The Philosopher

It’s time,” his executioner said.

He knew he was paying the price for making prominent Athenian’s look like fools. His supposed crime; not believing in the gods of the state.

His wisdom, once sought after throughout the civilized world, did not save him from his fate.  Justice and the pursuit of goodness led him to this last moment on earth.

He became the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes despite his contributions to the state. The sacrificial goat. But he had the last laugh, eternal fame for his wisdom.  

Drink this,” the executioner offered, handing Socrates the cup of poison hemlock.

The Hit

Luke, a hitman for mafia boss Sam Giancana, looked up at the School Book Depository building knowing Lee Harvey Oswald was inside waiting.

He was told Oswald was going to try and assassinate President J.F. Kennedy as his motorcade slowly drove by in downtown Dallas. They told him Oswald was going to be the false sponsor for the murder.

Luke checked under his trench coat, touching the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle briefly. Identical to the one Oswald had. No one noticed him blend into the tree line of the grassy knoll.

He waited until the time was right, took aim and fired!

 


The Druid

He swiftly ran through the dense forest ahead of his Roman enemies. As a Druid priest he knew this grove well, avoiding the pitfalls and traps his people set for the oppressors.

Amergin was the last of the Druid priests. The rest were massacred. He refused to let that stop him from rallying his people against the Roman’s and their gods.

As his pursuers drew near he pressed his body against a tree and prayed for invisibility. They ran by him without a glance. At that moment Amergin knew that he would be able to keep the old religion alive.

   

Moon Landing

Millions of Americans breathlessly watched the Apollo 11 land on the moon with two American astronauts aboard. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Black and white TV’s nationwide watched the fuzzy images of the two men hopping around on the moon’s crust.

America puffed out it’s chest. 

Two national heroes were born. America was winning the space race. A sense of national pride swelled from the farms to the cities throughout the country. Science triumphed. The future was here.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong gushed.

Somewhere in a secret studio: “That’s a wrap!” the director said.

 

Portrait of a Witch

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Alouette Arsenault was cursed with the ability to paint anything.

That’s the way she looked at her talent. Her work was so realistic it actually looked like photographs of people and landscapes.

It was the people part where the curse came in.

Alouette was a simple country girl born in the south of France in 1565.

When her mother was burned at the stake for being a witch, she was taken by her aunt Aimitee, who raised her from an infant in a hut located in the middle of the Aquitaine forest.

It was her ability to depict things around her in charcoal at an early age that caught Aimitee’s attention. She watched Alouette draw imaginary friends and the world around her with pride. She was a born artist who deserved to work in more lasting mediums.
When Alouette turned fourteen, Aimitee took her to Paris. She had a brother who lived there, and he took them in. With his help, and the money Aimitee made sewing people’s clothes, she was sent to a nearby art studio.

As the only female there, she suffered constant indignities, but the master, Ferdinand Elle, let her stay after interviewing her aunt. When shown examples of her work he was impressed. He saw something that none of the jealous young male artists in his studio had going for them; Alouette was a natural artist with an exceptional eye for detail. It was that eye for detail that most impressed Elle. He was astounded at the confident ease with which she quickly rendered her work. His instinct told him she was something special. Otherworldly even.

Using oil on canvas, Alouette painted her first portrait at fifteen years-old. It was of a minor city official. Elle allowed her to have the commission, and to paint her customer in the studio. After studying the client’s face, she saw a hint of a shy smile. When she was finished the client was overjoyed with her work. From that point forward he was a transformed man. Where once he spent all of his time worrying about things, he was now impossibly happy. His life transformed.
Of course, the client sang Alouette’s praise to everyone who would listen. It wasn’t long before new clients came in asking for her at the master’s studio. It came as no surprise to Elle who decided to charge her rent for the use of the studio, and materials.

Alouette didn’t make the connection with how happy her first client’s life became. How could she? She never saw him again. Nor was she aware of her second clients transformation who insisted she paint him frowning (he said it was an aristocratic pose). When his portrait was complete his normally mild nature turned into a combative one.

This went on for over a year. She painted clients whose lives changed for better or worse afterwards. Leading a hermit-like existence she was content to stay in her little bubble and paint. Elle watched proudly as each work became a masterpiece.

But people began to talk, and compare results among themselves after Alouette painted their portraits. Some noted that there lives had improved and they were happier. But others talked about people being so sad after getting their portrait painted, they committed suicide. Rumors spread claiming that she worked for the devil and had signed an evil pact with the dark lord. Her growing infamy swirled through the streets of Paris, fueled by fears that she was practicing witchcraft on them.

People became more and more concerned it was the devil’s work. Worse, it was a very superstitious time in Europe, where hundreds of women were being burned at the stake, hung, or drowned in trials designed to see if they were a witch. The mania descended upon Paris like a plague with groups of witch-hunters prowling the streets.
Alouette quit painting portraits the moment she heard the rumors. When she began refusing to paint anymore clients Elle took her aside and asked, “What’s happening little one?” even though he’d also heard the rumors.

“I cannot paint any longer master Elle,” she said.

“I knew you were a witch a long time ago. That’s because I’m a warlock!”

“Witch!” she cried out in shock. “You mean, I’m really a witch?” she sobbed.

“Yes. calm down my dear. We have work to do. I’ve been meaning to tell you this. Trust me. It will be your greatest work, I assure you. Now listen to me. One of the many reasons you’re such a talented artist is because you have a great memory.
“We must put this memory to the test. I will walk with you through town and you must pay attention to everyone you see, especially city officials. Fix their faces in your wonderful  memory as we stroll through the streets.”

It only took her three days to finish the painting. It was massive. The largest in the studio. It was full of all the people of Paris. They all had big smiles as they went about their daily routines. Elles hid the final product, which was titled, “Gay Parie in the Springtime,” in a secret vault below the studio. As long as the masterpiece remained intact, peace and tranquility would be assured for all Parisians. The witch hunts came to a halt afterward.

The mania that had infected the city was gone, allowing Alouette to once again move freely about in society. But her desire to paint was no longer there. She became wary of her powerful ability to affect people’s lives and eventually decided to quit painting altogether.

Her gratitude to Elle was endless. The old warlock had taught her many things. By revealing her power he opened up her inner eye, unlocking mysteries from her unconscious mind. When the time came to move on Alouette wept and kissed her mentor.

She left Paris for the countryside to live with her aunt Aimitee, disappearing into the dusty footnotes of history.

As It Stands, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t more women artists during the Renaissance period in the western world.

(1st published May 2017, As It Stands)

The Man In The Tower

Little House Kennebunk Maine 1875 Second Empire

1865 Milford, Ohio

When Aaron was born, one of the midwives ran out of the room screaming.

The other women in attendance looked at each other grimly as they wrapped up the howling infant. The mother, Betsy Livingstone, was so weak, and had lost so much blood during the birthing ordeal, the women were worried she would die. She held on for three days. Long enough to see her deformed son’s face. She touched his cleft palate tenderly and ran her fingers over the smear of a nose (two holes actually) and traced the deep creases on the left side of his face that stretched his eye into a slit. He didn’t have ears, just holes where they should have been.

On the last day of her life she dictated a letter to her sister giving her all of her possessions and tasking her with raising the baby boy (she named him Charles after his father who was away fighting Confederates). In the event the baby’s father never returned, she would also get the deed to the three-story house built-in grand Italianate Victorian style. It was the biggest and grandest house in the county. In addition, it had a special tower that rose 5 stories from the basement to the observation room at the top.

Charles was raised away from prying eyes. Only family, friends, and servants ever saw him. As a young boy he wandered through the great house with its lavish furnishings and rooms full of paintings, playing secret little games and living in an alternate world. One where he was accepted despite his terrible appearance, and could play with other children…and things, without censor.

Private tutors taught him to read and write at an early age. He was a fast learner and quickly graduated to math, physics, the social sciences, and chemistry. His aunt Loretta saw to it that Charles always had the best she could provide for him. His father never came home from the war. One of his comrades came by one day and said he was with him when he died at Gettysburg, and gave Loretta his few belongings. She, in turn, made out a will giving everything to Charles when she died. She never considered getting married. She knew what suitors would think when they saw Charles. They’d treat him like a freak.

As the year’s rambled on in a slow but livable pace, Loretta and Charles were inseparable. She was the one person in the world who didn’t cringe when she looked at him. He always saw love in her eyes. Unlike the fear, loathing, and suspicion he noticed in others. Doctors. Tutors. Servants. They all stared at him when they thought he wasn’t looking. He’d caught them all numerous times, and it made him feel like an exotic creature that should be displayed in a zoo.

Charles’ world almost came to an end when Loretta died from the consumption. He refused to eat and had her body displayed in a coffin in the parlor for a week. Never leaving her side. When the family stepped in and took care of the burial arrangements he sat in the top of the tower until the funeral was over, and everyone went home. All but one of his servants elected to leave. Old John lived in the house when Betsy gave birth to Charles and was content to stay with him as long as he lived. Grief became a constant companion, and after a while it descended into anger and bitterness with the world that rejected him because of his looks. He still managed to find a place in his heart for his aging servant who made him meals and did light cleanup. When Old John was too weak to walk up the twisting staircase to the top of the tower where Charles spent most of his time, he came up with a dumb-waiter system that spared him from dutifully hobbling up it everyday. When the day came that Old John couldn’t get out of his bed, Charles stayed by his side and nursed him until he took his last breath. Because he had no known relatives, Charles buried him in a plot in the back of the house where Loretta, and his mother and father were resting. Only a priest attended the funeral. Two young men Charles paid to dig the grave and cover it up afterwards, stood nearby sweating in the heat of the hot Ohio afternoon.

After that, it was just Charles. He paid a nearby farmer’s 11-years-old son to go into town and get him supplies once a month. Money was one thing Charles didn’t have to worry about. The family safe contained the savings from two generations of Livingstone’s who had invested wisely and never trusted a bank. Gold bars. Assorted Bank notes. Golden Certificates backed by the government, cash, and heirloom jewelry was his insurance against poverty. And from going out into a hostile world.

The only time he left the house was at dusk when he would wander through the nearby forest for hours. Long into the night. He grew use to the animal sounds and they to him as he walked through the forest like an apparition. When the weather was too bad to go out, he sat at the top of his tower and watched the wind and rain batter the large glass panels in elemental fury. On some nights he studied the stars through his telescope and dreamed of other worlds. It was a lonely life.

It was a normal quiet day in downtown Milford when the outlaws rode into town. All three had long black dusters on and were carrying Winchester rifles. They rode their horses up to the bank and casually dismounted. After tying them up on the wooden railing they all strolled inside, still carrying their rifles. A keen-eyed deputy sitting outside the barber shop spotted the men and suspected them of being outlaws. He passed the word around to the townspeople.

By the time the outlaws came outside every able man in Milford had a rifle trained on the front of the bank. The sheriff shouted out for the men to surrender and then he saw the little girl in the arms of one of the outlaws.

“Hold your fire!” he screamed. A few shots rang out and then stopped. One of the shots hit an outlaw and he slumped in his saddle as another one pulled up alongside him on his horse and steadied him. The whole town watched them ride out of sight into the dense forest nearby. The sheriff put a posse together, but it was getting dark and impossible to track the outlaws in the night. The girl’s name was Judy and she was blind. Her parents were grief-stricken. Members of the community stayed up with them all night.

Instead of putting distance between the town and themselves, the outlaws chose to stay close and circled around in the forest looking for a place to hide out. Then they saw a light that appeared to be hovering high in the distance. On the outskirts of the forest they stumbled across the Livingstone house. None of the men had ever seen a house that big and were awed by the tower. They could plainly see someone in it. Taking their horses to a nearby barn, the outlaws lowered their comrade to the ground on a pile of straw. He’d been bleeding profusely and lost a lot of blood on the trail. One of the men stayed in the barn with the wounded man. The other, holding Judy tightly by her arm, went over to the house. The outlaw had his pistol out as they walked up the steps of the porch to the front door. It was dark inside. The only light inside came from the top of the tower and filtered down the winding stairs to a faint glow.

The outlaw, who went by Cherokee Pete, stepped inside the dark entryway, pulling the reluctant little girl along with him. There didn’t appear to be anyone else home. He looked at the grand stairway, took a better hold of Judy’s hand, and began ascending the marble stairs. Charles heard them of course. His hearing was very good, despite having no outer ears. He listened to a little girl’s whimper of fear. A man’s low guttural grunt hushing her up. Step, by step.

Charles was unarmed. He sensed whoever was coming up the stairs was armed and was going to make short work of him. All he had was a small element of surprise and the cane he used when his bad leg acted up. He stood up beside the door so when it opened he’d have a clear shot with his cane. He barely had time to react before the door was flung open and a gun, followed by a hand and arm appeared. In that instant he brought the cane down with all of his strength and heard a satisfying crack as the gun fell to the floor! Cherokee Pete howled in pain and let go of Judy to grab his broken wrist. At the same time he looked over at his attacker…and screamed! Ignoring his injury he ran towards one of the glass panels and plunged through the window, his body tumbling down until he made contact with the ground three stories below. Charles turned towards Judy to see if she was all right. He prepared himself for the inevitable scream. As he looked closer he realized she was blind.

“Are you okay?” he gently asked.

“Yes…thanks to you kind sir. My name is Judy and that bad man and his friends kidnapped me.”

“Friends?

Yes. Outside in your barn. There’s two men, and I think one is seriously wounded.

Charles bent over and picked up Cherokee Pete’s pistol. “You stay here. I’ll be back.”

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Pause. “Charles.”

“Thank you, Charles…”

He heard her innocent voice all the way downstairs and out to the barn where he peeked through the partly open door and saw the two men. One was lying down and not moving. The other sat next to him and was drinking from a bottle of whiskey. His rifle lay across his lap.

Charles watched him for a few minutes, pondering on what to do next. He never fired a gun before. He was aware the hammer had to be pulled back before firing, but that was it. Finally, as the man tossed his empty whiskey bottle aside, Charles made his move and charged through the door firing the pistol wildly at the outlaw whose eyes opened wide in terror when he saw him. Then he went for his own pistol and fired once, before one of Charles’ wild shots hit him in the head killing him instantly. The lone shot found its mark and Charles sank to his knees clutching his chest. After the initial shock he got up and slowly made his way into the house. Once inside, he called out Judy’s name and passed out in the parlor.

“Thank you, Charles…”

He opened his bad eye and saw Judy and a woman standing next to her. It was Judy’s mother. He was in a strange house. In a strange bed. And people weren’t turning from him in terror and loathing. As he lay recovering for the next two weeks Judy stayed by his side and chatted gaily about life and it’s wonders.

After a while, she convinced Charles that his life could be wonderful too.

As It Stands, it doesn’t matter how you look, it only matters how you act.

Two Stories From The Concrete Jungle

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Long ago, city dwellers lost touch with nature, turning instead to concrete jungles more deadly than any real ones in nature.

Untold stories of the lives of millions of people unfold every day across the endless concrete highways of the North American continent. Strange stories. Sad stories. Stories with no endings. Stories of crime, and redemption. They are all acted out on countless miles of concrete, connecting generations that died in back alleys and highways. Concrete is the symbolic skin of America baptized in blood and progress. Here are two such stories for your consideration.

THE CHRISTMAS BONUS

1936 – Chicago, Illinois

Nervous sweat trickled down Alberto “Big Al” DeSantis’s forehead as he waited for his quarry behind a row of dipsy dumpsters in the dark alley.

The partial moon lent an eerie glow to the scene and shadows from rats and cats skittered across the brick walls. A homeless man clutching a paper bag walked over to the dumpsters and began flipping unlocked lids open and looking inside. When he got to the end of the row, he swore. There was nothing worth taking. He brought the bag – with a bottle inside – up to his lips and emptied it in one long gulp. Then he threw it against the wall near where Big Al was hiding. Another curse, and the man shambled off into the night.

Just as Big Al was getting ready to move, he heard footsteps and froze. His quarry came into view. The man quickly walked over to a row of crates stacked behind a bar – Jimmy’s Place – and lifted one up and looked underneath it. Just the way Big Al planned it. The note. The promise of dirt on an enemy. And that it would be in this particular alley. He reeled Morty “The Fixer” Weinberg in like a fish. A barracuda was about to meet a shark.

When Morty couldn’t find anything, his instinct told him he was in trouble. He automatically reached for his gun, but was too late. Big Al’s Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) barked and six massive slugs ripped into Morty’s face and chest! He was dead before he hit the concrete. As a small pools of blood formed next to the corpse, Big Al put the still warm weapon under his trench coat, and casually strolled away from the carnage he created.

It was Christmas, and he was looking forward to getting home and celebrating with his wife and children. The fact that he just murdered a man in cold blood didn’t put a damper on his holiday spirit at all. Just the opposite. The boss, Salvatore Lucchesi, had a contract out on Morty for months and no one was able to fulfil it yet. Until now. Big Al expected a good Christmas bonus when he stopped by the clubhouse to report the good news. He went out to the street to his car and opened the trunk. He gently lowered the powerful weapon down and covered it with a blanket.

A gentle snowfall dusted the concrete as he looked for a parking place. He found one a block away from the club. When he stepped inside the club, after being greeted at the door by a guard, he inhaled the succulent smell of fresh pasta and sighed.

“We almost didn’t think you’d make it tonight,” Lucchesi teased Big Al while inviting him with a wave to sit at his table.

“Not only have I come to pay my respects on this holiday, but I also bring good news with me!” Big Al proudly said.

“Bravo! Have some wine and tell me what it is.

After a waiter poured him a glass, Big Al took a sip and replied, “You no longer have to worry about that bastard Morty Weinberg. He’s burning in hell! I whacked him!”  

A silence settled on the table. Wise guys turned their eyes away trying to hide their expressions. Big Al was confused. Why wasn’t everyone cheering? Why did Lucchesi have that funny look in his eye?

“A contract is a contract. Louie! Get me 30 g’s right now! Big Al has it coming.

The tension around the table worried Big Al. He couldn’t figure out what the source was. When Louie returned a had a small zippered cloth bag that he gave Big Al. His normally smiling face was grim.

“I’m true to my word mio amico! Here’s the reward and a Christmas bonus.

“Grazie mille!”

“Merry Christmas!” Lucchesi said, and pulled out a revolver. “How were you to know we had a Christmas truce with Weinberg’s gang? I’m going to have to save face now…”

The wise guys around the table were already moving backwards when he shot Big Al in the forehead!

Taking Pappy’s Advise

1913 Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Clete Peterson had no idea that he would be part of making history when he got a job building the first asphalt concrete highway in America. He was a 17-year old husky country boy who was thrilled to be getting good wages in return for back-breaking work clearing big rocks, roots, and natural obstacles out-of-the-way to pave a new road.

There were two crews working on the 24-mile long road. The common laborers like Clete, and the specialized crew that made and poured the asphalt concrete with its bitumen binder. The paved part was 9-feet wide, and the laborers were required to clear a 12-foot path in preparation for the historic road.

On the first day of the job, Clete and the rest of the laborers, quickly learned that their boss, Charles Putnam, was an ignorant bully who got the job because he had inside connections. He was a surly alcoholic built like a bear. His sheer size intimidated many men. Every day he set the same goal, regardless of the obstacles that had to be removed. When something prevented the goal from completion he went crazy. Like when a whole work day was lost removing a rock that turned out to be a boulder of considerable size.

That night he walked through the camp picking fights with the exhausted labor crew. The only man there as big as Charles was Clete. When Charles aggressively came up to him he held his ground despite fearing the older man. Clete’s pappy always told him to stand up to bullies. No matter what. Charles saw the fear in the younger man’s eyes, but he also saw a determination that he wasn’t sure he wanted to test.

“Y’all better put more effort in your work Peterson,” he warned him. “Feller yer size should be doing the work of two,” he taunted after spitting out a stream of tobacco juice on his boots. “I’ll be watchin ya boy!” he assured him, and turned away into the growing night towards his campsite.

“Hey, Peterson!” one of the men called out to him. He looked over and saw three men sitting around a campfire passing a bottle around.

“C’mon over. Be sociable,” another man urged,  holding up the bottle for him to see.

Another lesson Clete’s pappy taught him was to be sociable, and not to take on airs. So, he joined them. He gratefully accepted the bottle when it was passed to him and took a gulp. It was his first taste of alcohol and went down like pure fire! His pappy was a preacher and if there was one evil he always went on about…it was drinking liquor. The devil’s brew. As he gasped for breath the others laughed so hard they were rolling on the ground.

“Well, damn boy. I dint know ya was such a cherry!” the man who handed him the bottle said.

“My paps a preacher,” he gasped, “I need me some water,” he pleaded. One of the men handed him a canteen. “You’ll do boy!” he said. His partners agreed. They approved of the big young man with good manners.

The next day.

While digging away trying to unearth a big rock, Clete was surprised when someone pushed him from behind! He stumbled forward and caught his fall with the shovel.

“What the…?” he stammered.

“I warned you last night Peterson. You better pick that pace up!”

Sensing violence, the rest of the crew stopped what they were doing and watched the scene unfold between Charles and Clete.

“Reckon you better say you’re sorry for pushin me like that,” Clete warned him in a calm voice.

Charles’s reply was to slug him with a sucker punch! But it didn’t move Clete who stood there defiantly. He threw down his shovel and reached out and grabbed Charles’s arm and pulled him toward him. A ham-sized fist smashed into Charles face and blood splattered them both from his broken nose! He recovered from the blow and grabbed Clete in a bear hug. They wrestled around until Clete broke loose and hit Charles twice with thundering blows to his head that dropped him to the ground,  nearly unconscious. Without pausing, Clete jumped on top of him and choked him with all of his strength. By the time the work crew pulled the enraged Clete off their boss, he was dead.

To a man, they agreed to hide the events that led to Charles’s death. Afterwards Clete admitted that his pappy told him to never start a fight, but if he’s in one to finish it.

The story they gave authorities was a group of unknown assailants attacked their camp in the middle of the night and their boss was killed. Some speculated that it might have been a group of disgruntled Cherokees objecting to the road going through their sacred grounds.

Afterwards, the locals decided to dedicate a one-mile stretch of the new road to Charles Putnam – “A hero who died in the name of progress.

As It Stands, there’s so many more stories to tell,  I’ll never be able to share them all in this lifetime.