Consider the Anchovy

Consider the humble anchovy, pushed to the side of the plate.
It’s the part of a Caesar salad that just about everyone hates.
Other fish eat gobs of anchovies as ocean-going forage
but not humans, no way–not in a salad and not in porridge.

I’m okay with anchovies—I don’t mind the taste.
I’ll eat the ones my wife gets so they don’t go to waste.
Like most fish, anchovies travel in schools
and though they never graduate, nobody calls them fools . . .

because nobody eats the anchovies—and if you think that’s sad
imagine how it makes the other fish feel, I’ll bet it makes them mad
because they get pulled from the ocean, in hemispheres north and south
while there isn’t a fish hook in the world that will fit in an anchovy’s mouth.

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Robot Fires Human

          Henrik Scharfe, a professor at Aalborg University, has created a robot in his image that was used to fire people in an experiment. 

                                                              CBSNews.com


“What I have to say to you isn’t going to be easy . . .”

 

Whenever I get a call from Robot Resources, I know it’s not going to be good news.  The first time I went down there they wrote me up for excessive Eydie Gorme searching during work hours.  I’d forgotten to erase my search history, and Hank, the overweight guy who runs the IT department, reported me.


Well, can you blame me?

 

They put a memo in my personnel file and I was careful for awhile, but then on the Team-Building Outing my hand slipped down Mary Lou Pfenstrunk’s bodice when we did that trust-building exercise where you fall backwards into your co-workers’ arms, and all of a sudden I’m sitting there with two strikes and a foul tip, if you know what I mean.  I was told if there were any more screw-ups I could clean out my cubicle.


“Seriously, you can trust me, Mary Lou!”

 

Then–I swear–I took Claudia Boul’s strawberry-banana yogurt from the 8th floor refrigerator by mistake.  All right, I figured she would never notice that I’d given her the nondescript wildberry flavor my wife bought me.  What the hell is a wildberry, anyway?

So when I saw Cyborg 3Rn’s name on my phone screen, I gulped involuntarily.  Time to face the music and dance, I thought.  I took the long walk down to the 5th floor, where the walls are lousy with motivational posters that make people question whether there’s something wrong with them because they don’t love their jobs.

I knock lightly on 3Rn’s open door, and he looks up from his Sudoku.  As usual, he’s showing off by doing it behind his head, the way T-Bone Walker used to play his guitar.


T-Bone Walker, playing guitar, not Sudoku

 

“come in come in come in,” he says in that flat, uninflected tone you get from automated phonemail operators.  “have a seat sit anywhere.”  Since there are only two chairs, one for the employee and one for the witness that the legal department says must be present whenever someone is fired, I don’t have much choice.

“how’s the wife how’re the kids how ’bout those celtics” 3Rn says after I’ve sat down, as if he cares.

“In reverse order, the Celtics are in first place–ask for a software upgrade.  My kids are fine, but Christmas is coming and they’ll wonder why they’re getting shoes instead of scooters.  As for my wife–you don’t even remember her name.”

“sure i do sure i do,” 3Rn says, but he hesitates for a moment as he searches through his database.  “it’s linda right?”

“That’s right, but it’s not like you had it on the tip of your little plastic tongue.”

“no need to be bitter,” 3Rn says just as 4Zxi walks in to join us.

“hi there how ya doin’” 4Zxi says, all bubbly.  He’s usually slotted for campus interviews, and I guess they forgot to turn down his enthusiasm control to the “morose” setting.

Once the pleasantries are over 3Rn gets down to business.  “i regret to inform you that your services will no longer be needed.”

“Why?” I ask, although I know the answer.  My numbers have slipped steadily over the past three years, the by-product of a mid-life crisis that these guys could never understand.  I’ve been depressed, and when you’re depressed you couldn’t sell a life preserver to a drowning man.

The question calls for a higher-order logical response than 3Rn is prepared for, so he has to search his memory for a bit before replying.

“well, this place isn’t for everyone,” he begins.  “we’re an up-or-out type of organization, and you’ve essentially plateaued.”  I’m a little taken aback; I didn’t know 3Rn, with his robotic personality, was capable of such a nuanced assessment of my situation.

“you might be happier someplace else,” 4Zxi adds in a genial tone, playing good cop to the hatchet man’s bad cop.

“Look, I need time to find a new job,” I say, trying not to sound too desperate.

“like how much?” 3Rn jabs right back.

“I don’t think ninety days is unreasonable.”


“we’ve got to cut back on humans–they’re killing us!”

 

“ninety days!”  I have to say, I’ve never seen an exclamation point come out of 3Rn’s grim little visage before.

“now 3,” 4Zxi says, “that’s not unreasonable for a high-level professional job.”

“excuse us for a moment, would you?” 3Rn says, and I get up and go out in the hall, closing the door behind me.  The next few minutes are the longest in my life, longer even than my first time up on the ten-meter springboard at the town pool, with all the 13-year-olds behind me yelling “Jump!”

When the door opens it’s 4Zxi who beckons to come in.

“i don’t like long good-byes,” 3Rn says.  “so we’re going to give you three months’ severance, but you have to work from home.”

“That’s going to crimp my style,” I say.  “I’d rather be able to come into the office and pretend I’m gainfully employed while I look to make a lateral move.”

“you can do that from home,” 4Zxi says.

“It’s not the same–I won’t have an office, I won’t have a title.”

“i don’t know,” 4Zxi says.  “you’ll just be calling people on the phone.”

“I won’t have much self-confidence calling in my pajamas.”

“why not?” 3Rn asks.  “you’ll be better dressed than you are now.”

Available on amazon.com as part of the collection “Sci-Fi Kind of Guy.”

The Day After Ignacio’s Special Christmas

This is a story of a teenaged boy whom I will call Ignacio. He was brought to America from a village in South America to live in a small town for a year as a foreign exchange student.

He lived with the Cash family. Mr. Cash owned a feed and grain store, and Mrs. Cash was a homemaker. They had three children, a boy about Ignacio’s age and two girls, one older and one younger.

Mrs. Cash wanted to climb the social ladder in the small town where they lived. The family could not yet afford to join the town’s sole country club, and she was concerned that even when they had accumulated enough money to do so, they might be turned down. After all, the owner of a feed and grain store did not occupy the same stratospheric social altitude of a chiropractor, a funeral director or a lawyer.


“. . . and this is our beautiful new sewage plant!”

So Mrs. Cash sought out opportunities to improve the family’s status. She chose the right church, played in two bridge clubs, and did charitable work. She volunteered to lead tours of the many recent improvements that made the town a wonderful place to live, taking visitors to see the new sewage treatment facility north of town. It was brand, spanking new–and you could hardly smell a thing!

Mr. Cash worked hard for every nickel he made, and he hated the thought of ever having to give one back. If a customer brought back an auger or a drill that didn’t work, he’d say “Sorry–store credit only.” Some people grumbled that the only time you ever got any cash out of him was when he gave you his business card.

As the holidays drew near, Ignacio was feeling homesick, and Mrs. Cash tried to cheer him up with the prospect of Christmas Day. “It will be wonderful,” she said. “There will be many, many presents under the tree.”

“Even for me?” Ignacio asked.

“Especially for you!” Mrs. Cash said, because Ignacio’s presence in the house had brought a great deal of notoriety to the family. A reporter from The Smithville Picayune-Item had written a story about Ignacio and the Cash family, and it had appeared in the paper with a large photograph–on the front page!

All of this was new to Ignacio. In the humble village in South America where he came from, they knew the story of the birth of Jesus, but nothing about the giving of gifts. Christmas morning was a time to celebrate with family and play, and later to eat a big meal.

“Where do these presents come from?” he asked Mrs. Cash.

“From Santa Claus, but we buy them ourselves, too,” she explained. “We have charge accounts at all the nice stores in town. You go downtown and pick things out, all right?”

And so Ignacio put on his wool coat with the sheepskin lining that he had brought with him from his native country, and walked downtown. He went from store to store, picking out things that looked nice. When he was asked how he wished to pay, he would say “Put it on the charge account of Senorita Cash.” “Excellent,” the sales clerk would say, and would throw in gift wrapping for free.

As Christmas approached, excitement began to build at the Cash house as everyone admired the many beautiful presents under the tree.

“Oh, Ignacio,” said Ruth Ann, the younger daughter. “I can’t imagine what’s in all those boxes!”

“It is a surprise,” he said. “You will see soon enough!”

The children and Ignacio were old enough to wait until Mr. and Mrs. Cash had woken up before going downstairs on Christmas morning.

“Well,” said Mrs. Cash. “Since this is Ignacio’s first Christmas in America, we should let him go first.”


Sweet!

“Yes,” said Norberta, the older daughter, as she picked up a package and handed it to him. He opened it up and inside was a lovely sweater. “Gracias, Norberta,” he said.

The gift giving continued around the room until it was Ignacio’s turn to give someone a gift. “Now you pick out one of your gifts,” said Mrs. Cash.

“All right,” Ignacio said, and he took a box wrapped in red ribbon from under the tree, returned to his chair and began to open it.

The members of the Cash family looked at each other with surprise, but said nothing. When Ignacio had finished unwrapping the package, they saw that it was a pair of festive red pants.

“Those are very nice,” said Mrs. Cash, with a tone of repressed disapproval in her voice. “Perhaps you did not understand me when I explained Christmas to you.”

“No?” he asked her with a puzzled look on his face.

“Apparently not,” she replied. “When you buy a present, you buy it for someone else.”

Ignacio looked around at the others.

“Ah,” he said. “I buy–for you!”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Cash.

“Oh–the present is not for me?”

“No,” said Mrs. Cash.

“Ah,” Ignacio said, pursing his lips and nodding his head as if to show that he understood. “This is . . . how you say . . . “

“Unfortunate?” asked Ruth Ann.

“Yes,” said Ignacio. “I have bought many things for myself–accidentally?”

Mr. Cash gave out a little snort. “Well, that’s a fine how-de-do.”

Mrs. Cash intervened in the hope of preserving the spirit of good cheer that had prevailed only moments before. “That’s all right,” she said to Ignacio. “You just pick out the thing you like the most, and we’ll take the others back when the stores open tomorrow.”

“All right,” Ignacio said, and proceeded to open up the other boxes. There was a pen and pencil set, a pair of warm pajamas, a funny Chia Pet of a little dog–so many nice things!

After much deliberation, Ignacio decided to keep the Chia Pet, and to give the other gifts to Mr. Cash to return. He had received so many gifts from the members of the Cash family, he wasn’t even disappointed to lose the items he had shopped for with such great care for himself.

The next day, Mr. Cash hit the streets of town bright and early, grumbling about how much time his unexpected chore would take away from his duties at his own store. He stopped first at Pattison’s Department Store, where Ignacio had bought the bright red pants.

“Say,” Mr. Cash said as he accosted the first sales clerk he saw. “I’d like to return these pants.”

“Do you have the receipt?” the clerk asked.

“Well no, but you can check our charge account.”

“Hmph,” the clerk sniffed. “What’s wrong with them?”

“Well, uh, nothing. It’s just that our foreign exchange student didn’t understand what the deal was when he bought them.”

The clerk looked at Mr. Cash skeptically. “And what was the deal?”

Mr. Cash grew angry. “The deal was, it was Christmas, and he was supposed to be buying presents for everybody else!”

“But he could have walked in here and bought a pair of pants for himself–right?”

“Well, right. But he didn’t know. He’s from some godforsaken village in the Andes, where they burn llama turds for fuel.”

The clerk examined the pants for rips or stains, then, when he was satisfied that they were undamaged, he spoke. “I can give you store credit,” he said, “but not cash.”

“Store credit!” Mr. Cash exploded. “We just spent a bundle in here on presents! I want cash.”

“Sorry,” said the clerk. “No can do.”

Mr. Cash was stunned, and angry. “To hell with you!” he shouted, then spun on his heels and walked out.

At the next store, the story was the same; no cash, just credit. And at the next, and the next, all down Ohio Street, from Broadway to Main Street. The after shave, the model car kit, the fancy Italian loafers. No one, it seemed, ever gave cash refunds.

And so Mr. Cash headed home, loaded down with Ignacio’s presents. He trudged up the front sidewalk, climbed the steps and, working one hand free under the armful of packages, pushed the doorbell.

Ignacio came to the door, his Chia Pet in hand, and opened it. When he saw Mr. Cash standing there with the presents that had been carried away that morning, his eyes lit up in wonder.

“This,” he said, “is the most wonderfullest Christmas ever!”

Moral: Do unto others and, first chance they get, they’ll do unto you.

The Year the Meanest Man Stole Christmas

There is a little town not far from here, a very prosperous town, one that people aspire to live in. Couples scrimp and save to build up a down payment on a house there, knowing their children will receive a good education in its schools, and their old friends will say “They must be doing well if they can afford to live in Swellsville.”

Another thing that people like about Swellsville; town officials are just as thrifty as the people who live there. They work hard to keep taxes low, for which they are justly praised. They know that if they slip up and spend too much money on storm drains or fire trucks or playground equipment, it can mean the end of a very good job for them, and they’ll end up at a less affluent town, at a lower salary.

One such town is Needsville, right next door to Swellsville. Town fathers and mothers in Swellsville keep an eye out for rising talent in the competitive crab bucket of municipal managers, and when they heard that Mike Macree had kept costs so low that Needsville’s bond rating had gone up, they made a discreet inquiry as to whether he’d like to make a switch to Swellsville.

“How much does it pay?” Mike asked, and when he was told, he said “That’s not enough for me to buy a house in Swellsville.”

“That’s okay,” they said. “One of the many advantages of our town is that the help can’t afford to live here.”

Mike thought about it for a while, and decided he would take the job after he was told that, as a town employee, his kids could attend Swellsville schools even if he didn’t live there.

Mike set to work with the high energy he’d brought to every job he’d ever had before, poking and probing for fat to be cut. He deferred some maintenance on street lights, cut a position at the Department of Public Works, and talked a principal into early retirement. He wasn’t ready to pat himself on the back, though. “I’ve just skimmed the surface,” he said one night as he made himself another cup of coffee for a final pass through the budget, determined to deliver the goods for his new employer.

As the clock ticked past seven and he began to get bleary-eyed, Mike’s energy flagged. “Maybe I should go home and start again tomorrow,” he said to himself, but he only had thirty-four more pages to go; best to soldier on, he thought, hoping to find some hidden pocket of waste, fraud or abuse the good government types are always confident can be eliminated to keep taxes low and the level of services high.

Then, like a hidden figure in a children’s puzzle that suddenly stands out from the background, he found it: “Christmas lights–$50,000! Good gravy! I should be able to cut that by more than half!” And so he fired off an email to the head of Swellsville’s Department of Public Works. “No overtime for Christmas tree lighting this year. Put a string of lights on the tree in front of Town Hall, and call it a day.”

The next morning when town offices opened and the Director of the DPW turned on his computer, he was shocked and saddened. “So this is what we have come to,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re going to take Christmas away from the people of Swellsville, just to save a measly five figure sum!” He clicked “Reply” and typed “Will do—although I’m sure this will generate a lot of controversy among people who are opposed to merciless budget-cutting that kills the spirit of Christmas.” He sent a copy to himself, and when it popped up in his in-box, he sent it to every town employee and to the town’s listserv. First shock, then disbelief, then outrage radiated outwards across Swellsville, like rings from the spot where a rock hits the surface of a pond. “How could he?” wrote one. “How DARE he!” exclaimed another. “Who IS this Mike Macree guy?” asked a third.

Soon, the humble city manager became an object of scorn by all right-thinking residents of Swellsville. After it had been determined by universal acclamation that the man’s heart was as small and black as a Spanish olive, he passed into the realm of ridicule. Someone noticed that his initials were the same as “meanest man,” and he came to be called “Meanest Man Mike Macree.” Another noticed that he had not two but one eyebrow, and he was reviled as “Monobrow Mike Macree.” “In fact,” one person wrote in her blog on local affairs, “his eyebrows seem to form one big ‘M’ on his forehead, like a mark of the monomaniacal monster that he is!”

Thanksgiving passed, and all lamented the lack of lights on the town green and on Main Street, where in years past the little white bulbs had lent an air of homespun commercialism to the scene. “What are we going to do about this jerk?” one burgher—the owner of an upscale cheese shop–asked another.

“We need a grass-roots movement,” said the other, who owned a high-end jewelry shop. “The man is menace to society, and society should hold him accountable!”

And so a social media campaign began to speak truth to power, and a march was organized. With candles in hand, hordes of angry citizens descended upon Town Hall, where they demanded Mike Macree’s head, or at least his job if his head wasn’t available under the terms of his employment contract.

“WE WANT CHRISTMAS BACK!” they chanted, louder and louder. The town clerk, an elderly woman, slipped out the back door, not wanting to be associated with the executioner-style budget cutter who was in charge of things.

“WE WANT CHRISTMAS—NOW!” they screamed, and the bookkeeper in the assessor’s office decided to take a personal day to get in a little shopping.

“WE WANT OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!” they shouted, loudly enough to wake the napping in their chairs at the town’s senior center.

Mike Macree looked up from his work and out the front window and exhaled deeply. “Well, it isn’t pleasant, but I guess it comes with the paycheck.” He took a last sip of soda, tossed the can into a blue recycling bin, and strode forth down the hall with the aspect of a man who has an irksome but necessary job to do, like a sheriff in a western movie who’s forced to confront a lynch mob, or a gang of outlaws—he wasn’t sure which.

As Macree stepped out onto the wide stone steps that led up to Town Hall, he was met with a crashing wave of obloquy the likes of which hadn’t been heard in Massachusetts since 1693, when the last witch was hanged in Salem. “WE DEMAND OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS BACK!” screamed one particularly obstreperous group of older women wearing red hats, which were designed to convey that they had unimpeachable moral authority—or something.  One of them stepped forward and shook her finger in Macree’s face, saying “You’ve stolen our Christmas!”

Macree was taken aback by the vehemence of the angry people, but he collected himself. “Folks,” he said, “if you’d like to hear what I have to say, you’ll have to quiet down just a little, okay?”

An embarrassed silence descended upon the crowd—perhaps they had been a tad importunate.

“All right—go ahead. Speak,” said an elderly gentleman who’d been caught up in the madness of the crowd.

“Thank you,” Macree said to the man. “Folks, it’s like this. I was hired to do a job. Nobody likes it when their favorite program is cut, or eliminated, but we all have to make sacrifices. Like you,” he said, pointing to the head of the DPW.

“Me?” the man replied, with feigned innocence. “I was only trying to give the people a warm and wonderful Christmas feeling that they’d remember long after I’m gone.”

“And enjoying the pension, paid for by all the same folks, that grows larger each year with all the overtime you make—am I right?”

The DPW Director looked down at his feet, and shuffled them back and forth. “Well, there’s that too.”

“We could be spending that money on our schools—right? Maybe hire another kindergarten teacher?”

The DPW Director was silent for a moment, then was recalled to the train of his argument by an irrelevant whistle of a non sequitur he heard in his mind’s ear: “But–it’s the spirit of the thing that’s important!”

“Yes, the Christmas spirit!” someone shouted, and Macree turned to address her.

“Great—Christmas spirit!” he said. “Who could possibly object to that—unless one of the many Hindus and Muslims and Jews and atheists and agnostics who live among us?”

“They’re just . . . lights,” the woman said.

“If you believe that, you should probably go home and get in bed.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because Santa won’t come down the chimney until you’re asleep.”

A collective gasp escaped from the lips of the crowd. “There’s no need to be sarcastic!” a man snapped.

“You’re right,” Macree said. “This is a serious matter, and no one knows that better than me.”

“Well, you sure don’t show it!” one irate man said with a scolding tone.

“Maybe that’s because I still haven’t gotten over what happened in Needsville a few years ago.”

“What was that?” a woman asked.

“We were putting up the Christmas lights on the town square as we always did. The men were working away, using a cherry-picker truck. A young man was up in the basket, stringing the high branches, when a gust of wind came along. It toppled the truck over on its side, and the man died.”

The crowd was silent, and if one looked closely there could be seen on the necks of those that weren’t concealed by scarves big lumps of sadness sliding down their throats.

“Did he . . . leave a family.”

“Yes. A wife and three little kids.”

An audible groan was heard.

“But—isn’t that sort of thing covered by insurance?” asked a man with a worldly air that signaled he understood such things.

“Yes, of course. There was $250,000—not a penny more–to take care of those four. For the rest of their lives, or until the mother could afford childcare and go to work.”

“That was it?” the worldly man asked.

“Well, you want to keep your taxes low, don’t you?”

“Didn’t they take up a collection for the poor people?” a woman with a saintly manner asked, her voice infused with sympathy.

“Sure they did—they had a bake sale, and a charity basketball game. Raised another $837. With that kind of generosity, that poor mother should be all set, right?”

The crowd was silent. “If I’d had the money that town paid to put up Christmas lights to give to her, I’d have felt a lot better,” Macree said.

The crowd began to dissolve, first at the fringes, then throughout the mass of humanity that had been so strident and unified in purpose just a few moments before.

“Just a moment,” Macree called out over the backs of the heads that were now moving away from him slowly. A few turned, others stopped still in their tracks, while some just kept going.

“Go home to your families,” Macree said, “and give them all the love you’ve got. That’s what Christmas is about, not a bunch of crappy plastic lights.”

Moral: Sometimes it’s the hard candy that has a soft, gooey center.

A Letter

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the football team had gathered to check in their equipment at the stadium. The atmosphere was a mixture of chagrin and relief; the team had lost the last game of the season and finished 5 and 5, no great shakes, but at least all the hard work was over. There hadn’t been that many seniors on the team—only five—so that was some kind of excuse. There had been six sophomores who saw a lot of action on offense or defense, and a couple of others who played on special teams, so the coaches were optimistic about the future and in a good mood.

Joe was one of the seniors, and the only one who hadn’t earned a letter at the start of the season. He was a bit undersized, but there were smaller kids who were better than him. He was fast enough—technically he was a halfback and defensive back—but he didn’t seem to make good use of his speed. He tended to run in a straight line, as if he were a chalk mark on the coach’s blackboard, and so when a hole closed or never opened he went nowhere, and on defense, he’d run right at a guy who’d put a move on him and be gone.

He’d done everything they’d asked all four years he’d played, but he was still on the junior varsity the year before. He got a dinky junior varsity patch that he put on his right breast, but on his left all he had was a letter for speech and debate. From a distance they all looked the same, and so Joe would pal around with the other four seniors and hope that their reflected glory would shine a little status on him.

He thought he’d built up a fair amount of goodwill with the coaching staff, then the school had gone and fired the head coach from the year before and replaced him with somebody from a junior college in Kansas. It was the man’s first head coaching job—he was apparently an offensive genius—but it meant that Joe had to start over and show the new man what a hard worker he was even if he wasn’t that good.

The coach had laid down the law the first day of practice, August 15th. He’d handed out a mimeographed sheet telling you what the rules were; everybody had to get a crew cut, coats and ties on game day, no alcohol, no smoking, and an eleven o’clock curfew. There was to be an honor system—if you saw one of your teammates break the rules you had to turn him in. And you had to run a six-minute mile with your equipment on—after practice. You had to keep trying until you could do it.

Joe had accomplished the feat the first day—he’d been in training all summer long—but the coach barely noticed it. He just made a check next to Joe’s name on his clipboard and yelled at the others who came in behind him.

It had continued like that the whole season. Joe was on the scout team, but he was never called upon to play the part of the other team’s number one back; when the head coach stepped in to demonstrate something, he was always directing his instruction towards the first team. Joe might have been just a cog in the machine, his dad told him, but machines still needed every one of their cogs. Hang in there, he’d said; hard work is the one thing that’s always rewarded in this world.

You had to play twenty quarters—half the season–to get a letter; Joe didn’t know if the assistant coaches kept close track, but he knew he had been in nineteen. There were three quarters—two of them mopping up–against a weaker team the first game, and he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up. Then there were three non-conference games that he got into for two quarters each on the kick-off team. He figured if the team played halfway decent ball he’d get at least two quarters a game the rest of the way, once when they kicked off at halftime or the beginning of the game, a second time when they scored. By the end of the fourth week he had nine quarters.

The fifth week the conference schedule began, and the coaches began to pit one player against another for playing time to see who was tougher. They had “hamburger” drills halfway through practice every day; one-on-one challenges to see which kid would drive the other back, no “cupping” around because there were tackling dummies on either side so you had nowhere to run. Joe didn’t see what that had to do with his position; he was a back, not a lineman.

Some of the younger backs were sturdier, more compact than Joe, who was wiry. He’d tried everything to put on weight, drinking milk shakes and supplements, but then he’d run it off trying to stay in shape. He told himself it was better to be lighter and quicker and in good shape when August rolled around than to be heavier and puke up your guts the first week.

And so when it came his turn for the hamburger drill he got pushed around, and would grow frustrated that a bunch of sophomores were gaining on him, then passing him on the depth chart. He couldn’t believe the coaches would put some younger kid into a conference game that counted against a good team, he who’d been working so hard for so long.

So at the halfway point in the season he had eleven quarters, then he only got into two quarters the next three games, then only one quarter the last two games–that was nineteen. He figured they’d round up, or cut him some slack because he was a senior. It was no skin off their nose whether they gave out one more letter, he figured.

He sat on the bench next to his locker and fiddled with his stuff, waiting for the head coach to come out of his office so he could say goodbye and thank you, maybe talk to him for a second. His dad had told him that was important, that was something you’d learn in life; to make a connection with people, look them in the eye, make a good impression so they’d remember you when the time came to make an important decision. Joe knew his dad was talking about adult things like raises and promotions, but there wasn’t anything more important to him in the world right now than getting a football letter.

He saw the coach emerge from his office with Don, one of the sophomores, a little water bug of a kid with acne and glasses who didn’t look much like a football player, but who played with a reckless abandon that scared Joe a bit, and the defensive coach named Skip.

“Love to hit, love to hit, love to HIT!” Skip was saying as he put his arm around Don and clapped him on the shoulder. The head coach shook Don’s hand and said “You’re gonna be the first kid lined up outside the gate the first day of practice next summer, aren’t ya?”

“I’m gonna sleep outside the night before,” Don said with a big smile on his face. He shook Skip’s hand and walked off looking down at a piece of paper the head coach had given him, and the two coaches watched him go with obvious appreciation of a fine piece of football flesh.

“Coach?” Joe said softly and then, when he saw the two men talking to each other, “Coach?” a little more firmly.

“Huh? Oh, hi Joe. What can I do for you?”

“I . . . uh . . . just wanted to say thank you and I . . . uh . . . enjoyed playing under you, even if it was only this year.” He stuck out his hand and, after the coach looked down, they shook.

“Well, thanks, Joe, nice of you to say that. I came in not knowing anybody and it’s nice to hear I had some impact on people.”

“No, really, it was a great year even though we coulda done a little better, I think you’ve got a nucleus here for next year’s team.”

Skip interrupted to say “I’m gonna go to the equipment room to start taking inventory.”

“Okay,” the head coach said. “I’ll be in the office for awhile.”

The head coach turned and started to walk away as Joe spoke, after swallowing a little.

“Coach?”

The coach didn’t hear him at first, so he spoke again.

“Coach?”

“Yeah? Oh, sorry, I thought we were through here.”

“I was wondering . . .”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering whether I was going to get a letter.” Joe looked straight ahead at the coach, but he felt the eyes of the players behind him trained on his back.

“A letter?”

“Right. I’m a . . . senior, and I think I got into enough quarters to get a letter.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t know what being a senior has to do with it. It’s not a perfect attendance award. You get a letter in football for accomplishing something, not just showing up. You have to get into the games and knock somebody on their butt.”

Joe inhaled, even though his lungs already felt full. “I think I had enough quarters, coach . . .”

“I don’t think so Joe. I’m pretty good at arithmetic. Even if you did, hell, son, you have to make a difference out there on the field.”

The room had grown quiet as the man and the boy spoke. “Coach, I tried to make a difference every time I got into a game.”

“This is a good lesson for you,” the coach said, then turned to face the boys sitting on the benches that ringed the room, “and for all of you boys. This is a life lesson for you all, right here. Don’t ever confuse effort with results—got it?”

Joe couldn’t see the boys behind him but he could feel them exhale, as if relieved that they were being spared as another was sacrificed.

“Before you got here . . .” Joe began, but the coach cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter what happened before I got here, son,” the coach said with a half-measure of empathy in his voice. “The only thing that matters is what I think because I’m the head coach now. If you can understand that, you can understand why I can’t just hand out football letters like they’re penny candy. That wouldn’t be fair to the other kids who came out and worked just as hard as you—maybe harder–but who got better than you, see?”

Joe looked down and said “I see,” and then “thanks.”

“No problem. Hey, good luck in college next year wherever you go, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said.

The coach stepped into his office and Joe walked over to the bench and stuffed his gym bag with the few items of equipment that were his to keep; his mouth guard and his jockstrap and an extra pair of socks he kept in his locker.

He knew all the other boys in the room to call them by their first names, but he said nothing to them as he walked out.

You Don’t Know What Love Is

I was sort of between girlfriends then–Marthe had moved out after we’d come back from the Bahamas. We’d had that trip planned for a long time, though why she even booked it was a mystery to me since we hadn’t been getting along. I guess she thought maybe it would bring us back together, but I already had my eye on someone else.

I’d seen her around Beacon Hill a few times, then one night at a bar I saw her across the room, laughing in a way that Marthe never did, her head thrown back. When I turned back to Marthe she was reading her program from the Symphony earlier in the night. She was like that, self-contained, in an ethereal little world of her own—probably the only woman in history who’d done needlepoint while sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park.

With Rachel, as I later came to learn was the other woman’s name, everything was on the surface, there were no depths, but that’s what I was looking for just then. It wasn’t drama that was the problem with Marthe, it was tragedy. She didn’t make scenes, but when she deigned to come out of her high-WASP cocoon or from whatever century Johann Freaking Bach and his sons lived in, everything was serious. Rachel on the other hand was the first Jewish woman I ever knew who had no intellectual side whatsoever. I took her to the ballet—Billy the Kid—on our first date, trying to impress her. Afterwards she said if I ever tried to do that again she’d kill me, and she didn’t sound like she was kidding.

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Somehow we got past that and after a few more dates she was prepared for me to meet her girlfriends, so I started getting the once-over from a lot of women I’d never met before. You may know the look, but only if you’ve been a piece of sirloin in a meat counter; the new boyfriend is examined with a gaze that’s part greeting, part appraisal. I think they were glad for her—I know that sounds conceited, but I just mean it completed their social circle so they didn’t have to fill it in with gay guys.

It was a change of altitude figuring out what to do with her when we were on our own though. On Friday nights we’d have a lot of catching up to do, then if there was a party Saturday night we’d go to that. I’ll say this, there was never any sitting around arguing about whether to listen to classical or jazz like Marthe and I sometimes ended up doing when we needed an excuse to go at each other.

Rachel said she’d checked me out and was satisfied. Not sure what that meant—the mutual friend I found to introduce us barely knew me, although he was the kind of guy who figured he’d plumbed the depths of your soul once he’d given you a firm handshake and looked you squarely in the eye. He was dating Rachel’s friend, so maybe he just wanted somebody to talk to on Saturday nights.

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I wasn’t looking for a rebound romance, if that’s what she thought. I was just looking for a change of pace. Marthe had been the first woman I’d met in Boston, and maybe we latched on to each other because both of us were new to town and didn’t know anybody. Rachel was from the suburbs, she knew people, and they wanted to have fun together—nothing wrong with that.

I figured at some point I needed to show Rachel my domestic side, even if I didn’t think we were made for each other long term, so I offered to make her dinner at my apartment, veal I think. She acted surprised, said she was impressed, etc. went through the whole range of standard role reversal reactions—she couldn’t cook for shit, that was for sure. What does a Jewish American Princess like to make for dinner, her friend Catherine had asked me when the question of Rachel’s culinary skills first came up. I said I didn’t know, and she said “reservations.”

It hadn’t been that way with Marthe. She got home before I did, but I was expected to help out with everything, from cooking to birth control up to but not including demonstrating for the equal rights amendment. I did have to drive her to the traffic rotary where she stood out with her sign, though.

I had a second-floor apartment in the Back Bay that faced south so you got sun in the winter. I put the dinner table in the window so it was like you had a good table at the Hampshire House. Rachel brought flowers—nice touch, I said, but I’d probably kill them.

“Why?” she asked.

“I have a black thumb.”

“I thought you meant intentionally.”

“I wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

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She sat down and had a glass of wine while I cooked and she began to unload on Catherine’s husband, a stockbroker who was sucking all the money he made up his nose.

“Why doesn’t she divorce him?”

“She was madly in love with him not too long ago—they’ve only been married a year,” she said. “She can’t believe she made such a mistake.”

“I guess those things happen,” I said.

“I know, it’s too bad. I feel sorry for her.”

She didn’t get up to help with the cooking—she’d brought a cheesecake for dessert, so I guess she figured she’d already done enough.

“So guess what?” she asked.

“What?”

“We’re going to be neighbors.”

“You’re kidding!” I really was surprised. She lived on the other side of Beacon Hill, and I thought she liked the distance between us.

“Nope–my father’s going to buy me a condo.”

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I figured I should be enthusiastic so I said “terrific” or something like that. “Where is it?”

“On Exeter, between Newbury and Comm Ave,” she said. I did the math—five blocks away—and put the asparagus on. “Close to shopping,” she said.

“It’s a wise man who knows his daughter,” I said. “We’re about ready.”

“Can I take anything to the table?”

“Just your plate and your drink.”

She sat down and I put on one of the few records I owned that I could play at dinner without Marthe complaining.

“Well, this is nice,” Rachel said as she raised her glass.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

We started to eat—Rachel wasn’t one like Marthe to starve herself all the time, and she dug in as usual.

“What is this music?” she asked.

“Chet Baker,” I said. He was singing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” at a concert in Italy.

“What’s this guy’s problem?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s like . . . pathetic.”

“It’s a sad song.”

“You don’t know,” she sang, mockingly, “what love is! God, did his goldfish just die or what?”

I looked at her evenly, not wanting to ruin things. “I can change it if you want,” I said, and got up to put on something else.