Barely Spared

A man in his late 50s walks into a Sacramento cafe. He has the shabby yet formal look of a humanities professor--- old slacks, a jacket with leather patches on the elbows. Says he's a writer. He asks the girl at the counter: can I leave some of my stories here? For your customers?

The girl isn't so sure. The place has a lot of 'struggling artist' customers; she's worried about opening the floodgates. And it isn't her call. The manager isn't around, she says, as politely as she can manage without seeming encouraging.

OK, he says, producing a few photocopied pages stapled together. Here is one of my stories. I write children's stories. Leave it for him and see what he thinks.

After her shift, she reads the story.... and a legend is born.

The story is called "The lion with a boy's head who wouldn't trim his nails."

It's by "Mr. Thomas Winkle II," a "Professor of Spelling Bees at"University of Wyoming U.S.A."

It is a handwritten tale of a lion, with a boy's head, who is afraid of trimming his nails. The narrative is hard to follow: it is interrupted periodically with digressions and conversational asides. Halfway through, all pronouns that refer to the lion begin to be underlined--- "he did not tell his mother that he is afraid," etc. All of the characters are unusual mixes of animal and human: in addition to the lion with a boy's head, there are his friends the lizard girl, the "rabbit-dog," and the "bird-headed 3rd grade teacher." Take away the bizarre anthropomorphism, and it's not much of a children's story; indeed, it's hard to imagine any audience for it. Yet it works: nobody at the cafe can put it down. The manager approves.

When Mr. Winkle comes in again, he is given permission to leave more stories and a donation box.

The new stories are a revelation. The author isn't just Mr. Thomas Winkle. He's also "Mr. Thomas Frisk," "Mr. Barely Spared," "Mr. Barely Spared Esq. III," "Edward Albert Pole," "The King of Carmichael," and "Regent/King of Carmichael."

Unlike his first story, the rest do not even pretend to be for children. They have adult, sometimes "dark," subject matter. And they all have snappy, gripping titles worthy of 1950s pulp fiction:

  • The Widow Vault
  • Water Fear
  • I Had To Do It
  • One Man Gang
  • Graves
  • I Wanted To Die
  • I Live Too Long
  • I Came From Beyond Ancient Necropolis
  • Body Bag
  • Extortion
  • I Came From Hence
  • I Died
  • Don't Mess With Me Man

They come with self-illustrated covers--- usually collages made from handbills, old comics, advertising, and original ink artwork.

As of this moment he is still writing and distributing stories, sometimes several in a week. He's got stories and donation boxes in several cafes, particularly in the western part of town. (An outdoor distribution site on K street was short-lived: somebody broke into the donation box and stole his money.)

The most popular topics and themes:

  • Organized crime, usually narrated by a criminal who "runs the town" (or his number-two)
  • Ghosts from the 19th century (particularly the California Gold Rush and Civil War eras) visiting their wrath upon their time or the present
  • Characters with unusually long lives (in the hundreds or thousands of years, usually) who use their accumulated wisdom to comment on the course of human history or the present
  • Scientists and others involved in secretive government enterprises
  • Psychosis
  • Autobiographical tales of life as an eccentric in Sacramento and environs

He writes in a direct and conversational first person. He likes using cliches and figures of speech in strange and unusual ways. He is a master of the O. Henry style twist ending.

If you're in Sacramento, look in cafes for his work... and for him.