Sitting cramped in my window seat, I wondered why the moon had this mocking smile on his face. My heliphone didn’t ring. Maybe because of secret regulations between Heaven and air traffic control? I still didn’t know the whereabouts of Anita’s husband’s prison. Stumbling through customs on arrival at dawn, a voice told me that the cab driver would know. “Oslo fengsel,” he confirmed. After going through town, he turned into a long driveway lined by leafless trees and snow-covered grounds, ending at a red-stone somber building. “You wait,” I said and went in. The guards watched me, quizzically. I was dressed as a priest, my faith-inspiring white collar shining trustingly behind the white scarf around my neck. I didn’t speak a word of Norwegian but had many times mumbled Anita’s husband’s name, Wilhelm Lassen, that bloody Viking who’d trounced me with Anita.
I sat in the bare visiting room when Wilhelm Lassen entered, took the only other seat, his face one question mark. I gazed at his hands. As I’d suspected, he didn’t wear rings in prison. I hoped he spoke a bit of English.
“My name’s Father John,” I said. “I’m bringing you a final word from Anita.”
The man’s face grew grey, his lips tightened, his eyes squinted. “Anita is dead,” he said with a rolling accent. “I did not do nothing. She suffered shortage of breath. Who are you?”
“Her confessor when she lived with you in Geneva. She left this small package to hand you in case she’d die before you.” I pulled a blue jewelry box from my pocket and handed it to him. In it was a golden ring I’d dipped with a tweezer into a small base with liquid cyanide in the airplane toilet a short while before landing. A friend at a chemical factory had given me the deadly stuff, believing I’d use it to kill persistent mice in my basement. If Wilhelm would slide the ring on his finger, his skin would absorb the cyanide and death would follow soon.
Wilhelm opened the box and stared at it. “My wedding ring?” he asked. “I thought I’d lost it. Rar,” (‘strange’) he muttered. Then he shifted it onto his ring finger, looking sad.
The guard came in and warned me my time was up. I stood, said farewell to Wilhelm, and left as fast as I could. The cab driver took me rapidly to the airport, and I grabbed the first flight out to Amsterdam to erase my footsteps, hopefully having left pandemonium at the Oslo fensel. In Amsterdam, I got the last seat in a crowded United flight to Washington, mission accomplished, I reckoned.
Back home at night, the heliphone rang. It was Anita.
“Thank you, Johnnyboy. He’s nicely burning in Hell, screaming his lungs out.”
“But won’t I be punished?”
“No, you’ll be rewarded in Heaven when you get here in a while. Can’t wait.” Her heavenly voice drifted away.
“Crime pays in the afterlife,” I whispered and fell asleep, uncomfortable about Anita’s eagerness. Wilhelm’s death was reported as a suicide.
Once you reach a certain age the heliphone starts ringing. It always does around or a while after midnight. Nowadays, it rings more often. Past loves are calling in from the afterlife. The other night it was Amalia.
“I didn’ t see you at my funeral. Why didn’t you come? Why not bring me any flowers? After all, we spent some good times together.”
“Oh, dearest Amalia! Your voice sounds just like before. Australia was a bit far for me. Where are you now?”
“Much farther than Australia. You remember that day in the dunes?”
“Wonderful. I often dream of it.”
“So how come you didn’t marry me?”
“Blame it on my immaturity. I didn’t realize how good you would’ve been for me.”
“That figures; you were proposing all over the place after you left me. Are you any happier now?”
“It would’ve been nicer to share our lives together. If I’d had more than one life, I would’ve done it.”
“I’ll keep a seat reserved for you here then. Till soon.”
The heliphone broke off. That “soon” gave me the shivers. I got up and made myself a stiff Martini. What did she know?
Earlier this week, I got another call, from Irene.
“Nobody came to my funeral. Only Cindy, you remember, our bridesmaid, and that bloody husband of mine who’d left me by myself most of the time. Why did you divorce me? “
“Probably for the same reason your second husband left you alone.”
“We had so much fun together, don’t you remember that sofa?”
“I do, delightful, but you embezzled my money.”
“Come on. All that paper’s just monopoly money. You can’t take it over here.”
“What’s over here?”
“The purgatory. I don’t know why they put me here. It’s always cold. I spent time enough in jail.”
“Terrible. It surprised me you got yourself married again.”
“I got him the same way I got you.”
“By pretending he’d made me pregnant.”
“Yeah, I remember that. I think the purgatory is fine for you.”
The line broke off. I shivered again and took another Lorazepam. Was I lucky I got rid of her. She took all my money and still keeps calling me. That heliphone is a nightmare.
Mid-week wasn’t any better. It was Marilou, the fat girl from Switzerland, who I heard via the grapephone had suddenly passed away.
“I got heart trouble because I was overweight.”
“I’m so sorry, Marilou. I guess you’ve got plenty to eat now and can’t die anymore.”
“I still hate you. You only made love to me in the Alps because you got high rubbing my big boops. You were a pervert.”
“I remember your telling me that. I broke my back lifting you up all the time because you couldn’t stay up on your skis.”
“I offered you my millions of Swiss Francs, but you only wobbled in between my boops, said ‘Ahhh,’ and left me.”
“You told me the Swiss tycoon you married did it for you boops too.”
“He was supposed to go before me. Now he’s got all my money and married an ultra slim pin-up from Vanity Fair.”
“Are you calling him too?”
“His phone is off the hook. I hate Vanity Fair.”
The heliphone died away. Marilou was one of those sad moments in life you want to forget but keep being reminded of. How did she get my number?
Last night was the worst ever. It was Anita, my biggest regret in love life.
“I wish I’d married you.”
“A bit late to tell me that now. What happened?”
“My husband murdered me.”
“Oh no! Why?”
“Because I kept dreaming aloud at night mentioning your name, saying that I loved you.”
“I hope they put him on death row.”
“Death row does not exist in my country. But hell does here.”
“Awful. You think I could do anything?”
“Go to his prison and poison him. I want him in hell right now where they’ll knife him with red-burning forks every second.”
“But they’d catch me and put me in prison as well.”
“Don’t worry. I’m told we have our ways up here and I’ll protect you.”
“But I won’t get you back, Anita. What’s the point?”
“You’ll be here soon enough, darling, and we’ll live happily ever after.”
That was enough to whip me into a frenzy and I swallowed two Lorazepams, but nonetheless, I stayed awake all night, shaking.
I’m on my way to Oslo now with a dose of cyanide wrapped in foil paper and my heliphone in my pocket to get word where that prison is. Pray for my soul.
Our fifth book, ‘Francine – Dazzling Daughter of the Mountain State’ has been out for a few short months, and we are bringing it to our readers’ attention!
Like Fiona in ‘Enchanting The Swan’, Francine, the bright and beautiful West Virginian, was born at the College of William & Mary. She was one of those fabulous young students I met in the midst of our daughter’s sorority circle, their sorority house, and the sunken garden.
But it was the mountains of beautiful West Virginia and the contrasting devastation of its coal country, which spirited Francine’s story. How could such bad economic and adverse environmental management destroy so many happy families and throw them into desperation and suffering? A repetition of Upton Sinclair’s gripping tale of King Coal?
Francine is graduating first in class at William & Mary’s Mason Business School in 2010 when she is confronted with the horrible mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville along Coal River in West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners lost their lives due to gross mismanagement of mine safety. It spurs her to forego a lucrative career in investment banking and join OHARA Mining Inc., the New York-based international mining company which has its roots in West Virginia. She will never forget the fate of those twenty-nine miners and attends the unveiling of their memorial in Whitesville in 2012 on behalf of her company. Her whole life will be dedicated to advance the lives of the company’s miners she works for.
Why place a novel about a promising girl in a mining company? Why not jewelry, fashion or music like A Coal Miner’s Daughter, agents asked whom I offered the story at Writers conferences. It would choke off a certain group of readers. Well, so be it: Francine took up the fight, and she made it up in the corporate world.
Throughout the novel, she faces difficult issues, from fights in Congress and with a belligerent anti-coal EPA to financial and pollution problems with OHARA’s gold and bauxite investments in the Guyanas of the Caribbean, in Georgetown Guyana, Paramaribo and Suriname River, Suriname. She is sent to Sumatra for her mining engineering expertise to help rescue miners in an OHARA mine who got trapped inside after an earthquake.
And she battles with China on corruptive practices she discovers in OHARA. She participates in rallies of the United Mine Workers with Senators Shelley Moore Capito and Manchin speaking for miners’ rights for health care and pensions.
I found Francine’s family home in Beckley, on Timber Ridge Drive, visited the nearby Woodrow Wilson Highschool where she graduated, and admired the spectacular West Virginian scenery where she went trout-fishing with her father in the New Gorge River.
To their credit, Kirkus Reviews recognized Francine’s perseverance and that of the miners she stands up for and gave the manuscript a resounding positive critique. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/john-schwartz/francine/.
Just one click takes you to a good read!
Ever invited to lunch to celebrate the tenth birthday of your grandson? Well, we were. So, Grandma and Grandpa trot to the restaurant. Grandson Preston John (PJ for short) is the ‘All-American boy’ who likes to play foot, basket, and baseball (the sports his father likes). He’s actually quite good at it (his Grandpa being a Dutchman likes soccer better and has never been able to understand American football with those harnessed bulky guys tumbling over each other all the time). PJ’s eight-year-old sister Sadie likes soccer too, even makes goals, but is more into ballet dancing. PJ is reportedly good at math but doesn’t like reading books (his dad doesn’t either), this to this writing Grandpa’s chagrin. But I am digressing.
Grandpa, having been invited, ordered some kind of overpriced steak salade with French fries, a meal on the menu that reminded him of his old Brussels’ times where the weather is always gray too. Had he known he had to pay the bill even though invited, he would have ordered just a plain chicken soup. Anyway, toward the end of the chatty lunch, Grandma signals with her handy fingers (so that everybody sees it) Grandpa has to pay the bill. Up he goes, but on his way to the cashier (his daughter – ‘Aunty Sammie’- says she checked it for correctness – how nice these kids are), he is ‘accosted’ by PJ:
In so many words PJ says, “You must give twenty percent.”
“Give twenty percent? What for? Who says?”
“Is he paying the bill, then?” Grandpa asks.
“No, you pay.”
“You know what that means, give twenty percent?”
“A tip for the waiter. But why should I give the waiter money? The bill is already far too high.”
“Daddie likes him.”
“Oh, yeah? So why doesn’t he pay the waiter himself? You know how much that is, twenty percent?”
“How much is twenty percent of say one hundred?”
PJ shifts his feet. No answer.
“I heard you were good at math.”
“How many twenties go into one hundred?”
“Good! So how much then is twenty percent of one hundred?”
“OK, tell your dad I give five dollars tip.”
PJ looks as if he’s being fleeced. He had apparently not learned yet what ‘giving twenty percent’ meant.
“Five times twenty is one hundred, no?” PJ asks, showing doubts.
“Right, you know your tables! So, if five twenties make one hundred, your dad wants to give one of the five twenties to the waiter?”
“Yeah…”PJ says, not sure.
“Let’s go to the cashier. Suzy, this invoice is five twenties, but my grandson PJ wants to give one twenty to the waiter. Is that OK?”
Suzy looks at PJ, who smiles his seductive smile, his eyes shining.
“But PJ, these five twenties are for me. Emilio didn’t cook the meal, he only took it to you guys.”
“My daddie says give twenty percent…”
“Oh, I see, PJ, I’ll add another twenty to the bill to give Emilio his gift, OK?”
PJ nods, not sure if he fully grasps Suzy’s math. Grandpa thinks he sees an educational opportunity.
“PJ,” Grandpa lectures, “percent means per hundred. You see this penny? In Holland, we call it a cent. How many pennies or cents go into a dollar?”
“Hundred!” says PJ, with enthusiasm.
Suzy enters the discussion. She’s a teacher in addition to her fly-by-night waitress job. “So one percent of a dollar is what?”
“A penny!” cries PJ.
“So what is twenty percent of one hundred dollars?”
PJ wonders, his eyes exploring the ceiling. Suzy takes a piece of paper and draws a fraction of 20 dollars divided by 100 hundred dollars multiplied by one hundred dollars. “How much is that?”
“Twenty,” PJ shouts. He knows fractions from class!
“So, what does it mean give twenty percent of this 0ne-hundred dollar bill to Emilio? It means I have to add another twenty dollars to the bill to tip Emilio for his service, not give away one of my twenties. Got it?”
PJ returns to his dad. “Grandpa doesn’t want to give twenty percent. He says you pay it yourself.” He treasures the twenty dollar note Grandma gave him in a small envelope. “Your birthday gift.” The tip seems to click. His dad smiles and tells him to hug Grandpa to thank him for the birthday lunch and he does. How sweet. Then Emilio arrives with a piece of cake and a burning candle, which PJ blows out (or maybe his sister Sadie does, as she sits across, jealous).
Emilio comes by on the way out and high-fives PJ’s dad. “Mucho gracias, Senor!” PJ high-fives him too.
Grandpa doesn’t even get a smile.
When close friends pass away they take part of your soul with them. Last week two of them drifted away from this earth and were taken to their last resting place, Ruud Lubbers, Dutch prime minister for 13 years (an impressive political achievement), and Frans Swinkels of Bavaria Bier, a well-known Dutch brewery that proudly, successfully, and smartly stayed family-private, producing excellent beer you can buy in the US in every large grocery store.
We had known each other from six years Jesuit boarding school, the Canisius College, closed years ago, in Nijmegen, a town drenched in history, situated at the majestic river the Waal somewhere in the lower middle of Holland. If anything makes you friends, boarding school does: you eat, study, sport and grow up together as teenagers, day and night, and sleep together in dorms like brothers. All very different, gifted with varying talents, moods, and dispositions. You go to class each day and struggle together through exams, some more successfully than others, depending on your given talents, character and drive to persevere. Ruud stood out already in school as a wiser and smarter guy than everybody else. He was part of the school paper team which I headed and contributed insightful articles on domestic and foreign policy. He presided over various school committees. Frans was a calm companion, sure of himself, always warm with a friendly smile on his face, an amiable southerner, quick to compliment anyone he admired. Both true friends.
We kept seeing each other later in a select group of some 25 school graduates. Personally, I met Ruud a few times when he headed student bodies at the Rotterdam University where he studied economics. Then suddenly as the Minister of Economic Affairs, stepping down the imposing staircase in the hall, on the day I was leaving the ministry to take up a new job in Geneva. He found time to join our regular reunions and invite us to his country home. Frans did the same, always supplying us generously with his Bavaria beer. It gave us an opportunity to keep abreast of each other’s life and achievements, share the funny and not-so-funny memories of our boarding school time, the harsh or supportive Jesuit supervisors who eventually drove me away from Catholicism, and take away another day of supreme togetherness.
I vividly remember meeting Ruud as prime minister in his office at the Parliament of The Hague, in a small turrid, called ‘het torentje’, where we chatted like we did at school. Boarding school bond transcends the social levels between people. Who as an ordinary guy can walk into the office of a very busy prime minister just ‘to chat’ like old school friends? He (right in the picture below) was our tour guide in the parliament building, showing us the precious historical rooms where his predecessors and our national founding fathers gathered, debated and ruled. An unforgettable moment.
Both friends were sent off in Catholic churches, with different but imposing spheres of liturgies as I heard from friends who attended, and both with large followings. Being the only one who lives in the U.S., it makes you feel the loss even stronger. Slowly but surely, our little group of close friends is thinning out, reminding you of the approaching after-life that will hopefully bring us all together again.