Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Post-Debate Analysis - I Couldn't Write Something This Bizarre!

   (Although I've tried to stay off politics in this blog for awhile, since last night was the first one-on-one debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I thought I would record my impressions here the night after.  For those who come here for my fiction, don't worry, October is going to be horror story month! LOL)

   I've made no secret of my "Never Trump" sentiments since this election cycle started over a year ago.  This man's appeal to so many is absolutely inexplicable to me.  He is the biggest liar in the history of modern politics - every single fact-checking site bears this out.  It boggles my mind that so many evangelical Christians regard him as a standard-bearer when his whole life has been lived in direct contrast to the values of the Christian faith.  The man is a walking monument to greed, egotism, repeated and admitted adultery, corruption, and general moral turpitude,  yet thousands of evangelicals are not only hailing him as a political savior but will savagely attack anyone (myself especially) who points out how morally inconsistent it is for a follower of Christ to support such a person.  I can understand the position of some - that he is the (slightly) lesser of two evils, and that they fear the way Hillary Clinton will stack the Supreme Court if she wins.  But going whole hog for this wicked man while claiming to be a faithful servant of Christ - that just blows me away!

    Neither can I support Hillary Clinton.  I am a Reagan Republican and until recently considered myself pretty conservative - although nowadays my brand of Republicanism is considered to be "establishment sellout-ism."  But aside from her lengthy record of questionable deals, shady finances, enabling her sexual predator husband, attacking any woman who tries to shed light on his awful behavior, sloppy handling of classified material, working for the greatest foreign policy failure President of my lifetime - well, anyway, aside from all that, she is the candidate of the Democratic Party - the party that champions abortion on demand (a procedure I loathe with every fiber of my being), endless expansion of government, soft-pedaling the threat of Islamic extremism, and willful blindness to our mushrooming national debt.  All while promising more and more and more free stuff - free college, free child care, extended maternity leave for men and women, free health care, free birth control - NONE OF WHICH is ever really free.  The price is higher taxes, a bigger, more invasive government than ever before, and a citizenry that is more regulated, more cowed, and less free than any previous generation of Americans since slavery was abolished.

    All of that is a roundabout way of saying:  I have no dog in this fight.  At all.

    So - what about the debate?

    Donald Trump was rude, abrasive, braggadocious (apparently he learned that word specifically so he could deny that it applied to him!), and generally obnoxious.  His answers were vague, rambling, and mostly evasive.  He ducked question after question while managing to boast of his wealth, his business accomplishments, his negotiating skills, and his ability to avoid paying taxes and relentlessly attacking Clinton on a variety of issues.  All told, he was somewhat better than he was in most of the Republican debates, but that's not saying much.  It was obvious as the evening went on that Clinton was getting under his skin, needling him, and his attacks became less focused and more prone to hyperbole as the evening went on.  My favorite example:  "America is being ripped off by every nation on earth!"  Really?  Every nation?  Even Burkina Faso has got it in for us?  Say it ain't so, Joe!  And of course, that Trump specialty, denying he ever said things he is well documented to have said!  (He really did tweet that global warming was a hoax manufactured by China in order to damage American business productivity.)

   Trump actually failed to go after Clinton on several key points of vulnerability, despite the fact that he repeatedly interrupted her, rolled his eyes, and made faces while she talked.  In short, he didn't have a very good night, but he didn't hurt himself excessively either.  Of course, the hard core Trump-heads are going to say he won no matter what, that the debate was rigged, the moderator biased, Hillary was wearing a wire, Donald's mike didn't work, Hillary actually died last month and has been replaced by a Terminator-style android sent from the future to make sure that Muslim liberals take over the world and kill all Christians in America and elsewhere.  (OK, that last is an exaggeration.  They said she was an intelligent zombie, not an android.)

   In short, I don't think the Donald lost any supporters, but I don't think he gained any either. Nothing he said is going to sway any moderates.

   What about Hillary?  Well, she was more calm, collected, and Presidential than Donald Trump, and she had several zingers.  (My favorite:  "Well, we all know you live in your own reality, Donald!")  Her response to his raising of the "stamina" issue was downright brilliant.  But she also sounded smug and condescending at times, she completely avoided mentioning how she might deal with the issue of our crushing national debt, and was just a little bit too pat on many of her answers.  In short, she was more coached and more prepared, but perhaps just a bit "overcoached."  So I don't think she lost any supporters at all, and may have swayed a few centrists her way.  Overall, I have to give her the win, even as, in my mind, I envision how Marco Rubio or any of several sane Republicans might have handed her hat to her in this debate.  But, sadly, that ship has sailed. 

  As for me - I'm writing in my own name on the ballot in December.  I'll be able to look myself in the eye after I vote, and I honestly believe I would do a better job than either of these jackwagons!!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

THREE TRAVELERS - My Newest Short Story!

  What was it like afterward for those people that Jesus healed?
  One thing that all the ancient accounts of Jesus agree on is that He was a healer.  The Gospels, Josephus, even the veiled references in the Talmud attribute wondrous deeds to Him.  But what was it like for those who were healed?  Did they go back to their lives, or did they follow the One who gave them their lives back?  That is the scenario I explore in this short story, which I wrote last week.  Read on, enjoy, and don't forget to leave me some feedback below!


A Short Story by

Lewis Smith


          Three travelers walked the road up the foothills of Zion towards Jerusalem.  It was early summer in Judea, and the lush green of the hills had not yet been burned up by the heat of the month the Romans called Julii.  The sky overhead was clear and deep blue as the sun slowly lowered in the west, where the waters of the Great Sea lurked just over the horizon.  They walked along together in a companionable silence, these three men, moving towards a common goal, but as the breeze turned cooler and the skies began to darken, the silence became louder and louder, until finally, one of them, an older man named Ezra, spoke.

          “How did you come to follow the Master, Elias?” he asked the youngest man, whose brisk pace kept him at the head of the trio.

          Elias ben Yakob was a handsome man, his features finely chiseled, his dark eyes set on either side of a nose that was as straight as an arrow, but not too long.  He wore a short, neatly trimmed beard, and his robes, although not expensive, were clean and carefully mended.

          “My father was a Levite,” he said, “and my mother was of the house of Benjamin, a fine old family that claimed descent from King Saul himself.  As I grew up, they were forever praising my looks, telling me what a handsome boy I was, how all the girls would compete to see who would be my bride, and what a wonderful future I might have as a scribe, working for the priests.  When I was sixteen, a spot on my hand began to itch.  I paid it no mind when it turned red, but when it began to darken and ooze foul fluid I showed it to my father.  He paled and backed away from me, and my own mother shrieked at the sight.  ‘Leper!’ they cried out, and drove me from the only home I had ever known.”

          He sighed.  “It was a hard blow for a vain young man to take, and as the foulness began to spread from my hand throughout my body, I prayed for death.  I found a group of lepers, living in a cave near a graveyard outside of old Jericho, and there was a fellowship of sorts among them.  Some of them looked normal enough at a glance, some were missing fingers and toes, and some were monsters to look upon – although one of those, Amos by name, had the gentlest heart and the kindest smile, shining out from his ruined face.  They told me that my case was not as bad - that one could barely tell from my face that I was afflicted – but I knew better.  We had no glass or polished bronze among us, but I could see my reflection in the drinking bowl, and I knew that I was on my way to becoming as much a monster as any of them.”

          He paused and took a drink from his water flask. 

          “Then I heard of him.  Rumors flew like wildfire among the leper community, that there was a mighty prophet who could heal our kind with the power of his words.  I didn’t believe it, of course, but the rumors refused to die away.  Finally, when I heard that he was coming up the road not far from our cave, I went with my friend Bar-Timaeus and we sought him out.  We heard the crowd, as he approached, calling him ‘Son of David,’ so we took up the cry. ‘Son of David, have mercy on us!’ we called out to him, and he heard us.  He came through the mob that lined the sides of the road, and walked right up to us – closer than any clean person had approached me since the day I showed my sore hand to my parents.”

          Elias laughed out loud.  “I was disappointed when I saw him.  ‘This was the mighty prophet?’  I thought to myself. He looked so ordinary, until you got up close.  Only His eyes betrayed the power and the compassion and the majesty that were packed into His simple frame.  ‘What do you wish of me?’ He asked.  I found myself tongue-tied, but Bar-Timaeus spoke for us both.  ‘Lord, if you are willing, let us be cleansed,’ he said.”

          “The Master looked at us long and hard, and then spoke. ‘I am willing,’ He replied, and he laid His left hand gently across my brow, like a father caressing a small child.  With His right hand he touched my comrade in the same way.  Then He smiled, and it was like seeing a bright spring day dawn after a cloudy night. ‘Now go and show yourself to the priests,’ He said, and turned back to the road.”

          “I looked at Bar-Timaeus, and his face was no different.  His nose was still covered with welts and knots, and his lips were still raw and sore with lesions.  My hand was still half rotten, my fingers barely holding on by tatters of skin and sinew.  I doubted for a moment – but then I said, ‘Well, you heard him.  Let’s go.’  We lowered our heads and began to walk towards the nearest village – and as we did so, something happened.  I could feel some sort of energy flowing through my body.  After a few hundred yards, I raised my hand – and my palm was no longer black.  It was pink.  The flesh that had rotted off was growing back.  I looked at Bar-Timaeus and the knots and pustules on his nose were shrinking, drawing back into his flesh, and healthy skin was taking their place.  I began to laugh, and he looked at me and began to laugh, and soon we were running, not walking – and by the time we got to the village not a trace of leprosy remained in either of us.  Once we were declared clean by the priest and made our offerings, I went to find my father and mother.  But after I had been restored to them, I went to find the Master.  And I followed Him from then until . . . until that day.”

          He grew silent then, as if some private sorrow consumed him for a moment.  But then he smiled and looked at Ezra.

          “What about you?” he said.  “How did you come to follow our Master?”

          The older man had listened with rapt attention to his story, a smile playing across his lips.  He was nearing fifty years old, his beard salted with grey, his eyes dancing with a keen inner joy.

          “I was my parents’ firstborn,” he said. “My father told me that even as an infant, my legs were shrunken and tiny, and while they grew in stature, as the rest of me did, the muscles simply never filled in.  It was obvious by the time I was two that I would never walk.  By then my brother had been born, healthy and active and normal, and I found myself more and more shunted aside.  What is there for a cripple to do except beg?  So as soon as I was old enough, my father and my brother – later my other brothers, too – would take my pallet and place it at the city gate.  I would sit there with an old tin cup and beg alms from passers-by.  Most people walked by and ignored me altogether, a few were evil and mocking, but many were kind, and left me coins when they could, or simply took the time to talk to me.  I taught myself to sing so that I could feel as if, in some way, I was earning what they gave me.  But I always dreamed of being able to walk.”

          He looked down at his sturdy calves, whipping back and forth beneath his tunic as he managed the steep and rocky roadway with ease, and the smile that creased his face was filled with wonder.

          “When I was fifteen we moved to Jerusalem, where my father had purchased a small blacksmith’s shop.  He and my brothers worked harder than ever, and I was left at the city gate for many long hours to beg while they toiled at the anvil.  It was not like things had been Beer Sheba at all – there were dozens of beggars, some of them more ill than me, others obvious charlatans.  Sometimes I went an entire day without anyone dropping so much as a mite in my cup.  I wanted to walk more than I ever had before!”

          “Then someone told me about the Pool of Bethesda, over by the Sheep Gate.  They said that periodically, an angel of God troubled the waters, and whoever could get in first, after the waters were stirred, would be healed of whatever ailed them.  I begged my brothers to take me there, and since the shop was doing well and my income from begging had shrunk so much, they humored me.  At the age of twenty, I was carried to the pool for the first time.  So many people all around it – some crippled like me, some with consumptive coughs, some furtive souls who showed no outward symptoms, although rumor said they were in the early stages of leprosy and had not yet been noticed and outcast.  Every day it seemed there were a hundred or more souls crowded around the pool, waiting for the waters to stir.”

          “I had been there for nearly a month when it happened.  It wasn’t a huge thing – if you were not watching for it, you might not have noticed right away – but at the center of the pond, a whirlpool formed for a few minutes, and then some bubbles formed and burst.  I started to lever myself up on my arms, and one of the men – a tall thin fellow with a hacking cough – dove in headfirst.  There was a collective sigh of disappointment as all of us settled back on to our cots and cushions.  When he came up, he was smiling.  He waded out of the pool, and I will say that I did not hear him cough once as he gathered up his meager cushion and headed home.  I never saw him again, so I guess he was healed.”

          “But I wasn’t.  Every time the waters stirred – and it only happened once or twice a month, at most – once it went six weeks without so much as a ripple – someone else, someone whose legs worked better than mine, got into the water first.  Some of them said they felt no effect, others said that they were instantly healed, and some began to gradually get better.  But year after year, I waited.  I tried asking my brothers to come with me, so they could throw me in the second the waters were troubled, but they were busy, and the few times they came, nothing happened.  So twenty years passed, and I was still crippled, still useless, still bitter.

          “Then, one day, about a year ago, I saw an immense crowd coming down the street.  They were surrounding this man, clad in plain robes and rather plain looking himself, and calling him ‘Rabbi.’  I asked who He was, and someone said his name was Yeshua, and that He was a mighty teacher and healer.  As soon as that last word was spoken, all of us helpless derelicts by the pool began calling His name.  Why He singled me out I do not know, but before I could even struggle to sit up, He was standing over me.”

          Ezra smiled at the memory.  “He asked me the oddest question I had ever heard at that point.  He said ‘Friend, do you want to be made well?’  It made me angry.  Of course I wanted to be made well!  I started to say something angry and bitter, and then I looked into His eyes and saw no mockery there.  He was being sincere. Did I want to be well?  I was over forty years old, and I had never worked a day in my life, never taken care of myself, never thought of marriage or children or anything else.  But what I had thought about was walking – walking like a normal person, not being a burden to my family any more.  So I answered Him truthfully: ‘Lord, I long to be healed, but I have no man to put me in the pool when the waters are stirred.  Every time, as I try to move myself, someone else jumps in ahead of me.’

          “His eyes shone with kindness, and He reached down and placed one hand on my knee – that useless knob in the middle of the stick that was my leg. ‘Then let it be,’ He said simply.  ‘Take up your pallet and walk home!’

          “Once more my bitterness nearly ran away with my mouth.  Take up my pallet, indeed!  Did He think I was a fraud?  Could he not see how useless my legs were? But something in His face, his eyes, stopped me – and at that moment, something happened.  I felt a surge of energy in my body, and before my eyes my useless, withered legs began to fill out with muscle and sinew that had never been there before.   I tried to move them – something I had spent hours at a time doing to no avail – and they obeyed my mind’s commands!  My knees bent as they were supposed to, and when I slowly levered myself forward, taking my weight off of my hands, I found they bore me just fine.  I took a few tentative steps, and then I began running in circles, screaming at the top of my lungs that I had been healed!  I was jumping and walking and strutting and running all around the pool, and some looked at me as if I had a demon, while others’ eyes were filled with wonder.  After a moment or two, I remembered His words, and took up my pallet to carry it home.  Yeshua had already moved on, the crowds packed so tightly around Him that I could not even approach.  I ran to my house, and my mother and father could not even believe it was me at first.  My brothers were filled with wonder also.  I thanked them for all that they had done for me across the years, and embraced them.  That evening I sought out the One who had healed me, and I followed him from then . . . until Passover.”  His face fell at that memory, and he lapsed into silence.

          Elias turned to the third man, a lean and tall fellow who had joined them on the road a few hours earlier.

          “Simon, isn’t it?” he said.  “When did you start to follow the Master?”

          “Two years ago,” he replied.  “But my story is nothing like yours.”

          “Why don’t you tell us,” Ezra said, “and let us be the judge of that.”

          The tall man shrugged, and began to speak.

          “I was a vinedresser,” he said, “chief tender of the vineyards of Herod Philip.  It was my job to make sure that his grapes grew big and sweet and full of juice, and I did it well.  I had a dozen gardeners working under me, and I was well paid for my labors.  I was married to the loveliest of women, Rachel by name, and we had two beautiful daughters, born a year apart.  In short, my life was blessed, and I was thankful to Adonai for all that I had been given.  I had no idea how quickly it could all be taken away.”

          He bowed his head for a moment, remembering some private grief.

          “It was Passover season, two years ago, and we were on our way to Jerusalem for the festival.  As we arrived in the edge of the city, we got caught up in a vast crowd.  Everyone was angry, stirred up, and there was one man who seemingly wanted to keep them that way.  He would start shouting to the people every few minutes, his voice full of hate, telling them that the Romans must pay for what they had done.  I was curious, to be sure, but even if I had wanted to, I don’t think we could have found our way out of that crowd.  It was like being swept into the current of a raging river as they made their way towards Herod’s palace.”

          “As we followed along, I overheard bits and pieces of the story from some of the people.  The aqueduct that had been begun the previous year by Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea, was being paid for with money stolen from the Temple – corban offerings given by the faithful.  Some said his soldiers had actually violated the Sacred Precinct and removed the money at the point of the sword; others said the priests had been threatened into surrendering it.  I found myself getting angry at the thought of the Romans stealing the offerings of my people, and soon I, too, was shouting along with the rest.  My wife tried to stay near me, but holding two little girls by the hand made it difficult.  I was leading our Passover lamb on a rope, but the crush of people was so great I picked it up and was carrying it.”

          “We made our way to Herod’s Palace and gathered in the courtyard, filling it full and spilling into the streets around, with that big, loud fellow standing on top of the well curb and shouting at the top of his lungs about the defiling of the Temple and the theft of corban money.  After a while, Pilate himself appeared on the balcony.  He was wearing his military uniform – breastplate, scarlet cloak, and sword at his side, and he looked angry.”

          “He tried to reason with us – he said that the money had been willingly donated by Caiaphas, and that since the aqueduct would benefit the poor of Jerusalem more than anyone else, spending corban money to build it was not only appropriate but also completely in accordance with our own traditions.  He even quoted one of our own prophets in an attempt to justify his actions.”

          “Had it not been for that big fellow, I think the crowd might have dispersed. Pilate was very persuasive – they said he was once a member of the Roman senate, you know – but this Simon bin Yosef would have none of it.  He kept screaming that Pilate was lying, that the Temple had been robbed, and that corban had been defiled at the hands of Gentiles.  The standoff lasted for nearly two hours, and I was actually trying to find my way to the edge of the crowd and locate my wife and daughter, when the Romans struck.”

          “Pilate had sent his legionaries out in plain clothes, bearing cudgels beneath their cloaks, and they hit us from all directions at once.  I was caught in the crush as everyone tried to flee, and then I was struck on the head and remembered no more.  When I came to, the square was full of bodies.  My Passover lamb was a few feet away, its skull crushed and its blood mingled with the blood of an old woman who had been trampled.  As I looked across the square at the victims, I saw a familiar dress – the bright green and red one my wife had been so proud of.  I could barely recognize her – one side of her head had been caved in with a club – and my girls lay on either side of her, their bodies broken and lifeless.”

          “I fled in a blind rage, grief and anger tearing my heart to shreds.  I joined the Zealots of Bar Abbas for a while, but then I saw that they were just common thieves who used politics as an excuse for rape, theft, and murder.  I was wandering in the wilderness of the Jordan, not far from Caesarea Philippi, when I saw this group approaching.  There were maybe fifteen or twenty of them, all clustered around one man, who was teaching them as he walked along.  I sat on a boulder some distance from the road, not desiring their fellowship.  But as they passed by, I heard something he said.  ‘Unless we forgive men their trespasses against us,’ he told them, ‘then our Heavenly Father cannot forgive our trespasses against Him.’

          “Forgiveness!  The very thought filled me with rage.  I spat on the ground to show my contempt for such a sentiment.  Whether he heard me snort in derision, or simply felt the hostility that was radiating from me, I do not know.  But suddenly this itinerant rabbi was standing in front of me.  I refused to lift my head and meet His eyes.”

          Simon swallowed hard before continuing.  “I guess I thought if I ignored Him, He would go away.  But He kept standing there, and finally He said; ‘My friend, I perceive that you are in the bitterness of iniquity.’  I looked up at that, meeting His gaze for the first time.  His eyes were full of compassion, but I didn’t want His pity.  ‘Foolish man,’ I snapped.  ‘You do not know what I have suffered, so do not presume to lecture me about bitterness.’

          ‘I know you, Simon,’ He said. ‘Your wife was a beautiful woman, and she loved you dearly.  Your daughters gladden my Father’s heart as they sing and dance in His kingdom.  All three of them await you, but you cannot join them unless you cast aside the burden of hate that you carry.  Give your burden to me, Simon.  You have borne it too long.”

          “When He spoke those words, something broke in me.  For the first time since that dreadful day, I wept.  I cried like a child, and He put His arms around me and held me until I could sob no more.  When I finally looked up, I found that His followers were regarding me with the same compassion that shone from His eyes.  And my hatred, my desire for vengeance, my anger at God for taking my family from me – all those things were gone.”

          “The Master may have healed your bodies, my friends, and those were true miracles from heaven.  A leper cleansed, a lame man walking – all signs of the Messiah’s coming.  But the Master healed my soul, and that is why I follow Him,” Simon concluded.

          “Do you really think He is alive again?” asked Elias finally.

          “Too many people have seen Him for it to be otherwise,” Ezra said.  “I have spoken to several of them.”

          “All I know is that the vision I beheld in my dreams said to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost,” Simon told them.  “And that is tomorrow.”

          And the three travelers resumed their journey.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Dear Lord, Make It Stop . . . Please??

   Sunday was the anniversary of the horrible events of September 11, 2001.  I remember that day with great clarity; it was one of the worst of my whole life.  I was teaching, then as now, at a small private school.  My students were all at the secondary level; we made no attempt to hide what was happening from them, but at that time we didn't have computers or internet in the classrooms, so we had to listen to the whole, horrible tragedy unfold over the radio.  It broke my heart then, and the memories still make me weep today.  So many lives lost to the cruelty of fanatics . . . it was my generation's Pearl Harbor, or perhaps our own version of the Kennedy assassination - the one day everyone who was of age to remember can recall in vivid detail - where they were, what they were doing, and how they got the awful news.

   But, as I looked at my social media feeds on this anniversary and the days leading up to it, I found a new emotion crowding out the old ones.  Not just sorrow and remembrance this time, but anger was what I felt. Not anger at Bin Laden and his cronies, the evil, twisted adherents of the most virulent strains of Islam - but anger that so many of my fellow Americans want to assign the blame somewhere else.  To our own government, to be precise.

  Inside job, false flag attack, conspiracy - I heard those words again and again, accompanied by memes, some clever, some ridiculous, and some flat-out lies.  Many of these are posted by decent and honest people who have been misled by con men and America-hating crypto-fascists and Jew-baiters ("Did you know that all 1400 Jews who worked in the WTC called in sick that day?"), but others were shared by people who ought to know better.  Again and again, respected universities and authority figures have shot down these ridiculous allegations, but no amount of logic puts a dent in the certainty of conspiracy theorists ("So what if MIT proved the buildings collapsed that way because of heat and structural damage?  You know they're in on the cover-up, right?  Our engineers and experts have proved them wrong!").  Try to disprove their allegations and you are branded an idiot and a rube.  I tell you, it's worse than arguing with Holocaust deniers! (And I have done that, too.  There are many varieties of idiot in the world.)

   Here are the reasons why I have and always will reject the whole "9/11 was an inside job" school of thought.  First of all, how many people would it take to carry this out?  Especially if you buy into the view that the last two attacks - the Pentagon and Flight 93 - were not done by airplanes at all.  Many of the conspiracy websites and YouTube videos claim a missile hit the Pentagon, and that the crater near Shanksville, PA was not made by an airplane because there is no visible wreckage.  Assuming that either of those ridiculous claims is true (neither of them are, but just for argument's sake let's play along) - then what happened to those two planes?  What happened to the passengers?  What about all those phone conversations with family members on the ground?  Are we expected to believe that the government created both those flights, both those planes, and all those passengers out of thin air?  Were the grieving family members all hired "crisis actors"?  If not, were all the passengers being held at gunpoint, forced to make those calls with guns to their heads before they were executed by merciless government agents? Who were these agents, and how many of them would it take to execute that many passengers and flight crew. If the Pentagon was hit by a missile, who fired it?  And from where?  What happened to the two missing airplanes?  If no plane crashed at Shanksville, what made the crater? (BTW, most aviation experts will tell you that the crater and the lack of visible wreckage is actually quite consistent with a large plane moving at a high rate of speed slamming into the ground nose-first.)  I have yet to hear a credible answer from a conspiracy theorist to any of those questions.

   Then, about those towers that collapsed - how many men would it take to plant demolition charges on each floor?  How long would it take the to do it? Why didn't the employees in the building notice them doing it?  Where on earth would you find that many men who were willing to take part in the cold-blooded murder of 3000 Americans?  And how many people did it take to lay the trail of evidence that pointed back to Bin Laden and his terrorist cronies in Afghanistan?  Why did Al Qaeda never once deny bringing the towers down?  Did we know about the foreign hijackers, let them take the planes over and smash them into the buildings, and plant the explosives in advance, to finish the job in case the towers didn't fall?  And again, HOW MANY PEOPLE would have to know about such a vast conspiracy?  How many would take an actual part in it?  Several hundred?  Over a thousand?  And in fifteen years of investigative journalism, government inquiries, and endless research, not one of these nasty conspirators has EVER come forward?  No deathbed confessions?  No plea bargains? Not even one plain old guilty conscience?  It boggles the mind.  Where did these shadowy conspirators - whether it was the Israelis, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, the CIA, whoever you think did this - where did they find so many people who were willing to murder 3000 innocent Americans and not ONE of them ever come clean about it?

    Leaving all that aside, there are two more reasons why I will never believe that Americans carried out the awful attacks of that day.  One is personal - in my long life, I have had the privilege of being acquainted with a number of members of the intelligence community, both military and civilian.  These are loyal, patriotic Americans that love their country with a fierce love,  who take enormous risks in order to foil our enemies and keep us safe, and who sometimes pay a horrific personal and emotional price for their service.  Through these individuals, I have received a snapshot of the culture of the agencies they work for.  THESE ARE THE SAME PEOPLE, according to many conspiracy theorists, who either carried out these attacks on America or aided and abetted those who did.  I have one word for those accusations - GARBAGE!  Might their be one or two twisted souls in the fringe of our intelligence services evil enough to do something like this?  Possibly, but I doubt it.  Hundreds of them, working in concert to murder their fellow citizens in some ridiculous false flag attack?  NEVER.  There are simply too many patriotic and decent souls working in our intelligence agencies who would have risked life, limb, and reputation to stop them.

   My other reason for rejecting the conspiracy theories about 9/11 is observational.  The United States government is an incredibly bloated, sprawling, incompetent organization.  Somehow we are expected to believe that the same White House that was too stupid to plant WMD's in Iraq for our troops to find, so that we didn't wind up with egg on our face in front of the entire world, was able to carry out a flawlessly timed, seamless attack, cover their tracks, blame our enemies, lay a convincing false trail of evidence, and not undergo a single defection or whistleblower the whole time?  Again, it defies all credibility.  But none of that matters to the tireless tinfoil hat brigades who manufacture their memes and post their videos on YouTube.

   Every year, on the anniversary, the charges are raised again, the memes with all their exaggerations and falsehoods are posted on social media ("Did you know they didn't recover so much as a screw from Flight 93?") and ON and ON and ON and ON.  And, as memory fades and a new generation that was not around on that awful day comes of age, more and more people will start to believe them.

   Dear Lord, make it stop.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Short Story Challenge and THE HAUNTED STAIRCASE

   So last week I told a good friend that she could pick the topic for my next short story.  Note I said "topic" - SINGULAR.  Instead I got a challenge to take several very . . . well, shall is say "diverse" elements and weave them into a tale!  Never one to refuse a challenge, I accepted and finished this little story in less than twenty-four hours from the time the challenge was issued.  I'm actually proud of how it came out, but you guys can be the judge!  Here were the elements I was instructed to include:

- 1986
- a boss who is afraid to leave his office
- a staircase where three people died
- a hot secretary who wears a different wig every week
- spicy cookies
- a marketing scheme involving Peru
And . . .
- a rabbi with PTSD

And here is the story I came up with.  Let me know what you think!

A Short Story by Lewis Smith 
“Want a cookie, Boss?”  
The secretary’s voice stirred Mubert Brittleton from his concentration.  He heaved a sigh and looked up at her.  Brittleton was middle-aged, overweight, balding, and had an unfortunate tendency to perspire when he was stressed.  And these days, it seemed he was always stressed.  In fact, he thought, he couldn’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t stressed.  He’d never figured out what dark interior cavity his father had pulled the name “Mubert” from, but wearing it had cost the younger Brittleton a childhood full of teasing and bullying from his classmates.  Girls ignored him, and jocks shoved him out of the way, and the brainy students looked down on him because he wasn’t particularly bright.  Mubert had finally found a girlfriend during his senior year of high school, a mousy, shy bookworm named Rhonda, and they had married in 1970, when he was twenty-four years old.  She had been the brightest point of his existence, but they had only had five years together before a drunk driver stole her life away and relegated him to a life of loneliness as a commodities broker.  He had eventually come to manage his own small company in this rundown brick building on the low-rent end of Cincinnati, but he struggled to pay the rent, keep the lights on, and pay his employees.  At the end of the day, he could put groceries on the table of his small, neatly mowed frame house just outside of town, and that was it.  Truth was, most days he couldn’t eat those groceries because of the ulcers that bedeviled him. 
“I’m sorry, Trina, what did you say?” he asked.  He’d been staring at the Peruvian accounts again, trying to figure out how to dig his way out of the hole he’d put his business into. 
“I brought some cookies from home,” Trina Galloway repeated.  “Do you want one?” 
He smiled.  Trina always put him in a good mood – she was young, pretty, buxom, and her hair was done up exactly like Kathleen Turner’s in Romancing the Stone, one of his favorite movies. Except that today her hair was blue.  Monday it might well be dark red, or teal, or jet black.  Her hair color changed every week if not more often, and he knew enough about women’s hair to know that no one could dye their hair a different color that often without destroying it, so he knew that Trina must have a very large wig collection.  He often wondered if she was bald underneath, or just wore her real hair short enough that it never peeked out from under her endless parade of hairpieces.  One of his fantasies involved sneaking up behind her and yanking her wig off to find out. 
“Sure, Trina, that sounds nice,” he said, taking a cookie from the Tupperware bowl.  He bit into it and chewed a moment, then looked at her oddly.  She was grinning in an impish way.  He swallowed and spoke. 
“What kind of cookies are these?” he said.  “They nearly burned my tongue off!” 
“Cinnamon, sugar, and cayenne pepper,” she said.  It's an old family recipe from my grandmother.  She called them her sugar firebomb cookies.” 
Mubert took another bite.  After the initial shock of an unexpectedly spicy cookie, he found that the flavors actually blended well together.  Good thing he had a bottle of Maalox in his desk, he thought.  His ulcer might not like this nearly as much as his mouth did. 
“These are really pretty good when you get used to them,” he said.  “Thanks!” 
“You’re welcome,” she said.  “Have a couple more!”  Before he could protest, she placed a napkin on his desk and put two of the ‘sugar firebombs’ on it. He smiled and thanked her again, and took another bite as she walked away, swaying in all the right places.  She was way out of his league and he knew it, but a guy could look, right?  After she’d returned to her desk, he bent over the Peruvian accounts again. 
It had seemed like such a good idea, selling the new Apple desktop computers at a discounted rate to an emerging nation with a growing economy.  But unfortunately Microsoft had gotten the same idea at the same time, and even though Brittleton knew that the Apple product was better, his rivals had a bigger advertising budget, and he was stuck with two warehouses full of computers that he couldn’t sell.  The ‘1984’ ad that had moved so many Apple products here in the states a couple of years before just didn’t have the same appeal to South American audiences, and neither did anything else his firm tried. This whole mess was going to drag the company into the ground if he couldn’t find a way to fix it.  He turned the radio down – they were playing Toto’s “Africa” again, a song whose lyrics mystified him utterly – and called his foreign sales rep to strategize. 
One call led to another, followed by more number crunching on his IBM adding machine, and then he dictated a lengthy letter to his advertising department in Lima.  He was still staring at the ledgers when Trina poked her head in again. 
“See you Monday, boss,” she said.  “Hope you have a nice night!” 
“Five o’clock already?” he said.  “Wow, time really got away from me today.  Thanks, Trina, and you too.  Any plans?” 
“My sister and I are going to hear Journey in concert tomorrow,” she said.  “They’re not as good since Steve Perry quit, but I still love the music.” 
“Sounds groovy,” he said, and internally winced at how old that made him sound.  “Have a great time.” 
He watched her leave again, admiring her curves and wondering what would happen if he asked her out.  He’d been on exactly three dates since his wife died, and none of them had gone well.  He simply wasn’t an attractive man, and he knew it, and that made him nervous, and being nervous made him sweat.  Women might like sweat on musclebound construction workers, but in his experience, a sweaty, potbellied, balding man might as well have a sign around his neck saying “Women beware!”  He smiled as he tried to imagine what a date with Trina might be like, but then he heard her footsteps hit the front staircase and his smile vanished. 
That staircase.  He spent every day trying not to think about it, and sometimes he succeeded.  But in the back of his mind he knew that at the end of the day that he would have to either walk down that narrow, shadowed set of steps to the front door of his business – or else stay in the office again.  Here lately it seemed as if staying in the office was becoming the more appealing option. 
When he had rented this building five years before, the realtor, a bivocational Jewish rabbi, had shown him up the steps and into the small suite of offices.  Even then that narrow flight of stairs had given Mubert the willies for some reason he couldn't put his finger on.  The single bulb lit the stairs well enough, but the ceiling was dim and shadowy, and some of the corners were dark - so dark that you couldn't see all the way into their recesses if the sun was not shining outside.  That particular afternoon, he hadn't really paid attention, except to note that the staircase was unusually chilly, colder than the street outside and the office upstairs. 
"This space was last rented by a real estate firm," Jacob Horowitz was explaining, "but they lost a bundle in the S&L crisis and had to move out.  We've not been able to rent it since, but I've had my crews keep it clean, and locked up tight.  Should be nice of a business the size of yours." 
The door to the street had swung shut behind them with a bang, and the rabbi jumped, and then laughed bitterly. 
"Fifteen years since I left 'Nam and I still hit the deck when I hear a car backfire," he says.   "I guess the battlefield stays with you all your life.  Wind must have caught it.  Well, take a look around and tell me what you think." 
Mubert was impressed with the office space and told Jacob as much, so the deal was pretty much sealed before they left the building.  The rabbi turned realtor agreed to meet Mubert the following morning right there at the office with all the paperwork that needed signing, and they had enjoyed a cup of coffee before heading their separate ways.  He had not even noticed the shadows above the staircase as they headed back out into the street that afternoon. 
But the next morning, when Brittleton had arrived at the empty office building, he found the door standing open.  He had stepped on in, figuring that Jacob had already arrived and was waiting for him inside – which, in a manner of speaking, he was.  The rabbi's body was crumpled at the foot of the stairs, his neck twisted at an impossible angle, and an expression of sheer terror on his face. His briefcase was between his feet, and Mubert figured he must have tripped over it somehow near the top of the stairs and fallen back down, breaking his neck as he landed.  Mubert had been in such a hurry to run out the door and call the police that he had only registered for a second that something briefly seemed to move in those dark shadows above the stairs.  When he recalled it later he figured it was just his imagination. 
The realty firm had sent out another agent, and Mubert had concluded the deal – he was sorry for Rabbi Horowitz, but really the office space was too ideal for his needs to reject it out of hand because of a tragic accident.  In fact, he had been so busy that first year that he had almost forgotten the first death on the staircase – until the second one occurred. 
Harry Sharpsburg was a vendor representing a line of snack foods that he wanted Mubert's firm to distribute in several Pacific Rim countries.  They had just finished a very productive meeting one morning, almost two years after Mubert had opened up shop in the walkup office suite.  The deal was settled with a handshake, but not yet in writing, when Sharpsburg left that afternoon.  It had been raining all morning, and the steps were perhaps a bit slick – or perhaps the vendor had gotten his feet tangled in the umbrella he was carrying.  No one knew, because no one actually saw him fall down the stairs.  Roberta, Trina's predecessor, had come back to Mubert's office to type up some notes he had made during the meeting, and most of the other staff was out to lunch.  But the clatter and thud had brought them both running, and what they had found – and what Mubert saw – was unforgettable and disturbing in equal measure. 
The tall, thin vendor was doubled up at the foot of the stairs, his hands over his face, the umbrella bent and broken beneath him.  He was still twitching faintly, and when Brittleton pulled his hands away, his features were twisted in an expression of horror that reminded him starkly of finding the rabbi's body two years before.  Roberta was shrieking hysterically, and Mubert stood to try and comfort or shush her – he wasn't quite sure which – when he heard something.  He wasn't sure what it was, only some sort of vague rustling coming from above his head.  He shot his glance upward, and saw the shadows in the corner moving.  It only lasted for a second, and his impression was that the darkness was somehow folding in on itself, collapsing, and turning into an ordinary shadow.  It was terrifying and compelling at the same time, and he stared at the corner long after the roiling motion had disappeared and normal darkness replaced it.  Then he had shaken himself out of his morbid reverie and ran upstairs to call the police. 
The death was judged to be accidental, and life in the office returned to normal over the next few weeks.  From time to time Mubert found himself standing on the stairs, staring into the shadowy corner, waiting for a movement that never happened.  Gradually the strange compulsion faded, and some days he was able to go straight up the stairs without so much as a glance upwards.  He might have attributed both deaths to clumsy feet and a steep, narrow staircase . . . had it not been for Shirley the intern. 
It was another gloomy day, some six months ago, when the staircase claimed her. Shirley Graves, a sweet, plump, business major from the nearby state university, had been a godsend to the office that spring.  Mubert had actually made up his mind to offer her a permanent position when she graduated if she wanted it.  This particular morning the office was full and buzzing with people as several shipments were either due to be processed or already en route.  The coffee pot had emptied by ten in the morning, and when Shirley went to brew more, she saw that they had run out. 
"I'm running down to the corner store to buy some coffee," she had called out as Mubert walked by, on his way to a meeting with two of his sales reps. 
"Grab me a Snickers," he had said – the last words he ever spoke to her.  She had nodded and waved, and turned to trot down the stairs at her usual brisk pace.  He turned back towards the conference room, and was at the door before the blood-curdling shriek echoed from the stairs. 
He ran as fast as he could – Mubert was actually rather quick for a pudgy fellow – and for the third time in five years, he saw a crumpled body at the foot of the stairs.  But this time he also saw something else there – a blackness that was wrapped around Shirley's body, a tendril of it thrust down her throat, squeezing her tight as she spasmed and struggled.  But then as fast as he registered it, the blackness withdrew, leaving her broken body twitching feebly, swiftly sliding up the wall and folding in on itself as it went.  By the time the first sales rep from the meeting joined Mubert at the head of the stairs, the blackness was gone as if it had never been there. 
He didn't mention the bizarre shadow in the police report, nor in the multiple accident forms his insurance company had him fill out.  After all,  who would have believed him?  From that day forward, though, the stairway filled him with horror.  In fact, he refused to walk down or up it alone.  He waited outside until Trina or one of the others arrived and walked up with them, and usually made a point of leaving with them.  But today he had been so busy he had not even noticed the others leaving, and Trina's goodbye had not registered in time for him to suggest walking out with her.  That meant that he was now alone in the building . . . with IT.  That was how he thought of the thing that he had twice glimpsed, this creature that literally lived in the shadows and preyed on those who got too close to its lair unaccompanied.  He did not know what it took from its victims; only that it left their bodies dead and broken. 
He stood up and paced around his office for a few moments, trying to decide what to do.  He had a blanket and a cot in his office closet, and a clean shirt also.  But this was Friday – did he really want to spend an entire weekend here in the building, all alone with that shadow-haunted staircase between him and the outside world?  He was nervous now;  sweat stained his armpits and dewed his brow.  As he paced, he looked around and saw the phone book in the corner.  That was it!  He could call someone! 
But who?  He really didn't want any of his employees laughing at him, but who else would come to an office building in a commercial neighborhood at five thirty on a Friday afternoon?  He set the phone book down on the edge of his desk, and it fell off, landing front side down.  On the back were several ads, including one for Tony's Pizza, a rather nice eatery a few blocks away.  That was it!  He'd call in a pizza and have it delivered, and then walk down the stairs with the delivery man and head on home.  Perfect – he'd get home safely, he wouldn't have to tread the haunted staircase alone, and his employees would not think that their boss was going paranoid on them. 
He sat down in his chair and dialed the number.  Some teenage girl picked up on the fourth ring; he placed his order and she repeated it back – a large, beef and mushroom pizza with extra cheese and light sauce – and he hung up the phone with a grin.  In an hour, he'd be home safe, watching movies on HBO, chowing down on pizza, and wearing a nice comfortable cotton shirt instead of the rapidly wilting dress shirt he'd worn to the office that morning. 
The building was dead quiet in the October evening; the furnace had been turned off during the warm afternoon, and the only sound was the muted traffic noise coming in from the street and the occasional pop or groan as the old bricks and timbers settled on themselves.  Mubert tried looking at the ledgers, but his eyes were heavy and the numbers kept trying to crawl off the page.  Finally, the bell rang and he buzzed the door open from the top of the stairs. 
"You order a pizza, sir?"  the salesman was a young black man, clean-cut and strongly built. 
"I did indeed," Brittleton replied.  "Stand right there at the foot of the stairs and let me grab my briefcase."  He retrieved his papers and closed the case, then trotted down the stairs as the young man stood there patiently. 
"That'll be twelve dollars even, sir," the boy said.  Mubert dug out a ten and a five and handed them to him, taking the box in his free hand.   
"I just didn't feel like going home and throwing something in the oven," Brittleton said, smelling the rich aroma coming from the box. Then he noticed something didn't seem quite right, so he opened the lid and peeked. 
Jalapeno peppers!  The pizza was covered with sliced jalapenos over the sausage and cheese.  Peppers were Mubert's one great weakness; he loved them even if they set his guts on fire.  He had made  a point not to order them, getting more bland toppings instead, but here they were. 
"This isn't what I ordered," he said.  "I got beef and mushroom with extra cheese." 
"Fo' real?" The driver said.  "Dang!  Now I have to go back to the store." 
Brittleton thought  for a moment.  There was no way he could eat this pizza without a bottle of Maalox handy, and his last bottle was upstairs in his office.  He really didn't want to stop at the drugstore on the way home, either. Then he got an idea. 
"I'll go ahead and take it," he said, "but I need you to wait here for a minute, OK?  Here's an extra ten if you stay right here at the foot of the stairs till I get back." 
"Ten bucks?  Just to wait here?  You got yourself a deal, mister!" The delivery man said with a grin. 
"Excellent!"  Brittleton fairly trotted up the stairs.  He knew he would regret it tomorrow,  but those peppers smelled intoxicating.  He grabbed the bottle of Maalox out of his desk, stretched for just a moment, and headed back to the stairs.  He was halfway down when he noticed that the pizza guy was gone.  He paused for a second, baffled, and then some motion above him caught his eye. 
Something black and glistening was unfolding from the ceiling, and it was so beautiful it held him rooted to the spot.  How could he have been afraid of this thing?  It was like oil and velvet, black, yet all colors at once, swirling, moving, like the unfolding of the world's most exotic orchid, growing here in a suburban office building.  It slowly lowered itself from the ceiling until it hung, suspended a foot above his head, and still unfolding.  Something was emerging from its inky depths, features slowly resolving themselves as he watched in rapt silence.  As he stood there,  a face emerged from the inky plasma - a face with eyes red as fire and fangs that glistened in the faint light of the hallway.  Wonder was replaced by fear, and Mubert opened his mouth to scream – but an inky black pseudopod shoved its way down his throat and choked out the sound.  Twitching and jerking, his body was lifted off the steps for a few seconds – then dropped with a thud.  Mubert Brittleton rolled down the staircase and came to rest in the vestibule.  He was dead before his body reached the bottom of the stairs. 
"Tell me again what happened," the police officer said softly to Damon, the pizza boy.  The kid was clearly shaken up, but the experienced officer wanted to make sure he had recorded the boy's statement accurately. 
"I brought the man his pizza," the young man told him, "and he said it was the wrong order.  But then he said he would take it anyway if I would wait for him downstairs, and gave me a ten.  I was standing here when I heard those two cars hit each other out in the street.  I set the pizza down on the stoop and ran out to make sure them girls were both OK.  They were fine – it was just a fender bender - but when I came back, boss man here was laying just like you see him!" 
"Thank you, Mister Johnson, that will be all.  If I have any more questions, I'll give you a call.  You can get back to your job now," the patrolman said.  Damon wasted no time hopping in his 1980 Ford Pinto and taking off. 
"So what do you make of it?" His partner asked. 
"Mister Brittleton was in a hurry, tripped over his own feet, and broke his neck," the first officer replied. 
"But what about that horrible expression on his face?" The younger officer persisted. 
"Who knows?" His jaded companion replied.  "Maybe fatty was scared that his pizza would get cold before he could eat it." 
With that he snapped his notebook closed and waited for the coroner's wagon to arrive, but he made a point to stand outside the building, under the bright porch light.  That stairway was altogether too dim for his tastes.