Many good stories are based on personal experience. So writers are often advised to “Write what you know.” But personal experiences usually are not structured like good fiction. So fiction writers are also advised not to let the truth interfere with a good story. My next short story here starts out as a personal memoir–but has a fictional ending. The swan really did crash into the bridge, and the cop really did start to arrest me. However,the swan was not resurrected nor beaten to death by the constable..
One pleasant summer evening, I was leaning on a railing alongside the Thames River, watching ducks swimming in the sanctuary of Eel Pie Island. Then a swan came flapping down the river. Swans fly like heavy freight planes, and they seem to have poor eyesight. Anyway, this swan slammed into the side of the bridge to the island, and plummeted into the river.
“Drop the gun and raise your hands!” A police constable was running towards me.
“What are you talking about, I don’t have a gun?”
“Somebody just shot that swan, and you’re the only other person here.”
“Nobody shot anything. The swan hit the side of the bridge and knocked itself out.”
“If you shot that swan, you’re in big trouble because it’s a capital offense.”
“You’re crazy. First you say I shot the stupid swan without a gun, and then you say I can get hanged for that alleged crime.”
“You could have just thrown the gun into the river. Also, it is a capital offense. A law written centuries ago says all swans belong to the Queen. If you kill a swan, that is treason and you can get hanged for it.”
“Shouldn’t you be chasing terrorists instead of standing there making stupid accusations? Go ahead and arrest me. A judge will laugh you out of court.”
“Show some respect. I don’t write the laws, I just enforce them.”
While I was arguing with the cop, the swan had surfaced and was paddling to the shore. Though it had been merely stunned and not killed, it appeared to have a badly damaged wing. When it reached the shore, it hopped around and feebly flapped its wings, but was unable to launch itself into flight.
“Hey officer, looks like the swan has risen from the dead! That means you can’t arrest me for treason and swanicide.”
“That’s a different swan.”
“Oh, really? And your different swan just happens to have a broken wing from a recent accident.”
The swan made a supreme effort and started flying toward us. But the pain from the broken wing was too much, and the swan couldn’t climb any higher. It crash-landed on the head of the constable, and immediately crapped down the front of his face, shirt and tunic.
“I’ll kill that godamned bird!” The cop screamed, as he pulled out his baton and started bludgeoning the swan. It desperately tried to fly away, but the cop’s first savage blow had broken the swan’s other wing. So now it was helpless, and soon it was dead.
Meanwhile, a small crowd had gathered. One guy in the crowd was video recording the violent scene, while a woman was in tears as she phoned the police.
Two police cars and an Animal Control van arrived while the constable was still pounding on what was left of the swan. A policeman in the second car appeared to be the senior officer. He sported a gold badge and was giving orders to the other cops. Two cops escorted their crazed comrade to the second patrol car and pushed him into the back seat. This walk of shame was accompanied by abusive chants from the crowd of onlookers: “Put him in cuffs”, “Throw him in jail”, “And throw away the key”.
The police hoped that the incident would be forgotten. But repeated showings of the incriminating video on TV, plus numerous abusive letters to local newspapers, convinced the brass that stronger action was needed. So they dismissed the constable from the force, and charged him with treason and animal cruelty. The judge subsequently dismissed the treason charge, but delivered a suspended 90-day sentence for animal cruelty.
I felt some sympathy for the former constable who believed the swan had deliberately attacked him. Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate that he should share some of the pain that he wanted to inflict on other people—and swans.
After a couple of successful high-tech startups in Silicon Valley, Bob Abrams had become a multi-millionaire. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he cashed in his chips and didn’t try to pyramid his millions into billions. Instead, he returned to his first love—jazz. He decided to launch a record company to preserve the work of aging jazz musicians.
He lived in San Jose, but most of the musicians he wanted to record were on the East Coast. So he called some New York contacts to locate active musicians. One contact was Mike Baker, a former classmate at NYU, who now lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Mike pointed out that Connecticut also boasted some great jazz musicians, including Bob’s favorite sax player, Sam Wilson.
After a few days in New York, Bob visited New Haven to check out a recording studio Mike recommended, and to listen to some of the local jazz talent. Mike suggested they have dinner at a club called ‘The Ninth Note’, which featured a weekly jam session.
The session started with just the rhythm section led by multi-talented Nick Biello playing organ. When Sam Wilson arrived, he was wearing shades. Bob hoped that didn’t mean he’d become a junkie. The group launched into a slow blues, and Sam played beautiful long flowing melodic lines—unlike the choppy riffs of less talented musicians. Then they switched to a ballad, ‘The Nearness of You’. On this one, Sam demonstrated his versatility by tearing into a fierce double-tempo solo.
Bob was impressed. When the musicians took a break, he walked over to Sam and explained how he was lining up musicians for recording sessions. He handed Sam a sheet of music and said he’d like Sam to solo on the song (a slow blues head arrangement) for one of the recordings.
“Okay. Give it to Nick, and have him play it on keyboard so I can learn it.”
“But I thought you could read music.”
“I could read music, but I can’t see it anymore. I’m blind.”
“What happened? Did you have some sort of accident?”
“No. My eyesight just slowly got worse from year to year.”
“What did your eye doctor say? Is it cataracts, retinal damage or what?
“I can’t afford health insurance.”
Bob, a liberal among entrepreneurs, went into an extended rant about how the US should have single-payer universal health care like civilized countries. He finished with, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” When he calmed down, he decided to deal with the problem.
“Mike, do you know any good eye doctors here?”
“My guy is an excellent surgeon. He did my cataract surgery and checks regularly for retinal damage. But he doesn’t take Medicaid. He came here from Canada because he couldn’t make enough money there. “
“Okay, take Sam to see your guy. I’ll give you a check for $3000 as an advance. If he needs any more, just call me.”
Sam had cataract surgery for both eyes. A few months later, he was back at the Ninth Note. Bob grabbed a front row seat for that. But Sam’s playing style was completely different and it sounded terrible. Instead of flowing lines, he played short, hesitant, phrases that didn’t seem to fit together. Also, his intonation sounded harsh. At intermission time, Bob asked Sam why his playing style had changed. Sam felt terrible, because Bob had paid for his surgery, but now he couldn’t deliver on his side of the transaction.
“When I was blind, I would get into a trance-like groove while I was playing. My solos seemed effortless. But when I got my sight back, there were too many distractions. I wanted to watch movies and read books, so I wasn’t getting enough practice on the horn. And when I’m playing, I’m distracted by anything that moves. Now I understand why Sonny Rollins got into yoga.“
“Apparently, what’s good for the musician is bad for the music,” Bob groaned.
Though I’ve concentrated on fiction since retiring from a career in technical and business journalism, not all of my Writers Hangout stories have been fictional. The following story, written last year, is a personal memoir and tribute to Dominic Behan–Irish troubadour and younger brother of playwright Brendan Behan. The required theme for Writers Hangout was “fountain.” In my story, Dominic wrestled with the cops under a Trafalgar Square fountain, and was a fountain of creativity (with around 450 songs to his credit).
When I first met Dominic Behan, he was singing on Eel Pie Island. The last time I saw him, he was wrestling with police in the moat under one of the two fountains in Trafalgar Square.
Eel Pie Island sits in the middle of the Thames, connected to Twickenham via a narrow footbridge. Apart from a hotel and boathouse, most of the island was a bird sanctuary. I lived in the hotel, a former whorehouse for American airmen during WWII. According to the guide on a passing tourist boat, “Charles Dickens lived here on Eel Pie Island while he was writing the Pickwick Papers.” The tour guide did not explain whether the hotel was already a whorehouse when Dickens resided there.
Every Saturday evening, the bird sanctuary was disrupted by loud music from the hotel ballroom, mostly traditional jazz, with occasional folk music. Arthur Chisnall, owner and operator of the club, had recruited me as his doorman.
Dominic Behan was a fountain of creativity. Like his older brother, Brendan, he wrote plays, novels, short stories, poems and biographies. But unlike his brother, he also composed about 450 songs. In his Eel Pie Island concert, Dominic put on a one-man show, playing all of his most popular songs.
Arthur usually invited performers to dinner after their show. He must have had a premonition that ‘dinner’ with Behan would turn into an extended pub crawl–he gave me a handful of ten-pound notes and asked me to entertain the performer. I figured unless Dominic was a gourmet, I would come out ahead on that deal. I think I had a meat pie and a bag of potato crisps at the first pub, while Dominic ate nothing. He drank a lot of black-and-tans with Irish whiskey chasers, while I drank a lot of lager.
At closing time, I figured I was finally off the hook.
“Dominic, I’m going to head over to the Nucleus—a coffee shop where they have all-night jam sessions.”
“You do what you have to do. But you can drink round the clock in London. You drink with the newspaper men on Fleet Street, and then you hang out with the porters in Covent Garden. I usually drink until the coppers arrest me. “
“I’m ready to quit, but if you want to keep going, here’s some more of Arthur’s money.”
“Okay, it’s been a lot of fun. You’ll live longer than me, because you’re not such a wild child. Be sure to come see my play at the Irish Theatre, two weeks from now. Here’s a ticket for opening night, paid for with Arthur’s money. Tell all your friends about it. “
The Irish Theatre had a long bar inside the auditorium. It was probably a mistake to stage Dominic’s play in a theatre that allowed uninterrupted drinking.
His play, ‘Posterity Be Damned’, was a one-man show. Billed as a study of republican activity after the Irish civil war, it seemed more like a systematic attack on various political and religious groups. Progressively more violent audience reactions culminated in a brawl. The play ran for just a week—not because of a limited audience, but because each performance ended in a costly riot.
Every year on Guy Fawkes Night we went to Trafalgar Square to watch college students fight the police. The object of the game was to knock cop helmets into the fountain moats. The police were usually good-natured about the event.
That year, Dominic Behan was the star. He laid claim to three of a total of seven helmets under the fountain. Unfortunately, the police had started to become paranoid about IRA terrorism, so they brought in a riot squad. They arrested Dominic and hit him with some heavy charges—inciting a riot, assaulting police officers, resisting arrest, etc. So Dominic had to serve some real jail time instead of just sleeping overnight in a holding cell.
Dominic subsequently moved to Glasgow. His forecast that I would outlive him proved accurate. He died in 1989 at the age of 60, while in 2014 I’m still alive and kicking.
I thought this story was one of my better efforts, but the voters in Writers Hangout did not agree. It didn’t even make the top five (out of about a dozen entries). Guess members of the Tea Party objected to my implication that they might not be playing with a full deck. The assigned theme was “BUTTON(S)” So I wrote about the red pushbutton on the black box carried by the US President.
In 2017, the US had a newly elected President— a Tea Party President. Rick Walker had been Governor of one of the Red states. To achieve smaller government (except for defense spending) he wanted to eliminate six segments of the Federal Government, including Environmental Protection. Most of the country set record temperature lows on Election Day 2016. In the minds of voters, that supported his argument that “Global warming is bullshit.”
Walker’s biggest problem was alcoholism. That had been rumored during the election campaign, but the GOP leadership had managed to keep it concealed until after the election. They then built a sober Cabinet to control Walker. They brought back Condoleezza Rice to head the State Department, and they gave Walker a short list of candidates from which to choose a Defense Secretary. Walker selected Henry Goddard–not a career politician, but a vice president of Boeing.
Though the US and Russia had sealed disarmament agreements, the POTUS still carried a black box with a red pushbutton that could authorize a missile launch. Because of Walker’s alcoholism, the Defense Department redesigned the black box so that it now included an alcohol detector. Henry Goddard and a couple of technicians brought the new box to the White House so that it could be installed and tested.
Walker didn’t like it.
“What’s that stuff on top?” he asked.
“That’s a set of new biometric sensors for improved security.”
“Why the mouthpiece?”
“You blow into it to be tested for alcohol—like a Breathalyzer test for an automobile driver.”
“I don’t want that. It will make people think I’m an alcoholic.”
“Nobody will know you’re taking the test unless you tell them. We’ll just send out a press release saying we’ve upgraded the security in several ways, but the details are classified”
A couple of months later, an international crisis erupted. Iran had developed an atomic weapon. Israel’s Netanyahu said if the US did not immediately destroy the Iranian weapons plant, Israel would go it alone. Russia’s Putin said that both Iran and Israel must leave the Middle East nuclear free. If Israel attacked Iran, then Russia might have to attack Israel.
Unexpected activity in Russia’s Siberian missile launch sites triggered a conference in the White House Situation Room. Attendees included Rice and Goddard, but not Walker. He was partying after a country music concert in the East Ballroom. The Siberian activity was puzzling. If the Russians were attacking Israel, they would use one of their Western missile sites. Rice called Vladimir Putin, and told the office manager to get Walker sobered up.
“Mr. Putin, this is Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State. We have reason to believe you may be readying a missile attack on the US. “
“Where’s Walker? I don’t negotiate with female functionaries.“
“Our President had earlier commitments but he will be here in a few minutes. Meanwhile, perhaps you’d like to discuss your military posture with our Defense Secretary, Henry Goddard.”
“We are not readying an attack against the US. Apparently, your military intelligence is just as pathetic as it was when I headed the KGB. “
Goddard quickly put Putin on hold. “The Russians just launched their missiles while the lying SOB was talking to us. The only puzzling part is that they’re headed South instead of East. Where is Walker? We urgently need to respond.”
“Sorry, they still haven’t been able to get him sobered up.”
“Cancel everything,” shouted Goddard. “We just got a clearer satellite picture. The activity we saw was the migration of a flock of large birds. The flashing lights were the Aurora Borealis.”
Goddard slumped forward with his head on the table. “Thank God for our drunk POTUS. We almost triggered World War III.”
As expected, Project XMF wasn’t a winner in Writers Hangout. But the story below did win first place in one of the contests last year. The assigned theme was “Comfort,” so I made that the title as well. The story is written in “first-dog,” or first person from a dog’s point of view. It is a short autobiography of my dog Cassie. Only Cassie can tell you how much of the story is fact and how much is fiction. Her ghost writer could only deduce so much from dog tags and adoption papers.
Mike, the old man I live with, gave me the name Cassie—the fourth name I’ve had during my short life. When he’s lying on his bed reading, or watching TV, I like to lie beside him and cuddle up as I did with my mom. Mike says I’m a comfort to him, because he has lived alone since his wife died. And he’s certainly a comfort to me, as I really miss my mom.
Officially, I’m a “Redbone Coonhound”—Redbone was the name of the guy who developed the breed. But Mike calls me a “redneck coonhound.” I came from the south—and Mike says that’s where the rednecks live. On a farm in Virginia, my mom had me and three other puppies. Then my mom disappeared. The rednecks said she had been shot in a hunting accident–because she looked like a deer. Mike says morons like that shouldn’t be allowed to have guns, and people shouldn’t be allowed to hunt. But I was bred as a hunting dog, and if people can’t hunt they won’t need hunting dogs.
After my mom disappeared, I started exploring the edge of the farm. Then the rednecks rounded up the other three puppies and said they were going to try selling them. But I thought they would kill them like they killed my mom. So I ran into the woods and just kept running and running until I couldn’t run anymore. I started to get very thirsty. Eventually, I arrived at a place where there were streets and houses and people. They later told me I was in Siler City, North Carolina. A kind woman gave me some water, but then she called the dog catcher who took me to the county dog pound.
At the dog pound, they called me Tallulah, or Lola for short. They said coonhounds were a dime a dozen in North Carolina and nobody would want to adopt me. “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” they said. Fortunately, they called a rescue agency that specializes in taking coonhounds for adoption in the Northeast, where we are seen as more valuable. Guess I got lucky because some wealthy guy in New York wanted a coonhound. Next day, they put me in a crate and drove me to Park Ave. and 72nd St., in Manhattan.
The guy who adopted me was a Jewish hedge-fund manager who had married a blue-eyed blonde from North Carolina. His friends said she was his “shiksa.” He thought his bride would be happy to get a puppy from her home state. However, she had evolved from a southern farm girl into a Jewish princess. She would have preferred one of those rat-sized dogs like the one Paris Hilton carries around in her purse. And, for Park Ave., that might have been a more practical choice.
They changed my name to Pippi. That was before I peed on their carpet, so I don’t know where they got the name. All the traffic scared me—especially the yellow cabs. I barked at the cabs, and tried to chase them away, but they just kept coming. Central Park was nice, but we had to cross a big street to get to it. My owner finally conceded that midtown Manhattan wasn’t the best environment for a hunting dog, so he had the agency take me back.
The agency wanted to keep me in the Northeast where I had a better chance of getting adopted. They persuaded a lady named Leslie to be my foster mother until I could get adopted again. She lived in a nice house in New Rochelle. It had a large fenced yard and I could play all day with my foster brother–a black-and-tan coonhound, adopted from the same agency. They changed my name to Krissy. I wished I could live there forever. But a husband, two toddlers, and two dogs were too much of a burden for Leslie. She made a video of me playing ball, and her godfather, Mike, saw it and decided to adopt me.
That’s how I wound up living with Mike in Connecticut. He changed my name to Cassie, and figured the two names sounded similar enough that I wouldn’t get confused. I’ve lived with him for over a year now—and that’s much longer than I lived anywhere else. Now we can comfort each other until one of us dies.
This story is the latest one I wrote for the Writer’s Hangout of LinkedIn. Every week, we have to write a 4000-character story based on an assigned theme or first line. Then the forum members critique and vote on the submitted stories. For this week’s story, the topic was “glasses.” I wrote a technically feasible science-fiction piece about multiple purpose surveillance glasses for law enforcement and military applications. The group hasn’t voted yet, but I don’t think this story will win any prizes. A couple of the other writers in the group said my story lacked emotion and a feeling of jeopardy. That’s because I had to cut it to the bare bones to fit the tight character limit.