Cultural Anthropology & the American Dive Bar

20170318_005655I’ve always had a fascination with dive bars. They’re cozy, tucked away establishments. A totem of neighborhood culture, where the staff appreciate you for tipping well and the walls are festooned with artifacts revering heroes – alive and departed. A place where friendships congregate to recall the past week, or stressed individuals can unclench their psyche, to exhale – if only for a couple of hours. In a dive bar, folks can enjoy a drink or two while listening to their favorite songs or the wisdom of a barstool shaman. And the smell? Sweet and sticky, hoppy and sweaty, the residue of humanity in serenity or passion. A dive bar is the temple of our vices.

During the past month and a half, I’ve traveled from Emmitsburg, Maryland to Columbus, Ohio. I’ve attended lectures by emergency management experts and I’ve had a pit bull terrier vomit on me while I drove through a thunderstorm. Yet despite the ups and downs of those past weeks, I found time to experience different dive bars. So with my last blog post occurring in April, I felt these tales were long overdue for sharing. With each bar, I had learned a bit more about life and myself.

One of my closest friends in the world is an anthropologist. Whenever we meet for our biannual dinners, he tells me about his travels to Africa, the Caribbean, or Europe. I’m intrigued by his fieldwork, his reverence toward the cultures he studies, and his commitment to retrieving empirical data.

With this blog entry, I wanted to mirror my friend’s approach. For every tavern I visited, I arrived with respect and curiosity. And in each bar, I met an eclectic assortment of people. I talked with bartenders who were as disciplined as Jesuits about their profession and customers who were territorial about their drinking holes. In each experience, I was grateful for what I encountered and I’m only more than happy to share this with you.

 

The Ott House Pub

Based in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the Ott House Pub is a bar awash in history. The National Fire Academy, operated and governed by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), is a 15-minutes walk away. So the bar itself has patches, helmets, and memorabilia from different fire departments from across the United States. In addition to relatively inexpensive drinks, my friends and I challenged ourselves with some eclectic drinking glass sculptures. Great pool table and the ladies busted out some hardcore moves, during hip-hop dance night.

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Wonderland Ballroom

First off, I love Wonderland Ballroom. Second, it’s best enjoyed when living two or three blocks away. Situated in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Wonderland reminds me of an anthropomorphized circulatory system. The dance floor, at full capacity, ebbs and flows like blood, with each man and woman like a life-sized cell gliding past each other in the dark steamy room, reverberating with the DJ’s beats – a heart pulsing with sound.

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What’s equally enthralling about Wonderland is the fact that it has these quirky characters that appear from time to time. A six-and-a-half-foot-tall woman, an attractive amazon, saw me leaning against the way. She grasped my collar, drew me in close, and whispered. “You really need to dance because you’re not having enough fun.”

Twist my arm, why don’t you. A couple of hours later, she and her boyfriend are passing me by. She saw me enjoying the music and dancing. I thanked her for encouraging me and the amazon kissed me on the cheek. Cute sentiment.

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The other person I noticed was this middle-aged magician. Guy was probably late 50s, black hair and mustached; kinda has an Eastern European look about him, with a dash of Johnny Cash. He always wore a dark suit and tie; I’ve seen him before. It’s 2:30AM, the bar’s about to close soon. Young customers surround the magician; he rolls up his sleeves. He takes a straw, and then two more, attaching them all into this long tubular wand.

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A young woman’s about to take a photo with her smart phone. Without speaking a word, he admonishes her with a single wagged finger. With the same finger, he points at the opposite side of the 21 inches of compound straw and slowly the opposite tip moves. It rises. It bends. Once. Twice. And forms a triangle of straw that the magician fastens at the tips and places on the bar countertop. I’m a fairly attentive guy. I saw no fishing line; I saw no translucent fibers. Yeah, there was a “trick,” but I sure as hell don’t know how it occurred. And the magician dressed in the dark suit drank his cocktail and the girls in their 20s took selfies next to the triangular straws.

 

Some Random H Street Bar

Okay, so I actually felt horrible about forgetting the name of this bar. I do believe that it’s located on H Street, NE in Washington, D.C., somewhere between 11th and 13th streets, NE. I was having drinks with a friend of mine; we have these seasonal bar crawls with a fair amount of existential conversations about our destiny and life choices, etc. Anyhow, my friend, who’s heterosexual, caught the attention of a young deaf gay man.

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The kid was probably in his early 20s. He could read lips, yet even better he could read text messages. So we communicated via smart phones for the next couple of hours. Although the guy was told that my friend and I preferred women, he still felt inclined to buy us drinks. I didn’t mind, as long as we were open about our preferences. My friend, perhaps fascinated with either conversing with a deaf person – or a gay person – responded to the guy’s questions in a fairly upbeat manner. Ultimately, the guy was disappointed that neither of us was in the mood to share numbers. Hell, I can relate to my earlier years of rejection with certain girls. These moments build fortitude, and I’m sure if that kid kept aiming for the bleachers, then he’ll meet the right person someday.

Oh, and the most unique beverage I had at the bar was a frozen cocktail called “The Awesomeness.” … It wasn’t.

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The yellow beverage was “The Awesomeness.” … It wasn’t.

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Epic chicken & waffles at “Kitty’s Saloon”: 1208 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002

Russia House

My Peace Corps buddy Brian and his fiancée Stacy came into town in May and one of the bars he wanted us to visit was the Russia House, a cocktail lounge/restaurant just north of DuPont Circle, in Washington, D.C. I’m a huge fan of this establishment. The staff look as if they’re straight out of Central Casting for some Jason Bourne film: the waitresses are Russian and petite, while the male staff are solid and strong as fuck. I’ve never seen a fight at the Russian House, but I’m sure if it ever did occur it wouldn’t last long.

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Two words: vodka and caviar, (well I guess that’s three). I’ve known Brian for 20 years. We’ve drank everything together: from Chokachou millet beer in Benin, to … um, vodka in a Russian bar. It’s the company we keep that makes an evening exceptional, not so much the quality of the beverages we drink. That said, I’m very fond of the vodka sampler.

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Bier Baron

Brewing beer is as much a science as it is an art form, and I’ve known a handful of amateur brewers in my time. Hell, I even tried crafting a couple of batches with my friend Jeff. I would give our two attempts a 7 out of 10: not terrible, but definitely not good. That said, my college buddy Doug has taken to heart the chemistry of making beer.

Usually, I’ll go for the Indian Pale Ales (IPA), with an Alcohol By Volume (ABV) at 7% or more. I don’t like drinking a lot of beer, so whatever I do consume, I want it to efficiently “get the job done.” Doug, on the other hand, will brew a stout beer with a hint of chocolate or some other variation of dark, heavy beers. He’ll also select beers based on the richness of flavor, and not because of its alcohol content; he would be completely fine drinking a 4.2% beer if it were flavorful enough and had a fascinating backstory.

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So this brings me to Bier Baron, on 22nd Street, NW near DuPont Circle. Doug and I’ll go there and he’ll “talk shop” with the staff. He’s like a sommelier for beer, or I guess that would be a “certified beer cicerone,” without exactly being certified. So as I’m drinking some beer I randomly selected out of their menu, the bartender is giving Doug the newest scoop on some obscure beer that Beer Baron just ordered for their supply fridge. Doug will ask for a couple of bottles, we’ll sample, and discuss. If anything, these visits have become an education for me. Doug’s a talented guy, and it’s a treat learning from anyone who does anything with passion, whether it’s music, writing, or appreciating well-brewed beer.

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Doug’s Home

The final “dive bar” of this posting isn’t technically a dive bar. It’s the home of a friend, in this case Doug. He was taking care of his son and asked if I wanted to pick up a bottle of bourbon left as a token of appreciation by a tourist who lived in his family’s apartment while Doug, his wife, and son where vacationing in Chicago. The bourbon brand was Basil Hayden’s. It was nice; I’d give it a 7.9 out of 10. I typically enjoy Knob Creek, Bulleit Bourbon, or Maker’s Mark.

bourbon and rum 20170615_215638While I sipped a bit of bourbon, Doug broke out a bottle of Flor de Caña, a premium Nicaraguan rum. He had a couple of stalks of Malagasy vanilla, infusing the bottle for the past few months, giving the rum a spicy flavor. My conversations with Doug are always understated: we discuss life, careers, current events, etc. Rarely intense, almost always chill. Our personalities are different; our demeanors are different. Yet we’ve synced over the lasts 25+ years. That kinda defines most of my older friendships. And this thought presented an epiphany to me: a “dive bar” can be any place. In the city, in the desert, or in the South Pacific, as long as you have booze, engaging discourse, and (at best) a friend to share those moments.

 

 

Posted in comedy, Food, Humor, Personal Tales, Spirits, Uncategorized, Washington, D.C. | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award Winning Story: Oakland Mothers, Oakland Wives

Writer's Digest 18830-PopFic-1st copy

Author’s Note: Back in December, I was notified that I won 1st Place in the horror short story category of Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. I was quite pleased by this honor, and consider it just one marker in a long road to becoming a novelist. Here’s the tale. Enjoy!

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-exclusives/jun-17/horror-short-story-oakland-mothers-oakland-wives-corey-quinlan-taylor

Posted in History, Personal Tales, Rural Customs, Rural Gothic, Rural Gothic - Click Titles to Read More! :-), Travel Writing, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mozzarella-Stuffed Meatballs: “You Might Have to Cook for 20 Guys Someday.”

Meatballs and Spagetti 20170306_220100One of my favorite scenes in The Godfather involved Peter Clemenza (played by the late Richard S. Castellano), Capo to Don Vito Corleone, preparing his meatball sauce for a bunch of mob guys in the kitchen. Clemenza gives a brief tutorial to Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) because “you never know; you might have to cook for 20 guys someday.”

I loved that scene; it was funny, practical, and portrayed this character who could kill with a garrote wire and still cook a great sauce. I watched it on YouTube last week, and got a craving for meatballs and spaghetti. Of course, I’m not gonna prepare it Clemenza’s way (that dude’s a legend). Instead I decided to use a mozzarella-stuffed meatball recipe I improvised several years ago.

The Ingredients:

  • Ground beef (4.25 pounds or 1.93 Kg)
  • Fresh Garlic (two bulbs)
  • Rosemary Leaves (one tablespoon or 14ml)
  • Basil Leaves (one tablespoon or 14ml)
  • Sea Salt (one tablespoon or 14ml)
  • Pepper (one tablespoon or 14ml)
  • Breadcrumbs (about ¾ cup or 177.4ml)
  • Two Eggs
  • Mozzarella Cheese (two 8 ounce packages or 226.8g packages)
  • Tomato Sauce from a jar (two 24 ounce jars or 680g jars)
  • Pasta (Linguine, two boxes 16 ounces or 454g)
  • Olive Oil (two tablespoons or 29.57ml)

The Process:

Do yourself a huge favor: separate and peel the two garlic bulbs the evening before or hours before you actually need them. I’ve discussed before how much of a hassle it is to separate and peel garlic, but out of principle I cannot use pre-diced garlic from a jar. I’d feel like Anthony Bourdain would experience a pain in his soul while on location in Bangkok or Rio de Janeiro, if I did that. I’ve read both of his books and watched both of his TV series. I can’t disappoint the man. So separate and peel the garlic and store it in a sealed container until you actually need it. Garlic Bulbs 20170306_201115

Okay, preheat your oven to about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204.4 degrees Celsius).

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Next, take your grounded beef and place it in a large glass bowl. You don’t necessarily need 4.25 pounds of grounded beef, but as I’ve noted before in other recipe blog postings, I once lived in a group house in college, where I cooked for my three housemates and good friend who lived next door, so ever since I’ve always cooked for five people. Hey, at least I’ll always have leftovers.

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So, you’re mixing your Rosemary, your Basil, sea salt, pepper, egg yolks, and breadcrumbs.

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Yeah, it says a cup, but I actually used 3/4th a cup.

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As you probably know, the breadcrumbs and eggs act as a binding agent for the meatballs. As for the seasoning go with what works best for you. If I had fresh basil, I would totally use it. I’m beholden to the Church of Bourdain, but only by so much: garlic – always fresh, basil – fine getting it from a spice rack, unless I had a basil garden.

Okay, after getting the meat started, I opened the mozzarella and sliced those into hearty chunks. Basically, about a tablespoon-sized wedge.

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See this pan? This pan is your friend; you two are gonna do some fairly righteous magic.

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Picking a sauce is like telling your friend their future spouse ain’t gonna work: they gotta find that out on their own. I’m partial to Bertolli; however, I’m sure there are readers who have grandparents who can prepare an authentic sauce (or gravy?). Well, good for you. I applaud your ability to cook from scratch. I get my sauce from the jar tree, out back.

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Pour a bit of sauce in the pan.

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Now you can dice the hell outta that garlic you separated and peeled the evening before.

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So now take a cube of mozzarella and form a meatball around it. It’ll take a bit of patience, but don’t rush it. One by one, cup the meatball in your palm and push in the mozzarella with your thumb. Hum a song about love, heartache, your all-staff meeting on Monday morning. And before you know it, you’ll have balls, amico. Balls.

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This is the part where you’ll sprinkle the diced garlic. Oh, and use the second jar of sauce to cover all the meatballs.

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Covered in aluminum foil, pop those bad boys in the oven for about 40 minutes. While your meatballs are cooking, may I recommend a glass of Breckenridge Spiced Rum, produced by the Breckenridge Distillery, in (you guessed it) Breckenridge, Colorado. Pour a couple of glasses and invite a friend over. Discuss something non-controversial, like climate change or access to affordable healthcare.

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Okay, your meatballs should be done by this point. Get your pasta boiling.

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Notice how I didn’t tell you how to boil pasta? I did that because I respect you. I’m not pedantic, and I refuse to write pedantic recipes on this blog.

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And voila, your mozzarella-stuffed meatballs and linguine. Complement this with a glass of red wine or beer of your choice. This makes a great dinner for five, a dinner date for two, or a nice meal on your own. Either way, eat up and watch The Godfather with someone you care about. Enjoy, and more importantly, be kind to each other.

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Posted in Cinema Critiques - Click Titles to Read More! :-), comedy, Food, Humor, Personal Tales, Spirits, Uncategorized, Washington, D.C. | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Birthday Observations Early in the Morning…

corey-as-a-boy

The author, at age five.

My birthday’s today. It’s 2:48am and I’ve got life lessons to share. Taking into account my insomnia, please permit me to convey what I’ve acquired over the past 44 years. I hope the following words benefit my readers, from Russia to Micronesia and everywhere in between.

  • Everyone yearns for respect. It greases the wheels of life to give folks consideration, whether they’re a janitor or a politician. It doesn’t cost that much, and it goes a long way in building connections in this world.
  • I have a wide variety of friends, some are very refined and some aren’t as much. However, I’ve always been fascinated by how friends who were defined as “jerks” had a tendency to be fiercely loyal when times were difficult. In every circle of friends, keep the jerks. They’re quite remarkable.
  • If someone is telling a story, don’t try to immediately tell a similar story. You may mean well, but just permit that person to enjoy their moment.
  • Quiet moments possess a certain beauty. My car rides to the farmer’s market with my grandfather were often quiet. Yet as a kid, I grew to appreciate the silence and hang on to my grandfather’s words when he spoke.
  • I have friends who are husbands; I have friends who are fathers. They’re just as fearful as wives and mothers; however, males are chastised into suppressing their fears and sorrows, by their fathers, by their bullies, by their buddies, and by their patriarchal institutions. Buried deep, it is. The thing is, this emerges like emotional fungi: creeping to the surface, tainting relationships and inner peace, in other ways. If you have a husband or a father, take note of this. Permit their vulnerability, when possible.
  • Dogs love you, but you have to work hard for it. Cats tolerate you, but you have to work for it a little less. For the record, I love them both.
  • My mother raised two daughters and four sons without a husband. She doesn’t wear a cape, but she’s my hero.
  • About 70% of my friends are female. I’ve lived in a group house of three girls in graduate school, and two live-in relationships with girlfriends. Women are talented, remarkable, strong, complex, and just as challenging as men. Kinda nice to find that commonality.
  • Mortality? It’s not bravado to say that I’ve been acquainted with death a few times in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I sincerely want to stick around and have a long life. At the same time, I notice a little more gray hair than before; I also notice my inability to party for long durations. I’ll die someday. It’s a fact. That said, it’s important that I’ve lived a fulfilled life. One aspect of that is becoming a published novelist. It’s my dream. It’s also one of my greatest endeavors.
  • Multiple drafts and thousands of words. Like climbing Everest, you have to take it one step at a time, from basecamp to basecamp, with the supplemental oxygen of mentors, beta-readers, and friends who believe in you. My laptop is my Sherpa; it carries my dream.
  • Relationship advice? I’m the last person to provide insight on this, but it is 3:39am, so I guess I should say something. Providing love is never enough. But if someone loves you back, fight like hell to preserve it. If those feelings are true, protect it. Love is a durable eggshell.
  • I was raised in a housing project for the first 12 years of my life. I lived in a working-class neighborhood for another six years before leaving for college. Some countries have caste systems based on culture and religion. The United States has a caste system based on education and income. Answer me this: when was the last time you became friends with someone not from your childhood who didn’t have a college education? A political movement can easily exploit that vulnerability.
  • Politics? I’m not gonna discuss politics. I’m drinking rum, right now.
  • Never go cheap on maple syrup, beer, or a Mother’s Day gift.
  • When it comes to Peace Corps volunteers eating in West Africa: goat tastes like gamy beef, bush rat tastes like goat, and gamy beef is often served with tongue, entrails, and spices.
  • “Godfather: Part II,” “Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” “Star Wars,” “Empire Strikes Back,” “Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “Swingers” “Scarface,” and “Fight Club.” Any woman who can learn to quote lines from these movies would be eternally awesome (from a pop-culture perspective) to their boyfriends or husbands. Don’t say I didn’t do you any favors.
  • My three older brothers taught me the importance of foreplay. My female friends explained how to perform it correctly.
  • I believe in God. Paradoxically, I also believe in evolution and natural selection. Spirituality and science aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • I’ve visited 12 countries and I still feel like it’s not enough. Swing Out Sister said it best, It’s Better to Travel.
  • To stay informed and well-rounded, it’s best to have a range of friends. I have friends in their late 20s. I also have friends in their early 60s.
  • Watch a film from a genre you don’t understand. Eat dinner at a restaurant you aren’t accustomed to enjoying. And listen to music beyond your familiarity. It’ll expand your horizons by leaps and bounds.
  • Exercise when you can. Bike when you can. Walk when you can. And drink lots of water.
  • Be kind. Be tough. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be nice. There’s a difference.
  • Don’t cut someone a break if they’re attractive. They’ll respect you for it.
  • Have a conversation with someone 40 years older than you or 20 years younger. You’d be amazed by the results.
  • If someone hugs you, let him or her release first. If someone calls you, let him or her say goodbye first.
  • Learn at least a little bit about the principles of science, history, or literature each month. It makes you a better conversationalist.

Well, it’s 4:11am. I guess I should get some sleep. Please take my advice to heart. Not that I’m the final authority, but there’s some usefulness to apply.

 

Take care,

Corey

Posted in Humor, Personal Tales, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rural Gothic: The Pit & The Pool

mud-pitA man arrived on our land, with two dead hogs on the bed of his Model A truck. My brother Henry called me from the doorway. With mud on his boots, he knew well not to track across our rugs. I slipped on my green cardigan, tucked my necklace into my blouse, and approached the front porch, to welcome the man.

“Miss Brown?” The man stood with his hat in hand and the bed of his Ford facing the porch. The rains from the evening before had settled into a morning mist, distorting the lenses of my glasses with cold beads.

“Laura Lee will do,” I said. “Twenty is still a bit young for ‘Miss.’ And you are?”

“Carter Smith. Peggy Smith’s cousin. Just back from Germany.” He offered his hand; I shook it.

“She still down in Quinnimont?” Henry asked.

“She’s set in her ways,” Carter said. “Lord knows she can afford to leave West Virginia.”

I stuck my hand back in my sweater pocket. “What can we do for you, Carter?”

He had thinning blond hair, bluish gray eyes, and cheeks that blushed in the crisp air. Handsome and big, probably a scootch above thirty. He survived the Nazis – give him credit for that. “I need God’s help. And Cousin Peggy said the Brown family has the ear of God.” He pointed toward the dead hogs in the truck. “But first I gotta fill the collection plate.”

I walked toward the cleaned hogs and stuck my hand in the slit of one pig’s chest cavity. “Coffee?”

He smiled. “Thank you.”

With their boots by the door, I served coffee and pound cake to Henry and Carter in the living room. Long ago, our family decided to keep the affairs of friends and kin separate from those seeking assistance. Those in need come in the morning, everyone else, in the afternoon or early evening.

After thanking me for the cake and coffee, those in need usually spend time studying the portraits of family going back 70 years. All the same, I’m not here to recall ancestry; I’m here to listen. Henry, a few weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday, sat and observed.

“I wanna thank you both for taking time outta your day to see me,” Carter said. “Things are a bit tough for my family; I have a wife, son, and another kid on the way. I tried working in the mines for a couple of months, but since I got back … I can’t go down the shafts without reliving everything I’d care to forget from the war.

“But what’s worse is even if I had the nerve to work the mines, the coal towns are drying up. Back in my granddaddy’s day, on the New River Gorge, there was a coal town every half-mile. Now most of ‘em are abandoned.”

I sipped the coffee and provided the occasional nod to show some visual sympathy. I cradled the tin cup in my hands, warming them. I didn’t respond.

“So moving to another town would be expensive. I got buddies working the steel mills in Pennsylvania, but again, I need cash for a fresh start. Everybody deserves a second chance, right?”

I took another sip of coffee. Henry tapped a cigarette from his pack and lit it with his Zippo. He offered one to Carter, who refused. I heard the clasp of the lighter’s metal casing.

I stared at Carter. He continued, “I can’t ask Peggy for the money. She’s got her own problems being a widow and all. Just don’t seem right to impose.”

I cleared my throat. “Carter, what did Peggy tell you about me?”

His mouth crept open, a pink fleshy hole, but above his nose, his eyes were calculating, fierce.

“That you were the source, and a donation of animals would be appreciated. That’s all she would tell me. She refused to say more. She gotta a lot of cash from you, for a family who don’t look more well off than most in this region.”

I swirled my spoon in my cup. “But you insisted that she tell you where the money came from.”

The pink hole became a parapet. With his other hand, he covered the fist forming on his lap. As if that would hide his anger from me.

“I brought the hogs from my farm. I was told to give something. Then you would help.”

Henry laughed and coughed between puffs of smoke. I couldn’t help but chuckle as well.

“I ain’t come here to be mocked.” Carter stood.

“Well, you set yourself up for it. One, you’re not a farmer, let alone a hog farmer, or you would’ve mentioned that sooner. I couldn’t even smell a hint of pig shit on your boots. Two, those hogs were too clean and their bellies were cold. You bought those from a slaughterhouse. Three, when I shook your hand I didn’t feel two-months worth of coal mining on your palms. Not a callus, nor a blister. Four, if you’re a husband, where’s your wedding ring. In these parts, a married girl expects a ring on her husband, even if it’s a band from a dime store. You even have children?”

The man buttoned his coat and cocked his fedora to the side. “You’re pretty smart. Clever as hell.”

“Clever as I need to be.”

“If you’re so clever, what’s gonna keep me from knocking out your kid brother and ransacking this house to find your cash?”

I nodded to Henry, who offers an ear-splitting whistle. From the basement, four hunting dogs rush up the stairs. Carter must have been familiar with the sound of hounds because he ran from the living room, without his boots, and jumped in his truck as quickly as he could. Swerving and scattering mud and gravel, he sped away from our land.

I stood with Henry on the porch. The hounds returned to us to receive our praise and strokes around the ears.

“Pig farmer who’s afraid of the mines,” Henry said.

“I know.” I smiled and checked my pocket watch. “Hailey’s late.”

“Naw, look,” Henry said.

A little girl hurried along the road.

***

Hailey had devoured the three strips of bacon and two eggs over-easy. While she was sopping up the splayed yoke with the remaining half of her biscuit, I laid a couple more strips of smoked bacon on her plate. She was a growing kid and the wiriest-eight-year old I’ve ever met. She’d burn it all off by supper.

I stood against the sink and sipped my third cup of coffee. I watched the strands of sandy hair drift over her face. She always claimed to take a bath before coming over, but I could still see the smudges and crusts of some other meal still stuck to the sides of her mouth. Yeah, she’d rebel a bit when I insisted on her taking another bath, but deep down, I didn’t think she minded too much.

“How’s your ma?”

“She good. Found work cleaning the post office. She say it keep her busy about four or five hours a day. It’s good work.”

I rotated the tin cup; the remaining sips formed a brown crescent at the bottom. “Don’t forget to remind your ma that I can help if she needs it.”

“She says she don’t need it,” Hailey almost blurted the declaration, and whispered the rest. “She can feed us just fine.”

I sighed and set the cup aside. “I’m sure she can, sweetie. I meant no harm.”

She gulped her milk with a satisfied exhale and raised her sleeve to wipe her mouth.

“Napkins in this house. Thank you.”

She stopped and crawled her fingers to the cloth on her lap and dragged it across her lower face.

“Good girl. The Sweeneys will be here soon for the pickup and drop off. Then we got a family coming in around eleven; they’re in the worst sort of way. Go upstairs and wash. I got a few kettles already heated in the tub.

“Aw, Laura Lee!”

“Scootch. You look squalid and tangled as it is. Don’t you wanna look clean and presentable for Jim?”

She grinned and buried her face in her napkin. “Don’t say nothing.”

“I won’t. He has no idea you fancy him. Now go. Clean clothes are on my bed.”

Hailey rushed upstairs.

I washed the dishes in the sink with water from the pump outside. I could have installed running water in this house ages ago. Hot water, at that. Would have cost a small fortune to get it around these mountains; would probably draw attention as well. So we stuck with the pumps. Still practical, still functional, and discreet.

***

The grayish Plymouth pulled up to the front of the house. Jim honked the horn and appeared tolerant of the mud. Henry set a few collapsed cardboard boxes before Kate’s door. He helped her from the vehicle as well. Kate said something beyond my ears. Whatever it was, my kid brother blushed like a rose.

I stood at the screen door. Jim, with his open topcoat, reached into the back of the car to retrieve a locked briefcase and a suitcase. I could see the butt of his pistol, shining in his shoulder holster. The three approached the top of the stairs. I tossed Henry and Jim a couple of rags, and eyed their muddy shoes. Henry always offered to clean Kate’s shoes as well.

“Long drive?” I asked.

“We’re accustomed to it,” Jim said. “Roads are a bit icy though.”

I brewed a new pot of coffee and offered sandwiches.

“Okay, whadaya have for us this month?” Jim said.

470ab660-731e-11e6-800a-ae97f003174d_1280x720
I nodded to Hailey, who stepped forward with two small sacks. One contained a hundred rough, un-cut diamonds, gem quality. Fine and rare … at least rare elsewhere in the world. Quite abundant on my family’s side of the mountain. In other countries, for every ten diamonds removed from the ground, about two are gem quality. The others are mostly yellow hue, with a bit of Nitrogen. Not here. The sack contained white diamonds, a few brown and pink stones as well. Every few months, we even present a red, green, or blue diamond. Those are the most rare.

Kate retrieved her eyepiece magnifying glass and held it in place with her brow and cheek. She rolled the rough stones between her fingers and asked for a bit more light. We had electric lines, a minor luxury, so I turned on the lamps. “Thanks,” she whispered. She then weighed several of the stones with a small scale. “Wonderful. We can offer more, since you have a green stone, here.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

Hailey opened the other small sack, to reveal a fistful of gold nuggets, about the size of misshapen creek pebbles. Kate weighed those too.

“Oh, those are nice. About twenty ounces of gold, I can offer you $1,818.82?”

“Yeah, that sounds fair,” I said.

Jim lit his pipe and opened the suitcase with his keychain. He proceeded to remove stacks of singles, fives, tens, twenties, and one hundred dollar bills. Crisp and bound, as if straight from the U.S. Treasury Dept. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had conducted this exchange so often with Jim and Kate’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather over the decades that it would have been an insult to count the cash. But occasionally we did, for the sake of business.

Henry placed the stacks of money in a pile of satchels, to deposit in one of several industrial safes in the basement. Jim recommended the William Walton, Iron & Steel Merchant Burnley safes. Imported from the UK, Jim’s family swore by their reliability.

The Sweeneys and Browns, Irish and English, came over in the 1870s. We lived in these hills together; we had kin who died together in the mines, beaten in strikes, and started anew with baby girls and boys. When my kinfolk learned about the land they had acquired, and God’s gift, we had trusted the Sweeneys to find diamond and gold merchants in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York, Newark, Cleveland, and Montreal. Reliable cutters who would chisel and polish our stones and ask no questions, but everyone wondered.

We just never told. The cutters trusted the Sweeneys to purchase on their behalf and the Sweeneys in turn provided them top quality gems and gold. So much so that the jewelers of major cities asked us to hold off on product from time to time to cultivate demand. We had surplus cash; we could wait. We diversified our clients, to avoid drawing attention and flooding regional markets with jewels.

With gangs, highwaymen, and organized crime, the Sweeneys learned the importance of traveling armed. Sweeneys and Browns had fought in every major war after the Civil War; we could hold our own. Jim had the good fortune to make it back from the most recent conflict; my older brother Daniel wasn’t as lucky. His portrait is just above the mantel, next to Mamma and Pa.

We also avoided drawing attention to ourselves because we didn’t use excavation equipment: no railcars, no tracks, no bulldozers, no drills, no large-scale pumped water, and no tunnels. Just fine, rough, uncut diamonds, and small gold nuggets.

“We got a family in need coming in a few minutes,” I said. “You two haven’t watched the passing in a while. Care to stay?”

Jim gnawed at the tip of his pipe. “Seems a bit personal imposing on moments involving God’s gift. We’ll pass this time, but let’s have dinner soon.”

“Yeah, it has been a while,” Kate added. She stored and locked the stones and pebbles in the briefcase. She then began disassembling the portable scale. She hesitated a bit. “Hon, I saw Albert in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh?” I held myself, a little. Like how a person braces themselves before getting smacked in the face.

“Yeah, he was with a girl,” Kate said. “Kinda living it up. Painting the town red and all.”

Albert was a good man. Still is. However, my family didn’t think he had the resolve for our kind of work. Our mission, really. He accused me of not trusting him. I loved him. Still do. But love and trust are a shoe and foot that don’t always fit. Soon after I experienced a couple of physical tragedies, he left, and I maintained my duty. To this land. To God’s gift. To my family. To Hailey. And to the people on both sides of the mountain.

“He made a choice,” I said. “Me too. I got no ill will toward Al. I wish him the best.”

Henry returned from the basement; he lit another cigarette. Gotta talk to that boy about his smokes. Too much too often. Though I’m not much better with the reefer; it grows like dandelions around our land. I got bushels of it dried in the storage room. Everyone’s got a vice.

Jim and Kate said their goodbyes. Kate kissed Henry on the cheek; though she’s five years older than my brother, she still gave the boy a bit of hope. Jim lifted Hailey in his arms and said, “Goodbye my little lady; take care of these two.” Hailey kissed her Irish love on the brow. Well, it was more like a kiss with her lips and her nose cushioning against his head. Children have a clumsy affection.

With goodbyes and transactions completed, the Sweeneys drove away. Though they had to accommodate another car passing through our lumber and wired gates. A Ford pickup truck. This time driven by a Negro woman, with three black children beside her. They pulled up to the side of the house. Something’s covered in the truck’s bed. More hogs? My heart tells me no.

I turned to Henry and Hailey. “It’s time. Henry, help with what’s in the bed. Hailey, play with the kids; at best, keep ‘em busy. The moment things get emotionally heavy, I’ll need you to take them away: to the tire swing, to the creek, somewhere away from me. Earn your keep – go!”

Henry reached for his coat. Hailey hurried upstairs for hers as well. I opened the exterior door and waved once. More than that would have been inappropriate.

***

I had prepared roast beef sandwiches with heated gravy and potato salad, leftovers from the night before. I still can’t stop cooking for five people. The kids, two boys around five and six, and a daughter at age ten, could definitely finish a plate. Almost as fast as Haley. They all had milk mustaches by the time they were done eating and drinking.

I looked to Henry and Haley. “Clean the dishes. Keep our guests company. We’re going in the living room to chat.” Before I left the kitchen, I opened a porcelain jug and removed four butterscotch candies, giving them to each of the kids. Henry had his Lucky Strikes.

The mother and I sat next to each other. She snuggled herself in the high-backed winged chair, covered with a pillow and a blanket, while I sat on the sofa.

“Mrs. Rhodes, how may I help you?”

“My husband, the man I shared ten years of my life with, is wrapped in a blanket on your couch. He worked down at the sawmill; I’d see him everyday on my way to school. And on Sundays, he’d be at our church, with his momma right next to him. He loved me. He wasn’t the smartest man; he wasn’t rich. But he was there. When his momma needed him, when his job relied on him, and when I first got in trouble, he was there.

“My momma and daddy could have sent me to my aunt’s home in Dover. But Marlon’s momma told him, and Marlon came to my family. I soon became his wife, and my daughter became his daughter. And ten years later, an accident at the sawmill left him dead and now wrapped on your couch. Even in death, he’s still there.” Mrs. Rhodes stood and approached the couch holding her dead husband. She kissed the blanket where his lips should be. Her hand caressed his bound chest. She kept her back to me.

“I heard through the grapevine that your family got the ear of God on your side. If folks are true and humble, then you can help them. But then I was told you only help white folks. Laura Lee, I’m not a minister, and I’m not a deacon, but if anyone truly has the ear of God on their side, then I’m guessing skin color don’t mean much.” She turned to me. No tears. They had dried up and tapped out hours ago.

“You reckon right, Mrs. Rhodes. The ear of God don’t give a hoot about skin color. We’re all kin in the presence of the Lord.”

She permitted her first semblance of calm. “Then can you help me? I…” she hesitated and pressed her hands against her dress. “I was told to bring alms in the form of flesh that held importance for my family. We never raised livestock. All I have is my husband.”

I approached Mrs. Rhodes and cradled her face in my hands. I could hear the snapping and cracking of the fireplace and the scent of her Woolworth perfume, mingling with the fireplace’s smoke. “He’s all you’ll need. I promise.”

***

We reloaded Marlon’s body on the bed of the pickup and drove the truck several acres into our land. We stopped the truck a few yards from the bank of a pit filled with viscous soil. The pit had a diameter of 80 feet. A tree line of sycamore hid the pit on the Northwest side; a steep hill of trees formed a canopy that shielded the eastern side of the pit. Raspberry and blackberry bushes grew sporadically around the perimeter of the orifice.

Henry helped Mrs. Rhodes and I carry her husband to the edge of the pit. Upon my recommendations, she removed the blanket covering his nude body. Earlier, we had placed his clothes in a paper bag.

“It’s time for your goodbyes and perhaps a prayer,” I said.

She knelt before her husband and locked her hands together. Her prayer, at the edge of a whisper, was heartfelt. Sincere. Henry and I stood at an appropriate distance, but we never spoke a word. Our heads held low, our eyes closed. For me, I occasionally prayed.

“I’m ready,” Mrs. Rhodes said.

“The soil is a bit moist, so don’t be surprised if it gets all over your shoes,” Henry said. He held the stretcher handles near the head and Mrs. Rhodes and I held the polls near the feet. We walked a third of the way into the circumference and flipped the stretcher into the pit. Marlon Rhodes plopped into the soil.

“Hurry,” I said. We splashed our lower apparel while leaving the muddied orifice with haste. Mrs. Rhodes paid no mind to her splattered dress. She held a clenched hand across her chest.

“Wait,” I said and exhaled. A light drizzle returned.

Sometimes, the bodies sink headfirst; sometimes, the bodies roll on their side and submerge. Marlon Rhodes appeared to drag in an easterly direction; he bid farewell with a crown of bubbles singing his departure.

Mrs. Rhodes’ mouth fell agape. Before she collapsed, I embraced her from behind; she turned to me. “Oh Lord, Jesus!”

“It happened as I said it would. You did a brave act, and your husband would understand.” I walked her back to the truck, and Henry loaded the stretcher.

We returned to the house, where Hailey continued to play marbles with the Rhodes children on the porch. I poured Mrs. Rhodes a cup of tea, and Henry returned from the basement with a sack containing $10,000.

She touched the surface of the bills. Her face formed a pained contraction. “Where is he?”

“In a place where he’ll do others a world a good. Your guilt is normal, but consider this: you have options and possibilities. You don’t need to fear providing for your children. For years to come, your family won’t go hungry, and you’ll have a roof over your heads.”

Her hand trembled the porcelain cup against the saucer. “Thank you, Laura Lee.”

I rose from the couch and hugged her.

***

An hour after the Rhodes family departed, Hailey and I walked along a path, leading southeast from the house. The dogs would follow us to the point when we’d reach the barn, then they’d return to the house. My family built that barn decades ago. We stored our gardening equipment, tools, and extra firewood there. It was also a marker indicating how close we were to the pool.

Even on a moonless night, we could still find our way. Our bare hands could sense the warmth of the pool, despite the damp February air. Our ears and the bridges of our noses also sensed a slight reverberation that disappeared if we turned away from the path. Hailey called it “the tickle.” But the warmth and vibrations only occurred if you walked a few paces beyond the barn. You knew you were getting closer. Hailey tucked her coat under her arm, and I opened my cardigan. I also carried a large wicker basket that held a canteen of water, a bottle of vinegar, a tin of almonds, towels, two knives, and small leather pouches.

Despite the dusk, a ground-based light shined through the branches, projecting silhouettes of trees. We turned around the bend to see an 80-foot wide pool of brilliant turquoise water. Calm ripples and light twinkled across the surface. The waters cast warm reflections upon our faces, like watching a fireplace in a darkened room. Stone plates lay around the perimeter and the walls of the pool, extending toward depths that plunged beyond my sight.

I always felt this blast of fresh air at the pool. Like eating a mouthful of Peppermint Patties or a smear of Vaporub along the chin. Hailey took so many deep breaths I swore she’d go dizzy.

“If you pass out, I’m leaving you in the grass, knuckle-head.”

“Aw, you’re no fun,” she said. “No fun at all.”

“Shhhh!” I got on my knees and began to pray. She followed suit, with a push of the basket to the side so she could kneel next to me. The prayers were never long, never verbalized. Just silent reflection of whom we’ve helped and who still needs us.

A splash upon the surface, and then another. I opened my eyes. In the center of the pool, foam sacs, pewter-colored membranes the size of pumpkins emerged from the deep darkened turquoise, into the light. The sacs always settled in clusters, like marbles in a bowl. They were too delicate and too far to retrieve with a hook or a net.

I stood, unclasped my necklace and gave it to Hailey, who received it with both hands. She carefully placed the necklace in the basket. I then removed my clothing and glasses, and jumped in the water. I never cared much for bathing suits, and the warmth felt wonderful against my body. If Henry were around, I’d get him to swim and insist that he wear his shorts. I’m a free spirit, but my spirit ain’t that free.

27143694e1e78ab1f3ed74b1ee5a8ab6“I wanna go!”

“No, last time you broke a sac goofing around; you’re still grounded for two more visits.”

I’m a strong swimmer from years of doing this, so it took little effort to paddle towards the center: five times, two sacs per trip. On an average evening, we’d harvest ten to fifteen sacs. Hailey squatted near the edge, retrieved a membrane, and set it aside. Each foam sac weighed about the same as a beach ball, yet slippery, and glistened colors like the surface of a soap bubble.

I reached the edge of the pool and climbed out, wedging my hands and feet between the stone plates that rose five-feet above the water’s surface. Hailey passed me a towel. While I dried off, she laid in a row the leather sacs we brought. She then unsheathed the knives and set the first membrane on the towel. I was proud of her for taking on her role so diligently. Though she horsed around, Hailey still took this part of the day as seriously as I did. It became her duty. I just hoped her mother saw the good in her, too.

After I redressed, Hailey and I each selected a membrane and began piercing the skins. We heard popping sounds, followed by the hissing of air from the sacs. Each membrane held fleshy chambers and in each of those chambers was rough, unpolished diamonds. Fine gems. We dried the stones and placed them in the leathered sacks. About once a month, we’d discover a pebble or nugget of gold, but not this time. About once or twice a year, we’d find red, blue, or green diamonds, but again not this time. Before leaving, we’d dice the foam membranes into smaller pieces and bury them in the soil next to the thicket of hemp plants that grew abundantly near the pool. After the piercing and sorting, we’d wash our hands in vinegar, and enjoy a snack of almonds and water from the canteen. While I munched the almonds, Hailey would occasionally touch my gold necklace with a green and red diamond housed in the center. I’d smile and stroke her hair.

***

The clock struck ten. I tucked Hailey in 30 minutes ago. She enjoyed dinner as always and her ma will come ‘round tomorrow to take her to church, and then home for the next few days. Until they’re outta food, and her ma becomes too proud, or humbled, to ask for cash. I don’t have a list of connections to get her a better job. I just have cash, an almost infinite amount of it. Don’t matter. Hailey’s ma is suffering, and some anguish can’t be swabbed just with money.

So I pretend to put her daughter to work, and instead give that girl as much love and meals as possible. Hailey and I took an oath, by spit handshake to never divulge the secrets of my family’s land. And if there’s one thing this reformed tomboy understands, it’s that spit handshakes are as sacred as Jesus’ cat.

I lit some weed and sat in my rocker on the front porch with the dogs. The clouds had cleared and the stars shined, stark and beautiful against the night. Henry dragged a chair nearby and wrapped himself in one of our mother’s quilts. He lit a cigarette.

“We got four interviews lined up for Monday,” he said, while stroking one of the dogs behind the ear. “A father has a need for us –”

I blew a ring of smoke. “Bud Wilson. Right?”

“Yup, he said he could offer a couple of goats; that’s all he has of value. His mother was in an accident.”

“If I believe him, then the goats should do.”

“Shhh,” Henry whispered.

A rustling and snapping of branches emerged from the tree line. I saw a distorted movement near the wired fence, many yards away. Before Henry or I could say a word, our four dogs raced toward the noise. Two shotgun blasts found their target with the death whimper of our family pets. Two dogs managed to flee despite pistol fire; one round zipped through the night and another bullet cracked a wooden post.

I gripped my brother by the shirtsleeve. “Get your hunting riffle and shells, guard the top of the stairs! Anyone who isn’t me, light ‘em up like a Christmas tree!”

“What about you?”

“I’ll handle it; I’ll be fine. You’re the last male in this family, you and Hailey need protecting above all else!”

“But – ”

Another shotgun round splintered the railing of our veranda. I felt the shards of wood.

“Get!”

Henry raced inside and stayed low.

“Stop shooting up my porch!” I stood with my hands raised. “Hold on, now. Nobody needs to die.” I stood and walked down the stairs. That’s when I remembered my diamond necklace not being tucked under my blouse. I thought about reaching for my neck, but decided against it. A sudden movement would startle these gunmen.

“Miss Laura Lee!” said one of the men. “Pleasant night we’re having.” I knew that voice.

“Carter Smith.”

He reloaded his shotgun. “At your service.”

Two more men I didn’t know appeared with him. Young men with stern expressions; one packed the other shotgun, the second held a pistol; they’re faces weren’t covered. Oh God.

“How may I help you, Carter?”

“Tell your brother to come downstairs.”

“He won’t be doing that. I’m the only one you’ll need to talk to. Hurt me, he’ll kill you. Kill me, he’ll kill you; use me as hostage, he’ll kill all of us.”

The men assessed each other; someone needed to make a decision.

“I got a another idea: you boys are here for money. Some of it, all of it; I got it. I understand. However, if you kill us, you ain’t gettin’ shit. This land covers hundreds of acres, and we have an armed family friend coming tomorrow to handle business. He has specific orders to kill anyone on our land who isn’t a cop, a government official with papers, or a Brown family member. So you can either waste time trying to use me as a hostage, kill my kin, and scramble around in the dark looking for our fortune, or you can be smart about it, let me take you to the money and you all can get outta here.”

“What’s to stop us from killing you?” Carter said.

“Well pig farmer, the second floor windows are open. My brother knows who you are, and you geniuses forgot to cut the phone lines running in the opposite side of the building.”

Anxiety flushed across Carter’s accomplices. One of them spoke, “Carter, we better – ”

“Shut up!” Carter shoved the guy aside. “You a clever bitch,” he said to me. “What if we had already cut the lines?”

Henry yelled from upstairs, “You didn’t. I called the sheriff already. Told them who you were, Carter. You boys better hurry.”

I lean in a bit, with a disposition of feigned assurance. “Carter, you’re a smart fella. Take the money, get in your truck, wherever you parked it, and get the hell out of these mountains. Once you make it to Ohio, you all will be free men. Wealthy men. Kill us, and the state will be all on your ass.”

Carter straightened his stance. He studied the shotgun in his hands. “This ain’t me.”

“I know. You’re a good man, deep down. All of you are. You boys just made some rash choices.”

Carter’s eyes rose from the weapon to my necklace. He snapped it off. “Take us to the money.”

My disposition tightened. He put his hands on my diamonds. My green and red diamonds. “Give that necklace back to me.”

“Take me to the cash, or I’ll shoot you in the gut, cops or no cops.”

Calmness embraced my heart and mind. “Okay. You’re the top boss, now. Follow me, boys.”

We walked to our family car. “It’s quicker; it’ll take a full 20 minutes by foot.”

Carter nodded. “I’ll drive and you’ll sit up front. My buddy will keep his pistol to the base of your neck; any funny business and you’ll lose your pretty head.”

***

We drove northwest of the farm, to an open field. To the pit. I told the men to stop short, near the trees and hill that shielded this clearing.

“The money is buried just beyond there. Shovel’s in the trunk.”

“Why not just keep the money in your house?” Carter asked. He walked around the front of the car and opened my door; he held the barrel pointed at my face. My necklace wrapped around his knuckles.

“Cash draws trouble,” I said. “Having it away from my home offers protection.”

“Guess that theory went to shit.”

I smiled. “Just beyond there.” I pointed across the pit.

“You lead. No funny stuff.”

The three criminals and I traversed the 80-foot-wide quagmire. The mud clung to our boots with each slogging step.

“Why are we walking through this mess,” one of the men said.

I began chanting in my mind: danger, hurt, threat, fear, peril, weapons, death, danger.

“It’d take too long to walk around the entire mud pit,” said Carter. “Hell it’s half the size of a football field.”

Danger, hurt, threat, fear, peril, weapons, death, danger.

“This whole idea is idiotic – ”

“Shut up, George, we’re here now!”

“Yeah, but where’s the money?”

Danger, hurt, threat, fear, peril, weapons, death, dange

Thunder punched the ground and we toppled, but before we could reach the earth, the earth reached us. Upward, with our ankles glued into the pit, this unstable dome of mud, turf, and liquid carried us two-dozen-feet high. Sludge and clay bombarded us, like a titan smacking an oceanic puddle. Our feet crested skyward, then our knees, followed by our torsos, our jerked spines, flawing arms, necks, and heads. And just as abruptly, the chaos collapsed into a concave of wind, suction, and violence. Our bodies and screams descended into a cavity of horror.

Just before the catastrophe overwhelmed me, the mud stopped, fastening me against the torrential walls, washing filthy water against my face and body. I had to look downward or drown against the chasm. Carter Smith, the false pig farmer, and his bandits clawed and pleaded for their lives, but those rogues wailed like hogs as they toppled into the abyss, hundreds of feet below.

Plastered against the vast wall and gasping for breath, I noticed my body covered in mud and mucus and held against dark pink ridges with suction cups, like an octopus or squid I once saw in National Geographic. As many as my eyes could see, from my nose, to the chasm across, and below: soft, firm suction cups as large as a dinner plate.

I petted one of the appendages. “Okay. I’m safe. We’re safe.”

A bellowing sound akin to a herd of bull elk echoed from below, and a lake of mud began refilling the chasm. Once the mud reached me, the suction cups passed me upward, one cup after the other, until the mud and I reached surface level. Covered in filth, I rolled several times until my back touched the firm ground. My hands massaged the grass.

“Oh no, my necklace. Dear God, my necklace.” Through blades of grass, I saw Henry and Hailey running toward me. A good boy, through and through, he even brought his rifle.

***

The following evening, I sat on the shore of the pool. The glowing turquoise waters contrasted against Henry’s lean silhouette, swimming with the last of the foam membranes in his hand. He passed them to me and I began cutting them, even before he climbed from the opening.

I sliced the inner fleshy chambers, and pulled out a slippery but fully functional revolver. Two membranes fastened together yielded a shotgun. Likewise with another large sac that Henry cut apart. He also found belt buckles, a lighter, and some pocket change.

“It’s gotta be in one of these,” he whispered.

I sawed across the bubbles, each popping and hissing. I pulled apart layers of gel and flaps, until I saw blurred twinkles of red and green. I made a small incision and ripped the membrane; the golden necklace that housed the green and red diamonds fell into my hand. I couldn’t stop crying.

***

Cleaned and rested, Henry and I descended the basement stairs. He walked toward a rack of pistols, shotguns, tommy guns, and an old Browning automatic rifle. Crooks keep coming; we keep getting free weapons.

I opened one of the safes and placed the new supply of diamonds inside. Gold takes a bit longer to form. We’re all golden. Literally. It’s just the trace amounts are so small, like shiny crumbs of love and bright morsels of hate. All courtesy of the pit and the pool: two sides of the same mighty larva that fell from the stars, in a shell of stone, over seventy years ago. A gift from God that’ll bloom someday before the world. We can wait. My family is patient.

Finally I passed by the two cribs that were never used. One built when I was fifteen, the other built when I turned eighteen, with tragedy taking each away and Albert leaving soon after. I touched the red and green diamonds and placed them against my neck once more. My sons. My loves.

I heard a car horn and an engine’s rumble. “It’s time,” I said. “Ready?”

Henry smiled. “Let’s do some good.”

I tucked the necklace into my shirt and followed my brother, upstairs.

 

The End

deep-water

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Blue Apron Confidential!

blue-apron-20161204_204424“You gotta eat everything in the box, or it’ll go to waste,” My friend said over the phone.

Whenever she travels for work, she offers me the chance to housesit. This gets me outta Virginia and provides an opportunity to enjoy Washington D.C., while having a quiet location to write. My housesitting responsibilities usually entail watering her porch flowers and retrieving packages or mail. Yet, this particular stay had the added feature of cooking Blue Apron meals. My platonic friend had to travel immediately for work, so she was unable to enjoy this culinary experience.

“Three meals,” she said. “Seriously, eat it. They’ll deliver a box in a couple of days.”

Blue Apron is basically a nationwide, online fresh ingredient and recipe delivery service. They deliver the items to customers, who then prepare these meals at home, from scratch. It’s the “Guitar Hero” approach to high cuisine. You feel like a chef, without the perils of traveling through farmers markets for that perfect, pesticide-free butternut squash.

I’m not mocking these guys; it’s a fantastic concept. And as I’ve demonstrated in past blogs, I actually enjoy cooking. However this time, I learned several lessons from preparing Blue Apron dinners that I’m compelled to share.

The Ingredients Are Like IKEA Furniture Parts

When the box arrived, it was as large as a 1970s color television, while feeling surprisingly light to lift. I sliced open the container and set aside a plastic cold pack, (great for summer deliveries). Inside, there were a multitude of ingredients for three dinners: 1) spicy black rice noodles, with daikon radish, garlic peanuts, and broccolini; 2) spinach and ricotta pizza, with sautéed cauliflower and clementine salad; and 3) Thai green coconut curry, with sweet potato and jasmine rice. And yes, I had to Google what daikon actually meant.

All the vegetables and fruits were whole; the nuts were shelled in little packets, and the herbs and seasonings were wrapped individually. I didn’t recall the ingredients being separated according to recipe, in the box. Instead, everything seemed aligned evenly; but without the recipe pages, I would have been lost.

Truth be told, I had this sensation of intimidation and excitement. Similar to assembling Ikea furniture. The fruits and vegetables smelled amazing and had vivid colors. At the same time, with so many intricate pieces to cooking a meal, I was fearful of botching the recipes. There’s something beautiful in cooking a dinner from scratch. But man, I’ve never prepared a meal this complex before.

The Recipe, at Best, Exaggerates!

Those three Blue Apron dinners had stated it takes about 15 minutes of prep time for the ingredients. That doesn’t include sautéing and baking times, which can last 25 to 45 minutes. So we’re talking 15 minutes of prep time.

garlic-main-qimg-d929a3967744212a2adf36a18ad9154f-cThis is a bulb of garlic. Have any of you actually peeled the skin off a bulb of garlic? It takes a 110-year-old Sicilian woman (who survived World War II) approximately 55 seconds to peel a bulb of garlic. It took me about 20 minutes. But Blue Apron said it should take 15 minutes to prep all the ingredients, for each meal. So someone is obviously exaggerating. And it’s not me. Because I never exaggerate. Ever.sicilian-woman-1140117294_aa6883a9d1

That prep time doesn’t even take into account the number of bowls you’ll need. My wonderful buddy, a foodie in her own right, has a fantastic assortment of glass bowls that are great for storing ingredients. With each Blue Apron recipe, you’ll need about 45 bowls. Bowls for the rice, bowls for the diced onions, bowls for the sliced sweet potatoes, bowls for the diced ginger, and a bowl for the daikon radish. I guarantee you, if your kitchen has 88 bowls, that one Blue Apron dinner will require 89 of ‘em. Yes, I said 89.

The Cooking is Like an ER Operating Room

There’s a significant amount of hustling when cooking these meals. For each dinner there are duel roles involved, whether it’s boiling the pasta and sautéing the vegetables, baking the pizza and grilling the cauliflower, or checking the rice and not burning the curry sauce. It’s a two-person job – at least. It reminds me of surgery in the operating room: you can’t be the anesthesiologist, the cardiologist, that other cardiologist who screams, “We’re losing him dammit!” in the movies, and a nurse. No! You need a team.

Now, I’m no slouch when it comes to cooking. And there were dinners that turned out okay. The spinach and ricotta pizza was a success. Delicious! It even resembled the illustrations on the recipe card. The Thai green coconut curry with jasmine rice was … fair. I wouldn’t describe it as fantastic, but for a first time, it was about a 7.8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being exceptional. However, in every operating room you’re gonna lose a patient. For me, it was the spicy black rice noodles, with daikon radish, garlic peanuts, and broccolini.

It became one screw up after another: the rice noodles were gummy and sticking together, the sauce was too soupy, and the daikon radish was undercooked.

blue-apron-20161205_213639“We’re losing him dammit!” was all I heard during the last 10 minutes of attempting to prepare this meal. Don’t get me wrong; I ate all of it out of principle. But man, I was keenly aware that I screwed that recipe up.

So after I had prepared my third and final dinner, I kinda had this moment of reflection. Why would anyone do this? This degree of precision: an hour and a half worth of preparation and cooking, sorting, slicing, and bowl washing. Why?

Gender & Blue Apron…

About 75% of my friends are women, and for years I’ve learned a great deal from this dynamic. Almost all of my “foodie friends” are women. They love the process; they love the planning, and the specificity of preparing a flavorful meal. It’s almost akin to a hobby. On the flip side, I’ll have a few female friends who may not want to cook on that level of complexity – ever. It’s time consuming, and there are a few women out there who would prefer to order a pizza and call it a night.

Do I have male friends that’ll cook these meals, for the sheer joy of it? Alone? Unless the guy is a trained chef, very few, maybe two or three. I’ve never heard a guy say, “Man, I’ve had a long day at the office, now I’m gonna relax at home and cook Blue Apron.”

However, as I sat on the couch, drinking a glass of rum and listening to the hum of the dishwasher, I thought, “in what situation would I actually cook like this?” And the first thought that popped into my mind was: if I had a date coming over. Light Bulb!

I’m not saying that all of Blue Apron’s male customers, whether straight or gay, only cook like this for dates, partners, or spouses, but then I’m thinking about that @#$@ bulb of garlic, and how it took me 20 minutes. I’ve prepared garlic dishes before; they’re tasty, but it’s a hassle. Only three people would inspire me to prepare a dish involving fresh garlic – let alone daikon radishes: a wife, a girlfriend, or a date. And if you asked most Blue Apron customers, who were male (straight or gay), why are you cooking this, I’d guess it’s because of someone they either love, or would like to eventually love, or just share some intimate time.

It’s not a bad thing. In fact, I can’t think of a better demonstration of love, than to imagine some dude named Keith, bent over a kitchen counter (in the Bronx) with pasta boiling on the stove. Trying to slice a thin clove of garlic with haste and skill because Jessica from accounting will be over in 20 minutes. Keep slicing Keith, keep slicing brother. I feel ya. We’ve all been in love.

Conclusion…

There are times when I’ll write something, from a sincere place and think later – yeah, maybe I should have held back a little. But this time, I wanted to put my point out there. For the record, I think it’s perfectly possible for a guy, straight or gay, to purchase and enjoy Blue Apron meals for himself alone. And as I noted earlier, for customers who are foodies this service is right up their alley. These dinners are delicious, healthy, and visually appealing. However, they aren’t fast. For a solitary person, it takes a bit of juggling in the kitchen. And if you like washing bowls (oh, let’s say 89 bowls), then these recipes are right for you.

Me? I’m gonna eat leftovers.

Update: I’m a huge proponent of providing opposing viewpoints, so I was able to find this article in Vogue promoting why men love Blue Apron. At least they confirmed my theory that couples are big fans of this service. Take care!

Posted in comedy, Food, Humor, Personal Tales, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Defiance of a Post-Truth World

capitol-fence-20170116_163352When writing blogs and developing an online presence, I’ve always been mindful of not alienating a segment of any audience drawn to this site. I try to cover topics that would hopefully appeal to all people, despite their background. Finding the commonality of us all can be a challenge. The passionate intoxication of exclusion is a cup every human community has drunk from at one point or another. Perhaps you’ve had a sip. I know I have, with much regret.

So when you read my occasional political statement, it’s not with the intention of demonizing someone in a region of the country that doesn’t support my politics. My statements are crafted with the intention of ensuring that all people are treated fairly and that all rights are preserved, especially those of the weak, the less popular, and the less familiar.

mall-20170116_155638I’ve read a few news commentaries about Truth, which I’ll refer to with a capital “T” to better convey my point. I’ve read and watched reports about the anxiety of the United States entering a “Post-Truth” world, where facts, data, and unbiased information are no longer relevant in a political Zeitgeist fueled by passion, assumption, and power.

mall-4-20170116_165428We don’t live in a “Post-Truth” world. Truth is universal: from the dirt to the stars. It’s applicable despite politics, religion (or no religion at all), economic class, gender, or ethnicity. It should still be testable and valid based on the context of the situation of that Truth. It should be the same on a blog, video footage, audio recording, online article, comments section, newspaper, Tweet, or charcoal on a stone wall. Truth provides opportunity, freedom, and justice. Truth exists whether you believe in it or not. It exists whether a President Elect believes in it or not. 
It’s like saying, “I don’t believe in gravity.” Well, gravity doesn’t care. Opinions are not Truth. Truth is Truth, and facts are what bind Truth and provides its durability, its testability. None of its content should lose its credibility despite the source invoking that Truth.
 As citizens of America, or in a broader sense, citizens of the world, it’s our obligation to challenge any authority pushing any edict of “Post-Truth.” Because once we grant someone a pass about “Post-Truth” is the moment when every right can be seized from any of us: one demographic and profession at a time. 
We don’t live in a “Post-Truth” world.

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Posted in History, Personal Tales, politics, Truth Salad with Fiction Dressing, Uncategorized | Leave a comment