The Butterfly Collector- A Series of Short Stories

The Butterfly Collector- A Series of Short Stories

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Monarch

Nothing would have disappointed and offended Mrs. Elizabeth Cowledge more than the knowledge that some people in Valley Falls found her ongoing efforts at humanitarianism and benefaction a bit snobbish and condescending. The Butterfly Collector was not necessarily among them of course but then he had a way of seeing things from multiple perspectives, ever the devil’s advocate. He and Mrs. Cowledge, or Beth as he called her sometimes were about the same age but on the surface that’s where the similarities ended. She was the great-granddaughter of the town’s most famous citizen, and for the most part its chief architect and founder, Ulysses J. Barley. She traced a fine lineage of upstanding citizens and pillars of the community through a well-pruned family tree right to the hearth of her beautiful fourth-generation, Victorian home at the corner of Main St. and Huron Lane. She lived there alone and as far as anyone could remember always had since her parents had died in a tragic car accident in 1959 on their way to a business trip to Manhattan.
Her uncle, Huff Browning had been the president of the local branch of the Upper Hudson Savings and Loan and a member of the Board of Trustees at the Valley Falls Memorial Hospital. The pennywise, balance sheet world of municipal finance was of no interest to the young, high-minded Beth Cowledge… but the hospital offered her an opportunity which was to shape and redirect her own life after the loss of her parents as well as the lives of many other young women, decidedly for the better. She had then almost single-handedly created a school of nursing at Valley Falls Memorial and had helped graduate countless capable and enthusiastic nurses into the medical profession beginning in 1962, despite having no background or training in medicine herself. Huff recommended her for his replacement on the hospital board when his own health concerns began to demand his greater attention and she found in the politics of small town hospital administration a certain kind of calling. Of course where there were gaps or oversights in the budget of the hospital’s day to day maintenance, she was all too willing to quietly write a check from her own account. This happened more than anyone could have imagined and there were only a few people who took particular note. Most of Valley Falls assumed that the state of New York in its infinite wisdom made their constant medical shortcomings go away magically and only Beth Cowledge’s personal accountant knew the full story.
It was not until the hospital closed its doors in 1997 and fell into receivership that Beth Cowledge realized she could not carry the burden of an insolvent hospital on her ageing shoulders any longer. The building was shuttered, the grounds closed by order of the local police department and the whole sad affair was put to auction. Valley Falls’ only hospital and chief employer was simply gone after 70 years of serving the community. Then, after nearly 10 years of descending rung by desperate rung a sad, vicious chain of bottom-feeding, greedy real-estate speculators, the hospital was purchased by an upstate land trust corporation. Long after the stripping and sale of every bit of medical equipment, filing cabinets, beds, desks, chairs, light fixtures, flagstones and copper wiring, the new owners were presented with a problem. What now? What to do with the poor old derelict hulk perched on the crest of Memorial Hill and falling steadily into disrepair with the passing of every unforgiving, harsh upstate winter.
Mrs. Elizabeth Cowledge met formally and informally with practically everyone who had had ever had anything to do with the once great hospital, including its former chief surgeon, the Butterfly Collector but to no avail. Finally, as a favor to its new owners she organized a town meeting. “What To Do With Valley Falls Memorial Hospital” was the headline on the flyers that circulated town leading up to the meeting. The rumor mill could hardly have outpaced the actual reality of what was happening by that point and the rumor mill in Valley Falls was a full tilt, 24 hour, 3-shift factory of unrestricted cruelty of imagination.
A web site was commissioned for the express purpose of pitching the hospital and its grounds to movie makers looking for a potential set for a sci-fi thriller. “A haunted insane asylum just waiting for the magic of Hollywood“ read the copy in red Helvetica html. How the creative minds behind that idea dismissed the less respectable genres of pornography, low-budget slasher, zombie apocalypse, paintball and laser tag was never fully explained. Mrs. Cowledge was nearly at her wit’s end when she a simple phone call to her first floor home office brought her in from tending her roses. It was a Thursday, the 18th of June. A warm day, but the deep rich southern-inflected voice on the other end of the crackly line warmed her more than the very spring sun itself. Something impossible to hope for was about to happen.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Grizzled Skipper

Certainly one of the Butterfly Collector’s dearest friends was old Tink Putnam. Neither of them was a true native of Valley Falls but had amazingly arrived in town almost at the same time, or at least within a few hours of each other and by total coincidence, in 1975. Both were doctors, skilled surgeons in fact who had both served in World War II as Allied forces advanced into occupied Europe. Then, in late winter 1945 they were both attached to a Third Army battalion which was mopping up the last remnants of Nazi resistance and pushing steadily eastward as the generals pressed their forward mobilization unit pins into the maps under the names of towns they would all spend the rest of their lives trying to forget. Town names like Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz would imprint themselves on their young minds like a chemical bath tattoo or a terrible, dark branding that no amount of brandy or bravado could ever unetch.
When the haunted radio calls came back to Field HQ from advance companies calling for medics both Corporals, Tink and the Butterfly Collector geared up and went forward. They had both spent the last 18 months treating a dizzying list of acute battlefield medical conditions but nothing they’d taken on thus far could possibly have prepared them for the things they saw over the next few days deploying into the death camps.
The Butterfly Collector was the consummate collector even then, snapping picture after picture on his Hasselblad camera and developing the grainy black and white pictures after duty hours in a tent he’d somehow requisitioned for himself as a dark room. Tink was the more sober of the two men by far. By the time he arrived in Valley Falls as a resident surgeon he was not interested in talking about those days in the war. Sure, he would tell a good joke, scrubbed, gloved and masked over the operating table, and his timing was deadly in its own right, but friends learned quickly not to ask him about the war. The Butterfly Collector had a different way of dealing with the memories. His pictures he kept in a trunk. It wasn’t something he dwelled on, especially after some 30 years. But when anyone asked he was open to showing them and talking about what was shown in each neatly white bordered snapshot of a horror within a horror.
The doctors arrived in the town of Valley Falls, NY on the 30th anniversary of their liberation of the Children’s Block 66 of Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany. The date was not lost on either of them and they celebrated and remembered at the only bar in Valley Falls until closing time. That they then toasted the bartender, hugged each other warmly, climbed into their borrowed blue Buick Skylark and drove away was a forgotten part of the story. It was where they plowed into a critical power supply pole on the edge of town, singing at the top of their lungs but plunging the rest of the town into total darkness that was how they would be always remembered. They walked away from the scene of course, loose-limbed and laughing hysterically and were surprised to see the local deputy’s assistant pull up moments later, at about 2 AM.
“Do you need a doctor?”, the deputy asked. And the laughter that boomed out from the two, Tink and the Butterfly Collector, sitting in the dark and leaning on each other by the side of the road made him wonder if his dispatcher had sent him to the right place.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Comma

If being by yourself and having a clear purpose in life was the key to happiness then Charles Milner was indeed a happy and fully complete man from the very beginning. The butterfly collector called him the Comma because he said ‘if the roads of Victory Falls were like a series of interconnected thoughts then Charles was the damned comma that kept them from being a dangerously interesting run on sentence“. Indeed it was hard to travel very far on any day without passing Charles on the side of the road maintaining or improving the road surface or grassy shoulders in some way or other.
Young Charles Milner been hired onto the Victory Falls, NY road crew at age 17 and that summer of 1984 had so impressed his supervisor with his mechanical abilities and quiet,humble problem-solving nature that by September he was promoted to Assistant Chief of Highway Maintenance for the nearly 500 miles of town and county roads. Old family friends inside the Highway Dept. had no trouble dealing with the seemingly endless parade of hard hat wearing NY State safety inspectors who periodically descended on the garage with their clipboards, paperwork, manila folders and reams and reams of useless bureaucratic, overly-watermarked documents. They repeatedly inquired about Charles and more importantly his obviously young age and the status of his commercial drivers license. You had to be 18 to operate those big vehicles in the Empire State and 21 by Federal Law to drive across state lines. Victory Falls was only a few miles from the Vermont border and more than a few of the runs they sent Charles on took him over the border to the Vermont quarries for gravel, sand or slate. There was cause for worry regarding Charles’s insurability but evidently only when the inspectors insisted and that was predictable enough to be a source of humor for the boys in the garage. Charles paid the visitors no mind. He simply went about his work and happily stayed well out of earshot.
While most of his friends were returning for a surely glorious senior year of high school, Charles was perfectly comfortable in the firmly welded, yellow foam-padded seat of his Caterpillar tractor, perched high up and firmly in control of the lumbering diesel beast as if it were a mere extension of his own body. In only a few short weeks as the one man crew and commander of his tractor Charles could feel or sense in its throaty rumblings its own needs well before they made themselves known to the rest of the crew, who seemed eternally taken by surprise by every twist and turn, even those which to Charles were as predictable as the old road itself. He knew when she was low on fuel from the tinny clanging vibrations of the aluminum plate straps near the diesel tank. He could feel when the big hex bolts that held the grader blade in place began to stress or loosen from the way the metal scraped and scarred the hard packed gravely surface of the dirt roads. And there were many dirt roads still being maintained in Victory Falls, some in arguably better condition than their newer paved counterparts. He kept one eye on the puffing clouds from the rusted vertical exhaust pipe that told him how lean the engine was running or if it was idling too fast as surely as the most skilled physician might wield a stethoscope or squint into the bright light of an x-ray table looking for a hairline fracture or compression. And to the amazement of his family and friends he reveled in every moment of it, staying late in the garage most nights fussing over the small stable of iron and glass behemoths as if they were living breathing beings who required not only water, shelter and fuel but nurturing and care as well.
There was surprisingly little resistance to the idea of his not finishing high school. The sad fact was that no one really cared all that much. His mother had passed when he was 5 and his father, a retired long-haul driver himself never saw the value in higher education especially when the boy was so clearly drawn to the noble duties of the road crew. That he kept to himself and worked quietly and hard was seen as a kind of odd virtue especially in a workplace that all too often saw 4 or 5 more experienced men slacking and huddled nonchalantly over a troublesome engine telling jokes and laughing amongst themselves for hours at a time. Perhaps he was overly ambitious for his age and coveted the position of Supervisor of Highways. Some of those same men worked with Charles for months and even years before they realized that his shyness and tendency to be withdrawn into his own world had a perfectly reasonable explanation.
Charles Milner was completely deaf.

Short Story Manuscripts

Hoping to post some unedited short stories here soon. Hope you like.