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THIS STORY IS true, although qualified. That is to say I have the date right and the initial circumstances are true. Fantasy begins where truth leaves off. I want the reader to understand that the fine line between fantasy and reality is often blurred. The outcome of this story may not be fantasy at all.

Sometime during the night of June 4, 2010, perhaps during the early morning hours of the 5th, a borrowed Hav-A-Hart small animal trap disappeared from our back deck. No part of the deck is visible from the street and we back up to a tangle of woods impervious to all but the animal population, i.e., we live in an out of the way place.

We are surrounded by trees on three sides and summer foliage makes us virtually private from prying eyes, not that we do much more than watch the grass grow. We have plenty of lawn, children and grandchildren who love us and who participate in our lives without being burdensome.

In winter we get snow, but that’s the time for it. In summer it gets as hot here as any place in the northeast. Spring and fall are generally delightful. We are isolated, but it’s a gift. People and help are a phone call and minutes away. No one’s life is idyllic, but ours comes close and I’m going to say closer than most.

We borrowed the old trap from our son-in-law, an official animal trapper licensed by our State. The apparatus didn’t work well, but I lubricated certain parts and made adjustments to the original design. It worked fine after that.

A family of red squirrels had raised our perception from “cute little varmints,” to “pests” when they invaded our garage. We couldn’t teach them the nuances of property rights, and being varmints, they couldn’t care less, so we went to plan B.”

I called the DEP and got the skinny on what we could do with them. We’d had the trap only two days when someone came in the dead of night and took the trap.

These facts proved that inspiration to write a story can come from any set of circumstances. We certainly had a thief, but I began to wonder that it might have a broader implication. The following story itched in my mind until I decided to scratch it.

I call it Hard Times.

Herb Peters used to be assistant manager at a local food store; good at his job. People liked him. One day in June he ripped his clothes off in the store and ran around wild-eyed and naked, singing “June is Bustin’ out All Over,” at the top of his lungs.

The manager fired him on the spot. What else could he do? Such behavior required stern and immediate action, a no brainer in the back of Jackson Farley’s mind. He liked Herb, but Farley had no trouble being decisive. The new young V-P, Clarence Grudgle¾what a name¾began putting on the pressure the day he arrived from the Corporate office and Farley, being a smaller fish in the company pond, had to streak around quicker than his boss if he hoped to avoid being eaten, metaphorically speaking.

Farley liked his job. He saw it as big enough and small enough. He could handle it and he made a nice living. He simply knew where he stood in the pecking order.

Herb knew these things, too. At least he did until the unhappy June day he went bonkers.

Well into Herb’s fifteen-year nothing to write home about marriage, people in the know shook their heads sadly and guessed his problem had the name Lila. She came from the Elmore and Helen Litkins family, genteel but powerful local moguls. They gave their one daughter everything except common sense.

How can anyone become real if never thrown in the crucible, if never called upon to exercise what little one knows to solve even a teensy problem? Herb got her, lock, stock and beautiful barrel. Doting parents saw an up and comer in Herb. Why, hadn’t he been promoted to Assistant Manager only weeks before they were married?

Fast track to the top? Wrong. He got to “assistant” and then the Peter Principle kicked in. Managers changed a couple of times, but promotion didn’t show on Herb’s horizon.

The marriage went well at first as there is always lag time between expectation and realization, kind of like seasonal lag. Let me offer that in explanation. There are two equinoxes and two solstices. Equinox in any latitude simply means that where you are standing, the amount of sunshine on that day exactly equals the amount of night. It happens in March and again in September.

Solstice means our sun has traveled as far south or north relative to the Earth’s orbit as it can and on that day begins to swing the other way for the next six months, celestial clockwork. In winter, the solstice represents the shortest day and longest night. In summer it’s the reverse. These occur in June and December. The four seasons are each tied to either equinox or solstice.

One may note in living through a few of these that in summer it doesn’t really get hot until a long time after the June solstice. Conversely, the dark and snowy part of winter is always after December 21st, like usually in January and February.

What does this have to do with Herb?

For Herb, it took fifteen years to hit his winter solstice, his shortest day. He’d fought depression nominally and then with greater frequency after two years of marriage. Parents’ Litgin’s timetable said Herb should be moving up. Lila heard it from her parents and Herb heard it from Lila.

At first he had strength and blew it off, but as the years dragged on and three pregnancies yielded three healthy, robust and expensive children, Lila began to ramp it up. She complained to Herb of losing ground financially. Socially it galled her.

Lila’s nagging went on for years and Herb sensed no letup. His wife picked on him morning and night. For him work rescued him each day. He couldn’t wait to leave in the morning to get to work, though active and exhausting. Since that new young V-P came into his department and shook things up the pressure tripled. Six of one kind and the old half dozen other kinds of hell gave him a choice.

He’d found it easier to tune out at home than at work. At least, the way he figured it, he could grasp the reasons for pressure at work. Bad economy, falling profits, trouble with suppliers, the list went on.

It didn’t let up with the new “fixer” on board; rather things got more difficult and debilitating and Herb’s comfort away from home disappeared. Like with an Equinox, Herb reached and then passed the point of finding work marginally more fun than being at home. After the fact, the explosion had to happen.

Grudgle stood five foot three and wore a large band of fat around his middle that made him look a little like Tweedle-Dee. He wore a suit with pinstripes on it with usually a smudge of food somewhere on the jacket. His wore rumpled clothes, but he had a hard look and the employees found as nephew to the Chairman of the Board they couldn’t chitchat with him. Once they discovered the connection the cynics wagged their heads and stayed out of his way.

The V-P’s education consisted of community college, subjects in history and sociology and one business course, which, it has to be said, he aced. Looking beyond the mundane, quiet searchers also found out that Chairman Morton Shine had been seeing a lot of Gudgle’s mother, evidently a prize good looker. Evidently, Shine’s quick mind that saw that Clarence’ living at home left a fly in the works, a distinct disadvantage to him, so he brought the man into his empire and made him his personal troubleshooter.

Herb, of course, knew this, but it meant nothing to his quickly escalating mental disintegration and on that fateful day in June, he blew. The police came and wrestled Herb to the ground. Medevac people came and carted him off to a room with soft walls.

Lila showed all the love and caring she had become famous for in their family and without a backward look, took the kids and went to momma’s house. The genteel parents fawned over his grandchildren and convinced Lila her place lay with them and how they were relieved to be rid of that commoner husband of hers. To add insult to injury, she began divorce proceedings during the month the sanatorium held Herb for observation. Lila had made an actual decision.

Herb languished in a padded room at the Sunnyview Sanatorium two towns over, filled with anti-anxiety drugs and other mind control regimens. Calm again, he tried to fathom what he’d done to land him into this kind of serious soup, but he drew a blank. It’d never happened before and he had nothing to grasp.

Over the next thirty days Herb appeared to regain his self-image and a modicum of self-respect and the facility discharged him. He left happy to be away from the “crazy house.” A cab dropped him off. At the door he found his house empty as his stomach. Not a stick of furniture, only a note on the floor of the entrance-way alongside a sealed envelope, with a cryptic few words on it.

It read, “Divorcing you, took my furniture. You are a loser. Read what’s in the envelope and you will know the rest of it. The children and I never want to see you again.”

He opened the envelope. Court order. No contact on pain of arrest. His world dissolved. No family, no job, no hope. He ran into the woods, baying like a wounded dog. Recently my Hav-A-Heart trap disappeared.

He’d be hungry. I think Herb took it.

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