Monologue/Dialogue

May 1, 2013

The Genius of Paul Rhymer, I

By Jim Sizemore

I wrote The following essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” on April 20, 1995, to promote a talk I gave at the University of Baltimore. The program featured actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. (For a start I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”)

Paul Rhymer’s knack for writing dialogue is nowhere more evident than when a character delivers a telephone monologue. Sometimes it’s Vic on the phone curtly dealing with a salesperson or a wrong number, or Rush gabbing with Bluetooth Johnson, Nicer Scott, or another of his buddies from the neighborhood. Most often, though, the telephone monologue falls to Sade when she’s home alone taking a break from her domestic duties. The monologue I’ve chosen as representative is from an undated script, most likely from the early 1940s, since Sade’s amiable Uncle Fletcher is featured. Uncle Fletcher joined the show as an on-mike character around that time, and here makes one of his slapstick entrances. When he enters, in the company of Rush, Sade’s telephone monologue, or “solo,” is transformed into a trio. Actually it’s a quartet if you count “Ruthie,” on the other end of the telephone line.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s early afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the living room we find Mr. Victor Gook all by herself. Mrs. Gook is at the telephone conversing with her close friend and confidante Mrs. Frederick Stembottom. Listen:

SADE (to phone): I didn’t take you away from anything, did I, lady? Well, ish, I haven’t really got anything to say now that I’ve called you. (giggles) Yes . . . well, what happened I went like a house a-fire all morning long and done nine million jobs around the house and then got dinner and pitched in on my upstairs the minute the boys left for the office an’ school, and finally did quit and wash and put on a clean apron and then discovered I’d been on the go so much I couldn’t settle down. (laughs) You know how that is lady. Person gets theirself all keyed up and they hafta slow down gradual or the boiler explodes. (laughs) Yes . . . so I telephoned you. Hey, maybe that’s not very complimentary. (loud lady laugh) No, but you appreciate how I mean, Ruthie. Sure. Yes, isn’t it a quiet afternoon. One of them hushedy-hushedy afternoons where a person sits and listens to pins dropping. Little bit ago I was out on the back porch shaking my mop and ‘way off in the distance somewhere I heard some fella say giddap to his horse and I bet twenty-five cents he was clear away over on Chestnut Street and that’s eight hundred miles from here if it’s an inch. Yeah . . . you run inta real still afternoons every so often. Like Sunday kinda. I was sayin’ to . . . say, lady, hang on a second, I think I heard my kitchen door. (calls) Hello? Groceries? You, Irving?

RUSH (off): Hi, Mom.

FLETCHER (off): Afternoon, Sadie honey.

SADE (calls, in some surprise): Well—hello. (to phone) Uncle Fletcher and Rush just walked in, Ruthie. I can’t imagine what Rush’s doing home from school. (crash in the kitchen) Oh, my goodness. (calls) What happened?

FLETCHER (cheerfully, off) Fell down.

SADE (calls sharply) Who fell down?

RUSH (off, cheerfully): We both fell down.

SADE (not loud): Oh, for mercy’s sake. (to phone) What, Ruthie? No, we don’t need to hang up. There’s no reason why we hafta cut our conversation short just because . . . huh?

RUSH (approaching): Uncle Fletcher tripped on his shoelace, Mom.

FLETCHER (approaching, cheerfully): No broken bones, Sadie, Honey, no broken bones.

SADE (to phone): Well whatever you say, lady. Seems like a shame though. I take you away from whatever you’re doing and just because my family busts in we hafta cut short our . . . (giggles) . . . well, ish.

RUSH (coming up): Principal called a special teachers’ meeting, Mom.

FLETCHER (coming up): Using the telephone, are you, Sadie?

SADE (to phone) No, you needn’t bother to call back, Ruthie.

FLETCHER (gently): Mama’s using the telephone, Rush. I’d stop my titters, whimpers, and guffaws.

RUSH (amused): O. K.

FLETCHER (sententiously) When the older folks is using the telephone it’s always best to let up on the titters, whimpers and guffaws.

RUSH (chuckling): I’m letting up on ‘em.

FLETCHER: You’re a good boy.

SADE (to phone): Well, all righty, Ruthie, whatever you say. Dandy. Fine.

FLETCHER (to Rush, sententiously) There was a little boy in Detroit Michigan neglected to let up on his titters, whimpers and guffaws while Momma was using the telephone and he disappeared and all they ever found was one of his tiny patent leather booties, the tassel singed at the bottom.

RUSH (chuckles): I’ll remember that.

FLETCHER (gently): Yes—it teaches us a lesson.

SADE (to phone): All righty then, Ruthie lady, we’ll leave it like that. You bet. All righty, Ruthie. You betty, lady. Goodbye. (hangs up)

The Last Word
Even before Uncle Fletcher and Rush enter in this example, Sade’s monologue—through Rhymer’s word choices and emphasis, including pauses, giggles and laughs—becomes a dialogue. It really is a solo, of course, but written so skillfully that we can almost hear her duet with Ruthie on the other end of the line. clip2Rhymer, by his example—assuming we’re interested enough to pay attention—is teaching us how to write humorous dialogue even when what he presents appears, at first, to be a monologue. As with the example above, all his lessons are subtle. If we want what he has to teach us, we have to dig it out. After all, Rhymer’s purpose in “Vic and Sade” is not to conduct a writing craft class, he simply want’s to entertain us. But sometimes it does seem that he also intends to instruct us directly, as in the following excerpt from a 1939 script. As we join the Gook family this time, Sade is explaining to Vic that she has been asked by Mr. Gumpox, the garbage man, to circulate a petition in the neighborhood. Seems he’s unhappy with his rate of pay and will consider staying on the job only if Sade can get six hundred signatures, which he assumes will influence the city to give him a raise. (Click on image above to read the caption.)

SADE: Let’s see. I think I can remember most of that petition. “We, the undersigned, being in sane mind an’ sound body, do hereby command, request, an’ implore that Francis Gumpox be retained by the city. As homeowners with a passionate love for a beautiful town in which to live we feel that this community could never stand to lose the services of Francis Gumpox, who knows and loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (laughs): Oh, for gosh sakes, does that guy . . .

SADE: Wait a second, I left out a word. “Who knows and loves garbage disposal like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): Thunder.

SADE (giggles): The other word sounds funny . . . “knows an’ loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): It all sounds funny.

© 2013 Jim Sizemore
This is an edited re-post from July 14, 2008

 


The Name Game

April 24, 2013

The Genius of Paul Rhymer, II

By Jim Sizemore

The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade,” is one of several I wrote to promote a talk I gave, titled Writing Humorous Dialogue, at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer — or listen to one of the taped shows — click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. For a start, I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”

In humorous writing, the name of person, place or thing takes on an importance they seldom have in real life. The names in a funny novel, TV show, play, movie — whatever— often tells us something about the behavior and appearance of a person, or provides interesting clues about the place or thing being depicted. The name “H. K. Fleeber,” for instance, suggests someone given to “dorky” behavior — certainly not a character we would expect to be a brain surgeon. In funny fiction the character of a place may also be defined by its name. If one were to visit a town called “Dismal Seepage, Ohio,” say, one would not be surprised to find oneself in a geographical location featuring a swamp. The same idea applies with named things. A food item called “beef punkles” is a good example. We all know what beef is, but what the hell is a “punkle?” To me, the latter word suggests toughness, a cut of meat that requires forever to cook in the vain hope of rendering it tender enough to eat. (And the word “punkle” alone is — well — it just sounds funny.)

The above examples are from “Vic and Sade,” the radio show by Paul Rhymer that was broadcast on NBC from 1932 to 1944. During that time Mr. Rhymer wrote over three thousand 15 minute scripts, but only a few hundred of the shows still exist on tape. “Vic and Sade” is a simple program. The episodes, which were sandwiched between the popular “soap operas” of the day, consist entirely of conversations between and among the four family members: Vic and Sade Gook, their son Rush, and Sade’s Uncle Fletcher. All the other characters — and there are scores — are vivid despite the fact they are never heard on the air. Rhymer manages to breath life into them through the artful way he has the on-mike characters talk about them, or talk to them on the telephone. The strange names and behaviors he gives them also serve to make them memorable.

Rhymer admitted to being influenced by Charles Dickens, and that influence can be found in the names of his off-mike characters. A few more examples: “Mr. Chinbunny,” the high school principal; “Ike Kneesuffer,” Vic’s next door neighbor and indoor horseshoe-playing buddy; “Ruthie and Ted Stembottom,” Vic and Sade’s card playing neighbors; and other relatives and friends such as “O. X. Bellyman;” “Y. Y. Flirch;” “J. J. J. J. Stunbolt;” “Elton Wheeney;” “I. Edison Box” (love the rhythm of that one); “Miss Edith Klem;” and “Gus Blink.”

Place names come in for the same creative treatment. (How could you ever forget the name of that swamp town in Ohio? You haven’t, have you?) Vic’s friend “Homer U. McDancy” resides in “East Brain, Oregon.” The Gook’s favorite restaurant in town is called the “Little Tiny Petite Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppe.” Sade never misses the washrag sales at “Yamiltons Five and Dime.” Vic is endlessly being billed for his two dollar payment overdue at “Kleeberger’s Department Store.” Several of Uncle Fletcher’s friends live downtown at the “Bright Kentucky Hotel,” which is so close to the railroad tracks that vibrations from passing steam engines cause the beds to “walk” across the floor as hot cinders fly in the open windows.

Paul Rhymer also likes to do switches on place names. He sets an anecdote in “Chicago, Maryland,” for instance, or “St. Paul, Kentucky.” The device may at first seem forced — that is, until one looks at an actual map. There one finds real place names like “Hollywood, Florida,” “Paris, Texas” and “Rome, Georgia.” And did you know that the name of actor James Stewart’s hometown, near Pittsburgh, is actually “Indiana, Pennsylvania?” Rhymer’s humor is based firmly in reality and his place-naming technique points up the fact. The names may be exaggerated, a bit off center, but they’re plausible. They have a familiar sound that adds to the fun.

In addition to his playfulness with the names of people and places, Paul Rhymer enjoyed inventing strange foods, flowers and other everyday items, and he gave them names that on first hearing sound as though they might be real but at the same time are — once more — just slightly off. In her garden, Sade cultivates a species of flower called “Panther Blood.” It’s never described in the scripts, but I always visualize it as being a deep reddish-purple, the color of over ripe eggplant. And when Sade prepares those tough, slow-cooking beef punkles for lunch, Vic is often late getting back to his office at the “Consolidated Kitchenware Company, Plant Number Fourteen,” where he is chief accountant. (His secretary, by the way, is named “Miss Olive Hammersweet.”) For a beef punkles side dish, Sade occasionally serves “scalded rutabaga” with a slice of “limberschwartz” cheese melted on top. Sounds, uh, sort of delicious . . . ?

One last Paul Rhymer food item that I can’t resist. Seems a friend of Uncle Fletcher’s invented “Stingeberry Jam” and a mysterious breakfast cereal called “Brick Mush,” and has persuaded Fletcher to enlist Fletcher’s niece, Sade, to selling the products to her neighbors — much like a milk or bread route. Sade likes Brick Mush but she refuses the Stingeberry Jam franchise because, she says, “It smells bad and churns and writhes and crawls and breathes in the jar.”

This is an edited re-post from June 30, 2008

Copyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.

Neil Simon On Playwriting

August 24, 2011

Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright

The New York Times, May 26, 1985

I grew up in New York and worked in radio and in television for 10 years. Then I said, “If I don’t start to write a play and start to get out soon, I’ll be writing ‘My Three Sons’ for the rest of my life,” which I did not want to do.

There will never be any satisfaction for me unless I can write what I feel I want to say. And I wrote that first play (“Come Blow Your Horn”) — and it was a matter of life and death for me.

Mike Nichols and I were doing “Plaza Suite” in Boston many years ago, and the first act was too long — it wasn’t that it was too long, we were getting too many laughs in a scene that we thought was basically serious. So Mike and I started to cut out all of the laugh lines, and they started to laugh at other lines that they had never laughed at. They just wanted to laugh!

I’ll write a scene that is really funny, and then I try to switch it quickly, because I think that happens in life a lot. You know, in the middle of some wonderful moment you get a phone call with tragic news. There have been a few occasions in plays when I’ve done that, and the audience is really thrown by it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they resent it. They feel that they’ve been taken or had a little bit.

My experience has been that if you write a situation well enough, the tension is so great that the audience will laugh whether you provide it or not. But many times when it’s either laugh or cry, a lot of them don’t want to cry. And they will pick out a moment — a line, a gesture, whatever it is — to laugh at. It becomes part of the play after a while. I expect it night after night — never having intended it in the beginning. There’s just so much that they can handle. You force the audience to deal with a great deal in the theater.

The thing I think most about when I’m writing is what goes on in the bedroom between the husband and wife. I don’t mean the obvious, but what they really say to each other.

I know when my unconscious is doing the writing, because when my conscious is doing it, it seems familiar to me when I see it later on. Let’s say I haven’t seen the play in eight weeks or something, and I go and watch it. I say, “I didn’t write that. That has nothing to do with me. That came out of somebody else.” I know that’s the unconscious writing. And that’s where the surprises come from. And that’s like mercury. You just grab that if you can; it’s really hard. I can’t pin it down, but I know it’s probably very important to my psyche — that bit of information. I say, “That’s what I’ve been keeping hidden.” It’s a dangerous game. If you don’t grab it, then you don’t have it anymore. But it’s also the most exhilarating. I can get up and go, “What? That was terrific! You just caught a great long fly ball.”

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” took nine years from the inception of the idea. I let it sit for six years. It just kept going in my mind. I would think about it, and six years later I wrote 35 pages. I said, “This is good, but I don’t know how to write the play.” I’d never written a play like that — sort of a tapestry, where everybody’s story is very important. I generally had written plays about two characters and the peripheral characters and how they are involved in it. And it took a long time — another three years. And then I sat down and went right through the play. But the unconscious is doing the work. It’s typing away.

I don’t know what it’s like not to write. I don’t do it every day of the year, and I do take time off, but I feel empty if I don’t have something to work on. The trick is not  to get caught up in something that’s not working just for the sake of working. But I feel very happy when I can say I’ve got an idea for something that I think is worth doing. And then I can leave it alone and not work at all — it can just do its own work there while I go to the beach or play some tennis.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Paul Rhymer

April 6, 2011

The following post is the Foreword, written by Jean Shepard, to “VIC AND SADE: The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer.” The book was published in 1976 and edited by Mary Frances Rhymer, Paul’s widow. The Shepard essay runs a bit over 2600 words, very long for a blog post but, in my humble opinion, well-written and worth the effort. If you’re already a Rhymer fan you know what I’m talking about. If not, you may well be one by the time you’re finished this entertaining introduction to the show. For additional posts from the DoodleMeister archives about Paul Rhymer’s work, including pictures of the cast, type his name (or the name of the  show) into the little window at the top of the sidebar and tap the “search” prompt, then scroll down to the older posts.

By Jean Shepard

One day when I had to stay home from the Warren G. Harding School because of some Kid problem like a sty or a case of diarrhea and everything was quiet in the house in the Northern Indiana steel-mill town where we lived, half-way up in the next block on Cleveland Street, I suddenly heard my mother laughing uproariously in the kitchen.  I struggled out of bed to see what was going on.  There she was, sitting at our white enamel kitchen table, wearing her rump-sprung Chinese Red chenille housecoat, her hair festooned with aluminum rheostats, laughing her head off.

“What’s up, Mom?”

She waved weakly at me. She giggled again.

“What’s happening, Mom?”

She wiped tears away from her eyes with a soggy dishtowel.

“Walter’s kneecap is acting up again.”

“Huh?” I asked in the best Rush Gook style.

“Go back to bed.  Can’t you see I’m listening to the radio?”

She was indeed.  She had a white plastic Sears Roebuck Silvertone radio with a cracked plastic cabinet, badly repaired with adhesive tape, on top of our beloved Hotpoint refrigerator.  It was her constant companion.  It hummed and gave her shocks continually, but out of its imitation gold speaker grill flowed her secret world of fantasy and entertainment.  She was one of millions of lucky and discerning housewives who had the good fortune to  actually hear ‘Vic & Sade’.  They are, naturally, a decreasing band, the lucky ones, but they all, to the last one, remember whole episodes and places, people, and the Chicago and Alton freight yards.  Paul Rhymer was  unknown to most of them, as he is to most of the civilized world today.  There is just no one to compare him with.  As far as I know, no one working in the mass media has ever created such a complete and flawless world, peopled with characters so fully realized.

Most work done for the mass media is highly perishable by its very nature.  Unfortunately, also by the very nature of mass media, the mediocre and the banal tends to outlive the truly creative and original. The ‘Lone Rangers’ and ‘Green Hornets’ are forever dredged up as examples of “The Golden Age of Radio,” while unfortunately the true gold is mentioned rarely, if it all.

My memory of the actual show as broadcast is episodic because ‘Vic & Sade’ was a daytime show.  Radio, in those days, as television does to this very day, reserved its night-time prime hours for the “important” shows.  Daytime hours were packed with things designed for “housewives”, usually a term tinged with slight derision in network offices.  Therefore, not only was the great work of Paul Rhymer burned up by the nature of mass media itself, it was doubly cursed by being cast among the quicksand shoals of the world of Soap Opera.  It’s as though “Death of a Salesman” or “Our Town” had debuted on a typical Wednesday afternoon between “As the World Turns” and “Against the Storm”, followed by “The Hollywood Squares”.

Being a kid at the time, daytime was spent going to school, or outside just fooling around, but on the few times that I did hear ‘Vic & Sade’, Blue-Tooth Johnson, Rooster Davis, Third-Lieutenant Stanley and Mr. Gumpox’s horse Howard became firmly embedded in my subconscious–forever.  I remember nothing of ‘The Lone Ranger’ except “Hi Ho, Silver!”, which is not much of a line when you think of it.  All I remember of Fred Allen is his phony Chinese accent when he was playing a detective, but Smelly Clark’s Uncle Strap taking his lady friend to Peoria for a fish dinner somehow got me where I lived.  Maybe it was because Paul Rhymer created TRUE humor.  He did not deal in jokes, but human beings observed by a sardonic, biting, yet loving mind.

Rhymer has been compared to Harold Pinter by some, Mark Twain by others.  Personally I feel that Rhymer was a complete original.  Curiously enough, Rhymer READS better than any of the so-called “serious” writers of his era.  The ‘Vic & Sade’ scripts are not only still fresh and funny, but are absolutely recognizable as an authentic picture of American life which persists in millions of homes today.  Yamilton’s Department Store, Peoria, the peanut machine at the Depot, Consolidated Kitchenware, Plant Fourteen, The Sacred Stars of the Milky Way were never touched by Steinbeck or Odets.  The Okies are a quaint period piece, but Gloria Golden is still playing at the Bijou.  Her name may be Faye Dunaway or Raquel Welch.  Rush’s complaint “All they ever have in movies is Love, Love, Love. Boy, they sure are boring” could have been said yesterday afternoon.

Another thing that amazes me is Rhymer’s wild and subtle imagination.  Wild in the sense of being totally unpredictable, and subtle in that he touched at all times on the faint vein of madness that runs through all of us.  He rarely went for the obvious; hence he preceded the Theater of the Absurd by decades.  In fact, it is my opinion that in some ways he is far closer to Ionesco in spirit than he was to Thornton Wilder, who sentimentalized American life in a way that Rhymer’s sense of irony refused to allow.  For example, “The Washing Machine is On the Blink” combines the American Do-It-Yourself syndrome, Masochism, and the continual breakdown of modern technology in such a totally nutty way as to be completely logical in the way a Marx Brothers scene involving a grand piano, a stuffed duck, a bolt of lightning and an out-of-work Fire Chief does.  In some twelve minutes of inspired dialog, Rhymer convinces us that two otherwise sane human beings, down in the basement trying to fix the washing machine, begin to enjoy electric shocks, experimenting with various electric shock techniques, finally conspiring to lay one on an unsuspecting mother, all the while cackling maniacally in ecstatic pleasure.  There are very few minds that could possibly conceive of the electric shock as pleasure, but that’s Rhymer for you.  I, personally, am curious just what your average nice, hard-working housewife of the period thought when she heard that one.  I suspect more than a few crept down into the basement covertly and tried sticking their fingers into hot AC outlets while standing in puddles.

Another example of Rhymer at his surreal best is the little gem called “Caramels on a Hot Day”, in which we find Rush, as he puts it, “stirring up a little excitement” by sitting on the front porch, making round balls out of square three-for-a-penny caramels.  Think about that for a moment.  a hot day, caramels, and boredom.  This is exactly what a kid does do, squatting on a front porch in the heat of summer, but who thinks to build a fifteen-minute drama to be broadcast to millions out of that dynamic situation?  Better yet, who but Paul Rhymer could pull off such a feat, or would have the courage to do it even if he could?  Rhymer obviously was very sure about his work in a medium where that kind of security and self-knowledge is almost non-existent.

In a way it’s too bad that Paul Rhymer never wrote for the more recognized media. Great reputations exist in the theater or the novel on far less profound and effective work than Rhymer’s. In fact, he probably wrote more funny lines in one month of daily scripts than the combined output of five of the leading playwrights of modern times. Not only that his characters were truer, more consistent, and far better realized. Remember, reading these scripts in published book form is barely skimming the thinnest surface of the body of Vic & Sade. These works were written to be performed, and yet in spite of that they come alive, snapping and crackling, off the page. One reason, technically, is that Rhymer created a vast cast of unseen and unheard people who were every bit as alive and interesting as Vic, Sade, Rush, and Uncle Fletcher. Fred and Ruthie Stembottom and their continual snaillike drives in Fred’s old automobile to Chenoa, Illinois, and Ruthie’s “scared rabbit” smile; Mr, Ruebush, Vic’s boss at the plant; Ike Kneesuffer’s indoor horse-shoe set in his basement; Miz Husher’s continual peevishness, and, of course, Vic’s beloved lodge brothers in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way – Robert and Slobert Hink, Y. Y. Flirch and H. K. Fleeber, are all part of the well developed cast of millions.

Not all of Vic & Sade’s episodes were pure fun and games. In fact, they rarely were. Practically every episode had little shafts of insight, and often sadness, that would come and go like the brief hints of darker things we all have in our own lives, Sade’s tenderness over poor old Uncle Fletcher’s wandering mind; Vic’s understanding of Rush, and his obvious love for Sade, comes through in a beautifully written and subtle episode called “Vic Confides in Rush about Mothers.” It contains hints of the inevitability of death, references to the “Empty Nest” syndrome (Rhymer was thirty years ahead of psychiatrists on this one), overlaid with a beautifully realized treatment of masculine relationships. In addition, he managed to be funny. Rhymer must have been a hell of an interesting man to know.

Perhaps one of the things that Rhymer did best was to illuminate and dramatize lightly, effortlessly, and without at any point lecturing, the vast gulf that exists between types of people. I have never read a better short story touching on the smothering boredom, yet natural concern we feel in the presence of close relatives than in “Vic Reviews a Vacation Week with Bess and Walter in Carberry.” Poor Walter and Bess, trying so hard to entertain Vic, and Vic trying so hard to be entertained, while Sade all the while blithely chatters on with her sister Bess, never realizing that Vic’s only vacation for the year is going down the drain. This episode, by the way, points out another quality in Rhymer’s work. He never ridiculed or put down people merely because they are what they are. However, he is razor-sharp when it comes to blasting the fraudulent and the inane. “Vic Is Elected to the Congress of Distinguished Americans” is a classic example of Rhymer putting another one right in the bull’s-eye. This particular con has been around for a long time, and there are countless walls in dens all over the country upon which hang framed scrolls proclaiming “officially” the profound and notable greatness of the yahoo who pays the rent. In fact, it was only last week that I received, personally, three notices in the mail informing me that I had been selected “to be signally honored” by outfits with names very much like The Congress of Distinguished Americans. I remind you that this particular episode was aired ’way back in the Thirties.

Some of Rhymer’s funniest stuff dealt with that all-pervasive goofiness of the moth Century – the movies. Vie, particularly, was great on the subject. In fact, in “Stembottom’s Invitation to Drive Thirty-five Miles to a Double Feature” we find Vic emitting “low, painful groans” for three full pages of dialog when faced with the nightmare of attending a double feature of two pictures he had already seen, and hated the first time around, and which he describes as “rotten, rotten, rotten.” Nobody in today’s situation comedies is ever remotely as honest about a fellow medium. Does Archie Bunker ever blast the movies, or even mention them at all? Does Mary Tyler Moore? Never. That’s the thing about the characters in Vic & Sade. They lived in the real world, where people really do say such things as movies are rotten, or Yamilton’s Department Store is throwing another one of “them phony Sales.”

Judging from his scripts, if Rhymer were alive today he would probably snort in derision at the pompous tone of this foreword, but I also suspect he would secretly have enjoyed it. Rhymer was an artist, and no artist who ever lived ever turned down a tribute to his work. I think I should point out a few techniques that Rhymer used that everybody tries but few master. Most contemporary writers for mass media simply feed a series of one-liners to their characters, go for the cheap laugh, and hope that no one is the wiser. Rhymer, in contrast, wrote dialog; succinct, spare, yet with an absolutely true ear for the rhythms and infections of American speech. This is much easier to talk about, or discuss in class, than to accomplish. Obviously, Rhymer was a very gifted listener. A few brief examples:

SADE: Sounds like somebody’s trying to knock our front door in.

RUSH: That stug cookin’ on the gas stove okay, Mom?

SADE: Why?

RUSH: Makin’ a gurgling sound like it needed water.

Now that’s nice. People talk like that. This, if you wish to read the rest of the dialog, which gets better as it goes along, can be found in “Manual for Wives of Sky Brothers in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way.” There is also some very nifty Latin, a language not often heard on mass media. No pun intended.

Finally, I should point out that the announcer was also an integral part of the daily drama. My mother, for one, loved him. I think his name was Bob Brown. His subtle, confidential style set the tone for the daily session of eavesdropping in the small house halfway up in the next block. My mother to this day tells about the time, not more than five minutes into the episode, the cast, including the announcer, got to laughing so hard over some nuttiness that Rhymer had come up with that the entire show was a shambles. They just laughed and chuckled until finally they gave up trying to be Vic and Sade and Rush and Uncle Fletcher and went off the air, hooting and hollering and leaving millions of listeners in kitchens everywhere doing the same thing. When I was just beginning in the business, I had the rare honor to meet the fine actress who played “Sade.”’ She looked just like Sade should look. She looked, well, like Sade. The series was long off the air, but was rapidly growing as a legend. I asked her what was the hardest thing about playing Sade on a daily basis, year in and year out. Naturally, I figured she’d say something like “endless rehearsals,” how tough the grind was, and so on.

“Well, son, I’ll tell you,” she said, sounding exactly like Sade about to straighten out Rush on some fine point of life. “The hardest thing was to keep a straight face. Sometimes those scripts were so funny that we had to fight all the way through the show just breaking up, And the more we rehearsed, the funnier it got. Why, I remember one day having to turn my face to the wall while Uncle Fletcher was telling me about a trip he took to Cairo, Illinois, in the company of one of his friends. The engineer was on the floor, the announcer had to leave the room, and I can tell you it wasn’t easy.”

What better compliment can an actor pay a writer?

I have one practical suggestion for those of you who have had the great sense to pick up this volume of scripts. Read them aloud. Get three or four good friends together and decide who’s going to play Vic, who will be Sade, and finally Rush and poor old Uncle Fletcher. You can call in your next door neighbor to do the announcing. Ten to one you’ll be doing VIC and SADE episodes until five in the morning. Have fun. That’s what Paul Rhymer and Vic & Sade are all about.

Copyright © 1976 Jean Shepard.

Today’s Gag

May 10, 2010
Copyright © 2010 Jim Sizemore.

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Monologue

July 14, 2008

The Genius of Paul Rhymer

The following short essay (the last of three) about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade,” was written to promote a talk I gave titled Writing Humorous Dialogue at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. (For a start I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”)

Paul Rhymer’s knack for writing dialogue is nowhere more evident than when he has one of his characters deliver a telephone monologue. Sometimes it’s Vic on the phone curtly dealing with a salesperson or a wrong number, or Rush gabbing with Bluetooth Johnson, Nicer Scott, or another of his buddies from school or the neighborhood. Most often, though, the telephone monologue falls to Sade, usually when she’s home alone taking a break from her domestic duties. The monologue I’ve chosen as representative is from an undated script, most likely from the early 1940s, since Sade’s amiable Uncle Fletcher is featured. Uncle Fletcher joined the show as an on-mike character around that time and here makes one of his slapstick entrances. When he enters, in the company of Rush, Sade’s telephone monologue, or “solo,” is transformed into a trio. Actually it’s a quartet if you count “Ruthie,” on the other end of the line.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s early afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the living room we find Mr. Victor Gook all by herself. Mrs. Gook is at the telephone conversing with her close friend and confidante Mrs. Frederick Stembottom. Listen:

SADE (to phone): I didn’t take you away from anything, did I, lady? Well, ish, I haven’t really got anything to say now that I’ve called you. (giggles) Yes . . . well, what happened I went like a house a-fire all morning long and done nine million jobs around the house and then got dinner and pitched in on my upstairs the minute the boys left for the office an’ school, and finally did quit and wash and put on a clean apron and then discovered I’d been on the go so much I couldn’t settle down. (laughs) You know how that is lady. Person gets theirself all keyed up and they hafta slow down gradual or the boiler explodes. (laughs) Yes . . . so I telephoned you. Hey, maybe that’s not very complimentary. (loud lady laugh) No, but you appreciate how I mean, Ruthie. Sure. Yes, isn’t it a quiet afternoon. One of them hushedy-hushedy afternoons where a person sits and listens to pins dropping. Little bit ago I was out on the back porch shaking my mop and ‘way off in the distance somewhere I heard some fella say giddap to his horse and I bet twenty-five cents he was clear away over on Chestnut Street and that’s eight hundred miles from here if it’s an inch. Yeah . . . you run inta real still afternoons every so often. Like Sunday kinda. I was sayin’ to . . . say, lady, hang on a second, I think I heard my kitchen door. (calls) Hello? Groceries? You, Irving?

RUSH (off): Hi, Mom.

FLETCHER (off): Afternoon, Sadie honey.

SADE (calls, in some surprise): Well—hello. (to phone) Uncle Fletcher and Rush just walked in, Ruthie. I can’t imagine what Rush’s doing home from school. (crash in the kitchen) Oh, my goodness. (calls) What happened?

FLETCHER (cheerfully, off) Fell down.

SADE (calls sharply) Who fell down?

RUSH (off, cheerfully): We both fell down.

SADE (not loud): Oh, for mercy’s sake. (to phone) What, Ruthie? No, we don’t need to hang up. There’s no reason why we hafta cut our conversation short just because . . . huh?

RUSH (approaching): Uncle Fletcher tripped on his shoelace, Mom.

FLETCHER (approaching, cheerfully): No broken bones, Sadie, Honey, no broken bones.

SADE (to phone): Well whatever you say, lady. Seems like a shame though. I take you away from whatever you’re doing and just because my family busts in we hafta cut short our . . . (giggles) . . . well, ish.

RUSH (coming up): Principal called a special teachers’ meeting, Mom.

FLETCHER (coming up): Using the telephone, are you, Sadie?

SADE (to phone) No, you needn’t bother to call back, Ruthie.

FLETCHER (gently): Mama’s using the telephone, Rush. I’d stop my titters, whimpers, and guffaws.

RUSH (amused): O. K.

FLETCHER (sententiously) When the older folks is using the telephone it’s always best to let up on the titters, whimpers and guffaws.

RUSH (chuckling): I’m letting up on ’em.

FLETCHER: You’re a good boy.

SADE (to phone): Well, all righty, Ruthie, whatever you say. Dandy. Fine.

FLETCHER (to Rush, sententiously) There was a little boy in Detroit Michigan neglected to let up on his titters, whimpers and guffaws while Momma was using the telephone and he disappeared and all they ever found was one of his tiny patent leather booties, the tassel singed at the bottom.

RUSH (chuckles): I’ll remember that.

FLETCHER (gently): Yes—it teaches us a lesson.

SADE (to phone): All righty then, Ruthie lady, we’ll leave it like that. You bet. All righty, Ruthie. You betty, lady. Goodbye. (hangs up)

The Last Word
Even before Uncle Fletcher and Rush enter, Sade’s monologue—through Rhymer’s word choices and emphasis, including pauses, giggles and laughs—becomes a dialogue. It really is a solo, of course, but written so skillfully that we can almost hear her duet with Ruthie on the other end of the line. Rhymer, by his example—assuming we’re interested enough to pay attention—is teaching us how to write humorous dialogue even when what he presents appears, at first, to be a monologue. As with the example above, all his lessons are subtle. If we want what he has to teach us, we have to dig it out. After all, Rhymer’s purpose in “Vic and Sade” is not to conduct a writing craft class, he simply want’s to entertain us. But sometimes it does seem that he also intends to instruct us directly, as in the following excerpt from a 1939 script. As we join the Gook family in the little house halfway up in the next block this time, Sade is explaining to Vic that she has been asked by Mr. Gumpox, the garbage man, to circulate a petition in the neighborhood. Seems he’s unhappy with his rate of pay and will consider staying on the job only if Sade can get six hundred signatures, which he assumes will influence the city to give him a raise. (Click on image above to read the caption.)

SADE: Let’s see. I think I can remember most of that petition. “We, the undersigned, being in sane mind an’ sound body, do hereby command, request, an’ implore that Francis Gumpox be retained by the city. As homeowners with a passionate love for a beautiful town in which to live we feel that this community could never stand to lose the services of Francis Gumpox, who knows and loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (laughs): Oh, for gosh sakes, does that guy . . .

SADE: Wait a second, I left out a word. “Who knows and loves garbage disposal like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): Thunder.

SADE (giggles): The other word sounds funny . . . “knows an’ loves garbage like no other man on earth.”

VIC (chuckles): It all sounds funny.

END


Baseball

July 7, 2008

The Genius of Paul Rhymer

The following short essay about Paul Rhymer’s classic radio program “Vic and Sade” (the second of three), was written to promote a talk I gave titled Writing Humorous Dialogue at the Institute for Language, Technology, and Publications Design, University of Baltimore, on April 20, 1995. The program featured local actors reading from Vic and Sade scripts. If you want to know more about the work of Paul Rhymer, or listen to one of the taped shows, click on the “Paul Rhymer” and “Vic and Sade” links in the sidebar. For a good place to start, I recommend the show “A Letter From Aunt Bess.”

Here’s a quote from Jean Shepherd, writing in his forward to Vic and Sade: The Best Radio Plays of Paul Rhymer. “Perhaps one of the things that Rhymer did best was to illuminate and dramatize lightly, effortlessly, and without at any point lecturing, the vast gulf that exists between types of people.” Paul Rhymer certainly uses subtle dialogue techniques to point out the gulf that exists between the genders—Sade’s loyalty to her sister’s boring letters, for example, and Vick’s lack of appreciation for same, or their different takes on something as commonplace as table manners. In a 1938 script the game of baseball serves to point out that men and women will most likely always come at some things from opposite directions. Here’s a bit of that script. (Note at several points both Sade and Rush refer to Vic as “Gov,” his family nickname.

ANNOUNCER: Well, sir, it’s late afternoon as we enter the small house half-way up in the next block now, and here in the kitchen we find Mrs. Victor Gook and her son, Mr. Rush Gook. This latter individual has just entered from out of doors and at the moment is lightly tossing his cap underneath the sink. Listen:

SADE: All right; go pick that up.

RUSH: I plan to leave again pretty soon.

SADE: Go pick it up. Call that civilized?—a monstrous big high school boy throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen? We got hooks.

Sade’s line, “throwin’ his hat on the floor like a pigpen?” is a malaprop—a jumbling of words which at first doesn’t seem to make sense but still somehow does—and very much in character for her. After a bit more protesting, Rush goes to hang his hat on a nail in the cellarway. In the lines that follow, notice Rhymer’s meticulous attention to visual detail.

RUSH (moving off): Certainly been a fine day outside.

SADE: Hasn’t it though?

RUSH (still moving off): Around noon it was just plain hot.

SADE: Uh-huh. Mr. Gumpox came through the alley an’ I noticed he had his coat folded up an’ layin’ beside him on the seat of the garbage wagon.

RUSH (off a way): Mom, I don’t see any hook. They’re all full of overalls an’ aprons an’ junk.

SADE: You’ll find a place if ya look. There’s squillions of nails there. Hey, what’s your father an’ Mr. Drummond doin’ so much talkin’ about?

RUSH: Where are they?

SADE: Garbage box. Just wavin’ their arms around.

RUSH (returning): They weren’t’ there when I come past just now.

SADE: prob’ly walked home together an’ stopped by the garbage box to finish their talk.

RUSH (almost up): If they’re talking about baseball they never will finish.

SADE: Why do they get so excited? Person’d think one had stole the other’s pocketbook or bumped into his automobile or something.

RUSH: Yeah.

SADE: Baseball’s only a game ain’t it? (short pause) Guess the argument’s all over. Here comes Gov toward the house.

RUSH: He acts like Mr. Drummond got the best of him. See the little quick steps he takes an’ the way his face is?

SADE (giggles): Uh-huh. (raises voice) Hello there, mister.

VIC (cheerily enough): Hi, everybody. How’s tricks? (to Sade, as door closes) Paper come yet?

SADE: I doubt it. Boy very seldom shows up this early. What were you an’ Mr. Drummond havin’ such a to-do about? Never saw so much arm wavin’ in my life.

VIC: The arm wavin’ you saw through the window will in no wise unbalance the equilibrium of the world. Life will go on as before.

SADE: No, but a person watchin’ would get the idea you fellas were about to have a fight.

VIC: That may come to pass one of these days. (to himself) The big boob.

SADE: Are you mad at him?

VIC: I wouldn’t condescend to get mad at a creature so handicapped. Mr. Drummond is short the normal quota of brains. Mr. Drummond moves helplessly in a fog of stupidity. Mr. Drummond, in short, is a half wit.

Let’s pause here to fully appreciate Rhymer’s humorous rendering of Vic’s fit of pique, savoring how the angry discourse builds through several stages to its curt climax, the succinct punch word “halfwit.” That word would not have the power it does without the three lines that precede it. This is Paul Rhymer demonstrating the importance of the “set-up” in creating a humorous effect. And no stage directions are required; Vic’s high-toned anger comes through clearly in Rhymer’s word choices. We rejoin the script just in time to enjoy more of Vic’s deconstruction of Mr. Drummond’s intelligence—or lack thereof. (Click on above image to read the caption.)

SADE (giggles): Did you tell him that?

VIC: I intimated as much—an’ more—only I couched my barbs with such subtlety they went over his head like soft summer clouds.

RUSH: Baseball, huh, Gov?

VIC: How’s that?

RUSH: You an’ him were discussin’ baseball?

VIC: One could hardly refer to it as a discussion. I’d vouchsafe a thoughtful opinion an’ Drummond’d come back with a splatter of meaningless words boorishly strung together.

SADE: I was just askin’ Rush, Vic, how grown-up men can work theirself into a frenzy about such stuff.

VIC: Am I worked into a frenzy?

SADE: You acted like you were worked up into something out by the garbage box just now. You an’ Mr. Drummond both.

VIC: What did Master Rush reply when you quizzed him?

SADE (giggles): He said he didn’t know.

VIC: That would be his rejoinder when quizzed on any topic, I believe.

RUSH (chuckles): Aw, c’mon, Gov, don’t take it out on me.

SADE (to VIC): No, but really. If there was a baseball eleven in this town an’ your brother was in it or somebody an’ a fella run down your brother an’ his baseball eleven, I could halfway see why you might let yourself be upset. But these baseball elevens in Chicago an’ around. What do you care?

VIC: Baseball, Sade, is a strong American institution.

SADE: is it?

VIC: Baseball is a wholesome vent for excess nervous energy.

SADE (giggles): Prob’ly is if you’re fullback on the team or somethin’. But all you an’ Mr. Drummond can do is talk about it. I always think of baseball as a game Rush an’ the kids play over in Tatman’s vacant lot. Can’t understand why grown-up men should lose sleep because New York beats Pontiac.

Here Paul Rhymer is using Sade as the “wise fool,” a humorous device popular since before Shakespeare. By making her willfully ignorant of baseball, her seemingly innocent questions skillfully point out the absurdity of Vic and Mr. Drummond’s intense emotional investment in what is, in her eyes, only a child’s pastime. The script goes on for three more pages with Vic offering the high-minded argument that he and Mr. Drummond are passionately interested in baseball because it is a “science.” But we soon discover that their fight out by the garbage box was really over a childish disagreement about who would get to wear the pitcher’s glove if and when they scheduled a regular game of catch to “unwind” after work. Rhymer gives Sade the last word.

SADE: You mean to tell me that two great big men with offices an’ families can jump at each other’s throat over a thing like that—who gets to be pitcher?

VIC (stubborn): Sure.

SADE: Is that baseball, Rush?

RUSH (chuckles): Uh-huh.

SADE: Is that science?

The third Rhymer essay, Monologue, will post next Monday.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The Last Dog

June 26, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Four

Ted used heavy string to tie a little hangman’s noose around the rotten chicken neck, then he dropped the bait off the pier into the harbor. “Crabs are so dumb,” he said. “Once ol’ Mr. Crustacean grabs onto his smelly treat he forgets how to let loose, and that’s his undoing.” In no time flat a crab took the bait and Ted pulled it to the surface slow, hand over hand. I scooped it up in the net Alice made for us out of cheesecloth and an old broomstick. When I dropped the crab in the basket, Ted said, “Big one. That’ll eat good.” Alice did her crabs in a huge pot with water and beer and secret spices. The trick of cooking crabs, Ted claimed, was to let the liquid come to a boil and drop them in fast and slap the lid on. They never knew what hit them, he said. They went in blue and lively and came out red and dead—steamed to death.

Daddy had promised to take me crabbing but never showed up. Didn’t call, nothing, so Ted volunteered. Me and him and Ronnie went to Wagner’s Point. We got up at five and left the house at six. Alice was invited, but she said no. She claimed anyone who got up that early and didn’t have to was a damn fool. Ted picked a pretty spot on a falling-down pier by a refinery, close enough to smell the oil. We watched the dark outline of the city across the harbor get lighter in the warming air. The sky was clear except for a smear of orange smoke from Sparrows Point steel mill. A blue heron flew over with a fish all a-squirm in its beak. Ted knew it was a heron by the general shape, the long crooked neck, and how its legs hung out behind in the air. Judging the direction, Ted figured the bird was headed to the marsh grass in behind Fort McHenry. We crabbed and crabbed and the sun got hotter and hotter. Pretty soon me and Ronnie got bored and went to explore the rubble of an old pier shack. We climbed inside—at least it was shady cool in there—and scrambled over piles of boards and tar paper and other trash. At first I didn’t feel the plank piece stuck to my foot, and then I did. It hugged the the bottom of my sneaker like an extra sole, held there with a rusty ten-penny nail in my foot. After five minutes it got to hurt pretty bad but I didn’t cry. Ted left the wood where it was until we got back to the house, then he yanked it off and cleaned the nail hole with peroxide, like when he used to be a medic in the Army. Ted put a bandage on to stop the blood and took me to the hospital for a tetanus shot, cussing Daddy all the way there and back.

That evening Ted hollered at the radio in the living room, “Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” From where I was in the hall I could hear him but I couldn’t see him. He hated it if our team made a mistake. When our shortstop missed an easy grounder, Ted yelled, “JERK!” Meanwhile, I was watching Alice framed in the kitchen doorway, her back to me, how she took a bottle from behind the cleaning stuff under the sink and poured some in a glass and gulped it. Ted kept on at the radio, but I turned him off. The silent movie of Alice in the warm light from the bare kitchen bulb kept me mesmerized, how she emptied the glass and poured and poured. She gulped a last one, then rinsed and set the glass in the sink. Then Alice leaned on the counter top with both hands, shoulders pushed up so her neck disappeared. That caught my attention. I was focused on the round shape of her shoulders, the sad way they shook.

Most nights after supper Alice would sit with Ted on the sofa. Other times she wouldn’t, but when she didn’t he made it a point to sit with her. Ted would go at her all in a good mood and cuddle her. Other times she went at him, but when Alice went at Ted it could be a good mood or bad mood, either one. He never knew what to expect. There were days when Alice started at Ted in a bad mood but it ended with her happy and laughing a little, at least for awhile. But soon enough Ted would get tired of how hard it was most times to even get her to smile. Alice, though, once she got going, she kept at him. When it was her at him like that, after a while he would move her off him, off to one side—but gentle—and he would go on about his business. So even if they were at it only a minute ago—she at him or him at her—they were not anymore because he had decided not to play anymore. Ted would just go off somewhere and Alice was left to think about what next—dinner, maybe, or bedtime—something else altogether.

The next day Ted took me and Ronnie for a walk at Fort McHenry and I could tell it was because Alice had been at him that morning in a bad way and drove him crazy. But Ronnie didn’t let on like there was anything wrong between his parents. Anyway, who knows for sure what Ronnie ever thought? When it came to his folks, Ronnie’s mouth mostly stayed zipped. That time Alice was on Ted’s case because of the back yard, the mess his old dog made back there. When she went at Ted like that it usually rubbed off on Ronnie, too, so he had to know that something was up between them. The yard was Alice’s pride. Ted kept his old animal chained to a dog house back there that looked like a seaside cottage in some movie. The dog walked the ground smooth as far as the chain would let him, back and forth, just short of Alice’s flower bed. Alice claimed Ted never picked up the dog turds. The big problem, though, was when the dog dug a trench under the shade tree and flopped in it to stay cool. When he was in it, with his chin on the edge, all you saw was his wet nose, his brown eyes that followed you back and forth, and long ears twitching off flies. It was early fall, still real warm out, and Ted hadn’t filled in the trench like he promised Alice.

Meanwhile, at Fort McHenry, people were clumped together on the big lawn that went from the cannon walls down to the seawall. One family had a humongous picnic spread out on a tablecloth. Some teenage boys played football catch. A fat guy napped on the grass with a bath towel over his eyes. There were five kites high in the breeze over the harbor. The barn swallows that worked the grass were long gone, but some neighborhood chimney swifts still swooped low for what bugs there were left. Before long, Ted claimed, the bugs would disappear and the swifts would fly off to South America. In the harbor tugboats moved huge steamers into the main channel, or helped them dock at piers across the way. Sailboats went by. We walked the path that ran next to the seawall and Ronnie held tight to Ted’s hand, used his other hand to grip his daddy’s forearm like he was afraid he’d lose him. Ronnie was acting real pussy for a guy almost thirteen. Ted put up with Ronnie’s arm lock but when he had something to say he said it to me. He pointed at the sidewalk. “Duck shit looks like cat shit, Andy—small perfect turds in a pile. And gull shit, that whitish-greenish splatter? That looks like it could be from a fat man who just cleared his throat and spit.”

Ronnie didn’t laugh at that but I did. Most likely, Ronnie didn’t even know it was supposed to be funny. Alice hated when Ted used such words, but what he said about the different kinds of shit was true. I never would have thought of gull poop that way—how it looked and all—if he hadn’t said it. It got on toward sunset and me and Ted sat on the seawall to watch the light change and change while Ronnie went off to intimidate ducks. In no time flat the light on the pier buildings went from red-purple to the best gold I ever saw. I guess it reminded Ted of something, because that’s when he told me a pretty lie. “Andy,” he said, “this time of day if you climb up to our roof real quick—really, really fast—you get to see the sun set twice.”

The fifth and final part of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.


The Last Dog

June 25, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Three

We listened to “Sky King” together on the big floor model radio in the living room, almost like a real family. Afterwards, Ronnie whined at Ted about when he planned to buy a television. He kept on and kept on. Pretty soon Alice and Ted got sick of him and sent us both to bed. No fair. To say goodnight, Alice kissed Ronnie on his cheek and patted me on the shoulder. No fair again, but I didn’t care. She made us swear we’d do our homework until lights out at ten o’clock. Before we were even out of the room Alice made Ted put his paper off to one side, so they could talk. That was a bad news for him. Up in Ronnie’s room I could tell he was in a mood, too, because the first thing out of his mouth was, “Know who’s a better artist than you, Andy?” When I didn’t say anything, he answered himself. “Betsy the chimpanzee.”

“Who says?”

“Ever’body.”

I stayed quiet and took my shoes and socks off. Ronnie already had his off and was spreading and un-spreading his toes for exercise. We always did our homework barefoot. Ronnie said, “Just because you’re the best favorite in Miss Laura’s art class, that don’t make you—”

“Am not.”

“Well,” Ronnie said, “anyway, that monkey is twice as better than you. Three times as better.” I could care less what Ronnie thought since I knew he didn’t know anything about art. Anyway, Betsy couldn’t draw, she just smeared finger paints around to make a mess. Ate more paint than she painted with. “Betsy’s the real genius,” Ronnie said.

“You read that in the News Post—same as me.” I could tell something else was on Ronnie’s brain. When he got bothered by whatever, Ronnie liked to fight me and he had to win, to show who was the boss. It was pitiful.

“Betsy had her pictures printed in Life magazine,” Ronnie said. “And where was yours?

I came back at him with a low blow: “Yeah, and how come your daddy don’t come home from work most nights anymore—huh, Ronnie?” Give back better than you get, that’s my motto. Why not? “Ain’t seen Ted at the dinner table with food in his mouth for days.

Ronnie gave out a puny, “Don’t care,” then he cried some. He used first one sleeve and then the other to wipe off tears and snot, then he shut down and stayed quiet for a long time.

After awhile I said, “Look, Ronnie, I didn’t mean to say that, what I said.” He kept on real quiet and pretty soon I caught on that he was staring at my bare feet. That was so creepy I quick pulled them up under me. “You shithead, Ronnie!”

“Your feet are so little,” he said, like it was the most natural thing in the world to say that. “I’ve got ’em memorized.”

“You know, Ronnie, you’re really one dumb fucker.”

“In case you come up hurt or dead, see?” Ronnie did a laughing snort. “Say one foot gets cut off and mixed in with a bunch of other feet, in a war, say—or a train crash? You’re laid up in the hospital delirious from pain. They go to sew your foot on and there’s a whole pile to choose from, but you’re in no condition to say which one? I’d know the one to point to.”

“They don’t sew stuff back on people that’s been cut off.”

“How about Frankenstein?” Ronnie waited to see if I saw some sense in that dumb statement, but I kept quiet. Ronnie kept at me. “Say you come up dead in the harbor, your head cut off. Hands and arms gone. What’s left for identification?”

“Feet and legs and—”

“Forget legs,” Ronnie said. “Legs are no good for identification—but feet, especially if someone swears they know them particular feet, that would work. You’d be easy, Andy, ’cause your feet are perfect and tiny.”

It took all I had to keep calm and not tell him where to shove his dumb idea. I just said, “Millions of people have little feet.”

“Not in South Baltimore.” Ronnie smiled. “One hundred, tops.”

“At least five hundred.”

“Not perfect-shaped like yours!” Ronnie gave me an oily grin that flipped my stomach. “Don’t worry, Andy, if something happens to you I’ve got ’em in my brain.”

“Ronnie, you best quit with that feet shit.”

“Even better—how about if your feet were a special color? Think about it. Blue, maybe! Blue is lucky. Yeah! If your feet were the only perfect blue feet in South Baltimore, why, anybody could identify ’em, assuming they knew Andy Givens had perfect tiny blue—”

“Screw you, Ronnie!”

“Let me paint ’em Andy!”

When he begged like that I first wanted to gag, but instead I just yelled, “Go to hell!” That was part fake, though, ’cause I was really mad and happy all at once. Ronnie was crazy—yeah—but in a good-bad way. He made it be really strange fun sometimes, us two living in that room.

Some nights Ronnie couldn’t go to sleep if he knew Alice’s tall glasses were mixed in with her short glasses. He’d wait until his folks were conked out and sneak downstairs and go through the kitchen cabinets. We whispered about stuff until we heard their snores. Ted was easy to spot because he snored big. Alice did tiny grunt sounds. When Ronnie got back from his kitchen raid he always saluted me like John Wayne and said, “Mission accomplished.” The next morning Alice would find her glasses in neat rows, arranged by height and color. She must have wondered how they got that way, but as far as I know she never let on. Ronnie did other crazy stuff, too. Like, that one night when he came in and went straight to his bed like he didn’t see me. He turned around five times and sat down. I kept my mouth shut. After awhile he got up and went to his closet and stood there, just faced the closet door, didn’t open it. It was like he sleepwalked over there. He waited awhile, then went back to his bed and turned around five times and sat down.

Finally I couldn’t help myself. “You must be crazy,” I said.

“Uh, uh—Huh?” Ronnie said it like I had just woke him up out of a dream.

“You’re nuts, Ronnie.”

“What?”

“Another thing is, you’re also a big pussy.”

“Take it back,” Ronnie said.

“Make me.”

“I will, Andy, I will.

“Yeah? You and who’s army?”

“The three of us,” He said. And of course I knew what came next. Sure enough Ronnie said, “Me, myself, and I.”

That was so lame. Sometimes Ronnie disgusted me too much to even bother with. “O. K.,” I said, “you win.”

“No, Andy—first take back what you said.”

“I do, Ronnie. I truly do take it back.”

“No, say, ‘You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.’”

“O. K., you’re not a pussy.”

“Say my name, too.”

“You’re not a pussy, Ronnie.

“Good thing, too,” he said. “That was just in time.”

Yeah, right, like what if I didn’t take it back? Ronnie was hopeless, so I gave up and shut up. The next morning, as per usual, I felt his sheets. So far the average for his sheets being soaked was five days out of seven. By the time Alice changed the beds each week all Ronnie’s piss had dried into yellow stains that overlapped and made rusty patterns—kind of pretty designs—light to dark and back again. Alice never let on and neither did Ronnie. Neither did I. That would have been just too mean.

One night I watched Ronnie with one of my eyes, the other one blocked by my pillow. I had been in the middle of a good dream about earwax when some kind of noise woke me up. Ronnie was on his bed by the window, moonlight behind him that made him look like a cutout. At first I didn’t move, kept my head down, half-stuck in the pillow. Ronnie sat still on his bed except when he swayed. He’d be still for five seconds—listening for who knows what?—then he’d do small rocking moves side to side. The sways were so tiny you could hardly tell. He’d rock side to side some and then sit like a statue, then do more moves. The house was quiet. I think I saw a bat go by the window, but maybe not—they’re so fast. Ronnie claimed bats were nighttime swallows that wouldn’t suck your blood. No matter what I heard about bats, I shouldn’t believe that, Ronnie said. “Trust me,” he said, “no bat will every drink a drop of your blood.”

Another night, Alice screamed from down the hallway and Ronnie glanced up from his jigsaw puzzle at the bedroom door, then back down. It was so split-second I almost didn’t catch him—one smooth action—just his eyes moving. That jigsaw was humongous. It had all the animals in some African jungle, plus grass and trees and bugs, and huge-beaked birds. Ronnie had the edges done on three sides and some on the last side. It was a big jaggie rectangle, empty in the middle. He pretended to work at it for five minutes—zero talk, just tiny whimpers—the same puzzle piece in his hand the whole time. Ronnie’s hand didn’t move. More time. Then Alice screamed again and grunted real big—then a bunch of grunts that went from high-pitched to low and then back up again real high. In the nighttime quiet her grunts came down the hall like a church bell. Ronnie still kept still. Then Alice laughed a big screeching laugh and Ronnie smiled but didn’t look up. Then his hand moved over the jigsaw like a helicopter and dropped the puzzle piece in exactly the right spot.

Part four of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.


The Last Dog

June 23, 2008

Short Fiction/Part One

Ronnie claimed he learned to lie good from crime movies. “The best way, Andy,” he said, “is fast and furious with a straight face. Do it speedy so they believe you believe it.” He was perfect at it. When Ronnie said bats were just short fat snakes with wings, I bought it. Later, he got me again saying bats were night birds grownups don’t like ’cause they don’t sing. Yeah, Ronnie loved bats. He had stacks of bat books all over his bedroom. “I worship the god Zotzilaha,” he said, “human body and the head of a bat.” That was pure bullshit of course, but I let it roll off me like it would a duck’s back. I had to sleep in the same room with the jerk. See, Momma sent me to live with Ronnie’s mother, my half-sister Alice, while Momma ran off someplace else. And since she had kicked Daddy out—I didn’t know where he went, or why—I was sort of an orphan. Anyway, after supper Alice was mad about who knows what and made us come up to Ronnie’s room. He was on his bed with a book about zoos, Fred Waring music on the radio. I sat on the edge of the army cot Alice put in for me and used the seat of a wood chair to draw on, trying to make the picture I’d promised Ronnie. Now and then I heard snatches of Alice and her husband Ted come up from down stairs, all hollow and bent out of shape. Ronnie made out he didn’t hear his folks fighting and kept at me with, “Andy, you can’t fool an animal.” That statement was just to hear himself talk. I went on about my business. “Now you take Tarzan.” Right there Ronnie made a big pause for me to say something back, like I was fool enough to bite. He knew Tarzan was my all-time favorite, but I stayed quiet. “All the animals,” Ronnie said, “they love Tarzan. So you know he’s a good guy. A chimp like Cheetah, or an elephant—a man can’t bullshit ’em.”

More talk from downstairs. “Yeah, and then what?” That was Alice, her voice soft, mostly mumbles.

“If Tarzan wasn’t a good guy,” Ronnie kept on, “animals wouldn’t rescue him from quicksand.”

“More gratitude!” Alice again, loud and sarcastic to beat the band. Ted said something back I couldn’t make out, then Alice said, “Easy for you, you don’t have to put up with—” something, something, “—or wash his stinky socks, or—” then she said something else I couldn’t make out, talking about me, I figured. Ted came back at Alice with something.

“Now, you take a baboon,” Ronnie said. “Big exception. Ain’t seen one yet gives a damn about any human.”

“Yeah, Ronnie, you’re the expert.” I said it just to be mean so a normal person would notice, but not him.

“My house always looks nice!” Alice again, hollering. Ted came right back at her, but real low—some stuff about money, I think.

Alice yelled, “Not if I can help it!”

“A baboon’ll screw his girlfriend in public,” Ronnie said. “Then he’ll throw shit-balls at you, then turn right around and play with his food. Then he’ll look you in the eye—no blinks—like he’s saying, ‘I’m having a good time!'” He laughed. “Man, baboons don’t give a damn!

Ted’s voice came upstairs strong but not loud. “Yeah, well, I’ll be here ’til the last dog dies.”

“Can’t have it both ways, Mr. Man,” Alice said.

“Gorillas are almost human.” Ronnie still ignored his momma and daddy. “Same family arrangements we got. Apes use eyesight for identification, like us. Four-legged animals, they use scent markers.”

“What?”

Ronnie tapped his book. “What it says. Apes tell different individuals by eyeball, not like a dog who looks for assholes to sniff.”

“Go ahead!” Alice hollered. “Get gone!”

“How long’s my leash?” That was Ted.

Then something slammed downstairs and Ronnie cut his eyes at the bedroom door, but he didn’t say a word, didn’t lift his head, just eyed that door like he had Superman’s x-ray vision. Then he went back to his animal book, quiet for a change.

Meanwhile, the naked fat people I was drawing for him, they were giving me stagger-fits. Some parts didn’t look right—legs, mostly. Pretty soon I got disgusted and tore the picture into five hundred pieces. More like five thousand pieces. Ronnie looked up, surprised. I just shrugged at him. “Didn’t look natural.”

Shit, Andy!”

“Lousy pose,” I said. “They just stood there all stiff.”

“You had ’em holding hands!

At first I thought he was going to bust out crying. “I’ll start over, Ronnie. Make ’em move. Maybe have ’em dance around some kind of way.”

“Shit, shit, SHIT!

“You’ll get your picture before school starts tomorrow. I’ll come up with some kind of idea.”

Ronnie hollered “SHIT!” one more time.

Right there I got my idea, it popped into my brain like it was hiding in there the whole time and too shy to come out. The picture was going to be three fat women and two fat men, a whole bowling team, and ever one of them naked. The picture wasn’t just for Ronnie anymore, but more for my own sake. It was something I just had to try and see if I could draw it. But not right then. Right then I was tired, so I put the pencil down and pitched back on the cot. My eyes went out like one of those movies where the person’s in a daze. I saw pictures in behind my eyelids—balloons and clouds and Army trucks—big faces of girls came and went—voices, too—all of it in my brain somehow. At first I couldn’t tell who was talking, but pretty soon it came clear, like when you tune a radio around the dial. Those voices got to be my own Momma and Daddy somehow—and those sounds?—they were ghost sounds.

Did I mention that Ronnie was some kind of crazy and stupid at the same time? Like, he collected yo-yos and empty cigarette packs and special rings. He’d wear two rings on the same finger and change them every week, to show off. His main ring was the Green Hornet one that his daddy gave him when Ronnie was still tiny. It was Ted’s from when he was little, and it had a secret compartment for magic codes. Also, it glowed in the dark. You couldn’t get them no more. The Lone Ranger atom-bomb ring was Ronnie’s favorite that he sent away for off a corn flakes box. It cost him ten cents plus five box tops and he stole the money from Alice’s purse. I had Ronnie in my brain ‘way too much. See, he was this momma’s boy who couldn’t do any wrong and he knew it and took advantage of it. Meanwhile, Alice was my half-sister but old enough to be my momma and liked to remind me of it ever chance she got. Sometimes I’d tell lies on Ronnie to get back at the both of them, but Alice, she’d never bite. She’d just smile and shake her head and move on. What Ronnie got away with was no fair. Alice trusted Ronnie just because he was her precious son, without any sense to it, and him lying with every other breath.

When we were done our homework and such, Ronnie got his cigarette’s from under the mattress. Had them stuck up in the springs so Alice couldn’t find them. He brought the “Lucky Strike” pack to me cupped in his hands like it was pure gold. Right, like I never saw Luckies before. I just nodded. “Try one?” he asked. I shook my head. Ronnie went to the window and pushed it up as far as it would go. “C’mere,” he said. I didn’t move a muscle. Ronnie tapped the pack on his hand and a cigarette popped out. He tilted the table lamp on his night stand and reached up under it, undid the bottom and pulled out his Zippo. He held the lighter and cigarette up and smiled his evil smile. Then Ronnie motioned at me with both hands to come on, like Dracula in the movie where he meets the Wolf Man. Another dumb temptation. I shook my head again. “Don’t know what you’re missing, kid.” That last word was a sneer like I was pure pussy. Ronnie tossed the Luckie in the air and caught it in his mouth. He looked to see if I watched— which I did, couldn’t help myself. He flipped the Zippo lid and stuck sparks against the night sky out the window. The flame flared up yellow-orange five inches high, seemed like, and he had to come at it sideways or burn his face off. Ronnie pulled the first drag real big, then let part of the smoke come out and go up his nose. His tongue sucked the trail of smoke back in like a frog catching a fly, and his head jerked back with such pleasure I never saw before or since. He made a click-noise too, just like a frog. Beautiful. Ronnie kept at it—pulled big drags, inhaled, smiled. He blew the smoke out the window and watched me out the corner of his eye. He knew he had me hooked. After a while Ronnie said, “Andy, you seen any Alan Ladd movies?”

“Nope.” That was a lie. Alan Ladd wasn’t no favorite of mine—too sissified—but I did know his stuff.

“Best smoker there is,” Ronnie said. “Watch this.” He hit the Zippo with the back of his hand, which somehow flipped the lid and struck a spark to light it, all in one slick move. He smiled and closed the lid over the flame. “Alan Ladd,” he said. I kept quiet. “How about Dark City,” Ronnie said. “Seen that, with Lizabeth Scott?”

“Nope, ain’t seen it.”

“She’s good too, great smoker for a woman. Stupid mouth, but she’s special. The best smokers are movie stars and sluts.” Ronnie took another fancy drag on his Luckie and blew perfect smoke rings that floated out the window. The warm breeze bent and smeared them in with the dark. He flicked the cigarette outside. “See how I did that?” Ronnie smiled. “Pure Alan Ladd.”

He tapped another Luckie out of the pack and offered it to me. I felt how crinkly and stale it was, but when he went to light it I said, “Later,” and stuck it in my shirt pocket. There was a loud bang downstairs. The front door? A ghost? Whatever it was, the sound made me jump. Baby Elizabeth started to cry. Ted’s old dog barked. Ronnie kept quiet. Finally I said, “What was that?

“What was what?”

“You know damn well, Ronnie.” He just shrugged. Right. He knew it wasn’t Baby Elizabeth or the dog did that. Ronnie knew a noise that loud had to be Alice or Ted.

Part two of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.