Me and Barney the Purple Dinosaur

The weekend is my time to give back to my community and my favorite institution within it–our local public library. I remember when I was young how much I loved Story Hour on Saturday morning. Kids would assemble in the library basement to hear a story read to us by Miss Sharp, the lavendar-scented bibliophile who was the gentle cop of the Children’s Room beat; shushing us when our volume exceeded a library-voice level, looking the other way when we returned “The Witchcraft of Salem Village” two days late, cutting one’s chewing gum out of one’s sister’s hair when one stuck it there. She was special.

“A book is your friend, you wouldn’t wipe a booger on your friend–please don’t wipe your booger on a book.”

I’m not reading a story today, however. My job is to pick up Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his first wife Baby Bop, who will be participating in a “Use Your Imagination!” session for the kids of our town. If you have children under the age of say thirty-five I’m sure you know Barney, the sickly sweet tyrannosaurus rex who first appeared on public television in 1992.

Barney’s 50 in t-rex years this summer, and his career has been on the skids since his show went on “hiatus” in 2009. Since then, he’s joined the ranks of the “working famous”; actors from cancelled sitcoms, one-hit wonder bands and comedians who’ve been on The Tonight Show a few times but haven’t made it big. For a while he was able to eke out a pretty good living doing so-called “skip and wave” shows at big venues like the Boston Garden, but it was a grind. Two performances a day, then hit the road to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or wherever he was scheduled to appear next.

But those gigs looked good when he was downgraded to the “B” circuit in smaller auditoriums like The Centrum in Worcester, Mass. The money wasn’t as good, and he was forced to scale back, selling his condo in Cambridge, Mass. right across the river from the studios at WGBH, the public TV station in Boston that gave him his first break in educational show biz. He now lives in a crummy two-bedroom apartment in Allston, a grimy neighborhood in Boston that is best described as a college student ghetto.

I pull up to Barney’s “triple-decker,” a somewhat run-down example of the three-floored apartment buildings that make up much of Boston’s older housing stock. On the front porch I see Baby Bop, the thirty-five year old triceratops who rose to fame with Barney, then divorced him when his personal life spun out of control. They have recently reconciled, but “Babe,” as we all knew her back in the day, says she’s not getting hitched again.

“Hey,” she says as she comes around to my driver’s side window. “I wanted to get to you before you rang the doorbell.”

“He’s hung over again?”

“Yep. He’s having a cup of black coffee and a donut. He needs to shave, but at least he’s up.”

It’s sad to watch a great artist in decline, but youth is fleeting, and with it the fickle favors of pre-school fans.

The other Purple One.

I look up and see The Purple One–not Prince, Barney–come out the front door. He’s always been a trouper–I shouldn’t have doubted for a second that he’d make it.

“Hey Barn–what’s shakin’?” I say.

In happier times.

He winces visibly. “Keep your voice down, would you?” he says as he gets in the “shotgun” seat for the drive down the Mass Pike.

“You . . . party like it was 1999 last night?” I ask, teasing him gently.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, holding his head.

“We had half a liter of tonic left,” Baby Bop says. “He’s so cheap, he didn’t want it to go flat, so he had three more G&T’s.”

“Ouch. I did that one time, but I was going away for a week. Totally missed my plane the next morning,” I say, trying to commiserate.

“Am I talking to myself, or did you not understand what I said before.”

“Sor-ree!” I say, and drive in silence.

Thankfully, the toll booths on the MassPike have been replaced by electronic toll monitors so Barney doesn’t have to hear me throwing quarters in the metal bucket. When we’re out on the highway, he falls back against his window, sound asleep, and Baby Bop and I have a chance to catch up.

Screwed, just like Barney

“How’s he doing?” I ask.

“Still bitter. He never got a dime’s worth of royalties from the licensing deals.”

“Like all the old doo-wop groups, huh.”

“Yep. I’m trying to hold things together for him, but it’s been hard.”

“You’re a saint,” I say, and she gives my hand a squeeze.

“I love him, what can I say,” she says with lump in her throat.

The big guy stirs as we hit the Weston exit.

“Sorry, pal, I had to change lanes and slow down,” I say.

He grumbles a bit, but he appears refreshed. “I just needed a little cat nap,” he says as he stretches. “What god-forsaken hell hole am I performing in today?”

“You’re not going into the children’s room of my local library with that kind of attitude, you dig?”

“‘You dig?’” Barney says, mocking me in the sing-song hyuck-yuck-yuck voice that is part of his stage shtick. “What are you, a beatnik?”

“Just trying to get my point across,” I say, but I figure it may be time for an intervention. I know from personal experience that there’s nothing that works better with someone who’s slid into cynicism, as I did in my twenties, than to confront them with the facts, as directly as possible. “Why are you so bitter?” I ask.

Moi–bitter?” he says, a look of offended dignity on his face, but I know it’s just a pose. He knows he’s bitter–and he doesn’t care.

“Who wouldn’t be bitter?” he says after a beat. “‘Use your imagination!’ That’s what I get paid to say, one Saturday story hour after another. But you should take a look at the parents who’ll show up today. If any of them ever used their imagination, they’d call their accountant first to see if it was deductible, then their HMO to see if the imagination is covered in case they sprain it. They so rarely use them, they know they’re out of shape.”

I consider this, and have to admit he has a point. “There’s nothing stopping you from changing your act,” I say. “We have a pretty good library–lots of poetry, both print and audio books. The newer fiction is mainly best-sellers, but you can find the high brow stuff shelved by author in the Literature section.”

“You’re wrong–I returned ‘Invisible Man’ last Saturday–plenty of time to spare.”

He purses his lips as if he’s actually thinking about this, and looks out his window wistfully. “You just may have a point,” he says. “I guess it’s partly my fault, not adapting my act to changing tastes over the years.” He pulls out a pack of Newport Lites and pushes in my cigarette lighter.

“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke in my car,” I say.

“We’re on local roads, I’ll roll my window down,” he says as he fires up. “It relaxes me before I go on.”

I turn onto the road by the reservoir, hang a left past the community farm, then pull into the parking lot.

“This is it. It’s not Madison Square Garden, but the road back has to start somewhere,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, and he is transformed suddenly from the crabby mope he’s been for most of the ride into the consummate performer that he is. Think Elvis in Vegas, Richard Pryor on Sunset Strip. I can tell from his stride past the book return box that his hair’s on fire and he’s ready to burn the place down, as we say in show biz.

We stop in the vestibule where we’re met by Patricia Dineen, head librarian. She can’t restrain herself from the sort of star-struck gushing that Barney gets wherever he goes. “I’ve been a big fan of yours forever,” a dubious claim since she’s a fifty-year-old who would have been in grad school when Barney first came on the air. “Would you mind autographing something special for me?”

“Write ‘To Trish–my favorite head librarian.’”

“Sure,” Barney says. He holds out his hand, expecting maybe a VHS tape of “Barney & Friends,” when he sees Dineen lift up her blouse to reveal a white camisole.

Barney looks at me, and I shrug my shoulders with a look that says “The customer’s always right,” but Baby Bop intervenes.

“I have some autographed 8 1/2 x 11 glossies–take one,” she says sharply, then pushes Barney forward to a waiting crowd of fifty or so infants and toddlers.

“Yay–Barney!” one little boy screams, touching off a near riot. The kids crowd around, and it is all that Baby Bop and I can do to form a flying wedge and push our way up to the dais. I feel like a Hell’s Angel at Altamont.

“I love you . . . you love me!”

Barney launches right into his act, assisted by a boom box with his sound track that Baby Bop takes with them on the road. He has the kids clapping and singing along and, after he brings his big hit “I Love You, You Love Me” to a conclusion, he turns it down a notch for the spoken word segment–the important part of the program.

“You know boys and girls, you don’t need a TV or video games to have fun.”

“We don’t?” a precocious little boy down front asks.

“Nope. Each one of you has something more precious than any electronic gizmo, right in . . . here.” He taps his big purple head on the temple.

“What is it?” a girl asks.

“It’s your imagination. You can use your imagination to go anywhere you want. When your friends are off skiing at Gstaad over Christmas break, or on Nantucket for the whole month of August, and you’re stuck here in town–just use your imagination and it will take you anywhere you want to go!”

The kids are spellbound. Nobody’s ever put it to them this way–no one’s ever even taken the time to try. They hustle around like FedEx delivery men from soccer, to piano lessons, to hockey, to Scouts, to play dates. Nobody’s ever told them they can sit on their butts like zoned-out drugheads and just . . . imagine things.

And then comes the turning point–the moment when Barney transformed himself from the Jerry Lewis of the kids comedy circuit, all sappy, treacly schmalz, into its Lenny Bruce. “And you,” he says, turning to the parents. “You can use your imaginations too, if you have any left after all the getting and spending you do.” I’m impressed. I didn’t know Barney knew any Wordsworth.

The moms and dads in the back row shift uncomfortably, not used to having their lifestyles put under the microscope by a fuzzy purple dinosaur. “When have you ever picked up something totally crazy, like Edgar Allan Poe, when you came to the library with your kids? No, it’s stupid sports biographies for the men, and for the women, chick lit that’s one step up–and a very little one at that–from bodice rippers.”

There is a murmur of dissent from the adults, but no one wants to prolong the discomfort, so they say nothing that can be heard down front.

Joris-Karl Huysmans

“Try a little J-K Huysmans, fer Christ sake,” Barney says. “That’s using your imagination. Or how about Les Fleurs du Mal, by Baudelaire. That’ll rock your world in a way that Jodi Picoult won’t.”

I had no idea that the Barn Man had become such a litterateur in his years of obscurity. I guess he had more time to read without a one-hour episode to tape every week.

“Yes, Barney, thank you for calling attention to our somewhat underutilized Literature collection,” Dineen says, trying to pour some oil on troubled waters. “Why don’t I lead the parents on a tour of the stacks while you continue with the children?” She may be star-struck, but she’s still got her sensible shoes on.

The parents nod in agreement and follow the librarian out of the room, and Barney quickly downshifts to the happy-talk patter he’s perfected over the past two decades.

Baby Bop gives me a look of relief, and we step outside into the sunlight.

“Does he go off like that very often?” I ask.

“Not since he’s back on his medication,” she says.

“What’s that?”

“Nesquik Chocolate Milk, in the convenient one-pint Grab ‘n Go bottle.”

Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

At the Children’s Poetry Milk Bar

It was late Friday when I got the news–a brief email from the editor of Happy Heart Magazine, a new kid on the block of children’s poetry.  They made a big splash when they arrived on the scene a few months ago.  If your poem was accepted, not only would you get a free copy of the issue in which it appeared, you’d also get a set of Happy Heart stickers to put on your lunch box or bike.  With that kind of swag at stake, it took me about as long as the batting of a gnat’s eyelash to submit “Fuzzy Buzzy Bumble Bee,” a one-quatrain work I’d been shopping around without success to the big boys and girls; Jack & Jill, My Little Messenger, the children’s poetry-industrial complex, as I like to call them.

Image result for kids stickers

I thought I had an angle with Happy Heart–they were a Christian children’s poetry magazine, unlike the heathen rags they competed with.  As a former altar boy, winner of the little statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary for highest score in catechism three years in a row, I figured that I had a shot for once.  I may have outgrown all the religious dogma I absorbed as a credulous youth, but I could put on the surplice of the sacred the way other poets do when they want to upgrade their status from Dissolute Young Poet to Thoughtful Old Guy Who Needs a Poet-in-Residence Gig to Coast Through His Golden Years.

But the email from Veronica–whose pink ink email signature, as you might have guessed, dotted her “i” with a little heart–dashed my dreams to the ground.  “It was a tough decision,” the editor wrote, “but I don’t think it is a good fit for this issue.”

Not a good fit?  What am I, I asked myself–a freaking shoe salesman?  As always I was tempted to fire back, but I bit my tongue–or rather my typing finger–and just wrote “Thanks for getting back to me so promptly.  I will surely submit something during Happy Heart’s next submission period!”

You bitch.

I inhaled deeply, then exhaled the same amount of air.  I didn’t want to over-inflate just because my internal pressure gauge was feeling low.  And then I did what I always do when I get a rejection from a children’s poetry rag–which is quite often, in case you were wondering.  I put on my coat and headed out to The White Pony, the favorite watering hole of children’s poets in Boston.

The White Pony, like most bohemian joints, is a low dive that likes it that way.  You go down a flight of stairs–fully out of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act–then you enter a dark cavern of despair, where guys like me who have just about given up hope of ever having a children’s poem published drink milk products that disagree with our aging digestive systems until the bitter end.

Richard Yates


I recalled Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road and several other critically-acclaimed novels, none of which sold more than 12,000 copies and all of which were out of print when he died.  He drank himself to death in a bar on Beacon Street, frustrated by his lack of success.  Every so often as I stand on the threshold of The White Pony I ask myself if I’m going to end up like him, but the milkaholic’s self-deception always overcomes my hesitation.  “It’s just milk,” I say to myself.  “I can quit anytime I want.”

I walk slowly down the stairs, making my way cautiously so my eyes can adjust to the gloom, holding onto the hand rail like it’s the Titanic, or maybe the Hindenburg.  “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” a tongue-in-cheek sign invoking Dante’s Inferno hangs over the door, right above the one that says “Watch your head.”

Image result for white horse tavern

I scan the bar and see my old pal “Smitty,” Dustin Cravath Smith.  A scion of old New York money, he doesn’t have to worry about paying his bills.  He’s the William Burroughs to my Allen Ginsberg; he can fool around with silly stuff because he gets a check from Mommy and Daddy every month, while I have to hustle, cranking out greeting card poems to make ends meet:

I’m sorry to hear about your loss,
it really makes me sad,
but because your mom re-married after the divorce
you’ve still got one more dad.

Stuff like that.  Yeah, it corrupts the soul, but I have to keep body and soul together.

“Hello stranger!” Smitty calls out, and I take the open bar stool next to him.  He may be annoying but he’s always good for a free drink or six.  “What’ll ya have?” he says, trying to sound casual in order to scuff up the sheen of his otherwise high-WASP diction.

“The usual,” I say with a nod to the bartender.

Image result for nestle's strawberry quik

“Nestle’s Strawberry Quik?”

” . . . and make it a double.”

A drink appears in front of me–they know me well here–and I salute my patron.  “Here’s looking at you,” I say.

“Here’s milk in your eye,” Smitty shoots back.  “So why the long face?” he asks.

“Another rejection.”

“Too bad.  Who this time?”

“Happy Hearts.”

“Never heard of ’em.  Don’t take it so hard.”

“I can’t help it.  I thought because they were new, and were a ‘Christian’ rag, I might have a shot since all my competitors are pagans and infidels.”  As I said this I took in the room with a wave of my arm, the one that wasn’t holding my drink.

“Perhaps they sensed a certain mauvais foi in your work.”

“Meaning what?”

“Bad faith.  You couldn’t give a rat’s ass about religion.”

Image result for depressed men in bar

“Jesus fucking Christ, I’m more religious than everybody else in this joint put together.”

I had raised my voice a little too much, and the assembled company of losers glared at me.

“Self-awareness lack you,” Smitty said in his most annoying Yoda imitation.  Thankfully I’d only had one drink so my head was clear enough to mentally rehash his words in reverse order.

“You can have a religious sensibility without going to church,” I said.

Yoda Movie
“The pretzels pass please.”

I took a sip of my drink and Smitty thoughtfully signaled to the bartender for another round.  “Thanks,” I said.  I turned towards the entrance where a last glimmer of sunlight had made its way down the stairs off the Charles River and illuminated a figure from behind.

Image result for dante beatrice
Dante and Beatrice

“Better clean up your language, a broad just walked in,” Smitty said.

At first it was hard to make out whether he was right, but the silhouette became 3-D reality in a few moments as a girl walked the length of the bar and sat down two seats over from me.  I recalled Ernest Hemingway’s line about bars being the place where unattached men and women go to show they’re available, or something like that.  She wouldn’t have been here if she was going steady.

Image result for little girl poet
“Roses are red, violets are blue–
if you didn’t pick your nose I might like you.”

“There’s what you need right now, pal,” Smitty said with a worldly upraised eyebrow.


“A girl.”

“She’s a little young.”

“You’re a children’s poet, she’s a child.  Bounce some of your stuff off her.”

“Oh, I get it.”  I took out my wallet . . .

“I thought you lost that,” Smitty said.

“I always depend on the kindness of strangers,” I replied, going full Blanche DuBois on him.

“But I’ve known you since we were in college.”

Image result for blanche dubois
Blanche DuBois

“You always say ‘Hello stranger’ when I walk in.”  I saw that I had a twenty and four ones, enough to buy a round and a plate of Pepperidge Farm mint cookies, so I plunged ahead.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” I asked.  An old line, but I thought the self-effacing aspect of it might make her more receptive.

“I’m waiting for my mom,” she said.  “She picks me up after school.”

She had a voice full of money, as Jay Gatsby said of Daisy Buchanan.  If she went to school in this neighborhood, it was a private one.

“Well as long as you’re stopping with us, can I buy you a drink?”

She looked me up and down like I was a corduroy jumper she had to wear but didn’t want to.

Image result for corduroy jumper girls

“I’m not supposed to take stuff from strangers.”

“I’ll fix that,” Smitty said, leaning across me to introduce me and himself.  “He’s harmless, he just looks like a standard poodle with mange.”

That crack brought a smile to the girl’s lips.  “Okay–but just one.  I can’t spoil my dinner.”

“What’ll ya have?” I asked.

“Chocolate Quik,” she said.  “Three spoons full, please,” she added with a knowing nod to the bartender.  I figured she’d have a $30-a-day Starbucks habit by the time she was in high school.

“And a plate of cookies, my good man,” I said to the bartender, and then to the girl, “I have an ulterior motive in speaking to you.”

“Men!” she exclaimed in disgust.  I figured maybe her heart had been broken–badly–in fifth grade.

“It’s not like that–I’m a poet.”

I’d apparently said the magic word.  “Oh, really?” she said.  She put her elbows on the bar and propped her chin in her hands.  “Do tell.”

Image result for girl with chin in hand

“Well, not a successful one.  So I’m looking for someone to, uh, stress-test a poem of mine.”

“Sure,” she said.  “Hit me.”

I cleared my throat–should’ve ordered orange juice instead of milk, I said to myself, then began:

Fuzzy, buzzy bumble bee,
Hope he doesn’t land on me!

A look crossed her face like her milk was sour.  “That’s . . . it?”

“No, that’s just the first couplet, I wanted to give you time to take it in.”

“Consider it taken.  Continue.”

Wish he was a butterfly,
Then he’d merely flutter by.

I paused and nodded, to indicate that this time I was through.  “What do you think?”

“I think you made an error of usage.”


“When you’re expressing a wish, you’re supposed to use the subjunctive, so it should be ‘Wish he were a butterfly.”

“But, the ‘was’ is assonance for ‘buzz’ in the first line.”

“You asked for my opinion, I’m just giving it to you.”  She was like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not.  Tough as nails, and she’d hammered me.

Image result for lauren bacall to have and have not
Lauren Bacall

“Uh, I guess you’re right, but it’s . . . poetic license.”

“Really–you’re going to use that as an excuse?”

“Why not.  Lots of poets bend the rules to the breaking point and I . . .”

“Sure, you figured nobody would notice.  But it’s a principle I feel very strongly about.”

“Why is that?”

“When somebody gets as old as you, they ought to take away their license.”

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

No Country for Dangling Modifiers

The mozo was an old man with a bad leg named Luis who had fought at Torreon and San Pedro and later at Zacatecas.

The charro stood leaning against the front fender of the truck with one thumb in his carved leather belt smoking a cigarette.

–All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

No Country For Old Men' Never Underestimates Its Audience

We rode for two days straight into the high country up where the commas stopped growing and there was nothing but scrub brush and rocks.

Do we have enough commas to make it to Saline County my unnamed companion asked.

I don’t know you cain’t have none of mine.

We’re gonna need a lot.

Why’s that?

Because if we don’t have commas pretty soon we won’t understand each other.

Feliz Navidad I said.

It’s not Christmas.

I know but we are supposed to lace our conversation with random un-translated Spanish to show we are authentic or something and that is just about all I know except for Carlos Santana.

He is not a holiday he is a rock guitarist.

Jose Feliciano - Feliz Navidad #Christmas2015 (TMO Cover) - YouTube

I know that.

You should also know piso mojado so you don’t slip on wet floors.

Fine I will learn that too.

Our horses carried us up the hill slowly as if they were going to the end of the earth and their deaths and an afterlife where they would be free from suffering.

Our horses are fatalistic no?

Wait–who is talking.


I know it is you but who are you I lost track.

We turned our horses around and went back down the hill to the point where I said Feliz Navidad and figured out who was who and started back up the hill again.

As we came over the rise we could see clear to the town of Tyler Texas which had recently lost its comma in a tornado. We encountered an old mozo with a bad leg making their way up the hill toward us.

Hola the mozo said.

Hello I said because even though I didn’t know Spanish I knew enough to know he was saying hello. What is your name?

My name is Ramon.

And what is the name of your bad leg?

His name is Luis.

These are good names my companion said.

You could do worse I said.

Actually you mean their parents could have done worse nobody names themselves.

You have a point I said but if you comb your hair right maybe no one will notice. How come your bad leg has a name I asked the mozo.

It is because he misplaced my modifier the leg said.

Where did you see it last?

It was in my saddlebag when we left Juarez the mozo said.

Maybe if you broke up your long run-on sentences into smaller ones they would fit better and would not fall out my companion said.

There you go again I said cutting him off at the root. I have told you time and again to pace yourself we’ve got a two-day ride to the next chapter.

You could put in a semi-colon every now and then the bad leg named Luis said that would help.

I looked at Luis through narrowed eyelids. What makes you so bad I said.

Did you not read the little squib that introduces this piece Luis said I fought at Torreon and San Pedro and later at Zacatecas.

That is a lot of fighting for just a leg my unnamed companion said how did you pull it off?

It is simple to pull something off a leg the mozo said boots socks huaraches all of them easy-peasy.

Humph I said.

Look my companion said there is a charro coming this way in a truck.

Charo? The multi-untalented actress comedian flamenco guitarist and ubiquitous talk show guest whose full name is Maria del Rosario Mercedes-Benz Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza and who is known for her trademark phrase cuchi-cuchi the mozo asked.

No. Charro with two r’s meaning horseman.

If he is a horseman why is he driving a truck the leg asked.

The same reason police dogs do not wear badges I said.

The truck of the charro came to a stop and he got out along with his thumb which was smoking a cigarette. Buenos dias the thumb said.

I looked sideways at the two can I give you some free advice I asked.

As long as it is worth every peso we pay for it the charro said.

So what is your advice to us the thumb asked without removing his cigarette which dangled precariously from his lips.

This is no country for non-smokers so go ahead it don’t make me no never-mind but.

Yes the charro said.

Don’t go dangling your modifiers around here you may never see them again.

This piece appeared originally in The Spectacle, Issue no. 8.

The Confession Fixer

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

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

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

“Susan van de Kamp.”

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

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

“What song?”

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

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


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

“You mean . . . pocket pool?”


“Sure. What did you expect?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And the max?”

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

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


“A novena.”

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mook–m, o, o, k–mook.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” I asked nervously.

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

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

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


“What else?”

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

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

Eddie Matthews


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

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

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

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


“The alley behind the rectory.”

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?”

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“That’s right. Whadda ya got?”

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

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

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

“Not really, just curious,” Albert said.

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

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

Warren Spahn


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whadda you care?” he replied.

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

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

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

The Greenfather

Italian authorities seized $1.9 billion in “green” investments made by La Cosa Nostra to launder money.


I’ve been recycling since a college roommate first introduced me to the activity that has become a secular religion for me. Whenever my wife throws away a plastic ketchup bottle, for example, I retrieve it from the trash, rinse it out and recycle it. I seem to recall similar compulsive tendencies having to do with the mystical numbers 3 and 7 when I was a prize-winning Catechism student in Catholic grade school.

Garage recycling center.


So what if I’m a little nutty about recycling, stooping to pick up aluminum cans in the street on the off chance that it might somehow save a baby whale from extinction.

Every night when I get home I haul cardboard, newspapers, cans and plastic from our two internal “transfer station” bins to my garage recycling center; it’s my pride and joy, my “fancy” as the cat ladies in England say about their tabbies.

It’s usually an uneventful trip; one time I tripped over a garden hose after I’d had a few beers, and one time I surprised an opposum–or more correctly, he surprised me–who’d stuck his nose in a discarded box of Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres. Probably having a party back at possum hollow.

“This guy’s got separate plastic bins for glass, cardboard–the works!”


So I jumped when I saw Tony “The Ice Pick” Gravano and Gaetano “Joey Pockets” da Silva sitting on my Rubbermaid plastic garbage cans last night. “Excuse me,” The Ice Pick said. “We’d like to talk to you.”

“Is something wrong?” I asked nervously. I knew I’d mistakenly dumped a container of plastics down the cardboard chute at the Town Dump last week, but it was my first trip since we’d returned from vacation. Anybody can make that kind of mistake if they’re out of practice.

Recycler di tutti recyclers


“No, nuthin’ wrong,” Joey Pockets replied. He was pleasant enough, but I detected an undercurrent of menace in his voice. “You got a nice place here, we was just admiring it.”

I knew what was coming next.

“I’d hate to see anything happen to it,” The Ice Pick said in a business-like tone as he examined his well-kept fingernails, which still shone from the clear nail polish applied at his last manicure. I don’t know what it is about The Mob; I guess if you spend your days garroting bookies who won’t pay up, you want your hands to look nice.

“Gee, I wouldn’t either.”

“Then perhaps you would be interested in discussing a–shall we say–investment in your little operation.”

I knew the mob liked cash businesses–laundromats, vending machines, bars–to launder the proceeds of their illegal activities, but the most I get is a nickel deposit on cans and bottles. Why would they want to muscle in on me?

“‘Little’ would be an understatement,” I said with genuine humility. “I know we do better about recycling in the suburbs than they do in Boston, but still it’s just a bunch of lousy–”

I was cut off by the sound of deposit bottles and cans skittering across the cement floor. The Ice Pick had kicked my ez-carry bottle bin–hard–sending its contents flying. These guys meant business, but I wasn’t about to fold like a card table at my mom’s bridge club.

“Don’t try to scare me,” I said with a sneerl through a snaar. I mean a snarl through a sneer. “You want somethin’ a mine, you got to pay for it.”

The two mobsters looked at each, a little surprised that I’d fought back.

“There are lots of benefits of joining La Cosa Nostra,” said Joey Pockets. “Much better than our competitor, Ndrangheta in Southern Calabria.”

“Like what?”

“We got full medical and dental, with minimal or no co-pay. ‘Ndrangheta ain’t got that,” the Ice Pick said.

“We got a code of silence–omerta–so youse don’t never have to worry ’bout nobody rattin’ you out,” Joey Pockets added.

I thought about it for a moment. “How about nicknames,” I asked. “Do I get a cool nickname like you guys?”

“Sure, unless it’s already taken,” the Ice Pick said. “You couldn’t have two ‘Ice Picks’ for example. It would screw up the computers in human resources.”

“How about ‘The Ice Man,’” I said. “I was an ice man for three years when I was young.”

“That’s kinda close,” the Ice Pick said. “You may want to pick an alternate.”

“Okay–how about ‘The Gerbil.’”

“I’m pretty sure that’s available,” Joey Pockets said with a contemptuous snort. “So you in?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, playing out the string. “I’m thinking maybe . . .”

“Well think about this, you mook,” the Ice Pick said as he slammed me up against the wall, where I hit my head on a rake that was hanging from one of those tool organizers.

“We know where your cats are–right now. Capisce?”

“A seafood dish made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices?”

“No, you goombah–that’s ceviche. I’m saying ‘You understand?’”

I understood. The last thing I wanted was for one of my cats to get hurt.

“All right, you win.”

A look of smug satisfaction spread across their faces. “Welcome to our crime family,” Joey Pockets said. “We are tough, but cruel.”

“Really? You’ve got to meet my crime family.”

The two exchanged looks of concern. “Who is this?” The Ice Pick asked cautiously.

“My in-laws. They never recycle anything.”

Matt Slade, Esq.–Pro Bono Czar

It was one of those early autumn days when the setting sun spreads a trail of gold over the surface of the Charles River like a streak of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!” on a murky brown morning glory muffin. Too bad it was the wrong time of day to get my blood sugar up. What I needed was a shot of rye whiskey to start my nightly slide into oblivion, to be completed in Bill’s Place, a down-at-the-heels drinking establishment voted “Boston’s Worst Bar” for three years running. I walked past it on my way home every night, and couldn’t resist the attraction.

I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out a “nip”-one of those little bottles of booze you see up by the cash register in a liquor store. I keep a supply of them on hand, camouflaged to look like Wite-Out, the leader in typewriter correction fluids. I know you’re not supposed to use it on a computer monitor screen, but sometimes in the morning I need something to block out all those pulsing pixels when my head is pounding from the night before.

I screwed off the top and was about to take a slug when who should appear at my door but Brownlow Thurston, III, known to all as “Bink.” Good old boy, Bink. He’s the guy who got me kicked downstairs to my office on the eighth floor with its commanding view of a parking garage when I confused the Rule Against Perpetuities with the Rule in Dumphor’s Case. They couldn’t fire me-my dad founded the firm of Slade, Groton & Welby back in the 50′s-but that was the last estate plan they ever let me touch. I still don’t see why it was such a big deal. By the time anybody noticed they were all dead.


So they made me pro bono czar, in charge of all the charity cases. As you can imagine, I don’t produce a lot of revenue with that kind of client list.

“Hello there Matt, how’s it going?” Bink asked in his best prep school manner. He had on a pink oxford cloth shirt, a maroon-and-blue striped bow tie, and a pair of pants that showed about three inches of sock at the ankle, just in case he spotted a snowy egret in a salt marsh when he got off the train in Pride’s Crossing after work.

“Fine, Bink, just fine.” That’s how we WASPs relate to each other-everything’s just fine, couldn’t be better. If they lock you away for securities fraud, you tell the family on your weekly phone call that the food’s great and you’re singing tenor in the D Block a cappella group.

“I have . . .uh . . a new pro bono client I’d like you to meet if you’ve got a few moments.”

I’ve heard that one before. Your old-line Boston Brahmin types like to squeeze their nickels until the buffalo become extinct, so they’re always coming up with some lame excuse why we should represent-for free–their old frat brother “Trip” or “Trey” after he gets caught taking short lobsters, or defrauding widows and orphans in some convoluted pyramid scheme.

“Bink,” I began, trying to reach the moral high ground before him, “pro bono legal services are for the truly needy, those who can’t afford to defend themselves against avaricious landlords, loan sharks and . . . .”

I was about to say “repo men” when I got my first look at my new client, and my tongue froze up faster than road kill raccoon on a New Hampshire state road in February.

“Matt, this is Delores Delfina.”

Ms. Delfina was pretty fina-looking. She had a nicely-turned ankle that slipped without spillage into her black pumps. Her skirt ended mid-calf, and flowed upwards over rolling hills of gluteus maximus to a wasp waist. From there you scaled the El Capitan of her rock-ribbed midsection, then went for a ride over hill and dale just below the forest line of a froofy lace blouse. After you climbed up her slender neck and reached her chin you saw the sweetest-looking kisser you’d ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.

“Hello, Mr. Slade,” she said, and the words blew breezily by my ears like a puff from a forbidden cigarette in our non-smoking office environment.

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and for once I meant it.

“I’ll leave you two to business,” Bink said in his characteristically self-effacing manner. As far as I was concerned, he couldn’t have chosen a better time to efface himself.

“So tell me, Ms. Delfina,” I began . . .

“Please, call me Delores,” she interjected. Delores–it was an old-fashioned name, from the era of De Sotos, those curvy cars of the forties with the ample rear wheel wells, like a certain prospective pro bono case seated right in front of me. I snapped back to attention at the sound of her chewing gum, which popped as a bubble collapsed on her lips.

“I really shouldn’t,” she said as she cleared the smear of pink goo from her lips, and pocketed it in one of her cheeks.

“Please, don’t apologize,” I said. “We take our clients from all walks of life. Gum-chewing, gum-eschewing. Smoking or non-smoking, aisle or window, paper or plastic.”

“It’s a wonderful thing you do,” she said as she batted her eyes at me, knocking my native resistance off the left-field wall.

“I have a series of questions to ask to determine whether you are truly one of society’s neediest, or just some fly-by-night floozy who Bink is trying to slip past me in order to avoid sending you a bill,” I joked weakly.

“Oh, most certainly, I understand completely,” she said with a look of wide-eyed innocence. “Go ahead, shoot.”

“Okay, first, are you a person of limited means?”

“Um, yes, although in one sense I resemble an elite private university.”

“How so?”

38DDD and Harvard: Both are well-endowed.

“I’ve been told I’m very well-endowed.”

She gave me a sly little smile as she said this. I allowed my eyes to range over her investment portfolio, and concluded that her assets exceeded her liabilities.

“Okay. Next, does your case involve activities that will improve the law, the legal system or the legal profession in a manner that will primarily benefit people of limited means?”

“Oh, I would hope so,” she said, re-arranging herself into a self-dramatic pose at the edge of her chair. “My struggle is that of every woman who’s ever been jilted, who’s ever been misled by an unscrupulous suitor, who’s ever . . .”

“I’ll put that down as a ‘yes’,” I said.

“Please,” she continued, “let me tell you my story.”

“By all means.”

“My boyfriend, Carlos, we sometimes buy lottery tickets together. We agree, should we ever win, we will split the winnings.”

“Um-hmm,” I said.

“Last Friday, I give him $10 to buy me a ticket, and $5 for the ticket we will share.”

I knew what was coming next. “And he picked a winner?”

“How did you guess?”

“You get a sort of sixth sense about these things after a while. Go on . . .”

“Carlos, he says he also bought a $10 ticket, which was the winner–my two . . .”

“One and a half . . .”

” . . . were the losers.”

The wheels implanted in my head by my first-year Contracts class began to turn. Unjust enrichment, Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, quasi-contract.

Umm–the Carbolic Smoke Ball.

“Now he says he has a new girlfriend, one who does not love him for his money, as he claims I do.”

If my critical faculties had been working, I would have shown her to the door with our usual brush-off gift set; Slade, Groton & Welby coffee mug, mouse pad and Volunteer Day T-shirt (Women’s S, M, L, Men’s M, L, XL, pink available in ladies’sizes only). A dispute with a boyfriend over a winning lottery ticket didn’t rise to the level of an eviction, a foreclosure, or a repossession, but my erotic instincts had my intellect in a headlock, and wouldn’t let go.

“Okay,” I said. “One last question, just so we don’t give away the candy store.”

“Where is this candy store you speak of?”

“That’s just an expression. Sometimes my partners try to do people favors for . . . ah . . . selfish reasons. ‘Describe any personal or family relationship you have with present or former employees of Slade, Groton & Welby’,” I said, reading from the firm’s pro bono intake form.

She hesitated for a moment, and I could see color flow into her cheeks, like the slow reddening of a lobster under a bed of seaweed at a New England clambake. “Well, Mr. Bink Thurston has been a great friend to me.”

For the first time since I’d laid eyes on her, my ears were my most attentive body part. “A friend–or more?”

Before I could say res ipsa loquitur she had thrown herself against me, and was excreting tears like a well-squeezed sponge.

“Mr. Slade–he is also–my employer. I am the nanny for the two children he had by Estelle Burden.”

“The former paralegal?”

“It’s all perfectly legal,” I heard Bink say in his fruity-toned voice over my shoulder. “I’ve filed federal information return Form 942 and paid Social Security and Medicare taxes on her wages.”

I turned and gave him my best steely gaze. “What’s legal isn’t necessarily right, Bink,” I said. “And if you’re such a ‘friend’ of Ms. Delfina, why don’t you just pay her enough so she doesn’t need free legal assistance.”

Bink laughed that mirthless little laugh that men in power are so often capable of. He had me and Delores right where he wanted us. “Matt, that’s a very noble suggestion, but we’re talking about my money, not yours. Perhaps this ‘pro bono czar’ thing has gone to your head.”

As my father once told me, you’ll never meet a cheaper man than one who’s inherited his money.

I looked at him, then at Delores. I had only one card to play, so I turned it over.

“Maybe you’re right, Bink,” I said. “Maybe if we win her case there’ll be plenty of money for Delores–and you.”

Nantucket Reds: If you ever see me wearing a pair of these, please shoot me.

This time it was Bink who turned a shade of burnished ocher that matched the Nantucket Reds he wore in the summer.

“Well, of course if I’ve been of any assistance to Delores, it is only because of the . . .”

” . . . payday you see coming if you win?”

“Well, uh . . .”

“I know your game, Binkster. You keep your wives until they start getting crow’s feet, then you throw them over for the first pretty young thing who comes along, who usually happens to be a naive paralegal who works for you. Well listen up and listen good, pal. You can do that if you want, but you’re not going to do it on my pro bono nickel, see? You can pay full freight, just like every other well-heeled heel who walks in our doors.”

“You mean . . .”

“Five hundred smackers per hour–and that’s just for the paralegals.”

Bink looked like a baked scrod who’d just been–well, scrod.

Scrod, the past tense of “screwed.”

“You know Delores,” he said after he’d recovered a bit, “not every legal wrong can be righted.”

“You do not think I have a case?” she asked with a tinge of disappointment.

“Not really,” he said as he took her by the arm and escorted her out of my office. “You see, under the Act of 1677 for the Prevention of Frauds and Perjuryes, there’s nothing we can do if you didn’t get your boyfriend’s promise in writing.” He fed her a bushel basket of b.s. as he led her down the hall to the reception area, where he shook her hand politely and ushered her into an elevator.

I called June, the woman I’ve been dating in a desultory fashion since the second Clinton administration, thinking maybe tonight’s the night I finally have a reason to walk past Bill’s Place with my head held high, on my way to something better.

“Hello?” she purred into the receiver.

“It’s me,” I said.

“Howdy, stranger. Long time no see.”

“I’ve been . . . uh . . . neglecting our friendship.”

“To put it mildly,” she replied.

“Listen,” I began, not knowing exactly what I was going to say until I said it. “Have you ever considered becoming a pro bono czarina?”

Available in print and Kindle format as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

For One Substitute Teacher, Noir Can’t Stand the Light of Day

NEEDHAM, Mass.  Ray Vronick is a former English major who thought he’d hit the big time when his collection of dark short stories–“Anywhere But Here”–garnered a favorable review in The New York Times Book Review three years ago.  “I found out that ‘successful short story collection’ is an oxymoron,” he says bitterly as he enters Togo Palazzi Elementary School with this reporter.  “A hostess in a nice restaurant makes more money by smiling and saying ‘Right this way’ than a writer gets paid for pouring his heart out.”

Togo Palazzi: The man, the myth, the legend.


So Vronick is thankful that, before he got his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the UMass-Seekonk, he took a year after college to earn his Master of Arts in teaching, which qualified him to act as a substitute teacher.  “It’s really the best of both worlds,” he says.  “Whenever I’ve got writer’s block, there’s always somebody who’s sick of teaching fourth graders.  After one day with those little terrorists, I’m motivated to get cracking so I never have to teach for a living.”

Vronick’s specialty is in demand as more schools try to expand their offerings in “soft” subjects that don’t require hard-and-fast grades.  “We could offer painting, but that involves toxic fumes,” says Principal Earl Byrum.  “A day of creative writing is just as good, and the kids don’t have to wear smocks.”

“I want you kids to journey to the long, dark night of your souls.  Be back here in fifteen minutes.”

The children are given fifteen minutes to fill up two sheets in their politically incorrect Big Chief tablets, then Vronick begins to call them up to read what they’ve written.  “Amy Abbott–you’re first!” he says as he reads from the attendance list.  “I’ll bet that happens to you a lot, right?”

“Yes!” a little girl with bangs says cheerfully, then begins to read her essay “My Happy Puppy!”

“This summer my family got a puppy!  He is cute and fun!  One time we gave him a bath–it was a mess!”

Amy continues in this vein for two minutes, then hands in her paper to Vronick, who flyspecks it for errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation and usage.

“Okay, Amy,” he says after a quick review.  “That was good, but I’m sort of the new sheriff in town, if you know what I mean, so I have to enforce a rule you may not have had last year.”

“What’s that?” the girl asks with an anxious tone at the prospect of getting less than an A, her lowest grade ever.

“Just this: Every time you use an exclamation point?”  Here Vronick stops for emphasis, and to drive home his point.

“Yes?” the girl asks meekly.

“An angel gets sick and dies–okay?”

“Oh,” the girl says, her face clouded over with a look of guilt.

“So next time let’s stick to periods, question marks, and commas after dependent clauses that begin with a subordinating conjunction–okay?”

Next up is Robert Adelson, a husky boy with uncombed hair who would have been held back a year in third grade but was saved by the adoption of a “social promotion” policy by the local school board.

“Let ‘er rip, Robert,” Vronick says, then leans back in his chair, his hands behind his head, to listen.

“My mom is stupid,” Adelson begins.  “She backed over my bike this summer.  Vicki Snowden is also dumb.  She promised she’d be my girlfriend this year but changed her mind because she says I still pick my nose and eat it.  The end.”

Vronick makes a little church-and-steeple with his fingers, then nods in appreciation.  “Good, good,” he says as he contemplates a fluorescent light bulb on the ceiling.  “You know what Scott Fitzgerald said about writing fiction?”

“Is he in this grade?” Adelson says, drawing a friendly laugh from Vronick.

“No, but I wish he was,” the substitute says.  “He was a very great writer and he said ‘What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.’”

The boy looks down at his feet, not sure if he is being criticized or praised.

“Here we have two troubling incidents,” Vronick says as he stands up to walk between the rows of desks.  “Where could Robert go from here?  Somebody?  Anybody?”

When no one responds to his question, Vronick turns back to Adelson.  “How did it make you feel when you saw your bike crushed?” he asks.

“Awful,” the boy says.

“And what were you thinking when Vicki dumped you?”

“Actually, it was kind of a relief,” the boy says.  “Now I don’t have to sit by her in the cafeteria or nothing.”

“Precisely–you can ‘light out for the territory,’ like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.  Like Harry Angstrom in John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run,’ you’re free to run away.  Masculine irresponsibility is one of the great themes of American literature.”

“My short story was more depressing than yours!”



The children look on with puzzled expressions as Vronick continues his free association.  “Women are a dime a dozen, am I right?” he asks, gazing into the faces of several boys in the class.

“I guess,” Adelson says.

“But that bike–did you have stickers and decals on it?” Vronick asks.

“Yeah–also I clipped baseball cards onto it so that the spokes made a noise like a motorcycle.”

“Cool!” Vronick says with youthful enthusiasm that seems inappropriate for a 35-year-old man.  “So what’s the lesson we learn from Robert’s double tragedy?”

A shuffling of feet is heard, and the eyes of all but the most conscientious girls in the class are cast downward.

“I’ll tell you,” Vronick says when he realizes the question is too sensitive, and too difficult, for the young minds before him to fathom.  “You’re only young once, but you can remain immature forever.”

Mike Sheetz, Escheat Beat Cop

As I tilted back my chair for a better view of the ceiling in the windowless office I occupy at the Mass. Department of Abandoned Property, I couldn’t help but contemplate how far I–Mike Sheetz–had fallen since that fateful day back in 2011 when I foolishly filched a Topps Carl Yasztremski rookie card from a collection that had been left in a bus locker in Boston’s South Station.  I figured nobody’s gonna miss it, but in fact the state auditor had “salted” the apparently abandoned packs with high value cards for the express purpose of finding out if low-level drones like me was honest.  I usually am, except when nobody’s looking.

So I was busted down from Examiner to “Customer Service Representative” at a significant cut in pay, pension and amenities, I might add, which I just did.   Now, instead of an office that afforded me the opportunity to look out the window all day, I had to find a way to do nothing with just four walls and a ceiling.  There’s no way I’m gonna spend all day lookin’ at the floor, not for what they pay me.

My duties, if you can call ’em that, is to handle consumer questions about abandoned property before it “escheats” to the state if nobody claims it–the Escheat Beat is what we call it.  There’s not much chance of graft in that, which I assume is sorta the point of my placement here.  Used to be I’d go to a bank and say “Hey–you got any outstanding money orders or traveler’s checks that ain’t been cashed?  If so, escheat ’em to me.”  Or maybe I’d shake down an insurance company that hadn’t reported cash surrender value on a life policy.  Those guys, they look at me when I pull myself up to my full 5′ 10 1/2″ stature, they don’t wanna mess with me, so they find a way to–I think the word is “accommodate” me.  Tickets to sports events from the marketing department, golf umbrellas, cool fleece pullovers.  It makes up for the meager salaries one is forced to accept working in the public sector.

I was about to put my head in my hand, which was attached to my arm which was propped on my desk in order to take a refreshing mid-morning snooze when I heard the dulcet tones of a slender throat clearing itself.  A customer!  Geez’d it’d been so long, I’d forgotten how to ignore one.

I got up against my better instincts and, since there was nobody around I could shoot the breeze with in order to stall for time, mouthed the four little words that are so hard for a bureaucrat to say, and yet mean so much to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to get their state government business done and breathe free.

“Can I help who’s next?”  Okay, so that’s maybe five.

“I was wondering,” she began, and so was I, but not about the same thing.  She was two, maybe three inches taller than me, but that was jake with me since I lusted after every centimeter of her, notwithstanding the difficulty of making the metric to British (Imperial) conversion on the fly.  She had pale skin that she highlighted with just the right touch of rouge on each cheek; a hat with netting in the front that lent her an air of mystery, and didn’t charge any interest.

She had on a chemise dress which I know a lot of people say dames use to hide the fact that they’ve lost their figure, but I didn’t care–I’d help her find it.  And lastly–I can barely get the words out of my mouth I’m choking on ’em so hard–she had on a stole made out of little foxes that sent me into paroxysms of passion.  If she could be so cruel to an innocent little animal that eats other innocent little animals, imagine what she could do to me.

She’d been polite at first, but now seemed impatient, probably annoyed by the internal reverie I just recounted for you.  She looked like she was ready to file a complaint, so I hit the charm accelerator as hard as I could.  “Yes?”

“I found these checks,” she said, tossing a stack of paper down on the counter.  “I took them to my bank, but they said they were stale.  I didn’t know little three-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half inch pieces of paper could get stale.”  She batted her eyelashes at me, so I wound up and threw one right back at her.

“Technically, a bank don’t have to cash a check that’s more than six months old,” I said, leaning on the counter to get a better look.  And a whiff of her cologne–I believe it was Evening in Worcester.  “These checks–they’re all from 1997, 1998.  Nobody’s gonna let you cash ’em now.”

“They gave you a toaster oven–just to open a new account?”


“So what can I do?” she said, giving me a look that said she needed a knight in shining armor.

“You’ve come to the right place, dear,” I said.  “This money, all–let’s see, $276 of it–has escheated . . .”


“The reverting of property to the lord of the manor . . .”

“You’re a lord of the manor?”

“You didn’t let me finish, ma’am.  To the lord of the manor in feudal times, but in modern times to the government, in this case the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

“It sounds so . . . complicated.”

“It is and it isn’t.  We should be able to get your money back to you, pronto.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” she squealed.  That’s the kind of gal she was, an “Oh, how wonderful!” woman, comma and everything.

“My name’s Mike–Mike Sheetz,” I said as I extended my hand to hers, letting it linger longer than perhaps was legit, and try saying that five times fast.

“My name’s Florence–Florence Dalby.”

A lot of your seamier escheat guys would’ve used this opportunity to make time with this dame if they was interested in her; after all, no woman is ever more vulnerable than when filing a claim with a State Division of Abandoned Property.  So many questions; let me see a photo ID, do you have any unpaid parking tickets, do you owe any back taxes?  You can really drag somebody through the mud if you’ve a mind to.  Or you can ask for some consideration in exchange for . . . bending the rules ever so slightly.

“So what’s the story behind these here checks?” I asked as I pulled a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Office of the State Treasurer and Receiver General Form ABP-10 out of the drawer and took my pencil out from behind my ear.

“How much time do you have?”

“All the time in the world–for you,” I said.

“Do you have a couch, a sofa or divan that I could lie upon while I recount my sad tale of woe?” she asked, throwing her hand up on her head in a gesture of despair.  God it drives me wild when dames do that!

“Sure,” I said, “right over here.”  We keep the sofa out in the open so that there can be no accusation of illicit hanky-panky as between claimants and customer service reps.  All hanky-panky has to be on the up-and-up.

“Well, when I married Charlies, he promised my father that he’d take care of me,” she began.  “And he did–at first.”

“Um-hmm,” I said, and I could tell what was coming.

“After the euphoria of the wedding, the tough reality sets in.  We returned a few gifts–the extra Cuisinart, the gravy boat, the counter-top donut maker . . .”

“The Dough-nu-Matic?”

“No, the Donut Factory–in white.  Like my wedding dress.”

She started to sniffle, and pretty soon the sobs were coming like water through the sluice gates at Bagnell Dam, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri.

“There, there,” I said as I gave her a tissue.

“Where, where?”

“That’s just an expression,”  I said.  She dabbed at her nose and continued.

“We both had our yuppie jobs, but we couldn’t save a thing because I wanted to be happy–now.”

“And so you did the things that young people do,” I said.  “You go out to dinner, you buy nice clothes, you treat yourself to a pedicure . . .”

“Or a mistress.”  Her face clouded over, like a Kansas wheatfield before a tornado.  So that was it.

“Charles took up with the girl who cut his hair–‘Tawni’,” she continued.

“Just guessing, but did she dot the ‘i’ with a little smiley-face?”

“How did you know?”

“You been in the business as long as me, you get a sixth sense about these things.  And so . . .” I said, picking up the thread.

“All of a sudden, there wasn’t enough money.  We started to argue about the littlest things.  Utility bills, rent, groceries.”

I’d heard it all before.  “And then?”

“And then he left me.”

“But he forgot to change his address for the delivery of first-class mail–correct?”

“You . . . you’re clairvoyant.”

“Actually I’m Catholic, but I don’t go to church that much.  Anyway . . .”

“So his mail kept coming but I wasn’t in touch with him–”

“Because you were bitter, so you just tossed it in a pile.  Until finally . . .”

“Finally, I thought–perhaps I can learn how I failed to satisfy his needs by riffling–”

“I think you mean ‘rifling’–”

“But a rifle’s a gun.”

“There’s a secondary definition.  ‘To ransack.’”

“Whatever–through his mail.  Oh, I know it’s a federal crime, but can you blame me?”

“I couldn’t blame you for anything,” I said suggestively, “except maybe stealing my heart.”

Our eyes locked like the face masks of a couple of peewee hockey players who collided.  Suddenly I was on top of her, in express violation of the Massachusetts State Code of Ethics, Rule 3.01(a): “Exchange of sexual favors between state employees and citizens who seek services, permits or licenses is forbidden except in the case of members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches.”

“So you’ll help me then?” the kitten purred at me once our tongues were untangled.

“That’s why I went into public service.”


The next day I found myself at my computer, trying to piece together the broken chain of corporate transactions by which the drawer of these checks–The New England Provident Puritan Colonial Life Assurance & Indemnity Company–had become “NewLifeCo.”

I know insurance is boring, but so’s your brother-in-law.  The difference between the two is that insurance turns into money, while your brother-in-law bounces around from job to job without ever amounting to much.  Speaking of not amounting to much, right now all I had was a bunch of small dollar checks made out to Charles Dalby, which nobody could cash but him.

Apparently Charles had taken out a life insurance policy on himself–supposedly for Florence, but really just as a low-yield investment vehicle.  Those little checks represented dividends, but I knew there was a bigger payday in the offing–if Charles was insanely lucky and his mutual insurance company went public.  If he was insanely unlucky, he’d kick the bucket before he had a chance to change the beneficiary from Florence to his floozie.

I decided to give my newfound love interest a call, at 57 Beacon Street, Boston, the address she’d left me, right down the street from Abandoned Property.  I pushed the buzzer and heard her voice, distorted and tinny-sounding, through the little brass loudspeaker on the door.


“It’s Mike, from the . . .”

“No need to explain.  I’ll never forget our first passionate kiss on the couch.”

“Me neither, sweetheart.  Buzz me in.”

She let me into the vestibule, then greeted me at the door of a cramped, two-level apartment, half-basement, half on the ground floor.  My guess was she could barely afford to split the rent with Charles, and was facing eviction since he took it on the lam.

“Listen,” I said after I’d doffed my fedora.  “This Charles guy. . .”

“Please, don’t mention him.”

“I have to, otherwise the reader might not know who I was referring to.”

“All right, if you insist.”

“Anyway–is he in good health?”

“I don’t know and don’t care.”

“You’d care if you cashed in a full one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollar life insurance policy–wouldn’t you?”

She gasped–I don’t think she’d realized just how much money was at stake.  Enough, I guessed, to buy the crummy apartment if the building went condo.

“My goodness–that’s a lot of money!”

“And it could have been yours.  But now you’ll never see a dime of it if Charles cuts you out for Tawni.”

Her eyes narrowed to grim little slits.  I could almost hear the cynical synapses popping in her brain.  “Why that low-down, conniving, good-for-nothing . . .”

“Easy on the hyphens, babe,” I said.  “We got work to do.  I can’t have you getting all emotional at a time like this, not when I need you to be cool as Hoover the Seal.”

“Who’s Hoover the Seal?”  I hod ta loff, as we say here in Boston.

“He’s the world’s only talking seal.  He could say ‘How are ya?’ and ‘Well hello deah’ with a Boston accent.”

“And–what would this ‘Hoover’ say right now?” she asked, playing the coquette, which is not an instrument they teach you in high school stage band.

“He’d say ‘Tough luck, Charles,’” I said.

“Are you serious?”

Deadly serious.”


Our plan was simple, and elegant in its simplicity, not stupid simple.  Florence would lure Charles to Charles Street for what she would portray as a final attempt at reconciliation.  I’d hit the sap with my sap as he came in the door.  Once he was out cold, Florence would give him two in the head with a cute little pistol she’d bought to defend her virtue in case of a break-in.

It would look like a deadly mistake; she didn’t know he had a key, thought he was an intruder, and had plugged him.  Me and her would collect on the policy and live happily ever after.

“You all set?” I asked as we prepared for Charles’ imminent arrival.

“I . . . I guess.  Oh, Mike–are you sure this will work?”

“Nothing’s for sure in the crazy, mixed-up world of unclaimed property and whole life insurance,” I said as I clasped her to me.

“I’m not sure if I want to go through with this,” she said as she sifled a stob.  I mean stifled a sob.

“Don’t back out on me now,” I said.  “You’re already an accessory.”

“You mean like a belt, a brooch, or a scarf that contributes in a secondary manner to an otherwise-drab fashion ensemble?”

“No, one who aids, abets or incites a lawbreaker in the commission of a crime.”  I looked deep into her eyes.  “You know you incite me, babe.”

We heard a knock.  “You know what to do,” I said.  “Do it.”

I took my place behind the door, and Florence called out “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Charles.”

“Let yourself in.”

Charles turned the key and as soon as I saw his head, I swung.  Unfortunately, as I was positioned on the top step of the stairs to the basement, I didn’t connect squarely and just grazed him.

“Ow,” he said, and he seemed sincere.  Then he grabbed me by the neck and any further doubts on my part were dispelled.

“Grackelagaga,” I said as he blocked my windpipe.  I wasn’t at my most articulate.  Then he got his knee up on my chest and any further hope of resolving the situation amicably was irretrievably lost.

“I told you, you’ve got to use the security bolt . . .” Charles began, then looked up to see the barrel of a Pink Lady Undercover Lite Aluminum .38 special, glaring at him from the right hand of Florence, who’d changed into her wedding dress while I’d scuffled with her cheating husband.

“You told me a lot of things,” Flo said with an air of menace.  “Now I’m gonna let this little lady here do the talking.”

“Sweetie, please, be reasonable!”

“Reasonable’s got nothing to do with it.  Was it reasonable for you to shack up with a hairdresser?”

“Don’t shoot, it’s not worth it!” Charles pleaded.

“I’m going to enjoy every penny of that $125,000 life insurance policy you took out and never told me about.”

Charles looked at me, then back at her.  “So that’s what this is all about, huh?”

“All’s fair in love and life insurance, pal,” I said.  “Especially when you leave a trail littered with dividend checks behind you.”

His face took on a desperate look, like a trapped rat.  “What if I cash in the policy and give you the money?  Would you spare my life then?”

I saw Flo’s upper lip quiver.  This was, after all, a man who she’d promised to love, and probably did–at one time.  I could tell her resolve was fading.  “Well, I guess . . .”

It was time for me to intervene.  “Look, schweetheart,” I said, throwing in the extra digraph so I’d sound tough, like Bogart.  “Cash surrender value in the first five years is nothing.  Don’t let him play you for a chump.”

“C’mon, Flo–we had some great times together.”

“Any money built up will be wiped out by the surrender charge.”

Flo’s eyes darted from Charles to me, then back again.  She could have used a financial advisor, but there was no time for that.  “I . . . don’t know what to do,” she said finally.

Charles was distracted just long enough for me to wrest my right arm free and land a punch on his choppers, sending him backwards into the door, which his head hit with a “clonk.”  He was out cold this time.

I scrambled out from under his slack body and stood up to confront Florence.  “I thought you were in this all the way with me,” I snapped as I grabbed her by the biceps, untoned and flabby, the way I liked them.

“Oh Mike, don’t hate me.  It’s just that . . .”

“Just what?”

“Well, Charles was unfaithful–but he never escheated on me.”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

I Wish I Could Break Your Honky-Tonk Heart

You said you were goin’ outside for a smoke.
A half hour later I called up your folks.
They said you weren’t there and laughed at your joke.
And you weren’t in bed when I next awoke.


I got in the car to drive around town.
I swore that I’d find you, that I’d to hunt you down.
Our life is a circus, and I play the clown.
If I start to cry, I’ll most likely drown.


I wish I could break your honky-tonk heart
Into little pieces and tear them apart
Then throw them away like sharp little darts–
Let another fool fall for your honky-tonk heart.


I found you at Darrell’s, the bar down the street.
A place where loose women and tight men might meet.
I looked on the dance floor, my vision complete,
With you there a’twirlin’ so light on your feet.


I said “Come on home, your babies need you.”
You said “They’ll be fine, I’m losin’ my blues.”
You knocked back a drink, and kicked off your shoes.
Tomorrow the whole town will all know the news.


I wish I could break your honky-tonk heart
Into little pieces and tear them apart
Then throw them away like sharp little darts
Let another fool fall for your honky-tonk heart.

Who Will Dig With Dewey Now?

Who will dig with Dewey now,
now that his pal George is dead?
Who will tamp the grave mound down,
from the feet up to the head?

I have been to Dewey’s house,
met his pale-eyed wayward daughter,
seen her sun-shy ghostly pallor
standing idly in the squalor.

She held a child upon her hip,
cigarette dangling from her lips.
Dewey’d left his shovel there
the baby played with the girl’s hair.

All the place was disarrayed,
when we came that day to fetch him.
The father of the child was gone,
they hadn’t even tried to catch him.

George has died, his fellow digger,
gone to his deserved reward,
he’s the one did all the work,
feeble-minded, never bored.

When one of two grave-diggers dies
Who is left to dig his pit?
The place where finally one lies,
when before were two who did it.