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Periodically I will share work in progress or in this case, one of my complete favorite short stories which is included in
Tales of the Southwest
True, Semi-True & True Lies.
I hope you enjoy this free sampling. If you do, please let me know.
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Following the premature death of his wife, Earl Garnett, a professional writer, decides to drive across America. Along the way, he discovers the country, as he never imagined it.
Soon, cryptic writings appear on his laptop, often coinciding with roadside memorials that lead him into the darker sides of the road. Ultimately, he must decide whether or not to follow the prompting of these haunting passages and accept the consequences.
This is primarily a work of fiction
based on real places and in a few cases fictionalized real persons.
Many instances, places and observations are based on an actual road trip by the author.
©2017 – J. Franklin Green
A READERS REVIEW:
I think this is one of the best mysteries I've ever read. From the first cryptic text which appears on Earl's laptop to the last, author John Green, builds the suspense until
a reader almost bursts with anticipation of what comes next.
This is one of those "can't put down" stories that makes one want to ignore daily tasks just to keep reading to the end. The descriptions of all the towns, cities, and countrysides along the famous Route 66 paint a picture of the country which a reader can easily visualize and identify with, especially because of the many excellent photos Mr. Green inserts periodically, giving us the exact locations of the events as they occur. This is one of those frame stories—many stories framed within Earl's cross country travels—which endears the characters to the reader and makes him care about their lives. Mr. Green's conclusion to Earl's dilemma doesn't disappoint either
with his trademark twist that pierces the heart of the reader in the last scene and leaves him wanting a sequel. This is one of those books I'm sure I'll read again. Highly recommended!
LULU review 7/21 -
John F. Green
John is originally from Guilderland, NY, but moved to Arizona in 1999 and is a retired graphic designer, advertising art director, copywriter and illustrator.
He spends half his time now at his 40 acre off the grid ranch in northern Arizona, occasionally joined by his lovely and forbearing wife Wendy. Many of his stories are written there during the quiet starry nights amid the howls of coyotes, hooting owls and things that go bump in the night.
"Like many authors, I draw from personal experiences and relationships but have deployed them in a fictionalized way. I have also asked several authors if they have ever liked or fallen in love with their fictional characters as I have. They are sometimes as real to me as some of the characters who are based on real people. I must confess to having fallen in love with one of the totally fictional persons. Who knows, you may too."
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See more about the inspiration
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A Baby Boomers History of Guilderland, NY
Written in Ash Fork, Arizona
to the howls of coyotes
and hooting owls.
For young and
See Ash Fork:
EXCLUSIVELY FROM LULU PRESS
LOLA, SAM AND THE JACKALOPE
Heartwarming tales of adventure, deep friendships and courage. For young and young-at-heart readers. (AGES 11-12 AND UP)
Two dogs, one from the city, the other from the wilds of Northern Arizona become best friends and share countless adventures.
After helping a mother jackrabbit they face grave danger and have an unexpected meeting with the mythical Jackalope.
As told from the dog Lola's point of view - Illustrated with real-life photos. Also contains a brief history of Ash Fork Arizona - "The other town too tough to die."
Expanded to Novella (short novel size) from the short story version contained in The Wind in the Junipers.
90 pages - ILLUSTRATED
Is the house a haven or a horror? A portal to the past or portent of the future? Jason Graham and Martha Conklin, each bearing deep emotional scars from their past, embark on a fascinating and frightening journey.
Seeking closure to their memories, will they find a more important mission to pursue?
This is short novel spanning a very long time. A time perhaps that never was and never will be again.
FULL SIZE ILLUSTRATED
covered now with lines and
creases, tickets torn if half,
memories of times
The town of Guilderland has a long, rich history dating even before its incorporation in 1803. This well documented. For those interested, Images of America – Guilderland, NY by Alice Begley and Mary Ellen Johnson is a good read.
For the baby boomer generation however, the town holds a different history, not covered in any textbook. We did not consider it history at the time because we were living in it. Places we lived, loved, learned, worked and played, taken for granted, as though nothing would ever change. Those days from the 1950’s to 1980’s, were times of great change, not only in the culture of America, but also as reflected in the town.
Paperback print versions
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J Franklin Green
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by Carmen Baca
A unique coming of age story
set in the 1920's in a small rural village in northern New Mexico.
It paints a vivid and heart felt picture of not only the times and place but a culture now long gone. Five boys aspire to become Hermanos, religious leaders and elders of the village.
See it on Facebook
OF THE AUTHOR -
A LONG TIME AGO
IN A GALAXIE
FAR, FAR AWAY:
Max had been to Clayton, New Mexico many times by car and stayed at the Eklund hotel often. This time, perhaps his last, he came on the train from Tucumcari.
They met because they had been the sole occupants of the passenger car on the train other than two women conversing in German in the front seats. The old man and young girl were now the only customers for breakfast in the dining room of the Eklund Hotel in Clayton, New Mexico. According to the frost-encrusted thermometer just outside the window, it was fourteen degrees and howling wind pushed swirls of snow and other debris down the street. Shannon Martin had just returned home to give birth. She was seventeen. Max Graham, pushing sixty-five, was travelling randomly looking for a place to die.
The waitress bore an icy look not much different from the weather when she approached the table. Sparing Max only a glance, her eyes appraised the girl noting the poorly rendered tattoos on a slender bare shoulder, the purple stripe in her dark blonde hair and eyebrow ring.
“Haven’t seen you around for a long time, Shannon. Your mother know you’re back in town?” she said without preamble.
Noting the nametag, Max cut in, “Irene, I’ll have coffee please – black. The girl here will order whatever she wants. After all, she’s buying.” Pulling a pair of twenty-dollar bills from his shirt pocket, he tossed them across the table. Shannon, who had little to eat for the past two days, ordered a huge breakfast and looked blandly at Irene.
Irene left, muttering, “A good thing for these two the cook shagged a ride with me this morning when his truck wouldn’t start, I have half a mind to…” her voice trailed off as she went through the kitchen doors.
Turning to Max, Shannon said, “Thanks, but if you’re looking for something in return like a quick...”
Interrupting her, Max said, “No. Even if I was so inclined, which I’m not, I couldn’t do much about it anyway. By the way, I’ll take the change and leave the tip. And since it came up, does your mother know you’re in town?”
“I was going to call from Tucumcari, but I lost my phone.”
“You want to call her?”
“Yes and no. I don’t really but have nowhere else to go.”
Max pulled an old flip phone from the same pocket the money came from and put it on the table but said nothing further. It went unused. Shortly after, Irene returned with their breakfast. Looking to Max, she asked, “You some kind of long lost uncle or looking for a return on your investment?”
“Neither Irene. We just met on the train from Tucumcari” Coughing heavily bringing rumbling phlegm from deep in his chest, Max took a sip of his coffee and added, “Good coffee. After a couple of re-fills of this while the girl eats her breakfast, I’ll need the men’s room. Where might that be?”
At a loss for a sarcastic reply, Irene simply said, “down past the bar in the next room through the archway.”
They saw little else of Irene except when Max beckoned for a re-fill on the coffee and eventually the check. This suited him fine. Max knew small towns like Clayton well. Overheard conversation soon became distorted gossip that spread faster than a summer wildfire. As it was, he was confident the return of Shannon, would soon be well known to many. Her mother, would no doubt, hear of it almost as quickly as if Max or Shannon called her. He also had no doubt that stories told of the stranger who accompanied her would also abound. He grinned as the thought came to him.
Resuming their conversation, Max asked, “So how long have you been clean? Since you found out you’re pregnant or when your money ran out?”
“Any idea about who the daddy is?”
“A few guesses, but no, not for sure.” Shannon was surprised that she was so open with Max. Maybe it was because although he asked questions, there was no judgment in his tone, and more importantly, his face.
“So why heroin?” Max had seen the old track marks on Shannon’s arms even on the train. No doubt, she got wise and they were now between her toes or behind a knee. He wondered often why people would start doing something they knew was instantly addictive like heroin, crack cocaine or meth, but held his thoughts to himself. His own addiction had started long before Shannon was a twinkle in her daddy’s eye, perhaps even before her daddy was born. It started out as a social disease. Accepted by most all but for many like Max, it became an addiction, emotional, social and in his case physical. That was long ago in what now seemed a galaxy far, far, away.
Shannon interrupted his train of thought, “I’ve done most everything but prefer down to up. I’d go nuts doing cocaine or speed.” She didn’t think to ask why he mentioned heroin. Perhaps that was because for some odd reason, he seemed to know so much in such an off-handed way.
“You want to stop?”
“I think so, but honestly, I don’t know if I can – or really want to, just like I can’t decide whether or not I want a baby.”
A long silence ensued as she continued to eat like a starving wolf. Max reached into the other shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Taking one out, he fiddled a moment with it, put it between his lips, and then set in on the table. He looked out the window at the frigid winter scene. One addiction he hadn’t given up. He ruefully thought of the old days when lighting up in a restaurant or bar wasn’t a crime. He’d been in many a barroom where it was hard to see the other end and it seemed you could do the breaststroke through the smoke.
Shannon looked up, wiping syrup from her chin and asked a question of her own. “Why are you still wearing that long black slicker? You’re also wearing a heavy vest and a flannel shirt.”
“It’s hard to keep warm nowadays and if I decide to step outside for a smoke, I want to have a little warm air stored up. Speaking of which, I’m going to step outside and have a smoke unless you want to wait a bit and join me.”
“I smoke but it’s bad for the baby.”
“Suit yourself. I won’t be long unless I friggin’ freeze to death. While you’re waiting, when old Irene comes over here you can pay the bill.” Max stood by the window under the awning for two reasons. One was to try to stay out of the wind. The other was to remain in plain sight of both Shannon and stone-faced Irene. He chuckled between wracking coughs about the ‘bad for the baby’ comment. The girl’s system is probably still loaded with drugs but she declined a lousy cigarette. He thought of his two long dead parents that smoked like chimneys in December long before second hand smoke even thought about. He also saw Shannon pay Irene and as instructed left the change on the table. Returning, Max shivered as he brushed snow from his slicker. Leaving an ample tip, he motioned Shannon to get up and follow him toward the lobby of the Eklund Hotel.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE EKLUND SUITE
Max rang for the desk clerk and waited ten minutes for someone to arrive. A portly woman, with ‘Marie’ on her nametag said, “Kind of early, can I help you?”
“Do you have any rooms available right now?” Max asked. “I’ll be staying in town for a while. I’m not sure about the girl here, but the next train out isn’t until tomorrow.”
“We have rooms, heck, it’s three days after Christmas. Most folks are gone but check-in isn’t until three o’clock.”
Max reached in his pocket once again, producing another pair of twenties. “Is there any chance of checking in now? It was a long train ride, and too cold to be wandering around town on foot.”
“This isn’t that kind of hotel fella but some accommodation could be arranged.” Marie slipped the twenties in her pocket.
“I want two rooms. I’d like the Eklund suite. The girl here can do with a normal room.” He was about to lie about Shannon being his niece, but knew immediately Irene would disprove that the minute she talked to Marie. There was no need to make people crankier and more suspicious than they already were. “By the way, I’m not that kind of man, to want that kind of hotel. Maybe in my younger days but back then, it would be a cheap motel on the outskirts of town, not here. I’m sure the girl isn’t either. We just met on the rail car on the way in from Tucumcari. I’ve stayed here before, albeit long ago, which is why I asked for the suite. I like the view and the passing trains don’t bother me.”
After paying cash for the rooms in advance, Max picked up his weathered, cracked, leather travel bag, and followed Marie up the stairs. When Marie asked if Shannon had any luggage he did lie and told her she lost it on the train. All Shannon carried was a cheap Walmart canvas purse. Marie opened a door with her passkey for Shannon and handed her the key. There were no fancy electronic key cards at the Eklund. Built in 1892, it closed for years until recently purchased, and renovated to its original state. Two bullet holes remained in the tin ceiling of the bar area, a remnant not of a gunfight but rather a drunk celebrating the election of Teddy Roosevelt.
“We were awake most of the night on the train. I don’t know about you, but I’m friggin’ beat. If you get hungry, call for room service. They’ll put it on my tab. Here’s a five for a tip. If you need anything else – knock on my door. It had better be important though. I need some damn sleep.”
Shannon said nothing but acknowledged his kindness with a smile and entered her room. Max heard the bolt thrown and repaired to his own room. Tossing his bag on the bed, he went to the balcony and shivered through another cigarette. Still in his slicker, he plopped into an overstuffed chair and drifted off to sleep. He must have slept for some time because he was just starting to awake to attend his complaining bladder when a knock came at the door. Still half-asleep, he shouted, “just a minute” – almost done in here. His sleep befogged mind somehow made him think he was in a restroom and someone else needed it. When he heard another knock and a key in the door, he became instantly alert.
The door flew open and a wild-eyed young man in a sweat-soiled cowboy hat burst through. “Where the hell is she? Where’s Shannon you old pervert?” His fists were clenched, as were his teeth.
“She’s in the bathroom, taking a bath fella. See for yourself.”
Turning sharply, five strides brought the man to the bathroom door. Slamming it open with a force that nearly loosened it from its hinges and did take a chunk of plaster from the wall he saw Shannon was not there. He turned and faced Max. “Where the hell…” was all he got out.
Max was still seated, a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver in his hand. It pointed directly at the man and the trace of a smile lit his face. “I don’t know who the hell you are kid, but at this range I don’t miss. Furthermore, at my age, life in prison isn’t much a deterrent to squeezing the trigger either. Considering you’re in my room, angry and built like a bull, it might make for a firm case of self-defense. I’ll take my chances.”
The man noticed the hammer of the gun was cocked, and backed up a step. “Hey, that thing is cocked. It could go off.”
“Yep, that’s kind of the whole idea. I shoot even better that way. Now why don’t you put your hands in your pockets, keep backing up to the wall and sit down. If you take your hands out of your pockets, well, I might get the wrong idea.”
The man hesitated for a second, but did as he was told. He noticed that sitting on the floor with your hands in both pockets is not a comfortable thing. It also made any sudden movement damn near impossible. Since the muzzle of the gun never wavered as he did so made it more so. Max lowered his aim to the floor but didn’t un-cock the hammer.
“Who are you?” growled the young man.
“The man who holds the gun gets to ask the questions. As for me, you can just call me an interested party. I met Shannon on the train coming from Tucumcari. Okay, now that that’s settled, who are you and how did you get a key to my room? Are you Shannon’s pimp, pusher, boyfriend or all three?
“Didn’t do a good job of it did you?”
“I tried to be a good dad to my sons, but that didn’t work out none too well neither. Both of us could have tried a bit harder. Now, where did you get the key? Marie?”
“No, she’d never do that. I worked here a few years back and know where the extra room keys are.”
“Why didn’t you go to Shannon’s room first?”
“I did but she wasn’t there.”
“Any idea where she’d go? She has no phone and no car.”
The man thought for a moment and replied, “Probably the Exxon station a block from here. Jimmy Maury works there.”
“Nope, he’s just one of many local suppliers, but the closest.”
Standing, Max grimaced and said, “You can get up now. We’ll walk no matter how friggin’ freezing it is.” Shoving the revolver back in its shoulder holster, Max grabbed his hat and turned up the collar of his coat. As he did, several cavernous coughs wracked him so he retrieved a bandanna from his hip pocket to wipe his mouth and eyes. Finally catching his wind, he said, “What’s your name kid?”
“Billy, Billy Martin.”
“You ever play baseball or just get into a lot of fights?”
“Neither, why do you ask?”
“Never mind, you’re too young. Let’s get going.”
Conversation halted as they walked. The howling wind and nostril freezing cold saw to that. Max wheezed constantly but Billy didn’t even zip his jacket. As two men approached, other than a weathered looking rancher type wearing a baseball cap and down vest filling his truck, no other person was in sight. Several beat looking vehicles sat outside, but the twin service-bay doors were closed. Off to one side sat a bright red late model Ford Mustang. Max surmised that it must belong to the aforementioned Jimmy. Clearly, it wasn’t a car some kid changing oil and balancing tires could afford. ‘The drug business must be good in Clayton,’ he thought. Billy was now leading the way and without hesitation, walked through the front and then a side door to the service area. Jimmy and Shannon were there. His pants were around his ankles and she was already on her knees. Even as a loud expletive burst from Billy, Jimmy threw his hands in the air but looked only at Max. Shannon’s eyes bore a dull glaze. Mayhem was in Billy’s eyes.
“Stop,” shouted Max. When Billy turned toward him, he saw the gun was out again. Billy stopped. “Get you sister on her feet and hang on to her in case she tries to turn rabbit. I’ll deal with Jimmy here.” Jimmy’s eyes went wide as Max approached fearing no sudden moves. Sudden moves are difficult with pants around your ankles. Looking down the barrel of a gun also tends to freeze the innards.
“Jimmy, you are going to do exactly as I say or my good friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson here may do some talking of their own. You’re going outside to ask that nice customer you have if he wants his oil checked or tire pressure verified. And, you are going to do it just as you are. When he declines, as I’m sure he will, you will stand there until the three of us leave and are out of sight. Now you get to shuffling outside. As I told Billy here, when a man reaches a certain age, he can be short tempered and the fear of death ain’t what it used to be. If you’re lucky your man-parts won’t get frostbite – too badly.”
Jimmy did exactly as told. Max, Shannon and Billy returned to the Eklund, and the old rancher had quite a story to tell his wife and friends for the next several weeks.
SHOWDOWN AT SUNDOWN
Shadows were deepening as the sun prepared for its early winter repose. The three had spent the balance of the day in Max’s suite at the Eklund. Max and Billy spent the time getting to know each other better. Shannon’s buzz from whatever drug she got from Jimmy wore off and she drifted into the haze of coming down, eventually going to sleep on the bed.
Max learned of the family woes from Billy. Menial jobs, an absentee father, five children, and a small run-down house on the outskirts of town did not make for harmony or prosperity. Billy, the oldest, and their mother Rosetta were the only ones with jobs. The three younger ones were still in school. Shannon, like so many small town kids, fell in with drugs and boredom coupled with a sense of futility and as so many did she thought fleeing to the big city would be a way out. It wasn’t.
“So, Billy, why do you stay here in Clayton?” Max inquired.
“Hank Martinez,” was Billy’s immediate and cryptic response. It wasn’t an answer Max was expecting but as Billy talked, it became clearer.
“My dad was and is a piece of shit. He knocked up mom with me when she was only seventeen and he’s been doing the same with her and others ever since. I’ve lost track and lost interest in all the half brothers and sisters I have in addition to my own siblings at home. He’s a good-looking slick mover with an appetite for Hispanic women and no appetite for work. Other than chasing women his only other passion is pot – growing it, selling it, smoking it and all the while calling it medicine for his ailments. I have no idea what those might be except maybe tossing his back out in the back seat of a car while getting into some girl’s pants. Now don’t get me wrong, Max, I take a toke or two sometimes just like I down some beers and a shot of tequila with my friends after work, but being stoned half the time is a lot different. Mom knows all this but still puts up with him and never talks bad about him. Why, I have no idea. Maybe she hopes he’ll change, maybe she’s still in love with him or maybe she puts on a good front for the kids. All the while, she’s trapped in a life of miserable desperation with no way out.”
Max gave Billy a knowing smile and asked, “So what does this all have to do with Hank Martinez?” Billy returned the smile but his was one of love tinged with nostalgia and it took him a moment to gather his words.
“Old Hank lived alone in a shack and drove an ancient faded blue Ford pickup truck. When I was a boy, I visited him often after school or on weekends. I never saw the inside of his place but took many a ride in that truck of his. Its body was beat and had a good case of rot but it ran like a champ. He took me fishing out at Clayton Lake and sometimes bird hunting out in the grasslands. Most of the time, we just sat on his porch and talked. He did most of the talking and that was okay with me but he’d listen to me if I had problem or worry. Sometimes he’d give me good advice. Sometimes he’d just listen to me go on and on.”
“Hank was born here in Clayton. Drafted into the army, he learned vehicle repair and maintenance in Viet Nam. Of that time, he only spoke of how to fix a busted axle or clean a dirty fuel line and other things of that nature. Never a thing mentioned about the actual war. He told me it was something he chose to forget and did – except in an occasional nightmare. He also worked many other places in New Mexico and Texas. For a time he had a small ranch but couldn’t compete with the big spreads so for years he worked at the T.O. ranch a few miles north of here. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
“As a matter of fact, I have. I’ve passed it several times going to or from Raton by car. It goes on for miles. However, that was quite a few years ago. Tell me more about Hank.”
Billy continued, “His hair was like snow and his brown face hard and rugged like a rock wall of a canyon. His voice however, was soft and mellow. I can almost hear it as I speak of him. In addition to his multitude of stories, he spoke of hard work, honor and honesty. He died a few years back. I was the only one at his funeral except for the undertaker and I cried the whole time like a baby. The man was a friend, father and grandfather all rolled in one old soul. I once thought of adding an ‘ez’ to the end of my last name, Martin. Maybe I will someday.”
Silence reigned for a time, each man lost in his own thoughts. Max was remembering a similar old man to Hank Martinez from his childhood, only he drove a blue Ford Falcon. To Max, old Mr. Willet was a surrogate grandfather figure to replace the one he never really knew that died when he was only six years old. Billy was wiping a few tears from his eyes. They were interrupted by the sounds of Shannon moaning as she awoke from her drug induced torpor. Rising from his chair, Max took out his revolver, flipped the cylinder open, ejected the rounds, put them in a pocket and closed the cylinder. He walked slowly to the bedside. Sitting up with a stretch and wide yawn, Shannon found the muzzle of the revolver thrust into her mouth. Max cocked the hammer.
“Shannon, you seem to have a penchant for putting things in your mouth that don’t belong there. You also seem to have the same penchant for dying with the shit you put in your arm. You can continue on the way you’re going, or I can squeeze the trigger, and what passes for a functional brain, will go flying out of the back of your pretty, little head. My way is quicker and far less painful. I’ve seen it happen both ways. Do you want to die?”
Fear and surprise drifted through her still drug-fogged mind. Shannon sat motionless for a full minute then Max pulled the trigger. With the click came a blink, instant wakefulness and shortly after a dark wet spot appeared in the crotch of her jeans. Max cocked the hammer again. “Want to try again?” he asked tonelessly. Muzzle still in her mouth, Shannon shook her head and tried to speak but all that came was a sound like ‘mumfno.”
Withdrawing the muzzle of the gun from her mouth, Max wiped the barrel, holstered it and sat next to her on the bed. Looking only at his hands, now folded in his lap, Max began to speak in a low voice, almost to himself, instead of the girl. “Lies, lies, always the lies. I knew you were lying on the train. One of the reasons I got off here in Clayton instead of heading on to Santa Fe. The lies we tell other people hurt them but do less damage than the lies we tell ourselves. The real trouble is that we’re so damn good at it we begin to believe our own bullshit. Believing those lies can get us dead. Believing the lies from others is a good way to watch them die. I’ve been there too. The lies I swallowed because I wanted to. By the time I woke up, he was gone. I didn’t get off with you to help you kick your habit or help with your other problems. That’s not my job – it’s yours. All I reckoned to help you with was the truth. Your truth. What I won’t do is watch you die. I’ll skip that if you don’t mind.”
It suddenly occurred to Max that he had just quoted a line from the old film, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ He decided to follow it with another - a favorite of his. “Shannon, I believe we have two lives. The one we learn from and the one we live with after that.” Turning finally to her, he found her eyes with his own. “It’s your choice girl – live or die. I will tell you this from hard experience, some deaths don’t come easy and often you’re dead for a long time before you finally quit breathing.”
Max struggled to his feet, coughed twice, and returned to his chair. Shannon and her brother, Billy, were conversing in low inaudible tones when he fell into a deep sleep.
THE TRUCK STOP
When Max awoke, soft shadows still lit the room and he thought he’d only napped until he glanced at his phone. It was 6:17 a.m. The first time he’d slept through the night in a long time. Pushing himself to his feet from the arms of the chair, he shuffled to the bathroom. Breathing came hard and shallow and his bladder seemed ready to burst. Taking care of the most urgent issue, Max looked in the mirror, something he usually avoided. The face staring back did not match the eyes looking outward. It never did. Reaching to a pocket, he withdrew a packet of pills, drew a glass of water from the tap and swallowed them. From another pocket, inside the black slicker he was still wearing, he removed a flask and took a large gulp. By the time, he returned to the main room, several deep coughs ejected clots of phlegm and breathing came slightly easier. He was alone but there was a note on the table.
I took Shannon home with me to see our mom and her little sister and brothers. It’s my day off so I won’t let her out of my sight. My number is 480-694-1860 when you wake up. I don’t know where you came from (hell, I don’t even know your last name) but I’m sure glad you got off the train with my sister and I won’t forget the look on that POS Jimmy’s face if I live to be a hundred. Please call. I owe you big time.
p.s. I checked on you a couple times during the night. Was afraid you were dead, you were so quiet. You okay? We have a good doctor in town and a free clinic too although from what I’ve seen you’re not hurting for money.
An hour later, found Max in the lobby sipping a cup of coffee. Marie was sitting in a chair opposite him.
“Jimmy told me what happened yesterday. Quite a way to liven things up around here after the Christmas rush is over. I’m going to put what you paid for Shannon’s room toward your room fee if you’re staying for a while. She was a nice kid and Billy still is. He worked here for a while until he got a better paying job with the telephone company. Shannon too, but when things started to go missing, it didn’t take me too long to figure out she was stealing stuff to pay for her dope. I’ve seen it way too many times before. I also had a little talk with Irene this morning. Being snippy with customers is bad for business and it’s hard enough making a go of this place without putting off good paying guests like you. Besides, it’s just plain rude. Do you want a re-fill on the coffee? And if you don’t mind me asking, are you planning on staying long here in Clayton?”
“I’m good on the coffee, Marie, thanks. As for how long I’m staying, that’s hard to tell. I like this town, always have since I first passed through a couple of decades ago. Maybe I’ll stay for a while - Maybe longer. Is there a place I can rent a vehicle in town? It warmed up a bit and the wind died down, but walking around in the winter doesn’t thrill me.”
“There isn’t any Hertz or Alamo here but you might be able to rent something from the service station you saw Jimmy at yesterday. I must admit, I almost peed myself when Billy told be about it. Oscar Medina is the owner. He’s a nice fellow and usually has several trucks sitting out back for sale. They don’t sell quickly, so he might be willing to rent you one. He’s usually there around nine or so.”
The minute Jimmy saw Max approaching he decided he urgently had an important errand to run. He and the mustang roared off and Oscar Medina just shook his head. Max introduced himself by way of repeating what Marie had said, leaving out any mention of Jimmy.
“I don’t know if I fancy the idea of renting a vehicle,” said Oscar, “especially to someone from out of town.”
Looking over the trucks, Max replied, “How much to buy that little Ford Ranger over there?”
“There’s not much a market for a truck like that here in Clayton - just not a truck for ranchers. A dude traded it in for an F-150 two months ago, said he was tired of getting laughed at everywhere he went. How about fifteen hundred even? It has a lot on miles on it.”
“Sold. I had one like it years ago and few people laugh at me, well maybe a few.” Max produced a billfold and handed Oscar fifteen one hundred dollar bills. The mandatory paperwork didn’t take long and he spent the balance of the morning just cruising around town sifting through memories and noting the multitude of changes since he had last visited. He pulled off to the shoulder when his phone rang.
THE KIOWA GRASSLANDS
It was Billy’s voice crackling through the old flip phone cell phone. “Hey Max, I waited for you to call until a decent hour, but Shannon had your number written down in her purse. You okay? We’re at the house and after a little dust up about the tattoos and hair, mom settled down. Of course, she doesn’t know Shannon is pregnant yet. Can you come out? She’d like to meet you and if you’re around she might not go into total hysterics when we break the baby news.”
As he was listening, Max noticed an old abandoned house a short way from the highway where he had parked. Two trucks with current plates were nearby. Several people who appeared to be teens were milling around but what caught his attention was a bright red car, partially visible off to the side of the house.
“Text me the address and directions, Billy - I’ll be there in an hour or so.” Max chuckled as he flipped the phone closed. When you asked some people in Clayton how far away something was, the answer invariably was, ‘an hour or so’ which could mean one or six hours and anything in between. It was big country in the middle of an area known as the Kiowa grasslands. The Kiowa’s were long gone, but the prairie remained, as it was when they and the bison once roamed it.
Deciding a modicum of stealth was required, Max shut down the engine. Walking wasn’t easy nowadays but it wasn’t too far and the wind had stayed calm. The house was like many in the west, once new and occupied, now steadily falling into ruin, paint mostly gone along with some windows and roof shingles. None of the group saw him approach until several wracking coughs inadvertently announced his presence.
“What do you want, you old fart?” grumbled a young man in a new down vest but a faded flannel shirt. The girl at his side giggled. Two others looked in his direction but said nothing. A man in a long black slicker and a travel worn black hat wasn’t a common sight except in old western movies and unlike the grumbler, they took note of the revolver in one gloved hand hanging at his side. A familiar figure sat in the red Ford Mustang, door open and a package in his hands. When he saw Max, his face grew a shade whiter.
“I think you kids can find a better place to be – the store’s closed,” Max said almost inaudibly, his voice fading. Paying no further attention to the kids, who were now hastening to their respective vehicles, he approached Jimmy who was now shivering but not from the cold. An attempt to close the car door met by a shake of a head from Max and a gun now pointed directly at him.
“Not to worry Jimmy, I’m not going to shoot you unless you get stupid. What good would it do anyway? You’d be replaced in a day – maybe less. If, however, if I see you within a hundred yards of Shannon, you’ll be replaced in a heartbeat - understand? If not me putting you in a hole, it may be her brother putting you in a hospital.”
Max walked to the front of the Mustang and put three rounds into the front grill. Coolant immediately poured to the frosty ground turning the remnants of snow a shade of dirty green. “It is however, going to be a long walk back to town. By the way, you should change the coolant more frequently.” Jimmy grimaced and squirmed, but wisely kept his mouth shut.
Thirty-five minutes later, Max pulled in front of the Martin house in Clayton. He might have wondered how six people could live in such a tiny house but he had grown up in smaller. Unlike some others on the street, it did not have trash, old children’s toys and cars up on cinder blocks in the front yard. Billy saw him and was the first to come out the front door. Shannon and her mother stayed on the front porch. Billy took one look at the Ford Ranger, and just shook his head. The next several hours were spent eating, drinking coffee and getting to know each other. Max and Shannon’s mother smoked countless cigarettes, sampling each other’s respective brands. Questions about Max were plentiful, but other than some generalities and humorous anecdotes, including both encounters with Jimmy, Max revealed little of his antecedents. Finally, Max stood, thanked Shannon’s mom for the supper, hugged the kids and shook Billy’s hand. Turning at last to Shannon he said, “C’mon girl, you and I are taking a little ride but we’ll be back before dark.”
They rode in silence for a time heading out US 56 into the open country. It was finally broken when Max pulled out his flask and took a couple of deep pulls. “Better not see a sheriffs’ deputy see you do that,” Shannon said.
“Why, is there a law against Tussin DM in Union county?”
“Yes. In my younger days, it would have been bourbon or vodka but I gave that up over 30 years ago. This stuff keeps the phlegm at bay for a while.” Seeing a gentle pull off from the road, Max steered the truck into the open grassland, which is not as smooth and grassy as it looks, but the old truck managed fine. Giving it more gas, the truck jounced and rattled across the prairie until they approached a small arroyo. Max hit the brakes and they skidded to a stop. “Should I let you out here?”
Shannon looked horrified, but said nothing, hoping Max was kidding. In a way, he wasn’t. They sat silently for a while, but neither counted the minutes. The world they saw seemed to stretch limitlessly in all directions. Wind blew the grass and whistled about the cab of the truck. Finally, Max turned to her.
“I got off the train in Clayton for several reasons. The only one that concerns you is that when we met on the train I saw something in you -- Something worth working on or hoping for. Maybe I saw a part of me and a bit of you too although we have different demons. To be candid, I also looked at you and thought that many years ago I would have given an eyetooth to steal a kiss or more from you despite the purple hair and tattoos. We had crazy fashion crap in my day too. It’s always shifting, circling and moving on. But hell, I don’t even have an eyetooth anymore. At any rate, here’s where I have to get off. You have decisions to make. Yours – not mine. All I tried to do was buy you a moment to think and not just run along with the flow as I did for a long time. We all make decisions in life. Some are good, some bad, and some downright stupid. I’ve done my share of stupid, paid for it and in some ways still paying for it. There’s help along the way in many forms but you have to ask for it or grab for it as needed. Your life is like the grassland we’ve been just sitting here staring at. Wide open and ready to explore Get clean or not get clean. Have the baby or kill it. Make something of your life or not. You can sail your ship or just let it drift as my father once told me. Make those decisions so you can either get busy living or get busy dying.
Max said no more and Shannon also was silent. He keyed the ignition and drove her home, both lost in their own thoughts for the entire trip.
THE TRAIN FROM SANTA FE
The young man left the train station and walked directly toward the Eklund hotel. It was a beautiful late spring day with a brilliant cerulean sky and a light breeze. Marie was at the desk, a young woman with dark blonde hair was also in the lobby, holding an infant. “I’ll see you in the morning Marie,” she said but hesitated a moment when she saw the young man. He looked vaguely familiar.
Addressing Marie, the man said, “I’m looking for a Max Graham. According to Amtrak, he got off here in Clayton some time ago. They had no other information. I know he’s stayed here several times in the past so I thought I’d ask here first if you know of him or where I might find him.”
Marie hesitated, glancing first toward the young woman, but responded, “Mr. Graham stayed with us for quite some time. I gave him a special rate because he always paid in cash. He must have carried a small fortune with him because I never knew him to go to a bank or use a credit card. An unusual fellow, he was quite intimidating when you first met him because of the way he dressed and the fact that he never went anywhere without what he called his friends, Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. That notwithstanding, he was well liked here in town, especially among younger people. With some others – not so much. I’m sorry to tell you, but he left a short time ago. I’m not sure where he went.”
“I know where Max is,” interrupted the young woman. “You come to see him or for the money?”
“I don’t know or care about any money. If he gave you some – keep it. I came here to find him.”
Another man slightly older had entered during the conversation and eyed the newcomer. “I just came by to pick you up from work sis. Maybe all three of us can go visit Max.”
A short ride later, the three plus the baby stood in stone silence at the Clayton cemetery in front of two graves - Hank Martinez and Max Graham.
The woman spoke first to break the silence. “Why don’t you come to the house with us? My brother Billy can tell you all about Hank. I have a good suspicion about who you are. By the way, the baby’s name is Maxine. There’s a thing or three I’d like to tell you about your father.”
This story is the lead in Shorts and briefs.
SHORTS & BRIEFS
SHORT STORY ANTHOLOGY
Seven of my favorite short stories
Avarice and adventurers are dangerous companions. Hired to seek out a fortune and a myth, a rough-cut, unsavory man finds more than he bargained for in the Arizona wilderness.
When traditional methods fail, a man searching for information about the father he never knew and listed as K.I.A. by the US Army turns to other means and embarks on a fascinating but frightening journey.
An erotically utopian life in an alien world goes into chaos for reasons beyond understanding or control with a heaping spoonful of Karma thrown in.
They say you can never go back and maybe you shouldn’t. Thirty-two years after he left his hometown, Jonathan Moran returns to visit his dying father and spends a long afternoon driving down “memory lane” only to find a portal to the past and maybe a date with destiny.
AND THE MEEK SHALL INHERIT
A cosmic error is rectified on an infinitesimal planet in a tiny solar system on the fringe of a small galaxy. Some call it Earth.
THE LITTLEST SNOWMAN ON ROUTE 66
When her family moves from Ash Fork to Flagstaff,
little Wendee Goldman has a hard time adjusting until she accidently applies a little magic and finds a true friend.
Jonnie Halloran, a widower raising his 12 year old son Luke gets a big surprise when he returns to their ranch in Ash Fork.