Archive for October, 2014

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  • October 24th, 2014

How to Pee Uphill

By Joel M. Vance

Through a fog I thought I heard someone shout “it lives!” accompanied by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.  But maybe I only imagined that.  That’ll happen when you’ve just had your throat cut.  Gradually my vision cleared.  Nurses bustled about but the surgeon was gone.  What was her name again?  Dr. Jacqueline The Ripper?

No, I made that up.   Actually my throat looked fine if you ignored the great gaping gash in my neck and the protruding bolts.  No, I made that up, too.  The operation to Roto Root a clogged carotid artery was a complete success and with the subsequent rush of blood to my brain, I’m so goddam smart that I could ace an algebra course (“Doctor, will I be able to play the piano after the operation?”  “Yes.”  “Great—I never could before.”)

Then they wheeled me to the recovery room (a.k.a. “The Dungeon of Doom”) where I spent the kind of night that causes Stephen King to wake screaming, “Make it go away!”  I believe the bed was a single two by four laid on end, possibly studded with nails.  My head “rested” on a pillow apparently not stuffed with goose down, but with their beaks and feet.

Presently a nurse came in (I think her name tag reads “Igor”) and said she needed to draw blood.  “Are you an artist?” I asked feebly.  Instead of a sketch pad she produced a needle that looked like a rapier.  I didn’t know if we were going to duel or what.  “Just need a little blood,” she said.  The last person to take that much blood was from Transylvania and was snoozing somewhere with a wooden stake through his heart.

I spent two days in the hospital after my left arm began to conduct Stravinsky’s “Fire Dance” without an orchestra.  It was deemed a seizure caused by a stroke which in turn was caused by a clogged carotid.  Simple solution—cut  my throat, hook up a sewer augur and ream out that nasty ol’ plaque.

After the second day in the hospital I was as funky as a feedlot and begged for a shower.  A rather comely nurse came in and said, “I’m here to give you a shower.  While this is the stuff of teenage fantasy, it never happened then and I would just as soon it didn’t happen now.  However I assumed she would hand me a bar of soap and a towel and say, “I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

Alas, as the poets say, it was not to be.  She ripped off the hospital gown (mine, not hers) and I tried to pretend I was in a distant galaxy, far, far away.  “Now,” she said briskly, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”   And she laid on more hands than a televangelist with palsy.  I don’t know if she had healing powers or not, but she certainly revived me.  It was at moment a lifetime of modesty vanished and I abandoned myself to whatever indecencies the medical profession could throw at me.

After two peeliminary days of being poked, prodded, scanned and blooded it was determined that I needed my throat cut.  People have been telling me that for years, but none of them were doctors.  Thus it was that I saw a figure looming over me, name  tag reading, “Frankenstein, MD (maybe I imagined  that) and the next thing I knew I heard that shout “It lives!” and glimpsed grotesque creatures hobbling around the room, carrying what appeared to be human brains and body parts (maybe I imagined that too—I was on drugs at the time).

“Well, we’ll just get you back to the recovery room for a restful night’s sleep and then you can go home tomorrow,” said the nurse whose name I think was Frau Blŭcher (somewhere a horse whinnied in panic).  Now my concept of a recovery room is a peaceful place with a soft bed, Willie Nelson piped in, nonstop sports on hi-def television, the latest John Sanford mystery to read and nurses obviously recruited from the Playboy mansion.

Instead what I got was a reprise from my college dorm room which had been patterned on a maximum security prison cell.  Although “rack” was what I thought of when I envisioned the ideal nurse, five minutes in that bed and my mind was aswirl with thoughts of medieval torture devices.  Frau Blṻcher (there‘s that horse again), explained that she needed to “hook me up” and I suspected that didn’t mean she was setting me up with the Playmate of the Month.

As deftly as Erroll Flynn sword fighting as “Captain Blood” in an old pirate movie, she stabbed my right arm with a IV rapier thrust then nailed me with a lunge and plunge to the left arm to connect a heart monitor.  So I was effectively chained to the bed.

And it wasn’t too long until the combination of IV fluids and water from a sippy cup inevitably trickled downstream in my system, leading to the inevitable.  “I gotta pee,” I informed the Frau , who seemed to be searching for a fresh spot to puncture.

She handed me an implement from her arsenal of sado-machochistic toys, mumbling “Ve haf vays to make you pee.”  I don’t know what they call that pee bottle, but what I called it couldn’t be repeated in a Marine Corps barracks.

Perhaps there are human males anatomically designed to use these bottles from the prone position but I don’t want to know them.  Male babies sometimes imitate Mt. Vesuvius when you’re changing them.  I needed motorman’s friend, a tube leading downhill.  Instead I was asked to defy gravity which would earn me a Nobel Prize for science if I could do it in a lab but which only earned me a soggy hospital gown and a glare from Frau Blŭcher.  Freshly gowned I resolved to just hold it until I was discharged in 24 hours, hoping my discharge would be on paper and not all over my bed.

I lay on my bed of nails hoping for the oblivion of sleep and that my dreams would not feature Niagara Falls.  But apparently the hospital staff was re-enacting the Battle of the Bulge immediately outside my door, either that or an Arkansas hog calling contest.  My bladder continued to expand like the Hindenburg blimp (and you know what happened to it).

Finally in the wee wee small hours I reached the point where I cried “ Oh, the humanity!” and rang for help.  A comely young lass came in and I whined and the next thing I knew we were in a scene from “Debbie Does Urinalysis.”

Well, I’m out of the hospital, pretty much recovered, and completely devoid of modesty.  I proved that water does not run uphill and neither does pee.  I discovered that hands on treatment had more meaning than I ever suspected.

All in all a highly educational experience…..

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  • Blog
  • October 6th, 2014

The Girl and the Duck Marsh


By Joel M. Vance

The pre-dawn hush was as intense as it gets this side of the grave.  Summer whippoorwills had fled to wherever they go when winter bites and the stridulations of the hot weather insects were long quieted by frost.  There was a rime of ice on the grass when I let Meg out to drain before we got in the battered old pickup and headed for our duck marsh.

Meg, of course, whirled around the yard with the happy abandon of a Labrador who knew the meaning of a gun case and a master shrouded in camouflage.  It could only mean a duck hunting trip and that was the end-all and be-all for a young Lab.  She squatted, finishing her obligatory pre-hunt preparations, and bounced at the tailgate of the truck as if stuffed with a huge canine Slinky.

“Cool it, lady,” I said, my voice loud in the cathedral hush.  “You’ll get your chance.”  Or so I hoped.   The marsh was a sometime thing.  Ducks either were there or not, but it was only five miles from the house.  Some mornings there would be two or three flights of ducks, mostly gadwalls, the occasional squadron of mallards and, once, an incautious bufflehead which, when I applied my favorite recipe to it, tasted like last week’s garbage.

The truck started instantly as it always did.  Twenty years old, rusty as an abandoned water bucket, but with an engine as reliable as the dawn.  Which was getting closer, I reminded myself.  Wouldn’t do to get caught putting out decoys when shooting time arrived, along with a strafing run by a half-dozen mallards.

It was cold, but my insulated waders and Duck Commander parka would keep heat in and cold out.  Still, it seemed uncommonly cold when I stopped on the road, a hundred yards away from the wetland hole where I had a rude willow blind.  I shivered and thought inevitably someone walking over your grave?  Now, I’m not given to superstition or overactive imagination, and I know full well that a duck hunter armed with an old long- barreled Model 12 stuffed with high brass bismuth shotshells is more dangerous than anything he is likely to meet…but here I was all alone except for Meg and for some reason I was jittery.

The rest of the world still slept while I prowled through the high weeds to my blind.  Meg, a black dog in a black night, was apparent only by the noise she made crashing through the drying horseweeds.  Her imagination certainly wasn’t working overtime or if it was, it was filled with the vision of living ducks, not specters of the unknown.

I unlimbered my decoy sack behind the screen of willows that served as a blind, and shrugged the ache out of my shoulders.  The decoys clacked together as I dragged them out of the sack and there was the inevitable tangle of anchor lines, advertised as “no tangle.”  I pitched the decoys into the gray-lit water in front of the blind, trying for a hook-shaped pattern within which incoming ducks would land.  A couple splashed upside-down and another had an anchor line draped around its neck.  I waded out and straightened the errant decoys and repositioned a few until I was satisfied.

Half an hour until legal shooting.  Time to sit on my padded bucket and philosophize….or more probably fall asleep.  Which I did, an uneasy doze that was never quite unconscious, yet not awake either.  I thought I was dreaming when I heard faint sounds somewhere behind me and jerked awake, like a cat ripped out of a nap by the sound of prey.

I glanced at my watch and, sure enough, I had overslept legal shooting time by five minutes.  There was a gust of wings overhead and a flock of teal banked tightly in front of the blind, like a swarm of bees, and came directly at me, settling toward the decoys.  Jolted by adrenaline but still bleary-eyed, I grabbed the old Model 12 and thumbed off the safety, rose and picked out a bird, even as the flock went from horizontal to vertical climb in an eyeblink.  I shot and my chosen duck stilled and dropped dead at the edge of the decoys.  I was aware of Meg splashing into the water for the retrieve even as I shucked the hull out and settled on a second duck.

But my second shot was beneath the frantically climbing bird and by the time I’d jacked a third shell into the chamber the birds were out of range and Meg was swimming back with my duck in her mouth.

It was then, in the sudden and dramatic quiet after the shot-storm, that I heard someone exhale so close behind me that I jumped in shock.  Meg five feet in front of me, who always waits for me to take a retrieve from her mouth, uncharacteristically spit the duck out and growled, a low rumble that I’d never heard before.  The hair on her back was as stiff as a bristle brush.  I whirled around and saw a woman no more than 10 feet behind me.  Standing in the weeds, she was visible only from the waist up.  She appeared to be wearing some sort of white smock which seemed to shimmer as if wind-blown, although there was no breeze in the dawn still.

“Geez!” I exclaimed.  “Where in hell did you come from?”  She looked to the right and left and, it appeared to me, right through me.  She didn’t answer.  “I said what are you doing here?”  Finally she looked at me and her reply was as whispery as the sound of dead autumn leaves showering down.

“I’m looking for him,” she said.

“For who?”  Whom, whatever—my good grammar tends to desert me when I haven’t shaved and I’ve been up since 5:30 a.m. and I’m freaked out by a weird woman where no woman, weird or otherwise, should be.

“For him,” she said again.  “He was here.”  She seemed to be half in a morning mist, although it may have been my bleary eyes.

“Look, lady, there’s nobody here but you and me and I’m not him, whoever he is.  I’m trying to duck hunt.”  Rude, yes, but I didn’t ask her to come boppin’ in on me just when the hunting had gotten good.  And how had she come up without spooking the ducks?   How had she not heard the shooting, seen the duck fall, seen me?

“He was here….” She said once again and her voice seemed both distant and ineffably sad.  She turned and began to move away from me.  Meg, at my side, growled again a primitive sound unlike anything the big hug dog ever had made before.  I looked down at her and put my hand on her head.  And when I looked up the woman had vanished.  Totally, completely vanished.  No weeds waved where she had passed, no flash of white smock, nothing.  She was gone as completely as if she’d never been and if it hadn’t been for Meg’s obvious and uncharacteristic reaction, I would have doubted my senses, laid it to too little sleep or maybe incipient psychosis.

Meg’s back fur flattened and she looked up at me, her tail waving, the normal lovable big lunk she always was.  I don’t mind saying that my knees got weak and my mouth dried.  I was, not to put too fine a point on it, scared witless.  It was not a choice to gather my decoys as hastily as possible and get the hell out of there, feeling all the way back to the truck as if something dreadful were sneaking up behind me.

I managed to resist my irresistible lust for duck hunting for five days, but the season was fleeting past and Meg looked at me every time I moved, alert for the first sign that we were going hunting.  The idea of returning to the spooky marsh gave me a chill that had nothing to do with ambient temperature.  “You’re acting like a little kid at a scary movie,” I admonished myself and Meg waved a tail in agreement.  “Okay, girl, tomorrow we go.”

And we did—the familiar routine: Dress warmly, although never warmly enough, gather shotgun, shells, decoy bag, hang a couple of mallard calls around my neck, drain the dog and load her in the battered pickup and we were off.  I parked along the road, a hundred yards from the pothole.  It was a reprise of the earlier morning.  Meg lolloped through the weeds, a black dog in a black night.  I underhanded my decoys into a rough pattern, then waded to make it just right.  Settled onto my bucket seat and hunched into the parka, enjoying the warmth stored there before it leached out in the icy dawn.

She was there—I knew it even before I saw her.  The hair on my neck bristled and Meg tensed and rumbled that atavistic growl that devolved from a fearsome and dark canid history.  I really didn’t want to turn around, but I also didn’t want something frightening and unknown behind me, perhaps coming closer and closer.  So I whirled and there she was, white garment and pale face, again shimmering slightly like an image from a very early motion picture.  I swallowed.

This time she looked directly at me.  “Where is he?” she asked, her voice as hollow as if she were speaking in a cavern.  “Where did he go?”

“Who?” I asked, my voice sounding remarkably like Mickey Mouse.  “Where do you come from?”  She didn’t answer, but gestured toward the bluff on the other side of the road.  And this time I did see her leave….if you can call a winking out, like extinguishing a light bulb a “leaving.”  This time there could be no doubt in my mind—this was a real, true ghost, an apparition so desperately longed for by the television ghost hunters, but so desperately not longed for by a petrified duck hunter.

“Screw this!” I exclaimed.  If I’d had my druthers at the moment, I would have been in bed, the covers pulled over my head like a little kid sure there was a monster in the closet.  Only the kid’s phantom was imaginary; mine was real.

Once I had my gear and dog loaded in the pickup it was full light and with daylight my fear lessened.  I skinned out of my waders and put on a pair of boots.  The parka came off—it was warm enough for just a sweatshirt.  I debated for a while, remembering the woman’s gesture toward the bluff.  I opened the Porta Pet door and said, “Come on, Fatso, let’s go for a hike.”  There was a trail up the hill, overgrown and disused for years.

It wound through a thicket of brush and second growth oaks and then I came into a clearing.  There was a very old, tilting and rusty wrought-iron fence around what I immediately identified as a graveyard.  It was one of many such forgotten burial sites scattered through the countryside and not associated with a church.  Some were family plots, others long-abandoned community plots.  None of the few stones were new; some were canted, a couple completely fallen over.  No one had tended this burial ground for a long time.  It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that my phantom woman might be in residence here.  But I didn’t feel threatened now in the bright sunlight.  The glade was peacefully silent, sun slanting through the trees.  A male cardinal flickered past and landed on a tombstone, flipping its tail.  I heard the far-off sound of a truck downshifting for a hill.  All the normal sounds of a normal early morning.

I went through the half-open gate and prowled among the tombstones, not knowing who or what I was looking for.  I discounted all the male names and finally spotted one stone that seemed somewhat newer than the others.  “Laura Jennings March 23, 1924- July 14, 1944.  Go With God.”  Maybe she was my spectral visitor.  I decided some research was in order.  I dug out a notepad and jotted down the birth and death dates and her name.

Meg was upset when I put her in the outdoor kennel where she rarely stayed—after all, a loyal hunting buddy’s place was in the house, not in a (disgusted sigh) dog kennel.  “Too bad, Fatso, but I have some city stuff to do and they don’t welcome dogs, even dogs who don’t realize they’re dogs.”

The State Historical Society maintains a microfilm file of nearly every newspaper in the state, dating back a century or more.  My local paper would be there, along with the birth and death notices that are among the staples of small town newspapers.  I found the film roll for 1944 and threaded it onto the reader.  I scrolled through the first several months until I came to July and then slowed down and began to read page by page.

The headline jolted me like a physical blow: “Local Couple Murdered” in 48 point type.  I read on:

A young couple was shot to death last night on Baring Road and police are seeking the girl’s former boyfriend, Jeffrey Allen. 

Laura Jennings, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Loyal Jennings of this city, and Ryan Walters, son of Mrs. Ella Walters and the late Todd Walters of Oklahoma City, were found in Ryan Walters automobile shot to death this morning by Loyal Jennings who had become concerned when his daughter didn’t return from a movie date last night.

According to friends, Jeffrey Allen, who had dated Miss Jennings for several years, was distraught when the couple recently broke up and had threatened to harm her.” 

There was more, but it took scrolling ahead to discover that the “alleged” killer of the two had shot himself to death a few miles away shortly after the double slaying.  The male victim’s body was released to his mother in Oklahoma and buried there, while Laura was buried in the Baring Road cemetery—the abandoned one where I’d discovered her grave.

So the young couple was separated by death and by 500 miles or more and again my Sherlock Holmes deductive powers kicked in and I theorized my ghost didn’t know what had happened to her lover.  Or to her either, for that matter.  Maybe long-distance communication isn’t part of the afterlife.  So now I was faced with a dilemma.  I knew who she was looking for and what had happened to him but did I really want to go back into that haunted marsh and, scared mindless, give her the bad news.  For all I knew she’d fly into some sort of spectral rage and….well, I just didn’t want to think about it.

On the other hand, was it right to let her wander through eternity looking for a lover she never would find?   I thought back to a couple of old girl friends I’d long ago lost touch with and considered how pitifully my occasional regrets stacked up against the overwhelming loss suffered by Laura Jennings.  Besides that the duck season was winding down and Meg looked at me with sad reproach every morning that we didn’t go.  “Okay, Fatso,” I said.  “If you promise to protect me we’ll go.”  She whacked her tail against the floor.

The next morning was even more glowery than the others, which had promised sunshine and warming temperatures.  But this morning held more than a hint of winter coming.  There was a mist just shy of snow and in fact I saw a few flakes in the dim beam of my flashlight.  A sharp wind tried to cut through the bulky insulation of the Duck Commander parka and I knew it would before I gave it up and headed for the warmth of home.

My decoys bobbed realistically in a slight chop created by the wind and I blew a feeding chuckle in my favorite call, more to loosen my face than in hopes of attracting ducks.  Dawn was almost a joke—it was so gloomy that the transition from night to day was more a case of less night, not more day.  Four mallards swept past, caught in the wind, banked into it and landed far out in the pond, well out of shooting range.  Perhaps they would swim to the decoys, but probably not.  I suspected they had been looking at decoy spreads for a thousand miles, probably dodging shot, and they were at the doctoral stage in the college of survival.

The mist had turned to a light snowfall now, tiny spitting flakes of ice that cut like a wood rasp.  I huddled into the parka and didn’t see the girl until I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye.  Even though I expected her I startled in fright.  She was in the same white tunic or smock as always, but now she stood clear of the weeds which had hidden her lower body and I was horrified to see that she was drenched in blood from the waist down.  It had clotted and matted and soaked her and there was no way she could survive a wound like that.

But, of course, she had not.

She looked directly at me and her voice was as whispery as the wings of the passing ducks had been.  “Have you seen him?” she asked.  “Do you know where he is?”

I had to clear my throat before I answered.  “I’m sorry,” I said.  “But he is dead.  He was killed at the same time you were.  He is buried in Oklahoma.  You should go to wherever you need to go.  You’re free….but I’m so sorry for you.”

I could see the truth of what I told her sink in and her face crumpled and she moaned like Meg does when I hold her while the vet gives her injections.  Maybe it took a living person telling Laura Jennings the dreadful news to confirm the reality of her death and the loss of her lover. Maybe she had not realized that she was dead and her lover gone forever, the two of them parted for eternity.  Maybe after so many years of hope and search in time suspended she accepted her grim fate and that of her lover.  She flung her hands in a defensive gesture and her face reflected terror as if she were reliving the moment of her death.  Then she seemed to shrink and as she began to vanish, she wailed a desolate sound that was caught and become part of the sleety wind.  She faded and then there was only the eddying snow.

Could she find her way to her dead lover?  Was there some spectral transportation system, a grisly Greyhound, that would reunite the young couple?  Was there an alternate universe where bad things didn’t happen?  I’d never know but I felt I would never see her again.  My duck marsh was mine again, free from inconvenient distractions like blood-soaked ghosts.

I had roast duck for dinner that night.  The four mallards indeed had swum into my decoys and a fat drake lagged just far enough behind when they flushed that I dropped him.  Meg proudly retrieved it and all was as it always had been.

After a late drink and a session on the radio with the Cleveland Orchestra and Mr. Beethoven’s eighth symphony, I crawled into bed.  Meg settled down beside the bed and we both fell almost instantly asleep.  I can’t speak for Meg’s dreams (which probably involved swimming after elusive crippled ducks), but I had none.

It was Meg’s rumbling growl that woke me.  The room was icy as if I’d raised the window all the way, although I hadn’t.  I dropped my hand onto Meg’s back and her neck fur was stiff and I felt the vibration of that primitive snarl through her body.  She was staring at the far wall where Laura Jennings stood in her bloody clothing.

It’s one thing to encounter a ghost in the outdoors; quite another to have one in your bedroom.  I knew the meaning of “paralyzed by fear.”   I simply could not move.  Laura glided across the room, coming closer and closer.  I lay on my back, rigid with terror.  The covers moved on their own and I felt the other side of the bed sag as she lay down beside me.

With a scream of sheer terror I kicked at the covers and rolled out of bed, on top of Meg who yelped and surged up from the floor.  Together we sprinted to the front room and I slammed the bedroom door behind us.

I’ve been writing this ever since.  It’s close to dawn now.   Every so often the bedroom doorknob rattles.  Maybe it’s the wind, but I don’t think so.  I think that Laura, having lost one boyfriend for eternity, believes she has found another one and wants a lover’s embrace.

Meg bumped her way through the pet door some time ago and she hasn’t come back.  I’m all alone and every few seconds I check the bedroom door.  I just saw the knob start to turn……..



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