Christmas Story

Diamonds in the Snow

By L.E. McCullough

© L.E. McCullough 1996


JIMMY, JANICE AND JEAN burst into the living room where Grandpa sat tuning his guitar, waiting for Grandma’s call to Christmas dinner.

“Grandpa, Grandpa!” shouted Jimmy, shaking a pair of gaily-colored Mexican maracas. “This is the most fun musical instrument I ever played!”

“Look at this story book, Grandpa!” said Janice. “The pictures are so beautiful!”

“Sit still, Grandpa,” said Jean, “and I’ll make a picture of you with my new paint set!”

“That’s wonderful, kids,” replied Grandpa. “Santa Claus was very generous to you all this year.”

“He sure was,” said Jimmy. “And we got so much more, too.”

“You must have all been very good this past year,” Grandpa chuckled.

“We were extra very good, Grandpa,” agreed Janice.

“Even me!” piped Jean.

“Well, I’m happy to hear that,” Grandpa said. “I reckon I was pretty good, too. Grandma was able to talk Santa into bringing me some new strings for this old tunebox.” He strummed a bright chord on the guitar, a chord that rang out like a silver bell through a mountain mist and set his mind traveling back to the Christmases of his own boyhood.

“What kind of presents did you get when you were young, Grandpa?” asked Jimmy.

“Did they have big toy stores back then?” asked Janice.

“All decorated for Christmas by Halloween?” asked Jean.

Grandpa laughed. “Christmas was pretty different when I was your age. Sit down by the fireplace there, and I’ll tell you a story about the best Christmas I ever had.

“It was 1945, and I was nine years old. We lived in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. It was a beautiful place, and I loved being around all the animals and trees. But it was a sad time for our family. My daddy had died at the Battle of the Bulge that year, and my mother had been laid off from her job at the textile mill in October. The food on our table, we grew in the garden patch behind the cabin. Pa’s older sister, Aunt Leddy, boarded with us and brought in a little money from her teacher’s pension. But it didn’t look like Santa Claus was going to visit our house this year. . .


“TAYLOR, YOU might as well stop mooning over those stockings and finish the rest of your chores,” said Mother, who was sewing up the holes in a pair of my school britches.

“Yes, ma’am. I was just wishing—”

“Wishing won’t fill those stockings, son. I shouldn’t have even let you put them up, they’ve become such a distraction.”

Aunt Leddy looked up from her book. “If wishes were fishes, I’d be Queen of the Deep Blue Sea. And all the little fishes—”

“—with all their little wishes, would come wishing and fishing to me,” finished Taylor.

Aunt Leddy and Taylor laughed with such joy, even Mother couldn’t help joining in.

There was a loud knock at the cabin door. “Who’s there?” called Mother.

“Sheriff Howard, ma’am! And it’s mighty cold!”

Mother opened the door, and the Sheriff came in, stamping his frozen feet and shaking snow from his hat and coat. Undeneath his left arm he carried a large sack of flour. “Hooo-eee!” he exclaimed. “That is some blizzard!”

“You shouldn’t be out in this weather,” said Mother.

“I won’t be out long,” replied the Sheriff. “The road into the hollow is near closed up with snow. I can just about make it home for supper.”

“What are you doing with that sack of flour?” asked Mother.

“Well, ma’am, Parson Potter said you might be running short on essentials, and. . . after all, it is Christmas Eve.” He laid the sack of flour on table and tipped his hat. “From our family to yours.”

A frown crossed Mother’s face. “No, no, we couldn’t. . . Taylor, pick up the Sheriff’s flour and hand it back to him! Taylor!”

But Sheriff Howard had already turned and reached the door. “Merry Christmas, y’all!” He stepped back out into the whistling blizzard, and the door closed with a thud.

Mother stared at the flour sack, her eyes downcast. Taylor walked over to her and touched her hand.  “Now that we got flour, we can bake some cookies, can’t we, Mother?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” she sighed. “I’m going to turn in early. Good night.” She kissed the top of his head and walked slowly from the room.

“Good night,” said Taylor.

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” said Aunt Leddy.

Taylor went over to the mantle and straightened the empty stockings. “Aunt Leddy, do you believe in miracles?”

“Believe in miracles? Course I do. . . they happen all the time!”


“Why, this very book is full of miracles!”

Taylor rushed over to her chair and lifted up the book to read the title. “The Wonderful World of Cats,” he read.

“Why, surely! You ever watched a cat, Taylor? Studied it real close? Watched it stretch out in the sun, or jump ten feet in the air, or climb a tree, or even sit and just purr, whiskers twitching like some invisible hand is brushing them to and fro? Why every one of those things is a miracle! Every thing any one of the Earth’s creatures does is a miracle, every minute of every day. Taylor, the world is full of miracles, if you know where to look and how to see them.”

“I reckon they’ve run out of miracles in this hollow,” Taylor answered. “At least for this Christmas.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. You haven’t seen any diamonds yet, have you?”

“Diamonds? What diamonds?”

“Why, the diamonds in the snow. Come here to the window.”

Aunt Leddy rose from her chair and walked to the window. “Look out there,” she pointed. “What do you see?”

Taylor peered intently into the darkness. “Can’t see anything. Just snow. Miles and miles of snow.

“That’s right. And what do you see in the snow?”

“More snow?”

“Look again, boy! Close!”

Taylor screwed up his eyes and looked into the deepening snow drifts as hard as he could. “Gosh, Aunt Leddy, what am I supposed to see besides snow?”

“Diamonds in the snow. Diamonds in the snow on Christmas Eve are the footsteps of where an angel is walking. And if you see them glitter, you might get a wish granted.”

“Real diamonds?”

“I said, might. And only if you really believe. Don’t they teach children anything useful in school these days?”

She turned away and went back to her chair. Taylor continued to stare out the window. “Diamonds in the snow,” he whispered softly. “Angel footsteps. . . all this snow. . . Santa is never going to find his way into the hollow with all this snow. . . ”

As the clock began to strike midnight, Aunt Leddy was asleep in her chair. Taylor had curled up on the rug in front of the fireplace, lulled to sleep by the sound of the stormy wind whistling down the chimney. Suddenly, he woke with a start.

“Who’s there?” he called.

He heard a loud thump outside the window. Then two more thumps, even louder. Taylor rose to his knees, crouching as another pair of thumps sounded. “Mother? Aunt Leddy? Who’s there?”

A wild flurry of whistling wind answered him. . . and then silence.

Taylor yawned and rubbed his sleepy eyes. “Gosh, that was the strangest dream. . . something about diamonds and somebody walking in the snow. . . snow!”

He ran to the window. “Look at that moon! It’s so clear, so bright. . .” He stared at the silvery, sparkling snow, then jumped into the air and shouted with joy. “It can’t be. . . no! Yes! There they are! The diamonds! The diamonds in the snow! Mother! Aunt Leddy! Come quick! Come see the diamonds in the snow!”

Mother and Aunt Leddy were at his side. “Taylor!” scolded Mother. “What in the world are you doing up? It’s not even daybreak.”

“All up the hill and down the hollow!” Taylor replied. “Do you see them?”

Mother gazed out the window. “I’m sorry, son. What am I supposed to see?”

“The diamonds!” cried Aunt Leddy. “Taylor’s seen the diamonds in the snow!”

“Now, Leddy, I don’t know why you fill his head with that nonsense. Taylor, you go back to bed now, and — my word!”

Taylor had dashed to the mantle and taken down his empty stocking. Except that now it was full.

“Great jumping jellybeans!” declared Aunt Leddy. She and Mother watched in amazement as Taylor emptied the stocking, pulling out a baseball, an ink pen, a bow tie, a harmonica, a fistful of coins and a half dozen lumps hard sugar candy.

“Santa Claus did come!” shouted Taylor. “He followed the diamonds in the snow!”

Mother rushed to the table, and Taylor handed her a stocking. “Here, Mother. See what’s inside your stocking.”

Taylor held the stocking up for her, as she carefully reached in. Slowly, she drew out a lavendar silk scarf, a gold lipstick dispenser and makeup case, a mother-of-pearl hair barrette and a shiny new wrist watch.

“It’s a miracle!” she cried, hugging Taylor as tears of joy streamed down her face. “It’s a miracle!”

“You all seem so surprised,” remarked Aunt Leddy. “Miracles didn’t get invented yesterday, you know.”

Taylor handed Aunt Leddy the third stocking, but the old woman refused. “I already know what’s inside my stocking.”

Taylor laughed and reached into the stocking. As he groped inside, his face darkened with disbelief, then despair — there was nothing inside! “Aunt Leddy! Your stocking is. . . empty!”

Aunt Leddy grabbed the stocking and shook it at him. “Silly boy! This stocking isn’t empty! It’s chock-full . . . full of my three Christmas wishes! And no use asking me what they are, because I’m not going to tell you! But you’ll know what they are, the day they come true.”

Taylor and Mother hugged Aunt Leddy, and they all three laughed and hugged and laughed and hugged till the Christmas morning sun came up over the MOUNTAIN. . .


After Grandpa had finished the story, Jimmy, Janice and Jean sat in silence for several seconds. Finally, Jimmy spoke up. “Golly, Grandpa, that’s a really neat story!”

Grandpa smiled. “It was one Christmas I never forgot.”

“Did Aunt Leddy ever get her three wishes?” asked Janice.

“I believe she did,” replied Grandpa. “You might say you three grandkids are living proof.”

“Did you ever see any more diamonds in the snow?” asked Jean.

“I’d like to think I did,” said Grandpa. “It seems the older I got, my eyesight went a little bit weaker each Christmas Eve. But even if I can’t see those diamonds anymore, that’s not to say they’re not there for somebody else to see. Someone who believes in miracles. Someone like you.”

He strummed a chord on his guitar. “Here’s a song about that very night — Diamonds in the Snow.

Grandpa started singing, and they all sang together until Grandma called them for dinner.

Wood stove is a-blazing; children, gather round;
It’s time for story telling; snow is on the ground.
Put a log into the fire; and, lo, we’ll warm our souls;
Watch the night’s full moon a-rising, see the diamonds in the snow.

And it’s diamonds in the snow, wrap yourselves up tight.
Spending Christmas with your loved ones as the stars they shine so bright.
Time is oh so precious with family and friends,
And it’s diamonds in the snow, it’s Christmas once again.

Once there was a Christmas, it was many years ago;
St. Nick couldn’t see the houses of the families down below.
He looked into the night sky, and he winked up at the moon;
He followed the shining road map of the diamonds in the snow.

And it’s diamonds in the snow, wrap yourselves up tight.
Spending Christmas with your loved ones as the stars they shine so bright.
Time is oh so precious with family and friends,
And it’s diamonds in the snow, it’s Christmas once again.

He landed on the rooftops spreading lots of love and joy
To the people in many nations, all little girls and boys.
And the magic of that Christmas still warms our hearts and souls,
And if you look outside the window, you’ll see the diamonds in the snow.

And it’s diamonds in the snow, wrap yourselves up tight.
Spending Christmas with your loved ones as the stars they shine so bright.
Time is oh so precious with family and friends,
And it’s diamonds in the snow, it’s Christmas once again.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

First published in Stories of the Songs of Christmas by L.E. McCullough, 1997, Smith & Kraus. [looks like it’s still in-print —]

The story was inspired by a wonderful song “Diamonds in the Snow” composed and performed by David Levine on his Dance of a Child’s Dreams album that also featured Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. I heard it on the album, and David graciously let me use it to spin a holiday yarn.

Find it here:

Check David’s site at Years ago he created an entire anti-bullying curriculum and today he is a teacher, author and musician who has been working with school systems across the United States and abroad since 1984.

Posted in Short Fiction | Leave a comment

Letter to the Folks Back Home

by L.E. McCullough
© 2010 L.E. McCullough


Mr. & Ms. America
911 Amber Waves Lane
Everytown, USA

Dear Mom and Pop,

I know you’re awfully busy cleaning up after that last spell of bad weather the climate change deniers say shouldn’t have hit you, but the midterm elections are coming in a couple weeks and, folks, we need to talk.

You may have heard that many of our media pundits have issued their official Las Vegas betting line and bestowed generous odds predicting the Republican Party will win many seats in both the House and Senate, along with some governorships.

This is the same punditocracy that predicted the housing bubble would never burst and assured us democracy in Afghanistan would be even more popular than New Coke.

And it’s the same Republican Party that bankrupted the nation from 2001-2009 with a trillion-dollar made-up war in Iraq and gigantic tax cuts for the wealthy, turning President Clinton’s budget surplus into the biggest federal deficit in our history.

The same Republican Party that during the last two years has perversely resisted and sabotaged every effort President Obama and the Democrats in Congress have made to rebuild our economy and education system, salvage our environment and introduce rational healthcare for those of us who don’t commute to work in a golden parachute.

In fact, the situation our country is in right now is a lot like the time you rented the cottage out back to those third cousins of Aunt Myrtle who were only going to stay a couple weeks till they hooked up with the next carnival passing through… but stayed for eight years and trashed the daylights out of the place:  running up bills on your credit card you won’t be able to pay off into the next century, ripping out flower beds and disrespecting the livestock, selling off the silverware and stealing every light bulb and light socket to boot.

Of course, you didn’t worry that the reconstruction crew couldn’t put everything back together in six months or even two years. You knew repairing that kind of foundation-up damage took time and needed to be done right. And with a little bit of common-sense planning and patience, you could make the cottage even nicer for when the grandkids visit.

We’ve got the same thing now in Washington, D.C. — only this time the deadbeats are still hanging around the woods, throwing rocks at the new windows and stealing copper pipe at night, doing everything they can to prevent President Obama and the Democrats from bringing the nation back from the unholy mess the Bush-Cheney clan made.

And sad to say, this Republican slowdown strategy seems to be working. From the day President Obama took office they have voted no to new jobs, no to improved roads and bridges, no to healthcare, no to securities and bank reform, no to education assistance, no to tax breaks for the middle class, no to safety regulations on coal mines and oil drilling — flatout no to anything that would benefit the working people of Everytown.

Ask any economist smart enough to spell E-N-R-O-N, and they’ll tell you we’d be a lot further into the recession recovery if these Republicans had had the courage to cooperate even the slightest.

And, folks, you ought to know the Republicans are getting plenty of help disrupting our government from your neighbors down in the swamp hollow, the billionaire Koch Brothers and their Tea Party medicine show. Those oil company country club boys have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three decades to defeat every idea anyone’s come up with to make life better for Americans who aren’t as rich as they are.

They’ve shoveled more money to prop up their so-called “grass roots” Tea Party groups than all the hog slurry you spread in the south forty each spring. And while you end up with a nice sweet crop of peaches and pears, all that Tea Party patch turns out is sour grapes and poison ivy.

What’s truly amazing is the amount of progress we have made since rousting those bad tenants from the White House. In just 20 months President Obama has passed dozens of bills that created and saved millions of jobs including thousands of police, firefighter and teacher positions; eliminated wasteful government spending and limited lobbyist access; expanded workers’ legal protections and closed offshore tax havens for companies outsourcing American jobs; provided affordable, high-quality child care and health insurance to working families; cut taxes for 95% of America’s working families and extended unemployment benefits to those seeking work; put in place a solid financial and banking rescue plan and curbed credit card company abuses; offered home financing assistance and tax credits for families; increased student loans and science funding along with spending on roads, bridges and power plants across America.

The President’s leadership even helped reverse a deadly downward spiral of the stock market. On January 19, 2009, the last day of the Bush-Cheney term, the Dow closed at 8,218.22. As I’m writing now, the Dow stands at 11,062.78 — a 35% increase in net worth that certainly helps your mutual funds and retirement accounts.

Oh, and President Obama also stopped the use of torture so we Americans can hold up our heads with pride once again when we talk about democracy and freedom and justice. You know, the things we tell the world that make us special.

Yet all we’re hearing from the pundits and pollsters is that the American people will ignore these stellar achievements and vote back into the hen house the same clueless elephants who gave us the longest war, biggest deficit and the worst unemployment since Republican Herbert Hoover was President.

The American people can’t be that boot-scootin’ stupid, can we?

Folks, take a minute and consider this fact:  the Republican Party has proven over and over that its only skill in government is in making government not work for anybody but the very rich and the deliriously intolerant.

You wouldn’t trust John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and their Tea Party mud-slingers to count your morning egg hatch. It’s beyond belief anybody would want them in charge of running Congress.

I guess that’s all the news for now. Tell Sam the Grocer that President Obama just got a Small Business Jobs and Credit Act bill passed that makes it easier for Sam and all the Main Street merchants to get community bank loans — a bill that got passed in spite of all but three House Republicans voting against it.

And tell the Jensens and the Mendozas that the President and Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid helped pass a new Veterans’ Benefits Act that will help out a lot when their son and daughter come back from serving overseas.

Help out a heckuva lot more than the “compassionate conservatism” snake oil the Republican Tea Partiers are peddling this Fall, wouldn’t you think?

Best wishes always from Hubbard,

Your Native Son in the Big City

p.s.:  just to be safe, it might be a good idea to lay in extra firewood and canned vegetables this week; if these Republicans get hold of Congress in November, it’s going to be the coldest, starvingest winter since we lived in Hooverville.

Posted in Political Intelligence | 3 Comments

L.E. McCullough’s Family Story Hour

©  L.E. McCullough 2000

“Don’t you just love what Martha Jane’s done to her hair?”

“Ruthanne Durrow, what a thing to say about your eldest sister! See if you look half as put-together when you’re her age.”

“Excuuuuse me, I haven’t been to my plastic surgeon this month. Anyway, it’s just Jane now, isn’t it?”

“Jayne with a ‘y’, I do believe.”

“Geneva, Ruthanne, hush. Let’s finish this.” Arlette glanced wearily at the clock on the mantle. “Harold’s got the kids at Meemaw Dugan’s and Martha Jane has a long drive back to the city.”

Jayne adjusted an earring, one of the new platinum-ruby Lily of the Valley pair she’d found on sale at Nordstrom’s, and looked out the dining room window at the patchy mid-afternoon sky draped like a torn grey blanket over the rolling soybean fields that extended across the western half of the county right up to the edge of New Palestine, eight miles to the south. She tried to recall when it was that Arlette, at twenty-seven the youngest of the four sisters, had assumed their mother’s role of beleaguered peacemaker. Jayne had missed that funeral, too, as well as her father’s last month. Of course, she’d made it clear years ago that the excellent pay and health benefits of a state social worker were typically offset by an inflexible vacation schedule.

Geneva shifted in her chair, grunting softly as she re-crossed her legs and reached past Arlette for another biscuit. “I think it was real sweet of Daddy to give us some little personal item to remember him by, a whatchamacallum thingitybob—”

“Legacy,” said Jayne, noticing the rolls of dimpled flesh congealing around Geneva’s knees and calves. In another year or two she’ll be as big as the others on Daddy’s side. Big and beefy gals, those Durrow women, stand their ground full of eggs and ham. A square dance melody flitted through her head. Get out the way, Old Dan Tucker, you’re too late to get your supper; supper’s over and dinner’s cookin’, Martha Jane just stands there lookin’. . .

“That one of those words you learn in therapy, Martha Jane?” snickered Ruthanne. Only three years younger than Jayne, she had married at seventeen and was about to be a grandmother thanks to the local school district’s policy of high school sex education classes for students over eighteeen only.

Arlette frowned and picked up the last unopened gift, a rectangular three by six-inch brown cardboard box that might have originally housed a man’s hair brush or straight razor. “This one’s marked ‘Martha Jane’.”

Jayne took the box gingerly, careful not to disturb the thin red ribbon already starting to unravel, and held it in her lap. “Thank you,” she said, adjusting her other earring and turning toward the window.

“For gosh sakes, Martha Jane, aren’t you going to open it?” asked Ruthanne.

“I’ll open it when I get home.”

“Home!” yelped Geneva. “Arlette, make her open it.”

“You saw what-all we got,” said Ruthanne. “He left Geneva his cologne sprayer.”

Jayne’s nostrils filled with a scent she hadn’t smelled since she was eleven warm night even for June running all the way from church. . . “Arlette got his money clip for her boy.”. . . opening the bedroom door so slow very ssshhh quiet the brass money clip on the floor with a crumpled bill lying loose next the bed not on the dresser where it was every night when Momma and Daddy went to sleep whose nylon stocking ssshhh quiet open. . . “And I got his favorite silver buckle, though I think Momma threw the belt away a long time ago.”  . . . please I won’t I won’t not the belt Daddy I. . .

Geneva chimed in. “Now come on, Martha Jane. We got a right to know what legacy Daddy left you.”

Wordlessly and without visibly betraying the wave of nausea surging through her stomach, Jayne undid the ribbon. “Shake it first!” barked Ruthanne. “Let’s all guess!”

“Might be an old hog bone,” giggled Geneva.

“Just open it up, Martha Jane,” groaned Arlette.

Jayne slowly lifted the lid, Geneva peeking over her shoulder. Inside, encased in a plastic zip-lock bag was a harmonica. “Goodness me!” squeaked Geneva. “How lovely!”

Jayne stared at the relic. It was a ten-hole dime-store model her father had picked up in his Army days. The manufacturer’s name had worn off, and the metal cover on both sides was pitted with rust. Years of saliva had stained and warped the brown wooden comb that housed the blow holes, making it resemble a gaping mouthful of crooked, discolored teeth.

“That is so perfect,” gushed Ruthanne. “The rest of you are too young to remember, but when Martha Jane was little, she wanted to grow up and play music, didn’t you, Martha Jane? You’d dance around the house and sing your little songs till Momma said it was like to drive her crazy.”

“Play us something you used to play on Daddy’s harmonica,” prompted Arlette.

“Oh, nosiree-bob!” said Ruthanne. “Nobody could touch Daddy’s harmonica under pain of a very bad whupping.”

“Not that she would, anyway,” sniffed Geneva. “She was always Daddy’s goody-goody girl.”

Jayne placed the box on the table and stood. “I’ve got to go,” she announced in a quiet voice. She grabbed her purse and walked out of the room, leaving the harmonica on the table.

“Martha Jane!” Ruthanne called as the front door slammed. “Will you look at her!”

Geneva rolled her eyes and reached for another biscuit. “That poor girl better get a husband to settle herself down.”

Arlette stopped her in the yard. “You need to take this,” she said, pressing the plastic bag into Jayne’s palm. “I know you live a different life now than us down here. But if Daddy wanted you to have this, it was for a special reason. Maybe he wanted to remind you of what you left behind.”

Jayne’s cheeks flushed, and she was convulsed by the urge to shout a string of obscenities into her sister’s worry-lined face. She inhaled deeply and held her breath with eyes tightly closed. . . the moment passed, and she let Arlette give her a hug. “I think you’re right,” she said, sliding behind the wheel and flipping the power lock button. “I think that’s exactly what he wanted.”

Jayne placed the bag on the passenger seat and tossed a County-Wide Giant Estate & Auction Sale flyer over it. She drove quickly along the black dirt road stretching between the green crop fields and the brown river, drove for several miles without once looking at it, drove quickly but not overly fast, hands steady on the wheel, a small line of perspiration at her forehead just below the hairline frozen in place by the air conditioning, another line starting at her left temple as she drove into the setting summer sun no without once looking at it not once no or even really thinking about looking at it no even once no until no she was just no a quarter mile short no of the highway turnoff where she no no no NO! happened to glance to the left where the dilapidated clapboard shell of the Missionary Friendship Church of Jesus Savior still occupied the middle of a small clearing beyond a trailer park.

She stopped the car and rolled down the front windows, shutting off the air conditioning so she could listen to what? Sunday school’s been out a helluva long time at this congregation. Amazingly, the lower half of the front sign was nearly intact — B I   L E   T U D Y 7:3  P — missing a few letters but “Life doesn’t always come to us spelled out perfect, does it, children?” Reverend Mason would say in a patient, strong voice, “and sin and temptation doesn’t just afflict the smart children, the good spellers and good readers, children, it does not I am here to tell you, even the smallest sin, even the smallest stumble upon the righteous path can lead us not to the sweet cool fields of heaven but straight to the fiery deep pit of hell. . .”

A gust of wind blew the flyer off the bag. Jayne looked down at the harmonica. She laughed, shivering with a sudden chill and struck by the queerest notion it might rise up out of the bag and start crawling toward her. She had borrowed not taken Daddy’s harmonica. He was away on a job till Tuesday, said Momma gone herself to Nineveh to help nurse Aunt Zettie’s kids down with the chicken pox, so Martha Jane had sat by the river underneath a sheltering grove of myrtle trees practically the whole day before with not a soul around making the most beautiful sounds she had ever heard or thought of in her mind’s ear, like angel music maybe, and wouldn’t that please our Savior Jesus? She was very careful, wrapped the smooth shiny little thing up tight in one of Arlette’s cotton baby diapers, why was Daddy so strict about his old harmonica anyway, all he ever played was Camptown Races and Old Dan Tucker, and he said she was his good girl, his best girl, and if she wanted to find out how his music made him happy and share that with him didn’t that mean she should be able to find out for herself?

Jayne brought the harmonica to her lips. The wood smelled like old cologne, musty but with a lingering sweetness that drew her tongue lightly along the comb’s nicked edge. She breathed softly. A brittle chord answered faintly, an angel whisper drawn from tortured reeds long laid to rest “. . . in a fiery furnace, dear children, where those with the dark leprous spots of sin on their soul will be devoured in flames, consumed into eternity”. . . he’s right, I stole Daddy’s harmonica, doesn’t matter nobody knows it’s a sin, Jesus knows, he knows I’m not Daddy’s best girl, I’m a sinner yes sinner better run home, everybody still at service put it back in his dresser and don’t ever sin again no I won’t ever sin. . .

Jayne abruptly put the car into gear and drove up the road, her left hand holding the steering wheel, right hand holding the harmonica. “No,” she stated flatly, eyes fixed on the road ahead. “No.”

She sped onto the highway, passing the gated entrance to Myrtle Blossom Cove, a new housing development on the river. “No!” she shouted, still steering with her left hand. I won’t be a sinner! I’ll put Daddy’s harmonica right back — why is it dark, I know I left a light on, ssshhh tippytoe quiet now, what’s that!

. . . don’t be scared of a little noise just a possum if Daddy were here he’d laugh at you scared wait — whose shoes not Momma’s pretty though, creaking in Momma and Daddy’s room just the wind or maybe Rollo on the bed again bad dog not scared no why did I sin why never opening the bedroom door so slow very ssshhh quiet brass money clip on the floor a crumpled bill lying loose Daddy? no next the bed not the dresser where it is every night nylon stocking ssshhh quiet open aaah-no!

Jayne shrieked into the harmonica and her foot pressed down on the gas pedal. A woman’s voice “ohgod Harlon who’s that? Is it my husband ohgod ohgod!” — ssshhh quiet — “Shutup it’s just the damn dog!” Out the front door running door slam don’t cry! Daddy shouting harmonica dropped on the porch hurry! woman yelling into the woods my husband! past the Reverend’s car parked round back hidden in the trees. . .

Jayne bit down on the harmonica, seizing it between her teeth and gnashing down on the metal as hard as she could. She growled into the 4 hole — waeohhwaeohhwaeohhwaeohh — the note bending and screeching as she hissed and growled and spat into the holes, ramming the wooden comb hard against her mouth, blowing-ramming-louder-harder as she drove up Highway 67 through the onrushing darkness flecked with traces of fog and neon, past Seven Sisters and Wolf Springs, past Gnaw Bone and Bean Blossom, past Edgar and French Lick and the all-nite bluegrass barbecue at The Rockin’ M with J.B. Woodard and His Brown County Playboys, halfway almost to Floyd’s Knob and Pandora Junction pounding the dashboard poundingrammingscreamingramming the moaning metal trying to outhowl the wind pummelling her cheeks like a flurry of big hard hands slapping her bare bottom owwwww daddy no no I won’t ever no take nothing no don’t belong no sorry sorry I never please stop I’ve been bad I’ve owwwww splinter jabbing her lower lip oozing fresh drops of bloodfroth onto the steering wheel as she suddenly rounded a curve and veered onto the shoulder missing by inches the concrete base of the Lil-Toots Truckstop sign and wrenching the car into the parking lot, squealing to a stop amid a blinding spray of dust and gravel.

She cut the engine and bounced out of the car — lips, tongue and teeth locked in a howling embrace with the number 6 draw hole — a piercing, sob-choked wail that endured for nearly a half minute before she ripped the instrument away from her face. Eyes closed and breathing hard, she fell back shaking against the passenger door, the harmonica dangling in her right hand by her side. With her left hand she smoothed the hair out of her eyes and dabbed at the blood on her blouse front.

A pair of truckers standing by an empty flat bed watched in silence. The taller one took a long last drag of his cigarette before squashing it into the gravel. “Maam, you all right?” he called out.

“Yes!” Jayne blurted, surprised by the harsh whisper that emerged from her throat. She coughed, expelling a thick glob of bloody spittle onto the car door, and coughed a few more times until the cough became a rasping chuckle, then a gurgling, mirthless laugh as she paced slowly in a circle, clutching the harmonica in both hands and squeezing it as if she were struggling to pull open a stuck window.

“Damn,” said the shorter trucker.

A grating noise caught her attention. She looked past the men to the diesel pumps twenty yards or so distant, where a teenage attendant wearing headphones leaking hiphop had just finished lifting off the ground tank lid and was uncoiling the hose from the fuel truck. Instantly, she began striding toward the pumps, picking up speed with each step.

“Maam.” The taller trucker moved forward but was yanked back by his buddy not more than a second before Jayne marched by, gaze fixed straight ahead and right arm held out stiffly, clenching the harmonica in a white-knuckled fist. In another moment she reached the pumps, where the attendant was stooped over the hose. Her shadow startled him, and he stumbled backward as she straddled the tank, her closed right hand nestled against her heaving left breast.

“Hey, lady, you can’t— ”

Jayne hurled the harmonica into the tank. It clanged dully against the sides, ricketing down with an echoing skreel of rupturing metal before hitting bottom with a soft, thunking splash. The attendant shut off his CD player and uncovered one ear, taking another step backward as he stared at Jayne bent over the hole and peering down, her bruised, swollen lips drawn back in ecstatic fury as if she were about to scream, vomit or dive in headfirst.

Instead, she straightened, swaying for a moment before righting herself and walking briskly back to her car, both arms atop her head as if they were keeping her skull in place on her neck. Before easing back onto the highway headed north, she gave two sharp horn blasts and tossed the plastic bag out the window.

“Damn,” said the shorter trucker, as he watched the winking tail lights disappear around the curve.

His buddy stuck a fresh cigarette stub between his lips and searched his pockets for a match. “Nothing but a little bitty piece of wood and tin.” He shook his head and sighed. “You’d think it done somebody a world of harm.”



Three Sides to a Square & Other Studies in Circumstantial Fatherhood
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

Posted in Short Fiction | Leave a comment

StoryTime at Chez McCullough

© L.E. McCullough 1990

A stooped, solitary man neither old nor young paused in front of a small, white frame house on West 10th Street and used one toe of a scuffed brown workboot to crush out a half-smoked, hand-rolled cigarette in the damp sidewalk weeds.

He fumbled with the top button of his faded madras shirt and squinted through the darkening mid-August twilight at the cracked wooden sign propped against the broken porch swing.


it announced in bold, crudely-daubed red lettering, with no problems to bigorsmal added underneath in blue.

Patting the shrunken squirrel’s foot in the right pants pocket of his mud-spattered overalls, he mumbled a brief invocation and walked quickly up to the front door past the five fire-gutted washing machines hunkered at the foot of the porch steps.

“Please enter,” called a husky, heavily-accented voice as he opened the screen door and stepped into a small room containing one table, two chairs and a low-burning kerosene lantern hanging from a hook on the bare rear wall.

“Madame Tienta?” he whispered, peering into the shadows, his right hand squeezing the squirrel’s foot. “It’s Thurman Edrue. I got to talk.”

“Sit down, Thurman. I have been expecting you.”

“Yes’m. Y’all have, huh?” He sat stiffly in the metal folding chair closest to the front door as Madame Tienta emerged from the back, a glittery, swishing, clanking, shrouded blur of black lace and bright jewelry. “Reckon you know when somebody got to talk.”

A white-gloved hand laid a deck of tarot cards on the table between them. “There is nothing Madame Tienta does not know, Thurman. Shall we begin?”

*     *     *     *

It was nearly midnight when Travis Looper pulled the shoulder-length black wig from his close-cropped blond head and pocketed the three rumpled ten-dollar bills he’d received from a hysterically grateful Thurman Edrue. The reading had been intense, but Thurman had left in good spirits, whistling down the sidewalk fondling the new peacock’s claw Madame Tienta had given him.

Travis hung his shawl and dress in the closet, placed his rings and bracelets in a shoebox and went over to the sink to scrub the makeup off his face.

It’s wonderful to help people make vital changes in their lives, he reflected, scooping cold water into his bleary eyes. So much stress in the world. So much heartless competition, survival of the fittest. So little real happiness.

He shut off the tap and stared in the paint-streaked mirror at the 34-year-old face of a seven-year Big Wide World of Motormania Auto Parts, Inc. counter clerk, single, living alone in a tiny efficiency apartment in Lower Eagledale, one week’s paid vacation a year spent visiting his older sister and her three kids in Logansport. So little real happiness.

Travis started the engine of his olive-and-rust 1978 Ford Torino two-door and inserted a lecture cassette entitled “The New Prosperity and Your Increased Tax Law Consciousness” into his tapedeck. He had been a working reader/advisor for almost three years, ever since attending a weekend workshop in Psychic Transformational Biokinesic Integration sponsored by  the Dawnchild International Society in Broad Ripple. While immersed in a saltwater taffy rebirthing tank, the realization occurred that he might indeed be possessed of psychic powers. Possessed of the ability to know the minds and hearts of others. To foresee certain future events. To change things for the better.

During a followup cholesterol hypnosis therapy session his rebirthing vision of floating atop a bubbling sea of picante sauce (medium, no preservatives) in a giant cheese nacho (cheddar, no artificial food dyes) was identified by the weekend group leaders as an affirmation marking him as a true Channeller for the Spirit Guardians.

Once officially affirmated, Travis Looper never looked back.

He rented the old house on West 10th, assembled a believable costume to fit his five-foot-six, one hundred fifty-pound frame and posted his sign.

Within a week he had three clients.

Within two weeks, seven.

And at the end of the month there were a dozen, and they returned again and again, seeking his aid and insight — which he dispensed for a modest fee adjusted to their income and his periodic craving for parts to rebuild a 1969 Shelby Cobra GT-500 he’d coveted for years but never had enough gumption to buy until he acknowledged that acquiring material things he didn’t need just for the absolute, whimsical hell of it was his natural birthright and a necessary step to creating a peaceful planet free of stress and dis-ease.

But life continued to have its frustrations. Travis’ job at Motormania was phenomenally stultifying. He’d been passed over for a raise twice in the last six months, and his co-workers no longer bothered going behind his back to make fun of him. If they ever suspected his psychic predilections and occupational moonlighting, he’d be snickered right out of the shop.

Travis pulled into his apartment parking lot and guided the Torino into its assigned space, sighing audibly as he noticed the space on the right was empty. The empty space belonged to a brand spanking new Fiat Spider 2000 owned by Miz Tabuleh (pronounced to rhyme with “I fool ya!”) Sandgartner, the only woman with whom Travis had ever felt a close spiritual attachment in a lifetime marked by a distinct lack of close attachments of any kind to any woman driving any make of automobile.

He’d been irretrievably smitten—on a purely creative visualization level, of course — by the 22-year-old self-professed “actress” from California since the night two months ago when she’d knocked on his door at four a.m. dressed in a white-fringed, black polysilk bikini, her luxuriant mane of sun-swabbed auburn hair rushing down her slim, tanned back like a molten waterfall frothing playfully around a slender pair of bare, freckled shoulders and framing the most angelic face he’d ever seen alive or in a magazine.

“Hi, guy, I’m Tabuleh! Just moved in next to ya. There a hot tub or sauna in this complex? Hey, y’all right? Look kinda weirded-out. Were y’asleep or something? What’s that on the wall? Hey, is that a picture of a dog? Farout, I’m into dogs, they’re soooooo Sagittarian. Can I touch it? I don’t eat meat so my fingerprints won’t hurt it or anything.”

From the moment this nymphic creature had bounded across his apartment to more deeply experience the black-velvet portrait of a cocker spaniel in a clown suit playing a saxophone, Travis Looper was a man cast hopelessly and cruelly adrift on the vagarious Sea of Unrequited Infatuation.

He saw her nearly every day, usually in the company of studly young men all immensely more tall, more pectoral, more white-toothed and blow-dried than he.

Occasionally he encountered her alone as she was running out of her apartment to attend a belly dance class, audition for appliance store commercials, meet instructors named Troy, Rolando and Rafe at the health spa or sit in on the weekly past-life regression soirees of the local Order of Sufi Cosmetologists.

Travis would nod and smile, vainly trying to engage her in conversation as she rushed by confessing her habitual lateness with a throaty laugh that sent shivers up his cheeks and set butterflies loose in his ears. He would watch with unspeakable yearning as her willowy, five-foot-eleven frame folded itself lithely into the minuscule Fiat.

Lately, though, he hadn’t even bothered to watch her peel out of the driveway. Instead, he turned his face toward the velvet spaniel on his wall, wondering aloud how it was their souls—with so much in common spiritually — could not become entwined as one.

“At least long enough to go to the drive-in some night for a coupla-three hours,” he’d declare to the sympathetic canine visage.

Passing her apartment tonight, Travis glimpsed half of a small yellow envelope protruding from under the door, as if it had been shoved in partway from outside. Glancing furtively around, he bent down and picked up the unsealed missive.

My Tabuleh Darling Dearest:

Too bad but I forgot this morning to tell you today I must
be gone back to N. York. Was great fun last few days you
and us being almost like married. I send my brother Thano
down next month to visit when his green card come.
Much wet juice to my Big American Love Muffin.

Yours, Nikkos

Travis replaced the letter and envelope as he’d found them and went immediately to bed, cogitating furiously. He was not at all surprised when the sound of uncontrolled sobbing from the next apartment woke him around three a.m.

Moving with an excited, curiously elated kind of stealth, Travis stumbled through the dark to his desk, giggling and hiccupping in short bursts at the cleverness of his scheme. From the lower left drawer he selected one of his business flyers he’d stapled on supermarket bulletin boards and telephone poles all over the Westside.


Madame Tienta Can Help Your Emotional Life Fill Up
Full of Fun and Profit!

2706 W. 10th. Nites Only After Six.

— Certified Amer. Inst. of Psychic War Vets —

When he left for work at 6:15 a.m. he taped flyers to her apartment door, on her mailbox and under both the Fiat’s windshield wipers.

As he’d hoped, Tabuleh appeared that night about a quarter to eight and unburdened her troubled psyche to Madame Tienta, who instructed her that true happiness could be discovered only by showing up at the Starvin’ Marvin gas station on the corner of 38th and Georgetown at precisely 7:43 p.m. tomorrow. There she would see a man with short blond hair wearing a white shirt with white pants and brown-leather belt, white shoes with argyle socks and a red-and-blue “I Got Mine At Jones Country Music Park” gimme cap. He would be holding a batch of live flowers and gassing up his automobile with regular.

“This is the man Destiny decrees,” croaked Madame Tienta, writing the full description on the back of an Earn Big $$$ Hauling Chemical Waste matchbook. “Do not dare refuse him!”

At work the following day Travis was practically imploding under the strain of anticipation, and his co-workers were not slow in detecting the presence of a distinct yet indeterminate attitudinal alteration.

Some, like Billy Ray Beckhurst, expressed their empathy and concern in a probing, yet sensitive manner.

“Trav-dude, I’ll be good and double-damned if you ain’t got a boogle up your butt or what? Been yampin’ around like a gopher fulla giggle-piss ever since you waltzed in this mornin’. What the hell’s matter with you, boy? Must be them damn silly socks messin’ with your brainwaves.”

Travis had hoped to leave work no later than 6:30 p.m. to take up a strategic position at Starvin’ Marvin and wait for Tabuleh. Unfortunately, the other two counter clerks took off at five left him alone to contend with a last-minute onslaught of dilly-dallying customers who insisted on charging their purchases. He was writing up the last ticket at twelve past seven when Billy Ray suggested it might be an excellent idea before leaving for the day to re-file Wednesday’s invoices in reverse alphabetical order by their last three zip code digits.

By the time Travis squealed out of the Motormania parking lot it was 7:27 and he was in such an advanced state of agitation he didn’t notice he’d forgotten to remember to not forget to lock the shop door and set the alarm system until he was a full mile away.

As he zoomed out of the lot the second time he glanced down at the bunch of flowers on the seat next to him and spent a few moments engaged in moderate self-congratulation for having had the extreme foresight to purchase them on his way to work this morning, thus obviating any possible chance of him forgetting to remember to not forget them tonight.

“Travis Looper, you are one comprehensively illuminated operator,” he chuckled, hooking his right thumb inside his waistband and suddenly noticing he was not wearing a belt.

He stuffed his gimme cap into his mouth to keep from bellowing at the top of his lungs. Clothes store clothes store where’s a goldanged clothes store?!?! his mind screamed as he inched the Torino through unusually heavy post-rush hour traffic.

At the stop light at 34th and Lafayette Road he pulled up next to a brown Buick Regal driven by an elderly man. “Hello there!” he called to the driver, catching his attention by waving his arms and honking. “Are you wearin’ a brown belt? I said — please roll down your window, sir! Please, the window, window, roll it down!” He mimed the motion with exaggerated gestures, and the man’s window slowly opened.

“Hi, thank you, are you by any chance wearin’ a brown belt? I need to borrow a belt for a little while. You got any belt at all? If it isn’t brown we could find some shoe polish and—”

“No hablo ingles,” the man said. “No comprendo ingles. Se habla español?”

“Ohmygod. No comprendee Mexican, nosir I don’t, it ain’t an official language round here. Uh, belt, belt, what’s the goldanged word for belt? Belto? El belto? Do you habo un el belto?”

The man, his hearing diminished by the onset of deafness and the surrounding traffic din, thought he heard Travis say “el belgo” and nodded affirmatively, thinking it was nice to meet a friendly Belgian person here in America but wondering why they dressed and behaved so oddly.

“You do! You do! Lordamighty you’ve saved my life! Look, I’ll buy the goldang thing off you,” said Travis, waving a twenty dollar bill at the man.

Travis sprang out of his car and ran to the Buick. “Here’s some dinero, padre. Hand ’er over. Hey, the light’s gonna change, come on.”

He tossed the bill on the dashboard, yanked open the door and started tugging at the man’s belt. “Reckon it’s more kinda tan than brown, but it’ll do. C’mon now, you got your money, amigo, what’s the goldang deal?”

“Robo! Robo!” the man cried, frantically trying to twist away from Travis’ grip. His knee struck the windshield squirter and wiper control, jamming the button into the “on” mode.

“Yowww!” yelled Travis as he caught a gush of cleaner fluid in the face. “What the—hey, c’mon, al. . . al. . . most. . . yeghghghghaaaa!”

He succeeded in yanking loose the last section of belt, ran over the top of his car hood and jumped behind the wheel just as the light turned green. “7:38” announced the watch on his dashboard as he roared away, and it took Travis about a half minute to realize two things — the watch’s minute hand was not moving, and he had no idea when it had stopped.

The gimme cap went back into his mouth to reprise its scream-muffling role as he sped eastward. After an agonizingly long wait in the left turn lane at 38th Street, he cut in front of two oncoming vehicles, scraped over the sidewalk into the gas station parking lot and screeched the Torino to a bone-jarring, brake-searing halt next to the regular gas pump.

There was no sign of Tabuleh, so Travis got out of the car and wrestled with the belt for a few seconds until discovering it was drastically too small. “Just needs to be on partway,” he decided, running the belt through a loop, buckling it and letting it hang from his waist in what he hoped would be viewed as a casual and maybe even assertively trendsetting manner.

“Lessee now,” he said, skimming down a mental checklist of props required for the rendezvous. “Shirt, pants, belt, shoes, socks, hat and, lessee, what else, oh yeh—”

“Flowers!” cried a longhaired, bearded man standing on the corner and waving swatches of flowers at passing motorists. “Getcher red-hot, real-live flowers right here! Two bucks a dozen!”

“Flowers!” yelped Travis, clutching the bunch on the seat next to him and staring at the vendor, who was clad in a white t-shirt and patched white jeans with a brown belt and a red-and-blue gimme cap that proclaimed “Bro’ Ernie Sez Root Hog Or Die”. Tattered green-plastic sandals adorned his sockless feet, but Travis was taking no chances with Destiny due to appear any moment.

“How many flowers you got?” he shouted, whipping out a wallet bulging with the life savings he’d withdrawn for tonight’s festivities.

“Say what, man?”

“How many flowers you got?”

“Well, chill out a sec, dude. Got one, two, three. . . uhhh, like how many you want?”

“All of ’em.”

“Say what?”

“Every goldang one.”

“Whoa, dude, who bought the farm?”

“Here’s two hundred dollars for the bunch. C’mon, c’mon, hand ’em over.”


“I want all your goldanged flowers. I want ’em right now or I’m GONNA KILL YAAAAAAAAAA!

After completing the final financial details of the transaction, the vendor helped Travis tote the four large crates of flowers to the Torino’s trunk, thanking him profusely for not only letting him live but for slipping him an extra twenty bucks to “make like a bee and buzz off” from the vicinity immediately.

Travis leaned against his car and watched the vendor scamper across 38th Street. Where is she? Did she forget? Must be quarter till by now, maybe ten till, maybe—

He was startled by a loud car honk. “Please move if you’re finished!” commanded an abrasive, East Coast-inflected voice belonging to a grey-suited, bespectacled man leaning out the window of a silver BMW that had insinuated itself behind the Torino at the gas pump. “You’re blocking my access.”

“I’ll block more than your goldanged access!” snarled an aroused Travis, raising his right fist in the air. “Why don’t you access yourself somewhere else?”

The man scrunched his face into a pout and backed his vehicle around the pump toward the exit. “Hey, what time you got?” Travis shouted, but the BMW’s window had already zipped up tight.

Travis had to shoo off three more motorists before the Fiat purred up and Tabuleh emerged, wearing a hot-pink halter blouse and faded denim cutoffs. She raised her lavendar-lensed sunglasses to peer around the parking lot and did not seem to notice Travis standing at the pump ten feet away.

“Hi, Tabuleh!” called Travis, grabbing the gas hose off its hook and straightening his hat bill.

“Oh, hi, Travis,” she fluttered, looking around and past him. “What’cha doing here?”

“Me? Doing? Here? Gosh, I, uh. . . uh, just came to, uh. . . came to get some brown shoe polish for my brown shoes. Looky, it’s these brown shoes here.” He hiked his pants up to mid-calf for emphasis.

“Farout, Travis.”

“I, uh, guess lots of people might not wear these brown shoes with these socks?”

She glanced briefly at his feet and continued looking around the parking lot. “Huh, ohyeh, wicked socks, Travis.”

“They’re ar, uh. . . argyle socks, Tabuleh, is what they, uh, are. . . argyle.”

She turned and started to walk toward the door.

He dropped the hose and ran up beside her. “Actually, I came to fill up with gas. To fill up my car with gas, I mean. Regular gas is what my car takes. What about yours? Does it take regular gas, too?”

She stopped and faced him, examining him from head to toe with a puzzled expression spreading slowly across her features.

This is it. She’s gonna say it! Lordamighty, hereitcomes, hereitcomeshereitcomeshereitcomeshereit—


His heart skipped a beat and lurched into a crazily syncopated drum roll as she stared into his eyes and grasped his hands tightly.

“Travis, I don’t know how to say this exactly.”

“Say what, Tabuleh?”

“It’s. . . it’s. . . well, I wouldn’t say this to just anybody, but. . . “

“Say it to me, Tabuleh. Goldang, say it to me!”

The emotional flood welling up inside him forced him to his knees, and he pressed his forehead against their locked hands. “Say it to me!”

“Travis, your belt’s on kinda funny. It’s just kinda hanging off one little thingie. Hey, are ya, like, gonna snarf or something?”

“I. . . I. . . my back. . . ahhhhhh! Dang, it’s thrown out. . . I don’t think I can get up.”

“Ohwow, superbummer. I’m gonna get some ice cream. Want some?”

He nodded “yes” and remained on his hands and knees in the middle of the parking lot, cursing himself for being such a hopeless — and now thoroughly helpless — fool.

“They were out of strawberry fudgie so I got cinnamon coconut limewhirl,” she said, slurping vigorously and handing him a cone. “Here’s yours. I had extra coconut put on it.”

“Thanks,” he replied, staring at her knees and trying to forget for at least the next five minutes that even the tiniest particle of coconut within a ten-county radius made him violently nauseous.

“This is fun, Travis. I never get to talk to ya. You’re a real sweet guy.”

“Gosh, thanks, Tabuleh. I. . . I’ve always thought you were. . . were a pretty special lady.”

She slurped in silence another minute or so before he let loose with his last desperate shot.

“In fact,” he said, “an old gypsy lady told me over a year ago, way long before you moved in next door, that. . . that Destiny would decree I come to this parking lot tonight.”

Her slurping ceased and was replaced by a long intake of breath. “She said I’d meet a woman,” he continued. “A woman who. . . who I’d dare not refuse.”

Tabuleh squatted in front of him and stared mistily into his eyes. “Like, what did this woman—your Destiny—look like, Travis?”

“Well now, this old gypsy said she’d be wearin’ a pink shirt or blouse. . . and an old pair of shorts. . . and. . . and purple sunglasses.”

“Faroooouuut! Did she say anything about ice cream?”

“Uh-huh, that’s right, ice cream, uh-huh. . . said this woman’d offer me an ice cream cone.”

“And the flavor?” she gasped.

He frowned in deep concentration. “I think it was. . . think it was. . . no, wait. . . uh, it would have cinnamon in it and lemon — no, lime. . . lime, that’s it, and—”

“And coconut?”

“And coconut,” he declared.

“Travis,” she squealed, popping the last piece of cone into her mouth and gripping him by the shoulders. “Travis, this is so, like, unreal! Ya won’t believe what I’m gonna tell ya! Hey, are ya gonna like, eat your ice cream? It’s, like, dripping on your shoe and stuff.”

After she finished his ice cream, Tabuleh and Travis went back to her apartment where they spent several hours engaged in primal fluid release massage therapy that left Travis completely exhausted but, for the first time in his life, completely happy. Around two a.m. they got married by the district J.P. and left immediately in the Fiat for a honeymoon in Newport, Kentucky.

During a drunken spree in the hotel bar that evening, Tabuleh lost the keys to the Fiat and Travis lost all their money. He also lost Tabuleh, who disappeared at some unrecollectable point to take a boat cruise to Martinique with a critically acclaimed Hungarian producer of sci-fi/porno films after being promised a lead role in his next epic, Lust-Crazed Space Sluts from Mars.

Travis set up a fortune telling booth in the plaza to try and earn money for a bus trip home but was arrested for impersonating a citizen of Kentucky and practicing augury without valid liability insurance. After a week he was extradited to Indiana where he married the bail bondsman’s secretary, a 19-year-old three-time divorcée named Miami who renewed his spiritual faith in the American legal system when she told him of her frequent visits aboard the extra-terrestrial spaceship parked behind her trailer court outside Plainfield.

Some years later, Billy Ray Beckhurst was sitting in a barber’s chair leafing through a recent copy of National Tattler when he came across a photo of a man surrounded by eight women, nineteen children and fourteen late-’60s Shelby Cobras.

“Bonanza, Utah patriarch Travis Looper says he has made ESP contact with a race of intelligent beings from the Arcturan Galaxy,” read the caption, “and waits with his family near the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge for their imminent arrival. ‘They’re just like us,’ Looper says. ‘Except they have a much more refined appreciation of vintage automobiles.’”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Billy Ray repeated to the shoeshine man. “I’ll be good and double double-damned!”



No Camel, Sirhan & Other Stories You Don’t Want to Hear
About People You’d Rather Not See
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

Posted in Short Fiction | Leave a comment

L.E. McCullough StoryTime – June 26, 2010

From: “My Man Jesus Ain’t No One Night Stand!”  &
Other Glimpses of the Second Coming (and Third, Fourth, Fifth)
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

©  L.E. McCullough 1993

The tow truck appeared less than a minute after my engine died and I’d coasted to a stop beside a “Visit Real Western Ghost Town — 16 mi.” billboard on the shoulder of a crumbling two-lane blacktop in the middle of nowhere Arizona.

Then there it was, pulling over from the opposite lane. . . a super-charged monster-wheel tow truck with LIFETIME TUNEUP crudely painted in red on the rust-caked side panel. “Can’t believe  you were passing by!” I called, shielding my eyes from the gusting sand as the driver snaked out a thick coil of black cable from a gigantic generator straddling the truck bed. “I think it’s the battery.”

He peered out from the hood, his wizened, grey-bearded face punctuated by mirrored sunglasses and grease streaks. “More than the battery, sonny,” he droned in a voice as flat as the brown, shimmering horizon. “Start ‘er up.”

Great, I thought. A genuine antique codger. I slid behind the wheel and turned the ignition. The generator belched, the engine rasped and a flash of light seared my eyes. I blinked and stared out the windshield at the cactus grove occupying the spot where the billboard had been, not noticing for another several seconds that the blacktop had disappeared and my car was sitting alone atop a sand dune.

Well, not exactly alone. A half dozen guys dressed up in medieval knight costumes and toting big Zorro-type broadswords stood about ten yards away babbling in Spanish. “Señor Englishman,” one of them said, approaching me with swordpoint extended. “You trespass on territory claimed for His Royal Majesty King Phillip of Spain by his loyal conquistador, Capitán Francisco de Coronado.”

He bowed, real serious-like, and I laughed. “Guess you guys are from the theme park up the road. Jesus Yippi-Yi-Ay Christ, you must be hot as hell wearing all that armor. Esta una fast food taco place around aqui?”

El Capitán growled and the others started toward my car, weapons raised. “Infidel!” he shouted, whirling his blade over his head. “In the name of the Inqusition, I dispatch you to the devil!”

“Whoa, muchachos!” I mashed the accelerator and the motor wailed and I prayed the windshield was one of those new silicon-tempered kind guaranteed to repel 16th-century saber attacks.

“Told you it ain’t the battery. It’s the timing belt.”

I opened my eyes to Grey Beard grappling with a bunch of loose wires under my hood. The billboard and blacktop were back, and there was no sign of El Capitán y los hombres.
“What’s going on?” I yelled.

“Never you mind. I’m busy.”

I nearly got sliced into guacamole and you’re busy?”

“Dang timing belt was cattywampus. Give ‘er another spin.”

It’s gotta be the sun. I’m still asleep with that barmaid in the Route 95 Motel 6, or maybe I’m in a deep coma somewhere, but I am not standing in the middle of the damn desert with some geezer and–

“Crank ‘er up, you’ll be outa here ‘fore you know it.” He rubbed his chin with a socket wrench, then leaned over and spat in the cracked earth.

I eased back into the car, keeping him in sight every step of the way. Here goes. . . I turned the key, heard the motor  catch and cough and sputter. . .

Then WHAM! I bounced sideways against the doorframe and looked out the window, thinking I’d been rear-ended by a train.

“Moooooo! Moooooo!”

I was in the middle of a grade Z cattle drive movie, surrounded by hundreds of cows butting and stumbling their way across the underbrush. In the rearview mirror, a covered wagon with a dozen black-hatted riders was wheeling into view.

I leaned on the horn. “Mr. Big Wrench, I want outa here!”

A shotgun blast rang out, and I ducked below the dash waiting for the sound of shattering glass and possibly my own skull caving in. But there was only the low whistling of the desert wind, and I cautiously lifted my head.

Grey Beard leaned in the window holding a small, oily rubber fragment between his stubby fingers. “You got a leaky bovine insulator valve. Don’t know if I got a spare, but I’ll look.”

I pressed the door lock. “You’re a lunatic. Please leave.”

“Son, a bad BIV is no bucket of grins, as you just found out. How often you service this vehicle?”

I could make a run for it. Better humor him. “I didn’t know they had to be replaced.”

“Most folks don’t. Then again, most folks don’t know nothin’ about what’s really in a car. Come here, I’ll show you. See that squarish thingamabob by the distributor?”

“What about it?”

“That’s your thermo-hyperbole aerator. And that bronze wire alongside?”


“Your libido intake coupler. Looks a mite threadbare to me. Over by the fuel pump — there’s the scruple armature. And the divinity differential right there beside it. I’d have that decorum bypass manifold checked out, they can snap on you in a hard freeze, and it wouldn’t do one bit of harm to clean out your secondary infatuation sensor with some good, old-fashioned Burmashave.”

I scanned the empty road ahead and calculated my chances for escape.

“Needn’t try to skedaddle. Sure, I can read your thoughts. Ain’t all that innaresting, ‘cept for the barmaid. Heh-heh-heh.”

I looked into his face, and the mirrored surfaces of his sunglasses began to spin and whirl crazily, fusing into a deep glimmering vortex.

“Who are you, old man? Are you God?”

“Never you mind. While you’re waitin’, I’m gonna change out that sanguinity determinator. See where it’s pressed up against the contrabass metaphor mute?”

“Am I dead? Is this hell?”

“Just fulla questions, aren’t you, sonny? Hand me that pretence perfolator, if you please.”

I sat down on a rock and sighed. “I’m not going to make my meeting in Phoenix, am I?”

He paused and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “How much time you spend behind the wheel?”

“Maybe forty hours a week coming and going.”

“Figure in your trips to the grocery, drycleaners, bank machine, video store and the average person, even a little kid, spends almost half their waking hours absorbing the car’s LFPR.”


“Life-Force Particle Radiation. The soul of the car. Humans these days are chock fulla tension and phobias and psychotic episodes and repressed anxieties from their childhood, and it all mingles in with your car’s life-force. That’s why most cars get outa whack so quick.”

“You learned all this in mechanic school? I’m impressed.”

“One glance under the hood and I know exactly what ails a person’s soul. A broke-down axle or a busted fan belt ain’t just a piece of metal or rubber gone bad. Corresponds to some strained part of your psyche, a part of your spirit that’s sick or twisted or about ready to go haywire and do you permanent damage.”

“You billing me extra for the philosophy lesson?”

“Remember this. All the traveling you do represents your progress through life. When you figure out where it is you really need to go, you’ll find the car that gets you there.” He gave a final wrench twist and closed the hood. “Hop in and fire up. I got another call comin’ in.”

I shrugged and primed the gas pedal. “So what’s my engine shutting off in the middle of the desert telling me about my inner essence?”

He chuckled and mounted the cab. “May take awhile gettin’ used to the notion, but. . . turns out your alternator reset modifier was misadjusted all these years. You’ll be lots happier now that’s fixed. Trust me.”

I frowned and turned the key. “My alternator what?”

“Adios, amiga.” He waved as he sped away, vanishing in a thick, swirling cloud of gritty black dust that blotted out the road ahead.

The engine caught, and I pressed the accelerator hard just as the dust swept over the hood and everything sank into black. . . and then. . . mauve? “Hey, wait! Whaddya mean my — yowwwaaaaaAAAHHHHH!!!!!!”

*      *      *

I made my meeting in Phoenix. And I made a huge impression on the boys in the boardroom with that hot-pink mini and those white vinyl go-go boots.

Of course, it was all a little difficult at first:  getting used to wearing high heels, shaving my legs, choosing the correct shade of lipstick to match my blouse, putting on eyeshadow zipping down the interstate during rush hour.

But I got the contract and married the marketing director, our mutually affirmative spirituality parameters inspiring us to start a nationwide chain of self-serve psychic bowling alleys that earned us twenty or thirty million last year. I’m not as good at math as I used to be.

But after that alternator adjustment, I sure do know a lot more than the average American woman about how a car really runs.


And this bonus story in honor of Pete Ford and The Singularity… it’s coming, R U Ready?

©  L.E. McCullough 1997

“Your problem, dude, is lack of charisma,” admonished Brad, Dave’s best friend and modem-mate. “Better get some if you want a date for the dance this weekend.”

He’s totally right, thought Dave, flipping off the vidphone and opening his wardrobe closet. “I need mega-magnetism and fast.”

“Yo, Davie-sweets, you super-rad bytehunk,” replied Maxine, his pillow computer. “Would monsieur like a leettle turbo massage zees a.m.?”

He clicked her out of French Maid MTV mode and into Ultra Macro-Mom. “Right now I need major image reprocessing. Open Attribute Update Program, extension C-13.”

He glanced anxiously through the files:  Camouflage. Cannibalism. Carbonation. Celibacy. Charisma. Bingo! “Maxine, access ‘charisma’, then scan for viruses and neuron compatibility and quikpatch directly into cortical drivelink two.”

“And you just strap down in that reset chair, young man, and get comfy while we fix you allllll up for your big date. You know, these nasal lobeports of yours remind me of your father more each day.”

That Friday, from the moment he and Cindy stepped into the new PromWorld ThrillMall, Dave felt magic in the air. “I’m so incredibly drawn to you,” Cindy cooed, as the holoband kicked into a surging medley of Miss America Ate My Puppy Dog tunes. “I always kinda thought you were smart, witty and athletically built, but nowwwwwww — I just can’t take my eyes off you.”

Likewise transfixed, Dave stared at her angelic, beaming face, which had only an hour before been reshaped by the new Sony/Chanel Virtual Elegance FaceWriter® Font.

“Cindy, you’re so. . . so. . . divinely flawless — i-i-in a most extremely bodacious way. Will you, like, marry me?”

Men, she chuckled as they strolled to the dance sleds. So easily deceived. Marry him? His mother probably still washes his diskdrive.


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Happy Juneteenth StoryTime

©  L.E. McCullough 1996


“No Camel, Sirhan” &
Other Stories You Don’t Want to Hear
About People You’d Rather Not See

– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

*     *     *      *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *

AS SHE DID EACH DAY that last summer, Esther Lyons spent the hours from sunup to sundown on her front porch reading and re-reading the latest letter from her son, away in the Army these past six months. She rocked slowly back and forth, her frail, bony fingers handling each tattered page as if it were made of delicate gold leaf.

“Jimmy will be so pleased when he sees how well the crops are doing,” she whispered, gazing at the corn ripening in the late September twilight, their stalks throwing thin, wavy shadows across the dirt road leading to town. “Oh, but he will have plenty of work getting in the harvest. Mercy! What is that?”

A noise from over the hill startled her, and she peered anxiously into the setting sun. “A bugle? Why, the war must be over! Jimmy is coming home! Oh, that glorious, glorious bugle!”

Mrs. Morton, the minister’s wife, squeezed the horn of her husband’s new 1899 Duryea steamer at the scrawny brown-and-white dog meandering across the road. She rolled down the hill and coasted to a stop in front of a green, two-story wood-frame house built before the Civil War, when New Rome was still a day’s carriage trip from the state capital at Columbus.

The house, which had once stood at the center of a tidy fifty-acre farm, was now surrounded by an unruly patch of one-story clapboard-and-stucco cottages strung out along the asphalt highway like sleeping hobos.

“You see, Miss Krieger,” Mrs. Morton explained to the nurse sitting beside her, “when Mrs. Lyons’ niece passed away this year, there were no additional living relatives. My husband and I became concerned, Mrs. Lyons just turned seventy-four. We got to thinking it might be for the best if she was placed at the county rest home.”

“Is she ill?” asked Miss Krieger.

Mrs. Morton hesitated. “You are the expert. We will abide by your recommendation.”

Miss Krieger paused at the edge of the porch, regarding the tiny woman in the large rocking chair, a heavy woolen shawl cloaked around her shoulders, a frayed night bonnet tied around her silver hair. Mrs. Lyons seemed not to notice her presence, but stared into the distance, humming a haunting melody Miss Kriger had heard somewhere before, as a child perhaps. . . I gaze oer the hill where he waved his last adieu. . .

Miss Krieger coughed politely. “Mrs. Lyons? I am a friend of Reverend Morton and his wife.”

The old woman slowly turned her head, as if awakening from a dream, to face her visitor. “Is it time to go to church? I am not rightly dressed.” Her voice was raspy and small, her skin as transparent as the papers she clutched in her lap.

“No, ma’am,” replied the nurse. “It is Thursday, not Sunday.”

“My word! Every now and then time gets away on me.” Mrs. Lyons chuckled softly and reached for the teacup and saucer on the railing. “Would you care for some — oh my!”

Her wrist bent, and both cup and saucer slid from her grasp, crashing to the boards. Miss Krieger retrieved them. “The cup handle is badly chipped,” she said.

“Never you mind, young lady. When my son Jimmy gets back, he will mend it. Jimmy will put everything back in good order.”

“I did not know you have a son, Mrs. Lyons.”

“Of course I have a son! He has been away fighting in the war.”

“With Colonel Roosevelt in Cuba?”

“Cuba? Goodness no, he is with General Grant. . . in Tennessee!”

Miss Krieger raised her eyebrows and was about to reply, but the words caught in her throat as the old woman’s trembling hands raised the papers. “Look here. He writes me every week.”

Miss Krieger took the crumpled papers, smoothing them as she strained to decipher the smeared, yellowing parchment. A telegram. . . Secretary of War, Washington, D.C. . . . Private James G. Lyons, 53rd Ohio Infantry cited for bravery at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6th, 1862. . . a newspaper clipping. . . “one of Franklin County’s bravest recruits, young Jim Lyons, stood his ground at the bloody Hornet’s Nest against a horde of Rebels thicker than fleas on a dog’s back”. . . and a torn sepia photograph of a thin, dark-haired youth in a Union infantry uniform, cap cocked jauntily over his brow and a musket propped against his shoulder as if he had just returned from a squirrel hunt. . . My brave lad sleeps in his faded coat of blue. . .

Mrs. Lyons was humming the familiar melody again, and Miss Krieger placed the papers in the old woman’s lap. “Is your son coming home soon?” she asked.

“Why, any time now. Did you not hear the bugles?”

“Bugles, Mrs. Lyons? Where?”

“Just over the hill yonder before you came up. The war is over! Long live President Lincoln!” A smile spread across her wrinkled cheeks, and joyous tears welled in her eyes. “Thank goodness my Jimmy has come home! I can see him at the head of the regiment. . . oh, Jimmy, welcome back!”

Miss Krieger quietly stepped off the porch and hurried to the road. “I will have the doctor make arrangements,” she said as Mrs. Morton put the automobile into gear and turned on the head lamps for the drive back into town. Above the engine’s rattle, Miss Krieger heard the sound of humming. . . I’ll find you and know you among the good and true, when a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue. . .

Miss Krieger had a sudden urge to turn and look back at the farm house.

Staring into the deepening twilight, she glimpsed movement on the porch — a tall figure rising from the encroaching darkness to stand over the old woman slumped in the rocking chair.

Slender, with a military cap slanted over the eyes and a musket cradled loosely in an elbow, it bore the formal aspect of a man while moving with the fluid, tentative gestures of compassionate youth.

Miss Krieger blinked and started to call out, but her voice caught in her throat. As the house disappeared around the curve in a quick shimmer of shadow, she thought she saw the old woman’s shoulders and head sink peacefully into the heavy woolen shawl.

“She will be more comfortable with someone to take care of her,” remarked Mrs. Morton.

Miss Krieger nodded. “I believe you are right,” she said, pulling her coat close to ward off a sudden chill.


To hear “The Faded Coat of Blue” as performed by Jay Ungar & Molly Mason from their CIVIL WAR CLASSICS album:

Words & Music by J.H. McNaughton, 1865

My brave lad sleeps in his faded coat of blue
In a lonely grave unknown lies the heart that beats so true
He sank faint and hungry among the famished
And they laid him sad and lonely within his nameless grave

No more the bugle calls the weary one
Rest, noble spirit in thy grave unknown
I’ll find you and know you among the good and true
When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

He cried, “Give me water and just a little crumb
And my mother she will bless you for all the years to come
Please tell my sweet sister so gentle, good and true
That I’ll meet her up in heaven in my faded coat of blue”

No more the bugle calls the weary one
Rest, noble spirit in thy grave unknown
I’ll find you and know you among the good and true
When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

Long, long years have passed and though he comes no more
Yet my heart will startling beat with each footfall at my door
I gaze oer the hill where he waved his last adieu
But no gallant lad I see in his faded coat of blue

No more the bugle calls the weary one
Rest, noble spirit in thy grave unknown
I’ll find you and know you among the good and true
When a robe of white is given for the faded coat of blue

For a history of Juneteenth, see the new documentary produced by historian Michael Emery on Austin, Texas KLRU-TV:

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L.E. McCullough StoryHour – June 12, 2010

© L.E. McCullough 1989

“Cam. Cam? Cam Whittaker, are you listening to me?”

Campbell Donovan Whittaker III slapped his fork down hard on the edge of his pie plate and glared harshly at the slender, pouting woman facing him across the table. “Stop shouting, Delois,” he hissed. “Stop the goddam shouting!”

“Please don’t swear in front of our son,” she entreated in a nasal whine, fusing her thin blonde eyebrows into a deep, furrowing frown. “He’s at a sensitive age.”

Her voice pricked at him, each word stinging like a fresh razor cut on his hot, reddening cheeks. “Delois, he’s not even in the room. He’s upstairs doing his homework, I hope, like I asked him to do five times in the last hour.”

She brought her hand to her face, covering her right eye and turning away as if she’d been struck. “I can’t take much more of this hostility, Campbell, I really can’t. I–”

“Wait a damn. . . hostility? You started the goddam yelling–”

“–can’t take it anymore, Campbell, I–”

“Chrissakes what are you talking about, Delois? Chrissakes don’t make any damn sense at all!” The knuckles of his left fist ground into his knee, while the fingers of his right hand tightened around the fork till his nails gouged his palm. Goddammit! he swore to himself as he stared at the soggy remains of his pecan pie à la mode, fearing that if he looked into her pinched, accusing face for even a second he would begin bellowing at the top of his lungs.

Emitting a low moan, she leaped from her chair and turned away from the table, whirling on her toes in a flawless jete a cote and bounding out of the room like a frightened deer fleeing an approaching yet unseen predator. Short, choked sobs punctuated the sound of her heelsteps retreating down the marble foyer to the main staircase.

Whittaker threw back his head and rubbed his two-day chin stubble, staring at the crystal chandelier glinting above him. He scratched a clump of thinning blond hair near his crown and blew out a large burst of air through his nose as he heard the door to their bedroom slam shut.

“Jesus H. Bloodsucking Christ,” he muttered. “What the hell am I gonna do?” He got up slowly and leaned unsteadily against the new mahogany imitation-Chippendale table his wife had purchased last week at an antiques auction for nine hundred some dollars. He shook his head, chewing his bottom lip while the memory of the afternoon’s argument with McCallister and Kilgore in front of the HLM investors pushed tonight’s mealtime blowup to the back of his brain. Could the hard, tightening ball of nausea welling up in his stomach be from the smell of an impending backdoor office coup? Or just the taste of sour grapes he was being force-fed by his alleged financial partners?

“I know what I’m gonna do!” he blurted, rustling in his pockets for car keys until he remembered his TransAm was still in the shop and his wife had shuttled him to and from work today in her new Peugeot wagon.

“Hellsbells, I’ll take her car I bought and paid for.” He cleared his throat and strode through the kitchen toward the new station wagon parked in the west drive outside.

“Daddy, the batteries for my Geo-Mammoth are no good.”

Whittaker’s eight-year-old son shuffled into the room holding a large green-and-black plastic toy in his hands. “Can we please get more?”

Whittaker felt his neck muscles tense. “Why aren’t you up doing your homework like I told you?” he demanded, scowling.

The boy shrank back into the dining room shadows. “I did, daddy, I did. All done.”

“Then tell your mother it’s time for you to get a bath and go to bed. Go on! Move!”

The boy scampered up the stairs. Whittaker kicked at the refrigerator and snarled a low, mumbling mantra of “goddams”, catching a glimpse of his reflection in the microwave pane. He looked away, then turned and stared back appraisingly.

Okay, Cam-boy, listen up. You got some minor, I repeat minor, adjustments to make with your life-essence, pal. . . thirty-five and still knockin’ ‘em dead. . . nice house, nice boat, nice car, nice little wife and son. . . got it all except for one small detail. . . you ain’t got fun! You got people messin’ and fussin’ and hasslin’ the livin’ christ-jesus outa you, and it’s time to stop that record cold.

He tossed the Peugeot keys in the air and caught them as they whanged on the counter. “Gonna have me some fun tonight! Yessir! Some good ol’ redneckin’, honkytonkin’ fun! Bygod, I deserve it if any man does!”

He paused to adjust the Audemars timepiece on his right wrist and, after a second’s hesitation, slipped the solid-gold wedding ring on his left hand into his right pants pocket.

“And I’m gonna get it.”

*     *     *     *

Not even the insults of the teenagers screeching by Martin Slater as they roared past him in their shiny black Porsche could diffuse the lingering warmth he felt from his daughter’s farewell goodluck kiss upon his dusty, wrinkle-etched forehead.

“Hey, asshole, take a bath with this,” they bleated, hurling a half-empty beer can at him as he crossed the wide boulevard heading toward the small, half-vacant shopping center that receded from the bustling intersection into the rambling grasp of an overgrown wood thicket sloping down from the gravel-spattered backside of an abandoned railfreight spurline along the river’s edge.

He heard Julianne telling him to be careful and heard himself replying with a loud chuckle to keep the eleven-year-old and her nine-year-old brother from sensing the fear that seized his throat muscles and rendered him nearly speechless at times. “I’ll bring back somethin’ good. Don’t worry, darlin’, I will.”

Slater winced at the throbbing in his withered left arm, and a sudden flash of images across his mindscape from the firefight at Quang Ngai caused him to blink and stumble slightly in the humid August twilight.

The jungle scene dissolved and melded into a dreary, dreamy collage that skirled through his skull like scenes from a movie reel scrambled and shredded by a projector gone amok, running and re-running images of countless job layoffs and firings, his wife’s alcoholism and desertion, the evictions from rat-infested transient hotels, the increasingly unmistakable signs of the malnutrition assaulting his children’s bodies before his helpless eyes.

He wiped his sweating upper lip and stood before the entrance to Honey’s Pleasure Parlor & Billiard Salon, squeezing his palm around the $35 in small bills and coins he carried wadded in a greasy red bandana jammed into the back pocket of his tattered, paint-streaked blue jeans.

“What kind of man houses his family under a bridge?” the reporter had earnestly asked of the television camera surveying the crude campsite where Slater and his children had dwelt since April. And for the thousandth time, as he watched a blond man in a light-blue blazer and white slacks climb out of a station wagon and stride jauntily toward the bar, the answer gagged in his throat, choking back a long-suppressed scream that, were it ever to escape into open air, would signal a total and unconditional surrender of his sanity and will to exist.

“Don’t worry, darlin’,” he whispered, flexing his right, cue-shooting arm. “I’ll bring back somethin’ good. Somethin’ good. This time. . .”

*     *     *     *

Campbell Whittaker drained his third Tequila Mamba Bamba, straightened up on his bar stool and squinted through the smoky roomhaze at a brown-skinned woman in an orange wig and purple g-string gyrating on the runway above him to music so loud he had to scream at the young red-haired waitress seated on his lap. “Baby, I make one-eighty-five grand a year. One hundred eighty-five grand! Work my butt to the bone for that money! Think anybody ’preciates that? No way, Jose!” He rubbed his nose against her cheek and slid his tongue behind her ear as his hands squeezed and kneaded her plump, bare thigh. “Think you could ’preciate it? Mmm-mmmm. . . think I could make you ’preciate it tonight, babe, whaddya say? I’m gonna water the dog and we can talk about what time you get off work.”

Propping the girl against the bar rail, Whittaker lurched off his stool and meandered toward the jon. In the back room a pool game was in progress with a scrawny, bearded, raggedy-dressed man skillfully running the table against a large, loud, jut-jawed drunk wearing a West Side Auto Tow uniform embellished by a large, leather-sheathed hunting knife hanging from his right hip.

Whittaker paused and watched for a minute before continuing his amble to the toilet, momentarily transfixed along with a half dozen other kibitzers by the intense demeanor of the shooter and the hiccupy fidgeting of a stocky, crewcut, pock-faced man in a blue Hank Williams Wrote My Life t-shirt standing off to the side, his pudgy, hairless forearms blotched with blurry reddish tattoos. “Think these guys were playin’ for blood or somethin’,” Whittaker confided to the men’s room door creaking admittance.

“Fuck! Three games in a fuckin’ row!” rasped the short man as Martin Slater sunk the eight ball with a crisp double-bank shot. “You just lost me two hundred bucks, shithole!” he snarled at the big man. “Play ’im again. And don’t lose this time, butthead!”

Shithole-Butthead began racking the balls, and the short man picked up a cue and poked Slater in the shoulder. “One more,” he ordered. “Double or nothin’.”

“Don’t think so,” replied Slater, swatting away the stick and moving to the far end of the table to collect his winnings.


“Done playin’.”

“Bullshit. You got too mucha my money, scarecrow.”

“Game’s over.”

“Bullshit. You play.”

Slater silently tucked the last dollar bill into his back pocket and watched the room quickly empty of bystanders and the door to the main bar close.

“Yer fucked, dirtball,” sneered Shithole-Butthead, unsnapping his hip-sheath as Pockface advanced from the other side of the table with raised cue.

The jon door banged open and Whittaker stumbled out, hands tugging at his recalcitrant fly zipper. “What the–?” he mumbled as he looked up and saw the bearded man backing slowly against the wall, like a terrified cat cornered by a pack of drooling dogs.

Pockface whirled and faced him. “Stay outa this!”

Whittaker burped loudly and stared blankly at Pockface and his large companion. A kaleidoscopic whoosh of flashing color washed across Whittaker’s vision as their faces morphed into the grinning masks of his business partners, McAllister and Kilgore… goddam hyenas think they can screw me sonsabitches don’t know who they’re messing with…

“You got it,” Whittaker shrugged, half-turning toward the jon as Pockface and companion stepped toward Slater. In the next second Whittaker grabbed a cue off the table and sprang forward to drive the thick end of the stick into the back of Shithole-Butthead’s neck.

The big man screamed and went down, dropping his knife and smacking his head hard against a metal chair. Slater pounced barehanded on Pockface and wrestled him to the floor. By the time Whittaker came around the table, Slater had pounded his foe unconscious.

“Whoa!” puffed Whittaker, palms outstretched as Slater jumped up and squared off in a crouch. “On your side, pal.”

Slater fell back against the wall, mouth twitching, eyes blinking wildly. “Tried to cheat me,” he gasped.

“Sokay, sallright,” Whittaker soothed. “Nobody bother you now.”

Slater stumbled past Whittaker toward the rear exit. “Hey,” Whittaker called. “Yallright, mister? Hey, where you goin’?”

Slater tried to force open the locked door, beating his fists against the unyielding steel. “Why don’t you and me get some eats,” said Whittaker gently.

Slater’s hands dropped to his sides, and his wiry frame shuddered, head propped against the door. “C’mon, soldier, we’re on a mission:  eats first, pussy later,” Whittaker commanded.

Slater stared at the blond man’s flushed, plump cheeks and at the blazer collar bearing a bright red streak of Pockface blood. . . “Cadre in the ville corporal ammo up watch the tree line walk it in walk it in corporal dinky dao number 10 number 10 menoVC menoVC khoungbiet khoungbiet!”

Whittaker took Slater’s arm and led him forward. “Good wrassle always makes a man hungry, whaddya say?”

He tugged Slater through the crowded front room out to the parking lot, winking at the redhead dancing onstage and sticking a $20 bill in her shoe. “See you at closin’ time,” he mouthed.

At the Waffle House down the street Whittaker bought Slater two deluxe combination steak-and-egger platters along with $23.70 worth of hamburgers, french fries and soda pop to take back to his kids. They poked at the crumbs on their plates for an hour or more, discussing the unseasonably humid weather, the preferred weight of pool cue, the ungodly price of a domestic sixpack, their experiences in Nam (Slater’s in-country infantry duty, Whittaker’s posting as an assistant G-12 inventory supervisor to the paymaster at division HQ) and, before draining their fourth and final pot of coffee, the increasingly absurd notion that either one had ever seriously considered himself capable of raising children.

“Tell you what,” said Whittaker as he guided the station wagon onto the gravel turnout by the ravine where Slater motioned to be let off. “I was talking to Delbert today, fella that does the grounds around the office. Basic maintenance, checking thermostats, y’know. Says he just lost one of his boys to the national guard callup and can use a steady hand right now. Pays eighteen-fifty an hour.”

Slater closed the door and stood for a moment, clutching the food sacks and Whittaker’s business card. He lowered his head into the window. His eyes were in shadow but Whittaker saw the thin lips relax into a half-smile. “Thanks.”

“Later, amigo.” Whittaker watched him vanish down a weed-choked dirt path and pulled the car away, glancing twice in the rear view mirror, though he knew he’d see nothing but dark. He headed west and crossed back into the city, slowly retracing his route to the bar.

Two blocks and five minutes from his appointed rendezvous with the redhead, he veered north, speeding away from the boulevard’s nervous, neon-tainted clutch and into the misted, enfolding silence of neighborhoods hours deep in candid slumber and punctual, unbaffled dreams. A mile or so from home, he pulled into an all-nite Village Pantry and picked up a bagful of batteries for an ailing Geo-Mammoth.

He turned to the empty passenger seat and chuckled. “Not much for a man to show from a night’s labor, eh, amigo?”

But for the first time in longer than he could remember, Campbell Donovan Whittaker III suspected what he’d be bringing home this night would have some genuine worth in a currency whose value of exchange he was only beginning to understand.


Three Sides to a Square & Other Studies in Circumstantial Fatherhood
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –

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