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.

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 amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

One Hurt in Collision at Intersection of Art and Commerce

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  Beth Upshaw is both a painter herself and an intrepid soul who helps others make a living in the hand-to-mouth world of the arts by operating an gallery in this upscale suburb.  “I know I could make more money at a nine-to-five job,” she says as she adjusts the frame of a work by her friend Cecilia Carver, “but I wouldn’t get that little glow you feel when you make the world a more beautiful place.”

art

Image result for suburban art galleryThat can-do attitude is what led Upshaw to take money out of her retirement plan–at a tax penalty–to open bEth uPshaw sTudios, as her stylized logo expresses it.  “It throws people off their guard for a second–they stop, look and hopefully come in.”

But Upshaw is off her game a bit as she opens up this morning; a fight with her boyfriend Kurt Mergen Saturday night has put a damper on her spirits, and she has to work harder than usual to greet customers pleasantly, much less cheerfully.  “Kurt didn’t like his wine at Boit de Nuit,” she explains of their dinner date gone wrong, “and things spiraled downhill from there.”  Upshaw took a sniff and told him not to be a whiner because the restaurant was busy and a woman she knew was waiting on them.  Mergen got defensive, saying he knew more about wine than she did, and Upshaw reminded him that she’d been a sommelier in a previous life in 19th century France.

Image result for art gallery
“The catalog says this is the air conditioner vent.”

That was the last straw for Mergen, who rolled his eyes and then struck at her most vulnerable spot; her own art, which she describes as “post-neo-pop-Abstract Expressionist.”  “I have a hard time imagining you in that context,” he snapped as he tore a piece of baguette in half.  “You, who produces the kind of art that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of a bank lobby.”

Color rushed into Upshaw’s face, and her eyes narrowed to grim little slits as she hissed “You son-of-a-bitch!”  Diners seated nearby who didn’t hear her realized there was a problem when she stood up, put on her coat and scarf and stormed out of the restaurant, stopping only to take a mint at the cash register.

Image result for art bank lobby“I’m fine now,” she says as she excuses herself to wait on an elderly couple who’ve come in to browse, “but that bastard has had his last free plastic cup of chardonnay and cheese-on-crackers at my gallery openings.”

Image result for art bank lobby
“Excuse me–none of these pens work.”

The customers–a man and woman who have moved into a +55 year-old condominium complex up the street from Upshaw’s gallery–congratulate Upshaw on the life and color that she brings to their new neighborhood.  “People who think the suburbs are boring should come see your little place!” the woman gushes.  “I had no idea we were moving into a Little Bohemia here.”

Upshaw demurs appreciatively and leaves the two to themselves, offering to help them if anything “catches their fancy.”  After a turn around the gallery the man comes back to her desk and asks about a piece that holds pride of place on the largest wall in the all-white space; a striking red, yellow and blue work that Mergen once compared to a Wonder Bread bag on acid during a previous argument between the two young lovers.

“Number 43?” Upshaw inquires hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Well, that one’s by me!” she says with a note of modest self-approval in her voice.

Image result for wonder bread bag
Wonder Bread bag (not on acid)

“Oh, you’re an artist, too!” the woman exclaims, and Upshaw blushes just a bit.  “Well, I’d better be after what my parents spent on my MFA!”

The older couple laughs, and the man explains that they just wrote their last tuition check the previous spring.  “How much is this one?” he asks as his eye roams over the canvas.

Upshaw gulps just a bit; she can tell the two aren’t hagglers, so her fear is they will walk out if she tells them that she was hoping to get $5,000 for it.  The bitter memory of the night before has given her a stiffer spine, however.  “I am an artist, dammit!” she says to herself as she recalls Mergen’s brutal put-down.  “And I deserve to be paid what I’m worth!”

She surprises herself by blurting out “Five thousand” before her resolution can become sicklied over with the pale cast of modesty, and is shocked when the man says “That sounds reasonable–I’ll take it!”

The transaction is concluded happily at the gallery’s point of sale terminal, and Upshaw says she hopes the couple will enjoy the painting in their new home.

“This isn’t for the condo,” the man says.  “I’m the president of the new bank that’s going in up the street–I’m going to put it in the lobby.”

Fact-Checking Your Fiction

It isn’t often I sell a piece of fiction; in the twenty-five years since I started to write in earnest, more often than the Boston Bruins have won the Stanley Cup (1) but less often than the New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl (6).  So I’m neck-and-neck with the Red Sox, who’ve won the World Series four times during that period–except that a publication that bought one of my pieces decided not to run it and sent me a “kill” fee for my trouble.  Sort of like a death in the family, with a mail-in rebate.


“He sold a short story!”

 

When you sell fiction to a general circulation magazine, you may be–as I was–surprised to receive a phone call from a person whose job title is “fact checker.”  High-quality publications are known for their commitment to accuracy, and as a result I spent several hours talking to and e-mailing back-and-forth with an earnest young woman who asked me questions like “Is that really what the label on the shampoo bottle said?  Can you make me a copy for the file?”  Of course I can, I replied, then proceeded to wreck the copy machine at my office trying to push a shampoo bottle through the automatic feed.

After your initial instinct to cooperate has petered out, of course, a fact checker’s questions begin to seem somehow–inapt.  You sent the story in as fiction; if it was all factual, you would have labeled it as non-fiction.  What is it about the non-non-fiction aspect of fiction that you don’t get, you want to scream.

In this, as in so many aspects of life, it helps to Be Prepared, as we former Boy Scouts like to say.  After I’ve struggled over a short story, done a spell check, let it percolate for a day or two and then revisited it for tone, mood, setting and plot–I do some basic fact-checking spade work so I won’t be embarrassed when a former English major from Swarthmore who now occupies a low pay/high prestige position as fact-checker gets his/her hands on it.

“Get in here,” I call out to my characters, who can usually be found out on the back patio drinking the fictional beer that my son says isn’t his that I found in the basement.

“It’s a sunny day,” says the unnamed omniscient narrator who sounds a lot like me and figures prominently in so many of my unsold works.  “Can’t we do this out here?”

“Fine,” I say, and grab a Rolling Rock beer from my own stash–not the contraband Bud Light that I’ve seized for illegal importation by a minor–along with a bag of Tostitos Dipping Strips, the unique combination of great taste, great crunch and good fun rolled into a gluten-free chip!

I pop the ill-fitting screen door that leads to the patio where I see Mr. Omniscient, two women and another guy, all characters in my story “God I Was in Love With That Girl,” a tale of rueful regret that I stewed over for three decades before finally sweating it out of my system.  I took a much-needed break from the four of them when I was done, but we’ve put off our little tete a tete long enough.

Kathleen is the more attractive of the two women–a Jackie Kennedy look-alike who’s engaged to the Other Guy, and thinks the world of him.  Dianne is the woman who’s dating Mr. Omniscient, who is of course a stand-in for me.  We know our relationship is going nowhere, but we’re happy for Kathleen, whose first husband was a successful stockbroker who sucked all his pay up his nose, even if we don’t know much about the Other Guy.

“I suppose you’re all wondering why I brought you together today,” I say in my best Assistant Principal Asking the Responsible Student Council Kids for Help in Stopping the Food Fights in the Cafeteria voice.

“Is Bud Light all you’ve got?” the Other Guy asks, and not too cordially I might add.

“You’re fictional characters, and my kid says the beer isn’t his, which is pure fiction.  Enjoy.”

Other Guy grumbles a bit, but he’s in no position to argue.  I’ve got a wastebasket in the den that would fit him quite nicely if I decide to write him out of the story.

“This shouldn’t take long, I just need to ask all of you a few questions to make sure I’ve got the facts straight.”

Image result for billy the kid aaron copland
“Billy the Kid” by Aaron Copland and Eugene Loring:  As Mark Twain might say, not as bad as it looks and sounds.

 

“Bo-ring,” Dianne mutters under her breath.  It must have been pure animal magnetism that brought us together, we decided at one point, because we had so little in common.  I was the would-be aesthete, she was the party girl.  I took her to the ballet one time–Aaron Copland’s “Billy the Kid,” choreography by Eugene Loring–and afterwards she made me promise I’d never force her to sit through such a hellish night of torture again.

“Kathleen, you used to refer to Dianne’s rye bread and spinach dip hors d’oeuvre as . . . ”

“Beaver Log,” Kathleen says as she checks her phone.  Probably wants to see what my other fictional characters are doing later.

“Thanks.  Dianne–your dad made his money in . . .”

“Those plastic lids that go on take-out coffee cups.”

“Oops, my bad.  I put down plastic coffee stir sticks.”

Di draws herself up a bit, but umbrage ill becomes her; when you’re nouveau riche, it doesn’t matter where your money came from.

“You,” I say to the Other Guy.  “You were in love with a girl before Kathleen . . .”

“What?” Kathleen says with a steely glare, but I get the sense it’s more a place-holder than genuine outrage.  She wants a weekend on Nantucket, maybe a David Yurman bracelet, and she’ll keep the heat on until she gets it.

“Sweetie,” the Other Guy says, “I didn’t live in a monastery before we met.”

“I know you were with other women, but I would hope for your sake and mine that you wouldn’t be so foolish as to fall in love with one.”

Other Guy sulks a bit, so I rescue him by resuming my line of questioning.  “She was from Kansas City, right?”

“Right,” he says.  I can tell he doesn’t want to get in any more trouble, so I move on to Mr. Omniscient, which is a little like talking to myself.

“You–you just stand over in a corner, keep to yourself and drink.  What are you having?”

“Gin and tonic.”  Laconic.

“How many?”

Omni says nothing at first.  He–I–used to drink too much, especially at parties because I’m no good at small talk.

“I don’t know–I lost count.”

“Four–five?”

He hems and haws.  “I’d say . . . maybe . . . five.”


That’s two.

 

“And you wonder why your lids stick to your eyeballs in the morning,” I say.  “I’ll put down six.”

He snorts as if to disagree with me, but he says nothing.  Nailed that one I guess.  “Say,” I say, trying to bring him around in case I need to probe a bit deeper.  “A friend taught me a great way to keep track.”

“What’s that?” Omni asks.

“You leave your limes in your glass when you get a refill, and keep track of how many drinks you’ve had by the number of limes in it.”

“You’re assuming he can count that high when he’s drunk,” Dianne says.  My longest-lasting Jewish girlfriend, her rule of thumb was there’s always too much food and not enough booze at Jewish parties, and too much booze and not enough food when the goyim are in charge.

“Di–please,” I say, remonstrating.  “I’m much better now that I’ve got a family.”

” . . . and a big house in the suburbs, and a Black & Decker Remonstrator,” she says, with more than a touch of bitterness.

I look into her big, brown fictional eyes–I step back and take in that mop of brown curly hair that I fell for like a ton of bricks–and remember what we had thirty years ago.

“Di . . .” I say, and there’s enough emotion in my voice that the other three get up and reveal a sudden interest in the rhododendrons on the other side of the house.

“Yes?” she says, a look of hurt in her eyes.  I can tell there’s still something there–something that makes her want to jump off the printed page and into my arms, one last time.

“You may be fictional now, but believe me . . .”–I stop, choked up.

“What?”

“We’ll always have the rejection letter from The Paris Review.”

My Poetic Nemesis

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


Eliot: “Darn it—I lost again.”

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

The fruits of my labor arrived yesterday. “We are pleased to inform you that your poem Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune has been accepted by plangent voices. Due to our extensive backlog, it is anticipated that publication will not occur until the fall 2022 issue.”


A (much) younger Hazel Flange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eyes on the prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for tire and battery store
“Whence from your car you do dismount, check our snow tires at deep discounts.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s amazing,” Smuldowney says.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


“Shhh—Larry’s going to recite now!”

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


Dizzy Dean: He really said it.

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

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

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

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


Kudos!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Call at the Mashed Potato Bar

          A mashed potato bar transforms the lowly potato from something that just takes up room on the plate into a main attraction! 

          The Famous Mashed Potato Bar, Patch.com

The holidays are always the worst.  The rest of the year I can skate by, sneaking a double order of mashed potatoes at lunch, buying a penny mint from the cashier on my way out so my wife doesn’t notice when I get home.  But the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, followed by a bleary round of New Year’s Eve potato parties?  I’m constantly carbed out, and just hope that no one notices the starch on my breath.

No, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide at the end of the year.  Everyone’s cheerful as hell, inquiring into matters that would be considered “off limits” from January to mid-November.  They lean in to you, so they can’t help but notice the sour cream on your lapel.  A lot of businesses close up shop at Christmas Eve until the end of the year, so you’re home all the time or worse, traveling with family.  You can’t escape.

Meg–that’s my wife–has stood by me through the tough times.  One time she found Tater Tots in my suitcoat pocket and confronted me.  I put her off, saying they were leftovers I’d brought home to stick in the toaster oven if she wanted a night off from cooking, but she saw right through that thin tissue of lies.  “Russ,” she said, gripping me by the biceps and squaring me up to look me straight in the eyes:  “That’s a pretty thin tissue of lies you’ve got there.  You have a potato problem.”

I knew she was right.  She knew she was right.  She knew I knew she was right, and I knew that she knew that I knew she was right.  After a while, I got so dizzy from the hall-of-mirrors effect of the cascade of self-conscious reflections that I collapsed, unable to keep up with her.

“We’ve got to do something,” she’d said.

“Sure, sure,” I said as I raised myself on one elbow and slowly got up from the floor.  “Listen, I . . . left some papers at work, I’ve got to go back and get them.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I’ll just scoot into the office and be right back.  Work will help settle my mind.  And stop thinking about . . .”

“I know.”  She looked up at me, tears forming in her eyes.  “You’ll come straight home–right?”

“Promise,” I said, but I was lying.  I had crossed my fingers, King’s X-no noogies, behind my back.  What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her–but it was killing me.

Of course, I didn’t get anywhere near my office.  I headed straight for Boston’s all-night potato district, a veritable carnival midway of mashed Solanum tuberosum bars.  There was The Groovy Tuber, The Palace of Carbs, The Spuddy Duddy.  The crowds were young, carefree–what did they know about the wreck that mashed potatoes could make of a man’s life?

Sure it was easy to push them–the potatoes, not the kids–aside when they’re instant from the pouch, or when you’re full from turkey and gravy and stuffing on Thanksgiving at your parents.  But when they’re tarted up with cheese and scallions and pulled pork toppings–show me a man who can resist that sort of temptation, and I’ll show you a man without a soul.


“Oh Jeez.  Don’t look now, but here comes Mr. Potato Head again.”

 

I pulled off the Mass Pike and drove down to Quincy Market, where you could stagger from bar to bar and never miss a steam tray filled with piping hot potatoes.  I had a veritable smorgasbord to choose from, but I’ve been run out of too many of them.  If I’m going to keep my addiction hidden from my wife, I can’t pay for it out of our joint checking account.  I’m tapped out of petty cash at work, so I have to find a place that will let me run a tab.

Like Bill’s Bar.  Voted “Worst Ambience” of any potato pub in Boston for six years running, and damn proud of it.  There’s usually just me and a couple other losers, along with some tourists who got lost on the Freedom Trail.  My specialty these days is spinning them a yarn about how Paul Revere slept on my fold-out couch the night he did the “One if by land, two if by sea” gag, seeing if I can cadge a $5 tip for showing them the “real” pahk-your-cah-in-Hahvahd-Yahd Boston.

“Hey there, Smitty,” I call to the impassive publican who’s drying the silver as I walk in the door, playing dumb, hoping he’ll forget how he threw me out Halloween Night after I’d been on a two-day twice-baked potato binge.

“Hi, Russ,” he says, non-committal.  Probably wants to see what I’ve got in the way of ready cash before he gives me the bum’s rush.

“What’s the special?” I ask, picking up a menu like I haven’t a care in the world.

“Mashed sweet potatoes,” he says, not looking up.  “That comes with a side of russet mashed and hash browns.”

I can’t figure out whether he’s taunting me, knowing I can’t afford the full spread, watching to see if my mouth will start watering.

“I’ll just have a side of fries to start,” I say nonchalantly.  “Gotta lay down a foundation, you know.”

“Suit yourself,” he says as he starts to walk down to the window into the kitchen before he stops on a dime–okay, maybe it’s a nickel–and spins around to confront me.

“It’s cash only for you, you know.”

“I know, jeez–no need to get shirty,” I say, a trifle too defensive, I think, when I hear the sound of my own desperate voice.

He walks off and while I’m staring into my complimentary glass of water I don’t even notice that a dame sits down beside me.  Her presence impresses itself upon me by way of her scent–it’s “Evening in Idaho,” the fragrance that drives potato addicts like myself stark, raving wild.

I turn to take her in, and like what I see–a woman who likes her potatoes, she’s got love handles like a piece of luggage that’s too big to fit in the overhead compartment.  She gives me a smile that speaks volumes–Aaron to Asparagus in the Encyclopedia of Tawdry Love.  I’ve put on more than a few pounds in my dive to the bottom of the potato patch, but I guess I’ve still got it, I say to myself.

“Good evening, miss,” Smitty says, as if he’s at the Copley Plaza instead of the God forsaken hole in the wall he’s the proprietor of.  He bought the place out of bankruptcy, and is too cheap to change the name from “Bill’s” to something that starts with a letter closer to his end of the alphabet.

“Good evening,” she says, cool as a cucumber.  “I’ll try the flight of potato samplings,” she says, and hands the leatherette menu back to the proprietor.  Unless I miss my guess, she wants to share them with me.

“That’s an excellent choice,” I say with a friendly smile.  “It gives you the chance to sample the full panoply . . .”

“What’s a panoply?”

“It’s a discontinued make of car,” I say, pulling her leg to see if she has a sense of humor.  “It went out with the DeSoto, the Packard, and the Studebaker.”

She looks me up and down, realizes I’m kidding, and graces me with a half-laugh.  Not a full-throated head thrown back laugh, just a keep-going-I-may-follow-you kind of snort/giggle.

“You’re funny,” she says with a smile that could light up a toaster oven.

“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Funny ha-ha.  I’m surrounded by cold, unsmiling men all day at my job.  I like to have a few laughs before I go to bed.”

I give her a grin and purse my lips, like I’m the guy for her.  Smitty returns with the “flight”–when did Boston restaurants get so freaking pretentious–and as I hoped, she invites me to join her.

“We don’t get many nice women in here,” I say, slipping her a compliment in a subtle way.  “Are you from out of town?”

“You could say that.”

“Are you from out of town?”

“You already said that, no need to repeat yourself.”

“Okay–it’s an old gag.  So what brings you to Beantown?”

“Work,” she says, stirring the butter into her whipped potatoes with a swizzle stick.  “I have to travel.  A lot.”

She raises an eyebrow at me, and I decipher her code in a second.  She’s alone, on the road, lonely.  Looking for love, and as far as I’m concerned, in the right place.

She pulls a potato out of her purse, and I’m all over her like a pair of yoga pants.

“Allow me,” I say, as I whip out my pocket potato peeler.

“Thank you,” she says, as I scrape the skin off in slim, sensuous strips.  “It’s so rare to meet a gentleman these days.”

“I guess I’m a throwback,” I say.

“So am I,” she says.  “I believe men should hold doors open for a woman, and peel her potato.”

I sense where she’s going, and I gulp, involuntarily, as I look down at our rectangular plate, where five little potato palaces lay in ruins.  If she sticks me with the check, it’s going to be $25–easy.  That’s thirty bucks with the tip I don’t have.

“I . . . uh . . . had hoped we were going Dutch,” I say, a bit abashed at the mess I’ve made of her mashed.

“Dutch?” she says, snapping her purse open and throwing down a twenty and a ten.  “What does Holland have to do with the price of tea in China?” she says, mixing her metaphorical countries.

“That means we . . . split the cost.”

“I’m old-fashioned,” she says, batting her fake eyelashes at me as she gets up.  “I believe a man should pay.”

“But,” I begin, but she cuts me off.

” . . .  for sex.”