Your Christmas Etiquette Advisor

Fending off unwanted advances beneath the mistletoe?  Wondering whether you can re-gift that chafing dish you got for your second marriage?  Ask Ms. Christmas Etiquette Advisor–she always minds her manners!

Dear Christmas Etiquette Advisor:

Christmas is always such a harried season, and today I made a terrible mistake that may cause us to lose face in the upscale suburb where we live.  I needed to drop off our expensive family photo Christmas cards at the post office, and to return my book-on-tape at the public library.  In my haste, I accidentally dropped off our Christmas cards at the library, and “Love’s Tortured Yearnings” at the post office.  The dingbat librarians won’t let me go through the book return due to “chain-of-custody” rules they must observe in order to assess library fines, so now I will have to go buy cheap substitute cards and start all over.  Is there a graceful way to say “I didn’t mean to slight you with this terribly down-market greeting card from Wal-Mart”–our application to join the country club is pending this spring.

Mrs. Veronica Taussig, Wellesley Hills, Mass.

Dear Veronica–

Your little “miscue” has apparently caused your self-esteem to plummet.  What you wrote would be perfectly acceptable in all but the most snobbish–wait a minute, I just noticed your address.  In India, this is referred to as “loss of caste,” but think of all the money you’ll save on application fees to Ivy League colleges!

The Postmaster General will be in touch regarding your transmission of obscene materials through the mail.


“Come on, Sholom–loosen up!”

Dear Christmas Etiquette Advisor:

“Diversity” has finally come to our little town as we have hired several “ethnic” types this year, including a very nice Jewish man.  All well and good, but this is a workplace “minefield” since our Christmas Party is this week and we are working overtime trying to come up with inoffensive small talk.  Are there flash cards or other study aids to help us get through this event without getting sued?

Sue Ellen Turbot, Director of Human Resources, Bag-Nap Snap Ties, Kalispell, Montana

Sue Ellen–

Yours is a very tricky situation, as the Jewish people have both “happy” and “sad” holidays.  Most of us “goyim” (what they call us behind our backs) don’t know the difference, as I once found out when I innocently said “Happy Yom Kippur” to our accountant.

Thankfully, Hanukkah is one of their joyful occasions, so you should be safe keeping things light and pleasant with questions like “Say–you people control the weather, are we going to have a White Christmas or what?”

Dear Christmas Etiquette Advisor–

I am involved in a dispute with our new next door neighbor “Chuck” who put up a gaudy Christmas display this year.  I just came back from the doctor who says I have cancer of the armpit, which I did not have last year.

Ms. Christmas Etiquette Advisor, I have read stories about people getting sick from electro-magnetic fields generated by power lines, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Santa and his elves and the eight reindeer and the Christmas creche including wise men this dingbat put up is to blame for my illness.

Is there any class action going on about this where I could file a claim and not have to pay a lawyer?  They have them for everything from Cheez-Its to Milli Vanilli, whatever that is, so I figure I might have a shot.

Earl Furlong, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Dear Earl–

Electricity is our friend–remember, it toasts your English muffin every morning–so I’m going to side with “Chuck” on this one.  The jury is still “out” on the issue of whether power lines cause cancer, and I don’t think you should spoil anyone’s holiday by making a questionable “junk science” deathbed self-diagnosis.

I know I’m going to get a lot of nasty letters from “environmentalists” over this answer, but they’ve been saying the world’s going to end since the ’70’s and it hasn’t yet, so sit back and enjoy the season of lights and leave the damage claims to your heirs.

As New Year Nears, Young Scientists Baffled by Lack of Dates

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts. When New Year’s Eve was still a month away, Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore Jeremy Klotkin took steps to make sure he didn’t spend the night when many unattached men hope to “get lucky” alone.

“I try to go out on a date once a year whether I need it or not,” he says. “I want to stay in shape just in case I need to procreate someday.”

So Jeremy started “dialing-for-dates” shortly after Thanksgiving to make sure he had someone to ring in the New Year with, but his scientific mind noticed a disturbing pattern after his initial round of phonecalls this fall.


“Seriously, Jeremy–it’s a mess!”

 

“Every girl I spoke to was going to be re-arranging her sock drawer on New Year’s Eve,” he says as he taps some numbers into his computer. “Statistically speaking, you would expect to see some deviation from the mean, so I may be able to get a senior thesis out of this.”


“Would you like to stay after lab and make some Jiffy Pop?”

 

Halfway across the country at the University of Chicago, Anil Khalsa, a graduate student in physics, noticed a similar aberration. “I have called many, many women to ask if they are available New Year’s Eve, and each one has told me she expects that her pet will be sick that night. Dogs, cats, gerbils, gekkos–every kind of animal!” he notes with alarm. “I have contacted the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta to tell them that some sort of epidemic has broken out!”


“Uh, Lowell, I’d love to, but with my split ends, I’ve got to do some serious conditioning that night.”

 

On the West Coast, Cal Tech chemistry major Lowell Firke has a different concern; a potential water shortage in Southern California that could trigger rationing. “There are so many women who will be busy New Year’s Eve washing their hair,” he says. “It’s unbelievable!”

The Tribe of Cyber Monday

Thanksgiving is a time for reflection for me, especially when I arrive back at work on the Monday after Black Friday and try to come up with something, anything, to be thankful for.  There’s the unlimited free photocopies–check your bill to make sure I didn’t slip in a ream or two of paper as “miscellaneous.”  There’s the new coffee machine in the lunch room, which is supposedly as good as the-brand-name-that-shall-not-be-mentioned-but-is-a-character-from-Moby Dick.  I’ve tried it and I have to say–office coffee is always office coffee; the problem is, no matter how good it is, you’re surrounded by people from work when you drink it.

No, I don’t squander my thankfulness on the workplace, I reserve it for cool swag like my new Ralph Lauren moccasins!  They’re made from micro-suede, which is why they’re so damned expensive; it’s much harder to drive a herd of micro-cows from Texas to my hometown of Sedalia, Missouri, where Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) on the TV show “Rawhide” would put them in a micro-cattle car and ship them to the mini-stockyards of Chicago.  You lose one of them teeny-tiny longhorn steers, you’ll be looking for him with an electron microscope, pardner.

I’ve refused to buy a pair of these haute-fashion shoes for a long time.  You can safely get rid of yours now, because I’m a canary in the coal mine of fashion; once I get “hep” to a style, all the cool people drop it like a twelve-pound bowling ball with Mazola oil in the holes.  I resist style-changes on general principles, but in this case there were stronger cultural forces at work: one, they seemed a bit too casual, like something a guy shouldn’t wear outside his den; and two, moccasins are the shoe of choice among Native Americans, and so there was the issue of Cultural Appropriation to consider.  We have a full-time Diversity Coordinator now, and I didn’t want her coming down on me like a ton of interoffice memos just because I’m a reluctant slave (is there any other kind?) of fashion.

Add to these qualms the fact that the fourth Thursday in November has now become a battle between conflicting views of our national day of thanks.  In my boyhood, we were taught how the occasion was a model of comity and brotherhood, with Squanto of the Patuxet tribe and ninety (90) Wampanoags joining the Pilgrims for a friendly feast.  The Narragansett tribe had sent an ominous threat–a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snake’s skin–but kept their distance, thereby avoiding the First Political Argument in Thanksgiving Day History.


“It’s a two-day ride to Sedalia!”

But I grew up in the southern Midwest, at the end of that Chisholm Trail from Texas, and so have actual real-world experience with some tribes.  As a boy I used to spend my allowance on Osage trinkets hocked around the Lake of the Ozarks resort area, and as kids we visited a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, where we dressed up in native costume.  Later as a teen I dated a half-Cherokee woman, and all this background stood me in good stead when I need to review the bona fides of the Senior Senator from my state for dubious claims of ethnicity.  To paraphrase George Orwell, there is no claim so ridiculous that the faculty of Harvard Law School won’t believe it.

And so, I’m tentatively comfortable in my new shoes, once my younger son has returned to Texas and I no longer hear laughter at his old man’s feeble attempt to get within shouting distance of current trends in men’s haberdashery.  I try to return to work with a light heart as I prepare for the annual sprint to the end of the year, as clients rush to close deals they’ve neglected since, oh, around Labor Day.

But still, it just doesn’t feel right to wear moccasins to work, for the reasons cited supra (above), as we say in the legal biz.  I’m more than a bit self-conscious as I step into my office and turn on my computer, whose first message to me is from Human Resources: “Please complete your annual review of Sneezes Three Times,” the message says, causing me to scratch my head.   What the hell does that mean?

I look up and stare off into the middle distance when my colleague Dave from down the hall pops his head in my office.  “You want to join us for lunch today, we’re wining and dining a client and Smokes Outside had to cancel?”

Sneezes Three Times, Smokes Outside–dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts; I’ve been cursed by my moccasins, and now my partners all have descriptive Native American tribal names.  Not to mention the paralegal across the hall who can never sneeze just once–oh no, they come in threes, like the Holy Trinity.

“Uh, sure,” I say to Dave, who I now understand is “Afraid of His Shadow.”  The guy has to turn every simple deal into a forty-page document with indemnities, exculpations and in terrorem clauses–so scary you shouldn’t even ask about them.  “Who else is coming?”

“There’s Slow of Brain from litigation, and Says What She Thinks from employment law.”

“Is that really a good idea?” I ask, causing Dave/Afraid of His Shadow to hesitate and reconsider.

“She does have a tendency to turn things . . . controversial,” he says.  “On the other hand, Slow of Brain always causes the conversation to congeal into a thick goulash of conflicts of interest.”

“I know what you mean,” I say ruefully.  I had to stop eating with the guy, he made me nervous with the gory details he’d share at lunch about people getting fishbones stuck in their throats at restaurants, with St. Blaise–the patron saint of people who get fishbones stuck in their throats–nowhere in sight.


St. Blaise:  “Kid, next time just get the damn chicken nuggets.”

“I’ll ask Talks About Sports, he can fill in the gaps between hot-button political issues and deadly dull lawyer-talk.”

The rest of the morning passed uneventfully, with me scouring the internet to find some kind of wikasa wakan (medicine man) cure for my condition.  It looked like my best bet was time in a sweat lodge–I could take a steam bath at my club–but then I got jammed up and couldn’t sneak out before it was time for the business development dog-and-pony show.

We met in the lobby of Afraid of His Shadow’s club, where he made the introductions.  “These are my partners Says What She Thinks, Slow of Brain, Talks About Sports, and Doesn’t Give a Shit”–this last moniker was apparently mine for my rapidly-diminishing level of enthusiasm as I start my descent on the glide path to retirement.

“Nice to meet you,” the senior banker–who is introduced as Old Grey Fart–says.  “I’d like you to meet Head Ducked Low”–a middle-aged guy who looks like he goes out of his way to avoid difficult decisions and get out with a pension in maybe a decade.


“‘Doesn’t Give a Shit’ is an unusual name–how’d you get it?”

We shake hands, and then Old Grey Fart turns to a woman wearing the full Assistant Vice President-starter set.  “This is Floppy Bow Tie,” he says, and I have to say, she’s wearing a perfect replica of the kind of outfit that young female professionals–including my wife–wore back in the distant days of my first white-collar employment: blue suit, white ruffled blouse, little string of pearls and the inevitable floppy bow tie, as the name suggests.

We get in the elevator and go up to the 39th floor, where we are met by the maitre d’, who greets us and seats us at a quiet table looking out over the Southeast Expressway, the World’s Largest Moving Parking Lot.


Floppy bow tie:  So 80’s it hurts.

“How ’bout those Patriots?” Talks About Sports says as we sit down, and there follows a good five minutes of palaver about completion percentage, quarterback rating, yards-per-pass and frequent flier miles.  The two women in attendance pay differing levels of attention: Floppy Bow Tie has been told she has to develop an interest in sports if she wants to succeed in Boston, so she’s all ears.  Says What She Thinks has already made it, with several million-dollar malpractice verdicts against local teaching hospitals to her credit and is checking out her most recent manicure to see whether she’s going to sue her nail salon.

After we’ve exhausted the possibilities of all the wild-card opponents, talk moves to the shore of the ocean of business, and we gingerly dip our toes into the cold seawater of commerce.  “I assembled this team to demonstrate that our firm has a deep bench, and can serve all of your needs,” Afraid of His Shadow says, but Slow of Brain undercuts him almost immediately.

“Of course, we would have to check for conflicts if you want us to sue somebody we represent or handle a transaction against an existing client.”

“My services go to the highest bidder,” Says What She Thinks says.  “I’m not going to have somebody stop me from taking a case because we did a will for the CEO’s maiden aunt twenty years ago.”   She’s living up to her name.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Floppy Bow Tie says, all wide-eyed innocence.  “Reading those big long documents all night long, then marching into court the next day and fighting it out in front of a judge.”

“That happens once in a blue moon,” Says What She Thinks says.  “Mainly I just threaten people on the phone, by letter, and increasingly–by text message.”


“I’m the boss, and I say you’re all eating broccoli.”

“Gosh!” Floppy Bow Tie says, and I can see that Afraid of His Shadow is getting nervous, thinking his colleagues are going to blow a new client for him by coming off as obnoxious, unlike the 1% of the legal community that isn’t.

“We’ve talked about ourselves enough,” he says.  “How are things in your world?” he asks Head Ducked Low.

“It’s a great company,” he says, then falls silent, waiting for his boss to take over again.  Must have taken his inoffensive pill this morning.

“We’re on track to have a good year,” says Old Grey Fart, as lunch is served.  “Unless something crazy happens with the economy.”

“At least we’re better off with that wing-nut out of the White House,” Says What She Thinks says.  We’re a very blue state, so it’s not like she was taking a big chance with that expression of conventional disdain, but Old Grey Fart screws his lower jaw into one of his three chins and his face takes on an expression like he just saw a cockroach in his Cobb salad.

“Couldn’t complain about the economy under Trump,” OGF says, then sticks his fork in a hard-boiled egg like he’s bayoneting a dummy at Marine boot camp, where he spent the balmy days of his youth.

“A bad economy is usually good for me,” says Slow of Brain.  “When there’s less money to go around, everybody sues each other.”  In his world, this counts as edgy humor.

Afraid of His Shadow starts to cough–something went down the wrong way when he heard Slow of Brain break the A#1 inviolable rule of business lunches: Never, ever, ever say anything that sounds like you’re disagreeing with the business prospect.  I decide it’s time to jump in to save the day, although it doesn’t seem fair that this duty should fall on the shoulders of the brave named Doesn’t Give a Shit.

“Let’s talk about . . . kids!” I say brightly, knowing that this is the best way to end a business lunch on a friendly note.

“Mine’s in rehab,” says Says What She Thinks.

“I’m not married,” says Floppy Bow Tie.

“Kids are all grown,” says Old Grey Fart.

“Don’t have any,” says Head Ducked Low.

“I’ve got a twelve-year-old boy with incurable Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease,” says Slow of Brain, and everyone else murmurs condolences sotto voce.  “Unless a miracle drug is discovered, there’s little hope he’ll live past the age of 90.”

It’s Afraid of His Shadow’s Turn.  “Spencer just dropped out of college, says he wants to make stained glass windows.”

“Is there much of a market for that?” Old Grey Fart asks.

“Not since the Protestant Reformation, but he says he’s committed to”–Afraid of His Shadow gulps as he forms the next words with difficulty–“his art.”

“How about you?” Old Grey Fart says looking at me with an avuncular smile, even though I’m pretty sure he’s not my uncle.


“Hey–I already put my hand on that!”

I smile nervously.  I was the one who brought up the topic, but I . . . don’t really have much to say about it.

“My wife and I . . . we’ve decided that kids are just not in our future.”

Everyone nods politely, tactfully recognizing that this is very much a personal decision.

“It was a tough choice,” I continue. “We’re going to tell them at dinner tonight.”

Poetry on a Split Shift

The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule.  No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.

Jorge Luis Borges, lecture on Blindness, 1977

I should have known that my career as a singing waiter was doomed to failure.  I had the garcon chops, there was no denying that; I could remember four orders, with appetizers and salads, without touching the pencil behind my ear.  I could serve from the right and clear from the left.  I could even interrupt a conversation in an ingratiating manner to ask if anyone wanted coffee or dessert so as to speed folks out the door and increase my employer’s “gross” by faster “turnover,” to use the base lingo of the dining industry.  There was just one problem; I couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, much less a bucket.


“Breathes there a man with soul so dead/Who never to himself hath said . . .”

 

And so  I was bounced, given the old heave-ho, kicked down the stairs as so often happens to tone-deaf singing waiters.  And now I try to make ends meet in a less remunerative field.  As a poetry waiter.

Believe me, demand is low, so none of the poetry restaurants stay open all day.  If you’re stuck in the “Verse ‘n Veal” field, you’re gonna have to work a split shift; 10 to 2 for the lunch crowd, six to ten for dinner.  Nothing ruins your day like having to be on call as a poet for twelve hours, even though you only work eight.  You can’t go to the beach, you can’t take the road less traveled by, you can’t wander lonely as a cloud.  You can’t do nothing!  Your whole day is shot.

Plus the money is nowhere as good being a poet waiter instead of a singing waiter; poets for show, minstrels for dough, is what they been saying since the Middle Ages, which raises the question:  How did they know they were in the Middle of history way back when, with so much more time to pass?

No, if you want the big tips you’ve got to sing.  Tips for poet waiters start at 15% and maybe–maybe–get up to 18%.  If you’re lucky.  Singing waiters are to poet waiters what rock stars are to poets; the take from the t-shirt stand at a typical rock concert could buy you a half-dozen poets-in-residence at four-year liberal arts colleges.  Singing waiters expect 20% minimum, and if you short ’em the next time you come in with your secretary they sing “Your Cheating Heart.”

poetryslam
“You say you want scrod, no doubt about it/But I tell you you’re screwed pal, because we’re out of it.”

 

This morning was rough, some guy tried to trick me by ordering “the juice of an orange,” knowing there’s no word in the English language that rhymes with the last word in that line, but I took his best shot and counterpunched:  “You’ve ordered a glass filled with juice of an orange/Your voice–it squeaks like a rusty door hinge.”

His jaw dropped, nearly killing one of his pigs in a blanket.  He should have rewarded me for rhyming on my feet, but no, he dinged me, tipping only 17.99999%.  I suppose if I had world enough and time (hat tip to Andy Marvell!) and could carry that out to a million decimal places it might turn into 18%, but the universe is expanding, I haven’t got time.


Andrew Marvell: *urp*

 

The dinner crowd begins to filter in and I recognize my least favorite customers; its Judge Samuel Fishback and his wife Dottie, who writes occasional poetry for our local paper, The West Haven Teapot-Picayune.  Dottie’s a sweet gal but for all the Yankee swaps and hostess gifting back-and-forth she engages in, there’s one present she’s never received; the divine afflatus that would enable her to write an actual, you know, like poem, as opposed to some galumphing doggerel with a meter like a Packard sedan, umpty-dumpty-dumptying along a bumpy metric highway.


Packard: Poetry in motion, at rest.

 

The Judge, by contrast, is all prose, proving the falsity of Clarence Darrow’s gag “Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”  If there’s a wreck of a poet in his neighborhood it’s probably one he ran over in his late-model American-made sedan.  On purpose.

“Good evening,” I say after the hostess seats them, although it’s rarely a good evening with the Judge.  He generally has a whiskey sour first, then a whiskey sour second, then hits the chardonnay.  If he’s coming from his club he’s already had a beer or two, so by the time he sits down at Chez de la Maison Pommes Frites, he’s more stewed than the prunes in the assisted living center I hope he’s carted off to before long.

“Hello there!” Dottie replies with a beaming smile, while the Judge goes out of his way to give me a hearty “Hrumph.”  Must have broken 100 on the golf course.

“Written anything lately?” I ask Dottie as I fill up their water glasses.

“I certainly have!” she says as she reaches in her purse, pulls out her “readers” and a sheet of lilac-colored paper.  “Listen to this,” she says as clears her throat:

 


Dottie’s whimsical “readers.”

 

How lovely to be a poet,
I feel bless-ed every day,
That I can put down on paper
My thoughts so light and gay.

If really makes me feel sorry
for someone who isn’t bitten by the “bug”
of verse so pretty and beautiful,
it’s like I’m a butterfly and he’s a slug.

The unspoken accusation hangs heavy in the air, and I move to dispel it by launching into my heartfelt recitation of the evening’s specials.

We’ve got lobster risotto that’ll float your boat-o,
and a steak au poivre that’s to die for.
The cost for each is $19.95 in toto,
so the bill won’t be something you’ll cry for.

“Oh, you are so witty!” Dottie says, but I demur:  “Really, that was nothing,” and for once I’m being sincere.  “Are you ready to order or shall I give you a few minutes?”

“How about a drink?” the Judge asks, like a Bedouin parking his camel after a 40-day trek in the desert.

“Sure–the usual?”

“Yes, a whiskey sour, and I’ll have the sirloin with baked potato.”  That’s the Judge for you; just when you think he’s going to order the same old thing, he surprises you and orders the same old thing.

“Don’t you think you should have a salad?” Dottie asks with wifely concern.

“Rabbit food!” the Judge snaps.

“It helps to keep you regular,” she adds as she touches him ever so lightly on the arm.  I discreetly avert my eyes–never noticed that exposed beam ceiling before!

“All right,” the Judge says with grim resignation, as if he’s a prisoner on death row who only got his second choice for a final meal.

“Et vous?” I ask Dottie with what I hope is a lilt in my voice.  She often writes-up the Judge’s tip when he tries to stiff me.

“You mean ‘Et tu?’–don’t you?” she asks coquettishly.

“You’re bad!” I say, not meaning it.

“I’ll have a Rob Roy,” she says.  The Fishbacks are dues-paying members of the Society for the Preservation of Antiquated Cocktails.

“And for dinner?”

“The lobster risotto sounds lovely!” she says with a big smile.

“That’s funny, they’ve been cooking it all day and I haven’t heard a peep out of it!”

“You’re a stitch!” Dottie says.  She’s brought her folding fan, and she gives me a little love-tap on the wrist with it.  “And I’ll have a Caesar salad, hold the anchovies.”

“I tried holding them last night, but they complained I was getting fresh!”

“You!”

I go back to the kitchen and place the order, but the manager is giving me a big scowl.  “I heard that alleged poem you recited to them,” he says surlily, and try saying that five times fast.  “You’d better shape up.”

“Why?” I ask.  “Am I undermining the vibrant bohemian life of your little boit de nuite?”

“No, you dingbat–there’s a restaurant critic here tonight,” he says and he nods in the direction of a table off in a corner where I see–elena gotchko, my former girlfriend and editoress-in-chief of plangent voices, the little poetry rag that I started with her back when we were demon lovers.

“She’s not a restaurant critic,” I say.  “She’s a lower-case poetess, and an awfully bad one at that.”

“That’s not what she told me when she walked in.”

“Probably just trying to cadge a free meal.  There’s not a lot of money in poetry, as you well know from the low-three figure checks you write me every week.”

He sniffs, and not because he’s checking the lobster bisque.  “I pay the going rate, so get going,” he says, before turning on his heel and returning to his maître d’ station.

And so I’m forced to confront my past, and the awful years when I wandered in the poetic wilderness after elena ejected me from the plangent voices offices, displacing me with that awful buck-toothed Brit Bendall Hyde as Managing Editor.  I was a ship without a home port, thrown back upon my own devices, which were mainly handy counter-top appliances and stereo components.  I eventually clawed my way back to the top of highly low-paid world of highbrow quarterly poetry, to the point where I now have three–three!–tote bags from college literary magazines to choose from when I go shopping at our local natural food store.

But to paraphrase Santayana, those who do not confront their past are still doomed to run into their old girlfriend when they work a split-shift as a waiter in a restaurant, so it really doesn’t matter.  All I know is, I’m going to put on the best damn performance by a waiter-poet since e e cummings told a woman “86 on the noisettes de porc” at Le Bocage, the first classic French restaurant in Massachusetts.

It’s salads first, so I come out with the small tray, a Caesar and a “house” salad, so called because it tastes like it’s made with materials bought at Home Depot.  I cast a gimlet eye in elena’s direction and begin:

Here are your salads, I also brought pepper,
in a grinder as big as a bazooka.
Don’t take too much, cause the stuff’s got a punch
that will deck you like you’re a Palooka.

For some reason I’ve finally tickled the Judge’s fancy, and he starts to laugh, drawing the attention of several diners, including my beloved lower-case elena.  Maybe–just maybe–I can make her jealous enough to ask me back into her life and a cushy sinecure at plangent, as it’s known by writers who want to preserve every precious syllable.

Now it’s Dottie’s turn; it’s a bit like playing tennis against your grandmother, you have to humor her:

I don’t want pepper, you ought to know better,
my digestive system it does not please.
I would, on the other hand, greatly enjoy,
a little more parmesan cheese.

“Coming right up,” I say, and as I walk away I catch elena’s eye, which she’s cast in my direction.  I saunter over, even though she’s outside my “zone,” and try to chat her up amiably.

“Well hello stranger!” I say in a voice that could have been exorcised from a Chamber of Commerce Sergeant-at-Arms.  “Long time no see!”

elena was always, if anything, more of a bear about avoiding clichés and small talk than I, so she greets me with a sort of sneer/smile–a snile?  a smeer?–that could flash-freeze a quart of strawberries.

“hello,” she says, sticking to her self-conscious lower-case attitudinizing.  “will you be my server tonight?”

“Sorry, no,” I say with mock regret.  “Although you should be able to hear my extempore poetry from where you sit.”

“and why would I want to do that?” she asks bitterly.

“I’ve always wondered–if you’re such a non-conformist, why do you use punctuation marks?”

“You’re”–I had her so riled up she started off with a capital!  “you’re playing with text versus speech now, and don’t think i don’t know it.”

“nice to see you,” I say, mocking her no-capitalization affectation.

I head off to the kitchen, where the Fishbacks’ entrees are ready, but I’m suddenly faced with a poet’s predicament; how do you summon the muse to inspire you over–meat and potatoes?

“Table 3 up,” the chef says, and I gulp with dread.  Steak, bake, cake, drake, fake etc.  All pretty pedestrian.  There’s no way I’m going to knock elena’s self-consciously artistic vertical striped socks off with that selection of rhymes.  There’s only one thing to do.

“Hey chef!” I yell.

“Yeah?”

“Give me the cooking sherry!”

He plays dumb for a moment, but I know from experience that drink on the job is the occupation, not the occupational hazard, of a cook.

He hesitates, looks around to make sure the boss isn’t watching, then reluctantly and surreptitiously pulls a green bottle of rotgut fortified wine out from under the counter.

“Leave me some, okay?  It’s gonna be a long night,” he says.

“I will,” I reply, “but I’ll try to make your evening fly past faster with some alcohol-enhanced verse.”

“Whatever,” he says, and tourns back to a tournedos of beef.

I take a pull, as much as I can stand, and the varnish-like finish of the jerez hits my soft palate like dragster fuel spilling on asphalt.  I shake my head not to clear my brain, but to mix things up.  I cast a steely glance across the dining room, and launch my boat laden down with verse across the godawful carpet towards the Fishbacks.

Here’s your steak, I say to the judge,
please chew each morsel thoroughly,
or else to the emergency room you’ll fly
and we’ll bury you tomorrow, quite ear-i-ly.

The patrons gasp–have I been so gauche as to recite a poem that hints at the death of a diner?  The only way I can redeem myself is with a chivalric tribute to Dottie, the fair damsel who suffers under the Judge’s pig iron rule.

To you, Dottie, I now proclaim,
I’ve brought the lobster risotto.
You were supposed to get a side of manicotti,
but I decided on you I would dote-o.
You have such a slim, girlish figure, you know,
and it’s surely one worth preserving,
so ix-nay on the carbs is priority uno,
as your profile I’m fond of observing.

There are, of course, some philistines in the crowd who don’t get my innovative a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d rhyme scheme, but elena–who’s been limping along with her trademark a-a-b-b-c-c-d-d pattern for what seems like decades now, is suddenly all ears.  And other facial features, of course, but her lobes are throbbing, as they once did when I nibbled on them while we stood over a hot Xerox machine, churning out our first edition!

She rushes up to me and says “you–you’ve progressed quite a bit since . . . i dumped you,” with more than a trace of rue, I might add.

“Poetry is hard work,” I say, chucking her under the chin so our eyes can meet through her sloppy self-cut bangs.  “If . . . we got back together, perhaps we could pull our oars in tandem, like double-scullers.”

She’s about to melt in my arms when a projectile piece of meat hits me in the ear, expelled from the throat of the Judge by the force of Dottie’s Heimlich maneuver.  She looks at me over his shoulder now that the coast . . . and the Judge’s throat . . . is clear, and she appears more than a trifle–miffed.

“My husband could have died while you were goofing around!” she says.

“Sorry about that, he’s never had a problem before,” I say.  “Are you okay?” I ask His Honor.

“I am now but it was a close call,” he says.  “I should have known better.”

“why’s that?” elena asks.

“Because his poetry always makes me gag.”

 

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

As Roadside Elegies Spread, Cops Take on Poetry Duty

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. As the Thanksgiving vacation week began Lieutenant Jim Hampy of the Massachusetts State DMVD was patrolling the Metrowest area of Boston, on the lookout for college students home from school with too much time on their hands and beer in their bellies. “I’m not sure how much longer I can take this beat,” he says with resignation as he watches a carful of twenty-somethings beat a hasty retreat when they spot his car parked behind Ye Olde Package Store, a faux-Colonial retail liquor outlet that is the last place to buy booze before a driver goes through two “dry” towns. “The things you see out here–it’ll turn your stomach.”

Hampy decides not to give chase and takes a sip from his “lahge” Dunkin Donuts regular coffee. “I got bigger fish to fry tonight,” he says. “I been tailin’ a gang of girls for almost a year now. I got a suspicion they’ll be out in force, since they’re probably sick of their parents already.”

The instincts of the “statie,” as his adversaries in this cat-and-mouse game refer to him, prove correct as a Volvo blasts down the highway loaded to the gills with six girls, singing songs from their senior year in high school. “Suspects heading west on Route 20, send backup,” he says as he accelerates out of the parking lot, without, however, turning on his siren or flasher. “I don’t want ‘em to know I’m coming,” he says.

The girls have a quarter-mile lead that is lengthened when Hampy is forced to stop at a red light, but he seems unperturbed. “It’s okay, I want to catch ‘em in the act,” he says, and his game plan works to perfection as he pulls up at the dangerous intersection where the girls have set up a makeshift–and illegal–memorial in honor of Amanda Skrulnik, a classmate of theirs whose cheerleading career was tragically cut short when she broke her femur in a car crash last New Year’s Eve.


“I . . . I tried to rhyme ‘awesome’ with ‘possum.’”

“Those things are a fire hazard, and people could mistake them for a traffic signal,” he says unconvincingly, referring to the tall votive candles the girls have kept burning since that horrible night. As he cuts his headlights and cruises slowly to a stop, it becomes clear that safety concerns are secondary to him, however. “Worst of all is the poetry,” he says, shaking his head. “I hope no daughter of mine ever writes nothin’ as bad.”

He exits the car along with this reporter and makes his presence known to the girls, who are sobbing quietly. “Good evening ladies,” he says, and it is clear to this reporter that he maintains an air of professional calm only with difficulty. “I thought we reached an understanding there last summer,” he says, as he plucks a piece of paper from the paws of a stuffed animal at the roadside shrine and begins to read aloud, his voice at times betraying his overflowing emotions:

We really miss you, Dear Amanda,
On the sidelines where you cheered with flair.
We know your favorite animal was the panda
but we could only find this Teddy Bear.

Hampy looks at the girls one by one, as if scanning a police station lineup. “I want to know who wrote this,” he says gently but firmly. “Tracy? Lindsey? Chloe?”

The girls from the back seat are silent, so he continues. “Siobhan? Whitney? Courtney?”

The last-named friend finally cracks. “It wasn’t any one of us–it was all of us, a joint effort,” she says.

Hampy groans involuntarily. “Haven’t I told you–poetry is the product of a unique and individual vision. It’s not something you write by committee, like the mission statement of a non-profit that wants to rid the world of trans-fats. Now clean this up and go home.”

The girls are properly chastened and get to work at a routine they have down pat; extinguishing the flames, removing beads, stuffed animals and signs, and crumpling up their roadside elegies, as commanded by a duly-authorized officer of the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicle Doggerel.

On Saturday morning Hampy spoke is the speaker for a public service assembly at Pumpsie Green Consolidated Regional High School, lecturing a gym full of bored and inattentive kids about the dangers of roadside poetry. “For the first offense, all you got to do is take the Junior Operator Scansion Adjustment Seminar,” he says, drawing no reaction from the students. “It’s three Saturdays,” he adds, eliciting sighs and the rolling of many eyes.

“Second offense, you got to go to the Do Not Go Premature Into That Good Night Retreat.” The young men and women are paying attention now, as Hampy pauses for effect. “That’s a whole weekend.” Groans are heard from several students, but Hampy cuts them off to let them know it could get even worse.


“These are good kids–they just write crappy poetry.”

“Finally, after three violations or refusal to comply with prescribed meter or rhyme scheme mandated by court order, we impose the death sentence.”

“What’s that?” asks Wade Aucoin, a pimply 15-year-old in the first row of the bleachers.

“Permanent revocation of your poetic license.”

Available in Kindle format as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

The Old Curmudgeon Has a Lesbian Thanksgiving

It’s the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the only people you see coming into work in Boston are those who either have to be here–like me–or guys like my partner the Old Curmudgeon, whose wife can’t stand to have him around the house.

“Hey there, Bink,” I call to him as he approaches the elevator bank. He has a look of consternation on his face, a sign that the brooding omnipresence that is the American holiday spirit has descended upon him. “Family home for Thanksgiving?”


“When I was a young man your age I was already an old man.”

“Yes,” Bink says, his voice lowered for once to a volume slightly below that normally associated with the horn on a fishing boat coming into Chatham harbor.  I sense there’s trouble on the home front.

“How are the kids?” I ask, assuming he’ll take the easy way out and say “Good, good, couldn’t be better.”  That’s Bink for you; if he was incarcerated in Walpole State Prison he’d say the food was terrific and other than his 300-pound cellmate’s snoring things couldn’t be better.

“Todd’s fine,” he says, and tries to leave it at that, but I’m having none of it.  I’ve become Bink’s close confidante over the years thanks to my uncanny ability to read his mind when he’s most troubled.

“How about Sarah,” I ask.  “Is she a lesbian yet?”

Bink gulped audibly, but the noise he made was overpowered by the loud “DING!” that the elevator made when it arrived at the ground floor.

Image result for brooding female
In search of . . . something.

“Why do you say ‘yet’?” Bink asked, trying as best he could to communicate sotto voce.

“Well, last time she was home she told you she was a vegan, right?”

“Yes, so?”

“It’s a natural progression, as night follows day, like from Socialism to Communism.  As a matter of fact, I read somewhere that lesbians actively recruit at vegetarian restaurants, dropping flyers at the tray return.”


Try the prime rib of lentil.

That didn’t seem to mollify Bink, so I tried to soften the blow.  “It could be only temporary,” I said.

“Really?  Like a head cold?”

“No, it takes longer to get it out of your system, but she could be a LUG.”

“What’s a ‘LUG’?” Bink asked.

“A ‘lesbian until graduation,’” a young woman in the back of the elevator piped up.

“Thank you,” I said, and turned my head around as far as I could to offer her a smile.

A look of relief flowed down Bink’s formerly troubled countenance, like still waters after a summer squall. “So, at the same time that I’m writing her last tuition check, she’ll be . . . getting over this little fling?”

“And return to the comforts of Presbyterianism?  Probably not.”

“But there’s a chance?”

It was time I “pulled Bink’s coat tail,” to use a hepcat expression that’s fallen into premature desuetude.  “There’s nothing wrong with the Sapphic rites,” I said, appealing to the classical erudition I know Bink picked up in prep school.  “Did you know I was married by a lesbian?”

“How is that possible?” he asked, confounded by an image he’d formed in his mind of some acrobatic contortions.

“He said married by a lesbian,” a bicycle messenger with dread locks said.  “Not to a lesbian.”

“Oh,” Bink said, a trifle embarrassed.  He’s losing his hearing.

“She was the real deal,” I said, reminiscing fondly over the woman who’d married me to my wife 35 years ago this month.  “Clunky boots, mullet–the whole nine yards.”

“That’s a stereotype,” the young woman in the back pronounced with authority.

“Sorry, I guess we got the last one they made before they broke the mold.  Anyway,” I continued, turning back to Bink, “there’s a long and proud tradition of lesbianism in the art form I care so deeply about.”


Sappho

“That boogie-woogie or whatever they call it?”

“The blues, man,” the bike messenger said, even though my guess was the kid probably thought that Eric Clapton was the greatest blues guitar player ever.

“Close enough,” I said to Bink.  I need to stay on his good side with year-end bonuses coming up.  “Like for example, did you know Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey . . .”

“Who’s she?”

“Only the Queen of the Blues.”

“Never heard of her.”

“She used to swing both ways.”


Ma Rainey

“Is that a–what do you call them–double entendre?” Bink asked.

“Yes, but it shouldn’t be too hard to decipher,” I said.  “She sang ‘It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, talk to the girls just like any old man.‘”

“Hmph,” Bink hmphed.  “Dinah Shore never sang about that.”


“Holding Hands at Midnight”–that’s all the further you’ve gone?

“And then there’s Alberta Hunter.”

“Don’t believe I know her.”

“For my money,” I began.

“You don’t have as much money as me . . .”

“.  .  . but you’ll fix that at the end of the year, right?  Anyway, for my money, the best version of Sweet Georgia Brown ever.”


Alberta Hunter

“So what?” Bink asked, sincerely missing the point.

“One woman singing about another and how ‘sweet’ she is?” I replied.

“Okay,” Bink said.  I noticed he wasn’t taking copious notes, the way he used to advise me to do whenever he’d drag me along to a meeting when I was a mere neophyte to his hierophant.  “Anybody else?”

“Well, there’s Bessie Smith.”

“She royalty too?”

“The Empress of the Blues.”

“What did she sing?”

“That ‘Boy in the Boat’ song I taught you,” referring to a female organ that is the seat of exotic stimulation and which–as the song says–vaguely resembles a boy in a rowboat.  “Remember how it goes?”

Bink searched his memory for a bit and then, like the Moodus Noises, a strange sound began to emerge from his cavernous corpus:

“When you see two women walking hand in hand . . .”

“Um hmm . . . ” I hummed.

“Just look ‘em over and try to understand–“

“Oh yeah!”

“They’ll go to those parties—have the lights down low . . .”

“Sing it, brother!”

“One of those parties, where only women can go . . .”

We finished in unison: “I’m talkin’ bout that boy in the boat.”

There was a moment of silence in the elevator, not unlike that which follows a deeply moving string quartet at Symphony Hall here.  Finally, as the bell rang for our floor and I started to get off with Bink, the young woman in the back of the elevator spoke up.

“It’s really nice that you guys are businessmen,” she said with a wistful note in her voice.

“Why’s that?” Bink asked, glad to know that someone appreciated his change of heart.

“Cause neither one of you can sing for shit.”

The Socialist Dictator Haircare Department

          A movie producer who gelled his hair upwards sat through a lunch with Fidel Castro during which the Cuban leader spoke without interruption for three hours.  When Castro finally stopped talking, he looked at the guest from Hollywood and asked “How do you get your hair to stand up that way?”

Review of “The Best Table in Hollywood,” The Wall Street Journal.

Image result for fidel castro speech
“You should rinse with cold water, you know.”

 

I had come to Russia–me, Walter Duranty of The New York Times–to take the measure of the man born Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, but known to all simply as Stalin; the smallpox-scarred, taciturn, phlegmatic former peasant who could, with just a withering sidewise glance, condemn a million human beings to death.  I recall one of his favorite wisecracks–“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic“–what a nut!  I had to meet this guy.

Of course The Times, then as later, was known for its tendentiousness; its ability to slant the facts in the setup, the “lede” as honest journalists put it, and then report the facts to meet its theory.  So many stories were just too good to check out!

As I entered his grand office–no skimping for this son of the proletariat–I felt the full force of his will, the indomitable urge to conquer that gave rise to his cult of personality.  I have to admit, I trembled a bit, knowing that I was in the presence of a guy who would be responsible for more deaths than Hitler, but would still get a free pass because–well, because he claimed to be for the people!

 

Image result for stalin
“Dear Diary:  Slow day today, only killed a couple hundred thousand.”

 

I cleared my throat to let the great man know I was there, and he looked up from the daily reports: 120,000 enemies of the people, 250,000 Trotskyites, a quarter million Poles–slow day at the office.

“Yes?” he asked with a pregnant pause.

“General Secretary Stalin, my name is Walter Duranty.”

“From The New York Times?”

“Yes.”

“Sit down,” he said with an almost gracious air.  “I can never figure out that damned crossword.”

“It’s the best in the world,” I said with no small amount of institutional pride.

Stalin’s face darkened, and I began to fear for my life.  Had I said something too proud, too egotistical?

“Your hair,” he said with squinted eyes after a few moments.  “Do you use creme rinse, or is it always that smooth and silky?”

…………………………………………………

Image result for kim jong il
“Check out the 2-for-1 sale at Lenscrafters!”

 

As I entered Pyongyang, I couldn’t help but admire the magnificent progress that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea had made despite the efforts of imperialist powers such as the United States of America to bring it to its knees.  Sixty percent of the people had access to modern sanitation facilities–take that Arkansas!  The average life expectancy was 69.8, only two decades less than Americans!  I sensed that this proud people had turned the corner under the benign despotic rule of Kim Jong-un, Glorious Sun and Room Air Conditioner of Mankind!

But I wanted to see for myself, I wasn’t just going to take the word of a former NBA All-Star such as Dennis Rodman.  No, I wouldn’t be swayed by the Hall of Famer’s average rebounds per game.  If you’re a real journalist, you’ve got to kick the tires on a story, check out the plush leather interior and push hard to get the saleman to throw in floor mats.

Image result for kim jong il rodman
“Right now they’re running the flex offense, so I’d dress in a skirt-and-sweater set.”

 

I stood at the shoulder of the Second Supreme Leader and tried to ease my way into his line of sight as he watched the entire Korean People’s Army eat civilians to ease their hunger pangs.  It was painful to watch–there was so little meat on the bones of those who hadn’t volunteered for military service.

Kim, or Jong-un, I can never remember which is the first name, turned when he heard me sigh with compassion.  He smiled at me, then looked upwards.

“Sweet,” he said after taking in my “Mainstream Hipster” do.  “I wish I could get my hair to do that!”

Image result for mainstream hipster

……………………………………………….

As night fell, the German countryside began to glow with the light of a thousand candles.  Another fun National Socialist German Workers’ Party pep rally!  I had won one of the coveted seats on stage with Der Fuhrer his own bad self for turning in double my weekly quota of Jews, homosexuals, Poles and Masons.  Not to brag or anything, but I truly felt I deserved the honor.  Have you ever tried to round up twenty-five Masons?  It’s not easy, what with those little scooters they ride.

Image result for nazi night rally
“Excuse me–you’re in my seat.”

I cut short my internal musings when the Reich Chancellor–the man to whom all of us pasty-faced Aryans owed the revival of our race–started to bound up the steps like a talk-show host after a warm-up man.  The guy was a natural entertainer, fiddling with every detail down to the precise start times of our rallies, to make sure we were enveloped in a dream-like state of darkness as he reached down into the deepest, darkest recesses of his psyche from the podium.

Image result for hitler
“Really?  You like it this way?  Thanks!”

 

He was about to pass me when he stopped, as if struck by something he’d caught the barest glimpse of.  That’s the kind of all-seeing, all-knowing power that coursed through his frame!  He turned and looked at me, cocked his head back a bit for better perspective, and then spoke the words that I’ll be recounting to my grandchildren once the Thousand Year Reich prevails:

Image result for iron hair

“Your hair,” he said, almost dreamily.  “Do you iron it yourself, or do you have your roommate do it for you?”

Robovac Owners Share Pain, Pride of Inanimate Pets

WAYLAND, Mass. After divorcing her husband of thirteen years last fall, tech entrepreneur Beth Marquis knew she needed a new source of companionship in her life, but wasn’t sure she was ready for a dog. “I like to walk around Dudley Pond,” she says, “and carrying a steaming bag of poop with you can be a turn-off for some guys.”


Don’t admire the view, or you’ll step in something.

 

So Beth opted instead for a RoboVac, a robotic floor vacuum that was designed for those with little time or inclination to spend cleaning, but which has evolved into a low-maintenance pet for many who don’t like the smell of wet cat food, much less cleaning litter boxes.


RoboVac: “Down, boy!”

 

“We started getting calls from pet stores instead of appliance retailers,” says marketing director Les Thurston. “The proverbial light bulb went on over our heads, which was a good thing because the non-proverbial fluorescents in the office were starting to flicker.”


“I think she’s got some thistle stuck in her intake valve.”

 

The company’s intuition led to a marketing plan that includes “meet ups” by RoboVac owners organized according to zip codes, and activities both indoor and outdoor designed to improve brand recognition, foster customer loyalty, enhance shareholder value and further other corporate ting-tang walla-walla bing-bangs.

This Sunday finds a group of eight men and women of varying ages shuffling through fallen leaves in the woods west of Boston, accompanied by their RoboVacs, which chug along for as much as a mile before their batteries must be re-charged. “Your little guy is so cute!” says Evelyn Dworski to Bob Felsnap, whose RoboVac Jr.–dubbed “Bob Jr.”–is all he needs to take care of his 750 square-foot bachelor pad.

“Thanks,” he says. “Is yours the Weekender?” he asks, referring to a second-generation model with an oversize dust bin. “Yep,” says Evelyn. “I call her Buelah–she’s like the maid I hope to be able to afford someday.”

Bob and Evelyn continue chatting while their “units” check each other out, circling and nuzzling each other’s large contact-sensing bumpers. “It is so pretty when the leaves turn color,” Evelyn says as she checks her reflection in Bob’s oversize sunglass lenses. “It makes you feel so–pure, and fresh and . . .”

She stops and cocks her ear to an indistinct sound heard just off the trail. “What’s that grinding?” she asks. “I don’t know,” he says. She looks off into the woods and sees “Bob Jr.” mounting “Buelah” from behind, trying to engage her female outlet.

“BAD vacuum cleaner, BAD!” Evelyn shouts as she rushes to protect her appliance, which does not have an extended service plan.

“Sorry, Evelyn,” Bob says with embarrassment. “I guess I left him on the charger too long last night.”

As Thanksgiving Nears MFAs Fear Families’ Awkward Questions

MEDFORD, Mass.  Isabella Gostini is a semester away from receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Tufts University, but a look at her face for signs of relief after nineteen years of formal education reveals only angst.  “This is just a terrible time of the year for all of us,” she says as she takes in her fellow MFA students sitting at a table in an off-campus coffee shop.  “Every day we’re here with the best and the brightest of our generation, and at Thanksgiving we go home to our relatives.”

Image result for worried woman
“Should I lie and tell them it’s an MBA program?”

Gostini and her friends are representative of their fellow students nationwide, who pay enormous sums of money for advanced degrees only to face a tight market for low-paying jobs.  “Last year my Uncle Ned said it was like a reverse lottery ticket,” says Nora Holcomb, who is only three clinical credits away from an MFA degree in Puppetry.  “’High cost, low payout,’ he said but dammit, puppets are important!”

The US has been remarkably free of the turmoil that has roiled European nations as young people prolong their entry into the job market while they pursue worthless advanced liberal arts degrees, but some say a day of reckoning is coming.  “A day of reckoning is coming,” says Dean Otto Coffin of the College of the Northwest, who counsels students in the low-residency poetry MFA offered by his institution at various locations around Oregon, including a strip mall in Eugene.  “These kids sacrifice so much, except for the ones who were unemployable to begin with.”

Image result for student union
“I think I’ll go check the job postings at the Placement Office, then slit my wrists.”

Some MFAs have discussed a “March on Washington for Jobs, Dignity or Whatever” in the spring of 2023, but others say they feel more comfortable parsing poems that practicing politics.  “I think I’ll pass,” said Ray DeLaMontaigne who is midway through his first year at Brainerd College’s MFA program in theatre arts.  “While everybody else is marching or riding the bus back and forth to D.C. I’ll have unlimited access to the photocopier in the Placement Office.”

But before that day comes, MFAs-in-process and newly-minted have to face intrusive questions next week when they get together with relatives who don’t understand the value of a degree in the fine arts to an economy that runs on productivity, not creativity.  “I guess it will pay off for you,” says Bob Holcomb, Nora’s father, as he writes her last tuition check.  “You can entertain people with your puppets while you’re standing in the unemployment line.”

The Bodice Ripper-Free School Zone Act

               A Massachusetts elementary school principal has been accused of promoting her steamy romance novel on school premises and reassigning a teacher who complained about it to detention hall.

                                                                                             The Boston Herald

As I approached the forbidding edifice that is Tony Conigliaro Consolidated Elementary School, my heart sank from its perch just above the ruffled v-neck of my blouse to a point slightly below my spleen, which is a vascular, ductless organ whose principal functions are the storage of blood and production of lymphocytes.

The simple brick building had become an object of simultaneous attraction and repulsion for me, like a science class magnet.

It is too painful a tale to tell–and yet I must!  It was here that I first saw Vincent de Gama, suave and swarthy teacher of health and physical education, and head coach of the boys’ basketball and girls’ volleyball teams.  When we met–as was fated by the stars!–our eyes locked in a look that lent lustre to my previously lackluster life.  And yet how could I–an elementary school principal with my own set of keys to the entire building!–consort with an earthy son of toil from the classes beneath me?

“Halt!” I heard someone say, and I was recalled from my romantic reverie by the sight of a red hexagonal-shaped Stop! sign staring me in the face.  The voice beneath it belonged to Timmy Dunham, Sergeant of the school Crossing Guard Corps, a solid, dependable yet humdrum 6th grader who has been wooing me–unsuccessfully–since kindergarten.


“Timmy and teacher, sittin’ inna tree.  K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”

 

“You almost stepped off the curb without looking both ways, Ms. Esposito,” he said, cocking his head slightly and arching one eyebrow to let me know he was letting me off with a warning against his better judgment.  “I could write you up for that, but . . .”

“You don’t have to tell me why you are being so kind, Timothy,” I said consolingly.  “I know the secret you hold deep within you, like a science project turtle taken home over Christmas vacation and kept in the basement of your heart, far beneath the placid surface of the peach-fuzzy face that you show to a world that could never understand the turmoil within you.”

“Have you made a decision about who’s gonna be Crossing Guard Captain next year?” he asked, his voice burdened by an ill-concealed longing for my approval.

“No, Timmy,” I said as he wiped the snot from a runny nose on the sleeve of his jacket.  “But you’re a heartbeat away from the Captain’s badge right now, so I consider you the front-runner.”

“Gee thanks!” he exclaimed.  He looked up into my eyes–how tragic was his longing for me!–then turned and, with military-like precision, performed the task for which he had been so well trained; holding his sign up until cars slowed, stepping into the crosswalk, then beckoning me–how sweetly, how innocently!–to follow him to the other side.

“Thank you, Timmy,” I said as I reached the curb.  My heart ached for the suffering he must endure each day to see me in thrall to a man many years his senior–and yet isn’t that how love is, always and everywhere!  We want what we cannot have–we have what we do not want.

My personal do-not-want list began and ended with Horace Grammar, a history teacher who had once lured me to his studio apartment on the pretext of a “faculty sherry hour.”  I had spurned his advances when I discovered his collection of Spanish Inquisition “Instruments of Confession,” and beat a hasty retreat for which he has never forgiven me.

As I made my way up the steps I heard a huffing and puffing sound behind me.  It was Vincent–sweaty and oozing pheromones from every pore!

“Good morning, Vincent,” I said in the most sultry tone I could muster at 7:15 a.m.  “I see you continue to keep your body in excellent shape.”

“We . . . are . . . here on this earth . . . for but a brief moment, Madame Principal,” he said between hurried breaths.  “I need to keep my heart strong.”

“Yes,” I replied, as breathlessly as him.  “You must have a strong heart.  As strong as the onions on the liver that is today’s entree in the cafeteria,” I said, lowering my eyes seductively.  “Can I count on . . . sitting beside you today?”

“I . . . I would like to, Madame Principal,” my vassal stammered.  “But I must use what few minutes I have away from my classes to diagram pick-and-roll plays for this Sunday’s game against the Tipton Bluebirds.”

“They are . . . formidable, this team?”

He shook his head grimly.  “They make a mockery of the ’slaughter’ rule, which says no fast breaks or full-court presses when your team is up by 20 points.”

I could see that he was troubled.  A man’s life–what does a woman understand of it?  The smell of youthful jock straps, so often used, so rarely washed!  I extended my hand and placed it upon his strong bicep, hardened by many after-school push-up contests.

“You will do well, mon cher,” I said.  I inhaled the cheesy, peppery scent of his armpits through his ultra-wicking, skin-tight bicycle jersey.  “Here,” I said, reaching into my oversize handbag.  “Take this.”

“What is it?” he asked, the pages of a paperback that I gave him warping from the warm moisture of his hands.

“It is the key to my heart–’Forget Me, My Love!’, my self-published novel of doomed romance, with steamy sex scenes that leave nothing–and I mean nothing–to the imagination.”

He looked down at the book, then up again to me.  “I . . . I don’t know how to thank you.”

I fluttered my eyelashes at him, playing the coquette.  “I will think of something,” I said, leaning closer, hoping to form an image that would remain before his mind’s eye until it came time for the faculty chaperones to have the last dance at the 7th Grade Sock Hop in a few weeks.

“Hey, you two!”  It was Grammar, ubiquitious as always, descending upon us like Cotton Mather enforcing Puritannical laws against fornication.

“No fraternizing,” he said as he approached at a rapid pace.  “And what’s this?” he asked as he ripped my bodice-ripper from Vincent’s hands.  “There isn’t any sex in this, is there?”

“I suppose if anyone would know if there wasn’t any sex involved in something, it would be you,” I spat out at him with contempt.

“C’mon, give me a chance, would you?” he whined, casting a jealous eye at the well-chiseled body of my beloved.  “You don’t set a very good example for the girls when you throw yourself at a dumb jock like this clod!”

Vincent drew himself up to his full 5′11″.  I watched as he flared his nostrils, a sure sign that he was about to attack, if I remembered the zoology segment we had in earth science correctly.

“Why you little pencil-necked geek,” he said, drawing back his clenched fist like an archer drawing his bow.  “If I weren’t a phys ed teacher, I might understand what you just said!”

“Please, Vincent–do not resort to violence!” I implored him.

“Why not?”

“Because if you do, under Section 3.2(c)(iv) of the Faculty Handbook I’ll have to put you on administrative leave for five (5) school days–and I couldn’t stand to be apart from you for more than four (4)!”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”