Tuesday 26 March 2024

Hafnium 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In Chapter One, Gadolinium, we were introduced to Sherry a sixteen-year-old girl who has withdrawn due to the loss of her father in a tragic car accident.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. 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. In Chapter Six, Thulium, Leroy and Riley end up going home to Leroy’s parent's farm and are welcomed with open arms. In Chapter Seven, Ytterbium, Riley has returned to Minneapolis and is working at Café Enya where he has an interesting encounter with one of the regular patrons. In Chapter Eight, Lutetium, after leaving the coffee show, Sherry and Zeke are hassled by Zeke’s former drug dealer and later on open up with each other about their past lives.


Fall, 2021

Len closed the chemistry book and looked out the window. He was on the west bank of the University of Minnesota on the third floor of Wilson Library in a little study nook he’d been using off and on for years. He could see the Minnesota weather had taken a turn; a turn for the worse as far as he was concerned. It was the last week in October, and the previous week of warm weather, blue skies, and beautiful fall colors had been booted out unceremoniously by a wicked cold front blasting down from Canada. With it, a wall of heavy grey clouds was building in the west that appeared both ominous and foreboding. If he didn’t know better, it looked like snow was imminent.

Len shivered. He flipped his long ponytail between his shoulders, pulled his red and black checked wool lumberjack shirt tighter, and went back to his textbook. On the chair next to him was his worn, straw cowboy hat. He looked at it with fondness thinking that it’d soon be time to put it away until spring and replace it for winter with his black felt Stetson. Pretty soon, anyway. He’d see if he could wait a while longer. He loved that hat.

It was mid-afternoon and he’d been reading about the element hafnium, number seventy-two on the periodic table. Its name came from Hafnia, Latin for Copenhagen, where the element was first discovered in 1923 by Dirk Costner and Georg von Hevsey. What Len found interesting, and one of the many things that drew him to the study of science, was that the element had been predicted back in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev in his report entitled The Periodic Law of the Chemical Elements.

            Mendeleev was a Russian chemist and inventor who formulated the periodic table of elements which, among other things, made it possible for scientists and chemists to search for elements that had previously never been discovered, a fact that Len still found fascinating.

            He smiled, remembering a faded photo he’d seen once in a textbook of the shaggy-haired, bearded man working at his desk. He looked kind of like what Len imagined a mad scientist would look like, and occasionally he wondered what it’d be like to talk to the brilliant Russian, if there wasn’t a language barrier, obviously. It’d be kind of interesting, although Len had the feeling Dmitri Mendeleev would be the one doing most of the talking. The amount of chemistry Len knew you could put in a ten-milliliter beaker and still have plenty of room left over. But he was trying to learn, he really was. Hence the class he was taking, Introduction to Chemistry.

Still thinking about the old Russian, Len was taking a sip from his cup of lukewarm coffee, when, next to him, his phone buzzed. He glanced at it. Mary. Good.

He picked up. “Hi, sweetheart.”

            “Hi. What are you doing?”

            “Reading about hafnium and the periodic table.”

            “Sounds incredibly fascinating,” she joked.

            Len chuckled. “It actually kind of is.”

            Mary laughed. “That’s good to hear.” She paused and then added, “In fact, I must be psychic.”

            “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

            “Well, remember those kids I told you about?”

            “The ones with the mental problems or something.”


             He laughed. “Just kidding.” He could picture her grimacing and shaking her head on the other end of the line. He enjoyed joking with her. It had been a long afternoon of studying and it was nice to take a break and chat. “Yeah, I remember. From some high school. I forget the name.”


            “Yeah, that’s right. Monroe. South Minneapolis. I remember now. You’ve been working with them off and on.” Mary was an RN nurse at Hennepin County Medical. She was assigned to the psychiatric unit and often helped out Doctor Sylvester Gannon, the lead psychologist there. 

            “Yes, those two. Sherry and Zeke.”

            Len glanced outside. Spatters of big raindrops were hitting the glass. Two miles away the skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis were almost obscured by the low clouds. The wind was picking up sending leaves swirling down the street. People were hurrying to get wherever they needed to get to before the weather got any worse. He glanced at the time. 4 pm. He needed to catch a bus and be at work in northeast Minneapolis in two hours. Hopefully, the storm will have blown through by then. Then again, maybe not. He watched as the wind suddenly gusted so hard it blew over a bicycle chained to a bike rack knocking a few others over in the process. He shook his head. A wet, cold night ahead.

Turning his attention back to Mary, he said, “I remember you mentioning them. What’s up?”

            “They’re giving a report next week. At doctor Gannon’s office.”


            “It’s on some of the elements of the periodic table. Like you’re studying.”

            “Really? Sounds fascinating,” Len joked. Dead silence on the other end of the line. Mary was not amused. He coughed. “Just kidding.” He flipped through his book until he came to a full-blown, two-page layout of the periodic table showing similar groupings of elements presented in various colors. He was still impressed by not only its brilliance but its simplicity. Dmitri Mendeleev was a genius as far as he was concerned. “So, who’ll be there?”

            “Well, doctor Gannon, of course. Me.”

Len chuckled. “Of course.” He loved giving Mary a hard time. They’d been together for over fifteen years, married for the last five. It was a good relationship. “Who else?”

“Their teacher from high school, Mr. Jordan. Adam Young who’s another RN, and another doctor, Larry Owens. He’s a primary care physician who sees Zeke off and on.”

“Big group. What’s the occasion?”

“Last spring Mr. Jordan had his chemistry class do a final assignment before the end of the school year. They had to write reports on various elements of the periodic table.”

Len rolled his eyes remembering years long ago going to school back on the reservation in New Mexico. Not the most pleasant of experiences for a lot of reasons, both inside and outside of class. “I was never a fan of reports.”

“I hear you,” Mary laughed. “Me neither.”

“Or school in general.”

“Yet here you are.”

Len chuckled. “Yep. Here I am.” At Mary’s prompting, fifteen years ago he’d begun taking the occasional class at the University of Minnesota. A few more classes under his belt and he’d be graduating with a bachelor of science degree. Life worked in mysterious ways, and, Len, as far as he was concerned, was glad it did. “Anyway…You were saying.”

“Well, Mr. Science Student, I’d like you to come and listen to these kids. I think you’d get a kick out of them.” She paused. “They’re pretty amazing.”

“How so?”

“Zeke’s been in and out of foster care for six years. His dad is in prison in Stillwater for making and selling meth. He grew up in northern Minnesota and his mom moved Zeke and his two younger sisters down here to Minneapolis to get away from all the drugs his loser of a father was involved in.”

“That’s good. Wise move.”

“Yeah. For a while anyway. But then after two or three years she took off with her boyfriend and left Zeke and his two younger sisters on their own. He was ten at the time.”

Len sat up straight and gasped, immediately focused on what Mary was saying. “Man, that’s horrific.”

“No kidding. They went into The System, you know, for child welfare. His two sisters were adopted right away.”

“But not their brother. This Zeke. Right?”

“Correct. Not a lot of calls for a ten-year-old boy.”

“I’ll bet.”

“He was shuffled from home to home and, of course, began acting out.”

“I saw that a lot growing up, too.”

“On the res?”

“Yeah.” Len glanced out the window, not really seeing much, remembering, instead, being moved into foster care with Bob and Clara Swenson, a nice enough couple in Santa Fe. They had four other kids. All of them were older; all of them enjoyed picking on the four-year-old Len, a skinny Navajo from the Canoncito Reservation west of Albuquerque.

“I know. You told me. It sucks.”

“It does. Big time.” Len was silent for a few moments, saying a quick prayer to Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé, the Creation Deity, for giving him the courage to persevere. He had learned to turn the other cheek if he could and fight if he needed to until finally, he’d graduated from high school. Then he’d joined the army, becoming a skilled mechanic. He’d never looked back. “You say he’s turning things around?”

“Yeah. He was starting to get seriously into drugs, but last year he ended up in Mr. Jordan’s chemistry class and things just fell into place. Zeke liked the teacher. He liked the class. He started to study and apply himself. He started to get straightened out. Quit using. He even met a girl in class.”

“That Sherry person?”


“Interesting.” Mary could almost see him grinning over the phone as he added, “Imagine that: chemistry developing between two kids in a chemistry class.”

Mary laughed. “Absolutely. Ironic and romantic at the same time.

Len grinned, agreeing with her. He liked hearing how people got together. He and Mary had met at a roadside bar in the Mojave Desert. He’d been working nearby doing maintenance on wind turbines for a huge wind farm energy company. She had been traveling with Prairie Wind, the bluegrass band playing there that night. She had been filling in as a waitress and the two of them got to talking. They got on well, and when it was time for the band to leave, it was hard for both of them to say goodbye. But they did. They really didn’t have much choice because Len had his job, and Mary…well Mary really had no alternative.

However, they both felt there was something there and when the van Mary and the band were traveling in hit a deer and crashed in the mountains outside of Tehachapi an hour after the gig, Len found out and went to the hospital. He ended up visiting her every day during her recovery. During that time, they became friends, and when Mary decided to go back to Minnesota to continue her nursing studies, she asked Len to come with her. He’d readily agreed and they’d been together ever since.

He looked outside again. The weather was getting worse. He sipped his coffee. “What’s her story?”

“She was in a car accident six years ago. Her father was driving. He was killed and so was her best friend.”

Len grimaced at the thought. Mary had been severely injured in her accident. That was bad enough, but earlier in his life he’d also lost his best friend Larry Black Feather in a driving accident on the res. Larry had been by himself at the time. It was late at night and he’d been drinking. The cops said he’d been doing over a hundred miles an hour in his old pickup truck when he’d lost control and run off the road. He’d flipped over so many times the truck was almost unrecognizable. Larry? Killed instantly.

“God, that’s rough.” It was. Len had a sudden feeling of empathy for Sherry and the loss of not only her father but her friend as well. “How’s she doing?”

“Well, she was always quiet and withdrawn. After the accident, she became even more so.”

“I can understand why.” He was quiet for a moment, sipping his now cold coffee and thinking how in the blink of an eye everything in life can change. One moment you’re here, next you're gone. Thank goodness Mary was still with him. And Sherry, too, for that matter, even though he didn’t know her. “You say Sherry’s better, though?”

“Yeah. She’s a science geek.” Mary paused a beat and added, “Like you.”

“Funny,” Len said, even though there was a grain of truth to what she said. He really was enjoying his studies. The proof was in the pudding so to speak. After all, he’d been at it for fifteen years.

Mary chuckled. She knew that schoolwork was a struggle for him, but she admired him for sticking with it. Len was that way. If he put his mind to something, it generally got done. He didn’t need to go to college, but, with Mary’s gentle prompting, once he got going, he applied himself wholeheartedly. The fact of the matter was that he liked learning new things.

“Seriously, Sherry is an amazing person. She’s quite smart. She and Zeke get along really well.”

“Two misfits. Sounds like they’ve got a lot in common.”

Mary grinned. “You could say. Anyway, Mr. Jordan has been working with Doctor Gannon to help them along.”

“Jordan seems like a committed teacher.”

“He is. He’s young. Mid-twenties. It’s his first teaching job, and he’s just starting his third year. I’ve met him. He’s a good guy. Wears a ponytail. Like you.”

Len chuckled. “Well, that’s something. Straw cowboy hat, too?”

Mary laughed, “Not that I’ve ever seen.”

Len grinned. It was nice to talk to Mary like they were doing. It didn’t happen too often, with both of them being so busy. Mary worked long hours at the hospital and Len had a fifty-hour-a-week job in northeast Minneapolis at Ripton, a small engine manufacturing plant. Plus, school. He checked the time. Geez. Today was his day off but he’d picked up some extra hours on the evening shift for this week. “Look, I’ve got to get going pretty soon. I need to be at work by six. So, what’s the deal with this project or whatever?”

“Doctor Gannon asked Mr. Jordan to keep working with the two kids and he agreed to help out. So, after the school year ended last spring and over the summer Mr. Jordan had them working on reports based on some of the more obscure elements on the periodic table. They’d do the research and work up the report and then read it to him and Doctor Gannon. Then they’d have a discussion. I sat in a few times. Same with other members of our team.” She paused and then added. “It was fun.”

“I’ll bet,” Len chuckled.

“No, really it was. You’ve got to remember, both these kids could have easily gone downhill. Zeke could be a wasted drug addict and Sherry could be a withdrawn nutcase doodling with a pen on her arm.”

“She didn’t do that!”

Mary grinned. Len could almost see it on the phone. “No,” she said. “But you get my point.”

Len did. “Yeah, I get it.” There were a lot of messed up people in the world. It sounded like Zeke and Sherry were making an effort to move forward and get beyond a bad situation. He was all for it. “They sound pretty remarkable when you put it that way.”

“They are,” Mary said. The tone in her voice shifted as she became more serious.

Len could hear the change. “What’s up?”

“Well, I’ve got a favor to ask of you.”

“No problem. Go ahead. Ask away.”

“I’d like you to come and listen to them with me next week.”

“Listen to two high school kids give a chemistry report?” He scratched the top of his head. “Why?”

Mary was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Well, I was going to wait to tell you when I saw you again. In person.”

Len suddenly got nervous. “What? Tell me what? Are you pregnant or something?”

Mary laughed. “No. No, it’s nothing like that.”

“Good. Well,” he said, suddenly flustered. “I mean, not good, but… Oh, you know what I mean.” He took a deep breath to calm down and then asked, “Okay, so what is it you wanted to tell me?”

“This will be their last report. Mr. Jordan has started a new school year and is busy with his new students. Sherry and Zeke are doing this as extra credit on the side. They’re seniors and taking physics this year with a different teacher. I told him about you and your studies and he was intrigued. He asked me if I thought you’d be interested in taking over teaching them. Chemistry.”

“What!” Len spat out. He gulped, swallowing hard. Teaching? Him? He felt his heart start racing as beads of sweat broke out on his brow. He was just an engineer at a small manufacturing facility in northeast Minneapolis. He knew nothing about teaching. “I’m…I…I don’t…”

“Look,” Mary said. “I know this is asking a lot. But just think about it, okay? I know you’d be good at it. Remember Leroy?” Leroy was a homeless Afghan war vet Len had tried to befriend years ago when Mary and he had first moved in together.

“Yeah. That didn’t work out too well, though, did it?”

After giving him money and being in touch for a few days, they never heard from him again.

“No, but at least you tried.” Mary paused and then added. “That’s all I’m asking. Just try. Mr. Jordan is available for advice. You’d be working with Doctor Gannon. He’s all for it.”

Len looked out the window and sipped the last of his cold coffee. The rain was falling harder and puddles were forming. He could see the wind whipping up debris on the street. Further along on the main thoroughfare of Cedar Avenue cars were at a standstill. Probably a fender bender somewhere. On a scale of one to ten as far as lousy days were concerned this one would be around a three. It was miserable but at least it wasn’t snowing. It could be a lot worse.

Of course, it could be worse.

Len mentally smacked himself on the forehead. What was his problem? Mary was asking for his help. There were two kids at risk, and she was asking him to step in and do something good and have a positive effect on their lives. Why wouldn’t he do it? Of course, he would. There was no excuse not to.

“When did you say they give their report?”

“A week from tomorrow in the afternoon. Thursday. Four pm. Doctor Gannon’s office.

Len wiped his brow. He was nervous but in a good way. Like the first time out in the desert when he climbed a two-hundred-foot tower to repair his first wind turbine. Terrifying but thrilling, both at the same time. He asked, “So, you’ll be there?”


“Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Yea!! You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.”

Len laughed. “I don’t know about that.”

“You are. And…” he could see her smiling, and it made him happy that she was so happy. “Let me just say, thank you. It means a lot to me. And those kids, they’ll love getting to know you.”

Len took a deep breath and let it out. The picture of old Dmitri the father of the periodic table came into his brain. He grinned.

“Well, they haven’t met me yet, but you know what? I’m kind of looking forward to it.”

“You’ll be great.”

“I don’t know about that, but those two, Sherry and Zeke, kind of remind me of some of the things I went through at their age. I’ll be glad to help.”

“You’re a sweetheart.”

Len laughed. “So are you. But,” he checked the time, “enough for now. I’ve got to get to work. The shift starts at six.”

“It’s raining.”
            “Yeah, I know. I’ve been watching it. The wind is up, too. I’ll take the bus.”

“Okay. See you a little after midnight?”

“Yeah. I’ll take the late bus home. It’s a short shift this week.”

“Okay. Bye. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Len put his textbook in his backpack and shrugged on his fleece-lined Carhartt jacket but not before tucking his ponytail inside. No need for it to be flapping in the wind. Then he hurried out of the library, pulling his straw cowboy hat down tight against the wind. The bus stop was a block away but his cowboy boots kept his feet dry. The sidewalks were wet and so were the streets, however the traffic was moving better now. It was just after 5 pm and starting to get dark. Len sighed. Not the best time to be out. Mary’s shift at the hospital ended at 10 pm and she’d be home when he got there. He was already looking forward to seeing her. They lived in a small, cottage-style home in St. Anthony Village, a small community near the campus. It had a fireplace. He grinned. The temperature was around forty degrees and it was dank and windy out. A fire would be nice on a night like tonight.

He should have been paying better attention.


Spike Freeman and his two buddies, Snake-Eyes Johnson and Lefty Larson were speeding along Cedar Avenue racing to get through the traffic light.

            “Watch out! It’s turning yellow!” Snake-Eyes yelled from the back seat.

            “Hold on.” Spike grinned a nearly toothless grin and gripped the steering wheel tighter. “I’m going for it.”

            All three of the guys were nineteen. All three had been friends their entire lives. In fifth grade, they had started doing drugs and by eighth grade they were selling drugs, making a name for themselves as the go-to guys for purchasing speed in the northeast part of the city. When they weren’t dealing, they liked nothing better than to terrorize young kids and old people, often robbing them of whatever they could get their hands on. Minutes earlier they had grabbed the purse from an old lady just east of downtown Minneapolis and were now heading for Interstate 35W. Traffic was backed up though and they tried a different way. It was backed up too. In desperation, they’d turned onto Cedar Avenue.

            Next to him, Lefty cautioned. “Take it easy, man.”

Spike stomped on the gas. “Here we go!”

From the backseat, Snake-eyes pointed over Spike’s shoulder. “The light’s changing!”

“I know what I’m doing!” Spike yelled as he swerved to avoid all of the people crossing in front of him.

Except that he didn’t.

            The car had bald tires and it slid through the intersection as Spike lost control. He frantically jammed on the brakes and wrenched the steering wheel back and forth. Nothing helped, and the car spun out of control.

Len heard the squeal of rubber skidding along the pavement. He looked up and reacted in an instant. The car was heading right at him. He dove out of the way and was nearly safe but for his right leg being smashed by the spinning car’s rear bumper. He flew through the air and in that instant, he knew that the next few moments could be the last conscious moments of his life. The city lights spun around and around as he twisted in the air. He thought of Mary and her smiling face and how much he loved being with her, and a sense of calm came over him.

Then crashed to the ground and everything went dark.



Much later, a soft voice came to him. “Hi, there, cowboy.” He tried to open his eyes but couldn’t. He was too tired. Where was he? He felt like he was lying a bed. Was he dead or alive? He couldn’t open his eyes. He heard the voice again. “Just rest. I’ll be right here.” He drifted away.

Later, he told Mary, “I guess it could have been worse.”

He was in the recovery room in Hennepin Country Medical Center two floors down from the psychiatric unit where Mary worked. It was three in the morning and Len just waking up. They’d given him a mild anesthetic when they’d set his leg.

Mary hugged him. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
            “How bad is it?”

“Simple fracture. Not too bad, all things considered.”

“God.” Len shook his head and took her hand. “I’m lucky. That car was coming pretty fast.”

Mary hugged him again. “It crashed. Bad. Hit a telephone pole. Killed all three guys.”

“Geez.” Len shook his head. “Man, that’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear that.”

Mary brushed a loose strand of hair from his face. “Maybe.”

“What do you mean?”

“They were drug dealers.”


“Yeah. Funny thing.”

“Remember those young kids Zeke and Sherry I told you about?”


“The three guys in the car that hit you were the same three guys who had hassled them earlier this summer. Not only were they drug dealers, but they were bullies as well. I remember their names.”

“Oh, man...”

“Yes. They were bad guys.”

“Got what was coming to them, then, I guess.”

“Yeah, I suppose they did.” Mary was quiet for a minute, letting Len rest.

He closed his eyes and then opened them. “Speaking of Zeke and Sherry...”

“We still on for next Thursday?”

“You up for it?”

Len grinned. “You bet. Not right now, but I’m sure I will be by then.”

Mary stroked his hand. “Thank you, but you might have a little trouble moving around.”

“I can get a wheelchair.”

Mary smiled at him. “You’re the best.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

“Why’s that?”

“They sound like good kids.”

“They are.”

“The more I think about it, the more I’m looking forward to it.”

“It’s a date, then.”

Len smiled. “Good.”

They sat quickly for a few minutes until his eyes fluttered shut. Soon, he was asleep.

Mary took his hand and held it, watching as Len dozed. Outside the night was rainy and cold. She shivered and checked the time. Later today they’d leave the hospital and get a cab home. Once there, she’d get Len safely inside, make some soup, and have something warm to eat. When they were finished, she’d build a fire in the fireplace. Then they’d sit together and watch the flames flicker, chat quietly, and put the world outside at bay. For a little while, at least. She smiled. She was looking forward to it.

About the author 

Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. He loves to write! His stories and poems have appeared in over 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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