Author Archives: jerrycowling

Burly Chapter Twenty-Four

(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Tad died during World War II. The years have passed, and Herman is now seventeen years old, and Burly is in the trunk.)
“No!” Burly shouted as the trunk lid came down on him, covering him in darkness, but it did no good. Herman didn’t open the lid and lift him out. “Please, Herman, please,” the little bear whispered through the night, but Herman didn’t answer him. Finally Burly sat back and began to think about it. Herman will get a good night’s sleep and feel better the next morning, Burly decided. Herman will take him into his arms and beg his forgiveness which, of course, he will give, Burly told himself. So there was nothing left to do but be patient and wait for morning. But when morning came, Herman got up, dressed and went to the kitchen to cook his father’s breakfast, ignoring Burly’s pleas to be let out of the trunk.
“Do you need me after school?” Herman asked his father as they ate the ham, eggs and toast.
Not looking up, his father mumbled, “Could use some help in the barn.”
Herman climbed into the loft to get his books. Burly saw this as his chance to talk him into letting him out.
“Please let me out. I don’t like it in here. It’s scary.”
But Herman acted as though he didn’t hear the little bear and left. Burly began to wonder if Herman could even hear him anymore. Maybe his magical powers went away. Maybe none of his life ever happened. Somewhere in the old rags that filled his head there was a special something that allowed him to pretend he had talked to Herman. Burly was very confused. He tried not to think much about what was happening until that night when Herman came home.
It was very late when Herman finally came to bed; after all, he had to help his father, and then cook, then do is homework. Burly tried to be considerate and not say anything until Herman had slipped in between the covers.
“Herman,” he whispered, “Please let me out.”
There was no reply.
“Herman, I know I can still help you. I just know I can.”
Again no reply. Burly slowly began to believe Herman could no longer hear him until the little bear heard a muffled cry.
“Oh, shut up, Burly. Leave me alone.” And then Herman began to sob.
That made Burly very unhappy. His only reason to be able to talk and think was to be Herman’s friend and to make him happy. This was the first time Burly had made Herman cry. “I’ll never do that again. I’ll listen to what Herman is doing, and whisper advice in the middle of the night. But, I’ll never upset him by asking to be let out again.”
And so the days and months passed with Burly listening in on Herman’s conversations with his friends. And with himself, because for the first time in his life Herman talked to himself. Mostly he said terrible things to himself, like calling himself a dummy because he only made a B in a certain class instead of an A.
“Don’t call yourself names like that,” Burly whispered late at night. “You can’t be perfect in everything. Don’t think bad of yourself or soon you will really believe it and you won’t even make Bs in school.”
Herman didn’t say anything, but Burly noticed Herman stopped calling himself names. The next report card was better. He got all As.
“Hey, genius,” Marvin said one day while visiting Herman in the loft. “With grades like that you ought to go to college.”
“I plan to,” Herman replied with confidence. “I want to be a lawyer.”
“It takes money to be a lawyer,” Marvin said. “Where are you going to get money to go to law school?”
Herman shrugged. “They have scholarships. I’ll get me one of those.”
“Do you think you’re smart enough?” Marvin kidded.
“Yes,” Herman replied, completely serious.
“Yeah, I know you are,” Marvin said in a dark tone. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll get the money.”
”Then I’ll work my way through, even if it takes extra years I’ll get through.”
“And what about the draft?”
“Well, there’s always the G.I. Bill.”
Marvin snickered. “You’ve got all the answers.”
Herman looked at him with wide eyes. “Yes, I do.”
That night Burly whispered, “I don’t want you to call yourself a dummy but don’t go too far the other way. You don’t want to lose your friends.”

They’re Needling Me

I am the worst person in the world about getting shots. My son is almost as bad as I am. We’d make terrible heroin addicts.
My wife and daughter are better. Why is it women are braver patients than men? Most women can give birth in the morning and plow the back forty in the afternoon. One woman in Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood had a caesarean section by Saracen sword one day and stormed the castle the next. Of course, that was a movie.
My wife said she wasn’t good about getting shots when she was a child. One time the doctor came by the house to give her an injection, and she jumped around the bed to avoid the needle. He caught her mid-bounce in the buttocks. After that she calmed down. When my daughter got her first inoculation she looked at her arm and said, “Hmph, that hurt.”
My son, on the other hand, shuddered with tears welling in his eyes, pleading with the doctor not to stick him. And that was last week. He’s thirty-eight years old and a prison guard. Just kidding. He shuddered when he was eight. He takes it like a man now. He shudders on the inside, just like me.
Back in the 1950s, the schools gave polio shots regularly to elementary school students. You had no warning. There you were, sitting in the classroom just about ready to doze off, when the next thing you knew the teacher was herding you down the hall to your doom. The needles back then were huge and dull. I could swear that they had been using the same needles that they had used on soldiers in World War II, just to save money.
Of course, getting an inoculation is nothing like having blood drawn. From the time I first discovered the fact that doctors, on a regular basis, stuck dull needles in your veins to extract copious amount of blood, I lived in fear that one day I would have to undergo such torture. When it eventually happened, I had to be placed on a gurney and my mother hovered over my face as the nurse drew the blood. And I’ll never forget her kind words.
“You’re being a big baby over this and embarrassing me to death.”
Over the years I have not gotten much better. At least my wife never told me I was a big baby nor acted like she was embarrassed when I almost passed out on the clinic floor. By the way, women faint and men pass out; at least that’s what my brother told me. He was a Marine so he should know.
Doctors actually have a name for the condition, and it is not cowardice. It’s Latin so I can’t remember it. When your nervous system thinks it’s losing volumes of its life-giving fluid, your blood pressure drops dramatically so the blood won’t flow out so fast. Not surprisingly, mostly men have it.
A few years at the hospital a male nurse couldn’t find the vein. In another aside, I think women draw blood better than men. Call me a sexist. Anyway, by the time he had thumped both arms several times and finally stuck in the needle, I was light headed. They rushed me over to the emergency room because they thought I had a seizure. Nope. It was just manly nervous Nellie disease.
I have discovered if I keep babbling on about something inconsequential the attendant can draw the blood and get me out of the building before my blood pressure drops. Once I quoted “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
I’m memorizing the Gettysburg Address for next time.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Thirty-Six

Previously in the novel: Mercenary Leon fails in a kidnapping because of David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Also in the spy world is socialite Wallis Spencer, who dumps first husband Winfield, kills Uncle Sol, has an affair with German Joachin Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David and his brother George go to Buenos Aires where George is seduced by sex, drugs and booze.
On Monday morning after the hunting weekend at Thelma Furnace’s estate in Mowbray, the Simpsons rode back to London in the back seat of their limousine. Ernest hopped about like a little boy.
“Imagine, we got to meet two princes at one time!” He nudged his wife. “I think they liked you.”
There were times when Wallis was on the verge of loving her husband. This was not one of those times. She blew smoke in his face.
“You think?” She didn’t disguise her disgust. “My God, Ernest, I thought you were going to sell me to the highest bidder.”
“Wallis, my love,” he protested. “Don’t be crass. I wouldn’t take money for you. All I was doing was expressing my depth of tolerance and discretion, two qualities not to be underestimated in these modern times.”
“You must explain the difference to my panties sometime.”
Ernest laughed. “Oh, you know I’m teasing. I’m all the time teasing.” He paused for a response that was not forthcoming. “Anyway, we’ll probably never hear from either one of them again.”
Wallis knew that was not true. David was going to be in their lives for a long time to come. But she had more important things to consider. The general ordered her to gossip. She loved to gossip, and when MI6 ordered her to gossip, she had to take it seriously. National security depended upon it.
After they unpacked at the Bryanston Court apartment, Ernest ran off to the nearest pub to regale his Grenadier Guard chums with tales about the Prince of Wales. Wallis, on the other hand, settled down at her desk to write her bread and butter note to Thelma. She wrote several drafts, wadding them up and throwing them into her trash basket decorated with tiny pink bows. She had to use precise words to express her sincere appreciation with the right touch of vivacity and insouciance. After all, if she were too nice, Thelma might think she was up to something nefarious, which she was. Wallis had been closer friends with Connie, Thelma’s sister, than she had with her. She still couldn’t decide if she really liked Thelma at all. But duty demanded it.
Her thank you note evidently worked because a week later she and Thelma sat in a sidewalk café in the Mayfair district sipping mint tea and nibbling almond biscuits.
“I must say, Prince George is the most handsome man I have ever met,” Wallis whispered, her eyes sparkling. “I was simply devastated when he dashed off before supper at the hunting weekend.”
Thelma raised a penciled eyebrow. “Blame James Donohue. I didn’t even invite him to the party, for good reason too.”
“Who’s he?” Wallis fluttered her eyes.
“He’s married to the Woolworth fortune. His own family cuts pigs up for a living.”
“You mean cheap jewelry and ice cream Woolworths?” The thought of running dead animals through a machine to turn them into goo was much too dreadful to discuss. She concentrated instead on the family who made billions of dollars selling trinkets. “What was he doing in London? Buying miniature Big Bens wholesale to sell in their stores?”
Thelma took time to sip her mint tea. “I’d rather not talk about Mr. Donohue. He’s exotic in more ways than a respectable woman should acknowledge.”
“I though Prince George was considered quite exotic himself.”
“George has problems. Mr. Donohue is a problem.”
Wallis could tell the conversation was making Thelma uncomfortable. Her normally pleasant smile pinched into a scowl. Her petite nose was curdling as though it smelled barnyard stench.
“Who else is a problem?”
Thelma’s expression did not change. “Kiki Preston.”
“Oh, I think I’ve heard of her,” Wallis quipped. “She’s the girl with the silver syringe, isn’t she?” When Thelma chose to stick an entire almond biscuit in her mouth rather than reply, Wallis decided to move on to another topic. “So. Tell me how you met the Prince of Wales.” She knew this was the right question because Thelma relaxed and slid back in her chair.
“My goodness. That was many years ago. Nineteen eighteen. We were at a county fair handing out rosettes to cows, I think. He took me to this ramshackle structure he called Fort Belvedere. He drove too fast.” She puffed on her cigarette. “David was quite adorable as he described how he was going to turn it into his country home.” She looked at Wallis. “You know his family and closest friends call him David, don’t you?”
She smiled. “I’ve heard rumors to that effect.”
“I decorated Belvedere for him and I acted as hostess for his weekend parties.” Thelma paused to light a fresh cigarette. “We frequently make love. But I’d never marry him.”
“Why not?”
“Like I said, he drives too fast. He disappears for weeks at a time and when he returns it’s like ‘hail the conquering hero’, you know. No explanation. Let’s have a party.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It’s not like he’s interested in marriage. I’m sure you’ve heard of Freda Ward. She thinks she’s a movie star. She’s bedded David many times. Hosted at Belvedere too. And then, of course, there’s Princess Stephanie. Von Ribbentrop introduced them. You know all about Stephanie and Ribbentrop, don’t you?”
Wallis smiled. “I’ve met Joaquin but I haven’t the foggiest about Stephanie.”
“She’s some adventuress from Vienna. Stephanie claims the title of a princess because she married a member of the Austrian royal family for thirty minutes. She’s supposed to be a close friend of Adolph Hitler. And the servants at Belvedere tell me she spent a torrid two weeks with David but then disappeared.”
“Proving there is a God after all,” Wallis murmured before taking a last bite of her almond biscuit.
“I like you,” Thelma announced. “I like your style. We must go shopping.”
Over the next couple of months Wallis and Thelma went shopping several times, hosted each other in their homes and attended lavish events that Wallis had only read about in the newspapers. The only problem was that, try as she might, she could not pry any fresh gossip out of her new sophisticated friends about Prince George and the darker life he lead. She supposed they were practicing extreme discretion out of respect for the Royal Family. To hell with discretion!
Before long the newspapers were extolling the Brothers Royale for enduring their extended tour of South America. After the opening of the British Exposition in Buenos Aires, the brothers insisted on exploring the interior jungles of Argentina and Brazil. It was at this time Prince George came down with a lengthy list of loathsome diseases such as dengue fever, dysentery and infected insect bites.
Bullshit! He was going through drug detoxification. Wallis could not help but snort as she punctured her soft boiled egg one morning at Bryanston Court.
“Anything interesting in the paper?” Ernest‘s head leaned into the financial pages, though there was nothing for him to be worried about—the shipping industry was doing fabulously well.
“The boys are back in town.”
“Who?”
“The clown princes of Mayfair.”
“Very clever.” Ernest lowered the newspaper. “You wouldn’t say that to their faces, would you? It might hurt their feelings.”
“What if it did?” Wallis puffed on her cigarette. Ernest could be so tiresome.
“Well, it’s just that recently we’ve been having a gay time with a better circle of friends. I mean, I didn’t know Thelma’s other sister was the fabulous Gloria Vanderbilt.”
“Very well, just for you and little Gloria I shall behave.” Wallis didn’t realize she would be required to keep that promise so quickly. A messenger appeared at Bryanston Court by late afternoon with an invitation to be presented at St. James Court. Of course, that did require a bit of manipulation. Wallis had to offer to the royal staff her official divorce decree that she had been the injured party in her divorce from Win Warfield. In addition, she was not a British citizen. While Ernest’s dual citizenship was enough to gain admission for himself, it was not sufficient for Wallis. She had to find another British citizen to sponsor her. She wondered why she had to jump through so many hoops. After all, they invited her. Oh well, she decided, who can ever understand the ways of royalty.
Finally, she had to find something decent to wear. Ernest’s Grenadier Guard uniform would serve nicely for him, but Wallis had to scramble for a stunning gown. She borrowed Connie Thaw’s presentation gown, train, feathers and fan.
When the night came, Wallis and Ernest joined the other breathless socialites in a queue which weaved its way through four or five chambers of St. James’s palace before they reached the throne room. Wallis was bored, but Ernest made several new friends winding back and forth, nodding and chatting each time they passed.
The presentation itself only lasted thirty seconds; they backed out of the room and then explored other royal apartments, pausing only to bow and curtsy when the Prince of Wales and his retinue exited.
“Where is Prince George?” Ernest whispered.
“He had a bad case of the runs,” she muttered as she curtsied. She then heard the prince comment to General Trotter.
“Something ought to be done about the lights. They make all the women look ghastly.”
Wallis decided she had had enough pomp and pomposity. She told Ernest she was ready to go to Thelma’s townhouse for some hard liquor and hard laughs. They made a quick exit. She had just deposited her train and feathers with Thelma’s maid when the prince arrived.
He walked over to the Simpsons and extended his left hand to shake with Ernest. Wallis rolled her eyes. She had heard from friends David had this irritating habit of shaking with the wrong hand.
“So, I hope your brother, His Royal Highness Duke of Kent, is recovering sufficiently from his recent discomfort,” Ernest offered.
The prince’s eyes widened in alarm. “I beg your pardon?”
“Dysentery,” Wallis muttered. “It was in all the best newspapers.”
“Oh. Yes. Much. I had a touch of it myself. Damn Amazon. Never drink from it.” He smiled and appraised Wallis in her borrowed dress. “Mrs. Simpson, you looked exceptional in your gown.”
“But sir, I understand that you thought we all looked ghastly.”
“I had no idea my voice carried so far.”
He bowed and crossed the room to chat with a coterie around Thelma. No more than fifteen minutes had passed before the prince began to make his apologies and left.
“Oh my. Between the two of us, I’m afraid we have made the social blunder of the season,” Ernest quipped in a self-mocking tone.
“Shut up, Ernest,” Wallis snapped. “We’ve done no such thing. I’m starving. Get me a martini with two olives.”
After her second martini, Wallis handed the glass to her husband and ordered, “Get my wrap and let’s get the hell out of here. My feet are killing me.”
When they walked out of the building they were met by the Prince of Wales leaning against his long sleek black limousine. He smiled. “Need a ride?”
“How kind of you to wait.” Ernest’s face beamed.
The prince opened the door and Wallis slid in.
“Bryanston Court,” she said. Inside she was not surprised to see General Trotter. All she had to figure out was how to get rid of Ernest.
Ernest, by the way, continued to glow in surprise. “I know you. You’re General something.”
The general extended his hand. “Trotter. We met at Lady Thelma’s country house.”
“Have you been waiting out here the entire time?”
Wallis sighed. Ernest didn’t know when to keep his damn mouth shut.
“My dear General Trotter, you don’t have to explain anything to Ernest Simpson. He just owns a few little boats that carry beans and things across the Big Pond.”
Ernest laughed. “Isn’t she outrageously funny? I just adore her.” He turned to the prince. “Wallis and I would consider it an extreme honor if you and the general would pop up for a quick drink.”
Wallis rolled her eyes. “Ernest, please, don’t be so dreary.”
“No, no,” the prince interceded. “We’d be delighted. Wouldn’t we, general?”
“Of course, your highness.”
The four of them exited at Bryanston Court and the limo driver pulled to the side of the street to await the return of the prince and the general. Ernest carried on about how the fellows from his regiment would react upon hearing the Prince of Wales dropped by for a cocktail. Wallis continued to fret to herself about how they would go about conducting business with Ernest dancing around playing host.
“How about martinis for everybody?” Ernest asked as he opened the liquor cabinet.
The general went to him. “Please, don’t go to that much bother. Why don’t I just pour out a bottle of wine?”
Ernest plopped on the sofa next to the prince. “Imagine? A general serving me? Only in England.”
Wallis watched Trotter pour a powder into her husband’s glass. Completely oblivious, Ernest gulped it down as he continued to grin at the prince.
“I do believe you will be a king who will change the landscape of Europe.”
“I agree.” Trotter smiled and patted Ernest’s shoulder. “Would you like for me to freshen your drink?”
“Yes, please.”
Ernest sipped on the second drug-based glass of wine until he lost his train of thought in mid-sentence. Blinking, he tried to remember the next word he wanted to say, but without success. His hand holding the drink sagged. David reached over to grab it just about as Ernest’s eyes went up in his head and his body went limp.
General Trotter spread Ernest’s body out and grabbed him under his arm pits. “Which way to his room?”
“The door on the left.” Wallis bumped David out of the way. “I better handle this.”
He bumped her back and grasped Ernest’s legs. “I think not. You get the door.”
As Wallis walked to the bedroom, she called back, “A gentleman would have gotten the door.”
David walked by, bent over carrying Ernest’s weight. “You’d better learn. I’m no gentleman.”
“Children,” Trotter chided. “We’ve work to do.”
After Ernest was properly tucked in bed, the others settled comfortably in the salon.
“We must all agree, after the last debacle in Buenos Aires, James Donohue must be eliminated,” the general announced, his face turning grim.
David lit a cigarette. “How about the other two, Jorge and Kiki?”
“We can’t kill them all off at one time,” Trotter explained with an air of condescension.
“Yes, we can’t have a pandemic of socialite deaths,” Wallis added.
“I suppose it makes sense to go after Donohue first,” David conceded. “He said something curious in South America. He said he was a dead man walking.”
“Well, we can’t wait for it to happen naturally,” Trotter replied, eyeing each of them. “We have to poison him several different ways to ensure he dies.”
“Like Rasputin.” Wallis’s eyes twinkled.

It Is What It Is

Here I’ve reached the age of 70, and I don’t know what existentialism is.
Teachers talked about it. Those French writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about it. Even movies are made about existentialism. “Taxi Driver” and “Annie Hall” were about it but you couldn’t prove it by me. One was very violent, and the other was very funny.
I like to write stuff. Some of it is violent and some funny. What if I were an existentialist and didn’t even know it?
I have looked the word up in the dictionary, and what was there didn’t explain it to me. I even went to other dictionaries and they didn’t help either. You’d think that someplace on the internet someone could come up with clear definition, but no.
For a long time, like forty years, I have faked being smart. I call it the old smile and nod. No matter what the conversation is about. This is particularly helpful when the topic is religion or politics. No one can get mad at you if you give them the old smile and nod. I’m also a little deaf in both ears. In the case of not understanding what was being said, I add in the knowing chuckle with the smile and nod. I don’t know if I actually fooled anyone. Most of them had the decency not to expose my ignorance.
Once I got up the courage to ask my wife what existentialism meant. She had a master’s degree in criminal justice and spent a career observing people and writing reports to judges about whether to send someone to prison or not. That’s a very serious job so I figured she must understand existentialism.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” she replied and went back to one of her books about biblical archeology or the theory of the black Athena.
When you reach the age of 70 you realize that you don’t have to fake anything anymore because most of the people you were afraid of disappointing with your ignorance have probably already passed on. And who cares what the people younger than you think. They don’t write my paycheck. That’s mostly because I don’t get a paycheck anymore.
One time I asked three people who went to great effort to appear intelligent about existentialism. All of them had highly cogent observations on the condition of mankind, but none of them knew what existentialism was. It was such a relief.
Perhaps it is enough that I have made it through most of my life without inflicting major discomfort on anyone within reasonable distance of my space. If I have not made a fortune, at least I have never taken food or shelter away from anyone else. If I have not done anything to save the world, at least I have given people a smile along the way.
I don’t know what existentialism is.
It is what it is.
I am what I am.
That is enough.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Sixty


Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Stanton selects Duff, an AWOL convict,to impersonate Lincoln. Duff learns how to conduct cabinet meetings. Stanton brings news of Gettysburg to the basement.

After announcing Gabby’s uncle General Samuel Zook was killed at Gettysburg, Stanton quickly left, locking the door behind him.
A groan escaped Gabby’s lips, and he sank to the floor. Mrs. Lincoln swept around the corner, dropped beside Gabby, and held his head in her arms.
“That wicked, wicked man,” she said. “He did that on purpose to hurt you.”
“Not Uncle Sammy. He was the successful one in the family. He was going to take care of us all. Who’s going to take care of us now?”
“Evil, evil. Why would he treat you like that? You dear, sweet, gentle man. What did you do to him to be treated so shamefully?”
“First, Papa died, then Joe, and now Uncle Sammy. What’s going to happen to me and Cordie? We can hardly take care of ourselves.”
“When this awful war’s over,” Mrs. Lincoln continued, patting his head, “and Mr. Lincoln is in office again, things will change. That Mr. Stanton will pay for his evil ways. He cannot crush people and go unpunished.”
“I wish Cordie was here.” His soulful eyes, glistening with tears, looked up at Mrs. Lincoln. “Her bosom is nice and big and soft. I could sink my head into her bosom and be comforted. The Bible says a rod and staff is supposed to comfort you, but I don’t think anything can comfort you better than a big, soft bosom.”
Her eyes widening and her jaw falling, Mrs. Lincoln stuttered, “I—I think Mr. Lincoln could comfort you better than I. He always knows the right thing to say.”
Standing, she bustled away. Gabby heard them fussing at each other for a few moments. Lincoln ambled around the crates and barrels, taking his time to sink to the floor and managing to cross his ungainly legs. He reached into his pocket and drew out a packet.
“Licorice?”
“Cordie says it makes my teeth look dirty.”
“Mother says the same thing.” Lincoln took a big chaw of it. “That’s why I like to eat it. It gives us something to talk about. If you want to talk about something, we can.” More silence ensued, punctuated by loud smacks and chews. “I don’t have any appointments in my book for tonight.”
“I thought the whole idea of sticking you in this room was to keep you from having appointments.”
“It was a joke.”
“Oh.”
“I’m sorry you got involved in all this.” Lincoln finished his licorice, took out his handkerchief, and wiped his mouth. “If you had laid your rat traps earlier, you’d have missed getting caught.”
“Do you think the rebels killed Uncle Sammy?” Gabby asked as he looked into Lincoln’s deep-set eyes. “Or did Mr. Stanton kill him because he thought me or Cordie might write him? If he did, then Cordie and me killed Uncle Sammy.” Gabby’s eyes filled to overflowing. “Honest, Mr. Lincoln, I never tried to write Uncle Sammy. I couldn’t kill Uncle Sammy. I needed him to take care of me.”
“Mr. Zook, you could hardly kill rats. You couldn’t kill anybody. No. You didn’t kill your uncle. War killed Samuel Zook. It’s war, not you, nor I, nor Mr. Stanton. It’s war’s fault.”
Gabby could not hold his tears back any longer. He flung his head into Lincoln’s chest. He did not mind that it was bony. It was comforting, and that was all he needed.

Burly Chapter Twenty-Three


(Previously in the book: For his birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life. As Herman grew up, life was happy–but mama died one night. Papa decided sister Callie should go live with relatives. Brother Tad tore up the burlap bear Mama had made for him. Tad died during World War II. The family came together for the memorial service. The years have passed, and Herman is now seventeen years old.)
A few days later Herman brought a couple of his friends home after school. Burly watched them carefully. They didn’t seem as bad as Tad’s friends. Actually, Burly decided, they were quite nice. Gerald was a chubby boy a little shorter than Herman. Marvin was about Herman’s height and weight but was red-haired and covered with freckles.
“Does your father hate us or something?” Gerald asked, his brow knitted. “When I said hello all he did was grunt.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Herman replied. “That’s just the way he is.”
“We’re not keeping you from any chores, are we?” Marvin asked. “We can study algebra anytime.”
Herman waved his hand as he plopped on the floor by Tad’s bed. “I’ll do them later. He knows I’ll do them.”
“My father isn’t like that,” Gerald said, joining Herman on the floor. “If I have a chore he expects it done right after school.”
“Mine too,” Marvin added.
Herman turned a little red and opened his book. “Um, let’s get started on this.”
For the next half hour the three tried to figure out the mysteries of algebra, with Herman deciphering the numbers best.
Marvin finally closed his book. “That’s enough for me. I’m just getting confused.”
“I’m with you,” Gerald said with a laugh.
“Okay,” Herman replied.
The two friends looked at each other and then Marvin gently poked Herman in the arm. “Hey, buddy, what’s the matter? You’ve been quiet all day.”
“Aww nothing.” Herman shrugged.
“If this is nothing, I’d hate to see something,” Gerald said.
Herman looked at each of them and sighed. “It’s really nothing. It’s just that this morning I heard Leonard Smith died in a car wreck last night.”
“Oh, that old drunk,” Marvin said. “He was a bum. I couldn’t stand him.”
“Hey, it means something to Herman,” Gerald protested. “I didn’t know you knew him.”
“Who would want to know him,” Marvin asked, but it was more of a statement and didn’t need a reply.”
“Marvin,” Gerald protested.
“No, that’s okay,” Herman said. “He was a bum. I couldn’t stand him.”
“Then why the long face?” Marvin asked.
“Well, it’s a long story,” Herman began. “He was one of my brother’s friends. He faked his army physical to get out of going to war.”
“Sounds like him,” Marvin interjected.
Gerald punched him in the arm. “Shut up.”
“Anyway, he showed up at the memorial service for Tad. He was drunk. My sister Callie—she lives in Houston with my aunt and uncle—told him off good.”
“And he’s been drinking ever since,” Marvin completed the story. “But why should his finally killing himself in a car accident upset you so much?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because it brings back so many bad memories,” Herman answered.
“Well, let’s talk about something that will make those memories go away,” Marvin said. “Guess who I heard talking about you at lunch today?”
“I don’t know.” Herman wasn’t ready to start playing guessing games.
“May Beth Webster.”
Herman couldn’t help but smile. “Really?”
“Yeah, she thinks you’re the best thing in school,” Marvin replied.
Gerald poked Herman again. “What do you think about that?”
“Yeah, I think she’d say yes if you asked her to the school Thanksgiving party,” Marvin continued.
Herman shook his head but still smiled. “Aww, I can’t date. What would I do? Drive up in papa’s banged-up old pickup?”
“Haven’t you ever heard of a double date, dummy?” Marvin asked happily. “You could come with Betsy and me.”
Herman looked up and grinned at the idea. Burly was happy for Herman even though he didn’t know what a date was. But then Herman’s expression changed. Burly was puzzled because he had never seen it before. It was a combination of shame, fear and anxiety. Suddenly Burly knew what was bothering Herman and what he was looking at. Herman was looking at Burly.
Jumping up, Herman tried to look carefree as he plopped on his bed and slid Burly under the pillow. “Gosh, do you really think we could do it?” Herman asked, with a forced happiness in his voice.
Gerald squinted. “Of course, you goof. Boy you must really be crazy about this girl to start hopping around like that.”
“Have you had a date yet, Gerald?” Marvin asked.
Ducking his head, Gerald admitted, “Well no.”
“Then you don’t know how girls can affect guys, right Herman?”
Herman smiled nervously. “Yeah, right.”
Burly didn’t like what was happening at all. The boys talked quite a few more minutes before Herman suggested that they go outside.
While they were gone Burly was trying to decide what to say to Herman when he came to bed that night. Should he be angry? No. A stuffed bear can’t very well be angry. He has no way to fight back at young humans, as his father found out many years ago with Tad. His father, Burly moaned. Oh, what if he ended his existence the same way his father did? That would be terrible, he thought. Shaking his little burlap head, Burly tried to tell himself that Herman was not like Tad. He was much nicer. But he was a teen-ager now. He was growing up, and maybe there was something inside teen-agers that forced them to break all ties to their childhoods, like cuddling favorite blankets, depending on mothers and fathers and loving little stuffed bears.
Eventually, Herman climbed the ladder to the loft and took his clothes off to get ready to sleep.
“Did you have fun with your friends?” Burly asked, trying to be friendly and forget that Herman hid him.
“Yeah.”
“So you’re going to have a date,” Burly continued. “What’s a date?”
Herman sat on the edge of the bed and picked up Burly. “Burly, you know what happened this afternoon?”
At first Burly thought to lie, but he knew it was no use to lie around Herman. “Yes. You were ashamed I was on your bed.”
“Now I know how Tad felt that day.”
Burly didn’t want to ask this question. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m not going to let my friends tear you up,” Herman said with a strong nod of his head.
“They seem like nice boys,” Burly offered. “I don’t think they would be as mean as Tad’s friends.”
“Could be,” Herman conceded, “but that’s not the point. The point is,” and Herman took a deep breath, “I am too old to have a teddy bear.”
“Oh no. A person is never too old to have a friend. And that’s what I am. Your friend. Not just a teddy bear,” Burly said with desperation.
Herman shook his head and carried Burly to the old trunk at the end of the room. “No, Burly. It’s time I began to grow up. And part of growing up is giving up you.”
“No, Herman, please,” Burly pleaded.
“I guess I’ve known this moment would come ever since Tad tore up Burly Senior,” Herman continued, his voice strangely calm. “I didn’t want it to come, but I knew it had to come.”
“No, please,” Burly said, near to tears, if he had any tears. “I’ll never embarrass you again. I love you too much to hurt you.”
“I can’t take that chance.” Herman lifted the lid to the trunk.
“Please, don’t hurt me. I can still give you advice. I’ve always told you the right thing to do, haven’t I?”
“Good bye, Burly.”
And the trunk lid closed, leaving Burly in the dark and Herman alone for the first time in many, many years.

The Thrill of Art

My father’s idea of being cultured was to lift his leg downwind of company when he needed to pass gas.
My mother thought anyone who liked opera, ballet or Shakespeare was a pretentious snob.
So why I consider myself an esthete is really a mystery. An esthete, by the way, is a person who derives great pleasure from exposure to beautiful things, like art, music, theater, dance, literature and the list goes on. It doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It just mean that I get the same stress relief from artistic stuff that many people get from watching sports or participating in sports.
I once heard Arnold Schwarzenegger say he got more pleasure out of lifting weight than from making love. And he was elected governor of California. Go figure.
All I got out of exercise was a lot of sweat, panting and an excruciating pain in my side. And I never did see any amazing results in my body either.
Now I always did get excited when Shakespeare was going to be performed on television. I remember a production of MacBeth with Maurice Evans (he was the condescending ape in Planet of the Apes) and Judith Anderson (she played the queen of the Vulcans in a Star Trek movie). It was filmed in Scotland. I didn’t understand half of what being said but I still liked it. Then there was Hamlet with Lawrence Harvey (he was the brainwashed guy in Manchurian Candidate). I understood a little more of the dialogue and liked it even better.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember why I even was allowed to watch those plays. If there had been a western on at the same time my father would have insisted on watching that instead. Maybe he had to work late or went to bed early. Anyway, I did get to see them and felt like windows had been opened to my soul. Come to think of it, my mother did refer to me as a little snob from time to time.
Opera eluded me for years, but I always liked ballet. A touring group came to our high school for an assembly program. Afterwards a football player said, “Hey, look at me, I’m a ballerina!” He took a few goofy-looking leaps but stopped and panted. “Hey,” he said in a moment of self-revelation. “That’s kinda hard.”
My mother-in-law didn’t approve of ballet because certain features of the male anatomy were too obviously on display. I always wondered how come she could ignore the beautiful music, the costumes, the sets and the graceful movements and just concentrate on that one thing. Dirty old broad.
As I said, opera took the longest for me to appreciate. I think part of it was that the singers belt out the songs like they have to be heard in the next county. When arias are lightly tossed out to waft on the breeze they become inspiring and lift the burdens of everyday life.
The same is true for symphonic music or chorale. I’m not that great of a singer but I have been lucky enough to sing a few times in large groups performing Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. To be completely surrounded by such music takes me to another, better place.
I appreciate all forms of art, from the Old Masters to Jackson Pollack. Once I picked up my daughter from a birthday party at the home of a very successful lawyer. He was so successful he had a helicopter pad in the front yard in case he was needed in Miami or Nashville real fast. We were talking in the living room with my daughter’s friend, the birthday girl, when my eyes strayed to a wall where was hanging a small dark oil painting of something Polynesian. I squinted and thought I saw a very famous signature. I walked over and, sure enough, it was signed “Gaugin.” I turned to the girl, 13 or 14, and said respectfully, “May I touch it?”
She shrugged and replied, “Sure, why not?”
My daughter was, as usual, was mortified. My fingertips lightly ran across the surface, feeling the brushstrokes.
“Do you know what this is?” I said, continuing to act like a groupie backstage at a rock concert.
“I don’t know. Just something daddy picked up somewhere.”
“This is a Gaugin,” I said and proceeded to give a brief history of the French artist who palled around with Van Gogh and painted naked women in Tahiti. If anyone asked to touch a Gaugin in an art museum he would be escorted from the building and kicked down the stairs.
By this time my daughter realized her daddy wasn’t just being his usual goofy self and asked if she could touch it too. The girl thought we were nuts but let us stroke the little painting all we wanted.
So that’s why I’m an esthete. You don’t have to own the art. You don’t have to be able to create art. All you have to do is appreciate it and let it wash over you like the invigorating cold tide on a Florida beach.

David, Wallis and the Mercenary Chapter Thirty-Five


Previously in the novel: Mercenary Leon fails in a kidnapping because of David, better known as Edward the Prince of Wales. Also in the spy world is socialite Wallis Spencer, who dumps first husband Winfield, kills Uncle Sol, has an affair with German Joachin Von Ribbentrop and marries Ernest. David and his brother George go to Buenos Aires where George is seduced by sex, drugs and booze.
David and the mercenary, carrying naked Prince George, hurried down the steps of Jorge Ferrara’s mansion. The taxi driver jumped out and opened the back door. The man dropped George on the seat, pushed his body across then sat next to him. David slid in, the driver went back to the wheel and they sped off.
“I need you to perform another task for me,” David said to the man in the tan uniform.
“That was not part of our original negotiations.”
“What do you want now?” David became easily impatient with the lower classes who only thought in terms of how much money was in it for them.
“What were you planning on giving me for rescuing your brother?” His piercing black eyes bore into David.
“My diamond stick pin and 24-karat gold cuff-links.” He regarded the urban scenery passing by the window and raised his chin.
The mercenary observed at the clothes crumpled on the floorboard. “I want his stick pin and cuff-links too.”
“Deal.” God, I hate dealing with rabble like this.
The man extended his palm turned up. “Give them to me now.”
David extracted his accoutrements and handed them over. He nodded to George’s clothes. “You can get his.”
“You get them. He’s your brother.”
Sighing in exasperation, David bent over, unfastened the stick pin and cufflinks from George’s attire and plopped them in the mercenary’s hand. He felt like bathing in disinfectant.
The man carefully folded everything into a handkerchief and tucked it into a pouch down inside his pants between his legs. “What do you want me to do?”
“Tell the driver to take us to the nearest Catholic Church,” David began. “You go in and tell the priest two men are seeking sanctuary. Two brothers. One is trying to wean the other off of drugs. They need an isolated room, food and complete privacy. Tell him we will reward the church generously for this charity. Tell him I am a man of integrity. You will vouch for me. Of course, who will vouch for you, God only knows.”
The mercenary turned to the driver and spoke in Spanish with a Bahamian accent. In a few blocks the taxi pulled in front of a large cathedral. The man pushed at David so he could get out.
Who the hell does he think he is? Pushing me around like that? I’m a damned prince, for God’s sake!
He trotted up the steps with the confidence of a world-weary mercenary at the top of his game. Without hesitation he threw the door open and barged in.
David leaned over and looked at George. “Wake up. Put on your clothes. “
George moaned.
“I mean it.” He kicked his brother. “At least put on pants and a shirt.” He nudged George again. “Are you dying on me?” David leaned back and looked out the window.
That would be just like you, George. Leave me in the taxi with a dead naked prince. Most inconsiderate bloke I’ve ever known.
David saw the church door open and the mercenary marched down the steps followed by an old priest and two young ones. David picked up George’s clothes and got out of the car just as the men arrived. The two young ministers crawled into the back seat to drag out George. The man in the tan uniform jumped into the taxi, tapped the driver’s shoulder, and the car sped off into the night.
David followed the priests as they carried George around the corner to steps leading down to the basement. They entered a long dark corridor which seemed to lead to an older, less civilized century. The old priest unlocked a door and stepped aside so the younger clergy could carry George to a cot and dump him. They left the room and locked the door, leaving David to consider his new surroundings.
Another cot sat against the opposite wall. The only other object was a galvanized bucket. No pillows, blankets or towels. David could only hope they would bring food in the morning. It was a church after all. He collapsed on the cot and fell into a deep sleep.
A light tap at the door roused David. He stumbled to the door and mumbled, “Que?”
It opened, and a nun handed him a tray, shut the door and locked it back. On the tray were a pewter pitcher of water and a casket with a loaf of bread, a small wheel of cheese, several hard-boiled eggs and oranges.
“George?”” David sat on the edge of the cot. “We’ve got food.”
He just moaned and rolled over to face the crumbling stone wall.
“I’ll kill Kiki if I ever see her again.” David crunched into the crusty bread.
The next morning George opened his eyes long enough to vomit, urinate and defecate before passing out again. He didn’t speak until the third day.
“Where am I?”
“The pit of hell,” David whispered. “And the fool that I am, I followed you here.”
“Huh?”
“You’re in withdrawal.”
“Again?”
“It’s your own fault.”
George twitched. “Are there bugs in here?”
“Bugs have more sense than to come here.”
Writhing, he cried, “The worms. The worms are back. I hate the worms. Why do I do this to myself?”
“Drink some water.” David lifted the pitcher to George’s lips. “You vomited so much you’re dehydrated.”
“I want to die. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Of course you can. You’re a Windsor. If you can sit through an eight-course dinner with our blithering idiot father, you can take anything. Now drink.”
George knocked the pitcher away. “No! I want to die!”
David grabbed each side of his brother’s face with his hands and pulled him so close their noses touched.
“I won’t let you die! They won’t let you die! Do you know what Papa and Mama will do to you if I bring you home like this? The same thing they did with little Johnny. Do you remember him? Our youngest brother? The sweetest soul that ever lived on this earth? He was different so they locked him in a room at Windsor Castle and pulled curtains so he could see out and nobody could see in. Then he dropped dead when he was only fourteen years old. Do you think you could have taken being treated like that? Johnny took it! He was a better man than you’ll ever be!”
By the time George fell asleep he had eaten some bread, a couple of bites of cheese and a hard-boiled egg, which his brother had to peel for him. David stared at him while he slept. Then he looked around the room. He felt anger welling up inside him like he had not felt since the bullies tortured him at school. David set his jaw firm. He could take that and he would take this.
Eventually, George’s body began to shiver like he was in a vat of ice. He slit his eyes open and glanced about. “Why is it so cold in here?” he asked.
“You’re naked,” David replied in a flat tone.
George pulled on his slacks and shirt and slept better than he had in days. On the fifth day when the nun knocked on the door, George stood on wobbly legs and walked over, moaning the entire time. The nun unlocked the door.
“I want to go home now.”
The nun guided them to the basement door and pointed down the street.
“Don’t worry. You will be properly rewarded,” David assured her as they stepped out.
She smiled and closed the door. They walked a few blocks and saw the British embassy.
“How did she know to direct us here?” George asked.
“You spoke in a British accent, stupid.”
“How are we ever going to explain this?” George sniffed. “We smell like hell.”
David put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “We don’t have to explain anything. We are the Brothers Royale.”

Father’s Day

I think I’ve got this Father’s Day deal figured out.
This last weekend I got a dinner and a movie from my son who has to work next weekend, the actual Father’s Day. He’s a corrections officer at a state facility with a schedule so wacky only a politician could have come up with it. Twelve hour days. Two days on, three days off, three days on, two days off. Basically, if I see him he has the day off. If I don’t he’s working.
He took me to see the movie about how Han Solo met Chewbaca and won the Millennium Falcon in a card game. I know it’s supposed to be a stand-alone, but I think it needs at least one sequel to tie up all the loose ends. Basically I liked it. At least it didn’t end with half the people in the universe disintegrating with a snap of the fingers.
That was on Saturday night. On Sunday night he took me out to dinner at nice family-type restaurant that served roast beef, corn and potatoes wrapped up in tin foil. A little messy but it tasted good. Sometimes my son zones out or says something inappropriate; but hey, like father like son.
Now this is where it gets interesting. My daughter, who lives a thousand miles away with her family, called to say her present might be a little late coming in the mail. Better late than never. She always picks out something delicious to send me. On top of that I might even get a phone from my lovely little granddaughter.
Someone might point out I’m not getting anything more than any other father with two grown children might get, but I see it as making the fun stretch out as long as possible. Being greedy is not a good thing. Being grateful feels much better. Feeling grateful for an extended period of time is wonderful.
I don’t know if there’s a moral in any of this. I’m too busy looking for the mail to arrive. Ever since I was a little boy I’ve always loved looking for the mail to arrive.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Fifty-Nine


Previously in the novel: War Secretary Stanton holds the Lincolns captive under guard in the White House basement. Stanton selects Duff, an AWOL convict,to impersonate Lincoln. Duff learns how to conduct cabinet meetings. Alethia, the woman playing Mrs. Lincoln, has had a carriage accident. He goes to see her at the hospital in Maryland.

Gabby finished his supper with one ear tuned to hear a knock at the door waiting for news–something mighty wonderful must have happened at Gettysburg. The first day’s news brought by Stanton was not good. The rebels had gained ground outside of town. The second day went well, thanks to the boys from Maine. Gabby tried to remember if any of his West Point friends were from Maine, but his mind was clouded, and the only friend he could remember was Joe, and he was from New York, and he was dead. Gabby could not do anything about it, just as he could not do anything about the soldiers dying at Gettysburg. His eyes strayed to his shirt front, and now he cared more about the stray drops of gravy there; that way, his heart did not hurt so much.
The door opened, and Gabby hoped it was Adam. Maybe today would be the day he would think of the right things to say to make Adam stop being so gloomy all the time. Instead it was Stanton.
“I’ve the latest news from Gettysburg,” the war secretary announced.
Gabby sagged and stared at his plate; he did not want to see Stanton. He did not like the man; more than that, he was scared of him.
“What is it?” Lincoln asked, scooting a chair from the billiards table and plopping down.
“Please say it’s a victory,” Mrs. Lincoln said.
“Total victory,” Stanton replied. “The rebels attempted a foolhardy charge up a hill strongly manned by our forces, and they were decimated.”
“Yes! Yes!” Lincoln said.
“Oh,” Mrs. Lincoln murmured.
Gabby detected compassion in her voice. Perhaps some of her Kentucky relatives were in the charge, but you cannot worry about relatives at war, he told himself. Uncle Sammy was fighting, but Gabby could not think about losing someone else close to him—first had been his kind father and second his friend Joe. Losing Uncle Sammy was too painful to comprehend.
“Bobby Lee’s slipping,” Lincoln said. “In his prime he would’ve never made such a strategic blunder.”
“I know the Lees very well,” Mrs. Lincoln added. “They’re fine and genteel folk.”
“Now, Mother, we’re not talking about hosting a party, at which I’m sure they excel. We’re talking about military tactics.”
“Still, I can’t glory in the death of any young man, be he from north or south.”
“Yes, yes, of course, Mother,” Lincoln replied. “War’s terrible, but terrible battles end a war fast so no more men die.”
Adam unlocked the door and entered.
“What are you doing here?” Stanton said in a huff.
“I—I came to get the dishes.”
“Oh,” Stanton said. “Get on with it.”
Gabby heard the clattering of china against the wooden tray. Adam turned the corner into his little safe haven.
“I’m sorry I didn’t bring my plate out to you, but that man scares me,” Gabby whispered.
“He scares me too.”
“Don’t be scared,” Gabby said. “Don’t be sad. Keep yourself cleaned up. You don’t want to end up like me.”
Adam patted Gabby’s shoulder and then turned to leave. He shut the door quietly and locked it.
“So,” Lincoln said. “Do we have General Lee in custody?”
“Um, no. They retreated across the border. General Meade said his men were tired, and so he felt it was enough to force the enemy from our soil.”
A giant slap against the felt covering of the billiards table made Gabby jump.
“Father,” Mrs. Lincoln said with a gentle gasp.
“Excuse me, Mother, but my patience is at an end. He has the audacity to hold us in the White House basement because I’m incompetent, but he lets Bobby Lee escape!”
“Sir, I share your anger that General Meade didn’t pursue Lee, but it was his mistake and not mine.”
“If I were still in control, this would have never happened!”
Lincoln’s outburst was not very presidential, Gabby told himself. Squinting, once again he wrestled with the question of whether he was the president or not.
“On another front,” Stanton continued, “General Grant will successfully conclude his siege of Vicksburg tomorrow.”
“And who will Grant let slip through his fingers?” Lincoln sighed.
“No one, sir,” Stanton replied.
“So. We do have a general who knows how to win battles the right way.”
Stanton grunted.
“I want…” Lincoln paused. “I recommend you send for General Grant as soon as possible. He should take on Bobby Lee.”
“He drinks too much,” Stanton said.
“And you think too much of yourself, but that hasn’t stopped you from attempting to lead this country.”
“Father.”
Gabby heard the fear in Mrs. Lincoln’s voice. She was right. Lincoln was out of control, but Gabby could not be harsh with him. Melancholia made people act queerly. Gabby should know. He had been acting queerly for years.
“You must forgive me.” Lincoln sighed again. “Cabin fever, that’s what it is. Did you ever have cabin fever, Mr. Stanton?”
“No, sir, I don’t think I have.”
“How about you, Mother, have you ever had cabin fever?”
“I’m having it right now.”
After a pause, Lincoln spoke, now more composed.
“Do as you like, but I believe General Grant would head the Army of the Potomac effectively.”
“Gideon Welles agrees with you.”
“He told you that?”
“Not me. The man upstairs.”
“God? When did you find time to speak to God?”
“The man upstairs, meaning your replacement.” Stanton paused a moment. “You know what I meant.”
“Of course, but I need a good laugh to get through the day, and if it can be at your expense, so much the better.”
“I’ve had enough of this,” Stanton replied, hardly containing his temper. “I’ll take under consideration your opinion.”
He walked to the door, stopped, taking a few steps to the side so he could see inside Gabby’s little nook behind the crates and barrels. Gabby shuddered when he saw Stanton’s beady eyes trained on him.
“By the way,” he said to the Lincolns, “I regret to report we lost several generals at Gettysburg. Among them was General Samuel Zook.”