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.



“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

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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.


[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.

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Dining at Doña Matilde’s, and Other Cochabamba Digressions—Bolivia


Doña Maltilde’s silpanchería on Calle Jordán, Cochabamba, Bolivia.

For nearly 20 years,[1] together with my wife Yolanda (and my three stepchildren, while they were still young), I lived on Calle Calama (Calama Street), at the time perhaps one of the liveliest streets in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Our home was a modest adobe and brick, two-story duplex situated in a patio surrounded by six other dwellings housing as many families, who also happened to be my in-laws. Scarcely two blocks away was doña Matilde’s silpanchería, my personal favorite eating place for silpanchos (above photo is the building where she housed her tiny restaurant).

But I’ll get to that presently. First, a little neighborhood color.

Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor

Directly across the street from our family enclave was the Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor del Ejército de Bolivia, one of the principal Army officer training schools in the country. It was here that I personally saw, in the flesh, 16 presidents of Bolivia (not counting 5 juntas consisting of 3 to 6 members, and 3 presidents who lasted from 1 to 15 days in office)―from the flamboyant Air Force General René Barrientos to the US-raised son of a Bolivian political exile, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Two of my wife’s cousins were famous career officers, one a decorated hero of the Chaco War, the other the Commanding Officer of the 7th Army Division in the Department of Cochabamba. In other words, there often was much pomp and circumstance on our street whenever presidents, generals, and other dignitaries converged at the Escuela de Comando in front of our family compound.

During weekdays at 7:00 AM, Army officers attending classes at the Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor would first assemble outside the school’s main entrance on Calama to salute the raising of the Bolivian flag, while an Army band would play the National Anthem, familiarly called “Bolivianos, el Hado Propicio[2], and those gathered there sing its inspiring first two verses and soul-stirring chorus. Passersby would pause on the sidewalk opposite the building to also pay homage to the patriotic proceedings, while uniformed guards temporarily halted traffic at Calle Calama’s cross streets of Tumusla and Hamiraya.

This daily ritual eventually attracted the curiosity of members of the considerable stray dog community in Cochabamba as well. As officers, soldiers, and civilians stood at solemn attention during the playing of the National Anthem, these dogs would gather on the east side of the scenario, sitting erect with respectful demeanor upon their canine brows. When it was all over, the officers retired to their classes, the soldiers and the Army band broke ranks, the dogs dispersed, Calle Calama was given back to vehicular traffic, pedestrians went about their business, and the usual crazies passing by might stop in front of the school to curse the military for a moment or two before continuing their aimless perambulations through the neighborhood.

Such went on in this same manner for years. Then one bright morning, one of the street dogs decided that the National Anthem needed additional vocal support, and began howling. Another dog joined in. Then another and another. Soon, eyebrows arched; heads began to turn from the rising of the nation’s flag toward the source of this scandalous ruckus. The military band played stoically on. Officers and soldiers, normally standing at rigid attention, right arms bent in smart salute, continued to sing, but shifted disturbed, even outraged, gazes eastward. Pedestrians, amused by this unusual change in the ceremony, began to titter. However, as soon as the band finished playing, the dogs ceased howling, and everything returned to the status quo.

Come next morning, a repeat performance of the previous. Only more dogs converged and joined in song. After a few bars of “Bolivianos, el Hado Propicio”, an officer ordered conscripts to chase off the animals. The next day, the same. And the next, and the next. Pretty soon the entire neighborhood was apprised of this hilarious turn of events, and throngs of civilians amassed in the street and on the sidewalk to delight in the antics of the howling dogs and the vain efforts of the Army to run them off.

In the end, the dogs won the skirmish, but alas on winning, they also lost the war. Higher command, unable to curtail the stray animals without causing greater scandal, and feeling as though they were being made a laughingstock, suspended the morning ceremony of the Army band and the singing of the National Anthem. Officers went to their assigned classes without interruption. Two soldiers raised the Bolivian flag, saluted, and that was that. Disappointed pedestrians stopped coming by at 7:00 AM. And the street dogs? Well, they continued to show up for a few days, but eventually realized that their days of glory had come to a close, and sought entertainment elsewhere.

Local Businesses


My retail leather hides and goods store on the corner of Calama and Hamiraya Streets, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1973.

One block to the south of us, facing a park called Plaza San Sebastián, were the local men’s and women’s jails, both which looked like mini-derelict projects on the inside. A friend of mine was briefly locked up in the men’s jail because of a bad debt, but since he was the sole breadwinner of his family, his pregnant wife traded places with him and spent his jail time incarcerated in the women’s facility while he was released to earn money outside to pay off the debt. Escapes from the men’s jail were frequent, and the retail leather business I operated on the corner of Calama and Hamiraya (photo above) was at one time or another a getaway spot for artisan convicts―escorted by bored and unwary guards―who were allowed out to shop around for cowhides and associated wares, which they then transformed into shoes, sandals, wallets, purses, bags, belts, briefcases, and other leather goods to sell to customers at the prison’s entrance.

Around the corner from my store on Calle Hamiraya, but heading north, there was a combo chichería and salchichería (corn beer and sausage sandwich joint) that reeked of chicha (a fermented corn beverage) and consequent drunks, but the sausage sandwiches were to die for, almost literally. And I was willing to spend the following day moaning and writhing in agony somewhere between my bed and the bathroom from their deadly effects on my gastrointestinal system. Those sausages were that delicious.

Further up the street there was a kiosk run by a short, squat, somewhat disfigured woman who had spent her youth and adulthood “waiting for her quirquincho”, a Quechua word meaning armadillo (specifically an Andean armadillo), the shell from which local musicians of the charango often make the sound box of their lute-like instruments. This may all sound a bit confusing, even bizarre, but bear with me a moment. The word quirquincho has, because of the animal’s habitat in the Bolivian Andes, also taken on an association with Orureños, i.e., the citizens of the high altitude city of Oruro. So, when you call somebody a “quirquincho”, you simply mean somebody from Oruro, same as the inhabitants of North Carolina are nicknamed Tar Heels, Nova Scotians Bluenosers, East Londoners Cockneys, New Zealanders Kiwis, the people from Buenos Aires Porteños, and so on. And because Orureño men are known for their splendid dispositions, if an unmarried woman says, “I’m waiting for my quirquincho,” she means she’s seeking a husband from Oruro with a fine character, and she won’t settle for less. Alas, our friend awaited in vain for her ideal quirquincho, never married, and died before he ever showed up in her life.

Just a little further up the same street was a cobbler who frequented my leather shop named don Lalo, who was the uncanny spitting image of comedian genius Jonathan Winters. I swear, every time don Lalo showed up at my shop to buy a hide or buckles or eyelets or shoestrings, I did a double take, thinking for a brief second that Jonathan Winters himself had traveled all the way from the United States to Cochabamba, Bolivia, just to buy a cowhide from my store! I fully expected him to start talking like Maudie Frickert, Elwood P. Suggins, or Lance Lovegard.

One day, somebody stole an expensive patent leather hide from my store while I was attending other customers―one of these, don Lalo. Sometime after my customers had departed, I discovered that the hide was missing, and moaned and wailed and gnashed my teeth and tore my hair. Just about then in stepped my older stepson Augusto. Inquiring as to my peculiar behavior, I explained, mentioning that while I was selling some leather to don Lalo I noticed that there was a teenager wandering suspiciously around the store about the same time, who later disappeared.

Augusto said, “Why don’t we go see don Lalo? Maybe he knows the kid.” I thought it a waste of time, but agreed. So we walked up the street to where don Lalo had his workshop, which was basically a cavern hewn out of adobe. As I started in the open door, lo and behold there was the kid leaning over the counter conversing with don Lalo. I quickly backed out. “Augus, he’s in there,” I muttered with astonishment.

Augusto thought a moment, then pulled out some very dark shades and put them on. At the time, he was about 20 years old and a little over six feet tall. With those shades on he now looked pretty formidable. He was also dressed that day in a black leather jacket, which somehow augmented this mien. He said, “Okay, let’s do this. Follow my lead.”

So in we went. Don Lalo looked up, smiled in surprise that I was visiting him. On the counter was my missing patent leather hide, which don Lalo had already cut into several pieces to make some shoes for the youth. The kid turned around then and saw me, and his eyes got wide; then he saw Augusto right behind me, and his eyes got wider. Augusto gave a terse nod to don Lalo, “This hide?” Don Lalo replied, a bit puzzled, “It’s this young man’s. He bought it at don Esteban’s store (I was known as “don Esteban” in some circles in Bolivia) about an hour ago. I just made the cuts for some boots.”

“Well, he got it from señor Pulley here, alright, but he didn’t buy it; he stole it.” The kid started to look scared at this point, and protested.

Augusto proceeded. “Yeah? Well, I’m from the police department, and I intend to take this low-life thief downtown for questioning. We don’t take lightly to punks like him.”

Don Lalo gave the kid a withering Jonathan Winters scowl of disgust. The kid began to stutter, scared out of his wits now at the prospect of being dragged off to the police department, which had a reputation, real or imagined, of working over suspects unmercifully. He begged me to take back the hide. I managed a credible sneer.

“Why would I want it? Don Lalo has already cut it up. It’s worth nothing to me now.”

Augusto made a few more suggestive remarks about what would happen to him “downtown”. The kid, now practically in tears, promised he would pay me back, that he would ask his uncle for the money. But please, please don’t arrest him. Long story short, I got my money back, thanks to my stepson’s masterfully menacing performance. Truth be known, he even scared me a little.

That same afternoon, the kid’s uncle personally came to my shop to return what was owed me, and with tears in his eyes thanked me profusely for not having his nephew arrested. He swore that the kid had never been in trouble with the law before, but the brat wanted to impress some jerk friends with fancy patent leather boots he couldn’t afford, the stupidity of which drove him to this heinous act of theft. The uncle, with a pained frown, then confessed that since I had not pressed charges, he’d meted out special punishment of his own. That made me a little uneasy, because I didn’t want the crap beaten out of the boy, or something equally severe. I asked the man what kind of punishment. He looked grim. “I took the little bastard down to the military post and had him conscripted. A couple of years in the Bolivian Army ought to teach him a lesson or two about stealing he’ll never forget.” I shuddered.

If you haven’t already given up by now, you’re probably wondering if I’m ever to get beyond my digressions and on to the reason I started this piece. Patience. I’m almost there. Further up the street, on the corner of Hamiraya and Jordán, there was a “peña folklórica”, which every Friday evening opened from about nine in the evening to two in the morning, where customers could listen to some great Bolivian musical groups, have a decent meal, and get themselves roaring drunk. Unfortunately, the proprietors thought the entire neighborhood should also bask in the music, both live and recorded, and so they included a high-amp sound system to pump up the volume. No one within a city block could sleep Friday nights. Neighbors complained, made direful threats, filed charges with the authorities, prayed for divine intervention, plotted ways to cut off the electricity, and so on, but to no avail. The peña’s popularity among its many patrons (and probably the greasing of the right palms) trumped neighborhood outrage.

Doña Matilde’s Silpanchería

And so, at last, we come to Calle Jordán. A half block away going east from the peña folklórica was the eating establishment of doña Matilde. I never learned her last name. Her specialty? Silpanchos. My wife Yolanda and I would sometimes visit doña Matilde’s silpanchería after an evening movie at one of the local cinemas. And you didn’t have to dress up to eat there. Doña Matilde opened for business precisely at nine p.m., and you knew that only because she hung a naked 40-watt light bulb on a hook just outside the massive door of her bistro, virtually the sole illumination of an otherwise darkened street. There was no other indication that this was an eatery―no sign, no brightly lit window (no window at all), no musical background, no dancing girls―just that lonely light bulb shedding its meager glow onto the door, across the narrow sidewalk, and barely as far as the curb, but no further. It was located in a century-old two-story, high-ceiling house, whose adobe walls were a foot and a half thick. Sheets of linen, once white and stiffened by plaster, but now sagging and ripped, peppered with decades of fly specks and cobwebs, hung low from the ceiling. A 25-year old calendar was tacked against a dirty, yellow wall, and featured the illustration of a fetching, come-hither, yet now icteric-colored girl selling Coca-Cola. Doña Matilde’s silpanchería consisted of a single cavernous room, divided in half by a faded blue gingham plastic curtain hung from a wire stretched between opposite walls. On the left, entering the front door, was the dining side, with three tables. Rarely were all three occupied simultaneously, but on occasion there might be someone already seated, and we would then make our customary greetings of “buenas noches”, or “provecho” (bon appétit), if they had already begun to eat. One table seated two people; another up to four; and the third up to six. The tablecloths upon each looked suspiciously like cuts from the same plastic gingham cloth serving as the curtain dividing the room. The floor consisted of ancient one-foot-square blue tiles, nearly all now out of level, and so none of the table and chair legs stood a chance of sitting flush, no matter how hard you tried to keep them from rocking. At the back of the dining room was a glass-doored cabinet on whose dusty shelves stood bottles of local beers and soft drinks, though none refrigerated.

On the right side of the plastic gingham divide was doña Matilde’s kitchen. We on the dining side could easily hear her hard at work, smell oil, meat, rice, potatoes, onions, and eggs crackling away happily in their respective pots and frying pans, and feel the heat generated from all this activity.

Doña Matilde, a heavyset, middle-aged woman, materialized from behind her side of the Blue Gingham Curtain, shiny-faced, perspiring, dressed in her cholita working attire, wisps of graying hair leaking from the edges of a light blue bandana. She greeted us with a smile of recognition and a “buenas noches”. She was a quiet, unassuming, pleasant-looking woman, the kind you knew without doubt you’d love for a grandmother if you were young and had no hope of any meaningful affinity with either your parents or your siblings. The specialty of the house was silpancho. Indeed, it was the only dish of the house, and therefore few words were required for orders beyond “dos platos, por favor” (two plates, please) on our part, and a response of “”, or “gracias, no” to her “¿una bebida?” (something to drink?). After nods, doña Matilde disappeared behind the curtain, and we were left alone to murmur to one another in hushed tones about the movie we’d seen until she re-emerged a few minutes later with our much anticipated meals.


There are many presentations of silpanchos, but this one approximates doña Matilde’s version, though hers were a little more generous.

Silpancho comes from the Quechua word, sillp’anchu, the double ll and the explosive p’ non-existent sounds in the English language. The word basically means thin and wide. The dish is very typical of Cochabamba and, if properly prepared, surprisingly tasty. On a heated plate first comes a layer of rice, followed by a layer of fried, sliced potatoes which actually taste like potatoes should taste. Don’t forget that potatoes originated from Peru and Bolivia, not Ireland or Idaho, and that while you may think there are only four or five types of potatoes, in reality there are literally thousands. I expect that during my twenty years in Bolivia I must have tasted at least 15 different kinds, all with flavors that outshine any of those we consume here in the United States. After the potatoes comes the fried beef, which has been brutally pounded to submission by either a mallet or a stone to a very thin, wide (ergo the name ‘silpancho’) layer of near two-dimensionality, breaded in the milanese style, followed by one or two fried eggs. And finally, at the top of the silpancho, comes a mixture of chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, and locoto, a chili pepper that has about the same spice level as jalapeño, though with a different flavor. ¡Ay, qué delicia!

Every once in a while, Yolanda and I would arrive at doña Matilde’s late in the evening, only to find one of our nephews, Jaime, already seated at the small table, enjoying a double portion of silpancho. Jaime was the only member of his family who really, really, really enjoyed food. His father ate very little, while his two younger brothers were picky eaters of the worst order, reducing the variety of foods they would eat to almost a monastic minimum. As a result, they had willfully deprived themselves of the most amazing panoply of outstanding Bolivian cuisine.

“Jaimito,” Yolanda would say, “what are you doing here at this hour? Didn’t you have supper at home?”

“Oh, hi, Auntie Yola,” he’d reply, shoveling a portion of his silpancho into his mouth with gusto. “Hi, Uncle Steve. How’s it going? Were you at the movies? Yes, of course I ate at home. My mother would kill me if I didn’t. But you know how it is―thanks to my idiot brothers, just not enough of the good stuff. And señora Matilde has the best silpanchos around.” We nodded our enthusiastic agreement.

I have to say that I miss that colorful old neighborhood, though I’m told it has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. But even more, I miss doña Matilde’s fantastic silpanchos.

[1] 1968–1984, and then again from 1992–1995.

[2] i.e., “Bolivians, a most favorable destiny.”

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Geeks Bearing Gifts—On the Road


Note to Readers: This piece launches what I hope to be a series of personal anecdotes about travels I have undertaken (or suffered, as the case may be) during the course of my life. All cartoon illustrations are my own.

“A traveler has a right to relate and embellish his adventures as he pleases, and it is very impolite to refuse that deference and applause they deserve.”

Rudolf Erich Raspe, Travels of Baron Munchausen

I gazed adoringly at my brand new 1967 Volkswagen beetle, the Blue Bug, and sighed. It was probably the first thing I had ever owned, paid for in easy installments, with my very own money. I was feeling perfectly mundane and didn’t care if everybody knew it. The Beetle didn’t yet spell El Dorado, but once you’ve learned the ABCs, it’s just a matter of time before you have the whole blooming Thesaurus at your fingertips. It was Thursday, July 27th, 1967, and in my hot little hand I had my Army papers discharging me from active duty. I was a free man-boy once again, and I even had my very own set of wheels.

It was a heady experience. I even forgot for a moment those pesky butterflies that always fluttered just below the sternum whenever I was in transit somewhere. By George, I thought, this really was the first day of the rest of my life—whatever that meant.

Bidding adieu to my comrades-in-arms (actually, I think I thumbed my nose at them—poor suckers), I hopped into my car—ironically the first and last I was ever to own—started it up, and waving one last time from the open sun roof, put-putted over the horizon. The war was over for me. Good-bye Vietnam. Good-bye Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Hello California. Kill the fatted calf. Your native son is on his way back at last!

I was determined to get home just as soon as I humanly could, and I intended to drive all night long. Which, of course, was not exactly human. But I had hot coffee in a thermos, sandwiches in a sack, and a stack of eight-track stereo cassettes to keep me company on the way. The desert lay ahead. All was right with the world. Little did I imagine what was in store for me.

Odysseus Redux

There is a difference between travelers and tourists. According to writer Daniel Boorstin, the traveler is active, goes “strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’”[1] Up to now I had pretty much been the touristy type—passive, expecting interesting things to happen to me, but at the same time hoping they wouldn’t be too interesting. I would shortly become a traveler, though how active I was at it is a moot point. Most of the time I seemed to be strenuously dragged in search of people, of adventure, of experience.

My life continually teeter-totters between Hardy and Homer—i.e., Thomas Hardy and Homer the Greek poet, not Oliver Hardy and Homer Simpson, though maybe that too.

Have you ever thought about what happens to perfectly unextraordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances? This was the great poser of nineteenth-century British author Thomas Hardy, and nearly all of his novels showed everyday sorts very melodramatically being ruffled, scuffled, and reshuffled by Nature, bad luck, machinations, and so forth, all quite beyond the bounds of their control or understanding—and more often than not, there was a grim ending in store for somebody. In my youth, when I first read Hardy’s The Return of the Native, a crawly feeling prowled along the nape of my neck, and I began to wonder if I hadn’t stumbled onto something personally prophetic. This seemed to confirm itself in his Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Tess of the D’Ubervilles. In these novels I kept running into characters with an uncanny resemblance to myself, the Hapless Half-wit, but with Mother Carey’s chicken flying somewhere overhead and storms abrewing on a cloudy horizon. Being a susceptible lad, I just knew that Hardy was trying to tell me something, and that I was doomed. I could already see myself laid out, not in the welcoming, furry grass bosom of Forest Lawn, but in a cold, lonely, barren, off-the-beaten-track cemetery—if not on Egdon Heath, then some other equally nasty, howling wilderness somewhere in the world, just one more untimely victim of Fate.

When I was a child, however, it was different. Different because notions of impending doom had not yet molded my character. Different because I’d not yet met my English teacher Miss Meese and delved into the foreboding worlds of Hardy and of Rölvaag,[2] and later on, of Homer. Different mostly because it was vicarious. I would glue myself to (or more decorously, sit before) our old Hofman television set as Martin and Osa Johnson, Frank Buck, Lowell Thomas, John Gunther, Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore, Cecil and Beanie, Johnny Weismuller (and, of course, Maureen O’Sullivan), Percy Dovetonsils, the Nairobi Trio, and Buster Crabbe would transport me to alien realms all the way from central Africa to the planet Mongo. The tube was a particularly glorious invention for a middle-class California suburbanite kid of the ‘50s. It opened up unimaginable worlds. Ah, to travel! To visit foreign lands! To speak with strange and fascinating people in their native tongues (or better yet, to speak with strange and fascinating people in my native tongue, which seemed a whole lot easier)! To savor their exotic food, share their day-to-day struggle for survival, wear their colorful native costumes, experience their bizarre and sometimes shocking customs, celebrate their boisterous holidays, operate their alien toilet facilities!

Until I actually got out there, however, it never occurred to me just how miserable and treacherous travel could really be (that’s the folly of television—it gives you a false sense of security that whatever bad happens can’t really hurt you and in any case will disappear by changing the channel). And when I say miserable and treacherous, I don’t mean just the physical accommodations or lack thereof, though that is certainly a consideration. I have never been a good tourist, keeping my nose to the trusty Baedeker or paying attention to the hired guide. I always look in the wrong direction and see something I shouldn’t see, or wander, or am forced, off the beaten track and find myself somewhere I shouldn’t be. And then I am faced with a different world, a world that sometimes I wish wasn’t there (or, at least, I wish I wasn’t there), but which cannot be ignored and forgotten once seen, even if I try. It’s always there afterward. Serious travel, not tourism, is very uncomfortable, because it makes you think, and, boy, do I hate to think! It shames you and questions your every belief and opinion about yourself and about all that teeming humanity surrounding you.

Over the past half century I visited 14 countries and crossed through, landed, or disembarked in another 12 (these latter ones ordinarily don’t count, but they do if you miss your connecting flight or are accidentally rerouted to Beirut when you really had intended to go to Anchorage, or if you get dragged round and round and round on a conveyor belt at the baggage pickup and for all that have your luggage switched with somebody else’s, or if you are suspected of trafficking contraband and are denuded at Customs for a look-see, or mistaken for Carlos at Immigrations, mistaken for Madonna or Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the case may be, in the waiting lobby, or if you get your camera’s carry strap caught in a subway turnstile and have to fight back ten thousand disembarking commuters who don’t speak your language while you attempt to extricate the thing, or any number of other interesting milestones of modern-day travel). I have lived in five different countries, traveled through 31 states of the US, sojourned in at least 3,000 cities, towns, villages, hamlets, truck stops, cross roads, mud puddles, and cattle crossings around the world, and covered I suppose somewhere between 140,000 and 160,000 miles, much of it by land, and all unfortunately before the airlines began rewarding their frequent fliers with mileage bonuses.

There is something faintly epic about all this. Not just the Wessex of Thomas Hardy and all that traipsing about Egdon Heath waiting for something nasty to happen, but something imperceptibly Ulyssean as well. Nothing that Homer could put his finger on, possibly, but still, my story does incorporate many of the same elements: war, monsters, sirens, sea-going journeys, agonizing excursions into caves, mysterious lands, intolerable accommodations, lots of reflection and atonement (“What in heaven’s name am I doing here?”—that sort of stuff), the inevitable return to Ithaca (well, in my case, Temple City), even dogs. Yes, decidedly Ulyssean, and therefore legendary (some might prefer the term mythomanic).

Now, if you are at all familiar with The Odyssey, you know that it commences following the Trojan War. The Greeks win it, by the way, though they get pretty well trounced by the gods afterwards for having forgotten their due. All who had not been killed are now home and safe, all but Ulysses, who lives in captivity on the island of Ogygia, unable to escape Calypso, the radiant nymph, who has fallen in love with him. It is when he is finally released, several years later, that things really get rolling for him. By then he is no longer a young man and is anxious to get home to his wife and son.

All this, of course, is fraught with metaphorical meanings.

My travels begin at a much earlier age, and long before I get involved in any wars. There are a number of astounding parallels in our respective stories. One of these is our shared reluctance to be away from home for long periods of time,  al­though I was ready to quit Happy Trails surely twenty years before Ulysses.

Deep down inside, however, I guess it’s not so much that I hate to travel: it’s that I hate the anticipation of the thing. It’s the same reason why I won’t voluntarily watch suspense or horror movies. Heads, once they start rolling, don’t bother me quite so much as all the apprehension beforehand. I can hardly bear it (which is probably why Ichabod Crane has remained for me such an endearing, albeit bird-brained, archetype of myself). For example, the only reason I ever went to see the movie Jaws in the first place was because it was playing together with a Marx Brothers film festival (now there’s an interesting combination). Well, one does have to make sacrifices in life. As a result, I ended up witnessing the great white shark chomp on Robert Shaw seven times in one week. By then, of course, I’d become so callous about his gory demise that Chico, Harpo, and Groucho now seemed somehow more menacing than the shark, which, when you think about those three, shouldn’t be so surprising.

Once I’m on the road, however, and haven’t vomited or experienced hot flashes or migraine, I do admittedly enjoy the mystic monotony of riding over miles and miles of miles and miles. I kind of get into the “Route 66” mood of things then; you know, dah-daddiyah-dah-dah, dah-daddiyah-dah-dah, followed immediately by dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-dah-daah, dah-daddiayah-dah-dah, dah-daddiayah-dah-dah, tearing up the highway from one end of the country to the other in a red Corvette or Thunderbird, or whatever it was, etc. But it’s the prospect that chills me to the bone, the premonition of possible disaster somewhere down the road that saps my ardor for the long haul.

The Old Road to Ojai

I have been told that this eccentricity of mine is quite possibly due to a disturbed childhood. If that be the case, then without too much reflection I would say that The Old Road to Ojai was the catalyst that solidly entrenched the behavior model for all my future journeys. This is too bad, because Ojai (that’s pronounced Oh-hi, by the way) is a beautiful little California town and a delight to visit. While it has been about thirty-five years since I last visited, I’m guessing that it has retained its congenial rural town charm even today (wishful thinking!). Then it was a small, bucolic farming community, nestled in a small, green valley (my grandfather said the best in California), whose gently sloping hills were lined with orange trees and fruit orchards and cabbage patches and vegetable gardens.

My grandparents lived in Ojai (on El Centro St.) for many years. I have tender and affectionate memories of cavorting (cavorting?) in their apricot orchard with my brother and sister and cousins, of playing anagrams against my grandmother on the floor in her dining room, of her infectious laughter as she beat us each time, or even when she lost (which wasn’t often); of eating gobs of delicious Concord grapes right off the vine Roman style (though I drew the line about sticking my finger down my throat); of scalding myself every time I turned on the hot water (my grandparents’ house was, and is, the only one I have known where the hot water would instantaneously come out of the tap at two hundred eleven and a half degrees Fahrenheit); of getting severely mauled by my grandmother’s vicious cat Greyhound every time we would visit (you might be interested in my feline allergies as a result of these encounters);[3] of taking long walks along the hilly, country roads outside town and of exploring the surrounding woods; of getting shot in the tush by my brother, who was anxious to test out his new Daisy BB-gun (this was not allowed at home); of waking up each morning in surely one of the coldest bedrooms in all of Southern California and needing a whole hour to work up enough nerve to get out of bed; of dreading the customary presentation of my grandfather’s solely known evidence of possessing a sense of humor (this consisted in removing his false teeth from his mouth before his assembled grandchildren, grinning the while as we squealed in horrified awe); of celebrating Thanksgiving with all the family, and tasting Grammy’s delicious mincemeat and pumpkin pies, her crab apple preserves, the best turkey stuffing in the whole valley (a small boy’s exaggeration, since I had never set foot in anybody else’s house in that valley), and mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberries and sweet potatoes, and, of course, the turkey itself; of sneaking down into her basement and finding myself in a hushed, weird and murky world of canned fruit and faded squash gourds and wheat still on the straw and bags of rice and sugar and scary dark corners and cobwebs and Black Widows and maybe a rat or two and certainly a nest of mice—it was like descending into my own private catacombs, and if I could get past the spiders, I just knew I would find somebody’s ensconced crypt, probably that of an unknown relative who hadn’t cut the mustard and was duly dealt with—Ojai-style. Ojai was a great place, and I’ll never forget it.

But as a small boy, the travel part to Ojai was always a race to see who would throw up first from car sickness: me or Mary Margaret, our Irish terrier (named after twin cousins on my father’s side of the family, and also known as Maggie). At the time, my parents owned a 1951 Chrysler, a large, six-cylinder, two-door, metallic blue bathtub nicknamed “The Clop-Six”. The “clop” was the result of a defective Hydromatic transmission. This was long before Lee Iacocca revived the Chrysler Corporation, of course, and, as its epithet somehow implies, the car was a lemon from the start. In effect, it lasted a mere three years.

There was a stretch of switch-back mountain road between Santa Paula and Ojai. This was known as “The Old Road”. “The Old Road”, by the way, should probably always be written with Old English black letter typeface, I think, to properly convey its gothically sinister undertones. It’s an interesting side note that whenever anybody mentions “The Old Road” to me now, no matter what the context, I break out in a cold sweat, my eyeballs glaze over, and a queer tic that bats out the letters O-J-A-I in Morse Code takes control of the larboard side of my upper lip and nostril and reveals intermittent flashes of my superior left incisors, canines, and bicuspids. Dah-dah-dah, dit-dah-dah-dah, dit-dah, dit-dit (my grandchildren love it). Since Ojai, I have seen enough “old roads” throughout the world to know that they are synonymous to torment and abuse. By the way, quite by coincidence, I recently chanced across a 1992 sci-fi farce on television called “Mom and Dad Save the World” (starring Teri Garr, Jeffrey Jones, and Jon Lovitz). A typical Southern California suburbanite couple (wouldn’t they be?) decide to go on vacation, and the route they take—and this is no lie—is the Ojai Old Road! It’s not surprising that they are sequestered by extraterrestrials and transported, via their own station wagon, all the way to the planet Spengo.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, here we are, still in the “Clop Six”, a-winding and a-winding and a-winding (as Gertrude Stein might have expressed it), back and forth down into the Ojai Valley, the gasoline sloshing about in the car tank and sending its noxious odors up through some untraceable hole, directly to my impressionable nose and regurgitatible stomach.

Visualize, then, a gaunt, still blameless, towheaded little boy—a child Odysseus, as it were, upon a fateful voyage—his small, delicate hands clasped angelically in his lap, sitting on the back seat alongside his big, blue-eyed, freckle-faced brother and tiny, cute-as-a-cucumber, honey-blonde sister and between his spindly legs a panting Irish Terrier, and all listing to the left as the car lurches right, and then to the right as the car tilts left, and then forward as their father slows down, and then backwards as he accelerates. A hypnotic pattern is established which mysteriously connects the inner ear directly to the viscera. And from some secret, malefic orifice deep within the bowels of the metallic beast emanates invisible fingers of some miasmal effluvium—the processed remains of extinct tyrannosaurs still trying to get their last bite into the mammalians which finally ousted them from their ranking as heavyweight champions of the world—growing, stretching, elongating until they touch the sensitive olfactory cilia of this little boy’s innocent nostrils and reach further in and caress the brain and roll the eyes and finally make contact with that mysterious, hypnotic pattern of motion which has wedded the labyrinthine canals with the kishkes. Get the picture? I also should mention that along the way we must pass by a particularly nauseating sulfur springs, as well, that makes rotten eggs almost a thrill to be actively pursued.

That ethereal combination of refined and natural fumes and rocking car invariably sent me to the window, where Maggie and I would vie for first place. The winner all depended on who could roll down the glass faster.

Perhaps I should interject here as a cultural side note that the French physiologist, Francois Magendie, who wrote his famous Mémoire sur le vomissement in 1813, demonstrated conclusively that vomiting is not performed by the stomach as such, but by the voluntary muscles of the diaphragm and the abdominal wall. This all may very well be, but I think he missed the point entirely. Diaphragms and tummy walls are incidental. Gas fumes and movement are where it’s at. I know. Mary Margaret knew.

You might wonder what became of my brother and sister during these intervals—or for that matter, my mother and father. Well, the truth of the matter is, I haven’t the slightest idea. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t very well concern myself over their qualmishness, now could I? And, after all, they did have windows of their own to roll down.

Afterwards, even after my dad and mom had purchased a more hermetic Mercury station wagon, an association had already been well-established. Often it didn’t matter whether we were traveling over winding roads or not, or even if we had already begun the journey ― I was sick before I could even climb into the car. My mother, who simply attributed this to a childish excitement to be off to faraway places, let me barf to my heart’s content, and once sapped and desiccated, I would weakly crawl into the car and off we would go. But the truth of the matter is, I was simply obeying more Pavlovian urges. The dog salivates when he hears the little bells


“Bond…James Bond”

After Ojai, riding from time to time in my brother Dave’s second-hand—possibly third-hand—Hillman Minx reinforced this feeling of dread. Dave, once he had grown past the mortifying having-to-sit-in-the-back-seat-with-my-creepy-younger-siblings-for-the-rest-of-my-natural-life phase and had progressed to the more heady steering-up-there-in-the-front-seat-with-God-as-my-copilot phase, discovered he was a hotrodder at heart and keen to illustrate it. And while the Hillman in his eyes was a beautiful little convertible, alas it was also old and beat-up, and certainly no match for his racing instincts. Nor was I. But he tried. You might say that while the Old Road to Ojai was my turbulent, Odyssean sea ride on a boat keel to Ogygia, Dave was my Poseidon, and the Hillman was his ragtag version of the Four Winds.


[1] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, 3.2.

[2] Read O.E.Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth, if you think your life is difficult.

[3] And then again, you might very well not be. Suffice to say that for many years after Greyhound, I couldn’t get near a cat without feeling mangy; I would have such violent coughing attacks that my eyeballs would threaten to pop out and bounce around on the floor like ping-pong balls. Being clawed by one would raise the kind of welts normally associated with keloids. My four-month long confrontation several years later with my daughter-in-law’s five cats finally cured me, and I am happy to report that today it is the cat, not me, who runs in the opposite direction when there are any close encounters (of the third degree).

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Writing Down the Moans

writingdownthemoansThis piece is based on the following prompt from the writing group I belong to: write a 300-word or less story using as many synonyms as you can for the word “writing”. Mine admittedly is more of a rant than a story, however. There are 237 words in the piece, and I’ve counted 25 synonyms for writing (give or take a couple).

Writing Down the Moans*

Some people seem to think writing is a scribbling snap. Well, it’s not, no matter whether you’re typing, penciling, penning, quilling, calligraphing, chiseling the words onto stone or clay tablets, inscribing greeting cards for every imaginable and unimaginable occasion, or lettering posters for the high school senior prom or the next big protest movement, it’s still your creative mind you have to come to terms with and pray that your Muse will not let you down in the crunch. I’ve authored four short-story anthologies, composed one collection of poetry, drafted a couple of unprintable stage plays, scripted a screenplay — which, alas (or maybe thankfully, depending on your point of view), never made your neighborhood cinema, TV, or even an ignoble DVD — not to mention scrawled far more appalling song lyrics than the law should ever have allowed me, and I can tell you now and forever that scrivening as a profession is no joke in any of its manifestations. Even transcribing speakers’ talks was once a task before speech-to-text apps were created and ended this occasional chore for me and the careers for a lot of full-time inkslingers. Let’s not even get into the subject of editing. Redacting drafts gives me the shivers just to think of it.

Even autographing published books is scut work, having to scrawl a brief thank you and a signature ties both my brains and my writing hand in knots.

Steve Pulley
*With apologies to Natalie Goldberg, author of the great Writing Down the Bones, who inspires writers and would-be writers to take the leap into writing skillfully and creatively.
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Tokyo Menagerie

speak with ease…

Maybe not,
instead they
hop a lot.

Their world view—
the zoo—still

Steve Pulley
Note: This is my first attempt at a tricube, a screwball poetic challenge which consists of three stanzas, each stanza containing three lines, and each line only three syllables long.
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Note to Self

Note to self: Check bottom of sugar bowl.


Mentally scratching his head, Piers Pangborne studied the orphic note, an askew yellow Post-it affixed to the refrigerator together with similar reminders in shocking pink, Tiffany blue, canary yellow, and spring bud green, pasted in equally haphazard positions across the otherwise smooth, ecru-colored freezer door. He was already familiar with these others, all of them authored by his new bride. But “check bottom of sugar bowl” was one he’d not seen before. He was just beginning to experience married life at home with Gwendolyn Salsburg, and the prospects seemed promisingly provocative as well as appealingly appalling.


They had first met on a bus somewhere between El Sereno and Alhambra on its way back from Los Angeles heading toward San Gabriel, Temple City, and Arcadia. They were sitting next to one another, he reading a novel, she observing him surreptitiously with a somewhat droll expression. He suddenly looked up at her, a quizzical smile on his lips.

“Excuse me, do we know each other, did you mistake me for a popular TV personality and want my autograph, or do I simply have mustard on my face? I did have a hotdog before getting on the bus.”

She raised her eyebrows, caught in the act, then laughed nervously. “None of the above. I do apologize. And, yes, I was staring at you.” She paused. He waited. “Promise you won’t laugh, or worse, be offended?”

He inhaled, held it, considered, exhaled. “Umm . . . depends. But take a shot at it anyhow. I’m a pretty good sport in general.”

She let out a sigh. “Okay, then. First off, it’s something I once saw on a TV series and I decided to try it out myself and found it fun, so I lay no claims to originality.”

“Duly noted.”

“So anyhow, the idea is that sometimes while riding on the bus, I play a little mind game to pass the time, in which I choose at random someone I might see on board and imagine that they have previously lived or are living a very colorful life, or maybe not so colorful, as the case may be. And I create a whole scenario in my head. So for instance, I might see someone who looks like he’s on the outs, and I conjure up a scenario in which he was once a business tycoon, but lost a fortune in the last economic debacle because of bad financial decisions, his wife and children have left him, and now he recycles empty soda cans to stay alive. Or conversely, I might espy a pleasant-looking, middle-aged widowed Asian woman, and I imagine her a lonely soul on her own in this country, and with limited English, regretting she ever came here in the first place, but while getting off the bus, accidentally bumps into an American dude ten years her junior, who it just so happens can speak fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean, because his parents were itinerant Christian missionaries at one time in the Far East, who ultimately run afoul of the authorities everywhere they go because of their excessive religious fervor and are perpetually deported from one country to another. He sweeps her off her feet with his sweet Asian accents, they marry, and together establish a very successful mail-order bride service . . . until some disgruntled customer blows the whistle and the two end up in the slammer, after which completing her sentence, she is immediately deported back to her home country. Alas, now virtually destitute, she is obliged to live for a time with her grown daughter, to neither’s particular joy, since their strained relationship predated her original migration to the United States.”

“My word!”

“Ah, but there’s a happy ending. The American follows her to her native land after paying his debt to American society, and they are reunited at long last. With monies he had stashed away over the years for a rainy day, they move to Paris and live out the rest of their lives painting neoimpressionist portraits and landscapes, which is what they’d both always really wanted to do in the first place”

Gwendolyn stopped then, wet her lips, and glanced at Piers. He gaped at the woman, awestruck.

Finally he breathed, “Do I dare ask what you created out of my bus-ride life?”

“Well, in your case…. Oh dear!” She suddenly stood up then and pulled the bus cord. “I’m terribly sorry, but this is my stop. Either you can get off with me and join me in a sandwich for lunch at my place where I tell you your story, or we’ll simply have to chance a future encounter on the bus.”

Piers Pangborne blinked. The bus pulled to a stop. The door opened. Gwendolyn Salsburg stepped outside and turned around. Piers stood at the top of the steps, stared at her for a heartbeat, then rushed down after her.


The house was hers, inherited from a late aunt. Piers as a single man had previously lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment, which, on the whole, had been suitably comfortable for him over the past several years. But now with marriage, it no longer served its purpose, namely due to the fact that wedlock with Gwendolyn not only included Gwendolyn, but also a large dog, two cats, a parrot with a sailor’s vocabulary and, from a previous marriage, a preadolescent child by the name of Eustacia Vye.


“You named your daughter Eustacia Vye?” Piers had queried — over their post-bus, first lunch together — with incredulous dismay. “As in Eustacia Vye of Return of the Native fame?”

Gwendolyn had given him a resigned sigh and nodded. “Another reason why I divorced Clement.”


“Uh-huh, my ex. Clement Vye. He’s a professor of English literature at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And Thomas Hardy is his specialty.”

“And so your daughter…?”

“I swear to you, I had never read Return of the Native before having Stace. And because it was one of her father’s favorite Hardy novels, and while emphasizing that Eustacia Vye being the principal character of the book, he pressed me to name our daughter Eustacia. And ignorant me, I acquiesced.”

“I see.”

“There’s more. It was only years later that I finally got around to reading the novel and discovered to my horror just who Eustacia Vye was: a loose woman, home wrecker, who ultimately ends up drowning herself. Needless to say, I was more than appalled. No wonder some people would give me strange looks when they’d ask me her name! Clement reasoned that the whole novel circled round the figure of Eustacia. She was its star, its shining light, he insisted. She was a listless hussy who ruined people’s lives, I countered, absolutely beside myself. But the man simply laughed it off exclaiming that I was being melodramatic and silly. Perhaps, but to me it was still a perverse joke at my innocent daughter’s expense.”

“Did you ever think about changing her name.”

“Of course I did, but contrarily Stace liked her name just fine. In fact, she loved it. And I hadn’t the heart to go into the particulars of its origins, and she certainly wasn’t at an age then where you could tell her that her namesake was basically a slut, now could you?”

“Good heavens!”

“That’s not all, not by a long shot. Would you believe it? One day, a year or so ago, that little dickens on her own checked out her name Eustacia on the Internet — which, by the way, she discovered meant ‘fruitful’ — and then serendipitously, if you can call it that, came across Eustacia Vye and summaries of The Return of the Native on Wikipedia and Cliff’s Notes. Then she asks me, all serious and severe-like, ‘Mom, did you know that Eustacia Vye was a bad, bad woman in a story? Mom? You and Daddy named me after this wicked wench?’ “What could I say?”

“She actually said ‘wicked wench’?” Piers looked surprised and impressed. “So, what did you tell her?”

Gwendolyn, without blushing, replied, “Well, of course I blamed it all on her father.”

Piers tried to suppress a grin, but failed. “And then?”

Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “She laughed.”

“She laughed?”

“Yes! Can you imagine? All along I thought she’d be traumatized. But no! She thought it was very funny. She started giggling, then laughing out loud! I have one very weird child, I’ll say that.”

“You know something? I think I’ve just fallen in love with your daughter, sight unseen.”


Piers began searching for the sugar bowl to find out what was at its bottom, when his brand new stepdaughter wandered into the kitchen, rubbing her eyes sleepily. She was still in her pajamas, and her hair looked like a Medusa hand-me-down. Eustacia and Piers had taken to each other almost from the start. He was generally a playful man around kids, and the two immediately hit it off. At the time Piers and Gwendolyn first met, the girl was then nine years old. Her mother and father had been long divorced by then, and after two visits to the house by Piers, she’d playfully given her mom two thumbs up.

“He’ll do, Mom,” she’d said.

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Three months later, Gwendolyn proposed to Piers. Although he was delighted, he was also somewhat taken aback.

“I thought it was the man who did the proposing,” he said.

“My daughter gave her seal of approval and told me to hang tradition and marry you before you got cold feet and escaped my clutches.”

And so they did.


“What are you looking for, Piers?” asked Stace.

“Good morning, Sunshine.”

Eustacia gave him a roll of the eyes. “Do I look like sunshine?”

Piers regarded her a moment. “Well. . . . Maybe I was being ironic.”

“I don’t know what that means, but I’m guessing that you were trying to be smart-alecky.”

Piers grinned. “Good morning, Sunshine.”

“Good morning, Mister Smart Aleck. What are you looking for?”

Piers pulled the sticky note from the refrigerator door and handed it to the girl. “You know anything about this?”

Eustacia peered at the note. “Nope. Where’s the sugar bowl?”

“Not a clue. I thought it would be on the breakfast table where it’s usually at. But it’s not there.”

“One of Mom’s scavenger hunts?”

“Your mom conducts scavenger hunts?”

“You didn’t know?”


Ten minutes later they found it hidden behind cans of coffee beans in the cupboard over the kitchen counter.

“What on earth? Why would she stick the sugar bowl back there?”

“Beats me,” said Eustacia.

Piers set the bowl on the table and dug around the sugar with a spoon until he extracted a slip of folded paper from the bottom, on the outside of which was printed in tiny letters a message.

“What’s it say?”

“Just a second.” Piers adjusted his bifocals and squinted at the fine print. “I can barely read. . . . Uhm . . . ‘Okay, mister, this is important. Do not . . . I repeat, do NOT! unfold paper until you read this part first. Follow directions to the letter. And no cheating! Before all else, brew me fresh coffee stat. Pour into large mug . . . set on tray. Then—and only then—unfold paper.'”

There was a red arrow squiggled at the end of the line.

Piers frowned. “Coffee? That’s odd. I thought your mother only drank herbal tea.”

“Mom’s off her rocker again,” said Eustacia, shaking her head.

Piers looked up. “She goes off her rocker?”

“Oh, yeah, all the time. She didn’t tell you?”


“You poor man. Here, let me see that. You’re gonna go blind.” Eustacia wrested the note from Piers’ fingers, stared at it, pouting, then unfolded it.

“What’s it say? Or should we first brew the coffee as per instructions?”

“Are you kidding?” Eustacia squinched her eyes and began to read to herself. “Oh, boy, she’s really flipped out this time.”


“She says, ‘Empty sugar bowl and turn over. And no peeking underneath first or you’ll spill sugar all over and make mess! Then bring coffee to our bed with all due speed, face aglow.'”

“Face aglow?”

“I told you she’s off her rocker again.”

“Then maybe we better humor her.”

Eustacia pulled out a cereal bowl and emptied the sugar into it. Then she let out a scream.

“What? What?”

The girl, now whooping with laughter, passed the sugar bowl over to her stepfather. Written on its bottom with a sharpie was a message.

“Darling, I crave coffee. CRAVE! That can only mean one thing. We’re pregnant!”

Eustacia looked up at a very much astounded stepfather, her smile still wide. She tugged his sleeve, and he looked down at her with dazed eyes.

“Piers?” she said.

“What?” he said weakly.

“Do you think Mom would be very put out that if it’s a boy, we name him Yeobright, and if it’s a girl, we call her Thomasin?”*

Steve Pulley © 2016

Note to reader: I got so wrapped up in Piers Pangborne’s after-the-bus-ride marriage to Gwendolyn Salsburg that I completely forgot to relate Gwendolyn’s promised on-the-bus mind game about Piers. My apologies.

* For those unfamiliar with Thomas Hardy’s great classic novel The Return of the Native, Eustacia Vye is a young woman frustrated by life on Egdon Heath (a “vast tract of unenclosed wild . . . a somber, windswept stretch of brown hills and valleys, virtually treeless, covered in briars and thorn bushes”), and longs to escape it in order to lead the more adventure-filled life of the world. Clym (Clement) Yeobright is a young man who foregoes a business career in Paris to return to his native Egdon Heath to become a “schoolmaster to the poor and ignorant.” Thomasin Yeobright, Clym’s cousin, is a young, innocent girl of gentle ways and conventional expectations,  treated roughly by circumstances and the sort of world in which she lives.

If you wish to tackle the book, a free version may be found at:
If you wish a summarized version, however, then I suggest Cliff’s Notes at:

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