11. February 2018 · Comments Off on On the River in Springtime · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(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.

22. January 2018 · Comments Off on The New Hire – Another Segment from The Next Luna City Installment · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(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.

13. January 2018 · Comments Off on From the Next Luna City Installment · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

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.”

 

06. January 2018 · Comments Off on From the Next Luna City Book – Five Men and a Baby · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(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!)

20. December 2017 · Comments Off on A Luna City Short Story: Radio Silence · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(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.

 

 

05. October 2017 · Comments Off on Luna City Short Story: Reveal · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(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.

30. September 2017 · Comments Off on Another Story From A Fifth of Luna City! · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

25. September 2017 · Comments Off on A New Short Story: Baby Dreams · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

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.”

(We hope to have the next episode of the Luna City Chronicles out by Christmas this year. Here, a chapter from A Fifth of Luna City, wherein Richard makes a new friend, and takes on an obligation a little more challenging than a potted plant and a female significant other.)

 

A Sky Full of Stars

“Richard … I have to tell you. I have bad news – the most appalling news. I don’t quite know how to say this, but …”

That was Kate, his super-dainty Kate, her face expressing a mixture of horror and regret. Only his own sense of shock and possibly his own gentlemanly upbringing belatedly coming to his rescue – miraculously coming down from the heights of his prolonged classical venture into French cuisine on her behalf – kept him from blurting out his initial reaction: “Jesus, Kate – you can’t be pregnant! We’ve never even slept together!”

Instead, he just looked at her as if pole-axed, and said, “Well, tell it to me, Kate. I’ve had a long day, starting with being bullied in an open boat by an OAP with a bad attitude, and coming close to drowning in a flooded river. Frankly, I don’t think there is any more bad news you can tell me.”

“Well then,” Kate drew a deep breath. “My informant is one of the techies involved with A La Carte with Quartermayne. It’s a traveling TV food show. If you don’t know anything about it, Abuelita does, and so does everyone else who watches the Food Channel. They’re coming to Luna City at the end of summer, for a food showdown…”

“No, absolutely not,” Richard was stone-faced. “I will not participate in one of those travesties. I will not be a performing monkey on a lead for the entertainment of the masses. Again. If I see a TV camera within half a block of me, I will turn around and go home. I’ve been there, Kate. It’s Hell. I’ve learned my lesson – and won’t do it again.”

“No, it’s not for the Café,” Kate swiftly reassured him, those amazing beryl-green eyes huge with sympathy. “The showdown will be between the Pryor’s Meats and BBQ, and the Mills Farm Country Kitchen. But the co-host of Quartermayne this season is someone that … well, you know. And according to my informant…”

“Your spy in the enemy camp,” Richard amended, dryly.

“Whatever. You and he have a long history – Phillip Noel-Barrett.”

Richard broke out in a cold sweat, despite the residual heat in the kitchen.

“Stone the crows, not him – that unregenerate tosser! What malignant plan is that unmitigated arse-monger up to now? Nothing good, I’ll warrant. And those Quartermayne berks better be on their guard, because if he does half the damage to the immediate vicinity as he did with that wretched movie…”

“I see that you remember him fondly also,” Kate commented with just the faintest touch of acid. “It looks like he will be up to some nasty tricks with regard to yourself. In a moment of …”

“Alcohol-fueled frankness,” Richard supplied and Kate grinned.

“Exactly what I assumed. He is planning to reveal you as the Bad Boy Chef – not resting serenely sedated in some expensive loony-bin, but working happily away in an obscure little town café. My contact says that Noel-Barrett is practically slavering at the chops in his eagerness to do you a bad turn.”

“He always was a malicious little git,” Richard sighed. What a way to finish an evening – a beautiful evening, which had topped off a very long and fraught day. “I’ll do my best to stay out of the way, Kate. I don’t want to be outed, much less by Pip Noel-Barrett. I like it here. I like the Café, my little caravan, Luna City and all. I don’t want to leave. But I cannot go back to the old life. I won’t go back. It wasn’t good for me. I know that now.”

“Don’t worry, Richard,” Kate shrugged her outsized overcoat over her shoulders once again. Her face bore an expression of adamantine determination, fearsomely like that of Abuelita Adeliza Gonzales when that formidable lady put her foot down. “We’ll see that you are kept safe, doing what you love to do, and doing it in Luna City. You have friends here, not just me … although Acey McClain – he’s my boss, you know? At the Beacon. He might just begin to wonder about where my loyalties lie, if he ever hears about this caper.”

“Thank you, Kate,” Richard wondered if he was being honestly grateful for the very first time in his so-called adult life. They stood very close, at the back door to the Café, near to the vast pot-washing sink and the industrial dishwasher, which smelled very faintly of dishwater and drains. But they stood so close, as he intended, somewhat reluctantly, to see her out – and he detected the perfume that Kate was accustomed to wear. On an impulse, he leaned down – not very far down – and kissed her, intending the kiss to land in a brotherly, even an avuncular manner. But the minx turned her head at the last second, and it landed on her lips. For a brief eternity, he was lost – Kate, his wonderful Kate of Kate Hall, his super-dainty Kate, before whom all his previous passions, or whatever they had been – were momentary shallow flirtations. Until she pulled back, grinned at him and said,

“That was a kiss to set all records, Richard – perhaps one day, we’ll set another one like it. But I have to go now. ‘Celi will wonder where I am. If I don’t get on my way this instant, she will call Joe to go and get me – and Jess will be furious. Good night, sweet prince; blessed angels see the to thy rest. I have to go.”

“Indeed,” Richard gave a wistful sigh for the night that might have been – but no, it wouldn’t have been right. He and Kate had worlds enough and time. The thought of a wrathful Joe Vaughn, the Luna City chief of police, bashing down the door of the Airstream to haul a weeping and half-dressed Kate into the cruiser was a thought to banish all erotic fantasies, right then and there. “Do you want me to walk you to Patrick and Aracelis’? It’s not far.”

“No, mon cher Richard – you must be exhausted after all this. I’ll be all right. We’re in Luna City, after all.” She stepped neatly out of his half-hearted embrace and opened the outer door. Outside, a shy quarter moon rationed silver light on the back of the Café and the buildings adjoining it on Town Square. A few small lights from the back windows of the Stein’s place, and from the rooms over the small businesses in the other direction, rented out on BnB to those who wanted a small-town Texas experience, cast a dimmer and more golden light. “Oh, look – your cat is still here.”

“I don’t have any pets…” Richard insisted obstinately. “It must be one of the Steins’ perishing little beggars. Wretched things – they pee all over the carpet inside, and crap all over the garden outside.”

Kate peered at the small, shadow-shape lurking in the depths of the hedge between the Stein’s garden – a garden groomed to a state of perfection with a Teutonic devotion to detail, in vivid contrast to the space of crumbling macadam interspersed with weeds and rubbish bins behind the Café. That space was currently interrupted with the Airstream, and a couple of timber-framed raised beds, in which Richard nourished cooking herbs and a crop of exotic salad greens.

The small shadowy shape mewed at her. It sounded commanding, rather than querulous and pathetic, as Richard would have expected a lost or temporarily discommoded cat to sound.

“It’s too small for Beethoven, Bach or Mozart,” Kate observed. The Stein’s musical trio were sheltered, spoiled, well-fed and of considerable size. “Annise would never let them outside in this weather anyway.”

“The flood brought in all sorts of animal flotsam and jetsam,” Richard sighed, thinking on the outsized dog, miniature pony, bantam hen and stray goat, confined in a makeshift corral by the VFD. “A stray, I suppose.”

“Be kind,” Kate said, and in the shadows behind the Café, Richard was sure that she was smiling at him. “Give the poor little thing some of that lovely chicken, or whatever. Good night, Richard – sleep well.”

“I will, even if lonely,” Richard sighed. Quite suddenly, the burden of total exhaustion fell upon him, a burden which rocked him to his knees. “Honestly, I couldn’t have done justice to the occasion if you had even wanted to spend the night with me. I’ve got some pride left in me, Kate.”

“I know,” Kate blew a kiss in his direction, and departed without another touch of her hand or lips, walking swiftly to the bottom of the desolate patch which was the Café’s back garden. Richard thought that she turned and waved at him, before she vanished around the corner of the Stein’s garden-shed/garage.

The evening was over.

And on the whole, it had been a success beyond his dreams, Richard thought, as he turned out the lights in the Café, and sent the last of the dishes and glasses into the commercial washer. A long day, and a hard day; a supper with Kate, and space enough and time to meditate upon where their mutual attraction should go. Bad news about Pip Noel-Barrett’s malicious intentions … but that was consummation months in advance. Sufficient unto the day were the evils thereof, as the school chaplain used to say. Today’s troubles were enough for today.

He got out one of the folding chairs from the Airstream, and sat beneath the inconsistent moon, with a glass of Sefton Grant’s marvelous elixir, contemplating the day, in all of it’s exhaustion and glory, obscurely grateful that he didn’t have to get up on the bicycle and pedal all the way back to the Age of Aquarius. Because of the flood and the good offices of Roman Gonzalez, the Airstream caravan that he called home had been temporarily moved from the campground and small farm where it had sat for at least three decades. His daily commute was reduced to a matter of fifteen steps … and the cat suddenly interrupted these meditations. It emerged from the dividing hedge, and sat not five feet from him.

“Mrrow?” It said. Startled out of his reverie, Richard answered.

“What’s that, old chap?”

“Mrroow!” replied the cat, one eye reflecting the pale moonlight. “Mrroow!” it said again, with added emphasis and air of cold command, which well those passions Richard read.

“All right, then!” Richard set aside his glass, and went into the Café kitchen, to the walk-in cooler, where reposed the container with the last of the chicken from his glorious supper with Kate. He brought out a small bowl, filled to the brim with some-barely cooled shredded chicken and crumbled bits of pate, and carefully locked the back door after him – wondering why he bothered at all, since Luna City was one of the most casually law-abiding places that he had ever set up residence in, however temporary. He set the dish down, and the cat fell upon it with every evidence of glutinous pleasure. When it had polished the dish clean, it approached Richard, still nursing half a glass of Sefton’s mustang white, and sat at his feet. A small pink tongue polished its’ whiskers, one swipe a side, as the cat assumed the expectant posture of one of those ancient Egyptian statuettes of cats.

“Mrroow,” it commented, sounding slightly less commanding.

“You’re welcome,” Richard replied. “But no, I don’t care if you want some wine to go with supper. This is all mine.”

“Mrroow!” The cat sounded slightly disappointed – as if it had hoped for that, but was sporting about being turned down. Seen now in the dim interior light shining through the Airstream’s screen door, it stood revealed as a small brindle animal, with one eye as pale and lifeless as the moon overhead, the other dark and brimming with feline mysteries. Richard was no great judge of cat-flesh, but he thought it was a young animal, despite the blind eye. It regarded him steadily with the other eye, as Richard communed with his glass of wine, coming down from the mighty cloud of terror or exertion expended during a day only a little longer than what he had been accustomed to in his early days as an apprentice chef. Since he didn’t have Kate to talk to, he directed his remarks to the young cat.

“So … rough day for you too, Ozymandias-King-of-Kings? Look upon your works, oh mighty, and despair. Nothing remains … but a hell of a lot of flood water.”

“Mrroow,” the cat commented, sounding rather forlorn.

“Sorry about that, old chap. Just worked out that way. Global warming, you know – but in Texas they call it ‘the weather’. Still a bit disconcerting, especially if one has an aversion to drowning.”

“Mrroow,” Ozymandias-King-of-Kings agreed. Richard sank the last little bit of Sefton’s prize white mustang grape wine. When he had drained the glass of that last mouthful, the brindle cat was sitting at the foot of the step to the Airstream, regarding him expectantly. “Mrroow?” That last had a kind of tentative, yet commanding sound to it. Richard marveled again, at the depth of feeling that the beast could put into a single sound. The Librarian of the Unseen University had nothing on this cat.

“All right, you conniving little beggar.” Richard sighed, and opened the screen door; instantly, Ozymandias-King-of-Kings hopped up into the Airstream as if it was his by rights. He-She-It strolled through the brief sitting area and kitchenette, sniffing at the odd item in a way that suggested judgmental skepticism, but marginal acceptability as to conditions. And then hopped up onto the disturbed bedding at the foot of the single double bed at the back of the Airstream, licked itself several times in businesslike fashion, curled into a neat circular form among the blankets and dropped into whatever was for a cat, deep, deep slumber. When Richard performed his late-night ablutions,  resumed the pajama trousers which were his customary night things, and took his own place in the bed, Ozymandias only burped – or perhaps farted – briefly, purred for a bit and fell back into deep slumber nearly as soon as Richard did.

 

 

06. April 2017 · Comments Off on A Snippet From Luna City IV! · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

Cattle Call

Luna City’s volunteer fire department was housed in a large metal-sided barn of no particular architectural charm, three blocks east of Town Square. Together with the Luna City PD headquarters next door, this put them both on the edge of town by the northernmost and newest of the two roads that led from off Route 123 and into Luna City proper. (Miss Letty’s and the Tip-Top were located at the southernmost, closest to that bridge which spanned the river.) The rain had let up by then, although from the appearance of the sky – grey and threatening – the weather gods promised additional precipitation. Richard pedaled along, carefully avoiding the standing puddles, and reminding himself to bring some dry clothing on the following day, lest he be caught again. Really, he had a cat’s dislike of being first soaked to the skin – and then enduring a day inside an air-conditioned building. Nothing, he was convinced, was apt to make a person more ill than being wet, and sitting under a vent blasting cold air down upon him.

The somewhat scratch parking area around the police and fire department – an area composed of about fifteen percent crumbling macadam to eighty-five percent gravel and hard-pressed and mostly dead grass was entirely full, for the first time in his admittedly limited experience. A jumble of vehicles – most of them the usual selection of pick-up trucks which he had come to see as a mostly normal transportation option in Luna City – were parked there without regard to order and reason.

Well, that was one advantage to a bicycle. He wheeled it around to the side, where a couple of heavy timber picnic tables and a rusty barrel-shaped BBQ unit sat underneath the customary oak tree which was a constant in Luna City, and leaned the bike against the nearest table. The side door was already propped open, with Chris Mayall’s young medic-apprentice volunteer lurking just inside. The name of the apprentice momentarily escaped Richard, although the boy had “Gonzalez” embroidered on the front of his dark-blue uniform shirt. Richard privately admitted to a sense of wistful envy. Just by being born with that surname in Luna City meant that the lad was instantly more one of the local elect than Richard would ever be, Charterhouse and  Cordon Bleu education notwithstanding. The classroom beyond was empty – and it was nearly the appointed hour.

“Hullo, young Jaimie,” he said, having wrenched the boys’ name from his recalcitrant memory. “Where is everyone? I thought that time for the regular training session was moved up – not the location.”

“They moved it into the bay, with so many people,” Jaimie replied. He was still young enough to be excited by a whiff of potential catastrophe. “There’s Cousin Horatio from the County, and the forecast is saying there will be more rain over the next few days. I guess this will be the command post, for a while.”

“Joy and rapture unrestrained,” Richard answered, completely deadpan, and walked down the narrow corridor from the door, past the empty classroom on one side, past the offices on the other, and the dormitories for the duty firefighters on the other, and into the soaring space which housed the various engines. There was more space in the barn than engines to fill it. The area beyond the pump and ladder trucks, the brush truck and the ambulance had been transformed, with ranks of folding tables and rows of chairs. An immense map hung on the far wall. As he came around from the last engine, someone was rolling out a video cart with a large television on it. The map drew his attention first, though; a detailed, large-scale map of the river, it’s many tributaries and watershed as it rambled through Karnes County. Through the VFD training sessions, he had become well-acquainted with Luna City, and those outlaying parts covered by the volunteer firefighters – but this was a much larger map. He took a seat in the rearmost row of chairs; the bustle of activity around the tables made him profoundly uneasy. He exchanged a nod with Sylvester Gonzales, dapper as always in retro-nerd fashion – this time in khaki slacks and a vintage and vividly-colored Hawaiian print shirt – who seemed to be overseeing the set-up of many telephones, one at each place along the first table. The telephones and attendant cables were being unpacked from a couple of lidded plastic tubs. Richard knew or at least recognized most of those present, and sifting in as the hands of a clock hanging on the wall above the map inexorably advanced towards the hour of three. He almost didn’t recognize Miss Letty, unaccustomed to the sight of her in a slate-grey uniform-cut women’s suit, adorned with a shoulder patch and lapel insignia – ARC. Well, nothing like an old emergency-service warhorse scenting a disaster, Richard thought to himself and immediately his inner good-manners angel booted him for being an ungallant prick. Still, he thought the old dear had better not try to wrestle an active fire-hose. Although Chris Mayall, who was sitting in the folding chair next to her, would doubtless prevent her from doing anything so reckless.

There was only one man present who was a stranger to him – and since the name-plate on his unfamiliar uniform bore the surname of Gonzalez – and since the familial resemblance to those Gonzalezes and Gonsaleses of his acquaintance was quite marked, he thought it likely that he knew of that man by repute, if not by first name among the clan.

“That’s Cousin Horatio,” Jaimie whispered, as he slid into the seat next to Richard. “You know … he went and joined the Coast Guard out of high school, but now he’s with the county sheriff’s department. He knows all about boats and things. They call him all the time for stuff involving river rescues and that.”

“Shush,” … That was Jess, sitting in the row of chairs ahead of them. And there was Joe Vaughn, striding up to stand before the stand microphone, in his office as chief of police for Luna City.

“Hey, ladies and gentle-grunts; thanks for taking the time from your busy day to come to this briefing… as you should know from watching the weather, it’s been a rainy spring. And this week’s forecast calls for even more rain. We’ve been advised to activate our emergency response team, in the expectation of catastrophic flooding from the San Antonio River and possibly various local creeks over the next few days. I know that it’s only a precaution, and no one is getting really panicked at this point,” and Joe favored the gathering with an especially serious look. “But there is a holiday weekend coming up. A lot of out-of-town folks traveling to the coast, just visiting a place like Mills Farm, or staying for the weekend with friends in the country, folks who just might not know the lay of the land…”

“He’s got a point,” Jaimie whispered. “If we live here – we know where all the low-water crossings are, all the places that flood out ….”

“Shush…” Richard replied, for he was strangely unsettled in recognizing a newer arrival; Kate Heisel, in her oversized drooping tan trench-coat, cat-footing around the perimeter of the gathering. The sound of her camera and brief flare of the flash attachment riveted his attention, although she seemed more focused on the immense map, and the tables with telephones already laid out. Still – when she turned and aimed her lens at the assembled multitudes, he swiftly bent down to re-tie a shoe-lace. No need to borrow trouble, even if he rather liked and trusted Kate Heisel in a small way. Even if she had said to him, on one memorable occasion, “No one here gives a waffle-fried damn that you used to be Rich Hall, the Bad Boy Chef,” Kate’s one picture of Romeo Gonzales had gone international-viral, once it had been posted on the Karnesville Weekly Beacon website for publicity purposes for the Luna City Players performance of Let No True Hearts Admit Impediment. That it all had come out rather well for Romeo was irrelevant to Richard: Once a photograph taken by Miss Kate Heisel was loosed on the internet, control was out of her hands, despite the best intentions of all concerned.

He didn’t entirely come up for air with regard to his shoelace, until Miss Kate herself came and settled into the folding chair next to Jaimie, returning her camera safely to her camera case.

“Hey, Rich – long time, no see?” she whispered. “Are you a volunteer now? Cool beans!”

“Well, I live here now,” Rich whispered back, disregarding the faint hushing sounds from either side. “What brings you here?”

“News, stilly – activating the emergency response command post is certainly newsworthy. Any time there’s a million cars parked outside the VFD there’s bound to be something of interest happening. I really came down for the cattle drive.”

“Cattle drive?” Richard was glad that his voice didn’t squeak. A small rustling commotion among the audience as Chief Vaughn introduced Lt. Gonzalez from the Karnes County Emergency Management office covered Kate Heisel’s reply.

“For sure,” she whispered. “There’s going to be about a hundred-fifty head of Lazy-W cattle moved from a pasture on low ground moved from a low-lying pasture across the river into the Wyler Ranch, proper. Too many to truck, and too late to do anything but walk them through town. A real cattle drive – I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

***

“When is this going to happen?” Rich whispered back.

“In about twenty minutes,” Kate replied, sotto voice. “My … um … friend is going to call me when they get close to crossing Route 123.”

At his side, Jaimie Gonzales exclaimed in a normal voice, “No sh*t, Katie? I wanna see this!” to an enraged hiss of hushing from those nearest to them. At the microphone, Horatio Gonzalez broke off his introductory remarks to frown and address his juvenile kin.

“Is there something you wanted to share with us all?”

Unrepentant, Jaimie stood up and replied in a loud voice. “Yeah! Cousin Kate says there’s going to be a real-live cattle drive through town!”

Richard noted several things at once: Jess sinking down in her seat, Joe clapping on his wide-brimmed white Stetson and taking out his cellphone, and most of the assembled volunteers assuming expressions of lively interest.

“So – where they gonna go? Whose’ herd? How soon?” was the boiled-down essence of those questions which came thick and fast. Kate Heisel stood up, and finding her small height a disadvantage, stepped up onto her chair. Which being of the folding persuasion, was a perilous perch. Richard gave her a hand up, beating Jaimie to it by a short lead.

“It’s one of the Wyler herds,” she explained, and the timbre of her voice suggested something of embarrassment. “It’s an emergency. My informant has it that Lazy-W ranch management wanted it done and fast, so as to reduce panic …”

“A hundred and fifty cattle in the streets of Luna City – that will reduce panic all right,” Joe Vaughn observed, within the pick-up range of the standing microphone, so that his remarks were perfectly clear. “Katie – why don’t we know about this?”

“I thought that everyone had been informed,” Kate replied, in perfectly reasonable tones.

Joe Vaughn heaved up a deep sigh, from the depths of his soul. “All right, ladies and gentle-grunts – there is our very first flood-related emergency situation. All hands to battle-stations. How long do we have before the herd hits, Katie?”

“Twenty minutes, I think.” Now Kate sounded positively rattled. “Joe – I was sure your people already knew!”

“Well, we do now,” Joe noted. “OK, briefing’s suspended for the moment. Who’s in charge of the cattle drive, Katie? Doc Wyler?”

Kate nodded, concentrating on safely dismounting from a folding chair. Richard thought, fleetingly, that she may have leaned on him more than was absolutely necessary in doing so – but this was Kate, Kate of Kate Hall, as long as her camera lens was not pointed in his direction. Meanwhile, Joe was rapping out crisp directions alternately into his cellphone, his radio, and to the volunteers taking their places along the table.

“They’ll be taking them along Oak from 123 and the south side of Town Square, past the elementary school, and over to Cypress and north to the Wyler ranch. You better alert Jerry at the ISD. The elementary school is already dismissed for the day, but they’ll be going past the high school just at 4:00 … Just call everyone along those streets and alert them to what is going on. Cameras are optional, I guess. But shovels and wheelbarrows will be absolutely necessary afterwards.”

That was the last that Richard heard, over the hubble-bubble. Oddly enough, most everyone else appeared to think this was something exotic and exciting, worthy of notice, nearly as much as Richard did. They were vacating the fire department barn in a rush, all those whose services were not immediately required. Someone among the VFD staff on duty had obliged by raising the two garage doors.  Miss Letty, calm and magisterial as always, refused Richard’s assistance in joining the throng.

“My grandfather saw herds of cattle trailing through the streets quite often. Quite a nuisance it was at the time, he always said. The manure was useful, for gardens, of course.” She fell silent for a moment, and then added, “I suppose it has been years since you young people have seen such a thing, save in movies or on television.”

“It has, Miss Letty!” Katie chirped. “It’s why it’s news!”

Miss Letty snorted. “Sensation, Katherine. Pure vulgar sensation.”

“Sensation is my bread and butter,” Kate replied, not nearly as put down by Miss Letty’s obvious disapproval as Richard thought he would have been. “Vulgar or not. It’s something interesting, and new … or newly-new. I’m off, Miss Letty – my job. You know – that professional understanding that puts a meal on my table, pays for the gas in my car?”

“I know, dear,” Miss Letty unbent sufficiently to offer a smile. “You young girls have so many opportunities, these days. I’m not at all certain that some of them are for the betterment of our sex, but still … you have them.”

“I know,” Kate smiled in return, a smile that lit up her relatively ordinary face, and extraordinary blue-green, beryl-colored eyes. “And I’m not entirely lost to decency, Miss Letty. I do keep some news-worthy confidences.”

“And if you like, Miss Kate, I can offer a meal this evening,” Richard heard himself saying, to his utter horror. “At the Café … if you would like.” Where the holy ____ had that come from? Richard wondered, but Kate favored him with a blinding smile, and Miss Letty with an expression of wintery approval.

“I’d like that,” Kate said, and then went off at a trot in the direction of Oak Street which crossed from 123 into the regular – or somewhat regular grid of Luna City. That ridiculous oversized trench-coat flapped behind her like a loose sail. At the corner, she turned, and cupped her hands to shout, “See you after the trail drive, Richard!”

“So,” Miss Letty observed, after another short interval, in which they and the others had drifted down towards the Oak Street corner and spread out along the mostly-unimproved verge. (Sidewalks in Luna City didn’t begin for another half a block or so.) “How does the spider plant that I gave to you for your patio fare?”

“It’s still alive,” Richard replied. “Sending out a couple of small shoots. Baby spiders, I do believe. I hope they don’t choose to crawl indoors and begin spinning webs.”

“Excellent,” Miss Letty appeared amused. She and Richard had come to the corner, where a low wall of cut limestone adorned the roadside. Some years ago, a previous mayor – in a fit of municipal enthusiasm – had caused it to be built and adorned with cast-metal letters spelling out the words, “Welcome to Luna City – The Biggest Little Town in Texas.” One of the g’s had fallen off, and the last letter s was loose and tilted sideways. All the letters had bled dark smears of minerals down the pale stone, but the grass was clipped neatly around the wall.

Miss Letty took a large handkerchief out of her handbag and spread it on the level top. “I believe I shall sit and watch the excitement from here, Richard. And walk home if the meeting is not continued. I must say that it was good of you to take such an interest. The school cooking classes, the VFD and now Emergency Preparedness.”

“I don’t know if I’m all that much an addition to the strength,” Richard confessed. “I can barely manage a hose without knocking myself silly. And I do not drive. Really, all I can do is cook.”

“You have other skills, I am certain,” Miss Letty assured him. Richard was distracted – Kate was there, standing at the verge where the grass gave it up, in favor of a scattering of chippings and them the tarmac road, her camera out and at the ready.

“I can ride a bike and row a boat – and that’s about the limit. Look – I think the cattle are nearly here.” Richard shaded his eyes with one hand. The road out towards the river and Route 123 jogged slightly, so he could not see very far. A horseman came around the bend, then another, their hoofs clattering on the tarmac. To the west at their back, the clouds were mounting up in the pale sky; creamy mounds of cloud edged with fiery gold, sweeping shadows and light across the distant line of pale green hills dotted with dark green stands of oak. It was an unexpectedly theatrical setting, one which Richard pedaled through twice a day without noticing any outstanding aesthetic merit – but whether it was the clouds, the anticipation or whatever – the setting at that moment was almost epic-movie perfect. David Lean would have given his left testicle to get it on film in one uninterrupted take.

The first horseman was the perfect movie cowboy; a tall, fair young man, slouching easily in the saddle … and it was a Palomino horse, a golden horse with a dark mane and tail. The horse seemed to have a sense of occasion which the rider lacked; strutting along as if on parade, and there the mass of cattle following, tossing heads and red hides, shouldering each other as they followed.

“Santa Gertrudis,” Miss Letty remarked. “Stephen has a prize-winning herd of them. Also of Angus and Hereford. As well as a number of original Texas longhorns – although those, I believe, he keeps in the main pasture. The horns, you see – a hazard.”

“Amazing,” Richard breathed, and Miss Letty asked, “How so?”

“I usually see them as sides and quarters, already prepped.”

“Ah. You have an appreciation for where your chops and burgers come from,” Miss Letty’s sarcasm was restrained, which Richard appreciated.

“Well, of course. I like a good feed and I am not a vegan. Just – interesting to me to see a year’s worth of good beef suppers on the hoof, as it is.”

“Visions of steaks, stews and ragouts are dancing through your head?” Miss Letty had a wry turn of humor which Richard had really not observed to date.

“Yes,” and then Richard’s good humor turned all … well, to something. Kate with her camera dashed out into the road, in the path of that first horseman. Yes, of course the spectacle would be irresistible; a spirited horse, a handsome young rider in all the accoutrements of a classic cowboy. But that wasn’t the part which turned Richard’s attitude in the directions of sack, ash-cloth and discouragement. It was that Kate – his Kate – blew him a kiss on her fingertips.

And the cowboy on the Palomino laughed and returned the gesture.

This evening was not going to turn out well.