cambridge book review

The Silent Witness

Steven Salmon

An excerpt from the novel, The Silent Witness


wheelchairStan hid inside the apartment for a couple of days. He began to miss being outdoors in the beautiful countryside surrounding Poynette. Stan reflected back to his adolescent years growing up. The Everest & Jennings new electric wheelchair crept along the gravel road on a cool summer’s day with no clouds in the sky. A farmer cut hay in a field while another farmer raked hay. Alfalfa fields and contoured strips of corn wove through the hilly terrain. Pastures nestled in valleys or alongside steep hills. New ranch-type houses had been built along the road and near the woods giving residents a secluded area to enjoy their privacy.

Stan sat in silence listening to the wind blow, sending strands of drool airborne. He loved to watch farmers bale hay, cultivate crops, harvest and plow. Neighbors honked their horns at Stan. What Stan loved the most was watching a bee land on a sprig of wild parsley or seeing a chipmunk dart across the road. Off in the distance loomed the Poynette water tower.

The wheelchair had a hitch on the back. Stan pulled a wooden drag fashioned out of two-by-fours. Nathan welded a hitch to the wheelchair’s rear end. The drag trailed behind the power chair smoothing out pockets of pebbles. If Stan saw a pile of hay on the road he pushed the broken bale into the ditch.

A farmer installed an entrance to a field to have easier access for his equipment. A load of gravel had been roughly spread over the drainage pipe. Stan spent the whole afternoon grading the entrance by slowly inching his way across the drive.

Stan drove past an olive ranch house. The wheelchair hummed past an ancient barbed wire fence. The fence posts leaned forward and rusty strands of barbed wire clung to the decaying posts.

Beyond the fence lay a narrow strip of tall prairie grass before it turned into woods. Stan saw the orange Poynette newspaper box ahead of him and gradually the driveway became visible. The wheelchair turned into the drive leading straight down into the woods. He paused for a minute before barreling down the hill. Stan saw Nathan on the tower adjusting his ham radio antenna. Nathan erected the tower on a hill overlooking a cow pasture. Stan put a firm grasp on the joystick before going down the hill. He had the biggest grin on his face rocketing down the hill. At the bottom of the hill lay a creek bed, and then the wheelchair climbed a smaller hill opening onto a meadow. Stan passed a brown sheet-metal shed where Nathan stored a John Deere tractor, a plow for plowing snow, a three bottom plow, a disk, a garden tractor, a red Chevy pickup truck and the tan van with the wheelchair lift.

* * *

One day after a thunderstorm Stan drove his electric wheelchair outside of the house. Amber warned him not to enter the newly seeded muddy yard. But he became bored going back and forth in front of the garage. Stan decided to run down the front yard hill for the fun of it. He became stuck at the bottom of the hill and spun his wheels digging the wheelchair deeper in a hole. He heard the front door open and then Stan braced himself.

“Goddammit, Stan, I told you not to go down the hill! You don’t listen! You’re so stubborn! You’re grounded!”

Amber struggled to push and pull the wheelchair up the hill to the porch. She transferred Stan from his power chair to his manual wheelchair taking him inside the house. She took him to his bedroom and left Stan in his room without supper. Amber made him stay in the bedroom until Nathan put Stan to bed.

She spent the rest of the afternoon and evening scraping off mud caked on the wheels, motors, belts and the brakes with a dull butter knife. She dug dried mud from a couple thousand notches on both of the rear wheels. Amber washed the entire wheelchair with a damp warm washrag. She dipped the rag in a plastic ice-cream pail with warm water and soap. Amber stared at the pair of zigzag wheelchair tracks tearing up the front yard, but she reminded herself that her son was like any other teenage boy getting into trouble. The electric wheelchair was clean for school the next day.

* * *

Stan stopped near a metal ramp leading up to the front door when he saw his father climbing down from the tower. Stan’s eyes looked at the newly seeded yard and the oak-stained house situated on a hill.

Nathan and Amber’s vegetable garden lay between the house and the back yard. A pile of scrap lumber was underneath the tower. Guy wires were anchored at different angles throughout the back yard to secure the tower. Sprigs of tender grass sprouted up through the sloping lawn. Woods surrounded the meadow on three sides creating a secluded place. Deer grazed during sunset in the prairie behind the house. A trout stream led farther back into the woods.

Stan heard the jingle of Nathan’s security belt. He turned his head to see Nathan approaching the porch.

Nathan grinned at Stan. “How was your ride?”

Stan blinked his eyes twice and laughed.

“That’s good. Ready to go in?”

Stan blinked yes again.

Nathan smiled. “Fine and dandy. Let me unhook you and we’ll go in.”

Stan nodded.

Nathan detached the pin from the drag and the wheelchair’s hitch. He stored the wooden implement in the garage. When Nathan came back, they disappeared inside the house.

Stan drove inside the barrier-free house. He headed down an entryway that opened onto a spacious living room and a kitchen. Stan raced his chair around a butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen.

Amber yelled, “Stop racing in the kitchen! And don’t go in the hallway if your wheels are muddy!”

Stan drove on the subflooring in the living room.

Nathan helped Amber prepare supper. “At least the bedrooms and hallway are carpeted,” he said.

“And don’t forget the roll-in shower to bathe Stan,” said Amber. “And the sink without a vanity to wash Stan’s hair.”

“Having all thirty-six-inch-wide doors allows Stan to go anywhere that he wants. Wait until I finish the elevator. Then he can roam the entire house!”

Stan smiled looking at the sliding doors in the corridor.

“When I get the basement walls sheetrocked and the rest of the area cleaned up, then I’ll turn my attention to the elevator. But I’ve to get the rocket business going first.”

Nathan had worked as an engineer for General Motors for twenty-one years. But he wanted to try something new.

Stan and Nathan liked shooting miniature rocketships at a beach or a wide open area. He watched Nathan launch rockets in the sky. The puffy white streaks against the blue skies fascinated Stan. Nathan decided to go into business marketing and selling rockets to hobby stores around the country.

Amber and Nathan Richards grew up in Poynette, Wisconsin as children. After they married and discovered they couldn’t conceive, the Richards adopted a baby boy. Slowly Stan’s mother noticed their son had difficulty holding up his head. Doctors diagnosed Stan with cerebral palsy. Some doctors advised the Richards that Stan should be put in an institution.

Amber refused to believe Stan was mentally retarded since his eyes lit up every time she spoke to him.

He always wanted to know why a particular instrument performed a specific function.

Amber bought oatmeal and flour at a mill near their house. The mill sat on the Wisconsin River in a quaint village called Portage. Maples and oaks surrounded the red three-storied building. Posts linked together with rope outlined the manicured lawn and the circular cinder drive.

One day Stan sat in the tan Econoline van waiting for Amber to come out of the mill. He had an intense expression in his eyes watching the buckets gathering water up and going down before pouring the water out.

When Amber saw Stan’s curious eyes pointing to the millrace, she said, “Let me guess. You want to know how the wheel goes around?”

Stan nodded. He didn’t understand how the mill generated power. It wasn’t visible to him.

“The wheel generates power to grind the grain into flour.”

Stan grinned and let out a moan sounding like oh.

The millrace reminded Stan of the white brick farmhouse where he grew up. The millrace and the farmhouse resembled parts of the past that somehow continued to withstand the ever-changing environment. The house sat on a grassy knoll surrounded by farm fields. Stan sat in his manual wheelchair watching farmers toil in the fields until dusk.

* * *

Stan loved to watch Nathan tap Morse code in his office into one of his ham radios communicating to hams across the world. It fascinated Stan; his father communicated with people by tapping on a key.

Stan sat in the mall at a table that displayed the ham club’s equipment.

People watched the hams demonstrate Morse code and how to operate the ham radios.

He was sitting next to Nathan when a stout muscular blond man with red trunks and high-heeled black boots strode up to the table.

The man shook Nathan’s hand.

“Hi, I’m Marko the Magnificent! Is this your son?”

“Yes, he is.”

“Well, I’m the wrestler for the Danco wrestling bear. Would your boy like to pet my bear?”

Stan looked frightened.

“Danco doesn’t hurt people like you; only men who are stupid enough to step into the ring to fight him. Would you like to meet Danco?”

Stan groaned and smiled.

“I’ll be right back.”

Marko disappeared. Several minutes later, he reappeared with the grizzly bear on a leash. A crowd gathered around Danco.

Nathan pushed Stan into the human circle.

Marko took Stan’s right balled fist to pet the bear between the ears. Marko asked, “Can he give Danco a Pepsi and an ice-cream cone?”

“I would have to help him hold it, but it’s doable.”

Someone fetched a Pepsi and a chocolate ice-cream cone from Baskin & Robbins.

Nathan pried open Stan’s right balled fist to place the cone in his hand.

Danco’s tongue licked the triple decker and then sucked the ice-cream cone out of Stan’s hand before it crumbled in his fist.

Nathan then lifted the bottle of Pepsi to Danco’s mouth with Stan’s fist on the bottom of the bottle.

The grizzly bear grabbed the soda pop from Nathan’s hand. Danco stood up on his hind legs guzzling down the ice-cold Pepsi.

Cameras flashed. The next day’s newspaper had a photograph of Stan smiling beside Danco drinking the Pepsi. The caption on the front page read, “A Special Boy Tames Bear.” The article recorded just another of Stan and Nathan’s adventures.

* * *

The members of Nathan’s ham radio club “adopted” Stan. In the summer the hams gathered to communicate in the jargon only they understood: “Oscar,” “Alpha,” “Delta,” “Tango,” “Papa,” “Zulu,” and the rest of the Roman alphabet could be heard echoing under the large tent as the sun glared. All day he and the club members sat under the tent until late evening. Nathan and Stan arrived early the next day to play with the radios.

The Richards helped strike and set up tents since Nathan had a pickup truck to haul the club’s gear. Nathan met the club members at a warehouse to pick up tents and gear for the ham’s showcase, but the building was locked. The men huddled together bewildered searching for an answer.

Stan laughed in the truck when the men came over to the passenger’s side of the pickup.

“All right, what’s so funny,” said Nathan.

The men looked in the direction Stan’s eyes pointed. Their hands rested on their chins thinking what Stan saw they didn’t see.

Suddenly one of the men said, “The back door.”

Stan let out a huge scream.

The man walked behind the sheet-metal building, and the door was unlocked. The tents and gear had been stacked inside the door.

The man yelled, “It’s here!” He waved to the other men to come help. The man carried a bundle of wooden stakes to the truck. He stopped at the passenger’s door and smiled at Nathan.

Stan’s laughter had caused him to slip down in his seat, and Nathan gave Stan a boost before he fell underneath the dashboard.

“Stan saved the day for us!”

Nathan beamed. “That’s my boy!”

Stan had another fit of laughter as he watched the men trudge back and forth loading the truck. When the ham radio club’s relay shack needed to be replaced, Nathan volunteered to do the job of hauling sand to build a cinder block building. The aluminum shack sat on a hill next to a two-hundred-foot steel tower out in the country.

Stan enjoyed the sand hauling; just being around his father was deeply satisfying and, of course, he liked watching the construction equipment.

Nathan took Stan in the pickup early one Saturday morning to meet Jerry to get a dump truck. Jerry, a ham from the club, was building cabins for the Boy Scouts. He planned to borrow a truck to haul sand.

Jerry had dug out a foundation for a scout cabin with a bulldozer when Nathan arrived. One of Jerry’s three dump trucks had broken down. He needed the other two trucks to keep moving earth and finish digging the foundation. Nathan knew Stan had looked forward to riding in a dump truck all week. Stan had ridden in tractors, combines and bulldozers but never rode in a dump truck before. Nathan radioed another ham named William and they met at a roadside café to locate some sand.

William worked as a contractor and knew a job site that had sand. He promised Nathan to have a loader load the sand in the pickup truck. When the men arrived at the development, Nathan and William had to shovel the sand by hand. Stan sat in the truck for two hours disappointed about not having a payloader to load the truck.

Nathan hopped into the cab exhausted, and said, “Sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned.”

Stan nodded. He started to understand what Nathan meant. People like doctors, wheelchair vendors and physical therapists always promised him a new electric wheelchair in two months, but it always took a year to receive a new chair.

Nathan started shoveling out the sand into a pile next to a cement mixer and bags of mortar. No one came to help Nathan.

“And sometimes people never see a person’s hard work. And sometimes you have to grin and bear it!”

At the time Stan wondered what Nathan meant. He worked harder and longer than anyone else to achieve his dreams. People kept putting obstacles in his path. People always said to Stan that he deserved the best, but when he needed a new power chair endless rules and procedures had to be followed. He was just another number to Medicare and Medicaid.

It confused Stan when he had to wait a year to receive a new electric wheelchair or an input, but at the same time people treated him like he was special. To Medicaid and Medicare physically disabled people are just numbers that had to wait their turn to be approved for specialized equipment. But he attended the mall, fairs, circuses and any social outing with his parents. At times a person might come up to Stan giving him money or offering to buy cotton candy or lemonade. He never asked or wanted these gifts that people gave him. It embarrassed and humiliated Stan. He saw himself as a curious normal boy asking questions, not a helpless cute cripple.

Nathan took Stan to ham radio swap meets where he bought or traded radios.

Stan stared at the radio knobs and grunted at Nathan until he explained what a specific knob did. He always wanted to know about everything no matter how small it was. Stan wanted a detailed explanation of what function a knob performed. He didn’t stop his questioning.

* * *

On a cloudy summer’s day Amber let Stan outside in his electric wheelchair to take a ride. She guided him down the steel ramp onto the driveway. Amber stared at the clouds in the sky.

Stan wanted to zoom up the hill when Amber said in a high tone of voice, “Now don’t make me come and have to find you like that time you were driving on Bora Road and a thunderstorm popped up. It was lightning all around us! There’s a thirty-percent chance of rain this afternoon. So you keep your eyes on the skies and don’t go very far. Hear me!”

Stan groaned.

Amber watched the Weather Channel each morning before Stan got up trying to figure out what to put on him for the day. The Weather Channel stayed on the TV all day. When a tornado watch or warning was issued, Amber rushed about the house getting ready to hide in the basement or a closet until the storm passed. If the temperature was too cold or hot, she didn’t allow Stan outside. If she saw a chance of precipitation in the area, Amber didn’t want to have to chase Stan down in a thunderstorm. She dressed Stan too warmly at times in the winter. She knew that Stan loved the outdoors, but she felt that she needed to protect him from the elements.

He didn’t like his mother’s overprotective attitude, but he understood. Stan knew that Amber’s word was final.

“I mean it!”

Stan nodded at her with drool dribbling down his chin before he turned to head up the hill.

* * *

He hated people that he knew were overprotective of him, like Mrs. King. Stan finished eating lunch in the cafeteria. Mrs. King wiped off his mouth and took off the paper towel protecting his shirt. He headed toward the door that led to the back of the school where the students were before Mrs. King stopped him.

“You can’t go out unless you have your coat and a hat on. You wait here and I’ll go get them.”

On days when Stan ate lunch and Mrs. King wouldn’t let him go outside due to coldness, he decided to visit Gina in the school office and flirt with her.

Stan appeared at the school secretary’s office when Mrs. King and the secretary ate lunch. He loved to sit teasing Gina and spending time with her alone.

But Principal Barlow showed up early one afternoon before the lunch ended. He stared at Stan while talking to Gina in his blue dress pants, white shirt, and pink and grey striped tie. The potbellied bald man with thick black bifocals said, “Stan, you shouldn’t be here! Gina is working. Please leave now! And don’t let me see you in the office at this time again!”

Stan left. He sat close to the music room door listening to the band rehearse on the days that he didn’t go outside. Stan felt alone as drool dripped on his shirt. The music played, but his loneliness increased with every beat eating his heart away.

Stan sighed.

* * *

He had saved his weekly two-dollar allowance for three months to purchase a clock radio for his bedroom.

Nathan took Stan to Roger’s Appliance store in downtown Poynette.

A heavyset middle-aged salesman observed Stan grunting to Nathan trying to decide what radio he wanted. The salesman watched them discuss the pros and cons of each brand.

“A General Electric is a wise choice. It’s durable and reliable.”

Stan smiled and nodded at Nathan, who replied, “That’s what I would have bought.”

Nathan pushed Stan to the sales counter to pay the salesman. The sales manager grinned at Nathan when he handed the radio to him. Nathan retrieved Stan’s wallet from his backpack to pay the salesman. Stan giggled and strands of drool hung from his bottom lip.

The manager wrapped the radio in a bag and handed the money back to Nathan.

“What’s this?”

The salesman grinned and said, “It’s a gift from Roger’s Appliance. I feel sorry for him being a cripple.”

Stan squawked and wildly flung his arms in anger at the manager.

“Calm down, Stan. He just doesn’t understand.” Nathan tossed the cash to the man. The salesman yelled, “I didn’t mean to make the cripple upset.”

Fortunately, Stan didn’t hear the salesman’s last comment.

* * *

Stan didn’t like when people were disrespectful and treated him as a cripple. It reminded him of an incident with his neighbor, Eric, who lived in the olive ranch house. Eric’s dad hunted muskrat, raccoon and deer in the large woodsy section nearby. Eric owned a BB gun. He shot at crows or at the bullseye target set up against a tree in the back yard.

Stan was driving his wheelchair on his way home one afternoon when he passed his neighbor’s house. Eric was shooting baskets in the front yard.

When Stan drove by, Eric stopped to stare at him.

He made monkey faces at Stan and yelled, “You’re a frisking drooling goat that needs to be shot!”

Stan kept on driving home. He heard a door snap open. He heard a click followed by a sharp ping. Both shots ricocheted off of the wheelchair’s hitch near the battery. One pellet flew past Stan’s head nearly missing his eye by inches.

Eric’s mother flew out of the front door after she heard the second shot fired. “Eric, you put that gun down immediately!”

Eric’s father Bill raced out of the house. He looked into Eric’s eyes.

“Do what your mother says now!”

Eric put the gun on the ground.

His mother said, “You get your butt in here right now!” She swatted him on his behind as he entered the house.

Bill ran over to Stan. “Are you okay?”

Stan blinked.

“I apologize and want you to know that will never happen ever again, I promise.” He walked Stan down to his house to explain what happened to Amber and Nathan.

Eric didn’t receive another gun until he learned to respect the privilege of having a gun.

* * *

He virtually had no friends all through school. It frustrated him at times not being able to talk to his peers. In his mind, he believed Gina was his “girlfriend.” In his heart he knew Gina was just a good friend. The word girlfriend sounded better in his head than a friend. His ultimate wish was to have a physical relationship with a woman. Stan dreamed of marrying a beautiful girl like Gina and spending the rest of his life with her. He wanted to have sex with Gina and fantasized various sex scenes in his mind.

Stan had a favorite sexual fantasy of Gina giving him a bath. He lay in the bathtub with Gina kneeling next to the tub and washing his entire body. She washed his hair first. Gina then dampened a washcloth with warm water before lathering the cloth with soap. Stan watched her wash all the parts of his body. She smiled at him as she washed his face. Gina proceeded down his body, lathering his arms, hands, fingers, armpits, neck, back, upper torso, buttocks, legs, feet and toes.

He looked up at her. His eyes directed her attention to his erect member.

She washed his testicles and then put the rag on his penis. Gina ran the washcloth up and down the shaft of his member. Gina deliberately went around and around the tip of his cock with the soapy washcloth. When Gina picked up his member to lather the base of his penis he ejaculated.

“You became too excited.” Gina grinned at him before squeezing the washcloth with warm water in between his legs to wash away the soap and semen.

He liked to sit in front of the girls’ locker room imagining a line of naked girls taking a shower after gym. Stan envisioned himself walking into the showers and watching the young women showering. When he had fantasies about women, Stan had the ability to stand and walk. He never wished that he could stand up. But Stan dreamed about having sex in an upright position as he made love. In this sexual fantasy Stan took off his clothes and went down the row of naked girls sticking his member into each girl. Gina was the last girl standing in line.

* * *

During science class a blonde touched Stan’s arm causing a boy to shout, “First comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes another retard in a baby carriage.” Sometimes a girl made eye contact and smiled at Stan. He flashed his big grin at the girl before he nodded.

One morning before second-hour Stan drove up to Gina’s locker to say hello. Robert pressed his body against Gina’s as they kissed.

Stan grunted.

Gina pulled away from Robert, and said, “Hi, Stan.”

She smiled.

He grinned.

Robert stared at Stan and said, “Go away, retard!” He glared at Stan and pointed to his bulging member. “You and I know what she wants. And that’s meat, pal! I’ve plenty of it and you don’t! So, leave!”

Stan backed his wheelchair away with his head bowed down.

Gina glared at Robert and tapped her right middle finger on Robert’s brawny chest. “Don’t you ever treat Stan that way again or I’ll break up with you. Stan will always be my friend and you better get used to it!”

Robert stood dumbfounded against Gina’s locker watching Gina run to catch Stan to apologize for Robert’s behavior.

She hugged Stan. Gina walked Stan to English class and talked about the English quiz they had next hour.

Stan instantly forgot Robert’s stupid comment.

* * *

Robert and some of his friends smoked pot under the gym bleachers the day before Christmas vacation.

Stan drove around the indoor track when he saw Robert. Stan said “Hi” to Robert.

The boys blew smoke at Stan and called him names. But Principal Barlow refused to take any action against the boys out of fear that they might hurt Stan.

After Christmas, Stan took Robert aside to express his feelings.

Robert patiently watched Stan’s right index finger spell out words on his communication board and forming a sentence. Robert read the words out loud: “If / you / ever / do / that / again / to / me / I / will / tell / Gina.”

Robert looked at Stan and said, “You go right ahead. Do whatever you want! I don’t care what you do! You moron!”

* * *

Stan lay in bed thinking about Gina. He woke up early Saturday mornings to have Nathan take off his pajamas.

His father had earlier discussed the birds and the bees with Stan, allowing him to explore the sexual pleasure of manhood. He covered Stan up before closing his bedroom door. In a couple of minutes Stan kicked off the covers. He stared down at his penis watching it become aroused. He imagined Gina lying naked beside him. Stan pictured her round firm breasts and taut nipples brushing against his skinny chest. He envisioned her smooth pale stomach and the hairy black triangle in-between her legs. Before Stan knew it he felt a tingle at the tip of his penis. Stan watched semen burst out of his member as he imagined he was having intercourse with Gina. It was these fantasies as well as Stan’s first wet dream giving him a physical connection to Gina that he would always remember.

In Stan’s sexual fantasies, he pretended to be Prince Charming who swept girls off their feet. Stan was surrounded with girls dressed in skimpy outfits at his beck and call. He wanted a physical relationship with a girl, but he knew deep down inside what he thought to be a horrible reality: no girl would ever kiss him or press her breasts against his drenched shirt.

Stan dreamt about taking Gina out on a date. He saw himself being with Gina at the movies and putting his arm around her shoulders.

She gave Stan a peck on the cheek causing Stan to laugh and disrupting the entire theater.

In the dream, people stared at the beautiful girl holding hands with the “cripple.”

* * *

Stan raced his electric wheelchair in mud or snow just like boys riding their bicycles. He wanted new records of Michael Jackson, Boy George, and The Talking Heads to play loud in the privacy of his bedroom with his parents threatening to turn the volume down. He dreamt about having friends to “hang out” with like his peers did on the weekend. Stan wanted to date. In his future, Stan pictured himself attending college, having a job and getting married just like anyone else.

Stan knew how society viewed the physically disabled; they were “special.” He cringed when he heard the word “special.” He always had to laugh when he was called “special.” If he could have talked, Stan would have said, “Go fuck off!”

No one believed he attended school except for his teachers, classmates, Principal Barlow and his aide, Mrs. King. He developed a hard exterior shell. Some people believed that Stan was delicate and innocent, but they hadn’t experienced the endless name-calling he endured each day at school. Stan had to build a wall to protect himself or the constant attacks would have eaten him alive.

* * *

The VFW gave a Christmas party for the disabled children in the community.

Stan’s bus driver, Sue Pleasant, organized the party in early December. Sue had a big heart for the children who rode her bus. She sang songs, made homemade apple butter and cookies for the children on Halloween. Her idea of Christmas was to get the children and their families together for a turkey dinner. Santa Claus came bringing presents. Pictures were taken with Santa.

He was tired of being “special.” Earlier that day a boy at school had called Stan a retard bastard.

People’s noble deeds embarrassed Stan like when Santa Claus gave him a stack of candy canes at the VFW Christmas party.

He saw the Easter Bunny hopping down Main Street. Stan looked the other way to avoid being hugged by the Easter Bunny.

When the Poynette high school eagle mascot embraced Stan after Robert threw a last-second touchdown pass to beat Point, he feared that Gina saw the Eagle hugging him.

But she didn’t see the embarrassing moment. Gina ran over to Stan to get him to join in the celebration taking place at midfield.

At times he didn’t mind clowns coming up to give him candy. One of the few perks of having cerebral palsy was going to places with Nathan and receiving candy from people. Stan rode in the pickup when Nathan cashed a check at the bank. He grinned from ear to ear at the bank teller. The teller put a Dum Dum sucker in the envelope of the deposit. Before Nathan drove away he took off the wrapper from the sucker and popped the Dum Dum into Stan’s giant mouth. Stan laughed.

When Nathan pulled ahead he said, “You’re way too old to be getting a sucker, you know. You’re thirteen years old for heaven’s sake.”

Stan bowed his head feeling ashamed, but he enjoyed sucking on the cherry Dum Dum. Stan imagined the sucker to be a woman’s nipple.

Stan liked going into the Ace Hardware store on Main Street since Harold Swanson gave away free beef jerky sticks to children who came into the store.

Gina helped Harold on Saturday mornings ring-up customer’s purchases while Harold restocked the selves. It gave Gina a way to earn extra spending money to buy the Chic jeans she always wore and to afford pizza at Happy Joe’s.

Before Gina started working on Saturdays, he sat in the truck when Nathan walked inside to buy what he needed.

Stan liked to watch the traffic pass by on Main Street as he sucked on his Dum Dum. He waited for Nathan to return.

Stan entered the store howling.

Harold dropped a bundle of copper fittings on the floor.

Gina knew immediately who it was without seeing Stan. “Stan is here. I’d know that howl anywhere.”

Stan yelped and laughed.

She came over to hug Stan.

“You always scare me half to death when you howl like that,” Harold said.

Nathan replied, “I’m sorry about that, Harold, but when he sees Gina he goes crazy.”

Harold laughed.

Gina said, “Are you ready for the history test on the Industrial Revolution on Monday?”

Stan blinked.

“I haven’t studied for it yet. Mrs. Andrews is the most boring person I know! I hate her pop quizzes. I wish that I had your photographic memory, Stan. You’ll ace the quiz.”

Stan giggled.

“Be right back, Stan. I’ve got to ring-up a customer.” She walked behind the cash register to ring-up a customer’s purchase before she returned to Stan. Gina watched Stan point to letters on his communication board spelling out words to her. Sometimes she laughed or screamed, “That’s not true!” She stopped talking to Stan when a patron had to be waited on.

Sometimes Gina didn’t always have time to speak to Stan.

He worried Gina didn’t want to be friends anymore. Stan moped the rest of the day wondering if he had done something wrong.

The next day Gina talked to Stan like nothing had happened. Their friendship reminded Stan of a giant rabbit’s foot he kept dear to his heart.


Steven Salmon has severe cerebral palsy. He uses a voice recognition computer since he is unable to use his hands. Steven uses Morse code and a word prediction software program called CoWriter. He writes every day (a process he has shared on YouTube). Steven has published three books, Buddy Why, The Unusual Writer, and Cat’s Tail. He has a Bachelor of Science in English from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He also has an associate degree from Madison College where he freelances as a writing assistant. His mission in life is to educate people that the severe physically disabled are and can be valuable contributing members of society if given a chance to succeed. Currently, he is writing his sixth book. He loves basketball and the Green Bay Packers. Steven lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel | , , , , | Leave a comment

Bad Axe

Ann Morrison

An excerpt from the novel, Bad Axe


Photo: Ann Morrison

The mellifluous tones of Arnie Arneson, reading the week’s obituaries, greeted John as he entered the kitchen. Elaine was standing over the stove top, frying bacon and eggs, and Floyd was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee—black, of course—from a white stoneware cup. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, usually reserved for church.

John poured himself a cup of coffee and said, “Breakfast smells good,” as he searched the refrigerator for the half-and-half.

“Shh,” admonished Elaine. She was listening intently to the radio.

A few minutes later, after the death report, Arnie turned it over to Merle Haggard. We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, We don’t take our trips on LSD . . . Elaine served the men their bacon, eggs, and toast and then sat down herself. John pondered the eternal question as he chewed: Was Merle Haggard serious when he wrote “Okie from Muskogee,” or was his intention tongue-in-cheek? The singer had been arrested at the Milwaukee airport several years ago for possession—everybody knew that. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse. Oh yeah, it was Memorial Day. He thought about the cocaine stashed in his closet and the marijuana he was growing at the old Gateman homestead and felt a wave of guilt. He took a gulp of his creamy coffee and it passed.

“Stump Yanske’s funeral going to be at the Jensen Funeral Parlor or the Haugrud?” asked Floyd. “I didn’t quite catch it.”

“At Haugrud’s on Thursday. We’d better at least go to the visitation and sign the book,” said Elaine.

John continued eating with relish, bringing his fork to his mouth with his left hand, in English fashion. When he first arrived in the United States, he had made an attempt to use his fork with his right hand, like Americans did, but he was left-handed anyway and had quickly given up. He felt healthy this morning, free of the hangover he’d suffered the day before yesterday, after the senior party.

“Did you hear about the holdup at the Quick Stop Friday night?” asked Floyd.

John and Elaine nodded; of course they had heard about it. They knew Floyd’s question was largely rhetorical, but he had been to coffee at Little Chicago yesterday, after church, and was eager to share the information he had gathered.

“Apparently they had a sawed-off shotgun and got away with over ten-thousand dollars. They were wearing ski masks, so nobody could tell who they were. I bet they were some of those city people who’ve moved up here from Chicago. Chief Larson wouldn’t say a word about it. He says he’s gonna leave it up to his deputy to investigate.”

“Well, if I know one thing, there’s no way that little gas station could have had that much cash in the register,” said Elaine. “You can’t believe everything those old gossips up to the restaurant say.”

John silently agreed. The entire village of Harmony consisted of a tavern, five residences—one of them being Leroy’s tumble-down farmhouse and barn—a boat ramp, and the Harmony Quick Stop gas station. Even though it was located on a main highway, it didn’t do a big business.

“It looks like Chief Larson is finally going to retire,” said Floyd.

“That’s too bad,” said Elaine. “Let’s see if young deputy Hauge can put his fancy-pants degree to work and solve that crime.”

On the radio, Arnie Arneson introduced Pete Towner, owner of Towner’s Dime Store, who hosted the WBDX game “Man on the Street,” Pete being the Man. The Memorial Day parade was today, and John realized that WBDX was broadcasting from uptown. “Man on the Street” consisted of Pete, standing on the corner of Main and Decker, challenging passersby to guess which card he was holding up. If they guessed correctly, they were awarded fifty cents.

“Well, here’s a guy who’s quite a regular on the show,” Arnie announced. “Jeff Manning.”

“Isn’t that Leroy’s little brother?” asked Elaine.

John nodded.

“Okay, young man,” Pete Towner was saying. “Can you tell me which card I’m holding up?”

“Queen of spades,” they heard Jeff answer.

“You’re right!” said Pete. “I suppose you want your fifty cents?”

“Yes, sir,” said Jeff.

Floyd frowned. “That kid sure seems to win a lot.” John smiled. He knew that Leroy’s youngest brother had memorized the marks on the back of Pete’s beat-up old cards and wondered how long it would take Pete and Arnie to catch on.

“I heard that there senior party of yours”—Floyd turned the words “senior party” around his mouth as if he were tasting something sour—“down at Harmony Hollow Lake, turned into a downright riot.”

“I don’t know about that  … ” started John.

Floyd didn’t let him finish. “They said up to the restaurant that every single picnic table was burned down to a crisp, and that the shelter was half tipped over.” He gave his nephew a pointed look as if he were personally responsible for the world going to hell. “Somebody’s gonna have to pay for that damage, you know.”

John knew he should remain quiet, but sometimes, when Floyd exaggerated so wildly, he couldn’t refrain. “How on earth would anybody be able to tip over the shelter without a bulldozer?” he asked.

Elaine stepped in. “Do you know this long-legged hound here didn’t get home from it until ten o’clock on Saturday morning?”

“I told you, Grandma, we got stranded down there. I wasn’t planning on going in the first place. There aren’t any phones down at Harmony Hollow, or I would have called.”

“Us old ladies get worried, that’s all. All I’m asking is to know you’re not laying dead in a ditch somewhere.”

“I’m sorry. Next time I’ll walk to a phone if I have to.” Elaine and Floyd fretted about enough things already and dragged him in on their nervousness far more than he wanted. John certainly didn’t want to add fuel to their fire. He stood up to get started on his day. Elaine pulled a perfect, lattice-topped rhubarb pie from the oven and set it upon a wire cooling rack on the kitchen counter.

When he walked to his room to get dressed, Elaine called out behind him, “I don’t want you wearing those holey jeans when we go uptown later.”

He hadn’t realized he was expected to come with them to the parade and the cemetery service. He certainly hadn’t planned on it, but as he was already in the doghouse for not coming home Friday night, he decided not to resist.

“Can I at least wear jeans, if they’re not too faded?” he called out from his room.

“Ja, you can. I bought you two new pairs of Penney’s pants, the day before yesterday.”

John groaned out loud. JC Penney Plain Pocket jeans were absolutely loathsome, in addition to which the word “pants” still made him flinch. In England, pants were underwear, worn under trousers. He thought mutinously about his grandma’s purchase. Hadn’t they been over this issue enough? It was Levi’s or nothing at all. Elaine, however, couldn’t see her way to buying jeans that cost twice as much as ones that appeared, to her eye, exactly the same. So John bought his own Levi’s using the money he earned at the theater.

Looking in his closet, he spotted the reviled jeans. Draped over a hanger, with permanently ironed creases in front, they were dark, dark blue with unfashionably belled bottoms. Straighter-legged jeans were coming into style. He took off the comfortably broken-in Levi’s he had worn to breakfast and pulled on the Penney’s pants. “I look like a dork,” he said to his reflection in the mirror. He took a silky shirt with a vivid paisley pattern he liked off another hanger and slipped it on, leaving the two top buttons undone.

By the time they were ready to go, his grandma had changed into a bright red double-knit polyester pantsuit. A white blouse with blue polka dots peaked from beneath the blazer. She had accessorized with red clip-on earrings and a red, round-bead plastic necklace. Floyd wore a dark pair of cotton old-man pants, as John thought of them, and his white, rayon church shirt.

“Are you sure you won’t be cold in short sleeves?” Elaine asked.

Floyd answered with a noncommittal grunt. Elaine handed John the pie before walking out the door. Floyd folded two chrome lawn chairs and set them into his car’s voluminous trunk.

As they drove uptown in Floyd’s Oldsmobile, John, in the back seat, held the pie on his lap. The car was less than a year old and immaculate. It still had that new car smell. Although Floyd could have afforded a Lincoln, or even a Cadillac, after he sold the farm, a new Oldsmobile had been plenty good enough. He cared little for parting with his money, and like most of the older Norwegians in the area, put little store in showing off.

“I hope we’re not too late to get a decent parking spot,” said Floyd, as he pulled onto the highway. But despite his apparent hurry, John noticed that the speedometer’s needle never crossed the forty-five mile per hour mark the whole way to town.

There was ample parking available when they got uptown. A few people were scattered along the two business blocks, but probably fewer than fifty in total. Floyd parked around the corner from the State Bank.

“Are you sure this parade starts at ten o’clock and not ten-thirty?” he asked as he retrieved the lawn chairs from the trunk.

“Positive,” said Elaine. “I read it in the paper.”

“Harrumph,” said Floyd. “I guess nobody gives a hoot about this country anymore. Things have gone to hell in a handbasket, if you ask me.”

“This used to be quite the parade when I was a young girl,” said Elaine.

Floyd put their chairs on the sidewalk in front of the old Gateman Opera House. John sat down on the concrete curb in front of them, feeling fed up with their insistence that nothing in his own supposed day measured up to the past. It made him feel left out. He had missed out on knowing Bad Axe as a thriving community. He despaired of coming of age in the late seventies; it was a nothing time, not full of patriotism and optimism like the forties or fifties, or fun and social revolution like the sixties. What did his generation stand for? Nothing, he supposed, other than generalized worrying, about recession, careers, who knows what—just a general sense of malaise as they looked toward an uncertain future.

John listened as Floyd went on. “I wish the stores were still open on Friday nights instead of Thursdays. If you ask me, changing it was for the birds.” He was talking with an elderly couple who had unfolded their lawn chairs next to his and Elaine’s. “We used to come up early on Fridays to get the parking space in front of the dime store,” he continued. “We’d sit there half the night visiting.”

The man next to Floyd agreed. “Everybody was uptown on Friday nights those days.”

“We certainly had mobs of people in the store,” said Elaine, looking back at the Opera House and sighing. “There was barely room to swing a cat.”

John spotted Otto, Sirenus, and Ikey across the street, leaning against the theater’s marquee, and waved at them. He could tell Otto was trying to catch Elaine’s eye, but she was still talking with the couple next to them.

The sounds of drums and trumpets echoed down the street. A minute later, the middle school band slouched around the corner one block away. They trudged down Main Street, playing the theme from Hawaii Five-O. Their uniforms were awkwardly retailored hand-me-downs from the high school band, for whom they had been purchased shortly after the Korean War.

John remained seated on the curb as Miss Bad Axe and her two attendants rolled past, sitting on the back of the back seat of a convertible, smiling and performing their figure-eight, beauty-queen wave. Miss Bad Axe, despite being somewhat homely, was resplendent in her apricot-colored formal, rhinestone tiara, and creamy, elbow-length gloves. A satin sash with “Miss Bad Axe—1978” spelled out in glitter was draped diagonally across her chest. She was a girl in the grade below John’s, an overachiever, much like Suzanne, he thought. After all, hadn’t Suzanne been Miss Bad Axe last year? He couldn’t remember for sure; he’d have to ask her. Maybe she had been a runner-up or something. A wave of happiness and desire washed through him as he thought about their night in the tent. They were planning to meet this afternoon. He couldn’t wait. I am so in love, he thought, but quickly told himself to snap out of it. He didn’t want to look foolish and scare her off.

Jill De Garmo, in the Girl Scout formation, approached. She wildly waved a tiny American flag at him as she walked by. He smiled and waved back, glad to see she had gotten her flag.

“Stand up, Johnny,” he heard his grandma order. She and Floyd had already creaked to their feet.

Those two would force me to my feet if they thought they smelled a flag five blocks away, he thought, but he stood up.

John, having spent most of his life in Western Europe, never failed to wonder at the idolatrous reverence Americans had for their flag. But he had never spoken these traitorous thoughts aloud, not even to Leroy.

He sat back down, sprawled his long dark blue–clad legs into the street, and watched the Kiwanis, Lions, and Eagles go past, waving and grinning, perched atop decorated hay wagons pulled by pickups. He got to his feet again when he spotted the American flag leading the Bad Axe High School band up the street. They marched, far more in step than the middle school band had, playing the theme from the rock opera Tommy. That’s an odd song to pick, John thought, listening to the clarinets squeak out the too-high chorus. He waved at Leroy’s little brother Henry, who was in the fifth row playing snare drum. Henry nodded back and smiled, not missing a beat. A squad of scraggly pom-pom girls in white go-go boot—the girls who had been either too chubby or too shy to make cheerleading—performed their routine behind the band.

The parade wrapped up with the VFW and Legion color guards marching to a slightly slower beat than the high school band in front of them. The men, with the beat of Tommy in their ears, were having trouble keeping in step. John didn’t bother sitting back down; with a dozen or more American flags in a two-block radius, it wouldn’t be worth the effort. He wondered why Elaine and Floyd had bothered bringing chairs in the first place. Leroy’s father, Mooney Manning, a Korean vet, marched by carrying a rifle in the Legion color guard, next to Leland Hendrickson and a few more of his tavern buddies. Halfway down the block, they executed a backward step and, after a barked command, shot their guns straight up in the air. John jumped. I’ll never get used to that, he thought, but kept his mouth shut.

“Well, that parade doesn’t amount to much anymore,” said Floyd as he folded up the chairs. “Half of the people here didn’t even put their hands over their hearts when the flag went by. You didn’t either, Johnny. Do you think you’re too good to show respect to America?”

John shrugged. He wasn’t remotely interested in opening up this can of worms.

“Nobody respects the flag anymore,” Floyd continued, grumbling under his breath.

They hurried back to the Oldsmobile, John bringing up the rear. There were only about twenty cars uptown, but Floyd said he didn’t want to fight the traffic on the way to the cemetery.

“Keep an eye on that pie back there,” said Elaine when John got in the back seat. “We don’t want it getting smashed when Floyd goes around the corners.”

Fat chance, John thought with a smile. Floyd never drives over five miles an hour in town. He put his hands on the sides of the pie tin anyway, as if steadying it, and closed his eyes, imagining his uncle speeding around a corner so fast that his lumber wagon of an Oldsmobile lifted itself onto two wheels.

Floyd crawled down Governor Street, through the oldest residential area in town, gripping the steering wheel with all his might. Who in Bad Axe would have ever had enough money to build such gorgeous, ornate Victorian homes? John wondered. His heart softened a bit toward Floyd and Elaine. He knew it must be painful, having lived their whole lives in this town, to witness its deterioration, bit by bit, with every passing year.

“Tell Otto he needs to mow his lawn, Johnny!” said Elaine, as they passed by a slightly dilapidated white Victorian. “It doesn’t look like he’s done it yet this spring and he knows people drive around looking on Memorial Day.”

John remained silent as Elaine continued.

“If he can’t do it himself anymore, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. None of us are getting any younger, you know. He should get some kid to help him. Why don’t you do it?”

John didn’t answer. He would certainly be willing to mow Otto’s lawn, but the subject would be awkward to broach.

Floyd pulled up to the cemetery on the edge of town and parked across the street from Wyman Hauge’s sprawling new split-level house. It was an imposing, dark brown structure with a two-car garage, walk-out basement, and small aluminum windows.

John studied the basketball hoop above the white concrete driveway and noted that Doug’s Camaro occupied one of the garage bays. The backyard was totally enclosed with eight-foot-tall privacy fencing.

“What on earth are they doing back there that they don’t want folks to see?” asked Floyd.

John smiled. He had been used to privacy fencing back in London, but he agreed that it looked out of place in Bad Axe.

“What I want to know,” said Elaine, looking at the house and shaking her head, “is how on earth that man can afford to buy up half of Main Street, right after he built this great big house.”

“Wyman Hauge owes everybody in town,” said Floyd, “but I guess that’s how young folks do business these days. Sure wasn’t like that when we were growing up. He never lived through the Depression. Remember how he used to beat his kids in church, of all places?”

“Is it true he bought that trailer park south of town?” asked Elaine.

“That’s what I’ve been hearing,” said John.

“That man will do anything for a dollar,” she said. “I hear his son the police officer is building a brand-new house on the other side of town.”

That’s probably why he’s dealing, thought John. To pay for a bunch of new toys.

A pair of black, wrought-iron gates, with the year 1925 inscribed on the top, marked the entrance to the municipal cemetery. An even older cemetery sat behind the Legion clubhouse, but when Bad Axe was expanding in the early decades of the century, the town council had created a new, bigger one on the edge of town. As there hadn’t been a lot of growth since 1925, it was still bordered by farmland. John’s great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Gateman, had originally been buried in the old cemetery, but his body was dug up and moved to this one sometime in the late twenties.

John trailed behind Elaine and Floyd, who were walking as fast as their legs could carry them toward the white gazebo where the Memorial Day services were always held. Floyd had dragged the lawn chairs with, and set them up next to the World War I memorial, a field of white marble crosses commemorating the men from Bad Axe who hadn’t made it home from France.

Elaine joined a group of brightly clad old ladies. “Those are lovely petunias you put next to Jack’s flag this year. Where on earth did you get them?” John heard one of them ask, as he sat down on the grass.

John’s grandfather, Jack, had managed the Veterans of Foreign Wars club all through the fifties and early sixties, and Elaine was still a member of the Auxiliary. She had told John that “the girls and her” had spent Friday at the cemetery, pushing hundreds of little American flags into the soil above the veterans’ graves. Jack had served as a master sergeant in the Pacific during World War II, and a lot of men from Bad Axe County had been in his unit. His army uniform still hung in the attic.

The crowd rose to their feet when the VFW color guard raised their American flag on a pole next to the gazebo. The Legion vets were somehow lower on the food chain than the VFW vets and made no move to compete for the only flagpole. John studied Mooney Manning’s bulbous red nose, watching as he juggled his rifle with shaking hands, trying to light a cigarette. He wondered where Leroy was today, and felt glad that Mooney only had blanks in his gun. A heavyset woman, from the Legion Auxiliary, stepped onto the gazebo’s platform and recited a poem that extolled, in rhyming verse, the virtues of The Flag. John surmised that there were more than a hundred people in the crowd, and noted that most had gray hair. His grandma had recently remarked on how all the World War II vets were slowing down, and he saw direct evidence of this today. Other than the members of the high school band, for whom attendance was mandatory, John realized he was the only young person present. A few middle-aged men were there, men who had come of age in the fifties, men who were a part of that conservative generation that, so it seemed to John, were afraid of breaking any rules. They paled in the long shadow of the bolder, more glamorous generation that directly preceded them—the generation that had lived through the Depression and won World War II. His father had come of age in the fifties, and John wondered how he had turned out so much more interesting than the men that stood before him. Maybe he had been different from the start. Maybe that was why he left the United States in the first place.

Then he thought about Bill, who had served a tour in Viet Nam. Bill never talked about it, even when he was drinking heavily, which was pretty much all of the time. John scanned the audience and noticed that the Viet Nam vets were conspicuous for their absence.

A freshman band kid he didn’t know stepped onto the platform and recited the famous poem about Flanders Field. Next, the minister of Bethlehem Baptist Church gave a sermon the point of which seemed to be, to John’s ears anyway, that if you didn’t believe in the flag, God wanted you the hell out of this country. John attempted to tune him out. Someone, hidden behind a knoll, played taps, and more blanks were fired. The Memorial Day ceremonies were officially over. John felt relieved.

He stood up and saw his grandma wipe a tear from her eye and suddenly felt ashamed of his impatience. For Elaine, and many of her generation, this was a day of remembrance, a way of honoring the love she had had for her husband and the many other friends who had passed away. Otto loped toward them from behind the knoll, trumpet in hand. He had been the one playing taps.

“Will I see you at the VFW fish fry later?” he asked Elaine.

“I don’t think we’ll make it this year,” she answered. “After I go visit Jack, Floyd and I are going out to put flowers on Ma and Pa’s graves down at Vangen. My circle is serving at the church dinner.”

“I’ll walk with you for a ways then,” said Otto. “I’m planning to stop by my folks’ too.”

Otto’s family was buried right past the Gatemans’ plots, so they walked along the winding blacktop path, beneath the fragrant cedars’ shade, reminiscing about bygone people of the town.

“I know them,” Elaine said, pointing at several small headstones chiseled with the name Decker.

“Yup, that old Sam Decker was something else,” agreed Otto, smiling. “He was Sirenus’s uncle, you know.”

Elaine nodded. Of course she knew.

John realized that the people in the cemetery played as big a part in their daily consciousness as did the live people with whom they dealt every day.

When they stopped at the Gateman burial area, Otto gave Jack’s stone a small salute and continued toward his own family plot. John looked down at his grandfather’s grave. It had a newer black marble marker, with grandma’s name already chiseled alongside Jack’s. Jack Eugene Gateman, 1910–1969, it said on the left, and Elaine Mae Gateman, 1913–, on the right. Seeing his still-living grandmother’s name on a gravestone made him shiver. A tall white obelisk, lichen-covered and mossy, had GATEMAN, in old-fashioned lettering, inscribed on it. It loomed large behind various individual markers, some old, some newer, like his grandparents’ modest black one.

Many of the stones in the cemetery had reddish orange geraniums planted in front of them. These were part of a “perpetual care” package offered by the cemetery board for a fee—usually paid by descendants who had moved away. Elaine filled the plastic ice-cream bucket that hung on a metal spigot nearby and unceremoniously dumped the water into a raised flowerpot next to her husband’s grave.

“That’ll do for a few days,” she said. She was always practical.

John followed as they meandered back through the cemetery, talking more about the dead people they were acquainted with. They passed back through the metal gates to Floyd’s car.

“See you later,” said John.

“Aren’t you coming to the church with us?” asked Elaine.

“I’ve got some stuff to do at the theater.”

“What could be so darn important there that you can’t come with us?” asked Floyd.

“Oh, let the boy go. He’s got his own responsibilities,” said Elaine.

“Yes, the show must go on,” said John, feebly attempting to shake the scowl off Floyd’s face.

Floyd gave him a wave as he pulled out. He was forgiven.

His new jeans swished uncomfortably on the walk uptown. He suddenly realized that he and his grandmother were the only Gatemans left in Bad Axe who weren’t six feet under. Maybe that could be remedied if he had a lot of kids. The thought made him smile.

On Governor Street he smelled the newly mown grass and looked at the expansive houses, set well back from the shady street. He loved this part of town. It had a feeling of permanence. He didn’t even mind Otto’s house. It was homey in its shabbiness, with its old stone hitching post by the front walk, and a grapevine that obscured the front porch. Otto’s garage, tucked neatly to the rear, had originally been a carriage house. Looking at the bumper crop of gone-to-seed dandelions, though, he had to admit that his grandma was right about the lawn needing a trim.

Who wants a drive-in house like the Hauges? John thought. These old ones seem friendlier. He shook his head; his mind was starting to sound like Floyd.

His heart skipped, anticipating meeting Suzanne in a few minutes. He felt a thorough and unaccustomed happiness and quickened his pace. When he got uptown and crossed Main Street at the south stoplight, he spotted her leaning against the theater’s foyer, just as he and Leroy had done for countless hours over the last couple of years. His heart went to his throat. When she caught his eye and waved, he broke into a large, involuntary smile. So much for playing it cool, he thought, full of joy.

She was wearing a rust-colored, cap-sleeved T-shirt that showed off her figure and brought out the highlights in her dark hair, and a pair of fifty-dollar Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. He became aware again of his cheap, unfashionable Penney’s Plain Pockets.

His heart beat rapidly when he opened the theater’s front door and pulled her in behind him.


Ann Morrison is a fifth-generation native of Viroqua, Wisconsin, her great-great-grandfather Nathanial having been one of the town’s founders. At eighteen, she left, as did many of her peers, and attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison. After college, she spent several years in southern California, then left the United States, moving to East London, where she lived in a squatting community for over a decade.

She returned to Viroqua in 1998 to raise her daughter Judy. She has been a regular feature contributor to the Kickapoo Free Press and the Vernon County Broadcaster. Her stories have been published in the collection Spirit of America, published by Speranza Publishing of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | novel | , , , | 10 Comments

The Tiger’s Wedding

James Dante

An excerpt from the novel, The Tiger’s Wedding (Martin Sisters Publishing 2013)

[All of the travel literature described Korea as the “Land of the Morning Calm.” So naturally when Jake St. Gregory, a thirty-year-old accountant from Burbank, California, accepts a teaching position in Seoul, he expects a serene escape. Instead, he finds himself in a chaotic relationship, hospitalized, scrambling for money, and then jailed. His pending deportation should come as a relief. But Jake can’t bear the thought of losing Jae-Min, the woman who is the one source of true happiness in his life. Jae-Min, the wife of an abusive husband, has her own turmoil to resolve. Torn between the old Korea and the emerging one, between kimchi and McDonald’s fries, she symbolizes that country’s lost generation. In this tale, set during a pivotal time, their mutual search for happiness draws them together. Ultimately, it might be a fracturing nation that keeps them apart.]



Traditional Korean wedding. Photo: James Dante.

Jae-Min never thought of herself as mysterious or complex, so, naturally, she enjoyed my treating her as such. Photographs and objects around Sun-Hee’s home prompted my curiosity, a few times leading to answers too candid for my comfort.

Sun-Hee’s spare bedroom, before converting it into a mini-classroom, had the effect of a time capsule. In addition to the keepsakes, she held on to the small black-and-white TV once the sibling magnet of their childhood home. As a teenager Jae-Min spent much of her life in front of that old Samsung. With it, the broader world pierced her countrified existence. Jae-Min watched the reports on the assignation of President Park and the pro-democracy movement in the city of Gwangju, close to her own town.

Even more captivating, ABBA was conquering the international music world. The American armed forces channel often televised the band’s concerts. Jae-Min never missed a broadcast. She showed me her vinyl copy of Dancing Queen, which she had as a girl played and replayed until scratches overtook the music. Sadly, she must have realized that the four Swedes would probably never visit Chollanam-do, the southwestern region of Korea known mostly for its melons.

Jae-Min’s maternal instincts were encouraged early on. Every morning she awoke at five with her mother and elder sister. Before school they made certain that a whole day’s worth of rice had been cooked, that enough barley tea was brewing, and that each of the younger heads got scrubbed and checked for lice. By five a.m. her father would be starting the early church service. Although the ministry had insulated them from the worst sort of poverty, they never prospered much above their neighbors.

She flattered her father with talk of joining the ministry, though her parents doubted the rural community would easily accept a woman of the cloth. Jae-Min set out to direct the congregation toward heaven, not with thundering oratory but with music. Three times a week, she played piano and sang before the small but intense group. She saved up her money and purchased a cheap violin, and before long her nimble fingers found the right harmonies.

During her last year of high school, the church hierarchy relocated Reverend Oh and family to one of Seoul’s poorer areas. His mission was to capture as many of the Pope’s wayward sheep as possible. Jae-Min soon realized she lacked the zeal to follow her father’s calling so closely. Her love of music, however, continued to grow. Right after high school, with the help of a scholarship, she began her music studies at a small Christian university.

By the time Jae-Min finished her studies, Sun-Hee had become old enough to take over Jae-Min’s chores. By then, in the eyes of Jae-Min’s parents, every single male at church became a potential catch.

A relatively young man named Mr. Kim joined Reverend Oh’s church. He was the mechanic who kept their truck humming along. Jae-Min and the man had met at church but never really talked until one winter night when he came to the house with his jumper cables. Of course, her father would’ve preferred his daughter meeting a university graduate, but she was after all twenty-four, and the man did earn a decent living with Hyundai Motors.

At her mother’s insistence, Jae-Min agreed to host a dinner for the two families. Mr. Kim didn’t exactly, as they say, sweep Jae-Min off of her feet. He did, however, appeal to her with his strong looks and rugged manner. A woman is almost certainly flattered and amused when this type of man plays the part of the perfect gentleman. When they started dating, Mr. Kim began attending church regularly, a bargain price for securing a virgin.

A combination of his pressuring and her curiosity led her to a downtown hotel where he awaited. Her life soon changed in ways unexpected. With each encounter, the place between innocence and marriage grew more distressing for her. Then one day the affair became the favorite topic of church chatter, causing the parish males to begin looking upon her with that peculiar combination of contempt and interest.

Although the thought holds great appeal, there was no point in my believing she never loved him. Of course she loved him. What livable choice did she have?

The nation changed during the course of their marriage. Martial law ended. Despite the deep boot prints, democracy sprouted from the Korean soil. They built structures that seemed to reach for the heaven they lacked on earth. University women began seeking careers as well as men with good earnings potential. Jae-Min sensed her own life contrasting with all of this. For this reason she embraced the opportunity to teach at Ripe Apple Language Institute. Her husband allowed her to work, providing she kept up on her domestic duties. She thought the extra money would pave over the potholes in their marriage. Instead, expectations from both of them grew. At some point she must’ve realized that she was trying to pave over a canyon.

Now she talked of divorce.


James Dante is originally from Western New York, a place where the snow is relentless, the families are close, and The Holy Trinity could refer to Pizza, Wings, and Subs. For most of his life, however, he’s called Northern California his home. An academic late bloomer, he completed his BA from the University of California at Davis at the age of twenty-eight. International relations proved to be a fine field of study for becoming aware of the broader world and for sounding smart at dinner parties but for little else. After escaping a monotonous government job, James caught the teaching bug in South Korea. There he ended up teaching English at three language schools near Seoul during the mid-1990s and found himself intrigued by the culture and the people. This is how the idea for The Tiger’s Wedding came about. James’s fiction has appeared in literary journals such as Rosebud and Toasted Cheese. The Tiger’s Wedding is his first novel. When James isn’t teaching adult education classes or promoting his book, he’s working on the rough draft of his second novel, which will be set in Moscow.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel | , , , | Leave a comment

Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home

David Allan Cates

An excerpt from the novel, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home (Novelas Americanas 2012)


Photo: David Allan Cates

Ben landed in the late afternoon and rented a car at the airport. I’m on a journey toward self-forgiveness, he almost told the woman who handed him the keys. He felt a self-congratulatory buzz as he drove west around the big city. He listened to old jazz and found the drive comforting despite the heavy traffic. Wasn’t he brave to be finally coming home again? Later, he would remember how everything seemed normal until the car left the main road for the narrow blacktop, winding into the hills where the continental glacier hadn’t quite reached, where hundred-thousand-year-old gullies had become deep hollows between steep wooded ridges. The hollows turned and forked, turned and forked again, and the sky itself narrowed, and he lost track of direction. He drove through barely familiar lowlands riddled with springs and spongy with marsh, past abandoned farms, crumbled cabins, towns with a tavern, a gas station and a church, past rocky ridges casting shadows different from any he’d ever seen before.

Then the bluebird sky darkened, and the bright flat picture of home—the white farmhouse and red barn—that he carried in his head was suddenly confounded under a gray sky. He checked his chest pocket for the folded letter but it was gone—had he left it on the plane? He felt feverish and shivered, and by the time he turned down the long gravel driveway into the narrow between two round hills, crossed the creek and passed the barn to park in front of the house, the leaves had colored brilliant reds and yellows and oranges, then browned and fallen, and the black trunks of oak and hickory stood on the hillsides naked as skeletons.

Sara Koepke met him at the front door, her face pale as though she were seeing a ghost. “You?”

He felt a lump of unexpected shame and tried to swallow. “I should have called.”

“No,” she said, and tucked a wisp of gray hair off her forehead and behind her ear. “I’m sorry. You surprised me, Ben. Come in.”

He stepped past her and into the house for the first time in twenty-five years. It smelled of ashes and something else. The maple floor was the same. A new square woodstove replaced his grandma’s old pot-belly.

“Where’s Danny?”

“Fishing,” she said. “He’ll be home tomorrow.” Her voice trailed off.

Ben stared at her face, still elastic but her skin paler, lined, and with a fuzz of colorless hair on her cheeks and above her top lip. Also her unusually timid eyes. She looked weakened by life, turned somehow fragile. He had a feeling his gaze was hurting her. He shivered and looked away.

“Do you mind if I nap?” he asked.

“No. Please.” She seemed relieved. She led him across the living room toward the stairs so he could put his bag in his room. He shivered again and wondered if he’d packed enough clothes. The orange carpeted stairs creaked as they always had under his weight and without thinking he stepped slightly higher on the uneven third step to keep from tripping. The white walls in the stairwell were lined with photos of the girls growing up—but the air smelled like something had died.

“Sorry about the stink,” she said. “There’s a dead rat behind the plaster wall. We’re not quite sure what to do about it.”

“It’s not so bad.”

She laughed. “Yeah, right.”

He put his bags in what was once Danny and his boyhood bedroom, Jessie and Ivy’s room since then. Quickly, Sara made up one of the twin beds, folding under the mattress the fresh sheets and blankets.

“Where are the girls?”

Sara paused and looked at him, uncomprehending for a moment. “They’ve grown up.”

“Oh,” Ben said. “Of course. I just thought—” He sat on the bed and squeezed his temples with his palms. “Forgive me,” he said. “I guess I’m not as brave as I thought I was. Maybe I should leave this afternoon.” “Please,” she said, reaching out as though to stop him, thought he hadn’t moved. He stayed seated, hands on the side of his face. “Is everything okay?” Such concern in her voice, as though she thought he might be sick, might be coming home to die.

“No,” he said. “I mean yes, I’m fine.” His pulse pounded in his forehead. He wished he still had Danny’s letter. He wondered if he’d dreamed it all. He looked up and tried to smile. “I’m just suddenly very tired,” he said.

She touched his shoulder and it seemed all the blood in his body raced to where her fingers lingered.

“You feel hot,” she said, “Lie down. Sleep. Rest. Danny will be overjoyed to see you. He loved you—loves you. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

And then, like that, her fingers withdrew. Ben’s body felt limp and senseless. He waited until she left the room to lie down and crawl under the covers. He rolled on his side and shivered with feverish chill. The pillow was thicker than his old pillow and propped his head up too high. His grandmother’s old wallpaper was gone and the walls were a clean white and the woodwork and windows new. He recognized the smell of the room, though, the feel of the old mattress, and he recognized the texture of the white ceiling, even the little webs spun daily in the corners by tiny brown spiders. Familiar light streamed through the window. He and Danny had spent much of the first winter in this room killing cluster flies. Every day a hundred more were born and clustered on the window glass. And every day they killed them all, even kept a body count. Ben had had a cast on his leg and he hopped from the window to his bed and back again in the cold, double-checking Danny’s count. It was the winter after the summer their parents died. The next winter there were fewer flies. And the next, none at all.

Ben pulled the blankets up to his chin and curled into a ball to stay warm.

“When you wake, I’ll have dinner,” Sara called from the bottom of the stairs.


David Allan Cates is the author of four novels, Hunger In America, a New York Times Notable Book, X Out Of Wonderland and Freeman Walker, both Montana Book Award Honor Books, and in 2012, Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, winner of a Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the 2013 Independent Book Publishers Book Awards. He is the winner of the 2010 Montana Arts Council’s Artist Innovation Award in prose and his short story, “Rubber Boy” (Glimmer Train 70), is a distinguished story in the 2010 Best American Short Stories. His stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his travel articles in Outside Magazine and the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.

Cates has been the executive director of Missoula Medical Aid, which leads groups of medical professionals to provide public health and surgery services in Honduras. In Missoula he works with the Missoula Writing Collaborative, teaching classes on the short shory in public high schools, and is a part-time faculty in Pacific Lutheran University’s Pacific Lutheran University’s low-residency MFA program. For many years he worked as a fishing guide on the Smith River and raised cattle on his family’s farm in Wisconsin.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | novel | , , | Leave a comment

Telling Time

Lee Jing-Jing

An excerpt from the novel, If I Could Tell You (Marshall Cavendish Editions 2013)

[When nothing is really yours, not even the flat you grew up in, just where do you call home? The residents of Block 204 have a few months before their building is torn down, before they are scattered throughout Singapore into smaller, assigned flats. All of them know they will still be struggling to fit their lives into the new flats years later but no one protests. No one talks about it even as they are slowly being pushed out of their homes. Not Cardboard Lady, an eighty-year-old woman who sells scraps for a living. Not young Alex, who is left homeless after a falling out with Cindy. Not Ah Tee, who has worked at the coffee-shop on the ground floor of Block 204 for much of his adult life, and whose reaction to the move affects his neighbours in different ways. For some, the tragedy that occurs during their last days in Block 204 is a reminder of old violence, aged wounds. For others, new opportunities transpire. If I Could Tell You is about silence, the keeping and breaking of it, and what comes after.]


They hear everything from the windows. From the time they wake up, to the time they lay on their beds, pressing their faces into familiar-scented pillows, trying to shut out the yellow glow of the lights right outside, lighting up the corridor, sneaking in through the thin film of their eyelids. Trying to shut out the sounds they can’t help hearing through the open window, it’s too warm to sleep with it closed.

IfICouldTellYouThey can tell time from the different sounds if they had to. Morning brings sharp, quick twists of birdsong, the creaking awake of bones and pipes and doors. Sounds of people in their homes—the shrill cry of kettles, alarm clocks, the yelling of parents and children to hurry up hurry up they’re going to miss the bus the bell the shutting of the school gates. The heavy rolling-in of school and factory buses. Cars and motorcycles starting up and moving away, the smoky vibrato and rat-a-tat-tat fading off slowly. And then a deep calm for a while. The moist heat lulling everything into a stillness, a sticky quiet, clinging to the tarmac, to the concrete and brick and paint coming off the walls of the building. The ones who are not at school or work—the stay-at-home mothers and their young children, the elderly and the ill—they fill in the quiet by putting on the radio, the television, even if no one is watching or listening, it’s just good to fill in the space next to them while they’re closing up a wound in a skirt pocket, watching grandchildren trace out daydreams with crayons held tight in their fists. There’s the fleeting echo of nursery rhymes from the preschool a little away from the block, whisked through the open window and chased up by the wind. Then, as evening sets in, the buses and cars which left quietly in the early hours come back, letting loose the caged up, shut up voices of children and teenagers from before.

They hear it in birdcall. The trees full of crows and mynahs squabbling for a place to roost. The Asian koel with his long, woeful lament, pouring his heart into a resonant koo-woo, a parting song for the sun which he repeats every day. It is to this repetitive cry that the walk from the bus stop the train station the car is made. That doors are unlocked and swung open. And calls made to ask what to do about the evening meal, where to go and what time. It is to this cry that lone, passionless meals are consumed, eyes blinking in the glow of their screens’ covert flicker.

They hear even more with the settling in of night and the accompanying quiet. TV sets oozing their cloying, dramatic dialogue. Children howling from the flick-and-whoosh of their parents’ cane for homework left undone or lies uncovered. They hear it, lying in bed, the click and buzz of wires and metallic parts all around. The gathered, living hum of their home, their building, sending them to sleep. They don’t wake when it rains—when the roof threatens to tear open with the force of each heavy, determined drop. It is in their bones, this rain, the turbulent, frantic sound of it. They don’t wake.


Lee Jing-Jing was born in 1985 and grew up in the working-class Singapore neighborhood of Jurong West, in a public housing block similar to the one described in If I Could Tell You. She moved to Europe in her early twenties and eventually gained a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing from Kellogg College at Oxford University. If I Could Tell You is her first novel and was supported by a grant from Singapore’s National Arts Council. She currently lives in Hamburg, Germany, and is working on a new book that continues the story of Cardboard Lady.

June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel | , , | Leave a comment

cbr 19 / summer 2012



cbr 19 / summer 2012

The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Dwight Allen

the eelgrass meadow
Robin Chapman
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Unexpected Shiny Things
Bruce Dethlefsen
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Make it Stay
Joan Frank
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Ann Prayer
A short story
Elli Hazit

Men without Meaning
A short story
Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman

Fisherman’s Beach
An excerpt from the novel
George Vukelich


June 20, 2013 Posted by | fiction, novel, short story | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment