Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Taste For It - Sophie Littlefield


Betty Glack might not yet be twenty-three but she had a few things figured out:

First, you had to make use of every asset God gave you unless you wanted to end up at the bottom of the slag pile. And principles? Sure, nice enough, if you wanted to ride them all the way back to Hackensack.

Second, men only wanted you until you wanted them back. She was cursed with a taste for it, though. A man’s breath on her neck, his hand on her thigh, these were the things that lit her up and let her forget what a decade of hard luck had already cost her. Still, she fought it. Pretended indifference. Kissed with her mouth closed.

Betty found a job the week she moved to town, while she was still sleeping on her cousin’s sofa. She knew she’d found the right place from the gleaming Packards and Cadillacs parked out front, the men with their broad shoulders and swagger. She put on lipstick as red as a hibiscus bud, tugged her sweater low on her breasts, took her cousin’s highest heels from the closet without asking – walked in and stood in the middle of the restaurant and pretended to be lost until the manager himself came out to ask if he could help.

Betty had no intention of falling for a restaurant manager. She knew where the power was and she had in mind to work her way up the chain with the trouble boys.

But there was Cabot Hancock, hair touched with silver at the temples, looking like William Powell if he had better posture and a gold-plated watch. Cabot gave her the best station that first day, ensuring that the other waitresses hated her, but Betty had been the target of female envy since grammar school and it no longer bothered her in the slightest. In fact, she had an instinct for cruelty. She’d choose some unfortunate aspect - a shoe with a clunky heel, a rinse that came out drab - and compliment the girl extravagantly until she turned away with her cheeks flaming.

Betty might not make any friends, but that wasn’t what she was here to do.

Cabot wasn’t what she was here to do either, and she turned him down, a little regretfully, when he offered to take her to the beach on her afternoon off.

She turned him down again the next week – he asked her to dinner at a club where Danny Kaye had been seen – and again the next. By then she’d been on a couple of dates with Carmine Reggolo, who collected on the slots for Jimmy G. and picked her up in an Aston Martin after his last stop of the night.

Betty knew that collection men had to get rough now and then. Carmine didn’t talk about that part, but thinking about it gave Betty a shivery feeling. She liked it when he talked about the job, making sure Jimmy G. wasn’t getting ripped off. There was a counter inside the slot machines. You could read the digits if you knew how. They didn’t check that often; every few weeks they had a mechanic come to clean and oil, and he checked the numbers then. The club and restaurant owners weren’t told. Most had no idea the counter was there. As long as the totals matched up, most never would.

You’d have to be out of your mind to skim, anyway. Ripping off Jimmy G. was suicide.

Betty liked Carmine – maybe a little too much. The fourth week she told him she couldn’t see him any more. Drago Fazio had noticed her from his table in the back, where he sat with a couple of tough guys and ran a book. Drago asked Betty to come out with him and listen to some jazz in a club so hot there were lines around the block. Anyone could see that was the better opportunity. They made plans for Saturday.

But when she finished up her shift on Thursday night, she was overcome with the sort of wistful, homesick mood she allowed herself only once in a blue moon. She thought about her mother, frail and tentative even before she got sick. She thought about buying her little sister ice cream with money she stole from the collection basket.

Betty was taking off her starched apron when the mood came over her, and she didn’t notice Cabot watching her until he stepped close behind her and lifted her ginger curls off her neck with warm fingers. He offered a penny for her thoughts. She had to swallow hard, the lump in her throat making her feel vulnerable and younger than she’d felt in a long time.

An hour later Cabot was plunging into her with an intensity that triggered a starry revelation: this must be the kind of passion they always talked about.


But the next day he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He left early with Caroline, the little blonde waitress with the affected drawl, on his arm.

Betty burned, her shame matched only by her fury with herself. She’d broken her own rule. She’d wanted, Lord how she’d wanted, and now she was paying. The other girls smirked at her, banded together with their cigarettes and their pin curls, not bothering to disguise their laughter as Betty wiped down tables with a sour rag.

She made sure Drago escorted her past Cabot when they left for their date, laughing and holding Drago’s arm. His glossy thick hair, his starched shirts, these were charms she could appreciate without putting too much thought into it. She let him light her cigarettes, asked for help untangling her hair from the zipper of her dress, removed his hand firmly but gently from her breast as he kissed her good night.

The next Monday she left after the other girls, then doubled back and slipped in the side door. She’d left a wad of napkins jammed in the outside door to the stock room earlier in the day, so the lock wouldn’t catch. She’d also dragged a chair in and left the inside door open an inch. That stock room: stacked with bottles, boxes, cans, it smelled like musty rags and sweet syrup, stale beer and bleach. She slipped off her rabbit-collar coat and folded it carefully on top of a crate, then settled in to watch through the narrow slit in the door.

She could see right into Cabot’s office. A bulb in the overhead fixture was out. The remaining bulb wasn’t up to the task, and the tiny room was shadowy and dingy. Cabot had one of those memo spikes – he liked to slam papers down on top of it. Ever since their one date, Betty imagined the spike sinking into the soft flesh of his palm.

Now, though, he was smoking, with a vacant, satisfied little smile on his face. Betty was astonished that a man like him, an unexceptional man, could sit alone in the squalor of his own making, having a smoke and being content. Betty was furious, but there were edges of her fury that were unknowable even to her. She saw that contentment was out of her reach now and it always would be. Even if she ended up with Jimmy G. himself. Even if she rode in a long black car and wore diamonds in her hair and never again had to wash out mended stockings at night, she’d still never look like Cabot did, tilted back in that chair with its ripped vinyl seat leaking kapok, with the four smoke-stained windowless walls closing in tight around him – and still smiling.

At last Cabot stubbed out the cigarette and fumbled in the top drawer of the desk. Betty had already checked the desk. She’d made a thorough search of the desk and the filing cabinet and even the coats and sweaters forgotten on the coat rack, and she’d found lighters and matchbooks and slips of paper with girls’ names and phone numbers, but no key.

Something clicked and Cabot tugged at the drawer and out it slid, smooth on its tracks, and of course there it was, the false back wall of the drawer came away and Carmine looped a length of red ribbon around his fingers. The ribbon was frayed and dirty but dangling from it was a key.


The way it worked out, she didn’t even need to sneak back in at night again. Cabot hired a lush brunette with a derriere that looked like it was carved from marble. Elvetta – it sounded like a made-up name to Betty. Cabot gave Elvetta Betty’s shift and demoted Betty to the lunch shift, where you couldn’t make a third of the tips you did at night.

But it meant she came in early, just her and the bartender, Goldy. They took down the chairs and filled the nut dishes and did the setups and after Betty took Goldy in Cabot’s office and shared just a little sample of what she’d learned to do in cramped quarters, he was plenty open-minded about her idea.

Cabot took the money out of the slot machine twice a week, on days when Jimmy G’s men came to collect. She and Goldy would just take a little at a time, she explained, so Cabot would never notice. What was ten, twenty bucks on a weeknight’s take? It barely covered the tips they were missing by working lunch. When Betty explained it that way, it sounded like justice even to her.

The slot man came around a few weeks later for maintenance, but Betty didn’t know about it until she came to work the next morning. A pair of detectives was sitting at a table with Goldy, who gave her a look of pure terror across the room. The rest of the tables still had chairs stacked on them, except for one corner of the room where a fight had clearly taken place. Furniture was overturned, broken glass lay on the floor, and a dark red stain shone dully in the light from the grimy brass fixtures.

Betty found a job closer to the financial district. It wasn’t one of Jimmy G’s joints. No slots, but the businessmen ordered steaks and martinis at lunch and it didn’t take long for a tax attorney with a cold-hearted wife to start asking her if she didn’t think she deserved to have some fun now and then.

She heard Cabot would be able to walk with a cane eventually, but while he was still stuck in a chair he had to let his cousin manage the place. When Elvetta came around asking if Betty’s employer was hiring, she said she’d gone to visit him and Cabot didn’t look too good.


BIO: Sophie Littlefield writes everything from magazine articles to True Confessions to academic textbooks to fiction, along with the occasional Christmas letter, grocery list, and teacher note. Sophie lives in Northern California with her husband and two kids. Checkout Sophie's blog Can't Stop Won't Stop

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Antarctic Expeditioner Son

Antarctic Expeditioner Son
by Hazel Edwards

It was the Antarctic fire that nearly finished me off. Sounds weird doesn’t it. All that ice and fire is the killer. Some climate change!

Maybe I should start at the beginning, with the expedition. I’d been thrilled to pass the medical and get the job as a winterer on the Antarctic Base. So was my Dad for whom Antarctica was THE place like climbing Everest or something. And since his accident, he wasn’t going anywhere physically, so my expedition was his too. He travelled via my emails and digital photos.

I was a bit worried whether I’d cope out on the polar ice, despite the excitement of making it into the crew. The other blokes were very good at their jobs, and I’m new. It was my brother Ben who usually did the adventurous stuff in our family. Not me. But Ben had left us on the night of Dad’s accident.

‘Get past the Shrink and the Quack?’ asked the Dieso. He keeps every engine running on the Antarctic Base, even the generator in the House of Noise, as they call the workshop. A bit like the Doc’s job, I guess. Checking on bodies or engines for the coming winter when we’re iced in from March until November. And fixing us when things go wrong. That worried me too. People die there. I didn’t want to be one of them, not at my age. I’m just starting to do things.


Dieso was just being friendly. I wouldn’t be allowed to work in Antarctica unless I’d passed the medical and answered questions about whether I was likely to go off my head stuck in the ice for months. Then there was the special week’s training with the Fire Brigade back in Tasmania.

‘If the fire alarm goes, so do you,’ warned the Station Leader who is the Boss on base.

‘No worries,’ I said.

‘Reckon you could cope with being the Fire Chief?’ asked the S.L. ‘Not too much work, unless we have a fire. And then the lack of water is a problem.’

‘O.K.’ Everybody has two or three extra jobs. Chef is the nurse, the Met guy is the haircutter (No 1 cut, bald or Mohawk) and the Plumber helps the Doc with operations because he’s good with valves. Dieso makes the home-brew.

‘You’ll get to drive the Red Hag. That’s the fire vehicle,’ says the S.L.

‘O.K.’ That was a thrill.When I was a little kid, I loved the fire engines that screamed out of the depot near our home every time the siren went. Imagine driving one!

‘My job is to keep the Fire Hagg’s engine running,’ said Dieso. ‘You just have to drive it blind in the Blizz and put out any fires. Easy enough?’

‘No worries,’ I said, although inside I was a bit worried. ‘The other guys did the fire training too, so they know what to do.’

Since there’s only ice, and no rain, water matters around here. It’s in short supply for showers and not much left for fighting fires.

‘Good excuse not to shower too often,’ joked the Dieso.

At home, I lift weights, do the odd surf life saving on the beach, but all of us have to do the SAR (search and rescue) training here. You need to know how to haul someone out of the crevasse, those deep, unexpected splits in the ice. Weather changes so fast here. Nine-tenths of icebergs are under the surface. So is the danger in Antarctica, and not just for serious sports freaks with thrill genes.

I’m one of the Tradies, the support staff who keep everything running on the base. Some serious adventurers like Dieso climb the odd iceberg ( banned) or skinny dip in below zero water (once only) or attempt to smuggle in a surf board labelled ‘Scientific supplies’).When I e-mailed home about that, Dad said it was my turn to try new things, but keep within the law. Dad’s always been encouraging; even now he’s in the wheelchair. Then there are the ‘boffins’ as the scientists are known, like the glaciologists , birdos and bios like the ele-seal guys who think elephant seals are beautiful. Ah well, it takes all sorts.

I’ve got a few thrill genes but I was keen on staying alive for the winter. I’d seen those bleak crosses on station out near the penguin colony. I didn’t want mine to be added. The Doc warned us that if we fell into the icy Antarctic water, we’d die in four minutes, or we’d last about four hours if we had the thick polar gear on. Then our hearts would stop. Serious stuff.

“Keep warm,’ Mum said before I left home. ‘And come home safely.’ She was proud I’d been chosen, but… My big brother Ben had always been the adventurer of our family and I’m considered the wimp so this winter, I’ve got something to prove.

‘Antarctica’s cool,’ I said but I wasn’t sure how I’d cope. Iced- in from March through to November. No polar ships. Even the choppers which travel in twos for safety are sent home on the last ship out because they’d get blown away during the blizz. Sometimes I look at the stunning icebergs and couldn’t believe I am here in this ice land at the bottom of the world.

I worried about what might happen until I got here. Then you just had to cope with the extraordinary, as every day stuff. You just did your best. And that’s what happened about the fire too. You just have to cope. So I did, sort of.

We’ve had a few false alarms earlier this season. Like the changeover day Dieso was fork- lifting stores in the Green Shed. Supplies for two years take a bit of organising. (Just in case the resupply ship can’t get back. No supermarkets around here. ) He was posing for a digital shot to e-mail home to his girl friend, and rammed the fork lift into the pallets of frozen fish. They fell, activated the fire alarm and we all turned out in three minutes flat.

That was my trial run as Fire Chief. Luckily it was a false alarm but I did drive the red Fire Hagg to the limit. And everybody turned out in under three minutes.

‘When you mess up in Antarctic, you pay up,’ said Dieso. ‘Sorry mate. I messed up.’

Cost him drinks for everybody that night.

OK, we’ve got hi-tech satellite links, G.P.S., (that’s global positioning systems), and great cold weather gear like Sorelle boots, but the weather’s changing fast and that affects wildlife. Dad’s got a map at home and I e-mail him the coordinates whenever I see any wildlife, like penguins or seals. He plots it on his map.

I’m known as Chippie because I’m the expedition carpenter. I can build anything: cupboards, stairs, and even coffins. Usually I do the painting around the Base and that’s a constant job. And I’m the volunteer Fire Chief. Well, the S.L. said I had the job, so I didn’t really volunteer. Then there’s Sparks the electrician, the Met guys who are the weather experts and the Comm God who keeps up all the satellite links and makes sure the e-mails come in. He’s known as God for short. He also gets out the emergency messages. And this fire was one of them.

So, you could say this week started with a bang.



The fire alarm sounded just after smoko on Monday morning. ‘Smoko’ is a left- over custom from the time construction workers building the Base huts needed a hot meal. They all used to smoke but only a few do now.


‘Fire in the electricity service building,’ yells the Station Leader.
Super-fast, he checks the whiteboard in the Red Shed that has everybody’s whereabouts. You tick yourself in and out of the Base, so the S.L. knows where you are in an emergency. Like now.

‘Get the gear Chippie,’ says the Comm God. ‘And warn the Doc.’

Sometimes, the Doc goes out with the crew. Other times, he gets the hospital operating theatre ready to warm up frozen patients or fix legs broken from falling off Quads.

Once the fire alarm goes, so do you. You move fast. We’re all part of the fire team. You rely on the others for your life. They’re your mates. And you mustn’t let them down.

‘Go Chippie,’ orders the Station Leader. ‘You drive the Fire Hagg. Got the breathing equipment?’


‘The Met guys say a Blizz is coming, fast.’

‘Then go!’

The guys all pile in. I drive as the Red Hagg lumbers across the ice. Slow but steady, the tracks grip the ice. This ice vehicle uses a radio, G.P.S and carries food and bivvy sleeping bags in caswe get caught out. I’d double checked everything earlier.Dieso keeps it fueled.

Chef is yelling from the back but in the driver’s seat, I can’t hear above the straining noise of the Hagg. I put on my ear-muffs and hear him through the speakers. The weather’s bad and the blizz is starting, so outside it’s like peering through milk. Ignoring the front window, I drive using the G.P.S. to navigate.

‘Down at the container wharf Chippie. Hurry,’ yells Chef. He’s trained for a week as a nurse to back up the Doc.

‘That Blizz is minutes away,’ warns the Met Guy peering through the window of the Hagg. ‘Visibility will go down, fast.’

‘I’m watching,’ I peer through the murk. I’m driving blind, trying to see the caned ice- road. They have beer cans on top of canes to mark the edges.The cans show up on the radar. And if it’s not a blizz, you can see the canes. Now I can’t see a thing.

‘Switch to the G.P.S., ‘warns the Met Guy. ‘Blizz will get worse, fast now. Got the bivvy bags?’


Earlier, we had to camp out on the ice in a "bivvy bag" for one training night. A bivvy bag is like a liner for the outside of your sleeping bag that gives you protection from the wind driven snow. In case of emergency you roll it out, slip in your sleeping bag from your pack (which is always carried off station) and jump inside until the worst is over. Maybe we’d need it today?

‘Cool’ says Dieso as the Hagg bumps. He is always the first to jump into the ice, ski over mountains or fly when there’s space on the chopper. I prefer to think before I act.

Blizz happen with no warning.

Beeeep. The radio is squawking. The S.L. is checking on us.

‘Go for the container building. Over.’

We all had that fire training before we left Tasmania, but I didn’t expect to have to use it. It’s a bit like First Aid. Stuff to help other people. You don’t expect to need it yourself, even on an isolated Antarctic base, five days from any help. Nor do you expect to sleep out in a bivvy bag.

The first alarm went off in the container building which has electrical equipment for the space physics division. So I drive blindly in the white murk. This is my first time making decisions for others in an emergency. I’m nervous. What if I get it wrong? I think I’ve got the Hagg as close as possible. Can’t see to check.

‘Are we here yet?’

I switch off. Outside it’s like wading through cream, but the wind whips, even with the freezer suit and furry boots on.

‘This way.’

‘Hurry Mate,’ says God.

Dieso is already out and staggering across the ice. I check the brake before we leave, fast. Don’t want the Hagg lumbering into a snow drift on its own.

Ahead of us, a building looms in the murk. I fumble at the heavy door. The others are right behind me.

‘This way.’

We clatter through the cold porch where you should leave your boots and hang outside gear. When there’s an emergency, like now, you lumber straight through, still wearing the cold weather gear and dropping ice and muck on the floors.
God has big wet feet and leaves marks on the floor.

‘In there,’ he points.

Once inside, you could be anywhere in the world. Store rooms. Labs. Hi-tech equipment. I can smell the burning. Unusual, because in Antarctica, there’s not much smell apart from penguin poo.

We hurry through the lab.

‘This is the sensor which went off.’ Bart the boffin there is freaking out. He’s a brilliant astro-physicist, and works weird hours, but now he stands looking helpless.

Wearing all the breathing gear, I lumber in and check. The others in my fire team check every piece of equipment.

‘This heater is too close.’

A heater had been put too close to a heat sensor. This triggered the alarm.

I’m relieved. It’s simple stuff. I can deal with this.

‘False alarm, ‘I report back on the radio. ‘Just the heater. Some idiot put it too close.’

Then I realise the ‘idiot’ is standing right behind and hears my report. We all do stupid things at times, but most of us don’t have an IQ like Bart.

‘Me, I left it too close,’ admits Bart the boffin. ‘Sorry to pull you out like that…Mate.’

Outside, the wind is shrieking. We cram back into the Hagg; I call the Base that we’re leaving.

‘Okay. Over.’

On our way back from the Fire callout, the blizz has lifted a little and I can see a bit out of the window of the Red Hagg. Instead of full cream milk it looks like streaky meringue. The Base is somewhere ahead of us.

Then the Hagg lurches sideways. Inside the cabin, we fall on top of each other. The Hagg is stuck in the ice just as the wind starts up again. Slotted!
In a crevasse.

‘Oh no!’ It’s not just the danger, it’s embarrassing. Getting the Fire Hagg stuck in the ice and needing to be pulled out.

‘Get the ropes.’

‘We may need the dozer to help,’ says Dieso inspecting the depth of the crevasse. ‘Totally slotted!’

Suddenly our radio goes wild again.

‘Go to the RMU.’

‘No. Go to the Green Store.’

‘No. More smoke coming. Go to the Red Shed.’

Crawling inside, I speak into the radio. ‘This is Chippie. Our Fire Hagg is stuck. We’re slotted in the ice. We’ll come as soon as we can.’

By now, the others have crawled out of the sideways Hagg.

‘Won’t move that without help,’ decides Dieso. ‘Need a tracked vehicle.’

‘Let’s go on foot,’ I say. ‘Deal with the fire call first.’

‘Can’t be in three places at once,’ says Chef.

I make a decision. There are six of us. ‘Split into three crews, with two in each wearing the breathing apparatus. Volunteers can back up with fire extinguishers. Take the other equipment. Quickly.’

We lumber across the ice. The ice is crisp and our boots break a path.
For a few minutes, it’s as if we are the only people in the white world.

Dieso pants. ‘This is heavy going.’

Huts on the base are arranged in a colour coded ring so you can find them once the weather gets bad. The Red Shed is the accommodation, mess and the hospital. Green is the stores. Yellow for met (meteorology) And blue for electrical.

‘The Red Shed should be just ahead,’ I pant.

There it is.

“Look!’ Dieso points, just as the roof explodes with such force, smoke pours out.

‘Anyone inside?’ pants Chef.

‘Yes, the Doc and a few others. ’


The next few minutes are full on. We get inside the Red Shed, just as others are trying to leave. Smoke is billowing. Expeditioners are scrambling to pull on their freezer suits as we lumber up the stairs to the roof above the second floor.

‘Check it Sparks.’ We cough in the smoke. ‘Put on the breathing gear.’

I glance behind at my fire team who look like Martians. In front of me, I see the Doc, wandering out from the hospital, coughing, and just then a beam falls. I grab him and the beam just misses.

‘You okay Doc?’ His head is bleeding.

‘I’ll look after him,’ says the Chef. ‘You look after the fire.’

The hut is burning now. This is serious. We don’t have enough water.
Melt lakes behind the sheds are limited. And there’s only ice, no rain in a desert like Antarctica. And even a fire like this can’t melt enough water! Flames are shooting up.

‘Get the Doc out!’

What matters is someone with a cool head in an emergency. The Chef is good like that. So is the S.L. I’m not so sure about me. On the inside I’m revved and need to keep moving. The training kicks in, and I check things automatically.

Meanwhile, my team has dampened down the fire and Sparks is busy checking the electrical connections.

‘Electrically they’re okay.’

‘It’s some kind of power spike that set off the new fire suppression systems in the three buildings,’ he explains.

In a series of explosions, two of the five Ring Main Unit buildings and the ANARESAT building are heavily damaged. And that is just the start of the problem. Each building holds back up supplies, but the Red Shed is pretty important because of the hospital, the mess and the accommodation. Now it’s looking very damaged.

The CommGod is worried. ‘Satellite connections are down.’

R.M.U are the main power distribution buildings. They matter, big time. No power and everything stops. They carry about 6500 volts.

And the other building controls all the satellite connections. Without those, we’re stuffed. And that’s also what happened. We are cut off.

‘Can you fix them?’ asks the S.L.

‘It’ll take a few hours. The power’s out.’

‘So’s the back up generator,’ Dieso appears from The House of Noise as he calls his main workplace. Under the woollen hat, his face is worried.

And that’s what worries me more. Dieso is the kind of guy who can fix anything. Yellow caterpillar blood in his veins,’ he boasts. ‘Can make any engine with wheels or tracks move again.’ But not today.

No power. And no connection with the outside world. Scary stuff. Even looking back it’s scary, but at the time it was worse. When you don’t know WHEN something will end, the worry is constant. Like Dad stuck in the wheelchair and unsure when I’ll be back.

What if we have to live like this forever? What if no supplies ever come in from the outside again? What if this is all there is for the rest of our life? What if I never see Dad or Mum again?

‘Are you okay Chippie?’

‘Sure, Mate. ’

I wasn’t. But I had to ‘sound’ as if I had it together. You can’t have a leader cracking up because he’s scared of the dark or the cold or…

‘Did a good job handling the fire,’ says the Station Leader.’ We’ll move to the other hut while the Red Shed is being fixed.’

Meanwhile, we have to enter all three buildings to make sure any sparks are out. Seems all right now. But I went back to check later.

Nice to know we’ve been training for this, but I’d rather not test it too often.

Then there was the problem of the slotted Fire Hagg. We had to get that out of the ice. If there was another fire, we needed the Fire Hagg.

‘I’ll help you,’ offered Dieso so we trudged back with extra ropes.

The wind gusts were less, but it was still murky. We attached the ropes. It took hours to move the Hagg a few metres.

‘Blizz is starting again,’ warned Dieso. ‘Better get inside.’

In the end, Dieso and I stayed with the Fire Hagg overnight. So the bivvy bags were useful. Only this time we slept inside the Hagg, not out on the ice.

Luckily the ice around the Base is safer than out in the Great Southern Ocean. But there are crevasses everywhere. You never know when the ice could break away beneath you. That’s why the slow and steady tracked Haggs are used. They’re less likely to fall in than the faster Quads.

Except for this Fire Hagg.

‘It’s like being the ambulance driver who crashes on the way to a patient,’ I say to Dieso as we try to get comfortable in the chilly, sideways vehicle.

‘Or a blind driver,’ says Dieso.

‘My Dad had a bad car accident last year. He’s in a wheelchair now.’ I say and then wonder why that came out now. Normally I don’t talk about Dad much. ‘M’brother was driving.’

Dieso nods. “ Accidents make you think.’

When things go wrong in Antarctica it’s called Sod’s Lore or The Big A.
Not just the icebergs are big in Antarctica. Because of the distance, so is any problem. I feel as though I’ve failed as Fire Chief because I slotted the Fire Hagg.

‘Happens all the time,’ says Dieso. ‘Took us ages on the ropes to get the Station Leader’s Quad out of a crevasse. The Doc had to set his broken leg. Don’t know if the S.L. mentioned that in his report to the Division.’

We laugh together. That night, we sit in the dark, with Dieso telling tall stories.

‘You know how The Division bans the risky extreme sports. Para-gliding, surfing, iceberg climbing and ice caving are banned,’ says Dieso as he shrugs into his bivvy bag.

I nod but Dieso can’t see me in the dark.

Dieso says, ‘I’ve ticked off those four here. Also climbed a ‘berg, just before it rolled. ‘Berg climbing is banned now too. Hard to claim a record for something which is banned. Always wanted to climb Big Ben, the active volcano on Heard Island. Has only been summited twice. It’s out of bounds.’

‘So who were the other two climbers?

‘That’s what the Division asked too.’
We laugh together and I suddenly feel very alive and more confident that tomorrow, we’ll be moving the Fire Hagg again. It’s good to have mates out here. Dad will enjoy these stories when I email him. Ben would have liked having a mountain named after him.

We’d been warned on the very rough voyage out, that if we fell through the polar ice, we’d die in four minutes, unless we wore the survival suit. We’d last slightly longer with the life jacket, polar immersion suit and woollen clothes underneath. I understood but it didn’t seem real. Such deep water beneath the polar ice. A quick change from warmth to very cool danger. Like now.

‘Grab that rope.’ My fingers are freezing inside the double gloves.


Dieso and I had a cold night in the Fire Hagg which we’d managed to haul out this morning, with the help of the rest of the fire crew who arrived with extra ropes and the big Dozer known as Mr Muscles.

‘Ok. Pull.’

‘Now, back to Base. They need us.’

I was happy to get the Fire Hagg back but also a bit embarrassed that it has been out of action due to my driving in the Blizz.

‘Is the Fire Hagg functioning now?’ asks the Station Leader who stays back at the Base coordinating news. The Red Shed looked a bit smoke damaged but the Chef served a make-shift meal in the mess.

‘Yes. Fire Hagg is fine. So’s the crew.’

‘Getting slotted happens to the best of us.’ The S.L. smiles. ‘Guess you heard about the Doc patching me up last season?’

‘Yes. How’s the Doc?’

‘Chef sewed him up.That instant nursing course paid off.. But the plumber fainted. He might be good with valves, but he hates blood.’

I know how he feels. Training helps, but doesn’t affect the way you feel about scary jobs.

‘So I heard. What’s happened here in the Red Shed?’

‘The Pyrogen fire suppressant system misfired.’


‘This caused internal scorching and an intense build up of pressure within each building. That’s what caused the explosions which lifted and warped the roofs on all three buildings.’

‘Unreal,’ says the Dieso to the S.L. who nods.

‘I have to e-mail a report back to Headquarters in Hobart but the satellite links are down. No power. Could be out for hours, The Sparkies are working on it.’

‘External phones are out.’

‘No e-mail links.’

When you don’t know if or when something is going to end, it always seems ages. While the Sparkies and Comms Gods, feeling very lucky to be intact, work furiously to get power up again, the rest of us on station realise what it meant not having electricity or external communications.

‘Do your obs, the old fashioned way,’ the S.L. instructs the Met Guys.


Instead of hi-tech, the Met team starts taking their surface observations the old fashioned way. Weather reports matter big time in Antarctica. You need to know when things are going to change. Otherwise you might get caught on the ice for days.

‘Read the mercury thermometers directly. Write down the observations,’ says the S.L.

After a few hours, the Met Guys look as if they’re actually enjoying taking observations the old fashioned way. They can still release their observation balloons, but they can’t track all the results.

But then we realize the major problem. It is in the lab.

‘These samples might thaw,’ reports Stan, one of the boffins. He is holding his breath, watching the temperatures on the culture cabinets slowly rising.

I laugh. We’re surrounded by Antarctic ice and the boffins are worried about the temps going up!

‘The A Factor!’ says the S.L. “Let me known if things get worse.’

Meanwhile, we tradies have urgent work to do.

Turns out the emergency wasn’t falling down a crevasse, or getting blizzed out, it was a polar fire.

By midnight, the satellite connections were made.
I wrote my family an e-mail to go out once we had power again.

HiyaDad& Mum,

There’s an ice mountain named after you and Ben here. So now there are three Bens. It was like you were with me here.

How is life in the land of sunlight and warmtemperatures? I won't be knocking Melbourne's weathers any more. At present we have only just 4 hours of daylight and this weeks our average temp was a fresh minus -25 so Melbourne is looking good. Sorry about the time since the last E mail as we have been flat out. You may find that hard to believe from a Government employee. Had a fire, but it’s okay now.

Frozen Cheers


Only memories and photos you’re supposed to take from Antarctica but I brought home something illegal to show Dad. A chip of iceberg ice in a plastic bottle. Just to remind me, of the Antarctic fire on ice. And I’ll decide whether to tell Dad that the four wheeled all terrain bikes here are called Quads because of their four wheels. Just like his wheelchair.

BIO: Australian Hazel Edwards was writer on ice in 2001. with the Australian Antarctic Division. has details of her internationally published Antarctic multi-media and the classic picture book ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, a recent Australian Govt gift to the Danish Princess..’ Co-written ‘Formula for Murder’ is her only adult crime novel but she’s written YA novels such as ‘Stalker’ and Fake ID” and has ‘Making a Killing at the Pokies’ in forthcoming anthology ‘Short & Twisted’

Friday, January 4, 2008

Jail Birds - Hazel Edwards

Jail Birds

I was in jail, but not for the usual reasons.

My type of sentence didn’t make the encircling, high greystone walls any less
forbidding. The clanging wallgate, heavy padlocks and rattling circles of barbed wire
were overwhelming to anyone afflicted with imagination.

I’d been seduced by Helen’s Peacedove Publications scheme. Plus the urgency of my Visa card debt. Running ‘peace’ writing workshops in the former maximum security prison, with me, a former crime- writer in-residence, was her brainwave, and mine! Turned out to be a fitting place to work and die.

Crime Writer-in –Residence

Only a submission-writer- extraordinaire like Hel (as we call her) could have convinced arts funding authorities to part with $100,000 for creating an ‘Age of Peace’ exhibition of writing and illustrations. There would be 100 contributors. Each would represent an age between 1- 100. (They’d had trouble finding the 100year old and the baby’s artwork was messy but…) All attended my workshops on site in the gaol hall next to the former gallows. Creating literature of peace would neutralise a formerly violent location and create an oasis of creativity amidst the grey. That’s what Helen, large, literate and with ripples of bulges under her see-through top and eco-sandals, wrote in the submission.

The reality was an on-location fight with ‘Jailbirds’, the ex-prisoners’ society who got funding from the same ‘worthy cause-needy’ arts politician to launch re-employment initiatives for ex-prisoners. Pre-election, he needed favourable media coverage.

‘Jailbirds’ spent their money differently, at Cynthia’s instigation. Cyn was still a practising con-artist to the petite tips of her corporate Vogue patterned nails.

She’d been the last female prisoner released prior to the prison being declared a tourist attraction with heritage listing, so an astute journalist was commissioned to ‘ghost’ the real- life- and- true- crimes of Cynthia.

Successfully rehabilitated, Cyn had set up her own electronic publishing company. Jail Bird Press was in full flight, especially with the government handout, and competing with Peacedove Publications for media attention. Rent-free, the prison site was a gift.

‘Share the site, ‘instructed the money-givers. ‘Dual launch. On the same day. Cyn and Hel.’ Am I the only one to laugh at the proximity of those names?

Helen’s Peacedove Publishing was to print limited edition, exhibition catalogues to go with the Peace literary display. Jail Bird Press were launching electronically on the Internet. ‘Symbolic. No walls,’ said Cyn whose ghosted autobiography was a work of faction as well as being the easiest government con she’d managed since her trial. White collar computer crime with Internet connections was her specialty. Her prison-funded Info. Tech. university course had kept her up to date, And, with an election approaching, the politician needed Cyn’s ‘public success’ as a model of rehabilitation.

‘Symbolic,’ muttered Helen. “Nets. Network.” Cyn’s ability to attract funds others believed should be diverted into the arts, incensed Helen. ‘Con-artist. Even her ghost writer isn’t identified.’

‘Common practice,’ I explained. ‘I use several pseudonyms myself.’

Worthy causes had a hierarchy and Helen believed the arts higher than rehabilitated criminals. And above eco-issues. Especially those who demonstrated superior skills of self publicity.

I didn’t necessarily agree, but I’d learnt to stay quiet and keep in the background recently. Large debts make well -paid work vital. And there isn’t much around for a freelance writer, regardless of record.

We were walking in the hospital grounds separated from the major prison, with a veranda and a small herb garden. Cyn had left, with her disks, modem and laptop, but I’d managed to miss being introduced.

That rosemary in the ex-prison hospital herb garden planted by forgotten inmates gave Helen the idea. Ironic really, considering that rosemary means remembrance. Could a fictitious sleuth of peace called Rosemary reveal links in stories? Maybe there was a herb with dual properties? The profusion of sweet smelling herbs didn’t quite blot out the other scents of the past.

That’s when Helen remembered and came up with the ‘dove’ angle. Amongst Helen’s extensive network was Anne who ran a celebratory business releasing doves at weddings. The doves were photographed sitting on the smiling bride.

‘Do they…you know…drop?’ I asked naively.

‘Anne says they don’t drop. Dried out beforehand.’ said Helen. ‘Remember, doves mean peace. Right?’

I nodded. Peace-work here was full of commercial conflict. Jail Bird Press would be in front on electronic reader numbers based on possible web site visits. Helen had to stress quality, creativity and innovation with her traditional pages. Hence the bird launch.

‘What if we released some white doves, to fly out over the prison walls during the launch?’ said Helen.

‘Sunday is a quiet media day. Get good coverage.’ I add.

‘More interesting than televising boring computer screens and modems,’ muttered Helen.

But then something went wrong... And the bird book war began. Jail Bird versus Peace Dove. Electronic versus pages. And I was involved in the multiplicity of events.


‘Why are you here to help us?’ would-be peace writers asked me at the meal break between workshopping. ‘Don’t you usually write about crime? Are you researching?’

‘Sentenced to creativity,’ I quipped. A condition of the residency was that I stayed ‘on-site’ for the week. That meant sleeping in a cell-bedroom in the former prison hospital.

Ironic to accommodate ‘artists’ who tend to be highly sensitive to surroundings in a former maximum-security prison setting. But cheaper for the organiser. My cell-inmate predecessor had a newspaper clipping pinned on the back of the door. ‘Owl rescued.’ A young boobook owl had been found clinging to a cross in the prison chapel. Zoo keepers using nets, took 45 minutes to catch and release the owl which they feared would starve inside.

Later that night, I noticed an owl sitting on my veranda. Delighted to find a possible non-violent topic like a wise owl in a prison, I welcomed its presence.

‘Use the prison as a resource for your writing of PEACE,’ orders Helen. ‘Concentrate on something uplifting.’

‘An owl?’ I suggested.

Was that wise, with the gallows just down the passageway?

Sleeping alone in a hospital prison cell is like being on an island. Coiled barbed wire rattles above the exercise yard. Outside, yellow spotlights ring the stark walls and create shadows around the fences, when I peered through my cell bars.

Daytimes were okay, as I was busy workshopping with some of the chosen 100. At night, I kept the passageway light on.

Noises. Creaks. Flutters. Dusk and midnight tours. $10 with tiny torches provided, operating on Wednesday and Friday nights. Through my barred ‘bedroom’ I see waving torches pinprick the night. Then Helen suggests, ‘Why don’t you take the midnight tour. Soak up some atmosphere.’

The 45 minute midnight tour left early at 7.30 p.m. Strange timing.

‘Suicide nets.’ The guide pointed to the nets across the second floor stairwell. ‘Prevents prisoners jumping.’

Then the guide mentioned the Gallows Owl. ‘The owl fed on mice. Probably lived in the cell block. Prisoners bet on which end of the landing it would fly, when a hanging was pending. If the owl flew to the north, the man would be reprieved. If it flew south, he would be condemned,’ said the guide.

‘How long do owls live?’ I asked.

‘Years,’ he said vaguely.

I didn’t mention this story to the peace-writers.

Tonight, there’s a dark shape on my veranda. The owl flies up and down. Compass directions never have been my strong point.


Keys take on special significance in a prison. I’d been given a set of keys to let myself in at the padlocked side gate, just under the watch tower. Exercise yard panels have meticulously painted murals, created by aboriginal prison artists, just before closure. Prior to that, walls were white-washed, for warders to see the shadows of figures attempting to escape.

I blink and grab my new glasses. Someone or something was moving in the shadows near the wall. A door creaked. Should I get up and go to the toilet. My bladder insisted. I glanced through the open door of the second cell bedroom. Light came through the bars.

A dark shape waited, framed against the barred cell window. Was the owl back? Why?

I took a step back. I was alone. That fear would niggle all night if I got into bed without investigating. I stepped into the spare cell.

What a relief!

The bedside lamp! The shadowy outline looked like a waiting gallows owl.

But beyond, in the yard, a thin line of figures was moving! Someone was out there. At 3 a.m. in the morning.

I didn’t want to complain. I knew how hard Hel had tried to get funding for this project, but… I screamed, then grabbed my camera and took a shot. The last figure in the line vanished through the wall gate, which was supposed to be locked!

Next morning, launch day chaos prevailed! No time to worry Helen about shadowy figures in the night. The 100 plus contributors, family and hangers-on crowded the Peacedove Publications display. The Jailbirds supporters were milling. The doves were ready for release. Then it happened!

A strategic deposit by the low flying peace bird hit Cyn’s keyboard causing an electronic malfunction. Lights went out. The power went off. A smell of burning.


Then the prison was evacuated.

The subsequent electrical fire destroyed the ‘Jail Bird Press’ launch. Some did suspect that Helen had allocated an abnormally high percentage of her budget to ‘peace-birds’ release, but she couldn’t be blamed for natural disasters or ‘acts of bird’.

Then, falling masonry hit the leading dove of peace just as it was released in the hospital herb garden. Later, they buried the bird in the rosemary herb section. For safety reasons. the Heritage Trust closed the grounds to the public which also included t.v. news crews. Helen missed out on her publicity as the exhibition was closed.

Later, I found out about the midnight visitors. Stan, an ex-warder and amateur electrician, ran an illicit 3 a.m. prison tours business.. Somehow he’d managed to keep a wallgate key when the others handed theirs in. So he had access to the prison.

“Moonlighting’ as a guide for exclusive Japanese tourist groups he conducted ‘night visits’ at $20 per head, and cleaned up thousands of dollars weekly. Cyn took a cut.

There was some suspicion that he might have fiddled with her computer connections, especially as his illicit activities were threatened by exposure in her book. .And even
though the shit hit the laptop, bird shit was unlikely to electrocute, unless it had a little earlier help.

Unexpectedly, her death gave a boost to Cyn’s ‘Jailbird’ autobiography and she took on cult status amongst cyber-crime fans. It became the most frequently downloaded title.

The ‘worthy-cause needy’ politician was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs so he abandoned support for arts or prison rehabilitation. During a cabinet reshuffle he redirected funds to overseas aid. After it was discovered that Cyn had already cleaned out the accounts by electronic transfer, the politician refused to support any further publishing ventures.

A ghost-writer was commissioned to write the as-told-to story of the Gallows Owl with merchandising and electronic rights to be retained by the Ex-Prisoners rehabilitation group. I managed to get that job too, under one of my other pseudonyms. I’ve always believed in the participant-observer approach to writing. When you’re dealing with egos named like Hel and Cyn, and need to understand their motivations, it helps to have had some experience in their worlds. Theoretical peace is different from real crime which differs from virtual reality.

I’d managed to avoid meeting Cyn face-to-face by keeping the communications on line. My c.v. didn’t mention my electronic Internet fraud conviction nor my simultaneous career as ghost writer for Cyn and peace-writer for Helen. Easy enough to change data. Originally a freelance was a medieval mercenary; just a lance for hire.

So I’m just a cyber-freelance, with Internet connections. And Helen has gone into business with her friend Anne, diversifying into launching other birds in preparation for the Gallows Owl launch.

BIO: Australian Hazel Edwards has been writer in residency in Fremantle Jail, now a children’s gallery, but this story is fiction. Was also Antarctic writer on ice in 2001. with the Australian Antarctic Division. has details of her internationally published work including the classic picture book ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, a recent Australian Govt gift to the Danish Princess..’ Co-written ‘Formula for Murder’ is her only adult crime novel but she’s written YA novels such as ‘Stalker’ and Fake ID”

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Stump of a Tree - r2

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Stump of a Tree

The strangest man in the world came to town about a year ago.

People don’t come to this town. They leave.

At one time, it had been a pretty good town. But no more. It had once been a nice little bedroom community for a huge auto plant in nearby Anderson, Indiana. But the plant closed years ago and our town started closing down too. About the only people who stayed were older folks who didn’t see any other options that made a lot of sense. There were a handful of people scattered throughout younger age groups that didn’t have any other options, period. And me. I found another better-paying job in another state but turned it down. Then I stopped looking.

I stayed here because I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I had a job. I felt comfortable with the people I knew, even if most of them were older than me. I liked my home. I liked my bar. I liked the diner in town a lot. I ate there everyday. I couldn’t imagine having lunch anywhere else. I couldn’t imagine living in another home or going to another bar or doing anything else on Friday nights than attending local high school football games and basketball games. That was pretty much my problem, I guess. I wasn’t one for imagining things. What-ifs made me feel uncomfortable.

My town, Tivoli, Indiana, wasn’t near anything worthwhile. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere worth going. It didn’t have anything worth seeing. It was just a town with half the businesses shuttered up, a few old man bars, a truly spectacular diner, a library that no one used, two gas stations, an old doctor, an older dentist and a drunk lawyer. It had an abandoned stock car track south of town. An abandoned glass factory also south of town. Some abandoned car lots. Abandoned churches and lumber yards here and there. Abandoned hope everywhere.

In a small town you run across some strange folks. When I was growing up, when things were good and the future was fine, some off-the-wall folks here and there were part of everyday life. We didn’t think much about them. My kindergarten teacher was an old maid who had once gone to bed for twenty years because her fiancĂ© left her standing at the alter. There were four or five farmers who got together in a pole barn outside of town and smoked belladonna every Saturday night. One of the town dentists, we had two at the time, used to have a bucket by his dental chair for discarding extracted teeth. His cure for any dental problem was to pull a tooth or two. And he only emptied the bucketful of teeth when it started overflowing, about once every year and a half. He simply threw the teeth on the roof of the one story building next door from his second story window.

He was the one that stayed.

When a town starts going sour, as Tivoli did, people get even stranger. More people talk to themselves or the phantoms walking beside them. They talk louder and gesture more wildly. There’s more vandalism. There’s more graffiti that makes less sense. A church that worships UFOs is founded.

So, in a town of strange, you had to really zig-zag outside the lines to be called that. And Ringo Wink Pitchwinger was, as everyone who met him agreed, one of the strangest acts in our dying circus of a town.

He looked strange. He dressed strange. He talked strange. He had a strange name, for cryin’ out loud. He made it even stranger by the way he introduced himself.

“I’m Ringo Wink,” he would say in his voice that jumped around from high-pitched to low-pitched like a nervous adolescent on speed, but you can call me Wink, winky-wink-wink,” he would say while winking his loopy left eye.

Behind his back people called him Winky Wall Eye.

He was moderately tall, about six feet two, and very, very skinny except for a round little potbelly that looked like he had swallowed a playground kickball. He had one blue eye and that crazy brown eye. His skin was a delicate shade of Elmer’s Glue-All with a cellulose sponge complexion that spoke of teenage years squeezing zits. His hair was saddle brown and stringy with a bald spot that was a thick stripe down the center of his scalp for a reverse-Mohawk effect. He had a Dave Letterman gap in his front teeth. He smiled all the time.

His clothes were clean but silly. No natural fibers were to be found anywhere in his wardrobe. He usually wore sky-blue, too-short, Sans-a-belt slacks, short-sleeved shirts in Starburst candy colors of some shiny material that was so thin you could see the wife-beater undershirt underneath, neon-colored socks with two stripes at the top and PF Flyers tennis shoes, black with pencil-eraser colored soles.

Women found him creepy. Children found him scary. Men found him full of it, but funny. I found him at Annie’s Diner. Or, rather, he found me.

I was having Dixie’s Diablo Mixed Meat hash with poached eggs. It was one of the Diner’s specialties and my favorite. I was at the point where the spices, peppers and whatever else mixed into it that elevated regular Mixed Meat hash to Diablo, were beginning to make my scalp tingle and forehead pop tiny beads of sweat.

He walked in and sat down.

Annie’s wasn’t one of those places you just walked in. Everything about it screamed old grease and bad food. The windows facing the street were buggy on the outside and smeary on the inside. Scotch-taped on them were all sorts of Xeroxed flyers in various shades of white, dirty white, and sunfaded colors. If anyone wanted to tape something up, they could. Annie never took anything down. Never. I know there was a missing cat flier from 1988.

Against one wall were booths with cracked vinyl seats and dirty-yellow foam rubber trying to escape. When Annie and her sister, Dixie, felt unusually energetic, they slapped some duct tape over the cracks. The wall beside the booths was decorated with anything anyone wanted to tack up, also. There were old insurance calendars, football schedules from jr. high and high school, business cards from real estate people and tri-fold brochures hawking who-knows-what.

When Wink sat down, Annie walked over and gave him a menu featuring mainly breakfast food, served all day, a few soups and many chilis, from Chili Blanco made with chicken and white corn, to Cincinnati Chili served on top of spaghetti. The grease may have been old but the food was good.

“Need some coffee, honey?” Annie asked. Strangers were called “honey” and regulars were called “sugar” if unmarried, “darlin’” if married.

Wink did his Ringo Wink, winky-wink-wink bit.

Annie smiled and asked him again about the coffee.

“I like my coffee like I like my women, black and full-bodied,” he said.

Annie’s stopped smiling and snorted. The only other time I had heard her snort was when the county health inspector came around and told her the hanging lightbulb above the grill wasn’t up to code and needed to be encased in something so it wouldn’t shatter and get glass in the food.

“If it ever shatters and glass gets in the food, we’ll throw the food away,” she said. But he wasn’t convinced, so she eventually bolted it to the wall and put a screenwire cage around it.

After Wink described his coffee preference he proceeded to tell no one in particular but everyone in the place some unfunny, corny yet borderline offensive jokes. No one even laughed politely, which was unusual considering most of the people were of the age that compelled polite laughter for anyone trying their hand at humor, especially strangers.

He cleared out Annie’s in a hurry.

I stuck around because his bad jokes and silly banter amused me.

In fact, I kind of stuck around most of the afternoon because I didn’t have anything better to do.

“What do you see in that jerk?” people in town would ask me.

“Well, for one thing I enjoy his B.S. He makes me laugh. And, deep down, I think he’s a nice guy.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“I just don’t like him,” Annie told me one of the few times I was hanging out at the diner without him.

“I also think, I’ve seen him before, I just can’t figure out where,” she said.

Another old coot sitting in the diner, Gifford Brown, told me practically the same thing,
“He’s been around here before,” Gifford said. “I’m sure of it.”

Gifford looks to me like he’s had some chromosome damage. People in town say he’s “touched in the head.” He usually doesn’t talk much and when he does say something it usually has nothing to do with what anyone else is talking about and rarely has much to do with reality. So, it was rather odd that he said something not odd.

However, I asked Wink about what they said and he said he’d never even been in the state of Indiana before.

Wink and I usually met at the diner and I’d have my Diablo Hash and poached eggs or mile-high meatloaf and he’d have a cup of coffee and a plate of crinkle-cut fries.

Annie didn’t say much to us when we were together. The few times I came in alone she had plenty to say.

“You’re a pretty nice guy. That Wink clown is going to get you in trouble,” she’d say.

There were whispers in town that we were a gay couple. We weren’t. I wasn’t.

After spending some time at the diner, I would go back to work and meet him at the Tic-Tock Bar afterward. We’d drink boilermakers until closing and tell stories and joke around. The guys in the bar eventually accepted him and grew to appreciate his silly stories, bad jokes and drunken banter.

Then he fell in love with a stump.

One Friday night he wanted me to take a drive out in the country instead of taking him home to the apartment he rented above the old five and dime, which was now a consignment shop.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Just drive,” he said.

So I drove up and down gravel roads west of town, turning left or right when he told me. We drove until a little past four and finally he asked me to take him home.

The next night, after the bar closed we did the same thing. Sunday, after I went to church, we drove around again, only this time we were sober. Finally, around midnight, he asked me to stop. We were on the county line road next to the abandoned Rutherford farm. I pulled the car over to the side of the road.

He got out of the car. He walked around a squinting at the fields.

“Turn in here,” he said.

“There’s nowhere to turn,” I said.

“C’mon, do the old Winkmeister a favor and turn in,” he begged.

I didn’t much like the idea. Even though there wasn’t a fence, I was afraid of getting stuck. However, there did seem to be an old lane running into the heart of the farm, although it was overgrown with weeds. So, I turned in and drove for about 100 yards until the vegetation seemed to be fighting back a little too much.

“Satisfied?” I asked.

“You ain’t got what it takes to satisfy the Winkman,” he said.

The car made its usual clicks and pops of a heated engine cooling down.

“Let’s get out,” he said.

“Wink, I’m tired, let’s head back,” I said.

“C’mon, let’s get out a take a walk. The Winkster doesn’t ask for much.”

“The hell you don’t. For the past three days we’ve been driving around all over the damn county.”

“I’ll give you some money for gas.”

“Whatever. Anyway, I’m tired and want to go home.”

“Please? Pretty please with titties on top?” That’s the kind of politically incorrect stuff Wink said. You’d laugh and feel guilty at the same time.

“Oh, alright,” I said.

“Geeze you’re a pain in the butt,” I added just to keep the grumble going.

So we started walking further back from the road. It was hard going because the land had little knots and holes in it, and there were rocks and old cans and stuff to trip you up. We crossed a dry creekbed and up a bit of a hill. At the top of the hill we turned left and made our way through an overgrown mess of trees, burrs and thorny things. I followed Wink silently because he seemed to know where we was going.

Finally, we came to a clearing.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked.

“What?” I said. I could barely see anything in the darkness.

“This area. This tree.”

“What tree?”

“This tree,” he said, pointing.

“Wink, that isn’t a tree.”

“It was a tree.”

“It isn’t now.”

“But it was. It was once a beautiful walnut tree. Full of life. A strong, hard tree. ”

I chuckled because Wink never talked like that. Those words sounded funny coming from him. But he wasn’t kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure, because there wasn’t much light, but I could’ve sworn I saw a tear at the corner of Wink’s eye.

“Let’s sit awhile,” he said as he sat on the stump.

It was about four feet across and rose up off the ground about a foot.

So we sat. I didn’t think this would be a good time to talk, so I didn’t. Wink didn’t. I could hear a train rumbling in the distance and some wildlife sounds I couldn’t identify, except for the crickets.

Finally, after about 15 minutes, Ringo sighed dramatically.

“Are you ready to go?” He asked.

“Yea, I guess,” I said.

It seemed like a good time to bring up something.

“You know Wink, I Googled you the other day,” I said.

“I must’ve been pretty damn drunk, ‘cuz I sure as hell don’t remember it,” he said. “Was it good for you?”

“No, I’m serious,” I said.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“What don’t you understand?”

“This word Google.”

“You don’t know what Google is?” I asked.

“No friggin’ clue. Sounds dirty, though.”

I didn’t believe him. I thought I had seen a laptop at his place one time when I dropped him off and had to walk him upstairs. He also seemed pretty current in his thinking. He would know Gooogle. But I let it drop.

“Anyway, I looked you up on the computer, the internet.”

“What did it say about me?”



“You don’t exist. Your name doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a name Pitchwinger. There’s not even one in the New York phone directory.”

“Yet I do exist, don’t I?”

“Yes you do.”

“See, computers don’t know everything.”

“I guess not.” I was too tired to argue.

Later, on the way home, he said, “maybe Pitchwinger is my stage name.”

“You were on stage?”

“I’m always on stage, my friend,” he said.

“Tell me how the play turns out,” I said.

“Probably not happily,” he replied.

That was the last time I ever broached the subject.

Wink disappeared after that. I didn’t see him the next day. Or,the next. And the days turned into weeks. I wondered if he had left town, although I never checked his apartment. Annie, at the Diner seemed a bit nicer to me, although she never mentioned him. In fact, no one ever mentioned the lack of Wink.

It was as if my little town could only accept so much strange. Wink was just a little too much. The town wanted to slowly die with what little dignity it had left. Wink wanted to paint it in clownface and dress it in slapshoes and throw creampies until the very end.

Wink had left no mark. He had affected no one. To me, his so-called best friend, his departure seemed neither bad nor good. It just was. His memory was a vapor. It rapidly dissipated. I remembered he looked strange but I couldn’t remember his face. I didn’t miss him. On the other hand, I wasn’t glad he was gone. My life was neither richer nor poorer for having known him.

The odd routine of Tivoli, Indiana, quickly reverted to what it was before Wink.

Seven and a half weeks passed.

It was half past noon in Dixie’s Diner.

I was battling the demons of the Diablo hash yet again. Gifford was talking nonsense to no one. The drunk lawyer was nursing a hangover.

The door to the diner opened. One of the old-timers stopped in mid-sentence a harangue about Paris Hilton. Annie tensed. Gifford stopped talking.

“Hey buddy boy, how’s your hammer hanging?” Wink asked before the door had even slammed shut.

Thus began the subtle change that was life in Tivoli with Wink. Annie got a little grouchier. The old coots left Hollywood behind and gossiped about Wink instead. Gifford’s gibberish revolved around knowing Wink.

Wink and I began again our nightly drinking. I didn’t realize how much I missed his profanity-stained humor until I was around him. It was comfortable and kept the mood light. Once in awhile, I even laughed.

However, the complexion of the nights took on a different hue than before. If Wink got too drunk, he would insist we visit the stump. I really didn’t like going out to the stump. But, I didn’t dislike it enough to make a fuss about it. So, about three nights a week, sometimes four, we ended up sitting on the stump and staring at stars.

Wink’s mood would change when we were at the stump. The innuendos and schoolyard jokes would stop. His drunken slur would become almost romantic.

One time he said to me: “I love this place.”

“What Tivoli?” I asked.

“No, here, right here,” he said.

“This tree stump.”

“You guessed ‘er, Chester.”

“You love this tree stump.”


“You’re not right.”

“Never claimed I was. Don’t you like it out here?”

“Wink, I’m not quite as fond of it as you are. In fact, there are many places I like a whole lot better,” I said.

“Well, you just don’t know much about what’s important in life.”

I couldn’t think of an answer, so I didn’t say anything. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was important about a tree stump.

Most of the nights when Wink and I ended up at the stump, I could tell what was going to happen pretty early. Wink would order two shots with his beer and that was my clue to slow way down, because I was going to be doing some driving. In fact I would pace myself with glasses of water and stick to beer, skipping the Bourbon.

One night, however, I’m ashamed to say, that I didn’t pace myself very well. And in our drunk-logic, we figured it was a good idea if we stopped off at a package store and got a bottle of Wild Turkey to pass around.

I had this feeling that the night sounds were somehow a little different around the stump. But maybe it was just the liquor.

We sat with our backs against the stump and passed the pint bottle back and forth. We were about three-quarters of the way through the bottle when a man stepped out from the shadows of the woods.

I couldn’t see him very well in the darkness, but he appeared to have a shaved head and was wearing dark clothing.

He walked briskly, purposefully and in a straight line to within three feet of Wink, staring straight at him the entire time. I noticed the man was holding something in his right hand, down by his side. He didn’t once even look at me.

“Greg Day?” He asked.

“How did you find me?” Wink asked.

“You are Greg Day, aren’t you?” The man asked.

“No, his name is,..” I didn’t finish because Wink nodded “yes” and the man raised his gun and blew Wink’s head off. He fired two more shots into Wink’s chest.

He turned his back on me and calmly walked back into the shadows. I had blood and bits of Wink all over me.

At first the county Sheriff thought I was involved somehow. Or at least that’s the way it seemed. He questioned me on and off for twelve hours. Finally, even though he thought my description of the shooter was “lame”, he let me go.

A day later a team from the FBI showed up. They questioned me, too, but only for an hour. They seemed to believe I had nothing to do with Wink’s death. It was almost as if they didn’t care.

On that very same day, they found the remains of the first child. They eventually found twelve others. Eleven of them were girls between the ages of 5 and 11 and had gone missing during a five-year span that ended 13 years ago. One was a young girl buried two months ago, sometime during the period when Wink went missing. All of them had been tortured and molested. All of them were from within a ten-mile radius of Tivoli, but none from the town itself. I heard that there were other children’s graveyards in other cities in the Midwest that the authorities attributed to Wink.

I never did find out who the stranger was who had finished off Wink. Maybe it was a rogue FBI agent. Maybe it was the father or brother of one of the girls killed. Maybe it was some sort of bounty hunter.

In a small town, even one that was a little peculiar like Tivoli, there are lines you shouldn’t cross. My friendship with Wink crossed it. I heard the whispers and the gossip and the innuendos. People were polite to me, but there was a certain brittleness whenever they talked to me. Most people thought that somehow I was involved in the last child’s death. There was nothing else to explain why Wink and I were together so much.

I always realized I didn’t have much of a future in Tivoli. Now I knew I didn’t have much of a present, either.

It was time to leave.

BIO: r2 has been published in Mysterical-E, Out of the Gutter, Nefarious and DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash as r2. His non-fiction stuff's been in Playboy, Esquire and Vanity Fair under another name.