Knights, Castles & Kings
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The characters served up in Knights, Castles and Kings by prize-winning author Mark Bland test the human spirit in a pursuit of purpose on earth and beyond.
In the first of the three stories, The Four Chessmen, retirees take a road trip to compete in a chess tournament. Bland shows us how life strategies mimic those played out on a chess board.
In the second story, Phil Becker’s Journal, Bland chronicles one man’s rebound from a lifetime of setbacks, ultimately finding joy and purpose on the streets of Chicago. Phil’s adventures cover the complexities of the human condition: from love, joy, despair and beyond.
Finally, Bland takes notions of faith through a fantasy-like stroll through Heaven in The Last Baptist. Larry Bateman escorts the reader through the stages and experiences of eternal life.
In each of these novellas, Bland entices readers with imagination, honesty and surprise.
Phil Becker’s Journal
The smell of liquor and garbage linger in the early morning breeze. Broken glass and debris lie scattered along the gutters and sidewalk. In front of the caged-bar entrances, which line the street on both sides, bums sleep on the naked pavement. The big city is coming to life, but the lost street is avoided and forgotten. Besides the noise of an occasional car, there’s only the snorting and slurping of a few loud sleepers.
Light footsteps break the silence. A young woman of about thirty, looking out of place, walks briskly past the sleepers, sometimes going out of her way to avoid a leg protruding out on the walkway. Her white dress hugs her slender but shapely body.
A small black purse matches her shoes. There is a definite purpose in her stride as her dark-red hair bounces gently
upon her shoulders. Large, green eyes, properly touched with makeup, and larger than normal light red lips hint that she could certainly be a model. Her look is classic: small nose, high cheeks, and tall, slender figure.
Across the street from where she stops, an overhead hand-painted sign reads, “Mission House.” Just below the sign is a cross painted in black.
Two men in need of a shave and shower, dressed in old clothes and worn shoes, greet her at the entrance.
“Mornin’, ma’am,” says one as he smiles, showing gaps where teeth should be. “You a looking mighty fine this mornin’, honey.”
“Thank you,” she responded politely. The two men step back and laugh about something to themselves as they watch her enter the open door of the mission.
Upon entry into what was a church, she finds herself at the end of an aisle on worn carpet. Old, wooden benches flank both sides. In front, where the pulpit belongs, is an empty, worn table with several folding chairs around it. Passing the benches on her way toward the front, she sees several ragged bodies curled up and sleeping. As she reaches the table, an elderly man comes through the curtains to her right.
He is neatly dressed and well groomed. His eyes are alert, and a strong, compassionate face makes his appearance welcome.
“Good morning,” he says cheerfully.
“Good morning,” she replies.
Offering his hand in friendship he continues, “ I am Pastor Gene Marshall. May I help you with something?”
“Yes, I hope you can,” she answers politely. “I am Marla, Marla Stern. I was born Marla Becker. I believe my father stays here, at least, that is what an old friend of his told me. My father’s name is Phil Becker.”
“Phil Becker, indeed I know him. I know him very well, and he speaks of you all the time. He tells me you’re a doctor.”
“Has he left again? Do you know where he is now?”
“I see him daily, my dear, but I’m afraid he is in no condition to see you. You see…”
Frightened by his tone, she interrupts. “Is he okay? Is he alive?”
“No and yes. He’s not okay, but he is alive. Come, we can talk in here.” He motions to the curtains.
Behind the curtains they enter a small but well-kept office. A polished wood desk is to the left. Behind it on the dark paneled wall are some degrees framed in black. In front of the desk, two padded chairs face one another. She is seated and begins to speak before he reaches a small chair behind the desk.
“Well, what is wrong? Where is he? You have no idea what I’ve gone through to get this far. I must see him!”
“Yes, yes, I understand, and I can take you to see him. But remember, it won’t be pleasant. He is fifty-four now, and I doubt if he’ll appear to you as he did when you left him. He has been homeless for ten years now. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
His soothing voice gives her some comfort. Her voice grows softer and less assured as she ponders over the twenty-four years of his absence.
“I know he’ll look different, and maybe even act different, but I remember him well, and I just don’t believe that the heart of a man changes. He might have gone another way, but I know he’s not forgotten me or my brother, or even my mother. I still receive a letter a month from him. He was kind and loving, and we shared many happy times. I don’t think he could have erased all of us from his memory. He was too good, inside I mean.” With watering eyes, she pauses.
“I’ll tell you what, Marla, we can catch a bus at the corner and be at his bedside in an hour if that’s what you really want, or you can remember your father as healthy, strong, good and loving, and leave it at that. It’s your choice, of course.”
Noticing that he had aroused her attention, he continued. “Your father can’t speak anymore. He has cancer of the larynx, and it has spread to his lungs. He breathes through a respirator most of the time, and his body has become so weak he can barely lift his head. The young, smooth face you might remember is now marked with age, a hard life, and pain. Are you sure that’s what you want to see?”
She pauses and then responds with confidence. “Yes, I’m still sure. He’s my father.”
Phil had been drafted during the Vietnam War, so a veterans’ hospital took him in. The hospital was located outside the city. The old brick buildings which made up the hospital looked as though they had survived several wars. As they arrive, the lawn in front is filled with veterans and attendants. Several amputees chatted as other patients sat alone on benches or in their wheelchairs. Nurses stood in watchful attendance.
Inside, the long corridors seemed cold and colorless. Twenty or more men, some with crippled bodies and distorted faces, filled the ward. The pastor stopped momentarily at several bedsides to greet some of the patients. Near the end of the ward on the right, he stopped at bed number forty-seven. What appeared to be an old man lay fully reclined, gazing at the empty ceiling. His eyes were dull and fixed. A once handsome face was now marked with paleness and despair. His mouth was sunken from a lack of teeth, and his body and limbs cried for nutrition.
“Phil,” the pastor said, touching him lightly on the
The old man turned his head slowly, immediately recognizing Marla. His eyes brightened and then watered. Struggling to rise, he gasped for air. Gently the pastor laid him back, placing the respirator to his face.
Marla’s face flushed with emotion as her pulse quickened and mind flashed back to the father she once knew. Resentment and childhood pains yielded to sympathy and love. She fell into his open arms. They embraced without words. Pastor Marshall was soon blowing his nose and wiping his eyes. Speechless for the first time in many years, he simply winked at the man below him who showed life and a spirit unexplained by human understanding.
After several moments, Phil motioned to Pastor Marshall for paper and a pen on a nightstand beside the bed and slowly rose to sit upright.
His shaking hand wrote slowly.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you write, Phil. It’s about time.” The pastor took a seat next to the bed, flashing an approving smile and nod.
Marla looked anxiously at her father’s note as he handed her the tablet. It read: “I have something for you.”
Handing the tablet to the pastor, she replied, “Just like always, you never forgot to bring me something. Is it a pack of gum?”
He smiled with his eyes as he drew a deep breath from
the respirator. Again he scribbled slowly on a clean page: “A journal.”
Reading the words, Marla glowed with excitement.
With the approving nod from Phil, the pastor opened the drawer of the nightstand. From under a pile of tablets and pens, he removed a thick, brown book the size of an encyclopedia. Written on the front were the words: “To Marla with Love.”
Handing the large book to her, the pastor spoke in a tone more quiet than usual, almost as if he were giving a widow the last rose at the burial site.
“Only your father and I know about this journal. I am the only person to have read it, and I promised him that if he should pass on I would try to locate you. It means everything to him, since you are the only person to remember him as he once was.”
Marla received the book carefully, like a priest might accept the gift of a rare bible. She caressed her father then withdrew to the book. “May I read it now? Is it okay?”
Phil moved his head slowly in approval.
Marla sat back in her chair, opened the journal and began to read. The entries were dated.
About the Author
Mark started his writing adventures when his play Love Around the Poisoned Dollar went into production in 1973. He then became a German teacher in the Virginia Beach Schools. Mark also was an Assistant Professor for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where he is now in his 30th year, instructing classes in Humanities, English, and Psychology. In 2008 he was awarded Instructor of the Year for the Hampton Roads area.
Bland has published numerous outdoor articles for several magazines, including Virginia Wildlife. After winning an NFIE (National Foundation for the Improvement of Education) grant in 1994, for Chess for Cognitive Development, Mark went on to publish several chess articles and the book The Four Chessmen (2001), included in this collection.
In 2010 Mark was a winner in the “America’s got Stories” contest for the short story Teufel’s Bridge. Knights, Castles & Kings is his first collection of novels.