Tuesday, January 6, 2015


What’s in a Name?

There once was a family named Schmidt who lived in New Jersey. One snowy day the Schmidt’s elder son, whose name was John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer, was driving his Volkswagen van across the Bayonne Bridge when he swerved to avoid hitting a pariah mongrel that had wandered onto the roadway. His car slewed through the guard rail and plunged into the Kill Van Kull.

John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer’s younger brother, named Ed, who had been two cars behind and who had not skidded, immediately reached for his cellphone and dialed home. The Schmidt father, who was hard of hearing and who used a cheap, recycled cellphone whose battery was low, answered.

“Pop, this is Ed,” Ed said. “John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer just fell in the river.”

“Nell who?” Pop said, because he was hard of hearing and also easily confused.

“John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer,” Ed said.

“So why are you calling, John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer?”

“No,” Ed said. “This is not John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer. This is Ed, the younger brother of John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer who fell in the river. His van is bobbing up and down like a cork, and John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer is hanging onto the roof rack. He needs help.”

“John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer needs kelp? What is[JM1] [JM2]  John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer going to do with kelp?”

“Never mind, Pop. John Jacob Fledermaus Rosengarten Bachundheimer Schmidt is heading out to sea.”

Pop banged his cellphone on the kitchen counter until its glass shattered. “Damn kids,” he said. “Always trying to complicate matters.”

Lesson: If you really want to spread confusion, go into Starbucks and order a tall vente in a grande cup.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


The Unfalling Sky

A diminutive Rhode Island Red hatchling was pecking and scratching in the barnyard under a big oak tree. A gentle breeze came up, raising a slight dust and causing the tree’s leaves to tremble. An acorn wobbled loose and dropped, but before it reached the ground it fell on the head of the pint-size chicken.

“Heavens above, and as sure as I’ve been hatched, the sky is falling.” Chicky Licky cried out,

Whereupon she dashed to and fro crying “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

Ducky Lucky was grooming her tail feathers, but when she heard the news she abandoned her toilet and quacked “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Instead of running to and fro she ran back and forth.

In less time than it takes to tell, all the barnyard warm-blooded, egg-laying vertebrate animals—including Turkey Lurkey and Henny Penny—were dashing in different directions, and each was adding to the outcry of “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

Foxy Woxy was watching the hubbub from the side of the barn. “What a bunch of ninnies,” he muttered to no one in particular. The sky is no more falling than it is made of cream cheese.”

So Foxy Woxy bided his time until the silly fowls had reached the peak of their frenzy, at which they all dropped, exhausted, to the ground. Then he trotted on little fox feet into the barnyard and ate every last one of them.

Lesson: Mass hysteria can hit almost anywhere, so use common sense before falling into a collective delusion.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Percy was the night desk clerk in the hotel my grandmother owned in Peoria, Illinois. Everyone called him Percy, but no one knew if that was his first name or his last name.

Percy was five feet tall, was thin as a stick, and had black, frizzy hair with sideburns that reached to his lower jaw. He sported a wispy Fu Manchu type of moustache that he was wont to stroke as if it were an award-winning part of his being.

He always wore white clothes that combined a Kentucky Colonel outfit and a zoot suit. The trousers were baggy, and their waist fitted under his armpits. The coat had wide lapels and long tails. There was an expansive, necktie and a wide-brimmed hat, both white. His shoes were white bucks. His shirt had a black monogrammed PCS.

When I asked Percy what the “CS” stood for, he said “Crazy Spade.”

His skin was a dusty coffee hue. His fingernails were yellow, thick, and long. So long they curved and twisted for at least an inch from the fleshy tips of his fingers.

I used to wonder if Percy’s toenails were also long, and if they hindered his walking. Probably not, because he was rumored to have been a choreographer of a black dance company in Chicago.

Percy was wise in wondrous ways.

“The strenth is all in the nails,” he often declared. “You got no nails, you got no strenth.”

“Thus spoke Zarathustra,” he added.

He pointed a warped fingernail at a light bulb.

“You see that up there.”

It was a statement, not a question.

“That there light bulb is the light of the world.”

I thought about that, while Percy fondled his moustache. He looked into my eyes.

“Live close to the ground and do what you enjoy.”

“Who said that,” I asked.

“I just did.”

“I mean before you.”

“It was a Chinese philosopher named Loochow.”

“Do you mean Lao-tzu?”

“That’s what I said. Loochow.”

Percy was a wellspring of arcane knowledge. He didn’t appear to be a religious man, though he had his own special blessing that he bestowed on individuals throughout the year.

Placing one brown hand on your shoulder Percy would bow his head and declare, “And may all your Christmases be white.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Some months ago I took a driving trip to Central Illinois to visit my only living relative, an elderly aunt. I had telephoned a week in advance to identify myself, as we had not made contact for forty or more years. Aunt Bobbie warned me she looked older, and I said who did not look older. She laughed and told me to come along.

We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon in her overheated studio apartment reminiscing about the past. We talked about Uncle Earl, her husband who had died of cancer before extracting a promise from her that he would be cremated and have his ashes tossed into the Illinois River because he didn’t want any trace left for moaning and groaning over. We talked about my father, who had had a coronary at age fifty while preparing a breakfast of biscuits and gravy for his then-current lady friend.

Aunt Bobbie was pleased that I had, as she put it, become a “good” adult and stayed out of prison, which made me wonder what kind of youth I had been when she last knew me. I proposed taking her to a fine restaurant for dinner, but she declined, saying she didn’t go out much because of her wrinkles. Instead she served me a slice of freshly baked apple pie covered with Cool Whip, and insisted I eat a second slice. When she started to yawn I said it was time for me to go. We said we would meet again the next year, a pledge I didn’t keep because eight months later Aunt Bobbie died alone in her apartment.

One more excursion on that journey into the past was a visit to my father's grave. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing because my father and I had never been close, and when he died I was halfway around the world, unable to get home for the funeral. Besides, to me death is not a tragedy but a natural process, nothing to be taken seriously. Furthermore, I am perplexed by the solemn attitude of most people to death and to the dead.

But I had promised Aunt Bobbie I would go to the cemetery, so I went.

The day was gray, and a cold rain was falling on Lakeside Cemetery. At the north end of the property was the Abel Vault Monument Shoppe, main office of the burial grounds. That name is blurred in my notes. Could it have been The Able Shoppe Monument Vault? No, that sounds like some sort of Olympic competition held in an English tea room.

The surroundings could have been brought over from Salisbury Plain. Large blocks of stone were arranged in rings and rows, and the grass was close-cropped, re-creating a perfect setting for the enactment of a pagan rite. A series of marble blocks—slick in the rain—formed a corridor that led to the shoppe's entrance. When I pushed against the door the hinges gave out a shriek like that which might burst from the throat of a person whose fingernails were being torn off.

Inside, a crowded showroom displayed open caskets, their satin interiors looking snugly inviting. There were also granite angels, carved prayer books, and rocks of ages, all aimed at lending death a sense of immortality.

A gaunt woman with blue hair and rhinestone eyeglasses greeted me.

"And how can I help you?" she asked, nasally.

"I'm looking for a certain grave," I said, uncertainly.


"Mine or his?"

"The deceased."


"Catholic?" She inhaled the word, as if were distasteful.

"What? No, Mason."

"Mason McDowell?"

My forehead felt damp.

"No Jack. Maybe John. He was a Mason, I think."

"We won’t worry about that,” she said consolingly. “Date?"

"He died some time in the late fifties or early sixties. I'm not sure."

"No problem," she said, patting my shoulder familiarly. "If we got Jack here, we'll find Jack here."

Her self-assurance was encouraging.

She scurried into an anteroom and came back lugging a thick binder that looked like the sort of record book Saint Peter might use at the Pearly Gates.

"McDowell . . . . McDowell . . . ," she muttered, running a fingernail down column after column of handwritten entries. There were many pages for 1959. Apparently that had been a good year for Lakeside.

"No McDowell in fifty nine. Let's try sixty."

She flipped pages. I tried to read the inverted entries, but the effort made my eyes ache.

"McDowell . . . McDowell . . . Jack . . . John . . . ," she droned.

Her tone was soothing. I closed my eyes.

"There he is," she said in a loud voice that made me jump.

She slammed the binder shut.

"Where is he?" I asked.

"For that we go to the cards," she said, and disappeared into the anteroom.

The cards? I wondered if she was going to cast a Tarot. I thought Tarot told the future, not the past.

She reappeared with a dog-eared stack of 4 by 5 file cards. As she sorted through the deck, looking as if she were laying out a chummy hand of solitaire, I studied a placard at the end of the counter.

Shepherd Hooks--Single $10, Double $14

Candles $30 and $40 per dozen

Eternal Lights $65

I wondered what Lakeside patrons (Or were they called clients?) did with Shepherd Hooks, what the difference was between the budget candles and the more costly ones, and how long Eternal Lights lasted.

"Got him!" she said, triumphantly.

She showed me a card. At the top, scrawled in red ink, was the name “Jack McDowell.” Below were more scribbles noting he had died on September 6, 1960, and was buried on September 7.

"That's probably him," I said.

"No probably about it,” she snapped. “His name is Jack McDowell, that sure is him,"

"Well, where is he now?" I asked. "I mean, where is he around here."

"I'll get a map," she said.

She produced a photocopy of the cemetery grounds. It had a brown halo on it, which I guessed came from the bottom of a coffee cup.

"I haven't been out to walk the rows in a couple of years," she said.

I nodded.

"It's my leg, you know."

I tried to look sympathetic.

"But this place is pretty easy to find your way around in."

"I . . . ," I began.

"Not like that Catholic cemetery." She sniffed.

"I was going to say I haven’t had much experience navigating in graveyards. I'm easily lost."

"No problem," she said.

She traced the route with the same fingernail she had used on the binder pages. It was thick and square on the end.

"Go to the mausoleum and hang a right. Go two sections to The Last Supper and hang a left. Jack will be waiting on the northeast corner. Section Eleven."

Section Eleven, I thought that signified bankruptcy. Or was it a dishonorable discharge? And after 33 years my father would be waiting on the corner? I was not sure I liked the sound of that.

"You want some landmarks to nail him down?"

"Anything," I said.

She consulted the cards.

"On the same corner we have Hogan, Long, Vaughn, and Taylor. Marvin Taylor will be right next to Jack McDowell."

I jotted notes on the map.

"Sounds crowded," I said.

"Oh, they'll all be there," she said.

I pictured a jolly group, singing college songs and clinking beer mugs.

"Okay," I said. I picked up the map.

"Remember The Last Supper."

"I will."

She touched the end of her nose with a lacy handkerchief.

"And if there's anything else I can do for you, be sure to come back."

I said I would and thanked her for her help. I liked the woman. She seemed to have a sensible outlook on death.

"Any time," she said.

"Good luck with your leg," I said.

The door screamed when I left.

I found The Last Supper.

I found Hogan. At least I found Hogan's marker. It was where it was supposed to be. And I found Long's marker and Vaughn's marker.

I did not find Marvin Taylor, nor did I find Jack McDowell. Neither one was where it, or he, was supposed to be.

I thought of returning to the office, but decided against it. It seemed a futile gesture. Even in life my father had never stayed long in one place.

I stood on the corner of Section Eleven for a long time, staring through the rain at where Dad should have been and wondering how I should feel. I waited for some emotion to overwhelm me but I felt no different than I would have felt looking at a tree stump in a forest. This was 1993. There was nothing above ground—here or anywhere else—to indicate Dad had ever existed. Even if there remained some trace of him underground, my father was no more "there" than he had been when he was shoveled under on that day in 1960.

However, in the center of Section Ten was a colossal monument bearing the name, "Jack Ripper." For a wild moment I wondered if what ever was left of my father was under that stone, and if it had been his final laugh at a world he considered mad from the start.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


The other day I went into a supermarket and, after some deliberation, I picked out a film-wrapped fillet of fresh salmon. It was a hearty chunk of fish, and it would make a fine meal. When I took my selection to the cash register the checkout person—a pleasant-faced young woman—inspected it solemnly.

“What is it?” she asked.

What is it? I wondered if she was presenting a koan, but I responded graciously. “It’s a fish,” I said. “A salmon fish.”

“But where are its eyes?” she wanted to know.

Her direct question threw me off. “I mean it’s a salmon fish steak.”

She looked puzzled.

“You’ve never tasted salmon?” I asked, wondering if she had recently wandered out of the Ozarks hills after having been weaned on chitlins and redeye gravy. I leaned over the counter to see if she was wearing shoes.

“Salmon is delicious,” I said. “It’s a salt water fish.”

She looked at me intently. “Are you a sailor?” she asked.

Another straightforward question.

Fish … water … sailor. I presumed she was making some sort of association. Or maybe she was posing a spiritual problem. Perhaps she was demonstrating truth directly, without recourse to logic or reason. I reflected on her words.

“Not just now,” I said. “But I have been.”

Fish in hand, she gazed at me and I readied myself to launch into a collection of salty yarns from my days before the mast.

“Well, you look like one,” she said. I assumed she meant sailor, not fish.

As Pogo Possum used to say, reason reeled. I was wearing black shorts and a green T-shirt. I wondered what sort of seafaring books she’d been reading.

The nymph and I stood there for a long moment, both of us calmly regarding the salmon. After a while she rang up my purchase, slipped it into a plastic bag, and handed it to me.

“Well, have a nice day sailing,” she said.

I thanked her.

“And enjoy your whatever,” she added.

Rationalism had fled. “Plum tree in the garden,” I answered.

Intellect and logic had been blown out of the water. Was I having a spasm of awakening? I remembered a story.

Once a fish asked another fish, “I’ve always heard of ocean, but what is ocean?”

The other fish answered, “You are surrounded by ocean. You move, live, and have your being in ocean. Ocean is all around you. Ocean is within you.”

The first fish looked confused, so the other fish went on.

“You are ocean.”

“Huh?” the first fish said.

“You originated in ocean, and you will end in ocean. You and ocean are one.”

Now the first fish was really bewildered.

“You’ve given me no answer at all,” it said. “I’ll have to go somewhere else for an answer.”

The other fish said, “The only real answer is the one you find in yourself.”

I carried my fish to the car and sat there for a few minutes, trying to find a real answer in myself. All I came up with was another question.

Why, I wondered, do I attract such weird moments?

After a while the world settled into place, so I headed for home.

That night I broiled the whatever with dill butter and served it with a baked potato and a side of corn pudding.

The meal was delicious, and I became one with it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Wu’s Bamboo House in Redlands, California, was a blocky stucco building that squatted at the edge of a large municipal parking lot. Several large signs near the door proclaimed “Chinese-American Food,” and a loudspeaker over the entrance blared hymns and religious messages in English.

Inside, a smiling Chinese man greeted me, inviting me to sit anywhere I’d like. Apparently I was the only diner. Evangelical music filled the dining room. On every table was a bottle of catsup and several religious tracts.

The man—was it Mister Wu himself?—brought me a menu that listed hamburgers, steaks fried chicken, and “Regular Chinese Luncheon.” I asked if they offered either of my Asian favorites, Ginger Beef, or Chow Yuk.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Mr. Wu replied, repeating my words. He took the menu and vanished into the kitchen.

Looking around, I saw a table just inside the entrance that was covered with an assortment of religious tracts, all arranged in tidy stacks. Also on the table was a four-by-five-inch card that said, “Smile, God loves you.”

On the wall were several framed panels calligraphed in Chinese characters and probably bearing the same message. I read one of the tracts on my table while I waited. It was written in English, and it described how heart attacks are the result of poor eating habits, smoking, lack of exercise, and other forms of bad living. It ended with a short Gospel message.

I have always avoided fatty foods. In the last twenty years I had smoked half a cigar. Several times a week I jog four or five miles. When I perish, it won’t be the result of bad living.

Presently Mr. Wu returned and placed in front of me a large platter that held neither Chow Yuk nor Ginger Beef. When I delicately asked about the slight mistake, he said, “Yes, yes, yes. We all out of ginger and Chow Yuk, so I give you Regular.”

Regular was deep fried egg roll, fried wonton, fried rice, and what I guessed was chop suey.

After a few bites I realized the rice was brown rice, cooked perfectly and delightfully chewy. And what I assumed were slices of beef, or maybe pork, in the chop suey were not real meat but a soy substitute. The egg rolls were crisp, and not at all greasy. It was a healthy Chinese vegetarian meal. And it was delicious.

When I finished I made my way to the men’s room, down a hall whose walls were hung with pictures of Jesus. On top of the toiled tank was a rack holding religious tracts. On one wall was a metal rack of order forms for free Bibles.

At the front desk I paid my bill, noting more tracts placed around the cash register. There were signs assuring me of God’s love. I told Mr. Wu I greatly enjoyed my meal.

He smiled, showing many teeth, and said, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Mr. Wu handed me my change and gave me a fresh peach.

He smiled some more and said, “No charge for Chinese peach. Good eating, good health, and God love you.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009


A travel guidebook would call California’s far-north picturesque. I could be happy living up there in a small house in a small town, close to where the Trinity Mountains merge with the Cascade Range.

Dorris, near the Oregon border, looked like a nice kind of town to stop in for breakfast, so at the Dew Drop Inn Café I settled myself at the counter, and the slim waitress handed me a dog-eared menu. I ordered scrambled eggs, biscuits, and fried potatoes.

The counter had four stools. There were also five tables, all of them occupied by big men wearing overalls. Every man looked at me when I entered. Not a friendly look, not an unfriendly look. Just a probing look, as if they were collectively thinking, who is this jasper?

So I nodded to them. From my stool I could see into the open kitchen where a woman was sliding a tray of fresh-baked biscuits out of the oven.

The eggs were fresh. The biscuits were fluffy and brown on top. The potatoes weren’t your everyday packaged hash browns, machine-processed to resemble shoestrings, but were honest chunks that had been cut by hand. They were crispy on the outside and creamy inside.

“I’m Loreen,” the waitress said, refilling my coffee mug.

“Hello, I’m Jack.”

“Loreen Larue.”

Larue. That sounds French.”

“I don’t know ‘bout that, hon,” she said, winking. “I think I got a little Indian in me.”

I didn’t wink back.

Loreen had a pretty face, and she was talky. She said when she wasn’t doing breakfasts at the café, she was out working potatoes.

I asked, “How do you work potatoes?”

“That’s mostly what gets grown around here,” she said, waving to the guys at the tables. They stopped watching me.

“Potatoes and then some.” Loreen said.

“I drive a truck from the fields to the sheds, then when they’re not harvesting I drive fertilizer.”

I nodded encouragingly.

“We get our potatoes in the café cheaper than wholesale. And everyone sure eats lots of them.”

He jaw muscles worked in time with mine as she watched me chewing.

“They go everywhere, our potatoes. We even ship seed to Holland and other parts. Good people around here. Couldn’t find much better anywhere. All potato people, clear down to Shasta.”

I told her I had heard of some mysterious individuals who lived on or in the mountains. Some were said to be highly evolved beings superior to humans. Another bit of lore said that Mount Shasta was a vortex inhabited by the spirit chief Skell, who descended from heaven to the mountain’s summit.

“The Numerians, you mean,” she said.

“I thought they were called Lemurians,” I said. “But they can’t be Lemurians because Lemuria was an ancient civilization that existed in the South Pacific.

“Yep,” she said. “Them Numerians are the ones.” She took a deep breath.

“They’re little people. No higher than my hip. They live in caves and tunnels that go all through the mountain, you see.”

I nodded.

“Originally they were outcasts from Indian tribes that lived down in the valley. People thought they had something wrong with them, or had done something wrong, and that’s why they were little.”

“Um,” I said, to keep her going, and because my mouth was full.

“The tribes were afraid of them and cast them out. “So they banded together and dug into the mountains. Once in a while some of them will come down to Weed or Shasta City for supplies. And do you know what?”

I didn’t know what, but I was hooked, and Loreen knew it. I listened attentively.

She leaned toward me conspiratorially, her eyes flicking from my face to the dwindling mound of fried potatoes on my plate.

“They pay for everything with gold. Then they disappear up into the mountain again.”

She sat back, pleased with my awed look.

“Gold.” I said.

“Yep. And that’s not all. A few winters ago a sixty-year-old lady went skiing by herself and got lost. A month later she wandered into town. The clinic gave her a medical exam, and you know what?”


“They said she had the body of a twenty-year old.”

I nodded, and wiped my place clean with the last bit of biscuit.

“You want some more, hon? We do seconds on the potatoes.”

“No thanks. Everything was really good, but I’m full.”

“You see, them Numerians found that old lady lying in the snow, and they took care of her. They know how to do herbs and minerals to make all kinds of medicine and cures.”

I was impressed.

“The body of a twenty-year old,” Loreen said, in a hushed voice.

I finished my coffee.

“A while back there was an eight-year-old boy here named Jesse who went missing up there on the mountain. He was backward, but a real sweet kid. Everyone liked him, even if he wasn’t able to talk. For two years no one ever heard of him. Then one day Jesse showed up in town. Just as healthy and happy as you can imagine. Only he had the intelligence of a forty-year-old man. And he was talking several languages.

I asked what languages.

“The Numerians had found him, and taken him in, and taught him all kinds of things about the mountains.”

“Is the boy still around?”

She shook her head.

“They’re good folks, the Numerians. Don’t bother anyone, and they help people who get into trouble or get lost in the mountains.”

Loreen was interesting, and she seemed to know all the legends of the region. I asked her about Bigfoot.

“Bigfoot,” she said. “You see, there’s not just one but several that wanders around Hayfork, west of Red Bluff. The original Bigfoot was a retarded child that had been turned out to die. But instead of dying he grew to be a giant. Lots of hair all over him, and strong as a bull. One day he kidnapped an Indian girl, and they had some babies together that were huge. That’s why there’s more than one.”

I said that a couple of days earlier I had driven through a tidy company town that had been built for workers at the lumber mill.

“McCloud,” she said.

“Well, in a logging camp over by McCloud some men were pestering a Bigfoot who had wandered in. Why, he chased off those men by picking up some fifty-gallon oil drums and throwing them like they was basketballs.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Bats, too,” she said.


Giant bats. There are giant bats in the area. They come from some underground city. Scientists from the university are investigating them. Two-foot wingspans. Big enough to carry off a baby. They may be vampires, but a live one hasn’t been captured yet, so the scientists can’t be sure.”

I paid for my breakfast, and thanked Loreen for all the information.

“You be careful now,” Loreen said.

As I headed for the door, two of the men at the tables nodded at me.