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.

(Due out by next month, hopefully!)

August 24 -Poster

(OK, so I hope to have the next Luna City book available by November, 2017. Read and enjoy!)

Kitchen Work

“The work day in a restaurant kitchen starts early,” Richard had told his young prospective apprentices, halfway wishing that they would reconsider the whole thing. “Very early – as in before the crack of dawn; 5 AM to be precise.”

“Well, that’s all right,” Bree Grant chirped. “Gee-Nan and Grampy’s roosters tune up just outside my bedroom window, hours before sunrise, and Grampy gets up early to feed the goats.”

“And on those days when we serve supper at the Café – which will be those Friday and Saturdays around the holidays and special events,” Richard continued, hoping to dampen some of that juvenile optimism, as it made him feel very old, “Your work day will end at ten o’clock. Midnight if you are not on top of the game. Otherwise at around 3 PM, when everything for the following day is sorted.”

“That’s all right,” Bree was unquenched. “Anything to get out of eating Gee-Nans tofu and lentil barf.”

“Wait until you have spent a week scrubbing dishes, pots, and pans,” Richard warned. “That tofu-barf might start to look awfully good to you, then.”

“Never,” Bree looked obstinate, and Richard scowled. “Let me remind you; I am to be addressed as Chef. I will address you as Grant and I will not be contradicted. About the only thing I want to hear from you is a request for clarification, and it had better be a necessary request, let me tell you – is ‘Yes, Chef – immediately, Chef.’ Are we clear?”

“Yes, Chef,” Bree nodded. Richard obscurely pleased that she did not quit on the spot, said, “Good. See you tomorrow, Grant. Bright, early, and 4:30 sharp.”

“Yes, Chef.” Bree glowed happily, and Richard sighed for the resilience of extreme youth.

 

Bree was, in fact, waiting for him the next morning, when he opened the door to the Airstream. She was sitting on the old picnic table at the next camping-spot over, with her own bicycle leaning against it.

“Good morning, Chef!” she exclaimed, as Richard rolled out his bike, and Ozzie hopped into his basket on the back. “Is this early enough for you, Chef?”

“Grant, don’t talk to me and expect a civil answer until I’ve had twelve more inches of hot British caffeine in me.”

“Yes, Chef,” she answered, still irritatingly sunny.

 

To his mild astonishment, Robbie Walcott was sitting on the back stoop of the Café, waiting for them. An elderly Volvo sedan was parked in the space by the trash bins – obviously, he had driven himself. The Volvo was dented here and there, and splotched with rust and off-color primer paint – obviously the main transportation for the younger Walcotts.

Like Bree, Robbie was annoyingly cheerful. “Hi, Chef, Hi Bree. I didn’t want to be late on my first day. Dad always says if you are on time, you are early…”

“He would,” Richard unlocked the back door, and flicked on the lights in the kitchen; spick, span, and scrubbed tidy. “Well then, Grant, Walcott … by the time this summer is over – and if you last, you will be qualified to start in any restaurant in the land as a line cook. An extremely inexperienced one – but a line cook, none the less. I expect you to know where everything – every plate and pan, every ingredient, every tool – is in this kitchen by the end of today. Perishable storage is to the right – walk in cooler, and freezer. To the left, non-perishable. Through here – the main kitchen. Every such item here has a designated place, and by the end of the day, be in it; clean, polished and ready for continuing use. Am I clear so far?”

“Yes, Chef!” they chorused obediently. Bree bounced up and down on her trainer-shod feet. “I have a question, Chef – what are we going to learn, first?”

“Ah,” Richard smiled, dangerously. “How to wash dishes. And scour pots. And take a turn at peeling veg, and taking out the garbage. Still keen on learning classic French cuisine, the old-fashioned way?”

“Well, yeah, of course, Chef,” Robbie answered first, earnest and slightly baffled as to why it should be any other way. “Dad says that the right way to learn a job from the ground up is to start with the dirty stuff. And to handle a ration of crap. It’s a form of hazing, Dad says. A necessary ritual initiation, required to become part of an elite unit. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be the elite if just anyone could power through and carry out the unit mission. Dad says otherwise it’s participation trophies all the way around, and that’s no way to manage an elite organization. Not if the organization wants to go on being elite. Dad says…”

“Enough,” Richard held up a hand. It pained him to admit, even if only to himself, that Clovis Walcott – that is, Colonel Retired Clovis Walcott – had a point, albeit one pounded in with a sledgehammer. “You don’t need to tell me what your father says, again.”

“I really want to learn to cook, Chef,” Bree announced, her lower lip sticking out, mutinously. “Cook the right way, and anything that isn’t tofu-barf. And I’ll wash pots and take out the garbage, if that’s the deal. What comes next, when we know everything there is to know about dishwashing and peeling potatoes? When do we really start learning to cook.”

“In good time, Grant,  and in stages,” Richard smiled ferociously. “When you are sufficiently experienced at pearl-diving, then you move on to plating up cold salads, appetizers and desserts. Not actually making them – just putting them on plates in an attractive manner. Once you are adept with the cold foods, you will move on to plating the hot foods – side dishes, stews, or casseroles. Because this is a small establishment with limited menu options, I plan to combine those duties with managing the fryers. Should you succeed in not setting a massive fire which burns the place to the ground and actually dishing up edible servings of fried items, then it’s on to the sauté station. Ah, my innocent little novices – the sauté station will be the making or breaking of you. Lots of different foods, cooked in hot pans, all at the same time. Here again – because it is a small place, with a limited menu, I have combined it with the broiler-grill station; chops, burgers, hot sandwiches, sautéed fish. Attention to detail, unflappable in the face of distraction – that is what this station demands of the aspiring apprentice cook. In between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I also plan to familiarize you with the mysteries of baking breads and sweet rolls, edible garnishes, and making soups and sauces. In larger kitchens, those are the province of dedicated specialists – but here in the Café …”

“You double up,” Robbie nodded, quite without guile or sarcasm.

“Indeed,” Richard continued. “What normally would take four or five years is being crammed into the space of three months … well, by the end of summer, should you last that long,” he added, parenthetically, “You will have the barest, slightest inkling of how to cook. And one more thing. Hygiene is of primary importance. You will wash your hands upon starting work, after using the facility, after handling raw food, eating, or touching your hair, face, clothing, coughing, or sneezing … in fact, go and wash your hands now, just on general principles.” He sighed again. “Every day, a clean apron – they are hanging up in the closet by the back door. Dirty ones go into the bin at the end of the day. The same for clean towels. The laundry truck comes once a week. But for now, mes enfants – go wash your hands and put on your aprons. The workday begins.”

 

“It has surprised me no end,” Richard confessed, not a week later, when Kate Heisel came out to the Age of Aquarius. Over the previous month, they had fallen into a habit; on Monday afternoons, after Richard had gotten a good night sleep after a weekend of eighteen-hour long days, and the Weekly Beacon had been put to bed, of Kate coming out to the Airstream for a light early supper, a progress report/strategy session, and a cuddle. Unfortunately, the scheduled cuddle was with Ozzie, who made no secret of his perverse adoration of Kate. Now the cat was curled up in Kate’s lap, as she lounged in the banquette seats in the caravan, her sensible shoes kicked off and a glass of Sefton’s marvelous mustang grape elixir at her elbow. Richard was fixing filet of sole bonne femme on the tiny gas stovetop, to accompany a dish of carrots caramelized with a bit of butter, ginger, and brown sugar.

“What has?” Kate asked, reasonably. The first two videos for Captain Kitten’s Kitchen had been shot, edited and posted, one with Mateo and Angelika, one with Robbie and Bree – all demonstrating simple dishes and techniques.

“The apprentices,” Richard answered. “Grant and Walcott … I have been brutal with them, my Kate of Kate Hall. Brutal, sarcastic, and demanding. Run them off their feet, hounding them every second, like a species of human sheep-dog, snapping at their heels. Do this – wash your hands – no, you imbecile, attend to the recipe card as it is written – and to what end?”

“Yes, what end?” Kate gave Ozzie a lingering caress, and Richard scowled at the sauté pan in which the sauce for the filets was thickening nicely.

“To no end! They are cheerful, obedient … every dish and pot in the place has been scoured to the nines – three times! The prep-work for the following day has been done – even before I ask for it! They say ‘Good morning, Chef!’ and ‘What can I do now, Chef?’ The walk-in cooler is cleaner and more neatly-arranged than I have ever seen it! Guests can hardly set down an empty cup or a plate, and Grant or Walcott is around to take it away. I am baffled, my Kate – baffled beyond words.”

“You shouldn’t be,” Kate grinned and held up her glass for a refill – which Richard was happy to do – seeing that it only was a half-step from cooker to refrigerator, and then to table. “You’re flattering them, Richard. You’re doing the courtesy of treating them like adults and not pulling your punches. Kids that age crave being treated like adults, not like delicate little children-orchids. And,” she added, taking a sip of Sefton’s glorious elixir. “That is what kids of that age want, more than anything else. To be treated as if they are grown-ups, to have real responsibility. Doesn’t matter if you’re the harshest, most demanding bastard on the planet. You’re being real and absolutely straight with them. And you are teaching them importing things. Bree wants to learn to cook, in the worst way …”

“Agreed with that,” Richard sighed. “She’s impulsive with the recipes, without sufficient grasp of the rules required to break them successfully.”

“But she wants to learn,” Kate continued. “So does Robbie. Now, he strikes me as being one of those kids who adores a challenge.”

“They certainly have it now,” Richard agreed, and Kate giggled.

“Reminds me of working on the school magazine when I was in high school.”

“I didn’t know there was such a thing in Luna City,” Richard racked his brain and came up empty, and Kate giggled again.

“No – I went to school at St. Scholastica’s in Karnesville. The guy who was taught the journalism class which produced the magazine was a crusty old Jesuit, who made his vows equally to God and the Chicago Manual of Style. He was as brutal to his students as you are to your apprentices – but we all adored Brother Gerald. He had high standards. When you finally succeeded in pleasing him, you had accomplished something, and you knew it was good. It was rough at first,” Kate admitted generously. “Getting back a story that you had slaved over covered with so many red marks it looked like an ink-bottle had exploded was a definite kick in the ego. And eventually, learning was achieved.”

“Life, alas, is full of kicks to the ego,” Richard poured himself another glass of wine. “Best learn to handle them and move on.”

“Speaking of moving on,” Kate gave an extra-thorough head-skritch to Ozzie. “Have you picked up any stray talk about the Mills Farm expansion?”

“Thou woundest me, Kate – that you would treat me as an informant, lurking around the tables, picking up gossipy tittle-tattle around the Café for your news stories!”

“I wouldn’t do anything of the sort!” Kate protested, although she had flushed rather pink. “No – I was just making conversation. If I wanted the straight scoop on that, I would go directly to Lew Dubois. I’m just a small-town newspaper reporter – and a weekly at that. I had just been talking to Great-uncle Jaimie last week – and he was going on about signing a hunting lease agreement with Mills Farm. He was so pleased – and it was all because of Lew. He came and talked to Uncle Jaimie a good few times, all dressed in a dirty barn-coat and muddy boots, explaining what it was all about… Uncle Jaimie was pleased as anything. He’s been next-door-across-the-river with Mills Farm since forever, and all he ever got out of them by way of outreach was Benny Cordova buying him drinks at the VFW now and again. Uncle Jaimie must be about the only property owner in Karnes County who doesn’t have a gas lease on his land.”

“Anti-fracking?” Richard stirred the sauce for the sole filets. “Supposed to cause earthquakes, you know.”

“No, just no one ever explained it to him that it wasn’t like the move Giant … an oil well spewing finest grade-a crude in a humongous pool over all of his pastures. Uncle Jaimie would rather not deal with all of that. He’s a guy from the last century – no, strike that. The century before the last.  A hunting lease is fine with him. Give him a break, Richard – he’s in his eighties. And … can I have another, Richard? I have a cat in my lap.”

“Seeing that it’s my cat…” Richard obliged, and topped up her wineglass. “Do continue, my Kate. The main entrée is nearly ready. What else is going on with this strangely diplomatic Dubois character?”

“Well, he has also managed to sweet-talk Judy and Sefton into sale of half an acre of their lad, with about sixty feet of river-frontage. Which is a mere sliver of what they do have, so I don’t think that is any great sacrifice. Which pleases Uncle Roman no end, because it means Judy and Sefton can repay him a good chunk of the costs for their new home … and he has a potential contract to build a new facility for Mills Farm – a riverside boat house, Uncle Roman says.”

“So Roman Gonzales profits coming and going,” Richard topped up his own wine-glass. The sauce was coming along nicely. “Nice work, if you can get it. Maybe I should have gone into carpentry and construction.”

“Too seasonal,” Kate replied. “And there’s at least as much demand around here for good cooking … oh, speaking of which – I’ll be a bit late next Monday, I’m afraid. Last-minute town council meeting, and it may run long.”

“Oh?” Richard felt his heart sink several centimeters. He hated having a routine disturbed. “What brought all this on? You couldn’t just skip it, could you?”

“I can’t,” Kate explained with careful patience. “It’s my job, so I have to go – as boring as town council meetings normally are. This one is special, though. Martin Abernathy sent out the meeting agenda to everyone who usually attends, and even posted something on the Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page. The first order of new business is to discuss a bid to lease out the Cattleman Hotel to Venue Properties.”

“And this is significant? The place is a huge white elephant. The municipality can barely keep the lights on at the best of times.” Richard was well-acquainted with the bedraggled Belle Époque splendors of the Cattleman Hotel, as it took up half of the western side of Town Square. It once had been a quite splendid establishment, but it’s best days were now at least half a century in the past. There was a small museum in the old lobby, opened two days weekly by the Luna City Historical Commission, which maintained an office on the second floor. There were a handful of suites available to adventurous travelers, and a splendid and old-fashioned bar open with great fanfare on Founder’s Day weekend. Otherwise it served as a lumber room and overflow storage for the city, and most of the third and fourth floors had been abandoned to dust and slow decay.

“Too true,” Kate nodded in agreement. “Oh, thanks, Rich – that looks delish! I know – everyone loved the old place. I mean, half the elder citizens have fond memories of going to parties in the ballroom, or having supper … and everyone was up in arms when VPI first set up Mills Farm, and they wanted to buy the whole place for a dollar, disassemble it and rebuild someplace else. Before I was born, but Great-uncle Jaimie and Abuelita still spit fire when they talk about it. The VPI manager at the time – he thought that he could just waltz in, drop some money on the table and rip out part of the heart of Luna City. Although,” Kate added, as Richard set down his own serving on the table, and slid onto the banquete; Kate obligingly shifted her feet to allow him room, and continued. “I think the Bodies were pretty slick, gifting the place to the city, way back then. It was a dead weight to them and the tax advantages should have been obvious. Keeping the Cattleman open cost more than it would ever bring in, and that doesn’t even consider the costs of repairs and renovation. I’ll have the skinny on that after the meeting next Monday, anyway.” She took a delicate bite of the fish, and Richard was distracted by the expression of sheer gustatory delight which passed over her face. “I could eat this every night, Rich… are you going to offer this as a prix fixe option some weekend? Look, I don’t mind being your test subject. I’d beg to be … hey, you catch your own fish!” she reprimanded Ozzie, who had reached out a paw with the speed of light, aiming to snag the next bite from her fork.”

“The little blighter will have his own fish, my Kate – just dump him off your lap,” Richard savored his own first bites, and Kate protested.

“No, he’s our star kitten. Can’t we indulge him, just a bit?”

“Bad for his character,” Richard answered. “Trust me – I know this from first-hand experience. Enjoy your own supper, my Kate – I have prepared a special sweet for afters. But you don’t get your sweet until you finish your supper and veg.”

“Cruelty in the extreme,” Kate protested, but her eyes were merry and full of affectionate laughter, and Richard considered once again how very content he was with this new life; his café, his caravan and most of all, his Kate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From A Fifth of Luna City: Baby Dreams

Midnight, and Jess dreams.

She dreams of a hot dry desert, a desert where the winds blow dust as fine as talcum powder. But overhead, the sky is harsh and blue, and the world around here is the color of dust. Dusty green, dusty brown, dusty beige, dust without any color at all. Dust the color of tents, of motor vehicles, veiling the uniforms that they all wear, smudging their faces. He wears goggles over his eyes, stepping down from a Marine hummvee, shoving them up to his forehead as he does, the grin across his face making a cheerful boyish mockery of the strapped-on body armor, weapons and helmet which add to the male bulk of him.

“Jessie, darlin’!” he says in her dream, the quicksilver grin from ear to ear. The guy that she has loved since they were both eleven, the two of them horse-mad and given freedom of the Wyler stables and paddocks. “Fancy meeting you here, in the garden spot of the near east. We gonna go dancing tonight, or should we just sent out for pizza and watch an old movie?”

“Jamie, you nutcase,” she exclaims, wishing that they could embrace and kiss exuberantly – but they cannot, as there is a war on, they are both in uniform and there are people around, most of them male and of much higher military rank than Jess the reservist. He kisses her anyway, a brotherly peck on the cheek, and she whispers, “How long can you stay?”

“Just long enough to top up,” he answers. “MarDiv’s on the move. Can’t say anything more, even if I did know. Op-sec.”

“Of course,” she says – her heart sinking within her, but her voice as calm, stoic as a Spartan woman. “Be careful out there, Jamie.”

“Always,” he answers, but he simmers with suppressed excitement. She casts around for something to say, some brief gesture to make. “I got a care package from home last night – Pops sent me some Moon Pies that didn’t get too much melted. You wanna take some with you?”

“Whatever you can spare,” His eyes gleam with anticipation. Moon Pies are his favorite sweet. The first summer that Jamie spent at the Wyler Ranch, it was their special excursion to ride out to the Tip Top Icehouse, Gas & Grocery to buy Moon Pies with their allowance money, and to eat them by the riverbank, dangling bare feet in the cool river, while he tried to frighten her by telling long-ago stories of the scar-faced tramp who lived out in the woods below the old Sheffield place.

“Wait right here,” she commands him; Jamie grins again.

“Yes, ma-am!”

She runs to the quarters that she shares with the other Air Force woman officers; spartan but more comfortable than a shelter-half over a slit-trench. But when she returns with half a dozen Moon Pies, Jamie is not where she left him; a moment of panic – where did he go? Oh, there – already back in the vehicle, leaning out the driver-side window, waving to her.

She passes the Moon Pies up to him; the engine already turning over, no time, no time, only a hasty word of thanks from him, she forms the words “I love you” with her lips, and then the line of drab-tan vehicles rumbles away, sending up another cloud of dust, and they are gone, anonymous in the featureless desert.

 

That was the last time she ever saw Jamie, in anything but dreams and memories. The air conditioner unit is an older one, and when it clicks on it does so with a wheeze and a rush of cooler air. This wakes Jess, or brings her up to the edge of wakefulness. The summer in South Texas is as hot as always; Jess and Joe both sleep best in a cooler room, and so the air conditioner runs all night. Her hands feel numb, and her wrists ache a little; a weird side-effect of pregnancy. She rolls over and settles in to sleep again. Joe’s arm goes around her, in that new position; an automatic gesture, for he is soundly asleep.

 

In the small hours of the morning, Jess dreams again.

 

In that new dream, she is eleven years old; it is her birthday and Pops – widowed and grieving the loss of Jessica’s mother not two months before – has promised her a special birthday present. Jess swings her feet as she sits at the breakfast table, wondering what the present can be, since it was not wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons, like the gifts from her grandparents.

“Tell me, Pops!” she begs again, and Martin Abernathy smiles, teasing her in a way that had been in abeyance for months, all the time that her mother was so sick.

“Can’t tell you, Jessy-bell. It would ruin the surprise. I will tell you one thing, though … it’s bigger than a bread-box!”

“Pops! That’s no fair! What is it?”

“A surprise,” Martin says, and Jess pouts a little.

“Pops, you can be so provoking!” she exclaims. That is a word she heard her mother say, now and again. Jess knows what it means, but has never actually said until now. Martin’s amusement dims, just a little, like a candle flickers in a sudden gust of wind.

“Part of my happy inconsequent charm, Jessy-bell,” he replies. Jess is not quite certain what ‘inconsequent’ means, although she knows the other words. She would question her father more, but for the sound of a large pickup truck, bumping down the long gravel drive past the house. The house where Martin and Beth set up housekeeping is on the edge of Luna City, in a small post-war bungalow built on a large lot with a corral and a large shed at the back – a shed divided into disused horse stalls, where Martin keeps the gas lawnmower, and Jess the bicycle that she rides to school, where she must wear thick glasses to do school work and the other children tease her by calling her “Jessie Four-Eyes.”

The truck tows a horse trailer; both trailer and truck adorned with the logo of the Wyler Lazy-W exotic game ranch. Everyone in Luna City knows the Wyler brand, and knows Doc Wyler by sight. Jess is no exception; he is an important man, even aside from being the veterinarian. And why should Doc Wyler be driving around to the back of the Abernathy house? They don’t have any pets. Jess does not know the boy with him, who climbs down from the passenger side of the truck and stands looking at Jess, standing on the back-door stoop. The boy is her age; wiry and with a grin that lights up his face. If he were from Luna City, she would know him, and if he is the same age, they would be in the same grade at school. It is a puzzle; Jess cannot resist questions and puzzle-solving.

“You best come and meet your birthday present, Jessy-bell,” Martin comes up behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders. At first, Jess does not comprehend. What present? But Doc Wyler is opening the back of the horse trailer and leading out the horse in it by the halter, with many soothing words. The horse is a chestnut quarter horse with a white blaze on it’s nose, small even for a quarter horse; a young gelding who dips his muzzle into Jess’s hands and blows out an alfalfa-scented gust into her shirt-front.

“Here you go, young lady,” Doc Wyler gives the halter-end to Jess. “His name is Stinker, on account of having been painfully surprised by a skunk when he was a colt, but I reckon you can call him anything you like. He was sired by a champion cutting horse, his mama was showed by my daughter Pamela in dressage events, but he growed up a mite dwarfish, so your father thought he’d be a perfect horse for you.”

“Mine?” Jess couldn’t comprehend at first. A whole horse, a real horse of her own? Only twice in her later life was Jess Abernathy rendered completely speechless. At last, she finds words. “Oh, Pops – he’s beautiful! And mine, really all mine?”

“Yes indeed, Jessy-bell – all yours.” Martin squeezed her shoulders in reassurance. “Your …” his voice broke, just for a second. “… Mama said that you should have one, when you were old enough. I reckon that you are, this very day. He’ll live here; out at the back – but you have to take responsibility for him. You must ride him every day. Give him a good brushing, make certain that he has good feed, is watered every day, put away in the shed at night …

“We brought along one of Pam’s old saddles,” Doc Wyler was saying. “Should serve well enough. Jamie, you want to get it from the truck? You haven’t met my grandson, have you? Pam’s son. He’s going to spend the summer with us. Jamie, this is Jess and Martin Abernathy. Martin and his folks keep the hardware store on the Square.”

“James Wyler, Junior,” the boy put out his hand and shook Jess’. “But mostly, I’m Jamie. Pleased to meet you, miss. Mr. Abernathy.” His grip is firm, adult, his gaze direct.

“Hi…” Jess is at a complete loss and stares at the ground. She likes boys as friends, but this one is a stranger. But she begins to like this one, when he offers to help saddle Stinker. And she likes him even more, when he promises to come over the following day on his own horse. And he doesn’t know any of the other kids their age, since he is only visiting for the summer. Jess barely notices the satisfied look that Martin and Doc Wyler exchange over their heads.

 

Jamie spends every summer at the Wyler Ranch, until he drops out of college in the second week of September, 2001, and enlists in the Marines.

 

 

The bladder complained. Jess sighed and slid out from the bed, from under the embrace of her husband and the tangle of bedclothes, obeying the call of nature. The bedroom was comfortably cool. That being done, she crept back into bed, curling herself spoon-fashion against the bulwark that was always and forever Joe.

 

Jess dreams some more.  She has been living in Arlington for three years and working as a traveling CPA.

 

She has just completed a demanding temporary job in Corpus Christi, another starting in San Antonio – and a too-brief weekend at home in Luna City between them. A good reason to rush, in the little yellow Wrangler with two suitcases, her laptop carrier and her briefcase thrown into the back seat. Oh, to be at home for a couple of days in the spring, when the fields around Luna City are ablaze with yellow and red Mexican hat, purple field verbena and blue and white buffalo clover, which everyone calls bluebonnets, and esperanza splashes flaming yellow in all the hedges … and that is flaming yellow, red, and blue lights on Route 123. Jess, absent-minded and thinking of nothing but home – after months away, sorting out other people’s financial woes – does not think at first that she is the driver at fault.

Until the police car flashes headlights emphatically at her. And she is the only driver on 123 at that moment. Jess is a law-abiding person – as a licensed CPA, she can be nothing less, not without escaping severe penalties. She signals an obedient right turn, comes to rest on the shoulder, half on grass and half on asphalt. The police cruiser rests in similar position behind her. Jess waits, heart hammering with apprehension. The economic penalty she can easily cover, the absolute humiliation of a traffic ticket within a few miles of Luna City is … humiliating.

The cop gets out of his car, Jess observing in the rear-view window; he is tall, muscular, well-built, walking with an Alpha-male swagger; she estimates his age as in the late thirties, and approves – setting aside all other considerations. A nice bit of man-flesh, all told. Clean-cut, not run to seed in the least. Mirrored sunglasses hide his eyes, as he approaches her Wrangler. Jess sighs and rolls down the window.

“Good morning, ma’am. Do you know how that you were going?”

“Well, over the speed limit, obviously officer … or you wouldn’t have pulled me over.” Even in dreams, Jess has a smart mouth. The officer sighs – a bit on the theatrical side, Jess thinks. She also thinks that he looks familiar, somehow. He has sergeant’s stripes on his sleeves, and the name-plate on his tan uniform shirt is a clue. “Vaughn.”

“I know you!” she exclaims. “Joe Vaughn – you were the quarterback with the Moths, when I was a freshman in high school.”

“Yes, ma’am; varsity, in my senior year. May I see your identification, please?”

Jess sighs, resigned, and reaches into the enormous hand-bag/briefcase which serves her as both. It’s been fifteen years and a lot of water under the bridge, but no one could forget Joe Vaughn, high school hero – and besides, he took Jamie’s older cousin Patricia to the prom. The all-American golden couple, back then. He probably believes that I’m trying to charm him out of issuing a ticket, Jess thinks, as she hands him her drivers’ license.

He takes off his mirrored sunglasses to look at it more closely, and exclaims, “Hey – Now I remember; you’re little Jessie Four-Eyes! Used to hang out with Pat’s cousin Jamie all the time. Gotta admit I like the improvement; makes all the difference in the world.”

“Lasik surgery,” Jess winces. That nick was something she had managed to bury, along with all the usual adolescent humiliations heaped on the plain but clever of the female of the species. Still, she is not immune to male admiration, especially from one who had been well out of her reach, back then.

“So, what have you been doing with yourself since then?” Joe is still holding her drivers’ license; Jess doesn’t quite have the nerve to take it back from him.

“This and that,” Jess replies. “The usual; college, a turn through ROTC and the Reserves, now I’m working for the Manfred Group out of Arlington, but I hope to set up my own office in a couple of years. Too much time on the road. Sorry – I guess I do have a bit of a lead foot. I’m home for this weekend. I didn’t know that you were back in Luna City – I thought you were still in the Army.”

“Was,” Joe finally returns the drivers’ license. “Short version is that I blew out my right knee, the other isn’t in much better shape. The Big Green machine called it a disability and wouldn’t allow me to reenlist, so I hired on with the Luna City PD once I was home. So … you’re gonna be home this weekend. You wanna meet for a burger or something?”

“That would be nice,” Jess is flattered. For the big man around the high school campus, the teenaged Joe Vaughn wasn’t nearly as much the insufferable asshole that he could have been. And he is improved now in a good way, and Jess approves wholly. Now he is scribbling in his notebook. Reading upside down, she realizes with mild dismay that it is the ticket book.

“I still gotta write you a ticket,” he confesses, with a touch of embarrassment. “You were going 85 and the limit on this stretch is 70. I can’t be … well, making exceptions. For anyone. Matter of principle with me, I guess. But that’s my cellphone number. I’m living in my grandparents’ old house on Oak Lane. Your pop has the number for the dispatcher; they can get ahold of me any time, if your still serious about that burger.” Joe seems a little apprehensive – as if he thinks she isn’t interested at best and despises him at worst, for just doing his job without fear or favor.

“Or something,” Jess accepts the ticket with mixed feelings and a smile.

“You can pay it at the city offices during the week,” Joe says, kindly. “Or go online anytime. See you … um, Saturday work for you.”

“Sure.” Jess has decided that she will go out with him, even if it is only as far as the Dairy Queen in Karnesville, just to be assured that she has left Jessie Four-Eyes in the distant, distant and painfully adolescent past. “See you around.”

“You too.” He grins, obviously relieved. Jess sets the Wrangler in gear, and as she drives toward Luna City, she sees the cruiser pull a U-turn, and vanish in the opposite direction.

 

Jess wakens from that final dream; there is dim daylight behind the curtains of the bedroom, but that is not what has disturbed her sleep, or the complaints of a stressed bladder. No, something else, a funny tentative flutter low in her abdomen. It happens again – no, not a bubble of gas working through … but independent, deliberate. Something not of her body.

“Joe?” she whispers; they are still lying spoon-fashion in the bed, she is tucked into the curve of his body. “Are you awake? It’s nearly morning.”

“Mmm. Sure, Babe. I’m awake.” He mumbles indistinct and sleep-fogged. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she answers. “I just felt the baby move.”