Beauty Is in the Crackpots

beautyisinthecrackpotsI lie here in bed, clothed in sweats, head wrapped in a flea-bitten woolen cap that has been with me to three countries, looking — and feeling! — like an amorphous lump of left-over gray lava with appendages, awaiting sleep. A friend, to allay my insomnia, has given me three tea bags of a ghastly herbal glop bearing chopped up, powdered substances that smack of what the three witches in The Scottish Play stirred into their boiling cauldron to produce prophecies of doom to the kingdom. Everything but “eye of newt and root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark.” But all organic, by God! All organic!

I roll to my right and squint at my clock. It reads 1:15 in the wee hours of the night. On the far side of my bedroom, on the other side of the wall, I hear my next door neighbor shuffle into our common laundry room and drop four quarters into the dryer. Then erupts the mechanical rumble-tumble of wet baby diapers going through hell and back to be renewed for yet another day. I dare not bang on the wall. She’s in the National Guard, for god sake. She could easily snap me like a dry twig if she were so inclined. Besides, she once thanked me for my service of a half century ago in our Armed Forces. How can a raggedy veteran possibly chide someone after that? And poor thing must be dead tired herself. I hear a door close, the shuffle of receding footsteps. The diapers rotate round and round their appointed route to Xerotes. But really: Who on earth dries clothes at 1:15 in the morning!

All right, all right. No grousing or I’ll never find sleep. Think positive. Put a new spin on it. Call it soothing Maytag white noise. Now add that phenomenal breathing exercise that has all Facebook astir, guaranteed to put you out in one minute flat. Inhale through nose to the count of four; hold breath to the count of seven; exhale through mouth to the count of eight. Four . . . seven . . . eight. Four . . . seven . . . eight. Wait! I’m only good for a six-count on the intake! Should I count faster, or is that cheating? Try again.

Suddenly there’s no dryer noise. I open my eyes. But, soft! what light breaks through yonder window blinds! My God! It’s morning!

Steve Pulley
2/14/2015
Posted in Anecdotes | 2 Comments

How Has Your Life Unfolded?

howhasyourlifeunfolded“How has your life unfolded?” she asks.

I look up, surprised. “My life? What do you mean?”

The waitress, whose name is Emily Dickenson — that’s right — smiles her customary warm smile as she pours my coffee.

“Half-and-half? Sugar?”

“Both, thanks, Em,” I say, and return the smile.

She spoons out one sugar into the mug, raises her eyebrows slightly. I raise a hand. She nods, sets the spoon down, then pours in the cream.

“That’s good,” I say, stopping her.

This exchange is merely our little morning ritual. She already knows how I like my coffee. I’m not new to this diner.

“The usual?” she asks, continuing. She refers to what I usually order for breakfast: two fried eggs, over easy; two slices of bacon, lightly crispy; hash browns; toast and marmalade. There are other things I also order — waffles, breakfast sausages, oatmeal, danish, that sort of thing — but this morning it’s “the usual.”

“Please.”

She flashes her grin and retires. I’m intrigued by her question, and now she’s left me hanging. She’s never asked me that one before. We’ve known one another for a few years — three or four. Sort of as friends, but not exactly as friends-friends. More like patron and waitress friends, small-time business associates — buyer/vendor — who’ve over time transformed from acquaintances to comrades of culinary circumstance, you might say, who now can feel comfortable and informal with one another, but not to the point of sharing intimacies or dark secrets.

Which is why her question startles me. Our conversations usually revolve around weather, the news, food, family, radio and TV programs, traffic jams, aches and pains, jobs.

She returns with my breakfast, sets it on the table, then sits down across from me with a mug of her own. She doesn’t have to ask. There are no customers at the moment needing service, so it is not unusual that she takes a load off to chew the fat for a few minutes until somebody shows up looking hungry. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, allowing me to dig into the food before it gets cold. She waits until I speak first.

“Now, this is what I call a breakfast!” I exclaim with open admiration, not for the first time. “How does Frankie do it? That kid is amazing!”

Emily laughs. Frankie is the diner’s short-order chef, a young man of superlative cooking talent. It’s a wonder he hasn’t let himself be spirited away by one of the town’s ritzier eateries.

“That he is,” she replies, face lighting with pride. Frankie is also her son.

I set my fork down at last and stare at Emily. “Okay, Em, what’s with the question?”

She bobs her eyebrows and smiles. “Surprised you, didn’t I?”

“Frankly, yes. It’s a first.”

“Okay, I admit it’s presumptuous and not exactly something I’d normally ask my customers or even most of my friends.”

“Then what possessed you?” I tease, picking up a slice of bacon between two fingers and setting to work on it.

“My writing class.”

“Writing class?”

“Yeah. You know me, typical waitress out to write the Great American Novel, works on it in between stuffing the starving masses and doing the laundry at home.”

“Really?” I exclaim. This is an aspect of Emily I have not known before. I am impressed.

“Yep. So, here’s the deal: I attend a weekly writing workshop here in town, which this delightful lady from Boston, don’t ya know, teaches over at La Picaresca Library. There’s a whole passel of writers attending, each one oozing talent and wanting to develop it. We’re a motley crew, believe me, which makes it all the more exciting.”

Bacon dispatched, I wipe my greasy fingers on a napkin, retrieve the fork, and in go a mouthful of hash browns. “I’m all ears,” I say . . . or try to. With food, it sounds more like “Ahm’lleers.”

“Okay. So, each week we read writing exercises we’ve concocted from prompts that our teacher has proposed. She then encourages us and suggests ways how we might improve on what we’ve written. She also quotes from other established writers, both the dead ones and the contemporary, talks about elements in writing that we ought to work with to strengthen our skills, and gives us timed free-write exercises to spit out whatever comes to mind. That part scares the bejeebies out of me, but at the same time energizes me. Bejeebies still trumps the other, though.”

I chuckle. “And?”

“And? Oh! You mean the question, how has your life unfolded? Well, it’s one of the prompts she’s given us to write about this week.”

“Ahh! Interesting. And thought-provoking. Mm. But wait. Why are you asking me? Isn’t it you who’re supposed to answer?”

“Oh, I’ve already written my piece. I’m just curious now how your life has unfolded.”

“Oh, you are, are you?”

She nods. “Uh-huh.”

I set down my fork, wipe breakfast remnants from my lips with casual abandon, give Em a paused, thoughtful stare, and finally grin.

“Dream on, sister,” I reply.

Steve Pulley
2/19/2015
Posted in Stories | 2 Comments

A Rainy Night In Copenhagen

rainynightincopenhagenHjørdis Abildgaard—still sleepless after hours of tossing and turning in her bed—stood up at last, wrapped herself in a hand-knitted shawl, stepped into her bedside slippers, and shuffled across the semi-darkened room to the dormer of her apartment, and for a long moment studied the rivulets of raindrops sliding down its glass-paned window. Oh, the weather!

She still remembered Viggo Stuckenberg’s “Spring Rain” poem from high school long ago, but his rain was lame, wimpy even, in comparison to what was going on outside for the past week. And, miracle of miracles, she could also just barely recall American poet Longfellow’s reference to the “sullen gales,” and the “russet, rain-molested leaves of autumn” staining an old song-book he’d found “beneath the skies of Denmark.” Pretty, but utter rot to her now when faced with what seemed to promise God’s wrath once again upon the wayward, as in the days of Noah—but this time in Copenhagen. Then there was Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Of course, that was located in Pago-Pago, or somewhere in the South Pacific, but at least Maughm’s rain matched what was going on now in her homeland. Notwithstanding, she wasn’t feeling all that Sadie Thompsonish at the moment. She lowered her eyes, sighing. Wild meanderings of the insomniac mind. Another rainy night and she began at last to understand the meaning of going bonkers. Such seemed to be the weather of her life lately—figuratively and literally.

Her fourth-story apartment faced Uden Navn Street, where waters now lapped over the curb tops, torrents of rain still falling in sheets—with no end in sight. She stepped closer to the window then and surveyed the flood below and wondered why on earth she hadn’t bought herself an inflatable raft at Sport-Master over on Østerbrogade when she’d had the opportunity. No way she could or would attempt to wade that far, even if it were daytime. The current was far too strong now to make it safe. All she could think of was “white water.” It would swish her away in a heartbeat and dump her foam-bloated body into the Øresund. Or so she believed. As the night-light in her bedroom and the street lights below suddenly flickered and died, she remembered that she’d also failed to buy candles and matches for possible blackouts, as well as batteries for her long-dead flashlight. Ever the queen of hindsight!

All she needed along about now was some psycho from another apartment banging at her door begging for help or reassurance. The complex did not lack its requisite quota of hysterics and nut cases, and she was at this point almost feeling herself a new inductee to their number.

And of course so it came to pass. Someone pounding on her front door, not thirty seconds later. It was as though she had willed it.

“Hjørdis! Are you there? Hjørdis Abildgaard!”

Hjørdis froze. Mrs. Baaning. A questionably well-meaning, insufferable gossip and busybody from the floor above who could, in a slightly skewed metaphorical manner of speaking, squeeze the very blood from a cornered turnip. Hjørdis, for all her cabin fever at that moment, was not prepared to take on Anna Baaning’s relentless tongue, and most certainly not at two in the morning! She knew in her present state that she would quite probably end up strangling the woman and tossing her body into the Uden Navn Street “river”. Better Mrs. Baaning’s than her own.

“Hjørdis! Are you all right? Do you need help? Company?”

Mrs. Baaning continued to harass the door for another minute or two, and at last fell silent. And then a moment later, Hjørdis heard her again, but muffled and further away.

“Mr. Haward! Are you there? Jannick Haward!”

Old Jannick Haward lived two doors down. Like Hjørdis, and from long-suffering experience, he was now wise to Mrs. Baaning’s untimely visits, and refused to succumb to her siren calls. He also had the advantage of being able to turn off his hearing aids. Hjørdis smiled then. She loved that old man, and the thought of his endearing charm, kindness, and dry sense of humor imbued in her strong maternal feelings of protecting him from Anna Baaning at any cost. Yes, had Mrs. Baaning managed to breach his door at this hour, Hjørdis was certain that she would have dragged the woman downstairs and deposited her into the flooded street.

Somehow the thought comforted her, and she went back to bed then and slept peacefully through the rest of the night.

Steve Pulley
2/22/2015
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

Damsel In Distress

damselindistress“So, how’d you meet that lovely wife of yours?” asked Henrietta Trotbinder.

Jack Barnes regarded the party’s hostess laconically, glanced around, then said in a low, conspiratorial voice, “Won her in a poker game.”

Henrietta blinked in surprise, then laughed. “Cute. But really.”

“Oh, really, I won her in a card game. Don’t believe me? Ask her yourself.” He pointed out Abby with his nose.

Abby Barnes was parked by herself against a wall sipping on a soft drink, observing the New Year’s Eve party in march with an amused smile. Henrietta, the wife of Jerry Trotbinder, Jack’s boss, was in charge of keeping things lively. She’d met Jack and Abby a number of times at social gatherings, but she knew relatively little about either of them. She had made the requisite rounds insuring that the guests were having a good time, getting enough to eat and drink, and sharing in the small talk. Jack’s reply to her question had caught her off guard, but she gamely took it as a jest and ambled over to his wife to share the joke with her . . . and perhaps get a straight answer from the woman.

She smiled at Abby, sighing. “I didn’t realize that your husband was a jokester.”

Abby raised her eyebrows, and glanced in Jack’s direction. He gave her a wink. “A jokester? How so?”

“I just asked how he met you, and he said he’d won you in a card game.” She laughed then.

Abby shook her head, smiling. “Sounds like something that rascal might say.”

“So what’s the true story?”

“Oh, that is the true story.”

Henrietta’s eyes bulged. “W-what?”

“He won me in a poker game. Nothing fancy. Five-Card Draw.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“But this is horrible!”

“Normally, I’d agree with you one hundred percent, Henrietta, but it probably saved my life.”

“How is that possible?”

“I’ll tell you, Henrietta, but could we find a more quiet spot so we don’t have to compete with the party’s volume?

Henrietta was not about to demur. “Certainly! This way.”

She led Abby into the library and motioned her to a cushiony wing chair and sat down in another opposite her. Abby smiled at her hostess’s perturbed expression.

“Is this really true, Abby?” she said.

“It is. Jack doesn’t usually share this openly. He’s almost always more circumspect when asked, and merely says that we met at a party in Las Vegas. Which is not a lie, but just lacks the juicy details. But he must trust your discretion that he would tell you.”

“Of course I can be discrete, but that doesn’t lessen the shock. In any case, please believe me that I wasn’t trying to pry. It was just one of those inane questions asked at almost any party.”

“Oh, don’t worry a bit.”

“But what is the story between you and Jack? It sounds as though you were traded off as chattel.”

“Oh, but I was,” Abby replied mildly. “Fortunately for me, however, in that particular card game Jack’s turned out to be the winning hand.”

Henrietta gasped. “But that sounds awful!”

“It is awful. But I’m only here tonight because of it.”

“What do you mean?” Henrietta could not hide her incredulity.

Abby regarded her hostess a moment. “Henrietta, we haven’t really known each other that long, but I have a feeling that we are going to become good friends — as long as you don’t broadcast this out to all and sundry. Only my intimate friends know about this part of my past.”

“I am the silence of the lambs,” she stated solemnly.

Abby laughed at the incongruity of her oath, but reached over to squeeze the woman’s hands. “Fair enough.”

“But, honestly? Jack actually won you in a poker game?”

“He did. He even cheated to do it.”

“What! H-he cheated?”

“Mm. Let me explain, and then you be the judge if he was right or not.”

“All right, but it just seems so . . . so feudal.”

“Before Jack came along, I was already married to another man. Frank was his name. I won’t call Frank a monster exactly, because I’m pretty sure he had some deep-seated psychological problems, but in any case he was an abusive, sick bastard to me. Not in the beginning. I would never have married him otherwise. Over the first few years of our marriage things went more or less smoothly. But sometime along the way, something went wrong with him. It was gradual. I can’t say with any certainty what exactly triggered it, but he changed. And life, by degrees, became increasingly uncomfortable, then harsh, and finally cruel. Frank began to drink heavily, and around the same time he became addicted to gambling.”

“Oh, dear!”

“Eventually I could see where all this was leading, but I felt helpless to change its course. And to be truthful, I was too weak to bail out. I had nowhere to bail to that I could see. I had no backup plan. Not to get too Oliver Twist — or is it David Copperfield? — but I was orphaned as a child, and afterwards raised by grandparents. Alas, they did not reach a ripe old age. They lived just long enough to see me married and then were killed in an auto accident returning home from my wedding.”

“Good God! That’s terrible!”

“That it was. All I had left of family was my new husband. And little by little our marriage soured as he sank into alcoholism and gambling.”

Henrietta looked appalled.

“One day, Frank dragged me off yet again to Las Vegas, and after losing a substantial sum of money at the casino tables, he got into a private game he’d learned of through an acquaintance. Why? I have no idea. I tried to dissuade him, but by then he’d turned brutish, and his answer to my pleas was a black eye. I wanted to return to our hotel, but he said I could walk back if I wanted, a distance of about three miles, but he wasn’t going to drive me there, and he wasn’t going to pay for a taxi to take me. He said I could either wait in our car, or come inside where it was warm — my choice. It happened to be winter then, and it was freezing outside. I opted for inside. That was when I first laid eyes on Jack. He was one of the card players in the group.

“The game was already underway when we arrived. My right cheek and brow were beginning to swell by then, and some of the players and onlookers took notice, but said nothing. Frank was offered an empty seat, and the game continued. At first he won a few rounds, but as time wore on his luck changed. I encouraged him to stop, but he refused and became verbally abusive, threatening that he would attend to me later. By then the other players had folded, leaving only Frank and Jack playing against one another. I was behind Frank and could see his cards. He had a pretty fare hand, and chances of winning a sizable pot were good. However, Jack had upped the bid, and Frank had no more money to match the raise. He offered our car as collateral, producing believe it or not the ownership papers, registration, and keys to the vehicle. It still wasn’t enough to equal the raise. By then I was in a panic and begged him to stop. He lashed out at me viciously in front of all these strangers. I closed my eyes. Then he said the fateful words . . . ‘My wife. I call you with my wife.’

“The players and guests were aghast. I couldn’t even process what he’d just said. I opened my eyes and blinked. What had he just said?

“Then Jack said, ‘You would wager your wife for a card game?’

“My husband, who by now had completely lost it, replied, ‘If I win, the pot’s mine. If I lose, it’s yours, along with the car . . . and her, lock, stock and barrel. Yeah.’

“There was dead silence in the room. Jack said nothing for a moment. He looked at Frank, then at the others, and then he slowly swung his eyes to me. I must have looked a sight by then.

“‘What do you say, ma’am?’ he said softly.

“I looked back at him and, I don’t know, but there was something in his eyes, deep down, that spoke to me. I can’t even describe it. But somehow, don’t ask me why I did, but I felt absolute trust in this total stranger, that he was about to be my salvation. I knew inside that if I stuck with Frank, I might not return home alive. And so, almost imperceptibly, I nodded at Jack.

“He nodded back, then turned to my husband.

“‘You are a no-good, rotten bastard, mister, and it will be my great pleasure to beat the shit out of you once we’ve concluded this little game. With your wife’s acceptance, I agree to your disgraceful wager. Let’s see your cards.’

“Frank laid down a full house, two aces and three jacks. He looked up at Jack. What Frank and the others did not notice, however, was that Jack had in a split second manipulated his own cards to win. He then laid down, one-by-one, a two of spades, a three of spades, a three of hearts, and a three of diamonds — four of a kind.”

“I-I’m sorry, but I don’t know what that means,” said Henrietta, confused.

“Four of a kind beats a full house. Frank had lost; Jack had won the pot.”

“A-and you.”

“And me — in a manner of speaking.”

“But this is bestial! What happened then?”

“Jack took my husband outside and beat the shit out of Frank — pardon my language — just like he promised, and told Frank that if he ever came near me again he would do more than just beat that out of him.”

Henrietta gaped at Abby, mute. Finally, she regained her breath, “Then what?”

Abby continued. “After Frank limped away into the night, Jack came back inside. And to everybody’s astonishment — mine included — he gallantly apologized to me over the wager he’d agreed to, presented me with the car papers and the car keys, and he returned to me all the cash that Frank had wagered and lost — several thousand dollars. Then Jack recommended that I drive back immediately to the hotel — in fact, he offered to drive me over himself, just to make sure I would be safe from Frank — check out with all my belongings, and find another place out of harm’s way. He was worried that if Frank ever found me, he might do me serious bodily injury, or perhaps far worse. Jack didn’t know whether or not I wished to press charges against Frank for my black eye, other than to assure me that Frank had been paid back in kind outside . . . with interest. I decided to follow Jack’s advice. He helped me get away from Frank. He saved me, I’m sure of it.”

“My God! My God!” whispered Henrietta Trotbinder. “But what a sweet, dear man, your Jack! What happened afterwards?”

“Afterwards?” Abby thought, then smiled. “Oh . . . well, if you were to ask Jack, he’d probably tell you that he retained me in lieu of his sacrificed pot winnings. But if you were to ask me, I’d tell you that I decided to keep him as my wild card.”

And she gave Henrietta a wink.

Steve Pulley
1/1/2015

Posted in Stories | Leave a comment

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
Posted in Stories | Leave a comment