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Short stories

Number Nine

 

The whole thing started when my car broke down. I was driving through a part of Philly, (that's Philadelphia, PA to you out of towners,) a part I had hardly ever visited before. I'd been looking for a junk furniture store that I'd been told about, to try and find some late 50's style furniture for a film I was working on. Anyhow, I was driving as slow as I could with the windows rolled up and the air conditioner on, checking out the shop signs, when I saw grey smoke starting to pour out from under my hood. I pulled over as soon as a space opened up and turned off the engine. It was then I noticed that the little idiot light labeled TEMP had come on and was glaring at me from the dashboard.

As soon as I opened the door, I could hear the radiator hissing and spitting like a cat backed into a corner. I knew that I couldn't even open the hood until the steam subsided, so I looked around to see where I was. I found that I was next to an intersection in an area with a few old shops, a dry cleaners and a couple of store fronts which had been boarded over for some time judging by the density of the graffiti. I figured that the worn looking pharmacy with its window full of cardboard advertisements all sun faded into pink and white, was the likeliest place to have a pay phone. I glanced at the car which was still sizzling and spitting, but at a reduced rate, and then remembered that I'd better know where I was in case someone could come out and help me. There were no street signs in sight, but a close inspection of the second floor above the Dry Cleaner showed that the street names had been painted on the wall in old Philadelphia style. I was at the corner of Thirty-fourth and Vine.

Glancing at the car again, it looked as though the steam had about run it's course, so I decided to put off the phone call until I could open the hood and determine how bad it was. As I stood staring at the car, the address "Thirty-fourth and Vine" kept popping up in my head, and asking for attention. It was so familiar, and yet I couldn't tie it to anything. I Knew I'd never been at Thirty-fourth and Vine before, and then I thought that maybe it was an address from a TV show or something like that. Maybe Beaver Cleaver had lived at Thirty-fourth and Vine, or Father Knows Best, or Donna Reed, but I couldn't tie it to any of them. They'd all lived in the middle of suburban blocks, and "Thirty-fourth and Vine" didn't sound like anything a screen writer would have assigned to the suburbs. It was a city address.

I stopped thinking about it as I decided that the hood looked like it might be safe to open. I reached through the grill, pushed up the locking lever, then the second catch, and raised the hood. The car was a big old 68 Monte Carlo, so that there weren't as many hoses to inspect as there are on modern cars, and I quickly determined that none of them had any obvious leaks. I began to hope that maybe I was going to get out of this with just a refill of water.

As I started toward the Pharmacy to ask about water, I discovered that I was whistling a song. This is something that happens to me a lot. In fact, most mornings I wake up with a song running through my head, probably the remnant of some strange musical dream. Unfortunately, it's almost always a song which I particularly don't like, and I try not to think about what that says about my subconscious. I realized that I was humming an old Searcher's tune, Love Potion Number Nine. I mentally sang through it until I reached the lyric describing the shop that the old Gypsy ran:

"She's got a pad down at Thirty-fourth and Vine,
Sellin' little bottles of love potion number nine."

So that's where I'd heard it before. I sent a note of appreciation to my subconscious for it's excellent research, and entered the store. I was immediately hit with the smell of an old drug store, made up of perfumed soaps, crisp disinfectants, and various elixirs and cough syrups. It took me right back to my childhood when all drugstores had smelled like this. The cashier was waiting on an elderly black woman in a dark brown dress with pale pink flowers on it. As they talked, I couldn't help but think about Love Potion Number Nine. What if it's story of a guy who hadn't scored since Nineteen fifty-six were true? Wouldn't it be a blast if there really had been a Gypsy selling her charms and potions here some 25 years ago? But then I thought that even if the song did refer to a true incident, the Thirty-fourth and Vine mentioned would have to be in England somewhere, as the Searchers had been a British Invasion group. Oh well.

When I finally got to the cashier and explained my problem, she told me that I'd have to ask the druggist, so I wound my way to the back of the store. The druggist was a little old man who glared at me from under a set of bristling grey eyebrows. He told me that he had nothing to put water in, but that I could buy a gallon of distilled water for a dollar nineteen. Just before I turned away from him to go and find it, on impulse I asked if there had ever been a Gypsy fortune teller around this block. The druggist looked at me as if I'd questioned his mother's legitamacy, and then spat out, "I thought I was through with that years ago, She's gone, it's been almost thirty years since she was here and that's all I have to say about it!" and then he huffed back through a door in the wall behind him.

I was fascinated to say the least. I found the plastic jug of water and took it up front to the cashier. She was a tall thin woman with her hair in a blonde beehive hairdo. Her makeup looked as though it had gotten progressively heavier as her color perception dimmed. I paid her for the water and then asked about the old Gypsy.

"There ain't been any Gypsy's here since I been here," she told me, "an I been here since '68. But there was a bunch of kids comin' in an askin' the same question, but that was way back when I first started. Sal the pharmacist, used to yell at 'em when they asked. I sure remember that!"

I thanked her for the information and took the water jug out to the car. I tried to get the radiator cap off, but it was still way too hot, and I had nothing to insulate my hand. I put the jug in the car and on impulse, walked across the intersection to the Dry Cleaners. A bell on the door jingled as I stepped inside, and from out of the back came a round older man with a pink bald head and rimless eyeglasses.

"What can I do you for?" he asked in a strong South Philly accent.

"I was wondering if you knew anything about an old Gypsy who used to have a place here about twenty-five years ago?"

The Dry Cleaner just stared at me for a second and then asked, "How old are you son?"

I told him that I was forty-five.

He nodded. "So that puts you in the second wave," he said, "the Searchers."

"That's right," I said, "but what do you mean the second wave?"

"The first wave was when the Clovers did it in 1959," he said.

"I don't remember that," I told him.

He just nodded. "Didn't think you did."

While I waited for him to tell me more, I looked around at the faded signs stuck to the walls; "Shirts expertly starched," "The Management is not responsible for articles left in pockets;" things like that. Finally I gave up and asked, "So what can you tell me?"

He motioned for me to follow him over to the plate glass window. Once there, he put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me forward until I could see where he was pointing. "That store, one in from the corner there next to Wilson's restaurant supply, is the one that used to be Madam Rue's."

"Really?" I asked.

"That's the one exactly," he told me and nodded again.

I couldn't figure out if he was just having fun with me or if he was really on the level. I wasn't sure what to say.

"Then you mean..."

"That's right," he answered, nodding, "most of the song is true, except for that bit at the end about love potion number ten, he never did come back here. I heard he was a New York kid, never did find out what brought him here in the first place."

I wasn't sure what he was talking about. "He being..."

"The Leiber kid, the one that wrote the words," He shook his head and looked passed me out of the window.

It wasn't until two days later that I looked it up and found that Love Potion Number Nine was a Leiber and Stoller song like a lot of others I'd grown up with, like Jailhouse Rock, Kansas City and Stand By Me which they wrote with Ben E. King. But at the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. I said, "Most of it was true?" just to say something.

The old man nodded agin. "Most of it. Of course he changed some things, mostly to make it rhyme I expect."

"Like what?"

"Oh, like," the old man screwed up his face and scratched at his head, "like it looking like India ink. As I remember it looked more like Vernor's Ginger Ale, kind of brownish."

I waited while he rubbed his lower lip with a knuckle, "Anything else?" I finally asked.

"Nothing really important. Stuff like mixin' it up in the sink. She had a special table all covered with little bottles an little clumps of herbs held together with rubber bands. No, she mixed everything right there at that table, I'm pretty certain, cut everything up real fine on a beat up little cutting board."

Whether this guy was kidding me or not, I realized that he sure knew the song a lot better than I did. "Did you ever go to the Gypsy's?" I asked.

"No," he said, shaking his head, "Until the song came out I never went in there at all. Didn't want anything to do with any Gypsies, let me tell you."

"Didn't like em?"

` "Wouldn't trust em any farther than I could throw em." He looked at me and then back out the window. "But, once you get to know em, you find out that they're just people, got some different customs and the like, but people are people, for good and bad."

"I guess he must've made up the part about kissing the cop," I said, trying to get him talking about the song again.

"What?" he turned to look at me then. "No, no, he kissed the cop all right. That you can bet on! Kissed old Joe Harrigan right on the cheek. Joe was so surprised he didn't know what to make of it. He always said that if the kid had kissed him on the lips there wouldn't have been any song cause he'd have killed him!" The old man laughed and shook his head again.

"Well what did the cop do?" I asked, "Did he arrest him?"

"Nah," the old man said and headed back behind his counter, where he picked up some scattered straight pins as he talked. "You got to remember that this was 1958, and it wasn't like today with Aids and everything to worry about. No, Harrigan said he just thought it was one of them fraternity pranks or like that, so he didn't really even go after him. Just chased him a little for appearances you know. Nope, Harrigan said he wouldn't even have remembered it if it hadn't been for that song comin' out like it did. Seemed for a while there, every time you turned around they were playing it." He paused to pick up a couple more straight pins and put them in a little glass saucer. "You can ask Harrigan himself about it if you're so inclined. He only lives about three blocks from here."

"You don't think he'd mind?" I asked. I was now really caught up in finding out what was true.

"I doubt it. In fact I think it's probably been almost twenty years since he's even been asked about it. He'd probably be tickled pink." The old man wrote the address down for me on the back of a card which read, "Your dry cleaning will be ready on," and then had a dotted line to write a date.

"Think he'll be home now?" I asked, all thoughts of my car now long gone from my head.

"He's almost eighty years old with a bum leg, where's he gonna go?" asked the dry cleaner.

Joe Harrigan's house was more like five blocks away, but I felt my excitement mount as I closed in on it. The idea that what I had taken as a nothing little pop 40 song, was actually a historical document, describing something that had really taken place, excited me in a way that I can't explain. It was like finding the Magna Carta in with a pack of baseball cards you'd just paid a quarter for. Or, maybe not, but it felt that way to me right then.

I had just rung Joe Harrigan's bell for the second time and was wondering whether the Dry Cleaner had set me up when I heard a deadbolt being slid back, and then the door opened.

"Yeah?" the old man asked, peering at me over a bolt and chain.

"I was sent by ahh..." I panicked when I realized that I didn't know the dry cleaner's name. Then I remembered the card he had given me and dug it out of my pocket; Rinaldo's dry cleaning.

"Mr. Rinaldo gave me your address," I said offering him the card. Harrigan glared at it, and then back at me. "He said that you could tell me about an old Gypsy who used to have a store at Thirty-fourth and Vine?"

As soon as I mentioned the word Gypsy, Harrigan's frown dissolved into a smile. "So you want to hear about Madam Rue," he said with a thoughtful smile. "Just a second," and he shut the door to undo the chain and then opened it again. "Let's sit out here on the porch," he said, "we've got a bit of shade now."

I followed him over to two old rocking chairs with caned seats. They both had been painted a forest green. We sat down and Harrigan said, "So you've come about the song." I nodded.. "You wouldn't be with the movie people, would you?" he asked glancing over in my direction.

I was surprised by his question, and was unsure how to answer. "I work for a film production company," I began.

"And you want to know what happened for the movie," the old man said, and he suddenly stood up. "Let me get something that you might want to see," he said and stepped back inside of the house. I noticed that he moved with a pronounced limp in his left leg. He was a tall man, taller than I am, with wavy salt and pepper hair and a face that was still handsome in a grizzled Irish sort of way. A minute later he was back on the porch and handed me a photograph in a gold frame. I looked and saw a black and white version of a much younger Joe Harrigan standing proudly in his police uniform. He had been a good looking young man too..

"That's what I looked like when it happened," he said, easing himself into the chair next to mine. "Who do you think is gonna play me in the movie?" he asked.

I was forced to admit that I didn't know anything about a movie.

"I heard tell," Harrigan told me, "that they were making the song into a movie, I thought maybe you were with them."

I shook my head. "I'm with a movie company, but not THE movie Company," I explained.

"Oh well," he said, "It probably won't play around here anyway. It seems nothin' I want to see ever does. They all play out at those suburb theaters that show six or eight movies at once. You know the ones I mean?"

I nodded, "I would like to hear about Madam Rue," I said. "I talked to the druggist first, before I talked to the Dry Cleaner, but he wouldn't tell me anything."

Harrigan chuckled. "That's Sal," he said, "He hated her allright. Couldn't stand the idea that she worked right next to his spic 'n span modern pharmacy selling potions from out of the dark ages. And that's just the way he used to say it too, "from out of the dark ages," Harrigan stopped and shook his head.

"Did she do a lot of business?" I asked.

"No not really. It was the older ones who went there mostly. You know, the ones that were born in the old country and still liked the old ways better'n going to the doctor. No, I don't expect that she saw a whole lot of business before the song, but after, that was a different kettle of fish."

I waited for him to continue, but he seemed a million miles away just then. I finally had to ask, "So after the song was out, a lot of people came to her?"

"Are you kidding?" Harrigan asked, looking me straight in the eye. "They were practically coming out of the woodwork! She could've sold twenty times as much of the potions as she did, but she couldn't make it up fast enough. The funny thing is though, when I delivered the papers to her, tellin' her she'd have to leave, she almost seemed relieved, can you believe it? Here she was makin' more money than she'd probably even seen in her life, and she was almost grateful to have to give it all up. Some people," he said, and shook his head again.

"Maybe she just didn't like the publicity," I offered.

"Maybe she just didn't like the work," said Harrigan. "In my years on the force, I saw a lot of em like that. Do anything to get out of workin', have fifteen kids just to stay on welfare," he shook his head in disgust. "Course, with Madam Rue I guess anything could've been true."

"Why did she have to leave?" I asked, to steer him back towards the subject.

"It was Sal," said Harrigan, "who owns the drugstore. When he saw twice as many people goin' in and out of her place as had ever come into his, he had a fit. Just about frothed at the mouth. He got a court order closin' em down so fast it'd make your head spin."

"Why?" I asked, "for practicing medicine without a license?"

"No, didn't need anything like that. No, he just found out who owned the store and told em she was there, they was the ones to get the court order, the ones that owned the store."

This time I nodded and sat in thought for a moment. "How did you feel when you first head the song?" I asked him eventually.

"Oh, I was surprised, I can tell you that," he told me, "I had just about forgot that it ever happened and then I hear it playin' on the radio! I had written the kid's name down when it had happened, I used to do that when I wanted to throw a scare into 'em. So I went back and looked in my papers an there it was, "Jerry Leiber", and then I got ahold of the record, there it was, in little print just under the title of the song, "Leiber, Stoller" it said. You know it wasn't till then that I really believed that that song was really about me. I mean all the details added up, Madam Rue, the gold tooth, Thirty-fourth and Vine, but somehow it was still hard to believe that it wasn't just a coincidence. There was a few on the force that I don't think ever did believe me about it."

"That must've been something," I said, "just to hear it on the radio like that."

"Oh I'll tell you that it was." He paused and his eyes squinted as if he were staring back into the past. "It was like all of a sudden I was famous or something. A few even asked for my autograph when I was out on patrol there, if you can believe it.

"When I think back on it, it seems like that part of my life was almost magical somehow. It was like a miracle had happened. Every time I heard that song it hit me. An then when it come out again six years later, it was like it started all over again. I even got interviewed for the newspaper, but I never saw the article, so I don't know if it ever got printed or not. But it was something."

He paused again, and I was going to ask him another question when he added, "Yeah, it's kind of kept all of us who were part of it in touch with each other, like we're in some private club or something. Like we're all tied together by that song, and the way it changed our lives all those years ago. Course, now there's really only the three of us left, well four, it you count Sal, but he won't ever talk about it."

"Who are the others?" I asked.

"Well it's just me an Ernie who sent you over here, and Sal like I said, and then there's Maria who was Madam Rue's daughter. She was only a little girl when it happened, probably only eight or nine, but through my contacts on the force I was always able to keep track of her wherever she's set up shop. It's still called Madam Rue's, no matter where she is." He stopped and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "She still acts glad to see me when I stop in, but it's been quite a few years now."

"Madam Rue's daughter still runs a shop in the city?" I asked, my voice showing my disbelief.

Harrigan nodded. "That right," he said, "I think she even pays rent where she's set up now. She's getting too old to keep getting bounced around from place to place like she used to."

"You don't think that she still sells Love Potion Number Nine do you?"

Harrigan shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck at the same time. "I doubt it. She makes most of her money reading the cards now, and lighting candles for people, things like hat. You can't really get away with selling potions these days, too many laws. Besides, you don't want to mess with that stuff anyway. It was really nasty."

"Nasty how?" I asked.

"Well it wasn't so much a love potion as it was one of those whatcha-call-ems, like Spanish fly."

"An aphrodisiac?"

"That's just what it was. That's what the Leiber kid didn't understand. He thought it would make women fall in love with him if he took it, but it worked just the opposite. He was supposed to give it to the women he wanted. I don't know how, slip it in their drink or something. But anyway, he got it ass backward and took it himself and ended up kissing me!" Harrigan shook his head but there was a smile on his face.

"Could you tell me where Madam Rue's daughter has her store now?" I asked.

"It's right across town, at fifty-third and Spring Garden."

I thanked him and shook his hand. He told me to tell Maria that he'd sent me, and told me to offer her a ten spot to talk with me.

I hurried back to where my car was parked. It had cooled completely by then, so I re-inspected the hoses and belts. I couldn't find anything wrong, so I filled the radiator with the distilled water I'd bought, refilled the jug at Ernie's, just to be safe, started her up and took off across town.

I kept the air conditioner off, which made it a hot ride, but I eventually got there with no problem. I parked the car on Spring Garden and got out to look around. At first I couldn't find it, I think because I was looking for a gypsy store front like I'd seen in an old movie or something. Actually it was right there in front of my nose, but it had a yellow plastic sign, the square kind that have fluorescent lamps in them so they can light up at night. The sign said, "Madam Rue's," in big red block letters, and underneath it said, "Fortunes told, Tarot & Palms Read." The front window had a big drawing of a hand with all of the major lines marked, a chart of the astrological signs, and a spread of Tarot cards arranged in a fan. A sign on the door said she took Visa and Mastercharge.

A little bell rang when I opened the door, and a young Gypsy woman in traditional colored skirts and scarves swept into the room from behind a beige curtain. "How can I help you?" she asked, "A reading perhaps? You have questions which need to be answered?"

I was stuck for a moment on just how to answer. Finally I asked, "Are you Maria?"

"What do you want Maria for?" she asked with a frown.

"An old friend of hers, Joe Harrigan, suggested that I get in touch with her, and I can pay, I'm not looking to take her time for nothing."

The Young Gypsy scowled at me, her mouth a rigid line. "Wait here," she said finally and disappeared behind the curtain. As it had opened, I'd gotten a brief glance behind it, enough to see a thick dark-complected man with a black mustache, sitting at a Formica topped kitchen table eating scrambled eggs. Then the curtain swung back together and I was alone again.

I looked around at the room I was in. There were two leather and chrome chairs arranged on either side of a small round table. The walls were covered with strings of plastic colored beads like people used to hang in doorways in the sixties, alternating with vertical arrangements of colored cloth with a wide weave like gauze that I had seen before in window displays. The total effect had the right feel.

The curtains opened again and another Gypsy woman, this one in her forties, but still very attractive, stepped into the room.

"How can I help you?" she asked.

"If you're Maria, Joe Harrigan suggested that I talk to you. And I can pay you for your time," I said, reaching into my pocket.

She waved away the suggestion. "We can deal with that later. Have a seat," and she gestured to one of the chairs.

I plunked myself down in mine, while she settled gracefully in hers with a soft swish of many skirts. She adjusted a black fringed shawl about her shoulders and gave me a questioning look from her long lashed, black lined eyes.

"Like I said," I began, "Joe Harrigan gave me the address of your place. He suggested that I could talk with you."

"And how is Mr. Harrigan," she asked, carefully folding her hands in her lap.

Her question took me by surprise. "Ahhh, he seemed good," I stammered, "We talked about the ahhh... the song, and all the things that've happened since."

"My Mother's song," said Maria, and a smile came to her face.

"It must've been something to have your Mother in a song that was played so much..."

She looked at me, frowned slightly, and then seemed to arrive at a decision. She leaned back in her chair and let herself relax. "When it first happened," she said, "I was only nine years old. I knew it was special because my Papa and my uncles would turn the radio up loud when it would come on, and my Mama would look happy and embarrassed." She paused and momentarily stared at the floor while gently sucking on her lower lip. "I don't know but I thought that lots of people had Mothers in songs on the radio. We were not as much a part of the American culture back then as most of our kids are today. But in the sixties, when it came out again, I was a teenager, and I was really proud that it was my Mama who's name was on the radio. I was most impressed with being able to go out and buy this record which had Mama's name on it. That was very special."

She looked out of the window then, and the soft light coming through the curtains erased most of the lines on her face and it was as if the years had dropped away and she was 17 again. Her jet black hair and big dark eyes appealed to me in a way that made me start to feel like a shy teenager. She began to talk without looking back at me.

"The third time it came out..." she began.

"I didn't know there was a third time!" I interrupted, immediately sorry that I had.

"It was in 1972," she told me, "the Coasters had a hit with it that time, but it was a hard time for me." She looked back at the window. "Mama was very sick then, the doctors told us it was cancer. They gave her treatments, which took away all of her hair and embarrassed her terribly. And then the treatments didn't really do any good and she was dying anyway." She turned and looked me full in the face then and I saw that her eyes were tearing up. I wanted to touch her, to comfort her, but I just nodded and gave her a little smile.

"It is hard," she finally went on," for a Gypsy to be in the hospital. Harder than for other people. The cold white walls, the awful smells, the people in uniforms, it is like being in the camp of the enemy. Everything is strange, nothing is as it should be.

"We Gypsies have very strong traditions of how our lives should be led, traditions that are the opposite of everything that is a hospital. It was terribly hard to see Mama in there," she said, then turned away and looked back out of the window. I could tell that she was struggling to hold back the tears.

My insides were in a turmoil too. I wanted to do something, my heart broke for her, and yet I couldn't take a chance on breaching that wall of dignity and self control with which she surrounded herself. It would have been unthinkable, and so I just stared at her, and then at the floor.

Finally I said, "Some years ago I lost my wife to cancer. I think it's horrible for anyone to leave someone you love in a hospital. It always felt like the camp of the enemy to me too."

She looked at me then, stared right into my eyes as if she were seeing something deep inside me. My eyes had begun to fill with tears, and it was only through the strongest self control that I was able to blink them back. I took a long breath to steady myself. "You were telling me about the song," I said but my voice sounded strained.

She smiled at me briefly and then began to speak again. "While she was in there was when the radio began to play her song again," she said softly. "It was like a miracle to me. Each time I heard it, I felt as though it was a special message to me, telling me that Mama was important not just to me, but to the whole world." She turned and looked back at me. "I know it sounds silly to say that now..."

"Not to me," I said, and my voice broke a little, so I didn't say anything else.

"I did something then that I had never done before," she went on after a little. "I called up the radio station and talked to the disc jockey. I explained that my Mother was sick and that it was her favorite song and asked him if he could play it at three that afternoon. He said that he would try. Then when I went to visit Mama that afternoon, I brought a little transistor radio, and at two minutes to three I turned it on. My aunt and my Papa didn't think it was a good idea and told me to turn it off, but I just said, `Listen,' and kept it on. Then at three o'clock the Disc Jockey said, `And now especially for someone sick in the hospital' and played Love Potion Number Nine. Mama was so happy, she was smiling so big! And then when I told her that the song had come out again and that it was back on the radio, she started to cry. I was afraid that I had upset her, but she reached out and took my hand and she said, `No matter what happens to me, at least my song will still go on and people will still remember... Madam Rue.'"

She shook her head then and looked at me as though there was nothing more to say.

"She was right you know," I told her after a pause. "Here it's been 30 some years and I've come to see you today because I remember Madam Rue."

She reached across the table then and took my hand and held it in both of hers. "You don't know what that means to me," she said.

I couldn't say anything then so I just nodded. "It's a great song," I eventually managed to get out, "People will be playing it for a long time."

She was still holding my hand when she said, "Would you like to see a bottle of Love Potion Number Nine" Who knows, maybe you'd want to try a little sip yourself?"

"Really?" I asked.

She nodded. "I have all of her recipes, and I still practice the old remedies and keep them around."

"I'd love to see it!" I said.

"Then come with me," she said, and rose gracefully from her chair. "I think you should be upstairs with me, not down here when you try it. I don't want you kissing any cops."

She gave me a dazzling smile then, and I followed her out through the curtains in the back of the shop. She introduced me to her daughter and son-in-law, and then led me up the back stairs to her room.

Copyright 1997 by Luther Conant III

 
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  Write to Luther at Luther@lutheroutloud.com. Tell him what you think, what you know, how you feel, or what made you feel like writing.
 
All images, text, animations,and music 2000 By Luther C. Conant III (unless where otherwise noted.)