“I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill-workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
Harper Collins, New York, 2016
The Princess and the Cobwebs
By Jim Sizemore
There 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.
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.
As 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.
In 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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
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 . . .
Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore
Betty’s Restaurant, February 5, 2012
I left the Potomoc River home of my still-sleeping hosts before seven in the morning and drove all the way through Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to the Food Lion on the other side of town. They were open but had only Sunday Washington Posts, stacks of them; no Sunday New York Times. Still searching for the Times, I stopped at the Sheetz gas station on the way back to the river house. Same deal, not a N.Y.T. logo in sight. Continuing on German Street, back toward Rt. 230 and my hosts’ home, I noticed a clean well-lighted place, the only business open on the town’s main drag. It was a restaurant called Betty’s, a down-home old-style main street-type diner; extreme chintz and hand-lettered everything. (Click attached picture to enlarge.) Inside, there was a sign up front that said “Please Wait to be Seated.” Two older men and a single woman about the same age were seated all the way in back, each in individual booths.
The waitress, a very pleasant young woman, on the chubby side, called out to me “You can sit anyplace, sir.” I took a booth just in front of the other three residents—so close I could overhear the conservation between the two men and the waitress. They were discussing their various health issues, weight, high blood pressure, and their mutual love of chocolate. Two more men in our collective age group came in and selected individual booths just in front of me. The waitress greeted each one by name. I said, smiling up at the waitress, “Gee, I wish I was a regular!” “You can be one,” she said, laughing, “I’ll treat you right.” She took my order—two eggs over medium with sausage gravy and one biscuit. As she walked away, I noticed a newspaper rack up front and went to check it out. Bingo—a huge stack of Sunday New York Times off to one side!
As I settled back in my booth with my treasured newspaper, several more male customers came in and they, too, took individual booths. Again, the waitress greeted them by their first names and brought them coffee without waiting to be told to do so. Then she placed a cup of steaming black coffee exactly halfway down the empty counter and left it there. A minute or two later another older man came in, picked up a local paper from one of the racks and sat down at the coffee cup waiting for him on the counter. He and the waitress exchanged greetings and a bit of banter.
Shortly after that, she topped-off the coffee cup of the man in the booth directly in front of me, then scratched his back. Then she topped-off my cup and said, “Plus one for you, too,” and scratched my back. I laughed and said, “Now I really do feel at home!”
So, of course, on the way out, as I paid the waitress for my breakfast, I told her, “I will be back,” and gave her a very generous tip. She said, “Now you do that, hon—and soon, too, OK? You’re my new best buddy.”
“Mutual,” I said. “Very, very mutual.”