in the note that would explain my detention. Would it be “traded food” or “ate unauthorized fried chicken” or some other violation of an unknown school rule?

Finally detention ended. I grabbed my book bag and headed toward the front exit of the school. My rented house was about a quarter of a mile from the school and was an easy walk across an empty lot. While we were in school, the daily afternoon rain showers made the field muddy in spots.

As I crossed the field trying to keep my new white Keds clean, I could hear the sound of footsteps behind me. I was afraid to turn around and instead started to run to the other end of the field and the safety of my house. I wasn’t fast enough. I heard the unmistakable voice of Rufus Grant. Because of my repulsion for some of the terms used in those intolerant days, I will modify Rufus’ language to only hint at what was said.

“Hey nigger lover. Why don’t you slow down and talk to us?” Rufus barked.

I took a quick look behind me and saw Rufus and his minions chasing after me. They caught up to me and Rufus grabbed my book bag and threw it into a mud puddle and then pushed me to the ground.

“How was that fried chicken nigger boy? Are you and your nigger girlfriend going to get married and raise chickens?”

“Stop it,” I said foolishly thinking that this might work.

“What’s the matter? Aren’t your nigger friends around to help you? Did they go back to Africa?”

The words were ugly. I was raised to judge people by their actions, not their skin color or ethnic background. As the grandson of Italian immigrants that fought prejudice and poverty to make a life in America, I felt the sting of those ugly words almost as much as if they had called me a wop or grease-ball.

“Leave me alone you peckerwood,” I said out of desperation. I still didn’t know what the word meant, but obviously Rufus did.

“You even talk like them,” he said. “Maybe you should look like them too.”

Rufus grabbed my shirt and lifted me to my feet.  He then pushed me toward a large mud puddle and shoved me to the ground again. I fell face-first into the mud. I tried to get but he pushed me down again. This time he stomped on the back of my neck with his work boot. My nose and mouth were submerged in the mud. I could feel the gritty mixture between my teeth and I couldn’t breathe.  Finally, he let me up. As I went to a sitting position I wiped the mud from my eyes and spit the filthy water from my mouth.

“Look at him boys. He looks just like one of them and smells like one too.”

As an exclamation point, Rufus lifted me up and punched me in the mouth splitting my lower lip which swelled immediately.

“That’s the last touch, big lips and all,” he said laughing sadistically as his minions joined in.

They left me sobbing and rubbing my sore lip. I rose to my feet once they were gone, grabbed my book bag and began the short walk to my house. When I opened the front door, Rusty ran to me and then stopped to survey my appearance.  He apparently didn’t care how I looked or smelled as he began to lick my face removing mud.

“Dominic Francis Rozzani,” my mother said as she emerged from the kitchen. She only used my full name when she was angry.

“Where have you been and what happened?”

I started to sob. I was a good kid. I know it was hard for my mom raising us when my dad was gone for long stretches.

“I got detention and then some kids pushed me and I fell in the mud…”

“Detention! Fighting! What is wrong with you? I didn’t raise you to be a hooligan. Get out of those clothes and get in the bath.  I have to feed your sister and then we’ll deal with what happened.”

As I soaked in the bath, I replayed my day since lunch. What did I do wrong? What had made the principal and “the bad kids” find common ground that justified punishing me? I got out of the bath, dressed, and went downstairs to receive the sentence from the toughest judge, my mom. I found her in the kitchen. The envelope from Mr. Perkins lay on the counter and my mom was reading the contents intently.

“Dommie, what happened at lunch today?”

Dommie was my pet name. Good sign.

I told her what happened at lunch, what Mr. Perkins had said and what happened on the way home. When I told her the names they called me, she angered visibly, but her anger was not directed at me.

“Dommie, you did the right thing. People can be ignorant and children can be cruel, but some, like you, can be wise beyond their years.”

As she tended to my lip, I felt a mixture of relief and confusion. How can something that I did earn me both punishment and admiration.

I had a few nightmares that night and woke feeling sore. I dreaded going to school. When I went downstairs, my mom was dressed in one of her nicer outfits and our elderly neighbor, Mrs. Fitzsimmons, was in the kitchen as well.

“Mom, where are you going?”

“I thought that instead of signing Mr. Perkins note, I would pay him a personal visit to discuss it.”

We left the house and crossed the field toward the school. I wasn’t quite old enough to be embarrassed by walking to school with my mom. I felt safe. When we got to the school Mom told me to go on to class and she went to the front office. I didn’t know at the time what transpired in the office between my mom and Mr. Perkins. After the meeting, however, there was a change. I later found out that Mom had threatened legal action against the school and negative publicity for how Mr. Perkins handled the situation. Whatever she said made a difference, at least until disaster struck.

The change started with my mom packing extra food in my lunch. I asked her why and she said it was in case any of my friends wanted to share. I walked to school with a heightened sense of awareness based on the beating I took the previous day. Rufus and his crew lived on the other side of town and likely wouldn’t pass the school to bother with me. The morning was uneventful and then it was time for lunch.

When I entered the cafeteria, the Booth Three were sitting at their usual table. Isaiah saw me and caught my eye. He motioned for me to come over.

“You can sit here if you want to,” he said.

I was too shocked at the offer to say anything other than “thanks,” and I sat down and started to take out my lunch of homemade meatballs and Italian bread.

“I heard you took a beating because you sat with us,” Isaiah said. “That’s messed up.”

He then passed me some juicy looking ribs and looked at me expectantly.

“You want some meatballs?”

“Well, yeah. You didn’t poison us the first time, so I’ll take a chance,” he said and then flashed me a radiant smile.

As we ate together in the days that followed, conversations began. We talked about our families, our churches, our classes and other things that children talked about in the days before cable television, the Internet, and video games. Like me, the Booth Three had few friends at school and at home. They were shunned by their friends for coming to an all-white school. They weren’t viewed as pioneers or heroes. They were viewed as traitors who forgot where they came from.

I became friends with William, Molly, and, especially, Isaiah. We had more in common than you would think. We were outcasts among our peers. We were fish out of water. We also shared a love for music.

I found out that Isaiah played the saxophone like his father, William played the drums, and Molly could sing. When they found out I played the piano, William said, “We should start a band.”

“We could go to my house,” I said. “I’ve got a piano.”

“I can bring my horn to school,” Isaiah said.

I looked at William and said, “We don’t have drums at my house.”

“Do you have buckets and pans with lids?” he asked.

“We do.”

“Then I’ve got a drum set. I’ll just bring my sticks.”

“I’ll bring my voice,” Molly said quietly.

We looked at each other and laughed so loud that we earned a stern look from Mrs. Yancy, the English teacher who had cafeteria duty.

We decided that Friday would be the day. It couldn’t come fast enough for me. My mom promised to make a traditional Italian dinner for my friends. When Friday arrived, we planned our musical session. They would walk home from school with me and we would play for a while. The pastor from their church would pick them up at my house at 7PM after we had a chance to feast on my mom’s cooking. It was going to be a great day. I had no idea then how magical it would become and how the magic would be replaced by tragedy.

After school we met in front of the building for the short walk to my house. All eyes were on us, but we did our best to pretend casualness. Molly and I were flanked by Isaiah and William as we silently walked toward my house across the field. Amazingly, we were not bothered. We weren’t even inside the house when the aroma of garlic, tomato sauce, and fresh baked bread hit our nostrils.

“Somethin’ smells good,” William said.

“It smells like a better version of those lunches you bring to school,” Isaiah added.

It was just food for me. My mom usually cooked three or four times each week and we had leftovers the other days, or occasionally went out. When Dad was home, we ate wonderful home-cooked meals every night. My mom loved to cook, and was good at it.

We walked into the living room where the old Wurlitzer baby-grand piano stood perfectly polished and ready to go. Mom had also put some buckets of various sizes and some old pots and lids in one corner of the room. I introduced her to everyone and they nervously said hello, but my mom immediately put them at ease by giving each of us a slice of warm Italian bread slathered with butter. A lot can be learned by high-powered diplomats about the power of food to build bridges among diverse people. The Booth Three were instantly at ease.

I sat at the piano, William set up his makeshift drum set. Isaiah handed William the drum sticks he had stored in his alto saxophone case while he moistened a reed in his mouth. He then put his vintage Selmer horn together. Molly stood in front of us. We were ready to go except for one detail, what were we going to play? I knew the names of songs and composers. Isaiah knew the names of saxophone players. William knew drummers and Molly knew singers. This knowledge put us on incongruous ground.

“Do you know any Bird?” Isaiah asked.

“Bird? What’s Bird?” was my reply.

“You know, Charlie Parker.”

That didn’t help.

“Do you know any Cole Porter songs?” I asked.

“What does he play,” William asked.

“I don’t know,” was my reply to this.

We went on this way for a while and finally my mom came in and looked at us. “I don’t hear any music. What’s going on?” she asked.

“We don’t know any of the same songs,” I said.

“Come on now, I’m sure there has to be at least one song you all know.”

She named a few I knew that drew blank looks from the Booth 3.

“How about ‘When the Saints go Marching In’?”

This resulted in nods of recognition from all of us. I had learned this song as a march from one of my piano lessons and had taught myself the chords. My dad played guitar and taught me about the role of chords in music. I started to play the song as a march. Isaiah fumbled to find the key and played along. William played a marching beat on the bucket drums which he made sound incredibly musical. Finally Molly joined in with a voice so clean and powerful that we all stopped playing and looked at her. She had a voice honed by years of singing in church that made her sound musically mature beyond her age.

We played the song again from the beginning sounding slightly less tentative than the first time. When we were done, Isaiah shook his head.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s too straight. We sound like a marching band. We need to put a little swing into it.”

My dad was a fan of big band music, so I knew what Isaiah meant. I just didn’t know how to get started. He played the song once through to demonstrate what he meant. When he was done he turned to William and said, “Start us off Willie.”

William played a masterful four bar introduction on his bucket drums and we were off. For a first try, it sounded great to us. When we were done, my mom came in from the kitchen and clapped.

“That was great. See you did know a song. And Miss Molly, how is that big strong voice coming from such a cute little girl?”

“Thank you ma’am,” Molly said quietly.

There was suddenly a noise on the porch and the front door swung open.

“Anyone need a guitar player in this group?”

It was my dad, still in his uniform and fresh off the ship two weeks early. I ran to him and jumped in his arms, not deterred by the smell of the sea mixed with perspiration.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Our deployment ended early and I wanted to surprise you.”

“Mom, did you know?”

“For a couple of days now,” she said as my dad swallowed her in a bear hug.

“I had to warn your mom so she would have time to get rid of her boyfriend before I got home.”

My mom playfully hit Dad with a towel.

“So, about that guitar player? I think your group needs one, but first I want to meet everyone.”

I introduced everyone to my dad and he retrieved his guitar from the closet. It was an early model Gibson solid body electric. He had a small amplifier that went with it. Before long, he was tuned and ready to go and the magic began.

My dad was a gifted natural musician and teacher. Using our only song, he taught us different ways to make it sound better. Our newly formed musical combo let Isaiah play the melody the first time through and then let Molly sing it once. Dad then let us take turns making up our own melodies over the chord changes. It sounded much better. We then switched to the blues. Dad taught me the chords in a blues progression in E-flat which was the equivalent of the key of C Major for Isaiah’s alto saxophone. We took turns improvising runs over the blues chords. When it was Molly’s turn, she made up words about our group with references to our school, but not to our differences, which had been set aside that magical night.

At 6:30, my mom announced it was time for dinner. We sat around the table and the only sound above the chewing and swallowing was laughter and talk of the next jam session, which would tragically not take place. At about 7PM, the sound of a vehicle pulling up in front of the house stole my dad’s attention.

“That’s probably Pastor Robinson here to pick us up,” William said.

“Oh no. Dinner’s running late because of all of that great music,” Mom said. “Italians tend to lose track of time when we’re eating.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Dad said as he rose from the table.

After a brief conversation, both men came through the front door.

“Are you sure about this Mr. Rozzani? I can wait for the children outside in the van.”

“I won’t let you do that when we have all of this extra food that will go to waste and please call me Francis. Mr. Rozzani is my father.”

Pastor Robinson chuckled at this.

“Well, Francis, may I use your phone to call the children’s parents to tell them we will be delayed.”

“Sure.”

My dad showed him where the phone was in the living room. We could only hear the pastor’s side of three short conversations, but we could imagine the similar questions after he told the parents that he was invited to stay for dinner. When the pastor joined us, my dad set the tone for the rest of the meal.

“Pastor Robinson, we have already blessed this wonderful meal, but would you honor us by saying a special blessing for this gathering?”

The pastor was only too happy to oblige.

“Dearest Lord,” he began. “Please look down upon this special gathering and help us to understand that it must be the first of many of its kind. Let the blending of these peoples serve as a model for us all and as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us of his dream, let us be the waking realization of that dream. In Your Name. Amen.”

The three members of my family, being good Roman Catholics, made the sign of the cross at the conclusion of the blessing eliciting giggles from the Booth Three and a stern look from the pastor.

It was an enjoyable meal that night and a memorable night in terms of seeing my parents in a new light. They were truly caring, open-minded people. My Dad later told me that in the high-stress military environment, the only color that mattered was the color of your uniform. Everyone had families and loved ones they left behind regardless of what they looked like and where they came from.

When the meal was over, we begged Pastor Robinson to let us play one song for him. He agreed and we played a rousing version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ with some surprise scat singing from Molly that brought a heartfelt smile to the pastor’s face. When we were done, William said, “Maybe we can play at church sometime.” We all joined in with “can we?” directed at my parents and the pastor. My dad and Pastor Robinson shared a look and the pastor said, “Now that would be something.” Unfortunately, it would never happen.

It was time for everyone to leave our home. It had been a great night and would have continued to be so had the church’s van not been vandalized sometime during the evening.  The van’s letters had read West Indian Trail Baptist Church. On the driver’s side, the side away from our house, someone had crossed out the word ‘Baptist’ with red spray pain and had written the  word ‘nigger’ above it. The reverend told the children to get in the van, thanked my parents with a deflated look, and drove away. A perfect night had been soured.

The vandalism of the church van was representative of the thinking during that time period. Peaceful events like the march on Washington, sit-ins at white only lunch counters and even dinner and music at my house were responded to with escalating violence accompanied by chronic ignorance.

On a warm early fall night, about a week after our dinner guests had left, the three of us were awakened by the sound of breaking glass coming from our downstairs living room. My dad told us to stay upstairs, grabbed his pistol, and went to see what happened. I noticed an orange-yellow flickering glow coming through our guest room window at the front of the house. As my mom and I looked out, I could see tense anger lines etched on her face reflected in the window along with the glow of the burning cross. I had no idea what the cross meant at the time, but would soon find out the hatred, intolerance, ignorance, and blasphemy it symbolized. My dad was out on the lawn dowsing the flames with our garden hose. They were quickly extinguished and he came back in. Mom was cleaning up the remnants of the broken window.  Dad paused to pick up a large piece of paper that had been wrapped around the brick that had broken the window. He showed it to us. It said ‘Get out Rozanee, you nigger lover’. My dad broke into a bitter smirk.

“What is it Francis?” Mom asked.

“Ignorance and hate. So ignorant, they spelled our last name wrong.”

My dad called the sheriff. The officer took nearly an hour to show up at our house despite that the station was only a mile away. He said things like, “probably teenagers” and “What did you expect?” My dad pulled my mom aside after he left and said that it probably took him so long to respond because he had to change out of his hood and robe and into his uniform. I understood the meaning of this later and agreed with Dad.

This event at our home was only the beginning. The next weekend, a series of explosions was set off at the West Indian Trail Baptist Church. It took place during Sunday services when the church was full. News of what had happened was slow getting to our side of town, so I raced to school on Monday only to find out that none of the Booth Three were there. I approached Mrs. White before class and through tear-filled eyes; she told me that William and Molly had been killed as they sang with the choir. Isaiah had been badly burned, but would hopefully recover.

I left the classroom sobbing and ran home to my parents who had also discovered what happened and were there to comfort me. I later found out that Isaiah’s mom and older sister had also been killed by the explosions. Pastor Robinson had died from smoke inhalation as he repeatedly entered the church trying to save survivors. I felt incredible guilt wash over me. Had my loneliness at lunchtime led to this violence and death? My father, at hearing me express this, enveloped me in a powerful embrace.

“Dommie, you are a compassionate, smart, loving boy. Don’t let this change you and above all don’t blame yourself for the ignorance of others.”

It took me a couple of days to be able to go back to school. When I finally did, Mrs. White was very helpful and kind with helping me catch up. On Friday of that week, not quite a week after the bombing, my dad picked me up in our mint green Chevy Impala. This had me confused as we only used this car for trips.

“Hey Dommie, I thought you might want to go visit a sick friend today. I talked to Isaiah’s dad and he said that Isaiah is well enough for visitors today.”

I hopped in the car both anxious to see him and nervous about what I could say to make it better.

West Indian Trail Hospital was a rundown, neglected institution, but was also an enigma. Its doctors had left the South after being awarded scholarships at some of the top medical schools in the North. Although Affirmative Action had not been enacted yet, some of the more liberal institutions recognized intelligent black students as a type of academic and social status symbol. Many of those students returned to the South with visions of helping their communities and hospitals like West Indian Trail benefited from this.

There was no shortage of stares when we entered the hospital lobby. That was until a handsome, middle-aged woman dressed in black came to greet us.

“You must be Mr. Rozzani,” she said in a sad but dignified voice as she extended a hand to my dad.

“Mrs. Robinson. Let me say that I only spent a brief amount of time with your husband but I feel a profound loss at his passing. I can’t imagine what you are going through,” my dad said as he took her hand.

“The words ‘We shall overcome’ resonate with me,” she said. “Many others senselessly lost family members to this evil act. My husband died doing what he was meant to do, saving his flock. I will survive by helping others through this tragedy. And, you must be Dommie,” she said turning to me and placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. “My husband told me of your kindness and hospitality.”

“Thank you ma’am,” I said.

“Isaiah is doing well. He is a fighter like his daddy. They have incredible strength in the face of tragic loss and are lifting each other up.  He is looking forward to seeing you. I’ll just warn you that he was burned badly and is bandaged quite a bit. He can do little more than whisper.”

With that, she led us to the elevator and we ascended to the hospital’s third floor where the two bed burn unit was currently treating ten patients from the church explosion. We walked down a row of closely spaced hospital beds until we came to one that had a strip of masking tape on it with MERCER, I. scrawled on it. A tired looking man with familiar, yet older, features sat by the bed holding the patient’s heavily bandaged right hand. As the man looked up at us, I couldn’t help but see many conflicting feelings behind his sad eyes. Blame, empathy, loss, envy. All of these seemed justified given the situation. He rose and shook my father’s hand.

“Isaiah Mercer,” he said. His name was the same as his son’s.

“Francis Rozzani.”

That was the extent of the words uttered between the two men, but their eyes said a thousand words.

I slowly walked over to Isaiah. The top of his head and his right eye were covered. His mouth, however, remained uncovered and noticeably undamaged.

“Hey Isaiah, I’m so sorry.”

Tears began to flow from my eyes.

“Nothing to be sorry about. It’s a mean world and the nice people get hurt,” he said in a breathy voice.

“But if I hadn’t sat down at lunch with you…” I started and he cut me off with a sharp one-eyed look.

“You didn’t set the bombs off. That would’ve happened anyway. You think they care about you? This is about hate for who we are.”

I couldn’t argue his point. It was similar to what my dad had said. Instead of insisting, I took Isaiah’s other hand and for whatever reason opened my mouth and started singing quietly.

“Oh when the saints, go marchin’ in…” As I did this, Isaiah joined me in a slightly stronger voice, then our father, and then other patients, visitors, doctors, and nurses in the ward. After about four times through, the singing stopped and Isaiah said he was tired. I told him I would see him again soon and we would get together and learn some new songs. Our fathers exchanged a sad look when I said this.  I found out in the elevator from my dad that the fire had taken part of two fingers on Isaiah’s right hand and part of three on his left. His saxophone playing was essentially over. Isaiah’s dad also mentioned they were moving to Atlanta to be with extended family and to get away from memories.

On the way home my dad was very quiet. Then he finally spoke.

“Hey Dommie, speaking of getting away from memories, what do you think of moving back up to Syracuse?”

“Did the navy transfer you again?”

“Not exactly. I’m thinking of leaving the navy. I have two cousins that are police officers in Syracuse and they think I might be able to join the force.”

We had relatives in Upstate New York and somehow the idea of getting away from this socially intolerant area seemed like a good thing to me.

Time passed quickly and in 2013, I’m on the back-end of a long career in consulting. I have a great wife, kids, and grandkids. It’s been 50 years since that time in Indian Trail with the Booth Three. I still fly more than I would like at this point in my career. One of those interminable layovers in Atlanta resulted in a coincidence I never could have imagined. Atlanta has multiple terminals connected by a train. When I have a long layover, I sometimes like to find a quiet corner in one of the food court areas to sit and read a book. One thing about the Atlanta airport is that they are conscious about keeping these areas clean. Attendants are always present to clear your table and sweep up any litter immediately. During one such layover, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I at first thought was a ghost. It was a tall black man wearing a uniform vest worn by those that help diners find tables or that need directions. Something about his carriage, even after all of these years, was familiar. I had to walk over and be sure. His vest had a name tag that read I. MERCER. It had to be him.

“Isaiah?”

He looked at me with one clear eye and one that was not quite right, as though it may be a prosthetic.

“Yes sir. May I help you?”

“It’s me, Dominic Rozzani.”

I was sure he had no idea, but I had to try.

“You probably don’t remember me…”

“Dommie? Dommie Rozzani?

I hadn’t been called that name in years. There was no mistaking the smile.

“It’s me,” I said.

“How long has it been? Fifty years?”

“Yes it has,” I said. “I can’t believe I ran into you. I’ve been coming to this airport for years and sitting in this very spot and I’ve never seen you in all this time.”

“All this time? What do you mean, all this time? I’ve only worked here for a week.”

“A week? I just assumed”

“Just assumed? You just assumed the black man’s been working a minimum wage job in the airport for 50 years? That’s just racist.”

My face fell. Suddenly, Isaiah’s fake scowl turned into that famous smile again.

“Man, Dommie. After all these years, you’re still so easy to mess with. Let’s grab a cup of coffee and sit down if you have time.”

I had time.

“That would be great.”

We sat silently for a minute, not sure where to begin.

“So what have you been doing for the last 50 years, Dommie?”

“Oh the usual. We moved to Syracuse and dad became a cop. He made it to deputy chief and retired after 30 years without having a gun pointed at him. Then he dropped dead of a heart attack about a year into retirement. Mom was never the same. Physically she was OK, but she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died about seven years after Dad. I’ve been married for 35 years with three beautiful daughters.”

I thumbed my i-phone and showed him some pictures of the girls.

“Are they musicians like you and your dad?”

“No. Athletes. One of them graduated and is playing pro basketball in Germany.”

“Wow. Their mom must be athletic to explain that talent.”

“Funny, but accurate,” I admitted. “So, what about you? Have you been OK? It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Dommie, I get the feeling you think I just crumbled after Indian Trail and the church bombing. Believe me, I could have. Dad and I went through some rough times. He used to play his sax on street corners for change when we first moved here. One night a guy heard him playing and asked if he wanted to be in a back-up band for a singing group. Dad asked how much it paid and the guy said he thought it was pretty good. The group turned out to be Gladys Knight and the Pips just as they were hitting it big and touring. Dad got a great reputation as a dependable sax man who could read music, improvise, and show up on time. He was pretty sought after for recording and touring.”

“What about you? You were pretty talented, but the accident…”

“Oh, you mean these?”

He flashed his diminished hands.

“They were just a temporary setback. Dad found a saxophone company that made me a sax with special keys. I was never as fast as I could have been, but I was fast enough.”

“Fast enough?”

“Fast enough to get a full scholarship in music education. I was a music professor at Morehouse College and Emory University for over 30 years. I just retired. I was driving my wife nuts so I took this job to get out of the house and people watch two nights a week. The money I make goes to the church and I get to stay married.”

I was blown away. I expected a sad story of a down and out man. Instead, I saw perseverance.

“What about kids?” I asked.

“Four of them and three grandkids. The three oldest, Sophie, for my mom, Marie, for my sister and William for, you know, are out on their own. At 45, my wife of 22 years announced she was pregnant and we had another girl, Molly.”

My eyes started to tear.

“Dommie, that experience in Florida is not forgotten to me. In some ways it is a perverse blessing in that it convinced my dad to get me out of there and to what eventually become a better life. Do you remember when I told you not to blame yourself?”

“I do.”

“Well, I’ve thought of you over the years. You and your family reached out. You taught me that not all white people were evil or out to get me and hold me down. Sure, some were, but finding that common ground, like you did with us, can bridge enormous gaps of ignorance.”

It was time to catch my flight. I couldn’t describe my feelings, but my face must have been transparent. Isaiah gave me a strong hug and said, “Thank you Dommie.”

As I left, I found a business card and wrote my personal cell phone number and email on the back and gave it to him.

“What’s this for?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe we could keep in touch.”

He just smiled and tucked the card in his pocket.

I trudged down to gate A33 at the end of the concourse. As I was boarding the plane, my phone vibrated. I stowed my bag and collapsed into the seat exhausted for many reasons. Once I was strapped in, I pulled my phone from my pocket and saw I had received a text from an Atlanta number. I pulled up the text and it read, “Oh when the saints, go marching in…”

My Short Story Writing Process – From Rachel Poli’s Blog

When it comes to writing, we all have our routines and special ways of doing things. Writing short stories is no different. I go about writing a novel a certain way and when it comes to writing short stories, I have a slightly different approach.

My Short Story Writing Process | Creative Writing | Writing | Short Story Writing | Writing Short Stories | Blogging | RachelPoli.com

The Idea

Ideas are all around us, but when it comes to writing short stories I tend to go along with certain writing prompts – some I get from the Internet and others I come up with on my own. When I write a novel, I typically outline it before I begin writing the first draft. When I write short stories, I just come up with the idea and roll with it. I like to see where the words and characters take me.

Read the rest of this post HERE.

Reflecting on my First Published Work

I’m getting ready to release my second collection of short stories soon. As a way to familiarize myself with Amazon’s publishing process my first work that I ever published way back in 2014 was a short story, Heal Thyself. 

It was a story that came from a local news story that I enhanced to become an interesting paranormal tale of power and how that power is handled.

I thought it would be fun to revisit that first work and share it with you here. It comes from my short story collection Random Tales which is a collection of unrelated stories. My next collection will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in four years.

I hope you enjoy Heal Thyself, posted here as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story.


HEAL THYSELF

Author’s Note

Heal Thyself is the first published work that I have ever completed. Although I did start my first novel, Frankly Speaking, prior to writing this story, I used this piece as a way to overcome getting stuck while writing the novel. I remember traveling to Chicago for work for a period of time when I wrote this story. It was written completely by hand in a notebook while sitting in airports and on airplanes waiting to get somewhere.

The story emerged from reading news headlines. I saw a story about a man riding a motorcycle that had been in a horrific crash and his injuries had paralyzed him from the neck down with multiple internal injuries.

Instead of this inevitable outcome, I started thinking about what alternative endings there might be. I have always been an avid reader of everything written by Stephen King and I began thinking of his book, The Dead Zone which centers on a man that wakes from a coma with psychic abilities that end up torturing him. Thinking of that story gave me a direction for Heal Thyself and I was off and running.

I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed producing my first published work. It has a special place in my heart.

********

Ray woke up feeling like he had been run over by a truck. Wait a minute. He remembered that exact event or something very similar. Actually his last memory was riding his vintage Harley down Route 9A on his way home from work. He had worked late and traffic was light. He was behind one of those Buick land yacht type cars; the kind with a little tuft of white hair that is barely visible above the steering wheel. One of Florida’s elderly who still insisted on driving at 30 miles per hour below the speed limit in the left lane with the left blinker on perpetually. As Ray changed to the right lane to pass the Buick, the elderly driver, not seeing him in her mirror, changed lanes as well. Ray remembered flying through the air and thinking to himself, this is gonna hurt. He remembered fits and spurts of consciousness after that. The ambulance; frantic voices in the ER. People were poking and prodding him, but he felt nothing; No pain or sensation at all.

Now he struggled to move his head, an unknown appliance attached to him held him motionless. He sensed various needles in his arms and sensors taped to his chest.

He felt the powerful need to urinate. Just as he was about to feel for some kind of call button, a somber nurse came into the room. She seemed startled when he met her gaze and asked, “Where am I?”

“You’re in intensive care at Mercy General Hospital,” she said.

“Am I hurt badly?”

“Let me get the doctor to answer that for you.”

Ray thought her response was strange. How bad could it be? He felt no pain. When the doctor came in 30 minutes later, he had the same grim look as the nurse.

“Mr. Manning, I’m Doctor Phelps. It’s good to see that you’ve regained consciousness.”

“How long was I out?”

“About 36 hours. We sedated you due to the severity of your injuries.”

“The casts on my arm and leg, did I break them?”

“You did,” Dr. Phelps hesitated. “There are other, more serious injuries, however…”

He trailed off.

“How serious? How long am I going to be here?”

“Mr. Manning, when you were struck by the vehicle, it caused you to be thrown from your motorcycle several feet in the air. You landed head first on the road. Had you not been wearing a helmet, you would not have survived. The impact was severe enough that you crushed several vertebrae. The bone fragments damaged your spinal cord just above the T1 vertebra at the base of your neck.”

“Does that mean what I think it means? Am I paralyzed?”

“Yes sir, from the spot where the spinal cord was damaged.”

“Are you sure? I can still feel my limbs,” Ray said.

“Many times there are phantom feelings in cases like this. I assure you this is what you are experiencing.”

“Well I must have phantom feelings in my bladder. I really felt the urge to pee which has now disappeared.”

“Interesting. We have inserted a catheter to drain the urine from your bladder, but you should not have feeling their either.”

As if challenging what Dr. Phelps had told him, Ray attempted to move the toes of his unbroken left foot. He could feel the rough sheet against his toenails. His foot felt stiff, but the feelings were real. The doctor had a startled look as he watched the sheet move. He tentatively pulled it back.

“Can you move that foot again? I want to rule out spontaneous muscle spasms as the cause.”

Ray moved his toes and the doctor looked puzzled. He took a ball point pen from his lab coat and moved the tip back and forth across the sole of Ray’s foot. The foot reacted with perfect reflexes.

“Let’s check your hands.”

“They seem to be fine,” Ray said as he scratched his nose with the hand of his unbroken right arm.

“I don’t understand,” Phelps said. “This is impossible. I saw your x-rays.”

With this, the doctor left abruptly leaving behind a cloud of frustration.

“Well, he seemed very unhappy with my improved condition,” Ray said to the perplexed nurse.

She gave him an uncomfortable smile and fled the room.

An x-ray technician wheeled the bulky portable x-ray unit into Ray’s room. She positioned the lighted square over Ray’s neck, chest, arm, and leg, pausing to take a shot of each area. Ray could feel the weight of the lead apron over his lower torso and groin area. If he was, indeed, not paralyzed, he was glad for the protection of that area.

As time went by after the x-ray session, Ray grew restless. He felt fine. Finally, Dr. Phelps returned with an older doctor who appeared to be from India.

“Mr. Manning, this is Doctor Suraj. He is the head of our Orthopedics Department. I brought him in to consult on your case.”

“That sounds serious. What’s going on?” Ray asked.

“It is serious, Mr. Manning,” Doctor Suraj said. “But in a positive way, from what we can tell.”

Ray was confused and getting frustrated.

Suraj continued, “I have never witnessed anything like this. I have only heard of occurrences like this anecdotally and dismissed them as myth.”

“Excuse me,” Ray said. “Can you get to the point? What are you talking about?”

“Mr. Manning, as Doctor Phelps told you, you experienced severe injuries as a result of your crash. You crushed multiple vertebrae, broke several bones, damaged several internal organs, and, most severely, damaged your spinal cord. It is a miracle that you survived. The overwhelming miracle, however, is that you seem to have healed.”

“You mean no paralysis?”

Suraj chuckled.

“No Mr. Manning. I mean completely healed. Your spinal cord is intact, your vertebrae are restored. Even your arm and leg are healed. In fact, there is no evidence they were ever broken.”

“How could that be true? It’s only been a couple of days since the crash.”

“I know Mr. Manning. It is a case of spontaneous healing.”

“So I’m completely healed?”

“Mr. Manning, did you break your left wrist as a child?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“We could tell from your original x-ray. The x-ray we just took shows no trace of this injury.”

“How could that happen? Is it a mistake? Did you misdiagnose me the first time?”

“I checked and double checked. Skeletons are like fingerprints. I am positive the two x-rays are of the same person and the first one showed extensive damage.”

“Then what caused this? Is it permanent?”

Dr. Suraj hesitated.

“I just don’t know. There is no incident to compare it with. I would like to call in some colleagues on this.”

After being poked and prodded some more by just about every doctor at Mercy General, Ray was cleared for physical therapy. His first session, also his last, left the therapy staff baffled. Not only could he walk normally, he was able to lift more weight with his arms and legs then a man his age should have been able to despite the lack of a workout regimen prior to the accident. His muscle tone and reaction time were the equivalent of a 20 year old. Ray noticed that the knee and back pain that had plagued him for the past ten years had vanished.

Ray spent two months being examined by specialists from around the globe. None of them could find anything unique about him other than his incredible healing power. It continued after the accident. When Ray cut his finger badly fixing dinner about a month after the accident, the digit healed before he could find a bandage for it in the bathroom.

Finally, after extracting more tissue and bodily fluid samples than he could count, the doctors were ready to let him go. Just one more visit to Doctor Suraj. Then he could get back to normal. Doctor Suraj had a much different demeanor for this last meeting. He had ordered an elegant lunch to be served to them in the executive dining room at the hospital.

“Well this is quite a goodbye lunch,” Ray said as they were finishing their salads.

“It’s the least I could do to thank you for your cooperation,” Suraj said.

“I did feel like a pin cushion, but if my inconvenience can help someone else, it was worth it.”

“Speaking of helping others, I was hoping you would allow me to publish your story as a medical study”

“That’s fine as long as I remain anonymous. I don’t want to become a guinea pig for further research.”

“That’s one option, Mr. Manning. I have enough corroboration that would result in getting a study published, but think of the big picture. You have gone through a truly life changing experience. With your personal journey and your body’s regenerative abilities, you can bring great benefit to yourself and have a positive impact on many others.”

Ray considered this. Since his childless marriage ended in divorce four years ago, he had taken his considerable computer skills and moved to Florida to make a new start. He made decent money, and had a few friends, but still felt like he lacked purpose. He tried to put some excitement into his life. The Harley was evidence of that and look how that turned out.

Ray felt inspired when he left the lunch with Doctor Suraj. Many ideas for how to share his story were emerging. He could write a book, become a motivational speaker, or many other possibilities. As he was lost in his thoughts, a familiar face appeared in the hospital corridor. It was Valerie Warren, the nurse from the ward where Ray had spent four weeks while they tried to find something wrong with him. Something about her looked different. She looked frail and thin.

“Hey Valerie. Are you working on a different floor?”

“No I’m off. I’m actually a patient on this floor.”

“Oh. I hope everything is OK”

At this comment, tears formed in Valerie’s eyes. For whatever reason, Ray felt the overwhelming need to hug her. When he did, his body took on a strange feeling. His lower abdomen felt like it was on fire and he collapsed.

Once again, Ray woke up in a hospital bed. He felt fine, just a bit tired. His watch read 2:05 PM which meant he had been out for about an hour. He sat up on the bed. Almost immediately, Doctor Suraj came into the room.

“What is it Doc? Is my healing starting to reverse?”

Suraj lowered himself into the chair, smiled and shook his head.

“Quite the contrary, Ray. This is truly unbelievable.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you know that Valerie Warren had terminal ovarian cancer?”

“I didn’t. I thought she looked sick, but I had no idea. How long does she have?”

“She had about three months. Now, she has at least 50 years.”

“OK, now I’m confused. She’s cured?”

“Apparently she is and it appears you cured her.”

“That’s ridiculous. How could I have cured her?”

“She said you passed out right after you hugged her. At the same time, she felt an intense sense of warmth and then nothing, No nausea and no pain. We did an immediate sonogram on you. The technician thought something was wrong with the machine. When she examined your abdomen, a faint pair of ovaries appeared and then vanished. I reviewed the recording and confirmed it. Two ovaries in an advanced cancerous state appeared and then disappeared. Valerie’s sonogram was completely clear of cancer. Ray, this puts our earlier conversation in an entirely new light.

Ray’s life changed from that day forward. Any hope of anonymity was taken out of his control. The media frenzy was in full effect. He was sought and attacked from all sides. Religious groups wanted to claim him as a divine presence. When he resisted, he was condemned by those same groups as a fraud or a demon.

Ray wrote a book with the help of a ghost writer which sold quite well. The numerous unauthorized biographies and tabloid stories diluted Ray’s first-hand account of his life changing journey. He tried public speaking, but instead of drawing people in search of inspiration, it became a parade of broken and battered humans looking for a miracle cure for a variety of maladies. The resulting circus caused Ray to withdraw. He wisely invested the money earned from his book, movie options, and speaking engagements. He was able to build a fortress in the North Carolina Mountains where he could retreat from public attention.

Over the 20 years since his transformation, Ray learned some key things about his healing ability. He could only heal others for whom he felt genuine empathy. Total strangers could not benefit from his power. He had to know the person or have resonance with their history. Each instance of healing caused Ray to temporarily manifest the symptoms and illness of the patient. He could not heal afflictions that existed from birth. Once a person had been healed, Ray needed a period of time to recover. This time varied based on the severity of the illness. He could require anywhere from an hour to a couple of days. Another phenomenon that was a byproduct of Ray’s condition was his apparent lack of aging. Over 20 years, Ray had barely aged visibly. He was now 55 chronologically, but he hadn’t changed much since his accident. Whatever aging he observed seemed to take place after curing a particularly advanced illness. He would suddenly notice a gray hair or fine wrinkle.

Ray did not completely stop using his abilities to alleviate illnesses. He focused his efforts on children. He would identify children with compelling stories with the help of Doctor Suraj. The children with the direst prognoses or those facing the most prolonged and painful treatments were brought back to health by Ray. Parents resisted at first, believing Ray’s abilities were too good to be true. Eventually, with the full weight of despair that only parents of a dying child can experience, they relented and allowed Ray to save their children.

Then, even this strategy hit a significant snag. The child was Jeremy Mason. He had childhood leukemia and his body had rejected two bone marrow transplants. He was brought to Ray’s attention by Dr. Suraj.

“Jeremy is truly a tragic case,” Dr. Suraj told Ray. “His older sister died of the same disease and he has developed the same aggressive type that has been resistant to all treatment.” Ray met Jeremy’s parents and immediately felt strong empathy for their circumstance. Their daughter had died two years earlier at the age of eight while in the midst of treatment that had left her frail and vulnerable to infection. Jeremy had been diagnosed about three months after her death.

“We are at the end of our rope,” Bob Mason, Jeremy’s father, told Ray. “My wife is blaming herself. We just can’t watch two children die like this. Do you really think you can help Jeremy?”

“I can try,” Ray had told them.

This was the truth. Ray had to feel true empathy and, in this case, that was probably not an issue. Ray was now ready to meet Jeremy who was in isolation in the hospital ICU to protect him from infection. He immediately noticed how delicate and small the seven year old was in his bed. He had lost all of his hair and was severely underweight from the aggressive treatment. Ray pulled a chair up next to the bed and as he did Jeremy opened his eyes.

“Jeremy, my name is Ray and I’m going to try to help you feel better.”

Jeremy’s nod was barely perceptible. A weak smile formed on his lips. Ray put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and immediately felt a burning sensation flow through his body. He suddenly felt weak and nauseous. He had felt this sensation many times before, but this time it was stronger. He knew that he would black out soon and then awake fully recovered. Right before blacking out, however, disturbing images passed before his eyes like a music video full of quick cuts. He saw a small dog, a white puppy, happily wagging its tail. Next, he felt the sensation of kicking the dog and felt his own hands around the dog’s neck choking the life out of it. Then darkness. Ray woke two hours later feeling drained but otherwise OK. He sat up on the edge of the hospital bed and slipped on his shoes. As he was in the restroom splashing water on his face, a nurse came in to check on him.

“Mr. Manning, are you alright?”

“I am. I’m actually ready to leave.”

“Before you go, the Masons would like to see you.”

Ray usually tried to avoid this. He didn’t want recognition and hated the attention he received from those that benefitted from his abilities. His abilities were due to a freak occurrence. He didn’t earn them or work toward having them. He was just in the right place at the right time. Somehow being recognized for the outcomes he provided seemed wrong. In this case, however, he remembered the vision of the dog. That was something new and it pushed Ray to meet with the Masons.

When Ray arrived at Jeremy’s room, Mr. and Mrs. Mason were sitting on either side of his bed. Jeremy was sitting up eating a cheeseburger and fries like someone who hadn’t eaten in days. When they saw Ray, Jeremy’s parents immediately brightened. They looked ten years younger than when Ray had first met them nearly three hours before.

“Mr. Manning, what can we do to thank you?” Jeremy’s mother said.

“I take it things look encouraging?” Ray asked.

“The initial blood test after you…saw Jeremy shows a normal white blood cell and platelet count,” Bob Mason said. “The doctors are very encouraged. They just want to keep him for a couple of days to be sure.”

“And Jeremy is hungry,” Mrs. Mason added. “That’s the most encouraging sign of all.”

“That’s great,” Ray said. “Jeremy, how are you feeling?”

Jeremy looked up from his ketchup soaked fries He had new life in his eyes.

“I feel good. I want to go home.”

“You will soon sweetie,” his mother said. “Can you thank Mr. Mason?”

“Thanks,” Jeremy said through a mouthful of cheeseburger.

As Ray was getting ready to leave he decided to ask about what he saw in his vision.

“Mr. Mason, do you have a dog?”

The Masons exchanged a quick look.

“We had a puppy. Jeremy’s grandmother thought a dog might help Jeremy take his mind off his illness,” Bob Mason said.

“You said you had a puppy. What happened to it?”

Another exchange of looks took place between the Masons.

“I went to let the puppy out one morning and found that he had died during the night. Jeremy was too sick to pay much attention to him. I guess we all were so focused on Jeremy, we neglected the little guy.”

As Bob Mason was telling this story, Ray noticed a disturbing smile pass across Jeremy’s face.

Could he have killed the puppy? Is that what I saw in my vision?

Ray eventually put the encounter with the Masons out of his mind until a dark day in September eight years later. While watching the morning news, a disturbing story from a small town in New Mexico caught his attention. It was yet another school shooting. Ray watched the story, like many others, waiting for the body count and the gory details. Seventeen students and five teachers, along with the principal, had been gunned down at a high school. The gunman, in typical cowardly fashion, had put a bullet in his own head before the authorities could get to him. When the fifteen year old gunman’s picture and name were put on the screen, Ray’s heart sank. It was Jeremy Mason. He was older now, but that same devilish smile that Ray saw as Bob Mason talked about the death of the puppy was on Jeremy’s face in the photo.

Ray was in agony. What had he done? Instead of saving one life, he had allowed the premature end of 24 other lives. A long period of depression followed. Ray reached out to Doctor Suraj, now retired. He was very matter-of-fact about the situation.

“Ray, as a doctor, I have learned not to judge the patient. I never agonized over the moral character of those that I saved. My job was to fight their ailment and move on to the next patient.”

“But I had a premonition into this boy’s character and ignored it.”

“Ray, you cannot blame yourself over this. If the boy had these tendencies at an early age, any people, including his parents and teachers, also missed it.”

Ray felt only marginally better. One thing was certain. He would not be saving any more lives until he sorted this out.

As the next ten years passed, Ray sank deeper into depression. He became an alcoholic and began a three pack a day smoking habit. In spite of his behavior, his body recovered. He would drink and smoke all day and wake up the next day hangover-free ready to do it all again.

He came to hate his very existence. At a chronological age of 70, he was still in the physical shape and had the appearance of someone just over 35. He began to attempt suicide on a regular basis. Cutting his wrists resulted in a mess, but the wounds healed before he could bleed to death. Hanging was no good He just hung from the rope fully conscious. He tried shooting himself in the head. It hurt like hell, but all of the damage repaired itself and he woke up on the floor with another mess to clean.

He became more isolated and reclusive. At the age of 95, virtually everyone Ray knew had died of old age. Doctor Suraj was long dead. Even those he had saved had passed into their 60s and 70s and were beginning to die off. With all of his alcohol abuse and suicide attempts, Ray had aged only slightly.

On his 96th birthday, sixty one years after his accident, Ray was ready for one last grand attempt to take his life. He had tried individual suicide methods, but had a theory that combining multiple methods might be too much for his body to recover from. He had planned it out carefully ordering the highest strength sleeping pills available through several online pharmacies. He had filled several containers with gasoline. On the night of his 96th birthday, he would go out in style.

Ray soaked the entire first and second floors of his house with gasoline. He saved the last gallon for his bed. He trailed gas up the stairway to his room and then soaked his bed. Ray purchased a remote control electrical outlet and plugged it in downstairs. He stripped the wires of an extension cord and plugged it into the outlet. All he needed was a spark to start the gasoline burning.

Ray settled on his bed. He smashed nearly 80 sleeping pills into a powder and funneled the powder into a bottle of scotch. His plan was to drink the mixture and, just as he was on the edge of consciousness, trigger the fire downstairs. The amount of drugs in the liquor was enough to kill ten men. While Ray’s healing abilities would be fighting off the drugs, the fire would burn him to a crisp. His theory was that his body could not possibly recover from the dual assault.

Ray drank the liquor/sleeping pill mixture and began to feel the wave of artificial drowsiness wash over him. Just before closing his eyes for what he hoped was the last time, he hit the remote’s on switch. A he drifted off, the last sound he heard was the high-pitched squeal of the smoke alarm.

Ray saw a blindingly bright light. Was this it? Had he succeeded? He had read many accounts of near death experiences where patients reported seeing a bright light. He saw faces hover around him. Were these other souls that had crossed into the afterlife? A wave of euphoria washed over Ray. Had he actually accomplished what he set out to do so many times without success?

Then he heard voices murmuring. Then a single authoritative voice.

“Welcome back Mr. Manning. You are in the hospital. You’ve been in a terrible fire. You’ve suffered third-degree burns over 95% of your body. You’ve been fighting off the burns, however, and new skin has formed. It’s quite miraculous. We believe you are going to fully recover with no visible effects from the fire. You are one lucky man.”

One lucky man indeed.

All euphoria faded away and Ray could feel the tears flowing from his eyes.

Short Story/Serial Monday – Big Brother – A Serial

Well, it’s time for another serial. The idea for this tale came from an article in Wired magazine that talked about talented hackers that have been enlisted to work for the government in exchange for avoiding prosecution and prison.

I took the idea a bit further partly based on the current environment of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. It’s going to be a fun story to write as I enjoyed writing this introductory installment.

As always, your comments and critiques are welcome.

Please enjoy Big Brother – Part 1.


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Big Brother

Part 1

Julian Sanders sat at his station hunched over a high-end laptop that was provided to him by the ACA. His current target was an ultra-left-wing celebrity. It was his third one this month. The first two had been successfully taken down. These celebrities made it much too easy. For the most part, all Julian had to do was hack into their phones and home computers and find the damning content that was almost always there.

These technological novices thought that hiding behind an off-the-shelf firewall and a simple internet password was ample protection. It was like slicking through butter for Julian who was a very hot knife. This latest celebrity, a forty-something ultra-liberal television and ‘B’ movie star had stored picture of herself at a nude beach in Greece on her phone. It took Julian less than fifteen minutes to extract the photos. This, along with the video of her giving a lap dance to strangers on a yacht would be about all the ACA would need to ruin her political ambitions.

He could almost visualize the headlines the ACA would provide to right-wing news sources. A Woman’s right to choose – how one aspiring celebrity politician chooses to use her body. Julian felt sorry for this woman, however, and this was a feeling that was creeping into his work more and more lately. In situations like this one, it could be said that someone in the public eye should use more discretion. He also, believed, however, that individuals were under a false sense of having their privacy protected and his agency had no right to compromise that privacy for political purposes.

He had no choice but to do this work, however. It all stemmed back to the presidential campaign that was now six years ago. He was working with a group of fellow hackers to find dirt on the game-show host turned presidential candidate. It was well-known that the man, a good looking unabashed right-wing conservative had skeletons in his closet. After he was adopted by the political machine as their poster boy, however, the skeletons began to dissipate almost as quickly as they could be found.

Julian and his group had been on the verge of releasing a highly compromising video tape of the man cavorting with three hookers in a Beverly Hills hotel room when they were raided by a nondescript group of government commandos from some dark agency in their downtown Los Angeles factory floor-turned loft. The agents were heavily armed and totally silent as they took Julian and five of his comrades into custody.

They were handcuffed and loaded into an unmarked panel van and transported to an unmarked building in Duarte, just outside of Pasadena. Here, they were chained to chairs in a semi-circle waiting for whatever interrogation or torture was in their immediate future. No one had spoken to them about who had apprehended them or what they were being charged with. Theories on who had apprehended them among Julian and his cohort ranged from terrorists to the NSA. Ever since Edward Snowden fell on his sword, what had happened today was something that most hackers feared.

Julian thought his group had taken every precaution. Their location was secret. Their computer network was buried behind multiple firewalls and heavily encrypted to a point that someone would have to know exactly what they were looking for in order to begin uncovering the group. He wondered how they could have been compromised and then noticed the one scenario he hadn’t considered. He had seven people in his group. One member, Stefan Martz, had called Julian sounding like he had pneumonia this morning. Julian told him to stay home and get into a doctor. Had Stefan turned on the group? That was a worry for later. Right now, he feared for his life and that of his team. Their situation was unknown and, when you got down to it, they were just computer nerds that were only savvy when it came to cyber combat. The idea of any kind of physical confrontation was foreign to them.

As he mulled the possibilities over in his mind, two men in suits entered the room and made their way toward the group. The reek of federal agents came off them in waves. Julian told himself he should be relieved, but in these times, he felt very little relief or reliance on his rights.

The two men conferred with each other and then one of them, a forty-something man with impeccable grooming and a strong jaw stepped forward and appeared to assert himself as the leader.

“You people are in deep trouble. It’s the deepest kind o trouble, actually,” he said as his laser beam eyes scanned the group. “You’ve crossed a line. You’ve compromised the safety of a candidate that is protected by the U.S. Secret Service. That is a crime that approaches treason.”

Julian felt two emotions rise in him. First, fear. This man seemed capable of hurting him and the members of his group severely. Something about his aura said that he had done this many times before. The second emotion, which was beginning to dominate, was outrage. What the man was saying was exaggerated and simply not true in certain aspects. It was this emotion that caused him to respond.

“The man is a game show host. We are simply revealing things that he’s done that make him unfit to be president. Certainly, you don’t want this huckster leading our country.”

The response from the agent was swift and severe. He backhanded Julian knocking him and the chair to which he was chained to the floor. He felt a sharp pain in the shoulder upon which he landed. Something had broken and he was powerless to remove his weight from the injured joint.

“Any other questions?” the agent asked.

The room was smothered in silence. One of Julian’s associates, Del Perkins, actually urinated on himself. When the agent noticed, his face struggled into a slight smile knowing that his point had been made.

“Each of you could be facing 25 years to life in prison for your offenses. We’re not talking about country club prisons with tennis courts and spas. We’re talking maximum security federal prisons where you would be integrated with some of the worst prisoners this country has captured. They would just love this bunch. You’d each have your own private bully.”

Julian heard shudders among the group. He supposed that a dark government agency could make him and his colleagues disappear without much fanfare. They had, for the most part, no family ties or friends outside of the group. These things had been prerequisites that Julian had looked for in forming the group.

The agent let what he had said soak in for a bit before he delivered the punchline.

“Of course, there is a way out for some of you. If you have any shred of patriotic fiber left in your pathetic bodies, you can stay out of prison and do a great service for your country.”

As the agent was delivering this message, Julian and his chair were lifted back to a sitting position by the other agent who seemed to barely extend any effort in doing so. His shoulder still ached but felt better without his weight pressing on it.

As he looked around, Julian could see that his colleagues were intrigued by what the man was saying. He was not interested at all and would rather be an example in prison without compromising his principles. That was until the man further clarified the terms.

“This is an all or nothing situation, people. Either all of you agree to serve your country or all of you go to prison. This must be unanimous.”

Julian’s spirit collapsed as he heard these terms. He knew that some of his coworkers would not survive prison. They were the closest thing to family that he had and he felt like he was condemning some of them to death if he clung to his principles.

“I’m in,” Julian said in a near whisper.

The agent walked over to him with a slight look of surprise on his face.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think we quite heard you, Mr. Sanders.”

“I said, I’m in.”

“Well, that’s interesting. The might Julian Sanders, the ringleader of this crew, is the first to crack,” the agent said with a satisfied smile. “Anyone else?”

Julian looked around at his associates trying to convey that they should relent. It worked as, one-by-one, they uttered the same phrase, “I’m in.”

“Excellent,” the agent said. “That was much easier than I expected. Of course, you are just a collection of spineless video game addicts.”

********

Since that time, Julian and his coworkers had been employed by the ACA, a secret government agency under the direct supervision of the now-president/game show host’s chief of staff. Their mission was to seek out any public figures that opposed the president and, basically, find or fabricate evidence to destroy their lives.

As Julian collected the dirt on the actress turned politician, he still clung to the promise he made himself on that day. He and his group would have vengeance on the ACA and the individuals that oversaw the heinous organization. He just needed to bide his time and look for the right opportunity. Though he and his group were monitored closely at work, they had found ways to plot their strategy in secret after hours. The time for vengeance was drawing near but, until then, they had to keep up appearances by continuing to destroy the lives of those in opposition to the current ruling hierarchy.