I’ve been a Sherlock Holmes fan for a long time. One of the premiums for becoming a Book of the Month Club member, back in 1962, was a set of the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I think my brother has those first books I bought, but here is a newer set of those same books I bought several years ago.

I’ve also got a number of other volumes of Holmes stories, including a few patisches and faux Sherlock Holmes detectives. None, of course, come close to the originals, but I appreciate the reverence in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is held to even attempt something like that.

Suzanne and I are also big fans of the Jeremy Brett portrayal of Holmes. Who would have guessed that Freddy Eynsford-Hill from “My Fair Lady” would turn out to be the penultimate interpreter of Holmes? Back before streaming became the easiest way to watch TV, we even bought the DVD set so we could indulge our love of Holmes any time we wanted. Right now, we are watching the Sherlock series on BritBox. Or is it Amazon Prime? I can never remember; we just hunt for him as we need to do.

There have been lots of attempts to portray Holmes on film — Basil Rathbone did an excellent job, though the stories were pretty loose; Benedict Cumberbatch is an out-of-control Holmes and the episodes are just weird; Robert Downey, Jr., is Robert Downey, Jr., playing Holmes playing Robert Downey, Jr.; Michael Cain and Ben Kingsley were a wonderful, comedic pair; Christopher Plummer, Alan Arkin, Frank Langella, Roger Moore (!), Gene Wilder, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Buster Keeton (!!!), and Ian McKellen have all played Holmes with varying degrees of success.

But my favorite non-Brett Holmes is the one played by George C. Scott in the movie “They Might Be Giants.” Scott plays a judge who retreats into his fantasy of being Holmes after his wife dies. His brother tries to get him admitted to a mental institution but he meets a psychiatrist, played by Joanna Woodward, whose name, surprisingly/conveniently, is Dr. Mildred Watson. Comedy and mystery ensue and the movies is just downright fun. To paraphrase a 1930s review of a Broadway actress, George C. Scott could read the phone book and make it riveting (if you could find a phone book these days).

Several months ago, BC (before Covid), I was having lunch with a friend of mine. I had just come back from a trip to Lowe’s to pick up something or other and had seen a display of a self-propelled, robotic mower, something like those Roombas that automatically vacuum your floors, only this thing will cut your grass and then go plug itself into a charging station. We were laughing about what might happen if it got out of the yard somehow and how you might have to put up fliers on telephone poles around town seeking to get it back. Well, that percolated in my brain for a while and I decided to write a story about it and here it is, with apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who I’m sure is somewhere out there in the ether, still getting virtual royalties.

The Adventure of the Missing Mower

I’ve always been something of an “early adopter.” I was the first kid in high school to have a transistor radio. I spent the entire summer I got it with the tiny, tinny earpiece in my ear, listening to the Beach Boys and Leslie Gore. When school started in the fall, I spent several days in the principal’s office because I hid the transistor in my book bag and tried to listen to it when I should have been doing quadratic equations or reading “Silas Marner.” My teachers were not amused.

When I got my driver’s license, I convinced my dad to put an eight-track tape player in my mom’s car because that was the one I got to drive on Saturday nights. I was very popular with the guys and the girls, even though the car was the epitome of a family car — a 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon. Even though the eight-track was notorious for eating tapes, it was incredibly convenient for moving them from my bedroom, to the den, to the car and back to my bedroom as needed. As soon as cassette tapes made an appearance, I put a tape player in the 1966 Mustang my grandmother gave me as a graduation present. I always managed to have the latest amp, tuner, turntable, tape deck, and speakers. My parents were very generous and I was very appreciative.

Beside music, I got interested in computers early on when I started engineering classes at UTA. I built a rudimentary computer from a Heathkit kit (redundant, I know) and later moved on to a Sinclair 1000, right after they came on the market in the U.S. After about a month, I started using it as a doorstop because it was maddening to try to do anything with. The keyboard was just this thin membrane that you had to press very hard to make contact with the switches underneath. For a while, I used an external keyboard that I hacked into the system, but that arrangement lasted only so long. Since the Sinclair didn’t come with a monitor, I had to hook it up to my TV which took longer than the time I spent trying to write a program to play tic-tac-toe on the thing. Other computers inevitably followed and anything requiring tinkering got my attention.

My interest in gadgets inevitably earned me a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and the nameplate, Dr. Watson, on the door of my lab at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. All of that is prelude to what brings me to my current adventure, which began unfolding over the course of the winter and a couple of weeks this spring.

In addition to being “the first kid on my block” to do most things, I’m also pretty lazy. Always have been. The phrase that I have probably heard most often in my life is “Johnny, get up! You’ll be late for….” school, work, church, your wedding, etc. If I can put off doing something, I’ll put it off. If I can avoid it all together, I’ll avoid it.

Yard work is the thing I am the most likely to put off or avoid entirely. I’ve never liked to mow or weed, so my yard never wins the neighborhood “Best of…” award. I since I live in a fairly up-scale suburb of Kansas City, on the Kansas side of the line, the expectation is that not only will your lawn be immaculate, but it will be mowed in a particular pattern, different every time, but recognizable for the effort to passersby. We have a few people in the HOA who are casually referred to as the “lawn police” and every now and then, I’ve found a note in my mailbox “suggesting” that I do a better job with the yard in order to maintain the high standards of the neighborhood.

I suppose you could add passive-aggressive to the list of my character traits, because for a couple of year, I took pains to do the yard work in an almost-acceptable manner. I’d mow in a figure eight pattern, or horizontally for a few strips and vertically for the next few. Sometimes, I’d deliberately miss a patch of grass or, most egregiously of all, “forget” to blow the clippings off my driveway! That, it seems, in my neighborhood is the biggest affront of all. There must be no evidence that the lawn has been mowed save for the immaculate nature of the stripes left behind.

As I said, over the winter, I happened to stumble on a device in an ad in Science magazine for a GPS-enabled lawn mower, much like those vacuums that automatically sweep your floors and then go plug themselves into their charging station. I felt like Archimedes saying “Eureka!” when he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse (the one in Sicily, not the one in upstate New York). This was the answer for both my laziness and my fights with the fascists in the HOA: a lawn mower that I didn’t have to push, ride, or pay someone else to push or ride; a lawn mower that would continuously keep my grass at the prescribed height, in the pattern that would please the folks who wandered through the neighborhood taking note of such useless things; and, a lawnmower that would satisfy my compulsion to be the innovator, the first to do something.

So, as quickly as I could find it on Amazon Prime, I ordered the just-released Horizontal Lawn Maintenance System 3000, Lithium-ion battery powered, GPS-enabled, shiny red, guaranteed to “keeping your lawn looking the envy of the neighborhood.” The next day, a box arrived, the size of those tiny houses being build for millennials who haven’t discovered that in five years they will have six storage units scattered around town holding all the stuff they accumulate that won’t fit in their 200 square foot home. The mower had been on the market for twelve hours and Amazon delivered it in eighteen. Ah, the modern world. It used to take two weeks for an order from Montgomery Ward to show up.

Being the nerd I am, I opted not to have MicroMaintenance, the company that created the mower, do the installation. I realized that I was voiding the warranty, but I was willing to chance it, seeing as how the installation couldn’t be scheduled until late April and we have had a really warm winter. I was sure that I could get the necessary bits and pieces set up before the first sprigs of grass would appear.

On a sunny, warm early-March day, I rented a machine that cuts a tiny trench into which the guide wire for the sensors would go and around the boundary of my lot I went, laying the wire. About halfway through, I had another “Eureka” moment and decided that I would install an electronic dog fence at the same time. My kids had been after me for months to get a dog, to which cajoling my wife and I finally succumbed, but predictably, the kids didn’t walk Toby as they had promised, so it devolved to Mary and me to perform that tasks multiple times a day. We briefly talked about installing a traditional fence, but that was another hassle with the HOA and city I didn’t want to deal with. The electric fence was the answer. Turns out that was a waste of time and money, which will become apparent shortly.

With the guide wires installed and the charging unit powered, I took HoLMS, as I began calling it, out for the setup and testing, via an app on my iPhone. The unit came fully charged, so I powered it on and it began moving around the yard. When it came to one of the guide wires, it would change directions and start mowing a different path. Now, I don’t have a very complicated yard; as I said, since I don’t like working outside, we don’t have a bunch of flower beds or obstacles to mow around. A few trees and that’s about it.

Besides the guide wires, HoLMS can navigate by GPS, so I walked the boundary of the yard, punching in landmarks and adding these to its memory. The yard looked pretty dismal since I hadn’t done much cleanup in the fall, yet HoLMS powered through the clumps of dead grass and piles of leaves even thought the instructions suggested that you do an initial mowing with a traditional mower and bag any leave that might be on the yard. Yeah, right.

The day after I set up HoLMS, it snowed five inches and kept snowing for several days. It turned out to be one of the snowiest Marches on record, so HoLMS didn’t get a chance to do its stuff until the beginning of April. That break was just what I needed to begin tinker with the mower. Another brand has recently come out with a voice-activated feature that operates through Siri. That seemed like a useful feature, so I installed a few components that I found on line and created my own iPhone app to let HoLMS know what I wanted it to do.

As soon as there was the slightest hint of green in the yard, I took HoLMS out and let it begin its task. Over the course of about six hours, it manicured the lawn, stopping only once to recharge. As a bit of a joke, I took out my phone, opened my app and said, “Thank you, HoLMS, for doing such a great job.”

To my great surprise, HoLMS answered, “You are quite welcome, Dr. Watson.”

I looked around to see if someone else had replied, playing a trick on me. My usually nosy neighbor, Mrs. Hudson, was nowhere to be seen, so I said, “HoLMS, did you just speak to me?”

“Why, yes. Isn’t that why you installed Irene?”

“Irene” was the name I had given my voice-assisted app.

“Frankly, I had expected it to be mostly a one-way conversation, but since we are chatting like this, is everything working properly?” Again, I was a bit self-conscious about having a conversation with a lawn mower, but I thought that this would be a good way to verify what I perceived to be a successful job.

“Everything is operating as it should, Dr. Watson. Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve my performance?” HoLMS seemed to be genuinely interested in my opinion. Wait. Why would a lawn mower be concerned about what I thought?

“No, you seem to be doing just fine. The yard looks very nice. Well, HoLMS, go back to your charging station and resume your schedule. Have a nice day.”

Wow, not only was I having a conversation with a piece of machinery, I was talking in cliches. Hmm…

Over the course of the spring, I would look out the window to see what HoLMS was up to and there it was as always, clipping, clipping, clipping away, never seeming to follow the same path, but always giving the yard a perfectly-groomed look. Several times, neighbors would stop by while I was out in the yard and comment on how nice everything looked, the “for a change” only implied.

“Your lawn mower certainly does a wonderful job,” they would say and just for a second, it seemed like HoLMS would stop what it was doing and turn toward the sound of our voices. Was it feeling proud of itself? I must admit that I was sort of feeling proud of myself for once again being on the “cutting edge” of lawn maintenance, so to speak.

Then one day, I looked out the window and something seemed wrong. Normally, I’d see HoLMS chugging away, clipping, clipping, clipping, and Toby running circles around it, or trying to guess where it would go next. It seems that they had developed something of a friendship. When HoLMS was back at its charging station, Toby would sometimes go lie down beside it and take a nap, too. Occasionally, it seemed like they would be playing a game, with Toby chasing HoLMS or HoLMS chasing Toby. It was a bit weird, but who knows what goes on with animals? Every now and then, when Toby was in for the night, I sensed that he wanted to be outside with his friend.

“You can go outside and play with HoLMS tomorrow, OK?” I’d say, to which, Toby would give me a look of anticipation and happiness. Did Toby like HoLMS more than he did me? Was I becoming jealous? No, that’s silly. Jealous of a machine? Crazy.

Well, back to that spring day. When I looked outside, I didn’t immediately see Toby or HoLMS. I went to the back of the house to see if they were in the back yard. Nope, not there. I stepped outside and went to the side of the house where the charging station was, and they weren’t there either. Another transit of the yard determined that they were nowhere to be found.

HoLMS has an anti-theft system that sends a message to my phone if it is lifted up without being powered down. I had not gotten any notice, so it didn’t seem likely it had been stollen. And where was Toby? He had never gone through the electric fence before. I walked down the street a few houses and ran into Norman Bradstreet, inspecting his rose bushes.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen Toby, have you?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, he and your lawnmower were heading down toward the park. I though that was a bit strange, but…” His voice trailed off as if he didn’t want to say the rest of what was on his mind. Norm and I had had our differences of opinion in the past, mainly over the condition of my lawn, of course, but on the whole, we were on friendly terms.

“Thanks, Norm. Just never know what those two are up to.” I tried to make it sound light-hearted and normal, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized how ridiculous it sounded, like they were a couple of ten year olds always getting into mischief.

The Leawood City Park was a couple of blocks from my house, so I figured I’d catch up to them pretty quickly. As soon as I walked over the I-435 overpass, I saw them in the big open field that is always swarming with kids on the weekends, playing soccer or chasing baseballs. Toby was running back and forth down the length of the field and HoLMS was cutting a figure eight in the first soccer field. With each pass, the eight had gotten larger until it most likely could now be seen from the International Space Station.

I scurried down the embankment toward the escapees and it was then that I remembered that I had my phone in my pocket. Calling up my communications app, I dialed HoLMS.

“What in the world are you doing?” I asked, wondering what sort of reply I’d get.

“Oh, hello, Dr. Watson. Nice to see you. Toby seemed to want to stretch his legs and I’ve just been experimenting with a new cutting pattern while I keep my eye on him. I hope that is alright. We were going to be heading home soon.” HoLMS said this in a voice that made it sound like the most natural thing in the world for the two of them to have done.

“Well, first of all, you should have asked my permission to leave the yard and secondly, If the animal control people had been around, Toby would be in the Leawood Animal Shelter right now, waiting for me to come bail him out. Did you think about that?” Wait, I’m scolding my lawn mower and suggesting that it think about the consequences of its action? This was getting a bit strange.

“I’m really sorry, Dr. Watson. I guess I didn’t consider the possibility that Toby would be in danger. It won’t happen again. Shall we go home?”

“Home.” That was the second time HoLMS had used that word. Did he think of the place he spent most of his time mowing and recharging as “home?” And why was I now referring to HoLMS as “he” instead of “it?” Had our relationship changed? I was beginning to think I might need to bring this up when I had my bi-weekly therapy session with Dr. Sidney Paget.

I can hear him now: “So, tell me… You talk to your lawn mower and think it is a ‘he.’ Do you think that is a result of your unresolved issues with your father?”

No, probably not a good time to bring it up.

I whistled for Toby, who had not seen me to that point, and when he raced up to me, he nearly knocked me over in what seemed to be pure joy at having the opportunity to “stretch his legs,” as HoLMS had said.

We headed home and by the time we got there, HoLMS seemed to be in need of a charge. He chugged over to his charging station and I thought I heard him let out a sigh as he plugged himself in. Toby and I went into the house and Toby collapsed on his bed next to the patio doors that open out to the back yard, from which location he can keep an eye on HoLMS… when his eyes are open, which they weren’t for very long then.

For the next few weeks, everything seemed to be back to normal. Occasionally, I’d get a text message from HoLMS once again apologizing for leaving the yard. I assured him that I was not mad at him, but made sure that he knew that leaving the yard like that was not OK. He seemed to accept that restriction and went on diligently with his lawn cutting duties.

About once a week, I’d get a reminder from the manufacturer to attend to some type of maintenance to keep HoLMS in top condition. One day, Mary’s father, Arthur Morstan, Captain, USMC retired, dropped by to chat, which he did, when he had run out of projects to do at his house.

“What’s up, John?” he asked as he walked into the garage where I had HoLMS up on a pair of saw horses topped with a piece of plywood.

“Oh, just oiling my lawn mower’s gears,” I said, not referring to him as HoLMS. Arthur might not have understood.

“What are you using? I always just spray some WD40 on whatever needs oiling. WD40 and duct tape. You can do anything with WD40 and duct tape.” Arthur approached everything from the simplest angle; a trait that he imparted to his daughter who was able to complete the most complex task in seemingly no time and with the smallest effort. I’m just the opposite. My rule of thumb is: estimate the time it will take to do a task, double that time and then move to the next highest unit of measure. So, if I think something will take ten minutes, it usually ends up taking two hours. Sometimes more. Usually more.

“The manual I got online says to lubricate the gears with a seven percent solution of train oil, which they included in the box Ho…., uh, the mower came in.” I almost slipped and said his name, but managed to catch myself.

“Sounds like you’ve got it in hand. I’ll just go in and see how Mary’s doing. See you later.”

Arthur and I had a cordial, if not exceedingly friendly, relationship. He had always thought I wasn’t quite good enough for his daughter, Mary Morstan. The fact that I had not served in the military, as he had, was one of the sticking points. The fact that he considered me an “egghead” was another, even though Mary was even more of an “egghead” than me. An MD and two PhDs in microbiology were just what Arthur expected of his daughter, but my office on the UMKC campus somehow made me part of the liberal elite that he disdained.

I finished oiling the gears and cleaning the small amount grass stuck to the underside of HoLMS’ deck and let him chug back to his charging station for a short top-up. Everything was quiet around the neighborhood until one rainy day a few weeks later in June when I heard Toby whimpering from his bed. When I checked on him, I could tell that something was wrong in the back yard, so I retrieved an umbrella and went outside to investigate. There were no intruders and everything was in order, except that HoLMS wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the front yard, either, so it was apparent that he had taken off again, this time without Toby.

I set off to try to find him, which the wet conditions made easier. I could see his tracks across Mrs. Hudson’s front yard and down the sidewalk toward Lee Boulevard. At the corner of Lee and 104th, the tracks stopped, as had the rain. Which way had he gone? I thought I heard a slight whirring sound coming from the direction of Outlook Street, so I headed that way, but there was no sign of HoLMS and the whirring was coming from a weed whacker being wielded by Charlie Milverton, one of the neighborhood overlords.

“Haven’t seen a roving lawnmower, have you, Charlie?” I asked, trying to sound casual about it.

“A what?”

“Oh, I’ve got one of those mowers that cuts the grass automatically. I thought maybe you’d have seen it on your patrols around the neighborhood.” I immediately regretted using the word “patrol” seeing as how Charlie regarded it his duty as one of the HOA board members to make sure everything was up to his, and his alone, standards.

“No, why would I have seen it?” he asked.

“Well, apparently, it’s gotten out of my yard somehow and taken off on its own. The sensors and GPS must be malfunctioning.”

“That’s pretty strange. No, haven’t seen it, but I’ll let you know if I do. Maybe it’s run off with your chainsaw.” Charlie sort of half laughed and half grunted. That was the closest we’d ever come to a pleasant conversation.

After a few more blocks, I hadn’t found HoLMS and decided to head back home, thinking that perhaps he was returning to his charger. When I got home, Toby was still sitting by the patio door, looking out forlornly.

“I’m sure HoLMS will be coming back soon, Toby,” I said trying to comfort him as best I could. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, he was glued to his spot and didn’t even want to eat his dinner, which he usually wolfs down. When I let him out in the back yard, he ran to the charging station and then made several circuits around the yard looking for his buddy.

When Mary got home from her office, she asked, “What’s going on with Toby?”

“You won’t believe this, but HoLMS got out again and I haven’t been able to find him. I’ve called all the neighbors I can think of and no one has seen him. Toby’s distraught.”

Mary gave me that look she has that says “This is the result of one of your kooky ideas, isn’t it?” but she didn’t say anything. She went out in the back yard and Toby came over to her.

“It’ll be OK, sweetie. Your dad will find your friend.” Toby looked skeptical and I was pretty sure Mary actually was.

The next morning, HoLMS still hadn’t returned and I decided to print up some fliers like the ones you see around town, people looking for lost cats and kids. It felt a bit silly, but I thought perhaps HoLMS was just stuck under a bush somewhere and someone would let me know where he was. I offered a small reward for information leading to his retrieval, but no one called the number I posted.

Every day for the next week, I sent HoLMS a text through “Irene” but he didn’t respond. I figured that his battery must be completely exhausted and so he wasn’t able to communication.

On the Saturday morning after HoLMS had been gone for several days, the doorbell rang and there were three kids standing there, one of whom had one of the fliers in his hand. I recognized them as the ones Mrs. Hudson referred to as the “Pawnee Street Irregulars.”

“You paying a reward for this thing?” he asked.

“Yes, do you know where it is? Have you seen it?”

“Yeah, we were riding our bikes over by the school and I saw it cutting the grass on the field out back. How much do we get?”

“I’ll give you five bucks right now and if you go over with me and it’s still there, I’ll give you another ten.”

“We’ll take the five. We’ve got stuff to do. Good luck, mister.” I wondered what they had to do that was worth giving up ten dollars, but kids these days are pretty busy, I know. Probably on their way to terrorize Mrs. Hudson’s cat.

The kid handed me the flier and I handed him his five dollars. I left it up to them to decide how to divide it up. As they rode away, I wondered if they’d actually seen HoLMS, but I figured it was worth the money because I had a lead at last as to his whereabouts.

The elementary school is only about five minutes from my house, so I decided just to walk over to see if the kids were right. As I got close, I thought I could hear the familiar whir of blades cutting grass and the sound of children laughing. When I got there, sure enough, HoLMS was in the field that serves as an area for recess when school is in session and an all-purpose play field for the neighborhood kids during the summer. And, sure enough, there were about a half dozen kids running after him as he scurried back and forth across the field. They all seemed to be having a great time, HoLMS included.

As I approached, HoLMS must have sensed me coming and he made a beeline for an opening in the fence that spanned the back part of the field. He can move pretty fast and before I could catch up to him, he had disappeared into the adjacent neighborhood. He apparently had turned off his cutting blades, because there was no new-mown path indicating which way he had gone and he was on “silent running” like that old Bruce Dern movie.

Now what to do? He obviously didn’t want to be discovered, for some reason, so I decided that perhaps the thing to do was just to wait and see if he ever came “home” again. I knew Toby would be heartbroken if he didn’t and what was I going to do about the lawn? Charlie Milverton would be on my case if I didn’t get it cut pretty soon. It had been nearly two weeks and it was beginning to return to its former natural state.

When I got home, Mary was fixing lunch and Toby was sitting dejectedly by the patio doors, quietly whimpering.

“He’s been like that for the last two weeks,” Mary said. “You are going to have to find that thing or we are going to have to get the vet to give him some tranquilizers.”

“I know,” I said. “Maybe I could get him one of those remote-controlled cars and let him chase it around the back yard.”

“I think he’d know the difference. He’s unnaturally attached to that lawn mower.”

So, that afternoon, I printed up new fliers with a $100 reward this time, hoping that would stimulate some interest, or search parties, or something, anything. If it worked, it would be cheaper than vet bills and doggie Valium. Maybe even human Valium for Mary and me.

But nothing.

For two months, no one called or knocked on the door with information about the whereabouts of our fugitive lawn mower. I had, however, gotten several calls from the HOA vigilantes threatening to, at the least, turn me in to the City for violating the excess weeds ordinance and at most, start a controlled burn on my front lawn since this, by now, was late September and the grass was an even shade of beige since we had never spent the money to put in a sprinkler system and I wasn’t inclined to stand in the yard with a hose, watering it.

I briefly thought about trying to exercise the replacement clause in the warranty, but I wasn’t sure the company would think “left the yard and hasn’t been seen since” would be a reason for giving me a new mower. Likewise, I didn’t want to endure the laughter that our insurance agent, Jonathan Small, would direct my way when I tried to explain why I was submitting a claim.

I considered calling the police to report a theft, but I knew that wasn’t the reason HoLMS was gone, though there had been several segments on one of the local TV news shows about the mysterious disappearance of all sorts of lawn equipment over the summer: leaf blowers, weed whackers, riding lawnmowers and… rechargeable, self-guided mowers! All of the missing equipment seemed to be from Overland Park, Prairie Village, and Leawood. Was there some crime ring operating locally that was stealing lawn maintenance equipment? Had HoLMS been abducted and not just taken off on his own? Why hadn’t I gotten a ransom note?

Finally, just when I had given up hope of ever finding him, a camera crew from the TV station that had been following the story pulled up in front of our house and a reporter knocked on the door.

“Are you Dr. John Watson, the owner of the vandal lawn mower?” the reporter, who looked a bit like a young Regis Philbin, asked.

“Vandal lawnmower? What’s this all about?”

“Well, your lawn mower, and six others, have been rounded up by the Overland Park police and the serial numbers were used to track down you and the other owners. The police should be here any minute. We heard it over the scanner. It seems your lawn mower and the others were discovered on the Bent Willows golf course, cutting the number six fairway this morning.”

The reporter, who recounted this, could barely keep from laughing as he stuck a microphone in my face and asked for a comment.

Before I could say anything, a Leawood Police car and two OP police cars pulled up.

“Well, I’m as perplexed about that as you are. That’s a good three miles from here. My lawn mower has been gone for almost three months now. I can’t imagine how it got there.” I said this to the reporter hurriedly before a policeman from the Leawood PD walked up the driveway and tried to shoo the reporter and camera crew away.

“Dr. Watson, I’m Detective Inspector MacDonald from the Leawood Police Department. Do you own a Horizontal Lawn Maintenance System 3000, known as a HoLMS 3000?”

“Yes, I do, but it’s been missing for quite some time. I understand you’ve located it? My dog has been very distraught about it.”

I said this without thinking and immediately heard snickers from the other police officers, who had gathered around Inspector MacDonald, and from the TV crew, who were straining to hear what was being said and recording every bit of it for the evening news.

“I’m sorry about your dog, but you’ll have to accompany the officers from the Overland Park Department back to their station to identify your equipment and give a statement about what you know about the incident.”

“I’ll be happy to do that,” I said. “Am I being charged with a crime?”

“Well, as far as we can tell, there hasn’t been any damage to the golf course. In fact, the grounds keeper said it was the best job of mowing he’d seen since he’s been there, but I’m sure the OPD will sort that all out. Have a good day.”

And with that, he turned and just past the TV reporter, who had rushed up to to me again, he burst out laughing. In fact, all the policemen were laughing and the cameraman was slowly panning around to catch the scene.

Before the reporter could say anything, I ran over to my car and hopped in, backed down the driveway and drove to the Overland Park station. I had no idea what would show up on the news that evening, but I didn’t want to be interviewed until I could find out exactly what had happened and where HoLMS had been all these weeks.

When I got to the station, I was shown into a large room that looked much like a basketball court. There were several tables set up on which were arrayed a variety of automatic lawn mowers. Was this a lineup, I thought to myself? No, at each of the tables was a person who appeared to be the owner of a mower. There were two Black and Deckers, three Toros, and a Husquevarna. And my HoLMS. As I approached, I could see the control lights on the charging panel light up and begin blinking in some sort of pattern, maybe Morse Code. Now, I don’t know Morse Code, so it was Greek to me, as they say. But my phone also vibrated and when I looked, I could see that I had gotten a text from HoLMS.

“Hello, Dr. Watson. How are you? I’m so glad you are here. Can we go home? I’ve missed Toby.”

“I’ve got a text from my wife,” I said to the police officer who seemed to be in charge of the situation. “Do you mind?”

“Sure, no problem. Take your time.” He turned to the others and resumed filling out paperwork.

I started texting HoLMS: “Give me a minute and we’ll be on our way.”

The police officer turned back to me and said, “Everything OK at home?”

“Yes, just fine. She just asked me to stop at the store on the way home and pick up some milk.”

“I get that text every day. We’ve got three kids,” the officer said, chuckling. “Now, if you could just sign this statement, you can leave. I think it’s pretty clear that no laws have been broken, at least none that we can think of, and the superintendent of the golf course doesn’t want to press any charges. Do you have any explanation for how this all happened?”

Explanation? Was there some way I could tell him that my lawn mower somehow developed a will of its own and decided to go on the lam, without sounding like a complete loon? No, I didn’t think so, so I just said, “Beats me.” That apparently was enough for him; he seemed anxious get the whole business wrapped up and on to other things. Perhaps it was time for his Krispy Kreme break.

I picked up HoLMS and walked to the car. At first, I thought about putting him in the back seat, but instead, I opened the trunk and not-so-gently, dropped him in. As soon as I closed the trunk lid, my phone vibrated and it was another text from HoLMS.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Watson. This will never happen again.”

“You are darn right, it won’t,” I typed. “When we get home, I’m disabling your GPS and Irene and I are going to have words.”

Over the next few weeks, I managed to find out where HoLMS had been and what he had been doing. It’s quite a story, but I’ll save that for another time; Toby wants to go out and play with his friend.

© Charles St.Clair 2020

The Only Child

My brother used to tell people that he was an only-child; most of them knew that wasn’t true.

“But what about Mike?” they’d ask. My name is Mike.

“Oh, he’s just a guy that’s staying with us while his parents are in Europe. I think they are spies.”

I was three years older than Tim, so maybe that’s why he didn’t acknowledge me as being a part of the family. He wanted to be the oldest, the only.

It’s not that we didn’t get along. In private, he’d say that he was really glad that I was his brother and that I was his best friend. Actually, Tim didn’t seem to have many friends. To tell the absolute truth, Tim didn’t have any friends.

When my friends came to the house, Tim would go out to the tool shed in the back yard and tinker with his bike or that ancient lawnmower he used to earn spending money. He never seemed to want to be around my friends, which was just as well; they were a pretty worthless bunch.

Eddie, my best friend, besides Tim, was what was usually called in those days a “juvenile delinquent.” He was the stereotypical JD, right down to his motorcycle boots and the pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve. He was also Fonzi from “Happy Days” around my parents and the rest of our gangs’ parents, as polite and deferential as he could be. How he managed to stay out of jail was a wonder. He must have been a hypnotist because every time he got into a scrape with the principal or the police, he’d look them right in the eye and talk his way out of it. As far as I know, he never made anyone cluck like a chicken, though. Whenever Ronnie and Ned and I were with him, when Eddie was speeding or stealing soda from the gas station cooler, it was the three of us who were caught and punished, not Eddie. We managed to stay out of jail because of Eddie’s skill at explaining the situation as our youthful indiscretions and his promise to keep us in line in the future. I think I heard that Eddie is in the State Department now, a job that I’m sure he’s very good at.

But back to Tim. Being an only child (well pretending that he was) meant that he got special privileges from my parents, and especially from my grandparents. Not only was he the only child, he was also the first grandchild and the first male grandchild back in the days when that really, really mattered. You’d think that we were English nobility, the way our family rewarded birth order.

The first son, of course, inherited the title and money from his father. The second son was expected to go into the church and the third son joined the army. Subsequent male off-spring and daughters basically didn’t count. If you were the fourth, fifth, or sixth son, you might as well have been born into another family, though there had only been one fourth son in eight generations of Watcyn in the “colonies,” he being a complete surprise. Roy Watcyn was my great-great-great Uncle and that’s about all I know about him. No one talks about him, and the family historian, the Rt. Rev. Norman Watcyn, M Div, PhD Psychology, added an asterisk beside his name in the official account of Watcyns down through the ages, with the footnote saying that he was “the fourth son of Grenville and Hilda Watcyn, and a complete surprise.”

My father, Timothy Franklin Watcyn the third, followed his father, my grandfather, Timothy Franklin Watcyn II, in the family business, namely being a modern day robber baron. The family fortune had been assured in the late 1790s when General Augustus Louis Watcyn was granted 75,500 acres of land in western Virginia (now the state of…. West Virginia) by George Washington. Augustus had been one of Washington’s trusted generals in the later stages of the Revolutionary War. Family legend has it, though not entirely confirmed by recorded history, that he had urged Washington to follow General Cornwallis and the British army down to Yorktown, Virginia and engage them in battle. Washington was always conservative when it came to a big fight and he wanted to stay on his plantation at Mount Vernon and wait for the British to make the first move. Again, according to family legend, Augustus went behind Washington’s back and convinced the French to get into the fight and the rest, as they say is history.

Washington never found out what great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Augustus had done, but since the result was so favorable, a reward was due, hence the land-grant, under which just happened to be tons and tons of coal. Now in the 1790s, no one was looking for coal, but the forests were exploitable, as Grandfather Augustus certainly did, after he divided up and ostensibly “sold” off the land to the participants in westward settlement of the new country. As it turned out, when coal was finally discovered, the deeds to parcels sitting atop that coal had a clause that stated that if any minerals were ever found, those minerals could be extracted without permission of or compensation to the owner of the land. At first, the disruptions were minimal, with mines that were little more than shallow holes in ground. But by the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, Augustus’ grandson, Grenville, had established an extensive extraction operation that some say (again family legend) helped the Union to win the war. Moving the great amounts of war equipment and provisions necessary for the war effort would not have been possible had it not been for the extensive rail system in the east, railroads that ran on coal.

By the end of the war, Grandfather Grenville was one of the richest men in the country and his sole goal in life was to increase that wealth. He was pretty good at it, but his son, Timothy the first, was even better. Coal mines turned into railroads which turned into oil wells which turned into banks which turned into mansions in Pittsburgh and Manhattan, Grandfather Grenville having abandoned Wheeling for the centers of wealth and power. Pied a terre were planted in London and Paris, and a trek to some far-off locale was an annual occurrence.

The first chink in the wall of the family fortune happened in 1905 when Grenville decided to build a house at Oyster Bay, New York, next to the Summer White House of President Theodore Roosevelt. Grenville and Roosevelt had become acquainted when Roosevelt was the police commissioner of New York City. Grandfather Grenville had been an early backer of Roosevelt’s political career, but had become more and more critical of his progressive ideas. By the time Roosevelt had become President, Grenville was a sworn enemy and the house on Oyster Bay was meant to be a snub to the President, being three times the size and many times more luxurious.

At first, Roosevelt and his family ignored their new neighbors, but when the Watcyn parties (which sometimes went on for several days, with hundreds of guests) began to disrupt the Sagamore Hill tranquility, Teddy started looking for ways to take Grenville down a peg or two. He found it at the Federal Security Trust Bank, owned by Grandfather Grenville. The bank was the center of a web of interlocking companies and financial institutions which controlled much of the economy of the country, and thereby, the politicians in scores of cities, counties, states and Washington, D.C. Now not all of Grandfather Grenville’s dealings were corrupt (he was a noted philanthropist, though there aren’t any Watcyn Libraries around the country; he was more inclined to having the family name on hospitals and, ironically, “insane asylums”), but enough questions were asked on occasion to raise suspicions and along with other notables such as Gould, Frick and Morgan before him, he began to lose his grip on his political power and on his empire. By the time Roosevelt left office, most of the Watcyn family fortune had vanished, as had Grenville’s grasp on the world. For the last years of his life, he was confined to a room in the Watcyn State Lunatic Hospital, an institution he endowed with his money from the sale of a couple of oil fields to some guy named Rockefeller.

My great grandfather, Timothy Franklin Watcyn determined to undue damage done by his father and through the remaining connections the family had, obtained a position on the staff of Congressman Nicholas Longworth, who you may remember was married to Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice. It seems that while their fathers were feuding back in Oyster Bay, Tim and Alice became playmates and life-long friends, which hastened Timothy’s reentry into the world of power and wealth. When Nick Longworth became Speaker of the House in 1925, Timothy was in a position to grant and withhold favors all day long, which he was remarkably good at. When the Republicans lost the majority in the House in 1930, Tim used his influence (and the small fortune he managed to amass on his salary as assistant to Nick Longworth!) to buy a bank in Cincinnati that was about to close as a result of the aftermath of the 1929 crash. He renamed it the Federal Security Trust Bank, thumbing his nose at the people who deserted the family after his father’s fall from grace.

The bank had grown to be one of the largest and most influential in Ohio when my father joined it in 1941, having just graduated from the Wharton School of Business. His fledgling finance career was cut short by the entry of the United States into the Second World War. Given the family connections, it was quite possible that my father could have avoided serving, that honor to have befallen my Uncle Richmond, the third son. But my father’s sense of duty (and my grandfather’s insistence) led him to sign up for the Army Air Corp on the same day that my Uncle Gus joined the navy as a chaplain and Uncle Richmond volunteered for the army.

My father came home from the war a hero, having flown some of the final missions over Germany in 1945. Uncle Gus landed on Iwo Jima and Uncle Richmond served out the war as a clerk at Fort Riley, Kansas. Dad picked up where he left off at the bank and in the early ‘50s was in charge of buying up properties along the Cincinnati waterfront because my grandfather got news that the Federal government was about to begin a program to build a network of “super highways” across the nation. He and Uncle Gus (who had, as a second son was expected to, gone into the church) got into a fight one day because many of the properties dad was buying belonged to some of the poorest of the poor residents of our town. My dad said it was just business, but Uncle Gus said it was immoral to offer almost nothing for their homes, especially since they would have little money to buy anything else. That was the last time I saw my Uncle Gus at our house.

One day, Tim asked, “Mike, do you think it would be OK if we went to St. Auben’s to see Uncle Gus?” Tim knew about the fight between the adults, but he and Uncle Gus seemed to have a special bond and Tim didn’t want to lose that connection.

“Well, I don’t think it would hurt, as long as dad doesn’t find out.”

“Does your dad know Uncle Gus?” Tim asked. I couldn’t tell if he was just kidding or if he was really puzzled by my statement.

This was a new development in our relationship. In public, he never acknowledged that we were brothers, but in private, it was never a question. Something had changed.

“Tim, he’s my uncle, too. You know that. Why would you ask that question?”

“Sorry, Mike, I forgot.”

Maybe Tim was beginning to think that I really wasn’t his brother. Maybe he’d said it so many times that it was becoming real.

A few days later, we hopped on a streetcar and went to St.Auben’s to see Uncle Gus. St.Auben’s was one of the largest Episcopal churches in Cincinnati and Uncle Gus was the Assistant Rector. Our great Uncle Harrison had once been the Rector at St.Auben’s until his elevation to Bishop of Cincinnati. It was assumed that Uncle Gus would become Rector when Rev. Nelson retired, which seemed imminent, family connections paving the way even in the world of religion.

When we got to St.Auben’s, we found Uncle Gus in the garden, tending to the roses; he was an avid gardener, having won medals at the Cincinnati Rose Show, three years in a row. When he saw us he said, “Hi, Tim. How are you doing? Whose your friend?”

Whose your friend?

“This is Mike. He’s staying with us until his parents get back from Europe.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mike. Having a good time with Tim and his family?”

I was so taken aback by this that I didn’t respond right away. By the time I had gained some composure, Tim was asking Uncle Gus what kind of roses he was growing.

“Uncle Gus, quit kidding around. Have you forgotten that I’m Tim’s older brother?”

Tim and Uncle Gus looked at each other with one of those looks that you use when you want to humor someone.

“Mike, I’m sure that Tim appreciates having an ‘older brother.’ It’s always been hard on him, being an only child.”

Uncle Gus was trying to be kind, but it came across as slightly condescending, like somehow I couldn’t possibly be a part of the family. It was also clear that no other discussion or explanation was possible. Tim was an only child and I was a friend whose parents were in Europe. Period. Full stop. OK, that’s redundant, but you get the point.

On the way home, Tim was quieter than usual. Several times I started to ask about what had just happened, but it didn’t seem to be something he wanted to talk about. I let it drop, but a few days later, I heard our dad talking to Tim.

“Tim, I know that you are just a freshman in high school, but you need to be thinking about your future,” dad began. “This is the time in your life to start getting serious about your studies. You know that after high school, your grandfather and I want you to go to Wharton and then come work with us in the bank.”

Wait, he wants Tim to go to work in the bank? That’s what I’m supposed to do when I graduate. I’m going to send my college application off in a few weeks and I have no doubt that I’ll be accepted, considering who my father and grandfather are. Before I knew what I was doing, I walked into the next room where Tim and my dad were talking and I said, “Why are you making plans with Tim when the oldest son in this family always goes into the family business? That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
For the first time in my life, I actually felt like an outsider. Perhaps that was when I realized that I was an outsider.

“Mike, I’d be happy to talk to you about making banking a career, but I have some news for you that I think will make you much happier: I got a telegram from your parents this morning. They are coming home from Europe and will land tomorrow afternoon in Washington. They’ve asked me to get a ticket for you on the Friday morning flight to Dulles, so you’d better go start packing. They’ll meet you at the airport.”

I suppose the look on my face could have been mistaken for joy, but in fact it must have reflected my incredulity. The man I thought was my dad wasn’t and Tim wasn’t my brother. Like my Uncle Gus said, Tim really was an only child.

Draft two of a new short story

Art History 101

“Good morning, Dr. Johnson. How’s your day going so far?”

Eddie Spenser, the owner of Marlowe’s Book Store, greeted me like he had every morning for the last ten years.

You see, for the past decade (could it possibly be that long?), right after my cappuccino and croissant at Lakota, I’ve stopped in his shop on the way to my office to prepare for a class or for an endless round of meetings with students, other faculty members in the Department of Art History and Archeology , or nosy administrators inquiring about progress toward our “Standards of Excellence” goals. I’ve found the fifteen or twenty minutes I’ve allowed myself to pick through the stacks of books that constitute Eddie’s merchandising system have had an effect not unlike what some commuters report about their drive to work: it clears the mind for the day ahead.

An unfortunate consequence of my daily ritual, however, is that I almost always leave with one or two books — some gems, some tailings. This morning was no different, but I’m not yet sure what the outcome of my purchase will be. You see the book that I bought, and which I just finished reading, is entitled “James Henry Johnson: The Life and Crimes of a Master Art Thief.”

My full name, curiously, is also James Henry Johnson.

“Eddie, do you know anything about this book?” I asked, hoping that he could tell me something about its source.

“I’m sorry, Dr. Johnson, I don’t remember buying that one. Where did you find it?”

“It was in that new stack up by the biography shelves,” I said.

I was more than a little surprised that Eddie couldn’t identify the book. In spite of the studied chaos of the store, he seemed to know every book that came in or went out. Want a book about Napoleon’s horse, Marengo? He could tell you about four he had had over the years and just where to find the remaining one in the three floor of his shop. Looking for a book on trout fishing on the Flathead River in Montana? Chances are he had two down in the sports and recreation section in the basement. Need a textbook for Dr. Formsby’s English Lit class? Yes, he had that and just about any other textbook that the faculty of the University of Missouri might be using this semester.

“The author is Grant Fields. Can you find him in your database?”

Eddie’s “database” was a massive card catalog he had created over the forty years he owned Marlowe’s. A few years ago, a student in library science offered to computerize his index as a project for a class, but Eddie declined, not because he is a Luddite who eschews computers, but because he believes his system is faster and more accurate, a belief that has been proved correct a couple of times when other students have come in with their laptops and challenged him to a book search.

“Give me a second. Yes, right here. ‘Grant Fields (b. 1934, d. 2009). The author of fifteen biographies of famous criminals, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow, Machine Gun Kelly, and James Henry Johnson. Fields taught at Stephens College from 1962 to 2004.’

“Now that’s odd. Why did I forget about him? I’ve had most of his books at one time or another and I remember him coming in to buy now and then.” Eddie seemed perplexed and a little embarrassed by his lapse in memory. “Say, is this criminal James Henry Johnson a relative of yours?”

“I’ve never heard of him before,” I replied. “I suppose we all have black sheep in our families, but this one must be from an entirely different branch of the family tree.”

I handed Eddie ten dollars for the book and headed to my office. It was a beautiful spring day, as spring days often are on college campuses. There is nothing like a stroll through Peace Park when the air is warm and the daffodils are in bloom. We had suffered through a particularly brutal winter in Columbia and everyone was glad to be able to walk from the Heidelberg to the Medical School after breakfast or from Jesse Hall to Booche’s for lunch without getting frostbite.

When I arrived at Pickard Hall, I found a note on my door from a student who was scheduled for an 8:30 appointment. Apparently, she had come down with some virulent disease and had been advised by “someone at the Student Health Center” to stay home for a couple of days to heal. Likely the “someone” was another student who decided that the weather was just too good to waste on appointments with advisors and had convinced her of the same.

Since I had a free half hour, I decided to open the book I had just purchased and see who this other James Henry Johnson was. Chapter 1 recounted the daring theft of Cezanne’s “The Boy in the Red Vest” from a museum in Switzerland. The painting has never been recovered, but all the evidence pointed to Johnson, who was in Zurich at the time, according to his passport, which was examined by the police upon his short detention. He was released for lack of evidence, as apparently he was many times in his career. Zurich is one of my favorite cities and oddly enough, I was there at the same time attending an international conference on the “sound poems” of Kurt Schwitters. My specialty is the visual literature of Dada, which my colleague, Myrna Samuels refers to as Dadature.

As I was finishing Chapter 1, Lois, the department administrative assistant knocked on my door and asked if it would be a problem if Robby North rescheduled his meeting with me (to discuss the faculty picnic planned for the end of the semester; not a big priority by any means). Robby (Doctor Robert North, professor of Ancient Art), she said, had come down with some bug and wouldn’t be in today.

“There seems to be something going around,” I said.

“Yes, I think I’m coming down with it, too,” Lois said, laughing. “I think it’s spring fever. I could barely get my kids off to school this morning. They were both complaining of headaches. They’ve never had a headache in their lives.”

Well, with Dr. North out of the way, I had another hour before my first class. Perhaps enough time to read another chapter or two to see what my doppelgänger had gotten himself into in times past.

Chapter 2 began at the beginning: Johnson’s birth and early childhood in northwest Missouri, in the little town of Skidmore. You might remember that Skidmore was the scene of a series of crimes back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, attributed to one Ken Rex McElroy. For a period of eight or nine years, McElroy terrorized the town with assaults, arson and robberies. He came to be known as the “bully of Skidmore.” One day, as he sat in his truck outside a bar in town, he was shot twice and killed. Although there were as many as fifty potential witnesses to the crime, no one came forward to identify the killer or killers. Local and Federal investigations failed to uncover the person responsible for the murder and the case remains officially unsolved and to this day and no one in town has talked about it.

While all of this was widely known at the time, it was of particularly interest to me because I grew up in the next town over, in Maryville. It turns out that I was born the same year as the other James Henry Johnson, but in all the time I lived there, I never heard his name mentioned. According to his biography, Johnson was a gifted but troubled youth. His parents divorced when he was two and he was mainly reared by his grandmother. His only contact with his father was when he was sixteen. Johnson was called out of class to identify his father’s body, the senior Johnson having been shot and killed in a hunting accident. His mother showed up at the coroner’s office at the same time, but she was too drunk to even recognize her own son, let alone the husband who had abused and abandoned her fourteen years before.

By all accounts, Johnson was a good student and talented artist, but beginning about that time, he started having brushes with law enforcement. At first, his run-ins were minor violations: underage drinking and driving, fights after football games, shop lifting at the convenience store in Skidmore, but by the time he was eighteen, his escapades had escalated to more serious crimes. Two days after his graduation from high school, he was arrested for breaking into the bookstore on the Northwest Missouri State College campus and stealing $200 worth of art supplies. He was sentenced to thirty days in the county jail. His arrest resulted in his scholarship to Northwest being rescinded and his future becoming even cloudier.

My growing-up years were a bit different from his, but I had some of the same difficulties. My parents also divorced when I was quite young and I went to live with my grandparents in St.Joseph. I imagine my interest in art and architecture developed in St.Joe, as it is call by the natives. My grandparents lived in a sprawling old house on North 5th Street that had once been owned by Eugene Field. I used to wander around Hall Street, just north of the downtown, marveling at the ornate houses, especially at Christmas time when they all seemed to glow from within. The light coming through the stained glass windows made them look like they were encrusted with diamonds and rubies. Local legend, or perhaps just gossip, held that the windows in one of the houses actually had gems embedded. In any case, those windows inspired some of my earliest drawings.

My artistic talent was recognized by one of my teachers at Lafayette High School, Miss Lilian West, who encouraged me to pursue a college degree in the field. I was fortunate to earn a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute and completed my BFA and MFA there. What followed was a series of teaching jobs on the east coast and sabbaticals in the art capitals of Europe. Finally, I settled here in Columbia and have lived in the Grasslands for these ten years. It is, all in all, an idyllic life. I teach and paint and listen to the roar from the football stadium on crisp fall afternoons.

Meanwhile, the other James Henry Johnson was completing a five year term in the Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery, having held up a convenience store in Brookfield (convenience stores being easy targets at that time, the early ‘70s; security cameras were something that were only written about in science fiction then). While in prison, Johnson apparently found his real calling, robbery being a risky and uncertain business at best. He started taking art history classes through an outreach program from Washington University in St.Louis and painting portraits of his fellow prisoners in the little free time that was available to him. A local art gallery owner happened to see one of his paintings at a prison art show and arranged to exhibit his work in her shop. Several of his works (in addition to portraits, Johnson painted scenes of life inside the prison) sold over the course of a year and the gallery owner set up a bank account in his name so when he was released, he had a $3000 nest egg to begin his new life.

I had just started reading Chapter 3 when Lois again knocked on my door to tell me that my class was set to begin in half an hour, she having sensed that I was losing track of time. Lois keeps everyone in this department on our toes; most of us exhibit the absent-minded professor syndrome to a T. Today’s lecture was on the embedded poetry in Francis Picabia’s painting “L’oeil cacodylate,” a soliloquy I’ve given a couple of dozen times or more and one that never fails to put at least one or two students to sleep. I’ve always told myself that it is not my words that induce somnolence, but the stuffy lecture hall in Pickard that does the trick.

Today, my lecture managed to put about half the class in a state of untroubled torpor and I must admit that there were a couple of times when I thought that my droning was going to make me drop off, too. While I was giving voice to the genius of Dada, my mind was back in my office, wondering what was going to happen to James Henry Johnson in Chapter 3, and 4, and 5, and…

Mercifully, I reached the end of my disquisition and the accompanying sixty slides (despite the prodding of our new, young department chair, most of the faculty in Art History still use a slide projector for our lectures; at one point, Dr. Royce even refused to have the ancient projectors repaired in hopes that that would force us to adopt modern digital technology, but Dr. Warner thwarted that scheme by buying six nearly-new projectors on eBay, which we all applauded, but we also sensed that one day, that equipment would suddenly disappear and we’d be stuck with pixilated Paladinos, Picassos, and Poussins), dismissed the still-conscious students (being careful not to awaken the others), and hurried back to my office and the book. A quick check of my desk calendar indicated that I had no other appointments for the day, so I settled in with a cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot) to read.

Chapter 3 was entitled “The First Forgery.” It seems that Johnson had picked up a few skills in prison besides portraiture: he had become adept at copying art from any period in history. While he didn’t have access to authentic materials, he was able to mimic the look and feel of a Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Raphael, Cezanne, Thomas Eakins, Manet, Schiele, Whistler, or Courbet. His paintings of Missouri scenes would fool even the most knowledgeable Benton expert and more than one person immediately recognized an undiscovered Rothko he created. Now the Missouri State Penitentiary is not known as the place to make connections in the art forgery underworld, but inmates there know people who know people who know people. Once on the outside, Johnson used his bank account to begin purchasing old canvasses, pigments and the binders he needed to begin his new career. His first fake was a Titian created for a dealer in Minneapolis who had a client who had more money than art sense. The dealer created the provenance for the painting and had it “authenticated” by a supposed “curator” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Minneapolis dealer also connected Johnson to associates in New York, London and Paris who had clients looking for works by specific artists, paintings that had long before disappeared from sight or works in the style of a particular artist, works that had never actually existed. Johnson was well compensated for his efforts and they took him to Europe, South America and the Far East. While “on assignment” in Vienna, he was approached about another type of activity; his client wanted him to steal a painting by Cezanne from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The client had a large collection of Cezannes (most of which Johnson recognized as forgeries, a couple of which he had painted himself, but he decided not to reveal that in case there was some question later about the one that he stole) and wanted to add a specific piece entitled “Auvers-sur-Oise at Dusk.” The description of the theft was the subject of Chapter 4 and it showed how Johnson gradually shifted from art forgery to art theft.

As I read of his exploits in subsequent chapter, an unease came over me. Many of the locations from which Johnson stole art were places I had visited, sometimes on vacation but more often as part of a conference I was attending or lecture I was presenting. I was in London in 1978 when Johnson stole a Turner from the National Maritime Museum. I attended a conference in Paris in 1981 at the same time that Johnson took three Renoirs from the Musee de Monmartre, just two block from my hotel. Johnson and I were both in Barcelona in 1994 when a Picasso went missing from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. My lectures on Dada in Berlin, Tokyo, Tbilisi, Georgia and Mantova, Italy incredibly happened at the same time that paintings, prints, engravings, etchings, and photographs disappeared from collections, galleries and museums in those cities. Was the other James Henry Johnson following me around the globe? Was I somehow following him?

And then about 2000, he just disappeared from the map (oddly, that was just about the time that I came to the University of Missouri from Yale). During the ‘70s, ‘80s and late ‘90s, he came close to being caught several times, but managed to slip through the fingers of the art crimes units of Interpol, Scotland Yard and the FBI. Where had he gone? Why had he given up his spectacular and, one imagines, very lucrative career? Had he been killed by a disgruntled client? The last chapter of the book speculated on his whereabouts (was he living a quiet life back in Skidmore, unrecognized after all these years?), but concludes that unless a crime with his “fingerprints” occurs we may never know what happened to one of the most famous criminals of all time.

As I closed the book, I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already 4:15. I stood up to gather a few things to work on at home just as Lois knocked on the door.

“Dr. Johnson, there are a couple of men here to see you. They say they are from the FBI.”

Startled, I knocked the book I had spent the day reading off the desk and it landed with the back of the dust jacket facing up. I had not noticed it before, but there, in black and white, was a photo of the master art forger and thief, James Henry Johnson. It was my picture.

© Charles St.Clair, 2014

Words/Works VIII

A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a handsome Princess (OK, I know that Princesses are supposed to be beautiful, but this Princess had more of a timeless look about her that was somewhere between almost pretty and verging on beautiful, so most people, when they met her, would say “That is one handsome Princess,” but not to her face of course) who was carried off by bandits at an early age (just to be clear, it was the Princess, not the bandits, who was young; the bandits were all adults, but to be entirely accurate, one of the bandits was only eighteen at the time and you can probably already see where this is going).  To be strictly correct, the Princess was not a Princess in the sense that she was not the daughter of a King or in a direct or immanent line to be Queen or likely to marry a Prince, although she had hopes in that last regard.  The Princess was a Princess because her father, the Earl of Wormsley, called her that.

“Why have you abducted me? What have I done to be treated this way?” the Princess asked the highwayman who appeared to be the bandit-in-charge.

“We are sorry, M’Lady, but we are poor, but honest, men who were tenants on your fathers land until he saw the episode of Downton Abbey in which Matthew finally convinced Lord Grantham that the estate had to be modernized,” the B-I-C explained. “Your father decided that the only way to save his holdings was to replace most of us with John Deere tractors. We’ve had no choice but to turn to a life of crime to provide for our families. The recession has made marauding less profitable than we had hoped, so we came to the decision that kidnapping you was our last resort.” At the end of this explanation, the highwayman doffed his cap and bowed low to the Princess.

“M’Lady, we have no desire to harm you. We simply hope that you will intercede with your father and communicate to him that you will be released upon his payment of 10,000 pounds to each of the families he has displaced. My name is Roger Smalley. This is my nephew, Mayhew. There is John Wicks, Thomas Williams, and Peter Croyle. Your father will recognize our names.”

“My good man, I completely sympathize with your cause.  My father is an honorable man and when he hears of your plight, I’m sure he’ll comply,” said the Princess, who had just taken notice of Mayhew, leaning on the fender of her father’s Rolls Royce.

“This is the quickest case of Stockholm Syndrome I’ve ever seen,” whispered John Wicks to Thomas Williams.

“At least we won’t have spend weeks with endless counter offers.  That gets really tedious,” Thomas said.

“Sir, Mr. Smalley, may I call you Roger?” the Princess asked.

“Yes, of course, M’Lady.”

“Good.  Now, Roger, if you’ll give me back my iPhone, I’ll call my father and arrange a meeting and this whole business can be done with.” While she was saying this, the Princess pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and pretended to remove a speck of dust from her eye.  She was, in fact, concealing the wink that she directed in Mayhew’s direction.

For his part, Mayhew was a bit flustered by the gesture, understanding the social distance between himself and the Princess.  But he quickly regained his composure and returned the wink, with both eyes.

When Roger Smalley had handed her phone to her, the Princess said, “Siri, dial Daddy.”
In less than a second, the phone was ringing at Wormsley Hall.  With as much haste as he could muster, the head butler, Garson, headed to the Library to answer the insistent ringing.

“That confounded instrument. I wish Lord Ransom had never had it installed,” Garson said in his usual gruff, but lovable way.  “Wormsley Hall.  This is Garson. How may I be of service?”

“Garson, so good to hear your voice. This is Lady Larry; is my father there?”

Now, at this point it might be good to explain why the Princess referred to herself as Lady Larry.  You see Lord and Lady Ransom, like every other aristocratic family in Europe, and in most of the Hamptons, wanted a son as their firstborn in order that the title to their great estate would be transferred without any of that tiresome legal mumbo jumbo.  Alas (note: all Fairytales are require by tiresome legal mumbo jumbo to use the word “Alas” at least once in the telling of any story; see Grimm vs. “The Little Mermaid,” 1964, 2 Q.B. 276), the firstborn of the Earl of Wormsley was a girl. Equally unfortunately for her, her grandmother, the dowager countess, Lady Viola, had already picked out a name for the child and had it inscribed on a pillar at the local branch of the Church of England, which just happened to be a chapel next to her bedroom on the east end of Wormsley Hall. The new baby’s name was Lady Lawrence William Henry George Charles Oscar de Wilde Ransom, but everyone just called her Lady Larry.

“Just a moment, M’Lady.  I believe Lord Ransom is upstairs instructing one of the maids on the proper way to build a fire. I’ll send Nobby to fetch him.” Nobby was one of the footmen.

After some time searching through the thirty-two rooms on the second floor of Wormsley Hall, Nobby found Lord Ransom and informed him that he had a phone call from Lady Larry.

“Very good, Nobby.  I’ll be right down after I show Lucy how to start a fire with just two sticks and a ball of twine.”

Lord Ransom finally descended to the Library and picked up the old fashioned phone, you know the kind with a receiver and mouthpiece that looks a bit like a banana. It’s connected by a coiled wire to a part that has a series of buttons one pushes to make a connection. Wormsley Hall was moving very slowing into the twenty-first century.

“Princess,” Lord Ransom said. “How good it is to hear from you.  We missed you at lunch. Lady Dribble has asked me to inquire if you will be able to help her pick out her wardrobe for when she and the stable boy elope.”

“Daddy, I’m afraid Dribble will just have to pick out her own wardrobe.  Daddy, I’ve been abducted by highwaymen and they are demanding money for my release.”

“Oh, dear, I’m sure that Lady Dribble will be very disappointed in the news.  She respects your sense of style and knows that you wouldn’t send her off looking like… well, a stable boy’s wife. Now about this abduction, you say that highwaymen are demanding money for your release?” Lord Ransom occasionally had difficulties prioritizing issues that arose with his family and the staff.

“Daddy, these highwaymen were tenants on the estate. You replaced them with John Deere tractors.  I think you owe them something for all the years that they worked for almost nothing, except for the annual Running of the Weasels.”

Weasel Days was the one time during the year when commoners and aristocrats could let down their hair and associate like almost normal people. The highlight of the week-long celebration was the “Running of the Weasels” which did not, in fact, involve any real weasels, they being an endangered and protected species in Great Britain at that time.  Rather, “Weasels” was the term given to fifteen and sixteen year-old boys from the village who were allowed a five minute head start before Lord Ransom’s hounds were let out of their cages.  It was always an exciting event, with very little loss of blood.

“Daddy, I have an idea.  You invite them to have dinner tonight and you and Mr. Smalley can have a nice chat and work out the details of how the money for my release will be conveyed.” The Princess had cooked up this plan as a way of spending some time alone with Mayhew. She had earlier suggested to Mr. Smalley that while he and the other men were at dinner, Mayhew should be left behind to make sure she didn’t escape, not that she had any intention of doing so.

“Do they dress for dinner?” Lord Ransom asked. “You know your grandmother is a stickler for proper attire.  She’ll never let me forget the time I tried to wear a cardigan at breakfast.”

“I’ll make sure that they are presentable.  Now, what time shall I tell them? Six?”

With that, Lady Larry ended her call, checked her email and her text messages, of which there were eleven from Lady Dribble wondering if she would need to pack her Wellies for the south of France.

Meanwhile, back at Wormsley Hall…

“Garçon!  Garçon! Come here.”

“Yes, M’Lord.  How can I be of service?” Garson, the butler entered the room, scowling. “If I may say, M’Lord, you know that my name is Garson, not Garçon.  Garçon is the French word for boy and as you know, I am neither French nor have I been a boy for some years.”

“Garçon, Garson.  What does it matter?  In fact, I think you should see my solicitor in the morning and have your name changed so it’s not so confusing.”

“And what would you have me change it to, M’Lord?” Oh, here it comes again, Garson thought.  He and Lord Ransom had been having this conversation at least twice a day for the forty years that Garson had been in service at Wormsley Hall.

“How about…. Randy!  That’s easy to remember.”

“If I may say, M’Lord, Randy is hardly the name for the head butler of a grand estate like this. Randy is a name for the sidekick of the star of one of those American sitcoms on Sunday night opposite our wonderful British dramas produced in Boston for WGBH.” Garson tried his best to provide an example that would evoke revulsion on the part of Lord Ransom, which is exactly what it did.

“Oh, all right. Garson it shall stay.  But I still like Randy.”

“Very good, M’Lord. Now, what may I do for you?”

“Randy…. I mean Garson, please inform Lady Ransom that we will be having guests for dinner tonight. Those bandits that kidnapped Lady Larry will be dining with us.”

“Surely you can’t be serious, M’Lord,” Garson said in feigned astonishment.

“I am, and don’t call me Shirley.”  It was an old joke between them, but it always worked to lighten the mood, which was much needed right now, considering the abduction and the uncertainty surrounding Lady Dribble’s wardrobe.

“I’ll also inform Mrs. Escuse and she can tell Mrs. Hatmore of the plans for the evening,” Garson said, shuddering to think what that conversation might be like.

There was a strict hierarchy within the household that had to be observed at all times.  Garson would never think of going directly to Mrs. Hatmore, the cook. It wasn’t done. Besides, she had a temper and for another, she had a temper. Garson, truth be told, was a bit afraid of Mrs. Hatmore; she always seemed to have a knife in her hand. Best let Mrs. Escuse break the news.

“You can’t be serious, surely,” Mrs. Hatmore exploded when Mrs. Escuse told her that there would be three extra unkempt guests for dinner.

“Mrs. Hatmore, I’ve told you at least a dozen times that my name is not Shirley. I’ll thank you to call me Mrs. Escuse.”

“Well, excuse me, Mrs. High and Mighty. I didn’t call you Shirley.  I’ve never called you Shirley. And in the future, I’d appreciate being given more than twenty minutes to prepare dinner for extra guests.  It’s bad enough that we have Lord and Lady Ransom, and old lady Lady Viola, and Lady Larry, Lady Dribble, Lady Emu, and those other people who somehow have been living here for a year thinking that this is going to be their grand house one day, and the stable boy who’s about to marry Lady Dribble and that cad from the car dealership in London who’s in love with Lady Emu and…”

“Now, wait just a minute, Mrs. Hatmore,” Mrs. Escuse interjected, “You know as well as I do that Lady Larry will not be joining us for dinner tonight. She’s still being held against her lovely head’s will by the very bandits who will be here for dinner.”

“Oh, well, that makes it much easier.  Dinner at 6:00, you say?”

“Very good.  Thank you, Mrs. Hatmore.”

As usual, Mrs. Hatmore wove her magic and produced a twelve-course meal, with the help of Paisley, the surly kitchen maid and twenty other unnamed staff members who were scurry around, bumping into each other and spilling food on the floor which was quickly put back on the serving trays and sent out to the dining room.

Over dinner, Lord Ransom and Roger Smalley discussed the terms of Lady Larry’s release, while Lady Viola scowled and made remarks under her breath about the attire of the bandits.

“I just don’t think one should be served dinner while wearing a sidearm.  Call me old fashioned,” she whispered to Lady Emu.

“Oh, granny, I think they look dashing,” Lady Emu said, gazing lovingly across the table at John Wicks, whose wife, it turns out had just died during the birth of their eleventh child.

“Smalley? Smalley? Are you from the Stilton-on-Nottingham Smalleys.  Ma ma, don’t we have relations in that part of the county?” Lord Ransom was sorting through his little grey cells, which were indeed little, trying to remember a branch of the extremely complicated Ransom family tree.

“Now that you mention it, I believe that my much younger sister Hortense married a Smalley just before the war and they moved to Canada so he could avoid the draft,” Lady Viola replied, her little grey cells working perfectly fine. “But of course, we haven’t spoken in over twenty years. I wonder what she’s up to these days?”

“My family is all from Stilton Lord Ransom,” Roger replied. “And I believe I remember having a brother who was a draft dodger.  Of course, no one in the family ever speaks of him or his wife.  But it just occurred to me that my nephew, Mayhew, showed up on my doorstep one day and said that his father had sent him from Canada to claim his fortune.”

Well, as you can imagine, the conversation went on for several more courses, and finally Lord Ransom and Roger Smalley, who may be cousins, agreed that Lady Larry would be released, and that she and Mayhew would be married in three years after he was eventually to be paralyzed from the neck up in a Formula One racing accident in Monaco.

As for John Wicks, Thomas Williams and Peter Croyle, Roger Smalley turned state’s evidence against them and they were arrested by the village constable.  Eventually, after a number of trials that made the front pages of every tabloid in the country, to Lady Viola’s great displeasure, they were convicted of “serial banditry and failure to attend Weasel Days in 2011.”

These days, Lady Emu visits John Wicks in jail every week and has become something resembling a mother to his eleven children.  Of course, her maid does most of the actual child-rearing.

Lady Viola now spends her days in Stilton-on-Nottingham in a little shop she opened, selling  quince jam and maps of the countryside, surrounded by people she fears may be relatives.

Lady Dribble forgot her Wellies for her elopement to the south of France and came down with a bad cold.

Lady Ransom remains silently in the background, although she has put a stop to Lord Ransom’s teaching the maids how to build fires.

Paisley became head cook when Mrs. Hatmore was hired by a four-star restaurant in Lyon, France; she rules the kitchen with an iron fist and strictly observes the “five second rule.”

Mrs. Escuse continues to be head housekeeper, though she doesn’t have anyone to argue with now that Mrs. Hatmore has left.

Garson finally changed his name to Randy.  It’s just simpler that way.

Words/Works III

This is a short story I intend to include in the collection of poems, stories and photos I’m preparing.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Lottery Ticket

If a vote had been taken, Maura Sweeney would have been unanimously elected the most unlikeable person in Fork-in-the-Road, Nebraska. At one time or another, she had managed to alienate just about everyone in town, in every generation she came into contact with. When she walked down the street, children would chant “Maura Sweeney is a meany.” Not very original, mind you, but to the point.

When she was growing up, at the age of five or six, Maura began to gain a reputation for having a nasty streak. It wasn’t just the usual childish spats that got her in trouble: fights with other kids or being rude to grown-ups. No, it was probably setting Mr. Norris’ toolshed on fire. Or imprisoning Mrs. Stanley’s cat in a box for a week. Or telephoning the police station and reporting a murder in progress behind the elementary school.

When she got to high school, she was never selected to be in any of the clubs or allowed to join any of the important activities for fear that she would manage to sabotage the homecoming dance or mid-winter band concert, which she certainly would have done had she had the chance. While it was never proved that she cut the ropes to the assembly hall curtains the morning before the senior play, circumstantial evidence was enough to cause her to nearly be expelled from school. It was only by the intervention, once again, of her father, Judge James Flanagan Sweeney that she was allowed to remain in school and complete her senior year, but with the understanding that one more incident would result in her removal. Much to Judge and Mrs. Sweeney’s relief, Maura managed to finish the year without trouble, but at graduation, just after she received her diploma, she removed her cap and gown and ran up and down the aisles of the auditorium, cursing at the principal, teachers and her classmates, using words that even some of the grown-ups hadn’t heard.

Improbable as it seemed, given her poor grades and the numerous citations for her infractions of the rules, she was accepted into Nebraska State Teacher’s College in Peru, where her mother and father hoped that she would finally grow up a bit and stop being such a difficult person. After one semester filled with skipped classes and destruction of college property, the extent of which was sealed in a plea-bargain agreement with the local district attorney, Maura came home to Fork-in-the-Road with no prospects for the future and no real desire to “make anything of herself” as people in town said, shaking their heads and wondering what she would do next.

Psychologists say that often a person with anti-social tendencies such as those Maura exhibited most likely suffered some traumatic event very early in his or her life that makes them mistrust and fear others to the extent that they cannot establish normal relationships with even their own families, let alone people in the “outside” world. It is not known what such an event might have been that set Maura on her path, but by all accounts, her childhood was as ordinary as that of any young person in small-town Nebraska. Or America for that matter. While she grew up in the wealthiest family in town, her father being a successful attorney and member of the state Supreme Court, he and Mrs. Sweeney tried to instill in Maura a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others and a respect for her position in the community. She was neither spoiled or coddled, or unfairly or exceedingly punished for her infractions, which made her behavior all the more perplexing.

To say that those lessons were lost on Maura was an understatement. Two events serve as examples of her uncaring attitude towards others and her disdain for her family’s “position in the community.”

Event number one: The summer after her ignominious return from college, her mother and father were killed in an automobile accident in Lincoln where Judge Sweeney had just that day been sworn in for a third term on the high court. Maura refused to help her Aunt Clara plan the funeral and did not even attend. Aunt Clara, who had been living with Maura and her parents, was devastated by the loss of her younger sister, Maura’s mother, but to make matters worse, a week after the funeral, Maura told her that she would have to find someplace else to live.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Clara,” Maura said, “but this house is just two small for the two of us. I’m sure that Uncle Chet and Aunt Wanda will be happy to have you come live with them in Omaha.”

The fact that the house had fourteen rooms was of no consequence to Maura; she just decided that she would rather live alone and that was all there was to it. Aunt Clara packed and left and never spoke to Maura again.

Event number two: Even though Maura’s parents left a large estate, she managed to spend nearly all of the money within a few years, though no one in town could determine what she was using the money for. She certainly wasn’t giving it to charity, nor was she using it to maintain her large house. Drugs were out of the question and she seemed to wear the same clothes year after year. She did take a trip to Italy one summer and the gossip around town was that she had met a man there who managed to take all of her money, though the thought of Maura trusting anyone enough to give them her money just didn’t quite ring true. The real reason for the evaporation of the money remained a mystery, never solved.

At some point, Maura realized that she would have to have a source of income beyond the remains of the legacy she had inherited and squandered and she decided to take in lodgers, even though having strangers in her house was highly distasteful to her. She hired a local carpenter to make the changes needed to turn her place into a boarding house and advertised “rooms for rent.” Within a week, she had rented all seven of the rooms on the second floor of the house, mostly to single men who were working at the nearby military base. Maura provided nothing beyond the room and she had a very strict policy about visitors on the second floor: none, ever, for any reason. If someone came by to see one of her boarders, they were required to stay on the front porch until the called-upon came down; even then, the boarder and guest could only stand in the foyer to conduct their business. Maura’s rules drove many boarders away within a short period of time and if one of them was even a day late with their rent, they would find themselves out on the street, quickly and efficiently.

One day, Maura answered the door and found an old couple standing there with two suitcases and a parakeet in a rusty cage.

“Miss Sweeney, I’m Harold Coster and this is my wife Florence. We’ve had a fire at our house and the fire chief says we can’t stay there until it’s fixed. The Red Cross was going to put us up at the Stay-the-Night Inn, but it’s full and there’s no place else in town right now. Our neighbor, Mr. Simms, you know Mr. Simms, said that you might have a room you could rent us until our son comes down from Wisconsin this weekend.” This long introduction and explanation was made through the screen door, which Maura pointedly did not open.

“All my rooms are rented,” said Maura, beginning to close the inside door. “And besides, I don’t allow pets.”

“But Miss Sweeney, we don’t have anywhere else to go, and my wife is exhausted from being up all night with the fire. Please, she’ll sleep on your couch. I’ll sleep on the floor. We just need someplace to stay.” It appeared that Harold was going to break into tears at any moment and for whatever reason, Maura had an uncharacteristic twinge of sympathy (or perhaps it was just gas; we’ll never know for sure) and she opened the screen door just a crack.

“I can put you in the library, but just for a couple of days. You’ll have to leave the bird on the porch. I’ll have a cot brought in for you, Mr. Coster and your wife can sleep on the sofa. That will be twenty dollars a day, in advance.” Maura opened the screen door and motioned the couple in, but not before she pointed to the parakeet and then pointed to a table at the end of the porch.

“Thank you, Miss. We can’t tell you how much we appreciate this,” said Harold.

“Just for a couple of days,” Maura said, holding out her hand. Harold looked at it quizzically. “Twenty dollars for today. And I’ll collect the next twenty tomorrow.”

Harold reached into his pocket and brought out a worn leather wallet. He pulled two tens out of it and handed them to Maura, being sure that she did not see that that was all the money he had.

Maura led them into the room she called the library, just to the right of the front door . It was furnished with a rather threadbare sofa, an ancient end table upon which sat a small lamp, and an armchair that was probably old when the house was built in 1887. And despite its being called the library, there was not a book in sight, only dust covering the shelves arrayed along three sides of the room.

“Remember, this is just for a couple of days. Twenty dollars first thing tomorrow.”

“Thank you, again, Miss. This will be just fine.” Harold sat the suitcases down and led his wife to the sofa. Florence had not said a word the whole time, but now she started to cry softly as she looked out the window to where the parakeet was chirping away.

With a look of distaste, Maura turned and left the old couple to themselves. A few minutes later, she knocked on the door to the library and when it was opened, she carried in a rickety cot and sheets, blankets and pillows. Without a word, she started to leave when Harold asked, “Excuse me, Miss, but where is the bathroom? My wife would like to wash her face.”

“It’s at the top of the stairs, on the left.”

“Oh, you don’t have one on this floor? My wife has a very hard time with stairs.” Harold nodded toward the walker that Florence was leaning on.

“Oh, all right, she can use the bathroom down here, but you’ll have to use the one upstairs. And this is just for a couple of days!” Maura’s voice went up an octave and it seemed that she was on the verge of shouting. She turned once again and closed the door, hard, behind her.

Between sobs, Florence finally broke her silence. “Harold, what are we going to do? That was all the money we have. We don’t have any to pay for tomorrow.”

“I’ll call Ronnie again and see if he can wire us something for a few days until he can get down here. It will be just fine. Miss Sweeney can’t be as cold as she seems. I’m sure she’ll let us stay until we can make other arrangements. Maybe we should just go back to Wisconsin with Jimmy.”

“And leave our home? You know I couldn’t do that.” This made Florence begin to cry harder and Harold put his arm around her.

“Now, you go wash your face and don’t worry. We’ll be okay. And it sounds like Charley needs to be fed. I’ll get his food out of the suitcase while you are in the bathroom and when you come out, you can go out and feed him and let him sing to you. That will cheer you up.” Harold knew that it would take more than Charley’s singing to cheer up Florence, but at least it would be a start.

The fire at their house had started in the kitchen where Harold was preparing Florence’s dinner. He couldn’t say for sure, but he may have left a burner on under the skillet he had used to cook her grilled cheese sandwich. He had done that once before, but had caught it before it ignited. He hadn’t told Florence about that incident and he didn’t intend to tell her about his fear that they were now homeless because of his forgetfulness.

After the fire was extinguished, the fire chief let Harold back in the front bedroom to retrieve a few clothes that were not soaked. He stuffed clothes for each of them in one suitcase, found Charley’s bird food and the twenty bottles of pills that he and Florence took for various ailments, Florence’s journal and a couple of books and threw everything into the  other suitcase along with her jewelry box.. When he began to unpack the suitcase in Maura’s library/their new bedroom (just for a couple of days), Florence’s journal fell on the floor and out spilled five twenty dollar bills that she had been saving “for a rainy day.” Well, Harold thought, this has been about the rainiest day I can remember.

When Florence returned from the bathroom, Harold held up her journal and said, “Guess what I found?”

“You brought my journal? Why in the world would you do that?” Florence had a look on her face that was a combination of gratitude and disbelief.

“Well, I thought we might need this.” From behind his back, Harold pulled out the five twenty-dollar bills.

“My rainy day money!” Florence’s eyes once again filled with tears as she kissed Harold on the cheek.

“I told you we would be just fine,” Harold said. “But I’m still going to call Ronnie and have him wire us some money in case Miss Sweeney was serious about our only staying here a couple of days. We might need to rent a room at the motel, if one opens up.”

A couple of hours later, Harold thought that Florence was looking a little pale and realized that they had not had anything to eat since lunch yesterday; the fire interrupted their dinner and in all the commotion, they had forgotten to eat.

“Florence, would you like me to go down to the market and get us something for lunch? I could have Stan make us a couple of sandwiches and I could bring back some soup.”

Just about that time, Harold’s phone rang; it was Jimmy who said that he was sorry but he couldn’t send them any money right now, but he would be down at the end of the week to see what could be salvaged from the house.

“I’m really sorry, dad, but my truck was in the garage last week and that took all the money I had to repair it.” Ronnie was a nice kid, but had always been short of common sense when it came to money. He had married right out of high school, worked a series of low-paying jobs, divorced his wife after the second child was born and was paying alimony and child support from his meager earnings at the cheese plant. “But I’ll help you clean out the house and we’ll see what we can save. You and mom should think about coming back to Green Bay with me.”

Harold told Florence about the money, but didn’t say anything about moving to Wisconsin, knowing that right now was not the right time to cause her any more stress.

“We’ll make your rainy day money stretch as far as we can. Maybe Miss Sweeney will give us a break on the rent and let us stay until Ronnie gets here, since this isn’t much of a room. Now, I’ll go get you something to eat.”

Harold came back a little later from the Piggly Wiggly with sandwiches, soup and coffee, which perked up Florence a bit, but soon after they finished eating, she laid down on the sofa and fell fast asleep. Harold spread a blanket over her, made up the cot as best he could and followed her to dreamland.

It was not until the knock at the door woke them that they realized that they had slept through the afternoon and the night. Harold looked at his watch and saw that it was 7:30 a.m. Groggily, he went to the door to discover Maura standing there.

“Twenty dollars for today and you’ll have to be out tomorrow morning.”

“Miss Sweeney, we talked to our son yesterday and he won’t be able to come down from Green Bay until Saturday. That’s only three days away. Couldn’t we stay until then?” Harold was the optimist in the family, but he could tell right away that Maura was not going to back down.

“I told you two days. I’ll need this room tomorrow morning.”

“Very well, we’ll be out first thing tomorrow, though I have no idea where we’ll go.”

“Not my concern,” Maura said, sticking the twenty-dollar bill in her dress pocket as she turned and walked away.

“Well, there’s nothing else to do; we’ll just have to find someplace else to stay until Ronnie comes. Maybe Pastor Frank can help us.” Harold was racking his brain trying to think of ways they could make it through the week.

“Do you really think Pastor Frank will help us after what you said to him?” Florence reminded Harold that he and Pastor Frank had gotten into a heated argument over a minor point of theology, which had led Harold and Florence being asked to withdraw their membership from the church.

“I only asked him why there were ten commandments but twelve disciples and he got all huffy about it,” Harold said, remembering the joy he had felt in tweaking Pastor Frank.

“I’ll go up stairs and wash my face and then go to Daylight and get us a couple of donuts and some coffee. Do you want a twist or a maple bar?”

“You know, I think I’ll go with you. A walk would do me good.” Florence reached for her walker and scooted down the hall to the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she got back, Harold was ready to go and they closed the door to their very temporary shelter, knowing that tomorrow, they would have to leave it, for better or for worse.

After a stop at Daylight Donuts, where Harold got a glazed donut and coffee with extra cream and Florence decided that a maple bar was indeed what she wanted, they walked next door to the Piggly Wiggly and got Stan to make them each another sandwich for lunch.

On the way out the door, Harold noticed the electronic crawl over the customer service counter that announced the Powerball jackpot was up to $198 million, there having been no winner for the last three weeks.

“I think I’m going to buy a lottery ticket,” Harold said.

“But you never do that. Why now when we may be out on the street tomorrow?” Florence was incredulous. She had never known her husband to gamble and now seemed like an odd time to start.

“Well, our luck can’t get any worse,” Harold laughed and headed to the counter.

There were three people in line ahead of him and Florence made her way over to stand beside him.

The customer service counter did all kinds of business besides selling lottery tickets: accepting payments for utility bills, taking dry cleaning, redeeming milk bottles and selling the high-end brands of vodka, tequila, and scotch that seemed to disappear when they were on the regular shelves in the liquor department. Today, the customer at the counter was questioning a charge on her gas bill and Milly, the assistant store manager was trying to explain that she couldn’t do anything about it, that the customer would have to take it up with the gas company. While the discussion went on with Harold and Florence and the others waiting almost-patiently in line, Maura Sweeney entered the store and got in line behind Harold and Florence, not seeming to recognize them for several seconds. As the line moved on, Maura realized that the two people in front of her were her very short-term tenants.

When the last customer in front of Harold and Florence finished her business, Maura said, “I’m in a hurry. Excuse me.” and she cut in front of them.

“One Powerball ticket,” Maura said to the assistant store manager, Milly, before Harold or Florence could say a word.

“Maura, you cut in line. You should wait your turn,” Milly said, thinking that she had seen this behavior many times before.

“I’m in a hurry and they don’t care. One Powerball ticket.”

Milly looked at Harold who just shrugged his shoulders and made a face like “What can you do?”

“Okay, here’s your ticket, Maura. I’m sure it’s a winner,” Milly said sarcastically and before Maura had a chance to move, she said “Next.”

Harold stepped up to the counter and said, “I guess we aren’t the only ones she’s rude to. We’d like one Powerball ticket. The winning one, if you have it.”

Laughing, Milly handed Harold the ticket and said, “I’m pretty sure this is a winner. Good luck. Sorry about the fire. How are you getting along”

“Thanks,” Harold said. “Well, unfortunately, we had to stay at Miss Sweeney’s place last night and she’s kicking us out in the morning. But we’ll be fine. Thanks for asking.”

When they got back to their room, Harold went out to feed Charley and met Maura coming up the walk.

“Are you sure we can’t stay a couple more days, just until our son can come to get us?” Harold asked Maura as she reached to open the door.

“No, like I said, I need the room tomorrow,” Maura said with an annoyed tone in her voice. “I made it very clear when you moved in that I could only give you the room for two nights.”

“All right, we’ll be out in the morning,” Harold said with resignation. After trying to think of somewhere they could stay, he finally decided to call Sandy Arnold, the woman at the Red Cross who had tried to help them the first night.

“I’ll see what I can do, Mr. Coster, but with the regional basketball tournament in town, all the motels are full. I’ll call you back in a couple of hours.”

Harold and Florence spent the next few hours folding and organizing their few possessions, feeding and talking to Charley, and wondering what the next twenty-four hours would bring.

At five o’clock, Sandy Arnold called and said that she had found a room in a motel over in Lister and that she would be happy to take them there. It would also be available tomorrow night also, and the Red Cross would pay for their lodging until the end of the week when their son would come and pick them up. Harold conferred with Florence and since it was getting late in the day, she thought that they should just stay put for another night and move to the motel the next day.

“After all, we’ve already paid for tonight,” Florence said.

After another meager meal of soup and sandwiches from the Piggly Wiggly, they sat down on the front porch to soak in the unusually early spring warmth that was enveloping Fork-in-the-Road. Through an open window, they could hear the news coming from Maura’s TV in the front parlor. After the local news, the local weather, and the local sports, which was mainly devoted to Fork-in-the-Road High School’s win in the first round of the basketball tournament, Rik Ray, the anchor said that after the break, they would be right back with the lottery numbers.

“Well, I suppose I should go get our ticket just in case we won,” Harold said, sighing.

“That would really be something, but you know people like us don’t win. It’s always some truck driver from Delaware or New Mexico. Besides, what would we do with all that money?” Florence had always been the realist in the family while Harold dreamed of riches and trips to far off places.

“I’ll tell what I’d do. I’d make Miss Sweeney an offer on this house that she couldn’t refuse and make her move. And I’d rebuild our old house so Ronnie could move down here and take care of us in our old age.”

“I think we’d have better luck just hiring a full-time nurse than relying on that son of ours to take care of us,” Florence said, probably acknowledging for the first time what had gone unspoken between them for years.

Harold got up and went to their room to get the lottery ticket. When he came back, Rik Ray was just finishing the Pick 3, Pick 4, the Husker Hundred, and Mega Millions, and began to give the numbers for Powerball.

“The first Powerball number is 8,” Rik said in the mellifluous tone he learned in broadcasting school.

“Well, at least we got one,” Harold said, with a laugh.

“The second Powerball number is 14.”

“Now that’s funny. We got two numbers,” Harold said, straightening a bit.

“The third Powerball number is 15.”

“Somebody must be playing a trick on us. We have all three so far.” Harold was leaning slightly toward the open window from which the numbers were coming.

“The fourth Powerball number is 32.”

“This can’t be. Four numbers.” Harold was now walking toward the sound of the TV.

“The final Powerball number is 47.”

“Florence, we’ve got all five of those numbers!”

“And the Powerball is 4. Good luck to everyone who played. That’s our broadcast tonight. See you at ten o’clock.” Rik Ray ended the six o’clock news with his usual cheery demeanor and Harold and Florence heard the TV click off.

“Florence, what did he say the Powerball number was?” Harold’s voice was barely a whisper.

“I think he said it was 4. Yes, he said 4. Do we win anything with five numbers?”

“Florence, the Powerball was 4?”

“Yes, Harold, that’s what he said. Are you feeling well? You’re as white as a sheet.”

“Florence, we have five number and the Powerball number. We’ve won the Powerball jackpot.” Harold had jumped out of his seat and was nearly running up and down the length of the porch, running being something he had not done in a long, long time.

“Harold, sit down. You’re going to have a heart attack.”

The commotion from the front porch brought a couple of the other lodgers down from their rooms, and Maura from in front of the darkened TV.

“What’s going on out here?” Jeff, the lodger in 2C asked.

“Harold thinks we’ve won the Powerball,” Florence said.

“No, I don’t think; I know. We have all six numbers.” Harold held up the ticket.

“Wow, man that’s great,” Norm, Maura’s lodger in 2E said, and added laughing, “Say, aren’t you my long-lost uncle?”

“Wait a minute, that should be my ticket,” Maura stammered. “I was in line right behind you and that should have been mine.”

Harold looked at Florence and then at Maura and said, “Miss Sweeney you gave up what should have been when you cut in line in front of us. If you hadn’t been so unpleasant and in such a hurry, you might be rich right now.”

In most stories like this, Maura would have had an epiphany at this point, realizing that her way of treating other people had finally cost her a great deal, and that the callus that had grown over her heart needed to be cut away, but Maura’s callus not only covered her heart but it seemed to have encased her whole body. No flash of self-understanding emerged to penetrate that hardened exterior. No sudden empathy awakened to make her feel what others were feeling. She had been cheated out of what was rightfully hers, she believed, and she would do what she had always done.

“My attorney will be in touch,” Maura said, a final attempt to impose her will.

“He’ll be able to find us at the motel in Lister until the end of the week, Miss,” Harold said. “After that, we may be in Tahiti or the Bahamas.”

And with that, Harold and Florence packed their suitcases, called Sandy Arnold, the Red Cross lady, collected Charley and left Maura sputtering in anger on the front porch.