Category Archives: Stories

What I Think About While on Quarantine Part Two

Like many people on quarantine I think about how I’m not getting to work. My job is a storyteller.
Upon reflection, it’s a poor career choice. Storytellers were probably one of the first professions. Everyone enjoyed traveling minstrels who could make you laugh, cry, be scared or pluck any other emotional string of your heart. They put their hats on the ground, and you dropped in any coin you wished.
We haven’t had a pay raise in five thousand years.
I’m seventy-two, so I’m too old to change jobs. Besides I was really incompetent at everything else I tried. And I have to admit I think I’ve gotten better at storytelling. On what criteria I based that is unscientific at best.
Over the years I have been told I haven’t grown up yet. Another said they hadn’t seen anyone go from sixty to six in six seconds before. I’ve been cut off in mid-sentence by good church people because I used terrible words like Halloween or witch. Some people think it’s funny to interrupt to ask questions about a phrase I used which doesn’t really influence the story. Or a few like to blurt out the end of the story early to let everyone else know how smart they are to figure it out.
Then there are the people who sit there and smile. Some parents like to take pictures of their children smiling at my stories. One lady said she had just left her husband in the hospital and came to the event where I was performing because she had promised a friend she would attend. Then she heard my stories and they made her feel better. I’ve had parents tell me they’ve never had their children sit still that long before.
The truth is these stories jump into my head and they won’t leave unless I share them with someone. If I don’t tell them I think I get emotionally constipated (Can I say that? I already did so it doesn’t matter.)
I’ve seen a lot of entertainers on television in the last few years who claim in interviews that they are storytellers, whether they be actors, musicians, film editors, directors, whatever. I don’t know if I like them claiming my profession. Why can’t they just be happy with all the fame and fortune?
That reminds me. Do you know the difference between a storyteller and a politician? A politician makes a lot more money. Besides when I tell a bad story people can just walk away, buy some kettle corn and forget the whole unfortunate incident. When a politician tells a bad story it becomes law and everyone is stuck with it for years.
Genuine storytellers know they won’t change the world. They won’t make it a better place, but they won’t make it a worse one either. I do know many people who are high-minded crusaders who want to make the planet a better place. I admire their courage, determination and tenacity. More power to them.
But I must settle for what I do. For a brief moment in time I can look into someone’s eyes, smile, tell a little story that doesn’t mean anything in particular and help make the cares of the world go away.

What I Think About While on Quarantine

I found this picture of me when I was three years old. My family had just finished eating in a Fort Worth, Texas, café with an aunt and uncle. My aunt said that I had wiped my mouth after every bite of food, which she thought terribly cute. When we got to the car, she said she had to take my picture.
My mother told me to stand by the car. I had just spent all my energy trying to be well-mannered and was now a little nervous about having my picture taken by myself. I’d never done that before and didn’t quite know what to do. Thinking I should try to hide as much as possible, I stood behind the car bumper. As you can see, it didn’t hide much.
By the time I married my hair had turned so dark brown some people thought it was black. Many years later my aunt gave me the picture. My wife was surprised to discover I had been a blond as a child. I told her I had seen a picture of my mother as a little girl in front of her family’s car and she had blonde hair too. She knew better than to hide behind the bumper so she put her hand over her face.
My daughter thought she had been adopted because she had blonde hair while the rest of us had dark hair. I pulled out this picture to reassure her we had not kidnapped her. Now she has dark hair and a little girl with blonde hair.
What jumped out at me when I looked at the old photograph was the pose in from of an old car. I got this strange feeling that if Bonnie and Clyde had a child he would have looked just like me. They posed in front of cars too. Of course, it couldn’t have been me because Bonnie and Clyde had been mowed down in an outburst of rifle fire on a lonely country road in the hinterlands of Texas and Louisiana more than ten years before I was born.
It’s just as well I belonged to Florida and Grady instead of Bonnie and Clyde. Loud noises always scared me so I’d been an emotional wreck in the backseat of the getaway car after Mom and Dad robbed a bank. With my luck one of the stray bullets meant for Bonnie and Clyde would have hit me instead. And if I had survived that day on the country road, who would have raised me? I don’t think the infamous banker robbers’ relatives would have wanted anything to do with me.
The photo did make me grateful for my nice boring family. Although at times my brothers could be real pains in the keister, they weren’t on “wanted—dead or alive” posters in three states.
This picture will be a keeper. My granddaughter will want to show it to her children so they’ll know they weren’t adopted. But that won’t be a problem if she does marry a blond-headed guy and the kids take after him.
Reflections like this happen when you get old, on quarantine and don’t have anything better to think about.

Why Are You Late?

(Author’s Note: I’m a day late with my Mother’s Day tribute, and it wouldn’t surprise her in the least bit.)
“Why are you late?
My mother said that almost every time I walked in the door. Sometimes I was down the street at a friend’s house. His family had the first television on the block. Mickey Mouse Club came on at 4 p.m., and was an hour long. The first half was singing, dancing and acting silly. It was all right. I was too young to appreciate fully Annette Funicello at that time. When I was older she became Annette Full of Jello and much more fascinating. The second half was a serial. My favorite was Spin and Marty, two boys at a summer camp. Spin was a city street kid, and Marty was a naïve rich kid. At first they didn’t like each other, but by the third season they were buddies. As soon as the final song–“MIC, see you real soon, KEY, Why? Because we love you”—finished I was supposed to be out the door and headed home. In the winter the sky was getting dark at that time of time. Everyone knew if you were caught outside after dark, something terrible was going to happen.
The only situation worse was to be out of the house in the dark and dark clouds rumbled with thunder and lightning. My brother was bringing me home from the movies one time. He always resented having to pick me up places. It cut into his cruising time up and down the main drag of downtown. On the average I’d have to wait about thirty minutes on the street outside the theater. When I decided to start walking home, he became even madder I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
“Why are you late? Didn’t you see the clouds in the sky? Didn’t you realize it was about to rain?” my mother said with a particularly angry exasperation.
Yes, I knew it was about to rain. I knew she was going to be hysterical, but there wasn’t much I could do about it since my brother continued to scour Main Street for a girl desperate enough to go out with him. Of course, I would never get away with saying that so I instead went into my sniveling little coward role and whined, “I’m sorry.” I suspected she gave up her tirade because she didn’t want to listen to me whimper. On the other hand, my brother jutted his chin up and out as he walked right past Mother without acknowledging her.
As a child I seriously debated with myself whether I wished to bother to try to date when I was a teen-ager. The appeal of the young ladies hardly seemed worth the inquisition. If my brother came in after ten o’clock, she would greet him at the front door with her hands on her hips. She knew the movie downtown never let out after nine o’clock. You could drive a young lady home anywhere in town and still be home by ten.
“Why are you late?”
He tried to ignore as was his custom, but she blocked his path. Squinting she pushed her nose into his face.
“Let me smell your breath.”
“Aww, Mom.” He took a quick step to the left and escaped into the next room.
“Are you having sex with that girl? You better not get her pregnant!”
That imperative statement contained two major ironies. One, my brother did start coming in staggering from too many beers, and when he did Mother just stood there giggling, finding the way he lost his balance and fell on the sofa to be quaintly enchanting.
However, Father was not amused at all. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re scaring the hell out of your little brother!”
The other irony was that by the time he finally got a woman pregnant I was married and had impregnated my wife, and I was six years younger than he was.
The fear of being on the receiving end of the withering question “Why are you late?” tended to make any situation worse. One year for Halloween my mother took me downtown to a five and dime so I could buy a mask for the school festival. She sat out in the car while I was supposed to rush in to pick out the mask. I stood in front of the table and froze. Not only did it infuriate Mother for me to be late, she also blew up if I spent too much money on foolish things such as Halloween masks. I saw ones I liked but they were too expensive. Dithering for too long a moment, I finally decided on the cheapest thing I could find. By the time I paid for it and ran out to the car, it was too late—Mother’s face was crimson.
“Why are you late? How hard was it to pick out a simple mask? Now I have a splitting headache!”
Well, that took the thrill out of Halloween, and it was the last one before entering junior high school. Once you’re in junior high you’re too big to wear silly Halloween masks.
I soon found out the reason Mother had such a short fuse. She had cancer and died before I entered high school. All dread of the scoldings went out the window. After a while I kind of missed them. It wasn’t any fun staying out after midnight on a date because Father went to bed at 9 o’clock every night and didn’t know when I came in or even that I had gone out in the first place. In fact, I was usually home by ten o’clock anyway. After all, the movie was over by 9:30. We could make the drag a couple of times to see who else was out that night, drop by the local drive-in for a quick soda and still be home in time to make Mother happy, if Mother had been there.
I am now older than my mother was when she died. I’m still home by ten o’clock. I never had to stand by the front door demanding why my children were late coming home. My son hardly ever went to movies unless it was Star Wars, and my daughter always dated guys who had earlier curfews than she did.
With luck I have a few more years. Boring people like me usually live a long time. It’s too strenuous to do anything exciting. But I do know that when my life is up and I finally am reunited with my loved ones in heaven, my mother will be standing at the Pearly Gates with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her lips.
“Why are you late?”

The Ask Grady and Maude Show

(Transcript of the last performance of a radio advice program originating from Del Rio, Texas)
Announcer: Telephone lines are now open so call in your questions for Miss Maude, the sweetest church lady this side of the Pecos River, and Mr. Grady, who has been the janitor of the Eternal Flame of Truth Church for sixty years.
Miss Maude: Good evenin’, folks.
Mr. Grady: I gotta git outta here and milk Josie Belle. She’s about to bust a gusset. So iffen you got a question, you better call in fast.
Announcer: We just got our first caller of the night and it’s for Mr. Grady. Tell us your name, sir.
First caller: This is Homer Dipsheidt.
Mr. Grady: What can I do for ya, Homer? And make it fast.
First caller: Well, Grandma died in Fort Worth night and Mama’s wantin’ me to take the Greyhound up to her house in Cleburne, so I can drive her into town for the funeral. I got so upset about grandma that I went out to Mel’s tavern and drank up my whole paycheck on beer. I can’t afford the bus ticket no more. Should I call Mama and ask her to wire me the money?
Mr. Grady: Oh hell no. First, the phone call will cost too much. Then when you git to Cleburne your mama will expect you to pay the gas to drive into Fort Worth and on top of that you’ll have to pay her back for the bus ticket.
First caller: Mama will git awful mad.
Mr. Grady: Let ‘er git mad. You got a job to go to. By the way, tell your boss Jim Ed at the poultry farm I said hey.
First caller: I kinda wanna say good-bye to Grandma. She raised me, you know, when mama got caught stealin’ a car to run off with that travelin’ Bible salesman.
Mr. Grady: Aw, your grandma ain’t gonna hear you say good-bye. She’s dead.
First caller: But—
Mr. Grady: Get off the phone and let somebody else git a chance to squawk at us.
Announcer: Next caller is for Miss Maude and the name is Miss Odeen Fluger…fluger…how the hell do you saw that?
Miss Maude: Oh my goodness, I know Miss Odeen. What can I do for you, hon?
Second caller: Well, as you know, Miss Maude, old Mr. Dewberry went on to his heavenly reward last week, and they read the will today. I was flabbergasted to find out old Mr. Dewberry left me $500 with strict instructions to invest it in Sinclair Oil Company.
Mr. Grady: What the hell were you doin’ to get $500 out of ‘im, girl?
Miss Maude: Ever’body knows Odeen has been cleanin’ his house and cookin’ his food for the past three year.
Mr. Grady: That’s a hell of a lot of cleanin’ for $500!
Announcer: So what is your question, Miss Odeen?
Second caller: I don’t know how to go about investin’ in anythin’ so I thought Miss Maude could help me.
Miss Maude: The stock market is way too risky, my dear. You take that money and put it in a passbook savin’s account at the bank.
Mr. Grady: I wouldn’t trust that old devil down at the bank. You git that money in cash, put in a cigar box and hide it under your bed.
Announcer: And our next caller is Mary Beth Klownhausen. It seems Mary Beth has a bone to pick with the both of you.
Miss Maude: Oh dear me.
Mr. Grady: I didn’t hold no shotgun to ‘er head. It’s her own fault to call in to a silly assed show like this in the first place.
Third caller: Iffen you remember, I called last month ‘cause Kerwin Klownhausen asked me to marry ‘im. I didn’t know iffen I should or not ‘cause he jest got away with killin’ Susie Belle Mundkowski.
Miss Maude: Now the jury said he didn’t do it so you can’t say he did kill Susie Belle.
Mr. Grady: Listen, girl, you’re uglier than sin and marryin’ a damned killer is the best you can do.
Third caller: Well, Kerwin talks in his sleep and he’s sayin’ he did kill Susie Belle ‘cause he found out she was foolin’ around with Homer Dipsheidt.
Miss Maude: You should have slept with him first then you’da knowed he was a killer.
Third caller: But Miss Maude, you’re always sayin’ never give away the milk unless he buys the cow.
Mr. Grady: Susie Belle Mundkowski was a slut. You ain’t a slut, are ya, girl?
Third caller: No I was a virgin on my wedding night. Otherwise I’d never marry a killer.
Mr. Grady: There you have it. He’s not gonna kill you ‘cause you ain’t a slut.
Miss Maude: You’ve made your bed, Mary Beth, now you have to lay in it.
Third caller: But I’m scairt.
Mr. Grady: That’s what you git for callin’ in to a silly assed show like this.
Announcer: And we’re running out of time. Do you have any last word of advice, Miss Maude and Mr. Grady?
Mr. Grady: Stay away from the sexo-maniacs.
Miss Maude: I don’t know what that means, but I’d say Mr. Grady knows what he’s talkin’ about. He’s worked at the church for 60 years.
(After this program ran, Kerwin Klownhausen killed his wife Mary Beth Klownhausen, Homer Dipsheidt and Odeen Flugermeister, and stole the $500 in cash from a cigar box hidden under her bed. The judge ruled a mistrial and let Klownhausen out on $500 bail because Miss Maude and Mr. Grady were on the jury and couldn’t agree on a verdict. Shortly thereafter Klownhausen skipped town and was rumored to have moved to Las Vegas. The FCC took the radio station’s broadcast license away because Mr. Grady continued to call the program a silly assed show.)

Songs of My Life

I’ve had a never-ending love for my wife Janet ever since I saw her face and I was a believer. She stood on a bridge over troubled waters in Fort Worth, Texas. (I don’t know if there are troubled waters Fort Worth. Go with it. Love doesn’t make sense.)
Actually, we’d already been married several years. When I looked through the viewfinder of my camera at Janet holding our baby daughter I realized how deeply I loved her and it would be for ten thousand years. The tiny girl helped bring about that epiphany.
We named her Grace, but I always called her Amazing. The first time she cried I thought how sweet a sound it was. By the time she entered kindergarten we shortened it to Mazie. After all, we were from Texas and we could not wrap our lips around any word more than two syllables.
Mazie was a remarkable child–smart, beautiful and adventurous. Janet handled the escapades better than I did. She knew how to pat my hand and say let it be. Like the time Mazie climbed out her bedroom window at midnight to walk down the street to see her boyfriend. She was only thirteen years old. Luckily the police brought her home after they picked her up with her boyfriend walking down the street holding hands. Janet waited a few weeks before telling me about that. I supposed she was trying to think of the right words to make it sound not so bad. Mazie taught my heart to fear.
Then there was the time I was cleaning the living room and found a note from the private Christian school in which we had enrolled Mazie. She and her boyfriend were given an in-school suspension for saying dirty words between classes. Those Christian school kids can be such tattle tales. Mazie explained they watched too much MTV, and it was a bad influence on them.
Eventually Mazie bored of her first boyfriend and went on to another boy who was the epitome of moral rectitude. Mazie quit cussing for him, just as Janet said she would. Shortly thereafter, she dumped the student saint because he thought he had the right to choose what career she should pursue. From then on, Mazie only cussed just a little and was very responsible about everything else she did. And Mazie my fears relieved.
The years went by fast after Mazie grew up, went to work, got married and had a baby of her own. Janet held my hand, and, ooh, our lives were filled with sunshine, lollipops and rainbows everywhere. We hardly noticed the wrinkles and gray hairs that were popping up all over us.
And then Janet went away, as I knew she would. I appreciated how precious Grace appeared. She held my hand and promised to comfort me until the day when I would join her mother. It will be as if we had only just begun. Because I had a never-ending song of love for her.

Barter

Clem lived all his life in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, and he didn’t know what to make of all this talk about a Depression. He, his wife and kids got along very well, thank you, in their two-room cabin up in the holler. He planted a patch of tobacco that paid off the damn banker every year, raised a passel of pigs that made good eating every fall, and cooked up the best moonshine for miles around. His wife tended garden so they always had taters, maters and squash, not to mention corn needed for the moonshine. The kids helped their ma with the garden and took care of the chickens. A good person right with the Lord shouldn’t want more than that.
One day he was down at the country store talking around the cracker barrel when the preacher’s wife piped up that she didn’t know if she liked the idea of this brand new theater in downtown Abingdon.
“Dadburned movie pictures ain’t worth talking about.” Clem spat some tobacco juice in a corner, which was shiny and black from years of being spit in.
“Well, Clem, I ain’t talking about no movie picture show,” the preacher’s wife replied in a huff. “It’s like real-life people standing on a stage and spouting lines, prancing about, like they thought they was something fancy.”
“Oh, they’ve been doing that for years and years.” Clem spat again. “They’ve been doing that before there warn’t no motion picture shows. Don’t you know no better than that?”
“Of course, I do, Clem. But I don’t think it’s fitting for a man to stand in front of a bunch of women and children with sweat rolling off him, so close you can see it dripping off his nose. With all that pomade in his hair, glistening black.” The preacher’s wife fluttered her eyes and fanned herself. “Now what was it I was saying?”
“You was all upset by those men sweating on the stage.” Clem chuckled. “I don’t know why you’re getting so hot and bothered about it all. Nobody around here is fool enough to waste their money to go see it.”
“That’s just it, Clem,” the preacher’s wife said. “They ain’t charging no money at all. You bring in a chicken or a ham shank and you get in to see the show.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clem spat a really big wad this time; in fact, he didn’t have any tobacco left in his mouth. He might as well go on home.
“But that’s the truth Clem,” the old storekeep Zeke interjected as he lumbered around the counter with his broom. “It’s these damnyankees from New York. They can’t get no work up there so they opened up this theater down here, and they do their playacting for food and might near everything else.”
“Is that so?” Clem took a snot rag out of his pocket and wiped his mouth. “They’re going to starve to death. Ain’t nobody with no common sense that’ll waste a perfectly good chicken on such foolishness.”
“They got a full house every night and two shows on Saturday and Sunday,” Zeke explained.
“Defaming the Lord’s day like that. Me and the ladies Bible league are planning to march with signs and scream Scripture at the sinners as they go in next Sunday,” the preacher’s wife announced.
“Maybe some menfolk should go on Friday night first so you ladies don’t make yourselves look silly,” Clem said, halfway to himself. “I got a leftover cured ham hanging in the barn.”
On Friday night, Clem showed up at the Barter Theater in downtown Abingdon with the cured ham tucked up under his arm. He didn’t think it would be right for the wife and kids be exposed to all this foohfrah until he saw it first. The theater people seemed right glad to see him and his ham and took him to a seat down front. They told him the name of the play was Hamlet. Now that might be right funny—a play about baby pigs.
When the curtain came up, Clem was disappointed. It wasn’t about no baby pigs at all. He could hardly make out what they were saying. It was English all right, but not decent English like they talked in the mountains, but that there fancy English spoke in England. The best he could make out it was about this here college boy who came home to find his daddy dead and his mama married his uncle, and he’s mad because they ate up all the food from the funeral at the wedding, and he didn’t get nothing to eat. Then this college boy sees his daddy’s ghost who tells him his uncle killed him so he could marry the mama.
By this time Clem was fidgeting in his chair something bad. He never had no use for college boys in the first place. If he wanted something to eat he should have gone out and shot a couple of squirrels and made himself a stew. Another thing this college boy did wrong was that he had this real pretty girl who wanted to marry him, but he went off and told her to become a nun. And that poor girl got so upset about being told to become a nun that she jumped in the creek and drowned herself.
Clem would have just gotten up and stormed out of that there theater, but they had set him down in the front row, and he didn’t think it was proper for him to stand up and keep everybody else from seeing the show. It didn’t make no sense at all. At the girl’s funeral, the college boy’s mama says “Sweets to the sweet.” That college boy jumped down in the grave thinking he was gonna get to eat the candy he thought his mama had thrown on the casket, but it turned out she threw in flowers instead. Clem decided the boy wouldn’t have been so moody if his mama just fed him proper.
The end of the show didn’t make any better sense. The college boy and the girl’s brother started a fight right there in front of everybody, and his mama got so upset they’re going to get blood on the good rug that she poisoned herself. When she dropped dead, the college boy decided to take it out on his uncle and ran him through with his sword. Then he dropped dead, probably because he never did get a decent meal through the whole play.
As he was walking out, Clem decided he was going to make a stink over this theater thing.
“Where’s my ham?” he bellowed out.
An older fellow came out of a little office and grabbed Clem by the elbow and took him through another door. Clem decided he got seen to real fast because this man didn’t want the other people to get the idea of asking for their stuff back too. Pretty soon Clem found himself behind the stage where they kept all the people who had put on the play.
“That was the worst dang thing I ever done see,” Clem announced. “I want my ham back.”
Those people looked awful worried, and they stepped away from this table with all the vittles that had been brought in that night. There Clem saw the college boy with a big chunk of his ham hanging out of his mouth.
“Oh forget it,” Clem said as he turned for the door. “He needs it more than I do.”

We Need to Talk

“Hey, brain, what do you think of that little cutie walking down the street?”
“I don’t think anything about her at all, heart. I’m happily married. And so are you. Or have you forgotten?”
“Of course, I forget all the time. I’m the heart. I can’t remember nothing. You’re the brain, Mr. Smartypants. You don’t forget nothing.”
“Don’t forget anything,” the brain corrected the heart. “Your grammar really makes my blood boil.”
“And it ain’t your blood, genius,” the heart retorted. “It’s my blood, because I’m the one who pumps it.”
“Could you two keep it down up there?” the stomach bellowed. “I’m trying to digest some food here, and that hamburger ain’t gonna metabolize itself, you know.”
“You ate another hamburger?” the heart asked in exasperation. “Stomach, don’t you remember what our doctor said?”
“You’re the brain. You’re supposed to remember those things for all us.”
“Yeah, meathead,” the heart interjected. “All this is your fault.”
“That’s right, heart.”
“Thank you, stomach.”
“I’ve been meaning to have a talk with you guys. Liver, lungs, you better listen up too.”
“I know I’ve caused us to cough too much lately,” the lungs grumbled. “So get off my back.”
“And I—I wanna know who’s responsible for all that cheap gin?” the liver asked. “You’re wearing me out.”
“That’s just it, my fellow organs,” the brain began his speech. “We’re all wearing out. I don’t know if you realize it, but we’re 72 years old. Now, that’s scary old. It’s getting on up there. We need to take care of ourselves better. I’m beginning to forget things, and I’m just too tired to keep reminding everyone to do his job.”
“You’re going to replace me with a younger heart, aren’t you? That’s what this is all about. You’re going to rip me out of my home and give it to some stronger, sexier heart. After all these years of faithful service, and this is what I get.”
“There you go, pumping yourself into another fit,” the stomach muttered. “That’s why I got ulcers. You and your fits.”
“Nobody loves me anymore. That’s all that a heart lives for is love, and you all hate me.”
“Whattaya mean?” the liver exclaimed. “You’re the center of our lives! Whoever thinks of a liver? Nobody. I’m supposed to shut up and keep on working. I don’t even know what I do, but I keep on doing it so we can all live.”
“Brain, could we move this conversation elsewhere?” the lungs asked. “That guy next to us is smoking a cigar, and I’m about to break out in another coughing attack. I know that shakes everybody up.”
“Hey, this walking around feels kinda good,” the heart exclaimed.
“Watch out,” the stomach warned. “I just processed some excess gas, and it’s makin’ its way through the large intestine.”
“Thank you, stomach,” the brain said. “That’s very considerate of you. You know what I think?”
“There he goes again,” the heart moaned. “The brain is gonna tell us what to think.”
“Can it, heart,” the lungs groused. “I’ve got a cough coming on, and it’ll make you feel even worse. We don’t need that.”
“All I wanted to say was, buddies…” the brain was cracking. “We’ve been working together for a long time, and I just want you to know it’s been an honor, a real honor.”
“Now that’s something I should say,” the heart complained. “Nobody ever lets me say the good stuff.”
“Shut up, heart,” the stomach ordered. “You’re makin’ my ulcers act up.”

Booth’s Revenge Chapter Forty

Previously: Booth shoots Lincoln and breaks leg in escape. Baker saves Booth’s life at Garrett’s farm. Booth sneaks away to Richmond, where he tricks a widow into caring for him. Lincoln’s friend Lamon interviews Mrs. Surratt and others in prison.
Lamon shook his head and stood. He patted Herold on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. You’ll get to go home. One of these days.” He turned to the door and rapped for the guard. Once in the hall he told the officer, “There’s just one more, correct?”
“Yes, sir. You’ll like him. He’s a man’s man. You won’t see him going crazy, like Herold there.”
This alleged “man’s man” savagely slashed several people, including a sick old gentleman in his bed, Lamon thought. No paragon of manly virtue, he decided; but he chose not to share his conclusions with the guard who had only in the last few minutes become cooperative in his investigation. Once inside the cell, Lamon saw Lewis Paine languidly leaning against the far wall, in a repose that suggested complete serenity. Because of the hood, Paine’s eyes were not visible, however Lamon sensed they reflected the same composure.
“Mr. Paine, I am Ward Hill Lamon, federal marshal. I have a few questions about the charges you are facing.”
“Please take a seat. They just replaced the straw on the floor this morning, so it should be nice and comfortable.”
“Thank you.” Lamon squatted and sat cross-legged. “Do you understand the seriousness of your situation here?”
“Oh sure. I’m probably goin’ to hang.” He turned to Lamon. “You wouldn’t happen to have a chaw of tobacco on you.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” He pulled the package from his pocket.
“I’d be right more agreeable to talk if I had a lump of tobacco in my cheek.”
“Of course.” Lamon pinched a bit of tobacco off and extended it between two fingers through the hood’s hole so Paine could take it from him with his mouth.
Leaning back as he chewed, he sighed. “That’s mighty good. Neighborly of you. I appreciate it.”
“Think nothing of it.” Lamon gave the prisoner a moment to enjoy his tobacco before he started asking questions. “I know you and the others met with a short, red-haired man under the bridge right before the assassination.”
“Yep. You know, he wasn’t a very nice man. He said I was stupid. I can’t help it. I got kicked in the head by a mule when I was a boy. I liked what he said about gettin’ even. I’ve always liked gettin’ even. I’ve done that a lot.” Paine turned his head to spit into the straw.
“So you felt you were getting even when you stabbed Secretary of State Seward?”
“Hell, I didn’t even know who the old bastard was, but the man said to kill him, and I done the best I could to do it.”
“So killing Seward wasn’t Booth’s idea but the man under the bridge?”
“I don’t think Wilkes knew who this Seward fella was.”
“Who do you think the man under the bridge was?”
“I don’t know. But he thought he was somethin’ to write home about, I’ll tell you that.”
“Do you think he was working for someone else, somebody really big?”
“Ah, you’re not goin’ to start in on that business that Jeff Davis was behind all this?”
“I don’t know, was he?”
“Right at this time I really don’t give a damn.” Paine paused to lean toward Lamon. “Tell me. Do you think I’d have a chance of gettin’ off if I did say Jeff Davis did it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then to hell with it.” Paine leaned back against the wall, turned his head and spit again. “Jeff Davis had nothin’ to do with it.”
“The red-haired man was supposed to kill Stanton, and Stanton is still alive. Don’t that strike you as peculiar?”
“No. Johnson is still alive too. That ain’t peculiar, is it? Are you sure you can’t get me off with prison or somethin’ like that?”
“Only if you can tell me something I don’t already know.” Lamon knew this was his last chance to wrangle information out of Paine.
“I’ll tell you somethin’ you don’t know. That lady down the hall ain’t guilty of nothin’ but bein’ a lady, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
Lamon stood and brushed away the bits of straw that clung to his trousers. “Well, if you think of anything else, send for me. Remember my name Ward Hill Lamon. Can you remember that?”
“Sure I can, Lord Will Raymond.”
After the guard let Lamon out of the cell and escorted him to the prison exit, he asked, “Now you haven’t been lying to me, have you? You really are part of the team to hang those bastards, right? The last thing I need is to get in trouble because I let you in to see them.”
Lamon patted the guard on the back. “You have nothing to worry about me, I assure you. By the way, you were wrong. That last fellow was the craziest one of all.”

The Chihuahua That Saved Noel Coward

He strolled through the Plaza Hotel lobby looking quite natty in his brown tweed suit, bowler cocked slightly on his balding head and swinging his cane. With a flourish he signed the register.
Nov. 17, 1958. Noel Coward. London, England. Penthouse Suite.
His plans were to spend the rest of the afternoon in his suite, attend the world premiere of Mrs. Stone!, his musical adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. He would then host a cast party in the penthouse. The guests would beat a hasty retreat after reading dreadful reviews from all the major newspapers of New York. Noel Coward, one of the most successful writers of British comedy, then would go to the balcony, finish drinking the last of the champagne and step into the void of midnight.
“PeePee! PeePee! Come back here!”
Coward winced as he recognized the inimitable screech of his leading lady, Ethel Merman. He turned to see a Chihuahua scurrying across the marble floor followed by Ethel, her bosom flouncing and her bracelets clanging. Before he knew it, he felt scratching at his trousers.
Save me from that bitch! Please! Please! Please!
Coward was convinced; his extreme depression over the audacious failure of his play had pushed him over the brink. Why else would he consider suicide or think he heard a Chihuahua talking to him?
Pick me up, you idiot!
Resigning himself to madness, Coward picked up the dog which immediately starting licking him in the face.
Thank you! Thank you! I always knew you were a nice man!
“Noel! You caught that naughty little dog!” Ethel said as she walked up, her arms outstretched.
“Of course, Ethel, darling,” Coward said with a purr. “Anything for my star.”
Don’t hand me over to that bitch!
Ignoring the dog’s pleas he gently placed the Chihuahua into Ethel’s arms and bowed with grace.
Damn you! I hate you! No! No! I love you! Take me back! You’re the one I want! I hate you! I love you! I could love you if you give me a chance! Is any of this working on you?
Coward imagined everyone else in the lobby thought the dog’s pleading sounded like the typical yipping of a Chihuahua. It probably was, he told himself as he turned to the clerk and finished signing in.
I’ll get you for this, bitch! Yeah! I talking to you, bitch! No! No! I don’t mean it. You’re a wonderful humanitarian! Kind to old women, children, beggars and little dogs!
Soon Ethel and her Chihuahua were in the elevator, and Coward sighed in relief. A few moments later he took the same elevator to the penthouse suite and settled himself at the baby grand piano with the score of Mrs. Stone! in front of him. Most of the music was all right, passable, but the final song was no damn good. Mrs. Stone throws her room key down to the street where a shadowy young man picks it up and comes up to the apartment to do who knows what to her. Ethel, in a terrible blonde wig, blasted away every rehearsal trying to sell it. He knew she realized even she could not give that song away with free tea and crumpets.
He played the melody over and over again, trying to figure out what was wrong. It had to be sad but not maudlin. It had to express the emotions of an over-the-hill movie star who was never going to be loved again. And the lyrics. They were impossible. They were dripping with self-pity. Who wanted to listen to that?
A soft scratching at the door interrupted his thoughts. When he opened it, Coward saw Ethel Merman’s dog, staring up at him with his enormous Chihuahua eyes.
I forgive you. With that he pranced into the room. Nice digs.
“So pleased you approve,” Coward replied acidly as he shut the door and walked back to the piano. He sat down and returned to playing his music, hoping an idea would spring into his mind.
You know that song is really crappy?
He stopped abruptly and picked the dog up and stared him in the face. “Now see here,” he paused. “What the deuce is your name?”
PeePee. That’s because I’m the best hung Chihuahua on the eastern seaboard.
“Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but Ethel named you Pepe, a common Spanish name. In her infinite stupidity she mispronounces it.”
No way! Oh. Hmph. That sounds like something that stupid bitch would do. Damn. I feel like a fool.
Coward could not stand to see the little dog so disappointed. He hugged him close to his cheek and placed him on the piano bench. “But, it could mean the other thing. Actually, you do have rather impressive equipment for a dog of your breed.”
Thank you. PeePee licked his hand. You’re a very nice man.
“I really don’t understand why you don’t like Ethel,” Coward said. “She’s quite sweet. And she truly adores you, don’t you know.”
I know. She’s all right. But look at these honking ears I got on me. The way she jangles those bracelets. And that damn voice of hers! It’s enough to split my eardrums!
“Well, I have to give you that.” Coward returned to playing the piano. “So you think my song is crappy?”
You bet. It’s supposed to be about this old broad who ain’t getting laid, right?
“How perceptive.”
Okay, this old broad wants it bad enough to throw the key down to any guy on the street. The last thing she’s going to sing about is love. Poor me, nobody loves me.
“And your point is?”
She don’t want love. She wants to get laid. Sex, that’s what she wants!
“And what, pray tell, would you know about sex?”
Hey, I’m PeePee, the best hung Chihuahua on the eastern seaboard. What do I not know about sex? When the old broad takes me to Central Park and puts me on the ground, I have my choice of the bitches.
“Not all, I’m sure.”
Yeah, I mean all. Those Great Dane bitches can’t get enough of PeePee.
“Great Danes, oh, come now.”
Listen, you get a running start, jump, grab hold of the tail with both legs and, humpity, humpity, humpity, it’s showtime.
“Very well, since you’re the expert, what would you recommend?”
First off, get real with the words, man. She don’t want love. She wants sex. Hot sex. Sweaty body to body action.
“Very well.” Coward took a pen and started scribbling some new lyrics. He stopped and looked at them. “You know, this isn’t half bad.”
What do you expect? Hey, I’m PeePee. Now the music. Start out easy and soft, you know, like foreplay, then it gets faster and harder. Maybe ease off a little then. Make ‘em want it. Then slam bam thank ya ma’am. That’ll get butts out of the seats clapping.
Coward wrinkled his brow as his hands furiously pounded the keys. “I think you’re right.” After a few moments of passionate inspiration, Coward notated his new song on composition paper. Only a loud rapping at the door interrupted him.
“Noel! Is PeePee in there?”
Oh God, it’s the bitch.
“Just a minute, Ethel,” he called out as he finished his scribbling. “Come in, darling.
“PeePee! You bad little boy!” She marched to the piano and picked up the dog.
“Ethel, my dear, you must look at your new final number.”
“New song? On opening night? You must be crazy!”
He played it through a couple of times as she read the lyrics. Coward knew he had won her over when he saw tears forming in her eyes and she clutched the dog.
Watch it, bitch! You’re squeezing too tight!
“Oh Noel,” she gasped. “It’s a miracle. I haven’t sung anything this good since, I don’t know, when I was first on Broadway.”
“Don’t ruin the moment by comparing me to Cole Porter, darling.”
She put the dog down. “Go run and play, PeePee. Mommy and Daddy have got to practice this song.”
They rehearsed the rest of the afternoon until she was comfortable with every nuance and key change. Ethel gave Coward a big hug, picked up PeePee and left. He walked to the penthouse balcony and smiled. He might not have to jump after all.
That night, Coward watched from the wings. No one left at intermission. That was a good sign. The audience loved the choreography. They even laughed at the jokes. And the songs were, as he anticipated, bearable. The finale was upon them. Ethel, in her blonde wig, went to the window, threw down the key and turned to the audience. Then the music began. For once in her career, Ethel did not belt out a song. She barely croaked. Coward watched the audience members sit up and lean forward.
“Nobody loves me, so what?
Nobody wants a movie star that’s old, that’s what.
So I don’t care, I don’t want love.
I want sex!
I want to feel hot flesh next to mine!
I want sex!
I don’t want love!
I want to feel his sweat!
I want to feel his body pressing against me!
From now on this is the way it’s going to be!
Forget about love!
I want sex!”
For a moment the theater was quiet, and then it erupted in applause. Everyone was screaming and jumping up and down. The stage hand was about to bring down the curtain when Coward grabbed his arm.
“Don’t you dare.”
Ethel Merman, the queen of dramatic curtain calls, did not smile broadly and extend her arms to accept the audience’s adulation. She just stood there and cried. And cried. And cried for fifteen minutes. The crowd loved it. It loved her. Finally, someone screamed out, “Author! Author!”
Ethel rushed to the wings and dragged out Coward and planted a big kiss on his lips. Then she smiled and gestured to the old man of British comedy theater. Okay, he thought to himself, jumping from the balcony at midnight definitely was no longer on his schedule. Suddenly PeePee ran onto the stage barking. The audience even applauded him. Ethel bent down to pick him up, kissed him and handed him to Coward.
“He’s yours now,” she whispered. “After all, you gave me my career back. The least I can do is give you my dog.”
PeePee licked Coward’s face as he took him from Ethel.
“Thank you,” he said, nodding to her. Then he looked at PeePee. “And thank you.”
Don’t thank me, man. I had this planned all along.
“No, really. Thank you for saving my life.”
Hey, I’m PeePee, the best hung Chihuahua on the eastern seaboard. That’s what I do.
Coward held PeePee up with both hands toward the audience which screamed even louder. He then held the dog close to his cheek.
“Why?”
Why what?
“Why did you choose me?”
PeePee sniffed him.
You have the scent of a slight incontinence problem. I like that in a man.

Nap Nightmare

His dream started out innocently enough. He was flying. Above the clouds. Not a care in the world. Then the world went black. As he gasped for air, he realized that what he gulped down into his lungs was tepid and stale. Was he still flying? He could not see anything. No clouds, no sun, nothing. He tried to scream for help, but the words stayed in his throat.
Tom Wagoner realized he was dreaming. If only he could make himself wake up everything would be fine. A nagging voice in the back of his brain told him to continue sleeping. Tom would just have to put up with the inconvenience of a nightmare until his brain’s caboose felt rested.
To hell with that, the frontal lobe shouted and forced Tom to open his eyes.
Yelling, Tom jumped as he returned to consciousness and found himself in darkness. He squinted to adjust his eyes. He was still on the airplane. His memory came forward to remind him he was returning home to Houston from a business trip to New York.
“Hello? Anybody there?”
His muffled echo informed him that no one was still on the airplane. Tom did not know for sure if he were in Houston or still at the layover airport in Atlanta. No, he remembered the plane landing and taking off at Atlanta. He had to be in Houston. Tom pulled out his cell phone and called his girlfriend Debbie.
“Where the hell are you?” she demanded. “You were supposed to take me out to dinner tonight!”
“Honey, I’m still on the plane.”
Debbie paused before asking, “Did you get stuck in Atlanta?”
“No, I’m in Houston, I think. It’s dark, and nobody else is here.”
“Are you shacking up with that blonde broad in New York again?” Debbie said in a challenging voice. “If you’re pulling that trick again, we’re through. I warned you the last time!”
“No, no, I’m telling the truth. I guess the flight attendants didn’t see me,” he explained, his words tumbling over each other. “I was really tired and I fell asleep right after the layover in Atlanta—“
“Atlanta!” Debbie screamed into the phone, “You promised me you’d never have a layover in Atlanta after that incident last spring!”
“It was the only flight I could get. Listen, please call United Airlines. I’m on ExpressJet flight 641.”
“Maybe you’ve finally flipped out. I told you not to watch those Twilight Zone reruns.”
“Debbie, I’m locked on the plane. I’m telling you the truth. You better go somewhere and get me off this plane!”
“Oh yeah, sure, make me be the one to call the airport. I’m the one that’s going to look nuts,” she replied in exasperation.
“Just call the damn airline, okay?”
Debbie sighed. “Okay, but you better be in that plane or else just don’t bother to come home!”