500 words: The Fountain Pen Plays Hide-and-Seek

The Fountain Pen Plays Hide-and-Seek

By Richard Zowie

A few years ago, out of curiosity, I tried writing with a fountain pen. It belonged to a friend, but they let me try writing a few lines. My first efforts were messy, scratchy and barely visible on some lines, far too much ink bleeding onto the next line. But as I tried a few more lines, it seemed more natural, less awkward. Why was handwriting was so meticulous in the colonial days. You had to write slowly, so as to not waste paper and ink. Writing slow and giving time for your thoughts to flow, made for beautiful handwriting.

Today, I went to the local grocery store. I remembered they sold disposable fountain pens, so I figured I’d buy two or three. Buying just one pen doesn’t work for me: I have to buy two “backup pens” also.

As I looked, I imagined all the hand cramps Thomas Jefferson must’ve gotten as he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Despite the centuries of pen evolution, I suddenly had an obsession for a fountain pen. I imagined myself wearing black trousers, shoes, black vest with gold watch chain dangling from the button to the pocket, long-sleeved white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. A regular steam punk. The illusion was ruined, of course, by the store’s air conditioning. Outside, it was in the low 90s. Inside, it was around 68. If you came in sweating, you were shivering from the perspiration in your shirt.

Gel pens, ballpoint pens, pencils. Papermate. Zebra. Pilot. Pentel. Ticonderoga.

As I stared at the third shelf, I noticed the fountain pens were all gone. Had some student fascinated in calligraphy discovered them and bought them all? Perhaps some lawyer who preferred only ornate pens when signing legal documents?

I guess I’ll have to try Ebay and wait a few weeks, I thought as I left the aisle. Before leaving the store, I remembered that Halloween had just ended and that I could get some good deals for next year’s Halloween. Plastic pumpkins for holding candy, perhaps even a horror film. I still loved the cheesy ones from the 1970s, the kind that were so bad they’d put five to 10 of them onto a single DVD.

When I went to the discount section to look for those items, I noticed they sold pens. The logo and contour looked familiar.

As I looked closer, I saw the triangular logo and realized this is what happened to the fountain pens. They were simply moved to the discount section. Five of them for one dollar. Before, it had been five for $3.50 each. Instead of paying almost $19, now it was all five for a dollar and change.

What a relief, I thought as I walked to my car carrying my bag. What would I write? I thought. Perhaps I should try writing a short story, or a to-do list. Or perhaps start with basics and write the phrase: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.

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The scariest man I’ve ever met

It’s been 10 years, so I have forgotten what he looked like. I seem to remember six feet tall, in shape, and a smile that was born from self confidence rather than friendliness.

At the time, I was working for a Greater Detroit weekly newspaper. My job on Tuesdays was to get the county sheriff’s report on my way into work. Usually in the office was the substation’s commander, a lieutenant who was still in military shape, and his secretary. She was a tall, bespectacled redhead with their hair cut short.

On this day, there was another man in the office.

His last name, Crichton, stuck out for obvious reasons. “Nope, not related to Michael,” he said.

Then I asked Crichton what he did, and he said he worked for the Oakland County Friend of the Court. His job was to find child support absconders who didn’t want to be found.

And then that smile.

It made me think of a Great White shark, no meal for a day, finding a large school of fish that would make for a great dinner. I also thought of a black-suited IRS agent flipping their credentials at a businessman and saying, “According to our records, it’s been 12 years since you last filed a tax return.” You can’t tell what their facial expression is, due to the black sunglasses that hides their eyes.

The smile made me think something else: he was very good at his job.

Crichton kept smiling as he handed me his business card. “Richard,” he said, “If you know anybody in Oakland County or even in a nearby county who is neglecting their financial obligations as a parent, let me know. I’ll be happy for the custodial parent to track them down and get them held accountable.”

We exchanged pleasantries, and then once the report was ready, I headed to the newspaper office.

Likeable guy, but a tsunami wave of relief washed over me. I’m so glad I’m not an absconder, I thought.

You see on COPS and Dog the Bounty Hunter how many suspects will fight and try to get away. If they saw this man with that shark smile, that confidence, I imagine they’d just put their hands up. No reason to fight, since there’s no point.

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The Well, the Weapon, and the Way Out

A teen falls into a dried-out well that time has leveled to the ground and overgrown with vegetation. There is something at the bottom of the well. The teen may have made the discovery of the century—provided he finds a way to climb back up.

The Well, the Weapon, and the Way Out

By Richard Zowie

I was 30 feet below ground.

Two hours ago, I had been geocaching, trying to find my two hundredth cache when I stepped onto a weak spot onto the grass. When I realized what it could be, I’d already shifted my weight too much and had fallen straight down.

As I fell, panic swept through my mind as I frantically grabbed onto the sides of the hole, hoping maybe some firm tree branch was sticking out and would allow me to grab on and climb out. There was none. I fell, my feet stinging in my shoes from the impact. No snap of bone, which was good.

Instead, I was in a two-foot diameter hole, weeds and grass sprouting through the circular wall. This must’ve been a well at one time, but no time recently. It was dark and cool down at the bottom, despite it being July, 1 p.m., in Texas. It had a stale, earthy smell, making me think of the apartment I once lived in that had roach problems. I hate roaches, but I told myself if one appeared, it would be the least of my concerns.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my i-Phone. Good news: it was the XR kind and the battery was almost at full power. Bad news: no signal. I texted my brother, told him where I was and what I was doing and tried to send it. It bounced back. I tried to call, but no signal. I also tried to call 911. Same. So, I shut the phone off and put it back into my pocket.

Think. Don’t panic, I thought.

I thought of Jessica McClure, the little girl who was stuck in that hole in Texas in the 1980s. She later said she had no memory. I’m 35, so I’m sure I’ll remember this. As I realized I couldn’t fully extend my elbows, I realized I was a little more claustrophobic than I thought. I reminded myself not to panic.

Two things came to mind. Sing loudly. As much as I hate the rapper Eminem, I decided to rap some of his songs. That would stand out, wouldn’t it?

“MY NAME IS…OOO…MY NAME IS…AAH…MY NAME IS …YEAH…SLIM SHADY!” I kept repeating as much as I could as I pulled out a pocket knife and started digging into the wall. The dirt was firm enough to where, with enough dirt dug out, I’d create a “step”. If I could create two-foot steps, it would take 15 steps to reach the top.

My hands were scraped and bleeding, and a few times I thought I was going to tear off a fingernail, but I didn’t care. I had three “stairs” created and they were holding firm. Soon, I was singing Mötley Crüe songs. Clods of dirt fell out, some big, some just pebbles. I’d also sometimes encounter a few worms.

And then, a large clod of dirt that seemed far too big.

As I tried breaking it apart, I was stunned to feel metal underneath. The lighting wasn’t good, but I could feel it was an old pistol. Judging by the weight, it still had bullets in it. It felt rusty.

“What the hell…?” I wondered aloud, my throat raspy from rapping and trying to reach Vince Neil’s falsetto range. Afraid it might still go off after all these years, I placed it into my pocket, opposite my phone, and kept digging.

is that a well?

“Is that a well?” someone asked from a distance.

I went back to the bottom and looked up. I saw three guys looking down. They wore jeans, cowboy hats and looked like they’d done a lot of farm work. “Hello! I fell into this well. I was geocaching.”

For some strange reason, I was worried they’d decide not to help. I also felt this strong, stinging, intuitive feeling not to tell them about the gun. Maybe one of their grandfathers put it in the hole. Maybe they’d leave me there if they knew I’d found it.

“Sure!” one of them said. “Bryan, get that rope from the back of the truck. Mister, we’re going to play tug of war. Once we throw the rope down, you tie it to yourself and hold on. We’ll pull you out.”

The white cloth rope came down. I wrapped it around myself once, tied two knots and wrapped each hand once with the rope, not caring that it would hurt, knowing it would make it more likely they’d have me out.

When I told them I was ready, they counted to three and pulled.

It was like shooting straight up into the air, and before the ropes had a chance to hurt my hands or chest, soon, my face rested on the hot ground, near some gravel. It hurt, but I didn’t care.

As I caught my breath, I stood as the three helped me and I thanked them. Two of them were unaware what geocaching was. And I explained it to them. Finding the cache no longer appealed, so I walked back to my car and drove first to the sheriff’s office to drop off the gun. They questioned me for 15 minutes, then asked for my number so they could call me back.

Six months later, I picked up a copy of the local paper, the Ruthville Blue Star. Thirty-five years ago, a woman was killed with two gunshots, both to the head. She had just turned down the marriage proposal of a 30-year-old Roger Williams. He told police he had “lost” his gun and denied shooting her. Well, it turns out the gun was missing two bullets, the serial number matched old records showing it belonged to him, and the ballistics showed it was the murder weapon. Apparently he dumped it into the well, knowing it was dry, and hoped that once filled, nobody would notice.

Williams couldn’t be prosecuted. The Blue Star reported that Williams in 1998 was all set to go to prison for 10 years for bank robbery, except he cut a deal to testify against his partners and got a two-year sentence. That didn’t go over well with the other inmates, and he was killed a few months later. I didn’t ask how, as I didn’t want to know.

The three guys were brothers sent out by their father to search for an old well on the property. The day after they rescued me, they filled in the hole and put boards over it.

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Lack of curiosity is the best medicine

A neighbor’s dog keeps barking in the middle of the night, always at the same hour and for the same amount of time. Your character decides to investigate what has the dog agitated in such precise, repeated pattern.

Lack of curiosity is the best medicine

By Richard Zowie

Did you ever see that movie Amityville Horror? Each morning, George Lutz would wake up at 3:15 a.m. It had something to do with the house he and his new wife and her kids lived in. George is now dead, but the debate continues as to whether or not the house really was haunted or simply made up over a few bottles of wine.

I have a similar problem, although my house isn’t haunted. A few nights per month, around 2:30 a.m., a dog in my neighborhood starts barking. It’s the dog across the street in a brick, two-story house. An accountant and his high school principal wife, and their four kids. I’ve had only a handful of conversations with them. Polite, but I can tell they guard their privacy. Once, because my wife wanted to make a house-warming dessert for them, they declined to tell me their favorite type of dessert. I have no idea where they’re from. My kids don’t socialize with their kids, because their kids often seem involved in various clubs when not completing school projects.

“Maybe they’re in the witness protection program,” my wife said, chortling. She always loves to joke around, whereas I’m more serious by nature. As a structural engineer, there’s no time for jokes because if you miss something when drawing up plans, a building can collapse. Lawsuits can ensue.

And now, the dog is barking again. It would be a waste of time for me to put on my blue cloth bathrobe, put on my blue slippers, grab a flashlight and walk across the street. But, that’s intrusive and their backyard brown wooden fence is about seven feet tall. I’m 5’10”, so I can’t see over it.

I’m not in a good mood, since I can’t get back to sleep when the stupid mutt barks, so I called the police and asked them to investigate.

Somehow, I slept.

My cell phone rang an hour later. “Mr. Stoltz, I’m Officer Wendell and I’m at your front door. May we talk?”

A few moments later, I opened the door and let him inside and closed the door. Noting there were no flashing lights from multiple police cars outside, I assumed nothing was wrong.

“Mr. Stoltz, this doesn’t leave this house, ok?”

“Yes, officer,” I said.

“Your neighbor apologizes for waking you up. He does not believe in using banks, so sometimes at nighttime, he will dig up a spot in his back hard where he keeps a safe that has an unspecified amount of money into it.”

“Ok, and why does he not like banks?” I asked, certain Officer Wendell would politely tell me it wasn’t my business.

The officer, wearing a shiny silver badge and black uniform that probably made him look invisible when he went outside, smiled and looked off to the side. His eyes were almost black, and his military-style black hair cut didn’t conceal that he was halfway to being bald. He looked like the type who, after shaving, would have five o’clock shadow three hours later.

“Let’s just say they had to relocate here from somewhere else,” Wendell said. “They don’t use banks out of fear they’ll be found out, even though they have different names. If you see them again, stick to small talk. Do not ask them any questions about themselves.”

“Noted, officer. Would you like me to make you some coffee before you leave?”

“No, thank you, sir. I appreciate the offer, but I have two other calls to respond to. Have a nice day, and please call me if you have any further questions.”

He produced a white business card and gave it to me, shook my hand, and left.

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Supernatural, Suomi Style

Freelance journalist received a strange job offer: cover a supernatural convention. The journalist thinks the gig a joke. But is it? And who are the convention’s guests of honor?

Supernatural, Suomi Style

By Richard Zowie

I live in San Antonio, and that’s a good thing. Plenty of time to think as I drove to El Paso, which is an eight-hour drive. I’m a full-time freelance writer, and one of my clients is the San Antonio Express-News. I write mostly features for my editor, Mona De Los Santos, who told me they wanted me to cover a supernatural convention in El Paso. It was for this weekend. I would go, observe, ask questions, take a few pictures, write a 2,000-word article and it would be the lead feature in the Weekender on Friday or for the Life section on Sunday.

As I drove past San Antonio’s outer circular road, Loop 1604, on Interstate 10 West and started my trek into the Texas Hill Country, I remembered the protocol. Since I wasn’t an employee, my travel expenses would have to be written off and claimed on taxes. Gasoline. Drinks. Snacks. Food. Motel room. The cost of attending the convention, which was $500.

As I saw a green sign that said Boerne was 20 miles away and Comfort was 40 miles, I remembered Mona’s request.

“I think it’s a fascinating convention, but management didn’t want someone local covering it when the El Paso Times could easily assign a reporter that we could piggyback off of,” she said. But, the Times told us they were only planning on doing a few photos and no story. That’s why I decided to ask you. What is your religious background, Bill?”

“I’m a Christian, but I’m not sold on supernatural,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts. I used to rent an apartment that was a boarding house where an unsolved murder took place, but I never experienced anything unusual.”

“No supernatural experiences?”

“Zero.”

“Can you go with an open mind?” she asked.

“If you’re paying me, yes.”

 

I’d left San Antonio at 6 a.m. that morning, which was wonderful. By the time I-10 became clogged for the morning commute, I was gone. With the stops I made in Junction, Fort Stockton, Van Horn, I arrived nearly at 6 p.m. in the desert town of El Paso. I’d been there only a few times in my life, once as I drove to Phoenix on business and once as I took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles to visit my Uncle Jerry.

After checking in at the Double Tree Hotel about two blocks away, I went to the El Paso Convention and Performing Art Center, where the supernatural convention was taking place. I expected to see a few science-minded protestors outside, yelling about facts matter over faith. The only people outside were tourists looking for the Southwest University Park, El Paso Museum of History or the University of Texas at El Paso. One complete stranger asked me if El Paso was in Texas or New Mexico. I told him he was still in the Lone Star State.

One beautiful woman wearing a sundress asked me how El Paso got its nickname “Chucotown.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish and have no idea. You should ask someone at the Museum of History,” I replied as I entered.

I expected people adorned in black clothing and silver jewelry, along with priests or priestesses wearing shiny black or indigo robes. Instead, everyone wore suits or dressed in slacks or dress shirts. One woman wore a business suit with a short skirt. From her legs, I imagined she ran a lot and probably looked hard to turn away from when she sat and crossed her legs.

I checked in, introduced myself as Bill McGinnis and got my badge and packet. As I got them, I noticed a brunette with pale eyes helping herself at a spread of various pastries, meats, fruits and assorted dressings. Soon, she was coughing.

As she coughed, I looked up and saw panic in her eyes. I jogged toward her. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

She looked at me, tried to breathe. “PLEASE! HELP ME!” she said in English but in a foreign accent I could not place. “I…can’t…breathe! I’m choking! Help!”

As I dropped my packet and was about 10 feet away, I noticed how everybody stared blankly at her, as though they didn’t know what to do.

What is wrong with you assholes? I wondered as I got to her from behind and embraced her. “I’m going to do a Heimlich Maneuver. Try not to panic. You won’t die.”

“Ok, I won’t.” As she briefly turned around, I could see her pale eyes were a mix of gray and green. She had a soapy smell, as if she had just showered a few hours ago. Her accent…I still couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t Russian or German. She looked like she was from a cold-weather country, with her pale features.

On the third thrust, the dark-brown, partially-chewed piece roast beef flew out of her mouth toward the crowd. A few screams as some scampered out of the way. Several people had their cell phones out and were recording the incident, which really pissed me off. What is with Americans and their need to record everything?

She took several deep breaths as her color returned. She turned, smiled at me and gave me a hug. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You saved my life. I am Ailukka Korhonen.”

I told her my name. “That’s a pretty accent you have. Where are you from?”

“Finland.”

I was amazed at how well she spoke English when a man came out of a bathroom and headed to us. He wore blue jeans and wore a blue polo shirt with a white flag with a left-of-center blue cross on it. Underneath the flag was the word “SUOMI.” I had no idea what that meant.

He had blond hair and blue eyes and went up to her and hugged her and said something to her I could not understand. She pointed to me.

“Are you the man who just saved my wife’s life?” he asked me. He spoke with far less of an accent, as if he’d been speaking English for a long time.

I nodded, thinking of how strange things seemed to be — and the convention hadn’t even started yet.

He offered his hand. I shook it and found his grip to be firm. “My name is Hannu Korhonen.”

I noticed a few people still recording.

“What is wrong with you people? Why did you just stand there?” I demanded, upset but trying not to lose my cool. “Couldn’t you see she was choking and asking for help?”

One man, who had just turned off his phone, shook his head. “We heard her, all right, but none of us could understand her. She was speaking in a foreign language.”

“No, she wasn’t,” I said. “She’s from Finland, but I could understand her English just fine.”

Everybody became silent.

“You say my wife asked for your help in English?” Hannu asked me.

“Yes, sir. She has a strong accent, but I could understand her.”

Hannu said something in Finnish to Ailukka. She shook her head.

“My wife says there must be a mistake. She doesn’t speak English, but she said you were speaking Finnish to her.”

“Hannu, I don’t see how that could be possible. I don’t speak Finnish, not even to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

The man who had just shut off his recording came up to us and played the recording. It showed Ailukka choking and me coming up to her to do the Heimlich.

Then the dialogue.

“Voinko auttaa sinua?” My voice, without a doubt.

“OLE KILTTI! AUTA MINUA! En … voi … hengitä! Olen tukehtumassa! Auta!”

“Aion tehdä Heimlich-säätimen. Yritä olla paniikkia. Et kuole.” My voice yet again, this time saying things I didn’t understand.

“Ok, en.”

“Kiitos paljon. Pelastit henkeni. Olen Ailukka Korhonen.”

“Olen Bill McGinnis. Se on melkoinen aksentti. Mistä olet kotoisin?”

“Suomi.”

She’d said Finland to me, I’m absolutely sure, but now, she was saying Suomi.

“Hannu, what does ‘Suomi’ mean?” I asked.

“That’s how we say ‘Finland’ in the Finnish language.”

For five minutes, I had no idea what to say. Finally, I took down as many names and phone numbers as I could as I pulled out my phone, turned on the recorder and asked questions to as many eyewitnesses, including the Finnish couple. The convention hadn’t even started yet, but I already had my story.

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Three men, then two, in a barn

Three men, then two, in a barn

By Richard Zowie

My car, a silver 2010 Ford Focus, had broken down. All the panel lights lit up, one by one, as the brakes quit working, the steering wheel froze up, and the car came to a slow stop. I knew it was the alternator, but a mechanic would have to fix it. That area of rural Michigan had no cell phone coverage, so I walked toward the barn up the road in hopes of finding a signal. I was outside Vassar, Michigan, and I knew the town well enough to know it had on its north side a business called Halfway Truck Stop. Besides a diner where you’d imagine seeing heavy-equipment drivers, farmers, and retirees talking about local rumors and the latest agricultural news. Halfway also had an automotive garage, one with an excellent reputation: reasonable prices and repair work that was successful.

From the distance, the barn looked like an inert, giant uninhabited structure, like it could house a busy shopping mall. But as I got closer, I could see it was small. Perhaps only about 5,000 square feet. At one time, perhaps it stored several types of animals. Maybe it kept harvested hay out of the weather. Maybe somewhere it also housed a vegetable bin.

Once I entered, I noticed two men. I was startled, hoping I’d be alone. Seeing their faces was difficult, given the only light at 2 a.m. was a full moon.

I saw the two men’s faces as I entered, the light illuminating them. One had bright blue eyes, a scar that split his right eyebrow into two horizontal halves. The other looked dark with black hair and dark eyes. He looked bored, the way some do when compassion, fear, remorse, or pity mean nothing to them. If he were an actor, he could be cast as Hispanic, Arabic, Armenian, Jewish, or Greek.

Yes, I knew who they were. My heart started pumping faster, as though I was about to start running a dozen blocks to hail some taxi and escape a dangerous neighborhood. I gave them quick, polite glances, the way a person does when they meet a complete stranger for the first time.

I closed the door, most of the light disappearing.

“Gentlemen,” I said, praying they didn’t get a good look at my face and see that brief shimmer of recognition. “I see you two are also trying to avoid getting further wet.”

One of them chuckled, as if he sincerely found my comment to be funny.

The barn, perhaps last used during the Great Depression, smelled earthy from rotted wood and the stench of living and dead insects. As I breathed in, my nostrils flaring, I could smell, ancient, fermented animal manure that had never been shoveled out to be reused as agricultural manure. It rained and thundered outside, and the many leaks in the ceiling meant this would barely do for shelter. Such barns in this area of Michigan, during an economic downturn, were not unusual.

“What will you do once the storm ends?” One of them asked. The accent was almost impossible to nail down, as if he’d lived in countless places. A transient, perhaps.

“Probably walk into Vassar, get a signal and have a tow truck in town come out and pick up my car,” I said, feeling relaxed. I was establishing that being on my way was my priority. Total lack of curiosity on my part on who they were.

No answer.

Fifteen minutes later, as I thought about how much I needed to get back home to Clio. I’d worked for 30 years for GM, and they’d just made me a retirement offer. I was considering it, thinking I could spend springs and summers in Michigan, making “up north” jaunts to Bay Mills Resort and Casino, and buying a winter home in either Florida, Texas, perhaps Arizo—

Something sharp, tearing, almost burning hot, entered my torso, on my right side across from my stomach. It withdrew, and I could feel hot, sticky fluid—almost certainly my blood—seep out.

I coughed, tasting blood as I fell onto the dirt floor. A few strands of hay poked my face as I my cheekbone rested against the earth. Breathing became more difficult as I spewed out more blood. A stream of water leaking through the roof trickled onto my left hand. My mind, now functioning the way a drunk’s must, told my hands to rub together to clean off the blood.

“You tried not to, but I could tell from your glance you recognized us,” another voice said. Blue Eyes perhaps? “Nothing personal, but we can’t take a chance of you calling the cops once you leave.”

Yes, I thought, struggling to move but realizing it was useless. The two men had escaped from prison. Both were serving life without parole sentences in murder; the Great Lakes State does not have capital punishment. Both had broken out, probably headed to some remote place in Canada.

The two men left the barn to try to begin their new lives. My new life of retirement was fading away. As I faded, I imagined my skeletal remains being discovered years later, when the barn finally was torn down.

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Writing challenge: wedding, three views

WritersLife.org challenge:

Jan. 26, 2019

Describe a wedding from three different viewpoints

The Bride, the Best Man, and the Bored Nephew

By Richard Zowie

The Bride

I can’t believe I’m doing this! I’m 23 years old and, maybe I’m too young, but I’m in love with Evan. He loves me, at least, I’m pretty sure he does. Sometimes I have doubts, but that’s just pre-wedding jitters, right?

Daddy’s crying. I’ve never seen him cry before, not even when he got word that Uncle Larry had been killed in the first Gulf War, just two days before Saddam “So Damn Insane” Hussein surrendered. I guess letting go of a daughter is hard to do.

As I look into Evan’s eyes, he’s smiling, but…he’s like a sphinx. No idea what he’s thinking. Maybe he’s just nervous. After all, he does not like being the center of attention.

The Best Man

I seriously cannot wait for this stupid ceremony to be over. Thank God I majored in theater arts for a year at college; otherwise, there’s no way I could pretend I’m happy for both of them.

So, Evan’s marrying Laura. Well, isn’t he one lucky son of a bitch? He does not deserve her, and she thinks she’ll be happy forever? Yeah, right. I wonder if she’ll ever find out that in the six-month engagement, Evan cheated on her three times. Well, five times if you count that he and his ex-girlfriend Crissy had fun three times. Evan tends to brag about his conquests when he’s drunk, and when he’s sober, he never brags about anything.

I would’ve loved to date Laura. Ever since high school, I’ve thought she’s the most beautiful, sweetest girl ever, but I don’t think I could pay her to realize I exist.

One of the bridesmaids keeps smiling at me…or is she smiling at one of the other groomsmen?

The Bride’s 10-year-old nephew

This suit itches! Mom knows how much I hate wearing ties! I’m bored! I can’t wait until the reception, so I don’t have to sit still anymore! Why did Mom make me go? She won’t even let my iPad! I’ll never get married!

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Talking to Texas teachers

The Texas Legislature is meeting again, and this time, I hope they’ll finally focus on what really needs to be done. No bathroom bills. Focus on what needs immediate attention: school finance reform.

If you watch the news or read the papers, you’ll hear of property-rich school districts lamenting how they’ll play tens of millions into Chapter 41 “Robin Hood,” only to be able to barely balance their budgets through cutbacks or, to avoid running a deficit, have to borrow from their general funds.

Bills have been presented that would limit Robin Hood, or reform the state funding formula. Some teachers would like to see an end of STAAR testing, arguing that it forces teachers to teach to a test instead of achieving real learning. This is an opinion I’ve heard from teacher friends who range from as conservative as President Ronald Reagan to as liberal as Senator Ted Kennedy.

I asked a few of my teacher friends what they would say if given a few minutes to address the Texas Legislature. (For their privacy and safety, I have given them fictitious first names and have withheld their last names).

Monica, a teacher in San Antonio: “I would ask for the STAAR test to be halted in order to take back real teaching. The STAAR test ties student results to funding. This forces schools to abandon good teaching in order to prepare students for testing, which is not a measure of whether a student has learned.

“I would demand curriculum reform to allow all teachers to go back to teaching all content and not just tested content

“If I had extra time, I’d ask for better retirement programs and medical since most teachers have a bleak future even though we are state employees.”

Monica added something I found particularly poignant: “Teaching students to love reading is the most important thing. Our country lacks critical thinkers because nobody knows how to read.”

John, a teacher in Houston: “Get rid of relying on testing to decide if schools are succeeding or if teachers are doing their jobs. Quit trying to focus on charter schools as the solution when the most recent studies suggest they aren’t and that they just bleed money from the schools. Actually find the mandates if they won’t get rid of them. School funding needs to be the priority this session since they haven’t even gotten back to the funding levels pre-recession but as long as Dan F’ing Patrick is in charge of the senate it won’t happen.”

Lee, a teacher in South Texas: “NCLB [No Child Left Behind] has its roots in Texas and mostly I’m proud of what Texas is today, but NOT that. Sandy Kress, George W. and Ted Kennedy… Two Texans and a New Yorker. I’ve got nothing against bipartisan legislation, but expecting 100% of kids to be passing by 2014 or 2114 is ridiculous on its face… In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.  If we were willing to toe to toe with Obama’s sequel to this educational train wreck, then why are we working so hard to prove his argument about state education standards being inadequate is right? How so? You ask. By decreasing the performance of our public schools, by the siphoning of students into charter schools. We only further invite a national standard for not only testing, but also teaching. Texas is pushing so hard to convert our public education into a charter/private school format, that they are cherry picking our best kids out of public ed and into charter ed. It’s fine to have private schools but it’s not okay to use public money as a means to segregate public schools by… not race… not class, but effort. Segregation by effort already happens within the campuses by having different levels of classes like AP or Dual Enrollment. But this internal segregation serves the students, the school, and the community. Our schools are judged and penalized for their students’ performances, and when a school that serves low income students shows that it and it’s community are capable of producing adults with skills that allow them to be financially independent and productive citizens, then politicians and other communities give them respect. Conversely, they judged as low performing and a waste of tax dollars when their students do not perform well. This will inevitably lead to shutting down schools and leaving those most needy of structure, supervision, patience, and positive motivation out in the streets like before public ed was mandated by FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education]. We see the highlights of gangs like the Texas Syndicate or MS13 and we see how much they already conscript and corrupt our youth. It is healthy public education and law enforcement systems that slows their ability to grow while nurturing our communities to grow.  If we truly do not want federal involvement in our educational system and we truly do not want more gang violence then we need to support true public education and maintain quality teachers.

“It might be a bit preachy or dramatic, but my basic point is that I think charter schools are the bane of public education. If we want public education to improve we definitely don’t want to do the opposite of NCLB.”

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Short story exercise: ‘Just an Assignment’

A few years ago for a Writer’s Digest contest, I wrote a short story titled Cobb Salad: Cheddar or Bleu Cheese? I didn’t win the contest, but a few people really liked it. One friend from college, Ruth, wanted to know what happened next in the story. Last night I wrote the sequel.

Should I ever turn this into a book, I may have to study Armenia’s equivalent of the CIA.

Before we delve into the story: if any readers happen to be Armenian, I’d like to say: thank you for giving us Garry Kasparov (his mother’s maiden name was Kasparyan).

Just an Assignment

Sequel to

Cobb Salad: Cheddar or Bleu Cheese?

By Richard Zowie

For the next month, I worked at the newspaper. It amazed me that I could concentrate on school board stories and how they dealt with having to cut the budget, feature stories of a few local men who had been discovered to have briefly had Hollywood careers, and even the arrest of a corrupt sheriff, considering my mind was in the void of deep outer space, where it’s still bitterly cold despite the distant shining sun. Most of my meals, when I finished, remained on my plate. Stress and heartache tend to be excellent appetite suppressants. My dress shirts, normally snug with the buttons tugging, were now loose. I had to tighten my belt to keep my pants from falling off my waist.

Why did she leave?

It’s a question you ask yourself over and over again, craving an answer, but knowing you’ll never have it with the current knowledge you possess. Still, I wondered. Did I bug her too much? She never seemed annoyed by how many times I hugged or kissed her or when I listened intently when she talked. Did she decide I wasn’t a good match? Some finally come to grips that their marriage is not an Eharmony match.

Was I not good enough in bed? She never complained and always seemed satisfied. A few times I thought our neighbors in our apartment complex would call the landlord and complain.

I cried a lot. There wasn’t anything warm or cathartic about it: my tears flowed inconsolable, as my gut told me I’d never see her again.

On a Friday night, I was watching the latest episode of The Blacklist. Not really understanding it, just watching it as my mind tried in vain again to sift through the facts in hopes they’d somehow organize into an answer.

A knock came at the door. Four hard raps.

The keyhole showed a man and a woman, both in dark suits.

I opened the door. Both indeed wore suits. I’m six feet tall, but the man towered over me at around 6’4”. The woman, wearing heels, was at my height. They indeed wore black suits, the kind that would be perfect for a funeral. He wore a black tie with white shirt while her black suit was minus the tie but with the white collar tucked over the black suit collar. They both looked fitted rather than off the rack.

They took out their badges. “I’m Special Agent Brackman, and this is Special Agent Sanders,” the man said, referring to his partner. “We’re with the CIA. Are you Stephen Jackson Wolverton?”

“Yes, sir. What can I do for you?”

‘           “Could you come down to our field office for a debriefing?”

“Is this in regards to my wife?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where is she?”

“We’ll explain during the debriefing.”

“Ok. I need to get dressed. I’m off tomorrow, but how long will this take?”

“We’ll take you in our vehicle to the San Antonio field office, which is about an hour away. If you like, we’ll put you up in a motel after you’re done and then bring you back here in the morning.”

 

The drive seemed to take only 15 minutes, because it was dark outside and I slept most of the way. That time of night, Interstate 10 is far more deserted than it is in the day. The two officers seemed to chat.

They took me to a room, where there was a five-foot rectangular table separating them from me. The chairs were surprisingly comfortable. They offered me a bottled water.

“Am I under arrest?” I asked.

Sanders chuckled. Why is it people always laugh when I’m not trying to be funny, I wondered. “No, Mr. Wolverton. Far from it.”

They both sat. Both drank from paper cups with lids on top, probably coffee.

Bracken produced a five-page stapled document. I noticed three words: DECREE OF DIVORCE. Unlike most states, Texas doesn’t sugarcoat legal documents by saying, “dissolution of marriage.” It’s to the point.

“My wife wants a divorce?” I asked, thumbing through the five pages but, not being an attorney, it looked mostly like legal-language formalities. On the back page, she’d already signed it with what had to be her real name: Zabel Davidian. I remembered that even her signature was highly legible. “She never gave me any indication anything was wrong. I—”

I drank my water and started to cry. I’d fallen in love with her, hard. She was an exotic beauty. How often does a guy get lucky enough for a mid-eastern beauty with black curly hair and blue eyes to fall in love with him? Particularly a guy who’s not a charmer?

“Mr. Wolverton,” Bracken said, “It wasn’t anything you did. You weren’t her husband, so much as you were her assignment. She wants nothing from you, just a legal end of the marriage.”

“Her assignment?” I asked, incredulous. “Why? What have I done? Where is Jessica now?”

“Armenia. She works for the Armenian government. And her real last name wasn’t Antonian. It was Davidian.”

“Sounds Jewish,” I said, noticing that Sanders took notes onto a yellow legal pad with what looked like a cheap black Bic pen. With the CIA, you expect a pen that costs more than a nice wedding ring.

“It is, and while she is an Armenian Jew, we have no evidence yet she’s ever worked for Mossad. Are you familiar with them?”

I nodded. “Israeli intelligence, similar to the CIA. Why did she marry me?”

“We’ll get to that in a few moments,” Bracken said. “Mr. Wolverton, what kind of surname is that?”

“My great-grandfather was from Turkey and came here around 1920. His surname was Bolat, but he changed it to Wolverton.”

Bracken produced a dark brown folder with a gray, metallic slender strip of metal on one side. As he opened it, I saw the metal formed two strips that held various papers in place. I imagined this was my dossier. And since it was only about a tenth of an inch thick, I’d lived a dull life. I’ve never been arrested, never served on a jury despite two times in a pool. My father was on the local school board for 10 years, partly because he felt the local ISD was a joke and that he could help by getting on the board.

“Based on our records, your grandfather was Turkish but came to America in 1920,” Bracken said. “It appears he left Turkey because he’d been involved in the Armenian Massacre of 1914-1923, had a change of heart and left the country and came to America.”

I’d heard about the massacre but knew little about it from history. Jessica never mentioned it at all.

“Your wife’s assignment was to marry you and research your family to see what they could find out about your grandfather’s involvement.”

“Oh.” She was an amazing actor. When she told me she loved me, she sounded sincere. She seemed to have an excellent memory for things I didn’t like. She never cooked split pea soup, knowing I hate peas, and she would also omit peas from dishes that required them. “What did she find out?”

“Based on research and conversations with your grandmother, she determined your great-grandfather had been a jailer, had been forced to kill an Armenian woman, decided he no longer could tolerate it, and left the country.”

“And once she had her answer, she was gone?”

Sanders stopped writing. “Yes, Mr. Wolverton. She made contact with Armenia, and they bought her a one-way plane ticket back to Yerevan. She left your house, rented a car, drove to the San Antonio International Airport, flew to Atlanta, New York, London, Tel Aviv, and then Yerevan. She then reported what she found.”

 

The debriefing ended half an hour later, as I signed a few forms, including the divorce decree (which they then notarized and said would be final in a week, once a judge was briefed about it and saw it had been signed). I said nothing as I imagined that smile, the black, curly hair, and the blue eyes.

“Will I ever see her again?” I asked.

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Wolverton,” Bracken said. “You were just an assignment. Are you ready for us to take you to a hotel, Mr. Wolverton?”

Just an assignment. That’s all I am.

“After I go to the bathroom to throw up,” I said.

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How the heck did he do that?!

I was in total awe by what I’d experienced, but what could I say? It’s a story I can tell only if I leave out names and exact locations. Technically, what he did was illegal, and I don’t think the statute of limitations have expired yet. Nobody was injured, so I doubt the police would care.

I was living in the northern Mid-West and after working at a gas station, needed a ride home that night. The night was black dark gray where the clouds were. It had snowed most of the day, and the roads were nasty. My wife at the time made what I felt was a perfectly reasonable request, one that did not lead to our eventual divorce: try to get a ride home and spare her from having to be on the roads.

As I clocked out, I remembered that one co-worker, Kurt, lived in the same nearby town I did. “Kurt,” I said. “Could I get a ride home with you?” He nodded and a weight fell from my stomach. I was relieved as I hated driving in this weather and didn’t like the idea of my wife having to come get me, either. Unlike me, Kurt was from that area.

There were two ways to get home. One was a straight shot that intersected a thoroughfare that would intersect the road that took us home. It was usually well-plowed. The second road, a less traveled thoroughfare, curled and writhed like a giant python fighting an alligator over who would be dinner.

Kurt took that road.

As we drove, I tried to relax and looked out the window, seeing all the snow in the embankments and collected on the road, making for a white journey. As I’d driven to work on the same road a few days earlier, I remembered seeing a few cars and even a 4X4 truck slid into the ditch.

I looked over at Kurt and noticed that when he wasn’t glancing at the road and steering, he was looking down at his cell phone. Throughout the seven-mile drive, which took about 20 minutes, he constantly received, read, and sent text messages.

If we slide off the road and skid into a ditch, take comfort in knowing this isn’t your car, I thought, expecting that we’d skid.

And yet, despite all the curves we rode on, despite the snow accumulation, we never skidded, not even once. No slides on black ice. No loss of control because the tires failed to grip the snow. No screams of a four-letter word because we lost control and are headed into oncoming traffic. The drive was completely uneventful, as if Kurt had been closely paying attention while driving in the summer when tires grip the road like a major league baseball player’s batting gloves grip a bat.

After I got out of the car, I thanked him, and then wondered, How on EARTH did he do that?

Richard Zowie lives in Fredericksburg, Texas, where he works as a broadcaster, blogger and fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at fromatozowie@gmail.com.