Monthly Archives: January 2014

How the Hangman Paid His Daughter’s Dowry

Given the peculiar circumstances, Duffield Jones-Brown could not find fault with his daughter Jennalyn for standing beside him on the gallows, ready to pull the lever which would open the trap door and send him hurtling toward his death.
Jennalyn was the prettiest girl in Lincolnshire, if one could disregard the bulbous nose in the middle of her soft, pink complexion. It nearly blotted out her evenly spaced crystal blue eyes above and her cupid’s bow lips slightly below. Copious curls of daffodil yellow crowned her perfectly shaped head. Of course, every bit as important as her sweet face was nature’s gift of an ample bosom, but that asset was politely omitted in the conversations around town about how such a lily could have grown in the unkempt garden of onions which was the family Jones-Brown, whose patriarch was the town’s hangman.
Tongues truly began to wag when her betrothal to the local lawyer’s son was announced. Good fortune was the term bandied about the local taverns and churches at the time, but calmer minds soon reconsidered as events set in motion by the happy announcement unfolded in the coming months.
Barrister Ronald Leighton-Lewellyn, despite his enviable record of education, evidently had never heard of the term squeezing blood from a turnip because he set the amount of the dowry well above any reasonable expectation of what a lowly hangman could pay. Perhaps it was his own way to discourage the match which arose from a situation hitherto unknown outside of cheap romantic novels: his son actually fell in love with the girl of the big nose and bosom. While young Leighton-Lewellyn was bright, handsome of face, well-mannered and placed on the short-list of possible candidates for the next parliamentary election, his prospects of marrying into one of the finer families of London had dimmed when he returned from the war without his left leg, which rested eternally on the fields of Belgium, somewhere in proximity to Waterloo. Upon his return to his native village, he was nursed back to health by none other than the hangman’s daughter Jennalyn.
Many of Jennalyn’s fine qualities were obviously inherited from her father, other than the bulbous nose, of course. Her own mother passed of some dreadful disease when the child was still in diapers and her father proved a dutiful husband waiting on her to the very end. In addition, families which inhabited Murderers’ Row all agreed their doomed sons could not have been in better hands the last weeks of their lives than those of good old Duff as they called him. He fed them well, provided louse-free featherbeds, changed the straw frequently in the cells and smiled upon the boys without passing judgment on their foul deeds.
“He’s a regular Michelangelo of tying the noose’s knot,” many a felon’s grieving mother said of Duff. “My little boy’s neck snapped as pleasantly as could be when the trap door opened, sparing him of any undue pain on his journey to the Great Beyond.”
All of this good feeling came into peril the evening Duff met with the barrister Leighton-Lewellyn at the local tavern. As the dowry amount—quoted in pound sterling—passed through the lawyer’s respectable lips, the hangman’s mouth dropped open, revealing gaps between yellowed and tobacco-stained teeth.
“With all due respect, me lordship—“
“I am not a lord,” Leighton-Lewellyn corrected him.
“Maybe if you were a lordship your son might be worth such a kingly amount! I think I deserve a healthy discount because he’s missing a leg.”
“A leg lost in battle to preserve your rights.”
“And what rights might they be? The right to be robbed by some fancy-pants lawyer?”
“Be careful, hangman, or your daughter will lose any chance of marrying so far above her station in life!”
“And what chance do I have of raising that much money?”
The barrister smiled, finished his drink and tossed a few coins on the table. “Be creative.”
That night Duff had restless dreams inhabited by all the mothers on Murderer’s Row who seemed to be giving him advice. One woman in particular stood out from the others.
“The answer is as clear as the nose on your face,” she said with a cackle, “or, rather, the nose on my face.”
At first Duff did not recognize her until he placed the voice—the old crone from next door, the same old woman who sold him dozens of poultices to cure his ailing wife. They all failed. The neighbors, in sympathy with the pitiful hangman, ran the incompetent witch out of town.
“Mathilda! I hardly recognized you! You’re not half as ugly as you used to be! What did you do to yourself?”
Pointing to her nose, she said, “It’s the wart on me nose. All gone.”
“Was it painful to cut it off?” Duff asked.
“Wasn’t painful at all,” she replied. “All it took was my handkerchief, wiped against the sweaty body of a man recently hanged, rubbed on the wart and, poof, gone within days!”
“It works?”
“It works for a hangman looking for extra money to pay for his daughter’s dowry.” Mathilda cackled and disappeared into the darkness of the world of dreams.
It just so happened that a young man convicted of killing his mother and father while they slept summer solstice past was to be hanged the next morning. A good-sized crowd was expected, because no one liked the little bastard. His mother baked the best scones in Lincolnshire, and his father shoed horses free for all those regularly attended church and sang loudly during the service. Duff heard the mumbling crowd as he placed the noose around the loathsome youth’s thin neck.
“A waste of good Duff’s time, I’d say,” one man said loud enough to evoke a good laugh from the townspeople.
“What good was he?” a woman added. “Not worth a good spit.”
The mention of bodily fluids caused Duff to pause. This was the moment he could make his move to ensure sweet Jennalyn’s future. He stepped forward on the scaffold and cleared his throat.
“That’s not quite true, friends and neighbors,” Duff began. “I happen to know how this unfortunate lad might be of some service to his community, if not in this life, well in a few minutes afterwards.”
“What are you talkin’ about, Duff?” the man called out.
“The sweat daubed from the body of man freshly hanged by a person’s handkerchief, if properly applied to a wart, will make that wart disappear within days.” Duff stopped and looked down at his feet, wondering if he had squandered all good will he had built in the village over his many years.
“Is it true?” a female voice called out from the back of the crowd. She ran forward waving her handkerchief. “Kill him now so I may be spared this awful wart upon my brow!”
“Kind lady, I mostly certainly will oblige you but…” Duff looked away trying to find the proper words. “As you all know my lovely daughter Jennalyn is betrothed but the marriage will not come to pass if I cannot pay the dowry.”
The woman ran up the scaffold steps extending her purse. “For Jennalyn! For my wart!”
Applause and cheers rang out.
“I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be used to raise money so that pig ugly girl can get married!” the boy under the hood screamed.
“Bugger off, you little bastard!” Duff swung around and pulled the lever, causing the lad to fall. The crack of his neck was audible to everyone which caused them to roar approval. “And now, kind lady, if you will hand me your handkerchief I will apply it to his cheek.”
As soon as Duff removed the hood, wiped the murderer’s cheek and returned the cloth to the woman, ten other people stormed the gallows, waving handkerchiefs and small purses. The event only came to an end that day when the sheriff announced loudly he had to cut the boy down, put him in the ground and be home for supper before sunset.
Duff and Jennalyn sat at their kitchen table counting the coins again and again, not believing their good fortune; however, no matter how much fortune one hanging might bring, it was not enough to make more than a modest dent in the dowry payment.
“Don’t dismay, dearest papa,”Jennalyn whispered. “We still have time. Ronald Junior and I have yet to set a date for the wedding. You have right up until we walk down the aisle to pay the dowry. And you have to admit, we live in a dastardly little town.” She put her arm around Duff and giggled. “Hardly a month goes by without a hanging.” She paused. “Ah, I just remembered. Angus McFee hangs next Wednesday.” Sighing, she added, “what a waste of beautiful man flesh that will be.”
By next Wednesday word had spread about the magic potion that was the sweat of a hanged man and crowds from miles around crowded into the town square for the demise of Angus McFee, who killed three men with his bare fists in a tavern fight. Most any other man would have cleared on the claim of self-defense, but Angus had already killed five other men in brawls and most people were tending to view Angus’ violent outbursts as more than self-defense. Duff had just placed the hood on Angus’s massive broad face when women swarmed toward the gallows, holding high their bags of coin. Not wanting to waste any of the sheriff’s time, Duff dispensed with the doomed man’s last words and pulled the lever. The timbers fairly groaned under Angus’ massive body swinging from the rope.
As the women lined up on the stairs, Duff took a close look at each one.
“You don’t seem to have a wart,” he cautiously observed.
“It’s in a place that doesn’t show,” the woman explained, her cheeks turning pink.
“If it doesn’t show then why have it removed?”
She shoved the handkerchief toward Duff. “Just take the damn rag and rub it on his body!”
He did as he was told and was surprised by the heft of the coin purse she threw his way. The sun slipped low on the horizon as the women continued to climb the scaffold steps, hand him the cloth and then toss a generous bag at him. Duff chose not to hear the sheriff’s pleas to wind this business up because his dinner was getting cold. Finally the last woman stepped forward and offered to wipe Angus’s wet torso herself and pulled out two sacks which jingled like gold. Again that night the hangman and his daughter counted their take carefully.
“Another two hangings like this and we can set the date,” Duff announced, beaming.
“But the jail is empty, and my Ronnie’s father is pressing for a date before Christmas,” Jennalyn informed him, trying to hold back the tears.
Patting her hands, Duff replied in a soothing voice, “The Lord will provide a way.”
By Friday night, a plan hatched in the hangman’s desperate mind. Angus McFee’s younger brother had come to town for the funeral and, because of the compassionate welcome he had received from the women of the town, he decided to stay on at his grandfather’s house until the next Monday. Each night since the hanging, Braun McFee had visited the tavern drinking and carousing until the early morning hours. Each time he left the establishment, a young woman was on his arm and the same young woman was seen the next morning sneaking out of his bedroom at his grandfather’s house. The McFees were notoriously known for not locking their doors at night because who in his right mind dare enter the McFee home without an invitation? They did not consider that poor Duff was not in his right mind. Easing through the front door, Duff tip-toed to Braun’s room where he found the young couple snuggled in lust’s embrace.
Reminding himself constantly that this was for his daughter’s future happiness, Duff gently rolled Braun’s body over the girl’s body. She struggled briefly before his mass became too great for her fragile body and she breathed her last. Returning home, Duff went straight to his bed and stayed there until the commotion on the street made sleeping impossible.
“Papa! Awaken! You will not believe what happened last night!” Jennalyn yelled, banging at his door.
Duff had not even removed his trousers. Rising from his bed he threw on his jacket and went to the door. “What’s going on?”
“Braun McFee killed Saramay Jenkins last night!”
“I don’t believe it! Braun was never as violent as his brother Angus. Why would he ever kill sweet harmless Saramay?”
As the days passed, the ugly story unfolded to the townspeople. Braun was in the act of lovemaking with Saramay when he passed out from the massive amounts of liquor he had drunk at the tavern. The immediate reaction was that it was an unfortunate accident, nothing more; however, as time went by murmurings made their way to the magistrate. Is this not the pattern set by the perpetrator’s brother? An unfortunate murder resulting from a drunken brawl? And then another and another, until the good people could not abide by it any longer. How many innocent maidens would have to die before the McFee was eliminated for the safety of the community, just as his brother had been?
No one knew where these strange comments originated, but they did seem to make sense to the majority in Lincolnshire, and pressure began to build for the prosecution of the reckless hedonist in their midst. The trial came to pass and by dusk of the first day, Braun McFee was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. By that time the young women of the town, who up until that point, had been pleading for mercy for Braun, suddenly remembered the new tradition involving hanged men, and they urged Duff to do his duty as soon as possible. Duff demurred but all the ladies insisted.
Tradition was taking hold because on the day of the hanging, women from other villages crowded the town square as Duff pulled the lever, and Braun McFee breathed his last. Sweat-soaked handkerchiefs brought even higher prices than for his evil brother. Late that night Duff and Jennalyn counted the coins from the day. Duff smiled.
“Almost there, my darling,” he said. “One more hangin’, and you will be set for life.”
“Thank you, papa.”
“It’s all for you, my dear. What kind of life have I lived if it hasn’t been for you?”
***
Jennalyn looked intently into her father’s eyes before leaning over to kiss his forehead. The next morning she went forthwith to the magistrate’s office and reported, between great sobs, that her own father had been responsible for the murder of dear sweet Saramay and for the unjust hanging of Braun McFee.
“I feel so guilty,” she said in a small pitiful voice. “He did it to pay for my dowry. Oh, what a wicked child I am.”
“There, there,” the magistrate said soothingly as he stood and put his arms around her soft shoulders. “You done your duty as you saw fit. No one can blame you for that.”
“No! I must atone for my sins!” she replied, pulling away. “I must be the one to pull the lever on my father, to show that even I know that no one is above the law.”
Justice was done in a remarkably swift manner. Once before the magistrate Duff freely admitted his guilt and begged his daughter for forgiveness. She quickly forgave before falling into her gimpy fiance’s arms and crying. In the days leading up to the hanging, local elderly women came by the house to give Jennalyn their sympathy.
“What a fine gentleman he was,” they said. “I remember the way he cared for your mother on her death bed. At least he goes to his Maker knowin’ his daughter has made a fine match.” Then each paused to stare into Jennalyn’s eyes. “And a fine figure of a man he is. If only there could be a keepsake for us all to remember his good soul.”
The hangman’s daughter smiled. “Oh, I think we can figure something out.”

Hope

“Old age is a slow downward spiral into the abyss. Fighting the inevitable is futile. No doubt about it, life will knock you on your ass and there’s not a thing you can do about it. However, complete surrender means the acceptance of the end without hope. Life without hope is unbearable.” The old man finished his glass of white wine and looked around the table at the young men who appeared to be hanging on his every word. “Anybody want another beer?”
“Oh, yes sir.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The young men, all in their early twenties, smiled and nodded. The old man motioned to the bartender.
“I want another white wine, and give each of these fine gentlemen the beer of their choice.” He waited until all the orders were taken. “Personally, I don’t know the difference between one beer and another. I think I would gag if I tried to drink one. Oh, this is not to impugn the taste of any of you gentlemen. It’s a bit like Bill Clinton when he said he couldn’t inhale marijuana. I knew exactly what he meant. I couldn’t swallow cigarette smoke. Made me gag.”
The drinks arrived, and a low murmur overtook their corner of the bar.
“The reason I cannot drink beer is entirely psychological,” he continued as he sipped his wine. “My brother was an alcoholic—no, a drunk. He didn’t go to the meetings so he couldn’t be an alcoholic. He sat at home and drank one beer after another and told me how I was going to be a complete failure in life.” He took another sip. “He was dead a week before any of the neighbors noticed they hadn’t seen him. Now I can drink almost any kind of liquor. Really like a nice margarita or anything with rum. Southern Comfort makes me sick to my stomach though. Wine is nice. It’s a shame this place doesn’t have a full liquor license.”
The old man looked at his wristwatch and squinted. “I can’t read the damned time. My wife bought me this watch because it looked pretty. It doesn’t make any difference if the watch is pretty if the numbers on the damned face are too small to read. What time is it?”
“Almost nine o’clock, sir,” one of the young men said.
“Oh my goodness,” the old man replied with a jostle, glancing at the bartender. “Will you please bring me the bill? My wife will be here soon to pick me up. The woman has the silly idea I shouldn’t be driving after I’ve had a couple glasses of wine.” He looked toward the bar again. “And add another round of beers for my young friends here.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“We appreciate it, sir.”
“There are some old farts who say the younger generation isn’t worth a damn, but they’re wrong. You young men listen to me without ever interrupting. Do you know how often I get interrupted at home? All the time, that’s how often. Anyway, I hope to see you all next week at the same time.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Our pleasure, sir.”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you decide it’s not worth the free beer to have to listen to this old fart,” he said, standing, “and not bother to show up.”
“Oh no, sir.”
“Not at all, sir.”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t show up, but appreciate it if you do.” He looked at them and smiled. “There’s always hope.”

Dream

This guy shot his gun in the air and demanded all my money. This was very inconvenient because I was in the middle of an expensive meal at a fancy restaurant which was filled with people enjoying their dinner.
“Take all your cash and tape it to your head,” he ordered. “I will stand at the entrance and as you file out I will take the money. You may then walk away and proceed with your peaceful lives.”
My first thought was that I didn’t have any tape. Looking around I observed the other patrons took out rolls of tape and attached their bills to their heads, stood and headed for the door. They seemed relaxed about the entire situation as though they had been through this sort of thing before. I didn’t eat in fancy restaurants often so I didn’t know if this happened all the time or not.
My second thought was that I didn’t have enough money to pay for both my meal and my ransom. If I was going to be killed, I might as well go to my Maker with a full stomach, I decided, and continued to eat my food. Also, I wondered that if I hunched over and was quiet perhaps the armed bandit would not notice me. That didn’t work out because when everyone else left, it was obvious I was indeed still there. However, one other man, sitting at an adjacent table, had stayed to finish his plate, too. I leaned over to whisper to him.
“Excuse me,” I asked him, “but doesn’t this seem like an odd predicament?”
“It probably is an odd predicament but not too terribly alarming,” he replied as he took his last bite of food and wiped his mouth with the linen napkin. “After all, I’m a young healthy man and capable of earning back in a relatively short period of time any money I lose tonight.”
It was at that point I realized he was quite a few years younger than me and in the prime of life. On the other hand, I was 66 years old and my prospects of earning more money were considerably diminished. If the guy with the gun showed up at very many more establishments where I was eating, I wouldn’t have any money left at all.
“Pardon me,” the young man said as he stood. “I have to give that gentleman my cash. Have a nice day.”
Looking around I hoped to find another exit so I could slip out the back way without the gunman spotting me. As was my luck, the restaurant ignored the fire codes and only had the one door. So now I was down to it. My choices were laid out—stiff the restaurant and pay the gunman or pay the bill and let him blow my brains out.
I didn’t know what I did because my wife woke me up and told me I had a doctor’s appointment. I taped my money to my head and drove to his office.

Originally published as a guest column in the Tampa Bay Times

Close Encounter

The entire family gathered for its evening meal around a circle deep in the forest, its heart interminably tangled in underbrush and vines.
“Hey, Ma,” Junior piped up with his mouth full of berries and nuts, “Buggums and me want to go out human hunting tonight. That’s okay, ain’t it?”
Ma almost spit out her food. “What did you say?”
All the boys my age go out human hunting at night. It’s fun. I ain’t never seen one. All my buddies say they’re real funny lookin’.”
“Gruff, did you just hear what your son said? He wants to go human hunting!” Ma lifted her chin and crinkled her nose in disgust.
“What the hell is going on here?” Gruff looked up as he wiped his paw across his mouth.
“All the boys have seen one, except for Buggums and me. We kinda feel left out,” Junior whined.
“Well, you’ll feel left out forever if one of those hairless bastards points his magic stick at you and blows your brains out!” Ma’s eyes fluttered.
“Oh, Ma, I hear the humans are so dumb they hardly ever shoot no one,” Junior replied.
“You ain’t never seen one of our kind, spread out on the ground, his face staring up at the night skies with this blank look in his eyes, have you?”
Junior hung his head. “No, Pa.”
“I’ve seen way too many dead folks. And they’re not all just youngin’s. I’ve had a couple of close buddies killed. And some nice ladies too. How would you like to come across your ma’s body with blood oozing out of it?”
“Nobody’s told me about that.” Junior paused. “In fact, none of the boys have seen dead bodies. I think you’re trying to scare us like when you told us about the boogeymen.”
“Those damn hairless bastards done scared all the boogeymen away,” Gruff snapped. “You know why you’ve never seen any dead folks? ‘Cause me and all the other men roam the forest at night, find them and give them a proper burial, that’s way. I’ve been tellin’ ‘em we ought to send for you kids to help us buried the dead. That’d shut the whole bunch of you up. But, no, the women start cryin’ boo hoo hoo about how they don’t want their babies to see anything bad.”

“Well, I’ve never seen a dead body, and I don’t think I want to.” Ma sniffed. “That’s way our people have done things and I don’t see no reason to change it. After the old ones die, the men hurry up and bury them on the other side of the forest and then we don’t talk about them anymore.”
“You mean Grandma and Grandpa didn’t go live with their cousins in the Himalayas?” Junior’s eyes widened.
“Naw, they’re ten feet under right over that ridge” Gruff said.
“I don’t know,” Ma offered softly. “I like the idea of thinking Auntie Poopoo was vacationing in the Everglades. She always did like the water.”
“Maybe the humans just get scared and shoot to protect themselves.” Junior was running out of ideas to defend his trip through the woods.
“No, they’re mean bastards,” Gruff shouted. “Mean, ignorant bastards who like to shoot their magic sticks just to see one of us die. Now, if they dragged the body off and skinned it to get the good parts out for supper, well, I could understand that. Everybody’s got a right to eat, but they just leave it to rot. You know what those bastards call us?”
“Beautiful creatures of the forest?” Junior whispered with hope that he was right.
“Hell, no! They call us Big Foot! Now ain’t that smart? Big Foot!” Gruff lifted up his leg to point it at Junior. It must have been twenty-four inches long. “I don’t think this foot is so big!”
“I don’t know. It looks pretty big to me,” Junior replied meekly.
“Don’t worry, Baby.” Ma patted his leg. “You’re just a boy. You’ll have bigger feet than that by the time you grow up.”
“Oh hell no!’ Junior jerked away from his mother.
“And what’s wrong with big feet?” Gruff demanded. “You know what they say, big feet, big—“
“Gruff!” Ma interrupted. “Enough of that.” She turned to Junior. “You understand now why you can’t going looking for the humans, don’t you dear?”
“All the other boys—“
“All the other damn boys are lying!” Gruff bellowed again, half-masticated food flying from his mouth.
“I can take care of myself,” Junior replied, feeling defensive.
Gruff put his food down and walked to Junior, pointing his large hairy index finger at Junior’s temple. “What are you going to do when a hairless bastard sticks his magic stick to your head and it goes boom? Your brains will be all over the ground. The wolves will come up and chomp down on your brains, smacking their lips. But you won’t be see it because you’ll be dead! No more romps in the moonlight with your friends. No more splashing in the mountain streams. No more hugs from your Ma. Because I’ll have to sling your fat-assed body over my shoulder and carry you over the ridge and dig a hole so deep to bury so deep that no other creature will dig you up!”
“Gruff! That’s quite enough! You’re making the baby cry!”
Pa hugged Junior tight to his hairy chest. “Don’t cry, boy. Grow up. Trust me. You don’t ever want to meet one of those hairless bastards. I don’t know what I’d do if….” Gruff’s voice trailed off as he tried not to cry.
As he shuffled back to his dinner, Junior wiped the tears from his eyes with his paw. “If the humans are so bad, Pa, why don’t you and the others just kill ‘em all?”
Gruff laughed as he plopped on the ground. “You can’t even imagine how many of those hairless bastards are out there. Why, most of them don’t even believe we exist. It’s gotta stay that way. If I got mad and killed one of them, then all hell would break loose and every last one of us would be killed.”
“I wouldn’t be too scared to fight ‘em.” Junior tried to find his voice.
“I know you’re brave, Junior.” Gruff smiled and struck his big hairy chest. “I’m brave too. But what good will that do us when all the hairless bastards come after us with those magic sticks?”
“Don’t think your pa is a coward,” Ma interjected. “But he’s also very smart. Running and hiding don’t sit well with him, but he knows if he’s gonna protect us he’s got to do it.”
Junior smiled. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t understand. I promise never to go looking for humans again.” He laughed. “I never realized it. My pa is a real hero.”
“Aw.” Gruff waved his big paw in the cool night air. “Pass me one of those rabbits before it stops bleeding.”

Breaking Out

Crap.
A zit.
But what did I expect?
From one lousy chocolate bar to the tip of my nose.
What was I thinking when I ate that candy? Chocolate always caused me to break out. Maybe I bought it in celebration of Mary Lou Finklebean’s agreeing to go to the prom with me. I had been building up my courage to ask her out from the beginning of the school year. First I grabbed the desk right in front of her in English class and found every reason in the world to turn around at the first of class to say something.
“Did you think the homework was hard?”
“Boy, that was a downpour this morning. I see you didn’t get wet at all.”
“I thought your solo in the music program last night was swell.”
Mary Lou had a fair porcelain complexion and naturally pink lips. Her eyes were an unusually dark shade of blue, and her hair was almost black. And dimples. Very deep and got even deeper when she smiled. Which was almost all the time. And her little nose was like a button which crinkled.
Unlike my nose which was a huge honker with the most disgusting angry red pimple at the very tip. It was about to produce a stark white center and then, watch out.
Maybe I bought the chocolate candy because I was nervous. I always ate chocolate when I was nervous. This was going to be my first dance and my first date with Mary Lou. I knew she could dance. She danced in school shows all the time. Mary Lou Finklebean could do everything well and smile and crinkle her cute little button nose all at the same time. I had to learn how to dance from my father. For one thing, he insisted on leading, and he was six foot four and almost 250 pounds. Mary Lou was five foot two and as light as a feather. No wonder I was nervous.
Why was I crazy enough in the first place to ask her to the prom? I had never taken a wrong step in my entire life. Never volunteered to do anything so I couldn’t mess things up. I never raised my hand in class, so I couldn’t answer a question wrong. And I never, ever tried out for any sports team, so I couldn’t drop the ball in front of the whole school. I had been very careful to be safe. Why did I have to get brave the last month of my senior year in high school?
Because Mary Lou Finklebean was cute and entrancing. I forgot to fade into the crowd. But why did she say yes? I couldn’t have been the only guy who wanted to take her to the prom. Maybe Mary Lou had a secret, vicious mean streak in her. She said yes, knowing I would get nervous and go out to buy a chocolate bar the afternoon before the prom. Then she could laugh at me in the middle of the gym floor, pointing at the bulbous pimple on the tip of my nose, embarrassing me into running out of the building and into a busy street. Run over by a rusty car which would pop my zit all over my rented tuxedo.
Despite all my fears I drove to her house, got out, straightened my tuxedo and went to the door to knock. Mary Lou Finklebean opened the door and smiled her glorious smile and crinkled her adorable button nose.
Which had a zit on the tip of it.
I didn’t know whether to fall in love or run away.

The Beach

“I can’t believe I spent fifteen years on the subway looking at a picture of that damn palm tree thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in the world.”
“George, did you bring the sunblock? You know I get splotchy if I don’t have my sunblock.”
“Freezing my ass on that subway going home every night, staring at that damn palm tree. Spring Hill, Florida, the poster said. Go retire to Spring Hill, Florida, and be happy, the poster said.”
“If you didn’t bring the sun block I’m going back to the car. I’m not going to get all splotchy just because you forgot the sunblock.”
“Fifteen years of thinking if I survive another New York winter and save my money, I can go live under that damn palm tree.”
“Oh. Never mind. It was at the bottom of my bag.”
“They didn’t tell me the houses were halfway across the county from the damn palm tree.”
“Do you want a Coke? I got diet and regular in the thingy here.”
“You drive an hour and when you get here, and it ain’t all that big, either.”
“Your belly’s getting too big. I’m giving you a diet.”
“Look at that beach. It’s nothing. Atlantic City has a bigger beach than that.”
“If we were in Atlantic City right now you’d be freezing your ass off. Now drink your Coke, for crying out loud.”
“Somebody ought to sue those bastards for false advertising. Making Spring Hill look like some damn South Beach or something.”
“We couldn’t afford an outhouse in South Beach. Drink your Coke.”
“I have to walk out a mile before I get my ass wet, the beach is so shallow.”
“If you want your ass wet, I’ll pour the Coke down your pants.”
“I mean, fifteen years of saving our money to move to Spring Hill, and the damn palm tree isn’t even pretty.”
“George, where the hell else do you want to go?”
“Aww, Louise, don’t start in on me.”
“You want to go back to New York, George? It’s snowing in New York, George. Do you want to spend another winter shoveling snow? You want to shovel snow until you drop dead of a heart attack?”
“Give me the damn Coke, Louise.”
“You want to live in South Beach, George? Why? You want to stare at all the young girls in bikinis? They wouldn’t give you a second look. You know why? Because you’re an old man, George.”
“Now you’re just getting nasty, Louise.”
“I know I’m just a wrinkled up old broad from New York, George, but you know what? I think you’re the best looking thing on this beach.”
“I know I’m the best looking thing on this beach. I’m the only thing on this beach except for that damn palm tree.”
“Look, George. The sun is setting. Not a cloud in the sky.”
“Well, maybe not the best looking thing on the beach. For a wrinkled up old broad from New York, you’re okay, Louise.”
“Drink your Coke, George.”

The Mystery of Kabbalah

At my wife’s insistence, I have finished reading my second book on Kabbalah, and I still don’t get it.
Don’t misunderstand. I have complete tolerance for all religions of the world. If I had my way December, not only would there be Christmas cards on the courthouse lawn, there also would be Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Arab Day, Sure Glad I’m Shinto, Happy to be Hindu, including an atheist card that says “I don’t believe any of this.” I would even allow a card that said, “This space for rent to anyone expressing his own personal existential beliefs.”
And I do understand and agree with many beliefs of the branch of the Jewish faith that believes that the angel Raziel gave the book of Kabbalah to Abraham who passed it down through the generations.
Kabbalah stresses living in the 99 percent of life that involves being good to other people, happy to be in the world and satisfied with life as it is. Most people are concerned with the 1 percent which is trying to get as much as possible no matter what the consequences to other people.
I don’t remember when my wife first started reading about Kabbalah, but she loves to read anything about ancient history and philosophy. She shares with me her knowledge about how the Bible might have been written by a woman, how Jesus was married and how King David was actually an Egyptian pharaoh.
So for Christmas one year I bought her a seven-tape collection on Kabbalah which we started watching that very night. The first tape on the history of Kabbalah through the centuries was fascinating. Then the next tape was about finding the light to shine through you, and I immediately fell asleep. I fell asleep in the middle of all the rest of the tapes. Better than a sleeping pill.
She thought I was being terribly unfair so she found a book written in short, easy chapters that I could read a little each night. And I did. There were a lot of stories, like the three men who went into a room and found a satchel of money. The first man grabbed it and ran for it. The second man thought, boy I’d like all that money but I’m afraid I’d get caught if I took it so I’ll leave it alone. The third man immediately thought, oh, someone left his money out so I should tell him so it won’t get stolen.
Okay, who was the best person?
If, like me, you said the third man, you’re wrong.
The man who resisted temptation was the best. I still say the person who wasn’t tempted in the first place was better and even though my wife has tried to explain it’s better actually to overcome temptation than never to be tempted at all.
Recently she brought in another book written by the same person. It was a little longer but still written to be read one chapter a day. This one I understood better.
I can agree with the concept of crushing the Ego (capitalization by the book’s author). I agree that a person cannot condition his happiness on what he can get out of the world. A person can never have enough stuff to make him happy. Now that makes sense.
Then he got to that little red string tied around the wrist. It had some biblical reference but I don’t remember what it was. All true Kabbalah believers wear the red string, like Madonna. It’s supposed to remind you to live in the 99 percent of giving and caring. But if I have to keep looking at this red string on my wrist to remind myself to be nice to people then it’s a losing battle.
As hard as I try to contain it, sometimes the Beast That Lurks Within (my capitalization) escapes and all kinds of rancid nasty stuff erupts. What if someone sees my red string and says, hey, you got the red string on. You’re not supposed to be acting like that.
Which is why I don’t have a Honk if You Love Jesus bumper sticker on my car. I’m afraid I’d forget it was there and fly into road rage when all those people started honking at me.
Maybe I need to read a third Kabbalah book.