A couple years ago, Craig Johnson wrote a Christmas story about his sheriff, Walt Longmire, giving a ride to a spooky young woman . . . Longmire, you may know him now from the A&E television series of the same name.
Craig's story got me to wondering what I could do with my sheriff, James Early. So I sent him down to Oklahoma on Christmas Day . . . to bring back a fugitive.
Enjoy "Early's Gift."
* * *
I saw a hearse the other day in my town, a 1956 Cadillac with flames painted on the sides and a skeleton riding in the seat behind the driver.
It's Halloween . . . well, almost.
For my writers group's party on the eve before Halloween, we were to write stories of the supernatural . . . flash fiction pieces, no more than 250 words.
Try to keep a story that short. It's not easy.
* * *
As my regular readers know, I'm in a writers' group, and, when we get together for a social evening, we have a writing challenge. Example, write a short piece on a given theme.
The challenge for last month was to write a short short story with a two-word title . . . and one of the words must either be heart or hearts. No more than 500 words.
We were kind of keying off Valentine's Day which will be here in a couple weeks.
For me, this turned out to be one tough assignment.
A couple years back—actually in 2006—I wrote a short short that would have fit, "The Love Story of Snegurochka and Henryabb the Blue" . . . Snegurochka, a love-sick old witch, and Henryabb, a three-eyed giant.
The story veritably dripped with romance. You can read it the archive.
Well, I just couldn't come up with another traditional love story. I tried. Believe me, I did.
And then I thought, why not take a different approach? What if it were just two old friends sharing a cup of coffee, men who've known each other most of their lives, who each knew the other's stories so well he can finish them?
What if they were Sheriff James Early and his fellow lawman, Constable Mose Dickerson?
* * *
In one of the several variations of the game Story Cubes, you pick a title, then roll the cubes—nine of them—and create a story that works with the title.
You must use all the nine images in your story.
So now it's demonstration time. I'm going to roll the cubes for you, then see whether I can create a story titled "My Worst New Year's Eve Ever."
Here we go—rattle, rattle, rattle—annnnnd here come the cubes. Face up as they stop we have the world, a star, a cellphone, a lightbulb, a barefoot footprint, a fish, a turtle, a bridge over a stream, and a rainbow.
Ooo, this is one tough set of writing joggers, but let's give it a try.
* * *
It's the Christmas season, and most of are doing pretty well, thank you very much. We can pay the heat bill and we've got food on the table.
But there are some among us have it really, really tough.
In this story Christmas Eve story, James Early meets one of them . . . a stranger in his community.
* * *
Times change, and old institutions disappear.
Things that were once popular no longer are.
In the first decades of the last century, when the one-room school was not only the educational center of a community, but the social center as well, a lot of things happened in that building that rarely happen in today's schools. Example: school carnivals and candy sales in large, present-day elementary schools have replaced the old-fashioned box social as a means of raising money to buy so many of the things not covered by the school's budget.
For this story, it's a Friday evening in the fall of 1926.
* * *
I like ghost stories, and I always wanted to write one.
I needed an idea, and I finally got one when I was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee. I was working on a degree over in the communications school, but I had my assistantship over in the engineering school.
The why of it is a long story and not important here.
What is important is that I often worked late in Perkins Hall where I was attached to the dean's office. Perkins is an ancient building that groans and creaks at night.
Well, it is said that on the UT campus Old Main is haunted. I'd heard the stories, so, one night, while typing away at my computer, I moved the haint, as ghosts are called in the Mid-South, from Old Main to Perkins Hall.
Read "The Medallion."
* * *
I was listening to Chicago sports radio one evening, and the co-host of the show, a former Bears player, was listing off all the knee surgeries he had while he was an active player and in the years after he retired.
The game he loved had wrecked his body.
He could no longer run, and walking even hurt.
What a price pro athletes pay for their days of hoped for glory, particularly football players.
* * *
We have a writing challenge whenever our Tuesdays with Story writers group gets together for a social event.
The challenge in March was to interview one of our characters—major or minor, we select—and distill that interview down to a dynamite story of no more than 500 words.
We gave this additional instruction: Be imaginative. Take your character to lunch or explore a cave with him/her or have your character take you for a ride on the Black Mamba rollercoaster at Great America.
Now you would expect me to select James Early, but it was Early's best friend who spoke to me.
Great glory in the morning, Mose Dickerson demanded.
* * *
One summer day, when I was growing up outside of Mukwonago—that's in southern Wisconsin—our family's dentist walked out into a field and blew himself up.
No one could explain it.
It was, to us, a senseless death.
Yet now as a silver-haired soul of seventy-one years, I'd like to know why anyone would do what Dr. Holland did.
And thus this story, "Window in Time."
* * *
There are lots of ghost stories in every state where I have lived—Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Colorado, and Kansas, where I lived and worked for eight years.
Here's something interesting from Kansas. The city fathers of Atchison claim their city is the most haunted of any city their size . . . in the world.
Lots of ghosts there, they say, although I never saw or sensed any on my several trips in.
Here's the good news: not all ghosts are out to scare the bejeebers out of you and me. Read "The Bridge."
* * *
Ice fishing is big up here in the north country, although we're now about at the end of the season.
Some fishermen trick out their ice houses like they were homes, with sleeper sofas, big-screen TVs, and microwaves to heat up frozen dinners . . . you didn't think these guys cook, did you?
They make themselves targets for thieves. Thus the story I have for you this month.
Enjoy "Essence," and hang on. There's a twist ahead you will have never anticipated.
* * *
Here we are in February, so a love story is in order.
I wrote this story as a result of writing challenge my writers' group took up a couple years ago. We were provided with the first lines from 23 novels. We each were to pick one of those lines and then use it as the first line for our story, song, essay, poem, haiku, hiccup, or whatever.
We were limited to 200 words.
* * *
I was watching kids sledding the other day.
They came rocketing down the hill on tubes and saucers and sheets of plastic, some spinning and spilling . . . and I knew what my story for this month would be.
* * *
I've lived in counties where, come Christmas eve, sheriff's deputies would load the trunks and backseats of their cruisers with bags of groceries and head out into the back country, to deliver Christmas to families who had precious little—families who often ran out of food before they ran out of month.
That kind of caring impressed me.
I believed there was a story here, and there is.
"Lights & Sirens for Santa"—my Christmas gift to you.
* * *
My writers group recently put out a short story writing challenge: You're late for work because you overslept. Your boss hates oversleepers, but he does love entertaining stories. Create the most outlandish excuse for why you were late . . . and do it in no more than 400 words.
* * *
Commencements, and the commencement addresses that accompany them, are not just a May and January thing. For a training school, they come whenever a class has completed its two-week, two-month, or two-year curriculum.
Jeff Kalhagen, a colleague in my writers' group, wrote a mini-masterpiece for one of our writing challenges that keyed in on the commencement address. Enjoy "Lovely Rita."
* * *
High school graduation was a great time for my friends and me, just as it was for you, no doubt. We had survived and become adults, although we were still in our teens.
But it was a sad time, too. All of us had summer jobs, and then it would be off to college. None of us were going to the same place, so we wouldn't see one another much anymore. That gave reason for one last good time together.
* * *
Did you see the movie “Night at the Museum” or read the children’s book on which the movie was based?
Exhibits come to life after the staff locks the door and goes home.
My writers' group took that concept and turned it into a writing challenge for a social meeting we were to hold at Booked for Murder, our independent mystery bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin . . . “Night at the Bookstore.”
* * *
We do writing challenges in my writers group. Here’s one from a couple years ago: Chose one of the 23 first lines from our list of novels and use that line as the beginning of your story, song, essay, poem, haiku, hiccup, whatever. Word length: 200 words.
Several of us wrote long, and I was one of them, because, edit and cut as we may, we could not get down to the 200-word limit and still have the story we wanted to tell. I came in at 218 words.
The first line that triggered my story? From Barbara Kingsolver’s book, The Poisonwood Bible: Imagine a ruin so strange it must have never happened.
* * *
I’m one of those rare souls who likes to shovel snow . . . unless it’s a heavy, wet snow. That’s work. That’s when you should follow the Old Farmer’s Almanac on how to shovel snow efficiently: Invite your son over for dinner and, while he’s there, hand him the shovel.
My brother, in contrast to me, well, a shovel won’t do it. A decade ago, he bought a snowblower, then a bigger snowblower, and now he uses a tractor with a huge bucket on the front of it to clear his driveway.
It got me to thinking, what if the neighbors became competitive about this snow removal business? To see what could happen, read on . . . this month’s short story, “Snow in your eye.”
* * *
I wrote my first Christmas story nine years ago. It was a chapter in a novel that never saw print, a novel titled Wings Over the Mountains. I set that story in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee in the year 1927.
I sent the story to family and a few friends, as a Christmas gift. And that launched a tradition, but not at my initiation. The next year, a couple friends asked, “What’s the Christmas story you’ve got for us?”
So I wrote “Cedar Trees”; the next year, “The Santa Train”; and the following, my favorite—“The Search for Pooch”—how a guy who plays Santa Claus runs down a Vietnam war vet who’s gone into hiding. The trigger? A boy tells the Santa he wants only one thing for Christmas, to see his dad.
I wrote my first James Early Christmas story three years ago. And as my Christmas gift to you this year, here is the second, “A Night for Miracles.”
* * *
I don’t like needles.
I had to get a blood test before I could get married the first time. This vampire came at me with an empty syringe that, I swear, was the size of a gallon jug. She filled it with my blood and sent it off to the lab, for testing, to see what horrible diseases I might have.
I staggered out of the doctor’s office, and Sallie had to drive me home.
Now needles don’t bother her, so siphoning her blood, she’d hardly noticed it.
The vampire called the next day. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but somebody in the lab dropped the blood samples and one of yours broke. We have to get new samples.”
To which Sallie said, “Honey, it had better have been mine because, if it was Jerry’s, he’s not coming back.”
Whew, it was Sallie’s.
The other day, I went in for my flu shot. It is the season.
* * *
I once lived in Montgomery, West Virginia, where adults liked Halloween as much as children do.
One guy—from Smithers, the next town up the valley—galloped down our street on a dappled gray one Halloween evening, he dressed as the Headless Horseman.
My neighbor across the way dressed as a witch each year. She’d sit stock-still on a bench on her front porch. The kids had to walk past her to get to the doorbell. They’d eye her, thinking, wow, isn’t that fake witch something. Then they’d turn away, to the doorbell, and, as they pressed the button, she’d reach out and put her cold, cold hand on one of their shoulders, and the kid she touched would rise up as if he or she had been shot through with electricity.
I dressed as Frankenstein. When a trick-or-treater rang my doorbell, I’d whip the door open and trigger sound-effects screams in the bushes behind the kid. Candy went everywhere.
Oh, such sweet times.
My fellow Montgomerians provided the inspiration for the short story you are about to read, “The House on Humbleberry Lane.”
Hold onto your socks.
* * *
Somewhere in my files I have a clipping of a newspaper story about the mysterious deaths of six people in a rural church. An unsolved mystery.
I figured there was a story there.
And there is.
And now you are about to read it.
* * *
Rural taverns are special places in Wisconsin. This is where friends gather for a beer and talk, billiards and burgers, and, on Friday nights, Wisconsin’s famous fish fry.
I once went up to a county in the northwest part of the state when I worked for Farm Bureau, to work on a story with our director from there. He told me to meet him at the Crossroads, that it was easier to find than his farm.
You guessed it. The Crossroads was a country tavern.
We sat at the bar, me nursing a root beer and him a Leinenkugel, and he said, “We hold our county board meetings in the back room here and our annual meeting in the side banquet room. It’s the only place in the county where we can seat a couple hundred people for dinner.”
The Crossroads wasn’t Cheers, but everyone there did know everyone’s name. They were, after all, all neighbors. I was the stranger. But the director vouched for me, so I was okay.
Read on now to “Hard Day on the Road,” a story I set in a tavern down in my part of the state—Tubby’s Two.
* * *
I once lived and worked in West Virginia, a state that’s perpetually broke. The legislature created the lottery, then a revolutionary idea for funding state operations. Money for the schools was the sales pitch.
I worked for Beckley Newspapers and one of our story assignments was to report on the stores in our area that sold the winning tickets and the people who bought those winning tickets. I was opposed to writing those stories because, as I told my editor, it’s promoting gambling and gambling’s wrong.
It’s news, he said. When the assignment comes to you, get the story or get out of here.
And there were some good stories, and some tragic stories of people who squandered their winnings, who, two years later, were as poor as they were before they won.
But there is forever the hope of those who buy the tickets that this time, this time... and thus the story that follows.
* * *
Our economic hard times inspired a writing challenge for my writers group: Put a well-known fictional character in the soup. Example: Willy Loman’s worried about his pension plan.
I selected Dudley Do-Right. Surely you remember the inept but good-hearted Mountie from the old Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. How would he handle the adjustment when Inspector Fenwick has to sell Dudley’s horse because there’s no more money in the budget for hay and oats?
* * *
Regular readers of my short stories know my writers group has a writing challenge as a part of our social events: write a short story, poem or essay on “X” subject. No more than 500 words. One, a couple years ago, came at this time of year when two of our younger members were graduating from high school. So we all wrote pieces that touched on graduation.
But to make the writing a bit more difficult—really, to drive us nuts—we all had to use a selected set of words somewhere in our stories. The words? Tulips, metronome, diploma, sword, boffo and any reduplicative. Reduplicatives are words that come in pairs.
Now you can see if I did it. Enjoy “The Hot Seat.”
* * *
My writers group has a writing challenge as a part of our social events: write a short story, poem or essay on “X” subject. No more than 500 words. The latest challenge was: We’re in hard times. Put a well-known fictional character in it. Example: Willy Loman’s worried about his pension plan.
We had to be miserly with the words . . . 250 maximum. That is real flash fiction.
I cheated on the subject. I selected historical characters: What if Christopher Columbus were trying to get a ship today?
Enjoy “Before Travelocity.”
* * *
Marge, my good wife, was proofreading a chapter I had written for the second James Early mystery, Early’s Winter. In this chapter, Early and a friend are in a wild poker game with a bunch of Kansas City gamblers, a game that starts with straight stud and progresses to Mississippi stud—a complex game with all kinds of weird rules.
Marge said to me, “I didn’t know you knew so much about poker.”
I don’t. But I can Google it.
To write the flash-fiction story you are about to read, I didn’t have to know anything about poker, yet the game is in there. I started with the premise, what if your refrigerator were haunted? Read “Is There Anybody In There?”
* * *
Remember the old Topper series, from the days when television was broadcast in black-and-white, a handful of years before RCA introduced “living color,” decades before the invention of cable, and a half-century before television screens covered a living room wall?
Leo G. Carroll? Robert Sterling? Ann Jeffreys?
Neil, the alcoholic Saint Bernard?
Stephen Sondheim, later of Broadway fame, wrote 19 episodes for the show’s first season. That was in 1953.
Everybody, into the Wayback Machine.
Sterling and Jeffreys played ghosts—and Neil, too—who inhabited Carroll’s house.
Several Februaries ago I got to thinking about that show and out poured a Valentine’s story, “Spirited Solution.” Enjoy.
* * *
You know that you’re on the back side of winter when, on December 21, you open the mailbox and there looking out at you is the first seed catalog of the season.
Up here in Yankeeland, that’s either Jung’s or Henry Fields’.
I whipped that sucker out and flipped through the pages, stopping on 49 where I was captivated by a picture of baby Craig Clark reclining on the leaves of a Megatron hybrid cabbage plant. A big, BIG plant. Produces 20-pound cabbage heads, the copy said. Well, I’ve got to get me a packet of those seeds. Only $2.25 for 50.
Further back in the book, there on page 66 I spotted this little guy, Sammy Wynons, who looked to be about age 7. He was standing next to a Dill’s Atlantic Giant pumpkin, and the boy could barely reach the top of it. What a jack-o-lantern a Dill’s Atlantic would make for the front porch, if I can find a forklift at the U-Rent to get it up there. Ten seeds, $2.95.
But it was and always is the roses, pages and pages of them all in rich colors, that had me scrabbling for the order form.
Several years ago, my writers group established a writing challenge for our very first social event. Because it was our first, we didn’t theme the challenge, just said write a story of no longer than 500 words that you will read in front of the group. No critiques. This is just for fun. I rolled out a piece I titled “Rose Planting,” read it for the group and a year later read it for a group of late-nighters at the Love Is Murder mystery writers conference in Chicago. Now you get to read “Rose Planting.”
* * *
I love Christmas.
And I guess I love writing Christmas stories.
The first I wrote was a retelling of the Mary & Joseph story. I set it in the 1920s in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where the only way to travel any distance was by train. JJ—Joseph Jeremiah—and Bettina Marie Jones, both employed by a logging company, he as a teamster and she as a camp cook, are making their way down to Knoxville for Christmas with Bettina’s parents and where she is to have her baby. An avalanche blocks the train, so Bettina gives birth in a railroad depot in the mountains, attended by the train’s engineer and his conductor. A preacher and some of his flock, on their way home from church, stop in and sing Christmas carols. And there’s a baptizing, and well...
I wrote that story eight years ago and gave it to friends and family as a Christmas gift. Several asked, “Are you going to write another next year?”
I did. And I’ve written a new story every year since.
You are about to read this year’s. I set it in and around Manhattan. Now this is the Manhattan of the West—Manhattan, Kansas. The year is 1960. A single mom with six kids needs a job.
Enjoy a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie at Bernie’s.
* * *
I’ve voted in a lot of places—schools, fire stations, libraries—but the two most interesting were the Grange hall when I lived in Sedalia, Colorado, and the Johnstown Town Hall when I lived outside of Janesville, Wisconsin. Both were small precincts. The poll workers had worked the elections for years, and they knew just about everyone who walked in the door by their first names. Coming to vote in those places was fun. It was a social time, a time to get a cup of coffee with your neighbors and gas about the kids, the high school football team and the crops.
Once, while waiting with my unmarked ballot in hand at the Sedalia Grange Hall, a fellow stuck his head in the door and asked loudly, “Is this where I’m supposed to vote?” The voting judge stared at him a moment, then blasted back, “Hell no, Harley, you vote up the road at the school. Now git!”
That judge inspired the election day story you are about to read, “My Name is Truman, T-H-O-M-P-S-O-N.”
* * *
This is where life started for James Early, in two short stories I wrote for a contest sponsored by the Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave in 2004.
Rereading these stories now, it’s interesting to see how Early has changed. He started out as Jim Early, a failed rancher turned lawman because he needed a job. He’s known to his closest friends as ‘Cactus.’ Why Cactus? Well, everybody has to have a nickname.
In the novel Early’s Fall, Early became James Early. Why, I don’t know. But I do know this, because he grew up in the county where he is now the sheriff, everybody’s known him for a lifetime, so his wife and his friends call him Jimmy—his childhood name. He was Jimmy as a kid and he’s Jimmy today. We never let our children grow up. Still to Early’s closest friends, he is, as he was in the short stories, Cactus.
In Early’s Winter, the second novel which you may see in about a year, Early becomes more sensitive about his name. An example: he makes it clear to a group of people he meets in Kansas City that he is James—the name his father and mother gave him—and not Jim or Jimmy. However, to his old friends he remains... well, you know.
I determined at the outset that Early would use his brain to solve crimes and talk to catch the criminals, that he wouldn’t use a gun. But it became clear as I wrote Early’s Fall, that since Early grew up on a ranch, his father would have trained him to be a dead shot—to kill rattlesnakes and coyotes. Second, it became clear that, because the book is set in 1949, Early would have been in World War II—a foot soldier, an infantryman—that he would have known killing intimately and would have absolutely abhorred the idea of doing it again. Yet it seemed to me that would not stop him from taking down his rifle or getting out his pistol when he had to go after someone he knew to be armed. Early is a man of contradictions.
The first short story, "Dead Pool," is a straight-forward who dunnit. But Early surprised me in "Big Dam Foolishness." Yes, he solves the murder, but he lets the murderer go because, despite the law, he believes the murder was a righteous killing. Early’s willingness to bend the law “for right reasons,” you just know one day that’s going to get him into deep, deep trouble.
Enough said. It’s time to open the two stories and enjoy the read.
© Jerry Peterson.