MR. CASTEN’S CLUTTER

Stuff, by Rich Paschall

Only his neighbor Jorge knew the old guy was sick.  In fact, Mr. Casten had been failing for almost two years.  Whenever Jorge saw the old man, he asked if there was anything he could do to help.  When Mr. Casten was not seen for a week, Jorge would go knock on his door.  If the old guy felt well enough he would stand in the doorway and talk for a while.  If it was morning, he would invite Jorge in for a cup of coffee.

By the time Casten had passed away, Jorge probably knew him as well as anyone.  Their little chats on the stairs, in the doorway or at the kitchen table revealed a lot about an old guy who had lived alone in the same small apartment most of his adult life.  The place was stuffed with memories and memorabilia.

Mr. Casten had collected and saved things throughout life, but in the last few years he tried to de-clutter his small existence.  He gave things away to charity resale shops.  He sent pictures he had from his parents on to other relatives.  He even sold some items on eBay.  It was all too late to clean up the house, however.  Mr. Casten’s small efforts were not enough after a lifetime of accumulation.

Since there were no siblings, no children, no mate, the matter of cleanup and disposal was left to a crew of cousins.  Jorge know just who to call as Mr. Casten had prepared a list of contacts in case of his untimely demise.  Although Mr. Casten was only in his late 60’s, his death arrived right on schedule the way Jorge saw it.  Mr. Casten has gone as far as he could.

When the cousins arrived one Saturday morning to clean out the apartment, Jorge was waiting with the key that had been entrusted to him by Mr. Casten.  Four cousins and two of their teen age sons figured they would make fast work of the four room apartment.  They figured wrong.

“Oh my, who knew one person could collect so much stuff,” cousin Raymond declared.  “This could take all day!”

“Mr. Casten said to tell you guys to be sure to take for yourselves anything you want, then give anything else that is still good to charity.”

“And did you take something, Jorge?” cousin David said in a rather accusing tone.

“Yes,” Jorge replied calmly.  “I took the coffee cup he always gave me to drink out of.  It was the only thing I wanted.”

“Well, I heard he had a good baseball card collection,” cousin Jeff chimed in.  “I would like to have that if we can find it.”

“He’s got a lot of CDs here,” Raymond said in amazement.  “I think I will see what I need.”

“Hey dad,” one of the teenagers shouted out to David.  “He’s got a lot of DVDs. I am going to see if he has anything decent to watch”

As they randomly picked through the goods, cousin John grabbed one of the teenagers and said, “Let’s get to work.  With those guys working so hard out there, we will never get out of here!”

So John and a bored teenager went to the kitchen in search of large garbage bags.  “Under the sink,” Jorge instructed.

Armed with a box of bags, Jorge, John and the teenager went to the bedroom to empty closets and drawers.  John told the teenager to take everything in the closets and put it in bags for donation.  If it looked in bad shape, he should put it in a separate bag for the garbage.  John decided to do the same with the dresser.

As John and Jorge took items from the dresser, they found many new things in each drawer.  There were clothes with tags, new socks and underwear in packages, pajamas that were never worn and sweaters that looked new.

“I thought the old guy could not afford much,” John said in amazement.

“I think he was always afraid of running out of something,” Jorge said.  “He told me more than once that he was afraid to be poor and have nothing, so he kept everything and did not use anything until he needed it.”

“If he lived another 10 years he would not have to buy any clothes,” John said somewhat incredulously.

“Yeah, I think that was the idea,” Jorge noted.

Mr. Casten’s mother had grown up in the Great Depression.  She had nothing, so in her adult life she saved everything.  Anything that had value or possible use, she would save for whenever she might need it.  Of course, she had many things she never used, but they were there “just in case.”

When Casten was young, he knew they did not have much and he saw how his mother managed to get through the years with what they accumulated.  He naturally took on the same habits.  While everything may have seemed a jumbled mess to outside observers, especially cousins who never came to call, it was an organized home for Mr. Casten.

After many runs to the resale shop and the outside garbage cans, the crew had made a good deal of progress.  John declared he would return with one of the boys to finish the job the next day.

“That box in the corner marked pictures should also say ‘Cousins’ on the top,” Jorge remembered to tell them. “You should take that with you.”

“What would we want with a box of old pictures?” David said rather sarcastically.

So Jorge explained that collection.  “Mr. Casten thought that maybe someone would want to see them at a wake or service to remember how he looked, since he had not been invited to any family event in years.  I would guess you guys would be in a lot of those pictures from long ago.”

The cousins said nothing.  John grabbed the box on the way out.

Jorge closed the door.

See also: “The Accumulation of Stuff,” Reducing Clutter

IS THERE LIFE WITHOUT COMPUTERS?

You see stuff online — Facebook mostly — about “could you live in this lovely (log cabin) house (in the middle of really nowhere) without WiFi? And everyone says “Oh sure! I could live in that great little house — in the middle of a huge woods by a cold lake where the nearest shopping center is 50 miles on dirt roads — forever without so much as a VOIP phone.

Sure you could. NOT.

I know I couldn’t and wouldn’t even want to try. Because that’s not life or at least not my life.

There was a time when I could imagine a life without computers. I think that was before I owned a computer, before every house everywhere had one or many computers. Before every single thing in the house got “connected” and computerized in some way. Before your toilet got so smart you have to argue with it about the whole “flushing” thing. Before we had things in the house that you could talk to and would more or less would run your house for you, even if you weren’t there personally.

To be clear, I don’t have any of those super smart appliances because while I dearly love WiFi, if the power is out I need to know the toilet will flush anyway and the refrigerator will keep the food cold as long as I don’t open the door. I want to be smarter than my toilet or refrigerator. Call me crazy, but I like to keep at least one leg up on life.

Yeats in Sligo
Yeats in Sligo

But life without any computers? Without a way to blog? Oh, I suppose I could use a typewriter …  but what would I do with it after that? There IS no blog without WiFi. And my wrists would not thank me.

Can I survive without Photoshop and Topaz filters? Without a Kindle? Or a GPS?

That sounds more like death than life.  A computer is not just email. It’s all kinds of communications and these days, it really IS communications. Pretty much all communications is electronic in one way or another. Photography and writing. Paying bills, shopping, and entertainment. Games. Keeping in touch with the world and the people in it, without whom life would be incredibly lonesome.

So if I must have a life without computers, I am probably dead. Unless there are afterlife computers. You know, from Comp-AfterLife.com? Those “special” computers so the undead can keep in touch?

“SCYTHE” BY NEAL SHUSTERMAN – ARC OF A SCYTHE, BOOK 1

Scythe By: Neal Shusterman

Audiobook narrated by: Greg Tremblay
Book 1: Arc of a Scythe

Every day, Audible.com (part of the Amazon group), offers one book at a huge discount. Often it’s an older book or a classic which, if I missed it along the way, I may buy. Sometimes, I read it years ago, so listening to it in Audio can be a treat … like a movie with all the “action” in my own head. More often, it will be the first book in a series. Pay a few dollars for the audiobook, get hooked, and then you will buy the rest of them. I’ve gotten into a lot of really good series this way and I like it because I run out of books rather more often than I would like. Also, as the years have gone on, I’ve gotten pickier about what I want to read. The world has gotten so outrageous and kind of terrible, I’m looking not for great literature, but for entertainment. If it is going to inform me, it is also going to amuse me or I simply won’t read it.

Scythe is Neal Shusterman’s first entry into a series called, as it turns out, “Arc of a Scythe” and it’s about (you guessed it) the guys who go out and kill people for a living. Humankind, in this world, has perfected medicine. No one dies of disease or disaster. Whatever happens to you — including having your spine snapped or falling off a 120 story building — they can fix you. People age, but very slowly.

No one has to work particularly hard because a giant computer — the Monsterhead (it was a cloud, but it grew to godlike proportions) has taken over the care, feeding, and entire management of the human race. Also mankind was feeling a bit hinky about it in the beginning, the giant computer has been a pretty good god … rather a lot better than the old-fashioned ones from “The Old Days.”

But death … that was a problem. What with medicine having been perfected and no one dying of disease or age or accident, something needed to be done to keep the population in check.

And so a group of men and women were created to take care of this problem. Monsterhead — as a machine — did not feel equipped to handle killing people. He — or really “it” — felt this was a human job for humans to manage. The Scythes were born. A set of rules was created and people were scythed as needed. There wasn’t any particular reason for the reaping. Crime was gone because no one had any reason to be a criminal. Sometimes people who behaved dangerously or just badly were reaped because they were the kind of people who would have done themselves in anyway. More often, it was just … your turn. No reason, but your file came up and a Scythe came to your house and done you in. Quickly, with no fuss or mess.

Even in the most perfect of scheme, the can be “issues” and the Scythes are not perfect. They are Scythes now, but they were people first and a few of them are perhaps “over-eager” and enjoy killing too much. Some of them, in a need to make themselves eve more godlike than they already are — which is pretty godlike — grant too many favors. Reprieves, given for a year or sometimes forever for families of the Scythes themselves.

Being a Scythe is a powerful position not only because it brings death, but also because Scythes have essentially unlimited wealth to go with their power — and therein lies the rub.

This has turned out to be an interesting story and a pretty good mystery. I wasn’t expecting much. I love science fiction and fantasy, but so much of the newer material is the same old stuff. Tired old plots and tired old characters. This is something new and a little different. The plot is a standard mystery of who killed who and I’ve seen it before on a lot of cop shows over the years. But the setting is quite different and the world in which it is happening is nicely unique. I’m also glad it’s a series. Many of my favorite series seem to have run out and I’ve been looking for something new.

This is new. It’s nicely ghoulish, a tiny bit sexy (not much — don’t go looking for the hot parts because there aren’t any), and the world creation is not absolutely original, but pretty close. Actually, it reminds me somewhat of the world in “City” … but it takes place entirely on earth.

If you are intrigued by the idea of a horde of reaping Scythes as the wild card that will send you to whatever may lie on the other side, this is a good one. Well written, nicely narrated too. Available as a hardcover book from Amazon and probably other booksellers as well. A nice, well-written fantasy. No magic … just really super advanced computers which might just as well be magic.

Because:


British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated three adages known as Clarke’s Three Laws:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

 

IN HONOR OF HALLOWEEN – GARRY ARMSTRONG

A Halloween Special

Photography by Garry Armstrong

Poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Photo: Garry Armstrong
Photo: Garry Armstrong

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
A PSALM OF LIFE


WHAT THE HEART OF THE YOUNG MAN
SAID TO THE PSALMIST

TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream ! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real ! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal ;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way ;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle !
Be a hero in the strife !

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant !
Let the dead Past bury its dead !
Act,— act in the living Present !
Heart within, and God o’erhead !

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time ;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate ;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

THE FINAL WHAT?

When I saw “final” as the word of the day, I got a chill. In the past two weeks, I have lost at least three friends with more on the way. Not to mention that my email is full of warnings of: “This is the final hour! Send $3 now!”

I fondly hope this isn’t the final hour for all of us, but it has recently been the final hour for more than a few friends and loved ones.  I don’t know how many more are on the special waiting line. I’m hoping that Death is like the guy in Terry Pratchett’s books. Pragmatic, friendly and most of the time, there to give you a hand to find your right place.

It is a strange feeling watching your group of friends grow smaller day by day. My mother told me a long time ago that “You know you are old when you start to lose your friends.”

I thought it was the creepiest thing she ever said. Later, I read a version of the same idea in various books. Mostly memoirs by “famous people.” I thought “There is nothing to prevent this final loss. No money, power, or fame can change it in any way.” It’s not that I thought money, power, or fame would stop the progression of life toward its ending, but I hadn’t given it deep thought.

To a degree, that hasn’t changed. I am pragmatic. I care, but I’m not sticky about it. I’ve come close enough to that line to realize it is never as far away as we might think. Final is. Like life is.  So I don’t brood about it, accept it when news arrives, feel the absence of another person I loved. I get notes from friends about their husbands. From the family of friends. A few really good friends. Others are sick and getting sicker. There won’t be an end to this. Someday, I suppose I’ll be the note in someone’s inbox. I hope it will be a generous and kindly note that skips over my failures and all those times I’ve been an asshole. Try to remember the laughter and humor. It’s the part I worked hardest at.

After all these years, I still don’t know how I feel about this ongoing march from birth to that final hour. When I was in my twenties and we — our group — lost someone, usually to a car accident or another unexpected thing, it shook us badly. We were too young. It wasn’t supposed to happen … was it?

Now it is the way the world rolls.

Final.

Final days of the earth? Final years of democracy? Final end to everything in which I believed? Or just the inevitable shearing off of living people whose time was finished?

If this is final, what does that mean? The final what?

DIRECT CREMATION – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I was driving along I-95 in Connecticut when I spotted the billboard for “Direct Cremation.”

cremation with confidenceTraffic was just slow enough for me to read a few lines of the pitch. It promised no fuss, no delays, no middle men, red tape … and a money back guarantee if unhappy with service. I wasn’t sure who’d get the money back.

I started laughing over Marty Robbins and “El Paso” playing on the oldies CD. I was still laughing when Marty’s gunfighter died in the arms of his young sweetheart. Instead of a tearful funeral and the strains of “Streets of Laredo,” maybe the gunfighter should have had direct cremation. No muss, no fuss, no mournful Boot Hill farewell.

Direct cremation may be the latest answer to a world of violence. Mob hits, drive by killings, gang bang slayings with collateral damage. Stressed out serial killers and contract button men doing “jobs.” The bodies just keep piling up. Medical Examiners are overworked and cemeteries are running out of room. The U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, only give each citizen a whopping $242 per body. What to do?

Direct cremation!

Speaking of overworked medical examiners, I’m reminded of a story I covered in Boston.

72-garry-cemetary-ma-10072016_129

72-Cemetary-OIL-Autumn-Uxbridge-GA_049

Goes back 40 plus years. The county medical examiner was, if you’ll excuse me, “under the gun” with some of his findings. He didn’t look like Quincy, Ducky, or even the sexy Lacey from the “Castle” series. He was a sad, tired, bleary-eyed man in the autumn of his years.

Your favorite intrepid reporter (me) was on the scene. The M.E. was momentarily diverted so I could check the autopsy lab and the morgue. I found the controversial corpse and made a cursory examination. I confronted the M.E. about his findings on the case. He insisted the victim was stabbed to death. I asked him about the several large bullet holes I’d just found. He was speechless.

Direct cremation would have avoided a lot of controversy and embarrassing questions. It’s an idea whose time has come.

THE NEXT TO LAST STOP

The Inconvenience Store, by Rich Paschall

It was a peaceful summer evening.  The sun had just set.  The air was warm and the light breeze was refreshing.  Jorge had walked three blocks from his small apartment to the local convenience store for a Big Drink and Big Sandwich combination.  He had little food at home and did not feel like making anything anyway.  It felt good to take a walk on such a pleasant evening.  There was nothing quite like summer in the city.

There were a few others in the small store but Jorge paid no attention to them.  He went directly to the soft drink machine and then on to the Sandwich Stop.  After he made his selection, he noticed there was a bit of a commotion at the front of the store.

Three young men rushed in.  They looked like they were in their late teens or early twenties.  Two were tall and wearing white t-shirts and baggy shorts.  The third was a large guy wearing a black sleeveless shirt with some design Jorge could not make out, and black baggy jeans.  The big guy was also carrying a machine gun or automatic rifle.  Jorge was unfamiliar with weapons and was not too sure.

Do Not Cross
Do Not Cross

“Don’t anyone move,” the big guy commanded.  “Don’t anyone make a sound neither, not a sound.”

One of the others told the cashier to give him all the money if he wanted to live, and the third thief looked down all the aisles to see if anyone was hiding or there might be trouble there.  The few people in the store had not moved.  The aisle checker then stopped at the cooler and reached in for a twelve pack of beer, but paused like he did not know if he should steal it.

“Just take it,” the big guy shouted, “and let’s go.” He grabbed the beer and the thief at the counter only collected a small amount of money which he put in a backpack.

As they prepared to leave, there was a small whimper from the next aisle from where Jorge was standing.  In response, the big guy sprayed the aisles with bullets.  Jorge hit the floor.  There was a sharp burning sensation in his abdomen.  His head was groggy and he could not make himself move at all.  He slowly drifted away from the conscious world.

The cashier gasped and as the big guy got to the door he turned and sent a few shots in the direction of the cash register.  The convenience store worker had already hit the floor and shots went over the top of him and heavily damaged the display behind the counter.

As the thieves got to their car, the police were pulling up to the lot.  The cashier had set off a silent alarm when the trouble started and the response had finally arrived.  There was an exchange of gun fire as the young men were able to get in the car and out of the lot, with a squad car in pursuit.

police car

Two officers wearing bullet proof vests had their guns out and cautiously entered the store.  The cashier saw them in a monitor high on a wall and shouted, “Help them, help them.”

One officer carefully went around the counter to find the cashier lying on the floor.  He approached slowly with his gun pointed at the young man.  He had to be sure it was not a trick.  Finally he helped the trembling cashier to his feet.

The other officer looked down the aisles and immediately called for medical attention for multiple victims.  He searched the aisles before going over to one of the victims.  By the time he checked to see if the first one was alive, more police were in the store and in the parking lot.  One ambulance came onto the lot closely followed by another.  A police officer outside was now obviously taking charge of the scene and ordering onlookers away.  Paramedics rushed into the store and observed pools of blood in two different aisles.  There was a lot of damage caused by the bullets of just one man.

The next thing Jorge was aware of feeling was the burning of his stomach.  It was the sharpest pain of his life.  His head was heavy and he could not open his eyes.  It seemed, however, that he was now lying on his back, rather than face down on the tile floor of the convenience store.  In his stupor he could not tell where he was or even if he was alive.  He drifted off again.

Three adults were taken to The Resurrection Hospital.  It was the closest trauma center.  The Catholic hospital had become familiar with treating gunshot wounds.  It seems they saw someone every week who had been gunned down.  The victims may have suffered from a gang dispute, domestic violence, armed robbery or were just innocent bystanders.  The increase of guns had brought an increase of  gunshot victims to the Emergency Room.

Sometimes the medical staff could do little more than call the chaplain to say a prayer.

Back at the convenience store was one more victim.  A ten-year old boy was going to be taken directly to the morgue.  He would not whimper again.