no one can know


Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty

Avery pulled Ruth’s van into Cooper’s gas station. Kori sat in the passenger seat; Gil and Max were in the back reading comic books. Kori slunk down in her seat, pulled her hat low over her brow and bit her nails.

“You guys wait here, okay?” Avery said.

“All right, already. Just hurry up,” Kori snipped.

Avery blew out of the car as if he’d been sand-blasted, rolling down to the pavement and out of sight before Kori had a chance to change her mind. Max’s ears pricked up, but Gil made no move to indicate he was even listening.


Avery crossed the parking lot as if he owned the place, a walk he’d been practicing for weeks in anticipation of this meeting. He could see Mr. Cooper’s bald head through the window, bent in concentration over a stack of papers. When he got to the door, though, Avery wavered, and rather than boldly stepping into his future, he knocked lightly, the little bell over the door tinkling as he entered. Mr. Cooper didn’t look up, but continued reviewing the stack of papers before him, initialing them one at a time as he placed them into the “completed” pile.

“Lazy bastards,” Mr. Cooper said, not quite under his breath.

“Excuse me,” Avery said, half-turning to leave. Not the welcome he expected.

Mr. Cooper’s head, gleaming like a cue ball in the florescent light, popped up to greet him. “Oh for Chrissakes. Avery Tirabi. I thought you were one of my employees in here for another cup of coffee.” He stood and offered his hand, recently washed, but still bearing the grimy remnants of what looked to be a mid-morning oil change. Avery gave him a firm shake and Mr. Cooper’s round belly, stretched over the limit’s of his size forty-two pants, jiggled in greeting.

“Sit down. Have a cup of coffee.” Mr. Cooper motioned toward the “Mr. Coffee,” formerly white plastic, now oil-stained from years of dirty, grease-stained hands. A few stacks of Styrofoam cups and a shaker of sugar sat next to the pot. Avery looked at the whole ensemble and grimaced.

“Oh, no thanks, Mr. Cooper. Don’t drink the stuff,” he lied. When he did drink coffee, Avery needed tons of sugar and milk, the latter of which was no where in sight. Instead there was a liquid plastic known as “non-dairy creamer”on the table. Avery never understand the American penchant for creating fake substitutes when the real thing was so readily available.

“So what’s up? Did you come to sell me some more of that lovely gas and oil?”

Avery brightened. Mr. Cooper was interested before he’d even opened his mouth. “Actually, I did. I’ve got a few fifty-five gallon drums outside.”

Mr. Cooper raised an eyebrow. “How’d you get them in the car? They’re monsters.”

Avery shrugged his shoulders. “I rigged a ramp.” Avery waved a hand in dismissal as if the feat were no big deal. “Car was dragging a bit on the way over though. Hell on the suspension.” Avery felt like an adult, using the word “hell” without coming off like someone who regularly used vulgarity. Mr. Cooper tried to suppress a smile, but Avery caught it. Right where I want him . “So, Mr. Cooper, you said before you’d take all the gas and oil I could deliver. Are you still thinking that way?”

“Absolutely. Finest product I’ve come across in all my thirty years of running a service station. Your father made a fine product.” A shadow crept across Mr. Cooper’s face. “Tragedy,” he said, shaking his head. “Terrible tragedy.”

Mr. Cooper shot Avery a half-smile, half-grimace, walked over and clapped him on the back. “What are we waiting for, my boy. Let’s go unload. Same price as before, I presume?”

“Actually, Mr. Cooper, I need to raise the price about 10%,” Avery said. “Overhead.”

Mr. Cooper assessed Avery for a few moments. “Anything I can do to help old Marty. Cold as he may be personally, his legacy lives on.” He squeezed Avery’s shoulder. “Your father’d be proud of you boy. Well. Why am I saying, boy? You’re not a boy. You’re a man. And a heck of a fine one, too, I might add.” Mr. Cooper opened the door and held it for Avery who was still seated.

“Mr. Cooper. There’s one more thing.”

Mr. Cooper closed the door and stood, hand on the doorknob.

“No one can know where you got this stuff.”

Mr. Cooper raised himself to his full height of five feet, nine inches and sidled up close to Avery, whispering. “What’s happened? Something else?”

Avery shook his head. “No. It’s just my sister’s still freaked out about the porch. She thinks it’s all tied together. So if anybody comes around….”

“I’ll just tell them that I’ve started buying from a competitor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

“You think that’ll do it?”

Mr. Cooper rubbed the stubble of his unshaven face, deep in thought. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle them. Haven’t been in business for thirty years without some savvy of my own, eh?”

“Thanks, Mr. Cooper.” Avery stood and they shook hands.

“Okay, let’s walk. We’ll talk turkey on the way.”

Avery stepped into the garage, abuzz with the whir of motors and power tools, and thought of Robbie’s penchant for mechanics. He should be home running a place like this. Maybe if I sold enough oil….

They walked out into the parking lot where the noise level dropped substantially. Mr. Cooper’s step was quick and light for a man with so much girth, and Avery had to walk fast to keep up with him.

“So how much more of this you got, and more importantly, can you make some more?” Avery was about to answer, but Mr. Cooper continued. “Frankly, I’d be happy to tell all these oil guys to go to hell. They’ve been gouging me for years. Government’s no help. Let’s ‘em get away with murdering, thieving and stealing from the American public. They say they’re a unified front to help with the foreign competition, but I call it price-fixing.” He poked Avery in the ribs. “You know what I predict? I predict it’ll come back to bite ‘em in the ass someday. I just hope I’m around to see it.” He chuckled, then laughed full out, exposing a mouthful of metal. Now standing at the back of Ruth’s minivan, Mr. Cooper lifted the hatch without waiting for a signal from Avery.

Mad Max greeted him exactly like Cerberus would have had someone tried to breach the gates of hell, green eyes ablaze and barking for all he was worth. His singular head moved so fast that he very well could have had three. Mr. Cooper jumped back a quarter mile.

“Gil! Get him under control!” Avery shouted.

Gil’s eyes peered out, an iridescent green gleaming between the barrels. He grabbed Max by the collar and pulled him down to the sit. “It’s okay, boy,” he said sweetly, rubbing Max’s ears. Max settled his head onto Gil’s lap, calmer, but still growling. The sound rolled around in his massive jowls before ricocheting off the front seat and out to Mr. Cooper who stood immobile and at a safe distance away.

“It’s all right. Gil’s got him.”

“I hate dogs,” Mr. Cooper said. “Scared to death of ‘em.”

Max barked once as if to say you should be , but Gil tugged at his collar and he relaxed again.

Mr. Cooper signaled for one of his employees to bring the hand cart. Gil gave Max an ear rub so thorough that he could do little more than roll over when Mr. Cooper’s guys unloaded the van.

 to be continued. . .

jump here to read what came before. . .

copyright 2012

letting go at last


Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Kori rummaged through her purse, searching for spare change. Frustrated, she dumped the contents onto the bed. She picked two crumpled dollar bills and a few coins from the debris, turned to her night stand drawer and found four more coins inside.

She ran down to the basement and threw open the swinging doors to the little room where the washer and dryer sat. Perched above the machinery were two rows of six-foot long shelves which, in another incarnation, served as bleacher seats for the local high school football stadium. Marty had rescued them from the trash heap when the township had built a bigger stadium, whitewashed them and bolted them to the wall. Instead of pubescent derrieres, they now housed laundry detergents, dryer sheets and stain removing products, used sparingly since Ruth’s death.

Stepping over the mound of dirty clothes, Kori pulled a small box from the shelf, about the size of two decks of cards, and rifled through its contents. Three dozen coins, several buttons, a Sharpie magic marker, and a single ear plug – Kori had tossed the mate, mangled and melted beyond recognition — had survived the dryer, hapless travelers in an unplanned foray through the cotton cycle. She dumped the contents of the box into her hand and weeded out everything but the coins. She counted the money: $5.76. That plus the money she got from ravaging the rest of the house and she had about $13. Enough to buy a gallon of milk, some bread, peanut butter and jelly for Gil, a pack of hot dogs and buns, a head of lettuce, a few other miscellaneous items.

But what about tomorrow? They were out of fresh fruits and vegetables, the only thing left was canned goods: tuna, beans, corn and the like. She could live on the cans for a couple days, maybe even three or four, but after awhile the pallor of her skin indicated her body’s disapproval. She clenched her teeth and threw the money to the floor, scattering change to the four directions. Filled with regret, she slumped down after it, falling in a dejected heap on the floor. She sobbed for several minutes, the crescendo a high-pitched wail, and then, silence. She rolled over and lay on the floor, her breathing shallow, her eyes dazed and unseeing.

After several minutes she walked to her work area, flipped on the computer. Beyond the screen, the French doors of the walkout basement beckoned her eyes to the east, that place of peace and spiritual renewal, of new beginnings. Kori breathed in the pastoral setting, allowing the spiritual rejuvenation it afforded to settle in her bones. She took a deep breath and pulled up some client billing information.

The bill was sent two days ago. Her hand hovered above the keyboard a moment and then she began. She added a few hours to the labor, a few dollars to supplies, tweaking it here and there, enough to increase it by almost $200. Then she composed a letter of explanation.

Dear Sir or Madame,

It has come to our attention that the bill you received on 11/14 was in error. Enclosed please find a more accurate accounting of work performed on your behalf. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Also, the billing cycle has been shortened. Please remit payment to the undersigned within the twenty (20) days of the date of this letter. Please be advised that failure to pay in a timely fashion will result in incurring late charges which will begin to accrue immediately at the close of the grace period. Prompt payment is therefore, requested.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,

“Whatcha’ doing?”

Kori jumped so high she banged her thighs on the bottom of the computer table and sent the mouse flying. She turned to glare at the interloper.

“Geez, Gil. Don’t sneak up on a person like that.”

“I didn’t sneak. I walked right down the stairs. It’s not my fault if you didn’t hear me.” Gil peered over Kori’s shoulder to read what was on the computer screen. Embarrassed, Kori closed the screen before Gil had the chance to figure out what she was up to. In an attempt to change the subject, Kori focused on Gil’s attire: pants that were two inches up from the ground and shirt sleeves that didn’t come anywhere near his wrists.

“Gil, what the heck are you wearing?”


“Very funny. I meant, why are you wearing clothes that are too small for you?”

“Because I can’t find anything else.” Kori glanced over toward the alcove that housed the washer and dryer. Even from here she could see several mounds of clothes behind the swinging doors threatening to overtake the little room. Kori sighed.

“You mean you only have a week’s worth of clothes?”

“Of clothes that fit.” Gil looked out the window transfixed.

“Kori. If you keep working on the computer, can we buy that farm?” Gil asked, looking out at the broad expanse of now slumbering fields.

“The farm?” Kori shook her head and laughed. “Well, if you want to buy the farm I suggest you get busy and invent something big because that farm’s gonna cost a lot more than I’ve got in the bank.

“I’m hungry,” Gil said. “And there’s no bread. Also almost no peanut butter.”

“All right,” she said, shutting the computer. “Help me pick up the money that’s all over the floor. Then we’ll go to the grocery store.”


Kori stood at the kitchen table unpacking the groceries: white bread, generic peanut butter and laundry detergent and a three-pack of soap, a gallon of milk. Avery walked in the door, bundled against the wind, backpack flung over his shoulder. He dropped his pack on the table, shed his hat and coat and flopped down in a chair. His cheeks looked red and chapped.

“How was school?” Kori asked.

“Fine.” He sighed without looking and absent-mindedly poked at the loaf of bread. “I need $75 to go on the field trip to D.C. To the Holocaust Museum.” Kori removed the bread from his grasp before he did further damage. “If I don’t go, I’ll have to spend the day hanging out with the kids in detention. Not that I’d be in detention, per se. It’s just that there wouldn’t be any other place to put me.” He did look at her now and Kori saw him so close to tears that her own heart threatened an emphatic split in two.


“Okay, what?”

She sat down beside Avery and took a deep breath. “Go ahead and sell it.”

Avery’s eyes grew wide.

“I can’t stand this hand-to-mouth living anymore. And I can’t for the life of me figure out what else to do.”

Avery smiled, and Kori noted his eyes had taken on a translucent quality facilitated, she figured, by the wateriness in her own.

“It’ll be okay, Kori,” Avery said. “I promise.”

 to be continued. . .

to read what came before leap here

copyright 2012

bon mots and sparkling prose

Journal THAT

a guide to writing

Cynthia Gregory

 Dialogue is some of the most difficult stuff to write. Well, difficult if you want to do it really well and for it to sound both natural and powerful. It may seem like a paradox, but when dialogue sounds natural, it’s usually anything but. Good dialogue is a mix of craft, study, and a whole lot of understanding that some of the most important stuff is what you leave out. In other words, the back story; but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Have you ever walked away from an argument then hours later came up with the perfect rejoinder? Good dialogue is like that. Good dialogue contains all the spiffy, swift, snarky words you’d say the first time around if you had the chance to work it all out first. Good luck with that.

Developing a skill for dialogue is something that requires patience. . .and practice. How do you practice? Listen. Read. Write. Ernest Hemingway wrote some of the best dialogue in the history of the planet. His characters spoke with grit, pathos, and with bone crunching honesty, and yours should, too. Read his stories and novels with an eye toward dialogue and see what you find.

Papa was also brilliant at character, plot, and conflict. For the purposes of this conversation, I urge you to carefully study how his characters speak to one another. My particular favorite Hemingway story is “Hills Like White Elephants” which as a piece consists almost entirely of dialogue so brilliant I want to cry when I read it. The other wonderful story by E. Hemingway is “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Ee-yikes, that man could write dialogue.

Part of his strength in dialogue comes from the fact that he didn’t feel the need to connect every dot in the storyline; he assumed that the reader was reasonably intelligent, and could piece it together.

You don’t need to worry about connecting everything. Your amazingly powerful subconscious does it for you. To test the theory for yourself, rent a movie like Sliding Doors or The Golden Compass and watch it. If you’ve never see these movies before, enjoy the story the first time through, let it wash over you as pure entertainment. Then, watch them a second time, listening for dialogue. Notice how the characters speak the way real people do, but better. On the third time through, you should know the story well enough by now to take a step back, and look at how the scenes are woven together.  Perhaps you notice that your own brain provided some of the connective tissue between scenes,  that significant pieces of information were not actually there, that your own subconscious provided those bridges between scene, dialogue, and plot. It’s interesting how the brain works to make sense of what it sees and hears, providing those little leaps of logic between one frame and the next.

You can do this as a writer, too. Begin to notice how people speak to one another. Very often, they do not follow threads of conversation in a smooth and linear way. One person speaks, and maybe the other listens, maybe they just say what’s on their mind, like the following example:

Devon walked into the clubhouse and gravitated toward Elise. “How are you,” he asked. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Elise swept a fringe of bangs  from her eyes.  “It’s so hot today.”

“Did you see the Connollys won the golf tournaments? Figures.”

“I’d give anything for a lemonade.”

This may sound like an ersatz example, but I challenge you to prove me wrong. This will involve eavesdropping, so prepare to have some fun. Now, the first thing you do is take your journal down to the local café, burger joint, or java hut. Find yourself a table, place an order, then open your journal.  Try to be subtle about it so your neighbors don’t realize you’re recording their conversation, but you’re going to do just that. Write down what they say. You don’t have to be looking at them, in fact it’s probably better if you don’t. Listen to the way they speak. Listen to the cadence, the word choices, idioms, the patterns of speech.

At the risk of sounding like a linguistics geek (yeah, yeah, whatev), I adore the way regional and cultural influences affect the way we speak to one another. When you realize  that only 10 percent of our total communication is the words we use, and then you look at how the words we use influence meaning and nuance, you can see how important dialogue is.  Forget about trying to write accents, that’s just annoying. But focus on the types of words that are used.

Words are worlds. Anyone with a teenager knows what it is to learn a new language, weekly, just to communicate with the people with whom you share groceries and a living space. Talk to anyone older than sixty, and you’ll be introduced to wonderful idioms that you may never have heard before. My personal favorite from a recent conversation is, “he couldn’t tell his butt from a hot rock.” I still chuckle when I think of that one.

Word choices contain emotional and cultural weight. Think about it. When you use the word “grenade” do you think, ‘oh, good’? Probably not. But if you use the word ‘bride’ it probably generates feelings of love and romance.  Words carry weight.

Some idioms reflect a time in history, such as “Give me a ring.” This used to mean “Give me a call,” but since telephones now come equipped with ring tones and all kinds of sound effects, the term “ring” is just a piece of jewelry.

As a word geek, I am constantly amazed when nouns are used as verbs, as in “Jeff texted me last night We’re breaking up.” Once, ‘text’ was a noun meaning a compilation of words.  Now, ‘to text’ means to send a clever message via any number of electronic devices.  Our language is a living organism, changing all the time, as evidenced by how we speak to one another.

The best dialogue has the primary purpose of moving the plot or story, forward. Period. It isn’t used to describe what someone is wearing, it isn’t to provide a blow-by-blow description of last night’s fight. It’s a way to show your reader where they’re going next, but in, you know, shorthand.

So, pay attention. Listen. Eavesdrop. Hey – it’s for the sake of your journal! All I ask is that you be discrete.

mind the child


Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Kori sat at the kitchen table going over accounts receivable for the umpteenth time. She wrote numbers on a yellow legal pad, arrayed neatly in columns, punched them into a calculator and wrote them down below previous groups of numbers; the paper was covered with at least a dozen such reckonings, all with lines through them. Upon transferring the final tally, she scribbled over the column and dropped her head to the table.

“Aaaaaaah!” She banged her head on the table several times.

Avery walked in, took one look at Kori and walked out. A couple minutes later he peered around the corner. Kori’s head was still on the table, but she’d stopped banging it.

“Just shoot me now,” she said without raising her head.

“You talking to me?”

“You see anybody else here?”

Avery looked behind him and then back at his sister. “No.”

“Then I’m talking to you, but it doesn’t matter,” Kori said. “I could be talking to the Queen of England. It wouldn’t matter,” she said, sitting up.

Avery sat down and assessed the mass of paperwork spread before her. “Are you going to tell me what the problem is or just go on in high drama?”

Kori raised her head and slammed her fist on the table again. “The problem? The problem is we don’t have enough money. That’s the problem.”

“I thought you just got a check from Robbie?”

“I did,” Kori nodded, “and I used it to buy groceries, and clothes for Gil since all his pants were like three inches too short, and pay the insurance, and the electric bill so they don’t shut us off, and the overdue cable bill…”

“We should be dropping cable. It’s an expense we don’t need,” Avery said.

“Oh yeah? You gonna listen to him whine all day about how there’s nothing to watch. Some expenses are necessary — for sanity’s sake.” Avery dismissed the argument with a wave of his hand.

“And just today I got a $3,700 tax bill and you know what I have left in the checking account? Two hundred and thirteen dollars. Enough to buy groceries for the next two weeks which is two weeks short of when Robbie’s next paycheck will be here.”

“What about the insurance money?”

“They’re still investigating cause of death,” Kori shook her head.  “Bastards.”

“Well, what about your clients? Don’t they pay you?”

“Just sent the bills out.”

“For work you did in the summer? Kori, you really have to stay on top of this!”

“Don’t you think I know that, Avery?” Kori’s voice trailed off. Avery followed her gaze out the small portal window flanking the kitchen. “Even if everyone pays right away, it’s not enough to cover the tax bill.” Kori dropped her head to the table again. “I can’t do this.”

Avery studied a handful of papers. He pulled the checkbook from Kori’s slack fingers and perused its contents.

“I can make this work.”

“I’m scared,” she said, and squeezed his forearm so hard, he almost winced.

Avery saw all the pain and sorrow of the last months in his sister’s face and felt his stomach lurch. He rubbed her back. “I’ll take care of it. It’ll be alright. I promise.” He took a deep breath before proceeding. “I’ll limit it to a few gas stations. And I won’t supply them more than a week at a time so their standing orders won’t be off by too much. Last thing we need is an oil company rep nosing around.” He looked at Kori who, Avery noted, was not protesting. “I’ll keep selling until I unload it all. Then we’ll be officially out of the oil business.”

Kori shook her head, a vehement toss that petered out as she covered her eyes with her hand. When she looked up, Avery noted the absolute despair in her eyes.

“What about Gil? He works out in the barn still. Sometimes for days at a time.”

“It’s armed,” Avery said. “Anything happens, the cops show up.”

“Avery, I could never in a million years forgive myself.” She squeezed his hand. “I know you’re trying to do what’s best for us. And I couldn’t do this, any of this,” Kori’s hand arced out, taking in the expanse of the house, “without you. It’s just…. It’s too risky.”

“But, Kori…”

“Something good’s gonna happen for us, A. I know it will. It’s got to.”

As if on cue, Aunt Stella rapped at the back door, a squat, red-cloaked figure, peering in, hands clasping her cloak together at the throat, eyebrows raised in greeting. Avery got up to open the door, and Aunt Stella, looking like Red Riding Hood plus, blew in, followed by a cold November gale. She set her basket on the table and began the meticulous process of removing layers of clothing: a woolen hat hidden under the cloak hood, woolen scarf and mittens, and a fine woven cloak, all red.

Kori gave Aunt Stella a peck on the cheek and pulled out a chair for her. Aunt Stella was sweating lightly above the brow – a result of so many clothes for what amounted to a two-hundred yard dash – but she rubbed her hands as if to warm them as she accepted the proffered seat.

“Oh dear. My goodness, it’s cold out. No need to go to the freezer section to get a turkey this year. They’ll be frozen in the bush,” Aunt Stella said. “It’s uncannily cold for November.”

“It’s global warming, Aunt Stella,” Avery said. “It’ll result in the ultimate demise of the human race, all because of man’s over-reliance on fossil fuels, which, in my opinion, is driven by greed, intractability and borderline contempt for issues concerning the environment, as opposed to a lack of alternative fuel options.”

Kori rolled her eyes, but Avery resumed his diatribe.

“Let’s see, twenty or thirty more years of wrenching million-year old fossil fuels from the earth’s core so I can drive my brand new Hummer, or another few centuries of life on this planet as we know it, rolling brooks filled with trout, mountains that rise up into infinity, not the kind that have their tops blown off so they can get to the coal seams beneath, but the majestic kind who’s crowns are still intact. Hhmm. I’ll take the oil for twenty, Bob.”

“See what you did?” Kori looked at Aunt Stella, clearly perturbed.

“All I said was, ‘it’s cold out.’”

Kori filled the coffee pot with water, a sibilant pfpfp, escaping clenched lips.

A confused Aunt Stella looked to Avery for clarification, but he waived a dismissive arm at his sister, punctuating her rudeness. He mouthed the words don’t worry about it and Aunt Stella waved her own arm at Kori’s back, ending the matter.

Aunt Stella pulled off the layers of cloth covering the basket and the most glorious of smells escaped, ensuring Gil’s materialization at Aunt Stella’s side, Max close on his heels, drooling, Gil about to be.

“There’s blueberry-walnut with brown sugar topping and apple-currant with pecans,” she said proudly, letting her own olfactory system get a whiff of the divine vapors rising straight up to heaven to where God could have a sniff. “My daughter sent me the recipe. She’s taking a cooking class.”

Gil pulled up a seat next to Aunt Stella and without waiting to be asked, popped a chunk in his mouth and gave a bite-sized piece to Max, careful to first remove the almonds. Curiosity piqued – generally Max’s palate wasn’t quite so discriminating – Aunt Stella couldn’t refrain from asking.

“Gilly, why are you taking the nuts out? Are you afraid the dog will choke?” Gil shook his head, his chipmunk cheeks bulging with blueberry muffin. Kori set a glass of milk before him and he gulped some down.

“No,” he said, breathless. “It’s because he loves them so much. I save them until the end.”

“And how do you know this, Gilly?”

“He told me. He’s not stupid. He knows what he likes.” Gil blinked his large eyes once at Aunt Stella before shoving his face into the basket. He took a long, slow draw, gathering every available scent, and after a few seconds he emerged, a muffin between his teeth. Aunt Stella’s eyebrows rose up and she pinched her lips together to suppress her smile.

“Gil,” Kori snapped, yanking the basket out of his reach.

Aunt Stella covered her mouth to stanch the ensuing giggle. “Oh my, I almost forgot.” She waddled over to her cloak, rummaged through the pockets and pulled out a letter. “The postman left it at my house by mistake.” She handed it to Kori.

“Robbie!” Kori ripped open the letter without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s been almost two weeks,” she said. “Why doesn’t he just use the internet?” She started reading to herself, but Avery grabbed it.

“Wow, it’s a big one,” he said.

“Read!” Kori demanded.

Avery glared at her before beginning.

Dear Kori, Avery, Gil, Aunt Stella, and of course, Max,

“He loves you, too,” Gil said, opening his hand to Max. Max swallowed the almonds in two bites. Gil grabbed him by the snout and kissed him.

Avery cleared his throat and began to read.

Hey guys. Sorry I haven’t written, but so much has happened. I guess in order to do it justice, I have to start from the beginning, so bear with me while I recount it, plus all that I’ve left out over the last few months. Maybe then you’ll understand the decision I’m about to make. ”

“Uh-oh,” Kori said. “Here it comes.”

Life in hell continues. It’s so hot (average 120 degrees Farenheit) that you have to wear gloves to hold a weapon or even a screwdriver. You always have to wear a mask on your face because the sand is so brutal and you have to eat hovering over your food because the flies are so bad in the daytime. It’s the same at night with mosquitos. We went today to Karbala today, a holy site of the Shiites and former wetland (before Sadaam drained it), to test the water. We left behind a portable water tester so the people could use it. Water is really their most precious commodity here, much more important than oil. And they have so little of it.

But it’s not all bad news. I met a girl. Truly the most amazing woman.

“See. Told ya.”

“Sshhh,” Gil put a finger to his lips and gave Kori the hairy eyeball. Avery continued:

Her name is Amara Mir Ahmad. She lives in Baghdad. Her paternal grandfather comes from a group of people known as the Ma’adan. Maybe I should tell you a little about them, especially her father and grandfather, so you’ll understand what these people are going through and how it effects me.

The Ma’adan, also called the Marsh Arabs, live on the water in the middle of the desert. Some people say their home is what the bible refers to as the legendary Garden of Eden. Nobody knows for sure if it’s Eden, but they do know that it used to be the largest wetland ecosystem in the world, measuring 20,000 kilometers which is about 7,500 square miles. But that was before Saddam Hussein dried it all up.

Kori, you remember studying about Mesopotamia and the Cradle of Civilization in art history? It’s the area where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet. On today’s map, it’s between Baghdad in the north and Basra in the south. The Sumerians lived there. They were the first people to build dams and irrigate crops. The Marsh Arabs can trace their roots back to those people and have been living the same way for the last five thousand years. They harvest reeds, grow date palms, rice, millet, fish, and raise water buffalo. They build their houses on artificial islands by fencing off some of the marsh and building it up so it stays clear of the tide of the marsh waters. Then they layer mud, woven mats and these giant reeds that grow everywhere in the marshes. Their houses sit on top of all this stuff and they add layers every year to compensate for settling and to make sure their floor stays dry.

Can you imagine? Living on water like that. To go to your next door neighbor’s you need to paddle over in your mashuf, a small canoe. Some of the villagers have larger boats, but everyone has at least a mashuf . People travel everywhere like this. There’s no sidewalks. You can’t drive. They make the boats from qasab, these humongous reeds that grow in the marshes and which they also use to build houses. Everything revolves around the water, the fishing, the water buffalo, the rice and millet, even getting goods to market. When the water started drying up, fishermen, reed makers and the other tradesmen were wading through hip-deep mud carrying their goods to market on their backs. It was terrible.

“Wow, that’s really sad,” Gil said.

“Enough of the history lesson,”  Kori said. “Get to the point.”

“Could you keep your mouth shut and listen, please,” Avery said. Kori grunted, but said nothing further.

Amara’s grandfather, Ajrim Mir Ahmad, left his home long before any of Saddam’s draining campaign, but the rest of Amara’s family, stayed behind.

“How many more pages are there to that letter?” Kori asked. “Cause I can come back when he gets to the decision part.” Avery shot her a nasty look. She rolled her eyes and bit at a hangnail.

When Amara’s grandfather first came to Khan Bani Saad, a market town northeast of Baghdad, his family didn’t want him to go. They’d lived in the marshes for centuries. They were a tight-knit community. People didn’t leave. But he felt the need to go so he moved his wife and their young family to Baghdad and became a fish merchant, selling the wares harvested from the marshes by his own people. He became wealthy by Marsh Arab standards, enough so that he could afford to send his four sons to the University of Baghdad. His family grew up educated which is not a luxury that was afforded the Marsh Arabs until the last thirty years. The sons took wives and got jobs in the city.

Amara’s father, the youngest son, became a civil engineer working for the state. He was well-respected until he refused to work on the dam building projects that Saddam started in 1991 – the ones that would eventually drain his ancestral home. He was arrested under the pretense of supporting members of the Shiite uprising. Saddam’s soldiers came in the middle of the night and took him away. Amara was eight at the time. She hid in the shadows clutching her younger brother and holding his mouth shut to keep him from crying as the soldiers questioned, then beat her father and mother.

The next week, Saddam’s soldiers came and took Amara’s grandfather away. The charge was suspicious behavior and crimes against the state. Amara never saw either one of them again. Her mother supported the family with a state-sanctioned job. She taught English lessons to members of Saddam’s army. Amara believes that had her mother not been some use to Saddam, they would be living with other Iraqis in a refugee camp in Iran.

I tell you all this, not to make you feel sorry for her, but so you will                            understand where she comes from. She’s a brilliant woman. She speaks three                  languages, her native language, English, and believe it or not, Italian, and                              has learned everything her mother has been able to pass on to her. She’s made up her mind to do this thing and I’ve decided to do it with her. It seems more like my calling then enlisting in the army ever did. Mom was right. It’s not about democracy. It’s about what it’s always about – money. So in the true spirit of democracy, I’m voting with my feet.”

“Oh my God, that is sooo like him. Always playing the Goddamn hero. So what, he walks her down the aisle and saves her from a life of oppression?”

“Kori! Mind the child,” Aunt Stella said, cupping her hands over Gil’s ears.  “Anyway, who’s talking about marriage?”

“Robbie is. Don’t you get it. He’s going to marry her. All this cloak and dagger talk about making a decision.”

“Well, I have no idea how you gathered that from his letter. I’m actually not sure what he’s made a decision about,” Aunt Stella said. “Read on, Avery.”

Avery scanned the rest of the letter before continuing.

There’s so much more I want to tell you about Amara, about my life here, about the people. But I want to get this to post and the guy’s leaving right now with the mail. Let me just say that the people here, they really want a democracy, but they’ve been duped. That’s not going to be enough for you to understand, but maybe enough to buy me some grace until I’m home to explain in full. Take care of yourselves as I am not there to take care of you. I know you’ll be fine. Kori, if things get to be too much, lean on Avery. He can handle it. Give Aunt Stella a kiss and Gil an especially big hug for me. Love, Robbie.

“I’m confused.” Aunt Stella said. “Do you think he’s really going to marry her?”

“Of course, he’s going to marry her,” Kori said. “That moron. He has no business getting married yet. He’s freaking twenty-two, for God sakes.”

Everyone turned to look at Kori whose face was shot red with anger. She stood, tipped her chair over in the process, and strode to the sink. She washed her hands with a fury and threw water on her face before covering it with her hand. Her tears landed with several swift plops , cascading and pooling in bunches on the porcelain, indistinguishable from all the other drops of water falling from her dripping face. No one spoke while Kori stood there, fighting back her fear for the brother she knew was no longer ten thousand miles, but light years away.

to be continued. . .

click here to read what came before. . .

copyright 2012

diving deep


Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The crane dropped Hart on deck sixteen minutes later, lugging his diving gear and sporting a big smile across his fine, chiseled features.

“What the hell happened to you?” Mahajan asked.

“Nothing,” Hart replied

“You look like the Cheshire cat,” Mahajan said.

Hart stared at a pile of dive rigs wound meticulously in concentric circles, a diver’s lifeline in deep waters. “I didn’t think you…. Never mind. It’s good to be back.”

Mahajan clapped Hart on the back. “Alright. Let’s do it.” Mahajan walked to the bow of the boat with Hart tight on his heels.


“What are you looking for Boss?” said Smith, Hart’s radio man.

Hart stood in the middle of the boat in his underwear, looking over his shoulder. “Believe it or not, I was looking for a woman.”

A ripple of amusement ran through the men surrounding him.

“So do we just about every night,” said Tom, one of Hart’s two tenders who held Hart’s diving helmet.

“Yeah, you skanks in the T.V. room, watching the porn channel ‘til your eyes just about bleed. Think maybe you’d have something better to do,” said Nelson, the other tender who held Hart’s neoprene diving suit.

“Were you looking for a particular woman?” Ian asked. At twenty-one, Ian was the was the youngest guy on board and painfully shy, a fact the rest of the handlers did not fail to notice.

“Oh, I think anyone would do,” Tom said. The rest of the handlers guffawed to the point of breathlessness. Ian blushed crimson.

“Well, the nearest one’s a ten-hour boat ride from here,” said Tom, looking forlorn.

“Unless you’re thinking about flying one out,” interjected Nelson. “It’ll only cost you a few hundred bucks and your job tomorrow. Well, probably not you, Boss.”

“Never mind. I forgot where I was for a minute,” Hart said, whipping off his briefs. He twirled them overhead, like a stripper, and tossed them on deck.

“Better watch, Boss,” Tom said.. “Nelson sleepwalks. Might mistake you for a chickie some night he’s walking the decks with his eyes rolled back in his head.” Peals of laughter rolled out in all directions.

Mahajan appeared suddenly by Hart’s side and the laughter rippled into silence.

“All right, gentlemen. Let’s get serious. No matter how many times you’ve done this, things can always go wrong. This guy’s gonna be three hundred feet below sea level and not a one of you wants to be responsible if his gear’s not singing a happy tune when he goes under. Snap to it. I want everything checked and double-checked and checked again.”

As if preparing for battle, a naked Hart allowed the handlers to dress him. Had there been a woman within fifty miles of the platform it wouldn’t have mattered. On deck, modesty went out the window.

Tom held Hart’s neoprene diving suit open and Hart slid in a leg at a time feeling the cool second skin as the surreal fabric sprung to life. The neoprene fit snugly without strangling the occupant, making underwear a redundancy. A thrill shot through Hart’s solar plexus as he zipped the suit up the front.

In very cold waters, the tenders would pump warm water through a second umbilical attached directly to the suit, eliminating the risk of hypothermia. In the Gulf in October, though, the waters were still relatively warm. Still, at three hundred feet down where the sun didn’t shine and the currents were strong, it was better to be prepared. Speed and efficiency were paramount.

Tom wrapped a sixty-pound weight belt around Hart’s waist, adjusted the harness holding his mixed-gas tank and pronounced Hart dive-ready.

Lastly, Hart put his helmet on, all thirty-five pounds of it, and snapped it into place. He adjusted the regulator and the umbilical and tightened the valves on the helmet. He donned his gloves and stood, arms akimbo, looking at Mahajan and the rest of his handlers and smiling. He said something into his helmet that no one but Smith, his radio guy could hear.

“What did he say?” Mahajan asked.

“He said, ‘Ask Mahajan how I look?” Smith said smiling.

“Like Superman,” Mahajan replied. “Tell him whenever he’s ready.” He took off his own harness and handed it to Ian, the greenhorn.

“Mahajan says to fly whenever you’re ready, Superman,” Smith radioed into Hart’s helmet.

Hart flashed the thumbs up, stepped to the front of the railing and in one graceful movement he was over the side and beneath the surface of the sea.


The first ten minutes in the water were always the worst. Water cascaded with an agonizing slowness down Hart’s back as it thoroughly soaked his dry wet suit. Hart swam, lazy at first, enjoying the feel of buoyancy despite the heavy gear. He made his way toward the small buoy that tethered a fifty-pound weight at the bottom of the three hundred foot line. He found the rope and used it to guide himself to the bottom. The first hundred feet were a cakewalk, but when Hart hit the one hundred and twenty foot mark, his vision started to crowd in on itself and for a minute he felt nauseated. Hart’s pride – and perhaps more than a bit of the arrogance indigenous to the commercial diving profession – kept him from asking Smith to switch over to mixed gas.

“Hey, Boss?” Smith barked into Hart’s helmet.

“Yo,” Hart replied.

“You’re cooing like a morning dove. You’re not going to pass out on me, are you?”

“Nah, I’m fine. I could go another fifty or sixty feet.”

“Well, just the same. A couple hundred bucks is not going to make Akanabi’s stock prices jump much. I’m switching you over. Hit your free flow valve and purge the umbilical. Let me know when you feel the gas.”

Despite the dark waters, Hart instinctively grabbed the valve. Images of Sonia and the baby floated in his mind’s eye, on the periphery, just slightly out of reach. Hart tried to focus on them, but they eluded him: chimeras in the dark. He cranked the valve hard. Cool air immediately washed over his face and out the exhaust ports under his chin and at his left cheek. Hart tried to mentally count, thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven, but soon lost the thread and settled for mindless waiting. About twenty-five seconds later, the sound of incoming air shifted to a soft, higher-pitched squeal, indicating the change to mixed gas. Hart shut down the free flow valve and made a minor adjustment to his regulator, the dial-a-breath, or “dial-a-death” as the more cynical divers called it.

The mixed gas worked like a wonder drug and the cobwebs that had settled around his grey matter, clouding his synapses, floated farther away with each breath. His eyesight returned to normal. He saw Sonia’s smiling face float by his left eye before she disappeared.

“Boss. I don’t hear you,” Smith said in sing-song fashion. “D’ya find it okay?” Hart’s fingers made a final adjustment to his regulator.

“Yeah,” he croaked, and cleared his throat. “I’m good.”

“I knew you would be,” came Smith’s reply.

Hart’s hands grasped the line loosely as he allowed the sixty pound weight around his waist to pull him languorously to the bottom. By about a hundred and fifty feet there was no sunlight left to speak of, Hart’s headlamp being the only source of illumination in the murky, churning water.

“Pretty thick down here, Smithsteen,” Hart noted. “You can’t see past your ass.”

“Yeah, well, write when you get work. Meanwhile, I’m up here sweatin’ my balls off.”

“I don’t know if I’d consider chatting me up on the radio, working, Smithy,” Hart said, and thoroughly suffused with mixed gas, he continued his descent.


Two hundred feet down the road, Stu fumbled with a change-out on a battered Christmas tree valve. A small amount of oil trickled from the barnacle-covered steel and Stu could faintly make out the area underneath where a valve on the back-flow preventor had worn thin, eroded over time by rust, saltwater and marine growth. He pulled a screwdriver from his harness and scraped at the barnacles and rust chunks, brushing them away with a gloved hand as he wrenched the tenacious little buggers free. He grabbed his waterblaster and blasted the crap out of them, removing maybe half. Oil squirted out in a steady, thin rivulet, momentarily suspended in time before it rose up and eloped with the current.

“I found it,” Stu said to Ted, his comms guy. “I got the leak. Valve on the back-flow preventor’s shot. I need to clean it off before I can change it out.” Stu scraped at the rust and barnacles revealing a number of cylindrical shapes above the offending valve. He counted them, then advised Ted. “Of course, it’s the last Goddamn valve on a series of four. And they all look like remnants of the Titanic.”

Stu frowned and scraped diligently at the marine growth and other aquatic debris covering the valves like a point guard. After twenty minutes, he’d only progressed halfway; the frustration meter was rising. He pulled out a wrench to loosen the first valves, but they were stuck fast so he gave them a few quick whacks. The pounding didn’t have the same force and effect as it would on dry land, but it made Stu feel better.

“Whoever put the cathode protection on this unit didn’t do such a good job,” he muttered, more to himself than Ted. The seeping oil floated up to his headlamp, obstructing his vision. Irritated, he swished his hand in front of his headlamp, but only a foggy illumination returned.

“Goddamn it!”

“Now what?” Ted crackled through the umbilical into Stu’s helmet.

“My Goddamn face plate’s all fogged up.” Stu opened the free flow valve on his helmet and a rush of air flowed through the exhaust port flaps, clearing Stu’s face plate as it went.

“Stu, you sound a little agitated this morning. Anything I can do?” Ted replied.

“Unless you can get me out of here by tonight, the answer to that would be Goddamn no!” Stu said with more emphasis than Ted had expected.

“What’s the problem, Boss? Too long away from the wife?” Ted asked, joking. The reverberation shot through the umbilical as Stu pounded on the recalcitrant valve.

“Tomorrow’s my daughter’s first birthday and I’m stuck on the ocean floor fixing a Goddamn backflow protector that should have had a shelf life of five to ten years, but because of some jerk off’s shoddy workmanship has rusted out in twelve months.”

“Oh,” was all Ted could manage.


In contrast to the sheer blackness of the ocean bottom, on deck, the sky was wide and bright with patches of cumulus clouds interspersed for good measure. Mahajan stood next to Ted making notes on a clipboard. He had heard every word, and cracked a half-smile, without looking up from his work.

“Tell him, he fixes the leak and I chopper him out tonight,” Mahajan said.

“What about the rest of the inspection?”

“Hart and I’ll do it.”

“You supposed to be getting wet?” Ted asked. “Who’s gonna hold down the fort?”

“I don’t know yet. You maybe. I got another comms guy on board maybe can take your place at the radio.” He looked at Ted who smiled wide. “Hart said I’m too long out of water. That my reflexes are slow .” He said the last word as if it were floating through water. “I need to make sure he’s not right.” He jerked his head in the direction of the communications system and Ted returned to the task at hand.

“Yo, Stu. Boss says you fix the leak and you’ll be home in time to help her blow out the candles,” Ted relayed.

“Wit-woo!” Stu said, and Ted heard the pounding and banging efforts redoubled.


Ten minutes later, Stu had the top two valves off and was working on removing the flow regulator, scraping at the bigger rust chunks and other aquatic debris with a screw driver. He tried loosening it with his wrench, but it wouldn’t budge. He shot it with the water blaster. Barnacles, rust and other debris swirled in a million directions. Stu waited until the water cleared, then, low on patience, he drew his arm back and hit the free flow with as much force as he could muster. The second before the wrench hit the valve, Stu knew it was the wrong thing to do. The shock severed the gas line which split wide open, spewing natural gas straight at him with the force of an oncoming freight train. Stu was propelled through sheer blackness some seventy-five feet from the Christmas tree. He landed with a thud in a pile of discarded metal cabling long since left to rust on the bottom.


“What’s happening down there, man. Sounds like a demolition derby?” Jason asked, peering over the railing. Stu’s umbilical dangled languidly from his hand.

“The valves are stuck.” Ted said eyeballing Jason. “Stu’s trying to beat them into submission.”      He watched Jason staring wistfully out to sea.

“How long do you think it’ll be until I get down there?” Jason asked.

“A pretty damn long time, especially if you don’t keep your eye on that umbilical,” Ted replied.

Jason glanced down. The line had spiraled out and now looked like a slalom course on the surface of the sea. He pulled it in, dropping it onto the deck in concentric circles as he did, but couldn’t find the drag. He dropped the umbilical the moment it ripped through his hands.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, looking down. His hands were red as if burned.

Mahajan sprung to life. He looked over the side, but the line had gone slack again. He snapped his fingers at Ted who immediately radioed Stu while Mahajan pulled in the line.

“He’s offline,” Ted said. Mahajan had twenty-two years experience as a diver, five of them as the chief overseer of diving operations, and he’d seen just about everything: clogged umbilicals; hypothermia; faulty radio gear; emotional breakdowns, generally brought on by a sudden paronoid fear of being isolated several hundred feet below sea level; even a shark bite; all of which had reinforced his belief in the need to act purposefully and remain calm even in the most dire situations. There were myriad reasons why the signal might be lost. And an experienced diver like Stu should be able to fix the problem and be back on line for as long as he could hold his breath, which in Stu’s case was about two minutes.

“Stu. Do you copy? What the heck’s going on?” Ted’s voice quavered a little before he yelled into the radio. Mahajan checked his watch. “Stu. Stu!” Ted looked wide-eyed at Mahajan who snapped his fingers in Smith’s direction.

“Tell Hart we got a problem,” Mahajan said to Smith. But before Smith could open his mouth, Ted’s radio crackled to life.


Stu laid there for several moments in utter darkness, stunned. He drew a deep breath and reached for his head lamp. Duct-taped to his helmet for hands-free operating, it had been knocked loose in the blast and now dangled from his helmet, secured by only the barest remnant of the sticky stuff. He fumbled for the switch which had been turned off in what, Stu wasn’t exactly sure.

He flicked on the light and it illuminated the immediate area, sending out light beams at a forty-five degree angle. Sight restored, Stu moved his arms, then his legs. Both appeared to be in working order. He raised himself on one elbow. Piles of metal coils, old cabling line, he presumed, lay beneath him covered with spiny oysters. The air in his helmet felt a little thick and he took a long pull trying to get a full breath.

“Jesus Christ!” Stu said. He maneuvered into a sitting position and rotated his shoulders and his neck. His body parts all seemed to be in working order, but he felt as though he’d been catapulted from a large sling shot and hurtled against a solid brick wall. He checked his harness. Still secure . He reached back and touched his mother pleaser. Thank God.

A voice crackled into his helmet, barely audible through the static.

“Stu. Stu! What’s going on? Do you copy? Over.” Stu could make out Ted’s voice, rife with static, a million light years away.

“I’m here…just lounging around,” Stu said, his breath coming in jagged bursts.

“What the hell happened?”

“The gas pipe blew. Farther than I’d care to guesstimate.” Stu groped in the dark, pulling at the umbilical that floated freely away from him, trying to reign it in. The radio snapped and popped as he did so.

“What the hell are you doing,” Ted shouted. “You’re killin’ me.”

“I’m pullin’ in my umbilical. It’s all over the place.” Stu pulled the umbilical slowly through his gloved hand until the line went taut. He took another jagged breath, ripped his flashlight from his helmet and swam along the line, pulling as he went until he got to the problem. The line had snagged in the same pile of cabling where Stu had landed. There was a small gash in the spot where it stuck. “Damn.” He took another raspy breath.

“What,” Ted replied.

“The umbilical’s severed. That’s why you sound like you’re transmitting from Venus.” He took a deep, unsatisfying breath and cranked his dial-a-breath out to keep up with the diminishing pressure. And why I’m having trouble breathing .

“There’s no way I’m gettin’ to the top with this line,” Stu said.

“Any idea where you are?”

“No. There’s a bunch of old cable line on the floor, is all.”

“All right, sit tight. We’re gonna raise Hart and get you another line. Try not to move that one too much. I don’t want to lose radio contact,” Ted said.

“How long, do you think?”

There was a pause before Ted’s voice crackled through. “Twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.”

Stu took a labored breath and this time water seeped in through the free flow.

“Your tank’s full if you need it, right?” Ted asked. Stu didn’t respond. “Right?” Ted persisted.

The water level in Stu’s helmet was already to his Adams apple. “I got water seeping into my helmet.”

There was a long pause on the other end before Ted’s voice came through, tinny and strange as if from outer space.

“Mahajan wants to know if you got any duct tape from your flashlight.” Stu reached up and yanked free the last remaining piece of duct tape.

“Not much,” he replied.

“Well wrap what you got around the leak and see if you can slow it down. We gotta keep your radio on as long as possible.” Stu wrapped the duct tape around the hose. It slowed the leak, but not enough to give him comfort.

“Alright. But I’m still sucking pretty hard,” Stu said. “And it’s still spittin’ in here.”

“Hold on a minute,” Ted went offline and Stu was left with the curious feeling that he was the only man on earth. The crackling in his helmet signaled Ted’s return.

“Alright. You got the air in your tank. Hold out for as long as you can before you cut the cord just to buy an extra minute or two, then switch over. And Stu, I need to know the exact time you cut it so I can time it.”

Time how long I have left, you mean. Stu listened patiently as the water drip-dropped into his helmet, now just below his mouthpiece. He could feel the head liner getting soaked. Soon he would lose all communication with the outside world. Then the water would be up to his mouth and the amount of air in his helmet might be insufficient to support him. He’d have to turn his bottle on and blow the water out.

“You know that adage about not taking your helmet off underwater or it’ll be the last thing you do? Well, I’m gonna have to if I don’t cut this umbilical right now,” Stu said calmly as the water trickled in. He heard Ted sigh and go offline again. Stu’s head felt light as the available air in his helmet shrunk.

“Okay. Mahajan says switch over to your tank, but do not, I repeat, do not let the umbilical go. After ten minutes, start climbing your line. Remember to time it. Only one foot per second. And if you can manage, roll your flashlight up and back like a search light. Hart’ll meet you with a new umbilical.” Stu was feeling lightheaded from the lack of air. He nodded but did not respond, prompting Ted to yell.

“Stu!” The noise roused Stu from his reverie.

“Yeah,” he said, snapping to alertness. “Okay. I’m gonna cut it now.”

“Really, man. Don’t let go of the umbilical and swim straight up. You only got twenty guaranteed minutes!”

“Don’t worry, man. I’m not into playin’ hero today,” Stu replied. It was the last thing he said before radio communication went dead.


“Shoot,” Smith said.

“What is it?” Hart’s reply came through the radio.

Up on the deck of the Poseidon , chaos loomed, threatening a coup, but Mahajan’s cool exterior and the combined experience of the handlers kept it safely off the bow – for the moment. Mahajan stood waiting patiently next to Smith as he radioed Hart his instructions. He looked at his watch as the second hand flew around the dial. A minute and a half had already elapsed.

We got a problem,” Smith barked into the phone. “Quit your descent and hold the position. I’ll be back in twenty seconds.”

Nelson and Tom materialized at Mahajan’s side with a backup umbilical.

“Tell him to come back up pronto,” Mahajan said to Smith. “Follow the tow line. Somebody’ll meet him at the surface with a new umbilical for Stu.” Mahajan stared at the umbilical as if making a decision. Smith pressed the button and called Hart.

“Wait,” Mahajan said. Cancel that last part. Tell him I’ll meet him at fifty feet with the umbilical,” Mahajan said. Smith’s eyebrows shot up and Mahajan responded to his unspoken query. “It’ll only take me a few minutes to meet him part way. Stu may need those minutes.”

“You gonna suit up?” Smith asked. Mahajan shook his head.

“Get me some goggles, fast” he said to Ian. “There’s some in the supply room.”

“Boss, are you sure? It’s only an extra couple minutes to the surface from fifty feet,” Smith said.

“Yeah, but Hart’ll pay for it later with the bends. Even if he’s only up here for a few minutes.”

Mahajan removed his shoes, adjusted his harness and walked over to Sam who stood calibrating the three-cylinder diesel backup compressor system to which he had just hooked the new umbilical. A second backup compressor sat next to it.

“I thought it would be cleaner than disengaging Stu’s original hose,” Sam said by way of explanation.

Mahajan glanced at the two nine-tank cascade systems which currently serviced Hart’s working hose and Stu’s severed one. The cascade systems, comprised of nine tanks each, had their own control valves that ultimately tied into a single manifold operation. Both systems had three rows of three tanks encased in a special frame. The tanks weighed over a hundred pounds each – with the frame, one system approached a thousand pounds – and was so weighty it could only be set on deck by crane or helicopter. The combined weight of the two cascade systems and the back up compressors which sat now, gleaming in the sun, was more than that of all of the handlers put together.

“If for some strange reason something happens, switch over to the cascade system servicing Stu’s severed hose, not the backup compressor.”

“Okay, Boss,” Sam replied.

Mahajan turned his back to Sam. “Check my tank one more time, would you?”

Sam checked the pressure gauge and opened the valve. A brief spurt of air whistled out before he closed it. “Good to go,” Sam said.

Ian ran up and handed Mahajan a pair of goggles which he took and adjusted to his face.

“Hart knows what’s going on?” he asked Smith.

Smith nodded. “He’s on his way up. He’ll meet you at the T-Bar.”

“Alright, gentlemen. Smith’s in charge. You’re on your own until I return. Make me proud,” he said, a wry, half-smile on his face. And clothed in nothing but Levi’s and a t-shirt, Andrew Mahajan stuck his umbilical in his mouth and jumped over the side of the bow, an emergency umbilical trailing behind him.


Radio communication died abruptly and, as promised, remained out for the next sixty-three seconds. In the sensory deprived world of underwater diving, even ten seconds ticked on into eternity. Sonia’s smiling face floated in front of Hart’s retinas again, but this time he pushed her away. Not now , he whispered to her. He squeezed his gloved hands into balls and concentrated on his grip, squeezing and releasing while waiting for his instructions. When they came, Hart was focused and ready.

“Yo, Boss,” Smith’s voice was steady and in control.

“Smithsteen,” Hart replied. “I was beginning to think I’d been replaced on your dance card.” Hart said.

Smith chuckled. “Stu’s hose’s severed. There was a pipeline break and he went for a ride. He’s offline. Mahajan’s meeting you at the T-Bar with a spare hose.”

“Why’s he doing that?”

“Worried about the bends. And Stu’s not sure where he is right now so you gotta follow his umbilical down. Mahajan’ll have the new one at the T-Bar.”

“All right,” Hart said.

“Check your watch,” Smith said. Hart set his second hand. “In about seven minutes, Stu’s going to start climbing his hose. With some luck he’ll be meeting you halfway. Over.”       Hart immediately started his ascent. “Sonia used to say something about luck.”

“What’s that?”

“That next to love, it was the second most powerful force in the universe.” Hart pulled himself up the rope, hand over hand, using the umbilical. “Do you know me to be a lucky man, Smith?” Hart asked.

“Looking back on your history, I’d have to say yes, Boss. I know you to be a very lucky man.” He paused before continuing. “It’s the people around you that aren’t always so lucky.” Hart sniggered, but said nothing.

“One more thing, Boss. You realize you gotta do the change over in free float cause by then Stu should be a hundred or more feet off the bottom,” Smith continued. “You can handle that, right?”

“Smithy, who you talkin’ to?” Hart joked. But his stomach had a different thing to say and Hart felt it lurch down into the vicinity of his toes even as he climbed. He took a deep breath and soldiered on toward the T-Bar.

“Alright. Tell Mahajan I’ll see him at the bar.

“I would if he had a comms system on,” Smith said.

The air must be getting pretty thick up there, too . Hart gripped the tow line hard and pulled for all he was worth.


When Hart arrived, Mahajan was lounging on the T-Bar at the marker buoy like a passenger on a cruise ship waiting on cocktails. He sat up when he saw Hart and spread his palms wide as if to say, what took you so long . Hart flipped him the bird, tough to do with such large gloves, and grabbed both the spare and severed hose from Mahajan. Mahajan grabbed the spare hose back and attached it to the snap shackle on Hart’s harness so he wouldn’t have to hold it.

Mahajan pointed to his watch and held up five fingers and a fist.

Five minutes left in Stu’s tank .

Mahajan removed his mouthpiece and mouthed the words “you alright?” Hart nodded. Mahajan gave him the thumbs up, slapped him on the back of his spare tank, and pushed him in the direction of the deep.

Hart moved off the T-Bar and gave Stu’s severed rope a little tug, but the rope was slack, suggesting the end floated unencumbered. Hart hoped that wasn’t the case as he dropped through the blackness, pulled down by the sixty pound belt weight around his waist, trying not to pull too hard on the severed umbilical lest he wrench it from Stu’s unsuspecting grip.

Other than his own breathing, Hart heard nothing. Occasionally he’d spot a fish, sleek and shimmery, its bulging eyes turning away to avoid the harsh headlight.

“Got anything yet,” Smith’s voice crackled to life in Hart’s helmet.

“Not unless you count a school of mackerel,” Hart replied.

“Stu’s gonna be rockin’ his light back and forth. Just in case he lost the….” Smith’s voice trailed off into oblivion.

“I’m on it, Smithy. Don’t worry about it.”

Hart checked his watch. Two minutes and fifty-five seconds elapsed. He redoubled his efforts, pulling harder on the rope, and this time the rope went taut with a slight tug from the other end. Hart stopped and gave the rope three jerks, a signal he and Stu had used on previous dives. The rope jerked back three times. Stu was at the other end.

“I got tension on the line,” Hart relayed to Smith. Hart gave another tug at the rope to let Stu know he was coming and lurched forward at full throttle.

“I can see a glow,” Hart said into his mouthpiece. The beam from Stu’s headlamp moved back and forth like a search light. “Almost there.”

The two men, both proficient swimmers, moved toward each other in a graceful, underwater ballet of brass, belts and tubing. Each pulled on the umbilical and kicked, moving closer together until their gloved hands grasped and they were intertwined. Hart held Stu in an awkward bear hug, as Stu collapsed against Hart in relief. They began to spin, then sink with the combined weight of their belts and gear. Hart let go of Stu and disengaged the new umbilical from his harness. The severed umbilical floated free.

“I got him,” Hart radioed to Smith. “You can pull the old dive rig in.” Almost immediately, the severed umbilical began rising to the surface.

“I’ll hold my congratulations, Boss. You don’t have much time for the change out,” Smith said.

Hart looked at his watch as Stu swam over to join him on the rope. A minute, fifty seconds . Hart pulled Stu closer and looked inside his helmet. The water had risen to just below Stu’s chin, but no further. Hart placed the forehead of his own helmet against Stu’s, locked his hands on the sides and looked into Stu’s eyes as if they were a pair of reunited lovers. Hart spoke loudly, the combination of voice and vibration making it possible for the men to hear each other through their helmets.

“How much air you got left in your bailout bottle?” Hart asked.

“About a thousand pounds,” Stu replied, confirming what Smith had alluded to.

“You know there’s no way for us to share air, right?” Hart asked. The words reverberated through their helmets, all choppy and tinny. Stu nodded. “Let me know when you’re getting down to the wire. Maybe there’s something else we can do,” Hart said.

Stu’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m not taking my helmet off,” Stu said emphatically.

Hart nodded. Stu could take his helmet off and suck air from Hart’s exhaust port all the way up, but chances were, if Stu took his helmet off he wouldn’t make it to the top.

“Can you still hold your breath for two minutes?” Hart asked. A broad smile lit Stu’s face.

“You bet your ass, ” Stu said.

“We gotta change you out right here,” he said, indicating Stu’s new umbilical. “Wrap your legs around my waist and hold tight to my harness.”

Stu complied. Hart grabbed the new umbilical back from Stu and wrapped it around both of them, tied a slipknot and clipped it to the quick release on his harness. They looked like underwater koala bears. Hart touched his helmet back to Stu’s.

“Keep one hand on the umbilical. We’ll probably going to spin a lot since we’re not anchored. Just keep your legs locked on me and we’ll get through this, okay?”

“Okay, Boss,” Stu said.

Hart patted Stu’s helmet. To Smith, Hart said: “I’m gonna loosen the compression fitting on the cut hose first. The tricky part’ll be getting the new one in.” He touched his helmet to Stu’s once again and said, “Hold on.” He checked his watch before setting to work. One minutes fifteen seconds .

Hart loosened the fitting holding the remnants of the severed umbilical, gave the hose a tug and set it free. It traveled past his face plate then beyond his periphery vision. He removed the stub of the schrader fitting – the check valve was the only thing keeping the water out – and inserted a new fitting. The movement caused them to spin like kids on a tire swing and the uncontrolled motion made Hart queasy. Forty-nine seconds. He touched his helmet to Stu’s.

“You alright?”

“A little dazed. Getting tough to breath.”

For the first time Hart noticed Stu’s labored breaths. The pressure gauge on Stu’s tank read zero. “I’m gonna hook the hose in now. Hold tight to my harness.”

Smith’s voice crackled to life in Hart’s helmet and Hart lifted his head. “What’s happening down there?”

“Hold on. I’m doing the new umbilical,” Hart said to Smith. He checked his watch. Thirty-five seconds. He touched his helmet to Stu’s.

“Take the biggest breath you can now. Dial your regulator all the way out and suck all the air out of that thing. Don’t leave a drop. And let’s hope you weren’t lying about that two minutes.” Hart smiled ruefully. “I’m moving as fast as I can.”

Stu shook his head and Hart could see the fear on his face.

“Go,” Hart said. He set his watch for two minutes as Stu sucked all the remaining air out of the tank and secured that few pounds of pressure in his lungs, the only thing standing between him and the rest of his life.

Hart’s fingers shook as he inserted the new umbilical into the schrader fitting. They started to spin and Stu locked his legs so tightly around Hart’s mid-section that Hart winced and dropped the wrench. Stu’s eyes flew open in horror. Holding tightly to the umbilical, Hart reached back and grabbed another wrench from his harness, but the umbilical, not yet fitted, popped out. The movement jarred them and they dangled like fish at the end of a taut line, the weight of their belts pulling them down. A minute, five seconds. Hart glanced at Stu. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving, but Hart couldn’t hear what he was saying through his helmet.

“Slack off the extra line,” Hart barked to Smith. “Just a little. Don’t pull in until I tell you.” In moments, the line went slack and Hart pulled it down and fitted it snugly into the empty space. He fumbled with tightening the connection until, in frustration, he pulled his gloves off and cast them aside. They floated away intertwined, hands without a body, and then down to the bottom of the sea. Twenty-five seconds.

Hands free, Hart worked fast now, tightening the schrader fitting on the umbilical. He could see Stu’s face straining with the lack of oxygen, crimson even by the light of Hart’s single bulb. He checked the connection once more and satisfied, threw open the free flow valve.

“She’s in. Tell ‘em to hit Stu’s gas.” In seconds, there was a squeal and a hiss as the life giving mixture of helium and nitrogen and the few remnants of water flooded Stu’s umbilical. Hart watched Stu’s face; he could almost feel the breeze as Stu opened his eyes in disbelief. Clearly he had made his peace with whatever divinity he worshiped and was shocked to realize it wasn’t his time after all. Recognition lit his face like a hundred-watt bulb and he winked at Hart.

Hart radioed Smith. “Ask Chewey Stuey if he’s got any dinner plans, would ya’?” Smith relayed the message to Ted who radioed Stu in a voice that Hart thought must sound like a choir of angels about now. Stu laughed and spoke into his mouthpiece. In a moment, Hart’s radio crackled to life.

“He said whatever Hart wants. As long as there’s a bottle of Dom to wash it down,” Smith said. “Hey, Boss,” Smith said. “I think Stu just asked you out on a date.”

Hart guffawed and gave Stu the underwater, version of a high-five. “Tell him I accept.”


Thirty minutes later and still a little shaky from his ordeal, Stu climbed the rope ladder and hopped onto the deck of the Poseidon. Hart did a lazy backstroke awaiting his turn while crew members tended to Stu, clapping him on the back, removing his gear and ascertaining his general condition en route to the decompression chamber.

Anxious to redeem himself, Jason yanked Hart in before his leg had a chance to clear the railing, and Hart went sprawling, helmet first, a thunderous entrance onto the deck. The landing would have blind-sided a lesser man, but after a few moments Hart sat up, hurting, but lucid.

“Geez, oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Jason apologized.

Mahajan put Hart’s laughter down to the fact that the oxygen levels in his body had not reached equilibrium. Hart and Stu had just spent the last thirty minutes lounging on the T-Bar, decompressing at forty feet, and both of them still looked a little green. Hart sat up, wobbling.

“How about some help here,” Mahajan said. The tenders assisted Hart, removing his helmet, belt and harness.

“That’s quite a noggin you got,” Mahajan said, inspecting the damage. He looked at Jason who stood nearby and waved him over.

“Get this guy some ice. And for the next twenty-four hours, he says jump, you say how high. He asks for anything, you’re on it. You understand. Anything.” Jason nodded and left.

Mahajan held out a hand pulled Hart to his feet. “Nice work.” He flashed Hart a smile before continuing. “Did you have a backup plan?” Hart smiled back, nodding. “D’ya mind telling me what it was? Cause you know, air expands. He probably had enough to exhale all the way to the T-Bar.”

Hart held his hand up, silencing Mahajan. “We wouldn’t have made it.”

Mahajan nodded, accepting Hart’s assessment of the situation and checked his watched. “Jesus, we gotta get you in. You only have five minutes and four are gone.” Mahajan pushed Hart toward the door of the decompression chamber.

Jason came running over with a cell phone, holding it out to Hart, but he tripped over Hart’s discarded equipment and went hurtling through space. Acceleration halted when he contacted Hart’s inert mass and together they clattered to the ground, Jason still holding out the cell phone. Hart pushed Jason off and sat up, rubbing his head for the second time before accepting the phone.

“This is Hart.”

And that was the state Hart was in when Bicky Coleman summoned him with all due haste back to Akanabi’s corporate headquarters.

to be continued. . .

to read what came before press this

copyright 2012

dream team


Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Six

Dave Hartos walked into Bicky’s penthouse suite on the 45 th floor of the Akanabi building. Not much of a voyeur himself, Hart had always felt uncomfortable up here. Bicky loved it though, and once remarked that from a height this great, you could see into a man’s soul and in Houston, that was a valuable trait to have.

Phyllis sat at her desk, sorting a cart full of Bicky’s mail when she saw him. Her eyes brightened and she tossed the letter opener onto the desk, embracing him warmly.

“It’s you.” She said, brushing her hand across his cheek as if she had no control over the appendage. She assessed him for several moments, before nodding, satisfied. “You know if there’s absolutely anything you need that is within my power to procure,” she looked at the closed door to Bicky’s office, “and you know I have considerable resources at my disposal, then you shouldn’t hesitate to ask.”

“I know, Phyllis. Thanks,” Hart said. “We didn’t get a chance to talk at the funeral..”

Phyllis put a hand to her lips to stop the forthcoming apology.

“It’s going to take a lot of time, my dear. And it may never get better. It’s just something that you get used to,…or learn to live with.” She said the last bit with assuredness.

“He’s on the phone.” Phyllis nodded toward the door. “You don’t need to sit here watching me sort his mail. Go on in. He hates that.” Her smile radiated benevolence. Hart noted the distinct lines of her face, the beautiful, almond-shaped green eyes, the lovely, high cheek bones, and thought that in her youth, Phyllis had been a knockout. No wonder Bicky had hired her. He’d recognized her as a trophy and Bicky liked nothing more than to collect trophies.

“Thanks.” He searched for more to say, to give this moment the meaning he wanted. The words, “we should have lunch sometime,” were out of his mouth before he knew he had thought them, trite and non-committal, they sounded ridiculous even to his grief-laden brain. For her part, Phyllis was gracious and, as always, in charge.

“That would be nice,” she said, and squeezed his hand, and Hart knew she meant it.


Bicky was on the phone, a burning cigar in the ashtray. He stood with his back to the door looking out over Houston’s great expanse with an antique pair of opera glasses. He didn’t turn to greet Hart when the door opened, but his shoulders stiffened, probably because he’d been caught spying.

The conversation wound down and Bicky hung up, walked around to the front of the desk and stood in front of Hart. He handed him the opera glasses which Hart accepted for closer inspection.

“They belonged to my mother,” Bicky began. “She never saw a live opera, but we had an old Victrola and some albums that she played over and over again. My dad bought the glasses for her at a flea market where he used to take the pelts he’d trapped. Came back with those glasses. They were cheap, maybe a couple bucks, but it was an extravagance that we really couldn’t afford. My mom pretended to be mad at him, but I used to watch her at night sometimes, listening to the swell of the music with the glasses to her eyes, looking out into the foothills, seeing what, I’m not sure.”

Bicky stopped and snatched the glasses back, unaware that Hart hadn’t finished his inspection. He picked up his cigar, flopped down into his chair and put his feet up on the desk.

Mr. Big. Hart smiled to himself, but his mouth did not.

“One of our oil platforms in the Gulf’s got a slow leak. A little sheen on the water, no biggee. They think one of the valves in the Christmas tree’s shot. I called Mahajan. I’m not sure he located a diver yet.”

“When did they first see the sheen?”

“Four days ago.”

“Why didn’t you do something four days ago?” Hart asked, deadpan. “The feds inspect those platforms every week. And they come down hard on repeat violators.” Hart watched Bicky’s face, an emotionless mask. “You can’t keep pushing the envelope or you’re going to have another crisis on your hands.”

Half of Bicky’s mouth quirked into a leer: “I’m sure that whatever happens, you’ll be able to handle it.”

Hart shrugged and looked away, unable to raise the contempt he should have felt in this moment.

“It’s up to Mahajan, of course.” Bicky took a puff of his cigar and blew out a large, round smoke ring. “But I don’t think it’s a rush. Inspections are way down, thanks to the Bush Administration. The guy from the U.S. Minerals Management Service shows up once a month, if that. So we’ve got at least three weeks to handle this, and if it’s just some valve change outs like I think it is, we can handle that in three hours.” Bicky took another drag on his cigar and tried to blow the second ring through the first. The smoke hovered in the air insidiously.

“What about the EPA?” Hart asked.

“Who the hell cares about EPA?

“You will when they slap you with a huge fine.” Hart said. Bicky tapped the desk in metronomic fashion, watched his son-in-law; Hart obliged and looked out the window.

“Who’s gonna tell them? We’re two hundred miles out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, for Chrissakes. Not exactly a drive-by.” He tapped the ash on his cigar. Hart stole a side-long glance at his father-in-law.

“Look, I’m not blind. I know that since Sonia…..”

“That event and the one before us are completely unrelated.”

Bicky placed his cigar in the ashtray. “You’re the best guy I’ve got. I’d hate to lose you but….” His sentence hung in the air alongside the cigar smoke.

Hart’s emotions swirled, trapped in a rip tide: guilt, rage, horror, fear, and somewhere deep down, both loathing and respect for the man who sat across the table from him. He didn’t say anything, just stared at Bicky, forcing him to address the unspoken. Vestiges of the solemn, haggard face Hart had seen the night of the funeral clouded Bicky’s ready-for-business face.

“I miss her, too,” he said simply. And that was all the rhetoric Bicky Coleman could muster for his one child, now deceased. Hart’s eyes locked on Bicky, but all he saw was the last ten years of his life, happy years spent living with Sonia and working for Akanabi Oil, incompatible bedfellows at best, he now knew.

“So what I need to know is, are you still on my team?” Bicky’s voice floated like bubbles to the surface of a turbulent lake.

A lump, all fibrous and full of itself, wedged in Hart’s trachea. He tried to dislodge it by clearing his throat, but the lump would not be budged. His eyes watched Bicky, but his mind saw Sonia. Except she was dead and all he had left was the job, and despite his desire to honor her memory, he didn’t feel up to losing that now, too. Not trusting his own voice, he nodded.

“Good.” Bicky sighed, relieved. “Very good.” He walked around to Hart’s side of the desk. “You fly out tomorrow night, assuming that gives you sufficient time to get your act together.” Bicky said the last part as if Hart had a choice. He leaned back against the desk in front of Hart. “Take a few weeks. Since you’re out there, you may as well look the whole platform over. When your done, maybe you and Mahajan can take a vacation. Some excellent fishing out there.” Bicky smiled and held his hand out to Hart who raised his own to meet it without an awareness of the movement. “The trip’ll do you good. Some surf and sun. Some good hard work. You’ll come back a new man.”

Hart nodded mechanically as Bicky showed him to the door.

 to be continued. . .

to read what came before: jump here

copyright 2012