Ficly

One of the unwritten and uncompiled rules of the internet:

Nothing cool stays unknown for very long.

In other words, cream rises. Many hands (on keyboards) make short work.

Phil Plait, the proprietor of the blog Bad Astronomy, without even knowing it, turned me on to an interesting short fiction site:

Ficly

Cool terse fiction! Check out the site. It’s like fiction haiku. I may try my hand…

Larry

The Sunflower Box

Friday morning I was loading papers into my car at the Herald-Whig loading dock. My route boss approached me and said, “Larry, I hear that you’ve been forgetting to deliver in the Sunflower Box, out on North 244th St.”

A vague memory surfaced of my predecessor on the route showing me such a box. I had completely forgotten about it! I had been delivering into the customer’s regular mailbox.

I looked around while on that street Friday but didn’t see that particular box. Early Saturday morning I made another attempt. It was difficult, because many boxes don’t have the street address printed on them. It was also dark, which didn’t help. By a process of elimination I determined that one particular driveway must be the one.

The driveway looped around, and then the Sunflower Box was illuminated by my headlights. How could I have missed it! It was eight feet tall and featured a monstrous sunflower blossom at the top, along with several painted sheet-metal leaves.

During the decades following WWII there a was a flowering of rural metal folk art. Once rural electrification was complete, farmers and other rural people quickly acquired stick welding equipment, some of it fashioned from army surplus components. Scrap is always plentiful on a farm and a generation of farmers grew up welding, both to fix farm equipment and just for fun. This mailbox is a great example of such folk art. I can picture the scene in a farm kitchen. An adolescent boy is explaining his idea to his father:

“We need a new mailbox, Dad! The old post is falling over and using steel the new one will last forever!”

“I don’t know, son. A sunflower? Wouldn’t it be putting on airs to set such a box out by the road?”

“We could put it by the house, Dad! The mailman could just circle around to deliver to us. He’d like that — no more parking alongside the road, don’t ya think?”

“Well, okay… Knock yourself out, boy!”

Larry

An Early Morning Quincy Scene

“It was a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets…” oops, wrong station! Allow me to twiddle the dial — [whee-oop, beep-de-beep-beep, beep-beep-de-beep, schwaaa-squork]

“… in Quincy, downtown at one AM, early Saturday morning. The scene is a poorly-lit loading dock behind the Quincy Herald-Whig newspaper building. Motor route drivers are lounging around, smoking cigarettes and engaging in fitful bursts of desultory conversation. The papers are late.

I’m leaning against someone’s battered route car and listening to Roger tell a gruesome tale of road-kills the previous day. We talk about the likelihood of seeing a cougar cross the road.

A small and skinny black man maneuvers his motorized wheelchair between the car and a pickup truck. The man is wearing a leather cap and seems to be trying to get our attention. I approach him and lean towards the man and try to make out what he is saying. I think that perhaps he wants to bum a cigarette. I notice an invisible haze of wine fumes emanating from him.

The old man mumbles and I really can’t understand him, but he seems to want me to come with him. Something about opening a car door — can this guy drive? He beckons me onward and before I know it I’m accompanying him across the street.

He says, “Oh, my hands are cold! I can’t work the door, but I bet you can!”

The mystery is cleared up when the man wheels his chair up a switch-backed ramp and pauses before a security door. The two-story brick building seems to be some sort of government-subsidized apartment block.

He says, “The numbers are [mumble mumble]”

The door has a panel with six buttons arranged vertically and a turn-lever. I peer at it; the light is dim and I can’t make out the numbers.

“Here, lemme try again.”, he says, and leans forward from the wheelchair and attempts to push the buttons.

The man fails, and says, “You try, okay? One… three… six!”

I push the buttons but the lever isn’t working.

“It’s kinda tricky! Ya just have to be quick and turn it towards the right.”

I finally get it and the door swings open.

The man says, “Hey, couldja help me get my leg outa the stirrup? I have trouble liftin’ it.”

I lean over, grasp the man’s spindly calf, and lift it up and over so that his foot reaches a footrest.

“Aw, thanks, man!”, he says.

“Have a good night!”, I say, and return to the loading dock.

“Hey, Larry, didja get him in? He was kinda stinko, right?”

There is some more good-natured raillery, and then the bundles of newspapers are sliding down the rollers and we all begin to prepare for our routes.”

[squee-awk… squee-awk… squee-awk]

We interrupt this radio drama to bring you an emergency announcement. An alien spacecraft has landed in Washington Park and the tentacled occupants are demanding blood sacrifice. We ask that public-spirited volunteers report to the park immediately… oh, no! What’s that coming through the ceiling?

[crashing noises and the sound of ripping sheet-metal, then nothing but ominous static interrupted by faint Morse code]

Larry, who turns off the radio with a frown.

Mule On Location

The director shouts through a bullhorn: “Action!” A cameraman perched on a hydraulic lift platform starts the pixels rolling:

[The scene: a blustery October afternoon in rural Western Illinois. A small dusty red car comes around a curve in a gravel road. On the convex side of the curve is a wall of trees; on the concave side a closely-cropped hill pasture. The car pulls over and stops. A man in a blue sweatshirt and white billed cap emerges from the car, stretches, and looks around. The man notices some sort of equine animal in the pasture and gets his camera out.]

[Photo taken, the man walks to the pasture’s electric fence and gingerly steps over it. The equine creature is now recognizable as a mule. The animal sees the man and begins to walk towards him eagerly, evidently mistaking the man for a familiar human.]

[The mule realizes that the man in fact is an odd-smelling stranger. The creature bolts into the trees bordering the pasture and finds his concealed horse buddy; they peer out from behind blooming fall goldenrods.]

The director shouts “Cut!” The man in the white cap approaches him and says, “How was that?”

“Larry, I think we got the scene; we’ll upload it to the studio server tonight so the editors can get to work on it.”

“You gonna need me any more?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking. We have the meth-lab raid scene coming up. I’m thinking you might be good as the master cook! Makeup will fit you out with a scraggly wig, and if you don’t shave for a few days you’d be right for the part. How are you at acting strung-out and paranoid?”

I narrowed my eyes, glanced shiftily left and right, and said in a strained low voice, “Did you hear something out there?”

The director laughed, and said, “That’d be perfect! You must have had some practice!”

“Well, yeah, back when I lived down in Hannibal — yep, I’ve had practice!”

The director called out to a couple of men in coveralls: “Let’s get that mule and the horse loaded up and get them back to their barn, okay?”

One of the men said, “You got it, man!” One of the men climbed into a pickup truck and began to back a horse trailer into the pasture.

I said to the director, “Well, Wilfred, I need to finish up my route. You have my number!”

“See ya, bud.”

I got back in the red car and proceeded on down the road.

A note to readers: when I signed my blogging contract lo those many years ago I first made sure there wasn’t a verisimilitude clause in it!

Larry

News Flash!

[camera pans to a brightly-colored TV news desk]

“This just in, folks! We go now to our reporter Wally Balew and cameraman Fred Sieber, live from Siloam Springs State Park over by Clayton…”

[a jacketed reporter looks towards the camera; pine trees are in the background]

“Hi, Josh! There’s been quite a meeting of the minds here at the park! It seems a woman from Nova Scotia named Bev Wigney (that’s in Canada, folks) has rolled into the park to stay the night. She’s here to meet with Quincy’s own Larry Ayers. Both of them are bloggers of some note and they are meeting for the first time!”

[camera pans slowly to reveal the caretaker’s trailer. A man in his sixties looks up from his seat at a picnic table]

“Here we have park employee Brad Erhardt. Tell us what has been happening here this afternoon, Mr. Erhardt!”

[the caretaker looks thoughtful]

“Well, Wally, this afternoon an old red car pulled up. Mr. Ayers knocked on my door and asked if any Canadian women had showed up looking for a camp-site. I told him I didn’t think so — I’d know, as we don’t get many Canadians out here!”

“Then the two of us saw a big Dodge van drive by. It had a luggage carrier on top, and Mr. Ayers said, ‘That must be her!’ He drove off to tell her that she had overshot the campground.”

“So where are they now, Mr. Erhardt?”

“Oh, they took a walk and I think now they are just talkin’ over at her camp-site. I think Mr. Ayers brought a fiddle with him — I’m pretty sure I heard him playin’. I was amazed — that Mrs. Wigney has been driving five hundred miles every day!”

[the camera bobs and weaves as the news crew walks across the campground]

“Look! I think that’s Mr. Ayers coming out of the woods!”

[the camera pans around and focuses on me, as I exit the woods and zip up my fly]

“Hello, Mr. Ayers! We’re from WQCY and we’re here to cover your meeting with Bev Wigney.”

[I frown.]

“This merits a news story? Surely something else of greater import is happening around here!”

“Well, it was either this or the annual pig-sticking competition over Warrensburg way — but we cover that every year.”

[the cameraman interjects from behind the camera, out of sight]

“I did kinda want to see the competition this year, Wally. Elmer Darliss is entering again, and he has quite the finesse with that little knife of his! The way he neatly dodges the spurting gout of blood — oh, it’s a sight to see — kinda like ballet!”

“Now Fred — enough of that!”

I agree, enough of that! Bev and I had a very enjoyable meeting. It is quite novel and interesting to meet someone with whom one has been corresponding; preconceptions dissolve and the actual sounds of voices are heard and reconciled with faulty imaginings. I got to meet Bev’s collies too!

Larry

Wil Wheaton’s Halloween Story

Wil Wheaton is an actor and writer; I first encountered his work in the TV show The Big Bang Theory, where from time to time he plays Sheldon Cooper’s nemesis and rival. He has written a horror story, an attempt at what is called “Flash Fiction”. Wheaton was trying to write a story that he would have enjoyed when he was twelve years old. This is a first draft and Wil wrote it in two hours. I certainly was impressed! Give it a read and see what you think:

The Monster In My Closet

Larry

A WWII Vet And His Problem

Sometimes it seems that I can’t step out my door without being presented with a person or situation which begs to be written about.

Today, it turns out, is Columbus Day. I didn’t know that and a visit to the bank was fruitless — it’s a bank holiday! I was on my bicycle on the way to the bank. Broadway is a busy street and I needed to get across. Due to some close calls in the past I am less than trustful of fellow humans in vehicles. I scanned the traffic, looking for a “hole”. Across the intersecting street from me was an elderly man with one of those four-pronged canes. He wanted across too.

I could tell that the man was trying to muster the courage to just walk right out into the traffic and force the cars to stop for him. After all, doesn’t the pedestrian always have the right-of-way? In a better world than this one, perhaps!

The man made his move, and a couple of cars slowed down. I wheeled up beside him, thinking that heedless and possibly crazed drivers might be unwilling to massacre us both. There’s safety in numbers, right?

We made it safely across the potentially deadly street. I got to talking with the man, and found that he seemed to be having some difficulties:

“Oh, I’m in trouble! I locked myself out of my car! See that McDonald’s up the street? I’m parked there. I left the keys in the ignition and accidentally locked all of the doors when I got out. I don’t think the pastry I ate was worth the aggravation!”

“Do you live close by?”

“No, we live thirty miles from here, near Camp Point. Y’see, my wife had a fall yesterday and bumped her head. I’m here in town to pick her up from the hospital. She’s waiting for me right now!”

“Well, the old coat-hanger trick doesn’t work anymore. Maybe you should call the police? They might be able to help. Just call 911.”

“Can you do that from a cell phone? And what if they arrest me?”

“Oh, surely they won’t arrest you!”

“Well, I might do that. Maybe I’ll go back to McDonald’s and ask to use their phone.”

The man sighed. “I’m eighty-six years old, can you believe it? I’m a World War Two veteran.”

“Where were you in the war?”

“I was on a destroyer in the South Pacific, fighting the Japanese way back in 1942.”

He went on, “I can sit really well, walk fairly well, but I wouldn’t even try to run these days!”

I replied, “Shoot, I’m 57 and I don’t even like to run if I don’t have to!”

The man said, “Well, I guess I’ll make my way back to McDonald’s and use their phone. Thanks for crossing with me!”

“You’re welcome, and good luck to you!”

I value the opportunities I have to talk with people of that generation. A few years from now they will all be gone.

This encounter caused me to think about the isolation from our fellow humans which driving a car engenders. On foot or on a bike there is always the possibility of making a connection with someone else, and maybe even doing some good in the process.

Larry

A Morning Conversation

This morning I felt a need for some exercise, some sort of activity to clear the cobwebs from my brain. There are always a few which are resistant to caffeine.

I descended the stairs and unlocked my bicycle. It’s a calm morning and the temperature is hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Should I wear a jacket? Naw — I only planned to ride a half-mile to a gas station and back, hardly long enough to get chilled.

I didn’t need to buy anything. I picked this destination because I enjoy seeing the early morning clerks and customers and possibly exchanging a few words with someone.

There is little traffic on Quincy’s streets at 5:30 in the morning, a good thing because I have no lights on my bicycle. I wheeled up to the brightly-lit station. The shift manager, a world-weary and hard-bitten woman I’ll call Mel in this post, was wearing a jacket and smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk out front. She’s in her forties but looks older.

“Hi, Mel! A little chilly this morning, huh?”

“Oh, it ain’t that bad! It’s gonna get a lot worse, I have a feeling. I hear somethin’ is movin’ in towards the end of the week.”

“It’s been quite an Indian Summer, hasn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah, but this winter is gonna be a killer!”

“I’m kinda worried about that. I deliver papers on a rural motor route.”

“Hmphh! Ya better carry blankets and those hand-warmers!”

“And an extra spare tire, too!”

“Jumper cables might come in handy.”

“It’s weird — none of the other rural drivers have worked through a winter. A lot of turnover on that job! I’m wondering if the drivers all die during the winter and they just hire new ones in the spring.”

Mel laughed, and said, “Well, good luck survivin’! Maybe you’ll be the first!”

Mel stubbed out her cigarette and headed for the door. She said: “I’m waitin’ on a truck — should have been here by now.”

“Deliveries?”

“Yeah, a big ol’ semi filled with a bunch of shit for us to stock.”

I bade Mel farewell and rode off down the street towards home. Time to make some oatmeal!

Larry

At The Tire Shop

Gravel roads are hard on tires, and yesterday morning before setting out on my 100-mile route I drove to a tire shop which is located on a bench just above the Mississippi floodplain. I needed to buy a new tire and have it mounted.

The shop is snuggled up against a seventy-foot limestone bluff, a sheer cliff with a smattering of neglected vegetation down at the base. I knew I’d have to wait a while, so I grabbed my camera and began to prowl around the area between the utilitarian steel buildings and the cliff. Of course, the shop has a waiting area with a coffee pot, snack machines, and magazines, but on such a beautiful fall morning it would be a shame to peruse a tattered and outdated copy of Time or Better Homes and Gardens rather than explore a bit!

It occurred to me that many years ago I had bought a tire at this place and, on a similar botanical foray, had found a colony of catnip thriving unnoticed. I like the appearance of catnip, with its downy gray-green leaves and its modest flower-spikes. I remembered digging a clump with the aid of a pocket knife and eventually using that start to establish a colony of the plant in our old Knox County place; I trust it is still growing there.

I slowly walked along the base of the cliff, inspecting the trees and other plants. Of course the ubiquitous Chinese ailanthus trees were growing there, a species always at home in neglected areas on this continent, a denizen of alleys and vacant lots. Native mulberry trees were holding their own, and the weedier asters and goldenrods contributed their modest flowers to the vegetative tapestry.

Aw, the catnip still survived in a few clumps after all of these years. While I had been living my life and buying tires elsewhere the colony of alien musky-smelling mint had quietly thrived and spread:

Do neighborhood alley cats congregate here in the wee hours of the morning to rub up against these plants?

It looked like the clump had been mowed or weed-whipped down to the ground at least once this year, as there were no remnants of flower-spikes visible. It is just possible the plant may bloom anew before the killing frosts arrive.

Then I noticed a scrubby crab-apple tree with a luxuriant vine using the branches as a trellis. They were hop vines, but the scaly fruiting strobiles had purple bracts! Most hops I see have fruiting clusters which change from green to tan as they ripen. This purple coloration was new to me. Quincy was once a beer-brewing town; could this vine be a descendant of some cultivated hop variety once grown in the area? The photo I got could be in better focus, but it was breezy and this was the best I could do:

The strobiles were getting ripe, and if they were squeezed or stroked a gummy aromatic resin would come off on my fingers. This reminded me of the female inflorescences of the marijuana plant, a close relative, which also exude a gummy resin, but a resin with quite different characteristics!

After taking the above photo my camera informed me with embarrassed dismay that the “Battery Is Exhausted!”. I took this to be a sign to go check on the progress with my tire. The guys inside were finishing up when I strolled in, attaching the lug-bolts with staccatto bursts of an air-wrench, and before long I was cruising down the road, bright but slanting rays of autumnal sunshine elevating my spirits.

Larry

Dog Encounters

I’ve befriended several dogs who live on farms along my paper delivery route. One in particular intrigued and amused me last week. I’d seen a mid-sized dog up by a house several times but it had never ventured down to the car. Each day, though, curiosity would bring it closer.

Finally the dog made the big bold move. It came around the car and begged for affection. It was a black half-grown terrier pup, with awkwardly long legs and a squirmy demeanor. I was reminded of Airedales I’ve known. I petted the creature and it tried to jump up in my lap. I laughed, shooed it away, and continued on my way.

The next day the young dog appeared again, confident this time of a favorable reception. I petted the dog, then got out of the car to put the flasher light on the roof, as this was the beginning of the route. While I was occupied the pup scrambled into the back seat, found a comfortable position, then looked out at me as if to say, “So what are you waiting for! Let’s go!”

I was tempted, as it would be fun to have a canine companion on the delivery route. I could stop when I saw road-killed animals and let the pup nose the delectable smashed carrion and take a bite or two. I thought better of this idea, though, as I had never even met the owners and they might take it amiss.

Later that day I came over a rise in a long straight stretch of road and nearly ran over a nondescript farm dog. It didn’t even try to get out of the way, just looked at my car with a puzzled expression as I stood on the brakes. I realized that the dog was grizzled and old, and that it was probably partially blind and maybe deaf.

The next day the same thing happened. The dog had a dangerous and possibly lethal habit: standing around out in the middle of the road. I swerved around the perpetually puzzled dog and continued on my way. When I came back there the dog was again. I pulled up alongside it and matched my speed with the dog’s as it slowly trotted along the road. It kept looking back at me, as if to say, “Are you coming or not? Follow me and I’ll show you a pleasant shady place up by the Master’s house!”

I took a photo through the windshield. Perhaps I should wash that window one of these days!

Larry