Friday, April 24, 2009

Hoarse Swap

Swap meets have been my favorite semi-annual event since I discovered them as a teenager. Upon entry at the gate, where you fork over a few dollars to get a car full of people in, you are greeted, overwhelmed, by the scents and sounds. Hickory smoke (headache, yes, but still sweet), crowing roosters, funnel cakes, clucking guinea fowl, hamburger stands, honking geese (and cars), bustling shoppers (some who occasionally spit or cuss), traders, barkers--

Barkers. A barker is a salesperson whose methodology includes talking proficiently, talking for a long time, and talking pleasantly to passersby, proclaiming the goods to be sold and their virtuous properties. I observed some barking, then picked it up. It really works. When you engage people, you are at least ten times more likely to snag a sale.

This swap meet I was handicapped severely: I had come down with laryngitis. If I tried really hard I could occasionally force an audible whisper, which would use up all my vocal powers for the next half hour.

This swap meet was different in another way: I was moving to a less rural area, and I had to find a home for my dog. He was a farm dog, rough and ready, large and active, and a small home or a caged life was just not acceptable for him. I had to find a farmer who'd let him run with the cattle and sleep in the barn.

I put up signs on the back of the SUV explaining why I was giving away the dog. Many passersby oohed and ahhed over the dog, especially when he did a trick that he'd taught himself: he sat beside me and rested his paw on my hand.

"Aww," they'd say, "they're holding hands."

I'd smile and nod, unable to say anything.

As the day wore on and lunchtime came and went (I gave the dog half my string cheese), I decided to take him for a walk and see if I could find anyone who'd make a good candidate. I attached a sign to his back that read FREE and set out walking, with this beautiful, flashy, black and white dog tugging at the leash. I knew it would be hard to let him go, but I reminded myself of the story of how Moses' mother put her baby into a basket, and how it was for the best, and I pressed on.

Some of the people I passed had also seen him holding hands with me, and evidently had not read the sign explaining why I needed to give him a new home. All they saw was a person giving away a loving animal, and their eyes said traitor. Some of those people actually hated me, and I wondered why they thought they had any right to judge me. I couldn't have spoken up for myself if I tried, so I ignored them and pressed on.

I paused to look at some handmade wooden puzzles. I felt sorry for the man, retired and supplementing his income by making them. If I have time when I get back to the car, I may return and buy one, I thought. All of a sudden many people were frowning and growling at me. I turned to see the dog, nervous from the long car ride, relieving himself in the middle of the gravelled walkway. If I'd had on my person the wherewithal to clean it up, I would have. And if I'd known he was going to do that, I would have moved him to a better place. But neither were the case, so I walked onward, followed by many a hateful stare.

After all the aisles, after all the hate, after all the people who were sympathetic but unable to help, at the head of the last aisle my feet were turning towards the car, and my weariness became insistent. Yet somehow, intuitively, I said out loud, "If I don't go down this aisle, I'll never find him a home." I pressed on.

The aisle I hadn't wanted to go down was sparsely populated with people who had little or nothing to sell. I preferred main paths to little out-of-the-way ones as a matter of policy. I traveled all the way down one side of it and halfway back up the other side, where sat a kindly looking man in the back of a pickup truck, who hollered out to me, "Come here!"

I smiled and brought the dog over. His young grandson looked pleased. I liked the man, and I liked the child.

"Do you raise those?" he asked.

"I used to," I said in a preciously forced whisper.

He petted the dog. "I've been wanting a pup sometime. He's a fine dog. I was going to get your number and ask for a pup out of him."

The "free" sign had slipped. When the farmer petted the dog his hand discovered it. He lit up with gladness.

"You're giving him away?"

"I'm moving," I whispered. "He needs a larger place to live."

"May I have him?"

I nodded, smiled, handed him some vet records, and watched as they loaded him into a cage in the truck. Silently I thanked God, and gladly I went home to nurse the headache that was fast approaching from the smell of hickory smoke.

Writer's Block

"That coffee was cold!"

The ceiling reverberated. Newspapers flew in a circle, split apart, and floated downward in separate sheets onto the matted rust colored carpeting.

"Don't you know it isn't polite to throw things?" said Angie.

"What isn't polite is to throw hard things, like this paperweight, at people, or windows, or other living things," said Mr. Morgan thoughtfully. "To throw something soft and harmless is not wrong, so long as it hits no one."

"Perhaps so," replied Angie, "but there are now newspapers all over my side of the office. Can you guess who's going to pick them up?"

A voice near the doorway startled her. "I am!"

The youth proceeded to collect the papers, and carted them off like he'd just found a treasure.

"He uses them to cover the mahogany table when he paints those confounded models of his," Morgan explained. Calmly he returned to his papers.

"Ms. Mark," he said without looking up, "do you think you could find me a genuinely hot cup of coffee?"

"And since when does renting three and a half rooms from you make me your housekeeper?" she queried.

"It doesn't," he replied. "I was only inquiring. I would rather buy it from you than lose the time it takes to walk to the Sun Deer."

Angie considered a moment. "If it's all the same," she said, "though it's tempting to take advantage of your lack of time and make a few dollars, I'll decline. It would be good exercise to walk, and might inspire you to heights of still more colorful and creative work."

Still looking down and still writing, with his left hand he displayed a fan of five one hundred dollar bills.

"A cup of coffee, please, Ms. Mark," he said.

"Sorry," she replied, "no deal."

Morgan looked up. A glimmer of smile played on his lips.

"I'll walk," he began, "if..."


"...if you will come with me. My treat."

Angie thought a moment. "I'll go, if..."

"If?" he frowned.

"If Toby comes with us."

"Twelve year olds don't drink coffee..." began Morgan.

"This one does!" hollered a voice down the hall. "The lady at Sun Deer puts chocolate in mine, and lots of cream!"

"He's got my creativity," Morgan muttered, straightening his desk and grabbing his hat and cane, "but he bears his late mother's affinity for chocolate."

Author's note: The story is actually about an author's struggle with himself. His reasoning mind (Angie) struggles with his passionate mind (Morgan) while his inner child (Toby) picks up the pieces and/or tries to entertain himself.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Roar in the Night

She was eleven, very imaginative, and very much into books. One particular historical biographical series told a bit of a tale about mountain lions, and described their unsettling screams in the night as they looked down out of trees on unwary passersby.

Autumn came, and the daylight shortened. Now she needed a flashlight to go out and feed the chickens. And normally this was fine, except that by now the mental images and horrific sounds described in the book made her tremble at what might be out there somewhere in a tree.

Maybe if I wave my flashlight beam in circles like a disco, she thought, whatever is probably not there will be too scared to come near. The large, sturdy lantern made a splendid light show, and she stepped towards the pen with a bucket full of chicken feed, feeling confident.

Screams ripped the air. The chicken feed flew up then down and scattered on the walkway. Trembling, she stumbled back up the way she'd come, falling several times. It had come from the large oak in the front yard.

Screams rang out again, making her hair stand up. She felt like vomiting. She fell against the front door, holding onto consciousness by sheer willpower.

Then she heard something that made her feel foolish: the last set of screams was followed by a familiar "who who who." Who knew that owls who are frightened by a lantern beam can scream to scare the daylights out of the sturdiest of hearts? Not to mention those less sturdy and more creative.

As time went by there were many screams in the night, belonging either to bobcats or to owls. She often dealt with them by imitating them and screaming back. It worked. You couldn't feel scared when you could make a bigger, badder noise than the animal was making.

Howls of coyotes were not frightening. She always felt they were her friends. She especially liked to stay out late on a moonlit night and listen to them. They were melodic, musical, sweet. She never lost a single hen or single head of livestock to them, whatever the reason, and whatever the neighbors' reports of their tenacity.

Shooting stars, once one had gotten over the surprise, were beautiful and amazing, brighter than lightning and almost as quick. Though they didn't scream they sometimes made her scream if they startled her.

One of the more frightening things was the cat. The cat was a very good mouser and a very devoted friend, but one thing she did that was almost unbearable: she'd sit atop a wooden post above six feet high, and remain there with her silently glowing eyes, looking for all the world like an owl or a mythical beast. You could walk right under her and not know she was there, and if you happened to look up the sight was initially surprising.

Now, the old timers of the region didn't help anything. They'd swap stories that were about 45 percent fictitious, about four foot high wolves and cougar tracks in their yards. Occasionally a lone rogue cougar could hypothetically come so far south from his native grounds, but it was highly unlikely. And there were no wolves in this region. Coyotes, yes, and maybe a stray dog gone wild, but definitely no wolves.

And even if there ever were a wolf, by all means you could flash your lantern at him.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Clunky Horse

B. Buck was a long legged half mustang. He had a broad, flat head, long ears (especially for a horse), and a black dorsal stripe.

He was as lazy as the day was long.

Every time I wanted him to go and would dig in my heels it did very little good. Even heavy cowboy boots did not induce him to move beyond an oddly gaited, knock-kneed walk.

Special horse shoes did not significantly improve his stride. One good thing, however, was that he rarely spooked, so a rider could feel reasonably safe from being thrown or run away with.

Being green broke when I received him, I had to introduce him to many things he hadn't seen before. He took his training well and made himself at home, but there was one thing he did that makes me laugh even today.

A tiny, six-inch-wide ditch drained water off the hill. One day I rode him up to it, and the horse promptly stopped. It was running, but as I said it was a very tiny little ditch.

"Giddy up," I said.

He acted nervous. I had never seen him like that before.

"Giddy up," I repeated, and pressed my heels into his sides.

His legs began to tremble.

"B. Buck..." I began.

With the speed and swiftness of a deer, the horse leaped over the ditch as though it were a large waterway. I was just a young person, and had never jumped a horse before (or since). That was fun.

Thanks, B. Buck, for the good jokes and your soft, velvet nose. Whereever you are, may you live in peace. If there's heaven for horses, I hope you're in it.