Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Bear with me for a minute or two, this is sort of a roundabout story but it does eventually come to a head. 
A few weeks back I started reading a series of crime novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. I don’t recall exactly how I came across this author other than one of those ‘if you like xxx xxxx , then you might also like ’  Google searches I am prone to run when I exhaust one author’s books.  This series has been translated quite well from Viking to English. In the early parts of the first book, the protagonist, Harry Hole (I’m not making that up) is discussing serial murderers. He talks about how rare it is that women are guilty of such heinous crimes. He does mention a name, an American in the early 1800’s, Lavinia Fisher.
At an idle opportunity I looked up the case to see if it was a real reference. It was. The list I first came across also made mention of one Bertha Gifford, of Missouri.
Interesting, So I looked that up. “Bertha Alice Williams Graham Gifford was born in Grubville, Missouri"
Even more interesting since I almost bought a house in Grubville, and it’s not many miles from where I currently live. So I dug deeper.
Bertha actually lived in Morse Mill, about seven miles from Grubville, and about five miles from my current residence. I knew Morse Mill, it’s on the same road as one of the glades I used to hike, as well as just five miles from the poor farm I’ve mentioned here a few times. The cemetery where poor ol’ Bertha is buried is right on that road, and you know I’ve got a thing for old cemeteries.
(L-R) Bertha Gifford, Eugene Gifford
(Front) Henry Graham
Oddly enough she is buried alongside her first husband, Henry Graham. Also near her headstone are those for her second husband, Eugene Gifford, Eugene's mother Emilie Gifford, his thirteen year old brother James, as well as his uncle, Sherman Pounds. Henry, Emilie, James and Sherman are by some accounts, among Bertha’s earlier victims. Shortly after marrying Gifford, the couple moved to Catawasa, in neighboring Franklin County.
There the deaths continued. The exact count will likely to never be known for sure, though historians put the total at around seventeen, many of them children.
Bertha was considered quite attractive in her youth, and grew into a matronly, nurturing soul. She was considered a first-rate cook, and would rush to the side of anyone in need of medical assistance. Though never formerly trained as a nurse, she went so far as to wear starched white dresses as she went from place to place to tend to the sick. She often took in the very sick, staying at their bedside with them, often up to their last breath.
This was the early 1900’s Medical care was still rather primitive and child mortality quite high, especially in remote, rural areas. At the same time dubious potions, tonics and 'snake oil' cure-alls were quite the rage. Bertha made her own home remedies.
She also bought a lot of arsenic, telling the seller she was having rat problems.
For several years if there were any suspicions at all, they were few and reserved. It was only upon the deaths of two young brothers,(Lloyd and Elmer Schamel) within six weeks of each other, and subsequent to the death of one of the Giffords' farm hands (Ed Brinley),  that an investigation took place at all. The local doctor who had signed the death certificates of many of her victims had never bothered with autopsies as the deaths seemed to fit common serious ailments, gastritis, for example.
But  investigators got a letter of concern from one of the victim's family and looked into it. Brinley and the Schamel boys were exhumed, and large quantities of arsenic were found. The Schamel boys had been nursed and fed by Bertha.
These were the three victims that set an arrest and trial in motion. This trial, attended by 'thousands' in Franklin County was quite the media frenzy, not unlike those we still see today. The killing of these three victims were the only cases in the matter that were ever adjudicated. At the trial, Bertha Gifford was found to be insane and sentenced to live out her life in the mental hospital in Farmington. She died in 1951, without ever revealing much more about the whole affair.

Based on times and types of deaths it is generally assumed that there were many more than these three victims. A more thorough list can be found here.
I paid a visit to the cemetery in Morse Mill. It is on the grounds of the Church of God Faith of Abraham Cemetery (AKA Soul Sleepers Cemetery) on Highway B, a church that  Eugene Gifford, Bertha's second husband, himself helped build.
I also stopped by the big, old hotel in Morse Mill.
Morse Mill Bridge
Morse Mill is just off Highway B, above the Big River. Yes, the 'Big River', that's the actual name of the meandering Meramec River tributary. There's an old iron bridge, long ago closed off to vehicles, and the remains of the eponymous old mill just outside of town. The mill and the bridge were built by John H. Morse as was the hotel, originally the large, New Orleans style Morse homestead.  Morse also built the Sandy Creek Covered Bridge north of Hillsboro. The old Hotel, now in pretty bad shape and in constant state of repair, stands out in this sleepy little bedroom community. Bertha and Eugene lived there before moving to Franklin County and later the place became quite famous/notorious. It is said that Morse was in certain cahoots with the legendary James Gang and that they stopped by occasionally, other accounts list Charles Lindbergh, Clara Bow, and even Charlie Chaplin as hotel guests. Legend also has it that Al Capone had an investment in the place during the wild 'roaring' twenties. This is also believed to be the site of the death of Bertha's alleged first victim, her first husband, Henry Graham.
Thus the hotel is frequented by  ghost hunters and fans of the paranormal. Why wouldn't it be haunted? The former home of a notorious serial killer?
Morse Mill Hotel
Well, I'll let you be the judge of that sort of thing. The interwebs is full of reports from paranormal investigators struggling to find spirits or ghosts there. The current owner even invites investigators, and offers tours.
Notice please my frequent use of phrases such as 'believed to be', 'by some accounts', etc. I'm simply covering my ass here. I have seen discrepancies between the various sources I've cited, I can't be exactly sure which are accurate and which are not. All local historical documents, the ones that still exist, list only statistical data, like census and birth/death records which do not speak of the stories surrounding these people. There are even some discrepancies in newspaper accounts of the times, places and events. Since the Bertha Gifford story was quite the big news item at the time, it received national attention, I'm sure that there were more than a few rumors, legends and embellishments that were printed and later remembered as fact.
Bertha's great-granddaughter S. Kay Murphy researched her infamous ancestor and wrote a book 'Tainted Legacy' Which is available from Amazon. I've ordered a copy.
"So what does this have to do with you?" You smugly ask.
Well it hits on several notes. First, I already have photos of the Morse Mill Bridge, the Sandy Creek covered bridge and the mill. There's a park on the river between the mill and the iron bridge, I visited there a few years ago while discovering my new home county's history.  Then of course, there's the cemeteries and graves, as well as my old hiking place, Valley View Glades in the same area.
So it's like discovering that there was once a serial killer in your own neighborhood, how could a person NOT be curious.
Bertha's  stone was put in place in 2008-2009.
I'm not sure why there wasn't one there before, or who placed it.
To this day there are those that believe Bertha was at worst, a misguided angel of mercy, that she had no mens rea (guilty mind) about her. Others, of course, think of her as pure evil and quite mad. I don't know for sure, but even the little we do know is quite compelling.


This whole thing is not intended to glamorize tragedy. And there was certainly a boatload of tragedy surrounding Bertha Gifford's life. However, we are foolish to ignore the story or sweep it under the rug. Part of the reason the whole affair lasted so long, and the death toll was allegedly so high, was precisely that people chose to ignore, or at least not look on the situation in a bad light. People wanted to believe the best, wanted to believe there was no evil afoot. Thus it went unreported and in most cases, not even suspicious for nearly two decades. 
I love my new job, I really do. It’s challenging without being overwhelming. I like the people I work with and they pretty much leave me alone.
When I first started here I was located with my five immediate co workers, in a small, secluded office area with twenty desks. Only about half of the desks in that office were occupied. The desks were vintage 1970’s wooden office desks with typewriter trays intact. (remember those?) One of the trays still held a typewritten 1975 office directory held on by cracked, yellowing cellophane tape. We think everyone on that list has since passed away.
The desks were scratched, stained, missing hardware, and I suspected, somewhat moldy. For the two months I sat in that office every time someone rifled through a drawer my sinuses would launch a red alert. This was followed by an immediate and violent evacuation of all head fluids. I sneezed at least a couple times per day. Not cute little wheezy sneezes either, these were supersonic, geyser-like neck snappers. Within a few minutes of leaving the office each evening my sinuses would clear and would be just fine until about eight fifteen the next day.
So when we were told that we would be moving to a more modern area closer to our cousin-teams, I was quite relieved.
Last week they moved us to ‘temporary’ desks/cubicles in the newer area. The cubes / desks were nowhere near each other; they simply had us fill whatever empty accommodations there were. There are two distinct cubicle areas sharing one large, L-shaped open office space. In the middle, at the intersection of the two areas is the main entry door. There are other exits, but this central one is the only one leading to the elevators and restrooms. As we are on the third floor and are by far mostly over the age of forty, the elevators and restrooms are crucial and busy.
The door is card-activated. Everyone has a key card and has to swipe it in a finicky card reader to get into the area. (All card readers are finicky in my opinion.)
At this narrow intersection are two cubicles all by themselves. They are arranged so that whoever is unlucky enough to inherit one of these cubes has their back to both the door and the voluminous foot traffic. The two large sections are home to perhaps seventy five people and one shared break room which is also nearby.
So in the course of a normal day, whoever is so richly blessed to have one of these two orphan cubicles gets walked behind by everyone, often several times a day. So forget about napping, web surfing, staring off into space, belching, or discreetly scratching one’s self.
Of course with these less than ideal seating arrangements, those lucky two are interrupted several times per day to answer the timid knocking on the door of those poor souls that forgot, lost, or are having trouble swiping their key cards.
You guessed it; I inherited one of these two prime cubicles. I was told it would be temporary, but in a nearly two hundred year old company time has its own, slightly different perspective. My previous desk you may recall, was thirty five years old. What do you have in constant use around where you work or live that’s thirty five years old? So I don’t have a lot of comfort with the company’s concept of ‘temporary.’
As far as the foot traffic, that’s just a minor annoyance that I can often tune out. (Ask my former co-workers about my uncanny ability to tune things out, including them!) Having my back to everything is much worse. I hear the footsteps and feel the breeze but I don’t know if the person behind me at any point in time is the vending machine guy, the boss, HIS boss, or just one of my fellow worker bees. Often there are footsteps, a breeze, and then the footsteps suddenly stop right behind me. About once per week it’s someone coming to talk to me, the other ten thousand times it’s just someone pausing at the door. This morning some guy paused long enough to noisily throw his pop can into the garbage bin under my desk… while I was sitting there, without uttering a word, as if it were a public park receptacle and I was just another bum sleeping on a bench.
The lady in the adjoining cube is a programmer. She doesn’t talk much, doesn’t get a lot of visitors and seems to work shorter hours than I do. She’s not a problem at all. I’ve been working on improving her sense of humor though. I need someone nearby to laugh at something I’ve said at least a couple of times per day or I just don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, after all I politely pretend to not eavesdrop the ten times per day she’s on the phone with her family members. (Her teen-aged daughter is home with pinkeye, the medicine seems to be working better now, but they are now out of pudding cups, so yogurt will have to suffice till after work.)
Tap, tap.. Someone else forgot their key card. That’s okay, I’ll get it. I just hope they don’t explain in more than enough detail WHY they don’t have their badge. As the reluctant, de-facto doorman, I can assure you that I really don’t care. I already know it’s a simple mistake to make, and everyone does it once in a while. I really just don’t care to listen to feeble, forgettable and irrelevant excuses, it’s simply unnecessary. I sit by the door, I answer the door, that’s just fine by me, and it all pays the same.
Which is the only cool part; whether I’m troubleshooting a German language error message on a massive business-critical database, or simply answering the door, I get paid as if I’m troubleshooting a German language error message on a massive, business-critical database. So go ahead, be my guest. Those ships, trains and barges at the grain mills in the Ukraine can surely wait to be loaded or unloaded.
“Okay Comrade Grohenikivovski, I’ve just about got the problem solved, we should be able to start reprocessing your offloading documents again in just a moment or two I just need to clear up one more…. Oh, sorry about that, someone’s at the door, I’m going to put you on hold. . . So you’ll be listening to some decadent, capitalist, country-gospel music by a group called ‘Heavenly Banjos. ’ ” . . .while I take care of this more pressing matter.” (Long pause). “I’m back, who is this again please? Oh yeah that’s right comrade, and what were we talking about?” Those Ukrainians can be so impatient. “Oh, of course, sorry for the very expensive delay and I certainly hope it does all get offloaded before it starts rotting, but Janie from desktop support didn’t have her key card since she left her adorable brown jacket, the one with the belt, in her husband’s car and he left for work before she did, but she’ll be sure to have it tomorrow. She’s been just so darn forgetful since her mother’s been in that horrible new nursing home and calls like ten times a day, ALWAYS at the worst possible time.”
Then there’s the other thing; visitors to the area looking for someone specific. Now recall that I’ve only been working for this company for three months, and I just moved into this new office area last week. There are about seventy five people in this area and I know about eight of then by name or job. But since I sit right inside the door I am always the first person that a visitor sees and that absolutely MUST mean I know where David Johnson sits. Well lady, today is simply not your lucky day, ‘cause I’ve never heard of David Johnson, I don’t know what he does or who he sits near or who you might talk to from his team since I don’t even know what the GTR Team’ is, and in fact I don’t even know who WOULD know.
The visitor’s reaction to my sincere apologies and understandable ignorance? Disgust, anger, fury.
My neighbor, the programmer, and I discussed this during one of the three actual conversations we’ve had. (Since I moved in she’s been wearing a noise cancelling IPod thingy and no longer hears the knocks at the door. She claims de facto seniority.) I told her I should get a couple of little ‘go away’ signs made up that say “NOT a Receptionist” or “These desks reserved for people that are currently under criminal investigation for heinous violent acts.” or “We apologize for the inconvenience, but just because you don’t know where you are or where you are going does not mean that we are required to either know or care.” or “My third grader is selling wrapping paper!”
But it’s all okay, it’s just petty work stuff, and in this economy a good job is a very precious thing. And if there is one, even more valuable thing that I’ve learned recently it’s that. . . . hang on, someone’s at the door.

The dating crisis

I am not incredibly close with my co-workers. By that I mean I don’t know most of their spouses’ and kids’ names, ages nor do I visit or chat with them after hours. There’s nothing wrong with my co-workers, they are typical, average people with typical average issues and experiences. Those of you that know me understand that I’m simply not a social flower.
I do chat with them occasionally, but not so much as to actually become involved in their domestic lives. Life is just simpler for me that way.
One of the groups of co-workers I deal with daily is what I refer to as the ‘change control ladies’ I call them that because they are responsible for managing changes in the system software, and they all happen to be female. I use the word ‘ladies’ because I am a polite southern boy, not because they have done anything specific to actually earn the title.
Yesterday I approached them on yet another work-related issue. It was easily and quickly resolved and the conversation suddenly broke down into banal pleasantries and chit-chat. Though I tried to break away politely I found myself uncomfortably engaged in their personal lives. Vicky, who I know to be recently de-coupled is the mother of two teen-like children whose names I can never remember. She is somewhere between thirty five and forty as I recall, (My bet is closer to forty though she has denied that on a few loud occasions.) She’s a reasonably nice lady, and competent at her job, which is all I really care about. The personal information she has given me over the course of the last two years was all unsolicited. She just likes to chat about her personal life, and I am just too nice to tell her to shut up and leave me out of it.
For some irrational reason she asked me for an opinion about a dating crisis. This, of course was a pitiful mistake.
“I’ve got a question for you Dennis, about dating; I’d like a man’s opinion.” She said.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I answered.
“No really, this is really bothering me and I need some advice!” She was pleading.
Abby, another of the change control ladies jumped out of her chair and ran to the cubicle. She leaped towards Vicky, in a way that reminded me of those slow motion scenes of a brave secret service agent jumping in front of a sniper’s bullet. “Noooooooooooooo!’ she cried.
“Why not?” Vicky asked her.
“Do you realize who you are asking for relationship advice?” Abby answered while looking at me with that disgusted look in her face that she gets whenever I visit the area.
I actually like Abby. I know little about her other than she’s married to a guy, has somewhere between one and twelve kids, and at around thirty is probably the youngest of the ladies. None of that is interesting or appeals to me, but she does own a dog, or maybe more than one dog, and I think it is a pit bull. Anyway, Abby asks me about my dogs occasionally and that’s enough for me to like her. And she is competent at her work.
“Have you forgotten? He’s married everyone he ever dated!” Abby answered.
“Vicky looked at me as if I had just emanated a foul odor. “Eww, that’s right, you have haven’t you?”
“You only say that because that’s what I told you, so you certainly don’t know it as a fact since I tend to lie about such things.” I answered.
“You lied to us about marrying everyone you ever dated?” Abby asked.
I thought about it for a moment. “No, no I didn’t, but the point is I could have lied about it.”
Vicky pondered for a bit. “Well, still I’d like to know your opinion.”
Abby sighed. “You asked for it.” She muttered as she headed back to her own cube.
I sat down, leaned back, crossed my legs and pressed my fingertips together in front of me. “How can I help you ma’am?”
“I told you not to call me ma’am, it makes me feel old.” She scolded.
“That’s what makes you feel old?” I answered, adding; “Not the actual aging process? Hmm.”.
She swore at me with her eyes. I felt an apology was in order:
“You know that I am incapable of calling you anything other than ma’am, since I am a proper southern boy and am zealously mindful of propriety. ‘Ma’am’ is an expression of respect that should make you feel flattered, not disgusted. Had you paid heed to or actually had a proper upbringing you would know that, so do not dare blame me for your inexcusable lack of couth.”

Her face reddened and tightened a little more, but she was still not deterred, I was perhaps being too polite, perhaps sending mixed messages.
“Seriously, I just need some help with a dating crisis.” She looked frustrated.
“Proceed then, I’m happy to be of service.” I resumed a completely false compassionate posture and tone.

“Here’s the deal..’ The story unfolded. “I’ve got a blind date tonight at six-thirty at Applebee’s with a man I met on the internet.
“That is a problem.” I responded.
“What?, No, no, no, that’s not the problem…” She replied.
“I assure you ma’am, that that is not just A problem, that’s like three problems already, are you saying there’s more?”
“What three problems?” She asked, genuinely worried
“ Applebee’s, Internet, blind date, man. You’re right there’s four problems, not three.” I answered counting on my fingers.
“ What’s wrong with any of that?” She foolishly asked.
“1. Applebee’s, you’ve set the bar too low. The cheap date flag is up. 2. Internet. Internet dating sites are where pathetic liars go to lie to each other. 3. Blind date, they got the name ‘blind’ because of the common desire to gouge one’s eyes out upon actual meeting. 4. You want to date a man? That both surprises and disappoints me.”

She stared at me for a few moments, probably in awe of my analytical skills.
“Why would you … how the… what makes you think I don’t date men?”
“Hmm” I reflected, “Just a false assumption on my part, don’t worry I do that a lot.” I glanced at my watch to let her know I had other things I’d rather be doing. She didn’t get the message. (Note to self, work more on improving body language skills, get a bigger mirror and practice, practice, practice!)
“You think I’m, … uh, why would you..?” She seemed to be at a loss for words over this minor point.
“I said don’t worry about it, my mistake, I shouldn’t take everyone else’s word for things I don’t know to be a fact.”
This did not seem to relieve her stress any.
“Who.. but , wait, what the?” She was starving for a coherent sentence.
“Please go on with your dilemma, I don’t have all day to waste on a trivial tangent, besides, I’m very open minded about such things and I hope you don’t feel the need to apologize or explain yourself, regardless of your personal tastes, that’s not why I’m here.”
“Why ARE you here?” Abby shouted over the cube wall.
Vicky finally closed her mouth long enough to start thinking again.
“Anyway, the date is not the real problem.” She drummed her fingers.
I felt the need to calm her down, get her back on focus. “We can vehemently disagree on some things and still make progress, it’s all a healthy part of the process, so please, go ahead.”
She now appeared to be mentally chewing her nails. “Anyway, there’s another guy I’ve dated a couple of times, nothing serious..”
I broke in. “By serious I assume you mean you haven’t . . . “ I paused.
Her eyes flared again. “What? Haven’t what? What are you asking ?”
“Uh, It’s not really important, we can get back to that later.”
“So this other guy, called me earlier, and we just chatted, and he mentioned that he was taking his daughter out to dinner tonight. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but I. . . “
I had to interrupt. “How old is his daughter?”
“Fourteen, but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“I’m just creating mental imagery, it’s vital to my full understanding of the situation. So is she a mature fourteen or a pigtail and Hello-Kitty fourteen?”
“I don’t think I’m going to answer that.” She seemed distracted again.
“Very well, continue, but don’t blame me for bad advice later if you won’t give me important details now.”
“So I didn’t think much about it at the time, but later I started thinking how awkward it would be if he took his daughter to Applebee’s while I’m on this blind date.” This lady was unstoppable
“You think he would feel awkward at Applebee’s with his daughter? I can’t pretend to know why since you are obviously withholding information about her.”

“No, you idiot, how awkward it would be for him to see me out with another guy!”

“He doesn’t know you date men either? How odd, where would he have heard that?”

“No, no, no, of course he knows I date men. I mean the fact that we have dated and I didn’t tell him I was going out tonight, you know!”

“I’m not sure I understand the problem.”
Wouldn’t you think it was awkward to walk into a restaurant and see someone you dated having a date with someone else?

“That’s completely different.”
“How is that different?” She asked, obviously devoid of common sense.
“Because… “ I started…
“Because he MARRIED everyone he dated!” Came the cry over the cubicle wall.
I just smiled and nodded my head.
“You don’t see that it would be awkward for ME, and these two men?” She continued despite my lack of interest.
“Well that depends on how much you have lied to them.”
“I haven’t lied to them about anything!” She seemed hurt.
“Really? You’re dating a couple of men and you haven’t lied to them at all? What kind of clueless idiot do you think I am?”
“I know, I know !” called Abby like an anxious school girl. We ignored her, at least I did.
“I have not lied to either of them!” she insisted.
“ How could you possibly get two guys to ever take you out on a date on truth alone. Such a notion is completely unthinkable, impossible!”
“Well I never told them I was dating other guys.” She looked suddenly sheepish.
I decided to let her off easily. “Well, now that you finally admit that I was, in fact completely correct by calling you a liar, I think we can go forward. I have a conclusion and a couple of words of advice. I’ll go ahead and share them with you In the interest of time, since we’ve wasted quite enough already.”
Abby joined us. “I’ve got to hear this.”
“Vicky, assuming that the scant information you have given is correct, complete, and honest, I can not see any reason whatsoever for you to be concerned. In fact I really can’t believe you have created a colossal crisis here out of such a contrived pile of tedious trivialities composed of nothing more than balled up gooey wads of emotional insecurity. “
“So you don’t think that it’s a problem?” She asked.
“Didn’t I just say that? You’re a female; you are expert at creating drama for any and all reasons, especially where none actually exists. You can’t help it, just recognize it. There is no problem here, assuming you were not lying anymore than you have already indicated, and I apologize for continuing to come back to that point, but it is vital. If you have made no promises, or assertions about fidelity to either man then you are not at fault for any irrational expectations or assumptions that they might make.”
“I told you that’s what a guy would say” Abby piled on.
“Wow, I’m really glad to hear that, thanks.” ( I kid you not, she actually thanked me.)
“However…” I started.
“There’s more?” Abby looked anxious.
“However, what?” Asked Vicky.
“I should warn you that should this unlikely event actually occur, that the dynamics of both relationships will irrevocably change.” I offered.
“How will they change?”
“If they are both normal men, or, considering your options, near normal, and neither is already too badly damaged, then both men will start to become even more and more interested in you.”
She looked utterly shocked. “Why that’s just what Abby said!”
I glanced over at Abby, her face was proud, arms folded, nodding.
“She’s a dog owner, of course she understands.” I winked at Abby.
“What’s that got to do with anything? Vicky asked.
“I’ll speak more slowly so you can understand. If you ever watch a group of dogs, just laying about minding their own business, then one of them gets up and picks up one of the many chew toys lying around, what happens?”
“I have no idea.”
“Abby, you tell her.”
Abby perked up. “They all suddenly want THAT chew toy.”
“That’s correct, Abby, absolutely correct.”
“Why?” queried Vicky.
“I’m not a botanist, I have no idea, but its in their DNA, it’s in OUR DNA. We want what someone else has; we covet to the point of sheer madness. As soon as a guy sees you with another guy he becomes more interested in you.” I felt silly explaining this basic primal concept.
“That makes no sense.” Vicky replied.
“It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s just how animals behave”
“Especially men!” Abby interjected. I scolded her with a furrowed brow.
“If you go out somewhere by yourself you will appear damaged, desperate and undesirable. That certainly appeals to some men, but probably not the kind of man you are looking for. If you are out WITH a man, it’s like being pre-approved for a loan; you are desirable to the men who want someone who is less a risk of being just another crazy loser”
“That’s pathetic!”
“I don’t make the rules princess; I’m just here to explain them to you. It probably wouldn’t be necessary had you had better parenting, But that’s not entirely your fault.”
“Did you just insult her parents?” Abby asked, gleefully. I shushed her again and let the short silence hammer home the resounding wisdom.
“Wow, that explains quite a bit.” Vicki deflated.
“One more thing, if I may, ma’am.”
“He called you ma’am again! He never calls me ma’am, I guess I’m not old enough to be a ma’am yet.” Abby giddily interrupted.
Vicky pretended to ignore Abby:” What else?”
“If you remember or heed nothing else from this conversation, please promise me at least one thing.” Vicky’s eyes perked up, begging me to continue. “Never, ever, ever take relationship advice from a man, ever.”
“Especially a man like Dennis.” Abby added without permission, trying to be funny, but failing miserably.
“Hey that’s right, you’ve been married like seven times, what makes you an expert on any of this anyhow?”
“I’ve been here and there sunshine, and actually tried to improve my understanding of the wiles and ways of people rather than just flopping around in the same festering cesspool of ignorance year after year, relationship after pathetic relationship. I’d love to explain it all to you but I just don’t have the time right now, perhaps we can discuss it after hours someday.” I consoled, still desperately searching for an exit.
Abby jumped up. “Oh my god! I think he just asked you out on a date!”

This story is pretty much true, the actual dialog has been 'enhanced' for entertainment (my own) purposes. If any part of this tale seems upsetting, untrue, or insulting, please feel free to assume that is the part I made up. You'll probably be wrong, but I'm all about making people feel better. db

Where there is a goal, there is hope....

There was a time in my life when I was not at peace with the world. My marriage was not living up to expectations; my career path seemed to be a random meandering through meaningless and unfulfilling chores. I wondered, at the age of twenty eight, if the best parts of life were indeed already in my past.
Do you have those times when days blend in with each other and form a shapeless blob of existence? The very notion of getting up and getting ready for the new day is foggy, damp, dark, and dirge-like? You look in the mirror and try to recall what once was attractive about you, and realize that it is gone for good, and may as well have never been at all? Hope, faith and dreams are just a depressing waste of time and energy, easily quashed by a few sips of wine or beer?
I recall a former co-worker that came into work everyday, usually with candy or other snacks, smiling, “good morning” to all around the office, easy to laugh, and easy to joke. I could not figure it out. He had the same miserable, tedious job as me, made the same pay, and yet he found something in this existence, this dreary, swirling, endless pursuit of meaningless survival, that made him joyful, jocular and hopeful.
I asked others about this and was more than a little surprised with what I found out. His wife had been gravely ill and bedridden for several years, since the traffic accident that killed their two children. All their income and savings was exhausted paying medical bills and to settle the massive lawsuit, and this would continue for years to come. They lived in a twenty five year old mobile home in the middle of an impoverished area outside of town, riddled with meth labs and occasional gunplay. Already in their late 50’s it was unlikely that they would ever realize any semblance of the American dream. They did not even have a car, Roger walked or bicycled three miles to work each day. Yet, with all this adversity, with this heavy dark cloud of dismay and gloom, he seemed genuinely happy, blessed to have the few things he did have, and perhaps appreciated those things even more than those more fortunate then him.
This lay heavy in my heart. Here was a man with more woes than Job, and yet he remained joyful, hopeful. I looked at my petty little complaints and took stock. I didn’t have it so bad after all. I was younger, skilled in a couple of marketable trades, I could work on my marriage and maybe, tend to my life a bit better.
From seeing Roger’s unfailing joy, it occurred to me that indeed, problems and obstacles and tribulations will only beat you down if you allow them to. Your own happiness is entirely about what you yourself make it! I decided that I would get out of my depression and just stop being so miserable. I would fix those things that kept me down, and stop letting every little speed bump pile up into an enormous mountain. I could be happy, I WOULD be happy, I could improve my life!
Dear friends, I must tell you, it is not simple. Even after all these years, and many, many improvements in my life, I still have not been able to achieve Roger’s level of joy, peace and satisfaction. I have not let that become an obstacle though. I have a goal, one that I may never achieve, but I keep it as a single, full-focus goal. I take each trial as it’s own task, manage it and move on, I forgive the indiscretions of others and strive to let that forgiveness show.
No, I will never reach Roger’s level. You see there was something special about Roger that I cannot imagine for myself. After that car accident that killed his children and cost his wife’s health, He had one fourth of his brain removed. That he could function at all was the real miracle.
Perhaps those of us that are still intact can somehow find that same level of peace. There is always hope as long as we are open to the possibility of happiness. We need only ourselves to find and share our own joy.

Grab each day by the boots and shake it till all the hidden happiness falls out of the pockets!

I have never buried a body in the woods, I assure you, I have not.

Tuesday was typical. Work stuff was normal, the drive home uneventful. Angel was still in Wisconsin. There was a bit of stress relaying messages to her about the owner of one of the dogs we adopted out now having second thoughts… But other than that, the weather was nice and my biggest concern other than the dog owner in question was whether to have leftover spaghetti or a sandwich for supper.
I opted for the pasta and made a salad. After I finished and cleaned up the mess, I took Myster (Mystery, the pit bull) for his first evening walk. He only did half of his expected business, he’s a bit poop-shy. I made a mental note to myself to take him to one of his more favored spots on his second evening walk.
I sat back in my recliner, and flipped through the channels looking for something stupid to dull my brain. Myster laid down on the floor on my right expecting to have his head stroked. I called Angel and told her the latest on the dog owner, she said she’d take care of it.
Movement outside the sliding glass door caught our attention. Myster loves visitors but has trouble communicating that glee. It is usually misinterpreted by those that don’t know him. He growls, barks wildly and runs directly towards them, massive jaws wide open and thick muscles taut and active. To the unfortunate uninitiated this looks a lot like they are being attacked by a wild and angry Pit Bull.
I got up and thumped his ear, he retreated like the big baby he actually is. Outside the door was a very alarmed and wide eyed County Deputy. I slid open the door and stepped out, the deputy’s eyes never left the dog. “Does he attack?” the deputy asked… This presented a quandary for me. After all I did not know why the deputy was there, so I shrugged my shoulders and replied “He’s in training”. Leaving the deputy to conclude for himself what that actually meant.
“Do you own this property?” he asked. “Some of it, five acres.” I replied very quickly.
Our property used to be a part of a ninety four acre spread, mostly wooded, some of it could have been pasture at one time, though not very good pasture. Very hilly, wooded over, swampy in many spots. The owner of the ninety four acres inherited the acreage and the house and tried to sell it all. No one was willing to lay out the money to take it all, so he split the house and surrounding five acres and sold that, to us. The remaining eighty nine remains unoccupied and unused, the ‘Acreage For Sale’ sign is fading.
I explained this all and pointed to the orange sticks and paint marks that separate the properties. “Well sir I’m sorry to bother you, but we need to take a walk around the entire area” He paused, I let him continue. “We found some partial remains up by the road.”
I know, you’re thinking “So what? This sort of thing happens every day!” Well believe it or not, I can’t recall ever having had this come up before in my short and handsome life.
“We don’t know if the remains are human or not” (ughhh) “We’ve sent them to a lab but we won’t hear back for some time, and we’d like to look around if you don’t mind.” He said rather professionally.
“By all means!” I sounded too excited, I’m sure. Bailey and Blue were outside in the fenced back yard, barking wildly at the uniformed and armed intruders. “Do your dogs or other dogs run free?” he asked. I stared at him trying desperately to look as innocent as possible, which is very difficult for me especially when I am actually innocent. He continued:” It looks like the remains were dragged to the roadside out of the woods.” I sighed with relief, even though there was no reason to feel relieved about anything. “No, we keep them fenced in or on leashes, and they would let us know if there was another dog about, much like they are alerting now to your being in the yard. So no, I haven’t seen any strays.” He seemed to believe me, or he was very good at hiding suspicion. “My wife’s a dog trainer and is outside with the dogs a lot every day. “ I added for no apparent reason.
“Are any of your dogs trained to track cadavers?” He asked. It took me a moment since I don’t keep up with Angel’s complete curriculum. “No, but we have one, George, that went through a week of training with the DEA in Maryland a couple of years back I don’t think they covered cadavers though, drugs, mostly drugs and we certainly don’t have anything like that here of course, never did, never would, no drugs.” (Wow, I really over-answered that!)
“We lost our tracking dog.” He said flatly, once again not showing any suspicion at all. “Is your wife here?” he asked. “No, she’s been out of town for a few weeks. ” I answered sounding to myself exactly like a nervous confronted husband on ‘Law and Order’. “And that dog, George?” He quickly fired back. I stuttered a bit: “She took George (the only trained drug/cadaver tracking dog in the county apparently. How convenient, too convenient?) with her, to Wisconsin, quite a ways away. Her cell phone doesn’t work where she’s at most of the time.” Sweat was forming on my brow,
did he see it? Sheesh, there’s sweat on his brow as well, what does that mean? Oh yeah, it’s eighty degrees out with very high humidity, get a grip!“That’s too bad.” Was all he said. Man this guy is good! “Well, if you don’t mind, could I get your name?” He whipped out a cheap, generic pocket pad of paper and touched he tip of a golf pencil to his tongue. I answered, spelling it three times for him until I finally got it correct.
“Alright Dennis, we’ll just look around a bit, sorry to bother you with all this” he said, obviously baiting me for a sophisticated mind-game trap.
“Sure, no problem.” I retreated back into the safety of my home, called Myster over to my side and stood there at the door with my arms confidently folded. Myster leaned forward, bared his enormous teeth, growled and barked at the departing intruder. This is what he does when he wants someone to scratch his belly.

I sat down once again in my comfy recliner and explained to Adam what was going on. “Interesting” was his entire contribution to the conversation. In the telling, it occurred to me that when the deputy was asking about dogs running loose, that he was actually trying to figure out what dragged the remains out of the woods and up to the roadside. “I forgot to tell them about the coyotes!” I shrieked. (I didn’t actually shriek I just ran out of unique verbs to use instead of ‘said’) I put on some shoes and glided out the door. (sorry, I left my thesaurus open)
I crunched my way down to the bottom of the hill where I found not only the deputy from earlier, but two others as well. I joined up and explained that there had been a lot of coyote activity the past few weeks, and if anything was going to scavenge, shred and drag, it was probably them. They nodded and stroked their chins.
They were walking side by side about twenty feet apart. “Can we get to that lake from here?” the chubbier of the men asked. “Sure’ it’s right around this ravine.” I pointed. It occurred to me then that I knew the area better than they, and without asking decided to stay with them as they stumbled through the thick, tick laden saplings, oak leaves and brush. The ‘lake is what the neighbors call it. To me it looks like a large pond, no more than an acre in size.

As we trudged we chatted and one of the deputies asked me if I ever shot deer or anything else because they had found several animal bones and skulls. “No, I don’t hunt, and the neighbors told me when I first moved here that there was a deer with an orange collar that was kind of a free-roaming pet, and asked me to please not kill it. I assured them as well that I don’t hunt.”
“Yeah we heard about that deer, saw it a couple minutes ago.” Another one replied. “You heard about it?” I asked, wondering if this was some sort of larger local legend. “Well your neighbor that told you about it is our dispatcher, we’ve been talking to her on the radio.”
As if this whole affair had been scripted by Kafka himself, a surreal and dreamlike sensation came over me. The collared doe, which I had seen several times, but only from a distance, stepped out of the thicker woods at that very moment and walked directly up to us. She stayed along in line with us as we searched the ground for the remainder of the remains.
“How many teeth do people have?” One of the deputies asked me. “Thirty something isn’t it?” I replied. “Yeah I thought so, so you think this probably isn’t human then?” he asked, pointing to a spot in front of him. I looked at the bleached jawbone half buried in swampy muck and sized it up pretty quickly. “Well it’s a bit pointy, disproportionately so for a human, and if it is human we’re talking about a serious vegetarian.” They looked at me as if I were Noah explaining all the construction noise to his neighbors. “The teeth, no incisors, those are the teeth of a grass eater, not a carnivore. It’s probably deer.” It could have been a zebra or a kangaroo as well, but I was betting on logical probability, not possibility. “You know anatomy stuff?” One asked. “Only basic stuff, I did take a college course in anthropology twenty years ago and spent time on a dig site, so yeah we learned some basics” (Like the difference between deer skull and a human one)
“Wow, that’s handy” the largest one said.
It was getting dark, and we were a good half mile from the house. I suggested that we take an alternate route back to the house, a clear logging trail after a rather significant incline. The deer stopped following us at the bottom of the hill; I patted her neck and she quickly scampered away.
We reached the top, and I noticed that I was in the lead. Odd, three of Jefferson County’s finest were huffing and puffing, red faced and sweaty. To be fair, I was red faced and sweaty and breathing very hard myself, but I’ve been holed up in cubicles most of my adult life. I used to be forty-something, these guys were all in their twenties or early thirties, with jobs that require them to do much, much more than push a mouse around a spongy pad and tap it occasionally. They were huffing and puffing and asking for a break. I laughed, I finally knew I could out-run them if I needed to.
A cell phone rang, which surprised me since I can hardly snag a single bar out of the sky from my house. The small deputy answered and started laughing. “Yes we did find it!” (Had I missed something?) “I’ll send you a picture!” He started laughing and fiddling with the buttons on the phone. “It’s Nancy, wanted to know if we saw her deer.” They chuckled, I stood in awe, wondering exactly what cell service provider the county used. “Tell her that her deer is covered with ticks” I jealously told him.
We approached the house, and shook hands. “Well if we find out the remains are human, and from what you’ve told us, they probably aren’t, but if they are human we’ll be back to bug you for a while longer.”
I smiled and replied “Cool, I can make sandwiches.” They didn’t get the joke, but neither did I, for that matter.
It was getting late and time to cycle the dogs. Bailey was tired from barking at us the entire $%$$!! time we were in the woods, Blue was hungry, because Blue is always hungry, and Myster was anxious. Myster had stayed in the house the whole time, because he’s my dog and Angel’s not here, so I get to make the rules.
I cinched up his choke-chain and long lead and headed up the driveway for his late evening sabbatical. I recalled that I need to take him to his favorite spots. One of those is at the top of the driveway where I can conveniently step in it on trash day.
He did nothing. There was the sound of a car coming down the road and that is all he could think of. Myster tends to obsess over cars going by at night. By obsess, of course I mean ‘go berserk’. I pulled the slack out of the fifteen foot lead and prepared for the imminent fifty pound thrust of raw and singularly purposed muscle launching toward the road. He tensed, waiting, waiting. I dug in. The headlights soon broke the darkness, Myster didn’t flinch, he’s just a dog and hasn’t associated headlights with cars, just the noise. The headlights seemed bright, and high. Then it occurred to me that it was actually a car mounted spotlight, like those on the deputy's cruisers. “That makes perfect sense, they’re still looking around. Must be a slow crime day!” I told Myster, who wasn’t listening at all. The stocky black dog tightened up as the car drew nearer. I could feel his vibrating tension through the lead. Just as he was prepared to leap (and suddenly rediscover that he was on a leash) it turned all surreal again, suddenly and loudly. At the very point that Myster would normally lunge; just as the car, a mere twenty feet away became visible from his low vantage point, the Deputy, for reasons unknown activated his blue flashers and ridiculously loud siren and sped off.
Myster froze, absolutely froze, he didn’t leap, he didn’t blink, he didn’t breathe. It was as if he had been hit by cosmic, Old Testament lightening, completely frozen in place. The car was well gone when he finally moved. He sighed, turned around, squatted on his favorite spot and fully relaxed the required muscles. He’d been holding on to that for a while.