The Confession Fixer

Like many citizens of the over-regulated nation that America has become, I didn’t even realize I was a criminal until after I’d read the law. My third grade teacher gave everybody a little pamphlet entitled “An Examination of Conscience,” and it was only after scanning down to the explanatory text following the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” that I understood it encompassed a number of lesser offenses such as thinking impure thoughts.

“But,” I said to Tommy Hogan, “I think impure thoughts all the time.”

“About who?” Tommy was like that; he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the proper use of “who” and “whom.”

“Susan van de Kamp.”

He looked at me with disgust, now that the depths of my depravity had been laid bare before him. “You are sick,” he said, and I could tell that an image had been formed in his mind of the somewhat chubby girl who would wear a Dutch costume–complete with wooden shoes–to Show and Tell whenever it was her turn.

“It’s that song,” I said by way of explanation, if not excuse.

“What song?”

I am a little Dutch girl,
my home is far way,
I fell in love with a hot-cha-cha
way down in U-S-A

Sultry . . . AND she sticks her fingers in dikes.


“Gross,” Tommy said. “When you were thinking these thoughts did you . . . touch yourself?”

“You mean . . . pocket pool?”


“Sure. What did you expect?”

He shook his head sadly from side to side. “And where were you when you . . . did it?”

I gulped. “In church,” I said. Confession was comforting, in a weird way. I knew that, however long I lived, I’d never be more embarrassed than I was right then.

“Man, are you in trouble,” was all Tommy could say.

“So what are we talkin’ here,” I said in the clipped tones of a character in a George V. Higgins novel.

“You ain’t gettin’ off with no three Hail Mary’s, one Our Father and an Act of Contrition. Minimum? Three to five rosaries,” Tommy said.

“And the max?”

He looked off into the distance, at the playground where the other kids were playing four-square and kickball–happy, laughing, not a care in the world. What did they know about the torment I was going through?

He snorted, as if he could hardly conceive of the punishment that would be meted out to me if I caught the wrong priest in the wrong confessional on a bad day. “Maximum? I’d say something like . . .”


“A novena.”

“Nine days of prayer?” I asked, incredulous.

“You got it pal,” he said without an ounce of compassion in his voice. He didn’t care if I burned in purgatory until the end of time. His older brother was a priest; that meant he had a get-into-heaven-free card–no matter what he did with his miserable little life.

“Yer not gettin’ off with no three Hail Mary’s and one Our Father, pal.”


I must have had a stunned look on my face, because I was stunned. Tommy looked at me the way you’d look at the victim of a car accident you passed on the highway–sad, but part of life, and not your concern.

“I can’t do that kind of hard time,” I said. “My mom’s Protestant.”


“So it’s not like your house, where there’s a family Rosary every Sunday night you can count towards your penance.”

“Not much you can do about it,” he said, and I noticed he didn’t give me a pat on the back or nothin’. “Unless you want to talk to Albert.”

“Who’s Albert?” I asked, and maybe I let a semblance of hope seep through my desperation.

“You don’t remember Albert from second grade?” he asked.

“No, I was busy studying for the spelling bee–remember?”

“Oh yeah, you was right up there, weren’t you?”

“Mook–m, o, o, k–mook.”


“Right up there.”  That’s what really frosts my ass about elementary school. Here I carry the colors of the Sacred Heart Gremlins to the freaking finals of the Pettis County Spelling Bee–and get a perfect score for the second year in a row–and all’s Tommy remembers is I was ‘right up there.’ Screw him.

“Yeah,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. “I did okay. So anyway, who’s Albert?”

“You wouldn’t remember him. He only lasted about a week. He knocked one of the nun’s habits off and they sent him to the Home for Wayward Boys.”

Jeez–I had no idea there were such hard-core types right in our little classroom of 54 kids. “So what can he do for me?”

“He figures he’s damned to hell anyway you cut it. So he’ll confess to your sins for you.”

“He will?” That would be a load offa my back for sure. Worse than the penance was having to actually say out loud what I’d done to the priest–me, who was a lock to be captain of the sixth grade crossing guards if I kept my nose clean.

“Sure he will–for a price,” Tommy said, and I understood it was gonna be all business.

“Like what?” I asked nervously.

“You gotta work that out with him,” Tommy said. “He likes secret decoder rings. They’re readily marketable so he can sell ‘em if he has to, or hold ‘em if he thinks they’re gonna go up in value.”

I inhaled sharply. I had ten secret decoder rings, an expenditure that my mother had criticized as improvident when I made it, but my research had turned out to be solid; they had outperformed the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ over the twenty-three months I’d owned them, and I expected them to continue to appreciate.

Ovaltine Secret Decoder Ring: Chicks go nuts for ‘em.


“What else?”

“Baseball cards,” Tommy said, and he said it like we were in the middle of a high-stakes game of Old Maid. Like he coulda been bluffin’, or he just knew my weak spot. I had the best-organized collection of baseball cards in the whole school–two shoe boxes full of ‘em. I had them in order according to the numbers on the back, with “special” cards–team photos, “Southpaw Sluggers,” etc., up front. In the second box I had my doubles–cards that were duplicates of the ones in the first box, ones that were “dispensable”–an ugly term, but true nonetheless.

“What’s he gonna want?” I asked nervously.

Eddie Matthews


“For reasons I don’t understand, he’s into the Milwaukee Braves.”

I felt almost . . . relieved. I hated the Braves and how they always seemed to kill my Cardinals. Eddie Matthews, Lew Burdette. I felt a grudging admiration for Warren Spahn, the homely left-hander who cranked out 20-win seasons like an assembly line, but other than that, I felt nothing for them. Whatever Braves I had in my #1 box, I was willing to give up if it meant I didn’t have to go into the confessional and admit that I had a thing for an overweight, goody-goody Dutch girl, and that I’d defiled the sanctity of the sacristy–or maybe it was the other way around–thinking about her underpants while I touched myself.

“So where’s Albert these days?” I asked hesitantly.

“I can set somethin’ up for you,” Tommy said.


“The alley behind the rectory.”

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?”

“Albert don’t care about priests,” Tommy said with obvious admiration for a genuine bad-ass whose balls dragged the ground. “He figures he’s damned to hell anyway you look at it, what’s one more mortal sin?”


It was two days later that I was to meet Albert behind the backstop of the playground, in the alley that cut through the block where the rectory and the parish church itself were located. I had a stash of Braves cards in my back pocket, ready to deal. I also had the secret decoder rings and–a little lagniappe–a glow-in-the-dark Chinese back-scratcher from the Will Rogers Turnpike in Oklahoma, which we traveled to each summer to take my sisters to the allergy clinic. If I couldn’t cut a deal with that kind of swag, I might as well take my chances at Saturday confession.

Will Rogers Turnpike: Glow-in-the-dark Chinese back-scratchers still available.


I paced nervously back and forth, hoping neither the pastor of the parish nor his merciless, nefarious henchman Father Kaliff would appear on the side porch to see me.

I looked down the alley and saw a boy with an olive complexion and oily hair approaching.

“You Albert?” I said, trying to sound confident, which I wasn’t.

“Who wants to know?” he asked. Right back at ‘cha.

I told him who I was. “So Tommy sent you, right?”

“That’s right. Whadda ya got?”

I told him what I was facing in the way of charges, venial and mortal sins.

“Jeez,” Albert said as he looked me up and down. “How’d a nice kid like you get involved in something as sordid as that?”

“It doesn’t matter at this point, does it?” I asked, and I hoped that would be the end of it.

“Not really, just curious,” Albert said.

“So . . . will you confess ‘em for me?” I asked nervously.

“Depends,” he replied. “Don’t make no difference to me–I’m going to hell anyway. But I’m a businessman, y’know? I don’t do nothin’ ‘less somebody makes it worth my while.”

Warren Spahn


I took out two of the secret decoder rings, and he eyed them with guarded appreciation. “Those are nice,” he said. “What else?”

I took out the Chinese back-scratcher–it was a good one, no question, but it was nothing I couldn’t live without.

“You sure it glows in the dark?” he asked skeptically.

“If it doesn’t, I’ll give you a full refund,” I said. Customers appreciate that kind of commitment to quality.

“Okay, so the back-scratcher, two rings–that will do for the thought and the scratching. Now how you gonna cover the fact that you did it in church?”

I hesitated, then tried to bluff him. “I got a Lew Burdette card and an Eddie Matthews All-Star card.”

He took the cards I held out in his hand and examined the corners to make sure they weren’t bent. “Not exactly mint condition,” he said, “but I’d say ‘very fine.’ What else?”

I felt my throat constrict, and my neck turn red. “Isn’t that enough?”

“You did it in church,” he said, his voice as flat and colorless as the blacktop playground.

We stared at each other, boyo-a-boyo, neither backing down–at first.

I pulled the Warren Spahn card out of my shirt pocket–this was before plastic card-holders, so there was a risk that it had been damaged in my twelve-block walk to school.

A smile crept slowly over Albert’s face. “That’s good–that’s real good,” he said. “That’s what I needed to see.”

I handed it over to him slowly, and held it for one last second before letting go. “So–you’re taking the fall for all three offenses?”

“You got it. I take the penance, and if I don’t do it, I burn in purgatory or hell, depending on what the sentencing guidelines are at the time I die.”

I exhaled involuntarily. As much as I hated to give up that card, it seemed a fair price to pay to have somebody else saddled with a week and two days’ worth of prayer and sacrifice, or an eternity in hell if he didn’t follow through.

I released my grip, and Albert put the card in his shirt pocket. “Pleasure doin’ business with you,” he said as he turned to walk off.

“You’ll take care of it right away?” I asked.

“Whadda you care?” he replied.

“If I get run over by a car, or bit by a rabid dog, I don’t want to burn in a lake of fire forever because you didn’t follow through.”

“It’ll be a pleasure,” he said with a malicious smile. “Father Kaliff will cream in his jeans when I confess to this one.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”

Experts: Unemployment Numbers Don’t Reflect “Discouraged” Writers

BOSTON.  With the lowest unemployment rate in fifty years you’d think that practitioners of “The Dismal Science” would have nothing to complain about, but in doing so you’d grossly underestimate the capacity for negativity among economists.  “I don’t like to give presidents credit for rising wages in the low-income segment of the labor force,” says Alton Baird, a professor at the University of New England, “unless the president is a Democrat.”

“Thank you for that very dismal presentation.  Now, on to our next dismal speaker.”


And so a symposium of economists here warned yesterday that the current unemployment rate of 3.6% is vastly understated and would be considered a national crisis if the number of “discouraged writers” were included.  “What we are seeing is a lost generation of freelancers,” said Niles Deshaies of the Vermont College of Double-Entry Bookkeeping.  “They’ve spent their last fifty-five cents on a stamp for a self-addressed envelope, and are reluctant to send articles elsewhere due to restrictive ‘no simultaneous submissions’ policies.”

“I’m so broke I sold my laptop and carry my desktop computer to Starbucks.”


The Department of Labor defines a “discouraged writer” as one who owns a computer and is able to work, but has not submitted an article to a print publication, either general circulation or literary, in the past four weeks.  Discouraged writers are not counted in official unemployment figures because they have day jobs from which they are trying to escape to the lucrative field of highbrow literature.

“It’s a sad commentary on the future of the American economy,” said University of Massachusetts-Seekonk professor Normand Cesoks.  “All the plum assignments like Parade Magazine’s ‘Ten Tips for a Stress-Free Christmas’ or a Cosmo Girl ‘How to Tell if Your Boyfriend is Dead’ list have been outsourced to India.”

“We’ve got to nurse this baby until they bring back peppermint mochas next Christmas.”


Discouraged writers tend to form mini-gypsy camps in Starbucks outlets, huddled over a shared pumpkin spice latte.  “I wish the government would do something for us,” said Tyler Correnti, who holds a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from a low-residency program at SUNY-Yonkers.  “I’ve sent out a hundred short stories since Memorial Day, and only one nibble, from Forklift Operators Monthly.”

“We found your story to be too ironic.  Also, not ironic enough.”


The number of discouraged writers is difficult to pinpoint because of the long lag time between submission and response at most print publications.  “I sent a couple of villanelles to plangent voices,” a journal of avant-garde poetry, says Correnti.  “First they told me the editor was out on maternity leave, then they said she had to go to her daughter’s high school graduation.”

On the Waterfront, Fuzzy Animal Version

The president of an Ohio steelworkers union stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his local, which he used in part to buy tickets to Disney on Ice and Sesame Street Live shows.

Organized Labor’s Lawbreakers, The Wall Street Journal

We was hangin’ around the union hall early in the morning, our collars turned up against the cold wind off Lake Erie.

“Y’know what I heard?” said Petey Byrnes.

“No, what?” I said, hopin’ he’d have some dope on ice show tickets.

“I heard they’re gonna have three, maybe four tickets to Aladdin on Ice.”

“So what,” said Mikey Furchgott.  “Even if they do, you ain’t gonna get none.  Whadda you think, Bobby,” he said, turning to me.  “You think any of us mooks got a chance to see a show like that?”

I don’t know why we still use diminutives of our names–Petey and Mikey and Bobby–like we’re overgrown sixth graders or somethin’.  Maybe we’re overgrown sixth graders.  “I dunno,” I said, non-committal like.  “Ya never know, y’know?”

It was hard for me to join in the speculative badinage of my union brothers, cause I’m “compromised.”  My brother Gerald the lawyer represents the union bosses, that’s how he makes a livin’, sittin’ at a desk all day.  Heaviest liftin’ he ever does is pick up his phone to say “Miss Havisham, can youse come in here with your steno pad, I want to dictate a letter.”

Not me.  I didn’t pay attention in school, so I’m just another workin’ stiff, standin’ next to a blast furnace in a steel mill all day makin’ union wages, hopin’ for a chance to bust out of the joint someday and see an ice skating show, or even just my favorite Sesame Street characters doing the “skip and wave” routine across a stage.  Is that too much to ask?

“Not my night?  Whadda ya mean it’s not my night?”


We stood there shufflin’ our feets in silence, disgruntled with very little chance of getting gruntled in the near future, waitin’ for the fatcats to come down to the union hall.

“Here they come,” Petey said, and we all turned towards the gate in the chain link fence.  We saw the union bosses turn into the hardscrabble parking lot in their big black Lincoln.  The glare off their pinky rings was so bright you had to shield your eyes, like it was some kind of solar eclipse, maybe even a lunar one.

Everybody crowded around, like we was starving denizens of some third-world shithole fighting over a pallet of crappy surplus food dropped by a U.S. relief helicopter.

“Okay, everybody, no need to push,” a barrel-chested man said as he got out of the SUV.  It was “Big Dan” Garbelowski, President of Local 302, International Brotherhood of Steelworkers, along with two of his labor henchmen, followed by my brother Gerald, holding a briefcase with that day’s ration of tickets.

“How about it, Dan,” Mikey said, breaking form and begging like some stupid teen girl who’s dyin’ of cancer and wants to see Taylor Swift before she croaks.  “My little Chrissie, she ain’t never seen Elmo live and in person before.”

“They hit him with a Tickle Me Elmo!”


Big Dan scowled at him with a mixture of scorn and contempt, along with a pinch of marjoram.  “You know what we say up in our nice, cozy warm union hall, don’t ya?” he sneered.

“No–what?” Mikey said.  I could tell he was gettin’ set up for a downfall.

“If you ask–you don’t get!”  The henchmen laughed a mirthless laugh.  Gerald, bein’ a lawyer and all, he knew that demeanor is testimony, and kept his stony-faced silence.

“Beat it!” henchman no. 1 yelled at Mikey.

“Yeah, scram, you stupid stunod!” henchman no. 2 said as he took a swing at Mikey, who high-tailed it over to the coffee wagon to lick his wounds.

“Let’s see what we got here,” Big Dan said, and he opened the briefcase to reveal the ill-gotten gains of union leadership that the rank-and-file could only dream about.  There they were–tickets to Sesame Street Live, Disney on Ice, Barney, Bananas in Pyjamas and other assorted family-friendly live entertainment.

The sight of the rare and precious ducats touched off a scrum of desperate men, guys who’d worked their whole lives and had never seen the inside of a convention center where human beings in fuzzy animal outfits could give shape and form to their unspoken dreams.

“Me!” one guy shouted, grabbing for a pair of Teletubbies tix.

“No, me!” another cried out, hoping to see Arthur the Aardvark on stage.

“Pipe down, all of youse!” Big Dan said.  The crowd settled into a sullen but hopeful silence, fearful that if they didn’t they’d have to go home and tell their wives and kids that they’d screwed up the only chance they’d ever get to see Curious George in person.

“I’m gonna do this democratically, see?” Big Dan said.  “The guys I like the most, and who have done the best job of kissin’ my ass, them is the ones I’m gonna take care of.”  He stopped to riffle through the tix.  “Bobby Malloy,” he said, calling my name.  I looked up sheepishly–I wish he hadn’t a picked me first.  All of my hard-workin’ union buddies would think the fix was in because of my brother the lawyer.

“Yeah?” I said, tryin’ to maintain my steely exterior, like it was no big deal to me whether I got to go to “Disney on Ice–Frozen Edition” or not.

“I got two loge box seats for you and a companion to go see”–here he drawled out his announcement, like a game show host about to pull back the curtain on a stackable washer-dryer combination–“Smurfs on Ice.”

I heard a low whistle issue from Petey’s lips.  “Thanks,” I said to Big Dan with a smile that I tried to make big enough to please the boss, but not so big that the other members of the local would think I thought I was better than them.

I heard a few grumblings behind me.  “I’ll give these to my saintly wife and my little daughter Trixie,” I said

“Whadda ya mean you don’t like The Smurfs.  EVERYBODY likes The Smurfs!”


“That’s good, you’re a good boy,” Dan said as he patted me on the shoulder.  Little did he know I was gonna scalp ’em, and maybe take my girlfriend out for a night of Boilermakers and dancin’.

I pushed back through the crowd, makin’ my way into the industrial hellhole that was the steelworks.  Inside, there was flaming pots of molten iron and carbon and other stuff that goes into the hard, strong, gray or bluish-gray alloy used extensively as a structural and fabricating material.  Outside, a half a mile away as the crow flies–in case you miss the cross-town bus and have to fly with a crow–was the Dennis J. Kucinich Memorial Skating Rink, the pride of Ohio’s indoor event facilities.  I was just about to bolt over there to unload my precious prize on some loser from the suburbs when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and who should I see but–my brother Gerald.

“Hand ’em over,” he said.


“You know how crazy Irene is over the Smurfs.  And besides, you owe me–big time.”

“For what?”

“For gettin’ you the lousy job that makes your life miserable, but at least puts bread on your table and tons of money in the union’s coffers.  Hand ’em over–it’s not your night, it’s my night.”

I looked down at his grubby mitt and it was all I could do to keep from spittin’ in it.  “Not my night?  So I hand over The Smurfs tickets to you, and I get a one-way ticket to Palooka-ville?”

“That about sums it up.”

“You’s my brother, Gerald.  You should took care of me, so’s I don’t have to go home and watch Clifford the Big Red Dog on PBS.”

“It’s actually better on TV, you don’t have people shufflin’ in front of you with popcorn and souvenirs, you got an unobstructed view and . . .”

“You don’t understand, Gerald.  If I saw it in person, I’d have class. I’d be a contender. I’d be somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

Gerald turned silent, and a look of uncharacteristic remorse scudded across his face, like a low-hanging storm cloud racing across a wheat field–not that I’d know what that looks like, it’s an image that the author likes to throw into his pseudo-Faulkner short stories.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what.” Gerald said finally.


“If you give me the tickets, I’ll give you my Dora the Explorer footie pajamas.”





All’s Fair in Love and Ping Pong

To her surprise, the room opened out to a porch with cushioned chairs in place and a ping-pong table.  There was another ping-pong table on the newly laid turf beyond.


Brimmer reminded me a little of Superman when he takes off his spectacles.  I thought he was as attractive as men can be who don’t really care about women as such.  We played a round robin game of ping-pong and he handled his bat well.


“I must go along now,” said Brimmer.  “I’ve got to meet some people.”

“No, stay,” said Stahr.  “I never have said what I wanted.  We’ll play ping-pong and have another drink and then we’ll tear into each other.”


The ping-pong balls lay around in the grass like a constellation of stars.

                    The Love of the Last Tycoon, Scott Fitzgerald

“See how he puts topspin on his return?”


We got into Pamplona late in the afternoon and the bus stopped in front of the Hotel Montoya.  Out in the plaza they were stringing electric-light wires to light the plaza for the ping-pong festival.  A few kids came up when the bus stopped, and a customs officer for the town made all the people getting down from the bus open their bundles on the sidewalk to see if they had brought illegal paddles.   We went into the hotel and on the stairs I met Montoya. He shook hands with us, smiling in his embarrassed way.

“Your friends are here,” he said.

“Mr. Campbell?”

“Yes. Mr. Cohn and Mr. Campbell and Lady Ashley.”

“Where are my friends now?”

“I think they went to the rec room.”

“And how about ping-pong?”

Montoya smiled. “To-night,” he said. “To-night at seven o’clock they bring out the table. Will you all play?”

“Oh, yes. They are eager for a pingpongnada.”

Montoya put his hand on my shoulder.

“I’ll see you there.”

He smiled again. He always smiled as though ping-pong were a very special secret between the two of us; a rather shocking but really very deep secret that we knew about. He always smiled as though there were something lewd about the secret to outsiders, but that it was something that we understood. It would not do to expose it to people who would not understand.

“Your friend, is he aficionado, too?” Montoya smiled at Bill.

“Yes. He came all the way from New York to see the Killer Spin Table Tennis Tournament.”

“Yes?” Montoya politely disbelieved. “But he’s not aficionado like you.”

He put his hand on my shoulder again embarrassedly.

“Yes,” I said. “He’s a real aficionado.”

“But he’s not aficionado like you are.”

Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about ping-pong. All the good players stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with aficion stayed there.  In Montoya’s room were their photographs. The photographs were dedicated to Juanito Montoya or to his sister, who was a top women’s player.  The photographs of ping-pong players Montoya had really believed in were framed. Photographs of those who had been without aficion Montoya kept in a drawer of his desk. They often had the most flattering inscriptions. But they did not mean anything. One day Montoya took them all out and dropped them in the waste-basket. He did not want them around.

We often talked about the ping and the pong and the players of ping-pong. I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about ping-pong. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full.  Montoya introduced me to some of them, who were stacked one on top of each other like cord wood to fit them in when the hotel was full.

They were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion for ping-pong.  He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it.   There was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent.

“Your American friend,” they would say to Montoya.  “Is he aficionado?”

Montoya would glare at them, but without malice.  His eyes would narrow to grim little slits, and then he would say “Clearly.”


“He has learned la tenis de mesa as a nino in the basement of Sacred Heart Grade School.”

And then there was this same embarrassed putting the hand on the shoulder, an actual touching.  It seemed as though they wanted to touch you to make it certain.

One of them rose now and crossed the room, the look on his face half smile, half chagrin.  He extended his hand to my shoulder and clapped it down there in a gentle but manly way.  Then he looked in my eyes with both respect and regret for having doubted me and said simply . . .

“Buen hombre.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Ask Mr. Vocabulary

Got a knotty homonym problem?  Depressed because you’re in a subjunctive mood?  Ask Mr. Vocabulary–if he doesn’t know the answer, he’ll look it up!

Dear Mr. Vocabulary–

Over the holidays I met my fiancé Rodney’s parents for the first time, at their home overlooking an ocean–it was the Atlantic, in case you’ve never been to Marblehead.

After Rodney’s father had had a few cheap American scotches–they are WASPs, like me–I heard him say to Rodney’s mother that he thought I was a “thin-lipped hoiden,” albeit one who would do Rodney some good.

Mr. Vocabulary, I have searched high and low in several dictionaries for the word”hoiden” as I am not sure it is a term of approval, and I certainly don’t want to marry Rodney if I can’t get my hands on the family money.

Will wait for your reply before doing anything rash.


Paige Fontaine, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.


Dear Paige–

I believe you are a victim of a misspelling; “hoiden” is an obsolete form of “hoyden,” a term that refers to a bold, boisterous girl–a tomboy.  Among your people, it is considered high praise, as it indicates you will not waste time on your husband that can be better spent on horses.

“Mom–leave me alone, you don’t even exist!”


Dear Mr. Vocabulary:

Our son Todd came home from college over the Christmas vacation, and whenever we tried to engage him in “fun” activities like “Pictionary” or charades or mutual sharing of family memories, he would say “Buzz off, I’m a Solipsist now.”

We are wondering whether the Solipsists are some kind of cult, and if so whether we should hire a professional de-programmer.

I should add that Todd never had much of a personality, and is now a philosophy major, which has only made things worse.


(Mrs.) Marjorie Humboldt, Schenectady NY 12305


Dear Mrs. Humboldt–

No need to be alarmed, the word “solipsist” refers to a person who believes in nothing except himself.  In my professional opinion, parents who think they can get a sullen post-adolescent to play parlor games over Christmas break are stretching the bounds of credulity, so it sounds to me like Todd isn’t the sick one at your address.

Hey Mr. Vocabulary–

I’m engaged to be married to Earleen Montgomery, who I knew in high school and she was no great shakes but I saw her at Sonic a couple of months ago and her torso had completely changed from flatland to a mountainous region.  Like when you get to the western end of Kansas and all of a sudden–boom!–you hit the Rockies, if you get my drift.

Anyway, we are engaged now and last weekend we went shopping for our first joint purchase, a fold-out couch.  When the salesgirl asked us what color we were looking for Earleen said “ocher” and I started laughing.  She kicked me in the shin and said “What’s the matter with you?”  After I rubbed my leg a bit I told her–she must be thinking either of okra, which is a vegetable you put in gumbo, or euchre, a card game.

She said she was sure, but the salesgirl said “The closest I have is sienna or umber or maybe mustard.”  Well, I didn’t want to say I told you so, I just bit my tongue and let her pick the one she liked the best.

When we got home I couldn’t hold it any longer, I just started laughing.  “You think you’re smarter than me just because all I have is a high-school equivalent degree and you went to junior college.”  She says “What are you talking about?” and I said “Didn’t you hear that woman say there’s no such thing as ocher.”

Earleen said I misconstrued the salesgirl, but I didn’t even touch her!  I wasn’t going to let her lay that kind of guilt trip on me, not with all the “sexual harassment” charges flying around these days.

Any ammo you can give me for the next round of this argument would be appreciated.

Floyd Unger, Sweet Springs MO


Dear Floyd–

Oh my–where should I begin?  You have made several errors of usage in your letter to me, and I think you would benefit from my 8-cassette home course, “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.”  It is only $29.95 plus shipping and handling, and includes a handy pocket booklet “100 Words You Are Probably Using Wrong.”

It will be the second most useful object in your new home, the fold-out couch will be number one.

The Woman Who Sang Sinatra


We had just one date
but it was a doozy,
me and the brown-eyed woman named Julie.
She was fun, she was late, but she wasn’t a floozy,
and I want you to know that I loved her truly.

I got in her car
and we hadn’t gone far
when she punched her tape deck like a fighter,
shouting “Hit it, Frankie!” with incredible verve–
as Pearl Bailey would say, she upset my nerve,
as I quietly sat there beside her.

She proceeded to sing “Come Fly With Me”
as if possessed by the Chairman of the Board.
A balled-up fist was her mike–
she just missed a stray tyke!–
and from then on it was she I adored.

She looked over at me
and I gather could see
I was not an exuberant Dago,
with WASPy flesh-toned glasses
that repelled female passes
and rhythm that recalls bad lumbago.

I joined in meekly
and she eyed me weakly
as if to say “What a wet dish rag!”
“Don’t you like Sinatra?” she asked incredulous,
“because if not there’ll be no Kuma Satra”
though my devotion to her was sedulous.

“Well, yeah—he’s okay,”
was all I could say,
but she divined my lack of enthusement.
I regret to this day
that to score a lay
I didn’t fake Sinatramusement.

We rode ‘round the park through “New York, New York”–
she became more convinced that I was a dork.
By the time Francis Albert had made it through “My Way”
She’d decided it was time for me to hit the highway.

She pulled to the curb to drop me off
and said she was throwing in the towel;
I begged for a chance but she said with a scoff
“Your last name don’t end in a vowel.”

Moral: It takes all kinds.

Patriots Fans Turn to Cargo Cult as AFC Championship Doesn’t Return

BOSTON.  It is an eerie scene tonight along runway 32, the least-used landing strip of the ten runways at Logan International Airport.  “Don’t disturb them,” says state trooper Jim Hampy to this reporter, referring to crowds of people wearing New England Patriots-themed apparel standing outside in cold temperatures.  “They’re a primitive people.”

Despite that admonition, the crowd is loud enough to be heard on the tarmac a hundred yards away.  “Gron-kow-ski, Gron-kow-ski,” they chant, like Africans along the Belgian Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  “What does it mean?” asks Sarah Levinson, a graduate student in anthropology from Brandeis University.

“The AFC Championship–it is gone,” Hampy replies, his face a mask of indifference as he finishes the dregs of his Dunkin’ Donuts “lahge regular.”

“If we can’t have Gronkowski, can you return Wes Welker to us?”


What Levinson and other local scholars are witnessing is the first cargo cult in New England since the Boston Red Sox broke an 86-year curse by winning the 2004 World Series.  A “cargo cult” is a primitive belief system whose adherents use superstitious rituals to bring back an idealized past in which they enjoyed modern luxuries, including American Football Conference championships.   Typical artifacts constructed by cargo cults to recall past glory include airplanes and landing strips, such as the one used by the Patriots when they returned victorious from Kansas City last year before going on to win Super Bowl LII, or 52 in the Arabic numerals used by other major professional sports leagues.

The Patriots had participated in the last eight AFC championship games, winning five, but this year were defeated by the Tennessee Titans in a “wild-card” game in which deuces and one-eyed jacks could be used to challenge penalties.  That loss set off a region-wide fit of weeping and wailing that included gnashing of teeth and a return to fundamental religion, such as that practiced by natives of Melanesia, where cargo cults originated.

The AFC will be represented by the Kansas City Chiefs in this year’s Super Bowl, causing New England fans to seek meaning in wacko religious dogma.  “It is sad when civilized people turn to primitive rituals,” said the Rev. Asa Ephraim of the Westland Congregational Church, a minister  of the Protestant denomination that was once the established religion of Massachusetts.  “We have so much to offer people if they would only come to church on Sundays instead of watching football: coffee, crumb cake, boring conversation after services, and a recently-resurfaced parking lot that is the envy of every other church in town.”