Category Archives: Books and Short Stories

Uncle Cedric

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I saw an old lady today, shuffling along on a cane and an umbrella, accompanied by a dog that was keeping a few yards ahead, poking his nose at things with his tongue hanging out. After they passed I stopped and turned to watch them, and was reminded of a day long ago and my Uncle Cedric.

You’re OK kid, Cedric used to say, winking secretly.

He said it whenever I did stuff for him, like washing his car, or going to the corner store for cigarettes. Sometimes he gave me his spare change, and when I was old enough to do bigger errands, one day he sent me to pick up a box in the back alley behind the ABC Liquor Store.  That was soon after he gave me a brand new 10 speed bike for no apparent reason. Then I discovered there was one.

I met him at the far end of the lane where he was waiting in a Ford Mustang he called McQueen. Then, to impress me he peeled away burning rubber with a crazy grin on his face. Dust and dirt flew up and hit me in the face, but I didn’t mind because I had a new bike and ten dollars for my trouble. A week later I used the money and bought myself a dog. My parents weren’t happy about it, but they let me keep him anyways. I called him Champ.

Not a month after I got Champ, Uncle Cedric, going much too fast in his Mustang, ran him over right in front of our driveway. Champ lay there on the road, panting and Uncle Cedric jumped out of the car, picked him up and sped off to the vet with Champ and me in the back. I noticed an empty bottle of rum on the floor. Cedric ran into the vet’s office with Champ, and came out a half hour later. He looked shaken, gave me ten dollars, and made me promise not to tell my Mom, his sister. When I got home, Mom asked where Champ was.

He ran away, I said. I really wanted to tell her, but I had some foolish loyalty to Cedric. I went to my room and lay down on my bed, burying my face in the pillow so I could cry in private. I felt trapped by the bike and the money.

The next day Cedric saw me on the street coming home from school and stopped to tell me, with a sad look on his face, that poor Champ had to be sent to another hospital, and might not be back for a while. I had a bad feeling he was lying.

How long of a while, I asked, but Cedric said he didn’t know. Then he gave me ten bucks and made me promise not to say a word, and also would I go get another box from the alley for him that night?

I didn’t want to, but I promised to do it, hoping this might get Champ back. I thought maybe Cedric was using Champ to get me to do his bidding, but I was afraid to say anything. He burned out of there again and a little stone shot up from one of the back wheels and chipped my front tooth. All of a sudden Cedric didn’t seem so cool.

When I got home my Mom saw my chipped tooth and freaked out. I said I got in a fight at school, and the guy I fought lost his front tooth, so after that she calmed down. Late after dark, I snuck out the back door and rode my bike into town.

There was the box as usual, behind the big steel bin next to the back door. As I leaned my bike on the fence a car came down the lane with no lights on, so I walked away trying to be casual. Then the headlights came on and so did the flashing red light.

Hold on kid, a voice yelled at me.

I jumped a fence and ran home as fast as I could. The next day after school there was a police car at our house. They found my bike behind the liquor store and wanted to ask me some questions. I told them I liked hanging around in the alley pretending to be a detective and they seemed to believe that, so they left.

Afterwards, my Mom asked me what was really going on, but I didn’t tell her out of misplaced youthful loyalty to Cedric, and a nagging fear that I was already mixed up in something wrong. To make matters worse, I was afraid that if I told the truth I might not ever see Champ again.

You’re not to go out at that hour any more, she said, is that clear?

I nodded and tried to look like I meant it. What did she know about how it felt to be twelve and get paid ten bucks for picking up a box in an alley? When I told Uncle Cedric about the cops in the lane he rubbed my head and gave me five bucks.

You’re OK, kid, he said.

Then he said he wanted me to go back soon. When the day came I could hardly think between worrying that the police might show up and hoping that if all went well I might see my dog. To compound my anxiety I was still feeling guilty for deceiving my Mom, and afraid that whatever it was I was doing, it wasn’t strictly honest. Half an hour before the pickup, I got on my bike and cruised to town.

Riding down the street in front of the ABC Liquor Store, I noticed an old lady on an electric scooter drive up to the café next door. She creaked off the seat like the rusty tin man in the Wizard of Oz and shuffled into the café, leaving the dog outside.

I rode around the block several times, checking the big clock that hung in the window of the drug store. Just before the agreed time I headed down the block and around the corner like a rider in the Tour de France. I hit the alley and cranked it hard until mid-block, whereupon I jammed on the back brake and came skidding towards the box in a foolish attempt to kick up dust like Cedric’s car. I got dust alright, lost control and hit the dirt, skinning my elbow and the side of my leg.

I got up bruised and sore and looked to see if anyone had seen, but there was nobody around. Embarrassed and aching, I picked up my bike and leaned it on the fence, then hobbled over to the box. I limped back to the bike with the box, put it on my carrier, slung my leg over the top bar and put my foot to the pedal. I rode down the lane slowly as the pain began to set in. Across the street Cedric’s car was waiting in the opposite lane.

He flashed his lights and pointed left, then drove to the first corner, crossed the street and turned down into the next lane. Just then the old lady came down the sidewalk on her electric cart, with her dog ambling along beside. I waited until she passed and began pedaling.

I quickly caught up and passed the old lady, but she stayed close behind me on the sidewalk. I turned down the alley and saw Uncle Cedric’s car halfway down the block. Cedric got out and looked up and down the lane.

I was halfway there when from behind me a dog flashed by and within a few strides jumped onto Uncle Cedric, who immediately hit the dirt. I just about skidded off my bike again as I hit the brakes and came to a stop. Looking back I saw the old lady coming down the lane in a cloud of dust like a geriatric maniac. Then her cart stopped and miraculously she sprung up from her seat, throwing off the shabby old coat and hat. Under the coat she wore a police jacket and a big black gun that she kept her hand on as she broke into a run.

Don’t you go anywhere son, she said as she passed.

A minute later, two police cars arrived and took Uncle Cedric away. After she took my name, my statement, the box and my bike, the police woman sent me home in a police car, where I had to explain to my mother what had happened.

After the police left, my Mom asked me how much money I’d made doing Cedric’s pickups. I told her I had fifty bucks. She took the money, and told me she was keeping it so the dentist could fix my broken tooth.

What about Champ, I blurted out?

Suddenly she stopped looking angry. Champ’s gone, she said, he’s not coming back.

©Donald J. Nathan

January 24  2018

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Man in Moon Says Happy New Year

the moon – 19:00 hrs PST, Dec 31, 2017

Wishing you all a happy healthy and prosperous 2018, from here on earth in Victoria BC Canada.

Fisgard Lighthouse, Fort Rodd, Victoria BC, Canada

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Santa’s Eagle

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL.

A Christmas tale with a Pacific Northwest theme…

There was a chill in the air, and the pathway around the lake had patches of ice wherever a small rivulet ran out of the field on its way down to the water to eventually join with the sea, a few miles away. If you watched closely on some patches you could see water drops moving under the ice soundlessly as if they were sneaking downhill for a secret reason.

In the bushes a small fluffy furred vole scurried across a blanket of decaying brown leaves and jumped up onto a dead branch that crossed over a pile of more deadwood. There it sat, with its tiny pointed nose that resembled nothing more than a small raisin, flanked by two tiny dark dots that were its eyes. Then the vole turned and slowly, deliberately shuffled off to do whatever business it was doing before it was observed. Like a puff of air two tiny wrens flitted out from the bush on the left and disappeared into the bush on the right, making no sound. No matter how hard one looked in the bushes, nothing could be seen, so blended into the sticks and dead leaves were the wrens.

In the sky several gulls meandered, unmistakable with their light coloured feathers and pointed wingtips. Then came a noise like a voice, but not words – a raven moved slowly overhead, circled and landed in a tall tree, then gave another cackle. Across the fields in the far distance were low hills, covered in a dusting of snow, not yet entirely white but soon to be, as foggy clouds moved over the land just waiting for seeds of what would soon be snowflakes.

On the edges of the lake and in the flooded fields on either side of the shore, or whatever fluctuation of brush, bush and swamp you might call it, swam ducks three by three, brothers and sisters, father and mother and son, or perhaps complete strangers who preferred the company of other ducks. Whatever the reason it seemed that one duck was always following another one, until such time as they switched places and the leader began to follow another.

A man with a red and white trimmed Santa hat strode along the path and muttered hello to others who passed by. Merry Christmas said one. A child with a stick poked at some thin ice, breaking it into small, sharp, clean, clear pieces. Nothing was happening in any sort of hurry, and yet it seemed that the world was waiting as if there was some sort of agreement that everything would soon be resolved in its own time, at its own pace.

Before the path ended at the pavement, where one left the woods and clomped up the hard grey road, high on the top of a tall fir tree, gazing over the scene below like a sentry sat the eagle, holding the world in its merciless glare, just as it held its prey in its razor sharp talons. But this day there would be no death from above for voles or hapless gulls that ventured too close to the white head with yellow eyes and a pirate hooked beak. No, this night the eagle was on duty.

The eagle watched for signs of danger, ever ready to take to wing and patrol its territory as it did every Christmas Eve, ensuring that the sky was safe for flying reindeer. After it had surveyed the land from its treetop perch the eagle spread its wings and leapt from the branch into the air, dipping slightly then with one flapping motion of its mighty wings it went soaring aloft and sailed away over the water into the distance.

The eagle with its unerring vision saw a tasty fish swimming just beneath the water, but even the promise of a fresh meal did not deter the eagle from its mission. One mile it soared and then turned and soared back in a wide arc over the lake. Then, when it determined that all was well, the eagle gave a powerful flap of its wings and gained speed until it was whistling through the cold air, flying due north as fast as an eagle could fly.

It wasn’t long before the eagle saw another of its kind in the distance coming to meet it. At top speed the pair of eagles closed quickly and then spun around each other for one brief turn before they parted, each to their own home territory. This eagle flight was soon repeated, again and again until the eagle from the lake had passed the signal of all-clear, eagle to eagle to eagle, all the way to the North Pole, where Santa Claus was ready to board his sleigh.

The last of Santa’s eagles came swooping down from the clouds as if Santa was a tasty fish, but at the final moment before the eagle had to pull up or land with a crash, it spread its wings out full six feet wide and with a whoosh it settled on the front rail of the big red sleigh. The eagle looked Santa Claus in the eye, and by that look Santa knew all he needed to know about the part of the world where eagles reigned in tall trees.

The eagle dallied but a few moments before it jumped into the air and climbed back to the sky. Ho, said Santa Claus, raising his long leather whip. The whip flew back and forth like a fly on the end of a fisherman’s line and gave a shot like a firecracker. The reindeer began to pull and within seconds were racing across the snowy field, throwing up a storm of snowflakes in their wake as if the wind itself was made of snow. Then with another crack of the whip, the lead reindeer took to the air and the team made one upward tilt and were off before the snow settled back onto the moonlit ground that sparkled under the clear, black, starry sky.

One by one, the eagles slowly made their way back to their homes, where they all settled down in tall trees, firmly grasped their perches with razor sharp talons, and stood guard until morning, when they knew Santa’s mission was done. Then, like eagles do, they all took to the skies, to find Christmas dinner.

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Cow Alert

I found this old CPR Train Identification Ticket on the street, in front of a house that was being cleaned out of a lot of junk, so I thought I would try to imagine what possible use it had…

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Are We There Yet?

How many words should there be in a children’s novel? A scientific survey of one novel gave me the answer – 35,000. That was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl. If that is a good number of words for Mr. Dahl then it works for me. I confirmed this number twice by different methods. Being an estimator for 10 years, I have a pretty good idea how to count, so the first test was this: I counted how many lines it took to get to 100 words on a typical page. I extrapolated the count for the whole page, and then went to the last page and subtracted that number from the number of the first page to get the number of pages from the beginning to the end. Then I multiplied that by the number of words on my sample page. From this I subtracted the pages with illustrations and blank areas  by quickly flipping through the book. I arrived at 35,000 words. To check this, I scanned another random but typical looking page and sent it to OCR. I exported that to my word processor and got the word count. I then counted every page with text, leaving out illustrations and blanks, to arrive at a net total of pages with text. Not surprisingly that gave me 35,000 words. Enough already!

My novel-in-progress stands at 25,000 words, plus the 1000 or so I just finished typing this morning. I have been reducing the gross word count by judicious editing, if not ruthless, so the 25,000 words are all keepers. The question now is, how to wrap up the story in 9000 words? Easier said than done. The writing continues apace, but it is clear that I will not hit 50,000, so there will be no “winning” Nanowrimo. Shouldn’t there be a category for children’s books? Oh well, you can’t win them all.

While setting out various events in the book I realized that my choice of a 1939 Royal KMM typewriter didn’t fit the timeline, so I have revised the machine to a 1914 Royal 10 instead. This has worked out better than expected for numerous reasons. I prefer the look of the older machine, which in my opinion would be more attractive to kids of all ages. Here is a picture I downloaded of a 1914 Royal 10 (thanks to sevenels). Now if I can be so lucky as to find one in a thrift shop for $25….

Royal 10 twin window

Here is the last page written to date:

Did I mention there is a pony in the story? It’s a kid’s book! There has to be a pony. Or magic, or both!

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Fiacre’s Fork

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We visited the garden last week to look again at the plot and think about what would have to be done to get it ready for planting. Margie said we needed a pitchfork. Then we got to talking about the patron saint of gardeners, St. Fiacre. He’s also the patron saint of taxi drivers from an odd twist of fate having to do with where taxis used to come from in Paris, near the Church of St. Fiacre. Fiacre was born in Ireland in the 9th century, and his brother and he both became saints. So we began joking about St. Fiacre, as if he might be listening.

Jokingly about divine intervention we hit a few thrifts but didn’t see one pitchfork, although I did see an alpine ice axe. As we left I noticed a man buying it. No serious mountaineer would trust his life to a used ice axe; that I am certain of, as I am also certain the man was therefore no serious mountaineer. That made me wonder what he was going to do with it. Maybe he had a garden and planned to use the cutting end to hoe at the earth? Was he too seeking a pitchfork?

We checked out two stores where they sold new pitchforks. The first was $25, but M thought it was very heavy. I held it in my hands and had a look at it. On the fork part was stamped the word ‘Austria’. The handle was oak, and very thick. It was heavy duty, for sure. Next door a garden shop had one for $60. The handle was oak, but stained. I looked at the fork and there was the word ‘Austria’ stamped into the steel. This is the same tool with some more varnish, I said, hanging it back on the wall. They’re both too heavy, Margie said. I want one that’s lighter, the sort I remember from long ago. We came home with a bag of seed potatoes and a garden gnome. Later, Margie went to another garden supplier that had another heavy pitchfork for $100.

She went off to sing with friends and I went out to do errands. I decided to go down to the big thrift shop that’s always open. I hadn’t been there in a week due to the snow we had here, so it was time for a look see anyhow. I walked down to the back and saw a large cardboard barrel in which there were some shovels. Then I saw a cultivator. Thinking that might do for turning up dirt I lifted it out of the barrel, and saw that it was $5. Not bad, I had one useful gardening tool. There were several shovels too, nice ones, but we didn’t need any, so I resisted purchasing a cheap shovel.

Then I had one last look, and saw a red D handle of something that I assumed was probably an edger. I grabbed that and lifted it up when to my delight I recognized the prongs of a pitchfork, just like the one that stood in the corner of my parents’ garage 50 years ago. True Temper was stamped on the shaft, which was oak, but much thinner than those we’d already seen and rejected. The fork itself was lighter, too, with tines chamfered to reduce weight and make it easier to plunge into soil. The whole thing was half the weight of the modern ones we’d seen. It was $6. I decided to look where the others had been stamped, and there I saw the word ‘Eire’. Ireland, birthplace of St. Fiacre. In honour of our good fortune we named the new gnome Fiacre.

Bienstock, Einstein & Fiacre

Bienstock, Einstein & Fiacre

By the way, it’s not really a pitchfork, it’s a garden fork. The devil carries a pitchfork. It’s probably stamped ‘Austria’.

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Irish potato fork

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Detective Story

True detective brings you a tale of mistaken identity…

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The Community Garden Plot

We live in a town house with a tiny yard, if you can call it a yard, with a grand total of twelve square feet of garden, in which we have three hosta plants. Other gardening happens in a few pots of herbs and annuals that Margie takes care of every summer. Seeing as how Margie is thinking ahead to the day when she’ll have more time for gardening, in other words – the day she retires from her job – she’s been thinking about getting a plot at a community garden. Terry has had one of these for five years, and every summer we go over a few times to have a look and a picnic on occasion. It’s close by, a five minute drive at most, and is one of hundreds of plots that form a large farm like garden nestled in a lovely vale through which the creek that flows out of our lake here runs on its way to the ocean.

Thinking it would be a good idea to get her name on the waiting list, which she knew to be long enough that it usually took some years to get a plot, Margie called them two years ago and put her name down. She expected it might be up to five years before a plot came up, so she was surprised when a friend told her that they got a plot not long after they signed up. Then several days ago she got a call that there were two plots available. She contacted the man who takes care of new members, and arranged to go select a plot after work. He told her his address and added that he lived across from the gardens.

I picked Margie up at 3 pm and we set off for the gardens. When we got to the corner of the street where we always turned to visit Terry’s plot, Margie said this wasn’t the name of the street on which the man lived. Thinking it must be the next street over we drove down to the parking lot and took out our map, hoping to find said street close by. The name of the street was familiar but we couldn’t remember where it was exactly. Then we saw that it was not close by at all. Yet the man had said he lived across from the gardens, hadn’t he? Yes, he said that, Margie reiterated. Off we went up the main road about a half mile to the street. We were looking at numbers now, watching for his house when we noticed that on the right side of this street there was what looked to be a community garden, judging by a multitude of small plots.

Thinking this was a satellite segment of the gardens Terry’s plot belonged to, we parked and went to the door. We were expected, and the man got his coat on as we made small talk. Margie said that she had no idea this section of the garden existed, recounting how we thought the plot was to have been back at the site where we’d just been. He looked at us quizzically and informed us they were unrelated, distinct organizations. I looked at Margie, who looked at me, and we both laughed, but not too loud. Her name had been on the wrong list for two years. That explained how it was the person she knew had got a plot at the other garden before Margie, but now it was too late to do anything about that.

We inspected the two plots and selected one further from the road. It had a water spigot close by, and the plot gets full sun all day long in summer, good for a vegetable garden. Back at the house Margie duly signed forms, and then it was time to pay. The cost turned out to be less than one third of the other, and the plot to be only half as large; both facts to our advantage. Terry’s plot, at 1200 square feet, has always been too large to fully utilize, and this one will be more than enough at 500. The setting is not quite as idyllic as expected, but the purpose is more about growing vegetables, less about admiring scenery.

There is a compost bin and a worn out storage box on site. Vestiges of Swiss chard are here and there, waiting to be pulled out come spring, along with a variety of other green things left over from last summer. On the parking lot is a large pile of leaves left by the city for use as mulch and future compost. Off to one side are several small sheds, inside of which are lawnmowers and various tools. Beside one shed a number of wheelbarrows are stacked up and wrapped in a chain. The chain has no lock, but serves to deter casual theft of wheelbarrows by pranksters. The entire hillside is deserted now in winter, a patchwork of rectangles covered with dirt, tarps, box frames and dead plants.

Membership in the garden cost $10, and is for life. This entitles members to discounts at local garden supply houses. In a few months we will be selecting seeds and preparing the ground. Margie has already declared her intention to have peas, for which I will be required to build a trellis or two. However, we will not be able to transplant any of the grape vines that Terry has. He transferred his plot to a friend, since he will no longer be using it. We gave him some grape plants a few years ago, and they are just now beginning to spread and establish themselves. Perhaps cuttings from those will root and we will have our own grapevines one day. The good thing is the garden is no further from home than the one we were expecting, so we can drop in and give the plants water in a matter of minutes. Amazingly, we were informed that this garden hasn’t got a deer problem. Like us, the deer had no idea there was a garden here, which is why they all go to the other community garden, where for two years Margie mistakenly thought her name was on the waiting list.

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