Saturday, May 20, 2006

Award Winning Story – After the War

See my award winning story about a boy growing up in the 1950s published in Palomar College's Literary Journal Bravura.

This is the excerpt I read at the award ceremony:

When we got to the pond, dad and I glided away while my mother was still lacing Jimmy’s skates by the fire.

“Dad, at school…”

He leaned towards me as we made a big turn around the shallow end of the pond. The sun was bright, but we together made just a single shadow before the sun disappeared behind the pine trees.

“Dad, I don’t know what to do…”

He looked deep into my eyes as we skated along the line of trees. It smelled like Christmas.

“Do about what?”

“Everything; everybody; I’m so different; just lost.”

“Don’t worry; when the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”

He made a sharp turn in front of a “thin ice” sign, but when I tried, I fell and slid past it. He sprayed ice in the air and skated back to the sign.

The pond creaked. Tiny cracks and rising water surrounded me.

“Careful. Don’t get up,” my dad warned from the safe side of the sign.

The pond crackled and I felt the cold water against my bare skin. I looked at my dad, but the sun reflected off his glasses and I couldn’t see his eyes.

I stretched my wet legs and dug the tips of my skates into the soft ice and slid myself towards the reflected sunlight. When I reached the sign, he helped me up and we skated towards the fire.

“I know how you feel.”

My dad took my hand and spun me in a tight circle. Around and around I went. Water sprayed off me in all directions while my dad talked.

“During the war … in France … alone and scared … but when the charge came … I knew … I knew what to do … I became invisible.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nachlässige Handschrift – Bad Handwriting – A Holocaust Story

My life is ruined; I have bad handwriting - nachlässige Handschrift.

It’s the end of the school year and the graduating class of Schweingart Gesamtschule files past the kindergarten playground, where our younger sisters and brothers play on the same steel teeter-totters and swings that we played on and our parents before us – gifts from the when there was money for children’s toys.

Mostly the kindergarten boys chase each and kick a ball, while the girls sit in small groups dreaming of new dresses and chocolates. The wear clothes our mothers have cleaned and patched for years, “Take that off. Right now! I want to sew up that hole before it gets any larger.”

We march across the ball field in straight lines, like two trains with the passengers all looking forward and not talking to each other. The field is pocked with puddles from last night’s rain, but we reach the other side without wetting our shoes.

We sneak glances back at out cement block village schoolhouse. In the distance, it looks clean and white, as it must have in our grandparents’ time, “We were all given new clothes and we marched to the new schoolhouse for Milch und Kuchen. The walls were so white and the desks clean and shiny.”

Into the woods, birch saplings, like starving soldiers crowd against our path. Maples and chestnuts block the sun like clouds of smoke and ash. Our steps are muffled by the dead leaves and the only sound is a single raven, “caw, caw, caw.”

Finally, we see the large oak – the only one to survive the bombings. Next to the oak are a box car and a short piece of track, also survivors from the war. The rusty tracks are hidden by weeds, but layers of paint peeling off the boxcar reveal SS lightening bolts and iron crosses – no longer hidden.

Herr Engel, our school janitor, unlocks the box car, “Let’s get setup for graduation.” The boys, one on each end, like pallbearers, carry long wooden planks. The girls wrap their arms around cold cinder blocks, like so many sacks of potatoes, or dead babies.

We are a trail of ants we stretched out from the boxcar to the kindergarten playground. Sweaty and proud, thirteen students, six boys, seven girls, we set up the stage and benches for graduation. Nadine will give the speech and all are going away to the city for Gesamtschule next September – all except me.

I have bad handwriting - nachlässige Handschrift, and my father died last February. As the oldest boy with no future in schule, I must help at home. Herr Engel wants to retire, so the school trustees agree to try me out. The teachers get some Hauptschule books and I study when things are slow, “Don’t waste your time Junge, clean, clean, study, study.”

On graduation day, dressed in our Sunday best, we stand on the plank stage and Nadine begins, “We will never forget Schweingart, even as we move to the city for Gesamtschule and beyond to Berufsschule and University. Nothing will weaken our bond to the land of our birth and our ancestors.”

I look around the audience, all uncomfortable in the hot sun, sitting on pillows or newspapers to protect their clothes from the rough planks. I search for the ones who graduated the year before, the others who affirmed their “bond to the land.” Where are they now?

I only see boys to young to shave, girls too young for lipstick, and folks with grey hair or no hair. I think, “Nothing in between.” My cousin Bertha who got pregnant in Gesamtschule didn’t return. Hans Teufel whose legs were shot off in Afghanistan didn’t return. No one stays. No one returns. Except me, I must stay; I have bad handwriting - nachlässige Handschrift.

After the ceremony, we eat Milch und Kuchen. The old folks talk pictures for their album to remember to departed. The graduates talk of their “bond to the land,” but more about their futures – Army, Nursing, Teaching, all away and never to return.

No one wants to talk to me, so I wander across the ball field, through the woods, to the old box car, empty, unlocked. I climb inside, lie down on the dusty floor and cry.

Long rays of sunlight illuminate the inside of the ancient boxcar. Through my tears I read the writing on the walls, “Please return me home,” and “My name is Isaac Hertz. I am 12 years old from ---,” and “Don’t forget me.”

As the sun sets, different parts of the death wagon reveal the prayers of many people, so long ago, who only wanted to stay home and stay alive. The sun falls behind the trees, but for a short instant, it shines through that narrow path and illuminated one last inscription, near to the floor, written in a child’s handwriting in a thick yellow crayon, “Ich habe nachlässige Handschrif. I promise to try harder, just let me go home.”

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Monte Nido Alta 2 – Murder mystery, first interview

The sign said, Antonio Rocco, Weapons of History. A man sat in front of the shop, wearing U. S. Army fatigues with the insignias of the 92nd Infantry Division. His grey wrinkled face blended in with the granite stones that covered the piazza in front of his store and continued inside. He reclined on a stone bench with one hand holding a pipe and the other scratching a sleeping dog. Both of them had salt-and-pepper whiskers, more salt than pepper.

Buon giorno, Segnora Lowsley.” The dog growled, probably from a bad dream.

Buon giorno, Segnor Rocco. How did you know my name?”

“Just like you, I can read signs. Not many visitors escorted by the Carabinieri with automatics in their packs, certainly not many so pretty.”

Sweat rolled down my face standing in hot sun. “So you know why I’m here?”

He might have smiled, “Hired by the sofubo, grandparents? Looking for the sniper in the campanile, bell tower? Just a guess.”

My hopes to avoid the village immune system gone, I took the direct approach, “How did you know about the sniper?”

He laughed, “Would you like to come in my store, it’s cooler, and,” he waved his hand around, “more private.”

I followed him through the open door, “Watch you step. This was the village abattoir. Those channels in the floor were to drain the blood.”

I stood between medieval torture devices, pokers to brand heretics and vises to crush fingers, and Samurai swords, “Where’d you learn Japanese?”

He sucked on his dead pipes. It made a bubbling sound. With a big smile, he studied me from hat to boots, pausing at my waist. “Signora, one question at a time,” he laughed.

“Do you sell Vintorez “special sniper” rifles?”

“That’s three wishes, enough. The bambina was a low target in the middle of a crowd. The only position high enough was the church. I was a sniper during the war. My unit was sent to Okinawa. I took a Japanese wife, but she died, buried in a cave. Bet you didn’t know that.”

He walked over to close the heavy wooden door. It creaked and the store became very dark, only lit by the light of a case exhibiting different bullets from lead musket balls to huge 120 mm mortar rounds. In the middle of the display was the distinctive SP-5.

I reached my hand into my pack and flipped the safety off.

“I have two Vintorez, in the back room. Both have been here since the fall of the Berlin Wall and haven’t been fired in years. You’re welcome to test them. They’re not very popular for bird hunting.”

There was a scratch at the door. He flung it open, “The cane is hungry. It’s been nice talking with you.”

My eyes took a few minutes to adapt to the bright sun and by that time he was back at his post, smoking his pipe and scratching the dog, who evidently wasn’t really hungry.

I wandered across the piazza wondering what really happened that Sunday.


I turned around.

“Go talk to the priest.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Monte Nido Alta – The beginning of a murder mystery

Nine-hundred thirty-seven paces. Like Magellan circumnavigating the globe, I walked around Monte Nido Alta. When Magellan braved the uncharted seas in the sixteenth century, this small village was already over 500 years old.

To my right, rugged Tuscany valleys, terraced over the centuries, supported olives, grapes, and small plots for vegetables or grazing sheep and goats. I leaned against a low stone wall, wiped the sweat from my glasses and peered through my binoculars.

A small car, obviously a local, taking the hairpin curves without slowing, wound its way up the treacherous road across a roman bridge. I counted, one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three, one-thousand. Three seconds to cross the twenty-nine meter bridge; I quickly calculated a speed of about thirty-five clicks.

The minimum time to race a car up the hill and back to town would over three-quarters of an hour. The funicular went in a straight line, but it moved slower and was on a once an hour schedule during the time of the murder.

The changing breeze surrounded me with the sweet scent of wisteria and directed my attention to the left, where I hoped to find my culprit. This small village, wrapped around a steep peak, included a square with two open-air cafes, a grocery store, two souvenir shops, a tiny library and an antique weapons dealer.

Beyond the square was a maze a narrow alleys, all leading up to the Church of the Madonna, a wooden structure built by farmers in the eleventh century, a gothic stone structure built by summering nobles from Florence in the fifteenth century, and finally restored to it current form after being bombed by the allies in 1944.

Most of the town suffered a similar fate in 1944, but today with cats sleeping in garden courtyards and dogs sleeping on front doorsteps, it was hard to imagine anything happening here. Of course, I’ve never visit places where nothing happens.

In less than fifteen minutes, 937 paces, I returned to the bus stop, the end of the only road in or out of town of Monte Nido deep in the valley.

Carabiniere Calasso was exactly where I left him, in his stylish black uniform with red stripes down the pants, standing more like a fashion model than a solider, straight, balanced, elegant, relaxed, not stiff or tense. As the tourists rushed off the bus, the women glanced at him and whispered to each other.

On the other hand, I was dressed with a British emphasis on practicality, not the Italian preoccupation, obsession, with style. My sky blue blouse and lightweight travel pants allowed me to fade in with the tourists, while my fanny pack, worn in the front like all cautious tourists, was spacious enough for my makeup, wallet, binoculars, granola bars, tissues, and my 9mm automatic.

“Ms. Lowsley, I trust you enjoyed your little visit.” Pointing to the red funicular coming up the mountain, “Our coach has arrived; this would be a good time to return to town for an afternoon coffee.”

I looked up into his Mediterranean blue eyes, “Not so fast. I’d like to talk to a few people.”

Senor Calasso looked down; the brim of his cap covered his eyes, and frowned.

I held my ground, “Don’t let me keep you. I’m sure I can find my way back to town. There don’t seem to be many ways out of here.”

I paused, waiting for him to look up. I wanted to see his eyes. Finally, I added, “All roads lead back to town. Don’t they?” He didn’t blink.

He answered questions for the tourists as I walked back to the village square.

Last Sunday, during the feast for a local saint, when the local population of 536 was supplemented by, perhaps, thousands of visitors, a baby in a stroller was shot. Not just any baby, though all babies are precious and rare in modern Italy, but the baby of American movie star Clayton Charms and his millionaire bride Keiko Yamamura visiting Italy on their honeymoon.

For once, the Carabinieri were on the ball. Within twenty minutes Calasso had agents stationed at the funicular and the only road down the mountain. Thanks to this quick action, I had a list 323 suspects who came down the funicular and 527 suspects who drove down with an additional 1034 passengers. In my business, I’ve been hired by Keiko’s grandparents, we call this too much of a good thing.

Ballistics, a grisly job from the pictures I saw of the baby’s remains, put the shooter in the church bell tower. The SP-5 round was recovered, in excellent condition, from a package of baby wipes. The shooter probably used a Russian VSS Vintorez for which these bullets were specially designed. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, these exotic sniper rifles were readily available. I first stop was the weapons shop.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lost at Sea – Michael and Sasha Discover Something (unfinished)

“Buon giorno.”

I struggle to shade my remaining good eye with my blistered hand. Through my swollen eyelid I see her, eclipsing the morning sun. It’s Sasha; dark cheeks, darker lips, and the whitest, straightest teeth. “By Poseidon, how can you smile?”

She laughs; her perfect white teeth dancing around her swollen, black tongue, “My momma says, If you can’t smile, you dead; if you ain’t dead, you better smile.”
Sasha’s arms cradle me as the yellow raft rocks back and forth. The salt spray tingles on my sunburned skin. I can’t smile; maybe I’m dead, “Better off dead.”

“It’s closer. Look, it’s closer.”

Since the pirates took our boat, we’ve been drifting east, like ancient Greek explorers. Each morning Sasha imagines mountains beneath the rising sun, but each evening we are just closer to death with no land in sight. “You crazy lady. There’s nothing.”

I close my sore eyes, “Nothing.”

Sasha leans over the edge, “Look no sharks today. Paddle. Today is a good day to paddle.”

I want to shout, but I can only whisper, “You win! You win! Your dark genes will survive and my light ones will crisp and turn to ash and float away, forever forgotten. My time is over, over. Buon giorno to you. You paddle.”

+ + +

“Welcome to Herculaneum. Here are a few rules to make our time together productive and enjoyable: Be tolerant of each other.”

As an anthropology graduate from Yale, this is my third dig, not counting my junior year abroad at the University of Athens where I became fluent in modern and classical Greek. My senior thesis was on the Greek influences at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the surrounding villas. I could give the welcome talk.

“Everything you touch is centuries old and unique, be very careful.”

I look around at the other interns. Most look like REI models with high-tech boots, lightweight travel shorts with more pockets than a mob of kangaroos, and an assortment of wide-brimmed hats. I examine their hands.

“No food near the antiquities.”

The girl in the Mount Holyoke shirt has manicured French tips. The guy from NYU? Pink palms and black nail polish. The tanned couple sitting cross-legged on the table in the back wears fingerless gloves with tattoos on their fingers. I can only make out SURF and ROLL.

“No drugs anywhere.”

I noticed a black hand in the front row, with dirty fingernails no less. She’s wearing a faded orange tank top, old jeans, and worn out trainers. At first I think she’s on staff, but she’s an intern like the rest of us.

Well, I learn later, not really like the rest of us. She’s a scholarship student at University of Cape Town. Her father died in the diamond mines before the fall of apartheid. Her brothers just disappeared, and her two married sisters live on farms in Botswana.

“You’re a guest, be a good one.”

I realize I’m staring at her, so I quickly scanned the crowd, but am drawn back to her smile.

+ + +

Salt water splashed over me, “That burns!”

My eyes pop opened, “What happened?”

Sasha laughs holding another handful of water, ready to splash me again, “Michael, look! I said look!”

The salty water splashes in my face, “You crazy Setswana! Stop. Stop it!”

I wipe the water from my blistered eyelids. I make two fists and my right arm is cocked when I see it, “Land! There it is!”

I open my hands and lean over to paddle, but instead fall head first, overboard. I cough, “Help! Help!”

The cold water feels good. Buoyed up by my orange vest, I go limp and cry. All I can think it that my salty tears want to return to the sea, “Return to the sea. Return to the sea.”

Through the sound of the waves breaking on my shoulders, I hear Sasha laughing, “Not yet, not yet. First we paddle closer, than we swim.”

+ + +

“Herculaneum is excavated horizontally, so most of you will spend you days in tunnels removing ash from hallways and alleys.”