Stretch

The secret things belong unto the LORD our God
~ Deuteronomy 29:29

A modern parable

Jim bobbed along in the sea of humanity outside the Smithsonian Castle. Plenty of lights still flashed and plenty of people still milled. He examined the notebook in his hand and aside from travel memorandum, to-do lists, and a tally of his weekly grocery needs, he had to admit he didn’t have much. He stuck the dot grid with heavy boards in his jacket pocket and capped and deposited his pen in the same.

He walked north across The Mall and spotted a cafe. Coffee was what he needed. He ordered a black coffee and moved to the end of the counter. A man stepped up to the counter.

“I’ll have a large cup of milk.”

The woman behind the counter looked up from the register.

“What? Like, just milk?”

“That’s right, though I would like it in a cup.”

This orderer of milk looked to be late fifties, early sixties. He wore a sport coat and white shirt, but no tie. His trousers were neatly pressed and creased and he was wearing comfortable walking shoes.

“Chai tea latte and, uh, a milk.”

They both grabbed their cups and headed for the high round tables. Jim sat his cup on an open table, unslung his bag from his shoulder and slung it on the chair. As he settled in his seat, a large cup of milk came to rest in front of him. Connected to the milk was a hand, which was connected to an arm, which was connected to a shoulder … and you know how this goes with the leg bone connected to the knee bone and whatnot. Forthwith, the whole man was deposited in the chair directly across from Jim.

“New York.”

“Pardon,” said Jim.

“You from New York?”

“Well, yes I am.”

“Mind if I sit here?”

“You already are.”

“You’re observant. Reporter?”

Jim wondered if the mostly monosyllabic line of questioning was going anywhere. “Yes, trying to be.”

“What brought you to The Castle today?”

Jim became interested. “I’m not the only observer of facts of here.”

The man laughed like he meant it.

“Yes, I saw you at The Castle. I followed your dejected trek here, even to this very table.”

“Why?”

The embracer of the produce of cows took a large drink. “What brought you to The Castle? Assignment?”

Jim wasn’t quite ready to submit to the inquisition, nor to give up his own line of questions. “How did you know I was a reporter and from New York?”

A grin formed and the right corner of the man’s mouth maintained form admirably. “I’ve spent many years observing and studying people. It’s been my life’s work.”

“Are you a reporter then?”

“No.”

Jim was still interested but a bit frustrated that he couldn’t manage to properly prime the pump of conversation. He was only getting fits and spurts. “I am not on assignment. I took a short leave and came here on my own to follow a lead.”

“Looking to break your first big story?”

“Something like that,” and Jim resumed his own flow of information. “I came to The Castle for the Arthur Sterling presentation. I wasn’t able to get inside no matter the methods I employed. Security was serious and, to not a few, I must have had an ill-favored look because none seemed willing to even open negotiations. The thing had hardly gotten started when the lights and cars came up and I barely got a glimpse of the top of Sterling’s head as he was whisked away. After that, it was just a lot of the old, ‘Move along,’ and ‘Nothing to see here,’ business. I couldn’t get at the right sort for information, so I’ve given up.”

“Why Sterling?”

Jim sat his cup down. “What do you mean, why Sterling?”

“Why are you interested in Sterling?”

Jim laid the notebook and pen on the table. “A guy I know put me onto him about a year ago. I saw him a few months ago when he presented in New York at the museum. Something didn’t add up with him. I know he’s the darling of the academics, but I’m not sure. He’s risen to fame and a lot of money in a short time. He’s been presenting at conferences all over the world. He seemed impeccable. At the event today, it looked like he was being escorted, but I think he was being arrested, or at least going to be. But I don’t know why.”

The man across from Jim took a long drink of his milk. “Interesting.”

Jim was hoping for a little more. He drank some more coffee. His companion sat his cup down and shifted to a more relaxed position in his chair. “You said he seemed impeccable but something didn’t add up.”

Question or comment, Jim couldn’t decide. “It’s just … he has all these wild theories and far-flung ideas no historian has ever conceived before. He has discovered items at sites the best and brightest archeologists have combed and yet never found. His presentations are dramatic and just when disbelief is at its height, lo and behold, he produces the artifact to the praise and admiration of all. It’s hard to argue with the evidence in his hands. I don’t know what happened today. He must have been spirited away to some undisclosed site for another extraordinary discovery.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jim.”

“Ah, short for James?”

“No, actually. It’s Jiminy.”

“Interesting. How do you suppose Sterling does it? These miraculous discoveries, I mean.”

“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure. I’ve heard a few theories. Some think he has a supernatural ability.”

The man laughed good and hard again.

Jim continued, “His stories are incredible, just about unbelievable. But it’s hard to argue when he brings out the goods.”

The man tilted his head to the right. “Jim, you’ve done some good work. You have a head on your shoulders all right. Let me ask you something. If a man approaches you on the street in New York having some authentic and valuable piece in his hands and tells you a moving story of his great need and the necessity to sacrifice what he says is a precious family heirloom that’s passed from father to son for ages in his family, do you believe him?”

Jim laughed. “No, the more likely the thing is real means the more likely it is stolen and he’s trying to drive the price with the waterworks story.”

The man laughed again. “Jim, you are a reporter. You’re looking for a story and you have a lot of spade work done. I’m going to give you a clue and you should be able to put the pieces into a mosaic. Sterling, as you call him, is not his real name.”

“What? What is his name?”

“No one knows for sure. We call him Stretch.”

“Stretch?”

The man stood up, and Jim asked, “What is your name, sir?”

“Why do you ask my name? See you around, Jiminy. I shall be reading the papers with interest.”

The Red Heel

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
~ Matthew 23:27

A modern parable

They called her Agatha. Agatha Helena. She was an only child, born to her parents in their middle-age years. They were married young and had accepted the fact they would never have children. Surprise! Along came Agatha.

Her family had been vintners for generations and her great-grandparents had settled in Napa Valley. It reminded them of their ancestral Mediterranean homes. Her parents were the last remaining of the family line. They had hoped for a son for years to carry on the family name, but a son never came. No children came. When Agatha came at last, they were thankful for a daughter.

The winery was usually busy during the green harvest and closed to visitors. Agatha noticed a handful of people going about with her father. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her father personally guiding a tour.

“Ah, Agatha. There you are. I have someone here who wants to meet you.”

Her father approached with the group trailing behind him.

“I’m Thom.”

An impeccably dressed man had stepped forward with an effortless sophistication to shake her hand. Agatha glanced at her father, looked up at the man, and shook his hand. Her father stepped beside her and placed his arm around her shoulders.

“Let’s go into the conference room. Thom has a business proposal I think you should hear.”

Everyone settled into chairs as Thom leaned against a counter with his index fingers tepeed and pressed into his lips. Agatha glanced around without moving her head. She could hear the muffled buzzing of muted phones and the swishing of clothes as people reached for their pockets and bags. She scratched her heel. Thom did not break his gaze as he began talking to Agatha.

“As I said earlier, I am Thom. I suppose you don’t know who I am. I am the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world. We do beauty culture and aesthetics. We do lifestyle, not cosmetic products. I was on a retreat with my team several months ago and we toured this winery. I saw you then. We all saw you. I met your father and we have been talking these last few months. Negotiating. Agatha, I understand you do not wear any cosmetics at all and never have. You are the most remarkable natural beauty any of us have ever seen.”

Agatha’s eyes narrowed and she looked at her father. He kept smiling and patted her hand. It almost made her feel like a child again, but she was unsure where this was going. Thom continued.

“Agatha, women would pay dearly for a natural aesthetic. Natural aesthetics is the next thing. That’s where it’s at. We have developed a plan for a lifestyle line of natural aesthetic products, a full line of cosmetic products that simulate the natural look. Think: makeup that doesn’t look like makeup.”

Her father was on the edge of his seat. Agatha leaned toward him.

“This is a good opportunity, my daughter. Listen.”

Thom stood upright and stepped forward from the counter.

“We have been working on this line for a long time, but hadn’t figured out the marketing. We want you to be the brand ambassador. You will be the face, the life of this campaign. We can talk numbers in a minute. I think you will like what we have to say. Agatha, you’re not on social media at all. You are completely unknown. We have to make you known, but our typical media package will not work for this. We are promoting a natural aesthetic lifestyle and people always think media is edited in this business. You have to do a live, in-person tour. We want you to go to the world, all the famous cities. People have to see you in person and the people will share you with everyone else on social media.”

The team nodded and her father couldn’t smile any more than he was. The meeting lasted for a few hours. She was introduced to her father’s attorney. She felt overwhelmed, but ended up signing the contract. She was given the itinerary for the tour. Soon, she would leave to go to all the world and she had never been away from home in her twenty years of life.

***

Agatha walked through streets from city to city on tour. The crowds grew larger as word spread. She was trending on the major social sites. She was getting press coverage, where she was described by such phrases as, “Beautiful,” “Simply elegant,” “Graceful,” and, “A real natural.” The product line was selling out and production had to be stepped up. Other companies scrambled to figure out how to get in on this trend and Agatha had lost track of where she was and even what day it was.

Early one morning, Thom’s phone lit up as he was eating breakfast in his suite. His assistant was on her way to his room. He texted her that the door would be open and he finished his espresso. She walked in and closed the door.

“Thom, have you seen this?”

She shoved her phone in his face. Thom fumbled for his glasses. He couldn’t find them so he pushed the screen back to where he could focus on it.

“What am I looking at?”

“That’s Agatha’s heel.”

“Okay, does it have something on it?”

“That’s blood, Thom.”

“All right. So she has a cut or a blister or something.”

He tilted his head a little.

“I see the problem. We will have to get it treated, but it has to be discreet. There can be no visible signs of treatment or bandage or anything. She has to be flawless.”

The assistant sat down and tapped on her phone. She looked up at Thom.

“No, she needs rest. We have to get her away immediately.”

“We need to finish this leg of the tour. We have to get her back out there. We can’t have her last public appearance be with a bloody heel.”

“It’s not just the heel.”

“What do you mean?”

“You haven’t seen her for a while. She’s … not … looking well. She’s lost weight. Her cheeks are sunken in. Her eyes …”

“What?”

“Thom. She’s getting … a … belly. Pic collages are being made and shared online. Before and after type pics. We don’t know if the photos are being touched at all. Some of them are subtle and some are not.”

“You don’t mean …”

“There are lots of rumors. We have to get her somewhere private. She needs rest. We have to cancel the tour.”

“Postpone, you mean. We have to get her back out there.”

The assistant stared and Thom looked around the room as though he expected to find an idea or the answer written on the wall.

“I’m not going to be back for a while. Get her somewhere away from reporters and fans. Get a conference set up with the team and message me the details. I will be there.”

***

“Agatha is resting. We have to do something. We’re going to lose momentum on this campaign, and that means money.”

Thom stared at his assistant and then looked at the team one by one. The conference room was awkwardly quiet.

“When we will she be rested? When will she be ready to go?”

His assistant finished typing a text and looked up.

“I don’t know. She’s in the suite we got for her, but she refuses to see anyone. We have no communication right now.”

Thom sighed.

“We’ll have to get back to that in a minute. Any ideas on how to keep this campaign going? We have lost momentum.”

The room had a lot of coughs and tapping on the table. The head of marketing cleared her throat.

“You’re going to think this dumb, but it’s all we’ve come up with.”

Thom tilted his head back.

“Dumb or not, what is it?”

She cleared her throat again.

“Well, we have a show coming this weekend where we are featuring the Mimos natural line. What if we add something to the models?”

Thom was impatient but also interested.

“Add what to them?”

“You know there’s been a lot of speculation about Agatha. Pictures of her bloody heel from her last city are all over the net. We haven’t given any official information out. Maybe we could spin it.”

Thom scratched his head and frowned.

“Could you hurry this up. What’s the idea?”

“You know we have that Lip Tar in Syrah. It’s never been a big seller, except sometimes around Halloween. Customer feedback says it looks too much like dried blood. So, what if we apply it to our models’ right heels. We could re-package it and add it to the natural line to sell.”

Thom looked up at the ceiling.

“Are you serious?”

The head of marketing had started cold, but she was warming to her subject. She laughed.

“Girls are already doing it. Pics from all over the world are being posted online with girls with red heels. There are industry rumors that companies are racing to get product to the market.”

Thom crashed forward in his chair.

“Get on it! We have to get in front of this.”

His assistant shrieked and that guy from accounting knocked his coffee over and people started grabbing stuff of the conference table. Thom’s longtime assistant looked like a whitewashed fence.

“Thom! Agatha is dead.”

“What?” Thom said.

“I just got this text from the team. She hadn’t been out of her room in days and wasn’t responding in any way. They got security to let them in her room and they found her.”

“What happened?” Thom asked.

“The doctor said it’s too early to know for sure, but the doctor said it most likely from an infection. Her wound had never healed. The doctor said her body was too weak to fight it because of malnutrition from starvation.”

Thom buried his head in hands on the conference table.

“Her heel. That ugly heel.”

The Open Concept

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.
~ Matthew 15:11

A modern parable of an old problem.

Pasqual rubbed the crown of his head and closed the upper cabinet door. He looked at his fingers, but saw no blood. He pulled the door back open and tried to move it up and down. It was not loose. The travel mug he had removed from the dishwasher a few moments earlier was still in his other hand. He set it on the counter, filled it, put the lid on, picked it up, and went to the door. He listened but heard nothing. His loud cursing a moment ago had not awakened his wife Madeira. She was a heavy sleeper.

***

Pasqual had swam across the Rio Grande as a young boy and had never crossed back. For years he had tagged along with his cousins working on farms and getting by however he could. He had become separated from them and decided he liked stealing better than working. Of course, he started small, pinching this and that to get by.

The life of a thief is necessarily nomadic. You stay in one place too long, things go missing, people get suspicious, and you begin to get the eye. It gets harder to unload your goods and liquefy your assets. While the promise of three hots and a cot can be appealing when you’re shivering and the stomach is growling, it’s a bit confining to the freedom loving men among us. Pasqual embraced the role of wayfaring stranger and drifted about.

For a little while his cupboards had been bare and he needed some easy job to put him back in abundance. He easily jimmied the back door of a metal-clad building and stepped inside. In the dim light, he could make out work benches and tools. Power tools and hand tools could always be exchanged for cash. His mind began calculating and he wavered between grabbing quickly what he could carry and conducting a more protracted campaign. This place could be a golden goose for a while if he managed it right.

He was mentally crafting the mission statement for his new enterprise when a loud click and bright lights registered their objection to the proceedings. He turned to look upon a man with one hand on the light switch and the other noticeably close to a revolver on the man’s hip. This intruder, this interrupter of Pasqual’s dreams, was thick and as wide as he was tall. He owned a pair of piercing, dark eyes and Pasqual noticed he wielded them to great effect. He did not yet know it, but those eyes belonged to Ernesto of Ernesto’s Custom Cabinets. This was his shop and he seemed prepared to defend it to the last gram of sawdust.

Pasqual could not explain why, but he was broken under that gaze. He turned to a jelly and told his life story and confessed his life of crime. Ernesto listened patiently and, for reasons equally inexplicable to Pasqual, did not grip his pistol nor raise alarm for the police.

“What is your name?” He said.

“Pasqual.”

“And where are you from?”

“Juárez, but I left there when I was a boy.”

“Ciudad Juárez? Your family is there?”

“I have no family. I am an orphan. I ran away from the orphanage with some others. They said we were cousins, but I do not know.”

“Where are they now?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen them in a long time.”

Pasqual thought Ernesto rather monosyllabic as an orator, but after a few moments of silence, he concluded the Q&A portion of the night’s program was ended. He was unsure of himself. He thought he should perhaps raise his hands in the air, or maybe he should kneel down and put his hands on his head. He did not know what was next on the bill but he was reasonably certain it would impose certain requirements on his hands. He took no action, and, I must confess, his logic was sound. Ernesto had made no mention of the position of Pasqual’s hands nor whether his standing position was unacceptable, neither had his hand moved any closer to his pistol. Pasqual remained as he was and held the gaze.

What happened next was extraordinary and you would be enrapt to hear it, but in keeping with the spirit, if not quite the letter, of the short story genre, I shall have to get to the point sooner rather than later. In summary form, the next day began Pasqual’s career in the cabinet making industry. Ernesto put him to work and Pasqual became the son he never had. Pasqual learned quickly, worked diligently, and advanced apace with his potential.

***

Pasqual rubbed the crown of his head and stared at the open cabinet door. You will recall that a mere ten hours earlier he was in this same position. He was less concerned about the loud cursing he had expelled because the snores coming from the recliner in the living room assured him that Madeira was sleeping soundly as usual. He heaved a big sigh and marched out to his truck. He returned with a curled upper lip and a 20 volt lithium powered Dewalt drill in his hand. He moved deftly as though he were thoroughly skilled in the operation and removed each door from the upper cabinets. He hauled them to the bed of the truck and they bounced off the spare tire and clattered to rest in the same.

Time passed, as time is in habit of doing whether you are enjoying yourself or not, but Pasqual was enjoying himself in the kitchen. The lower cabinets were properly closed and sealed, and the upper cabinets were as open as the U. S./Mexico border in the 1950s. Pasqual was able to use his head for more than testing the tensile strength of wood screws and cabinet door hinges. Though he had gained rather more experience than he wanted in the occupation, it was not a future he wanted for himself.

After a while, an idea formed he considered flawless. Surely he was not the only one to stand up in a kitchen and meet the bottom corner of the upper cabinet door with the sensitive crown of his head. If he had solved his own problem by removing the doors, he could solve the same problem with the same method for other head rubbers and cabinet door cursers. The idea simply could not fail.

By this time, Ernesto was aged and what you would call, set in his ways. Pasqual pleaded with him to begin marketing and selling upper cabinets sans doors, but Ernesto would not hear of it. That was not the way things were done. Pasqual eventually made his case to other cabinet makers and you would have thought a scab crossing a picket line would meet with warmer reception. As the sun began to set on Pasqual’s own life, it looked as though his genius would be buried with him and lie undisturbed and undiscovered.

***

In Pasqual’s Abrahamic years, he had rejoiced at the birth of a son, Carlos. He cherished the boy and always called him, “Mijo Carlos.” Where Pasqual had failed to save the sensitive crowns of the world, the fruit of his loins had risen up to give his ideas the attention they deserved. Carlos had learned the cabinet making industry and excelled his own father. He opened his own shop and enjoyed great success selling people on, The Open Concept Cabinet™. Carlos had led the sensitive crowns of the world out of the wilderness of nasty knocks and into the promise land of unfettered cups and plates and safe soft heads.

As to be expected, there remained a segment of the population unconvinced. You always have the detractors and wet blankets to deflate the room of joy. Someone unexpertly observed, “Aren’t those just shelves?” What are you going to do? That’s the trouble with people. They just can’t get a grip on the new ways.