A Brief Lecture on Sentence Structure

My literary idols include the great humorists of the first half of the twentieth century.  They continue to entertain me when I read and inspire me as I write.  They knew how to craft a sentence.

They sometimes began their pieces with a quote they found especially ridiculous and proceeded to use it as a writing prompt.  For example, Perelman had a field day with Diana Vreeland’s Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?

James Thurber begins “Something to Say” with a quote from a thing called “Memoirs of a Polyglot” by William Gerhardt.*

Hugh Kingsmill and I stimulated each other to such a pitch that after the first meeting he had a brain storm and I lay sleepless all night and in the morning was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

After that, Thurber is off and running. His fictional narrator recollects his experiences with the spectacularly obnoxious Elliot Vereker and explains why he was “the only man who ever continuously stimulated me to the brink of a nervous breakdown.”

This is one of my favorite Thurber pieces, and one which still sticks in my mind not just because it is funny but because of the structure of a single sentence.  Thurber was a rewriter—every piece went through multiple drafts—so you know that the published sentences were structured exactly as intended.

That single sentence appears within:

“…Vereker always liked to have an electric fan going while he talked and he would stick a folded newspaper into the fan so that the revolving blades scuttered against it, making a noise like the rattle of machinegun fire. This exhilarated him and exhilarated me, too, but I suppose it exhilarated him more than it did me.  He seemed, at any rate, to get something out of it that I missed. He would raise his voice so that I could hear him above the racket. Sometimes, even then, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. “What?” I would shout. “You heard me!!” he would yell, his good humor disappearing in an instant.

I had, of course, not heard him at all.  There was no reasoning with him, no convincing him. I can still hear the musketry of those fans in my ears. They have done, I think, something to me.”

Note the odd structure of that last sentence.  Most of us would have worded it

I think they have done something to me.

Thurber interrupts the sentence, sticking “I think” in the middle, creating an awkward rhythm.  If you try reading the piece aloud, you are likely to trip on “I think.” The narrator himself stops here, still grappling with what that “something” was. The structure of this sentence conveys the damage done to the poor man. It’s brilliant.

That’s the thing about the great American humorists of the last century: They weren’t just funny—they were wonderful stylists. We can learn from them.

Writers and their critics often focus on word choices, and of course they’re important, but they’re not enough.  Mechanics and syntax are equally crucial.  As we write, and as we rewrite, we must honor the rhythm of our sentences.

 

*To make sure that “Memoirs of a Polyglot” was an actual publication, I searched the web, and it was.  His name is listed as William Gerhardie, and he apparently wrote lots of books, including God’s Fifth Column and The Memoirs of Satan. 

 

 

Balloon Epiphany

Epiphanies are not just fodder for writing fiction, although of course they do a lot of heavy work in our stories. But epiphanies are real.  We all have them.  I have not had many true epiphanies for a person my age (72), and I’m wondering if that’s unusual.   Anyway, I invite you to share your favorite epiphany here in a comment.  Here is mine.

 

I was about 22 or so and living in an apartment with a roommate.  One evening we sat around with our dates and played with a balloon.  This was one of those huge thick-skinned balloons with big rubber bands attached, you could buy them at a drug store and bat them around with your fist, sort of like paddleballs.  We were also drinking.  At one point, we stopped fooling around with the balloon and rested it on the coffee table.  Sometime later, the balloon lifted off by itself and swanned around the room, making a prolonged farting noise and knocking pictures off the walls, before deflating and coming to rest on the floor.  We all found this so hilarious that we blew up the balloon again and again, just to watch its comic antics.  There was no Internet then.

The following week I stopped off at my parents’ for a visit.  I brought the magical balloon to show them.  My mother was busy, but Dad was in the sunroom watching a football game.  I sat down next to him and asked him to turn the volume down for just a minute because I had something amazing to show him.  He smiled pleasantly and did as I asked.

He watched as I blew up the balloon.  This took a while, because it was huge.  When I got it almost to the point where I could demonstrate its farting, room-swanning powers, it exploded.   Not a pop, an explosion, because the skin was so thick. It sounded like a gunshot. Neither of us said anything.  Dad turned back to the TV, and I got up and left the room.

Here, then, was my epiphany:

You raise a daughter and she goes out in the world, and then she comes into your home and makes you watch her explode a huge balloon.  And so it goes.

Trivial Pursuit (or Requiem for the Hornblooms)

TRIVIAL PURSUIT
(or Requiem for the Hornblooms)
A Radio Play in Three Acts
By
Jincy Willett

SIX CHARACTERS:
Fred & Ethel (couple in their sixties or seventies)
Buck & Penny,
Randy & Alice (young academics)

Act One

(sounds of cutlery on china, people eating)

Ethel: Pork balls?
Buck: Oh, I couldn’t.
Ethel: Potato puffs?
Randy, Alice: Really, no.
Ethel: Who wants more pork balls? Speak up, kids. Lets don’t be shy.
Buck, Penny: Oh, no, honestly, I’m full, etc.
Fred: Ethel goes hog wild for company.
Ethel: Oh, Fred.
Alice: What do you call this casserole, Mrs. Mertz?
Randy: (urgent whisper) Murgatroyd!
Ethel: (laughing) Everybody makes that mistake! Don’t they, honey? But Alice, you mustn’t be so formal.
Fred: Ain’t neighborly.
Ethel: Fred and me are experts on making new friends in a hurry, and you don’t do that by standing on ceremony. You don’t do that by sticking to Mrs. This and Mr. That.
Fred: Politeness kills.
Alice: Oh, of course you’re right. Ethel.
Ethel: Vegetable rummage!
Alice: I beg your pardon?
Ethel: The name of my casserole. I call it Vegetable Rummage. Men love it.
Randy: So. You two move around a lot, I take it.
Fred: Yes, Randy. We’ve lived just about everywhere in the contiguous forty-eight.
Ethel: Except the Northwest.
Fred: Made our homes in twenty-seven states.
Ethel: And Kingston, Ontario!
Randy: What do you do, Fred?
Fred: Strictly U-Haul. Professional movers are crooks. Plus they smash hell out of your knickknacks.
Randy: Sorry. I meant, what do you do for a living?
Fred: I’m retired, Randy.
(long pause)
Penny: Well! Do you think you’ll maybe stay here a while? Put down roots, as they say?
Ethel: Its a lovely area. So nice and quiet, just the way we like it. And weve never lived among university people before. I expect we’ll get a lot of culture off you kids.
Fred: No. What about those two in Biloxi? Ernie and Corinne Something. Horn. Horner.
Ethel: Oh, he just taught high school. He wasn’t a real professor.
Fred: Hornington? What the hell was it? Hornberry?
Ethel: It’ll come to me. They were sweet though. Redheads.
Fred: Fine neighbors.
Ethel: Lots of fun.
Fred: Hell, yes. We had fun with those two. Hornbloom? Shoot, that’s gonna drive me nuts.
Ethel: Well, while you’re doing that, you can help me clear the table. Penny, Alice, you just stay right where you are. Fred’ll help me in the kitchen. You kids just pass the bottle around and digest your meal.
(sounds of clearing up)
Buck: Sure was a fine meal, Ethel.
Others: (concurring sounds)
Ethel: We’ll be back in two shakes.
(sound of receding footsteps)
Fred: (from a distance) Hornbottle.
Ethel: (from a distance) Hornbostel!
Fred: (from a distance) Hornbostel!
(sound of closing door)
Buck: (lowered voice) We’re in hell. Get it? We’re all dead, only we don’t know it yet, and we’ve gone to hell.
Penny: Buck, they’ll hear you.
Buck: Penny, humor me. Just take me through it one more time. I spend four hours grading papers, and two more in the company of no less than three deans, if you know what I mean, on top of which a little freshman rains all over my office, and I come home with a migraine and a simple wish for oblivion, and here I am in hell. And I honestly don’t see what I did to deserve it.
Penny: I told you. Alice and I were having coffee, at Alice’s, and spying on the U-Haul out the pantry window, and then the bell rang, and she got us both at once.
Alice: There she was, big as life, so to speak, with two pans of Rice Krispie bars.
Penny: Sort of a Welcome Wagon, only in reverse, she said.
Alice: Me and Fred always make the first move, she said.
Penny: And then she insisted we all come for dinner.
Randy: So what? Why didn’t you get out of it?
Penny: How? She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Literally. (pause) Well, it’s not like we didn’t try. Both of us. What are you supposed to say when somebody won’t take no for an answer?
Buck: No.
Penny: Anyway, they’re harmless enough.
Randy: Pork balls. My god.
Buck: Sounds like a disease.
Randy: Not to mention old Fred, the World’s Most Boring Human.
Alice: I don’t think they’re boring exactly. I don’t know, there’s something wrong. Something a little bit off. Don’t you?
(sound of door opening)
Ethel: (from a distance) You kids make room now for my special dessert!
Others: Really, wish I could, no kidding, etc.
Ethel: (from a distance) Nonsense! I won’t take no for an answer.
Fred: (from a greater distance) Tell em about after dinner, sweetheart.
Ethel: (from a distance) Weve got a little something planned for after dessert. Something different. Something fun.
Buck: Fabulous!
(sound of door closing)
Ten thousand slides of their vacation paradise in—
Randy: No, no! Ten thousand slides of ten thousand homes. This is our backyard in Topeka.
Buck: And twenty thousand fun couples. This is Donny and Marie Cornplant from Sioux Falls. They were a fun couple, weren’t they, Fred? And cultured as all get-out!
Penny: And this here’s Maxine Hornbostel. You can’t see her face, but thats definitely her right tit
Alice: Look, don’t you all think its a little weird? Really? I mean, why invite company over for dinner before you’ve even fixed a place to sleep? Isn’t that weird?
Penny: Weird and boring.
(sound of door opening)
Alice: Shhhhh!
(sound of approaching footsteps)
Ethel: Here we are, gang! Feast your eyes!
Fred: Its Ethel’s Special Company Dessert!
Ethel: I call it Wacky Cake.
Others: Oh, wow, it’s really something, hey, wowee, etc.
Randy: Hey.
(music up and over)

Act Two
(sound of people going downstairs)
Ethel: Would one of you kids hit the light switch on your way down? It’s on the right?
(sound of a click)
There! A little light on the subject!
Fred: End of the grand tour, children!
Penny: You’ve got a lovely house. Thanks for showing it to us.
Alice: Yes, it’s so spacious and uncluttered. (under her breath) And unfurnished. Did you notice, they didn’t even realize they had a bathroom on the first floor until Buck pointed it out?
Randy: (whisper) And those huge crates stacked in the upstairs hall. What’ve they got in there?
Alice: (whisper) Whatever it is, it’s got that musty old Goodwill smell.
Ethel: Did you say something, Alice?
Alice: I was just commenting on your basement. It doesn’t have that musty old basement smell.
Ethel: (from a distance away) Come in here, everybody.
(footsteps, click of a light switch)
Here it is, our pride and joy. The Game Room.
Others: Ahhh! Nice! Really roomy! Paneling! Etc.
Buck: When you get some furniture in here, it’ll be quite comfortable.
Fred: Aww, we dont need furniture.
Ethel: Sit down, everybody! The floor’s clean!
Alice: (whisper) No, its not.
Ethel: Time for our little surprise.
Randy: Gee, we thought the tour was the surprise, Ethel.
Buck: (whisper) Gee, that was pretty lame.
Ethel: Fred, drag the steamer trunk over here.
(sound of trunk being dragged)
Buck: Ill give you a hand. Wow, what have you got in here, cement blocks?
(dragging sound stops)
Fred: Ethel and I have a little confession to make.
Buck: Anything to do with that dead body in here?
Ethel: What?
Buck: The Torso in the Trunk.
Ethel: I don’t know what he’s talking about.
Fred: He’s making a joke, sweetheart.
Penny: He’s just had a little too much of your splendid Chablis, Ethel.
Buck: Pass the bottle, Alice.
Ethel: Good idea. Pass the bottle all around. (pause) You see, Fred and I just love to play games.
Fred: We can’t get enough.
Ethel: We’re Game-a-holics.
Buck: What are we supposed to do? Guess what’s in the trunk?
Ethel: No, no. What’s in the trunk is the actual games themselves.
Fred: And props.
Ethel: You see, in all our travels, weve learned that the very best way to meet new people–
Fred: Break the ice–
Ethel: Is right here in this very trunk!
Randy: Well, the thing is, we’re really not too big on structured–
Fred: Your board games, your card games, your games of chance–
Ethel: Bingo, Lotto, Mah-jong–
Fred: Bridge, poker, euchre, whist–
Ethel: Hearts, canasta, Bolivia, keno–
Fred: Charades, Twenty Questions–
Ethel: I’ve Got a Secret, Name That Tune–
Fred: Mumblety-peg, dominoes, Chinese checkers–
Ethel: Craps, monte, fantan, crackaloo–
Fred: Pinochle, quadrille, bezique–
Ethel: You name it, we play it.
Alice: Yes, but–
Ethel: Open up the trunk, Fred.
(sound of trunk opening)
Gather round, and take a gander at that.
Buck: Good grief.
Randy: That is impressive, Mrs.–Ethel.
Alice: Look at all these games.
(sound of boxes being shuffled)
Some of these must be antiques.
Ethel: Just like Fred and me!
Fred: Like she says, were game-a-holics, from way back.
Buck: Must be a support group for that.
Penny: (whisper) Buck!
Alice: Look, the original Parcheesi. An old Monopoly. Clue. Mr. Ree. Tiddlywinks! Authors. Here’s a set of rubber quoits. They’re so old they’re rusty.
Penny: Authors? Isn’t that for kids?
Randy: Rubber doesn’t rust, Alice.
Fred: Sure. Kid stuff. We play it with little kids.
Buck: (too loud) How about Old Maid? Now there’s a heart-stopping–
Penny: I’m sorry, Ethel, Fred, but Buck here seems to have reached the limits of his–
Randy: Yeah. We’re all pretty beat.
(sounds of people getting to their feet)
Alice: It’s a wonderful collection, and some other time–
Ethel: No, no, no! You mustn’t go!
Fred: Now, sweetheart, you heard the kids. They’re tired.
Ethel: But, the game! We’ve got to play. We always have such a good time. It’s so much fun.
Fred: Honey, honey, don’t push it. She gets so disappointed. She gets her heart set on things. Some other time, right, kids?
Ethel: But it’s so much fun.
Fred: Come on. I’ll see you all to the door.
Buck: Help me up, Penny, my leg died.
Penny: Wait. Look. We can play a quick game of something.
Buck: (sighs, bitterly)
Ethel: You don’t really want to.
Penny: Sure we do.
Alice: Sure we do.
Randy: But it’s got to go fast. I’ve got a lecture at 9 AM.
Ethel: (clapping her hands) Wonderful!
Fred: Okay. What’ll it be?
Randy: You choose. You’re the experts.
Ethel: No, you choose. It’s more fun that way.
Buck: (sarcastic) Penny, darlin’, why don’t you choose?
Penny: (whispers) I’m sorry, Buck.
Alice: I know! Trivial Pursuit!
Randy: (whispers) Are you nuts? That takes hours!
Alice: (whispers) Trust me. They haven’t actually got Trivial Pursuit. I looked.
Randy: (whispers) Oh. Oh, I see! (out loud) Yeah, Trivial Pursuit! It’s the only game we ever play.
Buck: (whispers) Are you insane?
Randy: (whispers) Alice looked. They don’t have it.
Buck: (out loud) We just love Trivial Pursuit!
Penny: (whispers) Are you crazy?
Buck: Trivial Pursuit! Hell of a game, Trivial Pursuit. I could play Trivial Pursuit all night, and have, on numerous occasions! Every chance I get! Too bad you haven’t got it.
Ethel: Darn! We don’t, do we, Fred?
Fred: ‘Fraid not, honey.
Buck: Awww. What a shame.
Ethel: But wait!
(sound of rummaging)
Weve got some sample cards in here somewhere. Got ’em in the mail. Some promotional deal. Game of the Month Club. Here they are!
Alice: But that’s just a handful. And where’s the board?
Ethel: Oh, we don’t need a board.
Buck: Wrong, wrong, wrong. You have to have a board. It’s no good without a board.
Ethel: We can improvise.
Randy: How?
Buck: Wrong, wrong, wrong–
Fred: Ethel’s fast on her feet. She’ll figure something out.
Ethel: We’ll play teams. There’s six cards, so each team gets two.
Buck: Wrong! Six cards? For one thing, you must already know the answers, so what’s the point of–
Ethel: We never looked at these. Did we, Fred? See, I just opened the package.
Buck: (sighs) Are we out of Ripple?
Ethel: Then we go around clockwise. The couple on your left picks a category, you read the question, and if they answer incorrectly, they pay a penalty.
Randy: You mean, money?
Penny: What if they get the answer right?
Ethel: Well, then, if they answer right, the first couple pays a penalty.
Fred: That’ll work.
Randy: Nickel-dime?
Ethel: No, not money. A penalty.
Alice: Why not have rewards? Why not reward the winning couple?
Fred: Nope. Gotta be a penalty.
Ethel: Rewards aren’t as much fun.
Randy: But whats a penalty?
Buck: Oh. Oh, no. She’s talking about stunts. Some kind of humiliating stunt.
Penny: Like reciting the Gettysburg Address?
Buck: Like reciting the Gettysburg Address with your head up your butt.
Randy: You know, I think money is really a better–
Ethel: Too impersonal. Penalties are lots more fun.
Fred: Folks let their hair down.
Buck: And make screaming idiots out of themselves.
Fred: (pause) It never fails. Does it, sweetheart?
Ethel: Right, Fred.
Fred: You young people. You’re so uptight.
Ethel: You never want to loosen up.
Fred: At first.
Ethel: At first. But believe it or not, after awhile you’d forget yourselves. Come right on down to our level.
Alice: Ethel, its not a matter of different levels
Fred: Sure it is. You think were a couple of old fools.
Penny: No, no, that’s not–
Ethel: But you’ll change your minds. I guarantee. Wait and see.
Penny: Well–
Ethel: Give us a chance.
Alice: You know, I’m afraid we’ve been rude. Of course we don’t think you’re fools.
Ethel: So humor us.
Fred: You might learn something.
Randy: (pause) Deal the cards, Fred.
(sound of cards being dealt)
Penny: After all, it’s only two rounds.
Ethel: Twelve. Twelve rounds.
Penny: TWELVE rounds?
Ethel: Two cards, six categories per card.
Alice: I still don’t know what a penalty is.
Randy: How will we know who wins?
Fred: It’ll be obvious.
Buck: Let’s just get this over with.
Ethel: Do you and Penny want to be first?
Buck: Yeah.
Ethel: Pick a category.
Buck: Science and Nature.
Fred: Say, that’s your field, isnt it? Biology?
Buck: Just give me the question.
Penny: Lighten up, Buck.
Ethel: Which planet in our solar system is farthest from–
Buck: Pluto.
Ethel: Right! So, we have to pay a penalty. Okay, Buck, do your worst.
Buck: Recite The Iliad.
Ethel: (sharp intake of breath) Oh, my! (laughs) My word.
Fred: He’s a sharpie, my dear.
Randy: Buck, you’re being kind of a jerk.
Penny: Cut it out, Buck, I mean it.
Ethel: Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
How far do you want me to go, Buck?
Penny, Alice, Randy:
(silence; collective gasp) Wow! Bravo! Bravo, Ethel! All right!
Fred: Well done, my pet.
Alice: Ethel, that was amazing! Well, I don’t mean amazing…
Buck: (deeply suspicious) Yes, amazing. It was, indeed, amazing.
Randy: Our turn.
Buck: What category.
Randy: Food.
Buck: Home and Garden. Whats the main the main vegetable in vichyssoise? Wait, isn’t that rummage?
Alice: Potatoes. Okay, Buck. Get ready for your penalty.
Buck: Why me? Why not Penny?
Randy: We want you to grasp your right foot firmly with both hands, and insert it in your mouth.
Buck: Ha, ha.
Alice: Or sing “Layla.”
Buck: I don’t think so, Alice.
Randy: Hey, foul! You can’t refuse a penalty.
Penny: It’s no use, Randy. You’d better give the penalty to me.
Buck: We are not amused.
Penny: And when we are not amused, we are a great big baby.
Alice: Well, in that case, your penalty is, you have to take him home with you tonight.
Penny: God, No! Not that!
Buck: Keep it up, Penny.
Penny: What do you mean, keep it up?
Buck: Just do that. Keep it up.
Ethel: Maybe I was wrong. Maybe we ought to just quit.
Alice: No.
Penny: No. We want to play, don’t we, guys?
Randy: Pick your category, Fred and Ethel.
Fred: How about Entertainment. Eh, sweetheart?
Ethel: Entertainment Tonight!
Randy: Where–uh-oh, this isnt fair–Where did Betty meet the leader of the pack?
Alice: They’ll never get that. Pick another one–
Ethel: Why–at the candy store. He stopped and asked my name…
Fred: You get the picture?
Ethel: Yes, we see.
Fred: That, Ladies and Germs, is when she fell for the Leader of the Pack.
Penny, Alice, Randy:
Incredible! I dont believe it! How do they do it? Etc.
Ethel: I suppose it comes of making so many young friends.
Fred: We thrive on young people.
Ethel: I think it’s time for the candles. Don’t you, Fred?
Fred: Here’s an easy penalty stunt, kids. Alice, there’s candles and candle-holders right here in the trunk. You light them, and Randy, you go over there and turn out the lights.
(sounds of rummaging)
Alice: Here they are.
(sounds of receding footsteps)
Randy: (from a distance) Ready?
(sound of match being struck)
Alice: Okay.
(click of a light switch)
All: Ooooo.
(sound of approaching footsteps)
Randy: Pass the bottle, Penny.
Penny: This is nice.
Randy: I’d like to propose a toast.
Penny: Yes, a toast. To Fred and Ethel!
Randy: To Fred and Ethel!
Alice: To Fred and Ethel!
(Buck-sized pause)
Ethel: I think we meet with their approval now.
Fred: I guess so.
Ethel: Isn’t that nice.
Buck: Just who are you people?
Ethel: Beg pardon, dear?
Buck: Skip it.
Fred: What category do you want, son? Its your turn.
Buck: Up to you, Fred, old boy. Fred Murgatroyd, of Anytown, USA.
Ethel: Go on. Pick one. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.
Buck: You really are a game-player, arent you, Ethel?
Penny: We’ll take Geography. (pause) But first I just want to say something. I just want to apologize to everyone in this room, and especially to you, Ethel, and to you, Fred–
Buck: Don’t you apologize for me, damn it–
Penny: For the disagreeable and uncalled-for behavior of my husband–
Buck: Shut up!
Penny: Who always has to have his own way, no matter what–
Buck: You little ass-kisser!
Penny: You son of a bitch!
Ethel: Whats the capital of Guam?
Buck: Guamville, you old bat!
Penny: (begins to sob; sobs throughout argument)
Buck: Guam City! Who cares? Guamopolis!
Ethel: Wrong.
Alice: (whispers) Randy, do something.
Randy: You’re way out of line, buddy.
Ethel: It’s Agana.
Alice: Bedtime, everybody. Game’s over.
Fred: Au contraire.
Buck: Look at yourselves! Sitting in the dark on a grubby linoleum floor playing dumb parlor games with a couple of–middle-class Martians!
Fred: I don’t suppose you’d be willing to put this lampshade on your head, would you, son?
Buck: Who the hell are you people?
Ethel: (singsong) Well, somebody’s got to pay the piper.
Alice: I’m sorry, Ethel, we have to quit.
Ethel: (singsong) I guess it’s up to Penny.
Penny: (still sobbing) I want to go home.
Fred: Scoot over here next to me, honey.
(sounds of scooting)
Penny: (sniffling) I’m so embarrassed.
Fred: There. Just tilt your head up in the light, toward me.
Ethel: Penalty time!
Fred: Penalty time!
Penny: (sniff)
(sound of a vicious slap)
Penny: Oh!
(five second silence)
Buck: You just slapped my wife in the face.
Alice: My god.
Penny: You hit me.
Fred: Ha! That’s twenty you owe me, my pet.
Ethel: Nuts.
Fred: You should know better than to bet against Murgatroyd the Magnificent.
Buck: You just slapped my wife in the face!
Fred: He did it again! As I say, its a funny thing. You hit an uneducated man–a plumber, a trucker, a local yokel–and he hits you right back. Bam!
Randy: I don’t believe this.
Fred: You hit a fellow with a PhD, and he’ll give you a news bulletin.
Buck: You just slapped my wife in the face!
Alice: Move. Now. Let’s get out of here. Right now.
Ethel: Fred!
Fred: Hold it right there, kids. That’s right. Don’t move a muscle.
Randy: He’s got a gun!
Alice: Oh, my god!
Penny: You’re pointing a gun at us!
Fred: See? They did it again!
Ethel: Don’t rub it in.
Randy: See here. Is this some kind of an act?
Ethel: Lord, you people are trite.
Alice: What are you going to do with us?
Ethel: Why, we’re going to have fun with you, Sweetness. Or as much fun as can be had, with a lot of whining, gutless snobs.
Fred: You kids are a big disappointment to her.
Buck: They’re going to have fun with us. Like they did with the Hornblooms.
Ethel: Hornbostels. No, you aren’t a patch on the Hornbostels. They were troupers.
Fred: They were scrappers. That Ernie all but rose from the dead to bust two of my ribs.
Ethel: Ha! If you could have seen your face!
Fred: Had him in a fireman’s carry, remember, and I was concentrating on getting him up those damn circular stairs–
Alice: Why were you carrying him upstairs?
Fred: Do you really want to know, child?
Penny: No! No! I don’t want to know!
Alice: The crates. Oh my god. They put them in the crates.
Penny: I’m not listening!
Alice: How many people have you–killed?
Randy: Hush, Alice. Nobody’s been killed. Nobody said anything about killing anybody.
Ethel: Fifty-two.
Penny: No! It’s not happening!
Fred: This one’s going to lose it, like that Harrington woman in Ishpeming. She’ll be catatonic in a minute.
Ethel: She’ll snap out of it.
Fred: How much?
Ethel: Fifty bucks.
Fred: You’re on.
Buck: They’re putting us on. Penny. Honey, come here, calm down, it’s all right. There weren’t any fifty-two bodies in those crates. For one thing, they wouldn’t fit.
Fred: We don’t keep the bodies in the crates, Professor. Why the hell would we want to do that? We use the crates to transport them out of town, so we can dispose of them in the countryside.
Buck: You would have been caught by now. Hundreds of people must have seen you. Fifty people couldn’t just disappear without someone raising an alarm.
Randy: Right! The FBI would have a file on you. Your pictures would be in every post office in the country. You’d be featured in tons of websites.
Fred: I suppose we are.
Ethel: But it doesn’t do any good.
Fred: Show them, Ethel.
Ethel: Should I? It’s a little early.
Fred: Go on. Now, pay close attention, children. Do the eyes, Ethel.
(pause)
Buck: Contacts. Big deal. Her eyes are blue.
Fred: Do the teeth, Ethel.
(pause)
Buck: So what? It’s a disgusting effect, I’ll grant you, but hardly–
Fred: Do the nose, Ethel.
(pause)
All: (exclamations of horror, screams, retching sounds)
Buck: Holy God, what is that?
Ethel: Little Olsen girl bit it off in Rapid City.
All: (more horrified sounds)
Fred: Now, I ask you, children. How many people could look at that long enough to give anyone a decent description?
Buck: Put it back on, for God’s sake.
Ethel: Aren’t I pretty, Buck?
Buck: How can you stand to look at her?
Fred: I wouldn’t expect you to understand this, but ours is a marriage of true minds.
Ethel: Now, you show them, Fred. Show them your wonderful disguise.
Fred: All righty.
Penny: (totally hysterical) No! No! Don’t! I can’t stand it! Don’t let him, Buck!
Fred: Don’t let me what?
Penny: Don’t do it! Please, please, please, for God’s sake, don’t take off your mask!
Fred: (pause) You trying to be funny?
Ethel: You watch your step, Miss. It’s all right, Fred. She’s just ignorant.
Fred: Well, all right. What I am wearing–is this wig, see? Which I remove, like so, and simply comb my hair over–like so–and then I simply don these glasses–like so–and–voila!
(small pause)
Alice: You don’t look any different.
Fred: The hell I don’t! I’m unrecognizable.
Randy: No, you’re not. Your hair’s a little different, is all.
Fred: I’m completely incognito!
Randy: As a human being, maybe.
Ethel: Don’t let them get to you, darling.
Fred: I never heard of such ignorance.
Buck: Are you people crazy?
Fred: Nope. Just evil.
(sound of Alice blowing out two candles)
Alice: Get the other candle, Buck!
Buck: (blows out third candle)
Ethel: (giggling) The little dickens!
Alice: Roll, everybody!
Buck: Disperse!
(sounds of scuffling, running around)
Penny: Buck! Buck! Where are you?
Buck: Shut up, Penny. You’ll give away your position!
Penny: It’s dark! I can’t see! I can’t stand the dark!
(sound of gunfire)
Penny: (one long scream, ending in silence)
Buck: Penny! Penny!
(pause)
Ethel: Maybe she doesn’t want to give away her position, dear.
Fred: Maybe she can’t.
Ethel: Tee hee.
Randy: (whispers) Find the stairs.
Alice: (whispers) I can’t even find the doorway. Is that you?
Buck: Penny! Answer me!
Ethel: (groans softly)
Buck: Penny!
Ethel: (groans again)
Buck: (whispers) Are you hurt bad? Say something.
(sound of match being struck)
Ethel: Hi, Buck!
Buck: (screams)
Ethel: Come back here, you little scamp!
Buck: (whispers) Randy, find Penny! She must be down. She must be hurt bad.
(sound of match being struck)
Fred: Would you like a hand?
Buck: Bastard!
(sound of running, bumping into things)
Alice: Ow!
(sound of Alice falling down)
I think–I think I just found Penny.
Buck: Penny!
Alice: It feels bad, Buck. Oh. (sobs quietly) Its all sticky.
Ethel: Now pull yourself together, girl.
Fred: Don’t give up. Our money’s on you. You’ve got spunk.
Alice: What’s the use?
Randy: Yeah. You’re going to kill us all anyway.
Ethel: Probably.
Fred: But not necessarily.
Ethel: Wouldnt be a game, otherwise.
Buck: (husky with tears) Has anyone ever gotten away from you two–freaks?
Fred: As a matter of fact, no.
Ethel: Tee hee.
Fred: But there’s always a first time.
Randy: (whispers) I’ve found the doorway. The stairs ought to be over here to my left. Im going up.
Alice: (whispers) Be careful.
Randy: (whispers) If I make it to a phone, I’ll call the police.
(sound of light footsteps on stairs–12 or 13 steps)
Ethel: Did you fix the stairway, Fred?
Fred: Uh-huh.
Randy: Oh, no!
(sound of body falling downstairs, followed by silence)
Alice: Randy!
Buck: Randy!
Alice: Randy, say something!
Ethel: Maybe he doesn’t want to give away his position.
Fred: You kill me.
Alice: You murderers! You’ve killed him! Oh, god, he’s dead!
Buck: Shhhh. Alice, we don’t know that. They may both be alive. Just hurt.
Alice: You think so? Maybe?
Buck: Yes. And nothing–irrevocable–has happened
Alice: yes
Buck: And we can all just forget this whole business
Alice: (sobbing) Oh, yes
Buck: No hard feelings. No police
Fred: I think they’re trying to tell us something, sweetheart.
Buck: You murdering coward! I’ll see you in hell!
(sounds of running, scuffling, thudding, going on for some time)
Ethel: (breathless) Time out!
(Note: Everybody’s out of breath for a while.)
I gotta get my breath.
Fred: Me, too. (laughing) We’re getting a little old for this.
Buck: What do you mean, time out? You can’t just say time out.
Fred: You can when you’re holding a gun.
(sound of stealthy footsteps)
Ethel: You don’t have to keep tiptoeing around, Buck. We never shoot during time out.
Buck: You people are insane.
Fred: You keep saying that.
Ethel: They always say that.
Fred: They cling, like limpets, to the pitiful delusion that virtue corners the market on rationality.
Ethel: Its a sickness of the age, Fred.
Alice: Monsters! Hideous, horrible, monsters!
Ethel: That’s better.
Fred: Though a touch theatrical.
Alice: Devils!
Ethel: Well…metaphorically, I suppose.
Alice: You’re not human.
Ethel: Look, there’s no call to get insulting.
Fred: Accept it, little one. We’re just very, very bad people.
Ethel: Rotten.
Fred: Vicious.
Ethel: Eeee-vil.
Alice: Why?
Buck: Yes. Why?
Fred: That’ a silly question. It’s like asking someone why he likes lamb.
Buck: It’s nothing at all like lamb!
Alice: Don’t argue with them, Buck. Don’t dignify this.
Buck: We’re going to die, Alice, and I want to know why. I want to make some sense out of the thing that’s going to kill me.
Fred: No, you want to lull us into inattention with a lot of small talk, and then rush us when we least expect it. But no matter.
Ethel: I guess the truth is, Fred and I were just made for each other. We knew it the moment we met.
Fred: Remember our first date, honey?
Buck: What did you do on your first date? Torture a cat? That must have been romantic.
Ethel: No, we ran down an old woman on the Merit Parkway.
Buck: You killed somebody on your first date?
Fred: Who knows? We never looked back, did we, honey?
Ethel: No. She doesn’t count.
Buck: And you’ve been….systematically butchering people ever since.
Ethel: Oh, no. No, no. We didn’t get into it seriously until Fred retired.
Alice: Kill us.
Buck: Yes. Do it.
Fred: Say, what’s the rush?
Ethel: Don’t give up now, kids. You’ve turned into real good sports.
Fred: They sure have.
Ethel: Look, Fred, couldn’t we cut the cards, this one time? Like we’ve been talking about?
Fred: Well…all right. Let’s give it a whirl.
Ethel: We don’t want to get stale.
Fred: And they have been good eggs.
Ethel: Okay, now, here’s what were going to do. First time ever, a real chance for you kids. We each team cut the deck, and if you get the high card, why, we actually–
Buck: No more games.
Alice: Kill us.
Fred: Aw, come on.
Alice: I don’t want to live without Randy.
Buck: Penny’s dead. What’s the point of going on?
Alice: We’d rather die than share this planet with the two of you.
Fred: Well. Gee.
Ethel: (pause) Oh dear.
Fred: It’s gone sour.
Ethel: Do you think we went too far?
Fred: Apparently we did.
Ethel: What do we do now? You think?
Fred: I don’t think we have a choice. (clears throat) What do you say, people?
(3 second pause)
Penny: Oh, Buck. Buck, honey. I’m so sorry
Buck: Penny!
Penny: (crying) Oh, Buck.
Buck: Penny, you’re alive! Penny, keep still, lie quiet.
(sounds of shuffling, thud)
Goddamn trunk! Penny, baby–
Penny: Buck, don’t come near me. You’re gonna kill me.
Buck: I love you!
Penny: You won’t for long. (sobs)
Ethel: Oh, this is just terrible. I feel so guilty.
Buck: Guilty! You miserable witch! Penny!
Randy: (sigh) Don’t take it all on yourself, Ethel.
Alice: Randy?
Buck: Randy’s all right?
Alice: Oh, Randy!
Buck: Penny! Penny, where are you? Christ, if I could just see–
Randy: Hold it, everybody. Just stand still where you are and listen.
Ethel: Who’s going to do it?
Penny: (sniff) I’ll do it.
Ethel: No, I’ll do it. I talked you into it.
Randy: No, I’ll do it. I talked Penny into it.
Buck: Will you two shut up! You’ll give away your–
Randy: (laughing) Look, buddy, it doesn’t matter.
Alice: Yes, it does! As long as we’re all together, it matters, right up until the last breath.
Randy: Alice. Listen to me. (sigh) It’s a joke.
Alice: No, no–
Penny: Alice, Randy’s telling the truth. It was all a terrible joke.
Ethel: Terrible is right.
Penny: (sobbing) And they’re never, never, never going to forgive us.
Buck: A joke?
Alice: A joke?
Buck: (pause) When you say joke–now, let me get this straight–when you say a joke, do you mean–a joke?
Penny: (sniff) Yes.
Buck: A joke, as in–We’re in no actual danger? As in, We’re not going to die?
Alice: How is it even possible?
Randy: It was a setup.
Buck: A setup.
Ethel: Yes, and it’s all my fault. You see, Fred and I though it would be–well–fun, you know, to play a little prank–
Buck: A little prank!
Ethel: Well, okay, an elaborate prank–
Buck: Prank!
Randy: See, they called me over this afternoon, and introduced themselves, and we got to talking, and…well, we just worked this whole thing out, and then I called Penny–
Alice: What are you talking about? What thing are you talking about? Are you trying to tell me that you’re in league with these–these killers?
Randy: They’re not killers, Alice.
Alice: They killed 52 people! They ran over an old person!
Ethel: Honey, we never even ran over a squirrel.
Randy: Look, you know the expression, It seemed like a good idea at the time? Well…it seemed…like a good idea at the time. Boy, are we in trouble.
Buck: You bastard. You sadistic…irresponsible…swine.
Penny: Buck, don’t. Don’t say ugly things you can’t take back.
Buck: And you! My sweet wife! How could you do this to me? To Alice, your best friend!
Penny: I…I just thought…we just thought it would be…you know…fun.
Ethel: You see, Fred and I really are game players. That much was true.
Buck: You just shut your mouth.
Penny: Don’t talk to her like that.
Ethel: It’s all right. I don’t blame you. See, kids, Fred and I, we used to be in show business. We did improvs for a living. Way back before TV.
Alice: But your face. That awful hole in your face.
Ethel: Show business, honey. I keep trying to explain, see, Fred and I were in vaudeville, during the very last days of the Orpheum Circuit. After that, we did clubs. And I was a magician. The only female magician they ever featured, and a pretty darn good one, too, I might add, though I suppose now is not exactly the time to brag. Anyhoo, the nose was a piece of cake.
Buck: All done with mirrors. Right?
Ethel: No, it’s all done with greasepaint and spirit gum and rubber.
Alice: But…all those nasty things you said to us. How could you act like that–for a joke?
Ethel: Show business again. You take on a part. You get into it. You go too far.
Buck: Oh, I see. Get it, Alice? Fred and Ethel don’t caravan around the country killing people. Nooooo. They just put on skits. They just frighten innocent people into cardiac arrests. They just corrupt the gullible and break up friendships and ruin marriages. And then they pack their stinking crates into their stinking U-Haul and drive away. And everywhere they’ve been, even weeds can’t grow, and people wake up in the middle of the night in a freezing sweat and can’t even look each other in the eye at the breakfast table. You know, Ethel, you were right, and I was wrong. You are evil. You’re wicked old people, and if it takes the rest of my life, and if I have to break a law to do it, I’m going to see to it that you never again have so much as a single minute of fun. (pause) Come on, Alice. Let’s get out of here.
Penny: Buck. You’re not going without me?
Buck: No, you stay here. Stay here and have some more laughs with your new friends.
Penny: Buck. You said–you couldnt live without me.
Buck: How ill-timed of you to point that out. How very unwise.
Penny: Tell me you love me. Please. I know you love me.
Buck: What if I do? I’ll never forgive you, you know.
Penny: But you do still love me, Buck? Tell me you love me.
Ethel: Yes, Buck. Say it. Just say you love her.
Buck: Oh, for Christ’s sake.
Penny: Say it.
Buck: (pause) I love you, Penny.
Ethel: Oh. That was good.
Buck: Now, get your ass home.
Alice: You too, Randy. We have a lot to talk about. Good night, Murgatroyds. You need not see us out.
(shuffling sounds)
Oh, Randy, is that you? Why are you still lying on the floor? Get up.
Randy: I can’t. My neck’s busted.
Alice: (through clenched teeth) You’re not funny, Randy. Get up now.
Randy: I told you, I can’t. My head and neck are lying in what is often referred to in cheap fiction as an impossible angle.
Buck: Nothing’s impossible around here, buddy. You just get old Fred here to work some of his magic on your neck. Or come see me. I’ll straighten it out for you. Come on, Alice, you can stay with us.
Ethel: Oh, Fred wasn’t a magician, Buck. I was the magician.
Buck: Yeah? What was Fred? The rabbit?
Penny: No, Buck. Fred was a ventriloquist.
Ethel: And a first rate impressionist, to boot. He did the most uncanny imitations.
Alice: Ventriloquist?
Randy: (pause) Murgatroyd the Magnificent.
Penny: Murgatroyd the Mellifluent.
Randy: Murgratroyd the Miraculous Mimic.
Buck: Mimic?
(3-second silence)
Alice: (whispers) Oh. No.
Penny: Tell me that you love me, Buck.
Randy: Wanna hear my Boris Karloff?
Buck: Oh my God.
Ethel: Hit the light switch, Fred.
(sound of click)
Fred and Ethel: (pause) Gotcha!!
Ethel: Tee hee.
(music up and over)

Act Three

(sound of interior car motor throughout)
Fred: Ahhh. It’s good to hit the road again, isnt it, pet? The open road. Always makes me feel young.
Ethel: Speak for yourself. I’m all done in.
Fred: Quite a night, eh?
Ethel: Well, it would have been all right if you hadn’t let those two get out of the basement and run around like that. Face it, Fred, we’re too old to go chasing up and down stairs.
(sound of slap on thigh)
Fred: Come on, woman! You loved it.
Ethel: That’s not the point. We’ve got to slow down.
Fred: Fiddlesticks.
Ethel: Or–or–you’ve got to start helping me with the clean-up. I was down on my knees scrubbing and mopping two hours after you went to bed.
Fred: Besides, I only did it for you.
Ethel: You’re full of prunes.
Fred: I did. I know how much you like to watch ’em scramble around. Your eyes get all big and wild–
Ethel: Oh, poo.
Fred: You’re a wild woman, Ethel.
Ethel: You’re an old fool.
(pause)
Fred: I figure we head up through New Haven, New London.
Ethel: We can’t go to Boston. Been there, done that.
Fred: I thought, maybe Providence.
Ethel: Okay with me. I’ve always liked the name. Providence.
Fred: We’ll get us some clams.
(silence)
Randy’s voice: I love you, Ethel.
Ethel: (laughing) Cut it out, Fred.
Buck’s voice: I love you, Ethel.
Ethel: You do, do you?
Fred: I really love you, Ethel.
Ethel: I wuv oo, too.
(music up and out)

The End

 

 

Medea in the Garden

“Medea in the Garden” was ready for reading, in installments, at

http://www.fivechapters.com/2009/medea-in-the-garden/

but apparently the Five Chapters website has died.  So here’s the story.

 

By midnight all the men were asleep.  My Kenneth was upstairs in bed, Bert and Joe had each gone home, and Di’s husband, Adam, was out like a light on the love seat.  By then the fire was roaring and the snow falling in big fat clumps.  And after onion soup, veal roast, artichokes, creamed new potatoes, Double Gloucester, stewed Anjous, Leah’s blackberry pie, and every color of wine, we four women were wide awake and ravenous.  So I went to the pantry for breadsticks and Liederkranz and came back instead with cognac and my precious new 20-pound bag of plump, salty, premium, natural-color Escondido Nut Farm pistachios, which my mother sends us every Christmas.

This was one of those subversive impulses that flash and stun without warning.  The sort which when you’re young compel you to blurt “I love you” when you certainly don’t, as a kind of insane courtesy.  The happiness you spread never offsets the cost.   Until now, I had shared the pistachios only with Kenneth, and that just since two years ago when he discovered them in a hatbox under the bed and threatened to rat me out to the children.  It was some small compensation, that evening, to please my friends, to watch them reveal their fine natures through food play, but not enough.  Never enough.

We had been talking about Baghdad and the polar ice caps, and about Caroline’s new drapes which she made herself with no previous sewing experience, and then on to how uncanny I was to have found a Sanredaam print stuck in an old book on party stunts, and so on, when Di leaned forward with that constipated expression she sometimes gets and asked, “Why do men like to slap women on the ass?” You can always count on Di.  “No, seriously,” she said.

“What a wonderful question!” Caroline, bony as a chicken foot, scooped yet another mound of pistachios from the communal bowl and funneled the nuts through her cupped hands into an ashtray already choked with shells.  She knew we were watching.  “This way I get to… rummage through the empties and sort of…come upon the full ones.  Then I sort of…pounce on them and wrestle them to the ground.”

Caroline’s little pistachio drama, hyperbolic and fey, is in keeping with her overall comic style.  Like certain theater people, she is always “on,” her mannered dottiness at once wearying and contagious, so that in her company, and against our will, both Di and I often catch ourselves chattering in unconscious imitation, adopting as our own her clichés and the rhythm of her speech, and even the fluttering mock-genteel gestures of her hands.  Only Leah, the rock, huge and solid, imperturbable as Buddha, remains intact, amused but unseduced, true to the classic ironic style: the majestic, straight-faced understatement.  Leah objects at length and often to all the sort-ofs, quites, and wonderfuls.

Leah ate slowly, contemplating each nut throughout its progress from random selection to obliteration. “I like the closed ones,” she said. “I like to crack them with my teeth.  If anyone finds any…”

“They won’t,” I said, keeping my voice light.  “These are premium triple-grade-As, sifted and resifted by hand, for a guarantee of absolute perfection.”

“Quality control!” cried Caroline.  “How wonderful.  Of course I must say I do miss that bright rosy color, the telltale fingertips, the sort of—“

“Stigmata,” said Leah, continuing darkly, “Nothing this pleasurable should be guilt-free.” Once upon a time, Leah claims, she made these pronouncements in all seriousness.  She ruminated and blinked in Di’s direction.  “Has Adam been spanking you, dear?”

“What? Oh! No.”  Leah, who has a genius for catching you on the wrong foot, had startled our Di into a blush the color of a dead-ripe Freestone.  Di is a newlywed, younger than the rest of us by forty years, slim and straight as a wading bird; an intense sharp-witted young woman, and a treat for the eyes.  Usually spirited company, she had been throughout this evening listless, preoccupied.  An ominous little bundle in our midst, ticking quietly away.  Like my own moody daughters. Like me, once a moody daughter.  She was laughing now, with us, uncomfortable and pleased, at the center of attention.  “Not exactly,” she said, provoking more laughter.

“And why not, I’d like to know?” Caroline brandished a fist.  “Good God, what have we come to, where will it all end?”

“It’s not a personal question,” Di said. “It’s a theoretical question.  I just suddenly wondered.”

“Of course you did,” said Caroline, “but the more interesting question is, why do women like to be slapped on the ass?”

“I don’t,” said Di.

“I sort of do, once in a while,” someone said.  Actually it was me.

Leah cleared her throat.  “They slap us on the ass for the same reason that compels them, when they are young boys,  to run up and touch the Witch’s House.”

“Ah,” we three said in unison.  Di was especially impressed.  She added, “Wow.”

“Bravado, is all,” Leah said, shattering a nut with her back molars.

“Do you really think so?”

Leah pondered, ponderously, assuming at last a benign, abstracted smile.  “No,” she said.

“You do, too,” I said, and continued before she could protest.  “When I was a child, our neighborhood Witch’s House was the only stucco house on Columbia Avenue.  It was pink with red tile roofing, and round rooms and turrets like a castle, and an ugly oak out front with all its limbs amputated.”

“They are often hideous, with round rooms and turrets,” Leah said.

“Our Witch’s House was just an ordinary old barn with a fat lady in it,” Caroline said.  “She was so enormous that she couldn’t wear clothes.  In the wintertime she wore blankets fastened together with safety pins, and in the summer she wore sheets. She kept pigs.  On windy days, when she came out to slop the pigs, the sheets would loosen and billow and snap, and the pigs would scatter, and I used to pray for one great big gust to come and blow those sheets away.  One day, at high noon, this actually happened.”

“Ah,” said Leah.  We were all quiet for a while, listening to the crackling of fire and pistachio shells, and the stertorous breathing of Adam; contemplating the solid, glistening apparition of the Naked Fat Woman, who appeared, at least to me, to rotate serenely within the fire itself as if on a vertical spit, glowing red like the center of the earth.

“I’m pregnant,” said Di in a low voice.  “I haven’t told Adam yet.”

Caroline opened her mouth to say, “How wonderful,” but didn’t and probably would have caught herself even without warning looks from Leah and me.  For Di looked at no one, her expression aggressively noncommittal.

So no one spoke, and after a time the suspense dissipated into an easy lull. Adam’s breathing changed, becoming shallow and rapid, his eyes rolled beneath slightly open lids, and his long legs jerked arrhythmically, in little puppet spasms.  He is a handsome young man, so the effect was more endearing than pitiful.  Di was particularly taken.  Apparently she had never seen him do this before.  “Is this a nightmare?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” said Caroline, smiling.  “He’s probably just chasing rabbits.”

Leah peered at her over the tops of her glasses.  “He’s not a dog, Caroline.”

“I wasn’t implying anything.  I dreamed about rabbits once myself.  An enormous beautiful white rabbit, and it hippity-hopped into Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, or what looked like Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, when I thought about it later, you know.  Then it blew up.   Not the house.  Just the rabbit.  It just sort of whoomfed and oozed out under the door.”

We all said that was disgusting.

“Don’t I know it,” she said.  “I was sort of retching when I woke up.  But then I was retching a lot in those days, because I was p—“ Caroline began to cough.  “Husk,” she whispered, pointing at her throat.  “Ahem.  As I say, at the time, I had one of those twenty-four hour bugs.”

“My mother had terrible nightmares,” said Di.  “Sometimes she’d scream so loud and wild that we’d all be frightened out of our minds.  One night my poor Dad—he must have been having a bad one, too—started screaming right after she did, and oh, that was a horrible sound.  The two of them were awake and scaring each other to death, screeching their heads off in the dark, and of course we got hysterical too, and ran into their room.  It took like forever to find the light switch.  This became a classic family joke, like the time they broke the bed.  I didn’t think it was all that funny, though.  Mother always said her nightmares were silly.  The worst dreams, she said once, don’t make you scream.  But she would never tell me more about them.”

“Then she shouldn’t have mentioned them,” Leah said.  These were my feelings exactly.

“But she did,” Di said.  And this retort—for it was that—made Leah blink.  No one said anything, and after a very uncomfortable minute Di got up and went to the bathroom.

In Di’s company we Old Ones had always refrained from homeowner talk and anecdotes about our kids.  We wanted not to bore her or pull rank.  On this occasion, though, she was inescapably, willfully junior; what with her pointed exit and equally stylized return ten minutes later.  She entered the dark and silent room as though it were a stage, and she the ingenue, with downcast eyes and lips tightly pursed.  She sat on the carpet in front of the fire, giving it her full attention, presenting to us her grave and lovely profile.  I would have waited her out.  I would have let her stew.  But Leah and Caroline, who have only sons, were moved by pity.

“The worst dreams,” Leah told her, with obvious misgiving, “are when you wake up smiling.”

“Or humming a little tune,” said Caroline.

“And then you realize why.” Leah regarded Di with kindly intensity.  She preferred, of course, to leave the rest unsaid.  Di could see this, so she nodded as though pretending to understand, with a wholly unconvincing smile.

Adam sighed a whispery sigh, licked his lips, rubbed his nose with a baby fist.

“You dream about a baby,” Leah said, “and it cries and cries.  You pick it up and it cries.  You rock it and walk up and down with it and sing lullabies to it and it cries.  It makes you frantic.  It makes you crazy.  Then a brilliant idea occurs to you.  And you get a hold of a darning needle, and you thread it with fine silk wire…”  Leah shuddered.  Leah shuddering is impressive, for there is a great deal to Leah.

“And you, what, sew its mouth shut?” asked Di, unnecessarily. My God, girl. Of course you do.

“One should not,” said Leah, “feel guilty about a dream, or a conscious wish, for that matter.  All that counts is what one does.  One should not feel guilty about a dream.”

“So you say,” Caroline said, clapping a hand on Leah’s shoulder with rare camaraderie and giving it a little wobble.  “Okay, once I was trapped in my living room with Antonin Scalia. Joe was there, and another couple, and we were having a cocktail party, and here came Antonin Scalia—either that or Saddam Hussein–crazed with blood lust.  He was chasing us around the room in slow motion with a butcher knife or—no, it was a gun.  He had this terrible gun and he was waving it around.”

“You sure it was a gun?” I said, trying to lighten the air with a double-entendre, which of course fell flat, as I am not a vulgar person, but really, I had to do something.

“Then somehow I overpowered whoever it was and tied him up in one of our butcher block dining chairs.  Butcher block!  Freud Alert!  Then I picked up this knife—you’re right, it was a knife—and proceeded to cut off his arms and legs.  I had to do this to make absolutely sure he didn’t hurt anybody.  It was hard work.  It took a long time.”

For God’s sake,” I said.  Caroline has a mind like a sprung trap.

“I haven’t finished.  I was so proud of myself!  Then I looked over at Joe—he was sitting on the couch with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman—and they were all staring at me with horror.  And then I looked at Antonin Scalia, and it wasn’t him at all, it was just a great big, well, baby.  Of course, after I woke up I was ill, but in the dream it seemed like just the worst kind of social gaffe.  I was so embarrassed!  I was swanning around, trying to laugh it off, and feeding the baby, who still lived, plumping pillows in back of its baleful little head.  I kept saying, Look, he’s okay, he’s just fine, no real harm done! I kept saying, He’ll be as good as new, you’ll see!”

“They’re not always about babies,”  I said.  Di worried me.  She was too solemn.  God knows, we don’t want to take ourselves that seriously.  The whole point of Di is to lighten us up, not the other way round.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Enough,” I said.  “Life is too short.”  The hour was late, and I was tired and cold, the way you get when you’ve stayed up too long.  I offered more cognac all around, in a voice which was, I thought, clearly insincere, but Caroline took me up on it, and then I drained the bottle into my own glass.  “Well, I wrote to the president again today,” I said.

“How wonderful!”

“Tell me your dream,” Di said.

I sighed and rubbed my forehead as though it ached, but she persevered, silent, poised.  The young are incredibly selfish.

“It was in the early days of our marriage, long before the children, although at that point we had just begun to try.  Kenneth and I were traveling cross-country, sleeping in motels.  I woke up smiling in a strange room and a gray morning, to a dull, rhythmic, thumping noise, which I came slowly to realize was part of a fading dream.

“I was killing a small mammal, some sleek, furry creature, like a ferret or a weasel.  It was badly mangled but still conscious.  I had a hold of one of its hindquarters and was beating the animal against a wooden block until the joint loosened and ripped away.  This act gave me intense pleasure.

“When I was fully awake, I ran to the john and threw up.  I couldn’t shake the scene from my mind, or explain it away, for the creature was as real to me, and still is to this day, as any you and I could see together.  So I made myself go back to sleep again.  I visited a thousand libraries, in different European cities, all quite detailed and of varying architectural design. I studied textbooks on anatomy, surgical techniques, anesthesiology.  I put the animal to sleep and reassembled it.  I didn’t skip a step.  Sheets of muscle were layered and joined, veins and arteries somehow soldered, and at the end my stitchwork was so fine that the animal’s coat was seamless and no one could have told, just from looking, that it had suffered any injury.

“When it came to, it cringed at the sight of me and would not let me near enough to stroke its fur.  Its eyes were terrible.”

“I’m sorry,” said Di.

“So am I,” I said.  “Sorrier than I can say.”

“Why did you write to the president?” Leah asked in a tone that brooked no opposition.  She is the oldest, the most forbearant, and God help you when her patience runs out.  She had an ominous look about her now and her color was bad.

Caroline noticed it, too.  “Yes, tell us,” she said.  “What did you say this time?”

“Same old thing.  Stop it right now, whatever you’re doing.”

“This instant,” Caroline said.  “We know you’re up to no good.”

Leah sighed.  “I haven’t been watching the news.  I don’t have the heart any more. But I was under the impression that things were pretty quiet.”

“Yeah.  Too quiet.”  Caroline began to giggle.  Caroline gets very silly when she’s overtired.

“I just reminded him that I wasn’t cut out to be a frontline soldier, and neither were my children.”

Caroline applauded.  “Hear, hear!”

“That’s exactly it,” said Leah.  “They put us on the front line.”  Leah regarded the fire.  “A long time ago. They should never have done that.”

“Why do you bother?” Di asked me, quite rudely.  And here I thought we had placated her. “Nobody reads your letters.”

“I know, but it makes me feel better.”

“If you know, it shouldn’t make you feel better.”  Crabby, militant, tiresome child.  We had in the past suffered her to lecture us on “learning to deal with rage.” She made me regret this indulgence.  “You’re comforting yourself with a fairy tale.  You don’t have any real power at all.  None of us does.”

“Hush,” said Leah.

“We have the power to swell up and burst,” said Di.  “We have the power to feed and burp and wipe up poop and walk up and down in the middle of the night.”

“Hush,” said Leah.

“We have the power,” said Di, her chin jutting toward Leah, “to make ourselves so important to them that they grew up to hate and fear us and make fun of us, and I hate it, I just hate it, and that son of a bitch can do anything he wants to, and you can write your letters from now until doomsday and it won’t make a goddamn bit of difference.”

“That’s enough,” whispered Leah.

Leah did that thing she does, where she moves without moving.  I can’t do it.  She loomed over the kneeling girl, filling her eyes, filling the room.  Even I was afraid.  Di paled, as well she might, and made herself small.

“The world can end in two ways,” whispered Leah.  “One is with a bang.”

“Kablooey,” said Caroline.  Leah shot her a look.

“That,” I said, “would be their way.”

“Their way,” said Di, her eyes huge.

“They have their ways,” said Leah, “and we have ours.”

“Tee hee,” said Caroline.”

Don’t you dare!” Leah shouted like a thunderclap.  We all jumped a foot.  “This is deadly serious business, Caroline.  Don’t you ever laugh at this.”

Caroline, clearly embarrassed, assumed a ludicrous air-raid posture, arms folded tightly over her head. “No fighting in the War Room, okay?  You know I can’t bear confrontations. I’d walk over my own grandmother—“

“You’re scaring me,” said Di, to Leah.

“I scare myself,” said Leah.  She smiled a great sorrowful smile.

“We scare us,” I said.

“Yeah, but nobody scares the Fat Lady,” Caroline said.  “My, she was a sight to see.”

We were all breathtaken for just a moment, but Leah said, “You kill me, Caroline,” and that was the end of that.  We were at peace all of a sudden, all of us, even Leah.  Even Di, whose face was thoughtful now, and not quite so junior.

She went and fetched the coats.  They all stood and stretched and bundled up for the record cold.  We spoke in whispers, refraining from waking the driver until the last possible moment.  He had slept through all of it, his own dream long past.

Di wrapped her neck and chin in a muffler the color of robins’ eggs, which set off her hair in a way we all admired.  Her eyes were still quite unreadable.  “I’ve always wanted children,” she said, gazing directly at each of us in turn.

“So did I,” said Leah.

“We all did,” I said.

“We’ve talked about having two,” Di said.

“How wonderful!”

“You won’t regret it,” Leah said.  “I never have.”

“Nor I,” Caroline said.  “Quite honestly.”

“Children are the future,” I said.

We all smiled then, the way women do.  There was a round of awkward hugs—a long standing practice which I blame Caroline for initiating—and Adam was gently roused and hustled out the door with sleep in his eyes.  Someone else must have driven: I doubt that he even knew where he was.

 

 

What with holidays and various family crises and Kenneth throwing his back out again, it was five months before the next get-together, at Caroline’s.  We had a pretty good time, although I must say my party was better, as Caroline is one of those egocentric cooks who feel compelled to alter time-tested recipes with arbitrary additions in order to make the dishes “theirs,” with predictably odd results.  Di was more vivacious than usual and seemed to have lost, permanently, that sweet, slightly annoying deference which she used to show towards us older folk.

Her stomach was flat.  Perfectly flat, almost concave.  This would simply have saddened me, I think, except that she flaunted her tiny waist with a wide silk cummerbund of a particularly flamboyant rosy hue.

I did not like that heartless touch, that cummerbund.  She and Adam left early, and at some point Caroline asserted—Caroline, of all people—that there was such a thing as being too thin.  But that was all anyone said about it.

 

Twinkle, Twinkle (Bat Chase)

This is an old commissioned piece (McSweeney’s) which had to be about an idea from Fitzgerald’s Notebook.  I chose:  A bat chase.  Some desperate young people apply for jobs at Camp, knowing nothing about wood lore but pretending, each one.

 

 

 

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

 

The first thing that happened was when her mother pulled up to let her off in front of the church, and Caro was in such a hurry to get out that she opened the passenger door too soon, before they’d gotten up next to the curb, but they were close enough so that the door edge dug into the grass, and she started to get out, but her mother said, “Wait, don’t get out yet, I have to back up,” and Caro, poised half out of the car, stared at the wide curved door hinge right in front of her, a thing she’d never seen before, as the car strained in reverse, and then something cracked with a deep unresonant twonk.  “What was that?” her mother asked.  “Why can’t I back up?”  And then, “What have you done?” Her mother tried to drive forward, but that didn’t work either, because the door was stuck open at an exact right angle to the length of the car.  When Caro stepped out into the street the door edge lifted free, but still it wouldn’t close, not even with Pastor Bosworth and the Dugdales pushing on it.  Everybody crowded around, pointing. “Why didn’t you tell me to stop?” her mother asked.  “What was the point of just sitting there and watching it happen?”  Caro reached into the car and grabbed her suitcase.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “Do you want me to not go now?” “What would be the point of that?” said her mother. In the end Caro stood on the church lawn with the others, the Bosworths and the Dugdales and all the Pioneers and the other two Pilgrim counselors, and watched her mother perform a sweeping U-turn and roll away, around the corner and down the middle of Broad Street toward the Sunoco station, with a funeral line of cars behind her and the right rear door sticking straight out like a broken wing.

Caro had been in a hurry to get there early so she could ride with Pastor Bosworth, whose wife and kids were going separately in the station wagon.  She would sit up front in the lime green VW, with the two other counselors in the back, and they would talk about metaphysics.  After the last fellowship meeting she had told him that her faith was beginning to slip away, which was an understatement.  Her faith hung by a thread.  Sometimes when they talked she was sure he knew this.  Last Saturday, during the bottle drive, she had asked him if a good person could find salvation even if he didn’t believe, and Pastor Bosworth had looked right at her as if she were an adult, and she had seen regret in his Prussian Blue eyes.  He hadn’t wanted to say “No,” but he had done it anyway.  This was a deep compliment.  He was younger than her father, and he smelled like cherry tobacco.  When she had tried to imagine Pioneer Retreat Weekend she had never gotten farther than the hour-long ride to Weekapaug—the part that really mattered.  But of course the second thing that happened was that the VW was packed full already, with Marianne Plummer, who was only the corresponding secretary, in the front seat beside him, whipping her long hair around, laughing her brassy laugh, and Caro, Pilgrim President, had to ride in the church bus with the junior high Pioneers.   All the way there she kept her face turned to the window.  She had traveled this way her whole life, since she was old enough to even see out, and what mystified her was that her gloomy reflection never seemed to change, as through her own ghost she watched the world pass by from year to year, forever.

Pastor Bosworth, who her mother said drove like a maniac, beat the bus to Weekapaug, and when Caro found her way to her assigned cabin, her Pioneer girls were gone, having strewn their clothes all over the rough pine floor and joined the rest for Orientation in the Rec Hall, from which Caro could hear a wan chorus of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”  Caro unpacked and folded her clothes under her bunk. The cabin air smelled of pine and lake algae.  She took out her leaf identification book  and brought it with her to the window, where she could make out sugar maples or red maples, or maybe both, and probably oak, or maybe beech, along with a bunch of conifers.  She had claimed, when volunteering to be a Retreat Counselor, an encyclopedic knowledge of New England leaves.  This was a lie, but certainly no worse than the lies she told every single time she recited the Apostles Creed. She counted a maximum of fifteen in her Creed, reckoning that a man named Jesus probably did suffer under Pontius Pilate, die on the cross, and get buried.  Caro was a quick study and had planned to cram leaf identification at the last minute, which this was, but now she found herself unable to distinguish, either on the page or through the window, one variety of maple from another.  The red maple leaf was supposed to be “broadly ovate” with “three shallow lobes”, while the sugar maple leaf was “palmate” with five lobes.  Caro, who loved learning new words as a rule, instantly hated “palmate”, “ovate”, and “lobe”.  Of course she looked up the definitions of all three but found herself unable in her depressed state to hold them in her mind.  They struck her as stupid anyway, as did most words standing for concrete objects in which she had no interest.  So, the red maple had five finger-like things, and the sugar maple three, or perhaps it was the other way around.   So what?

Still she had a job to do, to help the Pioneers find God in the Trees.  Fred Mania, the vice president, was to show them God in the Lake, and Marianne was supposed to be a big authority on God in the Night Sky.  (When Caro’s mother had heard  this, she had snorted and told Caro’s dad  that Marianne might be pretty good at that, since she spent so much time on her back, which made no sense to Caro.  Marianne knew nothing about nature, she was sure.)  Caro had wanted the Night Sky, about which she also knew nothing, but it was much more romantic than Leaves, so of course Marianne got it.   Sighing, Caro buckled down next to the window and  studied leaf ID, concentrating so hard on the sassafras and the white oak and the ironwood that she didn’t notice when somebody banged the gong, and so the third thing that happened was that she missed dinner.  After that, Caro stopped counting.

When night came and they all stood at the edge of the water searching the sky for God, Marianne pretended to find Orion’s Belt and deferred to Pastor Bosworth for the rest of the lecture.  Nobody paid attention anyway.  The older Pioneers made infantile jokes about Orion’s pants and two of the seventh graders got their sneakers wet running around in the dark.  Caro strained to hear Pastor Bosworth and to see what he saw in the sprinkle of stars, but she couldn’t get close enough to him even to make out his features.  Just his dark profile against the lake barely illuminated with starshine.  By the time she had edged within a few feet of him he had started to pray.

The next day, the only full day, was solid spring rain, so Leaf Walk and Lake Appreciation were canceled, and she had to help keep the Pioneers amused in the Rec Hall, first with a stockpile of ancient jigsaw puzzles, and then with parlor games.  She tried to teach them Charades and In the Manner of the Adverb, but except for the eighth grade girls they were instantly bored and soon shut her out and devised their own games.  After dinner they pushed the dining tables out of the way, and Marianne and Fred Mania plugged in a portable phonograph and started playing a “Four Seasons” record, from which came the ugliest sound Caro had ever heard.    Of course the room came to life, and soon the adults wandered back in, the Dugdales and the Bosworths, and there was dancing.  Caro watched it all the way she always watched groups of people engaged in a common enterprise.  How did they know when to joke and laugh and shout and when to be still?  How did the girls inhabit their own bodies?  How was dancing possible?

Something was happening in the far corner of the hall, near the back door.  Three kids were pointing up at the rafters, and then Pastor Bosworth and Fred Dugdale walked over and craned their necks and peered, and suddenly Marianne and Mrs. Bosworth were covering their heads and screaming, Bat! Bat!  Even some of the boys were screaming, their voices breaking high.  Then everyone stood stock still, pointing at Caro.  It’s in her hair!  Her hair!  Caro could feel it settle behind her right temple on her hairband.  The creature didn’t weigh more than a raindrop; if it had claws it didn’t use them.   Marianne Plummer was instantly, brilliantly hysterical, trying simultaneously to dramatize her concern for Caro and wrest the spotlight away from her.  Caro, holding her head level, walked past her, through the staring crowd, and out onto the porch, where she sat down on a bench and waited.

She had been waiting all her life, and she waited now, with interesting new patience and a new companion.  If they ask me what I’m doing, she thought, which of course they won’t, I’ll say I’m finding God in the Bats.

Mrs. Bosworth came out and asked her if she was all right, and Caro, facing away, said yes, the bat had flown off, which wasn’t true.  She heard Mrs. Bosworth tell something to the others, and then there was the scraping of chairs and tables as they lined them up for Sunday good-bye breakfast.   There was singing, with Fred Mania strumming his one guitar chord, and the music went on for a long time, and then Pastor Bosworth spoke, his voice low and resonant, and there was a question and answer period.  She couldn’t hear the actual words, but the topic, she knew, was “Who Do You Think You Are, Anyway?”

Eventually the voices stopped and it was time for Communion.  Hearing footsteps approaching the door, she lightly stood and tiptoed around the porch corner, out of sight.  Pastor Bosworth called her name twice, and then again, and then closed the door.  After a safe time Caro moved to the front porch window and looked in.  They were seated at one of the long tables, all on the same side, facing forward toward Caro, lit only by hearthfire and candlelight.  Pastor Bosworth was at the center, and to his right was his wife, and to his left, in Caro’s communion place, was Marianne, and the rest arrayed symmetrically to either side.  Caro couldn’t hear a word, but she watched Pastor Bosworth say that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread.  He passed down two halves of a homemade loaf and they tore off large pieces with their hands.  This was his body, broken for them.  He poured real wine into a plain tumbler and they all shared, his blood, shed for them.  Caro held her breath.  She had never seen anything as beautiful.  Their faces uniformly solemn, their faith strong in the moment, and at their center a man she loved without hope or comprehension, and all of it newly distant and cleanly put to rest, in her box of girlhood treasures.  She closed her eyes, to hold the picture tight, and there was a sudden lightness behind her temple like a departing spirit, which fluttered close in kind farewell, and then away.

 

A Million Bees

(This appeared last year (2014) in issue 6 of Gigantic magazine.  Make of it what you will.)

 

 

A MILLION BEES 

 

I know one joke. I learned it from my husband, who cracked me up every time he told it.  When I tell it, nobody cracks up.  I’m horrible at telling jokes.  Some people are just no good at it, and I’m one of them. Here’s me telling this joke:

Once there was a man who claimed he had a million bees.

See, this is a bad start.  The sentence is too formal in structure, plus it starts out with “once,” like a fairy tale.  Fairy tales aren’t funny, on top of which the man turns out to be a farmer, so you have to make that clear right away.

A farmer claimed he had a million bees.

Kind of abrupt. Still too formal. “Claimed.” It’s like the hilarious “writ of mandamus.”

There was this farmer who said he had a million bees.

Okay.

A reporter for the local paper was assigned to write about the farmer and the million bees.

No.  You don’t need “for the local paper,” since we can assume he didn’t write for the Times, and we don’t care whose idea the story was anyway, plus “assigned” blows.

One day a reporter drove out to the farm and approached the farmer and said—

Of course he approached the farmer.  He didn’t bellow at the man across a field of wheat.

So this reporter drove out to the farm and said, “I hear you have a million bees on this farm.”

Close.

So this reporter drives out and says to the farmer, “I hear you have a million bees on this farm.”

And the farmer says, “Yup.”

And the reporter looks around and says, “Are they outside in this field of wheat?” And the farmer says, “Nope.” 

The farmer is standing in front of a red barn.  “Are they in this barn”? The farmer says–

Nobody cares about the color of the barn.

And the reporter looks around and says, “Well, they gotta be in this barn.” And the farmer says, “Nope.”

I’m on a roll.

“Well,” says the reporter, “—

Too many wells.

“Are they in the house then?”

“Then” ruins it.  Act it out instead. Oh god.

“Are they in the house?” [I attempt to look puzzled and skeptical. My voice rises on “house.” My performance is grotesque.] The farmer says, “Yup.” So they go into the house. 

The reporter looks around. “Are they in…the kitchen?” “Nope.” “Are they in the living room?” The farmer says–

God, why don’t you go through every room on the first floor.

The reporter looks all around and doesn’t see any bees. “Are they in the basement—

The reporter looks all around and doesn’t see any bees. “Are they in the fruit cellar—

Stop it.

The reporter looks all around and doesn’t see any bees. They must be upstairs. “Are they…upstairs?” The farmer says “Yep.”  So they go upstairs.  The biggest room is the master bedroom–

Seriously? The master bedroom?

The reporter looks into the farmer’s bedroom.  “Are the bees in here?” “Yup.”

“Are they under the bed?” “Nope.” The reporter is getting steamed.

Steamed!  That’s good!

“So, are they in this bureau?” “Yup.”  [I attempt to convey exasperation. Eyeroll, maybe, exaggerated slump, maybe. Both. I wish I were dead.]

The reporter first tries the biggest drawer, then the—

The reporter goes through the bureau drawer by drawer until—

It’s one of those old bureaus you see in farms. It’s got these huge drawers—

Turns out nothing’s in the bureau drawers.  All that’s left is a large jewelry box on top of the bureau.  The reporter says “There aren’t a million bees in that jewelry box…?”

“Yup.”

[Wearing what I hope is a look of profound disgust, I stare directly at the imaginary farmer. I sigh, desperately.] The reporter yanks open the jewelry box.  Inside there’s some pearls and buttons and pins and a tiny velvet ring box—

That is so very wrong.  But I can see that ring box, it’s very small and of course it’s cheap velvet, black, and the top is worn and shiny. It’s shimmering right there in front of me, a goddamn ding an sich, unknowable and indescribable, yet like an idiot I strive to make it magically appear in another’s mind, so that the two of us can hold hands and gaze at it together and for one precious moment not be mistralswept and utterly alone, and if I were writing instead of telling a joke I’d strive like hell, but nobody cares about the ding an sich

Inside there’s some pearls and buttons and pins and a ring box.

“Are you telling me you’ve got a million bees in that ring box?”

“Yup.”

“Are you serious? A million bees?”

“Yup.”

“You’ve got a MILLION BEES there in that tiny box?”

“Yup.”

Here we go.

“But you couldn’t have a million bees in that box! They’d all be crushed!”

AND THE FARMER SAYS—

Why can’t I stop now? Why? We’re all  drowning in flop sweat. I haven’t made eye contact with anybody since we got to the stupid master bedroom.  The Funniest Punch Line in the World, delivered by me to these innocent people, would be cringeworthy. We are united in one hope: That the ordeal is almost over.

We need a new style of joke, one which ends just before the punch line.  I could kill with jokes like that.  Who the hell cares what the farmer says?

The whole damn point is that there are a MILLION BEES.  Just the phrase “a million bees” gets funnier every time you say it.  Even when I say it, it gets funnier.  Bees themselves are not funny—they’re not funny at all. They make annoying sounds and sting you. But the sound of the word “bee” is funny, maybe because it sounds like the letter it begins with, also when you pluralize it it even sounds a little like buzzing, and of course the number (a million) is perfectly hyperbolic.  There are larger numbers, but they don’t work.  Try it.  “A billion bees” is just tiresome.

So ideally the whole joke could just be boiled down to

There was this farmer who said he had a million bees.

If I only had the strength of character to just say that and back away.

Fuck ‘em.  That’s what the farmer says.

 

I Don’t Trash My Own Life

…is a story of mine that appeared 12/9/10 on Metazen, but those archives have died. So here it is.

I DON’T TRASH MY OWN LIFE

My friend Bertie goes

My friend Marlene goes on and on about tragedy and catastrophe and how “profoundly essential” it is to appreciate and maintain the distinction between them.

Working title—

Marlene

My Friend Marlene

The Fisherman’s Wife

???

She comes over in the evenings when Dave’s on duty at the Arco and sits out on the porch with one bent leg propped up against the railing and all the time she talks, in this awful new ironic voice, I watch that deliberate, showoffy twitch of the big muscle above her knee. “There’s nothing at all heroic about me,” she says, and I couldn’t agree more.

I’m this terrifically observant character with a pretty good vocabulary considering how salt-of-the-earth and Arcoish I am. I’m supposed to give this interesting resonance to the story of the much more complex (and named against type!) Marlene, although how the hell I’m going to resonate when I’m much too common-sense to be sympathetic to

first p. Marlene??

“The mental breakdown,” I told the psychiatrist, with a ghastly smile

Martini, if that really was his name

Martell was one of those hit-the-ground-running “eclectic” young shrinks. “I’ll go with Freud, I’ll try conditioning, hypnosis, drugs, heck, I’ll do an Indian rain dance—just kidding!—but here’s the point: [his face suddenly lost five years it could ill afford as he became intensely serious, pounding the desk with his fist on every other word] we’ve got to get you out of this depression…and we’ll do it any way we can.”

I gave him my best shot.

“The mental breakdown,” I said, with what felt like a ghastly smile, “has taken the place of death in the modern imagination. The Romance of the Crackup. Some day, assuming there really is a future—which is, of course, the subject of our present disagreement—[here I zapped him and myself with a witchy cackle horrible smile smile even more hideous than the other one some visible flinch-inducing tic] everybody will look back on all these lushly detailed nervous collapses and goggle at our sentimentality. They’ll seem just as ludicrous as the death of Little Nell.”

“Marlene,” said Martell

“Joanna,” said Martell

“Marlene,” said Weatherwax, “stop it.”

“You know the kind I mean,” I said. “Somebody slashes his wrists or goes into rehab or takes off his clothes in a Starbucks. Sobs at a board meeting. Smashes glass. They carry him away and he’s ranting or he’s just totally vacant and everybody else, all the mourners, stand around chanting, “He couldn’t cope! He couldn’t cope!”

“Marlene.”

“What’s so fascinating about going nuts? Nothing! Not a goddamn thing! As the subject of a novel, it’s just as engaging as curvature of the

Marlene knew the difference between tragedy and catastrophe. Tragedy involved a fatal flaw in character leading inexorably to personal destruction. Tragedy was fascinating and instructive and at its center were heroes. Catastrophe stuck blindly and without regard to personal merit, creating victims, not heroes, all of whom had legitimate cause to whine Why me? Caravaggio’s poor old humiliated St. Peter, upside down on the cross, ignored and terrified, was the victim of catastrophe.

Marlene composed these thoughts in the examination room recently abandoned by her gynecologist, Dr. Martini. Muzak invaded even this airless place, oozing in under the door like some noxious gas, needling her to tears with its idiot irony. She wept with her head tilted back so that most of the tears evaporated, and flipped away with the tips of her index fingers the little pools collecting beneath her eyes, as though, with measured dignity, flinging off the remains of a shaving cream pie.

She and Angler would never have children. She would never have any man’s child. The thing wrong with her—immunity to sperm—was so sinister and absurd

1. Barrenness as metaphor
2. P.O.V. avoid third p
3. Tone—for god’s sake

Do you know what it’s like to be barren in this country in this century? It’s like being dyslexic in Southern California illiterate in the deep South nobody notices waking up with two heads on a planet where everybody’s got two heads being anorexic anywhere in the United States being a fish and somebody steals your bicycle

Do you know what it’s like to be barren in this country in this century? It’s like nothing else in the world SO METAPHOR FOR WHAT???

I let people think I divorced Marlene because she couldn’t give me any kids. Some spasm of gallantry, I guess. Or laziness, because the truth is too complicated.

At first I admired her anger, the toughness, the bitterness of her immediate response. This was the first time she had ever gotten really bad news, but she scrambled to her feet and started right in counterpunching. Only she never stopped. She just got better at it. She told the story to anyone who would listen, and again at first I didn’t mind, but one night at a dinner party I watched her rein in the conversation and lead it into the old barn, and she was enjoying herself. She seemed to believe that bad luck gave her some kind of natural authority. My wife was a fool. She felt real pain all right, but she paraded it too. She even made a farce out of her own suicide attempt. She used everything. It was sicken

It occurs to me now that the old distinctions between tragedy and catastrophe don’t hold up. I mean, if mortality isn’t a fatal flaw, I don’t know what is. Everybody’s a hero, in my book. Even me, despite appearances, what with all this gauze on my wrists and everything

Marlene does give birth to something (self, messiah, monstrous herald of the apocalypse)—final image of her prone on the earth eating dirt:

There wasn’t enough of anything in the world to fill her up.

I had this friend. I’ll call her Marlene. What with one thing and another she’d had a pretty hard time, for a white person. She and her husband wanted kids real bad, only there was something wrong, some pitiful thing that nobody knew what it even meant, and then her husband left her. She said it was her fault and I believe it. Then she cracked up.

I got to know her because she was in the hospital bed next to my stepchild JoAnn, who claimed she drank a whole quart of Fantastik when that fool Martell ran off with her money. (I told that doctor “You try and drink a quart of Fantastick. She’s just putting on a show.” He said it didn’t matter, that it was a cry for help. I said give me five minutes alone with that girl and she’ll cry for help.) Anyway, JoAnn and Marlene got friendly in the hospital, and then somehow I got stuck with her, Marlene, when JoAnn moved to Knoxville.

We got pretty close, considering we weren’t on the same level. I liked her fine, but she needed the friendship more than I did. I’ve got enough children of my own. Sometimes, when she wasn’t talking about herself, she’d get me to tell about the old farm, or my first marriage, or my Sarah that died, or my brother’s troubles. She was always saying I ought to write it down. When I had my hysterectomy she came over every night and fed my family. They made a big joke out of her cooking, but she was a pretty good friend.

Summer evenings when Franklin was at the Arco we’d sit out on the porch and drink beer and play cribbage or gin. She could really handle the cards. Even when she was drunk those cards just flew too fast to keep count, and she fanned them up and down when she shuffled, and cut one-handed, like a magician. She had what my Daddy called smart hands. It’s funny what you remember about people. I can’t see her face any more or hear her voice, but I can still picture those smart white hands. She couldn’t play worth a damn though.

She moved away, finally, to the city. She said she needed to get some perspective on things and only distance would do it. Once in a while she writes, and sends me funny pictures of herself. I miss her a little, but it’s just like Marlene not to stand up to the camera like an ordinary human being. There’ll be a big group of people and you can just make her out on the end with somebody’s arm in front of her mouth. Or “A Candid Shot At Work” and it’s just an apartment building with an arrow drawn in pointing to one of the windows. Or Marlene by herself, but it’s so out of focus you wouldn’t know her. This one’s just a flat out picture of a pile of junk on the sidewalk, an old couch with a lot of boxes and lamps and things and a busted TV on top of it, only if you look hard you see her little old foot sticking out behind on the right side. I showed the picture to Franklin, and all he’d say was, she never looked better

All right, here it is. Number one, I’m not even a woman. Surprised? Of course you are. The naive reader would be. Number two, there’s nothing wrong with me or my wife. We’ve got three kids, and there’s nothing wrong with them. I don’t even know anybody who can’t have kids. The guy two houses down and his wife, Grace, don’t have kids, but that’s not the same thing, and neither of them has that Secret Sorrow look. As a matter of fact they look pretty smug.

All I did was, I read this article online a month or so ago, about these women who had “sperm immunity,” and it stuck in my mind, because it’s zeitgeisty. It’s a gift. It’s got everything—comic horror, absurdity, implicit reference to the nuclear threat, metaphysics (tragedy = catastrophe), plus the woman thing. Womanwise it’s better than breast cancer, and that’s been done to death already.

I know it’s going to go. I just have to freewrite into it. The point is, I’m a writer, I make things up. I don’t trash my own life. That’s not writing. I take a little seed, like that online thing, and nurture it, and maybe it grows and maybe it doesn’t, but the point is: I’m a storyteller, a fictionist, a fabricator, a fabulist. Who knows why some little thing will catch my eye? It’s all in the myth-making subconscious. The true writer learns to let his subconscious out. It’s like taking the leash off a bulldog; and if that bulldog sees something he wants, like the rolled up newspaper on the porch next door, then you have to let him just grab it in his teeth and run with it. Actually it’s the guy next door who has the bulldog. I have to start watching for the paper girl about 3:00 in the afternoon so that I can read my own newspaper without the A section chewed up and black with drool. I hate that goddamn dog. But the point is:

Hell

(This appeared in the Lifted Brow’s No. 6 issue, an Atlas of the World.   Writers were invited to choose their own sites, real or imaginary, and describe them in words, sounds, or images.   Too bad it’s sold out! It’s fabulous.)

There are at least as many Hells as there are Providences. Hell is an unincorporated collection of souls near Ann Arbor, Michigan. There was once a Hell in Southern California whose founder was the sole member of its Chamber of Commerce, but which has since been paved over by a succession of federal highways. Hell is a city in Poland, a village in Norway, and a family of limestone formations in the Grand Caymans. There’s a Hell in Holland and a Hell’s Gate in the Netherlands Antilles. Hellville is in Madagascar, Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, and somewhere there must be a Hellburg. All of these Hells are real, but none is true. When we tell somebody to go to Hell, we’re not directing him toward Ann Arbor.

The Valley of Hinnom, a ravine southwest of Jerusalem now flourishing greenly, is all that remains of the Old Testament Hell of Gehenna. Once the home of Ahaz and other barbarous, child-sacrificing idolaters, it soon became an object lesson–the Sodom of Jeremiah’s day–and a rubbish and sewage dump whose fires burned continually. Gehenna, then, was a real Hell, but again not the true one, only a smelly, smoking symbol.

And this is the problem with Hell: from the very beginning its geographic reality has been undercut by poets and prophets, because, like the rainbow and the unicorn and the Leaning Phallus of Albitragh, it begs to be symbolically used. Hell is the ultimate mixed metaphor, a slippery slope paved with good intentions and navigated by hand basket as every scrap of hope is jettisoned by the bucketful. Hell is war and other people and eternal solitude, or commuting five-days-a-week on the I-15 between Escondido and San Diego. Everyone has an “idea” of hell. If you troll the internet, you’ll find that hell is a three-month school holiday, a blind date, your idea of heaven, being force-fed the works of Henry James, the legalisation of all-night drinking in the UK, one night at the Hotel California, and five minutes with Arlene Massover. This is ridiculous, because, again, when we consign enemies, lovers, strangers, and inanimate objects to Hell, we’re not talking about ideas. We are wishing them into a real and seriously unpleasant place.

A place with a sulfurous atmosphere the temperature of roiling lava which bottoms out in a lake frozen solid with blood and guilt, but no, it isn’t Chicago, because the freezing wind comes not from Ontario but from the flapping wings of Lucifer, and because the music in Hell is appalling–unbearable for every single human listener, which is quite a feat. Out-of-tune trombones are featured, ditto cat-scratch violas, but that’s only the half of it. Hell is outside of time, atemporal, which means arrhythmic, so you can’t dance, even in agony, and the percussion instruments are cheesy: cowbells, cymbals, and tambourines. Though also kettledrums, according to Randy Newman, who should know. Instead of songs, there are screams, shrieks, yowls, the calls of predatory birds, and incessant cretinous laughter, the latter once actually recorded in 1923 by Karl Valentin and Liesl Karlstadt.

The architecture of hell is intricate. In Buddhist and Taoist mythology Hell, or Diyu, involves ten courts and at least eighteen levels, where specific punishments (freezing in ice, dismemberment by chariot, being devoured by maggots) are assigned to sins. Dante’s Inferno is a funnel of nine descending, teeming circles, the deepest of which famously houses traitors (Judas and Brutus), and not child killers and Hitler. We know about the architecture through the dreams of poets and theologians and a California real-estate agent who once spent twenty-three minutes in a ten-by-fifteen-foot cell being lacerated by demons before getting airlifted back to his house.

Just as everyone claims to know where the anus of the world is located, usually because they grew up there, so everybody has at one time or another identified Hell On Earth. But Hell is not aboveground. Hell is not a battlefield, a prison, a classroom, or a bureaucratic process. Who goes to Hell, and why, and for how long, and what goes on there, these are all matters of conjecture, but Hell itself is a real place with a real location.

Hell is at a point latitude 41 degrees, 51 minutes, 42 seconds North, longitude 71 degrees, 27 minutes, 31 seconds West, twenty-four miles beneath the chlorinated waters of the Salvatore Mancini Natatorium in North Providence, Rhode Island.

Consider the Ambivert

When I was a child, people were divided into two groups: extroverts and introverts. Introverts were thought to have something wrong with them: we were assumed to be timid, insecure creatures afraid of the light, and it was a given that we all secretly wished to be extroverts.   To turn inward, to keep one’s own watchful counsel, was somehow to let down the social team. Of course, we weren’t team players in the first place, and the only light we avoided was the spotlight.   Sunlight and moonlight–especially moonlight–were just fine with us. Routinely rebuked for insufficient vivacity, sub-level enthusiasm, and being an all-around pill, I would lie awake nights plotting the overthrow of the extrovert majority, whose self-esteem, whose very existence depended entirely on us–the watchers, the listeners, the audience, however unwilling.

Happily, rebuked children now abed don’t have to admit to either category.   According to Wikipedia, a third has arisen: the Ambivert.   The ambivert is not a free-ranging pervert but rather something in between an introvert and an extrovert. Wikipedia asks us to imagine a questionnaire consisting of ten statements with which five people–John, Maria, Marcus, Sarah, and David–must either agree or disagree:

 

John

Maria

Marcus

Sarah

David

I am the life of the party.

Agree

Agree

Agree

Disagree

Disagree

I enjoy being the center of attention.

Agree

Disagree

Agree

Disagree

Disagree

I am skilled in handling social situations.

Agree

Agree

Agree

Disagree

Disagree

I like to be where the action is.

Agree

Agree

Disagree

Agree

Disagree

I make new friends easily.

Agree

Agree

Disagree

Agree

Disagree

I am quiet around strangers.

Disagree

Disagree

Agree

Disagree

Agree

I don’t like to draw attention to myself.

Disagree

Agree

Agree

Agree

Agree

I don’t like to party on the weekends.

Disagree

Disagree

Agree

Agree

Agree

I like to work independently.

Disagree

Agree

Disagree

Agree

Agree

I often enjoy spending time by myself.

Disagree

Disagree

Disagree

Agree

Agree

Score

100% Extravert

70% Extravert

50% Extravert
50% Introvert
(Ambivert)

70% Introvert

100% Introvert

John and Maria are extroverts. Sarah and David are introverts. (This is according to Wikipedia. I contend that no true introvert, such as David, would agree to agree or disagree with any of these statements, or any statements in general.   It’s none of your damn business.) Marcus is an ambivert.

He yearns for the spotlight, and why not? Marcus is a whiz at social situations–in truth, he’s the life of any party, just as long as it’s not held on a Friday or Saturday night. Weeknight affairs might attract more people than you’d expect.   Of course, there’d be the usual extroverts, so afraid to be alone that they’ll go anywhere, even some lame Tuesday potluck thing larded with introverts like Sarah and David.   John, a 100% career blowhard, may begin to wonder who the hell this Marcus guy is and why he keeps popping up at odd hours to vie for the center of attention, but he probably won’t notice that Marcus never shows up on weekends, since he’s too busy back-slapping, bloviating, and charging about with the twenty-first century equivalent of a lampshade on his head.   I don’t know what the equivalent is, because I’m an introvert.

Still there’s more to Marcus than meets the eye.   For instance, he hates to be “where the action is.”   Assuming that the action is apt to manifest on weekends, this might explain why he avoids them, but I’m not sure that’s all there is to it. Marcus may secretly covet the action–to dream of it, in fact–but wherever the action is, there’s John, a legion of Johns, amped up on action, action-happy, pontificating and clowning around and generally filling Marcus with a vicious loathing for humanity.   To compete with John for the action’s hub, no matter how gorgeous the action is, is to admit defeat on some deep level.   Or maybe, like me, Marcus isn’t sure what “action” actually means.

Another thing: while Marcus enjoys being in the spotlight (so long as “action” is absent), he refuses to draw it to himself, presumably relying upon introverts to do the dirty work for him.   One of the many things the chart doesn’t make clear is how he goes about doing this, since he’s (1) rotten at making friends, and (2) purposely enigmatic in the company of strangers.   Possibilities:

  • Bribery.   Marcus pays Sarah and David to hang around with him in an approving way.   This is unlikely, though: it’s more of a John move.   John wouldn’t see anything wrong with it. And a true introvert such as David couldn’t be bought off.
  • The recognition of kindred spirits. Introverts sense that for all his low-wattage charm, he’s really one of them. They gaze at him benignly and encourage his wit with restrained, honest laughter. The extroverts just can’t figure him out, and as they pass by on their way to the Next Big Thing, they pause to study him. Who the hell is this guy?

        The unhappiest of the bunch, it turns out, because, just like John, he can’t stand himself, and unlike John, he admits it. Without an audience he falls apart.   He can’t even work effectively unless he’s surrounded by other people. His weekends must be hell.