Monday, January 4, 2021

The Music Tree

 (The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

A hurricane-stricken oak tree has been reborn as a beautiful chainsaw artwork.

Not to be confused with the nearby Singing Oak tree in New Orleans’ City Park, the “Music Tree” does not make any music but rather pays tribute to it. This dead oak at the south end of Bayou St. John has been reborn as beautiful chainsaw artwork. 

The tree survived the water and wind of Hurricane Katrina only to be struck and killed by a bolt of lightning in 2012 during Hurricane Isaac. At the behest of the organizers of New Orleans’ annual Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, master chainsaw artist Marlin Miller set about transforming the tree after its unfortunate fate. 

Miller carved snakes, a fleur de lis, a phoenix-like eagle, guitars, a piano keyboard, and a pelican into the trunk of the tree. The gnarled branches became birds in flight. He drew from the area’s history for inspiration, specifically when the bayou served as the entryway for the French founding fathers of the city some 300 years ago—a passage likely witnessed by the old oak tree.

Know Before You Go
The tree is easily visible most of the year. It stands alone by the intersection of Orleans Avenue and Bayou St. John. For one weekend each year, however, the shores are packed with visitors to the city's music festival.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I Want to Believe

I realize that milestones like new year’s, birthdays, really all celebrations of our experience of time are on some level arbitrary. But still I find value in them as a point, individually and collectively, to look back and ahead. To appreciate the completion of a unit, of a chapter, an arc. And this year has left us all with a good bit more to reflect upon in both directions of the timeline. But this penultimate day of each year, for me, has added significance, as my friend Steven would have been forty five years old today. He did not suffer through 2020 with us, though I often thought of what he would have said or thought of it; nor is he able to turn the page on it with us. Here and not here – like so many others who did not get to see the first hint of daybreak after what felt, at times, like an endless, lightless, new moon midnight of a year. So it’s up to us to bring them along with us, all those we’ve lost during and prior to the pandemic, and they are great in number indeed. On Steve’s birthday I cannot give him a gift, but I can honor his memory by making my memories of him into a gift to you and to all who read this.

If you’ve been reading along over the past few years, you know that I credit my friend Steven with being critical to having discovered the path I find myself on now. Bearing that in mind, I’m entering this year with a deeper and greater commitment than ever before to experiencing and exploring the world around me. To delving into the many rabbit holes I find along the way towards uncovering hidden history, strange stories, and that which shapes or shift my perspective. To borrow a notion from Josh Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein,” I want to experience time as densely as possible for however much of it I have. And turning it not only into a passion but a vocation at the same time. Seems like a perfectly reasonable goal to me.

Before I can start the new year though with a clean slate, I need to make good on a promise to you. I’ve been laying the groundwork for some time, hinting at one specific experience I shared with Steve in my childhood that stands out for having unlocked a door that I’ve been peaking through ever since. It’s time at last to complete what has been one of the major arcs thus far in this ever-evolving story we’ve been sharing. Time to reveal that mystery at the heart for me of all unexplained and unknowable. That time I maybe witnessed magic. Real magic.

I should note that it also seems appropriate that Jen and I are currently watching the X-Files series in full. For years, since the series first aired, in fact, I’ve had standing on my desk a pair of Mulder and Scully action figures to which I have added more recently, a small stand replica of the “I Want to Believe” poster from Mulder’s basement office. I do want to believe, even if that means preserving some mysteries and leaving unanswered at least one important personal question.

The story I’ve been working my way towards telling you took place one summer about thirty years ago. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen at the time, if I remember correctly. We were at Blue Bell day camp that summer and both of us being rather athletically challenged, rather than being out on the baseball field or basketball courts, we more often selected activities like woodshop, ceramics or, as was the case on this day, computers. On the second floor of an old barn, the camp had set up several commodore 64 computers. We eagerly scampered up a rickety ladder, under cobwebs that had grown thick with the same dust that spun endlessly through the shafts of light from windows that appeared to have not been cleaned in years. If ever. Our reward for making it to the top was to to take a seat in front of one of the now archaic monitors and learn the basics of programming. If/then and Goto line X type commands. Long before the internet brought to us all HTML programming. Before even more than 64-bit graphics, this is back when computer games like Zork and Amnesia were entirely text based and the top of the line graphics at the time consisted of static images and 3D mazes of Wizardry or clunky Atari 2600 games.

On this particular day it was Steve and I and one, possibly two, other campers, and the instructor whose name I’ve long forgotten. I remember him being lanky with glasses and longish brown hair – maybe twenty years old. After maybe twenty or thirty minutes, one of the other two campers sitting a few terminals down from Steve and I made a series of audible groans and put his head down on the keyboard. The counselor came and sat down next to him.

“Everything ok?” he asked.

“Migraine” the camper said. He appeared to be slightly younger than Steve and I.

“I don’t have anything for headaches,” the counselor said. “But I can try something else.”

The camper gave his consent with a nod. The counselor put the palm of one hand just barely touching the camper’s forehead and his other hand behind the camper’s head. “I want you to visualize streams of color flowing from one of my hands into the other, right through your head. Picture blues, and greens. Picture waves of cobalt blue, of deep sea blue green, the sky blue of mid evening,” and so forth, describing in detail a variety of different blues and greens. Tranquil, calming colors delivered in a voice to match. After just a few minutes the camper widened his eyes in amazement.

“It’s gone.” He was clearly surprised. “Wait, how did you do that?”

“It’s something I’ve been studying and working on,” he explained, looking into each of our faces as we were all now curious, “called Kabalistic magic.”

Seeing that we were all now fully hooked, he continued. “It has to do with several spheres of different colors, each representing different properties.”

Without discussing it among ourselves we had all slid our chairs over and were gathered around him, fascinated.

“Here,” he said. “I’ll show you something else.”

He began rubbing his hands together as if he was rolling something in between his palms After a few moments he asked one of us to give him our hand. The migraine sufferer volunteered first. The magician moved his fingers in patters just centimeters above and below the camper’s outstretched hand.

“Weird” the camper said. “Feels like you’re touching my hand.” But we all observed that no contact had been made. The magician asked the kid to turn his head away and without looking, tell everyone what pattern the magician was making. First circles, then a series of squiggly lines, triangles, circles again. He went six for six.

Each of us tried it and to our surprise were easily able to discern the shapes being drawn on our hands. The magician explained that it had to do with electrical fields.

Maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t, but we were convinced at the time. Retrospectively, there are any number of scientific rather than magical explanations. The migraine trick was essentially just a guided meditation. And the patterns the magician drew on our hands without touching them could have simply been brushing against the fine hair follicles on the back of our hands. Of course, that wouldn’t explain why we felt it below on our palms as well, but perhaps that was just an imagined response.

The third and final demonstration was harder to fake.

“Every once in a while,” the magician confided, “I can create a thin beam of light between my fingers.”

We waited and watched. Again he rolled his hands together as if shaping putty. After a couple minutes of this, he balled his hands into fists and raised each of his index fingers. He moved his hands closer and further apart, trying to get the distance just right to produce illumination. And then…



And then what, you’re probably thinking?

There are, of course, only two possible outcomes. Either after straining to see some flicker we saw nothing at all, and the magician shrugged, saying that it doesn’t always work. Or as we all peered into the space between his fingers our faces began to glow from the bright filament-thin beam that connected his fingertips for a moment.

But I can’t tell you which one it was. Partly because I just can’t really trust the memory any further than I’ve taken it, and partly because, even if I could recall it with perfect clarity, I don’t think I’d reveal it. To do so would take away from you and from me something perhaps vastly more important than any objective truth could provide. As curious as I am about what I really saw or didn’t see, I’ve come to believe that not having an answer might just be the best possible answer. Like the dialog in an episode of the X-files, I can hear the dispute in my head between the rational Scully and the emotional Mulder. That rational voice says that nothing really happened - we were kids who saw what we wanted to see; the only magic we witnessed was that of the power of suggestion. But the voice of the believer asks, if it was such a clear-cut case of imagination run wild, why then is it still the subject of endless mental replay and blog posts some thirty years later?

Steve and I discussed it afterwards in hushed tones from time to time, neither one of us entirely sure what we actually saw. We talked about it less frequently over the years and gradually it just slipped away. It would have remained there in that void of lost childhood memories, had I not gone digging for it all these years later. And now, without the intersubjective confirmation of my friend who was there to witness it with me, it becomes even harder to discern. I suppose I could try to track down that computer counselor, or the kid with the migraine, but I know I won’t. 

Because I've come to believe that some mysteries deserve to be left unsolved.  

Monday, November 23, 2020

Five More Quotes

Previously, I shared seven quotes that came to the surface as I sifted through my memories and personal experiences. I have since continued to explore and recall phrases and sayings that somewhere or another became lodged in my mind and, for one reason or another, impacted me. I've decided to present there here in reverse chronological order, from newest to oldest in terms of when I first remember encountering them.

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
This is a more recent discovery, from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. It is only the first couple lines of the full stanza, which is, for me, deeply connected to my current literary endeavors, as truly all of my writing and exploration seems to be leading me to finally know for the first time all of the places I've been before. Even though it's only been within the past few years that I recall ever stumbling across this, it resonates with me and seems like it has been, somehow, a part of my consciousness for much longer. Like a tune you hum to yourself without realizing it's something you first heard decades ago and barely registered at the time, but has remained with you all the same.

“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity."
As with the T.S. Eliot Quote, it seems that this phrase has been rattling around in my head for much longer than it really has. The first time I'm sure I became aware of it was when I left my job in the corporate world for good, to launch my art rental business, Chicago Art Leasing. At the time, I remember a fellow entrepreneur sharing the phrase with me, as it applied to both of our endeavors at the time. Without realizing it, we had been building up the skill set to solve our own specific problems with a niche offering. Ultimately I left Chicago and let the business slip into stasis, but the phrase could apply equally to my more recent experience writing "Secret Tampa Bay: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure." It was something that I had been doing, visiting and writing about strange, unusual and unique places, before I realized that it was the making of a potential books. It's also possible that my father, who was an entrepreneur and pioneer in the clinical research industry, shared this quote with me when I was a child or teenager. It certainly sounds like the type of thing he would have imparted to me, but I can't be sure.

“In darkness dwells the people which knows its annals not."
This one clearly is from my Sophomore year as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It is one of two quotes cared into the front of the William L. Clements Library, which I don't think I ever once entered, ironically. I did, however, have to memorize this and other quotes around the campus during my semester pledging Sigma Phi. As a seeker of knowledge, even back then, it was a reminder of the illumination and insight provided by libraries, archives and other places I've spent a good bit of time in since.

“Tradition fades but the written record remains ever fresh.”
This is the other inscription outside of the Clements Library and one that I've pondered from time to time. Traditions do fade, and change both in practice and meaning, but does the written record remain ever fresh? Or does it too fade into obscurity over time and lose its meaning?

"No matter where you go, there you are."
This one takes me back to my early teen and even pre-teen years. It was just a line in the movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, which I watched at least a dozen times with my friend Steven. I think I spent an entire summer making that my response to just about everything. And while it was intended to be just a silly bit of dialog in a weird movie, I have found it to be surprising profound. When I moved to Seattle after college, which was just about as far as I could get from my point of origin, perhaps it was some part of myself I was looking to escape from. But I found then, as I have other times since, that you take you with you, wherever you go. Thankfully, being my own baggage seems today not so much like the burden it once did - I'm no longer running from myself and have, I think, made peace with my many flaws. But I also carry with me now not only myself, but those I've lost along the way - both metaphorically and literally. It was for this reason that I chose to use a variation of the quote in the dedication for my book.

I am sure that there are other phrases waiting to be uncovered as I continue the autoarchaeological dig that this blog has become for me. Perhaps there's some personal Rosetta Stone yet waiting to be found, that will translate and unify all such phrases as part of one single text. Maybe, once I've deciphered the cuneiform of my own experience, I'll find that I had the words out of sequence and old phrases will reveal some hidden meaning. A new tradition of refreshing the written record, perhaps.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Atlanta Adventure List

 The last time I had been to Atlanta was when I was writing business proposals for a family of consulting firms that included Proudfoot Consulting, more than a decade ago. When I visited the firm there, all I really saw was the inside of a conference room, a no frills hotel room and a strip club. Suffice it to say, this trip was of a very different nature. From the urban farm bed and breakfast that Jen found for us to the Midtown Music Festival that I procured tickets for, to the museums, art and offbeat sites, Atlanta vastly outperformed our expectations. It may not have ranked quite as high as Savannah, but still we loved it and we left more than enough on the table for future trips. 

  • Item #1: Some Were Quite Blind - we stopped on the way to inspect an unusual set of sculptures placed appropriately outside of the University of Florida's Animal Sciences Building.
  • Item #2: University of Florida Bat Houses: While we were there, we also paid a visit to the home of some 30,000 winged rodents.
  • Item #3: The Social Goat - Upon reaching our destination we checked into an urban farm B&B that was adorable, affordable and super comfortable.
  • Item #4: Adalanta Desert - One of many plaques placed throughout the country (of Kymaerica) detailing important sites and events in an alternate reality.
  • Item #5: Sparkles the Diva - Since Tinker Bell the Shih Tzu was traveling with us, it only seemed right to introduce her to another Instagram-famous canine.
  • Item #6: Ponce Market - Very much like Chelsea Market in New York, which comes as no surprise since it was developed by the same group.
  • Item #7: The Belt Line - As above, the Atlanta version of New York's High Line.
  • Item #8: Grant Park
  • Item #9: Tiny Doors Atlanta - Jen has a thing for faerie houses and gardens. Consequently we sought out some 20+ tiny doors planted throughout the city.
  • Item #10: Trader Vic's - I have a think for Tiki Bars, and Trader Vic's is one of the last of the originals. The food was great and we had to sample the drink they claim to have invented: the Mai Tai
  • Item #11: The Gravity Research Monument - On Emory's campus. It's one of a dozen or so along the East Coast, planted by Roger Babson, who truly loathed gravity. Long story for another time.
  • Item #12: Junkman's Daughter - All your vintage shopping dreams (or nightmares) come true. Actually a lot like Love Saves the Day in New Hope or Retro on Roscoe in Chicago.
  • Item #13: Vortex Bar - Entered through the mouth of a weird giant skull. (*Not on my list)
  • Item #14: The Martin Luther King National Historic Site: In a word, powerful.
  • Item #15: 54 Columns - A sculpture installation that locals seem to either love or hate.
  • Item #16: Oakland Cemetery - home to a number of memorable tombstones and final resting place of author Margaret Mitchell among others.
  • Item #17: Soaps & Antiques - While Jen shopped for soaps, I found my way down into a sprawling underground cavern of antiques and treasures. Unexpected and better than imagined.
  • Item #18: Music Midtown - We attended both nights and caught performances by Seven Seconds to Mars, Portugal the Man, Foster the People, Billie Eilish, Fallout Boy, Sylvan Esso, Imagine Dragons and others. Probably the best two-day line up Jen and I have attended together.
  • Item #19: Doll's Head Trail - Sort of like taking a hike through the set of a Blair Witch film. Equal parts fascinating and disturbing. 
  • Item #20: Grant Park Farmer's Market (*Not on my list)
  • Item #21: The sideways grave of Sideways the Dog. 
  • Item #22: Noguchi Playscapes - Geometric and vaguely brutalist artwork, made fun for kids.
  • Item #23: Krog Street Tunnel - Where Atlanta's street art lives.
  • Item #24: The Crowley Mausoleum - In the middle of a big box retail store parking lot.
  • Item #25: Cator Woolford Gardens - A little known garden just minutes from downtown Atlanta. We didn't venture too deep into it, as we were being eaten alive by insects, but it was well worth the visit.
  • Item #26: Margaret Mitchell House - Gone With the Wind is one of Jen's favorites of southern literature. The book has become somewhat more problematic of late, but it remains a defining and important work, even if the lost paradise it portrays was only ever paradise to some.
  • Item #27: Autoeater - As the name implies, a marbleized sculpture eating a car. (*Not on my list)
  • Item #28: Coca-Cola World - Just like Disney. Without the rides. And a carbonated soft-drink instead of an animated mouse.
  • Item #29: Westview Cemetery - Largest in the Southeast and full of fascinating history.
  • Item #30: Barbie Beach - On the way home we had to stop off in Senoia to see a few things.
  • Item #31: Senoia Main Street - This tiny town is a mecca for television and movie magic. It is perhaps most recognizable as Woodbury and a few other towns in The Walking Dead.
  • Item #32: The Titan I Missile - Another brief stop on the way home.
  • Item #33: Giant Peanut Monument - Our last stop on the return trip.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Losing the Thread

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain" - Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) in Bladerunner

It's a problem with trying to capture one's personal history that it continues to happen, sometimes far faster than the pen can keep pace with. It reminds me of that unsettling movie effect where a hallway seems to elongate before you. Our world keeps changing; my personal world along with it (and sometimes against it). I started out wanting to tell the story of two awkward kids who became friends and spent their days creating their own world together rather than trying to fit into the one that didn't seem all that interested in having them. I wanted to tell the story of my friend Steven, and I feel that thread slipping through my fingers.

Those moments are getting lost in time. Riding together to Blue Bell Day Camp in the back of a packed car, listening as "That's All" by Genesis or "Always Something There to Remind Me" by Naked Eyes came on the radio while we laughed at our driver's dirty jokes. Sitting on log benches and listening to Burt the science counselor tell spooky stories and somehow transcended his nerdiness to become "cool" for just as long as his tales lasted. Watching Blade Runner, The Thing, Eddie and the Cruisers, and Buckaroo Banzai again and again and again.

I can feel those things slipping by and past me, like photos being plucked form an album by the wind from the deck of a boat and coming to land for a moment on the surface of the water before drifting down into the depths.

Procuring matching key chain switchblades (the blades being all of an inch long) from the back of a voodoo shop together on South Street after browsing through the assortment of punk rock tee shirts at Zipperheads and grabbing a cheese steak from Inky's. Playing computer and first generation Nintendo games until our eyes were dried out and bloodshot. Reading Tolkein riddles and comic books. 

There's more. I'm almost there, but I need to keep hold of the loose thread, before it unravels entirely, taking that part of me along with it. I know I can't quite reach that point in my past anymore than an asymptote can ever connect with the line it leans infinitely towards, but I can keep getting closer to it. That thread, that story of who I was, is also the story of how I got to be who I am now. As it is for all of us. 

Stick with me, and I'll pull it all together soon, I promise. A picture is even now emerging from the scattered puzzle pieces, and I'll get us to that mystery at the heart of things, before it's all washed away.

Like tears in rain.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Star Power

I debated including this chapter in the book but ultimately decided against it for two reasons: 1) Scientology is always very actively recruiting down here so I was reluctant to send folks into its headquarters, and 2) I didn't want the church itself to take any offense (even though I've tried to keep my own opinions out of the writing). That said, I present it here for you.

Star Power

What’s that huge building in the middle of Clearwater with the unusual bronze cross on top?

Inevitably, any discussion about the nature and composition of Clearwater must touch upon its long, complicated and often contentious relationship with the Church of Scientology. The Flag Building (sometimes referred to as the Super Powers Building) represents the spiritual headquarters of the church, the largest building in the city and ground zero in the ongoing power struggle between the two.

Science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard incorporated the first church of Scientology in Camden New Jersey in the 1950's, with the mission of reawakening human beings to their forgotten immortal natures as “thetan.” The organization quickly spread to other locations, and as early as the 1970’s began acquiring land in Clearwater.

Construction on the Flag Building began in 1998 and was completed fifteen years later. The building’s primary purpose is to deliver a training course called the Super Power Rundown, designed to enable Scientologists to fully utilize all 57 of their sense (what they refer to as “perceptics”).

The 127,000 square foot building (which includes a 15 story tower) has an assessed valued of $80M. It features 889 rooms as well as theaters for training, a bookstore, library and separate museums honoring the church’s elite Sea Org and its founder L. Ron Hubbard. A bridge connects it to the Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel. 

When the building opened its doors on November 17th, 2013, it did so in a ceremony attended by thousands of members including some high profile celebrities such as John Travolta and Tom Cruise.

Whatever your opinion is on the legitimacy of Scientology as a religion, it seems to have become a permanent feature of Clearwater, reminding the local sun worshipers that the star at the center of our own solar system is just one such celestial body available for their devotion. 

What: The Flag Building

Where: 215 South Fort Harrison Avenue.

Cost: Free to view from outside, 10% of your income if you decide to become a regular

Pro Tip: Scientology in Clearwater is extremely active in recruitment, so unless you’re in the market for a new set of religious beliefs, you might want to view the building from the outside.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Stillman's Dog

 I've gotten into the habit each year around this time of trying to conjure up an appropriate story for Halloween. This particular one was written a year or two back. While the connection between felines and witchcraft has a long history, Tinker Bell thought it was a little insulting that canines (excepting, of course, wolves) have been largely excluded from tales of the supernatural. At which point it dawned on me that I'd never really read a story specifically about a Hell Hound. So, with the help and inspiration of my own miniature hell hound, who is this moment ferociously licking my toes under the desk, I give you Stillman's Dog. Enjoy and have a happy and safe Halloween.

Stillman’s Dog

When I’ve got time to wait here, sitting on the old log carved up with more initials, prayers, promises and foul language than could fill a volume, I think back to my grandpa. If I had the inclination I bet could find his initials somewhere on this log. Or maybe his first wife’s name, which I only ever heard him speak aloud but once.

Growing up my sisters and I thought he was a bit funny, quirky rather, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I added up all those pieces to see a very different picture. Like the bandage he always wore around the palm of his right hand. Over the summers when we would visit from out east, my sisters would spend more time with their grandmother, baking and doing whatever else it is that girls do when visiting grandmothers. Grandpa Stillman would take me fishing, or tell me stories about the Native Americans that lived in these parts centuries before. He claimed it was one of their old trails that led him to the very goldmine which would make our family a fortune, and later make him the first Mayor of Stillman, Montana.

I remember one time, I must have been about seven, and my sisters and I had just been to Disney World, so we brought all of our treasures and trinkets with us when we came to visit. I had one of those leashes for an invisible dog, and I must have walked the thing over every inch of every acre of the land around the estate. Grandpa pulled me aside one afternoon and confided to me that he had an invisible dog too. I can still taste the pipe tobacco from his mouth like a translucent wrapper around each word he spoke.

“Dogs can be a great friend to you or a vicious and terrifying beast, but all of em are loyal as hell, and I do mean that literally. But no matter what. You must always, always feed your dog. No. Matter. What.” That last part he highlighted with a swish of his long, bony and liver-spot speckled finger.

I’d never seen him with a dog, or with any animal for that matter, so I thought he was just being strange. I filed that information away in my head along some of the other peculiar things he did, like filling a watering can each night with earth from the large glass jars he kept in the shed, and pouring out a fine line under each windowsill and doorway. Always it was gone by the time I woke up, well after sunrise, but I saw him come creep into my room at night and pour out that dirt. I pretended to be asleep, but if, as I pretty well suspect, he knew I was awake, it didn’t bother him a lick. One time I could have sworn he looked back at me over his shoulder and gave me a funny little grin that parted his mustache like a white curtain and made his dark eyes twinkle under his bushy white brows.

Still got another twenty minutes, so sayeth the old silver pocket watch he left for me. Kronos, he called it. Doesn’t need any winding, any maintenance at all he said. Had some special jeweler in New York make it for him, and just to be extra sure he would keep his weekly appointment, he had it inscribed with a phrase in his inimitable script. “You must always feed your dog.”

Always on Thursday nights, around ten at night, while my sisters and I were supposed to be sleeping, I would see from my window as light from the house spilled out onto the back porch and path, and then vanished as the door shut. And grandpa would walk out a few steps, flip open his silver pocket watch, and then stride off into the darkness, moving quietly but with purpose. He was always back in the morning as if nothing had happened. The only difference was on Friday mornings, he always had a fresh bandage around his right hand. I asked him a dozen times where he went and each time he would respond with something vague – that he had been to a place that was betwixt and between, or that he had to go feed his dog, or sure up his investments for the future.

It was the summer I was eleven that I finally mustered the courage to follow him. While he’d never strictly forbidden me or my sisters from doing so, the look that came across his face when he asked if we could go with him always made us think twice about asking again. It wasn’t that he was angry about it, which would have probably been less odd. It was an expression we only ever saw on those few occasions when we asked. I can’t speak for my sisters, but for me, it was like suddenly a mask had slid off of his face and beneath was someone I’d never seen before.

I know now, of course, that it was fear.

Ten minutes left, so it’s time to prepare for my weekly rendezvous. Give me just a moment, while I unwrap the bandage around my right hand and remove the wickedly curved blade from the sheath hanging from my belt. Moon’s out tonight and I catch a near perfect reflection of it on the cool metal, pocked with little tick marks that a professor once told me was a long dead language called cuneiform. I could tell he was impressed because he’d whispered the words like he was nervous that the blade might hear him talking about it.

But I want to finish up before my friend arrives. Where was I… Eleven. It was the summer I was eleven that I decided to sneak out after my grandpa and see what he was up to. It was the last night that my sisters and I were staying there before returning home to our folks to start the school year. I gave him a good ten minute head start on me and wore all black, with bootblack smeared all over my face. Thought I was all smart and stealthy like a ninja. I trailed him up about three quarters of a mile to the intersection where, for reasons I have never understood, Road Street becomes Street Road (although both are no more than glorified dirt paths). I ducked into the woods and the shadows the few times grandpa Stillman stopped and made as if to turn around. But he didn’t.

So I hid there. And I waited. And I watched. Grandpa Stillman, he just sat there on this same log I’m sitting on now, staring out into the dark. It felt like I waited there for an eternity with every manner of insect buzzing in my ears and biting me, and my legs starting to cramp up from being in an awkward crouch, but just as I was about to leave, everything got quiet. The crickets and birds and who all knows what else all went dead silent. Grandpa noticed it too – he stood up, dusted off his pants and went out to the center of the intersection. With his hands out in an “I mean you no harm” sort of position.

I heard a sound like the rumble of a low engine and what sounded like two sets of footfalls, one right behind the other, crunching on the dirt and gravel road. But no one was there. I peered closer, and watched Grandpa unwind the bandage from his hand, and then raise the blade, the one I hold now, up over his head. The crunching sound got closer, right up next to me, and I smelled something foul, but I stayed put. Then the crunching stopped – I could feel every nerve in my body screaming, the hair on my neck stood up and I watched as two puffs of steam hit me square in the face from the nostrils of an animal that wasn’t there. I was looking right at, right through it, and I knew it was there. I could feel its menace. The smell of its breath, like the very worst kind of rot, made me gag, but still I remained frozen. And then the foot falls resumed.

“Well, let’s get on with it then,” Grandpa said as he drew the blade across his palm, reopening the gash that his bandages concealed. He held out his hand and it seemed to disappear into the creature’s invisible maw, accompanied by a sickening slurping sound.

This went on for some minutes, grandpa going white as a sheet, until finally the sounds died out and he withdrew his hand. He wrapped back up his hand and things would have been fine, except that a twig snapped under me and I shifted my weight, rattling a branch. Grandpa turned towards me and so did the beast, which let out a terrifying growl.

“Stay, boy. Let it go.” Grandpa commanded.

It turned it’s eyes on me, two hot coals, glowing red in the center, emanating heat, and darkening towards the edges. Like looking into two twin pits to the burning core of the earth.

Another minute passed and it slunk off in the other direction, it’s invisible paws crunching the dirt and gravel, and Grandpa turned and made his way home, walking right past my hiding place. I sat there for a good long while, until the critters all started back up with their night time noises. And then I waited a bit longer for my pants to dry. It was well after midnight when I got back to find the door unlocked. I beat it up to my bed and hid under the covers, shaking the whole rest of the night.

When I came down to breakfast the next morning, there was Grandpa, all smiles as he wolfed down his pancake and sausage links. He looked over at me and smiled, “you look like you seen a ghost, boy.”

I shrugged it off and told him I’d had a bad dream.

“Did you now?” he inquired. “Why, I used to have one myself. I’d wake up thinkin I’d been face to face with some terrible beast that wanted my blood.”

“What, what did it look like?” I stammered.

“Funny thing, that” he said. “It didn’t look like anything at all. Completely invisible to the human eye.” He winked at me, and if I didn’t before, at that moment I knew he knew that I’d been out there watching.

I didn’t come back the next summer – joined a friend at an overnight camp. And the summer after that I played possum, prolonging my flu for months. Grandpa never traveled far, so I didn’t have to face up to him. But the summer I was fourteen, my parents were dead set on sending me. And it was fine – Grandpa and I didn’t talk about the beast. We took back up our fishing and hiking and I didn’t dare follow him out to the crossroads on Thursday nights. At the end of that Summer though, he took me for a long hike to a part of the property I’d never been to, where alongside a stream was a stone bench and a statue of a young woman. Over the years, the elements had worn down and chipped her long hair and dark pools under her eyes made it look like she was forever crying. 

“Know why I’ve taken you here?” he asked me.

I shook my head no, even though I did.

“This is where I laid to rest my first wife, Lizbeth.”

And there in the shadow of the monument to his lost love, he told it to me straight, that what I’d seen him do that one night was real and that one day, hopefully not for a long time yet, but one day I’d have to do as he did. That it was a deal he made that we needed to keep and so long as we fed the dog once a week our family would prosper.

“And if I don’t?” I asked.

He just pointed to the statue, his eyes shining and wet, and he shook his head. “Once we thought as you do, that maybe we could outrun it or escape it. But that thing, I suspect, is a lot older and a lot smarter than any of us. It’s bound to us by our own blood now, and there’s no getting away from that. When I didn’t show up that once, I could feel it watching me every night, just waiting to get at me. And when my darling stepped out for a minute, just one minute, after sunset, she never came back. Snatched right off the porch. Took me more the better part of a week to gather up enough of her to bury.” He didn’t have to say anything else. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

On the way back to the house he told me to go and enjoy my life. Go to college somewhere nice. Travel the world, as far and wide as I could, for one day I’d be bound to this land as he was.

And I did. I worked at all manner of jobs and lived in more places than I can almost recall. I got a degree in business, but also studied plenty of literature and history, always looking to understand the terms and nature of the bargain my grandpa had struck, looking for some way to escape what I knew was inescapable. My research into the occult just left me with more questions than answers. Churchill’s black dog, for instance. That one always intrigued me. Maybe he was talking about something more literal than depression. I wonder about that, I wonder what you’d have to offer up to win a world war.

I still came to see Grandpa for the summers. My sisters were older – two were in college and one was already married, so it was just me the summer I turned eighteen. That summer took me back with him to feed the dog again. He showed me how to sharpen the blade till its edge is so keen you don’t even feel it slice your hand. He taught me to tell when the beast was done feeding, and to keep your hand steady before it for just a moment afterward so that its fiery hot breath would cauterize the wound.

You hear that? Nothing, right? All of a sudden, all the buzzing and humming and rustling in the woods has ceased, which means it will be here in just a few moments. I can just about hear it now.

That’s fine, my story’s mostly come to an end. There isn’t much more to tell – my Grandpa passed, ten years ago this month, and left me the house, the business, the blade and the beast. And the past ten years have seen my family and our business prosper. The same land that yielded veins of pure gold for my grandpa offered up to me a pool of rich, dark oil. So much good luck as to be nearly impossible. And we’ve expanded our operations, preparing for a public offering some time next year if the market’s right for it.

Of course, I run things mostly from right here these days. Skype, zoom, twitter, email, they bring the world to me. I drive the two hours to Bozeman once or twice a week, but mostly I prefer to stay close by. Call it risk management if you like.

For my part I just try to stay focused on making smart deals. 

And paying off the old ones.