Category: Short Stories

Color No. 8

Here’s a change of pace from the usual poetry.

One of the only times I feel like a human being is when I’m polishing my shoes.

My collection is respectable. I tend to go English for boots, Italian for shoes. Kiton, Santoni, John Lobb, Edward Green. Always handmade. A lot of people don’t like the narrow toe box of Italian shoes. I am not one of those people.

This morning, however, I’m wearing American. By Alden of Middleborough, Massachusetts—shell cordovan nine-eyelet boots, cap-toe, plain, plaza last, Color No. 8.

Though I’ve spent time abroad, I consider myself quintessentially American.

I keep my shoe care supplies in a WWI-era ammunition box which my grandfather some decades ago had fashioned into a shinebox—complete with a cast-iron footrest fixed to its weathered hardwood lid.

From the box I retrieve his ancient horsehair brush, made by Melco of New York. I’ve never found another horsehair brush which could compete with his. I don’t know if that company still manufactures them, or even if it still exists, but a legacy of a kind lives on in this brush.

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This one has been in my head for a while now, and last night, inspiration finally struck. This, of course, is pure fiction, despite my use of a few real names.

In the spring of 1984, accounts of an unusual circumstance made their way from a rural New Jersey sheriff’s office to the desk of a NJ State Police lieutenant. Recognizing in some sense the significance of the situation in which he had found himself but uncertain as to how to proceed, the lieutenant phoned his captain, who dragged himself out of bed and drove to the police barracks of which he was in command—it was shortly after 3:30 in the morning.

Upon his arrival, the captain reviewed the documents that the Sheriff had personally driven to the barracks. Before dismissing the lieutenant for the night, the captain ordered him not to breathe a word about the situation to anyone indefinitely, adding that there was little chance he would ever be at liberty to speak freely of the contents of the Sheriff’s report. The captain gave no further explanation, and his subordinate didn’t dare ask for one.

When he was absolutely certain that the lieutenant had gone, the captain unlocked his own office and, after some hesitation, stepped inside.

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Moving Van

The moving van merged right, passing a grey sedan before merging back left in front of it. The move was unusual, since the left lane is typically used when passing another vehicle, and the German-made turbocharged engine in the sedan was by no means propelling it slowly. Professionally-armored cars are often designed such that the vehicles appear virtually indistinguishable from their stock counterparts; however, while heavy steel plates can be concealed from the eye, their massive weight remains—the sedan was travelling as quickly as its talented driver could control—a far cry from its factory top speed.

Immediately after the van overtook the car, its driver activated a small switch attached to the steering column. It activated a signal light inside the moving van’s rear cargo box, an alarm gave a short warning report, and a small opening cut into the large roll-up rear door was revealed. Directly inside the opening sat a large machine gun—an M2 Browning of Belgian manufacture, procured for a large sum—fixed to a short swiveling stand.

The sedan’s driver, having experience in regards to evasive driving, knew almost immediately what was about to take place, but that cruel split-second delay separating recognition and reaction might as well in this case have lasted a century.

Black until now, the trapdoor became illuminated.

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With Artful Cruelty

Fyodor Dostoevsky observed in his final work The Brothers Karamazov that, despite our alleged civility, human beings possess a capacity for cruelty far beyond that of any other creature—his specific phrasing was that we humans are “artistically cruel,” if I correctly recall.

When I first read Karamazov, I had been at that time taking an intro-level philosophy course. My professor, a kindly 77-year-old Korean War veteran of significant academic distinction, relayed to the class a story pertaining to Nazi Germany’s conduct in rural Russia, Dostoevsky’s homeland, during the Second World War:

Germany began her colossal conquest of the Soviet Union during the summer of 1941. German forces often came across villages buried deep within the Russian countryside: villages which had maintained so little contact with the outside world, it was as though they had been preserved from progress and the passage of time—a pristine glimpse into the age of Peter the Great, perhaps. So isolated were these tiny towns that their inhabitants had hardly ever before been exposed to the power of music.

German unit commanders became quickly aware of this fact.

With the artful cruelty that so deeply pervaded Nazi hegemony, Wehrmacht armor and infantry would surround one of these anachronistic villages, whose residents had in all probability never seen so much as an automobile before. The tankers, their massive machines running idle in place, would then begin playing a recording of Rossini’s William Tell overture in unison—and at a deafening volume—through loudspeakers mounted to the tanks’ armor plates.

Nearly halfway through the piece, the Panzers would begin to inch toward the village—almost imperceptibly at first, but soon accelerating, gaining speed commensurate with the music’s mounting intensity—tracks turning faster and faster, engines roaring louder and louder—as though Rossini himself had composed a part specifically for those armored machines, penning it into his score nearly a century before the tank was invented.

At this point, the piece’s recording began to approach its final measures. The sound grew maddeningly loud as the orchestra played to a cacophonous crescendo.

Then, at long last, the finale’s first notes rang out. The order was given to take the village.

The 75mm guns fixed to each Panzer’s turret spoke with burning breath—horrific hellfire percussion echoed behind the climactic close of William Tell. Engines of decimation roared with demonic rage; the full fury of modern industrial warfare struck the village like lightning. Within minutes, the life which existed there unmolested for centuries was obliterated.

And the music did onward play, an encore for which no request was made, when the Panzers again happened upon similar places.

Just as Dostoevsky once noted, over half a century before those lands which he has immortalized in literature were ravaged by the Nazi war machine, we humans are indeed imbued with a unique capacity for cruelty—such awful, artful cruelty.

The Crab Fisherman

Human behavior is a hell of an interesting thing—particularly in the way that no matter how far we develop and distance ourselves from the wild creatures which lack the wheel and the written word and the industrial war machine, our own behavior often mirrors that of those exact organisms.

Perhaps there exist certain universal truths behind the instinctive actions of all living things, or perhaps behavior simply takes an incomprehensibly long time to adapt over generations to changing circumstances. I am by no means an expert in the fields of psychology or biology, so I will not attempt to conjecture a thorough analysis of the forces which incite such parallels in behavior between different species.

Rather, I will simply describe a certain deceptively superficial observation that I’ll remember until my dying day.

I once read a short little anecdote someplace that has really stuck with me as I’ve grown older—as I’ve begun to understand its message in practice. I don’t remember exactly the wording or the structure of the story as it’s been years since I’ve read the original (which, if I remember correctly, was only maybe a paragraph in length; I’ve opted to expand upon the original here for the sake of effect, as well as to illustrate my interpretation of its message.) Despite the corrosive effect of time upon memory, my mind often wanders back to the story’s premise and I can clearly recall the powerful point which it proved:

A crab fisherman, in order to fish for crabs, drops a small cage tied to the end of a rope over the side of a dock and into the saltwater below. The cage has small doors that are held shut by the tension of the rope when pulled taut, but when the cage settles at the bottom of the bay, the rope slackens and the doors open downward. Inside that cage is another cage, significantly smaller than the first, firmly locked via some mechanism of sufficient complexity that the average crab can’t fathom its workings, and thus is rendered incapable of springing it open.. 

Now this particular intellectual shortcoming of the crab is quite beneficial to the crab fisherman at the other end of the rope, because within the small cage is an equally small chunk of meat. After settling at the bottom of the bay, water flows through the cage and around the meat, spreading its oils and whatnot throughout the surrounding area. This piques the attention of the local crab population, which subsequently follows the meat oil trail right into the cage where, thanks to the crab’s cantankerous personality, they squabble and argue amongst themselves over who deserves to claim the hunk of meat that they’re all anatomically incapable of removing from the little cage anyway.

Before the crabs get a chance to form intellectual discussion groups in which they question the philosophical merits of bickering with each other inside of a trap over a small hunk of rotten meat that none of them can even physically access, the crab fisherman up top begins hoisting the cage skyward. The ropes that close the doors tighten and the doors close and the cage, now filled to the brim with oversized and ill-tempered aquatic insects, rises up from the depths and into the air before coming to rest briefly on the surface of the dock.

However, the crabs, being crabs, pay no mind to the change in scenery nor to the fact that their dreary fates have just been effectively sealed; rather, they elect to continue squabbling over the hunk of meat that none of them could ever possibly get to anyway, and they keep on doing just that as the crab fisherman dumps the contents of the trap into a steel bucket before lowering it back down into the water to catch more crabs.

And now here comes the real kicker. Every once in a while, a more perceptive crab disregards the perpetual brawling of his compatriots and attempts to scale the side of the bucket, seeking to drop down onto the deck of the dock in a desperate dash to escape certain doom. Typically, when a crab embarks upon this great crusade back to the bay, he simply is simply unable to overcome the wall of the bucket. He then promptly slides right back down into the ornery arthropod mass, where a friend welcomes him with a congenial claw to the face.

Every once in a while, though, a crab—either by sheer luck or by sheer tenacity or by whatever else impels one to attempt the impossible—reaches the rim of the bucket and prepares to drop to the deck and dash back to the depths. However, an extraordinary event happens every single time, negating the crab’s bid for escape:

The other crabs drag him back down to certain death right with them.

Isn’t that just something else? These creatures would sooner drag down one who endeavors to rise above them, to survive, than abandon their futile fighting and attempt to rise up themselves. I reacted, at first, with a morbid sort of fascination. I was thoroughly intrigued. However, that initial intrigue gave way to a sickening sense of dread as a new revelation began to dawn on me:

Human beings behave in precisely the same manner.