“Worthless!” The trumpeting blast of Jehovah’s voice set the bowls of manna jumping. Waves of mead swished from goblets. Two unsuspecting seraphim were knocked from their precarious perches atop great golden harps.
In the aftermath, quiet reigned in the massive hall. Every saintly and angelic eye was turned towards the All Mighty.
Finally, His trembling son asked, “What’s wrong, Dad?”
“Humans,” came the only slightly less thunderous reply. “Humans. Why did I create them? Worthless!” Again the crockery jigged. One of the two seraphim, not having gained a purchase on his proper seat, again fell to the floor.
“You could wipe them out and start over,” the tempter suggested. “A nice flood.”
“Tried that. Lot of good it did,” the Mighty One answered.
“Then perhaps an exodus,” suggested Mormon, clapping his wings in anticipation; “I have some planets you could buy.”
“Same difference.” Jehovah’s brow knitted with contemplation. The quiet only broken by the soft patter of righteousness falling on the roof.
After what seemed like the eternity it was, the Creator spoke again. “I fear that humans are irredeemable. They are infected with greed.”
“Then destroy them,” Lucifer suggested, drool flowing from the corner of his mouth and into the hissing goatee-fire of his beard.
“Take a dump on them,” added the first Protestant as he nailed his suggestion to the great mansion’s Pearly Gate.
“Then what would Jesus and I watch for entertainment?” God asked. “The angelic host? Boring. These guys just sit around waiting to do my will. No free will; no drama. J.C. and I like a good soap—you know, a little action.” He threw a celestial wink at Aphrodite who watched closely to make sure he didn’t cast another towards that hussy Mary.
J.C. nudged that giggling Magdalene girl under the table.
“Then,” the tempter suggested, “You could try creating another world. Of course the human creatures would end up the same, filled with greed. But, why not try.”
Never one to avoid a challenge, Jehovah responded immediately, “Good idea; I will create another world with a new mankind—one without greed.”
When the buzz had died, Thomas, always quick to raise doubts, suggested, “Instead of an entire planet you might try a trial run, you know just a small test world, to see if such a species can be created.”
Some of the saints tried to shush Thomas, but Jehovah put his great hand on the saint’s shoulder. “Another good idea. That is what we shall do. A laboratory world.” The laugh of divine pleasure which followed the words swept through the hall. The lead cherubim, who as always stood before the heavenly choir, was so surprised by God’s merriment that she farted. The sweet smell of her wind added another layer to the growing jocularity of the Heavenly assembled.
The Holy One was again in a good mood. Hallelujah! Even better, He would be busy in his laboratory—with any luck for another seven days. A respite from His tantrums.
All bowed as The Father, swirling His cape, exited the hall. Even as He strode the corridors of Heaven, Jehovah was designing this new world. It would have two races of man. They would live in two separate regions of the world—lands separated by the abyss of a great wasteland. Each land would have almost all it needed.
But there had to be some reason for the two races to interact. God sat at His laboratory bench and contemplated the challenge. Finally, He had it. In only one country He placed the precious metals gold and silver; in the other spices grew and flourished. The two races would have to trade for these two valuables, but only for the two. “It will be a fair trade,” He thought, “a trade between equals.” Why risk war or theft when things are so even. Not like Earth with their assured mutual annihilation but a peace based on assured mutual benefit. “Perfect! Now to design a way for them to trade—just enough contact but not too much.”
In seven days the new world of AlphaOme had been created. After resting from His labors, Jehovah explained to His son, “This will be a show we can watch without worry. No souls lost to evil. No hearts taken with greed. Just love. Just people being creative. And some good sex, of course. How blissful it will be.”
The next day, the Creator allowed the hosts of heaven to see His handiwork. Paul was the first to speak. “How will they know all the rules? They must have rules.”
Peter, as usual, disagreed. “Human nature is basically good. If they open their hearts to the Lord, they will be saved.” Moroni was packing his bags. “Where are you going?” God asked.
“To knock on their doors and tell them the good news,” Moroni answered.
“No!” Jehovah responded. “We will watch from here and let these humans discover their own goodness.”
Melek Taus, in all his peacock finery, announced, “I will not bow before this new humanity.
God, acknowledging that angels were incapable of learning, laughed and threw a divine cabbage at the resplendent angel’s head.
Moses and Muhammad argued about what these new humans would be allowed to eat. When the Prophet suggested rump roast, the Law Giver was apoplectic.
“Well at least we’ve agreed no pork,” Muhammad said offering his hand in fraternity.
Vishnu screamed, “Ram, they’re doing it again—eating my cows.”
Another round of yelling and recriminations ensued. The argument grew loud enough to disturb Buddha. “Eating is an illusion,” the Enlightened Soul explained before helping himself to a plate from the buffet.
“Enough,” God thundered. “Can’t you children ever quiet down?”
“But, but…” the host sputtered.
“But nothing. No prophets allowed. They’ll just cut of your heads,” John joked. At least that gave Jesus the relief of a much-needed laugh
So the new world was established without law, prophecy, or sacred text. The new people lived, loved, and provided comfortable celestial viewing, but without the violence and argument over what was the will of the Almighty and what truly did not matter. The contact between the Alphas and the Omegas was limited to trade in precious metal and spices and the occasional falling into love or lust, a distinction, which in a world without religion, did not seem to matter. The route across the wasteland allowed the necessary movement of goods and lovers, but it was a long journey with little rest or water. “You keep to your side, and we’ll keep to ours,” would have been the motto if anyone thought to have one; but in a world with proper balance there is no need for mottos.
The Tempter was, as usual, discontent. Nothing happened to disturb God, and Satan loves drama. What good to him was a world without sturm und drang or, even worse, without war?
“Want to bet?” he asked, knowing that Jehovah was a sucker for a good wager.
“Remember Job?” he added as if the Divine One needed to have His memory jogged.
“What kind of mischief are you up to now?” God asked. While He tried for the sternness of a rebuke, He could not keep the hint of amusement from His voice or the great orbs of His all-seeing eyes.
“I bet the Alphas and the Omegas aren’t as peaceful as You think. I bet I can get them fighting with just one simple intervention.”
God, quite sure of His handiwork, could not resist the challenge; but He would insist on rules.
“You can’t give one something you don’t give the other. You cannot create a scarcity so that the people must fight to survive. To win the bet, the fight must come from within them not from you egging it on.” Satan offered his pitchfork in agreement. God wrapped it in His might, and the bet was settled.
Lucifer sent two of his minions to the new Earth, one to each of the two nations. Both bore a scientific discovery, how to make the scaliate waste of the abyss into fuel that would allow the people to live better. “No scarcity,” he observed; “there is enough scaliate in that desert to last all the generations of AlphaOme forever.”
Before the Devil’s emissaries left for AlphaOme, Lucifer checked with God. No way was he going to cheat. One eternity spent imprisoned for being a trickster was enough. How was he to know that the Boss was that serious about not coaching those first humans into sin? After all, they were dumb enough to listen to a talking snake; why give them a second thought? And how was he to know that Jehovah’s brat son would be so compassionate, would keep trying to intervene on behalf of those earthly idiots?
“So you propose making the lives of these people better?” God asked.
“That’s right, Divine One.” Lucifer groveled at the Omnipotent’s feet — no point in riling the boss.
“And you think this will bring out the worst in them?”
“Yes, Majestic Ruler of the Universe.”
Even Solomon and Loki were smirking. Was Lucifer really that much of a toady or was he just putting God on? Either way, he was making an ass of himself, a fact duly recorded in Ovid’s notebooks.
God sought the advice of Jesus, who could see no harm in Lucifer’s proposal. Even Jan Hus and Calvin agreed that there was no sin in it. Martin Luther would have been consulted except he was occupied in the crapper. At least Lao Tzu pronounced it the way to go.
Off the two angels of science went.
Within a millennium, which is hardly a breath in the time of Heaven, the Alphas and the Omegas were at war. Both claimed the wasteland as their own. Both were determined that they and they alone should hold the power of the new technology, which meant controlling the scaliate, that necessary raw material.
As the new planet shook with battle, God raised his glass of mead to Lucifer. “Well, Beelzebub, you’ve called it this time. Humans cannot resist greed.”
The Devil tipped his glass in return. “So, how are you going to destroy them?” he asked, hoping for a cataclysmic event.
“Destroy them?” God laughed. The rolling of His merriment swayed the stars. His breath, which even Augustine had to admit smelled of too much mead, made some of the cherubs drunk just from being in the hall. “Destroy them? Why? I think I’ll do the same as I have done with the humans of Earth — just sit back and watch. I figure they’ll make AlphaOme uninhabitable soon enough. They’ll kill themselves off. The hell with them all.”
He looked to his son, who jumped on a table and led the rousing cheer: “To hell with them all. To HELL with them all.”
The youngster takes his stand. He leans back against the double birch. The bushes he has pushed aside close back around him. Even though it is still night, he can feel the sun rising ahead.
“Too cold,” he had thought when his father had pressed his shoulder and hoarsely summoned him into wakefulness. Now he feels the wind biting his face and knows that it is colder than “too.” The sun can not come soon enough. The sense of ice is cutting his freezing fourteen-year frame. He blows on his fingertips. They poke out through the cut-off woolen gloves.
He holds his rifle lightly: Remington twenty-two, single shot, bolt action, v sight. Inadequate for the job; but it had been his father’s, given him by his father, now passed – father to son – in expectation and tradition.
It is a Tuesday. The boy knows he should be in school. It is not the first day of season—perhaps that would be an excuse, at least a rationale. No, it is a family thing, the anniversary of his father’s first buck. Just as he had received his rifle—the rifle—on the anniversary of his father’s birth. On his father’s tenth birthday, the boy’s grandfather had given his eldest son his first rifle, this rifle, the one the youngster now holds. The one that his father had finally, sternly, perhaps reluctantly passed to him.
They have spent many hours: The old man watching and grumbling in his judgmental way. The boy pinging cans and cleaning and oiling—caring for the weapon as if it were a loved woman. They have searched this stand, this spot in which the teen waits for his first deer, his first kill.
His father’s expectations weigh heavy.
He shivers in anticipation.
It occurs to him that the rifle is unloaded. He fishes a shell from his breast pocket, pulls back the bolt, chambers the bullet, closes the bolt, and carefully releases the safety. He is now lethal.
Standing, shivering, watching, waiting: The hunt is a lonely vigil. Even as the first rays break the cloudy sky, even as the first shadows of tree and bush can be seen, even as swallows start to do their darting hunt: the boy feels his aloneness and his discomfort.
Hunger comes – short twisty pangs. He wishes that he had eaten more, perhaps another biscuit, perhaps … He feels in his pocket. The jerky is there. “Perhaps a bite,” he thinks. “No, I’d best wait. It’ll be a long time.”
He leans against the birch and holds his rifle. Longer he waits.
He sweats. Under the layers of clothing, the flannels and parka, the wool watch cap, the heavy socks: he feels the sweat and it makes him shiver. “I hate this,” he tells himself. “I hate him. Why does it have to be his way? I don’t want to hunt. I don’t want to kill no deer. I don’t want to kill nothing. Hell, I don’t even want this gun.”
He waits longer. The sun is now about its arc. The shadows have shortened. “Six or so,” he thinks. “Damn, I’m hungry.” He takes a piece of jerky from his pocket all the while telling himself that he should wait, that patience is the hunter’s friend. He bites into the spicy sinewyness, pulling away a chaw. The rest is returned.
The boy chews and waits. He waits and he watches.
Across the clearing, in the wood, there may be movement. He isn’t sure. “Wait,” he tells himself. “I hope it’s one so I can … Shit, I hate this. I’m never going to make my kid …” He peers at the other side of the clearing and sees shadows. They seem to move. He holds his rifle just a bit more tightly. He sweats just a bit more heavily. He shivers just a bit more strongly. He watches just a bit more keenly. The moment burns.
The animal moves quietly into the clearing. A beautiful buck. A head worth mounting. A body of many meals. “Venison for the winter,” he tells himself. “I have to.” Now there is a new sweat. He doesn’t want. “God damn, I have to.”
The youngster wants to miss. He wants to jerk the shot. He wants …
The deer is now fully there. No shadows, no questions. The buck turns towards the young man—full face, head up, ears moving in search of something the magnificent animal cannot know.
The boy doesn’t want to kill. But, there have been too many hours of practice under the watchful eyes—too many carefully squeezed moments. He closes his left eye—not too tightly. Carefully he sights, making a lollipop of the handsome sternum. “Just a little to the left,” he tells himself. “A clear heart shot.”
Slow squeeze. Slow, slow squeeze.
In slow motion he hears the bark of the rifle, feels its ever so gentle kick, watches the animal look in surprise and then fear. The knees buckle. The buck tries to run. A step, a misstep. The knees buckle again. He goes down.
The teen watches. Tears come to his eyes. “Damn, it’s cold,” he tries to tell himself. He knows that is a lie.
The buck is still alive, still trying to rise—futile, valiant, natural.
The boy opens the bolt. The shell casing jumps out. Still watching his prey, he stoops to pick up the small piece of brass. He puts it in his pocket. Momentarily, he considers another shot, an end to suffering. Instead he moves towards the dying beast. “If I have to,” he tells himself.
Moving forward, he touches his hunting knife. He has helped dress deer. He hates the iron smell of blood and its warm-stickiness on his hands.
He is closer to the deer. He studies it, watches for movement, a sign of life. Nothing. He reaches forward with the rifle’s barrel and nudges at the animal’s neck. Nothing.
“Is it safe?” he asks himself. Even in the throes of death the animal can do him harm. He nudges again. No response.
He waits until he can wait no longer. Carefully leaning his rifle against a rock, he unsheathes his knife. It is time for the butchery.
The tears are flowing more freely. The boy blows his nose into his arm. The scratch of the parka’s fabric. He looks towards the sun.
“Eight maybe half-past,” he tells himself.
“Damn.” He spits the word to the ground.
Eating Fried Chicken in Eureka
I’ve been spending a few weeks in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. That’s in the northwest corner of the state, where the Ozarks meet WalMart. I’m at the Writers’ Colony, a place where authors can go to just write, to just have the freedom to create. Of course, nobody can create twenty-four seven, especially when they like to eat out as much as I. The area is a veritable nirvana of fried chicken and barbeque. There’s also some great Italian and wondrous cobbler. Let’s put it this way: the food in Eureka is so good that I can even forgive the occasional use of Velveta.
Like many tourist places, the problem with Eureka Springs is there are too darn many restaurants. If I could eat five meals a day for the entire time I’m to be here, I might get to try them all, all that is excluding the fast food chains that have managed to find their ways this far off the major highways. Good, Lord, what’s a McDonalds doing in a place like this?
Well, I can’t eat out five meals a day. In fact, some days I haven’t been able to eat one. After all, I am here to write, a new novel that does tangentially get us back to one of my food obsessions. I love fried chicken. I’ve been known to eat fried chicken four meals in a row, and yes, that does include a breakfast.
One day I took a ride over to Berryville, a nearby town that has a museum I wanted to check out. Honest, that was the reason; it was only by happenstance that I saw the sign for “Fried Chicken Buffet – All You Can Eat.” “It’s ten miles form here,” I immediately calculated. “If I drive slowly enough I can be on time for lunch.” Actually, when fried chicken is involved, lunch can be anytime from after breakfast until five minutes before dinner, but I was trying to sound rational.
I poked along at forty, which wasn’t making other drivers happy, but they knew the road and I didn’t. My speed really didn’t have anything to do with the golden brown, crispy delight I knew was waiting. Well, to be honest it did, before I’d seen that sign I had been driving thirty-five – so much for “slowly.”
Another sign. I was getting closer. NO! It was a KFC. My heart dropped and my well-fed stomach churned. The fact that breakfast had only been about two hours earlier had nothing to do with my hunger. Fried chicken promised and then denied had taken control of my body. I could taste my saliva. It had the faint taste of good oil. I started hallucinating some coleslaw – love coleslaw on the side. Mashed potatoes anyone? Mmmm!
I couldn’t stand it, but there was no alternative. I drove on. On and into downtown Berryville. The town looked like it had closed down and gone fishing – that is except for the thrift and consignment stores that were waiting for strangers to come cart off the rest. There were a couple of cars parked and a small knot of children desultorily playing in the strangely perched gazebo. I had the feeling that somebody had taken the square that had once been the middle of this town, turned most of it into parking for the cars that would never come, and left that gazebo set on one corner as a teasing reminder of the life that had once been.
By that point I was starving. Deprivation will do that to a foodie. I knew that I had to eat something before I stepped foot in that museum.
There it was, my salvation – a tiny restaurant – coffee shop. It certainly didn’t look promising. The windows needed washing and the half curtains looked stained. There were a couple of people inside; their faces were unexpressive, their looks impassive. Were they enjoying themselves? Was the food good? No way of knowing.
I plunged in anyway. Desperation!
“Sit anywhere,” the waitress said. She looked worn and tired, but she was smiling.
I sat and she immediately came over with water, silverware wrapped in a napkin and fastened with a strip of white paper tape, and the menu. I took the menu. Before I could begin reading she said, “We have a special today. Three pieces of fried chicken, coleslaw, French fries or mashed with white or brown gravy, and a roll for seven ninety-five.”
The culinary gods must have been laughing as I weighed my options. Should I go with something safe like a peanut butter sandwich or risk it all in this out-of-the-way coffee shop? The chicken might be the best I’d eat in my life, or possibly that night I could be dead of ptomaine poisoning – the dread scourge with which my mother threatened every food decision I made. I took the dare.
Only one thing could have made that plate of chicken better – cranberry sauce. I’m a New Englander, and I can’t get used to the fact that most restaurants in this country don’t know about cranberries. But that’s a topic for another time.
Oh, in case you haven’t figured it out for yourself — mashed with white gravy. That was a no-brainer.
It was August, just before we heard that the last elephants had died. Suze got it into her head we should ride out to the old Viles farm and pick apples, fresh tree grown apples, for some pies.
No Viles has lived on the place for nearly a hundred years, but it’s still named for them, at least by popular consent. The Yadda-Yadda-Yadda name that designates it an historic site, the one you’d find if you were a tourist doing a VIZ-trip, nobody bothers with that dumb name here.
The Purdys were the last to actually farm there. They quit when there was no place left where could they sell apples, corn, tomatoes, or string beans. The markets were gone; government food – tasteless and chemical though it is – is delivered free so no need for stores or even roadside stands, especially with cars banned and busses rare.
So the Purdys quit the place their grandfather had bought from the Viles nearly a century ago, the place everyone still called the old Viles farm. And some bright member of the council, figuring that school kids should have a place to go for field trips, pushed though her idea of an historic site.
Now it’s gone to weed and seed; the farm just sets and waits for nature to take its course. Most people don’t even know it exists, but Suze is real fond of it. She’d gone there as a kid, when they still had some state workers to sow and pick and all that stuff, and she’d eaten some of that fresh-out-of-the-garden food. None of us ever have so we weren’t sure she wasn’t just making it up. But you know Suze, when she gets an idea going, there’s no way you’re going to argue her out of it.
We were going to ride our ped-karts out to the old Viles place and pick some apples. It figures to be seven miles or thereabouts each way, nothing too strenuous except for the air. The dust had really picked up and the official word was you shouldn’t be out without the proper breathing gear. Of course we had none. That stuff’s restricted to those who have priority, which isn’t a bunch of lows like us living off the slop-drop and hanging out. We’re lucky they’ve let us keep out karts and play the VIZ.
Henry said we were dumb to go out without that breathing gear, but Suze just kept arguing and said we had these masks, the ones for flu. We had some of those left, and she figured if we put them on it would be enough. So we all gave in. I mean, who was going to argue Suze around? Certainly not me. She may be crazy, but I love her more than I can make sense. And I guess the others feel the same because they all went along, too.
Got our karts out of the shed, put on those stupid masks, and started down Skylark.
We didn’t get to the Viles place, didn’t get close. The day was brown; at least it looked brown with the wind blowing and all that dirt flying. Pretty soon we were covered black, and those masks were so covered we had to stop every block just to shake them out – not that it made much of a difference.
We followed Skylark to Prince and headed west, which should have got us to the old highway, the one that goes to Shelburgh, but we were too tuckered to go on and sat on the wall of the old library choking and coughing and damning Suze and ourselves for being fools.
That’s when the police came by, called for a backup van and took us home – all except Suze, who was still going on about apple pies and how everyone should have one, how it’s part of our way of life. They took her off to the hospital, and we haven’t heard a word of her. I tried to call, but the hospital claims she was never there. Strange.
Anyway, a few days later we heard on the VIZ that the last elephants had died, somewhere far from here. Now I’ve never seen an elephant – not live, or ate an apple pie. There are lots of things if you look on the VIZ that you don’t see any more. It’s just that Suze wasn’t one of them so why did they have to make her disappear?
The boy perched on the cement bench, squinted with the fantasy of warfare, and cautiously watched. The enemy was close. The responsibility great. The danger imminent.
Carefully he checked his weapon. His gun was loaded, but it’s range limited; Bender knew that he would have to wait for the opportune moment, dash forward, and fire before his neighbor, Mr. Cachlow, could react. Surprise was imperative. But speed was clearly the boy’s advantage; his new silver Razor scooter was ready
Leaning against the bench, its handle loosely held in Bender’s hand, the scooter had been a birthday gift. For three days he had ridden it round and round the complex. How fast could he go? He had pushed himself through training missions. Dripping with sweat he would return to his base, and his mother would remark on how hard he had ridden, how fast he seemed able to go. If she was impressed, then surely the enemy would be helpless before him.
Make no mistake; Rodger Cachlow was Bender’s enemy. Their war had begun the first week – just after Bender’s father, Ed Murdock, had moved them into the Sunny Arms Condominium and Apartment Complex.
“It won’t be so bad,” Ed had tried to reassure his son. “You’ll make new friends. There’s a pool when the weather gets good. You’ll see; it won’t be so bad.”
Bender had seen the tears gathering in his father’s eyes. “Sure, Dad,” he’d said without meaning it. He knew that his father’s pay had been cut, that they had “lost” their house, the house in which he had always lived. He knew, too, that there were fewer meatballs on the spaghetti and only occasional stops for ice cream. His mother didn’t go to the beauty parlor anymore, but he didn’t see why she would want to anyway. Bender didn’t mind that Mom now cut his hair and his father’s. The first few times he had looked kind of lopsided, but she’d gotten pretty good at it.
“What’s going to happen with my birthday?” he had asked.
“Will we have a party?”
“A small one,” his father had answered,
“A few of your friends, maybe Uncle Harry and Aunt Betty can come, nothing too big, you understand.”
“That’ll be great,” Bender had lied and he threw out the list of presents he wanted but realized he would not receive.
Mr. Cachlow was reading. The old man was always reading. Of course he never actually turned the pages. He just held the book and let the sun warm his old body. Bender thought it strange that the old man always wore a sweater and a knit cap. He would be sitting in the sun, and the day would be nice and warm, but the old man still wore that tattered gray sweater and the black wool hat.
Cachlow was the enemy. Bender knew that even though the old man had never done anything, never even said a word. Some things didn’t need to be said; Bender could just sense them. He had sensed that Sharon really liked him. He had known that the first day in the new school. She had smiled at him in a special way, and he had smiled back. Freddy Rupert, on the other hand, hadn’t smiled at all. Bender had immediately understood that Freddy would be his undying adversary.
Cachlow hated kids; that was as obvious as the unspoken reality that his mother was unhappy, that she too missed their old home, their neighborhood, their friends. She didn’t say it; she didn’t need to; with the innate wisdom of nine years of life Bender knew exactly how she felt.
Cachlow hated kids, and that meant he hated Bender. And Bender hated him. He hated the old man sitting in the sun, dropping into fitful sleep, that unread book sitting on his lap. Bender hated and plotted.
He took the power-soaker from his backpack and tried a single pump. The gratifying arc of water splattered against the Palo Verde. “Good aim,” he commended himself.
With a sideways glance, he checked out his enemy. Cachlow’s finger traced the lines of his book. His lips formed words that Bender could not hear.
“Why doesn’t he turn the damn page?” Somehow that seemed the worst of the old man’s sins. The old man didn’t look up. “Can’t he feel me watching him?”
Bender had watched the movers carrying the furnishings from their house, at least those they would take with them. Some things had been left behind or sold – some had been things Bender had really liked, things he really missed. He missed his desk, which had been too big for his room in the apartment. He had loved that desk: loved building models on it, loved drawing, maybe not so much doing homework. Now, here, most of the time, he worked at the table; it had been the kitchen table in their old house. The dining room set had been sold. It would fill the whole living room if they had brought it.
Bender didn’t mind leaving that dining room furniture behind. He had never enjoyed the fancy dinners his mother would make when company came. He didn’t like sitting straight with his elbows off the table, his napkin on his lap, and his mouth carefully closed when he chewed. He’d never been one for company—that was company that ate in the dining room. Uncle Harry and Aunt Betty would joint them in the kitchen, and Bender’s father wouldn’t harrumph at all if his manners slipped around them And Grandpa, God he loved it when Grandpa came over.
Grandpa was like a kid except his teeth clicked when they ate and he wasn’t quite so good at games. Bender missed Grandpa. They had had a special bond. Maybe because Bender had been named for his grandfather—William Bertram Murdock, Bertie to everyone.
It had been Grandpa who had given Bender his nickname. “Everybody needs a nickname,” he had explained. “But why Bender?” That had been four years ago, just before Bender had started school.
“Because you’re going to drive your teachers to drink,” Grandpa had answered with a chuckle. Bender’s parents had laughed, too. Bender, knowing it was a joke even if he didn’t get it, didn’t ask Dad for explanation, not even when he got back from driving Grandpa back to the home.
The next week, when his mother brought him to Miss Rice’s room, when other kids were looking scared and even crying, he had walked up to the thin lady with her long fingers and sharp-pointy nose who looked like a witch from one of his books; he’d walked up and stuck out his hand the way his Dad always did when he was meeting somebody new or even somebody he hadn’t seen for a while. “Hi,” he’d said, “I’m Bender,” like it was the most normal thing in the world even though Miss Rice had asked him what his real name was so she could put a mark in the book with all the kids’ names. But even though it said William Bertram Murdock, Jr. in that book, she always called him Bender; and he had liked her for that. And he loved his Grandpa for giving him a nickname that everybody knew.
Bender had loved his grandfather for lots of things, but now he just missed him. Grandpa had died two years ago. It was a long time ago, but Bender still missed him. He missed him and was just a bit angry at with him, too. Bender knew Grandpa hadn’t wanted to die. He knew that things like cancer, and heart attacks and strokes happen, that people die even though it would make their grandkids sad, that life isn’t very fair. He knew those things but he was still angry that Grandpa wasn’t around to play Monopoly and forget to buy Boardwalk, to tell him how great a model builder he was, to tell him jokes, or just to…
Bender wanted to shoot at the quail that were pecking around near the entrance to the pool. He wondered if somebody had dropped some crumbs. “It would scare them good.” He started to aim but thought better of it. “He’ll see me, and then he’ll be on guard.”
Still Cachlow’s finger traced the lines of that book. His lips forming words.
Bender saw that he had the advantage of surprise. With his left hand he grabbed the handle of his scooter and planted his left foot squarely on the deck and stood. Shoving with his right foot, he took off toward his quarry. The water blaster power-soaker Uncle Harry had given him for his birthday was at the ready. A few more pushes and he would be in range.
Suddenly. Suddenly. Bender found himself gasping in wet, soaking-wet surprise. The old man was playing him with a hose. Water was dripping from his face, from his clothes, from his scooter. Worse, Cachlow was laughing, laughing at him.
“Got you, you little joker. It’ll be a cold day in hell before you can put one over on Rodg Cachlow.”
Embarrassed and suddenly scared, Bender wanted to run, maybe even to cry. The worst thing was the old man’s laughter. It stung, and Bender didn’t know why it hurt so much. Yeah, he had been caught, but there was something else.
Cachlow laughed, and Bender heard the sound of his teeth clacking together. In the moment of that sound, he could not restrain the tears. The pain of loss burned his heart.
“Hey, kid, it was just in fun.” Suddenly Cachlow’s tone had changed. There was concern, maybe even kindness. “I figured you were game, you know that you’d enjoy getting…”
The old man had put down the hose and the book. Getting stiffly to his feet, he came toward Bender. “Come on, son, it isn’t that bad, you know. Sometimes the old guy got to win.” Bender continued crying.
“We’d better get you dried off. I got a towel right here.” Cachlow pulled a large beach towel covered with pictures of cowboys off a chair.
“Got this for my grandkid case he came to visit. That was two years ago. Probably’s outgrown cowboys by now. What the heck. I don’t know they’ll visit anyway.” Cachlow laughed again. There was a different sound to the laughter—not fun but pain.
“Sorry,” Bender said not knowing what else to do.
“Yeah, me, too. You got a name?”
“That a nickname? Must be, never heard anyone called that. Kind of like it. Me they call Quick Draw.” He chuckled.
“Sorry, bad joke; but I did get you.”
“Yes, sir.” Bender dropped his power-soaker and let go of the Razor, which tipped onto the grass. Reluctantly, he inched toward the man. “Could I have the towel?” he asked so quietly that he could barely hear his own words.
“Yeah, sure, Bender.” The old man held out the beach towel. “Actually folks have always called me Rodg; it’s short for Roger. Bender, what’s that short for?”
“Nothing, my name’s really William—William Bertram Murdock, like my grandfather, but everybody called him Bertie. At least they did until he died.”
“You must miss him.”
“Rodg; you call me Rodg and I’ll call you Bender, that okay with you?”
“Come on, Bender, you dry yourself off.”
Bender took the towel and concentrated on attacking his hair. “Mind if I tell you something?”
Bender looked up. “What?”
“Never underestimate us old guys. Know why?”
“’Cause we know how it feels.”
Somehow that seemed right. Something else seemed right, too. Bender knew he wouldn’t be quite so unhappy, quite so lonely—not anymore.