Category Archives: Original Stories

Decameron 2020: Something Old

Something Old
by Nancy Bach

Kenelmcombe, Gloustershire, 21 December, 1869

 “Esme, stop squirming like a toddler, else I shall very likely stick you with a pin.”

This is a picture of a cat lying in the sun. He has nothing to do with the story. I just wanted to share because cats rule the internet.

Cooper, Lady Esmeralda Huddlestone’s once-upon-a-time nanny, then governess, and soon-to-be housekeeper, settled the Honiton lace wedding veil on her seventeen-year-old charge’s head. If Cooper had been human, instead of an automaton, Cooper reckoned her hands would be shaking.  They had been through so much to get to this day, one with real hope for the future. So, it wasn’t only Esme that had a case of the nerves today.

“I’m sorry, Cooper. I just….”  The young girl who had been in Cooper’s care almost continuously since she was an infant looked up at Cooper’s reflection in the dressing table mirror. Her eyes were wide, her face unusually pale, and Cooper could see tears sparkling on her dark lashes. “What if… what if Uncle Neville shows up?”

“Hush, now.  You know perfectly well that odious man is in Kenya. Didn’t he send a telegram to that pederast Everett Holmes, just day before yesterday?” Cooper fastened the veil onto Esme’s head with a wreath of Hellebores and viburnum, the best the garden at Harrogate Hall could offer in the middle of December. “He can’t possibly have travelled from Nairobi all the way to Gloucestershire in two days’ time.”

Esme didn’t appear soothed. “What if it was a trick? What if Uncle Neville knows we’re intercepting his telegrams? What if someone saw the wedding banns, and told him what you and Egg cooked up to save me?”

Cooper placed her hands firmly on Esme’s thin shoulders, the sensors in her copper alloy digits providing the feedback for her to calculate the right amount of pressure. “I daresay, I wouldn’t put it past him. But no. He doesn’t know. Professor Burroughs has every newsie and telegram boy in Highgate in his pocket. There is not a chance that a message could have gotten through.” From her artificial lips to God’s ear. Cooper’s features softened into a smile as she gazed at her young charge in the mirror. A smile only made possible by flexene, a patented alchemical substance that covered her copper alloy frame, created by the clever man who designed and built her, the great inventor Professor Hieronymous Burroughs. “Now look at you. Aren’t you just the picture of a lovely bride?”

Esme brushed at her tears. “But Everett’s still in England. What if Everett–”

Cooper used her stern nanny tone. “Enough of that, Esmeralda. If either your uncle or the horrid beast he tried to force you to marry show up at the church, I swear upon your mother’s grave that I will do whatever is necessary to forbid them ingress. Neither of those men will ever lay a finger on you again.”

Esme smiled, a little. “You would, wouldn’t you? Attack them, I mean.”

“Indeed I would. Professor Burroughs has recently modified my protocols to include a number of defensive and offensive maneuvers.”

Now Esme laughed. “Cooper, I adore you. You must teach me.”

There. Crisis averted. As if in response, Cooper felt a sort of loosening in her joints and cams. Had the Professor programmed that reaction the last time he tinkered with her circuits?  She didn’t remember experiencing that particular sensation before.  She made a mental note to ask him about it after the wedding.

With a small shake of her head that sent the curly tendrils of her ginger wig jiggling, she gestured at the mirror. “Now put a little rouge on those cheeks. You want to look your best for Lord Harrogate, don’t you?”

Esme’s smile faltered. “I do.  Of course, I do.”

Cooper waited for the inevitable ‘but’.

“Does Egg know, Cooper? About what Everett did to me?” Her voice caught. “The liberties he took when he would make me go riding with him?” She turned away. “I knew it was wrong, even though he told me it wasn’t, but I couldn’t stop him and now my life is ruined and–”

Cooper knelt, turned Esme to face her. “Hush now. Egg knows enough. I had to tell him some of it so that he understood the urgency of stealing you away. And you are not ruined.” Had she just told a lie? No, just an interpretation of the truth. Chadwick did not care that the girl had been compromised. It was what made this plan to have him marry her so perfect. He was the quintessential absent-minded scholar and didn’t care a fig about social proprieties. Oh, if only Esme’s Uncle Neville had not sent Cooper away, she would have stopped the perfidy before it started–with one of her knitting needles if it came to it. “Listen to me.  The important thing is that he’ll take good care of you and he’ll see to it that you regain control of your inheritance from your father. I’ve known Chadwick Eggerton longer than you’ve been alive. I was his…” She paused, considering how much of the truth she could tell. Oddly, there were no restrictions in her programming about this.  Odder still was that she had never before noticed. She finally decided on an innocuous term. “I was his housekeeper for many years before Professor Burroughs sent me to look after your mother while she and your father were in India. He is an honorable and gentle man.”

“Housekeeper? Really?” Esme raised her eyebrows, then frowned and scrunched her forehead. “I suppose as my husband, Egg will want to… um… you know…with me.” She gazed earnestly into Cooper’s green eyes. “Won’t that… I mean, I guess I’m afraid that…”

There came an odd whirring of gears in Cooper’s chest and she felt…she had no word for what she felt. Discomfort? Disquiet? Damn that crazy engineer, what had he done to her? “That’s really for the two of you to work out, but to make this marriage unassailable by your uncle, it should be consummated.”

Esme’s lip began to quiver, and Cooper stood briskly, despite her bushings being a little tight after her recent overhaul. She understood the child’s fears regarding the prospect of marital relations, all too understandable after Esme’s recent experiences with the heinous creature she had been betrothed to, but Cooper’s protocols told her it was important to help Esme focus on the future. “He’s been your teacher and mentor since you were twelve, child. You know he would never hurt you. Now come.” She took Esme’s hands and pulled the young bride to her feet. “Oh, but you are a vision, aren’t you? Your mother would be so proud.”

Esme looked at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that, admiring the dress with its yards and yards of damask and lace. It was simpler in style than was the fashion, and the bustle was perhaps not as large as was currently in vogue, but it had been Esme’s mother Essylt’s dress.  ]Though Cooper had had to take it in a bit, as Essylt had been a taller, more robust woman, Esme could not have looked more stunning if the dress had been custom made for her.

“It is a lovely dress, Cooper. You are a miracle worker!”  She embraced Cooper, careful not to catch the lace on any of Cooper’s fittings. “Thank you!”

Hoping she had set Esme’s nerves to right, Cooper beamed at her charge. “Now you know the saying. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. You’ve got something borrowed, that’s the dress. Your veil is something new. You’ve–”

“I’ve got Egg.” She giggled, some of her plucky spirit returning. “He’s got to be my something old.”

Cooper gave Esme a stern look, although a glitch in her programming wouldn’t let her features hold the expression.“Child, you will be the death of me. Your something old is Lord Harrogate’s grandmother’s parure.” She gestured at the sapphire and diamond necklace, earrings and bracelet that sparkled against the ivory damask and lace of Esme’s gown.

“I suppose.” She gave Cooper a wink. “Maybe I should pocket them, change into my new visiting dress, and you and I can abscond to Spain. We could live quite comfortably for decades on the money this jewelry would fetch us.”

Cooper stiffened her posture. “I am going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” She gave Esme her most severe look. Her programming allowed, even encouraged, a certain hardness–one needed to be strict with children. Recently, however, accessing those protocols had become difficult, and her tone came out less gruff than desired. Reaching into the pocket of her uniform’s black skirt, she pulled out a lovely blue silk and lace handkerchief with Esme’s new monogram embroidered into the corner.  “Now, here. I’ve made this for you. You can tuck it up into your sleeve, and it will be your something blue.”

Tears welled in Esme’s eyes again. She took the handkerchief with trembling fingers. “Oh, Cooper…”

“Esmeralda Elizabeth Penbre Huddlestone! Stop that sniveling immediately.”

Esme sucked in a shuddering breath. “Sorry. You’re right. I need to pull myself together. How much time have we?”

Cooper glanced at the clock. “Twenty minutes. We need to get you downstairs and ready for the carriage.” She drew the girl forward, unaccountably unable to stop herself from chattering. “The Professor wanted to replace the real horses with those clockwork monstrosities of his, but you just know they’d break down on the way to the church and you’d be late.” As much as Cooper adored her creator, it was well-known, though seldom discussed, that the majority of his inventions had flaws.

She hustled her charge out of the large, sunny bedroom and down the wide staircase into the front hall, carrying Esme’s train. “Now then, you wait here with Gregory. Don’t move or you’ll muss your dress. Mr. Livingston will see to it Chad–Lord Harrogate uses the back stairs. He mustn’t see you before you arrive at the church. Speaking of his Lordship, I must run up to see Himself. He’s requested my urgent assistance with something.”

Esme clutched at her arm. “Wait! Cooper, you can’t leave me now!”

Cooper patted Esme’s hand then gently removed it, her servos reacting sluggishly as though some part of her regretted the action. Which was stuff and nonsense. She had no programming for regret.  Putting her hands on her hips, she raised her chin and looked down at her charge. “Your mother was a Baroness, your father an Earl. You are a Lady, Esmeralda. Behave like one.”

Esme frowned, clearly not happy, but at least she didn’t burst into tears again. Cooper found her own facial features softening. Rearranging the folds of Esme’s veil, she leaned close and whispered, “You’ll be fine, love.”

Esme swallowed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her own chin. “I will, won’t I?”

Cooper nodded and stepped back, prouder than she ought to be. The gears in her chest that produced the artificial heartbeat that had soothed Esme as an infant whirred and clicked in an unfamiliar rhythm. Proud? She knew the word, but could automatons feel pride? Satisfaction perhaps, at knowing she had done an excellent job rearing her charge. But pride? And what was that strange sensation in her chest, as though something was seizing up inside? Was there a malfunction there? So many glitches today. What had Professor Burroughs done to her when he tinkered with her the other day? She really needed to speak with him, when the opportunity presented itself.

Her gears once again ticking normally, Cooper turned and hurried up the stairs. She wasn’t sure what Chadwick wanted from her that his gentleman’s gentleman Livingston couldn’t do just as well, but he’d requested she attend him, and so she would. If for no other reason than to make sure he got to the church on time.

 ***

Livingston opened the door to Chadwick Eggerton’s private chambers and gave Cooper a harried look. “He refuses to put on his suit until he speaks with you.” The tall, lean figure stepped aside and gestured her in to the heavily paneled room. The drapes were drawn against the chill weather and Cooper crossed to the two windows on the far side of the mahogany four poster bed and flung open the curtains. “Chadwick Nigel Eggerton, you are not a mushroom. Let in some daylight.”

Eggerton sat on the upholstered bench at the end of his bed in nothing but his good silk drawers, an undervest, and stockings, all held together by suspenders and garters.

Livingston gestured again. “You see?”

Cooper let out a sigh. Her eyes had not been designed to roll in their sockets, but there were times when she wished she could mimic the action used so often by her young charge. “I will deal with him, thank you, Mr. Livingston.”

With a frustrated harumph, Livingston let himself out and latched the door behind him. Cooper then turned to Eggerton.

“What are you waiting for? You’ll be late! Chadwick, you mustn’t be late to your own wedding. It’s simply not done. Not even for you.”

He gazed at her forlornly. “I am not so sure this plan of yours is the right thing.” He reached out his hands and she took them, as she had been programmed to do, and he pulled her down onto the bench beside him. “Ruby, darling.” He used the pet name he’d given her, when she’d first been sent to him. “What will I do with a wife young enough to be my granddaughter? You and I, we’ve been,” he paused, and Cooper could see him struggle to find a word that had the proper propriety. “We’ve been together, in a, er, conjugal way for so many years, and there are expectations for a gentleman on his wedding night. He brushed a tendril of hair from her cheek. “She’s not…”

Cooper was surprised. Shocked. She had to short-circuit this argument. “She’s not what? Pure enough? We’ve discussed this–”

“No!  No, that’s not what I meant at all!”  He looked away but kept her hands in his. “No, Ruby. It’s just, she’s not you.” He clutched at her hands, and she was both comforted by the feel of his touch against her sensors and disturbed by the desperateness displayed in the way he held on. “Having … marital congress … with Esme,” he appealed to her with sincere blue eyes, “feels like I’m being unfaithful to you.”

Her circuits stalled for a brief second and she could not think. That had never happened to her before. The lapse was only momentary, and when she recovered, she knew what she had to do, to say. “First, you must not call me Ruby. Not any longer. It was a sweet name you gave me, but with Esme to become your wife, I cannot be your Ruby any longer.”

Eggerton looked down at his feet. “That is the problem. You’ve always been my Ruby and now …”

Cooper felt that odd whirring in her chest and a strange constricted feeling in all of her parts, as though the oil in her tubing was viscous and sludgy. “Now it will be different.” She gave his hands a light squeeze, careful not to press too hard and aggravate his rheumatism. “You must go through with it, Chaddy. We have had our time together. Now it’s Esme’s turn. She’s been through so much for all she is so young. Please. Be the one to give her the chance to find happiness.”

Eggerton frowned. “How can a bright young thing like that be happy with an old curmudgeon like me?”

Cooper shook her head. “It’s a place to start. A safe place for her to find her wings.”

“And when she wants to fly away?”

“Then we let her.”

He thought for a moment then gazed at Cooper with twinkling blue eyes. “You are as brilliant as you are beautiful, Ruby.”

“Cooper. Cooper to you now. And you must be Lord Harrogate to me.”  She leaned her head on his shoulder. When had his thin frame become so stooped? “At least for the next little while.”

He slipped an arm around her and they sat for a minute or two, quietly enjoying each other’s company. Finally, she pulled away and stood. “Now you must get dressed. I will not allow you to be late. Livingston would never let me forget it. You know how things are below stairs.”

Eggerton chuckled. “I thought the two of you had come to an accord.” He stood and began putting on his boiled shirt, followed by his trousers.

“It is a tenuous truce predicated on my performing my housekeeping duties to his nearly impossibly high expectations.” She handed him articles of clothing, watched him struggle the same way she’d watched Esme struggle with her first pinafore as a child, fighting back the urge to help. “I’ll fetch him now, and he can do what he does best. I never could manage a bow tie.”

“Of course you can. You can manage anything you want, Ruby Cooper.”

He smiled and suddenly her artificial heartbeat sped up, and her oil sounded as though it were rushing through her tubes like a river. What was going on? It wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It was just odd. She was reminded suddenly of a penny dreadful she’d caught Esme reading, and the heroine in it, who when confronted with the wicked smile of the handsome and dashing hero, had heard her blood pounding in her ears.

That was ridiculous. She really should have a conversation with Professor Burroughs. She must find time for that. She must. And yet….

There came a pounding on the door, and Cooper spun, gears whirring in her chest cavity.

“Egg! Egg, man, are you decent?”

Cooper expelled a gust of air, her hand pressed to her madly ticking heart.  Professor Burroughs.  She’d recognize that bellow anywhere. She flung the door open before he dented the heavy wood.  “Professor, please. A bit of decorum.”

Hieronymous Burroughs, Inventor to the Queen, and one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, bustled into the room and swept Cooper up in a bear hug. “My dear Cooper! You look stunning as always. Haven’t aged a day!” He chortled at his own joke, the same joke he’d been using for years.

“Professor, you saw me just last night after supper.”

He released her. “Remind me to adjust your humor settings, Cooper.”

Cooper shook her head. “I’ll make a note of it, sir.”

Burroughs swung around to face his friend. “What are you doing, old boy?  ou’re only half dressed!”  Then he cast a sly look at Cooper. “One last hour of passion, is it?”

Cooper stiffened. “It most certainly is not!”

“Now, now, don’t get your knickers in a twist, Cooper. It’s what I built you for, after all.”

Eggerton interrupted. “Originally perhaps, Hy, but she’s proven herself to be supremely adaptable to nearly anything. She is your most brilliant creation.”

Burroughs, nattily dressed in a morning coat, with his wreath of fluffy white hair and his well-trimmed beard, beamed at Cooper like a smartly turned-out Father Christmas. “Well. If I do say so myself.  Ahem.” He turned again to Eggerton. “Shouldn’t we be on our way to the church? I mean,” he pulled out his pocket watch, “It’s almost nine o’clock.”

Cooper inched her way to the door. “I’ll go and fetch Livingston. And remember, Professor, you gentlemen must take the back stairs. No one can see the bride before the wedding.”

“Yes, yes, Livingston will keep us on the straight and narrow.” Professor Burroughs chortled.  “Because no one is as straight and narrow as he is! Haha!”

Cooper quickly escaped and found Livingston waiting in the hall. “He needs your assistance now, Mr. Livingston.”

“Indeed.” He moved to the open door then paused and faced Cooper. “This…” He swept a hand around. “You have done a most excellent job arranging all of this, Cooper. I commend you.”

Cooper stood silent for a moment, thunderstruck. “I… Thank you, Mr. Livingston.”

He nodded at her curtly then brushed past her into his master’s room. She heard him sigh heavily as he snatched the bow tie from Burrough’s hands.

Knowing both Chadwick and the professor were in capable hands, Cooper hurried off. She needed to see to her own brief toilette before making sure Esme got into her carriage without any further damage to her dress than she had undoubtedly already caused.

 ***

The service took place in the little village church, a place of stone and ancient beams and well-worn wooden pews, tastefully decorated with winter flowers and greenery. Attendance had been kept to a minimum, despite the fact that the whole of the village had wanted to come. They adored Chadwick and the men would be downing pints of ale that night at the pub, in Chadwick’s and Esme’s honor. The bill for the impromptu fete would be footed by Chaddy himself, although the happy couple would not be in attendance. Chadwick knew which side his bread was buttered was on.

The bride and groom, the professor, Cooper and the household staff were present, along with the Reverend Wyeth, his wife and his eldest daughter, but that was all. The fewer people, Cooper had decided, then the less chance of anyone making an objection. She knew that despite having reassured Esme that there was no way her uncle could have found out about the wedding and do anything to stop it, his learning about their plan wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

The vows were spoken, and Chadwick slipped the ring that had been his mother’s on Esme’s slim finger. Cooper bit her lip as she saw Esme’s hand shake. Then at last, the vicar, who was a school mate of Chadwick’s and had been in the village since Cooper had first come to Kenelmcombe, pronounced the couple man and wife. Cooper felt her whole structure sag, as though her batteries had run down. Next to her, the professor grabbed her arm.

“All right there, Cooper?” Burroughs peered at her curiously, his pink cherub’s mouth curled up in an odd smile.

She gripped the pew in front of her until the weakness passed. “Yes. Thank you, Professor, I’m fine.”

But she wasn’t. As she watched Esme and Chadwick sign the parish register, and the other household staff gather round the bride and groom, Cooper knew something wasn’t right. She considered the many glitches she’d felt during the morning – and come to think of it all of the previous day – and knew that something was happening to her. If she had to put a name to it, she’d say she was ‘feeling’ things. Emotions. But that was impossible. She was an automaton, and her programming did not allow for emotions.

And yet as she watched Professor Burroughs pump Chadwick’s hand in congratulations then kiss Esme on the cheek, her heart stuttered in its beating and she felt a surge of energy in her circuits that caused a hundred different memories of her and Chadwick over the last thirty years to flood her awareness. They had been together, then apart when she went to do for Esme’s mother, then together again when Esme’s uncle had sent her away. Yet despite all of that they had always still been what they were to each other. Now… now things would never be the same between them. And that knowledge made her heart seize and her cams feel loose and the gears in her chest feel tight.

It was sadness. Or what she presumed sadness felt like.

And that was so very wrong.

It was her turn to greet the newly wedded couple. She pushed aside the wrongness and hugged Esme tight. “Such a beautiful bride. Your mother would be so happy for you.”

Esme had tears in her eyes, but tears of joy now, not of fear or shame or hopelessness. “Thank you, Cooper. You’ve given me back my life.”

Cooper smiled down at her charge. “It was my pleasure, my Lady.”

Esme batted her shoulder.  “Oh, stop that.  None of that ‘my Lady’ folderol.”  She stood on her tiptoes and whispered in Cooper’s ear.  “And you don’t have to call Egg Lord Harrogate, either.  He’ll always be your Chaddy, even if he’s legally my husband.”

Cooper gasped.  “What…”

Esme slipped her arm through her husband’s and pulled him into the conversation. “Cooper, I’ve known you all my life, and I am neither stupid nor unobservant. Do you think I don’t know about the two of you? I think you’re adorable together. So don’t let this marriage interfere with what you have.”

“I…we…” Cooper was aware her mouth was gaping open. She felt as though her circuits had shorted.

Chadwick too could do little more than stare open-mouthed.

“Oh, Cooper, you silly git.” Esme kissed her on the cheek. “I love you madly, you know. Now pull yourself together and help me with my train. Livingston will be livid if we don’t get back to the house in time for our wedding luncheon.”

That was certainly true enough. Already Cooper could feel the valet’s eagle eyes on her, as though he could push her to move faster simply by staring. She scooped up Esme’s train, arranging it over her charge’s arm, then followed the couple down the aisle of the modest stone church and out the doors, where the rest of the household waited to throw rice at the happy couple. The intense constriction of the gears in her chest eased and her joints felt fluid again.

As the two entered the waiting carriage, together now, as man and wife, Cooper could hear Chadwick chattering to his bride about their honeymoon trip.  “Now, I have arranged for us to start our Grand Tour in Copenhagen.  You’ll absolutely adore the National Museum of Denmark.  It’s run by my old friend Jens and has one of the finest collections of iron age artifacts in the world, outside of the British Museum.  We can test your ability to date iron age pot shards with more than the few samples I have available.”

Cooper smiled indulgently.  Chadwick was in teacher mode again, and Esme was nodding like a good student.  They might be husband and wife but had quickly slipped back into the roles most comfortable to them.

Chadwick continued as Cooper tucked Esme’s train into the carriage and closed the door. The girl had the audacity to wink at Cooper before returning her attention to her husband, who remained blithely unaware. “At some point, perhaps after Austria and Greece, we’ll go to Cairo, where I’ll introduce you to Mssr. Mariette. I know we’re not supposed to be friends with the French, but really, the work he’s been doing in Abydos is remarkable.”

He was still lecturing as the carriage trundled off down the lane.

Cooper turned to go but found Professor Burroughs at her elbow. He was regarding her curiously again, his head slightly canted to one side. “Are you sure you’re feeling quite well, Cooper?”

She paused for just a fraction of a second. She knew that if she told him of her glitches, of the experiences that she was likening to emotions, he could fix her. It was what he was best at – making sure she ran according to her protocols.

She glanced at the carriage, receding into the distance, thinking of the days of hope and happiness that stretched before her, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I feel quite well, Professor, thank you for your concern.”

“Cooper!” Livingston rescued her from any additional queries. “Quickly now! Lunch isn’t going to serve itself.”

She dipped her head at the professor then hurried after Livingston and the cart that would take the household staff back to the Hall. She was aware, for the briefest of instants, that Burroughs was smiling and nodding to himself.

Then protocol kicked in and she focused on the tasks at hand. Always best to look to the future, her programming said, which today, thankfully, looked bright indeed.

Decameron 2020: Queeg the Insidious

Queeg the Insidious
by Art Cerf

This is a pretty yellow flower I shot on the forest floor of Rib Mountain in Wisconsin. It has nothing to do with the story. I just thought it was pretty and eye-catching.

Far beyond our view in a space ship cloaked by Neptune, an alien race looked down upon earth. Its atmosphere was perfect, its temperatures were moderate and it seemed to have abundant water…ideal for colonizing.

Of course, there was the problem with the humans, billions in number.  It would cost the aliens oceans of green blood and who knows how many slotniks to fund an invasion.

And so the generals argued back and forth on the best approach. Finally, a lowly aide said there could be one way to conquer earth without the cost of a single slotnik. He spoke out of turn but the generals decided to hear him out.

He said, “Send one of our most toxic viruses to earth and target just one individual in some crowded city. Let him wander through town for days before he gets sick. In that time, he will have infected many others.  By the time local officials notice this, they’ll be busy denying there’s a problem and will try to cover it up.  But finally, the government will step in but also tell the world that it’s nothing too serious.”

“And the plague will spread around the world, poor countries rich countries…even the richest. And the leader of that country will downplay it and delay, allowing the virus to spread. Finally, a quarantine will be put in place but after weeks or months, people will demand to be released and the virus will spread anew.”

“By that time, the world will be so weary and weakened that conquest will be easy.”

The generals looked at each other before one finally spoke out.

“You should have been a philosopher, Queeq. You certainly aren’t a soldier. You may leave the room.”

Then the generals, again, took up plans for their attack.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you for this awesome story. It was my ultimate favorite of your submissions. For those of you following this blog, this will likely be the last Decameron 2020 post for about a month. I will be back with more come mid- to late July. Hopefully, we can talk my mom into some stories for the summer. She, too, is a professional writer with more magazine credits than I can count.

Decameron 2020: Gladys & Cora

Gladys & Cora
By Art Cerf

Just a great spring photo to share. It has nothing to do with the story, it is just. an evil ploy to attract your attention.

Gladys and Cora were best friends. Note the emphasis on were.

They grew up together, trading dolls, clothing and their deepest secrets.

And as they became adults, they both fell in love with Charlie. He chose Gladys and soon they were engaged. Cora swallowed her sorrow and tried very hard to be happy for her friend.

Then, just days before the wedding, Gladys on a whim or perhaps after a minor tiff with Charlie, called the whole thing off.

A year passed and Charlie called up Cora one day and asked her out to a movie. Things progressed and soon, Charlie and Cora were engaged and Gladys was enraged.

“How could you,” Gladys screamed. “You know I still love him.”

“But you dropped him, remember? Over a year ago.”

“Well, I was just waiting for him to call me back and he would have if you hadn’t stabbed me in the back!”

Gladys turned and said she never wanted to see Cora again. And then she went on Facebook and called her ex-friend all kinds of nasty names. Cora knew she should just let it pass…but she couldn’t and replied in kind.

Charlie said he was sick of it. And then he was sick of something else…a high fever, a barking, dry cough and trouble breathing.

Within a week, he passed away.

Cora was there for a graveyard service. With social distancing, so was Gladys. When everyone else had left, only Cora and Gladys remained. And social distancing be damned, hugged each other.

Decameron 2020: Pestilence

Pestilence
by Art Cerf

If statuary can wear a mask, so can you. This pandemic is still in its early stages, folks.

Hello. Let me introduce myself. I’m Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death, of course, is our leader. War is a bit of a blowhard but is always busy. Both Famine and I are background players but believe me, we do more than you can imagine.

I go back thousands of years. I like to say I put the Hit on the Hittites. Through the years I come and go. Back in the 14th Century was one of my triumphs…the Black Plague. I won a Golden Tombstone for that one (sort of like your Oscars). Got another for the great flu of 1918-19.

Through the centuries, I spread cholera, smallpox, typhus and so many more. I’m particularly proud of AIDS. But now, I’ve come up with Covid-19. I hate the name…it should be something catchier like the Black Death or The Spanish Influenza. Oh well, it’s an international triumph.

I want to give thanks to the Chinese communist government for covering up the disease long enough for it to spread…and even disciplining the doctor who tried to point it out. Also kudos to the American President who denied at least two months of warnings and then dismissed it as nothing to worry about because we had it well in hand.

People keep asking when will we get back to normal.  My friends, this IS the new normal.

Decameron 2020: Leo Ledbetter

Leo Ledbetter
by Art Cerf

This is a chipmunk, not a squirrel, but it is still cute.

Leo Ledbetter started his day like any other since his wife, Miriam’s, passing last summer. He’d shower, have a little breakfast and then dress in his suit and tie. From there, he’d take a train and then two buses to get to the cemetery where his beloved was buried…and hour and a half trip.

He’d spend an hour or more seated on a bench beside her grave, talking and recalling their golden memories. Over time, he noticed a little squirrel hanging around the area. So the next day, he brought some peanuts to feed the squirrel.

This went on for months, rain or shine, blistering heat or icy winter days. It got so the squirrel would eat right out of his hand.

Then came the pandemic. Leo paid it no attention. He figured if he died, he’d die…and maybe then be reunited with Miriam.

And as expected, he caught the virus and he died.

The little squirrel missed his visits until one day another squirrel appeared in the cemetery and from the first moment, they got on terrifically and stay together for the rest of their days.

Decameron 2020: Elementary Human Nature

Nope, again this has nothing to do with the story, but it is a beautiful swampy nature preserve in Wisconsin.

Mrs. Peebles loved her first-grade class. Each of her 20 students was a clever little sponge soaking in knowledge, exploring and learning in their own ways. High-energy and mostly adorable, she wished she could protect each one from all of the dangers in the world.

To help keep them safe, near the end of the school year, she’d have a special class to warn them about the dangers lurking within their own homes. She explained how bleach and ammonia could be wonderful cleaners for their homes, but they could also be deadly poisons if drunk. Just getting the chemicals on their skin could hurt them, if they didn’t wash them off quickly. She let the kids come up and give a quick little sniff of each chemical to make sure they knew what they smelled like and should avoid.

Next she warned them of other dangers, such as hot stoves and space heaters.

She would wrap up the discussion with a dire warning never to stick anything other than an electric plug into a light socket. Electricity was vital to powering their lights, TV and computers, but it also was deadly when touched directly. She explained how a shock could stop their hearts or burn them.

After answering the children’s questions and reassuring them that all of these dangerous things could be very safe if only used properly, she began to put away her sample chemicals in a locking cabinet behind her desk.

At the very second she knelt down, there was a loud pop in the classroom and the lights flickered.

She stood up and screamed when she saw little Johnny Whozit lying unconscious next to an electric outlet on the other side of the room, a small pair of scissors clenched in his hand.

***

Dear Friends,

It is easy for us, as adults, to see that Johnny had a severe lapse in judgement when he was just told that the very thing he was about to do could kill him. The vast majority of us don’t need to stick things in an outlet to know it is an insanely terrible idea. The overwhelming majority of us have never stuck anything other than proper plugs in an outlet.

While quarantine totally blows goats, for the life of me I cannot understand why grown adults think it is suddenly a good idea to drink bleach, break quarantine and stop wearing masks in public, in close proximity to other people.

With increasing repetition, I’m hearing all manner of virus conspiracy theories, as if Covid-19 has ideological intentions.

It doesn’t. The virus isn’t liberal, conservative or even political. It is a mindless microscopic thing that isn’t even a complete single-cell structure that scientists define as only being on the “edge of life.” It isn’t living in the traditional sense that we understand living to be…but it isn’t quite not-alive, either. No wonder it is difficult to treat. It only has two goals: quasi-live & replicate. It sickens and kills everybody equally, regardless of politics, race, religion or wealth.

I am blessed to count many EMTs, nurses, doctors and police officers among my friends and customers. Many of them have told me how insanely contagious this disease is. Most of them have seen people die of the disease…many people, in some cases.

Many of the best scientific minds in the country are working on cures and vaccines to save the rest of us from this plague. At the moment, we have no known, proven cure. We’re mostly keeping our fingers crossed that it doesn’t kill us. True, for as many people who get it, only a small percentage of them die. Who wants to take that risk when a cure or vaccine might be just around the corner?

Yes, the economy is in rough shape. Absolutely, people need money to continue on. All of us would love to gather with friends and family once again. We all want life to return to normal as soon as possible…and I hope with as little suffering and death as possible. OMG! Warm weather and a beautiful springtime make it even harder to stay indoors. I get it.

But these are extraordinary times, and they call for extreme measures to protect our family, friends and neighbors as much as humanly possible.

One of the most dangerous parts about Covid-19 is that you can get it and never know it. You can also get it and spread it for up to 14 days before coming down with symptoms. Why put yourself at risk? Why put your family and friends at risk? Why pass it on to some friendly elderly person you accidentally bump into at the grocery store? Who knows how many people someone you might infect can then turn around and infect?

Until we have a cure or vaccine, the only thing we can do for ourselves and everyone else is stay home…and wear a mask if you have to go out for supplies. It totally sucks, but it is the only way to stay safe…minimize the spread of the disease…and buy the many doctors and scientists working around the clock to find a better way to kill, cure and prevent this disease a little more time.

Regardless of politics, for the health and lives of our families and friends, we need to unite as a nation and a planet. At no other time in human history has it been easier to be a hero that helps save humanity. All you have to do is continue to shelter in place.

With great love, health and respect,
Nathaniel

Decameron 2020: The Story of Job—Part 2

The Story of Job: Part 2
by Art Cerf

Here’s a photo of a birch tree that is quite lovely and has nothing to do with this story. I just felt like sharing.

God and Satan were having their weekly meeting and would banter about who was the best dresser, who had the best haircut and the like.

Satan suggested a contest on who was more popular. God agreed but then asked who would be a fair judge. Satan thought for a moment and then said, “Why not Job? Remember he stuck with you when you killed off his family and covered him with boils. He might still be loyal…or he might be rather pissed.”

God thought it over and agreed to resurrect Job…without the boils…and would send an arch angel with him just to help him adjust to the 21st century but in no way tip the scales.

So Job arrived in America, and he could hardly believe his eyes. Planes overhead…rolling carts in the streets…towering buildings. He loved the fact the clothing was more comfortable and you could have more than just one set. And he loved that almost everyone lived inside…and could turn up the heat or cool the air. And food? It was everywhere.

But on the other hand, the air always smelled. The angel told him that was car exhaust and air pollution from factories, whatever they were. They went to the beach where the shore was littered with all sorts of refuse.

And when he was shown television, he couldn’t believe how immodest women were and how violent the men were. And then there was this orange man on the box every afternoon, telling everyone how the pandemic was under control and what a good job he was doing when Job knew that was bullshit.  He saw the death figures rising every day…he saw people afraid to leave their homes…and he even saw ambulances carry two bodies away from the building where he was staying.

He asked the angel if the orange man was king. The angel said, “No, he was elected.”

Job asked, “By whom? Religious leaders and town mayors?”

The angel said, “No, in America, everyone can vote and pick their leader.”

Job said, “And the people voted to pick him?”

“Not exactly,” said the angel. “The other candidate got three-million more votes but through a technicality called the Electoral College, the orange man won.”

“And will he be the leader until he dies?”

“No,” said the angel. “There will be a new election in November.”

Job said, “And everyone can vote?”

The angel said, “Well, in theory, but the party supporting the orange man is trying hard to keep those who don’t like him from voting.”

Job said, “I’ve seen enough.” And in a whisk, he was back before God and Satan.

“Well,” they said, “Who did the better job?”

Job looked at both of them and said, “Satan, you placed the plague upon the earth which was a really shitty thing to do. And you, God, allowed all those people to suffer. Shame on you.”

God and the devil looked at each other, nodded, and in a wink, Job exploded into a billion pieces.

God turned to Satan and said, “So who do you see in next year’s World Series?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for this most dad-liest of stories.

Decameron 2020: Caleb Connor

Caleb Connor
by Art Cerf

Just another bird photo that has nothing to do with the story. Looks nice but is meaningless, just to catch the eye. Nah-nah.

Caleb Connor had the visage of a young man. But he was there when the pyramids were built.

He marched with Roman legions and sailed with Vikings. He survived the Black Death in the 14th century and was good friends with Henry VIII…his daughter, not so much.

He stood with the rebels on Bunker Hill and played cards with Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

He watched Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg and he rode with the 7th Cavalry to the Little Big Horn.

36 years later, he was on the maiden voyage of Titanic and a few years after that, watched his friends die from the Spanish influenza.

He watched Babe Ruth in the ’20’s and lived through the Great Depression.

He watched Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor and fought at Iwo Jima.

Connor traveled in JFK’s motorcade in Dallas and watched Nixon’s operatives arrested at the Watergate.

He was in New York for 9/11 and still there in 2020 when the Corona virus struck.

He tried to follow self quarantine measures but the boredom got to him so he roamed New York’s hospitals at night. He could actually see the virus…little red dots wafting through the air. And he could see death on the faces of patients, nurses and doctors…an almost invisible circle on their foreheads.

He walked into the men’s room, wondering when will all this pain and suffering end? He splashed some cold water on his face and looked up into the mirror and had his answer.

Decameron 2020: Exponential Splat

Exponential Splat
By Bill Meelayter

This is just a pretty photo to catch your eye. It has nothing to do with the story. Sorry.

Splat! The broom-flattened moth dropped to the kitchen floor as a brown-gray powdered clump the size of a nickel, leaving a dark stain on the ceiling. That’s weird, I got one yesterday too. I guess two got in. I hope there aren’t more. Probably not, I worry about worst-case scenarios so quickly. What if there’s a pregnant one or a female and a male?

The next day: shit, there’s a problem! Got three today, but a fourth one fluttered from my pounce and hid.

The next day: about the same as yesterday. I think it’s three or four more kills and one miss today. Great batting average, but sports statistics are linear, population growth is exponential.

Our kitchen is an unsettling topography of clutter, dilapidation and mess – consistent with the decor of our centuried, little wood-frame house with the L tracks running through and above the uneven, weedy patch of backyard. I examine all five rooms upstairs and the entire basement. The only moths I’ve seen are in the kitchen, usually on the ceiling or high on a wall, sometimes lower.

Days later: killed several more every day. My wife, Honey, also got two or three. This is clearly getting worse. Peak prevalence occurs usually about an hour after sundown. Moth hunting has joined our list of quotidian tasks, but whack-a- mole (aka, splat-a-moth) strategy is not enough.

If hard to reach, I splat them with a broom. I can reach others by standing on the counter or a ladder and use a trap-and- crush technique with a paper towel. This helps prevent splat stains, of which there are already many. Our two cats are astonished to see such a large primate up so high. The more careful method carries the risk of escape, so the broom remains in the arsenal. I clean the surface after each splat, but it’s not enough. Parts of the ceiling and walls evolve into a deranged Jackson Pollock hellscape.

Honey agrees to throw out some extraneous miscellaneous and also help clean. I ask her if I can throw out this cardboard box full of stuff sitting on top of the fridge. “No, I want to keep that!” but she lets me move it to the storage room downstairs below the kitchen.

We’ve been through worse struggles against indoor pests. This is nowhere near the horror of the rat invasion of 2002, or even the short-lived, but extremely disturbing 1997 horsefly swarm. But this is pretty bad and is now a more difficult protracted campaign than most.

Thanks to the internet, I’ve identified the problem as “pantry moth infestation”. I read more of the entomology. I’ve also removed some weird worm things, which are caterpillars, and also silky stuff of residual cocoons. Sometimes, in one swoop I kill two mating. We vaguely count daily numbers: I killed 12 moths, 3 caterpillars, Honey got 4 moths.

Finally, I find a box of cereal with moths feasting inside. I throw it into the garbage bin outside, below the L tracks. At last, some optimism that I’ve attacked a root cause. But next day: a few more moths. Maybe this is just a lag, stragglers at the tail end that can be defeated one-by-one.

Days later: We’re hunting many per day, every day and night. One night I killed over twenty. My demanding job leaves little free time, anyway. As days turn to weeks, much of my time is spent on this stupid, disgusting quagmire. I repeatedly search the house for population spread. Honey and I scour kitchen surfaces and search for answers in cabinets, boxes and bags, occasionally triggering an avalanche of clutter.

I am depressed to think this is our new normal. Money is tight, and even on principle, I don’t want to hire an exterminator to solve something we should be able to fix ourselves. I imagine myself as a horrible monster from the moth community’s perspective, with the imitation Pollock as Exhibit A in my moth court trial. I’m certainly committing sin according to some religions. Tolerating the infestation is a greater evil in my judgement. Of course, I’m a sinner even without my recent actions of moth murder.

We can solve this, we just need to locate moth central. I look in the basement storage room again. I flash a light through the oblong, jagged hole in the ceiling for the pipes that lead up to the kitchen sink. I still don’t see any moths. I step back. Clutter can overwhelm, obscure the obvious. On top of two boxes, on top of two crates, is a box. It’s the box I put here weeks ago, and inside of it, I notice silky evidence, and inside a bag, inside the box, is an incubator mother lode. Honey grants me permission to throw it all away, laughing at the absurdity of my sarcastic question.

I was overly optimistic before, but this looks promising. Time will tell. After a few consecutive moth-free days, it looks like the nightmare is over. A week later I declare “mission accomplished” as new problems accumulate: our friend Aaron is in the hospital, our car has an oil leak, Honey’s computer crashed, a cat is puking. Will we ever transmogrify our kitchen? Improve our squalid lifestyle? Learn anything? Well-intentioned hopes flutter away and hide as the phone calls me back to work, deadlines to meet, worried about Aaron.

Editor’s Note: Bill is another close friend of the website, and this is his first appearance on our Drippy Musings. Welcome to the storied fun, Bill, and thank you for your submission.

Decameron 2020: Saturday Matinee

Well, my friends, we’re two months into quarantine/lock down/self-isolation…whatever you want to call it. By now, you’ve caught up on all of your TV shows. You’ve binged watched your favorite movies. You’ve read that book that’s been collecting dust for a few years that you’ve been meaning to read. Household projects are getting completed.

What do we do now? We have to stay strong. Whether we like it or not, this virus isn’t going away soon, and the quarantine must continue not just for our own health and safety, but for the health of our friends, neighbors and families.

Soooo, I propose a trip into classic Tinsel Town. Among my many passions in life are old movies. I spent 10 years writing about classic cinema for a catalog company, while I was building ThePenMarket.com. It surprises me how forgotten old Hollywood is, and it amazes me how good the entertainment remains, even in the 21st century.

Today, instead of a story, I want to recommend 5 great films to watch, that you might not have seen before, but that might just blow your mind and at least help you forget your worries for 90 minutes. Most of these films are easily accessed on various movie services that you can get with your smart TVs. If worst comes to worst, you can “rent” them from Amazon Prime. It will be worth every penny.

No, I won’t lob softballs at you like “Casablanca,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind” or “Some Like It Hot.” Even people who’ve never seen any other black-and-white or Technicolor films have seen those. Nope. I want to get into the not-obscure, but certainly not on the tips of most people’s tongues these days films.

HORSE FEATHERS: The Marx Brothers made the first screwball talking picture (“talkie”) in 1929 with the madcap “The Cocoanuts.” It was deliriously funny in the year it came out, but it doesn’t hold up half as well as 1932’s “Horse Feathers.” Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo are called upon to save a university from ruination…while seducing the “college widow.” How do you save any college? You give it the best football team money can buy. My, how so little has changed. After a slow opening scene, the movie moves at a manic pace with a non-stop stream of witty one liners and slapstick comedy. The film is a riot, and you’ll instantly be tempted to change the password on your computer by the end of the film. If only Harpo’s pantomimes were emojis.

THE BIG SLEEP: Long before the world obsessed about the romance between Brad and Angelina, a real romance electrified the silver screen. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had dynamite chemistry on and off the set. Meeting on the set of “To Have and Have Not” (1944), Bacall was only 19 and Bogie was married and 45. Their sizzling screen romance boiled over into his divorce and their marriage. What makes Bacall stand out so much for me is not only her beauty, but she is tough as nails and cool as a cucumber. While I actually like “To Have and Have Not” a little better than “The Big Sleep” (1946), it is easy for some folks to think it is a little too derivative of “Casablanca,” just set in the Caribbean. “The Big Sleep” is hard-boiled film noir at its edge-of-your-seat suspenseful best. Bogie is a private eye hired to keep a grifter from ripping off a wealthy family whose youngest daughter is a dope-fiend wild child. Her older sister is played by Bacall, she and Bogie spark, but she’s hiding a much more sinister skeleton in her closet. When Bogie goes to uncover it, it might just cost him his life. The banter between Bogie and Bacall is as sharp as the crack of a .38 in the night.

TOP HAT: Even if you don’t like musicals, it is nearly impossible not to love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing their way from London to the most beautifully stylized Venice in 1935’s “Top Hat.” Often thought of as their best picture, the film’s formula has gelled perfectly. Irving Berlin wrote the songs, while Astaire choreographed some of the most dazzling tap dance routines caught on film. Astaire plays a tap-dancing playboy who is trying to help his buddy, the hilariously bumbling character actor Edward Everett Horton, smooth things over with Horton’s wife, played by Helen Broderick. Broderick is close friends with Rogers. Astaire is smitten with Rogers, but she thinks he’s her best friend’s husband, whom she has never previously met. Things get out of hand, but hilarity and great dancing ensues. For fans of “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball makes her film debut as a platinum blonde shop girl in a flower shop. She probably only has one line, so you have to watch closely.

SUNSET BLVD: Most of you are likely familiar with the catch phrase, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” but have you actually seen the psychological thriller “Sunset Blvd” from 1950? A struggling young Hollywood writer stumbles into the home of fictional silent film star Norma Desmond (played by real silent film star Gloria Swanson) in contemporary 1950 Hollywood. In a short while, she hires him to help orchestrate her return to modern stardom, and he is happy to take her money and lustful desires. But things quickly turn ugly when things inside the bubble-life she’s created for herself get out of hand and he falls for his best friend’s fiancé. Legendary film director and writer Billy Wilder hit a home run with one of the few older films to truly capture psychopathy and other mental health issues. I saw this film for the first time when I was 12, I looked at my mom wide-eyed at the end and said something to the effect of “Oh my God, they get it.” She knew then that I’d never be a normal kid. Keep an eye open throughout the movie as dozens of real silent film stars populate the background as extras.

CITY LIGHTS: Charlie Chaplin brilliantly understood one thing: His character “The Tramp” was dead as soon as he talked. Chaplin was at his wittiest when he didn’t open his mouth and let his actions speak for him. When “City Lights” came out in 1931, people thought he was insane to be the only holdout for silent movies. Yet, the genius here is that it isn’t silent. He recorded the film with all of the music and sound effects needed to keep the story flowing. Yet, he didn’t give the actors any lines. He continued to use title cards when words were needed. Sadly, most of the music of the silent movies has been lost because the sheet music was never stored with the film canisters. With “City Lights” the movie comes with its original soundtrack, so you can hear it the way it was intended. Oh, yeah. The plot. Chaplin is in love with a blind girl, who doesn’t know he’s a homeless tramp. He learns an operation can save her vision, so he sets out on a madcap course to get her the needed money. As she thinks he’s rich, will she still love him when her vision is returned and she finds out who he really is? If you aren’t used to silent movies, sometimes you just have to get your head in the right place for them, but when you are in the zone, these movies are as powerful and hilarious as any made today. “City Lights” is a great place to start, although Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is also a great entry, also with a recorded soundtrack and effects. (Did you know the famous song “Smile” was written by Chaplin for “Modern Times.” He was an amazingly good composer, although he rarely gets much credit for it.)