Posts Tagged ‘short story’

The Old, Old Story, Conclusion

May 10, 2013

[Note to the reader: There are some language cautions in this installment. If you don’t want to experience a thug using non-PG Anglo-Saxonisms, read no further. Just saying …]

Two weeks later, and it’s been one of those days. It’s almost dark, time to check it in. I’m going up the stairs to my apartment and he’s waiting for me on the landing.

Image“What did you think to see? A reed shaken by the wind?”

“Get lost, pal. I’m not in the mood.”

“Come on, man. Tell me what comes after. I don’t need to know—you do.”

I look at him, and in the lousy light of the stairwell his face has this weird, otherworldly sheen—my own private apparition. I blink and shake my head, and he’s back to normal—not an improvement.

Image

“What is it with you, man? I told you—I don’t do futures. Not for you, not for anybody. You play the hand you get, okay? Just like everybody else. Now get outta here and—”

It was a few seconds before I saw the scared, juiced kid approaching from the side hallway. He was holding his right arm close to his side, but I could still see the dull glint of the small-caliber handgun.

“Don’t want no trouble, man. Just gimme your money.”

The street guy stepped in front of me, facing the kid, then spread his arms out wide, like he wanted to hug him.

“Let not your heart be troubled!”

“Look, this kid’s high, okay?” I said, backing away. “I don’t think you ought to—”

ImageHe keeps on talking to the kid, moving slowly toward him, the kid’s eyes getting bigger and bigger.

“In my father’s house are many mansions.”

“That weird-ass shit out my face, man.” The kid is panting, his hand starting to shake.

“If it weren’t so I would have told you.”

Another step closer. Another.

“I said get the fuck outta my face!”

“… and I go there to prepare a place for you—”

The gun was probably only .22 caliber, but the shot was loud in the hallway. I’m scooting back like a crab, plastered against the wall, and for a second, I think the kid missed.

Image

Then the street guy sort of crumples forward, almost like he’s bowing to an audience—before clattering onto the floor like a bag of cantaloupes.

Somebody down the hall opens a door. “What’s going on out there?” The scared kid bolts down the stairs.

I crawl over to the street guy. He’s still breathing, his hand stuffed into the red fountain springing from just below his sternum.

There are tears in his eyes.

Image

“Forgive him, for he knew not…” Then he sighs and his eyes dull like cooling wax.

The cops come and zip him into a black vinyl bag. I stand on the sidewalk outside my building, watching in the red-and-blue flash and the radio squawk until the Suburban from the county morgue wheels around the corner.

Image

Tomorrow is Saturday … and I don’t know what comes next.

 

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

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The Old, Old Story, Part 1

March 21, 2013

By way of introduction: Admittedly, this story is a bit of a departure from the stated theme of this site. But it is fiction (at least, mostly), and I guess it could be set somewhere in a metropolitan area of southeast Missouri … if you can find one. So … Enjoy!  

The Old, Old Story

It was definitely the best gimmick I’d ever used; better than the time when I sat in an abandoned department store display window in front of a hand-lettered sign that said, “Suffering from Writer’s Block—Won’t You Help?” Another time, I used to hang out at Wal-Mart, trying to make up stories using all the items people had purchased. junkOne guy had a commode plunger, a case of motor oil, and a sack of birdseed. You don’t even want to think about what I did with that.

But this latest trick was great. I’d take my laptop someplace downtown with lots of foot traffic. They’d see my sign, stare at me a couple of seconds, then either walk on past or slow down for a better look. It got so I could tell pretty quick who would actually sit down and talk.

My sign said, “Get a Life. $5.00.”

I figured out pretty quick that anybody can tell some goofy fairy tale. But I’m thinking it needs to be plausible, but still better than they can do for themselves.

“First off, I don’t do futures,” I’d tell them. “I get you up to this point in time and that’s it. If you don’t like the life I give you, you don’t pay. Got it?” But I never had anybody take back the money—except one. Just that one. God help me.

I’d talk them through it while I polished up the grammar. I’d run a spell-check, copy the whole thing to a CD, and hand it to them. “Anybody with a current version of WordPerfect can print this out for you,” I’d tell them. “Hope you enjoy your new life.” They’d get this cock-eyed grin, maybe shake their heads a little, like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. But I had them, see? They knew as well as I did they wanted that disk more than they wanted the five bucks.

So one day I’m sitting at my usual place. I see him coming from a block away; a homeless guy, dressed in the latest layered look from the Salvation Army. As soon as I spot him, I get this sinking feeling. Sure enough, he makes for me like a ragged chicken coming home to roost. He takes a quick look at my sign and flops into the seat across from me. To my surprise, he fishes around in a pocket and flips a greasy, stained five onto the table.homeless

Making eye contact with him is like staring at the taillights on the last cab leaving a bad part of town. His sun- and wind-scoured face has a raw, caved-in look, like a freshly healed scab. He’s wearing a cap that had maybe been green in a previous life. The tufts of frayed hair sticking out from under it all around are some indeterminate blondish-brown, to match the four-day stubble all over his face. His eyes are a faded blue, and I notice they’re clear and focused. He stares straight at me, like I’m a TV and he’s the remote.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I’m Larry, Moe, and Curly. Nice to meet you.”

“You got a form I need to fill out?” he said. “Most people I work with, they got some kinda form.”

“No, not really. You been around here long?”

“Long enough.”talk

“What’s your name?”

“Whatever you want it to be. You’re the one with the sign.”

As I’m giving him my opening spiel, he leans over and rummages around in his garbage sack, comes out with half a pair of silver kid’s scissors; the kind with the sharp ends, not rounded. He turns sideways in the chair and starts cleaning his fingernails. There is something so ineffably sad about this loser doing his manicure with a broken pair of school scissors that I have a twinge of bourgeois guilt.

“Look, can I get you something? I mean …  are you hungry or anything?”

He gives me a sly grin and shakes his head. “I have food that you know not of.”

Back to the keyboard.

You are the illegitimate son of a wealthy East Coast industrialist, the result of his weekend encounter with a high school senior who placed you for adoption and subsequently went on to graduate from college, marry a banker, have three children and get elected president of the elementary school PTA. Just after your sixteenth birthday, your loving and supportive adoptive parents acceded to your persistent demands to know the truth of your origins. laptopUsing the adoption agency’s records as a springboard for years of determined sleuthing, you finally discovered your father’s identity. You dropped out of college and traveled across the country, working a succession of menial jobs to earn bus fare and meals. When, after months of arduous travel, you finally reached your biological father’s last known residence—a convalescent home in upstate New York—you were told that he had died a week prior to your arrival. Shattered by this tragic circumstance and robbed of your raison d’etre, you began drifting west again, trying desperately to forget the many losses in your life.

The wealthy, dying father loans the whole package a very attractive and plausible sense of pathos, I’m thinking. I save it to a disk and hand it to him. “Here you go. Enjoy.”

He stares at the disk for a couple of seconds. “Can I read it?”

“Well, no. You gotta find somebody to print this out for you.”

He looks at me like, who are you kidding. The guilt cranks up again.

“Okay, okay. Come around here and I’ll put it on the screen.”

As he leans over my shoulder, I can smell the complex and disagreeable ambiance of his existence. I can hear him softly whispering the words on the screen, hear him quietly scratching his cheek.

He stares down at me, his forehead wrinkled with a question. “I don’t get it.”

“What?”

He points at the screen. “I mean—where’s the rest?”

“Uh, that’s it—that’s the whole thing, right there.”

“No, I—” He shakes his head. “What you’ve got is good, okay? But … Well … what happens next?”

“Look, I don’t do futures, remember? I only get you up to this point in time—”walkaway

He looks at me as if I have just spoken in Sanskrit.

“No way.” He snatches the five off the table and stuffs it deep into his pocket. Shouldering the garbage bag, he says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” He starts to walk off, then stops. “Here,” he says, tossing the disk at me. Then he’s gone.

(To be continued … )
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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

The Home Place, Part 3

January 20, 2013

I couldn’t move or speak.

“The bank … they’re foreclosing on me. They say I’m too far gone and they’re going to sell me out.”

Finally I forced some air through my throat. “I … I can’t believe … how much money do you owe?”

A dry rasp of a sarcastic laugh. “Only a couple of hundred thousand.”

Troublesome times are here

“Yeah, we had a bad year or two; couldn’t make the interest payments on our loan,” he continued in a dead voice, “and they rolled the deficit forward to the next year. Well, I guess I kept hoping I could farm my way out of it, but … ”

Image

This was not reality. Was it?

“Damn, Hal! How could this happen? This didn’t just creep up on you. How could you not know you were going too far in debt? And how could you not tell me? ”

He recoiled as if I had slapped him, and Gail looked at me with a round, bruised stare, echoed in the eyes of the children gathered by the hallway door. Their eyes told of their fearful confusion at this kind of behavior from the people who were supposed to be in control of everything.

I stood up, began to reach toward him. “God … Hal … I’m sorry.” I wanted to go to him, but his hurt and anger burned around him like an unholy halo, and I couldn’t touch him. I stood for a moment, my hand partially extended toward my brother, then strode out the front door, into the chilly night.

I don’t remember too much of what I did for the next hour. I walked around the mercury-lamp-lit yard, trying to come to terms with what I had just heard. Hal had never said a word, before tonight, to prepare me for this. And I suppose I had just assumed this sort of thing didn’t happen to people I knew. But it had. This land was just another statistic in a ledger; my brother was just another failed businessman.

night

Finally I went inside to go to bed, no less at sea than before, but too cold and fatigued to stay up any longer. Hal and Gail were already in their room, so I locked the door behind me, flipped out the entry light, and, for a long time, leaned limply against the doorway in the darkness of my brother’s house.

I woke up in the morning when the winter sun crawled under my eyelids through the east windows of Kris’s room. I always felt a little silly sleeping in a canopy bed festooned with pink and white Victorian lace, but when I was here, Kris bunked with the boys, and this became “Uncle Frank’s room.”

As I blinked the sleep out of my eyes, the pain of the night before rushed back into my gullet, like acid pouring down a drain. I don’t think I’d slept more than fifteen minutes at a stretch all night; I’d doze for a while then wake up, re-hash Hal’s situation about a dozen times, doze off again and wake again. I felt about as rested as an army grunt in a muddy foxhole. But, with the sun shouting through the windows and the smell of bacon and coffee in my nostrils, I decided I might as well get up.

Gail was in the kitchen, red-eyed, standing over an electric skillet and poking absently at the few strips of bacon sizzling in it.

“Did I correctly identify the smell of coffee, and if so, where the heck is it?”

“Yeah, right over there. Cups are in the cabinet over the coffee maker.” She gestured wearily in the general direction of the cabinets.

“Guess you guys didn’t rest too well last night, either.”

“Oh, that’s nothing new. I haven’t slept all night since the first of the month. That’s when Hal found out from the bank. ”

A long, sterile silence. “Gail, listen, I acted like an ass last night, and … ”

“Oh, Frank, Hal doesn’t blame you. To be honest, he doesn’t have the emotional capital to waste on being upset with you. That’s one of the scariest things … Since he found out, it’s like he’s just slowly running down. He drifts around like he’s not interested in anything. I can’t even touch him anymore. That damned bank has pulled the plug on him, and he’s … he’s just … quit, that’s all. He puts up a front, but I know. He’s dying on the inside …” Her voice trailed off as she stared blankly into the middle distance. Tears began to trail down her cheeks, and she didn’t try to wipe them off. They followed one another, unheeded, down her face and neck, as though she didn’t feel them anymore, or perhaps it was simply too much trouble to take notice of them.

filling men’s hearts with fear

“Isn’t there anyone you can talk to, Gail? Pete Sloan, or somebody … maybe somebody at church?”

She shook her head numbly. “He can’t … or he won’t. And it’s hard for them, too, because they look at him, and they know what’s going on, but talking about it is like admitting it could happen to them, too. I guess keeping it to yourself is a way of keeping it away. I don’t know … ”

“Gail is he … do you think Hal could try something crazy?”

“What’s crazy, Frank?” she demanded, staring defiantly at me. “When you’ve poured your lifeblood into something, when it’s all you’ve ever known or wanted to know, when it’s as big a part of you as this place is for him, and then it gets yanked away from you; what could be crazier than that? You know how you felt when Hal told you. Just try and imagine how he feels. This is all he’s ever wanted to do or be, Frank. This farm is him and he’s the farm. He knows every contour, every ridge on the place. When he’s out on one of the tractors, he’s himself; real and alive and in his natural element. For him to think about not doing that … he can’t think about it, that’s all. He has no way to think about it … oh, dammit!”

bacon

Blue smoke curled up from the charred strips in the skillet. As Gail hurriedly unplugged it and reached for a spatula to scrape the burned bacon out of the pan, I glanced out the window toward the tool shed.

“Is Hal already out?”

“Yeah, he left just after sunup, although what he plans to do out there this time of year, I don’t know.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m not really hungry anyway, so if you’re fixing breakfast for me, don’t bother.”

“All right.”

I began pulling on a light jacket lying across the back of a kitchen chair.

“Frank? Go and talk to him, Frank, okay? I don’t want to lose him, but I can’t reach him, you know? Please … go and … just go and talk to him.”

I drew her close, feeling the painful lump in my craw threatening to back up into my eyes. “Sure, Gail. I’ll go talk to him. I have no idea what on God’s green earth I’ll say, but I’ll go talk to him.”

I wandered out across the frost-coated grass of the yard, toward the tool shed. I could hear the crisp clank of a two-and- a-half pound hammer on steel as I approached the corrugated tin building, guarded on all sides by farm implements, tractors, odds and ends of machinery in various stages of dismantling, all awaiting the call to action in the spring. Would any of this stuff would be here in the spring?

Over there was a light tractor, the one I’d learned to drive on. The drawbar was still bent from the time I tried to pull a ten-foot cultivator through a nine-and-a-half foot gap between two trees. Dad nearly killed me, once he knew I hadn’t done the job myself. Dad and Hal somehow managed to keep piecing the old beast together, nursing it back to health over and over again. I couldn’t believe he was still using it. I wondered who would be the high bidder for that tractor.

Image

Hal was inside the shop, pounding the slag out of a weld he had just made in the tubular steel drawbar of a breaking plow.

“Knock, knock,” I called.

“Who’s there?” He straightened from his scrutiny of the weld, pushing the welding mask up out of his face and turning to greet me.

“Little brother.”

“Little brother who?”

“Little-brother-with-egg-on-his-face. Hey, I want to apologize for yelling at you last night in front of the kids. It was pretty classless.”

“Forget it. I didn’t even know they were there.” He popped the mask down over his face and bent down to the drawbar. I looked away as the arc welder began to crackle and flash.

“Look,” I continued when he paused to tap the slag out of the new weld, “I don’t pretend to know what you’re going through, but I think I know that acting like nothing has happened won’t help anybody. Hal, listen to me.” I laid a hand on his shoulder as he pulled the mask down again. “Gail is worried sick about you. She’s watching you dry up on the inside. You’re killing her, as well as yourself. Look, maybe it’s time for you to start making plans. Maybe you need to … maybe you need to look for something else to do.”

“Yeah, like what?” He raised the mask and stared ahead with a corpse’s eyes. “Riding a tractor around for twenty or so years doesn’t qualify me for a hell of a lot, does, it? And what kind of office could I work in where I could smell freshly-turned earth? Where would I get that, Frank?”

“Hal … you remember when Dad died, how bad that was? How we both felt lost, like somebody had jerked the rug from under the world? Is … is that sort of how this is for you?”

“No … it’s worse. See, even after Dad was gone, as bad as that hurt, I could still come out here, work, go look at the crops–and still feel a part of him … like he was looking over my shoulder, you know?

“Do you remember that song we sang in church when we were kids … let’s see, how did it go … ‘I’ve reached the land of corn and wine / and all its riches–freely mine. Here shines undimmed one blissful day / and all my night has passed away. Oh! Beulah Land! Sweet Beulah Land …’ I remember when we sang that first line, I’d get this picture of our field, with corn in it as tall as a cottonwood tree, dark green as midnight. And I’ve never lost that picture, Frank. For me, heaven is a place where the corn grows tall, without any Johnson grass or careless weeds, and once a week, at night, you get a nice, slow, one-inch rain. ”

Image

He stared out the shop window, across the winter-dead field behind the house. In a minute he looked back at me, gave a half-smile that never reached his eyes, blinked rapidly several times and looked down. “You know,” he mumbled at his shoes, “I used to daydream that someday Jimmy or maybe Kip might want to come back here and, take over from me. Kind of complete the cycle once more. That’s the kind of feeling I have about this place–it’s the source and destination of the cycle. Every spring we break the ground; we plant, we plow, we cultivate. In the fall we harvest, in the winter we rest, and start over in the spring.

“That’s how it was for Dad, see? Winter came for him, and he’s … he’s resting. It was my turn. But if I lose the place, it’s like–for me it’s like the sun not coming up tomorrow. It’s like spitting on Dad’s grave–like all he and Granddad did was for nothing. I’ve poured my life out on this land, Frank,” he said, his eyes rising to mine and boring in like lasers, “but there will be nothing to show I was ever here.” He held my eyes for a moment, then turned away.

“Hal, it sounds to me as if you’re saying you’re ready to kiss everything off. What about your kids; what about Gail? There’s a whole world beyond this place, and you can’t just dig a hole and lie down in it!”

He jerked around viciously to face me. “This has been my world for forty-five years! Can’t you understand that? You talk all this crap about how much you love the place, then you tell me just to toss all that in the toilet, up anchor and go on from here! Well, for me, there ain’t no ‘from here!’ I’m supposed to just walk away from it and start wearing a tie from nine to five like some rootless, faceless, exhaust-fume-sucking company man? Just … just leave me alone.” The welding mask slammed shut, and he turned away from me like the closing of an iron gate. I left the shop, the arc welder spitting angrily behind me.

(To be continued)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License

The Home Place, Part 1

January 5, 2010

I felt nostalgia grabbing at my sternum as soon as my tires crunched in the red gravel driveway. I live in the city, so I don’t drive much on anything except pavement, but even when I do, in my part of the world they don’t really have gravel—they have something called caliche. It doesn’t make the same sound as the red gravel folks use around here.

I used to spend hours—well, minutes, maybe—standing in the driveway with a bat-shaped board, tossing golf-ball-sized rocks into the air and pounding them into the empty field across the blacktop road from our house. Hal taught me how to do it—demonstrated, anyhow. And, big-brother-like, mocked my fumbling efforts at imitation. But I finally got it. The board/bat was how I first learned about hitting the sweet spot. You really want to find the sweet spot when you’re batting rocks from a red gravel driveway.

The place looked different. Not surprising; I hadn’t seen it since Reagan was president. Not the house so much—I expected that. It was more the land itself: flatter, if you can imagine it. More uniform. I’d noticed it on the drive in: fewer trees, and what little contour the terrain used to possess now laser-graded and scraped into the uniformity needed for irrigation. The few sloughs and sinks I remembered from the days when I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels had yielded to the implacable need for increased rice yields. It was just business—I understood that. But I still missed the sight of those old-growth cypresses and sweet gums.

I got out of the car and corralled the store-wrapped packages in and under my arms, turned and walked across the winter-browed front yard. Steam feathered in front of my face in the cool December evening. Through the kitchen windows I could see Gail bent over the sink, peeling or scrubbing or slicing or some such. I reached the front porch and started to nudge the doorbell with a knuckle, but before I did I paused, letting the silence of the darkened countryside seep into me.

The stillness out here was of a completely different quality from that which passed for quiet in the city. It was like being in a closet: one the size of the universe. No whine of truck tires on a freeway, no passing thump of car stereos, no distant music or laughter spilling from the open door of a nightclub or restaurant. Just an elemental hush that I could almost feel on the back of my neck.

I pressed the button and almost instantly heard the pounding of multiple sets of juvenile feet, stampeding toward the door. The door jerked open and a tangle of blond hair, denim, and arms and legs of various sizes flung itself about my waist. “It’s Uncle Frank! He’s here!”

“Hey guys! Take these packages before they’re destroyed.” I parceled the boxes out with a hug and a kiss for each of them. I looked up just in time to see Hal come out of the den, just off the entryway. He smiled. “Hey, bud. Glad you could make it.” We hugged tightly, slapping each other on the back.

I had seen Hal twist steel bolts in half, trying to snug them down just one more notch. And I had seen him rocking his babies, his hard, nicked hands cradling them as gently as a feathered nest.

“How was the drive?”
“Long and uneventful.”
“Still liking your Miata?”
“You bet. Made it here from Dallas in just over eight hours.”

Hal shook his head and smiled. “Well, come on in and put your stuff in Kris’s room. Gail’s still working on supper, so it’ll be a while.”

On my way to the kitchen, I glanced at the small tree in the den. The five-foot spruce struggled gamely to bear up under the weight of all the decorations, clustered as thick as chain mail. The few packages I had brought had just about doubled the volume of parcels under the tree.

Gail scurried between the stove and the refrigerator, choreographing the three-course meal and looking like a utility percussionist during a performance of the 1812 Overture. She finally glanced up and saw me.
She gave me a grin. “Hey, Frank!” She reached for me, a paring knife in her hand. “Oops, sorry,” she said, seeing my mock dodge. She tossed the knife on the counter beside the sink, then turned and gave me a good, tight squeeze. “Good to see you.”

“Likewise, kiddo. Glad to be here. Smells delicious.”
“Well, I hope it is. I got started late, as usual.”
“I’ve already been so advised. How you doing?”
“Oh … okay.”

I searched her eyes for the source of the delayed response, but she looked away.

“So, you can either help me slice potatoes or go in there and chase the kids and visit with your brother,” she said with a quickly summoned smile. “Your choice.”
“With my culinary skills, I can probably make the best contribution by getting out of your way.”
“That’s kind of what I was thinking. Dinner will be ready before you know it.”

I wandered back through the house, looking at everything. This was the same house my parents had brought me home to from the hospital. Through the years our folks had made additions here and there, and Hal and Gail had continued the process during their tenancy. The dwelling had started out as a very simple living room/kitchen/two bedroom crackerbox. Then, as times got a little more prosperous, Dad and Mom had added another bedroom, a carport, and enlarged the kitchen. Hal and Gail had added a den, an upstairs playroom, and a master suite.

So many joinings of timber and time, so many layers of memory … The house existed both Now and Then. The construction of my life had started with the building of this house. By the time I graduated from high school, I was pretty sure I’d outgrown this place. Turns out it had grown into me.

I felt Hal’s hand on my shoulder. “Whatcha doing?”
“Oh, just remembering stuff, I guess.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
The tone in his voice pulled my head around to look at him.

“Something going on, bud?”
He stared into the middle distance for a second or two, then shook his head. “Nah. Let’s go sit in the den.”

There was a comfortable fire in the fireplace. The TV was on with the volume down; General Schwarzkopf was standing in front of a bank of microphones while stock quotes crawled across the bottom of the screen. Hal aimed the remote and the picture disappeared. I settled into an armchair and rested my feet on an ottoman, and Hal sank into his recliner. We both stared into the fire for a few seconds.

Kip, the youngest, scampered into the room. “Know what Santa’s bringing me, Uncle Frank?” he said, crawling into my lap.

I smiled down into his intent blue eyes. “No, Kipper, what’s that?”
“He’s bringing me a red tractor, just like my daddy’s.”
“No kidding! You going to help your dad plow?”
“Yeah. Just like my daddy.”

“Sounds good, pal. I bet your dad could use another good tractor driver.”
I ruffled Kip’s hair as he scooted out of my lap and trotted toward the stairs leading to the playroom. I grinned at Hal.

Tears gleamed on his cheeks as he stared into the fire. His mouth was twisted into a grimace of anguish.

“Hal? You okay?”

He just kept staring straight ahead.

(to be continued)

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So Fair and Bright (a weblog) by Thom Lemmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.