Miscellaneous

The Sunset Limited (5)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Saturday December 28

The sound of rain pouring on the tarp covering the hotel courtyard awakens us in time for an early departure.  We ask the cab driver to wait while I go shopping for provisions at a huge supermarket near the Amtrak station. Jan learns that she’s an immigrant from Ethiopia, has come here from L.A., has a degree in Social Work from USC and has another job working with neglected kids.

We line up in the terminal under an interesting mural starkly portraying the violent history of the city as rain continues to dump.

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All the roomettes between New Orleans and Tucson were sold out when we bought tickets, so we’re spending the first 36 hours of the trip in coach and providing our own food. The seats are no less comfortable than those in the roomette. We read and doze and eat rare Humboldt Fog cheese and Kavli crackers.  Approaching  Houston at sunset we have drinks in the observation car before proceeding to the diner, where we share a table with a couple from Lafayette Louisiana on the way to the Rose Bowl parade in California.  He’s a crawfish farmer and broker and she’s a hospice nurse for children.  It’s hard to understand the explanations of his trade through his Cajun accent but not his affection for guns and fantasies of shooting intruders. She shows pictures of abandoned children with whom she’s bonded before they died.

After dinner, the coach is dark and quiet, the passengers sedated by the rocking movement. Jan struggles to find a position allowing her to straighten out. The leg rest is broken and needs to be supported by the suitcase I bring upstairs. It turns out our seats are closer to the ones in front of us than those on either side. I search the train looking for alternate empty seats without success.  The conductor appears and lets us know the passengers directly behind us are getting off in five minutes and we can take theirs. The rest of the night is easy.

December 29 2013

After another full day and night traversing Texas we cross back into New Mexico at El Paso.  I chat with a retired geologist returning to California. Another day of reading–Jan’s on her third Donna Tartt novel on the Kindle and I’m studying the New Orleans atlas and The Bible in Shakespeare–writing, looking out the window and watching the little blue dot cross the desert in satellite view on the iphone. At nightfall we reach the Tucson station in the center of downtown and cross the street to the Congress Hotel, another railroad district historic building now decorated with lights and mylar fringe and posters advertising an upcoming public New Year’s Eve party with an “I love New York” theme.  The staff are young, urbane and jolly, the food–albacore salade nicoise and “Queer Burger”–excellent and reasonable.

A short cab ride takes us to our accommodation, La Posada del Valle, a Bed and Breakfast across the street from the University of Arizona Medical Center.  This is the review I submitted to Trip Advisor:

I chose this place for a two night stay enroute between New Orleans and Los Angeles by train. At the suggestion on the website I phoned and spoke to Janos the manager who was personable and helpful and promised to help my wife and me with transportation while here. He told us he wouldnt be available for our late night arrival but gave us the door combination. The view through the window when we pulled up looked most welcoming, and coming inside nearly floored us. The historic old adobe was decorated with unique flair and exuberance, filled with beautiful and beautifully arranged furnishings, informative books and maps and magazines about Tucson and surroundings, and homey atmosphere. Our room with private bath was spacious and filled with treasures. The bed and bathtub were unusually comfortable. Breakfast the next two mornings was custom prepared by an amiable housekeeper/cook with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and baked goods. There was no room for lunch later in the day. Our host showed up during the first breakfast, welcomed us, shared stories and then drove us across town to a car rental place. After we left this morning he emailed us the bill, which seemed astoundingly reasonable. When can we come back?

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December 30 2013

We share the breakfast room with a couple our age who live in Seattle.  They’ve been here for four days to hike in the desert.  Not surprisingly we have some experiences in common.  Both were in the Berkeley FSM 1965 sit-in that Jan joined as a freshman at Stanford.  He got a PhD in English, taught for several years at Whitman College in Washington and then decided voluntarily to give up his tenure-track job and partner with a friend to start a social work consulting firm, from which he has now retired. He still conducts workshops in organizational development.  She got a degree in social work at Berkeley but after several years in the field switched to a career as paralegal.  Their daughter got a PhD from Yale, but was so outraged by the treatment of graduate student TA’s trying to organize that she’s become a full time union organizer of clerical and maintenance staff.

Janos shows up to welcome us and take us in his new Mercedes to the car rental place.  We learn that he and has wife run another B and B, that she is a retired Wall Street banker and Harvard MBA who loves to decorate, that he was manager of a high end restaurant in New York, that they have travelled to fifty countries, and came to Tucson to slow down and enjoy the atmosphere. But at age 70, he’s more than ready to retire from the hospitality business.

We drive west in the radiant winter light to the outskirts of the city and up a tightly winding road to a pass in Tucson Mountain Park amidst a forest of familiar yet still bizarre-looking Saguaro cacti.

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On the other side of the pass, an immense valley spreads before us harboring “Old Tucson,” a theme park built on the site of the movie studio location for hundreds of Western films.

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We drive onward toward a less obtrusive attraction in the valley, The Desert Museum, which appeals both to theme park visitors and nature lovers.  The parking lot is almost full on this holiday occasion, but the crowds of multi-generational families add to my enjoyment of  exhibits of desert ecology, many of them hard to distinguish from the surrounding wilderness.

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There are animal enclosures allowing close-up views of mountain lion, bear, wolf, and javelina, none of which have the downcast look of many captive animals.

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as well as artfully designed shade structures and benches necessary for less temperate times of the year.

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Cold symptoms are creeping up on Jan, so  I leave her resting in the hummingbird enclosure, head for the Desert Loop trail, and find myself surrounded by a dense crowd waiting for the “Raptor Free Flight” performance to begin. An amplified voice from nowhere warns us not to place children on shoulders because the birds will be flying fast and close to our heads. Suddenly two gorgeous hawks dive from aloft and alight on nearby snags.

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These we are told are gray hawks.  As trainers hiding in the vegetation make chirping sounds and hold out gobbets of meat, the hawks criss-cross the crowd inches overhead and then disappear.  Next come two barn owls, soft and cuddly looking until one whizzes straight for me with its sharp beak agape.

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Then we see two peregrine falcons, according to the speaker, the fastest animals alive, which have been clocked at 242 miles an hour, and finally a whole group of Harris Hawks that hunt as a family, working together to corral and trap their prey.

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We meet as planned by the hummingbirds and drive back to our beautiful lodgings, rest,  then go for dinner to Downtown Kitchen, the restaurant recommended by our breakfast-mates.  Its publicity about celebrity chef and fresh local organic ingredients is not overblown.

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December 31 2013

The festive meal served on the the last morning of our stay at La Posada del Valle is shadowed by the story of the other guest who is here from Scottsdale, not for vacation but because his wife has had to return to the medical center for treatment of ongoing complications attendant on the removal of her pancreas.  She’s a nurse who’s lost her job because of her affliction, their young kids have been cared for by friends at home, and he’s here on time off from his math teaching job at the Community College. I think of my friend Peter in Canada who has just passed through life-threatening complications after the removal of cancerous tumors from his kidney. I think of Steve, the old friend in his quadriplegic’s wheelchair with whom I roamed this neighborhood and the medical center across the street five years ago and who died soon thereafter. The young teacher tries to smile as he affirms hope that eventually his wife will recover.

We head for the train station to leave our baggage before returning the rental car, and it becomes clear that Jan’s cold is turning into something worse.  She agrees to go to a nearby urgent care clinic where she is diagnosed with a serious sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics by a doctor who recognizes her Rotary button and agrees to meet her next June in Australia at the convention they both plan to attend.  Another CVS around the corner dispenses the medications, the car is returned, and we have the rest of the day, slowly, to explore downtown Tucson, before reboarding our train.

The district has undergone major redevelopment, with hip new multi-use businesses and residences sprouting in the shells of renovated old buildings, with a multi-modal transportation center, with signage about the impending opening of SunLink, a four-mile  trolley system on newly laid track.

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We pass through the elegant courtyard of the County Court and Administrative Office, fortunately preserved when the rest of this government center must have been demolished to make way for the surrounding ugly skyscrapers.

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With heroic resilience braced by the new medication, Jan makes it to the museum, where we enjoy exhibits of early Latin-American and ancient Chinese artworks donated by local collectors and feel less positive about acquisitions of contemporary “Cowboy Art” and modern conceptual works centered on themes: “The Hand,” and “Scissors, Paper, Rock.” We are entranced by a work of borderland latino folk art called “Nacimiento” housed in an old adobe.

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As the sharp shadows lengthen and the year draws towards its end we walk slowly back to the railroad station. Still nourished by breakfast,  instead of dinner we share a small thin-crusted pizza at the gourmet market and delicatessen on the platform. We talk to Joe and Ethan and Abel in Idaho and Claire and Lucas in California.

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Across the street at the Congress Hotel a crane lifts a great ball of mirrors and the searchlights rehearse for the midnight extravaganza.

I run over there to buy a pint bottle and some mixer for our New Year’s Eve on the train. At 7:00 p.m. it arrives and we climb aboard the sleeping car and find our cozy compartment. Reminded of her name on the downtown bus station, I play some Linda Ronstadt songs on the little stereo and then the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” “Dont Talk, Put Your Head on my Shoulder.” A beautiful young woman approaching the adjoining compartment grins at us and says, “Nice ambience.”

The train’s staff has organized a New Year’s Eve party, including champagne and games in the observation car starting at 10:30.  I’d like to take part, but, predictably, late night activities are beyond our capacity. We drop off to sleep in our berths and wake up refreshed in time for the 5:30 A.M. arrival in L.A., transfer to the Pacific Surfliner, and the final leg of our trip home.

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The Sunset Limited (4)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Friday December 27, 2013

Though optimally located in the center of the French quarter, Jan and I are uncertain of what we should do for the day. Roaming its tourist-crammed streets yet another time is getting old.  We think of taking one of the carriage tours recommended by friends but are put off by the drivers and prices. Instead we sign up for a two-hour full city bus tour beginning at 2:00 p.m.

To make use of the time before then without extensive walking, we take the streetcar along the levee to the river ferry terminal. Probably due to its major diversion by dams upriver, the Mississippi isn’t as impressive here as we’d expected.

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But on the ride across, the sight of a tug maneuvering a huge barge through the current at the crescent curve which accounts for the City’s original location gives a sense of being at the drain point of a whole continent.

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Following a suggestion in The Unfathomable City, we pick historic Mandina’s Restaurant as a destination for lunch. It’s another gratifying streetcar ride to an outlying district, partly through a vast construction site of new medical facilities. The restaurant is located in a charming old frame house and packed with animated locals, but the supposedly distinctive Italian-Creole food is not worth the cost or the long wait.

The streetcar back is delayed by traffic jams and we are concerned that we will miss our tour.  I run ahead to reach the meeting point just in the nick of time, and the dispatcher tells me the bus is late but will wait for Jan.  I’m relieved to see her shouldering her way through the crowd before it arrives, but then it turns out to be an hour late.

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Sipping Vodka daiquiris from the adjoining dispensary relieves our impatience, but most of the other waiting passengers ask for their money back and leave. The apologetic young man who finally shows up explains that the delay was caused by unexpected traffic congestion and the dispatcher’s mistakes.  He offers little information about the city sights we pass, but stirring stories about his family’s escape from the flooding and his sister’s permanent mental derangement resulting from it. Only when he stops behind another tour bus outside a cemetery in the Ninth Ward do we learn that he’s just a driver delivering us to the guide and the rest of the group.

By this time the confusion of the delays combined with the effects of the daiquiri have rendered us receptive to whatever happens next.  The real guide, whose name I regret not learning,  is a round, white-haired gentleman with a sonorous voice and a preacherly eloquence.

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He regales us with the some of the peculiarities of NOLA’s necropolis culture, among them that bodies cannot be buried but are housed in weighted above-ground tombs to accommodate flooding  and that crypts are continually recycled because the summer heat quickly decomposes earlier remains.

Sinking into the driver’s seat as if it were a bathtub, he drives us through the adjoining neighborhood, pointing out the modest homes of legendary musicians like Fats Domino and the Marsalis brothers, all of whom he knows personally, and tells us that the government was interested in reconstructing this district after the failure of the ship canal dykes because its artists form an important part of the economy. He assures us that contrary to earlier occasions when dykes around low-income areas were deliberately breached to protect the precincts of the wealthy, the worst destruction of Katrina was caused merely by the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers.

The onset of dark and the heavily tinted windows of the bus make it impossible to see or photograph the features of the city through which he drives us for the next two hours.  But he’s a good enough story teller to keep the tour group engaged and laughing.

Many of the district’s modest houses have been refurbished by Habitat for Humanity and lifted three feet off the ground on cinder block piers.  Some remain dilapidated and some lots are cleared while owners wait for property values to rise. Many are only about ten feet wide.  At first I think they were former slave quarters, but then see that they extend far toward the back of the lot.  Called Creole Cottages or Shotgun houses, we learn they were designed like this before the advent of fans or air conditioning to promote cross ventilation in the unbearable summer heat.

We hear of the  development of the different faubourgs or neighborhoods by ingenious and often scandalous land developers over two centuries, the division of the city into downriver Creole and upriver “American” districts, the unceasing corruption of city politicians, many of whom go directly from office to jail, about universities and private schools and mardi-gras parade routes and the demolition of sections of the French Quarter replaced by disastrous city housing projects, of the outrageous number of annual murders, of the benefits and losses of gentrification since Katrina, and about the architectural styles  and residents’ private lives of countless houses.

We’re dropped off in another traffic jam a block from our hotel, the city now packed with  New Year’s eve visitors arriving as we prepare to leave.  Thrashed by our colds, we retreat to our hotel, again forgoing the chance to taste the nightlife and the music, but inspired enough by the surroundings to seek more alcoholic relief. A big bouncer at a strip joint on Bourbon Street informs me that the best place to buy a bottle is the CVS around the corner. Hurrying back to our room with my paper bag through the earsplitting noise of revelers, I feel as excited as any of them.

The Sunset Limited (5)

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The Sunset Limited (3)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Thursday December 26

Drawn by the promise of beautiful buildings and streets uncrowded with tourists, this morning we head for the Garden District, a section of the City in the opposite direction from the French Quarter, upriver and “Uptown.”  The St. Charles St. streetcar takes us there along the wide tree-lined median traditionally known as “neutral ground.” Its varnished wooden seats and thick painted steering handle bring me back to the noisy trolleys I loved to ride on Broadway and Dyckman Street in New York before we got a car and moved to the suburbs in 1950.

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Relying on the information available on our phones instead of getting an adequate guidebook to the City was a mistake, but we know enough to find the cross street leading to a breakfast place kitty-corner from the the centrally located Lafitte Cemetery.

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The trees along the boulevard are festooned with beads and we realize that this must be a  main  parade route of the Mardi Gras whose influence remains here all year long.

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Though Gustave had referred to it contemptuously as a mini-mall, the coffee shop here is warm, welcoming and full of cosmopolitan looking residents.

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Fortified by a bagel and cup of the local café au lait, whose flavor is strengthened by the addition of chicory, we explore the cemetery, which features multigenerational crypts and stacked stone graves.

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The puddles in the walkways demonstrate why bodies are not buried in this city and the need for a specialized technology to keep them where they’ve been placed.  The remnants of a shredded blue tarp and a dilapidated entry building show that even in this ritzy part of town, Katrina still leaves traces.

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Now we walk along streets tunneling through the oak canopy of this real urban forest admiring the elegant and varied architecture and marvelling at the challenge of upkeep of both plants and structures in this corrosive tropical climate.

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At a corner of more modest houses, an amiable man sweeping the steps talks to us  about the joys of living here, the regeneration of many sections of the City after Katrina, the satisfaction of gutting and refurbishing his young family’s home.

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Needing a rest we head back to the minimall, where we find a bookstore next to the coffee shop offering a selection of works about New Orleans.  Rather than a conventional guide, I find a recent volume called The Unfathomable City, by Rebecca Solnit, whose name I recognize as a powerful writer for Orion magazine. Billed as an atlas, the book consists of 22 beautifully designed and annotated maps accompanied by essays categorizable as cultural geography or place studies.  Each has its own stylistic flair and dissident political slant. This book could provide an initiation to many of the City’s mysteries hidden from us three-day visitors. Exploring it during our rest periods and on the train ride back home feels like extending our stay.

Back on St. Charles Street, while waiting for the trolley, I snatch a little Mardi Gras by climbing  a tree and grabbing some beads. We check out of La Pavillon and move into Le Mazarin hotel, located in the middle of the French Quarter. It’s comfortable but expensive and disappointing by comparison.  We walk a new route to Jackson Square and find a table for late lunch at Muriel’s, whose setting, décor, service and distinctive Creole cuisine live up to its reputation.

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After a late siesta, Jan remains in the hotel and reads while I take another trolley up and down Canal Street, too late for the ferry but not for encountering some loud and scary characters in the terminal. More wandering fails to discover any of the music venues I’d been hoping to come across.

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Instead I’m repulsed by the huge complex of Harrah’s Casino at the foot of Canal street, its valet-parking drop-off crowded with Cadillacs and fancy pickup trucks, evidence, I assume,  of Las Vegas colonization.

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The Monkey’s Paw

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

Adapted from the story by W.W. Jacobs in preparation for telling around the campfire at the Cub Scout overnight on October 19-20 2013 at Camp French

This campfire reminds of my first campout with Cub Scouts across the river from where I lived in New York City 61 years ago.

It was a dark, windy night out in the woods, far away from any lights, a little before Halloween. We were sitting around the fire as we are tonight and someone said, “Does anyone know any scary stories?”  There was no answer. After a couple of minutes, one person spoke up. It was a new kid who’d just joined the Den named  Georgie Roberts.  He was quiet and pale and had dark circles under his eyes. “I can tell you a very scary story about what happened to me and my family down in the tropics.” I didn’t really want to hear it, but a most of the guys couldn’t resist and begged him to go on.

Georgie spoke in a shy voice:

“My Mom and Dad and I were living in Brazil for a year because my Dad was running a business there exporting tropical hardwood. At first, the three of us were having lots of good times, going to the carnival, exploring the old city of Manaos, taking boat rides up the Amazon River, where we’d eat lunch, see the birds and monkeys in the jungle and watch the crocodiles grabbing animals that came out of the forest to drink along the bank and pulling them into the water and mangling them.

On one of those rides we met an anthropologist/explorer from Germany named Anton who had spent a lot of time with some of the last few native tribes that still survived in the jungle and who’d participated in some of their religious rituals.  He always struck me as kind of strange, maybe because of that.

Anyway six months after we got there, my Dad’s business was not going well and we were going to have to leave Brazil. But my father had borrowed money and had a debt of $5000 he needed  to pay back on a bank loan. If he didnt, we’d lose our home in New York that we’d planned to return to.

A few days before we were supposed to leave, my parents invited Anton over for a good-bye dinner.  After we ate, we sat around the fire ring in the back yard remembering some of our trips together.  At one point Anton got up and pulled something weird and ugly-looking out of his pocket. It was a clawlike hand, with small nails, ragged fur and dried skin hanging off the end. ‘There’s something I want to share with you before you go,’ he said. ‘This is the Monky’s Paw.’”

Georgie stood up and his voice got lower and stronger.  It seemed to come from the huge figure of his flickering shadow cast by the firelight against the surrounding trees.

“Anton, said it was left to him by a friend who got it from an native medicine man who’d put a spell on it.  It had the mysterious power to grant three wishes to the family who possessed it. Anton shuddered and said his friend’s last wish was for death.  He was about to throw it into the fire, but my father grabbed his wrist and said, ‘Stop, I know this is ridiculous, but I’m in a situation where some magic wishes are all I have to save our family home.’

My Mom said,  ‘No, don’t mess with magic,’ but my Dad grabbed the paw from Anton, held it by the forearm bone, and made a wish: ‘Bring us $5000.’  The claw seemed to vibrate in his hand and glow slightly for a few seconds.  Anton cried, ‘O my Gosh,’ and ran from the backyard into the house, and we heard a slam of the front door. Nothing more happened and my Dad said, ‘He must be continuing the joke.’

Next day was Sunday and my Mom left the house to go on a last boat trip up the river with her friends. Dad and I stayed behind and packed our suitcases for the flight to New York.  When Mom didn’t return by evening we both got worried.  At 7:00 o’clock the doorbell rang and Dad answered it to find two people standing there, a policeman in uniform and a man in black derby hat.

The policeman said, ‘May we come in please.’  My Dad let them in and the policeman said, ‘There’s been a terrible accident Mr. Roberts. There was an explosion in the riverboat Mrs. Roberts was on today, and all the passengers were thrown into the water, where they were killed by crocodiles before they could be rescued.’

My Dad and I were both frozen with shock.  Before he could say anything, the man in the derby hat identified himself as representative of the company that ran the boat.  He said, ‘I’m so sorry to be bringing you this tragic news.  Even though it was not our fault, our company wants to provide you with some monetary compensation to express our regret.’ And he handed my Dad a check for $5000. Then the policeman asked my Dad if he could come with him down to the morgue to identify the remains of Mrs. Roberts—my Mom.

My Dad called next door and asked the neighbor to look after me for a little while and  left with the two men.  An hour or so later he returned looking pale and shaken, thanked the neighbor and sent her away.  To me, he said, ‘I know that this is an awful thing that happened, but at least we’ll be able to have a place to go home to.’ I wasn’t yet able to absorb what was going on, but I asked him if there was a connection between his wish with the Monkey’s paw and the accident. He replied,   ‘No way, son, that’s just a crazy coincidence.’

After we were back in our old house in New York for a few days, his business started improving.  But I began to really feel the loss of my Mom, and I got sadder and sadder.  There was only one thing I could think of doing: ask my Dad to make another wish with the Monkey’s Paw to bring her back.  But he refused, saying ‘No, that’s ridiculous, that couldn’t possibly work, and anyway, I got rid of it.’

But I didn’t believe him, and when he was at work, I searched through his stuff and found it stashed at the back of his underwear drawer.  I pulled out the yucky thing and stuck it under my pillow.  That night, as my Dad was tucking me in to sleep, I sat up and pulled it out from its hiding place and held it up.  Before he could do anything, I said, ‘Bring back my Mom!’ It vibrated a little in my hand and gave off a slight glow.  My Dad’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened.

At that moment the front door bell rang. I sprang up thrilled and yelled ‘Momma, Momma’ and ran toward the door.  My Dad called ‘No, No, No.’ I turned on the porchlight, and through the window by the door saw something unspeakably horrible.  Then with a flash, it disappeared.  I turned around and there was my Dad, holding the Monkey’s Paw, vibrating and aglow.’”

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