Executive Fear, Part 3 of 5

This is Part 3 of 5, of Executive Fear, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. For earlier Parts, click on the links below:

Part 1

Part 2


Executive Fear (Continued)

 

The traffic was thinning. The road was narrowing. He was passing the outskirts of Mumblegum and nearing home. The safe haven. The place he could breathe easily at, once again. Out in the uncrowded countryside, and then into his own house.

Up a long driveway he turned. Run the gauntlet of the driveway and make it to the garage, and he’d be home free. Every evening he ran the same gauntlet. Not that the driveway was any more dangerous than any other place. But that it was just so close. If something terrible should happen here, what a let-down it would be.

Closer and closer he came to the garage door. He hit the button above the visor, and the door automatically lifted and rolled open. Slowly, smoothly, and carefully he glided inside, while hitting the button again so the door would close behind him and lock out that hostile world.

At last he was home. At last he felt safe. At last he was no longer in danger.

There was a workbench not far from his parked car, with a heavy steel cauldron on it. His makeshift lab. He took the tin of yellowcake from his briefcase, kissed it, and set it down next to the cauldron.

But first, dinner.

Then work.

The maid had done some shopping, so the freezer was full. She was a very good, reliable maid. She kept the house clean, but most important, she ran all his errands for him. He never had to leave his house for one thing. All he ever had to do was drive to and from work. And that was dangerous enough. The maid was well worth the money. Almost worth her weight in gold. He chuckled to himself at the thought.

After a quick TV dinner it was back to the garage for some real hard alchemy work.

He had all the necessary ingredients. On the floor near the workbench was a five-gallon bucket of crushed quartz powder he had purchased from a mill, over the internet. Next to it were two tightly sealed buckets of calcium oxide, commonly known as quicklime. And of course, on his workbench next to the heavy steal cauldron was the final needed ingredient. The tin of yellowcake, containing about 10 ounces of the brown uranium powder.

First the quicklime.

He measured out a few ounces of the CaO from one of the buckets. He was very careful to reseal the bucket tightly. Quicklime, when it comes into contact with moisture, gets very hot and explodes. So he remembered to use great care, as the mine president had cautioned, when resealing the lid. That would ensure the remaining calcium oxide would stay safe and dry.

He poured the quicklime onto the bottom of the steel cauldron, forming a thick, three-inch-diameter circle with it. On top of this layer he spread a thicker layer of quartz powder. And on top of the quartz powder, he spread a tiny spoonful of the yellowcake.

He was not sure if he had his proportions correct, but he felt fairly confident he was about right. What he planned to do was to pour a small amount of water over the layers of powder so that it would filter down through the yellowcake and quartz, and contact the quicklime. He would cap the steel cauldron tightly and wait for the water to react with the calcium oxide, causing it to flash and explode.

He hoped that this explosion, for an instant, would create temperatures of volcanic proportions. The same temperatures needed to produce gold.

And if all went according to his theory, the volcanic temperatures would cause the heavy uranium elements in the yellowcake to break down into lighter elements. And as it broke down into lighter elements (such as gold), it would also expand significantly in size. In the meantime, the quartz powder would fuse and surround the yellowcake. The quartz would then keep it at a certain constant temperature for a few precious moments. This temperature would be the exact, ideal temperature needed for the formation of gold.

Otis Felp theorized that since gold was quite often found by miners in veins of quartz rocks, the quartz had something to do with harboring the favorable temperature needed to form gold, within the hot magma beneath the earth’s crust.

Felp rejected the scientific consensus that gold is only formed in the supernovas of stars, and thus can only come from outer space, via falling asteroids pelting the Earth. And this is the trouble when you don’t get out and mix with others. You have no check on your own hair-brained schemes. There’s nobody around to lend their thoughts and lead you to have second thoughts.

Had Otis joined a club for amateur scientists, maybe he wouldn’t have gone to the great length of obtaining yellowcake and pursuing this experiment. This experiment that most scientists would have warned was both dangerous and doomed to failure.

And so, he stuck with his magma theory. His unchecked, blind assumption that hot magma forms gold. And this was what he hoped would happen. He hoped, but only half-believed, would happen. Because he wasn’t completely nuts. Deep down inside lay a sense of reality that helped harbor some doubts.

But all that gold he could make. All that gold. All that power. All that success. All that respect. It led him to ignore his doubts. With the things he could buy with gold maybe he wouldn’t have to live with fear anymore. Maybe he would become famous and be respected by all people, instead of just those at the bank. Maybe his power would be far-reaching. Maybe he could control the entire world and no longer be afraid of it.

His heart beating a little faster, he began to pour the water evenly over the powder. He had to work quickly. He had only a minute before the reaction would take place.

He emptied the beaker, then quickly grabbed the cauldron lid. A fumbling with the snaps, but finally the lid was firmly secured to the top of the cauldron. Then he dashed swiftly through an open door and into his kitchen, where he crouched down behind a counter.

He heard a faint thump and began to laugh. At the worst, he expected the whole roof of his garage to blow off. But just a thump?

When he cautiously peered into the garage, he laughed even louder. For there was the cauldron, just sitting there as harmless as could be, right on the workbench. Right where he had left it. It hadn’t even budged a quarter-inch.

It was pretty hot, so he allowed it cool off. About an hour later he estimated it was safe and cool enough to unsnap the cauldron lid.

He did so without any problems.

With the lid off, he peered inside.

And was surprised by what he saw.

Liquid.

A liquid slurry of watery goo. Gray watery goo, and not a spot of yellow in it.

Otis Felp could tell at just a quick glance that his experiment had been a failure. A giant, stupid, ridiculous failure.

He sat down on the fender of his car and buried his head in his hands. He felt like crying, but forced back the tears. No, no use in crying. After all, this wasn’t his first failure. It was more like his thousandth in a row. He should be used to it by now.

Well, maybe tomorrow he would rethink the formula and maybe try again later.

He looked at his watch. It was late. He’d better get to bed, for tomorrow was another work day. He picked up the cauldron and with a grimace of disgust and anger, dumped the gray slurry into a potted plant near the workbench. His maid hadn’t figured out where to put the plant yet. Well maybe the slurry would kill the damn thing and she wouldn’t have to concern herself with it anymore.

He washed out the cauldron, cleaned up the workbench, and went to bed.

The next day was typical. Typical, as usual. A frightening, paranoic, almost paralyzingly fearful journey to work, a mundane but safe day at the office, followed by another treacherous journey home. Same as always.

Safely back at home, Otis stood at his workbench. He sighed to himself and wondered where he had gone wrong. And a boiling anger began to fulminate internally. An anger that was becoming more and more uncontrollable every second that he continued to ponder his past failures.

Like water hitting the quicklime, Otis’ temper was reaching a flashpoint. That damned, sickly looking slurry! That’s all he had to show for all his efforts! And where had it gone? He raced through his memory. He should have flushed it down the toilet! But no! He had dumped it into the potted plant! So that’s where it was!

He turned swiftly and kicked the plant. Worthless slurry! Worthless plant! That would show all his failures! Kicking the plant! That would show them!

He cursed and kicked a plant that wasn’t even there. No, the plant was gone. And yet he had kicked it. Or he had kicked something. It kind of felt like he had kicked a plant. But the plant wasn’t there. At least, not that Otis could see.

So what the hell had he kicked?

Something seemed wrong.

Something wasn’t there.

But something should be there.

He reached his foot out lightly and carefully felt around for the plant. He was sure he had kicked something. He had even heard a noise.

But there was nothing.

Nothing but thin air.

He felt lower, and his foot came against something. He knelt down and felt it with his hands. Yes it was, indeed, something. Then he looked again and noticed that he couldn’t see his hands. He let go of whatever it was and jumped back. Then he looked at his hands again. They had reappeared. So he felt for the object again. His hands came against it, and once again they disappeared.

This was pretty spooky.

He felt more of the object. The object that appeared to him to be thin air. His hands came against something soft and brushy lying on the floor. Something like leaves.

And that’s when he realized, with a sense of awe and wonderment, that it was the potted plant he was feeling. And the potted plant was completely invisible!

A moment of stunned stillness. His brain went into overdrive. It clicked and clattered inside, trying to make sense of this weird situation.

And then it flashed a thought.

An idea.

An explanation for Otis Felp to consider.

The slurry had done it.

That could be the only explanation. The plant had absorbed the slurry, and the slurry had somehow made it become invisible! There was something in that gray slurry that caused things to become transparent.

At first he considered this explanation with the even-minded temper of a scientist coolly pondering a hypothesis, utilizing the exacting language of logic. But then the magnitude of this explanation exploded in his mind like a hydrogen bomb. And he began to sweat and tremble with excitement.

It was an accident.

It was unintentional.

But Otis Felp realized he had somehow discovered the secret to invisibility!


End of Part 3. Come on back tomorrow, for Part 4.

Executive Fear, Part 2 of 5

This is Part 2 of 5, of Executive Fear, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. For Part 1, click on this link.


Executive Fear (Continued)

 

He was an alchemist. Kind of as a hobby, but more like an obsession. Alchemy was a practice begun in ancient times, that concerned itself with how to change metal into gold through the process of chemistry. And so many had tried through the ages to discover such a chemical process for making gold. But no one had ever succeeded.

Otis Felp was the same. He had been experimenting for over ten years, but still with no success at alchemy.

He had started his alchemy experiments as kind of a personal joke on himself. A psychiatrist he used to see had suggested he find a hobby. Something to divert him from his office work, that might also get him more involved with the outside world. The psychiatrist reasoned that this would help him overcome his fears of the outside world. It would force him to face these fears and think about them, so that he could realize just how unreasonable they were and get over them.

Then he could finally learn how to enjoy life.

So Otis decided to practice a few chemistry experiments at home. Chemistry had been one of his favorite subjects in high school, in his less fearful days, so it was a natural hobby to choose. And it did, indeed, make him have to go to a hardware store, and a few hobby shops in the city, so he could buy equipment and supplies. So he was getting out more, and facing his fears of the outside world.

But on one of his supply-hunting trips he picked up a book on alchemy. He was an ambitious assistant bank manager at this time, and hotly coveted money, power, and position. And the experiments that the book described gave him inspiration. Inspiration to try to figure out that long-sought-after secret of how to make gold.

Gold!

Pure, solid, yellow, gold!

Power. Position. Security.

Gold!

But his first few attempts were only half-hearted affairs. He approached these endeavors as a lark upon himself, and did not take it very seriously. He reconstructed some of the experiments in the book, and then laughed at himself when they didn’t work.

But then he tried his own variation on one of the experiments. It didn’t work either, but it seemed to come closer. So he tried more variations.

Gradually, he became obsessed. And the psychiatrist’s suggestion of starting a hobby began to backfire. Otis was spending more and more and more of his time at home. Long hours at night stirring and pouring and boiling and mixing.

He bought up large supplies at the hobby shops so he wouldn’t have to go supply hunting very often. And he canceled his visits to the psychiatrist. He simply didn’t have the time to see him anymore, what with all the experiments he needed to do.

And he had a natural knack for this kind of work. It was an aptitude he seemed to have been born with. Well he had been born with a crippling, irrational fear, so perhaps being born with an aptitude for alchemy was some sort of compensation from Divine Providence.

Eventually, the natural genius he possessed for this hobby finally paid off. For Otis Felp devised a method that enabled him to turn heavier metals into lighter metals. And he even developed a way to control what kind of lighter metals they would turn into. It was chancy, but he did have some control.

The end product never amounted to much in weight either. But with gold at over one thousand dollars an ounce, not much weight would be needed. He could build a fortune with just very small quantities.

Problem was, he needed a metal that was significantly heavier than gold if he ever stood a chance at producing gold. And that was where the uranium came in. Uranium is one of the heaviest known elements on the face of the earth. Its atomic weight is significantly greater than the atomic weight of gold.

Otis Felp picked up the tin of yellowcake. The uranium it came from would add the weight he needed for his experiment. He kissed it, then put it in his briefcase. Tonight, tonight, he would make gold and become rich.

Hopefully.

They were closing up the bank when he stepped outside his office. He adjusted his tie. Eyes darted about. A flurry of activity. “Good night Mister, uh, Felp.” Susan. Susan, the blonde-haired head teller.

“Good night Susan.”

“H- have a good evening!”

“Thank you.” He strode for the door. Droplets of sweat oozed from his forehead. It was like this every evening. The door was not a door, it was the mouth of a monster. It snarled and roared at him, louder and louder the closer he came to it. Just like all evenings past. With trembling hands, he pushed the jaws away and stepped outside, into the clamor and mayhem of the noisy city streets.

Here he was not in control. Here it was every man, woman, child, and creature for itself. Here anything could happen. He didn’t know what, but anything.

Anything.

Anything at all could happen to him.

His armpits were soaked with perspiration, just like every evening. Even cold, wintry evenings. His eyes darted right and left. He rounded the corner of the building, and into the parking lot.

It was there, miles and miles and miles away. But he could see it. His car. A speck of remote safety. So far off. He felt like running, but knew better. Better not to panic, he thought. Better not to show any fear. Don’t show any fear at all or maybe something will attack you.

His eyes darted left and right. His car was still impossibly far away. Then he did what he did every evening. He imagined he was on a long, moving conveyor belt that was carrying him swiftly to his vehicle. It was carrying him to safety. It was rescuing him.

A few more quick paces and he was there. Desperately he fumbled with the key fob, finally pressing the correct button. He opened the door, jumped inside, slammed it and locked it.

Safety.

Safety.

Well, relative safety.

He was still not home yet. But the car could get him there pretty quickly. As long as it didn’t break down or wreck. That was his biggest fear. No breakdowns needed. No accidents needed. No traffic tickets needed. He must get out of the city jungle and into his safe home as soon as possible.

And into the city streets of Mumblegum he motored. Mumblegum, the city that depended upon him, and others like him. But still a dangerous city. A dangerous city in a dangerous world. He had to get through the traffic snarls of Mumblegum and into the safety of his home as quickly as he could. But also as carefully as he could. The city was no place to have an accident. Then he’d be stuck out in the open. In a dangerous place. Then anything could happen to him.

Anything.

Anything.

Anything at all.

He did not know what. He had no idea what. But something could happen to him. Something deadly. Something horrible. Something specifically and directly aimed at him that would destroy and kill instantly.

He had this feeling every evening. A feeling that something terrible would happen to him. A premonition, you might call it. Of awful, impending doom. This was the fear that gnawed at his heart and soul every day. Every day that he left the safety of his home or office and ventured into the mean streets of Mumblegum.

His psychiatrist, so long ago, had called it agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an irrational fear of open, public places. An irrational fear of being in an uncontrolled environment.

“Otis,” he had said, “you have a severe form of agoraphobia. You must do something about it right away before it ruins the rest of your life.”

That psychiatrist had been full of statistics, facts, and figures. Yes it was obvious to Otis Felp that the psychiatrist too liked to hide behind paperwork. Graphs and charts. Surveys and studies.

But according to the psychiatrist, around two percent of the population has agoraphobia. And maybe more. It’s a rather common phobia, you see. Especially amongst white-collar workers and executives like Otis.

That Otis could believe. Oh yes, he had seen his own fears in others of his type. Other business executives. Many a time he had looked out the windows of his bank and seen a hapless executive caught outside. More often than not the man was walking quite fast, with eyes darting all around. There was fear in those eyes. Definite fear. Perhaps irrational, perhaps not, but definite fear.

But the psychiatrist had called his agoraphobia “severe.” That distinguished him from most other agoraphobics. And most other executives, he supposed. Perhaps that was the reason he had not been as successful as most other executives his age. Bank manager was as high as he sensed he would ever go in the world of business. And it had been a slow road just getting to that.

But most execs his age had roared on past him. They’d gone on to be chairmen of boards, presidents of their own companies, mayors, senators, and other positions that spelled high power and success. So why had he foundered at bank manager? “Severe” agoraphobia was the only reason he could think of.

His agoraphobia was too severe to fight. But others could fight theirs. Other executives were brave enough to get out, at least every once in a while. Get out and face the mean, terrible world. Get out and turn a few wheels manually if they had to. Get out and use their backs.

And they could be brave enough to venture out and attend functions, and Rotary Club meetings, and conventions, and such things. They could make contacts and network with others who could assist their ambitions.

They could move up in the world, because they were willing to face the outside every now and then.

But “every now and then” means that most of the time they were just like Otis Felp. Most of the time they, too, would hide behind their paperwork, inside their offices, trying to control the world with pen and ink.

But sometimes, sometimes, they could build up enough courage to work a few, fleeting moments—a few, fleeting strategic moments—in the outside world. And that was the advantage they had over Otis. And he envied them for their courage.

It was a courage he felt he would never have.

But gold, gold, perhaps gold would make up for it. He could have his success by producing a fortune in gold. But only if he could uncover the secret that so long had eluded science. The secret of alchemy. The secret of manufacturing one’s own gold.


End of Part 2. Come on back tomorrow, for Part 3.

Executive Fear, Part 1 of 5

We now enter Part Too: Go Weird, of my book, Go West or Go Weird. And we begin with Story #9, Executive Fear. This is my longest short story of all, at more than 8,000 words. That’s pretty long for a supposed “short” story, and you may be feeling some fear yourself, at getting involved in it. So to make it less intimidating, I’m breaking it down into five, easy to swallow parts, for your reading digestion.


Backstory:

I originally wrote this long, short story back in the 1980’s, but it’s been a work in progress ever since. That’s because I can’t keep my obsessive-compulsive, wordsmithing fingers off of it. So it’s received a few revisions. Which perhaps are improvements. One improvement was to scratch out references to the old stone and chisel way of doing things, that preceded 1990, and update this manuscript to today’s technology.

This tale reflects my inner sentiments about our modern, so-called civilization. In fact, I first penned it to paper (yes, good old-fashioned treeware) when I was living in my underground log cabin in the middle of the Mojave desert.

As I sat in my log cabin, wondering why I had to go to such great lengths to get away from that great monster known as civilization, which dehumanizes people and destroys the environment, I had plenty of time to think. And my thinker came up with a theory.

I reasoned that there are invisible forces at work that make our world the way it is. And these invisible forces are the executives who head big businesses, such as banks and large corporations. They stay hidden in their high-rise offices, out-of-touch with humanity, and far away from the primitive appeal of nature. And in a cold, machine-like way, they use paperwork to pull the strings and levers that make everything function the dysfunctional way things function.

And it occurred to me that maybe these executives hide in their offices out of fear. They’re afraid of humanity. They’re afraid of the outdoors. They shun reality. And they’re phobic about being anywhere away from the safe cocoon of their homes or corporate offices.

This is radical thinking, I’ll admit. And I’ll also admit that I lived in my underground log cabin in the Mojave at the same time that another radical thinker lived in his own little cabin, in the woods of Montana. His name was Ted Kaczynski.

So I’ve sometimes wondered if maybe I’m just as nuts as Ted.

But while he was mailing surprise packages to executives and academics, as the Unabomber, I approached the problem from a different angle.

I simply wrote this story.

Executive Fear (Beginning)

 

Otis Felp was a frightened man. Always. Always there was the fear. Lurking just outside. Ready to pounce. Fear stalked him. It waited for him to leave. It waited for him to return. It waited for him to be caught unawares. It was always around. Somewhere around. Just outside those doors. Stalking and hunting him like a cougar sniffing out a wounded deer.

Every day.

Every day of his life from the time he was born.

Crippling, destructive, inner fear. Fear that assaulted his soul and body, worming into his heart and hollowing out his worried eyes.

His soul was condemned to a constant hell by this stalking fear. And it left him with no heart for enjoying life.

He was also desperate. Desperate for an escape from the terror that always awaited him.

But he saw little opportunity for hope. No, there seemed little hope for an escape from this phobic paranoia. Little hope for an escape from the phantom fright that constantly breathed just outside. No, he saw scant opportunity for this kind of hope.

But he did see one opportunity.

Small? Yes it was.

But it was still an opportunity. It was a slight chance. As slight as the little tin of brown powder he now held in his hand.

He sat at his desk and fiddled anxiously with the tin. He had been told not to handle it much, but he was so desperately excited he couldn’t control himself.

It was yellowcake.

Yellowcake is a powder produced from crushed uranium ore. It is used for manufacturing enriched uranium-235, which in turn is used for making nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons. And in spite of its name, it is neither yellow nor cake-like. Rather it is brown and powdery.

It had taken him awhile to obtain this uranium-rich powder, but he had been persistent. His client had hesitated, had hedged, had put it off, but had finally given in. His client brought it to him secretly. As a present. Or as a gratuity. Just yesterday—the day after the loan was approved—his client had walked into his office, set his briefcase down on the big, expansive desk, opened it a slight ways, and removed the tin of brown powder.

He began to act as if he had committed a great crime. There was a big, guilty smile on his face as he palmed the little tin toward Otis Felp. “Here you go, Otis, just what you were asking for,” he said in a low voice. “Now don’t go advertising what it is, and don’t say it came from me. Just stick it on a shelf somewhere and don’t handle it too much. I think it can hurt you if you play around with it a lot. Remember, don’t say you got it from me.”

“I don’t intend to ‘play’ around with it,” Otis said, stiff-lipped, “I just want it as a souvenir.” Then he let himself smile a little. “But thank you, thank you very much. I appreciate the gift. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what it is. I want it as a personal souvenir only. A keepsake, so to speak. Thanks very much for your trouble.”

That about concluded Otis Felp’s deal with the president of Loplite Mine Enterprises. The miner had received his loan—and at a very reasonable rate—and the bank manager had received his little tin of yellowcake.

That was yesterday. That evening he had gathered together other needed materials for his experiment, and had prepared his lab in the garage. Now, tonight, he would take his yellowcake home and try his experiment. Tonight he would put all the elements together and—poof!—see what would happen.

Perhaps nothing.

Probably nothing.

But then again, one never knew.

In his office he felt no fear. Behind the big sign that said “Manager”—that sat squarely at the head of his big, expansive desk—sitting in his big chair, with a big, important look of concern on his face—he felt no fear. He felt perfectly safe. No jitters. No trembling hands. No darting eyes, nothing.

Nothing.

It was a secure feeling to be an important bank executive.

Even out there in the lobby it wasn’t all that bad. But that’s because he was treated with respect by his employees. They respected him very much, and feared him even more so. It was the fear, really. They showed him respect, but felt fear.

Whenever he came around he sensed there was an instant change in the demeanor of his employees. A hush came first. Then darting eyes. Then a flurry of busywork.

He loved the employees best who stammered. “Uh, uh, yes sir, y- yes Mr. Felp. Y- yes of course. Sure. Th- thank, uh, thank you sir.” He loved those employees. They made him feel that everything was going okay. That the bank was still functioning properly. That he was still, definitely, in control. That nothing would cross him or cause him any kind of harm while he was in the bank. It was security.

And that big pile of paperwork in front of him. Now that right there showed just how important his job was. No one could question that he was an important man when they came into his office and saw all the paperwork he had to do. People would roll their eyes and say, “Boy, I’m sure glad I don’t have your job, uh, sir.” He would just smile and keep on working.

Or maybe he’d say, “Sometimes I wonder how I put up with it myself.” No sense making people envy his job. Let them be scared of such importance. Let them lose their ambition. Then they would be less of a threat. The less people who wanted his job, the more secure his job was.

But the paperwork had a greater value than just that. Most people bemoaned having to do paperwork. He didn’t like it much himself, but it did have a hidden value that many people seemed to overlook. It was the ultimate in power. It was power at its best. Paperwork was power. Paperwork was the power that made minds rule over backs. It always seemed to be the case. The ones who did the paperwork always had control over the ones who did the backwork.

Otis Felp was an expert at paperwork. Because of this he thought of himself as an invisible force of power. Like the Emperor of Japan, who for many centuries was not allowed to be looked upon by the common people. Otis was hidden behind the walls of his office, behind his big, expansive desk, out of sight, making deals on paper that could shake the entire city.

The average citizen depended on him to make sure the wheels of finance moved smoothly. To make sure jobs were available, and that businesses could operate. To make sure progress was made. And yet Otis Felp was virtually unknown to the average citizen. He was an anonymous man, hidden in an office somewhere, doing whatever anonymous, important men and women do. To the average citizen, Otis Felp was virtually invisible.

And that’s the way he liked it. He liked exercising his power anonymously. And he could do that with paperwork. There was such little risk. He could control his outside environment without actually going out into it. He could initiate a form, sign a sheet, or send a letter, and wheels would turn somewhere. He didn’t have to go out there and turn the wheels manually, and take all the chances that could entail. The chances of—who knows?—God knows—what could happen to him. No. He could sit inside his safe office and just do some paperwork. And then someone else—someone out there—some poor fool—would turn the wheels for him.

Paperwork was so much safer. With paperwork nothing wrong could happen to him. He was so safe. An anonymous but safe, secure, powerful man. A man who pushed paper, while others pushed their luck.

After filling out a few more forms and signing a few more signature blocks, he turned his attention back to the yellowcake. Tonight, he thought, it would be tonight. He turned the tin of powder slowly in his hands.

Perhaps it would work, perhaps it wouldn’t, but at least he would try.


End of Part 1. Come on back tomorrow, for Part 2.

A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert

This is Story #8, entitled A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. This will be the final story of Part Won: Go West. After this is Part Too, where we go Weird.


Backstory:

It was summertime, and baking like a pizza oven outside. Made us desert rats hungry, so my wife and I took my 89-year-old father-in-law out to a specialty pizza cafe.

The swamp cooler wasn’t doing much good inside that stuffy little pizza cafe, as it rattled and strained under the July sun, while competing against the work of the ovens. As we sat at a picnic table, I watched the young lady behind the counter swelter away while taking orders from a queue of sweaty customers.

She was plain-looking, but possessed of a spirit and attitude that drew my eye and made her attractive to me. She had a straightforward gravity to her demeanor, and a careful presence that held the attention of each customer she waited on. I felt enamored just watching her. And I wondered if I was falling in love with her.

Problem was, she was young enough to be my granddaughter. And besides, I was married. And if I gawked at her any longer, my wife and father-in-law sitting next to me, might notice. I had to shake my sunbaked head and take a sip of my cold soft drink, to bring my overheated brain to its senses.

I then realized that what I was really falling in love with was a time so long ago when such treasures as her were available. A heady time when life was starting out, and couples my age were beginning long journeys together. I missed the feel of that, for just a few brief fleeting moments. And I wanted to return, but knew I couldn’t.

A young paramedic walked in and stood in line. And watching him, and observing her, it occurred to me that maybe something more than pizza could result from their encounter. It probably didn’t, but I imagined it could.

This modern Western is about that imagined encounter. It’s a romantic vignette about heat, chemistry, and the reaction they might set off, between two young strangers in the moments before they meet.

A Spontaneous Chemical Reaction in the Midst of a Desert

 

It was high noon at the High Moon Pizza Cafe. The desert sun outside desiccated the rocks, cacti, and Joshua trees. But inside, a swamp cooler purred away, refreshing each new customer who staggered through the front door.

It was 98 outside and 88 inside. The swamp cooler only shaved ten degrees off the heat. But it felt like the Antarctic for those seeking refuge from the flaming overhead sun.

This refuge was her place of employ. While El Sol baked brains outside, she baked pizza pies inside. And she waited on zombies. The zombies were her customers. They were the desert rats who staggered through the front door in a state of brain-baked dyscrasia, and as delusional as the heat haze on the horizon.

She was practically a zombie herself, from the effect of the pizza ovens. This heat on the brain plays tricks on people. It boils the cerebral hemispheres, fries the neurons, and sizzles the synapses. And it makes possible a phenomenon between two encephalons that is known as a spontaneous chemical reaction.

Her 22-year-old face and figure were not beautiful, just pretty. Plainly pretty. And then only under cooler circumstances. Today all shreds of prettiness washed away from her.

Her face was enwreathed with sweat. It dripped in beads down her forehead and stung her eyes, burning them red. It formed droplets under her nose, lips, and chin. And it ran rivers down her bare neck, shoulders and meaty arms.

She wore a thin, green, cotton tank top, soaked in moisture. The decolletage of this bodice exposed a hint of sweaty cleavage. Below this beaded valley rolled sweat-stained green hills, and below each of these hills, trapped heat unleashed runnels of perspiration that streaked the fabric of her top from her bosoms to her waistline.

He poked his head through the cafe door, attracted by the 20% discount he’d heard about, for First Responders. Then he wiped the sweat off his brow with the palm of his hand, and staggered inside to join the zombies waiting in the queue. He stood behind two other customers and slowly shook his head a bit, trying to clear and orient his heat-hazed mind.

She glanced over their heads and caught sight of the face of this man who was last in line. It struck her with a shot of adrenaline. Her heart flip-flopped. A mysterious, volatile element surged through her internal chemistry.

One millisecond later: Flashpoint!

Then: Explosion!

And suddenly she knew she had glimpsed the face of her future husband.

He was 24 years old, of towering stature, and in peak physical condition. He sported upside-down sunglasses perched atop sweat-soaked auburn hair, which was neatly trimmed around salty wet ears.

He was an EMT, dressed in a close-fitting blue shirt, mottled with blotches of moisture. A black web belt cinctured the narrow waistline of his pants, which stunk of perspiration. A 2-way radio clipped to this belt could quickly drag him back outside into the smoldering heat, to assist at the next car wreck, heat stroke, or other emergency. He prayed to all the gods that this wouldn’t happen until he’d had at least 30 minutes of respite in this cool refuge.

He was a handsome man at other times, when his sudoriferous skin did not pour waterfalls all over his body. He was for sure much better looking than she. And his income as an EMT was far higher than her fast-food slave wage.

He was cool, magnetic, and possessed of savoir-faire in other seasons. But not so much during the withering heat of the desert summer. However during the fall, winter, and spring, this young man had much more going for him than that young woman.

His zombie eyes were transfixed on the hot pizzas in a glass display, and failed to notice the overheated young lady standing behind them. She finished with a customer. He moved up a step in line, and as he stepped he directed his bleary eyes over the head of the zombie before him, and focused on her perspiration-pocked face.

An electric frisson traveled up his back. He suddenly felt a little queasy and faint. His knees buckled, and the upside-down sunglasses dropped off of his head. He caught them with clammy hands, and fumbled nervously with them, almost jabbing out an eye, until he finally gave up and stuffed the shades in his pocket.

He was plunging into love. He knew it. But he couldn’t explain why. And he couldn’t stop it. His heart practically pounded out of his chest. He couldn’t pry his eyes off of this woman swimming in the product of her own sweat glands.

EMTs are expected to be calm and unflappable in the face of any situation. He wondered what was happening to him. How could such a plain-looking, sweat-drenched woman unhinge such a powerful response in him? Was it the heat?

Of course it was the heat. Heat that induces spontaneous chemical reactions.

He’d managed to remain single up until now, but this happened too quickly to put up any defenses. Besides, he felt too weak from the heat to resist. Nature, in her enigmatic, ruthless ways for ensuring reproduction of the human animal, was winning.

She finished with the customer, then caught his eye. She smiled with a twinkle of excitement, as beads of moisture dripped from her chin.

“Sir, may I take your order?”

The Empty Purse

Today I offer a scary story, to help you get into a Halloween mood. This is Story #7, entitled The Empty Purse, from my book, Go West or Go Weird.


Backstory:

I always carry a few gallons of water in my car. That way if my car ever breaks down in this convection oven I live in, that we call a desert, I can survive for a few hours before my brain boils like an egg, and my body turns into a slab of beef jerky.

I’m surprised at how few people take such lifesaving precautions. And it seems to happen a few times a year, in our neck of the Mojave, where a driver gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, and wanders away in search of cool, clear water.

It can take months for search and recovery to find their bodies, if they ever are found. So I wrote this modern Western as a warning.

But I also wrote it to win a prize. This is the only short story I have ever written for a contest. Contestants were required by Writer’s Indigestion magazine, to pen a story about a woman who empties out all the contents of her purse.

My submission did not win first place.

The winning entry was a parable about a woman who overturns her purse to find something helpful for some poor bastard in need. And I understand why it won. What a unique idea. Who would have thought about actually overturning a purse to empty it out?

My story came in 3,919th place. Which ain’t bad for a nationwide contest, don’t you think? So I thought its level of appeal would make it fit right into this book.

The Empty Purse

 

Her car bucked and banged over the dirt road. Rumbled over washboards. Swished through sand. Sank through sand. Slowed. Stopped.

Too much sand.

A back and forth. Wheels spinning. Sand spraying. Sinking deeper. No go.

Stuck.

Mojave desert all around . . . nearest paved road about seven miles away, as the raven flies. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a slightly trembling finger.

She had always heard that the best thing to do in a situation like this is to stay put. Sooner or later someone would come looking. Her best chance of being found was to remain with the car and not wander away.

But that highway back there. If only she could make it back. There were cars she could flag down. Out here . . . who knew how often any car made it this far. There were no tire tracks in the sand in front of her. And hers were the only tire tracks behind her.

That pavement would be more than 10 miles away if she walked back using the meandering dirt road. Just not enough water. Footwear was okay—her sneakers could do it. Legs had the strength. But the water probably would not hold out.

Now, cross-country—only maybe seven miles. But kind of rough country. She squinted her eyes northeast, using her hand as a visor. Looked walkable enough. Seemed like it was all downslope, and she could bypass around the boulder-stewn inselbergs. And no problem crossing those dry washes. After all, they were dry. Unfortunately.

She had a map. And she had a pretty good idea where she was, on the map. She had a half-drank one-liter bottle of water from the Circle K store. A Three Musketeers bar was melting in her purse.

And yes, her purse!

Lots of small items in the purse! The idea smoked in her head, then caught fire.

She left a note on the dash, and at ten o’clock in the morning, headed out. About a hundred feet away she stopped in a clearing where all the winter’s cheatgrass had wilted away. She took a shiny pair of fingernail clippers from her purse and placed them on top of a white quartz stone.

And on she hiked.

Every hundred feet or so she extracted another item from her purse and posed it on top of a rock, or on bare ground. Conspicuously. In open areas between the creosote bushes or cholla or bunched up galleta grass. Any clear spot where someone searching for her could notice it from a distance, and follow her trail.

A brown hiking boot came down beside a lipstick tube of brass. A man knelt and lifted it. Wiped the dusty surface off on his jeans and examined it. Clicked his radio and announced, “Found lipstick. Let’s keep heading northeast.”

The search party was arrayed like a comb. A turkey vulture wobbled its wings overhead and watched as the figures moved in one general direction, during the hottest part of the day.

But late in the afternoon they broke formation. Each of the figures seemed to take on independent movement. One ambled about here, while another headed straight out there, and another veered off in the opposite direction. It was as if they’d lost their direction, and didn’t know which way to travel next.

One of the figures stopped beside a yucca and lingered. Then one by one the other figures gravitated to the yucca.

They congregated and studied a black object hanging by a black strap on a green blade of the Spanish Dagger. They muttered among themselves, until one of the men slid the black object up and off the blade.

A mile away, a turkey vulture plunged its beak between two ribs, prying, twisting, widening the gap that barred access to the dead, but tasty internal organs within.

The man examined the black object. It was a purse. He pried the leather edges of the purse apart and peered inside.

It was empty.

Calamity In A Cornfield, Part 2 of 2

This is the conclusion to Calamity In A Cornfield, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. Click this link for Part 1.


Calamity In A Cornfield (Conclusion)

 

I walked back to the farmhouse as the band attacked again. There were long screeching sounds punctuated by howls, thumps, and mind-altering rhythms. Sounded to me like I’d died and finally gone to the place those preachers always said I was headed for. I looked over at the corn, and it seemed as if the stalks were slowly beginning to droop over and wither away.

Sitting in my farmhouse, with the muffled noise of the heavy metal band banging at my windows, I tried to think. For a few hours nothing came to me. Then about an hour after they’d packed up and left for the day, the silence enabled my brain to work again. And I got an idea. An idea that was so simple it was stupendous. An idea I was sure would succeed.

Early next morning I dragged some sprinkling equipment over near the property line. The same stuff that I use to wash my cornstalks when the leaves get too dusty. Dusty leaves are bad for photosympathesis, you know. ‘Sall there in a book I read once.

Anyhows, I hooked it all up and then waited like an anxious general for the day’s battle to begin. But I was off in hiding, back behind the water lines in a stand of corn.

My violinist showed up promptly at 7:00. I gave him my battle instructions. He was to begin his concert of whatever-it-would-be standing over behind the sprinkler equipment. Then as soon as the enemy showed up—those damned demons of demented mayhem—and started playing their screeching, scritching, hissing wailing that they called music, he was to quickly retreat as far away from the sprinkler equipment as possible.

My violinist smiled slowly, and nodded. He understood. Yes he knew what I was going to do. He realized exactly. He told me that today he was going to perform Handel’s Water Music. Felt that it would be appropriate. I did too.

He began his concert, and the sweet soothing notes that emerged from his violin seemed to have a curative, restorative effect on my battered corn. The corn seemed to be uplifting its leaves, and the whole scene began to look greener and greener and greener.

Then about five minutes later a van with naked ladies in chains painted on its sides, pulled up in the distance, and a group of hairy-headed men jumped out. They pointed at the violin player and began hauling equipment out of the van. I snickered softly.

They quickly dragged the large speakers, the amplifiers, the electric guitars, and the long extension cords out to the property line, and set them directly opposite from my violin player.

My stringed instrumentarian stood his ground.

I waited, hidden in a secret stand of corn.

They were shoutin’ and cussin’ and grinnin’ and spittin’. You never seen such varmints-on-two-legs before. They were greasy-headed, with hair down past their shoulders, wearin’ old dirty tank tops with weird designs on ’em. Designs like giant spiders killing people with razor blades, eagles with swastikas, sharks eating musical instruments, and one tank top that had a guy in a straight-jacket who was barfing up a big old wad of money. I tell you, these guys weren’t much in the way of musicians, but they’d of made damned good scarecrows.

My violinist kept playing that Water Music.

And I kept waiting.

They must’ve had about 1600 feet of extension cord leading from their electronical musical contraptions over to Rutherford’s farmhouse. They finally got it all hooked up and got ready to play.

As my violin player hit an especially high, sweet and uplifting note, they bombed him suddenly with a roaring squelch and riff of satanic squealing. Then they peppered him with an atrocity of mutilating synthesizer tones, and strafed him with an electronic whumff that came from God-knows-what, traveling down a long line of speakers, and back and forth again several times.

My violin player recovered from his shock and remembered my instructions. He took off and ran for the opposite side of the cornfield. The band leader—Rutherford’s nephew—the one who held his pants up with a motorcycle chain—screamed in satanic silly delight when he saw this.

But I was even more delighted. ‘Cause just then I reached for the water valve and turned it on full force.

Well, first they just kind of stood there in disbelief, and got themselves soaked. But when that water began to seep into their electronic equipment, a few things began to snap, crackle, and pop. And then you never seen such a bunch of fools trying to pull their electric guitars from around their necks so fast. Comical it was. I tell you, I was rolling down the corn rows.

Their guitars would touch their bodies and shock the shit out of them. So they’d grab ’em, and their hands would get shocked. So they started dancing all around with their necks craned over, trying to make those damned guitar straps fall over their heads.

Yessir, this was sure fun to watch. But it wasn’t the best of it. What happened next was the cream of the crop. I would have paid to see this, but didn’t have to, since I was right there causing it all. Seems like Rutherford’s nephew’s guitar couldn’t take the strain. It started to spit out all these sparks, and then it exploded and caught fire.

Why, he just went plumb crazy when this happened. He started to scream like a coyote in mating season. He started yap-yapping and half-howling. Then he grabbed his guitar by the neck and whipped it off his body. I could tell he was getting shocked, by the way his body kept convulsing, but he held on tight to the guitar. And with eyes ablaze, and spittin’ and screamin’, he spun around and around in circles, then let loose of the guitar and sent it flying.

It landed in a cloud of smoke and fire right at the edge of Rutherford Abercrombie’s corn crop.

I ought to tell you now, that when a cornfield catches fire it burns up like a toothpick in a torchlight. It just goes ablaze in seconds, and before you know it nothing’s left but ashes and corn flakes.

That’s exactly what happened to Rutherford Abercrombie’s cornfield. That flaming guitar caught the cornfield on fire, and before you knew it—poof!—it was wiped out. And so was Rutherford, who stood to lose a lot of money.

Well, war is hell. Especially on the loser. But I was doing pretty damned good myself. Once the ambulances had taken away the band members, the fire department had poured their last drops of water on the ashes, and the sheriff had stopped knocking on my front door, I was able to sneak out of my stand of corn where I was hiding.

As I walked back to my farmhouse, a proud, happy, and triumphant general, my violin player emerged from his hiding place, too. He lifted his violin toward me and I nodded my head. He then put the violin under his chin and began performing again. And Water Music never sounded better to an old country boy like myself.

But I preferred my country music, so I went on inside and turned on the radio just in time to catch a George Strait tune.

But I could almost feel what was happening to my cornstalks outside. Their ears were growing bigger and bigger as they listened to the soothing classical music. I could feel that. And their leaves were growing greener and greener. I could feel that too. But what I could mostly feel were dollar signs.

Eat your heart out, Rutherford Abercrombie, for this year I was having a bumper crop.

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