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Excerpt for Just Another Dead White Male by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Just Another Dead White Male

A novel



Paul Enns Wiebe


Copyright Paul Enns Wiebe, 2018

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of comic fiction. Any references to historical events or to actual places are included only to give the novel the false sense of reality that is the hallmark of farcical satire and that only a cretin would take as literal truth. Names, characters, places, or events that appear herein are either brainchildren of the author or are mentioned only for his own subtle but harmless reasons; their resemblances, if any, to counterparts in the real world would be totally coincidental, though they would not surprise him.

Two earlier editions of this book were published under the title, Dead White Male.

Distributed by Smashwords

Ebook formatting by www.ebooklaunch.com


CONTENTS

Part One

1. A Pair of Star-Crossed Lovers

2. Early Retirement

3. Molls

4. Camping Out

5. Putting the Hurt behind Her

6. The Skeptics

7. As Mature Adults

8. Thanksgiving

9. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Pain

10. Signs of the End

Interlude

11. Breaking the Rules

Part Two

12. The Prize

13. Faith

14. Serenity

15. Loyalty

16. The Long Shining Tube

17. Online to God

About the Author


Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

—Shakespeare, Macbeth


Part One


1

A Pair of Star-Crossed Lovers

He stood before the door of the principal’s office, hesitant.

He tilted his head back slightly, adjusted his trifocals, squinted through the narrow slab, and read the new nameplate announcing the new occupant as Ms. Penni Mode, EdD.

He took a large white handkerchief from a rear pocket. He unfolded it and wiped off the dewdrops that were beginning to form on his great white dome. He carefully refolded it and put it back in his pocket. Then he reached into his watch pouch, extracted the gold-plated timepiece he had inherited from his grandfather, thumbnailed open its worn cover, and checked the hour. Two forty-one: exactly on time.

He snapped the cover shut and slipped the watch back into its pouch. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and knocked.

“Come in,” called a low feminine voice.

He reminded himself of Rule #1 for actors: relax. He counted to three. Then he made his grand entrance, taking pains to close the door behind him.

Ms. Penni Mode sat posture-perfect in a chair behind her desk. She was dressed in a dark-blue shoulder-padded business suit and was wearing a pair of fashionable steel-rimmed glasses. A small frown broke the surface of her wrinkle-free face as she vigorously made checkmarks on the papers arranged neatly before her.

Oh yes, he remembered. Faculty evaluation time.

“Sit down,” she said without looking up at him. She pointed at the guest chair with the eraser end of her pencil.

He carefully sat down, shoehorning himself into the narrow chair. He hadn’t been in this office for several weeks, since Ms. Mode took over for Henry Constant. He discreetly glanced around. Everything was changed. Instead of an old oak desk, there was this new steel one. Instead of a big soft padded guest chair, there was this mobile model on wheels, built for persons of more modest proportion. Instead of a red carpet beneath the chair, there was this slippery sheet of plastic. Instead of a sign on the wall advising One Day at a Time, there was a poster with the message, “Think Globally—Act Locally.” And instead of old standbys like Lord Jim and Fathers and Sons and Hard Times, the bookshelves now held new and unfamiliar titles like Building Robust Competencies: Linking Human Resource Systems to Organizational Strategies and Beyond American Graffiti: A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the Post-Primary Level and Agenda for the Third Millennium: Empowering the Disadvantaged.

She finally looked up, resting her chin on her left wrist. “Mr. Budwieser,” she said abruptly.

Henry Constant used to call him Ed, and he called Henry Hank. He would come in and philosophize with Hank during his free hour; no appointment necessary. They’d sit there in the office with their feet up on that solid oak desk, he and good old Hank, drinking coffee and calling each other by their Christian names and wondering what the world was coming to. But a month ago, just before Easter, wise, dependable Henry Constant had passed away from a heart attack—possibly a complication from the cirrhosis—and the control tower downtown had replaced him with Ms. Mode, a freshly-minted young EdD who had got the job, as the Kirkland Bugle reported, because of “her skills in personnel management.”

She whipped off her glasses and flashed a temporary smile.

He thought it appropriate to smile back.

She leaned forward. “I thought we should talk about the future,” she began.

He nodded and cleared his throat and began to search for a masterful sentence that would introduce the speech he had spent this past Memorial Day weekend formulating and revising and polishing and practicing in front of the bathroom mirror—the speech that would eloquently put forth his vision of the future for Language Arts at Sunset High; the speech that would begin with a declaration of his well-considered philosophy of education, formed by the experience of thirty-odd years; the speech that would subtly demonstrate his mastery of the Classics, those immortal works of outstanding merit, those monuments of the human spirit, those shining and infallible touchstones that had stood the test of time; the speech that would off-handedly remind her (in case she had not had time to look at his file) that he had spent ten long hard summers working on his Master’s thesis on Shakespeare’s tragic heroes; the speech that would proceed to inform her that with Henry Constant’s sage counsel, he had been grooming young Bob White to replace himself as Chairman of Language Arts in three years, when he would turn sixty-two and would finally be eligible for Social Security; the speech that would go on to recommend that Bobbie, despite being just fifty-one and having just a b.a. and being just a mite weak in Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s later plays, as well as having just a slight stutter, was the perfect man (having spent the last five summers on his thesis showing the influence of Aristophanes’ The Clouds on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces) to step into his own shoes and continue the long venerable tradition that had made Language Arts the pride of Sunset High—in fact, the pride of the entire Kirkland School District, if they only had the good sense to recognize the gold mine they had on their hands.

But that masterful first sentence would not come. It was a prisoner in his brain, tied up in a knot of words and parentheses and dashes and semicolons.

Ms. Mode looked at him for a long moment, quizzically.

“I thought you should be the first to know,” she went on, sitting back in her chair, “that next year we’re planning to reform the Language Arts curriculum.”

Oh yes. Curriculum reform. That was another thing he had intended to mention in his speech. He’d been planning to point out that for the last several years he had given a great deal of thought to the possibility of revamping World Literature, perhaps replacing A Midsummer Night’s Dream with The Tempest and The Cherry Orchard with Death of a Salesman.

She stared at a space twenty yards directly behind him.

Nice eyes, he observed. Quite an attractive young woman.

“I’ve asked Ms. Greene to be in charge of this process,” she said.

Not exactly beautiful, not quite in Dora’s class, but still, quite attract— … What? Ms. Greene, in charge? Ms. Candi Greene? Twenty-three-year-old Ms. Candi Greene? Bubble-gum-chewing Candi Greene? Little Candi Greene, still running around in her training bra? Candi Greene, BA (Women’s Studies), who only had a minor in English? Candi Greene, who refused to teach The Scarlet Letter because she found it “extremely offensive,” who insisted on teaching The Color Purple instead? Candi Greene, whom Hank Constant just had last month admitted was his one big mistake? Candi Greene? In charge?

“As you may or may not know,” she went on, “Ms. Greene is an expert in deconstruction.”

An expert. In deconstruction. He nodded wearily. Yes. He’d heard rumors to that effect. And he knew all about deconstruction. He’d once read an article on the subject in Newsweek. He was well aware that deconstructionism was a dangerous theory, designed by overpaid ex-Nazi professors in Ivy League universities as a plot to deprive Western Civilization of its most priceless possession, the Classics. He was well aware that the whole point of deconstruction was to rid the world of some fanciful concoction called “phallocentrism,” a word that wasn’t even listed in his definitive 1974 Webster’s! He was well aware that the deconstructionists would not be satisfied until they had left the cultural battlefield strewn with the castrated corpses of legions of so-called “dead white males,” from William Shakespeare to Ed Budwieser.

“I just wanted you to be the first to know,” she repeated.

“Thank you,” he murmured. It was the only sentence that came to mind.

She put her glasses back on and briskly stood up.

He stood up too, like an exhausted jack-in-the-box.

She glanced at her watch. “If you have any questions,” she said, “I’d suggest you speak to Ms. Greene.”

Speak to Ms. Greene? Candi Greene, whom he had overheard jesting about his teaching method, in which he played the parts of the characters in the Classics he assigned his students? Who snickered openly when he told her about his extensive collection of costumes: Prometheus, Oedipus, Samson, Becket—not to speak of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear? Who actually laughed out loud last week when he came into the faculty lounge attired in Shakespearean doublet and hose immediately after treating his English Literature seniors to a stunning performance of Romeo’s part in the balcony scene of the greatest love story of all time? Whose jests “set the table on a roar,” to quote Hamlet, when she asked him whether he was sure he was doing Romeo, whether he wasn’t “really, like, doing Fatstuff, y’know, that old guy,” referring in her crude, vulgar way to Sir John Falstaff? Who was incapable of understanding the fact that playing the parts of those heroic characters, in costume, was the finest way to bring the Classics alive? Who could not possibly grasp the truth that the one time a man felt no boundary between what he was and what he aspired to be was when he was “strutting the boards, holding up a mirror to nature,” in the sublime words of the Bard? Would he speak to a snide, disrespectful young woman about her plans for his department, his project for the last twenty-five illustrious years? He would not!

Ms. Mode strode quickly to the door.

He followed her, another speech beginning to form in his brain.

She turned to face him. “I have every confidence in Ms. Greene,” she said with a sweet parting smile.

He cleared his throat.

“Yes?” she said brightly, opening the door for him.

He paused for a moment in the doorway, to think. He thought of the past, of the thirty-odd years he had spent as a member of the Department of Language Arts, twenty-five of them as its leader. He thought of the present, of the ominous but clear challenge to Western Culture’s most valuable asset, the Classics. He thought of the future, wondering whether posterity would forgive him if he failed them in this, his hour of trial. He thought of his preparation for this moment of crisis, of the ten long hot vacationless Kansas summers he had devoted to the study of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. He thought of Shakespeare’s bust, standing guard over his office, and of Shakespeare’s serene but observant eyes, monitoring his every action. He thought of Hamlet, “screwing his courage to the sticking point,” and of that young hero’s words as he prepared to wreak his vengeance on those who had robbed him of his patrimony: “Readiness is all.” Then he thought of the faculty evaluation forms on Ms. Mode’s desk, and of Sir John Falstaff’s advice: “The better part of valor is discretion.”

He left her office without another word.

So next year, he sighed as she closed the door behind him, Ed Budwieser, whose steady hand had guided the ship of Language Arts for the last quarter of a century, was to be replaced at the helm by a callow young woman who had not even been born when he was her age. Just as this year Hank Constant—dead white male Henry Duncan Constant—had been replaced by Lady Macbeth.

But was this all so tragic? he asked himself as he wandered out into the long dark empty hall. Or was it a blessing in disguise? His thoughts turned to the judicious advice he always wrote on the blackboard for the benefit of his seniors at the tail end of their last semester:

There’s Always a Light at the End of the Tunnel;

and:

Look on the Bright Side.

As he considered his own wisdom, he felt a strange but unmistakable relief. The weight of passing Western Culture to the next generation no longer rested on his substantial shoulders. Now that for all practical purposes he was no longer Chairman of Language Arts, he was finally free to do what he had been hoping and planning to do for the last ten years: leave philistine, prosaic Kirkland, move to the West Coast, and compose his memoirs for the benefit of a distant posterity that would, in time, come to appreciate the fact that for thirty-odd years Edward Budwieser, Master of Arts, had wasted his fragrance on the Kansas air.

§

She buzzed around the patient, dressed in a tiny pink pant suit, armed with a line of floss.

“Open wide,” she sang.

He opened wide.

She accidentally rubbed up against him.

He flinched.

“Relax, Rabbi Scheinblum,” she said gaily. “I’m not going to hurt you. That’s Dr. Digby’s job.”

He flinched again.

“Just kidding,” she reassured him. “My job is to take your mind off the coming pain.”

A major flinch.

She ignored this response and launched into her assignment. One of the questions she’d been asking people as she flossed them up for Dr. Digby was, what did they like best about Kirkland? If they were to name her the one thing they liked best about living in Kirkland, Kansas, one thing and one thing only, what would that one thing be?

They’d been saying it’s a nice conservative town. Still too much crime in the streets, maybe, and it was getting a little too big, in terms of population, but basically it was still a nice conservative town, knock on wood. They’d been mentioning the friendliness of the people. They’d been saying Kirkland was the kind of a place where family values were allowed to shine through, which accounted for the friendliness. They’d also been saying it was one big happy church-going community where everybody was free to go to the religion of his own choice and there were no long-haired Socialists—she guessed that maybe now they were called Liberals (this brought an indisputable flinch)—and very, very few atheists, just a few long-haired philosophers out at the University, and nobody paid any attention to them anyway, except for maybe a few sophomores, who’d grow out of it just about the time they started applying for jobs in the appliance department at Sears.

She personally had to agree with those who said the number one thing about Kirkland was the friendly people. But that’s not what she told the patients, oh no, she was there to serve, not to preach sermons, and in her book one of the best ways to serve was to make the patient feel comfortable before Dr. Digby came in and shot him up with novocaine, and it would go against this basic philosophy if she started him—or her, she guessed it was now him or her—if she started him out with a sermon from her own personal point of view. So she started him out with a question, then she flossed his uppers, which gave him lots of time to think about his answer: nice conservative town, the friendliness of the people, great family values, freedom of so many churches to choose from, these four being the most popular choices.

She withdrew the floss from Rabbi Scheinblum’s mouth and stood back to admire her work.

“Now I’m going to let you rinse.”

Rabbi Scheinblum rinsed.

Then she started out on the lowers and encouraged him to give some careful thought to the question about the advantages of Kirkland as a place to live.

She was beginning to say, she said, that from her own personal point of view Kirkland’s number one asset was its people. Where else could you find honest, friendly people like the ones they had over at church, as well as fine Christian gentlemen like Dr. Digby, who had a different religious persuasion but wasn’t prejudiced against people from other denominations, just as long as they believed in God and … (she was going to add Jesus but then noticed Rabbi Scheinblum’s yarmulke and changed directions) … and had their share of cavities?

Another question she’d become known for lately was, why would anybody in his right mind want to leave Kirkland of his own free choice? Why on earth?

She invited him to rinse again.

Rabbi Scheinblum rinsed again.

The usual answer, she said, is, beats me. She didn’t even have to give them a few moments to think about this question, the answer just kept popping out of them, often before she’d got to the point of drawing blood. Over ninety percent of the customers gave that exact same answer of, beats me. This was no exaggeration. Ninety, ninety-five percent at least.

She paused, then went back in to clean between a pair of lower left molars she’d missed.

Ed was another story, of course. Ed was her husband of forty years, maybe she’d mentioned that last time, she usually did —mention it, that is. Ed, and Mabel, her twin sister, who had been on her mind lately, poor dear. Anyway, Ed was another story. Ed was always another story. He belonged to that rare five, ten percent who spend their time thinking of reasons why people in their right minds would want to leave Kirkland of their own free choice. When she had challenged him the other day to give her just one good reason—she was still talking about Ed—he ticked off ten in a row, one right after the other. Then what did he do but, he added injury to insult by taking off his shoes and socks and counting on his toes!

She withdrew the floss and came up with the punch line:

“And they say teachers are underpaid.”

Rabbi Scheinblum smiled.

“There,” she said, flushed with the success of her joke. “One last rinse.”

He accepted the tiny cup of water she offered him and did one last rinse.

“Now,” she said. “Would you like to answer the quiz?”

There was a long silence.

“What do you like best about Kirkland?”

“I, … ” said Rabbi Scheinblum.

“It’s the kind of a test,” she encouraged him, “where there are no wrong answers.”

Rabbi Scheinblum cleared his throat.

“Well?”

“Actually,” he said, “next week I’m moving to Seattle.”

“Seattle! … Why Seattle?”

He cleared his throat again.

“Oh, you’ve lost your job!” she sympathized.

“That too,” he confessed. “Also … I’m getting a divorce.”

Mildred Budwieser paused, then headed for the door. There she stopped. “Doctor will be with you in a minute,” she said icily without looking back at him, “right after he’s done with his e-trade.”


2

Early Retirement

“Who’s a famous Romantic poet?”

Mildred Budwieser looked across the queen-sized bed at her husband. She was sitting up straight and he was slouching, which was bad for his back but he did it anyway, just to be contrary. It was Monday evening, and she was requesting help on the daily Bugle crossword.

“How many letters?” Ed stared straight ahead at the screen, where a family of four was approaching rapture over an improved version of a major brand of tacos. But he could not appreciate their ecstasy. He had had a bad day. That afternoon his boss of two weeks had mortified him by accusing him of being a dead white male. Not in so many words, but. And just twenty minutes ago, during “Jeopardy,” his wife of forty-one years had humiliated him by pointing out that Alaska was not a continent.

“Eight letters,” said Mildred with a yawn. “No—nine. Two words. The second letter is an O.”

He fondled the mute button. The marvels of the electronic age made it possible for him to bring the voices of complete strangers like Pat and Vanna into the privacy of the Budwieser bedroom. The voices, as well as—here he fingered the power button—the images. And he had the advantage. He could see and hear America’s Game, brought to him from the Sony Picture Studios; the stars of America’s Game could not see and hear him, already in his pajamas at 6:41 and the sun still up. He could see the glitter of their set; they could not see the downscale bedroom, decorated by Mildred in muddy browns and faded oranges and dull greens and furnished with garage-sale knickknacks. He could see them award prizes for luck and skill; they could not see him sitting up in bed and eating a huge dish of ice cream and strawberries, or Mildred alongside him, working on her crossword and inserting popcorn into a well-creamed face.

He could turn them on or shut them off with the flick of a button. They were dependent on his whim. Power!

He released the mute button.

“Here’s our next puzzle,” said Pat, coming alive. “The category is Thing.”

“Oh,” added Pat, laughing at his mistake. “It’s our jackpot round. We’ve added a prize to the Wheel, called Mexico. What’s that all about, Charlie?”

Invisible but exuberant Charlie announced a trip south of the border worth 8,937 big ones. “You and your guest will fly to Acapulco,” he promised in a confidential tone, “where you’ll enjoy a week’s vacation in a luxurious hacienda featuring tennis and golf every day and long romantic walks along the beach every evening.”

“Make it knitting during the day,” said Mildred drily, “and I start to get interested.”

Make it cliff diving, thought Ed.

“And make it crosswords at night.”

“Let’s stick to the long romantic walks,” he murmured. But he wasn’t thinking of Mildred. He was thinking of a possible señorita. A certain … Beatrice, perhaps?

Mildred withdrew a buttered hand from her popcorn bowl and patted him on the arm. It was her way of reminding him that he was fifty-nine years old. She had to do that sometimes. Remind him that there’s a time for everything, which was a Biblical teaching, a time for long romantic walks, which was when you were young, and a time for watching the children grow up and have children of their own, and to hope and pray the long romantic walks your children take will end up with long romantic walks down the aisle of decent Christian or even Catholic churches, here she was thinking mainly of Charisse, and of course there was also Cyrus to consider, when the subject of Cyrus crossed her mind it was a time to hope and pray he’d find somebody to take a long romantic walk with, but maybe she had nothing to worry about, maybe there was something a mother doesn’t know about her son, as Thelma Blossum always liked to point out, just as there were things a sister, meaning her, Mildred, didn’t maybe know about her own twin sister, meaning Mabel, who was in a safe place for her own protection.

“Let’s go,” said Pat. “Gloria, it’s your turn. Spin the Wheel.”

A big brassy woman in her late thirties with rainbow-streaked hair spun the Wheel. “C’mon,” she said, “big money, biiiiig money!”

“Who you rooting for?” asked Mildred.

“The retired English teacher.”

“You identify,” said Mildred, patting his hand.

He withdrew his hand and wiped off the butter. “I empathize,” he corrected her. Empathy. From the Greek, pathos, to suffer. He empathized, all right. He was like that philosopher’s definition of God: “the fellow-sufferer who understands.”

The Wheel landed on $300.

“Three hundred dollars,” said Pat, and Vanna clapped.

Gloria would have a T.

Vanna gave her two T’s.

“Six hundred dollars,” said Pat, and the studio audience showed its delight at Gloria’s good fortune.

Mildred announced that she was rooting for the hairdresser. A single parent, like their daughter Charisse.

Gloria leaned down and spun the Wheel again. “Okay, c’mon, big money!” she urged.

There was wild applause as the Wheel landed on the slice of pie marked Mexico.

Gloria paused, then asked for an N.

Pat instructed Vanna to give her an N. Then he told Gloria to lift up the slice called Mexico, which was hers to keep if she solved the puzzle without hitting a Bankrupt. Gloria lifted Mexico. Underneath was a prize for $500, which got added electronically to the $600, making a running total of—

“How do they do it?” Mildred was speaking to him.

“Hmm?”

“How do they add so fast?”

“Computers,” he explained. “How can you tell she’s single?”

“She said ‘Hi’ to her kids. She didn’t say ‘Hi’ to their father.”

Gloria hung a major portion of her body over the Wheel, grasped it firmly, and gave it a powerful thrust. “Big, big money!” she said, pattacaking energetically while the Wheel slowed and finally stopped on a $900 slice. Big money, thought Ed; but not big, big money.

Gloria would have an R.

She’d have one, two, three R’s, said Pat, clearly pleased with her luck.

“What’ll it be, Gloria?” asked Pat.

Gloria stopped to consider her options.

“How do you know they both have the same father?” asked Ed.

“A woman can tell those things,” Mildred said. They could, too. It always took men a lot longer to figure things out. Women had a natural gift for it. Maybe they weren’t as smart as men in terms of figuring out how computers could add so fast, but they made up for it in the really important areas of life, like figuring out who had once been married to whom and why they had split up, or which children took after which parent.

“Well?” said Pat. He was tapping his cards, waiting for Gloria’s decision. He wasn’t irate, that wasn’t in his personality, but he had a show to run.

Come to think of it, thought Mildred, women were also better at word games than men. That’s why she enjoyed crosswords so much, and why her favorite program was “Wheel of Fortune.” Men were better at things like cultural knowledge and world geography, which was why Ed’s favorite program was “Jeopardy” and not the Millionaire show that he said was designed with idiots in mind and came on too late anyway. He usually got about thirty percent of the “Jeopardy” answers right, while she was lucky if she got even ten percent. Except that tonight she’d guessed the answer to final Jeopardy and he hadn’t. Question: “Continent on which Mt. Kirkpatrick is located.” Ed guessed, “What is Alaska?” and she had to point out to him that Alaska is not a continent. She had guessed, “What is Antarctica?” which turned out to be right and put him in an even worse mood.

Gloria wanted to buy a vowel. She wanted to buy an E.

Pat instructed Vanna to give the lady four E’s.

“Who does Vanna remind you of?” asked Mildred as Vanna scurried about with a nice smile, lighting up four e’s. “Doesn’t she just remind you of somebody?”

“Charisse,” he murmured. But he was thinking of Dora.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” agreed Mildred. “Except I think Charisse’s better-looking.”

“Mmm,” he said, still thinking of Dora.

“Why do they have to buy vowels?” asked Mildred suddenly. “Have you ever wondered why they have to buy vowels?”

“Vanna needs the cash.”

“Why?”

“To keep herself in strapless outfits.”

She knew he was joking and that he didn’t necessarily mean it. He was like that sometimes, for instance during “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Miss America Pageant.” It was his way of comparing her to the younger, fuller-bodied women. She didn’t mind, though, because he didn’t really mean it. So she laughed it off.

“I’d like to solve the puzzle,” announced Gloria.

“Please do,” said Pat.

“Early Retirement.”

Vanna smiled and turned over the remaining letters to show that Gloria was right. Pat smiled and congratulated her on her skill. The studio audience identified, bursting into spontaneous applause.

Pat appeared behind Gloria and put his arm around her waist as if to comfort her. “Not bad,” he said, tapping his cards and checking the invisible scoreboard. “So far you’ve won $3550 plus a trip to Acapulco worth $8937, which gives you a current total of $12,487. And,” he reminded her, “we have another round coming up, right after this.”

Ed pressed the mute button, got out of bed, and made the day’s final trip to the bathroom. He got back just in time to hear Pat announce the addition of a space that can change the score in a hurry. It was the retired English teacher’s turn. He immediately hit the new $5000 space, smiled vaguely, asked for and received a K, and spun the Wheel, which came to a stop on Bankrupt, his second of the evening. Gloria profited from his misfortune, avoiding the Bankrupt and Lose a Turn spaces while picking up an extra $9400 by solving the puzzle.

The audience clapped and whistled. Gloria said “Yes!” and made a large fist with her right hand and dug it into the midsection of an imaginary opponent and repeated, “Yes!” Pat appeared on the stage with the contestants to console the losers and congratulate the winner. The aspiring actor who was waiting tables in the Valley while waiting to be discovered and who had won a total of $200 mumbled that he had had a wonderful time. The retired English teacher who had come all the way from Oklahoma and whose earnings totaled some nice parting gifts looked meek and perplexed but agreed that this had not been his day. The hairdresser bounced up and down but finally settled down enough to embrace the host.

Ed flicked off the sound with a flourish of his omnipotent finger. “Lord Byron,” he announced.

“What?” said Mildred.

“Lord Byron,” he repeated testily. “The famous Romantic poet. Second letter is O, nine letters.”

She took several seconds to fill in the blanks. “It doesn’t fit,” she reported.

Several messages later Gloria was back for the bonus round. She selected the sealed card under w, for Winner, joked with her jovial host, patted herself on the green part of her pompadour in nervous anticipation, waited for Vanna to uncover all the R’s, S’s, T’s, L’s, N’s, and E’s, made several wise choices from the remaining letters of the alphabet, solved the puzzle, won $25,000 for a grand total of $46,887, said “Yes! Yes!” and put on another boxing exhibition, was immediately ambushed by two youngsters, and was asked (Pat speaking) who these people were, to which she replied that they were her children, Britney and Taylor, proudly adding that they were the two best kids in the entire world.

Ed exercised his control over these events by punching the power button to Off. He then put the remote control and his empty dish on his night stand. Mildred yawned and put her unfinished crossword and #2 pencil and empty popcorn bowl on her own night stand. He leaned over and shut off the light. She turned over on her side and went to sleep.

But Ed remained awake for a while, lying there in his grey pajamas with grey piping and grey buttons, watching the last sunlight filter through the Venetian blinds and onto the mud-brown wallpaper, musing over the events of the day …

Dead white male, was he? And what was wrong with that? What wouldn’t anyone in his right mind give to be a dead white male if his name happened to be, say, William Shakespeare? … He knew Alaska wasn’t a continent, obviously. Everyone did. What he had meant was, Mt. Kirkpatrick was located in Alaska, which was located in North America, which was a continent. Mt. Kirkpatrick wasn’t in Alaska, of course. He’d been thinking of Mt. McKinley—the Scottish connection had thrown him off— but isn’t everyone entitled to a minor mistake now and then? … Early Retirement. Funny. Just what he’d been thinking of that very afternoon. Be free, quit teaching, get out of stifling Kirkland, move to the West Coast, and write his memoirs. Wasn’t that what he’d always wanted? … There was always the problem of finances, of course. But if a dizzy dame with rainbow-colored hair and a mind to match could win $47k, then why couldn’t Ed Budwieser, MA, spend just fifteen minutes exposing himself to the masses—or why not Mildred, for that matter? … Dead white male? Not quite, young lady. Tomorrow we awake to a new day.

§

“What are you reading?”

It was Tuesday, the day after Gloria had won a trip to Mexico. Ed was laid out on his stomach, naked on the bed, musing over a Help Wanted ad that had been clipped from the Kirkland Bugle and had mysteriously appeared in his box that morning. Mildred was giving him his late afternoon backrub and being curious about his reading material.

“Hmm?” he said.

“I said, ‘What’s that you’re reading?’”

“Just today’s mail.”

“Looks like a Help Wanted ad,” she observed, leaning over for a bifocaled look. “What’s it say?”

“It says … let’s see. It says Middle American Life and Casualty is a growing, financially strong company.”

“Good for them! What else?”

“It says they’re looking for an insurance claims representative.”

“What are the requirements?”

“They need a person who’s ambitious.”

“And?”

“Creative, too.”

“Keep going.”

“A third qualification is an ability to deal effectively with other persons.”

“Is that all? Isn’t there something else?” She was being ironic—she knew that word from crosswords.

“The person has to be willing to move to Tulsa and learn the insurance business,” he said. He paused to give her time to respond. She didn’t. “Isn’t that me all over again?” he continued. “Ambitious? Creative? Able to deal effectively with other persons?”

He was missing the irony.

“The only one of these qualities I lack,” he announced, “is a willingness to move to Tulsa. It’s too much like Kirkland.” He paused. “You don’t want to move to Tulsa, do you?”

She ignored his question and stopped massaging. “Where did you say you got that thing?”

“It was in my box this morning.”

“And who do you suppose put it there?”

He didn’t know.

“You must have some idea.”

He had an idea, all right. Ms. Penni Mode. Who else could it have been? But he didn’t mention his suspicion, just as he hadn’t told her about yesterday’s knock-down-drag-out philosophical argument with Ms. Mode over the importance of the Classics.

He wondered aloud if maybe God wasn’t the guilty party. He meant this as a joke, of course, because he no longer thought of God as an actor on the world’s stage—if there even was a God, which all the great minds of the last two or three centuries agreed was highly unlikely. But as soon as he made this facetious suggestion that God was the one who had put the ad in his box, he began to think that maybe there was a grain of truth in it. Maybe the ad was put there as a sign. Maybe God was trying to tell him something … ambitious, creative, able to deal effectively with other persons—at least, if they’d give him half a chance … and didn’t God used to have the reputation of being omniscient (from the Latin, meaning all-knowing; having infinite awareness, understanding, insight)? Now the question was—just supposing for a moment that there was a God and that He took a personal interest—the question was, what was God trying to tell him? Take the job and move to Tulsa? … No. That would be too obvious. Maybe … realize your fantastic potential out on the West Coast of Mexico?

“God would know better,” she said with conviction, and went back to the rubbing.

“Hmm?”

God would know better,” she repeated.

This was probably true, yes.

Did she know what the trouble was with today’s kids? This was the question he suddenly wanted to discuss. He was an expert on the subject. He, and Henry Constant, in the days when there was still a Henry Constant. They used to sit there in the principal’s office, he and Hank, and philosophize about the trouble with today’s kids. Not that they agreed on the solution, but they agreed on the importance of the issue. Hank’s philosophy was that the problem traced back to, number one, the lack of discipline, and number two, the lack of respect for elders, not necessarily in that order, because they were both aspects of each other. His own philosophy was that kids today don’t understand the Classics. They’d sit there in Hank’s office with their feet up on that big oak desk, drinking decaf and having a friendly argument over discipline and respect for elders versus tragic loss of understanding of the Classics. That’s what he found he missed most about Hank Constant, those friendly arguments. The trouble with Ms. Mode wasn’t that she was a woman, Dora was also a woman and was pretty much of the same mind as he was, and the trouble with Ms. Mode wasn’t that she got rid of the old oak desk and put a new steel one in its place, the trouble with Ms. Mode went much deeper, it had to do with a certain lack of respect for experience and wisdom, as well as a total lack of understanding of the Classics.

“Do you know what the trouble is with today’s kids?” He had to repeat this question, because he couldn’t remember whether she had answered it, or even whether he had asked it.

“They don’t understand the Classics,” she said with a sigh. Of course she knew. She didn’t agree, but she knew. She herself thought the trouble with today’s kids basically had to do with them not showing up in church more often, and she had once told him what she really thought about this topic, which was a mistake, because then he didn’t speak to her for three days, except to help her on the crossword when a French or Latin or Old English word was called for. This had made a big impression on her, all that silence, especially with those rose bushes to plant and she’d needed his help, which is why she now knew that the trouble with kids today was their lack of understanding of the Classics. She didn’t necessarily agree, but she knew. In fact, she’d go ahead and say exactly what she had on her mind right now, except that she didn’t know if she could stand three more days of silence, which is why she didn’t answer his question about the trouble with today’s kids by saying the clever thing that had just popped into her mind, Oh I wouldn’t worry, sounds to me like they’ll make great firefighters, referring to the story she’d heard just that morning, about a bunch of students climbing out the window and down the fire escape while Ed was reading his class the story about Romeo trying to climb into Juliet’s bedroom.

“When you stop to think about it,” he went on, “thirty-six years is a long time to spend reading essays on what kids have done on their summer vacations.”

She’d never stopped to think about it.

“Kids these days don’t spend their summer vacations going to California and driving around Yosemite with their parents and climbing Half Dome and then coming back full of spiritual experiences to write about.”

Now, she said under her breath, they go to Europe and smoke pot with their left hand and their significant others and come back saying it was a bore.

“Now they go to Europe and smoke pot on the Left Bank with their significant others and come back saying it was a bore,” he said.

Left Bank, she corrected herself. What had he said was the difference between left hand and left bank?

“Thirty-six years is also a long time to spend flossing teeth,” he hinted.

She stopped the rubbing and pulled a heating pad out from under the bed and turned it on High and positioned it on Ed’s lower back. “I believe we’re warming up to the subject of self-imposed exile,” she said, bracing herself. That was the way he always talked when the subject of leaving Kirkland came up—he’d say something about going into “self-imposed exile,” like all the great writers did.

“What would you think about, say, the West Coast of Mexico?” he ventured.

“Are you sure Mexico even has a West Coast?”

He ignored her illiterate question. “Think of it,” he said dreamily, “a picturesque fishing village on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.”

“Writing our memories, I suppose.”

Mémoires,” he corrected her. “Writing my mémoires.”

“And what would dear old Mildred do?” she asked sarcastically. “Wait tables?”

“Oh no. You’d be too busy supervising the cook and butler. That’s during the day. In the evenings we could—”

“Take long romantic walks, I bet.” She was being ironic again.

“Right,” he rewarded her. “And gaze out over the blue Pacific.” He wasn’t thinking of Mildred, however. He was thinking of Dora. Dora, or Beatrice. Or maybe both. “You have to admit, it sounds magnificent.”

“The word I’d have used is unaffordable.

He sighed. “Didn’t you read that article in the Bugle? ‘Mexico: Luxurious Living on $10,000 a Year’?”

“Let’s see,” she said, pausing to take the heating pad off his back, “at that rate we now have the wherewithal for …”—she was doing the figures in her head— “… about six months.”

He groaned.

She’d scored a major victory.

She left him naked on the bed and went into the kitchen to pop a couple of TV dinners in the microwave.

He got up, stretched, yawned, put on his grey pajamas and greying white bathrobe, and went into the bathroom. Then he sat down on the commode, reached into his secret niche behind the bathtub, extracted Scarlett Blythdale’s well-thumbed A Peculiar Passion from its secret place, and turned to his favorite passage … “They frolicked lightly, free of earthly care, among the wildflowers scattered about the gentle meadows, high, high above the wide serene Pacific. Suddenly she turned and, lifting her pert chin and gazing limpidly into his moody steel-grey eyes, took his rough hand and clasped it to her soft milk-white bosom. ‘Darling,’ she murmured, ‘I’m so hap—’” …

Just then Mildred stuck her head through the doorway. “Soup’s on,” she announced, destroying his dream of ecstasy.

§

“Follow the smart money.”

It was late Wednesday afternoon, and Ed was laid out in Dr. Digby’s chair. Digby was pinching his cheek and depositing a dose of novocaine into the right side of his lower gum with a long silver needle, at the same time offering free investment advice.

“Incidentally,” warned Digby, “don’t try this at home.”

He chuckled at his little joke and went back to the subject of investments, still brandishing his needle. “If you really want to carry through on this ill-advised retirement threat,” he said, “you’re going to need the wherewithal.” He put the weapon back on the tray. “And on the subject of wherewithal, my advice in this tricky market is, follow the smart money.” He stood back to let the novocaine take effect and to allow his wisdom to sink in. “When the smart money is in there buying Microsoft hand over fist,” he went on, “that’s the time to be in stocks. When the smart money is paring down the Microsoft portion of their portfolios, that’s the time to be out of stocks.”

“Try it,” said Digby, scratching around on the old filling with a metal hook. “It works.”

Ed didn’t always agree with Digby on issues such as politics and religion and the Royals and the Chiefs and the economy and the educational system and America and what was wrong with them, but he couldn’t argue with the wisdom of going with the smart money. It stood to reason. How could you disagree on the subject of investments with a dentist who uses Chivas Regal as a mouthwash?

Digby stuck his head out the door to catch the up-to-the-minute stock market report. “It’s sure worked for me,” he called from the hall.

Ed also couldn’t argue with the fact that it had worked for Digby. There it was as living proof, the brand new jet-black Lincoln, sitting out there in the driveway blocking the view of his vintage ’66 VW Bug. Today it was the Lincoln, last tooth it was the red Mercedes coupe for the current wife. Number three, he believed it was. Carole. He’d noticed that that was often the name the third wife comes equipped with. Carole, spelled with an extra e. Used to sell beauty products, Carole the Third did, before Digby dismissed Number Two and came riding to the rescue. Mildred would know for sure, about the numbering system. She was the kind of person who kept track of those things. Anyway, the root canals and porcelain caps in and of themselves weren’t enough to cover the cost of keeping Digby’s harem in German cars. There had to be another factor.

“My advice to you,” Digby repeated as he set up the drilling rig, “is simple. Go. With the smart. Money.”

Ed just wished Mildred were there to listen to this frank advice. It was her afternoon off, however. She was probably home that very instant, putting her medications out of the reach of the grandchildren.

“You ever read Barron’s?” grunted Digby as he removed his fingers from Ed’s mouth.

He came up to rinse. “’nce in a ’ile,” he had time to lie before the fingers were back in there doing battle with the tooth. It was going to cost another bundle, this porcelain cap was, even though Digby called him a preferred customer, on account of Mildred’s being his assistant. But it was worth it, because of this invaluable advice.

“You happen to read this week’s article on what the big boys are buying?”

He was frankly glad to have the latex-gloved hand back inside his mouth. That way he wasn’t expected to answer; Doctor could do all the talking. If Digby would just tell him what it was the big boys were buying, he could make a killing. He could transfer the five grand in his IRA from that low-paying CD into the stock market and sit back and smile and watch his investment grow.

“Ascension Airlines was up to ten and a half at 2:40, Eastern,” said Digby. “A candidate for a spectacular takeoff if I ever saw one.”

Spectacular takeoff? Like, maybe triple the investment in a year? In two years it would, what? Grow ninefold? Not bad. Not bad indeed. And it wasn’t as far-fetched as it sounded. He’d seen the headlines:

Homeless Man Found Dead:

Portfolio of Millions

and

Cat Woman

Leaves Pets

Huge Fortune

If a bum could do it, or a bag lady, why not a man of letters? … He wouldn’t have to wait three years till he was eligible for Social Security … Maybe he should send in that well-crafted letter of resignation? Then he and Mildred could spend August in Mexico, browsing around amongst the upscale villas and checking the butler and maid servi—

“It’ll be tender for about three days,” said Digby, pushing a button to raise him from the dead. “If you have trouble sleeping tonight, don’t hesitate to give us a call tomorrow morning and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Ascension Airlines, is it?” he slurred as he stumbled toward the door.

“Ascension Airlines, ASCA on the Nasdaq. That’s my bet for the future.”

“Oh,” Digby called after him as he was leaving. “Be sure and tell Mildred I missed her feminine touch this afternoon.”

§

Early retirement is now the buzzard word.”

Mildred and Thelma Blossum stopped to catch their breath in front of Le Wanderlust, a travel agency in Kirklande Centre. It was early Thursday morning before work, and the two women were doing one of their occasional puffarounds, dressed in faded joggers and worn sneakers and clutching tiny barbells to their chests.

“You know what I think about that subject,” replied Thelma.

Yes, she knew Thelma’s thoughts on the topic of early retirement. Letting a man stay home day in and day out was about the same as putting arsenic in his chicken noodle soup, in terms of effectiveness. If he was fooling around and had good coverage the arsenic might not be a bad idea, but otherwise it wasn’t recommended, unless of course you happened to enjoy working your fingers to the bone in the checkout stand at Safeway. Those were Thelma Blossum’s thoughts on the subject, always followed by “take it from somebody who knows.”

They puffed on.

“And of course dear old simple-minded Mildred,” said Mildred, trying to catch her breath, “dear old simple-minded Mildred always has to go and bring up the subject of wherewithal.”

“What’s he got to say about that?”

“Oh, he’s got all kinds of ideas.”

“That’s men for you,” said cynical Thelma.

They stopped again, this time in front of the First Security sign, which was advising safe mutual funds for retirement accounts.

“Ed’s a ready source of answers,” she went on. It took him all night to think of them, but he was a ready source of answers. “Yesterday morning he was up bright and early with another scheme. He had me going on ‘Wheel of Fortune’ and making a killing, winning fifty thou or so.”

“Fifty thou?” said skeptical Thelma.

“I kid you not, those were his exact same words, ‘Fifty thou, at the minimum.’ I said ‘How do you expect me to even get on the Wheel?’ He said ‘No problem, ask and it shall be given.’ I said ‘That sounds like wishful thinking to me.’ He said ‘It’s mentioned in the Bible.’ I said ‘Where in the Bible?’ He said ‘Look it up, it’s in there.’ ‘Where?’ I said. ‘Take my word for it,’ he said, ‘it’s got to be in there someplace.’”

“Just between me and you and the fencepost, Sweetie,” confided Thelma, “I think he’s got the Bible and Shakespeare mixed up.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time. Anyway, I said ‘How do you expect me to win big?’ and you know what he said?”

“Luck?” guessed Thelma, beginning to move on.

“Nope.”

“God’s will?” guessed Thelma.

“Remember, he doesn’t believe in God.”

“Poor man,” observed Thelma sympathetically.

“Guess again.”

“He doesn’t expect you to cheat!”

“Oh no,” she said. “What he expects is for my talent at crosswords to carry over to the Wheel, he said I’d quickly learn how to hit the large cap slices on the big pie, and the letters would just automatically pop into my mind with the inspiration of the $5,000 slice staring me in the face. He said a total of fifty thou was a conservative estimate. That’s right, fifty thou, I kid you not.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you’re good at crosswords, Sweetie, but—”

“Maybe he’s right,” reflected Mildred, stopping in front of Discount Merchandise to think it over. “If it’s mentioned in the Bible, maybe I should try to get on the Wheel. Wouldn’t that be something, winning fifty thou? What I wouldn’t do with all that money. Put in a Jenn-Air kitchen, buy a treadmill … maybe that’s what I should do, go on ‘Wheel of Fortune.’”

“When you put it that way,” said Thelma, “it’s your clear Christian duty.”

“I suppose so,” sighed Mildred. “Anyway,” and they started to move on again, “he came up with another idea this morning.”

“Oh Lordy,” groaned Thelma.

“This time … you listening?”

Thelma was listening.

“This time he’s got a hot stock tip, he wouldn’t say from where, and he wants to invest our total life savings in Ascension Airlines, which is poised for a take-off.”

“‘Poised for a take-off’?’”

“Those were his exact same words, I kid you not, ‘poised for a take-off.’ I said ‘Why haven’t I heard about this Ascension Airlines?’ and he said ‘It’s a secret, only the big boys know about it, they’re in there buying it hand over fist.’”

“Big boys, huh?” said Thelma contemptuously. “He probably means the Catholics.”

“That was exactly my suspicion. I said ‘Over my dead body are you going to invest our nest eggs in something run by the Catholics, it’s like pouring money down the drainage ditch.’ So he said ‘Do you have a better idea?’ and I said ‘I most certainly do, and it’s called staying right here in God’s country.’”

“And what did the neighborhood philosopher have to say to that?”

“You know what he thinks about God.”

Thelma paused to reflect. Then, “What I’d like to know is, if he doesn’t believe in God, why does he go around quoting Scriptures, and in the second place, why did he play Christ in that Easter pageant?”

“He says the Bible’s just literature, and he thinks of Christ as a great literary character, right up there with Hamlet.”

“He’ll grow out of it,” Thelma prophesied confidently as they got to the south end of Kirklande Centre.

“At the age of fifty-nine?”

“Lee Roy quit smoking at sixty-one.”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“It’s the same principle,” said Thelma. “Take my word for it.”

“You’re probably right,” said Mildred wearily as they headed for the parking lot. She had her doubts, of course, especially considering the fact that Lee Roy Blossum ended up with lung cancer anyway. But it was still comforting to think the day might come when Ed Budwieser would go back to the simple childlike faith he had had out in western Kansas and finally admit that God wasn’t just another poet, if there was a God.

§

“So it’s Mexico this time!”

It was Friday evening, and the Deuces, four pairs of Kansas cosmopolitans, were gathered around two made-in-Taiwan card tables in the Budwieser living room, their feet resting on the Navaho rug Mildred had bought at Mrs. Krzynzky’s garage sale, drinking 99.7% caffeine-free coffee brewed from pure mountain-grown Colombian crystals. They had completed their monthly exchange of American coins, and the six guests were lining up to provide expert commentary on the late-breaking news that Mildred had just reported. Last night Ed finally realized his literary potential by composing a thirteen-page letter to Ms. Mode in which he announced his intention of taking early retirement and moving to Mexico to write his memoirs.

The six commentators were as miscellaneous as the Budwieser furnishings. Gary Leben had given up his position as a social studies teacher at Sunset High to pursue his dream of selling life insurance to the upper middle classes. Ann Leben, who cultivated the habit of reminding the others that she had come within three semesters of graduating from K.U. with a double major in Art History and French, now spent her mornings clerking in Le Frame Shoppe and her afternoons following the intricate story lines of “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital.” Mark Ecclebury, a former chemistry teacher, had been lured away from the classroom by Corporate America and was now cashing in on his knowledge of the periodic table in the Kitchen Division of Godfather’s Pizza. Karen Ecclebury was a dedicated homemaker, a mother of four, a grandmother of seven, and a collector of discount coupons. Dora Jiggers had grown weary of teaching Language Arts and was now realizing her potential as the attractive hostess of the most fashionable Tupperware parties in Kirkland. Dave Jiggers, formerly a counselor to troubled marriages, now tended potted plants and watched the mailbox for his annuity checks.

So it was Mexico this time, was it? Gary was counting his hoard of pennies and speaking to Ed and smiling wickedly.

“Last year it was Palm Springs,” Mark reminded everyone.

“Ah yes. Palm Springs.”

“Living on a golf course overlooking the eighteenth green.”

“Existing, I believe, on the earnings of a blockbuster screenplay on the death of a small town in western Kansas,” recalled Dora.

Ed smiled bravely at Dora’s reminiscence. Which would she have rather done, he wondered: peddled plastic dishes in Kirkland, or lived on a Palm Springs golf course overlooking the eighteenth green?

“How did you fit into that plan, Mildred?” asked Karen.

“I was supposed to be the one who served cocktails at his literary saloon,” ratted Mildred.

“Doesn’t she mean salon?” someone whispered.

“Do they have literary salons in Palm Springs?” someone else whispered.

Mildred leaned over and put her arm around Ed. This was to show him it was all in fun, this dagger in his back. “Oh yes,” she said, looking up at him mischievously, “that was the plan.”

“Weren’t you scheduled to dress up in an evening gown every afternoon and make sure all the other writers had enough booze in their glasses?” asked Ann.

“That’s right,” answered Mildred. “Enough beverage to inspire at least five doublespaced pages of ecstatic thoughts.”

“Oh, she’s a card!” they said.

“Where does she come up with those gems?” they said.

“And two years ago it was, what, Malibu?” remarked Dave.

“Ah yes,” they said. “You were going to live in a beach house, weren’t you? Of course, this was before you were scheduled to win the Pulitzer—”

“—for that book on the poetry of Emily Dickinson—”

“—the one on the symbol of the feather!”

There was a chorus of “ha”s.

Ed smiled grimly. Was that such a bad plan? If Mildred would’ve let him carry through with it, just think where he’d be now. Collecting royalties. Living in a mansion high above the Pacific. Being interviewed by Barbara Walters. Strolling the beach with Dora and the mysterious Beatrice.


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