Ernst and Ludwig walked down their Berlin street as was their morning custom three days after New Year’s in 1966. Daily they celebrated they celebrated their victory of surviving the reign of that crazy bastard Adolph Hitler. Friends since childhood, Ernst and Ludwig knew they had entered into a suicide pact when they joined the military as young men. It was enlist or be gunned down on the streets for being cowards and disloyal to the Fuerher.
Now they were in their twilight years and did exactly as they damn well pleased without regard to what their wives and their neighbors thought. Since their retirement from the sanitation department where they disposed of garbage, side by side, for twenty years, Ernst and Ludwig played trivia games to see who would pay for their coffee and cinnamon roll. Picking a topic they asked each other questions and the first to miss an answer treated the other. This worked out to be as fair a way of determining the morning host as they were equally knowledgeable or ignorant on most topics.
This morning they walked a furious pace because the wintry wind was particularly nippy. Their hands were in their shoulders, shoulders hunched and heads down.
“Arithmetic,” Ernst announced out of the blue.
“Und why not?”
“It’s too cold to calculate numbers in mein head, that’s why.” After a pause, Ludwig offered, “Opera.”
“There’s only one answer to an opera question und that is Wagner.”
“That is true. Then you pick.”
“Ach, gudt. Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe and Margery Main,” Ludwig announced loudly. He chose not to notice that two young women walking the other way on the sidewalk glanced at them and then laughed.
“Don’t expect to get the same question as last week,” Ernst warned him.
“Name three famous Americans with the initials M.M.”
“You’re not getting off that easy this time.”
“Ask away,” Ludwig challenged him. “I love America.”
“Where do Americans go when they want to lose most of their money?” Ernst asked.
“Ach! Las Vegas in the desert known as Nevada! You have to do better than that!”
“Bet you can’t do any better!” Ernest huffed furiously.
“What is the name of the American vice-president?”
“Lyndon Baines Johnson! Undt his beautiful daughters are Lucy Baines and Lynda Bird.”
“Not fair!” Ludwig bumped Enst’s shoulder. “That was going to be my next question.”
They both looked up to see their favorite little restaurant on the corner two blocks away. They increased their speed.
“We’re almost there. If we arrive undt no one has missed a question then the person with the last correct answer wins,” Ernst offered.
“That’s fair,” Ludwig conceded but he added, “talk faster.”
“In what month of the year do Americans celebrate the landing of Christopher Columbus?”
“Hmm…you’ve been watching the American television channel again. Give me a moment.”
“You said to make it fast, so make it fast,” Ludwig said with glee. “Only one more block to go!”
As they crossed the last street before the restaurant, Ludwig’s foot rammed into the curb.
“Ach!” He lifted his leg to grab his injured foot, winced and pointed at his shoe. “Toe!” The wind picked up, and Ludwig said with a shudder, “Brr!”
Ernst’s mouth flew open. “But how did you know?”
Bob took the grey slacks from his closet, reached his fingers into the cuff to touch the sand and smiled.
Three years ago he and his wife Margaret walked along the beach in the Bahamas to watch the sunset after enjoying a lobster dinner at the resort. They had been married fifty years and decided to celebrate by themselves someplace they had never been before. Margaret came up with the idea of walking on the beach barefoot. The sun disappeared below the ocean after a light show of golds, oranges and pinks. Holding hands, they lightly kissed just as the last rays disappeared.
When they returned home Margaret went through the luggage, trying to decide which items to take to the dry cleaners.
“I definitely want to get the sand and salt water out of my pretty silk dress I wore on the beach that night,” she said. “It’ll be ruined if I don’t. How about your slacks?”
Bob put his arms around her. “No, I want to keep the Bahama sands as a souvenir as long as I can,” he whispered.
“Silly, I’m your souvenir from the Bahamas, but whatever makes you happy.”
Two hours after Margaret left with her silk dress to go to the dry cleaners, a couple of sheriff’s deputies appeared at his front door. She never made it to the dry cleaners. A drunk driver ran a red light and smashed into the driver’s side of the car. At the funeral Bob wore his grey slacks and whenever he felt like he was about to cry he reached down and felt the sand in the cuff.
A day did not pass that he did not go to the closet to touch the slacks because it reminded him of the happiness spent with Margaret, and for the longest time he was content to settle for the sand in the cuff.
One weekend he drove downtown to the farmer’s market to stare at fresh tomatoes and spinach. He never bought any, but he liked to look at them because Margaret used to buy them.
“There’s a sight I thought I’d never see,” a woman’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “A man in Florida not dressed in shorts and a T-shirt.”
Bob looked up to see a short woman with cropped silver hair, a friendly smile and wearing a bright orange, pink and yellow dress. He had never particularly noticed short women before. Margaret looked him straight in the eyes, which he always found excited. But finding a small face with twinkling eyes looking up at him was not a bad experience either, he decided.
“I’m new in town,” she said, walking up to him and extending her hand. “Everybody calls me Bootsie.”
Bob never liked precious nicknames, finding them pretentious. But Bootsie fit this little bubbly bundle in front of him so well, he could not help but smile.
“Are these home-grown tomatoes? I don’t like those they pull off the vine green so they can truck them across the country. They taste yucky, don’t you think?”
Margaret never used words like yucky but the way they danced across Bootsie’s lips made him want to laugh.
“Yes, they’re grown right here.” Bob took a moment to find his voice because he became lost in Bootsie’s blue eyes. He always thought nothing was as beautiful as Margaret’s brown eyes, but blue eyes seemed so happy to him at this moment standing on the downtown street next to a table filled with red tomatoes.
Before he knew it, Bob had accepted an invitation to Bootsie’s house for dinner. Bootsie wanted to celebrate her divorce from her husband of forty years. She finally had decided she could not stand his alcoholism any more.
“If you’re going to drive drunk, you’re not coming back to my house,” Bootsie repeated her ultimatum. “On second thought, don’t come home ever. You’d just lie about drinking anyway.” She looked up at Bob and smiled. “I feel so happy now.”
And that made Bob feel happy. As he changed into clean slacks and shirt to go to Bootsie’s house, Bob put the grey slacks aside to go to the dry cleaners. It was time to let go of the sand.
Through the dark ethereal mists floated sighs of a child. “Yo yo yo yo yo yo. Yo yo yo yo yo yo. Yo yo yo yo yo yo. Ya hoo! Barump bump bump bump. Barump bump bump bump. Ya hoo hee hee hee!”
“I beg your pardon.” A voice arose from a bottomless cavern in the distant nether. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing where?” The child giggled at his own cleverness.
“This is the land of whispers and memories. We weren’t expecting any new arrivals.”
“And I wasn’t expecting to go anywhere so that makes us even, doesn’t it? Barump bump….”
“What are you doing? What is that noise?”
“I’m playing my drum.”
“You can’t be playing a drum,” the deep voice replied, a pronounced irritation shading his tone.
The child paused. “That’s right. My drum has disappeared. I’m pretending to play my drum.”
A moan echoed through the blackness. “My pardon, young man. I should have known I was speaking to someone of your age. By the way, what is your age?”
“Seven. It’s my birthday. It’s the best birthday I ever had.”
Tenderness softened the cave voice. “And why is it the best birthday ever?”
“My daddy took me on a trip. He’s never taken me anywhere before. You see, he works really hard and Mommy says I shouldn’t expect him to take time off from his job just because I want to go someplace. If Daddy doesn’t work, we don’t eat and we don’t have a roof over our heads and we’d have to run around naked because we couldn’t afford any clothes.”
“So why did your father take time off for your seventh birthday?”
“I don’t know. I’m just glad that he did.”
Where did he take you?”
“The Indian reservation.”
“Which Indian reservation?”
“The one with drums and war bonnets.”
“Oh, that one. Well, good. That’s a good one.”
“The one with the mountains and waterfall and paths you can go walking on. I saw a squirrel.”
“That must have been exciting.”
“We got to eat hot dogs.”
“I didn’t know Indians had hot dogs.”
“They had hamburgers too. Daddy had a hamburger.”
“No wonder it was the best birthday ever.”
“Know what the first thing we did when we got there? First thing in the morning?”
“Daddy bought me a war bonnet and a drum. He let me wear the war bonnet all day. It had real feathers too. And he didn’t mind that I wanted to beat my drum all day. At home he used to get mad real easy if I made too much noise but not today. Not on my birthday.”
“So what happened on your birthday? Why are you here?”
“I still don’t know where here is.” The child paused. “Yo yo yo yo yo yo. Do you know Indians like to hop around in circles and sing yo yo yo yo yo yo?”
“Did you like watching them dance?”
“I liked everything about my seventh birthday!”
“There wasn’t anything bad that happened?”
“No. Daddy didn’t get mad and yell one time. I don’t ever remember a day when Daddy didn’t yell about something.”
“Do you remember anything after you got home? Anything bad?”
“No, I don’t remember much. Daddy said I could wear my war bonnet to bed. He said good night and turned off the light. I was so tired I went right off to sleep. It got real hot in the middle of the night. I started coughing. I think I started coughing. It might have been a dream. Then I started wheezing. I could hardly breathe. I cried out; at least, I thought I cried out.”
“What happened next?” the cave voice asked.
“I think Daddy and Mommy came into my room and I think Mommy said something about getting those feathers away from my face. Daddy said to let me wear my feathers because they made me happy. He said the cough was nothing. He said I was just tired.”
“Do you remember anything after that?”
“No. Wasn’t that nice of Daddy to let me keep my war bonnet?”
The voice from the distant cavern was silent for several moments. Eventually the child began to play his imaginary drum again.
“Barump bump bump bump….”
“My dear child,” the cave voice finally said, “I don’t think you’re supposed to be here in the land of whispers and memories.”
“Where am I supposed to be?”
“With your mother and father. You were supposed to create many more memories before you came here.”
“I can’t imagine any better memories than what I got on my seventh birthday.” His excitement trailed off. “Can’t I have my war bonnet and drum now?”
“No. You can only have your memories here.”
“Can I go back to my war bonnet and drum?”
“You can go back to your mother and father, but I don’t think you will ever get your war bonnet. Maybe your drum.”
“But I will get some more happy memories?”
“Oh, I can’t promise all your memories will be happy.”
“So,” the child said slowly, “if I stay here I can keep my birthday memories?”
“Of course. And if you notice, you don’t have many bad memories now, do you?”
“No, and they are slipping away fast. How come that happens?”
“I’ll explain it to you later. We have lots of time for things like that.”
“What if I decide to go back and get more memories later? Can I do that?”
“Yes, you can go back anytime you want, but they won’t be the same memories of the same people from before. And, like I said, I can’t promise they will be all happy.”
“Okay, I think I get it now. Yo yo yo yo yo yo. Barump bump bump bump.”
Recently I held my six-month-old granddaughter for the first time, the baby of my baby girl I held for the first time 30 years ago. Suddenly, magically, I was young again.
My wife and I were in our late thirties by then. Our son was ten years ago, and we had resigned ourselves to the fact he was going to be an only child, even though it had always been our plan to have a second offspring, hopefully a girl.
Our daughter had a different temperament than our son. When I had blown on his tummy he laughed. When I blew on her tummy, she looked at me like I was a lunatic. When he received his first vaccination he screamed in agony. She looked at her arm and said, “Well, that hurt.”
For her third birthday party we invited two sisters from our church. As she opened presents, she came across one that was a stack of coloring books. Without a word, she turned to divide them equally with her guests.
Our life situation was that I was the stay-at-home parent and my wife worked. So over the years my daughter and I had our little adventures. We walked through the neighborhood and picked up trash in empty lots. The first day of school was not traumatic as it had been with our son. His eyes filled with tears and he stretched out his arms like he would never see us again. Our daughter, on the other hand, said a quick “bye” and ran off to make friends.
Boys took notice of her very early, and she took advantage of it. And when she tired of one, she had another waiting in line to have his heart broken too. She was a bit taken aback when I would casually mention that I had an idea she was interested in another victim—I mean—boyfriend. But what else was I to do? By this time she didn’t have time for walks with daddy anymore, so I had to settle for witnessing a joyful life in motion.
When she graduated from high school, she looked at me sadly and said, “Does it make you feel bad to see me grow up? It means you’re getting old.”
“Why, no,” I replied. “You gave me ten more years of being a father to a child. Without you I’d just be the father of a 28-year-old man.”
I read somewhere once that children raised by their fathers tended to be more adventuresome, less afraid of taking a spill and more independent. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable, but she certain was independent. She flew to New York to college one year to the day of 9-11.
Now I’m actually old, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I no longer have to listen to people tell me I look like Mr. Bean. With a few more pounds and gray hair I’m the adorable old man who tells stories.
Last year I knew something was afoot when our daughter called and told my wife she wanted to talk to me first. When my wife handed me the phone I asked, “So, you’re having a baby, right?”
“How did you know?”
Observing my daughter, even from afar, is one of my better natural talents. My wife and I couldn’t schedule a trip to New York sooner than this April. When we arrived at her home, we were greeted by our daughter’s husband holding a bald little girl with big eyes who was just a little bit weepy at the moment.
I took her in my arms, making silly faces and sounds, and she looked at me and started laughing, just like another little girl 30 years ago.
Suddenly, magically, my granddaughter made me feel young again.
Like mother, like daughter.
Originally printed in the Tampa Bay Times Hernando section.
“So why did you plug your husband, lady?”
“It was a white collar crime.”
That was all the cops were going to get out of Bernadine for a while. Mostly she sat in the interrogation room thinking about the laundry. It started about a month ago when her husband Stan bought himself a collection of red button-down collar long-sleeve shirts to wear to the insurance office, all different shades, puce, maroon, blood, scarlet and strawberry. Each one had special washing instructions so it would keep its bright distinctive color.
“I thought you had a white collar job,” she groused with a smile.
“That’s just a euphemism, a trite banality, you know, something someone made up a long time ago.” Stan was an unusual shade of cranberry. “Anyway, I look good in red. You always said I looked good in red.”
“Don’t make a federal case out of it. It’s just a lot easier to pour in the bleach to get a white shirt clean.”
By the end of the month, Bernadine was ready to make a federal case of it. She was tired of washing all the red shirts and demanded that Stan wear one of his standard white shirts to work the next day. She had a good job too, she reminded him, as a bank teller.
“I’ve been having a lot of luck—I mean, a lot of sales. The boss says I’m on top—of the sales chart, that is.”
“I’m tired. I’m not doing laundry. Wear the white shirt.”
When Bernadine returned home from her job at the bank that evening, she discovered Stan, his face that odd shade of cranberry, hunched over the sink scrubbing the white shirt. Without a word, she snatched it from his hands and looked at the collar, smudged with scarlet lipstick.
“Whattaya mean, a white collar crime?” the cop asked.
“Don’t make a federal case out of it. I just found out my husband’s new boss is a gal who likes red lipstick.”
Sometimes sleeping late can cause a lot of trouble.
You see, my cocoon was just so comfy that I didn’t want to come out. I was having this wonderful dream of floating over a garden of roses, chrysanthemums and Mexican bluebells. The aroma made my head spin, and the nectar lured me into the caressing petals. The foliage surrounded me with Mother Nature’s love, and I wanted to stay there forever. As I dreamed of flying through the garden, I became aware that my wings bumped into stems which threw me off course. Before I knew it, I could hardly move at all without hitting something inflexible and rough.
Then I realized I wasn’t bouncing from plant to plant at all. It was dark. I was still in my cocoon, and my new wings couldn’t move in the cramped dark space. Instinct told me to kick and scratch as fiercely as I could. Finally, I broke through the cocoon wall and found myself in a beautiful garden, just like in my dream. After flitting from flower to flower, I sensed a distinct chill to the air. When I looked up I saw that the sky was clouding over, and the wind was blowing hard.
I’ve got to get out of this place. As beautiful as it was, I sensed it was going to become too cold very quickly. Looking around, I saw no other butterflies. This wasn’t right. Something was wrong. My instincts told me I was alone and in trouble. I wasn’t dreaming of this garden but another garden, far away where the temperatures were warm and the sun shone all day. But I didn’t know the way, and there was no other butterflies left to guide me.
Before I allowed myself to think the worse, a gentle hand swooped me up and placed me in a box with holes in the sides and several branches of leaves and flowers. I sensed I should have been scared but the flowers’ bouquet lulled me into a trance of serenity, almost like the dream I had while in the cocoon. I felt jostled about and cringed at the noise around me. A soft voice sang me to sleep and once again I was flying in the beautiful garden.
What seemed like a peaceful eternity passed. Coming out of a deep slumber I became aware of the lid of the box lifting, and I saw warm, welcoming skies above me. Without hesitation I flew up and out of the box to find yet another garden. This one was filled with other butterflies, all swooping and soaring around the flowers.
“Where have you been?” they asked. “How did you get here?”
“I overslept, and I don’t know how I got here. Do you believe in miracles?”
“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. He always resented having to pick me up places. It cut into his cruising time up and down the main drag of down. 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 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 a few 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 the 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 sixteen years older than my mother was when she died. I’m still home by ten o’clock. My wife isn’t much of one for nightlife. 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?”