ZEKE NELSON," The Banjo Man," by Art Youmans, 2006
Warden Johnson stopped in Cellblock C
He stared into Zeke Nelson’s cell and muttered, “Hear you’re a musician, Nelson. Are you any good?”
Zeke grabbed a banjo, and put on his fingerpicks. “You tell me,” he replied casually as he plucked a few chords and began to sing.
" I’m a banjo man, Always be a banjo man,
Never played fiddle or mandolin,
Never played bass or guit-ar too,
.Always be just a banjo man.
I drink Ken-tucky cider,
Nothin’ but Ken-tucky cider,
Never guzzled Ten-nessee moon-shine,
Never liked their hard stuff, too,
Always be just a banjo man.
Two days, I’ve been in jail,
Dying,’ cause I’ve had no Ken-tucky cider
, Bury me in the bluegrass state,
Next to a brewery of Ken-tucky cider,
Always be just a banjo man. "
“You’re terrific! I never heard that song before.”
“Of course you didn’t.” Zeke laughed. “I just wrote it. Nothing else to do around here so I composed another song.”
“Interested in joining a prison band?”
“I’m a bluegrass musician. I ought to be at Tulsa’s Music Festival right now… not in jail.”
“You’re incarcerated for manslaughter because you killed someone. The judge sentenced you here for eight years.”
“It was self-defense,” Zeke explained. “A drunk attacked me with a broken whiskey bottle…screamed he hated guys with shaved heads who wore earrings. I had to defend myself… so I hit him over the head with my resonator banjo. Otherwise he would have killed me.”
“The jury didn’t believe you.”
“I was railroaded. The judge excluded the only defense witness…my brother, Johnny. He ruled him to be an unreliable witness.”
“Because Johnny had five martinis and a 3.5 blood alcohol level. The jury never heard his testimony that I was only defending myself from an unprovoked attack. That drunk who assaulted me was Congressman Solomon Tweed’s son. The congressman runs this city like Capone controlled Chicago…the judges … courts…everything.”
“Congressman Tweed doesn’t manage this prison,” Warden Johnson growled. “I do! Remember that!” *
"*Nelson,” the guard said, later. “Want some advice?”
Zeke Nelson raised an eyebrow. “About what?”
“Don’t be a wise guy with a chip on your shoulder. Sure, you got a raw deal when you clunked young Bill Tweed on the noggin…but you did society a real service by eliminating the worst troublemaker in the state. Fathers can finally sleep in peace without worrying about their daughters with Bill Tweed no longer on the prowl. You should have got a medal instead of eight years in prison…however, you could be paroled in three with time off for good behavior if you listen to Warden Johnson. When he suggests you join a prison band…you better do it.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I wouldn’t take too long. The warden’s not a patient man.
” * * *
Zeke lay awake a long time in his bunk listening to the musical patter of raindrops falling on the tin roof in 4/4 time.
“If I could relive one day in my life,” he sighed, “I’d have clobbered that drunk, Tweed, over the head with cheap, lightweight banjo…not an expensive fifteen-pound Gibson resonator.
Maybe, if I did, the congressman’s son would just have a bad headache and I wouldn’t be here. C’est la vie!
Zeke Nelson closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep.
When he awoke at five A.M. all he could remember was the last part of a dream where he was saying to Warden Johnson, “Playing in a band is better than making license plates for Uncle Sam!”
* * *
The next three years passed swiftly for Zeke Nelson. He was tuning his banjo in the music room when Pancho Gomez pushed a book cart through the open doorway.
“Hey Banjo Man! How’s everything?” “Okay.” “Want to check out a magazine? Saved you the August copy of Music Connection. Interested?”
“Sure. Thanks man!” Zeke took the magazine and glanced at the table of contents
“Heard a rumor,” Pancho chuckled, “that the parole board’s voting on your release in November.”
“Hope so. I want to get out of this joint.”
“You’re the best banjo man I’ve ever heard. The guys’ll miss you. Gonna join a band on the outside?”
“I’ll give it a try.”
“Good luck. By the way…remember the job in Washington D.C. that you wanted to look like an accident?”
“Yeah.” Zeke whispered.
“Where shall my brother bring the other five G’s?” “The Diamond K Bar…same place he brought the down payment…next Saturday at noon.”
“No problem,” Pancho grinned. “What are friends for? We watch each other’s back.
” * * *
“Congratulations, Nelson,” Warden Johnson said. “The Parole Board voted 3 to 2 to release you. You get a new suit, fifty dollars and a bus ticket home”
“Kentucky’s where I want to go, Warden!”
Zeke Nelson strummed his banjo and sang:
Three years, I’ve been in jail, Dying,’ cause I’ve had no Ken-tucky cider, Bury me in the bluegrass state, Next to a brewery of Ken-tucky cider, Always be just a banjo man.
“You lucked out on your parole hearing,” Warden Johnson explained. “Congressman Tweed planned to be here and oppose your parole but he was killed by a hit-and-run driver two months ago.”
“You make your own luck in this world, Warden. I’d rather be lucky than smart any day. As long as I have my resonator banjo, I can make a name for myself anywhere. Prison was just a speed bump on my road to success.
Warden Johnson chuckled when Zeke sang:
I’m a lucky man, Always hope to be a lucky man, Never think badly of nobody, Not even if he’s named Warden Johnson, Always be just a lucky banjo man!
I pocketed 50 bucks, the most I've ever earned from writing a short story.
Like Van Gogh, who sold only 1 painting (for 100 francs or 20 bucks) during his lifetime, I also became a starving artist with my $68.75 lifetime earnings for winning or placing in the top three in writing contests
. My last award, about 2007, was for a 3rd place Internet writing contest win for which I received (in the mail) a pair of mittens with a Target store label & $8.75 price tag attached. It was then that I decided to spend most of my time researching the stock market for opportunities & less time writing fiction. It was a wise decision.
Art Youmans, “A DOG NAMED MYRMEX,” 2003 967 Words
Woof ! Woof ! That’s howdyin animal language.
I’m a miniature canine, the runt of the litter
. A few thousand years ago, my mistress, Polyxena, named me Myrmex, a Greek word for ant.
Are you surprised that someone who barks can write this story?
Dogs are smart. Some even talk!
You don’t believe me?
Remember Dinky, the Chihuahua in the Taco Bell television campaign? This
skinny canine became the world’s most famous dog when he cavorted on a basketball court saying Hasta la vista in one commercial, and Yo quiero Taco Bell in another. In a different TV ad, Dinky tried to capture Godzilla with a small box and spoke Spanish accented English.
How many bi-lingual dogs do you know?
I’m proud of him.
Dinky is one of my descendants who achieved success
in this modern world. I recognized him immediately by his long ears and ready wit.
He was as small as me, but I was much better looking.
Although a dog is known as man’s best friend, my best friend was a woman.
Her name was Polyxena, Oracle of Delphi.
Delphi is located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece. Over 2,500 years ago, people traveled from all over the world to ask advice of the Oracle.
They were told where cities should be located, what laws to incorporate, and which wars with neighbors they would win.
Their donations paid for the building of a theater, stadium and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Constructed around a sacred stream, the temple complex was the most important shrine in Greece.
At first I found it difficult to understand Polyxena. Older neighborhood dogs
reassured me that women act differently than men in similar situations.
“Women cry when happy,” they told me, “and laugh when sad. They usually are more patient than men when dealing with ill-behaved people and children
Polyxena may be the most powerful Oracle in the world, but remember, she’s still a woman!”
This information helped me to better understand the mysterious human female.
I’m glad the dogs were helpful, since men gave me no answers. Even Socrates shrugged and raised both palms to the sky, when I asked this great scholar if he understood women.
One day there was a massive earthquake in the region, similar to the one that destroyed nearby cities on the Gulf of Corinth
When Polyxena and I investigated the damage to the Temple of Apollo, I noticed a crack in the limestone rock just below the temple and pointed it out.
“Check it out!” she ordered.
I climbed through the tiny fissure and crawled fifty meters into the earth. I
stopped when the tunnel ended, so I turned around and slid on my belly back to Polyxena.
“Seismic activity has ruptured the ground around the temple,” I said. “It appears to be a fault.” I then explained these geological terms to her
The next day, we noticed a sweet-smelling gas floating from the fissure. It gave a floating sensation and euphoria.
“It smells and feels like ethylene.”
“What’s ethylene?” Polyxena questioned. “I never heard of it.”
“Small doses will make you light-headed,” I answered, “and is just what an
Oracle needs to start having visions. This gas will make you Delphi’s greatest Oracle.
However, large doses might kill you. I also detected small amounts of another hydrocarbon gas called methane.”
Polyxena smiled. “Together, my small friend,” she murmured, “we both gain
immortality and riches envied by the gods. Tell no one of the source of the sweet-
smelling gas. It will be our secret.”
I nodded. I was glad that a dog’s nose is thousands of times more sensitive tto smell than a human’s. This made me important in Polyxena’s life. It was our secret until the day we died.
She and I lived peacefully in Delphi for another ten years.
A delegation of Delph noblemen delivered a cartload of gold bars to Polyxena the night before Athenian lead Pericles’ visit.
You must realize that the world’s greatest decisions have been influenced by bribery from the days of Adam and Eve to the present time.
The next day, Polyxena advised Pericles to build the Temple of Nike, dedicated to the Goddess Athena, at Delphi.
At this time, people believed that the god Apollo spoke through the Oracle, using her vocal cords to echo his words.
Athenians were incensed that the temple was not planned for Athens, the city named after Athena, goddess of wisdom.
An army of vengeful Athenians commanded by Atreus captured Polyxena and me, a month later. They offered to release us unharmed if the Oracle would tell Pericles that Apollo had changed his mind and now wanted the Temple of Nike built in Athens.
. The Athenians met in council. Atreus spoke eloquently.
“Polyxena and Myrmex claim to speak with Apollo,” he said. “If this supposition is true, the gods will rescue them.”
A secret vote was taken.
Unanimously, the Athenians voted to throw us off the
steepest cliff on Mount Parnassus.
* * *
When Pericles heard of our deaths, he proclaimed that a monument be built on the Acropolis hill overlooking the City of Athens. It was to be named The Temple of Polyxena and Myrmex.
This square-shaped temple was supported by four pillars on each of its narrow sides. Statues of Polyxena, me and the god Apollo were housed inside.
Athenians were delighted with the temple. They petitioned Pericles for additional monuments. The Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylea and Temple of Athena Nike were also built on the Acropolis.
When you visit Greece, come to Athens and visit the Acropolis. As you’re
walking through the ruins of The Temple of Polyxena and Myrmex, you’ll hear my voice.
When this happens, you’ll know I’m saying “howdy’ to you.
Woof ! Woof !
GREAT GRANNY’S BIRTHDAY PARTY By Art Youmans
“There’s another wrinkle,” I joked, pressing my nose against the mirror. “Didn’t know I had any room left on this face for another one.” I’d bet that other one-hundred-year-old serial killers don’t look this good! “
Great Granny Eleanor,” Sally sighed. “You’re a beautiful lady.”
“I’m falling apart like that ancient Greek statue with no arms.”
“Your face was like Venus de Milo’s when you married Great Grandpa Ed. You still look perfect…the ideal woman… to me.”
“Ed Burns had just returned from France,” I reflected. “He swept me off my feet with his Lieutenant’s uniform covered with medals, sparkling in the sunlight like a July 4th fireworks display… proposed the day the Army discharged him.
We married on my eighteenth birthday.”
“Did Great Grandpa propose on his knees?
” “Indeed he did. Ed was romantic and a gentleman. I cried when he asked me to marry him.”
“What did you say, Granny?” “It was different in those days,” I mused. “I told him to get my father’s permission.
” “I remember him as being quite tall.”
“Ed died when you were three. He was a bear-of-a-man, all six-foot five of him…but he was the gentlest person I’ve known…a wonderful guy!
“It must have been exciting to live in Washington.”
“It was,” I answered. “Harry Truman was Ed’s commanding artillery officer in France and I knew Harry’s wife, Bess Wallace.
Bess and I were classmates in Independence, Missouri.”
“How long was Great Grandpa a Presidential Advisor?”
“For six years. He succeeded because of the wooden sign above his desk.”
“The one by the mirror?” Sally asked, pointing.
I nodded and walked toward the oak sign, carved with script lettering.
Adjusting my spectacles I read, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies.”
.3 “Didn’t comedian Groucho Marx write that?”
“Yes. Groucho took up where Will Rogers left off in poking fun at politics,” I explained.
“Although politicians have gummed-upAmerica for over two hundred years, our country continues to survive and grow in prosperity.
” “So Great Grandpa tried to keep these rascals from ruining America?
” “Yes. He succeeded with patience and compromise.”
“Mother says that that’s how you raised Grandma Gloria and Uncle Jim.”
“True. A person must learn patience to succeed in life. Gloria and Jim became wonderful parents and excellent examples for their grandchildren."
What’s that noise outside?” “It’s noon, Granny. The clock in the hall’s striking twelve. Are you ready to join the party downstairs?”
“Sure. I don’t have a 100th birthday party every day. Let’s go. I’ll grab the banister. You hold on to me. Okay?
” “You’re my role model, Granny. I’ll never let you go.”
* * *
“Here comes Eleanor Burns!” a reporter cried.
The camera flashes blinded me, so I held tightly to Sally’s arm. We made a beeline for the birthday cake in the dining room. I squeezed my cloth purse and felt the flask. Reassured, I relaxed
“Have some cake, Granny,” Sally said, handing me a slice of cake.
“That’s too big for me,” I murmured, sliding into a chair. “Get me a smaller piece.”
I reached into my purse and started to open the flask when Dorothy Keller, wearing a red Armani jacket and skirt, walked by and smiled.
What a bitch! I thought. She was the one who cast the deciding vote keeping Ed off the Supreme Court.
Sally handed me a small slice of cake and left to join friends. I took a bite when a reporter sat beside me.
“Happy Birthday, Mrs. Burns,” he said. “Your husband had a spectacularly lucky career. Practically every person who opposed him died mysteriously or was murdered on your birthday. Have you any comment?
I smiled. “It’s unfortunate when anyone dies. However, I recall that many of these rascals were responsible for gumming-up America. McCall, Turner, Foster, Jones and Tweedy were swindlers…and the others were crooked or inept politicians. Isn’t the United States better off without them?”
“You’re right, I suppose. But twenty people dying on your birthday is indeed strange.”
“Just a coincidence,” I replied
. He shrugged and walked off as a waiter strolled by with a tray.
“Would you like hot chocolate, Madam?” the waiter asked.
“Yes. Thank you.” I set the cup beside me, reached into my purse and palmed the small flask. I poured its contents into the hot chocolate and returned the empty flask to my purse.
I stood and walked toward her red jacket like a heat-seeking missile.
Dorothy Keller sat alone in a corner. She forced a smile when I took a seat beside her.
“Eleanor,” she said, “thanks for the invitation. I haven’t seen you in years. Hope you’re still not upset with me about Ed’s court nomination?”
“Dorothy, I believe that one should never hold a grudge. When I heard you’d returned to Washington I sent the birthday invitation. I’ve brought a peace offering…a cup of hot chocolate for you.
” “Why that’s sweet.” A waiter walked by and Dorothy reached for another hot chocolate.
” Here’s one for you, Eleanor,” she said, exchanging cups with me. We clicked cups and giggled like girls do when they don’t know what to say to each other.
I watched Dorothy sip every drop of her strychnine-laced hot chocolate.
Then Sally walked up to me.
“Getting tired, Granny Eleanor?” she asked
“Yes, dear, this worn-out body needs a nap.
” I turned to Dorothy Keller. “Thanks for coming. We’ll likely see each other soon.
” * * *
Before I stretched out in bed, I soaked my flask in Clorox, like I usually do after using it and opened a desk drawer. Taking a pencil I drew a line through the twenty-first name at the bottom of a legal-size page: Senator Dorothy Keller.
“Hallelujah!” I cried. “I finally got them all.
Lord, you can take me anytime you choose!” I placed my head on the pillow and drifted off to sleep with a smile on my lips.
This story won 1st place in Missouri Mystery Writers’ contest, May 2006. 1st place was a nice certificate plus the 1st place award of 6 bucks. (NOTE: It cost 3 bucks to enter this writing contest!
" OLD NEWS," by Art Youmans, 834-word Fantasy/Humor story, 2007
When Joe Camel left the elevator, glare from a ceiling light in the lobby blinded him.
He squinted and adjusted his sunglasses. Joe still had a hangover from the going-away party held in his honor, the night before, at The Miami Hilton.
Tobacco companies have no respect for employees, he thought. For years, I help them quadruple market share, from 3% to 13%, for kids younger than eighteen. Then, what do they do? The bastards give me the boot!
Joe felt like a kicked dog, as he walked out the hotel door into the sunlight.
He gazed at palm trees for a moment, and then shuffled down the sidewalk to an unoccupied park bench. After determining that birds hadn’t visited the bench lately, he slumped down on it.
Touching a bulge in the breast pocket of his shirt, he knew he still had one friend who wouldn’t desert him.
Joe took the pack of Camels from his pocket, and opened it with the confidence of a pool shark making an easy shot.
He slipped a cigarette into his mouth.
Staring at the pack, he read the warning printed on it: The Surgeon General Has Determined That Cigarette Smoking Is Dangerous To Your Health.
Joe reached into another pocket and took out a crumpled letter he’d received last week.
He smoothed the paper and read it, again.
Dear Joe Camel:
Pressure from the Federal Trade Commission has forced us to change our advertising emphasis from the very young to the adult market. With this repositioning of our brand, we no longer require your services as spokesperson.
Enclosed is your five-thousand-dollar severance check.
A lifetime supply of cigarettes will be sent to you.
Since you’ve smoked for fifty years, actuaries calculate you should live another five years before you’re diagnosed with lung cancer…so we’ll ship two-hundred-and-fifty cartons of Camels to you by UPS.
If you’re still alive in five years, let us know and we’ll ship more.
We appreciate the fine job you have done to increase market share and brand awareness among teens and pre-teens.
The government also appreciates your fine work.
You boosted Camel cigarette sales and filled the government treasury with cigarette tax money…enabling Congress to spend more money on pork than ever before
. A copy of this termination letter has been released to the media at the request of the FTC
. Don’t call us. We’ll call you if your services are ever required in the futur
e. Sincerely, R. J. Reynolds VIII, President.
I’ve ruined my health with booze, tobacco and babes, Joe thought
.Now my boss and the FTC want to take celebrity status from me
. He sighed, shut his eyes and fell asleep.
Joe dreamed of the days when he was the most famous single-hump dromedary camel in the world
. He remembered how jealous the two-hump Bactrian camels were when they saw his four-color picture on the back cover of Playboy, Life and Time.
Those camels were apoplectic when his photo also appeared in newspapers, and on billboards.
They hoped to be selected as company spokesmen, but the Bactrian camels made a bad impression during their screen tests by relieving themselves on the director’s casting couch.
Joe had been hired as company spokesman in 1988 and held the job until 1997.
He made no excuses for his type of work. If he didn’t do it, one of the Bactrian camels or a pet rat, trained to smoke cigarettes, would gladly do it…
and probably for less money.
He also dreamed of the A grade he’d received in Physics class at Camel University and the praise he’d received for his dissertation on Sir Isaac Newton.
It was a satisfying dream until a cloud of burning tobacco clogged Joe’s nose, causing him to cough out the cigarette clenched between his teeth.
He awakened and looked around.
A dozen teenagers stood nearby, inhaling cigarettes.
The kids blew thick puffs of smoke at him and giggled. “You’re washed up, Joe Camel!” they chanted. “You’re old news that gets thrown out with the trash!”
Those snotty brats know who I am.
I hope tobacco carcinogens kill them all! The world has too many people, like them, who kick you when you’re down on your luck.
Joe rose from the bench, teeth clenched.
Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion popped into his mind: For Every Action, There Is An Equal And Opposite Reaction.
Adjusting his sunglasses, Joe sneered at his tormentors for a moment.
Then, he lit twelve cigarettes simultaneously, inhaled a mighty breath like an oversized Marlboro man, and blew a blanket of smoke in their faces.
Joe laughed when the kids coughed and gagged …struggling to breathe.
“Nothing lasts forever!” he shouted, tossing the burning cigarettes at them.
“Get some life, you bunch of jerks! In fifty years, you’ll be old news, too!”
Joe Camel could still hear them coughing as he ambled to a stop sign. He turned,, lit another cigarette, gave them the middle finger and strolled off into the sunset.
The wind howled as Wally slipped through the forest.
He raced past shadows floating ghostlike in the twilight. Wally finally stopped in front of a cabin.
! “Who’s there?” a voice asked.
The door creaked open and an old man peered out into the darkness. “The same Wally Wolf that Wilhelm and I knew years ago?”
“Yes. It’s me! You Grimm brothers made Wally the most famous wolf in the world. People valued my autograph back then.”
“My memory has faded over the years,” Jacob Grimm reminisced, “ but you starred as villain in many of our stories…The Wolf and The Seven Young Kids, The Wolf and The Man, The Wolf and The Fox…”
“I don’t want to sound unappreciative,” Wally interrupted, “but when I read that your brother Wilhelm died last year, I knew I had to visit my friend Jacob Grimm to extend my condolences.”
“Is that the only reason for your visit?” Jacob asked suspiciously. “We haven’t heard from you in nearly half a century.”
“I’m ashamed that I never kept in touch. Like Moses, I wandered for forty years in my formerly evil life. Now, I’m not like that wolf you wrote about in Little Red Riding Hood.”
“I’d nearly forgotten about that story we titled Little Red Cap. That’s the tale where you gobbled up both grandmother and little girl. If not for the huntsman hearing you snoring in the grandmother’s cabin, you would have gotten away with the perfect crime. You ate the corpus delicti.”
“I’ve been a bad wolf all my life,” Wally admitted, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Your stories have frightened little boys and girls into thinking of me as a four-legged Frankenstein monster.”
“Well, you did try to eat goats, lambs, pigs and people. Everything we wrote about you was true and well-documented. My brother Wilhelm was a lawyer, you recall. He insisted on accuracy!”
“It began when my great-granddaughter, Alice Wolf, burst into tears while reading Little Red Riding Hood. ‘How could you eat someone’s grandma?’ she cried. ‘You’re mean! I never want to see you again!’ I resolved that never again would I try to eat somebody or blow someone’s house down. I’m a changed wolf.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Jacob asked. “Grimm’s Fairy Tales are already in print. It’s too late to change what Wilhelm and I wrote about you.”
“For my great-granddaughter’s sake I’m seeking redemption by pleading with you to write another story about me…but one which has a happy ending.”
“Wally, I’d like to write one, but I’m old… my mind and body have slowed down… bones creak with every step… eyes are tired, and my fingers are so stiff I can barely hold a quill pen. It’s too late. Jacob Grimm’s creative days are in the past.”
“It’s never too late,” Wally chuckled. “I can assist you in writing a new story about me.”
“How?” Jacob protested. “I have but a short time to live. There isn’t time to write another story.”
“But I’ve already written a story outline for you.” He took a notebook from his pocket and gave it to Jacob.
Jacob glanced at it and squinted. “I can’t see well-enough to read. Please tell me the theme and plot.”
“The theme is that wolves can be good citizens and co-exist with people
. The story’s main character is a little girl named Snow White. She and her sister live in the forest with seven nice wolves. One day an evil dwarf finds his way to this forest. Although Snow White twice saves his life, the dwarf shows no gratitude
. Later, when a bear threatens his life, the ungrateful dwarf pleads with the bear to eat Snow White and her sister instead of him, saying ‘They’re such tender morsels, fat as young quails. For heaven’s sake, eat them instead!’
” “Did he eat them?”
“No. The bear swatted the evil dwarf with his paw. That broke the spell that the dwarf cast on him weeks before. The bearskin fell off revealing a handsome man clad in gold. ‘I am the son of a king,’ he said.”
“What happened next?”
“The seven wolves were ushers when the Prince married Snow White, and they all took turns dancing with the bride. The wolves lived happily ever after in the king’s castle. They looked elegant dressed in crimson courtier uniforms.”
“It’s a wonderful plot,” Jacob gushed. “Please write the story, Wally and we’ll send it to my publisher.” He pointed to his desk. “Have a seat,” he said. “You have ink, quill and candles. Make yourself comfortable. There’s paper in the desk drawer.
” Berlin Publishers, 1860
“A new story, Snow White, arrived from Jacob Grimm,” the clerk said.
“We’ve already published more than two hundred of his Fairy Tales,” Herr Richter muttered. “Who are the good guys and bad guys in his story?”
“Seven wolves are the good ones and a dwarf is the bad guy "
“Remember that the motto of Berlin Publishers is Tute si recte vexeris – ‘honesty is the best policy in life.’ In literature, a wolf always wears the black hat of the villain. Rewrite the story with seven dwarfs symbolizing goodness in this world.”
* * *
Anna Wolf wiped the tears from her eyes as she read Snow White and The Seven Wolves. “This is a wonderful story,” she sighed. “When will it be published?”
“Soon,” Wally answered. “The publisher told Jacob Grimm that he would make revisions. Wolves may not be given credit for saving Snow White’s life.
” “No matter. I know my great-grandpa Wally is reformed.” She threw her arms around his neck
. * * *
Wally beamed with pride as he reflected on Anna’s words. He felt good about himself, but his stomach growled with hunger. He’d heard about a pig that was building a house of straw in the woods. He licked his chops and broke into a run.
THE END (993 words)
HISTORY ALWAYS REPEATS ITSELF by Art Youmans, 537 words, 2007
After jousting training, The Knights of The Round Table assembled in Merlin’s courtyard for a lecture about reasoning and logic.
“Welcome brave knights!” said Merlin. .
“Welcome, wondrous magician!” the knights cried
Merlin held up his hand for silence, and began to speak. “Years ago, a skinny pig named Balzac lived in the barnyard of a large castle. This castle was ruled by a great knight, who carried a sword by his side.
One night, Balzac had an unusual dream.
‘I dreamed I was King!’ Balzac shouted to his barnyard friends. Balzac began writing with his quill pen, and compiled a book proclaiming that he was a King.
This book was printed and copies were given to all the barnyard residents who agreed that he was, indeed, a King.
They built a throne of chicken feathers for Balzac, carried meals to him, and performed his farm work.
Soon, Balzac the pig became fat and lazy.
One day, the great knight rode through the barnyard, on his way to join the Crusaders
. He sighted Balzac seated on a barnyard throne, unsheathed his sword and killed him.
‘This fat pig will make a gourmet feast,’ the knight said.”
Merlin turned to Sir Gawain. “What does this parable teach you?”
“It showed me that being a king can be risky without protection from brave Knights of the Roundtable,” Sir Gawain replied.
“Absolutely,” Merlin concluded, “but remember that not always is the pen mightier than the sword.”
* * *
The knights gathered to hear Merlin relate another tale, that night.
“Many years hence,” Merlin began, “a Western Civilization culture, acting like Balzac the Pig, will emerge on this planet.
Over time they became fat and lazy. The civilized Balzacians announced that they were better than other animals.
They believed that all humans were created as good people, never evil, and that every dispute could be solved by negotiation.
They wrote books, like Balzac did, read and discussed great literature and elected rulers who established strict rules of warfare, called The Geneva Conventions, which placed their fighter
"Is in straightjackets…like a knight fighting a battle with one hand tied behind his back.”
The voice of Sir Gawain bellowed over the laughter of the knights. “Did the enemy also fight by the Geneva Conventions, with one hand tied behind his back?”
“Absolutely not!” Merlin answered. “The barbarian enemy, as evil as any adversary has ever been in the history of this planet, having no conscience and an ideology that glorifies death, violated every known rule of warfare.”
“Why didn’t Balzacians adopt some of the barbarian battle tactics? Even football coaches, who aren’t known to be rocket scientists, realize players cannot win battles with one hand tied behind their backs, against teams with no such restriction. Are civilized society leaders complete idiots compared to football coaches?”
“Only time will tell. As long as the civilized world fights with a hand tied behind its back, and the barbarians fight to the death with both hands and no rules, which army do you think will eventually win the battle for control of this planet?”
The silence was broken by a single word shouted by a knight at the end of the table.
CELERY STALK MURDERS by Art Youmans 2002, 993 words
“Why did the Kansas City cops call us?” the Centers for Disease Control Director asked. “West Nile Virus-carrying mosquitoes swarmed across 2002 America faster than the Blitzkrieg of German dive bombers overwhelmed Poland in 1939.”
“All available CDC agents are either working on bio-terrorism projects like Anthrax or on West Nile Virus prevention,” Assistant Director Miller replied. “We can’t help Kansas City. Should we contact foreign sources?”
“Right. Call the French. They train the best bio-counter-terrorism agents in the world. We helped them during World War II…maybe they’ll reciprocate and assist us now.”
Marriott Hotel Downtown, Kansas City, Missouri, Day 1
Henri grabbed the telephone on the fourth ring. “Oui,” he muttered, yawning.
“Is this Inspector Henri Soufflé?” a voice asked.
“The French Embassy in Washington recommended you…told us you were here on vacation.”
“I speak at a Police Forensic Conference, tomorrow, but I’d planned to see the sights, today…especially the Harry Truman Presidential Library, Truman Home and the 1959 jail where Jesse James and other Quantrill Raiders were incarcerated in Independence.”
“We need your help, Sir. I’m Detective Benjamin of the Kansas City police. Any assistance you could provide with two recent homicides would be appreciated. Bio-terrorism may be involved.”
Soufflé checked his watch. “I relish challenges,” he said. “I’ll be downstairs having breakfast in thirty minutes. You’ll recognize me by my blue beret. We can review the case over coffee.”
One Hour Later
“Any suggestions, Henri?” Detective Benjamin asked. “The Mafia stuffs a canary in the mouth of dead squealers… but celery stalks? What organization suffocates victims by cramming celery down their throats? Terrorists?”
“I’ve read your case file,” Henri Soufflé remarked between bites on a croissant. “I have several questions. Answer these and a trail to the murderer will be clear. First, analyze the celery…is it organic and where did it come from?”
“Why would that matter?”
“Knowing its source could be important. The lab report detected soft rot in the celery, probably caused by aster leafhoppers, a key celery pest. This indicates the celery wasn’t sprayed with insecticides and could be organic.”
“We’ll check it out.”
“Second, find a common bond between the two victims. Before they were suffocated, the victims were immobilized by sodium azide, as powerful a poison as cyanide.”
“There’s no connection between the dead men,” Detective Benjamin said, glancing at his notes. “One guy was a truck driver… the other ran a auto junkyard.”
“Did you check the truck driver’s log? What products did he transport on his last twenty trips? Where did he pick up and drop off his last load?”
“Oui. Two more suggestions. I believe that drugs could be involved. Check the driver’s truck and victims’ homes for drug residue, and search the junkyard for sodium azide.”
“There are two-hundred grams of sodium azide tablets in a passenger-side airbag, and fifty in the driver-side of a typical junked car. A few grams of this poison can kill you within forty minutes if you eat, drink or inhale it. That’s what killers used to incapacitate these victims.”
“You mean to tell me that my car has a potentially-deadly chemical in each airbag?”
“Oui. These airbags were mandated for new cars by Congress in the late 1980s due to heavy campaign contributions from airbag lobbyists and Ralph Nader’s support.”
Detective Benjamin shook his head. “Airbags deploy at up to 230 mph,” he muttered, “and they’ve killed children and short women sitting in the passenger-seat during low-speed accidents. I wonder if Congress or Nader considered this and the effects of sodium azide on the environment before creating the Airbag Law?”
“Probably not.” Inspector Soufflé shrugged. “I’ll return from Independence by five. When you get the answers to my questions call me. Perhaps we can meet for breakfast, tomorrow.”
Marriott Hotel Downtown, Kansas City, Missouri, Day 2
“You pointed our investigation in the right direction,” Detective Benjamin admitted.
“Henri, you were right about the organic celery and the connection between the two homicide victims. Drug dogs confirmed that narcotics were transported in the victim’s truck along with celery, so we alerted the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA raided the California organic farm where the trucker made his last twenty trips to Kansas City and found a methamphetamine warehouse and laboratory. They presented their search warrant and arrested four bikers there.”
“Did the DEA give any insight into why the victims had celery stalks shoved down their throats?” Henri Soufflé interrupted. “Was it a message to other criminals.”
“Yes. The motorcycle gang wanted to send a ‘Don’t Skim’ message to anyone distributing their methamphetamines. One of the bikers whom the DEA arrested will be placed in the Witness Protection Program after the trial. He told police that the junkyard owner sold the drugs after the trucker brought them to Kansas City. Both victims skimmed thousands of dollars from the California meth syndicate …so they were eliminated with a sodium azide-spiked drink to immobilize them, and celery to choke them. A video of their deaths was recovered by the DEA in a safe hidden behind 65-pound boxes of celery. The informant operated the camera as the other three bikers killed the skimmers.”
“I’m happy to assist the Kansas City police.”
“Henri, we appreciate your suggestions. They were on target. Thank you.”
“I hope you’ll stay for my speech at today’s luncheon.”
“Appreciate the invite… but need to get back to my family. Bye.”
* * *
Inspector Soufflé sipped coffee and stared at the men seated around him. They seem happy, he thought…probably have a wife and children waiting for them at home.
On the elevator he decided that life as a single man was incomplete. Thirty-five isn’t too old for marriage, he said silently. Maybe I’ll meet someone I could care about on my next case.
Henri Soufflé smiled as he opened his hotel room door and shut it firmly behind him.
He knew a bright future lay ahead.
NOTE: This story is a chapter of my 2nd novel, “Inspector Souffle,” which I may post if I can locate all the chapters, written in 2002.
Art Youmans, “THE PURPOSE OF LIFE,” 1997, 970 words
It was evening. The moon was full, and darkness had descended on the land like a giant curtain. Strange shadows reflected on the lake as a cold north wind bent the oak trees in all directions like a thousand synchronized dancers.
Farmer Brown’s barn was on the south edge of the lake. In the barn’s loft huddled two young Owls. They were waiting, as they had waited every evening for the past month, for Albert Einstein Owl.
On the north edge of the lake, Albert was finishing his Saturday dinner. It was the favorite meal of the Great Horned Owl. His wife had prepared the Stroganoff, carefully slicing the meat very thin and cutting it into strips about two inches long.
“How was the meal, dear?” she asked.
“Delicious, my sweet,” Albert replied, as wiping the sour cream and mustard from his beak. “Skunk Stroganoff is my favorite meal. It’s too bad that Owls have no sense of smell. I’m sure this meal smells as good as it tastes.”
“Just remember you catch ‘em and I’ll cook ‘em,” she said.
“That’s fine with me.” He kissed his wife and looked at his watch. “It’s time for me to visit the twins. I promised I’d start their home schooling before 8 p.m. I’ll be home before dawn.”
His feathers sparkled in the moonlight as he glided silently through the clouds. With eyes in the front of his head, unlike most birds, he saw the barn on the other side of an ancient oak tree with the same sharp, binocular vision as a Hawk. Albert dove with the speed of an Eagle chasing its prey. Using his tail feathers as a brake and a rudder for steering, he saw the world in slow motion as he gently alighted on the weather vane.
He knocked loudly on the barn door
. He heard a shuffling of feathers and the door was flung open. He flew in and saw John and Joan in the loft. They were happy to see him.
“Grandpa! Grandpa!” they chirped in unison. “We studied our lessons. Give us a test.”
Albert hesitated for a moment. Tutoring gifted children is a challenge, he thought, since often the students are as smart as the teacher.
He decided to ask them a difficult question.
“Farmer Brown has ninety-nine mice in his barn. How many Owls would it take to rid this barn of the mice in one day?” Albert smiled as the twins began their calculations.
A minute later both twins had their wings raised. “Thirty-three Owls,” cried John.
“Correct. Tell me how you solved the problem,” said Albert.
“It was easy,” chirped Joan.“ One Owl can eat three mice a day. Therefore ninety-nine mice in the barn, divided by three mice that each Owl can eat, equals thirty-three Owls.”
“Excellent. You learned your lessons well. Soon you will be smart enough to attend Owl College, and listen to the many stories narrated by that famous Hoot Owl, Voltaire.
"Will you tell us a story, Grandpa.”
Albert took a deep breath and began to speak. “In the beginning, there was harmony on the earth between man, beast and bird. A man named Noah built a big ship called an Ark. Passengers on this Ark included your ancestors, a distant grandmother and grandfather, along with a pair of every beast and bird on earth. There was a terrible storm, and it rained for forty days and forty nights. The oceans covered all the earth. On the forty-first day the rains stopped. Noah asked one of the Owls to see if there was any land nearby. The Owl was selected for he had excellent eyesight, combined with keen hearing and was one of the brightest of the birds. The Owl flew many miles, and finally located dry ground. He returned to Noah’s Ark carrying an olive branch.”
“Tell us more.”
“Well,” continued Albert, “the symbiosis between birds and man has always existed since Noah’s time.”
“What does symbiosis mean, Grandpa?” interrupted the twins. “Did you learn that word in Owl College?”
“Yes. It describes a relationship where both parties mutually benefit,” he continued. “For example, Owls keep Farmer Brown’s barn free of mice. We benefit with free meals and free lodging. Farmer Brown benefits by Owls eliminating the rodents who used to eat his corn and grain. Owls are much better “mousers” than cats
." Other examples include our cousins, the Sea Gulls, who saved the crops of the pioneer Mormons of Utah from being devoured by a cricket plague. In appreciation, a statue of a Sea Gull has been erected in Salt Lake City to show man’s appreciation of us birds
." A Nighthawk can eat over 500 mosquitoes in a single meal. Birds are one of nature’s checks on overpopulation of man’s world by insects and rodents. We are important in this world.”
He could see the chests of the twins expanding as they fluffed out their feathers with pride. They were impressed.
“Thanks, Grandpa,” said John. “We learned a lot from you tonight.”
“We learned that we all contribute to this world,” interrupted Joan. “ We now know how important every bird and animal is.”
Remember the words of Professor Voltaire” continued Albert. “All is for the best. Nothing happens in this world without a purpose for it.”
“Yes, Grandpa,” the twins chirped in unison. ”There is a purpose for each of us in this world. If we live long enough we’ll surely discover what that purpose is.”
“Yes, we will,” Albert replied. He smiled at the twins with a great sense of pride.
He was now confident that the future would be a better place than the past.
Art Youmans, “A JUMP IN 1944,” (2001) 992 words
“What makes a good paratrooper?” the Jump Master grunted. He stared at a tall private in the back row. “You just volunteered!”
“Private George Kenney reporting, Master Sergeant!” he replied.
He stood at attention like a statue. “A good paratrooper follows orders from a superior. He does his best on every assignment the Army gives him. He shows no fear, and follows regulations. When his sergeant or other NCO says jump,he asks how high?”
“You’re correct! At ease, Kenney,” the sergeant said, smiling. “United States Army paratroopers are the best in the world because of people like us. We follow orders from men and women who outrank us. This makes us good soldiers.” He pointed to the back of the room. “Anyone disagree with me.”
“No, Sergeant,” the men chanted.
“All right,” he muttered, checking his watch. “We’ll be over the target at 0130. Check your equipment and meet at the airfield at 2400. NCOs will line up squads alphabetically. Dismissed!”
Private Kenney ran to his tent, grabbed his canteen and rifle and moved as fast as he could, along with the other soldiers, toward the airfield. It’s 2300, he thought, I’d better hurry…don’t want to be late…especially when its almost June 6th, my 18th birthday!
* * *
“Alpha squad, fall in here!” a corporal cried, pointing. “Kenney, you’re now assistant squad leader. In my absence, you’re in charge. Understood?”
“Yes, Corporal!” George Kenney felt a flush of pride run through his body. He looked at the other nine men in the squad. I wonder what they’re thinking?
* * *
“How’re you feeling, Son?” a voice asked.
He whirled around, dazzled by the stars on the man’s shoulders
. “Feeling fine, General,” he stammered. “Real good.” He felt lightheaded. Never met General Eisenhower before. Wow! Will Ma be proud when I write her that I met Ike!
Private George Kenney watched General Dwight David Eisenhower, surrounded by Airborne Colonels, make his way to the end of the airfield where P-47 Thunderbolt fighter escorts were revving their piston engines.
* * *
“Board by squad!” the Jump Master ordered. “Alphabetical order! Alpha first, then Beta, followed by Charley, and Delta squads for those of you who’ve forgotten the alphabet! We’ll jump in the same order over the target!”
* * *
“Men, this is D-Day!” The Colonel shouted over the drone of the airplane engines. “In five hours, British and American troops will storm across the beaches of Normandy. The 82nd Airborne Division’s main objective is to secure bridges over the rivers behind Utah Beach for our advancing troops.
We will also destroy crossings over the Douve River to prevent Nazi reinforcements from reaching the front. There’ll be more than 6,000 men parachuting, tonight, and almost 4,000 troops in the glider assault. We’ll be assisted by the 101st Airborne division, so you’ll have plenty of support when you land in enemy territory.
The lives of those men assaulting the Normandy beaches are in your hands. I know you’ll do the job you’ve been trained to do. Officers and NCOs have maps of their objectives. NCOs will now brief their squads. Good hunting! See you on the ground!”
The Colonel stared at the blackened faces silently staring at him. Ike told me he expected casualties to be greater than 70% for the 82nd Airborne, he thought. I hope that he’s wrong, this time!
* * *
“This is our drop zone, near the town of Carentan,” the corporal said, pointing to a fold-up map he removed from his pocket… “and this is our objective, Bridge A. We secure it, protect it, and fight like hell if the Nazis try to get it back. Understood?”
The men nodded.
Private George Kenney realized that not a word had been spoken since the plane took off in England, except by the colonel and the NCOs who were reviewing the mission with their squads
. I wonder if everyone’s scared? he thought. His knees began to knock together. He glanced about to see if anyone noticed. They’re all staring ahead…eyes glazed…probably praying. Kenney shut his eyes and silently mouthed The Lord’s Prayer. My father who art in heaven……
“Need any help, Kenney?” the corporal interrupted.
“Negative. Everything’s A-Ok.”
“First jump in combat?”
“Nothing to worry about. My first combat jump on the beachhead near Salerno, last year, wasn’t bad. Once you get through the flak and small-arms fire on the way down, the rest of the battle is easy.”
“TEN MINUTES!” the Jump Master screamed.
Kenney checked his chute, M-1 rifle and ammo by the red glow of the interior lights. He felt a knot growing in his stomach when the noise intensified as a door opened.
“STAND-UP! HOOK-UP!” the Jump Master yelled.
“Kenney, hook your parachute to the static line!” the corporal grunted. You take the point…first man to jump. I’ll be the last out in Alpha Squad. See you on the ground!”
Private George Kenney nodded and handed his static line to the Jump Master as the red light disappeared and a green light began to glow.
The air rushed by Kenney’s face as he fell at 140 miles-per-hour, His speed slowed to 30 miles-per-hour as he felt the parachute jerk open. He looked above him in the moonlight at more than one thousand white circles floating through the clouds, like balls of cotton dancing in the wind. This is it, he thought, America versus Germany, Good against Evil. We’re going to win this war…and I’m helping America do it!
* * *
“The corporal’s dead!” a medic cried. “Flak filled him full of lead.
” He turned to Alpha Squad. “What are you going to do?
“We’ve got a job to finish!” acting corporal George Kenney grunted, removing a map from the corporal’s pocket.
“Alpha Squad, follow me!” he ordered.
“We have a bridge to capture!
After we do that, men, we have a war to win!”
Art Youmans, “LAST DAY OF SCHOOL,” (2001) 824 Words
Charlie sprang from his seat and signaled Ike when the school bell rang. “Let’s go to town,” he whispered. “I heard that Billy the Kid’s in Silver City.”
“Wow! Always wanted to see his Colt .41 caliber in action. What’s Billy look like?”
“About five foot eight inches, light hair, blue eyes…and he’s always smiling, even when he’s gunfightin’. Billy’s mean…real mean.”
“Have a good summer!” Mrs. Blankenship cried, as she watched her pupils push through the doorway of the one-room schoolhouse like horses fighting to escape a burning barn. “See you in the fall!”
“How are we gonna get to town?” Ike asked.
“Use these,” Charlie replied, pointing at the ground. “Your feet and your brain. They’ll get you anywhere in life you want to go.”
* * *
“We’ve walked through town, twice,” Ike whined. “Where’s The Kid?”
“Probably in Miss Kitty’s Saloon.”
“They won’t let ten year olds in there.”
“Sure. We’ll wait outside and talk with him when he comes out.”
* * *
“Let’s get outta here!” Ike shouted. “There’s gonna be a gunfight.”
“Get under the stairs like me!” Charlie said, sharply. “Don’t want to see my brother get hit by stray bullets.” He grabbed Ike and pulled him to the ground. “I’ll bet on the little guy.”
“Is he Billy the Kid?”
“Don’t know. I’ll ask him after the fight.”
“Whew!” Ike exclaimed. “The big guy went down like a ton of bricks. Didn’t even get off a shot. The little guy’s fast as lightnin’!”
“Never saw a guy that fast before,” Charlie muttered. “He crossed his arms to opposite sides and drew his matched Colt .45s from vest pockets in one graceful motion…just like trick-shootin’ John Wesley Hardin. He’s not The Kid…but he’s just as fast.”
“If he ain’t Billy The Kid…then who is he?”
“Dunno. Let’s ask him.”
Ike watched Charlie get up, brush the dirt from his pants and shirt and walk toward the stranger. He followed along.
“That’s some shootin’,” Charlie said.
“Just something that had to be done,” the gunfighter replied. “Isn’t it dangerous for you youngsters to be around during a gunfight?”
Charlie shrugged. “Naw, I’ve seen gunfights before. Saw Bat Masterson shoot a couple of gamblers with his nickel-plated .45s last year. Same Colts that you used.”
The gunfighter smiled. “You have a sharp eye, son. Masterson and I both like pearl handles on our .45s.”
“Are you Billy The Kid?” Ike blurted out.
“No siree,” the gunfighter chuckled. “Billy’s lightning-fast, too, but he uses a Colt .41. He taught me how to shoot during the Lincoln County War of ’78. Nice fellow when he’s sober. After a few drinks, get out of his way.”
“What’s your name?” Charlie questioned. “Are you famous?”
“Not famous at all,” the gunfighter replied. “Name’s Jealousy Jones.”
“Are you just startin’ out as a gunfighter?” Ike interrupted. “Is that why we never heard of you in the newspapers?”
“Publicity like that’ll get you killed,” Jones said. “Every wannabe gunfighter in New Mexico will try to make a reputation against these famous gunslingers like Earp, Hardin, Masterson, Billy The Kid and Butch Cassidy… not against me. I skedaddle out of town after each gunfight…go where no one knows me.”
“How come that guy wanted to fight you?”
“Same reason that twenty others challenged me this year. I enter a saloon and order a sarsaparilla. Sooner or later the town bully walks over, sneers, says there’s something wrong about a man who orders sarsaparilla, and challenges me to a fight.”
“Sarsaparilla’s what I drink,” Ike exclaimed. “I ain’t a sissy!”
“Jones grinned. “I ain't either,” he said, mounting his horse.
“I don’t get it,” Ike muttered, staring after the gunfighter. “He comes to town, shoots a bully and then rides off. How’s he gonna get famous like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp if he doesn’t stick around and talk with Mr. Biddick at The Gazette?”
“Gunfighters like Hickok, and Earp need the publicity,” Charlie summarized. “They’re in love with themselves and want the world to know how good they are, too. Others like Jealousy Jones do their work and move on. They’re smart enough to get out of town before brothers and friends of the deceased bushwhack them.”
“I understand, now. He’s smart… like Mrs. Blankenship. He rides into town, shoots the baddest drunk and outlaw around, disappears before anyone can shoot him in the back, and leaves the town in better shape than before he came.”
“America needs more people like him. When I grow up I want to be like Jealousy Jones.”
“Me too,” Ike agreed. “We’ll both be like him when we grow up. We’ll clean up the bullies and outlaws in the Wild West. After we’re through with them, the only crooks left will be the politicians.”
“Right, and someone else will probably get rid of them after we’re gone.”
But nobody ever did.
Art Youmans, “BERTHA SOUCARET,” (2001) 874 Words
“Avancez!” the coachman shouted with each crack of the whip.
Bertha watched the horses strain forward past the crest of the hill. She leaned out of the coach. “Are we almost there?” she cried over the sound of hoofs striking the brick road.
“Oui, Mademoiselle. It’s the stone house on the right,” he replied, pointing. “There’s someone waiting, outside.”
She stared at the tall figure standing in the moonlight by the doorway
. It will be wonderful to see Papa, again, she thought. She strained her eyes to see his face as the coach lurched to a stop. The coachman helped her down the steps to the ground as the figure approached.
“How was the journey from Guadeloupe, Bertha?” her father asked.
“The Atlantic seas were rough. I was not sure God would allow me to set foot in Belgium. My daily prayers kept the boat afloat.”
“Antwerp is your home, now. Mother would have wanted you to come.”
“I visited Mama’sgrave in Guadeloupe for the last time. It rests on a hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Bless her soul.”
“Yellow Fever took her life,” he said. “That is why I returned to Belgium and sent for you. Your home is now with me.”
“Where shall I put these?” the coachman interrupted, holding two large cloth bags.
“In the foyer,” the father replied, jingling two francs in his hand. “Here’s payment for the coach ride.”
Bertha watched the coachman bite the coins. Assured they were genuine, he tipped his hat, and carried the bags inside.
* * *
“Why do you look so sad, ma enfant?”
“I am no child, Papa!” Bertha said, indignantly. “Tomorrow, I’ll be eighteen!”
“Like birds,” he replied, “daughters grow up, spread their wings and fly the coop.” He stared into her eyes. “You have your Mother’s eyes…green like twin emeralds, her coal-black hair and sparkling personality.”
“I am honored to be like Mama.”
“You are the image of her when I first saw her in Guadeloupe. I was the Belgian Counsel to Martinique and Guadeloupe at the time. At the Governor’s Ball our eyes met and I was smitten. It was love at first sight. We married six months later when she was eighteen.”
“Will I marry when I am eighteen, like Mama?”
“No, Bertha. You will marry when you fall in love. It is your life. When you meet a man you love, and he loves you, only then will you marry.”
“Until then, what shall I do? Will a Belgian wish to marry a Creole?”
“Your mother was a beauty, and so are you. Men will pursue you if they have good judgment. Any man should be proud of having the daughter of Auguste Soucaret as his wife!”
“Oh, Papa! I hope you are right! But I do not know any unmarried Belgian men, and none know me.”
“Things will change after the Concours de Beaute, on September 19th, 1888.” He handed her a sheet of paper.
“What is this, Papa?she replied, staring at the paper.
“It is the world’s first beauty contest. It will be held at Spa, Belgium.”
“I do not want to enter such a thing as a beauty contest. I would be an ugly duckling among a roomful of swans. My skin is too dark to be considered beautiful by Belgians.”
“You are wrong, Bertha. You will be the only graceful swan amongst a gaggle of chattering ducks and geese. First prize is five thousand francs!”
* * *
“She is charming,” the first judge said.
“More beautiful, than charming,” the second judge echoed, “but charming, too!”
“Extremely exotic-looking,” the Belgian King agreed. I will personally invite her to the Palace Ball. The Prince would like to meet her.”
“Then it is decided,” the head judge concluded, “that the lady from Guadeloupe is the winner.”
The other three men nodded.
* * *
“Papa, I am so excited,” Bertha said. “The Palace Ball is tonight. The Prince is sending his carriage for me at seven.”
“By winning the Concours de Beaute you won not only first prize, but the hearts of all Belgians. Like Cinderella, your foot fits the golden slipper. Your future is assured. Whatever you wish for may be within your grasp.”
“All I want is to find love, Papa.”
“Be yourself, tonight, Bertha. Do not look for love…it will find you… like it did for your darling mother.”
* * *
Bertha walked into the Palace Ball with the elegance of a Princess. She curtsied to the Queen, and bowed to the King. Her eyes met the Prince’s gaze. She knew then what her Mamamust have felt, years ago in Guadeloupe, when her eyes and her Papa’sfirst met at the Governor’s Ball.
Note: “The first beauty contest, the Concours de Beaute, was held at Spa, Belgium (September 19, 1888). Walking away with the 5,000 franc first prize was charming Bertha Soucaret, 18, a Creole from Guadeloupe.” (SOURCE: “The People’s Almanac #2,” Wallechinsky & Wallace, 1978, Bantam Books, p. 435.)
Based on these two sentences from “The People’s Almanac #2,” (in the event it’s of interest to you), I wrote this fictional story about Bertha Soucaret, and made it into a modern-day fairy tale.
Art Youmans, “ALBERT’s INVENTION,” (2001) 617 words
Albert stared at the seven words on the blackboard. “That’s what I’ll call it!” he exclaimed. “PRETEND.”
“That’s an easier acronym to remember than RADAR,” Sally said. “We have RADAR for tracking moving objects in the air, SONAR for in the water and PRETEND for erecting an anti-missile defense around the United States. You’re a genius, Albert."
“You’ll get the Nobel Prize in physics,” Sam agreed. “This is a quantum jump in science! You’re doing as much for missile defense in 2001 as Robert Goddard did for liquid-fueled rockets in ‘26. Will you apply for a patent?”
Albert shook his head. “Did the Bell Lab inventors of the transistor in ‘47 get a patent?” he questioned. “Did Nobel Laureates Watson and Frick patent their double helix DNA discovery in the ‘50s? Did the inventors of the Internet in the ‘60s and ‘70s stifle progress with a patent? Of course not. Scientists of the world, then, were not the greedy opportunists of today, armed with a battery of corporate lawyers who spend their working days sending cease and desist letters to every inventor whose inventions are even vaguely similar to the patented product.”
“We live in a litigious society,” Sally summarized. “Mom and Dad are attorneys. They return home at night, exhausted from working in such an adversarial climate. I’ve heard them talk about changing careers.”
“Before they quit their jobs,” Sam said, “ask them to help Albert with his missile defense plan. Usually, for every invention, they’re hundreds of people coming out of the woodwork like termites, ready to sue you for usurping their idea.”
“Dad told me that Alexander Graham Bell was sued for patent infringement more than six hundred times by inventors between 1876 and 1893,” Sally interrupted. “Their lawsuits claimed that they invented the telephone. Bell won every lawsuit, but defending his invention was costly.
Mom said that they’re many shady lawyers, like most of the ones who sued Alexander Graham Bell, who make a living from frivolous lawsuits against anyone with deep pockets.”
“These hired guns make me nervous,” Albert said. “That’s why my invention will go into the public domain like Linux software...anyone will be able to adapt it, use it and protect themselves with it. This anti-missile defense system makes missiles obsolete.”
“Maybe you’ll also get the Nobel Peace Prize and become the second person to get Nobel Prizes in two separate areas, like chemist and peace-advocate Linus Pauling.”
“Yeah, sounds good to me,” Albert agreed, leaning back in his chair. He stared at a fly circling his head. “My defense system will shoot incoming missiles down like this fly. Poof,” he whispered, raising his thumb and pointing his index finger like a gun. “One dead fly.”
“Lasers are the way to go,” Sam suggested. “You can’t miss with ‘em.”
“Absolutely,” Albert said. “This project isn’t perfect, yet. With help from you and Sally, we can finalize testing of the missile system by September. How’s that sound to you?”
“Great timing. That’ll give us all summer to work out any kinks… we better hustle,” Sally said, glancing at her watch. “It’s 7:30 A.M. Class starts at eight.”
* * *
Substitute teacher Estelle Carver parked her Saturn. Carefully locking her new car, she dashed toward the brick building. Don’t want to be late for my first day of school, she thought. She stared at the sign over the main entrance, Kindergarten School For Gifted Children. She opened the door as three children approached.
“Good morning, teacher,” one child said. “I’m Albert, and these are my fellow inventors, Sally and Sam. If we can be of any help to you…just let us know!”
In the event it’s of interest, the dates, names and background information in this story (with the exception of the exploits of Albert, Sally & Sam) are accurate. Goddard did fire his first rocket in ’26, James Watson & Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for Physiology & Medicine in ’62 for work done in the ‘50s determining the molecular structure of DNA, Bell had more than 600 lawsuits filed against him etc. Estelle Carver was an outstanding teacher, who taught English in a class I attended in the 8th grade, years ago. She never married, devoting her life to trying to teach thick-headed bumpkins like me. J
NOTE: There was no room left for this 1,830-word story in the "Under 2,000 Words" category, so I placed the story in the under 1,000-Word category.
Art Youmans, “PAULIE,” circa 2000, 1,830 words
Guido “The Scar” Scarino closed his eyes and listened.
The notes of the music pounded the walls of the darkened room like rubber balls in a racquetball game. His giant body sank into the padded chair as every muscle relaxed.
His mind soared in the sky like a seagull while Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos floated through his few remaining brain cells at 110 decibels. A half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s rested on a table nearby.
“Hey Uncle Guido!” a voice cried. “Open the freaking door! My knuckles are raw from knocking!”
Scarino awakened and removed his 9-mm Glock pistol from a shoulder holster. He moved like a cat away from the metal door jamb and growled, “Who’s asking?”
He lowered the volume on the CD player.
“Your nephew Paulie. I’ve got to see you.”
The heavy door opened and Paulie walked in. “What kinda weird stuff is that you’re listenin’ to?” he asked screwing up his nose. “Sounds like music you’d hear at a gay bathhouse in San Francisco.”
Scarino’s neck flushed red as he glared at his sister’s boy. These young punks don’t show respect, he thought. He’s family so I don’t break his neck. His anger became a smile. “What’s so important that you wake me on my day off?”
“The boss wants to see you. It’s urgent…something to do with a dispute with another crime family. The consigliere promised me a fifty if I could find you before three.”
“How come no one called? I’ve got a phone.”
“Dunno,” Paulie shrugged. “Maybe the music was so loud you couldn’t hear the ringing. Why don’t you ask him yourself? He said to be at Luigi’s Pizzeria at three.”
“The Don will be there?” he asked incredulously.
“No. The underboss has instructions for you.”
Scarino glanced at his watch. It read two. “The Luigi’s on Canal Street or Bleecker?”
“The one on Canal. I forgot there were two of ‘em. “Wait in front and a limo will pick you up.”
The melody of Brandenburg Concerto Number 6 in B Flat hung in the air as Paulie walked out the door.
Scarino knew the routine. He slipped his oversized brass knuckles into a pocket along with two extra magazines of ten 9-mm hollow points, clicked off the CD player and double-locked the door behind him. He scanned for cops before stepping out in the street and walked down the brownstone steps two at a time to the sidewalk.
He hummed all the way to the subway. Life was good in New York. What could be better, he thought, than having a job you love…and having employers who appreciated your work.
Mafia Headquarters New York, N.Y.
“Who’s doing the job on O’Reilly?” the consigliere asked.
“The Scar,” the chauffeur answered. “I’m picking Scarino up at three.”
“That punch-drunk hood’s a good muscleman but he’s been around a while. Think he’s getting too old for this work?
“I said the same thing to the underboss. Know what he said?”
“Contract hits are like riding a bicycle. Once you do one…you never forget how. All the other dependable professionals were out of town, in jail or dead. The old man got the job by default.” He checked his watch. “Gotta go! See you.”
The consigliere watched the black limousine pull out of the parking garage onto Eighth Avenue. He turned and went back to his office, sat in his leather chair and glanced out the window at the light rain falling outside. I tried to settle the dispute with O’Reilly over his territory, he thought, but he wouldn’t listen. He stared at the plaque on the far wall, Babe Ruth Stuck Out 1,330 times. “I struck out with O’Reilly every day for a month” he muttered. “You can’t win them all.” He shrugged and went back to work.
* * *
The limo slowed at Luigi’s restaurant and stopped.
“Get in!” the chauffeur said sharply.
Scarino grabbed the door latch in a bear-like grip and opened the back door. “Hey!” he exclaimed, “there ain’t nobody here.”
“Get in,” he repeated. “Instructions are in the back seat. Read them and then we’ll talk while I drive.i
He opened the envelope and a photo fell out. “I know this guy. It’s O’Reilly ain’t it?”
“Yeah. Read the background sheet on him. It details his habits and tendencies. Note that he visits his girl friend in the Bronx on Wednesday nights and leaves about midnight.”
The chauffeur’s eyes rolled. “That’s observant of you.”
“Well,” Scarvino said modestly not catching the sarcasm, “I’ve had lots of experience in my field. After they banned me from boxing for taking a dive in a fight, this has been my livelihood. I’m good at it.”
“That’s why the boss selected you. Try to get O’ Reilly tonight. If you miss him there, he eats an early breakfast at Sarge’s Deli on Third Avenue every Thursday. ”
“What’s this?” he asked holding a wad of one-hundred-dollar bills.
“It’s your five thousand dollar retainer. After the hit, call me at the phone number on the envelope. There’s another fifteen for you when you rub him out. Any questions?”
“Nope. Just drop me off at the Eighth Avenue subway. I’ll be in touch with you soon.”
* * *
When the chauffeur met Scarino the next day, he stopped the limo and yelled. “Get in!
After they’d gone a block he yelled over his shoulder, ”Count the money in the envelope. If it’s right… signal me and I’ll drop you at the Eighth Avenue subway.”
He took the envelope and shoved it under his shirt. “Take me to the subway.”
“Ain’t you going to count the dough?”
“I trust the Don. If he and the subboss say it’s fifteen grand, I know the dough’s there. Tell him to call again when I can give a repeat performance.”
“There’s the subway entrance up ahead.” The chauffeur stopped the limo at the curb.
“Good work. You’re a pro.”
“Thanks,” Scarino said stepping from the limo. “See you soon.” He slapped him playfully on the shoulder and slammed the rear door.
* * *
Brandenburg Concerto Number 1 in F had just begun. “Scarino’s eyes were closed when the banging started.
He jumped to his feet, slipped the envelope with the cash under his mattress and pulled out his 9-mm Glock. “Who is it?” he growled.
“It’s Paulie,” a voice in the hall answered.
“Whatcha want? I’m busy…getting ready for a vacation in Atlantic City.”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
Scarino released the Fox Police Lock on the metal door and invited his nephew inside. He sat silently watching him until Paulie began speaking
. “Everyone I speak to on the street says you work alone. I’ve been a loanshark’s courier for nearly five years. It’s a dead-end job. Have you ever thought of teaming up with someone?”
“Like you for instance?”
“Right, Uncle Guido. I could keep someone from back-shooting you. I also excel at stealing getaway cars and I’m a good driver. You could train me in muscle work. I’d do anything to move up in the mob.”
“I’ll think about it after I get back. When I have a job for two men I’ll be in touch.”
“Thanks Uncle Guido. You’re my favorite relative. I’m ready whenever you call. Have a good trip.”
A Week Later
“Did you hear what Scarino boasted about in Atlantic City?” Don Alberto said vehemently. “Here’s the transcript the casino manager faxed me.”
The underboss narrowed his eyes as he read the document. “This is bad. The Scar got drunk and screamed he was a mob hitman. He threatened to fight anyone who thought he was tougher. Is Scarino nuts?”
“It’s likely that The Scar could become a problem. Drunks with big mouths and good memories can get us all lifetime acommodations in Sing Sing. Remember what Joe Valachi did to the mob in ’62 when he broke our Omerta code.”
“We don’t want any more squealers! Are we gonna whack Scarino?”
Don Alberto nodded. “The faster the better.”
* * *
Scarino had liquor on his breath when he opened the door. “Have a seat, Paulie,” he said pointing to a sofa.
“I’m glad for the opportunity.”
“The underboss gave me a contract for a double hit. He requested you for my backup. When any boss suggests something you better agree.”
“Or you might end up with cement shoes,” he interrupted.
“Here’s the job,” Scarino continued pulling two photos from the envelope. “We take out these two bookies on the same night. They’ve been holding out on the boss…pocketing a lot of his dough.”
“This job sounds easy. We plug ‘em and skedaddle.”
“They’re heavily armed…so we’ve got to be careful. They could also have bodyguards…s
o we hit them when they’re not expecting it.”
“I’ll tell you the plan on the way.”
* * *
“You did good, Paulie,” Scarino muttered. “It took you only four shots to take out the bodyguards. Not bad for your first hit.”
“Uncle, I was impressed with you…both bookies drilled between the eyes. That’s terrific shooting.”
“Have a seat, kid. Let’s have a drink to celebrate.” He pushed two glasses toward Paulie. “Fill ‘em up.”
* * *
An hour later Scarino slumped over an arm of his padded chair and began snoring.
Paulie clicked open his cell phone and dialed.
“Thomas Concrete,” a voice answered.
“The sleeping powder worked,” Paulie reported. “What’s next?”
“Remember the red envelope I gave you yesterday?” the underboss growled.
“It’s in my pocket.”
“Open it. Then follow instructions to the letter. Use the latex gloves. Capisce?”
“Si,” he replied as the other party clicked off.
* * *
Paulie sat for five minutes after reading the letter. He rose to his feet and slipped into the gloves. He flipped on the CD player as Brandenburg Concerto No.1 in F flooded the room at 110 decibels. Opening his uncle’s coat he removed the 9-mm pistol and checked the magazine.
It’s ready, he thought. Paulie lifted Scarino’s right hand and placed the 9-mm in it with his uncle’s index finger around the trigger.
The gunshot made a sharp cracking sound as Scarino’s head flew violently to the left side.
Paulie stood staring at the dead man. “You’re still my favorite relative, Uncle Guido,” he said sincerely. “I always admired you for your success. I’d like to thank you for helping me move up my status within the mob.”
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G had started when Paulie released the Fox Police Lock and opened the front door. He stuck his head outside to see if the way was clear. It was. That music’s not bad at all, he thought. He made a mental note to get a CD like Uncle Guido’s.
He softly hummed the melody as he walked down the hall to the staircase. Paulie had spring in his step and the confidence that comes from someone who had just won a mega lottery.
Art Youmans, “THE LIGHT BULB,” 1998
“You cannot mean it,” I shouted; but the judge shrugged his shoulders and signaled the bailiff.
I felt the handcuffs fiercely biting into my wrists as I was led back to my cell.
“Wait,” I begged as the jailer padlocked my cell door. He pointed through the bars at a glass, which contained a milky solution. The glass was on a small table beside my cot.
“Drink that!” he demanded. I nodded and drank it in one gulp. I lay on my cot and was asleep minutes later.
* * *
When I awoke I was alone in a white room with blue pads on the wall. I stared at the single light bulb hanging from a cord eight feet over my head. It cast an eerie glow over the room.
The bulb was my only companion so I talked to it every day.
“You’re a better listener than my wife,” I’d say. “She never let me complete a sentence before she’d interrupt. Thank god, she’s not in here with me. I finally have found peace and solitude.”
In the summer a breeze would blow through the iron bars in the window. I would lie on my cot and watch the light bulb arc from one side to another like a pendulum. I watched it with hypnotic fascination until I fell into a sleep.
From time to time, two men in white coats would visit me.
I have no idea what they wanted, but they asked many questions. They showed me ten cards with blood and axes on them and asked me what I saw on each card. They must have been stupid to ask me such obvious questions, but I wanted to be civil to them so I answered them. I stated that all their cards had blood smeared on them and showed pictures of axes.
These men would look at each other, gather up their cards, and leave. Later they’d return with the same cards and ask the same questions. I’d give them the same answers.
I reasoned that they would surely think me ignorant if I didn’t tell them what was on the cards.
I certainly didn’t want anyone to consider me stupid, for I can both read and write and count to one hundred. And not everyone can do that!
One time when the men in white coats entered my room it was evening. They watched me staring at the swaying bulb. “What are you thinking about?” the first man asked. “Could you tell us?”
“I was thinking of my wife and mother-in-law,” I replied. “Neither of them has visited me since I’ve been here. I wonder why.”
“Why do you feel they haven’t visited?” said the second man.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe they’re mad at me. My mother-in-law never liked me and my wife talked too much. I’m better off without them, I guess. But I keep thinking that I’ll see them one day.”
The first man held a clipboard as he rose from his seat and walked over to where I sat. He reached into an envelope and removed two photos. He gave them to me.
I stared at the first photo.
“Do you know who that woman is?” he asked.
I vaguely remembered the face, but I couldn’t place the name. “I probably used to know her,” I said. “Who is she?”
“That’s your mother-in-law. Now, look at the second photo.”
I looked closely at the photo. It showed a teenager smiling at the camera. Her long blonde hair was visible under the bonnet, which covered her head. “This picture looks like my wife when she was young,” I said.
.The men exchanged glances and then stared at me.
The silence made me feel uneasy so I asked. “Whatever happened to my wife and my mother-in-law?”
The man with the clipboard wrote something on a document and replied, “Your wife and mother-in-law are dead. You murdered them with an axe over fifty years ago. You won’t be seeing them, again.”
When the door closed, I am alone in the white room with the blue pads on the wall.
I stare at my friend, the light bulb, as he sways in the breeze.
I ask him question after question and wait for his reply.
He never says anything, which is fine with me.
I really hate it when I’m interrupted.