you have an army of Generals no one ever leaves the strategy tent
After breakfast, Thomas and Toni
were sitting on the second floor balcony of her house trying to decide what to
do that day. Thomas had not seen the angst-feeders going on a week now and so
was feeling much more relaxed about that. Even the snake in the woods was only
flashing into his thoughts every couple of hours now rather than every couple
of minutes. Maybe this was going to be a good summer after all, he thought.
Thomas was looking up over the
roof. Then he looked around at the other houses. “Why does every chimney have
what looks like a lid on it? I know that you should put a cap on a chimney to
keep out the birds and squirrels and such but all of these are in an upright
position. They aren’t covering anything. What are they for?”
Toni did not look up. “Don’t worry
about that. It’s nothing that you’ll ever need to concern yourself with, I’m
sure.” She paused for a bit and then said quickly, “What was something that you
did as a child that seemed really important at the time but now, looking back,
seems rather silly?”
Thomas momentarily still thought
about the lids and Toni’s evasive answer but then said, “When I was a child I
dug a small hole near the street in front of our house. I put on the bottom of
it red berries that I had carefully gathered from nearby bushes. I said
‘carefully’ because I believed those berries to be extremely poisonous, if not
the most deadly berries to be found on the earth. I never saw anyone eat these
berries and once I found a dead bird lying at the foot of the bush. If that
wasn’t convincing then nothing was.
“While I was dropping in the last
of the berries a girl slightly older than me came by. I told her that the pit
was a trap filled with poison and that anyone who stepped into it would die.
Without hesitation, she put her foot into it, waited a few seconds and said all
too glibly, ‘That’s just stupid. There’s no poison there; see, I’m still
alive.’ and walked off. I stared after her expecting her to suddenly go rigid
and then fall over dead as an old tree branch. But when she disappeared around
the corner at the end of the block and I didn’t hear any screams I knew that I
“I was stunned speechless. I guess,
in a way, I knew in my heart that the berries weren’t really poisonous or at
least not the most poisonous on the face of the earth, but I could live with
that as part of the game. But to have someone so demonstrably shatter my
illusion left me with nothing but a hole with squashed berries. How could I go
on? There was nothing left. The game was over far too soon. Whereas before, I
could make believe, now the whole thing just seemed dopey. After she smugly
walked away and disappeared I quickly pushed dirt back into the hole and patted
the top smooth. I even scattered a few stones to make it match the rest of the
area. I certainly didn’t want to leave any evidence of my obvious stupidity.
on the ground for quite a while with my birdie legs sticking out of my overly
large, brown, baggy shorts. My plans for the morning—building traps—were laid
to waste, buried beneath the newly patted earth.”
asked, “Why was it even such a big deal? OK, the trap didn’t really work. So
what? What were you expecting to trap anyway?”
guess that I had envisioned some stranger with no good on his mind canvassing
the neighborhood with some evil to perpetrate. He would then accidentally step
into my clever trap. (It was going to be disguised, of course.) The poison
would quickly penetrate his shoes and socks, diffuse into his skin, and rapidly
contaminate his blood. He would gasp for air, his heart would race a few times,
his eyes would bulge, and then he would fall over with his foot still stuck in
my hole. The neighborhood would be saved from this scourge and everyone would
know that it was my doing. I had protected lives and possessions. My life would
have had taken on a greater purpose than plastic soldiers and tiny dump trucks.
This was to have been my launching pad to rise above commonality.
“Rather ambitious for—what—a six-year old? But a
too-smart-for-her-own-self girl had to ruin it all with reality.” Thomas looked
as glum and disappointed just then as he probably did those seven years
bet,” said Toni, “you still hope for some version of that scenario to play out
some time in your life.”
decided to give Russell and Sarah a call and meet at the park. Sarah would make
something for lunch and they would all find a picnic table.
down in the kitchen Sarah asked Thomas, “Do you like fresh mozzarella and
grilled eggplant sandwiches with basil?”
bet!” answered Thomas almost licking his lips. “That would be great.”
we’re going to have peanut butter and jelly.”
An hour later all four of them were
all chomping down on the PB&J and talking about some of the happenings
been hearing rumors about some of the new people in town… and nothing has been
terribly good,” said Sarah.
you heard these rumors from people who shouldn’t be sticking their noses in
other people’s business?” chided Toni.
“Nooo,” said Sarah dragging out that word. “Actually, I’ve
heard the same thing from a number of different people. I don’t know any
specifics just that they’ve been having a bad influence on some.”
Just then Gary and several of his
friends went out of their way to walk close to the group.
Gary said with a smirk,
“So Russell, still tucking your T-shirt into your underwear?”
responded, “No, now I tuck it into my socks.” He smiled smugly at Gary whose smile
disappeared and then his mouth gaped like an open mailbox.
knowing when to stop at merely being a jerk Gary blurted out, “I bet you still wet your
Russell could top him again Thomas said, “Here’s a thought. Why don’t you
continue on to where you were going and we won’t disconcert you any further.”
Gary responded, “Yea, um,
well, we certainly wouldn’t want you to disconcert anyone. You might hurt yourself.”
He turned to his friends and they all gave a weak but confused laugh.
To which Thomas replied, “Something
At that Gary smirked and slightly tossed his head as
though he had won and he and his pack left. The group silently watched them leave.
“Every year I come back there is
always one thing that stays the same. Building get additions, shrubs fill in,
Toni’s mother’s cooking keeps getting better, but Gary remains a solid and immutable idiot,”
“Immutable?!” proclaimed Russell.
“What did you do, swallow a dictionary?”
“Let’s change the subject,” said
Toni. “The problem with people like Gary
is that they are insecure. They can’t stand on their own merits so they have to
build themselves up by inventing shortcomings in other people. They prop up
their own self-esteem by trying to make other people seem smaller than they
“Hey,” blurted out Russell, “I
don’t tuck my T-shirts into my underwear… or into my socks for that matter. And
I’m not small!”
“We know that,” replied Toni calmly
with a reassuring grin. “Maybe it was a bad example. Gary is so insecure that he tries to get your
goat by making things up. But the best thing that you can do is what you did;
don’t insult him back but either show him that you aren’t bothered by it or top
him by making his comment even more ridiculous. In other words, keep your goat
content and he won’t get it.”
Sarah jumped in, “But it is hard to
keep your goat content when the wolf is growling at the gate.”
Toni replied, “Than trust your goat
to the safety of the shepherd who watches over it.”
“Huh,” said Sarah looking very
“If you know that God accepts you
then why do you care about the wolf?” asked Toni.
“True enough,” replied Sarah.
With the situation having been
defused and with Russell wanting to discuss anything else he turned to Thomas,
“So, you make up any new riddles this last year?”
Thomas smiled coyly, “I’ve got a
Toni perked up, “A few! So give us
Thomas agreed, “OK, here goes. This
first one is easy.”
“I hate when someone says that,”
interrupted Sarah, “then if we don’t get it we really look stupid.”
Thomas chuckled, “I have hands but
no fingers, a face but no nose. I make noise but have no throat. I am a
grandfather but have no children. Sometimes I have feet but even then I cannot
walk. Who or what am I?”
Sarah spoke first, “Without
fingers, a nose, a throat and cannot walk so then you are either inanimate or a
very low life form.”
“Russell,” Toni gently scolded.
“Well, I didn’t say which one he
is,” said Russell.
Toni ignored him, “Only people can
Russell jumped in excitedly, “or
clocks.” He then grinned knowingly.
Thomas pointed to Russell. “You win
Russell smiled broadly and looked
down but it was obvious that he was quite pleased.
“So what’s another?” asked Toni
wanting to win one. “But make this one a little harder.” As if to imply that
she had that puppy by its ears all along but held back.
“OK, here goes. I am all around
you. You can’t get away from me no matter how far you go. You can’t escape me
in outer space or in the deepest ocean. I can be different colors and shapes.
You can never see me all at once. Without me you would die. Who or what am I?”
that one is harder,” said Sarah.
“I’m sure that we’ll get it,” said
Toni with firm assurance. “Let’s just take it apart. First what is all around
“Air,” Russell blurted out.
“Light,” added Sarah.
“Oxygen,” said Russell and then his
eyes shifted to the side and his lips pursed. “That would basically be the same
as air, I guess.”
“Anything else?” asked Toni. There
was a pause. Then she said, “What about atoms, molecules, electrons?”
Sarah jumped in, “And bacteria and
Thomas tried to suppress a clue of
“By that near smile,” put in Toni,
“I’d say that we’re on the wrong path.”
“I didn’t say anything,” protested
Thomas still grinning. “Maybe I grinned because you are on the right path.
Maybe I grinned because I’m thinking about sour cream, green onion potato
“You didn’t have to say anything,”
Toni remarked. “And besides, that was not a potato chip grin. I know your
potato chip grin and that was not it.”
“OK, OK. Do you want a hint?”
“We don’t give up that easily,”
“So let’s look at this from a different
angle.” Toni was determined not to give in. “Maybe it’s something abstract.
We’re surrounded by information, sin, goodness, knowledge, life, death. Do any
of those fit? What else?”
Sarah questioned, “But none of that
comes in different colors.”
Toni thought hard, “OK, you’ve got
a point. Let’s go from a supernatural viewpoint. We’re surrounded by God,
angels, and demons. Do any of those work?”
Sarah replied, “You could probably
remove angels and demons and we’d still live.”
Russell chimed in, “But if you
remove God we would die. So maybe God’s the answer.”
Thomas responded, “In a way, you
can say that God is always the answer. But in this case, nope, because…”
Toni was back to setting the pace.
“Is there anything else that we are surrounded by?” She looked hard at Russell
to try and get a clue.
“What are you staring at me like
that for? You’re creeping me out. Stop it.”
“Clothes,” said Toni firmly. “We’re
all surrounded by clothes.”
“You’re getting closer,” put in
“You hush,” said Toni quickly. “We
don’t want any hints cause if you give us a hint then when we get it you’ll
claim that it was a tainted victory.” She stared some more at Russell. He
didn’t care for this scrutiny and squirmed in his seat. But he thought that she
must be on to something.
Toni continued slowly. “Hair. Cells.” At this Thomas
shifted. Toni cast a quick glance at him and then narrowed her gaze on Russell.
Russell was about to yell out “Stop it!” again when Toni said, “Skin.” Then she
paused. You could see her eyes shifting back and forth as if reading each line
in the puzzle to see if it fit. Then she cried out, “Skin. That’s it. It fits.
The answer is skin.” She sat up straight and looked around at everyone. Russell
Thomas pointed at Toni. “You win
Toni seemed quite satisfied. It did
not make any difference if she got any more – she had gotten one and that was
Sarah whined. “Oh, come on. One more. You’ve got to have at least one more.” Sarah
surely did not want to be the only one who did not take home a prize.
“OK, since you’re being so
pitiful.” Sarah tightened her mouth and looked hard at Thomas. He merely
snickered. “Here goes. When you eat this you feel ashamed. Most people have far
too many of them. Oftentimes the same thing in a different country is useless
to you unless someone can help you. Some are big and some are small. Most you
are familiar with but occasionally you’ll come across one that you don’t know.
What am I?” Thomas sat back and crossed his arms. He knew that this was going
to take a while.
Russell leaned forward onto the
table. “I know that answer to that one. It’s easy.” He paused to savor the
moment and also to ensure that no one else had figured it out that quickly.
After all, if he gave everyone a few more seconds and they still couldn’t come
up with it then he did not just win; he conquered. After glancing around at
everyone he said, “Words. The answer is words.” He grinned with great
Thomas’ arms fell limp. “How… how
did you get that one so quickly? I thought that you all would take a really
long time on that one.”
“I should know because I’m eating
my words all of the time.” Russell crossed his arms high up on his chest and
looked away as if he were a Goliath among children.
Thomas said just above his breath,
“I need dumber friends.”
“Hey,” shouted Toni.
Thomas could see that Sarah was
looking pouty so he said, “Ok, one more and that’s
it. Here it is. Sometimes you get into me and sometimes I get into you. You
can’t burn me, but I can burn you. But sometimes when something else burns you
I can be soothing. I am powerful enough to move huge objects, but you can hold
me in your hand. Who or what am I?”
Sarah said, “Wait, wait, I think
that I’ve got this one.” Everyone looked at her. There was a very long pause.
Sarah squirmed and fidgeted. More silence and then she put her head down.
Thomas looked past everyone and
said in a low voice, “Look over there in the parking lot next to the
Sarah said firmly, “No, no hints. I
can get this one.”
“No,” said Thomas, “that’s not a
hint. I mean look over there but don’t be too obvious.”
Of course, they all turned at once
and stared at the parking lot. A car that was sitting for a while a few
buildings down had started up and discretely pulled in behind the Laundromat
and stopped. A tall man emerged from a doorway and opened the passenger door
and got in. The group could see the two momentarily lean in close to each
other. Then the car backed out and left.
“Who was that?” asked Thomas.
“Which one?” said Russell.
“Either one,” responded Thomas.
“I’ve seen the tall guy a couple of
times,” said Russell. “I never liked his looks. He seems to be hanging around
Terese—I don’t know her last name—a lot. She’s the one who works down at the
financial office building a few blocks down. He’s one of those new people in
town that we were talking about earlier.”
Toni added, “Does he work at the
Laundromat? Was she picking him up from work?”
Russell said, “Picking him up is
certainly an appropriate phrase. No, he doesn’t work at the Laundromat. The Jamisons have owned that for years and only members of
their family have ever worked there. I know the whole clan and none of them
look like that guy. Actually I think that he works at the same place as
“So it’s a stealthy rendezvous,”
concluded Thomas. “This smells like a dead fish.”
“If she’s the person that I’m
thinking of,” Toni remarked, “then isn’t she married?”
“She is indeed. As a matter of
fact,” continued Russell, “She has been different the last month or so. She’s
been more belligerent and if I ask her how she’s doing she
just snaps back ‘fine.’ I don’t think that she’s been in church lately either.”
“Well, you’ve been quite the
detective regarding the woman Terese, haven’t you, Russell?” asked Thomas
with exaggerated suspicion.
Russell turned scarlet, “Just being
observant, I guess.”
“Un, huh,” said Thomas.
watched the car go down the block but before it turned the corner it stopped.
The passenger door opened and the man got out. He stood straight up and stared
motionless back at the group. Sarah and Russell who had twisted around to watch
all of this suddenly snapped forward again so that their backs were to the car.
They moved so quickly that they almost wrenched their backs. They sat there
stiffly staring into the bushes as though they expected to be shot. They did
not breathe. The other two diverted their eyes—as though he could see that
far—but kept the car in the corner of their vision.
whispered, “If he starts coming towards us, we need to bolt. Head towards the
gazebo but then duck around the restrooms instead—he’ll lose sight of us—and
then circle around and hide on the other side of the bleachers.”
agreed or disagreed. Everyone was afraid to move or breathe. They even feared
that he maybe he could read lips so no one else talked. Russell could feel his
shirt getting wetter by the second.
And then the
man got back into the car and it drove out of sight to the left.