Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Romeo by Tim Baker

In the summer of 1964 I was 11 years old.

As far as 11-year-olds went I was an average kid. I did fine in school, I had lots of friends. I loved sports and G.I. Joe. I hated vegetables and my younger sister.

Statistically I fell into the category that seemed prevalent in my part of town, another child from a broken home being raised by a single mother on welfare.

We lived in a quiet area with no violence, the sort of place where you could leave your doors unlocked all of the time. Everybody was friends with everybody else.

There was one interloper though.

Nobody knew his real name, everyone called him Romeo, for his tendency to “roam” the streets of the neighborhood constantly with no apparent destination. For that matter he had no known point of origin either, but every day, regardless of the weather, he would walk by my house between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m.

He stood about 5’-3” and was slightly underweight. The permanent smile attached to his pumpkin shaped face gave him the look of a harmless gnome. As for his age, I had him pegged for somewhere between 60 and 125. His wardrobe was as constant as his schedule. Long brown woolen overcoat that was much older than I was, a tattered black knit watch cap, flannel shirt and tan work pants that hadn’t seen a washing machine since the Great Depression and worn brown work boots with soles as thin as paper.

As he walked he continually worked his hands as though he was trying to wash them and he talked to himself in a non-stop stream of nonsensical gibberish. His voice was only slightly more masculine than Mickey Mouse.

During that summer I had a friend named Al who lived three quarters of a mile from my house. Since it was summer vacation I would get out of bed at the first sign of light in the morning, eat my Cap’n Crunch while watching Captain Kangaroo, grab my baseball glove and rush to Al’s house in order to begin the day’s adventures.

After the first week of vacation I noticed that Romeo and I had the same schedule, he would be walking by my house just as I was leaving to go to Al’s. At first I shied away from him, sometimes running all the way to Al’s in order to avoid him. After all there were rumors rampant in the neighborhood that he was everything from an escaped mental patient to a crazed war veteran who was nearly blown to smithereens by a hand grenade, and everything imaginable in between.

During the third week of vacation I was on my way out of the front yard heading to Al’s and sure enough Romeo was just passing the front yard. Doing my best to avoid him I hooked my baseball glove over the handle of my Louisville Slugger and put the bat on my shoulder as I began running. Unfortunately the glove slipped off the handle of the bat and landed right between my feet causing me to go ass over tea kettle into the street directly in the path of a Ford station wagon.

I was so distracted and it happened so fast that I don’t know what I was aware of first, the vision of a white wall tire rapidly approaching my head, or the grip of a meaty hand on the back of my tee-shirt pulling me out of harms way. The one thing I was sure of was that despite the screeching tire and the thick white smoke pluming behind it, the car was not going to stop in time to avoid crushing my head the way a size 10 work boot would crush a spider.

When I recovered from the initial shock I turned to look at my savior, Romeo. He mumbled something incomprehensible and smiled at me before setting me down and continuing on his way.

For the rest of the summer Romeo and I walked to Al’s house together every day. His smile was ever present and he spoke continuously, although I never did understand a word he said. At times I would say things to him and he would look at me and smile before a string of jumbled words flowed from his mouth. I never knew if he was responding to what I had said or if it was just a continuation of what he had been uttering before I interrupted him.

It didn’t matter, we were friends. There was no clear cut communication between us, but I saw it in his eyes. For the rest of the summer I endured the taunts from all the kids in the neighborhood for associating with a known loonie, because he was my friend.

Shortly before school started that September my Mom got a job two towns away and we had to move. It was our first real house she said, one that we could call our own. I didn’t know what that meant; I thought the house we were renting was our own.

I never saw Romeo again.

Over the years I often wondered what happened to him. A few years ago I decided to research my old friend.

It wasn’t easy but what I found was that Romeo’s real name was Sol Weismann. After being liberated from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 he was brought to the U.S. and spent the rest of his life in a series of institutions for the mentally ill, one of which was just a mile or two from where I lived that summer.

He died in 1976 at the age of 67 leaving no known family.

I have often tried to imagine the horrors that he witnessed and the pain that he suffered for most of his life, all that the hands of people to whom he had done no wrong. Yet his smile was as constant as the stars in the night sky. Those memories helped to forge my outlook on life. I resist the urge to judge people, or to criticize that which I don’t know. I never refuse the friendship of another for any reason. But perhaps the thing that I try to remember the most is that no matter how hopeless life may seem, how insurmountable my problems may be, they are insignificant compared to some.Romeo saved my life in the summer of 1964 and he continues to save it to this day.

The Demon II by Tim Baker

The Demon by Tim Baker

The darkness was complete, relieved only by intermittent flashes of white brilliance followed by thunder claps that would silence a freight train. The rain threatened to tear the skin from my bones.
I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t imagine an agony worse than my own heart exploding from a combination of terror and exhaustion.
I stumbled through an eternal void until my head struck my own tombstone.
Rolling onto my back I confronted the demon that pursued me.
There was no silver bullet to save me and no wooden stake to drive through its heart.
I was my only weapon and I had nothing left to fight with.
The voice came through the black void and drowned out the thunder.
“It’s time.”
I tried to resist the bony fingers that gripped my shoulder. I screamed an incomprehensible protest.
The skeletal vise tightened as I tried to retreat into the tombstone behind me.
“Resistance will only cause more suffering,” the voice from beyond the grave said.
Thunder roared as the rain pelted me.
Somewhere in the distance voices cried for mercy as the demon reached for other souls.
I heard mine the loudest.
The demon thrust a sword into my hand. Against my wishes, my fingers curled around the beautifully carved handle.
Lightning ricocheted off the gleaming razor-sharp edge, mesmerizing me and draining my will to fight, surely something so perfectly crafted would not harm me.
Acting on its own volition my hand raised the lustrous blade over my throbbing chest.
The demon’s laugh pierced my ears and reverberated through my skull.
“Gaze on the beauty that will carve a piece of your soul for me,” it cried with perverse delight.
A scream died in my throat, my depleted body strained to summon whatever strength was left.
The blade moved closer to my chest. With every inch my will to fight lessened and the demon’s screams of pleasure soared.
Summoning the last of my strength, I looked into the eyes of the demon.
“It is pointless,” the demon roared over the thunder. “You are unable to fight me. You will be mine.”
I stared defiantly into his icy black eyes. The longer I locked eyes with him the more strength I found.
The knife stopped its journey and hovered above my chest, a small victory that gave me the will to continue the battle.
I forced the blade higher, my strength increased and I regained the ability to speak.
“I will not surrender,” I told the demon.
The demon grew quiet. The rain stopped. The lightning and the thunder seemed to move away.
I could feel the demon’s fear. I had only to release the handle of the sword and I would be free.
“Do not let go,” the demon begged weakly.
“You will not take me tonight,” I said.
I released my grip on the blade as the sun broke through the clouds. The sword vanished.
The demon retreated with the darkness.
I stood and raised my face to the warmth of the sun. I was fearless. I had the energy of ten men.
The demon was gone. I had beaten him off and survived the ordeal. I was free.
It has been a long time since I defeated the demon but I did not kill him. He still lurks in the shadows of my spirit waiting for my weakness to open the door.
Every day the battle begins anew and every day I call upon myself to fight.
And every victory is easier than the one before.

The Demon by Tim Baker

The Demon by Tim Baker

The darkness was complete, relieved only by intermittent flashes of white brilliance followed by thunder claps that would silence a freight train. The rain threatened to tear the skin from my bones.
I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t imagine an agony worse than my own heart exploding from a combination of terror and exhaustion.
Perhaps in an attempt to satisfy my desire for death my foot found an immovable object hurtling me through an eternal void until my head struck the tombstone of somebody whom I had never met.
Rolling onto my back I decided to face the demon that pursued me.
There was no silver bullet to save me and no wooden stake to drive through its heart.
I was my only weapon and I had nothing left to fight with.
The voice came through the black void and drowned out the thunder.
“It’s time.”
Part of me tried to fight the bony fingers that gripped my shoulder.
I heard myself scream an incomprehensible protest.
The skeletal vise tightened on my shoulder as I tried to retreat into the tombstone behind me.
“It’s time,” the voice from beyond the grave said.
Thunder roared as the rain pelted me.
Somewhere in the distance voices cried for mercy as the demon reached for other souls.
Mine was the loudest.
Somehow my arm came up to shield my face from the bright light emanating from the demon’s fingertips.
“It’s time,” my mother said. “Come on, it’s time to wake up.”

Water Hazard by Tim Baker

"When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water."Benjamin Franklin

Water Hazard
By Tim Baker

The motor home glided along Route 40 toward the Ocala National Forest effortlessly pushing the warm night air aside. In its wake it left a turbulent mixture of dead love bugs and diesel fumes.

From his perch in the driver’s seat, 76-year-old Herb Thomas watched the black carpet of Florida highway roll up to and pass beneath his wheels like the mat of a gigantic treadmill. The moonless night and unlit back country road prevented him from seeing more than a hundred feet ahead. His headlights preceded him through the solid wall of night.

Theresa stretched her arms over her head and yawned from the passenger seat. Taking his eyes from the road briefly he looked over at his wife.

“Did you have a nice nap?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” she offered. “How long was I out?”

“Only about a half hour,” he told her.

“Where are we?”

“Coming up to the St. John’s River, we’ve still got an hour and a half to go.”

The inside of the RV was quiet with the exception of oldies soundtrack coming from the satellite radio receiver. Herb gently guided the vehicle around a slight bend in the road. As he rounded the curve he spotted a set of headlights in his side view mirror. Either the vehicle had been riding very close to his rear end or it had come up quickly because he hadn’t seen a car in the last thirty minutes.

Up ahead he noticed the flashing red drawbridge light and saw the gate arm was down. Lifting his foot from the gas pedal he let the RV coast to a stop. The two halves of the draw bridge extended skyward like two skyscrapers tilted slightly towards one another.

The Searchers sang about “Love Potion Number Nine” as Herb waited for the bridge to lower.

In his peripheral vision Herb noticed the glow of headlights come to a rest behind him. A few seconds later as he watched a tugboat pull a barge along the river, he was startled by a quiet tep on his window.

A well-dressed man in his mid-thirties stood on the street holding a road map in his hand and used the universal sign for Herb to roll his window down. Herb did so and politely asked the man if he needed help.

“Yes sir,” the man said in a gentle southern drawl. “I seem to have gotten myself good and lost.”

The man held up the road map and stepped closer to the RV as Herb put the shifter in park and climbed down to offer assistance.

“Where’re you headed?” Herb asked stepping up for a look at the map, only to see that it was a map of Minnesota. Herb got an immediate sense that something was wrong but as he looked up he found himself looking into the barrel of a semi-automatic pistol.

His first thought was that this man didn’t look like the type to be carrying a gun. He was well dressed with neat black hair and handsome brown eyes. The only flaw in his face was the familiar scar of cleft palette surgery on his upper lip.

“Just get on back in the motor home sir,” he told Herb in a polite tone that was totally contradictory to the gun in his hand.

Herb stumbled up the step into the vehicle as Theresa sang the final fade out chorus with The Searchers. The man nudged Herb with the gun and told him to climb over the seat and sit on the floor next to his wife. Then he leaned back and signaled to the vehicle behind them. Herb heard a car door open and close. A second man trotted up behind the first. Herb could not see him due to his position on the floor.

“All right then, Donny,” the first man said, “it’s all up to you now.”

“You got it, Mitch,” Donny replied.

Theresa looked over in confusion.

“Herb, what’s going on?” she asked with a slight tremor of fear in her voice.

Herb raised a calming hand to her and said to Donny, “What is it you want from us?”

Donny climbed into the driver’s seat and smiled at Herb. The smile was one that contained not a shred of humor. It was the smile of a scorpion about to sting an unsuspecting beetle.

“Y’all just sit there and be quiet,” he told them.

Theresa gripped Herbs upper arm and began whimpering softly.

Donny settled himself into the seat and put the shift lever back into drive. Herb saw a .45 Colt pistol tucked into the waistband of his tattered blue jeans. Thick mud was caked on his battered work boots. There was a cigarette tucked behind his right ear, partially covered by his greasy brown hair. A tattoo of a spider perched in its web covered most of the right side of his neck.

After a few minutes the drawbridge lowered and the RV was moving west again. Several miles later on a dark and desolate stretch of road Donny eased the RV onto the grass shoulder.

“Awright folks, let’s go on back into the living room and get cozy, shall we?” Donny said in mock politeness as he withdrew the gun and pointed to the back of the RV.

Herb held Theresa by the hand and led her to the living area. Her hand trembled uncontrollably in his.

“Sit your asses down there on the floor,” Donny ordered.

Herb helped Theresa to the floor and sat beside her, his eyes glared at Donny. His mind went back to a time when he was a 20 year-old marine, full of piss and vinegar. That marine would have taken this redneck apart piece by piece. Now his body would not allow it. The voice of his platoon sergeant, a huge Texan named Roy Anderson, came back to him.

“We’re all gonna die, just make sure that when you’re time comes you die like a marine.”

Herb put his arm around his crying wife’s shoulders and told her it was ok. Then he looked at Donny and sat up as straight as he could, taking a deep breath.

“Get it over with you coward,” Herb said defiantly.

Confusion grew in Donny’s eyes as he looked at Herb. Herb could tell that Donny lacked the intelligence to know that he had just been insulted by a man who knew he was about to die. After a few seconds of unproductive consideration Donny shrugged, pointed the gun and fired two shots in quick succession.

He looked at the two bodies lying on the floor, the old man’s arm still around his wife’s shoulders, and shrugged again.

“I guess you really don’t know when to shut up, old man,” he muttered as he turned and left the RV.

Outside Mitch was standing by the rear of the vehicle waiting with a gas can and a rag. He handed the gas can to Donny and then he went to the gas filler spout and stuffed the rag into the opening. Donny spread gas around the perimeter of the RV and dumped the last of it on the rag hanging out of the gas tank fill spout. He heaved the gas can into the woods and walked back to the showroom-clean white pickup truck. He took the cigarette from behind his ear and handed it to Mitch, who lit it, took a long drag and flicked it at the RV as he blew out a long cloud of smoke.

The mammoth vehicle was instantly surrounded by a ring of fire. The two men climbed into the truck and backed away. Mitch turned the wheel and they headed east on Route 40. Donny turned in his seat to see the show and Mitch watched in the rear view mirror.

The explosion was tremendous. It shook the ground and filled the night sky with an orange glow as flames shot fifty feet into the air. Pieces of the RV flew off in silent trajectories through the night, creating a 100-foot wide debris field.

As the furor subsided the flames continued to devour the skeletal remains of the $300,000 Country Coach.

Donny picked up the pack of Marlboros from the dashboard and withdrew two. One he put behind his ear, the other he handed to Mitch.

The spotless white truck rolled silently away from the inferno and towards the black horizon.


Justin DiPrete pressed himself against the concrete block wall and tried to calm himself down. The wall radiated the heat that it had taken from the hot Florida sun during the day, warming his back while the crisp night air kept his face cool. The temperature differential gave him a slight nauseous feeling. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, he tried to slow down his racing heart and stop his legs from shaking. To his right Russell peeked around the corner of the building, which wasn’t even a building yet. It was the bare bones of what would be a building someday. Right now it was only a two and a half story concrete block shell with no roof. The soft sandy ground around it was a dusty mine field of construction debris. Justin wished he was somewhere else, anywhere else.

Russell brought his head back from around the corner and turned to Justin.

“It’s cool, let’s go,” he whispered.

Without a sound Russell was gone. Justin took another deep breath and trotted after him. They made their way to a dumpster and crouched behind it. Russell crept to the corner and peered around.

“Be all clear, let’s do it,” he said softly as he stood and sprinted away.

Justin followed him and they reached the car together where they both sat with their backs against the flawless silver paint. It was a nice new Lexus and it had been parked there all day. Russell told Justin if the car was still there that night they were going back for a smash and grab.

Justin often tried to figure out why he let Russell talk him into these things. Russell didn’t seem to care if they got caught or not, as if he was wanted to ruin his future. Justin, on the other hand, was terrified of being caught and having a police record that could ruin his chances of going to college. Several times he had tried to say no, but Russell would always manage to persuade him into going along. Maybe it was a loyalty thing. Russell was the first friend Justin had made when he came to Florida three years ago and for all intents and purposes remained his only friend. When Russell started going through his delinquent phase Justin figured it wouldn’t last long. Now it was looking as though Russell enjoyed it too much and had no intention of stopping. Justin truly believed that his friend would get arrested before they graduated high school the following year. The dilemma that he faced was whether to follow him and throw his life away or go his own way and lose a friend.

Russell stood and looked into the car.

“Look like a nice stereo,” he whispered to Justin. “Lemme have your sweatshirt.”

Justin pulled his hooded Florida Marlins sweatshirt over his head and handed it to Russell. Russell found a piece of concrete block on the ground and wrapped the sweatshirt around it.

Justin looked at the dark outline of the trailer that acted as the construction office 20 feet away and prayed that there was nobody inside that would be alerted by a loud noise. Even though there were no lights on or other signs of life he still worried that someone was there.

There was a large sign standing in front of the trailer. Justin had seen it many times in the light of day and despite the darkness he could still make out the rendering of a golf course with a cluster of condominium buildings around it. So far 12 of the buildings had been started and they all sat in various stages of completion. According to the sign there would eventually be 51 buildings and a community center with a pool house. Not to mention tennis courts and a bicycle path. Huge green letters boasted that the “Stillwater Resort” would be “Another Golf Community by The Hall & White Development Corp.” As he was reading about the amenities that would be offered for bargain prices starting in the low 400’s his thoughts were interrupted by a loud pop followed by the sound of thousands of pieces of broken glass falling to the ground and into the car.

Both boys froze in place, neither of them so much as taking a breath. They waited for the sound of an alarm like sprinters poised for the starters gun. After three agonizingly long seconds they let out their breath and went about business.

Russell opened the car door and slid into the driver’s seat where he used the concrete block to smash the dome light. Justin scooted over and squatted by the open door. Russell handed him a black vinyl case full of compact discs. Then he passed out a wrist watch and a wallet. As Justin put his sweatshirt back on and stuffed the pilfered items into the belly-pocket, Russell went to work on the stereo.

Russell struggled with the stereo while Justin waited impatiently, a visceral fear spreading through his body like wildfire. Something was wrong, he was sure of it.

“Almost,” Russell grunted.

Justin looked into the vehicle and realized that something wasn’t making sense. There was a faint wash of light spreading through the interior of the car. As he watched, the light grew until Russell’s face was bathed in bright light. His fear escalated to panic.

The sound of an engine came over the night air towards them. Two bright white orbs of light approached them on the road 100 feet away.

Frozen in terror, the two boys looked at the headlights and then at each other.

Finally Russell hissed “Shit, time to de-ass.”

With no further communication they sprang from their positions and bolted back the way they came. Russell was about two strides in front of Justin when they reached the dumpster. Without slowing down or looking back they ran until they reached a dried up retention pond. They followed the muddy edge where the water used to be until they reached a path that eventually brought them to A1A.

From the shoulder of the road they scanned the highway in the direction of the construction site entrance. Seeing nothing to indicate that they had been spotted, they darted across the road and ran through the parking lot of a burned out restaurant. They continued running until the parking lot ended and they were on the beach.

With adrenaline still coursing through their systems they ran for nearly half a mile. When they finally ran out of steam they walked up a set of wooden stairs and stood under a small gazebo looking for signs of pursuit. They were at the intersection of State Road 100 and A1A in Flagler Beach and all looked quiet. Across the street, on the roof of a restaurant called Donnegan’s, a band played and Justin could hear people having a good time. A large tattooed biker staggered down the stairs, leaving his friends behind to carry on the festivities. He called parting shots to them as he headed for his motorcycle at the back of the parking lot.

After waiting for two large tanker trucks to roll by Justin and Russell walked as calmly as they could across the street and fell in about three steps behind the biker. Passing under a street light Justin took out the wallet from the car and opened it. There was a decent amount of cash in it, which he pocketed and tossed the wallet aside.

“Yo,” someone yelled behind them. Both boys froze and looked at each other in terror. Justin felt sweat break out on his forehead almost immediately.

“Shit,” he thought to himself, “we’re fucked.”

“Yo, Bam-Bam,” the voice yelled again.

The biker turned around and looked at Justin.

“You call me?” he asked in a drunken slur.

“What? No, it wasn’t me,” Justin stammered.

The biker looked past them and they turned around to see another biker, just as large and just as tattooed as Bam-Bam, walking down the stairs.

“You might need these,” the second biker called, holding up a key ring.

Bam-Bam tapped at his pockets, finding no keys he said “Hey thanks Todd.”

Todd tossed the keys to Bam-Bam, who dropped them. As he bent to pick them up Justin and Russell scooted around him and exited the parking lot without looking back. A minute later they had disappeared into the neighboring trailer park.