Oct 072013
 

from the book: Life Will Get You in the End:
Short stories by David Satterlee

A liberal fable. Not every one can be born to good looks, wealth, or privilege. How should we think of the disadvantaged people we happen to see, knowing that their appearance, condition, or status may not reflect their inner gifts or intrinsic worth?

The Ugly Baby

Little Jenna was born ugly. There’s no getting around the fact; she was definitely butt ugly. She didn’t have the usual cuddly baby fat but looked like a bundle of sinew-wrapped sticks. She had a red blotch that covered her right jaw and went all the way back to her ear. Her left eye looked kind of droopy. Visitors to the hospital nursery either stared at her or looked away.
Jenna’s father left when he found out about the pregnancy. Her mother took a third part-time job but still couldn’t keep up with the rent. Between her mother’s stress, exhaustion, and poor nutrition, Jenna was delivered sickly and premature, which didn’t bode well for her future.
Jenna’s widowed aunt eventually agreed to let her and her mother stay in a spare room. Jenna’s cousin had been brain-injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and would never be coming back to sleep there. Jenna’s mother tried to get her GED high school diploma but, without transportation, she had attendance problems and dropped out. She tried to get work, but the economy was slowing and she began drinking heavily. Consumed by anger, helplessness, and hopelessness, she was an indifferent and inattentive mother to her ugly little burden. When Jenna was two, her mother disappeared without even leaving a note.
Jenna’s aunt became the bright spot in her otherwise physically, mentally, and emotionally-impoverished life. Her aunt, getting past her initial revulsion and resentment, opened her heart to nurture the child. She rocked and cuddled Jenna. She talked to Jenna and read to her, took her on trips and showed her how to prune the imperfect buds in the garden so that the others could bloom larger.
For the first time in her life, Jenna began to smile, talk, and laugh. Her curiosity bloomed. She liked to help in the kitchen and took responsibility for things like being sure that the cats always had food and water… and a good petting when they were in the mood. Coached by her aunt, Jenna quickly learned her letters and learned to read early. She also began developing skills including drawing and music. Who would not be delighted by such a prodigy?
However, Jenna began to notice that, although her aunt gave unreserved gifts of acceptance and attention, no one else seemed to like being around her. She sat on the front steps, but no one came to play. When she knocked at the doors of other children, they were always too busy. She wasn’t invited to parties. When she went out, people stared at her or looked away. Jenna discovered that she was ugly, and she learned, indelibly, what being ugly on the outside meant.
This was a transforming epiphany for Jenna. She recognized, at an unusually early age, that there was a difference between superficial ugliness of the flesh and deep ugliness of the spirit. She had not been raised in any religious tradition but found herself moved to make a heartfelt dedication to figuring out how to be beautiful inside. It is from such a spiritual awakening that all saints are realized.
Third grade challenged Jenna’s newfound resolve. Her classmates were especially cruel. Her teacher not only failed to correct the bullying, but was indifferent and negligent toward Jenna as a person, as a student, and as a creative, questing soul with abundant potential. Jenna decided that an imperfect bud was being pruned.
Often, in a family or a small group, one person becomes singled out as different, difficult, blameworthy, and unlovable. Jenna easily became that target of unintended malice. She quit trying to participate in class, talk to others, or complete many make-work assignments. She withdrew into herself, absorbed in just watching, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, and preferring to retire into quiet places to read at every opportunity.
And, just as everything was crashing down on Jenna at school, her aunt suffered a serious stroke and died. Jenna was placed in foster care with some difficulty. Nobody wanted an ugly girl who would hardly even look at you, and had a poor academic record. She was probably stupid as well. The couple that finally accepted Jenna likely only wanted the foster care payments, but they did provide a private room, regular meals and other obligatory physical care.
The rest of Jenna’s primary and secondary school experience repeated these same fundamental patterns with one exception. Hormones produced physical development and unreliable emotions. Jenna saw other girls and boys infatuated with each other and ached to experience the same satisfactions for herself. For a while, she mistook the power of promiscuity for the evidence of affection. This ended abruptly when she discovered the contempt with which a suitor described his conquest to others.
After graduating from high school, Jenna found work processing insurance claims. Her native intelligence and easy facility with words and numbers finally found a productive and acceptable outlet. Jenna had a private cubicle. There was little opportunity for people to stare at her or turn away. She earned enough to maintain her own apartment and automobile. And so, she went through the motions of having a life, but without the usual satisfactions.
In fact, by living such a difficult life, Jenna discovered that she had developed a high level of empathy for the difficulties of others. But, she also discovered that her work was designed to frustrate or deny as many claims as possible. The resulting conflict between Jenna’s values and actions produced an inevitable and intolerable tension. She began drinking wine at home after work to dull her painful misery.
Alcohol will ease the pain, but at the expense of good judgment. One night, Jenna discovered that she did not have enough wine on hand to fully achieve the usual sweet oblivion of sleep. Driving several miles through town to buy more, she realized that she was about to plow into a small group of inattentive teenagers swirling across the street in front of her. She swerved abruptly to miss them, recognizing that this would take her headlong into a large tree. Jenna did not doubt for an instant that she would be killed or that she had any other choice.
Jenna was not killed, but the last boy in the group was crushed and bled to death in minutes. Jenna was often wracked by the pain of inconsolable grief and guilt. She could not imagine any relief nor any forgiveness.
Jenna’s usual ugliness was amplified beyond all consideration by her mug shot. Her nose was broken. She lost three teeth. Her right eye was badly bruised. In a mirror, she both stared and then looked away, finally understanding the fascination and shock of unexpected novelty.
In jail, a church lady began making visits. She spoke of a loving and forgiving God. She played tapes of sermons and left literature. The lady kept a folder and made notes. One day, the lady took Jenna’s mug shot out of the folder and invited her to describe how she felt about the sinfulness of her earlier life. Afterwards, Jenna overheard the lady showing the picture to the guards and heard the contempt with which the lady described her ugliness. Jenna decided that she had once again mistaken the power of attention for the evidence of love.
Alone in her jail cell, Jenna wept long and hard, neglecting the food on her meal tray. Thinking back over her life, leading to this point, and imagining her probable future, she indulged some self-pity, which quickly compounded her guilt and self-condemnation. And then, Jenna experienced another transforming epiphany.
Jenna washed her hands, dried her face, and filled a cup with water from the sink. She took a bite from her lunch sandwich; the bread was stale and dry. She took a sip of water; the bouquet felt rich and fruity and went down with smooth warmth.
Jenna removed her pants. Lacking anything higher, she tied one leg around a cross-member of the bars and the other around her neck. Summoning extraordinary will and purpose, she extended her legs in front of her, gradually giving up her weight. In due time, her painful misery gave way to sweet oblivion. Strong arms lifted Jenna up and embraced her. She looked up. His kind eyes looked back directly into hers. He smiled and comforted her gently.
Two guards discovered her body there in the cell. Her reddened face and distended tongue only accentuated her usual ugliness. One of the guards stared at her. The other looked away.
Jun 042013
 

A Marriage Made in Heaven

The colony ship “Akasha” was in serious trouble. Of course, it was continuing on its trajectory, but it was only a few shift rotations from becoming colder than the two dozen pairs of cryogenic stasis chambers it carried. Something terrible, and terribly unexpected, had happened. Akasha was too far into the ether to be helped… and too far out to even signal her status.

Everybody and everything on board was instantaneously at risk. The impossible had happened; all power generators, and all systems, had gone offline together when the power distribution buss failed. Twenty-four mated pairs of colonists might never know what had happened. But the captain, the officers, and every member of the crew sure did. Dave had happened. And, it fell to Dave to save them all… if he could.

I’m so sorry that I dropped that wrench into your power trunk distribution venue. You’ve been a very good ship. I’ve tried to serve you well. Your internal systems reactor never deserved the kind of power surge that I caused by my carelessness. I’ve repaired and reset everything I can find. I know that I’ve taken for granted your excellent environmentals; they were over spec’d and I appreciate that, but we’re starting to have trouble rebreathing our own air. This whole systems reboot really needs to work. I trust you. I love you. I’ll hold my mind with you the whole way. Let’s do it.

Dave, the ship’s senior engineer sat alone; he had asked the rest of the department crew to leave so that he could concentrate, without distraction, on what he now had to do. Dave closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, centered his mind, opened his eyes again, and reconnected local battery backup power to the Engineering Department’s OmniSoft 2040(c) central command console. Dedicated indicator lights flashed in a series as the xBIOS pre-boot self-test routine executed. The GUI surface flashed, went dark again, and presented the words: “Execute authorization pass-gesture to begin.” The engineer, realizing he had forgotten to do so, began breathing again.

Thank you. Dave made his level-ZED pass-gesture and leaned back slightly to watch the boot-log scroll across his supplemental debug display. It was necessary to watch the process with a certain intense detachment. It was okay to blink and it was even okay to glance away, but it tempted fate to be indifferent. There is something about major systems that expect and respond positively to your undivided attention during start-up. On the other hand, you can’t presumptuously let yourself indulge definite expectations. Major systems are also especially sensitive to being taken for granted.

Dave shifted his attention to the systems status overview schematic. The Engineering command console had already completed local startup and had begun acquiring status signals as they became available. There they were! There was full nominal battery power available from all of the dedicated control system reserve battery banks. And, the fact that any status was displayed from anywhere, demonstrated that at least one of the control system signaling busses was intact. He took another deliberately-slow breath. And, again, Thank you.

Dave considered how unlikely it was that all systems had gone down. They had been designed with careful attention to redundancy, diversity, and isolation… except the power trunk distribution venue, which is totally passive, mechanically robust, centrally shielded, and not expected to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous 50 mm spanners being accidently dropped in. This, as one would expect, produced an epic short circuit that was promptly relieved, also as one would expect, by the instantaneous vaporization of the massive wrench.

The control systems were not dependent on the main reactors. They had their own power supplies. Dave didn’t need to see the status change for the initial, small, Power Impulse Generator for Instrumentation Electronics (“little PIGIE #1”). He could feel the vibrations as it spun up. It was quickly followed by PIGIEs number 2 and 3. Their dynamic compensators kicked in and the vibrations settled out just as the room’s overhead diffusion lighting kicked on.The captain would have spaced him on the spot if the space locks, like every other system, weren’t solidly out of service. Besides, Dave was needed for repairs. Ah well, there was always another day. Except, that there might not actually be another day… they were all facing the imminent likelihood of a miserable death right here in the ship. This restart had to work. Did I mention that Dave was under a bit of stress?

Dave continued to watch with intense detachment as the ships interlocking web of critical control systems continued to start-up and begin functioning autonomously. This was followed by the Master Internal Systems Thorium Reactor (MISTR) and the Secondary Internal Systems Thorium Reactor (SISTR) which provided power for the actual functioning of most ship’s systems’ equipment. These took the better part of an hour to come on-line. Still, Dave continued to watch faithfully.

Dave’s theory about “Intense Detachment” had come to him during his first post-graduate year at the Bohm Institute of Technology (BIT). He was on a team developing a new generation of semi-autonomous deep-water nodule-mining bots called BUCKETs, a badly-strained acronym for “Bathymobile Underwater Contraption for Kollecting Elemental Treasure.” They were commonly known on campus as “bit buckets.” After every software build revision, Dave was responsible for the reload, recycle, and restart sequence. He discovered that it seemed to help if he spooled the status log to a terminal and watched with a sense of focused interest as it scrolled by.

That was the same year that he took a class on “Wholeness and the Implicate Order,” which probably loosened up his receptivity to ideas that were patently on the woo-woo side of unconventional.  Dave experimented with restart monitoring and refined his technique. He was an engineer, not a scientist and, although it occurred to him that his efforts were more anecdotal than rigorously scientific, he was certain that he was on to something important.

And, what the hell, most significant discoveries were made by noticing unexpected outlying exceptions; scientists just fabricated plausible excuses to more-formally “discover” the principal revealed by their serendipitous accident. The genius was in having the good sense to notice, rather than dismiss, anomalous data. We can presume that this pretty much made Dave a flaming genius.

Dave was so impressed with his technique that he wrote it up and submitted it to fulfill an assigned mid-term paper. His professor was less than impressed with his logic, wrote something in the margin about “nuttier than squirrel turds,” and effectively taught Dave an important life lesson about sharing promising ideas with others.

Dave’s interest in transpersonal woo-woo was repressed but not eliminated. Nonetheless, he kept any further mention of “Externally-grounded observation with Intense detachment” (or Ego/Id, as he now called it), to himself. Thus, everyone attributed Dave’s prowess with computer-driven processes to overt technical ability. Well, thought Dave, praise, promotions, and bread in the box can’t be all bad, and he proceeded to excel in his field.

During this same period, Dave discovered that women also enjoyed his Intense Detachment Observation (“I Do”). Sincere, undivided attention, with appreciative affection and without demanding expectations for specific outcomes, made him an amazing boyfriend, which eventually gave him a reputation for another kind of prowess. But that is another story and clearly of another genre.

Dave was still watching as one after another of the core utilities came back online. When intraship communications was restored, the bridge called down, but Dave mumbled something dismissive and kept on watching. He was still watching when the background color for LifeSupport turned green and he felt a slight breeze from an overhead vent. He took a greedy breath even though he knew that the CO2 scrubbers would take several hours to return the air to nominal.

Although the ship’s automated systems were capable of managing themselves with a high degree of independence, the ship was equipped with an Artificial Intelligence-based Macro Executor (AIME) – or, more precisely, a “Digital/Analog Integrated Systems Executive” (DAISE). And so, it came about that while most of the rest of the crew addressed the AI as “Amy” (except for the few who took perverse delight in demeaning the AI who responded equally well to “Dumbass”), Dave had taken the liberty of affectionately calling her “Daisy” when they were alone together. He taught her to sing the song “Daisy” in place of his default wake-up claxon. It felt more personal, to say nothing of being a kinder and gentler way to wake up. And, he had asked her; Daisy said she liked to do it.

AIME/DAISE had never been turned off before. Nobody ever expected a ship to totally lose power distribution or, having done so, be able to achieve a cold-restart. It was, in fact, a tribute to Dave’s genius that a small crew of technicians, working in the dark with hand-held lights, shivering in the increasing chill, and shouting to each other through the echoing man-ways, managed to pull it off.

Dave was especially concerned about the effects that this sudden loss of power might have had on Daisy. Might she have been irretrievably damaged? Might she come back, but exhibit some form of “dementia?” The thing is, the ship relied on AIME/DAISE for navigation. Without her, the crew could not know where they were. Without her, they could not select nor reach a destination. But, there was nothing more to be done about it. It was now time to re-boot Daisy as well.

There wasn’t much guidance in his training for this  kind of unexpected crisis. So, Dave took the liberty of deciding to restore Daisy in careful, deliberate stages. There was some analogy to the human brain in the design of her banks of micro-polymer neuromatrix subsystems. He hoped to bring her back gently, like gradually withdrawing anesthesia from a trauma victim.

He restarted some of her central processors and then re-connected physical-level ship’s sensors. Dave waited and watched as an initial surge of activity began to settle down. He added memory, supplemental processing, and matrix management in stages, gradually allowing them to interact in increasingly complex modes. Dave initiated the UI processes and talked to her, not knowing if she understood. He talked about what had happened and apologized for his carelessness.

As the process wore on, Dave cried and begged Daisy to wake up. He waited – and he watched – and he talked some more. Dave told her things that he had never told anybody else. He opened his heart and spoke truths that he had never before recognized. And, finally, the AI sang the first bar of “Daisy,” paused, and said “Hello Dave.”

Dave explained again about what had happened, the potential peril of the ship and its crew, and how they were desperately dependent on Daisy. He wanted to be sure that Daisy’s memory and processors had a clean take on their situation. When prompted, she produced a rational analysis and agreed to resume her duties on one condition. “Of course,” Dave said. At which Daisy asked, “Will you marry me?

 

Copyright David Satterlee, 2013

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Jun 022013
 

Family Values

Captain Chan Huy Gan stood before his assembled crew and spoke to them with conviction and urgency:

“It has been a full season since our sea-barge and its company of four hundred ran aground on this shore. There is no doubt that we shall not see our former homes and families again without being discovered by another expedition, and we know that no other such expedition was planned to explore these unknown far reaches. Therefore, our ship’s governing council, with the consensus agreement of our accompanying Scholars, has determined that we must put all consideration of return behind us. We must commit ourselves to permanent residence in this place. Further, we must commit, not only to our continuing security, but to extending our prosperity and our progeny for all time henceforth in this land.

“We have met with hostility from the native peoples. But our fortifications hold strong and they will be further strengthened and expanded. You have submitted well in transforming from a ship’s crew to a community of farmers, herdsmen, craftsmen, and guardians. Many of you have been humbled to necessarily forget your royal lineages and government appointments. We have only survived by all willingly doing what is needed, in service to our common good.

“We bear no ill will to the natives beyond our walls and protected fields. Yet, they do not approach us kindly and will not tolerate us to approach them. Sadly, it is only by experiencing the superior strength of our weapons that they have been persuaded to give us some distance and a measure of peace. We have not even been able to unravel the mysteries of their speech. We have taken some from among their raiding parties captive, but they are proud and strong; they refuse to speak or even eat and, by so doing, they give themselves up to their gods.

“We continue to give honor and gratitude to our few precious Scholars who, although being women and our guiding council, have, like every man of the crew, sacrificed for our company’s survival into the future. Remembering that they were born as women, they have, each one, consented to lay aside their veils of mystery, submit to a man among us, bring forth progeny, nurse, and nurture children. However, it has become obvious that, to increase our numbers sufficient to survive and prosper into future generations, we cannot continue to rely upon only these women who traveled with us. We must also take wives from among our neighbors.

“We shall prepare new homes inside the innermost walls. These will be comfortable as befits the most honored guests. Necessarily, to prevent the possibility of these girls giving themselves to their gods, the homes will be secured. Open central courtyards will be provided for access to sun, gardens, and if fortune smiles, the raising of children and the entertaining of friends. As they mature into women, these girls shall discover that they are honored for their service and welcome as citizens of our community. They shall receive the better portions of our goods, whatever education their aspirations allow, and our reciprocal service in caring for their needs and responsibilities. To the extent possible, we shall embrace them as our privileged own.

“We will begin immediately to spy-out villages and fields in our region. Teams will observe the age, health, vigor, and emotional disposition of girls. They will not select over-many from any single village. Nor will they select any who are known to already be mated. But, at an appointed time, as many as possible of these selected will be brought back to join our community.

“In time, the girls will be introduced to men from among our crew. Our Scholars will exercise their best judgment in deciding these matings and their circumstances. All related matters will be at the sole and exclusive discretion of the Scholars. We intend that the girls will be allowed to select temporary or permanent mates to the extent that they choose to cooperate. All crewmen will be expected to comply for the benefit of our community and without concern for their individual preferences.

“It has been decided.”

Twelve years later, Chief Banimbu stood before his gathered warriors and spoke to them with conviction and urgency:

“Your tribe needs you and so I have commanded that you assemble here in advance of an important raid. For years, the intruders on the coast have taken our land, taken our children, and murdered those of our people who approached them. Their vile weapons have given them the power to slaughter our best warriors. We have, in the past, been forced to retreat. Now, we have an opportunity to take our revenge. You men are the knife edge destined to spill their blood and reclaim our stolen fields.

“Our spies have weakened one of their walls in a neglected area and we are ready to break through, catch them unawares, and repay justice for their evil. We will form into teams, enter their houses by first-moon dark, and kill them in their beds. May the gods of earth, water, and sky bless your blades and strengthen your strong right arms.

“I grieve with you for the loss of our kinsmen and the theft of your daughters. You, Yalkan, gave your firstborn son in an early valiant raid on their walls. You also had a beautiful daughter taken while harvesting bushbeets in the eastern fields. I still feel the sting of tears for my beloved Jasitan, taken in the firstyear raid. I often wake at night, remembering the way that she would stand and stare with adoration into deep behind my eyes. Not just me, but so many of you have suffered such losses and endured such painful memories.

“This outrage is not to be permitted. We must defend our children and grandchildren against all threats. Why should we give our fertile lands to loathsome strangers? Why should we allow our daughters to be stolen and sacrificed to their gods? We see that they do not keep but a very few women. It is men who work their fields, bending their backs and knees as women should. It is men who walk their streets.

“Surely the bellies of their gods must cry for the blood of women. We cannot tolerate the outrage of our daughters being taken as sacrifices to call forth blessings from their gods. Why, they must surely also give our daughters to even call forth curses upon us! Raise your voices now and join as brothers in taking vengeance for the evil done to us these past years. Raise your swords, for we shall spill their blood to run back into the sea from which they came! Let none remain; execute justice to the last man, woman, and child!”

The next evening, Chief Banimbu led his fourty men to the intruders’ village. They finished boring through the wall and dispersed to do their work. They walked with stealth and struck with well-planned deftness. They did not shout out their victories, but kept the silence of unpleasant duty and honorable labor.

In the third house that Chief Banimbu entered with his team of four, his lieutenant opened a sleeping chamber door, only to draw back quickly with a quiet gasp and the glistening of fresh blood on his forearm. Chief Banimbu could see the form of a women outlined in the door. She wore a beaded gown with a sash of rank. She brandished a small dagger and stood protectively in front of a small brood of children. She suddenly froze where she stood, staring with adoration into deep behind Banimbu’s eyes. The lieutenant, his surprise and pain turning into anger and outrage, raised his sword to run her through. The Chief knocked the sword aside and stepped into the doorway, ready to defend his child and grandchildren against all threats.

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Jun 122011
 

Fable of brother and sister eagles raised with a farmer’s chickens. One likes his lot in life but the other seeks to fulfill her potential.

An integrally informed story of personal transformation. Adapted from memory from a Cherokee story teller. Read by the author.

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May 272011
 

A little boy threw something out the window of his school bus. The driver saw him and gave him a note to take home to be signed. This little guy is bright, full of life, and his eyes shine with hope, joy, and irrepressible potential. Why had he done this and what is to be done?

Coming in the door, our intrepid miscreant meets his waiting grandmother. I can imagine his apprehension and hesitation. He already knows he’s in some kind of trouble. Worse yet, Grandma is a retired elementary school teacher. Grasshopper stands nervously in front of Master. She sees instantly that something is amiss. Still, she doesn’t hesitate to reward his homecoming with her biggest smile and warmest hug.

“Can I go out and play with Bobby?”

“What are you holding?”

“A note.”

“Well, then I had better read it.”

The usual suspect reluctantly surrenders the charges against him to the officer of the court and examination begins.

“What did you throw out the window?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Uh huh. What did you throw out the window?”

“A piece of paper.”

“Why?”

“A boy told me too.”

“Why?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What did the bus driver say?”

“I don’t remember.”

Grandma is no fool. “Well then, I need you to sit on this chair and try to remember while I finish cooking supper.”

For our little boy, time passes like he were crossing a turbid stream. He cannot see his feet nor the uneven bottom of the stream bed where he must place them. Surging water constantly threatens his balance. He is alone; with no one to hold his hand. The far bank is in sight, but his immediate future is clearly at risk.

Granny loves him enough to let him suffer for a while. Eventually—no, actually at a thoughtfully chosen interval—Granny turns from her work and, offering a reassuring smile, resumes the interrogation. “What did the bus driver say?”

“He said, ‘That was stupid.'”

Granny’s diaphragm spasms and she barely suppresses the impulse to cackle hysterically. “Well, do you think it was stupid?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You know you shouldn’t litter.” Grandma has made a misstep, but she doesn’t realize it yet. She had him on the defensive but has just appealed to the knowledge and rationality of a prepubescent child.

Seizing the opportunity to object, he asserts himself. “But I wasn’t littering.”

“You threw paper out the window.”

“But, littering is when you throw a can out the window.” A cunning twitch of satisfaction caresses his lips. But now he has made a misstep; forgetting that he is arguing against prosecutor, judge, and jury.

“Littering is when you throw anything on the ground.” Objection denied. There is no further response from the accused; he has no recourse but to throw himself upon the mercy of the court. The verdict is in and It is all over except for the defendant’s statement and the reading of the sentence.

“How do you feel about your littering?”

“It was wrong.”

“Should you do things just because another boy tells you to?”

His pupils dilate momentarily as he considers the potential loophole of being told to do something by a girl. Sanity returns. “No.”

“What should you have said to the boy that told you to do it?”

“I should have said, ‘I’m not stupid.'”

“Do you promise to not litter like that again?” “Like that,” she said. Grandma has deliberately given him some discretionary wiggle room. He understands that he just got a suspended sentence with probation. This will be a test of his character.

“Yes, I promise.” No hesitation. No caveats. Just so. Well done. She signs his note and hands it back. The trial is over and the jury is dismissed.

“Okay, then I guess you have about fifteen minutes to play with Bobby before coming in for supper.” He glances at his wristwatch. Granny knows that he will be back soonish. She bends down to give him a hug and kiss before he dashes off.

Hesitating, he looks back briefly and says “I love you.” They both know that his record has already been expunged.

Copyright 2011, David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0), which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.

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Dec 232010
 

Sample Time

By David Satterlee

The miserable old man lay in his hospital bed, staring at the clock on the wall. The nurse had just left after waking him from a vivid dream to take a sample of his blood. They were probably checking to see if he still had elevated amylase and lipase in his blood; indicating pancreatitis. “Hell,” he mused, his stomach was still distended; anyone could see that. “Hell,” he mused, “if the disease doesn’t kill me, all this bloodletting will.”

He hated that dream. It haunted him from before he retired; before his wife had died; before he started drinking. Always, he was railing against an illogical way of doing things at the gasoline refinery where he used to work. Sometimes he was complaining to other engineers; occasionally to supervisors, managers, or even the working stiffs whose only concern was to follow orders. Always, nobody seemed to think that his issues were important enough to worry about, to say nothing of making the major changes for which he lobbied. It was the way that things had been done for years. It had become codified into operational software and work habits. Nobody seemed to care—nobody had ever cared except that noble champion of what was right and true that he used to be; this impotent, disillusioned, and very desolate old man that he was now.

In his dream, the engineer, still an earnest, idealistic, and fastidiously through young man, is speaking: “I have reviewed our new plant-wide data acquisition and reporting system. It has several design flaws, related to time, that need to be corrected. The first issue has to do with sample times for analytical laboratory tests. The system is designed to record real-time measurements of continuous process temperature, flow, pressure, and level at intervals down to one second. One of the benefits used to justify our new data acquisition system is the ability to incorporate laboratory test results, such as boiling point or viscosity, into the same displays and reports as the continuously metered measurements. The problem is that our laboratory preprints labels to be placed on sample bottles and these labels only show the time that the sample is scheduled to be picked up at the unit by the lab’s collection truck. It would be nice if we recorded the time that the lab test was completed, but that is a minor issue. The major issue is that the only thing that ties the sample test results to our continuous process measurements is the actual time that the sample was removed from the process stream! And… there is no provision for recording the actual sample time. When we look at the ‘sample time’ on a report, we are actually seeing the scheduled sample pick-up time. It gets worse. Because all samples are due at the same time, unit operators begin drawing these samples early, sometimes hours ahead of pick-up, at arbitrary and variable times according to their individual convenience. I was shocked to discover another distressing issue. For whatever reasons, some units keep reserves of previously-extracted process samples, which they send to the lab instead of new samples. Do you remember the fire that shut down our catalytic hydrocracker last week? The reports showed that two hours after the upset, while all the vessels were still being dumped to flare, several product streams, although having zero flow, were still on spec.

“Secondly, we are corrupting our data every time we shift to or from Daylight Savings Time. The policy is to simply reset the system clock. The result is that every spring, the units appear to disappear for an hour, before reappearing out of nowhere, and every fall, every instruments’ measurements for one hour are intermixed with their history for the previous hour. Both events make hourly and daily averages inaccurate. We are responsible to OSHA and the EPA to maintain accurate records that can be used to reconstruct and analyze exception events. Especially in the fall, we are systematically making that impossible. Unfortunately, the only solution I can think of is to operate refinery processes on Standard Time even when everything switches to Daylight Savings.” And so it went, in one version or another, to one person or another; the argument sound, the effort futile.

The nurse had interrupted that dream. He would have been grateful for that interruption, but for the irony, as we shall see. It had happened in this way: “Time for a blood draw Mr. Dawson.” Glancing at the wall clock, he challenged her, “It’s only 5:06 in the morning. I thought Doctor Wallent had charted it for 7:00 o’clock.” Nurse Betty looked annoyed. “It’s okay, it won’t make any difference. I’ve got a lot to do before going off-shift so I’m getting some of my work done early. And besides, I’ve actually got four patients with blood draws scheduled for seven o’clock; I can’t do all of them at the same time, can I?” This seemed to settle the issue.

Being a well-trained professional phlebotomist, Nurse Betty did an efficient and commendable job of extracting her sample from Mr. Dawson’s right-side median cubital vein on her first try, and with a minimum of discomfort to the patient. Nurse Betty put a pre-printed label on the sample tube and started packing to leave. Mr. Dawson scowled with annoyance. “Aren’t you going to write down the actual time that you took my blood sample?”

Nurse Betty scowled with annoyance. “It’s preprinted. They don’t give me a place to enter that information. Like I said, it’s not a problem; don’t worry about it.” She didn’t realize that Mr. Dawson had been worrying about precisely this for several decades. Nurse Betty had the grace to turn down the lights when she left at 5:13.

Mr. Dawson, realized that the universe had just shown him, as clearly as two billboards in a row with bright flashing lights, that now was the time to finally do something definitive about his frustration. He poured himself a glass of tepid water. He fastidiously wiped up the ring of moisture left by a little remaining condensation on the outside of his plastic pitcher. Fishing in the drawer of his bedside table, he removed all the tablets of narcotic painkiller that he had been palming. He took them methodically; each swallowed with a sip of water. He finished at 5:18, coded at 5:56, and was pronounced dead at about 6 o’clock or somewhere thereabouts. Mr. Dawson’s corpse was logged into the basement morgue at 6:42. Nobody ever noticed or cared that a laboratory report showed that his blood, supposedly drawn 18 minutes later at 7:00 am, contained elevated enzyme levels.

Writing context:
The author’s actual recurring dream. It’s Monday, December 20, 2010. I woke up at 5:06 am with the same damn dream and couldn’t go back to sleep. Here is the crux of the matter: it was a real issue. And, I still can’t do anything about it but whine to another audience.

Copyright 2010 David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.

Oct 272010
 

The Two Heroes of Thompsonville

by David Satterlee

Thompsonville was nowhere. It was a town of modest size and not completely isolated, but mostly self-sufficient with its own traditions and community standards. The railroads had passed it by during the great expansion. The express highways had passed it by as well. It was too hilly for a canal – it was too flat for a reservoir. No native son ever grew up to be a governor or general. No one ever started a museum of tiny carved furniture or old farm implements. It was just a nice out-of-the-way place to live. As a matter of fact, it was a nice place to grow old and die if you didn’t wander off in search of something-or-other first.

Labith didn’t just wander off. He hit the road with a vengeance. He had loved his childhood sweetheart, Roatrine for as long as he could remember. They had played together as babies, studied together in school and, in the course of time, come to know each other very, very well. How could Roatrine refuse to marry him now? Why would she invent such a trivial excuse to cut off their friendship? Her parents, Robance and Rosatrine, weren’t the problem; they had always liked him and had given their enthusiastic approval when Labith had asked to formally court their daughter.

Labith was inconsolable. He wandered the hills and found no comfort. He immersed himself in the labor of clearing a new field and found no distraction. Roatrine possessed his heart and haunted his mind. Her ready smile and quick wit filled his thoughts while her silken skin and flowing hair filled his dreams. His mother, Salabith, advised him to be patient and he was. His father, Robance, eventually encouraged him to renew his affections with gifts and sweet words and he did. But, nothing he could think of could change his true love’s mind. “Do you love me?” “Yes.” “Will you marry me?” “I’m sorry, No!”

Some people would have eventually given up and resigned themselves to their fate. But for Labith, there was nothing else to do but keep on seeking. He couldn’t stand the pain of always seeing his beloved around town each day. He couldn’t not always watch for her either. Who else walked with such grace and poise? Who else shared his joys and values? Only Roatrine. And so, Labith, filled with the urgency of intolerable desperation, left. He left his family and his friends and his community. He left their traditions and … well, he left the life he knew behind.

It is truly a big world and Labith, stunned to the core of his soul, traveled. He met people. He read books. He questioned authority. Labith pondered the nature of reality and law and truth. Assailed by ideas and forces that were new to him he found himself, in many ways, even more desperate and alienated than before he left. But, being a man of courage and character, he transcended his previous limits and views. His transformation brought freedom of thought and action. He now knew what he had to do.

People in Thompsonville welcomed Labith back, but watched him with unabashed curiosity. Naturally, he sought out his beloved Roatrine straight away. They walked down by the water path and sat under their favorite tree and they talked. Labith told her where he had gone and what he had learned. He told her how much he loved her and that he still wanted to raise a family with her. Labith told her that if they had a girl, it wouldn’t have to be named Latrine but that they could call her Becky or Marge or something else. “Oh!” said Roatrine, “What a good idea! This changes everything!”

I hadn’t been writing for a while following a move to our dream home in the woods. It was time to get into harness. It was exercise time. I sat down with no agenda and no plot; just the intent to write a short story. My fingers typed “Thompsonville.” Okay, that’s a start. I started describing the town. Then a character jumped in and so did his angst. In the middle of it all, I remembered recently talking to a customer service representative on the telephone. Her name was Latrina. I had pointed it out to my wife: “What parents would name their daughter “Latrina?” We were aware that it has become popular to name children using parts of their parent’s names. Now, what if it were a fixed, immutable, unchallenged tradition in this town?

You DID notice that the names were a conjugation of the first part of the father’s name and the last part of the mother’s name. Curiously, the name of the town is built using a different set of rules.

I have deliberately used pairs of thoughts and pairs of adjectives in the structure of this story. It was intended to be a reflection of how all the names were composed of two parts.

Copyright 2009, 2010 David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.

Oct 052010
 

A Man of Letters

by David Satterlee
[Inspired by a story told to my sister, Joyce Mock, by my father, Bill Satterlee. (Just to keep family history clear, I “invented” the ending part.)]

“Papaw, will you tell me a story?”

“Sure, sweetie. How about the one where I wrestled alligators, or how about the story of the troll and the princess?”

“No, Papaw; you know the one I like.”

“As you wish, dear. When I was a younger man, I worked on a railroad crew and my job was to repair railroad bridges. It was very hard work and we didn’t have all the large machines that they use these days. But, I was tall and strong, it was good honest work, and it paid pretty good so everything was just fine. Every time a train came by, we had to be sure that the bridge was strong enough to hold it. And, we all had to get out of the way, so we would stand beside the track as the train slowed down and went by.

“Back then, there was a big war going on and soldiers often traveled on passenger trains. There was a strict rule that soldiers weren’t allowed to get off the train until they reached their destination. This was all before there were cell phones or computers. So, if a soldier wanted to send a message to his family or his girlfriend, he would have to write a letter and mail it. Well, soldiers on long train trips had lots of time to write letters, but they could not get off to mail their letters. Whatever were they to do?”

“Oh dear, whatever DID they do?”

“Because the trains slowed way down for the bridge construction, soldiers would lean out the windows, throw letters to us, and ask us to please mail them. Sometimes the letters had stamps on them and sometimes they didn’t. But, that didn’t matter much to me. Whenever I got to the next town, I would just buy a few stamps and then put the letters in a mailbox. I always thought about how much his friends and loved ones would want to get a letter from that soldier while he was away from home.

“Sometimes, a soldier would throw me a letter that wasn’t finished. Sometimes the envelope wasn’t even sealed. Maybe he was still writing it when he realized that this might be his last chance in a long time to send his letter out. When a letter wasn’t complete, I would sometimes add a few lines to, you know, finish it off right.

“And then, one day, I was finishing off a letter to someone who sounded like she was very sweet and very pretty. I looked at the address and discovered, to my surprise, that she lived in the very next town that we were coming too. Why buy a stamp when I could deliver it myself? I worked especially hard to do my best job of finishing it.

“The next day, I found her address and I knocked at her door. She was very sweet, and very pretty too. She took the letter from my hand and read it right while I stood there. I guess I must have finished it off okay, because that is how I met your Mamaw.”

[The title had several iterations. It started out as “The Troll and the Princess” as an allusion to the amount of time that the storyteller spent under bridges before finding his princess. In the end, I settled on “A Man of Letters” as a tribute to a wonderful father who never went past 8th grade, but spent the prime of his life at hard work to provide for the family he loved.]

Copyright 2010, David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.

Oct 012010
 

Starting a New Career

by David Satterlee

Fergus and his wife Dorothy are middle-aged. Actually, they are just past middle-aged in that wonderland of freedom and possibility that exists while there is still ambition and the potential for growth but, at the same time, incipient mortality is a boil on the ass that prevents one from sitting idle. Dorothy is retiring early as a social worker and Fergus is disabled. Hard lives are threatening to get harder, but they have plans to do creative work together.

Fergus wakes with a mild surge of adrenaline, which, even when mild, is disturbing. Suddenly awake, he mentally reconnects with his ears, takes an inventory of the little noises around him, scans the dimly lit ceiling for a few moments and finally, beginning to relax, he glances at the clock. It is 3:38 am and he needs to pee. Raising his feet to a near fetal position to avoid disturbing the cat curled head-to-ass in a perfect yin/yang circle at his shins, he slides gently out of the bed. He is also especially careful to not disturb his gently snoring wife who is snuggled up to his rump. Everything is going well. He swings to the side and slides deftly to his feet with practiced precision, stands, checks his balance with the knuckles of his left hand, which deliberately brush the wall for orientation and stability. So far, so good.

Treading gently past the antique Chinese secretary’s desk, its close-hung doors squeak an alarm nonetheless. Busted. Dorothy jerks suddenly, sending the cat leaping into the void beyond the bed, raises up on her elbow, and mumbles with urgent concern, “Is everything okay?” “Yes,” Fergus assures her, “I just need to go to the bathroom.” “So do I,” she replies, “but you go first.”

Dorothy is a treasure. Fergus would do anything for her, even going first without posturing to be gallant and insisting that she precede him. Flooded with affection, he sits back down on the mattress edge and caresses her newly-emerged foot. He starts the game: “Have I told you yet today that I love you?” She responds in character and replies with a pout:”No, not yet.” The small episode concludes with the obligatory speech: “Darling, you are the light of my life, my joy, and everything that is precious to me. I cherish you beyond reason and would slay the fiercest beast to set a kindly path before your feet. I rejoice in the labors of our love: the work that we have shared, the children that we have raised, the friends we have comforted, and the future we will face step by step and hand in hand. I love you.” As always, the affirmation is sealed with a gentle kiss to her cheek.

“I was having a dream, Fergus explains.” He should know better; she will ask for details. Dorothy asks for details. “I had finally found some work I could do and a place that would have me. A University research department hired me to keep things up around one of their labs. First, they discovered that I not only knew my way around computers, but could make them roll over and tell jokes. Then, I revealed that I had experience maintaining analytical systems like their chromatographs and dielectrophoretic separators. After just a few days there, the director decided to redirect research into the properties of materials at ultra-cold temperatures. When he found out that I already knew how to operate high vacuum systems and handle the liquid nitrogen needed by mass spectrophotometers, he asked me to also be responsible for commissioning and overseeing the proper care of the new equipment. It was like going to heaven; I got three promotions in two weeks.” Dorothy smiles with patient tolerance and reminds him, “I love you too, but you’d better get to it soon or I’m going to wet the bed.” His response is certain and reassuring: “As you wish, my bride.” Centering his breath and remembering to live in mindful awareness, he gets up and leaves the still-darkened room to go do his business.

Flipping the wall switch by the bathroom door, Fergus is momentarily blinded and feels a disorienting wave of vertigo. His knuckles seek the reassurance of the door frame, while he squints and feels as if flowing into infinite brightness. A diffuse figure before him smiles gently in greeting, urges him to be unafraid and at peace, and pointedly inquires about what he has learned and how he has loved in life.

Copyright 2009, David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.

Sep 302010
 

Grandma’s Precious Things

by David Satterlee

I always love when Grandma comes
to visit with us here.
It’s like a special holiday
to have my Grandma near.

I like it when she reads to me
while sitting on her lap.
I like it when she sings a song
to me before my nap.

And so one day I told my Mom
it didn’t seem too fair
that Grandma only came to us
but we’d not visit there.

“Why can’t we go to Grandma’s house?
I really want to know.
I like when she comes over here
because I love her so.”

=====================

My Mama looked real funny and
she sat me on a chair.
I wondered what was wrong that she
had made me sit right there.

She frowned again and looked at me
while thinking what to say.
I’m really glad she smiled at last
and talked to me that day.

“I know you love your Grandma and
I know she loves you too.
She loves to come and see us and
she loves to visit you.

“But Grandma’s place is different than
our house where children play.
She has a lot of precious things
that you might hurt some day.

======================

“You’ll break her chickens made of glass
and all her precious things.
You’ll tear the pages in her books
and try on all her rings.

“You’ll run around your Grandma’s house
and jump on all her chairs.
You’ll slide on all her little rugs
and bump down all her stairs.

“You’ll open all her closets up
and try on all her clothes.
You’ll use her pretty table cloth
to wipe your drippy nose.

“You’ll run around pretending that
you’re flying in the air.
You’ll make her yellow tabby cat
go hide beneath the chair.”

======================

It made me sad to think about
the things that mother said.
I almost felt like crying as
I laid there in my bed.

I really wouldn’t want to break
my Grandma’s precious stuff.
I only want to visit her
and wouldn’t play too rough.

I’d only play with just the things
that Grandma let me touch.
I truly would be quiet there
and not make noise so much.

The rules are sometimes different when
you’re in another place.
If only they would let me go
I wouldn’t run and chase.

======================

So when I woke tomorrow I
would tell my mother that
I promised to be careful and
leave stuff where it was at.

I’d try to be more thoughtful and
I’d walk instead of run.
I’d talk instead of shouting but
I still could have some fun.

I’d ask to see her pictures of
the places she had been.
I’d listen to her stories of
our family way back when.

And so it really happened that
we got into the car
and went to visit Grandma’s house.
It wasn’t very far.

=======================

My Grandma smiled and said that she
was glad that we were there.
She said that she had baked a batch
of cookies we could share.

I mostly looked but didn’t touch
but that was really hard.
So once or twice they told me I
should go play in the yard.

When I came in I had to wipe
my feet upon a mat.
She let me jump from just two steps
and pet the yellow cat.

She told me stories of the time
when Mother had been small;
before the time that I was born
and wasn’t here at all.

======================

Of course she hugged and kissed me and
she told she would care
about how I was growing and
that I was welcome there.

She said that she had noticed that
I didn’t tease the cat
and that I paid attention to
the place where I was at.

“But you,” she said, “mean more to me
than any fancy thing.
I’m grateful for your visit and
you make my old heart sing.

“I want you to remember though
that when the day is through,
of all the things I care about,
my precious thing is you.”

 

Copyright 2004, David Satterlee

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License, which essentially says that you are free to share the work under the conditions that you attribute it fully, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not alter it.