Budget Demon

“I’ve got a mojo box,
with your head on top”

Southern Culture on the Skids, 2004

Stuart could not accept Bella’s abrupt departure, even after a long month had passed.

She had played the old “I need to understand who I am becoming, alone and I have to honor my process.” card rather than just stating that the relationship had ceased to work for her. Also left unsaid was that she expected Stuart’s sole contribution to the process to be his continued absence.

Stuart was the type of person who was seldom noticed in a crowd. Not handsome or ugly, reasonably fit, forgettable haircut, decent but not expensive tastes in clothes. Non-threatening, but with a nimble mind and wit (when he chose to use it). Stuart was a fixer or strategist by profession. His core talent was being able to evaluate the opposition (however defined) and help his clients prevail by whatever creative means were most effective. He could find an exploitable weakness in almost anything.

Bella in marked contrast was an artist, volatile, wildly creative and delightful in conversation. Her look was angular and thin, but not too terribly fit. These days she sported short Goth-black hair with upscale hippy clothing, that actually had to be paid for rather than having its origins in a bargain bin. Completing the picture was an abundance of art jewelry, mostly silver. Everyone noticed Bella, wherever she went.

There wasn’t lengthy discussion before she left. No heated arguments or other unpleasantness as her things were loaded and moved to the truck. Just a quick hug, a kiss on his cheek, the admonition to “Take care of yourself” as well as an “I’ll always treasure what we had!” and she was gone.

Stuart thought that what he objected to wasn’t so much what Bella did, as the way in which she did it. Abrupt, unilateral and final. He had expected something of the sort eventually, but simply wasn’t ready to take such a drastic decision himself. They had mostly run out of things to say to one another for some time, but had continued to be comfortable and warm in each other’s company.

Of course, it hadn’t helped his peace of mind to later hear from mutual friends that she had moved in with one of her male occult group friends. Why couldn’t she have just said she was doing that, rather than an artful dodge which felt like a lie?

In the days that followed, Stuart reclaimed all of his things that she had shared, the extra closet space, refrigerator shelves, and the demands on his time. However, the hole in his heart persisted and still rankled.

So one day when she telephoned, unexpected and irrational hope had blossomed.

“How have you been? For some reason I have been thinking of you. How has your work been going?”

Stuart had been spending more time with clients, preferring to be paid if he was going to be miserable anyway, but didn’t really want to talk much about that.

“I’ve been fine, working mostly. I did write a short poem last week which I thought had some legs. Do you want to hear it? It’s short.” he said.

Several beats of silence and “Sure, let’s hear it.”

“Every day, missing
Every day, hating
Every day, loving
Every day, waiting
Every day”

Stuart recited, with pauses in all of the right places, as that is always important.

“What do you think?”, he asked.

“I liked the theme repetition, and the order of the activities. It begs the question as to whether the waiting is actually for love or hate? The best verse doesn’t always lend certainty, in my opinion, so well done!”, she said.

Yes, Bella, those things are certainly observable, Stuart thought to himself, but how do you feel about it?

That question was not going to be answered by Bella, not least because she hadn’t heard it. Stuart found that he had no further interest in casual conversation. Casual conversation, after such a long mental intimacy, created even more wounds which could not be overtly acknowledged. Stuart saw no benefit or future in being a friendly acquaintance, plus he had higher intimacy expectations for people he considered friends. So he thanked her politely for the call and, inventing a client meeting for which he was late, rang off.

Several days later, he met his friend Brian at a local brewpub for happy hour. Over the loud Two-Drink-for-One ambient bar atmosphere, he shared his inability to move on from Bella, with Brian.

“Stu, the real problem here is that you were too civilized. The bridge between you two isn’t well and truly burned, so you don’t know what to do next.”

Stuart thought he understood but, being thorough, asked “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“It all comes down to a difference in the way that men and women view past relationships. Women have an imaginary curio cupboard where all of their past loves are kept as figurines. Women will periodically take one down in remembrance, dust it off, heave a deep meaningful sigh and then put it back in its place on the shelf. They then will continue their day as though nothing had happened. Men, on the other hand, tend to break the figurines as well as the shelf (and perhaps the wall behind it) in order to move on. Remembering all of the good things only exacerbates the loss, for men.”

“You, my friend, have not broken the figurine and cannot therefore move on.”

Brian said this with the certainty that comes from self knowledge, and being halfway through his second round of happy hour beer.

Stuart thought for a few moments and said, “I’m not really interested in hurting her just so I can burn a bridge. I wouldn’t mind doing something that would make her appreciate, or provide a taste of, my feelings in all of this. We didn’t work out, that happens. She should feel some of the disconnect and accept some of the negative as well. Not sure how I would go about doing just that.”

“The answer is staring you in the face, Stuart. What do you do for a living? You find and exploit the weaknesses in things. Why don’t you treat her as an opponent? You already have your rules for the proper types of revenge, and yes what we are talking about here is revenge. How would you create enough cognitive dissonance or angst to make her uncomfortable and recognize what she lost in you? How much effect is needed before you feel some closure?”

Brian drained his glass, “Look, Stu. I’m about done with the New-Age-Sensitive-Guy routine for tonight. In fact, I’m planning to go ugly, early. You might want to consider that as an alternative to my suggestion, nothing like a new romance to cauterize the loss of an old one!” With that Brian lurched off towards a loud gaggle of women on his own mission.

You know, Stuart thought as he headed home to his empty house, Brian might have a point. Where would I find such a weakness in Bella? What is there about her which could lend itself to creation of discomfort, rather than tangible injury? She was honest, for the most part, so dishonesty was not an opening. Greed or avarice provides an avenue for many people, but neither really applied to Bella. What about her belief in the occult and supernatural? That might be a good choice, but how?

Stuart considered this aspect of Bella’s life to be nothing more than superstitious nonsense. While he hadn’t made it an issue during their time together, he viewed it as one of her little quirks. During the entire time they were together, he had never seen anything tangible that would support such a belief. Bella wasn’t concerned about his views on the topic other than to state that there were many more things in the universe than ever met the eyes of someone prone to skepticism. Usually, she would follow that up with a hug or a kiss as though to prove she wasn’t bothered or being critical.

She believed in spells, how about doing something along those lines? Spells probably weren’t the best choice, he decided, as spells seemed to be fairly predictable in effect. Stuart was really striving for something that created persistent anxiety or non-specific angst. The best result, from his perspective, would be for Bella to be uncomfortable or anxious, without being able to prepare against or counteract an imaginary threat. No, a spell would just enable her, or her new roommate, to simply cast a “counterspell” and consider the issue dealt with. He chuckled an aside to himself, that the counterspell would work just as well as the spell itself. i.e. not at all. No, this had to be something that would linger in her mind, even in the absence of tangible effect.

What about demons? She had mentioned on more than one occasion that she and others from her family could “see” demons. She also maintained that all demons were dangerous and should not be engaged for frivolous ends. Since Stuart didn’t believe in the supernatural, he heard those cautions as stories, little different from those of the religious. You either had faith, believing the stories even in the absence of tangible proof, or you didn’t believe them at all.

I think I will summon a demon to bother her, that should blow a cold wind up her skirt, Stuart thought. Of course, I can’t just say I have summoned a demon, she has always been able to know when I am lying. Therefore, I must do some preliminary research, follow the guidelines or process of summoning/tasking a demon, tell her what I have done afterwards and let the fun commence.

Having a plan felt better than not having one. Stuart fired up his computer and started researching online. Unfortunately, most of the search engine returns were fansites for various television shows which featured the supernatural. Clearly, those were not the right sources. He even checked the website of the occult group to which Bella belonged, SealsofFate.com, but there weren’t any obvious resources for spells or summonings, just a lot of member conversation threads on where to best find ingredients that would be put to unspecified uses.

Stuart was about to give up, when a popup advertisement appeared for “Blazin’ Bob’s One Stop Occult Shop – Locations near You!”. Stuart thought, why not and clicked the banner marked Shop Locations, entering his zip code into the form. A new browser screen opened with details of a local store which, oddly enough, was located within the Streedle Beat Mall, near Stuart’s home. Perfect and convenient.

Thinking that there was no time like the present, Stuart walked over to the mall concourse, looking for a directory. The Streedle Beat Mall had the usual assortment of retail establishments, a food court, and about a million teenagers no matter the time of day. Looking down the directory, he found the listing. The store was located in the space formerly occupied by a Radio Shack, and a motley crew of successor firms which never seemed to last long.

Dodging teenagers the entire way, Stuart walked across the mall towards the store. He noticed that the teenager density gradually diminished as he approached the door. That’s odd, he thought, I would have expected a place like this to be a magnet for teenagers, Goths if no one else.

As he entered the shop, an old fashioned bell hung over the door rang.

“I’ll be right out” a voice shouted from the backrooms of the store.

Stuart headed over to the occult book shelves and started browsing. The first few he looked through were written in Middle or Early English, without notes or references of any kind. No table of contents either, clearly these books were meant to be read cover-to-cover. Stuart was the impatient sort of reader when it came to how-to books, he generally referred to the table of contents or index prior to turning directly to the section he needed. Facing the prospect of reading through the tomes, sifting for the important information, did not appeal to him.

“Can I help you?” a voice from behind him asked.

Stuart started and turned. The small thin man was dressed in clean but shabby clothes, covered by a store smock with the Blazin’ Bob logo foremost. On a small pocket, which had several writing utensils parked, almost as an afterthought was a name tag labeled “Bob”.

“Yes, I believe I do need some help with my project.” Stuart said. The name tag registered at that point and he asked “Are you THE Bob?”.

Bob laughed and replied, “I get that question a lot. No, I am not THE Bob, merely one of the many Bob’s which run a Blazin’ Bob franchise. Blazin’ Bob only sells franchises to persons named Bob, something to do with the franchise branding and name tag economies of scale. Of course people could always change their name to Bob, as some have done, to get round that requirement. But enough of that, how can I help you today, sir?”

“I’ll get to that in a sec, because I have another off-topic question. Isn’t it odd that there aren’t any teenagers hanging around the store, I would have thought they’d be everywhere, since this kind of thing would appeal to a large number of them?”

“Not odd at all, sir. What you are seeing is the result of Blazin’ Bob’s standard Teenager Repelling Ward Kit. We find that most of our target customers are put off by having teenagers around, therefore we make sure teenagers don’t interfere with our business. Since we are in a mall, the issue is even more pronounced. We are also a responsible corporate entity, in that we don’t think non-adult persons should be involved in occult matters.”

Stuart laughed, “I may want to buy one of those as well. Several of the neighborhood children are getting on into their teenage years and you never know how that will turn out.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll make a note. Now, how else can I help you?”

“Well, I’m a bit of a novice, but I want to summon a demon. Looking through some of these texts, it is difficult to find that section based on what I seen so far. I’d prefer not to have to wade through a lot of extraneous text before I get to demon summoning.”

Bob took out a handkerchief that had seen better, and cleaner, days and blew his nose soundly. “That, sir, is fairly advanced magic. Furthermore there is a wide range of what types of entities can be summoned, as well as what it takes to do so. It might help a bit to know what type of entities for which you are aiming.”

“Can you give me some examples?” Stuart said, “I’m not familiar with the specific names or types that would be available.”

“Certainly. In general, they can range in power from small imps, say, to a prince of Hell, and the difficulty or cost increases more or less proportionately with the power. The risk to the summoner is also more or less proportional. Here, let me show you some examples from the tome you’re holding. So, if you are summoning a run-of-the-mill demon, you need something to scribe a ward which restrains the demon from attacking you (very important). For small demons, common household chalk would work. Large demons might require something as rare as charcoal from a saint’s bones. Sometimes the ingredients have to be gathered over time, such as nightshade leaves harvested in Cornwall under the light of a gibbous moon using a pure silver knife untouched by human hands. We have a standing policy at Blazin’ Bob’s that we never inquire as to why  a customer wants something, but in this case it would be helpful to understand the scale for which you’re striving.”

Stuart thought for a second and mused, “I don’t really have a need for large scale, in fact I think it should be something that only requires a reasonable amount of effort. I’m looking to do this as soon as possible, so travel to far flung places and the need for special timing should be minimized if at all possible.”

“Thank you, sir. I think I have just the thing. Have you heard of Mystic Mort’s ‘Summoning for the Mostly Moronic’, part of the Mostly Moronic line of how-to books? It’s even indexed so that you can easily find what you want.”

“I have the Mostly Moronic books on French Cuisine and HTML Programming, so that should do very well I think, they’ve always been very helpful in the past.” Stuart said.

“You’ll likely want the section for summoning an imp. That is the least difficult both in terms of both risk and the materials needed. As for materials, you can probably find everything you need at Stallmart, my cousin Robert runs a mystic materials stall there. Tell him I sent you, if it is not too much trouble.”

“Thanks, I’ll take the book! And throw in a couple of Teenager Repelling Ward Kits while we are at it, one extra in the event that the first one doesn’t take.” Stuart took out his credit card and handed it over. Revenge had never been acquired at such a reasonable price.

Bob placed the items in a shopping bag and handed it over to Stuart. “Don’t forget to be very careful on the instructions, even small demons can be a handful if not careful.”

“Thanks, I will.” Stuart replied as he walked back to his home.

Stallmart was close by, and since Stuart had decided to get everything the same day, he turned to page 187 of the Summoning book and quickly copied the list that was shown in the box labeled, “You’ll Need:” onto a convenient sticky note.

Frederick Stall of Gothenburg, Nebraska was the founder of the Stallmart national chain of shopping stores. Stall had always been fascinated by the concept of rural marketplaces, and resolved to create little stores within the enclosed spaces of large buildings across the nation. The idea was similar to an indoor shopping mall, with an important difference. Instead of just leasing space to smaller stores which managed their own business, Stall’s vision was to provide identical services and products in every Stallmart, and selling franchises to operate the “stalls” to operators. Stall’s parent company set operations and product standards, marketed, managed inventories and drove high level economies of national scale. The franchisees ran the stalls.

Every Stallmart had grocery, home goods, electronics, pharmacy, optometry, and automotive stalls. Each Stallmart also had a wide assortment of lesser known stalls, such as the Mystic Materials stall managed by Bob’s cousin Robert.

Stuart parked his car in the “Stallmart Car Detailing” stall and went inside the grand promenade to reference the store directory. I get lost every time I come in here, he thought to himself. Normally, Stuart only did his weekly grocery shopping there, as the pricing was excellent, but didn’t walk the entire store for non-specific window shopping.

Looking through the listing he found the Mystic Materials location, it was a small stall next to a wireless device boutique. Skirting the aggressive tout at the wireless device stall he scuttled into the Mystic Materials shop.

Looking around, the closely spaced row shelves which were jam-packed with small containers and the room itself smelled slightly musty. Seeing a counter bell, Stuart rang it.

“Hello? I’ll be right there” a surprisingly resonant voice spoke from a small slightly framed man. “Ah, here you are. My name is Robert, what can I help you find?”

Robert pronounced his name ‘Row Bear’, which amused Stuart. Thinking there might be an additional discount available he asked, “Yes, I have a list of the ingredients needed for a project of mine and I was referred to you by your cousin Bob over at the Blazin’ Bob shop.”

“Which Blazin’ Bob shop are we talking about? The one at the Streedle Beat Mall or the one off of Highway 15?” Robert asked.

“Why, the one at Streedle Beat.”

“Thank you, I have two cousins with Blazin’ Bob franchises.”

“Both named Bob, I suppose?”

“Of course! All the males in our family are named Robert. Some of us change how it is pronounced in order to maintain some semblance of the individual, not to mention it being a convenient conversational shortcut when talking in-family. One cousin even pronounces his name as ‘Frank’, but that is less common than simple plays on the same name like Rob or Bert.”

“Interesting, Row-Bear. Here is the list of items I’ll be needing. Do you have all of them available?” Stuart said, handing over the sticky note.

Robert read down the list, nodding his head with each entry. “Yes, we do have all of these items, however, you will also have a fair amount of each left over. While the sold quantities come in small amounts, your project doesn’t require very much. One of the minor issues imposed by working with Stallmart is that we only sell pre-packaged items, but you’ll find the prices are quite comparable to competitors selling by the unit. Is this list from the Mystic Mort’s ‘Summoning’ book? Yes, I thought so. Then you’ll have plenty of leftover ingredients for other uses, Mystic Mort specifies a lot of the same ingredients in his formulations.” As he spoke, his hands were picking items off of the shelves as he ran down the list.

Stuart shook his head, “I am only working the one project, but I’m sure your pricing will not be an obstacle. Was there a referral discount connected with Bob’s reference?”

“Absolutely, very little I wouldn’t do for dear cousin Bob. I’ll include your discount when I ring up the charges. Now, will you be paying with cash, debit or credit card?”

Robert deftly worked the register, processing the transaction. Stuart declined being added to the list receiving a newsletter, but was nice about it.

Robert handed the bag over to Stuart, “Thank you for your business, please refer your friends to us. Have a great day, and if it isn’t great, the spell for fixing that is on page 287.” he said with a wink.

What an odd experience, Stuart thought. He quite enjoyed the conversations with Bob and Robert, it reminded him of the slightly off-kilter effect that Bella always had on him. Of course, that thought dampened his mood somewhat as he remembered why he was engaged in the summoning of an imp in the first place.

He picked up his newly clean car and drove home. He resolved to do the summoning the next evening, which should give him adequate time to read and fully understand the instructions.

As Stuart read the instructions, he realized that his old photography hobby equipment would be useful, as he already had beakers and various other chemical handling equipment readily available. He hadn’t previously thought about it, but not having to use the dishes he ate off of was probably a better approach.

The next day was filled with expectation. Stuart planned to contact Bella shortly after the summoning, checking in to see how “she was doing”. He would casually drop the comment that he had summoned something that should keep her up at night, with an evil chuckle. He longed for a mustache to twirl. He’d then listen for the first indications of concern and then ring off. That would put paid to all remaining angst concerning her abandoning him, and he could move forward with his life. Who knows, maybe Brian would then be available for a late dinner?

The first step was mixing a cleansing bathing fluid. Stuart had a magnetic mixer from his photography kit that served the bill nicely for mixing things in a glass beaker. As he dropped each ingredient into the swirling mix, he solemnly spoke the prescribed words. Once that was complete, he set it aside in a fresh flask and started on the priming solution after he had washed the mixing beaker. This one required simmering heat during the preparation, which Stuart supplied using his kitchen gas cooktop. It too was set aside in a separate clean glass beaker.

So far, so good. He thought as he reviewed the next step. I guess I need to decide where the ritual should take place. Someplace convenient to the kitchen, I suppose. The granite countertop is quite expansive, although probably too slick to accept the necessary chalk ward lines. I’ll just use a portion of the last large cardboard box I got from Amazon over the countertop.

He cut the box into a 24 inch by 24 inch square, which he set atop the granite countertop. Getting his masking tape from the workroom, he taped the entire cardboard square down so that it wouldn’t slip or move. Stuart then lined up the balance of the ingredients next to the square for easy access.

Drawing the pentagram ward design was fairly simple exercise for Stuart. He took the special drawing stick, which acted like chalk even if it was not strictly speaking chalk, and drew the interconnecting straight lines into the familiar pentagram design. The center of the five-sided design was approximately 4 inch by 4 inch, plenty of room to center the provided special candle. Looking it over, Stuart considered it a credible effort, and went on to complete the full circle around the pentagram. He then poured salt onto the entire circle.

Stuart placed the candle and holder in the middle of the pentagram, dipping his fingers into the cleansing solution which he then flicked over the complete tableau while saying the words specified in the instructions. He dried his fingers on a clean hand towel, and picked up the candle lighting taper. He lit the wax taper, moving it slowly to the candle centerpiece, which caught almost immediately.

Blowing out the taper, a small tail of smoke wisped up past his nose. There was an unusual smell in Stuart’s kitchen. Must be a fragrance in the taper or candle, he thought.

Now for the final step, he dipped his fingers in the priming solution and this time flicked the solution into the flame while saying, “I summon you to bedevil, Bella my lost love, and be a blight on her happiness from this day forth.”

Stuart was rather proud of the text he had come up with and couldn’t wait to tell Bella about it. As he flicked the solution onto the flame, it flared several feet towards the ceiling and receded to just the normal candle flame height. Must have been something in the priming mix to do that, but a nice effect, thought Stuart. He flicked a few more drops onto the flame but this time didn’t see any unusual effect other than the candle sputter.

Well, that doesn’t matter, it’s time call Bella! he thought.

He dialed Bella’s number and after a couple of rings she answered.

“Hi Bella, this is Stuart! I wanted to check in on you to see how you are doing?”

“Hi Stu, things have been just fine here, how are you?” Bella asked.

“I’ve been busy on some new projects. Throughout, I was thinking of you and all of your occult studies and it occurred to me that you could use a demon around your house. So I went ahead, summoned one and ordered it to head your way.”

“Demon? I thought you didn’t hold much stock in the topic.” Bella said.

Before Stuart could answer, a large crash was heard through the phone. Bella yelled something unintelligible before she turned the same vocal volume at Stuart, “Stuart, you complete idiot! What have you done?”

Stuart was about to answer, but the phone connection went dead in his hand. He redialed Bella, but evidently she was not picking up. This had gone even better than he had imagined!

His mood lifted, he walked over to the refrigerator to pour himself a glass of wine. He lifted the glass and readied a toast to himself.

“Oh, what occasion are we toasting?” asked a cavernous deep voice behind Stuart.

Stuart whirled, spilling just a bit of wine, and saw something coming through the wall of his kitchen. It was approximately human in shape, but very hard to see as the edges seemed to be blurry. The air within the kitchen seemed to also be under greater pressure as the dark figure fully entered the room.

“Who are you?” Stuart cried, “You’ve given me such a start!”

“My name you couldn’t pronounce and I likely wouldn’t tell you regardless. You can call me Buz if that matters to you. Are you the one I have to thank for the delightful snack I just had?”


“Yes, someone sent a smallish imp over to Bella’s. They aren’t much good for anything except a quick bite, but as hungry as I have been, it was quite welcome.”

“What are you?” Stuart inquired as panic started to have its way with him.

“A much better question than who I am. I am a greater demon, currently under geas to serve as Bella’s home security system. Evidently, it was easier to summon me than spend $39.99 a month for a human-monitored system. Luckily for me, my self-worth isn’t tied to that information. Did I mention I am still hungry?”

“I also see from the apparatus lying about that the imp indeed came from here. I knew that already having tracked it back, but it pays to follow the forms when engaged in this type of activity. Based on the rules under which I am bound, I am now permitted to eat you for breaching Bella’s home security. When last I saw her, she was unconscious underneath a fallen bookshelf, so I should probably get on with the eating as she might stop me, were she awake. Nothing personal, and I did appreciate the snack.” said Buz as he slowly moved towards Stuart. His form seemed to expand with each step.

Stuart backed away from the oncoming presence, running into his countertop. His mind, unable to comprehend matters, searched wildly for any option. Maybe this person, who thinks he’s a demon, is also superstitious. Quickly, he grabbed the beaker of cleansing solution and poured it all into the primer flask. A bubbling rose up and Stuart threw the entire contents of the combined fluid onto Buz’s chest.

Buz, looking down the front of his body in stunned disbelief, “You are the luckiest son of a bitch I have ever met! That’s Mystic Mort’s Geas Remover Potion or I’m a prince of Hell!”

“Now I have even more for which to thank you. However, I am still very hungry. Therefore I will still eat you, but I’ll show you a mercy and make sure that you don’t suffer more than absolutely necessary. Win-Win. How does that sound?”, Buz asked, resuming his advance towards Stuart.

Stuart’s mind was in disarray, nothing presented itself. Finally, just as the shadow of Buz’s fingers touched Stuart’s body, he cried “But I don’t believe in demons!”.

Buz chuckled, “Skeptics taste the best of all!”.

The screaming was abrupt and mercifully short lived.

The sound of chewing, however, went on for quite some time.

“Now that was a meal!”, a deep voice exclaimed accompanied by a lengthy belch. “I do have some room left for dessert, though.”

Several minutes later, in a kitchen not too far away, the deep voiced words “Bella, I’m home!” were heard.


All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin

Breakfast with Howard

“Is that you, Danny?”, I heard as I entered the side door of my grandfather’s house in the early morning.

“Yeah, it’s me” I answered, thinking that if I were anyone else it was too late to do anything about it.

“Come in the kitchen and pull up a chair.”

I had walked the several blocks from our Bloomington, California home on Lynwood Street, crossing Valley Blvd and over to their home on Portola Avenue in the dark of the early morning. Mom always insisted that I had to report to work early, so I generally got there well before Grandpa was ready to leave. That meant a second breakfast most days. Grandpa would be sitting at the kitchen table, smoking pretty much nonstop and drinking black percolated coffee. By the time I arrived, Grandpa was polishing off most of a can of biscuits and whatever bacon Grandma had prepared. Grandpa’s biscuits of choice were the store-brand ones which came 10 chunks of biscuit dough to a can, which we could get on sale at twelve cans for a dollar at the Safeway on Valley Blvd. The bacon, could be any kind as long as it was pork. Is there a wrong kind of pork bacon?

During summer vacation and school year weekends of my early high school years I had many opportunities to work for Howard Sharp, my maternal grandfather. At the time, I wouldn’t have necessarily labeled it an “opportunity”, but with the improved vision one attains only with age, opportunity is exactly what it was.

The way my mother presented it to me, was that I had to help my grandfather. That was an argument I always fell for, as I dearly loved this particular grandfather. I made a little cash, but also learned house framing, drywall, painting, plumbing, piping, and landscaping. So yes, it was an opportunity.

My sister, brother and I were fortunate to have seven grandparents for much of our childhood (four regular and three greats). So just saying Grandpa and Grandma would have created some confusion. My Dad always referred to our maternal grandparents as Howard and Odessa. We, on pain of early death, were not allowed that verbal shortcut. To us children, they were just Grandma and Grandpa Sharp.

Grandpa was always telling stories and cracking jokes. Grandma was always deadly serious. Grandpa was an adult friend. Grandma represented the forces of order and discipline. My aunt, years later, decried that Grandma was all too often the straight person or butt of Grandpa’s jokes. That was certainly true, but as my daughter pointed out, those roles were established by the two of them long ago and it created a cohesive entertainment team. You never see a partnership where the straight person swaps places with the joker periodically, it would likely confuse the audience. Plus, a straight person isn’t usually capable of making the necessary personality switch in an effective way.

“Have some biscuits and bacon. Odessa, cook up some more bacon for Danny.” He’d flash a mischievous grin and point out an empty chair at the stainless steel trimmed dinette table.

Grandma would greet me, with as few hugs as I could reasonably manage, and then start cooking a whole new batch of bacon on the stove. One of the reasons we all resisted hugs from Grandma is that she usually wore a lot of rose fragrance. The closer you got to her the more stifling it would be. One had to hold their breath when getting a hug and kiss, if you were wanting to avoid sneezing and coughing fits. Grandpa referred to it as her “chemical warfare”. Truth told, she probably just didn’t like the smell of cigarettes which permeated their home. If you had a good sense of smell, the combination was enough to make you choke. Adding bacon, biscuits and whatever else was being cooked to the mix wasn’t sufficient to lift the curse.

Grandma was fairly short, close to five feet tall and built solid. We used to joke that she was probably five feet in circumference as well. However it was not today’s classic flabby obese look, she was farmer’s wife solid with large shoulders and legs like pillars, not a lot of jiggle. In those days, she was usually dressed as though she was going to church, with dress, fake pearls, girdle, rollup nylon stockings and sensible dress shoes. The fake pearls came off when she was being casual. (Many years later she started wearing pantsuits, well before Hillary Clinton, but that was long after I was an adult.) I can’t remember ever seeing her in shorts or a swimsuit, and I think that would have been memorable, even in the 70s.

Grandma was lacquered down, but never liquored up. Hair up and done all the time, held strictly in place by gallons of lacquer hairspray. The hairstyle was that of the Primitive Baptist Church in Texas where she grew up. As a younger child, my cousins and I would throw paper airplanes at her hair. Once, a particularly well-crafted effort crash-landed into her hair nose-first and it stuck. Grandma went through her whole day around the house not knowing why the grandkids were paralyzed with giggles. Grandpa saw it happen, just shook his head and smiled. Grandma was so straight that a whole family of jokers could work with it.

Baptists, as a general rule, are not huge fans of alcohol consumption. In fact they are primarily responsible for the continued existence of most of the dry alcohol-free counties left in the United States. Grandpa liked to have a drink on occasion, but didn’t keep it in the house in order to enjoy some semblance of marital peace. Of course, I maintain that Grandma was in fact a secret drinker and that she simply never acknowledged it. Why? Because she drank Nyquil (10% alcohol) by the gallon in order to help her sleep. Saying something is “just medicine” when it has more alcohol content than beer is difficult to justify with a straight face. Grandma had evolved to the point where she was merely a Baptist, but maintained the sartorial look of the more conservative branch. One step more liberal than the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues Pentacostals (although we have some of those in the family as well).

“Odessa doesn’t need any more of these biscuits and bacon. One of these days, her girdle is going to burst and kill everyone in the room with shrapnel!” japed Grandpa.

Grandma would wave her spatula at him half threatening, he would just laugh, cough and keep up the running dialog.

Grandpa wasn’t much taller than Grandma, not overweight but solid as well. Grandpa’s daily uniform consisted of steel-toe work shoes, belted khaki pants, tucked-in single pocket short-sleeve cotton shirt. Grandpa’s signal that he was ready for “bidness” was whenever he put his cigarettes in the shirt pocket. But that was some time later in the morning generally.

Since Grandpa didn’t ever leave until the beginning of the normal workday it left ample time for stories at the breakfast table. Later, I better understood that he was treating the tenants respectfully by starting maintenance activities after their morning routines.

Looking back though, I can’t imagine I was all that helpful. I had to be taught every task prior to being useful and Grandpa was still stronger than me when it was most needed, assuming he was wearing his trusty truss (as he referred jokingly to it). Most of what Grandpa did was manage and maintain his many rental properties as well as renovate new ones. So the tasks could range from home construction to yard maintenance, depending on what was needed at the time. Grandpa was like a vulture, always on the lookout for single family homes that had been purchased under eminent domain and scheduled for demolition. He would swoop in, place a bid to remove the home, generally buying a framed house for pennies on the dollar. He would lift the house frame up onto a trailer truck and move it to a vacant lot that he had previously prepared to receive it. Once placed, he’d reconnect and renovate the home, find a new tenant. The house I lived in was one of his better efforts. At one time, Grandpa had relatives living in about half of his rentals. Talk about underperforming investments!

“Danny, did I ever tell you about the time I tangled with the croton oil?”

“Howard!” Grandma harrumphed, “That isn’t a story for the breakfast table!”

Grandpa just raised an eyebrow, grinned and pulled on his cigarette.

I had heard this story many times before, but it was funny every time and I was not about to put a halt to it. Grandpa changed his stories just enough to make them new and interesting each time. Grandpa liked to tell stories about growing up in Oklahoma just prior to the Depression, but he also told dirty jokes once we got old enough to appreciate them. Of course, he wasn’t telling the dirty jokes in front of Grandma, as that would have brought her over the counter! In later years, long after he had passed, my aunt asked whether Grandpa ever told us dirty jokes. She seemed surprised when I confirmed that he often did, and that we told him our dirty jokes too, which he always seemed to enjoy. We knew he enjoyed them because, besides choking and coughing when he heard the punchlines, he would sometimes tell us a joke we had previously told him, only doing it better. Her question was also ironic, because this aunt was one of my main sources for dirty jokes. In fact, I would tell Grandpa jokes that she had told me, and I would tell her jokes that he had supplied. I thought it was pretty safe being a middleman, as they weren’t likely telling the same juvenile jokes to each other.

“You see, Danny, when I was a kid I used to steal our neighbor’s watermelons. Actually it was worse than stealing, we used to just crack them open and eat the hearts right there. We’d eat the heart, because that was the best part and it didn’t have any seeds to slow you down, throw away the rest. Whether you’re stealing watermelon or chickens, you have to move fast! The farmers used to have rock-salt shotgun shells and were not reluctant to put a load into your backside if they caught you stealing.”

Grandpa had an accent that I had always associated with Oklahoma. But later I would hear something very similar from Lakota Sioux storytellers. Similar in the way he formed his spoken English. It added a cadence to the stories and was quite unusual for Southern California. Occasionally I still listen to Lakota storyteller recordings and hear Grandpa’s voice.

“The farmers weren’t happy about losing their crops, so they used to leave traps for us. That is where the croton oil comes in.”

“What’s croton oil, Grandpa?”

“Croton oil is a cattle laxative, for cattle that get constipated. A very powerful, fast acting laxative. Danny, you’d think that cattle, eating all that fiber like hay and grass, wouldn’t get constipated. But they do and they can die from it. You get constipated, you feel like you’re dying, right? In a cow, all of that hay sometimes gets compressed into a plug which just won’t move. One approach is to reach up into the cow’s ass with your arm and try to stir things up by hand, breaking or extracting the plug. That isn’t always successful, you could break your arm and at a minimum it definitely leaves you feeling dirty for a couple of weeks. Or you can just give ’em some croton oil. That takes care of bidness right directly. Makes a mess though.”

“What is the farmer doing with the croton oil?” I asked.

“I was getting to that. You understand that a laxative powerful enough to work quickly on a cow is a darn sight stronger than Ex-Lax? Good! Anyhow, the farmers had a problem losing watermelons to local kids and they have a liquid laxative that is very strong. So what they do, Danny, is choose a couple of really big ripe watermelons still on the vine that are close to where we have been coming in to steal them at night. Roll them over a little, cut a core in the rind, pour some croton oil into the hole, put the plug back on the melon, setting it up so that you can’t see the plug. Then leave it there for our night visits.”

At this point, I’m day-dreaming ways to get my hands on some croton oil and who I’d like to share it with, as he goes on.

“So after dinner one night, I get a taste for some ripe watermelon. I make my excuses, and fade away into the night over to that farmer’s place. The coast looked clear, so I hopped the fence and looked for a good place to start. In the moonlight, you can see pretty well, but you still have to thump ’em to check for ripe. I found a likely prospect, broke her open, scooped out the heart and ate the first one. Delicious, so I started looking for a second one, bend down to pick it up and then I couldn’t stand up for the cramps. The flood gates opened up in the backside of my trousers and I thought I was dying right there. As much pain as I was in, I knew I couldn’t make too much noise because of the farmer’s shotgun and his dogs. So I stumble back to the road, collapsing in cramps every few feet, while that croton oil tried its best to reunite the watermelon heart with the field it came from.”

As always at this point of the story, I am already snorting with laughter in between bites of biscuit. So he moves in for the kill.

“If that farmer had wanted to, he could have tracked me home next day, as I left a pretty clear trail.”

He tucks the pack of cigarettes into his shirt pocket, “Time to get to work, Danny. We can’t sit around here like Odessa, eating biscuits and bacon all day.”

And off we went to meet the demands of the day.

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin