In the Beginning

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So much depends upon that one phrase, doesn’t it? A person’s entire worldview is based on what words follow that phrase. Every person, no matter what we are taught as children or as adults, must eventually come on our own to believe what came next, or else we live without regard to who or what we are as human beings.  Perhaps some people do that without thinking, or even try to live without any meaningful regard to first beginnings.  After all, it is almost football season. What could be more important?

But, no matter how we might try to avoid it, sooner or later, we are faced with deciding — choosing — for ourselves what came next, because that will determine everything that follows.  And, nobody on the face of the earth really can know, definitively, what came next, because we weren’t there at the beginning to witness it.  And nobody, no human being, (apologies to Mr. Hawking) possesses all knowledge and can say definitively that science can teach us everything we need to know about how the universe began. (We still argue about when an individual human life begins.)  We will never, ever be that smart.  So, we must decide at some point, based upon what we are able to learn from the world around us and, more importantly, what we believe about what we learn.

Some believe that God created the heavens and the earth and that they have a purpose and an end.  Some believe that it all came from nothing out of necessity or by chance and that the end is irrelevant and meaningless. So what?  Well, our history as a human race and as human beings is a story.  Our individual stories are inextricably woven into the story of human history and the history of the universe, for that matter.  They are the same story.  As with every story, the end is shaped by the beginning.  And the beginning is what we choose to believe.  As it is with the universe, so it is with us as a race, so it is with us as a nation, and so it is with us as individual people.  It is most important.

Maybe some people don’t care about or lose interest in their stories, or are so harried by strife and turmoil that they can’t see or understand the stories of their lives.  Some decide that their stories are absurd nonsense.  Perhaps it all depends on how they choose to see their beginnings.

The stories of some of us are cut short too soon.  Some end happily.  Some end sadly.  But the greatest tragedy, I think, are those that just end — finis — mainly because the ones telling them never really decided on how they began.

We love stories. We especially love stories that end well. We find ourselves wanting them to go on forever. I think the ability to tell stories is part of what makes us human.  The story we choose to tell is part of what makes us beings, rather than mere living entities.  And every story starts with the phrase: “In the beginning.”

How does your story begin?

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An excerpt from Southern Transit, a Novel

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–Boston, June 2, 1854

They wanted blood, no mistake, and he found it hard to blame them. The crowd’s roar seemed almost inhuman—a howl as unrelenting as a raging storm at sea.

A well-aimed brick proved their resolve. It shattered the last unbroken window on the ground floor of the courthouse and landed nearby, not a foot from where Third Lieutenant Andrew Gunn crouched inside.

After four hours of slinging rocks, bricks, and epithets at the building, the mob outside had not tired, still threatening to storm the doors of the courthouse, as they had the night before. In fact, their number had grown by half since the last time he’d checked.

Mid-afternoon shadows cast a penumbra over the courtyard, shrouding the crowd in partial twilight. He scanned their livid faces, fearing—among other equally horrid things—that he might recognize a neighbor, maybe a friend or two among them.

Not likely, though, was it? Even before the trial, his few real friends could have weathered a squall in a leaky skiff and, if need be, allowed room in the boat for a wet cat. After today, there might be more room for the cat. No thanks to the verdict.

He ducked below the window sill, as the most reliable man among his band of thirty edged up and knelt beside him.

“Kettle’s about to boil over, Mr. Gunn.” Boatswain Thomas Nelson took a swig from a canteen, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and offered to share. “Them people evidently don’t take too kindly to the notion of sending runaway slaves back to their masters. They ain’t likely to just pick up and go home quiet.”

“Now, whatever gave you that idea, Bos’n?” Gunn drank deeply from the canteen. The tepid water tasted of their ship’s dank scuttlebutt, but it was the only refreshment to pass over his tongue since his morning tea.

Nelson screwed up his mouth into a wry smile and shrugged. “Call it a hunch, sir.”

Gunn drank again, too fast, coughed and passed the canteen back. Part of him, perhaps the best part, wanted to be out there among the protesters. But there was nothing for it at the moment.

“Yeah, well, truth be told, I don’t blame them. I’m not real fond of the idea, myself.”

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Hardly a Fortnight

I was minding my own business, which is a good practice in such a hyper-critical society. I recommend it, whenever possible. But, sometimes the business of others intrudes on our own, as happened a little while ago, when I was walking in my neighborhood, listening on earbuds to an audiobook. As I passed a well-kept house on a nearby corner, I smiled at a group of young kids playing in the street. The oldest among them was a girl, maybe eleven, twelve years old. They were tossing a football, and it brought back good memories of a bygone era. 

“Hey mister!” 

I saw one of them waving out of the corner of my eye. I looked in the direction of the voice. It turned out to be the oldest girl, a head taller than the boys with her. She was hailing me. She called again. I took the earbud out of my right ear.

“Yes?” 

The way she was waving, I thought she wanted me to go long — maybe run a corner pattern.

“Do you play Fortnite?” she yelled.

“Excuse me?”

She rolled her eyes. “Geez, mister. For the third time, do you play Fortnite?”

I’m sure I looked puzzled, because I was, not being familiar with any game that takes longer than a rainy afternoon to play. “What is ‘fortnight’?”

She looked at her friends, and then back at me. They laughed. “It’s a game.”

Not at all sure where this was going, nevertheless I bit. “What kind of game?”

“It’s a video game. Where you kill people.”

“Oh, a video game. No, I don’t know about that. How do you kill them?”

“With a gun.”

“Oh. How many people have you killed?”

She shrugged. “Twenty thousand or so. Maybe.”

My eyebrows must have raised a bit. The other kids around her tried to impress me with their own body counts.

“Wow. Is that fun?”

“Yeah. It’s a blast.” The girl tossed the football up in the air and watched it come back down. 

“I see. What do your mom and dad think about that?”

She shrugged again. “They don’t care.”

“Maybe they should.” I was a little anxious to think the parents might be watching me through the windows of the house, wondering why this strange, bearded man was talking to their children. 

Discretion being the better part of valor, and wanting to keep peace with my neighbors, I smiled and waved, then returned to my walk, plugging my earbud back in. I’d probably missed at least a paragraph in the book that I was listening to, subtitled “An Antidote to Chaos.” As it so happened, I had just started Chapter Five, “Don’t Let Your Children Do Anything That Makes You Dislike Them.”

I started the chapter over and turned up the volume, resolved to go home and find out more about this (I hate to use the term) game. Turns out, to my dismay, Fortniteis a very popular survival game in which the player tries to be the last one standing, after killing off everyone else in sight with an assault rifle.

The times they are a-changing, as young Bobby Zimmerman used to sing when I was a kid. (Names change, too, along with the times.) Back then, my friends and I loved to play football anywhere, anytime — in a field, in the street, wherever. My sisters didn’t. In the fifty years since, something remarkable has changed. And it’s not just that today more little girls enjoy tossing a football with friends.

When I was not much older than those kids, my father bought me a gun. It was a .22 rifle. He taught me never to point it at anyone. Never even to pretend to shoot someone else. Never. Because that’s how bad things happen. My friends had guns, too. Their fathers told them the same thing.

We didn’t have video games, though. And we never had school shootings. Never. 

These days, it seems that there’s hardly a fortnight between such awful events as mass shootings in our schools and in our streets. Perhaps it wouldn’t take us that long to figure out why, if we set aside the remote or the mouse and really thought about it.

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The Infringement to Self-Control

On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured. It was the deadliest mass-shooting committed by an individual in the United States, to date. We still don’t know why it happened.

He must have snapped. That must be it. How else can you explain it? How could a single, seemingly normal human being suddenly become a gunman, determined to kill or wound as many other human beings as possible?

Gunman is an interesting word. It would seem to intimate that the gun and the man become one, as though the man loses his human essence, transformed instantly into some other kind or species by using a gun to commit a crime.

Well, if he snapped, so could anyone else who owns a gun, right? It only makes sense. We should do something to prevent that from ever happening again. Pass a law. Why doesn’t somebody pass a law? Do something to stop the gunmen. Stop the apocalypse.

The fact is, no law would have prevented it, and no law will prevent it from happening again. Maybe next time a hundred people will die. Then, that event will be the worst killing spree in American history. And so on. If not with guns, then with a truckload of fertilizer.

America has always had guns. James Madison, the man most scholars consider to be the Father of the Constitution, said that Americans were blessed to have the right to arm themselves, which no other nation on earth afforded its citizens, because they couldn’t be trusted. He also said that the liberty of a free people depends upon the self-control of individual citizens. The more they lose the ability of self-control, the less freedom they have, because more laws are needed to govern them. He was right.

America has always had guns, but we have not always had the level of relentless violence that we see all around us, every day. We can’t turn on the news without seeing it or hearing about it. We have become a society that practices violence, while professing peace. We promote violence as a way to solve problems and to provide escape from them. No more proof is needed than to look objectively at the music, books, movies, TV shows, video games, and even sports that we support with our wallets every day. Even a “good” hockey game must include at least one fight. The fact is, we have come to love violence in this country. No other culture exhibits such a love of violence.

Let’s face it. Anyone can be violent. Nobody is immune. We all have it in us. Road rage is more common and closer to home than we’d like to admit. What is violence, but the loss of self-control in expressing anger or frustration? With the continual increase in violence in America, it’s obvious that we’re losing the ability to control ourselves, to govern ourselves.

That’s scarier than any gun.

Unless we find a remedy for such prolific violence, we will lose our freedoms, little by little. By steady erosion, we’ll eventually lose the Second Amendment. Then, the First. Then, the Fourth, and so on, until we find ourselves in thrall to a despotic government. Our lawmakers and those in power will be pressured to make more and more laws to fix a problem that can’t be fixed by any law.

It is up to us, as individual citizens, to find a remedy to the love of violence in our culture. But, unless we seek such a remedy, we won’t find it. “Seek and ye shall find,” says the book that many profess to love, but hardly anyone ever reads anymore, and even fewer practice its teachings. One might readily and rightly conclude that the increase in the love of violence has come with the decrease in the love of scripture.

One thing is for certain. Neither the culprit nor the remedy will ever be found in a gun cabinet, empty or otherwise.

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Self-Righteousness is No Virtue; Forbearance is No Vice.

So much of the vitriol in public conversation these days stems from self-righteousness, or so it seems to me. My motives are better than yours. My ideas are smarter than yours. My feelings are more caring than yours. My thoughts are more thoughtful than yours. When we think this way, it’s an easy jump to say, “I no longer need to listen to you, anymore.” Unfriend. It’s that simple. Unfriend. Unfriend. Unfriend. Delete. Delete. Delete. Are you sure? Yes. Delete. Now, we’re comfortable among our own. The divisions grow. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Forbearance, on the other hand, allows us to say, instead, “I might learn something from you. Maybe there is another way to look at this. I hadn’t thought of that.” It comes from the humility of understanding that nobody knows everything about anything. Come, let us reason together.

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The Keeper of Light

In the near distance, with the sound of far-off thunder, the breaking surf pounded against the bluffs, the last remnant of a storm at sea. The weather was turning overcast and cool, and the air held a dampness that seeped through the uniforms of the two inspectors. A constant wind chilled them, despite the vigorous walk, which was a little more than two miles from Cape Cod Bay, where they had landed in a longboat from the Revenue Cutter Morris. By the time they had walked to the eastern shore, they were both glad for shelter and a rest.

As the two men approached the lighthouse, the sand plateaued into a heath covered with waving seagrass and occasional pasture thistles, as far as the eye could see in both directions. Patches of purple milkwort and indigo weed crawled over the ground. Not a tree stood in sight.

Ahead lay the wide Atlantic, which took on a violet hue today to match the sky.  In the distance, it turned silver and then dark blue where it met the sky. Several sailing ships were visible on the horizon, alone and separated by vast distances, but sharing the same sea.

Highland Light loomed before them, a tall cylinder of brick, painted white, and surmounted by a black iron cap, which showed streaks of rust down its sides. The keeper’s quarters, a one-story frame house, was attached to the north side. The roof of the house sagged, giving it a ramshackle appearance. The entire structure perched precariously on a sandy clay bank, only forty yards from the precipice, which dropped more than a hundred feet to the beach and roaring surf below. The lunate edge of the bank, worn ragged by torrents of driving rains, had been eaten away in great chunks of clay and sand, which had fallen to the base of the bluff.

The lighthouse keeper came to the door of his dwelling after Lieutenant Andrew Gunn’s first knock, which was brief, but insistent. The keeper was a slight man, with white hair, somewhat balding, and a full white beard. His careworn face grew inquisitive, but he remained silent while Gunn and Boatswain Thomas Nelson introduced themselves and their purpose. The keeper welcomed them in, told them his name was Leroy Fisk, and invited them to have something to eat, since the hour was close to noon. They accepted gratefully, and the keeper guided them through his little house to the kitchen, where he shared with them a small pot of simmering fish chowder, a loaf of bread, and some weak tea. They told each other stories of the sea.

As they finished eating, Fisk lit a briar pipe with a long match, clamped the stem between his teeth, and with the same match lit a small oil lamp, which smoked incessantly. Fisk motioned for them to follow. He escorted them outside and around to the door of the lighthouse.

The interior of the lighthouse measured about five paces in diameter. Just inside the door, a dozen casks of oil were stacked against the circular wall. An open, iron staircase spiraled upward into the dim light above. Cut into the wall about two thirds of the way up, a small, square window provided the only natural light. Above the doorway, Gunn noticed a long, jagged crack in the brickwork that extended from the door jamb at least twenty feet above them. The crack was as wide as his thumb at the bottom.

“Looks like trouble,” he said, pointing to the crack with his chin.

“I t’ink de foundation, she shifts,” replied Fisk, nodding in agreement. “Gets worse by de year. But she’s three-and-a-half feet t’ick at de base. I expect she’ll stand a little longer. Maybe, maybe not. Fellas been here many times before.”

Holding the lantern high, Fisk began climbing the staircase. Gunn noticed that he climbed slowly, with a pronounced limp.

“I am sorry to be so slow, gents. You will, of course, to forgive a frail, old man. I was a whaler when I was your age. Had a temper. Took a wild harpoon to de t’igh from a shipmate. Never been de same since.”

He continued the climb up the winding staircase, which rose some thirty feet above the floor. The smell of oil and lamp smoke hung heavy in the air, increasing as they ascended toward the lamp house. Fisk paused to open the trap door above his head, and disappeared through the opening. The others followed.

The room was clean and orderly, nothing out of place. The light itself, standing eight feet tall in the center of the room, comprised sixteen oil lamps, all facing outward, and arrayed in two horizontal circles, one above the other.

Overhead, soot covered the ceiling of the iron dome, but the lamps themselves shone spotless. From constant polishing, the silvering had worn off the copper reflectors, some of which were warped from the heat. All around the light, the large window panes were clean and clear, but three of them showed full-length cracks, probably due to the settling of the tower. Gunn took notes with a pencil and notebook retrieved from the inside pocket of his frock coat.

Picking up a bell-shaped, brass oil can, Fisk filled the fountain on each lamp in turn, counterclockwise. He talked softly as he worked, speaking of his solemn responsibility to keep mariners safe, having been one himself. That thought led to his complaint about the poor quality of the oil provided by the government. On cold days it would congeal, and he would have to heat it on the coal stove in the kitchen. When the weather turned frigid, the lamps burned too dimly. He worried that on cold, wintry nights, when sailors most needed the light, it did not shine as brightly for them. The oil sometimes even stopped flowing altogether, causing the light to go out. Then, he would have to reheat the oil and refill the lamps. But, that took time, and who knew how many lives had been lost? He shrugged. Eight hundred gallons a year at a dollar a gallon was a lot of money, but spending more to save even one life would be well worth it.

Gunn scribbled in his notebook.

The sky had grown dark. Off in the distance, a curtain of rain streamed down from the clouds to the sea, and Gunn could see both ends of the coming squall. Lightning flashed, and a low peal of thunder echoed across the water. They would likely get wet on the walk back to the bay.

Gunn led the way down the spiral staircase, with the others following. Fisk retrieved his lantern, pulled the trapdoor shut behind them, and they descended together to the base of the lighthouse.

“Had a dog once,” said Fisk on the way down, as he limped one step at a time, holding the lantern high so the others could see. “Followed me up dere one night last winter. Lost his feet and fell. Broke his neck, just like dat.” He snapped his fingers. They reached the bottom of the stairway and stopped to listen to Fisk’s story. “Next day, strangest t’ing. At sunrise, I come up to darken de light, and what do I see? T’ree suns on de horizon.” He held up three gnarled fingers. “T’ree suns. You eber see dat?”

“They call them sun dogs,” said Nelson. “I’ve heard of them, but never seen the like. Except maybe the mornin’ after tyin’ one on.” He grinned.

Fisk’s expression was dead serious. “Solhund, in Norwegian,” said Fisk. “Sun wolves. I do not drink, no more anyway. Strangest t’ing I eber did see. T’ink what you will. I know what I see.” Fisk’s quiet voice lilted up at the end, as he pointed a crooked finger to his eye. “In Norway, Solhund is de sign of de twilight of de gods … de, de end of days, you know, when de world is again a vast ødemarker – a desert, a wasteland.”

With that, he limped his way through the open door, and back outside. The other two looked at each other, not knowing what to make of the old man. Gunn raised an eyebrow, and then pressed on, following Fisk through the doorway. Nelson followed.

They said their goodbyes. Fisk told them he hoped their visit had been worthwhile. Gunn assured him it had, and thanked him for his hospitality. Accompanying them to the door of his cottage, the keeper turned to them.

“Soon,” he said. “Perhaps very soon.”

The keeper shrugged and walked back into his house.

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The Fisherman’s Daughter

A fisherman lived in a cottage by the sea. His daughter was his only companion. She loved him dearly, and cared for him as only a daughter could. One evening, after a hard day of fishing, he decided to go into the village and visit his friends.

“I’ve a mind to down a pint or two,” he told her.

The way into the village ran narrow along the cliffs, high above the thrashing billows of the sea. Knowing her father’s ways, as well as her own, his daughter begged him to stay. She had long feared that one day he would drink too much, as he usually did, stumble along the narrow path, and fall onto the rocky shore below.

“Stay here with me, dear father, and we will read together from the wisdom of Solomon, as we used to do when I was but a girl.”

“Nay, daughter, dear,” he replied. “I will go.”

“Father, do not go. The way is steep and narrow, and fraught with danger.”

“Nay daughter, dear. I know the way well.”

“Father, do not go. You will likely shame yourself yet again before the village.”

“Nay, daughter, dear. For I count the mayor and the magistrate among my friends. They wait for me even now.”

“Father, do not go. You will shame yourself before the church.”

“Nay, daughter, dear. For I count the deacon among my friends. He waits for me even now.”

“Father, do not go. For my sake, if no other.” Tears flooded her eyes and flowed down her face.

“Nay, daughter. I do no harm to myself, to you, nor nobody else. You know my ways. ‘Tis aught but the way of men. I am as I was bairn. My friends are waiting to receive me.”

“Father, do not go. For if you do, I will not be here when you return. I cannot bear any longer to watch you go, and wait here, fearing that one day you will fall into the sea and never return.”

“Your heart has turned cold, my daughter. Just like your mother’s before you. I will go, and let that be the end of it.”

With that, he placed his hat upon his head, took up his walking stick, and out the door and down the crooked path he went.

That night she waited, as she always did, on the cliffs by the sea, holding a lantern high in the darkness, so her father could find his way home. But soon, a terrible storm swept in from the sea. The rain and wind snuffed out the lantern, and she returned to the cottage.

The next day, after the storm cleared, the people of the village found the fisherman’s body at the foot of the cliffs, among the rocks where the sea washed ashore. After a day of mourning, his friends laid him to rest.

“We loved him well, but alas his own daughter loved him not,” they said to each other, their heads wagging with their tongues.

The fisherman’s daughter had vanished and was nowhere to be found, never to be seen again in that part of the land. But every year, early in the morning on that same day, a wreath of wildflowers would appear on the steps to the cottage. And in the midst of the wreath, a spent candle, left burning through the night.

–Dedicated to Anna Grace Michael, and her undying devotion to her craft.

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The Leap

He imagined leaping from the roof of his three story farmhouse. The rocky ledge stood that high over the roiling pool at the foot of the waterfall below him. The other boys, already treading water, his so-called friends, hollered and beckoned, their laughing faces upturned, squinting into the afternoon sun. The rolling thunder of the rushing cascade nearby drowned their voices and all other sound, save the inner voice that taunted him.

Across the river, on a shelf of rock, her body stretched out full length to take the warmth of the sun, the girl with long, dark hair lifted her head from her pillow of crossed hands, and raised her languid eyes to meet his.

One step covered the distance to the edge, and he threw himself into sunlight and space, hurtling downward with the speed of abandon. The pinch in his gut grew as the black water rushed toward him. His feet broke the surface, and he raised his triumphant arms as his body plummeted beneath the cold, clear water. His eyes opened, and he saw near his right shoulder the submerged rock the older boys had warned against.

maxresdefaultBroaching the surface, he shook the hair and water from his eyes. His new brotherhood clamored about him, slapping his back and dunking his head again and again.

He strained against them to look up to the shelf of sunlit rock, but she had turned her drowsy head and nestled it upon her folded hands once more.

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True Progress

old compass and rope on vintage map 1732How often we have been urged toward progress by the politicians, academicians, and artists among us. We must constantly change, or we die, so we are told. Change is progressive, and therefore, desirable. Tradition is regressive, and so passé. In American society today, we are constantly admonished to “move forward” on all matters, social, political, and cultural.

Do we not need tradition, as well as change? And is change necessarily progress? Some of the most beautiful cities of the world, despite modernity, have managed to retain their old-world charm, at least in part.

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be.”

Movement toward the future in haste, without regard to the past, is never progress. Neither is movement in the wrong direction. The renowned writer and professor, C.S. Lewis, put it best, perhaps. “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

More important than progress is the necessity to hold to core values, to be guided by them, or else we lose our way. If change requires us to abandon our core values and cherished traditions that define us as individuals or as a society, then we are lost in a storm of constant change without purpose, the way a ship is lost at sea without a constant star or compapexels-photo-70594ss to point the way to the desired destination.

Wise is the one who stands at a crossroads and considers the way.

 

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Triumph

467493_401955479823982_599886721_oThe ride home from the lake was unusually quiet. He peered in the rearview mirror to see if his talkative grandson, strapped into the seat behind him, had fallen asleep. The boy looked out the window, and then down into his lap. There he held the small bluegill, wrapped in foil, his first catch. A moment of triumph in the life of a six-year-old, perhaps second only to removing the training wheels, at last.

“Everything all right?”

The boy nodded his head, then turned his gaze out the window to view the passing landscape.

“Sure?” He flicked his eyes from the road to the mirror.

“Papa?”

“Yes?”

“The joy of fishing just doesn’t last.” The boy’s shrugged shoulders and splayed, uplifted palms expressed the disquiet reflected in his voice.

He nodded and smiled into the mirror.

“I guess that’s why we will have to go back again.”

“When?”

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Genesis

Memory and imagination collide,

the power of

infinite creativity

unleashed

in an instant.

The ever present

Now of inspiration.

An entire universe begins,

expands in white heat;

cools, coalesces, congeals,

then collapses upon itself.

To begin again.

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The Special Agent

The shrug of his shoulders, the pursed lips, and raised eyebrows as he lights his cigarette speak for Thomas Grady like an expletive.

He slouches in his desk chair, reaching into his back pocket to remove his wallet, easing the effort by rolling onto his right side. With a flip of his wrist, the wallet skids across the desk. It flops open against a pile of unfiled reports, displaying the gold shield marked Special Agent.

Settling back in his chair, Tommy draws on his cigarette, then snatches it between practiced fingers from his lips. His eyes close for a moment, as he sighs the smoke into the stale air above his desk.

“What a bunch of boobs. Bee-oh-oh-ooobs.” He shakes his head and laughs a dry, sardonic cackle. “In all my twenty-three years as a cop, I never seen anything like these guys.”

The cigarette in his right hand streaks the air, trailing smoke like a skywriter in a broad, inclusive arc.

“You know the ship we seized for smuggling — the Gloria Celeste? Well, I just paid a little visit to her down at the Boston Fuel Pier, where those mindless wondahs from Customs are supposed to be guarding the evidence. I walked right up the gangway and boarded the ship. Nobody in sight. Nobody challenged me. Nothin’.”

His hand cleaves the air with a definitive slash. The ash falls in a trajectory from his cigarette to the carpet, tumbling as it disintegrates into fine flakes.

“So, I walked around, checking things out, and you wouldn’t believe what I found. I looked down into the main hold through the cargo hatch, which was open. Guess what I see. You won’t believe this.”

His listener shrugs.

“Tiny marijuana plants.” Tommy peeks through a crevice between his thumb and forefinger. “Coming up through the cracks in the deck planking — about ankle high.” He throws back his head, laughing in a loud staccato. “Perfect little plants. You couldn’t grow them any better in a greenhouse.” He cackles again, plucking a shred of tobacco from his tongue.”That ship is supposed to be United States property now. But it’s a ganja farm. Bee-autiful. What a bunch of boobs. And they call themselves federal agents.”

Rising from his chair with a groan, he shuffles the stack of phone messages on his desk, and stuffs them into the corner of the desk blotter.

“Now that’s irony, ain’t it? Yeah, I know irony when I see it. I went to college too, ya know. Right about the time you were learning how to write your last name.”

He glances over his shoulder, placing the cigarette between his lips, where it bobbles as he talks. A wadded paper missile grazes the top of his head, and he ducks, cackling again.

“Nice shot, college boy.”

The smoke swirls around his head as he saunters over to the door. His corduroy sports jacket hangs on a hook behind the door. He retrieves a crumpled soft-pack of Salems from the inside pocket, and shakes one loose. He lights the cigarette on the butt of the last one, then returns to his desk and snuffs out the butt in the ashtray. His finger probes the pack.

“I’d quit this habit, but then I’d have to call myself a quittah, and that would never do.” Picking up the ashtray from his desk, he transfers it with the pack of cigarettes to the shared computer desk, two strides across the cramped office.

“Gotta type a report to the U.S. Attorney about his new marijuana farm. He might be able to use the plants as additional evidence. Not to mention that it’ll embarrass the hell out of Customs. Oh, well. All in a day’s work.”

He sidles up to the computer desk and pulls out the chair.

“This thing workin’?” He drops into the chair and grunts a puff of smoke. From the breast pocket of his shirt, he produces a pair of reading glasses, placing them low on the bridge of his nose. Peering over the glasses, he laughs and shrugs his shoulders.

“Doctah’s ordahs.”

Tommy turns to his work, tapping the keyboard before him with all the zeal of a concert pianist playing a favorite sonata.

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