Life’s Eternal Question: To Dress or Not to Dress

lifeseternalquestionIt was 3 a.m. and the old man heard a noise from the kitchen. He’d been awake for hours, but whether to get up and investigate or stay put were not priorities for him just then. He lay in his bed, the spread, the blanket and the top sheet kicked over the side, while his thoughts focused more on whether or not to remove his pajamas as well.

The heat and the humidity, more oppressive this summer than they had ever seemed quite before, had managed to have robbed him of sleep and also drained him of enough energy to roll out of bed to see what was going on in the kitchen. Two oscillating fans, each working from opposite sides of the bedroom but both pointed in his direction, offered only the barest respite. He wondered if perhaps he would die in bed this very night. His tolerance for extremes in temperature had narrowed with each passing year, and in this particular season to only a degree or two above and below 78ºF. Beyond either direction seemed intolerable. Yes, it was quite possible that it wouldn’t be the heart or potential home invaders, but rather the heat that would do him in.

He contemplated sleeping in the buff, but he was afraid that if he did, it would be just his luck that he really would die, and he did not want his body to be found divested. So undignified, he thought, not to mention the likelihood that those who found him would think something perverse and obscene. At the same time, he chuckled over the notion. What, in fact, would people think? Well, what the hell, if one were to croak, may as well be as comfortable as possible. Sure hadn’t been much of that all summer long. And so what if there was any tongue-clucking? Why should it really bother him after he was dead, after all?

He entertained these ideas for a minute or two and finally began to doze.

“That settles it,” he thought to himself with a grin just before falling asleep. “I’ll be buried without a stitch.”

But then he dreamt that he’d become a nudist in some colony along the shore of some ocean. But he found that most of his fellow nudists in the dream were pretty much his own age, and certainly they had nothing on — or more precisely, off — to flaunt.

The old man awoke with a start, and then and there he resolved that when he was buried he would definitely be dressed to the nines after all.

Steve Pulley
9/18/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Into the Twilight Zone

intothetwilightzoneI’m a city boy, born and raised in southern California, in a town just a few miles east of La-La-Land, but still very much part of Greater Los Angeles. It is a Twilight Zone of its own to those who live elsewhere and wander into it unprepared. To me, however, it was home. At least for the first twenty-one years of my life. Then one fine day in 1965, an officious envelope arrived from none other than Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President of the United States of America himself, calling me to active military service. Although there were several details in fine print on that single page, the main text was terse and to the point: “GREETING: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report at L.A. Examining and Induction Station, 1033 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, Calif. on JUL 28 1965 at 7:30 A.M.” I had been gathered into the fold.

I was soon whisked away to the bosom of the American Armed Forces, ending up at Fort Sam Houston on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, there to receive training for the next five months, first as a soldier, then as a United States Army medic. Now, Texas is something of a Twilight Zone all unto itself, at least from a California boy’s standpoint, but another Twilight Zone of an entirely different ilk awaited me soon after in the central highlands of what was then known as South Viet Nam.

A year after that I found myself yet again in central highlands, but these five thousand miles from my hometown in California, and twelve thousand miles from Vietnam, in the high valleys of Bolivia, in South America.

Through circumstances relevant to this story but too long to go into here, in October of 1968 I sailed, together with a family I’d known for years, aboard a ship — which, I might add, very narrowly capsized along the way — from Panama all the way to the port city of Arica on the northernmost tip of Chile. From Arica, we boarded a train that passed through the Atacama Desert — a desert so arid that it makes the vast Mojave in the American southwest seem like a veritable forest in comparison — and slowly wormed our way into the Andes to the east, arriving hours later at dusk and many thousands of feet higher in the capital of Bolivia, La Paz, a city nestled in a vast hole dropping from the edge of a 13,000-foot altitude high plain called el altiplano and surrounded by dozens of majestic snow-capped mountains, some reaching nearly 20,000 feet into the sky.

My friends and I looked at one another and said, “What in God’s Name have we gotten ourselves into?”

Days later we found ourselves in the high valleys of central Bolivia, in the city of Cochabamba, which was to be my home for 20 years. Many and sometimes bizarre, among the mundane, were the adventures I was to have in Bolivia, and although Rod Serling wasn’t there to prepare me, I still remembered distinctly his famous TV program introduction: “You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!

From my perspective at the time, boy, did he say a mouthful!

During my many years in South America, both in Bolivia and in Chile, I wrote hundreds of letters to my parents back in California, and upon my return in 1995 — which, by the way, after so many years absent, proved to be an altogether new Twilight Zone to re-accustom myself to from the old and different one I’d abandoned in 1968 — I happened across a large box at their home filled with those old letters. Curious, I poked around and reading a few of these, I began to relive many of the episodes of my own past. Seeing as how nearly three decades had transpired, I decided to start in on the earliest letters to refresh my memory. I was surprised, even astonished, to discover that over the years my aging brain had rewritten many of my adventures, and what I was now reading often turned out something at odds with my memory.

Early on while in Bolivia I’d written to my mother and father about a rather bizarre albeit amusing incident that had occurred while on a trip into the boonies. Without entering into background details here other than to say that, given the circumstances, I was probably out of my mind to take this trip in the first place, I wrote that I’d traveled — and on my own for the very first time — on a rural bus to an inhospitable tin mining town called Uncía high in the Andes mountains, many hours away from Cochabamba where I lived. I spoke little Spanish at the time, and absolutely no Quechua or Aymara, two indigenous languages widely spoken in this district, other than perhaps “Imaynalla kasanki?” (How are you?) and “Mana intindinichu qhichwapi” (I don’t understand Quechua).

Rural bus trips in the Bolivian Andes are rarely if ever what you could call ‘fun’ trips, unless you’re an adrenaline freak. When I arrived, most roads outside of the cities were unpaved, the buses were not comfortable by any sense of the imagination, passengers tended to stash their belongings, both inert and alive, wherever they could find room, and that might include the aisles, their laps, or even your lap!, they often became ill from motion sickness, which usually sparked an epidemic of nausea and vomiting. And, whenever traveling in these mountains, always in the back of one’s mind was the gnawing dread that this particular vehicle, for whatever reason, was going to be the one to plummet into the abyss, as had happened so often to hundreds of cars, trucks, and buses over the years in Bolivia on these treacherous roads — roads sometimes so narrow that the drivers of large vehicles could not safely pass one another without performing what can only be regarded as feats of thaumaturgy.*

Aside from the above-mentioned discomforts, along the way we were also being continually stopped by armed soldiers, checking for contraband as well as possible domestic and foreign communist insurgents. It was April of 1969. A little over a year before, the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara had been captured and then executed in one of the jungles to the east by Bolivian armed forces. But for months afterwards everybody was paranoid about Marxist-Leninist guerrillas sneaking in to indoctrinate the people with the intention of turning Bolivia into another Cuba. So there were these periodic barriers in the roads where jeeps, buses and trucks would be stopped and checked by the military and regional police. These rides in the Andes were long, dusty, tedious and, as mentioned, often quite dangerous.

The passengers on my bus were not only tired from the trip, but becoming increasingly peeved over being stopped every few kilometers and searched by armed guards. Near the end of the journey we were stopped yet again. An officious soldier climbed aboard and started eyeballing the passengers suspiciously and prodding people’s belongings for possible contraband. I was seated toward the rear of the bus next to a friendly, plump Indian woman about twice my age on her way back home, with whom I’d exchanged pleasantries during the trip in my very limited Spanish, when the soldier finally caught sight of me. It was quite obvious that I was not from around those parts, and he started making a ruckus.

“Who is that foreigner?” He pointed at me with an accusing finger. “You! What are you doing on this bus? Where are you going? Why are you going to Uncía?”

I’m a bit sketchy on the historical details, but as I recall, Uncía was among a number of mining towns rumored to be possible breeding grounds of communist sedition. Uncía had long before been a hotbed of union protest against the exploitation of mineworkers by wealthy and unscrupulous tin mine owners, and years before, the miners organized to combat against patent injustices, only to be beaten down violently. Over the years, however, the union spirit did not die, nor did distrust on the part of the government that new rebellions might occur, especially now by the revolutionary uprising several months before. Foreigners traveling in out-of-the-way places were now under suspicion. One of my American compatriots, a large, affable bearded chap who had arrived in Bolivia along about the same time as I, related to me a few months later that his beard alone had awakened suspicions that he might perhaps be in cahoots somehow with insurrectionists, notwithstanding the fact that he spoke Spanish worse than I did at that point. In the end, he had been obliged to shave it off.

The guard started heading down the aisle towards me. But by now the passengers were pretty steamed by all these absurd holdups. The Indian woman next to me, who had been muttering imprecations all along under her breath, finally had quite enough of this nonsense. She rose up from her seat and started yelling at the guard and shaking her fist. His eyes grew wide with surprise.

“¡Oiga, sinvergüenza!” she cried. “Listen here, you rascal! You should be ashamed of yourself, bothering innocent, law-abiding citizens! And this young man here? You leave him alone! He’s done nothing wrong. I should know. He’s my son-in-law!” The other passengers gaped for an instant in amazement at her patent fabrication, looked at one another, shrugged, then joined in, “Yes! Yes! The young man is her son-in-law!” They razzed the hapless soldier to such a degree that he became rattled, and now fearing that they might even lay hands on him, he quickly backed up and fled the bus, telling the driver to get the hell on his way. After that, everybody cheered and burst into laughter, reckoning as highly comical the very unlikely son-in-law/mother-in-law relationship between this light-skinned gringo and this delightful brown-skinned Indian woman, whom they now regarded as the heroine of the day who had saved everyone from a lengthy delay and quite possibly me from detention. I, who’d had my heart in my throat all through the incident, thanked her over and over, and she patted me on the arm and gave me a wink, pleased indeed by her own clever acumen, not to mention transforming this otherwise mind-numbing journey into a commemorated adventure . . . into the Twilight Zone.

Steve Pulley
8/26/2014

*You can look up thaumaturgy, but if you wish to see just how narrow Bolivian mountain roads can be, go ahead and google “bolivia dangerous mountain roads” for images, or check out the photographs on this website: http://www.dangerousroads.org/south-america/bolivia/44-death-road-bolivia.html
(Note: The pics are slides, so wait a few seconds for them to flip to different views.)

And if you aren’t too queasy about hair-raising rides, below is a link to a short video about what is considered the most dangerous road in Bolivia, and indeed in the world. I never took this particular road, by the way, but I’ve been on many others that were similar.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gu0OOMpdvew

I should note that I have a number of good friends who’ve lost their lives on these kinds of roads. One friend, though, narrowly escaped such an accident by providentially sitting in the very back of the bed of a truck he was traveling on. It was nighttime and all the other passengers were asleep, while he remained awake, uneasy by a premonition. Suddenly he felt the truck lurch violently and realized that it was going over the edge of a cliff. He cried out to the sleeping passengers, but too late to awaken them. He jumped from the truck to safety just in time. He was the only survivor.

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A Hint of Trouble to Come

200498001-001When Margaret Spoonwhithers fluttered her eyelashes at me and flashed a winsome smile, I reckoned that it was a hint of trouble to come. She’s the new girl at the office where I work. While there have been office romances among some of the workers there in the past, I’ve shied away from participating for the simple fact that office romances almost invariably blow up at some point, and are usually followed by one of the romancees quitting, transferred to office Siberia, or being fired. I did not seek any of these options, because I happen to like my job at this company, and it had become my intention to continue on here as a possible career.

I have nothing at all against Ms. Spoonwhithers, mind you. Although normally she’s a bit shy and perhaps overly compliant when asked to do jobs for others who should be doing these themselves, in the little time she has been working here she’s proven efficient at her job, she’s friendly and gets along with co-workers, is positive-minded, and doesn’t involve herself in office gossip, rumors, or intrigues. She’s neat, pleasant, and although not a striking beauty by any means, still oddly attractive in her own way.

The thing with Ms. Spoonwhithers, however, is a little more complicated when she fluttered her eyelashes and flashed the winsome smile. You see, with her it could merely be a combination of badly fitted eyeglasses and perhaps a nervous tic that’s the problem. After all, she does wear glasses, and she has been known to squint. At least that’s what I hoped, and not some kind of surreptitious code — her way of trying to communicate that she might like me, or something. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that, per se. I liked her okay, but at the same time I wanted to maintain a certain reserve, for the reasons already mentioned.

One has to be very careful about these things, you see. It’s so easy to get messages mixed. One day you think someone’s flirting with you, and so you think, well, gee, she likes me, cool, and you maybe flirt back, only to be smacked with sexual harassment and sent to company rehab for a week-long course in gender etiquette or, maybe worse, find yourself out of a job and with a black mark on your work record forever. I just didn’t want to risk it.

Still . . . I could not help but feel curious to know whether Ms. Spoonwhithers was actually sending me signals — which I would have felt flattered about — or just suffering from a combo of grin-tic and squint-eye — which would have roundly blown the wind out of my self-esteem sails, so to speak. This seemed like as good moment as any to find out, seeing as how we were standing practically vis-à-vis.

“Uh, yes, Ms. Spoonwhithers?” I ventured to ask, with an air of dissembled nonchalance.

“Excuse me, sir,” she began apologetically. “b-but you’re stepping on my toe.”

I looked down. Sure enough. I leaped backward a couple of paces and collided with the water cooler.

“Oh! I beg your pardon, Ms. Spoonwhithers!”

“N-not a problem, sir,” she said, nodded once, wincing, and hobbled away.

Like I said, when Margaret Spoonwhithers fluttered her eyelashes at me and flashed a winsome smile, I reckoned that it was a hint of trouble to come.

Steve Pulley
8/25/2014

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Knotty Girl

Pain is God’s little way of reminding you you’re still alive, thought Betsy Allen Wrench as she made her way slowly out of bed and into the bathroom.  “Thank you, Lord,” she groaned as she hiked up her nightgown and plopped down on the toilet, “but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather not be reminded I’m still alive quite so often or quite so intensely.”

God’s always got your back . . . and your arms and legs and neck and fingers and toes and muscles and tendons and sinews . . . and. . . .  She ran out of ands. She ached. She peed. She peed with relief, but she still ached. Such is the price of fame, she thought with a certain irony.

Fame drives pain, or maybe vice versa, and Betsy Allen Wrench was not a stranger to fame. She’d made her mark. The usual crowd had adulated her affectionately, mindlessly, and for a time she’d lapped it up like a puppy to milk in a dish. It was addictive, she knew it. But she also knew that fame comes with a price. Fame can be and is an ephemeral thing; one day it’s there in all its tinsel glory, the next day it’s gone with Thursday’s trash pickup, and somebody else is king or queen of the heap. So it had been with her. It had lasted about a dozen years, but the concomitant pain gradually increased until it was no fun anymore.

As her career was about to tank — had tanked, in fact — she wasn’t stupid. Betsy heaved a sigh. She was now in southern Kansas, the season was ending here in a couple of days. Kansas was as good a place as any to call it quits.

“Time to pack the suitcase and get out of Dodge,” she exclaimed, stood up, flushed the toilet with conviction, and went to get dressed. Fame or no fame, the day had finally come that she’d had enough. She was done for. She needed to pay a visit to her boss.

Betsy’s fame was not that of the current rage. Not in acting, not in sports, not in writing, or in music, teaching, business, politics, or science. And certainly not in anything notorious. Her fame was as a circus performer. Back in the day when circuses, though on the wane for years, were still a popular source of entertainment for the masses in rural America, she’d attached herself to one of the itinerant outfits that stuck pretty much to the corn-belt regions of the North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. Betsy Allen Wrench was this circus’s star contortionist.

knottygirlIn her prime Betsy could tie herself into knots, humanly impossible knots — overhand, figure eight, bowline, studding sail and hitches galore was the claim. She was so famous for her tortuosities that the circus featured her variously in those six states as Sheepshank Shelly, Rubber Woman, Knotty Girl, and Byzantina, the long-lost fourth Ross Sister. Though her name was Betsy, Circelli’s Circulating Cirrostrati Circus (aka Triple Cirs Circus, after the three Circelli brothers: Cirillo, Ciriaco and Cirino, formerly a team of high-wire aerialists) was big on alliteration, and so ‘Shelly’ matched better with Sheepshank than did Betsy. Rubber Woman was no exaggeration. Her ability to bend and twist and flex and curl and tangle and slither more than 360 degrees in practically any direction certainly made her seem to be made from caucho. Knotty Girl was a natural play on ‘naughty girl,’ both for her ability to tie herself into knots and for the very unladylike positions her profession often required of her. The last one — Byzantina, the long-lost Ross Sister — of course was also a play on the byzantine convolutions of her act, though the missing Ross Sister was utter nonsense. There were nearly two whole generations that separated her from the famous Ross Sisters supple singing sensation, not to mention the fact that Betsy couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it.

Perhaps not, but she could tie herself into knots like nobody else. And for the better part of her teens and into the early twenties she drew crowds whenever the Triple Cirs Circus came to town. Mesmerized doctors who had seen her act — the kind of doctors that fool around with bones and muscles and sinews and joints — wanted to carry her off to their laboratories, take x-rays, core samples, ultrasounds and MRIs and then perform experiments, perhaps even vivisection, to see what preternatural phenomenon was going on in her body that made her so übermalleable. She seemed like she possessed latex bones. Neoprene, it was claimed . . . Hypalon™ even. She was unique, singular, unparalleled. DuPont allegedly sent out their people to acquire her for research. Betsy demurred, however, and told them all to pay the circus entry fee to see the performance or get the hell out of her face. That was all she was going to show any of them.

Those days were past. Knotty Girl was no longer so knotty. She’d finally lost her knottability. She would not wait for the circus manager, Cirillo Circelli, to dismiss her. She knocked on his trailer door. He opened, saw her cringe with pain. He almost closed the door again. He knew what was coming. He sighed and let her in.

“I’ve had it, boss,” she whimpered. “This broad’s bod’s finally gone abroad. I couldn’t twist myself into a pretzel anymore even if it hadn’t been baked yet. The pain is just too intense now. I won’t embarrass you by waiting until you sack me. I quit.”

Cirillo Circelli protested; Betsy was adamant. Cirillo nearly wept. Then he did weep. “Your talent! God-given! You were the best, kid,” he sobbed. “You put me and my brothers’ circus on the map. You’re like a daughter to me. It kills me to see you leaving. But listen, let’s not precipitate things, okay? There must be something else you can do. I can’t just throw you to the dogs!”

Betsy gaped at him. “Like what? What else can I do besides tying myself into half hitches and hawser bends?”

Cirillo bunched up his face in concentration, then shrugged. “Oh, hell, how should I know? Wait! Hold on! Of course! Acrobatics! I bet you’d be terrific as a tightrope walker! Or-or an aerialist! I could teach you!”

She smiled sadly and shook her head. “Nah. Gives me vertigo even thinking about climbing a foot stool. I’m — was — only good with my hands, elbows, knees or toes tied fast to the ground.”

“But . . . .”

“In any case, I’ve lost the limberness, the nimbleness, it takes for that job. It’d be too dangerous. I’d end up falling or dropping a partner. I’d rather be cleaning out the lion cages than running that risk, boss, but you already know if I get within three yards of the animals I break out in hives.”

That last part was a lie. She’d lived side-by-side the circus beasts for years without so much as a sneeze. But Betsy was ready to leave whether another job was there for the asking or not. She knew she was no longer circus material. Frayed rope, so to speak. Still, Cirillo wasn’t ready to let her go quite so easily, and they argued back and forth for hours, he trying to dissuade her, she insisting that her elastic days were over and that there was little else in the circus that suited her. Circelli finally gave up trying and threw up his hands.

“All right! All right! Quit, then! But what are you going to do now?”

Betsy shrugged. “Not sure yet. But believe it or not, over the years I’ve managed to save some money at this gig, so I’ve got wiggle room to hunt around for something else to do. Need to see my folks first, of course. It’s been way too long.” She patted Cirillo’s fat cheeks and smooched his forehead. “Don’t worry about me, boss. I’m not planning to starve to death just because I can’t tie myself into a decent clove hitch or a lark’s head anymore.”

He sputtered a raspberry of mock derision. “Hey, who are you kidding? You’ve never done a lark’s head in your life, sweetie. You’d need two people for that one.”

Betsy cocked her head and winked at him. “Well, maybe I better just find me a feller, then.”

He laughed and gave her a hug. “I hope you do!”

She hoped so, too, but it wouldn’t be anybody from the circus world. It was a hard, grueling, often cruel business, rarely stable. She loved her co-workers more than her own family, but she swore she’d never marry a carny. ‘Only sensible people need apply’ had been her sworn eligibility oath.

The laid-away savings was flimflam, of course. As was the wiggle room. Who was the soul who could squirrel away money working for a gypsy carny show plowing the farm circuit? Betsy had just enough cash to drive to her folks’ place and a checking account which had never seen more than a grand and a half, tops, festering there at any one time.

After the last circus performance of the season, after Betsy had received a standing ovation from her fans, Cirillo Circelli, his brothers Ciriaco and Cirino, and the rest of the Triple Cirs Circus troupe gave her a rousing going-away party, which lasted most of the night, and then bid her a tearful and reluctant goodbye the next morning. She had a good cry of her own later in the privacy of her circus trailer, blew her nose, washed her face, tossed her foot locker and a beatup suitcase in the trunk of her equally beat-up Chevy, and drove away, refusing to look at her rear view mirror. A half hour later she found a cheap motel in Dodge City to stay a couple of nights to rest and to plan her return home.

Only she had no real home to plan a return to. Her parents long ago said they’d welcome her into theirs with open arms whenever she wished, but she would neither be a burden to them nor be burdened by them. Even now, after all these years away, she’d hesitated going back. Piltdown, Nevada, wasn’t exactly the dream town city folk teemed to when they retired. It certainly hadn’t been hers. She had not let her parents know she was on her way back, because she wasn’t sure that’s where she ever wanted to go to again. But after a day at the motel, she decided just to make a vacation of it at first, do a little sightseeing, wherever the road took her, before heading off for Piltdown.

A week and a half later, a little after noon, the road took Betsy finally to that small backwater in southern Nevada that she once called home. She wasn’t certain that it could even be technically considered a backwater, since it was a parched desert town the size of a postage stamp in the middle of nowhere with scarcely enough water it could call its own. This was where she had been born and raised, also the town which she’d slithered away from twelve years before . . . And joined a ragtag circus just because she was as lithe as a sidewinder, of all things. She shook her head in dismay.

“What in God’s name was I thinking?”

Still, in those twelve years hadn’t she’d made a name for herself, several names, weird though they were — and in as weird a fashion? Hadn’t she’d been famous in six states? Hadn’t she’d entertained thousands; brought delight and awe to a multitude? All that, and yet, here she was again — idling at the border of a godforsaken podunk where absolutely nobody knew her from Adam anymore but her mother and father — washed up, almost broke, no future prospects in sight, exhausted, aching with pain that was just short of agony. Through a dirt-spattered windshield she peered across that border. And finally sighed.

“Well, pain is God’s little way of reminding you you’re still alive, after all, ain’t it? And I’m still alive, ain’t I!”

Former Knotty Girl Betsy Allen Wrench ground gears and headed into town.

Steve Pulley
8/15/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Meltdown

meltdown
Sally Caruthers could feel her brain melting. That’s why she stood up in the meeting, even though she didn’t mean to, and shouted, “Everyone just shut up! Shut the %*$& up!”

A hush swallowed the group and all heads turned toward Sally. Her eyes were squeezed tight in pain at the roar of noise pounding in her head, but it then slowly abated with the sudden quiet in the meeting room. She peeked at last and saw dozens of faces regarding her with open curiosity and concern.

“Everything all right, Sally?”

“Huh?”

“Are you all right?”

“I-I… I’m so sorry! I just… I…”

“It’s okay, Sally,” assured Mrs. Parsons, today’s chairwoman, “but in future, dear, it’s best to raise your hand first for attention, and I’ll be delighted to give you the floor when it’s your turn. And then I’m certain that everybody will give you their undivided attention. Isn’t that true, ladies?”

Several nodded back sweetly. One of them cautiously raised her hand.

“Yes, Mrs. Tartwatters?”

“Madam Chairman, er, Chairwoman…Chairperson, I-I’ve a question a question for Mrs. Caruthers, if I may.”

“Certainly.”

“Thank you. Excuse me, Mrs. Caruthers, I’m such an unschooled flutterhead. I never took French in high school, so I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar with the term %*$&. It is French, isn’t it?”

Sally turned crimson. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Tartwatters. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Oh, don’t worry yourself about that, Mrs. Caruthers. We all spout out foreign words now and again without realizing it until it’s too late, don’t we, girls?”

Several heads bobbed up and down with enthusiasm.

“Well, it didn’t sound French to me,” declared Mrs. Clarence Silverfork. “Sounds more like German. Or one of those peculiar Slavic languages. Maybe even some Southeast Asian tongue.”

Some heads moved up and down in agreement, while others didn’t seem quite convinced.

“Your hand, please, Mrs. Silverfork. Protocol, dear, protocol.”

“Oh, so sorry, Mrs. Parsons.”

“Not at all. Mrs. Caruthers? If you would kindly elucidate?”

Sally Caruthers could not hide her shock and gaped about the room of pleasant-looking matrons, all awaiting with polite expectation. “Y-you don’t know what it means?”

They all shook their heads, some shrugging with an embarrassed smile of collective ignorance.

Sally wondered if this might not be some weird hallucination the effect of a mental meltdown. “You honestly don’t know what … what %*$& … means?”

“No.” “Hunh-uh.” “Never heard of it.” “Greek to me.”

Sally blinked. She really must be going crazy, or all these dowagers were from a different planet.

“Well, uh, what about @#$%, then?” she asked hesitantly. “A-and $&#é*?”

Pooched lips, puzzled expressions, and swiveling heads. “That simply has to be French! Did you notice the accent?”

“It does sound Gallic, doesn’t it?”

“I can’t believe this! I must be going crazy!”

“Mrs. Caruthers, have you forgotten?”

“What? Forgotten what, Mrs. Silverfork?”

“That this is, after all, a psychiatric ward. We’re all nuttier than fruitcakes. We’d have to be not to know what %*$& means.”

Sally Caruthers looked stunned. “W-we are?”

The kindly women all clapped their hands delightedly. Mrs. Parsons smiled and glanced at her watch.

“Meeting adjourned, ladies.”

Steve Pulley
8/9/2014
Posted in Stories | 2 Comments

Dancing With Dandelions

dancingwithdandelionsJasmine Washbinder smiled at her father with amazed delight after he’d located her flitting about in a field of flowers behind the barn behind the farmhouse where she lived. She ran to him then, throwing her arms around him and giving him a resounding smooch.

“How on earth did you find me?” she shrieked, her eyes wide with surprise, while at the same time obviously pleased.

“Oh, I asked around if anybody knew of a certain loony young woman named Jasmine Washbinder, and half a dozen people in town all pointed me in this direction.”

She laughed loudly and tightened her hug on him. She might have been as mad as he’d been warned, but her affection for her old man remained. He felt himself breathe again.

“I’ve missed you, you know, Daddy.”

“And I you, Popcorn.”

She smiled at the very old pet name he’d given her as a little girl.

“Ahh . . . ,” she sighed, “yes . . . really, really . . .really missed you. I’d forgotten just how much. Forgive me for just . . . just dumping you and never writing or calling you all this time. Just couldn’t deal with a lot of stuff.”

He clicked his tongue dismissively. “I know, I know.”

Jasmine held on to him for a moment more relishing his familiar warmth, then released the aging man, standing back a step to survey him.

“Let me look at you. Mmm, I see that you’re still looking pretty dapper,” she observed, smirking. “Would I be wrong to guess that maybe Melba might have something to do with it? How is she?”

Frank grinned. Melba was his second wife. They had been married two years. “You’re right. She has. She’s a regular tyrant for dapperness. And she’s fine. I think you’d like her.”

“If she keeps you happy, then I’m sure I would. Well, that’s just great. She and I’ll have to meet sometime. Hey, you should’ve brought her with you.”

“Next time. She wants to meet you, too, but she thought it better that just us two get together this time.” He paused. “So . . . how are things with you, sweetie? Everything coming along okay?”

Jasmine shrugged. “Yeah, more or less. Getting there. I have my ups and downs. Still rough around the edges, I guess, but not so bad. And folks here are nice enough to me, so that’s all good. Not to worry, Daddy. I do feel much better . . . than before. And there’s a fairly decent shrink in town I go to once a week. Bit of a twit, granted, but she’s still new at the game and learning the ropes. I have to give her credit, though. I was no easy customer in the beginning. We get along okay now.”

“Umm. That’s good, that’s good.” He was thinking of the dire reports he’d received back home and wondered just how well his daughter really was. He’d have to look up her ‘twit of a shrink’ later for some more objective professional feedback.

She cocked her head to one side, looking faintly amused and at the same time perhaps faintly annoyed by her father’s uncertainty. “We can talk shop later, Daddy. Let me show you the house. It’s really kind of cute, but a tad messy. I wasn’t expecting visitors, so don’t be too shocked. Just me being me.”

Frank remembered Jasmine as an untidy teenager and made a sardonic grimace.

“Fair enough warning, Popcorn. Actually, I want to see the whole spread. Barn and all. Looks interesting. And I can’t get over how beautiful this whole region is. Look at those hills and mountains! They’re breathtaking. You’ll have to give me the grand tour.”

“I’d love to, Daddy. Tomorrow morning we can do it. I’ll even introduce you to my barnyard friends. Come on, let’s go back to the house. No, wait. Where’s your luggage? In the car? We’ll take it to the guest room.”

“Thanks. I hope I’m not imposing. I should have contacted your first, but I didn’t even have a phone number.”

“Imposing? Are you kidding? I’m so happy to see you that I’m practically giddy. Where’s the car? Out front?”

He nodded, and they began to walk arm in arm toward the front yard.

“By the way, what were you doing back here?” he asked, glancing at the grassy, flower-covered field where she’d been executing pirouettes.

She paused and frowned a second, following where Frank now directed his view. “Oh, that? Dancing with dandelions. Chasing stars and tagging moons. That’s what I do, Daddy.”

Frank Washbinder raised his eyebrows, studying his daughter’s face. He’d come here half convinced, once informed by Jasmine’s distraught mother, confirmed in more scientific terms by the psychiatrist who had first treated her, and verified resentfully by the girl’s estranged husband, that she had indeed lost her mind. Had Jasmine still been a little girl, he would have been amused by her childish reply, and probably would have played along with her game. But she was an adult now. Her response, and what he’d been told prior to setting out to find her, made him a wince with concern. But then she winked at him.

“Keeps the local wannabe beaus and their anxious moms a-thwart,” she explained with a drawl.

He caught the impish gleam in her eyes. He blinked, sputtered, and he chuckled then, nodding . . . profoundly relieved. “That’d do it alright.”

He turned his gaze away from her and, with a deep sigh, breathed in the clean, fresh air. No wonder she’d come here. The countryside was heavenly, a place of refuge, a sanctuary from everything dark, cruel and ugly that had driven her so far from home. He had originally thought to bring her back, but now . . . that mischievous wink . . . so like her . . . now he didn’t feel quite so inclined. Instinct nudged him to the possibility that even if she had in effect lost her way before, this was a far better asylum for her than any couch or institution back home. She looked well and happy, relaxed. At peace. That was all that mattered.

“Want some lunch, Dad? Must be past noon by now.”

Steve Pulley
7/28/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Snollygoster

snollygosterSnollygoster: 1. n. (slang, archaic obsolete) A shrewd person not guided by principles, esp. a politician.
Etymology: 19th-century American English. Possibly from snallygaster, a mythical beast that preys on poultry and children, possibly from Pennsylvania German schnelle geeschter, from German schnell, quick + *geist*, spirit.

O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Snollygoster would, were he not Snollygoster call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Snollygoster, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
(with apologies to Romeo and Juliet, and of course William Shakespeare)

Julianne Paultec loved Snollygoster Moore more than she loved  the legendary triangular Swiss chocolate with honey and almond nougat Toblerone™, more than she adored three successive bowls of Count Chocula™ — and that was just for breakfast — more than she lusted for apple slices, blueberries, a half banana and cookies on top of those three successive bowls of Count Chocula, even more than she worshiped Daisy, her peach of a foot massager and masseuse, a miraculous stitch remover who could remove sharp pains in her body like no other human being she had ever met. Julianne Paultec loved her kitchy-kootchy Snolly that much!

What Julianne Paultec did not love quite so much about Snollygoster Moore, however, were two things: 1) he was an unprincipled, sneaky, low-down, dirty politician of the worst ilk, of the kind in olden days that preyed upon poultry and children. And 2) his name: Snollygoster Moore. Why his parents named her yummykins Snollygoster was quite beyond her comprehension. It’s true that they were Pennsylvania Germans, which might explain it, and they could have been thinking more along lines of that fine and upstanding old Pennsylvania German name Schnelle Geeschter, which meant quick spirit, Americanized as Snollygoster. But it must be allowed that Snollygoster Moore’s parents, being low Pennsylvania Germans and not high Pennsylvania Germans, did not quite glean for their lack of education the significance of naming their dear sweet only child Snollygoster. Notwithstanding, raised as a Snollygoster only conspired to draw him into ever-entangling webs and power-hungry schemes and political circles that eventually made him what he came to be: a shrewd dude with a penchant for rude that did not preclude common folks from feeling royally screwed whenever he stewed and skewed.

This is not to say, withal, that Snollygoster Moore was totally without socially redeeming qualities. It was merely that you had to observe him with a less jaundiced eye than is usually required of his stripe. Julianne Paultec was just that kind of remarkable girl who could overlook a man’s shortcomings for love, even though she might not necessarily approve of them. This was not something she’d learned in community college, which she currently attended with checkered distinction. It was just in her sweet nature to look for the good in everybody. She could also be a bit of a ditz.

“He’s the guy for me, and I’m his neon gypsy,” she declared to her horrified parents.

“He calls you his neon gypsy!?” gasped her mother.

Julianne nodded cheerfully. “Isn’t he just the sweetest, Mom?”

“He’s the slag of the earth is what he is, daughter!” screeched her mother.

“He’d sell his own mother if there was any advantage to it,” cried her father.

“No, wait. Looks can be deceiving,” argued Julianne. “And, Daddy, that’s ‘if there were any advantage’, not ‘was‘. It’s subjunctive.”

“Huh?”

“I learned about the subjunctive mood in my Spanish class,” she replied proudly.

“What!”

“It’s pretty neat, actually. It’s a verb mood that…” Here she paused to quote from memory, ” . . . that ‘represents an act or state (not as a fact but) as contingent or possible.'” She grinned with triumph, giving herself two thumbs up. “Aced it!”

“Don’t you dare try to change the subject, young lady! We’re talking about that political scumbag you say you love, not some cockamamie Spanish subjunctive mood!”

“My Snolly may have his faults, but who doesn’t? Why, to me, he’s . . . he’s the bee’s knees and the dog’s bollocks all rolled into one.”

“He’s what! Where in God’s name did you learn that?”

Julianne smiled smugly. “Early twentieth century American History.”

“They teach you that at school?”

“It’s part of the program that includes colloquial language and slang of different periods.”

Julianne’s father looked at her mother in dismay. “Are you sure this is our daughter here and not somebody else’s half-wit child switched at the maternity ward?”

His wife shrugged and sighed.

“Daddy! We’re talking about the man I love, not about my parentage!” She winced. “Wait. Do you really think I was switched at the hospital when I was born?”

Her parents rolled their eyes synchronically.

“Dammit, girl, we’re talking about your idiot attraction to that . . .  Boss Tweed regression.”

Julianne’s eyes lit up. “Oh! I read about him in my American History class. Wasn’t he famous?” She suddenly frowned. “Wait a second. He was a corrupt nineteenth-century New York politician, wasn’t he? Oh, Daddy! How can you possibly compare him with my Snollykins?”

“Easy. They are both attached at the same hip . . . only about one hundred and fifty years apart.”

In the end, Julianne’s desperate parents, instead of locking her in her room and throwing away the key, shipped her off to South America to improve her Spanish. She pined for a time until she ran into a wealthy Bolivian latifundista by the name of Melgarejo with political aspirations, fell madly in love, married him, bore six children, and became the country’s First Lady, though that lasted for only two days, once it was discovered that her husband was only a naturalized Bolivian of Chilean birth and thus considered anathema to the people by reason of the never-never-ever-to-be-forgotten War of the Pacific of 1879 to ’83 wherein Bolivia lost its seacoast to its Chilean rival, not to mention thus ineligible for the job as President of the country. The two, together with their brood, fled the country ignominiously, settling on an island in the South Pacific where they are currently growing with great success tropical fruit for exportation to South Korea, China, and Japan.

As for Snollygoster Moore, he lost little sleep over Julianne’s sudden departure from the United States, conveniently wedded a Washington, DC, socialite with plenty of seed money for his projected campaign for a seat at the U.S. House of Representatives and, perhaps one day, a shot at the White House itself — if he were lucky . . . in the subjunctive mood, of course.

Steve Pulley
7/28/2014
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment