Category: Blog




A short story by Phil Cline


She climbed up on his lap, snuggling her little bottom right down on him, her arms around his neck, giggling “my big, big man, my big sweetie O.”


Sonisay is happy today.  A little flushed.  Happy and indulgent.  Again. Free with her kisses, her snuggles, her shy smiles, her little laughs at nothings.


He never said it out loud, but he always thought of her as his little porcelain doll. Oriental, fragile and prettily painted, artistically though, nothing natural about her. They met in San Francisco at one of the weekly street fairs. She appeared shy. He, worldly.  He offered to buy her a cool drink at one of the sidewalk vendors. Then he offered to spike it with something a little stronger. She giggled and then scrunched up her face at the strong taste.  Cute.  That smile again.


She was magic for him given his time of life.  And his being alone again.  Took him back to the time before the troubles. All the way back to Saigon. Just a boy. Eighteen-year-old Marine. And the dark bars and all the little dolls sitting at the tables talking to soldiers.  Then the countryside and the jungle and the secret patrols across the border and the bullets and bombs and boobytraps.  Before he rotated back stateside.  And the years passed.  Then the loss.  And the wandering after his wife passed.  The bitterness.  And then he found Sonisay.  And she had worked for a while.


But then he started to sense things behind her delicate little happy moods.


Gary sometimes regretted his sensibilities. He had a way of picking up on patterns in people. He always knew when something had happened, and he knew if he just waited and watched, listened, it would not be too long until he figured out what they had done or suffered or endured. And what they might do.  Even if he really didn’t care to know.


This extra sense in him had, since he was a child, operated independently of his wishes or his ambitions.  In school it allowed him to avoid bullies and trouble.  He just knew what was coming.  It helped him stay out of the principal’s office.  He did the bad things, the same bad things, as the other kids. But he was never caught.  He often watched, curiously as they endured the sanctions for their misbehavior. They did the same as he but were almost always caught.  He never was.


His anticipation, his reads, had made him a good center fielder in high school. He always knew where the ball would be as soon as the batter stepped into the pitch, the bat swinging.  Even before the crack of the ball hitting the bat, he was racing in the direction he knew the ball would be hit.


And in the war, when a rustle in some bushes, having to move fast without thinking, and a step in the wrong direction could mean getting his legs blown off, he had always instinctively chosen the right direction. And made it back home.  Intact.


Later in life, after the war, it had made him a good lawyer. He could read witnesses and other lawyers like a poker player reading the “tells” of an opponent.  He could anticipate and follow their actions from their patterns. It gave him extra time and the confidence to adjust his own approach.  They were inevitably surprised, often angry, forever resentful, at how he always seemed to be prepared for their tactics, for what they had thought were such clever strategies.


He also knew this sense of his could be a curse.  Some things others were doing, one didn’t need or want to know.   In fact, often if things were just left unknown, it made for a happier life.  He had worked on suppressing, sometimes, what he was picking up on.  He was older now and could live with a lot of things. Just take the good from a situation and not dwell on the undercurrents too much.  Ignore them.  “Be happy”, the song said. Don’t pay close attention and “Be Happy”, he repeated to himself, in the lilting cadence of the tune.


He smelled Sonisay’s hair.  Always so clean, but still retaining the musky smells of the dishes she cooked.  Cambodia. The home country.


In profile her lashes, subtly enhanced, blinked as if in a slow-motion film, the little glitter she affected on the eyelids flicking in the light.  Her make-up made her more pale than natural, it was barely there, but there nevertheless, carefully restrained.  Her lips had no fullness to them. None.  Almost like they were the scars of a hungry childhood before the boats, and the endless paths and journeys from Asia to the dream, this land a dream, a fantasy, from the stories repeated to her so many times in the hungry transient huts, the warehouses, the docks. Dream and survive.


His hand strayed to her waist and she moved it up to her breast and burrowed down in his embrace.  Looking at a small envelope in her hands.


“What is that?” Gary inquired, as he squeezed her small breast once and then returned his hand to her waist.”


“Just my tickets.”




“Ankle Chains. They have their concert tonight. Tonight’s the night.  Going with Linda and Madison.  They’ll pick me up about Eight. I have to go back to my bungalow now. I need to get ready.”


“Yes, I remember.  You really like the music that well?  All that loud screaming?  I can give you all the albums.  You don’t have to go to a concert. Lots of gang guys there.  Tough crowds follow that band. Could get rough.”


“It will be fun!  And you buy me so much already.  I got these tickets on my own.  From the office pool.  You said it would be okay.”


“I did. But you should be careful.”


“I will, I will. I promise!”


There it was. A little panic in her voice as she sprang to her rebuttal.  A little too anxious.  She’s twenty-eight. School girls panic over the danger of missing concerts, not grown women, even little flowers like Sonisay.


He knew. He had been ignoring the signs for a couple of weeks, now. But he knew.  His sense had noted the pattern, mapped the signs.  His mind had been disciplined enough to ignore what he knew. But it was there.  Now it was just figuring out who it was. Did he really want to know?  What would it matter?  She was going to move in with him next week.  Be with him all the time.  Be his, he supposed.  Did it really matter?


“Well, get going.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”


She jumped up and giggled as he gave her little rump a firm slap.


“But don’t come over too early,” she said.  “We will be late with all the parking and driving and talking.”


And she was gone.


He picked up the phone.  Dianne. Healthy, farm fed, brought up on a dairy in the central valley.  Dianne. It had been over a year.


“You doing anything tonight?


“Nothing at all.  How about I come over.  Fix you some spaghetti?”


“Sounds great.”


Dianne was no hassle.  Good at talking and good at shutting up sometimes. No sitting on laps.  No giggles or long eye lashes.


She showed up. She went right to the kitchen.    She prepared the food quickly and efficiently. Banging some pans, loudly mixing up the sauce, big spoon scraping the bowl.  Serving it with slap and dash.  Big hunk of French bread.  Hard crust. Toasted a touch.  The food was good. She gathered the dishes, dumped them in the sink.  Ran water for them to soak and then plopped down next to him on the couch to watch T.V.


Later they undressed and made love. Mostly satisfying.  Unhurried and without pressure and then she dozed off, her head resting in the crook of his arm, snoring quietly. She had said nothing about herself.  He had not asked.  He knew she worked hard at the store. Check-out clerk.  Had a little girl at home probably being babysat by the grandmother. But he hadn’t inquired, and she hadn’t offered.  He woke at three to use the rest room.  The bed was colder.  She had left without waking him.


At ten the next day, he drove across town.  Parked on the street.  Six bungalows arranged along a sidewalk, three on each side.  Hers was the first on the right.  He walked into Sonisay’s kitchen.  Jess, from the bungalow across the way, was there eating a donut and drinking coffee.  Good guy. A tour in Afghanistan.  Would be going to the police academy in the fall. Gary had written him a letter to help him get in.  He and Sonisay were both laughing.


She jumped up and leaped up into Gary’s arms.  He was still strong.  Could hold her up, but certainly not forever.  He let her slip down his arms and she pressed her body to his as she slid down and gave him a quick kiss on the chin.


Jess watched, amused, a pleasant smile on his young face.


“Good time at the concert?”  Gary asked Sonisay, as he moved to the refrigerator, got a glass of orange juice and joined Jess at the kitchen table.


“Oh God, we had such a great time!  We laughed and sang, it was great.”


And she went on for some time, describing the band, the shouts, the cheers, the songs and the rock of the place.  He waited patiently, watching Jess tapping the edge of his cup with the nail of his forefinger all the while nodding his head almost imperceptibly at Sonisay’s description. And her enthusiasm.


Finally, she ran down.


“So, who was there?”


“Oh, you know. Everybody.  The girls and all the ones from work. And Linda and Madison got kind of bombed but we were all so laughing  . . .”


Jess had stayed quiet.


Gary looked over at him.  The nail quit tapping. He knew.


“You go, Jess?”


No answer.


Sonisay paused in the middle of the kitchen. Then moved on to the counter. It was quick. But Gary knew.


“So, what did you do afterwards, did you dance?”  And he saw Jess glance at her then back to the coffee mug. Tap twice on the edge.


“We danced a little, but we were home so early,” she said.


“You guys? You dance together?  You two went dancing?”


“We were all dancing.”


But he knew now.  And he felt tired of it all.  Tired of her. Sweet. Young. Exciting. Exotic. But not anymore. That part had gotten old.


Gary got up, left his glass on the table, and walked out the side door just off the kitchen. Sonisay followed.


“Gary,” she called.  “Gary, where you going? You all right?  Come back in. We need to talk about the move.  To your house.  I’ve got the boxes. They’re in the other bedroom.”


Gary didn’t reply.  He just kept walking.   He had always preferred to disengage this way. Just leave.  Just walk away in the middle of the conversation.  Like leaving friends in a war zone and going home.  Everyone knew their time together was over.  And the reason.  So why prolong it?


He just kept walking. She was still calling him.  Jess was now standing just behind her.  Careful not to be too close.  In his mind, perhaps, it was still secret.  Gary got in his car.  Looked at her standing in driveway next to the side porch.  He saw the tears filming her eyes.  Jess looking at him, then her, then him again.  Not quite sure what had happened yet.  Gary just didn’t care that much anymore.  He seemed to feel that way about lots of things these days.


He put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb.  Never looked at them again. Just left. That was best.


At Dianne’s place he walked in the back door and there she was, bent over, wearing some old pair of blue panties and a tee shirt. Reaching in the washer retrieving items, separating them and slinging some of them in the open dryer next to the washer.  An old Maytag.  Its white paint scratched and peeling.  Reliable. The sound of wet thumps hitting inside the steel tub.


She stood up and looked at him.  She smiled. A little sweaty.  No shower yet this morning.  Hair dirty and a mess.  She looked good to him.  He could hear the T.V. loud in the living room.  Cartoons with some inane song, kid’s voices, about turtles, he thought.


“Coffee’s on the stove, she said.  Go on in the kitchen.  Get your cup. I’ll finish this washin’ and be right in.


And she bent back over.  He contemplated her big ass for a moment.  No suspicious patterns over here. No feeling of knowing something was unsaid.  He looked at her ass again and then walked in the kitchen to find his coffee cup.












Morning Moon

Morning Moon

Morning Moon

by Phil Cline


Mist surrounds the morning moon

Hovering above night’s remainder,

Heaven’s pale reflection of regret.


Dawn waits wet residue to dry,

Moist women asleep, their legs languid,

Carelessly spread, left apart-by the departed.


The raucous evening’s promises redeemed

Foolish jocularity shortened by haste of

Dreaded day.  Here any moment now.


Friends hurry home,

New enemies scurry away,

Excess devolved to lonely stillness


The tinkling music of clinking glasses gone,

Dark wood bar wiped, band packed, smokes lit.

All’s mute, wary of another horizon.


Windows shuttered, doors locked,

Gates of iron bars chained and secure.

The night’s celebration contained.


We, the last souls out,

Standing on the street

Respectful of the silence.


A dog pats by on gentle paws,

Suspicious of what he smells,

Cautious of what he might disturb.


Fresno State

Fresno State

I have followed with interest the discussions regarding hateful tweets concerning Barbara Bush by a Fresno State college professor.  As expected the President of the College declined to do anything.  College presidents across the nation are not exactly distinguishing themselves with displays of courage and leadership no matter how embarrassing the conduct of their staff or students.  If you expect them to take a stand don’t wait outside in the rain.  You will expire of pneumonia before they take any definitive action.  Today a college presidency is more about public relations and fundraising than leadership.  Not sure “President” is a descriptive term for their role anymore.


Now to the tweets and the Constitution.


The first question is simple.  Was this a freedom of speech issue?  The First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, provides that no action of the government may “abridge freedom of speech.”  Nothing was done to her by the government.  Could there have been?


She is an employee of a public university that operates with public funding. It was something of a cop out to maintain she did this privately. There is no doubt she was speaking as a college professor.  She knows she is speaking as an employee of the college and even brags about the six-figure salary she is paid from the public treasury.  She even adds that tenure makes her untouchable.  She, therefore, according to her lights, can say what she wants to say, no matter how vulgar or hateful.  It is striking that she has so little regard for the hard-working people who pay the highest state taxes in the nation, people trying to make ends meet and feed their families, so she can lounge around lobbing F bombs.


Were Fresno State to proceed against her, because of its public status, it would constitute state action and, therefore, the protections of the First Amendment apply.


The next question is how far does the First Amendment go in protecting her as a public employee?


In 1892 the famous jurist Oliver Wendel Holmes, in addressing whether the speech of public employees could be restricted without violating the First Amendment said, “The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.  There are few employments for hire in which the servant does not agree to suspend his constitutional right of free speech, as well of idleness, by the implied terms of his contract. The servant cannot complain, as he takes the employment on the terms which are offered him.”


Holmes was a great legal mind, but his view, did not prevail.  Over the next century, the Supreme court sought to find a balance between the interests of the public employer in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees and the interests of the employee as a citizen. Generally, they upheld the right of the employee to speak out on matters of public interest.


In 1983, a little over a hundred years after Holmes pronouncement, in the case of Connick v Myers, the court upheld an employer’s right to dismiss an employee who engaged in speech activity that interfered with the operation of the public office.  But emphasized the speech activity did not rise to a matter of public concern. The case involved a deputy district attorney who was fired for attempting to organize a group of employees to complain about work assignments.  Justice White wrote, “When employee expression cannot be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community, government officials should enjoy wide latitude in managing their offices, without intrusive oversight by the judiciary in the name of the [First Amendment].”


He went on the state that the “…. balance requires full consideration of the government’s interest in the effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public.”


This line of cases reached its fulfillment in Rankin v. McPhersonin 1987 which has similarities to the present situation.  In that case, A clerical employee was fired for remarking after hearing of the attempted assassination of President Reagan, “if they go for him again, I hope they get him.”


Justice Marshall wrote the opinion of the court. In a close 5 to 4 ruling, the court held that the employee’s remarks were protected.  The majority determined the remark did concern a matter of public concern and in balancing the interests of the state in the “effective functioning” of the office against the employee’s interest in free expression, they came down on the side of the free expression. However, they found it important that this was a single off-hand comment to a co-worker.   Not sure what we heard from the professor was a single off-hand comment.


Justice Scalia wrote for the four justices who dissented from the ruling.  He said, “no law enforcement agency is required by the First Amendment to permit one of its employees to ride with the cops and cheer for the robbers.”


One further consideration in this area has not gotten a lot of discussion.  California has a mini “Hatch Act.”  A Hatch act prohibits active political campaigning by public employees under certain circumstances, especially while on duty.  The Supreme court has repeatedly upheld Hatch Act prosecutions.


Do we really believe that this is a private expression, that these same sentiments and worse have not been propounded in a classroom to a captive audience of public college students?

If so, (and it would be easy to find out and prove if there was a sincere interest on the part of the college administration to prevent such reprehensible conduct), the courts might not be so solicitous of her expressions.



The second major issue involves the evident encouragement and actual threats of violence the woman made. The leading case in the area comes from the Brandenburg case decided in 1969.   Brandenburg was a Klan leader who inartfully encouraged his followers to use guns to exact what he termed, “revengeance.”  I must say, from what I read, the college professor’s language skills appear to be about on a par with Mr. Brandenburg.


In Brandenburg, the court revised rules from a half century of supreme court decisions to form what is known as the Brandenburg rule.  It states that government may not suppress speech unless the speech is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”


There doesn’t appear to be an incitement to “imminent” lawless action by the professor. The timing is ambiguous.  Beyond that one has difficulty over the “likely” element.  After all, can we really imagine this disgusting woman waddling out in front of an army of insurrectionists marching forward to spark a revolution? The only entity one can imagine being in actual danger would be a Dunkin’ Donuts shop along the way.


One of the underlying values of the First Amendment is to allow the venting of even the most awful expressions of the lowest of society.  The utterances of this person are on a level with Louis Farrakhan, the Klan, and the virulent anti-Semitism of the Fascist regimes of World War II.  Their raw expressions are protected by the First Amendment.  The difference is this person’s hateful racist comments emerge from behind the protective curtain of a public university.

The Old Stone Bridge

The Old Stone Bridge

The Old Stone Bridge



It had not been a good morning.  As Nick approached the narrow, single lane, bridge, he slowed his pick-up and pulled to the side of the road.  He opened the door, slid off the seat, let his feet hit the ground and walked out onto the dirt shoulder of the road. Tiny puffs of dust were thrown up from the hard heels of his cowboy boots.  Hooking his thumb in his belt, cocking one hip out he affected what he styled his personal pose, the same one he saw his dad take so many times over the years.  It could have been genetics or imitation, maybe something his Dad took from the movies.  He didn’t know.  And it didn’t matter.  It just seemed to help him think better.


He looked over to the other bank of the dry river bed spanned by the Old Stone Bridge.  Before he left that morning, his son had said, “It’s ok, Dad, no big deal.”


Well, it felt like a big deal.  All-star games for 12-year olds don’t come that often.  Nick had said all the right things, the encouraging things, the praise and platitudes about what a great accomplishment to be picked for a team of the county’s best players.  And, yes, he told his boy he wanted to be there, really wanted to be there, but the big ranch accounts, all those orchards, the thousands of trees, had to be served and it was just a “have to take care of it” thing he couldn’t get out of and he wished he could, but he couldn’t.


And his son, nodded again.  “It’s okay, Dad, seriously.” and then the boy had walked off to his room.  And closed the door.


Nick had looked helplessly at his wife.  Without raising her head from clearing the breakfast dishes, she smiled sympathetically. “He’ll be okay.  He understands.”


So here he was. Leaving on a trip he didn’t want to take.  And this evening, he would be hours away and his son would be playing an all-star game. He would be the starting pitcher for the county all-stars.  And Nick would be meeting with his accounts supervisor and planning the inspections, the spraying, and pruning schedules by the dozen crews he would be overseeing for the next several weeks in every corner of the San Joaquin Valley.  But right now, here he was just south of town standing by himself along the side of the road. He had taken this route because the other way was much quicker and more efficient, and he didn’t feel like being quick or efficient right now.


Nick looked at the Old Stone Bridge. Not much of one.  A simple stone and rock structure spanning a creek or what maybe once was a creek before they put up the dam thirty miles to the East.  Not much more than a trickle at the bottom of a dry river bed now.


There was nothing ornate about the bridge.  It was serviceable enough to allow cars, trucks, an occasional hiker, one at a time, to traverse the gorge from either direction.  Nick didn’t know if the county maintained the bridge or whether inspectors regularly examined it for defects or faults.  Neither he nor anyone, he suspected, knew if all the bolts on the bridge’s understructure were tightened (were there any bolts?) and in good shape after having stood sentry over the gap through decades of hot afternoons and freezing nights, storms and rain and humidity. The bridge was still standing after having been repeatedly battered. Sometimes by drunks bouncing their Fords or Chevys or Buicks into its sides; other times absorbing the rumbles, screeches and squeaks from rogue trucks hauling weight in excess of the state allowed maximums and using backroads to avoid weigh stations and the highway patrol.


It was just there.  Always. Everyone just accepted the bridge as part of the landscape.  Predating all of us.  Like the huge boulders lining the creek and from which the bridge may have been quarried.  No maintenance, no governance and no officious inspectors, probing this pylon, testing that span.  If the bridge swayed, cracked, fell, it would simply be part of the natural order.  And everyone knew that too.  Inevitable, inspected or not, repaired or not, it must end someday at the bottom of the gorge.


Nick, stepped back, opened the door to his pick up and grabbing the side of the steering wheel pulled himself up on the running board and to the seat.  Starting the engine up, he idled forward and drove slowly across the old bridge, listening to the creaks and the thumping of the tires on the wood pilings.


That morning, when his wife said his son would be okay, she wasn’t looking at him.  She never looked directly at him much anymore. Not unless she was telling him again about her mother. These days it seemed to be all she talked about.  and Nick didn’t like talking about mothers.  Not hers. Not his.


Her mother had died when she was a child.  Left her with a Dad who cared deeply for her and did his best to make sure she had a full life. He largely succeeded.  But lately, she had been haunted by memories, vague, inchoate, but there, of a mother figure. At times her mother was a faded memory. Other times, she said, her face seemed so clear and so near. As if his wife was again a little girl sitting on the floor playing with dolls and there was her mother’s face as she bent to pick up an errant doll shoe and place it gently on her little play table. And how she smiled.


“I just wish I could have known her more.  What she thought was funny.  What she liked the most.  I mean Dad just always avoided any detail.  I’m not sure if it hurt him too much to talk about her or if he just thought, it would make me sad.  I just never asked.  I don’t know anything about her.  I wish I did.”


“Everybody says she was a nice lady.  Real classy person.”


“I know. It makes me feel proud.  But then I think how can I feel pride in someone I only vaguely remember?  Maybe I’m supposed to feel this way because we shared DNA or something.”


Nick knew this was bothering his wife much more than she said.  There were too many times he saw her standing in the kitchen and staring into space or found her next to the hutch she inherited from her mother and looking out the big living room picture window. At nothing.  Her eyes unfocused.  Her vision directed inward at some interior landscape, he couldn’t see.


All the wondering and questioning was starting to affect their relationship.  It had become an obsession.  And her distraction was leading to misunderstandings and the misunderstandings were leading to corrections and corrections to arguments. Over things they had never argued about before. Over things that did not matter before but seemed to matter now. Things that seemed to generate sharp voices, clipped, sarcastic words and hurt deep enough in the soul not to see, but which wounded and felt like a dull ache for days and weeks. But this morning, at this place, feeling alone, he wondered if the conflicts were rooted in his memories not hers. Of his own mother, not hers.


As his wheels touched the blacktop on the other side of the bridge, the ride smoothed out and he accelerated toward a far corner of the road as it turned back into the forest. Nick thought how all the country around these parts seemed just the same as it must have always been.  Unlike all the new development back on the other side of the bridge, where he lived and from where he had just come.


He had been driving through this area at least once every couple of months for the three years they had lived near the bridge.  They had moved to the small house on two acres next to the river, having sold their home which had once been out in the county, but recently had been annexed, along with neighboring parcels, into the city boundaries.  Most of his business accounts took him back to the part of the county where he used to live. In the direction away from the bridge. He usually took the highway.  It wasn’t that often that he came in this direction.


This way was a slower, the roads and bridges slowed you down.  Made you’re your trip longer. The state highway on the other side of the county and now bisecting the city made travel faster, easier and more convenient.  Certainly, Nick had never stopped on a drive-through in this part of the county. It was poor, sparsely populated and, of course, no orchards to speak of, certainly none as large as the accounts he serviced. There was never a reason to stop.  No business here and no customers.  He had no acquaintances on this side of the bridge.


But the rare times he came this way, each time he passed over the Old Stone Bridge and down this road, he thought it was like a memory or a dream.  It was similar to a place he knew. He couldn’t place it for a while and then it came to him. Last month.


Arkansas. This country reminded him of Arkansas.  The woods coming right up to the road.  The abundance of water with creeks and ponds and lakes visible in the distance off through the trees.


Nick had visited the state. Arkansas was where all his folks, his parents, had grown up, got married.  On the visit he made, Nick had stayed with his stepsister.  He was glad he had the opportunity.  She had passed away a year later. And he was glad he got to explore the country around her place with her as a guide.  The falling down buildings, the dirt roads, the woods, all places which held, he learned, a lot of his family history.


He had been impressed with the beauty of the place.  And the wildness.  It was not like California, where even the national forests had a planned community feel to them.  Where the fields of the great San Joaquin Valley, viewed from a high hill or from the sky, were a mosaic of farming factories. Like the orchards, walnuts, pistachios, citrus, all operated by big multi-national companies, all accounts he serviced.  Family farms in California existed only in someone’s imagination or as a scam for tax breaks.


But here on this side of the bridge the trees, woods, and thick impenetrable undergrowth were not ordered at all.  Creeping right out to and onto the road.  No matter which way he looked, critters moved in his peripheral vision too quick to observe. But the shakes and and moves in the underbrush and the flash of furry legs confirmed their presence.


Wondering why he never just stopped and looked over the similarities before on his infrequent drives through the area, he pulled his pick-up to the side of the road, by a rotting fence, which appeared like the bridge, to have grown out of the ground in some natural process.  He got out and wandered around the back of the pick-up and over to the fence and put his right boot up on the bottom rung of the fence, rested his elbows on the top of the fence and looked across a meadow into the trees, thinking about his dead father.  Twelve years gone now.


In Arkansas, his Dad had grown up in a place just like this.  He left home when he was fourteen.  Bummed jobs around the country, came home, got married and fathered children.  Two dead wives and a dead son before his marriage to Nick’s mother.  Nick’s mother had been younger than the other wives. Ten he said, (she always said fifteen) years younger than his father. Tall and slim, not like the diet obsessed women Nick knew from town but slim and angular from never having quite enough to eat, always being a little hungry.  His mother had a full head of hair and, though her mouth, even in repose, always had some tension, she was capable of a hearty loud laugh at a joke or saying, especially if a little off color or tinted with a touch of irony.


As a girl, she had wanted away from her own family and out of the house where she grew up and Nick’s Dad, older, worldly to her from tramping around the South, was the ticket out.  At home, the only girl of ten kids the drudgery mostly fell to her.  Drudgery she longed to escape, but which as long as she stayed home, imprisoned her.  It was a girl’s lot back in those days to be relegated to the kitchen, laundry, hoeing in the garden patch.  It was work, hard work, performed unendingly by the women in a large family back up in the woods. Still, she could run and climb and fight as good as her brothers.


He thought about the pictures of her from those times, framed on the wall in the living room, so skinny.  All bones, arms and legs.  Like, he thought, the woman he could now see in the distance across the meadow by an old weathered barn.


The woman seemed to be pulling hay off a stack and throwing it over a fence into a trough. He was perplexed. He had not noticed her or the barn behind her before.  It was like they had not existed before he looked, but they had, they were just coming out in the light against the dark woods behind and the lake just beyond. With the sun at its peak this time of day everything became clear and visible.


“Aren’t you Art’s boy?”  The voice startled him.  Standing just a few feet away, a man in coveralls and a farmer’s hat, wide droopy rim, leaving the face partly in shadows.  The voice was familiar, and he looked closer as the man stepped forward and the high sun caught more of his face.


“Uncle Silas? I didn’t know you still lived around here.”  Nick had a vague memory of hearing that Silas got cancer, moved from California back to Arkansas, and passed away a couple of years ago.  Whoever told him that must have been mistaken for here he was leaning on the fence.


“Why sure. I’ve been right here most of this life on God’s green earth.  Lots of time I’ve spent in these parts.  Lots of memories. Heard about Art’s passing.  Sorry I couldn’t make the funeral.”


“That was some time ago.”


“Tell you what though, everyone can still remember what a ball player your Dad was. Could throw the ball harder than anyone I ever knowed or heard tell of.  And he was strong.  Not big or at least not tall, but I seen him throw both games of a double header one time, middle of summer.  They got one hit, never scored a run.   He just kept winding up and letting it fly.  One of those Canton hill boys started razing him from the dugout. Trying to get him distracted. Then he came up to bat and got too close to the plate and your Dad put a fastball right between the eyes.  Ball bounced right over the backstop.  He was out of ’t cold.  They carried him off and Art, he just keeps winding up and let ‘in ‘re fly.”


“Yes, I’ve heard that story.”


Nick turned his eyes back to the woman.  She was next to a well, with a pulley and rope and was lifting a bucket off the pulley and splashing the contents in a washtub.  She turned in profile to him, conjuring up the memories, reminding him of the pictures of his mother, young, so pensive.  He had wondered sometimes, if the ironic smile on her face in some of those old faded pictures was from escaping from the washing and cleaning for nine brothers only to find herself doing the same work for her new husband father and his parents, and his kids he had by the wives now dead and buried.


And that was the other thing.  Still a girl herself, inheriting two daughters, Nick’s stepsisters, two girls, one seven, the other nine, from the deceased wives that preceded her.  She was too young, just two young to be a mother to two girls half grown.


She once said that was harder because Dad’s farm was even more poor than the one she left when she married him.


He looked back at uncle Silas who had now moved over to the fence and was leaning his arms on the top rail, looking at Nick with amused eyes.


“Did you ever know my mom back in those days?”


“Now she was a corker, your mother.  She coulda’ been in track and field that one. Never knew anyone could beat her in foot race. Never knew anyone who could even stay even with her.  Hair would stand straight back from her head she was running so fast.”


“One time, her brother Joe, was worrying her over some Bo of hers.  May have been old Art for all I can ‘member.  Anyways, Joe, he was pushin’ and pullin’ at her, being mean and ornery and laughing out loud about Art being too old to “plant a post in soft ground” and all. And she just up and grabbed a bucket like she’s hoisting over there by the barn and she hit him right between the eyes.  And he went down like a sack of feed being throw’d from a truck.  And the blood spurtin’ everywhere.  And here come old Pappey George and the rest of the boys out of the house and across the porch. And George hollerin’ and Joe moanin’ on the ground . . .”


Nick listened fascinated.  But had he heard him right when he said she was over there?  Mistaken.  He turned his attention back to his uncle.


“And she was howling out laughing and hollered “the bastard had it comin’, he had it comin” and old George, he hollerin’ “and you got a beaten comin’” and the boys all started running at her and she took off.  Whoosh! Those feet like they were never even touching the ground.  The old man just stopped. He knew she couldn’t be caught.  The boys chased after her for a while, but they gave up soon enough.  And you could hear her for an hour out there hollerin’ “how it feel there, Joe.  You gonna plant that big knot I give your noggin’ in the soft dirt.  You bastard.  All you bastards.”


“She ever come in?”


“Oh yeah, sure, after a few hours.  She was tough though.  Scratching and biting and crying as old George give her a good beating.  Smacked her around pretty good.  She left those folks soon enough after that. Married your Pop. Moved in with him and hissin’.”


Nick looked across the meadow. The barn, the well, and now, he could see, a little way behind, an old run down ramshackle shack with a wide wood porch like the rest of it, at first unnoticed, but now in the mid-day sun all appeared to be closer. As he watched, the slender woman turned full face to him and there was that pensive smile from those pictures of her taken so many years before he was born.  He had seen that smile a few times in his own life.   When she spoke of the baby, Dobie, the dead brother he never knew.


Dobie, was a tow head, prettier than any baby from those parts, she said, who would sit on his Daddy’s lap and sing nonsensical songs. And in her eyes, in that half smile turned back in on herself, he could see nothing but regret and resignation for the future awaiting her.


“Uncle, tell me, I’ve heard stories, but never really wanted to ask too many questions, how did Baby Dobie die?”


“Sad. Everybody loved that kid.  Always running after Art. Hanging on him. Climbing on him.  And your mom. She doted on that child.  He was her’s own.  Oh, man, how she would laugh at his cut-ups.  Every care seemed to leave her when she was laughin’ at somethin’ he done.  And the little boy knew it and would cut-up just to get her laughing.”


Nick said, “She always got quiet when she talked of him. Never remember her laughing about the things he did.”  Nick didn’t say what he mostly remembered was bitterness.


“Oh, she’d laugh alright right up until that time he came down with the croup.  We all thought it was pneumonia.  He couged so bad.  Poor little fella.  They said it was the diabetes.  Wasn’t though. Anyways, one night he’s just sitting there on the porch, kinda sittin’. More like half sittin’.  Leanin’ sideways.  Anyways, he starts throwing up.  Coughin’ and throwin” up.  Your mom yelled at your Dad, we got to get him to the hospital.  The only hospital was over in Mr. Ida.  Twenty Six miles away.  Your Dad never liked to ask for help so he doesn’t say anything.  He got no way of gettin’ him over there.  Few around these parts had cars then. So he doesn’t say anything.


Ignoring the reference to location, Nick asked, ”So what happened. What did they do?”


“Art is ignoring her sayin stuff, and suggesting this or that.  A cold compress, some tobacco they tried on his chest. Don‘t recall.  Anyways, she starts in getting loud and its “By God this” and “By God that”, so pretty soon he sees the writin’ on the wall.  “OK, he says, I’ll go see if Uncle Moses will take us in his car.” And she says, “do it now. Dobie is sick, he’s real sick.”


“So your Dad, takes out walkin.  It’s a mile or two over that hill there,” Silas said, pointing off in the distance. Nick looked that way, and saw he thought, but not so sure, a rise in the land.


“Anyways, he crosses over and finds old Uncle Moses out the back of his place.  He tells him, “Moses, my boy’s sick.  Can we get you to take him over to Mt. Ida to the hospital?”


“Moses, as most folks around here will testify, is a tight old man and he tells Art,  “My car gotta’ have gas to get that far. I’ll need a dollar for the gas to get there.”


“That’s the story I heard”, says Nick, “when I was little.”


“Anyways, he says got to have that dollar.  Art doesn’t have anything, no money at all.  And he tells Moses that.  But he tells him he will work it out or go over and work the dam project and will pay him back, it’s just that Dobie is sick now and he got to go now.”


“Old Moses just looked at him, spit out a little tobacco off the porch, puts his hands down low in his pockets of his overalls and stares at your Dad.  Didn’t say a word back.  Art told me later, he knew then, there was no help and he said that walk back over the hill to tell your mother was the longest, and worst he ever took.”


“Well, anyways, it didn’t take long. Little Dobie was gone two mornings later. County coroner came out.  He said it was the croup that got him.  Not sure anymore, but he was gone, died trying to get a breath, and over the lack of a dollar for gas. That’s for sure a thing.”


“How did Mom take it?” Nick asked. While he waited for Uncle Silas to spit his tobacco juice and prepare his reply, he looked back at the woman who now was lugging the bucket of water toward the house.  And as he watched a little boy with yellow almost white hair boy come running out of the house to take hold of the handle of the bucket like he was going to help his Momma.  She looked down at him and her shoulders seemed like the weight lightened up a little.


“She took it bad.” Uncle Silas said.  “Blamed it on Art for the longest time.  He had to leave home a while.  But he come back after a few months.  They still had the other two kids. And that was before they moved to California and you came along.”


“Well, anyways,” Silas said, “I need to get over and see my Missus’. before she sends out the county sheriff.  You all take it easy and fine and let your kin’ know I said, Hey.”


“Will do.”


NIck watched Uncle Silas amble off toward the woods. As the old man stepped into the trees, Nick couldn’t see him anymore.  He turned back and looked across the meadow.  The sun had moved behind some clouds and the old ramshackle house and barn, set back up against the trees of the forest, just this side of the lake was barely visible in the shadows beyond the rise, it all appeared abandoned and empty.


Through the dimming light, he could just make out the figure of a young boy, a tow head, standing silently just inside the door frame, looking his way, and just behind him, the figure of a slender woman in the shadows, her hand just visible in the sun as it rested on the boy’s shoulder.


Nick walked back to his pickup, fished the keys out of his pocket and swung up into the seat. He looked again off through the woods. Maybe it was the long afternoon shadows from the trees and the hills, but almost nothing was visible anymore across the meadow except the trees and the lake just beyond


He started his pick-up truck, sat and listened to it idle for a few moments, thinking of Dobie, the dead brother he never knew.  It made him feel sick inside.  There was a longing there, something desperate about it, something compelling, that made him need to go home to his kids and his wife.


This business trip could be delayed a few hours.  He could wait until after the game.  He could watch his boy play ball and then go do the business late.  He would call ahead.  The supervisor could meet him later tonight or early in the morning. He could make up the time lost by going the other way, by taking the new highway.  He pulled out, turned the pick up around and drove back across the Old Stone Bridge and toward home.





































Impatient of the Dawn

Impatient of the Dawn

Impatient of the Dawn


No new lease for the cabin in the wood,

No replenishment for the lake

At the bottom of the hill,

No more apple slice


Slipped between my lips,

The taste crisp, crunched

And savored like dew drops

From a branch’s furthest tip,


Only the lonely slap of my slippers

On the rain wet pavement.


I bend for my paper and up again,

Among homes still cozy dark.


The widow next door in silhouette,

Watches me from her upstairs window,

The flutter of her gown a whisper,

Ghostly and stark. She remembers


Not long ago,

When her husband drew

The rubber band away and

Unfolded the self-same news.


Those better times and bitter,

The feel of him, his arms,

The press of his chest,

His infrequent laugh, his frequent smile


At some homely comely disaster.

Then the day the test came back,

The day the cake slipped from pan to floor,

The dropped cup broken, and more, much more


Before he left ahead of her,

To lie in peaceful meadows

Among lesser friends utterly forgotten.

She does not know


My cortege too is leaving soon,

Leaving these verdant fields,

These dandelion hills

To craggy rock ledges,


To slate slabs for eternity’s repose

To troubled dreams,

And memories un-deposed.

While she continues her vigil


As dawn turns to day

And day turns to night again,

And homes cuddle to sleep all around

Until there’s just the one lone light behind her.


Thoughtlessly rude, I wave at her.

Crude to interrupt her reverie.

Offended, she turns away, disappears,

But circles back to wait her turn,


And poignantly ignore me and, like me,

Impatiently wait for the Dawn.











Before Life

Before Life

Before Life


Afloat snug in warm fluid for untold time

Awaiting mine own age to emerge,

Innocent, perfect, ready

To preen, to pretend, to prance


In seed plenum; shell, fossil, rock entombed

An eternity. Inanimate to animate by a bit of water,

A trowel, an earthquake shaking boulders loose

To gambol, smash, crush, to disclose


Life. Here. Come to Earth. Sent? Lost?

A tree to branch, to wish straight, symmetrical.

Yet defiant.  Grown awkward, gnarled, prickly thorns, scratching nails

Pruned and shaped by chance, by evil, by tragedy, by happenstance


By danger cowed until final ascension, up through the clouds, to

Where? Airy, ethereal, reclined on a cloud maybe, lazy, sublime

Yet haunted by life’s memories of travail, loss, unrequited pain.

Heaven won’t absolve regret though should have to


And all this fight, and, too, poetry and song,

These mathematics, glass beakers, computers, infinitesimal.

Great heroes flawed and fallen, forgotten.

Wicked villains redeemed. No less worth in


An Afterlife

Pined for, prayed for InLife,

Though BeforeLife, I think, must be

What we


To return





The Preacher on the Other Side of My Window Pane

The Preacher on the Other Side of My Window Pane

The Preacher on The Other Side of My Window Pane

At his farthest touch, beyond

A cold, translucent window pane,

Smudged, scratched, etched by those

Who passed this way many times ago

He bends, squints to peer past

Diaphanous curtains. At curious figures

Moving, gamboling; busy on the other side

At what he doesn’t know. Or why.

Echoes off the wall of his chest,

Rhythms. Blood beats Thumping, Pumping

In bursts up through chutes

Toward the residence of his soul

And around, down, back to 

His center seat of existence. And those

Reverberations travel outside his border,

Beyond his body’s jurisdiction

And on. Like a smell, fresh or foul, remembered,

Found, among broken shards in a melon field

Culled in summer; Spoiled remnants of fruit

Harvested, left for those compelled to survive.

The taste on his tongue, sweet or bitter or bland

And the linger afterwards, ineffable as a memory,

Concrete as a Soldier’s memorial,

Wispy as a fragrance butterflied on the air.

His aged sight, blurring the form of People,

Movements, appearances and disappearances,

Their existence other, separate, forever apart

From his body and imagination; from his unit,

But the outlines of worlds remain

Among the scattered, overturned furniture of memory,

Like the memory in a dream from

Other dreams, fleeting misunderstandings

Beyond the studies of science, literature,

Beyond our own sculpted rock,

Beyond these days,

Numbered and Checked off.

And if, as he says, he’s not bound alone by physicality,

He asks, how can the Unknowable be?

No matter what and where it be. And now

You know I know he believes



Due Process

Due Process

Due Process


The President of the United States recently questioned whether some people’s reputations and lives are being unfairly destroyed by public charges of misconduct, including allegations of domestic violence.  He wondered withal Due Process?


The persons he was referring to may indeed be guilty of what they are alleged to have done, but what is this reference to Due Process all about?


In my profession we always started off any case of spousal abuse assuming the victim was being truthful, and insuring an environment was created for the safe reporting of the crime and the preservation and presentation of evidence.  As the understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence increased over the years we even adopted a policy of removing the discretion of whether to proceed with the case from the victim.  Doing so insured they could not be pressured either by the abuser or the abuser’s lawyer to drop the case.


But those measure aside, we were also mindful of our duty regarding the Due Process rights of the person being accused. Due Process isn’t just a legal nicety.  It is a fundamental tenet of our system of laws. We might have railed against the exclusionary rule which could lead to the unreasonable suppression of probative evidence, but never Due Process.  Due Process is foundational.


The Bill of Rights has two different amendments concerning Due Process.  The Fifth Amendment protects persons from a deprivation of life, liberty or property without Due Process of Law.  It applies to the Federal Government.  The Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the civil war, provides the same protection from State governments and their political subdivisions.


Taken together, at every level of government, local, state or federal, when someone is deprived of life, liberty or property they are entitled to Due Process.  And, yes, Jobs and reputation are recognized as property interests protected by the Due Process clause.


As the Supreme Court has interpreted and developed the jurisprudence surrounding the clauses they have concentrated on two different dimensions of Due Process.


The first is “Procedural Due Process” or what one can refer to as the “How. ”How” is life, liberty or property to be taken away?   The second is “Substantive Do Process” which is concerned with the “What.” That is, “What” rights and interests and liberties are protected?  In other words the deprivation must adhere to standards in “How” it takes place and the deprivation must be of something recognized as a fundamental liberty, “the What”.


The later deserves detailed treatment since it is ultimately the means by which other rights or “liberties” including implied rights such as Privacy, are protected. But the Reference the President made really was really about Procedural Due Process, that is the “How.”


Procedural Due Process is about “Fairness.”  A person must be afforded adequate notice of what exactly he is being charged with, he must be given an opportunity to respond to allegations, the ultimate decision must be made by a neutral fact finder and there should be a right to appeal an erroneous decision. It’s the ultimate guard against anyone being rode roughshod to destitution or prison for that matter. And as regards our system of laws, indeed our Constitution, it is fundamental.


It is striking that a President referring to this deep seated American value is met with such rabid, virulent, vehement responses, both by certain members of the press and those who should know better.   No doubt, he should have expressed concern for the victims but, in truth his question about Procedural Due Process, about punishment visited on an accused without a full and fair hearing, was apropos.  It was wholly consistent with principles that form the foundation of our Democracy.


And contrary to some commentary, Principles like Due Process are not limited to the Courtroom.  They apply in the workplace and everywhere else where life, liberty and property interests are involved. As described by the Supreme Court, these principles are “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” and are “so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.”

Slouching Toward Oligarchy

Slouching Toward Oligarchy

Slouching Toward Oligarchy


Shortly after the current Supreme court term opened in October, Chief Justice John Roberts used the term “Sociological Gobbledygook” during oral argument on a Gerrymandering case.  Under the “political question doctrine,” drawing district lines for seats in Congress has traditionally been reserved to state legislatures. However, rather than fight the gerrymandering at the polls or in the halls of the legislature, interest groups sought the intervention of the federal courts. Why? Because it is easier than going to through the democratic process.   Especially, if you prefer government by federal judges, who with each passing day evolve more and more into a class of unelected, unaccountable oligarchs.


The Chief Justice said to the attorney arguing the case, “…the whole point is you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you’re throwing them to the courts pursuant to . . . I can only describe as sociological gobbledygook.”  A short time later, Justice Stephen Breyer used the same term urging the advocate to press his argument “without going into what I agree is pretty good gobbledygook.”


Justice Robert’s comment generated a number of scathing reactions from across the Social Science industry.


Some of the responses were thoughtful defenses of using social science in legal cases while others were over the top denunciations of anyone who would dare question the underpinnings of so-called social science.


The exchange shined a light on a larger question.  Just how much should the courts rely on social theory or social studies in fashioning their decisions?


The Starting point is usually Brown vs. Board of Education.  For most of us in the legal profession the opinion is the lodestar, the standard for great and momentous decisions.  The case led to the dismantling of institutionalized racism in Education by overruling Plessy v Ferguson, the infamous 1896 decision upholding the “separate but equal” doctrine.  And the court in Brown justified its conclusion that segregation of the races in the classroom had long term detrimental effects on minority students by relying on social studies that had reached that conclusion.


In the subsequent years and modernly at an accelerating pace, many case decisions of the Supreme Court, some of them momentous, relied on social studies.  I tend to think that the term “social studies” is more accurate than “social science.”  Though there are plenty who will argue the opposite, the fact of the matter is there is little that is empirical or universally true in the subjects covered. The fact of the matter is there are no eternal verities in social studies.  Even the venerable Brown v Board of Education decision is being hollowed out by gender and ethnic based studies on college campuses, which exclude and denigrate other races and genders.   It seems segregated housing is all the rage,  evenexcluding people of a certain race from the campus itself for special days ostensibly to add to the comfort level for minorities.  In fact, a college in the Ivy League no less, just agreed to build housing where students can be separated based on sexual orientation.  The fact that this re-segregation is promoted by liberal professors and students doesn’t change its nature.


Other social studies fields can be just as problematical, especially modernly.  History studies are more driven by trendy thought, political correctness, and rank speculation then actual provable fact.  Psychology, while it undoubtedly can and does help individuals with mental or emotional problems, when applied to broader society can be a joke. As a trial lawyer who specialized in trying homicide cases for 7 years,  I found there was great fun in cross-examining defense psychologists. They literally started squirming in their seats when they found I intended to test their conclusions using their own diagnostic texts, especially in demonstrating how often what is and is not a symptom of a dysfunction is arrived at by a majority vote of committees.


And in some fields, studies and reports are so blatantly driven by political agendas as to be laughable were they not used in such serious ways. As a prosecutor I can’t tell you the number of times that some misleadingly named justice foundation issued a study on the justice system that was inaccurate, poorly researched and sometimes intentionally misleading.


And what’s more, the press was often complicit in the perpetuation of the fraudulent theories.   They regularly allowed the “institute”, or the “foundation” to “embargo” the report until the “go “was given for publication.  The Press knew that the embargos were imposed to get the maximum coverage with a minimum of critical examination.  By the time the study could be analyzed, and even obvious errors pointed out the media had lost interest.  They uniformly failed to publicize corrections.  Not exactly the peer-review you would expect of real science.


The question is not necessarily whether social studies should be relied on, but what weight should be given them.  To say that a teenager’s brain is not fully formed, and their judgement is not fully developed is one thing, but to say then they are not fully responsible for the premediated torture murder of a child is something beyond the realm of social science.  Yet we see more and more decisions based on such nebulous values as “societies evolving sense of decency.”  They lead to federal courts imposing their own values regarding the death penalty for certain classes of individuals, changing the institution of marriage, and making their evaluations of what is necessary for national security when they are singularly unqualified to make such judgements.  Those are the matters that the Constitution contemplates being decided by the Congress and the Presidency who, in a democracy, are accountable to the voters.


A recent column by the venerable Dan Walters makes the point about misplaced reliance on social studies very clearly.  He relates that how in 1986, a powerful California state legislator had a pet theory that one answer to rampant crime, educational failure and many other social ills was a lack of self-esteem.  John Vasconcellos, the legislator, was successful at directing tax-payer funds to the University of California for a study.  Two years later the study was released. Its conclusions were dutifully and breathlessly reported by the press.  The report concluded that indeed promoting self-esteem would have positive effect on correcting these societal ills.  Of course, then colleges, high schools, and grammar schools, based on the UC study changed curriculums. They hustled to adopt self-esteem programs.  Other government and private entities did the same.  But there was a problem.


It was recently uncovered that the real conclusions of the study were actually just the opposite.  It was concluded that “the association between self-esteem and it’s expected consequences are mixed, insignificant or absent.”  It turns out The University of California suppressed the real findings and changed the conclusions to satisfy the desires of the powerful Mr. Vasconcellos, whom they feared would make moves to reduce their annual budget.


I don’t doubt that the Supreme Court will still find social studies useful both in the case on gerrymandering and other issues.  But it behooves them in deciding an over-arching question of law and society that they treat the studies with a healthy skepticism.  Some social studies may be valid.  Others may be just so much pre-determined and paid for Gobbledygook.