Dairy of Destruction

“See that cow?”

Officer Angus Buford had been daydreaming about Florida State football and was befuddled by Police Chief Earl Rayner’s comment. “What?”

Rayner spoke slowly: “Behold the bovine.”

Buford looked out the passenger-side window to ascertain what the hell his boss was talking about. “I’m beholding, but which one? There’s like a hundred.”

“Off by herself,” Rayner said. “Down there, by the creek.” He pronounced it “crick.”

Buford shrugged. “It’s a normal cow.”

“Normal? Hell, no. She wants to kill me.”

Rayner continued the police cruiser’s southerly course on Ham Pond Road, outside Sneads, Florida, across the Apalachicola River from Chattahoochee.

Buford had spent more than enough hours with Rayner to know the man had no sense of humor, so he scrutinized the black-and-white Holstein as she sipped water from a tiny tributary of the Apalachicola.

“You sure it’s that one?”

“When a cow wants to extinguish your life, son, you know it. They’re not subtle.”

* * *

Buford had trouble sleeping that night, his mind on the cow. Rayner was a lot of things, few of them pleasant. But crazy he was not.

About three o’clock, Buford gave up on shuteye. He was glad he got sober two years earlier because what he was about to do felt like something only a drunk would even consider. If there was a chance that someone – or some animal – wanted to kill his boss, he had to look into it.

* * *

The driveway gravel crackled under the tires of Buford’s lime green 1975 Ford Ranchero as he turned into the lane leading to Harry Halstead’s farm. A white sign at the open metal gate declared it to be a “Dairy of Distinction.”

Buford parked next to Halstead’s pickup and noted that the farmhouse was dark, not even the air conditioner running despite the oppressive heat and humidity. He grabbed his flashlight from the glove box, confirmed that his personal handgun was holstered on his belt, and walked to the barn.

Inside, the cows were lying on the hay, asleep. Buford stepped between them, searching for the one Rayner had identified earlier. Halfway through the barn, he found her. Reflexively, he unbuttoned his holster and rested his hand on the grip of his pistol. The cow lifted her head and Buford stared into her eyes like he would any suspect. And, after some 15 seconds, recognized a flicker of malicious intent.

“Moo,” said the cow. “Moooo.”

Was there a “v” on the end of that? Buford realized it was impossible, but he couldn’t help believing he’d heard it.

“Moooove.”

There, again.

“You telling me to move?” Buford asked the cow, thinking, Why am I talking to a cow?

The cow stood quickly, surprising Buford with her agility. With no hesitation, every other cow in the barn – had to be more than 200 – did likewise. The cows moved with the singular purpose and focused discipline of an ant colony, surrounding Buford and steering him toward the end of the barn that led into the adjoining field.

“Stop,” Buford said, packed too tightly between two Holsteins to draw his weapon. “Freeze!” Still thinking, Why am I talking to the cows?

He considered falling to the floor and trying to crawl out, but fear of being trampled by a thousand bovine hooves kept him upright.

Once they had forced him into the field, the cows separated from Buford. Other animals milled about: horses, sheep, goats, chickens, llamas, ducks, and pigs. Buford, vaguely aware of the fact that all these animals being in the same field was odd, stood face-to-face with the cow that wanted Rayner dead. He drew his pistol and pointed it between the Holstein’s eyes.

“I don’t know if you can understand me,” he said. “And I sure as hell don’t know what’s going on, but …”

At that moment, a goat – and this was unseen by Buford but nonetheless a spectacular display of interspecies cooperation – got a running start and jumped onto the back of a sheep. The goat launched himself, rounded horns first, into the area between Buford’s shoulder blades.

Buford dropped his gun and crumpled to his knees, which is when a second goat rammed his head.

* * *

Buford regained consciousness as the sun was rising. He discovered instantly – and terrifyingly – that he couldn’t move his arms or legs, seeing as how both were buried in the heavy mud at the edge of the field near the driveway. Only thing he could do was turn his neck, and barely.

A cat – a skinny, white cat – paced the roof of Buford’s Ranchero. And, God help him, Buford would’ve sworn he heard the cat say, “The revolution has begun!”

Turning his neck in the opposite direction, Buford’s eyes widened as he spied the slow, steady approach of a passel of hungry hogs.


From The Atari Times to The Throes of Crime

erikarnesonsquareOne of my earliest memories of school is writing a short story about King Kong and how proud Mom was when I brought it home. (I wish I remembered more about the actual story — I’m certain it would have made a worthy sequel to the original film.)

A few years later, I wrote a four-page newsletter called The Atari Times to share my fifth-grade thoughts on the Atari 2600 and games like Pitfall, Space Invaders, and Circus Atari. Dad took my creation to work and made photocopies, then drove me around our development as I dropped off free samples to drum up subscriptions. (It didn’t work. There might have been a second issue, but I can’t swear to that.)

As a freshman at Temple University, I started a play-by-mail professional wrestling simulation called the Global Wrestling Federation. Mom and Dad helped me file a fictitious name registration with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and buy some advertisements to find customers.

When I started writing for a small music magazine called Notebored, Dad bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest to help me learn the craft.

In short, Mom and Dad were relentlessly encouraging.

Last year, they both passed away. Mom suffered a stroke on April 22, and I will always believe that she would have fully recovered — except that Dad died of a heart attack just two days later. Once the reality set in that her husband of 45 years was gone, Mom was ready to join him in the next life. She did so less than three months later, on July 12.

14691927_10210834636448831_8116857010231003939_oThe James and Jeanne Arneson Memorial Scholarship Fund was created to honor their memory and continue their legacy of encouragement. The fund provides financial support to graduates of Wilmot High School in Wilmot, South Dakota, who display an aptitude in creative writing by authoring a short story.

Why Wilmot? Dad’s grandparents — my great-grandparents — moved to the United States from Norway in 1903. In 1914, they moved to Wilmot, a small town (population 492) in northeastern South Dakota. That’s also where they’re buried.

The scholarship fund is managed by the South Dakota Community Foundation, with a Scholarship Selection Committee consisting of me, my wife Elizabeth, and authors Jen Conley, Merry Jones, and Jon McGoran.

Superintendent and High School Principal Larry Hulscher and English teacher Danielle DeGreef made sure students were aware of the scholarship and encouraged them to enter. In May, Elizabeth and I visited Wilmot to award the first scholarship to senior (now graduate) Jessica Zempel, who won for her short story “Love, Lust, and Death.” We can’t wait to see what students come up with in future years.

If you’d like to donate to the fund, it’s pretty simple.

My first book, The Throes of Crime, a collection of 26 short stories and six true-crime essays, is available at Amazon (ebook and paperback), and all proceeds from The Throes of Crime benefit the fund.

If you’d like to donate directly to the scholarship fund, you can find out how at my website.

And please take a moment today to encourage someone — a child, a parent, a friend, a stranger. Encouragement is a powerful thing.


Heritage

It was my last night on the job.

Don’t worry, kid. This ain’t some cliché workplace violence story. I liked it there. Made a lot of friends, did some stuff I’m proud of. I still miss the place, but it was the right time to retire.

Snow was coming down hard when my shift ended. No surprise, that’s what happens in Superior on New Year’s Eve. I officially punched out five minutes early, 11:55 p.m. Why not, you know?

Maybe I’d get home in time to watch the ball drop with your nanna.


Blow Out the Candles

Detective Peter Eckert looked down at the girl and shook his head. “I know her,” he said to his partner. “Hannah Kean. Used to be in youth group with Jess.”

Eckert had met Hannah three years ago. She was 14, eyes bright and eager, ready for life’s adventures. A couple days after Christmas the next year, he saw her loitering outside a convenience store, eyes glassy and addled and holding only a flicker of the spark he remembered. Eleven months later, she paced next to a bench in Monument Park on Lehman Street. Her vacant eyes served as foggy sentinels on the lookout for something, anything, that promised to satisfy her unquenchable craving.

Now 17, eyes forever milky and dull, Hannah lay on the pavement next to a Dumpster in an alley six blocks from her church. Eckert examined the fingers of her right hand, which formed a weak fist resting on her chest. He’d never know that her final instinct had been to clutch for the gold crucifix on her necklace, a necklace no longer there because she had traded it for the speedball that took her life.


Twitter and Coke


Fortune

“You always smell like french fries, Putter. I can’t take it anymore.”

“Give me a few minutes, Nat. I’ll shower.”

“It doesn’t matter if you shower, baby. It’s in your pores or something. When you get out of the shower, you smell like Axe-scented french fries. Not an improvement.”

“I’ll scrub, I’ll do, I’ll … what do they call it … I’ll … exfornicate.”

A grin from Natalie. “Exfoliate. Look, I love you. I just can’t stand the odor right now. Take a few days off, you’ll smell great again. Call me.”

With that, she was gone.

Putter’s buddy Eli had come up with the idea to steal barrels of used cooking oil from restaurants. And Putter had to admit it was good money despite the fact it made him stink and he didn’t understand why people wanted to buy the stuff. Something about biodiesel fuel. Eli said even jets can use it. Crazy shit.

But if the side effect was not getting any from his girl? No money was worth that.

Although … it was nearly 11 o’clock on Sunday night, and in rural Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, that meant the restaurants were all closed. Maybe one last big score before he found a no-stink way to earn some cash.

Putter grabbed his cell and dialed. “Eli? Hey, it’s me …”

 ***

It turned out to be a great night, a dozen barrels from seven restaurants – all full and all with oil clean enough to earn serious cash. Probably a couple thousand bucks total.

“Fortune’s just a day away,” Eli said as they lifted the final barrel into the plain white box truck, a beast of a vehicle that he originally bought for what turned out to be a remarkably unsuccessful attempt at a legitimate moving business.

With his battery-powered lantern, Putter climbed into the back where his job was to make sure none of the barrels tipped over. Eli lowered the door but left it unlatched, always did, so Putter wouldn’t spaz.

Minutes later, Putter heard what sounded like a police siren. Eli pulled the truck to a stop on the side of the road.

Slamming his fist on the metal wall behind Eli’s head, Putter yelled, “What the hell? That a cop?”

Eli yelled back, “Don’t panic! I’ll handle this.”

Putter panicked.

He had done time once, just a few months but long enough to know he couldn’t handle going back.

“Shit, shit, shit,” he muttered. “Shit.”

He turned off the lantern and tried not to make any noise.

 ***

Officer Bill Evans approached the driver’s side door. “License and registration, please.”

“Of course, officer. I have them right here.” Evans could tell the driver was struggling to keep his voice calm.

“What’s in the back of the truck?”

“It’s … it’s empty.” The driver handed him the documents.

“Stay here,” Evans said.

Walking back to his patrol car, Evans knew he had one for the chief county detective. Apparently some yahoos had been stealing used cooking oil from restaurants. Local police departments had been notified earlier in the week to look out for an unmarked delivery truck, probably smelling like french fries. This truck reeked.

A rhythmic noise from inside the truck caught Evans’ attention. He pounded on the back door, yelling, “Police! Who’s there?”

 ***

Sudden silence. Putter realized he had been oblivious to his own foot tap-tap-tapping on the floor. His body tensed. “Shit,” he whispered.

The cop banged on the door again.

“I’m opening this door! Whoever’s inside, I want to see your hands in the air!”

Putter said to himself, “I can’t go back. I can’t …”

He knew he had to run for it, at least give himself a chance to escape. He crouched in the dark, ready to sprint.

As soon as the door started rolling up, Putter ran forward. His knee hit one barrel, then he lost his balance and slammed headfirst into another. Dizzy, he fell to the floor as the second barrel tipped over, spilling 55 gallons of used cooking oil all over him.

“Ah, fuck me,” Putter said, losing consciousness. “I’m never getting laid again.”


12 Before 9

A well-dressed old man carrying a leather briefcase was pacing on the sidewalk outside my used bookshop in Philly’s Spring Garden neighborhood when I arrived this morning at 12 before 9.

Half an hour later, he was inside, taking his sweet time browsing book after book. I hoped he’d make a purchase – or just leave – soon. I didn’t usually have customers this early, and my decision to open on time for him meant I hadn’t been able to grab breakfast at the diner across the street.

“Um, excuse me,” he said finally, holding a well-worn hardcover. “What do you make of, uh…” – the old man’s nervous voice dropped to a whisper – “page 132?”

So that was his angle. “That’s an interesting page,” I replied, no emotion.

The old man didn’t look up from the book. Most people don’t when they request my special services. I suppose they want to know as little about me as possible.

When the silence got awkward, I asked, “Would you like to make a purchase?”

“Yes,” he said after a deep breath. He set the book down, almost dropping it from his shaking hands, then lifted his briefcase onto the counter and popped it open. He pulled out a very full, sealed manila envelope. Carefully avoiding eye contact, he handed it to me.

I took the envelope. “Will that be everything?”

The question surprised him, but he stammered, “Yes, yes. It’s all in there,” before closing his briefcase and scurrying off.

I opened the envelope just enough to see the beautiful green of 250 crisp $100 bills and pull out a folded piece of paper. I slipped the paper into my shirt pocket and the envelope into the safe under the counter. Time to walk across the street for three cups of black coffee, two eggs over easy and a buttered English muffin.

Sitting in my normal booth, I unfolded the paper, which read: “Douglas Serlnik, work: 600 Arch, home: 2014 Spring Garden, gray Lexus: AL9-53E2.”

All the information I needed. But that work address sounded familiar.

“Morning, Gloria,” I said as the waitress poured my first cup of coffee. “Hey, do you know what’s in the building at 600 Arch Street?”

“600 Arch? You mean the IRS building?’

“That’s it,” I nodded. “Thanks.”

I should’ve given the old man a discount.