Big Air

My nephew and I had always been close, but when he called instead of texting and asked me to meet him at his home, I knew something was up.

I drove to where Josh and his partner lived, high in the foothills, a few miles from me. He answered the door with a smile and a “How you doing, Kenny?”

I told him I was fine, but quickly cut to the chase, “What’s going on? You doing okay?”

For the last six months he’d been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. It was in remission, but still, you never knew.

“I’m good, I just want to talk to you about something.” He motioned me inside. “And no,” he added with a grin, “it’s not cancer related. The treatments are working just fine.” We walked through the welcome coolness of his stucco home to his shaded back patio. “Have a seat.”

I was getting antsy, but did as I was told.

He looked past me down the long sloping hill toward Lake Havasu, five miles away. The fresh, clean desert air seemed to invigorate him. “I’ve got a big favor.”

“What’s up?”

“Funny you should put it that way,” he laughed. “I want to go on a hot air balloon ride for my fortieth birthday. I want you to come with me.”

I gulped. Jesus, that wasn’t fair. I loved Josh with all my heart, but I have to be clear: I was deathly afraid of heights. I paid a guy to climb a ladder to clean debris off my one-story roof, for Pete’s sake. Elevators at the mall made me queasy. Ride in a car in the mountains? No way. But this was my nephew asking, a man I’d helped my sister raise ever since his father died when Josh was five. My wife and I never had any kids, and I looked at him as my own son. Fear of heights or not, it didn’t take but a blink of an eye to decide to go. Besides, it’s not every day you get to face your biggest fear, especially, with someone who’s dying. The way I looked at it, it’d be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Turns out I was almost right.

“I’d love to go,” I told him. “I only have one question.”

“What’s that?”

“Do they provide air sickness bags.”

“Funny.”

It was good to hear my nephew laugh. Six months ago the doctors had told him he had between six months and six years to live. Josh was a fighter and definitely had his sights set on the six year option, if not longer.

Three weeks later, at dawn on Josh’s fortieth birthday, I pulled my jeep into the tiny parking lot for Big Air Balloon Rides, located at an abandoned air field on a spit of land that jutted out into Lake Havasu, a half mile wide stretch of the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and California.

We got out and headed for the rainbow colored balloon tethered a hundred feet away near a dented Winnebago that I assumed was the office, if not also the home, of Galen Pickle, the owner of the company.

Galen was checking out the basket but stopped and walked over extending a callused hand. “Hi Josh. This must be Kenny. Welcome,” he said, shaking our hands. Then he spent more than a few moments looking me over. Josh was tall and lean and, in spite of his cancer, still remarkably fit. He worked for Desert Adventures, a company that led outdoor excursions around the Lake Havasu area, primarily hiking, camping and kayaking. Me? Well, think the opposite of my nephew and you’d get a pretty good picture. I was short and stocky, a little doughy to be honest, and retired after teaching geography at Lake Havasu High School. I though Galen was being kind when he said to me, “You look like you’ll be able to handle this just fine.”

Josh grinned and gave me a high five, “See, Uncle. This’ll be great.”

Thirty minutes later we lifted off and were soon soaring high above the southwest desert. Did I mention I was afraid of heights? Well, for some reason that morning the fear disappeared. I was having the time of my life watching the desert landscape unfold beneath me with ragged hills stretching to the horizon set against a fiery orange sunrise. It was a thrill I’d never anticipated. I’m sure having Josh with me helped. But then…

Then Josh said, “Here, Kenny, help me put this on.” I looked. He was holding a parachute and a harness. He grinned, “We’re jumping together.”

That’s right, jumping . Together. Seems Josh had a little joke up his sleeve to play on his old uncle. He’d been taking skydiving lessons for a year. Who knew? One minute I was enjoying a mellow morning sunrise, silently congratulating myself on conquering my fear of heights, the next minute I was air born, strapped to my nephew’s chest, silently screaming.

Just kidding. Once I got past the fear of losing my stomach, I have to say, jumping out of that hot air balloon was the most exhilarating adventure of my life. We went out at six thousand feet and opened at four thousand. It was a five second drop of unrelenting terror followed by twenty minutes of magical floating that I never wanted to end. The whole experience was fantastic beyond words.

We landed a mile from where we’d lifted off.

“What do you think?” Josh grinned at me after he’d wrapped the chute up.

It took a minute to get my thoughts in order, not to mention my equilibrium. Finally, I grabbed him in a tight bear hug. “I loved it.”

“Want to go again?”

“Anytime.”

That was ten years ago. Since then, we’ve jumped every year on Josh’s birthday. A once in a lifetime experience every year for the last ten years. In spite of his cancer.

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Texas Fried Blues

This is one of two micro fiction stories of mine published in issue #3 of A Million Ways in June, 2019.

It was Rick at the door. Two am. “Hi Jessie. I made this for you.”

Texas Fried Blues the label read. “Hey, man, I appreciate it. Thanks.”

“It’s got some kick-ass stuff. I think you’ll like it.”

Rick was a war vet. He couldn’t sleep most nights so he made mixed tapes and gave them to his friends.

“I’ll play it this weekend.”

He grimaced. “Really? How about now?”

I looked at him, tall and thin and burned out. Haunted eyes sunk deep in their sockets. Stale sweat emanating.

“Good idea.” I led him to the couch.”Let’s have a listen.”

Note: If you like this story, check out A Million Ways at: http://www.amwmagazine.com. All three of their beautiful magazines are for sale. Buy one! Or all three!! You won’t be disappointed.

She Was Right

This is one of two micro fiction stories of mine published in issue #3 of A Million Ways in June, 2019.

 

“Jump off a cliff?” My wife was incredulous. “Thirty feet into a river? Are you nuts?” ”

No, I’m brave,” I tried to reason with her.

“No, you’re an idiot,” she countered. “It’s just a bunch of macho BS.”

Back and forth we argued, neither of us giving in. But she was adamant. And she was definitely right, I conceded, on the day I jumped, as I fell through the air, and the water rose up to meet me and slapped me hard, so I wouldn’t forget.

Note: If you like this story, check out A Million Ways at: http://www.amwmagazine.com. All three of their beautiful magazine are for sale. Buy one! Or all three!! You won’t be disappointed.

 

Neon In Our Veins

Dad stopped working on the combine, took off his cap, wiped his forehead and looked to the north. Grandpa and I stopped working, too, sweat dripping into our eyes, thankful for a break. It was blistering hot for early September, over ninety degrees, and out in the middle of our soybean field there wasn’t a bit of shade. We all watched the old pickup spewing a plume of dust as it raced down the county road.

Dad put his cap back on and turned to Grandpa and me with a perplexed look, “That’s Lilly. What can possibly be so all fired up important?”

Grandpa and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, neither of us having a clue, but, we did know one thing, if my mom was in a hurry, there must be a good reason.

She turned off the road and raced across edge of the field, the truck going air borne over deep ruts made by farm equipment, then pulled up to us fast, slamming on the brakes and sliding to a stop, dust billowing all around . Mom didn’t even bother to get out, just yelled through the open window, “Dad, you’ve got to get to town quick. Jerry Jorgensen called. They’ve got an emergency with that big hotel sign of his.”

My humble but talented grandfather was the most sought after neon sign repairman in Redwood County. “What’s the matter?”

“He didn’t say, but there’s some fancy pants guy, the governor, I think, and a bunch of his cronies coming to stay. He needs you right now.”

Back in the fifties, the Prairie City Hotel, nestled on a picturesque bend of the Little Sioux River, was the premier place to stay in southwestern Minnesota. It was about twenty miles from our farm.

Grandpa looked at my father who shook his head and said, “I can’t go with you. Take Jack Junior, instead. I need to get this combine un-jammed.”

Grandpa scratched at the prominent blue vein on his neck, a move that caused me to subconsciously reach for the small vein just forming on my own neck. He nodded toward me and looked at mom, “What do you think Lillian?”

My heart leapt to my throat. Grandpa had lived with us for a number of years and had his workshop in an outbuilding back behind the barn. From an early age I had tagged along after him, showing an interest in the work he did with neon signs. He liked my company, I guess, and had already taught me about electricity and shown me how to bend glass to make tubes and how to add neon and lots of other cool stuff that you needed to know for neon sign repair. But I was only eight years old. Usually Dad helped if grandpa need it, but not today. We were in the middle of the soybean harvest and he was too busy getting that troublesome combine up and running.

I watched Mom. It was up to her to make the final decision. She and Grandpa held each other’s gaze for a moment while I held my breath. I’d give anything to go along. Finally, she gave him a quick smile and then looked at me. I could see something in her eyes. I was pretty young and the real question was, was I ready? Mom hesitated only a moment before silently nodding, as if to herself, and then said, “Yes, J.J., you can go with Grandpa, but for Pete’s sakes, be careful.” Inside I silently cheered.

It took us thirty minutes to get to the hotel located on the corner of Main Street and Riverview Avenue. It was imposing three story red brick structure with gleaming white trim that had a wide, twenty step entryway adorned with a beautiful black wrought iron railing. A small crowd had gathered. When we arrived Jerry was waiting for us on the steps, literally wringing his hands. He ran up while the truck was still rolling and said, “Thank god you’re here, Bill. The governor is coming soon. The sign’s out. Oh, man, this isn’t good.”

Grandpa got out of the old pickup, put his hand on the distraught man’s shoulder and calmly said, “Don’t worry, Jerry, my grandson and I’ll take care of it.” He turned to me, “J.J., let’s get going.”

We dragged our ladders out of the back of the truck, set them against the side of building and climbed up. Grandpa quickly deduced the problem; a transformer had blown, and he proceeded to fix it while I handed him the tools. We had the repair completed and the sign back in excellent working order in about half an hour; plenty of time before the governor and his entourage showed up.

Later, after the sun had set, Grandpa loaded me in the pickup and we drove back to town. When we got to Main Street, he parked a little ways down from the hotel and watched the hectic scene on the street. Nearly a hundred townsfolk had gathered and there were three or four different news crews milling around, everyone eager to get a glimpse of the governor. I don’t think Grandpa saw any of it. He only had eyes for the hotel’s neon sign, Prairie City Motel, illuminated with glowing colors of red and green and blue.

After staring in reverent silence for a moment, he pulled me close and pointed past the front windshield, “See, J.J., look at how pretty the sign looks. The reds and greens are so vibrant, and that blue is my favorite color.”

“It reminds me of a castle in Wonderland,” I said, thinking about my favorite television show.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Grandpa grinned. “It’s magical.” He paused touching the blue vein in his neck and then added, “I’ll let you in a little secret. Neon makes me feel alive inside.”

Grandpa was as much a poet as he was a skilled craftsman.

I’ll never forget that day. For the next twenty-five years I helped grandpa, traveling to the rural towns of southwest Minnesota, repairing neon signs. I loved the work. After he passed away, I stayed with it. This year, I’ve started bringing my nine year old grandson Johnny along and he loves it as much as I do. There’s lots of work for us. They don’t make neon signs anymore, everything is LED. That’s okay. Nostalgia for the old days is in fashion right now, and there’re a lot of old signs out there. We’re busy all the time.

We were driving home from a job the other day when Johnny turned to me and asked, “Granddad, do you think we have neon in our veins? You know, like blood?”

I laughed, thinking he was joking, but one look told me he wasn’t. He was deadly serious.

I thought for a moment, thinking back over the years to all the signs my grandpa and I,  and now Johnny, had repaired. I took my time before finally answering, “You know what? Honestly? You might have a point. I think maybe we do.”

He sat back in the seat of my old pickup and looked out the window. It was a warm, sunny afternoon in late fall and fields of golden corn were waiting to be harvested. For the first time I saw a blue vein pulsing in my grandson’s neck just like the one in mine. Like my grandpa’s. He smiled and nodded his head, as if to himself, and said, “Yeah, I thought so.”

The Serial Tattooist

The bartender set a beer and a shot in front of Darren Montgomery and said, “That’s it Big D. No more. I’m cutting you off after this.”

Darren looked up with blurry eyes and said, “Come on Billy my boy. Can’t a guy have any fun anymore?” Except it came out as drunken gibberish, “ComonBilimabycnagyhanyfumamyor?”

“I said no more drinks, Darren. Your done.”

Shit. Ok. Fine. Darren wanted to say but didn’t. He couldn’t even make his mouth move to speak. Instead, he drunkenly savored the last of his whiskey and drank from his beer. He felt pretty good. Great, in fact. He’d been at the Black Crow bar in the small town of Long Lake since around five pm and it was now nearly nine. He’d accomplished exactly what he’d wanted to accomplish: got himself nice and wasted. To hell with his job, to hell with his wife, and to hell with his kids. He deserved a night off to forget about it all and that’s exactly what he’d done. Good for him.

A minute later, with the whiskey finished and beer drained, he figured it was time to get to his car and drive home. He was making a move to stand up when he leaned a little too far to the left and started to fall. From a table a few feet away a tall, thin man stood quickly and reached out a hand to steady him.

“Easy there, buddy. I’ve got you.”

From behind the bar, the bartender said, “You know this guy? Darren? I think he needs help.”

The skinny guy adjusted his thick framed glasses, put his arm around Darren’s shoulder and said, “Yeah. He’s a neighbor of mine. I’ll make sure he gets home all right.”

The bartender waved okay and went back to serving other patrons.

“Come on, there, partner. Let’s get you out of here.”

The skinny guy’s name was Caleb Kline. He kept his arm tight on Darren’s shoulder as he maneuvered the unsteady drunk through the bar, out the front door and into the soft warmth of an early June night. In the background frogs called from down near the lake. A moon was rising to the east and there was a sweet scent of honeysuckle in the air. Most people would have considered it a beautiful evening. Most, but not Caleb Kline. He didn’t notice the night at all. He propped Darren against his hip and led him across the gravel parking lot and out to the street where he’d parked his small RV.

“Let’s get you inside, pal,” Caleb said, as he opened the door and mostly carried Darren up the two steps and into the tiny space that was the living room.

Maybe it was the change of scene that caused Darren to begin to come out of his alcoholic fog, “What? What the…?” He looked around. The space was dark, lit only by the off lighting of the street lamps. “Where am I?”

Caleb set Darren on the bed, closed the curtains and turned on a tiny overhead light. “Don’t worry, friend. You’ll be okay. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Then he plunged a hypodermic needle into the man’s thigh. “Hey,” Darren said before his eyes glazed over his body went numb. In a few moments he had completely passed out.

Caleb gently held the back of the man’s head and lay him down on the bed. Then he set about getting ready. He laid a plastic sheet on the floor, just in case there was too much blood. He went to the cabinet above his small sink, took out his tool kit and set it on the plastic sheet. He set his bright portable light next to the sheet and affixed a miners light around his head. When he was satisfied all was the way he wanted it, he lifted Darren to the sheet and arranged him on his back. He opened the man’s shirt, taking a moment to notice the smooth hairless chest. Caleb smiled to himself. Good. He wouldn’t have to shave him. Then he opened his tool kit and set to work. It took about half an hour. There wasn’t much blood, not that he cared, but it was less to clean up. That was always a good thing.

While he moved the needle gun back and forth across the man’s chest Caleb thought about his son. Cory had been killed by a drunk driver when he was only seven years old. He’d been in the car family’s car when the drunk had run a red light and smashed into the side of the  old Ford, killing Cory and injuring Caleb and his wife Samantha and their four year old daughter Julie. That had been ten years ago. Caleb was as close to Cory as a father and son could ever be. He’d taught his boy to read, how to repair a bicycle tire and how to tie his shoes. He’d taken him on hikes, and taught him about nature and birds and flowers, and how the moon and the sun always rose in the east, and where rain came from, and why the sky was blue and all sorts of other things. God, how he’d loved his boy. Still did. The drunk driver was given five years in prison and was now a free man.

With the death of his son, something had happened to Caleb. Something had snapped inside. Try as he might, he couldn’t fill the void left by Cory’s death. For months he was a shell of his former self, often staring into space for hours at a time with barely the strength to breathe. Lost. Emotionally numb. He’d been a high school science teacher, but he’d eventually had to take a leave of absence. He was given a year off, but he never went back. He couldn’t shake the numbing angst; the overwhelming heartache that came with the loss of his beloved Cory. It was Samantha who had rattled his cage and suggested he do something about it.

She was a RN and still was able to work. She was also a strong woman. “I miss him, too, Caleb,” she told him, “But you’ve got me and Julie to think about. You’ve got to pull yourself together and find something to do.”

“Someone’s got to pay for what happened to Cory. It’s not fair.”

Samantha hugged him and held him tight, “Of course it’s not fair, but life goes on. Figure out what you want to do, or what you need to do. No matter what, I’ll support you. Just do something.”

It took him about a day to come up with a plan. He told Samantha what his idea was and she agreed that it was a good thing for him to do. “Anything” she’s often told her friends, “Anything was better than him moping around.”

Caleb has been on the road ever since, over eight years, only coming home for Samantha’s birthday, their wedding anniversary and Julie’s birthday. He works odd jobs when he needs to for money. Otherwise, he travels. He’s looking for drunks and when he finds one, he makes them pay for what they did to Cory.

When he was finished working on Darren, he shined the light on the man’s chest. He dabbed some blood away with an antiseptic cloth and took a moment to admire his work. He’d used a tattoo needle to write, “I’ll never ever drive drunk,” on the man’s chest.

“Good,” Caleb thought to himself, “That looks good.”

He put his tools away and cleaned up. The sedative he gave Darren(supplied by Samantha) would last a little longer, long enough for Caleb to wait for bar closing and the streets to shut down. Then he’d drag Darren out and hide him in the bushes by the side of the Black Crow. Then he’d get in the RV and leave town. By sunrise he’d be far away.

Before he hauled Darren outside, Caleb took the man’s watch. He set it in a drawer with all the others. This would make eighty-nine. Eighty-nine watches collected over the course of the last eight years. Almost one a month. Not bad. He always felt invigorated when he was successful. Almost like a wolf with its kill, he imagined.

It was around noon the next day when he called Samantha from Benson, a small town a hundred miles to the west. When he was finished telling her about Darren, she said, “Yeah, I’ve already heard. You were on the national news again, ‘Serial Tattooist Strikes Again.’ You’re getting to be famous.

Caleb could see her smiling on the phone.”You don’t mind I’m gone so much?”

“Of course I do. But you do what you have to do, okay? Just always come home.”

“I will, honey. I promise.”

They were both silent for a few moments. Finally, Samantha asked, “Where to now?”

“I’m heading west. Maybe Aberdeen.”

“Okay. You be careful. Call me in a few days.”

“I will.”

Caleb started the RV, turned back onto highway 12 and continued heading west. He was happy, now, with his life. There was another drunk out there somewhere just waiting for him. It wouldn’t take long to find him, and when he did, the guy would pay. It was the least he could do for Cory. It was the least he could do for his son.

Note: This story was posted by Ariel Chart on June 25, 2019 at http://arielchart.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-serial-tattooist.html. Go to the site and check it out sometime.

Music On The Wind

George and Ida Ferguson, my great grandparents, were second generation cattle ranchers in eastern Montana. Mom kept a framed picture of them on the fireplace mantel when I was a kid. It was taken in their parlor and you can just make out a piano behind Ida with a vase of cut wild flowers on it. They were dressed for the occasion, she in a calico dress, her long auburn hair wrapped around her head in a twirled braid, he in a white, snap button shirt, vest and gray Stetson hat. The flat prairie land of the Yellowstone River valley can just barely be glimpsed through the billowing curtains of a window in the background.

I spent countless hours as a kid imagining what their life in nineteenth century cattle country would have been like: herding longhorns, busting broncos and mending fences. My tastes back then ran toward cowboys and Indians, so their romantic love was certainly not on my radar, but the true fact of the matter was that their love for each other was known far and wide.

“That’s right, Stevie,” Mom used to tell me, “They were hard workers and humble, salt of the earth people, busy with chores from dawn to dusk. But in the evenings they made time for making music. Ida played piano and sang while George accompanied her on fiddle. I’m told that their songs brought joy to even the crustiest cowhand’s heart.”

As a kid, that kind of talk was embarrassing to hear and often turned my ears red. But as I grew older, I started to imagine a different scenario, one in which they not only lived the hard life of cattle ranchers on the western frontier, but also found it within themselves to love deeply while creating beauty and harmony through their music in juxtaposition to that rugged land.

Years later I met Janie and we fell in love. While we were dating, I talked often about George and Ida. Did I idealize them? Maybe. But Janie told me she thought it was sweet they loved each other the way they did and that was good enough for me. It got me thinking that maybe she and I were kindred spirits, like my great grandparents were.

The summer after we married, Janie and I took a driving trip west to the great plains to see firsthand the land of my great grandparents. We ended up parking our car outside the small town of Willow Creek, Montana, and spent the day hiking rolling pastureland amid pungent sage, prickly cactus and golden fields of wildflowers, kept company by prairie dogs, meadowlarks and a small herd of pronghorn antelope.

By sundown we had made our way to the top of Buffalo Butte, the highest point of land in Stillwater County, and the overlook where George and Ida’s ashes had been scattered. The sun was low in the west, the sky exploding in a fiery orange from the last light of day, the land stretching out to the horizon where we could just barely make out the shadowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

The peace and quiet was immense, so quiet I swear I could hear both of our hearts beating. I said to Janie, my voice a whisper, “Legend has it that you can still hear my great grandparent’s music if wind is right.”

Janie turned from viewing the scene spread out before us and took in a deep breath of fragrant prairie air. Then she took my hand, her smile as wide as the big sky above us, and said, “I’m so happy you brought me, Steve. I love you. I love being here with you.” Then she leaned in and kissed me.

“I love you, too, Janie,” I told her. “Forever and all time.” And we embraced, holding each other tight, our bodies molding into one.

Then, out of nowhere, we heard it. Faint strains from a piano, a fiddle and then a soft voice singing. We stood together, our love growing stronger with every note we heard, listening to the heartfelt music played by my great grandparents, songs of love I somehow knew Janie and I would carry with us for the rest of our lives. Songs from my great grandparents brought to us from them on that gentle prairie wind.

 

The Theory of Relativity

This 75 word story was featured on Paragraph Planet on 6-17-19.

The Theory of Relativity. Like rays of light bending we were drawn together across that coffee shop floor. Me making notes for the physics class I taught. You coming in for an espresso. I stood and asked you to join me. You said why not. Both of us feeling at that moment a connection undefined, an undercurrent of energy waves carrying us to the edge of the infinite universe and back again. Theoretically, of course.