Leroy of Barnwell and other Southern Gothic characters

telephoneHand over my heart, this is a true story.

The South is known for its unusual characters, right? They populate the stories of Southern writers like Erskine Caldwell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, etc. and et al.

But we Southerners know, don’t we, that you don’t have to crack one of these authors’ famous books to find such a fictional character’s prototype? Often they live right next door to us, or just down the street, or they show up at the other end of a random conversation. To wit:

In sending email, I often include a favorite saying or famous quotation in the message’s personal signature section, at the bottom of the page. Recipients of the emails often comment on the quotations, which I change from time to time, as the spirit moves me. Some samples:

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” ~Ben Franklin

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” ~Walt Kelly’s Pogo

And a personal favorite: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” ~Henry Ford

Still with me?

Well, recently I sent an email requesting information from an out-of-town bank. A woman named Louise, the bank’s computer teller, called the next day to give me the information. “But first,” she said in a Southern drawl dripping molasses, “tell me how you know my husband. I asked if he knows you and he doesn’t.”

“Your husband?” I said, puzzled. She was in Mississippi; I was in South Carolina. Hadn’t been to Mississippi in years.

“Yes. You quoted him in your email,” Louise said. “I was amazed to see that.”

“Quoted? Your husband?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got it right here on my screen: It says, ‘Fortune favors the bold.’ ~Virgil”

The light bulb came on. “Oh,” I said. “That’s a quote from Virgil, the ancient Roman writer.”

“Oh, then that’s not my Virgil,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever been out of Mississippi.”

I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask Louise if she knew a young woman named Velma that I used to work with in Aiken, S.C. Velma glowed with vitality, but the glow did not extend far above her neck. (Nor did it need to; Velma was drop-dead gorgeous.)

Anyhow, one day when the office staff was having a working lunch, the boss’s way of keeping our noses closer to the grindstone of commerce, somebody brought up that old parlor game in which you are asked to name 12 people you’d invite to a dinner party if you could include anybody who had ever lived.

Soon, names like Jesus, Hitler, Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Elvis, the virgin Mary, Robert E. Lee, Babe Ruth, and Thomas Jefferson rang around the table — until it was Velma’s turn.

So help me, with not a hint of self-consciousness, Velma, in all seriousness, named 12 of her relatives: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins!

I couldn’t believe my ears. Give somebody a chance, in theory, at least, to have a tête à tête with the likes of Jesus of Nazareth, and she chooses Leroy of Barnwell and Cindy Lou of Allendale!

We all stopped in mid-bite to stare in disbelief at Velma, but I doubt that she even noticed.

Anyhow, I’ve often wondered if Louise, the wife of Virgil of Mississippi, was one of Velma’s relatives.

‘Those ever-lovin’ blues’

The BluesI was still in mourning for Bobby “Blue” Bland, who passed in 2013, when a short while ago the house lights went down for the last time on B.B. King, too.

What to do, what to do? So many of our great blues singers have made their Last Road Trip, have gone on to that Great Jam Session in the Sky: Bland, King, the two Jimmys (Reed and Witherspoon), Ray Charles, Lou Rawls, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Little Milton, to name but an octet of the very best.

Think what choir practice in Heaven must sound like nowadays!

Thank goodness for recordings (and for YouTube). I’d hate to look down that long, lonesome road thinking I could never again hear these artists sing songs like “Stormy Monday,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Drown in My Own Tears,” “The Thrill Is Gone,“ “Bright Lights, Big City.”

I can hear Bland now, voice smooth as silk, sliding and gliding from one blue note to a note bluer still: “If I should take a notion to jump into the ocean, ain’t nobody’s business what I do.” Insouciance personified!

And what about Blues Boy King, a national treasure from tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, Tennessee? If his rendition of “The Thrill is Gone” doesn’t turn your inmost thoughts to The One That Got Away, count yourself lucky. Or guilty. You decide.

I tell you, if these great blues songs were paintings, they could hang in the Louvre, they’re so good. In the same room with the Mona Lisa would be a fitting place. She, too, broke a lot of hearts, they say – which is what most blues songs are about – that and being lonesome.

Why, even a lady’s man like Elvis once had a room at Heartbreak Hotel – and where was the hotel located? “Down at the end of Lonely Street.” And it was “always crowded.”

Some with broken hearts prefer to suffer alone, of course. No desk clerks dressed in black for Ray Charles. No lachrymose bellhops, either. He is “so all alone” and crying so hard that he will drown in his own tears if his woman doesn’t “come on home” – and soon!

How could any woman who loves music resist such a plea? Charles’s rendition of that song is a perfect fusion of blues lyrics and gospel chords.

Sing it again, Ray, wherever you are. And if the Raylettes are now the Angelettes, invite them to  join in.

Men, too, break hearts, of course. What woman has not sighed in painful recognition on hearing  the one and only Billie Holiday lament: “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on. Sometimes when you think it’s on, it has turned off and gone.”

Sadder still is that the song’s singer has turned off and gone. Checked out of Heartbreak Hotel, apparently her permanent residence, in 1959. Though born in the City of Brotherly Love, Billie Holiday had a hard time finding any, brotherly or otherwise. Born Eleanora Fagan, Holiday died in a New York hospital bed while under arrest for narcotics. (For one hell of an obit: NYTimes.com.)

Now let’s give thanks for the blues artists who are still with us, performers like:

  • James Taylor (“Steamroller Blues”): “I’d like to roll all over you…”
  • Eric Clapton (“I Want A Little Girl To Fall In Love With Me”): “You know I’d give her everything I’ve got…”
  • Delbert McClinton, a national treasure himself (“Standing on Shakey Ground”): “My car got repossessed this morning. harder times I haven’t seen in years…”
  • Mick Jagger (“Honky Tonk Women”): “I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis, She tried to take me upstairs for a ride…”

And let us not forget the blues that from time to time befall all of us, the blues about simple rotten luck, as in “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which manages to make a double negative sound negative indeed: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

An aside: The late Albert King, no kin to B.B., made “Bad Sign” popular, but the best version I’ve heard was by Robben Ford, whose “Bad Sign” is actually a good sign because he is still among those working to keep the blues, a genuine American art form, alive and well.

And who do we have to thank for this art form? Well, the blues are as old as heartache, as old as sorrow itself, but W.C. Handy is widely regarded as the Father of the Blues, and I know of no one with a better claim to the title.

Born Nov. 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, Handy was a musician (cornet) and composer. It is said that he harvested the rhythms he heard in his travels throughout the South, put them into his compositions, and brought them into the mainstream of American music aboard classics like “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues.”

I like ‘em all, but, oh, that last one! I can hear ol’ Louis Armstrong singing it now:

“Old Deacon Splivin, his flock was givin’ the way of livin’ right.
Said he, No wingin’, no ragtime singin’ tonight.
Up jumped Aunt Hagar and shouted out with all her might:
‘Oh, ain’t no use to preachin’, ain’t no use to teachin’;
each modulation of syncopation just tells my feet to dance.
I just can’t refuse when I hear the melody they call the blues,
those ever-lovin’ blues.”

Sing it again, Satchmo. You, too, were a national treasure, but, alas, one of a kind. We won’t see your like again.

And now I’ve really got the blues.


(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I found the songs mentioned above on YouTube via Google. B.B. King must have recorded “The Thrill Is Gone” a hundred times, but two of the best versions are the one he did for the TV show “Austin City Limits” and the one he did with the great Eric Clapton.)

  • Image: We got this image from ImageBoard.com listed as a free wallpaper. ImageBoard had a link to the source, but that link went to a scareware site. Since the image was on thousands of pages with no real attribution, we believe it to be an abandoned copyright. Should anyone determine the true copyright holder, we would be happy to attribute, attempt to license or take it down.

The F Word

Ralphie Parker washing his mouth out with soap

Talk about coincidence, I was thinking the other day how popular song lyrics have changed over the years – and not for the better, I fear – when I stumbled into an odd kind of research online that supported my suspicion and set me to thinking about language in general.

The research. Believe it or not, somebody has gone to the trouble – brace yourself – to count the words that have shown up most often in popular songs in every decade since the 1890s! And if you thought song lyrics were getting cleaner and classier, move to the rear of the line. Yes, the “f” word was one of the five most common words appearing in the current decade’s popular music. “Hell” was another.

Why am I not surprised? I saw a novel recently that would have been a short story if the author had left out the “f” word. And today’s comedians (I use the word loosely) seem unable to set up or deliver a punch line without a plentiful use of the “f” word. Don’t they know they could stand out from the crowd just by following the G-rated example of such great comedians as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Jerry Seinfeld?

Just as an experiment, try this: In the history of American comedy, one of the funniest lines ever delivered on TV was a simple two-word sentence by Jack Benny, who was a notorious skinflint (and master of comedic timing). In the skit, he was held up at gunpoint by a robber who had demanded, “Your money or your life” and, after a moment, repeated the demand. Said Benny at length: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” America exploded in laughter!

Now go ahead (though not out loud in public): Throw a few “f” words into that fourteen words of famous dialogue and watch it wilt before your eyes (or fizzle in your ears).

When it comes to using foul language, believe me less is more. Much more. Not because one is Pecksniffian, but because one cares about language, which thrives on economy to make a point, not on gratuitous helpmates, especially foul adjectives. You couldn’t improve on this funny line by adding anything at all: “’Shut up!’ he explained.”

Still not convinced? Then consider these famous lines from movies, each so well-crafted (and well delivered) that it has become engrained in our collective consciousness. (I’ll list at the bottom the movies they came from). Notice how many of the words are one-syllable, how few adjectives are employed – and how effective when employed, and how dramatic understatement can be:

  • “Go ahead, make my day.”
  • “Houston, we have a problem.”
  • “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
  • “Badges? We ain’t got no badges! We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
  • “I’ll have what she’s having.”
  • “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
  • “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
  • “Show me the money.”
  • “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
  • “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
  • “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

That last one, spoken by Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in the 1939 American Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, was selected by the American Film Institute as the most memorable American movie quotation of all time. “Damn” in this case, by the way, is a noun, not an adjective.

Moral of this story: Current usage might have gone to hell in a handcart, but simple, straightforward, unadorned language is still the best route to being understood.

(The movies, in order: Sudden Impact, Apollo 13, Cool Hand Luke, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, When Harry Met Sally, Jaws, On the Waterfront, Jerry Maguire, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Gone With the Wind.)

  • Image: Ralphie Parker (aka: Peter Billingsley) washing his mouth out with soap from a production still from the MGM movie “Christmas Story” (fair use)

Up the Hill, down the Hill. . .

(From Ch. 8, Striking Out)

SOthumbI lay in bed that night thinking it was over and telling myself to forget Cherry and move on. I even went to sleep and got up the next morning thinking it was all settled. But when the city bus that I often rode to school left the stop at Riverside High, heading up the Hill, I was still on it.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. A part of me that I barely recognized seemed to be running the show, with the rest of me just along for the ride. But I got off at the stop closest to Cherry’s house and walked straight to it, barely noticing what an absolutely beautiful day it was: clean, bright, fresh.

Mrs. Ashford looked very surprised when she answered the door, but she recovered quickly and called back into the house, “Billings.” Telling me to wait there, she pushed the door nearly closed and turned away, saying as she went, “It’s that boy.”

Next thing I knew, Mr. Ashford, wearing a coat and tie, and smelling of aftershave lotion, loomed in the doorway. “What do you want?” he said. He sounded short and looked put out, but I had the impression that he thought he’d overdone it. At any rate, he repeated in a softer voice, “What do you want?”

I felt like saying, “Gee, I don’t know. I’m just as surprised to find myself here as you are.” But I blurted out the simple truth instead: “I want to know about Cherry — the truth.”

The last, the part about the truth, stung him, I thought, but he looked at me as if gauging how much he should tell and said, “All right.” He stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door to behind him. “The truth is that Cherry can’t see you anymore.”
“Where is she?” My tone of voice, demanding, surprised me.

But it didn’t faze him. “To tell you where Cherry is would defeat our purpose in sending her away.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “What did we do that was so terrible?”

“It wasn’t so much what you did as what you might have done. We felt that certain precautions were in order. You understand.”
I did, but I didn’t want to accept it. Feeling cornered, I said the first thing I could think of that might make him see things my way. “Cherry’s in love with me. Doesn’t that matter to you?”

He smiled. “It matters more than you know. But Cherry’s young — young and inexperienced.”
“And I love her.” I was snapping at him now and feeling foolish because of it, but I couldn’t seem to stop.
He smiled again, making me feel more foolish. He had the upper hand and he knew it. “And what can you offer her?”
That surprised me. Hell, I wasn’t talking about marriage, just love. “Sir?” I said.

“Let me be frank, Benny. You asked for the truth and you’re old enough to hear it. You have nothing to offer my daughter. She’s young and, I admit, spoiled, and doesn’t understand these things, so we must protect her until she does.”
What the hell was he talking about, I wondered. “But we love each other,” I said. Why couldn’t he understand that?
“Let me finish,” he prompted. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Benny, but I’ve found out some things about you since Sunday. I don’t enjoy prying; it was my duty to Cherry.”

He stopped there, hoping, I guessed, that I would see what he was getting at. But I didn’t. “Found out what? Where?”
“I had a long talk with the principal about you.”
I was thrown. “Mr. Thompson?”

He nodded. “I also talked to the good priests at St. Jude.”
I still didn’t see it coming, and it must have shown on my face.

He acted a bit awkward and said, “Benny,” as if I were a keen disappointment to him. “Must I say it? Can’t you see? Girls like Cherry don’t marry boys like you. Oh, once in a blue moon it happens, but even then–”

“You mean I’m not good enough for her.” Suddenly I felt helpless, defeated, angry, and I silently cursed a world in which roses could bloom, birds could sing, and the air smell so fresh while a rich man stood on the porch of his fine home and told me I was nothing.

He seemed self-conscious and looked away. “I’m sure you’re a nice enough boy, Benny. Nobody I talked to said you were bad — a little mixed up, maybe, but not bad.”

“Just poor–was that it?” I couldn’t help myself; I wanted him to say the worst so I could hate him that much more.
“Well,” he said, looking about, hedging.
He turned a shade cold himself. “Just that you’re a Milltown boy. And that your parents are mill workers.”
“You sure they didn’t say lint-heads?”

He looked at me again. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. But I had to put Cherry first. And now . . .”
He motioned toward the door with one hand and stuck out his other for a handshake.

I looked at the hand and then at him. I wanted to spit on it. Then I turned and walked away.

#  #  #

Striking Out is available from the publisher, The Permanent Press (www.thepermanentpress.com) and at www.amazon.com. This novel was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

Reason & Mystery

I think of myself as a realist. A diehard realist. I believe I am truly a child of the Age of Reason.moon

But can reason explain all things, unlock all mysteries?

Don’t think so. My Uncle Lehman, for instance, my Aunt Mary Grace’s husband, could talk warts off.

As I write this, I can see you shaking your skeptical head.

Well, I didn’t believe it, either.

Nor did Meredith, my first wife, who once was his “patient.”

But he did it anyhow, and it couldn’t be called faith healing, for the subject’s disbelief was no deterrent to the cure.

You ready for this?

We go by their house one night in Augusta to see him and my aunt. While we’re there, Uncle Lehman notices warts, lots of ‘em, on Meredith’s hands. I’d seen the warts myself, of course. Ugly things. Horny growths. Blemishes on otherwise pretty, feminine hands.

“I’ve tried everything to get rid of them,” Meredith tells him, holding out her hands, turning them this way and that, so Aunt Mary Grace can see the warts, too.

“I can make ‘em go away,” says Lehman.


“Come with me,” he says.

He then leads Meredith out the front door and onto the front lawn, which was blanched in alabaster moonlight. I tag along, dubious but curious. Is this a prank of some kind? He always liked his little jokes.

About 10 paces from the front doorsteps, Uncle Lehman stops, takes hold of Meredith’s hands and, looking up at the moon, instructs her to look up, too.

Then he rubs her hands while murmuring something under his breath.

The whole exercise takes no more than a minute or two. Then back inside we go, the conversation turning soon to other things.

A week later the warts are gone!

And they never came back. Till the day she died, five years later, she never had another one!

“How’d you do that?” we asked Lehman next time we saw him.

“Nothing to it,” he said, smiling.

But he didn’t explain.

I guess he took the secret with him to his grave.

I forgot to mention that his wife, My Aunt Mary Grace, could talk the fire out of burns.

I hear you loud and clear:



Yes, I’d say the same things – if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own baby blues.

But that story will have to wait till next time. I’ve run out of space (and perhaps overstayed my welcome, too).

Till then, in case you think I’m pulling your leg, I leave you with the strongest avowal of truth-telling that I can muster. It’s borrowed from a love sonnet by the Bard of Avon, but is, I trust, adaptable to any situation requiring trust.

“If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ and no man ever loved.”



‘Amazing’ Grace charms fire from baby’s burns

yves-guillou-Fire-forbidden-sign-300pxLike her husband Lehman, who could talk warts off, Mary Grace never revealed the secrets of her magic. She would lose her powers, she said, if she revealed them to anyone except a male child of her own. The legatee was my cousin Buddy, who figures prominently in this story.

In writing all of this, I have hesitated to call any of it magic, for that might imply my belief in the inexplicable feats I’m telling you about. But I looked up the word “magic” not two minutes ago, and it is indeed the right word for what I’m describing. For, in part, the definition says: “any mysterious, seemingly inexplicable, or extraordinary power or influence.”

This, Mary Grace possessed in full and, like her father, my grandfather, she became well-known around Augusta for performing “inexplicable” feats, her reputation spreading first by word of mouth and later by newspaper stories about her and “her mysterious gifts.”

I used to tease her (she’s gone now; lung cancer. Lehman, too, soon after; grief): “If this were Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, you’d be toast by now.”

But in truth nothing about her, not even her magic, suggested witchcraft. On second thought, burning at the stake might have posed no threat to her, for her most mysterious power was the ability to talk fire out of burns. (She also could stop bleeding.)

Yep, you read me right: my Aunt Grace could talk fire out of burns. And maybe I’ve got a supernatural power, too, for I already know what you’re thinking. And I agree with you: Such things are impossible. But somebody forgot to tell that to Mary Grace and her supplicants.

I witnessed this ritual only once, but the memory of it has stayed with me in vivid detail all these years.

I must have been eight or nine years old. Aunt Grace used to keep me evenings while my mother worked. Anyhow, I’m sitting at the table one winter evening, having just washed up for supper after bringing in a bucket of coal for the kitchen stove, which was the main source of heat in Aunt Grace’s three-room shotgun house in one of Augusta’s mill villages. Across the table from me was Lehman Junior, Aunt Grace’s little boy, maybe a year and a half old, still in a high chair, the tray thrown back but the baby strapped in (with a diaper) for safety.

Busy putting food on the table, Aunt Grace takes a pot of boiling stewed potatoes from the stove and pours them into a bowl on the table, heat still bubbling up through the thick, lava-like sauce. She turns back to the stove and my eyes follow her – until we hear a blood-curdling scream from Lehman Junior. He has reached from his highchair and plunged a little fist into those steaming stewed potatoes.

Writhing in paroxysms of pain and bawling like a banshee, the baby is holding a trembling hand aloft, staring at it as the thick potato coating drips from it to reveal the lobster pink of burned baby-flesh underneath. Aunt Grace flies to his side, uses her apron to wipe the sticky coating off the burned hand, enfolds the injured hand in her own hands, and begins murmuring indistinguishable words.

It’s like watching somebody’s lips move in silent prayer, but she seems to be uttering an incantation rather than praying, maybe because her eyes are open the whole time.

Well, in no time at all, Lehman Junior’s four-alarm screams subside to soft cries and moans, and a few seconds later to sniffles that themselves are soon extinguished. I watch as Grace examines the injured hand. It is no longer red. It looks, well, just like Lehman Junior’s other hand, a soft baby white.

So what’s to be made of all this – of Lehman and Grace’s magic? Well, they wouldn’t be the first among us who had fashioned a reality built of incantations, enchantments, spells, and a belief in unseen powers. But my aunt and uncle’s delusional world strikes me as harmless, whereas the delusions of some – yesteryear’s Nazi Germany and today’s ISIS come to mind – subvert reason and undermine sanity.

Too, ostensibly Lehman and Mary Grace actually helped people who sought them out for help – and did it for free, never setting up shop as healers or, thank heaven, advertising their “powers” in any way.

As you can see, I have no ready answer. But, hey, I have my hands full in dealing with my own reality. So if I had anything at all to say, it would probably be: “Help!”


Book Review

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land

Image of Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 512

If you like modern poetry, or simply a good biography, Young Eliot is the book for you.”

In Young Eliot, biographer Robert Crawford has delivered the definitive account of how Thomas Stearns Eliot became T. S. Eliot, the most important English-language poet since Walt Whitman. Best of all, the story reads like a novel about that most productive period in Western literature, the early 1900s, as the reader follows the education, both formal and otherwise, of Eliot from fledgling poet to emerging literary icon.

For Eliot fans who know only casually that “he was from St. Louis” and that “he went to Harvard and then settled in England,” this biography provides the chance to see how arduous was his journey from typical undergrad to polished poet. Indeed, he might not have made a breakthrough at all without the patronage of the great English philosopher Bertrand Russell (who in turn helped himself to the sexual favors of Eliot’s wife Vivien).

One of the surprises to the uninitiated reader is how long it took for Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to win recognition: years. Surprising, too, is how long it was after “Prufrock” until Eliot produced another of his great works, again years. But Eliot was creating a new kind of poetry, much more cerebral than that of his predecessors, and Crawford does an excellent job of detailing Eliot’s gestation period from his days at Harvard to his completing “The Waste Land,” arguably his crowning achievement. (Some would give the laurels to “Four Quartets.”)

Perhaps the most interesting parts of this wholly interesting book are about Eliot’s education, which included doctoral work at Harvard, a year at Oxford, and reading, reading, reading; not to mention Eliot’s sojourn in France and then England just when both countries were in a literary ferment not seen before or since, and names like Proust and Joyce and Woolf were on the lips of the cognoscenti as heralds of a new era in literature. They were right, and before long Eliot’s name was on their lips as well.

If you like modern poetry, or simply a good biography, Young Eliot is the book for you. Even if you’re not sure about the poetry part of that recommendation, consider heeding the words of Prufrock himself: “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/Let us go and make our visit.“

You’ll be glad you did.

Black Coffee

2007-03-29 09.13.14

The young waitress, bottle blonde, was back again, “Made up your mind yet?” She sounded impatient and indifferent at the same time.

Just coffee, I told her. Black. No cream.

“I need something stronger,” Jenny said. “Do you serve wine?”

The waitress nodded, chewed gum, checked her nails. Red.

“Chardonnay,” Jenny said. “House is okay.”

The waitress, wordless, went away. Jenny studied the wall at my back, her solemn hazel eyes fixed on a pastel wallpaper. I studied Jenny studying the wall at my back. We were the only customers in the place.

“What?” she said, meeting my eyes at last, defiant, distraught.


“Well, it’s hard.”

I said I knew.

“No, you don’t. It’s not your mother.”

I said I knew whose mother it was.

Jenny went back to staring at the wall.

The waitress brought our drinks. She put the wine in front of me, the coffee – with cream – in front of Jenny, and left the bill on the edge of the table. The wine was a blush, not Chardonnay, but when I started to call the waitress back, Jenny stopped me. “Never mind,” she said.

Swapping drinks, I nodded toward the waitress. “Hope Miss Congeniality there doesn’t depend on tips for a living.”


“Nothing,” I said.

Jenny sipped her wine. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said, a pink flush rising at her throat.

“Well, go back over there and tell them that.” I nodded toward a big gray building across the street.

“I just can’t,” she said, sipping again.

“Look, if you can’t, you can’t. They’ll understand. You won’t be the first who couldn’t do it.”

“I don’t see how anybody could do it.”

“I could do it. I could do it because it ought to be done. When a thing needs doing, it’s best to go on and do it.”

“I’m not like you.”

“Then don’t do it.”

“I’d hate myself if I did it.”

“Then don’t do it, for Christ’s sake. Go on over there and tell `em.”

“I’ll finish my wine first.” She sipped again. “Maybe if I drink enough of this I can do it.”

“Do it and then drink,” I said. “Then you’ll have a reason to drink.”

“I have a reason now. Will you order me another glass?”

“I read somewhere that memory and judgment are the first things clouded by alcohol.”

“Memory would be okay,” she said.

“Suit yourself.” I started to call for the waitress.

“Wait!” Jenny said. “You’re right. I need a clear head for this.” She pushed the glass away. It was still nearly full. “What time is it?”

“Two-thirty.” I signaled toward a big white-faced clock on a nearby wall. You couldn’t miss it.

“How long did he say he’d be there?”

“Till three.”

She made a face. “Will you tell him for me?”

“Tell him what?”

“You know,” she said.

“No, I don’t know.”

She reached for my coffee. “Mind?”

I pushed the cup and saucer toward her. The cream, too. I didn’t use the stuff.

Stirring in the cream, she said, “It’s for the best, don’t you think?”

“What I think’s not important here,” I said.

She sipped the coffee, now a caramel-brown. “I can’t do it. She’s my mother.”

I reached for her wine. “All the more reason you should do it,” I said. “Should want to do it.”

“Was it this way with your mother?”



“Proves nothing.”

She shrugged. “You’re right. What time is it?”

I finished her wine while glancing at the clock. “Two minutes later than when you asked before.”

“Don’t be smart at a time like this.”

“Don’t be dumb at a time like this.”

She made a face again and heaved a sigh. “Okay. You’re right. I’ll do it.”

She started to get up. I thought I saw tears. “You sure?”

“I’m sure. As sure as I’ll ever be.” She got on up, smoothing wrinkles from her navy blue skirt as she rose.

I stood up, too. I left enough money on the table to cover the bill and give the waitress a good tip.

# # #

Author’s Note

I wrote this story at the beach during spring break a while back. The first draft came easily, but I felt that something was missing. I went over it again, adding words of color here and there, and that seemed to give it a fuller, more satisfying dimension. The story was soon published in an NYC literary magazine. It also won a storytelling award and became the lead story in a collection of my short stories and poems titled Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. The book can be found on Amazon at (shortened link): http://goo.gl/hhnRzP

Checking Out

question marks

Do you really want it that badly?

Used your debit card lately to buy something in a store?

I tried yesterday, but the store began closing before I could answer all the questions that pop up after you swipe your card. I had started at noon

The first dozen or so were child’s play, questions like:

“Do you want cash back?”
Yes, but only if you’re giving it away.

“Is $3,590.23 the correct amount?”
Only if the clerk is holding a gun on me.

“Would you like to donate to ISIS today?”
No, thanks. I gave at the office.

“Are you having a nice day?”
Well, I feel more like I do now than I did when I got here. You figure it out.

Seems that every time I go to a store these days, still more irksome questions have been added to the grilling you must undergo to make a debit-card purchase.

Haven’t these merchants ever heard that time is money?

Worse, the procedure seems different at each store, and you can’t complete a debit-card purchase if you don’t answer all the questions correctly. Get half way through, make a mistake, you cancel the sale and have to start over.

There is no right answer anyhow to “When did you stop beating your wife?”

The customer who had been in front of me in line said she had been trying to check out since last Monday. She showed me a sweater she had begun knitting while waiting her turn.

The guy right behind me said that when his turn comes, he just dials 911.

The woman behind him said the Suicide Hotline might be a better bet. She had been working a New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting and was nearly through!

What happened to the good old days when you simply handed over cash and went quickly on your merry way? Even the Geneva Accords require only three answers: your name, rank, and serial number. But get a look at what I had to contend with:

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?”
Beats me, Bubba. The closest I get to wildlife these days is a nature show on TV, though I did date a kinky little blonde once – but wait, that’s a story for another time. Besides, my wife might read this (and she’s a brunette).

“Did you flush after using the store’s bathroom?”
I remember washing my hands; does that count?

“Who’s on third?”
Not even Abbot and Costello could figure that one out.

“Who killed Cock Robin?”
I don’t know – but it was not me. No, wait; it was not I.

“One train leaves Jersey City at 4:05 p.m. headed to Atlanta. Another leaves Atlanta going to Jersey City at the same time. Which train will reach Chattanooga before the moon comes over the mountain?”
Hey, I could not solve word problems when I was in high school, and my algebraic skills have not improved with age. Besides, I majored in English. In fact, the last time I used algebra was on the final exam. So why, for crying out loud, is it still in every school’s curriculum?

The next screen was the last straw: “What do women want?”
I know when I’m beaten; Solomon in all his wisdom could not answer that one.

I hit “cancel” and pulled out my wallet. Deep in its recesses, I found a $20 bill that had been there since my retirement party last century. Mad money. Good name for it.

“Here,” I told the clerk. “Keep the change.” I just wanted to get out of there.

“You have no change coming,” she said. “The bill is exactly $20.”

I held aloft a very small bag containing over-the-counter allergy pills. “For this?” I asked, incredulous.

She shrugged and said, “It’s on sale.”

“Lucky me,” I replied.



You might want to sit down for this.


Here goes: I have concluded that we human beings are alone in the universe.

Sorry. I thought you were ready. The smelling salts are on the table beside you.

As I was saying: I believe that we Earthlings are by our lonesome in the big, wide universe.


Out in the cold.

Odd man out.

Up the creek without a paddle.

Blued and tattooed. Get my drift?

Yes, I know what Carl Sagan told us: The famous astronomer and famous author famously declared that “The universe is so vast that the law of averages makes it impossible that Earth could be the only inhabited planet.”


Well, here’s a good question for the late Mr. Sagan (who by the way, also believed in reincarnation, so who knows? Maybe he can give us an answer, after all): where’s the evidence to back up that statement?

Never mind. The facts speak, and speak loudly, for themselves.

Space probe after space probe has sent back the same forlorn report: “There’s nobody out here. And there’s no sign that anybody’s been here.”

No remains of old campfires.

No wagon tracks or hoof prints.

And perhaps most telling of all: no litter.

Wait! It gets worse.

We have searched the extraterrestrial universe high and low, in precincts far and near, but we haven’t found life of any kind anywhere, not even a solitary single-cell amoeba. Not one. No sign of plant life either, though we all have seen that crabgrass and wild blackberry can grow anywhere.

Good thing old Carl is not around anymore to hear this, but where extraterrestrial life is concerned, the point is clear: the law of averages has been repealed.

Imagine that. We Earthlings are exempt from the venerable Law of Averages! Amazing when you consider that statistics has been used to prove so much else that seemed, well, at least improbable: a World Series championship for the Chicago Cubs, a pardon for O.J. Simpson, parallel lines that actually do meet.

But us? No. Where the old L of A is concerned, we are null and void, given the ‘don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you” treatment. I haven’t felt so left out since I couldn’t get a date for the senior prom. I couldn’t get one for the Junior prom, either, but these are stories for another time.

But any way you slice it, we Earthlings are TOGT: The Only Game in Town.

Look, if it’s any consolation, I was just as surprised as you are to find out that we are IT!

Even after Mariner and all the other space probes came up empty-handed, I thought for sure that the Hubble Telescope would catch somebody, or something, somewhere, sneaking out to fetch the morning newspaper or dashing to a nearby Heaven-Eleven for a last-minute quart of milk or loaf of bread.

But, full disclosure, it’s not as if we, or at least I, didn’t have fair warning. Both my Uncle Zeke and Aunt Nelly maintained that space exploration was a colossal waste of time. They never even believed that we had landed men on the moon.

“It was staged in the desert in Arizona,” Uncle Zeke insisted.

“I think it was a Hollywood sound stage,” said Aunt Nelly. “But same difference.”

Now I admit that my uncle and aunt held extreme views on everything, not just space exploration. Forget intelligent life on other planets, Uncle Zeke and Aunt Nelly didn’t believe there was intelligent life outside the South.

But I think it was my friend Crybaby Martin who came up with the best explanation. (His name is actually C.B. Martin, C.B. for Charles Bryan, but, well, like our current lachrymose Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner, he cries easily, over nothing, thus the nickname Crybaby, though Crybaby is from South Carolina, not Ohio.)

Crybaby, it seems, stumbled onto the truth after reading that the famous Carl Sagan was not only an astronomer, author, astrophysicist, and director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell University; he was also an exobiologist.

Having never run across the word “exobiologist,“ Crybaby looked it up. It means the study of extraterrestrial life.

“Well,” said Crybaby, laughing for once instead of weeping, “if there ain’t no extraterrestrial life, then Professor Sagan was a professor of a field of study that doesn’t even exist.”

A logical conclusion by Crybaby Martin is itself against the Law of Averages, but, by golly, I think he hit the nail on the head.

There. Feeling better now?

Well, give it time. It’s been my experience that these things take time.


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