(Well, it’s bitter cold here in South Texas right this very weekend – and what better time to post half a chapter of the next Luna City Chronicle – A Half Dozen of Luna City, wherein Lew Dubois surveys his newly expanded kingdom and finds it good …)

 

On the River in Spring

 

“Ramona,” said Lew Dubois on the afternoon of a day which had begun cool and foggy, but which had the promise by afternoon of being fair, cool and bright, “Take messages from everyone who calls, save from my wife and the children. I wish to spend the afternoon on the river, examining the work done – and I must be able to consider matters without distraction.”

“Yes, Lew,” his senior assistant and executive secretary replied, veiling her mild annoyance that Lew would be out of pocket during regular business hours yet again. Ramona had come to VPI’s corporate office some fifteen years previously, with the highest possible recommendations from an agency which specialized in providing experienced and bonded C-level staff to select corporate clientele. She had never quite become accustomed to Lew Dubois’ penchant for informality, to the extent of routinely spending one morning a week (when matters allowed) in the Country Kitchen restaurant, bussing tables, or taking orders, out with the golf-course or garden maintenance crews, mowing the grass or digging holes for new plantings … or other, even more lowly work. Her previous executives had been nothing like that; Ramona would never forget the occasion when another director from the Houston main office called for Lew and would not accept her assurances that Mr. Dubois was unavailable, and could she take a message? Eventually, she had to admit that Mr. Dubois helping to run a mechanical snake though a blocked sewage outfall from one of the guest cottages …

“What shall I tell anyone who persists in asking where you are?” Ramona entertained the faint home that Lew would be doing something … something not embarrassing.

“On the river, dear friend Ramona – examining the work done so far on the boathouse and the stables. And then, I think I will go into town with Harry, and observe progress on the hotel renovation.”

“You know, Lew,” Ramona ventured; she had become confident in being equally informal with Lew, “You have people whose job is to make reports to you. You don’t need to waste time seeing for yourself; you’re a manager!”

“Ah, but the time is never wasted, chère Ramona. Besides seeing matters for myself, I find that they are more willing to speak honestly when I am there, with my feet in the mud, and my hands dirty – just so as they are. It is how I have always managed – how I have built two of VPI’s grandest properties – and you will help me to build a third, n’est-ce pas? By managing my office so that I may manage by walking around. Be at ease – I shall return no later than half-past four, and I will keep my telephone turned on.”

“Yes, Lew,” Ramona acquiesced gracefully, as both she and Lew knew that she would. Ramona had come with Lew from the Houston office, where she had worked for him for several uneventful years, to their mutual satisfaction. Ramona, starchy, middle-aged, given to dress for the office in very correct skirt suits and sensible shoes, was nonetheless a secret reader of the most lady-like romance novels, and privately made weak in the knees by a man speaking with a deliciously French accent, besides being a minor star in the VPI firmament. Lew stepped into his private office, made a single terse phone call, and donned his barn coat, slipping his more than usually elaborate tablet phone into the biggest pocket, and departed, whistling.

It was all going very well – even with the delay of a month, caused by discovering the bones of that poor unfortunate. Which was a sad thing – but Lew was a man with many fish to fry and pots to tend, as Grand-Pere Lucien was wont to say, and quite capable of keeping a very good eye on all of them. Now Lew walked quickly down through Mills Farm, noting both routine preparations in hand for spring, and those in hand for the planned expansion – a new roadway and additional gardens, to lavishly adorn the grounds and perpetuate the illusion that such had always been ‘just so’ at Mills Farm – a row of young and soon-to-appear mature  native trees, some artfully-arranged thickets of shrubs and flower-meadows, all to beautify the short road leading towards the new recreational facilities – a road designed with equal art to lend to the illusion that the distance was actually somewhat greater than it was.

Past the Country Store, and the restaurant, past the rebuilt Riverbank Cottage, and along to where there was a new and expanded dock – built as part of the expanded riverine excursion program, to be offered in the coming summer. At the new dock, Harry Vaughn waited patiently in his little aluminum motorboat, the boat rocking gently on the clear green water.

“How’s it going these days?” Harry asked

“Very well, mon vieux,” Lew replied, stepping carefully from dock to boat, settling himself on the center seat. “And if not – it soon will be. I have only to say the word – and sometimes only to appear sorrowful, that I have been let down by those in whom I have placed such trust.”

“No one writes a ticket for a guilt trip quite like you do, you sneaky old bastard,” Harry said, pulling the cord to prime the motor, which caught with a roar and a sudden gust of grey smoke, then idled under Harry’s expert hands to a relatively quiet hum. “All right then – let’s go take a closer look at your new facilities … they looked damn good, when I came down-river.”

“Excellent,” Lew beamed. “Even with the delay in beginning … I have been told that construction of the stables is ahead of schedule, and the boathouse is nearly on time.”

“Well, promising a generous completion bonus for every day ahead of the contracted schedule does have results,” Harry snorted. “Again – you are one sneaky old bastard.”

“A bonus – like a sentence of being shot at dawn the following morning – concentrates the mind of man most wonderfully,” Lew observed, and Harry chuckled.

“They’ve finished the dock, so we can put in, and walk around a bit. You’ve got a lot riding on this, haven’t you?”

“Not as much as I had on the Castle Mountain project,” Lew replied. “At least with this, my old, there is an established resort of much beauty and appeal – it is if I am overseeing the quiet nip and tuck, and the work of a brilliant new stylist for an aging beauty of the silver screen. The aging beauty has appeal; I merely oversee renewing it.”

The little boat chugged around a bend in the river, past a sweep of water-burnished gravel, where a couple of feather-leaved cypress trees dipped knobby knees into the shallows, where tiny fish hatchlings and tadpoles squirmed and darted in the sun-warmed and stone-bottomed pool, in water that reflected the golden of the sandstone where currents never vexed or chilled. Lew could see them plain, from the boat at idle in the deeper water; such a marvelous sight – and how marvelous to share, like the twilight spectacle of fireflies later in the spring, darting among the deep grass and the taller shrubs like animated sparks of lightening.

Now, Harry steered his little cockleshell around the farther bend, to within sight of the muddy slope where the fresh new wood of a dock ran out into the water, and the bones of a new structure sprang from the steep slope above.

“A note,” Lew spoke into his cellphone. “Ensure that the wood of the dock and boathouse are suitably aged, before and after final painting. Consider duck-egg green as the final color for the boat house.” He observed Harry shaking his head in mock-despair. “Details, mon vieux – the devil resides among them. Now, shall we alight and consider this aspect on my new project? We hope to open formally at the time of spring break – to appeal to the younger set, of course.”

“The younger set want to go carouse and screw at the beach,” Harry grunted, cynically. “Can’t blame them much for that – it’s all that I wanted when I was eighteen and dumb and full of …”

“Perhaps,” Lew shook his head. “But I remain convinced there are those of our children who are not so enchanted by such. A romantic age … they yearn for the ideal, for perfect romantic love, and yet the world conspires to make them feel ashamed for admitting such. The 19th century has certain charms, mon vieux. Even the bare suggestion of the old verities – proprieties, politesse, of the old way of conduct between men and woman – these may yet suffice to influence. We … you and I – we have lived long and seen much. This place – this blessed parcel called Luna City – has seen even more. We should remember, my old friend, and bend every effort into recalling those memories and more to the young. They have nothing, aside from silly, trivial, and passing matters – the modern scourge of social media, whatever silly prank they are encouraged to by their equally silly friends, a trivial romantic fling, forgotten by the next morning. We should take the time to show them what endures; otherwise, what are we?”

“A shadow, a rag, fretting himself from day to day…” Harry angled in the boat towards the new-built and solid dock. He tied up the boat with the absentminded skill of a lifetime of expertise, and he and his passenger stepped ashore. Lew looked around with the visionary gaze of one seeing the final product in this scrambled miscellany of half-reassembled structure, of muddy and churned-up earth, and of the construction vehicles parked haphazardly close by.

Winter 2017 Newsletter-1 Winter 2017 Newsletter-2

(The decision has been made to hire another cook for the Cafe, and Sefton Grant knows of a young man in need of a job as cook, one Lucas ‘Luc’ Massie, Who is a good and competent cook, but is also an oddball, tatted and pierced twenty-something … and a drummer in a band called The Ozona Mud Puppies. Luc is also homeless. But he has passed the cooking audition, by supplying at a moment’s notice a tasting menu of hot grilled sandwiches and the tastiest selection of French fries that anyone has ever tasted.)

“Understood,” Richard sighed and accepted his doom. “I approve hiring him – but I’m afraid that we will – er – come to clash in the kitchen now and again. I don’t look forward to it, but there it is.”

“Let me go and talk to him,” Allen Lee offered, and such was his fatherly authority that both Miss Letty and Doc Wyler nodded acquiescence. Richard followed Allen Lee into the kitchen, where Luc glanced up from scraping down the grill station.

“That was a magnificent meal!” Allen Lee exclaimed in hearty delight. “And they tell me that you’re hired on account of it. But seriously, there’s some things you gotta know – and stick to, if you wanna stay in this place long enough for me to come back around and feature y’all on a repeat of my people for a new foodie throw-down.”

“Sure,” Luc was still looking down at the surface of the grill. “So, they like it, uh?”

“They sure did, kid,” Allen Lee reassured him, hearty and enthusiastic, with an ear-to-ear smile. “You got the job – yours, if you want to take it. But understand that Ricardo is the ultimate boss in the kitchen. And you gotta remember that he’s been around the track a good few times, understand that he’s got the final say, cooking-wise. See – he trained at this school in Paris …” As Richard listened, Allen Lee expounded on Richard’s training, career, experience in the field at a fulsome and almost embarrassing length, not omitting the embarrassing bits, although putting the best construction possible on them – a consideration for which Richard was grateful, since it appeared that Luc had never heard of him and his career as a celebrity chef, although he gave every evidence of being impressed by tale that Allen Lee spun. He did wish that Allen Lee had left out the embarrassing bits about the Carême meltdown and aftermath …  Finally, Allen Lee wound up the final threads of his narrative and tucked in the extraneous ends, concluding, “So – ya see, Luc – you’re solid in the kitchen, and you have the basic skills. Ricardo is OK with taking you on. But you gotta be mature about this, realize that he has a world of stuff that he can teach you, things that you don’t know about, until he starts teaching you … and teaching – he’s done that! He’s doing it even now, with teaching kids to cook with his internet series. Learn from him about the fancy French cooking stuff you didn’t know, working for – was it Emerald? And then for Arbys? – You got the skills, kid – but don’t let that go to your head. Richard …” and here Allen Lee paused – perhaps to lend extra drama to his final peroration. “Take the job. Don’t think that you know it all, Luc. You don’t – but this guy can teach you. Mebbe you still won’t know it all – but I guaran-damn-tee – you’ll know a lot more. Be a good sport and learn what he can teach you.”

“Sure,” Luc wiped his hands on the towel at his waist. For about the first time he looked squarely at whom he was speaking to. “Thanks. For the chance, guys. I won’t ever let you down, Chef. Or you either, Allen Lee.”

“I’ll take that as a promise,” Richard accepted with the minimum required grace, as Allan Lee beamed approval. “So will I, kid – and I’ll tell you know, I expect great things from you – like, I come back in a season or two, and see you on my show!”

Both Richard and Luc winced slightly, at the thought of that, but Luc straightened his narrow shoulders and replied. “Sure thing.” He sounded a bit dubious – no, Luc wasn’t made for dealing with the public the easy, comfortable way that Allen Lee did, and which Richard had faked for so long. Now Richard said,

“Come on and tell Miss Letty and Doc Wyler that you’re on … and I’m sure that Jess has some paperwork to finish, now that you’re accepted.”

“Sure, Chef,” Luc followed them out to the front, and when Richard nudged him towards the empty chair at the stammtisch, he sat down in it – with some definite signs of unease. Miss Letty broke the ice, by saying with as much fulsome enthusiasm that a starchy, prim lady of certain years was able to bring to bear, “You will be relieved to hear, Lucas – that we were all very pleased with your audition menu, and that the decision to offer you employment was unanimous. I do believe that the selection of regular diners at the Café were enthusiastically in agreement in this. You will have fans, even before you begin your first workday in the Café.”

“I’m done,” Doc Wyler announced, scraping his chair back. “Places to go, things to do. Welcome to the Café, son – hope that you choose to remain long. Those grilled sandwiches were prime, by the way. Now I won’t have to drive all the way to the city for their like. Give your particulars to Mrs. Vaughn – your current address and all, and she can process the background check…”

“Already done,” Joe Vaughn observed, looking up from his cellphone. “No wants or warrants – only a citation for disorderly conduct at some dive in San Antonio.”

“That was … it was nothing,” Luc shrugged, as if it were nothing. But he added, in flat tones, as if it were expected. “I don’t have an address.”

“You don’t?” Doc Wyler looked as baffled as someone might, who lived on the largest ranch acreage in Karnes County since birth nearly a century ago, in a house that his grandfather had built.

“He don’t,” Sefton spoke, apologetically, his mouth full of pomme frites. “All his stuff is in the back of my van. His roommate in Karnesville kicked him out this morning. We were gonna let him stay at the Age, but that Judikins has a major problem with …”

“The m – the non-veganity?” Richard ventured, and Sefton shook his head.

“No, the drum-practice. It upsets the chickens … and ya know,” Sefton regarded them all in a manner which begged sympathy. “If the chickens and all are upset … My Lady is upset.”

“Can’t have that,” Doc Wyler looked with – what might be interpreted as a pleading look towards the table, and Joe Vaughn murmured, “Your Lady is your Goddess … I know. If Mama ain’t happy, then no one is happy.”

“What about the old apartment upstairs in the Mercantile?” Miss Letty looked to have had the only sensible reaction. “If that would suit, I can make it available. I own the building, you know. No one has lived in the apartment for years. My grandfather, Arthur Wells McAllister had his business office there, and my brother used it for a while, as well.”

“At the Mercantile?” Richard was boggled. “Well, it would be handy to work, I suppose. I never knew there was any such thing in the Mercantile.” This was the narrow red-brick building next to the Café on the opposite side from Stein’s Wild West Roundup, towering two stories and a commanding cornice high over the single story and a half of the Café, with the name “Mercantile Building” outlined in the façade in contrasting and permanent white-glazed brick. The ground floor was an ice-cream parlor, in the early years of Luna City, noted for having been the establishment from which Don Antonio Gonzales emerged on a certain summer day in 1919. Upon encountering his mortal enemy, one Eusebio Garcia Maldonado on the sidewalk before the Café, increasingly heated words and then gunshots were exchanged in the last recorded public duel in Luna City. (The only casualties were the radiator of Don Antonio’s Model-T sedan, a city street-light and a mule hitched to a wagon parked farther down the square, all struck by wild shots from the participants’ weapons.) The Mercantile Building currently housed a small and rather shabby little shop featuring the work of local crafters and artisans. It was open erratic hours, mostly on weekends. Richard had never given it much thought, save when curious weekend excursionists wandered into the Café, asking when the place would be open.

Miss Letty was explaining to Luc, and to a rather relieved Sefton, “… it’s a terribly spartan little place, I’m afraid. Lucas – that means that there are no comforts in it. After the Spartans of ancient Greece, who preferred to live simply. No one has lived in it for years, as I cannot afford to renovate, and probably couldn’t get back sufficient in rent to cover the costs, anyway. But the view of the square from the front windows is quite pleasant, and there is a relatively new window unit … Sarah and some of her friends were holding needle-work classes in the front room, where the light is good. I suppose you would want to see it, first.” She fished in her generous handbag, found a ring of keys and detached on from it. “Come along, young man – and see if it will suit. I’m afraid it will be rather dusty, and of course the furniture is … minimal. But you would have it to yourself, and of course, be convenient to the Café…”

“I don’t mind,” Luc replied. He had not much of an emotion about this, so Richard presumed that he truly didn’t mind. “No roomies or neighbors to get riled up about the drums? Let me see the place.”

“She’s ‘Miss Letty’ to you,” Jess hissed, in an undertone, and then added in a more normal voice. “I’ll finish up the paperwork once you’ve had a chance to look over your new quarters,” She tucked away the folder, and picked up Little Joe, who in the interval of his mother having a bite to eat, had become quite restless over her attention paid to anything but him. “I’ll wait, Miss Letty … Richard, do you want to go with them?” Richard really didn’t want to do this, thinking it was none of his business, but as Miss Letty, Sefton and Luc went towards the door, Jess hissed in the same undertone, “Go with her – those stairs are murder. And he will be your employee, anyway. A good commander always looks after the troops and their living conditions.”

“Right,” Richard obeyed, as Miss Letty with her keys led the three of them out the front door of the Café, and to a narrow and undistinguished door sandwiched between the Mercantile Building, and the storefront on the far side of it. The door to the space in the Mercantile, over that hapless little craft shop? Guess that it must be, Richard thought. Miss Letty fumbled with the key, in the lock of that door, which opened into a small space, into which a staircase mounted up like an arrow upwards into the dimness beyond. There was a clumsy, old-fashioned light switch just inside the doorway. Miss Letty flipped it, and two lights came on – bare bulbs hanging on lengths of flex, one at the bottom and one at the top.

“I think that you will have sufficient space for your motor scooter to park in shelter at the bottom of the stairs,” Miss Letty observed. “Such a darling little machine – they used them in Italy, in the old movies! I have always wanted to ride on one, but never had the opportunity. I am afraid that the stairs are so steep! It was the way of it, in Grandfather Arthur’s day, you know. So many families chose to live over their shops, or at least keep offices there …” She began to climb up the steep, darkened staircase, in painful, one-by-one steps. Mindful of his instructions from Jess, Richard had no compunction about following her next, even in elbowing ahead of Sefton. If the old darling missed a step, and somehow contrived to fall backwards … Miss Letty was the oldest resident of Luna City, the living repository of history and legend. Her life should be preserved at whatever risk.

On the landing at the top of the stairs, Miss Letty took out her keys again, and unlocked the substantial panel door, admitting them all into a generous but empty room, high ceilinged, and well-lit by two tall windows overlooking Town Square. Although the room was paneled with rather fine – if dingy carved paneling, the floor was covered with the utilitarian greenish speckled linoleum favored for public buildings anticipating rather a lot of wear and tear, and the windows were filled with equally utilitarian Venetian blinds expecting the same hard-use, hanging at half-mast. A couple of folding tables and a stack of metal folding chairs leaned against the farther wall. It was altogether a cheerless and desolate prospect as far as a living space went, but Luc regarded it with approval.

“Rehearsal space! What else is there?”

“Not very much, I’m afraid,” Miss Letty replied, “Through here is the bathroom, kitchenette, and bedroom.” She led them to a door in the wall opposite the windows; a short hallway lay beyond with three more doors; the first led to a miniscule bathroom, into which a depressingly modern sink, toilet and shower stall had been wedged, likely with the aid of a crowbar. The door beyond that opened into a slightly larger room, with a single window in it, overlooking the lumpy graveled area which lay behind the Café. It had been fitted with some cheap kitchen cabinets under a Formica countertop, cabinets which had never had any better days of which to boast. A couple of dead flies lay in the sink, the porcelain lightly stained by lime from an intermittently dripping tap. There was a space where a stove had possibly once been, and another filled with a refrigerator, of a mid-century design with rounded corners and a dashing chrome handle shaped like a car door handle of the same vintage.

“The icebox works,” Miss Letty said, opening the refrigerator door to show that yes, there was a light on inside, and an opened box of baking soda. “I can’t recall what happened with the stove, although it may be that there never was one. My brother used this as an office, when he was writing his book about the history of Luna City. He was the last person to use this place, regularly.”

The final door stood half-open, to a room with another window; this one contained a single bedstead with a dusty mattress on it and nothing much else.

“What do you think, Luc?” Sefton sounded hearty, enthusiastic. “A crash pad of your own, and a job right next door, too! Might be your lucky day, after all, buddy!”

“Yeah.” For all that, Luc didn’t sound all that enthused, and Richard didn’t blame him in the least. “I don’t mind about the stove – I got a microwave of my own, so no biggie. So – how much is the rent?”

“I’ll work out something with Jess,” Miss Letty replied, sounding as magisterial as ever. “Something fair to us all, considering that this place is relatively useless to me, and offers no home comforts worth mentioning to you. A mere token of fifteen a week deducted from the salary that the Café will pay, I think – just consider that quarters are part of your salary.”

“Aw, hey – it’s fine, Miss Letty. A place of my own, even if it’s a dump – oh, no, didn’t mean that,” Luc added hastily, after intercepting a warning look from both Sefton and Richard – and mirabile dictu – taking it to heart after a moment of thought, in which Richard thought that he could hear the mental gears creaking and grinding. “I’ll take it. It’s fine. ‘Specially to practice the drums. Call it my address for now, Chef.”

“Good,” Richard said. “You know that I’ll know where to find you, when you oversleep!” while Sefton grinned. “Luc, man – don’t worry about no other stuff in the place, ‘kay? When our old place burned, people were real generous to us. We gotta whole trailer full of stuff that they gave us, to replace the household things that burned, stuff that we really don’t need. We’ll bring up your stuff from the van, and then I’ll make a run out to the Age, and bring you anything else you might need from our stores … hey, no problem, Luc. You know how nice it will be, not to have to drive all the way to Karnesville for a decent burger. But like I said – ixnay on the burger-kay when you talk to My Lady. Got it?”

“Sure.”

Richard was fairly certain that Luc did not quite comprehend – something about the expression in his face. No; the lights were on, but the person at home was hiding in a back room, hoping that the one ringing the doorbell would soon give up and go away. For himself, Richard left Sefton and Luc to make a closer survey of the apartment, and accompanied Miss Letty on that perilous journey down the narrow staircase – trip and fall on that, you’d be well into the grass of Town Square before you stopped bouncing.

“Lucas approves of the old apartment,” Miss Letty announced to Jess upon their return to the Café. Joe had already gone back to work, and Allen Lee was swapping yarns with Harry Vaughn about old times in Banff at the Castle Mountain Hotel, out at the sidewalk table, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine slanting across the Square in bars of blessed golden light. Lamentably, every scrap of Luc’s tasting menu was gone, save a dusting of crumbs and seasonings on the serving platters.  “So that will be his home address for the time being. Poor boy; I’m afraid he has had a very difficult life. There are these odd children, you know; often quite intelligent, but absolutely no grasp of the social graces, and what it takes to get on with their peers.” Miss Letty turned her regard towards Richard. “I’m afraid it will fall to you, Richard – to make allowances for this, as you work together.”

Richard sighed. “My dear Miss Letty, I have worked with such numpties in the kitchen that you would not believe – and both they and I survived. Well, just barely…”

Miss Letty frowned, very slightly. Too late, Richard recalled that Miss Letty had an excellent command of English slang, based on her youthful service in the European theater. “Lucas is not an idiot, Richard – just … odd. But very skilled at what he does. I trust that you will take his personal idiosyncrasies into account. I must say that we – that Stephen and I were pleased beyond belief with his cooking audition. The boy has definite talent. If his peculiarities can be managed skillfully, I dare to venture that he will be a credit and a benefit to the Café.”

“I’m certain that he will, Miss Letty,” Jess came to his rescue, as she settled her son into his carrier. “So – when should we announce regular supper service?”

“I suggest in time for Valentine’s Day,” Richard thumbed through his mental calendar. “We can do a couple of weekends, unannounced, just to work out the kinks…”

He ignored Jess’s snort of smothered laughter, too late remembering that crude slang went both ways.

“Very good,” Miss Letty gathered up her own notes. “Good night, then, Richard.”

“Do you need a lift home, Miss Letty?” Jess ventured. “I wasn’t going that way, but …”

“No – a lady always departs with the gentleman who brought her,” Miss Letty replied with a wintery smile. So that was why Harry Vaughn still waited outside the Café. “It’s a treat on a mild day, to travel in an open car, with the wind in your hair.”

“All right, then,” Richard supposed that his day was now done, some hours after he was accustomed to ending them. But this had been a special day, although he was still unsure about why this should be so. Another chapter in the doings of the Café, and of his involvement in the doings of Luna City, a place which had now set bonds – Richard refused to think of them as tentacles – so tightly now around him, that he feared that he would never be able to shrug them off and leave, even if he really wanted to do so. Kate Heisel, Ozymandius-King-of-Kings, the nurturing of the clients at the Café, for the schoolchildren which he had taken on the mission of teaching about proper food, the friendship of Joe and Jess, of Berto and Araceli and Pat, and all the others, to include the uncouth Grants … and now the care of a fellow with no social skills whatever?

He wandered into the kitchen, where Araceli had already efficiently cleaned up after the unexpected late afternoon spasm of cooking.

“Hey, Chef – I think we’re done for the day. I guess the new guy is hired. Can we all close up and go home?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Richard replied, whereupon Araceli favored him with a brilliant smile.

“He’ll be a good addition,” she assured Richard, with a relatively straight face. “Yeah – he’s weird, but, hey – he knew what he was doing, and wasn’t half as obnoxious as some of the other guys that Miss Letty and Doc hired. Believe me – I’ve seen them all, and outlasted them all – does that make me an expert?”

“It does,” Richard acknowledged with weary acquiescence. “So – tomorrow morning, after the breakfast rush – we all sit down and have a talk about where we are going with this thing. I’ve got approval to take on Beatriz for the front of the house, and another waitress of your recommendation. In a couple of weeks, as soon as we work it all out – we’ll be doing regular dinner service. Neither one of us can work seven days a week, and eighteen hours a day – so, we need to work out what we can do and the proper lines of authority.”

“On it, Chef,” Araceli replied, smartly.

And Richard had no doubt that she had.

What a waste of good managerial authority, in a dinky, small-town café, he thought, as he locked up for the day. In any first-rate place, Araceli would have been commanding a princely salary.

But then – so would he.

He got out his bicycle from where it had been leaning against the wall at the back of the Café, whistled for Ozzie – who appeared from the Stein’s garden, hopping easily up onto the basket on the back of it, nobly taking no notice of the bucket of kitchen scraps dedicated to the Grant’s chickens.

When he came around the end of the block, though – it was to see Luc’s Vespa go by, at a decorous pace, around the margins of Town Square, with Miss Letty, sitting demurely side-saddle on the back, with one arm around Luc’s waist, the other holding onto her hat.

Yes, that was Luna City – a world apart and all of itself. Richard waved to Miss Letty, and pedaled out on the road that led home. Home, in Luna City. It had a nice sound to it.

Seven Buttons and a German Bayonet

(So, this answers something about the cliff-hanging ending of a Fifth of Luna City – but not the big question of who the unnamed Scar-Faced Tramp was, or how he came to be in Luna City six or seven decades ago.)

Richard stared into the box; like the others present, with a mixture of horror and curiosity. No one quite wanted to touch the skull; jawless, with the open eye-holes still partly-clogged with the damp earth from which it had been dug. The bayonet with the German maker’s initials lay to one side, and Joe Vaughn was quietly bagging up the deformed metal bullet in a small zip-lock bag which Jess had produced from the suit-cased sized diaper bag. There were about half a dozen small corroded metal items knocking around in the bottom of the box, objects about the size of a 10p coin. Allen Lee Mayne reached over Richard’s shoulder and picked up one of them.

“A button,” Richard observed, and Allen Lee nodded, and gently buffed away the grime and corrosion with a paper napkin. “Looky here – it’s got some kinda raised design on it. Can you make it out?”

“Looks like military,” Joe ventured. “An eagle and an anchor, under an arch of stars. Navy, mebbe. You got another baggie, Jess?”

“Either our mystery man shopped at the Army Navy store, or he was a soldier,” Richard ventured, and Allen shook his head.

“Man, that’s an old Marine Corps button. Really old. Their buttons have had a globe on them now, along with the eagle and anchor. My old man was Marine in Vietnam, that’s how I know this sh*t.”

“Let me look, cher,” That was Lew Dubois, his expression yet more serious. “Ah, yes – what I thought; It is an old Marine overcoat button. My dear Grand-père Lucien for whom I am named – he served in the Marines. He fought in the great battle in the Belleau Wood, and he had his old overcoat, one with buttons just like this! He used to wear it on cold mornings, when he took me duck-hunting on the bayou. He was very old, and I was just a boy, and his namesake – a special treat for me, to go hunting with my grandfather. That is why I recollect so clearly.”

“I don’t think that this is your grandfather,” Richard belatedly wished that he hadn’t spoken, for Joe, Lew, and Allen Lee all looked at him with severely condemning expressions. “Sorry – a bit of misplaced levity, chaps, for which I apologize. But the fact remains; this is a dead chap, of some vintage. Not, perchance, one of yours? That is – local to Luna City. You wouldn’t have misplaced one of your own, all these years ago?”

Both Araceli and Jess shook their heads, and Jess answered, “I’d have to double-check with Miss Letty, of course, but I am pretty certain that just about all the Luna City volunteers for WWI were for the Army.”

“Looks like whoever he was – he got his Purple Heart the hard way, and no mistake,” Joe looked down at the deformed and scarred skull, with an expression which Richard found hard to decipher. “Not from here, then. Drifted into here … wasn’t there some tale locally about a scar-faced drifter? I’m sure Kate wrote about it, coupla weeks ago. Weird-looking guy, used to haunt the place, back during the Depression?”

“The Scar-Faced Tramp,” Araceli replied, and the light of blooming comprehension shone on every face. “Katie interviewed Abuelita for that story! The Tramp frightened her into running home screaming – she was only five or six at the time,” Araceli added hastily, for no one present could imagine Abuelita Adeliza, the elderly absolute ruler of the sprawling Gonzales-Gonzalez, running screaming in terror from anything less than a fire-breathing tyrannosaurus rex. “Her mother scolded her when she got home. The scar-faced man was only a poor vagrant, living in a camp in the woods, who got by on doing odd jobs for people in town. I’ll call Katie – she’s be thrilled to know about this!”

“Must you?” Joe finished bagging the buttons, all seven of them. “Can you wait a day or so? Look, I don’t want to make a big media thing about this until we have some positive answers.  Can you give me enough time to let me set up an investigation with the county sheriff’s office – and whoever they have available for an emergency dig – before unleashing the media hounds on us?”

“Katie isn’t a media hound!” Araceli was indignant. “She has better sense than that, and she is one of us: OK, second cousin by marriage – but she is one of us!”

“Indeed,” Richard agreed, with a small clearing of his throat. “Miss Heisel has been … well, remarkably restrained and discrete, with regard to my own rather fraught position with the national press. I would be inclined to trust her, as being sensitive to local concerns. She’s a good egg,” Richard finished, with a sense that he was being particularly lame. He strenuously ignored Araceli’s muttered footnote. “Yeah, she’d love to jump your bones, Chef – given any sort of encouragement,” as well as Allen Lee’s distinctly lewd chuckle of agreement.

“All right then,” Joe nodded, as he placed the two plastic bags in the cardboard box with the skull. “Lew … I’m sorry, this will put a crimp in your construction schedule. The work gotta be on hold until forensics can go over the area. Nothing I can do about a delay, but I promise, I’ll do what I can to instill a sense of urgency.”

“It is not a problem, cher,” Lew sounded extraordinarily mellow for a corporate executive whose’ multi-million-dollar project was now on the tipping-point of failure – or at least, an expensive delay – through being delayed by the inconvenient circumstance of a dead body found at the construction site. Even if the dead body was – by Richard’s estimate and his vague recall of Kate talking to him about her months-ago feature story – at least six or seven decades old. Now, Lew added, in philosophical tones, “There is no urgency for this poor fellow. It has been a long time. Still … we should know something, I t’ink. Of who he was, and of his passing. If he was a comrade of my dear Grand-père Lucien … for the honor of that service a hundred years ago – I owe him that generous consideration. My time and interest are at your disposal with regard to this puzzle, Chief Vaughn.”
“Appreciated,” Joe nodded, bundling up the box under one arm, and collecting up the baby carrier with his other. “Hey – ‘Celi, make our order a take-out, can you? Jess is bushed, and I wanna get my family (and perhaps only Richard noted the special emphasis with which Joe said those two words) home and settled. ‘Kay, Babe? Gotta cold case to work,” he added to Jess, who actually did appear pretty pale, frazzled and exhausted.

“My time and interest, too.” That was Allen Lee, most unexpectedly. “My Daddy served at Khe Sanh. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Daddy would want this. Count me in.”

“Right, then,” Joe said. “I’ll put out the word.”

 

(Richard, and four other Lunaites have committed to babysitting Joe and Jess’ baby son for a week. Richard, having worked up from a potted plant to a cat, is now ready for the care of a small human being … or is he?)

He had nearly forgotten about it all – or at least, shoved the trepidations to the farthest and most neglected corner of his mental attic, when the Café’s door opened and shut to a musical jingle, and Jerry appeared, with the baby – a tiny pink-faced morsel dwarfed by a monumental stroller. Richard could verily swear that he had seen smaller motorcycle sidecars. The enormous necessity bag was stowed at the back of the stroller. With some difficulty, Jerry maneuvered it through the dining room and into the kitchen. Richard was there alone; Robbie and the girls having capably dealt with the with the most immediate pressing post-lunch-rush chores.

“Here we are!” Jerry announced. “Little Joe is all ready to spend quality time with Unca Richard.” He almost succeeded in concealing a yawn. “He’s already had his midday bottle – you’ll want to give him another just before five. It’s in the side pocket of his ditty-bag with an ice-pack to keep cold. Just warm it up before you give it to him. Blood warm is about the right temperature. Remember, how I showed you how to hold him for feeding? Yeah, that. Remember to burp him, when he’s done – and check his diaper, too – he’ll probably poop again, just to make room for the fresh intake.”

“What do I do with the little … little tyke until then?” Richard demanded. He had almost made himself forget his promised child-minding obligation.”

“No idea,” Jerry yawned again. “Talk to him. Play simple games, pay attention to him, stimulate his imagination.  That is, when he isn’t sleeping, eating, or pooping. Use your own … sorry … imagination. See you tomorrow, the same time. Chris will take over from you at five-thirty.” Upon delivering this dispiriting intelligence, Jerry took himself out the door – the bell chiming musically. Little Joe and Richard looked at each other.

“Goosh,” commented Little Joe, blowing a spit-bubble. It sounded philosophical; neither hostile or overly-affectionate.

“The same to you, my little man,” Richard replied. Well, that took care of the social niceties. “Look, sport – you’re a little young to become a kitchen apprentice. And I’m told that … well, you aren’t quite old enough to start cultivating a sophisticated palate. How about just keeping me company while I prep for tomorrow?”

“Goob-gurgle,” replied Little Joe with perfect amiability.

“Right then,” Richard said, and fetched one of the three high-chairs from the front of the house, setting it up next to the big all-purpose table which served as prep-space. Summoning up all of his nerve and silently sending up a prayer to the heavens that he not inadvertently damage the little sprout in any way, shape or form – since Joe and Jess between them had the capacity and will to inflict horrific damage on anyone who harmed a single one of the barely-visible hairs on the head of their tiny offspring – he lifted Little Joe from the stroller and settled him into the high chair. Regarding his handiwork, Richard thought the infant was sagging a little too far to one side in the chair – which would accommodate a much larger child. A pair of small cushions wedged in on either side of Little Joe did the trick. The two of them regarded each other solemnly across the worktable, and Richard continued his prepping for the following day’s business.

“Cinnamon rolls,” Richard ventured. “It’s cinnamon rolls for tomorrow.”

“Goo-goosh!” commented Little Joe, and Richard was heartened. Didn’t Jerry advise talking to the little sprout? Stimulate his development, or some such child-rearing mumbo-jumbo? “They’re a mainstay at the Café, don’t you know – well, you should. I think your Mum had one every morning. So – here’s the dough for them. Been rising in the warmer for a couple of hours. Now, this is the mixture that goes onto the dough, once I have patted it out just so. Light on the flour, by the way…” he continued in this vein, as if he were explaining and training a new apprentice, as he worked the dough with the expertise of long practice, and the yeasty odor of newly-risen dough filled the workspace. Little Joe was even drooling a bit. “Pity you’re just not old enough for a taste,” Richard commiserated. “Never mind, young-chappie-my-lad; soon enough, soon enough.”

He had run out of prep-work to demonstrate to Little Joe well before five o’clock; for the last hour and a half of his stint, he pulled in a chair from the dining room, opened his trusty edition of Larousse, and read aloud from it to the child. It was impressive, the drama potential which could be invested in the chapter regarding the preparation of various kinds of court-boullion. Little Joe did begin to fuss a bit, when Richard began on the varieties of crab and their preparation for various tasty dishes; oh, bottle-time. Recalling how the bottle must be served up warm, Richard half-filled one of the smallest saucepans in the place with water and set it on the burner – just as a ripe odor began permeating the air. Richard swiftly ran the source to earth – it was strongest in the vicinity of Little Joe, who was now eyeing Richard with a reproachful expression.

“Sorry, Chum,” Richard gasped, lifting the baby out of the chair – and there was a distinct, squishy feel around the child’s bottom. Richard’s left hand felt something soft, malleable … and the stench intensified. “You might have waited!” Richard exclaimed – oh, god, he would have to deal with the unspeakable now – change a diaper. And a more than usually disgusting one, from the feel and the smell. Holding Little Joe out before him, both hands firmly grasping the little wiggler around the chest, Richard made a run for the commodiously-equipped ladies’ lavatory in the Café – that space four times larger and three times better-lit then the male equivalent. One of the additional benefits of the ladies’ (in addition to a fully-lit makeup mirror and a full-sized chaise-lounge) was a fold-out changing table, installed to address the very problem he faced at this moment.

Holding Little Joe one-handed, he put down the table, laid the child upon the surface, and begin striping off those abominably-saturated lower layers. Off came the lower-reaches of the onsie-stretchy-terry thing which was the infant’s garment – one which fastened up the front and down the legs in a series of snaps … oh, god, they were hideously-soaked, about the lower margins, with a vile-smelling materiel which rather looked like yellow-tinted large curds of cottage cheese leaking out from the diaper. Richard stripped garment and diaper from the small, pink, wiggly infant, swabbed Little Joe’s nether regions with dampened paper towels – oh, god, he had neglected to bring in the diaper bag, that fount of fresh, clean coverings!  And no, he could not leave the little wiggler unattended on the fold-out changing shelf in the Ladies’ – by god, he could not! Little Joe might roll over, roll over and off the shelf, falling onto the floor … and Joe and Jess would kill him for injuring their precious first sprout on the family tree. His reputation in Luna City would be utterly destroyed. Richard took up the naked infant, holding him in one arm, praying desperately to all the powers that might or might not be, that there would be no more demonstrations of Little Joe’s digestive system being in perfect yet smelly working order. He went out from the Ladies, grabbed the Brobagnignian-sized diaper bag with the other, and dragged it back to the Ladies’. Fresh diaper, fresh clean onsie – Richard set about reassembling the baby in his garments, realizing that he would have to take out the soiled diaper and paper towels to the outside dumpster, otherwise the disgusting reek rising from the trash receptacle would permeate the whole place. He prayed that the food safety inspector would not pick this particular moment to pay a visit.

Replacing Little Joe in the safe confines of the stroller, Richard rushed back to take out the Ladies’ room trash, holding his breath as much as possible – but there was still a smell lingering in the kitchen – a throat-catching stink of … burnt milk, and scorching plastic! He caught up a towel, cursing under his breath, and pulled the saucepan off the burner, cursing even more.

The saucepan with Little Joe’s bottle in it had boiled dry, melting the bottom of the bottle, and covering the saucepan with a volcanic mixture of seething milk and bubbling plastic. Richard swore again. This was insupportable – and adding to the fraught atmosphere, Little Joe began whimpering.

“A minute, Small Chum!” Richard exclaimed, knowing to his own ears that he sounded desperate. Was there another bottle secreted in the depths of the bounteously bottomless diaper bag – thank god, there was, only this one was yet half-thawed! Resolving to pay better attention this time, Richard filled another saucepan, settled the second bottle into it – and decided that there was no way to comfort the little wriggler, other than to pick him up from the stroller, and hold him while the new bottle warmed. “There, there, Small Chum – not so bad, is it?” Richard settled into the chair from the dining room, hoping that this would suffice to comfort the baby. Which it did, for a few minutes, anyway. Blast! Little Joe scowled, looking more and more like his father in a very bad mood. “Look, Small Chum – maybe some more about crab a la bretonne? All right, then.” Tucking the infant into the crook of his left arm, Richard opened up Larousse with his right, and began to read, giving proper RADA dramatic intonation to the words. Alas – Larousse was not quite the soothing influence it had been all afternoon. Little Joe’s unhappiness became ever more marked. Richard got up several times to check on progress of the bottle-warming. Turn up the flame higher – and speed the warming process! No; the disgusting remains of the previous attempt still sat in the bottom of the main sink. God, that saucepan might very well be ruined. Richard went from sink, to stove, to chair, pleading under his breath for peace and understanding, and read some more Larousse to Little Joe.

Well, at least that seemed to be working. And in the fresh saucepan, the water burbled gently. Richard plucked forth the bottle, shook it, and turned the business end of it towards the inside of his wrist – that wrist attached to the arm cradling Little Joe, who eyed with bottle with gluttonous interest as it came within his near-sighted baby vision. Victory – the milk within was blood-warm, as he squeezed the bottle and splashed a small spurt against his wrist. Richard settled into the dining room chair, remembering to hold the bottle at the proper angle, while Little Joe sucked with energy. How readily those lips resembled a carps’, closed around the bottle nipple to suction out the nourishment within!

So, maybe this baby-sitting job couldn’t be so hard as all that. Warm, fed, change out where they had crapped … rather like a cat, save that Ozzie was rather more self-cleaning. Richard, sitting in the Café kitchen, with the comfortable, warm, and pliable weight in his arm, experienced a fleeting sense of … what was that – contentment? A kind of fulfillment enveloped him … well, really, wasn’t this a kind of human core experience? Caring for the helpless young of the species, nurturing, caring, training them up in the proper paths …”

And then Chris came in through the back door of the Café.

“Jesus, Rich – what is that godawful smell?”

(To be continued — of course!)

Xavier “X” Gunnison Penn

–   Wiki Entry    –

 

Xavier Gunnison Penn (born 4 June 1949), is a Canadian citizen and self-proclaimed expert treasure-hunter, currently resident in Toronto [citation needed] although he is known to travel frequently throughout Canada, the United States, Mexico, Great Britain and Europe. He is chiefly known for his frequent appearances on Coast to Coast, his appearances in various courts on charges ranging from trespass, fraud and public brawling, his notorious lack of success in actually finding any such missing treasure troves, and his high-profile lawsuits against author Dan Brown for plagiarism, actor Nicholas Cage and producers of the National Treasure movie franchise for plagiarism, financier Collin Wyler for defamation of character, the PBS corporation, and Entertainment Weekly for the same, as well as the managers of INTERPOL’s database of stolen works of art. He is banned for lifetime from the premises of all Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction locations, from the Smithsonian Institution, and from the British Museum. He is the author of a number of self-published books, including an autobiography, Memoirs of a Treasure-Hunting Man, outlining his various and largely unsuccessful searches for – among other items of note – the Oak Island Money Pit, the Amber Room, the Charley Mills hoard, the so-called Yamashita’s gold, the missing Civil War-era Confederate treasury, the crown jewels of Ireland, the treasury of the Templars, a valuable gold shipment on the RMS Republic, King John’s trove lost near Wisbech, England, and the treasure of Lima.

Penn was born in Manchester, England, the youngest son of Mavis (Gunnison) and William Gordon Penn, who emigrated to Canada in 1956 with their family. He attended various local elementary and secondary schools of no particular note in and around Toronto and Mississauga, and graduated from University of Windsor after eight years of various study  programmes with degrees in History, Geology, and International Law. [citation needed]

Penn’s first and abortive search for buried treasure occurred in the late 1960s, when as a teenager, he participated in the effort by Triton Alliance to excavate the Oak Island Money Pit, on a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia. The Money Pit is theorized to contain everything from pirate loot, through treasuries of several different nations and organizations secreted there for any one of a dozen reasons and over any number of decades. To date, in spite of numerous attempts to excavate it, nothing of much significance has ever been found, leading some to suggest that it was nothing more than a naturally-occurring sink-hole, into which soil and organic materiel such as burned logs from forest fires had washed over centuries.

In searching for the Charley Mills treasure hoard, supposedly hidden somewhere on the family farm once owned by Charles Everett Mills, near Karnesville, Texas. Gunnison Penn was befriended by Collin Wyler, then a college student, whose family owned extensive property near the Mills Farm site. As a teenager, Wyler had long been fascinated by the possibility that Mills, reputed to have been a member of at least two late- 19th century organized robbery gangs, had concealed his share of the loot somewhere nearby. No such hoard has ever been found on the property, which is now a hospitality/event venue owned by VPI, Inc., although the search continued intermittently through 2015.

Penn’s most famous search for treasure, and the one which resulted in a bitter feud and dueling lawsuits between him and fellow treasure- hunting enthusiast Collin Wyler involved the fabulous Amber Room. Penn propounded the unlikely theory that many if not all of the panels of sumptuously carved amber which had adorned a royal palace near St. Petersburg until removed by the invading Nazis at the end of WWII had been transported in a U-boat to the United States. The U-boat, he insisted – against every evidence and likelihood of such an occurrence – had been sunk in or near the Houston Ship Channel in the spring of 1945, and had lain at the bottom of the Channel ever since. He claimed to have proof of this, in the form of a sliver of carved amber, which he claimed to have found in a preliminary search of the site of the wrecked U-boat, and proposed to use as collateral in seeking a loan from Collin Wyler to fund further explorations. Upon analysis by a third party, that supposed piece of amber proved to be part of a carved Bakelite radio cabinet from the 1920s. In 1992, Collin Wyler sued, claiming fraud.

Gunnison Penn was declared persona non gratia by the government of Costa Rica, for his activities in searching for the treasure of Lima, which was thought to have been concealed somewhere on Cocos Island in the early 19th century. Gunnison Penn was also deported from the Philippine Islands in 1975, while searching for a hoard of gold supposedly hidden by the Japanese authorities during the WWII Occupation of the islands. During that expedition, he was reportedly kidnapped by Huk guerrillas [citation needed] who demanded a substantial ransom for his return. The ransom was paid, against the wishes of the Marcos government, who subsequently also declared him persona non gratia.

Described by many as peppery-tempered, autocratic, and litigious, Penn is also extremely sensitive of criticism. A PBS documentary of his search across Wilkes County, Georgia, for the long-vanished Confederate States treasury – missing since the last days of the Civil War resulted in a series of lawsuits. Penn took violent exception to the voice-over commentary of the final broadcast version, which pointed out that the failure of his many treasure-hunting excursions usually involved serious disputes with his partners or investors, or with the host-nation government involved. He brought suit against the writer/producer of the documentary, as well as the narrator, and the PBS network itself. When Entertainment Weekly covered the controversy in a feature story, they were included in the suit as well.

Although the courts eventually found against Gunnison Penn, establishment broadcast channels and print publications have tended to avoid coverage of his activities since that time. His treasure-hunting expeditions are documented on his own website, and through frequent YouTube video releases.

Xavier Gunnison Penn is not married, and there are no records of any informal partnerships or children resulting from such.

(A Snippet from the Second Chronicle of Luna City – giving background on a minor yet reoccuring character.)

(This is … well, something of a sad story, which I began to write on December 7th. I drew on some things which my mother had told me, about her family’s saddest Christmas, in 1943, when her brother was posted as missing over Europe. The rest … well, I made it all up.)

Radio Silence

Adeliza Gonzalez-Gonzales – who was never called anything but ‘Adi’ back then – was just thirteen when her older brother Manuel – Manolo to the family, Manny to his Anglo friends – came to Papi and Mama and said to them, “Papi, I want to see more of the world than Karnes County, an’ at the Navy recruiting office, they say that I’ll get a paycheck nice and regular, and I can work on ship engines that are bigger than this house. Besides, everyone says if America gets into a war, then they’ll be drafting men my age, an’ I don’t wanna be a soldier, marching around in the mud and all that. The Navy lives good, and they say that the food is great. Can I have your permission, Papi?”

Mama got all pinch-faced and weepy, because Manolo was her favorite and oldest child. Papi sighed and looked solemn and grave, saying, “Manolo – mi hijo – if this is what you truly want, I will sign the papers.” To Mama, he added, “Do not cry, Estella, can you see your boy as a soldier, following orders?”

“But he still must follow orders – the navy is as military as the army,” Adeliza piped up, and Manolo jeered and replied, “Nothing like the same at all, Adi!”

So, Manolo packed a few things in a cheap cardboard suitcase, and climbed aboard the bus to the city, and in time over the next three years the postman delivered hastily-scrawled letters and postcards – letters with odd postmarks and postcards of splendidly colored landscapes and exotic places. Manolo came home on leave once, in the summer, splendid in his white uniform and round white cap, carrying a heavy duffel-bag over his shoulder with apparent ease, seeming to have expanded from a boy into a man. Manolo was greatly excited – his ship was being transferred from the west coast to the Hawaiian Islands. He brought presents for the family, a breath of fresh air and tales of travels in exotic far lands. He brought his little sister a scarf of silk gauze, printed with a map of the Hawaiian Islands and pineapples and exotic flowers. Adi put it in the chip-carved box where she kept her handkerchiefs and her most precious possessions. From that time on, a tinted picture-portrait of Manolo in his uniform sat in pride of place on the cabinet radio and Mama kept a candle burning before it always, a candle dedicated to Saint Peter, who had the particular care of sailors.

A winter Sunday morning, when the breeze from the north promised chilly nights, and the frost in the shade had not yet melted in the sunshine; Papa came to fetch Mama and Adi and the other children after morning Mass. Adi sensed that there was something wrong, even before Papi spoke. There was a particular grim expression on Papi’s face, a hush among the congregation scattering to their houses after Mass, a silence broken only by the tinny sound of the radio in Papi’s car.

“The Japanese have dropped bombs on the harbor, and our bases in Hawaii,” Papi said. “The war has begun, whether we wish it or no.”

“What of Manolo?” Mama demanded, her hands to her mouth in shock and horror. “Where is he? Is he safe?”

“I have no idea,” Papi replied, his eyes shadowed with fear. Adi said nothing. She was sixteen now, almost grown. She met Papi’s gaze with a silent nod of understanding.

 

Two days later a card came in the mail, from Manolo – on which Mama fell on with tears of joy. “You see!” she exclaimed. “He is safe – this letter is from him! All will be well, you will see!”

“Mama, the letter is postmarked the week before last,” Adi said, to Mama’s unheeding ears. A week later, a parcel bound in brown paper arrived, addressed in Manolo’s handwriting.

“Christmas presents!” Mama exclaimed, “From Manolo, of course. You see, he is safe – it is only rumors that he is missing, that telegram was mistaken.”

That Christmas and many Christmases afterwards were not happy occasions for Adi’s family – they were not happy until Adi married and had children of her own, to bury the memory of that first wartime Christmas.

“Yes, Mama,” Adi agreed with a heavy heart and a show of cheer, for the telegraph office messenger boy had brought that small envelope at mid-December. The telegram from the war office was followed in short order by Father Bertram, then the priest at St. Margaret and St. Anthony, who had seen the messenger boy’s bicycle pass the priest’s residence while Father Bertram was pruning the pyracantha hedge around the tiny garden. Everyone knew that telegrams meant bad news, now that the war had well and truly come to them, but Father Bertram’s intended consolation and comfort were misplaced, for Mama was not distressed in the least.

“In the government telegram, it says only that he is missing,” Mama insisted, over and over again. “Missing – not dead. In my heart, I know that Manolo is safe.” In the end, Father Bertram was the most sorely grieved of them all. He departed shaking his head and saying to Adi,

“Your poor dear mother – I can only think that the enormity of your loss has affected the balance of her mind.” Father Bertram’s Spanish was very bad, afflicted as he was with a very strong accent, reflecting many years as a missionary in the Argentine, so Adi was not entirely certain of what Father Bertram meant. She only smiled uncertainly. No, Mama had merely decided that Manolo was safe, and doing what he needed to be doing for the war effort, and would not hear any word to the contrary. Never mind that Manolo’s ship – the great battleship Arizona, whose engines Manolo had tended lovingly – had blown up with a roar that could have been heard half-way across the Pacific. There were pictures of the battleship, half-capsized in billowing clouds of black smoke in the weekly English newsmagazine. Poof! Like that, a candle blown out in a single breath and a thousand and a half lives snuffed out with it. It made Adi’s heart ache to think of this, and she wept, but not where Mama could see.

 

She did not even cry when Cousin Nando, and Cousin Jesus Gonzales and a half-dozen of the other teenage cousins came to Adi after Mass on Christmas Day, 1941, announcing that they had all sworn a blood-oath to avenge Manolo. Cousin Jesus had already had his orders to report to the Army, but the other boys were intent on volunteering for the Army, the Navy, the Marines even.

“So … we meant to ask you as Manny’ sister – if you would give us all a token,” Jesus Gonzales affirmed solemnly. “We pledge to avenge him by killing a dozen Japs each. Our solemnest promise, Adi!”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Adi snorted. Yes, of course she was angry at the Japanese – for killing her gentle brother Manolo, who only lived to get grease all over his hands and work on his engines until they were tuned and vibrated like the beating of a human heart.  And they had attacked without warning, without a declaration of war, which to Adi’s understanding, was sneaky and unfair. But Jesus Gonzales, who was dark-eyed, lean, and handsome like a movie star, looked at her soulfully and begged again, until she relented.

“Give me a moment.”

She went into her parent’s house – the house in the oldest part of town, into her room, and took out the chip-carved box with her most precious small things in it, considering a sacrifice of the map of the Hawaiian Islands and the pictures of a tower and exotic flowers, and blue waves crashing on a white-sand shore, the scarf which had been a gift from Manolo. No, not that. She took instead another of her handkerchiefs, a pretty white cotton gauze handkerchief, printed with little blue flowers and green leaves, and the sewing shears from Mama’s sewing basket.

Out on the front porch, she met the cousins – dark-eyed romantic Jesus, hot-tempered Nando, and the others. “My token, that which you have asked for,” Adi said, as she crunched the scissor blades through the crisp-starched handkerchief; producing a dozen smaller squares, and struggled for something to say as she put them into the hands of that boy or this, thinking that this was absurdly like something from the old legends, or the movies on a flickering silver screen. She struggled for the right words. “Not in hate … Manolo didn’t hate, for he didn’t want to be remembered that way. But for the right, for justice and freedom, and for our people. For Manolo …” she lost the thread of her thoughts entirely, for Jesus and Nando reverently kissed the scraps of handkerchief as they were handed to them, and so did the other boys.

“Write to me?” Asked Jesus, at the last. “Promise, Adi!”

They all went off, in the following weeks, all with their small cheap suitcases packed, taking the weekly bus that was the only public transport then from Luna City to the wider world, and to the duty and colors which called them. Cousin Nando became a pilot, Jesus a cook with the Army, the others to service mundane or heroic as chance and temperament let them. Adi Gonzales was certain that every one of them took that little square of cotton handkerchief, printed with blue flowers.

Jesus Gonzales certainly did, for it was one of those small things which she found at the end in sorting out his things, after half a century of faithful marriage; a cotton scrap, discolored with age, so fragile that it practically fell apart in her hand as she took it out from his wallet.

But Mama … no, Mama never took it to heart that Manolo was gone from the world of the living. Against all evidence to the contrary – the telegram from the government, that Manolo never came home again, she insisted that he was alive and well, doing his patriotic duty for the war, still working in the engine-room of the battleship Arizona. Mama was first to the telephone – the telephone that was almost the first in Luna City in the household of Gonzales or Gonzalez, certain every time that it was Manolo calling, long-distance. The war dragged on, and even when it ended – and the next began – Mama smilingly assured Adi and the family, their friends that Manolo was fine and happy in his work.  For she had seen him frequently – or his likeness, in pictures of sailors on one ship or another, on shore leave, or in the newsreels show in the theater in Karnesville. Mama did not allow the star on the flag which hung in the front window of their house to change from white to gold, and there was a wrapped gift under the tree for Manolo for many Christmas mornings to come. Now and again, Mama said that she had talked to someone who had seen Manolo. In her later years, Mama even insisted that she had spoken with Manolo, on the telephone. Even in her final illness, she had opened her eyes one afternoon, and said to Adi – perfectly clear –

“There is nothing to worry about, mi hija. Manolo has left insurance, to take care of us all.”

Some years after both Mama and Papi passed away, Adi’s first cousin Roman and his wife celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary with a trip to Hawaii. Roman and Conchita went to the Arizona Memorial, and surreptitiously left a bouquet of fragrant white plumeria flowers floating on the water – water still streaked with oil leaking from Manolo’s ship, iridescent streaks which the locals said were the tears of the ship, crying for her lost crew. Roman and Conchita   also went to the Punchbowl Cemetery – they brought back pictures. Adi is certain that Manolo is buried there, among the unknowns from the Arizona. After all this time, it hardly matters, really. But she likes to think of him, the strong young sailor in his white uniform, with his hands and fingernails from which the oil and grime of working engines would never quite be cleaned. She likes to think of him, walking among the palm trees and the plumeria and frangipani scenting the tropic air, the blue water and white foam, crashing on a sugar-white strand.

Now and again, Adeliza Gonzales-Gonzalez, who has not been called ‘Adi’ in years thinks she has seen Manolo, in a magazine picture accompanying some story to do with the Navy, or a sailor half-glimpsed in a television newscast. She is very careful not to say anything about this, of course.

 

 

For A Fifth of Luna City!

9780989782111-Perfect.1.indd

To be available as an eBook on Kindle and through Draft2Digital on November 15th and in print by the end of the month!

Fall 2017 Newsletter-1 Fall 2017 Newsletter-2

(This to be included in the next Luna City Chronicle – a Fifth of Luna City)

In the kitchen of the double-wide home on Oak Lane, Araceli Gonzalez-Gonzales sang softly along to the radio, tuned to KTKO in Beeville, to Tennessee Flat-top Box, as she stirred the batter for lemon-butter pound-cake cupcakes. “In a little cabaret, in a South Texas border town …” Araceli and the radio both could barely be heard outside of the kitchen. The double-wide was a small one, the dividing walls thin, and her husband Patrick was fast asleep in the darkened master bedroom. Pat worked nights, driving a tanker truck for a company working the shale oil formation in South Texas. This was a Saturday afternoon in early summer; the heat outside at the sizzle-on-the- blacktop worst by late afternoon. Araceli and Pat’s children, Angelika and Mateo came inside after a morning of helping their mother with the outdoor work of mowing the lawn and pulling up weeds in the bed of cosmos flowers and multi-colored salvia plants which lined the yard – a yard defined by a waist-high chain link fence.

That fence was nearly the first improvement that Pat made to their home when Angelika was a baby. There had never been very much traffic on Oak Lane, almost the last residential street before Luna City raveled out into cultivated fields, pastures, and stands of live oaks – but eventually the narrow street wandered out towards the main road. The first thing which could be said about Araceli’s children, was that she was fiercely but unobtrusively protective of them. The toddler-aged Angelika was a fearless wanderer. In the living room adjoining the tiny kitchen, Angelika curled up in a battered old Barcalounger, absorbed in a thick Harry Potter adventure. Eleven years old, going on twelve, with a round, solemn face and long dark hair done up in loops of braid and tied with ribbons, a fastidious and intelligent child. Her seven-year-old brother sat at the kitchen table, building a complicated Lego brick starship.

This room – indeed, the whole doublewide was a shabby place, especially in comparison with other homes in Luna City, and yet it was comfortable and immaculately clean. Nothing in it matched particularly, or would ever be the subject of one of those interior decorating features. But Araceli and Pat’s friends were repeatedly drawn in, made welcome, especially on Sunday afternoons, when Pat served up barbeque from the massive grill and smoker parked out in back. No guests at Pat and Araceli’s Sunday afternoons worry about rings from the bottoms of cold soft drinks or beer bottles leaving marks on the furniture, or guacamole dip spilled onto the sofa slip-cover. Araceli will just sigh and run it through the washing machine.

There was a heavy, old-style television stowed away in a console cabinet as the central feature, under a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, in her starry cloak and wreathed in a golden halo and a wealth of pink roses. A constellation of family pictures crowned the top of the cabinet; baby pictures of Angelika and Mateo, of Araceli and Patrick on their wedding day with their attendants – the girls in aqua blue dresses, the young groomsmen solemn in their formal suits – a hand-tinted studio portrait of Araceli’s grandparents, Abuelo Jesus and Abuelita Adeliza, her younger brother Berto in his high-school graduation cap and gown, Araceli in hers – seemingly solemn and thoughtful. In spite of all encouragement to the contrary, Araceli had already made up her mind as to what she would do after the finished high school.

“Mama, are those for tomorrow?” Mateo asked, as Araceli deftly poured batter into a twenty-four-pan cupcake tin, each hollow lined with pretty yellow cupcake papers.

“They are, hijo – but you may lick out the bowl when I’m done. I need to have one for everyone who is coming tomorrow.”

“Why?” Mateo sneaked a lick at the beaters of the stand mixer.

“Stop that, Matty – the beaters are for your sister, you’re getting the bowl. Because this is the way that are going to announce Miss Jess’s new baby to all our friends tomorrow – whether it is a boy or a girl.”

“With cupcakes?” Mateo frowned in puzzlement. Araceli slid the cupcake pan into the oven and shutting the oven door on a gust of heat.

“I’m going to make a sweet cream cheese filling for the inside of the cupcakes – strawberry for a girl, blueberry for a boy, and then frost the top. People will have to eat the cupcake to find the answer.” Araceli explained. Mateo’s expression lightened.

“So you must know if it is a girl or a boy. Are you going to tell us?”
“I do know,” Araceli pursed her lips. “But my lips are sealed. It’s a secret until tomorrow. But – I will cut a little bit out of the middle of the cupcakes to leave room for the filling – and we will have those for our dessert tonight. OK?”

“OK,” Mateo agreed philosophically – he has the bowl with the last bits of batter to console him, after all. When the bowl was nearly cleaned of all smears of buttery, sweet, lemony cake batter, Mateo put it in the sink and returned to his Lego starship. At that moment, his father emerged, yawning, from the bedroom.

“You didn’t leave any for me, hijito!” Patrick complained; bleary-eyed, his hair ruffled from heavy sleep, after a long night spent jockeying a heavy tanker truck along narrow country roads in the dark. Araceli spared a quick affectionate kiss for her husband; stocky and thick-shouldered. Pat had the same rounded features as his daughter, but his hands were those of a mechanic – ridges and fingernails never quite scoured clean of oil and grime that comes from working with engines.  Pat and Araceli have known each other all their lives, and married for the last thirteen years – married the week after they graduated together from Luna City High School.

“I left the beaters for you, Papi!” Mateo claimed, and Araceli chided him.

“They were for your sister.” From across the room, Angelika looked up from her book.

“I don’t want them,” she said, all seriousness. “I read that you shouldn’t eat batter and cookie dough that has raw eggs in it.”

“Oh, pooh – those are eggs from your grandmother’s hens,” Araceli replied. “There’s nothing wrong with them. It’s eggs from the market that you need to worry about.”

In the meantime, Patrick poured himself a large mug of coffee. Still in bathrobe, tee-shirt and pajama trousers, he settled at the table next to Mateo. Araceli smiled at them both; this is what she has wanted, against all expectations, since she was fifteen.

Araceli is that most curious of modern women – a woman who never really wanted anything more than to be a wife, mother, and homemaker. In a way, she is a rebel and nonconformist; all through her schooldays, everyone assumed that she would go to college, even if she had to go live with the uncle and aunt in Elmendorf, and take on a profession. Her mother urged her to be a science teacher, the guidance counselor at the high school looked at her grades in science and mathematics and recommended all kinds of professions – everything from software developer to chemist. Araceli smiled and nodded, and kept her own council, as she had since she was Angelika’s age, the oldest of a family of four, and the maternity nurse put her baby brother Berto in her arms, and her mother said, “Do you want to take care of your little brother, ‘Celi?”

“Oh, may I, Mama?” Araceli breathed. That was the summer that she was eleven years old, and from that day on, Berto was her living baby doll – cuddled, fed, tended, and amused by a doting older sister – to the point where their mother hardly had to lift a finger until school began again. It was a family legend, that when Berto first went to kindergarten, the formidable Miss Letty McAllister had asked him who his parents were, and Berto had replied, “Mama, Papi, an’ ‘Celi.”

After that summer, Araceli was never in any doubt that babies and children were what she wanted; a family with a proper house, and husband and all – just like Little House on the Prairie, the reruns of which television show was her very favorite. Only with electricity and cars. It was perfectly fine that most of her friends wanted something else; they wanted more – to work at something glamorous in the city and live in a fashionably-decorated apartment and eat in restaurants every night of the week. That was what girls like her best friend, Jess Abernathy wanted, even if Jess really wanted to be a world-championship barrel-racer in the rodeo. Araceli knew instinctively that her modest ambition was something considered terribly retrograde, old-fashioned … even something to be scorned.

She bided her time, and waited – waited until she and Patrick were eighteen, done with school. Abuelita Adeliza approved, even if Araceli’s parents were appalled. Abuelita was of the old generation, and this was expected for a girl; the white dress and veil, the wedding Mass said by Father Bernardo, setting up modest housekeeping with a bunch of miss-matched and hand-me-down cheap furniture. Another stepping-stone in the progress of a life. She did have to go on working at the Café and Coffee; secretly, Araceli quite enjoyed the Café. A job was just a job, something one did for a few hours a day; real life was making a home, a home for herself and Pat, and then the children. If the job facilitated that – all to the good. That’s what a job was for, something that underpinned and supported that real life, the life that gave quiet contentment and fulfillment to everyone – even those friends who only knew it in the retelling.

“What’s for supper tonight, ‘Celi?” Pat had nearly finished his coffee. So scrambled, his working days; supper was his breakfast, his supper was a brief meal eaten in the early morning before he went to bed. Araceli checked the progress of the cupcakes through the glass window set in the oven door.

“Lasagna,” she answered. “I’ll start it baking as soon as the cupcakes are out of the oven. Last of the batch that I made and froze. If you aren’t in the lasagna mood – I made a bunch of meatballs from Anna-Maria’s recipe. They’re in the big freezer.”

“Lasagna’s fine.” Patrick grinned at her and Araceli grinned back. Utterly content – tomorrow they would host a good array of their friends. A whole brisket side was already soaking in Pat’s secret special marinade. Sometime tonight or in the early morning, he would start it slow-smoking in the massive BBQ. That purchase had been his first and only indulgence when things started picking up in the shale oil fields, and he landed the job which so far – had been the best-paid of his life.  Likely that he would never have a better-paying one, but Araceli did not mind that very much. She had never intended or wanted to marry a rich man; a hard-working, sober and honest one was what she wanted. All that she had ever wanted; of those building-blocks was a happy life built, in Luna City.