The first chapter of my children’s book Ginger, the Ship Captain’s Cat
The big one; er, the big one in front, not the one who was holding my elbows behind my back, leaned in. He needed a breath mint. Or twelve.
“Look, wise guy, we can do this the easy way—”
“Wait, don’t tell me—or we can do it the hard way? Am I right?”
I think he pushed my solar plexus into my elbows, which, if you’ll recall, were behind my back.
I do so wish my mouth would check with me before taking the driver’s seat.
Ever since he’d set the barn up as a recording studio, he’d wanted a window so he could see his farm while he played. Windows not being inherently sound-deadening, it was a complication, but over time he’d hit upon a solution involving multiple layers of glass embedded in spongy soft stuff that helped reduce sound transmission.
So when the old man in the battered brown hat headed up his gravel driveway, he didn’t have to wait for the surprise of someone banging on the big barn door and messing up the track he was recording. He’d stopped playing his old Telecaster to watch as the stranger trudged up the drive, never raising his head enough to reveal his face.
But there was no banging on the door. With no windows anywhere else in the barn, he didn’t know if the old guy had gone around, or was just standing there.
Easy enough to find out.
He hung the guitar on the wall and crossed to the door, sliding the crossbar and pushing outward.
Mr. Brown Hat stepped back, blinking, obviously surprised.
“Um, hey, I’m sorry, uh, I was just . . . ” His hands wiggled around as he talked.
“Did you need something? Like, I mean, are you lost? Long way from anywhere, sir.”
The elderly gent chuckled. “I’ve been lost a long, long time, but not how you mean.” He shuffled his feet, glanced toward the road, shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I was passing, y’know, just walking down the road, and I heard the music, and, well, it drew me. I wasn’t trying to trespass, just getting closer to hear it better.”
That brought a chuckle. “You do realize that’s the shortest route to a musician’s heart, right?”
He pushed the door open wider. “If you want to listen, you might as well come in and get comfortable.”
The traveler pulled his hat off and held out his hand. “Morris. Morris Michael Miller. For which I apologize on behalf of my long-departed parents.”
“No apology necessary, Morris Michael Miller. I’m Reed. Reed Smith, most common last name in the English-speaking world, I guess.”
“There’s a reason for that, but instead of boring you with that, what if I sit down and shut up and you can play some more of that hopeful-sounding stuff you were playing.”
Reed smiled. “Hopeful? I guess the words made the music lean that way. Come on in.”
Morris found his way to one of the battered old kitchen chairs near the biggest speakers, and Reed grabbed the Tele and sat down to play.
He had no idea he’d just begun the greatest friendship of his life, nor that the stranger he’d taken in would live out the rest of his long life on the farm he’d been passing for no reason except that was where the road took him.
Excerpt from a book I plan to finish someday.
The massive door slammed. “Hey, Plum!”
“Hey yourself, Plum!” His uncle and aunt had been making up nonsense greetings for as long as he could remember. Never with others, just between them. Fruits meant happy, good news, his uncle’s wide smile and his aunt blushing.
“Where’s my princess? Or did she get promoted to empress by now?” Bets giggled as she ducked behind Momma’s chair. Betsy squealed as Quentin gave her hair a tug over Beth’s shoulder.
“What are you hearing?” His uncle sat behind him and looked over his shoulder toward the trees.
“Just the wind.”
“Saying anything I oughta hear?”
“Nah.” He was always a little embarrassed when his uncle asked about the things he heard. Not because he was mocking, but because he wasn’t.
“Alright, then. Keep me posted, eh?”
“Sure.” He couldn’t help smiling. His uncle was the biggest man he knew and yet he seemed small. No, not small, quiet. Young. Something like that. To look at him you’d expect a bear or a bull, but he was more like a cat, a big friendly cat.
Transcript (but it’s better if you listen)
(You really should listen to it.)
During the late 80s I lived for a time in Texas in a big ol’ rambling 175-year-old wooden house with 3 fireplaces and a mother in law flat built onto the back. I don’t know when that was added on, but across a giant covered porch and bathroom there was a little apartment with a bedroom, a living room, its own bathroom and a little kitchen and dining room.
The appliances in there were ancient. The refrigerator was all curvy and rounded and had a big spaceship compressor on the top. The stove didn’t have a pilot light. You lit it by turning the stove on and holding a match in front of a little tube at the bottom where the flame would get sucked in.
My mom came to live with us for a while. She lived in the small apartment in the back. One day she came knocking on our kitchen door and said that she’d been trying to light her oven and the match blew out and she couldn’t find anymore. I gave her a box of matches and went back to what I was doing.
Twenty seconds later I realized that wasn’t very smart and I ran, banging through our door and as I banged open my mother’s door and was about to yell, from the kitchen came a great big “whoomp”.
I came around the corner, and she was okay, and the house didn’t burn down. She turned the stove off and when she turned to look at me she had no eyebrows or eyelashes and most of the hair on her forehead had disappeared.
I’m glad that she hadn’t stayed in my kitchen to chat, or have a cup of coffee or something, because the house, at least, would be gone—and maybe all of us.
So kids the lesson for today is: when your mom asks for a match, go check done things.
Transcript (but it’s better if you listen)
The first restaurant she shared with us was a Moroccan place. As we walked through the front door and we saw people sitting on the floor on cushions I wish now that we’ve done that, uncomfortable as it might have been at my age. We sat in a regular booth.
Our daughter Fiona, who at the time was the pickiest eater in the world, was determined to try everything. We call her ‘travel Fiona’ when we’re traveling because she is always a little bit more adventurous.
Our friend warned us to try everything no matter how strange it looked . For instance, grilled chicken between 2 tortillas covered with powdered sugar. It’s delicious.
The restaurant seemed to be family run; it looked like a father and mother and 3 sons. When one of the sons noticed that Fiona was trying things but not eating very much he said “I’ll bring something you’ll like.” He came back with a dish, I don’t remember what, and she took a taste and he looked expectantly and she said “I don’t like it.”
His brother laughed and ran off to the kitchen saying “I’ll bring something you’ll like” and he came back and they took turns through the whole evening bringing us plates of food, for which we never got charged, to try to tempt Fiona into liking some kind of Moroccan food. She’d always taste it very politely and think about it and say no, I don’t really like it. And then whoever had brought it got laughed at.
At the end of the evening the father came. He’d been watching this the whole time and he said that he was going to bring something that he knew Fiona would like. He came back with a plate of what he called ‘genuine Moroccan cheesecake.’ Now, it looked and tasted to me like regular old cheese cake. But the 3 sons stood back and their father won.
I think Mike and I have always been friends. Always except last week I mean. Last week he said something not very friendly, so I told him we weren’t friends anymore. I guess something like that needs some explaining.
Two weeks ago we had a new kid in class. His name is Artie Stevenson. Everyone always wonders if a new kid is a nerd or if he’s OK. You can always tell by lunchtime. Artie didn’t raise his hand and try to answer every question in class, and at lunch he didn’t have a dumb lunch box or anything like that. His mom sent carrot sticks, but when he said his dad lifted weights and he ate carrot sticks for lunch no one said anything.
Anyway, some of us went over to Artie’s house after school the next day, and that’s when we knew for sure he was OK. When he saw our bikes, mine and Mike’s and Billy Swenson’s, Artie said let’s go riding. When he got his bike from the garage, we could tell he was OK because he had the coolest bike we’d ever seen but he didn’t brag or say anything about it, just, “Come on, let’s go, guys” and we raced to the empty lot.
The next day, Mike wanted to come over and play Captain Crash on my computer. Well, really it’s my dad’s but he lets us use it if we’re careful. I said let’s go bike riding with Artie, and he said, “Okay” but I think he didn’t want to. He didn’t tell his usual number of dumb jokes that day. (Mike’s jokes are alright, just a little goofy sometimes.) I guess I didn’t notice then, but I do now.
After that, it seemed like every day Mike wanted to do one thing and I wanted to do something else. My something else usually meant going to Artie’s house. Before, Mike and I always wanted to do the same things. I couldn’t figure out why he was being so weird.
That weekend, Artie’s mom said he could have one of us guys over to spend the night in his tent in the back yard. He could only have one of us, she said, because it was a small tent. Artie picked me, and I was real happy, and Billy didn’t mind, but Mike was just weird. He just said, “I’ll see you guys later. I gotta go.”
My mom said I could go straight to Artie’s right after school Friday so I took all my stuff in my school backpack.
Artie’s tent was neat. His dad barbecued, and his mom made us some snacks for after they went in the house. His parents are real cool. They even made sure we had a flashlight, in case we needed to come in the house in the middle of the night or anything. Then we had homemade pancakes for breakfast. Not homemade from a box, homemade from just kitchen stuff. His mom even made the syrup!
After that, Artie came over and we played Captain Crash until my dad needed to use the computer. (Dad says when he gets a new computer I get to have his old one in my room.) Artie is pretty good at Captain Crash. He said his best friend at his old house had it and he was glad his new best friend had it, too. He meant me.
When Artie went home I called Mike to tell him how good Artie was at Captain Crash. All he said was, “Yeah, okay. I gotta go, okay?” Then I asked him how come he was so weird all the time, and then he said it.
“At least I’m not a computer nerd like some people.”
Mike never had any problems with computers before, but I wasn’t gonna let him say that, so I told him he wasn’t my best friend anymore. I told him Artie was my new best friend. I told him he couldn’t play my computer anymore and his bike wasn’t cool, and he said he didn’t want to be a computer nerd, and how would a computer nerd know what was cool anyway. I got mad and hung up.
My mom and dad were weird all day Saturday. They acted like something was wrong with me. I said, “If you want to see someone who has something wrong with them, go to Mike’s house.” They didn’t go, but they were less weird I guess.
Monday Mike and I didn’t sit together at lunch. All the guys were acting weird, so after I ate I went to the library instead of going out to play baseball like I usually do. I didn’t want to see a bunch of weird guys right after lunch. Especially not Mike.
Guess who was in the library.
I was just minding my own business over by the baseball books when Mike walked up and started looking at one of them. He just looked at it for a minute and then put it back. Then he just stood there. Finally I asked him, “How come you’re in here being a library nerd instead of playing baseball?”
He said, “You know I can’t play catcher with one of those other guys pitching. You know they always almost hit me.” I didn’t say anything about what I would do if I was pitching. Then the bell rang for class, so Mike left and I checked out the book I was looking at.
That day after school, Mike called. He said he and Artie and Billy and Reggie Williams and some other guys were playing baseball and did I want to come over and pitch. He said, “I told Artie how good you are, and he said I should call you. So I did. Are you coming or what?” I didn’t want to, but it was boring playing Captain Crash by myself because I know all the levels, so I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”
When I got there they were already playing. Tommy Wethers was pitching, but when Mike saw me he yelled, “Hey, let’s get a real pitcher in here,” and Tommy threw me the ball and ran to shortstop where he usually plays. I didn’t want to pitch to Mike, but all the guys were waiting and looking so I went to the mound and pitched.
It was a pretty good game, but the main thing I remember is that when we started playing, it was hard to stay mad at Mike. You can’t pitch when you’re thinking about something else; you have to concentrate. Also, the pitcher and the catcher have to work together. You can’t just throw the ball and hope he catches it. He has to know what to expect, like Mike said.
The baseball book I checked out says the pitcher and catcher are called ‘the battery’ like they’re charged up or something. After the game I told Mike that, and he said something about us being real high voltage. Then he asked if he could come over and play Captain Crash. “Aren’t you afraid of turning into a computer nerd?” I asked.
“Naw,” he said. “I know a guy who’s a computer nerd, and he’s the best pitcher in the whole world, except maybe Nolan Ryan.” I didn’t know what to say about that. I just punched him in the shoulder and said, “First one to my house gets to use the Electro-Ray adapter” and took off. Mike beat me like he always does.
We played Captain Crash until dinner time, and Mom asked if Mike wanted to stay for dinner. My dad and I drove him home afterwards because it was getting dark.
On the way home my dad said, “It’s nice to see you and Mike being yourselves again. Friends are important.” I guess he noticed how weird Mike had been acting.
On Friday, Dad asked if I wanted to have someone over for dinner. “And spend the night?” I asked.
“Sure, if you want.”
I ran to the phone to call Artie, but I guess I accidentally punched Mike’s number. I wasn’t sure what to do. Then I had the very best idea ever. “Can I have two guys over, Dad?”
My mom answered instead. “As long as you promise to give me just a little peace and quiet this evening.” I said I had an idea, and she would get peace and quiet.
Mike said yes, and when I called Artie he said yes, too.
When I got off the phone my mom said, “You know dear, some kids have two best friends..”
I said, “Yeah, like me.” That was my super idea.
My tent sleeps three.
Stumbling from the mouth of the cave, he shaded his eyes from the blinding blast of the harsh sun. It wasn’t enough. Sitting, he closed his eyes, letting the light filter through the lids, slowing seeping in until he could open them a crack and see where he was.
The mountain above was jagged, hard, rocky. Below, down a slope strewn with miniatures of the peak above, was a flat plain.
On the flat plain was a dwelling.
Between him and the dwelling, a small figure sat, doing something on the ground.
He stood, eager to go down. Not because he was curious about what the small figure was doing, but because that figure would see him, speak to him.
The heavy boots he wore were perfect for the terrain, as were the dungarees and light shirt. More than a few sleeps ago he’d stopped wondering about the clothing. It simply was, like everything else in his confusing existence.
A young girl, more than half his height, but young. Seven, perhaps eight, if he had to put a number to it, but then, how would he know?
There was another curiosity. Had language never changed? The few people he spoke to understood him, in fact, spoke so exactly like him that he’d begun to assume he was being adapted, somehow, to each successive encounter.
“Are you a stranger? I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
He crouched down, to be on her level.
“I don’t think I’m a stranger, but of course, you should always mind your parents.”
The young girl stood from her play, pushing figurines of animals around in a dusty menagerie.
“Do you want some lemonade?”
“I think I might like that. But still, you should ask your mother—”
“That’s what I’m going to do, silly. I’ll tell her you’re here to play with me, and that we need some lemonade because it’s hot.”
He smiled. “You make sense, young lady. I will wait.”
Shortly, she returned with two glass bottles filled with lemonade. A woman stood in the doorway, drying a plate and smiling.
Yet another unusual thing. Strangers trusted him, as if he wore a special sign from God that he was no danger to them. She simply smiled and went back inside to her cleaning.
He and the little girl moved the animal figurines around in what struck him as outlandish situations and circumstances. Her inexhaustible imagination would have worn him out when he was younger. He wondered at his own immaturity, selfishness. Was it part of the point of his situation, part of the cause, perhaps a remedy?
The lemonade was gone. The animals were, apparently, tired, and needed to be stabled for the night. The sun was, in fact, sinking behind an even bigger mountain across the valley.
He knew, but he asked anyway.
“Do you know what year this is?”
“Course I do.” Her answer sounded like she was saying two different numbers, twenty, and ten.
One-hundred and ten years. A new millennium.
“Will you come play with me again tomorrow?”
He wanted to touch her, to ruffle her hair, but he didn’t.
“I’ll see. If I’m still around tomorrow, I’d like that.”
He would not see her again. He knew that. He did not know where he would wake up next. He only knew when.
Then, some child, it was always a child, would answer with another unusual pair of numbers, or rather, the same number twice, twenty-one twenty-one, each sleep a year longer than the previous.
His climb back up to the cave to sleep was the same stillness it always was.