(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Herman asked his parents to make burlap bears for his brother and sister for Christmas. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school, Tad was nicer and the tent show was coming to town. Herman liked it, but didn’t know why black people had to sit behind a rope.)
Burly Senior’s questions—were bears and people much different why black people were not treated honestly–bothered Herman all that summer as he worked in the cotton field alongside his father, Tad and Callie. He didn’t dare mention black people to papa for fear he would look like he smelled rotten eggs again. One day, as they hoed weeds around from the leafy green plants, Herman gathered his courage and asked Tad.
“What do you mean, why do black people have to sit in the back behind a rope?” Tad snapped. “You don’t want to sit next to some big fat old colored woman, would you? She might touch you.”
Herman’s eyes widened. “Does it rub off?
Tad spat and hoed faster. “Don’t be stupid.”
Callie, who was in the next row, glared at Tad. “Don’t call Herman stupid.”
“I’ll call him anything I want!” Tad yelled.
“You’re the stupid one!” Callie retorted.
Papa walked up with his hoe, and the argument stopped. A few minutes went by and then Callie looked round and whispered to Herman.
“What was all that about anyway?”
“Aww, I asked if the black rubs off on you if a colored person touched you.”
Callie stifled a giggle. “Of course not. That is stupid.” She paused and added quickly. “But it was wrong for Tad to call you stupid.”
They hoed side by side for about an hour before Herman had the courage to ask her the main question. “Callie, just why do black people have to sit in the back behind a rope?”
“We sat as far back as they did,” she replied without looking at her brother.
“But we came late and we didn’t have to sit behind a rope, like we were different.” When she didn’t say anything, Herman added in a whisper, “Are they different?”
Again Callie studiously kept her eyes to the ground. “Papa says they are.”
“Is—is papa right?”
First giving a quick glance to her father, Callie answered, “I don’t think so. But don’t say that to papa. He might get mad.”
Herman was confused. “Why? Doesn’t he want us to be honest? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we were honest?”
“Yes.” She hoed hard and fast. “But papa doesn’t think so. Maybe someday things will change.”
“But if papa thinks they’re different, maybe they are,” Herman thought aloud.
“Less talk! More work!” papa barked.
Herman didn’t ask any more questions, but he was terribly confused. He didn’t understand why Callie would believe different than papa or Tad. Maybe it was mama who believed differently, and Callie got it from her. That evening, after the hoeing was done, and Tad had gone swimming in the creek and Callie took Pearly Bear to play dolls with her friends, Herman went into the house and walked up to his mother who was chopping vegetables for a stew.
His mother sighed but answered sweetly, “Yes, dear?”
“Are black people different?”
She stopped and looked down at him, her slender hands going to the nape of her neck to massage it. “What makes you ask a thing like that?”
Herman looked down. “I was just wondering.”
“Yes. Don’t worry about it,” she answered and went back to her chopping.
“But—why?” He was about to say Callie thought differently but stopped because he didn’t want to get her in trouble.
Mama laughed. “You think more than any one child I’ve ever seen.”
Interrupting him firmly she said, “Go to the loft and play.”
Herman did as he was told, climbed the ladder and crawled into the bed to snuggle with Burly.
“Of course Callie is right,” Bear Senior announced. “People are people, no matter what color they are. Just like bears are bears, whether they’re made of burlap or some fancy material from Sears and Roebuck.”
“I even think bears and people are alike,” Burly offered.
“That’s right, son,” his Burly Senior agreed.
“But how could Callie know this and not papa, mama or Tad?” The more they talked, the more confused Herman became.
“Why do you know it?” Burly asked.
“I don’t know if I know it or not.” Herman hung his head.
“Of course you do,” Burly Senior told him.
Herman pulled them into his arms. “I guess I know because of all you.”
“No,” Burly said. “You knew before you even talked to us. You knew because it bothered you to see the black people roped off.”
“But you helped,” Herman offered.
“Of course,” Burly quipped with a smile. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Herman sighed. The whole situation was too much for him to understand. “I’m glad you talk to me.” He looked at Burly Senior. “Don’t you talk to Tad?”
“I would if he wanted me to,” the papa bear replied.
The summer continued, and Herman kept his thoughts about honesty to himself. Even though it was hard work, keeping the cotton rows clear of weeds and nice and soft for the plants to grow big and strong, he rather enjoyed it. This was the first year papa decided he was old enough to help, and Herman could feel himself grow taller every time Papa walked by, patted him on the back and said, “Good work.”
Eventually the hot, clear skies gave way to the clouds of fall, and school came back. This time Herman was not as scared. For one thing, the session had hardly begun when all the farm children were allowed to leave so they could pick cotton before bolls rotted on the branches. To pick them quickly was so important that papa actually paid a family to help pick the cotton.
The Johnsons were black, and Herman was happy papa had given them work for they looked very poor. Mr. Johnson was gray and stoop-shouldered. Mrs. Johnston was short and very stout, but also very talkative and friendly. They had three children, all boys and all older than Herman. They were distant and brooding. Herman liked to sit next to Mrs. Johnson when they stopped for lunch. She sang songs and told stories. Sometimes she would take his fingers and sing a little tune while wriggling each one.
“Don’t let her do that,” Tad scolded him as they went back to work in the rows of cotton.
“Do what?” Herman was puzzled.
“Touch you like that,” Tad replied in a hissing, whispery voice, glancing over his shoulder at the black family.
Herman laughed a little. “All she did was wiggle my fingers.”
“All she wants is to be able to touch a white person.
“Why should she want to do that?”
Tad looked at Herman with scorn. “Stupid. Don’t you know that’s what all blacks want to do?”
“Touch white people?” Herman couldn’t believe what Tad was saying.
“You just watch it.” Tad skulked away.
That night mother asked Herman to find his father quickly. She was sitting in one of the straight-backed wooden chairs with her head between her knees. That scared Herman, so he ran out to the barn, where he usually found his father. Instead he found the Johnsons bedding down in an empty stall.
“Well, hello, little fellow!” Mrs. Johnson said cheerfully.
“Have you seen my papa?” Herman’s voice was all tight from fear.
Mrs. Johnson frowned with concern. “What’s the matter, baby?”
Herman,” papa said from the barn door. “Come here.”
Herman ran to his father to tell him that mama wanted him, but before he could say anything, his father pulled him away.
“I thought I told you to stay out of the barn while we have them sleeping in there,” he lectured harshly. He emphasized the word “them” with a nastiness that made Herman uncomfortable.
“But mama, she’s not feeling good,” Herman whined. “She wanted me to find you.”
Papa straightened and stared at the house.
He walked quickly to the door. Inside mama was already back at the kitchen peeling potatoes.
“Opal, are you all right?” Papa asked so sweetly than Herman didn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.
“Oh, I was just a little dizzy, that’s all.” She laughed, but it soon turned into a cough.” She turned to smile at Herman. “Thank you for getting your father so fast, Herman.”
Papa put his long, wormy arms around her. “Are you sure?”
She leaned against him. “No, I was just being silly.”
“I think I ought to take you to the doctor,” he said softly.
Mama turned to her work at the sink. “What would we pay him with?”
“We’ll have money when the cotton is sold,” papa replied.
“We need that money for more important things.” Mama was always practical.
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.)
Every time I hear an ambulance go by I think, “There goes another person who saw “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
This odd mental phenomenon goes back to 1971 when I was the area editor for the Kingsport, Tn., Times-News. A bunch of part-time reporters and I were responsible for filling up a page about news from the surrounding counties everyday. Some days that could be quite a chore.
Back then the politicians had a habit of deciding to hold a meeting an hour earlier than announced so that when the reporter showed up they said, “Sorry, you missed it.”
One time I had a school superintendent on the phone asking him why a certain mountain school was being closed. He stammered a moment and then the phone went dead. The guy just didn’t want to talk to me about why the school was being closed. It was tough reporting the news back then.
However, I did get a call from a proud parent in a nearby town that her son had the lead in a touring company of “Jesus Christ, Superstar” which was going to perform at the Kingsport high school gymnasium. This was right after the record album had come out but before the Broadway production. Basically it was a concert version with performers on risers and stools. I told the editor and he immediately assigned the story to the entertainment editor. I never got to write about anything interesting.
Somehow, however, I became the person in charge of getting free tickets for everyone in the newsroom. Since the story ran front page, that was easy enough to do.
Even though it was bare bones, the production was great. A good time was had by all. The gymnasium was packed. When the movie came out, I felt it was a pale comparison to what I saw in Kingsport.
A few weeks later the religion editor—for a small town newspaper, this operation had a lot of editors—wrote a story about one of the local ministers who took the town to task for taking “Jesus Christ Superstar” to heart. For one thing, one of the young male leads had his picture taken in a close hug with June Lockhart and it was in the National Inquirer. Older woman takes young lover. That sort of thing.
Of course, that was nothing compared to the vitriol against the musical itself. Rock music and the gospel? Never! The idea that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. Outrageous! Who knows what he would have thought about the “DaVinci Code” and its assertion that Jesus and Mary were married. Herod portrayed as a homosexual? The list of infamies went on and on.
He concluded with the statement, “Every time I hear an ambulance, I think there goes another person who saw ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar.’”
Over the years my wife and I had a good laugh over it, repeating that assertion whenever we heard an ambulance siren. In the last few years, we saw the road show production starring Ted Neely, who had the title role in the movie back in 1976. For an old man he looked pretty good in a loin cloth, except it went all the way up to his rib cage. If he kept doing this show much longer, his loin cloth would be up to his arm pits.
Nevertheless, I might even go back to see him in it again. The music is the music of my youth and brings back fun memories. And when I’m walking into the theater, I know I will see other old, paunchy gray haired people, some of them pushing walkers, with big smiles on their faces.
Maybe that guy was right. Considering the popularity of the musical and the age of the generation that made it popular, the person in the ambulance passing by probably has seen “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Herman asked his parents to make burlap bears for his brother and sister for Christmas. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school, Tad was nicer and the tent show was coming to town.)
Herman and Tad ran out the front door and scrambled into the back of the pickup. Callie rode in the cab next to her father. They were well on their way down the road when Tad leaned over to Herman. “Can you keep a secret?”
Herman became scared because whenever Tad said something like that he was in trouble and going to get Herman in trouble too. “I guess.”
Tad smiled as he pulled from under his shirt Burly.
“Shush,” Tad whispered. “I said keep it on the QT.”
Tad shrugged. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt anything, and, heck, you’ve been a pretty good kid, making good grades and, well, you pull your weight around the farm.”
“I love you, Tad.”
His brother stiffened. “Aww, don’t get sloppy on me.”
The rest of the ride went in silence, but it was the happiest silence Herman ever shared with Tad. When they arrived at the tent they had to take seats towards the back since it was almost filled. Herman had never seen so many people together in one place, which also made it very hot. The sides of the tent were rolled up so air could move through, and people with the show were giving out hand fans.
“Hi, Herman!” a boy called out.
Herman looked up and smiled. It was one of the nicer boys from school, Gerald Morgan.
“Who’s that?” papa asked.
“Oh, a boy from school.” Herman stopped smiling long enough to make sure Burly wasn’t showing from underneath his shirt and then gave Gerald one last wave.
They hadn’t been there long when a band marched out and sat right in front of the stage. Music began, and the curtain opened. Herman cautiously pulled Burly from under his shirt so he could watch too. Glancing over at his father, he saw a happy grin on his face. The actors came out and began talking. To be honest Herman didn’t really understand much of what they were talking about or who was who. One fellow was definitely a bad guy, who talked nasty to people and threatened all the pretty girls on stage. Another actor was the good guy. Everybody seemed to like him. Finally there was Toby. Harley Sadler didn’t look a thing like he did that afternoon. He had on a silly red wig and had freckles painted on his face, and he wore funny looking wooly chaps. When he came on stage everyone else sort of disappeared because the entire audience laughed at Toby.
Partway through the show papa leaned over to Herman, who jumped and quickly put Burly under his shirt. “Can you see all right, son?” he whispered.
“Kind of,” Herman replied.
Papa looked behind him to make sure there wasn’t anyone he would be blocking and then lifted Herman to his shoulders.
At first Herman had a few butterflies in his stomach because he was so high but he could see better. It felt good being so close to his father so the butterflies soon went away. After a while Herman asked his father if he was hurting his back.
“Not to mention, as long as you’re having a good time,” Papa replied.
The hero beat up the bad guy with the help of Toby. One of the pretty girls turned Toby down when he asked her to marry him, which didn’t seem right. But another pretty girl did marry the hero, which made the audience cheer. The curtain came down, the band played some happy-sounding music, and the audience applauded.
On the way out Herman smiled with the satisfaction of knowing exactly what a tent show was now and of feeling love flowing from his family. Then he saw something that broke the warm feeling. Off to the back left was a section roped off for black people. He hadn’t noticed it when they came in. Indeed, it was the first time Herman had ever noticed that black people were treated differently and it bothered him. As his father lifted him off his shoulders and onto the ground, Herman’s first reaction was to ask his father about it, but he decided not to say anything.
He had almost forgotten the separation of the black people when they got home. Herman was about to walk into the house when his father called him over to the shed where he was putting the pickup away for the night.
“How did Burly like the show?” Papa asked.
Papa smiled knowingly. “You better take him out from under your shirt now. He’s going to rub your skin raw.”
Herman pulled Burly out. “How did you know? Did Tad tell?”
“Why? Did Tad know?”
“Um, no.” Herman didn’t want to get his brother into trouble.
Papa patted Herman’s back. “Don’t worry about it. Get on to bed.”
Herman was leaving when he decided to ask about the black people. His father’s serene expression changed as Herman spoke.
“Oh, the coloreds.” The last word floated up through Papa’s nostrils as though it were the stench of rotten eggs. He turned away from Herman, his way of saying a conversation was over. “Don’t worry about them.”
Now Herman wished he hadn’t brought the subject up. It put a sour ending to a wonderful evening. When he climbed the ladder to the loft he found Callie and Tad already asleep. He took his clothes off, opened his window and climbed into bed.
“How did you like the show?” he asked Burly.
“What I saw I liked. Of course, I couldn’t see much from under your shirt.”
“I’m sorry,” Herman whispered.
“Oh no. I was glad I got to go, no matter what.”
Herman smiled as he nestled into his pillow. “Wasn’t it nice of Tad to bring you?”
“Of course. I keep telling you he loves you.”
Herman sighed. “Yes. But often it comes as a surprise.”
From across the room came two other bear voices.
“How did you like the show?” Pearly Bear asked.
“Was it fun?” Burly Senior added.
“Oh yes, mama, papa,” Burley replied. “Even though I did have to sit under a shirt.”
“Sit under a shirt?” Burly Senior said with a hint of indignation. “Herman, why did you do that to Burly?”
“I—I was afraid of what Papa would say,” Herman stammered.
“But your father knew all along,” Pearly said. “You would have been better off being honest, and then Burly would have had a better view.”
Herman frowned and thought about the black people again. “Are people being dishonest about black people?
“I don’t know,” Pearly replied. “I just know about bears.”
And then Burly Senior asked, “But are bears and people much different?”
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.”
(Author’s note: Just for fun I wrote this story using the titles of all the songs on Bob Dylan’s album Blood on the Tracks. See how many of them you can spot.)
I awoke screaming, tangled up in the blue sheets my wife bought the week before she died. Maybe it was a simple twist of fate the sheet wrapped itself around my neck, cutting off the blood flow through my carotid artery. As I unwrapped the cloth I became aware it was drenched in sweat but my body seemed curiously dry. My hand fumbled across the nightstand to turn on the lamp. Lying face down was her photograph. First thing in the morning I was going to toss it in the trash can. Maybe it was useless. I gave away the last of her clothes to Goodwill, burned all the letters she had written and even gave away her damn cat. All for naught. Memory of her still haunted my dreams.
A year ago I stood on the front porch and held her suitcase. Blubbering, she begged to stay, promising to change any way I wanted. I didn’t want her to change. I just wanted her to go away.
“You’re a big girl now. You don’t need me. You think you do, but you don’t. Why you can get a job and make more than I do. I hear Lily at the diner needs a cook. You’re a good cook. The nursing home lady Rosemary has a sign in the window asking for a chief housekeeper. You keep a damn clean house. Before you know it, some guy with more money than I got will come sniffing around you. That Irish guy Jack O’Hearts stares at your ass every time we go into his billiards hall. One day you’ll be driving down the street in a big Cadillac and you’ll see me walking home from the coal mine. You can laugh at me all you want.”
She pulled at my shirt sleeve. “I don’t understand. Everything was so good when we first got married. All was blue skies and fluffy white clouds.”
“You’re an idiot, wind is blowing in a different direction now.”
“You’ll see me every time you go downtown. You won’t be able to go to the movies, church, nowhere without running into me. I’ll start bawling, and you’ll feel real bad for breaking my heart. What will you do then?”
“Maybe I’ll move out of town. These old mountains depress the hell out of me. Anywhere would be better than this hell hole.”
“You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
She tried to put her arms around my waist but I pushed her away. “You won’t be lonesome. You go see Lily, Rosemary, and Jack O’Hearts. They’ll take care of you.”
Once again she threw her arms around me and clung tight. She was stronger than I thought.
“Meet me in the morning,” she whispered. “You’ll change your mind by then.”
Slinging her suitcase around, I knocked her to the ground and then threw the suitcase out in the dusty street. “What kind of friggin’ idiot are you? Get the hell off my porch!”
Still whimpering she walked down the steps into the street and picked up the suitcase. Her shaking left hand wiped the tears from her cheeks. Her brown eyes darkened.
“I’m gonna tell Lily what you done,” she announced in a hard voice. “She got a lot of men friends who won’t take kindly to what you done.”
“If you see her, say hello.” I smirked at her before turning to go back into the house.
The sky quickly clouded up and a clap of thunder shook the screen down. She came running back on the porch and banged on the door.
“Please give me shelter from the storm!”
Just before I slammed the door in her face, I said, “Go see Jack O’Hearts! He’ll be glad to give you some shelter!”
That night I could not sleep well. Buckets of rain hit the roof, and thunder and lightning filled the sky. But the damn bitch was gone, and I didn’t have to put up with her whining any more. The next morning was clear and bright. Everything washed clean. I fixed my own breakfast like I always did then walked down to the coal mine. All the rain made the shaft muggy though. But enough guys were cracking wise so the time went by fast. At noon we sat under the big oak tree at the bottom of the hill when Lily came running over from her café.
“Is Susiebelle all right?” she asked me.
Taking time to finish chewing my sandwich, I looked at Lily and shrugged. “How would I know? She done walked out on me last night.”
“That ain’t so,” Lily replied, taking a step toward me. “I heard from your neighbors this morning that you kicked her out in the storm.”
“Well,” I said with a smile curling around the corner of my mouth. “It don’t make no difference if she walked out or was kicked out. She ain’t there now.”
“Rosemary said she found a suitcase in front of the nursing home this morning.” Lily put her hands on her hips. “When she opened it she saw all of Susiebelle’s favorite clothes, wadded up and smashed in, like it was done in a hurry.”
“She was always careless like that.” I laughed but noticed all the other guys were putting away their lunch buckets away and walking back into the mine.
Before Lily could say anything else, a holler lit up from downtown by the railroad depot. Her head snapped back to look at the street and then returned her glare to me.
“I tell you, Walter Burchfield. If anything’s happened to that sweet little girl, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
Nobody talked much through the afternoon down in the mine, which was just as well to me. At the closing bell, I ambled out, only to be greeted by Lily, Rosemary and the sheriff.
“The womenfolk here says you kicked your wife out of the house last night,” the sheriff said.
“What of it? My family life ain’t nobody’s business but my own.” I pushed past them and started home when Rosemary yelled at me.
“I found her suitcase in front of my place.”
“Ain’t my fault if she can’t keep up with her things.” I kept walking.
“Walter Birchfield!” the sheriff shouted. “Stop right there!”
Now I ain’t one to give a damn about what other folks say, but I figured in this case I better behave. Turning around, I took off my cap and said as somber as I could, “Yes, sheriff. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“After the gully washer last night, the depot clerk found something.”
“And what was that?”
“Blood on the tracks.”
Bowing my head, I said softly. “If Susiebelle got hurt last night, I’m real sorry, but I didn’t mean no harm. I told her Lily or Rosemary could give her a job. I even told her Jack O’Hearts might be interested in marryin’ her. Go talk to Jack. See what he says.”
“Jack O’Hearts ain’t nowhere to be seen,” the sheriff replied. “His room is cleaned out. His billiards hall is locked up tighter than a jug.”
“Well, that settles it then, don’t it?” I said. “She done run off with Jack.”
“She wouldn’t leave her suitcase in the middle of the street,” Rosemarie said.
“And Jack wouldn’t have run off without saying good bye to me,” Lily added.
“’Cause he was my boyfriend.” Lily put her hand to her mouth.
“Were you jealous of Jack, Walter?” the sheriff asked.
“Hell no! I was hopin’ he would run off with my wife. I didn’t want her!”
“And why’s that, Walter?”
“Susiebelle was the sweetest girl in town,” Lily said. “Any man with half a brain would have been proud to have her on his arm.”
“You don’t know that blood on the track is Susiebelle’s.” I was beginning to get a little nervous. “It could be anybody’s blood.”
“Like Jack O’Heart’s?” the sheriff said.
I pursed my lips and stared hard at them. “You ain’t got no bodies. You ain’t got no motive. I kicked her out because I didn’t want her. All you got is blood on the tracks.”
Ever since then everybody’s in town and left me alone, which is just fine with me. Never really liked talking much to the other miners. The sheriff even stopped dropping by the house with questions. I don’t go to Lily’s café anymore. Afraid of what she might have done to my food. Other than that, my life hadn’t changed at all. Most folks nodded and mumbled hello, which was what they had always been their habit. Until tonight. I stared at the blue sheet and wondered how it had gotten around my neck. I got out of bed and checked the front door to make sure it was locked. Looking out the window I noticed a storm coming out the west. By the time I shuffled back to my bed and slid under the covers, I heard rain on the roof. Buckets of rain, followed by thunder and lightning. Before I could settle in and close my eyes I saw the blue sheet twisting up all by itself and snaked its way up to my neck. I tried to shout but nothing came out of my mouth. The blue sheet made two trips around my neck before it started tightening. I gagged, and my vision blurred. Before everything went black I swore I heard Susiebelle’s voice:
“You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
My Dear Wife,
I miss you terribly and hope the company will soon recognize my talents and promote me to vice president in charge of sales so I may enjoy your company more often. With luck, I shall return to you by the middle of August. The weather in Colorado is pleasant enough but I would sacrifice my comfort to be under the torrid Oklahoma sun with you and the children. Tell the children I shall take them on a great camping adventure before school starts. How is Edward Junior recuperating from his bout of chicken pox? I must be off to my next appointment soon in a small town called Golden. It reminds me of your lovely locks.
Black Swan Hotel
July 8, 1895
321 Main St.
My Dear Wife,
I miss you terribly and hope the company will soon recognize my talents and promote me to vice president in charge of sales so I may enjoy your company more often. With luck, I shall return to you by the first of August. The weather in Colorado is pleasant enough but I would sacrifice my comfort to be under the torrid Texas sun with you and the children. Tell the children I shall take them on a great camping adventure before school starts. How is Edwina recuperating from her bout of measles? I must be off to my next appointment in a nearby town called Red Bud. It reminds me of your lovely locks.
321 Main St.
July 18, 1895
Black Swan Hotel
My Dear Husband,
I am quite confused. We live in Texas, not Oklahoma and we have a daughter Edwina, not a son Edward Junior. I have red hair, not blonde. Edwina is terribly afraid of the outdoors and the little creatures that inhabit it so she would not enjoy a camping trip. She had chicken pox, not measles. I reread your letter several times thinking I must have misunderstood it. As you have pointed out to me several times I do have a tendency to misunderstand the simplest of statements. I will continue my sessions with Dr. Fitzmorgan in Dallas. I’m sure he will straighten this out for me.
123 Main St.
Aug. 4, 1895
Black Swan Hotel
To My Soon-To-Be Former Husband,
Don’t bother to come home, you lying, cheating scoundrel. You should have realized you were not clever enough to have two wives at one time. To refresh your memory, I am the blonde-haired woman living in Oklahoma with our son Edward Junior, who by the way had measles not chicken pox. I exchanged several telegraphs with the lady residing in Waxahachie, Texas. She has canceled all her appointments with her doctor in Dallas and has engaged a lawyer. I have also hired a lawyer. Please expect a letter from the main office of your company stating you have been dismissed from your job because of a complete lack of morals. I must be off now to visit my mother and to apologize. She was right about you.
With absolutely no love,
Your Soon-To-Be Former Wife