Quotes that Say Something

"Please, dad, get down and look. I think there's some kind of monster under my bed."

Life when seen in close-up often seems tragic, but in wide-angle it often seems comic. -- Charlie Chaplin

"And when the cloudbursts thunder in your ear, you shout, but no one's there to hear. And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon." -- Roger Waters, "Brain Damage"

Aug 30, 2013

Can Pandora Get an Even Break? -- Heard on NPR

As heard on NPR this week  --

Every time you turn around it seems like there's a new streaming music service. Pandora was among the first a decade ago. Rdio launched in 2010. Spotify came to the U.S. in the summer of 2011. Apple and Google plan to join the fray this year. Music producer Jimmy Iovine is launching a service tied to his headphone brand Beats by Dr. Dre.

What's odd is they are all jumping into a business that, so far, doesn't seem to be turning a profit.
Take Pandora. The Internet radio service uses an algorithmic formula to create a personalized stream of music that it designed to keep me listening. I let Pandora know I like Run DMC and it creates a stream of similar music. The longer I listen, the more ads Pandora can sell — and, you'd think, the more money it would make. In fact, the more I listen, the more it costs, says Pandora Chief Financial Officer Mike Herring.

"It costs us essentially around $20 in licensing fees for every thousand hours that we play in music," he says. "That means that we have to make $21 in revenue for every 1,000 hours to make a dollar."

It's actually a little more than that — Pandora has 70 million active monthly users who each stream an average of about 18 hours a month. The company estimates it has to pay between $800,000 and $900,000 in fees every day.

Herring says that last year, Pandora spent 64 percent of its revenues on music. One way to become more profitable would be to pay out less money in royalties. But the service is classified as a pure play Internet radio station, which means the recording royalties it pays for streaming a song are set by the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board. So Pandora's been lobbying Congress for lower rates, and that's generated a lot of angry press from musicians.

Some streaming services that aren't governed by the Royalty Board face similar issues. Subscription-based streaming services such as Rdio and Spotify negotiate royalty rates directly with the labels. But those services aren't making any money either.

Rdio won't make the details of its revenue public, but Spotify took in more than half a billion dollars last year. Nevertheless, its losses grew from from $60 million to $78 million. Spotify executives say 70 percent of its revenue went to paying licensing fees. David Pakman, a venture capitalist who worked for Apple in the 1990s, says these kinds of upfront costs are discouraging investors and innovation.

"It's nowhere near as active a space for innovation as, say, social media, mobile apps," he says. "Pick any other subject matter and there are literally thousands of companies entering the space. Digital music has been a perilous one where investors have lost a huge amount of money."

Pakman says if there were fewer upfront costs, there would be a lot more new streaming services. But economist Jeff Eisenach says getting involved in the music streaming business is no less attractive than investing in Walmart.

A visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Eisenach says a retailer like Walmart lays out 65 percent of its revenues to buy the products it sells — almost exactly what Pandora pays in royalties. "To say this is different from what happens with other businesses. ... You know, everybody who sells more pays more," he says

So, the more shirts you sell, the more you pay the supplier to buy those shirts. The more songs users stream, the more a service pays in royalties and licensing fees. Eisenach says companies like Pandora and Spotify are making a lot of money — they're just using it to target new audiences rather than putting it in the bank and calling it a profit.

"There is a huge advantage to becoming the largest because there's so many economies of scale," he says. "The more listeners you have, the more people value you, the less your cost per listener is — and all firms in these markets lose money initially as they invest in growth."

Though streaming music services have been around for about a decade, Eisenach says these are still the early days of the industry. In fact, Pandora CFO Mike Herring says he sees a lot of room for growth.
"It's important to remember that 80 percent of our listening is done on mobile devices," he says. "The mobile monetization world is very much in its infancy, especially the advertising world, which Pandora uses to monetize its free listening."

Drew Larner, the CEO of Rdio, thinks there's a lot of money to be made. "With real scale," he says, "we will absolutely be profitable ... wildly profitable."

Larner defines real scale as 25 to 30 million subscribers. He won't say how many paying subscribers Rdio has now, but its competitor Spotify has only 6 million. Larner says most people are still more interested in owning music than paying a monthly fee to listen, but that could be changing as well. Sales of albums — both physical and digital — are declining, and streaming grew by 24 percent in the first half of the year.
Still, Larner doesn't know when streaming services will get profitable. "I don't have an answer," he says. "I think it's on the horizon."

It's a horizon that Larner believers entrepreneurs and investors will keep reaching for with their time and their money because, like most people, they have an emotional connection to music and they dream about being part of it.

Aug 21, 2013

Constant Companions

                                                     I told you about strawberry fields
     You know the place where nothing is real
Well here's another place you can go
Where everything flows
Looking through the bent back tulips
To see how the other half lives
Looking through a glass onion

                                                                 --  Lennon and McCartney,
            "Glass Onion"

          The day was becoming a near-perfect confirmation that their wicked winter months were at last
headed for seclusion and that the welcome Spring, with all of its budding rebirths and consequent wonders, with the color green painting the lawns that had survived the snows and bursting out on the ample oak and maple trees, had made its way to their little township. The late morning air was crisp, clear, unblemished, uplifting. With each hour that passed, a brilliant sun ascended peacefully, the neighborhood warmed steadily, and the catalogued troubles and frigid inconveniences of a long and bitter cold season, like the persistent ice floes and graying patches of snow that had imprisoned quarrelsome, pent up little brothers and sisters indoors for long murky days, began to melt into puddles and drip away. The ample yards on both sides of the street were soft and supple from Winter meltoff and muddy patches of turf made squishing noises as people walked out hopefully in their Summer weather fabrics and casual slip-ons to bask in the welcome sun shower, shake off lingering worries, admire the changes in nature that were coming on so quickly, and wonder if good things, indiscernible but hopeful, were in store for the days ahead.

          As slants of sunlight pierced through tree limbs and dove down onto oak-lined McFarland Road, near the west margins of the forest, reborn sounds of birds and bees, periodic and faint wails of distant sirens, motorized buzz saws rotating deep in the woods, and the lulling hums of preoccupied cicadas in the bushes and trees made for subconscious entertainment, at an early hour a lonely, brain hampered war veteran who lived like a recluse down by the gully where the road dropped off into a thick woodland, nicknamed the Sarge, had marched companion free (like he did almost every day) past the rows of McFarland houses and on toward an aged number 21 city bus that he would ride over potholed streets amiably for a couple of hours, then dutifully ride right back again.

          This genial weekday packed with placid possibilities though would draw two other people who were reeling in separate orbits -- both parents, opposites that had failed to attract, neighbors in name only keeping each other at definable distances, one of them a young and (as churlish neighbors claimed in hushed tones) delusional and frowningly anti-social mother of three children -- toward a palpitating and breathless encounter, beside a circular children's pool made of cheap plastic and glutted with six inches of sparkling water, that would mark the end of the dank and miserable stretch of wintry weeks recently endured in the ragged, irrational, fitful McDyer household.

          That day, as was her unhealthful custom -- ever since middle child Stuart had marched off to school behind big brother James and six years later Brooke had come along, the only girl among a trio of offspring, a golden-haired baby surprise with sparkling shades of hazel in her irises, a daughter hailing from far outside the McDyers' dreams for the future -- the unlikable and emotionally disintegrating mother with a sallow chain smoker's complexion and frequently mismatched clothing, who was typically wary of eye-contact and predictably negative in her demeanor, had remained mostly indoors in the graying rooms of their shadow-streaked cottage and had burned through one cigarette after another since a few minutes before 8 AM. That was the hour when her pair of boy children, followed closely by her withdrawn and tight-lipped husband Somerset, daily left her tethered to Brooke -- who was stubborn, a compact force, unyielding in her demands for maternal attention -- feeling isolated, anxious for more sleep, worried that her perceptions of reality at times got distorted like a in trick mirror in a haunted house, perched out on a raw and uneven ledge about having to care with watchful eyes at all hours for a curious toddler. Her boyish sons would begin to reappear around 3:30, their moods and desires shaped by the school day's occurrences, and then Somerset would drag in about 5:00 o'clock in his hushed manner, as if he were stepping warily into a sensory deprivation chamber, his face a bit redder and his prematurely graying whiskers heavier than when he had departed, his eyes drooping from chronic boredom as an average underwriter, his fear growing over his spouse's erratic and unbidden outbursts, and on certain days stressed to the point of laboring with concentrated effort just to take in a decent breath of air. The poorly lit kitchen, in which mother and child now sat at a small, four-top dinette table, was suffused with acrid tobacco smoke and a spreading cloudbank of parental acrimony. It would be hours before any of the other McDyers came back on the scene to the haggard mother's relief.

          God I need to get out for a little while, just a simple break, Juniper thought for the one hundredth time that week. She lit another unfiltered cigarette. She felt mildly guilty when she daydreamed like a prisoner in solitary for an escape from her pitiable plight. The laundry, the supper, the boys' homework, a brief evening playtime, the baby's messy bath ritual were all in need of being done somehow today. June inhaled a considerable puff from her Camel Light too anxiously, hacked up a dry cough, and blew a drift of smoke that elongated like a curved scabbard over Brooke's little head. Brooke quickly wiped her forearm under her runny nose and sneezed. From the old television that was always on in the family room, Juniper could hear the counterfeit enthusiasm of "The Price is Right." The announcer called out with disingenuous gaiety You may be the next big winner -- June McDyer, come on down. But he sounded like one of the anomalous voices that Juniper had heard several times, source unknown, while she was all by herself with Winter pounding with both fists on their little, one story house. Whenever June was accosted by one of these voices, she irrationally wanted to slap someones face, usually her ineffectual and withdrawn husband Somerset, a bored and boring man, but in this instance it was tiny Brooke who was locked firmly in a kitchen highchair, drinking warm apple juice from a plastic lidded cup, ignoring a warm and half-consumed mini-carton of milk, and oblivious to the discarded and ignored Cheerios, cracked pieces of stale animal crackers, and bits of canned fruit dotting the heavy duty tray in front of her.

          June stared at the rotary phone on the wall. The green wallpaper around it had grown pale from detergent rinses and withering blasts of exhaled tobacco smoke. Used dishes and bowls holding dried food residues, sticky drinking glasses, and tarnished utensils from the morning's breakfast covered the counter by the sink; others laid uncollected atop the worn dinette table. I seriously need to get away from here -- just a day or two, June thought again, trying to deceive herself, for this was her recurring lunchtime prayer, a self-deception to which she returned day by day. Her attention shifted from the telephone to three vials of pills, acquired from Pembroke pharmacy, that sat on the window sill above the chipped basin that held a little pool of deconstructing dishwater. June slumped back, doubting that the mute telephone would summon her with genuine entertainment or an intriguing invitation ever again. Not without a miracle, she thought. She should have swallowed her daily allotment of prescriptions by this time. It was the fourth straight day that she had shunned the powerful meds. Juniper believed that one of the required drugs, Risperadol, a big brown tablet that was new to her, designed to keep her socially composed, emotionally even, and reasonably organized, instead bowled over her precarious inner balance, caused her mind to wander crazily, distorted and dizzied her perceptions, and invariably dropped her into a prolonged and isolated funk.

          'Okay, little sugar plum. Okay Brooksie, break time's gone poof again,' June announced mirthlessly. 'You heard the man -- time to come on down.'

          June mimicked a compact, invisible explosion with her rounded hands. Her fingers were stained a sordid yellow from nicotine and were worn rough and red from mops and brooms, shaggy rags, strong soaps, and stinging bleaches. Juniper sucked in one last, long puff of smoke, blew it toward the wall phone, then tamped down her smoldering half cigarette on a side plate. Had the TV voice just told her how to get herself out of this trap?, June wondered. She felt a thrill of excitement. Inside her emotions bounced about

          'Let's suck it up, honey bun. Job One, it's gonna get done today. Here we go now, joined at the hip,' Juniper said to the toddler.

         She yanked Brooke up from the highchair but the little girl was greatly annoyed and resisted with a loud and defensive whine. Brooke swung an arm to push Juniper away; she screeched hotly, Noo-oo, Maa-mm-ee, no. Aggravated, June lowered the child, little legs churning and fists balled up, into a large wicker laundry basket that rested on a worn sideboard, but she quickly lost her grip and let the toddler fall backwards down the last few inches with a thump onto some cold and damp laundry items. Brooke swung her arm up again to swipe June's rough hands away from her face.

          'Stop it. Now, Brooke!' June yelled, surging with resentful energy. 'It's time for us to go.'

          Brooke screeched out No, no-oo once more.

          June glared at her disdainfully. She had endured many difficult months of one disruptive challenge after another since this argumentative child had been born. June jerked the work basket from the sideboard with Brooke, who was daunted by her mother's angry scream and flagging in her belligerence, positioned inside.

          June sighed, 'Just never let it be said that I didn't let on to you, baby. Things happen, sometimes bad bad things, Brooksie. Terrible things. Stuff you should never have to see.'

          Juniper glanced down at her tiny captive and suddenly felt self-conscious about her outburst. Sometimes the mother irrationally worried worries that Brooke (who could barely form two words sequentially) might vengefully tell Somerset and the boys what her mean and overbearing mother had done while they were away.

          At that second, a glistening rectangle of early Spring sunlight stretched from corner to corner across the kitchen's slightly open side window, above the littered sink area, illuminating the sagging sill that held the potent medicines, spilling sun rays across the floor. Juniper had suffered severe post-partum depression after Brooke had come along. That was when these arcane prescriptive drugs had first been ordered by her doctor, a hardheaded man she considered diffident and insensitive and whom she wanted to fire. June became transfixed by the lustrous window. She feared the bright light was pure fantasy. Juniper assumed   the cryptic voices flowing out from the ceilings, through the plain walls, from atop the humming television so persistently had to mean something: This could be your lucky day -- June McD, it's time to come on down. The jovial voice of the disembodied TV announcer echoed once more throughout the cottage.

         Startled, June realized she had been entranced by the glowing glass like a person possessed -- but for how long?, she wished she knew answer. She straightened her back stiffly. She glanced down. The captive Brooke seemed to have cooperatively dropped into very deep sleep in the wicker container. June's arms, shoulders, and backbone ached from the awkward load -- but  for how long? she wondered again.

         'Time to get things done, hon. Job One,' June whispered to herself once more. June hoped that no one would drop by to ruin their afternoon. She nudged the laundry basket against the screen door. It swung open with a loud and prolonged squeak from its rusty mainspring.

* * *

          Much later, once night time's sheltering veil had settled down over the township of Pembroke, on one of the last occasions that she would ever sleep in their graying family cottage, right before Juniper dropped precipitously into a soporific dark hallway full of trick mirrors that was induced by powerful sedatives approved by her personal physician, while their two boys slumbered fitfully in their rooms, she and Somerset laid in bed hushed and motionless unable to converse at any length about the terrible afternoon's mournful developments. The emotionally overwhelmed husband and father, his face a bit redder and his whiskers a bit grayer a than just a few hours before, had just returned from a ride at dangerous speeds inside a wailing ambulance that had taken their injured baby girl to a children's hospital and eventually away from them for good. Feeling adrift in a black and bottomless sea, Somerset searched his troubled mind and heart. Who could wish that their own child would die? Who commits such a sordid transgression despite their inner tortures, personal or familial? Somerset wanted to get up to smoke his cherrywood pipe and calm down more, but he stayed dutifully in place next to his troubled spouse to ponder silently the nagging questions that threatened to smother him. During those exhausted moments in their hushed bedroom, with no moonbeams and no street lamps able to steal in through their blackout curtains, Juniper insisted again that the only thing she could recall after she stepped onto the back porch, as the screen door spring squeaked in complaint, was the sound of barely audible rock music and then the phone. As she had related to a small huddle of intent police investigators while the late afternoon sunlight began to dim in the western sky, including the intimidating female Detective Malone, while a suspicious Somerset struggled to stay calm by her side and Rolly, the gentleman who had arrived to pull Brooke back from the brink in a surprising rush from next door, listened intently -- her voice was quivery but pleading for a Camel, her eyes were bloodshot but not very tearful, her smokers' hands were shaking and worn to a rubbed-raw condition from household chores -- Juniper said imprecisely 'I think it was that Sargent something something racket, the music', the kind of silly modern record that kids like Stuart and James always had on in their rooms till late, at times punishably late.

          Seventy-two hectic hours later, under skies that had become iron gray and mercilessly chilly, a crime scene specialist concluded forensically (after searching through some bystander quotes collected at the crime scene and after looking over a selection of current Billboard charts) that the suspect, Juniper, had not heard Sargent Pepper's at all but likely a recent Beatles' release called "Magical Mystery Tour." The odd music had seemingly filtered through the tall, on the mend bushes stretching sunward in the yard next to the McDyers.

          Throughout these days of investigation, June stubbornly, passionately, stuck to a single version of her story. Malone and her team performed their serious work for tedious hours, though key personages in the police department -- seasoned professionals who had seen just about all and heard just about all when it came to criminal deceptions and lame cover-ups -- doubted much of the mother's unshakable account from its inception: that this was all a horrendous mistake, not easily explained but an impossible fluke, traceable to a harried mother's preoccupations and lack of focus after the soul-sucking late Winter stretch that had made managing a busy family household more tortuous than usual. In telling her version of happened, Juniper maintained that when she stepped onto the porch and heard faint traces of that rock 'n roll music, with her toddler Brooke laying back for a midday sleep in the big laundry basket, she put the load she was carrying down, in a flash, she said urgently -- It would be just a second, then I'd be right back -- since she had to pivot back into the graying house: because at long last the telephone in her kitchen had actually started to ring.


          Ambiguity, confusion, and an eroding ability to perceive reality with true clarity are three of the most aggravating prices -- a trifecta of limitations -- that human beings suffer for a shot at personal immortality. With regard to philosophizing about the human condition, that was about as far as a regular guy, named Rolly, cared to venture. Not because he was a world-wearied older man who lacked the ability to ponder things deeply. He was in fact a graduate with honors from a historic university, a man who had labored hard and long to prepare for a retirement without fanfare, thus he was the kind of individual that many refer to as a polite, congenial, and unobtrusive gentleman. But Rolly's college major had been chemistry, not humanism, not metaphysics, and not the philosophical study of humanity's flawed search for meaning. Actually, philosophy had been a college subject that he just couldn't get excited about. Rolly had long ago given up on all formal religious practices and all church denominations because he was invariably dispirited by the time that the concluding hymns ended Sunday services. When picturing his corner of eternity, Rolly preferred a reasonable and vital image of himself as a man of action, not a particularly deep or reflective figure, a good person -- with vigorous, natural-born instincts and a strict upbringing that taught him to always seek the correct and the good -- yet also an inconspicuous and drooping man who had lugged big shares of faults, shortcomings, and missed opportunities unto his present condition, what charitable folks label advanced age.

          Rolly sometimes regretted, but only to a mild degree, that it was a largely forgotten incident -- it happened about three decades ago in this pallid and declining area near the McFarland Woods of Pembroke Township -- when one prematurely Spring day revived the minds and spirits of almost everyone who resided in the neighborhood. Rolly had shifted before breakfast into full relax mode, savoring a rare weekday away from his tedious workplace, and soon after midday began a meticulous wash job on his vintage, beautifully chromed Chevy '57 Bel-Air two tone of red and white, just a few steps removed from an unsteady and rusting wire fence with tall shrubbery beside it, a demarcation barrier that separated two long driveways. Minutes ticked by once the calming exercise of washing the car got underway, but then (when he thought he heard something queer, a succinct and odd plea) Rolly was gripped without warning by a nauseating sense of foreboding and he climbed unsteadily over the driveway fence to pound out a haphazard pathway through the McDyer backyard which in turn changed the rarely noticed Rolly into a citywide sensation  -- at least for a little while.

          "I would have to say that this was all part of God's plan,' Rolly exclaimed several times as the sun sunk low during as that Spring afternoon slowly expired, an unlikely center of attention positioned under bright media lights and trapped in front of reporters' microphones, his phony piety catching him by complete surprise.

          While rinsing the trunk of his Bel-Air, Rolly related, something like a dreadful force sought him from the neighbors' side of the fence. It summoned him: Ra-Ra, Ra-Ra! Rolly fought his way over the rickety barrier, breathless and achy all over, miraculously discovered the wading pool, then frantically worked to calm the distraught mother, to coddle a little girl desperately frightened, soaking wet, and gasping for oxygen in his sheltering embrace, and to toddler to the safety of her house despite the neighbor woman's piercing, soul-searing pleas that echoed frightfully throughout the neighborhood. Hours later, Rolly gratefully pulled his weary body away from the accident scene -- after a no nonsense female detective named Malone had dismissed him in a slightly condescending manner from the assembly of McDyer family members, police personnel, TV camera holders, and eager journalists armed with lead pencils and steel-ringed notepads who were stumbling through the clutter of kids' toys, laundry clotheslines, and lawn-grooming tools that were scattered around the low-slung cottage.

          Shirking all ritual goodbyes -- and wishing resolutely to avoid all future contact with the eccentric and traumatized  mother and the frowning, tight-lipped, but grateful Welsh father with his unusual accent -- Rolly now the unlikely protagonist of fate's wicked matinee declined a last proffer of medical attention from a pair of earnest paramedics ('There's no problem, I'm just fine,' he nervously interjected), nodded toward the iron lady Malone, then noted with astonishment that his casual clothing, a white v-neck tee and rolled up Levi's, once damp and drippy from splashing in the cold water of the children's wading pool, were now as dry as a dead person's bones. As if he had been sucked into a media vortex, Rolly had sputtered with great self-consciousness a few spur of the moment quotes, into microphones large and small, to satisfy the newshounds sniffing about the McDyer property who would shape the curious story for the breaking news connoisseurs waiting impatiently for their 6 o'clock reports. In response to an anticipated question -- 'What was it like when she took that first breath, sir?' -- the dazed and wobbly target of the inquiry (Rolly vividly pictured the guttural, primitive exclamation "Ugh-ck" that the lifeless Brooke had emitted before sharply sucking in a first exquisite pocket of saving air) had retorted 'Well, I'm not real good at this kind of thing, but I'd reckon that was just about the most beautiful sound that I ever heard . . .'  Later, while bearing his mantle of momentary fame with a an increased sense of surety, Rolly blurted the hypocritically reverential words, 'I would have to say this was all part of God's plan,' to a handful of straight-faced radio and television professionals with a skeptical Detective Malone listening intently to this hero's words.

          Rolly resisted an itch to shift into a breakneck sprint as he withdrew from the backyard and went down the McDyers' driveway, his rubbery legs faltering at times, finally secluded with his confused feelings and unresolved questions. If he could just safely slide his fingers across his Chevy, perhaps caress a back fin gently, he might sort out what had just taken place. He arrived at the car quickly but instead of an adrenalized surge of insight he sensed a spreading cloud of sheer exhaustion rolling onto his inner shores and then recoiled in surprise as an imaginary and untamed canyon yawned open, momentous in its depth and poised to swallow him whole, from the most murky passageways of his worn out brain. Rolly's cheap plastic wash pail laid on its side, wet washrags were strewn across the trunk of his Bel-Air, the garden hose poured out still a steady gush of water over the squishy turf beneath his car, his doors were yanked wide open, and the Chevy's AM radio -- he stared at it baffled because it was turned off, he was certain, when he inched in reverse from the garage -- was blasting loudly one of the city's popular rock 'n roll stations with which he was unfamiliar, but was favored listening for his preteen son.

          Rolly sank down heavily onto the front passenger seat. He was bedeviled about what his next move should be. Had he truly flung his complaining middle-aged frame over the flimsy waist-high fence, like a queasy but game Olympian -- ugly lines of rust still discolored his palms like dried blood -- or as if he were a desperately committed recipient of an unanticipated social invitation? At the first hint of distress next door, as his respiration rate geared up, Rolly had felt compelled to crouch near the fencing, a boldly brazen and uncharacteristic move for him, to pry apart a patch of pastel tulips in premature bloom to perhaps behold the who or the what that was summoning him from across the barrier. It uttered a thin but urgent signal of life and death risk: Ra!. . . Ra! . . . Trying to ignore a harsh wave of nausea that suddenly rolled through his stomach, once he had probed past the fragrant tulips, Rolly pulled apart a set of limbs that had sprung from a wildly overgrown and leafy bush and gazed altogether fruitlessly, his modest expectations dashed hard, at graying bed sheets, a number of a man's blue dress shirts, and boys' dungarees tossing vigorously on rope clotheslines like disembodied spirits playing in the breezes. Then up Rolly struggled and over he went.

           From the tail of the car, Rolly gazed back at the ragtag collection of neighborhood acquaintances who stood hushed and stricken around the front perimeter of the McDyers' shadowy abode and close to the pothole scarred mouth of his driveway. Rolly scrutinized the collection of human eyeballs which seemed focused first on each gesture made by the police, then the traumatized toddler -- who was lying flat like a coral shell that had washed up on a distant shore, who was now lamentably pinned under an oversized oxygen mask steadied by a serious paramedic hovering in the Pembroke ambulance -- and then, at last, to the rest of the eccentric and besieged McDyer family members themselves. Like an improvised audience lingering in an alien movie studio, the bystanders stayed back out of the spotlights, their faces appalled, their lips parted in disbelief, the occasional whisper shared from one to another, hesitant in full to venture up to Rolly, the newly minted and about to be an unassuming neighborhood legend.

            Rolly had surmounted the wiggling and rusty wire fence, then dropped painfully like a heavy sack of used mechanical parts onto the property next door. He raised his head with steely resolve atop a grass free patch of mud, as a supercharge of potent adrenaline pushed into his middle-aged arteries, like the uplifting stream of water that pumped from his garden hose by the Chevy. He was about to race up on the most horrific scene that he had ever beheld -- the terrifying vision of the tiny Brooke McDyer's flaccid, blue-lipped, purple-browed, and lifeless body afloat, arms and legs extended, in the sparkling wader. Penetrating screams by Brooke's weird parent, a woman who had sharp facial features and had adopted just weeks before a pair of moderately tinted eyeglass lenses to conceal dark blue half moons of disappointment, nerves, and depression that had puffed up below her hazel eyes, who seemed fully reliant on an endless string of Camel Light cigarettes and packs of matches to stoke her curt and icy demeanor, and who habitually dressed in mismatched -- sometimes laughable -- outfits, afforded Rolly a general sense of direction through crisscrossing lines of wavering laundry. Juniper tried conspicuously when in the company of others to conceal her fingertips stained a contemptible yellow from tobacco residues. Rolly's easygoing spouse had hazarded a couple of strained, small talk interludes with June while the women's young kids shared play times on nearby grounds but she had been rebuffed crudely every time. June's painful screeches felt as if they were cutting a deep trough into Rolly's hidden soul.

          Without forewarning, a solitary tear issued from each of the man's eyes. More of them followed. His usually steady hands began to shake. Somehow, a miracle beyond normal explanations he told himself, Rolly had discovered a crazy avenue to get to the plastic children's pool with the clean water, zigzagging an improvised path through a linen forest flapping across his confused and flushed face. His once young and resilient lungs in mere seconds burned from his sudden exertions. With his inner systems pleading for oxygen, his muscles aching and bunching all over, he questioned his mission -- 'What the hell are you doing here, man?,' he huffed to himself between strides. Emerging from the tangles of clean laundry near the end of the McDyer backyard, Rolly sank urgently to his aging knees with a crack of bones and a loud groan from his mouth, swiftly fished Brooke's pale and sunken corpse, as expressionless as a doll, from the bracing water, and laid her breathless frame face down with immense care, letting Brooke's arms and torso slide tenderly from his slippery grip, onto the green grasses swaying in the early Spring sunlight.

          Rolly wiped his face with both hands and bent his upper body toward the dashboard. Brooke, the McDyer's third and final child, the sole female offspring in that struggling family, had been unmistakably dead. She had perished tragically, Rolly thought, perhaps speedily, probably painfully, terrified by her suddenly life-threatening and strangling plight, her body and spirit drowned face down in several inches of water, all circuits disengaged, all lights and flashers pulled off the grid, her toddler energies powered down to a reading of a dreadful zero, as limp and breathless as a knot of Rolly's soaked washrags, her toddler's laughing zest for all things novel and fascinating, like a backyard wader full of water on a Summer's day for instance, brutally shorted out. The racket that June was producing was heady and unnerving, her sharply angled visage ashen with abject terror, her strained voice crying out to a mum and detached Creator -- who Rolly sensed had either gone missing for good or was just not paying attention -- begging heaven for the divine restoration of her only girl child.

          Rolly labored heatedly to get Brooke to retch up the backwater bay of discoloring liquid that she had taken in to her tender, immature lungs. He felt fairly sure about how to proceed -- rigorous medical and pharmaceutical lessons he had received through training before wartime, including how to coax drowning combatants back from the brink of forever, were rising in his memory, yet he struggled to recapture crucial details. Rolly began to flush out Brooke's bloated lungs. He tried to concentrate, but Rolly kept recalling vividly certain spots on his illogical track past wrinkly bed linens, a swinging open sleeping bag that leaped toward him like a famished snapdragon, and toddler-sized nightshirt full of kittens tacked up with wooden pins. A grid of clotheslines, bleached as frighteningly white as old bones, stretched overhead. Pressing on with his choppy strides, guided by Juniper's ear-piercing alarms, Rolly reached the pool of water shimmering in the sun a few feet away near the place where the McDyer property cut off. June looked his way with a start -- her face pale and frantic, wringing her hands. Rolly sensed that she had not been expecting anyone to rush to the scene. Then the woman began to gesticulate to him: Here, here, over here, help her. My baby. Help her now. 

          As he slid a little lower on the car's front cushion, his beleaguered and exhausted heart skipping beats once more, Rolly focused on the worst knots of anxiety -- in his limbs, his shoulders, and and the back of his sun seared neck --that he had ever suffered. Once Brooke had begun to breathe anew and profusely cry, Rolly became afraid that he might injure the girl in some other way, so the rescuer gently swept the dismayed toddler's body up and cradle-carried her as close as he dared to caress her, the vomit smell from Brooke was as wildly disagreeable as sour milk and reeking of rotten apples, and he stumbled unsteadily, as quickly as he could manage, through the dancing fabrics, befuddled to the core about why behind this insane scenario was happening. Rolly noted with gratitude that Brooke was inhaling and exhaling raggedly, but the devastated child seemed to have slipped into a drugged unconsciousness for a second time. Juniper intersected with them on the back porch, below the McDyers' sagging roof overhang, back from phoning for emergency aid. June's messy and uncontrolled nicotine habit had her gasping anxiously for breath. Brooke's discolored eyes peeked open again. -- Brooke, Brooksie, come back, baby. Nod or something, baby. Does anything hurt?, June blurted. Rolly placed the toddler down gingerly on the porch and as soon as Brooke got a clear look at her mother immediately the soaked and messy child protested belligerently, glowed bright pink and blotchy with anger, and squirmed with all of her might to get away from her.
Rolly steadied Brooke's body against the porch floor. Of course she's panicked, he thought sympathetically. The child had been in a body bag ready state seconds before, her infant spirit perhaps hurtling already toward a profound unknown, having been aimed at the eternal void, a deceased mini soul screaming out in terror or perhaps a tiny girl's spirit floating quietly and serenely instead, about to go headfirst into that transcendent and glowing tunnel of otherworldly light that is reserved for the human dead and that religiously superstitious often spread rumors about.

          Rolly's stomach had rolled violently as he knelt -- feeling like a lost soul himself, one who was about to vomit with all his might -- over Brooke's unmoving body and as he began to take in the awful odors of the surge and stench of discolored pool water, then the decaying stuff that followed it: hot and bitter apple juice churned with pieces of Cheerios, graying sour milk, fruit shreds of red, purple, and orange, and other ugly residues from a breakfast meal that he had flushed out of Brooke's pried-open mouth. Inexorably the thin pool water mingled with the liquefied mess of foods spread slowly around the toddler's matted hair, her pinched blue face, and the Bermuda grass she had been laid on, a viscous and putrefying yellow sea washing slowly across the little landscape. Come on, Brooke, come on now, honey, breathe for me, he pleaded in haunted whispers. Rolly leaned down on Brooke's pliant back, gasping raggedly for his own breath, fretting that he would crack the child's small ribs and vertebrae, then pushed her down once again, this time too firmly for immature bones to easily handle. Brooke rumbled up some horrifying vomit sounds with each compression. Startled, Rolly's thoughts incongruously turned to his aged landlady, a gruff and hard-bitten German widow, who refused to be suckered by some tenant's disingenuous sob story about overdue rent. Rolly worried that Mrs. Popp -- who was away from home today -- would be furious about the trampled tulip patch lying miserably in the retreating sun. With one sharp push, his aching knees and faltering arms enfolding the toddler's tiny torso, Rolly enticed Brooke to shudder and quake powerfully. She threw up a final sickening surge of putrid water and unidentifiable muck from her abused insides. The drowned child gasped out a hard-earned and painful 'Ugh-ck' -- a miraculous utterance -- through her oxygen-starved lips. She took in a first whiff of warm air through her nose and mouth. Instinct took over. Brooke whimpered miserably. Her irises with the attractive hazel highlights, ringed by bruised blue and purple skin, creased open. She started to sob with abandon. But she had returned to them.

          'She's back, she's alive. My God. You did it, God, you did it,' June called out in disbelief, plopping down heavily on her knees beside the distraught girl.

          Rolly stroked Brooke's back and tried to soothe the terrified, heaving child. A powerful sense of trepidation, a dreadfulness, that he had carried over the unsteady began to ebb. Brooke's tears caused him to cry too.

          Rolly looked up. He rubbed his eyes. Then he pointed toward the cottage. 'Come on, woman. What're you doing here? Call for help. Get going. Now. Call fast,' he ordered.

          June peered at him eerily, as if she were deciding whether to obey or not, then cast her face down. Behind her shaded glasses her whole complexion appeared to go more sallow than before.

          'Get going. Now! Now!,' the man yelled adamantly. He pointed again.

          Juniper rose awkwardly. Without uttering a syllable, she disappeared into the big bed sheets flapping on the crossed clotheslines behind the McDyer's abode.

* * *

          Muffled hints from the active investigation scene next door could be discerned through the tall bushes by the fence: a hoarse male voice called out to the lead detective, Malone, as the speaker strode about like a nameless bit character who had emerged from backstage, brittle squawks and squeals emanated from police radios clipped to officers' utility belts and put people's teeth on edge, Somerset the reserved spouse and the McDyer sons talked sadly while surveying the accident location from the back porch, the sharp clack of the kitchen's screen door banged like a gun whenever it slammed shut.

          Rolly figured he should crawl out of the sheltering Bel-Air before his family members came back to the apartment. But some things that had been said by the no-nonsense detective Malone, who had been for years a city beat cop, who came dressed in finely tailored street clothes, who was the official in charge at this accident scene, who bore an impressive city badge and a gleaming pistol in a dark leather shoulder holster, were still on his mind. Over one hour after the police had arrived, the austere investigator had approached Rolly for a second time saying evenly that she admired his quick response on behalf of Brooke and her family and that he would be free to return to his personal business -- but only for now --  in just a few minutes. Rolly realized that he would require no additional motivation, because he would be happy to hastily leave behind the rapt attention of the media and the sticky personal spotlights under which he withered. He told Malone good luck and he'd maybe see her again some time. Then without explanation, the detective's eyes intently searching his, a brief but plotted interrogation, a reality that chilled Rolly like a cold splash of water onto his soul, began in earnest. Rolly eyed a trio of police cruisers and a Pembroke ambulance parked haphazardly as barriers to the mouths of the lengthy driveways, engines still humming, red flashers alight and rotating, sirens switched off, poised to roar up the quiet woodsy road, back in service the second another garbled 'crime in progress' signal blared from their squawking  transmitters.

          'So, just to confirm a few details again, you heard the screen door slam shut, then some time later you heard the mother scream?' the detective asked.

          'Yes,' Rolly replied. 'But after the screen door banged shut, I heard something . . . um, somebody calling out, real strange like, like a kid. Ra . . . Ra. Just like that, a high-pitched voice, very thin but loud enough. I told myself that it was all in my head. Then I heard it a second time.'

          Malone said, 'So that came from the McDyer child upon entering the pool?'

         'I suppose. Who else could it have been?" Rolly said.

         'The music from your radio didn't make it hard for you to hear?'

         'I told you before. I didn't have my car radio on,' Rolly replied.

          'Did you see or hear anyone else pass by who might have witnessed something?,' Malone asked.

          Rolly searched his bank of memories. A droning old prop full of freight had flown slowly across the blue sky overhead. Rolly had backed his vintage Chevy out of the detached garage and commenced his car's Spring overhaul. The lumbering and brain-impaired Sarge, an older guy not known well by Rolly, a military vet who lived without fuss near the ragged end of the road, who caught an exploding shell in action overseas, sauntered by as was his lonely manner. The Sarge had waved back silently to Rolly, like neighbors sometimes do, then headed for home as was his practice at this time of day. No cars had ventured this far down McFarland for as long as Rolly had been outside. The air had gotten warmer and bees had buzzed about, unseen birds announced their presence in the oaks and the maples, a cicada choir practiced their one song repertoire, but overall a somber lassitude had laid down like a comforter on a daybed over the neighborhood as the day proceeded.

          'Nope,' Rolly answered.

          'How about the phone? Did you hear the McDyer telephone ring at any time while working on your automobile?'

          'No. But look, I might have missed it,' Rolly felt uncertain. 'I was pretty caught up in what I was doing.'

          'A ringing phone in the McDyer kitchen? Any thing like that at all?'


          'Did Mrs. McDyer say anything else before the police came? What about the pool? Anything about the kids' wading pool?'

         'Did June say how there was that all that water in there?' Rolly asked back -- but Malone stared at him with her poker face and did not respond.
          Depleted and thirsty, Rolly coveted a cold Rolling Rock and a long and ponderous nap, a black pit into which he would sink down for a much deserved swoon. He pulled himself up from the front seat of his Chevrolet then let out an audible sigh. An unspoken thought conjured a taste in his mouth as bitter as any substance he had ever consumed -- and it came with a stinging and teary sensation like the interior peels of a freshly-picked and teary onion -- and that unbidden thought whispered to him 'so glad you finally made it to the really deep end of the pool, you dunce.' As he had come up his long driveway, gingerly checking for sore muscles or bloody skin disruptions on his sore body that he had not yet accounted for, Rolly reviewed what the anguished and red-faced, but fundamentally tearless, mother had claimed while leaning over the huffing, smelly, and dazed baby Brooke on the porch, a tale similar to the one she vocalized a little later to Malone and her team. Once they went out to the backyard to finish the laundry chores, Juniper had lost track of the rambling toddler, a bouncy pack of adventurousness and relentless energies who had been walking all by herself for a few weeks only: because of the bottomless batch of laundry -- some of which was still lying around the house and some that was hanging up all over the yard, because the boys were due home from school soon so supper for five hungry eaters had to get prepared for the oven, because the aloof mother felt sure Brooke, an unsteady walker but quite adept at crawling, was safely within a protective cocoon immediately adjacent to the back porch, and because Somerset and she had some important family matters (she neglected to say that these were divorce issues) to get resolved before the week came to an end -- and all of these matters had cluttered her mind. Barely breathing but clinging tenuously to consciousness, Brooke had squirmed with quickly-summoned anxiety to get away from her mother, who was tightly clutching the baby's thin arm, and then sneezed wetly onto the surface of the messy back porch. June began to puff a cigarette nervously. Clandestine rumors shared in hushed tones during smoky neighborhood barbecues, participants' hands chock full of chargrilled burgers, sliced pickles, hot dogs on buns, and French's yellow mustard, came back to Rolly. They spoke of an emotionally dislodged and nicotine-addled mother, a buttoned-down and pipe smoking shadow of a husband, a strained and disintegrating marriage, an aloof couple who shied away quietly and repeatedly from other families, shrilly raised voices -- at times bouts of cut loos screaming -- that seeped through the cottage's paper-thin siding and heavily curtained windows, and a pair of growing boys who engaged in crude and mischievous games with smaller neighborhood kids when they could get away with them.

          Rolly plopped his soapy washrags into the plastic bucket. His spouse and son should have arrived home by now. What a shocking scenario they would encounter. They would watch him answer dramatic queries reticently in the brilliant bubble of camera lights on their black-and-white television screen, read about his instinctive escapade in the morning newspaper, hear him claim a bit self-consciously to the reporters and cameramen 'That was just about the most beautiful sound that I ever heard.' Rolly twisted closed the water spigot feeding his hose as the howling black and red ambulance gunned its engine and speedily bore Brooke, her disheveled and speechless father, and a duo of uniformed paramedics down McFarland Road. As Rolly leaned back into his coupe to silence the turned down AM radio a sharp pain coursed like a long blade through his left side. He flinched all over (Good grief, I'm a wreck, he mumbled to himself). Then he became vaguely conscious of a light sound that had been registered deep in his head for few seconds. The noise made him feel sick again. Inside the McDyers' kitchen the telephone was ringing. That he now knew without question.

          Rolly nearly ran inside before the McDyers' phone quieted down. He deeply regretted blurting to the news people, giving them what he thought they wanted, the hypocrisy dripping from his vowels and consonants, 'Well, I would have to say that this was all part of God's plan.' While June and he had crouched, still trying to calm themselves, over Brooke's body on the McDyer porch, Rolly had cautiously monitored the shuddering, messy little survivor who had come back from the other side. He summoned his remaining energies to revive her again if necessary. June spread a frayed and dusty blanket over Brooke's tiny frame after she had stepped inside to grab dry cigarettes and matches. As she burned through a first and then a second Camel Light, June stroked the depleted child's drying hair, removed her tinted lenses and rubbed her drawn face, and in general came across to Rolly like a 'watched pot' that would not boil. Rolly listened intently as June twice voiced 'I just don't know, I just don't . . . ' -- but the pair of adults voiced nothing more consequential before two cars full of amped up first responders emptied onto their crisis-control situation.

          Rolly trudged up the stairs grateful for this span of time alone. He speculated that there had been a cryptic purpose, like a rolled up message in a bottle washed up on shore, in what the woman detective had asked him dispassionately just minutes ago. Hearing the ringing phone in the McDyer kitchen had shaken Rolly to his worn out and testy core.

         That evening after a hurried supper and the mesmerizing lead in to 6:00 o'clock news program in which Rolly commanded center stage, the hero for the moment returned to flop exhausted down by the cramped table in the small dining nook. There he could drink a third Rolling Rock, stare out his second floor window toward the one-story cottage, and rehash without interruption all that had happened so instantly with the strange McDyers and the hound of heaven named City Detective M. Malone. The telephone in the hallway rang incessantly. His wife impatiently screened every call while trying to remain civil. They would have to disconnect the phone from the wall once it was bedtime and then seek a new but unlisted number in the morning. Legions of news reporters, quirky psychics, radio talk shows, friends past and present, and family members wanted to get at the hero. When the next day dawned Rolly skipped work and repositioned himself at his sentinel's perch. This became a habit. Several days later as he sat down, while officially on leave from his job until the McDyer story blew over, Rolly suddenly recalled how a high school science teacher from the neighborhood once proclaimed after drinking too many beers during a backyard picnic that the only thing irreducibly certain on earth is uncertainty -- a thought-provoking aphorism, Rolly believed, worthy of the renowned Heisenberg himself or a well-made Physics 101 lecture. The surprise assertion about the absolute certainty of uncertainty -- down to the tiniest and most fragmentary bits of subatomic reality -- from the lips of the tipsy neighborhood authority had proved true in Rolly's life experience, and even the most subtle of acknowledgements of it usually stopped the him dead in his tracks.
          The more time he spent at the table in his nook, as he looked listlessly down on the two yards and watched the comings and goings around the battered McDyer cottage, the more Rolly thought with clarity that life lacked a genuine sweet spot, that at its essence it was cold and arbitrary, baffling and ridiculous in its random cruelty, a package crammed full of resentments, riddles, dishonor, and ambivalence -- like the intricate puzzle of wet, hand-burning, and eye-stinging pieces that bunch up when one peels to the wet pearl of a yellow onion. He wished mightily to forget an old teaching from his Sunday school days about June's silent Creator: it said that there was a fixed in stone blueprint and a decided destiny for everything and everyone that God had already worked out. Rolly pondered June's behavior for hours. Though her demeanor was frankly anti-social, though she was the secret target of hushed and vindictive gossip, even if she was a depressed parent who was markedly losing touch with the truth of this tempestuous world, was June in fact relating the truth, at least her perceived but likely confused version of it? In her distracted and impatient mood, wearied by her tedious and homebound lifestyle, had Juniper simply, absent-mindedly, forgetfully -- or because she had overlooked her medicines -- allowed Brooke to skitter off the radar screen once the phone had distracted her? Or had the kitchen phone truthfully remained mute and still at the crucial moment? June had admitted that Brooke absolutely loved the water and, across an impressionistic trail way on this airy day, while dodging laundry blown about and other mundane obstacles that had been thrown up around the yard, had the blond toddler tottered ill-fated, spontaneously, to the waiting water, a peculiar anachronism hiding on the back end of the breeze-rumpled Bermuda grass? Or, Rolly wondered had a cloaked plot master, all too human and conniving, lacking all moral equilibrium, a parent poorly steered by a misfiring and deficient cortex, concocted a clandestine template to commit one of the most awful of human sins, a repulsive and sickening filicide, thus making Brooke's tragic immersion in water an inevitability? Unknown to Rolly, Somerset, the busy news people, and the police, approximately sixty minutes after Brooke had been revived, while curious and somber investigators studied the cluttered backyard situation, the despairing mother --  once more fixated on and in the entrancing grasp of whispered phantom commands that she alone could hear, judiciously avoiding contact with the sobering eyeballs of the crisp and clean uniformed police encircling her menacingly -- had calculated that the best way to assure her freedom for good was to flee down the hoary highway of deception -- 'I tell you the telephone rang, I put her down there, I thought she would be fine for a second' -- an ancient and gloomy journey which inexorably draws all of temptation-prone human beings toward an ominous and pointed endgame that resembles a great sea of yellowing sorrows awash in eternal darkness.

           'Did you hear the telephone ring at any time? Anything like that at all?' Malone wanted to know.

           'No, ma'am. I did not,'' Rolly had replied.

          He felt reasonably sure of his stance. But he stopped for a minute before he pushed open the door to his apartment. Rolly had never thought before that Juniper could pose a danger, with malice aforethought, to her trio of offspring. But his mind entertained the possibility at last.

           'God, no. Don't let it be like that. Please don't let it be,'' Rolly mumbled, his sense of certitude on the wane.

* * *

          Twenty-seven years had somehow drifted by since Juniper (due to Rolly's stern-faced adamance) had dashed away at last, without comment, from her gasping Brooke into the swaying garments clipped to her windblown and drooping rope lines. Still Rolly could dredge up, with sustained effort, most of his provocative memories from that day. But his will to do so had diminished noticeably over the lengthy span of time. In his sentimental heart he still harbored a mellow yet perpetually disorienting attraction to the vulnerable and victimized child beauty, Brooke, who had disappeared in a Pembroke ambulance shortly after being yanked dead from the pool as if the tiny McDyer girl had never been real, the maddeningly ambiguous lack of resolution to the largely forgotten backyard emergency, and the fluid changes that these had wrought throughout his trusted neighborhood.

          Once three chilly and iron gray days had passed -- they seemed like browbeating marathons and proved to be as physically taxing as Olympian exercises for all involved -- the focused police investigation team headed by Malone convinced their vigorous district attorney, a grave and compulsively careful lawyer and an adept politician, to arraign Juniper during official court proceedings. The investigators had cheerlessly but efficiently gathered evidence both circumstantial and empirical, taken statements and repeats of statements from significant parties, combed diligently through tiny traces of evidence from what was now judged a crime scene, examined microscopically the substances that the toddler had thrown up on the Bermuda grass, studied the plastic wading pool and its liquid contents, conferred multiple times with Juniper's personal doctor and the state's psychiatric examiner's department, scrutinized a list of typical outdoor items (including the children's favorite plaything, a rust red Radio Flyer wagon with protective wood slats on all four sides) found scattered around the McDyer grounds, listened to a variety of recent songs by The Beatles, and then with firm conviction swayed the stern D.A. to allege audaciously that Juniper McDyer -- who had admittedly failed for at least several days to ingest prescribed potent, perception-altering drugs, especially the anti-psychotic Risperadol, that she was supposed to swallow after breakfast  -- was guilty of harmful neglect, child endangerment, and attempted voluntary manslaughter. The charges were made public as a brutal tactic during a hushed and sweaty press conference at City Hall mainly to shove Juniper and Somerset toward a guilty breakdown, so they might willingly reveal the missing and highly elusive facts of Brooke's case before nuanced psychiatric reports and other medical opinions declared how functionally impaired, in immediate need of psychological help, and unfit for the outside world that Brooke's maternal parent actually was. The distasteful triad of criminal allegations, the peculiar manslaughter provision having the most bitter and sulfurous impact among all of them, a charge that the legal system and the detective team conspiratorially did not think they could ultimately make stick, seemed cruel and inconceivable to many local residents; before night fell on the day the D.A. made public his intent to prosecute Juniper, the three charges scarily and visibly sucked the fast depleting reserve of hope and decorum right out of the McFarland Road residents, as if it were those faithful denizens' treasured but evaporating blood supply, and flattened the once-idyllic neighborhood emotionally and financially almost for good.

           After spending about one hour at his second floor post during a typical late morning, Rolly turned cautiously for nearly the one hundredth time to a crackling sheaf of newspaper clippings that he kept sealed in a manila envelope under his table top in the nook; the brittle newsprint seemed more insipidly yellow and difficult to make out each time he handled it.  As he held each deteriorating piece of The Daily Guardian -- the only traditional newspaper that was still struggling to publish every day for local news and discount coupon patrons -- Rolly imagined that he could again faintly detect the rancid odor of the glum contents he had coaxed from Brooke's spasming insides, a lingering trace of inexpensive but heady cherrywood tobacco for pipe smokers, and a snappy and wholesome whiff of Turtle Wax polish that he used to rub softly, affectionately, for hours into the shining metal skin of his Bel Air '57.

          The news stories he extracted from the envelope had been conceived as a textured, four-part investigative series and were drafted mostly at night on an experienced editor's agile typewriter in a dusty corner office seven years ago -- twenty lightning-quick years since the mostly overlooked Miracle on McFarland had taken place. The words in the series were generated by an industrious young reporter who was newly hired at the Guardian, who was ready and willing to dive into piles of decades old research, who did not mind extraordinarily long work hours, and who was eager to possibly, finally, clear up the nagging uncertainties, solve the creepy mysteries and ugly rumors, and delve down to the real facts, and probably ugly truths, on which the near deadly Brooke McDyer incident had turned. He made it a habit as a young but unknown single male new to Pembroke to lay in bed awake each night imagining how it would feel to win an impressive, career-defining Pulitzer prize for feature writing. It was little known that the well-framed, deeply informative, but ultimately inconclusive and dissatisfying series of crime articles that ran under the young writer's byline had been suggested, edited, and then carefully proofed by the meticulous bigwig managing editor of the The Daily Guardian, who happened to be an ambitious, hungry, and fame-seeking newsbeat reporter, similar to the newly hired cub, when he dashed on his roaring Harley motorbike with breakneck and red light-running speed toward the agitated and commotion-riddled McFarland Road scene twenty years before once the emergency drowning situation was sketchily broadcast on the city's scratchy police calls station.

          The experienced editor had formed the initial concept for a four- or five-part story in the Guardian, beginning with a springtime Sunday edition, called Miracle on McFarland (mainly as a means to sell some extra papers by enticing dedicated readers to think luridly and anew about the infamous family incident and by introducing a whole new generation of readers to the deeply curious and unresolvable McDyer mystery) when just a few weeks before hiring the fresh-faced reporter, during a below average lunch hour with some associates, he received an intriguing phone call from a respected news veteran in California. A serious and investigative professional for thirty years at least who was nearing retirement, the female friend and editor over the phone tipped to him without emotion that her paper was soon going to run a carefully researched and surprising feature on the violent death of a single white female, obviously a person in young adulthood, who had the street name of Harmony but who in truth may have been the unlucky girl once named Brooke by her Welsh father and schizophrenic mother. The caller related that the heavily tattooed and bullet-riddled remains of Harmony, who was judged to be about 22 years old by their experienced medical examiner, had been autopsied thoroughly, plus DNA tests had been initiated, as was standard in criminal circumstances in California. It appeared that Harmony had been drug addicted for some time but was struck down by gunshots during a desperate and grisly strip mall shootout with local police. This happened after Harmony had apparently mangled in cold blood her drug dealing and abusive female partner the night before with a straight-edge razor -- to abscond with their massive of supply of weed, crack cocaine, and cash -- in a cramped singlewide trailer out in the desert. This shocking set of developments was bannered boldly in the first installment of the four-piece Daily Guardian series by the young reporter, and the news raced headlong through the woodsy but fraying McFarland neighborhood like an out of control blaze in a dried out forest. Brooke's tragic story literally stunned breathless and speechless all who could remember the consequential early Spring day two decades in the past when a toddler clinging to life, the tiny person named Brooke, a precious favorite of many in the area, had been placed under an oxygen mask and received a coldly mechanical intravenous push in an ambulance after her miraculous revival from the dead by a soft-spoken neighbor named Rolly. Brooke had disappeared later that afternoon suddenly and forever, no tearful farewells permitted by the severe but very polite police and medical attendants, in an ear-piercing red and black ambulance while pensive and dogged authorities gathered evidence that would implicate her delusional mother, but in a way both of the McDyer parents, in the little child's near fatal mishap.

          All of the crinkled newsprint fragments had grid lines creased into them from years of meticulous folding. Rolly traced his shaky fingers across an old-fashioned b&w photo of himself in his vee neck tee and rolled up jeans, an unassuming neighborhood sensation leaning somewhat casually against his vintage Chevy, freshly returned from helping the complicated McDyer quintet to dodge the ferocious wallop of tragedy. Actually, Rolly recalled, he was at that precise moment back then pressed up against his car to steady himself since he was slipping down into a stomach-churning air pocket as his adrenaline supply waned and trying to cope with an enfeebling wave of exhaustion. That photo along with another on the same Guardian page, which was a smaller rectangular headshot in which Rolly had the wide-eyed look of one caught off-guard by a harsh camera flash, had been made by the soft-spoken and stealthy Guardian photographer who had unobtrusively trailed Rolly up his long driveway once he had been abruptly dismissed, for the time being, by the uncompromising Detective Malone. The pitch black india ink that formed the essential words of this Guardian installment and the varied gray tints of its photos was wearing so thin, as on ancient parchment scrolls, that it disappeared in certain places. Below the headshot was Rolly's full name and, in italics, his regretted quotation 'I would have to say that it was all part of God's plan.'

          Rolly gently unfolded and searched through the last items from the sheaf. One held a long, dramatic, and skillfully constructed section that had made up almost one whole page of the Daily Guardian -- it delved into the doleful story and the jumbled interior workings of Juniper McDyer, the disappointed, emotionally knotted, and dysfunctional mother of three McDyer progeny who lugged an eerie spectralness like a dark blanket around her on the family's property and and somehow communicated a barely disguised scornfulness, some labeled it bizarre and angry behavior, to almost everyone whom she encountered. June had quickly become soured toward life at age 26 once she married Somerset McDyer, a tranquil and competent but banal and uninteresting young professional who had recently arrived in the States from the romantic land of Wales, the youngest of many sons in a traditional coal mining family. A graying picture of husband and wife, taken right before their first child James was due, each of them standing a little too stiffly for a newlywed couple that evidently had a first baby on the way, a couple whose future included a trio of hyperactive children, the purchase of a deteriorating one-story house in a nearly idyllic middle class and leafy neighborhood, and a manslaughter charge (along with other powerful allegations of violence and neglect) eventually filed against the young wife with a mostly blank stare, was imprinted on the sickly yellow newsprint. Detective Malone and other city police once they had scurried to the scene of the wading pool focused immediately and exclusively on the profoundly disordered mother -- then after two days of defensive and baseless excuses they were granted the begrudging assistance of her overwhelmed, furious, but plainspoken husband Somerset, who had become suspicious a few minutes after the helpless Brooke's limp and water-flushed body had been claimed by Rolly from the clutches of eternity that his wife, who sometimes spoke in heated and argumentative terms to spirits who could not be seen or heard, and who harbored penetrating and unrequited longings for her personal freedom, had commissioned a heinous assault on their baby Brooke whether June in her confused and maddening emotional condition realized it or not.

          Near the end of this lengthy portion of the Guardian series the young journalist had recorded shocked and shocking responses from the surrounding community when a particularly lucid June, who was again taking her prescribed medications -- but who could not or inexplicably would not come up with a satisfying timeline and sensible explanation about what had happened in the McDyers' cluttered backyard other than her awkward first statement: The phone rang, I put her down, I thought she would be okay, it was  just a second -- was escorted into heavily secure custody (but mercifully without hand or ankle cuffs) as many neighbors, Rolly included, looked on with puzzlement and whispers. This was three days after Brooke had been salvaged from the sparkling water. Juniper was soon judged officially by legal authorities as mentally incompetent and thus incapable of battling, even with a the aide of sharp and experienced attorneys, the three highly disturbing allegations to be brought against her during a courtroom trial. Once she was pinned for days under tight security restraints in  a sterile examination cell at the Cityside Psychiatric Clinic like a broken-winged and lonesome -- but perhaps innately dangerous -- butterfly and scrutinized by a lengthy string of psychotherapists and internists, it was announced publicly that the curious young mother, Juniper, suffered from paralyzing schizophrenic traits, would not or could not describe what actually had happened between her baby Brooke and her, and thus as an ongoing threat who could not be returned to her family life would be incarcerated instead without fanfare deep in the state's criminally decrepit mental health complex. The journalist concluded from his research that no one had bothered to visit or had heard anything about Juniper during her difficult ensuing years, except for her staunchly comment-averse sons, once Somerset abruptly departed this madly spinning globe for good in a violent explosion and fire.

          One last piece, the most brief essay in the Guardian's four-part series about the Miracle on McFarland had struck Rolly speechless when he had first read it years before. This shard of paper had some small tear spots in places where it had been carefully folded just a couple of days after publication. The words still made Rolly sad as it recounted succinctly the depressing story of Somerset McDyer. The reserved and downcast father with the ruddy face and graying whiskers, a native of a quaint part of ancient Wales, who was furious about his daughter's needless scrape with death and begrudgingly had finally cooperated with persistent police investigators as they tried to prove that his wife, June, was a child-endangering felon, who compulsively dressed himself in a mildly fragrant but uninteresting underwriter's uniform each work day --  it featured a conservative English tweed jacket with narrow lapels and leather elbow patches, a powder blue button-down shirt, a skinny necktie, and flat front medium brown pants -- had manifestly fulfilled, according to the young journalist's research, a private and undisclosed scheme less than a month after his sick spouse Juniper had been permanently placed in psychiatric lockdown. A noticeable fragrance that was indelibly tattooed into his clothing smelled like a sugary sweet cherry pipe tobacco that Somerset habitually fired up in one of his beloved pipes during office hours and much later when he was in the company of his children during evenings at home.

          Three weeks after Juniper had been forlornly was walked somberly out of their one-story household, which was now devoid of all three kids, with a growing gaggle of surprised and gossipy people milling around the neighborhood walkways, and into the grasp of the Cityside Clinic staff, Somerset got dressed in his usual bland but mildly fragrant outfit, knocked some ashes out of his favorite pipe then put it between his dry lips, and drove his Volvo until he came upon the unattractive office space of Pembroke's Eternal Memory burial grounds for his first and final visit there. The cemetery staff related later that he had given no indication that he had anything in mind except the acquisition, at a rather good price, of five consecutive burial plots and a striking gray stone obelisk for all of those his devolving family situation. The office workers at Eternal Memory thought the pensive gentleman looked severe, down in the mouth, and nervous which all seemed quite understandable given Somerset's recent family upheavals. But Somerset was also noticeably short of breath as work on the contract proceeded, so much so that the cemetery people asked him at one point if they should call for medical assistance. During the afternoon that followed, Somerset's bland life came to a climax when his car veered at great speed off an elevated vehicle path high on a cliff above hollow at the end of McFarland Road, in the old-growth forest which was awarded by the philanthropic Mr. McFarland years before to his grateful fellow citizens. Somerset nosedived down a steep cliff and died on a sharp outcropping of granite in a fiery explosion. By chance, within one hundred yards of that explosive scene, while nearing a welcome nap on an oversized rocking chair that sat on his dilapidated porch, the lonesome and permanently disabled bus patron, the old Sarge, who felt more exhausted than usual from his daily walk and free roundtrip bus ride, thought he heard a resonant boom in the woods. The unexpected noise made him curious but the forest in those parts was thick and difficult to walk around in -- and since the Sarge was a kid people had cautioned that the woodland beyond the gully was an unforgiving monster when someone got trapped in its leafy jaws in the dark.

          An autopsy revealed that the deceased husband and father had long suffered from chronic rushes of asthma-- and official spokespersons who wished to remain anonymous noted that a painful spasm of his airways followed by a terrifying interruption of his labored breathing were the likely culprits that caused Somerset's car to veer off the one-lane road, but privately they felt sure that the depressed Welshman perished during a thinly disguised suicide. A final note by the talented young journalist, in a pointed paragraph that capped off the smart series on the Miracle, a quartet of articles that had set out (but ultimately failed) to clearly settle who did what to the toddler Brooke and why in the supposed safety of her own backyard, described wistfully how puzzling coincidences come up amidst the most improbable of circumstances. The article declared that Somerset possessed venerable Cambrian bloodlines when he was born and raised in the south of Wales, his clannish family of origin inhabited a shire, which is a Welsh township area, called Pembroke. That coincidentally was likewise the name of his adopted township in middle America. The writer's research showed that the term Pembroke oddly but befittingly translates to 'Land's End,' an intriguing insight on which the rueful McDyer legacy revolves. To newspaper readers who cared about the engrossing Miracle on McFarland, with its baroque plot lines and strange cast of players, it appeared that the troubled husband and father, a man who dearly loved difficult jigsaw puzzles and quiet hours at home with his trio of kids, had bequeathed to all in Pembroke USA during the closing scene of his life, before the curtains were pulled -- perhaps knowingly, perhaps unknowingly -- one last enigmatic riddle for Rolly, the authorities, and the buzzing neighborhood gossips to resolve.

          Rolly, the one-time hero, now grew disconsolate every time his receding physical strength and decreasing allotment of days came creeping into his awareness. He slowly placed the newspaper pieces back in the big envelope and set it down on the tabletop. Rolly's once deft and capable hands and muscled forearms, as hinted by the old newspaper photo he had just seen with him leaning against his '57 Bel-Air, now trembled nervously; his backbone, neck, and shoulders were hardening more like unrefined masonry with every rotation of the globe. Rolly's doctor had called it Parkinson's syndrome -- a medical term that had left him stunned and speechless for what seemed like hours as he sat atop the physician's examining table. As time ticked by, his inclination to move about his old-fashioned dwelling had declined to a point that he now shuffle walked infrequently from one room to another. What Rolly missed most from bygone days were the raw energies and speedy thrills he experienced while freewheeling in his spectacular old car.

          A tiny golden-haired child, a beautiful girl with clear blue eyes, a pristine porcelain complexion, and the innocent and whispery voice of an angel, who had become the steady heartbeat of Rolly's extended family three years ago, who invariably came to his house dressed in feminine shades of soft pink and baby blue, who was the granddaughter whom Rolly loved intensely and watched over with careful devotion while her parents were at work, skipped into the room as if she were gliding on air.

         "Grandpa, I'm hungry," the pretty girl said.

         "Okay. Let's feed that belly. What have you been doing?," he turned rigidly to face the child, smiled a little, and exhaled an arthritic groan. His disease had diminished his ability to converse with others.

         "Wait here. I'm coming back," the little girl commanded, her face full of mischief, and she then hustled back into the old pantry.

         While he watched for her return, watercolor images like tiles peeled free from a mural reeled through his spotty memory. A life-deprived Brooke McDyer, who eventually reclined heavily sedated with a big oxygen mask over her face then disappeared forever from Pembroke Township inside the wailing black and red ambulance, who came to be known by the outlandish pseudonym Harmony once she was immersed in the state's sadly dysfunctional foster care apparatus, was again floating aimlessly like a chunk of driftwood, waterlogged and face down, unable to breathe, her thin baby's blond hair encircling her head like a dull corona, her legs and arms bobbing without power in the spotless water that had no business being there. Rolly recalled his frantic lunge at the conclusion of his race through the laundry toward the shallow pool to secure Brooke's lifeless body after he sank down on his bony knees, his cranky lower back and joints crying out in agony, and the way he placed Brooke down gently in the swaying grass while her panicky mother's screams echoed loudly throughout the neighborhood. Bring her back, oh please, God, please bring her back to me, the toddler's mother June had cried. But later the shaky and regretful looking woman, who became noticeably withdrawn once the police had taken her initial statement, her furtive and discolored eyes flitting here and there, one burning Camel Light after another clutched in yellowed fingertips and piercing her wan lips, could not lay out a satisfying story  that made clear how mother and child had arrived at the wading pool for the near-fatal mishap. Rolly believed at that time that the steely female detective named Malone would not walk away from her determined probe until June had done so.

          The little girl dashed back with the energy of a zestful little lioness. She coyly clutched a glossy magazine that featured a summery Swim at Home theme. She placed it on his lap. Rolly reached down with painful deliberation to hug her.

         'Mom said I could ask. Can we get a pool over here this Summer?' his granddaughter asked.

         'We'll see. We'll just see about that,' he responded and glanced at the slick publication. His heartbeat quickened when he stared at the little girl with love.

          'Now go tell Ms. Stella she should fix your lunch,' he said gently.

         Rolly, who once on a sparkling day much like this one, who had been summoned by an elusive power, perhaps a mystic intervention -- one that proclaimed the brief but definitive monosyllables Ra, Ra! just loud enough, that had somehow cast this camera-averse man who suffered greatly from stage-fright as a crucial walk-on in a dramatic tableau, gazed at the abandoned and gloomy McDyer place from his second-floor dining nook. All the main players from that side of his life had moved on long ago. The crumbling cottage looked as if it were about to collapse in a hushed implosion. Once his retirement from work had been secured Rolly had fallen into a habit of sitting thoughtfully for hours beside the splintering table, and on some occasions when he had sufficient eye strength he would get immersed in reading like a man starved for fresh ideas. It was warm and toasty in the nook and sufficiently curtained to forestall Winter's wicked cold snaps -- and the perch afforded him cooling shade under the timeless and leafy oak tree by the window during pleasant weather seasons. Rolly had lately begun to remind himself regularly of an old truth -- that one can never produce certainty from uncertainties, the aphorism and mantra of a solitary sentinel, as if he had been during his old age magically made over into a quirky backroom physicist. It is one of creation's invariable constants he was convinced -- one that bedevils actors good and bad alike -- that all of the bewitching what's, why's, and wherefore's to the human story will never be fully grasped. That was one of the truly valuable lessons that the agitated and disintegrating Juniper and traumatized toddler Brooke in her drenched and rancid clothes, her eyes polluted red and puffy from her appalling immersion, her tiny lungs heaving with pain, expressions of terror and abject grief crimping her lovely tear-swollen face as Rolly took steps to comfort her then and there, had passed on to the confused neighboring hero once he had impulsively hurdled the rickety fence to rendezvous with them. As Rolly pondered that life lesson, the man who had contracted the idiopathic and death-dealing disease named Parkinson's became aware that his wrinkly head was nodding reflexively, as it usually did, without a prod and without an end in sight -- like persistent and rapid half-pecks of a passerine's beak  -- but with profound, unvoiced agreement.


          When forced to confront the inevitable passage of time, Somerset, Juniper, Rolly, and even vulnerable Brooke, as she withstood her childhood and adolescent years bereft of her extended family and was beset with personal tragedy through tumultuous, frequently abusive, run-ins with the heedlessly mean people that populated the state's foster care system, proceeded on their separate ways. (The name Brooke McDyer McDyer became a lost iota of history in Pembroke Township as time went by and as neighborhood conditions changed, then like one who had been satisfactorily harbored in the sheltering wings of witness protection an older teenage blond female with hazel-flecked eyes and dark ash-color hair called Harmony stepped from backstage darkness, through a bank of musty curtains -- like a mysterious doppelganger -- and into the bustling social world to replace the once little Brooke.) Like mismatched and poorly carved puzzle parts, four idiosyncratic human cardboards in the complex jigsaw challenge called humanity, the quad of one-time neighbors eventually repelled at ninety degree angles, declined entropically into disharmonious orbits like outward bound planets, and were never observed within earshot of each other ever again.

          The journeys of two of these estranged neighbors ended somberly -- and at very different times -- on a bleak square of earth toward the back of a sprawling and largely deserted burial ground adjacent to a swath of mature forest that was willed to Pembroke Township by a benefactor named McFarland. The surface surrounding the square lies severely eroded in spots, pockmarked by small patches of browning Bermuda grass, and sliced into parts illogically by snaking dry and narrow rivulets created by the rushes of watery runoffs that followed coarse torrents of rain. Once one stood atop that disregarded spot, a visitor could behold a precise rectangle of five burial plots designated, according to the cracked front panel of a gray stone obelisk that rises nearby, and also the beleaguered cemetery's moldy parchment record book, as the McDyers' final resting places. Years ago Somerset McDyer, a ruddy, pensive, and socially withdrawn husband and father, looking more grim, resolved, short of breath, and frankly more nervous than the ordinary customer, had performed the distasteful but consequential task of securing the grave sites, as he believed any fastidious and upright Cambrian man should, on behalf of his estranged and incarcerated wife, his three young children, including their tender vanished female named Brooke, and himself. Privately the tight-lipped Somerset, long bored to distraction with his career as a professional underwriter, disillusioned with the mundane existence he had adopted in suburban America, his nerves still rubbed raw, sometimes throbbing hellishly, from the abrupt and forced dissolution of his knotty marriage to his mentally-twisted spouse Juniper, saw this as a critical element in a secret plan that he had hatched deep in some vital passageways coursing through his muddled and overtaxed right brain. Before his anxieties forced him to curtail his sole visit to the Eternal Memory site, an uninviting setting for an eternal sojourn, Somerset experienced a surge of pride as he affixed his crimped and shaky signature to a personal check within the cluttered bandbox of an office. For he had finally brought to closure this unpleasant but requisite purchase. It was done.

           Three simple, squared burial stones secured by the McDyer brothers, James and Stuart, now have settled down into the tractable sod near the gray obelisk -- they too were acquired by personal check at an early hour on the Eternal Memory grounds but it was during a dawn-busting storm that assailed all of Pembroke, a ferocious downpour that rode up on a seasonally humid weather front that emanated a tier of deep Southern. As the grown boys had dolefully ordered the solicitous undertaker's staff, essential words and relevant images had been carved into the modest trio of granite blocks. The estranged brothers, James and Stuart, as young boys had sat together with the introverted Somerset, a delightful activity on most evenings before their bedtimes, while they sought as a united front of McDyer males to piece together colorful and complicated jigsaw puzzles with idyllic depictions of rural life in the U.K. But they had firmly declined to purchase burial stones for themselves and they solemnly instructed that the simple burial plots that their father Somerset had acquired or them should remain unclaimed. The young adult men had resolved erroneously -- thinking that they were acting like stolid Cambrian descendants as their parents would have wished -- at the conclusion of a flinty discussion filled with grief and bitter resignation like most of their recent conversations had been, that they would each go their own way in life just as they had been forced to do shortly after their father had drawn his last, labored breath.

          The square stone on the left identifies the burial spot of the departed and largely misunderstood Somerset McDyer, a man eventually broken by his personal limitations, myriad disappointments, and family tragedy, plus the dates of his birth in the United Kingdom and his eventual asthmatic demise; it likewise displays a replica of the Royal Badge of Wales cut into the granite in ornate detail. To the left of Somerset's plot, an unused parcel of ground lies with an identically-sized gravestone at its head. This marker reads simply Juniper A. McDyer, with the year of her birth but no indication of her demise below it. To the left of June's intended burial plot lies a third parcel of earth -- its surface is strangely discolored to excess by mordant brown grass -- which holds a third chunk of granite in its proper place but this stone is slowly sinking into the sick grass and soft mud on which it rests. The carving on this piece seems notable to the infrequent passers-by for its conciseness and simplicity. It displays an unusual girl's name in big letters, Harmony, a mournful inaccuracy that would cut to the heart in those few on earth who could still recall a precious and instinctively curious blond toddler running about the McDyer's cluttered and leafy yard, and the unadorned name stands as a stark meditation on the dark side of life for those she left behind. The marker likewise discloses the year of Harmony's birth 1966-, but not the McDyer name. Stuart had argued that the outline of a child's Radio Flyer wagon or perhaps a representation of a backyard wading pool should be carved into Brooke's isolated stone, a parallel to their father's ornate image of the Royal Badge. But his older, less resentful, and mellowing brother dissuaded him from delivering such a caustic smackdown on their fallible parents. The two burial plots that had been acquired by the father for his sons lie empty and might remain like that forever. A small stone cross peeks out of the imperfect blanket of grass that marks each location, twin testimonies to the troubled lives that the McDyer boys endured both before and after Brooke's near-fatal drowning and to the unfair burdens bequeathed to the two by their turbulent family legacy.

          Though he had never admitted it in his adopted homeland, Somerset had wanted one thing passionately, something he faultily thought he could control, especially after Brooke had barely clung to desperately and again after his chain smoking and shattered wife, June, who was full of bloody ragged tantrums, hopeless rants with invisible people, and constitutionally unable to nurture, who often came across as a scornfully dissatisfied and self-pitying shrew, had been judged mentally incompetent to face a courtroom trial and was quickly plunged into unremitting psychiatric confinement. He fervently wanted them all to rest blissfully together at long last a peaceable family unit, even if it had to be within the insentient embrace of the great beyond, out of the poisonous reach of the unpredictable and deranged happenstances, lethal chapters in life, that seem to be commissioned by sinfully hindered human beings every day. A man greatly misjudged and too easily dismissed, in his private opinion, a bland person with little that could excite family members and society, Somerset nevertheless had wistfully longed for the McDyers of America to be re-made into constant companions, complex puzzle parts threaded finely into place just below the earth's crust, their buried remains and intangible souls bound in a unity for all time, even though they could never seem to be one harmonious community during their abridged existence in the cramped, smoky, and shadowy cottage.

          The inert remains of the reserved father and his displaced and victimized daughter, Harmony -- whose gunshot peppered corpse chronologically looked like a young adult but who once decades back was Somerset's smilingly exuberant, at times cranky and petulant, infant daughter Brooke -- now commune without sound or expression, unable to reach for one another because of Juniper's empty plot, unable to whisper soft words of consolation into each other's ears, distinct changes from when this devoted father-daughter pairing shared many intimate times on their family sofa or in Somerset's cushioned chair in happy togetherness while their other contentious family members would stir up fits of mayhem and madness under their one shingled roof. At times, when darkness descends on the Eternal Memory grounds, wild and furry creatures stealthily creep right up to inspect the McDyers' graves, and on occasion small cadres of whispering old acquaintances or bent over cemetery workers approach under the sun to pay their respects. Somerset had trusted in one particular bit of old folk wisdom as he approached his untimely death. It taught: anything or anyone that a human being has truly loved and cherished in the end will never slip fully away. As one rotation of the earth rolls into another, and then another, while gentle blankets of star-studded darkness, like the little Brooke's soft nightshirt full of kittens, and wide-angle planes of bright daylight come and go, as autumnal storms followed by freezing snowstorms and eventually sun-ripened seasons pass by, still the under appreciated father and the deceased daughter maintain a changeless unity -- despite June's futile daydreams to pull them asunder -- as they navigate that inescapable, and indescribable passage toward an Absolute that every person will eventually discover.


          The human mind and human experience, two subjects endlessly placed under modern psychological microscopes, will forever lie beyond our perfect understanding. People say and do things at all times -- during acts of omission and commission -- by crazy impulse or by shrewd schemes that even the perpetrators themselves may not fully comprehend much less explain. Impairments in brain functions and inward shifts in a person's chemical balances generate costly blind spots, rash and awful consequences, fatally skewed logic, and painfully irrational miscues. Uncertainty and ambiguity therefore constitute fundamental elements -- basic properties and principles -- in a dynamic world that is being reinvented, millisecond by millisecond, in a concealed manner, deep down in the stuff of creation. From subatomic strata to the most imposing of life forms, human needs crash headlong moment by moment into unyielding barriers. Though it is a confusing and outlandish fact, the most crucial details of humankind's most life-defining and life-altering experiences refuse stubbornly to be partially explicable much less completely understood and, as the revered stories of creation disclose, they will likely elude all hot pursuits for encompassing interpretations for all time, like that ephemeral and shifty Invisible Man who inhabits the movies, no matter what depths of analysis and single-minded cognition are brought to bear.
          At points during every week, as on this day, the morning or the afternoon or both would grow tedious, interminable, or at times too frightening to bear, so she zealously coveted an escape into an unplanned and lengthy nap with her earnest young psychiatrist's enthusiastic approval. Just a handful of hours after Rolly had finally tucked away under his splintered table the manila envelope that held the seven year-old newspaper articles from The Daily Guardian, the weary and drugged sexagenarian, Juniper, awakened with a start while fastened in securely to her hospital bed in the humiliating and contemptible darkness of her unadorned room. As usual, she began to cry out miserably as soon as her eyes opened and she caught sight anew of hoary but threatening faces -- today they belonged to the austere police detective, Malone, and the ultra-polite but uncompromising uniformed men who had come to take custody of her, despite her lame husband's angry protestations, as June cowered in a tight corner behind a twin bed with a growing sense despair in one of the boys' messy bedrooms. These close-mouthed tormentors, as they often did, possessed woefully distorted bodies, like bizarre images filtered through a thick glass decanter, a glass onion as the McDyer family of Wales would call it, and like dissembling human presences refracted into terrorizing contours by magic mirrors in a carnival's spook house.
          'You, you. Get out. Get out I'm telling you!' Juniper bellowed belligerently.

          The aging woman who was perilously gray-skinned and scrawny in a plain white inmate's gown and worn beige slippers, the standard attire for incarcerated women at night in this state-run institution, who was foolishly proud of her wildly untrimmed and thinning gray hair, who rudely comported herself in a perpetually mean and spiteful way toward all who dared to draw near her any time or any place, who might literally lash out to kill another person if there was the promise of one last Camel Light in the proposition, and who was straining her upper torso painfully to tear herself forward from flexing restraints that pinned her to a cranked up mattress, shouted her lifetime accumulation of pains and bitter resentments as loud as she could. Her forceful and violent wrenching upward kept her withering muscles, snappish tendons, and weakening arms and shoulders chronically sore. Sadly there was no one in the room, even though the older woman was thoroughly convinced there was, to which her habitual screams could legitimately be directed.

          Juniper drooped back flat on her back, a pause for a breather during a temporary retreat. Her volatile respiration rate was dangerously elevated, her heartbeat thudded in her chest cavity, and her reddened, angry face felt flushed and extremely hot, a loathsome side effect from one of the powerful modern drug compounds that doctors had prescribed to blunt the severe mental symptoms from which she had suffered for years.   

          Without warning, as she initiated the madly ineffectual lunging and shooing process over again, June tensed her upper frame and with all of her might attempted to fly forward, like a medieval swordsman thrusting vehemently to sever his bonds of imprisonment. But she failed to break through the effective restraints that kept her snugly in place throughout nighttime hours.

          'Get out now. You, get out of here, this is mine. Mine,' she yelled at her imagined visitors and then quickly shrunk back as if a retaliatory physical assault, a punch in the face, had been launched at her. 'And puh-leeze let me have a cigarette. I need it. Now!'

          June's gray and unbecoming room, a single occupancy cell, so she would not have to share a space with another closely watched and deeply disordered female inmate, retains a gloomy darkness even during daytime hours and it is constantly on the uncomfortable receiving end of intrusive noises, both soft and loud, from other places in this cavernous and crowded seclusion bin for the demented.

         Once each 9:00 p.m. arrives in this state-funded clinic, like the booming echo of a thunderclap overhead, three words bounce around her cell -- it is that damnable 'Lights Out, Ladies' announcement -- sounded forcefully by the lead nurse on the microphone at the duty desk. Through a potent mixture of neuroleptic tranquilizers like Zyprexa and Olanzepine, a carefully regulated diet plus exercise, a properly induced supply of slumber daily, and an impervious collection of supple leather belt restraints that encircle her two thin and brittle wrists and her two feet near her ankles June has been kept in place, sometimes on hospital beds approaching the utter breakdown stage and during better times on modern motorized contraptions, forlorn and seemingly forgotten by all, including Somerset and the boys, but thank God not by her beloved baby Brooke who comes after midnight, it's just one short hour's drive from Pembroke township, in this clinically sterile home away from home for month after miserable month. In addition to the four supple but strong cuff restraints placed for the night's journey on her extremities, there is a three inch wide band of impossible to tear polyurethane strapped across her torso just above her chest that gets belted under the bed, and a second one that gets pulled snugly across her angrily chapped shins. The overworked and underpaid staff want the contentious leading lady of the defunct neighborhood stage play called the Miracle on McFarland -- a mad and scornful woman who had been judged by highly credentialed practitioners to be a chronic danger to herself and others -- to remain right where she is, snug as a bug in a rug, throughout the night. Whenever June obstinately battles the soporific effects of her nightly dose of sleeping powders so she can persistently and loudly protest her fate, the head of staff and other ladies in clinic's pastel hospital scrubs stand prepared to gag her with a pair of standard issue socks without hesitation and without regret.

          Shortly after midnight, like on countless nights before, the worst moments of torture that Juniper can imagine begin anew as a wavering malfeasant being emanates mysteriously from a spreading amber glow then settles down on a simple bedside chair near her raised bed. The old woman yanks on her leather restraints in a desperate attempt to escape. She cries out no.

         'But you can't get away. Stop. Momma, you belong to me now,' Juniper imagines that Brooke, with sallow and scarred baby's skin on her drawn face, and sporting a madly distorted body, stares toward her with intensity.

         'Go away. I hate this. I hate it. Brooksie, my little sugar plum. Leave me be,' June pleas in misery. She yanks forcefully once more at the restraints that hold her tightly on the bed. Pains shoot through her lower arms, her wrists, and skinny legs. 'Get now! Go on."

          'This is torture for you? Well, then, . . . . I'll be here with you forever, momma. All yours. Forever and a day!' Brooke say wickedly.

          Brooke's head tilts back suddenly and her thin lips fly open so she can bare two rows of decaying baby teeth. A rush of acrid substances -- a mini tsunami of sour apple liquid, ruby red rust flakes, gray rancid milk, and a viscous mixture of undigested toddler foods -- spurts projectile style onto the rumpled surface of Juniper's bed. For several moments, the mother fleetingly pictures the shock of Rolly red-faced, with muddy knees, and urgently curious arriving from next door and sinking to his knees, the man's white tee shirt heaving from his blind and zigzagging dash cross her backyard, Rolly shaking his muscled arms and reddened hands to expel lines of rust he got from somewhere and the water that had been transferred to them from Brooke's tiny frame, Rolly straddling over and coaxing the face down toddler -- his pleas for her to return to life audible in the swaying sea of  grass, June turning away to hide from the revolting contents of Brooke's lungs that had come rushing out around the baby's head as she gagged reflexively, and then her mad motherly dash into the flailing bed sheets that swallowed her whole because she secretly was desperate for a smoke and anxious to locate that kitchen phone that would never ring.

          Horrified that this bedtime affront is happening again, Juniper McDyer fights furiously against her forbidding restraints and tries to lunge away from the springy mattress, but she is bounced back forcefully by the chest and shin belts. The old woman maneuvers her wrinkled forehead to depress an alarm button for ten long seconds on an electronic pad affixed to the side rail of her prison, then she screams for salvation loud enough for everyone inmate and staff worker throughout the cavernous institution to hear her.

         'Get out. You're dead. That neighbor man told me at the pool. You died. Brooke. Go on now, stop this,' June moans.

         'Right by your side, momma, like you used to say: snug as two bugs in a rug,' Brooke produces an evil smile for June.

         In the ghostly fluorescent light that glows through her open door, June spies the wagging head of a beefy, exasperated nurse.

         The brusque staff person speaks in a cruelly patronizing tone, 'Calm the fuck down already. Lie down and be quiet. Juniper, old dear, are we being a bad girl again? See? There ain't nobody here wading in the pool but us, girlfriend. Your Brooke? She be long gone.'
         In the nurse's right hand, behind her uniformed back, she tensely jiggles a balled up pair of white socks.        

           *  *  *

         After another restless and fidgety night, now having endured seven days of insufficient sleep since he had last looked closely at the newspaper's series about the ancient Miracle on McFarland, after Rolly had struggled to dress himself in typically bland garb to undertake groggily and grumpily his potential probe that day, after he then sat on the edge of slumber for hours in his sheltering nook while mostly cold-shouldering his hardening breakfast eggs and toast and resisting the day's freshly delivered edition of The Daily Guardian, bothered as he often was by his Parkinson's medicine, all the while closely but impatiently watching from his big second-floor window the scant activities up and down his quiet street, and once he had decided about a dozen times that he could no longer consider himself a stalwart man of action, Rolly the ardently faithful sentinel spied his man. The object of Rolly’s attention laboriously trudged in front of the crumbling and abandoned McDyer cottage, his seven plus decades of life and an extraneous hundred pounds of abdominal fat weighing heavily on his huffing frame, down the worn and potholed pavement toward his cherished stucco abode where there was a weather battered and listing mailbox on a crusty wood pike that was labeled Sarge at the end point of the road by a washed out gully and the western perimeter of the woods. The amiable stranger was coming back, as he almost always did on weekdays during early afternoon, from his gratis roundtrip bus ride, free because he was a military veteran and senior citizen, on one of the Pembroke township's wheezing old buses. There were never-settled questions and gritty equivocations about Brooke and the McDyer clan that had bothered Rolly for years, but they had grown more insistent during his recent string of fitful overnights. Maybe, he hoped, the Sarge would help him out, even though the two men had never met in person.

         Rolly placed a brief cell phone call to his son who had already been put on notice earlier that morning to stand by to assist to his ailing parent. Jobless, inquisitive, craving a cigarette and a couple of bracing shots of bourbon, needing something more meaningful to occupy his idle hours, and famished from skipping breakfast in his chilly sedan near the mouth of his father's leaf-littered driveway the young man sat impatiently. This was exactly, he remembered, the fateful location where he and his poor mother once had stumbled home after a long Spring day out and had been frightened to behold an imposing trio of thrumming Pembroke police cruisers, red flashers rotating brightly and police radios squawking, that were blocking the adjacent driveways plus a sleek and predatory ambulance ready to run hastily in a post accident departure with his friends' baby sister, Brooke, clinging to life and her poor luckless dad, respectfully referred to as Mr. McDyer, inside its cabin. The son had listened at 7:00 a.m. as his father on the cell call, using his tired and thinning voice for the first time that morning, who could barely walk without a wheel chair anymore thanks to with his Parkinson's, informed him that he still needed that one time quick ride to that strange destination near the west edge of the local forest.

         The neighborhood enigma, a dedicated loner called The Sarge, who had always smiled and called out from street side in a friendly manner to the boy and his friends when they were kids, had crept by slowly just minutes before without detecting the preoccupied driver in the sedan; Rolly's son during those seconds was enjoying a daydream about racing to his small apartment downtown to slurp a huge bowl of Cheerios with fresh milk and sugar, like little children in their high chairs do, or perhaps tear incisors-first into a Double Whopper in the drive-thru lane at B.K. which would serve as his modest reward for helping Rolly for the one millionth time. After watching the Sarge trudge at a turtle's pace way down the sloping road, Rolly's son set aside a difficult book that he was slowly working through hard page by hard page. Without a warning one week before, after their Cocaine Anonymous group leader led everyone, all hands clasped, in the Serenity Prayer, a stranger, an attractive middle-aged woman and apparently a committed and long sober member of C.A., had thrust the reading into his hand, saying it was especially suited for alcoholics, addicts, and divorced people with grief issues and resentments that were hard to shake. On the red and black book jacket, serious critics and enthusiastic readers praised the little book's spiritually uplifting contents. The first words Rolly's son had noticed by chance when he picked up the book and some coffee, after his father's call at 7:00, to restart his reading, belonged to a great thinker that the volume's author liked to quote. The passage -- which reminded him that he had often considered certain things better off forgotten -- said this:

               The great mistake of many people is to imagine that those whom death has taken
               leave us. They do not leave us. They remain! Where are they? In the darkness?
               Oh, no. It is we who are in darkness. We do not see them, but they see us.
         As far as he was concerned, he really did not want to think anybody already dead not about ghosts, vampires, or zombie creepers -- no matter how benevolent or malicious their intentions might seem -- looking in on his fractured existence or judging him pitilessly according to the righteous moral standards that his ethical father often displayed. 
         Rolly and his son had pleasantly agreed on their cell phones earlier that day that neither of them could remember a time when one or the other had ventured so far down McFarland. The father, seeking to get this mission fully behind him, emerged slowly from his home; his grown son was immediately appalled by his parent's deteriorating condition. He conjured a mental image of his much younger dad decked out in his habitual outside outfit -- a shabby white vee-neck tee shirt, rolled cuff Levi blue jeans, and scuffed slip-on shoes -- vigorously treating his vintage Bel-Air '57 to a thorough wash and loving coat of Turtle Wax paste from a flat can under sunny bright skies some brisk afternoon long ago. The son momentarily beheld the ghost of old Mrs. Popp, their original and deceased landlady with the heavy German accent, a lover all things pertaining to tulips and flower gardens, her buttoned up sweater hanging off of one shoulder, her sensible skirt, thick wool socks, and black laced shoes getting dusty from the cloud of leaves that was swelling around her, furiously raking to keep her grass clean. With the bat of an eye, his focus switched his focus to the ambiguous Miracle that Mrs. Popp missed. He pictured the grossly slimed clothes, motionless hands and legs, darkly soiled socks on shoeless feet, and grossly streaked face (under an oxygen pump for a child's small face) of the sad little Brooke atop the ambulance gurney. The child's respiration rate and tender heartbeat had not stabilized enough yet for the paramedics to give their weirdly disinterested driver an urgent get going now signal. Surely everyone present, disinterested or glued to the action, could hear as the toddler laid down there helplessly beneath the caring attendants' gloved hands, the oddball and mean Mrs. McDyer's achingly shrill and desperate pleas for another intimate embrace of her daughter but the mother in her strangely uncoordinated clothing was physically detained by sure-footed and sure-handed officers. for them not to rip her precious Brooke away from her intimate motherly embrace. Now a young man himself, Rolly's only son relived the surge of pride that he initially experienced in their apartment a little later as he heard the amazing TV tale (and then read newspaper accounts) for days of his dad Rolly under great duress hurdling the driveway fence and pumping out the toddler's lungs in a bid to salvage her life -- it was a compelling and real life 'happy ending' narrative which captivated the imaginations of many in Pembroke Township and throughout the Midwest.

         Like either the nosy or the concerned citizens gathered here and there, the young boy had then been fascinated to see the industrious cops work that week in the McDyers' cottage and all around their yard from sunrise till sunset. His personal favorite, Detective Malone, who always took time to say hello to him whenever she could through the slanted and rickety wire fence that bisected the two worn driveways, and one of her best investigators according to eventual newspaper and TV reports had zeroed in straight away on shreds of evidence that would enable them to put criminal charges into place against Juniper: such as the gallons of water, not snow melt nor polluted rain, which nearly killed Brooke but somehow had dropped into the scene by magic, the beloved red but rusting play wagon with the wooden side slats -- something Brooke had adored -- that stood in the breeze-blown grass well removed from its normal resting place by the cottage but just a hair or two too close for comfort to the compact wader, Rolly's matter of fact statements about his mad dash by which he ran dramatically into the mother, an eyeball to eyeball collision, coming out from behind a wall of bedding and some of Somerset's blue shirts, and finally the indecisive (Malone labeled them evasive) ways that the emotionally-somersaulting mother and eyewitness -- who had somehow overlooked for days her required prescriptions -- failed to respond convincingly to the D.A.'s queries about all that she had said, and done, and heard, or had not said, not done, or not heard as the frightening incident transpired. As Rolly approached his son's vehicle, dead leaves of various autumn hues blanketed the expansive yard, many inches thick in certain patches, and many of them crunched in protest under Rolly's deliberate steps like musty multi-colored leftovers from a complex puzzle that had been painfully cut up by a razor sharp jigsaw blade. The reinforced rubber caps that bottomed his handsome pair of polished maplewood walking canes, the ones that came with the smooth and striking chrome-plated eagle's head on each handle, speared and broke many dried leaves too.

         At first Rolly and his son sat in silence. Both wore light jackets to fight the chill in the air. Then as the car rolled forward mostly under its own power down the sloping road, the son said, 'Abbey Road ok or are you in a more Nirvana mood?'

         His father responded with nonchalant shrug. A silver CD disappeared into the dashboard. The first haunting bass chords of "Come Together" came through the speakers.  

         Fallen leaves and twisted twigs covered the cracked and potholed pavement. Rolly felt weak and regretted that he was making this trip dependent on the stained wood canes that he clutched with sweaty palms in the space between his pained and parted kneecaps. He had stubbornly refused to bring his wheel chair.

         After going about 1000 yards, the young man steered his car over to the opposite side of McFarland, close to the point where the old road narrowed into a sandy path and then dead ended at the depressed and bone dry gully. He gently stopped his vehicle beside the battered and leaning mailbox labeled 'Sarge' that stood in front of the daily bus rider's old-fashioned stucco house.

         Rolly struggled to get out. Now more winded and much more quivery in the hands and legs than when he had left his comfortable nook, he told his son that he would call his cell phone once he needed a pick-up.

         Rolly took a few tentative steps with the help of the polished walking canes. But when he paused to survey the broad panorama before him everything seemed to his great dismay to be slipping downhill -- the sloping and narrowed roadway, the root-damaged walkway up to the Sarge's place, the roughed up black mailbox on the leaning post, the two-story house itself with its front landing, a porch style expanse, that was protected by a simple but dirty awning over a badly cracked foundation of granite, and even the tired pieces of weather-beaten furniture, including The Sarge's rain-spotted old rocking chair with thick pads, all seemed precariously tipped, ready to plunge dried and played out, into the patient bottom of the forest ravine that everybody from the neighborhood simply called the gully.

         Rolly fought his way across the uneven cement squares that constituted the Sarge's front walkway. Rolly's son turned his car and drove away. Rolly recalled the echo from a siren blaring from a Pembroke ambulance that was racing toward the busy center of the township. 

         The military veteran sat still in his rocker as the unexpected visitor struggled to get to him. The Sarge was clearly the aged of the two. He wore a tattered and sweat stained Veterans Affairs Department baseball cap that he had pushed high on his lined forehead and a flannel shirt whose colors were fading. A ragged U.S. flag was tacked to one window sill. Rolly said hello and asked for permission to come aboard the tilted landing.

         The Sarge smiled. 'Howdy. Don't get many visitors down here nowadays. Sit yerself down and take a load off.'

          His accent was Southern. Rolly pictured an isolated farm in a lazy valley of Tennessee and detected the tempting smells of bacon grease and fried eggs wafting through the windows. He leaned his eagle head canes against a chair, wiped his wet palms on his pants legs, and plopped down heavily.

         'Do you recognize me, sir?' Rolly asked while hoping to catch his breath.         

         'I reckon I do. From on up this ol' road. You, sir, were big news way back when. You can jus' call me Sarge,.'

         Like on previous occasions but from a much longer distance, the aged Sarge seemed amiable, a bit puckish even.

         'What happened to you in the war? People say you got shot up badly,' Rolly asked.

         'Me and some good boys caught a shell on a hillside that blew up in our laps. Most of 'em died. But I pulled on through. Twas a real mess I'll tell ya,' the Sarge responded. 'I hadta get operated on ta patch up the hole in my head and fix my hip but I reckon I been alright for years. Tho' I do get me a sore sacroiliac and some crazy notions in th' head now and then,' the Sarge cackled. 'But I weren't allowed to work no more either.'

         Each of them pondered that. The plentiful choir of cicadas buzzed shrilly in nearby trees and bushes. Eavesdropping birds chirped all around them. An old propeller airplane was progressing at a slow pace across the sky overhead.

         'You have business to do here? Or is this jus' a right friendly little visit?' the Sarge asked.

         'You remember what happened years ago at the McDyer place when their little girl almost drowned?'

         'Yessir. Quite a day it twas. You done the world a great service in savin' that innocent little child.'

         Rolly suddenly felt free to disclose the underlying purpose for this visit. He described to the Sarge an intensifying sense of guilt and anger over the so-called Miracle's upsetting and ambiguous bottom line.  He longed to know why it had to be him -- a regular self-effacing guy, who had to bring Brooke back her painful and disrupted life, perhaps from an eternally silent bliss, the unknowable, the absolute end. Rolly said the Sarge loomed like a portent, like a last resort, before Rolly's own plunge into eternity would come.

         He asked the stranger, 'So . . . did you see anything key at the McDyer place on that incredible day? Did the police ever talk to you about that?'

         'Well, hold on there, fella,' the Sarge said. 'My way of lookin' at all that is a touch simpl'r. If we was meant to know everything about who done what, where, when, and why-for then th' good Lord woulda let us in on it by now.'

         'That's hard to buy when one of the Lord's precious kids was on the line,' Rolly answered. He fidgeted on the chair. His Parkinson's shook him all over.

         The Sarge said, 'I gotta theory. Me, I think she done it, the mother -- but she so messed up wuz so messed up she don't remember it.'

          Rolly shrugged quietly.

         'Rolly noted 'She was dead. Brooke was dead, I saved her, and now she's dead again. She suffered a terrible life. She died a murderer they say, so . . . I brought her back to what? For what? So others could die?'

         The Sarge rocked gently and let his tired eyes slide closed, like chronically poor sleepers sometimes do. He listened appreciatively to the cicadas' song.

         'Every time I get to the graves of her father and her I get a feeling that Brooke, or is better to call her Harmony, as a grown woman is already there," Rolly confessed. 'She's ferocious, but stone cold dead, and she's staring up at me saying death will soon be lookin' for me.'

         'A whole lotta sufferin' and pain, horrible sufferin' and pain I hear tell, that that poor child had ta go through. Years without her people, any love, her family. But she turns out as cold-blooded as maybe her mother was?' the Sarge said. 'Why wuz it all like that? Don't reckon we'll ever know. People sometimes say them apples don't fall fer from the trees.'

          Rolly and the Sarge looked simultaneously across the gully and into the shadows cast by the buzzing ridge of forest. People rumored that it harbored mysteries in the dark.
         'So you prob'ly don't wanna hear what else I could tell ya,' the Sarge said.

         'Like what?,' Rolly asked. The Parkinson's symptoms were accentuated whenever he was under this kind of heavy stress. 'Don't tell me you saw something.'

         'Well, yeah,' said the Sarge.

         'You hopped on your bus ride and then you came back home all real normal that day after lunchtime. I remember it. We waved to each other,' Rolly said.

         'The police ever run a blood test on that little girl?'

        Surprised, Rolly said quietly, 'I don't know. Why would they have done?'

         The old veteran shrugged. 'Them police never came on down here once askin' no questions. Like they didn't even know or care that anybody was even livin' down here. I never got over it. -- Well, sir, about that day. Me an' you had already waved back and forth like we do. I jus' about had got in front of the ol' McDyer cottage thinkin' what a great day it was. Then I hear this screen door slam. Hard. Like -- Clap! -- 'round back of th' house. So I look up. The woman that lived there stepped down on her driveway. I could see her clear enough but now you 'member she was pretty far away. Then I seen she had a big wicker basket that she set down on th' ground.'

         'Yeah? Then?' Rolly's insides were suddenly aflutter. He sat forward. He gripped the silver eagle head on each of his walking canes tightly.

         'Her name was Juniper weren't it? -- She goes ta pushin' her hair back behin' her ears and bends on over ta reach way deep inta th' basket. I'll tell ya the next thing she done surprised th' heck outta me. She pulls out a little child outta the basket, no laundry or nothin', a little child. She was limp as a blond rag doll. The McDyer woman holds her out at arm's length and inspecs her up and down. And it weren't like th' child was jus' asleep or nuthin'. It looked ta me like the child coulda been drugged. Flat out, limp and lifeless, out like a light. Tell me, what kinda human bein' does a thing like that? But then a'gin may be the baby wuz jus' sound asleep.'

        'So she -- Juniper -- put the girl down in the kids' red wagon?'

        'Well maybe she did and maybe she didn't. I really din't see no kiddie wagon. All the lady done was take a step or two like she was goin' round back a th' house toward th' laundry lines. She lef'' the basket sittin' there and toted the child in her arms outta my sight.'

        'You heard her phone ring?'


        'You heard the screen door clap closed again after that?'

         'Nope. Nothin' like that. Either way.'

        'There was some rock 'n roll you could hear from my Chevy?'

        'Cain't honestly say to yer face I heard any o' that."

        The Sarge rocked quietly. Then he went on.

        'There was her mother an' there was th' litul child that was in the basket with her. That's all I seen. Then the McDyer woman walks away with her arms full. I say to myself somethin' like "Well, everythin' under heaven and earth has got ta have some kinda reason behind it. So I jus' trotted home and the sun went down like it always does. Din't seem like no big deal. I didn't hear or see nuthin' till the next day. And I din't have no workin' radio or TV at th' house here back then. Guess them police didn't even know that anybody was down here.'

        Rolly's muscles relaxed, he let go, and he sat up straight. He loosened the death grip he had on the walking canes. His stomach cramp eased. The metal eagle molds had forged bright red creases in his hands. He nodded with a discouraged but sage smile at the Sarge. He whispered a polite thank you. Rolly sighed. After twenty-seven years a barely plausible new theory, a novel consideration, that all players, even Malone, had likely missed -- but his elusive clearcut resolution -- had poked its head up to irritate him for the bleak remainder of his days. Drugged and helpless? Drugged? What kind of human being does something like that?, the Sarge had asked. Brooke out cold in the gruesome clutches of her deluded parent, a scornful monster in her crazy mismatched clothing, knocked loose from her mental moorings and starved for meds?

         Yeah, I suppose it could have been like that Rolly mused to himself. Or, on the other hand, maybe it was not. Maybe the whole affair was way more simple and innocent than that.
        Tired and disheartened, Rolly stood. His mission was over. He prepared to call for his ride back home. He yearned for the modest comforts of his second floor nook.    


Song:  "Glass Onion," The Beatles       http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5ttEB5_kZc

Closing Note --
The Magical Mystery Tour is coming to take you away
Coming to take you away
The Magical Mystery Tour is dying to take you away
Dying to take you away --
To take you today