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Chapter 15: Gasoline in a Rum Bottle

Escrow closes on the brewery and we take possession. A side room off the brewing hall will make a good machine shop, and Frank has picked out in advance a small set of machine tools: initially, a bandsaw, a drill press, a hydraulic puncher, a grinder, a lathe and an arc welder. Mike pressures the used equipment dealer for prompt delivery while I drill holes in the concrete walls and attach electrical conduit, so the machines can have power. The special drill to put female bolts into the concrete is heavy, and my lion strength serves me well in controlling it for precise bolt placement high on the wall. My arms are exhausted at the end of the day, but tomorrow we can start using the machine tools.

While I have experience with hand tools I've never used professional metalworking machines. The welder and the lathe take skill, but Frank teaches Rudy and me how to use the rest of them. Mike already has mechanical experience. We get busy executing our plan. We make an assembly line to manufacture the support triangles and the central supports. I use the bandsaw to cut the triangle sides off of long pieces of channel iron. Rudy punches holes for the bolts that will hold the triangles on the wall. Frank welds them together, and Mike grinds off the sharp ends and drips of molten steel, and also carefully marks the location for my cuts and for where Rudy should punch holes.

The machine shop is not all that large, and with sparks and bits of sizzling metal flying from both the welder and the grinder, and sharp fragments all over the floor, I'm glad of my safety shoes. Once the welder hits a patch of oily dirt hidden in the channel which explodes with a pop and blows the molten iron out of the joint onto the backs of my and Rudy's legs. Rudy yelps and jumps, slapping out the momentary flames from his jeans. Spots on my fur are charred, but I'm pleased to find that I don't catch fire, at least not easily. Rudy's leg hair is singed and his pants are ruined, but skin damage is first degree only, since the pants kept the iron off him. After checking Rudy I pull off my burned fur. My long raccoon guard hairs have formed a charred mat of foamy mixed carbon and silica which may be ugly but which made a great insulator. The inner fur, which repels water by its oil content, was barely touched, and my vision of turning into a candle was forestalled. This time.

Working together for several days, we install the basics of oobleck culture: water, gases, pumps and electrical power to run them, and most of a computer network to control everything. The server arrived before we took possession, and as soon as the internet connection was installed I carted the server over from the restaurant and wired it up, together with all our individual machines. But today, now that the rain of concrete dust and metal chips seems to be subsiding, it's time to get the eight control machines, one for each vat. I take a bus to a car rental company. Riders stare, and I strike up a conversation with one who seems friendly. I drive a rented van over to the Computer Cemetery. Top of the line isn't what we're after for our control machines. The owner's name is Mort. I wonder if the name of his business is a pun on his name.

Mort: So are you finally going to buy those machines?

Me: Maybe. Your price is still too high for machines that old. They're worth six hundred each.

Mort: I buy them, remember? People don't just give them to me. Seven hundred was a fair price.

Me: I could manage maybe six forty.

Mort: Six sixty and not a dime lower.

Me: How about six fifty, and I'll throw in a free lion disc for your kids.

Mort: Deal! How are you paying for this?

Me: Company credit card; here it is. And the lion disc. Just out of curiosity, that stack over there, how many of those laptops did you get stuck with?

Mort: Forty, and new models keep coming out. You want 'em? Make me a bid.

Me: Pay me five bucks each and I'll get them off your floor.

Mort: That's a joke.

Me: OK, suppose some kid comes in here with bare feet and holes in his pants and starts piling pennies on your counter that he's saved, how much are you going to charge him?

Mort: Twenty five.

Me: Computer Cemetery, and your heart is one of the gravestones! You'll end up paying someone to take them away anyway.

Mort: Twenty, then.

Me: I trust they work and the batteries will hold a charge. Charger included, right?

Mort: Right. I may drive a hard bargain but I sell honest stuff.

Me: If the kid comes back in tears... OK, enough of that. Do you have a box to put the keyboards and mice in?

I load the ten machines (two spares) into the van, and secure them carefully for travel. Back at the brewery I install the measurement and control boards, the current model of the kind Dr. Hazeltine bought four years ago. We're setting up the vats one at a time, and it's my turn now on vat number one to put in the computer and associated thermocouples and motor controllers.

At quitting time I enjoy the walk back to Casa Serena. I stop at the railroad tracks as a train rolls past pulling flatcar after flatcar loaded with shipping containers. Someone has accomplished a lot there, and so have I. Back home, Tiger has not returned, so I go over to the Solanos' place. El Oso is in his usual location, and Mrs. Solano is working in the kitchen making something that smells peppery. She hides a cough.

El Oso: Oh, you again.

Me: Hi. Are the kids around? When they come in could you send them over to our house? I found something at work that they'd be interested in. It's OK if they come after dinner.

El Oso: And what's that?

Me: If they want to get better in school, it would really help them to learn from the lion disc. I was buying a bunch of used computers for our brewery, and the guy has a pallet full of laptops, an old model, that he can't get rid of. He'll sell them to the kids cheap.

El Oso: You make cerveza?

Me: Not any more. Our company bought the brewery and we're converting it to make plastic.

El Oso: You might think something's cheap...

Me: Twenty bucks each.

El Oso: Where's the kid going to get twenty bucks?

Me: Scrubbing floors. I know at least one that needs it.

El Oso: He has no head for figures, and not for English either. Takes after me.

Me: I wasn't born with any head for figures either, but I worked at it. Have you noticed both of them are stronger now? And tougher? They take after their padre. They'll do the work.

El Oso: Sweet mouth you have. Maybe you'll see him, maybe you won't.

Me: That's fair; it's his choice if he wants to scrub floors. Thanks. See you.

Tiger's back to our house. I tell her about the laptops, and of my conversation with El Oso.

Tiger: So what model are these laptops anyway?

Me: The commercial version of the things we have. The machines we're using right now!

Tiger: For twenty bucks? We ought to buy some for the kittens! I wonder if we could still get military surplus ones like ours; I think kittens are pretty rough on things. Anyway, it's a good deal. OK, so the kids scrub our kitchen floor; for two kids that's an hour max. Now what?

Me: Mrs. Fisher. Maybe other neighbors. Also, I want to paint over the graffiti on the wall back of our garage, which should take an hour or two depending on how much they do. We can ask Ms. Alarcon to finance more painting. We could offer to donate the paint if she plays cheap.

Tiger: It would be a lot cheaper and easier to just buy the machines for the kids.

Me: But...

Tiger: But their pride, and their motivation. I don't want to go through the hassle of piping them the cost of lion discs. I save the old versions for a while; do you? We'll give them last year's disc.

Agreed on our plan, we get busy preparing dinner, a pot of southern style grits cooked with milk, not water, and fried egg sandwiches on rye bread, and a bunch of grapes for each of us, and bananas. While we're washing up afterward, there's a knock at the door. It's Coyote and Mariposa.

Coyote: What's this I hear about a floor?

Me: How much did El Oso tell you?

Coyote: That you want your floor washed, and you wanted to talk to us about it. I'm not saying I'm hard up, you know.

Me: It's true; you can see that the floor is ready for cleaning. But what I really wanted to talk to you about is, you know the lion disc is in English.

Coyote: I don't know anything about that.

Me: And we've had comments that if at least the beginning parts had a Spanish counterpart, we could reach people with it who weren't so good in English. None of us lions are good enough in Spanish to translate those lessons, though.

Coyote: And we are. Sorry, I get F's in English and if you want lessons how to cuss in Spanish I can make a good one for you, but the same things I don't know in English, I don't know in Spanish either.

Me: El Oso says you take after him in English. And math. Any interest in changing that?

Coyote: Sure. I'd also like to visit the moon, and moon you from there. Heh.

Me: Earn twenty bucks per kid, and I know where you can buy a computer that you can run the lion disc on.

Coyote: Stolen, I assume. And the business with the floor has to do with the twenty bucks, right?

Me: Right. Think about it. Also the machines are legal; the guy made a bad business decision and now he can't get rid of them. I've threatened to show him my claws if he cheats you kids.

Coyote: You say you graduated from high school learning from this disc?

Me: Right. See here in the file box, right here, this folder, these are our diplomas. Sometime I'll tell you how we had to fight for the right to take the test.

Coyote: I really don't see myself learning a whole lot.

Me: Scrub the floors, buy the computer, and see what happens. If you can't handle the lessons, you can play games on the machine. And maybe Mariposa can learn the stuff; sometimes one person has skills that another doesn't.

Mariposa: The computer costs forty dollars?

Me: Twenty, plus tax, and you'll need to take the bus to get there. Make your budget twenty five. In my opinion you should each have a machine, so you can do lessons together and not have conflict. You do more work to get it, but it'll be more than worth the effort. And you did well to think through that issue.

Coyote: Come on, Mariposa; we're supposed to think about it. Maybe my sister can learn the stuff, you say! I'm Coyote, I know what you're doing.

Tiger, after the kids leave: What complaints about Spanish? I never heard that.

Me: That was a strategic improvisation. If I brought out the idea of school first thing, what do you think he would have said?

Tiger: Actually, translating the lessons would be a pretty good idea, and you're exactly right, your Spanish is better than ``Buenos dias, Seņor Oso'' but not much. Coyote is picking up on your little manipulations.

Me: Good for him; I spent enough time teaching him how his little friends do it and get each other into trouble. Well, it's up to them now. Let's finish the dishes.

Not long after, there's another knock on the door. The kids think fast.

Coyote: OK, we want ten bucks an hour. Each.

Me: I saw a cartoon where the rats put brushes on their feet and did their rat dance to clean a floor. If you had brushes like I have claws I might pay that. As is... two fifty.

We negotiate six dollars an hour; I had planned five.

Coyote: So where's the bucket?

Tiger: Oops, we never bought one! Let's bother Mrs. Fisher.

When motivated, the kids move fast. I wasn't expecting to be scrubbing this evening. Mrs. Fisher doesn't seem upset at our knock on her door at normal quiet time.

Mrs. Fisher: Well, it's the whole troop! Come on in. What's happening?

Coyote: We're washing their floor but they don't have a bucket, and could we borrow yours?

Mrs. Fisher: Sure. Washing floors? My knees aren't what they used to be; arthritis, you know. Maybe tomorrow you could do mine.

Back in our kitchen the kids get started. I suggest that a logical first step would be to wash their own bare feet. Pine scent rises in the kitchen. Tiger and I point out missed spots, nicely, and with this supervision the floor is rendered gleaming. Better than when we moved in, actually. It takes about an hour and a half. We pay them nine dollars each.

Me: You want some hot chocolate? I do.

Mariposa: I've never had that. What is it?

Me: Chocolate powder in hot milk. It's really good. Can you handle milk?

Mariposa: No, it kind of gives me a tummy ache.

Me: That's too bad; milk is nutritious. I can make yours with water, which is almost as good. You too, Coyote?

We all have hot chocolate and a bunch of grapes, and we send the happy kids on their way.

On Friday at work we start a trial batch of oobleck growing, using the original bug and very easy growth conditions, trying for a product, not a profit. Rudy is in charge of bugs and he's going to monitor it all night, and we'll take turns, eight hour shifts, coming in during the weekend to make sure nothing fries. Soon we'll have techs hired specifically for the evening and night shifts, but not until the plastic stream can pay their wages. I leave my phone number with Rudy, and if anything goes wacko with the computer I can either come in, or if it won't wait I can instantly access the offending machine from home over the internet, if it hasn't crashed.

It's another big day for us: payday, plus the Xylogen dividend came in. It's only a partial month's pay, but it will really ease our finances. One of tonight's projects will be to do final planning on the budget, and Tiger will deposit the checks at the brokerage tomorrow; they're open Saturday mornings. I have to take my shift at work.

Tiger: Let's steam some bao dze for dinner. There's some kale for the stuffing, and we can throw in the legs from the chicken, left over from last night.

Me: Yeah, I'd like that. You mix the dough and I'll have the stuffing ready by the time you're done. Hey, who's knocking on the door? I'll get it.

Coyote and Mariposa are there, grinning, their new (or newly acquired) computers in their arms, with battery chargers, operating system discs, and manuals.

Me: Come in, come in! Tiger, let's show the kids how to get started, then make dinner. OK? Now, how much of the manual have you read yet?

Coyote: None of it.

Me: OK, there's a plug; put everything on the floor, and read in the manual how to attach the charger. You have to always remember how much juice is in your battery, and when you're near a plug you should operate with the charger, if you can, because the battery on this model won't last longer than two hours, and most likely the batteries aren't charged now anyway.

Coyote: Why don't you just tell us?

Me: Because I'm manipulating you. You recruit outside help when you can't handle a situation, but not when the answer is sitting right on top of your machine.

Mariposa has been flipping pages, not rebelling, and plugs her charger into the correct hole, right side up, and then into the wall. The next page shows the location of the ``on'' switch. She boots up. Coyote is close behind her.

Me: Now the next step takes outside help. I'd like to check that everything is working and that the operating system is properly installed. Remember, I told Mort something about my claws? Tiger, could you check Coyote's machine?

Tiger: Just a sec, I'm getting the lion discs.

The machines are in fact functional running off the wall plug, although as I suspected the batteries are completely discharged. We explain what is a file, and how to give it a name, and we have each kid create his or her own directory. They're clumsy handling the trackball to choose menu items, and keyboard skills are strictly search and peck.

Coyote: If we have to type a lot of stuff, it's going to take a long time.

Me: Right. First, use the trackball whenever you can, until your typing skill is better. Second, practice on the keyboard. Are you tough enough to be patient for that? Remember how mad you were that you couldn't do more chinups, and how you responded?

Coyote: So I'm going to be mad at the keyboard, right? And I'm going to type stuff, the maximum that's still fun. Which won't be a lot at first.

Me: Good, Coyote. Now let's take a look at the lion disc. Stick it in, and the program should install itself. You too, Mariposa. Click OK. Choose ``Run the program''. You get this screen if you've never used the program before.

Mariposa: Do I click on ``Start Here''?

Me: Right. You'll want to come back and learn all the things you can do with the program once you've done a few lessons and understand what you'd want to do with the program. And you probably noticed, there's also a typing practice lesson. For now, just go with the flow. It wants to give you a test.

Coyote: Aw, great! Just what I wanted. Suppose we don't pass?

Me: You'll find out real soon, because you're not going to pass. Relax and enjoy it. Don't worry; the program's not mean or anything. It wants to find out which lessons you should start at. If you can pass this test, you don't need any of the lessons on the lion disc.

Coyote: Suppose I cheat? Remember, I'm Coyote.

Me: Which lesson do you think you should start at?

Coyote: I have no idea. I don't know what lessons are on the disc.

Me: How are you going to find out, accurately?

Coyote: It's asking about math. If I use a calculator, it will know that my calculator doesn't need lessons.

Me: Well done. By the way, the operating system comes with a calculator program so you don't need a separate one. I'll show it to you later. Work through some of the questions and I'll make sure you're using the lion program properly.

Mariposa: Is this right?

Me: I wonder which lesson I should start at.

Mariposa: Oh. Well, if I think the answer is five, I typed it and what do I do now?

Me: Press enter. Five is correct, by the way.

We let the kids work on the diagnostic test for about fifteen minutes while we make our bao dze, and then Tiger interrupts.

Tiger: OK, kids, what do you think your madre will say if you're over here doing lion lessons while she's over there serving dinner?

Coyote: She'd have a cow, and El Oso would have two cows. We'd better go. Can we come back after dinner?

Tiger: Sure, but you can run your machines anywhere you can find a plug, or on battery power once they're charged. Leave them plugged in overnight, if you can. It's fun to have you around, but suppose your parents said, the kids spend more time with the lion people than with us? We want them to be happy that you're doing lion lessons, and happy that we're here, not jealous. I think you should sometimes do lessons at your house so they can see you do it.

Coyote: Let me handle El Oso. I know him; you don't.

Tiger: OK, you know him. I'm just pointing out an issue that could be important. Bye, and you can come back after dinner.

Over the next two weeks the kids make an interesting pattern of progress, with essentially no input from Tiger and me. Coyote's math is abysmal, and he's reviewing basic one-digit addition and multiplication. I'm surprised that he accepts this level assignment with little grumbling. Actually his only complaint is about the teddy bears and cutsey-wootsey little rabbits in the examples. Mariposa's math is bad, but not abysmal. The situation is reversed in language skills. Coyote has a mouth on him, and has the verbal skill to keep it operating, and somewhere he's picked up the idea of phonetic spelling. This is enough to carry him out of the baby lessons. Mariposa is much less verbal, perhaps because her brother does most of the talking. But by the end of the two weeks she's also spelling phonetically and has some concept that when she talks the words are coming out in a structure. And Coyote passes the section checkpoint in math, satisfying the program that he knows single digits now, and starts reviewing carrying and borrowing, which is the level Mariposa started at.

At my suggestion the kids learn to explore the lesson tree to see what's coming ahead. They discover the formal lessons on self defense and exercise, and take to these as if assassins were on their trail. They're fascinated that I personally wrote some of the lessons. I'm interested to occasionally see groups of kids running or doing chinups or practicing simple defense moves. Twice, a kid and his or her parent show up and ask me or Tiger to check out one of Mort's dead fish laptops. The one I handle, the kid has a new lion disc, and already knows how to use it, having learned from Mariposa. That makes me and Tiger very proud. Being at work I don't see the other one but Tiger tells me it was one of Coyote's juvenile delinquent friends.

We lions are pretty practical about choosing lessons, and I'm pleased to see that Coyote and Mariposa are working out their own practical style. After a day or two of computermania they ask Tiger and me if they're putting enough time into it. She laughs and gives them a short lecture about balance, and asks them to make individual lists of what they think they should be learning. They both choose math, reading and spelling. We revise spelling to general language skills, and show them what the lion disc provides for reading. I also remind them that they need to start writing, and typing skill is a prerequisite if they're to use the lion disc's writing analyzer. Over the next week they settle down to half hour segments of formal learning punctuated by noisy games with each other or with other kids.

The reason I wasn't around to check out Coyote's friend's machine was the awful rotating shifts we're working to keep the brewery under constant supervision. But the shifts will end soon, for we've reached a major milestone: we have six vats filled with oobleck and four have full production temperature and pressure, and we're feeding them with whole trees which we chew up in our own chipper, and the bags of plastic pellets coming out the back are worth more than enough to pay for evening, night and weekend operators, as soon as Mike gets them hired. The new bug will go into the last two vats and we'll optimize the growth conditions over the coming weeks.

So our work is hard, but everyone is making good progress and we're happy. On Saturday evening -- I worked during the day -- we've just finished being together as lions do, and Bach's second partita is still playing. It's interrupted by the phone. I answer.

Coyote: You've got trouble. El Oso has half a bottle of rum in him and a full can of gasoline, and he's pissed at you. You'd better do a real fancy defense move. Gotta go, before he catches me calling you.

Tiger: What was that all about?

Me: Coyote says El Oso is pissed at us, is drunk, and was last seen with gasoline. You and Attila get the fire extinguisher and your rifle, and keep watch from upstairs. When he shows I'll try to head him off.

And not a moment too soon. I see movement out the kitchen side window, in the alley behind our unit. I slide out the garage door. El Oso is just taking from a large brown bag a rum bottle with a rag stuffed in the top. The gasoline can is beside the bag. My nose tells me it is not empty.

Me: Oso, what's the matter? Let's talk about it.

El Oso, trying to light the rag: Turn my Guadalupe against me, will you? You'll learn your lesson, lion person; by Jesus' holy blood you'll burn in hell!

Me: Don't do it! Your family needs you!

His coordination is not all it should be, from the rum, but at that moment he gets the cigarette lighter to light and touches it to the rag, which pops into flame. He rears back to throw the bottle in my face. Timing is everything in this move -- just before the peak of the backswing I roar and charge him with my dagger fangs lusting for him and my clawed hands reaching out, not quite for him but over him, as if I'm an eighteen wheel semi about to squash a squirrel. I never touch him; I'm actually not even really near him. He drops the bottle behind him, steps backward on the spurting gas can, and falls heavily on his bag, and its glass content crunches before, as the dropped bottle shatters, bursting into flames. I jump back, rolling on the filthy pavement, and swat flaming droplets on my legs. El Oso cannot be seen in the fireball, but the flames rapidly change from the reddish orange of gasoline to the bright yellow of a different fuel reserve accumulated over many years. I cringe back from the furiously hot flames, which painfully overload my passive infrared sensors. The scent: I'm not sure I'll be able to eat pork again.

If I had moved in from the other side... If I had said something different... Jeez, if I had just let him throw the stupid bottle and caught it, he would still be alive.

Coyote: Padre! Oh, no! Madre de Dios, you can't, you can't!

Me: Coyote, I'm so sorry. How much did you see?

Coyote: Everything. Why, why?

Me: I'm telling myself what could I have done differently so he'd still be here. Look, Mr. Chernik taught me, in combat games when someone gets killed the question is, what do we do now. I think we've got some tough stuff to do real soon. First, do you blame me?

Coyote: I want to beat the shit out of you. But you didn't kill him; it was all his fault! I don't know what to think!

Me: You want a hug? I could sure use one.

He wraps his arms around me.

Tiger: I'm coming down.

Me: Secure your area first.

Tiger: Done.

Coyote cries quietly into the fur of my chest. I wish lions could cry. Tiger comes out into the alley and puts her arms around both of us. Mrs. Fisher finds us there, and other neighbors filter in. The fire casts little illumination now. With a small pop the last flame dies.

Coyote: He's gone. So what do we do now?

Tiger: Somebody calls the cops. Somebody notifies Mrs. Solano and Mariposa. And does anyone know what we did that pissed off El Oso so much?

Coyote: I'll tell it. He was drinking rum. Mariposa said she'd pop in and get her lion person stuffed animal, and he wouldn't even see her. I told her not to. He did see her, and yelled at her about going around in her underpants; remember that day with the water slide? And he told her to come over and he'd teach her a lesson what people will do if she does that. He moved his fingers like this, see, and she must have thought he was going to feel her up on her pussy. The door was open and I saw everything. She said no, real loud. You don't do that to El Oso. He came after her, and she kicked him in the nuts and ran past him. You don't do that either and she must have realized she was in deep shit. She was in the kitchen with Madre and she grabbed a knife out of the drawer and swung on him. He wasn't born yesterday and he only got a little scratch on his hip, but I don't know if she really meant to or if she's just, you know, at that level, but he was yelling about his cojones and the fucking lions. Sorry. She was out of there like a shot with the stuffed lion and the knife, and I haven't seen her since.

Me: Jeez! He was trying to do what he thought was right, and so was she, and every move went wrong. No wonder he was pissed at us. There's lots of stuff he shouldn't have done, but I can't blame him. Look, we have to move. Coyote, are you functional? You and I will tell your mother, and after that you'll try to find Mariposa.

Tiger: And I'll take responsibility for the body. Mrs. Fisher, would you please call 911?

Coyote and I proceed in silence to the Solano apartment. Mrs. Solano is weeping quietly and occasionally coughing.

Coyote: Madre, I'm sorry. Padre es muerte.

Mrs. Solano: I was sure of it. Did he... hurt anyone?

Me: Lots of people are crying. No, he didn't get us with the gas bombs.

Mrs. Solano: Thank God for that. Did he suffer?

Me: I don't know. I think he died instantly.

I have a feeling his death wasn't exactly instant, but there's no point pursuing that point. We let Mrs. Solano weep some more.

Me: Do you want to see the body? There's not a lot left. You might not want to.

Mrs. Solano: He was my husband.

She coughs and gets up painfully. There's a bruise on her cheek.

Me: How badly are you hurt?

Mrs. Solano: He slapped me once. My hip always pains me.

Coyote holds his madre's hand, more to comfort her than for support, and we return to the scene. A police cruiser blocks the alley, and the coroner's van has just arrived. The van's work light makes clear what the fire has done to a once proud father. Mrs. Solano gasps.

Cop: Are you the wife? I'm very sorry. Kid, they say you can make a positive ID on the body.

Coyote: Yes, it's El Oso. That's Rigoberto Solano. My padre. I saw the whole thing.

Cop: Can you tell me?

Coyote: He'd been drinking, about half a bottle of rum.

Cop: Half? That's rather a lot.

Coyote: Well, maybe it was a third, but it was a lot, even for him. My sister gave him some lip, more than a little. He blamed the lion people. We've been learning a bunch of stuff from them. He made some gasoline bombs out of rum bottles, but Simba came out and tried to get him to cool it. Padre was going to throw one of the bombs at Simba, but Simba roared at him and he dropped the thing and they all went off at once, all over him. Now he's like that.

Cop: Thanks, kid. What's your name?

Coyote: I'm Javier Solano. People call me Coyote.

Cop: Thanks. Which one of you is Simba? Is that basically the story? And what do you use for a legal name?

Me: I'm David 7-1340 Leones. The story is accurate. I wasn't present for the early part.

Cop: Had you and he had any trouble before? Or was he friendly?

Me: El Oso isn't exactly cordial, to anyone, but we got along. I guess anything can happen when you're smashed out of your mind.

Cop: Anything can happen, and usually does. Ma'am, there will be an autopsy which should be complete within 24 hours. He'll be at the morgue. You'll need to tell that to the people from the funeral home. Here's a list of phone numbers of city services that may be helpful. The ones that speak Spanish are marked. Are you going to be all right? Should I call a social worker for you?

Mrs. Solano, still weeping: No, thank you.

Me: We'll make sure she's all right.

Cop: OK, then. I'm sorry about all this.

A small shadow edges toward Mrs. Solano.

Mariposa, whispering: Madre? Is Padre still mad at me?

Mrs. Solano bursts into sobs again and hugs her daughter.

Coyote: No, he's not mad at you any more.

Mariposa: That's... That's Padre? Oh, no! I didn't mean, I just wanted to get away!

The coroner and the cop drive off, and in the darkness Tiger and I and Mrs. Fisher hug the surviving Solano family members. After about ten minutes, Mrs. Solano asks a coherent question: What are we going to do now?

Me: Look, this is kind of hard to say. Are we all agreed that I didn't do anything wrong? But even so I feel responsible, and I want to help you people. Now don't get me wrong, but I think nobody in the Solano family is famous for brilliance as an accountant, and your big problem right now is going to be money. Right?

Mrs. Solano: We're not beggars.

Me: I'm not talking about handouts. I haven't seen that much in your family, but what I have seen hasn't included a whole lot of effective financial planning. Do you agree? Now financial planning is one thing we lions are good at. We asked for lessons, and practiced what we learned through some very tight budgets in college, much like what you're going to have to deal with. I'm not offering money; we're offering to help you manage the money that you have.

Mrs. Solano: How do I know you won't cheat me? I'm an old widow now. Lots of people prey on old widows. I'm sorry, I shouldn't say such things...

Me: No offense, and you're wise to think of it. Finish the thought: are you worth preying on? You don't have much, right? Coyote's an expert in that kind of thing. If I got my claws into your money, what do you think I'd do with it?

Coyote: Madre, the lion people are no coyotes, they're lions. They're honest. Remember when El Oso couldn't find work for so long? Well, he's out of work again and I'm worried.

Mrs. Solano: I'm worried too. What do we do, Seņor Lion?

Me: Call me Simba, and she's Tiger. Coyote and Mariposa know how we operate. Our job is to point out issues and show you procedures, but we don't tell you what to do. I think we have two problems here: first, what do you do when someone dies, and how much is it going to cost? I've never died before; I don't know anything about that. Mrs. Fisher, do you suppose you could give us some help planning the funeral?

Mrs. Fisher: Of course, dear.

Me: Then the second problem is how are you going to survive minus El Oso's income?

Mrs. Solano: I just don't know.

Me: Coyote's turn: try to think what we need to know right now.

Coyote: We need to know the winning lottery number.

Me: Mariposa, you try.

Mariposa: I don't even know how much money we have or how much we need. I don't know anything about money.

Me: Change what you said so it answers my question: what do we, that's you, need to know right now?

Mariposa: You want me to say...

I waggle my finger at her.

Mariposa: What do we need to know? How much does stuff cost. How much money do we have.

Me: Excellent. Now, Mrs. Fisher, when will the funeral probably happen? How much time do we have?

Mrs. Fisher: It would normally be on the second or third day after: Monday or Tuesday.

Me: Hard, fast work ahead. I suggest we start by finding out how much money there is, tonight. Then we all get a good night's sleep, if possible, and tomorrow we'll find out how much stuff costs, and plan how to spend the money. Sound good?

Mrs. Solano: I suppose, except I know the answer already: not much.

Me: Thanks, Mrs. Fisher, and we'll bother you bright and early tomorrow, with assets known. Now let's dig up the financial records.

Tiger: Should I bring my laptop?

Me: I think not. First, the kids have their own machines and if we need to we can find public domain software for them. But I want them to do the whole job by hand so they know what's going on, not to be slaves to the great god computer. I believe Mrs. Solano: it's not going to be a burden to add up their resources by hand.

Coyote: I'm going to be adding? I'm useless in math!

Me: You're going to get un-useless real fast, aren't you? Why do you think you're doing lion lessons in math?

Coyote: But I've only been doing it two weeks!

Me: Never give up before you start. Actually I think you should let Mariposa take the lead on this stuff because she's nearly finished the relevant section and you're just starting, but I want you to do every calculation.

Coyote: I thought you never told people what to do.

Me: Sometimes you need a kick in the butt. Right? Come on, let's go to your house.

``Sketchy'' is a charitable description of the Solanos' records, but the bottom line is clear. There are no reserves. They run on a cash basis, and they have sixty bucks cash which has to last until the end of the month.

Me: Mrs. Solano, how do you get to work?

Mrs. Solano: You should really call me Maria; it's my name. I take the bus.

Me: I suggest you sell El Oso's truck and use the money for the funeral.

Coyote: But, but...

Me: But you wanted to drive it, right? Who drives it now besides El Oso?

Coyote: Nobody, I guess.

Me: The insurance is ridiculous on the heap we bought for Tiger. Not paying insurance on the truck would put a lot of food in your bellies.

Maria: Insurance?

Me: Jeez! How can you drive without insurance? Don't answer that. I don't know anything about cars, and I'm no coyote. I doubt a used car salesman would take Coyote seriously. Do you know anyone who could help you sell the truck, who's good in a cheat or be cheated situation?

Maria: Know, yes. Trust, no.

Me: Possibly I could ask my boss. He's an expert at sucking blood out of turnips, and he's honest. Would that be OK?

Maria: I don't know anything about cars either; El Oso handled that. I think we're going to have to ask your boss. How much do you think we could get?

Me: Unfortunately, like I said, I don't know anything about cars. We won't know until we see the cash. That's going to slow down funeral planning.

Maria: Why don't we get a loan, or pay for it on time?

Me: We added up what you spend now. Suppose you had an additional fifty or a hundred bucks a month to pay. Even counting that you aren't buying beer and rum for El Oso any more, could you pay it?

Maria: We can't pay what we need to live! How could we pay another hundred a month?

Me: A point that had not escaped me. Coyote, if you can afford to pay zero on the loan, what's the biggest loan you can get?

Coyote: That isn't fair!

Me: Let's put it another way: suppose you have money. I croak and Tiger wants to put on a big funeral for me, and wants to borrow money from you, but can pay back zero per month. How much do you lend? Or let me put it another way: how much do you give the beggar and not expect to get back?

Coyote: Come on, I don't like that!

Me: When winter comes I walk on snow in bare feet, and you're going to be just like me. Tell me then what you don't like. Without the loan you'll be lucky to have shoes that you can get your feet into. With the loan you're guaranteed frozen toes. This is reality, Coyote. Deal with it!

Coyote: OK, we'll sell the truck. Look, we know our assets: the truck and sixty bucks. We know Madre's income and we added up how much we need to spend on rent and food and phone and all that. I'm getting tired and see, Mariposa is yawning.

Tiger: Right, Simba, I think we're done here. You people could come over to our house and we'll make you some hot chocolate. It will help you sleep more peacefully.

The next day, Sunday, Mike is able to get eight hundred dollars for the truck. That's more than we expected, but it isn't enough for a cemetery plot, and Coyote points out that El Oso is mostly cremated already, so why don't we just finish the job? Maria knows a potter, who makes up a nice pot on short notice decorated with a picture of a bear, a coyote, a butterfly and a parrot. Maria doesn't use an animal name, but she says El Oso calls her perica, for bright plumage (when young) and lots of talk. Clothes are discussed, and I recommend against special expenditures. Maria has a black dress bought some years back for her mother's funeral, and with some tailoring it can be made to fit. Coyote has black jeans, which Maria is able to patch creatively, and a white shirt that is not quite too small, and shoes that he can still wear. Mariposa is the hardest to deal with, but Maria takes her to a thrift store and gets a suitable black dress for ten dollars. Due to lead times, the funeral ends up on Tuesday. El Oso gets a simple, sweet smelling pine box. Maria and I bring it over to the morgue in the back seat of Tiger's car and we get the staff people to put him in it; then we drive him back to the Catholic church near Casa Serena. I am surprised that the service is said in Spanish, not Latin, but either way I can follow most of the words. There's a space for eulogies, and Coyote gives a nice one, in Spanish, that I helped him earlier to organize (in English). I also say something short; Coyote helped me translate it into Spanish. Afterward we drive El Oso to the crematorium, and the funeral is over. Maria, Coyote and Mariposa agree that the service, while opposite of lavish, was dignified and was an appropriate sendoff for El Oso.

That evening we assign the kids a crash course in human nutrition, and next evening after work we accompany the Solanos to the grocery store.

Coyote: Madre and Mariposa buy groceries. And what exactly are we here for if we're not going to buy any?

Tiger: You're growing, right? You grow from what you eat, and you eat what you pay for. You're here to find out which foods cost what, and what nutrition is in them. If you want, you can trust someone else to make the choice for you, but splitting the work five ways makes it easier.

Coyote: So why do I have to know all this stuff about nutrition anyway?

Tiger: You're growing, right? I wonder if you want to assume Mariposa would buy foods that will build your body.

Mariposa: That's not fair! I learned the lessons and I can do a good job!

Tiger: I know, but you wouldn't expect Coyote to think that way, would you, Coyote?

Me: There's another point: you kids don't know about nutrition because nobody taught you. I'm not criticizing you, Maria; nobody taught you either. And your grandchildren would go on not knowing. Now we push Coyote and Mariposa to learn scientific nutrition. Guess what happens to their children?

Coyote: OK, OK, I get the picture. But the kids will laugh at me if they see me in here. I can tell them I'm pricing cerveza.

Tiger: Add cerveza to your list; you'll find it interesting. No joke. I've tried to split up the lists by categories so most of each person's foods will be on neighboring aisles. Let's get this over with.

Coyote: When we get all these numbers, how do we figure out what to eat?

Me: That's a little complicated. Trust me, if we can get the numbers we can turn them into an answer. OK?

Mariposa: If I see something I like that isn't on the list, can I add it?

Me: Sure, no problem, but don't add everything in the store please. Let's go.

We busily copy down the brand name, price, major ingredients and nutrition information for a fairly long list of foods. When done -- Mariposa has a fondness for snack foods -- we take the data back to our house, where the kids have left their laptops. Each person's list is on two pages. The kids type in one page each while Tiger and I finish the rest with our superior keyboard skill. Maria waits patiently, lacking a computer.

Me: OK, Coyote, now you get your question answered. Normally I'd have you do at least part of the analysis by hand, but it involves calculus, which you haven't learned yet, so I'll just do it for you. I got this program off the net, though I wrote a similar one, not as flexible, in college. OK, it likes the input formatting. This will take a moment; there's a lot of dimensions.

Coyote: I've never heard of calculus. It sounds like a kind of cement, not math. Are those numbers the answer?

Me: Yes, and it's a good one. With this food mix you can get plenty of nutrition and still have sixty bucks a month left over.

Maria: From forty over to sixty under, that's a miracle! How can I thank you?

Me: Don't thank me yet. You haven't eaten the food. I made a test run last night and the result didn't look appetizing. These numbers are grams of each food per person per day. Sorry, Mariposa, it says zero Twinkies.

Coyote: If I'm reading this right, it wants us to eat rice, beans and tortillas every day and nothing else. I can't eat that!

Tiger: I sympathize with you, but you have to remember that when the money is gone, it's gone. Look, Simba, how far can they push off the optimum solution and still afford it?

Me: Sixty bucks worth. Also I don't think this optimum is very optimum. The data we collected doesn't reflect every nutrient, and you'll die eating that diet just like you'd die eating lion food. I was hoping that with real data we'd get a better solution, but we didn't. You need two improvements. First the food has to be interesting. Second it has to be healthy. Third, that sixty bucks has to pay for more than just food.

Mariposa: We did the lessons you told us about, and they said humans need starch, meat, calcium and fruits and vegetables. Rice and tortillas are starch, right? What are beans? Do they count as vegetables?

Tiger: Sort of, but if you look here, the tortillas and beans combine to give protein, like meat has, and the beans have some calcium, as do the tortillas. Meat is expensive. The reason the program chose this diet is that these cheap foods combine to cover all but one of the food categories. The problem is, the data we wrote down doesn't represent the vegetable category properly. May I make a couple of suggestions? First, we eat chicken bones, just to have something different. I just put them in my mouth and crunch them. Is there some way you can eat bones? I was pricing meat, and beef bones hardly cost anything.

Maria: I can make soup. They kind of get soft, and then you throw them out.

Tiger: If they get soft enough, eat them, particularly the kids. The cow's bone becomes your bone. And of course drink the soup. Second, do you have very many spices?

Maria: A few.

Tiger: Every time we go to the grocery store we choose one spice to buy, and our food is so much more interesting. We've spent, what, ten bucks on spices so far. To keep happy eating that food, spice it up. OK? Another suggestion: rice is the cheapest starch, but the various kinds of potatoes are close behind. We also like sweet potatoes, both kinds. Vary your diet. Eating the same thing all the time is boring, and people say it's not healthy either. Another idea: buy various cheap vegetables, let's say four bucks a week, and put it in the food. I'm sure you do that already, but the emphasis is on cheap. Tomatoes are good. So is squash. Peppers are expensive per kilo, but one pepper will hot up many meals. Another thing: you all need to eat fruit. Melons are tasty and some kinds are cheap, and this week there's a big sale on grapes, which turned out to be sour, but they're a whole lot better than nothing. Get the picture? You have a food budget, which you break down to so much per grocery trip. A big part goes into beans, various kinds, and tortillas. Then you allow a certain amount per week for vegetables, and for fruit, and for this and that. You plan in advance how much to spend, and you spend it, no more and no less. Your family thrives. Sound good?

Mariposa: No Twinkies? Ever?

Me: Not on this budget. I'm sorry. But let's look at alternatives. First, you can scrub someone's floor, and now it's a different budget item and you can spend it on Twinkies and you don't have to share them unless you want to. Here's a better idea though: squash pie. Mrs. Ragland used to make it for us and it's really good. Get a pumpkin pie recipe and cook up your squash ration with it. See what Twinkies cost? Let me tell you, you can get a whole pie for the price of one package of Twinkies, pretty near, and it's on the regular budget. What do you think?

Mariposa: A whole pie? Well, maybe...

Me: Coyote, what do you think?

Coyote: How do you tell which of you is the man?

Maria: Coyote! Mind your manners!

Me: Lion custom is not to hide from questions like that, about sex. But that's an odd topic change. First, we're both lions, not men. I assume you mean what's our gender; who's male. When we're climbing trees, look up and spot the vagina if our fur doesn't cover it. Or smell our shoulders; cinnamon means male and allspice means female, mixed with the rest of our scent. Somehow I think that didn't answer your question.

Coyote: Men do strong things. Women wash and cook.

Me: A young man who wants a computer scrubs enough floors to get it. A young lady who likes the feeling of being able to take care of herself does exercises and practices combat skills. I think those are very appropriate. Get things done steadily, reliably and bravely, and you can be proud of yourself whether you have a penis or a hole. Agreed?

Coyote: Do you cook?

Me: Of course, don't you remember seeing me? I've got a suggestion: let's put together a grocery order. We ate all our squash, but we'll buy some more, and when we come back I'll give Coyote and Mariposa a lesson in cooking squash pie, and we'll eat it.

Tiger: It's not exactly early. Let's go through the grocery planning, and go over and buy it, but let's make the pie right after work tomorrow, and after dinner we'll come over to your house and we can all eat it for dessert. Coyote, are you brave enough to participate?

Coyote: Come on, you don't have to do those little manipulation things. If I don't make the pie I'm left out, and if I don't keep an eye on the food I won't get what I need, and if I don't cook I have to always eat what someone else likes. But damn it, I learn it one way and then I learn it another and I'm not very happy this week about getting jerked around, see? And you don't have to repeat the lesson about being happy. See, I take the garbage in my spirit and throw it in the trash, and Coyote smacks his lips over the pie he's going to cook. Tomorrow. Let's buy the food.

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