Over the River 7

Alec’s apprehension was quickly dispelled by a thought — if ‘Todd’ wanted to harm us, he would have done so by now. He relaxed his shoulders, and addressed the dark-haired man sitting in his deceased father-in-law’s chair. “You say you’ve come to learn about our family. What have you learned?”

“You mistake me, Alec. I did not come seeking information; I already knew everything important about the Andersons. What I sought was understanding, more of a feeling than a thought. I came to understand how the Andersons responded to mortality. In the conversations I’ve had and overheard, I’ve felt your family’s fear and sorrow, but also your strength, and determination to enjoy the life that’s been given to them. Their lives are limited — but their love of life seems to have no bounds.”

“Do you consider that admirable?”

“Yes. Because, being who I am, those are sentiments I can never feel.”

A sound of shuffling feet echoed down from the second floor. By the weight and location of the steps, Alec could tell Stella had walked from guest bedroom into the hall bathroom. He had not heard any sound from Grammie Alice’s room for over an hour. Todd rose from his chair — “Now that we’ve had this talk, it’s time for me to depart. Good evening, Alec.”

“Wait.” Alec sat up quickly, and pointed to the stairs leading to the second floor. “Shouldn’t you — ”

“I said goodbye to Alice, and your wife, while you were washing dishes. There’s no need to disturb them.”

Alec sighed, and extended his hand toward Todd. “All right. Then this is goodbye, I guess.”

Todd shook his hand. “Yes.”

“Will we — see you again?” To Alec’s surprise, Todd laughed.

“I believe you’ve figured out that I’ll be seeing all of you again. But, to your question — no, I don’t imagine I’ll attend any further Thanksgiving dinners here.”

“Very well.” Releasing Todd’s hand, Alec stepped back once, then suddenly looked back at Todd. “So, do you know when — ”

Todd lifted his right index finger at Alec, and his eyes seemed to glow with a dark fury. “I cannot see the future, Alec. And it is foolish of you to attempt such insight.”

End of “Over the River”

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Over the River 6

Alec took a seat on the sofa, across the room from where Todd was sitting. “My only observation, was there was more to you than meets the eye.”

“Indeed.” Todd shifted in his seat. “And my air of mystery must remain, for knowing the full truth about me would be — overwhelming to you.”

Alec nodded in response.

“You said you didn’t remember my first year at the Anderson Thanksgiving dinner. I, on the other hand, remember it well. Your father-in-law, Jeremiah, had just been diagnosed with cancer.”

Sitting on the sofa across the room, Alec sensed he was being given clues to a mystery he had yet to comprehend. So he waited, hoping Todd would continue to reveal himself.

“The Andersons were very confused, very afraid at that time. It had been over a decade since his sister Miriam had passed. Jeremiah had been so healthy — to hear the cancer had already reached stage four, inoperable, untreatable… six months, maximum.”

“Nobody could understand.”

“But I remember Jerry’s words that evening. We all die. We don’t have any choice. The only choice we have, is how we live our final days. Those words were what drew me to the Anderson family, the quest to create meaning out of senselessness, to defy the chaos so endemic in this world.”

Todd paused, and Alec sensed the older man was waiting for him to catch up. Then Alec’s eyes widened — “Miriam. If it had been over a decade, how could — ” and then he stared back at Todd, as he felt his heart sink into his stomach.

“Don’t be afraid, Alec. I meant what I said earlier about presenting no harm to your family, and I hope my assistance with your niece was proof of my good intent. I know being friends with your family can never be possible. My only wish, is that we come to understand each other, and our purpose in this world.”

Over the River 5

Amanda’s mother comforted her daughter, as her father thanked Todd, who brushed off all attempts to pay back the favor. “Your family’s continued hospitality is the only reward I need.”

Alec had been a spectator during the incident, and followed the entire family as they returned to the house. The sun had descended below the tree line, and Grammie Alice’s sons, daughters, grandchildren, and in-laws across multiple generations soon gathered their coats and left in their cars. Stella and Alec had already agreed to be in charge of clean-up, and Alec spent close to an hour at the kitchen sink, up to his elbows in suds as he cleaned serving bowls, plates, and silverware too delicate for machine washing.

His hands slick and red from being long enclosed in yellow rubber gloves, Alec finally retreated into the living room. Stella had gone up with her mother to rest, the two women weary from a half day of preparation for that afternoon’s feast. Believing that all the day’s guests had departed, Alec expected to watch the evening football game alone for a while, until his wife came down and announced she was ready to leave.

But he was not alone. Sitting in the room’s largest armchair, the one Stella’s father had deemed his throne, was Todd. His eyes beamed delight at Alec’s entry.

“I didn’t want to leave today, without finishing our conversation.” There was a hint of a challenge in Todd’s voice that unsettled Alec.

“I… if I seemed a little too suspicious this afternoon, it was only because I wanted to make sense of the stories I was hearing about you. What you did for my niece this afternoon, went a long way to dismissing — ”

“Please.” Todd blinked, and waved a hand dismissively. “I took no offense at your questioning. I quite enjoyed it, in fact. Rarely do I meet someone, as perceptive as yourself.”

Over the River 4

To Alec’s surprise, Todd seemed neither upset not defensive at the accusation. He pushed his plate forward, and folded his hands on the table. “I’m not accustomed to speaking about myself, as I’d much rather heat what others have to say. But if it would set your mind at ease, then please, ask me any question you’d like. I promise to answer as truthfully as possible.”

“All right. Let’s start at the beginning. Who was — ”

A sharp cry from outside interrupted their conversation. Alec sat up quickly, recognizing the voice of his niece Amanda. Her mother reached the front door before Alec, and the two of them raced into the yard, where children were gathered in a circle. Ignoring the stream of frantic explanations, Alec helped pull the children away to give room for his sister-in-law to attend to Amanda.

“Mom!” Amanda was writhing on the brown grass, her right hand grasping at her left shoulder. “It HURTS so MUCH!”

“Just breathe, dear.” Amanda’s mother helped the girl sit up, her arm lying useless at her side. Alec’s medical knowledge was limited, but he knew his niece’s shoulder was separated. Amanda’s father was soon at their side — “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll get you to a doctor.”

“If I may.” All eyes, young and old, turned in the direction of Todd. “The nearest hospital is twenty minutes away, and who knows how the emergency room will be staffed today. I know how to help your daughter — please, trust me.”

A swift survey by Amanda’s father revealed that none of the adults had medical training, and Grammie Alice knew of no doctors or nurses in the neighborhood. The girl was whimpering, and the car ride to the hospital promised further discomfort, followed by a disheartening wait. The father sighed, and waved Todd over — “You’ve done this before?”

Todd nodded as he stepped forward. “I’m a volunteer on overseas missions, and work with children like your daughter on a regular basis.” Todd knelt down beside Amanda, and encouraged her parents to hold the girl as he took hold of her shoulder.

He brushed hair from Amanda’s forehead. “You are going to feel a sharp pain, but it will go away quickly. I need you to relax your body, as much as possible. Can you do that for me?” Amanda nodded, her face contorted with pain and confusion, as Todd nodded to her parents and then grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

“YEEEEAAAAAH” Amanda’s scream was filled with more agony than anyone in the family had heard before, and the girl shot from her parents’ grasp. She stumbled forward two steps, turned back to Todd — and raised her left arm, crying now in relief rather than pain.

Over the River 3

“I told Alice how I’ve been coming here for Thanksgiving every year for a decade, since the year before Stella and I were married. The first year, it was just her parents and us. Year after, it was the entire family, like it’s been every year since. That’s how I met Stella’s sisters, brother, cousins — and you.” Alec fanned his fingers in Todd’s direction.

The older man wiped his chin with a napkin. “I don’t have a family of my own, Alec. I treasure your family’s hospitality.”

“The Andersons are a wonderful family. And I’ll do anything to make sure they are never harmed, or exploited.”

Todd arched his eyebrows. “Do you consider me a threat?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. For now, you’re a curiosity. I asked Alice today where she knew you from, and she told me you went to college with Gregory. He confirmed this when he arrived, but said that while you had graduated the same year, you had never actually met until these Thanksgiving dinners.”

“Ohio State is a large university, Alec. I’m sure your brother-in-law would have the same experience with thousands of alumni.”

“Certainly. But then Gregory told me how you had worked at the same company as Clarise, and believed she had invited you here initially. So I asked her, and she said yes you had worked together, but no, you’d never actually met there, and she hadn’t been the one to extend you an invitation. Then Norton overheard us, and said the two of you had worked on the campaign for Senator Brown. I was hardly surprised when I pressed for more information, and discovered you never actually worked together at that time.”

Alec leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve made it a point to ask every adult here today about you, Todd. How everyone knows you. And I’ve found a consistent pattern. You have some type of association with every one of them — a professional society, volunteer organization, a close friend. A shared experience which establishes a bond. And yet, nobody here has had any direct interaction with you outside of this home, this day. And, more significantly, nobody remembers who provided you with the initial invitation to Thanksgiving.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “We know you, Todd, but don’t know a damn thing about you. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’s a little odd.”

Over the River 2

Alec stood from his chair, and after glancing at the living room and its empty sofa, shuffled to the seat at the far end of the table, between Umberto and this man they knew as Todd. His wife’s uncle, loud and outspoken at most times, had been subdued that afternoon and grown more withdrawn and distant with each bite of the heavy holiday meal, along with several glasses of wine.

“Bertie.” Umberto lifted his bald head slowly at Alec’s call. “You looked tired. You want to rest on the couch?” Umberto smiled, excused himself, and stumbled his way into the living room.

Todd lifted a fork from the table, and stabbed at the pecan pie on the plate in front of him. “Umberto’s a brave man, coming here today.” Alec agreed, commenting about the distance he had to drive, at least a couple of hours, as Todd continued eating his pie. Stella’s mother entered from the kitchen, and asked about Umberto; Alec waved towards the living room, and his mother-in-law left the two men at the table.

Alec shifted his seat closer to Todd. “Speaking of travelling, where’s home for you?”

Todd chuckled, and took another bite of pie before replying. “I’m staying at a Hilton just across town. Own a condo downtown, but I’m renting it out this month. Got condo’s all over the place, there’s no real place I call home.”

“That so?” Alec watched Todd eat his pie a moment. “Seems funny, a man who travels as much as you do, has his choice of where he could spend Thanksgiving — how you’re here, every year.”

Todd leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his amble stomach. “It’s the food. Grammie Alice — ”

“I had a conversation with her, about you. Today, in the kitchen, right after Stella and I arrived, and I saw you in the living room.”

Over the River 1

It’s been a long time since my last short story, and I’ve got an idea inspired by the upcoming holiday in the United States, as well as a poem I wrote last year.

“You kids have fun.” Alec leaned back in his chair and waved a hand towards the front door of his mother-in-law’s home. “You don’t need an old man like me slowing you down.” His son and his cousins forgot about Alec’s apology as they raced out of the room, choosing sides for their touch football game as they tugged on their jackets.

Alec tilted his chair back into position at the dining room. Stella’s sister had left for the kitchen during Alec’s discussion with the children, so Alec’s was one of three occupied seats of the eleven that had been arranged at the large oak table.He was seated toward the end closest to the bay windows looking out on the front yard; across the table at the other end, close to the kitchen doorway, was Umberto, smiling weakly as he had all that afternoon. Stella had been surprised her uncle had arrived for Thanksgiving, so soon after his wife’s passing, and Alec had been watching him all afternoon.

Sitting directly across from Umberto, three chairs away from Alec, was the man Alec was determined to have a private conversation with before leaving that evening.

“American politics is like a pendulum.” The man whom Alec knew as Todd waved his meaty hand over his gravy-strewn plate, swooping it down from his right and then back up near the center of the plate.We’ve swung over to an extreme this year, but political gravity will pull Washington back to the center, and then –” he swooped his hand back down, then over the plate — “we’ll be back to the other extreme.” Todd spoke with the cool confidence he expressed on any topic, from gardening to government, football to physics, and in years past Alec had regretted only hearing Todd speak this one day of the year (he never visited for the December holidays). But today, Alec found himself annoyed at Todd’s self-assurance.

Learning from History before it Repeats

The United States is enjoying a long period of economic prosperity. Of course, that means we’re due for a “market correction,” a wonderful phrase, implying that too much prosperity is a problem that must be avoided.

Nobody knows when economic trouble will arrive or from where it will originate, but we can use the benefit of hindsight to examine recent financial crises in our nation, with the hope of being better prepared for whatever panic comes next. I’ve recently read two insightful books on this subject.

Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is about the collapse of Enron in 2002, due in part to the collapse of the Internet bubble in stock prices. It provides extensive and at times overbearing analysis of the company’s deceitful financial practices, which landed several of its executive in jail. Some of the many lessons you can take from this book are to beware of companies that extend into areas where they have little to no expertise (one of Enron’s many problems was the curious decision of the energy company to launch an online entertainment division), that boast about their stock price like a cocktail party boar, and whose financial reports are deliberately obscure. After Enron’s collapse, some fairly weak regulations on financial disclosures were passed, but we’re now in the process of undoing even these safeguards. When it comes to bankruptcies that rival those of Enron or Worldcomm, the question is not if, but when.

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail” is about the near collapse of the financial system in fall 2008. Unlike the Enron book, there is little attention paid here to the causes of crisis — this time, it was the mortgage bubble that burst — and instead focuses on the effort to mitigate the disaster’s impact. If you believe Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geitner don’t deserve enough credit for their efforts, and believe Dick Fuld was treated unfairly, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. The book depicts a global financial system that is both complex and frighteningly fragile, susceptible to collapse from multiple points, yet also shows a United States government with overwhelming power to influence private markets. Americans take pride in our capitalism, but when faced with financial catastrophe, we’re not afraid of a healthy dose of socialism.

Of the two works, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the more engaging read despite its often weighty prose, while “Too Big to Fail” moves at a brisker pace, as it covers a much shorter period of time. Reading both may hlep make the next economic crisis seem less shocking.

Vegan Steak for America?

Sharing an interesting article today on automation and its impact on human labor from Scott Santens. Not sure I agree with the conclusion — decoupling income from work and implementing some form of technology dividend or universal basic income would require a foundational change in the American zeitgeist, and that’s not going to happen without a revolution.

Of course, if we hit something like 25% unemployment that uprising could very well come, but since revolutions by their nature are not to be trusted I’d prefer a less drastic response to the robots as they continue their march to replace human workers. Significantly changing the work week, shortening hours while keeping wages at or preferably higher than their current rates, won’t be easy — it would likely require several presidential cycles — but I can at least imagine the possibility.

Could a universal basic income be implemented in the United States? Sure, but you could also serve steak to vegans for dinner. They might eat if they’re hungry enough, but the meal certainly won’t sit well with them.

Goon Squad

Bigots, racists, and wannabe fascists have lived all across America since the colonial days. I went to school in rural Maine with a few of them, and when I flew out to Chicago for college, I met a few more. I’ve had to work with more than I care to remember. Over the years, I learned the rules of engagement — when they start talking nonsense, let them know they’re full of shit, and walk away. Avoid them if possible, and if not, refuse to indulge their ignorance. Years of evidence has shown that arguing with them is ineffective; the only way they can overcome the absurdity of their beliefs is to throw off their shackles of fear.

There are plenty of Richard Spencers in this country, and will be for a long time to come. But last year’s election gave these thugs political legitimacy. They have the support of a presidential administration, and the voice of a media empire.

Two years ago, if someone had told me Africans benefited from being enslaved, I would have dismissed that person as a lunatic. Today, I’d wonder if he was running for Congress.

We can’t ignore them any more. The goon squad has gained power in the United States, and unless they are defeated and kicked back into the gutter from which they came, we’re in for some troubling times.