Elevator Trips

elevatortripsFreddy Pangborne met the love of his life inside a stuck elevator returning home late from work one Friday evening after being stuck in traffic for an hour. Other passengers had already exited, and now only Freddy and a tired-looking, modestly attractive forty-ish woman remained when the car suddenly jolted to a stop between the sixth and seventh floors. The light flickered briefly, but did not go out. They happened to be neighbors in one of those high-rise tenements that habitually pop up like mushrooms in big cities where land is at a premium. They lived several floors apart, so it wasn’t all that odd that they had never run into one another sooner, even though Freddy had not moved in that long ago.

“Really? . . . Again?” muttered the woman in disgust, pressing the alarm button. A moment later a voice from the elevator intercom sputtered to life.

“You rang?” it asked.

“I did, Mike. Your damn elevator jammed again.”

“That you, Meg? When are you gonna stop flirting with me? You know I’m already taken.”

“When you start keeping your elevators in order, then I’ll leave you alone. Although now that I think of it, I could put some fire underneath you by phoning your girlfriend to tell her you’re chatting up the pretty tenants riding your cars.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I believe Madge is her name, isn’t it?”

“Okay, okay! You win! Just give me a couple of minutes.”

“Bet you say that to all the girls.”

The intercom squeaked.

Pangborne, who had listened to the exchange with amusement now glanced at the woman. “Happen often?”

“Often enough.”

“I’m fairly new here, so first time for me.”

“Well then, welcome, neighbor,” she said, giving him a sardonic grin. “I’m on the eighth floor. Almost made it this time.”

He nodded, returning the grin. “That bad, eh? Freddy Pangborne. Twelfth. Long way to go yet.”

“Meg Migglewart. Margaret Migglewart, but I go by Meg.”

“Migglewart?”

She sighed. “I’m afraid so. It’s a wonder that the Migglewart line has survived this many generations.” She looked him up and down appraisingly, checking his hands. No ring. She lifted one eyebrow. “Um, you wouldn’t consider marrying me, by chance, would you?”

Pangborne was certain he hadn’t heard her right. “Sorry, what was that?”

“Marriage. To me . . . a Migglewart. Okay, admittedly it might be a shade overhasty, but you’d be doing me a big favor. One thing I always wanted was a cool surname. I could take yours and make it mine. Pangborne sounds so much sexier than Migglewart, don’t you think?”

Freddy gaped at her. “Ahem, well, that’s a radical idea you have there, uh, Meg, but why not simply apply for a legal name change? That way, you would save all the uncertainty, not to mention the potential wear and tear of marrying a complete stranger.”

“Oh, no-no-no, I couldn’t possibly do that. You see, my parents are intensely proud of the Migglewart name. Has something to do with ancient nobility in the family, or some such thing. They would kill me — or worse, disown me, which I can’t afford — if I took the approach you’re suggesting. The only acceptable way to get around it would be through marriage. And God knows my folks are eager enough to marry me off as quickly as possible! I’m nearly past normal child-bearing age, you see, and they are keen to have at least one healthy grandchild out of me.”

“Ah-huh.” Freddy nearly choked.

“Give it some thought, won’t you?”

“What’s that?”

“Proposing marriage.”

“Well, the idea might appeal to me, but perhaps we should get more acquainted first. I’ve always contended that a couple should find out beforehand whether they’re truly compatible or whether one will ultimately take an axe to the other, or conversely slip some lethal poison into the breakfast tea.”

“Ah. The cautious type.”

“Well, I must confess I come from a long line of Pangbornes traditionally on the conservative side about these things.”

“Understood. Oh, well, here’s a thought: seeing as how we’re stuck in this elevator, no telling how long we’ll be here, so to pass the time we might go ahead with it.”

Freddy raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead?”

“Become acquainted.”

Freddy, who had gradually shifted from thinking the audacious-sounding woman might be loony to realizing that she was simply putting him on, decided to go along with her playful banter, guessing that it was perhaps just her way of dealing with their present claustrophobic situation.

“Ah, of course,” he said. “No time like the present, right? Well, then, seeing as how it was you who broached proposal, suppose you start out by telling me something about yourself.”

For her part, Meg was relieved that the fellow seemed willing to follow suit with her game and that he did not appear to be a masher who might attempt to take advantage of her, given the circumstances — not that she couldn’t take care of herself in a clinch, being both an off-duty plainclothes cop with considerable martial arts experience under her belt and armed with a Smith & Wesson underneath her coat.

“Fair enough,” she replied.

At that moment, however, the elevator came back to life.

“Oh! Well, that didn’t take long,” Meg exclaimed. “My man Mike in Maintenance must be off the sauce tonight. Odd, being a Friday and all. Guess our wedding’s off, then.”

“But I was just at the point of warming to the idea,” replied Freddy, feigning disappointment.

“Ah, here’s my floor,” she said. The door slid open. As she exited, she turned back to Pangborne, an impish smile on her lips. “Next time we get hung up in an elevator, let’s continue this conversation where we left off, all right? Bye, neighbor.”

The door slid shut before Freddy could reply, and she was gone. He stood silently as the elevator continued upwards, then allowed a soft whistle escape his lips.

“Dang,” he said aloud, “I do believe I’m in love.”

Steve Pulley
10/17/2014
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Harold and Phyllis

haroldandphyllisBright one morning Harold looked out his bedroom window and saw his wife Phyllis dangling from a tree branch. He shoved open the window and leaned out.

“Everything okay, my love?” he shouted.

Phyllis, who was pointed in the opposite direction, performed some terrifying maneuvers until she faced Harold. She was sweating, it’s true, but the smile on her gorgeous lips was wide and genuine.

“Oh, good morning, sweetheart,” she called back cheerfully, waving at him with one arm while holding onto the tree branch with the other. “Did you sleep well?”

“I did, as a matter of fact. Have you been up long?”

Phyllis glanced at her wristwatch, then grabbed the branch with both hands again. “Twenty minutes.”

“Uh, do you need any help, darling?”

“Oh, gosh, no! I’m fine. This is just a little workout. I’ll be in a jiffy to fix your breakfast, okay?”

“Tut-tut, my love. You forgot. It’s my turn today to prepare breakfast.”

“Oh-my-goodness, yes! I certainly did forget. Today is Wednesday, isn’t it?”

“That it is, my sweet dumpling.”

Phyllis laughed. Harold came up with the cutest pet names!

“Will you give me a five-minute heads up when things are ready?”

“Don’t you want to take a shower before eating?”

Phyllis sniffed the air. “Umm, good idea. I’m sweating like a . . . like a . . . Hmm. Like a woman swinging on a tree limb for the past twenty minutes. Better give me a twenty-minute heads up, then.”

“Twenty it is.”

Harold turned away from the open window and his smile faded. Although he made every effort to remain upbeat over his wife’s latest aberration, he didn’t know for how much longer before he cracked. Since the car accident, she’d assumed several different personas. And now, it appeared Sheena, Queen of the Jungle . . . or some manifestation thereof. The professionals, after a load of tests and interviews, tossed out several theories, none of which offered known cures of any worth. She’d suffered a brain injury, and they opined that it would eventually straighten itself out. But so far it hadn’t. Eventually, Harold stopped taking her to the professionals. He loved his wife, but he didn’t know what to do with her, or even if he should do something with her. He wondered if this was going to be their life together from now on. Not that it wasn’t interesting. It was just that it was also terrifying, and he feared that sooner or later she was going to hurt herself. Earlier he’d tried to discourage her from taking the risks she had been taking, but oddly she seemed perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She had suffered no accidents. None. She seemed almost invincible. He couldn’t tell whether it was the brain injury or perhaps madness as a result of the injury that ironically protected her.

Forty minutes later the two were seated across from one another in their breakfast niche. Phyllis looked refreshed, happy, and adorable. Harold smiled too, but his happy expression was pinched. He served his wife pancakes, sausage, scrambled eggs, Feta cheese, cantaloup and watermelon slices, a cluster of black grapes, dates, and a mug of black coffee.

“Oh, my, Harold! You’ve really outdone yourself today! This is absolutely wonderful! How will I possibly match you my turn tomorrow?”

“It’s not a contest, sweetie. Whatever you fix is just right . . . always.”

And he meant it. He adored this crazy woman. And he was petrified now that he might lose her.

“How was the tree hugging this morning?” he asked, half jokingly. He wanted to beg her to stop swinging from branch to branch, but he knew by now that that was almost an impossible request. It was almost as though Phyllis had to do what she did. He wanted to get down on his knees then and there and supplicate that she not put herself in danger’s way.

“It was great!” she replied with enthusiasm.

As she ate — and she ate with gusto — she gazed at him then with real sympathy. She was not at all unconscious of his concern. Indeed, she loved him all the more, and she didn’t want to worry him, but this was more than what she could control. She lay down her fork and reached across the table and squeezed her husband’s hands.

“You poor darling sweet man,” she cooed. “I know better than anybody what you must be going through with all this craziness. It really is insanity, isn’t it? I should be locked up. I mean, unless one was an aerialist, why else on earth would they be careening about in trees and high places like an orangutang?”

Harold had to grin. She was funny. He lifted his shoulders and shook his head. They’d had this conversation before. Many times. After her accident he had never become angered with her. He was incapable of ever being angry with this astonishing woman. But he was terrified. He knew now that for him life would not be worth living should anything ever happen to take her away. He wondered if this was just selfishness on his part. Sometimes it haunted him that he could not be more detached. Humans did not last forever, but he wanted Phyllis to last at least as long as he. It was a ridiculous thought, of course, maybe even a sickness of his own — his fatal flaw. Was he too greedy? He tried desperately not to be. He did not wish to be one of those clingy types that drive people crazy and become a burden by tying her down in any way. He hated it himself. He realized such behavior as warped, and so he did not do it, even if something inside him wanted to be with her every second. Wasn’t that a far greater sickness than what she was now doing?

“Harold?”

He came to, surprised that his own thoughts and feelings had zoned him out for a moment. She was smiling quizzically at him.

“Oh, sorry,” he murmured. “Got carried away musing.”

She nodded, understanding him. She patted his hands and returned to eating. “I swear, darling, you’ve pretty closely prepared what I call perfection.”

Harold wiggled his head with pleasure at the compliment and dug into his own food. She was right, he thought. It may not be perfection, but he had to admit that this was about the best he’d done so far.

“Harold?” she said, again setting her fork down.

“Umm?”

“When we’ve finished breakfast, is it all right . . . can we can talk just a bit before you go to work today?”

He stopped eating. “Certainly. What’s up?”

“Well, something’s been bothering me. And for a while now. I think we may need to discuss my, uh, condition again.”

“Your condition?” Harold suddenly felt cold. He gazed into his wife’s eyes. There was only love looking back.

“Yes. You see, before you woke up this morning . . . well, you might say that some new developments arose that we may need to, well, you know, look into . . . just a tiny bit before you head out to work. Maybe you can think them over today, and we can make some decisions tonight when you come home.”

“New developments? What kind of new developments?”

Phyllis looked up as though searching for the right words. She turned to Harold and smirked elfishly. “Well, for example, this new business of me climbing trees, in part, as well as all the rest. You know all too well, of course, how after ‘The Accident’ I started behaving strangely?”

He grinned back, pouring himself a glass of orange juice. He gave her a nod to offer her one too, but she shook her head. “Why, yes,” he said, “As a matter of fact I do think I vaguely remember something along that order. By the way, did I ever tell you how well you play the piano?”

She nodded. “I do, don’t I? Not bad after never having touched one before in my life . . . except an occasional ‘Chopsticks’ with two fingers on a toy model when I was maybe nine.”

“And don’t forget the Korean zither and fiddle, and that Andean ukelele thing.”

“Gayageum,* haegeum,* and charango,*” she corrected. “I’ve got to say, darling, I don’t sound bad.”

“On the gayageum and charango, I can’t argue with you there. But that haegeum . . . umm, that one’s still to be determined.”

Phyllis laughed. “I play it well, sweetie, but the sound sometimes takes time for westerners to get used to.”

“Surely an acquired taste.”

“Perhaps.” She began to prod at a piece of sausage on her plate with her fork.

“But go on . . . You were saying.”

The sausage went into her mouth. “And after the musical instruments came the painting,” she said after swallowing.

“Umm, yes, I seem to recall that you did pick up some tips from Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso and a few others and then threw together an exhibition a couple of months later that put us into a different tax bracket.”

“Sorry about that, sweetheart,” she said with amused chagrin.

“Tut-tut, no need to. The profits exceed the impositions of the IRS.”

“Well, that’s true.”

“And, if I may interject, this was followed by spelunking, mountain climbing, high-wire walking, and now the somewhat more modest swinging from trees. Though I must say that whiffling o’er the tulgey wood seems to require even added dexterity if you are to remain airborne.”

Phyllis lowered her head demurely and offered a token blush. Harold drank the rest of his orange juice while still managing a temperate smile. She seemed to be putting off the topic she wanted to discuss as long as possible, and he wondered if he should just play along until she was ready to talk, or encourage her to spit it out. He was afraid that some new innate talent had now suddenly possessed her, and he only prayed that it would be something that would not put her in harm’s way. Music and painting were one thing, but the later acrobatics had sorely unnerved him.

“All right, then . . . ,” he said.

“Yes, I know. I’m dillydallying. But it’s got to be discussed, so here goes . . . .”

Phyllis took a breath, then proceeded.

“I’ve been thinking about my condition . . . a lot. I mean aside from my . . . shall we call them my new-found talents?”

“Well, they are indeed that,” Harold agreed.

“I believe we can both agree that they must be associated in some way with my accident last year. I mean, it’s no secret that while some are inexplicably creative — the music and the painting — the others almost seem death-defying. I should be scared out of my wits, but I’m not. I-I exult being an equilibrist now, even though the sane part of me tells me that I’m completely wacko, that it’s some kind of psychological Thanatos disorder.”

Harold cocked an eye of incomprehension.

“Death wish,” explained Phyllis, noting his dazed expression.

“Oh. Well, maybe it’s not that at all,” he argued. “If it were a death wish, you probably would have let go at some point. To me, it’s more like stuff we sometimes dream about. You know, flying like birds?”

“Or bats.”

“Okay. Or bats. Sweetheart, we’ve talked many times about this, and short of locking you up or putting you in a straitjacket, you don’t seem willing to stop.”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about.”

“What? Stopping?”

“No, locking me up.”

Harold stared at his wife for a long moment. Although Phyllis had never been diagnosed as clinically insane, partly because her disorder had been directly linked to the brain injury she had sustained the previous year and not to any psychological or psychiatric aberrancy, Harold in his own way had reached the conclusion that in fact she had “lost her mind,” although perhaps not in the generally acknowledged definition of the term. From his own view of her present behavior, there seemed no other explanation. Earlier, and on several occasions, he had even considered the option of having her institutionalized.

But curiously, her “madness,” if anything, had in some inexplicable, unscientific, almost magical way improved her disposition enormously, transforming her into a different person than she had been before, and this was what made him hesitate about looking into a dreaded hospital for her. Prior to her accident, she had been a harsh and demanding woman, often petty in her views and behavior. Her ill nature of yore, however, had all but evaporated, now replaced by an endearing sweetness that defied reason. Even before they had married he’d observed a certain intractability in her, but his greater passion for her overrode his misgivings at the time.

Perhaps the “right” thing would have been to send her to a mental institution. Only . . . only for the first time in their marriage had he now found peace and happiness. For the first time could he honestly say that he loved her truly, profoundly, that he delighted in her presence. Moreover, he realized that over the year he too had changed for the better. The hardness in him had faded. The querulousness and the priggishness. He recognized that he’d become more gentle, more understanding, more openhearted, compassionate. It was almost as though her car accident had transformed both into better persons, and he didn’t want it to go away.

Phyllis smiled at Harold with inquisitive eyes. “Why are you staring at me so? Don’t you think that hospitalizing me is a good idea?”

“No!” he cried. “I-I’m afraid they might fix you! I love you the way you are. I love you just the way you are now!”

“Why, Harold!” She seemed surprised by his vehemence, and moved at the same time. “Harold? A-Are you crying?”

Harold wiped his tears dismissively, then nodded. Phyllis stood up, moved to his side of the breakfast table and embraced him.

“Why, you dear, dear man!” she exclaimed.

“Besides,” he said, his voice catching, “tell me just how many husbands can brag that their wives swing in trees like an orangutang?”

Steve Pulley
9/28/2014

*Notes:

The gayageum, or kayagum, is a traditional Korean zither-like string instrument, with 12 strings, though some more recent variants have 21 or other numbers of strings. It is probably the best known traditional Korean musical instrument.

The haegeum is a traditional Korean string instrument, resembling a fiddle. It has a rodlike neck, a hollow wooden soundbox, and two silk strings, and is held vertically on the knee of the performer and played with a bow. It is one of the most widely used instruments in Korean music. Below are two versions of Miryang Arirang, a Korean folk song, often considered as the unofficial national anthem of Korea, where both the gayageum and the haegeum are used.
A “fusion” instrumental version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gc537FlsA1g
A traditional sung version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBp2J-avvrw

The charango is a small Andean stringed instrument of the lute family, originated in Quechua and Aymara populations in post-Columbian times. In the link below, Oscar Miranda, Argentine virtuoso of the charango, plays the instrument at “La Maison de l’Amérique Latine” in Paris:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-qpUnCwJlE

In the following link, the charango is played with other instruments (quena, zampoña, guitar, and drum), in this Bolivian musical piece, “Flor de un día”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_bvxX14GcM

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The Sound of Spoons Clinking in Cereal Bowls

soundofspoonsclinking

 

 

 

 

 

 

From her bedroom, Helen could hear Saturday morning cartoons playing and the sound of spoons clinking in cereal bowls. It was a good sound. The sound of family. She rolled over and closed her eyes again only to get the feeling she was being stared at. When she opened her eyes her four-year-old son was standing by her bed looking her in the eye. “Mom . . . .”

She stared back at the boy for a moment as slumber began to dissipate and wakefulness gradually shifted to the fore. She reached out to ruffle his hair.

“Hi, there, sweetie,” she mumbled with a sleepy smile. “Who are you?”

The child ducked her outstretched hand and gave her a curious pout. “I’m Scotty, Mom.”

“Hi, Scotty. Do I know you?”

“Mo-o-m, stop kidding. Jennie is acting up again.”

“Oh, she is, is she? What’s she doing?”

“She keeps changing channels.”

“Well, you go tell her for me to play fair.”

“Mo-o-m, you tell her! She doesn’t listen to me.”

Helen sighed. “Okay, okay, I’ll be up in a minute. I just . . . need to wake . . . up . . . .” She closed her eyes again.

“Mom says you gotta play fair, Jennie!”

The strident voice of Scotty yelling at Jennie from the other room rallied Helen awake again. She smiled. Those rascals. . . . Then a puzzled frown creased the space between her eyebrows. Wait . . . wait just a minute.  What the heck was going on?

She had no kids. . . .

Helen scrambled out of bed, now wide awake, and peeked through her bedroom doorway. She followed the noise of the children’s TV program down the hall to the living/dining room and saw two children squabbling over the TV remote, the four-year-old and a girl perhaps seven. They saw her and both squealed simultaneously.

“Mo-o-om!”

Helen felt a tightness in her throat. Her eyes darted around the room. No doubt about it. This was her apartment. Was she dreaming? No, impossible. No one in their dreams ever asks themselves that question, at least not until after they’d awakened. An out-of-body experience? No, otherwise why would she still be in her own apartment. She pinched herself, just in case. Hallucinating? Was she taking some kind of medication that was causing all this?

She gaped at the two children. Are these really mine and I’ve suddenly gone insane, or are they figments of my imagination?

A third child, another girl, this one a teenager, wandered out of the kitchen sipping from a glass of orange juice in one hand while balancing a bowl of cereal in the other, which she placed on the table next to two semi-empty bowls, presumably those of the smaller kids who’d abandoned them in their quest for control of the TV set.

“Hey, Mom,” she said with a grin. “You overslept big time. A new first. Jeez, you look like hell. Are you all right? What time did you get home last night? Or was it this morning? Hey, you brats! Stop fighting and let Mom wake up and eat in peace, or I swear I’ll turn off the TV right this minute, kick you both outside and sic Wally’s dog on you. Word!” She said it mildly and with good humor, but still with authority.

The youngsters gave her long faces, glanced at Helen, then suspended their battle for the time being, returning to watch their program.

“And while you’re at it, turn down the volume a notch, okay?” This was received with rolling eyes and nods. The volume dropped.

Helen swallowed. The teenager, whose name she did not yet know, pulled back a chair for her. Helen looked at it, at the girl, and sat down.

“Coffee’s just about ready. I’ll bring you some cereal. That okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer and disappeared back into the kitchen.

Helen felt both her head and her heart throbbing. This was just too surreal. Were these really her children? It was her apartment, wasn’t it? Or was it? She surveyed the room carefully. Yes, it was definitely her living/dining room. She frowned then. No, not exactly. The paint on the walls wasn’t exactly right, just a half-tone lighter maybe. And the furniture seemed older, not to mention a couple of objects that shouldn’t have been there. The TV set was much larger than normal, and the picture far sharper than it usually was. The sofa and the love seat seemed the same old design, but with different upholstery. The book cases were definitely hers; even at this distance she could recognize some familiar titles. The carpet, however, was a totally different color.

The teenager returned with a mug of coffee and another bowl of cereal and pushed them toward Helen before sitting down across from her.

“The brats have already eaten,” she said. “Well, sort of, as you can see, so it’s just you and me.”

Helen looked down at the coffee, at the cereal bowl, then back at the girl. The girl had paused to observe Helen, unkempt, still in her pajamas, and looking confused and a little seedy.

“‘You okay, Mom?”

“Uh, not exactly,” she replied slowly.

“What’s up?”

Helen paused to study the girl, who had begun shoveling cereal into her mouth. She was pretty, had nice clean features.

“Could I ask you a question?”

The girl’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but she smiled. “Sure, Mom.”

Helen cleared her throat nervously. “This . . . this is going to sound really weird, and I don’t want to scare you, but . . . . Listen, by some chance am I on some kind of medication?”

The girl opened her eyes even wider. “Medication? You? Mom, you’re as healthy as a horse. Of course not. Why?”

Helen hesitated. “I . . . I’m . . . Well, I’m having a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode.”

“You’re what?”

“A ‘Twilight Zone’ . . . I don’t know who you are. Any of you.”

The girl’s mouth dropped open. She set her spoon down. “What?”

“I don’t know you. I gather that you think I’m your mother, but I don’t have any children. I’m not married. Never have been. I live in this apartment . . . alone.”

“Mom? Are you joking?” The girl began to show alarm.

“I’m not. Honest to God. Something is dreadfully wrong here, but I don’t have a clue what’s happened.”

“Mom!” The girl stood up, now frightened. “My God, maybe you’ve had a stroke or something. Should I call 9-1-1?”

The two younger children had turned toward them, puzzled looks on their faces.

“Is something the matter?” asked the girl, Jennie.

Helen and the teen waved their hands at the two. “No, no! We’re just having a discussion. Go back to your program.”

The teenager slowly sat down again and lowered her voice. “Should I call an ambulance?”

Helen shook her head. “No-no, at least not yet. Actually, except for the shock, I feel fine. And I have no paralysis, no speech impediments, no dizziness . . . none of the symptoms of a stroke. All body parts present and accounted for. I-it’s just you guys who don’t fit in the equation. Oh, and some of the furnishings, even though this is definitely my apartment.”

“Mom, you are definitely freaking me out now.”

“You think you’re freaked out? What about me? I go to bed single and wake up married . . . with children?”

“Divorced, Mom. Divorced . . . with children. Jeez, what’s going on here? You were fine yesterday.”

“I’m divorced? How can I be divorced if I never was married?”

“Three years divorced, Mom. You were married, trust me. Otherwise, whose kids are we?”

“I don’t know. Maybe this is all a practical joke and you were hired for the job.” Helen looked at the girl hopefully.

The girl cracked an incredulous grin. “Punked? Wow, this’d be the most awesome one ever. But . . . it’s not. No joke, Mom. We’re definitely your kids. You don’t even remember Dad?”

Helen shook her head. “I don’t. Good heavens, do you suppose I stripped a gear during the night?”

“You mean like amnesia?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh, jeez, just like in one of those cheesy TV series!”

Helen shrugged. “What else could it be?”

“Maybe somebody slipped something into your drink last night at the party you went to.”

“What? I was at a party last night?”

“Uh-huh. Which reminds me: you owe me for babysitting the brats.”

“Okay, okay. Tell me about this party.”

“You said it was a retirement party or something for somebody where you work. Old Man Wenceslao, I think you said.”

“Old Man Wenceslao? Doesn’t ring a single bell at all. Would I go to a party where they slip drugs into drinks?”

The girl shrugged. “I don’t know, but I never heard anybody doing that at a retirement party. Other parties, well. . . .”

Helen frowned. “Other parties? What kind of other parties? Wait a second! How old are you, anyhow?”

“Fourteen.”

Helen concentrated, working calculations in her head. “How is that possible? I would have to have been eight years old when I had you, then.”

The girl snickered. “Nope. I was born in two thousand.”

Helen blinked. “What do you mean, two thousand?”

“The year two thousand.”

“Wait. Wait, wait! What’s the date now?”

“The date? Saturday, September twentieth.”

“No, I mean the year. What’s the year?”

“Twenty fourteen.”

“Twenty fourteen! As in two thousand fourteen?”

“Uh-huh. What did you think?”

“Nineteen ninety-eight.”

“Nineteen ninety-eight? No way!”

The two younger children glanced up from their program at their sister’s shout.

“What’s no way?” asked the girl whose name Helen recalled was Jennie.

“Never mind,” said the teenager. She pointed a threatening finger at the TV. They refocused on cartoons. She turned back to Helen. “You really thought that this was nineteen ninety-eight?”

Helen, thunderstruck, barely nodded. She put her fingers to her face. “This can’t be happening.”

The girl looked on with growing enthusiasm. “What do you last remember? I mean, this is like a totally gonzo mystery.”

Helen thought. “Hunh. Oddly enough, I was at a party. But the party was right here in this apartment. My twentieth birthday. Mom and Dad and my brother and sister and several of my college friends came over to celebrate.”

“You owned this apartment when you were twenty?”

Helen nodded. “Actually, I’ve lived here a year and a half. I mean, I mean the last I recall I’d lived here a year and a half. Technically I don’t . . . didn’t own it . . . yet. My folks do . . . did? Do they still own it, or do I?”

“You own it, Mom.”

“Ah, okay, then. Anyhow, they’d bought it originally as an investment, but then when I entered college and the apartment was within walking distance, they proposed I rent it from them towards later buying it if after college I was interested in keeping it. I’m working . . . was working — damn it, this is confusing! Oh, sorry for swearing . . . . I-I just can’t believe this is twenty fourteen.”

“You need to see a doctor, Mom.”

“I do, don’t I?” Helen looked at the girl. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I already learned that your brother’s name is Scotty and your sister is Jennie.”

“It’s Charlene, Mom.”

“Charlene . . . Oh, that’s a nice name.”

The girl smirked, but looked happy.

“Oh, my God!”

The younger children raised their heads again. Charlene threw up a hand of warning and her best death stare. Two heads jerked back to the TV.

“What, Mom?”

“It’s twenty fourteen!”

“Yeah, we already agreed on that.”

“But my head is still wrapped around nineteen ninety-eight, don’t you see?”

“No-o. . . .”

“I-I . . . th-that means I’m not twenty years old. It means I must be thirty-six now!”

“You are, Mom.”

Helen glanced at Jennie and Scotty, then reached across the table and grabbed Charlene by the forearm. “It means I’ve lost sixteen years of my life,” she hissed, “that’s what it means! Sixteen years!”

“Okay, Mom, calm down. I’m sure you’ll get them all back once you’ve seen a doctor.”

Helen stood up then, a horrified look on her face. “Come with me. Now!”

She grabbed Charlene again and dragged her to the bathroom. Helen stared at herself in the mirror and let out a shriek.

“Oh, my God! I look like my mother!”

“No, you look like mine.”

Helen turned to Charlene. “My mom and dad . . . where are they? Th-they’re not dead, are they?”

“No, of course not. I suppose they’re home. Oh, right . . . They live in Denver.”

“Denver! When did they move to Denver?”

“I don’t know. Years ago, I guess.”

“But they’re both okay, right?”

“Sure they are. Listen, Mom, I think the sooner we get you to a doctor, the better. You do sound like you’ve stripped a gear all right, even if maybe it isn’t a stroke.”

Helen looked at herself in the mirror again and shook her head. “Definitely. But why did this happen? How?”

Charlene shrugged. “Listen, ‘you want me to call Dad? He and Yvonne — that’s his wife — live here in town. We can stay with them if you have to go to the hospital.”

“Your dad? Yes, sure, if it comes to that. By the way, why are we divorced?”

“You don’t remember? No, I guess not.”

“No, nothing. I don’t even remember who he is! So, what was it?”

Charlene gave her an uncomfortable look. “Uh, let’s just call it irreconcilable differences.”

Helen observed her daughter, saw the pain. “Unh . . . Okay. We’ll call it that.” She paused, then asked softly, “I . . . I’m not a meanie, am I?”

Charlene gazed at her mother’s eyes, then rushed and gave her a hug. “Oh, no, Mom! Never a meanie!”

Helen was surprised by Charlene’s embrace, but she felt both relieved and somehow moved by the girl’s vehemence.

The two returned to the living/dining room. The TV set was still going, but Jennie and Scotty were on the floor, playing a game on a computer tablet.

“What’s that? An Etch-a-Sketch?”

“An Etch-a-Sketch? Oh, that? No, it’s an iPad.” Charlene then noted her mother’s incomprehension. “It’s  a kind of portable computer. There’ve been a lot of innovations since nineteen ninety-eight, believe me.”

“Oh.”

“Mom, we didn’t finish breakfast. Actually, we hardly even started. The cereal looks a bit on the soggy side now. Want some fresh stuff?”

“Okay.”

Five minutes later they were eating at the table again.

“What do I do for a living?”

“You don’t know what you do?”

“I do not. Last I remember, I was working part time at J.C. Penney’s. Does Penney’s still exist today?”

Charlene nodded. “Yep, still going.”

“So, what do I do now? If I’m a single mom, raising three kids, surely I must be making more money than I did before.”

Charlene grinned, then laughed out loud. “This is so cool!”

“What is?”

“You not knowing.”

“Okay, so enlighten me.”

“Mom you’re a movie star.”

“What!”

“Yep. And last year you won an Oscar for best supporting actress in ‘The Oxford Comma’. You were awesome.”

“You are so lying! I couldn’t act a line if it jumped out and bit me.”

“Okay, okay, just kidding. You’re the CEO of Google.”

“The CEO of what?”

“Oh, that’s right. You wouldn’t know what Google is. Well, it’s a multibillion-dollar Internet information service.”

“Oh, I see . . . And here we are, billionaires and still living in this dump, huh? You’re having fun, aren’t you?”

Charlene grinned. “Oh, yeah.”

Helen snickered along with her, then sighed. “Okay, what’s the real story? Knowing me, it can’t possibly be as dramatic.”

“Oh, you’re not doing so bad, Mom. You’re a mechanical engineer at C.F. Brigmire and Company.”

“Really?”

“Uh-huh. I don’t know anything about mechanical engineering, but I’ve heard that you’re pretty good at it.”

Helen expressed pleasant surprise. “Well, I’ll be darned. Mechanical engineering? That’s what I was studying in college. Following in my daddy’s footsteps, as a matter of fact.” She paused. “Hey, who takes care of the little ones while I’m at work? Oh, my God, you aren’t a bunch of latchkey kids, are you?”

Charlene shook her head. “No. Scotty is in preschool and Jennie in second grade. There’s a day care center they go to after school. I pick them up later, or you do after work, if I can’t. It works out. And occasionally Yvonne, Daddy’s wife, will look after them. Oh, by the way, Yvonne’s a nice lady. You actually like her. And so you know, you and Daddy have worked it out so we can visit him every other weekend, some holidays, school breaks, and part of summers.”

Helen, though having no notion of the details of her separation from her husband, still felt herself blushing with shame. “This kind of sucks for you kids, doesn’t it?”

Charlene nodded.

“I’m so sorry. I was lucky. My mom and dad were always there together for me.”

Charlene put her hand on her mother’s arm and squeezed it. “Mom, it’s okay. It hasn’t been easy for you either. It’s not so fun, true, but we’re kind of used to it now. Well, at least for Jennie and me. Scotty thinks it’s normal as apple pie, because he was too tiny to know anything different. But Mom, please, let’s get you over to the hospital now and checked out. We don’t know what’s happened to you. It could be something temporary and harmless. But it could also be something really serious, even if you feel okay now. It certainly can’t be normal. And . . . and I’m kinda scared, you know? Mom? Like freaked out? Can we call Daddy? Please?”

Helen smiled then, patted the girl’s hand, and nodded. “Excellent idea.”

Two weeks later Helen was back home. Her former husband — an amiable fellow, as it turned out, by the name of Hank — who with his second wife had taken care of the children at their home during that time, dropped them off at the apartment earlier, telling them that he was going to the hospital to pick their mother up and bring her back to them, and suggesting in the meantime that they neaten up the apartment for her arrival.

“Dearies,” she announced to her three children, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.”

Their eyes grew large with both anticipation and alarm.

“The good news is that I’m fit as a fiddle.”

They cheered.

“Mom, what’s a fiddle?” asked Scotty.

“Uh, it’s a violin, but I just meant that health-wise, the doctors say I’m fine. No worries. You aren’t going to become orphans anytime soon, okay?”

The three cheered again.

“Also the good news is that my condition isn’t psychological.”

The three cheered.

“Mom, what’s cyclelogical?” asked Scotty. Jennie nodded as well.

“Um, psychological means mental or emotional. In other words, I won’t be jabbering like a chimpanzee in the middle of the night and scaring the neighbors and their dogs.”

The children groaned, then laughed.

“Okay. Here’s the bad news: My memory is still gone, and so far the doctors can’t find it. They did manage to give it a fancy medical name, however, though for the life of me I can’t even pronounce it. It’s somewhere in these papers they gave me. For want of an easier word, let’s just call it amnesia for the time being.”

“Mom, what’s amneesha?” asked Scotty.

Helen gave him a hug. “Amnesia means there’s a lot of stuff I can’t remember anymore. The doctors don’t know yet what’s caused mine, but they are confident that I’ll eventually get my memory back, only they don’t seem to know when that will be exactly. For a while, I’ll have to go back for further tests and some kind of therapy, maybe once a week, or every other week, but it will only be for a few hours at a time, so we’ll be together again.”

The three raised another cheer.

“More good news, at least I think it is: I’ve got a semi-leave of absence from my job for the next six months. I say semi because I still have to go to work, but I’m going to be receiving a kind of rehab training to get my working skills back to normal. Right now I can’t remember what I was doing at my job, but there’s the belief that with retraining I’ll quickly regain my proficiency.”

This time there was no applause. Helen regarded them with a grin.

“What this means, kids, is that I’ll still be receiving a salary, and I won’t have to sell any of you for food.”

Three cheers and a few whews.

“Okay, then. Here’s the really bad news . . .”

The children held their breath.

“You’ve got a big job ahead of you.”

“What do you mean, Mom?”

“I mean, it’s pay-back time, kids. Because I lost my memory, you guys are going to have to help be my memory until I get it all back, or as much as I can. I’ve got sixteen years to catch up on. Each of you has memories about me that you can give me back. Scotty here has the least to give . . . maybe a year’s worth . . . because he’s the youngest. Jennie, you’re seven, so I’ll bet you can remember back about three years, huh? And Charlene, the oldest, you’ve probably got nine or ten years tucked away that you can hand back to me. So, you guys are valuable commodities for my recovery. I’m not asking for total recall, because that’s impossible, but what you can remember.”

The children’s eyes grew wide.

“Hey, you guys look like frogs! Ha-ha! But I’ve always liked frogs, so I know you’ll do a great job. Okay, then, let’s get cracking!”

“Mo-o-o-mm!”

“What? What?”

“Okay, Mom. We’ll do it!”

Helen gazed then at these three virtual strangers who were her children, and suddenly an intense, almost overwhelming feeling of love, affection, and gratitude seized her.

“Mom! Why are you crying?”

Helen brushed at her tears. “Nothing . . . everything. But even if I don’t know who you are yet, I still find, way . . . way down deep inside my heart, that I do know who each of you are and that I simply adore you kids to pieces, that you are my life.”

There was an instant of stunned silence, then, “Mom!” they all shouted in unison and threw themselves at her.

It was the first day of her life. And it was a pretty damn good first day at that.

Steve Pulley
9/22/2014
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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
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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