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Our German Relative

Our German Relative

By Mitchell Toews

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

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Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native PlautdietschObah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the simplest Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour!

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What Grandma is saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

So, now…little Rosa was very excited and too young then to grasp the full extent of the ban. She felt that taking away Christmas was like a game the adults played – the government on one side, trying to catch you; the parents and kids on the other side, trying to be clever and feeling the dangerous exhilaration of outsmarting the apparatchiks and their stuffy No-Christmas rules.

Christmas baking was one of many pieces in this complex game. Most Mennonite families still made Christmas cookies and other festive treats, but these traditions were known to the officials and were part of the ban. Christmas cookies were kept secret and were hidden.

A few days before Christmas Day one year, Rosa joined the game. That day, her mother had baked a batch of these secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her boots squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked, the answer would be no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class. Desperately saving for passage to strange, distant destinations like Canada, America, and Mexico, the families of Molotschna had little left over. And, of course, no one in any of the Russian Mennonite Colonies gave gifts for Christmas.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty; all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her heels like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and to the large white-faced clock on the wall behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna.

 

molotschna sm
Page 232, “Building on the Past”, Raduga Publications, Rudy P. Friesen

 

You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

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Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.

 

Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.
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The Business of Saving Souls on SickLit

Update: My prickly story about the conflation of business, big church and politics appears on SickLit Magazine today, May 15.

This is a reprint of the story which first appeared on another of my favourite literary journals, Literally Stories.

This is what SickLit Senior Editor Nicole Ford Thomas had to say about it:

“I really like “The Business of Saving Souls,” as it seems at first like a warm and fuzzy church parable about doing good, but down deep, it’s a lesson about standing up to corruption–all corruption–and fighting to take care of each other.”

SickLit recently ran a reprint of another of my stories, “The Rothmans Job”, which first appeared on the vibrant Canadian literature site, CommuterLit. I have a total of seven stories on CommuterLit and another five on Literally Stories. Thanks to the editors of all of these exceptional online literary journals!

I hope you enjoy the pieces and welcome your comments.

Special thanks to the editors at SickLit. They are awesome sauce. (Or, “hosanna!” as they’d read responsively at the NTCCF.)

Allfornow – Mitch

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

 

Update: 4.11.17 – Hi, from a sunny day in April, beside the lake,

Janice and I have been travelling and have both been down with a cold lately. My blog activity has been limited, though I have been able to keep up with daily writing. Today I heard from editor and literary paragon, Charlie Fish, that another of my stories has been accepted for his award-winning site, Fiction on the Web.

Feedspot has named FotW a TOP 20 short story site on the internet!

Short-story_20_transparent_216pxHere’s what Charlie says about FICTION on the WEB: “It is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet.”

Here are a few snippets from my latest story:

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

By Mitchell Toews

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017

MICAH JAMES WAS shorter than average and had an interesting kind of face. His eyes were recessed and penetrating and his complexion had the weathered texture and ruddy colour of a mountain climber or a big game hunter. He was neither. Micah James was a quiet, middle-aged family man – an engineer working for the City of Halifax in Canada.

The Jameses were leaving together soon on a long-awaited trip to London. His wife, Marion, had planned the trip from the packing process through tipping and all conceivable forms of disaster planning.

[SNIP]

“Ok, I’m on it! Walk will do me good.” Micah said, giving Marion an assuring glance and summoning up some energy for the trip. It was fine – the kind of little blip he had been secretly hoping for.

[SNIP]

Twisting in his crouch, Micah was eyeball to kneecap with a pair of creased black pants, gold piping on the sides. His eyes followed the stripes up to a white satin tunic and topping that, a dapper red fez. Then the voice again, but softer, “Are you alright, mate?”

[SNIP]

He waited in line at the reception desk, listening to an instrumental version of a Bob Dylan song. It was piping out of a speaker in the tile ceiling above him and he laid his head back to peer at it. Thinking of his own rapid descent into hell, he picked detritus from his oily beard; bits of styrofoam and other rancid urban spod. His thinning hair hung in limp disarray and the belt of the raincoat had come loose and was dragging on the ground behind him like an obedient, filthy snake.

[SNIP]

See it on FotW on May 19: an ever-worsening yarn that plays out on the streets of central London. 

Other stories that have appeared on Fiction on the Web:

Nothing to Lose

July 8, 2016. A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun.

Heavy Artillery

Oct. 30, 2016. The story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.

The Preacher and His Wife

 Jan. 23, 2017. In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother’s engagement ring has gone missing.

The Rothmans Job

February 19, 2017 UPDATE

SickLitMagazine has advised that they will be publishing a reprint of “The Rothmans Job” which first appeared (see below) on CommuterLit.com.

The story will run in late March or early April.

sicklit

allfornow – Mitch

January 30, 2017 UPDATE

TODAY, this twisted Canadian yarn, born in absurd truth and transported on the wings of a fictional 1991 prairie storm, is published by CommuterLit – a Toronto based online purveyor of morning short stories, lox and bagels. (And they are all out of lox and bagels.) 

http://commuterlit.com/

If a Neo-Noir Xmas Tragicomedy sub-genre exists, then this story belongs there. If not, then maybe this story inspires it?

A snowy night. An unlocked warehouse. A characterful materfamilias.

The Rothmans Job – EXCERPTS
By Mitchell Toews
.
A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.
.
Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. Lumbering and stiff, he plowed through drifts for his female accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker.
.
[snip]
.
“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.
.
“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
.
“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
.
“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
.
[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

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Waxman, Thunderella, Pegasus, Otto the inventor, the police, Pozzo, Roland, and (in absentia) Poland, all look forward to making your acquaintance.

allfornow – Mitch

The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine by Mitchell Toews

A 1934 rerun, in a way, kinda like a print version of Turner Classic Movies. “The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine”. See it here, along with an entertaining recommendation from author Leila Allison, a frequent contributor to Literally Stories and many other lit mags:

http://bit.ly/Allison_FiftyDollar_LS_Rerun

literally stories

typewriterMy Grandma often told us about an adventure that she and Grandpa had in Winnipeg soon after my dad was born.

View original post 2,511 more words

See Change

“Can a sixty-three-year-old aufjefollna Mennonite living next to a lake in the boreal be part of change in the worldwide artistic landscape?”

Sure. In a small way, why the Mitchell not?

I’m quite sure some of the change champions featured in this article would agree:

12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists

http://time.com/longform/art-leaders-next-generation/

I found this piece inspiring, even for a schnuddanäse like me.

I’m four years into a smashmouth experiment — my longtime dream to write fiction. To be published and to leave something good behind. To ask some interesting questions. All that stuff that sounds like a lot of fluff and horseshit, but is in fact, as tough it comes.

Chris Jackson

Publisher and editor in chief of One World, a Penguin Random House imprint

“But his goal is not to acquire any book by a writer from a marginalized background for diversity’s sake alone. ‘The idea that the imprint is committed to diversity is kind of absurd,’ Jackson says. ‘We want to reflect the world we live in.’ The imprint allows writers to tell subversive stories in an authentic way, without what he calls ‘white filtering,’ or couching stories in ways that feel comfortable or familiar to white readers.”

This is a helpful communication for me.

I am a grizzled old white guy, writing about real life in small towns, times bygone and present day, the northern forest, basketball and baseball, bruised knuckles, and Mennonite themes. While I personally have not benefitted directly from the near past’s traditional preponderance of white men in literary fiction, I undoubtedly benefitted in many ways in other parts of my life in Canadian and American society. I have a legacy of privilege. So, I don’t feel I can or should complain—at all—about other cohorts like minorities or women who, these days, might get a small advantage for not being a white guy.

Jackson’s clear call to, “…reflect the world we live in,” explains what has been a difficult and highly coded part of lit fic for me. I take this editor’s message to mean that I am not to be excluded, I just have to share. Proportionately, or even a little less, and accept the new status quo with some grace.

I believe I can do that, in fact, that’s just what I want to do. Thank you, Chris Jackson.

I also find clarity in his comment about “white filtering”. I know this too well. While I don’t “white filter”, per se, I sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks know how to structure a story to appeal to conservatives, especially my Mennonite brethren. I also know how to pimp up a story to fit more liberal (my own true bearing) perspectives. Horses for courses, but not for literary honesty.

To engage in this posturing is specious at worst, unnecessary at best. My charge as an artist is to invest my work with honesty and courage, not to try to predict the audience reaction and pander my story. No filtering, of any colour or creed.

Sounds easy, but it ain’t. We writers want to be liked. But, again, Mr. Jackson’s leadership is helpful to me. Maybe I’ll be liked as one of the new age of subversive Mennonite authors writing, “in an authentic way” and without parsing readers by pew, rank, and political or social geist.

* * *

I hope you enjoy the article, I sure as hell did!

 

Place and Time

foc flannery place and time quote only

Ah, eternity.

My stories—and everyone else’s—spring from life. Life lived, life observed, life imagined. Life reconstructed.

A vital part of each story—and each life—is place and time. Truths from one era or one location or one moment in a given journey alter and define the future.

Driven by my own curiosity, here is a roll-call of Place, Time, and basic protagonist context from my stories:

i — “Encountered on the Shore” A university student makes an unsettling discovery in downtown Winnipeg, in the fall of 1973.

ii — “A Vile Insinuation” During the summer following, the main character from “Encountered on the Shore” considers fate and blessings at a baseball tournament in Vita, Manitoba, near the US border.

iii — “Without Reason” Now retired, the MC from “Encountered” and “Vile”, is diagnosed with cancer and he considers his plight and that of others like him. Set in his small Mennonite prairie hometown, current day.

i — “Zero to Sixty” A retired man is attacked, near Christmas in Chilliwack, BC, current day.

ii — “The Margin of the River” and the audio except, “Wide Winter River” The MC from “Zero to Sixty” considers what happened the day before and sees first hand the inequity and sorrow that is built into life. All life.

“The Rothmans Job” An odd couple set out on a dubious nighttime caper during a fierce winter blizzard in Winnipeg, during the 1970s.

“South of Oromocto Depths” A teenage boy gets into a foolish skirmish with his father on the Victoria Day long weekend in 1971 New Brunswick.

 “Nothing to Lose” A former hockey player looks back on his life and his regrets in rural Manitoba during the dusty heat of summer, in the Sixties.

“Heavy Artillery” A young baseball fan in 1962 becomes embroiled in adult suspicion and prejudice in a small prairie town — predominantly Mennonite. (The imaginary, recurrent town of “Hartplatz, Manitoba”.)

“A Fisherman’s Story” In 1970, on the Mexican Pacific coast, an elderly woman and her young daughter are dealt an unfair hand. (P.S. — the prequel and the sequel to this story appear in the trilogy “The Bottom of the Sky”. See link below.)

“Winter Eve in Walker Creek Park” A trio of females on a wintery night in St. Catherines, Ontario, near Christmastime, current day.

“Breezy and the Six-Pack Sneaker” A rainy, beery night in Hartplatz in the Sixties is the scene for a tangled yarn of deception.

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” A straight-laced Mennonite husband and wife take on danger in a dark Winnipeg alley in 1934. (Rerun on Literally Stories, Feb 17.)

“Frozen Tag” A man encounters a strange reprise from his past (at the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1980) in the Chilliwack Leisure Centre, current day.

“The Business of Saving Souls”  A youth pastor in the fictitious city of Tribune, in the northern US Midwest meets challenges in the sanctuary of a gleaming megachurch, current day.

“The Preacher and His Wife” Palace intrigue, Harplatz style, throws a family into an untoward uproar in the 1960s.

“I am Otter” A shunned congregant discusses culture, power, and enfranchisement with a stranger near a lake in Manitoba, current day.

“The Beefeater and the Donnybrook”  A mild-mannered Halifax, NS tourist is mistaken and mistook in drizzly London, current day.

“The Log Boom” Poignant points of view — a father, son, and grandfather in the Lower Mainland of BC, current day.

“The Peacemongers” War, bullies and knuckle justice from the perspective of a boy in Hartplatz, circa 1965.

“Fairchild, McGowan and the Detective” Recalling employment, both the good and the bad in Hartplatz and Winnipeg, 1970-80.

“Graperoo” A piece of Graperoo bubblegum experiences the four seasons in rural Manitoba in the Sixties.

“So Are They All” It’s September 1961 and a young boy receives an education in loyalty and courage in his grandmother’s country raspberry patch.

“The Seven Songs” A middle-aged Canadian man meets a local contemporary at a resort in Mexico, current day.

“Fall From Grace” A boy gets stuck in a fraught adventure and learns about his father through it in the heat of a prairie summer in Hartplatz, 1963.

“Away Game” A 50-something man meets with an older family member at the side of a dreamy, summery lake in Manitoba’s boreal forest, current day.

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” The reader travels back into Canadian small-town hardball with the MC, reliving a fateful doubleheader from the Fifties.

“The Doeling” A brother and sister’s lives entwine from an east coast Canadian city to Belize and back. The Sixties to current day, various seasons.

“City Lights” A small-town “up-and-comer” gets in over his head in Toronto, current day.

“Groota Pieter” Spring softball in small-town Mennonite Manitoba is described, from the Sixties to current day.

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” On a moody Manitoba morning near a spring lake, a youngster and an older confederate fish for pickerel during the mid-Seventies.

“The Bottom of the Sky” A trilogy that follows a “pinche” cabin-boy and the ship’s captain on a fishing charter boat from 1955 Acapulco to the future in a fishing village in the Seventies. (P.S. – If you’re inclined, give this story a read and tell me if you think it could be adapted into a screenplay. I see it in flickering snatches of film in my head and just wonder if that occurs to anyone else. If you’re a screenwriter or in film, I’d love an opinion — tough love included. —mjt)

“Shade Tree Haven” An adult remembers more than he cares to as he thinks back to summers at a favourite swimming pool in the early 1960s.

“The Narrowing” A sensitive boy and his straight-ahead grandfather go through a harrowing experience in the Manitoba wilds, current day. An important secondary character in Abbotsford, BC is part of the story.

“The Phage Match” In a surreal radio broadcast from somewhere in Canada, current day, the evils of drug addiction are the backdrop for some strange characters.

“Died Rich” A high school freshman in a frigid southern Manitoba winter in 1961 struggles to endure.

“Concealment” A fledgling Manitoba business traveller gets more than he expects on a springtime trip to the Atlanta Zoo in the 1980s.

“Mulholland & Hardbar” (Novel WIP) A troubled youth experiences the four seasons in the Canadian Shield: love, friendship, deceit, and violence. 1972.

Drama: From the Greek, “to do” or “to act”

 

 

 

 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites

There’s a lively discussion current now on one of the Mennonite chat rooms online. It’s about the existence—like a newly discovered tribe of Yeti, I guess—of “Cultural Mennonites“.

Here follows a sizzling grenade I decided not to lob into that chat room (too much collateral damage) but, well, I wanted to share…

As Religious Mennonites will confirm, Mennonite is a religion. I feel it’s a good one, as these things go. The doctrine of peace & non-violence, above all, and the notable generosity and charity inherent in Mennonite churches are, indeed, “full of grace.” The Mennonite Disaster Service is the Gretzky of volunteer disaster relief in North America.

Many—myself included—feel Mennonitism also has a distinct, modern (awakened in the 1960s?) cultural derivative. It was during that turbulent period when the idea of being a Mennonite without baptism or a deep commitment to church life first began to gain acceptance. Around the same time that divorce, irrespective of the Sermon on the Mount, first started on the path to toleration within the plenary Mennonite church.

meat pudding
The basic argument against the existence of Cultural Mennonites

“Cultural”, btw, has interesting roots, for the etymologically inclined. “Tillage”, indicating to me that culture is tilled, or incorporated, into its subject – an individual, a gathering, a congregation, a population, a society. That root has a lot to do with why I believe I am part of the Cultural Mennonite phenomenon: I was born and raised—innocently so, but without my direct adult consent—in the cult of Mennonite. My childhood nuclear family did not attend church but in all other ways, my extended family and our community was as Menno as Dirk Willems.

The complex and often contradictory Mennonite culture was TILLED into me from birth and it continues to exert itself on me even as I cast aside the learned knowledge of others and depend more on my own experiences and my familiarity with the world.

My formative influences were different than those of my Religious Mennonite kin & kith but also far different from my non-Menno “import” friends.

I see the Cultural Mennonite emerging as a distinct sub-set because of their (my) “half-breed” existence, suspended between disparate worlds.

Those who disavow a stand-alone cultural variant often point instead to a kind of “Mennonite Imposter” creed. I and several of my antecedents are seen to be of this lowly pretender ilk. I tend to object, but maybe I should embrace this tag even if it is pejorative and imposed by others?

imposter
The Mennonite Imposter

I’ll propose a fourth iteration: “Smoking Jacket Mennonites“. Those who gather in a shadowy, virtual quorum and represent the interests of:

  • industry & commerce
  • finance
  • government
  • education

These subverters (a “den of thieves” according to one angry historical observer) are connected via interlocking directorate. They gather within the friendly, hallowed confines of the church’s tax-exempt status where they typically hold high rank or are able to exert influence by proxy.

smoking jacket mennonites

One SJM prerequisite is membership in the Religious Mennonite superstructure. Or just good’ol wealth and power. Ideally both.

Membership to SJM, the leadership elite, is by subtle invitation. Its congregation comprises fewer women than men. Likewise, there are not many “fringe” members: those financially challenged, POC, First Nations peoples, and LGBTQ are not strongly represented cohorts. By extension, those overtly tolerant of the non-mainstream or accused of “liberal extremist” social beliefs need not apply either.

These are not hard membership rules. But like the current U.S. Cabinet, it just tends to work out that way. Gender, race, wealth and social standing (or close association to wealth and power) are predictable. Good hair, a tan, and nice teeth are increasingly helpful for videos, podcasts, and evangelizing, but those attributes are furniture, not architecture, and in the hands of a deft PR shop, could be re-framed as a weakness. “He’s almost too pretty to be taken seriously.” 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites are not the first or the best at this specious, old-boyistic full meal deal of [wealth creation] & [worship of the divine], but are starting to really get the hang of reciprocal back-scratchery. I can see a Doug Ford getting a standing “O” in the right sanctuary, at the right time. Maybe he already has.

doug ford

Hmmm.

In conclusion, I don’t believe I am a “Non-Mennonite”. Nope, that just does not fit; that thread is too coarse. I definitely feel I am a “Mennonite“. In fact, I have an undeniable, unshameable set of Menno credentials and antecedents, but I am not a member of a Mennonite church so some would keep me on the büte with those who don’t know the difference between Ditsied and Jantsied.

Seeking a finer definition, you can go right ahead and call me a Religious Mennonite (if you’re willing to accept a highly non-conformist definition) or use the Cultural Mennonite tag, or brand me as a Mennonite Imposter – I’ll accept any of those labels without complaint.

As for the arm-waving megafellas of the Smoking Jacket Mennonite elite, I don’t qualify, I don’t have the price of admission, nor do I seek entry to the club. You guys go on without me.

~ ~ ~

Two stories that grab a root and dig at these themes:

“I am Otter” in The Machinery – A Literary Collection

Literally Stories presents a satiric peek at Big Church in, “The Business of Saving Souls” 

Our German Relative

A Molotschnan yarn
For fam’ly ’round Tannenbaum,
Prince of Peace, et al

Our German Relative 

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled, and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that great grass sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore, a patchwork as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

* * *

Not too far from Odessa and the shores of the Black Sea, there was a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language many Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, this Lehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native Plautdietsch. Obah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was conditionally permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the most innocent Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We Mennonites have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour! (Grandma smiled and winked at the adults as she told this last part.)

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What I am saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

One year, a few days before Christmas Day, Rosa’s mother baked a batch of secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her bootheels squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked permission, the answer would’ve been no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty, all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

“Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

“Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her footsteps like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

“Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!”

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and kept glancing at the large mantle clock on the shelf behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna, far from her native home in Germany. Just ask any Oma or Opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to investigate, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

* * *

Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjristowend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. Without this visitor from far away and long ago, our Christmas could not be complete.

Four Fantasies

A group of artists gathers for a meal. They each bring two dishes, one edible and the other inspirational.

The first of them lifts the lid on a steaming Dutch oven full of exotic stir-fry. She is small, with fine features and possessing a direct, flowing gaze that makes each one at the table feel a personal connection to her before she even says a word.

“Each mouthful is different, an adventure, a departure from the last, an experience defined by its variety,” she says, flourishing the lid with eloquence. “And yet, they each come from a similar culinary tradition and are all prepared by the same chef, in one communal pot. Each ingredient is spiced with varying amounts of identical additives: conflict, joy, desire, personality, sorrow and more. Much more.”

After plates are loaded and the group tucks in, a thin man with a sparse beard stands.

“My friends,” he begins, “I’ve brought wine. It’s meant to complement and heighten the enjoyment of the meal, but if you give it a chance, I hope that you can find in its complexity a fulfillment that stands alone. Savour it for what it contains, however well-hidden and blended the constituents are and enjoy the way each lends itself to the plenary, just as each wave adds its own shape to the shore.”

Glasses chime and there is a moment of satisfaction expressed by the table as collective stillness while the wine’s secrets are shared.

Without introduction, a brassy fanfare sounds followed by the swirl of parting curtains that separate the dining room from the house. A brawny, serious figure enters. With long, powerful strides this latest presenter commands the room’s immediate attention and is followed by a troupe of brightly costumed servers.  Perfectly conceived and composed plated entrees are set before the diners.

“Each is a masterpiece—with a beginning, a middle and an ending—that is delivered not only by taste but by the presentation, artistry, and the interaction between each delicacy. The arrangement of every morsel a work of art of its own!” Music swirls and fills the room from some unseen orchestra and those assembled take their seats, voices hushed, attention rapt.

In a dark corner, unnoticed, a furtive, wide-eyed rat keeps an unblinking watch with keen lamps that blinter like wee distant winter stars.

“How? Where did they learn these arts? How do I join them? Won’t I be crushed by their greatness?”

In sensuous forepaws, a shred of cabbage is braided and interwoven with a trifle of cheese so thin it is opaque. The grey rat weaves with busy concentration. Clawed fingers fret, the fragile conception set on a single sparkling sequin dropped without care or worry from the bedazzlement above, so far above.

“I’ll offer this portion from my pantry. Perhaps, someone will like it…”

 

MORNING SERIAL: PRAIRIE’S END, MANITOBA 5 ~ Conclusion

Episode 5 – Our Finale – Showdown at the ¿Por qué? Corral

DANIELLE OARLESS peeked at her face in the compact mirror, snapped the clam-lid shut and placed it back in her crocodile embossed Downtown Baby Cabas bag. She moved towards her prey now with reptilian confidence, gliding silently over the cheap tiled floor as if it were ermine and she the pampered palm of a princess.

Entering the interrogation room, her shadow crossed Wade’s downcast view. He immediately looked up and demanded, “When do we get outta here?” his face a mask of annoyance.

“Soon, I promise,” the sultry Lieutenant replied, wetting her lips and sending a fast wink at the impatient man. She surveyed the room, pausing to nod at Kowalski, addressing him informally. “Alright, Shep, time to make an arrest. You may close the door if you don’t mind.”

As Kowalski stepped by her to secure the door, Oarless moved in behind Old Man Reimer and, placing her Saint Laurent on the table, set her feet like a lead-off hitter digging into the fresh sand of the batter’s box. Once she was comfortable, she raised both hands quickly, and, nuzzling the stubbly hog jowls on either side of Reimer’s neck with her large hands—she clenched handfuls of skin and PULLED!

Double-barrelled snot flew out of Reimer’s nostrils as he reacted with understandable shock, his eyes bulging like a hooked fish.

“Time to take off this mask, time to introduce the real smuggler… DIKJ WULF!” Danielle shouted, her neck corded and shoulders heaving as she strained to remove the mask. No headway, though…

Sputtering, cursing, his buttocks now several inches above the curved plywood of his chair bottom, Reimer seemed about to faint, to be decapitated, or to simply expire from the force of Oarless’s brawny exertions. Before any of these dire outcomes could take place, Kowalski’s voice cut through the din—

“Excuse me, Lieutenant, I believe it’s me you seek.” Kowalski stood behind her, a rubber mask with only black holes for eyes dangled from his hand.

Little Ben Reimer looked on from the other room, in utter dismay. The speaker crackled with the audio and he could see the action unfold as though he was watching an NFL game on a big screen TV.

“I’d never have guessed, in a thousand years,” he said to an equally-astonished Roget, “a Wulf in Shep’s clothing!”

* * *

“So, explain this again,” said Roget, “I’ll have an exposition chaser with this hoppy IPA,” he then reiterated.

“Sure,” Oarless said, draining her beer and jiggling the empty glass at the barman, Corny Süppsach, owner of the Shrieking Rooster Taproom, a former watering-hole for Danielle and her loqui abundantem partner.

“I knew all of the apparent ‘clues’ were nothing more than red herrings scattered about by the perp, or possibly Wade, who was trying to negotiate a buy-out of Old Man Reimer, or maybe even false evidence laid by Little Ben, who wanted to squeeze out his old man.”

Roget nodded, and in the quiet of Oarless’s pause, hummed with the tonal quality of a synthesizer, like the sound of a Dutch Oven lid slamming shut:

“DOON, DOON!”

“Ha, very clever, you repetitious recapitulator, you!” Oarless said, smiling her approval. “Yes, Dikj Wulf, creator of  ‘Slaw and Flounder’, CBC’s longest running cooking show. How did I know, you ask?”

“The sting from that show haunts my dreams, like the howls of the dogs of hell!” Roget admitted, somewhat off-topic.

“Anyway, I could not see any motive for our suspects to smuggle in these industrial-sized quantities of Mexican vanilla, so I had to look elsewhere.”

Roget made snaky-eyes at Danielle, pretending to understand. She continued:

“I pulled his LUDs and did some digging. After a night of drinking coffee from those awful little blue take-out cups…”

cup nyc doon doon prairie's end.png

“Oh you mean the cups with the kinda, faux Greek aesthetic—the meander graphic on the top and the picture of the amphora vase…”

“Roll up the rim, you win,” she confirmed. “Anyway, it was the cups that gave me the clues…”

“Wait! How did you get iconic New York City takeout coffee cups in Prairie’s End?” Corny Süppsach interrupted. The balding redhead had wandered over, his BiC poised over a small spiral notebook. “And what does an American TV prop have to do with a cooking show on the CBC?”

“Never mind that, how can you expect there to be no plot holes in a yarn as convoluted as this?”

“Trü,” Roget said in a dietsch accent, with a “when-yer-right-yer-right” look.

Corny just shrugged. “Yoma leid ecksai.”

“So, to continue,” she glowered at the barkeep, who hitched at his pants, Humphrey Bogart style. “I had to find the one person in Prairie’s End with a vested interest in massive quantities of vanilla. I looked at Old Man Reimer’s telephone bill and there it was!”

“1-800-PORN-R-US?” Corny offered.

“GO AWAY! Who invited you here, anyway, dü oult, roothoahrijch Tjreihohn?” Danielle yelled, now enraged at the bearded, freckled interloper.

“This expositional conclusion would go a lot smoother if the author had not inserted himself so rudely into the proceedings,” Roget said confidentially, looking directly at the reader and cracking the divide between the fictive and the fictee.

“Last chance!” Danielle said, making a threatening fist and regaining the floor. “I assumed it was Old Man Reimer, trying to make a few bucks off the books before flipping the Reimer Reindeer company to his ne’er do well stepson Ben, or to Wade,  but…” she paused, glaring at Corny Süppsach, who retreated, showing surprisingly good footwork for an old, red-haired, loudmouth rooster.

“But,” she continued, “Dikj Wulf had even thought of that and he had snuck into Reimer’s trailer and made all of the calls back to CBC Toronto, Mexico, and the Montreal Vanilla District from there. That’s why I figgered it was Old Man Reimer,” she concluded, raising her glass in a self-toast.

* * *

Unseen, in a black Cadillac parked across from the Shrieking Rooster, Juanita sat with her inscrutable leader, Randy the schinda Accounts Receivable clerk. The car idled quietly, sending a thin ribbon of white exhaust up towards the winter stars of the Northern Hemisphere. Dark tinted glass gleamed the starlight back at the sky.

“Shep Kowalski—AKA Dikj Wulf—is in for five-to-ten, Little Ben and Wade have agreed to our terms in exchange for ownership of Reimer Reindeers, and our friends at the vainilla cartel are most pleased with the way we’ve cornered the market in Canada. That just about does it, Oomtje Randy. Anything else you’d like done before Oarless and that half-wit return to the NorthWest Angle?”

Randy sat unmoving in the back seat. His neatly trimmed white hair contrasted with his dark tailored suit, and the perfect Winsor knot in his cashmere Paolo Albizzati.  After flicking a bored glance at Juanita, he inhaled with languid slowness, filling his chest with  Caddy interior air. Without moving his lips, Randy replied in perfect synthesizer pitch:

“DOON, DOON!”

 

The End… For now.

Fade to black, roll credits, playback theme music

Addendum, 11.19.18: Here’s a few lines of lyric for the theme music, somewhat reminiscent of “The Sopranos” maybe, or “Fresh Off the Boat”, wiv jus a sprinkle aw Mike Skinner innit too, oiy?

♫ All rise for Menno rap…
Praise God from whom
Yo, we’re singing the dox,
harmonizin’ the dox
All creatures here be–yooooo
Yo, we sinje the dox!
Yo, we sinje the dox!
Got my oab boots on
Where’s my MAGA hat, Don?
Gonna drain that pond
from da lowlands yon
Gonna eat my schnectje–get yer own, my maun!
Ain’t no buttons!
Ain’t no buttons!
Ain’t no buttons!
HEAR THE HOOK!:
Yo, we’re singing the dox,
harmonizin’ the dox
All creatures here be–yooooo
Yo, we sinje the dox!
Yo, we sinje the dox!
And soowaut…

 

MORNING SERIAL: PRAIRIE’S END, MANITOBA 4

Episode Four: Johnny Cash Lyrics or True Confessions? or Quintana Roo’s on First?

Lieutenant Danielle Oarless looked at Juanita and inhaled deeply. She ‘inspired’, as Roget might suggest, both literally and figuratively. Rising up to her full six feet four inches, in heels, she said this:

“Ms. Juanita, I applaud you. I send kudos and sunshine your way, madam, for all that you do. I give respect for the way you ROCK that red paisley neck scarf over top of the pale silkiness of that Winners champagne blouse. I extoll your virtues to Gaia for the all-in way you have come here to stand up for your son, Wade…”

“Two thumbs up!” Roget added, gesturing appropriately with digits heavenly opposed.

“But,” Oarless broke off the accolades, slamming Wade’s briefcase down on the table with the loud slap of worn cowhide. “I’m afraid your ruse has been unsuccessful!”

Roget quickly retracted his thumbs.

“While your breath carries the distinctive scent of vanilla extract, and your slightly dilated pupils indicate you did actually imbibe, I am able to see past this. It is a rather well-conceived but nonetheless false furnishing. The true architecture of your story is revealed as follows,” Oarless prowled the floor like Hasterer, German fiction’s most formidable Prosecuting Attorney.

“ONE!” she said in a forceful voice, at which time Roget needed no further prompt and immediately raised an index finger, in digital support of her pending argument. “The presence of vanilla is simply a prop, I submit, and it profits not the bank account of your credulity.” At this point, Oarless undid a bobby pin and her hair cascaded luxuriantly about her linebacker shoulders.

“In the same way, you have brought along vanilla ice cream to support the idea that you are a ‘bean-head’—a vanilla addict—and that this condition is your MOTIVE for smuggling vanilla into Canada. Correct?”

Without removing her baleful stare from Oarless, Juanita reached into her handbag and withdrew a large slice of angel food cake. She took a cheek-bulging bite and chewed steadily, nodding once in agreement.

“Fine,” Oarless continued, pivoting on a stiletto heel to more squarely face her adversary. “Tell us, Juanita, what flavouring agent is used in French Vanilla ice cream?”

“Pure vanilla bean,” Juanita screamed for ice cream without hesitation.

“WRONG!” Lieutenant Oarless screamed back into the reverberating confines of the observation room. “As any true bean-head would tell you, French Vanilla is a faint replica, made using egg custard. Only a trace amount of vanilla is present!” With that conclusive pronouncement, Oarless whirled, winked twice at Roget and pointed two hooked horns with bedazzled nails at Juanita. “Two!” she hissed.

Her engine revving, Danielle Oarless spoke with her back to Juanita. “Tell us, Juanita, where do the beans orig—in—nate? Madagascar, perhaps?”

Juanita stuck out her cake-coated tongue at Oarless, squinted her eyes and said, “Mex—ee—co!”

“Easy one. But, Juanita, which province in Mexico?” Oarless replied, whirling around, eyes aglitter.

While Juanita squirmed in her chair, Oarless slid her fierce scrutiny over to Little Ben. He too seemed to be sitting on a bed of hot coals and fidgeted in his seat.

“Anything wrong, Senor Ben?” she asked, smirking. “Any idea which ‘province’ is home to the contraband in question, the van-eee-yah? Eh, Little Ben?”

mexico-map

“Stop it! STOP IT, IN THE NAME OF VERACRUZ STATE, the home of Vanilla planifolia!” after which dramatic correction, Ben proceeded to confess his seemingly inculpatory knowledge of vainilla and gave support to the Lieutenant’s theory that Juanita was more likely covering for someone else, rather than offering a true confession.

“But, I was not part of the conspiracy, I just love vanilla, that’s all!” Ben pled. “I’m no more guilty of el trafico del sabor than you, or Kowalski, or Wade Oswald!”

Juanita, meanwhile, had grown bored and was cleaning her purse out. Fresh angel food crumbs covered the floor and spilled out in fragrant abundance into the hallway.

Standing back against the wall where she could observe the prisoners through the glass, Oarless toggled the intercom switch and spoke: “Kowalski, open the door for a minute, would ya, please?”

Kowalski, giving her a perplexed pout through the one-way mirror, stood and swung the door open. Oarless watched the reactions of the three as she flipped the intercom back to the “Record Audio” setting.

In a minute, she could see a clear difference in the men. Wade and Old Man Reimer sat unaffected by the vanilla-scented air while Kowalski was clearly agitated and behaved like a dog that just caught a whiff of barbequed steak. She watched the unmistakable response as he sniffed repeatedly, nostrils flaring on the intake and his eyeballs swimming in near-swoon.

“I think we have our bandido de vainilla!” she said, tenting her fingers and resting a satisfied gaze on the guilty party.

Next: Showdown at the ¿Por qué? Corral

Interview with a Mennonite Imposter

http://bit.ly/MennoTOEWSba

Writer interviews can be kinda boring. This is a little more in the Mennonite wiseguy range of the register, but still—you know—predictably boring. And great fun to do, especially with such an engaging set of questions! My thanks to Editor Erin Unger.

 

MORNING SERIAL: PRAIRIE’S END, MANITOBA 3

Overshare: I wake up most mornings with a half a dozen characters, a plotline or two, and a bunch of run-on sentences doing the polka in my head with their work boots on. After the requisite morning constitutions are ratified, and the area is cordoned off with police tape, I oftentimes just let these night-grown inspirations fade away.

Well, no more! I am resolved to give my readers something to read! How about a good old-fashioned serial? Compelling, bent-widget characters with a rollicking plot fraught with lotsa knots, cliff-hangers and roundabouts that meet in the middle.

Roll, Reimer Reindeers, roll…

Episode Three: Everything must come to an end. Except for farmer sausage, that has two ends. (869 words, about an eight-minute read)

“Let’s put them in the penalty box,” Deputy-Inspector, Detective Lex Roget, Oarless’ partner said to the desk officer at the Prairie’s End Police Station.

“Ahh, gonna interrogate them, eh, Inspector?” the officer said, winking. He punched his palm with a clenched fist.

“It’s not what you think,” barked Roget, a cigar stub jammed into the corner of his expressive lips, “and by the way, Kowalski, it’s Detective Roget! Got it?”

“Yes, SIR! Detective Roget, sir. I’ve got it.”

“That’s good. In fact, it’s of benefit. Meritorious, even,” Roget said.

Old Man Reimer and Wade Oswald were cuffed, their hands behind their backs. Kowalski steered them and Randy the Accounts Receivable clerk ahead of him towards the Interrogation Room. They followed Danielle down the hallway. She carried Wade’s briefcase and commented to no one in particular, “Things ain’t changed a bit around here.”

Kowalski smiled at Roget and clucked his tongue. “Same old Danielle!”

“Same old, same old, or equally antiquated, you could also say,” Roget replied.

Little Ben sat in the observation room, one knee jackrabbiting spasmodically. He tapped fingertips on the tabletop in nervous counter-rhythm, waiting to see his father and Randy Randall, the despicable Accounts Receivable clerk, appear through the one-way glass.

* * *

“Thank you for your information, Mr. Reimer,” Lieutenant Danielle Oarless had said to him when he appeared in the Pembina, ND field office a few days earlier. The younger Reimer swore a deposition and provided powerful evidence to Oarless and Roget.

“Illegal transport of baking supplies is a scourge. It depletes U.S. stocks of vainilla negra extract, plus the VAT and income taxes that Canada loses to this flavour trafficking is significant too. Our agency normally puts more emphasis on illegal drugs, but the vainilla cartels are a growing problem. She pronounced it, “van-eee-yah,” enunciating with great care. Reimer took no notice, knowing this was, in fact, approximately the correct pronounciation, en español.

20181112_215326 vainilla vanilla

“Van-eee-yah? What is van-eee-yah? We’re talkin’ about the same stuff, eh? Vanilla extract, right? The brown stuff you put in whipped cream?” Roget asked, vexed. Oarless nodded, passing an odd, angry look at Roget as she did so.

It made no difference to Little Ben Reimer. Drugs, vanilla, or vainilla—his end game was purely to see his father go to jail. The fact that it was for the illegal importation of flavouring agents, el tráfico saborwas fine with him: crime is crime, was the way he looked at it. If he could get his old man out of the way, the path was clear for him to take over the company and show everyone what he could do.

“It’s always gonna be, Mr. Reimer, no more ‘Little Ben’!” he said under his breath as the two Border Patrol agents argued about something in hushed tones.

“I felt it was my duty to reveal the scheme,” Reimer said, adding a thick coat of verbal varnish.

“The trucks have false fenders,” he continued. “Bottles of extract, mostly vanilla—vainilla—but also some Almond and the occasional Mint from Quintana Roo and Guanajuato are hidden in bladders inside the wheel well,” he explained, speaking clearly into the recorder microphone. “The contraband is shipped into our Toronto terminal for Canadian distribution.”

“Ingenious,” Oarless muttered.

“Shrewd!” Roget said.

“And tattooed!” said the mildly hard-of-hearing Lieutenant.

* * *

And now the dominoes had begun to fall. Little Ben watched with predatory intensity as his father, Randy, and Wade Oswald sat in the sparsely furnished room, guarded by Kowalski. Oarless and Roget joined Little Ben in the observation chamber.

“What’s he doing here?” Little Ben demanded.

“Who?” Roget asked.

“Oswald! He’s the company accountant and it’s supposed to be his day off,” Little Ben said, then quickly added, “at least, I think so, anyway—not sure…”

Oarless and Roget exchanged a look.

“Like you say, he’s the accountant. You’d think he’d have to know about the smuggling, right? Anyway, we’ll find out soon enough if he’s dirty or not,” Danielle said, eyes narrowing below her unibrow.

“Good cop or bad cop?” she continued, looking down at Roget.

Bad, nefarious, irremediable,” Roget replied.

“Okay, Lex, old buddy,” Danielle said, “You’re up, as we used to say in Angle Inlet. Get in there and make them sweat!”

“Well, people say that just about everywhere. I mean, onomatologically, ‘You’re up’—that’s pretty common, it’s not geographically specific—” Roget stammered, but was interrupted (thank God!) when Juanita burst into the room, her mascara running in Tammy-like streaks down her cheeks. She posed dramatically, arms raised, and shouted,

“Stop! Hold yer damn horses!”

She paused with dramatic effect, her breath coming in heaving sobs as she looked lovingly through the glass at her cherished boy, Wade. Her teeth gritted, and the two trained law enforcement agents immediately noticed the brownish tinge on the enamel. In her hands she held a pint container of Blue Boy French Vanilla ice cream and a gleaming tablespoon, sparkling as only a recently licked spoon can…

“I did it,” she said in a wavering soprano. “I smuggled in the FREAKING VANILLA! It was me!” She threw the spoon down with a jangling clamour. “Plus, I shot a man down in Juarez, just to see— him— die!”

Next: Johnny Cash Lyrics or True Confessions?

or

Quintana Roo’s on First?

Please stand by: Episode Four will DROP on Friday @ 5:55 a.m. and Danielle is in NO MOOD to be messed with.