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under the late summer sun, it felt good to roll down the highway of the living again. Along Eastbound I-70, while the mile markers swept by like the numbered pages of an empty journal, I took a pile of typed pages from the glove box and placed them on the center console beside me, with care. Middle-aged, unemployed, unmarried and childless, I had no social status or money, but - in the event of a nasty crash - I wanted whoever came across my body to find my story.
No doubt, a time of great change was on the horizon; and I could feel it stir in my gut as I cranked up the radio to hear Don Henley croon
But before the long song could end, the radio started squealing and the motor began to miss. I picked up my dog-eared miniscript,and was just about to put it away when the whole car began to buck.
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Dropping the pages, I squelched the radio and noticed the lone silhouette of a man ahead - as my rebuilt motor shot craps.
As I shoved the clutch in, I just happened to glance into my racing mirror - at the growing image of a giant highway cruiser. Painted chartreus, the Mercedes bus was bearing down on me at a rapid rate. Barely before the damn thing rearended me, I slapped my floor-shifter into neutral - and a giant bolt of sunlight flashed off the bus's heavy bumper. Blinded and dazed, I yanked the steering wheel hard to my right and cut across the warning path onto the shoulder. As the ominous coach zoomed past, my vision returned - barely in time to catch a glimpse of sprawled across its panoramic side.
Gradually, my Chevy slowed on the inclined shoulder, gravel pelting its undercarriage like sleet on a thin metal roof - as I coasted to a stop not forty feet from the solitary highway worker I'd seen.
Having just filled up in Columbia, I turned on my and wondered how my car could be that bad of a gasoholic. At any rate, venturing out into the heat, I raised the hood and checked under the air cleaner. Finding a healthy ration of gas at the accelerator pump, I figured the problem was probably with the spark, but my tools were in the trunk and traffic was blitzing by like crazy. The interstate fumes swirled hot and noxious as I went to kick my front tire, but missed and hit the fender edge with my shin.
"Hello there!" my salutation rang out with a warble, hung in the heavy Missouri humidity for a second, then blew back in my face - while a cooling headwind lifted heat ripples off the road worker's hunched frame. Limping towards his humped back, my ankle felt like somebody clubbed it with a hammer. Left boot plowing oil-soaked gravel, I wished I hadn't kicked so recklessly.
Again, I called out to the guy and he finally wobbled in place, then jerked around. Hobbling to meet me halfway, the inebriated weed-wacker used the long wooden handle of his rusty sickle as an unwieldy walking stick. While we labored towards one another, I noticed the bus that nearly rammed me was parked on the east horizon - half on the median, half in the passing lane.
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After the worker wavered to a halt, I tried to explain my predicament. But the lost soul just stood there, silent, staring walleyed over my shoulder, clutching the handle of his tool to the bib of his maroon coveralls.
Suddenly, something moved in the gravel beside us, the worker's skittish eyeballs bounced in their coagulated fluids, and I heard a lazy hiss. Swiveling around, the guy swung the ragged edge of his sickle high into the hot air. I spotted his target, an infant Hognose snake, and grabbed the guy's twisted wrists. We struggled and cursed.
Squeezing his frigid wrists, I told him to leave the little reptile alone. "It's not hurting you."
His nervous breath sprayed my ear as he spoke. "Then why can't the damn thing stay home where it's suppose ta?"
Clamping down harder, my hands trembled. Finally, his arms convulsed and the intended weapon dropped into the graveled weeds.
Pushing the sadist aside, I surveyed the violated terrain and told the self-righteous asshole that Earth once was Master Hognose's domain - before we buried it with concrete and poisoned it with pesticides. As soon as I could catch my irritated breath, I kicked the sickle aside, picked up the slithery reptile, and gave the bolshevik schmuck who pretended to be civilized some free advice. "You best go ahead and beat your spear back into a pruning hook." On tucking the snake under a scrubby bush, I stood up and made a proclamation. "This war is over, comrade."
The reject only slobbered. "Drop dead." Wiping his dirty mouth and crusty moustache with an even dirtier red bandanna, he poked a pint-sized purple bottle into the toothless crevice and imbibed. Meanwhile, I inspected a nearby drainage ditch for no apparent reason, and wondered if all this was why God gave us dominion over the Earth.
I couldn't help but notice how bad the guy stunk as he grumbled in the third person that I should listen to him. "Jay's gonna make ya one helluva deal. This here Mogan David 20/20 wine ain't nothin' like the fine Lithuania Vodka that Jay used to drink, but there's an old bastard named Mr. Menachem who lives in that construction trailer down yonder with a young Jew girl. And Ména just might let ya work on your car in his driveway, if ya tell 'em Jay sent ya. So Jay's gonna help ya push your machine off the shoulder - if ya tell Boss M. to send me up next month's ration of Mad Dog." With a wet-belch, he said he was Jay. "So who in the hell are you?"
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When I told him my name was David, he blew his varicose nose on his dusty bandanna and tossed his empty bottle into the drainage ditch. Then, pointing unsteadily in the general direction of the tin house that sat a few hundred feet down a gravel road off the hot tarmac, he followed me back to my Chevy and helped push it off the shoulder.
As my car started to roll, I jumped in, cut the wheel, and coasted down the cul-de-sac, shouting cordial thanks to Jay.
"Don't forget the wine!" he cackled back, then resumed slapping hot weeds and cursing the wind, working his way through hell.
I came to an uneasy rest on the teardrop drive and took curious note of the distant bus as it bounced back onto the interstate and vanished toward St. Louis, leaving behind a cloud of blue smoke. I tried to relax in the shadow of the lopsided mobile home which now affronted me.
A black tar-paper roof crowned bold rivulets of acid rain etched into its oyster-hued siding. Windowpanes of rained-on cardboard had long ago gone moldy and green, or so I guessed. The yard was a discombobulated patchwork of eroded soil and artifical turf.
Wiping my eyes, I climbed out. The early evening sky thundered, suddenly dimmed, and gray clouds rolled in from the east as I limped through the rolled newspapers that littered the front lawn. The sky cracked with lightning as I climbed the rickety steps to the door and stood on a wobbly porch scattered with animal droppings. Presently, a loose floorboard creaked and the screen door swung outward, another awful stench assaulting me.
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The somehow familiar image of an old gentleman motioned me in and made a bold, but erroneous announcement. "Welcome home. They call me Ména Menachem."
I stepped over the warped threshold and shook his hearty hand. After introducing myself, I explained my car had broken down and asked if I could use his driveway to work on it. A gush of muggy air slammed the screen door shut behind me while my well-groomed host simply smiled, silently. When heavy hail began beating on the trailer's thin metal skin, my athletic inviter turned away without saying whether or not I could use his driveway.
Walking to the center of the room, he stated above the storm's ecospheric racket that he had seen it all through the screen door. "Beating up on a sick old man fails to impress me." Dumping smouldering tobacco from an ornate pipe onto the damp cork floor, he pulled the short chain of a fluorescent luminaire above his copious head and sighed. "The world will not be healed by your cheap theatrics alone, David."
The circular fixture washed the old timer's distinguished features with bright, cool-white light. He looked mighty familiar, but I wasn't too surprised when I couldn't place his face. Both faces and names still gave me trouble from the so-called treatments of two decades before.
As I edged further into the mustiness, the hailstorm intensified and water streamed through fissures in the false ceiling.
Casually, the old man continued across the largely denuded room, but his right leg stumbled through several piles of rubbish before he eventually collapsed into an easy chair. In silent repose, totally relaxed in his dry corner, he had obviously grown oblivious to the greenish garbage and blackened tobacco clumps that surrounded him. Fortunately for me, wet air blew in from my rear and delivered a little relief from the foulness of this awful strange room.
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Quite carefully, the oldster smoothed his bright gold robe, then massaged the bridge of his amazingly bold nose. Sporting a meticulously groomed silver-gray beard, he appeared wholly out of place in this unkempt, chaotic habitat. The over-long robe flowing onto his clean hemp sandals lent a biblical appearance to his person; and the animated weather further enhanced that aura.
Lifting a family-sized vessel of cologne from the mahogany stand beside him, he uncovered the bottle and splashed his towering brow as he queried. "May I serve you, my son?"
Lightning snapped as I reiterated my mechanical dilemma.
He coughed sharply and insisted that we check my chariot later. "First things first. We have been waiting for you."
Pretending not to notice the crumpled female undergarments piled in the corner behind his regal chair, I asked the obvious. "What do you mean you've been waiting for me?"
His eyes opened wide. "I mean just what I said."
Dismissing his riddled remarks as convoluted humor, I looked painfully upon the myriad pop bottles of moldy water and cigarette butts strewn everywhere - wondering. How can he live in such squalor?
He paraphrased my private thoughts, aloud. "How can I dwell amid such squalor? Try to forgive me, but I live with a young lady who chain-smokes, amongst other things."
Every inch of the room wasn't disheveled, though, I could see. A small oval of hardwood flooring around the gentleman's chair was covered by a clean sheet of white satin w/royal blue trim. Within the buffer zone, as I took it to be, only the old psychic's chair and comfort stand stood on the delicate linen. To my left, a pair of gray-painted logs were the only other items in the room that halfway resembled furnishings. Unable to ignore a roll of carpeting, some sheetrock, and several cans of paint carelessly crammed into a doorless closet even further to my left, I asked if he was getting ready to remodel.
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Lipping a gothic pipe that was out-of-sync with his ascetic demeanor, he replied. "Not unless my granddaughter is suddenly inspired."
When I dared muse, to myself, that his pipe looked like something out of a Sherlock Holmes movie, the old soul retorted to my imagining again. "My good student Doyle gave me this calabash on the occasion of his publication party."
To surely be understood, I inquired out loud. "A. Conan Doyle's first Holmes' tale - written over a hundred years ago?"
The guy's face lit up. "1887, to be precise."
Unbelievable. I reckoned if this man before me had been only 20 years old when he tutored Doyle, he would now be over 120 - and surely dead. Looking very alive and no more than 65, he was either a liar, a lunatic - or both. All I could do was resort to sarcasm. "Next you'll be tellin' me Mark Twain was at this literary party too."
"I was hoping I wouldn't have to." This man named Ména lifted his eyebrows and I told him he was a mysterious man. He said I also was and pulled the chain of a homemade lamp on his comfort stand.
The electrified urn's starlike bulb flashed on as he asked me to please sit. "There, on the right log. It's clean. I see to it myself."
I told him I'd rather stand, and after my eyes adjusted to the yellow-whiteness, I scrutinized the utilitarian rendering of a harvest scene that adorned the olive-colored vessel, the makeshift base of his lamp. Sharply painted, six slaves worked diligently, two kneeling near the trunk of a dark green tree, scavenging the ground; three stood, picking multi-colored fruit from the lowest branches while the sixth sinewy soul crawled overhead to harvest the upper branches' ripe olives. I figured they were slaves thanklessly serving their master.
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Again deciphering my cerebral waves, if such things were possible in the real world, my wizardly host insisted the painted workers' omnipotent master was also their chosen guardian. "A totally symbiotic relationship."
When I asked him loudly, above the storm, to please stop reading my mind, he tried to explain. "I only do so when your subconscious Ohla allows me to." He yanked at the chain of his lamp again. "At the right time, Fela will tell you all about our mind." The frosted bulb turned blue-white.
I was hesitant to ask who Fela was, what right time he was alluding to, or what he meant by our mind. Just as well, the man changed the subject, telling me that he wouldn't tolerate my standing any longer. "If you fear my granddaughter's filth may be on the log, sit on the lift of my chair, here."
Cautiously, I sat, still enthralled with the two-handled lamp, for some sublime reason.
Graciously, the old gentleman said that it was Athenian, circa 707 B.C. "It's entitled - one of only two I've rendered. Timely, don't you think?"
Nodding, I tugged on my bootstraps and noticed several strips of film scattered about the nadir of the so-called Olive Harvest lamp - not far from a rubberbanded roll of blueprints that rested vertically against the back of his silent valet.
To regain my attention, my host sniffled. "So, your car lost its spark?"
"Yeah - that's right. But how..."
"Let's just say I saw your carburetor squirt gasoline when you checked the accelerator pump."
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"We can say anything - but you were too far away to see that."
Ignoring my snide remark, he claimed that a loss of spark was the most common malady of not only machine but mankind, then cleared his throat to seemingly change the subject. "Do you still mourn the loss of your grandmothers?"
I told him that I did. "Yeah, sure I do. But one died thirty years ago; the other ten. How..."
"Do you not still hold them in high regard?" He filled his pipe and lit it with a kitchen match from his robe.
"Sure I do, as a matter of fact. But..."
"But nothing." As he emptied the unsmoked bowl onto the wet floor, the hailstorm let up some and his voice mellowed. "When a loved one passes, we always remember only the good."
Autonomically I questioned the man. "But why?"
The maven smoothed his robe. "When our flesh dies, so dies temptation; but redemption lives forever." Gradually, his gaze moved toward the ceiling light fixture in the center of the room. Magically, the hail subsided, then stopped.
I turned toward the screen door and saw the temporary bleakness lift, the clouds roll back, and sunlight filter to earth once more. When I looked back at Menachem, he smiled, serenely. Trying not to wonder whether this charismatic character was trying to drive me off the deep end, I changed the subject myself, asking what the tube of blueprints was for.
He took a tallis from his comfort stand, ceremoniously unfolded it and draped it over his athletic shoulders, then finally explained that the prints were plans for our new temple-state. Holding a strip of film up to the light, he began to chant in Hebrew like my Grandfather Dorn used to in Shule on Friday nights. The spiritualist's eyes, turning from the film, locked on me as he kissed the fringe of his tallis and continued the rhythmic recitation.
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For awhile I wished I still understood Hebrew.
Upon completing a stanza and repacking his pipe, the patriarch set me straight. "But you do know Hebrew, David Daniels."
I told him that I didn't give him my last name. "And I surely didn't tell you I had two grandmothers I still think about."
"Didn't you tell me your present name? Don't we all mourn our grandparents?"
I told him I wasn't sure. "But what's on that film?"
"What do you think is on it?"
I inhaled deeply. "Hopefully not my Bar Mitzvah pictures."
My minimal attempt at humor failed miserably. "No, David, both your Bris and Bar Mitzvah negatives are locked in N.J.'s future archives, not to mention the galley proofs of your High School and Marine Corps yearbooks."
Just to placate the alta kocker, I said that I figured as much. But I did wonder how he knew I was an ex-Marine.
He declared there was no such thing as an ex-Marine. "Or, for that matter, an ex-Jew. These films are microfiche of the New-West Jerusalem has commissioned me to validate their content."
Daring not ponder how he pretended to know what 2000+ year-old scrolls were supposed to say, I moved to a lighter venue. "Don't you need some kind of magnifying equipment to read that microfilm?"
"Microfiche." His eyes sparkled as he spoke. "My lens are spherically polarized."
At the time, since he wasn't wearing glasses, I assumed the antique curmudgeon was referring to therapeutic contact lens that magnify.
Suddenly, he tossed virgin tobacco from a foil pouch, over his left shoulder and onto the soiled undergarments behind him, then said that he had hoped that I would come to visit his Judy. "But I could see you weren't going to, not without a little help..."
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Interrupting the oldster, high-heeled footsteps approached from an adjacent room. And, as a female form in highly polished garments entered my peripheral view, a heaviness flushed my host's face. Then he flinched - and tears flowed freely from his eyes. For a moment, the proud old man tried to hide behind his trembling left hand. But when he realized I knew he was weeping, he no longer hid his magnificent eyes, resigned to the public display of these private, wet portals to the soul.
The old guy's ocular globes were dazzling hazel, knowing and wise with the kindness and forgiveness of a gentle diety. Then, out of the blue, their tint lightened, reflecting the inner strength of an ageless evergreen. When he wiped tears onto his tallis, the awesome orbs reverted to a glistening, most subtle sepia, almost gold. Adjusting his robe with one hand, he combed his thick hair back with the splayed fingers of the other and complained that it was such a sin what mankind had done to the ozone over the last two centuries. "Enough to make Gola Himself cry."
Frustrated, I remained speechless - because I knew his hypnotic eyes from somewhere. Maybe a teacher; I just couldn't remember. Again, the garish outfit on the female moved, jumping, and my mind returned to its more immediate milieu.
As the oldster's olive-toned palms smoothed his bushy brows, I turned some to see an overassertive youth, scantily clad in patent leather, dance into full view. Guardedly, Ména introduced her as his only grandchild, Judy.
When I told her that I was David, she bowed with a curt jerk, claimed she knew who I was, and snugged a leather band up to the underbelly of her cherubic chin. Tucking the rigid chrome-laced collar under a giant jelly fish of pink-spritzed coiffure that looked more like a ratty hat than hair, she spoke sarcastically. "Gramps told me you'd be payin' us a visit pretty soon after all these centuries of keepin' the world waitin', but I didn't believe the daffy old geezer."
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When I glanced back at my host for an explanation, he turned away. So I looked back at Judy. While the old gentleman's eyes instilled spirituality, this post-pubescent young lady looked entirely of earth, though her punkinatrix garb belonged on another planet. Puffing on a filterless cigarette, the flamboyant teen plugged miniature headphones into her chrome-clad ears and began to undulate. Animalistic movements invited curious scrutiny as she began pumping in place, snapping her sequined fingertips and chanting desperate, nonsensical lyrics about getting high and committing suicide.
In the reflection of a platinum ghetto blaster at her feet, I noticed Ména was now in a numbed, semi-lifeless posture, staring aimlessly at the low ceiling, his eyes colored dark as night. The subtle sadness of Ména's eyes permeated my mind as, repeatedly, Judy slapped her garter-belted buttocks to recapture my attention, then suddenly ripped off her collar and pulled down her chain mail. A pair of prematurely developed breasts showed their oiled selves - nipples distended and pouting.
Shaking my head in sadness, I struggled to my feet and limped for the door, explaining with little imagination that I needed to fix my car. "It was nice meeting you both."
I made my way past the tattered screen door and down the creaky steps. The whole place, the entire experience of Menachem's miasma, reminded me of an ambience I'd hoped to leave forever in the past. Inspiring the heavy wet air, I slumped against my impotent car and stared down at an agitated mud puddle.
The screen door squeaked nastily as Menachem called out that I must never forget what happened. "You need to live with and learn from it, David."
Wood thumped against wood, then something squished into mud as his shadow slipped into view.
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I continued to gaze at the ground until he came to my side and clasped my shoulder. Turning and looking up, I contemplated Judy's sad state, then stared back down at the local scatologics.
Resurrecting the past, the dungy vision dissolved into the grim reverie of a surplus army truck that clanked to a stop. The air lines hissed as Dirk marched around to the back and lowered the tailgate, announcing with paramilitary inflection that it was 06:30. "Time to hustle, soldiers. Daniels, you and JR take care of the short-timers this morning. Kathy, you and Beuhlia cover the juvenile cottage."
On the double, we clambered out with our gear. At the Form (an onerous place on the outskirts of Formington, Missouri), a special cottage had been set aside for those unfortunate youths who danced with no music in various stages of public undress while masturbating on the furniture and pissing on the floors and walls. Behind it was tucked another sad cottage, reserved for adults, mostly senior citizens who rolled their shit in little balls to throw at each other.
While in what was termed State Rehab, I was assigned for a time to the maintenance crew that scrubbed both those game cages each morning. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we didn't. But we always gave it our best shot, and Dirk, our soft-hearted overseer, valued the effort, making a bold checkmark on the daily work record that determined our fate.
"David, David." It was Menachem, recalling me.
I looked up. He seemed to stand taller now, with several bulky towels wrapped around his stout neck and an impressive wooden pole at his side. "Was it really that bad, my boy?"
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I told him that yes, it was that bad, but I needed to fix my car. When, insisting that it would fix itself given sufficient time, he invited me to share refreshments with his small family in the meantime, I decided to trust his judgement.
Following the weathered man toward the side of the house, I couldn't help but see that his rough-cut stick, big around as a wrestler's wrists and tall as a basketball star, was most definitely meant for power-walking, smouched right out of the
South of his portable house, while my host toweled rainwater from a sun-bleached picnic ensemble, I remembered how bad the Form had actually been. With less than a couple weeks to go, the hardest thing still remained to resist the temptation of premature flight.
Ména planted his staff in soft silt. "Let your conscious Pohla tell us what weighs on your subconscious Ohla - our Mohla." He sat on a dry towel and promised not to foresake my trust. "You can confide in me."
I sat across from the sobering soul and watched pairs of headlamps chase one another down the highway as I spoke somberly. "You have your own burdens."
Tossing his empty tobacco foil into a rain-filled coffee can, he reiterated that Judy was his only grandchild. "She's the sole survivor of my genetix. Both her parents perished in separate sky-diving incidents in the first year of her life."
"In separate accidents?"
He answered that nothing in our current omnizoid was an accident. "Some people just never learn, David, that lightning really does strike the same house twice. Not just in the Bible." Pulling a fresh foil of tobacco from his robe, he kneaded it while explaining how he had been living in Tel Aviv to hammer out a Middle East peace initiative. "I had no idea my granddaughter was being placed in an orphanage. So she remained in an unsupervised Arizona institution until she ran away on her birthday last fall. Fleeing with neither food nor money, she was finally caught stealing, of all things, counterfeit wampum from a neo-Navajo medicine man. Robbing from the itself."
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Ména gasped and said that a longtime associate of his, Margot Morningstar, happened to be visiting her sick grandfather, Lone Eagle, at the time. "Morningstar alerted me on the Golan Heights and I returned to America, only to find Judith poorly educated and totally unmotivated. I was furious." He twisted his staff in cement slurry and asked what could be more important than seeing to it that our offspring are offered better lessons of life than we were.
I agreed. "Nothing is more important."
He squared the new tobacco pouch to the edges of the redwood table and told me that just the previous January, per Morning's recommendation, he had moved to Missouri to begin Judy's relearning. "Certainly, I must and do confess, I neglected her all those years. Holding my own earthly mission in higher regard, I was the delinquent one."
Ména's deep eyes watered as I told him not to worry, that Judy would be just fine.
Handing me a tissue, he gestured for me to wipe some moistness from my own eyes and spoke soberly. "To tell you the truth, David, I suffered a severe stroke during the first peace summit and lapsed into a coma. I've been recovering ever since." He rubbed his knee and claimed that once upon a time he could have convalesced in a matter of days, not years. "It's what they've done to the environment in recent centuries - which also explains why I look so old."
I told him he didn't look so old and changed the subject, asking how he and Judy ended up in rural Missouri.
He said the prophetic seed of universal freedom was afterall America and that was her heartland. "Morningstar recommended this symbolic spot as one pilot site for the new temple-state."
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When I asked to what state he was referring, my newfound friend wiped his brow and ripped open the tobacco pouch. "In the event that peace doesn't materialize in the Middle East soon enough. We'll pursue the issue further when the time is ripe."
He was about to sprinkle tobacco on the table and I was about to ask why, when he suddenly jerked to his feet and turned toward the front yard. As Judy came around the corner and hustled in our direction, I felt certain this amazing man had precognized her approach. As the teen sashayed to my host's side, I also stood.
He told her that I was staying for refreshments and asked if she would please fetch a large pot of decaffeinated coffee. Reluctantly, she told him that she would. "If you promise not to dump your stinky tobacco on the table."
Ména nodded, and after the re-zippered girl returned to the house, he claimed not to be a smoker. "I'm simply trying to demonstrate how nasty habits like smoking and littering become if gone unchecked."
Realizing a bit late that my car windows were down during the storm, I borrowed a towel, excused myself, and sloshed through muddy runoff that made it increasingly difficult to navigate with a bum leg.
I swabbed my seats the best I could with a cramped shoulder and collected the soaked pages of my story from the floor, checking to make sure the ink hadn't smeared too badly. Since first typing the story, I'd been debating whether to show it to an attorney, as a last resort. Deciding it was best forgotten for the time being, I wedged the wet papers beside an old flashlight in the center console and headed back toward the pinkish picnic bench. At the porch, Judy joined me - just as her grandfather beckoned from around the corner.
Though tempered, his voice rang out strong. "Young lady, please bring our special pyramid of mixed nuts too."
After I relieved her of the wooden tray, copper pot, and clay cups, Judy growled some unintelligible profanity, stomped back up the portable steps with her 2-liter jug of soda pop and disappeared into the trailer.
end page 17
As I limped around to the side with the heavy serving, Menachem stood, again clearing his larynx. "Now I realize how horribly I neglected both you and Judith."
In no uncertain terms, I said that I didn't know what in God's name he was talking about, set the tray down easily and told him there was no way he had neglected me. "I'm not your son or grandson. You're not..."
But he insisted that I was his brother, that we all, estranged or otherwise, were members of the same family. Sitting and leaning heavily on his walking stick, he continued with a playful grin. "You may be resurprised how small our family really is - Shmoses."
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