The Winemaker Finds a Ghost by Chuck Thurston

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Prologue

It is 1898. Joe Stanton’s Irish immigrant father, grimy and exhausted after a long day’s labor and beaten down under the weight of company store debt, has little hope to pass on to his youngest son. And yet there are the evening fiddle tunes, the dark Irish stories told around the small stove in the miner’s shanty and the wit that never buckles in the face of grinding poverty. Joe has some token schooling, but at 12, he takes his place alongside his father in the mines. He would seem to be yet another “strong back and weak mind” — slaving life away building the wealth of others. But he has a different plan. He does not want the new century to see him coughing up the black flecks that mark his father’s hacking spells.

At nineteen, Joe manages to exchange the coal company scrip from his last month’s work for American cash and heads south across the Piedmont to escape the meager prospects in the West Virginia coal fields. Surely he can put his strong back to work to support himself, and send some “real” money home to help his struggling family.

Granite is being quarried near the small North Carolina town of Mount Barclay. Barclay Mining is run by Millard Wheatley — the latest of several owners. None before him have been able to turn a profit, but, with Wheatley’s influence, a rail spur is being extended to the quarry proper which should finally make the enterprise profitable.

Wheatley is rich, arrogant — and unscrupulous. He controls what he doesn’t own outright in the little town — from cradle to grave. A general store with children’s shoes and candy barrels — and a funeral parlor — sit at opposite ends of Barclay’s single, dusty business district. In between, scattered offices house his land, real estate and lumber interests. The head of the last elk shot in the region is mounted prominently in his hardware store. This building is two stories with a full basement under it – one of the most impressive structures in the small town, and the headquarters of his Mountain Empire.

Wheatley’s quarry boss takes on Joe and is soon pleased with his strength and tireless labor — and his wit and humor. Joe is quick with a joke and a laugh and not given to the complaints and grumblings that mark most of the other laborers. Days spent in the free air of the open quarry are reason enough to lift Joe’s spirit, after the grimy pits of West Virginia. He describes his family’s misery and his gratitude toward his present circumstances to his Tarheel coworkers.

He is soon the most reliable “dynamiter” in the operation — analyzing the granite seams, drilling the holes, placing the charges and finally, lighting the fuses. All this done, he sprints to a safe spot for viewing, and watches with pride as the resultant blast frees exactly the portion of the granite wall he aimed for.

Wheatley doesn’t spend much time at the quarry, but hears enough about Joe to realize that the young Irishman could be useful to him. Young, naive and trusting, Joe is increasingly asked to run personal errands for Wheatley who teaches Joe some rudimentary money handling and soon has him clerking at his hardware store. He begins to mold him into a tool for a scheme that the great man is hatching.

Some of the tycoon’s dealings have caught up with him and he realizes that unless he turns a large profit on one of his enterprises soon, his entire house of cards is apt to tumble. He comes to the conclusion that the hardware store might be his salvation.

The store sits smack in the middle of Mount Barclay’s main thoroughfare, on the east side of the north-south running street. The bottom floor is filled with the paraphernalia of the day: nails, nuts, bolts, horse tack, plow points, metal cookware, axes, knives, shovels, picks, tubs, kegs, — and a thousand other items useful in a nineteenth century town. Wheatley’s hunting trophies occupy any wall space that doesn’t have a bridle or harness hanging on it. A pot-bellied stove sits in the middle surrounded by three or four cane-bottomed chairs. The second floor has a large meeting room and several smaller rooms of stored merchandise and files containing the store’s records. The stoned up cellar houses jugs of turpentine, kerosene and a few bottles of locally made spirits that Wheatley consults on occasion.

But it all has to go. Wheatley has insured the store and its contents to double its real value with the connivance of a bribed insurance auditor. He begins to set in motion a scheme to collect this windfall. The store must be destroyed, but it must be done in a way that throws no suspicion on him — and ideally – directs the blame toward someone else. He has no lack of enemies. He just needs a willing collaborator.

Wheatley cultivates Joe’s trust with patience and cunning. Joe thankfully accepts the credit that Wheatley extends to him. He can, after all, send more of his own cash back to his impoverished West Virginia family. He discovers – with Wheatley’s encouragement — the charms of the whisky collection in the cellar. Wheatley also feeds the gullible young man tales of greed, fraud, bribery and other malfeasances that Wheatley himself is exquisitely familiar with. Wheatley paints a picture of himself as a struggling businessman beset on all sides by others wanting to do him in. Joe remembers his own family’s servitude under unscrupulous mine owners, and he is inclined to believe his employer.

The tycoon concocts a tall tale. He gradually convinces the uneducated Joe that a rapacious insurance company has worked a devious scheme to seize most of his property. Joe is astounded, however, at Wheatley’s carefully described plan to burn down his own hardware store to forestall this takeover. As Wheatley hopes, Joe doesn’t fully comprehend the fallacy of this logic and is seduced into helping his boss carry out the plan.

On a cold, blustery October night in 1899, Wheatley provides Joe with the last of the details. The store ordinarily closes at 5 or 6 in the evening, when Joe locks up and leaves for his boarding-house supper and pint at the Quarry Tavern; Wheatley customarily holds court with a few of his cronies in his upstairs room. On this night, however, there will be a change in the routine.

Wheatley tells Joe that following lock-up, he is to stay behind and clean up the store. The crowded aisles and dusty merchandise have not seen the hand of broom or brush in some time and Joe will busy himself with these chores until he hears Wheatley and his shady crowd leave by the back exterior stairs. The early darkness of autumn will have fallen.

Joe will wait a bit until he is sure that Wheatley and the others have all left, then light a kerosene lantern and take it with him to the cellar. He will hang the lantern on one of the darkened cellar’s supporting posts. Wheatley tells him that he will see an empty whiskey barrel which Wheatley has filled with various combustibles — pitch pine knots, straw, some oily rags. Joe is to drop the lantern in the barrel, make sure that a nice blaze is started and then make his way up the short set of stairs to the cellar’s outside entrance – large swing-out doors opening to a side alley. Wheatley assures Joe that the fire will provide him plenty of light to exit by and that he need not panic. Wheatley will join him at the Quarry Tavern, buy his supper and treat him to a pint of his favorite. They will be dining and toasting long before the flames have raised an alarm in the small town.

Joe carries out the scheme. But Wheatley has added something else to this tub of destruction that he has not told Joe about. As Joe watches the flames catch and begin to devour the barrel’s contents, he hears another sound that chills him to the bone – the unmistakable hiss of a fuse! Wheatley has planted dynamite beneath the top layer of kindling!

Joe is paralyzed for a brief moment, then turns and runs headlong up the three steps and pushes up against the wide cellar doors. But Wheatley has taken no chances that his treachery will be uncovered. The doors have been barred from the outside. Joe realizes the fuses must be short. He backs away from the doors and rushes at them again, putting all of his weight and the strength borne of his terror against them. The old wood splinters and the doors bang open against their frames. He senses briefly the cold, fresh air — then he is enveloped in a light and roar and blown into the windy October night.

Kannapolis Local Authors Fair

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Dateline Kannapolis; April 25, 2015

2015 Local Author Fair Flyer

Heidi and I were there.  We spent a couple of hours schmoozing with readers and other authors.  We sold a few books.  I gathered a few more names for my monthly Writers’ Night Out meetings.   It was the first of what we hope will be an annual event.  Count us in!

Kannapolis Local Authors 2015

That’s Heidi middle, far left (with the red sweater) – talking with a visitor to our table.  I’m taking the picture.  Candie Leyvas and the many others in the Kannapolis Friends of the Library are to be complimented; Terry Prather and her staff at the Kannapolis Library were outstanding.

 

Senior Scribbles Bathroom Reader by Chuck Thurston

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Coming this fall!  Yet another book in the continuing series of Chuck Thurston’s Senior Scribbles — the Olde English Grave Robber introduces another collection of…well…stuff.

ssbr front coverCover by Curt Thurston who hasn’t yet indicated he’s tired of knocking the polish off his sophisticated day job to handle this  pro bono low rent work for his old man.  Good thing, too.

Bug Out by Chuck Thurston

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stink bug army

Someday, someone is going to discover that stinkbugs are an enormously valuable insect. Some scientist will extract an incredibly potent serum that extends life for 15 or 20 years, and cures acne and toenail fungus in the process. I don’t care. They are still on my extermination hit list and I don’t miss an opportunity to kill one.

Most bugs do not ordinarily bother me. They go their way and I go mine. If occasionally our paths cross, I brush them off and continue on. I admit there are a few varieties I wouldn’t miss. In a perfect world, fire ants and yellow jackets would fight each other to the death. If there could be a triple annihilation, wood ticks could be thrown into the mix. All those bugs are all aggressive, biting, stinging critters and would seem to welcome a chance to have at others. Stinkbugs don’t seem to be the type that would mix it up in such a battle royal. They lay around, mostly inert, and very often a close inspection is required to determine whether or not they are alive, so I rule out interspecies bug battles as a strategy for getting rid of them.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I discovered a few stinkbugs in our cabin sunroom. We made discreet inquiries to see if other friends and acquaintances had experienced this problem. It was enormously gratifying to find this pestilence was common in the best of homes. We could hold our heads high when discussing eradication tips and tricks with others.

We made our plans. After one stay at the cabin, I set off one of those fogging bug bombs in the sunroom. We were gone for a couple of weeks. When we returned, my wife opened the sunroom door and showed me the results. The floor was literally – I shudder to tell this – carpeted with dead stinkbugs. This ran counter to all my expectations. Tell me, if you were in a closed space and some noxious chemical was suddenly released, wouldn’t you make every attempt to get out? Why hang around?

We were stuck with a 2-hour cleanup detail, but finally got them all cleaned out. Every now and then a lone survivor would wobble feebly among the carcasses of his dead brethren, but there was no escape from our purge. When it was done, neither of us had much appetite for supper.

I decided to celebrate at the scene of our victory. I closed the sunroom up and lit a big, black, Diesel Maduro cigar. We hadn’t had an evening meal, but I had some Guinness in the refrigerator. The great bread chef, Peter Reinhart, once called stout “liquid bread.” I had a couple of loaves worth.

dead stink bug

Opening Night by Chuck Thurston

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A couple of years ago I wrote a 10-minute play accepted for staging by the Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord, NC. I had written barrels of technical stuff and reams of newspaper columns and stories, but had never done a play. I was nervous as a cat in a kennel as I looked over the program on opening night, with descriptions of the seven plays selected. I noted that the woman who would be doing one of my roles was also in the opening play that night and I was anxious to see what she was like.

Well now. Amy Hope Laughter jumped all over the character in that play. She was vivacious, energetic, improvisational (a key prop was missing) – and with a deft comedic touch. I turned to my wife and said, “Heidi, I think I have hit the jackpot!”

And I had. She nailed my role – actually gave me insights into the character that hadn’t occurred to me. After all of the performances, I waited backstage (feeling rather like a “stage door Johnny”) until she appeared – beautiful, gracious, accommodating.

Why in the world hadn’t I thought of flowers?

Amy Laughter at OCT

My Phony Valentine by Chuck Thurston

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As a kid, I heard this story many times. My dad had a married nephew, my cousin – who was the son of an older sister, and much older than I (I won’t name names here). I remember him as a lanky, happy-go-lucky sort with a wide smile that often seemed a bit goofy to me. He didn’t take all those romantic occasions very seriously. One Valentine’s Day, he got an old dried up horse biscuit from the pasture, wrapped it up, and gave it to his wife. Later on that day, she ground part of it up and put it in his coffee.

valentine's coffee
The point was made, life went on and their marriage remained solid.

I told my wife this story, and she said, “My family never did things like that! If they got mad at each other, they just didn’t speak for years!”

I replied, “That’s a shame…they could have cleared up misunderstandings real quick if only they’d had easy access to horse biscuits!”
horse bisquits