Power Play

(This is the second installment of the Andrew chronicles; a hapless, comical figure trying to get through life. In the first installment, Diridon Station, Andrew runs into an old flame that he has a hard time remembering. In this story, we see Andrew at his workplace.)

Andrew left the break room after lunch feeling sated and slightly caffeinated then a hand grabbed him and pulled him into an empty office. He was face to face with three of his coworkers.

“Can we trust you?” Sterling demanded.

“Uh, what’s going on?” Andrew wondered.

“We ask the questions here!” Damien barked. “First you must swear not to betray us,”

“But what’s going on?” Andrew asked worriedly.

“I don’t think we can trust him,” Gwen said suspiciously.

“Dammit, you must swear!” Damien ordered. “You don’t want to piss off this one,” he warned as he pointed to Gwen.

“Okay, I swear,” Andy promised hoping to reduce the tension.

The three workers eyed Andrew intently. “I think we can trust him,” Sterling finally said.

“What’s happening?” Andrew finally managed to say.

“So how do you like working here?” Damien asked leadingly.

Andrew thought for a moment. “I can’t complain.”

“Hmmm,” Sterling pondered. “Interesting.”

“He doesn’t complain about anything,” Gwen mocked. “When we got a cake for him for his birthday, he took so long getting to the break room that we ended up eating the entire cake before he showed up. Remember?” she said to Andrew.

“Well, total strangers do walk up to me and tell me that I should lose a few pounds,” Andrew placated as he looked around his waist.

“That’s why we call him No Cake Andy,” Gwen continued.

“Oh,” Sterling said with enlightenedness. “I thought it was because of the hazing incident of ‘05.”

“Guys, I think we need to get back on track here,” Damien advised.

“Of course,” Sterling agreed. “Now to the business at hand.” He placed his hands on his hips.

We’ve decided to stage a coup,” he announced as he looked directly at Andrew.

“A coup?” Andrew puzzled. “Where?”

“Here!” Damien added. “Aren’t you sick and tired of slaving for Mr. Weatherby?”

“Well, he’s not that bad,” Andrew replied.

“He is a dangerous, out of control demagogue!” Sterling declared.

“A dictator drunk on his own power!” Damien yelled.

“A multi-headed hydra that must be slain!” Gwen rallied.

“Figuratively of course, right?” Andrew queried.

Gwen appeared amused by Andrew’s question. “Of course.”

“So what brought all this on?” Andrew asked sincerely.

“Increased hours!” Sterling began.

“Stagnant wages!” Damien followed.

“Oppressive and uninspired work environment!” Gwen completed.

“But don’t some of those things have to do with the current world economy and are out of the control of Mr. Weatherby?”

“Don’t those things have to do with world economy?” Gwen mimicked sarcastically. “He’s the one in charge, he’s the one that needs to be taken down!”

“Have you thought this through?” Andrew cautioned.

“Yes,” Sterling answered. “With strength in numbers we’ll confront him and he’ll have no choice but to give in to our demands!”

“Which are what?” Andrew wondered. “That he depart into exile like an overthrown junta?”

“That he let’s us sit in on the board meetings,” Sterling answered.

“Oh, I thought you would’ve had a bigger plan than that.”

“Dammit, you have to start somewhere!” Sterling vociferated.

“So here’s the plan,” Damian began conspiratorially. “We’ll all march in together, shoulder to shoulder!”

“That way Weatherby can’t get around us!” Gwen informed.

“Let me finish,” Damian demanded.

“Who died and made you king?” Gwen shot back.

“Let’s stay on point, guys,” Sterling counseled. “Now here’s the plan. We’ll all walk up together. I’ll start in on him with how we have to work too many hours. When I’m done, Damian,” he said to Damian, “you address how we’re all underpaid. And Gwen, finish him off! By expressing how ugly and uninspired the workplace is.”

“What about me?” Andrew wondered.

Sterling grabbed him by the shoulders. “You’re the point man.”

“Me?”

“Of course,” Gwen answered. “You’re shorter than us.”

“You’ll go in for the first attack,” Sterling continued.

“I can’t do that,” Andrew argued. “I don’t want any involvement in this!” He pulled away from Sterling’s grip.

“You’re already involved,” Damian reminded.

“In deep!” Gwen added.

“But this is all your idea!” Andrew protested. “You dragged me in here against my will then told me all about your plan without me asking to know about it!”

“Ha!” Sterling laughed as he placed his hand on Andrew’s shoulder in a fatherly way. “Well you know all about it now.”

“And if I say no?” Andrew queried.

“Then you’ll be going airborne ,” Damian warned menacingly as he nodded his head toward a window.

“We’re on the ground floor,” Andrew reminded.

“It’ll still hurt!” Damian shot back.

*                     *                     *                      *                     *                     *                     *

They all stood forebodingly in the cramped elevator as it rose up through the building. Everyone looked straight ahead without saying anything. Andrew watched the floor number display count upward as his apprehension grew.

“Everybody remember what they’re going to say?” Sterling pierced the silence.

“I make the demand for increased pay,” Damian said importantly.

“I point out what a junk heap this once proud company has become,” Gwen declared.

“Great! And I’ll address his autocratic ways,” Sterling asserted.

“What am I supposed to say?” Andrew asked.

“You provide the backup,” Sterling answered.

“Why me?”

“We need a regular person,” Damian elucidated.

Andrew was puzzled. “Aren’t we all equal as employees?”

They all chuckled.

“If it’s just us exceptional people,” Sterling said as he pointed to himself, Damian, and Gwen, “Weatherby will never buy it”

“That’s right,” Gwen agreed. “The three of us are known to be above the fray and able to see the big picture, and that scares Weatherby. But if we bring just a plain, regular employee, he’ll know we have a broad base of support.”

“And I’m just a typical worker?” Andrew pondered.

“So typical that you blend in anywhere,” Damian said.

“That is so true,” Gwen added. “Just a typical, nondescript, boring, bland employee, a person who isn’t remarkable in any way.”

“That’s right,” Sterling concurred. “People may say you’re dull as dishwater, but in this instance your dullness is an advantage.”

“Oh,” Andrew said with realization. “Well, glad I can help.”

The elevator dinged when it reached its floor, and the doors slid open.

“Let’s go,” Sterling ordered and they exited the elevator. Sterling, Damian, and Gwen walked purposefully through a corridor toward Weatherby’s outer office as Andrew kept up. Weatherby’s office grew larger and more daunting as they approached. An ominous looking secretary appeared on the right. She sat her desk like a sentry.

“Is Mr. Weatherby expecting you?” the secretary demanded as they came closer. She glared at them unpenetrably.

“No time to explain!” Sterling replied. “It’s too important for you!”

“Nobody gets past me without an appointment!” The secretary picked up a heavy glass ashtray and threw it at them like a Frisbee. Sterling, Damian, and Gwen dodged out of the way of the spinning object and it struck Andrew on the forehead. He staggered back as pain shot through his head.

“We’ve been hit!” Damian shouted.

“Aw, shit!” the secretary shrieked. “Is that No Cake Andy?”

“Damn right!” Sterling said gleefully, “and his uncle is a high powered lawyer!”

“And we are witnesses!” Gwen chimed in.

Andrew held his head in pain but remained upright. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“We can’t take any chances!” Sterling declared. “You better get a first aid kit stat if you want to save this company from a lawsuit, or worse!”

“You’ll be going to the big house for assault and battery!” Gwen warned.

“You’ll be living Orange Is the New Black!” Damian added.

“Fine, I’ll look for the first aid kit.” The secretary ran off.

They waited until the secretary was out of sight. “Let’s go,” Sterling uttered. They walked up to the door leading to Weatherby’s office. Andrew was still shaking off the pain as he stood behind them.

“Wait,” Damian cautioned, “our point man.”

“That’s right,” Sterling agreed. He grabbed Andrew and placed him in front. “How’s your head?”

“Still hurting, but getting better,” Andrew answered.

“Here, have a Vicodin,” Damian offered. “I always carry these.”

“I don’t think I need a…”

“Take it,” Gwen ordered as she took the pill from Damian and stuck it into Andrew’s mouth. Andrew resisted then ended up swallowing the pill.

A second Vicodin appeared in Damian’s hand. “How about another just in case?”

“Better safe than sorry,” Gwen said as she took second pill and stuck into Andrew’s mouth. It slid down his throat and he started to feel numb.

“Now everybody remember what we’re going to say?” Sterling asked.

“Money,” Damian said.

“Work environment,” Gwen said.

“And I address the dictatorial nature of this workplace,” Sterling said.

“What am I doing here?” Andrew asked as he started to feel woozy.

“Backup and moral support,” Damian reminded.

“You’re everyman, remember?” Gwen reminded further.

“But…how do I?” Andrew’s mind started to become foggy.

“No time to answer that,” Sterling said as he pushed the door open. The spacious office was wood paneled and foreboding. The half open vertical Levolor blinds let in just enough light to show Weatherby’s face in half light and half darkness, like a heavy in a film noir. Andrew felt a shove push him forward into the lair.

“What the hell do you want?” Weatherby glowered.

“Uh, well sir.” Andrew looked behind him, and Sterling told him to say something. His impaired mind struggled to remember something to say. “I am here,” he finally began, “because I was enlisted to express grievances that some employees may have.”

“Are you the ringleader?” Weatherby accused.

“No, sir, I’m a…” Andrew struggled, and looked behind him again for an answer.

“I bet you are!” Weatherby reiterated.

“A concerned worker!” Sterling suddenly blurted and stepped in front of Andrew. “You see, Andrew here typifies the average worker who feel, how shall I say, oppressed.”

“Oppressed?” Weatherby said with shock. “This isn’t a banana republic!”

“Of course not, sir,” Sterling relented. “We live in a democratic state.”

“This isn’t a democracy!” Weatherby continued. “The only people who get a vote are the board

of directors! The rest of you are plebes who are damn lucky to have a job!”

“Of course, sir,” Damian agreed as he stepped in front of Andrew and next to Sterling. “It’s just

that lots of people are struggling, and a modest increase in pay would be very helpful. Andrew here

would like to visit his aunt in the old country, but he can’t afford to because he just makes enough to pay for his rent and bare sustenance.” Andrew tried to remember if he had an aunt somewhere in another country. “He still eats Top Ramen, it’s sad.”

“Well there’s nothing I’d like more than to give all you bums a raise,” Weatherby began as he stood up and emerged from behind his large oak desk, “But there are factors that have to do with the world economy, and are totally out of my hands! Did you ever consider that?”

“Yes, sir, that’s a good point,” Gwen agreed.

“Of course it is, I came up with it!” Weatherby proclaimed. “And what’s your beef?”

“Oh, I was just thinking about improving the overall work environment,” Gwen replied. “You know, a new coat of paint, maybe some artwork, things that would inspire the employees.”

“Artwork?” Weatherby blasted. “This isn’t a gallery!”

“No, sir, it isn’t,” Gwen concurred.

“And if you want inspiration think about your next paycheck!” Weatherby took note of Andrew’s intoxicated appearance. “What’s your problem?”

“He had a splitting headache so he took some pain pills,” Sterling jumped in.

“An agitator and a hophead,” Weatherby said accusingly. “I should’ve known!”

“He only does it out of medical necessity, sir,” Damian reassured. “We didn’t know he had taken too many.”

Andrew swayed as he tried to remain upright.

“I’ll make it simple,” Weatherby condescended, “No raises, no interior decorating, and no

democratic reforms. Now you four idiots get back to work before I fire your asses!”

*                     *                     *                    *                     *                     *                    *

Sterling, Damian, and Gwen silently exited the elevator at the ground floor as Andrew staggered along behind them. They stopped at their maze of cubicles and hesitated before entering.

“We tried,” Sterling finally said.

“Maybe we needed a better plan,” Damian suggested.

“We should’ve got more people involved,” Gwen said.

“Well, these things take time,” Andrew struggled to get out from his still narcosis fogged mind. “The fight for workplace equality is a long one, in which people had to overcome a lot of defeats to achieve their victories. And the struggle continues to this day.” Andrew was impressed that he was able to say all that despite his temporary impairment.

“If you don’t mind, Andy, we’d like to discuss this without you,” Sterling requested.

“But don’t you need more people?” Andrew asked feeling suddenly puzzled.

“Yes, but we just can’t trust you anymore,” Sterling answered.

“I have to agree with Sterling,” Damian said.

“Yeah,” Gwen agreed, “it was a mistake to take you in.”

“How come?”

“Because,” Sterling began, “you’re an agitator.”

“And a druggie,” Damian reminded.

©2017 Robert Kirkendall

Fault Lines

(This is the third short story of my history of Santa Clara Valley series)

SILICON VALLEY – LATER 1980’s

“You really want to move out there?” Gina asked.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Craig asserted. “It’s a great idea when you think about it.”

Gina felt unconvinced. “But it’s so far away.”

“Aren’t you tired of renting?” Craig asked rhetorically. “We’re throwing money away.”

Gina looked away from the dining area table and out the front window of their apartment. “The commute is going to be at least two hours each way. I can’t do that.”

“And you won’t have to,” Craig reassured. “With the affordable prices of houses out there, we’ll only need one paycheck. And if you want to keep on working, I’m sure there are offices out there as well.”

Gina continued to look out the window at the central courtyard of the complex. She was noticing its familiarity for the first time, with the apprehension of possibly leaving it. “But there aren’t any jobs out there for what you do.”

“The programming jobs are over here, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”

Gina looked back at Craig. “But will I do all day in that boring valley?”

“At least you’ll have nothing to do in our own house. Won’t that be an improvement?”

“Yeah, but Modesto?”

“With all the people who are going to move out there, it might end up being a boomtown,” Craig added positively.

Gina felt uneasy. “Can’t we find somewhere closer?”

“I’ve looked. Gilroy, Santa Cruz, East Bay, real estate prices are rising everywhere that’s nearby.”

“I don’t know. It feels like we’re going to be refugees.”

“I know this is asking a lot, but we don’t have a future here except as renters. I don’t want that. It’s so affordable out there we could be homeowners out there right now,” Craig emphasized.

The sudden pressure got to Gina. She stood up and paced around the dining and kitchen area. “Maybe housing prices will come back down eventually.”

“I seriously doubt it, things just don’t work that way. Land value just keeps going up, at least around here.”

“And everything that goes up must come down,” Gina pointed out.

“Not in our lifetime. Technology always expands, and this valley is one of its centers, maybe the most important one.”

Gina thought some more, and a seeming unfairness dawned upon her. “You would think that such an important economic powerhouse would be affordable to those whose work makes it happen.”

“It’s affordable for the top executives and engineers.”

“But not everybody else,” Gina said a bit angrily as she paced around some more. “Our parents had no trouble making it here, and they weren’t executives or engineers. Is buying a house becoming a privilege?”

Craig looked as if he heard something unexpected. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s survival of the fittest now,” he shrugged.

Gina slowly went to the front window toward the courtyard at the center of their complex. “We’ll have to leave everyone we know.”

“It’s not like we’re moving cross country,” Craig resumed his argument. “And we’ll come back and visit everyone, or they can come and see us.”

Gina continued to look out the window to all the other units. A couple of the neighbors were talking and laughing. “It won’t be the same. We won’t be a regular part of each other’s lives.”

“But if we stay we’ll never be able to afford a house, not even with both of us working.”

“This is not an easy decision for me to make.”

“Everyone will be a phone call away,” Craig said cheerfully, “and a hundred miles away really isn’t that far.”

“It isn’t that near either.” Gina sauntered away from the window and back into the dining area. “No more dropping by at the spur of the moment, no more regular get togethers.” She sat back down at the table. “We’ll have to plan when we see each other, like visiting far away relatives.”

“A big event to look forward to!” Craig added happily. “And wouldn’t you rather people visit us in a house? Of our own? We’ll be able to have more people over, even for an entire weekend.”

“What, like a slumber party?”

“Sure, why not?”

Gina laughed a little.

“I thought you liked slumber parties.”

“Sure,” Gina said, “when I was in middle school.”

“But you see I’m trying to say.”

“Which is?”

“That we can finally entertain people properly,” Craig highlighted.

“But what do we do with ourselves the rest of the time?”

“Enjoy the open space. A lot of agriculture in the central valley, small town life, slower pace, like this valley used to be.”

“I don’t know. I really don’t think it’ll be the same.”

“Why not?”

“Because things happen in the Bay Area. This is where the excitement is.”

“We can create our own excitement,” Craig smiled suggestively.

Gina laughed a little. “You just want to do it in more rooms.”

“Is that so wrong?”

“Well, it’s not going to be all fun and games,” Gina reminded. “I mean, think about your commute. It’s going to be at least two hours each way, that’s four, maybe five hours a day behind the wheel.”

“At that hour I’ll be able to floor it. That’ll shave off some time.”

“Well I don’t want you getting in a wreck,” Gina said with concern.

“C’mon, you know I’m a safe driver.”

“But what if you dozed off for a few seconds? Or what if someone else did?”

“You worry too much. There won’t be that much traffic that early, no way it’s going to be like 101 during the morning commute. No other cars to get in the way.”

“I can’t help but worry.” Gina looked downward. “I just don’t know about this.”

Craig leaned forward across table. “Look, hon, I know this is a big step, and I understand why it bothers you, but I’ve thought this through. We’ll be building up equity and I’ll be getting raises as I keep working, and at some point we’ll be able to afford to move back here.” Gina looked up at him as he relaxed back into his chair. “Or maybe we’ll both end up liking it out there and want to stay.”

“But if real estate prices do keep rising over here like you’re saying, we’ll be stuck over there whether we like it or not.”

“Like I said, the way things are going at work I’ll soon be earning some more raises,” Craig restated. “At least I’m working in the right place for that.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Gina said, then new thoughts entered her mind. “But another thing to consider is how quick technology can change. Remember the 8-track? Every advancement eventually becomes obsolete, which usually leads to layoffs.”

“Another thing not to worry about,” Craig said with a little exasperation. “Every new advancement leads to new opportunities at a rate that far outpaces the lost, no longer needed jobs. The fact that people keep flooding into Silicon Valley proves that there are opportunities here. And they more than replace the people that leave.”

“Just like lemmings,” Gina said resignedly. “I suppose it would take a massive earthquake to get people to move away from here.”

“You mean like the California coast falling into the Pacific? That could turn Modesto into ocean front property!” Craig said excitedly.

“That’s a happy thought.”

“Serious. The farther we are from the San Andreas, the safer we’ll be when the big one finally hits.”

“But what if Modesto ends up under water?” Gina posed.

“Then we’ll move to Nevada and their new beach front casinos!” Craig said still excited. “Just think about what a golden opportunity this is. The northern San Joaquin Valley is going to be the next boom area, because that’s where the population is going to expand into. And,” his eyes brightened, “we’ll be in on the ground floor.”

Gina considered all the promises to her perception of the realities. “Gotta admit, I’m having a hard time seeing that happening.”

“Why not?”

Gina felt her tact lessening. “There’s nothing to do out there.”

“There’s a lot to do out there! Open space everywhere, no traffic jams, slower pace of life. We’ll be out in the country.”

“But where can you see a concert?”

“They’ve got things out here that we don’t have here, like rodeos, and gun shows.”

“A gun show?” Gina said with alarm.

“Yeah, I always wanted to check out one of those,” Craig said wistfully.

“Didn’t know we were moving out to the wild west.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t turn our house into an armory.”

Gina had new ominous feelings. “I still have to think about it.”

“Okay, but I don’t think there’s much to think about.”

“This move will upend our lives,” Gina said seriously.

“It will improve our lives,” Craig responded equally serious. “Imagine having our place.”

“Location is everything.”

“Which is what real estate agents say when they want to sell you some overpriced mini-mansion. Modesto is a fine place. George Lucas is from there.”

“He doesn’t live there now.”

“It’s a true, old fashion American city, like Mayberry.”

Gina felt she was hitting a wall. “Sure seems like you have your mind made up.”

Craig’s excitement finally calmed down. “Maybe this all seems sudden,” he admitted, “but I did consider everything about this. And I really believe that the positives outweigh the negatives.”

Gina had of a new idea. “How about we stay for a while and try to save up some more money? We’re still young enough, and I’m certainly willing to work some overtime. I’d even be willing to buy a townhouse,” she said trying to be persuasive, “that’s good enough for me.”

“Sure, we could do that, but the house in Modesto is something we can do now. And why settle for half a house with no yard?”

Gina gazed over to the living room. She noticed all the pictures arranged around the television and stereo. The still images of loved ones and life’s important events stirred memories inside of her. “What you say makes sense, but I never counted on leaving my hometown, or the Bay Area at least.”

“This move will pay off in the end.”

“This is a lot more than just an economic decision.”

“Understood,” Craig relented.

“So can we at least sleep on it tonight?”

* * * * * * *

Gina laid upright in bed under the covers while reading a magazine.

“Now one last thing and I swear I’ll stop bugging you about this,” Craig said from the bathroom sink. “With our own house, you’d have your own room to do whatever you want with. Think about it.” He went back to brushing his teeth.

Gina looked up from her magazine. “Like what?”

Craig stopped brushing. “Like some of the things you like to do, or talk about doing, sewing, art projects, things like that. Maybe you can turn it into a library.” He started brushing again.

Gina thought about having an extra room. She found the idea of a room she could design in her own image appealing. My own little corner of the world, she contemplated. The possibility of more space brought about a new yearning. Sure wouldn’t miss this closet of an apartment, she thought, three fifty a month for a one bedroom, and another rent increase probably on the way. She also anticipated how much better open space would be if they had children.

Gina speculated further into the future. The possibilities unfurled in her mind, and her dreams grew bright. Then the brightness began to dim, the open space became engulfing, the move an exile, the room a cell.

Craig finished brushing, rinsed, and came to bed. He got under the covers and sidled up to Gina. “What are you reading?”

“Oh, nothing.” Gina closed the magazine and set it on the nightstand. “You know, I was thinking about what’s happening in the world lately, about how things are thawing out between us and Russia. That’s going to change things here in the valley.”

“How so?”

“Well, it was defense that drove technology and created most of the jobs here. If things change, and it looks like they are, that’s going to have to change the job market around here. Booms don’t last forever.”

“And you think it’s going to affect my job?”

“It might.”

“I thought you didn’t want to talk about this anymore tonight,” Craig kidded.

“It just occurred to me right now, must have been something I read.”

“Well let me put your mind at ease. There are many uses for technology other than defense. I mean, technology is everywhere these days. Ten years ago there were no ATM’s or VCR’s, now they’re everywhere. The future is very bright for the computer.”

“What if it’s not a smooth transition?”

“It’ll transition.”

Gina tried to consider all possibilities. “You know, these changes could mean more pay.”

“I sure hope so.”

“So why not wait to make a decision until after what happens happens?”

Craig seemed intrigued. “But what if this opportunity passes by and real estate prices rise over in Modesto?”

“What if we go there and die of boredom?”

“Boredom is a state of mind,” Craig reminded. “And we are not boring people.” He relaxed under the covers. “Right?”

“Of course, it’s the surroundings I worry about. And that long drive five days a week, won’t that make you crazy?”

“All I need are my tapes, or I can listen to the sports chat on KNBR. And other Silicon Valley people are moving out there, maybe we can start a carpool.”

Gina pondered. “Guess I always look at the glass as half empty.”

“Nah, you just need to sleep on it.”

*                      *                      *                     *                     *                     *                     *

As Gina drifted toward sleep, she remembered something from her childhood, when she was ten or eleven. Her family was going to go to downtown San Jose for the annual Cinco de Mayo parade. When they got into the car to leave, her father wasn’t with them. She and her siblings had asked their mother why their father wasn’t going. Mother said that father had some things to take care of. They kept asking their mother what their father was doing as they drove to downtown. She said their father was working on a project around the house he had been meaning to get to and didn’t want to put it off any longer. They finally arrived at downtown and walked to the parade. Gina remembered it was a clear, sunny day, the parade was colorful, musical, and festive, and they all had a fun time.

When they returned home after the parade, father was in the backyard laying down bricks and mortar for a new walkway. He was very intent on his work, and appeared unusually tense. Gina and her siblings tried to talk to him, but he was too focused on his task. Mother stayed in the house, and when father came in the house they didn’t say much to each other. A new tension was filling the house.

Within a day or two the tension eased back into calmness. Everything was seemingly normal again, but her parents interests began to go in different directions, and the light of unity in which she always saw them was changed forever. She had never known what first caused the rift, but she thought back to that past as if she were seeing it for the first time.

©2016 Robert Kirkendall

Closed Circuit

SILICON VALLEY – 1971

The employees were all gathered in a conference room. Seth was sitting intently at the middle of a long table. Gavin sat across from him. About a dozen or more were sitting around the table or milling about. A single window on the back wall looked out onto a parking lot.

“So what’s this meeting going to be about?” Seth asked.

“Not sure, but I think it’ll be something good,” Gavin said.

“How do you figure?”

“A lot of changes in the industry, and a lot more players. It’s not just Fairchild and Texas Instruments anymore,” Gavin said knowingly. “My guess is that this meeting is going to be about how we’re going to adapt and compete as the semiconductor field continues to grow.”

“We’re not at that level,” Shirley reminded from down the table. “We’re relative newcomers. Takes time to build up your cache.”

“Most of the companies in this field are newcomers,” Gavin replied. “It’s a new frontier and we’re growing along with it, and we can only go up. They’re probably going to retrain us for something new,” he added positively.

“Could be,” Dale agreed. “Integrated circuits are improving all the time.” He paced thoughtfully. “Back east the factories that were making cars, steel, and everything else fifty years ago are the same factories making those things now. But over here we’re ahead of the curve. Everything modern, and becoming more modern with every advancement. Out with the old and in with the new.”

“And just as I was getting used to my workplace,” Seth said wistfully.

“Like Dale said, it’s the nature of this business,” Walt reminded from one end of the table. He leaned back in his chair. “Less than decade ago this was an apricot orchard, now we’re on the cutting edge of technology and defense. And what we do is good for America.”

“So long as we put it to good use,” Dale added.

“It’ll be helpful for humanity if nothing else,” Gavin said.

“We’ve got to help ourselves first,” Walt insisted. “I don’t mind saying that, and I don’t care if it’s out of fashion.” He looked across the table unapologetically.

No one said anything for a couple of moments. A tension began to float over the room.

“So I went to an A’s game the other night,” Gavin said finally. “They got this kid named Vida Blue, jeez he can throw. He must of struck out at least ten or twelve batters!”

“A’s are doing well? That’s a change,” Seth joked as the unease dissipated.

“At least they don’t have to play at the ‘Stick,” Dale joked.

“My god, that place is windy,” Shirley said. “My husband took me to a game there once, I thought I was going to blow away like a leaf.”

“A’s got a solid team,” Gavin continued. “One of these seasons they’ll go all the way.”

“They won’t get past the Orioles,” Walt countered.

“They’re an older team,” Gavin said. “A’s are young, they got a lot more years ahead of them. They can be a dynasty well into the eighties.”

“Not to gripe, but how long do we have to wait?” Olivia interjected as she moved closer to the conversation. “I need to finish my pile of work.”

“Same here,” Shirley said. “I don’t want to have to work overtime, I have to get to the store.”

“This may be worth waiting for,” Gavin advised. “Could be a new advancement in the field. We’re now at the point where operating systems now have hundreds of kilobytes, some even a thousand. That increases the possibilities of what can be achieved.”

“Well we got to keep up with all those advances,” Seth said, “don’t want to fall behind there.” “I feel that we are at the front of a revolution,” Gavin proclaimed.

“I think we’ve had enough revolution,” Shirley said. “Stability would be nice.” Some nodded in agreement.

“This will be a new revolution,” Gavin promised, “based on technology. It’ll be more like a renaissance,” he said brightly as he looked around the table, “a point of positive change that makes life better for everyone so we can leave all our old troubles behind.”

“You sound like an adman,” Walt kidded. “That’s the department you should be working in.”

“Anything I can do to help the company,” Gavin said humbly.

“Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Dale warned. “We don’t know yet what’s going to happen, we don’t know what they discuss behind closed doors. Let’s just wait and see.” The room became silent and contemplative. A couple of people shifted about. Someone sat down at the table.

“Well we do know this,” Gavin anticipated, “we’re at the root of an industry is only going to grow.”

“Yeah, the industry is going to grow as everything inside of the computer shrinks,” Lee said. He was leaning against the wall.

“And as that happens, computers are going to be everywhere,” Gavin pointed out, “not just in big government and big business. In ten years that every mom and pop store will have a computer.”

“Sure, if they can afford it,” Olivia remarked.

“So is that what this meeting is going to be about? Getting our product everywhere?” Seth asked.

“That’ll probably increase our workload,” Shirley said.

“But don’t you see the bigger picture?” Gavin emphasized. “I’ll bet in a decade or so every small business will be using a computer for accounting, payroll, record keeping, they’ll be indispensable. And every home will have one as well. That’s job security for years to come.”

“So maybe that means we’re all getting raises,” Shirley said hopefully.

“I’m just happy to be working in a growing field, because I don’t want to move away from here,” Seth resolved. “Too much snow back from where I’m from. The weather here, on the other hand, is perfect.”

“Yeah, we’re spoiled,” Lee said obliquely.

“A job is a job as far as I’m concerned,” Walt stated. “No different than the packing sheds I used to work in when I was in high school. That business also used to have a future around here.”

“I can see computers in the workplace, but home computers as well?” Olivia asked. “What can they do that a calculator or typewriter can’t do?”

“Maybe by that time they’ll be used for communication,” Dale predicted.

“We already have the telephone for that,” Shirley said.

“I don’t know about you guys but I’m excited to be working here,” Gavin declared. “I used to read and watch science fiction when I was growing up, and now I’m living it.”

“And getting paid for it,” Walt reminded.

“Best of both worlds,” Dale added. Everyone looked around in agreement.

“Now I’m starting to look forward to this meeting,” Seth said.

“Maybe they want our input for the company party,” Olivia said humorously.

“They’re going to take us all to the Wagon Wheel for drinks,” Lee joked further.

“You know, I heard about this new advancement in the integrated circuit field,” Gavin imparted, “some kind of super circuit.”

“I heard the same rumor,” Walt said offhandedly.

“Serious, some chip with thousands of tiny little transistors and capacitors. Imagine the possibilities,” Gavin mused.

“Doesn’t necessarily translate into more jobs,” Dale reminded. “The more on a chip the less assembly that’ll need to be done. Advancements can make certain jobs obsolete.”

“Ah, you’re a killjoy,” Seth said.

An employee near the door looked out into the corridor “I think I hear them coming.” Everyone still standing went to the nearest chair and sat around the table.

One of the managers, a middle aged man in a short sleeves and a necktie, walked in briskly followed by a secretary carrying some files. They stood at the head of the table. “Good afternoon,” the manager began cheerily. “How are you all doing?” Everyone said they were fine or nodded. “Good, good,” he responded. His mood then appeared to become more serious. “So,” he began didactically, “as we all know this is an industry based upon advancements. Time was industrial advances were seen over the course of years, decades. Now changes happen from year to year. The newest of these changes is a very important advancement in the semiconductor field. One of our newer competitors has created the first completely integrated circuit that contains all microprocessing functions on one single silicon chip.” Everyone looked to each other interestedly. “Though it isn’t available to the public just yet, the board attended a demonstration and saw what this new central processing unit can do, and they were quite impressed. So we had a discussion and concluded that this will cause a refocusing in the industry for even smaller computers and mainframes, and we’re going to have to change along with it.” Everyone looked to each other curiously.

“We do anticipate an immediate drop off for us, so we’re going to have to restructure our workplace to keep up with these new advancements. Part of this means paring down all our departments and combining some of them to make ourselves leaner and more nimble within our field.

“Now let me say we appreciate all the work you have done for us. Without your effort, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So it was with a heavy heart that we made the decision that we did.” The manager nodded to his secretary, and she started handing out envelopes to everyone. “We regret to tell you that we’re going to have to lay you all off. But we have included a severance with your last paycheck.” The crestfallen former employees accepted the envelopes automatically. “You see, in the beginning of any new industry, there are a lot of booms and busts before things even out. Technology is a volatile thing. It never sits still, and this industry has seen its share of fierce competition, mavericks leaving established companies to stake their own claim, new companies branching away from old companies, lawsuits and countersuits over who invented what. But I know as things start to stabilize you will all be working again soon. And we’ll give all of you good references.” He smiled at everyone again. The secretary handed out the last of the paychecks and returned to the manager’s side. “Well, good luck,” he said positively and left followed by the secretary. The newly former employees looked to each other stunned and silent. “Well, shit,” Walt bemoaned. “I just bought a new boat.”

                    *                     *                    *                    *                    *                     *                     *

Everyone quietly left the building, some carrying personal possessions.

“So now what?” Seth asked.

“Well I’m going straight to the unemployment office to file my claim,” Dale decided. “Don’t know when I’ll be working again.”

“I heard the recession is over,” Gavin added hopefully. “Maybe it won’t take so long to find work.”

“It’s still a drag,” Seth said morosely. “I kinda feel like a sap.”  Everyone began to fan out across the parking lot.  All around laid a checkerboard of old farmland and new office building, strip malls, and tract houses.

 

“Anybody know who’s hiring?” Olivia asked.

“Well I’m going to try to get a job with whoever made that super circuit,” Lee said.

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

From The Archives – Diridon Station

(I first wrote this story three years ago while taking a class at Cabrillo College and posted it on my old blog.  This is rewrite of that previous version.  It’s a tale of love lost, then found again…sort of.)

Andrew and his briefcase were pulled along by a mass of evening commuters moving through the atrium of Diridon Station. As they all headed to the front entrance, Andrew exited the stream and stopped at the schedule chart and system map up upon the wall.

“Andy?”

He turned around and saw an bouncy, youngish woman looking right at him. “Excuse me?”

“Yes! It is you! Two Drink Andy!”

The woman’s colorful attire was quite striking to Andrew and reminded him of a bowl of fruit punch. “Um, do we know each other?”

“It’s me, Wendy,” she declared hand upon her chest. “Wendy Bartlett! Don’t you remember me?”

“Oh, Wendy,” Andrew drew a blank as he turned away from the wall schedule to get a better look at her. “Uh, where do we know each other from?”

Wendy was taken aback. “You really don’t remember, do you?”

Andy tried to think. “Sorry, not ringing a bell, Wendy…what’s your last name again?”

“Wendy Bartlett!” she reemphasized a little louder. “I was just over there coming out of the tunnel, and then I look over this way and I’m all, ‘Oh my god, it’s him! Wonder if he remembers me?’”

Andrew was disoriented by the seeming stranger who apparently knew him. “So where and when did we meet?”

“Ha! We did more than just meet.” Wendy smiled slyly.

Andrew was taken aback. “Really? What did we do?”

“Oh my god!” Wendy laughed. “What didn’t we do?”

“But…how did we first meet?”

“At Shady Brady’s! Don’t you remember?”

A dizzying confusion came over Andrew. “Um, where is this Shady Brady’s?”

“Oh stop it, you know where perfectly well where it’s at. Shrouded in the fog of Seabright,” Wendy said with a dramatic sweep of her hand, “attracting unsavory sorts from the waterfront. And on one fateful night you and your friends showed up.”

“Oh, yes, of course, I remember,” Andrew said having no idea where it was, but assumed it was somewhere over the hill in the Santa Cruz area, a favorite spot of his friends for mischief making and evidence hiding.

“Yes! All you guys were doing shots while I was across the bar being hit on by some loser who worked at a vitamin company. And then your friends dared you to talk to me and ask me to dance.”

“Why can’t I remember that?” Andrew said partly to himself.

“Your friends said you couldn’t handle too much alcohol. They said that’s why your nickname is Two Drink Andy.”

Andrew was flabbergasted by the new information. “Oh. I see.”

Wendy leaned forward. “Also, I think they slipped something into your drink,” she said confidentially. “I think it was STP.”

The shock continued for Andrew. “Isn’t that a hallucinogen?”

“You know, it may have been the fuel additive. But don’t quote me.”

Andrew recalled the tomfoolery of the old gang and was slightly relieved by the explanation. “Yeah, that sounds like them,” Andrew said knowingly, but a question gnawed at him. “So, what happened that night?”

“Well, after the flaming brandy shots, you lost all your inhibitions and we sashayed out onto the dance floor for some dirty dancing,” Wendy said provocatively.

“Really? That doesn’t sound like me.”

“That’s because whatever you were on loosened you up, and you sure did have some moves!” Wendy said as she sexily demonstrated how they had danced.

Wendy’s boldly expressive manner intimidated Andrew. “Well that sounds like it was a fun night,” he managed to say. “Glad we were able to have a dance with each other.” He looked toward the opened brass framed, glass pane doors of the front entrance and tried to move toward them.

“That wasn’t the end of our night.”

Andrew stopped before he could get away. “Uh, what else did we do?”

“We went to my place for a game of Monopoly.”

“Oh. That sounds harmless enough.”

“Strip Monopoly.”

Andrew was startled. “H-how is that played?”

“Well, every time one of us passed Go, we had to take off a piece of clothing. And if one of us ended up in jail, we had to get strip searched.”

“That…doesn’t sound…the rules,” Andrew said as he tried to search his memory.

“It was your idea.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. And if one of us landed on the other’s property and couldn’t pay the rent, other arrangements had to be made,” Wendy said luridly. “That was my idea,” she added proudly.

“Well, at least we both contributed,” Andrew said lamely.

“Yes, we sure did. You even let me win,” Wendy said as she playfully grabbed Andrew’s side. He recoiled slightly from her ticklish touch. “My, that was some night,” she reminisced.

“Did we even finish the game?”

“Yeah, we were finished all right,” Wendy said with a laugh.

“Sounds like it was quite a night,” Andrew said, more puzzled than ever.

Wendy gripped Andrew’s forearm. “I felt things I’ve never felt before.” She looked into his eyes with an unsettling sincerity.

Andrew was alarmed by the whole experience. He felt overwhelmed, then slowly realized the possibilities. “So,” he began cautiously, “are you doing anything this weekend?”

“What?” Wendy suddenly pulled her hand away. “Are you hitting on me?”

“Oh, uh…”

“The nerve of you! Whatever gave you the idea that I wanted anything to do with you?!”

“But, those things we did.”

“I’m married now!” Wendy shouted as she held up her wedding ring. “I’m going home right now to make dinner for my family! I was only trolling places like Shady Brady’s because I was going through a dark period in my life! What do you take me for?!”

Andrew held up hands defensively. “I’m sorry, really, I didn’t know.”

“Get away from me, you sicko!” Wendy stormed out the front entrance. Andrew looked around the train station confusedly. He noticed a young, menacing security guard looking directly at him through the conflux of commuters. Others seated on the pew-like benches were completely indifferent to his plight.

The security guard began to advance toward Andrew while reaching for something on his belt. Andrew panicked and quickly left the station in a state of confusion. He went around the half circle driveway and scurried across Cahill Street to the parking lot. The sun was setting and twilight was nearing as he approached his vehicle. He thought more about that night. Did the guys really slip me a Mickey? he wondered. Aw, they were always doing stuff like that, he remembered somewhat nostalgically, said I needed to loosen up. He unlocked his car with his remote, got in and placed his briefcase on the passenger seat. He started the ignition and the multi speaker stereo surrounded him with easy listening music in the sound proof interior. He slowly drove out of the parking lot and proceeded with the surrounding traffic. He then merged onto a main highway and headed toward his suburban neighborhood.

Andrew tried to recall more of that night as he was driving. I remember going to a bar that night with the guys, he thought, and I remember hanging out there, but then everything becomes a blur until the next afternoon. He then recalled how when the shots were served, one of the shot glasses was pushed upon him as the guys grabbed all the other ones and drank them which forced him to drink his. He also seemed to remember that his shot glass may have been fizzing. Maybe I should’ve said something, he thought, but I didn’t want to kill the moment. He remembered awakening back in San Jose, and surmised that his friends must have picked him up from Wendy’s. He then had the unsettling thought that his friends were also at Wendy’s, perhaps as spectators, or even as participants!

As the entire, murky experience played out in Andrew’s mind, he began to reexamine his own life. Once again I can’t meet the right woman, he thought, something always seems to goes wrong. I thought I’d be married by now, he lamented, I never wanted to rush into wedlock, but am I being too cautious? He ruminated over his life, how he was moderately successful at a reputable employer, and how he thought that was all it took to find a woman.

I should be more like Rory, he thought. He remembered how Rory had lived boldly, without abandon, and was by far the craziest out of all his friends. And even though the motorcycle and fireworks mishap had resulted in Rory not being able to have an open casket funeral, Andrew knew he should learn from his example on how to live life.

Andrew passed his exit and drove further down the highway and onto the next exit. He navigated through a maze of suburban streets and arrived at his parent’s house. He knocked on the front door and his mother answered.

“Why hello, Andrew! Come on in,” his mother greeted. “We’re just sitting down to dinner.” Andrew ate with his parents while talking about his women problems.

“There is no reason why a man like you shouldn’t be married,” his father asserted. “You need to get out of your rut, change up your routine, visit new places.”

“Oh, I agree,” his mother said. “A change of scenery would do wonders for you. Have you ever tried a place called Shady Brady’s?”

bradys

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

Almaden

SANTA CLARA VALLEY – 1964

John stood outside the back door of his family farmhouse smoking a cigarette. He looked out across the maintained rows of green leaved plum and apricot trees under the midday sun. In the distance he saw a construction crew on a recently cleared lot paving new streets and laying foundations for future tract houses, and felt encroached upon. His mother came out of the house and stood next to him. They looked toward the setting sun over the western mountains.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” John said sullenly.

“We couldn’t get a hold of you,” his mother replied. “You’ve been away for close to three years now. And with all your moving around after your discharge we didn’t know where to find you.”

“I would’ve returned sooner if I knew this was going to happen.”

“I’m sorry you had to find out like this. We were hoping to keep the orchard, but your father isn’t as young as he used to be. His doctors are telling him to take it easy.”

“And Richard is okay with this?”

“Richard just got promoted to foreman at Owens Corning. He’s doing well. He could probably get you a job there.”

“I would’ve taken over the farm.”

“There’s just no more money to be made from fruit trees, at least not around here. All the new housing and shopping centers are driving up the price of land, and our property taxes are going up with it. A lot of farmers are selling out.”

John took a drag off his cigarette. “This is all wrong.”

“I don’t like it either, but we don’t have much of a choice.”

John continued to look at their rows of fruit trees, and he was pained thinking how they would soon be gone. “I thought this would always be here. Farmers made this valley.”

“Yes, we did. Farms and orchards used to stretch as far as the eye could see. People would come here and visit just to see them. I always thought it’d be like this too,” mother said forlornly.

“Our way of life is coming to an end.”

“The valley is a big place, I’m sure some of the orchards will remain. People will always have to eat. And the south bay is still unbuilt upon at least.”

John took another drag off his cigarette as he wandered away from the house still feeling crestfallen. “So what am I going to do now?”

“We didn’t think you’d be back anytime soon. We just figured you’d settle some place else. You always were restless.”

“Yeah, I did some adventuring around, but I’m back now. And the whole time I was away, I thought there would always be as home to come back to, and that a future here was possible. I was wrong. And what are you and Dad going to do? And Scott and Erin?”

“Well, we don’t have to move out just yet. We’ll get one more harvest. And with the money we’re getting we can buy a new home somewhere.”

“It won’t be like this. Just a little house with a little yard. Where are you all going to move to anyway?”

“Willow Glen might be nice. We have time to look around, and we don’t need a big house anymore. I’m looking forward to it to tell you the truth. Just a little garden to take care of.”

“I still can’t get used to this.”

“It’ll be all right. You know, there are a lot of new jobs here. Your friend Jim is working at Westinghouse. And remember FMC? They used to make cans for all the canneries? Now they’re making tanks for the army. With your experience you’d be a shoe in.”

“I didn’t come back here to work in a factory. I liked the openness here. I am not liking this.” John nodded toward the construction site.

“Are you going to leave us again?”

John took another drag and exhaled. “Haven’t made up my mind yet.”

“And when did you take up smoking?”

“In the service. Guys who smoke get a cigarette break.”

“The doctors say it was cigarettes that caused your father’s heart attack.”

John dropped the cigarette butt and crushed it into the dirt with his boot. “I don’t smoke that much.”

“Just don’t want the same thing to happen to you.”

“Nobody said that cigarettes were bad for you when I was growing up.”

“Everything is changing,” mother said. “I remember when they built that hangar at Moffett Field. It was so big you could see it from miles away. But the land is filling up. You can’t see across the valley the way you used to.”

John watched the activity at the construction site resentfully and thought of the formerly open land that was about to be closed off. “Can’t believe this is all going to be gone.”

“Sorry you feel that way, son. I didn’t think you’d take it this so hard.”

“Because I didn’t see this coming. Would you have done the same thing if I was here?”

“I don’t know, but you would’ve been part of the conversation. What would you have done? Or said?”

“I would’ve tried to hold onto the farm. This is ours.”

“But how would you have kept it going? You never ran things. You don’t know what that’s like. A lot of responsibility. All the harvesting, and bringing to market.”

“I remember. I took part in all of that. I packed and loaded a lot of crates over the years.”

“But it’s different when you’re in charge. There are bills, expenses, employees to pay, equipment to maintain, loans to pay off, taxes, rising costs.”

“I would’ve at least tried.”

“But for how long? Especially with every other farm and orchard selling to developers and builders. It just feels inevitable.”

“Like that big, new, ritzy department store over on Stevens Creek and Winchester? Never thought I’d see one of those here.”

“You mean The Emporium? It is a grand place. Your father bought me a dress there.”

“What’s wrong with Sears?”

“Sometimes you want nice things.”

“The valley was never about fancy stuff. It was about growing food for the city people who don’t know how to farm. They depend on us. Why do we need to be like San Francisco?”

“Well I don’t think we’ll ever get that big. But we do have more businesses here, and the workers at those businesses need places to live and shop.”

“But do you like it?”

John’s mother sighed. “I’m too old to fight it, son.”

“So it’s just me?”

“Like I said, you always were a restless child. As soon as you could walk you were off and running. You must have roamed over every square inch of this valley.”

“And someday there’ll be nowhere to run around or fish or hunt.”

John’s mother began to move closer to him. “You know, we always figured you were going to make your way out here. It’s just your wandering ways.” She stood next to him. “So what are you going to do next?”

John took a good look around at their property. “Think I’ll go over to Phil’s and see what he’s doing. Can I take the Dodge?”

“Keys are in the usual place.”

           *                       *                       *                      *                     *                    *                    *                    *

John cruised along the two lane blacktop. Phil sat on the passenger side of the front seat of the 1953 Dodge. Rows of fruiting trees, plums, cherries, apricots, and almonds, bordered either side of the street, interspersed with plowed fields, at the end of which were old Victorian era farmhouses. A line of wire strung telephone poles were on one side of the street.

“Nice to have you back,” Phil began. “You must have missed home.”

“I’m going to be missing it more.”

“Are you leaving again?”

“My parents are selling the farm.”

“Oh no. All of it?”

“All twenty five acres.”

“I didn’t know they were looking to sell.”

“I just found out myself.” They approached an intersection and came to a stop. A produce stand was at one corner. John looked down either direction, then turned left onto the cross street. More orchards and farms lined the street.

“Getting one last look before it’s all gone?” Phil asked.

“I suppose.”

“Why don’t we grab some beers and head down to Almaden? We’ll go for a hike, maybe even do some fishing. You’ll feel better.”

“A hike sounds good. Maybe it’ll clear my head.” They drove along further.

“I don’t know what to say,” Phil finally said.

“I’m still in shock myself,” John said. “This changes everything.” He pondered his future and wondered where his next path was.

“My parents are talking about selling.”

“Really.”

“It’s the taxes,” Phil said. “They don’t think they’ll be able to hold on much longer.”

“What are you all going to do?”

“My parents are thinking about buying land out past Gilroy or Hollister, maybe even out to the San Joaquin Valley.”

“They want to move away?”

“They’re growers, only life they know.”

“How about you?”

“Well, this is the only home I know. If we sell I’ll find a job. I’ll see how it goes. How about you?”

“Haven’t decided.” They came to another intersection. A flashing red light was strung over its center. John tuned right and parked in front of a liquor store, a wide nineteenth century era white wooden building. They walked in and got a six pack of Falstaff beer from a refrigerated case. They went to the front counter.

rvilleliquors

“My friend here just got back into town,” Phil said to the middle aged woman behind the counter.

“Oh, glad to be back?” the woman asked John.

“My home has been sold to developers,” John answered.

“Well that is too bad,” the woman said consolingly. “That’s been happening all over.”

“At least this old place is still here,” Phil added cheerfully.

“Don’t know how for how much longer,” the woman lamented. “The planning department wants to turn Almaden Road out there into an expressway!”

“That could bring in more business,” Phil pointed out.

“It’ll put us out of business because the expressway will go over all this,” the woman said with arms held out.

“Why do the have to put it right here? Can’t they pave around you?” Phil asked.

“No can do,” the woman said. “If they expand the road the other way it’ll fall into the river. Their mind is made up.”

“Can you fight it?” John asked.

“They’ll use eminent domain. The best we can hope for is a good price for the land. Everyone is fleeing downtown for the suburbs.”

“Suburbs that haven’t been built yet,” John said.

“They’re building them as fast they can,” the woman insisted. “And I’ll be glad to be gone when they do.”

“I can’t imagine the valley without places like this,” Phil said. “This is a landmark.”

“Back when this was a saloon, this was the only stop between San Jose and Almaden where you could come in and wet your whistle,” the woman said nostalgically. “Now San Jose is swallowing the whole place up. Can’t wait to get out.”

“That’s got to hurt,” Phil said sympathetically.

“Breaks my heart,” the woman said. “All the old families that grew in this valley are selling out and leaving. In ten years I’m not going to recognize my hometown.”

“Where are you going to go?” John asked.

She leaned forward onto the counter. “My husband and I have a beach cottage down in Capitola. That’s where we’ll be.”

“Sure won’t be the same here without Robertsville Liquors,” Phil said.

“No it won’t,” the woman shook her head. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

           *                    *                    *                   *                    *                    *                    *                    *

After John and Phil paid for the beer and a couple of sandwiches, they got into the Dodge and drove south on Almaden Road. They passed more orchards, some cornfields, an occasional market, and an old, Spanish designed elementary school.

“So they’re really going to widen this street,” Phil wondered. “Can’t imagine what that’s going to look like.”

“Guess we’re going to find out,” John replied.

“Who decides these things? Nobody asked us.”

“Somebody higher on the totem pole.”

“Yeah, much higher,” Phil said. “I thought we were safe from all that. People need to eat, and we supply that.”

“California is a big state with a lot of agriculture. They’ll find a place.”

“Just wished they asked us.”

They passed by a roadhouse tavern as they drove on further into the south valley. The fruit trees began to give way to ranches and open fields. The straight road started to wind around knolls and climbed into the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The farms and ranches became sparser and gave way to forest and trees, black oaks, bay laurels, madrones, and various firs. John lit up a cigarette as the road weaved higher into the mountains and gradually curved to the right. A creek appeared below the left side of the road.

They came to a turnout and John parked the Dodge. They got out of the car and crossed the road as John dropped his cigarette butt. They took in the new surroundings as they entered a trail head and headed into the woods. “When was the last time you were down here?” Phil asked.

“Before I left home. At least this looks the same.” John’s mood improved as they hiked further into the thicket of trees. His worries dispersed into the natural surroundings as he fell into a more primordial conscious. The trees blocked out some of the sun and he felt a little cooler. They got through the trees and came to a reservoir. The late afternoon sun reflected brightly off the surface of the water.

“Well this looks as good a place as any to drink some beers,” Phil said. He set the six pack on a large rock along with a small paper sack. He pulled a church key from his pocket, opened two of the bottles, and handed one to John. “Glad to have you back, my friend,” Phil said as he raised his bottle in a toast.

John clinked his bottle against Phil’s. “About time, eh?” They both took a drink.

“Some of us were wondering if you were ever going to come back. We figured you were on a great big adventure. You know how it is growing up in a valley, every direction you look there’s mountains. Kind of makes the world seem small.” Phil reached into the paper sack and pulled out a cellophane wrapped sandwich. “You want your sandwich?”

“Later.” John wandered around the edge of the water as he thought about what Phil said. He remembered thinking the same thing growing but had never expressed it. He wondered if all he ever wanted was to see what was on the other side of the mountains, and then considered if he wanted to remain on the other side now that home as he knew it was about to end. As he pondered he spotted a hawk in the far sky. He followed its hovering flight path.

“No way they build up here,” Phil broke the silence. “Too far away from everything.” He took the last bite of his sandwich. “Not everything changes.”

John watched the hawk as it circled in the distance. “Things won’t be the same, whether I stay or leave.”

“Well I’m going to stick it out for the time being. The valley is still a good place to live. Even if we sell the farm I can find a job here, and there’s a lot more jobs than there used to be.” Neither spoke. “But I do know some people that are leaving. They just can’t compete. And my sister wants to go to college up in Berkeley. If she does that I can’t imagine her coming back here to live the farm life, assuming we still have it by then.” Phil took another drink as he moved closer to the water next to John. “At least you don’t have to worry about being drafted now that you’ve done your time. Weren’t you stationed in Vietnam?”

“South Korea.”

“Vietnam is what I keep hearing on the news. Maybe they’ll come after me if that builds up.”

“We’re only there to support their government against the Communists. At least that’s what they told us.”

“You were in that part of the world. What do you think?”

“It’s been over a year since I was there. A lot has changed.”

They looked across the water together. “You mean since the president was shot?”

A memory of shared trauma was triggered inside of John. “Everything is on edge now. Hard to tell what’s going to happen.”

“Well, whatever the future holds, we sure had some good times,” Phil said affectionately.

John thought back to their growing years. He felt a yearning for that time, then sorrow over its passing. Then he began to see his varied past in its entirety. “I may not know what the future holds, I don’t even know if I’m going to stay here or not, and maybe everything I remember from home as I knew it is going to disappear. But I do know where I came from, where we came from,” he said proudly. “We grew up in an Eden, and no one can take that away from us.”

almadenres1

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

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Vanishing Act

“Are you sure you can do this?” Linda asked.

“It’s going to be fine,” Roy said. He opened up the camera case in his lap as he sat behind the steering wheel and pulled out an old Canon AE1. Its shoulder strap unfolded and hung downward.

Linda looked out the passenger side car window and across a dirt parking lot to where people were gathering at a southwestern Native American reservation. “I don’t know. They may not like having their ceremonies being photographed.”

“I’m sure that’s only private ceremonies,” Roy said unworriedly.

“You sure have taken a lot of pictures on this vacation. We’re supposed to be relaxing, not driving all over the place,” Linda complained mildly. “We really should get on the road. We’ve both got to be at work on Monday.”

“Just a few more, promise,” Roy reassured as he pulled out a roll of film from the case. He set the case aside on the console, opened the back of the camera, and placed the roll of film into its left side compartment. “Besides, how often do you get to see this part of America?” He pulled out the feeder strip of film and wound it onto the spool to the right. He closed the back and adjusted the dial on the camera’s top right.

“That’s one old looking camera,” Linda observed.

“It’s not that old,” Roy said. “It was made in the late seventies.”

“It’s older than me.”

“This was state of the art in its day. It’s one of the first SLR’s.”

“A what?”

Roy held up the camera with one hand and pointed to it with the other. “It means there are these little mirrors inside the camera that reflect the image from the lens to the view finder, so you’re seeing the exact image you’ll be photographing,” he explained spiritedly. “A big improvement over older cameras in which the two were not lined up.”

“Is that what they teach you in photography class?” Linda kidded. “Obsolete technology?”

“Technology is only obsolete if it’s replaced by a better technology,” Roy stated. “And digital, for all its convenience, is not a replacement for the purity of analog photography.”

“These days everybody is taking pictures with their phones, so even digital cameras are old.”

“But nothing has the look of film,” Roy said passionately. “It has its own special qualities.”

Linda turned toward Roy. “Yeah, but you can’t see your pictures as soon as you take them. You can’t delete a bad picture. You can’t download them and share them with your friends.”

“Why does everything have to be in such a hurry?” Roy argued. “What’s wrong with taking your time and making something beautiful? And I’ll tell you why else I’m using film. My instructor told us something that a movie director once said. Film captures the soul in a way that video can’t, because film is a single image frozen in time just as it is. Digital, on the other hand, is a lot of tiny dots that each represent a color. It’s a translation of an image, not the image itself.” He felt a bit of a rush from his explaining. “And could you imagine Ansel Adams taking a picture of Yosemite with a phone?”

“Maybe, but doesn’t film also require more light than digital?” Linda asked.

“Yes, but that’s the essence of it, light.” Roy pointed again to the camera. “It travels through this lens, hits the film and triggers a chemical reaction and preserves the image in an instant, one of mankind’s best inventions. And so what if it isn’t as easy to use as digital? Does everything have to cater to our laziness?”

“Well, people are busy, have things to do. Most people don’t have time to go through all this trouble for a slightly better picture.”

“But sometimes you got to put in that extra effort to make something of quality, something that’ll last. Something beautiful.” Roy looked at his camera admiringly.

“That photography class you took has really brought out your artistic side,” Linda said after a pause.

Roy sensed he was finally convincing Linda. “I sure have taken to it. It’s like I tapped into something inside me I didn’t know was there, and now that I’ve found it, I feel…complete.” Roy opened another case, pulled out a zoom lens, and attached it to the front of the camera.

“I know I’ve been teasing you about this, hon, but I’m really glad for you. Photography has awakened something within you, and that’s a good thing.”

“Thanks.” Roy basked in the glow of Linda’s approval as he looked over the camera one last time, then hung its strap around his neck. “Well, camera is all ready. Let’s go.”

They got out of the car and Linda put on a straw sun hat. “Still not wearing a hat? This desert sun is brutal.”

“No worries, I put some lotion on earlier.” Roy pulled out sunglasses from his shirt pocket and put them on. “And I got these.” They walked across the sandy surface of an unpaved parking area and passed other cars. The hot summer sun glared down on the unchanging desert terrain. Dusty, arid earth extended all around with brown and dark red rock formations, dry brush, and thorned, green cacti sticking up from the barren plane. They approached the gathering spot as other people were coming together to an open area in the center of the upcoming event.

“Well you’re sure in the right place if it’s light you need,” Linda pointed out as she looked toward the bright, blue sky.

“Now you know why Hollywood was started in a desert.”

Linda looked around the gathering. “I’m not seeing anybody else with a camera, at least not one like yours.”

“This is open to the public,” Roy reminded. “I don’t think they’ll mind a few pictures.” Roy also looked around. “I’m sure there are others. They might have them in their pockets, so small these days.”

“Maybe you ought to ask someone if it’s all right to take pictures.”

“Okay,” Roy agreed. He walked through the spread of tourists and other onlookers toward the open area where the tribe was gathered. He came up to a tribesman at the edge of the gathering. “Excuse me, is it all right to take pictures?” Roy asked.

The tribesman looked at Roy, then at his camera. “Is that a film camera?”

“Sure is.”

“Don’t ever see those anymore.”

“Yeah, I like the look of film. Nothing like it.”

“Can I see it?”

“Sure.” Roy lifted the strap from around his neck and handed the camera over.

The tribesman held the camera and looked it over. “Funny how big these look now.”

“They were very popular in their day, the latest in line.”

“I think my aunt had one of these, always taking pictures. My mother got on her for spending so much on a camera. She said it was a waste of money.” He looked through the view finder as he aimed the lens. “But this does seem like a fun hobby.”

“It is. Last fall I took a photography class at a community college, and it opened up a whole new world. I really wanted to learn all I could about photography and do it right. So I went to some pawnshops looking for an old camera, and I came across this. The zoom lens I found online, came in a set of four,” Roy said as he pointed to the accessory. “Progress may be inevitable, but you don’t want to forget the old ways.” He felt he had said something profound. “Yeah, I did pretty good in that class. The instructor even said I had a good eye,” he added boastfully.

“You don’t say,” the tribesman replied somewhat indifferently.

“Yep. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that photography is a real art form. And it’s not just about capturing the image, it’s about how you frame it, and the importance of the subject matter,” Roy said solemnly.

The tribesman lowered the camera and looked down at it. “So what brings you out here?”

“My girlfriend and I are on vacation from California. We have friends that moved out to Chandler a couple of years ago, and we were finally lucky enough to finally get some time off at the same time, so here we are. Then we heard about your ceremony, and I thought I would really like to capture it. If it’s okay, that is.”

The tribesman handed the camera back to Roy. “On a day like this and with a camera like that, I think you should be able to capture some memorable looking images.”

“Thanks. I thought it’d be okay, but my girlfriend thought I should ask. She says certain ceremonies aren’t supposed to be photographed.”

“Those ceremonies aren’t exactly open to the public,” the tribesman said as he began to move away from Roy.

“That’s what I figured. All these people wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Roy said as he pointed to the gathering crowd. “And I promise I’ll take some fine pictures that’ll do your ceremony justice,” he added.

“No doubt you will.” The tribesman left for the ceremony space and Roy headed back through the growing crowd toward Linda.

“He says it’s cool,” Roy said to Linda.

“Looks like they’re about to start,” Linda said. Everyone was gathering around a central area where the tribe, a few in colorful ceremonial dress, most in jeans and denim button up shirts or T-shirts, were congregated. Four upright streamers on poles were placed around a circle of open ground, and two drums with several drummers around each one were situated on either side. A couple of women was holding burning sage. A member of the tribe walked to the front of the circle and looked toward the crowd.

“Greetings!” he began. “Thank you all for coming here, and welcome to our annual summer powwow. This is the time of year when daytime is at its longest, and night at its shortest, so we come you here to celebrate the sun at its apex and its life giving powers. It is also the time to prepare for the coming darkness. One does not exist without the other in that great and endless cycle.”

Roy scanned around for photo subjects and became less aware of the speech.

“People often forget these connections in these modern times. Everyone always has somewhere more important to go, or they’re too busy looking at their iPhones or other electronic gadgets, so we gather here and places like here so we may reestablish that connection.”

Roy slowly moved through the attentive crowd until he got to the edge. He held up his camera and aimed through the viewfinder, but his sunglasses were obscuring his vision. He raised them up to the top of his head, and crouched a little until he found an angle he liked. He focused on the speaker, centered him in the shot, waited a couple of seconds until the right moment, then snapped the picture.

“I see new faces, and some old ones, but we’re all here for the same reason, even though we have come here by different paths. If there’s one thing that there’s too much of in society it’s compartmentalization. Everything is divided up to be more efficient, whether it’s the workplace, school, or the government.  But when people are compartmentalized it separates us from the whole, and isolates us.  And we come here so that we may feel whole again.”

Roy pondered his next shooting location as he meandered through the front of the increasingly attentive and unified crowd until he reached the other side.  He got down on one knee and pointed his camera at a slight upward angle toward the gathered tribe under the glaring sun.  He focused until he had as many of them as he could get into the viewfinder and took another picture.

“You may have heard of sun dances in which there is much praying and fasting, and hooks are driven in the skin and tug at the flesh. Some of you may be wondering if this one of those ceremonies. It isn’t, but that makes it no less reverent, though maybe not as intense.”

Roy looked around for a new shot location. He noticed the crowd and how absorbed in the speech they were. He aimed his camera and snapped a picture of the gathered people, then moved back toward the front, got low, and took another picture.

“Time was that many old traditions were lost, disease and treachery, our ancestors relocated, ceremonies and languages prohibited, and the scourge of alcohol. This is a reclaiming of old ways that represent our people and maintain our culture. It is our past, present, and future.”

Roy moved around the crowd toward the back where people were less packed. He tried to get a view of the center, then moved in a little closer. He shifted around the people in front of him, held up his camera, lined up a shot of the entire gathering, and took another picture.

“We ask that you respect our rules and to not interrupt the ceremony,” the speaker continued, “but if you’re feeling the drumbeat inside of you, and the spirit trying to release itself, feel free to move amongst yourselves. By being here,” he reminded, “you are a part of this ceremony as well. Now to begin.” The speaker stepped away and joined the line in a semi circle. All was silent. Then the drums on either end began to beat slowly and simultaneously. The beat moved to a steady pace. Others holding noisemakers moved them to the beat, and those in ceremonial dress stepped in time with the drums and into the center. One called out a chant into the air, and the others repeated.

Roy burrowed to the front of the crowd as people got out of his way. He dropped down onto one knee, pointed the zoom lens at the chanting tribe and snapped another picture. The chanting moved at a steady rhythm in tandem with the beating drums. The cadence and volume slowly increased as the ceremony began to take a life of its own. They moved in step with the rhythm as the spectators were rapt with attention. The energy of the ceremony increased and blossomed as Roy looked around for a new shooting angle. He went to the other corner, focused on set of drummers, and snapped a picture.

The dancing became more intricate as the people in ceremonial dress gravitated to the center as the chanting increased in volume and vocabulary. The focus went onto the blazing sun overhead as Roy scurried to the other side of the ceremony and took a picture of the other drummers. He then turned his attention back to the ceremony and went to the center of the spectators. He focused his lens on the leaders of the ceremony, centered them in the frame of his viewfinder, and clicked the picture taking button. The ritual continued under the hot sun as Roy went around taking more pictures of the tribe and a couple more of the spectators from various angles.

The ceremony approached its end as everyone lined up for one last chant and the drummers decreased their tempo. The vocals and the drums then rose to one last peak and ended. There was a sudden silence, followed by applause from the spectators. Roy stepped away a bit and snapped a picture of the entire congregation then everyone began to disperse. Linda came up to Roy. “So you get some good pictures?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Roy said positively. “I got some clear shots of the ceremony from a number of different angles. Even got some crowd shots.”

“It was a real good ceremony,” Linda said. “And we didn’t have to sit on a hard, wooden pew.”

Roy looked around at the surrounding desert. “Maybe a couple more shots of the landscape.” He focused onto the open desert and focused the lens to a wide angle to take in as much as the vista as possible then took the picture. He looked around and focused on some rock formations. He centered them in the surrounding desert in the frame and took one last picture. “That should do it.” They left with the exiting crowd for the parking area. “Can’t wait to get these back home,” Roy said as they got to their car and got inside.

“Are you going to develop them yourself?” Linda asked.

“Sure am.” Roy round up the roll of film with the dial on the top left of the camera. He then open the back of the camera and removed the film. He found a plastic film roll canister and popped off its lid. “The younger generation doesn’t even know what these things are,” he said as showed the canister to Linda.

“They probably think they’re for stashing pot.”

Roy dropped the roll of film into the canister and snapped on the lid. “Yeah, they are good for that.” He carefully placed the camera, lens, and canister into the camera box, and placed the box into the console.

“So what did you think of all that?” Linda asked.

“It was good,” Roy answered.

“What that man was saying at the beginning sounded profound.”

“You know, I was so focused on getting pictures that I barely noticed,” Roy admitted. “So you want to stop and get something to eat or just get on the road?”

“Let’s get going,” Linda said. “If we pick up some speed with the windows down we might get a nice breeze.”

“The road it is!” Roy started up the car and they drove off.

* * * * * * *

Roy entered into the red light of his darkroom, a converted laundry room with great anticipation. A length of twine was strung across the narrow room with a drying roll of film hanging from it. Some bottles of developing fluid were on the shelf above the washer and dryer. He carefully removed the film from the string expectantly as he contemplated all the pictures he took at the summer ceremony back in the Arizona desert.

Roy held the film up to the light. The first cell appeared to be a white splotch. He looked at the next cell, and it also appeared washed out. His anticipation turned to dread as he looked at the next cell, and the next. He was suddenly crestfallen as he looked at the entire roll of overexposed film. “Oh no!” he cried out.

“What happened?” Linda called out from the kitchen.

“I forgot to put the sun visor on the zoom lens!” Roy said dejectedly. “The entire roll of film was overexposed to sunlight. I ruined the film.”

“Oh no! That’s too bad.”

“And I got some really good pictures at that powwow!”

“Yes, Roy, you sure did,” Linda said supportively from the other side of the door.

“I thought I really captured it, but for all my effort I end up with nothing,” Roy lamented.

“I’m really sorry about that, honey, and after all that work,” Linda said. “Wish I could do something to help.”

“It’s all right.” Roy brooded in the small, red lit laundry room and stared at the exposed roll of film morosely.

“Oh, honey. If you’re done in there, can you take out the garbage?”

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

From The Archives – The Dealers

In observance of today’s unofficial holiday (4/20), I’m posting a short story that shares its theme.  I first wrote The Dealers back in 2000, gave it a complete rewrite 10 years later, then published it on a previous blog in 2012.  Though the subject of today’s holiday is a major theme in this story, what really makes it tick is the relationship between the two main characters.

 

THE DEALERS

Shane was walking along upper Haight Street in the middle of a sunny day then felt someone from behind throw his arm around him. He quickly turned around and saw it was Tommy. “What the fuck, I thought you were a cop!”

“Relax, Shane, I’ve been trying to find you.”

“And I was looking for you, where you been?”

“I came up with a new plan,” Tommy said.

“Better be good,” Shane replied, “we’re running out of funds quick.”

“Trust me, you’ll like it. Let’s go get a coffee.” Tommy pulled Shane into a sparse, nondescript coffee house. They got their coffees and sat at a corner table in the back. “Check this out,” Tommy said as he reached into the front pocket of his hoodie and pulled out a small paper sack.

Shane moved in closer. “What is it?” Tommy carefully opened the paper sack and and showed it to Shane. He peeked inside the sack and saw a clear plastic square container of green sprouts. “Alfalfa?”

“Yep.”

“We’re going to sell alfalfa?”

“No, watch this.” Tommy reached into the sack, popped open the container, and ripped off a chunk. He pulled out his hand and squashed the alfalfa in his fist. He opened his hand in front of Shane and revealed a compressed green substance. “What does it look like now?”

Shane picked the green nugget from Tommy’s hand, looked at it closely, then smelled it. “It looks like bud, but it doesn’t have the aroma, won’t fool an expert.”

“We’re not going to sell to experts,” Tommy said, “we’re going to sell to tourists, and you know how easy they are to spot.”

“And then they’ll come after us.”

“C’mon, it’ll work. You were the one saying we got to get some funds quick so we can get out of here.”

“Yeah,” Shane replied, “but I want to get out in one piece. How did you come up with this idea anyways?”

“One of my cousins pulled the same scam. All we have to do is sell a few bags of this for 30 each and we’ll have some much needed cash.”

“I don’t know,” Shane said, “whole idea seems whack.”

“Well you got any better ideas?”

“I’m an honest scammer, and this is the kind of thing that can get us in trouble, just like that shit you pulled on Red, we’re in trouble if he finds us.”

“Fuck him,” Tommy said, “he’s not a problem. The only reason we need to leave is because this city in unbelievably expensive, how does anybody live here?”

“They got the big bucks,” Shane said.

“We should have been born rich.”

“Life ain’t fair, now let’s think this over before we do something stupid.”

“I’m telling you, Shane, this plan is our ticket,” Tommy said, “it’s got to be easier somewhere else. How much longer do we have to sleep in Kyle’s van, and after all we’ve moved for him, we’ve got to shake things up.”

“A van ain’t much, but it’s better than the park,” Shane said.

“But I’m sick of it,” Tommy said. “You know, I thought by now that we’d find some cool person who would let us crash at their place for a while, but nobody wants to help you out here, they won’t even let you sleep in their attic or basement. Hell, I’d be happy in a tent in someone’s backyard.”

“Enough dreaming, everything is all rented out at top dollar,” Shane assessed, “I’d say we’re stuck.”

“I was at least hoping to find an abandoned building we could claim,” Tommy said, “you could sure find those back home.”

“Yeah, but where was the excitement?” Shane pointed out. “Can’t say it’s been boring out here, a lot more fun than the Central Valley.” A familiar, imposing, and burly figure walked into the coffee house and went to the front counter. “Uh oh, look who’s here.”

“Aw shit, it’s Red! Let’s get outta here!”

“No, he’ll see us,” Shane cautioned, “let’s just wait.”

Red ordered a coffee to go and paid for it. As he waited he looked around the coffee house. Shane and Tommy stayed in the far back corner and hid behind other customers as they watched him. Red got his coffee, looked around one last time, and left.

“What do you say now?” Tommy said to Shane.

Shane thought for a moment. “So where are we going to put these together?”

“I haven’t told Kyle so we shouldn’t do it in the van,” Tommy said. “I was thinking of Buena Vista Park, at the top of the hill. It’s pretty hidden up there, and we only need to make a few.”

“Okay, I’m in.” They finished their coffees and Tommy put the paper sack back into the front pocket of his hoodie as they left. They looked down both directions for Red, then they walked quickly east down Waller Street toward Buena Vista Park.

“You know,” Tommy said, “I was thinking that we should go into business for ourselves.”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing now?”

“I mean for real,” Tommy said, “we know Kyle’s guy, we can talk to him.”

“We know where he lives,” Shane replied, “but he barely knows us, and he’d probably tell Kyle that we’re trying to cut him out.”

“It’s just business, what does he care who he makes a sale to, and he’s the source.”

“How do you know?”

“He lives up north, in the woods, he has to be a grower,” Tommy said, “and I had a talk with him. He said he always needs help during harvest time.”

“Is he harvesting right now?” Shane asked.

“He says in about a month.”

“So we’re going to show up early?”

“He’s cool,” Tommy said. They walked quickly past the close together three story, yardless Victorians and storefronts until they came to end of Waller Street at the green hill. They walked up the white concrete steps to a pathway that went up the the grassy park. “If nothing else maybe we can sneak in one night and lift some of his stash. I bet he’s got plenty, he wouldn’t miss a plant or two.”

“He’s also got guard dogs, probably some trip wires, and you know he’s armed,” Shane said. “Most people in the country have guns, especially if they have a crop to protect.”

“Well, we got to do something,” Tommy said. “Why can’t it just be legal?”

“If it was everyone would grow their own, and then what we do?” As they came to the top of the hill they entered a grove of trees that filtered the sunlight. They found a small clearing, looked around to make sure there was no one around, and then Tommy set the paper sack on an overturned log. Shane kept a lookout while Tommy pulled out the alfalfa container and some cellophane bags onto the log. He quickly pulled off small clumps of alfalfa, rolled them in his hands, shaped them with his fingers, dropped the green chunks into the bags until they filled the bottom of the cellophane. Tommy’s hands moved rapidly while Shane looked around the clearing and down the hill. Shane saw a couple of women slowly coming up the path while chatting. One of them was walking a dog and two children were nearby running around on the grass.

Tommy noticed Shane looking down the hill. “Is someone coming?”

“Just a couple of moms,” Shane said as he looked down toward them. They stopped and one of the women let her dog off the leash and the dog ran around. “They just stopped.”

“Almost done,” Tommy said as he filled the fourth bag and then rolled the excess plastic around the counterfeit cannabis. He put the four rolled up sacks in his pocket and then picked up the paper sack and the container of remaining alfalfa and tossed them behind a bush. “We’re ready.”

“Let me look at them,” Shane said. Tommy pulled out rolled cellophane bags and showed them. Shane picked up one and looked it over. “A little dark, but looks enough like the real thing.” He gave it back to Tommy.

“Sure does,” Tommy said as he put them in his pocket. “All we have to do is find a few naive chumps and fleece them, and what could they do anyways, go to the cops?” They chuckled to themselves then walked out of the clearing and onto the path that curved down the hill. The two women were still chatting and watching the two playing children while the dog ran around them. As Shane and Tommy walked near the women they stopped chatting for a moment, looked cautiously over at them, and then went back to talking after they had passed.

As Shane and Tommy descended the hill wisps of clouds raced over them and the cool wind whipped around them. They went down the concrete steps to Waller Street, then up a block, crossed Haight Street and headed west. Pedestrians moved in both directions and decreased and replenished as people walked in and out of the colorful storefronts. Panhandlers and street musicians were stationed along either edge of the sidewalk as Shane and Tommy looked around to get a feel for the scene. A police car cruised along slowly in the single line of vehicles and passed by Shane and Tommy. They tried to appear calm as they kept their eyes on the car. It moved along farther down the street then drove out of sight and they both let out a breath of relief.

Once they felt sufficiently immersed into the human traffic they looked around for a sale opportunity. They spotted a couple that was walking toward them and the man appeared to be looking around cautiously. Shane and Tommy kept their focus on the man and waited for the approaching couple. “Buds,” Shane whispered quietly as they passed each other. The couple kept walking and when Shane glanced around he noticed that the couple did not look back. Shane and Tommy kept moving forward and they spotted a pack of college students who were wearing sweaters from a southern California university and swaggering toward them. “Buds,” Shane said quietly as they passed each other.

A couple of the students looked back at them. “Already got it covered,” one of them replied. Shane and Tommy then came across a group of shoppers. Shane quietly solicited them and they kept walking forward.

“That happens every time I come here,” one of them said irritably to the other. Shane and Tommy continued to look for potential buyers and solicited a couple more people with no success. They then were approaching a man who appeared to be in his late 20’s, of conservative appearance, and was looking around the neighborhood searchingly.

“Buds,” Shane whispered as they passed each other. The man looked over at Shane and Tommy, turned around, came up along side them and they walked together.

“How much?” the man asked.

“Cheap,” Tommy said, “only 30 an eighth.”

“Is it Mex?” the man asked.

“No, just low grade green,” Shane said, “but it’s stony.”

“I’ll give you 50 for two,” the man said.

“Okay,” Shane said. They kept walking until they found a narrow space between two buildings, looked around quickly for police, and ducked inside. Tommy pulled two cellophane bags from his pocket while the man pulled out his cash and counted out some bills. Tommy handed the bags to the man with one hand while he received the bills with the other. Tommy and Shane quickly counted the money, two twenties and a ten, while the man stuffed the bags into his pocket.

“Thanks,” the man said. He exited quickly and headed east on the sidewalk. Tommy shoved the bills into his pocket and they warily left the enclosed walkway. They glanced to their left, saw the man disappearing into the crowd, turned the other way and headed west. They felt a rush from making their crooked sale and their pace quickened as their excitement grew. They darted across the street at an angle, hooked a left at Cole Street and ran for two to three blocks before they slowed down while still feeling exuberant. “So what do you think?” Tommy asked between breaths.

“Easier than I thought,” Shane said as he tried to catch his breath, “we just have to make sure we don’t run into that guy again.”

“For sure,” Tommy said. “Let’s get something to eat.” They looked around and found a corner market. The florescent lit store had three narrow aisles that went to the refrigerator glass doors that made the back wall. The cashier was on the right next to the entrance and next to the front counter was a small produce section up against the wall. Shane and Tommy went to the produce area and looked around amongst the premade sandwiches in saran wrap. “These are only a buck fifty,” Shane said as he looked at some burritos.

“Those are big,” Tommy said as he reached for them.

“I’ll get us a couple of sodas,” Shane said as he tapped Tommy on the arm and then headed to the back of the store.

“Excuse me, sir, do you have a microwave?” Tommy asked the cashier.

“Right next to you,” the middle aged cashier said.

Tommy noticed a gray steel box next the clutter around the front counter. “There it is.” He lifted the side handle and the door popped open. He tore open the plastic wrapping around the two burritos, placed them inside, and closed the door. He pretended to press some of the flat buttons on the microwave. “This microwave doesn’t seem to be working.”

The cashier came out from behind the counter and went to the microwave. “Let’s see, so you have two burritos in here?”

“Yes,” Tommy answered.

The cashier pressed one of the buttons then pressed the start button forcefully until the microwave turned on and began humming. “It’s an old machine so you have to press it extra hard.”

“Thanks,” Tommy said and the cashier went back behind the counter. Shane returned with a couple of sodas and they waited by the microwave until it dinged. They pulled out the hot burritos and went to the front counter.

The cashier rang them up. “That’ll be five-sixty-eight.” Tommy pulled a ten dollar bill from his pocket and gave it to the cashier. The cashier hit a button on the register and the cash tray rolled out. Shane and Tommy looked at the stacks of bills as the cashier placed the ten on top of the other tens. He pulled out four ones and some coins and handed them to Tommy before he shut the register. He then put their burritos and sodas into a paper sack.

“Thanks,” Tommy said as he grabbed the sack. They left the store and moved quickly out of sight. “So what’d you get?” he asked Shane.

“Two Budweiser tall boys.”

“Where?” Shane lifted his sweater and revealed a can in both of the front pockets. “Nice!” Giddy with excitement they broke into a sprint. They ran across Stanyan Street to the corner of Golden Gate Park, found a pathway into the park and kept running along the curving paths through trees and over grassy fields until they were in the middle of the park then slowed to a walk when they felt adequately far enough. “What a score!” Tommy said excitedly.

“I hope I didn’t shake these around too much,” Shane said as steadied the cans underneath his sweater.

“Let’s crack them open.”

“Not here in front of everybody,” Shane reminded.

“You’re right, I’m starved anyhow.” Tommy took out the two burritos from the paper sack he had clutched in his hand and he gave one of them to Shane. They peeled back the plastic wrappers and ate the hot burritos while trying not to burn the inside of their mouths. They opened their sodas and drank them as they strolled through the park eating and drinking while passing along by dog walkers, Frisbee throwers, hackysackers, picnickers, musicians, homeless, and clusters of other transient youths scattered around the park. They came to a more secluded spot, went over a grassy knoll and found a hidden place past a ticket of trees. There was a little bit of debris and evidence of a former encampment, but was unoccupied. They sat on a log at the edge of the clearing and continued eating.

“You know,” Tommy began, “we should head over to Berkeley, maybe we can pull the same scam.”

“Are you joking?” Shane responded. “They’re connoisseurs over there, no way we can fool them.”

“We should at least try to sell the other two. I think there’s a rally in downtown today, there’ll be a lot of people there.”

“Bad idea. If there is a rally it’s going to be teeming with cops, let’s just try another neighborhood. Before I forget, can you give me one of the twenties?”

“Sure.” Tommy reached into his pocket with his free hand, pulled out a crumple of bills and held it up to Shane. Shane picked out a twenty dollar bill from the pile, rolled it up, and stuffed it into sock. “Now can we open up those beers?”

“Of course.” Shane and pulled the two 16 ounce cans of Budweiser and gave one to Tommy. They opened up the cans and small sprays of foam hissed out. “Guess I shook them a little.”

“Success,” Tommy said as he held up his can. Shane then tapped his beer against Tommy’s and they drank up. “Ah, that’s good.”

“Been a few days since I had one of these,” Shane said. “Hey, you got any real bud?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Tommy searched his pockets then pulled out a pipe with a screw on lid and a lighter. “Right here.” He lit the pipe through a small hole on top of the cap, inhaled, then handed the pipe and lighter to Shane.

“Thanks,” Shane said. “You know what else I was thinking, we should go farther up north, past Humboldt and into Oregon, maybe all the way up to Seattle.” Shane took a hit from the pipe and held in the smoke for as long as he could before he exhaled.

“I don’t know about Seattle,” Tommy said, “too much rain.”

Shane handed the pipe and lighter to Tommy. “Yeah, but it has to be easier to get by. This place may have the nice weather but you got to pay for it through the nose. I hear things are cheaper up north, we might even be able to get jobs.”

“Doing what? The only job I ever had was at a Burger King, and they fired me after two weeks.” Tommy tried to inhale but only got a partial hit. “I think this is dust.” He unscrewed the lid to the bowl.

“I used to work at a car wash, I could get a job doing that, hook you up with a job, it’s easy, even you could do it.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“But seriously, you know cost of living cheaper anywhere but here,” Shane said, “between the two of us we could scrape up enough money to get a roof over our head.”

“It would be nice to live indoors again.” Tommy rolled up some green cannabis flakes into a little ball and stuffed it into the bowl. “Little bit more,” he said as he took another hit then handed the pipe and lighter to Shane. “We sure swindled that poor bastard, didn’t we?”

“Wonder if he’s found out yet,” Shane said.

“He’s going to be pissed when he does,” Tommy said laughing.

“Maybe he’ll smoke it and not even notice!” Shane joined in the laughter.

“Yeah, what an idiot,” Tommy said and they laughed louder. Their laughter continued helped along by the alcohol and the cannabis until it subsided and left them happy. They finished the bowl and drank their beers while becoming lightheaded, relaxed, and unaware of the busy, crowded city surrounding the park.

“I’ve got an idea,” Tommy began, “let’s try the beach, that’s where the surfers are, and you know most of them are stoners, maybe all of them.”

“I don’t know, beaches are wide open, we’d be exposed. Let’s stick to the park, lots of people out today, and we only have a couple more bags to sell anyway.”

“All right.” They downed the rest of their beers, stashed the empty cans, soda bottles and burrito wrappers into the paper sack, tossed it underneath a tree, and stumbled their way from the small grove and onto a secluded foot path.

After a few steps they were suddenly grabbed from behind and pushed to the ground. Startled, they tried to get away but were quickly piled on by two bigger guys and panic shot through them. “Hey, what the fuck’s going on here!” they yelled out as they struggled.

“Let’s have it, all of it!” one of the guys barked.

“What? We ain’t got nothing, we’re broke!” Tommy yelled out.

“Bullshit!” a third voice sounded behind the other two guys and moved in closer, “we heard you talking about some bags to sell, now let’s have them and the cash.”

“We only got two left!” Shane yelled.

“Don’t jerk us around!” one of the tackling guys said as they leaned heavier onto Shane and Billy. “Now give them up!”

“Okay, just get the fuck off of me so I can get them,” Tommy said. The two guys released their hold cautiously as Shane and Tommy turned around and saw the three severe bigger guys loom over them threateningly. Tommy reached into his pocket and pulled out the two cellophane bags and gave them to one of the guys who pocketed them.

“And the cash,” one of the guys said.

“C’mon, man, you got our weed.”

One of the guys violently grabbed Tommy by the collar. “Let’s go!”

“Okay, okay,” Tommy relented as pulled out his wad of bills and handed them over.

One of the guys looked over the bills. “That’s it?” He looked at Shane. “You, hand it over.”

“I ain’t got shit!” Shane said angrily.

The guy got into Shane’s face. “Bullshit, now let’s have it!”

Shane pulled his empty pockets outward. “See? Broke!” He brusquely started to pat down Shane. “Hey! What are you, queer?” The guy picked up Shane by his shirt and yanked him up. Shane grabbed his arm and tried to break free. “Get your fucking hands off of me!”

“Let’s get out of here,” the third guy said. The guy who was holding Shane dropped him back to the ground and the three of them ran down the path and disappeared around a bend.

Shane and Tommy were left sitting on the ground. They stared at each other in shock. Tommy’s heart was racing and Shane felt a rush of adrenaline. They sat for a while more until they calmed down, then silently got up and walked away. They meandered through the park without speaking and made their way toward the beach. Tommy felt something wet on his forehead. He touched it, and saw a smear of blood on his fingertips.

“Look what those fuckers did to me,” Tommy said to Shane and showed him the scrape at the top of his forehead, “must have happened when they knocked me down.” They found an old public restroom and went inside. At one of the sinks and Tommy splashed water on his forehead and wiped off the blood while Shane also tried to clean himself up. They looked into the dirty mirror and their gaunt, unshaven faces stared back at them.

When they were done they left the restroom and continued through the park until they crossed the highway and were at Ocean Beach. They sat down on the sand, looked out across the ocean while the sun stood above the horizon and silently watched the crashing waves.

“I suppose if I call my mom and beg her enough, she’ll buy a bus ticket for me back home,” Tommy said, “I’ll just tell her I was robbed, I’ll leave out the other details.” He got up to leave. “The road sure is a hard place,” he said. “If you want to come back, you can stay with me for a while.”

“You know, Tommy, I think I have an idea,” Shane said. “Now I don’t blame you for wanting to go back home, but how about one more shot in a different locale?”

“I don’t know, where would we go?”

“I was thinking,” Shane began, “we can hitch a ride down the coast to Santa Cruz.” Tommy looked at Shane quizzically and appeared unconvinced. “Seriously, it has everything we need, tourists, surfers, college students, drunks, hicks, and you know that between the Occupiers and the gangs the cops have their hands full so they probably wouldn’t bother with a couple guys like us. What do you say?” Shane looked up at Tommy expectantly. “That one horse town won’t know what hit them.”

“But we’re busted, those motherfuckers took everything.”

“Not everything.” Shane reached into his sock and pulls out the rolled up twenty-dollar bill. Tommy looked at the bill, then looked out onto the horizon over the Pacific Ocean as he wondered what to do. He dropped down on the beach next to Shane. “So how do we get there?”

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

Guest Host

“Yes, that’s great news!” Neil said happily. “Glad that you’re back on the outside. I’ll see you tonight, bye.” He hung up his cell phone and strolled into the break room at his workplace. Trevor was sitting at a table reading a magazine. “Good news, Trevor!” Neil announced. “Guess who’s in town?”

“Hope it’s Barry,” Trevor answered without looking up. “Son of a bitch owes me money.”

Neil laughed dismissively. “Please. I’d never get this excited over him.”

“So who would you get excited for?”

“Monte Maddox.”

Trevor looked up with surprise. “Serious? I thought Monte hated it up here.”

“No, he doesn’t hate it here.” Neil put his hands on his hips. “What gave you that idea?”

“Well,” Trevor began, “I seem to remember him saying that Santa Cruz was the land of ‘hippie thugs’ and ‘fascist pinkos,’ or vice versa.”

“He was kidding,” Neil laughed.

“And he also said he’d never return to Santa Cruz unless there was a riot so he could take part in the looting and pillaging.”

“I think you’re exaggerating.”

“No, I’m positive those were his exact words,” Trevor recalled. “He stenciled them onto the wall of the men’s room at Brady’s.”

“Well, he’s not exactly here by choice anyhow,” Neil admitted as he sat down at the other side of the table.

“Trying to get away from one his exes?” Trevor asked.

“No, but it’s related to that. What happened was that Monte decided to clear his name, so he went and turned himself in down in Orange County to take care of some outstanding warrants, but turns out he still had a warrant for Santa Cruz.”

“What for?”

“Domestic disturbance, but it’s all taken care of,” Neil reassured.

“Who knew,” Trevor mocked. “Always such a law abiding individual.”

“I thought you liked Monte.”

“You thought wrong.”

Neil was taken aback. “But he’s colorful, and interesting, and he can converse on just about any subject,” he implored. “And you guys used to hang out all the time.”

“We all did, that’s what coworkers do. Go out on Friday night, drink some beers, and complain about the boss, but Monte drank and complained more than anybody. It got on everybody’s nerves, mine included.” Trevor went back to his magazine.

“Okay, so maybe Monte rubs a few people the wrong way, but he’s on the wagon now, and this time for good. He’s really trying, and he needs a place to crash for the night before he heads home tomorrow, so how can I say no?”

“So he finally became friends with Bill W.,” Trevor mused. “About time, but you know what? I’ll bet he’s still an opinionated, arrogant prick.”

“So I take it you won’t be hanging out with us tonight?”

“I’d rather stay home and watch a game, and I hate sports.”

Neil was dismayed. “C’mon, not everybody feels that way about Monte.”

“Yes we do.”

“I’ll find some people to hang out with us.”

“Doubt it.”

Sandy walked into the break room and poured herself a coffee. “Hey, Sandy,” Trevor said to her, “guess who’s in town?”

“Who?”

“Monte.”

Sandy froze, her back to them.

“Yeah, we’re hanging out tonight,” Neil said. “Wanna join?”

Sandy remained still as tension built up. Anger radiated from her.

“So you…”

“No!!!” Sandy shouted as she slammed down her coffee cup. She then let out a torrent of profanities as she quickly fled the break room. Her cup remained on the counter in a puddle of spilled coffee.

“See?” Trevor said.

“Okay, but what they had was a love-hate thing,” Neil pointed out. “You remember what that was like, always messing and teasing with each other, but it was all harmless fun.”

“We’re lucky there wasn’t a harassment lawsuit,” Trevor reminded Neil. “This is a work place, not a meat market.”

“So maybe there was a little bit of sexual tension between them, but none of us took it serious, I don’t even think they did. And if Sandy doesn’t want to hang out, that’s fine. Monte and I are going to have a great time together!”

“Good luck with that,” Trevor said. “You know you won’t be able to handle him unless you’re drunk. That was the only way that most of us could deal with him.”

“I think you’re being way too hard on Monte,” Neil said defensively. “Deep down he’s good people. He just had a few too many hard knocks in life, that all.”

“You know what, I’ll bet you a pitcher and a game of pool that you end up hating him and kicking him out of your apartment.”

“I can’t let Monte sleep outside in the cold down by the river levee.”

“Then I’ll make the same bet that you end up being sorely disappointed.”

“Deal.”

* * * * * * *

Neil finished straightening up his apartment then heard a knock at the front door. He answered in anticipation. He pulled the door open he saw Monte in silhouette standing against the light of a nearby lamp post. Mist from the ocean shrouded his appearance. He sported a dark overcoat over his thin and taller than average frame, his hair was short, graying, and crowned by a beret. The piercing eyes of his severe expression cut through the darkness and focused on Neil. “Monte!” Neil called out. “How you doing?”

“Waiting for you to invite me in before I catch my death.”

“Of course, where are my manners.” Neil stepped aside and gestured in Monte invitingly.

“Just fuckin’ with ya, Neil,” Monte said, “good to see you.” He entered the apartment and looked around. “Nice place. I can still smell the Formula 409. You cleaned this place up just for me. Thanks.”

“See you haven’t changed a bit,” Neil kidded as he closed and locked the door.

“What are you talking about? I’m six months sober.”

“I just meant your funny way of greeting people.”

“Yes, my reputation precedes me. But I’ve turned over a new leaf, left my worse habits behind, and now I’m trying to improve myself.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“So are you going to show me around this dump or what?”

“Well, here’s the kitchen as you can see,” Neil said as he pointed to his modest kitchen with its sink, refrigerator, small gas range with kettle and cast iron skillet, plain white cupboards, Formica counter with various small appliances, card table in the corner with some bills and newspapers, and vinyl floor with a rug in the middle. “Not much, but you know how rents are up here.”

Monte looked over the kitchen. “The Ritz Carlton compared to where I was just at.”

“Well let me show the rest of my place,” Neil said as walked through the open doorway into the living room area and Monte followed. A recliner and a couch were set around a coffee table in the middle, a television was in one corner with a stereo next to it and then a lamp, a bookcase was up against one wall and various pictures and posters were on the other walls. “This is where I hang out, read, watch TV, listen to music.” Neil entered a short hallway. “And down this way is my bedroom, bathroom is over here.” Neil heard the sound of someone sitting in his recliner. He turned around and saw Monte relaxing in his chair. His overcoat was off and draped over the back. “So, yeah, make yourself at home.”

“Way ahead of you, buddy.” Monte pulled the handle on the recliner and the footrest popped up. He leaned back and put his boots up on the footrest.

“So are you hungry? Something to drink?”

“You got any ginger ale?”

“I think I have a lemon lime soda.”

“That’ll do.”

Neil went into the kitchen. “I have noticed one change about you,” he said as opened the refrigerator, “that brewery smell no longer accompanies you.” He looked around, and found the lemon lime soda next to half a six-pack of Heineken. He wanted a beer, but then thought he shouldn’t drink in front of Monte. He grabbed another soda for himself.

“I was smelling more like a distillery before I finally bottomed out,” Monte said from the living room.

“You want a glass?”

“I ain’t fancy.”

“What was I thinking.” Neil returned to the living room and handed a cold can to Monte. He nodded in thanks as he settled in and opened it. Neil sat on the couch and opened his own can of soda. “So quitting the alcohol, that must have been hectic.”

“Remember the scene in The Lost Weekend when Ray Milland hallucinates a bat crawling out from his wall?”

“Yeah?”

“Child’s play,” Monte said and took a drink of his soda. “Now I wake up in the morning without that terrible buzz in my head. Like an old friend has left me,” he added wistfully.

“But a change for the better, right?”

“The real change is that it’s no longer possible for me to escape the daily horrors of life. O whatever shall I do!” Monte said theatrically.

Neil laughed at the elaborate gesture and felt happy to be sharing his place. “What you need is a hobby,” Neil suggested, “something to kill the time.”

Monte pulled a cigarette pack out of his front pocket. “What the hell am I going to do, join a sewing circle?”

“Why not? That’s where the women are.”

“Hanging around a bunch of chattering broads?” Monte pondered as he slid out a cigarette and put the pack back into his pocket. “That’ll drive me to drink again for sure.”

“What gives? You used to jump at those opportunities.”

Monte pulled out a Bic lighter from another pocket and lit his cigarette. “I got back together with Brenda.”

“You did? Way to go.” Neil watched the curling smoke from the tip of the cigarette. “Say, I was wondering if…”

“Of course, how rude of me.” Monte held the pack toward Neil. “Care for a Camel unfiltered?”

“No, I don’t smoke. I was just wondering if you’d open the window.”

“Really? I seem to remember seeing you smoking.” Monte opened the window next to his chair and held the cigarette by the screen.

“I just smoked every now and then.” Neil looked around, found an ashtray under the coffee table, and handed it to Monte. “Once I had a few drinks in me I’d start bumming cigarettes, I think all the smoke around me triggered a nicotine craving in me.”

“You bummed a few from me I remember.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Neil joked. “So I guess you haven’t quit everything.”

Monte looked over at Neil gravely and held up his cigarette. “You can have my rich tobacco goodness when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”

“Hey, I’m not trying to get you to quit. If it makes you happy that’s all that matters.”

“It is one of the few joys in my life.”

“No big deal as far as I’m concerned.” Neil leaned back and relaxed on his couch. “You’re aces with me, Monte.”

“Much appreciated, Neil. And of all the people I’ve cursed, you’re not one of them.”

Neil felt satisfied with their friendly exchange and was happy in Monte’s company, then he noticed the harsh smell of his burning cigarette.

“The way I look at it, I’ll have plenty of time to be a nonsmoker when I’m dead.” Monte took another drag and exhaled out the window, but a wisp smoke curled back into the room.

“Did you ever think about how ironic it was to be working at a vitamin company while living a less than healthy lifestyle?” Neil wondered.

“That’s why they kept us back in the warehouse, away from everybody.”

“I’m not in the warehouse anymore,” Neil said, “I made into the office.”

Monte got more settled in the recliner. “I’d say I’m happy for you except that they fired me and I’m still pissed at them.”

“I thought you were laid off.”

“Either way they didn’t want me, so the whole pill factory can take a hike, present company excluded,” Monte said as raised his soda can to Neil. “So did those cheap bastards dole out a raise for you at least?”

“Not as much as I’d like, but enough to keep me from looking for a new job.”

“That’s how they get ya,” Monte said knowingly. “And how’s the rest of the jolly crew?”

“The ones still with the company are doing okay.”

“I see they’re all beating a path to see me. Touching.”

“Ah, you know, everybody is busy, but they all miss you,” Neil reassured.

“Even the love of my life?”

“Sandy sends her best.”

“Bullshit, but thanks for trying to spare my feelings.” Monte appeared proudly angry to Neil. “I felt more wanted at the county lockup, and they let me go early.”

Their attention went to the television as they relaxed into the night. Neil wondered to himself why he was the only one from work who wanted to see Monte. And he then began to wonder about his workplace and how it changed over the years into a less fun and more sober place than it used to be. On the television was The Tonight Show.

“I miss Johnny Carson,” Monte said poignantly, “another great smoker.”

“Didn’t he die of emphysema?”

“Too many ex wives, all that alimony killed him. It just isn’t the same with Leno, he was a lot funnier back when he was just a guest host.” ¹

“Didn’t you hear?” Neil said. “Leno is leaving the helm. He’s retiring next year.”

“Who’s replacing him?” Monte asked.

“Jimmy Fallon.”

Monte took another drag off his cigarette. “Never heard of him.”

Neil laughed, even though he couldn’t tell if Monte was serious or joking. “Too bad Arsenio isn’t on any more,” he added.

“That is too bad,” Monte agreed. “I like the sketch he did about the blind black man who ends being in charge of the Klan. Funny stuff.”

“Oh, you’re thinking of Dave Chappelle. That dude is hilarious.”

Monte looked over at Neil with a narrowed expression. “Neil, they all look alike to me.”

* * * * * * *

They watched more of The Tonight Show, then Neil picked up the remote control during a commercial and ran through the channels. “Stop me if you see anything you like.”

“Got any porn channels?”

“That’s what the Internet is for.”

“My step Dad used to get all the porn channels,” Monte said. “A good man he was,” Monte continued. “Put up with my battle-ax mother and her unruly brood. The only person I miss.”

Neil eventually settled on Comedy Central which was airing a Jackass movie and set down the remote control. He looked over at Monte and thought he looked genuinely reminiscent. “How about some good old fashioned physical comedy?”

“Of course, you can’t go wrong with that.” Monte pulled off his boots and put his feet back on the footrest. “You got a blanket?”

“Yeah, I think I have one somewhere.” Neil got up and went to his hall closet. He rooted around a pile of towels and sheets and found a blanket. He returned to the living room and handed it to Monte.

“Thanks.” Monte unfolded it and spread it over himself. Neil detected a new odor, noticed that Monte had taken off his boots, then wished that he would light up another cigarette. Neil laid back on the couch and tried to scoot farther away from Monte.

“So, those were some days, eh?” Neil said.

One of the Jackasses burst into a bathroom and started beating a large middle aged man who was sitting on the toilet with a newspaper. Monte laughed out loud. “Ha! TV needs more of that degenerate behavior! Were you saying something?”

“Oh, nothing,” Neil said. “Just remembering the old days.”

“About what, the pill factory?”

“Yeah, don’t you ever miss it?”

“What’s there to miss?”

“I know it wasn’t all laughs, but we had some good times. Isn’t it good to have fun memories of the past that you can look back on?”

“Why get bogged down in syrupy sentiment?” Monte said. “Leave the past in the past.”

“But I miss those days,” Neil admitted. “Most everyone is else is married with kids, not too many of us single guys left.”

“So find some broad and get married. You’re not a bad looking guy, Neil. You’d make a great catch, not that I’m trying to come onto you,” Monte reassured.

“Not so easy anymore to meet anyone. My social circle has shrank and my wingmen are disappearing.”

“You worry too much. Besides, you have me.”

“You’re leaving tomorrow morning.”

“We have tonight.”

“So you wanna hit Lloyd’s Tavern right now?” Neil suggested. “They have O’Douls on tap.”

“No way, I’m all settled in,” Monte said as he relaxed further into the recliner. “Better to avoid the temptation anyhow. And look at the hour, it’s past midnight.”

They watched some more of the Jackass movie. After a while Neil began to feel sleepy. He got up. “Think I’ll go to bed now.”

“You’re going to miss Rip Taylor’s cameo.”

“That’s all right, I’m starting to doze off. Here’s the remote.”

“Suit yourself. See you in the morning.”

Neil went to his bedroom, closed the door, and still heard the television and Monte’s occasional laughing outbursts. He went to bed and had trouble sleeping until Monte finally turned off the television.

* * * * * * *

The next morning Neil got up, got dressed, opened his door and noticed the acrid aroma of cigarette smoke. Monte was already up and sitting at the kitchen table. He was smoking and drinking a cup of coffee. “Helped myself,” Monte said. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“Uh, it’s fine.”

“I opened the back door so the smoke wouldn’t build up.”

How considerate, Neil thought to himself facetiously. “So I guess you’ll be heading back home today?”

“That’s right, and with a clean slate, hallelujah. Oh, one more thing, I need to buy a Greyhound ticket and I’m a little short of funds, so I was wondering…”

“How much?”

“Sixty ought to do it.” Monte put the cigarette out in the ashtray.

“There’s an ATM on the way to the bus depot.” Neil worried about his bank balance.

“Great, let’s go.”

They left Neil’s apartment and walked toward downtown. The morning was sunny and cloudless, but a chilling breeze came off the ocean. “Nice day today,” Neil said against the silence.

“Can’t wait to get back home,” Monte said emphatically. “Santa Cruz isn’t the way I remember it. Most of my old friends have moved away, and a whole new mob of vagrants have invaded.”

Neil tried to think of something positive to say with no success. He wondered where his life had come to. Just a lonely guy starving for company, he thought to himself, do I have that desperate look about me? He tried to think of past mistakes that put him on his current path and worried about his future. They came to his bank and he went to the ATM, withdrew sixty dollars, and gave the three twenty dollar bills to Monte.

“Thanks,” Monte said as he took the bills and put them in his pocket. “Soon as I get a job and pay off my debts I’ll get you back.” Neil nodded acceptingly but wasn’t sure he could believe him. They walked up the street until they arrived at the main bus station, two side streets that made a Y shape around a concrete island with a small taco stand and a coffee kiosk. A ticket office with an indoor waiting area was at the corner. Monte bought his bus ticket and then a coffee.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” Neil said.

Monte’s expression became serious. “Neil,” he began. He seemed hesitant, then his eyes became thoughtful, sincere. “I just want to say thanks for everything,” he said as his voice cracked a little. “You’ve helped me through this difficult situation, you were always there for me, and I just want to say I’m really grateful.” He held out his hand.

Neil was stunned. “Gee, thanks, Monte.” He shook Monte’s hand. “Glad to help.” He saw genuine kindness in Monte’s expression and felt the gratification for which he had been waiting without realizing it.

“I know I can be…difficult, and not exactly a pillar of polite society. But what can I say, life forced me to march to my own demented drummer.”

“It’s what makes you you.”

Monte teared up slightly as he smiled. “You always were so understanding.” Neil looked away bashfully. “I mean it. It’s been a tough few months trying to get my life back in order,” Monte said humbly. “And I really appreciate your support.”

Neil basked in Monte’s charming gratitude. “Of course, what are friends for.” They smiled to each other familiarly, an acknowledgement of shared history and understanding. “And with Brenda back in your life, there isn’t anything you can’t do.” Neil finally let go of Monte’s hand.

“She is my better half all right.”

“You’re lucky to have her.”

“Yes, I am blessed.” Monte looked upward. He beamed sentimentally, a faraway look into the clear blue sky.

“Well if you’re ever up here again you give me a holler,” Neil offered, “it’s been too long.”

“I just might do that.” Monte then appeared contemplative. “It’s going to a rough road ahead trying to get my life back on course, but the support and generosity of Brenda and all my close friends inspires me to do better.” He seemed to fight back tears.

“Monte, I know you can do it, I have faith in you, and don’t forget, we’re all behind you, brother.” The Greyhound bus pulled up and its door opened.

“My chariot awaits!”

“At least you don’t have to make that long drive,” Neil said humorously as the heavy emotionalism of the moment subsided.

“I’ll get you that sixty back as soon as I’m on my feet.”

“No hurry.”

“Well, I’ll be off,” Monte said with a casual salute and entered the bus.

“Take care, Monte,” Neil said. As more passengers boarded Neil left the bus station. His mood was jaunty as he moved with a light pace. He’s got heart, Neil thought to himself, I almost forgot that. He pulled out his cell phone and made a call. “Hey Trev, you owe that pitcher!”

“Serious?” Trevor answered.

“And that game of pool, now rack ’em up.”

“Did Monte drug you?”

“Nope.”

“Hypnosis?”

“I’m serious!” Neil insisted.

There was a pause over the phone. “I don’t get it.”

¹ (I first wrote this story in 2013, before the recent change in hosting duties at The Tonight Show.)

©2013-2015 Robert Kirkendall

Castle

Glen was eager to get home and watch the basketball game. On his way he stopped into a corner market and got a six pack from the cooler. He went up to the front counter.

“That’ll be ten sixty.”

Glen pulled a ten and a one dollar bill from his wallet and handed them to the cashier. “So how come my beer is never on sale?”

“Beats me,” the cashier said as he placed the bills in the cash register. He then picked a quarter, a dime, and a nickel and gave the change to Glen. “Need a bag?”

“Please.”

The cashier attempted to lower the six pack into a paper sack without crumpling it. Glen thought of the game he was missing and wished the cashier would move a little faster.

“Don’t want to attract any moochers,” Glen said to fill the silence.

“I hear ya.” The cashier finally got the six pack in the bag and pushed it toward Glen. “Those bums scare away customers.”

“Well they haven’t scared me away,” Glen assured as he pocketed the change.

Glen left the corner market with the six pack under one arm. He began to walk home as the sun was going down then noticed a rumpled figure sitting on a sidewalk bench. His clothes were worn and faded. A weatherbeaten ball cap obscured his eyes. His arm was draped across the back of the bench.

“Hey man, can you help me out?” the man asked Glen as he approached.

Glen stopped. “Sorry. Gotta get home and watch the game.” He began to leave.

“Everybody’s in a hurry,” the man said glumly.

Glen hesitated. “Because people have things to do.”

“Like what?”

“Well, like watching the Warriors game, which has already started.”

“And that’s more important than helping out your fellow man? Not very Christian.”

“Not a church goer.” Glen tried to leave again.

“I meant in a charitable way.”

Glen stopped. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, it’s just that…” He struggled to find the words.

“It’s just that you’re afraid I’m going to waste it on booze or something,” the man grumbled. “Yeah, I know.”

Glen felt a little relieved. “But you see my point, right?”

The man sat up and looked at Glen. “What does it matter once you give it away?” he questioned, his voice a little gravelly. “Once it’s out of your hands, it’s no longer yours. What if your boss didn’t pay you because he doesn’t like where you’re going to spend your money?”

Glen was caught off guard by the novel idea. “But that isn’t charity.”

“Sure it is. They let you work at their business to make them money, and they toss you a few bucks to keep you coming back. We’re all panhandlers,” the man pointed out with a shrug of shared resignation.

Glen was provoked. “I earn my paycheck.”

“Someone else signs it,” the man reminded him.

Glen sensed his beliefs being challenged. He tried to figure out a response. “So be it, but at least it’s stable and keeps a roof over my head. Out here you have to depend upon the kindness of strangers.”

“How well do you know your bosses?” the man asked.

Glen searched his memory. “Well, can’t say I’ve seen any of them outside of work, but…”

“Yeah, that’s right,” the man interrupted. “They make money off of you and then want nothing else to do with you. I know how it goes.”

Glen looked upon the man. He appeared settled despite his circumstances. Glen then looked around at the open, unconfined space of the man’s surroundings. “But this isn’t exactly work,” he said sceptically.

“Of course it is. Survival takes work, kid.”

“But survival and work are two different things.”

“Are they? Work doesn’t necessarily mean a job,” the man said. “And I already did my time in the rat race.”

“Yeah, work’s a drag. But at least when you’re working you have money and you’re a part of society.”

“I am a part of society, and what I do serves a purpose.”

Glen was further confused. “How so?”

“People like you keep working so you don’t up becoming people like me.” The man appeared satisfied with his explanation.

Glen decided it was time to go. He tried to leave, but was drawn back to the man. “All right. So maybe I’m not being paid what I’m worth because I work for greedy robber barons, but you know what? I don’t mind working for a living. That’s what makes the world go round, it’s how demand gets supplied, and I like being part of that world.” Glen felt more engaged.

“And it allows you to buy your own poison, right?” the man queried as he pointed to the paper bag in Glen’s arm. “Looks about six pack size to me.”

Glen resisted the feeling of commonality. He looked down at the paper bag. “Guess you got me there, but I earned this six pack.”

“And you should be able to do what with your paycheck, right?”

“Okay,” Glen relented, “you made your point. But there could be another reason for not giving. I could be tapped out.”

“Well why didn’t you say so?” the man said grandly. “I got the same problem.”

“Yeah. You know how rents are around here.” Glen felt another wave of relief.

“See? I’m affected by high rents and I don’t even pay rent.”

“We’re all suffering.”

“Yeah, we’re in the exact same boat,” the man said dubiously.

“Yes, yes we are.” Glen missed the man’s intent and felt a personal insight. “We’re all just doing what we can to get through life.”

“Yep. Say, why don’t you come out here and join me see how the other side gets through life? You can be your own boss. No middle management cocksucker telling you what to do out here ”

“And plenty of office space,” Glen joked.

“A lot more than your cubicle, office boy.”

“Hey, I work on the sales floor, down in the action with all the customers. No cubicle cage for me. That’s for those, um, middle management types you were just talking about.” Glen was further intrigued, and had forgotten the game he was missing.

“But are you really living?” the man asked seriously.

“Of course, I live plenty! Just last week I got invited to a party, and it was epic. Six, maybe seven people showed up. We wanted to play Mexicali, but nobody could find any dice.”

“Your life is predictable.”

“Routine is not a bad thing,” Glen asserted. “Keeps me out of trouble.”

“Bo-ring!”

“Now see here,” Glen began. “I don’t need to do anything edgy or overly adventurous, and I don’t like pushing my luck just in case it runs out. All I want to do is make a living, and that’s challenging enough.”

The man looked at Glen with scrutiny. “And you’re fine with that?”

Glen considered his answer. “I am. My own little, domesticated American dream.”

“That steady paycheck, right?”

“Yep, as long as I’m not getting free rent or free groceries. I got to work for what little I have, and that’s what I believe in.”

“Okay, you made your point.” The man folded his arms. “Now go home to your palace.”

Glen looked toward home. “Yep, a tiny apartment with thrift store furniture, thin walls, and a smoke alarm that goes off every time I make toast. Real luxury!”

“Wanna trade places?”

“I don’t know, rent is kinda high. You’d probably have to get a regular job.”

“I told you I used to work,” the man said defensively.

“What’d you do?”

“Lots a things,” the man reminisced. “My last job was hot tar roofing. Grueling, sweaty work. That’ll wear a man down. I was even married for a spell.”

“That also wears a man down,” Glen joked.

“Damn right. Now I got a place out in the woods near the river. May not be much, but it’s mine,” the man said with the strength of someone who has survived rock bottom.

“It’s your patch of land. Every man needs that.” He seems mostly normal, Glen thought to himself, how did he end up here? “Well, I should probably get going. You probably have things to do anyhow.”

“Yeah, later tonight I’m having drinks with the mayor.”

“See? I knew you were important!”

“Don’t you have a game to watch?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” Glen inched away. “And for once the Warriors are the number one seed. All it took was a change in ownership.”

“The right kind of crooks took charge.”

Glen finally set himself to leave, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his change and some other coins. He placed them into the man’s calloused hand. “Not much, but…”

“Thanks all the same.”

          *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *                    *

Glen made it home and opened up a beer. He put the rest of the six pack into the refrigerator, and pulled out half of a deli sandwich that he bought the day before. He settled in front of the television and turned it on with the remote. He could hear one neighbor watching a true crime show, and another listening to a college radio station. He changed the channel to the sports station. He’d missed the first half of the game but didn’t mind.

stephcurry

©2015 Robert Kirkendall

The Hill

          Jason was enjoying a warm, summer day at the beach with his girlfriend and all their friends, then a pulsing buzz suddenly dissolved the image and pulled him out of sleep. His arm reached out and shut off his alarm clock. He groggily opened his eyes. The red digital numbers of the clock glowed 5:30. This is crazy, he thought, I should stay in bed. He wanted more sleep, but remembered going to bed at nine the night before so he could wake up early and go jogging. He struggled against the lure of sleep, then finally tossed the covers aside and forced himself awake. He slid around, let his feet hit the floor, and stood up. He slowly walked around in the darkness and gained alertness. Can’t remember the last time I was up this early, he thought, forgot how hard it is. He put on a T-shirt, then searched around and found his sweats hanging on the back of a chair where he placed them the night before. He stepped into them and pulled them up as he continued to motivate himself. He sat on the chair and put on his socks, then slid into his new running shoes and double knotted the laces. He stood up in his shoes. They felt stiff, but loosened a bit as he walked around in them.

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          Jason then put on a fleece sweater and left his room. He quietly walked into the kitchen careful to not wake his sleeping family. Ambient light came through the kitchen window and showed everything in silhouette. He got a carton of fruit juice from the refrigerator, poured himself a glass, and drank it down. The cold hit his stomach and awakened him more. He put the empty glass in the sink and went into the foyer. He stretched forward and tried to touch the floor, but couldn’t reach. Used to be able to do that, he remembered. He then grabbed one foot, pulled it behind him and stretched his thigh muscle, then did the same to the other leg. He breathed in deeper and tried to psyche himself for the run ahead. He reached for the door, then hesitated. Another couple of hours of sleep sure would feel good, he thought. He felt tempted, then reminded himself of his promise to get back into shape. He twisted the deadbolt lock and opened the front door. The cool outside air wafted in and he breathed it in. He was further awakened and went outside. He picked up the newspaper, left it inside the house, then closed the front door and walked into the quiet predawn.

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          Jason stood on the lawn of his front yard surrounded by the early morning chill. He looked around his neighborhood of similarly designed tract houses. Their varying colors and outside appearances were still hidden in darkness. He felt a rare solitude as he looked down the street to get a sense of the distance ahead. Overhead street lamps shone yellow and lit his way. He took a few more deep breaths until he was sufficiently motivated then broke into a sprint.

          Jason ran down the sidewalk and sailed through the cool air as he passed by houses, front yards, trees, and parked cars at an even pace. He came to an intersection, ran across the street, and strode onto the next block. He heard only the sound of his running shoes hitting the sidewalk and was feeling good, then felt the first signs of fatigue sooner than expected. His pace slowed. I got up hella early to put myself through this? he thought irritably, but he breathed in deeper and kept pushing forward. He found the right stride between his old jogging speed and his present effort, and the fatigue went away. He felt warm all over and no longer noticed the early morning chill.

          The sidewalk ahead of Jason curved one way then went straight again. His thinking was becoming more clear as his circulation increased, and he began to ponder his current life situation. Too much sitting at my job, he admitted, I’ve already gained a couple of waist sizes, don’t want to get soft. He lamented his job further, then reminded himself how lucky he was to get it. A friend of a friend who worked there put in a good word for Jason, which enabled him to avoid the application pile in human resources. He felt he ought to be thankful, but he also knew he was not working at his dream job and that it might be time to see what other options are out there. He recalled the recent change in ownership that brought in new upper management people and pushed out a lot of the old. And none of those new people know me, he thought, which means there goes my chance of moving up in the company, unless I’m willing to suck up. His lack of a future at his workplace became more apparent and he felt stuck. He thought of people he knew who had decent tech jobs then were laid off because of cheaper competition, bad business decisions, or a sudden change in the economy. Same thing could happen to me, he worried, but I can’t get off one treadmill unless there’s a better treadmill to jump onto.

          The dark sky was gradually lightening as Jason traveled further away from home. He revisited the plan for his life he made back in high school. Been in community college longer than I thought I would, he told himself, probably because of work. He wondered if the classes he needed to transfer to a four year college were still available or victims of budget cuts. He then tried to figure out the cost of more higher education, and the possibility of debt weighed on him. His hope of graduating college slipped further into the future until it seemed to disappear. Really hoped I would’ve been further along by now, he thought forlornly. He recalled how easy it was to make plans back when he and his friends were all seventeen and eighteen. When we were all in it together, he remembered. Now the struggle seemed bigger than he imagined, and felt more solitary. He wondered if everyone else felt the same. Can’t fall behind in school though, he told himself as he pushed ahead.

          A lone vehicle driving down the street broke the silence. Its glowing headlights reminded Jason that dawn had not yet arrived. The car and its headlight beams turned onto a main avenue and headed uptown. His pulse settled to a steady beat and his breathing deepened, but he didn’t feel he was in the shape that he once was. He then wondered if his girlfriend didn’t like him getting out of shape, though he couldn’t recall her ever saying that. Maybe that’s why Christine said I should work for her uncle and his contracting business, he thought, wants me to do something more physical. He felt he should be the one to decide on what to do with his life, but he couldn’t help but think that she might be right. I used to be able to jog five or six miles at a time, sometimes more, he reminisced, back when I was playing ball and being more active, now look at what’s happened. He ran faster, then his breathing became more labored. He slowed back down to keep moving.

          Pains shot up his ankles and Jason slowed a bit more. He veered from the hard concrete and onto the strips of lawn between the sidewalk and the curb. The impact of his footfalls softened and he kept his pace. He looked at the rows of houses in the faint glow of approaching light. Their colors and outside features were beginning to show, and they were beginning to look more familiar. A couple of people dressed for work were were getting into their cars.

          Jason approached the end of the block and another intersection. He slowed to a stop at the corner and considered where to go. He breathed heavily as he looked at the road ahead through his suburban neighborhood and wondered how much farther he could go, then looked back and considered jogging back home. Then he looked down the cross street that led to the southern foothills. The hills looked especially daunting in his tired state. He remembered how used to run up them when he was in high school, and wondered if he still could. The mountains then looked enticing. Well, I’ve gone this far, he figured. He began jogging to the hills.

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          Dawn was rising over the eastern Mount Hamilton range and slowly brightening the valley. Steep foothills covered in dry blond grass with patches of manzanita bushes and scattered live oaks lay ahead as Jason approached. The grade of the sidewalk began to rise and he felt the increased burden. His strained to keep his pace but slowed. He bemoaned his recent lack of activity. Can’t let that happen again, he assured himself.

          The street ramped higher into the foothills and Jason pushed himself harder. The row of houses stopped, then the sidewalk and pavement ended. He stepped off the concrete and continued jogging up a dirt path. The urban environment disappeared and open land surrounded him. The softer earth lessened the impact, but his pace slowed to a trot as the path rose up further, curved to the hill’s contour, and climbed steeper. He pumped his legs muscles harder and tried to keep his traction on the dirt as he slowed further. He struggled against the growing fatigue and focused on a flat area at the top of the trail. His was breathing rapidly and his heart raced in his chest. He slowed to a crawl as he willed himself upward. Sweat beaded up and dripped off of him. Some of it ran into his eyes and burned.

          He fought his way up until he finally made it to the small terrace on the front slope of the hill. He stood on the level ground hunched over with his hands on his knees while still breathing hard. He felt a big sense of relief as he finally caught his breath and stood upright. He walked around while still panting, then his heart rate and breathing gradually slowed down. He was happily exhausted and marveled at how much more difficult his accomplishment was than he had imagined, and was even more surprised that he had made it.

          Daylight was spreading across the valley. He looked down on the giant maze of suburbs and pavement. Street lamps were turning off as the artificial yellow light gave way to the orange glow of the morning sun. More and more vehicles coursed through the streets as the city came to life. He looked ahead to the clouded far north of the valley which lay obscured by the mist of south San Francisco Bay. Jason surveyed the entirety of the Santa Clara Valley and saw it anew. All those neighborhoods and all those people, it can take all day to get across the valley when traffic is heavy, he thought, doesn’t look so big from here.

©2014 Robert Kirkendall,

Illustrations by Daniel Chamberlin

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