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"A Number of Problems" was my first piece accepted for online publication and became the inspiration, along with "Transcendence" for a novella Doc's in the works.


Between the Rows


            The evening breeze through the corn came as inviting whispers to little Carl. He started toward the field. 


            His father’s voice startled him and stopped him in his tracks. “Don’t go in there.”

            “Why not?” the five-year-old asked.

            “If you get lost in there, we’ll never find you.”

            He stared at the tall, ripening corn. Carl’s family was “town”; his uncle’s was “country.” They visited the farm often, but this was the first time he had felt any fear.

            “Carl.” His uncle knelt down next him. “Just remember you ever do get lost in a corn field, stay between the rows. If you stay between the rows, you’ll come out eventually, and we’ll find you. But let’s go inside. I think Aunt Alice has supper ready.”

            During the meal his mind kept drifting back to the field of corn outside. Standing, waiting patiently for him to make a mistake, to get lost within its depths. It was a fear that remained with him all the way home and reemerged at every return visit throughout his childhood. largely forgotten as his life took him far from small town and rural environs. Yet it was cathected with any mention, reading, or image of a field of corn.

            So it was on this October Saturday afternoon, riding through the Iowa countryside and reminiscing with friends he could not relax. Stuffed into the back seat of a Mini Cooper with Allen, Max driving, and David, as always, riding shotgun. A configuration they had assumed every time they had ridden together over the past two decades. Memories of their years at Iowa State emerged in the conversation, some reaffirmed, some corrected, some contradicted—all amidst laughter. Except those recalled but unmentioned, shrouded in pain and anger. 

            They had been known as The Pranksters, notorious on “fraternity row” for playing practical jokes on one another and fellow Greeks. Everything from stinky cheese on exhaust manifolds to stealing a brother’s entire wardrobe and hiding its pieces throughout the campus. Most of them had been team efforts, but Carl’s solo ones had been the cruelest, especially those directed at his mates. He was the one most willing to push the limits of effort and effect.

            It was Carl who had sped to Dubuque arriving at Allen’s boyhood home ahead of him, sneaking into the house while the parents were out, and hiding for hours in in Allen’s bedroom. Allen opened the closet, Carl screamed, Allen fell backward and cracking his head on the corner of a dresser. Carl’s parents were equally startled when a strange young man came thundering down the stairs and ran out the front door. Carl laughed to himself all the way back to Ames.

            It was Carl who had written Max’s girlfriend a “Dear John” letter, and when her unexpected and painful response came, had just laughed and said it was time he moved on anyway.

            It was Carl who after David’s father died had asked for the home telephone number claiming he wanted to say a word of sympathy to David’s mother. He called in David’s presence, and when she answered changed his voice and asked to speak to her husband. In the middle of her tearful response he laughed and hung up the phone. The list went on. It was always Carl.

            Today’s stated plan was to return to the fraternity house for a Homecoming Dinner, and in the morning return to Des Moines to spend Sunday with their families. This fall regathering of the four was an annual intention though not always realized. This year was a rarity with all four Pranksters and their families attending.

            As they drove down interstate thirty-five David said, “Boys, I brough a little something from the great state of Colorado for us to share…uh…in appropriate preparation for tonight’s festivities.” He pulled a joint from an inside coat pocket.
           “Aw right! The Davester comes through!” Allen shouted. “Fire that puppy up.”

            “Just a couple hits for me. I have to be able to drive,” Max said.

            “I’ll take your share, my doobie brother,” Carl said.

            The joint had just finished when Allen pointed to a sign. “Corn maze ahead! We have to do that.” Max and David joined in enthusiastic assent. 

            Carl felt his heart skip a beat. Then two. The thought of wandering in a maze of corn held nothing but dread, exacerbated by the mind-fogging effect of weed. He had to protest. “I don’t think we have time, do we? I thought we were going to get there early and catch up with some of the other guys.”

            “Don’t be such a wuss, Rasmussen.” Allen punched him on the arm.  The others chorused in derision, and soon Max was pulling onto a grassy field next to a farmstead. The lot was half full. They weren’t the only ones looking to enjoy a Saturday afternoon outing. 

            “Hang on, gentlemen,” Max said. “I brought my own treat to share but was going to wait until later. This,” he reached over and opened the glove box removing a baggie, “will make this trip an absolute trip.” He held up the baggie which contained four ordinary-looking cookies. “Chocolate chip ‘shroom-mobiles, my friends. Vehicles into unknown visions.” He carefully chose one and passed it back to Carl. “Your ticket, Mr. Rasmussen. Mr. Johnson, yours. Smitty, here's yours. And this one is mine.”  They followed Max’s gesture holding their cookies up. “To the Pranksters!” And psylocibin joined THC in ushering Carl away from reality.

            The four piled out of the car and found their way to the ticket booth. A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair greeted them with a smile. “That’ll be five dollars each.” 

            Carl fished out a twenty, and in return she handed him four maps and a six-foot pole with a white flag at the top.

            “What’s this for?” he asked.

            “In case you get lost. Just wave this flag, and someone will come get you. There’s no cell phone service out here, so if you’re lost, you’re really lost. But as we always tell the little ones—Just stay between the rows and someone will find you. Sooner or later.”

            Carl’s hands began to sweat as began to dread what lay ahead. He handed the materials to the others. “Here, Max. You take the flag. You’re the designated driver.” The others laughed. Carl tried but his sense of humor seemed to have vanished.

            “Here we go then!” Max held the flag aloft and marched into the opening of the maze as a family of six exited. On they went. David consulting his map and insisting on giving directions. All of them becoming more and more disoriented by the maze and the marijuana.

            “This way!”

            “No, this!”

            “We have to go back. Turn around.”

            “We’ve been here before. I recognize that stalk!”

            Walking, arguing, giggling, shoving, falling down and regressing into their adolescence. After while one of them pointed out that David was holding his map upside down. Time passed unnoticed as the skies darkened with a descending sun and an approaching autumn rain. The maze quieted as families left. The four found a bench and collapsed. Allen opened the backpack he had been carrying and handed out granola bars.

            “Dude!” Carl said. “How did you know we would need these? Oh my God, is this good!”

            The others joined him in snacking.

            “I have to piss. I’ll be right back. Don’t move, you guys.” David grabbed the stick and disappeared around a corner. After a few minutes Max said, “I have to piss too. Be right back.” He followed Dave’s route. Allen and Carl sat quietly listening to the wind rustle the leaves of the dry corn.

            “Wow. It’s really clouded over. Kinda spooky, huh?” asked Allen.

            “Yeah. We need to get out of here.” Carl’s voice betrayed his anxiety.

            “Bah. We’re good. It’s only…” Allen stared at his watch. “I can’t read this. Can you?”

            Carl looked. The watch face floated above Allen’s wrist, the numbers illegible squiggles. “Fuck. I have no idea. We have to go, though. I really want to get out of here.”

            “We better wait for Max and Dave. Just chill.”

            “No, Allen. We need to go now. It’s going to rain. There’s no one else in here anymore.”

            “Dude, take it easy. Here, have another granola bar.”

            “Goddamn it, Allen! No! We have to get out of here.”

            “Okay, okay. Stay here and chill. I’ll go get those idiots.” He grabbed the backpack and hurried around the corner. “Max! Dave! Where’d you guys get too?”

            The sky continued to darken. The wind picked up. Carl’s hands were sweating though the temperature had dropped. He stood. “Let’s go you guys! It’s going to rain.” He felt the first drops.

            No answer.

            “Hey!” His dread grew. “Heeeeeyyyyy!”

            Only the increasing sound of wind hissing through the corn.

            Carl climbed onto the bench with shaking knees but could only see the top of the corn and no discernable exit. He stared hoping to see some movement indicating where the others were, but the wind was blowing the corn in varying directions. 

            “Very funny you guys! Let’s get out of here!”

            The drops became rainfall. He sat back down on the bench and took his map from a pocket. The lines swirled and blurred and made no sense to him. The sound of the wind and rain on the corn was loud now. He put his face in his hands and tried to breath slowly, but his fear only increased.

            Allen crept silently through the densely planted corn. Carl’s bowed back came slowly into view. He slipped the Creature of the Black Lagoon mask over his head. The weather was becoming a full-on storm. He touched Carl’s shoulder and then roared as loudly as he could. Carl screamed and ran exactly where they had hoped he would. Just as he turned the corner to follow the other three, a mummy wrapped in white strips of cloth stepped out of the corn ahead of him. Caaaarrrrrllllll! Caaaarrrllllll!”

            He turned and bolted in full panic just as a black clad creature with a hockey mask leapt out of the corn and began chasing shouting, “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!”

            Rational thought was gone. He could only run through the pelting rain, telling himself over and over “Stay between the rows. Stay between the rows.” But these rows weren’t straight. They went left and right, right and left. He was soaked through and through. Right and left. Left and left again. He stumbled, fell, and scrambled back to his feet. “Carl!” came a faint cry. He ran faster. Right and Right and left. His saturated loafers slipped and slid in the mud. He struggled to see a way. Right and left. Twice he blundered into the dense corn itself then threw himself backward onto the maze’s path. Right and right and left and right. He was becoming ever more terrified in the dark, hallucinating other sounds in the midst of the wind and rain.

            He ran full on into a wire fence and fell. In a lightening’s flash he could see there were straight rows of corn on the other side. He clambered over and continued his run down a row. Desperate, panic-driven, fear-crazed. He could hear his name called and was crying now, running for fear of his life. His legs ached, his breath came in painful gasps, his heart pounded at its limit. 

            Until it stopped.

            His body wasn’t found until late the next afternoon. It was a high schooler with a drone that had been the successful member of the search party.

            At the funeral the pastor began his eulogy. “Carl Rasmussen was an amazing individual.” And three men in the second pew burst out laughing and had to usher themselves out. Offended parishioners stared at the trio giggling with uncontrolled mirth and wearing matching ties.

Eating Carp with Claude and Verna


            I am a bridge person, stretched between times and places. I was born in the late '40's in rural Iowa. The adults in my life had vivid memories of the Great Depression; I have vivid memories of a nation booming with material progress. I explained stereo records to my father; my son explained my phone to me. We seldom traveled beyond the state; my children and nieces and nephews have been all over the world. We knew there was more, we watched TV; but we never actually met any people like that. I left that small town fifty years ago, have become enamored with big cities, but that small town has never left me.

            I ate carp growing up. Never at home, only at my mother's sister and her husband's, my Aunt Verna and Uncle Claude. How normal the names of our childhood seem! In sixty-eight years I can count on one hand all the Vernas and all Claudes I have met. My own parents were Willis and Velva, and I can count on one finger the total all of the Willises and all of the Velvas I've met. And it wouldn't even be that if we hadn't named my son after his grandfather. 

            My aunt and uncle lived within easy driving distance, and I often spent the weekend with them. They had lost a daughter in infancy, and their parental inclinations, especially my aunt's, were focused on my sister and me. My aunt was diabetic and severely crippled by arthritis, her body bent into stature of less than five feet. She had been trained as a nurse, and often recalled being present at my surgery at six-weeks. “I could see your little heart beating.”   But when I knew her she sold Stanley Home Products with enough success to support herself and my uncle. Stanley Home Products were sold like Tupperware at house parties, and if there was a Saturday party, I was brought along. 

She would often introduce me with, “This is my son … shine.”  My uncle was physically her opposite—a tall, large-boned man with strong, enormous hands. He had farmed at one time, but now was the strength behind my aunt's enterprise. He had not served in the military. 

“I was too young for the first war and too old for the second.” 

            I suspect the truth was closer to an agricultural deferment. He had a darkly discolored leg that he attributed to bumping every time he would get on or off the tractor. I accepted this explanation without question as well. 

            The weekends spent with them had a routine. They would pick me up at home on a Friday evening. We would eat supper—never “dinner”—and watch wrestling on a small black and white TV. My aunt would make up a bed for me on the couch. Saturday mornings were mostly for fishing. The specific way is long lost to me, but I remember parking the car and walking a path through high weeds. Eventually, we'd arrive at a secluded spot probably on the East Branch of the Iowa River. In all the times we went I never saw another person fishing there.

            Lines on long cane poles were baited with a dough of cornbread and flour, a bobber attached, and the bait dropped into the water. Then we sat very still. I learned patience. 

            While I sat unmoving, I also learned a lot of songs. My aunt had a nice voice and loved to sing; my uncle did not. So she taught me “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?”, “Whiter Than Snow,” “It Is No Secret,” and many hymns. When the fish weren't biting, she would start a song, and I would join in. Then a pause of a few minutes to see if anything would happen and another song begun. We did this for hours. 

            Eventually, a bobber would move slightly. 

            “Don't pull it yet. Wait'll he (It was always a 'he.') takes it.” 

            The red and white bobber would move a bit more, maybe go under and pop back up. Sit. Sit. Breathe slowly. Then in a flash it was under the water and away. 

            “Now! Hook him!” 

            A fish, especially a carp, pulling at the end of a seven-foot bamboo pole has a great deal of leverage. The outcome was never in doubt, but the battle was always exciting. Eventually, he was pulled up, dropped flopping on the bank, and judged. 

            “Oh, that's a big one!” 

            “There's a keeper!” 

            And on occasion a tease if I caught a sizable fish. 

            “What do you think, Claude? Is it a keeper?” 

            “I don't know, Verna. He's kinda puny. Maybe we should throw him back.” 

            This would go on until I would cry, “No! No! He's mine!” 

            “Well, okay. Put him in the bag, Claude. We ought have a little one in there to keep the big ones company.” 

            The hook was removed by my uncle, and the fish put in a “gunny sack.” So for Saturday lunch we ate carp. A fish full of hundreds of tiny bones. A further lesson in patience as bites had to be smaller than the bones. 

            It wasn't the only fish we ate. We also caught bullheads out of lakes and, during an annual vacation “up north,” in Minnesota northern pike and walleye. Sisabagamah Lake in Aitkin County. Again, a place sparsely populated. My aunt and uncle were well-acquainted with a couple whose property fronted the lake and who rented boats and hook ups for at least one small trailer. In the evenings we would go up to their place after supper to visit and play cards.

            Carp. A fish I've never known anyone else to eat unless smoked. A fish so worthless that at one fishing spot in my later life a covered barrel was provided for throwing any carp away. An edible fish, eaten by some out of necessity, few by choice.

            My visits to my aunt and uncle's, like their names and eating carp, were accepted without question or curiosity. I was a child; my world had no larger context. I had no awareness of deprivation, no sense of their near-poverty. But looking back I see their house was tiny, their possessions few and well-used. I see now they did not fish for sport or entertainment, though they made it fun for us kids. They fished for food. I didn't know then that carp was what poor people ate. Carp was what was for lunch with an aunt who doted on me and an uncle who liked to tease. 

            And it was with deep poignancy as an adult I realized those weekends were not just a treat for my sister and me, but were, in truth, my mother's gift to her childless sister. 

            There was little else served with carp—homemade bread and butter—but there was an abundance of love at that table. My mother's love for her sister that delivered me there. My aunt and uncle's love for the child lost now given to the children loaned. And my love for two persons so close then and now so far away. 

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