Excerpt for The Voices in My Head by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


By Thom Whalen

Copyright (c) 2019 Thom Whalen

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, either in whole or in part, in any form. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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The Tale of the Bitty Green Frog

Three in the Morning

Cupid’s Arrow

The Gulf

Fair Ball


A New Friend of Bill

Opening Statement

Lew’s Fantastical Zoo

Nothing Happened

Costco Shoppers

My Dinner with Mandy

The Great Trinity River Gun Battle

The Recruiter

Giving Thanks

The Case of the Nervous Bricklayer

The Cabbie

Christmas Dinner

Snow Good

The Long Island Gunslinger

My Ex Ghost

Wedding Toast

Grocery Shopping

Saigon, Sixty-Nine

Short Order

The Trouble with Sky

The Case of the Blonde in the Rolls

Tea for One

The Woman in the Snow

Full Moon

The Death Insurance Escrow System

Kolath’s Revenge

The Redemption of Corporal Ritchie

Old Bones in the Hills

Raine Lake

Simple Arithmetic

Space Aliens from the Milky Way

The Way Home

God’s Lawn

The Midsummer Edenport Rock and Roll Festival

Lucky Man

Deliberate Accidents

Conroy’s Girl

The Case of the Blonde Firecracker

Tulsa Honeymoon

Back from Death Valley

My Father’s War on Evil

The Arrest

The Pizza Delivery Guy

War Is Hell

The Halloween Costume

A Perfect Gift


These stories were written to be read aloud in various writers’ groups. To serve that purpose, they were written as first person narrations with a minimal amount of direct dialog. The narrators speak with different voices – a homeless man, a defense lawyer, a high school student, an itinerant short-order cook, and many others. When I wrote these, I saw myself as an actor, but typing on a keyboard rather than orating from a stage. I was striving for the same result as an actor: to put myself into a role and do my best to see the world through strange eyes and tell it in the appropriate voice. Sometimes the story is deliberately exaggerated , sometimes stereotyped, and sometimes told sincerely and realistically; the same way an actor sometimes plays the clown and sometimes strives for gritty authenticity. My preference is for light-hearted whimsy, so you will find that more often than heavy drama. I hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Yours, Thom Whalen, 2019

The Tale of the Bitty Green Frog

So back about twenty years ago, I was hitching for a ride up in the bush country and I saw this bitty green frog sitting by the road.

It was a secondary highway, so there wasn’t much traffic and what traffic there was was in a rush to get where they was going, so I wasn’t getting any rides for a long time.

I had nothing better to do while I was sticking out my thumb than to watch this bitty green frog.

He was just sitting there, enjoying the day. It was a frog kind of day, cool and damp, like a swamp in the springtime. I think if it was a hot summer day, with the sun baking down, that little frog would of had to flop back to his pond or he would have been cooked there on the edge of the blacktop. Blacktop gets hot as an iron stove on a sunny day. But not on that cool, cloudy day. I was shivering a bit, but he was making out just fine.

With nothing better to do, I got to thinking on that frog. He had a fine life, I’m sure. Probably had a girlfriend back in the pond. Maybe a bunch of eggs hanging on a weed stem in the water, growing and soon to hatch into a bunch of wriggly little tadpoles.

But he didn’t have any care about that. Frogs is free. They don’t have to fret about whether their kids got food and clothes. They don’t have to wait on phone calls to find out if their kids is all right. There’s plenty of bugs in the swamp for the little tads to eat and a nice pond to keep them comfortable whether daddy is around or not.

So a daddy frog can just swim away, take his ease on the edge of the highway, and not spend a moment fussing about where his next feed is coming from or how he’s going to earn his next dollar. There’s always going to be a fly or two buzzing along his way and there’s always going to be a new pond to explore.

Ain’t no law looking for him to pay his alimony, calling him a deadbeat and a bum.

He don’t need to show no ID card to the sheriff or spend no nights in the tank for being vagrant. He can loiter all he wants and nobody gives him no mind. Nobody yells at him to get a job when they drive on by. His only job is just to live his life however he wants.

So I was sticking my thumb out and contemplating on this bitty green frog and how good life is and – glory be! – I get a ride. A big old Plymouth, black as midnight, pulls up alongside and the guy inside pops the door open and asks where I’m going, and I say west is all. Anywhere west. And he says that’s the way he’s going, so hop in and I do.

Lucky for me wasn’t lucky for that bitty frog. When that Plymouth pulled over, he squashed it under his big old whitewall. As I was getting in, I looked down and saw there wasn’t but one green leg sticking out from under his treads where that frog tried too late to leap.

So the frog’s life wasn’t without a sad end. Like all of us, I guess. But the thing of it is that that frog didn’t waste his time fretting about the hazards of the road, he just got on with his life for as best as he could and lived as happy as he could while he could.

And, too, when we drove off of him, that frog left behind a tasty morsel that’ll please the first crow that comes along.

There it is. We got a tasty morsel for a crow to carry off and a little tale left behind for me to tell for on twenty years. That little frog did some good after all, even if he never got a job and never did a lick of good for his little tads back in the pond.

Three in the Morning

Why should I care what my mother and father think about Sarah? I’m going to marry her whether they like her or not. Why am I awake at… What time is it? Three-eleven according to the clock. But the clock is wrong. It’s been six minutes fast for more than a month. I should set the time properly. But the last time that I tried to set the time, I got it wrong and I was late for work every morning for a week. It’s easier to remember that it’s six minutes fast than to try to figure out which buttons to press together and which buttons to hold down until the numbers blink. So the clock says that it’s three-eleven but it’s really five after three and that doesn’t matter at all because it’s still the middle of the night and I have to get up at seven because we have a meeting with the lawyer from Barton-Finchley at nine about whether we’re going to get sued for eight point six million over their contract but I’m more worried about Sarah meeting my parents on Sunday and I don’t know why. I’m going to marry her no matter what my parents say. Unless they are so awful to her that she runs out of the house in tears and never wants to see me again. Like that’s going to happen? They aren’t monsters, my parents. They’re nice people. Kind of. I mean, I moved out as soon as I could. Blew town when I turned eighteen. Moved to the other side of the country so that I didn’t have to spend all my Sundays at their house, eating Mom’s insipid, over-cooked Sunday dinners. But that wasn’t because they were so bad to me, that was… What? Why did I have to move so far away to go to university? I could have stayed in San Diego and gone to San Diego State. I didn’t have to move to Michigan. I could have stayed where it was warm all year around. Except that it wasn’t so warm in Mom and Dad’s house. It was cold. That’s the problem. Mom and Dad are cold. That’s why I moved away. Because Michigan winters are warmer than Mom and Dad’s dinner table. Are they going to freeze Sarah out? Are they going to be polite and distant and make vague statements about how inadequate she is? Or how inadequate I am? Wouldn’t that make us the perfect couple, if we’re both inadequate? If neither one of us can meet my parents’ lofty expectations. Sarah’s going to hate them. And she’ll see them in me. The more she gets to know them, the more she’s going to see that I have their mannerisms and attitudes and… Oh, God. She’s going to realize that she’s marrying a man who’s going to turn out to be just like his father. Especially if I blow the Barton-Finchley deal and get us sued for eight point six. I’ve got to be at my best tomorrow. I’ve got to get some sleep. And it’s already three-fifteen. No. The clock is fast. It’s only three-oh-nine. I can still get four hours if I can get to sleep right now. My eyes are aching, they’re so tired. They’re going to be red as the devil tomorrow. How am I going to convince the Barton-Finchley lawyers to approve the renegotiated contract if they look into my eyes and see the devil? How am I going to convince Sarah that I’m not like Dad if she looks at my eyes and sees red? Why are Dad’s eyes so red all the time? Is he awake at three in the morning, too? Does he spend half of every night worrying about stuff, too? Is he awake right now, worrying about if Sarah is going to like him? Maybe that’s not what he should worry about. Maybe I’m going to announce that I’ve been fired over Sunday dinner. That’s what he should worry about. That I’m going to get McRay Holdings sued for eight point six million and Peterson is going to chuck me out the door and I’ll be destitute and have to move back to San Diego and move in with Mom and Dad until I can find another job. God. I should have saved more money. I get a good salary. Why am I living from paycheck to paycheck? I should have savings. I should have saved enough to put a down payment on a house. Where are Sarah and I going to live after we get married? In this apartment? Maybe I shouldn’t marry her until I can afford to buy a house for us to live in. What happens if she gets pregnant? I can’t bring up a kid in a two-bedroom apartment. I’ve got to get my credit cards paid off and save money for a down payment on a house. A nice little bungalow in the suburbs. That’s where Sarah’s going to want to live. In the suburbs; not in in a high-rise in downtown Chicago. And for sure, not in my parents’ spare bedroom after I get fired for blowing the Barton-Finchley contract. Which isn’t my fault, anyway. I didn’t negotiate the original contract and agree to the ridiculous deadline for the deliverables. Hoyte who did that. Hoyte promised the moon then bailed as soon as Barton-Finchley signed the damned thing and left me holding the bag. I hope Hoyte gets fired from Keller, Young, and Turner. But that won’t do me any good if I can’t get their lawyers to agree to the new deadlines that I negotiated. Of course they’re going to agree. Underhill agreed in principle to every point. The lawyers are just approving the final wording. They won’t want to go back to their boss and tell him that he got suckered into a bad deal. That would make him look bad. Besides, it’s not a bad deal. Barton-Finchley are going to get exactly what they want, just a couple of weeks later than they thought they would. We’re going to have no problem delivering on the revised contract with the new deadlines. It’s all going to be fine. Sarah and Mom and Dad are going to get along fine, too. I’ll pick them up from the airport on Saturday and they’ll be happy to see me. And Sunday dinner will be good and everyone will get along. They all want to be friends because they know that I’m going to marry her, no matter what, so they’re going to have to get along for the rest of their lives. And the bonus that Irene promised to me for getting the Barton-Finchley renegotiation signed is going to be enough to pay off my credit cards. And I’m going to start saving for a house. Everything is going to be fine. If only I can get some sleep. It’s only three-twenty-one – three fifteen, actually; can’t forget that the clock is fast – so I can get almost four hours if I can get to sleep now. Four hours will be enough. I can get by on four hours. And everything is going to be fine. Life will be great. If only I can get some sleep.

Cupid’s Arrow

Cupid is real. He’s not some kind of metaphor or fable. He’s a real, living creature. A fat little fairy with wings and a bow and arrows. I know, because I saw the little bastard once.

I was in a bar back east, not New York but Newark. I had business in Manhattan, but who can afford to stay there? Hell, who can afford to drink there? Not an insurance agent from Grand Junction, Colorado, that’s for sure.

So, I was in this bar, knocking back a couple after spending a day meeting with corporate execs who were never going to sign with me when this fat little fairy comes flying in.

In all the paintings that I’ve seen, Cupid is this cute little baby. Don’t you believe it. He’s little and fat, like in the paintings, but that’s all. He’s no baby. He’s got a face like a nightmare grandfather, all wrinkled and liver spotted with three day’s growth of beard, gray and grizzled. That blonde hair ain’t. It’s a mop of dirty white, greasy curls that’s never seen shampoo.

The worst is his eyes. You’ve never seen such cynical eyes. They look right down into your heart to see all the evil secrets that you got hidden away. Those eyes see your darkest dreams and laugh at them.

So, we got this flabby old fairy flapping his stubby little wings– Did I mention that they’re like bat wings, but white and scaly? In those old paintings, the Cupids got feathers, but you’d have to be half blind to mistake those raggedy white scales for feathers.

Anyway, this ugly old-man Cupid is flapping in front of me, looking down and grinning like he’s got me dead to rights, and I knock back the rest of my shot and signal for the bartender to hit me again. I’m figuring that a third shot will clear my head and kill this bad dream.

The bartender is this young woman, must have been twenty-five or twenty-six, who’s as beautiful as Cupid is ugly. Way out of my league. This was back in the summer of ninety-seven and I was young, too – still in my twenties because my birthday is in November – but I was never much of a ladies’ man. That summer I was between girlfriends – long between – so I noticed the bartender, but didn’t pay her any mind because, like I said, she was way out of my league and I would have just been wasting my time.

She came over and poured me another shot – another single because I was never a big drinker – and gave me a sweet smile.

I didn’t give any credence to that, either, because that was just the tip-me-big smile that she was giving every guy at the bar. Let me give you a bit of advice, here. Don’t read too much into waitresses’ smiles. That smile is right there in their job description along with pushing drinks and not screwing up the orders too bad.

So, she gave me her sweetest smile and I paid for the drink and left a buck on the bar because the tip-me-big smile works.

Only this time, fat old Cupid is hanging up there in the air and he whips a gold arrow out of his quiver and draws a bead on her. That’s one thing that those old paintings got right. Cupid’s bow and arrows are solid gold.

When I see that he’d going to nail the bartender, I yell at her to watch out. She whips around to see what I’m yelling about, but all she sees is me shouting crazy.

I don’t know why she can’t see Cupid because he’s right there, plain as day and as real as a flying monkey. Which makes me wonder if that guy who wrote the Wizard of Oz maybe once saw Cupid, too, because he looks a little like those flying monkeys, except that he’s fatter and whiter and naked. Of course, they had to put clothes on the monkeys because that was a movie for kids and the Hollywood censors wouldn’t allow any nude monkeys in a kids’ movie. Maybe the monkeys were naked in the original script. I don’t know.

Anyway, back to my story. I yell at the bartender to watch out and she whips around and Cupid’s arrow nails her square in the middle of her chest. It sinks in deep, more than halfway up the shaft. It must have gone clean through her breast bone to her heart, no question.

She flinches and staggers a bit like anyone would if they took an arrow through the heart. Don’t kid yourself. Cupid’s arrows hurt like a bitch. I know because that little flying bastard, flapped around, whipped another arrow out of his quiver, and nailed me right in the chest, next.

It felt like my heart was on fire and I couldn’t draw a breath. I looked down and saw that golden shaft sticking out of my shirt just like that other arrow was sticking out of the bartender’s blouse. I knew for a fact that that both she and me were already good as dead and we were about to drop to the floor, a pair of stone-cold corpses, her lying on her side of the bar and me on mine, because no one can live with that much damage to his heart.

Cupid was still hanging up there, flapping away, laughing like a hyena. He figured that he’d just pulled the funniest prank ever.

And maybe he had, because we didn’t die. In fact, I didn’t see any blood on my shirt or on the waitress’s blouse like there should have been from someone heart shot.

She gasped and looked at me and asked me what I did to her, and I said that I didn’t do nothing, that Cupid just shot us both in the heart. And you know what she did? She laughed at me and said that she’d heard a lot of pickup lines, and that was the corniest of all.

Well, I told her that it wasn’t no pickup line. That there was an evil fairy right up there flying around and that he was trying to curse us by making us fall in love; and she said that love wasn’t a curse; and I said that shows how much you know about love.

While we were talking, our chests kept on puffing in and out with every breath, like is natural, and I could see that golden arrow working its way farther into her. The same was happening to me, and my heart was hurting more every minute. I don’t know how I carried on through the pain.

I won’t bore you with all the details of our conversation. We talked a bit about love and then she said that she had to go – other customers needed drinks – but that we should talk more about love, so for some reason that I never been able to explain, I asked if she wanted to go out to dinner and tell me why she thought that love wasn’t a curse, and she said that she’d love that.

By the time I left the bar, Cupid was gone off to find some other suckers. Last I saw of him, he was looking over his shoulder, still laughing like hell at me, as he flapped away. When I looked down, his golden arrow had worked itself all the way into my heart and I couldn’t see none of it sticking out any more. But it ached like hell in there. Still does, twenty years later on.

So, that’s how Linda and me were cursed by Cupid and she moved out to Colorado and, against all odds, we’re still together, today.

I don’t think that Linda should ever forgive that fat little flying bastard, for sticking her with me because she’s still way out of my league.

And me? Every day for twenty years, I been scared stiff that she’s going to pluck Cupid’s cursed arrow out of her heart and realize that she’s too good for me. I do try to keep her in the dark by being as good to her as I can, but this can’t last forever.

I’m pretty sure that when the day comes that she shucks that arrow and dumps me, Cupid will show up and be there watching and he’ll get his best laugh of all. That’s his nature.

The Gulf

I’ve got to get my dissertation finished. It’s due in a month because the committee has to have it for six weeks before my oral and then I’ve got to have at least two weeks for revisions before I go to Ohio. The revisions better be minor. Tenure-track jobs are as rare as diamonds. If I miss my deadline and can’t get to Ohio in time to prepare my classes for the fall semester, I’ll lose the position and I’ll never get another offer.

So what am I doing out here on a shrimp boat in the Gulf? I must be insane. I don’t have a weekend to spare to go fishing with Pop. I don’t get days off. I’ve got to work on my dissertation every day.

But he practically begged me to come. Said that he was desperate. He needed a hand with the nets and his best man was out with a broken wrist. Just this once, he promised. Just this one last time. The season is almost over. He needs one last haul to make enough to pay off the bank. He might not make the loan payment if he can’t get one last good catch.

He knows that he can do it. The shrimp are back. The oil from the last big spill is about gone and there’s plenty of shrimp in the gulf. He knows where he can find them. If only I can come down and give him a weekend of good work, he’ll be in the black for the year.

It’s all bullshit. I’ve been hearing the same story for as long as I can remember. He’s always on the edge of bankruptcy. Always needs to get a lucky break to survive. Always needs my help. And then he buys a new pickup with cash. He takes long vacations at the cottage during the off season. Puts a new kitchen in the house. He never lacks for money to spend. Until the next time he needs something from me, and then it’s the same old tragedy all over again. The banks are after him and he needs me desperately.

He never thinks that maybe I’m desperate, too. That I need to get my dissertation finished or my career will crash and burn before it even gets off the ground.

But how can I refuse? He paid for all my undergraduate education. I got a full ride from the scholarship of Pop. Not that I didn’t work for it. This isn’t the first time I’ve been out shrimping. Or the tenth. More likely the hundredth. But I still owe him. According to him.

The work is hard. We don’t talk much during the day. I’m too busy managing the winches and guiding the nets while he’s in the wheelhouse chasing the shrimp. He was right about one thing. He does know where the shrimp are. By the end of the day, we’ve taken a record catch. It’s time to turn home, but he doesn’t. He kills the engine and joins me on deck.

We sit dead in the water, rocking gently, smelling the salt air, and watch the sun setting over the ocean. It’s pretty out here, all right. A perfect end to the day.

I can tell that he wants to talk, but he doesn’t know what to say.

I see if I can get him started. I tell him that this is the last time that I’ll be able to help out. I’m moving north in a couple of months. I’ve got a job in Ohio.

He nods. He knows. He says that it’s good that I have a job. Then he falls silent again.

In that silence I hear everything that he’s not saying. His silence says that he’s going to miss me. Since Mom died three years ago, he’s missed me more than he can say. So he doesn’t say anything.

In that silence, he’s saying that he wishes that he could have done a better job raising me. He made mistakes. He knows that and he keeps a mental catalogue of every one of them. He remembers every time he criticized me unjustly. Every time he put me down. Every time he told me that I’d never amount to anything.

In that silence, he’s saying that he wishes that I’d never gone to graduate school in Georgia. He wishes that I’d stayed in Mississippi and followed in his footsteps. That I’d become a shrimper with him. That I’d take over the boat when he gets too old and then I’d support him like he supported me when I was young.

But also in that silence, he’s saying that he understands that I have to make my own life. He knows that my destiny is to be a university professor far away in the Midwest, not a shrimper in the gulf. He doesn’t know what that means, to be a professor. He has no idea how tough an academic career is. He has no clue how hard it is to be a success in a university department. But he knows that I’m tough. Tough enough to be a shrimper if I wanted. He knows that I never backed down from a challenge. So he accepts that I can’t be taking the easy road, even if it looks like I just sit in an office and think all day.

I hear all that in his silence.

And I return his silence with my own. In my silence, he hears my gratitude. He hears that I know that he always did his best and that I forgive any errors. He hears that I am as proud of him as he is of me.

As the sun slips below the horizon, we both hear each other’s love in the sound of the waves slapping against the hull.

When it’s finally dark, he says that it’s time to go home.

I agree. It’s been a good day, but it’s time to get back to my dissertation.

Fair Ball

A couple of hours ago, I was in my front room, watching my boy play ball. It wasn’t like Little League or anything – in my family, we ain’t big on joining stuff – so he and a few other kids was just goofing around in the street, pitching and batting over the manhole cover like it was home plate and running to the fire hydrant and back. It was pretty much a one-base game. Maybe they was keeping score, or maybe it was just for fun. I don’t know. I wasn’t paying much attention. I got my own problems.

The cops are after me. The other day, I heard from Mick down at the gravel pit that a cop came around with a warrant for me. I can figure what it’s about. Sometimes I take some private jobs off the books for a little extra income. Last month, I borrowed a backhoe from the company, you know, on a Sunday when nobody was around to see it drive away. I was doing a bit of excavation for a buddy who’s building a new extension on his house, and I had to get in the back of his place by going through a school yard and the bucket snagged on a playground structure and brought one end of the thing down. It was an accident, you know, but fixing it’d cost thousands – maybe even ten thousand, I don’t know. But I do know I don’t got that kind of money. Now it looks like they found out that it was me that did it and they want to arrest me. Because of that, I called in sick at work for a couple of days, in case the cops come around again.

They probably would have been out here to the house to get me already, but they don’t know where I live. We moved down here last year and I didn’t get around to telling my boss about my new address. I’m paying my buddy, Phil, cash rent so he don’t have to pay taxes, so he’s not telling anyone about us living here.

It’s a nice place we got now. Quiet. No traffic to speak of, so the boy can play as much ball in the street as he likes and Mandy gets along good with the neighbors.

So, the cops don’t know that I’m here, but they’re going to get me, sooner or later, because I can’t keep ditching work forever. I gotta earn my paychecks.

It’s a problem.

So, I was thinking that maybe it’s time to move up north. We could stay with my brother in Oregon for a while and I could get a job up there. There’s always someone looking for a heavy equipment operator.

And what happens right then when I was thinking that? My boy gets a nice easy pitch right across the manhole cover and he gets perfect contact and that old softball goes flying like it grew wings. It was a beautiful thing. If he’d a been out on a proper baseball diamond, he would have cleared the left field fence, for sure. Would have driven everyone on base home.

But he wasn’t on a baseball diamond, he was standing over the manhole cover on the street outside our house and that old softball went soaring down the street, past two other houses, and then over Fred Jackson’s new-mowed lawn and right through Fred’s front room window. That’s the big picture window where he put his tree last Christmas so everyone on the street could admire it.

The whole glass disintegrated. I doubt there was hardly a shard left in the frame.

That ball was really travelling.

So were my boy’s friends. Even before the last bits of glass hit Fred’s floor, all the boys was running for cover, ducking through bushes and into backyards.

All except my boy. He just stood there for a minute, bat dangling from his hand, staring at the empty window frame in Jackson’s house.

I wanted to yell at him to run away, too, but he couldn’t have heard with me in the house and him out on the street. I don’t think that he would have run, anyway. He isn’t that kind of kid. Nope. He set the bat down and walked down the street, right up to Fred Jackson’s front door and rang the bell.

Mae Jackson opened the door right away. She was holding the softball in her hand and looking unhappy.

I could have gone down and talked to her with my boy, but I got enough problems of my own so I just stood back and watched what was going to happen.

My boy and Mae talked for a bit and, after a while, he held out his hand and she shook it, and then she gave him back his ball and he came on home.

I was curious to know what had happened, of course, but I didn’t want to make a deal out of it, so I waited until the boy came into the house and then, casual like, I asked how things were going.

He didn’t mention the broken window; he just said that he’d be helping with yard work at the Jackson’s for a while. Said it was like his job, now, but I didn’t have to worry, because he’d still be doing his chores at home, too. Then he went off to his room to catch up on his homework.

Mandy came out of the kitchen and asked what that was about. I guess she’d overheard that the boy was going to be doing chores for the Jackson’s and thought that was strange. I told her that the boy broke Fred Jackson’s window, so he’s going to pay it off by working for Fred.

She thought that was fine.

Then I told her that I was going down to the police station and have a talk with them and get my warrant situation cleared up. I didn’t know when I’d be back, but I figured I wouldn’t be too late. Even so, she shouldn’t hold supper for me.

Mandy said she was happy to hear that, and I guess she was, because I don’t keep my problems secret from her and the warrant must have been a worry for her, too.

But, you know, it’s something that I have to do, because my boy’s got big ears and, if we moved to Oregon, he’d soon figure out that it was because I was running from the law. He wouldn’t do something like that that and I can’t let him be a better man than me.

A boy’s got to have a father that he can respect. That’s only proper.


I should have left earlier. The traffic is terrible. Where did all these cars come from?

The clock on the dash says that it’s already two-ten. Maybe the clock is wrong. When did I last adjust it? Maybe it’s twenty minutes fast. Maybe it’s ten to two, not ten after. Maybe I still have ten minutes to get downtown. Dashboard clocks are notorious for being wrong, aren’t they?

No. Not twenty minutes wrong. Not my clock.

There’s no avoiding the truth. I’m late. I’m already late and I’m not even there yet. I’m still stuck in traffic on the freeway. At least it’s moving. It’s not a traffic jam, just heavy traffic. Wasn’t there a movie back in the seventies called Heavy Traffic? Some kind of x-rated cartoon?

I don’t know. Why would I care about that now? I have more important things to worry about. Like this truck in front of me. It doesn’t have to drive this slowly. The guy could at least try to drive at something close to the speed limit. It wouldn’t kill him to stomp on it a little. Maybe there’s another car in front of him. I can’t see around the truck. I should pass him but there’s too much traffic in the other lane and I can’t get a break. Besides, my exit is coming up and I don’t want to get stuck in the wrong lane and miss it. If there’s cars in front of the truck, then I might not be able to get back into the exit lane. But this guy is driving so damned slow.

Two-fifteen. I’m now fifteen minutes late. A quarter hour. Five minutes, you can say that clocks aren’t all that accurate. Ten minutes, you can blame bad luck. Say that you hit too many red lights. Fifteen minutes, though? That’s your fault, no question. You should have left earlier.

But I’m not going to be fifteen minutes late. By the time I get downtown, find parking, walk to the meeting, I’m going to be so late that I don’t want to think about it.

I could lie. I could claim that there was an accident on the freeway. Nothing I could do. The traffic was stopped up for miles.

Bad idea. Someone else might have come to the meeting from the west end, too. They’d know that there was no traffic jam on the freeway. That kind of thing doesn’t happen instantly. Right after an accident, people can still get around the stopped cars. It takes time for enough cars to slow down and gawk and jam the freeway. Unless it was a major accident that blocked multiple lanes. An accident that was serious enough to make the news.

I better not lie. Better to be late than to be caught in a lie.

Even if I’m desperately late.

The exit is clear. Finally, I sail off the freeway. And hit the red light at the bottom of the exit. How come you never hit a green light when you get off a freeway? The timing of your exit from a freeway is random. There should be a fifty-fifty chance of the light being green, so why is it always red?

I wait and fume and wait. There’s no cross traffic. Not a car to be seen in either direction. So why am I waiting at a red light? I could just drive across the intersection. Nothing is physically stopping me. No one would see. Except for the pickup that’s pulling up behind me and he’s not a cop. Unmarked cop cars are always big American sedans, not pickup trucks.

I stay put, not from fear of arrest nor from physics, but from years of habit. I could no more force myself to drive against a red light than I could sprout wings and fly to the meeting.

How long is this light going to stay red, anyway?

No longer. Green at last. I race through the intersection, down a block, and get stopped by the next red light. It just turned. I saw it turn. Now I’m going to have to wait for a full cycle. How long? A minute? Two? It seems like forever and it’s already two-twenty. Twenty minutes late and I’m barely a block off the freeway.

I’m sweating like a pig. Do pigs sweat? Dogs don’t. I know that. Not cats, either. They’re too cool. But pigs? I don’t know. I should look that up some time.

Green at last. I floor the gas – almost – and race through the next two lights – both green by luck. Well, that last one was kind of yellow, actually red by the time I was halfway through the intersection, but green enough for me. The next half dozen lights are green, yellow, red, whatever. A blur. I stop, I go, I stop again.

The clock on the dash says two-twenty-five when I get close enough to start looking for parking.

Of course there’s nothing on the street. Nothing close to the building at all. I waste another five minutes cruising around the block. Wasting time. Why didn’t I leave home earlier? Why didn’t I give myself plenty of time? I could have parked an hour ago, grabbed a coffee at Starbucks, relaxed and been calm and ready for the meeting.

Maybe I have a subconscious self-destructive streak. Maybe I don’t want this contract. Maybe I want to be bankrupt, starving, and living on the street.

Maybe that’s why I’m still cruising around yet another block, looking desperately for a parking space instead of driving over to the multi-level parking garage in the Maydown Centre. It might be a five-block walk back to the Pankhurst Tower, but I’d be there by now instead of driving in circles.

I wish I’d remembered my cell phone. If I had my phone, I could call and apologize and explain. But I’d rushed out of the house, terrified that I was going to be late. I’d barely had time to grab my wallet and keys. Never gave a thought to grabbing my phone, too. I could visualize it sitting on the desk next to my computer. If only I had it now, I’d at least be able to call and tell them that I’m on my way, even though I’m already forty-five minutes late.

But if wishes came true, I’d be rolling in dough and wouldn’t be scrambling for yet another contract.

A three-year contract this time. That was a boon. If I won this one, I wouldn’t have to beat the bushes, looking for another contract for more than two blessed years. I’d been lurching from one six-month contract to another for so long now that I’d forgotten what it was like not to have to spend most of my weekends writing proposals for the next one.

Why didn’t I leave home an hour earlier? Am I really this self-destructive?

It’s time to give up a search for street parking. I bite the bullet and turn toward the parking garage.

More red lights. Streets blocked by pedestrians jaywalking. Another five minutes lost. I get to the parking garage and the gate is shut. A lighted sign says that the lot is full.

How can the Maydown Centre be full? It’s a big parking garage. It’s four stories high. It fills the whole end of the block. It must hold a thousand cars. What is everybody doing downtown at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon?

I keep driving straight, through another green light and – glory be! – I’m going to get a parking spot on the street. Someone just got into his car, his brake lights flash when he starts his engine.

I put on my turn signal and stop, leaving plenty of room for him to leave.

I can see him fiddling with his shoulder belt. Adjusting his mirrors. For Pete’s sake, just pull out of the spot, already.

Cars are backing up behind me, but I don’t care. I’m not budging until I’ve got a parking space to pull into.

Finally, the man puts on his blinker. I see his eyes peering into his side mirror, looking to see what I’m doing. Idiot. I’m not doing anything. I’m waiting for you to get out of my parking space.

He does. Slowly, carefully, he eases his car out of the spot, staring at me in his mirror all the while.

As soon as he’s clear of the car in front of him, I pull forward to back into his spot.

The car behind me, annoyed at having to wait, follows me forward. Maybe he’s an hour late for his critical, life-altering meeting, too.


I back up into the parking space, barely squeezing past the corner of the idiot’s bumper, glaring at him in my side mirror.

He’s too oblivious to know that he’s oblivious.

Finally parked, I have to waste another couple of precious minutes racing to the ticket machine, using my credit card to buy two hours of parking – the maximum allowed here, I hope this meeting doesn’t take that long – and racing back to put the ticket on my dashboard.

Sweat is pouring off my hair as I half-jog the seven blocks back to Pankhurst Tower.

My watch says that it’s three o’clock when I get off the elevator. A full hour late. A full hour. Maybe I’ll tell them that I thought the meeting was for three, not two. Is it better to look too stupid to know what time the meeting was held, or to look too stupid to make it to the meeting on time?

If there’s a meeting at all any more. More likely everyone left after waiting for ten minutes and I didn’t show up. By now, they’ve given the contract to someone else and made a note never again to consider any proposal that I submit for anything.

I couldn’t blame them for that. It’s what I would do if I were them.

“I’m here to see Doug Parkhill.” I don’t tell the receptionist that I’m an hour late.

“And you are?”

“Cantley. Del Cantley.”

“One minute, Mr. Cantley.”

It’s more like five minutes before a middle-aged woman emerges from the door to the offices. “Mr. Cantley?”

“Yes. I’m here to see Doug Parkhill.” I try to grin apologetically. “I’m a little late. Traffic.”

“I’m Mr. Parkhill’s executive assistant. You didn’t get his message? I left a message for you.”

“No, sorry. I was stuck in traffic.”

“Mr. Parkhill had an urgent matter that needed his attention. He had to cancel your meeting.”

“Oh.” I am shocked.

“Yes. I left a message for you. He said that the group didn’t need to meet with you. He had senior management approve your contract this morning. I put it in the mail for you. It hasn’t gone out yet. Now that you’re here, I guess we can save the stamp. If you want to wait for a minute, I’ll retrieve it from his out basket and give it to you.”

“That would be great.”

She disappeared.

While I wait, my panic subsides, replaced with relief that I hadn’t blown it by leaving the house too late. It takes but a moment for that brief relief to twist in the direction of irritation. There had been no reason for me to race down here after all. They could’ve called a little earlier and caught me at home. They could have saved me from that terrible trip downtown.

Nurtured by indignation, my irritation grows as I wait for my contract. Clearly if Parkhill had the contract approved in the morning, then he had had ample time to call me and let me know that I didn’t have to meet them.

They could have been a little more considerate. It wouldn’t have killed them to think of me racing down here, fighting traffic, searching frantically for parking.

I wasn’t sure that I wanted to work with these people any more. I should tell them where to stuff their contract and storm right out of here.

That would show them.

The assistant returns, bearing a manila envelope, and holds it out to me.

I fight the urge to snatch it and throw it back in her face in a fit of fury.

I hope that she doesn’t notice that my hand is sweating when I take the envelope from her. “Thanks.” My single curt word of gratitude is barely civil.

I stalk out of the office without saying anything more.

I don’t open the envelope and glance at the contract until I’m riding down the elevator. It looks good. A guaranteed three years of work at a decent rate of compensation.

This is a cause for celebration.

I’ll eat a steak tonight.

A New Friend of Bill

My name is Peter and I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for – what time is it now? Seven o’clock? – for six hours. Well, maybe not six hours. That was my last drink, six hours ago, so it would have took a little bit to sober up after that. So maybe I been sober for four hours. That ain’t long, I know. Some of you must have been sober for a lot longer than that. Years, I bet, from the looks of you. But this is my first meeting so you can understand that I ain’t been sober for so long as you old timers.

So here I am, sober as a judge – at least, sober as a judge that ain’t had a drink in six hours – and Quinn here said I ought to tell you all something about myself, so I will.

I was born out on the West Coast from what my birth certificate says, but I got taken out of Seattle when I was still little, and brought to Canada, so mostly I remember growing up in Calgary. I was left with Mom’s friends when she was up in the oil patch, which was most of the time, though she wasn’t the one doing the drilling, if you know what I mean. So she wasn’t around much but she came down for special occasions, like when she needed to dry out a bit. Which wasn’t often.

I’m just telling you this so you see that I come by my boozing honestly, so to speak. I’m not making any excuses. I never figured that I needed an excuse to drink. I just thought you might like to know how it all came about.

I won’t bore you with all the sad details of being a kid, I’ll just jump ahead to when I was eighteen and back in the states, ‘cause that’s important. I never went to school much and don’t think I ever passed an exam in my life. At least not when I was a kid. I took off from Mom when I was fifteen and never saw her again. Never wanted to. I spent three years kicking around out east, getting by on stealing a bit, and panhandling a bit, and dealing a bit, and crashing with my buddies a lot.

When I got to be eighteen, I got down to the States by hitching a ride on a boat with a guy who was bootlegging cigarettes though Akwesasne, so I wasn’t exactly there legally, but I had a right to be in the States, being born in Seattle and being an American citizen and all.

I was panhandling in a supermarket parking lot – that’s a good place to bum a buck because you can tell folks that you need to buy some food and you’re short a buck and they’re more likely to believe you than if you’re panhandling outside a liquor store – and a marine in his sharp blue uniform with the shiny gold buttons and the red stripe on the pants asks if I want to be a real American and fight for my country.

This was when we was going into Iraq to stop Saddam from giving his nuclear bombs to terrorists and they was calling up reserves and recruiting anyone who could walk on two legs.

So I looked at that guy’s shiny shoes and funny white hat and medals on his chest and said that I sure would. I figured that I was more Canadian than American, but I didn’t tell him that. I saluted the flag and they gave me a sharp new uniform of my own.

Well, I figured I’d be marching through the desert, shooting anything that wasn’t wearing the right uniform, but Lordy be, they gave me an aptitude test and said I got to be a helicopter pilot. So I spent three tours flying over the desert, shooting anything that wasn’t wearing the right uniform.

Now you all might think that would make me sober, being a military pilot, because they got rules and regulations out the kazoo, but you’d be wrong. My buddies in the marines drank more than my homeless buddies on the street. Had more money, you see, and booze was cheap at the ex and it’s not like there was a lot of cops giving us sobriety tests.

Now, you got to understand that I wasn’t blotto all the time. I just kept putting enough under my belt to keep me mellow and casual. Truth was, I was pretty functional that way. I didn’t get too upset when the bad guys shot back at me and I always managed to set my chopper back on the pad without crunching the landing gear.

After a while, I got tired of shooting the terrorists and carrying brass in and out of the Green Zone, so I mustered out.

I came back up here to the oil patch and got a job flying choppers for the oil companies. ‘Cause, you know, all my paperwork was in order and I got all those hours in the air. Turns out, the regulators up here ain’t much more of a problem than they was in Iraq. It’s not like I’m flying passenger jets. As long as I can keep getting the chopper out and back without dinging up the cargo, I’m good to go.

Except now I got this wife in Edmonton who’s ragging fierce on me to get myself straight. My other wife in Prince George is mellow with it, she’s a worse boozer than me, but the one in Calgary is being a bit of a bitch about it.

So here I am, at my first meeting, and I’m set to get along with the program.

Who knows, if it works out for me, then maybe I’ll get the Prince George wife to come to a few meetings and sober up, too.

Wish me luck.

Opening Statement

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am here to represent Mr. Gerald Pitthorn. As the prosecutor just explained, Mr. Pitthorn has been accused of second degree murder in the death of his wife. We will not dispute the facts that the prosecutor presented. It is true that Mrs. Amanda Pitthorn died of strangulation, that this happened in her dining room, and that Mr. Pitthorn was the only other person in the house. You might well conclude that Mr. Pitthorn was the person who strangled Mrs. Pitthorn.

However, you cannot find him guilty of murder for the following reason: he did not get a good nights’ sleep. Not the night before Mrs. Pitthorn’s death, not two nights before her death, nor three nights. In fact, we will show indisputable evidence that Mr. Pitthorn did not get a good nights’ sleep for a full month before that date. A full month. Thirty consecutive nights, during which Mr. Pitthorn never slept for more than two hours. We will show that he never had an opportunity to nap during the day, was never allowed to fall asleep in front of the television set, never went to bed before three in the morning, and always was awakened at five in the morning. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. For thirty days, the only time that Mr. Pitthorn was permitted to sleep was between three and five AM.

We will bring experts here: psychologists who have conducted extensive research on sleep deprivation, neuroscientists who will explain how the chemistry of the brain changes when a man is not permitted to sleep, and medical doctors who specialize in insomnia and have treated thousands of patients who are suffering from prolonged sleep deprivation.

We will explain the science in meticulous detail, but that’s not why you will find Mr. Pitthorn innocent of murder. You will find him not guilty because you know from your own experience what happens when you lack sleep.

We’ve all had nights when we couldn’t sleep for one reason or another. I have, you have, we all have. You or I complain if we get only four hours of sleep in a night and have to work the next day. We feel miserable, we can’t think clearly, and we make bad decisions. But Mr. Pitthorn had only half of that much sleep. Only two hours per night. And you or I complain if we can’t get enough sleep for a second or third night in a row. For good reason. Fatigue – mental and emotional fatigue – accumulates. It gets worse and worse every night that passes without you being able to catch up on your sleep. That’s something that psychologists call a sleep debt. But Mr. Pitthorn didn’t have two or three nights of sleep debt. He had thirty days of it.

How did it happen that Mr. Pitthorn was so badly sleep deprived for so long? I hesitate to blame poor Mrs. Pitthorn. She did not deserve to be strangled in her dining room. We all agree on that point. But she was the reason for Mr. Pitthorn’s sleep deprivation. That is a fact that you cannot deny when you hear the evidence.

We will present witnesses that will explain Mrs. Pitthorn’s behavior to you. Her sister will tell you how, from her earliest childhood, Mrs. Pitthorn was driven to control the behavior of everyone around her. She would do anything to get her way. Many tried, but no one could convince her to modify her extreme behavior.

Her bullying was so persistent, so determined, that no one could endure it. Sleep would be impossible for Mr. Pitthorn when Mrs. Pitthorn was throwing one of her legendary fits.

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