She loved traveling, delighting in hotels and particularly enjoying room service breakfasts: scrambled eggs not too firm or a cheddar omelet, a side of bacon, toast buttered and strawberry jam, hash browns with ketchup, and coffee—light and sweet. Uncle, our twelve-pound terrier-poodle mix, had little use for me, but she did appreciate my serving her hotel breakfast. Another thing about Uncle and hotels stays: that was the only time she would tolerate a leash. Yes, she did understand the rules that people imposed even if she knew they were stupid and surely didn’t apply to a dog who knew exactly where to go and what to do without being told.
For all her love of travel and of hotels, Uncle (Her paradoxical name my wife and the dog’s choice. I was told the alternative had been Steve.) had one vacation spot she particularly loved. That was the Kedron Valley Inn in South Woodstock, Vermont.
We started going to the Kedron Valley because of their animal policies. Not only did they welcome dogs, but they had a lovely stable from which we could take great rides into the rich Vermont countryside. Uncle loved it not only because of the great breakfasts and the absence of leash rules, but more importantly because it allowed her to enjoy some of her favorite pastimes.
First and foremost was drinking. Yes, I mean booze, or to be more exact – Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry. For all her regal ways—and Uncle was sure she was a descendant of royalty—Uncle was an alcoholic. She liked nothing more than padding into the lounge, sitting in front of the fire, and being served her favorite libation. By the way, while she would if necessary drink her sherry from a lesser vessel, Uncle did prefer stemware, which she never knocked over.
Once the innkeeper understood Uncle’s wants, he was happy to fill them—even when my wife and I were not in the room. When we would go for one of those lovely rides, Uncle, who never walked more than a few hundred yards before settling to the ground and waiting for one of us to provide carriage service, would slip out of our room and down to that comfortable lounge. Eventually and with some difficulty, I convinced Paul, the inn’s owner, that Uncle did not have her own money and that I would only pay for two drinks a day.
“After two, you pay,” I said.
Reluctantly he agreed. After all, she was a regular.
For Uncle the Kedron was more than drinking. There she could indulge in other favorite activities. One involved the two-acre swimming pond. Uncle did not swim. Slogging under the weight of her waterlogged coat was an effort well beneath her standards. However, she did love to watch our Airedale swim. Jennifer would swim for hours if allowed, and Uncle—big sister that she was—would bark herself hoarse providing encouragement—or was it criticism.
Uncle did not take kindly to other dogs, and there were many at the Kedron. On each visit, she quickly established dominance over them, usually by tricking them into running into stationary objects like automobiles and doors. It was clear that Uncle remembered which trick each dog would fall for, but it was equally apparent that none of the housedogs remembered her. There are dogs and then there was Uncle.
Uncle loved Vermont in all five seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter, and mud. It was one of her great delights to watch us, her humans, try to cope with the various conditions and activities the seasons offered. What a joyful day it was for her when we tried cross-country skiing. It was one of the few times Uncle actually took physical part in one of out activities—carefully coming over to sniff us each time we ignominiously landed on the ground. Oh, what a wicked grin she had that day.
Once we were comfortably ensconced at the Inn, Uncle was always ready for a drive though the countryside. There she could indulge her only passion that came close to her love of drink. Uncle was a bovine fanatic. Let us drive by a pasture with cows, and she would leap about the back seat and sometimes onto my wife’s lap all the while screeching her excitement.
In fact, Uncle was so enamored with cows, that when our son bought a pair of leather pants, it took two of us to remove her from his leg, which she maniacally clutched and humped.
In case one wonders, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens—nothing but cows elicited that excitement.
I know there are many wonderful things in Vermont, gorgeous countryside, lovely villages, handsome covered bridges, impressive mountains. Of course, we tried downhill skiing and snowmobiling, bought maple syrup from local trees, and admired the colors of fall. We did all those things and more, but none bring a smile to my face or a laugh to my heart that comes close to the joy of those memories of Uncle at the Kedron Valley Inn.
“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?