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Friday, December 30, 2011

My View of a Book I've Never Seen


   It started out like this: I was online, reading a review of a book on Bloomberg.com. The book was about the building and design of our American Highway systems. The book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of theEngineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,by Earl Swift, was right up my alley. Or maybe right up my road. You see, I was sort of raised on the Interstates and U.S. Highways. For a time, when I was a kid, we didn't have a house; we simply lived in a van, then a motor home, while traveling from town to town. That was it. On a day-to-day basis, I was able to sit at a window and watch the Interstate roll by. Oddly enough...I loved it. And so, after reading the review, I knew I wanted to read this book.  I mean, it was a book about the design and construction of my boyhood backyard. Now, I was not at home at the time I read the review, so I emailed the name of the book to myself, so that when I arrived at home I could look it up on Amazon and buy it. What troubled me, when I did find it, was that it was too close to Christmas to buy it with a clean conscience. I really should have waited in case someone might buy it for me. So I added it to my Christmas wish list, and waited.
   I love books about building things. I read a book on the building of the Erie Canal, and one about the building of the German Dreadnoughts. I once read a book about the design and publication of the King James Bible. These kinds of things fascinate me. Mainly because I could never be the guy who says...hey, I think we could dig a tunnel from England to France. Okay, I might think of it, but I'd have no idea how to go about it. I mean, I still think that when my wife and I climb aboard that Air France flight to Paris this Spring, it will be sheer magic that gets that big, heavy, lump of metal off the ground and into the air. Magic! That being the case, I love to watch Modern Marvels, and I enjoy reading these types of books.
   Now, let's ignore all the patient waiting I endured, and certainly ignore the shaking and nervous ticks I performed as I forced myself to sit still and not click that buy-with-one-click button on Amazon. Suffice to say, I was a good boy and did not spend money on myself so close to Christmas.
   The good news is that Simon, my youngest, came through for me. He bought me the book, and it was nicely wrapped and waiting for me under the tree. Only the book was not really under the tree. I received a picture of it. You see, my son was fully aware that my wife had bought me a Kindle reader for Christmas. So, with great joy, I downloaded my new book.
   Within two days I was finished. Cover to cover. The book was a complete marvel. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in major engineering feats as well as a nod to the nostalgic. I could not have enjoyed it any more than I did. It blew the scale away.
   But here is the part that has me taking a step back in deep thought:
   At no time had I ever held this book. I'd never hefted it with one hand to test its weight. Never flipped the pages to take in the new-book smell while checking to see just how many pictures were in it. I had never set it on the table in front of me where I could look upon it with that simple joy that comes from buying a new book and seeing it in your home. Surely this meant I had not been able to enjoy it like I would have if I had physically bought the book.
   Maybe. That would be hard to prove. Difficult to disprove. I'll leave wiggle room here.
   However, I do know for certain that I loved the book. I couldn't put it down. It was a real page-turner. I was sorry to reach the end of the book. Even though it had no pages, and it was not a book, it fit all of these clich├ęs. But at no time did I feel like I was missing anything. This was a surprise, since I was a scoffer when I first heard of the Kindles. I'm an old book-lover who just can't get enough of that old book smell. I love to hold a book in my hands, and all that sentimental hoo-hah. I mean, since I was about nine I've collected books. I was really proud of my old, dusty, hardback edition of Oliver Wendell Holmes The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table even though I had no idea what an autocrat could possibly be. It didn't matter. I had the book. I would often pull it off the shelf and page through it, despite the fact that I couldn't follow any of what was being said. Then I'd gently replace it, my eyes shining with admiration for it. I'm that kind of book lover.
   From time to time, I like to sit and look at the books on my shelves. I read the spines, and remind myself just how great or not so great each book was to read. They are like old friends to me. Will it be the same for this new book I downloaded? I don't know. Perhaps I'll begin to browse my list of books that I've read on Goodreads as a substitute for looking over my bookshelves.
   It is too early to tell. But for now, I can say that I think I'll transition into this brave new world of digital books without too much discomfort. Who knows? Perhaps I'll never buy another physical book again. I doubt it.
   I do worry about what I'd do if my Kindle died and I had no way to power it back up.
   That would transform this sci-fi story into a horror story.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

My View of a Winter's Night in Troubled Times

The following encounter could have happened as I wrote it, in Russia about one hundred and thirty years ago.  It could also have happened today.  Nights are still cold.  People are still rich.  And some people are still desperate and hungry.  I live near a casino, and this idea came to me one day while I was driving home from work.  Enjoy!

A Chance Meeting


Armand Gustave Houbigant's
Horse and carriage on Sledges from
 Customs and Habits of the Russians
(from Wikigallery)
            Porfiry Semyonovitch Merschenko was a rich man.  And as rich men often are, he was a big man.  He was rich by no act of his own.  In fact, his wealth, handed down from one Merschenko to another Merschenko many times over, came by no act of any of his family members, save the act of heir making itself.  All true acts of wealth making came by the acts of hard working peasants bound to Merschenko lands.
            No Merschenko peasant, however, could ever hope to compete with their master’s proclivity for largess.  In true aristocratic fashion, Porfiry never had trouble finding a substantial dinner, even in the coldest winters.  The only passion he held as dear as his time spent at the dining table was his time spent at the gaming table.  It was there he found the challenge that he lacked in everyday life.  Spending an evening away from his estate at the tables of his gambling friends was the only excitement he had ever really come to desire.  Chance was the one last facet of his life of which he had no control.
            After one such night of gambling, Porfiry headed home.  He was not half way along the forest road from Novgorod to his own estate when his driver pulled hard on the reins and stopped.  He was talking out loud, to whom, Porfiry knew not.  Resting his head against the side of the carriage, Porfiry had nearly fallen asleep, but he now lifted his head and tapped on the roof of the carriage.
            "Driver!  You—Goladki!  Why have we stopped?"
            There was no response.  Instead, Porfiry could hear the low, measured tones of his driver still conversing with an unknown voice.  Confident in his driver to handle whatever trouble had arisen, Porfiry sat back on his cushions and pulled his lap blanket closer about himself.  Since the carriage had ceased its rhythmic sounds of travel, Porfiry could hear the winds howl mournfully through the tops of the trees.  And hearing them seemed to make him feel them all the more.  Though there had not been any snow yet, it was late in the season, and they were due to get a large amount sometime soon.  The rich man looked out at the trees, mysteriously lit by his carriage lanterns, and thought he could feel the snow in the air, that it would come that very night.
            His curiosity was raised when he felt the carriage sway under the weight of the driver, who was disembarking from his front perch.  He then heard more murmured words, and the sounds of harnesses and tack being fussed with.  The reins must be twisted, or some other such nuisance, he thought.  Certainly it was something not worth looking into.  Yet, for all that, Porfiry could not remain inactive.  His image had to be thought of, so as not to encourage laziness, or insolence in his driver.
            "Goladki!  Speed up, you Tartar imp!  I'm watching you!"  Porfiry pulled up the fur collar of his long coat and smashed his plump head in the warmth of the sable.  He was watching nothing.  He thought briefly of jumping out and lashing the man, but the thought of the cold kept him in his place.
            Only a few moments passed before Porfiry briefly heard a sound like rumbling thunder.  It was, to his great surprise, the sound of one of his horses running off down the road.  The noise faded, and he realized the voices outside had ceased.
            "Goladki!  What are you about out there?"  Porfiry's voice sounded small and child-like in the empty night.
            The door to his carriage burst open, and a strange man stood silhouetted in the light of the carriage lanterns.  "Hello" he said curtly, leaping into the carriage and slamming shut the door.
            Porfiry sat with his mouth open, stupefied to silence.  He tried in vain to demand the identity of his visitor, but could not speak for a full minute.  In the silence, the visitor was pleased to sit in the warmth of the compartment, rubbing his hands vigorously.  He was a tall man, and sat hunched over the front seat with his extensive legs folded awkwardly.  In this way, he was forced to lean forward, partially over the reclining figure of Porfiry.  The combination of Porfiry's bulk and the visitor's height made an uncomfortable fit in the small carriage.
            The visitor was unshaven, dressed in a tight linen blouse and baggy trousers.  Over the blouse was a tattered vest of dirty material difficult to recognize, though it once may have belonged to a wool suit long ago.  The visitor wore no hat, and in consequence, his cheeks, nose and forehead were red with cold.  His black hair stuck out at various points, as did the hairs of what was becoming a beard and mustache.  His eyes glittered with a sort of playfulness that contrasted with his otherwise hard and determined face.
            "Where is Goladki—my driver?"  Porfiry was finally able to stammer.  "And who are you?"
            "I am a friend.  I have been waiting for you for quite awhile.  You're late."
            "I'm what?"
            "You've been gambling much longer than I thought you would.  I hope that won't be a problem.  Your driver, by the way, has wisely decided to travel on without us.  I explained we might be awhile."
            "Get out!"  Porfiry commanded, fully expecting the peasant to comply with his demand.
            "No, I won't.  Not yet.  This was your fourth night in a row at the gambling house, ah?  I can't say I understand that.  It escapes me, the allure it has on men like you.  You see, anything I have must be used to feed my family.  I've not had the opportunity to throw money, or anything really, around for my own entertainment.  That's not to say I would not enjoy a good game of cards.  That's what I'm curious about, if I would enjoy that sort of thing."
            Porfiry sat listening to this speech in fear of the imposing man who loomed in front of him.  But as he recovered his senses, his indignation rose, and grabbing for his oak cane, he tried to swing it within the confines of the compartment.  The visitor's hand grasped the cane, cutting short Porfiry's swing.
            "You like to gamble."  He easily pulled the cane from Porfiry's grip and set it down between them.  "I'm glad you do.  The odds were decent that you might have hit my head.  And with me unarmed, the odds were good that I would not strike back.  Now, I will raise the odds…in my favor."
            The visitor produced a long revolver, from where Porfiry could not see.  His face paled.
            "Don't look so afraid, Master Merschenko; I just want to protect myself.  I know you're name, ah?  Of course I do.  You owned me, as well as the factory I worked in.  Of course, now it is closed."
            "What are you talking about?  I haven't closed any factory."
            "Tell that to your people in Ruzhnik."
            "Ruzhnik?  That's not my village."
            "Yes, you're right about that.  You lost it in a card game last year, didn't you?"
            "What of it?  It’s no concern of yours."  Porfiry defended himself boldly, trying not to cower before the gun.
            "It was my concern when the new owner shut down the factory.”
            “So, now you turn to robbery.”
            “Robbery?  No.  Not for Onufry Chezerov.  I was aiming for something a little more legal—gambling.”  The visitor reached into the folds of his vest and withdrew a small cube made of bone.  “To begin with, I am very cold.  Waiting for you out in this weather has been unbearable.  What do you say we roll for your coat?  It looks very warm.”
            “Roll...?  I will not.”
            “Come, come.  You like to gamble.  You’ve been gambling for hours, over large sums.  This is only a little bet.  If I win, I get your coat; if not, I’ll leave.”
            Chezerov tossed the die onto the floor of the carriage.  Porfiry reluctantly peered over his belly to see the result.
            “A two!”  Chezerov read the number aloud and smiled.  “Maybe we shouldn’t roll after all, ah?”
            “Wait.”  Porfiry reached out to grab the die.  “I have thought about it, and you are right, it is only a little bet.  Why not?”
            He hardly shook the die before dropping it to the floor, between his boots.
            “One!  Incredible!”  Chezerov announced.  “Who could believe I would win with a two?  But I should easily have lost.  This gambling is risky—very risky.”
            Porfiry stared blankly at the cube with its single black dot.  Chezerov shook himself, still holding the pistol, and with his free hand rubbed himself and smacked himself for warmth.
            “So, I won the coat, ah?  Why stare so?  As you agreed, it was only a small bet.  Surely you are used to losing, more so than I.  Its better I won.  You still have the warmth of the carriage.  But you haven’t taken off the coat.”
            Porfiry stammered in hesitation.
            “You keep looking at the die.  As if it were an old friend who has risen up to betray you.  Maybe you are thinking you would have better luck a second time around.  What about your boots?”
            “What about my boots?” demanded Porfiry, aroused from his reverie.
            “Look at my feet.  What a poor excuse for shoes.  No good in this wet cold.”  Porfiry looked and found evidence to the statement.  “You, Master Merschenko, have an excellent pair of boots.  So maybe you want to roll for them.”
            “What would I get if I won?”  The words escaped Porfiry’s full-lipped mouth before he could stop them.
            “You keep the coat, of course!”  Chezerov sang out as he dropped the die.  It rattled to a stop.  “Beat that, and I leave empty-handed.”
            Porfiry could not help himself.  Scooping up the die, he tossed it eagerly.
            “One!” exclaimed Chezerov.  “Even to a newcomer like myself, I think it is remarkable to roll a one twice—in a row, at that.  But that is the fun of the wager, ah?  Who knows what will happen.  Your coat and boots—” Chezerov reached out a hand.  Porfiry pulled himself back against the wall of the carriage.
            “Get out you rascal!  You’ve no right!”
            “I have no doubt,” Chezerov said with a sudden glare, “that you paid all of your losses earlier this evening.”
            “Out!” Porfiry trembled.
            Chezerov stared at the large man.  He still sat leaning forward, and appeared for all the world as if he were going to spring upon his prey.  But to Porfiry’s amazement, Chezerov reached for the latch of the carriage door, and leapt out; slamming shut the door behind him.  Porfiry sat in stunned silence.  He had just concluded that the man Chezerov had complied from the ingrained habit of following orders, when he heard the jingle of harnesses.  He sat still, trying to understand what he was hearing.  His suspicions deepened as he watched the light of the carriage lanterns cut a dance across the windows.  A crash of glass sent flames from the lantern against the top portion of the carriage.  Porfiry sat immobile with horror.  The carriage was burning.
            Shaking in fear and terror, he fought frantically with the latch of the door, fumbling badly with it from panic.  Smoke curled into the compartment from unseen cracks in the walls, and Porfiry whined aloud.  With a determined push, he managed to broach the door.  In desperation, he dumped himself out of the carriage, through the angry flames, rolling his bulk onto the forest road.
            Chezerov was still with him.  Standing beside the burning carriage, his black hair highlighted with the glare of the fire, he appeared to Porfiry as some wicked forest devil—as some evil thing penned in a Pushkin epic.  Porfiry rose to his feet, the heat of the flames burning his face, and the cold of the mud clinging to his hands. 
            “Now, Master Merschenko, pay what you owe.  And be thankful I have only destroyed the carriage.”
            Porfiry grabbed clumsily at the coat, suddenly eager to be rid of it.  The boots he removed in the same manner.  Chezerov threw the coat over his shoulders, but left the boots on the road in front of him.  Without the coat, Porfiry noticed for the first time the extent of the cold night.  It was getting colder, and snow was beginning to descend in big flakes like falling leaves of the forest. 
            “You look rather excited, Master Merschenko.  Was I right?  You have enjoyed our gaming tonight?”
            Porfiry turned his face towards the fire in order to keep himself as warm as possible, ignoring Chezerov at the same time.
            “There is one other thing.  I was hoping to play for the horse.  Although I did unhitch it from the carriage before I started the fire, I still feel he is your horse.  But he is a fine horse, and would fetch a nice price from a trader.  Shall we?”  Chezerov held up the die, which he had apparently taken from the carriage floor, although when he did it, Porfiry did not remember.
            “Roll for the horse?”  Porfiry echoed mournfully.  “I’ve no coat, no boots, no shelter—and you want the horse?”  His voice rose in anger as he listed each item.  “You might as well roll for my life!  What chance would I stand out here?  If you take the horse, take my life!”
            “It is the same if I lose,” answered Chezerov.  “If I roll with you again, and lose the coat and boots back to you, what chance do I have?  A small one, but I am willing to wager on even a small chance like that.  No, if I lose, I do not want you to take my life.  But of course, if that is what you want... it is agreed.  We roll for the horse, and your life.”
            “The bet is no good, you devil!  You’ll kill me either way.  I know you, and can turn you in to the constables.  The roll means nothing.  If I win, you can’t let me go.  You will seal your own fate.”
            “No, whether I lose, and you report me, or I win and become a murderer, nothing will have changed. Fate has sealed me.  Long before this night.  A roll of the die can never change what life I’ve been given.  Now, let’s be done with such unhappy talk, and enjoy the thrill of the game!”
            “You’re mad!  I won’t do it!  No!  Oh Blessed Mary—a five!  I’m lost... you’ve rolled a five!  Help me!”
            Porfiry stood next to the shrinking fire, wringing his hands in fear.  He sunk to his knees, as if his great weight were suddenly too much for his shaking knees. 
            Chezerov stood beside him and pointed the gun at the sobbing man.
            “You’ve gamble enough with the lives of my people.  For this one time, you gamble for your own.  Roll.”
            Porfiry’s ramblings ceased as he scrambled to retrieve the die. 
            “I cannot look.  God in heaven have mercy!”
            He threw the cube onto the frozen mud and collapsed beside it.
            The cold woke him some time later.  The fire had consumed the majority of the carriage; a soft glow was all he could see.  Porfiry still lay in the mud.  Opening his eyes, he saw his pair of boots standing empty near his face.  His coat draped across him where he lay.  Lifting himself, he saw his horse standing tethered to an oak.  He could not see Chezerov anywhere.  As he reached to collect the boots, a small object caught his eye.  Chezerov’s die was stuck in the snow-encrusted mud.  In the dying light of the embers, Porfiry could just barely see six black dots.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Two Reasons to Read a Short Story This Week

   This month, those of you who like to read short stories get two chances to read stories that I have written.  Next month you will get another chance, but that's next month, so don't worry about it right now.  Let's just concentrate on this month.

Image from Bewildering
Stories by
Christine Cartwright

   First of all, one of my earliest written stories is appearing in the online journal Bewilderingstories.comThe story is entitled Timeless in Winter, though it was not written under that title.  Please surf on over to Bewildering Stories and check it out.  All you have to do is click on the title above to go directly to the story.  It recounts the tale of a group of Russian soldiers in WWII who find a farmhouse full of German soldiers.  Though at first the Germans appear to be dead, the Russians soon discover that things are not what they appear to be.  I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, all I ask is that you tell your friends about it and pass the link along to them.  Also, please let me know what you think of it, since I love to hear reactions to my work.  Even if it is negative, I find all forms of criticism constructive.







This even has the fancy
"look inside" feature,
in case you want a sneak peek.

   The second story available this month can be found at Amazon.com, at their Kindle ebook webpage.  What's really cool about this is that you can type my name in the search window at the top and the new story will appear.  This story, The World that Slid Downhill, is a novelette that is available on the Kindle ebook reader.  Don't worry, it is also available to download to your iPhone, Android, or to your PC (with free Kindle emulator) if you do not own a Kindle.  This little novel (really just a little too long to be called a short story) is a fun adventure about a man who slowly begins to realize that the back yard of his home is slowly beginning to slide downhill.  I would like to think it is written in the style of a Roald Dahl story, though I may be a bit deluded on that point.
   Once again, I ask that if you do me the honor of reading this story, please let me know if you enjoyed it, or even write a review about it on the Amazon site at the bottom of the sales page.  And then tell your friends about it, tell your enemies, tell strangers, tell anyone who will listen.  Also, tell your friends in Germany, in Denmark, in France and Italy.  The story is available on all of Amazon's European websites.
  And that's about it for this post.  Today is mostly shameless self-promotion.  But I have it on the good authority of many well-known writers (who I will not name since I have not spoken to them previously to obtain their permission for the use of their name) that these stories are well worth your time.

   One more thing, today is the birthday of one of the greatest guys I've ever known: John Reeser, my father.  Happy Birthday, Dad!  As you can see in this picture, he's got that movie star look.  What a heartbreaker!