Three days after grandma’s funeral, Jeff began the dreary duty of clearing out her house.
Each room was filled with items bought at yard sales. Jeff knew. Every Saturday for the last three years he had driven his grandmother throughout scattered neighborhoods looking for that one special item that would make her life happy. Usually she found at least two or three items at each sale, and they went to as many sales as they could before grandma had to return home for her afternoon nap.
Stacked on the dining room table were wicker baskets of all sizes and shapes, each one bought to store a specific item.
“This one will be perfect for all the mail that comes in each day,” she told him, “and this one over here will be good to put all the bills in before I mail them out.”
She picked up another basket, saying, “I can put my knitting supplies in this one.”
Another basket was shaped like a swan. “I don’t know what I could put in this, but it is so pretty I cannot pass it up.”
Now all the baskets were dusty as they lay one inside the other. A few had dirty dish towels draped over them, towels which his grandmother fussed about not being able to find. On the floor underneath the dining room table were extra dishtowels grandma had bought to replace the ones she thought she lost.
Jeff walked into the spare bedroom where he began to pack boxes of porcelain figurines, some of Greek goddesses and some of colonial ladies, all of them slightly faded and chipped. If he closed his eyes he could still hear the joy in her voice as she cooed over her discoveries. He even remembered the twinkle in her eyes and the way her bony fingers danced across the porcelain.
It was not that he begrudged the time he spent taking his grandmother from yard sale to yard sale. She had been kind to him when he was a child, and his parents seem to care more about their careers in retail sales. Both of them went from major store to major store– Sears, Ward’s, JCPenney and many others– working long hours for little appreciation and even less income. But grandma always make sure he had all the attention he wanted or needed.
As his grandmother grew older and needed help getting around, Jeff realized the job would be left up to him because his parents still thought one day they would be rewarded for all their loyal service to the big retail stores. So every afternoon after he had spent the day teaching middle school English, Jeff went to his grandmother’s house to see what she needed. Most times she had the local newspaper spread open to the section about yard sales and was planning her route for the weekend.
Jeff sat next to her, pen and pad in hand, to take careful notes. After three years he had every neighborhood in town memorized.
“What I really need,” she confided in a whisper, “is a new bathrobe.”
Jeff just smiled and nodded and wrote it down on his pad, even though he knew his mother had given his grandmother a new bathrobe for Christmas which she had bought on sale at Sears.
After he had packed all the porcelain figurines in bubble wrap and placed them in boxes, Jeff walked into his grandmother’s bedroom and began to take down from the closet all the dresses and coats she had picked up for only 50 cents or a dollar. He knew the exact prices because many of the clothes still had the price stickers on them.
“What did she think he was buying?” Jeff muttered to himself.
By the weekend, he had all of his grandmother’s possessions organized, priced and ready to go on sale in the front lawn. As usual, he had to do all the work by himself because Saturday was always a busy day for his parents at the store. Besides that, grandma was very specific in her will. All the treasures in her home were left to Jeff to do with as he wished. She knew, as stated in the will, he would benefit greatly financially when he sold them. All Jeff really wanted was to make enough money to pay for the classified ad he had placed in the newspaper.
On Saturday morning Jeff sat in a lawn chair, which still had the sticker on which was written 50 cents.
First to go were the wicker baskets.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with it,” an old woman said while holding up the swan to a young woman standing by her side, “but it’s so pretty I have to have it.”
Jeff sold it to her for 10 cents less than his grandmother had paid for it last year.
“You can never have too many rags,” an old man told a little boy standing by him as he grabbed a handful of the older dishtowels. “They’re good for cleaning up around the garage.”
The towels went for one penny each, and how the man’s eyes twinkle as he counted out carefully each coin.
“You see, Billy, this is how you save money.”
By noon Jeff had sold out of all of his grandmother’s treasures and realized what she had been buying all those years at yard sales. It was the same thing these people had just bought.
If truth be told, I’ve lived in Ireland all me life and have kept a most peculiar secret. Since I’m away from home among strange and foreign peoples, I’ll share it with ye.
Me best friend in all the world is a leprechaun.
Now laugh if ye must, but it’s the God’s honest truth. It began when I was a wee lad in—oh, I can’t tell ye the name of me village, because ye be likely to go there and look for me best friend’s gold, and I can’t have that. Let me just say I live in a tiny town in a lovely meadow surrounded by tall trees and awesome hills. Ha! The whole of Ireland looks like that, so what good does that do ye! As I was sayin’, I was a wee lad without any friends and no prospects for any kind of prosperous life. Me da had long since died, and me ma had to take in laundry to feed and clothe us children.
Me ma had sent me out into the woods searchin’ for berries when I first came upon the little man. No more than three feet he was, and not much shorter than meself. Bein’ a lad who had no such knowledge of leprechauns, I mistook him for another child.
“Hello there,” says I. “Do you want to play?”
“Off with ye, ye little devil!” the leprechaun says in a mean and nasty voice.
I’ll be not ashamed to tell ye, I sat right down on the ground and began to cry like a baby.
“Why don’t nobody want to play with me?” I says in a bawl. “Am I such a terrible mortal being that I must be shunned me entire life?”
Now the little man took a step back and then twisted up his face. “Bah! It’s all just a trick to get me pot of gold.”
“I don’t want a pot of gold. I just want a friend.”
I must have sounded like the most pitiful creature he had ever heard in his life because he took a few steps towards me.
“Don’t ye know who I am, child?”
When I lifted me little tear-stained face, I saw that what was standin’ in front of me wasn’t no child at all, but a shriveled up old man. If I had had any sense about me at all, I’d jumped to me feet and run home.
He put his hands out between us. “Don’t look into me eyes!”
“No, sir, I won’t,” I says in reply. “To tell ye the truth, I’m a mighty shy lad and don’t like lookin’ into no body’s face at all.”
The little man slowly lowered his hands. “That’s good, because if ye did stare into me eyes I’d beholden to take you to me gold.”
I wiped the tears from me eyes and rubbed me nose on me sleeve. “Why do ye keep talkin’ about a pot of gold? I don’t think nobody in Ireland has a pot of gold, and that’s the God’s honest truth!”
His wee mouth fell open. “The saints preserve us, I do believe ye don’t know who I am.”
“Ye are a mean wrinkled up old man, and I want nothin’ to do with ye!”
“Ain’t ye never heard of leprechauns, lad?”
“No.” I was about to get to me feet and run away.
“What kind of a da would ye have that would not tell ye of leprechauns?”
“Me da is dead! And me ma must wash clothes all day and all night to put food on the table! Now, go leave me alone!”
“Oh, child, I didn’t know.” He pulled a leather pouch from his pocket and took out a gold coin. “Now why don’t ye take me gold coin? It should make it all better.”
Now I was really mad. I stood and kicked dirt at the little man. “And how do I know it’s a real gold coin? And if it is real, then one of the O’Leary boys will steal it from me before I get home.”
He put the coin piece away and put his arm around me waist and said, “What brings ye to the woods, lad?”
“Me ma craves some berries for supper. She sent me to look for some.”
“Well, ain’t ye the luckiest boy in all of Ireland. I happen to know where the best berries grow.”
And he showed me where they were. And the next evenin’ he showed me where the prettiest heather grew so I could take a bundle to me ma. Then he said he liked to use heather to make some poteen. I bet ye don’t know what poteen is. It’s what you call in this country moonshine. I told him quite honestly that I didn’t think me ma would care much for poteen.
He laughed and I laughed and we had a grand old time. Over the next few years he told me exactly what a leprechaun was and why he was so jealous of his pot of gold. I kept tellin’ him that I didn’t care a thing for gold, but he just puffed on his pipe and said, “One day, lad, one day ye shall grow up and ye will care about gold then, and then we must part our ways.”
I swore to him that it wasn’t true, but he just smiled and puffed his pipe. Oh, what things he taught. I learned how to make a fine pair of shoes. I could make money for me family now. He taught me how to sing and dance. And what young lady could resist an Irish lad who could sing and dance? When I turned the ripe old age of twenty-one, the leprechaun said, “Ye are a fine strappin’ man now. Ye have a fine business and a beautiful wife. We can never see each other again.”
“Ye are just as mean and nasty as ye have ever been,” I says to him with a snort. “But ye won’t run me off as easy as that.”
The next thing I knew I felt a crackin’ pain on me head and I was out like a light. When I came to, there was one of those O’Leary boys—Fergus, the meanest one of them all—staring into the eyes of the leprechaun, and sure as could be he was forcing me wee little friend to take him to his pot of gold. Like a sure footed deer I followed them to a cave. And when that devil Fergus O’Leary came out holdin’ me friend’s pot of gold, I jumped on his back and rassled him to the ground. We was tradin’ blow for blow until I found meself on my back with Fergus O’Leary standin’ over me with a giant log, about to bash me to death. Then, poof, a cloud of smoke and all that was left of Fergus O’Leary was a teeny green frog.
I saw the leprechaun standin’ there, with his arms still outstretched, pointing at the frog that once was Fergus. I stood, picked up the pot of gold and handed it back to me friend. He took it and stared a long time at me.
“But ye could have kept the gold, and there was not thing I could have done to stop ye.”
Smiling, I says, “Are ye daft, man? What good is a pot of gold if you don’t have a friend?”
There I was under my usual cluster of trees at the annual art festival in my hometown sketching charcoal portraits of children for a donation to my tip basket. Sometimes I made enough to pay for a whole month of going out for coffee with the guys.
I don’t right remember how long I’ve been doing this. Let’s see. The festival’s been going on for thirty-six years. I didn’t start drawing until after I retired so that makes—well, too many years to figure out. The folks who put this shindig together have always put me on the row with vendors with local produce, the dog cremation company, the historical society, the man who sells plants that eat bugs and politicians handing out petitions to be signed.
The real artists and craftsmen are on the other side of the park, and that’s all right with me. Nope, never won a ribbon. Wouldn’t know what to do with it. The house is filled with my wife’s clutter, and it’s been two years since she died.
What I get a kick out of are the parents who force their kids to sit in my chair long enough for me to draw them. Basically, all the little boys look the same. Just like the girls. The mamas don’t care. They can see the resemblance, and that’s all that matters. They toss a dollar into my basket and move on.
Some days are busier than others which is fine. If I draw too many pictures in a day, arthritis plays hell with my fingers all night long and I can’t get a decent sleep. My fellow old men will sit in my chair to rest up before they finish their walk around the circle. A few want to bend my ear about local politics and others just stare in the distance at something, then without a word they stand and walk away.
A handful of mamas through the years have brought their children for a drawing each festival. They say it’s saving their kid’s childhood, picture by picture. That’s kinda nice. I also like to watch the mamas watching their boys and girls squirm in the chair until I’m finished.
On the last day of the festival this year a woman—she must have been as old as I am but I couldn’t tell for sure because she wore too much makeup—walked down the path toward me. She held the fingers on her right hand like she was holding a cigarette. I figured she had smoked for years until her doctor told her she would die of cancer if she didn’t stop. She beat the nicotine habit but she couldn’t keep her fingers from assuming their long-time pose of sophistication. Smoking used to be considered very sophisticated back in the old days.
I became aware of her standing behind me as I finished a charcoal rendition of twelve-year-old boy. The mother burbled something about how she was so glad to have this because next year he’d start changing into a teen-ager and never be her little boy again. She walked off without putting anything in my tip basket.
The old broad leaned into my left ear. I could smell her lipstick. It had to be red; red lipstick had a smell all of its own.
“You do know you’re not really talented, don’t you?”
I turned and smiled. “Of course. If I was really talented, I wouldn’t be in this one-horse town drawing pictures for free.”
Her lacquered fingertips went to her rouged lips as though she wanted to puff on her imaginary cigarette. Boy, I thought, she really missed smoking.
“Then why do you even bother?”
“Because when I give it up, I start to die.” I shrugged. “Oh, I know I’m dying.” I patted my chest. “But if I stop things I like just because I’m not really good at them, then my soul begins to die.” I paused to smile my best little boy smile. “And I don’t want to die before I die.”
I have a problem. For as long as I can remember, every month or so, for an hour, I spit up grayish pink wet matter. As a child I thought slivers of my tongue were coming loose; however, my tongue never got any smaller so I really didn’t know what it was. I just spit them out. My mother told me spitting was a disgusting habit and I should stop it. I couldn’t swallow them because if they were part of my tongue I thought it would be cannibalism to eat my own flesh. Or else they would just form a humongous bowel movement which would hurt like hell and probably clog up the sewer system which would make my father angry.
All went fairly well in my prepubescent years because I was able to spit the slivers out in bushes or other inconspicuous places. If a teacher caught me spitting at school, well, I was a little boy and spitting too much was just something little boys do.
The spit hit the fan, so to speak, in middle school when I started spitting in the middle of English class. Besides the girls groaning that it was gross, the teachers and principal were certain I could very well control this habit and was in fact doing it for attention. My mother took me to the doctor who, after some extensive and expensive tests, concluded my body was sloughing off an outer layer of all my internal organs which had to be expelled through the mouth about once a month. They were grayish pink because at the time they came out of my mouth and for the next few hours they were technically living tissue. He told my mother I could possibly live forever because my organs were regenerating themselves at an accelerated rate but my outside would grow old and wrinkly anyway so it didn’t make much difference.
I spent the rest of my school years carrying plastic bags into which to spit slivers of my organs. When the bag was full I would discretely toss it. This arrangement kept my odd physical affliction a secret until I fell in love and married a lovely girl with good manners learned from years of attending Baptist churches. When I told her about my problem I could tell she understood it intellectually but was having a hell of time with it emotionally and spiritually.
Eventually she would have hysterical fits every month because my baggy of formless, grayish, pinkish matter made her think she had had an abortion, or that she had had a baby and I was trying to kill it. The situation grew intolerable so we decided to divorce. The only problem was she wanted custody of my monthly emissions because she thought they were her children.
A group of fundamentalists picketed outside the courthouse during the divorce proceedings and a legislator introduced a law nicknamed “Jerry’s Kids” to keep my grayish-pink matter from being thrown out. Every commentator on Fox News called me a murderer. The crisis came to a point in the courtroom when the judge turned to my wife and said, “I think you’re nuts.” He appointed a psychiatrist who confirmed his suspicion. The judge granted the divorce and said anyway I wanted to dispose of my spit up every month was my own business. Unfortunately, the judge has received several death threats, and Bill O’Reilly called him Hitler.
Since then I regularly have to endure groups of men with “What Would Jesus Do” tattooed on their large arms who tackle me and force feed me Jello Pudding Cups because they don’t want my “kids” to starve. Ironically, I have had to be rushed to the hospital emergency room a few times because I was choking to death on the pudding cups.
I finally decided how to resolve my dilemma. A local clinic researching causes of cancer contacted me and said they thought my slivers were probably just as good as brain cells for research. At first this caused another round of public outcry for “Jerry’s Kids” from Fox News. Bill O’Reilly said I was a bastard for attempting to make millions off the tragic fate of my doomed living tissue. I signed a contract with the clinic that I would never receive any payment for my spit-up contribution. It worked. I take my monthly bag of grayish pink living tissue to the clinic and hope the doctors can find a cure for cancer. Bill O’Reilly has forgotten about “Jerry’s Kids” and has gone on to rant about someone else.
As a footnote, I would like to add that a multi-national holding company bought out the clinic and is now making billions of dollars a year by auctioning off my “kids.”
Excuse me. I have to go spit now.
“I absolutely hate that music.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why do you hate that music.”
“I just hate it, that’s all.”
“Is it the style?”
“What do you mean, style?”
“Do you hate fast music?”
“Of course, I don’t hate fast music!”
“But that music is fast.”
“Yes, but that’s not why I hate it.”
“Do you hate the lyrics?”
“What do you mean, lyrics?”
“The words. Don’t you like their meaning?”
“What do you mean, meaning?”
“Sometimes people don’t like the message of a song.”
“I don’t even understand the lyrics so I couldn’t very well hate the message.”
“So you hate it because you couldn’t understand the words?”
“No, I like a lot of songs that don’t make sense to me.”
“But you hate that music.”
“And you don’t know why?”
“Can’t I hate something for no reason?”
“Sure. Do you often hate things for no reason?”
“Now you’re trying to say that I hate things for no reason?”
“But you’re the one who said you wanted to hate something for no reason.”
“I just hate that music, nothing else.”
“You want to know why I don’t hate anything else?”
“No. Why do you hate that music?”
“Why do you care?”
“Why do you think I care if you hated that music?”
“I didn’t think you’d care if I hated that music.”
“Then why did you tell me you hated that music?”
“You’re just mad because I hate a song you like.”
“I don’t care either way about it.”
“Then why are you asking me why I hate it?”
“Because you told me you hated it.”
“I have a right to make a simple statement.”
“I have a right to ask a simple question.”
“I never want to talk about this again!”
“That’s music to my ears.”
You may remember the news reports surrounding the death of best-selling novelist Irving Stone in 1989. He was found slumped over his desk, dead from an apparent heart attack, with his hand still holding a pen as though he were in the middle of a letter. On the paper he had scrawled, “My Dear Friend”.
Literary authorities debated for months who this dear friend was and why had Stone had only one other word written on the page before he died and what was the meaning behind it. Irving has been gone several years now and I myself am an old man, so I think it is safe to reveal that I was his dear friend.
It was late 1978, and I was flying to Virginia to join my wife and son at my in-laws’ house for Christmas. I looked forward neither to the flight nor the visit. I didn’t know to be afraid I might die in a plane crash, or to fear surviving the flight and have to endure my wife’s parents for two long, cold weeks. The last thing I needed was a grumpy old man plopping in the seat next to me and start mumbling to himself. His comments became louder and unfortunately more distinct. When he got to the part about how it was intolerable that first class was filled to capacity, I could no longer contain myself.
“Well, I’ll try not to breathe on you.”
One of my worst character flaws was opening my mouth and letting fly words that I wish I could immediately grab and cram back in. Not only was I subjected to a disgruntled aristocrat generally angry at the airline for not accommodating him but also was going to be the personal object of his disdain for the next three hours. Glancing over at him, I watched his face change from shock, anger and incredulity to surprise, humor and relaxation. He laughed out loud for about half a minute, which in a crowded tourist class airplane section was exceptionally long. Several fellow travelers turned to see what was going on.
“This is the first time I’ve laughed in at least three days,” he said. “Thank you.”
Smiling, he stared at me, which made me uncomfortable. I decided I would have preferred to have him angry and ignoring me in excess than have all this attention.
“You don’t know who I am, do you?”
My first impulse was to ask, “And why should I care?” Instead I restrained myself. “I take it you are a person who prefers to fly first class.”
He chuckled again. “And why should you care in the first place?” Settling into his cramped seat, the man looked straight ahead. “I apologize for being an insufferable bore. I assume everyone knows who I am and will try to convince me he has written the next best-selling novel in the world if only he could get a foot in the door.”
I had written a novel and sent the first three chapters to Doubleday. An editor replied he liked them and wanted to see the rest of it. By the time I mailed it, he retired and the next editor didn’t like it at all. Since I didn’t want to add another rejection to my list of achievements, I refrained from telling the author my story.
“You don’t have a novel, do you?”
“Oh, no,” I lied. “Used to work for newspapers though. But that’s not real writing, is it?”
“All writing is real writing. I admire how you people can write a full story, zip like that and have it published the next day. I could never do that.”
“It’s called a deadline. And the necessity of being paid.”
He laughed again. “None of the reporters I’ve talked to have ever made me laugh. Why is that?”
“The deadline.” I paused. “I interviewed a famous author once. One of the Haileys. Not the one who wrote Roots but the other one. You know. Hotel. Airport.”
“Yes, I do know him.”
“He acted like he was a character in one of his own novels.”
The man giggled.
“And he looks like he has a personal tanning bed in his house and uses it daily.”
“He does, he does.”
Three hours passed quickly as I tossed out random comments about writing and writers while the man laughed all through it. I never felt so clever in my life. By the time we were circling the airport, he pulled out a note pad and pen.
“Please put your initials and address on this,” he said. “I would like to hear from you. But I think it would be better if we kept our identities to initials. It would ruin it, don’t you think, if you knew exactly who I was.”
It was just as well. I didn’t think I wanted to be on first name basis when anyone that eccentric anyway. By the first week of the new year I received a handsome letter on personalized stationary. At the top of the paper were the initials “IRS”. He apologized again for his rudeness on the plane and reiterated how much he had enjoyed our conversation.
“By the way, I was at Hailey’s house for New Year’s Eve and giggled at him the entire evening. He was quite put out by it and asked what the matter was. I couldn’t tell him that he was acting like a character in one of his novels, so I just said I had had too much wine. Please keep me informed about what you are reading. I don’t get honest opinions often.”
This put me in a rather odd situation because I was going through a period when I wasn’t reading much of anything. The last novel I had picked up I hadn’t even finished.
“I tried to read Irving Stone’s book about Sigmund Freund, Passions of the Mind, but couldn’t finish it. I supposed it was over my head. I can’t read William Faulkner either.”
In the return mail I received this note from IRS:
“I agree about William Faulkner. He tried to be the American William Shakespeare. Stone was just lucky. He needs to remember to be appreciative of what he has been given.”
At the time I thought he was bit rough on Stone, but since he knew all these people personally I didn’t want to dispute his opinion. Through the years we corresponded, and I resisted the temptation to talk about my own writing. I wrote a few more novels, some plays and screenplays, none of them getting past the standard rejection slip. Every now and then I did pump him for gossip. For example, I asked if he thought Ernest Hemingway actually committed suicide or was it murder.
“Hemingway was crazy,” IRS wrote. “He could have been a great writer if he wasn’t always trying to prove he was a real man, whatever a real man is.”
By the middle of 1989 I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from the anonymous novelist. In September not one single letter came in the mail. Perhaps he had grown tired of connecting with a common man. On October first, however, I received this:
“My dear friend, I am sorry I have not written lately. My health is beginning to fail. Not to bore you with details but I’ve been hospitalized for the last month. I fear I have written my last novel, which is a shame since it’s all I’ve done for the last fifty years. Once again I feel remorse over our relationship. I regret having taken advantage of your good nature and humor. In the ten years we have corresponded I should have dropped my self-defense mechanism to reach out to help you with whatever dreams you have. To make up for it, I want you to feel free to ask me for one favor. No matter what it is, I will do everything within my power to grant it.”
This put me in a particular bind. While my heart raced a bit with the prospect of finally being published by a real publisher, I didn’t want to ruin the good feelings of our ten-year relationship by having him try to sell my books and fail. However, I’ve always felt it was bad manners to reject someone’s offer to do me a favor, so I wrote back this:
“My dear friend, Corresponding with you for ten years has been an honor and a pleasure, I think, made even more special by the anonymity. Therefore, my only request is that you share with me what your middle name is. That way you can keep your privacy and I can have the joy of knowing a private fact about a public person.”
Another month passed without a letter. Again I assumed I had presumed too much and lost this special relationship. The next morning I read the local newspaper. Irving Stone, author of bestsellers Lust for Life, Agony and the Ecstasy and Passions of the Mind, died at his home, leaving an enigma—an unfinished letter to “my dear friend.” I smiled when I read the only word on the letter.
(Author’s note: I don’t know why I feel compelled to add this clarification since as a short story it’s obviously fiction and therefore not true. Anyway, for the record, Irving Stone’s middle initial was I and not Rebecca. I don’t know what it was but I’m sure it was something serious and dignified, like Irene.)
Siegfried and Otto were extremely put out that the Fuehrer had gone down into his bunker and put a bullet through his brain.
There they had just created the perfect prototype of a robot soldier, ready to goosestep across Europe, and the war was over. What on earth were they ever to do?
Within a year they had migrated to the United States with a brilliant new idea for their robot. Siegfried and Otto reworked the circuit to transform the goose-stepping marvel into a tap-dancing fool. They envisioned creating entire theater companies to tour with No No Nanette in every major city in America, three shows daily. Ordinary human dancers had to eat, sleep and insist on being paid, while inconveniently coming up lame with pulled muscles and sprained ankles.
“He is a masterpiece!” Siegfried exclaimed.
“Perhaps we should lose the mustache and the hair down the forehead,” Otto offered.
“But why? He is the exact image of the Fuehrer!”
“He looks like one of the Americans’ Three Stooges, Moe,” Otto replied. “He would not be taken seriously.”
“Very well. Perhaps different color of hair?” Siegfried asked
“Ah! Make him a blond!” Otto jumped with glee.
“He will be the perfect auto robot!”
“Und why should he be named for you?” Siegfried demanded. “I am just as responsible for his creation as you are!”
“What do you mean, named for me?”
“You said to name him Otto robot,” Siegfried responded.
“I said auto robot as in automated robot,” the short bald-headed scientist said, stomping his foot. “Not Otto robot!”
“You should not speak with such a thick German accent when we are discussing business.”
“Let’s get back to the topic at hand,” Siegfried said, opening the back of the dancing robot with a screwdriver to make final adjustments. “Ah, that is it.” He closed the panel and pushed the bright red button between the robot’s shoulder blades.
The robot began a perfect tap routine with shuffle ball change and butterfly jumps. Otto’s eyes widened.
“Und what, may I ask, is that?”
“Tap dancing! American tap dancing!”
Otto stomped again. “Nein! That is sissy tap dancing!” He grabbed the screwdriver from Siegfried’s hand and went to the robot to punch the red button. “I thought we had settled this question weeks ago.”
“Nein. We just stopped talking about it,” Siegfried replied. “I made the final decision to make the robot dance like Fred Astaire. Und Fred Astaire is not a sissy! He is a happily married man. Millions of Americans love his suave dancing style.”
“Scheitze! Millions more Americans love the style of Gene Kelly!” Otto threw open the panel, stuck in the screwdriver and adjusted the panel. “Bended knees! Wider steps! Dance like a man, for God’s sake!”
When Otto punched the button the robot bent its knees and flew across the floor, tapping its little feet off. Siegfried ran to his partner and wrested the screwdriver from his hand and turned to the dancing robot as it began bouncing off the walls.
“Nein! Nein! No No Nanette cannot be danced like that!” Seigfried screamed.
Before Siegfried could reach the robot to punch its red button Otto jumped on his back. “No sissies in No No Nanette!”
The two scientists rolled around on the floor as the dancing robot entered its final sixteen bars which included a pirouette and clicking of heels. Unfortunately on the second heel click the robot tripped over Siegfried and Otto, collapsed and its legs fell off. The scientists stopped fighting, stood and surveyed the damage.
“I never liked No No Nanette in the first place,” Otto said.
“Ja. Too American,” Siegfried agreed. “Besides, we would have had to pay royalties.”
Otto, who now possessed the screwdriver, tapped Siegfried’s arm with it. “Ballet. We pick a composer from the eighteenth century, and the music is ours for the taking.”
“Just like Poland!”
Each picked up a leg and went to the work table. They went back for the torso.
“Of course, it will have to be programmed to dance in the style of the Bolshoi Ballet,” Otto said matter of factly.
“Bolshoi?” Siegfried replied. “But I prefer Kirov!”
The photographer was late coming to mother’s birthday party, and she was not pleased.
The smallest of things always displeased mother so the use of the word party in connection with any event which involved her became a misnomer. The last people to walk this earth who could please her were her mother and father, and they had passed on years ago to their reward for carefully molding and leaving on humanity’s doorstep such a spoiled brat.
Grandfather had made his money selling shoes that fell apart after a five-mile march during the Civil War. When asked why he would sell such a shoddy product to the United States government he said they were meant for the Cavalry. Grandmother’s family came over on one of the early boats, not the Mayflower but one that came when Massachusetts became more suitable for habitation.
Mother made it a custom to have a photographer to come to her home in the Concord countryside to record for posterity all family gatherings, birthdays, weddings, wakes, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and Fourth of July. Of course, she complained that no one remained straight and still enough for the portrait. She was as stiff as her freshly starched blouses. The only person not criticized for being stiff enough was the guest of honor in the casket at a wake.
“This is inexcusable,” she muttered as she sipped on her lemonade. “I have never had a photographer be this late at one of our events. We can’t cut the cake until the photographer arrives.”
“We just had a horrific summer thunderstorm, Mother dear,” I told her.
“No excuse,” she cut me off briskly. “Anyone of true breeding would have allowed time for such atmospheric disruptions.”
“No one else seems to mind. They’re having a good time talking among themselves.”
“That’s another thing,” she snapped. “They should at least be talking to me about how the photographer has ruined my birthday.”
“The only person who can ruin your birthday is you,” I said, immediately ruing the words that just came out of my mouth.
“I beg your pardon!” She bolted out of her chair and glared at me, all without spilling a single drop of her lemonade.
Fortunately, the telephone rang at that moment and I excused myself to answer it. Everyone in the parlor became silent and stared at me as I spoke into the receiver.
“Yes, yes. This is the Van Horne residence. I am Mrs. Van Horne’s son. Yes, we were expecting his arrival at any moment. Oh. I see. Thank you very much.”
I hung up and turned toward mother, who had already sat down. All the aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and grandchildren parted like the Red Sea as I walked back to her.
“I don’t care what his excuse is,” she said, pursing her lips. “I shall never hire him again.”
“Mother, the photographer had a car accident on the way over to the house during the thunderstorm. He’s dead.”
“Well, that’s just another good reason never to hire him again.”
“Now I want all of you to eat every bite of this,” Mother said as she sat down at the table. “I had another one of my headaches today while I was cooking.”
“Well, I helped cook,” Betty replied, sticking out her lower lip in a pout, as she spooned the turnip greens on her plate. “But I do love turnip greens, with lots and lots of bacon grease.”
“I don’t want any greens” Royce said. “Bacon grease upsets my stomach.”
“Bacon grease is yummy.”
“That’s why you’re a fat pig. You eat too much bacon grease.”
“Royce, if Betty wants to enjoy her food, that’s her right,” Mother said, putting a small dollop of potatoes on her plate. “These potatoes are delicious, but I don’t want to gain any more weight.”
Dad grunted as he piled the food on his plate and kept his head down.
Donny, the youngest, took the last cutlet, emptied the bowl of potatoes and covered them both with gravy.
“You little pig,” Royce said. “You took all the food. What if Dad wanted more? At least he works. I might have wanted more. I have a paper route. You don’t work. You don’t deserve to eat.”
“I help mother around the house,” Betty said, stuffing potatoes into her mouth. “If that’s not work, then I don’t know what is.”
Donny pushed the plate away and looked down.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Mother asked. “After all I went through to put it on the table.”
“Royce said I didn’t deserve to eat.”
“You’ve got to learn to not pay attention to what Royce says. Eat up or you’ll give me another headache.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“One of these days I’m gonna bop you over the head,” Betty mumbled, glaring at Royce. “Always picking on the baby.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“Then stop acting like one,” Royce spat.
“Father, what are we going to do? Donny won’t eat because Royce said something.”
“Eat your damn supper.” Father let out a belch before cutting another slice of cutlet.
“Why do you always have to upset the baby at supper?” Betty was on the verge of hysteria. “I think you’re just not happy unless you stir up a little hell.”
“Betty, mind your own business.” Mother ate the last forkful of potatoes on her plate. “Those potatoes were so delicious. I’m glad they’re all gone so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat anymore.”
“You’d have enough potatoes, Mother,” Royce said, “if the pig hadn’t put them all on his plate.”
“Oh no, if Donny thinks he can eat all those potatoes I want him to have them.” Mother sighed. “Go ahead and eat your potatoes, Donny.”
“Yeah, you little pig,” Royce added with a growl.
“Don’t call the baby a pig!” Betty’s face turned red.
“It’s just not fair!” Royce had tears in his eyes. “He gets away with everything ‘cause he’s the baby!”
“Father, what are we going to do with these children?” Mother shook her head. “It seems we can’t have a moment’s peace without somebody getting upset.”
“Everybody shut the hell up. And you eat your damn potatoes.”
“Yes, Father.” Donny slowly raised a forkful of food to his mouth.
“I’m just going to stop trying to fix a good meal anymore. Nobody ever wants to eat.”
Hello, Jerry. My name is Nora.
The voice came through distinctly even as the anesthesia coursed through my veins. I was enduring another colonoscopy.
“Do I know you?”
I don’t think so. I died before you were born.
“Oh yes, you’re Aunt Crazy’s daughter.”
Please don’t call her that. She’s much more pleasant now that she doesn’t have to lug her body around.
“You’re not here to escort me to the other side, are you?”
There is no other side. We’re all here, except some of us have bodies. The rest of us are spirits, free to go or do anything we like. It’s divine.
“So nobody’s unpleasant on the other—I mean, what do you call it?
Life. You must pay closer attention. There’s life with bodies and life without bodies.
“So no body’s unpleasant without a body?
No one. Being mean and nasty can take up so much room in a body there’s no space left for anything else.
“So when mean and nasty people die—“
Poof, all gone.
“So are you here to help me dump this body?”
No. I’m just here to chat. I love to chat.
“Why haven’t you chatted with me before?”
How do you know I haven’t?
A lot of us are around you all the time but you don’t know it.
“Then why aren’t they saying anything?”
They don’t want to be rude. It’s my turn to talk.
“Why do they like to be around me?”
You’re funny. I thought you knew that.
“Some people think I am. Others say I’m just silly.”
Oh, they’re just the mean and nasty ones. They don’t count.
“So how can you be a female if you don’t have a body?”
Who says I’m female?
“Well, your name is Nora.”
Nora is a nice name. Why does it have to be male or female?
“Come to think of it, it doesn’t.”
That’s what I said.
“Who named you Nora?”
“When did you do that?”
Long ago. Time doesn’t mean anything without a body.
“So have I always been Jerry?”
Do you want to be?
“I don’t know.”
Take your time.
“I thought time didn’t mean anything.”
It doesn’t. That’s why you can take all the time you want.
“So how did Aunt Crazy—I mean your mother–know to name you Nora?”
I suggested it to her while she was dreaming.
“Does she know that you influenced her to name you Nora?”
Why would she want to know that?
“I guess out of curiosity.”
Why indeed. Sometimes I’m the mother. Sometimes she’s the father. What difference does it make?
“Didn’t you like having a body?”
After a while it doesn’t matter. I think bodies are a nuisance. But I know people who loved having bodies. To each his own.
“I don’t understand.”
I know. Don’t worry about it. Just be funny. You’re good at that.
Before I could ask another question, a nurse whispered, “It’s time to wake up. The procedure went fine. Clean as a whistle. You can go home soon.”
“Is your name Nora?” I asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“Do you like the name Nora?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have time to talk.”
“Of course you don’t. You’re not Nora.”