Happenstance

The arched ceiling lent the public library an air of tranquil liberty, as if it were easier to breathe inside than it was out on the street.  Jerry sat down at one of the large rectangular tables between the rows of bookshelves, removed his notepad, his pocket Thesaurus, and three Bic pens.  This day marked the commencement of a new kind of project for him.  Moderate success as a novelist and short story writer had helped to supplement his VA benefits in recent years, but lately he’d felt like trying something new.  Instead of another suspense novel or historical short fiction collection, he would embark on the creation of an epic poem in the tradition of Homer or Milton, a work to further distinguish him and solidify his literary legacy.

Forests of the Meremac,” he wrote on the top line of his notepad, “Part I.”  While contemplating the first image of the poem he noticed a woman three tables down, staring at him.  A beautiful woman, relatively young, sad-looking, the skin around her eyes slightly puffy as though she had been crying.  Upon making eye contact with him she smiled, awakening a brightness in her face that prompted him to smile back, and kindly nod a greeting.

The woman stood up, passed quietly up the aisle toward him, letting her fingertips graze the cotton fabric on Jerry’s shoulder, then proceeding out the door into the side lot of the library.  After making love to her in his car, he learned that her name was Lana and she worked at the Thai restaurant about a mile away.  She visited the library on her lunch break to enjoy its peace and quiet.  She told him goodbye, she had to get back to work, and maybe she’d see him around sometime.

Returning to the table and unpacking his things, Jerry recommenced the writing of his poem, envisioning the landscapes he’d seen, the oceans, cliffs, rivers, plains, and forests in all the places he’d traveled to throughout the world.  Finding no sufficiently powerful image to begin the piece, he turned to some of the books from which he hoped to draw inspiration.

First, he quoted Homer, the war metaphors of Agamemnon and his soldiers overwhelming the Trojan Army in The Iliad.  “Even as a lion easily crushes the speechless young of a swift deer, coming into its lair, seizing them in its powerful teeth and taking away their tender life—”

Next, he drew from The Odyssey, Circe’s warning to Odysseus to resist the Sirens’ song.  “If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song.  There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.”

Third, he recalled the envious cry of Satan upon seeing Adam and Eve for the first time in Paradise Lost.  “Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t/Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps/Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright/Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue/With wonder, and could love, so lively shines/In them Divine resemblance, and such grace/The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.”

Again he tried putting his pen to paper, and again he found no image, nor even one word, to start with.  Opting rather to devote the afternoon to promotional work, he collected his things and drove home to use his office computer.  He lived alone, and that evening he thought of Lana, replaying the details of their encounter outside the library.  He wondered if she might meet him again.  It was possible she’d intended it as a one-time, no strings attached type of connection, although she did say, “See you around,” when they said goodbye.  Jerry scratched the neck of his overfed border collie.  “Same deal tomorrow, Saucer.  We’ll try the poem again tomorrow.”

No sign of her the next day, or the next, or the next, and no matter how he struggled Jerry couldn’t produce a single line of his epic poem.  He’d sit there pondering, for hours some days, mining his intellect for the ideal words, moods, and images to catapult his readers into a grand thrilling adventure.  His fiction had practically written itself in the past, but poetry was different.  With fiction all he had to do was ramble on like he was telling a story to a group of friends around a campfire.  With poems each word had to count, every line had to radiate aesthetic power.

A week of fruitless writing sessions elapsed before he decided to stop by the Thai restaurant where Lana worked.  Worst case scenario, she wouldn’t want to see him and would ask him to leave.  Best case scenario, she’d be happy to see him and would go on a date that very evening.  The restaurant was empty, which wasn’t surprising at two forty-five.  No one at the desk to greet him.  Behind the desk an enormous golden dragon, the length of a small car, sat mounted on a base of elaborately carved jade.  The base rested on a wide cutout in the wall that looked designed to hold an aquarium of exotic fish.  He stood admiring the dragon for a moment, beholding its dynamic posture, intricate features, and shiny gold scales, its blazing yellow eyes fixed on him.

“Can-help you, sir?” a man shouted through the cutout.  One of the cooks, perhaps the only cook, had spotted him from the kitchen.

“Oh, hello.  Is Lana here?  I’m looking for Lana.”

“Lana went home.  She gone today.  Come back, tomorrow.”

“Do you happen to have her phone number?”  Jerry raised his thumb and pinky to his ear.  “Phone number?”

The cook peered over the dragon through the cutout.  “Ah, yes.  Wait a minute.”  A minute later he marched around the wall to hand him a slip of paper.  “Lana house.  You friend.  See you now.  Bye.”

Jerry left, unfolding the paper as he walked down the sidewalk.  It read:  Lana Kendrol, 2103 Sentry St., Apt. 3-D1.  He consulted his phone for directions.

The beige brick building was located in a courtyard with seven other identical buildings.  The buzzer for 3-D1 had a blank plastic strip beside it, and made no sound when Jerry pressed it, so he started up the steps.  Rounding the banister between the second and third floors, the words, “He who does not gather with me scatters,” spray-painted in tall black letters, halted him at the foot of the final set of stairs.  “He who does not gather with me scatters,” he said slowly, lightly wheezing.  The source of the words eluded him.  They reminded him of a bedtime story his grandma used to read.  Scratching his head, he carried on up the stairs and knocked loudly on Lana’s door.  No sound inside, no music or voices, until she appeared.

“Jerry?”

“Hi, Lana,” he smiled.  “I’m sorry to surprise you like this.  You never gave me your number.  The cook at your restaurant, he told me where you live.  I just wanted your phone number, but he—I’m sorry, are you busy right now?”

“Well, it is my day off.  I was trying to relax a bit.  Food service is no joke.  The pay isn’t bad, though.”  Noticing his breathing, she invited him in.

“Nice place,” he said, glancing around the small yet stylishly decorated living room.

“Thank you, sir,” she handed him a beer.  “So what brings you here?”

“Good question,” he laughed.  “I’ve been trying to write this poem, it’s an epic poem, you know, like The Odyssey or Paradise Lost.  That’s what I was doing at the library last week.”

Lana sipped her beer.  “How’s it going so far?”

“Not well.”

“No?”

“No.  For the first time in my career I can’t seem to start the damn thing.  Usually the words just roll out like, like the gears of a clock.”

“Quite the metaphor,” she smiled.

“Simile, actually—not really important.  Look, do you wanna go out sometime?  I had a great time the other day and I’d like to see you again, more formally, hopefully, like a date.”

Lana froze with the glass halfway to her lips.  “Jerry, I have a boyfriend.”

“What?”

“Sorry, yeah, I thought you knew.  What happened last Tuesday was…  I just needed to feel better.”

He sat still for a second as the words sank in.  “You mean your boyfriend doesn’t care if you…”

“It’s not like I tell him about it, but yeah, he knows.  We have an agreement.”

“Huh… Alright.  In that case, I guess I’ll be leaving.”  He set his beer on the table and stood up.

“You’re not upset, are you?”

“Me?  No, why should I be?  I’m sorry to show up like this.”

“Don’t be.  Please.”  Lana’s eyes were kind, sincere.

On his drive home he switched the radio to the Classic Rock station.  He drove slowly, carefully rounding corners, gradually applying the brakes and gas.  One of his all-time favorite songs started playing, and he turned it up until it hurt his ears.  Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better…

 

4 Screenplays

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

A high school English teacher battles loneliness, persecution, and oppression in an increasingly chaotic world.  The story of the Prophet Elisha retold in an imaginative style.  A heist film about an art thief who dares to steal the ultimate prize.  A noir mystery following a young man through a maze of greed, murder, and deception.  This collection of screenplays tells a vibrant combination of tales through intriguing dialogue, crisp and colorful images, and a skillful knowledge of cinematic storytelling.

Robert Lampros is an author of Christian poetry, essays, and fiction.  He earned a Bachelor’s in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.  His books include Afternoon, Undivided Lines, and Soft on the Devil.

 

Creve Coeur

The sand on the beach shoring the east edge of the lake is dark and mixed with pebbles.  The grains make a crunching sound under your feet as you walk, a steady wind gusts in over the water, and angled ridges break gently on the shore.  Less than a mile across the lake’s elliptical shape the western edge presents a green forest in Spring and Summer, a bare marshy woodland in Winter after the vibrant Fall leaves have faded.  On the southeast edge where the drive ends and the walking trail curves into the trees, a quiet waterfall sheds a light stream over a layered wall of rock maybe three stories high.  The waterfall, according to legend, was the site of a young woman’s suicide many years ago.

The Northern route of the Trail of Tears arcs just south of St. Louis, the route the Cherokee were forced to walk after white settlers forced them out of their territories in the Southeastern United States.  Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians walked the Trail as well, beginning in 1830, their routes heading west although somewhat farther south.  By 1837, forty-six thousand Native Americans had been removed from their homelands, making twenty-five million acres of land available for the settlers.  Exact statistics are unknown, but roughly four of the sixteen thousand Cherokee died on the journey, and thousands more from the other tribes.

The woman who killed herself by jumping off the waterfall was a Native American.  The legend says she jumped because the man she loved, a French tradesman, had broken her heart, which is how the lake got its name, Creve Coeur.  Above the waterfall a creek runs down through the hills where an outdoor archery range is set up now.  I used to climb up the rocky path and duck down beside the stream and write, before an arrow hummed loudly overhead one day and made me reconsider.  Once, in the middle of writing a poem, I caught a glimpse of a woman running toward the stone ledge and leaping off, only to be joined at the peak of her jump by two winged angels, one on either side, who took hold of her arms and lifted her away into heaven.

 

Vincent Skybolt

Vincent Skybolt, best known for his work as vocalist and front man of the heavy metal group, Death Pandas of Milan, was born Vincent Raymond Kinison on May 15, 1944.  His father, Henry John Kinison, an American aircraft engineer, and his mother, Renée Miller-Kinison, a Scottish factory worker-turned-avant-garde painter, met in Tunisia when their flights had intersecting layovers in the capital city of Tunis.  Renée accompanied Henry to Indianapolis, where they were married, and the following year young Vincent was born.

The future dark Rock pioneer, considered by some to be the most prodigal musical curiosity of the twentieth century, emerged from the womb with a malformed right ear and jawline, the earlobe stretching to just below the hinge of his jaw and fusing with the soft skin underneath his right mandible.  This deformity served as inspiration for his stage name, Vincent Skybolt, since in his early teens he adopted the custom of telling those who asked about his face that he had been struck by lightning when, on a dare, he’d climbed to the top of an electrical tower during a thunderstorm.  Severely rattled, he admitted, though not incapacitated, he’d managed to climb back down and avoid further injury.

Much of Vincent’s early life remains unknown.  Dropping out of high school his sophomore year, in the Fall of 1960, he took the stage unannounced at his Homecoming dance, overpowering the befuddled doo-wop group, Shooby and The Boppers, with a deafening rendition of one of his earliest original songs, “Pumpkin-Muffie Insane.”  Lyrics:
Greed will murder your soul,
Greed will drive you insane!

Repeat, 3X
Pumpkin-Muffie your soul,
Pumpkin-Muffie insane!

Repeat, 1X
Repeat all, 4X

Between then and the release of his band’s self-titled debut, Death Pandas of Milan, nearly fourteen years later, little is known about the specifics of Vincent’s work and life.  Rumors persist about him scaling the summit of Everest, barehandedly subduing rogue hippopotami in the jungles of Mozambique, researching snake venom resistance in northern Siberia, and taming homicidal Great Whites in Australia.  Prior to the album’s release in 1974 few people had ever heard the name, Vincent Skybolt, and in the years after as well.  Death Pandas of Milan sold seventy-one copies in the United States, four hundred and sixty-three copies worldwide, to the disappointment of his bandmates, whom he had met in the course of his travels.

Archibald Plundertribe ~  lead guitar, pipes, theremin
Menelaus Williams ~  drums, percussion, gas engines, xylophone
Barnabas X ~  piano, keyboards
Yip Wong Phan ~  bass, cello, alpenhorn

Vincent sings lead vocals and plays rhythm guitar on a majority of the group’s nineteen studio albums recorded between 1974 and his alleged death in 2008.  Many of them weren’t released upon completion, and most of the albums have yet to be made available to the public.

To conclude this brief biography, the lyrics of one of Vincent Skybolt’s finest solo compositions, “Deathboat to Snowhere”:
Skies on fire, burn so bad,

Skies on ice, cold, cold skice!
Skies that hunger, oceans of hunger,
Deathboat to snowhere, sink us down…

Repeat, 6X

 

Shooting an Elephant (Orwell)

Here’s an excellent essay about George Orwell’s time in Burma.  Spoiler alert:  He shoots the elephant.

In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.  I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter.  No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress.  As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so.  When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.  This happened more than once.  In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves.  The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all.  There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.  (continued at link below)

Shooting an Elephant, by George Orwell

 

Fiction, Poems, and Essays

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

Four novellas, a short story collection, and selected poems and essays comprise this book.  The novellas focus on the lives of protagonists in their teens and twenties who face and overcome impossible, though adventurous, challenges.  The stories and poems reveal aspects of life and nature in unique and inspiring ways, from perspectives centered on Christian faith.  The essays discuss a wide range of topics while blending humor, history, personal observations, and eternal truths of Scripture.

Robert Lampros is an author of Christian poetry, essays, and fiction.  He earned a Bachelor’s in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.  His books include Fits of TranquilityLast Year’s ResolutionUndivided Lines, and Soft on the Devil.

 

Soft on the Devil

Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com

When Cindy Myran doesn’t return home one night, within days everyone in her neighborhood assumes she’s dead, but Ian Phillips isn’t so pessimistic.  She shows up at his door a week later, in need of help and running for her life.  What happens next draws him into a labyrinth of murder, corruption, and danger, where nothing is clear and sinister secrets lurk in the shadows.  Only Ian’s courage, faith, and determination can uncover the mystery and deliver him and those he loves out of darkness and into the peaceful light of safety.

SOFT ON THE DEVIL

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.  The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”  Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”  Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!”  So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.       Job 1:6-12

 

Chapter 1

One of my uncles used to say judging other people based on what you can see is dangerous, because what you see isn’t always a reflection of who they are.  He said the world has a way of slanting things to make a person’s life look different than it truly is, and sometimes people look better, and other times they look worse.  He said more often than not when something bad happens to a person, sickness, tragedy, death, he or she had that evil coming because of the bad stuff they’d done and hadn’t repented of, but occasionally, something terrible happens to someone who doesn’t deserve it at all.  Like with Job, God allows it as a test, to prove His faithfulness and eventually show forth His mercy and compassion.  I don’t know whether or not my uncle was right, I just thought that was a good way to start the story I’m telling, about what I’ve seen and heard since last summer.

A woman in my apartment complex went missing last June.  Cindy Myran.  Most of my neighbors assumed she was dead, given her reputation as a drunk and an addict, and the way she came and went at odd hours, the people who picked her up always shouting, laughing, and making a scene out in the street.  My upstairs neighbor, Gary, said he thought she’d been murdered.

“Women like that get killed all the time,” he told me, a real serious look in his eyes.  “They go out partying and strut around town, hop in cars with the loudest, meanest guy that takes an interest, and sooner or later he gets tired of her yapping and loses control.  Or maybe she gets real unlucky and goes off with a really evil man who breaks her neck one night for the fun of it.”  Gary twisted his hands like he was uncapping a pickle jar.

“Don’t you think she might have moved away,” I asked, “or gone to stay with a friend out of town somewhere?”

“She didn’t tell nobody.  Kelly says she always calls and asks her to get her mail if she’s gonna be gone this long.”

“I know, but it’s possible she forgot to call Kelly, or thinks she already did, like a slip of her memory.”

Gary sneered.

“No, wait.  I’ve got a sixth sense about stuff like this.  I think we’ll see Cindy again.”

I remember being at work that week and feeling a dark cloud over everyone, even with the sunlight pouring through the windows and the people walking in from the lake all tired and rosy.  They’d order a slice of gourmet pizza and a microbrew, and I’d ring it up on the register.  I worked at the café counter of an EarthWay grocery store in the county, where those who could afford it shopped for organically grown, locally farmed meat and produce.  The majority of my customers were married women, and I had to be careful because some of them liked to flirt.  A few of my coworkers liked to flirt too, which may have been why my boss, Vera, put me on the register and kept Rob and Casey on the food line.  The Friday after Cindy went missing, one customer started flirting with me, but it turned out to be something else entirely.

It was after the lunch rush, one-thirty or so, and she walked up as I was counting and clipping the small bills, a lady with straight black hair down to her shoulders, white skin, and dark eye makeup and lipstick.  She scared me a little, I looked up and she was there.

“Can I help you, ma’am?”

“I’m checking out the menu,” she said slowly, her eyes scanning the items overhead.

I set the stacks of ones and fives aside and waited.

“The Portabella Melt sounds delicious,” she smiled.

“It’s one of the favorites,” I said.  “Is that what you want?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, a hint of playful agony in her voice.  “What would you get if you were me?”

“I like the salmon avocado pizza,” I said matter-of-factly.

“That sounds nice.”

I waited while she scanned the menu a little longer.

“I’ll have the Portabella Melt,” she said at last.  “You look like that actor, from those old movies.  What’s his name, um…”

“Joseph Cotten.”

“Is that his name?”

“It’s what people say.”

“Maybe.  Anyway, you’re very handsome.  How much do I owe you?”

“Would you like a drink or dessert with that?”

“No, thanks.”

“Your total is twelve forty-three.  For here or to go?”

“To go, please.”

After running her credit card and handing her the receipt, I told her the food would be ready in a few minutes and we’d call her name at the end of the counter.  Later on, at about seven o’clock as I was leaving work, I saw her again, the same woman, sitting in her car in the EarthWay parking lot nearly six hours after she’d left the café.  She was watching me when I saw her so I turned away real quick and kept walking calmly to my car.  No one followed me out of the lot, but I took a detour from my normal route back to the city just in case.

The following week I turned on the tv—I usually watch a half hour of news before switching to a movie or doing some reading—and on the Tuesday night in question there was a story about the school district I lived in, Meremac South, being under investigation for allegations of fraud and abuse of public funds.  They didn’t say anything else about it, the anchor just left it at that, which kind of frustrated me because I’d gone to high school at Meremac South and if someone was stealing money from those schools I wanted to know.

I read the Bible before bed that night, and I remember exactly what I read because of what happened in the middle of it.  Chapter 1 of the Book of Jeremiah.  “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.  I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’”  I must have read for at least an hour, and as I was struggling over one of the Scriptures, a knock came on the door.  The knock was quiet but had an energy behind it that made it feel loud.  I closed my Bible and set it aside, stood up, and went to the door, careful not to make any noise in case it was someone looking for trouble.  When I put my eye up to the peephole, there was Cindy Myran.

This was surprising for a number of reasons.  One, the general consensus in my neighborhood was that Cindy was dead.  I didn’t personally believe this to be the truth, but part of me had been afraid it was.  Two, prior to her going missing she and I never talked.  I’d lent her some quarters and dryer sheets in the laundry room a few times but we hardly knew each other.  Three, I lived on the opposite side of the courtyard in our apartment complex, so even if she knocked on a random door for help the odds of it being mine were slim to none.

While hesitating for a moment to consider my options, I heard her say, “Open up, Ian, I saw you look through the peephole.”

“Okay,” I said back, unlocking the door.

“Can I come in, please?”

“Of course,” I nodded and let her walk past me.  “Have a seat.  I’ll get you a drink.  Do you like Diet Sprite?”

“Do you have any beer?” she asked, sitting down on the couch.

“I think so.  Yeah, I’ve got a couple harvest wheat ales, and a—”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Okay.”  I brought her a beer and opened one for myself.  “Cheers, you’re alive,” I smiled, raising my bottle.

“You think anyone’d care if I wasn’t?”

“I’d care.  I mean, we don’t know each other, but—Kelly, she’d care.”

“Kelly only cares cause I get her high.  She’d be sad about that, though, you’re right.”

“Can I get you some aspirin or something?  How about food, are you hungry?”

“If you’ve got some granola bars or something I can take with me, that’d be great.  I can’t stay here for long, they might come looking.”

“Who might come looking?”

She chugged the rest of her beer.  “The kind of guys you don’t name unless you do want to die.  Listen, Ian, everyone knows you’re a good person—”

I spat a mouthful of beer onto the wooden table between us, and some of it splashed up on her left knee and thigh.  “I’m sorry,” I coughed, “I didn’t expect you to say that.”

“What?  It’s true.  You have a good reputation, you’re honest.”

“I guess so.”  I handed her a paper towel from the kitchen and started wiping up the beer.

“I need fifty dollars for a bus ticket to Bradson City.”

“I don’t have fifty dollars.  I have five.”

“You work in Pineville and you don’t have fifty bucks?”

“I just settled some overdue rent with John.  I’m a pizza cashier, by the way—how’d you know where I work?”

“You don’t get out much, do you.”  Cindy shook her head, planted her face in her hands.  “Uhhhhhh,” she groaned.

“If you want, I can drive you to Bradson City.”

She peeked up through her fingers.  “You’d do that?”

“Sure.  I’ve got a full tank, you’re running for your life…  It makes sense.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she squealed, jumping up and hugging me.

“I’ll have to call in sick tomorrow.  We can wait till morning, can’t we?”

“No.  Yes, we can,” she smiled.  “Thank you.”

“Alright.  I hope the couch is okay for you to sleep on.  I’ll get you a blanket.”

In the morning, I woke up to find an empty couch, no Cindy, no note, only the blanket folded neatly over the armrest and a few empty beer bottles on the kitchen counter.  “Guess I don’t have to take the day off work,” I said.  I walked across the courtyard to Kelly’s place to ask if she’d seen her the night before.

“Honey, Cindy’s dead.  I thought everybody knew that by now.”

“Everyone thought she was dead, but I don’t assume stuff like that.  I had the feeling she might have dropped by here last night at eleven or twelve.”

“If she did then it was her ghost who showed up.  They found Cindy’s body in the woods down by the lake.  Don’t you have a tv?”

I heard Kelly’s voice speak these words and saw her lips moving, but their meaning didn’t sink in right away.  I shuffled back to my apartment like a zombie and sat down at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a plate of untoasted poptarts.  Our conversation the night before revolved through my mind, Cindy’s face, her words, the urgency of her request, faded into the hollow ache of nothingness.  I made myself eat, chewing quickly and washing down the synthetic sweetness with strong black coffee.  Then, standing up, I approached the television, took a deep breath, and pressed the power button.  The screen showed trees, police officers, and emergency vehicles, with a caption reading:  “Woman Found Dead at Hoppersand Lake.”

 

Undivided Lines

Available at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com

Undivided Lines is a collection of stories about wisdom, love, adventure, and redemption, featuring a diverse range of characters who brave challenging and life-altering experiences.  From a tenacious senator defending the legacy of his work, to a Native American youth fighting for survival in his homeland, to a new mother traveling the galaxy to solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearance, these stories entertain, amaze, and enlighten.

From Undivided Lines:

The Senator

“The first sign of the decay of nations is when they begin to have common gods.  When gods begin to be common gods, the gods die as well as the faith in them, together with the people themselves.  The more powerful a nation, the more individual its god.”  — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons

The senator’s crisp white sleeves made a whisking sound as he punched, jab, jab, right cross, left hook, left uppercut, jab…  He kept his chin in and head down, weaving lightly back and forth.  The standing mirror in front of him quaked gently after every punch, faintly blurring his reflection, as he threw his fists harder, faster, exacting a fierce combination of head and body blows until the whole room began shaking, then he slowed, dropped his hands to his sides, stood there and watched himself breathing.

“You don’t get into my line of work unless you care about people and want to make a difference in the world.  I look back at who I was thirty, forty years ago, and it amazes me how much I didn’t know.  It astounds me.  You could fill a library floor-to-ceiling with volumes of books about the staggering depths of my ignorance.  The knowledge I’ve gained since then has changed my opinion about some things, but honestly, the reasons for me staying in this fight are the same as when I started.  My heart’s the same, it’s about heart.”

The boy glanced up at the creases branching out of the corner of his dad’s eye.  “Brandon said his grandpa had a heart attack a while ago, and he died.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  May Brandon’s grandpa rest in peace.  Steven, I’m talking about your figurative heart, like your spirit.  When heart attacks happen it’s your physical heart, here…”  He pressed his hand against the boy’s chest.  “That’s what pumps your blood.  I’m talking about the heart you feel with, the heart that makes you strong.”

“Where is that one at?”

“Same place, I suppose.  Only it’s invisible.”

“Invisible?”  The boy’s eyes opened wide as he smiled.

“Never mind.  The point I was trying to make is whatever you decide to do with your life, you’d better make doggone sure you’re doing it for more than a paycheck.  You can farm money trees for all I care, but if you haven’t got a bigger goal than making money, you might as well set those trees on fire.”

Burn money trees?”

“You bet, burn ‘em up.”

“Wouldn’t that be a waste—”

“No, it wouldn’t be a waste.”  He looked at his son’s blank expression.  “Yes, it would be a waste, but only because of what you could accomplish with all that money, the businesses you could start, people you could feed, and bless, and help out of all kinds of trouble.  The money itself isn’t the thing, is what I’m saying.”

“The money isn’t the thing,” the boy echoed.

“Correct.”

“Isn’t the thing,” he said again, more softly.

The pavilion they were in had a green pyramid-shaped roof made of hard plastic that started to click right then with the impact of heavy raindrops.  Click-click, click, click-click-click, click, click-click, click…

The senator cast an irritated glance upward.  “Did they design this thing to be obnoxious in the rain?”

The pavilion was built on a bridge spanning a small lake in a park near their home, and the fish started jumping once the rain began, launching out over the rippling surface and splashing down, or merely churning the lake with a whip of their tails and descending.

“Whoa!  Did you see that?” the boy asked, his eyes lit like high beams.

“Must have been a five-pounder,” he answered.

Steven jumped up and walked over to the railing, then, feeling the cold rain, leapt back under the roof of the pavilion.  “It’s cold.”

“It’ll stop soon.  You see those clouds over there, the gap over those trees?  The wind is driving ‘em this way.  We may see sunny skies before lunchtime.”

Sitting down again, he turned and asked, “What’s for lunch, you think?”

“Chips,” the man smiled.  “Salsa.  P, b, and j.  Doubt mom’s gonna fix anything today.  She might, though.  Never know.”

The rain slowed to a light drizzle.

The man cleared his throat.  “Steven, I want to tell you something, and this may have been what I was trying to say earlier.  You’re too young now to understand it, perhaps, but I’m not getting any younger myself, so here goes.  Grown-ups, we do the best we can.  We start out as little kids just like you, everything’s new and interesting, the world’s a great big adventure.  We go to school and get jobs, start families, and hopefully put our time and effort into something useful.  The problem is, most of the time, the simple goal of building something, building a career, a life, can be the most difficult task in the world.  And people can hate you for it, even when you’re just trying to help.”

“Hate you?”

“That’s right.  Now life is complicated, son, and the world, it’s a chaotic place.  Chaotic, you know, crazy.  For everything that goes right and smooth and the way it’s supposed to go, there’s about fourteen hundred things that go wrong along with it.  I’m not saying I’ve been a perfect man, far from it.  But I have tried, every step of the way, to steer clear of trouble, both for myself and your mother, for you, Helen, Jenny, and Allen, and most importantly for the American people.  My job is tough, Steve, tougher than you know.  You’ve got to fight and do the best you can to help the highest number of people you can, and half the time you’re killing yourself just to steer clear of the next catastrophe.  Catastrophe, like a disaster, like an earthquake or something.  Anyway, that’s what I tried to do, day in, day out, for thirty some-odd years.”  He smiled.  “So don’t let them tell you different.”

The boy glanced up at him, half-smiled, and gazed out over the water.

“You hungry?  Let’s go get that p, b, and j.”

As they crossed the bridge onto the path that curved up toward the front of the park, it started raining again, harder than before.  The senator hopped a few times and started running, smiling back at the boy, and letting Steven run on ahead.

 

From the Pit

A jagged diamond of bright white light, fuzzy like he was looking through an unfocused camera, appeared directly above him.  At the same time the pain awoke, a searing fire in his lower back and legs, and then he noticed the cold.  He didn’t want to move in case he’d broken something when he fell, assuming he could move, and assuming he did fall, so he just laid there, blinking up at the jagged white diamond.

The sides of the enclosure gleamed softly beneath the opening, a faint silvery luminescence gracing the edges and faces of the gray-black rock unlike any of the rocks he’d seen in the hills around his home.  “Home,” he thought.  Where was home?  Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck his back, convulsed his whole body, a cloud of steam burst up toward the diamond light, then another, smaller cloud, and another, each one frying his nerves like a blast of fire.  “Note to self,” he thought when the pain had settled.  “Try not to cough.”

How he had landed at the bottom of the pit may have been a useful question to try to answer, but his memories vanished like fleeing shadows; his own name wrestled free from his grasp.  A fall like this practically guaranteed severe brain trauma.  Staring up at the diamond some seventy feet above he felt a rush of gratitude for being preserved alive.  Drawing open his jaw, he whispered a word of thanks, one word, “God.”

Soon after that he slept, he must have, because the next thing he knew the diamond had disappeared and the pit was covered in darkness.  Fixing his eyes on the place where the light had shone down he searched for stars, clouds, the slightest hint of moonlight, yet found nothing, and shutting his eyes again, resolved to sleep until daylight.  Before the numbness could swallow him, a crawling sensation on his right calf alerted him to the presence of some creature lurking there, a small animal with strength, insect or lizard.  With a simultaneous kick of his right foot and flail of his left arm, he managed to smack it off, then laid as still as possible till the fire in his bones subsided.  Sleep overtook him, smiling in the dark.  He could move.

The next day proved somewhat productive, though advancement was slow.  By the hour at which the diamond began to grow dim he’d completed a turn onto his stomach, and had inched forward two or three feet in the direction of what he judged to be the closest wall of the enclosure.  The floor of the pit, mostly sand and gravel with a few large rocks the size of car batteries, felt soaked by collected rain water or maybe thin puddles seeping up from an underground stream.  Whatever its source the liquid was nearly frozen, numbing his flesh on contact.  Sinking into sleep that night, his thoughts narrowed upon the goal of crawling to the wall by the end of the following day.  He remembered a line his brother used to say, a quote from the Bible.  “All things,” he whispered.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Voices, sounds, groaning…  Spirits churning in the deep…  Dull chanting like the songs of a demon choir woke him, drove him up past the surface of oblivion.  He gasped, a quick succession of panting breaths, the gritty taste of sand in his cheek.  He turned his head upright and spat, resting his chin on a smooth flat stone, and blinking his eyes, detected the faint sheen on the nearest wall, twelve, thirteen feet away.  “This is possible,” he assured himself.  Drawing three more deep breaths, he hoisted the weight of his torso onto his right elbow, unleashing a tortured wail, and threw all the power he could summon from his right shoulder and lat into propelling his upper body forward, in the hope that his legs would advance behind him.  The maneuver planted him flat on his face in the rocks, with a succession of gnawing aches pulsing out from the base of his spine.  Ten long minutes elapsed before the agony receded enough for him to open his eyes and gauge the progress he’d made.  The gently luminous wall still shone twelve feet away.

The day he’d set for reaching it became one week, and the week became two.  Every attempt to move forward tormented him worse than the last, however this impression faded with the agony itself.  When the sober working of his faculties returned at the end of the day, he believed the pain to be lessening with each new attempt.  Whether or not this was wishful thinking, or the projected longing of sheer faithful desperation, was impossible to say.  He hoped the pain was receding, that his body was healing, but these concerns fell into periphery on the morning he reached the wall.

The full utility of his right arm and most of the use of his left would help him grip the holds and hang there, for a few minutes at least, to catch his breath, before pulling up to the next resting place.  To even begin the climb required a minimum of leg strength to support his body while resting, letting him search out the next viable hold with his free hand.  His legs had proven useless during his journey across the floor of the pit, since any endeavor to bend his knees or push with his feet spiked a debilitating shock into his back, blinding him and nearly rendering him unconscious.  But he felt better now, stronger, like God had empowered him for the second phase of his escape.

Turning so he sat with his back against the wall, he felt behind him for leverage to stand up without bending his legs.  Securing his palms to the edges of two uneven holds about a foot off the ground, he strained up and back, shifting more and more weight onto his outstretched legs, lifting higher, to the highest position his grip would allow, the pain smoldering in his back, until his left palm slipped off the wall and he fell, catching himself with a backwards slide of his right foot, able somehow to support him now.

He stood up for what felt like the first time ever.  He turned around, rocked from heels to toes, heels to toes, leaned his head back and shouted for joy.  The bright diamond beamed down at him from a height that looked insurmountable.  His joy ceased instantly, destroyed by the cruel hammer of reality, and he dropped, hollow, to the ground.

For days he stayed there, curled up by the wall.  The sun would rise, somewhere, illumine the mouth of his pitiful den, grace the cold rock in front of him with a soft blue sheen, and set again, immersing his life in empty darkness.  One day, two, three, he stopped counting, buried his mind in the chambers of his soul where a soft dim warmth still glowed.  Waves of grief passed through, turned him over in riptides of hungriest despair, roaring death pounded nightly at his door, and then, hearing no answer, tore away again, letting warm comfort envelop him and soothe his damaged heart.

One morning as the diamond light waxed brighter up above, he extended his arm, pressed his hand against the cool angular surface, when instantly the stone awoke, enlivened by his touch and animated inside by golden flowing particles of light.  The light poured through the rock, entered his fingers and traveled up his arm, collecting at his core and radiating outward in slowly widening rings.  This occurrence jolted him awake, though he failed to move from his place by the wall.  No physical sensation had accompanied the influx of this new light, but rather an awareness, the sudden activation of knowledge so familiar, so native to his soul, as if a vital circuit were now restored, engaging the harmony and totality of his being.  Silently rolling onto his back, and standing up, he started to climb.

Carefully at first, making certain not to slip, testing the holds with his hands and feet before committing his weight to them, then more quickly, each safe elevation adding new courage, strength, boldness.  Toward the light he struggled with increasing confidence and ease, joints and muscles working smoothly, painlessly, like he’d been built to scale this wall, intentionally designed to conquer this surface.  The stone gleamed brighter and brighter—in an instant he felt it, his right hand breached the diamond entrance of the enclosure and grabbed hold of the jagged shelf.

A combined lift and pull of his arms let him swing his foot over the ledge, and at last he was free, on his back in the light.  Shielding his eyes, cautiously, he looked around.  At first all he saw was mini-blinds.  Light filtered through the horizontal bars outlining a female body standing beside him, speaking quickly and squeezing his arm.  The words grew clearer as his vision sharpened, and he saw her, a young dark-haired woman wearing a stethoscope and black scrubs.

“Don’t try to move,” she told him.  “Can you understand what I’m saying?  Blink once for yes and two for no.”

“I can hear you fine,” he said.

“You can talk.”

“I can talk.”

“Stay still, please, sir.  We’re going to have to run some tests.”