Marjorie Morningblatt’s New Diet

marjoriemorningblattsnewdietDCI’s Saturday “Feast or Famine Show” podcast host and food editor to “The Dogpatch Cuisinier Internationale” Parsnips Poindexter interviewing nutritionist Marjorie Morningblatt.

Poindexter: On today’s podcast we are delighted to have with us in our studios nutrition demigoddess Marjorie Morningblatt, who certainly needs no introduction for listeners who have enjoyed in the past our chats—and occasionally spats—on food, nutrition, and home economics. Marjorie, so nice to have you with us again.

Morningblatt: As always, my pleasure, Parsnips.

Poindexter: So, let’s get right into it, shall we? We’re quickly approaching the holiday season once again, Marjorie. I imagine that you have some wise counsels for listeners this time of year.

Morningblatt: Indeed I do, Parsnips. But this time I thought I’d offer something a little different than from previous years.

Poindexter: Oh? And what might that be?

Morningblatt: Well, you know that typically on festive holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Ide, Naw-Ruz, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Imbolc, Inti Raymi, Guy Fawkes Night, Festivus, Burns Night, New Year’s Eve . . . I could go on and on, but you get the picture . . . people are stuffing themselves with all nature of delectables, yummies, haute cuisines, not-so-haute cuisines, drinks, desserts, entrees, and so on and so forth, much of which will surely hasten them to an early grave if carried to excess.

Poindexter: I am aware of it, yes.

Morningblatt: This kind of behavior if unchecked will continue on until we’ll all appear as brightly colored hot air balloons and go sailing off, metaphorically speaking, into oblivion, there to pop ingloriously leaving only our bones to moulder.

Poindexter: You do have a poetic way with words, Marjorie.

Morningblatt: I do, don’t I? Thank you. Of course on the plus side—if there is such a one—we’ll be nourishing all nature of biological organisms and thus reinvigorating our planet as fertilizer, but that’s a subject a bit removed from my bailiwick. My job is to keep us all alive to see our children at some point place us in retirement centers and assisted living facilities and out of their hair.

Poindexter: You are a woman with a mission.

Morningblatt: I like to think so, Parsnips.

Poindexter: So, what sort of solution do you have for us today that would keep us well within our limits of the inglorious “pop” you so eloquently speak of?

Morningblatt: A new diet.

Poindexter: A new diet?

Morningblatt: Well, let’s be honest: there is nothing new under the sun, but I’m maintaining that an herb I recently came across could very well be employed as a remarkable weight-loss aid, and I would like to share it with your listeners.

Poindexter: We are all ears.

Morningblatt: Clever pun, Parsnips. Actually, I chanced across this novel diet in a novel written back in 1968 by Richard Bradford. It’s kind of a coming-of-age story of a boy from Mobile, Alabama, named Josh Arnold, who moves to a desert town called Corazón Sagrado in New Mexico together with his family during World War II. I’m astonished that I didn’t read this delightful book ages ago. I picked it up quite by accident at my community library. Red Sky at Morning it’s called.

Poindexter: I don’t think I’m familiar . . . .

Morningblatt: I know! I was shocked myself. But do read it by all means. Harper Lee called it a “minor marvel”, “a novel of paradox, or identity, of an overwhelming yes to life that embraces with wonder what we are pleased to call the human condition.” It is both sad and hilarious. Wonderful book!

Poindexter: Well, well, that sounds like an irresistible read. Odd that I hadn’t heard of the author Richard Bradford before.

Morningblatt: Like Harper Lee, he had only one marvelous novel in him. Actually he had two, but the second one did not attain the popularity of Red Sky at Morning. Which, I might add, was made into a motion picture a couple of years later.

Poindexter: Indeed? Well, I’ll have to look for both now. You’ve got me intrigued. But to get back to the diet you found in the novel . . . .

Morningblatt: I encountered it halfway through the book. A Native American woman by the name of Excilda Montoya, who is the Arnold family’s domestic help in Sagrado, describes to the boy Josh Arnold some of the herbs she keeps in her kitchen and uses in many of the dishes she prepares for the Arnolds and her own family. One of these is called Yerba de Lobo, literally wolf grass. Josh asks her what it tastes good on, and she tells him that it doesn’t taste good on anything. You make a tea from it and it keeps you running to the toilet for two days straight.

Poindexter: My goodness! Why on earth would she include it among her kitchen herbs?

Morningblatt: The same question that Josh asks. Excilda goes on to explain to Josh that it’s good for people with ringworm, boils and bleeding gums. Also good for kids who get out of line. She says, and I’m quoting here, “Instead of beating them, you make them drink a cup of Yerba de Lobo and it keeps them out of mischief for forty-eight hours.”

Poindexter (laughing): Good heavens! So not only is it a purgative, it’s also medicinal and good for child control!

Morningblatt: Precisely! Well, afterwards, I got to reading up a bit on wolf grass, and to tell the truth it got a little confusing at first, because some references led me to Lycopus europaeus, also known as hierba del lobo, gipsywort, bugleweed, European bugleweed and water horehound, native to Europe and Asia, but naturalized in the United States. But more research on my part nailed it to a completely different plant, Hymenoxys hoopesii, a species of flowering plant in the daisy family known as owl’s claws, orange sneezeweed, and and . . . yerba del lobo. It is native to the western United States. Coincidentally, both plants do have medicinal qualities, but for different kinds of ailments.

Poindexter: I see. But today you are suggesting that the second one is good for instant weight loss.

Morningblatt: Among other things, yes. If you are seated on the throne for two days, you are bound to lose pounds. That’s my contention.

Poindexter: Uh-huh. Ahem. Marjorie, you understand, of course, that I cannot possibly in all good conscience support, encourage, or promote this remedy to our listeners without more scientific information as well as advice from a professional physician. Listeners from everywhere would sue my ass and yours for every penny we’ve got if your yerba de lobo led us down different paths.

Morningblatt: But . . .

Poindexter: That’s how it is, I’m afraid. Oh! I’m terribly sorry, Marge, but we’re out of time.

Morningblatt: Already? But this is a podcast, for godsake! You have all the time in the world.

Poindexter: I’m afraid not. Thanks for joining us, Marge. Folks, the usual disclaimers apply to the foregoing. Next up: The late, great James Beard’s delightful advice for making the perfect French omelet, as told by our very own Chef Pepé Le Pew . . . .

Steve Pulley
12/13/2014

Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Bus Stop

busstopOne muddy Thursday morning at the bus stop, Jemina Saxtrop lost her mind and found another. She had traveled to work on Metro Bus 78 into Los Angeles every weekday morning for the past six years, all the way from Temple City to the Los Angeles County and USC Medical Center. While she would have preferred in some ways to have driven her car the distance, the traffic into and from Los Angeles terrified her, and so she rode the bus. It gave her a greater degree of tranquility, she could read or listen to her audio player or do crossword puzzles or even catnap along the way if she wished. And sometimes she would find herself seated next to an interesting fellow passenger and they would strike up a friendly conversation, and the hour-long ride would rush through almost too quickly. Every weekday for the past six years, Jemina felt quite herself, for better or worse.

But something was different this Thursday morning while she waited for her bus to pick her up. It had rained heavily the night before and into the early morning and everywhere there seemed to be slosh and mud. For there to be slosh and mud anywhere in Southern California during this latest three-year drought was something of a novelty, and the weather people on the radio and television couldn’t seem to talk about anything else. The occurrence had taken on biblical proportions in the media, as though this were the return of the Noachian deluge and people ought to be out shopping for arks. But for Jemina Saxtrop, this particular Thursday morning was not at all about the weather or overflow. Rather it was her sudden discovery that either she had completely lost her mind or she was dreaming in 3D and Technicolor.

Jemina felt drops of rain begin to fall again and regretted that she’d forgotten to take her umbrella. It was too late to return home. Her eyes turned upward to watch the billowing clouds, marveling that they were there at all. It had been dry for so long that rainstorms seemed miraculous interventions from God. And maybe they were, though such downpours usually also brought the less-than-miraculous floods and mudslides. Jemina inhaled the fresh, clean air, while raindrops built up their numbers and splashed on her face. She glanced down at her watch to see how many minutes were left before the arrival of her bus. Eight, if it were on time. She looked around. Usually there were two or three people besides herself standing about also checking their watches or nodding a greeting to one another. This morning, however, there were no other passengers waiting at the stop. She was alone. It felt very unusual. There were always passengers at her stop.

Jemina saw the bus approaching from a few blocks away, an orange box in the distance towering above cars traveling in the same direction. It normally stopped every two blocks to pick up and drop off passengers, but this time it was doing neither. It was driving straight through. She checked her watch, which read 6:48 AM, and realized that it would be arriving at her stop six minutes early. It never arrived at her stop six minutes early. Well, maybe it was her lucky day. Had the bus been on time, she would have been soaked.

Jemina raised her hand to flag the bus, and saw its right blinker flicker on as it aimed for the curb and slowed down. She heard the chuff-chuff of the air brakes as the bus stopped, and the door folded in upon itself and opened. She stepped aboard, extracting from her purse her bus pass. The door slid shut behind her and she felt the vehicle slowly surge forward. She raised her head to greet the driver, a heavyset woman who nodded back a pleasant smile, then extended her bus pass toward the ticket scanner.

“Free pass today,” said the driver. “It’s out of order.”

“Really? Well, that’s great! Thanks.”

Jemina turned toward the back of the bus. It was empty. She blinked in disbelief. She never once had been on an empty bus before. There were always at the very least five or six passengers aboard, and normally the double of that. She turned back to the driver to express her surprise.

“What happened to the other passengers?” she exclaimed.

“Nothing, honey,” said the driver, glancing at Jemina through her rear-view mirror. “This bus is not in service, actually, but there you were without an umbrella, and a deluge about to fall, so I didn’t want you to drown before the bus behind me arrives. But I’m only going as far as our bus service garages, over on Cesar Chavez, next to the County Jail, so I can get this scanner fixed or replaced.”

“Well, I’m not going that far, so I thank you again. You’re a godsend.”

“Have a seat. Today you have your pick.”

“I’ll say I do!”

Jenima found a window seat and sat down, then distractedly watched outside as the city floated by along the bus route. The rain picked up, then began to pour until it came down in sheets and she could barely see beyond a few yards. At last she looked away until gradually her eyes grew heavy and she fell asleep.

And that’s when it happened.

Jenima felt an odd rise and fall and opened her eyes. She blinked, half thinking that she was dreaming, and looked around. The bus was gone, Las Tunas Drive, the street she’d been traveling over, had disappeared, and now she was seeing an exotic coastline and sapphire blue waters slip by outside the porthole by her bed. She sat frozen for a moment. Dream. Had to be a dream. She was supposed to be sitting in a bus headed downtown for work, not sitting on a bed, looking out a ship’s porthole at what seemed a Caribbean seashore a hundred yards or so away. What else could this be but a dream? At the same time, Jemina felt somewhere else at the same time. Or was she hallucinating? Was there something else in her breakfast cereal that might account for it? Had the milk soured? No, it seemed fine. The reality of her being elsewhere seemed far too vivid to be a dream. She could hear, see, touch, smell, feel her surroundings with far more clarity than she ever had in a dream. Was her brain coming unglued?

“Where’s your stop, honey? You’re nodding off and you may miss it.”

Jemina heard the bus driver’s voice, and instantly she was back in her seat. She quickly looked outside. They were on Main Street in Alhambra and just crossing Atlantic Boulevard. She twisted her neck to the left. Still no other passengers.

“Sorry?”

“Your stop. Which one? Go ahead and catnap if you want; I can call out when your stop comes so you don’t end up somewhere in Timbuktu.”

“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” Jemina laughed then. “Don’t want to get left in Timbuktu, that’s for sure. I get off at Mission and Griffon. Where passengers going to County Hospital usually get off. I’m a nurse there.”

“Ah, a nurse. Okay.”

“Thanks again. How odd. I never fall asleep like that. This is the first time. I was even dreaming I was on a ship, just off shore from some beautiful island.”

“Beats sitting wide awake on a bus. Dream on.”

Jemina chuckled. “I’ve got to agree. But my dream was so sharp that it was though I was really there. Spooky.”

“Lucky you, you mean.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Still no passengers this morning?”

“Not picking any more up unless they look like they’re drowning. Not really supposed to. I only picked you up because you were about to be soaked.”

“I hope you don’t get in trouble on my account, but I am really thankful that you did stop for me.”

The driver merely waved a dismissive hand.

Before Jemina had boarded an empty MTA bus bound for downtown L.A., before she’d found herself aboard a ship anchored off shore from an exotic island, she had awakened very early that morning in her one-bedroom apartment to face another routine day of ministering to the woes of human suffering at County Hospital. It was hard work that she embraced with both equanimity and gratitude, partly because she was performing a worthwhile service to help alleviate the misery and pain of her fellow man, and partly because it removed her for a few hours a day from her own misery, heartbreak, and emptiness as a recent widow. Until her husband had passed on, life seemed in her  mind almost a fairy story. He wasn’t a Prince Charming, but his love for her was her strong pillar, and she looked forward to growing old with him. And then he was suddenly whisked away from her forever. That she had a steady, meaningful job at the hospital kept her from losing her mind entirely after his untimely death.

She received little direct support from family other than the occasional phone call from her parents, who lived on the east coast. It wasn’t that they were cold to her heartbreak and loss, but their own circumstances did not allow them to rush to her side. And her brother was somewhere in South America doing pretty much what she was doing, but in remote rural communities. She hadn’t seen him in years. She had friends close by, of course, and though they were more than willing to offer a shoulder to cry on and an ear to bend, she did not wish to impose herself on them knowing they had busy lives of their own, and so she told them she was doing okay and not to worry about her.

As Jemina once again began to nod, swirls of fog wrapped around her and she slid back to sleep. Then, as though an incandescent lamp had been clicked on, she found herself swathed in warm light. She opened her eyes and saw the sun shining brightly overhead. She was back on the ship, but no longer below decks. She was topside and it was a gorgeous day. Before her lay a sprawling port – where on earth, she knew not. Her eyes drifted along the coastline, which extended from the port in both directions as far as she could see. The deck of the ship itself was awash with excited passengers all leaning over the side waving and shouting good-byes. Jemina joined them and saw people on the dock far below waving back tearfully and blowing kisses.

“What’s going on?” she asked a woman next to her.

The woman regarded her with a curious smile. “What do you mean? We’re about to depart for our next port.”

“We are? Where’s that?”

“Don’t you know?”

“No. I just this instant got here. This is crazy. I’m supposed to be on my way to work. I was waiting at my bus stop and it had begun to rain, and me, stupidly, without my umbrella. Then an out-of-service bus pulled up and the nice driver offered to drop me off at my job so I wouldn’t be soaked. Not another soul on the bus. I sat down, nodded off, and here I am! Surely I must be either dreaming or hallucinating. But it’s the most vivid dream or hallucination that I’ve ever had. I could swear that it’s actually happening.”

“Oh, my! Then you really don’t know.”

“That’s what I’m telling you.”

“Then I think you need to talk to the ship’s purser.”

“Why? I just need to wake up is all.”

The woman placed her hand gently on Jemina’s shoulder. “I’m afraid that you aren’t dreaming and you aren’t hallucinating. It is, in fact, actually happening.”

Jemina’s eyes widened. “How is that possible? I’m on a bus halfway to my job at County Hospital in Los Angeles, not aboard a luxury liner. I’m a nurse. I’ve got patients to take care of.”

“Dear, this may come as a shock to you. . . .”

“What?”

“Well , um, how should I put this to you delicately? You died.”

Jemina blinked. “What’re you talking about, died? I’m as alive as you are. And I’m seeing everybody here waving goodbye to people on shore.”

“That’s right. We are. But this is our final goodbye to our loved ones. We’re all dead on this ship. That island down there? Just another way of seeing our old world. We aren’t coming back here ever again.”

“I-I don’t understand. . . .”

“Dear, we are all on our way to another world.”

“Another world?”

“That bus ride you were on?”

“Yes?”

“That bus driver?”

“What about her?”

“You said her bus was out of service?”

“I did, yes. I was the only passenger.”

“Exactly. Well, she was in charge of carting you off to this here loading dock to the Promised Land.”

Steve Pulley
12/8/2014

Posted in Stories | 2 Comments

Jumping Through Hoops

Computer Art Image of Man Jumping Through HoopWho would have thought that jumping through hoops would end me up where I am today? You may not believe me, or, for that matter, ever even read this message, but since I’m sitting here on a bench and I’ve got this table in front of me with several sheets of paper, a dip pen, a full inkwell at hand, and time on my hands, I may as well give it a shot. If you who’ve found this message don’t happen be one of my PCE Time Wicket team, I ask you to please give it to them personally or somehow see that they receive it, if humanly possible, in the hopes that I might be returned to my own time. My name is Robert Theodore Singleton. At the bottom of this message are instructions of how to reach my team. In the meantime, I wish to explain briefly what has become of me.

You might say it all began with the hula hoop craze back in the late 1950s. It’s a stretch, I know, but that’s when I first got hooked on hoops. Hoops were already around for thousands of years, of course, but the modern plastic hula hoop most of us know was invented in 1958 by Arthur K. Melin and Richard Knerr. Native Americans were using hoops long before in dance, and I remember reading that back in the 14th century, doctors in England were treating patients suffering from pain and dislocated backs due to hooping. Through the ages, hoops were made from metal, dried up willow, rattan, grapevines, and stiff grasses. But all this is pretty much a digression.

Later on in life, I eventually became a physicist, which is a fancy way of saying a nerd who studies the science of matter and energy and their interactions. Little of this is relevant to my tale, by the way, other than to say that I was a nerdy scientist messing around in the highly speculative (which some would describe as the highly specious) field of time travel. I think the idea of hoops and time travel came to me after I heard one of my colleagues relating a couple of fascinating stories about how certain products used for one purpose were later retooled to work successfully for completely different purposes. Case in point: Back in the 1930s a soap manufacturer had developed a putty-like product that could easily clean off the soot accumulated on wallpaper from coal-based home heating popular then. After World War II, however, much cleaner natural gas became the heating fuel of choice, and the company faced bankruptcy. But one day the company owner’s nephew happened to see their wallpaper cleaner in a nursery school being used by the kids to make Christmas ornaments. From that observation Play-Doh™ was invented, and the company was saved. The other story was about kids sailing pie tins in the air for play. An enterprising entrepreneur got to thinking, and pretty soon the Frisbee® was invented.

Long story short, and with gross simplification, the device known as the PCE Time Wicket (aka “The Time Travel Hula Hoop”) was similarly born by transforming a series of rare-earth Neodymium nanomagnets into several large rings or hoops lined in a specific sequence, each rotating successively in opposite directions and at varying speeds by applying the Phrigofaxian Coriolis Effect (subsequently nicknamed “Hula Hoop Physics”). This created a force field capable of converting matter passing through the rings into an energy field allowing it to leave our precise space-time continuum and reappear as matter in another space-time continuum. There’s no way I’m able to explain the reality of time travel via “Hula Hoop Physics” without several handy whiteboards filled with mathematical formulas and a couple of sturdy computers, plus PhD degrees in Esoteric Abstract and Applied Physics. But I can say this: these particular “hula hoops” pack nanotechnology that you won’t find in any Wham-O® product. That said, none of this will make any sense or be of any relevance at all in the current century I presently find myself. Namely, late nineteenth. Or, to be more precise, November 1878.

As it turned out, due to an incomplete setting of coordinates and one of those catastrophic coincidences that occur for the most part only in pulp fiction, I managed to hula-hoop myself one hundred thirty-six years into the past, but I have no means by which I can return to my original time zone. I just knew that touch-screen technology would some day, somehow botch up something. My associates in the project had only partially calibrated the PCE Time Wicket prior to our real first human launch. While they were working on this, I busied myself by exercising a few trial leaps in the jump cage in front of the rings before the actual run. The jump cage was a restricted launch area where a traveler stood in order to be catapulted through the rings. It was called a jump cage because for safety reasons a person to be launched had to jump off the floor five seconds after the launch button was pressed by the “arbalist”. We jokingly called the person who was designated to launch a time traveler an “arbalist” in honor of the medieval engine for hurling large stones and other missiles used during sieges. We’d previously observed in non-human tests that if the subject were resting on the floor at launch, sometimes portions of the object remained in the cage while the rest winged its way through space time. The return of some of the animals we’d used as our guinea pigs upon return a bloody mess with their lower extremities and any of their body that had rested on the floor missing. Since we didn’t want a human returning similarly maimed, we decided that for the present jumping up from the floor at launch would be one way of resolving the issue.

I vividly recall seeing our arbalist, Max Seabed, inadvertently brush a finger across the time travel device’s computer control screen just as I was preparing for my penultimate jump. In that instant I saw his eyes widen, I heard a buzz of energized magnets power up, I glanced at the launch clock, and I knew what had happened. I instinctively leaped in the air. The last thing I remember was Max’s horrified expression. Then there was an audible pop, total silence, and I was instantly catapulted through the Time Wicket surrounded by what seemed a gray fog.

Upon arrival at my unknown destination, I hadn’t fully weighed at first the enormity of the catastrophe. Instead, I was beyond elated that the Hula Hoop Time Machine had actually transported me. We had theorized the probability. We had sent objects through the rings and they did come out the other side within seconds. The clock devices we’d sent or attached to other objects indicated that they’d gone elsewhere for minutes, hours, even days at a time. Our preliminary tests had not produced any explosions or grotesque monstrosities á la “The Fly”. Also, our time machine prototype had a “return home” mechanism, and judging from tests with both inanimate objects and small animals coming back safe and sound — as long as they were suspended at launch — at the time interval we had determined, we were reasonably confident that we had ourselves a viable device. The only thing we were still unsure about was where they had gone and whether they’d gone forward or backward in time and how far forward or backward. The cameras we’d sent shown places that may or may not have been the same locale where the lab was once located or would be located sometime in the future, but our test shots had not revealed the clues we needed to pinpoint either whereabouts or whenabouts. And now, in my intoxication of having traveled through time, it hadn’t yet quite sunk in that I would probably not be returning to the laboratory anytime soon . . . if ever. No coordinates for my trip back to the lab had yet been set.

I found myself standing inside a dark, somewhat musky place. I could see nothing, but I heard the squeaks of mice and the scratchings of roaches. It was either nighttime or I was in a room without windows. I called out, more like a bat listening for objects than to communicate with someone, and the muffled tones of my voice indicated that I must be in some room, but not an empty room. I reached out and began walking carefully forward until I touched something. Ten minutes later I was fairly certain that I was in a storeroom of some sort. Five minutes after that, I came across wooden steps leading upward, and I decided that I was in a basement. I made my way up to the top, found a door with a latch, lifted it, and slowly opened the door. The room beyond was bathed in light, and standing before me was the woman I would one day marry, looking frightened, and backing it with a double-barreled shotgun aimed straight at my chest.

“Just what in tarnation are ya doin’ in my cellar, mister?” she cried. “An’ ya better have a mighty good excuse fast, an’ no prevarications, ’cause I’m just about a hair from pullin’ this here trigger.”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I replied. “But I assure you that I mean you no harm, so please don’t pull that trigger.”

“I’ll be the judge of whether or not I’ll believe ya,” she said. “Talk!”

I gulped. “I-I’m a time traveler. I come from the future. At least I think it’s the future.”

She blinked several times. “A time traveler from the future. . . ? A time traveler from the future. . . Wa-a-ll, mister, I can only think o’ one logical answer to that: Ya must’ve downed some of old Ben Bunker’s rotgut whiskey and it’s gone an’ addled yer brain. No other explanation comes ta mind. Ya ain’t the first. It’s done happened to more than one stranger wanderin’ through these parts didn’t know better. I swear, that dadburned moonshiner oughta be strung up fer poisonin’ simpletons such as yerself.”

“No, madam, I assure you that. . . .”

She lowered her shotgun and raised a hand. “It’s okay. It’s not all yer fault. Well, as long as ya ain’t plannin’ somethin’ stupid, come on in an’ I’ll get ya sobered up with my special counterpoison. But how did ya end up in my cellar, anyhow? No! Don’t tell me! Not ’til I get yer head functionin’ properlike again.”

I protested that I was not at all drunk, but she insisted that it was far more plausible than my claims of coming from the future.

And thus began my acquaintance with Mary Beth Oddelson. I was to subsequently learn that she and her late husband Howard Oddelson had come to this part of the country from Boston ten years prior to start a new life together. But three years later she was a widow. Unwilling quite yet to sell her property and return to Boston, but unable to run a farm by herself, she let it go fallow for a time and found work in town.

After she “detoxified” me with a beverage that defied description, though tasted somewhere between tar and molasses, she asked me where I was lodging. I replied that I had nowhere to stay since I had arrived here entirely by accident and I was not sure if my companions knew how to find me. She said that there was a hotel of sorts in town where I could stay, but I confessed that I hadn’t any money at all to pay for a room. She eyed me appraisingly for a moment.

“Well, ya don’t look like the kind to be inclined to any funny business. . . . You ain’t, is ya?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Okay, then. Tell ya what: You can stay here fer now. I got an extra room.”

I was frankly shocked that she would be willing to let me stay in her home, and said so.

She gave me a slow smile and said, “I didn’t say it was fer free. I’ll let ya stay, but on condition that you’ll do some farm work fer me outside in exchange fer room and board.”

“Farm work?”

“That’s right. You can do farm work, can’t ya?”

“I’ll be frank with you,” I replied. “I’ve never set foot on a farm in my entire life until now. I’ve only lived in the city.”

She seemed disappointed, mulled for a moment, then brightened. “What about in the house? I got plenty o’ things that needs fixin’ around here.”

“If you have tools, I can do that, yes.”

I stayed on fixing things for the next 25 years, 24 of them as her second husband. This fine woman had me jumping through another kind of hoops during all this time, but I didn’t mind. While I waited for the possibility to be rescued by my team somewhere in the twenty-first century, she kept me busy learning how to farm; she took advantage of my education to pass along to her knowledge she had been ignorant of all her previous years; and then she twisted all the right arms in town until I was also hired as a teacher in the local school so I could educate the children there as well. And it wasn’t long into our marriage that I realized that she and our young children were far more important to me than all the work I had performed to develop a time machine. She had become my soul mate. She is my soul mate.

[Instructions for whoever finds the above message]

***

Beth discovered her husband’s message in a porcelain urn hidden behind her preserves shelf in the cellar one afternoon while doing a little spring cleaning. The urn had once contained the ashes of her first husband’s father, which they’d brought with them from Boston when the two had come to the mid-west to settle. It had been the last wish of her father-in-law before dying that his burnt remains be spread over their future farmland, praying that it would help bring about for them a rich harvest. And to this request they complied. The emptied urn afterward eventually found its way into the cellar, since neither Beth nor Howard thought it appropriate to use as a cookie jar or the like. Evidently Beth’s second husband Robert had discovered the urn and there deposited his message. Beth thought it odd that the urn had found its way behind the shelf since she was absolutely certain she’d set it elsewhere in the cellar. And that is why she lifted it out to put it back where it belonged and heard the sound of paper shift from within.

She carried the urn upstairs where there was more light, removed the lid, extracted what turned out to be an envelope with several sheets of paper inside, sat down, and began to read. A slow grin lighted her face when she’d finished, and she sighed with contentment. She may have never had the strange man she’d married’s education, and she certainly understood little of what he talked about when the subject was science except in a rudimentary way, but she was still an intelligent woman. If everything he had tried to explain to her was true — and she had no reason not to believe him — she realized that the man’s message probably never reached its intended destination some time in the future, or otherwise he perhaps would have long ago vanished from her life instead of grown old with her. All the same, it had long puzzled her the sudden and mysterious disappearance of any number of household pets and varmints over the years. Had in fact efforts been made to find him?

“You crazy old coot,” she muttered with a smile and a tear. “Any fool could have told you this would have been found more easily had you sent it to one of them scientific institutes back east. Or maybe you just decided you liked being with your old lady a hair or two longer. Tsk-tsk. Dear God, you are such a love!”

Beth carefully replaced the letter in its envelope, and the envelope back in the urn, and resealed it with its lid and returned it to where she’d found it, but not before she included a note of her own, which read as follows:

***

“To Whom It May Concern. I am duty-bound to keep safe my darling husband’s message so that some day it might end up in the hands of those who understand its import. But know this: I have loved this man more than life itself for these past 25 years, and we have raised together three fine children. So, if one of you scientific folks in the future should receive this message, I beg you not to take my husband back until I am done with him. He is too precious to me and to the future generations of our children.

“This gentle man loved me when nobody else would have me after the untimely death of my first husband. He treated me as his equal. He raised our children with a kindness and tolerance that is nearly unheard of in these parts. He was a scientist without his tools or his books, and so he became a farmer and a school teacher. He worked hard and with success at toils he was unfamiliar with. He became a trusted and much beloved neighbor and friend and he brought peace and tranquility into a town of as uncouth a passel of folks, myself included, as you would ever likely find. He taught me the love of books, he opened worlds to me that I did not know existed, and he was the dearest man I ever set eyes on.

“For all these reasons and dozens more, leave my man be, I beg you, for his presence here has enriched too many of us for you to snatch it all away.

“And if that is not reason enough, consider this: it is just possible that by stealing him back to his time you may very well jeopardize your very own existence and that of your own loved ones. Are you really willing to take that gamble?”

[signed] “Mary Beth Singleton, who never quite understood what a hula hoop was any good for, except to bring to her her beloved husband Robert.”

Steve Pulley
11/29/2014
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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
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

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
Posted in Stories | 2 Comments

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