Are We Poor? (1-6-17)
Sure, my father had a regular job like every other father in the neighborhood. You know, the daytime kind where he wore a white shirt and tie? But in the late afternoon, as soon as he got home from that job, and after a quick-gulp supper, he’d throw on different clothes and rush off to his second job.
For a while, I thought other fathers probably weren’t smart enough to get second jobs. They would’ve if they could’ve, right?
Dad had many second jobs over the years, but this particular year—must have been 1956, when I was five years old—he moonlighted driving a city bus every night from 6:00 pm, ‘til long after my bedtime. And all day Saturday, too.
That was the year I learned from Miss Yeterian, my Sunday School teacher, that Sunday was my father’s day of rest. Heck, I already knew that. He hardly ever got out of his pajamas. Perhaps I hadn’t gotten the full meaning of what Miss Yeterian was telling me.
One Sunday morning, when my mother wasn’t riding careful herd over me, I snuck into the living room where my father slept in his favorite chair, his stocking feet raised on the once-plush hassock. I knelt in my Hopalong Cassidy pjs and tickled his feet with a toothpick I’d stolen from the kitchen. Well, he jumped and sputtered awake.
When his eyes finally focused on me, I said, “Dad, are we poor?”
He scratched his chest, grumpily looking about the room for someone in charge to whom he could complain. Frustrated, he finally said to me, “What do you want?”
“Are we poor?” I repeated, not without some frustration of my own.
He gazed around the room again, probably praying for a miracle of divine intervention, but got none.
He squinted and muttered something under his breath. Finally, he said, “Which one are you again?”
“Larry,” I said, “the youngest.”
“Ah,” he said, “no wonder you don’t look familiar yet. Be a good boy… you are a boy right?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh.”
“Swell, then be a good boy and go tell your mother you need a haircut … or an enema.”
He closed his eyes.
“Haircuts cost money,” I said, trying to sound just like my mother.
His eyes popped open again, researching the room. Slowly, he focused back on me, his head tilted to one side.
“You again, huh?” he said, scratching the stubble on his chin. “Where’s your mother?”
“Yeah, likely story,” he said. “So what’s your problem, anyway?”
“Are we poor?”
He blew a bunch of air out, turning his cheeks into balloons. “Well, I sure am sleep deprived, but I don’t think that answer’s going to satisfy you, will it?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I shook my head because I think that’s what he expected.
“Hmm. Are we poor, huh? That’s what you want to know? That’s what you woke me out of a sound sleep for?”
“And God bless you for it, you little … Let me put it to you this way … Larry, was it?”
“Larry, the youngest,” I said, nodding again. Nodding was one of my best things.
“Well, let me put it this way, Larry-the-Youngest, are you hungry?”
“I like cherry pie,” I volunteered.
He bowed his head and chuckled. “Welcome to the human race, boy. But what I’m asking is, have you ever been so hungry you wanted to eat your … you have a Teddy Bear, son?”
“Well, have you ever been hungry enough to eat Teddy?”
I shook my head, even though I had nibbled Teddy’s ears on occasion. But never because I was hungry. I just liked to.
“Okay,” he said, “so how poor can we be? Now go tell your mother you want a shot and a beer and leave your old man in peace.”
“You work all the time.”
He stared at me for a long moment.
“So good of you to notice. Your brothers and sisters eat all the time, too. See how it works?”
I shook my head, wondering if maybe he was saying I was supposed to eat more. I supposed I could try.
He ran his tongue between his teeth and lips, made a sour face.
“You sure your mine?” he asked. “You look like an O’Malley to me. You’re not a wandering O’Malley, or a lost Satalino, are you?”
I shook my head. After nodding, shaking was my best thing.
“My luck,” he said. “I always get the weird ones. Now, where’d you say your mother’s at?”
I pointed vaguely behind me.
He nodded—guess that’s where I learned it. “She’s hiding from you, isn’t she? Clever woman. You think you can find her?”
I smiled and nodded—showing off. Mom is everywhere. How hard is it to find everywhere?
“Atta boy,” he said. “Go find her, tell her you interrupted my nap, and if I ever see either of you again I won’t be responsible for my actions. You got all that, Louis?”
“Larry,” I said, “the youngest.”
He massaged his temple.
“And, Lord willing, the last. Now, can you go find your mother and ask her to put you on a slow boat to China? One way?”
I didn’t say anything, just stared at him.
“You still want to know if we’re poor, don’t you?”
“No,” he said.
“Good,” I said, wondering why adults always made everything so hard.
reprinted from Page & Spine, July 12, 2013
The Santa-Man (1-13-17)
The elevator car came to a jaw-jarring, knee-buckling stop somewhere between the seventeenth and sixteenth floors. When the emergency lighting flicked on, the two passengers, crumpled in opposite corners, rose to the soundtrack of their stereophonic cussing.
“Hey,” scolded Santa Claus, “watch your language, kid.”
The kid, aged somewhere between past-cute and impending-puberty, brushed off his pants and settled back down into his corner. “Right. You should talk, Santa,” he sneered. “You ho-ho-ho Mrs. Claus with that mouth?”
“Touché,” sighed Santa, checking his bones for breaks. “I apologize for my profanity.” Satisfied his skeletal Tinker Toys were intact, he regarded the boy again. “And I am duly impressed with the richness of your . . . expletive voice. Very colorful. You must serve your detention periods with merchant marines.”
“Hey, who said anything about detention?”
The man indicated his red suit. “Do the words ‘he knows if you’ve been bad or good’ mean anything to you?”
“Nice try, old man, but you’re as phony as a two-dollar bill. What’s with the cheesy get-up, anyway?”
Santa pulled the fake beard off his face and scratched under his chin. “Alas, you’re right about the get-up, young man. Cheesy in the extreme. But there’s nothing phony about two-dollar bills. In fact, I keep one in my wallet for luck. You want to see it?”
The boy rolled his eyes with pre-teen precision. “I’ll pass, perv. How ‘bout you stay in your corner, and I’ll stay in mine. I know all about old guys who like to play dress-up.”
“Yes, I’ll bet you do. And, though you’re wrong about me, I commend you on your caution. So, do you reside in this building?”
The boy waggled a finger in the air. “Uh-uh. None of your NTN.”
“Excuse me? NTN?”
“Need To Know, gramps.”
This time, Santa rolled his eyes. “Ah, quite. ISHK.”
The youngster squinted. “Huh?”
“I Should Have Known. ‘Know’ and ‘known’ each begin with a K, incidentally. Where do you go to school, anyway?”
“Uh-uh. You’re a perv, so I ain’t telling you anything. As soon we get out of this shoe-box-on-a-string I’m going to report you to Julio.”
“The doorman. He’s friends with every cop in the precinct, too.”
“How jolly for him. And what is it you’re going to report me for?”
“Askin’ too many perv questions.”
“Oh my. Perv questions?”
“Where do I live; where do I go to school; do I want to look in your flippin’ wallet. Typical perv stuff. I’m no victim, pal!”
The phone rang … loudly, startling both passengers.
The boy jumped up, answered.
“That you, Julio?” He listened and nodded. “Yeah, it’s me in the barrel again—and don’t say you’re gonna start charging me rent. That one’s getting old. . . . Yeah, I’m all right. . . . Huh?” The boy looked into the other corner. “Just me and an old perv in a Santa suit.”
“I’m not a pervert,” mumbled the Santa-man.
The boy resumed speaking into the phone. “Don’t worry, Julio, I already set him straight. . . Yeah, and let my mother know, will you?. . . Okay, I’ll tell him.” The boy hung up and sat down.
“Julio says he’s gonna have a talk with you when we get out of here.”
Santa-man raised his eyebrows. “I’m not surprised—given your rousing endorsement of my character. But I assure you, my ‘perv’ inquiries were all quite innocent.”
“Tell it to the judge, Santa Paws.”
Santa chuckled. “Indeed I will, if it comes to that. But since neither of us is going anywhere at the moment, perhaps I can explain? You know, take the tension out of the air?”
The boy shrugged.
“Very well. I asked if you lived in this building because you seemed to take this unfortunate situation in stride—like you’ve been through it before. I thought you might be able to provide information as to the frequency and duration of these . . . elevator hiccups. Nothing perverted about that, right? Understanding context is an important element in successful social intercourse.” Santa-man held up his hands. “And before you start waving the pervert flag again, go home and look up social intercourse.”
The boy appeared unconvinced, but let down his guard some. “It happens all the freakin’ time. My mom raises hell, but the Building Council says they’re doing the best they can. Mom’s got stuck twice, and this is my fourth time gettin’ trapped like a fly in amber.”
Santa grinned. “So you do attend school after all! Fly in amber? Fifth grade? Sixth?”
The boy shook his head. “NTN, gramps.”
“Of course—Need To No. So how long can I expect to be trapped in this amber?”
“I know what ‘duration’ means, smart guy.”
“Hard to say.”
“Meaning . . .?”
“Meaning we probably won’t have to go all Donner Party on each other, but Rudolph’ll might start to worry about you before it’s all over.”
Santa grinned. “All Donner Party? You are an interesting lad.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, and crossed his Santa boots. “Heck of a way to spend Christmas Eve. Oh, when I asked you what school you attend, there was nothing ‘perv’ about that, either. Just professional curiosity. You see, I’m a--”
“You’re a teacher.”
“That easy to spot, huh? What gave me away?”
“You talk all dorky.”
Santa-man scratched behind his ear. “Dorky?”
The boy made a face. “You’re all alas this, and I assure you that, and indeed whatever. And your jaw never moves when you talk. You look like a horse with a bit in its mouth.”
The man rubbed his jaw. “And from those flattering clues you’ve deduced my profession? How clever.”
“How clever do I have to be? You talk just like one of those black and white movies Mom likes.”
“I think you’re damned clever—the way you make associations. You have an active mind.”
The boy extended his arms in front of him. “Hello! That’s what you eggheads in your smelly tweed jackets and pilly sweater vests never get—even if I couldn’t read McDonalds, I’d sure as hell know what the Golden Arches stand for. That doesn’t make me clever.”
The man thought for a moment. “It makes you . . . aware?”
The man in the Santa suit squirmed a bit. “But I hope you’re not saying you don’t need to read, because if you are, I’m afraid we eggheads will never get it.”
The youngster waved his hand dismissively. “See? That’s what I mean. I’m being metaphorical, but you underestimate me because you teach kids, and all kids are stereotypes. You expect me to be illiterate and literal, therefore, I must be. You all talk down to me. Even my mother.”
“You’re mother’s a teacher, isn’t she?”
“My, how clever of you.”
Santa-man started to speak, then stopped. After a time, he said, “Julio give you an ETR?”
The boy thought for a moment, then smiled. “Nah. He’s got to call the Sup. If the Sup can’t fix it, he calls in the Techs. But if the Techs can’t fix it, they--”
“Call in Mr. Otis himself?”
The boy smiled wider. “Right on,” he said. “You know who they call if Mr. Otis can’t fix it?”
“Next of kin?”
At first, the boy appeared disappointed that he was denied the punch-line, then he nodded--if grudgingly.
“So, what’s with the outfit?”
The man looked at his jacket and pinched a bit of fabric. “I have an ex-wife and two children residing in this building—I recently moved here from Iowa so I could be closer to them. The outfit was an impulse that didn’t go over so well. I’m afraid I frightened both the little ones to tears, and my ex-wife threatened me with another divorce. Old habits, you know?”
The boy indicated he knew. “Sure. My dad lives in Connecticut.”
“Will you see him tomorrow?” the man asked, looking as if he wished he hadn’t.
The boy bowed his head. “All depends, I guess,” he whispered.
Santa-man laughed. “On whether he knows how to fix elevators, right?”
“How did you know what I was going to say?” The boy slapped both hands on the elevator floor.
Santa-man peered up at the ceiling. “Oh, some clever guy recently reminded me to keep an open mind—and an unlocked jaw.”
The phone rang again . . . loudly.
The boy jumped up to answer.
“Julio,” he shouted into the mouthpiece, “what’s our ETR?” The boy winked at the man in the Santa suit. “Estimated Time of Rescue, numbnuts. . . . So the Techs are here? . . . You called my mom, right?” The boy glanced at Santa-man again. “He’s all right. Dorky as hell, for sure, but he’s all right. . . . Yeah, see you back on the planet.”
The boy hung up and seated himself.
“ETR?” said the man.
“According to Julio, a couple of hours, tops.”
The man smiled nervously. “So it could be sooner?”
The boy cocked his head. “I wouldn’t count on it, Santa. Techs are union, see? And they’re gettin’ triple-time for Christmas Eve. They sure as hell don’t care how bad we have to pee.”
“Not as bad as you. Best if we keep talking.”
“How do you know how badly I need to urinate?”
“All old guys always need to go. Don’t you watch television?”
“Evidently not as cannily as you do. So, where does your mother teach?”
The boy gestured vaguely with his chin. “Some tight-assed school a few blocks from here called Barristers.”
The Santa-man might have smiled briefly. “Really? You matriculate there, as well?”
This time the boy squirmed. “For now. I’m on probation for being disruptive. They’ll probably kick me out before next semester and Mom’s P-O’d royally.”
“Hmm, I’ve heard good things about Barristers. I would think they’d covet a young man of your intellect and . . . awareness.”
“Tell that to my mom.”
“I may. I’ll be engaged at Barristers myself come the new term.”
The boy went pale and shook his head. “Oh, no. This can’t be good. What are you going to teach?”
The man looked up at the ceiling. “Actually, I won’t be in the classrooms much--”
The boy jumped to his feet. “Oh, double-no! You going to be a mucky-muck dean, or something?”
The Santa-man rearranged the collar of his jacket. “His Muckiest, actually.”
“Holy shi . . . itake mushrooms on noodles. My mom’s going to kill me!”
The elevator lurched for a second, then began a slow, controlled descent.
The man reached into his back pocket and fished out his wallet. He pulled out a card. “Ask your mother to give me a call between the holidays. Tell her you’re guaranteed enrollment for next term, but probation stands until I can review your file and find a way for you and Barristers to settle whatever differences exist.”
The boy looked at the card, then put it in his back pocket. He gestured toward the wallet. “Mr. Salas, do you really have a two-dollar bill in there?”
New Year’s Revolution—Pt. 1 (1-20-17)
Ollie and I have our own New Year's Day traditions. But January 1st, 2017 didn't turn out exactly traditional.
Sure, we slept in. No, we luxuriated in sleeping in. Read into to that whatever you please. When we'd finished luxuriating, we agreed a nap would be in order. Ah, the simple pleasures of the impulsively idle!
Presently, we lumbered out of bed. Robed and slippered, we shuffled off--Ollie to the wet bar, I to the wet kitchen. You see, Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict comprise the perfect feast after a long morning of luxuriating, and after many years of practice, we each had the drill down pat.
As I removed the appropriate ingredients from the fridge--U.S. grade-A eggs, Canadian bacon, English muffins, Israeli lemons, Hungarian paprika, and Russian caviar--I wondered if breakfast might be not be the secret to world harmony. I made a mental note to get Ollie's opinion on the subject.
Meanwhile, I heard the reassuring clink of ice on glass, and soon, the cha-cha-cha of the cocktail shaker. I wondered if that was where the inspiration for the dance had emanated. Seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Oh, whatever 2017 had in store for us, I felt confident we'd be getting off on the right foot.
Just as I put the poaching water on to boil, Ollie entered the kitchen with two tall glasses of scarlet ambrosia.
"Ketel One vodka?" I asked.
He nodded. "Netherland's finest."
I grinned. "Another country heard from."
"Oh, just a theory about world peace I'm working on. I'll tell you about it later."
We clinked glasses. Ollie said, "Any theory involving world peace ought to involve vodka, too. I can't wait to hear what you're cooking up."
"Later," I said. "I have more important cooking to do right now."
As I puttered, and buttered, and whisked, and poached, I realized the most romantic room in any house ought to be the kitchen. No offense to the bedroom intended. But what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom. What happens in the kitchen is more open, and defines a marriage in so many other spicy ways.
Ollie set plates and silverware on the kitchen bar. The dining room was for company. Ollie and I preferred to dine in the elegance of the kitchen bar. Even rich folk are folk--until they convince themselves they're something else.
I jiggled the ice cubes in my glass. "You don't expect me to fly on one wing, do you?"
Ollie kissed my cheek. "I expect you can fly any time you set your mind to it." He took my glass. "But it so happens, I'm running on empty, too. Prepare for take-off, Nikki. I'll be back in a flash."
The eggs had poached perfectly. The Hollandaise didn't break. 2017 had dealt me nothing but aces, so far.
The second Bloody Mary tasted even better than the first. Ollie and I ate and drank like fully sated, satisfied, surrenderers to love. And we were.
Later, we shared the couch in a loving couple's fine disarray. I, absorbing the New York Times Arts Section, Ollie grunting and groaning over a particularly heinous crossword puzzle. I supposed the world kept turning on its axis, but I had no interest in anything that might adversely affect that cozy moment in which I lived. Then reality intervened.
"Maybe we should talk," said Ollie.
Maybe we should talk? I suppose there are scarier phrases. Hell, scarier words, even. Like cancer. Like divorce. Like audit. My crystalline New Year's Day immediately shattered into shards of dread. "About what?" My voice held steady, but my heart raced.
"Now don't go imagining the worst."
I'm not sure if I'm even capable of imagining the worst. Just when I imagine the worst, I imagine something even worse. "Tell me."
"I've been offered a job."
Now you're probably thinking that compared to cancer, divorce, or an audit, a job can't be all that bad, right? Don't be so sure. Ollie doesn't send resumes to Walmart or the Welcome Wagon.
"What kind of job," I asked, squeezing my eyes tight.
"Well, Donald Trump called the other day . . ."
I've heard it said, 'The world has a sense of humor.'
Why do I always feel like the butt of its jokes?--Nikki
New Year’s Daymare (1-27-17)
I had dreaded the moment.
Nikki and I had been enjoying the perfect New Year's Day morning/afternoon. We shared the sofa as relaxed as a pair of cats who'd just run off an invigorating dose of catnip. I swear Nikki purred on my lap. I hated to spoil the moment, but I couldn't think of a better time to broach the subject.
I rubbed smooth circles on her back. "Maybe we should talk," I said.
Well, you'd've thought I'd lit a cherry bomb under her butt. The woman jumped to attention like a Four-Star had barged into the room. One thing about Nikki, she can go from 0 to 60 faster than a hopped-up, hemi'd Maserati. She slung questions at me quicker than a Sunday quiz show host . . . and each one sounded like an accusation.
"Whoa, whoa," I said, trying get hold of her robe reins. But she high-tailed away, kicking, to the other side of the room like she'd been wolf-warned.
"What foul news are you springing on me now?" she asked. See what I mean about questions sounding like accusations?
"Calm down," I intoned as reassuringly as I could. But judging by the way she snorted, I decided I'd have made a lousy horse whisperer. "I've been offered a job, is all. I thought we should discuss it."
"Job?" she sneered, as if it were a dirty word.
To be fair, my employment history included a few, well, controversial episodes regarding, well, individuals of less-than-sparkling character. So, I tried to be reassuring. "Donald Trump called the other day."
My effort to be reassuring had exactly the opposite effect. Nikki's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as she tried to embed herself into the far wall.
"Trump?" she asked, in approximately the same tone I'd have expected her to utter, "There are worms in my Moo Shu!"
I held up my hands in the international symbol of 'Don't Shoot!'. "Nikki, Sweetie, nothing's been finalized. The man just wants to talk to me about a possible position within his proposed Security Assessment Phalanx."
She shivered. "So he wants you to be a SAP? And you're considering it?"
"SAP? What? No! I agree, Phalanx has unfortunate connotations. But, semantics aside, the man is about to become President of The United States. If he wants to offer me a job, the least I can do is listen to him."
Nikki appeared to calm down some. "So you can say no?"
"Of course, I can say--"
"Shouldn't I at least hear him out first?"
She slinked against the wall to the bar, grabbed the bottle of Ketel One and hugged it to her chest. "Fine. Hear him out, then say no."
"I can't do it that way. What if he wants me to do something worthwhile?"
"Goodwill wants you to do something worthwhile. The Salvation Army wants you to do something worthwhile. When was the last time anything called a 'Phalanx' ever did anything worthwhile?"
I kept my voice as steady as I could. "You're talking semantics, Babe. Okay, what if he changes the name to Security Assessment Panel. Huh?"
"That would still make you a SAP. And panels are for game shows. Which are you, Arlene Francis or Charles Nelson Reilly?"
I almost laughed. The woman has a knack for that. "Nikki, I haven't accepted the position yet. We were having a beautiful New Year's Day. I thought this would be a good time to discuss this rationally."
"And that's exactly what we're doing."
"Then why are you huddled all the way across the room hugging a bottle of vodka?"
"You be rational in your way, I'll be rational in mine."
"Darling, come back here. Tell me what it is you're so afraid of."
She took a step toward me, then retreated. "If you must know, I'm afraid what you do. And I'm afraid of the future. Mostly, I'm afraid you'll be someplace else when the future comes."
Fear is neither rational nor irrational. Fear is simply real. -- L. Oliver Bright
copyright 2017 by Lee Allen Hill
Please be advised: comedy must contain a grain of truth or it isn't funny. Pokes at public figures are intended as all in good fun. - N.K. Wagner, pub.