Thursday, May 31, 2018

Does Size Matter?

There is no doubt that we all feel the incongruity of supposing, say, that the planet Earth might be more important than the Great Nebula in Andromeda. On the other hand, we are all equally certain that only a lunatic would think a man six-feet high necessarily more important than a man five-feet high, or a horse necessarily more important than a man, or a man's legs than his brain. In other words this supposed ratio of size to importance feels plausible only when one of the sizes involved is very great. And that betrays the true basis of this type of thought. When a relation is perceived by Reason, it is perceived to hold good universally. If our Reason told us that size was proportional to importance, the small differences in size would be accompanied by small differences in importance just as surely as great differences in size were accompanied by great differences in importance. Your six-foot man would have to be slightly more valuable than the man of five feet, and your leg slightly more important than your brain -- which everyone knows to be nonsense. The conclusion is inevitable: the importance we attach to great differences of size is an affair not of reason but of emotion -- of that peculiar emotion which superiorities in size begin to produce in us only after a certain point of absolute size has been reached.

We are inveterate poets. When a quantity is very great we cease to regard it as a mere quantity. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality -- the Sublime. But for this, the merely arithmetical greatness of the Galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in an account book. To a mind which did not share our emotions and lacked our imaginative energies, the argument against Christianity from the size of the universe would be simply unintelligible. It is therefore from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to overawe us. Men of sensibility look up on the night sky with awe: brutal and stupid men do not. When the silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, it was Pascal's own greatness that enabled them to do so; to be frightened by the bigness of the nebulæ is, almost literally, to be frightened at our own shadow. For light years and geological periods are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. As a Christian I do not say we are wrong to tremble at that shadow, for I believe it to be the shadow of an image of God. But if the vastness of Nature ever threatens to overcrow our spirits, we must remember that it is only Nature spiritualised by human imagination which does so. This suggests a possible answer to the question raised a few pages ago -- why the size of the universe, known for centuries, should first in modern times become an argument against Christianity. Has it perhaps done so because in modern times the imagination has become more sensitive to bigness? From this point of view the argument from size might almost be regarded as a by-product of the Romantic Movement in poetry. In addition to the absolute increase of imaginative vitality on this topic, there has pretty certainly been a decline on others. Any reader of old poetry can see that brightness appealed to ancient and medieval man more than bigness, and more than it does to us. Medieval thinkers believed that the stars must be somehow superior to the Earth because they looked bright and it did not. Moderns think that the Galaxy ought to be more important than the Earth because it is bigger. Both states of mind can produce good poetry. Both can supply mental pictures which rouse very respectable emotions -- emotions of awe, humility, or exhilaration. But taken as serious philosophical argument both are ridiculous.

--C. S. Lewis, Miracles

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

That's So Wong

Getting great at something, whatever it is, is not a means to an end; it is the end. Because then you'll have something they can't take from you, that pride in knowing that you didn't sell yourself short or bow to the crushing gravity of Mediocrity. You can wake up every day, look at Your Thing, and know that it's slightly better than it was yesterday, because you made it so. --David Wong

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Friday, May 25, 2018

Someone To Come When You Call

Been working on a schedule where I try to write one short story a week. Here's the one I wrote this week.


From the outside, Springtown Hospice Center is all clean lawns, brickwork, and gangling young oak trees; inside it is pastel institutional surfaces, constant muted lighting, and muggy heated air. It always gave Duke Fisher the willies, as he told anyone who would listen, but when he got down to his duties as an orderly he could usually set aside his dislike of the assisted living complex and focus it on his needy charges. And, after all, it was a lot cushier than some of the jobs he had run.

It was a bleak Monday in November when Dr. Osborn (his degree was in business administration, but the title impressed) called Duke from the registration desk where he was signing in to the private office in the back. Duke seemed to fill the file-cramped room like a blue-clad mountain. Even in scrubs he seemed more like a biker than a nurse's aide, with his bulging forearms, neatly trimmed goatee, and lank black hair. There was something in the ripple of muscle as he crossed those arms that made Osborn cough and shuffle papers a little longer than necessary before he started talking.

"Well, Duke, you know Mrs. Clarence in 4C passed away last Friday night," he began, lacing his fingers.

"Yes, sir. A damn shame," came the rumbled reply. "A really nice lady."

Osborn cleared his throat. "Yes, well, there was a bit of unpleasantness when her family came to collect her belongings. It seems a rather expensive ring, her wedding ring, in fact, ah, wasn't with her when they went to view her remains. The medical examiner and funeral parlor both claim they never saw it."

Duke said nothing, a look of polite inquiry on his face. The administrator ran a hand over his balding head, and continued, babbling slightly.

"So they hoped it was here, among her personal effects. It was, of course, the logical place to look, and when a thorough search of her room showed it wasn't there, they hit the roof. The daughter in particular raised a hell of a stink." He shuddered.

"Yes, I suppose she would," Duke said mildly.

Osborn sighed and leaned forward on his elbows. "The point I'm getting to, Duke, is you were on shift last, before we found her. Did you ... ah ... happen to notice if she had her ring on?"

"I don't remember if she did or not." Duke stroked a reflective finger around his goatee. "Can't say that I noticed."

The administrator seemed to deflate, and shrank back in his chair. "All right," he said. "It pains me to say it, but there has been a series of incidences in this facility that began shortly after you joined us. Circumstantial evidence places you on the spot each time. The disappearance of valuable personal items, missing medical supplies, complaints of intimidation..."

"Oh, come on sir! You can say that almost every other employee here, is here constantly, cramped as the schedule is, and that includes you, sir!"

The tone was jocular, but there was a hard edge that made Osborn answer quickly. "I know, I know, Duke, but it looks bad. We would hate to lose you: you're prompt and you do your job and it's hard getting someone strong enough to handle our more, ah, heavy guests. But if Springtown gets a bad reputation, well ... heads might roll."

"Well, I'd hate to go," said Duke sweetly, rising to his feet. He leaned over and put both hands on Osborn's desk. "Because if I got fired without a shred of evidence, why, I'd have to file a lawsuit against you for wrongful dismissal. Besides feeling very, very bad about it. Personally."

Osborn blanched and tried to shrink even further away. Duke straightened up and gave a theatrically deprecating laugh. "I love my job," he said. "And you know how jittery some of these old people are. My looks are against me, I guess. Of course I make some nervous."

"Well, no-one is, you know, accusing you, or anything. It could have been the ambulance or funeral parlor," Osborn back-pedaled desperately. "It's just that appearances are against you, as you say, and we want you to know that we are aware of it and we want you to be aware of it, and ... well, be careful."

Duke backed off a step. "Oh yes, sir. I always am. Very careful." He smiled. "Can I get back to work, sir? I'm a little behind schedule as it is."

"Oh, yes, of course," Osborn waved him out, relieved. "That's all. I'll tell Mrs. Clarence's family that I've looked into things. According to their written contract we're not responsible, but I had to check."

"Oh, I understand, sir. Well, I'm gone."

"Good-bye and, uh, keep up the good work."

Duke closed the door with a gentle click behind him. Osborn sat back in his chair and wondered quietly to himself just when he had lost control.

The Pepper Tree Mill had been a good bar, fifty years ago, a place for couples to come to dance and drink on the edge of town. Age and urban sprawl had crept up on it, the decent side of town and newer places moving and blooming in the east. One or two old regulars still came in, drinking in nostalgia and desperation. The rest were people like Duke.

He slid into the shabby booth, its seats patched with silver duct tape, two cold beers in hand, and smiled at the skinny, flinching man on the seat opposite him.

"Hello, Larry," he said. "So how's Jim? How'd the business go?"

"Pretty ... pretty good." The other swallowed, and pulled out a wrinkled envelope from his shirt pocket, damp with sweat. He reached for one of the bottles and grabbed it. He watched as Duke opened the envelope. It almost disintegrated in his fist, showing the gray-green inside.

Duke looked up. "Is this all of it, Larry?" he asked gravely. The skinny man took a nervous swig before answering.

"Yeah, that's it. Except for my cut. Jim said he'd give me my cut in product, when it came in. It ain't come in. Jesus, it ain't come in." He was whimpering.

"Larry, my friend, you know the first rule of the business. You don't give something for nothing. And this money you've handed me? That's too damn close to nothing. How big was your cut in the deal?"

"Just a quarter, like we agreed. Just a quarter. It ain't come in. He owes me. I'm sweating, Duke, I'm sweating."

"A quarter of nothing is nothing," Duke said severely. The big man tucked the money away in the inner pocket of his leather vest.

"There's three thousand dollars there!" Larry hissed in surprised jealousy.

Duke's head went up and he looked around. There was only one ancient drunk at the bar, and he was immersed in a re-run of Cheers on the TV over the bar. Duke stared at him a moment, then leaned in on Larry.

"That ring at pawn was worth eight thousand, easy. I deal with your brother because of the friendly discount he gives to me, not the one I might give to him, and I wouldn't do that 'cept you and me been friends since elementary."

Duke reached out and grabbed Larry's scarred, skinny arm with his meaty fist. A silvery steel skull ring gleamed in the blue and red light of the bar sign.

"Because we're old friends, I'll let it slide for now. But I want these perks; they're the fat on the bone of this shit job. Next deal, I get what I want, or no deal, savvy? No matter how hard you're jonesing." He let the arm go. It was already bruising. "In the meantime, you'll just have to get by on Jimmie's promises without any help from me."

"Sure, sure Duke." Larry took a bolstering gulp of beer. Duke sipped his own bottle, as if that sealed the understanding. Larry gabbled on, to change the subject. "I don't see how you can take it around those oldies, I really don't. That'd drive me crazy."

"Hell, you're half-crazy anyway," Duke grinned. He settled back philosophically. "It isn't so hard. Makes me money, and keeps me on parole. I'm not going back in, Larry, even if Springtown's almost as bad as doing time. I do get out at night, though. And, like I said, there's perks." He frowned. "I don't like being cheated out of my perks. They're what get me through, Larry."

"Of course, Duke. Of course." The skinny man looked at his old friend and sipped his beer, thinking about his life. He wondered when he had lost control.

Mary Lee Jenner was an eighty-six year old woman with a body like an over-ripe piece of fruit. Her skin was covered with bruises that never seemed to heal, especially on her hands and arms, where intravenous tubes and diabetic sticks routinely pierced her baggy skin. One thing she still had going for her, that many of the inmates of Springtown lacked, was the ability to get around on her own with relative ease. Every day she did her rounds leaning on a pair of mismatched canes that worked well with her arthritis and uneven legs. She was there when the new tenant of 4C was being moved in.

She rounded the corner of the hall, and there was that bastard Duke with the luggage trolley, all oil and honey, unlocking the room. Next to him stood a shortish skeletal gentleman, dressed to the nines in an old-fashioned black suit, watching intently with hooded eyes while the big attendant went through the procedure with a computerized plastic key.

Mary Lee had seen some old men in her time, especially since coming to the hospice, and some had been very unpleasantly sick, but this old man took the cake. Without being noticeably infirm, he gave her the feeling that he had already outlived his time on earth, and should have been in the ground some time ago. Still, as he turned to watch her approaching steps, his eyes were purposeful and his movements sure. Mary Lee noted that, and hoped she'd found another card player worth her salt.

Duke looked up as she approached. He grinned sourly.

"And that's Mary Lee," he said, as if she couldn't hear him or he didn't care if she did. "She's our little busy bee. Always buzzing around. She'll buzz your ear off if you're not careful."

"You should talk," she said, shuffling closer. "You need to watch out for this one, mister, he's a bully and a thief. Better count your gold teeth after you finish talking with him."

"Now that's slander, Mary Lee," he said, feigning hurt. "Sorry, Mr. Horne. Some of our older patients develope paranoia. Don't pay her any mind." He rolled his eyes to indicate the state of the old woman's mental health. The door finally opened with a harsh electric bray, and Duke began wrangling the trolley in. It rolled and turned as if the ancient leather cases on it were quite heavy.

The old man came forward and offered a courtly hand.

"I do nut mindt some company occasionally," he said. He struck his sibilants hard. "It kips life interestink, does it nut?" He lowered his voice and bowed conspiratorially. "Andt I appreciate ze varnink." He straightened up, bones clicking into place. "My name iss Simon Horne," he said loudly.

"Mary Lee Jenner." She shook his hand. Up close, he was even more repellent. His lifeless hair was obviously rinsed in a cheap, metallic hair-dye, giving him a faint chemical odor. The wrinkles of his skin looked unnaturally deep, the top thick and rough, and the creases red and bloody looking, as if he might any minute break apart and leak like a lava flow. His lip was a dried piece of liver that split to show jammed yellow teeth.

Despite that and his Bela Lugosi accent, she found herself somehow approving of the man. He dressed well and appeared compos mentis; maybe he could be another ally in her struggle with the Springtown Hospice Center, Incorporated. As long as he didn't try any of the geriatric romantics so many of the other old goats attempted, going for one last hurrah. Hari-kari by hanky-panky, they called it.

"What brings you to our little corner of Purgatory, Mr. Horne?" she asked.

"Alas, I am gettink veak," he said. "Zere comes a time ven ze most important think iss to haf someone close to you, andt someone to come ven you call."

Duke stuck his head out of the room.

"Come on, Simon," he wheedled. "Let's get you settled down, then you can play with your new friends as much as you want." He popped back inside.

"How I hate that boy," Mary Lee said. Her voice shook. "I hate him so much. I hate this whole stinking place. And you'll hate it, too. Give it time." She was almost crying.

"Neffer undterestimate ze power of hate," the old man said. "Especially for us old vuns. It iss a lifely emotion; it kips the brain younk. Holdt onto your hate. Embrace it."

"Come on, Simon," Duke said, coming out into the hall. He stood looming over Horne like a cloud over a withered tree. "You can talk to your new girlfriend as much as you want to after you unpack."

"Indeedt." The old man bowed to Mary Lee again. "So gut to alreadty meet somevun so, hm, vifacious, in zis place." He turned and went into the room. Duke stood a few seconds by the doorway, giving her a bland, expressionless stink-eye, then went in and shut the door.

Mary Lee stood alone in the hallway. She shivered instinctively in revulsion at the thought of the old man's attentions, and shook with gathering anger at the goatee'd hulk's calculated assessment of her impotence. She was surprised at the strength of her emotions. She wondered when she had lost control.

Rebecca Dixon had a lot in the Shady Oaks Trailer Park, right next to the lopped and leaning stump of one of the namesake trees. She had invited Duke to come live with her after their third date. He seemed sweet and stable, a kind of rough teddy bear. She knew his history, and thought that all he needed was a good woman to guide him. Since then, her expectations and her standards had been sinking, almost imperceptibly. Rather than confess to herself she had made a mistake, she came more and more to accept Duke's view of the world.

She knew what to expect when he showed up roaring in on his motorcycle with a couple of boxes of pizza and a bottle of wine. It meant he was in high spirits and ready to relieve one of his elderly charges of their unnecessary valuables, in what he called his Robin Hood act.

"Hello , darlin'," he said amiably. "No cooking for you. Tonight, we feast!" He looked at the table, still covered in dishes and newspaper from breakfast, and wrinkled his nose. "Jeez, what do you do all day?"

"I was working," she said, hastily gathering the paper and dumping the plates in the sink. "I got a call in to babysit today. I just been home since five, you know."

He plopped angrily into a chair.

"You shouldn't be working that part-time shit. You should either get a decent job again or just be a goddam housewife."

"That would work if I was a goddam wife." She took down a couple of wine glasses and set them on the table with a clunk.

"God, not that bullshit again. Why should we mess around with what's working fine?" He sighed. "Let's just eat supper, and then when we're full we'll feel better. It's probably all blood sugar. You should hear the oldies bitch when it's running low. And get the ranch dressing."

She got the dressing out of the mini-fridge and he poured the wine, and for a few minutes they ate in silence except for the scratch of crust on paper plates. After a while Duke began to smile.

"Hey, Becca, guess what? We got a new old coot named Simon Horne in 4C, and I bet you he's just lo-oa-ded."

"Oh, yeah? How you figure?" she asked, unbending, interested in spite of herself. She took a sip of wine.

"Well, you should have seen this guy. Basically he's a walking corpse, but he dresses all fancy, three piece silk suit and everything. If he had a cape, he'd look like Dracula. Talks like him too, in this weird accent."

"So what? Prolly ready for his funeral. That's what all them oldies are there for anyway, you said, just waiting out their time."

"No, no, but get this. I'm helping him unpack and there are more silk suits and a bunch of these crumbly old books, in German and Latin and stuff --"

"How do you know what Latin looks like?"

"Shut up. I just do." He frowned. For a moment distant memories of being an altar boy flashed through his head. He hurried on. "Real old, probably worth a lot in the right place to the right people. And a bunch of bottles, full of powders and plants and shit, herbals, he called 'em, that he made me put up in the medicine cabinet. But the one thing he wouldn't let me open was a leather case, a real heavy case, heavier than it should be for its size. You know what I think is in there?"

"What?" Rebecca smiled. "His truss?"

"Gold." Duke was solemn. "Nazi gold."

"What? Pfft! Nazis?" She smirked. "It's been seventy years!"

"It fits! It all fits!" He said eagerly. He pounded the table happily with a heavy fist. "His accent, the books, his age! I checked his records, and that's a forged birth certificate if I ever saw one. Look, even if he's not a Nazi, there's gold in that case. I can smell it in the way he treats it!"

"So you're just gonna take it?" Rebecca took another, deeper swig of wine. "Duke, I worry about you, baby. What if you get caught? It doesn't seem safe. It doesn't seem .. right."

"What would be right? That Osborn got it when the old man pops off? The government? Hell, even he don't need it. There's no family this time; I checked. And when I look into that bag tomorrow during the night shift, if it's only another pile of old folks' crap, I'll just leave it where it lays, and no-one the wiser."

"What if he wakes up and catches you?"

Duke laughed.

"I got something from one of the chronic pain cases. That guy'll have a hard night, but I don't think old Simon will wake up for anything. Hell, as decrepit as he is, he might not wake up at all!"

"Baby!" she said, shocked, and then laughed a little, pretending that, after all, it must be a joke, couldn't happen.

"Trust me, it's the kindest thing to do for those people, putting them out of their misery," he said off-handedly. Then he started to laugh. "Think what we could do with that much gold. We'd move out of this shit-hole, for starters!"

"Yeah. Yeah," Rebekah said quietly, looking around the cluttered, shabby trailer. She had been so proud of it when she had moved out of her mother's house and set up on her own. It used to be so neat, before Duke moved in. She wondered how she had lost control of things.

Duke loved the night shift. No Osborn, no bossy nurses commandeering him, just old Millie on duty at the front desk, reading her romance novels, ass stuck in her chair until the sun came up. Meanwhile he prowled the corridors, making his rounds, moving silently, smoothly, despite his muscled bulk. For all his lowly status, he was master of the Center on nights like these. He was in control.

He moved stealthily up to 4C, taking no chances. The dose he had slipped the old man at supper probably had him out cold, but ever since his time in prison, he knew that 'probably' didn't cut it. Always be prepared, always have a story to cover your butt, don't leave anything to chance. He took the plastic key card out, slipped it in the slot, and tapped in the code that disabled the door buzzer. The door opened silently and he slipped in.

""Simon?" he called, in a voice slightly above a murmur. "Mr. Horne? Did you ring? Do you need something?" In the room, dimly lit by the blue light of the call button, Duke could see an immobile lump under the covers of the bed.

"Simon!" he said, loudly. Nothing, just the sound of heavy breathing in the room. He pulled out a little flashlight, aiming it at the floor, and stepped noiselessly to the closet door. With a practiced hand he slid it open at just the right speed, to minimize the rolling sound.

Inside, even its limited space was only pitifully filled. Three black suits, and at the bottom, the mysterious case. Duke took his wallet out, drew a pick from its secret lining, and knelt down before the heavy leather box. He shifted the flashlight to his mouth, and began slowly and methodically to work on the lock.

It opened with absurd ease, as if it were merely for show. Duke put the pick away carefully. Then, eager as he was, he started to lift the lid up just a bit at a time, mindful of any creaks or squeaks. It opened in well-oiled silence until it stopped, held back by two ancient accordion arms. Duke took the flashlight in hand and gazed at the contents in wonder.

His instinct for the gold had been correct. It lay there in thin bars, unmarked except for a carat stamp. But there was also a tray of cut and uncut gems, sparkling in the flashlight beam; diamonds, mostly, and a scattering of bloody-looking rubies. There were a couple of bricks wrapped in plastic that he would bet was pure cocaine, and half a dozen passports on top. He picked them up and examined them. They were in Spanish and Russian and several Asian languages, and from what he could make out they all bore different names. But the picture on each was of the man calling himself Simon Horne.

Here were riches that would take him out of this shitty way of life. Away from the hospice, away from Becca, away from Springtown, hell, away from the goddam U. S. of A. The sunny beaches of Mexico were calling. He closed the case with a quiet click, and made to stand up, one hand on the handle.

"Gut efening, Mr. Duke," came a voice from the darkness. "To vot do I owe ze pleasure uf zis visit?"

Duke let the handle go, and rose slowly, turning, until the flashlight beam reached the bed. The covers were still up, the lump under them suspiciously quiescent. He moved the light a little to the left. There sat the old man, in a dark satin dressing gown, his hands tented together, eyes glinting in bitter humor in their network of wrinkles.

For a few seconds Duke thought of apologizing, offering excuses, worming his way out. But something in the smug knowingness of the little man's expression rubbed him the wrong way. His back stiffened.

"Simon. Simon. Simon," he said, shaking his head. "You've been a bad boy. You should be sleeping right now. You're not all that you seem to be, are you?"

"No, I am nut," the old man said calmly. "You, howeffer, are eggsactly vat you appear. A thief, a sneak, andt a cowardt."

"Now, that's not a nice way to talk to a friend," Duke purred, taking a step forward. "And I think we should be friends, don't you? With me knowing the stuff about you that I know now?"

"You know nuthink."

"Oh, I think the police would like to know what I know. And maybe Mossad? Them Jews got a long, long memory."

Horne smiled.

"No lonker zan mine. But zey bother me nut. My ... oblikations lie elsevere."

Duke came and stood right in front of Horne, looming over him, cracking his knuckles, cutting off his escape.

"Look, why don't you just give me a little present, right now, to forget the whole thing. Maybe one of those gold bars, or a diamond or two, maybe. Then we'll be square, until I need something else. We don't want things getting ugly, do we?"

"It does not come to your mindt, does it, zat I have somevun to come ven I call?" He waved vaguely in the direction of the bed and the call button, glowing in the shadows.

"Old Millie?" Duke grinned. "Do you really think she could get here in time to save you?"

"No," the old man said. "But He can." He slammed his ancient palms on the chair arms. "Take him!"

The covers flew off the bed, and a single red eye bloomed in the darkness. There was a low growl, and something writhed hungrily on the bed. Duke froze in horror.

"Do nut vorry," the old man chuckled. "He vill nut take all uf you."

Before the thing pounced, Duke panicked and lost control, soiling his scrubs.

Next morning two of the regular nurses, Maggie and Dolores, sat in the communal kitchen.

"Can you imagine Duke just running off in the middle of the night like that?" asked Dolores in wonder.

"Good riddance," said Maggie. She was older, and far more straightforward.

"That girlfriend of his was in here, asking for him. Apparently he's just clean gone." Dolores sipped her coffee.

"You ask me, it was a long time coming. That man was an asshole and a jailbird."

"How long do we have to watch this guy?" Dolores said, pointing. "What's he frying, anyway?"

Maggie looked over to where Simon Horne stood over the stove, simmering something in a pan. Already she noted that he was looking healthier, better fed than when he had arrived two days ago. As she watched, he deftly flipped something brown over with the spatula.

"Kidneys," she said. "God knows where he got them. Says they're full of what keeps him young." She shrugged, standing up, and Delores followed. They pushed their chairs under the table. "I guess we can leave him be. He seems to be in control of things."