Friday 9 February 2024

Scientific Attractions 6: Thulium by Jim Bates, black coffee,



 By Jim Bates

Black Coffie

The story so far:

In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has become withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident.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. In Chapter Five, Erbium, Leroy, and his pal Riley attempt to rob a store, and the result is better than they could have ever expected.


Summer, 2008

Riley Thulin was a poor soul born into what was once a prominent family, which, unfortunately, over the course of less than one hundred years, had fallen so far down on their luck that the only thing they had left was their name. Not that it did them any good. The Thulins had originated in Norway in Thule, a town named after the element Thulium, a rare earth metal discovered in 1879 by Swedish chemist Per Thedor Cleve. Riley’s paternal great-great-great-grandfather, Bengt, founded the town in 1892 and proceeded to build a small empire there processing cod.

            By the time Riley came along, the family had fallen on hard times due to his grandfather Gustav’s love of alcohol. Gustav lost the family fortune and immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s. He settled in Minneapolis where he married for the third time only to die ten years later at the age of fifty-six from a gunshot wound to the head in a bar fight. Riley’s grandmother was thirty-six at the time and had been left to raise five children on her own. One of them ended up being Riley’s father, Sam, a no-good wastrel if there ever was one. He was a drug addict and so was Riley’s mother. After Sam left home when Riley was ten, Riley’s mother, Cicely, tried to raise Riley on her own but was unable to shake her addiction to heroin. It was not a good situation for young Riley.

Finally, early in the summer when he was sixteen, Riley ran away. He’d been living by his wits on the streets for the last few months when he met Leroy Flynn, twenty-six, a troubled man from an Ohio dairy farming family. He was also an Afghan War vet who for the last six months had been a full-time vagrant. He’d met Riley at one of the homeless camps set up on the bank of the Mississippi River near downtown. There was something about Riley that Leroy liked and they started hanging out together.

“Stick with me,” Riley had said. “I’ll show you the ropes.”

Leroy was a generally good-natured person who asked for nothing from life other than a good meal now and then to feed his six-foot-four-inch two-hundred-and-eighty-pound body. He’d joked, “Speaking of ropes, just don’t goof up and hang yourself, young man.”

Riley, somewhat slow on the uptake, laughed along not really understanding why.

Riley was a short, skinny kid who wore black cargo pants that hung halfway down his butt and a filthy flannel shirt over a pair of just as filthy tee-shirts, one of which said Long Live Rock and Roll. On his feet, he wore a pair of ripped-up running shoes held together with duct tape. His unruly hair was kept in place by a green John Deer baseball cap Leroy had given him when they first met that he wore backward, much to Leroy’s chagrin.

“Damn it, Riley, show a little respect. It’s a working man’s hat, for Pete’s sake.” But at least it kept Riley from constantly flicking his hair out of his face, an annoying habit if there ever was one.

Leroy was a large, big-boned man. Because of his size, he wore a faded pair of Oshkosh ‘B Gosh bib overalls over a long-sleeved white tee-shirt turned to grey. All of his possessions he carried in an old army duffle bag.

A day after they met, Riley had come up with an idea. “I’ll tell you what. We’ve got no money. How about if we rob that corner drug store by the University campus.” He playfully punched Leroy in the arm. “A couple of old people run it. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

Getting tired of living off of the food they were scrounging out of trash cans, Leroy agreed. Plus, he had a nine-inch blade hunting knife his grandfather had given him, so he figured that would help.

“Sure,” Leroy had said, showing Riley his knife. “Think this’ll help?”

“Oh, man,” Riley said in awe, gently touching the shinning blade. “This is a beauty.” Then he’d grinned. “Like I said, ‘piece of cake.’”

 The outcome wasn’t pretty. The pair had been taken down by a spry sixty-five-year-old woman named Edna who’d squirted them each with liberal doses of pepper spray. As the two of them lay writhing on the floor, the owner, eighty-two-year-old Albert Jespers, called the cops. But after the two officers arrived, Edna and Albert had a change of heart and took pity on the down-and-out pair. Instead of pressing charges Edna had given each of them twenty dollars along with the admonishment to, as Albert had said, ‘Clean up you acts boys.’ To which Edna had added, ‘Right. And see if you can make something of your lives.’

Neither of the two kind-hearted old folks thought anything good would come of it.

But it did. Later that night, while sitting in a park overlooking the Mississippi River, Leroy told Riley about the farm where he’d grown up in the Ohio River Valley. Riley was all ears. He’d lived in squaller in northeast Minneapolis his entire life, and knew only the smell of mold and mildew and his mother’s vomit, along with a view of the crumbling brown brick tenement building ten feet away out of the back window of their two-room apartment.

“Sounds amazing,” Riley said, his eyes wide with wonder.

“It is,” Leroy smiled.  “It really is.” A wistful vision of a two-story white farmhouse with a big front porch drifted into his mind. Home. Then he’d had a thought. “I’m thinking of heading back there. You want to come along?”

Riley didn’t have to think. “Hell, yes!” He couldn’t get the words out of his mouth fast enough.

“Okay, great,” Leroy grinned. “Let’s do it.” He made the decision right then and there to use his twenty dollars from Edna to buy them each a bus ticket. “I’ll pay for you,” he said to his young friend. “It’ll be my treat.”

“All right!”

Riley couldn’t believe his good luck. He not only liked Leroy but had never been out of Minneapolis in his entire life. His eyes glistened in excitement at the thought of going on an adventure.

Leroy hoisted his duffle bag. “No sense waiting. Let’s hit the road.” Off they went, heading for the bus station, a couple of miles away in the heart of downtown.

The night was mild, not too hot, and they made good time. After a few minutes walking, they crossed the Mississippi River on the 3rd Avenue bridge. August in Minnesota could be beautiful and this was one of those times. There was a light breeze from the south and the sky was clear enough to see the stars. A big, bright nearly full moon was setting behind them to the east. Leroy easily carried his heavy duffle bag over his shoulder. Riley was empty-handed except for a stick he’d picked up along the way. He was twirling it like a baton, much to Leroy’s dismay, but he didn’t say anything. He liked the young kid; found him different and interesting. Fun to be around.

Riley flipped the stick in the air, caught it and twirled it some more. “So, you liked the farm, huh?” he said, tapping the stick on the hand railing of the bridge. It was nearly two in the morning but with the pleasant weather, there were lots of people out and about, either walking across the bridge toward downtown like Riley and Leroy were doing, or away from it toward the east bank of the Mississippi and the St. Anthony neighborhood with its quaint one-hundred-year-old homes and unique shops and restaurants. Not to mention the campus of the University a mile away.

“I did. I liked it a lot.”

“So, tell me more about it,” Riley said.

Ahead of them, the city was lit up like daytime with the tall buildings forming a wall of light that both Leroy and Riley found comforting and secure.

With a faraway look in his eyes, Leroy answered Riley by saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. Fresh air. Up early before sunrise to milk the cows with my dad. His name is Jack, by the way. Chores all day long. Milk the cows at night.” He grinned at the memory. “Mom’s a fabulous cook.” He rubbed his large belly and licked his lips. “Her name’s Ann. Griddle cakes smothered in butter and maple syrup every morning, fresh bread, and fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy at our noon meal.” He looked at Riley. “We call that dinner.” Riley nodded, paying close attention, his mouth beginning to water. “Granddad’s name is Calvin. We call him Cal. He helps out with the chores and Grandma Lee helps out mom.”

“Grandma Lee?” Riley asked. “What kind of a name is that?”

Leroy chuckled. “Her name is actually Lea, but growing up, I couldn’t pronounce it. Kept leaving the ‘a’ off. People liked that I called her ‘Lee’”. Leroy shrugged. “Grandma didn’t mind.” He smiled again. “She’s a great lady.” He turned to Riley. “You’ll like her.”

Riley never knew his grandparents. They had both died of drug and alcohol abuse. He’d heard rumors that his relatives on his dad’s side came from somewhere in Norway, but that was all he knew. His memory didn’t go back any further than the last time his father beat up his mother. Riley had been five years old at the time. He’d left her lying on the floor of their apartment, the same one they were still in. Then he was gone.

For ten years Riley and his mother had tried to hang in there, but she was addicted to heroin and that was that. His last memory of her was of her lying unconscious on the floor of the bathroom with one of her boyfriends passed out right beside her. That’s when Riley left home. Was she alive? He had no idea. But he did know one thing: the idea of an idyllic farm and loving parents and grandparents appealed to him in a big way.

“Didn’t you say you had some brothers and sisters?”

“Yeah. All younger. My brothers are both going to college at the University of Ohio. John is going into journalism and Steve is getting a degree in business and then is coming back to work on the farm. Betsy is seventeen and graduates from high school next year, and Sally is fifteen and is going into tenth grade. They help out on the farm.” He looked at Riley, who now had a faraway look in his eyes. “Hey, there, buddy. Don’t you go getting any ideas.”

Riley's ears turned bright red. He’d never had a girlfriend in his life. “Umm…I…” he stammered.

Leroy laughed. “I’m just kidding. You’ll love everyone in my family.” He knew his young friend would. They were good people. Why he’d stayed away so long he didn’t know.

Riley had a big grin on his face. “Sounds like they’re right out of a Hallmark movie or something.”
            Leroy chuckled. “Yeah, it does, but they’re not.” He was contemplative for a moment before saying, “You know, everyone has issues. Mom and Dad have gone through some rocky times. He used to drink more than he should, but Mom put a stop to that. She’s had some health problems, too.” They walked a little way before Leroy said, “That farm has been in the family for four generations. I’m the fifth,” He was quiet for a moment, then added, “Yeah, I should get back there.”

Riley pointed up ahead to where several people were still out milling around despite the late hour, mainly couples out walking and enjoying the warm evening. But they were juxtaposed by gangs of youths charging up and down the sidewalks bumping into people and causing general mayhem. “Looks like something might be going on.”

 “Yeah,” Leroy said, looking worried and gripping his duffle bag tightly. “I don’t want any trouble. Let’s cut over.”

They hurried off the bridge and angled to the left toward Second Avenue and were soon swallowed up by the tall buildings. A mile away on the other side of downtown was the bus station, and that’s where they were headed.

They never made it.

As they were crossing the street at the corner of 2nd Avenue and 8th Street, only a few blocks from the bus depot, shots rang out. Leroy was hit in the back as he pulled Riley to him to shield his friend from the gunfire. But it was too late. Riley had already been hit in the neck by a stray bullet and was bleeding badly. Leroy collapsed, holding his friend. They’d been caught in the crossfire between two rival gangs.


When Leroy awoke, he was in the hospital. He was groggy and aware of a throbbing pain in his back. He looked up. There were two nurses watching him. He thought he recognized one of them. “Mary?” She and her boyfriend Len had tried to help him earlier in the summer but had been unsuccessful, through no fault of their own. He hadn’t been ready for their friendship. Maybe now he was.

She leaned over him. “Hi, Leroy. Glad to see you back with us. You gave us a bit of a scare.”

Leroy was confused. “I thought you were in school.”

She smiled. “I am, but this is part of my training.” She pointed, “This is Nurse Amy. She’s in charge.”

Leroy cracked a grin. “Well, anyway, it’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you, too.”

Nurse Amy checked on Leroy’s vitals. “You’re doing well, Leroy,” she said. Then she pointed, “Your chart says you have scar tissue in your abdomen. What happened?”

Leroy closed his eyes. He didn’t like talking about it. “I was wounded. Afghanistan. Bomb.” He was suddenly incredibly tired. Before he drifted off, he asked, “My friend. Riley. What about my friend?”

Nurse Amy turned to Mary and nodded. Mary took his hand. “Your friend is in bad shape, Leroy. He’s lost a lot of blood. The doctor removed the bullet, and he’s in intensive care.” She looked at her watch. “It’s six in the morning. The next twelve hours are critical.”

“Can I see him?”

Mary glanced at Nurse Amy who nodded. “Sure,” Mary said. “You rest and then I’ll come get you. How’s that sound?”

Leroy didn’t hear, he’d already drifted off. But his sleep wasn’t peaceful. It was filled with a nightmare of the day when his team had entered the village north of Kandahar, looking for insurgents. Their jeep had been blown up when it ran over an IED, an improvised explosive device. Of the four men riding in it, one had died and the other three injured, Leroy being one of them. The memory of the screams of his buddies still haunted him.

Fortunately, the nightmare had been mitigated by a better memory. He’d also dreamed of the farm. The picture he’d painted for Riley had been rosy, and it certainly was a great place to live, but it wasn’t all peaches and cream, not by a long shot. The work was hard, the hours long. You were outside most of the day and it wasn’t always seventy degrees and sunny. Winters were harsh and the ice storms were brutal. Summers were hot and humid and the bugs relentless. But it was home. Mom and Dad and his brothers and sisters were there. So were his grandparents. He needed to get back there. Riley would…


Leroy came awake with a start. The clock next to his bed read 12. Was it noon? Or midnight the next day? He leaned over to push the call button and a pain shot through his back. “Ow!” he screamed. Damn, that hurt. But it didn’t matter, he had to see Riley.

Nurse Amy hurried into the room. “Good to see you up. How are you feeling?” She checked his vitals.

“I’m fine,” Leroy said, hurriedly. “I just need to see Riley. How’s he doing.”

Nurse Amy shook her head, something Leroy remembered her doing earlier. It was starting to bug him. “I’m afraid he’s still unconscious.”

“Can I see him?” He looked around but didn’t see Mary. “Mary said I could.”

Nurse Amy smiled. Was she trying to reassure him Riley was going to be okay? He couldn’t tell. “Mary’s gone off shift. But to answer your question, yes. We can take you to him.”

Relieved, Leroy asked, “Now?”

“Now,” she said. “Let's call an orderly.”

A few minutes later, Leroy had been carefully moved to a wheelchair and taken up one floor to Emergency where Riley was being monitored. The orderly positioned Leroy next to the head of Riley’s bed and said, “I’ll be back in a while to check on you.” He was a tall Somali man whose name tag read Sam. He glanced at Riley and pointed, “Your friend is pretty tough. It helps he’s so young.” Then he looked at Leroy and gave him a quick smile. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” Leroy said and watched the orderly leave. Then he was by himself with Riley, who was wrapped in bandages around his neck and face and head, and in blankets everywhere else. Tubes were connected to him and a machine monitored his vital signs. A ventilator kept him breathing. Leroy had seen something like in recovery in Kabul - not for him, but for Freddy, the driver of the jeep. His buddy didn’t make it. The same kind of machine was keeping Riley alive, breathing for him.

Leroy moved the wheelchair as close as he could and took one of Riley’s hands. “Hi, my friend. It’s me, your pal, Leroy.”

Then he started talking. He told him about the war and how he got injured. He talked about how when he came home from Afghanistan, he just didn’t feel right, being alive when one of his team had been killed. How he’d withdrawn to his room on the farm, finding no solace in his mother’s cooking or his father’s patience or his grandmother’s kindness or his grandfather’s steadiness. Nor in being around his siblings. Nothing worked.

So, one night he packed his duffle bag and hit the road, hitchhiking and traveling around the country completely at loose ends.

He told Riley about it all, all the way down to trying to rob a guy near the university campus who looked like a cowboy and turned out to be Mary’s boyfriend, Len, and how they’d befriended him and he’d even turned his back on them.

“Then I met, you, Riley,” Leroy said. “And I’m glad I did.”

He told Riley how he liked hanging around with him and even though they’d tried to rob that old couple, at least they’d been given a second chance.

“And that’s good,” he said, looking at Riley’s poor bandaged face. “It’s really good to have a second chance.” He patted his friend’s blanketed shoulder and said, “Even though this is a horrible situation,” he waved his arm in a circle encompassing the entire room, “we need to make the best of it. I’m not going anywhere until you’re all better.”

And then he told Riley more about the farm and how much his parents Jack and Ann and his grandparents Cal and Lee would appreciate not only having Leroy back but also getting to know Riley.

“I’ve never had a real friend, before,” Leroy said. “They’ll be thrilled to meet you.” Then he thought about it for a minute and added. “My sisters, too.” He grinned a little. “Sally and Betsy. Who knows what the future holds?”

Throughout all the time Leroy was talking, Sam the orderly periodically stopped in to check on the two of them. “They’re both doing okay,” he told his supervisor later that afternoon. “I think Leroy being there is doing them both some good.”

The supervisor agreed, saying, “I’ll make arrangements for Leroy to stay down here.”

“Sounds good.” Sam looked at the chart and handed it to his supervisor. “I guess the doctors say that the next few hours will tell the story.”

“Fingers crossed.”

Sam pointed to the closed curtain. “Quite the pair, huh? Two street people.”

The supervisor cracked a grin. “Really.”


Three months later, on Thanksgiving, the Flynn farm was, as Riley was prone to say, “Rockin’ and rollin’!”

The doctors at Hennepin Country Medical Center all said it was a miracle that Riley pulled through, but, as Sam, the orderly said, “Stranger things have happened.” Exactly what those stranger things were he never said, but the point was well taken: Riley, the young street person with a bullet wound to the neck, had made it.

Leroy had been allowed to stay by his friend’s side during that first critical twenty-four period. It was touch and go, but Leroy kept up a constant chatter about life in general and living on the farm in specific, and everyone at the hospital said that it was all to the good.

Nurse Amy commented, “You never know with patients. Even though Riley was unconscious, who’s to say? Maybe he could hear everything Leroy was talking about.”

Mary, who spent as much time as she could with Leroy and Riley said, “I’m sure it did. Sometimes there’s more to healing than medicine.” It was something that might have sounded odd for a nurse to say, but Mary believed it. And Riley was living proof.

It would certainly explain the first thing Riley asked Leroy when he came around out of his coma. He’d looked at the big man with blurry eyes and a thin smile and asked, groggily, “So when are we going to the farm?”

Leroy squeezed his friend’s hand gently and said, “Soon. Just as soon as you’re able to travel.” He was beside himself with joy.


And now here they were. Thanksgiving. A huge family meal prepared with the help of every single family member. Leroy’s mom Ann and Grandma Lee orchestrated the dinner like they were conducting a symphony. A twenty-pound turkey in the oven at 5 am. A light breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast at 6:30 am. “Don’t want to spoil everyone’s appetites,” Grandma Lee had said. And then the rest of the morning was spent putting together scrumptious dishes of mashed potatoes, a green bean casserole, cheesy onions, corn bread, cranberry jam, and pumpkin and apple pie.

Leroy and Riley were given the job of making whipped cream and they bent to the task with enthusiasm, taking turns whipping the mixture in a frothy mountain of tasty delight.

“How’s the neck?” Leroy asked at one point taking a quick break and sneaking a couple of pumpkin cookies his sister Betsy had made. They were in the pantry off the kitchen and out of everyone’s way. He pointed to his friend’s scar, a two-inch line the doctors said would fade with time.

Riley rubbed the wound. “Not bad. It itches sometimes. Doesn’t hurt at least.” He smiled. “It’ll be a good conversation starter.” He sat up straight and mimicked, ‘Say how’d you get that scar, young man?’ “Oh, this? It was nothing. Just a bullet wound.” Riley laughed. Then he thought about it. “Well, maybe not.”

“I agree.” Leroy grinned and went back to work.

After a month in recovery, Leroy’s dad and grandpa had driven to Minneapolis. It was an emotional reunion between father and son.

“I’m just happy you’re okay,” Jack had said. “Glad you are back.”

Leroy’s dad and Grandpa Cal had taken to Riley right away. Especially Grandpa. “That’s quite the wound, young man,” he’d said.

To which Riley had unexpectedly said, “Thanks.”

It broke the ice when everyone laughed.

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Riley had become a member of the family. Leroy’s mom and grandma had welcomed him with open arms.

“Good to have you with us,” Ann had said simply, the first time they’d met. Then she’d enfolded him into her arms had given him a big hug.

Riley couldn’t remember ever having been hugged before. “Thank you,” he said, wiping sudden tears from his eyes. “Thanks a lot.”

Grandma Lee liked him, too, taking him under her wing from that first day, making sure he was eating right and getting his chores done.

One evening in late October while sitting around a fire in the fireplace, she’d asked him, “How’d you like to learn how to knit?”

Riley shrugged, “Sure!”

So, she taught him. The scarf he was now knitting was bright yellow and almost done. “I’m going to send it to my mom,” he told anyone who asked. “I think she’ll like it.”

            Whether or not she was still alive was anyone’s guess. Leroy knew they should find out, but, like his mother told him when they talked about it, “He’s gone through a lot, your young friend has. Let’s not add any more bad news for him to deal with if we can help it.”

            Leroy understood exactly what she was saying. He was just happy to see Riley happy.

            And now it was Thanksgiving. The family settled in around the huge table set up in the living room. Leroy and Riley. Leroy’s mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and his two brothers and two sisters. They were all there.

            Before they began eating, the family members went around the table and said one thing they were thankful for. This year everyone was thankful that Leroy was home, of course. Grandma and Leroy’s mother both added how happy they were that Riley was now with them. Even Leroy’s younger sister Betsy said, blushing, “I’m thankful for Riley. He makes me laugh.” Leroy had never seen his friend’s ears turn so red.

            Riley spread his arms wide and said, “I’m thankful for all of this, and all of you.” Then he looked at Leroy, and said, “And especially for my friend here. Who knows what would have happened to me?” He clasped Leroy on the shoulder. “Thanks, buddy.”

            Leroy grinned. It was now his turn. He looked around the room, the fire crackling in the fireplace, the faces of those he loved smiling back at him, and a wonderful meal waiting to be shared by them all, and he spoke from his heart when he said, “I’m not one for words, so I’ll just say that I’m thankful to be alive and to be home.” He waved his hand encompassing the table, “With all of you.” Wiping a tear from his eye he added, “I don’t ever want to leave.”

            “Stay as long as you want,” his mother said, reaching over and taking his hand.

            “Yes, son. As long as you want,” his dad added.

            Then they both looked at Riley and said, together, “You, too.”

            Riley looked at Leroy. They’d both in their own ways gone through so much. It was good to feel the warm emotion emanating from those two good people.

            “Thank you,” Riley said.

            Then they had their dinner. And for both of them, Riley and Leroy, amidst all the other good things that had been happening to them recently, they’d never eaten anything that had ever tasted so good. And there was one other thing, too. They both had the sneaking suspicion that their days of living rough on the streets were over for good.

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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