Monday 8 January 2024

Scientific Attraction: 4.Holmium by Jim Bates , black coffee



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In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident.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.


Summer, 2008

Leroy Flynn woke up in a bad mood. The homeless encampment by the Mississippi River was hidden among tall oaks and maples and within a stone’s throw of downtown Minneapolis. He’d been crashing there for a few days on his way hitchhiking from Chicago to Seattle. It was August and hot and muggy and the black flies and misquotes were relentless. But he’d met Rhonda when he first got to town two nights before and one thing led to another. Now, here he was, sleeping in her makeshift tent. She was fun to be with. He’d been with worse.

He elbowed the large woman lying next to him. “God Damnit, Rhonda. Get up and get me some food, for Christ’s sake. I’m starving.” He’d gotten used to her fixing eggs and fried toast over the encampment’s communal fire and just imagining the grease soaking up the litter of ripple wine from last night was enough to set his stomach rumbling.

Rhonda, however, had other plans. Like sleeping in.  She opened one bloodshot eye, gave him a pointed look, and said, “Get it yourself you piece of shit.” Then she rolled over and fanned her broad beam at him and added, “Get me something while you’re at it.”

            Well, Leroy Flynn wasn’t going to let anyone talk to him like that, woman or man. He sat up and was raising his hand to slap her when she rolled toward him holding a ball-peen hammer. She raised it ominously. “Try anything, jerk face. I dare you.”

            Leroy was a big man, six feet four inches of muscle gone to flab. He was twenty-six years old and pushing two hundred and eighty pounds. Rhonda was twenty years older and half his size. He could crush her easily. But…he eyed the hammer. Sometimes you had to know when to fold them, as the song went.

            He held up his hands in defense. “Okay, okay, calm down.” Muttering, “Screw you, bitch,” he rolled over to his knees. Steadying himself, he was getting ready to stand when suddenly his head began spinning and with it the inside of the tent. “Oh, god…” Unable to get to his feet, he crawled to the door, pulled back the flap, and vomited the contents of last night’s drinking party into the boots he’d left just outside the entrance.

            Rhonda watched the performance with a bemused expression. Then she put both her feet on his buttocks and pushed him all the way out the door. “Don’t bother coming back, loser,” she spat. “Goodbye, and good riddance.”

            Fifteen minutes later, Leroy was sitting fifty feet away on a log on the bank of the river with the relentless din of the city in the background: cars, trucks, road construction crews, and the occasional airplane taking off or landing seemingly right over his head. On his feet were his boots, the vomit freshly washed off in the Mississippi and still stinking, much to Leroy’s chagrin. He was wearing blue bib overalls, and a long sleeve tee-shirt that had been white once but now was grey. He had a full, unkempt beard, and a green John Deere baseball hat covered his long, greasy hair.

He was still hungry, but he wasn’t going to get any food just sitting around. He knew the University of Minnesota was only a mile or so away and was thinking maybe he could find something to eat there. He turned and looked back at the encampment. Rhonda stood outside the tent with her hands on her hips. She shouted, “Get out of here, you moron. Don’t bother coming back.” Three or four of the other transients glanced his way and smirked. One of them gave him the finger.
            Time to move on. Leroy got to his feet, picked up his duffle bag, and headed toward the University. It was also time to get some food.


Len Jackson scratched his head and sat upright in his chair, careful not to disturb his straw cowboy hat carefully placed underneath the desk. In front of the classroom the teacher, Andrew Everett, stopped his lecture and pointed to Len. “Question, Mr. Jackson?”

“No, sir,” he said. “I just…” he stopped talking because Everett, his instructor for Introduction to Chemistry, had already moved on, but not before shaking his head, still perplexed as to what a cowboy could ever be doing in his class.

And, after four weeks, Len wasn’t sure either. They were talking about lanthanides or rare earth metals. He looked at his notes. He had written that the elements on the periodic table all had certain characteristics. The elements numbered 57 to 71 were called lanthanides because they were similar to element number 57, lanthanum. What Len found odd, and somewhat off-putting, was that none of those elements were found naturally in nature. They all had to be synthesized in the lab. In other words, they weren’t naturally occurring, like coal, but concocted. It didn’t seem right. Heck, you could go to Kentucky and mine coal right out of the ground. These lanthanides were just too wishy-washy for him. He liked his elements nice and solid. Give him a hunk of coal anytime.

But one of the lanthanides did sort of appeal to him. Holmium. It was named after Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, because one of the scientists who’d discovered it in 1878 was from there. Len could get on board with that. Other than a year tour of duty in Afghanistan, he’d lived his entire life in the United States. He wasn’t opposed to traveling. He’d seen pictures of Sweden. He liked that it had lots of pine trees and rocky shorelines and water. It looked like a fun place to visit. Maybe he and Mary could go there sometime.

He checked his watch. God, the class had only been in session for ten minutes. He had forty-five minutes until the first break. Then another fifty-five minutes before class was over. Geez, somebody just shoot me. His mind wandered. I wonder what Mary’s up to?

He smiled thinking about her. They’d met last year in August at the Rattlesnake Bar in the Mojave Desert. The bluegrass band she was traveling with was playing a gig there and she was waitressing to earn a little extra money. They’d got to talking and enjoyed each other’s company. Over the next week, he’d befriended her and they’d become close during her week-long stay in the hospital at Tehachapi. After the gig, the band’s RV had smashed into a mule deer in the middle of the night and rolled over. Mary had been badly injured, and Len had taken it upon himself to visit her every day. The band had broken up and Mary had decided to come back to Minnesota and resume her training to become a nurse. Len had come with her.

After staying with her former roommates for a few days, they’d found an apartment near the University and Mary had resumed classes. Len, who was mechanically inclined and could fix any engine put in front of him, found a job at Ripton Mechanical, a small engine manufacturing company in Northeast Minneapolis, only two miles from their apartment.

During that first winter, Mary had asked him, “Do you ever think about going to college?”
            Len had looked up from the paperback he was reading. “Not really, no. Why?”

“I don’t know. To learn something.”

“What do you mean? I know stuff.” He set the book aside and turned his engaging grin on her. “I’m good with engines.” Then he winked at her. “With my hands, too.”

Even after being together nearly a year, she still enjoyed flirting with him. “Yes, you are, cowboy,” she laughed. “No doubt about that. But I mean other things. Art. History. Science.”

A foster child, Len had left school on the Hopi reservation at the age of sixteen. Before enlisting in the army, he worked at several jobs. His entire life he’d been drawn to cars and engines and by the age of eighteen could fix anything. But he wanted more, so he’d joined the army, hoping to become a mechanic and work on vehicles in the motor pool. He’d ended up on the other side of the world in Afghanistan doing search and destroy. It was a year of his life he’d just as soon forget but found impossible. He still had nightmares. He’d been working as a mechanic repairing wind turbine engines at the Alta Wind Farm when he and Mary had met that night in the bar.

Being with Mary helped a lot. Their friendship had developed into love, and they were very happy with each other. So, when she suggested going to college, he thought about it for a few days and then said.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

At the time, they were having dinner at their small kitchen table. Mary was finishing her spaghetti. “About what?”

“Going to school.”


“Yeah,” he said, taking a drink of water. “I’m thinking I might start with a science class.”

Mary smiled. “Good for you. What are you thinking about taking?”

“Maybe something to do with chemistry. I don’t know much about it. It might be interesting.”

“You know, you could take a night class.”

“That’s not a bad idea. Maybe this summer?”

“Summer sounds perfect.” Mary smiled. She really did love him. “I’m super happy for you.” She got up and hugged him. “I hope you like it.”

Len thought back to that conversation as he tried to focus on what Mr. Everett was saying, but it was hard. He’d only been in class a month and already he knew it wasn’t for him. Not just chemistry, but school in general. He was more of a hands-on kind of guy. Book learning? Not for him. He liked to read for fun, mysteries, mainly. But sitting in a classroom was not his idea of a worthwhile use of his time. He wondered what Mary would think if he told her he was thinking of quitting. Oh, well, he’d cross that bridge when he got to it.

He turned his attention to Mr. Everett who was talking some more about Holmium. Len stifled a yawn and glanced at his watch. The first break came at 8 pm. Forty minutes to go. Man, that bridge he was going to have to cross just might come sooner than he expected.


Leroy spent the day wandering around the streets near the University campus looking for food. By late afternoon, all he’d been able to scrounge were some old French fries in a crumpled-up fast-food container and the remnants of a porkchop from a trash bag in the alley behind a duplex. His big score had come when he’d found the dregs of some Mogen David in a bottle he’d pulled out of a recycling container. It had almost made his day, with the emphasis on almost. He was still hungry.

            After guzzling the wine, he stumbled along until he found himself on East River Parkway on the far side of the campus. In a forested area overlooking the Mississippi River, he came upon a thick grove of low-growing cedar trees that were a few feet from the sidewalk. Looking both ways to make sure no one was watching, he dropped to his knees and crawled underneath the thick branches and in a moment fell asleep, oblivious to the traffic racing by not twenty feet from his head.

The sun was setting when he awoke hours later. He opened his eyes and stared out between the branches of his sleeping spot a hundred feet above the river. Some would have found the view, with a forest of tall trees on the far side of the river and the city of Minneapolis behind them in the background, if not inspiring, at least pretty. But not Leroy. He rolled out from under the cedars and grabbed the trunk of a nearby maple to steady himself. Then he hoisted his duffle bag and started a shambling gait along the sidewalk. His stomach was a cacophony of rumbles and growls and gurgles and all he could think about was getting some food. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a decent meal. Days probably. Maybe a week. In his duffle bag was his hunting knife with a nine-inch blade. It was time to get serious.

Fifteen minutes later he found what he was looking for, an alley cutting through the backyards of a block of apartments and duplexes a few minutes walk from the campus. He made his way down to about the middle where he came upon an unlit area by a garage near the back gate of an old brownstone apartment building. Perfect, he thought to himself. This’ll do just fine. He took the knife out of his duffle bag, melted into the darkness, and waited. He’d used the knife before, and he’d use it again. Because of his size, people usually didn’t have to think twice about giving him their money, especially when he held the knife on them. If they didn’t? Well, he hadn’t had to cut anyone yet, but considering the mood he was in, it wouldn’t take much. There was always a first time.


By the end of the hour, Len realized he’d had it with the class. As the first break began, he stood up, put on his cowboy hat, stuffed his notebook in his backpack, and walked out the door of the classroom. The other students watched him and he tipped his hat to them as he strolled by. One of the guys smirked, “Have a nice life, dude.” Len didn’t say a thing, just kept on walking. Who needed the hassle? He certainly didn’t. Let them be jerks. He wasn’t coming back.

He stepped outside into the mild summer night. The sun had set and the twilight was refreshingly cool after another hot August day. Students were hurrying here and there as he ambled through the campus, marveling at some of the old buildings, a few of them built one hundred and fifty years earlier. Who was he kidding? This was a place built for learning, and he didn’t belong here. He was too restless to sit in a classroom. He liked working on engines. His job at the small engine factory suited him just fine.

He glanced to the west. Above the tall glass and steel buildings of nearby downtown Minneapolis, the sky had exploded into a fiery orange light show that reminded him of sunsets out where he was raised on the Great Plains. He sauntered along and adjusted the brim of his cowboy hat low over his eyes. He liked it out there, and, if he were being honest with himself, he missed those wide-open spaces.

As he waited on a busy corner for the light to change, a memory came to him of one day when he’d climbed the inside ladder of a wind turbine tower up to the very top nearly two hundred feet above the ground. He’d opened the hatch and stepped out onto the small platform to begin work on the engine. Of course, he was tethered to the ladder for safety, but this one time he’d unhooked himself and stood there on the tiny platform, head tilted back and arms outstretched, letting the wind blow past him, feeling the tower sway and himself swaying with it. At that very moment, he’d felt like he could have leaped into space and flown like a golden eagle. Of course, he hadn’t, but the thrill was one he’d never forgotten, and it made him feel good right now just thinking about it.

He crossed the intersection and walked a few blocks before finally getting away from the noise and congestion around the campus. The old brownstone building and the apartment he and Mary shared was on a quiet, tree-lined street. He turned down the alley that led to the back of their apartment, lost in thought. What would Mary think about him walking away from his class? From school? Hopefully, he could explain to her that college wasn’t for him, and, hopefully, she’d understand.



Leroy was in luck. He hadn’t waited very long before a tall, thin man with in cowboy hat and wearing a backpack turned into the alley and began casually walking down it. The guy appeared lost in thought, an easy target.

Leroy waited until his victim got within ten feet, then he moved quickly out of the shadows and pointed the big knife at the man’s heart.

“Hold it right there, cowboy,” Leroy said, stepping closer and waving the knife threateningly.

Len stopped and instinctively held up his hands. The big man in the blue overalls stunk of booze and vomit and didn’t appear too dangerous. However, the knife he was wheedling was big and looked sharp enough to do some serious damage. “Okay, man,” Len said, keeping his voice calm. “Okay. Just cool it. Alright?”

Leroy smirked and moved a step closer, pointing the knife at Len’s face. “I’ll cut you good, cowboy. Just do what I say, and you won’t get hurt.” He gave the knife a little twist for emphasis. “Now hurry it up and give me your money.”

Len wasn’t afraid of the big man. He was obviously drunk and even swayed a little as he tried to appear tough. But, still…he had a weapon. The knife looked lethal. It was best to play along. “Okay, man. No worries, okay?”

Leroy motioned with his knife. “Now!” Then he seemed to have a second thought and commanded, “And your backpack. I’ll take that, too.”

Len shrugged off his backpack and set it on the ground in front of him. “Here you go.” He pushed it forward with his boot. “My wallet is in my back pocket.”

“Get it.” Leroy reached down, grabbed the backpack, and pulled it behind him.

Len reached into his back pocket for his wallet. “Here you go,” he said. And handed it over.

“Good.” Leroy was reaching for it when Len reacted quick as lightning and kicked the big man hard in the crotch. Leroy went down like a stone, rolling back and forth in pain. “Oh, my, god,” he groaned holding himself. “God, damn it! I think you’ve crippled me.”

The knife had fallen to the ground and Len kicked it away. “You deserved that,” he said, watching the man writhe in agony. There was no way he was going to let some drunk rob him.

He watched for a minute. The big man was in obvious pain, and at first, Len had no sympathy for the guy. After all, he had pulled a knife and tried to rob him. But the more he watched the big man rolling around in the dirt and debris of the alley, holding his crotch and moaning incoherently, the more he started to feel sorry for him. The unkempt guy was obviously down on his luck. Len had known more than a few people in his life in similar situations.

“Hey, buddy, take it easy.” He stepped close and extended a hand. “Here, let me help you sit up.”

Leroy looked at him and swatted the outstretched hand away. “God Damnit. Get away from me, jerk. Just leave me alone.”

Ordinarily, Len would have done just that. But there was something about the big man. “Cool it, pal. I just want to help.”

The pain was subsiding somewhat, and Leroy was beginning to think a little more clearly. The cowboy didn’t seem threatening. Maybe he could hit him up for some money or some kind of handout. Only one way to find out. “Okay,” he said. He extended a hand, and Len pulled him into a sitting position against the side of a garage. When he was settled, he said, “Thanks.” He paused, and then added, “I guess.” He rubbed his groin tenderly.

“You guess?” Len asked, standing over him. “What’s wrong with you, man? For a guy with smashed balls who smells like rotten garbage and day-old vomit, that’s a hell of a thing to say.”

Leroy made a waving motion with his hand. “Says you. I don’t need your BS.” Then he moaned and added, “Look, call the cops or whatever you plan to do. Just leave me alone.”

Len had run into guys like this before. Both in the military and out west. Guys who felt they had something to prove. Still, there was something about the drunk that stopped him from turning him in. He was obviously homeless and down on his luck. And, beneath the full beard, greasy hair, ragged clothes, and ungodly stench, Len could tell the guy was in his mid-twenties and close to his age. He made a decision. Instead of calling the cops, Len sat down next to him.

“So, pal, what’s your story?”

The last thing Leroy felt like doing was talking. His crotch was starting to throb some more and he felt like he was about ready to pass out from hunger. “Like I said, buddy. Leave me the hell alone.”

By now, Len had gotten used to Leroy’s stink. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, not wanting to give up. “How about if I take you to get something to eat? How’s that sound?”

At the mention of a free meal, Leroy perked up. “Food? Sure, something to eat would be good.” He looked at Len suspiciously. “What’s the catch?”

Len grinned. “No catch, man. A free meal. How’s that sound?”

It was better than scrounging around in garbage pails fighting off the rats. “Sounds good,” he said, and, reluctantly added. “Thanks.”

Len helped him to his feet. “There’s a fast food place a block or two away. Let’s go there. Can you walk?”

Leroy teetered a little and then gained his balance. “Yeah. I’m good.” He shuffled around the side of the garage and emerged with his duffle bag. “All set.”

Len handed him his knife. “I believe this is yours.”

In spite of his grimy face, Leroy blushed. “Thanks.” He put it away in the duffle.

With Leroy’s knife safely stowed away, Len picked up his backpack and said, “Let’s go.” The two of them started walking. Len took it slow and easy. “Oh, by the way, my name’s Len,” he said, extending his hand.


The two of them shook hands.

They made their way down the alley. Leroy shuffled along with his duffle bag hoisted over his shoulder, eagerly anticipating a decent meal, all the while thinking this was working out better than he ever could have imagined, notwithstanding the dull throbbing in his groin.

A block away was a fast-food restaurant and that’s where Len took Leroy. He had coffee while Leroy had three spicy crispy chicken sandwiches, two large fries, and two large chocolate shakes. Then coffee.

And they talked. Leroy told Len about growing up on a farm in Ohio. He’d been hitchhiking around the country for the last six months, ever since he’d returned from Afghanistan where he’d been stationed in Kabul. He was heading to Seattle now for no reason other than he’d never been there and it gave him somewhere to go.

At the mention of Afghanistan, Len was all ears. “I was there, too.” He told Leroy about being a sergeant and doing search and destroy. A tentative bond began to form.

After nearly an hour, Len checked his watch. “Look, I’ve got to go touch base with my lady friend. How about if I come back? Maybe get you some more to eat?”

Leroy smiled for the first time in days. “That’d be great. I’m starting to get hungry again.”

Len stood up. “Okay. I’ll be right back.”

He went outside and hurried to their brownstone and up to their third-floor apartment. He found Mary studying at the kitchen table and told her about Leroy. “He’s a vet like me, sweetheart. He’s had a rough go of it. I’m going back to talk to him, maybe get him some more to eat. He’s kind of down on his luck.”

One thing Mary loved about Len was his kindness. After all, it was his kindness toward her when she was recovering in the hospital that added to her attraction for him. “Okay,” she said. “I understand. Take your time. I’ll be here studying.” Then she had a thought and asked, “Oh, by the way, how was chemistry class?”

Len’s ears turned red. “Umm. Not so good.”

Mary looked at him. “Why? What’s up?”

“I’ll tell you when I get home.”

Mary would have none of that. “No. Tell me now. What happened? Did you quit?”

Len shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah. I kind of did.”

It didn’t surprise her at all. Still, they needed to talk. She wanted him to know that it was okay with her if he didn’t like going to school. At least he’d tried. She just didn’t want him to all of a sudden decide to leave her and go back out west to the wide-open spaces she knew he loved so much. “Okay. You take care and go get some more food in that vet. I’ll be here when you get back. We’ll talk then.”

“Alright.” He hugged her. “Thanks for understanding.” He smiled, relieved she understood about both Leroy and school. He kissed her. “See you later.”

She kissed him back. “Bye.”

Len hurried down the alley and then back to the restaurant. When he got there, Leroy was gone. Panicking and worried more than he expected he should be, Len jogged to one end of the block and then the other, looking for the troubled vet. There was no sign of him


Surprised at how dejected he felt, he walked back to the apartment and let himself inside. Mary was still at the kitchen table studying. She looked up from her book. “That was fast.”

“I know. He was gone when I got there.” Len stood with his hands on his hips, clearly distraught. He looked around the apartment as if in some magical way the big man was there. Then he took off his cowboy hat and sat down across from Mary.

“Where’d he go, you think?” she asked.

“I have no clue.” He became quiet, thinking, playing with a stray pen.

Mary watched him. It was obvious he was distressed. “You want to look for him, don’t you?”

He looked at her. His eyes were sad, as if the weight of Leroy’s pain was being shouldered by him. “Yeah. I do. Plus, I kind of feel like I should; you know, him being a vet like me and all.”

Mary smiled. She loved his caring nature. She’d known worse men. “Want some help?”

He looked at her, relieved. “If it’s not too much trouble, yeah.” Then he pointed to her book and the notes she was taking. “But don’t you have studying to do?”

She closed her book and stood up. “I do, but it can wait. This seems more important. I’m coming with you.”

Len stood up and put on his cowboy hat. Then he took her hand. “Thanks. I don’t know what it is. I just feel like I should try and help him.”

Mary smiled at him. “Don’t worry. I get it.”

Together they walked out the door. Even if they didn’t find Leroy, they both knew they at least had to look. It just seemed like it was the right thing to do.


Hiding in the shadows of the alley, Leroy watched Len and Mary walk by. Earlier, he’d followed the cowboy back from the fast-food place and melted into the shadows not really knowing what he intended to do. He’d stayed hidden, even after Len had come outside and gone back to the restaurant, found him gone, and returned to his apartment. Leroy liked the shadows, but he had to admit it had felt good to talk about the war. Maybe he should have stayed and they could have talked more, not to mention have something more to eat.

But truth be told, he had no idea what he wanted. He’d been on the road for six months and had no plans, none at all. Hitchhiking to Seattle seemed like a good idea for no other reason than it gave him something to do and someplace to go. He sighed. What a screwed-up life.

Leroy stepped out from his hiding place and watched as Len and Mary reached the end of the alley. They were holding hands as they walked. Just seeing the two of them together made him feel good, like life wasn’t as bad as he thought it was. A feeling came over him, one he hadn’t had in a long time. It was a feeling of hope. He had to admit he liked talking to Len. They shared a bond about the war. He was easy to talk with. They were about the same age. What the heck? Why not?

Leroy waved his arm and shouted, “Hey, Len!”

Len turned and looked back down the alley. When he recognized Leroy, he smiled and waved in return. Then he leaned over and said something to Mary. She waved, too.

Then the three of them started walking toward each other.


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:


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