Monday, October 29, 2012

Horse Sense

When I was thirteen years old it was my conceit that I was a pretty good horseback rider. I thought I was pretty good at math too. Both opinions were based on ignorance, which is not an uncommon basis for the opinions of thirteen-year-olds – and not just of thirteen-year-olds. While I was aware higher math existed, I had no reason to suspect it would be any more difficult to learn than the algebra and geometry I already had encountered. My thoughts about riding were comparable. I was aware formal and highly competitive varieties of it existed, though if asked to define dressage I might have answered something about wardrobe. The first step to knowledge is said to be recognizing our own ignorance. Sometimes the step is a doozy.

Riding was part of the sports program at St. Bernard’s School in 1966. It was the only high school sport in which I ever had any interest.

On a warm and sunny cloudless afternoon in the late spring of that year, I rounded a bend in the riding ring on the school grounds. For reasons I don’t remember, I was the only one in the ring, though several of my friends relaxed in the reviewing stand out of the sun. The horse was a pretty 16-hand mare named Butterscotch. Her mane, tail, and boots were black. The rest of her was indeed the color of butterscotch. She was not my most frequent ride in those days, but we knew each other well enough.

Turning into the straightaway, I aimed Butterscotch toward a three foot jump at a canter. Several feet from the jump I knew she wasn’t going to make it. Her stride was off. This should have been no problem. Jump-rails simply fall off when they are struck. Typically, horse and rider proceed on their merry way. Someone on the ground then resets the rail for another try. Butterscotch had struck jump-rails in this way a hundred times before without any noticeable distress. For some reason known only to herself, this occasion was different.

Butterscotch mistimed her leap and clipped the rail with her forelegs. She panicked. Her four legs went every which way and she collapsed on top of the jump, toppling both standards. I retained momentum and sailed forward. I still recall somersaulting through the air. I landed hard flat on my back with feet forward, and skidded to a halt in an enveloping cloud of dust. My helmet rocked on the ground another ten feet in front of me. I sat up and wheezed as the dust cleared. Behind me, Butterscotch got back on her feet and stood quietly amid the wreckage of the jump.

My friends in the reviewing stand were hooting, laughing, and clapping. They shouted “Encore!” Neither I nor the horse was hurt, but my friends could not yet have known that.

I stood up (stiffly), bowed to the audience, and climbed back on Butterscotch. Lest she was hurt more than she showed, I didn’t want to take her over a challenging jump, but just on principle I figured she should go over something. It is not good for a horse to learn she can get to quit work by missing a jump. At my request, my friends reset the jump at 1.5 feet. Butterscotch had no trouble clearing that one.

I walked her out before returning to the stable, and in that time reviewed a few lessons that just had made it through even my 13-year-old skull. Among them:

1) Don’t prematurely assume you are pretty good at anything.

2) Just because you’re in the saddle doesn’t mean you’re in control.

3) Wherever there is another mind, there is another vote about what happens.

4) You can trip on hurdles you’ve cleared easily before.

5) Expect Schadenfreude from your friends when it happens.

The lessons have been of use ever since. My worst mistakes in life have come from forgetting them.

My self-reevaluation with regard to math in those pre-calculator days arrived a few years later while facing logarithms of trigonometric functions. By then it was no shock.



The Lion's Share

Redfeather was named for the flashy red mane that rose up in irritation as I tightened her girth. The lion swung her head toward me, but the crosschains held her jaws safely in place. Rarely do trained lions purposely kill their riders, but they do sometimes swipe or nip when annoyed, and an annoyed lion can do a lot of damage. Sometimes the damage is lethal. Nevertheless, it wasn’t Redfeather’s bite I feared. The terror that had made my life miserable for the previous five months ran far deeper.

“Anson! Adjust the linkages on those reins!” the instructor shouted at me. The instructor, JB Schloss, shouts at everybody. I sometimes think he doesn’t hear well.

“Yes, sir.”

Redfeather was wearing her finest show tack for the Annual New Macedon Cross Country Tournament. At 16 standard earth years-old (12 New Macedon years), I was the second youngest entry this in this year’s event. Though sponsored by Pern Academy, the Tournament is not primarily a school event. Contestants of any age and background can enter. Abigail and I are the only students at the Academy entered this year. In fact, we are the only contestants under 25 standard earth years.

I’m getting ahead of myself. There is some information you need to know.

For one thing, even though we call the creatures lions, they aren’t. I’ve seen images of earth lions in the data archives. Ours don’t look anything like them. Our lions are much larger. They are about the size of the draft horses that pictures show pulling beer wagons back on earth. They aren’t cats either. They aren’t mammals at all. The life forms on this planet don’t fit neatly into earth categories. Our lions are something like quadruped ground birds. They have serrated beaks, and the top nibs have saber-like extensions overlapping the bottom jaws roughly where the canines on a big cat would be located.

Why do we call them lions, then? Officially, we don’t. Formally, the animal is Gryphonis peregrina. They are the top land predators in the region around the first settlement, however, so common folk called them lions early on, and the name stuck. The creatures do have manes, like real lions, though they are feathery rather than hairy. Males and females both have them.

Lion-riding is an aristocratic sport. The animals are far too expensive to buy, train, and maintain for it to be anything else. As you must have learned from other reports, our society on New Macedon is firmly aristocratic. This dates back to the first days of the migration when the officers from the ship remained in command on the surface. The guidelines from earth called for democratic civilian government to be established once the first phase of settlement was complete, but somehow that never happened.

The difficulty of scratching an agricultural surplus from New Macedonian soil cannot be overstated. The ground just barely tolerates earth crops, and most native life is poisonous. The plebian farmers and serfs work so hard that they have little time or inclination to worry about egalitarian politics. The flesh of native animals is toxic to humans, so only lions have been domesticated and those only for sport.

Necessarily, we rely for food on the earth species we brought with us. Most of them arrived as seeds or frozen embryos. The Agriculture Department researches native species, as it has for generations, in order to identify anything edible. So far only a few mushroom-like fungal growths have been catalogued officially as safe. They taste foul, and misidentifying a mushroom species can be fatal. Fortunately, our pigs and goats seem to know the safe ones and aren’t put off by the taste. The other farm animals we brought with us from earth were not so discriminating, and so they died in the first generation.

In applied technology, New Macedon has backslid steadily, as was expected. Building up a complex industrial base takes a long time and a much larger population than we yet have. The most high-tech products we manufacture are radios. These are bulky sets no more sophisticated than earth radios of around 1930, yet they stretch the absolute limits of our capabilities. Only the technology left over from the ship is more complex, and this is rapidly wearing out.

Now the ship’s interstellar radio is about to fail, if the technicians are right, and there is no way we can repair it. Our last link with earth will be severed, though it has been a one-way link at best. We haven’t heard anything from earth since the ship landed. The techs blame low power levels and atmospheric interference, but they say earth has superior equipment and so you will hear us. I wonder. Anyway, these may be our last messages for many years to come. Each family of the aristocracy was allowed to transmit one text message containing something about our daily lives. My parents told me to do the honors.

I just barely qualify as an aristocrat. My highest-ranking pioneer ancestor was an ensign – as lowly an officer as it is possible to be – and my family hasn’t moved up socially since then. My parents sent me to Pern Academy and encouraged me to lion-ride in order to “meet the right people.” “Encouraged” may be too gentle a word.

Most of the “right people” at Pern make fun of me. They pretend to smell my parents’ leatherworks on me. There is a whiff of jealousy in this. My parents’ leather mill has made us wealthier than most members of the upper crust. The products from our mill are well regarded, but social status is not about money and definitely not about accomplishment. In roughly equal shares, it is about birth and about hectares of farmland worked by serfs. We have neither farmland nor serfs. The mill employs a hundred plebeians, but all of them are free labor.

Only a minority of students at Pern sign up for lion-riding despite its patrician panache. Most prefer Lacrosse or rugby. This year there are a mere 19 student riders from all grades. Lion-riding is called the sport of kings, but I’ve never seen King Rennsler ride one in person. He is represented as doing so on coins, of course.

It is unclear why the lions allow us to ride them. They are strong and fierce enough to prevent it. My biology teacher claims that the lions never evolved any instincts about humans. So, with no built-in like or dislike of us, they just do what is easiest, and it is easier for the lions to go along with us than to resist us. My biology teacher does not ride lions, and I think he is wrong. I think the lions actually like human attention. That doesn’t mean they don’t ever get cranky, because they do, and a cranky lion is a dangerous lion.

I was telling you about fear.

It started the day an ordinary trail ride went wrong. Once a week or so, the riding class leaves the training fields behind and treks into the wilds beyond the settlement fences. It is beautiful out there, but there are risks. No other creature will challenge a lion except another lion, but this sometimes happens. A few months ago it did.

All 19 of the students plus Instructor Schloss rode up and over the hills that stretch east to west about ten kilometers north of town. Trees cover the slopes but there are grasses on the plain below. The “trees” aren’t the same as earth trees, but close enough. When we reached the edge of the grasslands, we saw a herd of grazing buffalo. As you’ve surely surmised, these are not like earth buffalo. Imagine a feathery armadillo the size of a truck and you’ve got the picture. Buffalo are natural prey of lions. All our domesticated lions are well fed, but the sight excited them anyway. My lion Redfeather locked her gaze on the herd and assumed a stalking stance. It is probable that she would have done no more than this had the buffalo stood their ground.

“Control your animal!” Schloss, shouted at me when he saw Redfeather’s position.

An exasperated Abigail added, “Anson! Who is riding whom?”

Abigail MacArthur is a natural at lion riding. She is the best rider at Pern Academy, Schloss included, and one of the best on all of New Macedon. Nearly two earth years younger than I, she already has caught the eye of every male upperclassman at the Academy – and of a few of the girls, too. She is out of my league. I was told this bluntly by a Fifth Form boy named Rutherford who noticed me glancing furtively at her. He was right. Her family is as elite as it is possible to be without being royalty. She could have the young Prince if she wanted him. Prince Darren doesn’t lion ride, which works against him in her eyes. A Sixth Form boy, he plays rugby.

The shout by Schloss drew the lazy attention of the nearest buffalo. The creature spotted Redfeather crouching in attack position. It ran. So did the rest of the herd. All of Redfeather’s instincts kicked in. She gave chase to the stampede, as did half the other lions on the trail. I pulled on the reins and shouted, all to no avail. Nothing I tried could stop her. Something else soon would.

Redfeather and several of the other Pern Academy lions closed in on the herd as it skirted a clump of trees. A huge gray wild lion leapt from the copse and planted itself in Redfeather’s path. She reared up, which is all that saved me from launching forward into the wild lion’s jaws. Somehow I held on. Redfeather exercised the better part of valor. She spun on her rear legs and took off the way she had come. I saw the other lions from our barn scatter.

Normally, a retreat is enough to end a confrontation between lions. Not this time. The wild lion was enraged at us for chasing “his” herd, and he was bent on demonstrating who was boss in this territory. He singled out Redfeather and pursued her – and me. Due to his bulk, he wasn’t fast for a lion, so Redfeather was able to stay well ahead of him. Then she made a mistake. She rounded a rocky outcrop and slammed straight into a dense thicket. She was well able to claw her way through it, but not before the other lion would be on us.

Redfeather turned to fight. The beast already had caught up. A claw from the wild lion glanced my chest and threw me 10 meters into the thicket. My back hit the trunk of a tree and the world turned black.

Sense and consciousness seeped back. Grabbing the trunk, I pulled myself to my feet. The nearby shrieks and thrashes sounded muffled. I felt as though pillows were strapped to my feet. Colors were curiously muted. Without any sensation of pain, I noted that my shirt was blood-soaked. The muffled sounds suddenly stopped. I pushed my way through the thicket toward the lions. This was not an especially bright decision, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. By happenstance, it was the right action. Peering out of the thicket, I saw Abigail and Instructor Schloss on their mounts flanking Redfeather. The wild lion sat and stared at them. He was outnumbered and knew it. He shrieked his displeasure. He shrieked a second time, but did not attack. Finally, in a show of contempt, the wild lion carelessly turned his back and slowly walked away, growling all the while.

“Anson!” Schloss shouted.

“Here!” I answered. I emerged from the thicket.

“Oh hell,” he said, looking me up and down. “How bad?”

“I’ll live,” I responded, though I was by no means sure. I hadn’t dared to look at the wounds closely.

Abigail was less sympathetic.

“Anson, you bloody idiot! If you can’t control your animal you have no business being out here endangering everyone. You could have gotten her killed!” she exclaimed, meaning Redfeather.

“Can you ride?” Schloss asked.

“Yes sir.”

“Get back on the lion then! You’re confusing her!” said Abigail.

“Get back on the lion,” Schloss agreed, speaking quietly for the first time in days.

“Yes sir.”

Redfeather was twitchy, and my blood upset her. She spun in two complete in-place circles as I clung to her tack before I was able to pull myself onto her back.

Abigail scowled in disgust at the display.

In the saddle again, I felt an unaccustomed fear even though the danger had passed. All my muscles were taut. I unsuccessfully fought to keep my hands from shaking. I felt light-headed, almost as though I might pass out again. I wondered if I had lost too much blood. I decided I was just shaken. My senses sharpened, and the pain at last began to kick in. My chest felt on fire. I was glad of it. The pain distracted me from my fear.

Lions straggled back from all directions. Our troupe slowly reassembled for the ride back to the stable. Angry that the trail ride had been cut short, Abigail railed at the riders whose mounts had chased buffalo. A lion approached with two riders.

Douglas, where is your mount?” Schloss asked the passenger.

“We both were thrown, sir.”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“Goldspots wouldn’t let me catch him, sir.”

“Are you telling me he ran off?” Schloss asked.

“No, not exactly, sir. He just kept backing out of reach when I went to get him. And one time he swatted at me.”

“I’ll get him,” Abigail said. She and her mount disappeared down the trail without waiting for Schloss’s approval.

Misery truly does love company, so I was glad other riders had landed on the ground. I wasn’t proud of feeling that way, but I did. I hoped it would restrain Schloss’ wrath. For the moment he spoke with surprising reserve. I suspected it was because Erick, one of the thrown riders, was the King’s nephew. Schloss always handled the boy with a lighter touch than the rest of us, but he didn’t like to be obvious about it. So, he probably wouldn’t yell at me much more than at Erick.

I was not at all surprised when Abigail reappeared on Silverbrow leading Goldspots by the reins.

During the ride back to the stable and despite the distraction of pain, my unease deepened. Unpleasant thoughts raced through my mind. Would I be a laughing stock at school? What if I froze from fear? What if I washed out of the riding program, or, worse, out of Pern altogether?

The size and power of Redfeather came home to me in a way it hadn’t before. I realized she was just being polite when she obeyed me. Even Abigail controlled her lions only because her mounts chose to please her. No human was strong enough to force a lion to do anything. Lion-riding suddenly seemed insanely dangerous, but I couldn’t quit. I would let down my family by exposing myself as a coward. That sort of reputation sticks with a person and a family forever.

On Schloss’ orders, I went directly to the medical office as soon as we returned to the stable. It was the first time I ever had left Redfeather for others to tend after a ride.

My injuries looked far worse than they were. The beast’s claw had left a ragged diagonal gash across my chest, but it wasn’t deep. The Pern medic cleared me to return to riding in five days. The injury earned me some unwonted respect from the other Pern boys. The way they heard the story, I had faced and tangled with a wild lion. It was fortunate they reacted this way. In my fragile emotional state, the usual prep school taunts might have evoked an emotional response I never would have lived down.

The mere thought of lions terrified me in a way it never had before. I therefore ignored the medic’s orders and returned to the stable in two days. I feared I wouldn’t have the courage to return at all if I let my terror fester by staying away for the full five.

Tacking up Redfeather took every bit of willpower at my command. Abigail said nothing when she passed me in the aisle carrying the saddle for Silverbrow. It was almost too heavy for her, but she disliked offers of help. While wondering how much she looked down on me for the events on the trail, I became conscious of her few extra centimeters of height. I might have a couple years growth left in me while she probably had stopped, but the odds of catching up to her were at best 50/50. I had to remind myself that it didn’t matter: she was out of my league.

Preparations done, I removed the crosschains from Redfeather’s bridle and climbed on her back. I was literally rigid with fear. I feared losing control of the animal, of myself, and even of basic bodily functions. Redfeather and I exited the cavernous stable into the courtyard in front. The pain in my chest was still sharp and I could feel some wetness in the bandages from renewed bleeding.

“Anson! You’re holding the reins too tight!” Schloss shouted at me. “You can’t manhandle a lion. Just be firm enough to let her know you’re the boss. If you don’t annoy her too much, she’ll do what you tell her.”

This was the most basic stuff. I saw Abigail shake her head.

The instructions she gave to Silverbrow were so subtle as to be imperceptible to an observer. On one of those invisible signals, Silverbrow wheeled and trotted toward the training fields. Abigail was the only student able to handle the spirited Silverbrow this effortlessly. Not even Instructor Schloss rode him as well.

My riding actually improved over the next few weeks even though my terror not only failed to lift but intensified. I rode with an uptight severity that gave the illusion of good form. All the joy had been taken out of the sport for me, however, and Redfeather noticed. She responded to my commands, but was grumpier than ever in her ground manners. I think she believed I was displeased with her.

Schloss noticed my improvement.

“Anson, much better! With a lot of hard work you might one day be mediocre!”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t join the rest of the group today. I want you to train on the Tourney Training Course.”

The Tourney Training Course was a misshapen figure-8 track with a series of 10 jumps each at least three meters high. Only the best mounts and riders attempted them. Only the New Macedon Cross Country Tournament course, full of natural obstacles and man-made ones, was more difficult.

“Yes, sir,” I answered, not because I wanted to attempt the Tourney, but because I was afraid to say no. I never before had attempted a jump higher than two meters. I was anything but ready.

I rode Redfeather onto the track and approached the starting line. Redfeather glanced back at me as if to assess whether I was serious. She decided I was. I saw Schloss position his mount alongside the second jump. Abigail on Silverbrow was down-track by the third, a tall hedge with a water trap on the far side. I supposed they had placed themselves to attend to my broken body quickly.

I turned my heels inward and nudged Redfeather. She moved forward and gathered speed slowly. She understood what was expected of her and focused in on the first jump, which was constructed of simple rails. She accelerated to a canter and began to snort. I stood in the stirrups as we closed in. Redfeather leapt. My position wasn’t quite right. As she cleared the jump, her forebody dropped lower than her rear and the saddle rose up to smack me. I flew forward onto her neck and barely regained my seat before the second jump, a solid wooden fence.

The second jump went better. The leap jarred me, but I stayed in the saddle. We charged toward the hedge jump. At the last moment, Redfeather balked. I flew headlong over the hedge and into the water pit on the other side. Part of me considered just putting an end to it by breathing in the water, but instinct took over and I surfaced. I crawled out of the pit, soaked and covered in mud.

“Ha! Ha!” The laughter was from Abigail on Silverbrow. “Anson, Redfeather wasn’t sure you wanted her to jump.”

“Is that what happened?” I asked, unconvinced.

“Yes, she picks up everything you’re feeling.”

“I hope not.”

I circled around the hedge and climbed back on Redfeather, who stood quietly in place. I was terrified, of course, but Abigail was watching. Besides, I thought there was a real chance I might die on the next attempt. It was a comforting thought.

“Restart the whole course, Anson!” Schloss ordered.

We trotted back to the start line. I took a deep breath and nudged the lion again. Redfeather again charged at the first jump and cleared it. She leapt the second. Somehow I hung on. We closed on the hedge. I no longer cared what happened next. If Abigail was right, I probably was confusing Redfeather with that attitude. We were in the air. The lion cleared the hedge by half a meter and passed well beyond the water trap on the other side. The landing jarred my spine, but I held on by grabbing the feathers of the lion’s mane. Somehow I stayed on the lion for the remaining seven jumps, too. No one was more surprised then I was. I wouldn’t have felt more battered if I had been stuffed in a steel barrel and rolled down a mountain. I patted Redfeather’s neck as we slowed to a walk after the finish line.

Schloss approached.

“Anson, that was the worst form I’ve ever seen in my life! I mean the worst, bar none,” he said, “but it counts for something that you got back on after the spill and then finished the course. You’ve got guts.”

Guts? I was a sniveling coward. I got back on because I was too pusillanimous to stand up for myself and quit as I desperately wanted to do. This was the first straightforward praise Schloss ever had given me, and it was a mistake.

“Thank you, sir,” I answered feebly.

Abigail trotted to the start line. She gave Silverbrow another invisible signal, and he accelerated smoothly. The two flew effortless over the fences and hedges of the course. She didn’t look the slightest bit ruffled when she returned to the start line.

On Schloss’ instructions, for the next two weeks I practiced on the Tourney jumper course. I fell off a dozen times, but never was hurt seriously enough to withdraw from the sport with some semblance of honor, so I had no choice but to keep at it. My form remained terrible. I evoked laughter from anyone who saw it, but I did get better at staying in the saddle. When I didn’t fall off for three days in a row, Schloss raised the height of the jumps.

None of this relieved my misery. I had hoped that by pushing myself further and further I might eventually get past the relentless fear that was dominating and ruining my life. The plan didn’t seem to be working.

One day, Schloss let the class chose how to spend the afternoon. “It’s up to you, today. Training grounds or trails?” he asked. It was rare for him to leave anything up to us. Perhaps he was just testing us. Perhaps he was just testing me.

“Isn’t Razorbeak still out there?” asked Geoffrey, a Form VI boy.

“Razorbeak?” I asked.
“That’s the name Abigail gave the wild lion we met last time.”

“He might be,” said Schloss. “If you stay with the group and don’t chase his buffalo, he won’t bother you.”

The last thing I wanted to do was go back out on the trails, but I decided to stay quiet and let the others vote first. Perhaps a majority would vote against the trails. No such luck. The class split evenly. All of the students whose lions had run away with them the last time voted for the training grounds. The remainder wanted to go out, including, of course, Abigail. She looked at me for my decision. I sighed.

“Trails!” I said.

Once again the pleasant thought occurred to me that this time my ride would be lethal so I could have some peace.

Schloss took us on the identical path as before. We crossed over the hills and came to the edge of the grasses. To my relief, the buffalo weren’t there. We entered the grasses and crossed over to more woods beyond. We crossed a stream and the woods thinned. Abigail rode up alongside me. She bent down and plucked berries from a bush as she passed it. I thought she intended to save them for Silverbrow. Instead, she waited until she was sure only I was watching and then tossed them into her mouth. I was horrified.

She smiled and said, “I’ll be fine.”

Before I could respond, there in the open beyond the next brush line stood buffalo.

I don’t know if Redfeather truly was obeying my wishes or if she simply remembered how badly stalking buffalo had ended last time. Whatever her reasons, she didn’t crouch. I took some unsportsmanlike satisfaction in seeing seven of the other students struggling with their lions.

Razorbeak appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. He walked to a position midway between us and the herd. The buffalo were slow to respond to his presence, perhaps because he wasn’t focused on them. After much fidgety hesitation, one buffalo, however, began to run. Then they all did. Eight of the students followed the stampede on their runaway mounts. Razorbeak ignored them. He sat and shifted his stare slowly from Schloss’ lion Doublestreak to Silverbrow to Redfeather and back again. He remembered who had faced up to him the last time and was still angry about it.

“Don’t move, anyone,” Schloss advised. “One of the mounts is likely to run and then it will be a total rout. It’s not good for the plebs to see us reenter the settlement in flight.”

Class politics were the last thing on my mind. Instead, I was acutely conscious of an itch in the scars Razorbeak’s claws had left on my chest. I scarcely could breathe. All I wanted to do was run away. I worried I might convey the feeling to Redfeather unintentionally, if Abigail’s theory was right. At last, I could stand inaction no longer. I nudged Redfeather forward. She stood still. I nudged her again. With an audible sigh she walked straight toward the wild lion. Razorbeak held his position and waited.

“Anson, I did NOT tell you to do that!” JB Schloss shouted.

Nevertheless the instructor nudged Doublestreak forward. Abigail advanced, too. The rest of the students stayed in place. I tugged on Redfeather’s reins, and we stopped just beyond the reach of Razorbeak’s claws. Schloss and Abigail rode up on my flanks. The wild lion nonchalantly scratched his mane as though his presence had nothing to do with us at all. He yawned and strolled off with an air of disregard.

“We shouldn’t have any trouble from him in the future,” Schloss predicted. “We’ve established our right of passage with him. Don’t ever make a move like that again without my permission, Anson. Do you have a death wish?”

“An old earth psychiatrist said we all do.”

“Don’t get philosophical on me. Save that for your foppish professors.”

“Yes sir.”

“You’re entering the New Macedon Cross Country Tournament.”

“Sir?”

“You heard me. We’re having trouble getting enough entries this year. We need a couple more contestants to fill out the starting line-up. You’re going to be one of them.”

“Sir, I just started training on big jumps. I’m at least a year away from having the right to think about entering the Tournament someday. My form is the worst you’ve ever seen. You said so yourself.”

“Form doesn’t matter in the cross country. You just have to stay mounted. You know that. Of course, if you’re too scared, you can say so.”

“I’ll do it,” I said, against all my instincts.

“I thought you might. Now let’s try to round up everyone who went after the buffalo.”

So, to get back to where I began this story, that’s how I got to be grooming Redfeather on the day of the big tournament.

The Tournament is mostly about endurance. The winner most often is usually just the last contestant still seated on a lion. More than a third of the time, no one stays mounted all the way to end, in which case the last person to have fallen off wins. Only if two or more riders stay mounted all the way to the end does speed matter. In that case, of course, the first across the finish line wins. Only about 20% of the time does more than one rider finish. Injuries to riders are commonplace and fatalities happen every few years or so.

The risks, however, are what make the Tournament the most closely followed sporting event on New Macedon. It always draws a big live crowd and it is covered on the radio. At homes and in taverns, people huddle around their radios and listen to the announcers broadcasting from the scene. Vast amounts of money trade hands in bets. Winners and casualties in the race become celebrities. My parents, of course, were ecstatic when they heard I was in the race. I was much less enthused.

Most of the time during the Tournament, the announcers just blather gossip about the contestants, because they really can’t see what is happening on the course despite the balloon that gives them an elevated view. The Tournament track is 50 kilometers long. Most of it is beyond the formal boundary of the settlement. It winds through woods, hills, fields and valleys. A large red flag marks each jump, but even with the flags, riders occasionally become lost. Between jumps, the track is deliberately left unmanaged during the year in order to make it more challenging. Annual plant growth can make it hard to tell exactly where the track is. Bypassing a jump is an automatic forfeit.

The heavy favorite among bookies this year was Grover Balicek. Grover is a Pern Academy alumnus. A decade ago he was a favorite student of Instructor Schloss. As the only one to cross the finish line last year, he was the winner. I had seen him do it in person. Second favorite this year was Abigail MacArthur. Because of her youth, she never had raced in the Tournament before, but somehow there was a buzz about her. Even so, bets on her to win paid two to one. I didn’t look up the odds against me. They were sure to be too embarrassing to mention.

Redfeather’s tack was simple but well made. It was branded with the name of my family’s mill. I had forgone festooning the lion with frills and ornaments, even though this was traditional in the Tournament. I really wasn’t eager to draw attention to myself. More importantly, all that loose cloth just looked like something else to get tangled on branches and jumps. I wanted to clear at least a few of the early jumps – enough to save face anyway. I hoped I wouldn’t be the very first to be thrown.

I unchained Redfeather and climbed on her. She had seen Tournaments before but she never had raced in one. She knew exactly where we were going and trotted in the right direction without any urging from me. I was glad she at least was up for it.

The lions milled around the reserve field while the event managers got things organized. The start of the race was delayed by almost an hour. That isn’t bad by Tournament standards. At last the announcers ordered the contestants to approach the starting line. The announcers’ balloon slowly reeled out the tether and rose into the sky. The reel stopped turning and the balloon swayed in the gentle breeze.

The lions made a colorful spectacle, draped in decorative fabrics, flags, and other gaudy accessories. Except for myself and Abigail, the riders, too, made a flamboyant fashion show. I looked plain in my school blazer and boots. Abigail was attired in precisely the same blazer and similar boots, yet somehow she looked elegant. Putting superficial trappings aside, I could see I was in the company of experienced riders. I was the least qualified entrant.

I never heard the starting gun. All of the lions leapt ahead at once, careening against each other and slapping at each other with claws. Redfeather paid no attention to my commands at all, but was fully consumed by the spirit of the race. Soon we were through the gates and out beyond the settlement fence line. We smashed through branches and thickets. Branches tore my breeches. Every moment seemed as though it would be my last. Despite the wild ride, Redfeather was outpaced by most of the lions. One lion after another pulled ahead until only two of the 30 were behind us. In one way this helped. 27 lions up front marked the proper route through the brush pretty clearly. Even so, it was only at the last possible second that I spotted the red flag marking the first jump. I got into position. Redfeather jumped it easily and I hung on.

The race took at least one casualty on every jump. Most of the lions continued the race without their fallen riders. By ten kilometers into the course, I had counted six contestants on the ground. I saw a red flag on a wide hedge up ahead. Redfeather zeroed in on the center of it and launched herself. On the other side lay a stunned lion who had stumbled on landing. The rider was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he or she was under the lion. I saw no way to avert catastrophe as Redfeather descended. I braced myself for a collision. Redfeather stretched her foreclaws forward and pulled when they struck the ground. Somehow she had cleared the fallen lion. The next jumper was not so lucky. I heard lions shriek and a man shout as the two lions entangled and the rider went flying.

Nearly halfway into the course, I was still mounted, much to my own astonishment. For the first time in months I was too terrified to feel scared, if that makes any sense. Redfeather early moderate pace now paid off as many of the leading lions tired. We passed not only fallen riders but one mounted contestant after another as well. Redfeather bounded over jump after jump. We closed on a pack of a dozen lions. It often happens in a race that a sizable group of lions will match their speeds and run together. They form a block through which it is difficult to break. Suddenly, the pack scattered, with more than half the riders losing their seats. Then I saw why.

In the trail ahead, directly in front of a jump built of logs, stood Razorbeak. Schloss had been mistaken. Razorbeak was not done causing trouble. I had no influence over Redfeather. She charged through the panicked pack and ran straight at the wild lion. To this day I don’t know if she did this with intent or simply because her attention was so locked on the jump that she didn’t recognize Razorbeak right away.

Redfeather stopped short directly in front of Razorbeak. She reared up and I buried my face in her mane. I bounced back with a bloody nose. She spun and retreated. The maneuver momentarily confused Razorbeak, but he recovered quickly, screamed, and ran after us. Redfeather ran toward a riderless lion and leapt over him. Razorbeak, focused on us, slammed into the other lion. The ensuing battle excited the other lions, and more riders hit the ground. Redfeather raced back toward the log jump and soared over it. For several seconds I reveled in our escape. Then I looked back and saw that Razorbeak had abandoned his fight with the other lion and was in pursuit. Redfeather sensed he was back there and increased her speed, though by now she was tiring.

We passed more lionless contestants and contestantless lions. I lost track of the count. I knew we were nearing the final segment of the course. Razorbeak entered a meadow which offered welcome forward visibility. I caught sight of the announcers’ balloon, which meant that they could see us too. Far up ahead was another lion. From the lion’s color and from the blue blazer of the rider, I knew it was Silverbrow and Abigail. She was approaching the penultimate jump of the course. Notorious for unseating more than half the riders who attempted it, it was a four-meter hedge with a water trap on the other side.

Abigail’s lion appeared to scrape the top of the hedge but made it over. It was hard to be sure at this distance, but I heard no splash and assumed she had cleared the water trap. I looked back. Though lagging, Razorbeak still followed relentlessly. This was carrying a grudge too far.

The hedge looked like an impossible barrier. Redfeather snorted furiously as we closed on it. She leapt. Redfeather’s claws tangled in the top of the hedge. We both somersaulted in the air as I desperately grasped onto her mane. Redfeather splashed belly-first in the deep water of the trap. We submerged but by the sheerest luck – there was little or no skill involved – I remained seated. Technically, I hadn’t separated from my lion, and so we were still in the race. I held on as Redfeather clawed herself out of the water.

Next to the water trap, a wet dismounted contestant stood next to a bright yellow lion draped in soggy purple. He clapped in approval. It was Grover Balicek.

Razorbeak appeared around side of the hedge. Balicek and his lion ran, but Razorbeak ignored them. He lunged at us. Redfeather jumped forward, but a swipe of Razorbeak’s claw was so close that I felt the wind from it on my neck. The water seemed to have refreshed Redfeather and Razorbeak’s appearance certainly was motivating her forward.

We entered the open gate marking the boundary of the settlement. Redfeather maintained her breakneck pace. We closed on Abigail who, obviously confident of her lead and not wishing to push Silverbrow too hard, cantered him almost casually toward the final jump. They cleared it with ease. It was a simple fence jump and we hopped over it without difficulty, too.

We closed to seven meters before Abigail looked back and realized we were there. Startled, Abigail spurred her animal on. Redfeather put on a burst of speed and continued to close the distance. Silverbrow crossed the finish line first with scarcely a meter to spare.

I looked back toward the gate as both our lions slowed and halted. Razorbeak was nowhere to be seen. He hadn’t been foolish enough to enter the settlement gates. He would have been shot down by security if he had. Tame riderless lions returned through the gate one by one.

Abigail and I trotted our lions to the award circle and stood side by side. We were the only riders to finish. We were the first one-two finish for Pern Academy students ever. A judge pinned a blue ribbon on Silverbrow’s bridle and a red one on Redfeather’s. Photographers snapped photos. Meanwhile, a rescue expedition formed to go out the gates and retrieve the fallen contestants.

As the photographers completed their work and the announcers blared over the loudspeakers, Abigail said to me, “Your form stank.”

“I know.”

“What you did today was way beyond your skill level. You are lucky to be alive.”

“I know.”

“So, why did you risk it?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“I think you did it to impress me.”

In truth, it had been a minor consideration. After all, I knew she was out of my league. As an answer, I shrugged.

“It worked.”

“Did it?” I asked.

“Weren’t you at least scared?”

“Yes.”

“Me, too. Makes it fun, doesn’t it?”

“It gets the heart pumping,” I answered truthfully.

The announcers finished their wrap-up for the audience. Abigail and I left the circle and walked our lions slowly back to the stable.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” I said.

“Oh?”

“You ate wild berries out on the trail. Why are you alive?”

“That was weeks ago. You’re asking me only now?”

“I’ve had things on my mind.”

“You may be brave on lionback, but are brave enough to challenge the social order?”

“I am if you are,” I said. I didn’t care about the social order, but this sounded like a chance to do something with Abigail other than lion-ride.

“I keep underestimating you,” she said.

She didn’t, but I kept that to myself.

“It’s a lie that all the native crops on this planet except mushrooms are deadly,” she explained. “More than 20 local plants have been identified as edible and nutritious. Some of them are even tasty. I’ve read the secret files. My dad is with the Agriculture Department. He brings documents home and leaves them lying around, even though he is not supposed to.”

“Why would the Agriculture Department keep secrets like that?”

“Why do you think? As long as the plebeians and serfs have to work nonstop to scratch a living from the soil, they have no time to challenge the aristocracy.”

“But you’re the aristocracy.”

“So are you.”

“Just barely.”

“Regardless,” she said, “I have a conscience, don’t you? Don’t you know how much easier it would make ordinary lives if we could grow food that is properly adapted to this planet?”

“So what is your plan? Do you want to go public with this?”

“No, we can’t just blurt it out. The government would deny it and we’d just disappear. They might even arrange some poisoning deaths and blame them on those native plants.”

“You sound a little paranoid.”

“It’s realism, not paranoia. I know these people. They are all so very well-mannered and amicable, but they are ruthless, too. We have to be clever about getting the truth out. Maybe we can introduce some of the plants ‘accidentally’ on a few farms and let the farmers ‘discover’ them. The news will get around. We can help it get around.”

“Samizdat?”

“Something like that.”

“OK.”

“Want to join me at the after-party?” she asked.

The change of subject delayed my response. “Join as in ‘escort you’? I’m not Prince Darren, you know.”

“If you were, I wouldn’t ask.”

“I mean, your family is pretty elite. Will they object to me?”

“I’m not asking you to marry me. Besides, if they object to the company I keep, they can kiss my… never mind. You haven’t answered the question.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good, but don’t ever call me ma’am again.”

“Yes, Abigail.”

“Abby. Clean up first. You smell like a lion. Meet at the dorm at seven.”

“Yes, m… Abby.”

Razorbeak had done me a world of good. I was getting rather fond of the old boy. I almost wanted to go find him and shake his claw. Even if the day should come when we have to hunt him down for safety’s sake, I’ll say a eulogy for him.

Fear did right by me, too, and for the first time in months, it has left me.




How to Avoid Work and Flirt with the Butcher


My maternal grandfather, Henry Meyers (b.1900), was a storyteller, like many of his generation. I haven’t noticed the same inclination among my fellow Boomers. This is probably just as well. Twenty-first century grandchildren are accustomed to stories told in high-def and 3D. Most of us lack the knack to compete effectively with technology by mere spoken word.

Henry had several favorite tales, and as a kid I enjoyed rehearing them just as much as I enjoyed reruns of favorite TV shows. One of his frequent reruns was the Spider story. Spider was the least appropriate horse ever to pull a milk wagon.

In 1910, Henry was a 10-year-old boy who lived on his parents
 dairy farm on Raritan Road in Cranford, New Jersey, with his three brothers and two sisters: Catherine, Carrie, Bill, Fred, and Martin. Henry spent much of his time with Bill (13) and Fred (8) who were closest to him in age. The three boys did the usual work of farm boys, including delivering milk to customers.

Motor vehicles and horses coexisted in 1910. Cars, notably Ford’s Model T which began production in 1908, were becoming more affordable, but they still had other drawbacks. For one thing, outside of downtown areas, nearly all roads were unpaved. Many were badly rutted, and sections of them turned to mud whenever it rained. These conditions were better suited to stepping than rolling, and so helped keep the horse competitive. A motorized horse-van was an especially rare sight, since in most circumstances it had the advantages backwards. Nevertheless, on an August day, one stopped in front of the Meyers farmhouse. The boys investigated.

“What’s in the back?” Bill asked the driver.

“A race horse. He is all yours for $10.”

My great grandfather William (actually Wilhelm, named for Wilhelm I, but he usually went by William) overheard this as he approached. He wasn’t sure what the going rate was for racehorses, but he knew even the slowest nag on the track was worth more than $10.

“What’s wrong with him?” William asked.

“He’s lame,” said the driver honestly. “It isn’t bad, but it means we can’t run him. He’s a gelding so we can’t breed him. I could sell him to the butchers, but I’d rather not, and, besides, this will save me the trip.”

“We don’t have much use for a lame horse on a farm either.”

“He’s not so lame you can’t ride him. You just can’t race him.”

“Let’s at least look at him, pop,” Bill urged.

“OK. Back him out.”

The boys looked the horse over. Their sisters came out of the house to look, too. He was a tall bay thoroughbred with long spidery legs. He was beautiful.

“His name is Spider,” the driver added.

The three boys consulted, and then pulled their father aside. The boys wanted the animal.

“Maybe he’ll be good for something,” William conceded. He probably also figured he could resell the horse for $10 if need be. William bought the horse. “You boys wanted him. You take care of him,” he warned.

“Let’s saddle him up to try him out,” Fred said as the van trundled away. It was more than a suggestion.

They first walked him around on a lead line in front of the barn.

“You know, I don’t see a thing wrong with him,” said Bill

“Neither do I.”

The boys tacked the horse. As soon Bill tightened the cinch on the saddle, Spider lifted his left front hoof. Bill led him outside by the reins.

“Darn if he isn’t lame after all,” he said.

“Well, see how he rides anyway.”

“I’ll give a try,” Henry said.

Henry mounted. He nudged Spider with his heels. From the perspective of Fred and Bill, Henry and Spider vanished into dust. Henry hung on for dear life as Spider charged full bore along the fence line. He tugged desperately at the reins but to no avail.

Henry shouted, “Whoa!”

Spider planted his feet. Henry flew forward, but Spider flung up his head to catch him. Henry had lost his stirrups, and his arms were wrapped around Spider’s neck. He re-seated himself and regained his stirrups. The barn looked impossibly distant. Spider wasn’t the slightest bit winded. Henry turned him around and faced the barn.

“OK, nice and gentle,” he said.

Henry barely nudged the horse. Spider once again took off along the rail, running at a full gallop.

Nearly top of his brothers, Henry shouted, “Whoa!”

Spider planted his feet. This time Henry was ready, but he still collided with the animal’s neck.

“Why’d you run him so hard?” Bill asked.

“It wasn’t my idea.”

“He doesn’t look lame at all,” Fred observed.

“Let me try him,” Bill said.

Henry dismounted. Bill got on, and duplicated Henry’s ride.

“He only knows how to stand and run,” Bill said.

“My turn!” Fred insisted.

The wild ride was repeated again. Spider skidded to a halt at the end of the return jaunt.

“Turn him out for now,” Bill said. “I have an idea for tomorrow.”

“What?”

“I think that after the milk deliveries we should pick up the mail at the post office.”

“That doesn’t sound so exciting.”

“It will be if we hitch Spider to the milk wagon.”

“It might at that”

The boys could barely sleep that night, and the chores the next day seemed to go on forever. Life on a dairy farm starts early, however, so it was only midmorning when they had a chance to execute their plan.

They retrieved Spider from the pasture and eagerly hitched him to the wagon. This had to be a new experience for Spider, but he was quiet during the procedure. The three boys got in the wagon with Bill at the reins. He gave the reins a quick snap.

Spider leapt forward. The wagon bounced and shuddered on the ruts and ridges of the driveway and dirt road. Repeatedly the boys were tossed in the air and narrowly escaped flying off, but they stayed in the wagon. Bill reined him to the left around a corner and the wagon skidded in an arc as the boys hung on for dear life. Pedestrians looked and pointed as they approached the post office.

“Whoa!”

Spider skidded to a stop, pushed forward by the harness.

“That’s the fastest we ever got here!” Henry said, and there was no denying it.

Fred ran inside and picked up the mail, which in 1910 cannot have amounted to much. He clambered back aboard, and Bill snapped the reins. Away they went again, careening around corners and bouncing alarmingly.

That afternoon, the van reappeared at the Meyers farm.

“I couldn’t help seeing you boys terrorizing Cranford.”

“We got the mail,” Bill explained.

“There must have been something mighty important in it. Spider was running pretty good.”

“He runs fine. We figured it out. He just acts lame when you saddle him so he doesn’t have to work. Once you get him going, he is sound as a dollar.

The dollar in 1910, it should be observed, was backed by gold.

“I sold you the horse. I’m not saying I didn’t, but I’m thinking I might want him back.”

William Meyers, who had observed the goings-on with misgivings, approached the van and said, “I’ll take back my $10.”

William knew very well that a sound race horse was worth a tidy sum, but it didn’t seem honest to him to profit from the man’s mistake. This is another difference between 1910 and today.

The boys were disappointed, of course. They had been looking forward to delivering the milk the next morning.

Model ET


They say the advantage to being a grandparent is that the kids go home before you get tired of them. “They” are wrong about plenty in my experience, but not about this.

My daughter Valerie dropped the boys off this evening on her way to the town hall. She was going to one of those public meetings where everyone interferes in each other’s business. She has firm opinions on things like how tall her neighbors’ fences should be and how often they cut the grass. Those same neighbors in turn like to tell their neighbors how to live. MYOB isn’t a big sentiment these days the way it was when I was a youngster.

You know, I never once mowed a lawn as a boy and certainly never asked permission to put up a fence. My brother and I cut hay in the fields, if that counts as cutting grass. The goats and sheep kept everything down around the house. There are rules nowadays about owning goats and sheep, too.

Val always acts worried she is making a mistake when she leaves the boys with me for a couple hours, but she does it at least once a week anyway. Tonight she told me not to infuse the boys with any of my funny ideas. I’m not sure what she meant by that. Val never used to give her mom the same warning, so I presume her ideas weren’t funny. Well, I guess we both miss her mom.

It has been hard on Valerie going it alone like she’s done ever since Robert left her. Or maybe she kicked him out. I never got the story straight. It’s for the best either way. He drank too much.

Val named the boys Ayden and Brayden, which makes them sound like twins, but they’re not. They are eleven and twelve. I’m betting that if there’s a third he’ll be Cayden.

The boys are pretty typical of brothers born a year apart. They compete for everything. The younger tries harder because he’s usually at a disadvantage. They disagree almost as a matter of principle. When Ayden says yes, Brayden will say no. Even when they both like something, they find some way to like it differently. Both are fond of dinosaurs, for instance, but Ayden prefers Tyrannosaurus Rex while the other champions Allosaurus. I guess that makes a kind of sense.

They both like science fiction and UFOs, too, but Ayden believes in flying saucers while Brayden doesn’t. Somehow I thought it would be the other way around. Both watch Star Trek, but one likes Kirk and other the one with the pointed ears. Both are big on the space program. They stayed up to watch the moon landing last month, but one believes Armstrong said “a man” like he claims to have said, while the other insists he messed up and just said “man.”

Anyway, about an hour after Val left for her meeting, the boys started arguing about President Nixon. You might think it was about Vietnam or something, but it wasn’t. Ayden said Nixon shouldn’t have canceled Project Blue Book, while Brayden said it was about time. Ayden asked me what I thought about it. I could see from both their smiles that they were teasing grandpa a little. They didn’t think I would know what Project Blue Book was. I know.

“I figure it won’t hurt to cancel it,” I answered. “The Air Force never was serious about investigating UFOs.”

“Why not?” asked Brayden, surprised and worried that his grandfather might be a UFO conspiracy theorist.

“Some of the ‘explanations’ in Blue Book just don’t make sense. Either the Air Force knows flying saucers exist and is lying to cover up real sightings, or it doesn’t know any such thing and is lying to cover up something else – most likely sightings of its own planes. Regardless, we aren’t getting any useful information.”

“How do you know so much about it?” Ayden asked, genuinely astonished.

“Well, something happened a long time ago that aroused my curiosity about such things. I don’t talk about it much because I figure most people would say I was spinning a yarn or that I was just crazy.”

“I’ll believe you,” Ayden said.

“Me too.”

I hesitated.

“Maybe I’d better save this story for when you two are older. Your mom will say I’m filling you with funny ideas.”

“We won’t tell her!” Ayden insisted.

“Promise!” Brayden agreed.

“Well, OK then. I sometimes hear you two say nothing ever happens in Salina, Kansas, and I don’t suppose much does. Well, even less happened back in 1910 when I was eleven years old.”

“My age!”

“Yes, that’s right Brayden. And if Salina was sleepy, you can imagine what it was like on my pop’s old farm outside of town.

“The world was mechanizing in 1910, but it was happening more slowly around here than in the big cities. Not many folks owned automobiles. Some of the really big spreads in the county had tractors, but we didn’t have one on our farm. We relied on the kind of horsepower with four hooves and an appetite for hay. I‘d heard about airplanes but wasn’t sure I believed in them. Train locomotives were the most impressive machines I’d seen and touched personally. Sometimes my brother Zach and I would play hooky and wait by the tracks in hopes of seeing a train go by.

“Well, one day we were doing just that. We were walking along the tracks when we should have been in school. It was my older brother Zach’s idea. Lately, I had developed reasons not to go with him, but none I could admit to, so I went anyway.”

“What reasons?” Brayden asked.

“Well, I had gotten kind of sweet on a girl.”

“Ew.”

“Yeah, I figured Zach would say something like that, too. Worse, actually.”

“Was the girl Grandma?” Ayden asked.

“No, she wasn’t. Her name was Becky Schmitt. School was practically the only place I got to see her, even on Sunday because she was a Methodist. So, I wasn’t as keen to stay away from school as I once had been.

“Anyway, I was there by the tracks with Zach. He pointed at a locomotive plume in the distance and we sat by the tracks to wait for it. It was a long one. We counted cars and waved at the workers and passengers. Some of them waved back. They sometimes mixed freight and passenger cars back then. You don’t see that anymore, and it was rare even in 1910, but this one was mixed.

“After the train passed, we turned to head back home, but a glint caught my eye. Kansas was just as flat then as it is now, but there are some rises and swales here and there that some folks call hills even though they aren’t. Well, one of those rises was next to the track near where we stood. The glint came from a big swale in back of it. Whatever was back there would have been completely hidden from the passengers on the train.

“‘Hey Zach, I see something. Let’s go look.’ I said.

“He was in no hurry to get home, so we walked toward the reflection. What we found surprised us both. Nestled in the swale was a dome that shouldn’t have been there. I’d never seen it before, as many times as I’d been this way. Zach whistled.

“‘Look at that!’ he said.

“‘What is it?’ I asked. ‘Some kind of fancy warehouse or barn? When did they build it? We were out here just last week.’

“‘Maybe we just didn’t see it. We almost missed it this time. This is railroad property, I think, so the company must have built it. But never mind the dome, Tommy. Look what is next to it.’

“Next to the dome was an oblong shape with oversize spherical wheels.

“‘Is it a tractor?’ I asked.

“‘That’s no tractor. That’s an automobile.’

“‘It doesn’t look like one.’

“‘They’re making new fancy models all the time, Tommy. This one must be spanking new. Get down! Someone is there. Don’t let them see us.’

“‘Why not?’

“‘Just don’t.’

“So we dropped to our bellies. The grass was tall enough to give us a little cover. I lifted my head a bit and spotted the movement of two shapes on the rise overlooking the tracks. They were hunkered down, too, as though they wanted to watch the train while staying out of sight. Zach pushed my head back down before I could get a better look at them.

“‘I said stay down!’ he ordered.

So, for the next few minutes I saw nothing but insects crawling around roots. Then Zach took a quick look up.

“‘OK, they’re gone.’

“‘Why don’t we go knock on their door and talk to them?” I suggested. “Maybe they’ll show us the car.’

“‘Or maybe they’ll chase us away with buckshot. More likely in my opinion. I’ve got a better idea. Let’s sneak out after dark and come back. We can look at the car up close then.’

“‘Maybe the car won’t be here tonight.’

“‘Where would it be?’ Zach asked.

“‘I don’t know. It’s a car. It can go places.’

“‘It’s not going anywhere. Or if it does, it will come back. It obviously belongs with the dome.’

“‘What if they put it inside the dome later?’

“‘Then tomorrow we can try your plan of knocking on the door in daylight. C’mon Tommy, don’t you want something to brag about to Becky?’

He caught me off guard with that question. “‘I don’t talk much to Becky,’ I protested.

“‘You talk plenty even with your mouth shut. It’s pathetic, really.’

“I had only a rough notion of the meaning of ‘pathetic,’ but I knew it wasn’t good.

“‘Think she knows?’ I asked

“‘About you mooning over her? Unless she’s blind, deaf, and stupid.’

“‘She’s not stupid. Or those other things.’

“‘Well, there you go, then. So, are you coming with me tonight or am I doing this alone?’

“‘I’ll come.’

“The chores at home seemed to take forever that afternoon and evening, but they really were just the usual. Finally, every last cow was in her stall and every last dinner plate was clean. The night deepened, my mom turned out the kerosene lamps, and Zach and I went to our room.

“We waited until we couldn’t stand it anymore, which is to say less than half an hour. We then tiptoed to the kitchen door. Each step made a plank squeak so loud I was sure we not only would wake my parents, but every cow in the barn and every chicken in the coop. Somehow we slipped out the door unnoticed by man, beast, or fowl, and we headed into the night. It was a long walk to the dome, and I tripped a few times in the moonlight.

“‘We’re almost there,’ Zach said.

“‘You’ve been saying that for the past two miles.’

“‘And I’ve been right. That is the rise right there.”

“We entered the swale and warily approached the dome. There was no movement and no light from any window. In fact, there wasn’t any window. The car was missing.

“‘I told you it would be gone,’ I said. ‘Maybe they put it inside.’

“‘Do you see a door?’

“‘There must be one.’

“‘Let’s see.’

“We approached the dome and circled around it. We didn’t find the door, but we found the car on the far side. The dome had blocked our sight of it.

“‘They moved it,’ I said.

“‘Cars move, Tommy. You said so yourself.’

“I let the sarcasm slide. Up close, the machine looked even less like an automobile. Admittedly I hadn’t seen many. It was silvery in the moonlight with big puffy wheels.

“‘The wheels are big and puffy,’ I said.

“‘You are just observant as all get-out tonight, Tommy. Maybe the wheels are puffy so they can drive over rough ground. What bothers me more is how you see out of it.’

“He was right. There was no windshield or window.

“‘Maybe a window slides open somehow. How you get in it, do you figure?’

“‘The same way you get in the warehouse,’ Zach said.

“‘Very funny.’

“‘These creases might be a door, but there is no handle.’

“Zach slid his finger along one vertical crease on the car. Suddenly two hatch-like doors popped open. One nearly caught me in the chin. Some sports cars have doors like that now. They’re called gull wings. Inside was a bench seat made out of something like vinyl, though I hadn’t yet heard the word. Zach sat on the left side of the seat.

“‘Do you think the owners are in the dome?’ I asked.

“‘Where else would they be?’

“‘Maybe we shouldn’t mess with the car too much. They’ll catch us.’

“‘So we’ll get caught. We aren’t hurting anything. Get in.’

“With some hesitation, I slid into the right side. The bench was soft but it was shaped all wrong.

“‘This would be a great seat if you had four-foot thighs and knees that bent sideways,” I said.

“Zach was feeling around the knobs and buttons in front of him. The hatches closed on us. Two metal columns with handles telescoped out from the dashboard, one column in front of each of us. The whole top of the car then changed from opaque silver to transparent. It was like the bubble-top canopies they put on some airplanes these days.

“‘Whoa. How does that work?’ I asked.

“‘You’ve got me. Maybe there is mercury between two sheets of glass and it drains down.’

“It was a clever guess, though it probably was wrong. The top didn’t feel like glass. But the fact Zach had come up so quickly with a way to make transparency work made me feel better. It seemed less like magic then.

“‘Are these handles on the column for steering?’

“‘They must be,’ Zach said.

“‘Why two sets? Other cars just have one wheel.’

“‘Well, this one has two.’

“‘How do you make it go?’ I asked.

“‘You’re going to have to stop asking me questions. I don’t know any more than you do.’

“Zach experimentally grabbed the handles and pushed on the column. The car lurched forward. Zach pulled back. The car skidded to a halt and started to go backwards. Zach stooped applying any pressure either way. The car stopped.

“‘OK, I think I’ve got it.’

“‘Why is there no engine sound?’

“‘Probably it’s electric. Some buggies are. I saw one in Salina and it was pretty quiet.’

“Zach pushed on the column again and we were off. The puffy wheels smoothed out most of the bumps. Zach picked up speed. There was a good size moon or we never would have seen where we were going. There were no headlights on the car. Or maybe there were, and we just didn’t know how to turn them on. The handles didn’t move on the column, but Zach figured out pretty quickly how to steer. He just squeezed either the right or left handle.

“After a while, I demanded ‘Let me try!’

Reluctantly, Zach stopped the car and let me take over. I drove cautiously until Zach grew impatient.

“‘Let go of the handles. I’ve got an idea,’ he said.

Zach resumed driving. He followed alongside the railroad to where a bend in the river brings it close to the tracks. Just beyond there is a road that crosses the tracks. Zach turned onto the road and accelerated.

“‘Where are you going?’

“‘Relax,’ he said.

“After about 15 minutes I realized where we were. He came to a stop.

“‘So, are you going to go get her or should I?’ he asked.

“‘Her parents will kill us,’ I objected.

“‘Not if they don’t know. I’m trying to do you a good turn, Tommy. Don’t fight it. If you don’t go get her, I’ll tell her tomorrow she missed out on seeing something really special because you were too scared to tap on her window.’

“It was a powerful threat.

“‘How do I get out of the car?’ I asked.

“‘What did I tell you about asking me questions?’

“While fumbling for some kind of handle, I pushed on the door, and it just popped open. I was almost hoping it wouldn’t.

“‘Well?’ Zach prodded.

“‘I don’t know which room is hers.’

“‘Neither do I, stupid, and you should be happy about that.’

“‘Right.’

“The house was dark. It was one of those one story types, so I crept from window to window and tried to see inside by holding my hands around my eyes against the panes.

“Becky saw me before I saw her. She opened her window and waved me over. This shows the difference between 1910 and 1969 if nothing else does. No girl today would just open a window to someone sneaking around outside her house, but we had a lot more trust then.

“‘What are you doing here, Tommy?’ she asked in a quiet voice.

“‘Come out. I’ve got something to show you.’

“‘What?’ she asked with a squint. Even in 1910 girls harbored a few suspicions.

“‘An automobile.’

“‘I’ve seen cars. What are you doing with one?’

“‘You’ve never seen one like this.’

“‘Can’t you bring it around tomorrow in the daytime?’

“‘No, not really.’

“She considered this.

“‘Wait a minute,’ she said at last.

“While I stood by the window, Becky pulled a robe off the bedpost and put it over her bedclothes. I figured I shouldn’t be watching this, so I turned away. She came back to the window.

“‘Give me a hand.’

“She let me help her out the window, which felt uncomfortably pleasant.

“‘Becky was literally agape as she looked over the car.

“‘Your father bought this?’ she asked

“‘No, not exactly.’

“‘Tommy! Did you steal this?’

“‘Of course not. We’ll return it.’

“‘So you did steal it.’

“‘Borrowed it.’

“‘Come on. Get inside.’ Zach urged.

“‘There is only room for two,’ she objected.

“‘Aw, you can fit in the middle,’ Zach said.

“‘My parents will hear us.’

“‘No, they won’t’ I said. ‘It’s quiet as anything. You didn’t hear us drive up, did you?’

“She paused a moment longer, but then climbed inside. I slid in after her and the door closed by itself. She didn’t seem to mind being squeezed between us two boys.

“Zach pressed the column forward. We accelerated on the road toward the railroad tracks. Becky laughed excitedly.

“‘How does it work?’ she asked.

“‘Electric, we think,’ I said.

“‘No, that’s not what I mean. How do you drive it?’

“Zach stopped and let me show the controls to Becky.

“‘I want to try,’ she said.

“She climbed over the top of me so she could take hold of the column. I slid to the middle. She smelled fresh and lovely, which is a bit surprising considering most of us bathed only once a week.

“She pushed forward on the column and drove even faster than Zach had done. She was doing fine until she weaved a little off the road at the railroad crossing. She hit the rails hard at a funny angle and the car bounced completely off the ground. Becky overcorrected on the handles and when the wheels reconnected with dirt we veered sharply.

“‘Look out for the river!’ I shouted.

“Becky overcorrected twice more. The car fishtailed and slid into the river. It wasn’t that deep, but it was deep enough for the car to float. We drifted downstream until the wheels hit bottom. Becky pushed forward gently and the car drove along the shallow edge of the river. The wheels failed to get enough traction to pull us up onto the crumbly bank.

“Zach said, “‘Let me try.’

“Becky released the controls. Zach worked up some speed along the shallows and then turned into the bank. We bounced up over the top and hit the ground hard. Zach pushed forward and we raced alongside the railroad track.

“‘Go faster!’ Becky demanded.

“I’d never guessed she had such a wild side. She always seemed so reserved in school.

“We were going maybe 60 mph. Maybe more. We were getting close to the rise and the dome.

“‘Let’s get Becky home before we go too near the dome,’ I said. ‘They’ll want the car back.’

“‘Let them try to take it. Besides, Becky can walk home if they do,’ Zach said.

“He was kidding, but Becky wasn’t taking any chances. She grabbed the handles to turn the car around. The two fought for control. They both lost. We hit the rails again and this time the results were bad. The machine vaulted into the air and then nosed down into the earth. The car tumbled rear over front, skidded, and then spun on its top. The ceiling, doors, and dash puffed out to hold us. Good thing, too, or we might have been badly hurt. Once we stopped spinning, all those surfaces pulled away from us and went back into place. The car was upside down, but the seat gripped us so we didn’t fall.

“The tumble alone had been enough to daze us. Zach was the worst. He was drooling. Becky was the least affected.

“‘Get me out of this! You boys got me into this! Get me out!’ she shouted.

“‘If I could I would,’ I said.

“I tried opening the doors but they wouldn’t budge.

“We hung there for a very long time with Becky getting angrier and ruder by the moment. A beam of light outside fell on the car and nearly blinded us, but I couldn’t make out who was holding it. The windows went opaque.

“Becky shouted, “‘Help!’

“‘I’m sure they know we’re in here,’ I said.

“‘My folks will kill me. No,’ she corrected herself, ‘they’ll kill you.’

“‘I hope your parents get the chance,’ I said.

“‘What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t sure what I meant, but I sensed we were in deep trouble.

“There were voices outside the car but the pitch was all wrong somehow and I couldn’t make out any words.

“The car righted itself. It felt as though the tires on one side deflated and the others inflated, which is probably exactly what they did. The seat loosened its grip on us. The door on Zach’s side opened.

“I felt a jolt as though punched in the chest. I figured I had been shot. ‘Goodbye, Becky,’ I tried to say, but my mouth wouldn’t work. I passed out.

Zach woke me up. I was on my back on the grass. The eastern sky was brightening. None of us was injured.

“‘Where’s the car?’ I asked.

“‘More importantly, where’s the dome?” Zach countered.

“It must be there.’

“‘It isn’t.’

“He was right. We were on the rise overlooking the swale and nothing was there.

“‘Was the dome packed away on a train?’ I asked.

Zach shrugged.

“I shook Becky’s shoulder. As soon as she woke she started slapping at me.’

“‘Where is the car?’ she demanded.

“‘We think the owners took it back.’

“She started slapping me again.

“‘It will be daylight by the time we walk back!’ she whined.

“The very long walk was made longer by Becky’s nonstop rebukes. The sun was well up as we approached her house. Becky’s mom was sitting in a rocker on the porch.

“‘Becky, Get in the house!’ she ordered.

“Becky walked past her into the house without meeting her gaze.

“Mr. Schmitt, carrying a shotgun, emerged from the same door. He walked up to Zach and me.

“‘I’ll be keeping this shotgun handy,’ he said. ‘If I need to, I’ll be coming for you. Whichever one of you she says. If she doesn’t say, I’ll pick one myself. Until that day, stay off my land.’

“‘Yes, sir.’ Zach and I both said simultaneously.

“You’d think that, growing up on a farm, I would have understood right then and there what old man Schmitt was saying to us, but I didn’t quite get it until a year or two later.

“The reception Zach and I got at home was only slightly better. Both of us got waled with a switch and had our chores doubled.

“Mrs. Schmitt told Becky not to talk to either of us again. One of the other girls told me this, and seemed to enjoy the telling.

“It was days before I had a chance to revisit the scene of the crime. The spot where the warehouse had been was a brown circle of grass. I found the marks where the car had tumbled. Something reflective winked at me from the grass.”

I picked a small silvery shard off the mantle and handed it to Ayden, who handed it to Brayden, who fingered it and handed it back to me.

“You once asked me what it was,” I told the boys. “I said it was a good luck piece. So it is. It’s a piece of the car that must have broken off when we flipped. I had a chemist look at it a few years ago without telling him how I got it. He wasn’t too impressed. He said it was titanium. But, you know, titanium wasn’t used in cars in 1910. It isn’t used in cars in 1969.

“Well, there isn’t much more to the story. Zach and I were called up for military service in 1917. I failed my physical because of a heart murmur. The doctor must have had a bug in his ear, because no one else ever has heard a murmur in my chest before or since. I didn’t object though. Zach passed his physical. He was happy about it. He said he wanted to see France and this was the only way he ever would.

“Before Zach left for the war he gave me a copy of a book by Mr. Wells called The War of the Worlds. He said I might find it ‘illuminating.’ It was.

“Zach died on the front in November 1918, four days before the war ended.

“Becky never did talk to me again. She married some oaf with a bad temper, and one day she just left him. She left the whole county. I never saw her again.

“I’m sure both of you have some thoughts about the dome. I can’t say for sure what it was, but I do know I’ve never seen that model car again anywhere.”

Just about then, Valerie came in the front door. She was back from the town meeting.

“Grandpa’s been telling us about flying saucers,” Ayden told her, his earlier promise totally forgotten.

“Oh, dad. I asked you not to fill the boys’ heads with nonsense,” she said.

“One man’s nonsense is another man’s wisdom.”

“That’s nonsense, too, dad.”

“Perhaps you’re right. Before you go, I have something for the boys.”

“What is it?” she asked warily.

I went to the bookshelf and withdrew my 1917 copy of The War of the Worlds.

“Let me see that,” Valerie insisted.

I handed it to her.

“Surely you don’t object to them reading a novel. H.G. Wells is a fine author,” I said.

She leafed through the book as though something inappropriate might be hidden inside. She didn’t find it.

“Well, OK,” she said resignedly. She closed the book and held it out to the boys. Brayden snatched it first.

“I think you’ll find it illuminating,” I told them.



The Roxy Caution

According to adage, “A man never forgets a first love; he just replaces her.” Old adages usually reveal small truths, even when, in a strict way, they are wrong. It is why they stick around long enough to become old adages.

The term “love” in this context demands a sterner definition than it does in the counterculture lyric, “Love the one you’re with.” On the other hand, we needn’t get Shakespearean about it either. It is enough to say Karen qualified as a “first love” by a standard somewhere in between that of Woodstock and Stratford-on-Avon. Fittingly, we met in 1975, the year after the counterculture abruptly packed up its buckskins, headbands, and DayGlo posters, and closed shop.

For the better part of a year after my graduation from George Washington University in the spring of 1974, I felt oddly disoriented. For 17 years, school had provided built-in directions and goals. I wasn’t having much success finding a new direction of my own.

There is another old adage (this one traceable to Lewis Carroll): “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

Early in 1975, I took this literally. I turned my 1973 tan Ford Maverick onto the entrance ramp of I-287 in Bedminster, snared a ticket 20 minutes later from a booth at the NJ Turnpike, and accelerated southward. My loose intention was to make a generally clockwise circuit to the West Coast and back again.

I spun miles on my odometer. I explored historic Williamsburg. I puttered around all the many Peachtree Lanes, Streets, and Avenues in Atlanta. I dallied in Jackson, which, against expectation, was a likable town full of genial and talkative people. Louisiana soon beckoned.

I reached the bayous of southern Louisiana at morning twilight. It was a spooky hour when mist drifted amid the trees rising out of the black water. The road had settled into the swamp, and my Maverick bounced and swayed on the uneven pavement. As the sun rose, I rolled into New Orleans.

I spent my first day in the city as a typical tourist. I admired the old architecture, snapped photos in Jackson Square, boarded a riverboat on the Mississippi, and wandered through curio shops. I visited the Old Absinthe House where Mark Twain had tippled a century earlier. The Dixiebelles’ 1963 song Papa Joe’s was popular when I was a kid, so the sign for the bar caught my eye. I walked inside and ordered a Hurricane. (By the mid-80s I would become a near-teetotaler, but that was a decade away.)

Even before leaving Papa Joe’s, I had decided to extend my visit for a few days. Afternoon turned to evening, and Bourbon Street lit up. An amazing variety of live music wafted out of the French Quarter clubs, including folk, blues, country, rock, and, of course, Dixieland. I barhopped along Bourbon from Ursulines to Canal, with occasional ventures into side streets.

Intermixed with the music clubs were strip clubs. These exist in every large city and quite a few small ones, but they never had been part of my scene or budget. So, at first I paid no attention to them in New Orleans. As I doubled back from Canal after an indeterminate number of drinks, however, the advice of a street barker to experience the female pulchritude inside sounded more reasonable than it had on the first pass-by.

I entered Chez Paris. (The club no longer exists.) It was a dark, narrow, and scruffy place with a raised stage located in back of the bartenders’ station. A short, cute, topless brunette strutted on stage to Please Mister Please. I sat down on a stool. Next to my knee, the largest beetle I ever saw was climbing vertically up the front of the bar. It ignored me, so I chose to ignore it.

The bartender introduced herself. She was one of the many women named "Roxy" in that industry. She is the only bartender ever actually to have asked me, “What’s your poison?” I ordered Southern Comfort and Coke, my favorite drink in those days. It was a slow night in Chez and there already was a substantial amount of alcohol in my system, so I over-tipped her. Roxy smiled, leaned on her forearms, and grew quite chatty. Fortyish, she was, she said, a veteran of burlesque. She lamented to me at length about how lame the whole business had become over the previous ten or fifteen years.

"It was much better in the old days," she said. "There were real shows and real acts, not these lazy babes prancing around."

I nodded but dismissed the remarks. Veterans of anything always think the old days were better and that modern times are lame. I owe Roxy an apology for this. DVDs of vintage burlesque shows featuring live bands, comedians, singers, and, of course, strippers, prove her right. In 1975, however, I hadn’t seen any of those, and I was more than content with the prancing on view.

Roxy was the only full-time bartender in Chez that night. The dancers doubled as bartenders when they were off stage. They also hustled overpriced drinks for themselves by chatting with customers. In the 1970s, lap dances were not yet part of the repertoire of clubs of this kind.

The dialogue with Roxy was pleasant, as was the scenery on view, but I had decided to finish my drink and leave. Then a new dancer climbed the steps to the stage and changed my mind. She was sandy-haired, trim, 5’5”, and in her mid-twenties. She wore no visible make-up, and sported a simple mono-color brown summer dress. The natural look worked perfectly for her. Even the slight crookedness of her front teeth made her smile cute rather than flawed. When she lost the dress in the second number, I ordered another drink. Few people truthfully look better out of their clothes than in them, but she did. For the final number, her dance consisted entirely of twitching her gluteus muscles. It’s hard to make that sound elegant, but it was intriguing.

Roxy, professional that she was, saw my reaction. “Want to buy Karen a drink?” she asked as Karen stepped off the stage.

“Yes, I believe I do.”

Roxy looked at Karen and nodded slightly in my direction. Karen sat down next to me. Roxy filled a shot glass from a Jack Daniels bottle and slid it in front of her. We introduced ourselves. We got along well, though I was aware it was her job to get along with customers. She said she was from Shreveport but had lived in New Orleans for several years. I told her loved her Louisiana accent.

“I take it with me everywhere,” she answered.

I don’t recall anything else I said during the next half hour, but she at least pretended to listen to whatever it was. She sipped rather than gulped her whiskies, but still ended up drinking a lot. Whether due to personal stamina or to the peculiar characteristics of her whisky, she showed no sign of inebriation at any time. She returned to the stage for her next set, and then came back to drink and talk some more.

I left the club in the small hours of the morning. Bourbon Street was still full of people. Most of them were drunk, but they were still there. I reaffirmed my earlier decision to remain in New Orleans for at least few days longer.

A few days stretched into a week, and every night I finished at Chez Paris, disappointed the two nights Karen was absent. Had you asked me if she was the reason I stayed in town, I probably would have denied it. New Orleans had many other attractions, and I was enjoying them all – all of the legal ones anyway. Yet, in truth, without Karen they wouldn’t have kept me there a week.

Roxy poured drinks for us and collected her tips, but one night, while Karen was on stage, she leaned over the bar and gave me a warning. “You be careful of her,” Roxy said. She then put a silencing finger to her lips. I still don’t know exactly what she meant by her admonition, or what motivated her to give it.

The next morning, I counted my available cash and decided it was time to move on. My time and money were not unlimited, after all, and there still was a big country to see. I planned to spend just one more night in New Orleans, and to end it, like the first, in Chez.

When I walked in near midnight, Karen was in a snit. She snapped at one of the other girls, who simply sighed and rolled her eyes. Karen huffily mounted the stage and performed without her usual fluidity. Instead, she broadcast irritation with every irregular gesture. Roxy shared with me an expression of sorely tried patience. She poured an SC & Coke for me and said it was on the house.

Karen ended her set and emerged from behind the bar. A customer touched her arm. He probably just wanted to offer her a drink, but Karen slapped the hand away. She slid onto the bar stool next to me. She was uncharacteristically taciturn, answering most of my questions and remarks with a nod or a monosyllable. I told her that I would be moving on to Texas the next morning.

She took her eyes off her drink and peered at me in the unblinkingly way a cat sometimes does.

“Is your car nearby?” she asked.

“A few blocks. It is in a garage.”

“Get it. Drive me home.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Hurry up. I won’t wait for you if you take too long. Roxy, you don’t need me tonight, I’m out of here.” Karen got up and strode to the ladies room.

Roxy looked as though she wanted to say something to me, but then changed her mind. She shook her head and said, “Here. Before you go, take this.”

Roxy reached under the bar and pulled out a trophy in the shape of an equine posterior. Normally a customer had to down at least six drinks at a sitting to win one of these statuettes. I never had done this at Chez, but Roxy apparently decided that I had earned it.

It took 15 minutes to retrieve my Maverick from the garage and to pull in front of Chez.

“I told you to be quick about it. I was about to get another ride,” Karen complained as she got in the car.

“Sorry. Where are we going?” I asked.

“Esplanade. That way.” She pointed straight ahead.

We drove out of the bright and lively stretch of Bourbon Street. At the intersection with Esplanade, a park-like divided road marking the boundary of the French Quarter, Karen pointed an index finger to the left. I turned left. We proceeded several blocks.

“Do you usually walk all this way?” I asked.

“I really don’t feel like talking.”

“OK.”

We continued away from the river.

“Stop over here,” she ordered.

She indicated an old frame two story building on an especially dark block. I pulled to the curb.

I was a normal 22-year-old male, so the thought of attempting to sweet-talk Karen into nocturnal activities was not altogether absent from my mind. However, I reckoned the attempt would have long odds of success at the best of times, and, given her current hostile mood, would be futile tonight.

It was time for goodbyes. I considered quipping, “We’ll always have Chez Paris,” but thought better of it.

“Well,” I began, rather less smoothly than Bogart, “I suppose I won’t see you again, but I enjoyed…”

“Coming up?” she interrupted.

The question stumped me. I thought I had misheard it.

Pausing after each word, she said, “Are you coming up? I won’t ask again.”

“Yes.”

We exited the car. I became aware of how alone we were. No pedestrian was in sight and traffic on Esplanade didn’t even rise to the level of light. We walked to the front door of the building, which was barely illuminated by a dim sconce light next to it. The door was off-lavender except where missing chips of paint exposed dark brown. The lock clicked loudly to her turn of the key.

The odor of moldy wood on the first floor was almost overwhelming. We climbed one flight of wooden stairs. The steps creaked under our feet and the banister wobbled under my hand. The coffee-stain wooden door to her apartment was scratched and battered. Karen opened it, and I followed her inside. The apartment was a small and cluttered space. An old misshapen sofa abutted one wall and an unmade mattress lay on the floor. The must was thicker in here than in the air downstairs. The window overlooked the back of the property.

The cause of Karen’s annoyance that night is a mystery to me to this day. Maybe it was a spat with a co-worker. Maybe it was money. Maybe her boyfriend cheated on her. Maybe her girlfriend cheated on her. I don’t know. I was grateful for it, whatever it was.

When morning came, Karen pushed me on the shoulder without looking up. “You can go now,” she said. It wasn’t a suggestion.

“Perhaps tonight…” I began.

“No. You’re going to Texas.”

That wasn’t a suggestion either.

“OK.”

Her face was still buried in the pillow when I left.

I stopped at my hotel long enough to check out, and then picked up Interstate 10. I drove west to Lake Charles and beyond. The statuette from Chez lay on the front seat next to me.

I’ve visited New Orleans more than a half dozen times since then. I never again encountered Karen – or Roxy for that matter. I still could drive to the correct door on Esplanade Avenue, but I’ve never done so. Karen, I suppose, moved on. I hope it was to a brighter future. True to the adage, I've replaced Karen a few times in the years since, with similar (if less rapid) results. I think the last time was, in fact, the last. But this would be a surer thing if I had forgotten the address on Esplanade.