The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem

It was one of those dinner parties where everyone had had a little too much to drink, and the conversation around the table had grown more . . . shall we say, spirited. Changes were being rung on the usual male-female antinomies–shopping, burping, etc.–when one of the wives went a little too far.


. . . and don’t get me started on his back hair!”

 

“Jeff doesn’t know which end of a hammer is up,” a woman named Sally said with a laugh, which the other women joined in. The men, however, did not. They knew that no matter how inept your husband may be at home repairs, the male ego is such that you don’t embarrass him in front of other men on this score.

A chilly silence descended upon the male half of the table, which the women–insensitive clods that they can be sometimes–eventually noticed. I considered my usual gambit for diverting conversation from an uncomfortable topic–”How ’bout those Red Sox?”–but it seemed too transparent. I considered bringing my philosophical training to bear on the subject–”Does a hammer really have an ‘up’ and a ‘down’ end, Sally?”–but decided it would only prolong the agony.


“Thanks for screwing in that light bulb–my husband could never do that!”

 

No, what was needed was “direct action,” as the Wobbly Party used to say. “Sally, I know you probably didn’t mean to, but I think you’ve hit Jeff where it hurts–bad.”

“Well,” she replied, a trifle defensively, “it’s true.”

“There are many true things that needn’t be said.” I could feel a breeze on my legs from my wife’s efforts to kick me, but she was sitting too far away to make contact. “If this matter isn’t put right, I’m afraid you two won’t have sex tonight, then Jeff will be grumpy next week, his productivity will fall off, his year-end bonus will be inadequate, you two will end up getting divorced, and your kids will drop out of school and end up collecting deposit bottles and sleeping on heating grates for the rest of their lives.”

“Gosh, I didn’t know it was that serious,” she said.

“It is, and drastic measures are called for.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

Carwash2
The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem (drawing by Sage Stossel)

 

I looked around the table and saw only blank stares. “I guess this means none of you read my first novel,” I said, and I had a hard time keeping the bitterness out of my voice.

“Uh, I didn’t,” Jeff said.

“Sally–I thought your book group was going to read it,” I said sharply.

“We . . . we have so many other books to read first.”

“Chick lit,” I spat out with contempt. “Let me guess: in this week’s selection, a husband cheats on his wife, or he dies.”

“Actually both,” she said. “We wanted something with a happy ending.”

“You know, if just one of you would buy a copy of A View of the Charles I might move into the coveted top 8 million books on amazon.com–but no.”

“But–you have so many unsold copies in your garage,” the guy to my left said. “It seems such a waste of natural resources to have your print-on-demand publisher crank out another one.”

“I’d like you to know,” I said defensively, that it’s now in a second edition, with a new cover, a new title–’Making Partner’–by a new publisher.”

“Why’s that?” Jeff asked.

“So it won’t be associated with the failure of the first edition,” my wife said unhelpfully.

I could feel my face reddening, but I couldn’t let my personal embarrassment get in the way of my mission; to save a marriage that was in trouble.

“C’mon everybody–into the living room for the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

“How do we do it?” my wife asked, finally joining in the fun against her better instincts.


The Stroll

 

“Do any of you remember ‘The Stroll’?”

“Remember, you’re the oldest one here,” my wife reminded me, so I had to explain.

“On American Bandstand, the guys and gals would form two lines, and dancers would take turns strolling down between them.”

“That’s it–a dance?” Sally asked.

“There’s more. As the people make their way through, they close their eyes and we touch them.”

“Like running the gauntlet?” Jeff asked, “the Native American form of torture in which an individual runs between a double file of men who strike him with clubs or other weapons?”

“Sort of, but no weapons, and gently, like the soft foam scrubbers in a car wash.”

“That wouldn’t do much for my self-esteem,” the guy to my left–who was now standing to my right–said.

“That’s not all we do. We also murmur . . .”

“Murmur?”

“Murmur . . . words of encouragement and support. In Jeff’s case, something like ‘You did a great job screwing in that light bulb last weekend sweetie,’ or ‘I can’t believe you know how to pump your own gas!’ Something like that.”

Everyone exchanged looks of bemusement that seemed to say “What have we got to lose?” and “Well, I guess I’d do it for Jeff and Sally,” also “This is stupid but what choice do I have?”

Our dinner guests formed themselves into two lines, and it was up to me as host to designate the first human car to be scrubbed. “I think Jeff’s entitled to go first, since he’s the one’s who’s hurting right now.”

“Okay,” he said, a bit chagrined to be put in a position of weakness, but still needing the help that only the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem can provide.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” Sally said with an audible lump in her throat.


Go ahead–you’ll feel much better when you’re through.

 

“Okay,” he said, as he closed his eyes and began to make his way through the scrubbers of his friends’ arms.

“I’m sure you’re not as bad as Sally says,” the wife of the guy to my left said.

“You can’t be any worse than my husband,” another said.

As Jeff was softly stroked by his friends, you could see a smile come to his face. When he emerged into the drying zone and opened his eyes, he was a new man, no longer sullen and brooding over the uncalled-for insult to his manhood. “You’re right,” he said. “That was great!”

“Who’s next?” I said, beaming with pride over the one thing I’ve invented in my life.

“Me, me!” Sally said. She was like that, a real trouper, always ready to make a party truly special.

“Okay,” I said. “Any fears, insecurities or troublesome issues we need to address?”

“Well, Jeff did make a crack about my weight last weekend.”

You could almost feel a wave of female hormones about to crash on the beach of our living room, like the roar of a distant tsunami that is faintly heard from afar–not to wax too poetic.

“Jeff!” the wife of the guy on my left said.

“It’s not my fault–she asked me the trick question: Does this outfit make me look fat?”

There were nods of sympathy from the other two husbands. “It’s a no-win situation,” one of them said.

“All right, let’s put the past behind us,” I said. “Sally–start strolling!”

She closed her eyes and stepped forward gingerly, where she was met by the soothing caresses of her girlfriends.

“Don’t you listen to him when he answers a loaded question,” one of them said.

“You’re so beautiful–inside and outside,” another said.

It was my turn and I struggled for something to say that would comfort her and at the same time wouldn’t show up her husband.

“You know,” I began tentatively, “the top is the best part of the muffin.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

 

At Sidekick School, Goal is to Play Second Fiddle

BOSTON.  It’s 7:20 a.m., an early hour for late riser Will McHusack, but the young man who is currently employed as a night security guard at a local college dorm nonetheless seems filled with enthusiasm.  “Got to chase my dream, you know?” he says to this reporter as he stakes out a place first in line at a non-descript building on Commonwealth Avenue.  “A lot of people think talk shows are filmed late at night, but that’s just an illusion from the backdrops.”


Our founder, George Fenneman

McHusack is here along with other budding Ed McMahons for the first day of spring semester classes at Fenneman’s School for Sidekicks, which offers courses designed to prepare young men for the highly-competitive world of second-rate entertainers who, once they realize they will never make it big based on their talent, aim slightly lower for a spot on a couch next to a television talk show host.


“But seriously, folks–Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease strikes kids in the first bloom of youth.”

At 7:30 a.m. the doors swing open and the assembled students file into a large, open room outfitted with 42 desks with adjoining couches and, after instructor Bob DaVilla checks their names off the enrollment list, each takes a seat opposite a dummy through which DaVilla’s voice will emanate once the “lab” part of instruction begins.

“First thing you guys have got to remember from Sidekick 101 is don’t act, RE-act,” DaVilla says with heavy emphasis on the last word.  “It’s not The Tonight Show with Ed McMahon, it’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson–got it?”


Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy:  I hear he’s hiring.

Heads nod in comprehension, and a few students jot down notes.  “I really wish you wouldn’t do that, you’re going to have to ‘wing it’ as a talk show sidekick, so you have to learn to perform without a net,” DaVilla says as McHusack scribbles “I really wish you wouldn’t do that” before screeching to a halt when DaVilla clears his throat ominously.


“Tonight we’ve got Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, Oprah Winfrey, and Kathy Griffin on my lap.”

The instructor leads the class in a few warm-up exercises, taking pains to point out that a sidekick must himself be warmed up before he goes out to warm up the crowd for the host.  “Let’s do ten double-takes, five to the right, five to the left,” DaVilla says, and the young men practice the patented comic gesture of surprise without incident except for one young man who develops a crick in his neck when his first “take” is executed too sharply.


“Yes, as a matter of fact I DO have a new movie coming out, thanks for asking.”

“Now for some broad laughs at your host’s lame jokes,” DaVilla says, and the sound of forty-two young men emitting a pleasant but controlled “HA-HA-HA” bounces off the walls of the barebones classroom.

DaVilla’s charges are now ready for some physical activity, and he segues into a typical transition with a scripted introduction of a fictional young starlet whose agent has placed her on a talk show to promote a new movie in which she will, for the first time, play a starring role.  “She’s appeared in supporting roles in a number of films including I Know Where You Went on Vacation Last Summer, Farthammer II and Land of the Lost Unicorns, say hello to . . . Marci Eversharp!”

The students stand up and clap with restrained enthusiasm, then begin the delicate movement they will execute thousands of times, like matadors performing a cruzar before an on-rushing bull, if they hit the big time; making way for a guest to greet the host and take a seat on the sofa.

“Good, good,” DaVilla murmurs audibly into his microphone before he spots something he doesn’t like and shouts “Hold it!” loud enough to be heard next door in a cosmetology school.

“Everybody see what he did wrong?” DaVilla snaps as he descends on a hapless young man in the first row.

The other students are silent, mainly out of fear that they’ll give the wrong answer and become the next victim of DaVilla’s wrath.

“Anybody?” DaVilla asks, calmly at first, and then, with exasperation, “Nobody?”

The silence persists, so DaVilla is forced to answer his own question.

“You always move down the couch, away from the host, not towards him–that’s where the guest sits!”

IRS Turns to Eunuchs for Tough Tax Cases

HAZARD, Kentucky. Ray Bob Suggins, a career revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service in this small town at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, thought he had seen it all in his thirty years collecting taxes for Uncle Sam.

“I’ve seized a family’s satellite dish, I’ve put a lien on a guy’s blue tick hound–everything,” he says with a laugh. But his face clouds up with the latest directive from what he refers to sarcastically as “headquarters”–the national office of the IRS in Washington, D.C.


“Hey–don’t take that! ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ is on tonight!”

 

“Those guys sitting in their offices back east don’t know the people of Kentucky,” he says with emphasis. “Where they come up with some of their ideas I’ll never know.”

The idea that has Suggins’ dander up is Rev. Proc. 06-137, which will require IRS regional offices to implement “Project Eunuch,” an attempt to replicate in the U.S. the success Indian officials have had using eunuchs–castrated males who dress as women–to collect taxes.


Eunuchs in India.

 

“You can’t argue with the numbers,” says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Hijras”–as eunuchs are referred to in India–”have produced remarkable results through the use of embarrassment, a tactic we have overlooked in the past.” And indeed in Patna, an Indian city with a population of nearly a half million where only about 2,000 citizens pay their property taxes on time, local officials report that eunuchs collected 425,000 rupees ($9,240) in their first day on the job.

In India hijras accost taxpayers on the street–taunting, cursing or touching their hair and cheeks–or set up outside a residence where they chant and dance loudly until a deadbeat relents and pays up. The eunuchs, who for the most part live in poverty because of their status as sexual outsiders, are paid a commission on what they collect. “We did a cost-benefit analysis,” says Koskinen, “and eunuchs produce better results than boring techniques like putting a lien on somebody’s house and waiting for them to sell. Plus a lot of them are very attractive with all that makeup they wear.”


Before.

 

So Suggins agreed to be a “guinea pig,” subjecting himself to castration at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Louisville in exchange for two years’ extra credit towards his pension. “I should be able to retire at age 60,” he says as he squirms in his chair due to the discomfort that persists following the operation. “I figger it’s worth it if I live that long.”


After

 

As painful as it was to lose what he refers to as “the family jewels,” what comes next is even harder in his view. “I got to dress up like an Indian woman and go door-to-door and jingle my bells” to make delinquent taxpayers pay up. “That ain’t gonna be easy.”


Coffee Pot Cafe: First refill is free.

 

After Suggins applies cheap rouge, powder and lipstick, he heads over to the Coffee Pot Café where he know Lyle Oehrke will be sitting with his buddies at their regular table, sipping coffee before he heads out to work–or not–as a used car salesman at O’Connor Chevrolet-Buick on South Highway 65. “Lyle spends most of his paycheck every Friday at the Golden Palomino,” a “gentlemen’s club” just outside the city limits where he is generous with tips for the “pole dancers” and strippers who work there.


Where Lyle works–sort of.

 

Suggins appears at the entrance to the Coffee Pot, spies Oehrke over in the corner, and goes into his carefully-rehearsed “song and dance,” a tribute to the Indian god Krishna in the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman who is a central figure in the culture of the hijras. “Hey, hey, hey,” he chants as he claps rhythmically, swinging his sari back and forth. “I’m really gonna make your day.”

Oehrke is at first surprised, then dismissive. “Well look who’s here,” he says with a knowing grin. “If it ain’t Sweetie Pie Suggins, lookin’ for a date.” He laughs and his friends join him, although their nervous tension is apparent.


“Pay up now, or I’ll have a cow!”

 

“I’m from the IRS, and I’m gonna lift up my dress, dress, dress–unless”-Suggins stops for dramatic effect-“you clean up your overdue taxes, penalties and interest mess!”


“I wish I could wear me somethin’ like that!”

 

Nae Ann Wingersheek, long-time waitress at “The Pot” as locals here refer to the restaurant, comes to the table for a last round of refills and to present the check. “You all gonna sit here all day or go out and earn a livin’?” she says with a good-natured jab at the group’s indifferent work habits. “Hey, Ray,” she says to Suggins when she notices the tax collector, his arms above his head as he rings his finger cymbals.

“Hi Nae Ann,” Ray replies as he scoots back a step to allow her to get by.

“I like that outfit,” she says, referring to the saffron sari that he flirtatiously lifts from time to time, threatening to expose himself but pulling back in the hope that the full range of tax collection remedies permitted by the new IRS procedure won’t be necessary.

“You don’t think it makes me look fat?” Ray asks.

She studies him for a moment. “From the front, no. From the back, it looks like two hogs fightin’ under a sheet!”

The table bursts out in laughter, which Suggins joins in with good spirits. “I walked right into that one,” he says with a grin.

The table of regulars starts to pony up and, when Suggins sees Oehrke pull his wallet from his back pocket, he pounces.


Krishna says “Pony up.”

 

“Lord Krishna, all-powerful, crush this deadbeat like a grasshopper beneath your heel–he is about to pay for his meal!”

“C’mon, Ray,” Oehrke pleads. “You know I got alimony to pay.”

“Alimony, palimony-don’t indulge in matrimony!”

“And I need my car to get to work.”

“Why should I worry about your work, when you treat your fellow taxpayers like a jerk?”

Everyone in the restaurant is watching now; Oehrke’s friends have ponied up, and tax collector and deadbeat stare each other down, mano a former-mano.

“All right, goddamn it,” Oehrke says with disgust. “Here,” he says as he pulls a roll of bills out of his back pocket and counts off two hundred dollars in twenties.

“The IRS Commissioner thanks you very much,” Suggins chants as he picks up his haul, “but I’ll tell him for the record you were not a soft touch.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Death, Taxes and More Taxes.”

My Poetic Nemesis

April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, and as a poet he knew whereof he spake. (Archaic past tense provided at no extra cost.)  April may be Poetry Month, but April is also the month in which the rejection letters and no-you-didn’t-win-the-Alice-Wambsley-Memorial-Poetry-Competition notices from the autumn submission cycle arrive in the mail.


Eliot: “Darn it—I lost again.”

 

But I’d been through all that before, so last fall I put on a Bush-Obama-Petraeus Verse Surge, sending out over 400 poems. I would become a published poet before turning–well, I won’t tell you what I’ll be turning–or expire tragically trying.

The fruits of my labor arrived yesterday. “We are pleased to inform you that your poem Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune has been accepted by plangent voices. Due to our extensive backlog, it is anticipated that publication will not occur until the fall 2019 issue.”


A (much) younger Hazel Flange

 

This, I thought, called for a celebration. I got in the car and headed over to the Coach & Four, the faux-colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town—insurance salesmen, CPAs, the local zoning attorney—meet to eat and greet. And to confront my poetic nemesis, Hazel Flange.

Hazel has been lording it over me for years. She’s got all the good accounts in town: McBride’s Super Market, where she composes rhymed couplets for the flyers and paper shopping bags (“Looking for something to eat on Easter—Our ham and lamb will make a feaster!); Olney’s GMC-Chevrolet (“If you’re going to a gala, best that you should buy Impala!”); Muckerman’s Funeral Home (“We’ll bury your kin with quiet dignity—we promise our bill won’t be very bignity.”)

Then there are the special commissions—birthday, anniversary and pet poems. Have to hand it to the old girl, she was the one who came up with business model. Go to another biddie’s house for bridge club, compliment the household dog, cat or goldfish, write a poem about it for the local paper. Then, when the owner is basking in the reflected glory of compliments from all her friends, offer to make her a laminated copy, suitable for framing—for ten bucks. “I just love your little Poodie, he is such a darling cutie!” Gag me, as the Valley Girls used to say, with a spoon.

But now the shoe is on the other foot. With Kosher Vegetarian Commune I’m not only published, I’ve introduced a genre of my own creation to the world of verse; poems whose titles are at least 75% as long as the poems themselves! Count them off:

This is kosher, this is trayfe,
One unclean, the other sayfe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

Pretty neat, huh? So it is with a new confidence that I stroll into the bar at the Coach & Four.  It’s not Les Deux Maggots, or The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death—but it will do. Except for the bathroom stalls—you know the one that begins “Here I sit all broken-hearted” don’t you?—the only poetry in the house is composed by Hazel, recited to a table crammed with her fawning sycophants.

I wave my hand as I stroll up to the bar and make the announcement I’ve been dying to proclaim for lo these so many years. “Marty,” I say to the bartender, “potato chips and snack foods for everybody—and see what the boys in the back room will have!”

With that a scramble the likes of which have not been seen since the Oklahoma land rush begins; there are only so many bags of Cape Cod Parmesan & Roasted Garlic Chips on the Snack-Rack, and it’s every man for himself.


Eyes on the prize.

 

I order my usual—a Smutty Nose Elderberry Lite I.P.A.—and lean back to take in the room, holding the tall-boy bottle Jeff Bridges-style, oh-so-casually around the very tip of the neck. I cast a glance in Hazel’s direction—she gives me the steely-eyed gaze that has caused so many budding young aethetes to realize there’s room for only one poetess in our town, and she’s not going anywhere.

I stand up and begin to work the room—suddenly I’m every man’s hero now that the out-of-work “consultants” and “advisors” in town are chowing down on Andy Capp Pub Fries on my nickel. After many slaps on the back and congratulations, I mosey over to Hazel’s table and, with an affected look of surprise, greet her.

“Why, Hazel,” I say, beaming, “fancy meeting you here! How’ve you been?” I don’t try to party-kiss her—in her dotage she has taken to applying rouge to her cheekbones. She read in Marie Claire that Celine Dion does something similar to make her nose look smaller.

“Hello,” she replies in a measured tone and just the hint of a combination smile-sneer—a “snile,” a “smeer”?—on her lips. “I see you have something to celebrate—finally.”

That hurts. Hazel had her first poem published when she was in fourth grade. I spotted it for the rip-off that it was—“Who can see the wind, neither you nor me, but when the wind is blowing, it tickles both my knees”—but apparently the editors of My Little Messenger weren’t as well read as me.

“Yes, yes, that I do,” I reply, trying hard to retain my composure. “Of course, it’s nothing to compare with the success you’ve had. Writing rhymed couplets for discount tire and battery stores.”


“Whence from your car you do dismount, check our snow tires at deep discounts.”

 

There is a collective intake of breath by the circle of admirers at Hazel’s table, but she’s as cool as a poker player sitting on pocket aces. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” she says, going all Dr. Johnson on me.

The flow of air is reversed—the little group explodes with laughter—but I ignore the obloquy they think they are raining down on me. I’m after the Big Tuna Salad on White Toast Sandwich her own bad self.

“How’s about a little mano-a-womano verse battle—right here, right now, you and me?”

“Une petite slamme de poesie?” she replies, using up all the French she knows outside a Chef Boyardee can.

“That’s right. Winner take all. Must be original, spontaneous work, rhymed and metered.”

“My apartment has a separate meter,” one of her followers says, displaying the level of ignorance that is required in order to appreciate Hazel’s verse.

“Stifle it, Maeve,” Hazel snaps at the woman, and then says to me—”You’re on.”

“Peachy,” I say with a smarmy smile. “Ladies first—and no crib notes.”

The room is so quiet you can hear a chip drop, and from the bar I detect that Bob Smuldowney, head of the Public Works department, has let one fall to the floor.

“If I’m not mistaken, that was a Cool Ranch Dorito?” I say with a note of expectation in my voice as I wait upon the answer, showing off my ear.

“That’s amazing,” Smuldowney says.

That’s the kind of ear it takes to be a first-class poet,” I say smugly. “Hazel—your serve.”

The dowager versifier clears her throat. She cocks her head a little to one side, like a parakeet—my guess is what she comes up with will be as derivative as “Polly want a cracker?”

She steadies herself by putting her fingers on the table, closes her eyes, tosses an errant spit curl aside and begins.

How lovely to be a poet
How wonderfully rewarding
It is like a free vacation trip
On a cruise ship you are boarding.

But each night when I’m finally done
I brush my teeth and floss.
A poetessa’s job is this:
To pluck wheat from the dross.

I’m tempted to yell “mixed metaphor,” but it’s the playoffs, and I know I’m not going to get the call.  No ref wants to blow a freestyle poetry battle in front of a big crowd and I have to say, even though it’s against my interests, that I agree—let ‘em play.


Woman with distaff: Whence it came, hence the name.

 

Hazel’s toadies are applauding politely but this is a bar, the audience is disproportionately male, and most of the guys are sitting on their hands, waiting to hear something from the non-distaff side.

“Great stuff, Hazel,” I say magnanimously. “I’ll give you the email address for The New Yorker when we’re done.” This is known as “trash-talking,” and as a Celtics fan during the Larry Bird Era, I learned from the master.


“Shhh—Larry’s going to recite now!”

 

The guys at the bar are looking at me with a mixture of hope and trepidation. They’re the ones who’ve been scratching doggerel on the walls of the stalls in the men’s rooms, inking haiku above the urinals, suffering under the yoke of genteel feminine poetry for so many years as Hazel asks them to turn down the games on the four giant-screen TVs so her umpty-dumpty-dumpty/umpty-dumpty-dump lines can be heard. If I can take her down, it will be a Spartacus-like moment; the joint will once again be free for belching and bad language worthy of Dizzy Dean, who drew the scorn of St. Louis English teachers for saying “He slud in there” on the Baseball Game-of-the-Week.


Dizzy Dean: He really said it.

 

“Hazel,” I begin with an off-hand, informal air that catches her off guard,

this is stupid stuff;
your pansies and violets—
your fairies at dawn or later in
the gloaming.

what the hell is a gloaming anyway?
and why would you bother to use it when poeming?
I do not like it, and no man could;
find another word please, if you would.

but in the meantime, hear me out;
the matter, we say, is free from doubt.
a bar’s not the place for poems like lace doilies,
and also I noticed your nose is quite oily.


Kudos!

 

I hesitate to use the word “claque,” but the guys are behind me all the way on this one, and the place erupts with a noise not heard since Jason Varitek stuffed his catcher’s mitt in Alex Rodriguez’s mug. They don’t call it “home court advantage” for nothing.

The ladies’ table is a bit taken aback by the rough tactics and the thunderous acclaim, but Hazel recovers like the pro that—I have to admit—she is.

“Nicely done,” she says, although I can tell that it pains her to put a smile on her over-glossed lips.

“Thanks—you’re still my favorite poet named Hazel,” I say. Good sportsmanship is contagious, I guess. “Have a drink on me, okay?”

Hazel considers this for a moment, then says “Yes—I think I will,” and advances to the bar where Marty says “What’ll ya have?”

“I think,” she says as she eyes the racks of expensive liquor behind him, “a Brandy Alexander—with Courvoisier VSOP Cognac.”

“Hey,” I say quickly before Marty can pour. “I meant anything under five bucks.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Who Is Gilbert Blythe?

           The email appeared in his inbox from a name he didn’t recognize, Patricia Donlan.  When he opened it up and began to read it, it didn’t make sense at first; the writer took off like a runner hearing a starter’s pistol, eager to stake a place on the inside before the first turn of the track.  “Dear Tom,” it began, “I hope you remember me and have been well all these years since we were in school together long ago.”  He had never been in school with anyone named Patricia Donlan, but he read on.  “I am currently in a hospital in California, waiting for a liver.  Last year I was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hepatitis (persistent liver inflammation).  Shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Non-Alcoholic Cirrhosis of the Liver, and I am now in Liver Failure.”  The capital letters struck him as an odd formality.  “I am using my daughter’s email account so she can keep track of things in case I become unable to respond—explanation below.”

 

blythe

He scanned to the bottom of the page and saw the name “Mary Beth (Schumacher) Donlan,” and made the connection.  It was from a woman he’d gone to grade school with.  He’d lost touch with her when he transferred to public high school so he could play football, because their Catholic school didn’t have a team.  He remembered her as shy, slender, pretty in a quiet way, but not the type who would stand out in a crowd of girls as the most attractive.  Something about her—maybe her forehead was too high or too wide.  She was smart.

 

“I remember peeking over my shoulder at you in the back of the room,” the writer continued.  “I had a sort of Anne of Green Gables/Gilbert Blythe crush on you.”  Who is Gilbert Bythe? he asked himself.  He hadn’t read the book, so he stopped for a moment to look up the reference.  “I secretly competed against you for best grades in long division and spelling, you probably didn’t even realize it.  Like all the other boys, I bet you were too busy looking at Carolyn Schuster’s newly-developed boobs.”

 

He laughed when he read that.  That was true, and he had, for a time, been the favorite of the girl with the earliest-burgeoning bust.  Then he had screwed things up.  Too embarrassed to buy her a box of candy or a bottle of perfume and carry it past the other boys in class, he had slipped a dollar into her Valentine’s card, then endured a shame worse than the one he had tried to avoid when she walked the length of the classroom and placed the dollar on his desk.  “How was I to know?” he asked himself, with a snort and a smile on his face.  “It’s what I would have wanted for Valentine’s, it was what my grandmother gave me for my birthday.  I didn’t know you don’t give a girl money—I was only twelve.”

 

blythe1

“All that is in the past, however,” he read again.  “I am now slowly dying, and my only hope is that I can live long enough to get a liver.  In the meantime, my medical bills are piling up.  I was only part-time at my last job, and didn’t qualify for health insurance.  I’m divorced (husband number two), and have a seventeen-year-old daughter who has a tough life ahead of her without a mother.”

 

It was a sad story, one that caused him to be conscious that he was swallowing, more affected physically than he realized at first.  He considered himself fairly impervious to personal appeals; he brushed off panhandlers both morning and night as he made his way through the train station in Boston.  He wasn’t in touch with any family members other than two siblings, and with them only to the extent necessary; his father was part of a large Irish family, and his cousins, like their fathers, weren’t successful financially.  They struck him as the type who might ask him for handouts, and possibly large ones, if their lives got any worse.

 

Mary Beth’s name struck a note with overtones, however.  He recalled a cold spring day when the kids in his seventh-grade class had, on an April lark, decided to go to the public tennis courts as a group after school.  There they had fooled around—since it was a weekday there were no adults to be annoyed by their conduct—and she had come and sat next to him when it was others’ turn to play.

 

blythe2

“How are you and Carolyn getting along?” she had asked him bluntly.  He wasn’t able to answer right away; they had barely said anything to each other beyond “Hi” during the seven years they’d known each other.  He looked over at the court, where the girl he wanted to be his was playing tennis with another boy.

 

“You should probably ask Marty that,” he said with as much bitterness as he could stuff into the words, not turning his head.  She was sitting close to him, on the ground, their backs bowing into a tennis net, and her nearness made him nervous.

 

“Who should I ask you about?” she said sharply, causing him to turn around and see her staring at him with an ambiguous cast to her lips that was part challenge, part invitation.

 

“I don’t know,” he had said, and then from someplace deep inside him an impulse arose that caused him to say, “maybe you.”  He regretted it almost immediately, but it was too late; some instinctive sense of honor within had told him that when a girl opens up to you in that way, you should yield.  She had smiled, and he noticed for the first that she was wearing pink lipstick, which she must have applied for the occasion since girls weren’t allowed to wear make-up at St. Vincent’s.

 

blythe3

So that was who was writing to him after—he counted the years; four high school, four of college, three years goofing around, two more years to get another degree, so thirteen.  Then thirty years of work—forty-three in all.  He was both flattered and non-plussed; what, exactly, could he do for her?  If he sent her a check his wife, who balanced their accounts, would see it.  She paid their credit card bills, too, and would sometimes ask him about charges she didn’t recognize, so that wouldn’t work either.  And then he recalled that he had a budget at work for charitable contributions, he could use that and his wife would never know.  It wasn’t as if he was doing anything wrong, either way; it was a worthy cause, and it wasn’t like he was meeting the woman from his past for sex at a motel.  It was a simple gesture of kindness, that was all.

 

“Dear Mary Beth,” he began to write.  “Of course I remember you, and fondly.  We had that brief thing going there in seventh grade, but went our separate ways.  I am sorry to hear about your”—he paused to think; was it an illness or a condition?  He began again: “I am sorry to hear that you are not doing well, and of course I can help out a bit.”  He scrolled down the screen, which included a link to a site where you could contribute, post a message, and be recognized or not, depending on your preference.  At the bottom of the page in small print there was a paragraph of disclaimers; contributions weren’t tax deductible, the site charged a fee and so on.  It all seemed well-organized, as the girl had been when she was young.

 

The goal was to raise $25,000, a figure that struck him as cheap to save someone’s life.  He tried to think of something he’d paid that price for—a car a long time ago came to mind–so if it only gave her five more years, it would be worth it.  He took out his business credit card, clicked on the link, typed in a contribution of $250, then thought again, and increased the amount to $500.  It might be hard for her, a part-time reading instructor at an elementary school in a small town, to find enough people who made as much money as he did, he thought.  She was good enough to remember him after all these years, and to recall for him a time when romance might have hurt more when you lost, but was more innocent.  He recalled her directness—the skinny little girl who had apparently had her heart set on him, but who had never said anything until their lives were about to diverge forever.  He wondered what might have been; if they had connected back then, he might have been spared a long search for a mate that came to its first stop with a woman he had taken away from a friend, an affair that ended in four fairly disastrous years of living together and no marriage.  Then four years of dating before he met his wife, a practical woman and a good mother to his children, but a mate of mature reflection, not the object of a youthful passion.

 

            “Are you coming to bed soon?” his wife called to him from the door.

 

            “Be there in a minute,” he said as he closed out of the site with a fumbling urgency, hoping he could clear the screen before she came around behind him for a kiss and saw the image of his short-lived grade-school girlfriend, with her deep-brown hair, violet-blue eyes and a smile that seemed too genuine for one who was dying.

 

He was at work the next day, filling out a form to explain his contribution, when he received a second email from the daughter’s address.  He opened it up and read: “Dear Mike, I hope you remember me and have been well all these years since we were in school together long ago,” it said, and the text that followed was the same that had been sent to him describing Mary Beth’s current situation.  Apparently she had developed a template she was using to save time.  He could hardly blame her—after all, she was dying.

 

“I remember peeking over my shoulder at you in the back of the room,” it continued.  “I had a sort of Anne of Green Gables/Gilbert Blythe crush on you.”

 

He exhaled, then moved his cursor to the “Reply” button.  “Mary Beth,” he wrote, “I think you meant this for someone else.”

 

 

 

Me and My Code Talker

It’s Saturday morning, which means the tension is starting to build for our weekly out-of-home social interaction. Regardless of whether we get together with people in a higher income bracket or a lower, my wife faults me for doing, saying, wearing, implying or inferring something I shouldn’t have.

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“We tried a Choctaw for awhile, but we went back to Navajos.”

 

To give you a few examples: “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” are the words she usually says when she first sees the clothes I’ve put on. “Don’t mention anything about what I told you Lisa said about Jack, okay?”–whatever she said had been promptly forgotten by me as soon as I heard it.

But I live in a different world from her; tapping at my computer all day, yelling or being yelled at on the telephone, sending out bills, filling out timesheets. I rarely if ever come into actual contact with humans, and by that I mean to include some of my highly-educated knowledge industry colleagues. As a result, my social skills are admittedly . . . atrophied.

code6
“Tell her she has on a lovely dress, but DON’T look at her knockers.”

 

“The problem is you never give me any guidance–any context–until we’re on the other couple’s doorstep,” I say.

“Your problem is you’re not good at understanding code,” she says, and not with a great deal of sympathy. “You take things literally that aren’t meant seriously, and vice versa.”

“What do you mean ‘code’?”

“There are certain things you don’t say, certain things you don’t do–and they change depending on whose house we’re at. Like tonight you have to get dressed up, but next Saturday is a ‘nice’ blue jean night–okay?”

I was, if anything, more confused than before. “Can you buy flash cards or a crib sheet on this stuff?”

“I don’t think so,” my wife said. “Part of the attraction of conventions is you can use them to weed out others, so all the better social sets keep them a secret.”

code4
“Says he’s ‘Doing great’? Must have lost his job.”

 

I didn’t see anyway out of my predicament. “Well, I don’t want to just stick by your side all night wherever we go.”

“I don’t want you to either,” she said, staring out at the middle distance, plainly frustrated. “Maybe we should get you a code talker.”

“What’s a code talker?”

“They’re members of Indian . . .”

“You mean Native American . . .”

“Whatever–tribes that have really complex languages, so they can talk in code and they can deciper codes.”

My wife is not generally known for graduate-level inquiries into questions of the nature of language, so I was suspicious. “Where’d you learn that?”

code7
“We’ll be right back with more tips on decorating your kids.”

 

“It was on Martha Stewart Living, right after a segment on stenciling your children.”

I considered her suggestion for a second; if some Native American could serve as my guide through the wilds of the metrowest suburbs of Boston and help me avoid a long uncomfortable silence on the road home from a stylish–but casual!–party, it would be money well spent.

“Okay–I’ll give it a try,” I said, “but where am I going to find a code talker in two days?”

“Try that rental place down by the falls–they have everything.”

So after I took the trash to the town dump I dropped by the You-Rentz-It franchise and asked the guy at the counter if they rented code talkers.

“What kind ya lookin’ for?” he asked, as if it was the most routine request in the world.

code2
“Her kid got into Penn? Tell her how sorry you are to hear it.”

 

“I don’t know–what do you have?”

“We’ve got Navajos, Choctaws, Comanches. I’ve got a Basque that’s gonna be returned tonight.”

“What kind’s the best?”

“Navajos are the top of the line.”

“Which is cheapest?”

“Comanches. What kind of shindig is it?”

“Cocktail party.”

“How many people?”

“Probably . . . at least twenty.”

“I dunno,” he said scratching his head, Will Rogers-style. “I don’t think you want to pinch pennies on an affair like that. You’ll end up paying for it in the long run.”

I seemed to recall from my childhood watching westerns that Comanches were fierce warriors. Probably best not to stint.

“I’ll go with a Navajo for Saturday night.”

“I’ll need a credit card for the deposit. You can pick him up at 5.”

“Is there an instruction manual so I know what to do with him?”

“Don’t worry. He’ll know what to do.”

I paid and went home to tell my wife. She was watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy she’d taped, and so she was in defcon alert posture, poised to block out all extraneous stimuli such as husbands.

“We’re all set with the code talker,” I said.

“Um-hmm,” she replied, not wanting to waste precious energy she might need for sobbing later.

When the time came, I picked up Chester Joe Leader and his kit of code-cracking equipment.

“What kind of grub are they serving tonight?” was his first question after we were in the car.

“Finger food,” I said. “Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini-quiche, stuff like that.”

“No little ham sandwiches?”

“People usually don’t do that until the holidays,” I said. “So, how exactly do we do this?”

code1

“I get you wired up, and I set up outside,” he said with all the emotion of Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet.

“Okay.”

“I can hear what people are saying, but they can’t hear me. Only you can, through your earpiece.”

He held up what looked to be an old-style hearing aid, the kind my mom used to wear that gave off more feedback than a Jimi Hendrix solo. “Okay.”

“I listen to what people say and decipher it for you.”

“You spent much time in the western suburbs?”

“It’s pretty plain vanilla. The North Shore’s tougher, summer colonies in Maine are impossible.” The guy apparently knew his stuff.

When I got home my wife was ready for once because she’d agreed to bring an hors d’oeuvre and we had to arrive early to warm it up.

“Sweetie, I’d like you to meet Chester Joe Leader, my code talker.”

How-do-you-dos were exchanged, and we got in the car after I grabbed the obligatory bottle of white wine we’d been trading back-and-forth with our hosts for the past two years. It’s a fruity Burgundy that we’re both afraid to try.

“Do these people have shrubbery?” Chester asked.

“HUGE rhododendrons,” I said. “The kind Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers, which is what our host is.”

“Good. They give you lots of cover without being prickly.”

code8
Woolf: “Do me a favor and leave me out of your stupid posts.”

 

We dropped Chester off the length of a football field from our destination, and he made his way by stealth up the lawn and into the bushes.

“Let’s hope this works,” I said.

“It better,” my wife said with an expression that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the face of the gas chamber attendant at a maximum security prison.

Our hostess greeted us and we were ushered into the party, which was in full swing. There was a bartender so the usual struggle to get a drink wasn’t a problem, and we began to circulate.

“Danger dead ahead,” my wife said.

“What?”

“That’s Missy and Mark Wainwright.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Her parents gave him $200,000 to buy some stupid franchise, and it’s draining money like the Hoover Dam.”

“Okay, I’ll watch myself,” I said. “Chester–you copy that?”

“I’m right here for you,” he said. “Proceed.”

We ambled up casually and, after the usual over-the-top faux surprise greeting, settled in to chew the fat, figuratively speaking.

“How’s everything at your shop?” Mark asked.

“Say fine and change the subject,” Chester said.

“Gotcha,” I said.

“What?” Mark asked.

“Sorry–I uh, felt a sneeze coming on. We’re doing fine thanks–considering the economy!”

“Tell me about it!” he exclaimed with a little-boy-lost look on his face. “We’re . . .”

“Now!” Chester snapped.

“Hey–what do you think of the Patriots’ second-string quarterback?  Should they trade him or keep him?”

“Uh . . . well, I guess Brady’s gotta retire sometime.”

I felt like a fencer who’d just parried a deadly thrust. We two men exchanged idiotic speculation on somebody we knew next to nothing about for five minutes, then the Wainwrights departed for a youth baseball game.

“Everything okay?” my wife asked dubiously.

“Just dodged a bullet there. Anybody else you want to warn me about?”

“Here come the Andersons,” my wife said, turning towards me like a pitcher in a jam on the mound so the other side couldn’t read her lips. “She doesn’t know it, but Susan saw Sam coming out of a restaurant with his secretary while Cindy was off for a girls’ weekend at an Arizona spa.”

“That could be awkward,” I said, and just in time as the Andersons bore down on us like a sailboat running downwind into a marina. “You there Chester?”

“I’m on it,” the code talker replied with a calm, even tone. I felt–reassured. “Do not ask about vacations–got it?” he said.

“Will do,” I said just as the cuckoldette reached our personal space.

“Hey you two!” Cindy said to us–big hug and party kiss from her, a handshake from the cheatin’ side of the family.

“Hello there, strangers!” my wife said. “Haven’t seen you since you got back. Was it fun?”

“I came back so relaxed!” Cindy said. “All that was gone in about a day!”

code9
Back to the grind.

 

“Welcome back to the rat race!” my wife said. What’s she talking about, I wondered: the yoga, the pilates, or the spinning class?

Sam seemed to be suffering from a bout of mauvais foi, which is not a form of pate. It’s the gnawing guilty conscience over the lie you’re living. He was at a loss for words, and I didn’t want to fill up his tank.

“Don’t ask him what he did while the wife was away,” I heard Chester say in my earpiece. “Don’t ask him what he did last weekend.”

“I’m waiting for some positive suggestions,” I muttered into my hand as I pretended to cough.

“Ask him . . . what he thinks of the election.”

“Are you crazy?” I said, pulling myself away as I pretended to be fascinated by a bowl of mixed nuts. “I never bring up politics at parties!”

“You’ll have to trust me on this one,” Chester said.

I gulped, almost involuntarily; Chet was the expert, however, so I turned to meet my counterpart with a quiche-eating grin on my face.

“So, every day’s a wild ride with Trump in the White House, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Sam said thoughtfully, and a few heads turned at my obvious social faux pas. Our little suburb was reliably Republican fifteen years ago, but now it’s become fashionable to pretend you care about the poor beyond the value of the charitable deductions they so generously provide us. “But you know what I really, really liked about the election?”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Hillary Clinton,” Sam said. “She always forgave Bill when he . . . uh . . . strayed.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

Guy Named Mike Launches “Internet of Crap”

WORCESTER, Mass.  Seeking to cash in on the rush to interconnectivity jump-started by the so-called “Internet of Things,” Mike Andruzzioni, a part-time cab dispatcher in this gritty industrial city, today announced that he has beta-tested an “Internet of Crap,” a network of physical objects in his apartment that belong to him or one of his current or former roommates without distinct property rights or apparent utility.

mike
Mike:  “There’s a theme, but you don’t notice it unless you’re stoned.”

 

“A lot of this stuff, I’m not sure whose it is,” Andruzzioni says as he sweeps his arm around the room, like Jackie Kennedy conducting a tour of the White House, taking in a stack of Mr. the Toad comic books, record albums by Bobby “Blue” Bland and a squeaky frog bath toy.  “There was a guy last summer named Richard, his sister stayed for a week while she was studying for her med boards or something, I don’t think any of it’s hers,” he says, ruling out one possibility.

mike4
Bill Griffith’s “Mr. the Toad.”

 

The term “Internet of Things” refers to the growing network of physical objects that feature an IP address for internet connectivity, and the communication that occurs between them and other Internet-enabled devices and systems.  “It really bids fair to change the way we live,” says Dr. Emil Nostrand, a professor of information technology at nearby Quinsigamond Junior College who recently audited an English course.  “Where formerly your refrigerator couldn’t talk to your toaster oven, now they can.  The possibilities for personal growth by toaster ovens are enormous.”

mike5
Jackie Kennedy:  “Mike’s apartment doesn’t have one of these.”

 

Andruzionni attributes his ability to sense the links between the crap that litters his floors to his heavy use of medical marijuana, which he grows himself using ultra violet black lights in a room off the kitchen.  “Like that thing over there,” he says, indicating a Teflon-coated frying pan that sits unwashed in the kitchen sink of his third-floor triple-decker apartment in the Main South neighborhood here.  “There was a guy named Bob who used to disgust everybody frying chicken in his underwear,” he says, before correcting himself.  “I mean he was in his underwear when he fried them, the chickens weren’t actually in his underwear.”

mike1
Main South neighborhood

Andruzzioni so far hasn’t approached investors for his technological breakthrough, a move pioneered by savvy startups like Facebook and more recently by Spotify, which allows him to control his own destiny and keep a larger share of the upside for himself and his two current roommates, another guy named Mike and a guy named Lou who has a girlfriend named Chloe.  “I’m not sure Wall Street is ready for this,” he says with a sly grin.  “Especially the socks.”