Featured

The greatest invention ever

If you’re like me, the first thing you do when you see an article titled The Best of… or The Top Ten… is to begin formulating a counterargument before reading the first sentence. You scour your mind for overlooked examples that render the list null and void, thus demonstrating the author’s naivete and, at the same time, your intellectual superiority. What I’m getting at is that you’re probably right, and what I’m about to say is wrong. Humor me. Stick around for the second paragraph.


What is the greatest invention ever? Story. Stories have been with us from the dawn of humanity, according to those experts who study such things as the dawn of humanity. They are central to every form of entertainment (even video games that don’t have a story line are destined to flop). But story goes beyond entertainment: it is the most effective form of communication and persuasion. And story is central to how we understand events and view our world. Human brains run on story — brains evolved to do just that. Story is both the fuel and the lubricant for the human cortex. Not a minute of our waking time goes by without our minds being somehow occupied in the workings of story. There’s a reprieve in certain stages of slumber, but when we enter REM sleep, the story machinations begin anew.


Some of us don’t need to be told about the grip stories have on our lives. We can’t walk past a bookstore without being drawn inside. Despite the fact we already have six books in a queue at home, we make a purchase, fearing we might not find that particular text again or forget its title. Sometimes, we buy three or four books simultaneously because there is a synergy between them — they complete a unified whole which would be lost if each book were purchased individually.


If you recognize the power of story, and in particular, the magic of reading and the joy and torment of writing, I invite you to read my blog. I’m an avid reader and the author of four novels to date. My goal is to share observations about books I read and the craft of writing.
Welcome to my blog.

Harmless Beasts

a short story by Peter Palmieri

(This story was previously published in The Starship Logs Volume 2: Creatures by Telltale Press – 2020)

“Don’t eat too fast,” Mrs. Miller said as she popped the lid off the chicken-and-gravy jar, one of those with a wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked infant on its label. “You’ll get a tummy ache if you do.” The kitten mewed and nearly tripped her up as she tried to navigate her way across the front porch to a corner where a blue and white ceramic soup bowl lay toppled upside down on the cedar-planked deck.

The kitten erupted in a frenzy of purring and hissing while Mrs. Miller spooned the baby food into the bowl and, when finally given the chance, the cat attacked its breakfast with leonine ferocity. Mrs. Miller straightened, took a step back to admire her new pet with motherly pride. That’s when she heard that infernal sound.

Ka-click — ka-click — ka-click; the sound growing louder, repeating at regular intervals, like the monotone call of a menacing metallic insect.

She knew it was wrong, that it went against her strong Christian values, but every time she heard that noise it rubbed her the wrong way. It was so unnatural. She looked up the lane, over the growth of plum rhododendrons, and there he was: the neighbor’s blind boy, strolling up the sidewalk, his red-tipped walking cane perched on his shoulder giving him the air of a tiny Fred Astaire ready to break out in a dance number. He kept clicking that odious contraption with his chubby hand, tilting his head one way, then the other as he made his way closer. His parents, Josh and Rosalie Hastings, had explained it to her once. The boy had learned to use sound to see his way around, like some hideous bat maneuvering in a pitch black cave. If only the boy could be enticed to wear darkly tinted glasses, as proper blind children did, she wouldn’t have to see those tiny roving eyes circling round and round as if always zeroing in for a target.

“Good morning, Andy,” Mrs. Miller cried out.

“Good morning, Mrs. Miller.”

“Nice day for a walk.”

“A bit too bright, I think. I can’t be sure by the smell of it.”

Strange lad. Never made much sense. “I have a new friend,” she said. A feral kitten came and slept on my front porch last night. The little guy is starved.”

“Yeah, I know. He’s black with lemon eyes and has a small nick in his right ear.”

Mrs. Miller looked at the kitten, as if for confirmation. “How did you know that?”

“I dreamed of him last night.”

She stopped to consider this. As far as she knew, Andy had been blind from birth. She had never wondered whether blind people had the ability to dream.

“Well, maybe you can come up with a name for my new friend.”

The boy paused. “How about…  Beelzebub?”

The empty jar of baby food fell out of Mrs. Miller’s hands and clunked onto the porch, leaving a diamond-shaped dent in one of the recently stained wooden boards.

“I wouldn’t get too attached,” Andy said. “He’ll be dead soon.”

#

“So they’re hallucinations?” Josh Hastings said.

“A special type of hallucination, particular to individuals who are visually impaired,” Dr. Whittington said. “It’s called Charles Bonnet syndrome. It occurs more commonly in the elderly, but there are case reports of afflicted children.”

“Is it serious?” Rosalie Hastings asked.

“Are the visions distressing in any way?” Dr. Whittington said.

Josh Hastings shook his head. “They don’t seem to bother him. If anything, they puzzle him. They puzzle me. He says he sees sounds and smells. Maple syrup over melted butter evoked the image of a flock of birds.”

“Seagulls,” Rosalie corrected her husband.

The doctor sat back in his chair. “Synesthesia,” he said. “The bleeding of one sense modality into another.”

“Is that common?” Josh Hastings said.

“It’s not uncommon.” The use of the double negative was always a good hedge in these types of conversation. “Maybe this is a good time to bring him in so I can examine him.”

The boy remained cooperative throughout the neurologic exam and seemed unruffled by the doctor’s queries. He answered in a polite tone, seemingly enjoying the attention. The doctor seemed to be enjoying the exchange as well

Dr. Whittington turned to Josh and said, “I understand you’re a geologist.”

Josh said, “A soil scientist. My interest is saprophytes.”

“Bugs that grow on decaying material,” Dr. Whittington said.

“Though most of my time nowadays is spent looking at a single critter: Acanthamoeba Castelanii.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Dr. Whittington said. “I must have been absent that day in medical school.” The doctor chuckled.

“Okay,” Andy said. “That just jarred something in my brain.”

“What do you mean?” his father asked.

“The doctor’s laugh; it made me see something,” Andy said.

“Really. What did you see?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“I saw a boy with red hair and lots of freckles on his nose, pulling a white hen in a red Radio Flyer wagon.”

Josh Hastings turned to Dr. Whittington with a see-what-I-mean grin and shrugged. The doctor turned pale.

“What color is the boy’s shirt?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“It’s blue, with a red ‘S’ on the chest,” Andy said. “It’s got a small red cape sewn into the shoulders.”

“Like a Superman costume?” Josh Hastings said.

Dr. Whittington nodded. He seemed lost in thought. The doctor instructed the parents to dress the boy, to make a follow-up appointment in two weeks and to let him know if there were any changes in the interim.

“Dr. Whittington,” Andy said as he was putting his t-shirt on. “Don’t drive home by the park today.”

    “I’m sorry?”

“Take another route.”

Dr. Whittington exited the exam room, retreated to his private office, and slumped into his padded desk chair. He kneaded his temple with his thumb and glanced across his desk to the framed picture of his wife embracing a boy with a smile so wide his eyes were tiny slits, his mop of red hair slicked and parted down the side for the portrait. How could Andy have known about Patrick? How could he have known about that day at the farm?

Dr. Whittington was still engrossed in thought on his drive home, coasting past Rosehaven Drive, approaching Winterfield Park when a soccer ball bounced across the street, twenty yards ahead. He followed the ball with his gaze, transfixed. Then he remembered Andy’s warning: “Don’t drive home by the park. Take another route.” He slammed on the brakes even before he caught sight of the boy in the bright green soccer jersey sprinting in the street right in front of his car.

#

Saturday morning, Rosalie Hastings was flipping pancakes while Andy drank chocolate milk through a straw, sitting on a barstool at the kitchen’s marble island, still in his jammies. Josh Hastings was slumped on a tan leather sofa in the family nook just past the kitchen watching Tottingham take on his beloved Chelsea.

“Mom, what do you make of the numbers thirteen and seventeen?” Andy said, out of the blue.

Rosalie smiled. “They’re both prime numbers.”

Andy giggled. “Correct.”

“Both are thought to connote bad luck in certain cultures.”

“Good one. Go on.”

“Hmm. I’m getting the feeling that you’re driving at something in particular.” Rosalie said. “Can you give me a hint?”

Andy flashed a broad grin. “Okay, say you have two periodic events, one that happens every thirteen years, the other, every seventeen years, how often will the two events coincide?”

Rosalie lifted a pancake from the skillet and plopped it on a plate. She said, “I see someone’s been reading about cicadas.”

Andy laughed and clapped his hands. “You got it mom — periodic cicadas, or Magicicadas if you like.”

“Because they’re magic?” Rosalie said.

“Come on, mom. That’s just their name. The idea is that different broods have different periods of dormancy, so they don’t all emerge at the same time. And the prime number periodicity is the most efficient way to ensure that they won’t emerge the same year as another brood. It makes them mathematically elusive to predators that have much shorter life cycles.”

“Wonderful,” Rosalie said. “Eat your pancake before it gets cold.”

“But you didn’t answer the key question. If one event takes place every thirteen years, and the other every seventeen years, every how many years do the two events coincide?”

“Every two-hundred and twenty-one years,” Rosalie said.

“Wow, mom. You still know your maths.”

He said “maths,” the British way. The boy was a huge fan of Bertrand Russell after all, just as she had been as a teenager. Rosalie poured maple syrup on Andy’s pancake. She had never regretted leaving graduate school to take care of Andy, still didn’t. “Eat your pancake, honey.”

The boy shoved a big chunk of pancake in his mouth. “And guess what year is year two-hundred and twenty-one for two of these broods?”

“Let me see, this year?” Rosalie said.

“Bingo.”

“I thought that buzzing was getting pretty loud at night.”

“Just think; millions of cicadas will be burrowing out of the ground in the next few weeks.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” Rosalie said. “They’re harmless beasts.”

“I know. They don’t have mandibles like locusts. Still, the sheer number… it’s a little unnerving.

“Let me make you another pancake,” Rosalie said. “You want more milk?”

“Penalty kick!” Andy shouted.

“How’s that?” Rosalie said.

“Penalty for Tottenham,” Andy said.

From the sofa, Josh glanced at his son a moment before returning his focus to the television screen. “No, Andy. Chelsea has the ball in their own half, completely in control.”

“Penalty kick!”

“Anything you say, son,” Josh said, without taking his eyes off the TV screen.

For a moment, no one spoke. The voice of the English sports announcer filled the kitchen as Andy wolfed down another big bite of pancake. Rosalie poured a circle of batter on the skillet. On the sofa, Josh started squirming. He scooted his body forward until he was sitting on the edge of his seat.

“Now that’s some sloppy passing by the Chelsea defense,” the TV announcer said, “They best be careful… Will you look at that! Chelsea’s lost the ball behind the midfield line! Chelsea on their heels now… Goodness! What a reckless challenge that was by the Chelsea defender and there’s no doubt in the referee’s mind this time: penalty awarded to Tottenham!”

Josh Hastings craned his neck to look at his son. Rosalie was also staring at the boy, standing motionless with a puzzled expression, the pancake spatula hanging from her limp hand. Andy said nothing, took a long sip of chocolate milk.

The doorbell rang.

Josh slowly got to his feet. “I got it,” he said. He walked to the front door, wondering how Andy could have guessed what was about to happen in a soccer game that was playing live.

The bell chimed again before he had a chance to open the door. Standing outside was their neighbor, Mrs. Miller, sobbing. She gritted her teeth. “Where is he?” she shouted.

“Mrs. Miller…”

“Where is he?”

“Who?”

“Who else? That… child of yours.”

“Is something the matter?” Josh asked.

“I know he did it!”

“Did what?”

“Killed my kitty.” She placed her hand on the door jamb to support her weight, her body quivering as she started sobbing again.

Rosalie came up behind Josh, placed a hand on his shoulder. “Mrs. Miller?” she said. “Would you like to come in?”

“No, I don’t want to come in. I want that boy to come here and tell me why…” she had to catch her breath, “… why he had to do such a cruel thing.”

“Mrs. Miller,” Josh said, “I’m sure there’s been some misunderstanding.”

“He said he was going to kill him. I heard him say it. And now the cat is dead.”

“I didn’t say I was going to kill the cat.” Andy had come in the vestibule. “I only said your cat was going to die soon. I didn’t kill your cat, Mrs. Miller.”

“If you didn’t do it, how could you possibly know?” Mrs. Miller shouted.

“When did it happen?” Josh asked.

“I found his little body this morning.”

“I’m so sorry about your cat,” Rosalie said. “But we were in Charlotte for medical appointments all day yesterday, got back late last night. And Andy hasn’t gone out at all this morning. He just got out of bed. Look, he’s still in his pajamas.”

“But he knew!” Mrs. Miller said.

Josh stepped out on the front porch. “Let me walk you home, Mrs. Miller. You can tell me more.” He shut the door behind him.

Rosalie looked down at her son. As if sensing her gaze, he said, “It was horrible, mom. The little kitten was strangled, hung from a branch of the sycamore in her back yard.”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw it in a dream.”

#

Sunday morning, Andy told his parents he had dreamed that it was snowing in Gastonia.

“Snow in North Carolina? In May?” Josh Hastings said. “I’d say the odds are very much against that. If anything, summer’s come early this year.”

“I saw it. The sun was out, but it was snowing, a real fine snow, like powdered sugar, and the streets were full of people, looking at the sky, taking pictures.”

“Just a dream,” Rosalie said.

That evening, Andy accompanied his mother to pick up take-out pizza.  Josh was watching the news, drinking beer from a tall-neck bottle.

“And now,” the dapper news anchor for WBTV-Charlotte said with a smile, “we turn to our very own Molly Devin who ventured to Gastonia this afternoon for a story that seems to come right out of a Stephen King novel.”

The shot cut to a perky brunette with smooth chestnut hair and beaming eyes. “That’s right Mike. We’re talking zombie insects and flesh-eating fungus. Cicadas are no strangers to Gaston County, in fact, they’re a regular occurrence here in the late spring. But this year the tiny critters will burrow out of the soil in record numbers, and some locals have noticed something very peculiar about some of these insects.”

A taped man-on-the-street interview started playing, featuring a gray-haired biker with gaunt cheeks and a thin goatee, wearing an opened black leather vest over a Jack Daniels t-shirt. “I’m walking my dog, you see, and I feel this thing popping right in my hair, and I’m like, ‘What was that?’  So I reach up and swat at the thing, but the little bugger’s stuck. So I have to, you know, yank it out. So I grab it with my fingers like this,” he paused to demonstrate the act of plucking something from the back of his head, “And I take a good look at it and well, I ain’t never seen nothing like it, but it’s a critter… with the whole back half of him missing. And he’s still alive, flapping his little wings like a son-of-a-gun.”

“It was a cicada?” Molly Devin’s voice could be heard off camera.

“Yeah, it was a cicada,” the man said. “At least a half a one!” The man laughed a wheezy laugh, exposing an incomplete set of crooked teeth.

The shot switched again, to a laboratory of some sort where a woman in a white coat was seated at a lab bench, peering in the eyepieces of a microscope, Molly Devin’s voice providing the voiceover.

“Researchers at the University of North Carolina say the cause of zombie cicadas is a fungus by the name of Massospora Cicadina. This fungus can infect the burrowing insects as they tunnel their way out of the earth. It replicates in the hindquarters of its host, eating away the cicada’s flesh until the insect’s tail end finally falls off, releasing fungal spores into the air in the form of a fine white powder. But the unfazed insect often will continue to fly, becoming – what one scientist here called, ‘flying saltshakers.’”

Josh took a swig of his beer. The TV screen now showed a street view of downtown Gastonia, passersby on the sidewalks taking photos of the sky with their cell phones. Molly Devin said, “And with the record number of cicadas this year, this white powder was so plentiful in Gastonia this afternoon that it looked like it was snowing in May.”

Back to the live view of Molly Devin — “Doctors say the powder is generally harmless, but people with allergies and respiratory ailments should stay indoors. Back to you Jack.”

In the studio, the anchorman was leaning an elbow on the glass news-desk, chuckling. “Flying saltshakers; that’s a phrase you don’t hear every day.”

Josh reached for the remote control and turned off the TV. He sat on the couch thinking. He set his beer down, pulled out his cell phone and scrolled down to his work contacts, selecting the top number on the list.

“Hello,” a voice answered.

“Did you see the evening news?” Josh asked.

“Flying saltshakers – Jesus.”

“Is this something we need to worry about?”

“Who knows, man; who knows?”

“You got the counts on the soil samples we took last week?”

“Up two ticks from the previous week.”

“Shit!” Josh said.

“As long as it’s in the soil and it’s not stirred up, there’s no reason to worry,” Josh’s co-worker said.

“Yeah,” Josh said. “As long as it stays in the soil.”

“You don’t think… hell, nothing like that’s been ever reported.”

“Yeah well, no one was looking two-hundred and twenty-one years ago.”

“What do we do?”

Josh said, “We take some samples tomorrow.”

“More soil samples?”

“No. We sample the cicadas.”

Josh hung up. Hesitated a moment, then pulled out a business card from his wallet and dialed a number on his cell phone. It took only five minutes for Dr. Whittington to answer his page.

“I was wondering if we could meet tomorrow morning,” Josh said.

“Are the hallucinations getting worse?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“You said to let you know if they were—“

“Distressing.”

“Right,” Josh said.

“Are they frightening him?”

“It’s not that,” Josh said. “I guess they’re starting to distress his mom.”

“And you,” Dr. Whittington said after a pause.

“You might say that.”

“Can you bring him to the outpatient clinic tomorrow afternoon?” Dr. Whittington said.

“Actually, I was hoping just the two of us could meet.”

#

The next morning, Josh Hastings and Dr. Whittington were sitting across each other in a booth at Stella’s Café sipping hot coffee.

“What has changed?” Dr. Whittington said.

Josh shrugged. “Maybe nothing. Andy’s mood is good; he seems pretty unfazed.”

“What’s bothering you?”

“These dreams,” Josh said, “Andy seems to think they’re like… premonitions.” Andy had never expressed that opinion, but Josh thought this was the best way to broach the subject.

Dr. Whittington brought his palms together. “I see.”

“I was surfing the internet,” Josh said. He let out a guilty chuckle. “You probably hate it when your patients utter those words.”

“No, it’s alright.”

“Well, I was wondering, could this be a form of temporal lobe epilepsy?”

Dr. Whittington rested his elbows on the table, leaned forward. “You remember at the last visit when he told me to stay away from the park, take a different route home? Well, I didn’t heed his warning. I drove right by Winterfield Park on my way home, as I always do. Then I started thinking about Andy, thinking about everything he had said during the office visit, and suddenly, it was as if a voice called out to me – maybe Andy’s voice, I can’t be sure; I didn’t hear it as much as I felt it,” Dr. Whittington placed a hand over his heart. “I slammed on the brakes, just as a little boy ran into the street right in front of my car.”

“Jeez! Was he hurt?” Josh said.

Dr. Whittington cupped his hands around his coffee, looked down and shook his head. “Thank God, no.”

“What are you saying? You think Andy forewarned you?” Josh said. “It sounds like a coincidence to me. Sounds like you’re trying to mold the facts to fit a narrative you’ve already convinced yourself of.”

“Are you a man of faith?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“I’m a scientist, Dr. Whittington.”

A faint smile surfaced on the doctor’s lips. He nodded. “My son, Patrick was six years old when he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. When the hematologist told us about the bone marrow results, my wife said, ‘At least it’s not leukemia.’ I looked at Patrick’s doctor, looked in his eyes, and… well, we understood each other. Nine months later, Patrick died of a simple viral infection – a harmless bug his ravaged immune system couldn’t fight off.”

“I’m so sorry,” Josh said.

“That little boy was the joy of my life. The happiest memory I have of him, the one I always turn to when I’m a little down, was taking him to my uncle’s farm out by Newberry. He insisted on wearing his favorite shirt: this Superman shirt my wife had sewn a little red cape onto.” Dr. Whittington smiled wistfully. “I think it might have been the best day of his life. Well, at one point he grabbed hold of a hen, put it in his brand new Radio Flyer wagon and took it for a ride. Sound familiar at all?”

Josh rubbed his palms together. A few moments later he said, “I’d like him to have an MRI of the brain. There has to be a logical explanation.”

Dr. Whittington nodded, “Of course. I’m sure there is.”

#

Josh Hastings had instructed his co-worker, Roger, to bring haz-mat suits along with the usual respirators, goggles and protective gloves they routinely employed when collecting soil samples. They drove north to Lincolnton before heading west on highway 27, left the road on a gravel path, came to a stop and suited up before proceeding to the flat dirt field surrounded by razor wire which had been their outdoor laboratory for the last eighteen months. The gravel path was covered in cicadas; some dead, some crawling.

“Snap, crackle pop,” Roger murmured as he maneuvered the Jeep down the trail.

“Have you ever seen so many?” Josh said.

“Not me. Must be a bumper crop year. Least we won’t have trouble collecting specimens.”

That night, the song of the cicadas was deafening, and Josh lay in bed awake most of the night.

#

Two days later, Rosalie and Andy were eating breakfast at the kitchen bar. The TV was turned to the morning news. Josh walked into the kitchen in shirtsleeves, his sports coat folded over his arm. He tousled Andy’s hair as he went past him.

“Bacon and eggs?” Rosalie asked.

“Don’t bother. I’ll just butter up a slice of toast and chug a cup coffee. I’ve got a busy morning today,” Josh said.

“I had another dream last night,” Andy said.

“That’s nice,” Josh said. He turned his attention to the television, grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.”

“Want to hear about my dream?” Andy said.

“Wait a minute son,” Josh said.

The news reporter said, “And there is still no word on what might have caused the death of hundreds of migrating birds in a field a few miles outside of Lincolnton in the early morning hours. Investigators from the Environmental Protection Services have been called in to investigate.”

“Here’s your coffee,” Rosalie said.

“Wait!” Josh said without taking his eyes off the TV.

“Turning to the weather, it’s going to be warm and dry today, with the thermometer climbing into the mid-eighties by noon.  We’ll have strong wind gusts blowing from the northwest—“

Josh turned the TV off.

He walked to his son and put a hand on his shoulder. “Andy, tell me about your dream.”

Rosalie looked at her husband, still clutching his coffee mug.

“It was kind of boring,” Andy said.

“What was it about? What did you see?” Josh said.

“Well, it was kind of like the other one. You know, it was snowing in Gastonia.”

“And…”

“Well, that’s about it.”

“What else?” Josh squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Try to remember.”

“Josh?” Rosalie said. “Why don’t you come drink your coffee. You said you were in a rush to get to work today.”

“It was snowing in Gastonia,” Josh said. “Then what?”

“Nothing,” Andy said. “Except this time there was no one in the streets.”

Josh, released the grip on Andy’s shoulder, let his arm fall to his side. He looked out the window with a blank stare.

“Coffee’s getting cold,” Rosalie said.

Josh jerked, snatched the mug out of Rosalie’s hands and set it on the marble counter. “We have to go, now.”

“What?”

“Winds are blowing from the northwest. We have to head west. Forest City, you’ll be safe there.”

“We’re going to Forest City?” Rosalie said. “What on earth for?”

“There’s no time to explain. We have to hurry.”

“How many days should I pack for?”

“We’re not packing. We’re going now. Get your purse.” Josh rushed off to the bathroom, stuffed towels in the sink and let cold water run over them. For convenience, the respirator masks were stored in Roger’s jeep. He could have kicked himself for not keeping a few extras at home. Wet towels was the best alternative he could come up with. He ran back to the kitchen.

“Rosalie, Andy, listen carefully. We’re going to the garage now and get in the car. We don’t open the garage door until we’re safely in the car and the doors are all shut. And we don’t roll down the windows for any reason, okay? Now wrap these towels around your nose and mouth.”

They got in the car, sped down the street, Josh glancing up at the sky every so often.

“Looks like a perfectly lovely day,” Rosalie said. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“What do I do for a living?” Josh said.

Rosalie raised an eyebrow. “Seriously, Josh.”

“What do I do for a living?” Josh repeated.

“You better not tell me you work for the CIA. I’m in no mood for a laugh right now.”

Josh said, “Come on, Rosalie.”

“You’re a soil scientist,” Andy said from the back seat.

“And what, specifically, do I study?”

“An amoeba,” Rosalie said, a chill running down her spine.

“Acanthamoeba Castelanii,” Andy chimed in.

“Where does Acanthamoeba Castelanii live?” Josh asked.

“In the dirt,” Andy said.

“And why does the government pay me to study this specific amoeba?” Josh said.

“Well, that’s always been the biggest mystery of the world if you ask me,” Rosalie said.

“Something feeds off this amoeba,” Josh said.

“Like what?” Rosalie asked.

A fine white silt started falling, swirling and settling on the car’s windshield. Josh knew better than to turn on the windshield wipers. The less you stirred the stuff up, the better. His cell phone rang. He pulled the phone out of his breast pocket and tapped the screen with his thumb on the second ring. It was Roger, his voice booming from the car’s speakers. Josh tried to unlink the phone from the car’s Blue Tooth, but it was too late.

“Josh, it’s me,” Roger said. “Got a preliminary report on those critters we collected, and, well, the expression ‘jiminy cricket’ doesn’t even begin to cut it. It ain’t good, pal. Those cicadas we collected are chock-full of anthrax.”

“Yeah, I know,” Josh said.

“Lab called you too?” Roger said.

“No, I just knew,” Josh said. “Roger, listen to me. Get your family to a safe spot. I’m dropping off Rosalie and Andy in Forest City, then I’m heading back to Gastonia. Listen, use the respirators, okay?”

“Josh? That box of respirators is in my Jeep. You don’t have none, do you?”

“I’ll be okay.”

“These flying salt-shakers ain’t pouring salt, amigo. Comprende?”

“I’ll see you in a couple of hours.” Josh hung up. Glanced at Rosalie who was staring right back at him.

“Acanthamoeba Castelanii is anthrax grub,” Josh said.  “They just love the stuff. It’s like junk food: they can’t get enough of it.”

“Andy,” Rosalie called out. “You keep that towel wrapped around your mouth.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell you,” Josh said. “The nature of my work is classified.”

“I still don’t understand,” Rosalie said. “What’s a soil scientist doing working with Anthrax?”

“Anthrax has been in the soil in these parts since forever,” Josh said. “As long as it’s not stirred up it won’t harm anyone. But the shifting weather pattern these last couple of years has caused the amoeba to grow out of hand, and with it, the soil anthrax counts have soared. We had a plan to get things back under control by the fall, but we weren’t counting on the doggone cicadas.”

“I don’t want you to leave us,” Rosalie said.  “We should stay together.”

“I got work to do here. You’ll be safer in Forest City,” Josh said. “We’ll be back together soon.”

“Yeah, mom,” Andy said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all be together soon.”

Andy’s voice was so full of innocence. Rosalie had to wipe a tear from her cheek.

“Scroll through my contacts,” Josh said. “Look for Department of Health and Human Services. I have to instruct the director to order a mass evacuation before it’s too late.”

“This is bad,” Rosalie said as she tapped the screen of the smart-phone.  “This is really, really bad.”

“Don’t worry,” Andy said from the backseat. “Everything’s going to be fine. It’s beautiful where we’re going. I saw it in a dream.”

The car went silent. For a few moments, the only sound was the hum of tires on asphalt.

Rosalie turned in her seat. Josh eyed his son in the rear-view mirror. 

“You had a dream of Forest City?” Rosalie asked her son.

“No, mom,” Andy said. “I had a dream of heaven.”

THE END

A Long Stretch of Highway – a short story

by Peter Palmieri

This was the Grand Prize winning entry at the 2015 Dallas Medicine+Literature writing contest.

The highest praise I received as a doctor came from a steely-eyed, reticent cowboy near the start of my career. He sat in the mommy chair of my exam room, his three-year old daughter squirming on his steady legs, and had up to now issued only yes-sirs and no-sirs in response to my queries. It was while I was washing my hands before examining the little girl that he uttered it.

“When I tell my friends what you did that night, none of ‘em can quite believe it.”  

It caught me off-guard, and luckily I could think of nothing to say in response. So for once, I respected the solemnity of the moment with the silence it deserved. I glanced at him as I dried my hands with a paper towel and nodded to acknowledge the compliment. His eyes were fixed on me as if he were still trying to size me up, a look of astonishment as much as of regard stamped on his features. “Honest to God,” he added, as if to drive the point home, and never brought the subject up again.

I had just moved to Texas with my wife and two young children and settled into my new practice with the earnestness of a freshly-minted pediatrician though this was not my first job. For three years I had worked in a community clinic in a gang-ravaged neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago to fulfill an obligation with the National Health Service Corps. Now, in my sleek office half-way between Houston and Galveston, in a building unscathed by the stray bullets of countless drive-by shootings, I was overwhelmed with gratitude: I was thankful for the daily sunshine, for the vastness of the sky, for smoked brisket and juicy watermelons, for the civility of my new neighbors, the collegiality of my partners, and, most of all, for the trust of the families of my new patients.

So when I was paged shortly after dinner that night, you might say I was primed for the choice I was about to make. The woman on the other end of the line explained that her daughter had become feverish that afternoon, refused to eat or drink and was acting downright ornery. I asked a half-dozen questions to which the mom gave curt answers before she finally said, “I just don’t like the way she looks. I’ve never seen her this way.”

From early in my career, when wrestling with choices of patient management, I’ve often engaged in a form of mental consultation with my former professors.  I call them the peanut gallery.  I ask myself a question and immediately they start murmuring their opinions, their admonitions, their barbed critiques.  Standing with the phone pressed to my ear, I began to hear the echoes of the voices of my mentors.  As the mother’s words sunk in, one professor reminded me that you can’t see what a kid looks like over the phone. “It doesn’t matter what you know,” another one warned me. “The best doctor is the one that gets out of bed in the middle of the night to check on his patient.”

“What hospital do y’all go to anyway, Texas City or Clear Lake?” the mom asked.

I hesitated in answering. The truth was that, being new to town, I had yet to be granted hospital privileges. If a trip to the hospital were required, I’d have to endure the embarrassment of having to call one of my partners.

That’s when I recalled the words of Dr. G., the eldest of my mentors – a man with experience so deep and broad one could forgive his propensity to nod off in nearly every conference. “You can learn more about a family in a single house call than in five years of office visits,” he would say in his baritone drawl. “The Italians make the best coffee,” he added with a droll smile, no doubt forgetting that he had used the line repeatedly with the same group of pediatric residents.

“Where do you live?” I asked the mom as I flipped open the laminated map I had been consulting almost every day since our move.

“Just outside of Alvin,” she said.

“Alvin,” I repeated as I traced a finger on the map. It didn’t seem too far away from my apartment complex in League City.

“Texas City or Clear Lake, it’s about the same for us,” she said.

“I was thinking… I can come out to you.”

“Say again?”

“I can make a house call.”

There was a pause. “We’re out in the country.”

“Just outside of Alvin, you said.”

“You know where Alvin is?” she asked.

My cheeks got warm. At that point of my career, exhibiting ignorance of any kind to my patients was a predictable source of embarrassment. Already, I felt a tinge of regret for even suggesting something as eccentric as a house call, but there was no turning back now – not without sounding foolish. “I’ll need directions,” I said.

“You better talk to my husband.”

I barely made out a hushed exchange of words before a man’s voice came over the line. “Hello, doctor? Listen, we can take her to the hospital,” the husband said.

“Oh, no. I’ll be happy to come out to you,” I said trying to sound casual, as though I did this all the time. As though I had ever done a house call before in my life.

I jotted down the directions on the back of an envelope, not knowing that F.M. stood for Farm to Market road, not sure if I could spot a bayou in broad daylight not to mention after dusk. Once I hung up the phone, I realized I didn’t even own a real doctor’s bag. I stuffed my stethoscope, otoscope, a prescription pad and a few tongue depressors in a monogramed canvas briefcase I had received as a graduation gift at the end of residency. Debated whether I should wear a sports jacket but decided it was far too muggy for that. Besides, I didn’t even have a real doctor’s bag so who was I trying to impress? I kissed my children goodnight and told my wife not to worry, I’d be right back, and by the way, could I borrow her car? A silver Mazda looks more professional than an Aztec-Red Nissan Sentra, even if purchased second-hand.

I headed west on 518 then hung a left on 528. Went several miles before passing the enormous Dodge dealership.  So far so good. Soon, ever larger spaces separated the businesses on either side of the highway until there were no buildings at all and the sky turned a dark indigo, the darkness draping around the car’s beams on the road ahead.

I popped the Andrea Bocelli CD out of the car’s stereo and the loud buzz of static startled me. I dialed down the volume and began pressing each of the preset buttons on the radio in sequence, different tones of static whirring on each one. Apparently, my wife hadn’t had time to re-program the stereo since the move. I guess we hadn’t quite settled into our new routine.

I held the “seek” button on the receiver and sent the numbers on the green digital dial spinning until they settled on a Mexican station. A ballad was playing, runs of accordion filling the spaces between the harmonized vocals, a snare drum and the thumping of a tuba keeping time. It seemed as if they always played the same song when I stumbled on these stations, as though all the Mexican deejays had been given just one record and stern instructions to play nothing else. A tinny brass section jumped into the fray to complete the cliché.

I pushed the button again. A preacher was delivering his sermon over the strained chords of an organ that sounded like it might belong in someone’s living room – the kind of home decorated with porcelain clowns in mirrored cases and crocheted cushions on the sofa – the ever-present smell of cat dander and boiled cabbage wafting in the air. On the next try I landed on The House of the Rising Sun. It made me think how I could never get that strumming pattern quite right on the guitar. Maybe if I practiced it a little more…

Who was I trying to fool? I mean, really, what gave me the right to burst into someone’s home in the first place? And what exactly did I plan to do when I got there? With a stethoscope and a tongue depressor, for crying out loud!

Some lights appeared beyond a bend in the highway. I drove past a few brick homes and then some larger buildings: a muffler shop, a Dairy Queen, a fenced-in self-storage. In front of a high-school, a spot-light lit up a tidy wooden sign that proclaimed, “Home of Nolan Ryan”. The ball atop a water tower had “Alvin” painted across it in a decidedly reserved font.

I passed the center of town and turned west at the intersection past the Baptist church with the steeple that looked like a giant hypodermic needle sticking out of a megaphone. The highway gave rise to a two-lane country road. Five miles down, the road narrowed and shallow ditches appeared on either side. I lightened my thrust on the gas pedal and focused on the numbers stenciled on the mailboxes perched atop bare wooden posts by the side of the road.

The driveway to the home was packed dirt with patches of gravel filling mud-holes. A large diesel pick-up was parked under a car-port, a retractable aluminum ladder in its bed. The home was a bungalow in pale yellow aluminum siding, with a rocking chair and an Adirondack on the front porch.

The front door opened as I cut the engine. A man stepped out on the porch, thumbs hooked on his leather belt, wearing a plaid cowboy shirt with the sleeves rolled up over his thick forearms.

“Mr. Bowen?” I said as I walked towards the porch, ersatz doctor bag in hand.

He tipped his head. “Trouble finding the place?”

“Not at all.”

His gaze shifted from me to my wife’s car and back again. I should have worn that sports coat.

“Come on inside,” he said.

The entrance led into a narrow, dimly-lit living room. The patient was sitting in her mother’s lap, on a rolled-arm burgundy velvet sofa. The woman had a chiseled facial bone structure, with narrow lips offset by doe-like eyes. When I introduced myself, she clenched her child with both arms as though the toddler might spill out of her arms. When the child saw her father approaching, her arms came up, pudgy fingers spread open. Her father reached down and scooped her in his arms. The mother smoothed her jeans, got to her feet and rounded the sofa as her husband settled on the spot she had just occupied.

I reviewed the child’s medical history, the mother providing each answer with a shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulder as if to underline her perplexity, the father, gaze focused on the wall behind me, occasionally nodding in agreement. At first glance, the child didn’t look particularly miserable. In her father’s arms she beamed a coquettish irreverence. At one point, she squared her narrow shoulders, brushed a few strands of fine blonde hair from her face with repeated strokes of her flat palm then buried her face in her father’s chest when I smiled at her mannerism.

If you don’t know what your patient has by time you’re done gathering the history, one of my attendings used to say, by golly, you’re in trouble. My apprehension was growing. None of my questions provided any clue as to the source of the child’s fever.

“Have you noticed a rash?” I asked as I pulled my stethoscope out of my bag.

“A ra-ash?” the mom said. “Nah, no rash.”

Performing a physical exam in pediatrics is part fact-finding, part performance art. It is imperative that the pediatrician execute each act with deliberate calm under the parent’s ever-watchful eye and, whenever possible, a modicum of dexterity so as to assure all parties of the physician’s competence and skill. My movements were well-practiced and ordinarily smooth, but in this home, away from the aseptic security of an examining room, each motion acquired the heavy somberness one feels when walking through an ancient cathedral. Even when I conducted my review of the medical history, I sensed the slight drop in confidence an athlete might feel when not on his home turf.

This was someone’s home. I was a guest. The furnishings, the framed photographs on the wall, the musket hanging over the mantelpiece of the fake fireplace all spoke of a family’s history, of their individuality. There were no medical record numbers here, no charts stuffed with letters and documents, no standard office procedures to befuddle the patient, no preconceived role-playing – just real human interaction.

When I raised the back of the pajama blouse to listen to the child’s chest, I noticed that her skin had a rough, bumpy texture. I asked the mother if she could turn on another light.

“I think she’s getting a rash,” I said. The father glanced at his wife and frowned. “I bet it’s more prominent in her private parts,” I half-stuttered, the pitch of my voice betraying my excitement. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had a diagnosis after all! Sure enough, her inguinal area had a pink blush peppered with red goose flesh. “You mentioned she hasn’t been eating. I bet her throat hurts.”

“She didn’t say so,” the mom said. “Chloe honey, does your throat hurt?”

The child pressed her lips together and shook her head.

I tore the paper wrapper off of a tongue depressor and asked the father to lay the child on the sofa. I wanted him to see this. I needed a witness.

With some effort I was able to pry the child’s mouth open and shone the light of my otoscope on the back of her throat. “Just look at that,” I said. The back part of the roof of the mouth was fire-engine red. The father nodded. “See her tongue? We call that a strawberry tongue.”

“What does she have?” the father asked me.

I removed the tongue depressor, rotated the otoscope switch to the off position. “This is scarlatina. Scarlet fever.”

“Scarlet fever?” the mom said. “Isn’t that…bad?”

“Easily treated,” I said. “Not to worry.” I tried to assuage her angst with my canned spiel on strep infections. At the time, I still subscribed to the belief that nothing was more reassuring to a patient’s family than a physician’s demonstration of his scholarship.

“I guess that explains it,” the father said.

“Her skin might peel in about a week, especially on the palms and soles,” I said, flaunting my forecasting aptitude in case my diagnostic sagacity had not impressed enough. All that was left to do was to call in a ten-day supply of Amoxicillin.

The mother brought me a refrigerator magnet in the shape of a giant Band-Aid with the phone number to a 24-hour pharmacy. With the father listening in, I had to spell my last name twice to the pharmacist who asked if I was new to the area, and would I mind reciting my DEA number so they could have me on file.

When I hung up the phone the father asked me, “So what do I owe you?”

“Oh nothing,” I said.

“What do you mean? You come all the way out here and done your job.”

“Really, it’s all right.”

“Not all right by me. I like to be squared away,” he said.

I hadn’t even thought of this part. “The thing is, I really can’t take any form of payment. I don’t have the billing codes or even a receipt book.”

The parents of the child exchanged a baffled look. “Don’t need a receipt,” the father said.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Bring her by the office to see me in a couple of days. I’ll just bill everything together.” I was rather proud of myself for making that up on the spot. I zipped my bag shut and got to my feet.

“Can I get you something at least?” the mother asked.

“Throw on a pot of coffee,” her husband said before I had a chance to reply.

I could almost see Dr. G. grinning at me through his bristly mustache, telling me to put the bag down and drink the damn coffee. Give them that satisfaction.

“A cup of coffee would be great,” I said.

The father and I sat on the front porch, me on the rocking chair – the Adirondack was clearly his seat. The smell of hay mixed with the aroma of the coffee to create a surprisingly agreeable effect.

“Nice place you have out here,” I said.

The man narrowed his eyes and shifted in his seat. “It’s a long stretch of highway,” he said.

***

I drove home with the window rolled down, feeling giddy. Swung my arm out of the car and let the wind push back on my cupped hand. A man with a grave voice introduced himself on the radio as the spokesman for an attorney, and repeated a phone number countless times, imploring me to call if I had unpaid medical bills due to injuries suffered in the work place. I scanned through several stations (that lawyer’s phone number now stuck in my head) until I heard John Denver singing about coming home again to his old farm. And it made me think there must be no better feeling than finding the place where you belong. I felt a twinge of envy and wondered if after all my schooling, after the endless nights on-call and grinding Emergency Room shifts, after travelling half-way across the country, had I finally found a place where I belonged? I told myself not to think about it so much and just enjoy the moment. Tonight, I was the doctor I had always wanted to be.

I’ve made a few more house calls since that night, each rewarding in their own way. I’ve learned that from a patient’s perspective, respect and sincere concern trump diagnostic acumen every time. That the practice of medicine is first and foremost a personal interaction despite all the high-tech wonders doctors have at their disposal.

And I’ve also gotten bogged down, from time to time, in the drudgery of medicine: the interminable documentation on electronic health records, the reams of pre-approval forms to fill out, the fickle regulations to comply with in an ever-expanding bureaucracy. It is in these moments that I think back to that night on that long stretch of highway, and I wonder if a soft-spoken cowboy from Alvin still tells his unbelieving friends about the young doctor who made a house call late one summer night.

PARKLAND – a short story

Leroy Abellard meets interesting people on the graveyard shift at Parkland Hospital.

Previously published in Beyond the Levee, an anthology of short stories (copyright 2020)

If it had an engine, Leroy Abellard could fix it — it didn’t matter if it was a lawnmower or a 25-ton industrial AC unit. By the time he was twelve, Leroy had gained a reputation throughout Terrebonne Parish as a bona fide mechanical wizard. Never had a knack for book-learning. Just the same, at the age of fifty-two, Leroy could boast he had never been unemployed — not counting the six-month stint he spent up at the Dixon Correctional Institute. (Even there, he managed to fix a faulty boiler that had given the maintenance team trouble for years. And Warden Dupree was so pleased with the rebuild of the V-8 on his 1972 Camaro LS he was genuinely sad to see Leroy go.)

So when Dallas ISD gave Leroy the pink slip after yet another shortfall in the city’s budget, Leroy didn’t fret. He got stewed on spiced rum that night and spent the next day nursing a zinger of a hangover with a time-tested Creole remedy. But by the third day, he was gainfully employed again, working maintenance at Parkland Hospital — graveyard shift.

The first time he ran into them was on his second shift. Leroy was pushing his tool cart in a dim underground corridor with surplus hospital beds parked against one wall when he saw a brightly-lit store-room off to his right. He slowed as he walked past the open door and noticed two men inside, seated at a folding table playing cards.

“Sorry,” Leroy said as he pushed on, startled by their presence.

The man facing him, a nervy-looking white guy with deep-set eyes, nodded at him. The other man, a broad-shouldered guy in shirt-sleeves, didn’t even turn around to look.

The following night, he ran into them again. The well-built man caught sight of Leroy this time and waved at him, as though they were old chums. He was older than his partner, handsome in a Technicolor-movie way. Leroy nodded and kept on moving. He couldn’t imagine why a couple of white men would be playing cards in the sub-basement of a hospital night after night, but it was no concern of his. “White-collar,” he muttered to himself.

Then he didn’t see them for a few days. But his first shift the following week, there they were again. This time, the older fellow flashed him a million-dollar smile, called out, and waved him into the storeroom.

Leroy shuffled in, bowing his head slightly, out of habit, having grown up in the South.

“Say, you’re new around here, aren’t you?” the man said.

“Yessir.”

“Well, I’m Jack. This here’s Oz,” he said, pointing at his partner with his chin. “What’s your name?”

“Leroy Abellard, sir.”

“Mr. Leroy Abellard — pleased to meet you.” Jack spoke in a northern accent, so thick it was almost funny. “I’d shake, Leroy, but I’ve got such a hot hand,” he waved his cards, “I’m afraid I’d scorch your skin.” Jack smiled again, beaming, and damn if he didn’t look familiar!

Oz scoffed. “You’re bluffing. But it is bad luck to press flesh when playing poker.”

“Everything’s bad luck in your book,” Jack said and winked at Leroy. “Say, Leroy, how about you join in for a quick game of gin rummy?”

“I gots work to do,” Leroy said.

“Work can wait. No one will be the wiser. Ain’t that so, Oz?”

“Damn straight,” Oz said through clenched teeth. “But one day the proletariat will rise up. And then the bourgeoisie will take note. And how!”

Leroy settled into an empty chair.

Jack chuckled. He leaned into Leroy and whispered, “I swear, half the time, I have no clue what he’s talking about.” Jack slapped his cards face down on the table and shoved them into the deck.

“I knew you was bluffing,” Oz said.

Again, Jack winked, sending a chill down Leroy’s spine, because he finally recognized the man — both of them — and Leroy’s old heart started beating so hard now, he thought he’d blow a gasket. But to his surprise, after the initial shock had dissipated, Leroy found himself oddly at ease. He even chuckled after winning a game. At 4:30 in the morning, Jack told a joke about a rabbi and a Catholic priest going to a strip bar that had Leroy doubled over, guffawing. At six A.M., Leroy checked his watch, pushed back on his chair, and excused himself.

“Let’s do it again!” Jack called out.

“Next time bring cash,” Oz said in that nasal voice of his.

An hour later, Leroy punched out, walked into the morning sun, and rode the bus back to his apartment. He showered, ate a bowl of instant oatmeal, and lay in his bed, unable to sleep. At noon, he got dressed, and walked six blocks to the Oak Lawn branch of the public library, where he settled behind a computer screen and spent the next few hours reading about a part of history he should have learned in school.

That night, he played cards with Jack and Oz again, did so for the next few weeks. If a maintenance emergency call came in on Leroy’s walkie-talkie, Jack and Oz would trudge along and watch in admiration as Leroy performed his art.

Soon, Leroy began prodding them with questions. “What do you do, Jack?”

“Mostly, I sail,” Jack replied. “You ever been to Martha’s Vineyard?”

“I mean, for a living,” Leroy said.

“You kidding?” Oz interjected. “Jack’s never worked a day in his life. His old man’s loaded.”

“How about you, Oz?” Leroy said.

“I was in the Army.”

“What about now?”

Oz shrugged. “I’m here, ain’t I?”

It seemed the two were operating under some form of amnesia, that large swaths of their past were inaccessible to them.

“How long y’all been here at Parkland?” Leroy asked one early morning, digging a little deeper.

“Hell! Seems like forever,” Oz said.

“Can’t you leave? Go where you need to be?” Leroy picked his words carefully.

“Well, that’s just it, old boy,” Jack replied. “Seems like we’re stuck here. I don’t quite know how to explain it. I’m not even sure I understand.”

“I got nowhere better to be,” Oz said.

Jack turned to Oz and said, “We could go sailing round the cape if I could find a way out of here.”

Oz chuckled. “If I wanted to sail, I’d have joined the Navy ‘stead of the Army.”

What astounded Leroy was the deep friendship between the two. Though separated by a vast gulf of age, education, and refinement, it was evident the two genuinely liked each other. More than that — they were soul-mates. It was more than a little unsettling.

On a Saturday morning, his day off, Leroy picked up the phone and dialed long distance. His cousin Shontelle was a rootworker who sold herbs and oils and candles out the back of her hair salon in Baton Rouge. Her grandmother had been a Hoodoo priestess. (That stays in the blood.) If anyone knew what to do with Jack and Oz, it was cousin Shontelle.

“What trouble you got yourself in this time?” Shontelle said in her sing-song Creole voice when Leroy told her he needed her help.

“It’s not like that,” Leroy said. “Listen here, for the last month, I been playing cards with John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald.

“You already drinking on a Saturday morning?” Shontelle said.

Leroy went on to tell her about his new job at Parkland — “that’s where they both died, see?” He told Shontelle how he first ran into them, how he had been spending most nights in their company. He told her about their apparent amnesia and how they seemed to be the best of friends.

Shontelle interjected hums and tongue clicks and the occasional, “Sweet Jesus!”

Leroy finished his monologue with, “And that’s about the size of it.”

Shontelle waited for a beat and said, “Leroy, they have to move on.”

“That’s why I called you.”

It took Shontelle a week to hatch a plan. She read the Seventh Book of Moses, consulted a Gullah conjurer from the Carolina lowlands, and held a Vudon séance with a high priestess from New Orleans. Then she phoned Leroy, laid it out for him. Had him write it down for good measure. She had him read it back to her twice, word by word.

“The only way they can move on,” Shontelle said, “is to gain supreme knowledge. Do you hear what I’m saying?”

“You mean to say, they’ll know.”

“That’s right,” Shontelle said. “The truth will shine before their eyes.”

“Boy, that’s going to be rough.”

“You have no idea.”

Leroy had ten days to prepare, ten nights before the next full moon. In a canvas duffle bag, he assembled the necessary paraphernalia: frankincense, a gris-gris bag filled with hair and nail clippings, two bundles of sage, a glass candle with a hand-painted cat, the Seventh Book of Moses with the relevant passages underlined in red pencil, the pages dog-eared in a sacrilegious way. On the designated night, he stuffed a live chicken in the bag and smuggled the whole bundle into Parkland Hospital.

Jack was shuffling the deck when Leroy walked into the storeroom.

“You got here just in time,” Oz said, leaning back in his chair.

Jack suddenly stopped shuffling the cards. “Why the long face, Leroy?” he said.

“Boys,” Leroy said. “It’s time for y’all to move on.”

In minutes, everything was set. Leroy started reading the incantations. From time to time, Jack had to look over his shoulder and help him pronounce a word. The air came alive with the buzz of static electricity. Leroy felt a mechanical shudder coming from the boiler in the next room, the mark of a power surge. The overhead light bulb flickered, then seemed to burn brighter, emanating a sickly orange glow. At that moment, Leroy grabbed his jackknife, and slit the hen’s throat, held it upside down to let its blood spill on the floor. The overhead lights went out. The candle flickered and extinguished.

For a minute, the three men sat in cold black silence. When the lights came on again, John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald were staring at each other impassively. After a few tense moments, President Kennedy said, “Why?”

“What do you mean, why?” Oswald said.

“Why did you murder me?”

Oswald scoffed. “Hell, I didn’t know you, then.”

“I had a family.”

Oswald raised his voice. “I hated you. Okay? I hated everything you stood for. But things are different now.”

Kennedy nodded. “You’re right. Things are different now.” The president got to his feet, headed for the door. Before stepping into the corridor, he turned back. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something but just shook his head, walked out, and was engulfed by a dazzling light.

“Jack!” Oswald called out. “Jack, I’m sorry.”

It was too late, and Oswald knew it. He doubled over and started sobbing. Leroy got to his feet and headed for the corridor.

“Don’t leave me,” Oswald said.

“You can find your way out now,” Leroy said.

“I’m not headed for the light, Leroy. You know that.”

“Be that as it may,” Leroy said, trying to hide his disdain, “it’s time to go.”

He walked down the long hallway, kept going until he reached a bank of elevators. A portly man with a gray fedora was punching the call button repeatedly.

“Going up?” Leroy said. Maybe some of that supreme knowledge had rubbed off on him because he could tell straight away that the man was not of this world.

“Been trying to go up for a hell of a long time,” the man said.

“What’s your name?” Leroy said.

“Rubenstein. Jacob Rubenstein.”

“Jack Ruby?”

“That’s right.”

Leroy sighed. He looked back down the corridor where he had abandoned Oswald and shook his head. “You better come along with me, Mr. Ruby.”

Write the first line last

It’s hard to get started. Maybe you’re a plotter. You’ve spent the last six months researching your novel, drafting a detailed outline, writing comprehensive profiles for all your characters. Or maybe you’re a pantser, someone who writes a story by the seat of their pants. It doesn’t matter. That first line can be intimidating. You think twice before staining the crisp white page of your new moleskin notebook. You’re paralyzed by the white glare of your computer screen.

There’s a lot at stake in that first line. It is said that the first line of a novel sells that book; the last line sells your next book. The first line is a hook. Its main job is to make you want to read the second line, and hopefully, the rest of the book. But it must do so much more.

It sets the mood for the story. Sometimes, it introduces the protagonist, and you know what they say: you don’t get a second chance to form a first impression. I enjoy first lines that encapsulate the theme of the story.

Here are some memorable first lines, starting with a short one. “Call me Ishmael.” [Moby Dick – Herman Melville] It seems rather innocuous, but it immediately raises questions. Why does the narrator say call me Ishmael? Is Ishmael not his real name? Is he hiding his identity? What else is he hiding? And notice the immediate mood those three words plunge us in. What feelings does the phrase evoke?

Here’s another one, from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge.” Immediately you sense that whoever this young man is, he is suffering emotional ambivalence. We fear that the evening being not just hot, but exceptionally hot, may make whatever passions are gripping him boil over. The reader is immediately poised for conflict.

See how different Jane Austen’s tone is in Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The words jump off the page, prim and proper. It is the language of an elite class, one made cohesive by universally acknowledged truths. There is a stiff sense of conformity, and of course, that’s what this sublime novel is all about: class and conformity to acceptable norms.

So how does a writer pull this off? How do we write that enchanting first sentence?

Here’s how I approach it. I write it last.

I will start the first scene of my first draft medio rerum–in the middle of things. I do this to get rolling so that the blank screen doesn’t get the best of me. Though I plot my novels and write a reasonably thorough outline, I often discover things about my characters that lead me to create unexpected twists well after I start the actual writing. Sometimes, to my shock, I discover that the story is not at all about what I thought it was.

For my latest novel, Moonlight Over Florence, I went back and wrote the first line after the third revision. It was only then that it came to me. Here’s what I finally came up with: “David Bigelow was like so many of us who believe our lives to be tragedies for the simple reason that we lack the imagination to envision the happy turn of events awaiting us around the next bend.

There are cases where the first line of a book materializes in the writer’s mind out of thin air. The author doesn’t know what their story is about at this point, but that first phrase catapults them into the story. If that happens to you, rejoice. 

Otherwise, consider saving the first line for last.

A good story can save your life

There is a psychological reward that readers of novels seek that is seldom discussed. What is it? The answer may surprise you.

When you need cold information– technical facts, historical details, expert analysis–there is no better source to turn to than non-fiction books. But when you want to learn about human nature, novels are an excellent alternative. A great story must not only entertain; it must educate. But it must do so without being preachy or moralistic. How do great authors pull this off? By understanding a psychological need that we all share but is seldom discussed in explicit terms: the hunger for insight.

Good stories often start with a protagonist whose life may not be peachy but is relatively stable. The discerning reader understands that the trouble our hero is experiencing is (at least in part) due to poor choices, erroneous beliefs, or maladaptive behavior on her part.

An incident throws our hero’s life out of balance, forcing her into reluctant action. The protagonist wants nothing more, at this point, than to restore her life to what it was before the inciting incident, but missteps and mounting complications make that impossible. When our hero hits rock bottom, two things may happen. She might cling to her mistaken beliefs, leading to a tragic ending. Or she experiences deep personal change, which allows her to surmount all challenges and reach a new, more enlightened, state of being.

What is it that allows our hero to change? A new insight. It may be insight about the nature of the world, insight about those around her, or insight directed inward, about herself.

When our hero suffers, we, the reader, suffer with her. But we suffer safely. The protagonist is our surrogate. She allows us to experience life’s tribulations on an emotional dimension without any physical, social, and financial risk. Likewise, when our hero experiences a breakthrough that allows her to gain insight, we achieve that insight too.

The insight is the story’s message, the moral of the story. To gain a new perspective, the reader must absorb the story’s message in the company of intense emotion, wherein lies the story’s power.

But why should readers crave new insights? Because those insights, those lessons learned vicariously prepare us for life, for whatever situation may befall us. Great novels are more than entertainment–they are essential for survival.

Bio

Welcome to my blog. I think it’s only fair if I tell you a little bit about me. The most important thing, as far as this blog is concerned, is that I am an avid reader and a full-time student of the writing craft. Maybe that’s all you need to know and you’ll skip the rest of my bio, but then you’d miss the part about the feral animals.

I grew up in the eclectic city of Trieste, Italy, home of storied coffee houses where James Joyce and Italo Svevo sipped coffee, discussed literature, and sometimes wrote. After retiring from medicine, I opened a gelato shop, which I currently run with my wife. When I’m not churning delicious and unique gelato flavors, I’m either reading, writing, or working on my honey-do list.

So far, I have written two non-fiction books, three medical thrillers and a collection of short stories. My first novel, The Art of Forgetting, won First Place in the North Texas Book Festival Book Awards (2014), and my second novel, Sanguinity Point, was a 2019 Screencraft Cinematic Book Competition finalist. My short story, A Long Stretch of Highway, won Grand Prize at the Dallas Literature + Medicine writing contest in 2015. I have had two short stories published in anthologies in the last twelve months. My newest novel, Moonlight Over Florence, a romantic comedy set in Italy, will be published soon.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, where I seem to attract feral animals. At various times I might be feeding cats, opossums, raccoons, and a variety of birds, including my neurotic blue-and-gold macaw. I have been strictly forbidden to acquire any more pets for the foreseeable future.