Chocolat Cake

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“Rachel, I just can’t get over that cake you made. It was so delicious!”

“That cake was a hit, Rachel. Did you see how quickly it disappeared? I may or may not have been responsible for three of those pieces!”

“It’s amazing how much better this party was with your dessert. I feel like it really livened everyone up, don’t you?”

“Normally I crash after eating a dessert this rich, but I feel like I could run a marathon now.”

“The recipe… I don’t want it; I need it!”

The unanimous reaction to my most recent creation was positive. It was nice to get a sense of what famous chefs must experience on a regular basis. I’ve never found the supply of accolades directed towards me to be superfluous, so while they were certainly there in volume, I could have done with a few more. My friends were nearly bouncing off the proverbial walls, much to my satisfaction. Though I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to baking, I understand ingredients. That is to say I’m aware of how ingredients affect people. A sprinkle of this or a teaspoon of that can be the difference between, “that’s delicious,” and, “that’s interesting.” The most potent elements can make or break a dish; so careful implementation is essential.

“What do you call your cake?”

“Hadn’t thought about it. How about Chocolat Cake?” I answered.

Oui! French! Very chic!” Maddie was almost screaming.

“I have to know, Rachel, what is the secret to your recipe?” Christine asked.

“Coke,” I replied matter-of-factly.

“Oh I’ve heard of using Coke in cakes, but I’ve never tried it myself! I’m not adventurous enough. Now that I know how good it is though I’ll have to make it for my kids!” Kate exclaimed.

“I guess only parents really know what’s good for their children,” I replied.

I had a good feeling that people would enjoy the cake, but I was sure the secret ingredient would shock them. It hadn’t. As a matter of fact they seemed even more excited when I revealed it. Unlike when a magician divulges his or her sleight of hand causing belief in magic to evaporate, when I showed my hand I furthered my célébrité. Even Kate, since when was so open-minded? Kate was correct in her self-classification. She is likely the most unadventurous of all my friends, but the excitement with which she spoke edged on unrealistic. All judgment aside, of one thing I am absolutely certain: it was the first time any of them ever had cocaine.

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Paris on Holiday

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

Bill pulled his forest-green, ‘99 Camry lopsidedly into one of the numerous free spaces in front of the Trumbull strip mall. The lot was nearly empty, surprisingly so even for a Wednesday night. He switched off the engine and wiggled the key from the ignition. Bill looked up in the rearview mirror from behind his thick, black, Clark Kent frames, a tuft of his silvery gray hair curling on his forehead, and winked at his reflection. The condition of the polished man who emerged from the car was a stark contrast to the condition of the vehicle. Bill wore charcoal slacks and a tailored hound’s tooth jacket with reasonably thin lapels. His black necktie was fastened perfectly to his crisp white shirt by a silver clip and his loafers were soft from use. If it were still the 1960s, he’d easily have been mistaken for Dick Van Dyke arriving at the set to film the next episode with Mary Tyler Moore. But as it was 2004, he was simply a well-groomed senior citizen.

He approached the Athena Cinematheque’s small ticket counter, with its glass opaque from sun and deferred maintenance. The operation housed three screens that each sat thirty, uncomfortably, but usually entertained less than ten, with moderate comfort. Nestled between a family-run grocery store and a watch repair shop, the Athena’s façade was decorated in a cheap and fading, but undoubtedly charming, Grecian Art Deco style. When it was built in the 1980s it was meant to mimic the themed movie palaces of yesteryear, the name to evoke a similar sentiment. The Athena ran independent, limited release films on two of the screens and rolled through a large library of classics on the third. At any given time there were between one and two people working, and on that night they were at full staff.

“Good evening sir,” the teenager manning the booth said through the shower drain.

“Hey, I’d like one ticket to the 7:15 ‘Paris on Holiday,’” Bill replied.

“That’ll be $6.50.”

Bill pulled out his thin bifold of supple calfskin tucked into his inner breast pocket. He handed the boy a ten-dollar bill prompting him to fish through the disorganized cash drawer.

“Sold many tickets to this showing?” Bill asked.

“You’re the first,” the kid said sliding the ticket and the $3.50 change back through the small watermelon-shaped opening. “Movie starts in just a few minutes, so you may be the only one sir,” he added.

“Thanks,” Bill said pressing his lips tightly together and nodding. He pulled open the heavy glass door and approached the snack counter under the management of the other half of the night’s staff. “I’ll take a small popcorn and a Coke.”

“Do you want butter on your popcorn?” the man asked.

“Oh,” Bill said looking over the equipment and finding the pump labeled “butter.” The image fastened to the side turned his stomach against the idea. “No thank you.”

“And did you want regular Coke, Diet Coke, or Coke Zero?”

Bill furrowed his brow overwhelmed by a further follow-up to his seemingly straightforward request. “Just a regular Coke will be fine, thank you.”

“Have you seen ‘Paris on Holiday’ before?” the man asked.

“Just once, when it came out, all the way back in ’59.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy it tonight. We just got that print in the other week; a friend of mine who works at the Film Foundation sent it over. It’s a copy of a new restoration they just finished for the 45th anniversary.”

“Forty… fifth…” Bill mumbled to himself. “I can’t believe it’s been that long.”

“They aren’t lying when they say time flies,” the man joked back.

Bill chuckled under his breathe. He collected his concessions and entered the dark hallway of theater 3, its door bearing a taped piece of computer paper that read, “Paris on Holiday (1959).” Bill looked through the collection of empty seats in the dimly lit room for the one that looked emptiest, back row center. When he sat down, the padded chair unfolded noisily, creaking the way his grandfather’s rusted supply shed doors used to. For a whispering second he remembered his grandfather the way he had known him best, sitting in his leather chair, scotch and soda in hand. It was nearly half a century since he’d seen the man, but the image materialized in vivid Technicolor for the brief moment it hung around.

As his memory faded out, the projector flickered on, and the lights dulled. After a bit of crackling and some bright spots, Bill heard the film begin to pull through the machine with fluidity, and a majestic peak reared its head against the vibrant powder-blue backdrop of the sky. “A Paramount Picture” materialized as the clouds rambled behind.

The opening credits rolled, giving top billing to the film’s stars, William Cooper and Joan Andrews, and transitioning to the opening scene as, “Directed By Edward Fairfield,” faded out. Bill took a satisfying sip of his regular Coke and shifted his weight on the cushion until he was content, right leg crossed snugly over left. The film was a classic of its genre, a paragon of the romantic globetrotting comedies of the 50s and 60s with two of the period’s most adored stars. Cooper played an architect stressed out to the point of being hostile and withdrawn. Andrews played his gorgeous wife, unimaginatively employed as an advertising secretary. The story began with her convincing her husband, with great effort and antics, to agree to a holiday in Paris. Just as it had so many decades ago, the picture transported Bill from the couple’s nondescript home in suburban Chicago to the picturesque and bustling streets of the “City of Lights.”

It took the first half of the movie for Cooper’s character to thaw from his thick, frigid shell under the intensifying heat of Andrews’ charm. Ultimately the two danced and fell in love all over again under the glow of the Champs-Élysées. Shots filmed on location were mixed heterogeneously with those of the Eiffel Tower and traffic of the green screen. The wind blew perfectly in the strawberry blonde hair of the actress as the actor drove a convertible down the street, an impossibly close Notre Dame Cathedral ringing in the background. Innocent and light-hearted moments like ice cream melting from cones onto their clothes, Cooper knowingly overpaying for flowers and newspapers, and their battles with French cuisine were all montaged together to the lively song carrying the film’s title.

Bill was so engrossed in the simple if not simplistic plot, that his unbuttered popcorn went untouched. He laughed when the characters laughed, felt his feet tap along with the music, and even neared tears at the more emotional moments, even if they were only skin deep. It was a fine example of escaping in escapist fashion. For the two hours the film ran, Bill forgot all about the 21st century and rediscovered the golden era, the better days of his youth. At the end, William Cooper took Joan Andrews forcefully in his arms and uttered the famous line, “Paris… what a cliché!” before planting a kiss on her lips. When the final credits rolled, Bill refused to return to reality. He stayed and ate his popcorn as he watched until the very last name was shown and the projector powered down, returning the lights to their original intensity. He brushed the salt off his fingers and onto his pants as he stood up, the chair recoiling to its resting position with a shriek. Bill felt markedly lighter of foot as he practically danced back through the short hallway.

“Enjoy the film?” the man who’d sold him the concessions asked, sweeping the floor.

“Very much so. It felt almost like I was back in 1959 and right up there with them.”

“Well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Have a good night.”

“Goodnight,” Bill answered as he went back out into the night. He climbed into the Camry and sat with his hands on the wheel, motionless. Bill turned on the overhead light and reached into his pocket for his wallet. He drew out his license and held it gingerly, appreciating the strong smile he’d worn when the picture was taken a few years earlier. As he brushed his thumb over his name he thought back to his past life, before he became just Bill. They were exciting years, those long ago and far away. He wondered when the last time was that someone recognized him or shouted to him, back when he was known as William Cooper.

“Hey, Mitch,” the man sweeping said, stealing the kid’s attention from his phone.

“Yeah?”

“That guy, he had sort of a familiar face didn’t he? I feel like I know him from something.”

“I’ve never seen him before,” Mitch answered, his eyes falling back to his screen.

The man looked up from the broom for a moment and then shook his head, dismissing his idea with a laugh. Outside, William Cooper drove his forest-green, ‘99 Camry out of the lot and back into his life as Bill.

Binghamton Mine

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

The whistle sounded at noon on the dot to signal lunch, two miles below the surface in the Binghamton Mine. The continuous coal machine screeched to a halt as the operator powered it down. The handful of workers in the far section of the mine set down their tools and walked to the end of the line where the train waited for them. As they walked the only source of light in the dark abyss came from their headlamps, their beams bouncing off the reflective tape on their suits. They hunched over to keep from hitting their heads on the low ceiling.

No one spoke as they piled in the roofless train, the only sounds were of the coal in the walls popping and cracking under the immense pressure of the ground weighing down upon it. The train operator turned on the engine and it began the fifteen-minute haul back up to the lift. Its engine churned and the wheels clapped against the rail as it wound its way through the vast network of caves and tunnels. Coal dust filled the air in a fine hazy like the black mist of forest fires. The miners joined in a cacophony of coughs and wheezes, the thick mucus of their throats adding a guttural weight that spoke to years of inhalation of coarse particulate matter.

The train slowed to a jerking stop at the origin of the tracks just a few feet from the lift, lit brightly by industrial lights on stands. One of the senior workmen pulled open the heavy metal door, and his coworkers piled in, packed like sardines in a matchbox.

“Lamps off,” he said, a dim sadness coloring his words as the room went pitch black with the clicks. With a jolt the elevator started its trip up through the millenniums of rocks and minerals. Each man stood quietly, some with eyes closed, others simply in a malaise. Only seconds after a vague light entered from the shaft above, the lift crashed to a stop and the doors slid open. The brightness of the gloomy day assaulted their eyes. The older workers squinted and managed the transition with experience, but the younger men covered their black smeared faces with their hands.

It was Ben’s first day working in the Binghamton Mine, and only his second full day in Binghamton. Somehow he felt even more alone back on the surface than he did tucked away deep in the manmade cave. From his designated locker he pulled out his lunch pail and his thermos and set them down on the only remaining empty table. He found the sink and stopped over to wash his hands and face, which proved to merely be a waste of water. When Ben returned he found the table full around his lunch.

“Have a seat kid,” one of the men said. “Break may be an hour but you only get twenty minutes to eat. That hour is on the clock once the whistle blows.” Ben sat down and mouthed hello to the group as he unhinged the lock and pulled out his tinfoil wrapped peanut butter and jelly.

“You must be one of the new kids? My name’s Charlie, and these here are Alan and Mr. Dodge,” the man continued. Ben just nodded in recognition so Charlie added, “You have a name?”

“Ben,” he answered.

“You talk too much, Ben,” Mr. Dodge said as he took a bite from his sandwich. There was a brief pause, and Ben wasn’t sure how to react. The three men broke out in laughter sprinkled with horse coughs. Ben smiled as Mr. Dodge patted him heartily on the back. “Lighten up Ben, it’s too dark around here.”

“Yes sir,” Ben answered with a smile.

“What brings you to O Little Town of Binghamton?” Charlie asked sarcastically.

“I got in a bit of trouble back home and my parents sent me out here to ‘reform’ me,” Ben said employing air quotes.

“So whereabouts were you thrown from?” Charlie asked.

“Pittsburgh.”

“Jesus. That’s not much better than here,” Mr. Dodge said seriously.

“I wanted to get out of there, and I figured out the most exciting way to get that to happen was to make some trouble. Besides I wanted to know what it was like here. I heard stories,” Ben added.

“Did you do any mining back there? I noticed you didn’t hardly need any instruction this morning,” Alan asked before taking a sip of Diet Coke.

“Yeah, after I finished high school I started in a mine, worked a little less than a year before I was shipped here. I just got in two days ago.”

“What do you think so far?” Charlie asked.

“It’s… different here. I guess it’s a little early to say much more than that,” Ben said.

The men nodded in agreement as they continued to pick away at their lunches and enjoy their time above ground. A curt toot from the whistle indicated the men would need to return to the lift in five minutes to start the trip back to the Binghamton underworld. The sound was met with sighs of discontent.

Ben wondered if Charlie, Alan, or Mr. Dodge remembered what they looked like beneath the layers of grime painted heavily on their faces. He wondered if they even bothered to clean themselves anymore. Mining might be the kind of work that puts hair on a man’s chest, Ben thought, but it also makes him feel as though it was growing in his lungs. Even at nineteen, the work was taxing on Ben, and he knew as time went by it would become impossible to differentiate night from day, his dreams filling with what awaited him in the waking hours.

“Hey Charlie,” Alan said getting his attention, “how bout one of your jokes before we head down?”

“I’ve got one. A man who was recently divorced meets his friend at the bar for a beer, and his friend asks him, ‘What’s the difference between being married and being divorced?’” Charlie paused as the men looked to him anxiously. “And his friend answers, ‘I wanted to get married, I needed to get divorced!’”

When Charlie reached the punch line he broke out into laughter and Alan and Mr. Dodge followed suit. Ben snickered at the joke but recognized he was too young to fully appreciate its message. But seeing the men chuckling together, who were to that point more somber than he, lightened Ben’s spirit. Ben understood the good a joke could do for guys stuck in a place like Binghamton, and he was glad for the reprieve.

Then the whistle gave two blows. The train was ready to descend. Ben and his tablemates closed up their lunch pales, tightened their thermoses, and rose to return their belongings to their lockers.

“You know, Ben, it can get awful lonely out here. Why don’t you join my wife Betty and I for dinner tonight?” Charlie asked.

“Thanks, Charlie. I’d really enjoy that.”

“Betty’s a great cook. In fact, if I’m being truthful, she’s the best damn cook on the whole planet, and good food is near impossible to find around here.”

“I look forward to it,” Ben answered as they climbed into the elevator once more.

The doors shut and a man called out, “Lamps on.” The men obliged. Through the slits in the door, Ben saw a storm brewing far off in the muggy, clay-colored sky. As the elevator descended, a strong gust blew by and kicked up a cloud of red dust, covering the billboard for the Martian Mining Corporation before everything around him went dark.

El Capitan

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artwork by @lylahrose

a short story by Jerry Zinn

Monica secured her right hand on a lip of the granite face and moved her feet, gloved in thin climbing shoes wrapped generously with rubber soles, until they too reached satisfactory resting places. Feeling relatively comfortable, she released her left hand and twisted her body away to see the valley filled with its thick carpet of foliage below, where the meandering rocks and cliffs used the changing sunlight to throw shadow puppets. In the hour since the sun moved on from The Nose, her selected route on El Capitan, she hadn’t had a chance to appreciate the performance, and at that moment the sight relaxed her.

Monica concentrated on her pulse, bringing down the palpitations by controlling her breathing. Facing the rock in front of her, its age lines snaking unpredictably, subdued hues melding together from countless bouts with the environment, Monica closed her eyes and cleaned the busy slate of her mind. She tried to block out the sensation that her entire body was engulfed in flames, her muscles calling for respite, and she stopped listening to the screaming tendons in her fingers. It was the only way to keep going up.

Once she successfully tuned out the pain, Monica conjured up an image she had perfected through weeks of visualization. She imagined herself atop El Capitan, hands fixed on her hips, her chest rising and falling rhythmically as her lungs welcomed in and said pleasant goodbyes to breaths of accomplishment. From behind her sunglasses, falling just shy of the sweat-saturated bandana around her head, Monica opened her eyes with renewed confidence.

Monica reached into the nylon pouch of chalk powder clipped firmly to her belt-loop and coated each hand in succession. Her position was a familiar one, but one that she had failed to progress past on all previous tries. Earlier, with the kind of bull-headed confidence that often proved fatal, Monica decided, against the advice of her peers, to make a free solo attempt. She hoped the real and present possibility of death, more tangible than ever before, would propel her beyond her limitations.

El Capitan did not make the trip easy for the bold, carefully selecting only the worthy to conquer it. To Monica, the more the odds stacked against her, the greater the appeal. She was an adventurer through and through, and irrational decision-making was a key tenant of her life-model.

The outcrop hanging just a few feet beyond Monica’s grasp, previously stimulating tremendous angst within her, stirred up a drive. The feeling pleasantly surprised her, like reaching for a glass of gin and instead tasting the refreshment of glacial water. She moved her right foot into a small niche like a puzzle piece, and relocated her left to a scarcely noticeable notch. As she straightened her legs her body unfurled, making her look more like an inchworm than an agile climber.

To her side Monica noticed a patch of the dark lichen that littered the stone façade, and in that spot she saw an image of herself caught in a fatal free-fall, its realism unsettling. It was like an organic Rorschach test playing devilishly with her imagination. But it’s just moss, she told herself, nothing more. Shaking her head, she erased the image and extended upward for the quarter-sized hold just within reach. Her next move came naturally and unconsciously, moving her ever closer to her granite Achilles heel.

Her right foot progressed without trouble, but the shelf upon which she placed her left turned to a rubble, causing her leg to drop and forcing her to dig in to her three remaining anchor points. Monica let out a cry that pooled frustration and desperation as she found another place for her dangling leg. The cry was the first instance that reminded her she had no lifeline. Normally, she was able to calm herself by looking at the hex clamps, threaded by a rope attached snugly to her harness, which would catch her if she fell. But there were no hexes, no ropes, no harness, no safety. If she made a mistake like that again she would become the falling woman in the lichen.

Monica knew her greatest chance of survival stemmed from her ability to focus. So she dug into her reserve of concentration and eyed the ledge. She found solid footing a few inches higher and hugged her weight against The Nose. The lone way forward was to find a hold, latch on, and hang suspended almost 3,000 feet above the earth until she could grip with her other hand. Warning signals called out from every part of her body begging her not to continue, but she knew the sole option was up.

Monica bit her bottom lip and yelled, “Come on!” With the sum of her might she heaved her hand at the ledge and found a sill on which to clasp. Like a Christmas ornament placed precariously near the end of a branch she hung, her weight supported by a single limb. Quickly she flung her other hand to the same height, her fingers scraping and searching for something to grab, but it slipped.

Though in real-time only a fraction of a second, like Wile E. Coyote after the ground beneath him vanished, Monica hung motionless, completely unattached to anything but the air around her. She noticed her hands, mere centimeters from the ledge, though effectively miles away. As she fell she watched the ethereal clouds brushing the crystal blue sky above and the majestic face of the cliff, standing more kingly than ever before.

Connecting with the ground was not as painful as Monica had imagined, it felt almost like landing on a soft hotel bed.

“Ah Monica! You almost had it that time!” a man wearing a Cali Climbing Co. t-shirt said, extending his hand to help her off the padded blue mat. Monica looked at the tin ceiling, sighed, and grabbed the man’s hand as he pulled her up from her vivid fantasy.

 

921.5

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a short story by Jerry Zinn

921.5…. 921.5… 921.5. I rolled over onto my back and opened my eyes wide, staring at the ceiling but seeing nothing. There was no amount of sheep I could count to take my mind off that number. It was seared into my brain like a brand on a cow. Despite its persistence, I couldn’t determine its significance. What did 921.5 mean?

Perhaps it was something I had come across in the last few days, seen in a passing glance. I tried to think back to what I had done and where I had been the week before, but after jogging my memory for a mile or two, I was still left wanting. It has always amused me that the simplest of things are often the hardest to decipher. Ask me to explain partial derivatives, and you would think I had a Ph.D. in mathematics, but ask me to define love, humor, or 921.5 and you’d be severely disappointed.

As I continued to psychoanalyze myself, I sat up and took stock of my studio apartment, shrouded in the uniform darkness of the night. I could only make out the larger shapes like my kitchen counter, my desk, and my dresser. The exposed brick wall was revealed by its mortar, which held a subtle glow. The wall was a reminder of what once was, a factory long gone, machines removed and replaced with hipsters. It’s all very “circle of life,” but I couldn’t help but feel the textile workers that filled the building over a hundred years ago would disapprove of my French press and I.

A shot of moonlight filtered through my blinds and fell upon some books trying to sleep on an upper shelf. I could make out the title of one of the larger books, War and Peace, and in a failed test of my vision could almost make out the library number affixed to the spine. It was then that the light bulb flicked on in my head. 921.5. Was it a Dewey Decimal number? But to what book and where? In the age of technology in which I find myself, mastery of the library catalogue system is not as high a priority as it once was. Even if I was wrong, I thought pursuing my idea might lead to an answer, and it seemed the best option for salvaging what little sleep remained within grasp.

With sharpened curiosity, I summoned the strength to get out of bed. I walked to my desk and accidentally kicked over my trashcan along the way, a casualty of my temporary blindness. When I opened my laptop, I was greeted with the “Welcome Peter Anderson” message on my background. With the cursor blinking on the search bar, my brainstorm grew disappointingly quiet. How was I to go about searching for 921.5 when every library has its own unique codes? I sat looking blankly at the screen before becoming, for the first time, consciously aware of the time: 11:45. If I had any hope of solving the riddle before the clock tipped over to March 23rd, I had to start thinking faster. What library would 921.5 be in? Would it be open?

A quick search informed me that only one library within ten miles was still open: The Richard L. Tattinger Library. Fortunately it was also the closest of all the establishments, located only a few blocks away. But with only fifteen minutes to spare until they too closed their doors, time was of the essence.

After a brisk five-minute walk I arrived at the foot of the marble steps to the temple of the written word. The edifice’s six Doric pillars, reminiscent of the cult structures found readily in Greek antiquity, guarded the front in a, “Enter if you think yourself worthy,” kind of way. The doors were glass, frameless, and bearing brushed stainless steel handles. They contrasted with the classical style in the same way the glass pyramid does the Louvre, which is to say, strongly. When I opened the door it let out a creak like Windex quickly wiped away from a drying window. The security guard, a gray-mustached man of considerable age awoke from his light slumber to examine me.

“Library closes in eight minutes at midnight,” he said in a tone that made it seem more like a question than a statement.

“Yes, thank you,” I replied as I followed the star-speckled, navy blue carpet train into the reading room. The space was ornate, a significant change from the gutted factory building from which I had ventured. Sturdy, mahogany desks stood three by three leading up to the librarian’s desk, which possessed impressive floral carvings. Rows of matching shelves filled the remaining space with long-unpolished bronze numerals and letters, the Tattinger code. A further two levels of shelving along the walls on all sides were outlined with hip-height railing. The highest level ran directly to the elaborate crown molding encircling the room, transitioning to the pearl white vaulted ceiling. Artistically concealed behind hand-carved wooden posts were the access roads to the upper floors, tightly wound spiral staircases of wrought iron poised to uncoil if provoked.

Having completed my architectural assessment of the Tattinger, I proceeded to the librarian’s wooden nest, past the large Grandfather clock in the center of the room showing 11:56. As no one else was present in the library at the time, I thought the man would look up on his own volition. However I managed to toe the front of the desk without him so much as throwing a glance in my direction. The deep folds of skin on his face, unkempt white hair, and cartoonish small stature made him look like a Claymation character.

I was about to ask where I could find the book corresponding to 921.5, but before I could, he pointed and said, “Second floor, section seven dash Z, third row from the top.”

“But I didn’t even…” I started to say. After a few seconds I accepted that he had little interest in me, and I proceeded to the staircase nearest the direction he had signaled.

I reached the second floor and looked back to examine the reading room from my new perch. As my eyes scanned the path I followed to enter, my gaze darted to the librarian’s desk. He was gone. A moment of concern overcame me as I wondered to where he could have disappeared. I hadn’t noticed any other doors in the library save for the entrance, and it seemed unrealistic, for more reasons than one, to think he sprinted out of the building without a sound. My consuming quest coupled with a week of sleep deprivation seemed to be getting the better of me.

I about-faced to the bookshelves in search of a section 7-Z. The floor creaked painfully as if it hadn’t been asked to bear weight for decades. I arrived at section 7-Z, counted three rows down, and locked in on the code pasted on the first book: 921.1. My body froze, and I found my extremities tingling at the sight. This was the row on which the book bearing my number would be found, but how could the vanishing librarian have known?

In autopilot, my finger found its way to 921.1. I slowly dragged over the subsequent spines of 921.2, 921.3 and 921.4, feeling each pore of their worn leather covers. Finally my finger came to rest on 921.5. My eyes scaled cautiously up like someone climbing the ladder to a diving board for the first time, reticent to proceed.

N O S R E D N A R E T E P

Like an impressionist painting, overly close examination revealed little, but I brought my gaze back slightly, and the book’s title stopped my heart beating in its tracks: Peter Anderson. My hand shivered, as I timidly unshelved the book bearing my name. Holding it in my still wavering hand, I unhinged the cover to reveal a blank page. I carefully peeled back the emptiness to unveil the next. Printed in its center was one short, horrifying phrase, “In memory of Peter Anderson, November 16, 1989 – March 22, 2016.” Then the clock struck midnight.

END

Anatomy of a Groundhog Day

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Entrance to Gobbler’s Knob, named for God knows what. Photo by Stuart Rowe

“Phil! Phil! Phil!” roared the mass of thousands blanketing the frozen hillside of Gobbler’s Knob as the leader of the Inner Circle, clothed in top hat and tails, reached down to open the door on a fake tree stump inside which was a pudgy groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil preparing to live out his destiny and make a rough prediction of the upcoming weather. For those unfamiliar, or more accurately, not indoctrinated, this is not some strange Latvian children’s story from the 1800s. It is the culmination of the annual Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This year, on February 2nd, the celebration reached its 132nd year, a feat that seems as unlikely as a soothsaying marmot. And while the prognosticating from the “prognosticator of prognosticators” only occurs at sunrise on the 2nd, the excitement starts a great many hours before.

 

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Two people who didn’t freeze in Punxsutawney on February 2nd.

I have always loved the movie, Groundhog Day, a 1993 film starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell and directed by the late, great Harold Ramis. In brief, Bill Murray plays an egocentric weatherman from Pittsburgh who is sent to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day and ends up reliving the day over and over until he completely changes into a good person. Full disclosure, as a kid I had a huge crush on Andie MacDowell’s character in the movie, which on my most recent viewing still holds up. But while I may have always enjoyed the film, I never once thought of the festival as something to attend. Groundhog Day was always just fine print on my calendar like Boxing Day or one of the Equinoxes. Whatever Phil’s prediction, I heard about it through the grapevine or I didn’t hear about it at all.

 

 

My interest in the holiday took off in December of last year when I boldly viewed a map, an activity that is surprisingly enlightening. Nestled just northeast of Pittsburgh was a town whose name I recognized immediately for its Dr. Seussian lyricism: Punxsutawney. The town was remarkably close to my new home, Cleveland, Ohio, and when I looked at another antiquated document (a calendar) I realized Groundhog Day was just over a month away. No matter the means, I decided I was going to attend.

Luckily for me, I mentioned it off the cuff to Akash, a friend of mine here in Cleveland and classmate from my UNC days.

“Wait, are you serious?!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, why?”

“A group of us are going! We’ve been talking about it for like a year. You’ve got to go with us.”

“That’s wild. I’m in!” And just like that I signed on to join the entourage for what was already feeling like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

A few weeks later our group of eight brave, young souls split into two cars and headed to western PA under the darkness of the first night of February. Somewhere outside of Pittsburgh, on the winding wooded roads, the snow began to fall. In the light cast from the headlights into the night, the snowflakes glowed and looked like stars whizzing by. It was as if we were flying through space, the first of many clues we’d left Earth. We made it to Punxsutawney, or Punxy as the locals lovingly refer to it, behind a salt truck, which served as our slow, blinking escort.

The clock was approaching 11:00PM, 8.5 hours until Phil was scheduled to look for his shadow. The parking lot at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, our designated rendezvous point, was nearly empty, with a few RVs pulling in to set up camp on the periphery. To one side of our car was the giant Wal-Mart, open 24hrs every day, and to our left was a Taco Bell, open 24hrs for Groundhog Day only. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle, one thing became abundantly clear: it was cold. Even with the residual heat from the car, the wind briskly whipped up the thin sheet of snow and ice on the ground and drove the real feel of the temperature down from its mercury reading of 15 degrees.

“It’s supposed to get colder,” Matt said.

I winced at the thought.

“Where should we go tonight?” Leo asked the young girl manning the Taco Bell counter.

“The Borrow.”

“Where’s that?”

“Take the hill down to the Rite Aid, then take a right at the red light…” Through the landmark directions we gleaned that The Borrow was the place to be, and as midnight was nigh, we finished our Miller Highlife cans and called an Uber. Actually it was not an Uber but the Uber.

“I’m the only Uber in Punxsutawney,” the driver told us. It didn’t seem like he was bragging or complaining. His commentary was what I would come to expect from the generally pleasant locals, a statement of fact. When we walked through the doors and paid the mandatory donation to the bar, we were blown away.

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Our group at The Borrow with a few of Phil’s faithful in custom attire. Photo by John Wetzel

“Now this is Punxsutawney!”

There was live music playing in the back corner, an eardrum banging combination of guitars, pianos, and twangy vocals. The crowd was a blend of characters ranging from tattooed motorcycle gangs to Penn State students to people wearing homemade Phil themed costumes. None of the oddities seemed out of place in the crowded bar, where all were gathered for one purpose: to drink to a groundhog. In talking to the people we learned the depth of the insanity surrounding the event, with claims of, “this is our 15th year coming,” and “we drove from [city way too far away to be considered close enough].”

When The Borrow closed we made it across the street to a place called “ISDA Bar” which I guessed was not an acronym but something to be pronounced, a mumbling of “it’s the bar.” The Punxy locals were easy to spot. They were the ones that seemed unfazed by the strobe lights, dancing, and Jell-O shots, content to stand on the sidelines and observe the humanity the festival imported. We were starting to recognize people, an astonishing trend considering we’d only been there just over four hours.

It was too early to go to Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s hillside retreat, so we needed to get back to Wal-Mart. “You’re not going to get the Uber,” one of the local women told us. “But school buses are coming for Wal-Mart.”

“Why would school buses be coming?” I asked.

“I’m from here! Don’t make fun of my town!”

“No, I’m not. I’m just wondering why a school bus would come by this bar at three in the morning to take us to Wal-Mart.”

“Because, it’s Groundhog Day!”

Finding no holes in her logic, I accepted the answer. With no buses in sight, we were able to nab an Uber, though it was not Punxsutawney’s own but instead an out-of-towner. After the requisite Taco Bell and Wal-Mart stops, we split into two groups. Three of us, Matt, Anshu, and myself, took off for Gobbler’s Knob determined to get a good spot. The other five retreated to the car to get some rest. It was 4:00AM, three hours to Phil.

“You can’t drive past here without a permit,” the officer told us at a roadblock. “You’ll have to walk from here.” It was evident moments after we started our ascent up the steep, icy mountain with only feint moonlight and the occasional streetlamp to guide us, that we had been dropped off at the wrong place. Just under a half an hour later, the lights and sounds emanating from the Knob signaled we’d arrived. As we crossed the threshold I was unaware that I was, at that moment, the warmest I was going to be. The frigid temperature had fallen as Matt predicted, and the ground was solid ice. This permitted me the chance to skate on my boots and fall hard on my elbow, a severe point deduction in nearly every one of the upcoming Winter Olympic events. It was 4:30AM, three full hours until Phil.

Two members of the Inner Circle in their top hats and tails, lead the stage in song and dance. There was call and response, generally “groundhog” themed, and a variety of fanfare. It was the Inner Circle’s time to shine, and for a group of people with nicknames like Iceman, Thunder Conductor, and Sky Painter, they earned the right. We made a few treks to the bonfire, which was dozens of stumps piled high and fully ablaze. The fire provided momentary, skin-searing relief from the bone-chilling weather.

“Hey, you’re on fire.”

“I think your jacket is melting.”

“Excuse me, your backpack is burning.”

These and other phrases people called out nonchalantly with the same urgency one might employ when pointing out spinach in someone’s teeth. Each time I heard it I knew it was time to rotate out of the fire and back into the cold. But the warmth from the fire was ultimately a tease, and a return to the crowd was necessary. A couple standing in front of us held up a sign: “We’re getting married at 11:00AM!”

“Hey,” a man called next to us, “I’m an ordained minister. Why don’t I just do the ceremony now?”

“No, we aren’t ready. The mayor is going to perform the ceremony.”

I wondered if their nuptials depended on Phil’s prediction, an unsettling thought. Suddenly, through the darkness, some of the most incredible fireworks I’ve ever seen began firing off. They were a spectacular and remarkably close sight. There was an element of dangerous proximity, like a forest fire might ignite, that made the experience somehow more Punxsutawney. In a nice, epic touch, the rockets exploded to blaring John Williams scores.

“Ok!” yelled one of the Fred Astaire’s on stage. “Fifteen minutes until Phil!”

“Phil! Phil! Phil!” the chants rang out.

Then the stage broke out into a few songs, which can only be described as painful. The first song was the insufferable tune, “This train is bound for Punxy, this train,” to bluegrass accompaniment. The second song repeated the line, “don’t matter what day it is, put on your Sunday finest and party like it’s Saturday night,” despite the fact that it exclusively mattered what day it was as the event only occurs on a specific day once a year, and it was a Friday.

With the real feel hovering at 5 degrees, the ringleader called out, “Send in the top hats!” As fanfare music started to play, a bobbing mass of black headwear made their way

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Members of the Inner Circle doing what they do best: circling around a groundhog. Photo by Stuart Rowe

through the crowd. According to the Inner Circle, Punxsutawney Phil is the same groundhog that made the first prediction 132 years ago, which is amazing considering the lifespan of animals in his species is only about six years. It was no wonder he was reticent to come out of the stump in the conditions, even taking a bite of the new handler in protest. As tradition dictates, when the sunrises, which was around 7:20 that morning, Phil looks for his shadow and then conveys, to the President of the Circle, his prognostication in “Groundhogese.”

 

From a scroll which began, “Here ye, here ye, here ye,” the President read. “Punxsutawney Phil, the seer of seers, the prognosticator of prognosticators,” it continued. The anticipation, which had been building for more than eight long and bizarre hours, was finally coming to a head. “I see my royal shadow, six more weeks of winter to go!” Earlier cheers for Phil turned to jeers, as his prediction was pretty much universally ill received. But then how long can you really stay mad at a shivering groundhog well into his second century of life? Despite factual evidence to the contrary, the Inner Circle claim that Phil’s predictions are correct, “100% of the time, of course!” Perhaps the study was done by the same people who declared The Human Centipede, “100% medically accurate.”

It was difficult, however, to dispute Phil on the nearly two-mile hike up and over the hills back to Wal-Mart, as the wind blew and shivered the ice from the trees and my fingers from my hands. Punxsutawney is a small town that turned itself into the “weather capital of the world,” and in a stroke of genius manages to draw a crowd of untold thousands, one day a year, to stand in the cold on a hill called Gobbler’s Knob and listen to a groundhog do Al Roker’s job. I’d lived through Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, one of the most unusual and fascinating slices of Americana I’ve ever come across, but unlike Bill Murray, I only had to live through it once.

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Our group (John, Stu, Alex, Anshu, Akash, Leo, me, and Matt) beneath a sign that asks an unanswerable question. Photo by John Wetzel

A Brief Oral History of the Life of Arthur Watts Clark

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Last year I conducted an interview with one of my heroes, Arthur Watts Clark, which was recently archived with the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) at the UNC Chapel Hill Center for the Study of the American South. I have known Mr. Clark for over a decade and feel very privileged he agreed to share some of his life story with me. Mr. Clark was born in 1922 in Seattle, Washington and is a retired Air Force major general, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, living in Chapel Hill, NC. His work in the civilian sphere took him to the chairmanship of the Home Security and Peoples Security life insurance companies. During the course of the interview, Mr. Clark provides a great overview of his storied life, including his family, experience in the military, and a glimpse into his wealth of travel adventures worldwide. Included here is both the edited version of the interview which is on YouTube and a link to the unedited (audio only) interview with accompanying Abstract and Field Notes on the SOHP archival site. I am very excited to share this piece of history and hope more people will get to hear his story!

SOPH link:

Southern Oral History Program: Interview B-0086 with Abstract and Field Notes