Perhaps you noticed, probably not, that I have not posted for a while. I think I should and then end up reading or writing (not my blog post) or painting or hiking. I’m not a blogger, and that’s okay.
My page Slow as Molasses (it’s up there in the menu somewhere) has been updated with the books I have managed to read in 2021. I have an indie book section and another for others. The weirdest book on there is The Names, and the one I liked the most is the one I’m reading now. I haven’t finished it yet so your curiosity will have to wait until the next time I update my list unless you want to leave me a comment and ask for a hint.
Do I have any pictures to post? I have not been taking many lately. Let me check my phone.
. . .
I’ve got some video of the sky and some birds singing, lots of pictures of my new used car (love it!), and the marsh at Asateague minus any horses (non-native anyway says my husband). Here we go. This is the pop-up greenhouse that blew around my yard a lot before I got serious and staked it down like a tent.
And here’s one more my husband sent me from our hike yesterday. These are Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica.
After Murphy spiraled away like smoke from a firecracker, a full minute of silence passed. In a burst of words, Anastasia and Sonia spoke simultaneously. They landed on the last two words together.
–We have to go
Both were silent for another moment before speaking their third word.
For the sake of their jobs, they agreed to tell the boss. Anastasia listened as Sonia gave Randall Sparks the rundown on finding Murphy and a warehouse full of ghosts. Sonia muttered frequent grunts of agreement.
Finally, Sonia hung up and reported. “Sparks wants us to monitor. We’re not to get within a hundred yards.”
“We were two hundred yards already. How are we supposed to get closer than that anyway?”
“Two if by land,” Sonia said.
“You have a boat?”
“My brother does.”
Sonia’s brother Richard lived in a one-level white house surrounded by a three-foot chain link fence. He was in bed when they knocked on his door and greeted them shirtless, wearing grey sweatpants, and holding a Chihuahua. He was the hairiest man Anastasia had ever seen.
Although Richard refused to loan his boat, he was talked into driving it. While Sonia and Richard proceeded to his Jethro Tull inspired boat The Whistler, Anastasia returned to the warehouse district with the van. An hour later, Sonia and Richard tied up The Whistler a block from the warehouse. Anastasia joined them.
Through binoculars, they surveilled the warehouse from the dock. The earlier activity of arriving ghosts had slowed considerably. Instead, there was a soft glow coming from the windows. The shipping end of the warehouse was guarded by two men. Sonia went out on reconnaissance while the other two waited. Upon Sonia’s return, they reported that ghost activity was heavy at the front and there was an entry point through a side window.
“There’s an open floor plan,” Sonia said. “From what I could see there was a kind of cloud. It was a concentration of ghostly matter. The ghost cloud was being sucked through a tube into a clear glass container. This container was huge, as large around as an average backyard hot tub and about five feet tall. It hung over a fire on a wire structure.
“I could not see well enough to tell for sure, but I thought there was a clear liquid inside the glass. As the ghost cloud passed through the tube into the container, a green haze separated out of it. The haze stayed in the container while the rest of the cloud continued out the side of the glass container. A worker came and uncorked the top of the container. He captured the green stuff in a clear bag. That’s when I came back.”
Sonia thought Anastasia should go back to the warehouse with them right away. Anastasia argued for caution. Obviously, something important was happening, but they had already been warned off once this night. It could be dangerous to get closer. Sonia won.
Dressed all in black, Sonia and Anastasia crept out into the night. They skirted around the guards and used a dumpster as an obstacle between them and the men. Quietly, Anastasia hoisted Sonia up onto a fire escape and then continued along the side to a ground-level window. Whispering, they communicated through headsets.
“I got this window open. I’m going in,” Sonia said.
Anastasia was about to head to a better window when Sonia buzzed in her ear.
“Get to the van. Bring it as close as you can.”
The van was two blocks away. It took her six minutes to bring the van around. With the lights out, she inched it along toward the warehouse and stopped when she could see the silhouettes of six human forms. Her heart thumped at the tripled number of guards. Men in black attire like her own were loading two cargo vans in readiness for departure.
Sonia slipped into the passenger seat.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said. “Follow them.”
“The ghosts are giving the men here information. I don’t know what the men are paying them though.”
“Only the past matters to a spirit,” Anastasia said.
“Could the payment be in memories?” Sonia thought aloud.
As Anastasia tailed the two black cargo vans to the highway, she listened to Sonia’s account of what she had seen. Sonia thought the warehouse was a rendezvous point where the ghosts gathered to drop information and get paid. Sonia also had details about what happened to the ghost haze once it was captured in a bag.
“It gets fed through this accordion box thing, the size of a window air conditioner.”
Sonia drew the box with her hands. “It filters information and sends the data to two huge monitors. One of the screens is a map of Boston. It had dots all over it but mostly in Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and Charlestown. The other screen was for lists of jewelry, electronics, and safes.”
“This is a burglary ring using ghosts for informants? Who would even think of that?”
The vans ahead were exiting the highway.
“Be careful, Sonia said. “Stay back. Yeah, it’s pretty black and white. Targets in rich neighborhoods.”
“What do we do if these vans are full of thieves?”
“As soon as we know for sure, I’ll call it in.”
They were driving on a cobblestone street with brick sidewalks. Ahead one of the vans parked while the other continued to the next block. Anastasia pulled over herself. Four men from both vans got out and began working in pairs. One of each pair shone a light on the license plates of the vehicles parked near the lit house; the other wrote down the numbers.
“They’re canvassing,” Anastasia said.
“They’ll run those numbers against the data collected from the ghosts.”
“And match the cars to their addresses. They’ll know who likely isn’t home.”
Sonia called the agency again.They were told to continue observing.
“I think they’ll move out on foot. Some of them anyway,” Anastasia said.
“You take the first guy. I’ll shadow the second,” Sonia said. “We meet back here.”
As soon as one of the group detached himself from the others, Anastasia slipped out of the van. She darted across the street into the same shadows where her quarry had disappeared. He slipped into the recessed entry of a stately house that did not appear to be locked.
Anastasia thought that was odd. She entered through the same door. Inside there was a soft blue glow. The hair on her neck pricked up. The blue glow was seeping out from underneath white double doors decorated fancier than anything Anastasia had seen outside of a museum.
She slowly cracked the door. Behind it was what once must have been a ballroom. It had a parquet floor and a marble fireplace. It was also filled with dancing ghosts, primped out in their best finery. The spirits wore fashions from centuries and decades prior, women in bustles, men in wigs and breeches, or in tails and long pants.
About to set out after her quarry again, Anastasia eased the door closed and turned straight into the chest of a man. Muffling her with his hand, he dragged her by the neck with his other arm. Outside, he released her, shoved her to the ground, and disappeared into the night.
Back at the van, Sonia was waiting for her.
“My guy lifted one item out of a jeweler’s box,” Sonia said. “One, that’s it. A necklace that probably wouldn’t be worn very often. It looked old. What about you?”
“In my house, the ghosts were having a party,” Anastasia said hoarsely. She coughed.
“What’s wrong with your voice?” Sonia asked.
“I got caught, but he let me go,” Anastasia said. She started the van before Sonia could tell her to get out of there. “I saw Murphy,” she added. “He was waltzing with Bette Davis.
“Bette Davis, really?”
“Really. It was kind of crazy, no music, and every couple was dancing different steps, jitterbug on top of gavotte, fox trot over the quadrille.”
“It’s a baroque dance.”
“Baroque? Who are you?”
“Fifteen years of dance lessons, okay?”
Sonia ordered her to drive back to the Sparks Agency. The sleepless Jared Sparks met them as they entered the brownstone. He listened patiently as they recapped the night’s bizarre events for him.
“You think that these ghosts are giving up information about particular valuables in the houses they haunt in exchange for the opportunity to socialize with other ghosts?”
“Well, spirits don’t need objects anymore,” Anastasia said. “Maybe they really crave companionship and will do anything for it.”
“Without conscience?” Jared asked.
“They’re stealing from rich people, maybe even from themselves,” Sonia said.
“Miss Brown,” Jared asked, “what is the policy of the Jared Sparks Agency with regard to misbehaving spirits?”
“We do not get involved unless a paying client is being harmed or inconvenienced,” Anastasia replied.
“Yes, and who is our client?”
Anastasia looked at the floor. “We don’t have a client interested in these thefts or concerned about ghosts invading their ballroom.”
“Correct, Miss Brown. The two of you will each write a report and file it for future reference.”
“What about Murphy?” Sonia asked.
“He’ll let us know if he needs our help,” Sparks said with finality. “Get some sleep.”
Anastasia would have thought the evening had no satisfactory outcome except for two things. She had not felt so alive in a long while, and she was beginning to understand her job. The problems of spirits occurred when their activities overlapped with the realm of the living. If humans didn’t know about their lost valuables and the spirits didn’t care, there was no problem. She could live with this.
Her curiosity, however, would get an early start on the internet searching for vintage Bostonian valuables for sale.
Short reading recommendations, as you escape your house/office for a mug of joe on the porch–Sasquatch and Silver Lands folklore, a short story by Mark Twain, and a few comments about music.
Sasquatch and the Bear
American Folklore is a favorite website of mine for short reading. It is a whole library of stories from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. What better break from the rigors of work than Adventure on the Rogue, retold by S.E. Schlosser? In this tall tale Sasquatch gets into it with a black bear. A slightly different version of this tale which is on the same site is called Sasquatch and the Bear, told by Captain Tim Brueckner, collected by S.E. Schlosser. I suggest reading both and enjoying the variations.
I truly recommend that you check out American Folklore. If you have an interest in stories about the beginnings of things, search these titles on the site: Coyote and the Colombia; Christmas Gift; and Sinks. Native American, African American, Asian American folklore, and more–all North American stories are collected.
Giants in Silver Lands
Speaking of giants, I must note that I am not a huge follower of some of the fantastical creatures in folklore like witches, werewolves, selkies, or vampires. I do like giants.
My love of folklore started with Tales from Silver Lands (1924) by Charles J. Finger in paperback. The book’s corners curled up, the front cover fell off, and then the back did too. Finger’s tales are collected from his travels in South America. Given my folklore preferences, there are stories in Finger’s collection which I would bypass. But, as stated, I have no argument with giants, nor with twins.
Chapter VIII is titled The Hero Twins. The twins are part of a greater band of young men called The Four Hundred. Twenty of The Four Hundred set out to conquer three hostile giants. One is outwitted by the twins with almost Odysseus level smarts.
Tales from Silver Lands is a great holiday gift for you (or a young reader in your home).
Mark Twain and Japanese Stiltgrass
As a teenager, I read The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain, and the story has stuck with me. It is not a short short story, but you can read it in four parts.
In the first part, a stranger, who hates the town Hadleyburg, comes up with a plan to corrupt its inhabitants. Part 2 is about the effects of planting a seed. Imagine if someone went to her mailbox and found a free packet of seeds and planted them only to find that the plant was an invasive species. Perhaps, the plant is Japanese stiltgrass (microstegium vimineum), and before long it is creeping like wickerwork all through her flower beds.
How will she ever get rid of it? Well, you can’t let it go to seed, that’s for sure. Part 3 of Mark Twain’s story is about what happens when a town neglects its weeding.
The days drifted along, and the bill of future squanderings rose higher and higher, wilder and wilder, more and more foolish and reckless.
From Part 2 of “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain
Sitting here on my porch, I can see some of that stiltgrass. Pardon me while I get that.
I won’t tell you how the story ends, of course. You know what I say: read it for yourself. And that goes for Huck Finn too. It’s been banned a lot; that’s ever more reason to read it, and judge for yourself.
I’ll end instead with a note on music. I was sitting in my office this week, drudging along. I thought some music was what I needed, but I didn’t want to leave my office to find any. I have maybe three CDs in my office. One I had never played before. I remember getting it at a used record store for 99 cents.
by Harry Connick, Jr.
My only previous familiarity with Harry Connick, Jr. is a Christmas album Ave Maria (1993). A friend of mine played it over and over. I’m not a big fan of the song itself “Ave Maria”, maybe because I am Protestant, but Harry’s version is #1 out of every version I have ever heard.
Star Turtle is not what you are thinking when you think Harry Connick, Jr. That’s probably why when I looked for reviews, the response was mediocre. And truthfully, it’s weird. Star Turtle is a creature from outer space who is trying to return there. The first song starts out “My hands are red”. Not what I was expecting.
But it’s funky, and it’s not all about love. Two pluses. Songs to give a listen: the featured song Hear Me in the Harmony; Boozehound; and City Beneath the Sea.
A third week of short reading recommendations, as you escape your house/office for a mug of joe on the porch–the book I finished yesterday, an article about writing fantasy, and a Netflix movie review.
Yesterday I finished reading Unlonely Planet by Billy Curry. Having canceled our plans for international travel in October, this book gave solace. I think of the author as Billy because he comes across as good-natured. Unlonely Planet is Billy’s memoir of a journey from Nepal to Brazil with many countries in between. Throughout the book, Billy’s very personal, unapologetic, and relaxed approach to travel is delightful.
Humble roots, an outdoor life,
trudging and trekking,
twice lightning, once
So now when traffic,
snarling and winding,
stops dead. I have envisaged
minutes left on my timer.
Kindku from Unlonely Planet
page 31 of 235
Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists.
Once committed to his imaginary kingdom, the writer is not a monarch but a subject.
I love the movie Secondhand Lions. According to the internet, this movie (2003) is based on a memoir, Unstrung Heroes, by Franz Lidz, a book loved by Lidz’s readers. I hope to be one of them someday.
I can watch Secondhand Lions over and over again. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine play two eccentric uncles who reluctantly agree to care for their teenage grand nephew, Walter, one summer. Even though this movie is about two old men and a boy on a farm, adventure is not lacking. There’s a lioness, piles of cash, and many villains. If you have overlooked Secondhand Lions on Prime or Netflix, stop doing that.
Inspired by Walter’s terrible mother, I searched for more stories about bad parenting. I found this article “The 10 Crappiest Parents in Literature”. My vote is King Lear for the worst father, and I’m still searching for the worst mother. I would love to know your thoughts–please comment and follow. I seem to be making Back Porch Reading a regular thing.
Murder ballads lurk on the dark side of folklore. From The Twa Sisters, an old Northumbrian song, to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, written and sung by Bob Dylan, murder ballads narrate what happens when selfishness, jealousy, abuse, and revenge come into play. Paul Slade describes murder ballads as “tabloid newspapers set to music,” which “never stop mutating.”
Down by the River
In a murder ballad, taking a walk can be dangerous as in an old bluegrass song Banks of the Ohio. Songwriters give their twists to this song’s basic plot. Edwin, also known as Willie, lures his girlfriend away to the river or to the field, where he stabs her to death. The woman’s refusal to marry the young man is the motive, or, as in Down in the Willow Garden, the murderer’s father tells him to kill Rose Connelly. In Young Florilla, Florilla begs for her life and even forgives Edwin, but he still kills her. Lack of motive or madness as reason is also present in Neil Young’s Down by the River. In older songs, the unspoken cause may be an unwed pregnancy.
In some songs, as in Young Florilla, narration alternates between the murderer and his victim. In Where the Wild Roses Grow by Nicholas Cave, the dead Elisa Day and her murderer tell the tale. Equal opportunity murder occurs in Olivia Newton John’s version of Banks of the Ohio, where the woman commits the crime. Versions of Delia’s Gone sometimes give sympathy to Delia, 14, or, as in Johnny Cash’s account, the viewpoint is from the killer who describes Delia as “low down and trifling,” and the “kind of evil make me want to Grab my sub machine.”
Songs from the killer’s perspective end with either the killer running away or caught and awaiting his punishment. As Marty Robbins sings in El Paso, “I had but one chance and that was to run,” or the Kingston Trio in Tom Dooley, “When the sun rises tomorrow, Tom Dooley must hang.” A third outcome is that the killer is justified as in Frankie and Johnny by Jimmy Rodgers. Frankie says, “Lord he was my man and he’s done me wrong.”In a traditional ballad, Duncan and Brady, Duncan shoots Brady dead in what appears to be self-defense. A more recent murder ballad, Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks, tells how Mary Anne and Wanda turn Earl into “a missing person who nobody missed at all” before he can put Wanda back into the hospital or worse.
Goodbye Earl is a fun song unless you are Earl or someone like him. Two other songs about women getting revenge are Janie’s Got a Gun by Aerosmith and Two Black Cadillacs by Carrie Underwood. Maybe there is some justice for Florilla, Elisa Day, and Rose Connelly in the lyrics of these modern-day songs.
Murder ballads of yesteryear cover a range of murderous motives from unrequited love to cheating lovers to escape from abuse. As in Tom Dooley, the murderer can even claim innocence. Artists also sing about senseless murder, crimes without motive. The Grateful Dead has a song, Me and My Uncle, where the motivation is greed, but what is the reason for the death in Country Death by the Violent Femmes?
Because sensational current events are often the inspiration for murder ballads, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Shankill Butchers by Colin Melroy of the Decemberists follow tradition in singing about senseless killings. Is it a comfort to know that Americans are not the only violent people? Shankill Butchers are an Ulster band of killers who sharpen “their cleavers and their knives” and ride out to kill Catholics but end up slaughtering their own too. This ballad warns that the Shankill butchers “used to be just like me and you”before “something went horribly askew.” In Nebraska, a young man takes his girlfriend along on a ride to gun down strangers. Told from the murderer’s point of view, the convicted killer is on his way to the electric chair and answering the age-old question why: They wanted to know why I did what I did/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
Older, misogynistic songs turn young women into victims for daring not to marry a man. Poor Delia might not be the best person, but she is judged for being evil and killed for it. Judgmental murderers also kill Brady, Catholics and Protestants, and a cheating man (Two Black Cadillacs). Sometimes the deed seems justified like the deaths of Earl and Janie’s father. In all cases, the police, if summoned at all, do not arrive until after the deed is done. Is a common underlying theme to all these various ballads an underlying disdain for the law or its ability to bring justice?
Drawn to the macabre or the dark comedy in these songs, are we seeking answers about our inner selves? If I felt deeply wronged, would I shed blood? Would I ever let the darkness override my conscience? Would I put myself above the law?
Thank you to my daughter and husband for their help with this article. There is a wealth of useful information out there on this topic. See these websites.
A nerdy paper I much enjoyed writing had a catchy title, something like “A Discourse Analysis of the Narrative Joke”. It featured my father-in-law, Brad, the best joke teller I have ever known personally. He told me several jokes which I recorded and then analyzed.
Not many people tell long jokes. I would love to do so if not for the uncomfortable fact that I don’t remember them. I’m still stuck on knock-knock jokes. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Ba-na-na-NAH.
Though many things can make us laugh, not all of them are jokes. Jokes differ from other funny occurrences by being much more generalized and always prepared. A joke consists of the set up and the punchline. Its content can be dirty, clean, or offensive; its structure is of either the riddle or narrative variety.
Knock-knock jokes are an example of the riddle form. Easy to remember and good for a quick laugh, the riddle type of joke may be the most common. The set up is pitched as a question with hopefully no response. The teller can then gleefully deliver the punchline.
Pause please, I’m looking for jokes about Coronavirus and I’m finding plenty of articles expressing indecision over whether or not it’s okay to laugh at Coronavirus jokes or memes, but I’m not finding any actual jokes. Do people think that a meme takes the place of a good riddle joke? A picture with a funny caption is much like a cartoon, is it not? Here are some examples of riddle jokes:
Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?
She wanted to wash up on shore.
What do Princess Diana and Pink Floyd have in common?
Their last big hit was the wall.
Let’s not overthink this. Riddle jokes are almost always in poor taste. Regardless, we laugh. We can’t help ourselves. But context is everything with a riddle joke, and if you don’t know who Natalie Wood was or can’t remember how Princess Di died, then there is no humor here. Sigh. What is the world coming to when there is so much funny fodder and no good riddle jokes?
If the riddle joke is a lost art, say it isn’t so, then I might also be out of luck trying to find a good narrative joke. So I’m going to tell one of my father-in-law’s jokes, preserved not by memory but transcribed in my notes. These are his actual words, real, live words, so please excuse the grammar. I hear his voice as I type them.
The Lawyer and the Sharks
Then they tell the story about the doctor and the lawyer and the priest who were out on a fishing boat about two hundred yards off shore. The tide was going out from the island. All of a sudden their motor broke. They went to use the oars that were in the boat and they were rotten. They had never been used and they just fell to pieces.
So there they were about 200 yards offshore, the tide was coming out, they were getting washed out further to sea and they said, ‘Well, I guess we could swim for it. Two hundred yards isn’t too bad.’
Then this pack of hunter sharks came in and started circling the boat. And they were getting washed out further from the island. So finally the priest said, ‘Look, I’ll offer up my best prayer to God,’ and he said, ‘I’ll swim to shore, God will protect me. I think the sharks will let me alone.’
By this time there’s quite a crowd watching them from the beach. So the priest dove into the water. Well, he didn’t get five strokes until the sharks were all over him and a frothy, bloody stain came to the top of the water and that was the end of the priest.
Then the doctor said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve spent my lifetime helping mankind.’ He said, ‘Maybe God’ll protect me.’ So he dove in and he didn’t get six strokes until, same thing, blood and froth and bits of skin and hair flying in the air. That was the end of the doctor.
So the lawyer, of course he waited until last, but then he jumped in and he just swam right to the shore and the sharks just parted for him as he went along. And when the lawyer got to the shore and he walked up on the beach, the local residents came running down to him and said, ‘How did that ever happen?’ and they said, ‘That wonderful priest and that wonderful doctor, the sharks ate ‘em up.’
The lawyer said, ‘Simple. Professional courtesy.’
Most of the story jokes that I could find on the internet were not nearly as long as the ones my father-in-law used to tell. (Yes, sadly, he passed in 2004.) He loved to embellish his stories with little details and comments like the one about the lawyer being the last to go. Brad was an obstetrician/gynecologist at the top of his field who didn’t appreciate lawsuits over events where nature had taken its course. What you have to understand about Brad is that he could tell this joke to a lawyer friend and definitely get a laugh.
The same key components which occur in the structure of a story–orientation, evaluation, complicating action, and resolution–also take place within the structure of the narrative joke. Repetition is vital to the minimal structure of the joke due to its reinforcement of key points for the listener who may not have gotten it all the first time. Introduction and transitional phrases, plot and vocabulary are all repeated.
In the plot of “The Lawyer and the Sharks”, three is an important number. The three professionals think of three ways to get to shore–the motor, the oars, and swimming; and three times something goes wrong all of a sudden. Then the same three men take turns diving into the water.
The sequence of threes establishes a pattern and the breaking of that pattern feeds into the unexpected. The lawyer, for example, does not say a prayer but jumps into the water and is unharmed. This is unanticipated. In the joke the unexpected follows the breaking of the pattern and sets up the listener for the joke’s punchline which, if you knew Brad, you should have been expecting.
How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
After I published this post, I found The Big Apple 300+ Coronavirus jokes. Where did the Terminator find toilet paper? Aisle B, back. And more!!
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Before she entered Murphy’s Pub, her third Irish bar in two days, Anastasia Brown sent a text to the office. She was supposedly snarled in traffic as she returned from the courthouse with a copy of the deed Jared needed. She worked for the Sparks Agency, a ghost and nephew run firm. Even though Anastasia’s predecessor at the agency, an investigator by the name of O’Brien, had disappeared, the Sparks duo had voted down her desire to search for him.
“He doesn’t want to be found,” Sparks had claimed.
So Anastasia had taken on the case herself. Based on her stereotypical idea of Irishmen, she had mapped out the area surrounding the Sparks’ house and marked every place there was a bar or club. She had also been reading anything she could find about Pinkerton agents. O’Brien had been a Pinkerton before he died and met Jared Sparks.
Anastasia figured that lunch was a required break from her workday; who would object if she ate her midday meal at a bar? A cheap draft and some roasted peanuts were all she could afford anyway until she received her first paycheck.
Breathing the fall air in to brace herself, Anastasia pulled back on Murphy’s heavy outer door and slid into the stale atmosphere and close quarters of the pub. A small area at the front had two tables almost up against where the bar started. The bar itself ran the length of the establishment ending where the kitchen entrance was. To the left, large booths ran along the wall opposite the bar. The noontime crowd numbered about twenty.
Anastasia squeezed along the path between booths and barstools until she reached the last empty booth. Something about this place was inconsistent with the feel of the previous two establishments she had visited. There was a vibe present in the less rowdy nature of the patrons and the way the barmaid’s eyes followed her.
Anastasia dropped her shoulder bag onto the booth bench which faced the front.
“Order here,” the barmaid said. And when Anastasia glanced at her, “Our waitress doesn’t come on until four.”
Anastasia spoke to the barmaid from where she was. “In that case, I’ll have a Redbreast and a round for my friends whatever they’re drinking.” She waved her hand to indicate the imaginary friends at her table.
The barmaid nodded slowly but did not argue. When she brought a tray of drinks to the table, Anastasia handed over her only credit card, saying a silent prayer that it was not maxed. To her dismay, the Redbreast 12 was popular. She distributed the drinks to three spots at the table. The only non-whiskey was a Tom Collins.
As she reached out for her own glass, Anastasia put her hand through a cold spot and drew it back quickly. She quickly recovered only to notice that, while she was distracted, the Tom Collins had traded places with one of the Redbreast 12. That was a neat trick. She was sure she had come to the right pub.
Reaching into her bag, Anastasia pulled out a board she had made herself. Ouija boards were creepy, in her opinion, so she used the same principle without graphics and with more attention paid to how words were formed. The classic yes and no were present, but consonants and consonant groups like th, str, and nd were listed to the left or right depending on their likelihood of beginning or ending a word. Vowels were in the middle. A guitar pick served as her pointer. She had blackened the tip of the pick with a sharpie so as to clarify the indicator.
“I’m Anastasia Brown. I work for the Sparks Agency,” she began. She was careful not to say that she was there on her employer’s behalf. “I’m looking for O’Brien the Pinkerton. Have you, have any of you talked to him in the last month?”
Though she waited a good minute, nothing happened.
“Drinks on me for every question you answer,” she offered.
The same coldness happened again. When it abated, the drinks were empty except for Anastasia’s and the pick had moved to yes. This was going to be an expensive day. She would have to make every question count.
* * *
Back at the Sparks Agency, Anastasia made her delivery of paperwork before heading upstairs to her room. She intended to change out of her courthouse apparel, a skirt and jacket, into jeans and comfortable boots. The information she had gotten from Murphy’s ghosts would take her on a follow-up jaunt across the city.
The ghosts had told her that O’Brien was still in Boston in an unsavory part of Bean Town. They could not tell her why he was there but had not admitted to it until she had bought another round. What did those spirits do with their spirits? In the end the one drinking the Tom Collins had warned her, Don’t go alone.
She was recollecting those words as she reached the second-floor landing. Her housemate Sonia Reef was coming out of their room. (Sonia’s pronouns were they, them and their). Wary of being overheard, Anastasia beckoned to Sonia to enter her room.
Hesitantly, they followed.
“Close the door,” Anastasia said.
Sonia obliged her staying near the door. “What is it?”
“I have a job tonight, but I need someone to go along with me.”
“Is this about O’Brien?” they quizzed her.
“Maybe,” Anastasia admitted.
“You know, Sparks isn’t interested.”
“This is on my own time. I can’t leave it alone,” Anastasia admitted.
“Do you have a solid lead?” Sonia asked.
“A lead. Not anywhere close to being solid.”
Sonia sighed. “We’d better take my van,” they said.
* * *
Sonia drove a beat-up blue mini-van in which they hauled all of their paranormal equipment. Normally, Sonia was the initial point of contact for the Sparks Agency. They verified the truth of clients’ claims to spectral interference, or, if the client was a specter itself, they corroborated whether the ghost-client had been in the places claimed as haunts. Anastasia was thrilled and also worried that Sonia would accompany her so readily.
The two of them drove south into the industrial area stretching along the Charles River to a juncture where brick warehouses formed a square. Ample room between the street and the buildings gave space for tractor trailers.
Sonia parked and crawled into the back to their equipment. The seats of the mini-van had been removed and a low bench installed along one side. On the other side were several EMF sensors, two night vision cameras, an infrared thermometer, digital voice recorders, and a ghost box. They busied themselves turning on and checking all of it.
“Why do ghosts happen?” Anastasia asked them. “Is it something unfinished, vengeance, or bad luck?”
“Something unfinished is the category and vengeance comes under it,” Sonia said. “What are we looking for? Just O’Brien or more?”
“More, I’d say.”
Sonia handed a camera and the thermometer to Anastasia and took the ghost box and a voice recorder. While they waited, Sonia demonstrated how to use the equipment.
At midnight, Sonia caught sight of an orb, falling almost as swiftly as a star into the building across the street. They directed Anastasia’s attention to it. More orbs followed quickly dropping into the building. Anastasia lost count so absorbed was she in trying to capture the phenomenon on camera.
The mini-van rocked and Sonia sucked in their breath. Anastasia lowered the camera to see a dozen orbs surrounding the van. Sonia’s ghost box was crackling. The van rocked again.
“Shut everything off,” Sonia ordered in a hoarse whisper.
As Anastasia hurried to turn off the equipment, Sonia moved towards the driver’s seat. The van rocked again, harder this time, and Sonia stumbled. When the van swayed again, Anastasia could feel that a back tire was off the ground.
“Spread your weight!” Sonia hissed as they struggled to reach the driver’s seat again.
The ignition turned over in the van much to its occupants’ surprise. The gear shift slipped into reverse, the van backed up, tires chirping, and when the wheel turned, the van was speeding to the north careless of stop signs. When they had crossed into a residential neighborhood, the van pulled over and turned off. The tip of a cigar lit up at the front of the van and its acrid aroma floated back to them.
Sonia and Anastasia righted themselves, and Sonia crawled up into the passenger seat. “O’Brien?” they asked.
“Who else would it be?” The question came from Sonia’s ghost box at Anastasia’s feet.
Questions burst out from Anastasia and Sonia both. Where had he been? What was going on at those warehouses? Why were those ghosts so belligerent?
O’Brien chuckled. “Meet me back here tomorrow night at one,” he said. “Don’t be late.”
A green orb flashed for a second inside the van before speeding away. The ghost box squawked again. “Leave Jared out of it,” O’Brien said.
Anastasia Brown stepped down from the bus, narrowly avoiding a puddle with one foot but straight into it with the left. She was wearing her black, sparkly pumps she had bought for an evening medical school party. She knew they were inappropriate for an interview. Groceries or new shoes–such were her choices these days.
With an extra determined push, Anastasia jumped to the curb. She examined the damage. The dark color of the pumps hid the sodden nature of the left one. After walking a few steps, she decided that she was not squishing though it was impossible to tell if she was leaving damp footprints; the sidewalk was still darkened from the night’s rain.
Her destination was two blocks back from the main thoroughfare. Maples, elms, and sycamores shaded well-kept sidewalks. Chrysanthemums, marigolds, pumpkins, and collections of gourds adorned yards and front porches. As she entered the second block, Anastasia noted less attention paid to maintenance. Weeds grew here and there between sidewalk cracks; leaves piled up in fence corners; paint peeled from porch banisters. In a row of four homes, second from the end of the block, was the address she sought.
289 Oak Street was a brownstone house with bow windows on each of three stories. Anastasia was glad to see that this house was at least weeded and swept. Up concrete steps ahead of her was a double red door. As Anastasia started to climb, one side of the door swung open and out rushed a middle-aged woman with a bouffant hairdo. She hurried down the steps and brushed past Anastasia without seeming to realize she was there. The door behind her gaped open. Anastasia’s progress up the steps was again halted when a young man, younger than Anastasia, came to the door.
“Yoohoo!” the young man called, waving a piece of paper. When the woman did not stop, he shook his head. “Not again,” he said. He ran down the steps and along the sidewalk until he had gotten in front of the woman.
Anastasia watched the young man give the paper to the woman. She heard ‘your copy’ and ‘this is what you agreed to’. The woman dodged around him and kept on her way with the paper crumpled in her fist.
As the young man returned to the house, Anastasia studied him. He was maybe twenty years old, 5’ 9” or 10”, short brown hair shaved back around his ears, and dressed in skinny blue pants, pointy brown shoes, and a cream-colored cowl neck sweater. He stopped when he reached the steps.
“Are you the two o’clock?” he asked. She was momentarily caught up in his gaze. His eyes were an amazing amber color.
“Why, yes,” she stuttered. “Anastasia Brown.”
“Randall Sparks,” he said. “Follow me.” Taking the steps two at a time, he entered the house and waited for her at the other side of the open door. Shuting the door behind her, he went to a desk diminished by the size the expansive foyer.
Randall Sparks gestured to a bench opposite his desk. Grateful for the opportunity to rest her feet, Anastasia sank into a plaid cushion.
The young man handed her a clipboard holding a few pieces of official paperwork.
“The first you will want to read carefully. It is a non-disclosure statement concerning the event of your interview. If you choose not to sign, then good day to you. The interview is over. The second is your contact information, and the third is your salary requirements. Bring them over to me when you are finished.”
It was a day for decisions. Anastasia did read carefully through the non-disclosure as prompted. The document appeared to be straightforward. Her signature was an agreement not to disclose the nature of the interview, the identity of the interviewer, or any details with regard to the requirements of the work or the peculiarities of the employer. Peculiarities? Thinking that it was either this or go back to Atlanta, Anastasia signed.
When it came to writing in a salary amount, Anastasia recalled the investigator’s salary she had been paid by the city of New Valencia and added twenty percent. Boston was expensive. She had better ask for a wage that could keep her here.
Randall Sparks barely glanced up when she returned the clipboard, but he did take it and cursorily check it for information and signatures. He stood and rapped on the white folding door behind his desk. A few seconds later a light above the door turned green.
“My uncle will see you now,” the young man said. He slid back the door and motioned to Anastasia to go through.
She hesitated on the threshold of a large space. The room was dark. Her eyes sought out the light from two sources, a crack in the ceiling to floor drapes and a monitor showing a mountain scene. When she stepped forward, Randall Sparks slid the door shut.
From beyond the monitor came a man’s voice at low volume, projected and crackly. “Take a seat, Miss Brown.”
Anastasia moved towards the outline of a chair and felt her way into it. Meanwhile, the image on the monitor flickered and showed her resume. On display were her full name, Anastasia Maxwell Brown, and her education, Criminal Justice at Atlanta Technical College.
“You are a long way from home, Miss Brown,” the voice said.
Anastasia was becoming more accustomed to the darkness. The light from the monitor allowed her to see a shadow sitting behind a heavy desk. The monitor itself was perched on the edge of that desk. It was angled in her direction but also visible to the shadow person. The monitor blinked and changed again to the questions Anastasia had answered online.
“I can’t see any reason for it,” said the unidentified voice.
“For my move to Boston? My friend is in medical school here. We were considering getting married.”
“Were? No, that’s all right. You need not explain. You graduated nine months ago and yet there is no record of employment. How do you live?”
“Excuse me, sir, what is your name?”
“Ah yes, I often forget formalities. I am Jared Sparks. This is my establishment. And as the advertisement stated, I am hiring an investigator. Now, concerning the matter of your previous employment, please explain.”
Anastasia shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I did have a job with a private firm. The work was fine at first and then I discovered that the firm was unscrupulous in some of its dealings. I was fired.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Three weeks.” She was on the verge of blurting out the whole story–how she had come to Boston for a job and had kept it as a surprise for her fiancé; how she was the one surprised when her fiancé was not keen on her being in Boston; how he had reluctantly allowed her to crash on his couch while she searched unsuccessfully for her own apartment; how her new employer had accused her of misconduct and fired her making it impossible for her to collect unemployment; how, unable to find affordable housing, she was now couch surfing with strangers. If she didn’t get this job, she would either have to go back to Atlanta or drastically reduce her standards on acceptable employment.
She heard a whirring sound, the monitor went blank, and a ceiling projector blinked on. The whir continued until a screen had fully unrolled from the ceiling in front of the windows.
“Your employer did not hire you to investigate internally,” Sparks said.
Was that a question?
“I saw a thread, and I pulled it.”
As Sparks moved from behind his desk and passed in front of the screen, he ought to have been illuminated. In fact, he disappeared.
“What trick is that?” Anastasia asked. “Where are you?”
“Look down,” he said.
Below the screen were trouser bottoms and two feet in men’s shoes of an odd style, ankle high with buttons on the sides and squared off toes.
“Watch my feet,” Sparks said.
As Anastasia watched, the feet stepped in front of the screen. There was an absence of sound, no swishing of fabric against the screen, no heel thump upon the thin rug. Her eyes traveled up the trousers and found space. The white space flickered and a slide appeared. It was an old brown and white photograph of a man who was wearing the same shoes and trousers, a dark coat, white shirt, and a flamboyant bow tie.
Anastasia understood why the woman with the bouffant had left in such a hurry. “You’re a ghost,” she said.
“You are not frightened,” Sparks observed.
“My grandparents’ house was haunted,” Anastasia explained. “I would sometimes wake up at night and see a woman at the foot of the bed. She didn’t bother me.”
“That makes you one out of many.” Sparks cleared his throat with an ahem. “As I said, I am Jared Sparks, former Harvard president. I do prefer to be known as a professor of history. The young man you have met is too many greats of a family relation. I call him my nephew.”
The slide changed again to a graveyard scene and a headstone carved for Jared Sparks, 1789-1866.
“Why are you here? Why don’t you rest?” Anastasia asked.
“Rest, yes, I would like that. Miss Brown, even the dead can have a bad day. I was resting, enjoying a beautiful dream, when I was raised up. In 1926 a group of coeds came to the graveyard and set up their seance. They were hoping to contact the gentleman next to me who was a recently deceased Pinkerton detective. Well, they succeeded all too well. That gentleman brought me along.” He paused seemingly lost in his thoughts.
“Why did the seance people want him?”
“I do not remember if I knew. He and I were angry and expressed it. Those coeds ran for their lives. Rid of them we were, but there was no going back. After a few nights of cemetery, ahem–”
“Hovering?” Anastasia offered.
“Loitering,” Sparks supplied. “We decided to, ahem, take up residence. Formerly, I had had a house. We sought it out only to discover my house was inhabited by Harvard’s Pusey Minister. O’Brien thought nothing of staying there. I had to convince him that there were greener pastures.
“That’s when we began our search for living relatives. O’Brien had none but a sister who had returned to Ireland. He turned his detective skills to the investigation of my family and discovered Randall’s grandfather. I do suspect that Buster Sparks was a distant relation several branches removed, conveniently possessing my surname. I never said so to O’Brien. Death has made me pragmatic.
“As Buster Sparks was down on his luck, as they say, he didn’t mind renting us a few particles of air in his house on a promise. Without Buster, our navigation of the material world would have been problematic. Buster provided us with headquarters and then was persuaded to assist us further. Together the three of us solved our first case.”
While Jared Sparks was talking, Anastasia’s sight had adjusted to the darker places in the room, the bookcases crammed full of weighty volumes, a bust of George Washington, and the numerous papers strewn across and around his desk.
“Are you someone important?” she asked.
“The dead are only as important as a memory,” Sparks replied. “Will you come on board with us?”
“Will I be working with O’Brien?”
“Sadly, no,” Sparks sighed. “I do not know how a ghost can disappear, or I should stay, I do not possess that ability. Yet, that is what has happened. O’Brien has gone missing. I am in great need of an investigator.”
“To find him?”
“How does one track a ghost? No. This firm has a backlog of cases and bills to pay. Shall I add your salary to what is owed?”
“If O’Brien comes back–”
“Will I fire you? Certainly not, and I won’t demote you either.”
“I have one issue,” she said. “Transportation. I don’t have a car.”
“Did I forget to mention the perquisites?”
The green light appeared over the door. In seconds Randall Sparks appeared.
“Randall, please inform Miss Brown of her salary and benefits.”
“Of course,” Randall said. He came further into the room so as to face Anastasia. “We accept your salary requirement. In addition, we offer medical insurance, life insurance, disability, room and board if required, and a company car.”
“Room and board?”
“The board is more like access to the kitchen,” Randall modified.
Anastasia took the papers Randall offered her and followed him out to the foyer. There he answered many of her questions.
How was Jared Sparks able to speak? His office was rigged with paranormal sound equipment to amplify his voice.
Room? There was one available on the second floor.
Did others stay there? Randall lived on the third floor. She would soon meet the others who lived there.
Company car? There were two vehicles in the garage out back. One was a black SUV. The other was a hatchback Subaru.
Randall would not answer her questions about cases. He gave her the keys to the Subaru so she could collect her things and be back for their evening collaboration.
As Anastasia drove, she was occupied in theorizing how a ghost could disappear. She was certain the O’Brien case was top priority despite how Sparks had dismissed it. She had goosebumps in the most agreeable of ways.
More recommendations for short reading, as you escape your house/office for a mug of joe on the porch–a kindku, a short story by Charlie Fish, and a short story by me.
Kindku Brain Break
From this post by Word Craft〜Prose & Poetry, I learned what a kindku is and then wrote one. This was a brain break for me. I chose a page from a book I had just finished reading, Love and Summer by William Trevor, and did my best with following the rules. The kindku has seven lines, 43 syllables, and a positive tone.
Garden tools rust on the lawn.
The blackened doorbell,
stranger things are known,
sounds. We’re restless on
razor’s edge for the door’s
sentimental, you greet us.
From page 52 of Love and Summer by William Trevor
Short stories are good back porch reading. Since I am playing with words this week, I thought “Death by Scrabble” by Charlie Fish fit the theme and the heat of these dog days. Having once been an avid scrabble player, I did find this story amusing.
The second short story, also set in the dog days of August, is called “Red, Luck, and Blue”. I used two prompts from the Reedsy Prompts Contest: 1) Write a story about another day in a heatwave; 2) Write a story about someone’s popsicle melting. After some consideration, I did not enter the contest, mainly because I don’t like following contest rules.
Red, Luck, and Blue
Some people are lucky. That’s what Karen’s new friend, Bridget, said to Susan as they stood together on Karen’s lawn. Susan looked around at the place Karen had bought six months ago after her divorce. It came with a burbling brook, a spacious green yard, an outdoor patio, and plenty of space for a garden.
Already a small crowd was gathering on the deck. Balloons and streamers, still up from the Fourth of July, adorned the porch railing and framed the guests in that space.
Half a dozen children were escaping the heat. Shoes off, they splashed in the gurgling water.
The day was blistering. Susan had her hair clipped up, but no breeze cooled the sweat trickling from her hairline down her neck, down her spine, and down the backs of her legs. She wondered how Bridget could eat that chicken wing. Of the entire grand spread of food, watermelon was the only thing she had tasted.
“How so?” Susan asked.
“Well, first she wins that money, and then she buys this place,” Bridget spelled out.
“You have to play to win,” Susan said. Karen had done just that to the tune of being thousands in debt before she hit the big one.
Susan smiled at the image in front of her. A small girl, wading in the brook, held tight to a red, white, and blue popsicle, which was melting down her hand. An older girl, her cousin, told her to switch and wash the sticky hand in the stream. The younger had none of it. She seemed to think she would lose the her treat if she let go.
Sixty yards across the grass, a silver car pulled into Karen’s driveway. Recognizing it, Susan made an excuse and eased away. She tried to appear relaxed as she headed towards the back of the garage. Once there, she loitered, pretending to admire Karen’s flower bed. The garage blocked her view of the driveway; soon, however, the car’s owner came into view on the deck.
Susan slid around the corner of the garage. Although Susan had not meant to do it, she was avoiding Karen’s ex-husband, Len. When she reached the driveway, all was clear. Len had left the deck.
From the driveway, Susan could hear Len’s voice. It grated on her nerves. She wondered how to say goodbye to Karen and not run into Len. Maybe she could hang out in the house until Karen came inside.
As she crossed the driveway past Len’s car, Susan noticed a package sitting on the passenger seat. She glanced again toward the party. Some guests were sheltering under the deck awning; others were supervising children or enjoying the water themselves. Len was down at the brook.
Susan tried Len’s passenger door. It opened. As though by reflex, she snagged the box and shut the car door. She pulled her keys from her dress pocket, unlocked her trunk, and seconds later, secured the package under a blanket. Her heart pounding, she entered through the front of the house to the kitchen.
Karen was rooting through a drawer. She pulled out scissors.
“What are the scissors for?” Susan asked.
“I’m going to cut down the streamers,” Karen said.
“There’s Labor Day,” Susan answered.
“I’m not having a party then.”
Susan recognized Len’s influence. He liked to pick at Karen for every little thing. Upon arrival, could he be normal and compliment some detail, the food, the flower beds? Who but Len cared about tatty streamers?
Susan knew not to argue. “I’m going to take off,” she said.
“I have a project I’d like to finish today.” It wasn’t a lie. Her project was the theft of Len’s package.
Driving home, Susan reflected a tiny bit upon her motives. She was mostly an honest person. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had stolen something. Did curiosity explain why she had checked Len’s car door? Possibly. Was thrill-seeking the reason why she had stashed the package in her trunk?
Her husband was on his way out when she returned home. He had new friends now that he was done with Len. What had started as Len burning bridges to his childhood friends would probably end with the loss of Susan’s thirty-year-old friendship with Karen. Most people, when they get divorced, separate everything about their lives. Karen kept letting Len come around.
Susan changed out of her dress into shorts, a t-shirt, and her garden shoes. The garments stuck to her moist skin. She gathered her gloves, a rag, and a shovel and headed to the woodpile in the back yard. After removing part of the stack, she dug a hole, about a foot square, where the wood had been.
That accomplished, Susan retrieved the package from her car. It weighed about three pounds. Shaking it, she heard muffled clinking. The box was not taped for mailing as she had first thought. It had been opened and taped again. There were no identifying markings.
The package did not fit entirely in the hole. Susan dug out a few more shovelfuls. The second time the fit allowed for more room around the package. She tossed dirt onto it and smoothed the ground level. After she had stacked the wood back over the spot, she wiped off the shovel with the rag.
Though she knew she was behaving like a criminal, Susan included the dirty rag with another bunch and washed them. After a shower, she opened a beer and watched one of her shows.
The next morning Karen called. The party was great until the end, she said. Len discovered a package missing from his front seat and blamed Karen. She and Len had gotten into a heated argument. Karen had threatened to call the cops if Len didn’t leave.
“What was that about?” her husband asked.
“Same story,” Susan said.
As she peeled potatoes for salad, Susan observed the small wildlife in her tiny yard–squirrels, a cardinal, a tiger swallowtail. She let her eyes rest upon the woodpile and imagined what might be buried under it. She hoped whatever was in that box was irreplaceable
Enjoy your weekend! Stay cool, and say no to Scrabble.
I stopped writing. Time slowed down to microseconds while my dad breathed out the spirit left in his body. Death has no friends. What I did instead was paint. Painting was new to me. I dove into it, finding in it a way to put myself elsewhere in a place with no words. Silence. There’s…
Perhaps you noticed, probably not, that I have not posted for a while. I think I should and then end up reading or writing (not my blog post) or painting or hiking. I’m not a blogger, and that’s okay. My page Slow as Molasses (it’s up there in the menu somewhere) has been updated with…
Before she entered Murphy’s Pub, her third Irish bar in two days, Anastasia Brown sent a text to the office. She was supposedly snarled in traffic as she returned from the courthouse with a copy of the deed Jared needed. She worked for the Sparks Agency, a ghost and nephew run firm. Even though Anastasia’s…
Take note of the publication date. Be aware there is much mention of people and events of the past. If you are unable to identify Daniel Webster, Judge Hathorne, or John Calhoun, you may want to make use of this Wikipedia article (spoiler alert). I recommend you read the story before looking up anything.
Three former presidents spoke at the funeral for John Lewis on July 30. I read each of these speeches rather than listening to them. An orator’s greatest weapon is his or her voice. Often, when listening, I, distracted, do not catch all of the words.
I am so very happy that English is my fist language. I am trying to learn another language, Spanish, but the more I explore it and teach English as a second language, the greater my pleasure for having English as my first language. Why? Because English makes no sense!
Oh sure, to those of us who are native speakers it makes perfect sense. We just memorize it and the rules. We study phonics, memorize the letter sounds and sight words and practice using them all together in one happy concert of language. But as I teach it to children overseas and get the pleasure of dissecting it for learners of all ages, it really makes no sense!
Now, before anyone takes offense, think of the basics of English, you know, phonics. Phonics is the relationship of letters to sound. Simple, right? First you start with the ABC song. You know…