I wonder whether anyone has experience they’d like to share in using Lassie movies as training devices for their own pooch. I am still learning to distinguish which of Sadie’s many barks means variously:
1. I have to go potty.
2. I *really* have to go potty!
3. I *really* have to go BIG potty!
4. I don’t really have to go potty and I really am bored and so maybe you’ll take me out to go potty so that I can:
3a. Find a poison mushroom to inhale before I even notice it’s there
3b. Bark at anything out of place such as a fallen leaf
3c. Pretend to be docile and then try to dislocate my shoulder when she sees a mosquito float by. Or a leaf. Or a hallucination.
On the other hand, Lassie is capable of communicating with cunning, compassion, and coherence with the adults in her life. I grant you that theoretically, it might be that the adults on the show are much cleverer than I am. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, but no…if I had abandoned mine shafts and unused wells all over my farm, I’d make damn sure any kids knew they were not to go there! And, I wouldn’t cover over an unused well hole with a couple of loose two by fours either. For that and other tedious reasons, I don’t think the genius in the Lassie family lies with the humans. It is Lassie who has the title role and she is the one with outstanding skills.
Witness episode N+1:
Lassie gallops into the kitchen and skids to a stop right beside Gramps and barks:
“What’s that Lassie? What is it, girl?”
“What? Something’s wrong with the roof?”
“I will not! Anyway, I already fed you.”
Lassie, noticeably frustrated, circles twice and grabs a can-opener in her muzzle, sprints to the liquor cabinet and begins banging the can-opener into the lock.
“What? You’re trying to jimmy the lock open? You want a drink?”
Lassie grabs one ear with her paw and barks.
“Oh! Sounds like ‘jimmy’! Oh! Let’s see…’Kimmy’, ‘dimmy’, ‘Limmy’, I don’t know girl. There aren’t many words that rhyme with ‘jimmy.’”
Lassie barks: “ARF! ARF!”
“Lassie, are you sick or something girl?”
Immediately, Lassie springs into the air and does a somersault onto her back and waves all four paws in the air.
Gramps muses aloud. “The opposite of sick. Healthy? Something is healthy? No? Hale? Fine Fettle? Hardy?”
For each guess, Lassie barks a sharp short “No!”
Gramps frowns and says, “Well, I don’t know what you’re trying to say, Lassie. I’ve got to get back to carving my pipe here.”
Lassie stands on her hind two legs and begins using ASL with her two front paws. However, she quickly notes the looks of bewilderment on the visage of Gramps and she rightly concludes that he still doesn’t know ASL, despite her admonitions. So, she begins again with the barking: “ARF! ARF!”
Gramps says, “You’re not making any sense, Lassie. Timmy wouldn’t fall down a well. Why would he?”
“ARF! ARF! ARF!”
Gramps frowns and tilts his head so fast he pulls his sternocleidomastoid. “What? He fell down the well just last week? No, he didn’t. That was two weeks ago. Last week, Timmy fell down an old mineshaft. Oh! Wait! Are you trying to tell me that Timmy fell down a well again!? Oh, no! Why didn’t you tell me?”
Needless to say, Gramps calls the sheriff and after he arrives Gramps explains. The sheriff draws his gun and charges out toward one of the 17 abandoned wells at Gramps’s place. But Lassie begins barking — again!
“ARF! ARF! WOOF! BOW!”
The sheriff glares at Gramps and uses his best shoulder shrugging head tilt as though to say, “Well? You going to shut up the mutt or am I?”
Gramps scratches several places; for instance, behind his ear. Then he says, “Lassie is simply pointing out that while a gun won’t help get Timmy out of the well, a long rope might.”
“I knew that!” The sheriff speaks in a huff while Lassie merely rolls her eyes and winks at Gramps. Then, off Lassie scampers to the tool shed, picks the lock with a handy nearby roofing nail, nudges the door open, and scampers back with a long loop of strong rope.
Soon, she leads them to one of the many abandoned wells. By the time Gramps and Sheriff catch up, Lassie has tied a loose bowline one one end of the rope and two half hitches around a sturdy nearby oak stump, tosses the bowline down to Timmy, and barks her orders to him. Gramps and Sheriff pull on the rope, and soon enough, Timmy, cold and wet but alive, politely thanks Sheriff and Gramps for pulling him out and then throws his skinny arms around Lassie. “Oh, Lassie! Thanks, girl, for saving me! You were right! I shouldn’t have tried to walk across the well on those rotten planks after all!”
Lassie merely rolls her eyes.
I’m not saying that if Sadie watched any one episode that she’d learn every skill all at once, but over time, it might help. Right?
Assuming, of course, that I can ever get her to notice anything on the TV screen. I’m thinking of smearing bacon grease around the edges.
The den’s dark paneling reeked oppressively of cigar smoke. The room seemed decorated for intimidation rather than comfort. Keisha imagined what it must have been like for Lila to grow up surrounded by trophy cases filled with daddy’s accomplishments. Apart from trophies, the only other “personal touches” were the myriad mounted fish. She had agreed to follow Lila’s lead in their conversations with Mr. Jordan.
Lila, however, sipped sherry silently, focusing on putting precisely correct amounts of brie on every cracker. She seemed subdued, even cowed, by JJ. Keisha smiled as she realized that this obese, balding CEO with hairy forearms was now her father-in-law. She chuckled inwardly wondering how he’d take that news. Keisha pointed to one of the many mounted fish. “That’s an interesting one. Looks like something from the Age of Dinosaurs! Where did you snag that guy?”
JJ’s voice was harsh and raspy. Keisha decided he loved projecting pure virility. “That’s a coelacanth. They appeared about 400 million years ago. Paleontologists thought they died out 65 million years ago. Guess what? Coelacanth are still here, hiding deep below the surface. I caught that one off the coast of South Africa. Takes patience. Bring ‘em up too fast and they explode.”
Keisha blinked. “Explode?! How do they taste?”
JJ barked a laugh. “Like crap. No real value. Slimy. Tasteless. I caught it to prove who’s king of the food chain. Same in business. Win. Everything else is bullshit.”
JJ grabbed the remote and clicked on the wall-sized TV. “Watch the Patriots if you like. But set your alarms for five.”
Keisha shook her head. “No thanks. Lila’s going to show me her latest results.” Her father-in-law shook his head sadly. Keisha added. “It’s for work. We’re developing a textual analysis program.”
JJ’s waved his hand dismissively and muttered, “FBI – glorified cops. Badge and gun. That’s all you need. Not a fit job for girls anyway.”
Keisha bit her lip so hard, she nearly made it bleed, but kept her silence.
Once the pair were alone, Lila apologized for her father. Keisha shook her head. “It’s okay. You warned me. I thought you exaggerated. But no. Anyway, I’d love to see your results.”
Keisha scanned them quickly. “Can you get me on the wireless here?”
“Sure. But why?”
“Lila, I’m not sure. But — I’m sorry to say so, but I have a bad feeling about JJ. Do you mind if I access the records and apply your algorithms to his old police statements?”
Lila frowned. “What? Why? Do you think…?”
“I just think if we’re going out in a boat alone with the guy….”
Lila snorted. “JJ’s my dad, for God’s sake. I know he’s a boor but … surely, you don’t think —“
Keisha shook her head. “Lila, I know he’s your dad. You always refer to him as JJ. Anyway, it won’t take long to run some tests. Think of it as practice. Maybe nothing will show up. Probably, nothing.”
Lila frowned again, “No, I’m telling you.” Here Lila broke off as a disturbing image loomed into her head.
Keisha spoke softly, “Lila? Are you okay? You literally like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Lila’s voice became flat. “Let’s run the tests.”
Being a CEO, JJ had excellent bandwidth wherever he went: home, limo, yacht. The algorithms spun their magic and trolled the text. By morning, they were exhausted but convinced. They also agreed that proving it in a court of law would be an entirely different matter. Textual analysis didn’t have decades of precedent like DNA testing. Convincing a DA to open up such an old case? Impossible without more direct evidence.
Keisha said, “We need a plan.” Lila agreed.
The morning fog lifted. They were soon underway. The women leaned out into the salt spray which made rainbows in the rising sun. Meanwhile, JJ hunched in his dark, dank electronic cockpit below, searching his screens for signs of fish.
From below decks, over the slapping waves they heard JJ growling, “Where the hell are you, stupid fish?!”
Keisha stared down into the cabin at the hulking back of her father-in-law. Once, he had been athletic. She wondered how athletic he might still be.
Dark clouds loomed on the horizon. Lila reported, “Father! A storm’s coming!”
She could see him shake his head. “No rain in the forecast. Just clouds. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“Father. I have to talk with you.”
JJ growled, “Nothing to say. We’re fishing!”
Keisha had never heard Lila’s voice sound so cold as she said, “I remember what really happened to Trevor and mother. I saw you.”
JJ laughed. “You were a girl! You don’t know what you saw. Anyway, nobody’ll believe you — especially after ten years of silence!”
Keisha said, “We have other evidence. We accessed your original statements to the police and ran them through our analysis programs. They are strongly indicative of fabrication and misdirection. We have your own words. It’s now admissible in court as textual evidence.”
JJ screamed, “Bullshit! You don’t have any sexual evidence. I made sure of that. You don’t have anything that would stand up in court. I’m the biggest fish out here. Face it. I’m wealthy enough, powerful enough, and smart enough to get away with murder. So I did! It’s the way of the world, Lila! Time to grow up! No-one will believe you or your so-called colleague.”
Keisha held up her cell phone. “Even with your confession streamed to our FBI colleagues?”
JJ stammered, “But I’m … “
For the first time in her life, Lila interrupted and finished his sentence for him: “A coelacanth, dad, a coelacanth.”
Room 22A. Lila inhaled deeply; glanced at her program guide and Rolex. Three pm. Her slot. No use putting it off.
Go on, Lila. It’s just a practice run, for God’s sake.
The voice in her head was her father’s. Her cheeks reddened. His “encouraging” words always belittled. She heard another voice from inside the practice room— a warm voice.
Lila turned the cool brass knob and pushed. At the podium stood a tall, athletic, young black woman with large penetrating eyes and shiny dreadlocks. She immediately smiled a large radiant grin at Lila.
“Hi! Come on in. I just finished. I’m Keisha. It’s my first professional talk as well. Don’t worry. I’ve warmed up the audience.”
Lila glanced around at the empty chairs. “Audience? Ah.” She laughed. “Joke. I get it. I’m Lila. Nice to meet you. How did you…?”
Keisha laughed warmly. “Hey, we’re both forensics experts for the FBI, right? You’re young. And, frankly, you look a little — terrified.”
Lila strode up to the podium, unslung her backpack and retrieved her laptop. Her eyes swept the baseboard for the nearest outlet.
Keisha spoke again, now imitating a Carnival Barker. “Come on up, young Lady! This podium’s got all the power cables, internet connections, and Karma you’ll ever need.”
Lila laughed and held up her hand like a surgeon, “Power Cord!”
Keisha immediately cottoned on to the game and held it out for her, repeating “Power Cord!” Lila felt Keisha’s fingers lingering. So what?! This time, it was her own voice, strong & defiant.
Once Lila’s computer was connected; she relaxed and asked, “What’s your talk about, Keisha?”
Keisha said, “I thought you’d never ask. The title is Syntactic and Rhetorical Cues to Guilt.
Keisha smiled and laughed her maddeningly warm laugh. “You come to my talk tomorrow and learn more. What’s yours about?”
“I’ve been using statistical analysis of texts — rhetorical, syntactic, and lexicographical — to predict criminal patterns. It’s just a start — but — it’s really promising. I’m building on the work of Hart at UT Austin and Foster at Vassar. So far as I know, this is the first application to criminology.”
Lila studied Keisha’s face. What she read there was genuine admiration.
Keisha smiled. “Oh! You’re Lila Jordan! We’re in the same session tomorrow! You know, maybe we could work together. If we could combine our two approaches, that would be awesome!”
Lila blurted out: “I’d love to work with you!”
“Great! I’ll let you practice! See you tomorrow. Maybe we can grab a bite before the afternoon session. Here’s a tip. When you start your talk, look out at the audience and imagine them all buck naked! I’ll be in the front row and I’m already hooked. I’m hungry to learn more about you and your work.”
Keisha smiled again and strode down the aisle. Lila’s eyes lingered on Keisha.
The next morning, Lila decided to take Keisha’s advice. Although Lila’s eyes moved about the audience, she really focused her talk on her new friend. She enjoyed picturing her naked.
Keisha suggested they order room service since her room had a view of the harbor. She ordered entrees and desserts for them to share in celebration of their successful presentations. Lila objected that she needed to lose weight. Keisha smiled and said, “You are perfect as you are. But if you want to lose weight, I have just the ticket. A blindfold picnic.”
Lila’s breathing quickened. “What’s that?”
“Close your eyes, Lila. Just leave everything to me. No talking. You just let me feed you. Just follow my orders.”
They missed the afternoon session and the next morning’s as well. Infatuation grew to passion and eventually, passion grew to love. Over the next few months, their relationship deepened. It seemed, for a time, to be perfect.
Until the issue of marriage came up.
Which led to the issue of “coming out.”
Which led to the issue of “honesty.”
The very strength of their love made their disagreement that much more difficult to bear.
They said the same things repeatedly, with increasing heat but no more llight. Keisha found it impossible to understand Lila’s resistance to complete openness, explaining that it was the twenty-first century for God’s sake. Finally, even the Supreme Court recognized gay marriage. Keisha had known she was gay since she was twelve. Her parents had known and accepted her for who she was.
Lila came from a different world. “You don’t understand, Keisha! My big shot CEO father JJ won’taccept my being gay! He’s the only family I have left. If I lose him too.…”
The fifth time they argued, Keisha decided to take a different tack. “You’re right. I’m luckier than you. But just because my parents accepted me doesn’t mean everyone did. There’ll always be cruel people. We both know that. But the one who matters most to you is your dad. How about this? We get married. I go and meet JJ. I get to know him. We don’t start by telling him everything. Instead, we make it clear that we’re colleagues and friends. He’ll like me!”
Lila considered. “Okay. It’s worth a try. Say! Have you ever been fishing?”
“Fishing? Yeah, a few times. Uncle Stan showed me how to fly fish.”
Lila laughed. “No, not like that. I’m talking about Deep Sea Fishing. Every year, my father takes time off for an extended fishing trip.”
Keisha blinked. “Really? I thought you said you never wanted to go boating again. Does he…?”
Lila ground her teeth, “Father went back on the boat the next day! He even tried to get me to join him! Imagine! I’d just lost my mother and my brother. He said get aboard right away or I’d be afraid forever.” She sighed. “Maybe he’s right. Boats don’t bother him. Every year, he bugs me to join him and bring a colleague along — by which he means a potential husband so that I can leave the “Glorified Police Department” — his name for the FBI. Okay. Once we’re married, I’ll wait a few weeks and call father and tell him I’m bringing a colleague along on his next excursion. I will watch for the best moment to break the news. I’m still not convinced it will work, but maybe nothing will. He’s very set in his ways. Like with the boat. Even a tragic accident…”
Keisha tilted her head. “What’s wrong? You’re thinking back to that awful day?”
Lila nodded slowly. “Yeah. Kind of. I just — sometimes this horrible image flashes into my mind. I know it’s just my imagination. But still…”
Keisha took Lila’s hand. “Come here, love. I’m so sorry. Let’s just sit here side by side.” They sat and Keisha held her close in loving silence.
JJ loved the ocean. Out here, there was never any question about who was in charge. He glanced over at his son Trevor, fourteen, trolling astern. Port side, Trevor’s friend Billy seemed to have snagged something. JJ grinned. Opportunity knocks, he thought to himself. He scrambled down to help Billy.
“Whoa! You’ve got a big one! Better let me brace you.” For JJ, this part was well-rehearsed. He wrapped his strong right arm around Billy’s waist and gradually moved his body closer to the youngster’s backside. His left hand snaked around to guide the reel. “You have to play this guy! I’ll teach you. Follow my lead.”
JJ shouted, “Look at that! A hammerhead! Nice job!” The trick was to keep the boy’s attention on the difficult and demanding task of bringing in a dangerous fish. Meanwhile, JJ sidled up more closely to Billy’s backside and slowly slid his right hand toward the boy’s crotch. There was always a chance one of these kids would tattle, but that only added to JJ’s excitement. If he played this gig right, the boy would also be aroused before he even knew what has happening.
“Hey! What are you doing mister Jordan?!”
“Keep hold of the line, damn it!” JJ commanded. “Pay attention or you’ll lose him!”
“Bring him in yourself! Keep your hands off me! Pervert!”
The boy tried to squirm away, but JJ still had enough of his collegiate strength to hold him fast. Billy twisted and slipped just as the shark dove deep pulling the boy overboard.
JJ stared into the ocean and saw two other sharks, aroused by the chum and struggle, attack the boy. Trevor suddenly screamed in his ear. “What the hell did you do, father? Throw him a line for God’s sake!”
JJ pulled Trevor away. “Look away, son! It’s too late. He’s gone! I told you boys shark fishing was no picnic. You’ve got to do as I say!”
“Bullshit! I saw you! You were trying to put your hand down his pants! Is that why my friends never come back for a second fishing trip?”
“You’re crazy! I tried to save him!” JJ screamed.
Trevor’s vision narrowed and he charged his father meaning him to deck him.
Mister Jordan’s experience as a linebacker kicked in. He side-stepped and planted both hands on his son’s back, propelling him into the roiling ocean. The sharks starting tearing him to pieces as well.
JJ’s wife Pollyann had now come up on deck. She uttered a primitive, unearthly growl.
JJ pulled her back from the railing. “Don’t look! It’s too late. The boys are gone. They’re with God now. I tried to save them.”
Mrs. Jordan struggling to speak. “I saw you push Trevor overboard! What the hell! You monster! I will make you rot in hell!”
“Don’t speak to me like that!” JJ tried to think back. How much could she have seen? Where was Lila? Still below decks. If Pollyann dies, the whole company goes to me.
Pollyann screamed, “Don’t speak to you like that?! You just killed our son! What the hell?”
“Listen, Polly. He tried to jump overboard to save his friend. It was pointless. They’re sharks everywhere! Trevor’s a hero. I was trying to save him, but he wrenched away from me. I’m devastated too. Naturally. Come here, love. Come here.”
Pollyann narrowed her eyes. Had she misunderstood? She saw them struggle. It seemed like Trevor had charged him and JJ pushed him. She wanted to give her husband the benefit of the doubt. She shuffled back to him, trying to read his face. At last he held her tightly to him, comforting her. His hug tightened to a diaphragm-paralyzing bear hug. JJ didn’t relish the hassle of getting a new wife, but he saw no alternative. He chucked her over into the writhing sea. He watched the insatiable sharks destroy the last bit of damning evidence. He sighed. Damn. That was a close one, he thought. He turned back to see Lila staring at him.
JJ acted the part of a devastated victim quite well; well enough to brainwash Lila and well enough to hoodwink the local cops who were predisposed toward JJ in any case. Many still remembered his stellar college career as a middle linebacker at State. Of course, that wouldn’t put them in a frame of mind to let go a killer. But it did put them in a frame of mind to give him the benefit of the doubt. Being white and apparently well-to-do enhanced his credibility. Lila knew none of this at the time. For her, the fact that the police believed her father made it seem more likely that she had hallucinated. After all, as JJ constantly reminded her, she was understandably perturbed and caught off guard, dazzled by coming into the bright light suddenly from below deck. “Besides,” JJ asked Lila, “why would I kill my own wife and son or even a young friend? What possible motive could I have?”
The gym stank of sweat, disinfectant, bloodstain. Vlademort shook his head; thought: stuffy stupid place for a chess tournament. Which I will win. “A silly game; a silly name,” it sang and rang inside his brain.
Others might resign, down a piece to a stronger player; that was the “sensible” thing to do; the “honorable” thing to do, he knew.
Vlad sang instead these lines as lyrics deep inside his outsized head:
“Check and Slay;
There has to be a Winning Way!
I am Me
And meant to win!
I am He
So cheating isn’t sin!”
Aloud, he called in his strong, authoritative voice, “Sir, we have a problem. My opponent cheated. We must rectify the situation for the good of the Noble Game. And the honor of our School and our Party.”
For a moment, Vlademort worried that a glimmer of smile might betray him. He bit his tongue down on his lower teeth. That usually worked, just as it did this time. As the Assistant Headmaster strode over to the boys, the man asked what the trouble was.
Vlademort’s foe, Dmitri, didn’t know what Vlad meant about “cheating.” Vlad had stepped right into a discovered check by a knight’s move that also attacked Vlad’s unprotected King’s Bishop. Vlad hadn’t seen the consequence so now he would pay the price. Very nice! But discovered check wasn’t cheating! While Dmitri pondered this silently, Vlad struck.
“Sir, as you can no doubt quickly surmise from the board, Dmitri just moved his knight here so he would check my King and attack my Bishop. A double attack. The problem is, his knight was here and we can all agree he cannot move a knight up two and over two.” Vlad locked eyes with the Assistant Headmaster and painted his face with confident innocence.
Dmitry frowned. “What? That’s the most absurd poo I’ve ever heard! My knight was here!”
“No, Sir, with all due respect, I clearly remember asking myself why he would move the same knight so many times to get in this position when, as you can clearly see, his bishops are completely undeveloped. It seemed strange at the time. I guess…I hate to say it, but maybe that’s what he … I don’t know. What does it show, Headmaster? I’m at a loss.”
“Vlad, I’m not the boss; I’m the Assistant Headmaster. You boys are going to have to work this out for yourselves. I don’t get paid enough to settle all your petty disputes.”
Dmitry’s face reddened with fury. He clenched his teeth.
Meanwhile, Vlademort nodded and said in an even tone. “Yes, I’m sure we can work it out. Dmitri? Do you want to move your knight back to where it really was, resign, or just play again? Tell you what. You can have white this time. Deal?” From the outside, Vlad seemed serene but the inside scene was a scream of joy. He had used them both as toy. He felt no wrong; he sang instead another song inside his head:
“I am Me!
I’ll show mom and daddy too
What I can do. You killed my puppy;
You evil two!
You will see:
Everything belongs to me!”
He sang it as he lied. As he sang, dissidents died. He sang it as he bombed and killed. “I am me and so strong-willed. You will see! It all belongs — belongs to me!” After being deposed, tried & condemned, Vlad’s song of wrong and might — still felt right.
The song so strong it rang and sang; inside his bullet-riddled head the last thing it said:
“And you’re sure you can’t just get the money yourself?” Jimmy glanced over at his wife. He tried to remember some of her other questions. For his part, Jimmy had been convinced from the very first e-mail and even more convinced when he “checked it out” with a phone conversation. Once that happened, he was sold. Hearing the guy’s voice, it was clear that Peace Nwose was not only a real person. His accent clearly sounded African. Or, at least foreign. And black. But not like the way black people in America talk.
Jimmy tried not to be exasperated with his wife. He reminded himself that she was just trying to be careful. Lord knows she was right that they didn’t have anything to spare, but this — this — this — finally, a ticket out of living paycheck to paycheck. Why wouldn’t she jump at the chance? They could finally afford to replace the formica kitchen table with a nice oak one. Or, she could replace her fraying faded felt winter coat with a wool one.
But then, she couldn’t read people the way Jimmy could. He got that from playing poker, he supposed. He wondered how much he had won over the years just from reading people’s expressions. He hadn’t kept track but he was sure it was a lot. He could think of plenty of times when he’d called somebody’s bluff and won big.
And the other times, when he, along with everyone else, had folded and somebody won? Well, that wasn’t a bluff because they never showed their cards. His buddy Steve in particular was a lucky SOB. Some people were like that. They just were born lucky. Steve always pulled good cards but he’d never show them. Steve would always say, “You have to pay for the privilege!” But everybody knew it was something really good or Steve wouldn’t have bet so aggressively as he had.
Jimmy glanced at his wife Sally yet again, trying to remember her other questions. He didn’t want to ask her with Peace listening in. That would make him seem unmanly. Jimmy creased his forehead. Sometimes, that helped him remember. “Oh, by the way, Peace, I get why you need my routing number to put the money in my account, but why do you need my social security number and stuff as well? Maybe you told me, but I forgot. I know there’s a good reason, but my — my banker wants to know.”
Jimmy liked the sound of that. “My banker” made him feel important, knowledgeable — a player. He waited. But not long. Peace had an answer right away. Again, if he had been lying, it would have taken him time to come up with a good answer, but no. Peace answered right away. Another sign he couldn’t possibly be lying. Here’s what he said: “I have no idea, to tell you the truth. My banker says we need it to legitimize the transfer. I’m not sure what that means but he does. Sadlike, he doesn’t speak English or I’d put him on the phone and he could explain you to it.”
Jimmy looked at his wife. He raised one eyebrow and tilted his head, shrugging his shoulders as though to say that Peace’s response should have put any remaining questions to bed.
That was in late October.
By the end of January, Sally and Jimmy were divorced.
It wasn’t so much that Jimmy lost their “nest egg” to the con, though certainly, that in and of itself would be enough to destroy many marriages. That was indeed a deep wound to the marriage, but it could have been healed if Jimmy simply had had the maturity and wherewithal to apologize to his wife and admit that she had been right all along. But to Jimmy, admitting that he had been wrong and his wife right was worse than actually losing their life savings. Not only did he not admit it; he doubled down. That is to say, he argued and screamed at Sally that it wasn’t Peace’s fault at all. That stubborn refusal to admit he had been conned — that was the fatal infection that poisoned the wound to their marriage.
As Jimmy explained, “Can’t you see?! Something happened to him! That’s why we can’t get hold of him any more! Somebody powerful in Nigeria stole our money and probably did him in! Our so-called government won’t even look into it! They might be in cahoots with these warlords. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they even try to track him down? Don’t you think that’s awfully suspicious? They say there is no-one in Nigeria with that name. How can that be? I don’t understand why you won’t side with me! Instead of the stupid government!?”
At first, Sally tried to be sympathetic; to stay calm and cool. She realized that underneath all his anger, her husband felt hurt. As the ranting and raving became more constant, all the things that they had once shared were pushed aside. This argument became the argument. The argument became almost their only topic of conversation.
Sally grew ever more resentful over time. She had put her own career on hold so Jimmy could focus on his locksmith business. And that was fine. But it was not fine that after Jimmy got swindled out of their two decades of savings that he started referring to all the savings as “his” money anyway because he was the one who had “brought home the bacon, after all.”
The good news is that eventually Sally remarried and, after a few years, was happier than she had ever been with Jimmy.
The bad news is that Jimmy didn’t fare so well. He went to bars to pick up women but ended up complaining to anyone who would listen about how his wife hadn’t understood how they had been cheated by the Nigerian government who had killed off his good friend — whose name, by the way, was Peace for God’s sake which pretty much proved in and of itself that he was legit. No, he had been offed all right. But that wasn’t the worst part, don’t you see. The worst part was that the American government was in league with the Nigerian war lords, as anyone with an ounce of brain could see. But sadly for Jimmy, no-one at the bar, other than the tip-motivated bartender, seemed to see any of it. Instead, they tried to turn the conversation to other topics like the new relief pitcher the Twins had just acquired or the weather or pretty much anything besides the “I coulda’ been a contender” speech that Jimmy had now memorized.
If Jimmy had tried new bars, he might have found more sympathetic ears, at least for a time. Instead, he gradually alienated everyone who regularly frequented Olsen’s Bar and Grill.
It’s quite possible that the long Minnesota winters contributed to his depression. The thing about alcohol is that it does help you get to sleep. But then, every night, in the early morning hours, Jimmy woke up. He couldn’t go back to sleep. Not without a drink or two. Sometimes, he then overslept. Soon, he lost his job and his house. One particularly cold February morning, he found himself out of alcohol. He had meant to get more Old Grandad the previous afternoon, but somehow forgot. Meaning to go for a short, brisk walk, he had’t bothered with the fur hat that would have provided at least a little bit of cushioning for the back of his head when it smashed on the icy sidewalk. Nor, did he put boots over his slippery and well-worn Oxfords.
They found him in the morning.
No-one attended his funeral. Sally might have attended, but she didn’t even find out until he was a week in the ground. She came exactly once to the gravesite and put a single white rose in front of the cheap marker. She shook her head sadly and said as she placed the rose: “Peace.”
“Peace” meanwhile, whose real name was David Jones, didn’t actually live in Nigeria at all, nor was he “black” although he really did speak with an accent — a Long Island accent. Thanks to Jimmy and hundreds like him, David lived most of the year in a 17 room mansion on the South Shore, a mansion with a nicely cavred white name plate out front labeling his estate: “Peace.”
On the longest day of the summer, it was their custom to stay awake around the central fire and dialogue. This particular year, they found themselves arguing about which animal was the most dangerous to the tribe.
One spoke: “Crocodile has many teeth and strong jaws. Besides, he can creep silently along, looking much like a floating log until it is too late.”
Another spoke: “True enough. Yet, what of Panther who lies still and unseen upon a tree branch in the night? Then, he pounces with teeth and claws?”
Yet another spoke: “Terrible indeed. But what of Rattlesnake? He can lie unseen in deep grass and though he is small, he injects a poison that can kill? And, there are many more of them than there are Crocodiles or Panthers.”
On through the night, one by one, they would bring up dangers to the tribe. At first, they spoke only of animals, but one pointed out the danger of lightening and another of flood. Another spoke of the year without summer and others pointed out the red pox had killed many.
At last, a short time before the sun began to re-emerge over the horizon, and the sky paused on the brink of deciding to stick with the mild pink color or paint a different scene, they began to speak no more, awed into silence by entire sky aflame in a sea of crimson.
And, they all knew.
They all saw it.
They all realized it was more deadly than anything they had discussed before.
And they all realized it was up to them to tame this monster.
Many Paths & Shadow Walker glanced at each other. Instantly, each saw that the other had also heard the shuffling. Shadow walker continued in the same tone of voice he had been using, being careful not to inflect his voice with any hint of worry or concern. “Perhaps the next persons with whom we should dialog are Tu-Swift, Cat Eyes and her parents, Tree Vines and Gathers Acorns. These are the people who best understand the Z-Lotz.”
Many Paths nodded. “I believe that Tu-Swift and Cat Eyes are going to share their recent findings with us tonight or tomorrow and then, they will be headed back to the library that lies over the mountain. We can talk with them and perhaps accompany them to gather still more information from her parents.”
Shadow Walker replied, “Great. I’ve had enough blackberries anyway.”
They began to stroll off. Once they judged to be far enough away, they split up and stalked back to the blackberry thicket from two sides, like the pincers of a crab or the jaws of a cougar. Weapons drawn, they moved only when the wind stirred.
For his part, Shadow Walker was sure their “mystery guest” was human. At first, he considered that it might be a small child from the Veritas hiding among the old stems of the blackberry bush hoping to overhear some adult talk that could be shared with friends. It would be a secret kind of knowledge and the child would gain status but providing this little seed of truth. His friends would plant that seed in their play activity and eventually try to grow a story, or even a whole moon’s worth of inter-related stories. A smile flitted across his face as he recalled doing this himself. As he re-neared the blackberry bush however, the sounds seemed too loud to be caused by the movements of a child. Whether child or adult or someone in between, the sounds were far too unskilled to be anyone from among the Veritas.
For her part, Many Paths considered a large, clumsy animal to be the most likely cause of the sound. She kept imagining various animals and dismissing them, one by one. At last, she was left with an odd sensation. What is this thing, she wondered. It’s clumsy, large, but … apparently wants to stay hidden. It can’t be a boar who would simply crash out. She noticed the teeny hairs on the back of her neck stood up as though a sudden chill wind stirred.
In a single moment: a scrambling figure in a dark cloak; a trap sprung, the jaws snapped together; scrambling, strong but ineffective struggler; same figure pinned by Shadow Walker while Many Paths stood near with long knife close enough to the stranger’s face that he could not avoid seeing it. “Who are you?” Shadow Walker insisted but the stranger screamed something back that was completely unintelligible. Shadow Walker looked at his adversary more closely and realized that he seemed vaguely familiar. He glanced at Many Paths. “This man is Z-Lotz or at least is dressed as one. This is exactly how the priests dressed. I saw a few on execution day. Some “priests” making a sport out of killing innocent people.” He turned back to the priest. “So, why are you here?” Then, he realized speaking in Veritas would not reveal much. He tried to think back to his time in captivity — and as king — where he had learned a bit of Z-Lotz. At last, he said haltingly, “You Z-Lotz. This is Veritas. You Z-Lotz. Why? Why you are here? What do you desire? Blackberries? I don’t think so!”
Many Paths glanced at Shadow Walker. His face: a storm front; his forearm ready for a deadly strike. “Shadow Walker, my dear heart. I do believe this man has some very useful information for us. I’m quite curious to hear his story, just like you. But let’s hear the story to see whether it satisfies us. If it does, we may chat still more. If and when his story gets woven into some web of lies, we will recreate this wonderful scene and you will be free to break his throat if you wish.” During this time, the arrow eyes of Many Paths connected completely with Shadow Walker. She did not even glance at the Z-Lotz.
Shadow Walker nodded, “Well said Many Paths. That is the wiser course. Now, who are you?” Shadow Walker grimaced as he remembered the language barrier and he repeated his last question in that tongue. “You name is?”
“OLIE” the subdued man replied.
Many Paths drew near. Removed her dagger from the sightline of OLIE but kept it close at hand. “I am curious how you came to be here. You must have a good tale to tell. It isn’t at all common to see an individual Z-Lotz. So, go on. Earn your dinner with your tale. We have more to offer than blackberries.”
Shadow Walker narrowed his eyes and stared at Many Paths. What is she doing, he asked himself. She’s being nice to him. Why? Another part of his brain was processing the reactions of the stranger. Many Paths is being nice on purpose. She thinks he may volunteer the truth. I should have thought of that as well. Then, once again, the thought struck him that he could be more effective in life, if he would sometimes ask himself, “What would Many Paths do?”
Shadow Walker’s attention now zoomed in on what the man OLIE was saying. Shadow Walker listened intently, but still couldn’t comprehend very well so he asked the man to supplement his telling with the more universal sign language. The stranger complied and Shadow Walker found he could apparently understand the basics of what was being said. Shadow Walker made it clear that he could get up and they would sit together but not to run. Here then, is OLIE’s tale. Shadow Walker translated to Many Paths.
“I was born, of course, in Read-It, the chief and most populous home of the Z-Lotz. My family was in the priest class and I did well in my studies so that I became a priest as well. I’m here basically because there is nowhere else to go. Read-It is gone. Z-Lotz are gone. I mean, most are. Many died in a plague. Then, we — ?! You are he! You are the king who left! Never in history has someone volunteered to step down. There was much chaos about the line of succession. Finally, the priests stepped in and said, “Look. This is absurd. We’re killing each other off. We should all work together as one team. When he said, ‘all’ he meant men. Men. Not women. So, the priests took over, including me. But soon, women started rebelling. The priests had gone too far, and fighting and chaos broke out. Many wanted to kill the priests. I barely escaped with my life! I didn’t have time to even grab my robes. I only had a simple shirt. But I found this on a dead priest. I looked at him and thought how that could be me. I took his cloak. I was hungry. I ate some blackberries. Then I heard someone coming. You two. So, I hid among the blackberry stems.”
To Shadow Walker the story seemed plausible, but he knew that did not make it true. It could just as well be that he’s really here to find out where our defenses are, how many of us are there, what are good places to attack from. Or, he could be bearing another sort of poison for us — different but equally effective as the last nasty stuff they left behind. He glanced at Many Paths. If she were having similar thoughts, nothing in her face gave such thoughts away. Shadow Walker realized that his own face was not so well trained as that of Many Paths. He replaced his angry face with an inscrutable one. Over the next few minutes, Shadow Walker noticed both that OLIE continued to become apparently more relaxed and that after he put a neutral face on, OLIE began to glance at him as well.
At the same time, Shadow Walker decided he would test whether OLIE truly understood Veritas. He added this phrase to his translation to Many Paths: “I wonder whether we’d be better off torturing him for information. That’s what they do.” He carefully observed the face of the priest and saw no clue there that OLIE had understood. Many Paths frowned and then her eyes widened. Shadow Walker added quickly, “Sorry. I was just testing whether he knows Veritas.” Again, he looked carefully at OLIE and saw no sign that he did.
After a long silence, Many Paths spoke, using Shadow Walker as her interpreter. She said that she appreciated his story. She said that she would like to learn more about the Z-Lotz. She said that she would like to invite him to a dinner where he could feast on more than blackberries. But she explained that not everyone in her tribe would be immediately trusting of the Z-Lotz. She described the strange stuff that had been given as a “gift” but that destroyed the arms of Stone Chipper. She described the plague which had nearly killed one of the tribe elders, their former chief, She Who Saves Many Lives. She did not describe how her own brother T-Swift had been stolen by the ROI as part of their agreement with the Z-Lotz.
“I see. Yes.” OLIE’s reply seemed insightful, yet blind. Shadow Walker & Many Paths waited for him to elaborate; perhaps, even to apologize. OLIE made no move to flee, nor did he seem to show any interest in conversing. He glanced back at the blackberry bush. Despite the predations of at least the three of them, there were still plenty of berries left.
Many Paths smiled. “Let us return to the Center Place of the Veritas. I will introduce you to a few people first and explain your circumstances so that you will be safe. In order to do that, and ensure your safety, it will necessary to know a little more. Do you believe you are being pursued by any of the Z-Lotz?”
OLIE made a quick, almost ritual, shake of his head. “No. No-one would bother. People are hungry and tired of fighting as well. For a short time, it seemed as though we might conquer the disease. Just as you said.” Here, the man looked directly at Shadow Walker. “But, you see, there was the matter of who was to be leader. After you left, fighting broke out. Many wanted to claim the throne. The fighting meant … everyone got close to everyone and there was little time for medicine or rest. Some few, including me, never got sick. We may have claimed…some may have claimed that it was because they followed God’s directives more fervently. At first, this sounded like a good plan. Many tried to be more pious, but they got sick anyway. And, then, they became quite angry with us. They were angry at the priests who had given such useless advice, but the anger spread to all priests.”
OLIE paused and looked down. Shadow Walker & Many Paths glanced at each other. “The priests are perhaps responsible partly. But…” He glanced at Shadow Walker. “When you left so suddenly and unexpectedly….it made everything worse. We didn’t know what to do. We made up new rules and tried to give the men privileges. They were pleased, but eventually, it backfired. Too much violence. My faith…? I don’t know. I don’t know. But without the Book, without God, what is there? Once the people stopped doing what we said, how could they be in tune with God. Imagine what would happen to your people with no-one to tell them how to interpret the Book.”
Many Paths looked intently at OLIE’s face. She was astounded. Many Path saw no hint that OLIE was trying to deceive her. Yet, it seemed to her impossible that the Z-Lotz, or at least this one, would know so little about the people they made their enemy. She frowned. Could they possibly know that the Veritas had no real “Priest Class”? Could it be that the Z-Lotz hadn’t known that the Veritas were ignorant of books until a few months ago? Or, that everyone among the Veritas created or discovered their own relationship to the Great Tree of Life? She took a deep breath. She tried not to scoff at OLIE’s apparent ignorance but instead to use it as a guide to reflecting on her own ignorance. What had she, or indeed, any of the Veritas, known even a few years ago about the Z-Lotz or the ROI or the Cupiditas? About the Fierce and Formidable warriors from the frigid north or the Nomads of the desert? The Veritas had not even known for certain that there were more Veritas on the other side of the mountain. Many Paths thought back to the empathy test that required them to try to see the world through the eyes of various animals. Even before those tests for the Rings, every hunter learned the ways of those who would be prey or predator. How was it then that the Veritas as well as the Z-Lotz had learned so little of the ways of their neighbors?
Once upon a time, a great wooly Mammoth happily grazed on green and golden grass. He had satiated his hunger early that morning, but he continued to graze all afternoon. After all, he reasoned, who knows whether the grass will be here tomorrow?
The Mammoth, who had been eating tons of grass from a seemingly endless field of grassy plains, grew bored. The Mammoth, of course, was rather mammoth. He liked the grass, but eating tons of it became ever more boring for the mammoth Mammoth, so his mind wandered and he noticed that a small Mouse was chewing on a grain of grass seed.
“Hey there!!” The Mammoth bellowed. “What are you doing eating my grass!? Leave that alone! All this grass is mine!”
The mouse scampered away and the Mammoth resumed eating tons of grass. But it was still just as boring as ever using his trunk to shovel mouthful after mouthful of grass. He decided he would go looking for the Mouse. He eventually found Mouse and the Mouse was again eating a teeny grass seed.
“Hey there!!!” The mighty Mammoth bellowed. “I told you not to eat grass!! It’s all mine!”
The Mammoth noticed that other animals were laughing. Hyena came over to Mammoth and said, “You are a mammoth Mammoth! Why are you bothering a tiny mouse?”
The Mammoth waved his trunk menacingly and answered, “Indeed! What business is it of yours? Anyway, as you can see, the Mouse is hoping to gain enough weight and strength so that he can come and eat me!”
Now, other animals had come to observe the commotion.
A large Elk said, “That’s ridiculous! Mice don’t eat Mammoths!”
Mammoth smirked and said, “I tell you he wants to eat me! He wants to kill me! I am going to crush this mouse and make life safe for myself, my family, and for all of us.”
The Hyena laughed. The Elk rolled his giant eyes. Even the Yaks began to yuck it up.
Mammoth however began raising up his giant feet and smashing them down to squash the Mouse. But each time, the mouse would scamper away just in time. The Mammoth grew angrier and angrier still because he was having such a hard time smashing the Mouse. He smashed his giant foot down on a sharp stone so hard that it caused his foot to bleed.
The Mammoth bellowed in pain and anger. “Now look! See?! That Mouse is making me bleed! I told you he was trying to kill me and eat me!”
This only made the Hyenas laugh harder. The Elk shook his head in disbelief. The Crows cawed and chuckled. The Lion roared with laughter at the misguided Mammoth.
This only made the Mammoth even angrier and he smashed his giant feet down trying to crush the Mouse. Most of the time, his giant feet came down in the dirt or the grass, but, as luck would have it, he also smashed another foot down onto a sharp rock and now another of his feet began to bleed. “Look! See!? The Mouse is trying to kill me! Laugh if you like, but after I protect myself by killing the Mouse, I’m going to protect myself more by killing everyone who laughs at me! I’ll show you all!”
It has been estimated that there are about 40 billion mice on earth right now.
Of course it seems large enough when you think you’re headed to grandpa’s farm for the weekend. That’s what I was doing when the bombing started. Mom & Dad were going to drive me there after work. But they never made it home. Not yet.
The backpack seems large enough until you find yourself rushing all around the house, like I did, trying to decide what to stuff in it to get away from the bombs. Water? Food? Our pet cat, Lucy? Weapons? Extra clothes? Some of each? Radio? Batteries? Chargers? Electricity. Phone? The kitchen knives, unsheathed?
Meanwhile … the noise never stops. No word from folks. Think you’ll get used to the explosions and the inhuman screams of pain. But you don’t. Not really. You think you’ll find a place that’s better than the last place you were. But you don’t.
No, you won’t get used to it. At least, I never did. You won’t find a better place, either. At, least I never did.
Just death everywhere Stench. And noise which I never did get used to.
The “sharpness” in the explosions evaporated though. I studied enough bio to know what happened. I lost some hair cells is all. They still make a huge THWOMP in my sternum and they still hurt my ears. Oh, yes. The nearby explosions are plenty loud. They are just dull.
Like everything else now, I guess.
I don’t hear birds any more. Maybe there are a few left. What’s that thing about canaries and coal mines? Hard to believe the air here used to be clear enough to breathe without choking. It never used to stink thisbad either. Maybe the stench killed the robins and jays.
Maybe the birds all flew away first. Smart. They have their own built in method of transportation. Anyway, whether the birds are all dead or all flown away, I don’t know. I just know I don’t hear them. Anyway, why would they be singing? I like to think they flew away. All I know for sure is that they’re gone.
Except for the crows*.
I remember in the “before times” being grossed out at the way the crows picked the meat off the bones of road kill. I remember wondering: “Do they get sick from rotting meat ? Or, do they just never realize that rotting meat makes them sick? Or do they do know it makes them sick but they’re so damned hungry, that they don’t care.”
I was sure, back then, that I’d never be that hungry.
What did I know?
Anyway, I thought the crows were gross, all right. But they were brave! They’d swoop out to their sickening feast of squashed squirrel or raccoon or unlucky dog and peck away at the rotting carcass while a car or truck would zoom right at them! Only at the last second, they would angrily flit out of the way. I never saw one get hit.
I guess I kind of wanted one of them to get hit. It would serve them right for being so gross!
“For being so gross.”
As best I can understand it, that’s how all this started. Some folks were being gross. I guess I never really saw them being gross. My parents thought it was a good idea to kill all the gross people but others didn’t agree. I don’t know what the grossness even was. My folks — did I mention I haven’t seen them since all this started? — any way, my folks never explained it.
That was back in what I call the “before times” when we could just drive to the grocery and get fresh vegetables and fruits, butter, cheese, chips, cookies, bread. Olives. I especially liked olives. My folks thought that it was weird for an eight year old to love olives so much. In fact, they called it “gross.”
They were joking. I think they were joking. They may have been joking. I kind of miss them. I don’t think they thought I was gross back then. Lots of people eat olives. I don’t think I started the war. Olives?
I don’t know. I don’t think I was gross enough to deserve to die. Like I said, I’m not sure what the “grossness” was all about — not the grossness that they were killing each other about.
No-one should eat road kill. Or bomb kill.
And no-one does.
Except for the crows.
*Author’s Note: At the exact moment I wrote the line “Except for the crows” (the first time), the crows outside cawed loudly! Now, all I hear are the wind chimes.