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. This must’ve been why 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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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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