As if your shoulder brushing
against my breast in a crowded room
meant anything to me…
As if your smile would thaw my frosty heart…
As if your constant assurance could overcome my cynicism…
As if the invisible boulevard would never rise up and beckon.
<> | <> | <>
The street lamp glows in the bleached mist only three floors below us.
I blow streams of smoke into the black night and hum to the drone of the unseen road.
Be steel my bleating heart!
Be quiet! Be silent, hard steel.
As if wearing your tee shirt made us lovers.
It was a cat very similar in appearance to pretty Kitty Puddin’ Jam [aka Jammin’ Jim, One-Eyed Jimmy Jones, Jimmy Jam and plain Jimmy] who played the character Strudel in the short A Hard Candy Christmas. The story is beautifully narrated by Julia Gayden Nelson.
Dolly Pardon’s song Hard Candy Christmas played in the background, fueling my imagination as I pecked out the words to the story.
Strudel was actually a stray feral cat who sought refuge with me through one rare snowy winter. Jimmy insists he could play the part and probably win a prestigious theater award. He would also totally love to hang out with Dolly.
Q: Is any of your fiction true? Do you write about real life?
A: Well yes and no. For example a visit to Rockford Illinois for my granddaughter’s graduation inspired the following scene which takes place somewhere in the historical Lake-Peterson House.
Our dog Leia was the inspiration for the physical description of Gus and that is her on the cover.
There is some truth in the fiction I write. I will leave it up to the reader to decide where that truth lies.
Chapter Twenty Five
Mary paced the empty hallway on the third floor of the ancient house. She counted fifteen steps from one lamp to the next and wondered if the people below could hear her. The dark corridor seemed to grow shorter with each lap along with her patience. She considered unlocking her mind so she could tap into the thoughts of those around her but intuition advised against it. Occasionally she paused to listen at the door; each time she found the words indecipherable and returned to pacing until a gentle creak caused her to stop.
“You may go in now.” A flat voice announced as the heavy door gave way. Sunbeams flooded the hallway and Mary squinted at the figure in front of her; at the starched white cap and unwieldy dress which were as outdated as the house.
“Thank you.” Mary stepped forward and warmly squeezed the woman’s shoulders. Her affections were met with a rigid withdrawal but not before she could catch a glimpse of the nurse’s frontal imaginings. As her eyes adjusted to the light she could better see the nurse’s features; her round face as stiff as her attire looked like a plate cemented between the pinned head covering and cinched collar.
“Thank you.” Mary reiterated with less affection as she slid past the nurse and closed the door behind her.
The floorboards groaned as Mary hobbled across the oversized space toward a single bed in the corner. Jim glanced up, forced a smile and promptly turned his attention back to his wife.
“How are y’all?” Mary anxiously inquired as she cast an eye over the new parents.
“We… we’re all fine.” Clara mumbled, straining to open her eyes.
“Where are the babies?” Mary asked, glancing suspiciously around the bare room.
“One of the nurses took them over to the hospital – said they had to be examined – tests and shots – routine stuff.” Jim explained as if trying to assure himself. “They will bring them back as soon as they’re finished… as soon as they make sure they’re both in good health.” His voice trailed as he tenderly bathed Clara’s pale face.
“That makes sense.” Mary tried to sound convincing but the smell of sweat and panic made it difficult. She lifted Clara’s moist flaccid hand and asked, “How are you sweetie?”
“I can’t…” Clara whispered, gasping between words, “can’t … hear… Frieda.”
“Don’t worry love.” Jim paused briefly to blot his own forehead and neck before sweeping the salty cloth across his wife’s.
“Mama?” Clara’s eyes fluttered.
“Something is wrong!” The vision appeared as red paint flowing over a white canvas and Mary yanked the sheet back. Doc! Mary opened the vault of her subconscious, honed her thoughts on the old doctor and yelled. Doc! Hurry! Her brain was inundated with voices and images as the internal walls fell away; the extrasensory chaos proved to be too much and she collapsed on the floor.
When Mary came to she could see the doctor standing over Clara, pressing and massaging her abdomen. A bottle of clear liquid hung at the head of the bed and a pile of blood stained sheets littered the floor around them.
“She’ll be okay now. We just have to let the medicine do its work and keep the fundus firm.” He spoke in a casual manner. “Fetch me another bag of special blend Gus and be careful not to puncture this one.” The white shepherd sprinted to the door, his claws creating a rapid rhythmic tap against the wooden floor as he ran.
“Do you think he will speak to me?” Jim stood in the same spot, still sponging his wife’s face as he spoke but the scent of panic had lessened.
“Maybe.” The doctor replied suppressing any signs of optimism yet Mary could see the previous conversation between Doc and Gus. She grinned as she raised herself to a standing position. The shepherd would soon have a new home.
“I guess the sight of all that blood got to you. Are you okay now?” Jim asked without taking his eyes off of Clara.
“I guess so.” Mary laughed, rubbing the small lump on her head. “Our girl definitely looks a lot better.” She said, running her fingers across Clara’s rosy complexion. “What happened? Why did she bleed so much?”
“That happens sometimes, especially with twins.” Mary accepted the doctor’s verbal response without debate as he knew she would. The truth of the matter would be kept secret between the two of them for the time being. If Jim learned of the attempted murder he would retaliate and that could put Doc and Gus in a dangerous situation. “Good boy!” the doctor took the pint sized plastic container from the dog’s mouth. “You rub the fundus just like I showed you James.” He said as he quickly inserted a fifty milliliter syringe, filled it with the thick crimson liquid and injected it directly into the intravenous line. He repeated the process nine more times until the bag was empty and the bottle overhead was dry.
“When can I have my babies?” An invigorated Clara sprung up and demanded, “I want Fritz and Frieda right now. If they are not here in five minutes I will go and get them myself.”
“Are you sure you are capable of handling them right now?” Doc asked.
“I am more than capable.” Clara took the salty half-damp cloth, snatched the I.V. from her arm and applied pressure. “I believe I am capable of taking this place down and everyone in my path to get to my children.”
“I believe you.” The old doctor smiled.
“What did you give her?” Jim shook his head and laughed, “An hour ago I was afraid I was losing her – now I’m just afraid of her.”
“You have nothing to fear.” The doctor’s face lit up with a shrewd grin, “As long as you are one of the good guys.”
“I’ll tell my nurse to bring the babies now.”
Within minutes a lovely petit woman entered the room with a bundle in each arm.
“I hear the new mommy is anxious to hold her little ones.”
“Oh yes.” Clara cried, extending her arms.
The nurse carefully placed the infants in their mother’s arms. Frieda was nestled on the right and Fritz on the left. The twins instinctively turned their face to Clara’s breasts and began rooting and grunting. She in turn lifted her blouse and guided each mouth to an engorged nipple, welcoming the throbbing and stinging as they gulped.
“I have never seen anything so beautiful.” Jim’s voiced cracked as he spoke. “I have never felt so blessed.” He glanced at the others around him. Mary sniffled and held her hand to her mouth, the old doctor nodded and smiled and the white shepherd pawed at the tears streaming down his snout.
For hopes that hung on a chicken bones
For hearts that lived in chains
For pods of green that died unknown
While waiting for the rain
For dreams left bare on empty prayer
For souls that wished in vain
For tears unshared in mute despair
While waiting for a change
For you and I and all mankind
For worlds where peace was slain
For faith and mind no man can bind
We wait and wait again
“All eyes were on Wall Street, but truth be told, the market crash paled in comparison to the Navarro County drought.”
Cast of Characters:
Jamison Baines Weir
Liam and Coletta Weir
Jeff and Diane Flint
Bob and Maddie Hallet
D.W. and Bell Crom
The news of Black Tuesday came and went as little more than dry morsels between flapjacks and red-eyed gravy. Black Thursday was no different. Margin calls and ticker-talk; it was all a foreign language to the average man of Navarro county. New York, Chicago and any place not adjacent to the dying province could have just as well been another country – another planet.
<>Suicides headlined newspapers across the globe. Although desperate men (and women) chose gas or bullets; poison or tablets to avoid poverty the stories of men leaping from windows sold more papers and it seemed to pacify the masses, at least for a while.
<>The headlines went on and on. Tales of a brutal bearish market where stock prices were plummeting and fortunes were being dissolved. The days grew long and the soup lines grew longer as billions of dollars were lost, except for the sparse crowd who knew how to short the market and profit from despair.
<>The caste system was readjusting; the prudent wealthy settled into middle-class; the so called middle-class went back to being poor and the poor resorted to begging or starving. Even the outcasts felt the impact. Amidst all of the chaos and realigning there was one morphological thing that everyone understood; a fact that every race, creed, class and religion agreed upon – the roaring twenties had come to a crashing halt. Literally.
A somnolent bedraggled man stood in the doorway of Crom’s Cafe and eyed the headline of the Navarro County Herald. He thoughtlessly tapped his hat against his thigh to loosen the grit before tossing a nickel into the box that read COFFEE & TOAST 5¢. There were a dozen nickels alongside his.
<>“Thanks Bell” he grumbled to the portly matron behind the paper as he filed past the register and took a seat in the back of the diner.
Half a dozen men sat scattered about the dimly lit eatery, each one scarcely aware of the others presence. They all sat in the same fashion; silent with their elbows on the table and their heads bowed over crumbs and half empty cups. One man’s groans interrupted the silence, erupting between broken verses of prayer which quickly evaporated without regard.
<>“Here you go Liam.” Bell spoke just above a whisper as she sat the mug and saucer on the table, “If there’s anything left after breakfast I’ll send it home with you.”
<>“Thank you ma’am but that fella over there looks a heap worse than any of us.” he nodded toward the sniveling man, “Looks like he might need any scraps you can spare.”
<>“Tut-tut!” Bell shot a glance at the praying man and shook her head, “Don’t you know who that is? That is Daniel D. Starnes; the same Daniel Starnes who owns the cotton gin over at Mexia; the same scoundrel that cheated fifty men out of their wages. I know he makes a sorrowful spectacle with all that praying but do you know what he’s praying for?” the woman paused long enough to fill her lungs and did not wait for Liam to respond. “The beast! Yep, he is praying that the stock market will recover so he doesn’t lose any more money on his investments. I tell you I am at my wits end with all the moaning and groaning and killing over filthy lucre and that blasted stock market! ” Bell wiped her hands on her apron and marched toward the kitchen speaking so the entire café could hear her, “Money! That is all some folks care about.”
<>Money can’t buy you rain, Liam thought, as he quietly dipped his dry toast into the weak coffee and watched as the diner filled.
<>The usual crowd shuffled in, in their habitual manner. More coffee was poured into waiting mugs, more nickels dropped into the box, a few at the bar ordered a real breakfast and those who could afford to buy a copy unfurled their paper. Liam inconspicuously glanced at the man’s next to him. The dismal headline meant nothing to most tenant farmers. It meant even less to Liam Weir. He saw it as one less gluttonous banker and they could not die fast enough to suit him.
And greedy cotton ginners can go to hell right along with `em.
<>If I had five cents to spend, I wouldn’t waste it on that rag. They just as well call it the New Yorker! Liam decided he had seen enough of the Navarro County Herald. There was no mention of the drought, not on the front page anyway. When the man beside him turned the page, Liam went back to watching the idle patrons throughout the diner.
From his seat in the rear he could see the entire café and a portion of the adjoining store, the same store he was determined to visit and purchase a decent bill of groceries before the day was up.
<>Liam studied the room; watched as men felt blindly for cups and sopped dry biscuits in air while soaking up the news of investors going broke. All eyes were on Wall Street but truth be told, the market crash paled in comparison to the Navarro county drought.
<>He watched as a billion dust particles danced overhead, swaying recklessly in rays of smoke stained sunshine until the weight of grease and nicotine and worry forced them to settle. The grimy mist settled on everything – on everyone. It covered every field cap and fedora. Without prejudice it landed on burnt necks and white collars alike and no one, other than Liam appeared to notice. He listened to the moans and grunts that followed each turning page. Some lingered on the specifics, others on the gruesome photographs but at the end of breakfast they all shrugged their shoulders and went back to waiting.
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Don tugged at the brush and pressed his face in to the opening, completely oblivious to the pricks coming from the thick briars. When the first two numerals were visible, he sneered,
“This is it and there is no one here to stop me.” He steadied the flask against his numbed lower lip and sucked the last drop of Benadryl and bourbon from the stainless steel container. Hurriedly he shoved it back into his rear pocket and resumed his mission.
When he had burrowed out a space big enough to accommodate his shoulders Don Crowley scrambled through to the clearing to the other side.
The land bore no resemblance to his fond memory. He studied the bleached bovine skull that hung before the forgotten alley, the alley that would lead him to the entrance of his dreams.
The door was not near as beautiful as she had once been. The paint was all but gone and so was much of the wood. Termites had loved the timber as well, though not in the same way Don did. The brass appendages were tarnished and blackened, the frame was mildewed and rotting and she looked naked without her gable to shade her from the elements. But her lips were still a bright red.
The man ran his trembling fingers over the smooth rounded lines of cherry color and whispered,
“Hello door number four. I’ve thought about you for a long, long time.” He gently petted the mottled brass before curling his fingers into a fist then paused, “I don’t have to, but it seems only polite.” Holding the cold sticky metal against the tips of his fingers he savored the moment, inhaled deeply, wet his lips then, Clink… clink… clink.
The dull tapping brought tears of joy to his eyes, tears mingled with watery mucous because Don was allergic to mold as well as every other spore and pollen in the universe.
He stood on the cement landing, shaking his head in confusion. Was it the antihistamines and allergens causing him to imagine the voice or did Mr. Levin just invite him in?
Don stared down at the swaying concrete… the old porch had been a pier and beam foundation with a beautiful terrace above… could it be possible he had the wrong house? Looking back up he assured himself it was the right house, but so much had changed. He caressed the painted numerals to calm his fretfulness.
“It’s you… it has always been you.” he said placing his mouth against the deteriorating surface.
Bolstering his courage, he pulled back, stood as straight as he could and wiped the mustiness from his mouth.
Blood? He mused at the crimson wetness in his palm before wiping again. Paint? The iron taste confirmed his first guess and the dripping number revealed its origin. “What the hell?” he stammered bracing himself against the framework of the once glorious mansion.
“Wake up Donald.” The familiar voice commanded.
“I can’t see you.” Don moaned as he struggled to open his pus-filled eyes, “Where am I?”
“Exactly where you wanted to be.” Came the answer immediately followed by the sound of p’thu-p’thu “Now rub that in.”
“Did you just-” His words were cut short by an icy cloth slammed against his swollen face. It felt like a dozen hands on him, rubbing the warm spit into his eyes, pressing the cold rag to his lips and reaming his nostrils with ointment.
“Shut up!” the voice ordered pressing harder against his mouth, causing him to snort and choke as he inhaled the vapors of the salve.
Don briefly considered fighting the man that stood over him but there was no desire to. Despite the fact that the fellow had spit in his eye, forced a wet rag into his mouth and shoved something up his nose, he felt grateful. Frankly, he could not recall the last time he had felt so good, so calm and never in his life had he felt this strong and healthy. Don submitted and let the smell of tar and green mint carry him away.
When his breathing was slow and steady he felt the once chilled rag lift and the voice commanded him, “Pull yourself together and come on in to the kitchen when you can see straight.”
“Yes Sir Mr. Levin.” Don replied as he sat up and watched the man exit the dim parlor.
Slowly he scraped the thick balm from his face, picked the bits of crushed mint from his teeth and sniffed at the medicinal material.
“What’s in this?” he asked, studying the white cloth with nothing visible other than a few green specks caught in the cotton fibers. “You ought to sell it to one of the pharmaceutical companies.”
Mr. Levin never acknowledged the question or the suggestion but quietly shut the door without looking back.
Donald stood and stretched, marveling at the smoothness of his own skin and the indescribable vigor he felt.
Testing his newfound health he spread his legs, sprang upward and swung his arms over his head. He counted with each clap and two hundred jumping jacks later, his pulse and respirations were unchanged. Though dust covered everything in the area, he was unaffected.
He skipped around the massive room oblivious to any cares until the kettle whistling distracted him and he remembered Mr. Levin was waiting.
“This place is amazing,” he yelled toward the kitchen, “There must be a million dollars’ worth of antiques in this room alone.” Donald waited but the old man gave no response. If he had spoken, the younger man would not have heard as his focus darted to the nineteenth century Bosendorfer standing quietly in the corner. Don migrated to the antique piano and caressed the aged wood before letting his fingers come to rest on the ivory.
“Uh-uh!” The voice playfully warned before he had a chance to strike the key. It was her. Donald turned in every direction but there was no one to be seen. IIII flashed before his eyes and seemed to smile. The red lips over glossy white teeth, the IIII he remembered from his youth. But this smile was a cautious one like a mother gives her child; like the warning that precedes punishment.
“Yes ma’am.” He muttered as he shook the chill from his spine and hurried to the kitchen.
The room was just as he remembered it. Though he had spent only seconds inside before being chased out, the image had been stamped on his brain like a photograph.
“She called you didn’t she?” Mr. Levin asked without looking up.
Don understood the question but avoided answering and watched as the old man rubbed the rim of his cup. “I thought you were just a nosy little brat. Heck, you had snooped inside every house in the county; it weren’t like you were in love.” His voice trailed as he shifted in his seat; “Guess I should have saw it coming. Would you like a cup?”
“You haven’t aged a bit in fifteen years.” Donald answered staring at John Marcus Levin, “How is that possible?”
“I haven’t aged a bit in over fifty years boy, that’s part of it.” He answered dryly, still refusing to make eye contact.
Don watched the hot black tea flow as if in slow motion from the tarnished pot. He could count the drops as they splashed against the walls of the white china cup one at a time and without hurrying. He was totally mesmerized by the collapsing molecules of what was steam a millisecond ago; so much so that when the table shook he nearly fell out of his chair.
“Look! Look at yourself!” Mr. Levin growled banging his fist against the table and pointing toward the silver platter that held the tea set. “Do you like the way you look?”
“I have never looked better.” Don smiled stroking his flawless face and admiring the healthier version of himself. “No puffiness, no hives… I always wanted a smaller nose but yes, I like the way I look.”
“Good.” The old man replied in a softer tone, “Because that is the only face you’ll ever have.”
“Hell you make it sound like bad news when most people would give anything to stop the aging process. Do you know how many billions are made in the cosmetics industry every year? ”
“There’s no way to make you understand, not today anyway.” Mr. Levin sighed, “Not in my life time but in fifty years or so you’ll start to wonder and when the wondering fails to amuse you, you’ll grow weary and you’ll wish…”
Mr. Levin shook his head slowly, his loose flesh rippling with each turn until a bead of moisture broke loose from his cheek. Don studied the tear as it hovered then followed it to the table where it exploded on impact leaving a microscopic rainbow where it landed.
“I’ll wish what?” he asked, gently tilting the man’s face upward.
“You’ll wish you never loved her.”
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The poem that opens A Hard Candy Christmas.
I found you – a thin shawl upon nature’s shoulders
resting on the final page of my Gregorian calendar.
Celebrations in red,
Christmas and Kwanza and the tail end of Hanukah.
Reminding me in stark black letters of bombings and declarations of war.
Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan…
Listen to Julia Gayden Nelson's lovely narration and/or get the e-book from your favorite retailer.
Welcome to December y’all!