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Break on Through

Posted by cdonegal on November 28, 2012 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (0)

He awoke gradually, swimming to the surface of consciousness and toward the sound of a tractor harrowing the asparagus field. As the fog cleared, he realized that tractor in his dream was the growl of the AmStaff sleeping at the foot of his bed.

As he became fully conscious, the terrier’s growl broke into an enraged bark, allowing the doctor to experience spontaneous momentary levitation.

The dog scrambled to his feet, and leaped to the floor. He ran snarling and barking the bedroom door, at which he uncharacteristically began to scrabble.

“What’s the matter, Max? What is it, boy?"

The dog ignored him, staring intently at the door. In the dull moonlight, David Amalfi could see the hackles standing on his dog’s back. At about the same time he heard the muffled staccato pounding on his front door.

The terrier glanced repeatedly at the doctor, impatiently lifting one foot after the other as if standing on a hot surface.

Dr. Amalfi slipped on his robe as he headed for the bedroom door. Scanning the floor, he could see only one slipper, but the urgent pounding dissuaded him from looking for the other.

Max raced ahead as they descended the stairs, and stood before the door, barking wildly.

“Easy, Max. It’s okay. I’m here.”

 “It’s okay, boy.”

 “Dr. Amalfi!” shouted an adolescent voice from the other side. “Doctor Amalfi, please!”

Amalfi opened the door to the wide-eyed panicky face of Danny Bourne, a boy who had grown up next door. The pale teenager had a swollen lip, his nose looked broken and one of his eyes was almost shut, with a bloody lump over the eyebrow.

“Danny, what happened?” said the doctor, trying to guide the boy into the house.

“It’s mom!” the boy said, pulling away. “You’ve gotta come quick!”

The boy’s voice was thin and reedy; it sounded almost distant as the boy alternated glancing at Amalfi and back into the darkness.

Max, who most often was trying to burrow his nose into the Teddy’s pockets for one of the dog biscuits usually kept there as treats for him, instead took a step back and his hackles went up again. He backed away from the panicky boy and growled deep in his throat.

“What’s the matter with her?” the doctor asked, looking from Danny to his dog that was slowly backing away with a low growl deep in his throat.

“We had a car crash and she’s not moving! Please, Doctor Amalfi! You’ve gotta come now! ”

Looking at the boy’s terrified face, the doctor grabbed his medical bag from beside the door and quickly slipped barefoot into the cold night. The frosted grass crunched beneath his feet.

“Where?” he asked.

“At the corner,” said the boy pulling the doctor by the hand, “Come on!”

The boy’s hand felt like ice. Doctor Amalfi thought that he seemed so much younger in his fear than he did when he swaggered by the house with Amie, a neighbor the thirteen-year-old was trying to impress. Noticing how cold Danny’s hand felt, he worried fleetingly about shock.

As Danny outdistanced the doctor in the darkness, Amalfi almost lost sight of the thin youngster, several times. When he saw the car, his anxiety ratcheted up several notches. It didn’t look good. The trunk of the car was pointed at the air, like a duck with its head under water. The front end was crumpled against rocks that lined the drainage ditch beside the road.

“What happened?” he yelled to the boy who was leaning into the car.

“We were coming home from Gramma’s and mom was having trouble staying awake. We were singing with a CD trying to keep her awake, but her head kept jerking forward. I think she fell asleep anyway.”

“When we got close to the corner, the car started going faster instead of slowing down. I looked at Mom and she was asleep. So I yelled and grabbed the wheel, but we didn’t make the turn. I looked up and saw the tree like it was growing out of our hood and then…..”

Amalfi glanced quickly at the tree, an angry gash where the car had apparently scraped its bark away before bouncing into the ditch.

The boy stopped talking as Amalfi raced to the driver’s side of the car, where Mary Burns, Danny’s mother and his long-time neighbor and friend lay with her head on one shoulder, the deflated airbag crumpled in her lap.

Putting his fingers to her throat, he felt for a pulse.

“She’s alive! Go to the Martins’ house and call 911,” Amalfi shouted to the boy. “Hurry.”

He called her name and gingerly began trying to assess the woman’s condition. When Danny didn’t respond and he didn’t hear the sound of running feet, Amalfi called to him again.

“Danny? Go call 911!”

Still no answer.

“Danny…?” As the doctor raised his eyes to look for the youngster, he saw a passenger in the shotgun seat. The rest of the sentence went unspoken, as the doctor’s eyes adjusted to the dark and he could see that the passenger’s from the angle of the head that the neck appeared broken. His slender young friend, pale and unbreathing, still firmly buckled into his seatbelt.

From "Falls the Shadow," (c) 2012 Craig Lancto 

Falls the Shadow

Posted by cdonegal on November 23, 2012 at 9:15 AM Comments comments (0)

 

Albert looked at the hands resting limply in his lap, wrinkled hands with bulging veins, as if worms slept under his skin. Old hands. Tired hands. Hands without hope.

His hands.

He stared with unfocused eyes into the distance and blew out an exasperated breath. “Is this really it? Is this really all there is?”

More than from dark to dark, from before dawn until well after dark he works.

He likes his work. It makes him happy, gives him a sense of purpose and accomplishment. He is productive and he provides well for his family.

Well, “did.” Past tense. But the boys are grown and have their own families and Albert has become an afterthought who gets perfunctory calls on Father’s Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Usually. Unless the kids are busy with their own families and forget.

He gave his life for those boys, happily sacrificing to make them happy, to give them every chance of success, and it worked; they were far more successful than he. They worked less and made a lot more money. Their children were happy … and spoiled. He sighed again and wished that he knew them better, had a chance to spoil them himself.

And then he learned that he was being replaced, replaced by a 25-year-old with the ink still wet on her masters in communications. “Fresh ideas and expertise in social media,” my Aunt Annie’s fanny. Cheap replacement is what she is, a scab replacing someone who wasn’t even on strike.

Gotta love the irony of calling it a “right to work” state, when what it it means is the right for employers to hire cheap replacements, putting you out of work. The irony is Orwellian.

And now, Dee is leaving.

It isn’t bad enough that he spent his life working to give the boys everything he could, but he actually believed that he and Dee had a good marriage. They never argued; they enjoyed going out together; they laughed and acted silly together. You don’t act silly with people you don’t love—or like, at least.

Dee says that he is not exciting anymore.

“Exciting.”

He never was exciting, and they both knew it, so what, after all these years is different?

Brenan is different.

Brenan has a sports car and a Harley and he sails and makes her “feel young again.”

Brenan.

“He’s-just-a-good-friend-at-the-office” Brenan who only asked her to go for a ride in his new sports car because he knew she loves them.

And the next ride was because they had such fun the first time they just wanted to go out for a drink.

Nothing had changed except Brenan, and Albert just felt too old to start over. Certainly too old to be alone. And too alone to want to start over.

He wished her well.

Really.

He couldn’t work up any resentment because he really likes her. Of course he loves her, in his own way, but he really likes her too. He likes to look at her and sit next to her, even if they were just reading. She made him—comfortable and content.

So much for comfortable.

And content.

But she is happy and they still haven’t had an argument really. She said they had to talk; he asked when she was leaving. She said next month and they both kind of nodded like New England farmers talking about the weather.

“Might rain.”

“Might.

“Might not.”

“No,”

“Crops need it though.”

“Ayuh.”

But inside he was dying. No need for her to know, though. She had made her decision; making her feel bad about it wouldn’t help anything; it would just make her feel bad, and he’d still be dying inside. No one wins.

Brenan on the other hand…. Albert wouldn’t mind if a truck ran off an overpass and landed on Brenan’s convertible. When Dee wasn’t in it, though. God he loved her. Not like the passionate love of thirty years ago, but the love that makes your heart smile and skip a little when she walks into the room. Maybe that’s real love, but love on a one-way street is definitely not the love that sonnets are written about.

Brenan could be in it. Actually, if not, then there’s no reason to wreck the convertible. Albert actually likes convertibles, so if Brenan weren’t in it….

So, what should he do?

He knew.

Before he asked the question, he knew.

The boys wouldn’t miss him. Dee obviously wouldn’t miss him, although she would feel bad…probably.

No, there was no doubt. She didn’t wish him ill any more than he did her. She only wanted someone more exciting. Someone more than comfortable and happy.

He knew what to do, but not how.

Drowning would be hard. All that choking and panic, even if you want it to happen, that is not the way to go.

Drawing a blade across his wrist, an intentional terminal paper cut. No, that is not the way to go.

Poison? It would probably taste worse than cough syrup, and that is a fate worse than….Did he have the guts to swallow it? Or not to call 911 after he did it? That would be pathetic, a pathetic cry for help. He really hated pathetic.

A gun? He couldn’t see that happening. He is too spastic to be sure that he will do it right first time and sticking the damn thing in his mouth would make him gag. Then he’d throw up the poison.

Albert laughed at the thought. “Oh, that’s good,” he said aloud. “Laughing at the thought of screwing up your own suicide. That is the sign of a truly deranged mind.”

He laughed again. “As if trying to figure out the best way for a coward to kill himself is the sign of a healthy mind.”

Hanging. Hmmm. Maybe he’d have an… . Never mind. Anyway, don’t people soil themselves when they do that? He’d die of embarrassment? Another laugh burped between his lips.

He could wrap a sheet around his head and run, screaming, at the White House and let somebody else take care of it. So un-PC and so unfair to Arabs.

The truth is that, although he is not afraid of dying, he’d rather not be there when it happens.

He fell asleep contemplating the least offensive way to seek “that undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

He awoke as listless as the night before and decided to go for certainty.

“If I slap a noose around my neck and then swallow some poison before I step out into air, I won’t be able to cal 911 or have second thoughts. It is the right thing to do and the right way to do it. The boys won’t care one way or the other, at least not after the first few minutes when they think, Dad killed himself? That sucks.”

He wished that they wouldn’t use that expression.

Maybe he could….It wouldn’t be so bad if he went to the cliff that overlooks the beach where he and Dee had spent so many evenings walking barefoot in the sand.

When he thought they were happy.

When he thought that happy was good.

Or at least good enough.

Before she needed someone exciting.

If he did it as the sun was going down, he could savor the symbolism and smell the sea air and see the sky splashed with color as he put the lights out. Maybe have a good cry at losing her. He hadn’t done that yet. He wouldn’t cry unless he were about to kill himself; he’d feel weak. But if you can’t have a good cry while you go for a space walk with a rope around your neck, what’s a heaven for?

Sorry Robert. I guess that is not the reach you meant.



Dee scuffed through the sand feeling the tickle-itch of taking off her shoes for the first time of the day. Tender feet; it was the first time this season.

“I love it here,” Dee said, hugging herself as she looked out over the sea.

“I love the smell of the salt air and watching the sun slip into the sea. I love the flash of orange sky just before the darkness settles in. That last blast of color before the sun packed it in for the night.”

She didn’t mention that the thought of Albert was casting a shadow over her enjoyment.

She shivered as she sensed a shadow.



Albert’s eyes started to leak as he pulled the rope out of the trunk. Rat poison in Gatorade seemed like a brilliant idea…as long as it wasn’t too diluted to do its work.

“Maybe I should pour it in the porches of mine ear,” Albert said aloud, startled by his voice in the sea breeze. And still stuck on his appreciation for Shakespeare. That guy knew how to write.

He understood people.

He understood death.

And indecision.

So much learning. So much knowledge. All about to flicker out (“Out, brief candle”;)

“The rest is silence.”

If no one else did, Albert appreciated his literary allusions.

No one else did.

If anyone else did, he probably wouldn’t be here.

But he is.

He looped the rope around his neck and threw the other end over the sturdy limb of the scrub pine at the top of the cliff.

He tied off the rope and pulled the Gatorade out of the belt pack he carried it in. Not as nerdy as a fanny pack, but a close second he thought as he twisted the cap off the plastic bottle.

He closed his eyes, held his breath and slugged it in one go. Drinking it that way reminded him of all the times he’d had to prep for colonoscopy. In a way….

Tossing the bottle aside, (It’s not littering; they’ll collect it for evidence.) he swung off from the cliff into airy nothingness…and knew immediately why he didn’t get that merit badge in knot-tying. He felt the rope slip and knew that the knot was giving away. The rope constricted his throat and he felt his gorge rise as his legs Wile E. Coyoted in the air. In free fall, he knew he was going to vomit…and he did, as he turned face downward and saw the couple walking below him.

“That looks like….”



“Dee Hanson. She was dead before she hit the ground,” said the detective as he shook sand out of his tasseled loafer. “He landed right on her face. She must have looked up just before he hit.” He felt an inappropriate giggle burbling up at the image.

“Broke her neck,” his partner said, shaking his head, “after vomiting on her and before she butted him in the gut when he landed on her.”

He began to smile in spite of himself. How screwed up could one suicide get?

“Yeah, his neck is still raw from the rope, but that was one lucky bastard.”

They looked at each other and burst into laughter that grew into belly laughs at the absurdity.

“Of all the freak accidents…”

As their laughter subsided, they regained control and settled their faces back into the usual masks of professional boredom.

A few deep breaths and …

“Well, we’d better notify her husband.”

 

Title story from Falls the Shadow, © 2012 Craig Lancto

 

All Fall Down

Posted by cdonegal on November 22, 2012 at 12:40 AM Comments comments (0)

Guadalupe Léon was tending her wilted garden—sparse growth of stringy plants struggling through baked earth—when she saw a gaunt figure trudging toward her along the dusty road. The road hardly merited the name. It was more of a trail, really, a pair of footpaths that accommodated the rare vehicle, usually a cart but even an occasional turista in a fancy motor vehicle in quest of ancient ruins.

She wiped the sweat from the crumpled brown bag of her face and squinted at the approaching stranger before returning to her work, chopping at the flinty ground that reluctantly yielded up stunted vegetables for her table.

She rationed the water from her rusting coffee can among the feeble seedlings in the parched earth from which she prodded and coaxed the meager vegetables that added nutrition to her constant diet of rice and tortillas. She subsisted largely on soups, the most forgiving of foods because she could include beans, wild greens and roots to eke out her meager crops. But soups meant water, and water meant trudging to the trickle of a stream, lugging the large bucket that felt as if it weighed as much as Lupe, or making more frequent trips with a smaller container such as the coffee can, a deteriorated souvenir of a visit from her sister Marta when she had made a triumphal return from her relatively affluent life as a chamber maid in America.

Lupe shielded her eyes as she descried a figure, shimmering in the waves of heat radiating from the sun-baked earth, slowly making his way toward her. She thought of her sister and wondered how their ancient mother was faring. When Marta last wrote, the old woman was frail and in ill health.

Lupe did not doubt that taking her to America was best for her mother, but she missed her, and the distance was so much greater than the miles.

As the scarecrow under a battered straw hat drew closer, Lupe recognized him as Tomas, her closest neighbor. He rarely walked the three kilometers or so or more to see her, but occasionally he brought her something that awaited her in the small store that served as the local post office.

Tomas grinned as he grew closer, a lone tooth catching on his cracked lips. He greeted her warmly.

“Buenas dias, Senora,” he said with the slightest bow in her direction.

Since Luis had died, she knew that Tomas saw a glimmer of hope that his old friend’s old wife might become more than his old friend’s widow. But, although she genuinely liked the older man, she remained unimpressed by the gold tooth that stood out so prominently among the row of rotten stumps that lined his black and receding gums.

She braced her lower back with one hand and slowly ratcheted herself into an upright position as she dribbled the last of her water onto her struggling plants.

“Buenas dias, Tomas,” she answered with a hesitant smile.

“You had a package in town,” he said. “From your rich sister in America, I believe.”

Lupe reached for the package he extended, its writing as much a mystery to her as to Tomas, but she recognized the labored script that marked letters and packages from her sister.

“Gracias, Tomas,” she returned sincerely, “but you should not have walked all this way in such heat.”

“It was my great honor, Senora,” he said with another shadow of a bow. For knowing her all his life, Tomas was still somewhat in awe of the old widow he remembered as the most beautiful girl within twenty kilometers, pretty much the extent of his world.

“Would you like a cold drink, Tomas?”

“If it is no great trouble, Senora, I would be grateful for something cool.”

“Rest here under the tree and I will fetch some water.”

Guadalupe turned and walked more briskly than her protesting bones would like toward the small stream that provided her only source of water. She knew that Tomas would be watching her, and even if she was not interested in him, she liked knowing that he found her attractive.

Tomas stretched out in the scant shade provided by the scrubby tree next to Lupe’s garden and covertly watched her under the broken brim of his hat as she strode toward the stream. Perhaps he should have offered to accompany her, but the long walk had been tiring in such heat.

He must have dozed because he was suddenly aware that Guadalupe was saying something to him. His conscious mind merged with a very pleasant dream in which she was saying sweet nothings, but as he swam toward the surface of wakefulness, he realized that she was standing in front of him holding a metal cup.

“Your water, Tomas,” she said smiling.

”I am sorry, Senora. I was…deep in thought.”

They locked eyes and both laughed quietly at the thin lie.

“Have you received something wonderful from your sister?” he asked.

“Oh, I have not yet had a chance to look,” she said. “Come, we will see what she has sent.”

The old pair walked slowly toward her hovel, the dirt floor meticulously neat, and he sat at one of the two painted chairs at the battered wooden table, while Lupe examined the package.

Wrapped in brown paper, the package was the size of a large baby’s head and not especially heavy. Accepting the knife that Tomas constantly wore on the rope that kept his ragged trousers from tripping him, Lupe cut through the outer wrapping and encountered—more paper. The inner wrap was waxier, almost like the butcher paper, which Guadalupe had seen on one of her exciting excursions to the city as a young woman. It bore additional writing, no less mysterious to Lupe and Tomas than the address itself had been.

She asked Tomas to cut away the rest of the wrapping and found herself staring at a cardboard box with yet more indecipherable markings.

Inside the box, she found a sealed tin with writing that included what she recognized as the name of her mother.

“It is a gift from my mother!” she exclaimed happily. Tomas looked quizzically from the container to Lupe’s glowing face.

With a gesture, his friend extended the package to him and said, “Please?” Tomas prized open the container and they both peered curiously into what seemed to be a box of cocoa, although it certainly was more gray than the rich cocoa color to which they were accustomed.

“What is it?” asked Tomas, mystified.

“I don’t know,” said Lupe, examining the container from all sides. “From time to time Marta sends me small American treats, but usually the package shows a picture of what is inside.”

“My favorite is small packets with a picture of a glass pitcher on the front. It makes water wonderful with fruit flavors. Well, almost like fruit, but more like that which has been kept a little too long to taste really fresh. When I have sugar cane the drink is sweet and very delicious.”

“Sometimes she sends me packets with pictures of different kinds of soups, and when I add them to hot water, they make the most delicious meals.”

“Perhaps this is such a powder?” suggested Tomas, hoping that he would be invited to try one of these tasty North American delicacies.

“I suppose we could boil some water and see what happens,” returned Guadalupe, sniffing at the contents. “Most powders mix better in hot water, and if it seems something that would be better cold, we can just let it cool and try it later.” Truth be told, this box did not exude any of the usual exciting scents of drink mixes or even soups. It smelled earthier, more like dried mushrooms, perhaps.

Tomas shrugged noncommittally, but he was pleased at the “we.”

He studied the box while Guadalupe went to the stream for more water, but it yielded up no more secrets no matter how intensely or from what angle he looked at it. He too sniffed gingerly at the contents, but to no more avail than his friend.

While Guadalupe stoked the fire and boiled water, the two shared the limited gossip of such a remote area. When the water was ready, Lupe measured a few teaspoons of the coarse powder into two cups of steaming water. She could detect no distinct smell, although it had a distinctly earthy scent. A tentative sip was not encouraging.

The mixture looked pale, she thought, deciding to add more to see if she could recognize what it is. Her mother would certainly not have sent it if it wasn’t something special.

When the mixture had darkened, she decided that it must be ready. The earthy smell was stronger, but the scent revealed nothing. She still wasn’t certain whether it was a powdered drink or soup or something even more exotic.

Tomas sipped from the cup Guadalupe offered him and pulled a face.

“This is…not familiar,” he said thoughtfully.

“No,” Lupe agreed, trying her own. “It is not very pleasant.”

“No,” said Tomas. “It is not.”

“I must think about how else to use it.”

Tomas left without finishing his drink. As much as Guadalupe tried— in honor of her mother—she could not do so either, but rather than waste the precious fluids, she poured them on the parched plants in her garden and returned the mystery box to a shelf.

Over the next week or so, Guadalupe tried adding the mixture to other dishes, but found that it added nothing. In truth, it left a heavy, unpleasant taste.

Sweeping out her shack one day, she again saw a figure coming toward her from a distance, but he seemed to be traveling faster than someone walking. As he approached, Lupe saw that he was wobbling along on an ancient bicycle with fat balloon tires and white walls that had looked as if they had chipped away in spots. She saw that it was the boy who sometimes helped the old man who ran the store in town.

When he arrived, he allowed his bicycle to drop on the parched ground puffing up sprays of dust.

In his hand he held letter.

“Good morning, Senora,” he said. “Sr. DeSilva said that I was to bring you this letter—that it is muy importante,” the boy added gravely.

Although she could not read the letter she stared at the words, the boy as curious—and illiterate as she.

Had she been able to read the letter, the mystery would still not have been revealed because, although she would understand “Mama,” the word “cremains” would have held no meaning for her.

From "Falls the Shadow" (c) 2012 Craig Lancto

Among Strangers

Posted by cdonegal on November 20, 2012 at 5:10 PM Comments comments (1)

Ben hurried into the auditorium for his history final. He had skipped too many classes and too many readings, but the professor had personally reviewed what would be on the exam. With Professor Kaplan, seeing the man himself instead of a teaching assistant was like seeing Halley’s Comet. For Ben, this exam was living the dream...the one in which he takes an exam for which he hasn’t studied or attended lectures. In his underwear.

Ben loathed these lecture classes where the professor makes a guest appearance once or twice a semester while nerdy teaching assistants drone through the lecture notes. More than once he had thought that the least a full professor—even one as obnoxious and arrogant as Kaplan—could do would be to record the classes one time so they could have the benefit of the expertise he is paid for instead of getting the second string. Then students could record the recording and everyone could stay home.

He looked around the room, recognizing almost no one. With hundreds of college students in an auditorium it’s hard to really get to know anyone, especially when you show up only on the days when you are not hung over.

For Ben, though, that was not the case. He had to work to pay expenses not covered by his veteran’s benefits: food, rent, diapers. It was never his plan to have a baby, but when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant, he had no choice. She was vehemently as opposed to motherhood, as he is to abortion, so they compromised. She carried the baby to term, but his religious beliefs didn’t mean that she had to hang around. And she didn’t.

Ben was okay with that. He would prefer that his son have two parents, but he was absurdly proud of the little guy and madly in love with him. Ben figured that one doting parent is better than two, when one of them resents the baby. Bette did not waste time arguing the point.

Ben knew that getting a college degree meant not only a better job, but also a better life for him and for Michael. He was determined to do whatever it takes to give Michael the best life he possibly could. And even though he had had a week or so when Michael had kept him awake crying all night with a deadly combination of colic and his first tooth coming in and sleep was just a pipe dream, he had found a new and profound satisfaction in simply holding and caring for his baby, flesh of his flesh. He found Michael amazing, and when he stared into his son’s deep blue eyes so like his own, he felt as if he were falling into them. Michael’s giggle suggested that even he felt something similar, a deep connection to the man he knew loved him.

Ben was smiling to himself at the thought of his son, but his reverie was broken when teaching assistants began passing out blue books, and Ben quickly read through his study notes one more time. He was pretty sure that he had it now. Even if he had cruised through the semester, he had done some serious studying for the past week and believed that he knew the material cold. He was ready.

As the teaching assistants began passing out the exam, Professor Kaplan used the microphone:

“All right, everyone, we are passing out the exams, so you will need to stop talking and clear everything off your desks except blue books and test questions.

“This is a timed test, so leave your questions face down until we tell you to begin.

“You will have exactly two hours to complete the exam. At the end of that time, we will tell you to stop writing and to place the test questions inside your blue books, and to pass them to the end of the row.

“Do not leave your seats until all test booklets have been collected.”

When the assistants had finished passing out the tests, Kaplan made a great show of studying his Rolex before announcing, “And… begin.”

Ben wrote furiously. Studying had paid off. He was elated to realize that not only did he know the answers, but he also was able to elaborate on them at length.

He looked around and saw that many of the other students were staring into space for the answers, or gnawing worriedly at their pencils. He was giddy with pleasure that he was doing so well.

But when Kaplan announced that ten minutes remained, Ben realized, to his horror, that he had written so much that he was only two-thirds of the way through the exam. And although he didn’t know Kaplan well, he knew him well enough to know that he considered students an impediment to his writing and tennis. His contempt for undergraduates was renowned. And Ben, who had returned to college after four years of military service, was considered worse because he was not a traditional student who was easily bullied. Fortunately attending a college near a large army base meant that he was one of a number of veterans taking the required course.

Ben heard some students toss their pencils down as they felt the end of the time approach. When Kaplan told them to put down their pencils, Ben tried furiously to finish one more answer.

The professor’s eye found him.

“I said ‘time.’ Now. Put down your pencil.”

Ben scrawled the rest of his sentence and put down his pencil.

“Place your test questions inside your blue book. Be sure your name is on the cover of each of the bluebooks you have used—and pass your tests to the center aisle,…except the young man in the …five, six, seven, eight…tenth row.”

Ben looked up, his face flushed with shame, embarrassment and anger.

“Yes, you. You may keep yours as a reward for continuing to write past the deadline.”

“It wasn’t even a minute, Professor...” Ben protested.

“But it was a minute more than the allotted time,” Kaplan responded with a smirk. “Rules are rules. If I make an exception for you, then everyone else could just finish when he felt like it.”

For once, Ben was happy that no one knew him. He felt humiliated and frustrated. Never confident in his academic abilities, returning to college had been a difficult decision. Following through while providing for himself and his baby, more so. He didn’t need this.

He watched as the other students, many casting sidelong glances at him, passed in their books. The teaching assistants stacked them on the table in the front of the room and the students were dismissed.

Ben walked to the front of the auditorium instead of toward the exits, Professor Kaplan watching him balefully as he approached.

As he reached the table, Kaplan said, “There’s no use arguing your case. In this class I am the court of last resort. You violated my rules and you will pay the penalty.” The smirk again. Ben hated his smug satisfaction.

He gazed silently at the man, deciding how best to handle the situation. Then he drew himself up and took a deep breath.

“Professor, do you have any idea who I am?” he asked.

“No, I don’t,” Kaplan admitted, his lip actually curling with disdain. “And I am happy to say that it wouldn’t matter if you were the university president. You’d still have no recourse.”

“Good,” Ben said, swiftly thrusting his blue books into the center of the pile of test books that he sent sprawling on the floor.

He strode out of the auditorium, grinning in response to the red-faced professor’s apoplectic demands for him to return, this instant.

From Falls the Shadow, (c) 2012 Craig Lancto

From Jericho to Jerusalem

Posted by cdonegal on October 15, 2012 at 9:35 AM Comments comments (1)

“Is there significance to the fact that the parable of the Prodigal Son is the longest in the Bible?

“It is the critical and central message of Christianity.” The handsome young man responded. His youth and muscularity helped students to identify with him, some to fantasize about him—in a biblical way—and some to wish to emulate him, not necessarily as a priest, but as an affable, unpretentious and athletic role model. Who happened to be an Adonis. “

“Like the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, it is a lesson on the overarching importance of redemption. These parables are not one-dimensional stories, but profound lessons with layers of understanding directly applicable to our lives. Think on them and apply them to our contemporary world—specifically to your life—and you will have no problem with the final exam. And that’s no parable; it’s fact.”

The students laughed quietly and talked among themselves as they left Father Jankowsi’s class. It was always a favorite because he brought the bible to life, leading students to consider the parables as living things more than literature—more even than religious tracts. Without being remotely preachy, Father Jankowski led his students to look for truth and to integrate the bible’s guidance into their own lives.

They murmured about his final exam, always reportedly unique.

“He’ll probably give us a forced choice,’ said Marge, a slightly overweight young woman with a plain face and hair that appears to be chopped short at home. Her mind is second to none. “Who is more deserving in the sight of God, the tax collector or the Pharisee, the prodigal son or the faithful servant?”

“Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden; George W. Bush or George H.W Bush,” suggested the typically sardonic Adam.

“No,” Larry said. “I think he’ll do something like he did a few years ago, give each of us an imaginary $1,000 and ask us how we would safeguard it—or better, grow it—for him like the parable of the Servants and the Talents in Matthew.”

“You’re both wrong,” said Rick. “He’ll make us all strip naked as the day we are born and send us out to spend a day considering the lilies of the field.”

“You’ve been looking for an excuse to do that,” said Chris.

The group laughed.

“No. I have it!” Marge said. “He is going to make it a winner-take-all and we have to apply it to the Pearl of Great Price.”

It was a gorgeous spring day, sunny with a gentle breeze, as the students made their way to Lincoln Hall for their exam. But they found the door locked with a note that they should instead meet at the Tabard, a café on campus, at 9:30, about a half-hour away.

As they hurried across campus to the café, they talked excitedly about the meaning of meeting at a café.

“If we have to change water into wine…I ‘m just going to get drunk,” said Chuck.

“Too obvious—and blasphemous,” said Celia. “It has to be some kind of a moral dilemma; he wouldn’t expect miracles.”

“You mean, more like Coke into Pepsi or Pepsi into Coke?” Jean asked.

Their banter was silenced at the sight of a young man sprawled supine on the ground near the walkway.

“Speaking of drunk,” said Larry. “I hope he doesn’t have any exams today.”

The group laughed uneasily, and hurried on to the pub.

“You think he’s okay?” Chuck asked.

The group paused, uncertain about what to do. They’d feel silly if he was just catching a quick nap between classes, but if he were sick or hurt…

“He might be hurt.” Rick said, hesitantly.

“It looks to me as if he started celebrating end of semester a little early. Anyway, we are going to be late for Father Jankowski.”

“Well, if anybody’d understand….I’m just going to check, okay? It’ll take two secs.”

“Okaaay,” said Marge. “I’ll tell him you’re on your way.”

Rick walked to the man lying on the grass.

“Excuse me?” he said, tentatively.

“Excuse me?” slightly louder. He looked around, uncertain of whether to go further.

Around him people were scurrying to their own exams, appointments, tennis…. No one was paying any attention.

As Rick leaned closer to the man, he saw what appeared to be blood at the corner of his mouth.

He touched his shoulder. “Hey, are you okay?”

Nudging him gently, he repeated: “Hey, bud, are you all right?”

With no response, he felt panic—a sick, sweaty feeling with high blood pressure—take hold.

“Hey! Are you all right?”

He gently turned him over and the body opened one eye. He looked as if he had fallen face first out of a tree.

Rick knelt and cradled the stranger’s head in his lap. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“I got jumped,” he mumbled through broken lips. They got my wallet … and my hoodie… and just kept beating on me— and laughing.”

Rick wasn’t sure what to say.

“Is anything broken? I mean ribs or anything.”

The other man groaned and gingerly began testing parts of his body.

“I don’t think so, but. I feel like a broken maraca.”

Rick snorted a laugh. “Well, what can I do? Do you want me to call the campus police?”

“No. They’ll never find them anyway. I never really saw them. Either they had a fist in my eye or I was doubled over from a gut punch. Either way, eye contact wasn’t on my top ten list of things to do while being beaten.”

“How about the infirmary? You should probably get checked out.”

“No, but thanks. I have to get to my physics exam or I’m going to be here for another year.”

Rick looked around again. No one else seemed to notice them as they hurried on their way.

“Listen, we’re not far from The Tabard. Let me get you there; you can something to eat and drink and rest a little before your exam.”

“No, man. I appreciate it but I’m okay. When you came over I was just thinking I hurt too much to move, but when I actually did, it wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

“I’d feel better if you came to the café for something to drink at least.”

“Thanks, man. That’s cool.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Jason.”

Rick took it. “Rick. And if you can make it, we’d better get going.”

Jason winced as Rick helped him to his feet, but once they started walking, he felt himself loosen up. “At least I didn’t lose any teeth, and I should get my beauty back in a few days.”

When they reached the café, Father Jankowsi was nursing a cup of coffee at one of the window tables.

“I’m sorry I’m late, Father. I just had to… Where is everybody?”

“First things first,” said the priest. “Who is your friend?”

“Sorry, Father. This is Jason.” He turned to look. Jason was sitting slumped at a table near the rest rooms.

“Say, Father, can you just give me another minute?”

“Why not, I’ve already waited ten.”

Rick started to thank him and quickly looked again to gauge the priest’s mood.

“Thanks, Father. I’ll be right back.”

Rick strode to the counter. “Iced coffee and an apricot Danish, please.” He paid the counterman and said, “Listen, here’s another ten. If that guy—his name’s Jason—needs anything else. He doesn’t have any money with him.”

The counterman nodded and Rick carried the coffee and sweet to Justin.

Setting them on the table. He asked, "How are you feeling?” Jason lifted his head and smiled. “Fine, man. You have been great. I don’t know how to thank you.”

Rick smiled and shrugged. “Just take care of yourself, okay?”

Jason nodded.

“I know you don’t have any money or anything, so if you want another coffee or something, just tell the counter guy and he’ll take care of you.

He scribbled on a paper in his notebook. “And if you need anything, let me know. Here’s my cell number.”

Returning to the priest’s table, he sat down. “I’m really sorry I missed the exam. Is there any way I can make it up?”

Father Jankowski smiled: “You are the only one who made it.”

He nodded toward Jason, who waved in return, looking decidedly brighter. As they watched, the young seminarian stood and walked briskly toward the men’s room to wash away the stage blood..

The priest smiled and said. A certain man went down from Jericho to Jerusalem and fell among thieves…. You did well, son. I hope to see you in another of my classes.” With that Father Jankowski stood and left the café. Confused, Rick turned to where Jason had been sitting, but –except for the counterman, the place was deserted.

From Falls the Shadow, (c) 2012 Craig Lancto

I'm Afraid that I Misunderheard

Posted by cdonegal on October 12, 2012 at 10:50 AM Comments comments (0)

I Think That I  MIsunderheard,

A specious argument, at best

For if, by thinking, what must be,

Both damned we’d be and blest.

A thought a dream

A hope

A scheme

(What fools these mortals be!)

As flies to wanton boys are we

To gods

If they exist.

A dream, a thought

To be…or not

(The world is but a stage)

If we are actors, everyone

Methinks we’ve skipped a page.

Asleep

Awake

A wake

May seem

(And seamy might it be)

(I’d rather see than be in one)

Would, then, I cease to be?

I hope that we are real

(Nay, ‘tis. I know not seems)

The terror’s real from unslept dreams

Phantasm, plasma and the rest,

An ectoplasmic meal.

The spirit is willing

Is that real?

The spirit is willing

Is that all?

Life is very strange

Truest myth as real as we

(My God! Did Adam fall?)

The joke’s protracted

(if not practical)

Upon whom is it played?

We go to our beds like graves

(“Praying,” he chortled, “saves.”)

I dreamt I wrote.

I awoke

I think

(Therefore, it seems, I be.)

I be

I be…

I believe

I doubt that I believe.

I believe (I think) in God.

Please, God, believe in me.

 

From

Shape without Form, © 2012 Craig Lancto

Athena

Posted by cdonegal on October 8, 2012 at 8:55 PM Comments comments (0)

Athena

Rubber erasers slough their skin

Burnt and rubbed away,

purged like the sins of Hamlet’s ghost

burnt and abraded by

the gyroscope of intellect.

Immolating themselves

moths

to the brighter light

of brighter lights

of men

of letters.

Pencils shed their gray philosophy

Scratching ignorance from

the blank dull face

of college-ruled.

Etching a thought-map,

Exploring new territory,

Shaping the terrain,

A narrowing spiral of

symbiotic stimulation

The writer looks up

Startled at

(The mirage of) an insight spring

Overflowing the surface

With revelations

Sprung full-blown, intellectual Athena from the writer’s brow

Skating slender tracks across the page

on delicate sapient skates

Addictive lines of

Thought

The writer, stunned

to learn what he thinks.

Perplexed at the source

of unsought,

unsuspected thoughts

Bewildered by untapped conceits

lurking behind his eyes

Bemused,

he gazes at the hand

that shaped the thoughts

his mind had shaped

the hand, innocently inert

its work is done

He is dumb

At his brilliance

Awed at the clumsy grace

Of this fleshy extension of his thoughts

Translator of the electronic impulses in his brain

He traces the words to their origin

Up the arm and past his elbow

Above his shoulder

But he disagrees, he sees.

He sees that he doesn’t think

what he thought he thinks

and he is afraid.

He knows.

He understands.

The arm is the medium

Communicating with

his unthought thoughts,

Beyond the recesses of

his consciousness.

Another eraser bites

the dust.

Creates

the dust

from dusty

pages,

rough and worn.

Another pencil dies a hero’s death,

worn down in the service of

inspiration

The point honed in argument

is lost,

Dulled by ignorance,

shined to brightness

Dullness defeated

in the unexpected quest

for clarity

and truth.

And rubber erasers slough their skin

In noble sacrifice.

From

Shape without Form, © 2012 Craig Lancto

For Matthew

Posted by cdonegal on October 7, 2012 at 8:35 AM Comments comments (0)

For Matthew

Death

A raindrop in the ocean

(Though mine, to be specific, is not pacific)

Rain.

Is this real?

Loved ones gather

(Petals fold, comforting the bud.)

In protection

Rituals done

(Petals open)

Loved ones disperse

Band-aid ripped from raw flesh

Unprotected

Naked and vulnerable

Tongue seeking extracted tooth

Phantom ache, bone deep

It’s so hard when they go

Young

Stone hole in the ocean

Concentric grief rings expanding in salt pools

Word formulas leap to tongue

(When does feeling return?)

Sympathy drips

Drools, oozes

(When does pain become normal?)

Damn the rain

The cold

The cold rain

It is a cold drive home.

It is a cold home.

Headlights spotlight conifers

Lining the lane

bowing in curtain call of silent grief

Unable to leave

Evergreens and ungreens bowing in the wind

In silent witness

A mocking honor guard

Sighing in the wind

Whispering grief

Closing ranks

Like petals folding in evening dew

Boughs sighing, tires hissing,

Nature grieving

for another leaving

Sucked into

A nightmare vortex

In and down

Mouth agape

silent scream

Arms outstretched in supplication

And terror

And fruitless hope

Or one

Or both

Or not

It matters

Not

In this hollow echoing soullessness

This empty soul, resonating with despair.

A body

disembodied

bewildered

and sensibly insensible

to pain.

Pins pricking in belly

Gorge rising

Aching to awake

Aching from a wake

Plinking a stonehole in grief’s pond

Tossed by the mighty hand of a

Petulant

Boy-god

In bleak whimsy.

The pond can’t resist

The stone falls through

The hole

falls through

in silent rings

filled

but not the same

patched

with a surrogate soul

patched

with hidden patches

Ripples spread

Across the water

Unseen on the benighted shore

Lightly touching

Souls insensible

Spreading ripples of silent sadness

(Pocked by rain in silent madness)

Rain

Why does it always rain?

From

Shape without Form, © 2012 Craig Lancto

The Juniper Brotherhood

Posted by cdonegal on October 6, 2012 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

The Juniper Brotherhood

This is false fire, stoked with gin,

Burning to ashes the secrets within

Earnest tongues flicking, souls being bared.

Sharing fearful hopes with one who never cared.

The ashtrays are clean.

 

Truth of ages, conspiratorial tones

Eyes blurred, confessions intense

Unwonted, unwanted,

Lowered defense:

The ashtrays are dirty.

 

We are the juniper brotherhood.

A boor within us charges

To be heard

It must be heard

(It must be said.)

The ashtrays are full.

 

And then the dawn.

And then…

the dawn.

 

Too many cigarettes

Too much gin

Too many opinions loudly adduced

Unneeded and

Unheeded and

Unasked.

The ashtrays need cleaning.

 

Headache

Drowned doubts revived.

Stomach sick as heart

Pride (Aroint thee that inhibits)

Privacy (emotions on exhibit)

Rape (I’ve done it to myself)

I…

My mind…

Is stale cigarettes.

 

From

Shape without Form, © 2012 Craig Lancto

Electrified Fencing

Posted by cdonegal on October 5, 2012 at 11:30 AM Comments comments (0)

Electrified Fencing

Mind games in deadly earnest

Sumo wrestlers of quip

Tentative touching

Of minds

Icy fingers on the brain’s genitalia

Laughing touchés

Touches pas.

Guard the barriers

Scale the fence

Touch me and you die.

Reach out

Wearing rubber gloves

(Guffaw)

You came

too close.

Honesty

Candor

(psychic pests)

Tell me who you are.

Let me know your mind.

(Show me yours; I’ll show you mine.)

Let me know you’re mine.

Lobsters

Crabs

(the hermit type)

Scurrying

from truth

with open claws.

From

Shape without Form, © 2012 Craig Lancto


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