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

Helpful Hint(s) for the Home

This is my first post in months. It’s not that I haven’t been busy being creative; it’s just that the journey from computer screen to blog has been circuitous and interrupted. But, today, I’m getting started again. To begin…

I had one of those “duh” moments yesterday (they used to be called “ah ha” moments; I’m not sure when that changed; something to look into). Over the last few months, we’ve collected a box of old documents that need to be shredded to avoid the dreaded “identity theft” that seems to be so ubiquitous these days (actually, I think the threat is actually more ubiquitous than the actual theft, but I could be wrong; I’ve always been of the opinion that if some fool really wants my identity, he needs to be prepared to pay my bills, too). Usually I take the stuff to one of those free shredding events that happens around town now and then, but I haven’t been able to find one and I’ve been carting the box around in my car for a couple of months. Finally, I called a commercial shredding company to see what it would cost to shred my copy paper-sized box of documents. After I recovered from the shock, I realized that I could buy an adequate shredder for only a little more than what I would have to pay to have them take care of the box. And so I did.

I went to Best Buy and bought. When I got home, I set it up the shredder as directed and proceeded to pulverize old tax documents and bank statements and credit card stuff. The shredder came with a smallish wastepaper basket to catch the tiny little pieces of paper it produced. When the basket was filled (which the machine helpfully signaled by a flashing red light; at first, I had an image of Robbie the Robot waving his arms and saying “Danger, Will Robinson” but it was just part of the vocabulary of the instrument panel on this thing), I removed the shredding apparatus and dumped the pieces in a plastic trash bag. Pieces went everywhere. Tiny little pieces, no bigger than neutrons or quarks or one of those viruses that grow into fifty-foot long worms in your stomach, and come out your eyeballs while you are sleeping (according to a program on Animal Planet I saw last week) (well, maybe the pieces of shredded paper were the size of Chiclets — do they still make Chiclets? — something to look into). Then the “duh” moment arrived: why not put the plastic trash bag in the wastepaper basket first? Why not indeed. And so I did.

When I took the shredding thingy off the basket this time, most of the pieces stayed in the trash bag (there were still a few that escaped, but not nearly as many; a couple of them looked like one of those Animal Planet viruses, but I’m going to pretend I didn’t see them scurry away). Problem solved. I’m going to write a letter to the shredder-maker and suggest that they include this option (trash bag in basket first) in their set-up directions. It might save others a bit of a mess.

You can thank me later.

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.

First light near Walnut Shade

Here’s the completed painting that I’m donating to Corks and Canvas.  It turned out to be quite different than I thought it would.

First light near Walnut Shade

This is what the canvas looked like after the first draft.

And here is draft #2.

Draft #1 looked like early Cezanne and #2 was an unconscious nod to Van Gogh.  The final piece just reflects my technique.

Work in progress #2, part 1

Well, I changed my mind and decided to donate a painting to Corks and Canvas rather than the organic sculpture; I explain why in a later post.  Here’s a a photo of about an hour’s work laying in some colors and getting a feel of what may emerge for a piece to be entitled First light near Walnut Shade, Kansas.  This is the first painting I’ve started in about four months, and it feel good to get back to it.