Morning Coffee

morningcoffeeAs a child, sitting at breakfast table adjacent to my father, I watched fascinated as he poured a small amount of half-and-half into the center of his cup of steaming black coffee. The creamy liquid would at first disappear into the depths of the coffee, then, seconds later, slowly resurface in delicate arabesque streams which then interplayed with one another in enthralling magical eddies. My father would always wait until it settled before he slipped in a teaspoon to give his morning coffee a porcelain-clinking stir. I do not know if he did this for my pleasure or for his own, but nonetheless it all seemed like a swirling choreography show prepared each day just for me.

Steve Pulley
11/26/2016
Posted in Anecdotes | 4 Comments

Margaret Welch

margaretwelchMargaret Welch squelched a belch,
squelched a belch did she.
Not being Welsh,
no Celtic belch
had she to squelch,
therefore she belched
in anglice.

Steve Pulley
11/23/2016
Posted in Poems | 2 Comments

Tetched by an Angel

tetchedbyanangelWe must conjecture a bit here. Naomi Pinestraw died during the night, but alleged angels from Realms on High in charge of new arrivals took a rather dim view of her track record through life, shook their corresponding azraelian heads, tsk-tsking in disapproval, and decided Naomi might need to brush up a little more on her flaws, failings and shortcomings before accepting her into Paradise. She had in effect flat-lined, and we may surmise that work-sapped physicians in attendance had succumbed to their own exhaustion and simply covered Naomi’s face with her bed sheet and wandered off to their rest area for a much-needed snooze, neglecting any further efforts to revive one whom in any case was a terminal patient, and leaving other hospital staff to handle things when they arrived for work in a few hours.

Whatever the case, Naomi awoke sometime later in the wee hours, pulled the sheet from her face, stared up at the ceiling for a moment, puzzled on the one hand that she’d apparently been returned to earth, or on the other that she’d been prematurely geared up for the cemetery. Unable to determine which for lack of any solid evidence either way—other than a hospital bed sheet—she swore a few choice epithets, got out of bed, recovered her belongings from her hospital room closet, dressed, and marched out in a huff.

“Where to?” asked an awaiting cab driver at the hospital entrance.

“Home,” she pronounced.

He extracted an address, and off they went. Neither was much in the mood for conversation at that hour, but about halfway through the ride Naomi cleared her voice.

“Excuse me, young man. May I ask your name?” she asked.

“Mike,” he replied, somewhat surprised that she’d now opened up.

“Good solid name, Mike. By chance do you often do pickups at the hospital?”

“Yeah, I kind of swing by there fairly regular.”

“Wonderful. Would you do me a favor? I don’t mean make a special trip. Only if you happen to be over there and feel so inclined.”

“If I can, sure.”

“Thank you. Here’s the deal, Mike: Should anyone at the hospital inquire whether you had by chance picked up a cadaverous-looking woman in her mid-fifties along about two-thirty a.m. this day, would it be too much to ask you to tell them that, yes, a lady of that description and who goes by the name of Naomi Pinestraw—and in something of a snit, you might add—did in effect ride in your cab, and assure them not to fret? She did not die after all, as they expected, or possibly hoped. Umm, now that I think of it, maybe they should fret, the rascals. But anyway . . . since she did not expire, she decided she no longer required their shoddy, overpriced services keeping her on life support and went home. Can you do that?”

Mike shot a glance at her through his rear-view mirror, then nodded with a smirk. “Yes, ma’am, I definitely can do that.”

“Thank you, Mike.”

“My pleasure.”

Through Mike, the hospital eventually tracked down Naomi and remonstrated her for not contacting them. She in turn remonstrated them right back for not verifying more carefully whether she was dead or not before chalking her up as ready for the meat wagon, and she had a good mind to sue the lot for neglect or dereliction of duty or ineptitude, or all three, if not for the fact that she wasn’t particularly inclined to waste what little life she might still have left to her in legal wrangles. Later in the day, notwithstanding, she returned for a checkup, where attending chagrined doctors found to their astonishment and dismay—and perhaps for some, to their regret—that she appeared to be in fine fettle.

“Things like this just don’t happen,” insisted Dr. Garland Grispak, the head physician. “It’s out of all bounds of medical science. You are not supposed to be alive, Mrs. Pinestraw. Both on-duty doctors as well as a nurse swore by all that’s holy—and, I might add, on their own respective mothers’ graves—that you were dead, dead, dead.”

“If that’s the case,” she retorted, “then what you see before you is a bona fide ghost, ghost, ghost. Dare I say yet another first for medical science out-of-boundedness?”

Grispak rubbed the back of his neck, gave Naomi a look, then another, and finally threw up his hands. “Your guess is as good as mine, Mrs. Pinestraw. It could be either, for all I know. But what counts is that our latest tests indicate that except for the weight loss you sustained during your illness, you are in better shape than most of the staff who took care of you so shabbily. I dare say in all likelihood you will outlive us all. So, go home and enjoy life.”

“I fully intend to just that,” she replied, arching a brow, and took her leave.

A month or so later, however, Naomi Pinestraw began to suffer what she initially thought to be hallucinations, but considering her recent and extraordinary resurrection from the dead, suspected they might also be visions. They came to her like mirages—fata morganas shimmering, not along a distant horizon as they sometimes do on blistering desert afternoons or in Hollywood outdoor extravaganzas, but close up, sometimes so close that she felt that if she were to reach out, she could catch hold of them.

Her allergist more pragmatically attributed these instead to the new medication he’d prescribed for her spring hay fever, and which had been known to exercise on occasion odd, but temporary side-effects on some patients. He told her to abide a few days to see if these went away on their own, but if they persevered he would prescribe something else.

Naomi acquiesced, though her misgivings persisted. True, aside from the visual aberrations, she felt otherwise fine physically. But what if it was not a hypersensitivity to the drug? Could it be instead some exotic brain disorder poised for irruption? Or perhaps a mental condition beginning to manifest itself? She wondered then if there might not be some well-guarded family secret of schizophrenia running in the Pinestraw ancestry? Her parents and grandparents had always been reserved when talking about family history, had they not? And now that she thought about it, had they not also always been a little on the flakey side themselves? Would she be that way now, too?

The visions, though tenuous, continued to surface, but they did not seem to affect her adversely other than simply show up from time to time in quiet moments to distract her and put her on edge. She likened these to the elusive dark matter in the universe that so puzzles astrophysicists, some inner dark matter that wanted out of its hole, but which she habitually shoved back down into some isolated root cellar of her mind whenever it poked its obscure tendrils into her conscious life. Were the mirages but those well-guarded cirrhuses now forcing their coiled way to the surface? She thought maybe her mixed metaphors were champing at the bit to expose themselves in more palpable ways, and she felt uneasy, if not afraid.

Then one afternoon, shortly after Naomi had risen from a brief nap on a lawn chair at the poolside next to her home, she again saw the mirage, this time approaching along the road adjacent to where she now stood. She waited for it with a sense of both apprehension and curiosity. At first wavy and diaphanous as before, it now slowly coalesced into the form of a creature resembling a human, but one that decidedly was not the kind of human she’d ever seen before. It was an androgynous-looking individual, neither decidedly male nor female, with iridescent scales instead of skin, and yet not quite serpentine. Naomi thought it something akin to one of those aliens out of a Star Trek movie set. But one of the good ones, she hoped, not out to annihilate her, Earth and all nearby surrounding planets, for it exhibited a pleasant, unassuming smile. Still, wonderment aside, she could not contain a certain degree of disquiet, unaware yet what its intentions were or what might lay ahead for herself. When it drew within a few feet from her, it stopped, and quietly regarded her.

Eyes wide, Naomi swallowed, but being Naomi Pinestraw stood her ground. She waited for it to address her, but when it remained silent, she cleared her voice and spoke. “Good afternoon,” she said, her voice wavering just a tittle uncharacteristically.”

“Good afternoon,” it replied, nodding.

When it offered nothing more, Naomi at last drew a breath, expecting an inevitable ‘follow me’, and asked, “May . . . may I ask if you have you come to take me away?”

“Take you away? Goodness, no,” it exclaimed. “It’s not in my job description.”

“No?”

“Absolutely not. I’m rather here to help keep you going for your intended lifespan.”

“Indeed? Well, that’s refreshing. Who are you?”

“I am Sut’ukullu Nuna.”

“Sue-too-cool-you New-nah?”

“Close enough.”

Naomi frowned. “That’s a rather odd name. You aren’t from these parts, I take it.”

“Obviously not,” it replied with good humor. “You are Naomi Pinestraw.”

Naomi raised her eyebrows. “Why, yes, I am. How did you know?”

“It’s my job to know.”

“Oh? How so?”

“I understand that you recently underwent what they sometimes refer to here as a ‘life-after-life’ experience.”

Naomi thought a moment, then shook her head. “Not entirely, no.”

“No?” It was the creature’s turn to look surprised.

“No. Technically, I think you call it more of a life after death experience. According to the hospital, I died, yes. Or at least that’s what they claim. But it was as though I’d gone into a dreamless sleep. I had no conscious awareness of anything until I awoke with a sheet draped over my face. No light at the end of the tunnel, no one of God’s emissaries to meet me at the Pearly Gates, no one making a list, checking it twice…you know, seeing whether I’ve been naughty or nice? Nothing of that sort.”

“Ah…ha-ha, I see, I see! Then you think that perhaps it was instead a misdiagnosed cataleptic state you suffered, not death?”

“Call it what you will, but more than that, I’m saying I was most put out over the untimely face shroud.” She paused then, frowning. “But see here, if you are not the Angel of Death swinging low, coming for to carry me home, who the devil are you anyhow? Devil in the vernacular sense, I mean. And pardon me should I appear to be even more rude, but also . . . what the devil are you?”

The chameleon-like creature smiled brightly. “Ah, yes, of course. I am Sut’ukullu Nuna.”

“I believe you already informed of that.”

“I did. My full name, however, is Sut’ikullu Nuna Pinchi Llimp’isqa. In English, it would translate literally, I’m afraid, as, ahem, Lizard Spirit of Sparkly Colors . . . . To be honest, I personally favor Coruscant Polychromatic Lacertilian Angel, but you can call me Sparky, if you like.”

Naomi gaped at the creature. “You’re kidding.”

“No, no. Sparky’s fine. I don’t insist on honorifics. Actually, my friends call me Pinchi for short, but Sparky works, too.”

“Sparky.”

“Yes. It’s probably easier that way.”

“I see. And to what do I owe this honor?”

“Honor? Oh, I see. Umm, well, I guess in a nutshell, you could say I’m here to keep you from being run over by a runaway dump truck at a pedestrian crossing, falling down a flight of stairs, getting mugged by a gang of desperadoes, slitting your throat in a spate of despair, or by accident whilst opening a can of peas. That sort of thing.”

Naomi continued to gape. Sparky took that as a cue to continue.

“You see, Naomi. . . . I may call you Naomi instead of Mrs. Pinestraw, mightn’t I? After all, you’re going to call me Sparky.”

“I must be hallucinating.”

“Not in the least. This is all legit.”

“Why?”

“Why? Oh, you mean why all the protection? Well, it’s because you have a special mission to fulfill here on earth that is not my job to do, not to mention the fact that I can’t very well do it myself without creating a lot of public disorder, owing to the fact that my appearance would tend to distract folks too much.”

Naomi raised her head skywards, reminding herself that she was still standing outside under a blistering mid-summer afternoon sun seemingly chatting with a lizard-man, or a man-lizard, she wasn’t sure which took precedent.

“Heat stroke perhaps. . . ,” she mused. “I should probably go back inside where there’s some shade and lie down.”

“Shall I accompany you?”

She began to shuffle toward her house. “No . . . no, don’t bother yourself. I think I can still make it on my own.”

“I’m keen to help. That’s what I’m here for.”

“I appreciate it . . . ” She paused a moment. “Why am I talking to a delusion?”

“Not a delusion, madam, I assure you. I am Sparky, your Homolacertilian Angel.”

“You’re my what!” she exclaimed.

“Higher-ups assigned me the job,” it explained. “I had no choice.” It’s eyes lit up then. Literally. “Nay . . . ! I relish the challenge!”

Naomi turned away. “If you will forgive me, I’m going inside now and have myself a migraine.”

Her coruscant Homolacertilian Angel did not follow, but instead called out, “Yes, by all means do get some rest. We can talk later. But if you should need me at any time—any time at all, mind you—just call out ‘Sparky!’ and I’ll be on hand. I’m at your beck and call . . . twenty-four/seven.”

Naomi raised an apathetic hand goodbye, closed the front door behind her, and headed for the couch in her den. She plopped down and closed her eyes.

“No doubt about it,” she mumbled in despair. “I’m tetched by an angel.”

Steve Pulley
11/8/2016

Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Best Seller

bestsellerAnticipation furrowed Charlene Maxlegrab’s brow. She knew full well that she’d aged five years in that one month, and so the crease between her eyebrows was commensurate with the added years and could thus be regarded as a prestigious war wound to be worn with pride instead of disgrace. And now, at long last, there was a tangible end in sight to her thirty days of suffering. Only minutes away from concluding her novel, and then total collapse, followed by elation and celebration, then would ensue adulation, reputation, and financial compensation. Lots of ‘ations’, and each and every one hard-fought for and richly deserved.

“Aaarrrgh,” she muttered with glee, and continued to type furiously.

One more paragraph, one more line, and finally one more word…a-a-and it was over! Hands trembling, Charlene quickly uploaded the text to the National Novel Writing Month website for an official word count. Two seconds passed, then… Winner! Total words: 53,142.

“Oh, my God, I did it!” she shrieked. “I did it! I won! I’m a writer! A freaking NaNoWriMo novelist!”

Charlene jumped up from her laptop and danced around her bedroom like a deranged lunatic. It was eleven-thirty-two at night and she still had on her pajamas from two days ago. Her hair looked as though it had been caught in an egg beater, and she smelled like she hadn’t bathed in a week, which was a fairly accurate similitude. She cared not a whit, and bellowed out huzzahs and hoorays.

The following morning Charlene called her dearest friend forever Daphne Suarez and told her to get over to her house stat. She’d finished her novel and she was dying to share her triumph. Daphne congratulated her and said she’d be over within the hour. When she arrived, she was shocked and appalled to see her friend still in her pajamas, disheveled, and redolent of what might be described as primeval miasma.

“Good God, Charlene!” she cried, scrunching her nose and straight-arming her friend so she wouldn’t come any closer. “No hugs! No hugs! Not even an air kiss! What on earth has happened to you?”

Charlene gave Daphne a queer look and shrugged. “NaNoWriMo. Don’t worry. It’s not catching.”

“NaNoWriMo is responsible for this?”

“Yep. Every November, two or three hundred thousand of us around the world abandon ourselves to write the fifty-thousand-word novel in thirty days. In thirty days, Daphne. And Daphne, I can’t tell you how exhilarating the experience has been. Complete abandon! Complete, freaking abandon, Daphne! Nothing like it. Come on, sit down, sit down. I gotta tell you about it.”

“Okay, honey, but I’m sitting way over here. I gotta say that you are pretty ripe today.”

“I am? Hadn’t noticed. But never mind about that. I’ll take a long, hot bath afterwards and be smelling like a rose once again.”

“Wish you would’ve taken it before and smelled like a rose now.”

“Right. So, anyhow, I did it. Can you imagine? I didn’t really think I could, but I actually finished the thing, over the minimum by three thousand words, and with twenty-eight minutes to spare.”

“Good for you, sweetie,” Daphne said, her interest beginning to resurrect now that she was a safe distance from her friend. “So, what’s it about?”

“It’s like something you’ve never dreamed of,” Charlene replied, eyes wide and bright with excitement.

“So tell me.”

“Listen, Daphne, you’ve got to read it. You’ll be the first.”

“You mean you haven’t shown it yet to Gary?”

“No.”

“You haven’t shown it to your own husband? Why?”

“He left me.”

“He what!”

“Left me. Packed his bags and cleared out. I think it was on the fifteenth, or maybe the seventeenth day of the marathon. He left me a note on the kitchen table. I just found it this morning.”

“But today is December first. That’s two whole weeks gone by!”

“Yeah, well, I guess I was pretty busy this past month. Haven’t you been listening?”

“What’d he say?”

“Oh, something prehistoric about priorities and food and hygiene and affection and family responsibilities, and I don’t know what all else.”

“Well, what’d your kids say about that?”

“No idea. They left with him. But never mind all that. I want you to read the story, for godsake.”

“Jeez, Charlene, you really need to get your life back in order. Now don’t give me that look. Okay, okay, I promise to read the story. But can’t you give me at least a ‘trailer’ or something about it?”

“Oh, all right, but it’d be far better to just read it cold, without spoilers.”

“Leave the spoilers out, then. Spill. What’s the theme?”

“Respect.”

Daphne nodded approvingly. “Respect? Umm, that sounds encouraging. And the plot?”

“Well, the story is set in an African village. My protagonist is a judge, a man of courage and conviction.”

“Umm, good. What else?”

“A princess is involved.”

“A princess? An African princess?”

“Yes! A twenty-first century African princess. She’s young, she’s beautiful. But she’s also headstrong, arrogant, and designing. And this has gotten her into deep doo-doo.”

“How so?”

“She has made some disturbing and incendiary remarks meant only for the ears of a close lieutenant, but she’s blabbered these during a conference inadvertently before an open microphone, which have been overheard by several participants and the local media present.”

“An open microphone? You mean like when our idiot politicians shoot their mouths off to someone privately at least once a week in Congress and create a scandal and then everybody forgets all the really critical work that needs to be done?”

“Precisely.”

“And this happens in an African village?”

“No, silly. It’s in an African city. The village is far away and doesn’t even have electricity or running water.”

“Oh. So how does the judge get involved in all of this?”

“I’m getting to that part. You see, the princess’s monumental gaffe is so serious in its repercussions that her trusted lieutenant is brutally assassinated that very evening for allegedly being complicit in what she has told him, even though the poor sod is totally innocent. As for the princess, she realizes that her own days may also be numbered, since her blasts involve powerful influences in the country, including those of certain shady members of the royal family, and so she decides that fleeing for her life is probably the better part of valor. After several tense days of hiding and escaping, she ends up at last in the village, but now disguised as a research scientist from Los Angeles in hot pursuit of prehistoric remnants of a fabled city that is believed to have once existed in the vicinity.”

“Wow. And the judge?”

“Turns out that this particular village is the ancestral village of his family, and also where he was born. He happens to show up for a vacation visit shortly after the disguised princess’s arrival, and in the course of his stay, he runs into her. The villagers have never seen the princess before, so they don’t recognize her. The judge on the other hand does eventually figure out who she is. He also knows that she’s in grave danger if she’s ever caught. So he has this moral dilemma: as a judge of the nation, he has a duty to turn a fugitive over to the authorities.”

“Even if she’s a princess?”

“Doesn’t cut any ice, since most of her own family is now against her—partly to save their own skins, not to mention their vested interests.”

“What’s the other half of the moral dilemma?”

“He thinks that what she has said is the absolute truth and that she shouldn’t be condemned, even though he doesn’t particularly like or approve of the princess, given her unpleasant character and behavior.”

“And?”

“And that’s all I’m going to tell you. Interested, or not?”

“Absolutely interested. Do you want to print me out a hard copy or do you want to send me an electronic one?”

“I’ve already got a hard copy I can lend you. Read it. Let me know what you think, okay?”

“Will do. And now I have to leave, because as much as I love you, Charlene, you really, really do need to attend to your personal hygiene.”

A week later, Daphne was back at Charlene’s with the manuscript. She plopped it down on the table.

“Well?” said Charlene, watching her friend anxiously.

“Charlene, what can I say?”

“You liked it?”

“It’s scabrous.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Scabrous.”

“You mean scabrous as in rough to the touch, or, uh, covered with scales or scurf?”

“No, Charlene, I mean scabrous as in salacious, lewd, lubricious, lustful, obscene, prurient and raunchy, as in material that should be banned, burned, and flushed down the toilet and its author incinerated at the stake.”

“In other words, the perfect gift for mature adults.”

“I’m not sure what you mean by ‘mature’ in this context.”

“The story is iconoclastic, is what it is,” Charlene asserted.

“Oh, you think so? Well, it looks to me like it has created a whole new zoological garden of icons to me, all of them dark, opaque, and very, very disturbing. What have you been putting in your coffee, anyhow?”

“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe those wake-up pills I was taking. Daphne, are you saying that you don’t like it?”

“No, I’m saying that you’ve got a freaking best seller here.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, you’ll probably make a gazillion dollars out of this on your way down that slippery slope to hell.”

“You’re not just saying that, are you?”

“What do you think?”

“It stinks, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, Charlene, it stinks. It even reeks, pretty much like you did when I last saw you. Charlene?”

“What?”

“You should probably try to find your husband and kids, get down on both knees and beg them to give you another chance.”

Steve Pulley
Short story published in A Confluence of Grapes
Copyright © 2013

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yaks and Llamas

yaksandllamas
Yaks and llamas,
like daytime dramas,
are the cat’s pajamas.
But don’t tell tell the Inca
while dining at his finca,
or the 14th Dalai Lama.

Steve Pulley
10/27/2016

Posted in Poems | 2 Comments

Blind Date

blinddate2“It’s summer in Antarctica, you know,” offered Marcus O. Maximus, wondering at the same instant that the words left his mouth what in God’s name had possessed him to start off a conversation about south polar solstices with his blind date Margaret Wellweather. Had it been her last name that triggered him? They sat across from one another at a table at the local Dancing to Oompa Till Dawn Café, each with a plate of donuts and a cup of coffee before them, each feeling equally uncomfortable. It was, after all, a blind date arranged by their respective parents feeling equally desperate to get their damned grown-up kids married and out of their hair.

Margaret Wellweather, for her part, raised one eyebrow just a notch in the hopes that she had heard him wrong, while at the same time wondering where in her purse her car keys might lay hidden, just in case she had to beat a hasty retreat. Things did not augur well for a relationship down the road if this was to be the kind of conversation that loomed in her future.

“Indeed?” she offered back.

“Eh, yes. It’s been a virtual canicular season this time, according to scientists. Something to do with the global climate change.”

“How now?” she said with a knowing nod, not even attempting to guess what ‘canicular’ might mean. Resolute, however, to change the subject, she quickly added, “Tell me, uh, Marcus, what does the ‘O’ stand for?”

“The ‘O’?”

“Yes, your middle name. I saw an ‘O’ on your business card. What does it stand for?”

She noticed that Marcus paled visibly, which oddly perked her up a bit. Might herein be her excuse to her overly-ambitious parents why she rejected the man? He was too much a weirdo for her taste, and all that. . . .

“I . . . uh . . . I’d rather not say,” he said with a shudder.

“Oh?” she said, cocking her head slightly to one side.

“The ‘O’, yes,” he replied, misunderstanding her ‘Oh’. “Uh, you see, it . . . it was a misnomer of sorts on the part of my parents . . . cringeworthy would be putting it mildly.”

Margaret smiled sweetly. “I see. . . .  Well, I won’t press you, if you really would prefer not to discuss it, but our purpose here, if I understood it correctly, was for us to get acquainted. What better way to break the ice?”

Marcus eyed her a moment. He was no more bedazzled by her than she by him. Perhaps this was all he needed to deflate any further excuses by his parents to pursue their matchmaking efforts. He shrugged then, took a deep breath, and began.

“Alright then. To be frank, my folks thought it would go nicely with Marcus Maximus — to complete my Latin sounding name — and stuck it on my birth certificate. Unfortunately, they, uh, mistook its meaning.”

“A misnomer mistaken . . . .” Margaret mused. This might be more somewhat more interesting than antarctic heat waves. “Please, Marcus, go on. I’m intrigued.”

Marcus squirmed, but plunged onward. “Yes, well, this requires a bit of background. You see, my mother, Lourdes Wayta Sivingani, was born in Bolivia, a woman of great charm, but of limited mastery of English. My father, James Oliver Maximus, on the other hand, was born in England, of Greco-Roman ancestry, a man of equal charm as my mother, but of somewhat circumscribed education, you might say. He came up with the name of Marcus, because, first, it went well with our family name Maximus, which means ‘the greatest’, second, because in Latin Marcus means ‘defense’, and third, because that was the name of a famous Italian soccer player of his youth whom he much admired. My mother insisted that if my father wished Marcus to be my first name, then she at least had dibs on my middle name. It was only fair, she said. He agreed, but only if it sounded more or less as Latin as Marcus Maximus — advocating continuity, he reasoned. God knows why it should make any difference, since we were as far removed from our Roman heritage as the Romans’ withdrawal from Great Britain over 1600 years ago.”

Margaret cracked a grin. “I see. Go on.”

“The name my mother chose was, she thought, the Latin equivalent of the Spanish word ‘obsequio’, which means ‘gift’ or ‘present’. Which in theory would have made the meaning of my full name pretty impressive: the greatest gift of defense.”

He laughed then, and Margaret joined in.

“But what was the middle name she chose for ‘obsequio’?”

He paused, closing his eyes, and dropped his head. “Obsequious.”

“Obsequious?” Margaret’s eyes grew wide, and she tried her best to stifle the laugh that crept inexorably from deep within, demanding to be released.

“Obsequious,” he replied, looking like a broken man.

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“Obsequious. . . .” Margaret put a hand over her mouth. “I-I’m so sorry. I-I don’t think I can c-contain. . . . P-please? May I?”

He knew what was coming, but extended his hands in defeat and nodded. “You may.”

She sputtered, then erupted into open, delicious, prolonged laughter. Marcus placed both his elbows on the table, rested his folded hands under his chin and watched her collapse in mirth. Their waitress, now working another table, cast a shifty glance in their direction. Other patrons of the café turned their heads toward Margaret with curious smiles of interest.

“Oh, please forgive me!” she chortled, tears running down her cheeks, and broke into another fit.

Marcus waited patiently for her to recover. Margaret wiped away her tears.

He said dryly, “I’m not at all obsequious, however. Just so you know.”

She gave him a long look then, half in sympathy, half in wonder, and then with a smile assented. “No. You couldn’t possibly be that.”

“So,” he said at last, his own lips twitching slightly, “what do you think of our blind date so far?”

Margaret Wellweather grinned. “Sure beats summers in Antarctica.”

Steve Pulley
10/7/2016

Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

My Cup Floweth Over—Bolivia

My God, my soul is vexed within me: therefore will I remember thee concerning the land of Jordan, and the little hill of Hermon. One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes: all thy waves and storms are gone over me.
Prayer Book, Publick Liturgy of the Church of England, 1662, 42:8

 

water tank

Journeys sometimes take us to environments alien to our normal concepts of comfort. But humans are by and large an adaptable lot if put to the test. A case in point was (and I suppose still is) the water situation in Cochabamba, Bolivia, my home for twenty years.[1]

Between 1984 and 1992, however, my wife Yolanda and I lived in Santiago, Chile, but the time came when we returned to our beloved Cochabamba. After an eight-year absence, we discovered upon our homecoming that, while the city had changed and modernized in many respects, one thing remained eternally the same: its characteristic shortage of water. There was plenty of rain during that December of our arrival, but precious little of it was reaching the water taps of Cochabambinos. And, as such, every day became a soap opera of struggles, heartaches, laughter, and tears to obtain one’s rightful share, leaving everybody at the conclusion of each episode in cliff-hanging suspense as to whether there would be hot water or rust flowing from the pipes at shower time. When the verdict was zilch, there spouted forth the mournful cry, “Misicuni!”

Now, the great watchword of Cochabamba is “Misicuni”. Every man jack, woman, and child speaks of it. A Cochabamba infant’s first word is often “Misicuni”, even before “mamá” and “papá” have been successfully mastered. The Jews used to say, “next year in Jerusalem.” Well, Cochabambinos say, “next year, Misicuni.” It’s that sacred to them. Misicuni is a dream: the building of a gigantic dam in the mountains behind Cochabamba to trap the trickling waters of the Misicuni River and several other tributaries and provide the entire valley with a virtually unlimited supply of water and hydroelectric power. Many Cochabambinos have practically formed a Cargo Cult on this one project, awaiting the magic day that it will fall on them from Heaven and solve all their problems. Mass marches are staged periodically, with local leaders at the helm, crying out for action, fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the Misicuni way. But there are other Cochabambinos, more pessimistic, who speak with irony, cynicism, and not a little bitterness. People have been talking about Misicuni for forty years, and fabulous plans and feasibility studies and pre-feasibility probes have been performed again and again. Much time, money, blood, sweat, and tears are spent on these analyses, and many politicians, bureaucrats, and developers have made careers out of arguing with other politicians, bureaucrats, and developers about what should be done. But still there is no water.

So until there is a Misicuni, scarcity of water and rationed water make collection tanks imperative during the few hours each day when the water company opens its valves. There is no predetermined moment when this occurs, so when the lines go dry, everybody leaves their faucets open in expectation of the imminent gush. When that finally takes place, everybody has by then gone away in despair or to sleep, and the resulting spillover defeats the water company’s attempts to conserve its precious commodity. The constant drying up and filling of the city’s water lines must also surely increase their deterioration, causing galvanized pipes to oxidize and eventually to leak or burst, thus facilitating the infiltration of noxious microorganisms into the system, threatening health and lives. I seem to remember that some theorists attribute the fall of the Roman Empire to water pipes, although the root cause was lead poisoning rather than cholera, typhoid, and perhaps rust deposits in the large intestine.

Here’s a bit of tense drama and high emotion at the old water tap: Upon our return in 1992, we temporarily lived in a condominium which Yolanda’s mother had built in 1947, before the word condominium had been invented.[2] There were four complete houses in the same building, two on the upper floor and two on the lower floor. In the middle there was a narrow, enclosed atrium which served as a ventilator shaft and skylight for the interior rooms of the four houses. As a ventilator it failed miserably, for strange and unnatural smells emerged from the drain, reminiscent of bogs and decomposing mastodons.

Within the enclosure there were three tanks at ground level, fed by two water lines. One tank belonged to a niece, who lived upstairs directly above us, one belonged to a tenant who lived upstairs and across from our niece, and one to us. Each tank had its own respective pump. Our niece’s pump was by far the most captivating, for, when raising water up to her roof tank, it shook the entire house and set up an unearthly din, similar to that of a low-velocity dental drill, as performed by Guns N’ Roses. The pump also dripped continuously. The floating valve on the tank below often did not shut off when the tank was full, and the tank would overflow. Often the pump was forgotten, and when the roof tank overflowed, a mighty jet of water would shoot out the overflow line above and plunge three stories below, spattering the entire atrium floor. Usually this would rouse several of us to stick our heads out our respective windows and yell at the top of our lungs to shut off the damned pump (I should interject that we didn’t stick our heads out very far for fear of being drowned by the down-rush of water). The line which supplied our tank also fed the other upstairs neighbor. The reason behind this was that the water company had refused to install an extra water meter in the house, on the grounds that this house had too many water meters already. In order for the neighbor to have water, a connection was run from our line. The other neighbors, across the way from us, didn’t have a water tank of any kind, and as such had access to water only during the hours that the water company opened the valves. They hoarded this in their bathtub, in barrels, buckets, soup plates, tablespoons, whatever would hold the precious liquid.

As mentioned, the ground-level tanks, which received their water at odd hours from the water company, all had their corresponding pumps, which propelled the collected water to the roof tanks. These in turn fed the respective apartments when there was no water pressure from the city to do so directly. When there was water pressure, it was very strong, and because of the layout of our pipes, once our ground-level tank was full, the pressure drove water up the down-pipe, filling our roof tank, which it was not intended to do. At the time, there was no automatic check valve on the down-pipe (just a manually operated curtain valve), and once the tank was full, it overflowed, cascading water to the ground below and creating something of a miniature Iguaçú Falls. Usually this would wake up our niece, and she would either throw open a window and holler down at us to close the valve, or would come galloping down the stairs to do the same, either way frightening us awake and momentarily creating the impression that we were being invaded by Mongolian hordes. This meant somebody had to leap out the window (usually me, and oftentimes at three in the morning), step drunkenly from one tank top to the next to get to the valve, which was too high to reach any other way, and turn off the up-flowing water. Precarious, yes, but in Cochabamba, that’s the stuff of life. Just think of the fine imagery of me pirouetting gazelle-like (more or less) from one tank lid to another to reach the valve of liquid sustenance. Doesn’t it simply raise the hair on your heads? Anyhow, one alternative to this was to first flush the toilet to reduce the water pressure, and then dance across the three ground tanks to the turn-off valve. Of course, all of these nocturnal acrobatics could have been avoided by simply closing the valve before going to bed, but that required that one actually remember to do so. There was another option, less exciting but far more uncomplicated, which was to close a valve in the bathroom which shut off entirely all the water from the street to our ground tank. But if one forgot to open it the following morning while there was still water pressure, one could very well be out of water for the rest of the day.

Naturally, our roof tank also had a leak in it, and whenever it was over half-full, it dripped. And once it started dripping, it never seemed to want to stop, even when the tank was empty. I knew that should this be allowed to continue, no doubt it would finally damage the house wall and perhaps even bring the entire tank down, crushing the other three tanks below, and perhaps me, if I happened to be fox-trotting out there to open or close the water valve. I bought some sealant, but then needed to find an adequate ladder up to the roof to repair the thing. At the time, I couldn’t afford to buy a ladder, so I decided to make my own. I went down to the lumber yard and purchased several meters of wood 2x2s and a kilo of nails, and I began to saw and hammer, saw and hammer. What I neglected to notice was that the 2x2s were so soaked with water that they weighed probably three times their normal weight. When I finally finished my project, I discovered that the darned thing was so heavy that three people were required to heft it. Also, there was no way to wield such a massive thing around the spaghetti of telephone and electrical lines hanging in my tortuous path to the roof, and the project had to be postponed until I could rethink my strategy. In the meanwhile, I had to maintain the tank’s water level at no more than the half-full mark.

Now, so you don’t think me a total useless idiot, I did finally install a gravity-operated retention valve on the down-pipe. Everybody involved in this soap opera congratulated me on my intelligence and plumbing know-how, and I must admit that I did allow my head to swell just a tad, entirely forgetting the humbling experience of my waterlogged ladder fiasco. The lady upstairs saw me hard at work, and thinking me an accomplished hydraulic engineer, asked me to fix her pump, which had inexplicably stopped working (I politely declined, explaining that I was only a valve specialist; pumps were not my line).

One night, however―actually along about four-thirty in the morning―our niece came tumbling in from a dance and said that our roof tank was overflowing again. I turned off the bathroom valve, but the rest of the night I remained awake trying to figure out how there should be an overflow when my retention valve was supposed to keep the water from going up to that damned tank. Along about seven-thirty, as I was finally drifting off to sleep, I decided that the valve stop was not shutting completely because the water pressure from the roof tank and the water pressure from the city line were nearly equalized, and so a back-flow became possible.

Either that, or I had a defective valve. You can take that any way you like.

Endnotes:

[1] This piece, written in 1995, is one of my true-life-at-home adventures in Bolivia. Between 1968 and 1995, I lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and La Reina, Santiago, Chile. Hopefully by now Misicuni has become a reality. But I’m not holding my breath.

[2] Not quite true. My dictionary tells me that condominium first appeared around 1705-1715, meaning shared dominion. However, the shortened version, condo, was coined about 1970-75.

Posted in Anecdotes, Travels/Adventures | 1 Comment