Elf Acquisition

It’s expensive because you pick one up in person, but having a North Pole elf is worth it. Santa is downsizing and wants the elves in good homes. Besides making toys, an elf can cook! Remember, they get cranky in hot climates.

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Faith and Doing

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“Roland, we have a problem,” I said. “The water that caused this buckled basement floor is coming from the upper front porch, leaking through cracks and bricks, entering the basement around the door and more cracks.”

He said, “Call someone.”

And we found ourselves facing a home repair project, the likes of which we have never before seen.

As homeowners, we manage basic repairs, upkeep and décor on our own. Roland picks paint colors like a professional, and I wield a mean paint roller. Sew curtains? Check. Design the landscaping? Check. But fix cracks in bricks to stop a major water leakage problem? Um. No, we have never done that.

So I called Someone. It turned out Someone did not do that kind of job, but he made recommendations on what he thought should be done. I am not exaggerating when I say that his recommendations would probably cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Now we have had experience with concrete and mortar on a Habitat for Humanity house build. They trusted us, people whose lives revolved far from hardhats, to pour a foundation and mortar the cinder block “legs” that will hold a house above ground in New Orleans. To my mind, that seems like a Very Important Part of a house, not to be trusted to the unskilled. But they had faith, and there we were doing that job.

With those 3 days of experience in mind, I queried why we could not do the job ourselves on our own home. Now it is one thing to pick out a paint color, paint the walls, then decide that the color you picked looks like baby poo, and back you go to the paint store. It is quite another to embark on a project that may not work, and, if it didn’t, would necessitate calling on professionals to not only solve the problem, but to possibly undo any further damage we may have caused trying to do it ourselves.

We channeled the trust and faith that Habitat had in us, and decided to go for it.

I don’t have a happy ending yet. This is a project still in process. We had beautiful weather last week, and made good progress. Roland ground out the old mortar between the bricks, and I repointed those joints with the new. Repointing is the correct term brick people use, which comes from using a pointed trowel to mush the mortar in the newly created channels. I, however, found that pointed trowel too difficult to use, and made up my own method with a combination of a small 2-inch wide trowel, one that is about ¼-inch wide, and fingers. If you have done this job before, please don’t cringe. It seems to be working for me.

One thing, however, I found out the hard way–mortar can burn your skin. There is a warning on the bag that I read a couple of hours too late. At first, I thought that using my fingers over the rough textured mortar had merely caused abrasions. I painfully discovered that under the abrasions were hole-like burns in my fingertips. Now I wear the nitrile gloves that are recommended. Nitrile gloves are non-latex, available in disposable form, and impervious to chemicals. I wear a double layer.

After we finish sealing up the cracks, we will apply brick sealant, and do something, yet to be determined, to fix the underneath side of the porch. In the picture, you can see that you must go up a flight of stairs to reach the porch and front door so there is an underneath ceiling through the archway.

Trust and faith, and maybe a pinch of naiveté. I believe this will work. When I feel like throwing in the trowel, I remind myself how much money will be saved, and how satisfying it will be to say that we fixed it ourselves. That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? To be able to complete a job that you are not trained for and have success brings great personal satisfaction.

The Rooster and the Mouse

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As the plane descended through the calm blue sky to the depressive gray atmosphere of Prague, my disposition matched the descent. Only one day before, I received a blood-spattered missive from my husband, Mark, to “come quick”. He had a knack for getting himself into trouble so initially I was not worried, and the letter arrived by post. In my mind, that reduced the urgency; however, the blood added a new and disturbing element. Fear and anxiety battled for top billing in my mind, as did, unexpectedly, excitement.

The scribbled letter instructed me to find a man named Ludvik Myska holding a card that read “Mimi Steel”. My mood brightened. An alias! Fun! I found him easily. Once settled in Ludvik’s beautiful, black S-Class Mercedes, the time for answers had come, or so I thought. We only spoke for a short time.

“Ms. Steel,” Ludvik said, calling me by my alias. “Your husband, Marek, has sent me to take you to a safe house.”

I needed more. “Ludvik, is Mark at that house? What kind of trouble is he in? And how did you and Mark know I would be on that flight?”

He replied, “You should use your husband’s Czech name. Marek Kohout. I cannot reveal the nature of his trouble other than to tell you he was kidnapped from his mother’s house by members of the Broucek family. Before the kidnapping, I worked with him on a special project. Your flight? We had eyes on you.”

“That is so… wait… what is this project? Eyes?” His brief answers led to more questions, yet I sensed there would be no more answers during the drive. Ludvik turned up the radio, and I fell asleep, exhausted from my long trip from the States.

I awoke to an even darker gray atmosphere, unaware of how long we traveled or even the direction. This had to be the safe house and my bag sat by large, wooden double doors. Surrounded by forest, this centuries-old house appeared to be a palace. Only three stories tall, and quite wide, one could see there must have been at least 40 rooms on the main floor. There was an air of elegance, but the disrepair was evident even in the dark. I imagined the house must have once bustled with activity, but there was no sign of life now, not even from Ludvik.

I tiptoed across the overgrown, flat yard and began to push the heavy doors open. Ludvik yanked the door open from the inside, and growled, “There is no one here! A woman was to meet you, but I cannot find her. The caretaker is also missing. Still, I cannot take you all the way to Kutna Hora. It is too dangerous.”

“Are you leaving me here?” I whimpered, excitement and fun no longer on my radar.

Exasperated, he said, “Yes, I said the danger was too great. The rooms are not locked. Pick one and do not come out until morning, your appearance disguised. If you see anyone, remember, you are Mimi Steel.”

As he drove off, I took some deep breaths, stepped into the house, and wryly thought that the caretaker must not have understood his job. Inside, grandeur resonated, but most was hidden by a thick layer of dust. I gathered my courage and headed up the stairs, each step shouting my presence. Between creaks, I heard moaning. I ruled out ghosts though did not completely dismiss the idea. I pulled open the first door in the hall and found a man, lying on the floor, blood pooled under his head.

I leaned over to check his wounds, and felt we were not alone. Slapping his hand around my mouth, Ludvik grabbed me, dragged me to my room, and shoved me onto the bed. He hissed, “Stupid woman! Follow instructions, and don’t put your nose where it doesn’t belong! That man is the caretaker and now I must take care of him.” He thrust something toward me and snarled, “Do what is on this paper! I will be back for you in the morning.”

My hands trembled as I read: cut hair, dye it red, wear dress in cupboard. The nefarious nature of the events frightened me … and intrigued. But first things, first; except for the nap in the car, I hadn’t slept in 35 hours.

Painting the Pets

Earlier this year I took an online painting course called “Pet Portraits”. Having discovered I have a modicum of talent, I have taken several of these courses with pretty good results, plus they are fun and, having only taken 1 art class (not counting elementary school) I always learn quite a bit.

When I started this pet series, it soon dawned on me that the step is to draw the animal. I have never considered drawing to be my strong suit, but in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ve tried different techniques or combinations of techniques to get the likeness on the canvas. None are a favorite yet, but I have managed to get past the drawing and onto the painting.

I am blessed with plenty of models, though I’m using photos instead of trying to get cooperation from the pets. I started with Laura and Thomas’ dogs, Sam and Ella, aka the “Poison Twins”. Ella was the first attempt, then Sam, and then I got fancy and did them in pink and blue (this was before I knew Laura was pregnant).

From time to time, I’ll show off the paintings here. This is one of those times.

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Critique: Her ears are way too big and her mouth looks a little off. Not bad for a first try.

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Critique: Overall, I’m really happy with this one. Thomas thinks he looks like a communist here.

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Critique: Ella looks like a pig. I was going for a loose warm-up kind of painting with less detail.

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Critique: This one is a success. I love the way the blue turned out.

Thanks for looking!

The Mouse and the Rooster

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“Welcome to the Vaclav Havel Airport Prague. The local time is 5:02 pm, local temperature is 0⁰C. That’s 32⁰F for the American folks. Please stay seated until the plane has come to a stop and the seatbelt signs are off.”

Loosening my grip on the armrests, I leaned over to the woman sitting next to me and said, “Oh, so glad that’s over. Is Prague your final destination?” She glared at me and barked, “Yes!” She must be as tired as I am.

Standing in line at Passport Control, I kept reading and re-reading the letter Mark left for me. “Dear Jenny, Help! I’m at my mother’s, and things are bad.” Bad? What does he mean, bad? “Look for a tall man with dark hair. He’s a detective named Ludvik Myska. He will bring you to me. He thinks your name is Mimi Steel. The blood on this paper is not mine. Kisses.”

“Ludvik?”

“Yes, that is me.  Is this all you have? I thought tall, beautiful women came with a lot of baggage.”

Running to keep up with him, I said, “Is Mark in trouble? What is happening? Are we going to his mother’s?”

Strong, silent type described Ludvik. I did not get answers. Cold and gray described Prague; and dark, since the sun goes down so early in November. We climbed into a beautiful, black Mercedes sedan.

Catching my breath, I blurted, “Who are you?”

“I am, how do you say, private eye. Marek Kohout – your husband’s real name – hired me before he went missing. Do you not know his business?”

This all sounded like crazy talk, and my nerves were already shot from the flight. It was becoming all too clear that Mark was hiding something.

Gruffly, Ludvik asked me, “Are you hungry or anything because we’ll be on the road a couple of hours. Otherwise, please shut up.”

Once we left Prague it was even darker, and the forest closed in on us like one of Grimm’s fairy tales. Jet lag had caught up, and just like that, I was out.

When the car came to a stop, I heard Ludvik whispering into his phone, and he was angry. Before I was even fully awake, he wrenched open my door and I nearly fell out of the car.

“Are we here? It looks like the middle of nowhere.”

He growled, “Shut up! This is where you get out. I cannot take you all the way to Kutna Hora. It is too dangerous. You must follow this path about 300 meters. At the end is an old hotel. Go in and they will give you a key to a room.”

He drove off, leaving me standing alone. Shaking hard, I took some deep breaths and stepped onto the path and into the forest. All I needed now was an evil witch to jump out and my nightmare would be complete.

The hotel, more like a haunted house in ruins, had seen better days. There was no sign of an innkeeper, just a key on the desk for room 31. Creepy noises echoed everywhere and then, moaning! The innkeeper lay in a pool of blood, under the desk.

“Shit! Are you ok? Oh, my God! I need to find you help!” I was leaning over this poor man, when I felt a presence behind me. Slapping his hand around my mouth, Ludvik grabbed me, dragged me to my room, and shoved me onto the bed.

He hissed, “Stupid woman! Follow instructions, and don’t put your nose where it doesn’t belong!” Thrusting an old, wrinkled piece of paper in my face, “do what is on this paper! I will be back for you in the morning.”

My hands trembled. I had to cut my hair, dye it red, and wear a dress that was in the cupboard. I hadn’t slept in 35 hours, that came first.

October’s Focus on Fiction is on noir. I’m giving both fiction and noir a try all in one go.