The Encounter – Part One

Dear Reading Friends,

I mentioned Alfred Packer, the Colorado Cannibal, in a scene for Sliced Vegetarian, but one of my writing group friends had never heard of him. The man killed five people in 1874, got away with the murder, and is in fact, buried in the Littleton Cemetery.  I found his stone and thought he would make for a good, “creepy” story character. Heh, heh, heh. Part one of the story is today’s “treat.”  The second, ending part, will follow next week.  Thanks for reading, and Happy Halloween!

The Encounter

Nineteen Ninety-three.

Dry leaves swirled over a dusting of snow that covered the gravestones off Prince Street. They danced eastward in the night through the wrought iron fence of the cemetery and into the road where children trudged in search of Halloween treats.

An old man, dressed in cowboy duster and hat appeared and sat on the short retaining wall that played foundation to the fence. He leaned back into the rails to watch the trick-or-treaters and laughed for no apparent reason. The children ignored the giddy old guy and stayed on the other side of Prince.

Alfred Packer's grave at Littleton Cemetery Then, the cowboy saw two youngsters, a little bigger than the other children walk right up.  At first the man thought they might pass by without a word to him, as if he were invisible. But then again, maybe…

“Hey old man,” said the smaller of the two.  “Trick or treat.”  His voice was soft, almost respectful.  He wore a suit and tie and the old man looked at the kid for nearly a minute before replying.

“Who are you supposed to be?  I don’t see no costume on you.”

The kid laughed.  “This is my costume.  I’m Fox Mulder, get it? The X-Files?” He turned a glance toward his companion.  “And here’s the alien Fox is always finding.”

A goofy laugh erupted from behind a standard monster mask.

“Good show, don’t you know it,” said the old guy.  “Have you ever seen the movie “Natural Born Killers?” Though, come to think, you might be a bit young for that one jus’ yet.”

The boys looked at each other.  The cowboy could tell they’d like that movie, even if they hadn’t yet heard of it.  How could they have? Wasn’t due out for almost a year.  Just the same, he jabbed them where it might hurt. “Where’re your folks, Fox?”

The boy shrugged. “We’re too old to have babysitters.  ‘Sides, we have each other.”  He slung a careless arm around the monster with him.

“Ah, that you do.  Now, as to those treats—“

“Yeah,” said the alien.  “We like them sweet, and we like lots of them.”

“Oh, I don’t got no candy.  Would you settle fer the treat of a good story?”

“Man! Forget it!” said Fox. “Thought you might have something special, you being out here by yourself.” He stomped an angry foot. “Come on Alien boy. This old man’s a waste.”

“Wait!” cried the old cowboy. “I do, boy. My name’s Al and I am the best storyteller either side of the Rockies.  Come. Sit. My stories will treat you to your very soul.”

“I’m getting tired in this monster head anyway,” said Alien boy to Fox. “Can’t hurt to listen.”

Al held a breath as the kid in the business suit stared back at him.  The boy was not quite a teen, yet nowhere near having the spirit of a child. Al guessed he was about twelve, and that thought made the old man laugh again.

“You have a wild laugh,” said Alien kid, taking off the monster hood and sitting down next to Al.  He had the pre-teen gangly look about him too.  Wild, wiry hair and a largish nose would ensure the kid would get lots of teasing in high school, if it weren’t happening already. “Wish I could laugh like that.”

“For some, it takes years to get my jokes, boy.  For some, this kind of laugh comes all natural.”  Al laughed again and the boys tried to mimic him.  By this time, Fox too had perched himself next to Al. One on either side, Al draped an arm over each boy’s shoulders.

“Now, for the story. Ever hear of the Wild West?”

“Duh.” Fox folded his arms. “We like our ghost stories to be more exciting than that.”

“Okay. So you must know about the Colorado Cannibal.”

“Colorado Cannibal? What’s that?”

“Cannibal, boys, is a man ‘twood eat up to the very bones, the flesh of ‘nother man.”  Al let that thought seep in. “I knew such a cowboy once.  His name was Alferd Packer.”

“Never heard of him,” said Fox.

“I have!” said Alien boy. “My big brother told me about him.  He’s the guy who went out in the winter wilderness with a bunch of others, then he killed everybody with him and ate them up.  I love that story!”

Al smiled and ruffled Alien boy’s hair.  Cute kid. “That’s right, son. That’s right.  Now sit here and I’ll give you the details.

PART TWO NEXT WEEK

P.S. Let’s all keep the east coast in our thoughts.  Want to help? The Red Cross can always use your donations.

Doggie At The Door. . .And In Your Face

The fall has come, and with it, the annual trek of small children selling “great stuff” you didn’t know you wanted, all in the name of a “good cause.” Little Sawyer from across the street came with flyer and collection envelope in hand.  My, how he’s growing! A year ago, I think mom still hovered at the end of our sidewalk stage whispering Sawyer’s sales pitch to him, but this year he bravely came to the door, assumed I’d want some popcorn or chocolate covered pretzels at exorbitant prices, and jumped right in to selling and telling me how to fill in the form. What a cutie!

German Shepherd in place at front door

I’m ready for you!

Unfortunately, Prophet’s “kid radar” was on, and he jumped into the mix with enthusiasm.  Sawyer has always seemed to like Proph, but my guy has blossomed to 115 pounds since being put on steroids, and while there’s no question about biting, my visitors of the under four-foot variety can’t count on being lick-free when they come over.

Proph backed Sawyer into the corner, then against the now-closed front door, and then he shadowed my poor little neighbor as if Sawyer were covered in peanut butter. Oops!  And this from a “canine good citizen.”

Then it hit me.  I have company coming for Thanksgiving, and one of the members of the visiting group is a two-year-old named Colin. Oops and double oops! Time to look up some new dog-training.  Thank goodness for the internet and my small library of good dog books.

The behavior is called “door greeting,” and not “in-your-face-I’m-in-charge-here” attack. Okay, what can I do in one month?

  1. Find a place for your dog to go when the doorbell rings.  Dogs have a hard time learning negative thoughts, like “keep away from the door” or “no going on the furniture,” so its good to have a special place, creatively enough called “place” to help target them in the right direction.  Check.  I have a small mat from my local hardware for the purpose.  I put it near the front door, but not right at it.  I will allow Proph to peek out the front window, give his verbal hello (which for some reason intimidates strangers – heh, heh, heh), and then, when I come to the door, I’ll give the “place” command.
  2. Have a small leash at the ready — just in case.  Bought one at my local Wag-N-Wash.  It’s only about a foot long, so technically, I could leave it on Prophet all the time.  I prefer not to have it getting caught on furniture and knick-nacks, so I will put a hook in some discrete place near the front door.  Putting it on will be a good signal to Prophet he has to behave according to my rules–well maybe.
  3. Next is the hard one–commit to five minutes daily to work on the “place” command.  I’ll start with just opening the front door and getting Proph to stay in place while I wander in and out.  The important thing is to release him after a while with a “release” or “break” command.
  4. German Shepherd staying with open front door

    I’ll stay–If you make me.

    Increase the challenge. After he has the “place” command down with the open door, I’ll try to get people to come to the front door, ring the bell, talk with me–all while we ignore the elephant-in-the-middle-of-the-room syndrome. Or, in this case, the hundred-pound fur ball who wants nothing less than 100% of our attention. And for Proph, bad attention is as good as good attention. He just wants lots of it, all the time.

  5. Practice, practice! In just over a week, I will have a challenging dry run, as Halloween Trick-or-Treaters come to the door.  Ooh, can’t wait for that one. Last year, I had my special guy home to help when Proph ran out sniffing and loving all the vampires to kingdom come, getting the testosterone going among the hovering dads, and shrieks from the little princesses wandering about.  Talk about your Nightmare on Elm Street!  This year, Jay will be away for the evening.  IF I’m home, I’ll have this adventure to myself.  Think I’ll start that door-greeting trick right now!

Warning to visitors — this dog may not bite, but don’t count on getting away without a good sniff and lick.

Fragment? Way To Go.

Who knew that getting into the “technical” side of writing could be such a fascinating subject?  Punctuation, grammar, counting the number of words in sentences and on and on.  Did you notice I just slipped in a fragment sentence?

Stacked dishes

A complete sentence has a symmetry that is satisfying as a complete picture.

In today’s world of sharp and sloppy writing, few are going to judge something designed to thrill because it doesn’t have a proper “subject” and “predicate” structure.  Perhaps its the advent of texting that allows us to accept “No shit” or “BFF” as complete thoughts, and therefore complete sentences.  We don’t seem, as a culture, to have the patience for a long sentence.  I can see my special guy right now, tapping his foot; my mom snarling out “get to the point.”  We can no longer deal with a sentence like this from Jane Austin:

“Elizabeth passed the chief of the night in her sister’s room, and in the morning had the pleasure of being able to send a tolerable answer to the enquiries which she very early received from Mr. Bingly by a housemaid, and some time afterwards from the two elegant ladies who waited on his sisters.”  – Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austin

portion of stacked dishes

Fragment sentences leave you filling in the gaps. This can be exciting, if done well.

The above is by no means the longest sentence ever, but it packs a tremendous amount of information into a rather long bunch of fifty-four words.  In conference catalogues and ads, sponsors are often limited to fifty words or less to tell their complete story, not the first sentence of a chapter.

Am I lamenting the downfall of the English language?  Absolutely not.  I really appreciate Stephen King’s thought on sentence “frags:”

“Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought.  If your work consists of only fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away.”

But, to me, you use a fragment like you might a strong spice in cooking–sparingly and with distinct purpose.  I think frags draw attention to themselves, which, in itself, is a powerful tool.  You know going in what you’re doing.  However, if you draw attention to the writing too much, you run the risk of losing the story, don’t you? When a fragment draws attention to itself as much as to the story, you’re doing what “they” call “pulling the reader out.”

I can handle some of that.  In fact, I think of fragments almost as replacements for interjections:

“Can’t go. Mom said.”

“Bummer.”

“No shit.”

“Next time?”

“Sure. But have to finish my homework.”

“Okay. Bye.”

There wasn’t really a complete (or complex) thought in any of that dialogue, but moms everywhere get a sense for that interchange, and with our common cultural experiences, can even fill missing gaps with information of our own.

Would I want to write a whole story with these cut-off thoughts?  It would be a fun experiment, a good writing exercise; but I think fragments, handled badly, don’t get your point across.  They become the abstract painting that’s gone too far, and leave people frustrated in their efforts at guessing what the artist meant.

Where do fragments fall in your writing toolkit?  Are they friendly “frags” or obnoxious, disrespectful-of-the-rules, “fragments?”

Writing. Enjoy it.

______________

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