Today’s Tale

December 13, 2016

The Princess and the Cobwebs

By Jim Sizemore

Chapter One

king-1-lowrezThere once lived a King in a castle high on a hill overlooking rich farmlands and forests. The King owned everything as far as the eye could see. His peasants labored from sunup to sundown growing his crops, tending his flocks and carefully breeding his livestock. The King, a more-or-less fair man, as absolute rulers go, allowed the peasants to keep a reasonable share of their earnings. So, as peasants go, they were more-or-less happy.

But the King had recently become terribly unhappy. Some years before the time of this story, his wife the Queen had died. The King then shifted all of his love and attention to his only child, and the beautiful young girl became his obsession. For a time, his focus on her was enough to keep the King perfectly happy. But then she changed, as children always do; the once sunny girl turned into a sullen, hyper-sensitive adolescent.

Chapter Two

The King was distraught. He tried reasoning with his daughter, pleaded with her to tell him what the problem was so he could have it fixed. But his heightened concern only made matters worse. She became more and more distant, and soon refused to communicate with her father at all. The King was depressed. His work suffered. The lack of royal leadership was felt across the land. Crops failed. Taxes went uncollected. Battles with neighboring kingdoms over land rights and such were at first neglected, then lost by default.

princess-2-lowrezAs powerless administrative bodies often do, the King’s Court panicked. Dire interventions into the King’s business were considered by some of the younger court members. As young men often do, they even convened a secret meeting to plan a royal coup d’etat. When the Court Wizard heard about what was going on, he suggested a delaying tactic to head off an uprising. The Princess would be handed over to him for a complete physical, mental and spiritual evaluation. The King agreed, despite that doing so amounted to admitting that the Royal Blood had become tainted. A cover-up story was concocted and the exam scheduled. Despite attempts to keep things quiet, the scandal leaked, and it soon became obvious to even the lowest peasant that their King was a desperate man, not unlike the most common of his subjects.

wiz-king3-lowrezIn time the report came back and was duly translated from arcane medical jargon into the King’s English. It stated that the only unusual finding was a heretofore unheard of condition, caused by No-One-Knew-What. Small cobweb-like fibers, with the tensile strength of steel, were growing in the girl’s ears. The good news: their progress appeared to be very slow. Even so, the condition limited the social life of the princess. For one thing, the sprouts effected her balance. She walked with an erratic gate, couldn’t run or jump, and her favorite pass time, dancing, was out of the question. The Wizard explained that all this angst seemed to account for the Princess’ bad behavior; it was, he declared, enough to unsettle anyone. The Wizard’s report ended with an apology. He confessed that he had already tried all of his magic tricks, and nothing had worked. Therefore, as good fake doctor’s do, he recommended taking a “wait-and-see” attitude.

Chapter Three

crier4-lowrezThe King was grateful that the Wizard had at least suggested his daughter’s problem, but he was not satisfied with the passive approach. In better days The King had been a man of action, and now he was once again inspired to draw upon that attribute. He instructed his Town Crier to issue a bold proclamation. The King decreed that any man who could free the Princess from her problem, and thereby restore her cheerful character, would be fixed for the span of his natural life—at least gold-coin-wise. Also, subject to the approval of the Princess, The King threw in the possibility of a marriage option.

Every eligible young swain in the Kingdom, every aging bachelor, every social-climbing-son-of-a Duke, applied to have a go at solving the mystery. Some of the men were crude in their approach, as we know men can be, especially when in competition for the hand of a rich and beautiful young woman. Several tried outlandish physical humor: standing on their heads and spinning while juggling three balls. Others took the subtle approach, bombarding her with terrible puns and corny jokes. Then there were the totally clueless ones who attempted to melt the fibers by whispering sweet nothings into her ears. Alas, none of it worked, and the Princess grew only more awkward and ill-tempered.

Chapter Fourprincess-max5-lowrez

The King was desperate. Finally the bachelor son of the court sheep herder came forward. This was most unusual. As a rule, a commoner would not dare to think that he had anything to offer one so high-born. But to this sheepherder-in-training, known in the kingdom as Max the Talker, no such self-effacing idea had ever occurred. From birth, Max had shown unusual self-respect, a natural sense of entitlement, so to speak. On the day of his application appointment with Her Highness at the Castle, he showed up perfectly relaxed, head erect, back straight, smiling sweetly.

After just one session with Max the Talker, the King noted an improvement in his daughter. For the first time in three years, she actually smiled. And she asked for permission to see Max again, which of course was granted. Thus it came to be that Max the Talker was allowed to spend one hour each afternoon with the Princess. At first they met in her chambers, chaperoned by her Ladies in Waiting. For the next six months they spent the hour talking about subjects of mutual interest on a wide range of subjects: history, music, clothes, books, food, dancing and suchlike. Max the Talker never mentioned the cobwebs, and neither did the Princess. Nevertheless, she continued to recover. Before long she demanded even more privacy, which the King was quick to allow. From then on the chamber door was locked from the inside, the couple now without adult supervision of any sort. With this new arrangement, it was obvious to everyone that the Princess’ rate of recovery had accelerated. She was becoming her old sunny self again.

Chapter Five

king-6-lowrezThe King was ecstatic. His work, such as it was, improved. The Peasants had never been better managed. The Kings’ soldiers once again became victorious in battle. Taxes were paid on time for the first time in three years.  Quarterly reports indicated that the Royal financial house was in order, again showing profits for each quarter—and at rates higher than ever before. The Wizard, when he reexamined the Princess, was amazed: The “cobwebs” had vanished. This news was quickly reported to the King who, without hesitating, awarded Max the Talker the fortune in gold, plus his restored daughter’s hand in marriage. To the King’s surprise, and also to his relief, Max the Talker graciously declined the hand of the Princess. He used the golden windfall to buy a small farm, plus a huge herd of sheep, larger even than the King’s own.

As the months went by, and when not too busy with chores, Max the Talker was content to hang out with his many peasant friends, discussing this and that—anything they found conversation-worthy. In the evenings, he made notes in his journal. And best of all, he finally had enough free time to write at length, which had always been his passion. Max knew that he could never have been this happy as a member of the King’s Court, so he felt not the slightest twinge of regret. He and the Princess remained friends, and met from time-to-time for a longish chat. Eighteen months after the disappearance of her ear problem, the Princess met a handsome peer from a nearby Kingdom and fell in love. And that was that.

Chapter Six

Max the Talker, meanwhile, staying true to his character, spent the rest of his days living just as he had always thought he would—happily ever after . . .

talker-7-lowrez

                               Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore

Today’s Quote

February 3, 2016

Chekhov2Love, friendship, respect, do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.”

Anton Chekhov (Click image to enlarge.)

Short-story writer and dramatist, 1860-1904.


Today’s Quote

July 22, 2014

Hilary Mantel

images-1

Memoir is not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that un-mediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record; this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint.”

New York Times Book Review

May 19, 2013


Today’s Gag

June 10, 2013
1306-Mean-BlogCopyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.

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Today’s Gag

January 23, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

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Peter De Vries On Humorous Writing

June 8, 2011

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

I cannot honestly recall or retrace the conception or development of a single comedic idea I ever had or developed. They vanish from memory after they are written out. Don’t ask a cow how to analyze milk. One sits in a corner and secretes the stuff. One— But you see how right Kafka is? You have lured me into using the word “comedic,” which makes me sick.

You can make a sordid thing sound like a brilliant drawing-room comedy. Probably a fear we have of facing up to the real issues. Could you say we were guilty of Noel Cowardice?

The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.

Comedy deals with the portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.

Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.

Nonsense is such a difficult art!

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.



Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 7, 2009

Final Part

Mike and me watched Blind John alone at his table across the cafeteria. He somehow found the ketchup bottle by feel — the square shape, Mike said — and checked the edge of his plate with the first finger of his other hand, then slid the finger in towards the middle until it touched his hamburger. He undid the lid and poured some ketchup on his burger. He only spilled a little. “You know, Andy, Blind John likes you,” Mike said.

“We’re sort of friends, yeah.”

“No, I mean he really really likes you.”

“Sort of buddies, sure.”

“Blind John is a fairy nice guy,” Mike said, and laughed.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” I said.

“Ha!” Mike said. “He’s a flat-out fag.”

“Don’t be stupid, being blind is all that’s wrong with him!”

“Watch his walk,” she said. “It’s girl steps. Listen how he talks.”

After school Blind John was on the corner with a crowd of kids who could see — he didn’t spend time with blind kids if he could help it. I went by and bumped him just for meanness’ sake. “Hello, Andy,” he said.

In a different voice I said, “’Scuse me,” still trying to fool him.

He touched my face and smiled. “Nice to see you, Andy.”

How did he know? My footsteps? What else? How I smelled? I stuck my nose in my armpit and got the answer.

Wilson said I had to see that movie so that’s why, when Blind John asked me to go with him, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was another bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck-and-cover under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also, Billy Gray is your twin brother,” he said, “right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the picture a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and — ” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie is when a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and his robot, Gort, disintegrates all their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and for some reason she believes him. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice — she lets him seduce her with his accent.”

Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy — a widow — she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu — Mr. Carpenter — he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. Right then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face — popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Hey,” I yelled, “why’d you do that?

“I ain’t deaf! I can tell from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the spaceship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says to just never mind and dies. Later, Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end of the movie Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. That movie had real good shadows but didn’t make much sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But when it was all over Blind John was on the edge of his seat, had a tight grip on my arm, and a fist jammed in his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

Wilson claimed there were five white boys in South Baltimore named Andy, all of them weird, and all but two were either ugly or stupid or both. He didn’t say where I fit in, but he did say I wouldn’t know a good movie if it hit me in the back of my head. Which kind of turned out to be sort of funny in a strange sort of way. I never did see that truck that came down Charles Street when I ran between parked cars, rushing to get Daddy out of Lombardi’s bar before he spent his pay. When I woke up in the hospital Miss Flower, the night nurse, was holding my hand. She was big-boned but not fat, with coal-black hair, pale skin, and she wore huge rings and laughed real big. From my eyebrows up was mostly bandages, and under that were scalp stitches front and back. I tried to picture how the doctors worked the needle and thread, like Momma sewing on a sock hole. I was “in traction,” Miss Flower said — my legs tied in ropes with counterweights to keep them up. She claimed I was lucky, that I only had a concussion and some cuts, but no cracked skull. “But you’ll live,” Miss Flower said, “mean as you are.”

People came and went. Momma came to visit on a Sunday — but no Daddy, Daddy never did come, being off drunk someplace. Kids from school did. Blind John did, found his way to the hospital by himself somehow. Mike came a bunch of times but never stayed long. She acted funny though, more like a girl. I noticed she was starting to get titties and it seemed like the little bumps made her nervous. “When you get better,” she said, “we’ll go to the movies,” and she batted her eyes like Kathryn Grayson in a musical. All I did was nod. When you get hit by a truck, people take notice. You are an automatic hero.

Wilson came to see me once and stayed just long enough to mystify me. Claimed he didn’t like how the nurses looked at him. No surprise there, he had a chip on his shoulder for white people in general. Told me he wouldn’t trust most of them farther than he could throw one over Cross Street Market. At first Wilson stayed on his side of the room and stared at me. There was a chair over there but he leaned on the wall, casual-like. Then, after a while, he said, “My blood commanded I come, Andy.”

“Huh?”

“My blood talks to me, tells me what to do.”

“Yeah, right.

“Tells me right from wrong. I hear the voices and know what the African gods expect from me.” He smiled. “This time they wanted me to visit a banged-up white boy.” I kept quiet. “When Africa speaks,” Wilson said, “I listen.” I started to laugh but caught myself because I wasn’t sure it was a joke. Then Wilson laughed big and said, “Don’t you get it, white boy?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Think about it,” Wilson said. I just shrugged. “Africa Speaks? The movie?” Wilson moved closer to my bed, his eyes shifting from my face to my head bandages. He reached out his hand and smoothed down what messy hair there was sticking out.

“What do you say, Billy Gray?” he said.

“What?” I said.

Wilson rubbed my head softly, and said, “Klaatu barada nikto?”

I said it back. “Klaatu barada nikto.” Then we said it together three times — “Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto!” — and banged fists.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 5, 2009

Part Two

At nighttime Wilson had it easy. After the evening editions came in, all he did was sit on his stacks of newspapers under the restaurant awning and customers came to him. Shipyard workers like Daddy came. So did bookies, businessmen, politicians, judges and lawyers — strippers from the burlesque clubs up on Baltimore Street. They all came for the late papers and the big deli sandwiches and kosher pickles, or the prime rib dinner for $3.25. Wilson was on another big-time movie rant. It was my fault because I said Africa Screams was the best Abbott and Costello movie ever made. Wilson came right back at me with, “That’s just a jerky takeoff on a 1930 documentary called Africa Speaks.”

“So?”

“Since they got popular, Abbott and Costello mix in old stuff with new stuff. It’s a trick to confuse the American movie public. Tell me I’m wrong.”

My ears got hot and my brain went mushy — that lasted five seconds, then I got mad. Who did he think he was to dispute my word?

“Nobody with five brain cells would call it a comedy,” Wilson said, and smiled like he knew he had it all over some hillbilly kid up from Virginia. “It’s just delayed reaction and overreaction — predictable, predictable and predictable.” Right then some guy he knew came by and Wilson got more big in his moves, talked different. “How you doin’, Slick!”

“Ain’t nothin’ to it!” the other guy went. “You makin’ it?”

“Hey, man, gettin’ there!” Wilson slapped his leg. “Gettin’ there!”

The other guy said, “Down on it!”

“Yeah,” Wilson laughed. “Down on the end of it!”

They jabbered in African for what seemed like five minutes, until the other guy went off. Then Wilson turned back at me, but before he could say a word I got in my two cents’ worth. “Paper says Africa Screams is number one box office. Why, the fat guy does—”

Wilson interrupted with, “Just stupid Abbott and Costello delayed reaction gags. For instance, in the lion cage it takes Costello —”

“Costello is the fat one, right?”

Wilson did a slow-motion double take at me. “Hey, if you can’t even tell them apart —”

“I know one’s fat and one’s thin, it’s only the names mix me up. Anyways, people laugh so hard they pee their pants!”

“Yeah, fans eat that shit up.” Wilson yawned again, then glanced around. “Look, Andy, check out The Boy With Green Hair, it’s playing at the Garden. That’s a movie!”

“Boy with what?

“Green hair.” Wilson smiled. “It’s a symbol.” Wilson took a big pause. “The Boy With Green Hair has an important message for American citizens—it’s a bombshell that’s hit Baltimore City — a total bombshell!” I kept my peace and he kept on. “See, it’s a fable — which is sort of like a fairy tale. See, this kid’s a social outcast because he’s different — green hair, but it could be anything.” Wilson cut his eyes at me, sort of squinted to see if I followed what he said. “Like wrong color skin for instance?” Another dumb pause, then nicer. “No bad jokes and half-naked savages, like in Abbott and Costello. Take my word, Andy, The Boy With Green Hair is an A-Number-One bombshell that has hit this town.”

The number six bus pulled over at our corner. Mike, this girl who dressed like a boy so the state law would let her sell newspapers, she was across the way with an armful and must have figured it was her turn, her bus. While she waited for the light to change, I quick grabbed my stack of papers and jumped up for the bus and yelled back over my shoulder. “How about when Abbott and Costello join the French Foreign Legion? In the desert they see a mirage, a kid selling newspapers. They ask how come he’s there and the kid says, ‘Can I help it if they gave me a bad corner?’” Wilson didn’t laugh, and I told that joke good. I jumped on the bus and flipped newspapers out to sell. Out the back window I saw Mike run across Light Street after the bus, yelling, mad as hell.

After school me and Mike watched Blind John tap, tap, tap, across the street, trip on the curb and go splat on his face. Mike laughed. At first I didn’t, then I did. But not as much as she did. Blind John got up but didn’t know which way he was. He turned left and left and left again. He paused, spun right, and paused again, then he went off toward his house on Barney Street.

“Now how did he know which way?” I said.

Mike said, “Blind people got radar we don’t, Andy.”

That night I went everywhere in our house with my eyes closed, upstairs and down, even in the dark basement, which didn’t make a difference because I was being blind. Nobody home but me. I felt everything. It took forever but I didn’t care. I put my hands on every stick of furniture and everything else, even food in the icebox — and Momma’s underwear, which was thin and slippery and snagged on my fingernail. It was all too beautiful, too beautiful. I loved being blind. I felt everything.

The next day on the corner I asked Wilson had he seen the movie Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wilson being Wilson, he said, “Yes, but the real question is, Was it any good?” He took a pause, smiled. “And should I apologize if I didn’t like it?” He didn’t know a thing about that movie and proved it when he went into a fake know-it-all speech about not-important details, using fancy show-off words like “directorial intent,” for God’s sake — which I bet he didn’t know what it was any more than me. But he left out how they’d made the city look at night, wet streets, lampposts, three kinds of beautiful shadows — light, dark, and darker. Four if you count pitch-black.

Wilson must have seen my smirky face, so he changed off the subject and stuck his fist straight at my head. He hollered, “Klaatu barada nikto!” I froze, couldn’t figure him out.

“Say it, Andy,” he said. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’” Wilson jumped on his stacks of papers, one foot on the News Post pile and the other on the Sun. He was off-kilter because the stacks were uneven, but he did a bunch of bounce-squats like Cheetah anyway. “Say it, Andy! Say it!”

“Tell me what it means.”

“Trust me, white boy.” Wilson’s fist was still in my face. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!,’ then we bang fists. It’s a greeting.”

“From Africa?”

“From outer space.”

“What?”

“Just do it, goddammit!”

I did like he said, we banged fists and yelled it together, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Wilson laughed and fell on his newspapers, sprawled flat out, his eyes all wet, tears down his cheeks from laughter. My knees went soft and I slunk to the sidewalk next to him. We laughed for five minutes with no idea why, like hyenas in a Tarzan movie.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The third and final part of Klaatu Brada Nikto! will post Friday.


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 3, 2009

Part One

Urb-4Klaatu Barada Nikto! was originally published in the August, 2008, issue of Urbanite magazine, which featured short fiction intended, I suppose, as beach reading material. With a similar purpose in mind, I’m posting it on the blog this first week of August, 2009, but in three installments. Each part runs just a bit over 1,000 words, so it’s an easy read. Part 2 will post this Wednesday and part three posts on Friday.

I watched as dried sweat made white lines on the colored men’s skin, which was not just brown but had purple and blue in it, even some green, especially in the shadow parts. Their muscles bulged from the stuff they moved: lumber, vegetables, crates of oysters. New sweat washed away old and changed the line patterns on their chests and backs like a crazy Picasso couldn’t make up his mind. The men did a song I couldn’t make out, but the tune kept perfect time with how they moved on the gangplank. When they went from the bright sunlight into the shadows they got to be invisible, but their song kept on, lower, and mixed in with the clang noises from the shipyard, the bells and horns and whistles off the ships. Wave sounds came up from the pier pilings and brought the oily water smell to my nose, a sharp chemical odor, soft at the edges. A white bay steamer waited for sunset to sail. Rows of skipjacks with furled sails the color of old ivory, cleaned of oysters, fish, crabs, corn, and melons from across Chesapeake Bay, rocked in the tide.

Later, at Wilson’s Light Street newsstand, under the restaurant awning next to Cross Street Market, I asked him about shadows in movies. Big mistake. I expected he’d preach about movies that had important messages for U.S. citizens, but instead he went off on his own subject.

“Indulge me on this, Andy,” he said. “Popcorn has two flavors. Ever notice that? On top popcorn tastes one way, but on the bottom of the bag it’s different.”

I knew that, but it never came in my brain to mention it. I decided to play him some. “Why is that, I wonder?”

“Gravity,” he said. “Because it’s heavier, butter sinks to the bottom.” Wilson smiled. “Go ’head, tell me I’m wrong.”

I just nodded. Sometimes Wilson tried to shame me with his words, the strangest talk of any person I knew, white or colored. Right then a girl strutted up the sidewalk across the street. Wilson saw her and hollered, “Hey, Shirley!”

She stopped, looked over. “Yeah, Fool, what you want?”

“How you doin’, babe?”

“I’m all right.”

“Good! Good!” Wilson gave her his one-hundred-watt smile. “Doin’ all kinds of shit myself just to avoid other shit.” He paused dramatic, then, “Where you goin’ at?”

“Store.” Then Shirley got prissy fast, hands on her hips. “Why?”

“You got a dollar?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“On your way back, Sweetness, bring me a pair of socks.”

Shirley looked at Wilson like he was crazy — slowly shook her head — smiled and went on. Wilson started to sing, mostly to himself:

Blow it, preach it, Say a taste tonight.

Make it talk tonight.

Blow that shit, man — Work it on out.

Then he turned my way. “Don’t mind me, Andy — I lost what little sense I had three girlfriends ago.” He pointed at Shirley, halfway down the block. “Pay attention,” he said. “See what I did there?”

Was that supposed to be funny?”

“Gals like it when you tweak ’em.” Wilson put his arm around my neck like he was my buddy. “The other thing you should know is this: The Beacon has the best popcorn of any theater in Baltimore.” Wilson laughed big again. “Look and learn kid,” he said. “Look and learn.”

Wilson was this colored kind of guy who looked like Satchmo but not fat. I figured he was 13 or 14. Maybe 16. Hard to say with colored people because they looked younger than they really were. And for a long time I couldn’t tell them apart, either, but later I figured that was dumb. Colored people are as different as you and me. If you can’t see that you don’t have eyes. But all that off to one side, Wilson drove me nuts with his wise-ass ways — expert on everything, crazy stuff. Like he claimed white people couldn’t dance, said they just “vacillate” to the music. Is that even a real word? When I called him on it, Wilson backed off and said he’d agree that white people were born with the same rhythm as colored people, but they were scared of it. Scared of it? Right there I did him like he did me and just changed subjects.

“Well,” I said, “Bob Hope is great on the radio.”

“Hope does the same material every week,” Wilson said, “only the names change.”

“Jack Benny’s good.”

“Who’s he think he’s kidding with all those stupid hair jokes?”

“Burns and Allen?”

“They still on?”

“You like anything, Wilson?”

“Only radio joker with half a brain is Fred Allen,” he said. “Allen’s smart and funny.”

“I don’t get that guy.”

Wilson smiled. “Of course you wouldn’t, Andy.”

Now what did he mean by that tone of voice — some kind of disrespect? I just let it go. Anyways, my secret job was to learn all I could about the newspaper business. I watched how Wilson kidded people and made change and such. He didn’t seem to mind that I hung around, but he didn’t volunteer information, either. The wind shifted and rain started. We moved his stacks of papers to the other end of the awning to keep dry. He took a News Post and opened it to the movie listings. After five minutes of no talk Wilson finally said, “Andy, you seen Panic in the Streets with Richard Widmark and Jack Palance?”

“Yeah,” I said, and right there I thought I had him. “Palance plays the bad guy, see — name of Blackie. This doctor chases him ’cause —

” Wilson looked surprised. “A doctor chased him?”

“Thought you seen it.” “Didn’t say I saw the damn thing, wanted to know if you did.”

“Yep, caught it at the Echo on Fort Avenue. See, Widmark plays this health doctor and he’s gotta find Palance ’cause Palance has the plague and . . .”

“Shut up!” Wilson hollered. “Shut yo’ fat white mouth!” He laughed. “Don’t ruin it for me, Andy — Christ!”

“I didn’t tell the plague details. That’s the real story.”

Wilson just put his finger on his lips.

“You gotta see Palance,” I said. “Face like Frankenstein. There oughta be a law against that much ugly in public.”

Wilson sort of smiled. “Sounds good” was all he said.

I had won! For once I shut Wilson down cold.

Part 2 of Klaatu Barada Nikto! will post this Wednesday.


Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

PostCd

“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.