Tuesday 23 January 2024

Scientific Attractions 5: Erbium by Jim Bates, black coffee


The story so far:

In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident. Chapter Two, Terbium, we were introduced to Zeke who has been in the child welfare system for six years and is having mental health issues. They both like science a lot. In Chapter Three, Dysprosium, we are introduced to Mary who is one of the mental health professionals caring for Zeke. We are also introduced to her boyfriend Len. In Chapter Four, Holmium, Len, and Mary meet Leroy a homeless person, and befriend him.


Summer, 2008

As if losing his wife to cancer five years ago wasn’t bad enough, Albert Jespers had been contending lately with rising crime and an increasing transient population, both of which seemed to grow worse every day.

            “Look at that,” he pointed out the window of his drug store on the corner of 4th Street and 15th Avenue, only a few blocks from the University of Minnesota campus.

            Edna Larson, long-time office manager, and long-suffering right-hand man, or woman, as she would quickly correct him if he ever said it out loud, looked out the window onto the busy sidewalk. People from all walks of life were streaming by, mostly college students, many of them fresh out of high school and experiencing a taste of freedom, living on their own for the first time. But there was also a collage of others, old and young, white and brown and black and yellow, cultures, and races from all over the world. Which, as far as she was concerned, was fine.

Albert had owned the drug store for nearly fifty years, and, thanks to Edna, he still had it.  After his dear wife Sadie died, Albert had fallen into a deep depression and the University Pharmacy had nearly gone under. He’d turned to drinking and might have lost the business if it hadn’t been for her.

One day she pulled him aside and told him in no uncertain terms to get his act together. “Ask yourself this,” she’d said, pointing a threatening finger at him. “Would Sadie approve of how you’re acting?’

Well, of course, she wouldn’t. Alive or dead. Taking about five seconds to realize the downhill path he was slip-sliding on, Albert answered with an emphatic, “No!”

That day in 2003 he’d made a one-hundred and eighty degree turn around. Working side-by-side, they’d upgraded the inventory and changed the name to Jespers’ Mercantile, a name chosen by Edna as a way of, as she put it, “Differentiating ourselves.” It’d worked. A new name, some new paint, a clean sweep so to speak, and the old store began to take on new life.

He and Edna worked hard to change the store’s image and in addition to the pharmacy, they now carried everything that an old-time dry goods store would have carried along with grocery goods, hardware items, and even lottery tickets. As Edna joked with him, “Most of the people around here don’t have the means to go a mall. We’ll give them some variety right here. Something nice to choose from.”

            Albert went along with her because her ideas made sense. They even had a little gift area for perfume and jewelry, kept in a locked display case. Cubic zirconium for the jewelry of course. It was just fancy glass, in his opinion, made with synthesized erbium, but that was okay. It was inexpensive and he wanted to keep the costs low. If the rings and necklaces looked like diamonds, so much the better.

            But it was the transient population that kept bugging him. “I just don’t like them,” Albert told Edna, watching two scruffy-looking characters stare in the window. “Look at those two.”

            “What?” Edna was standing next to him at the checkout counter near the front door going over their inventory before placing an order for candy bars and small bags of chips.

            “There.” Albert pointed.

            Edna looked out the window at the large man in bib overalls and the skinny kid next to him. “What of it? They’re just two guys who look a little down on their luck.”

            “Well, they give me the creeps,” Albert said. “Glad I’ve got this.” He pointed to the baseball bat he’d started keeping under the counter. “If they or anyone else tries something, I’m ready.”

            He was reaching to pick it up when Edna put out a hand to stop him. She was in her early sixties, a short, spry woman who had no problem handling her longtime boss. “Albert, you’re eighty-two years old. I don’t think a baseball bat is going to help if someone does try anything.” She used finger quotes around ‘try anything’ to make her point.

            “Oh, really?” Albert said, reaching under the counter to caress the thirty-three-ounce Louisville Slugger. “Well, let someone just try me. I dare them. Then we’ll find out.”

            Edna rolled her eyes and went back to the inventory sheet, thinking, if someone does try something, Albert’s the one that’s going to get hurt. And she didn’t want that. Not at all.


The big guy outside the window of Jesper’s Mercantile was Leroy Flynn. He’d been in Minneapolis for nearly a week, living rough in the transient camps on the Mississippi River near downtown. The first two nights he’d stayed with a woman named Rhonda before she’d booted him out of her tent when he’d made the ill-advised move of trying to order her around. She’d chased him off with a ball-peen hammer. Then one night he attempted to rob a lean cowboy at knifepoint. An attempt that failed when the cowboy turned out to be quicker than he looked. The swift kick to Leroy’s crotch still made him wince.

That had been three or four nights ago. He’d lost track of the time. The cowboy and his girlfriend had tried to befriend him, which Leroy appreciated, especially since they didn’t bat an eye at giving him food. Plus, the cowboy was an Afghanistan war vet like he was which was a coincidence he didn’t run into all that often, if ever. The shared bond of the war was something he could have pursued but didn’t. Truth be told, he’d been on the road for six months and even though he had no solid plans, he was kind of enjoying the freedom of doing whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to do it.

He’d been thinking of hitch-hiking to Seattle but had put that idea on hold for no reason other than to hang around Minneapolis for a while. The warm August weather suited him just fine and made it easy to sleep outside, usually under a thick clump of cedars he’d discovered in a wooded area between the campus and the Mississippi River. He’d stayed away from seeing the cowboy and his girlfriend, though, wanting to be independent and on his own. Before that, however, the cowboy had given him some money that he’d already burned through on food and a new blanket he kept in his duffle bag.

For the last few days, he’d taken to wandering the streets around the campus searching the trash cans for food to eat, not the most pleasant of experiences. But then he’d gotten lucky. Last night he’d met up with Riley, a wiry runaway kid from northeast Minneapolis who had ideas like you wouldn’t believe, all having to do with robbery or breaking and entering.

“Easiest thing in the world, man,” Riley told him when they’d first met, jitterbugging back and forth from one foot to the other. “Piece of cake,” he added, leaning down, picking up a twig and twilling in his hands before breaking it apart.

After sleeping off a night of drinking cheap wine under the 35W overpass, they made their way toward the university. It was now early evening and they were hanging out at a picnic table under a large oak tree in River Heights, a small park near the campus that overlooked the Mississippi River. They were sharing a bottle of ripple wine that Riley had come up with and munching on some day-old onion rings they’d found in the trash.

As opposed to Leroy’s six feet four-inch frame and two-hundred and eight pounds, Riley was small, coming in at five feet six inches and weighing maybe one-hundred and twenty. He was a painfully thin bundle of energy who sported a wisp of a mustache and beard. He wore black cargo pants hung part way down his butt and a filthy flannel shirt over two tee-shirts, one of which read, Rock and Roll Never Dies. On his feet were tattered running shoes held together with duct tape. His dark hair hung in his eyes, and he was forever swishing errant strands away with his hand, a habit which finally got on Leroy’s nerves so much that he took off his green John Deere baseball hat and handed it over.

“Here,” he’d said. “Put this on for Pete’s sake.”

“Hey, man, thanks,” Riley had said, flashing a friendly grin while putting the hat on with the brim pointed backward. Leroy sighed and didn’t bother saying anything. At least it fixed the swishing hair problem.

Instead, he said, “So tell me more about this robbery stuff. What is it you do?”

Riley was sitting across from Leroy, taping out a drum-beat rhythm on his knees. “Well, it’s easiest if we had a weapon,” Riley told him, stopping the drumming and scratching at his chin. “Otherwise, it can get risky. You know, people might want to fight you.” He shrugged his thin shoulders. “I’ve gotten beat up a few times.” He picked up a twig from the ground and broke it in half. “Shit happens.”

Leroy liked Riley and liked hanging around with him. He reached across the table and put his hand on his new friend’s bony shoulder. Riley immediately quit jittering around. “A weapon, huh?” Leroy said.


“In that case, check this out.” He reached down, unzipped his duffle bag, and pulled out his nine-inch-long hunting knife. “How about if we had a weapon like this?”

“Oh, wow!” Riley exclaimed. “Can I hold it?”

“Sure.” Leroy flipped the big knife and caught it easily by the blade. Then he extended the handle to his new friend. “Check it out.”

Riley took the knife out of the sheath and examined the sharp blade. He looked almost reverently at Leroy. “Where’d you get this?”

“Never mind.” It had been a gift on his thirteenth birthday from his grandfather back on the farm in Ohio, but the young kid didn’t need to know that. At least not now. “Will this work?”

“Oh, yeah! This’ll work great.”

“You got an idea?”

“Yeah.” He took a drink of wine and pointed over his shoulder in the general direction of the University. “We should hit up the drug store we were looking at back on campus.” He passed the bottle to Leroy.

“The mercantile?” Leroy took a swig of the wine. “Why them?”

Riley took the bottle from Leroy and had a drink. “They’ve got some far-out jewelry in there, man. Diamonds and stuff.”

“Diamond? In a drug store?”

Riley crossed his heart. “Swear to god.”


“Yeah. And two old people run it.” He looked at Leroy and then the knife and said, “With that toad sticker of yours, they’ll hand over those diamonds in a second.”

Diamonds, Leroy thought to himself. Diamonds would be good. He turned to Riley and grinned. “I like your thinking.”

Riley smiled in return and said, “I know what I’m doing, man. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

Leroy liked the skinny kid’s confidence. “Okay. I’m all in. When should we do it?”

Riley looked over Leroy’s shoulder. To the west across the river and behind the skyscrapers of the city, the sun was starting to go down. He pondered the view for a minute, and then said, “I think they’re still open. I think they close at nine.”

“You mean do it now?”

Riley shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

Leroy looked at his knife and thought about the cowboy and his own failed robbery attempt a few days earlier. This was a chance to make amends and do it right. “Okay,” he said, grinning. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a filthy red bandana, and began to polish the big knife blade. “Let’s do it.”

Riley grinned. “I like your attitude big man. Now’s a good time. It’s starting to get dark so that’ll be good.”

“Okay with me,” Leroy said. He put the knife away, stood up, and hosted his duffle bag. “Let’s go.”


“Alright, see you later.” Edna smiled and waved at the two Muslim women who were just leaving with a couple of gallon jugs of water. She glanced at the clock on the wall at the back of the store. Nearly nine o’clock. Closing time.

“Albert. I’m going to lock up.”

“Sounds good,” he called from the office in the backroom. “I’ll be right out.”

Edna smiled. They had their routine, that was for sure, and she enjoyed it. While Albert rang out the cash register and prepared the nighttime deposit, Edna walked up and down the isles making sure everything was shipshape and tidy. Then they’d sit in the office, have a cup of chamomile tea, and talk about the day and what they’d do tomorrow. Then they’d go their separate ways; Albert to his tiny apartment above the store, and Edna to her apartment a mile and a half away on Main Street. On nights like this with it so nice and pleasant out, she’d walk. Otherwise, she’d take the bus.

But, first, she’d lock the front door. Better to be safe than…

The door slammed open as she was walking to it. “What the…?” She turned and called out, “Albert!”

He ran out of the back office to see two men rush in. In one motion the skinny one pushed Edna aside while the bigger man pointed a large hunting knife toward Albert. Edna stumbled against a rack of magazines, knocking them over as she fell hard to the floor.

Albert was running to help her when the big man stepped in front of him. “Hold it, pal,” he commanded, banishing the knife inches from the old man’s face. “Stop right there.”

Albert skidded to a halt and held up his hands. He could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead. God, they were being robbed! Those damn vagrants! He took a breath and tried to calm down. His heart was racing so fast he thought he might have a heart attack. He glanced at Edna who lay on her side. When she saw Albert look at her, she gave him a subtle thumbs-up sign. She was okay. Good.

He turned his attention to the big man in front of him. “There. There. Take it easy.”

Leroy waved the knife in Albert’s face and pointed to the cash register.  “Forget ‘there, there’ pal. And I’ll take it easy when you get me that money. Then no one gets hurt.” He pushed Albert toward the register so hard he stumbled and almost fell.

“Okay. Okay.” Albert steadied himself against the counter and glanced at Edna still lying on the floor. She was watching the events carefully, but not making a move. The skinny guy had lost interest in her and was stuffing some candy bars in his pockets.

Leroy waved the knife. “Now!”

“Alright. Just give me a minute.” Albert hurried around to the other side of the counter and opened the cash register. “I need to reach under the counter to get a bag.” He looked at Leroy. “Is that okay?”

“Make it fast.”

Albert reached down to where the paper bags were kept. The baseball bat was right there next to them. Should he grab it? Should he pick it up and in one quick motion swing for the fences and smash the big robber in the head?

Just then the skinny kid reached across the counter and grabbed Albert by the front of his shirt. “You heard him, old man. Now!”

With his wild eyes and jerky motions, the kid was scary-looking. Albert felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead. Who knew what these two guys would do if they were provoked? Better do as they said. “Okay,” he said taking a bag and putting the money from the till in it. Then he handed it over. “Here you go.”

Riley grabbed the bag and smiled. “That’s good old man.” Then he looked around. He pointed at the jewelry case. “And the jewelry. Get us those diamonds, too.”

“Okay. Hold on a second,” Albert said. “Let me get the key.” He momentarily thought about correcting the guy and saying something like, “Those are actually fake diamonds. Cubic zirconium made from erbium.” But decided against it. These two didn’t appear to be in the mood to be told they were wrong.

Without a glance at Edna, the two men followed Albert to the jewelry case. He took out his key ring, found the appropriate one, and set it in the lock. “Just give me a minute.” He took a quick glance to where Edna had been. She was gone.

Though bruised from being thrown against the magazine rack, Edna was otherwise uninjured. While the two robbers had their attention on Albert and the jewelry case, Edna had taken a chance and crawled down the aisle. She quickly found what she was looking for.

While Albert was opening the case, Riley turned to check on Edna. “Jesus H. Christ,” he muttered.

Leroy had been paying attention to Albert, who was now opening the case. “What?”

“Be right back.” Riley quickly ran to where Edna had been and saw her halfway down the aisle. “Hey, bitch!” He hurried to her and grabbed her by the arm. “Get your ass in gear. You’re coming with…” He never finished his sentence, because right then Edna turned to him and sprayed him square in the eyes with a can of pepper spray. Riley screamed at the top of lungs, “Owwwww! Oh, my god!!” He stumbled backward with his hands to his face and crashed into a shelf full of canned goods. Losing his balance, he fell to the floor as cans rained down on him.

“Serves you right, you punk,” she muttered.

From the front of the store, Albert yelled, “Riley! Riley, what’s going on?”

All Riley could do was moan. “Oh, man, I’m blinded. I can’t see a thing.” He rolled on the floor writhing in pain among cans of pork and beans and Campbell’s soup. “Oh, god. My eyes,” he sobbed. “I think I’m dying.”

Leroy turned to Albert. “Hold it right there. Don’t move.” Then to Riley, he called, “Take it easy, I’m coming.” With Riley’s cries filling the store, the big man hurried to the aisle and was turning down it when Edna stepped up and sprayed him too. “AHHHHH!” Leroy screamed, reeling backward. “Oh, my god,” he wailed. Tears flooded his eyes as he dropped his knife, fell to his knees, and tried to rub the pain away. He had no luck. The pepper spray was deadly stuff. In a matter of moments, he had joined Riley rolling on the floor in pain, both of them moaning and rubbing their eyes.

With both men’s screams filling the store, Albert ran to Edna. When he saw what she had done, he smiled at her and clasped her on the shoulder. “Good job.”

She grinned and patted his arm. “Better than a baseball bat any day.” Then she looked at him closely. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, I am,” he said, feeling a sense of relief. He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his forehead. They were both going to be alright. Then he looked at the two would-be robbers rolling on the floor. “What should he do about those two?”

Edna set the pepper spray down. “What do you want to do?”

“We should call the cops.”

“I know.” Edna looked at him. “Do what you need to do. You’re the boss. These are the kind of people who you’ve been complaining about lately.”

“I know.” Albert looked at the two men. The big one smelled bad and looked like he’d seen better days. The skinny kid was obviously hyper, and if he wasn’t on drugs there was something seriously wrong with him.

As Albert balked at making a move, Edna asked, “What are you waiting for?”
            “I’m just thinking about what Sadie would have done. You know, she was awfully kind-hearted.”

Edna smiled. Despite the bruise forming on her arm from being thrown against the magazine rack, she could see where this was headed. “You want to let them go, don’t you?”

“No really, but kind of.” He thought for a moment. “I’ll tell you what. Here’s what I think we should do.”

Edna listened carefully. When he was done talking, she said, “Sounds like a really good idea.”

Albert smiled. “Great. If you agree, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Edna watched over the two men while Albert called the police. He reported the break-in and within minutes two officers arrived. First, they questioned the old couple and made sure they were all right. Then they questioned Leroy and Riley. When the two officers were sure everything was under control, they reluctantly left the store to write up a report. Against the cop’s better judgment, they left the two vagrants with Albert and Edna. They had no choice. The store owner had refused to press charges.

“I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” Albert had told them, not mentioning that it was something he was sure his departed wife would have wanted. “They are obviously down on their luck. I want to give them another chance.”

Both the policemen, veterans of the police force just shook their heads and left, thinking, Crazy good Samaritans. It’s never going to work.

But that’s not the way Albert and Edna looked at it. Giving the two homeless men another chance was exactly what they told Leroy and Riley they were going to do later that night after the cops had gone. Edna had taken the two of them into the bathroom of Albert’s apartment, washed out their eyes, and gotten them cleaned up a little. Then they’d come downstairs and stood near the front door. That’s when Albert looked at the two of them and said, “Just try to get your acts together, you guys, okay? I don’t need to know your life history. Just try to figure out what you need to do to get back on track.”

Leroy glanced at Riley. A reprieve!

Riley winked at him. Our lucky day.

Edna saw the exchange between the two. She was no dummy, and she got right in their faces. “Look, you guys. We can call the cops back here right now.”

Leroy ears turned red. “Sorry,” he said.

Riley stared at his feet. “Yeah, sorry,” he mumbled.

She pointed at Albert. “He’s giving you a chance here. My advice is you should take it and do something with it.”



Leroy was visibly chagrined. He looked at Edna. “I’m really sorry.” Then he turned to Albert, “I don’t know what to tell you except thanks for not pressing charges.”

“You’re welcome,” Albert said. “Just try to get it together, okay?”

Riley followed the big man’s lead. He nodded to Edna, “Thank you.” Then he turned to Albert. “Thanks.”

Albert nodded to him in return. “You’re welcome.”

Edna cleared her throat said, and pointed to the mess on the floor. “Okay, it’s getting late and we’ve got some things to do around here. You boys take care.”

“Okay.” Leroy raised his hand. “Thanks again. Goodbye.”

Riley had a sudden urge to shake Albert’s hand, which he did. Albert shook it in return.

As the two of them were turning to leave, Edna said, “Hold on.” They turned to her and she reached into her pocket, pulled out two twenty-dollar bills, and gave one to each of them. “Here you go,” she said.  “Hope this helps.”


A little later, Albert and Edna were sitting in Albert’s apartment having tea and some cookies.

“What do you think?” Albert asked, sipping on his chamomile.

“About those two?” She pointed over her shoulder with her thumb.


“I don’t know,” she said, munching a cookie. “Maybe a ten percent chance they’ll clean up their act.”

“I agree. Long odds, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Edna stared off into the distance. Then said, “But we did the right thing, I think. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do. Sadie would’ve been happy.”

“How about you?”

“Me?” Albert smiled. “I feel pretty good.”

“Good.” Edna grinned at him. “Me, too.”

And they toasted each other with their tea cups.


It was after midnight when Leroy and Riley settled down under a massive oak tree in River Heights Park with a bottle of wine. They passed it back and forth sipping on it and talking.

“Whew. That was close,” Riley said. He took a drink and passed the bottle to Leroy.

“Yeah. I thought we’d get thrown in jail for sure.”

“Lucky us,” Riley said.

“Really lucky,” Albert responded. He took a drink and then was quiet.

After a few moments, Riley asked, “What?”

“Just thinking.”

“About what?”

Leroy sighed. “Back home. The farm.”

“Your parents and grandparents?”


A silence fell between them. The wind whispered through the trees. A half a mile away the traffic on Interstate 35W hummed in the background. Other than that, all was peaceful and still.

“It was pretty nice there. Hard work, of course, taking care of the cows. We had a milking operation. Granddad and grandma lived with us and helped out.”

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?”

“Two of each. All younger. I’m the oldest.”

“Sounds nice.”

“It was.” Leroy lay back and looked up through the canopy of leaves thinking about home. Thinking about that farm in Ohio. “It was really nice.

“My mom is strung out on heroin,” Riley said.

Leroy turned to him. “That’s not good. I’m sorry to hear it.”

Riley shrugged. “It is what it is.”

Leroy lay thinking for a few minutes. Shit. This was no life. “You know what?” he rolled over and turned to Riley. “I’m thinking of heading home. You want to come?”

“Like right now?”


Riley turned and looked at the big man. They hadn’t known each other long, and aside from their failed robbery attempt, seemed to get along well. He’d never had a friend before. Not like the big man, anyway. He was about to take a sip of wine but thought better of it. Instead, he set it down, untouched, and said, “I’d like that, Leroy. I think I’d like that a lot.”

“Okay, then, let’s do it.” Leroy stood up, grabbed his duffle bag, and shouldered it. Then he extended a hand to help Riley to his feet and the two of them started walking.

“How are we going to get there?” Riley asked, hurrying along next to the big man’s suddenly quick pace.

Leroy patted his pocket where he’d put Edna’s twenty dollars and grinned. “We’ll take the bus.” Riley’s eyes grew wide and he smiled. Leroy grinned back at him. “Me and you, buddy. It’s on me.”


About the author


Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in nearly 500 online and print publications. To learn more and to see all of his work, check out his blog at: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com. 

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