If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Donal Mahoney: Love and Anger at 80, According to Elmer

When ancient Elmer was young and dashing and on the prowl, he would wait for a phone call about love or anger from someone important to him at the time. Over the years more than a few women had reason to call. Some were happy with Elmer and some were not. 

According to Elmer, more than a few of those women today, five or six decades later, take advantage of the new technology and Google his name in an effort to find him. Many want to confront him for past promises not kept. Some want to see him again if he's single, widowed or divorced. Others just want to see him again, whatever his marital status. 

The vote on him, Elmer says, is split down the middle. He fooled some of the women some of the time but the others never forgot. At age 80 he wishes most of them--but not all of them--would.

"What can I tell you," Elmer says. "Besides drinking, the only thing I was good at in life was talking to women until they caught on. I may be old but I can still talk nice to a lady. I specialize in buncombe and balderdash. But I can't run any more from the angry ones. The legs are gone. 

"And that damn Google can be a real problem. I guess my address and phone number got on the Internet somehow and some ladies who are still able to get around have come looking for me. It's happened more than once. I wouldn't be surprised to answer the door some day and find one of them in an electric wheel chair. But all of them, good and not so good, had energy and spunk."

His many children are now adults, he says, but they wasted his money in college. Instead of applying themselves to their studies, they would wait for an email about love or anger from someone important to them for that semester. The following semester, he says, they would wait for an email from a new love interest. This would go on every semester until they flunked out or managed to graduate. Email in the lives of his children was not a positive thing when they were in college.

"I have 12 kids," Elmer says. "Six have degrees and six flunked out. More of the flunkers have jobs than the graduates. What does that tell you about this economy? And what does that tell you about my kids? The apples, I guess, fell close to the tree."

Elmer also has quite a few grandchildren, most of them adolescents. They waste time in school, he says, waiting for a text message about love or anger from someone important to them for a day or a week or over spring break. Texting is not a good thing, Elmer says, in the lives of his grandchildren. And it won't be a good thing for any of them able to get into college.

"Kids today," he says, "are on a carousel, especially the girls because they trust boys and most teen-age boys are louts. I can tell you that from personal experience because I was a teen-age lout for several wonderful years," Elmer says. 

"As a teen-ager, if I ever told a girl the truth I must have been drinking beer in back of the Masonic Lodge earlier that night. We had no dope back in those days. Never even saw the stuff. Wouldn't touch it if I did. But we drank a lot of beer on the weekends and maybe a little vodka and Squirt on Sundays. After church, of course. Times were different back then. You could meet a lot of nice girls at church." 

Now in his dotage, and feeling the effects in his joints and muscles, Elmer still maintains that love or anger shouldn't arrive by phone, text message or email. It should arrive in person, smiling or spitting with rage. He's had it happen both ways. And he's ready for more if time permits. 

Elmer doesn't have a computer or cell phone so emails and text messages never ruin his day. He has a land-line phone to make outgoing calls but he adjusted it so he cannot hear the ring of incoming calls. He did that two months ago after Bertha, a woman he took to her prom more than 60 years ago, found his phone number on the Internet. She called twice a day for a week until Elmer turned off the ringer, as he calls it. He never turned it back on. Now he calls out once a week for a large meat-lover's pizza and two quarts of beer. He'd make the same order more often, he says, but he has to watch his cholesterol.  

Elmer, however, would not be disturbed if Bertha--or any other woman from his youth--came knocking on his door. He has always believed that love or anger should pound on the door with great emphasis--like the baton of a policeman at midnight yelling the music's too loud, stop the party or everyone's going to jail. 

The pounding would have to be loud enough, Elmer says, for him to hear it--and even louder at night to roust him from his bed in his nightshirt to search for his teeth and toupee before he answered the door. He wouldn't care who's pounding as long as it was love or anger and not some guy in a ball cap selling aluminum siding. 

"Every man, no matter how old, deep in his heart wants to hear one more coo or even a gripe from a woman," Elmer says. "In fact I'd like to hear both before I go--and I won't go quietly--into what Dylan Thomas called that good night. Did you ever read his poems? I did and I thought if I'd had a brother, it should have been Dylan Thomas. Or Salvador Dali. Did you ever see his paintings? I see life the way he painted it. "

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Michelle D'costa: The Escalator

When escalators were first introduced in India, women nagged at its inconvenience. They had to be careful of their saris, heels and children. Ah! Children! Now if only children ranked first on their priority list.

Sheela stood facing the escalator that headed downwards, towards her. Now, was that convenient? Not for the people who were heading her way. They felt conscious. Why was she standing there? Who was she looking for? Who was she looking at? They murmured to their partners. She’s nuts.

Sheela could see her son Gopu taking faltering steps on the top of the escalator. She smiled a smile of a mother seeing her child taking his first steps. And then her eyes glazed over, ‘Nooooo!!!!’

Her blood curdling scream stopped the escalator in its track. But Gopu repeated what he had done that day. Only difference was Sheela watched him do it now, again and again.

She watched as he stumbled for balance. He was in the right direction. He was supposed to come down. Unlike other kids who are blessed with intelligence yet find themselves at the wrong end of the escalator, at the dangerous end.

Despite being in the right direction, he slipped. Her Gopu. Yes he did. If only she had noticed in time.

And tumbled. And then. Only then had Sheela turned around and noticed that her son was missing.

How ironical life is? The whole process began so gruellingly slow. From conception to gestation to childbirth. But death came without that wait. So sudden. At least for Gopu it did. Not that a death which is asked for is less painful. Death is like whisper only meant for the dying but arouses curiosity of the survivors.

As if Gopu was conjured from thin air. No he wasn’t. He was her flesh. He had her eyes. Too big for his face. She could see only innocence in them. His admiration for her sparkling in the drool which escaped his lopsided mouth. No one knew his smile like she did.

She had prayed so much for a child, for Gopu. Why then did God give her a child if he had to take him away anyway? That is if God exists.

People say, ‘Don’t be sad for it is over. Be happy for it happened.’

Move on. Two simple words, Sheela told herself every day since Gopu…

But how could she have been so careless? Sheela asked herself again.

When she knew he wasn’t like other kids. That he was special. That he couldn’t handle himself. But could any kid of that age? Even a normal one?

And now he was tumbling and coming towards her.

She stretched out her arms.

‘Come to mama, boy! Come!’

Yes he had heard her. He came forward hugging her. Pushing her. Handcuffing her.

‘Ma’am we cannot allow you to scare our customers away. Please go where you belong.’

The guard saying ‘please’ a little too reluctantly when he actually felt like screaming back at her ‘Go to an asylum you bitch! You will get me fired’.

She stood fixed to the spot. In her past or present? No one could say.

The people descending the escalator stared at her terrified.

‘Ma’am no one will come to our mall if you continue your drama. Please go home.’, he managed in a low tone again.

Home…It rang a bell..

‘Yes, I must go home. I must. Gopu must be waiting for me. I had put him to sleep. I told him I’ll be going to the mall. He must be awake now.’, Sheela stuttered.

But her legs didn’t move. Her mind did. To what? Home?

Of course not! Home was home sweet home before Gopu…

Her mind slowly crawling, creeping up the escalator against the tide until it reached the top and there was Gopu.

Taking his faltering steps all over again. His eyes pleading her to end it all once and for all. To take him home.

Author Bio: Michelle loves to write. You can follow her work here pikoomish.wordpress.com

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Shane L. Coffey: No Small Parts...

Derek had been acting strange for weeks.  Nick had been sure his friend was getting in over his head with something, and secretly he'd been glad.  The balance-sheets and quarterly statements all ran together, blurring through his weary brain ten and twelve hours a day.  The rest he spent dreaming, praying for a single moment of significance in a life of trivia.

When he'd seen Derek heading for such a dangerous part of town, he'd been sure the younger man needed help and told himself, by way of justification, that going to the police might get Derek into serious trouble.  What he'd just seen, however, made it clear that it wasn't Derek who was in over his head.

“What are you doing down here?  Are you trying to get yourself killed!?” Derek asked.  The night air was chilly and damp with drizzle and the wind coming off the docks.  A dozen hired thugs lay around him, some groaning, others unconscious.

“H...How did you do that?” Nick stammered.

Derek hesitated.

“How did you do that!?” Nick repeated, more forcefully.

“I just reacted,” Derek finally replied.  “We gotta get outta here before more goons show up.”

“He shot you!” Nick shouted, pointing at one of the unconscious men.

“Quiet!” Derek hissed.  “And don't talk crazy; I'm fine.”

Unconvinced, Nick reached out and stuck his finger through the hole in Derek's coat, poking the spot on his ribs where the bullet-hole ought to have been.

Derek moved away quickly, covering the spot with his hand and turning toward the city lights.  “Come on!” he repeated, not looking back.  Nick still stood amid the defeated gang, stunned.

Suddenly the sound of a revving engine growled out as rain pelted down harder, breaking up the image of headlights swinging into view.  Derek continued moving away, but Nick froze, just in time for a black SUV to screech to a stop in front of him.  Derek watched, hidden and unmoving, as men in hoods roughly seized his friend and dragged him into the back seat, restraining and gagging him with duct tape before pulling a bag down over his head.

Nick cursed himself vehemently as he fought to get his breathing under control.  He'd been so sure he'd found his moment, but now he was the helpless prisoner and his friend, it seemed, was some kind of super hero.

Finally the long ride ended, and Nick was dumped unceremoniously onto a concrete floor.

“Is this the guy?” a heavy voice asked.

“Took out a dozen of the Caprese's best fighters without so much as a mark on him.  It's gotta be.”

“Take the hood off,” the first voice said again.

The bag was pulled away, revealing only more darkness and five or six even darker silhouettes.

“I'm Sean O'Sullivan,” the voice continued, “and you're havin' of a skillset that seems right useful.  So, the proposition's a simple...”

Suddenly a skylight shattered overhead, and a heavy form fell on O'Sullivan, slamming him to the ground.  Shots rang out, but if they hit anything, they did no harm.  A moment later the form became Derek as he deftly dispatched the thugs, then helped Nick to his feet and cut the duct tape binding him.

“Thanks,” Derek said, breathing hard.  “Couldn't have done it without you.”

“How's that?” Nick responded, stunned.  “I wasn't even much of a sidekick.”

“Lousy sidekick,” Derek confirmed.  “Awesome bait.”

Shane L. Coffey is a writer in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Donal Mahoney: Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame

When Danny Murphy was in kindergarten, just about every Saturday afternoon in autumn, he would go down to the basement and listen to the Notre Dame game with his father. That was back in the 1940s when Notre Dame had great teams. Few teams beat Notre Dame back then. 

"How come Notre Dame wins all the time, Dad," little Danny would ask his father.

And the answer was always the same:

"Danny, I think the good Lord keeps an eye out for Notre Dame. Especially when they play Southern Methodist."

All through grammar school and high school, Danny hoped Notre Dame would win every game. But he didn't want to go to school there, despite his father's wishes.

"Notre Dame will make a man out of you, Danny. It'll put hair on your chest."

Instead, Danny wanted to go to a small school, St. Sava College, because he figured it would be easier to get good grades. St. Save was out in farm country, far enough from Chicago to avoid monitoring by his parents but close enough to get home on weekends. Besides, St. Sava had never had a good basketball team. Danny figured he would probably start at guard for St. Sava as a freshman. 

Danny wanted to go to college to play basketball, have a few beers and get grades good enough to get into law school. He figured he would have to study hard once he got into law school so why not have a little fun as an undergraduate. St. Sava, although a small school, had a strong record of placing its students in some fine law schools and medical schools. Danny figured he'd get the necessary grades and then ace the law school entrance exam. But first he wanted to have some fun. 

Things went well for Danny in his freshman and sophomore years at St. Sava, although whenever he came home for a weekend his father would try to talk him into transferring to Notre Dame. 

"With your grades, Danny, you'll get into Notre Dame without a problem," his father kept saying. "A degree from Notre Dame is a ticket to success. It won't stop you from getting into heaven either." 

Danny not only earned great grades but he averaged more than 20 points a game for the basketball team. Twenty points a game was a good scoring average in 1956. Some kids were still shooting two-handed set shots. Danny had learned the jump shot in Chicago, playing against older kids and he used it to advantage playing for St. Sava.  

Many of the other kids had come from families whose parents had emigrated from Bohemia and Slovakia. They had been sent to St. Sava to get an education but also to soak up their cultural heritage. Most of the monks who taught at the school were of Slavic ancestry. Some had emigrated from Europe. 

Being of Irish ancestry, Danny needed a little time to get used to the Bohemian and Slovak food served in the cafeteria. He had never eaten lentils and lentils seemed to be on the menu every day fixed one way or another. At least one day a week brown lentils were served alongside breaded "mystery meat," as it was known to many students. It took Danny a while to figure out that the "mystery meat" was breaded eggplant served in a preparation that was a mainstay in Bohemia and Slovakia. It wasn't that bad once Danny got used to it. 

The summer after his sophomore year Danny decided to stay on campus and work in the farm fields for the monks. The pay was poor but with free room and board, how could he go wrong? He'd have money to go to town and have a few beers some nights and a chance to read novels and poetry on other nights. An English major, he had to keep reading to get a head start on the syllabi for courses he would take in his junior year.

Then one hot August afternoon Brother Raphael came down the row of corn to tell crouching Danny that Father Bohumil wanted to talk with him in his office. 

"Get a move on, Danny," Brother Vladimir said. He was a man who could do anything with his hands and he didn't trust students, especially those from the city as incompetent in the fields as Danny was. 

"Pull the weeds, Danny, not the carrots" were the first words Danny ever heard from Brother Vladimir.

Danny figured Father Bohumil, Dean of Student Affairs, wanted to discuss some events for the upcoming school year. Danny had been elected vice president of student government so maybe Father wanted his help on some project. So Danny washed up and headed for Fr. Bohumil's office.

"Hello, Father," Danny said as he walked through the office door. "I bet you have big plans for Homecoming already."

But it wasn't Homecoming that Father Bohumil wanted to talk about.

"Danny, we've got a problem. Some student has been sending live chickens and ducks to Dr. Compton. I think you had him for French last year. He lives not far from here and the post office there is loaded with crates of live poultry that he never ordered. He figured some student played a trick on him."

"Well," Danny said, "even if I knew who would did it, it would be hard to tell on him. If the other kids found out, I'd really catch it when they got back to campus."

Father Bohumil then told Danny that Dr. Compton, prior to coming to St. Sava, had worked for the FBI for 20 years doing intelligence work.

"Danny, he called the companies that sent the ducks and chickens and they sent him a copies of the orders. He brought the orders to school and compared the handwriting with his final exams from last year. That's how we found out it was you who ordered the chickens and ducks. He's not a happy man, Danny, and neither are we."

Danny realized immediately his time at St. Sava was limited. He thought he was about to be expelled. But Father Bohumil had other ideas.

"Danny, in your two years here you have been an excellent student, a fine athlete and a student leader. Normally, we would expel someone for doing something like this. But I talked with the abbot and he said to deny you registration for next semester and for every semester after that. You can never come back here, Danny. But at least you can apply elsewhere and know that nothing negative will appear on your record. You still have a chance at having a very good academic career."

Danny was shaking but he thanked Father Bohumil for the leniency. He said he would pack his bags, get a lift into town and take the next train back to Chicago. 

"Stop in the kitchen, Danny," Father Bohumil said, "and the nuns will give you a bag of sandwiches. You might get hungry on the train. I hope things work out for you. Never do anything this stupid again."

Danny apologized again and headed for the kitchen for his sandwiches. It wouldn't take long to pack. But it would be long ride home. And what would he tell his parents, especially his father? That was the question. 

Danny got home around supper time. His mother had put together a big feed of corned beef and cabbage for his father's 50th birthday. But first his father wanted to know why Danny had come home in the middle of the week.

"Well, Dad, I've been thinking it over and I think you were right all along. I want to transfer to Notre Dame. I should have gone there in the first place. A degree from Notre Dame will get me into law school anywhere."

"Now you're talking, son," his father said. 

His mother had little to say, She was busy dishing up the steaming corned beef and cabbage. It turned out to be a great meal what with Danny's father congratulating his son every bite or two about transferring to Notre Dame.

After dessert, Danny promised to call the registrar at Notre Dame the next day to start the paperwork for his transfer. There was less than a month left before the new school year would start. And Danny wanted to be on campus, sitting in the stands with his father and watching Notre Dame pound the daylights out of Purdue. 

Later on, before he went to bed, Danny told his mother he might try out for the basketball team at Notre Dame if his courses weren't too hard.

"Good luck," his mother said without looking up from her knitting.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ross Durrence: Oatmeal Creme Pies

In the Spring of 1995, Doak Reilly had enough. Had enough of the oppression he faced every day in his home in the suburbs. Too many rules, too much discipline, too many chores. His upper-middle-class parents forced him go to bed at 9:00 pm. They forced him into saying yes sir, no sir; yes ma’am, no ma’am. They infringed upon his God-given rights by making him share his toys with his stupid sister. So, in the Spring of 1995, six-year old Doak Reilly decided to take matters into his own hands. He’d escape this Soviet Russia. Escape his own Gulag Archipelago. Escape this oppressive, oppressive force. Find his own Shawshank Redemption. He decided, in the Spring of 1995, to run away.

Though only six, he was quite the intelligent lad. He knew he couldn’t just idly run away from home. This would take careful planning and proper provisions. His mind raced back to a present he received at Christmas of 1994. At the time, he was unimpressed by this gift. Who would need a sleeping bag that doubled as a backpack?

A runaway! That’s who!

What a perfect, ironic twist of fate against his harsh captors. Using their very weapons against them! And he knew this now useful item was a Godsend when he raced to his closet and examined it closer and realized it contained pockets on each side. Back at Christmas of 1994, he wondered of what use these two large, netted pockets on a sleeping bag that doubled as a backpack could possibly have? For a runaway! A runaway who loved something just as much as he loved the thought of freedom from this Animal Farm. He grabbed his ticket to freedom, flew down the stairs and flung open the door to their always well-stocked pantry.

Where were they?


He knew they were here somewhere. He searched high and low. Behind the cereal, below the cake mix, beside the granola bars. Where were they? He was beginning to lose hope and even thought about aborting this seemingly doomed mission. He was beginning to lose hope until something white caught his eye.

A white, rectangular box with blue letters.

Tears of joy began to stream down his cheeks and he knew God had ordained this escape. He reached into the pantry and pulled out a box of Oatmeal Creme Pies. Wrappings went flying, crumbs covered the kitchen, bits of creme littered the counter.

This. This was the taste of freedom. He knew that with a sleeping bag backpack stuffed to the brim with Oatmeal Creme Pies, he could survive in the wild. He could survive in the wild for weeks, months! Armed with his pies, backpack, and an extra pair of Batman underwear (for he had a penchant for bed-wetting), he opened the front door and took the first steps of the rest of his life.

The sun shone brighter, the birds rejoiced in his newfound freedom, and Mother Nature herself seemed to welcome him into her bosom. He descended the front porch stairs with purpose. With authority. He would live like those people in the movies. Like Major League Baseball players. No one ever told Greg Maddux when to go to bed! How much chocolate milk he could drink! That he had to share his toys with his stupid sister! Perhaps he’d adopt a dog? Someone to accompany him on this venture. Maybe even a bird. He was a small child, and figured that if a bird was of sufficient size, it could carry him and they could fly all over the world, fly far away from his eventual descent down the long green mile.

He reached the bottom of the stairs and figured it was now time for another pie. He tore open the wrapper devoured its oatmeal and cremey goodness and cast the garbage on the ground. For a moment he considered picking up the litter, but this would be the last time he’d see this place. He wanted to leave a reminder of his oppression to his captors, and so he did. Every three or four feet from the bottom of the steps down the entire driveway, there lay crumbs and an empty wrapper.

The sun began to beat down on the runaway and as the sweat began to drip from his brow, he did the only thing he knew. He placed the spare Batman underwear on his head. He wasn’t sure why people did this in the heat, but he’d seen them do it in the movies. Whenever it was hot, they would put a rag or a shirt on their head. He didn’t know why, and he didn’t question it. If he was to live on his own, he couldn’t question the habits of adventurers who were so famous that their journeys were turned into films.

He got all the way to the end of their rather long driveway with the sun still warm on his face, and his backpack now becoming a burden, and something happened. Something happened which changed his life forever. He reached into the netted pockets for another Oatmeal Creme Pie and found his stores empty. Six-year-old Doak Reilly fell to his knees and asked God how he could forsake him so! He couldn’t even remember eating each of the pies, though the reality didn’t entirely surprise him. For a moment, he considered shouldering on. Maybe he could eat grass? Bugs? Maybe someone could take him in. A stowaway on an adventure for freedom and self-expression.

As the tears streamed down his face, he not only realized that this journey was for not, but something else as well. He realized, much to his chagrin, that he missed his parents. He missed his parents and their house and even his stupid sister. He not-so-relunctantly threw off his sleeping bag backpack and ran back down the driveway, thankful that as it turned out, he loved Oatmeal Crème Pies more than he loved his would-be freedom.

Ross Durrence is a native of Marietta, Georgia and currently resides in Atlanta. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and in his third year of law school at Georgia State University.  He is a tortured Atlanta sports enthusiast and considers Franz Kafka his greatest literary influence.  His short stories are soon-to-be published in Slippery Elm Literary Journal and on Winamop.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Donal Mahoney: School Days

Now that Danny McCarthy had grandchildren in grammar school, he knew up from experience there were problems in education in the 21st century. When his own kids were in school, in the Seventies and Eighties, there were problems but nothing like the problems of today. And when Danny himself was in school back in the Forties and Fifties, almost all the problems in and out of the classroom were manageable as far as Danny could recall. 

In the Forties and Fifties, problems in school were largely behavioral, not academic. Danny and his classmates learned the basics of grammar and mathematics in grammar school, did well enough in high school, and then joined the Army or the Marines unless they were one of the few whose families had enough money to send them to college. Going to college in Danny's neighborhood wasn't really held in high esteem. The goal was to get a good job, maybe with the police force or the fire department or to catch on with one of the trades. If that didn’t work out, you joined the service and hoped you didn’t get sent to Korea.

Behavioral problems, as far as Danny remembered, were handled far more effectively back in those good old days. The methods back then may not have been politically correct by the standards of today but Danny himself was proof positive that the ancient methods worked. He was retired now and could boast that he had raised a large family and had never been arrested when he was an adolescent or an adult. Not all of his grandchildren, sadly, could say the same thing. Times had changed and they were still changing. 

It's not that Danny had been a goody-goody when he went to school. Indeed, something had been ajar in Danny from birth, that much he knew. At the very least he was hyperkinetic as a kid but back in the Forties and Fifties, hyperkinesis was a disease the nuns in his grammar school knew how to remedy. The medicine was a three-cornered ruler waved over a student's head while the nun explained up close and personal whatever rule the misbehaving student had broken. 

Back in those days, the student was guilty until proven innocent and that never happened as far as he could recall. He and his classmates were always involved in shenanigans of one kind or other but never anything illegal except maybe for dumping garbage cans in alleys on the eve of Halloween. No kid would dump them on Halloween itself because adults stayed up late on that night to watch their property. 

Danny's father certainly didn't think Danny was innocent the evening his teacher called the house and asked his father to come over to the convent to discuss Danny's latest incident. He was in fourth grade at the time and he remembers his father and him walking the six blocks over to the convent in silence, his father still in his smudged work clothes after having spent another day in the alleys climbing poles to fix electrical problems for people on the South Side of Chicago. 

An immigrant from Ireland, his father was fortunate to have a trade which put him at the higher end of their lower-middle class neighborhood. Danny had never wanted for anything but he had no luxuries either. He got a baseball mitt at the proper age and a brand-new Schwinn bike when he was old enough to ride one. A Schwinn bike back then was the Cadillac of bicycles. You rode right past all those kids stuck with Monarchs, which were not that bad bikes but lacked the panache of a Schwinn. 

Danny cannot recall the particular offense that brought his father to the convent that evening. It could have been any one of a number of things in that Danny was eclectic in how he chose to act out. But he remembers sitting in a chair in the convent living room, hands folded in his lap, while the nun took his father to another room to inform him of what Danny had done. 

"Sister," he heard his father bellow through the closed door, "if that boy does it again or does anything like it, you give him a good wallop and then call me and I'll give him another one--maybe a couple--when he gets home. He's not here to make trouble. He's here to learn so he can go to college and not have to work in the alleys like me."

After hearing that conversation, Danny straightened out quite a bit because although the nuns didn't scare him, his father certainly did. After all, his father had been expelled from Ireland by the British at age 18 after he had been caught running guns for the Irish Republican Army. They caught him at 16 and kept him in prison until 18 and then put him on a boat for America. His first job in America was as a gravedigger and later as a boxer. When he finally caught on with Commonwealth Edison in Chicago, he had an opportunity to learn electricity as a trade. For the next 40 years he earned a good living. 

Danny, as a result of his father's employment and frugality, had the benefit of a good education--19 years of it, in fact--in good private schools. It didn't hurt, either, that they were Catholic schools because although Danny was never a holy roller, it helped in the formation of his character to know that there was a Being who knew more about life than the nuns or his father.

In time Danny learned just how far he could go in creating commotion in the classroom before the nun would call his father to come down to the convent. Certain acts only required that he leave the classroom and go kneel in the middle of the hall outside the classroom door, not far from the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stood at the end of the hall. The nuns and the students didn't worship Mary, as Catholics were so often accused of doing. But when Danny had to kneel in the hall he would always ask Mary to talk to Jesus in his behalf about a possible pardon. 

Once Danny was kneeling in the hall and staring at the statue, he knew it wouldn't be long before he would hear beads clicking on rosary hanging from the principal's habit as she came down the hall from the rear. She made her rounds of the halls several times a day to "converse" with boys--they were always boys--made to kneel in the hall. 

Danny was straight A's through the first three grades of grammar school, but in fourth grade he noticed something different about Florence Puppo as she walked up the aisle to the blackboard. Florence had begun to develop early, if you will, and so had Danny, much to his surprise. 

Suddenly Florence looked good to him in a way girls had never looked good to him before. Soon, other girls started looking good as well, and Danny began acting up a bit more. And although he still got good grades, he found himself kneeling in the hall more often, waiting to hear the click of the rosary beads and then the conversation with the principal that would always ensue. He remembers those conversations, all of them similar, clearly to this day, some six decades later.

"And what are we doing out here, Danny, kneeling in the hall on this fine morning," Sister Marie Patrick, an immigrant from Ireland herself, would always ask, having swooped around so she could stand in front of him, slapping the ruler against her palm. 

"Sister Lorraine said I should kneel out here," Danny would say, looking up at her with his altar boy face.

"And why did she ask you to do that, may I ask, Danny? Surely there must be a reason for you to be kneeling out here when you should be in the classroom learning all that you don't know."

"I was rolling marbles down the middle aisle," he would confess, "while Sister Lorraine was writing problems on the blackboard. I thought she'd blame Fred Hamm who did that last week but she knew it was me."

The principal in the school was always the toughest sounding nun in the convent. The principal had to be tough because the students were largely sons of European immigrants. Fathers and sons, although not dumb, were a bit coarse, if you will. Some of the girls may have been given piano lessons but the boys were largely left to their own devices until they had an opportunity to play sports. 

There were no Little League competitions back when Danny was in grammar school. A kid just tried his best to make the school team and then went with the team to different neighborhoods to play against teams from other schools. There was no adult to manage the team, although parents would sometimes show up for a home game.

Delinquency and vandalism were not a problem, but fist fights between kids from different schools often occurred and the fights had to be fair. If one kid kicked his opponent, kids from both teams would jump on him and the cheater's reputation would be lost for life. There was no way to repair it. Decades later now, Danny remembers the kid who kicked him. Even better, he remembers what happened to him. Fair is fair, on a ball field and in life, Danny always believed.

To this day, Danny can't remember ever getting thumped with the ruler Sr. Marie Patrick carried through the hallways. Usually their conversation would end with her telling him which room to report to after school. Then she would lift him off his knees by the ear and lead him back into the classroom and usher him to his desk and drop him in it. He can still see the other kids smiling, some with approval for the commotion he had created, others with disdain for what he had done. Usually the boys were unanimous in their approval and the girls far less so. 

Today, as he looks at his grandchildren and their classmates, Danny has absolutely no bad feelings about the discipline he experienced when he was in school. Any punishment he received he absolutely deserved. Except for the day in 1952 when a nun put his bicycle in the basement of the convent because he had been riding it around the small playground during the lunch hour, endangering, she said, the children in kindergarten playing tag. 

The nuns held his bike hostage for three days. Danny  had a paper route after school and he needed that bike. Not every eighth grader had a paper route down 63rd Street from St. Louis Ave. to Kedzie Ave. Just Danny. He gave it up the summer after 8th grade to wash dishes for 40 cents an hour in Crilly's Diner. He also got two cheeseburgers every shift, bigger and better than anything served today at McDonald's. 

Looking back after all these years, Danny knows now that working in Crilly's Diner was one of the best jobs he ever had. And having those nuns leading him by the ear through grammar school was a real boon. They prepared him for college and the real world. But now there are hardly any nuns teaching school, he reminded his wife last night. If there were, he told her, he doubts that he'd have to go downtown this afternoon and get his grandson, Rory, out of juvenile detention. 

Danny's retired and he's willing to take care of the matter because Rory's parents say they can't get off work. They have jobs at least, he reminded his wife who said she thought Rory’s father should be the one to go get him. That's what fathers do, she said.

Danny reminded his wife that having a job in today’s economy is a very good thing. Other young parents in the neighborhood had been looking for work for a long time. What Rory needed, Danny said, was Sr. Marie Patrick to lead him through life by the ear for a couple of years. 

"Forget about all this 'Time Out' stuff," Danny said. It would never have worked with him. His wife, who knew him in grammar school, stifled a laugh and agreed. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tammy T. Stone: The Man of Haridwar Station

The details take on mythic proportions. A tiny girl, aided by her mother who holds her hands from behind, squeaks little steps on shoes designed to make noise so that neither shoes nor child ever get lost. A group of young men huddle together like lovers on a mat made from the refuse of a goods packaging factory. They hug each other with one arm and hold their cellphones with the other, all of them, synchronized like chorus girls. Across from them, I can see the bottom half of a woman in an orange saree and I almost mistake her for a sadhu – India’s orange-clad men who have renounced all material possessions in their search for spiritual illumination.

People come and go. We’ve been at the Haridwar train station for over two hours now, having arrived early on a bus from Rishikesh. It was the smallest bus we’ve been on, or rather, the bus with the smallest, most uncomfortable seats. And this is saying a lot. We’ve been to India three times now, and altogether, this is our thirteenth month. We just finished a month-long yoga teacher training course and are on our way to Dharamsala, high up in the Himalayas, where we plan to do some intense meditation. We’re on the waiting list for a 10 day silent retreat. You do a lot of waiting in India. Most of the time it’s worth the wait.

For a month we’ve been sequestered in a yoga hall with five other students and our guru-ji (respected teacher), a Ph.D in yoga and a brilliant practitioner. We’ve been, for the most part, removed from India at large. Except for the occasional run-in on our few days off with other tourists, a self-proclaimed schizophrenic seeking rupees and a persistent drum seller on the main drag, we have been breathing clean air, eating sattvic (yogic, pure vegetarian) food and sleeping early. All this is a startling contrast to the two months of our trip prior to arriving in the safe haven of Rishikesh’s vast mountains and yoga spaces.

Being back in the real India is a bit of a shock, and nothing is more shockingly Indian than its train stations, thronging and humming with life 24 hours a day. Everyone has their own space but everyone watches each other. People eat, spit, sleep, talk, stare, fight and basically live their lives right out there in the open, despite, or maybe because of the crowds. It’s miraculous even as it’s exhausting. I look up and see someone I’m sure is Caucasion, only he’s in full Indian garb and has the casual confidence of a local. The albinos here always remind me how readily we recognize – and judge – people by the colour of their skin, with all the horrible things this implies.

To my right, an old man sits in an effortless half-lotus potion. There’s bright pink dye running down the back of his white shirt, dried now, and he wears a pink scarf that doesn’t seem to be the source of the dye problem, this time anyway. Ladies chat together on one bench and men on another, always separate, always preferring the company of their own, directly in front of my view. It’s the man between these two benches, by a post that he has claimed, who catches my attention and captivates me the most.

He arrives with a wooden stick and a bag, and sits for awhile, leaning against the post. A great struggle begins. He’s gotten it into his head to remove the contents of his bag. It’s a tight fit and the stuff doesn’t come out easily. But the man’s resilient. He bends over the bag; this doesn’t seem easy for him. He’s an older man, at least 60 in my estimation, though it’s hard to tell here sometimes. He wears a long-sleeved, pale yellow shirt in the Indian style, long and loose, and a white cloth as his pants, or skirt. His scuffed black sandals are neatly stacked by the post. He’s rather meticulous, I can tell. He stands on another mat made from faulty goods packaging – crinkly and shiny, these are common seating aids at train stations; people sell them here for a few rupees apiece at most of the stations I’ve been to.

The man struggles with the bag for a long time. His fingers shake and he doesn’t seem too stable. I want to help him but something stops me. He has a pride about him, a fierce independence that’s familiar to me but I’m not sure from where. Does he remind me of the many older, homeless Indians I’ve seen who have to fend for themselves in adverse circumstances? Is it my grandmother he’s recalling, who resisted help at every turn as she aged and succumbed to eventual mental illness? Is it both, and this man is bridging cultures, worlds for me? There’s something so sad about this struggle he’s engaged in. You almost never see people on their own here. People move, breathe, congregate and travel in packs (the homeless notwithstanding and, tragically, even here, they are not as visible as the rest). As I write this, a family nearby numbers seven – five of them are on two adjoining benches and two sit on the ground in front of the rest with the luggage, on a pink and white cloth. It’s so common to see large families travelling together that the old man’s solitude is striking in contrast.

Is he a widow? Never married? A recluse? Is he sick? It’s impossible to tell. He’s still bent over his bag, trying to retrieve its contents. His bare feet are dirty, long and lean, his calf muscles a good size. Maybe he was really strong once. He wears a black hat that might distinguish him in some way – caste? – but I’m not sure how. Now he’s approaching the frailty of old age. His white hair stands out too – not only out of his cap, but as unusual in a country where most old men dye their hair black or red. It’s very rare to see white-haired men unless they’re extremely old, or sadhus/swamis/gurus living a more natural lifestyle – if you can call dreadlocks, extreme austerities and constant near-nudity natural, and this depends highly on your conditioning and your point of view in the world.

The man’s fingers fumble as he tries to lower the bag around some kind of blanket, the object of his desire at the moment. There’s something else in the bag, something metallic – a bowl, maybe – that’s stopping the bag from easily falling away from the blanket. He pauses to take some water from a plastic bottle and then lifts the bag again, this time from the bottom. Success. He holds has a really pretty purple and orange blanket, thick and cozy-looking, in his hands. With great care he unrolls it and, over the course of a few minutes, neatly spreads it on the mat, which is perpendicular to the post. He kneels down and it looks like he’s praying, his back to me, but I don’t think he is. There is something staunchly atheistic, anarchic even, about him to me.

Now the bag is in his hands and he wipes something off the blanket. Then the bag itself catches his attention. He removes the bowl and a few other things from it, and moves over to the bench on his knees. The family is aware of him and ignoring him at the same time – the former is informed conjecture on my part. He empties the contents of the bag onto the ground underneath the bench. All I can see emerging onto the floor are a few orange peels, but he takes these into his hands and eventually puts them back into the bag. He crawls back to his new home and puts his scattered objects back into the bag. He then spends some time arranging the bag just so – here, he reminds me of my grandmother, who also used to arrange things at great length, and who used to say ‘just so’ to mean ‘exactly this way, to perfection’ – and now he has the perfect pillow.

Finally – wearily? – he sits down, back against the bag/pillow and the post. I feel I’m watching a lone king surveying his land, obtusely and indifferently, from his lair, with the entirety of his existence. He doesn’t rest for long. Minutes later he’s made his way to the far reaches of his blanket, where he neatly folds the edges so the blanket aligns exactly with the packaged goods mat. Satisfied, he crawls back to his pillow, and sits down again to observe his surrounds.

We marvel: he must have only these few things in his whole life. What freedom! Where is he going? Will he stay the night? Who will greet him at his next destination? (He seems utterly without human connection). How will he get the blanket back into the bag? Why isn’t he, like most, staring at us foreigners?

A sadhu sets up shop next to him. He appears much wealthier than the old man. His hair is thick and clean and he has metallic food containers and a glass to drink from. The two don’t speak.

The old man starts playing with a few rupee bills. He rolls them in his hands, over and over. The action is absentminded and deliberate at the same time, somehow.

“Chai. Chai chai chai. Chaiiiiii.”

There are two chai, or tea wallahs (men, sellers) in this part of the station, carrying their heated chai in a metallic holder, and paper cups. So far the old man has not said a word, which I find hard to believe now that I think about it, since I feel I’ve been in dialogue with him for over an hour now. Still silently, he beckons one of the wallahs over. He indicates that he wants a chai with a nod of the head and holds out one of his few bills. I can see it’s taped together in a few different places. Indians are obsessed with clean bills and usually won’t accept torn ones. This wallah is no exception. He discards the bill and walks away. I try to read the old man’s face but get no reaction. A few minutes later he tries again with the second wallah and is rejected for the second time.

We discuss buying him a chai because a chai is such a simple thing to get and such a pleasure to consume but again, we’re thrown by his independence. Some people don’t respond well to being helped, and we can’t tell if he’s one of them. I think of the ladies I saw in Amsterdam’s red light district over fifteen years ago, showing off everything from behind glass. Music comes out to us on the street, but our voices don’t reach them, and there’s no chance of communicating with them, finding out who they are, though everything is superficially visible. Here too, he’s very visible, but it’s an impenetrable division. There is him and there is us.

While he’s being rejected for his chai, an older woman who appears to be talking loudly to herself, spreads a mat on the floor next to me – I’m on a bench. I can see what her packaged-goods mat references: BAR CLIF: CHOCOLATE BROWNIE. I’m guessing she’s never had one of these in her life, but its packaging is now her throne, and indeed, like the old man, there’s something regal about her. She wears a blue saree, has wild grey hair and has an adorable feistiness about her. Where the old man is a master of detail she is thoroughly rough around the edges, almost graceless, except for the dignity and pride that pour out of her like a salve. I can almost feel it soothing my skin. She throws a large bag on the mat and flutters around, chatting to herself. The old man, meanwhile, has laid down on his side for a few minutes, before thinking better of it. He sits back up and catches the old woman’s eye. This is all it takes. She zooms over to him and kneels down, displaying a more perfect posture than I saw during an entire month of intensive yoga. The man is unmoved. He watches her with eyes that seem nonchalant and occasionally gracious while she talks and talks and pats him on shoulder now and then.

Eventually it seems he’s had enough. He says something imperceptible to my ears – his first words of the evening – and she abruptly gets up, nodding in understanding, and says her goodbyes. He then touches his forehead and spreads his hand across his face as she gets up and leaves. She wanders away, sometimes returning to her brownie mat and mostly leaving it alone. We’re in the anteroom of the station, between the front entrance and the platform, where most of the action is taking place. She disappears around the corner to the platform area and we don’t see her again until we have to leave to catch our train.

The old man lies down again, but when I get back from buying a Sprite, he’s sitting with a seller of some strange-looking black plastic boxes all hanging from one central piece of string like a mobile. He’s leaning on the blanket; he’s been invited into the old man’s sacred space. The old man is eating something out of a newspaper. How did I miss this? Where did he get the food? From the black plastic box seller? Did he pay for it? With the taped 10 rupee bill?

What did the woman-in-blue say to him and will they talk again, these two denizens of this summer train station night?

I’m still here, but I’m already nostalgic for these monumental dramas that seem to have no end in this vast, multitudinous country. And this is just what I’ve seen, observed, let alone imagined. The old man chats briefly with the sadhu to his right and asks one of the family members on his left to help him open a little white plastic vile, giving him a large grin before spitting on the floor under the bench. Now he’s laid down to attempt sleep again. I will board my train and inflate my soul with his dreams.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Kit Duggan: Marshmallow Frozen Night Night: Parts 1-3


David refused medication but once, at night, before the blood shrieking lady down the hall started up
After the last of the tapioca and ice creams had been dealt
An intricate arrangement of a dozen or so pillows snugged him sleep along with the mellow yellow hydrocodone splotch and marshmallow frozen night night
Rising to the flash bang mornings I would often announce looks like another day in paradise
Eh, David?

He forced a sitcom plaster of mood
Finding farce and picking places
To dry slop sarcasm or comic vitriol down his slack gullet

We clash chess and I am confident then outmaneuvered as the duel squares expanded in entrancing enchanting gallivanting angling hexagons for supplanting aggrandizing lexicon.

He told me never challenge an ex-con.


In our near-sterilized and medicated paradise, my friend David acted a child who crowned himself king of the sand box

Within this rock smash grain conglomerate square he built castles of contrived comic belligerence and dug tunnels inches deep that led no place though he often insisted the opposite.

He taught me the crucial variation between Registered Nurses and their counter-part Registered Nurse Assistants

R.N’s bring pills at strict intervals and are all buisness/R.N.A’s have to bring low-fat ice cream or no-fat tapioca or diet soda whenever you press the red button.

He illustrated how to occasionally hide coveted opioids under tongue so they think you took them when you really never did

Then sedulously explained how a good roommate might remove it from his gob and generously plop it in the palm of his paralytic counter-part.

Little bit of spit won’t kill nobody.


Was it envy emitting from the brooding gaze of David when I began to rise covertly with daring frequency in late November?

How I ripped myself out of bed as if rusted anchor from a nest of ancient coral each jagged morning

While he darkly muttered obscenities regarding the opening salvos of would be-Sinatra R.N Tony’s routine sun rise serenade

"Here goes the prick again. You know, I see you Peter Parker from bed to sink there, kid. Tsk Tsk…Still got those yellow socks. Going to mangle the new hardware so soon, huh?" He slopped from the serrated edge of his slumber crust mouth.

"They ran out of beige, is all. I’m not going to let the progression of my come back be dictated by the degree of neon wool around my feet, thanks. Or you, David, for that matter." I managed to exhale or sputter while grasping for a small protruding hook meant for coats on the east wall.

Would-be Sinatra Tony then burst in to our room, pushing a creaky cart bejeweled with touch-screen computer monitor and belting out an off-key rendition of 1954’s ‘Fly Me to The Moon’.

"…Let me play among those stars
Let me see what spring is like
On a-Jupiter and -"

His usurpingly gay energy is abruptly met with a thick, gurgling moan expelled from the gullet of David.

"I need you to shut it fast with the crooning before noon, Franky."

"Only you and a few other non- catatonics ever have complaints about the wake-up show." Beamed Tony, glancing at his notes while applying latex gloves.

"Rest assured - we’re a small but concerned minority, Tony." I offer from the sink after emphatically ejecting tooth paste. “Can’t you ever sing something a little more up beat? It’s always love and eternity with you."

David snorted and returned to nesting within the outfit of pillows adorning his custom order low pressure slumber station.

"That’s what the older folks need to hear," Tony shrugged, turning his attention sinkwards. “And what exactly are YOU doing? I know I’m not seeing a high risk kid skating about willy nilly unsupervised on MY shift."

"I ain’t high risk. Wrong socks, is all. I can’t take all this protection!" I exclaim bitterly while watching a bloodied string of tooth floss weave like confetti down to its waste basket grave.

"That’s what they all say," Grinned Tony, extending an arm towards me and removing a thick set of keys from his scrub pocket.

"Tell you what…Let me give the assist back to bed and I’ll cough up something yellow I happen to know you won’t have a problem taking. "

"It’s either valium or syphilis, kid. Could be both around this festering joint." Came the muffled gruff voice of my roommate.

Wincing, I relent and shakily reach for the latexed magenta fingers of the now softly crooning male nurse.

"In other words - - hold my hand."

Kit Duggan blogs at http://wedrownpebbles.tumblr.com

Thursday, July 18, 2013

KJ Hannah Greenberg: McCragherty and the Livestock Exchange

Ole McCragherty held tight to his blue ribbon winner. He had bred a d'Everberg, a Belgian ornamental bantam, with a guineafowl with good result; the hatchlings, once grown, outproduced even his most expensive egg layers. More than his generations of Faverolles and of Leghorns, his new birds delivered twice as many orbs as did the best of his battery hens.

Trouble was Rupert, the fellow with whom McCragherty had gone to Ag School to study livestock systems and production, was doing weird things with curassows and guans. If Rupert persisted in his ways, McCragherty might fail to sell his stock to the biggest food conglomerate, the one looking for shortcuts to a greater market share. In was no longer enough to breed domesticated fowl with good lay rates; the wise farmer also had to breed birds that tasted good. The meat from Rupert’s hybrids, when simmered with shallots and chanterelles, could make a four star chef cry.

McCragherty squeezed a little hardy. In response, the hen bwaked sharply. A few wing feathers drifted toward the dirt beneath the farmer’s feet. McCragherty sucked fiercely at his unlit cheroot. He remained unconvinced of the intelligence of Annabelle’s plan.

After forty-odd years of marriage, that woman had demanded the resources to return to school. An MBA followed a BBA as did a new hairdo and clothing that had no place on a farm. Annabelle, however, did not press McCragherty to relocate to a city; she worked from home on a fancy-fangled computing machine complete with earbuds and a microphone. From the hour after she served her honey his breakfast to a few hours after the cows came home, he was forbidden to even knock on her office door. At least the revenues from her endeavors had allowed McCragherty to buy a new Coburn 101-Plate MAXI Plate Cooler and to put a deposit down on a dozen exhaust fans for the henhouse. Rupert sure had been jealous.

Annabelle had gotten a little pushy, all the same. She wanted the man she had met in ninth grade and had married in tenth, when she had had that socially awkward burgeoning stomach, to take his best specimens along to the regional stockyard exchange she was meaning to attend. She had whispered, one night, as she had splashed his coffee with Pikesville Supreme, that there was more than one wealthy food conglomerate and that such companies sent scouts to centers of farming business and trade.

McCragherty had sipped the spiked brew and had had a second and then a third cup. Yet, he remained unconvinced that the pretty gal, the one who had: helped him vaccinate countless fowls against Anatipestifer Disease, won “best cobbler” at the country fair so many times that she had stopped entering the cook-off, borne and raised half of a dozen sons and daughters, and attached and detached quarter milkers faster than could any farmhand that had ever set food on their property, was really savvy about wheeling and dealing. McCragherty figured that his missus was using her “business hours” to buy and sell on EBay and to order exotic clothing from far away places. Just the past week, she had walked into their bedroom wearing a nightie that left enough to the imagination to leave McCragherty tired for three days.

On the other hand, she had wanted fruit orchards, and he had insisted on poultry. She had asked him to get a new motor for her church car, that Oldsmobile Toronado, and he had replaced it with a Buick LeSabre. As well, it was his life love who had nursed his Bassett hound’s puppies back to health twenty years earlier, when that entire bunch of whelps had contacted Canine Hepatitis. Old Silver, the lady dog that slept and slobbered at McCragherty’s feet, was three generations removed from that nearly ill-fated litter.

How bad could bringing a few breeders to a complex complete with boardrooms and a dance hall really be? If he covered the cages in the back of his pickup, maybe he and Annabelle could even dance a few squares. She had said she was packing her pettipants and his stompers. McCragherty wondered if she had ordered the former from the same vendor as she had ordered her new nightie.

A few weeks later, he had his answer. He also had had a meeting with a research and development assistant vice president from the nation’s forth largest comestibles giant and a check large enough to buy the materials he needed to repair the cow barn as well as to add the front porch Annabelle had been fancying for decades. McCragherty and his wife had returned to their homestead with empty cages, having entrusted the corporate fellow with their samples as collateral against that fellow’s generous pay out.

The porch never got finished, though, in spite of that good fortune. In addition, the barn sat half disassembled throughout the summer; the fellow’s check had bounced. More exactly, the firm had cancelled payment. Some clever other had bettered McCragherty in the hybrid race and had sold those superior results to the second largest comestibles giant. The man who had bought McCragherty’s birds was out of a job, and Rupert, who was vacationing on Mackinac Island with his wife, his kids, and all twenty-three of his grandkids, so big had been his bonus from the largest provisions organization, would remain unreachable for almost an entire fortnight more.

Old Silver at his heels, McCragherty knocked on, and then opened his wife’s office door. Reams of paper sat to either side of her keyboard. He printer was spewing out even more pages. On the screen in front of her sat spreadsheets for large corporations. Annabelle was not looking for competitive prices on personal acquisitions of satin and lace but was dealing in equity capital markets! Her job was to assess the risk of specified combinations of properties, loans, and borrowers. Old Silver licked his mistress’ feet and settled anew. McCragherty ran into the cow barn. Next to some antiquated hand milking pails, the farmer cried.

Latter that night, after baking her husband’s favorite shortbread cookies and serving them up with his mom’s recipe for spiced tea, Annabelle admitted to building them a retirement fund and to helping various of their grandchildren with college tuition. As she pulled a loose thread on her cardigan, she owned, as well, that while she never played around with pork bell futures, she was more than knowledgeable about trends in poultry processing.  It had just been such a long time, she sighed, since McCragherty had taken her dancing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rachel Fenton: The Bull Calf

It started with the word, as a joke. One of the environmentalist advisors to the government, some scientist from Otago University, wrote a report about pest control measures only he mistyped the word pest as pets and decided to leave it in, see what would happen. It made the news. My wife, Cath, and I laughed about it. We didn’t believe then it would affect our livelihoods, let alone destroy our lives. No one thought it would stick.

The Prime Minister at the time was a bit of a dick, but we thought in all likelihood he mustn’t have noticed the mistake, or if he did he was probably going along with the joke. He seemed to enjoy sticking his neck out for one political hot potato or another. To say he was something of a free thinker was a bit of an understatement. We expected him to release a statement, blame some junior minister for making the biggest governmental gaffe of the year, blame the opposition, or, hell, blame the press – he’d tried it for every other uncompromising position he’d found himself in - but no U-turn followed.

Rational commentators remarked the Prime Minister’s brains had taken flight. Details of PETS, as the policy came to be known, was leaked to the liberal press. The media went nuts. The Prime Minister was interviewed on all the dailies. They all had the same question.

‘Why do you want to ban us from keeping pets?’

The Prime Minister spelled out in a regional radio broadcast what was to become his standard retort.

‘For the love of birdsong; for years we have fought to eradicate rats from the islands surrounding our beautiful shores.’ He began, eloquently enough, though it was clear he hadn’t reached the point and some of us were itching for him to get to it as we watched from my veterinary surgery waiting room. ‘In doing so, we recognise the value of our avian heritage,’ he said. And to make sure those less able to interpret his eloquence could understand, he explained. ‘The importance of our country’s bird life, which, prior to man’s appearance on land, had no mammalian predators.’

It was Murphy’s Law there were three lorikeets and two cats in that day. The clients started arguing. The owner of a financially rewarding springer spaniel got up and left with a promise to sign up with a rival vet.

The way the Prime Minister talked, you’d have thought he was a conservationist, some even suggested comparison to higher posts. Maybe that’s how it got so far; people forgot he was only a politician. He went on.

‘New Zealand has one of the highest pet to person ratios of any country in the world, far in excess of the United States and the UK. Each year dogs are responsible for the deaths of our national icon.’ He left a dramatic pause, but before any dog owners had a chance to call in, he balanced the scales. ‘Cats are responsible for the extinction of eight species of native birds.’

If someone had tapped the Southern Cross cable, they’d have heard it abuzz with enraged cat and dog owners, some of them scientists and members of parliament from the Prime Minister’s own party. Twitter went down overnight. Facebook followed. Blogs were reignited. Someone put a sound clip of “For the love of birdsong” on YouTube with a bunch of inflammatory photographs that went viral on the internet.

One scientist went on national radio, straight for the jugular, to talk about a study he had done, a study the government had been informed of, supposedly proving the eradication of cats would only lead to an explosion of rats, thus increasing the numbers of deaths of native birds, most of which were ground based. The Prime Minister dealt with this in a more typically political way, pointing out it had been commissioned by a member of the opposition. Though he did acknowledge the paper, his response was remarkable.
‘Nobody reads it.’ He laughed. News cameras filmed him. He was hounded by the press at the airport. 

‘Who cares what you print in the papers?’ he asked, and turning to the people surrounding him, in turn, said, ‘I don’t. Do you? Do you?’ He turned to face a camera directly again. ‘How about you? No, I didn’t think so.’ Again he laughed, a giggle, as if he’d inhaled nitrous oxide.

Cath asked me if I thought he was on something as we watched the evening news.

‘In your professional opinion, I mean,’ she said. She was looking at me for the first time in a long time like she cared what I thought. I wish I could have said something impressive, or joked and said it was clear he was on a mission if not any substances, but instead I said,

‘I couldn’t tell without taking some bloods.’

Cath thought about what I’d said for a long moment before picking up her book from the coffee table and saying,

‘I’m off to bed. Coming?’

‘I think I’ll hang about for the sports,’ I said.

Cath laughed and said,

‘I thought we’d just watched it.’

I almost corrected her. Later, I thought of how I could have redeemed my humour, but saying you’ll just feel a little prick to yourself an hour after you realise your wife wanted you to fuck her is really a form of self-impalement.

The headline the next day seemed to mock me as well as the Prime Minister, though it was his photograph superimposed on an image of The Joker. But he’d been right not to worry. The rats study had been undertaken off shore, on one of the smaller islands. Yes, there had been an explosion of rats but they had now been successfully eradicated. The scientist had done the Prime Minister a favour by taking the focus off the mainland and for a while people were less enraged by the latter’s messianic outpourings but they continued at every public event he attended and in every press release.            

“For the love of birdsong” became his catchphrase. All the cartoonists drew him with a beak but were accused of racism and had to stop. Some of them lost their jobs because of it and had to move to Australia to get work. As a result, the Cartoonist of the Year award went to a freelance artist no one in New Zealand Media claimed to have heard of, some foreigner who’d moved here in his teens. He won with a picture depicting a MP for a ministry department no one had heard of. But no one took the Prime Minister seriously. Not then. It was ridiculous. Not a single MP thought it would actually take off as a policy. There would be too much public outcry. Surely the people would revolt, they thought. But they didn’t. It was difficult to argue with him. “Birds don’t vote” didn’t cut it, so the opposition tried a humanist approach.

‘There are homeless people sleeping under bridges. Shouldn’t you be more concerned about them rather than going to all this fuss over a few birds?’

‘This country’s true founders were birds and if we can’t look after them, how can we expect to take care of our people.’

No one mentioned Māori specifically, although writers were quick off the mark with parodies of iconic literature such as Once Were Moa, and Kea Rider. The Prime Minister was adamant, however. He said,

‘It starts with the birds.’

‘And the bees,’ the papers added, trying, again, to poke fun at him, but their barbs only succeeded in stinging themselves. Journalists, having only the one broadsheet daddy to fill, struggled to fix on an angle. Think tanks were confounded. The Prime Minister’s ideas were totally off the map. Community groups were formed and that’s when people started coming to me.

I’m a vet; it’s my duty to save all animals, not just the chosen few. But not all my colleagues agreed.

Isaac, a recent graduate full of obtuse ideas and keenness unparalleled to share them, said,

‘Cats are domestic animals, Abe, whose supposed ecologic niche should be filled by birds of prey and mesocarnivores*. I think the scientist’s conclusions from the rat study are short-sighted and misguided.’ The Prime Minister would have loved to have heard him. I hoped to crap he didn’t have a blog or intentions to share his views with the clients.

The implications of PETS policy stretched out before me like Hundred Mile Beach. I wondered if future policies would include clauses for employers to view the political affiliations of prospective employees to prevent clashes of ethics. There was no way of knowing how far this could go.

‘So, what are you saying,’ Cathy said, tapping the bed for Adams, our cat, to jump between us when I discussed my concerns with her that night.

‘Not me. Isaac.’ I wished I’d kept it to myself.

‘He doesn’t like cats?’ She took it literally. ‘The man’s a vet, how can he not like cats? Why did they accept him into vet school if he prefers some animals over others? Why did you employ him?’

I got my first inkling then of how dangerous this whole situation could be; how easy it was to turn the emotional into militants.

‘He didn’t say that, Cathy.’

‘But isn’t it what he means, Abe? He doesn’t have a problem wiping out cats, clearly.’ She stroked Adams with fervour.

‘Everyone prefers some animals over others. I prefer dogs to cats but it doesn’t mean I’d treat one over another, and neither would Isaac, he’s a good vet. I’m not going to let you make out the man’s a tosser.’

‘Oh, Adams, don’t listen to daddy.’

I should have waited till after we’d put him out for the night.

‘Here, it’s getting late,’ I said, ‘I’ll take him.’ Adams let me carry him, but he scratched me as I let him out the back door.

‘Fuck off to you too, you usurping ball of mange.’ That’s when I saw the note. Someone must have only just pushed it under the door. It was a wet night but the paper was dry. Adams gave me a dirty look as I closed the door. After I read the note, I went to the window. The street in front of our house was empty and with one streetlight off for energy saving it was too dark to see any further. I put the note in my jacket pocket to remind myself to tell Isaac about it the next day and went to bed.

Over breakfast news the facts were announced. Unbelievably, the law had been passed. It was now illegal to buy an animal as a pet. Up until this point, the kids had been fairly oblivious to the whole thing and the public opposition had largely been kept in check by the theoretical nature of the PETS policy proposals. But now it was law there was a very tangible reactionary state forming. The animal loving community were about to divide into nature lovers and pet lovers, Forest and Bird versus Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This was obvious, but there were other factions closer to home none of us could have envisaged in the beginning.

Kris, who had been chewing his cereal methodically throughout the report, put down his spoon.

‘Does this mean I can’t have a puppy?’ He’d been asking for one since he turned three. We’d put him off then deferred the decision, telling him we’d discuss it when he turned ten, hoping at some point along the way he’d forget or transfer his obsession to a microscope kit. He would be eleven in a matter of weeks.

Leighton shot a look at me, remembering her own part of the deal that if Kris got a puppy she’d get the choice of what she liked to the same value once she turned ten. It had been a relatively recently added clause on account of her only just having been born when Kris turned three but seemed fair in the light of democracy as a means of keeping the peace and buffering sibling rivalry.

‘Of course you can have a puppy,’ Cathy said, ruffling Kris’ hair and opening the door for Adams to come back in. Leighton smirked at me.

‘Go brush your teeth, both of you.’ I tried not to sound obvious. When I heard the bathroom tap I turned to Cathy. ‘This isn’t going to go away.’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘What happened to your arm?’


‘Don’t you think you should put some antiseptic on it? It could turn nasty.’

I didn’t think she was taking me seriously and said,

‘Don’t you think we should at least be honest with our kids?’

‘Let’s just remember, who’s the dog lover among us, ay? Don’t you think you’re overreacting, Abe?’

I thought about the note in my jacket. No, I didn’t think I was overreacting but I realised I was being premature and whatever impact the law would have, Cathy and the kids weren’t ready for it. Being a vet, however, meant I had to be ready. Pets were my business.

I talked to Isaac after the early appointments were through.

‘You catch the news yet?’

‘It won’t last.’ He sounded confident, like me at twenty-eight, he thought he knew it all, but he was a young buck and had a lot to learn, especially about politics. I almost envied his naivety, but living in a colony makes long term ignorance untenable, even on the North Shore. I didn’t have the optimism to doubt the sincerity of the government on any matter of destruction or money. It was the money part I couldn’t work out, though I knew there must be some financial reward for prohibiting pets. “For the love of birdsong” rang out of the Prime Minister’s mouth, but history tells us it’s the love of money that gets laws passed this fast.

‘Read this.’ I got the note from my jacket. Isaac raised one eyebrow as he read it. When he finished, he turned the paper over then said,

‘I expect every veterinary surgery will receive something similar over the coming weeks; it’s just people getting off on the panic.’

‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘if it had been mailed to the surgery.’

‘Your home?’

‘Hand delivered late last night.’

‘Plenty people know you’re a vet though, right? Don’t sweat it.’

‘Look at the watermark.’

Isaac crinkled his nose, held the note up to the bulb on the over-reach lamp. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? Looks like regular paper to me.’

‘You’re right,’ I said, ‘I’m getting caught up in the drama of the media, forget about it.’ I folded the note and put it in my wallet.

‘Nice family, man.’ Isaac was looking at the photo that had fallen on the floor.

‘My son and – ’

‘Well, whatever,’ Isaac said, ‘you can’t let a nut job turn us out of our jobs with a stupid scribbled threat.’

It wasn’t just my livelihood at stake after all.

Everyone who came in that day asked for my opinion of the law. The treatment room felt more like a constituency surgery than a vet’s. My replies became as rehearsed sounding as the Prime Minister’s by the end of the morning. In the afternoon, Kris called me to tell me the pet store had closed. He’d seen the boards up on the drive through Takapuna to catch a movie after school.

‘But you got me a dog, dad, for my birthday? Dad, it’s in two weeks.’

I felt ambushed. There was no way he could have a dog but I didn’t want to be bad cop again on my own.

‘We’ll talk about this tonight, Kris. I’m at work now.’

Isaac rapped on the door, poked his head round as I hung up.

‘Troubles in the fold?’

‘Kris wants a puppy for his birthday.’

‘That’s rough.’ He was smiling.

‘We kind of promised him.’

‘The law’s only just been passed, Abe, who’s to know if you got the dog after the ban? You can say you got it before and kept it at the surgery for the birthday, no one would argue with that.’

‘Maybe.’ I didn’t agree and I didn’t want to be among the people stirring up trouble with the law, I’d had enough close calls in my youth to know the disadvantage of untangling myself from that.

‘Georgia just got a retriever.’


‘My girlfriend. In by a whisker before the law changed.’

I thought about why I’d waited, knowing how much it meant to Kris. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t understood what the PETS debate had been moving toward. Isaac patted me on the shoulder and said,

‘Anyhow, I wondered if you could take a look at this dog for me. Owner doesn’t like my diagnosis.’

The dog was an Irish wolfhound. Understandably, Isaac hadn’t been able to get it onto the examination bench and had done the diagnosis on his knees. The owner had been crying and her mouth was drawn into a tightrope. I introduced myself and asked for the basics: symptoms and age. I nodded to Isaac as I listened then I tried to explain to the dog’s owner that Isaac had been right.

‘But he’s only six years old,’ she said, ‘he was meant to last my son’s childhood.’

‘Seven, in giant breeds, is very old. He’s done remarkably well to last this long. Wolf hounds generally don’t make it past six.’ I thought it would make her feel better.

‘Well, do you want to go out to my car to tell my son that?’

‘Your son’s outside now?’ Isaac rolled his eyes at me.

I explained the options to her, asked if she wanted her son to come in and be part of the decision.

‘Can’t you do anything, anything at all?’

‘I have to be honest,’ I said, ‘I think it would be cruel to prolong this animal’s life.’

‘I don’t mean save him,’ she said, taking a tissue from her sleeve and blowing her nose forcefully. ‘I mean, isn’t there a way we can, I don’t know the term, but, you know, swap him?’

‘For a younger model?’ I thought Isaac was going to laugh.

‘I don’t think there is a term for that,’ I said, ‘we’re not discussing a used car.’

‘Forget it,’ she snapped, ‘I’ll find someone else, someone who will help. You say you care about pets, you have posters all over the waiting room, all over your advertisement in the yellow pages, but you’re heartless.’ She yanked the dog to its feet. ‘Come on, Stuart, heel. Get up.’ She dragged it out of the surgery.

Isaac howled when she’d left the building.

‘It isn’t funny, Isaac, you know this is only going to get worse.’

 Cathy was unloading the dishwasher when I got in.

‘The kids are in bed; where’ve you been?’

‘I haven’t been to see a man about a dog, if that’s what you were wondering.’

She turned, saw the surf board, closed the dishwasher door and leaned against the counter, shaking her head at me.

‘He can’t swim.’

‘He did surf club last year.’

‘It was three years ago, Abe, and he left after a fortnight because he couldn’t swim.’

‘I took him to the pool heaps of times.’

‘You took him twice and promised to sign him up to classes. Notice a pattern emerging? Don’t walk away from me.’

‘I’m going to say goodnight to the kids.’

‘With that thing; don’t bother, they’re asleep.’

I opened my mouth to say ‘I’. Cathy caught me.

‘Promised? Yeah, well, you promised to fix this dishwasher, too, and three months later it’s still not cleaning the dishes properly. I’m going to call a man in.’

 It was left to me to do door duty. Cathy’s mother arrived first.

‘Where’s the birthday boy?’

‘He’s getting ready; upstairs. Nice to see you, Elaine, can I take your coat?’

‘Oh would you, but do be careful where you put it, it’s new, expensive, I wouldn’t want the animals jumping all over it.’

‘We only have one cat,’ I said. She laughed like an old film star, dismissed me with a flick of her hand.
The kids arrived in one glut, as if all their parents had arranged a mini-bus in advance, and they were happy enough running amok in the back yard and chasing Adams up the kowhai tree with some Avalanche City blaring out. Leighton looked at the heap of unopened gifts and, always the mercenary, said,

‘If Kris doesn’t want these, can I have them?’

‘Where is he?’ I asked. She shrugged. Cathy came through with a tray of cupcakes held out like kryptonite.

‘Take these out to the kids, Abe.’ I took the tray and she disappeared back into the kitchen. I could hear Elaine’s forced laughter sounding a little less forced than I thought respectful considering she was in my house.

‘This is ridiculous,’ I said, and handed Leighton the cakes.

‘Oh goody,’ she said as I left the room and went upstairs.

Kris was face down on his bed.

‘Come say hi to your guests.’

He ignored me.

‘Kris,’ I said, a little louder, and prodded him. He lifted his head from his arms, he had headphones on. He scowled at me and took them off. I put them on his desk and asked, ‘Don’t you want to see your surprise?’

‘Not unless it’s a puppy.’

‘Well, there are people waiting to wish you happy birthday, so you’d better get downstairs and –’

He leaped off his bed and pushed past me.

In the back yard one of his mates had taken the bike from the shed and was riding it round with the wrapping paper and bow still on.

‘I already have a bike,’ Kris said. Cathy and Elaine tutted and shook their heads at me.

The kid on the bike shouted over.

‘Nice dog, Kris, arf, arf, arf.’

‘Fuck you,’ Kris said, running over and dragging the lad off his wheels. Part of me wanted to stand back, watch, but I intercepted and told Kris to apologise.

‘You do not swear in this house, Kris, you hear?’

‘That’s rich coming from you,’ Cathy said. All the kids stared.

‘Do not chastise me like one of these brats.’

The bike kid got up.

‘I’m calling my dad.’

One by one the other kids rang or texted their parents.

The bike boy’s dad shook my hand, ‘Lids will be lids,’ he said in a thick South African accent, ruffling his kid’s hair before telling him to say goodbye to Kris.

The lad looked at Kris, said,

‘The only reason I accepted the invite was ’cause you said you were getting a dog. Your bike’s shit.’

‘You little fucker,’ I said. Fucker’s dad stepped up, raised his fist. I shut the door.

Leighton, still with the tray now empty in her hands, asked,

‘Didn’t you get a puppy? I thought you had a dog in the shed. Does that mean I can’t have a pet?’ 

 Elaine tutted for the umpteenth time, pulling her mouth into a wrinkled bleb like a sultana, said she’d had enough, left the room and came back seconds later.

‘Could someone explain,’ she said, giving me daggers, ‘how this found its way into the toilet.’ She held up her coat, sniffed it then held it at arm’s length. 

Cathy’s face contorted into a tragedy mask.

‘Abe. How could you?’

The door went and I assumed it would be a shot gun or another parent. It was Isaac with a golden retriever about a year old.

‘I didn’t know you had a dog, Isaac.’ Cathy said.

‘It’s not mine. Is Kris about?’

Kris flushed red and started to grin.

‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘you can take that back wherever you got it from. In fact, I’ll take it and put it to sleep myself.’ I picked the dog up and carried it out to the truck.

‘What the fuck,’ Isaac said.

Kris was screaming at me, the usual hate stuff.

I started the engine and drove.

Isaac got to me just as I was administering the Xylazine.

‘It’s Georgia’s dog, you fucking tosser.’


‘Fuck you. You want to see the papers, here.’ He pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket. ‘Here’s your papers; your proof.’ He threw them at me, took a phial of Yohimbine out of the medicine cabinet and knocked me out of the way to administer it. ‘You know, when you came to me with that note, I thought you were worried about other people turning into nut jobs.’

I pulled at my hair, said,

‘Someone slashed the tyres on Cathy’s car last night.’

Isaac was too busy checking the dog’s vitals to listen to me and I went outside. It was hot but a breeze was finally picking up. You couldn’t feel yourself getting burnt on days like this until it was too late. 

Cathy called my mobile, furious. Kris had run off, the kids had left in floods of tears and Leighton was in tears. Parents were ringing to complain, and it was my fault. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

I drove around for a while, down the old streets, the places where I hung out with my mates when I was a kid. I remembered my dad telling me one day, after a bunch of seniors had torn my Captain Sunshine comic to bits and scattered them across the park field, all you need’s a dog. I thought Kris was tougher than I was at his age. I would never have called my dad a dick, not even under my breath let alone in front of a house full of my school mates. I drove down Sunnynook Road and parked by the Community Centre. There was a meeting in progress.

I read the notice board: Pet Retailers Retaliate in discussion with a spokesperson of the Minister for Environment. I would have sat in but my attention was caught by a bunch of kids gathering around another kid walking an Airedale terrier. I understood the appeal, this breed and Scotties were the easiest to draw and their two dimensional looks made them an accessible draw to kids. They took it in turns petting him. This was an unexpected side effect of PETS; kindness to other people’s dogs in lieu of having your own to kick. Gradually the kids wandered off to play football or go to the shops but one or two remained, walking alongside the dog, talking to the kid with the leash. That’s when I recognised the unmistakable gait of my son.

I called out and I thought for a second he was going to run but instead he just stood where he was and let the dog and the kids walk off. Behind him, in the distance, seagulls had gathered on the grass, reminding me of the time we went to Ruapehu when he was four. So overwhelmed by the snow, it was as if he’d frozen too. The expression on his face, a look no one else would remember without photographic proof. A lorry pulled up, it had a chain attached to a hook and it lowered an empty cage onto the grass. The cage was about the size you’d need to transport a chimpanzee. I walked back to my truck, opened the passenger door, got in, scooted across and set the engine running.

Neither of us spoke for the first kilometre then Kris asked where we were going.

‘Just around,’ I said. We hadn’t been on a drive together for months, not since the last school holidays and then it was only to drop him and his mates off at the rock wall – I couldn’t remember what it was called. I pulled onto the highway and headed towards Silverdale.

It wasn’t long before I felt like we’d gone somewhere. The scenery was rougher, the trees less well groomed, and the houses dotted around the fields were unfamiliar. I wondered how long it would be before this place was jammed up with subdivisions. In twenty five years I’d seen my neighbourhood quadruple in size. I guessed it might take longer to fill up the scrubland now the PETS law had come in, at least for the traditional types who had chosen to settle here wanting more outdoor space for their animals. Or maybe that would speed things up. There’d be less incentive to keep the sections full size. It was difficult to know which way anything was going to go.

‘Pull over,’ Kris said. He looked pale.

I took the next exit off the highway and pulled in the first place I could. Without unbuckling his belt, Kris opened the door and vomited out.

‘Too much cake?’

‘I didn’t have any,’ he said between retches.

‘Have you had anything to eat at all today?’

He hadn’t.

I’d parked us at the side of a field of cows and some of them had come towards us and now lolled their heads over the fence. A couple had calves and the others weren’t far off dropping. One of the calves, a bull was pushing its head through a gap between the wires, lower down.

‘Shouldn’t that be electric?’ Kris said, wiping his chin on his sleeve. 

‘I’d have thought so, next to the road.’ I unfastened my belt, got out and stretched my legs. Kris followed. The cows made some noise but the bull calf just stared through the wires at Kris.
‘Hey, boy,’ he said and was about to walk over to pet it.

‘No, Kris, don’t. Cows are insanely protective of their calves.’

‘I won’t hurt it.’ He looked at me as if I’d struck him.

‘I know you wouldn’t; that wasn’t what I meant.’

He started to cry. I wanted to put my arms around him, but I was rooted to the spot and instead of hugging him I stared like the bull calf. I thought about telling him no one would care if someone had a pet out here, but I didn’t want him to get the wrong idea, start pestering us to move out to the sticks. Or maybe I did. I wondered if it really was only in the cities where the laws are put into force. It’s the only place they can easily keep a check on people. Governments are known to be comprised of idle folk.

I could smell the animals, the shit on their hooves sickly sweet and sour all at once. I started to think about what would happen if livestock replaced pets. Out here is where it would begin, with the lifestyle blocks, cow shares, arguments, neighbours coming to blows. In a few generations it would probably affect the big herds, farmers’ kids wouldn’t want to part with their favourites and feel bad for the ones they didn’t pet. Their kids wouldn’t want to take over the trade. Livestock farming would decline. Exports would suffer. I could extrapolate the whole scenario out.

Cows would become sacred like in India. Protecting them would set a precedent for the rights of other edible animals. People would care more about whether they were being hurt during slaughter. There’d be so many red tape hoops to jump through before anyone could kill the things that people would be given too much time to think. New euthanasia equipment would mean new expense. A bolt through the head and exsanguination wouldn’t do, it would have to be dignified and stress free. Eventually, there’d be an end to halal meat. Eventually, everything can be connected to Muslims by the people who want it to. They make for popular news. A field such as this could become collectible, as contentious as any fur, valuable as art, a cultural curiosity and a reminder of a time past.

I looked around, at the cows, the battered, lightening broken trees and the farmer felled tree stumps at the edge of the field, and I thought about the distance to the next town and if it were possible to live this far out and still walk for a paper.

Overhead a hawk circled, its jagged wing tips suggesting a rip in the scenery; maybe it was all just brown underneath. I heard the truck door slam. Kris was buckling up. I got in and put the key in the ignition, held it there.

‘You can’t keep that dog.’


‘It belongs to Isaac’s girlfriend.’ I turned the key. The engine whinnied before it caught. Kris looked at me. He didn’t believed a word I said. ‘You have to understand, it isn’t fair to everyone else if I let you keep a dog. It’ll bring bad luck, the way things are going.’

He didn’t answer me, just stared ahead as I drove.

Cathy said I was heartless, after going berserk with me for not calling as soon as I’d found Kris.

‘How many years have we promised the kid a dog and now this, on his birthdays of all days?’

‘I never promised him a dog, Cathy. That was all you and we didn’t know the law was going to change.’

‘You knew for months about the possibility of the law, before it was enforced, and you’d known for years in advance Kris wanted a dog for this birthday.’

‘I’m not the man who made the law.’

‘Right; you’re not a man at all, and you’re no father.’

Kris’ bedroom door opened. Adams ran out. Cathy sucked her teeth. She’d decided it was unsafe to let him out of the house since the law change, in case someone stole him.

‘Off to bed, Kris, I’ll come tuck you in a minute.’ I couldn’t look at him.

‘Why are you arguing?’

‘Your mum and I are just talking.’

‘You’re arguing about the dog,’ he said, ‘I still don’t see why I can’t have one but at least can I have an old one, one someone brings to the surgery maybe, even if I can’t have a puppy you should be able to let me have one someone else has abandoned?’ 

‘Why do you have to protest.’

‘Why doesn’t anyone else protest?’ He slammed the door.

Some did protest, over the following weeks, but it was futile. With only the sales of collars and food to keep them afloat many businesses went under. A few shops were set alight and one shop owner died in suspicious circumstances. People were scared. There was only one store open on the North Shore and only one employee worked there. The remaining store operatives had gone to look for other work, selling what stock they could on the sly and irresponsibly letting a lot of animals go. For the first time in memory, dog wardens became a common sight on the streets.

People whose pets died naturally became depressed at being unable to replace the irreplaceable. Those who thought their pets had been taken from them too soon became resentful of people who had bought puppies and kittens just before the law came in. There were malicious attacks, poisonings. One, unexpected, retaliation against the bill, however, came in the form of breeding.

Over dinner, Cathy said,

‘I don’t see why they can’t just give them all away; the law only stipulates you can’t pay.’ 

We had invited Isaac and his girlfriend Georgia round for a meal as reparations for the trouble at Kris’ birthday, and a friendly means of laying Cathy’s concerns that Isaac was a closeted cat hater to rest. She had thought him the prime suspect for slashing her tyres and the misunderstanding with the dog as a deliberate attempt to cause upset. She locked Adams in our bedroom as a precaution. Looking back, the dinner was also a way of pretending our marriage wasn’t over. However we justified the meal, Cathy’s natural defiance wasn’t going to make it enjoyable.

Isaac said,

‘The authorities will get around the surplus issue by refusing to issue licences.’ We guessed inspections would follow.

‘People can forge licences, though,’ Cathy countered. ‘And there’s money to be made if convincing counterfeits can be produced.’

‘Nah,’ Isaac wasn’t convinced. ‘Technology’s moved on. Existing licences will be replaced with high tech chip and pin cards, just like in the banks. Who do you know still carries cash?’

‘I do, as a matter of fact. And I don’t consider myself an old fogey before you get onto that.’

‘No offence intended.’ Isaac laughed.

I poured everyone a top up of wine and made a fuss of the dinner. I was thankful Georgia joined in with the praise. She’d been quiet up till now, hardly surprising since I had tried to euthanize her dog. She’d left it at home. It was the first time Cathy and I noticed her accent, having been distracted until this point with her dress sense. She was wearing what appeared to be one of Isaac’s shirts only it was too smart for him and her nipples showed through, and men’s shoes. Military in influence, I thought. Disturbingly, her outfit made my cock rise to salute.

‘You’re English,’ Cathy said.

‘Yes.’ Georgia seemed at a loss for how to follow it. We all stared at the casserole dish for a moment before she finally thought of something and, obviously thinking she was speaking out in support of Cathy, said, ‘They can’t really get rid of dogs anyway. Dogs have too many uses, sniffer dogs, for starters, and what about guide dogs for the blind? Dogs have inspired some of the greatest works of art, and dog eggs,’ she said, beginning to laugh for reasons none of us could comprehend.

‘Well,’ I said, feeling need to pre-empt any offence Cathy might choose to take by disagreeing with Georgia on her behalf, cowardly giving my wife support, ‘according to New Scientist, sniffer dogs are already obsolete due to mechanical sniffers.’

‘Is that the technical term?’ Isaac obviously loved the girl.

‘I dare say the police will be unhappy. I have no idea what might happen to guide dogs, if anything, after all, they aren’t strictly speaking pets in any case.’

‘So,’ Cathy said, in a worryingly curious tone, ‘working dogs are still allowed.’

‘Yes,’ Isaac said, not asking to load his plate up again. Cathy smiled at him approvingly.

I thought about the dinner again recently. The forecasting about the licences came true in a matter of weeks. Owners had to carry their Pet Utility Proof, PUP for short, on their person at all times. Wardens took on new roles. Licence scanners became part of their kit. Every pet was also chipped to match their new licence. When an animal died it was registered too.

Guide dogs for the blind were targeted by jealous former dog owners and one maniac poked out his eyes as a desperate attempt to keep his own dog, but the authorities took it away and locked him up in a kennel of his own. It all got extreme but the trouble really started at school. Kindergartens stopped allowing kids to look after the animals in the holidays and Leighton’s elementary called us in to say they had witnessed her playing some inappropriate games in the playground. Cathy was horrified.

We sat in the classroom with our knees by our ears like crickets. It was impossible not to feel guilty in this position. When I asked what exactly the teacher meant by inappropriate she explained she’d seen Leighton putting a rope around another child.

‘Naturally, the child became distressed and told her mother that evening. The mother has since been into school to make a formal complaint.’
‘I don’t know what to say,’ Cathy said.

‘It’s totally out of character,’ I said. I’d never tied Cathy up, not that I was against the idea particularly but she wasn’t into anything that involved loss of control.  ‘There must be more to the story.’ I called Leighton in from the corridor to explain.

‘I was only playing ponies,’ she said.
On the drive home, Cathy fumed internally. She wouldn’t answer me or the kids. When we pulled onto the drive she said,

‘That’s it; I can’t live like this anymore.’

‘It was only a misunderstanding, Cathy, let it go.’

‘And what’ll be next, Abe? You’ve seen how crazy this is getting. And I can’t stand that every time something happens you do nothing.’

She thought the answer was to move to Oz. Her sister had a place out there, on the Gold Coast. I didn’t want to go, the Shore was my home. I made the mistake of thinking I could change her mind. In my effort to re-engage in our home life I traded the late shift for an extra day’s holiday for Isaac and discovered the other guy.

Brett Swan was fucking my wife over the dishwashing machine he had been employed to fix. He had her on Heavily Soiled, so when she came her voice reverberated through the house. I kicked his naked arse out of the back door, cum spewing all over the place. I gave him a few laps of the yard then dragged him back in to clean the floor.

Elaine had known all about it, had taken the kids for the night. It turned out the tyres had been an act of revenge by the guy’s wife. I tried to reason with Cathy. I told her, from a man’s perspective, this guy was a dick.

 ‘He’s fucked over one wife, who knows how many others he’s had, and the chances are he’ll leave you as soon as a better offer comes along, and then where will you be?’

‘In Oz, with the kids and as many pets as we want.’ She slapped my face then said, ‘You left your first wife for me, Abe. Do you have a better offer lined up, ready to ditch me?’

‘No, don’t be ridiculous. I’m only sorry you had to lower yourself to this to justify leaving me.’

‘You’re only sorry you couldn’t fuck me over first.’

We kept the details from the kids. On my part I was hanging out for some, I don’t know, if not a divine act then intervention of greater kindness. A rage built inside me, but it didn’t manifest itself with clear reason, not then. On the nights when I felt my thoughts irrational as to not trust myself I’d stay at the surgery. Isaac found me one morning, dragged me to the ground and would’ve started CPR had I not shouted at him to stop.

‘Fuck sake, man, I thought you were dead. Why didn’t you answer me?’

I had been awake for most of the night and only recently fallen into a deep sleep. I shrugged.

Isaac made coffee and rescheduled my first appointment for later in the week.

‘You didn’t have to do that,’ I said.

‘No, I could let you see clients looking like this and wearing yesterday’s clothes. And don’t take this personally, mate, but when was the last time you showered?’

‘Cathy’s asked me to move out.’

‘Fuck. Shit, sorry, I had no idea.’

‘She’s seeing some bloke, fuck knows where he’s from; she got him on free phone from Hire a Hubby. She’s planning on moving to Australia with him.’

‘And the kids?’

‘They’d rather have a pet than a father, I guess.’

‘Fuck sake. Is he rich?’

I almost laughed. Elaine had been so smug when I first met Cathy, telling anyone she could find to listen I was a vet. Family gatherings were more like status parades. Cathy had said, for her mother, coming to the Shore had been a chance to shake off an old identity and become a success. What she meant was lie. Elaine had been from working stock, moved over from the North of England in the fifties and was lucky her husband died soon after, freeing her up to marry the Chairman of the local Rotary Club. Now she was harbouring my kids so her daughter could fuck a spark. The funniest part was that she’d ever believed vets are rich.

We drank coffee and Isaac said he had a confession to make. He must have read my mind because he said,

‘I didn’t fuck your wife,’ before I could ask him. ‘I’m –’

The buzzer went on the reception door. Isaac looked at his watch. ‘Shit. Forget it.’

‘Isaac, what is it?’

‘I’ll tell you later. I’ve got a new patient to write up.’ He opened the door but stopped, mid-way, turned and said, ‘Go to my place, Georgia’s at work. Get a shower and something to eat.’ He handed me his keys.

‘I have a check-up booked in for eleven.’

‘The Yorkie with the broken leg? I’ll take it. Go. And get some sleep.’

‘I have to get the kids at four, I promised to take them out for burgers before they leave.’

‘They’re going so soon? Fuck, Abe, you’ve kept all this to yourself.’ He looked reflective then told me to take as long as I wanted, he’d be there till eight. ‘Drop the keys back in here else I’ll see you back at my place, if you need a place to stay.’

‘Thanks, Isaac.’

‘Don’t mention it.’

Isaac’s place was an old bach, one of the few remaining relatively intact from the fifties, probably because it was only a two bed and family pads are where the money’s at. I helped myself to a bowl of cereal, showered and changed laid on the settee. After an hour I couldn’t sleep so I put the TV on and watched the mid-day news.

The Prime Minister was banging on about the success of PETS, quoting new studies. The anchor was asking him if the studies were rushed through before an inquiry was due, brought about because of a probe undertaken by the opposition.

The Prime Minister had been photographed with a number of animals in the grounds of his lifestyle block. “For the love of birdsong” would be the caption on tomorrow’s paper and probably there’d be a speech bubble with arf, arf, arf, coming from the PM’s beak.

At some point I must have fallen asleep because when I woke there was a crappy show on with pop star kids dressed like sluts and mouthing off before singing some generic song to a fuck beat. The sort of thing Leighton would watch. I looked at my watch; I’d forgotten the kids.

When I got to my house the phone was ringing.

‘I’ll get it,’ I shouted.

Cathy came down with her hair in a towel.

‘What is it, Abe?’

I hung up. The house was quiet.

‘Where are the kids?’

‘I dropped them off at the surgery, at four, like you said.’

‘I said I’d meet them here.’

‘They said you’d changed plans.’

‘Who said, the kids?’

Leighton was in the car park with a golden retriever, frantic, running back and forth. I shouted her name. The dog ran off. Leighton screamed at me,

‘Kris, Kris.’ She pointed at the surgery where thick black smoke was coming from the reception windows and flames were licking the overhang of the roof above them. 

‘Wait here,’ I said, and ran to the back.

The windows were grilled there, for security as that’s where all the drugs were kept and the door had a security screen fitted that had to be unlocked from the inside. I felt in my pocket. I had Isaac’s keys. I picked up a rock and started hitting the glass, but I was dragged away by a guy from the fire brigade.

Leighton was on her knees, clinging to Cathy’s leg, out on the main road now. Cathy was crying, too. I put out my arms to her, but she bent down and sat on the road. A second engine arrived. All I could do was watch.

‘Why did you lie to me, why did you lie?’ Cathy said, pulling Leighton onto her knee and rocking her.’

‘Kris wanted to see the dog. Isaac said we could visit it here.’

‘What dog?’

‘Isaac said we could share.’

‘There was a dog when we arrived,’ I said, putting it together. The surgery was a perfect cover.

They had been coming for weeks. I’d been so wrapped up events with Cathy I hadn’t noticed the kids. When they started hanging round the surgery I’d assumed they wanted to spend time with me because kids can be sensitive to things like that, even though Cathy and I had kept the rows between ourselves.

‘It showed me how to get out,’ Leighton said. Cathy looked at me.

‘Tell me where.’

The fire fighters laid the body on the tarmac. Leighton knelt.

‘Time to say goodbye,’ I said. ‘What’s his name?’

‘We didn’t give him a name. Isaac said it was best not to, in case we didn’t get to keep him. He said it would save us from getting too attached, so we just called him Dog. He lied on the floor to show us what to do, to crawl under the smoke.’ She kissed him and got up. ‘Can I ride in the ambulance with Kris?’

‘Sure,’ I said. I watched her get in. Cathy pulled one hand free from Kris’ and slipped it around her.

The paramedics were about to close the doors on the other van.

‘Is he going to be alright?’

‘Are you a relative?’

‘I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to put your laptop away.

My earphones dropped out as I turned my head to look up. The steward had a cake and was smiling at me. I looked back at the screen, a clip of footage showed a masked man being hauled out of the Prime Minister’s home.

‘Happy Birthday, dad,’ Kris said. Everyone on the plane clapped.

‘What present do you want?’ Leighton asked.

Kris answered on my behalf,

‘A dog, you dick.’

‘Or a cat,’ Cathy said. ‘And don’t swear, Kris.’ Leighton was thoughtful for a moment then asked,

‘Is Adams going to be alright?’

‘Of course he is, Isaac will take good care of him, and besides, he’s a cat.’

I looked out the window. I could see the curve of the earth, perfectly blue. I thought of New Zealand. 

Rachel J Fenton was born in Yorkshire, England, and currently lives on New Zealand's North Shore. Winner of The University of Plymouth's "short FICTION 7th Annual Competition", she was shortlisted for "The Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize", the "Fish International Poetry Prize", and many more. AKA Rae Joyce, she won AUT's Creative Writing Prize for her graphic poem "Alchemy Hour". She blogs at http://snowlikethought.blogspot.com.

Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


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