Monday, May 27, 2013

40. What's in a Name?

When I first saw the tiny, gold locket in the musty resale shop I thought it might be the perfect gift for my niece whose 13th birthday was coming up. Most young girls liked sentimental objects. A second hand present might sound cheap, but I was squeaking by paying college tuition and rent. It wasn't that I had little 'discretionary' money, I had none. Every penny was accounted for before I even earned it at my night waitressing job. The locket was priced at $10, which was within my gift budget.
      As I held the delicate heart-shaped pendant and chain in my hand, it grew warmer as if sending out waves of love. I wondered about its past. Who had originally owned it and why had it ended up here? Its latch resisted my prying fingers so I couldn't see what was inside but decided to buy it anyway. At home, I could use a pointed nail file to pry it open.
      In my drafty studio apartment I placed the locket on a thread bare kitchen towel laid on the cracked Formica counter top. I gently worked at it until it popped open. Smiling at me was a handsome, young man wearing a naval uniform. It looked like a picture from a photo booth. Opposite it was a scrap of paper, folded to fit inside.
      Oh my goodness, I thought. Maybe this will be like those romance novels with messages in a bottle. With trembling fingers I smoothed out the note. It was handwritten and faded. I could barely make out the words. But I read:
      “Margie, Remember me always, for I will never forget you. All my love, all my life. Ralph. 5/30/44.”
       A sailor named Ralph. I plopped down on a kitchen chair. My grandpa's name was Ralph and he was a sailor who served in World War II. I shook my head, no, it couldn't be. It would be too much of a coincidence. And as a science major I didn't believe in coincidences. And besides, my grandma's name was Helen, not Margie. But still....
      I put the picture and note in my small jewelry box, which held the few gifts I received when my parents were alive. I polished the little necklace as best I could with my white toothpaste, all I had for such cleaning and tried not to think about a possible connection between what I was working on and my grandfather.
       The party for my niece, Emma, was in two weeks, so I had plenty of time to let the mystery of the locket fester in my brain. One of the reasons I wanted to be a scientist was because my bump of curiosity was 'too big for my own good'. My mother always told me that when I asked too many questions. It annoyed me then, but now I wished I could hear her say it again.
      Grandpa Ralph and Grandma Helen lived in a small condo at Shady Acres, an assisted living facility. They were both 86 years old and insisted they 'didn't need any help' but agreed to move there when they 'lost' their driving licenses as the facility provided free transport around town. I tried to bus over to visit them once a week.
      When he opened the door, Grandpa grunted his usual refrain, “Welcome to Shady Acres. Don't it sound like a cemetery. Come on in and sit a spell, but don't stay too long or they might try to bury you.”
      “Where's Gran?” I asked as I followed him into the cheery yellow living room. It smelled faintly of cinnamon. Grandma must have been baking.
      “Oh, she's at her bridge club. Actually, it's more her gossip club, if you ask me. Those women never stop talking long enough to make a bid.”
      “Good.” I murmured as I sat on the faded floral couch.
      “What's good about it?” His light blue eyes stared at me.
      “No, no,” I stammered. “It's just that I wanted to ask you something when she wasn't around.”
      “Now that sounds exciting. Secrets, huh.” He perked up. It almost looked as if his long ears were stretching forward to catch my every word.
      I didn't know how to ask him what might be a very sensitive question. But I thought I best be direct about it.
      “Grandpa, I found a picture in an old locket and I wondered if it could be you?”
      “Me? What the heck would a picture of me be doing in a locket?” He sputtered.
      “Could you just look at it and let me know?” I handed the small picture to him. I had put it a clear plastic envelope, the type that some greeting cards come in. I suppose it was silly, but I thought I should protect it.
      He shoved his glasses on his nose and peered down at it. He squinted his eyes and moved the picture back and forth.
      “Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! That's me! Where'd you get this? I must've been 18 years old. I sat in one of them photo booths before I sailed for the Pacific.”
      “I found it in an old locket in a resale shop. But there's more. It also had a note from the sailor.”
      “You mean from me?” He grinned and ran his gnarled hand over his balding head. “I just can't believe it turnin' up after all these years. What'd it say?”
      “Well,” I hesitated. This might be embarrassing. I worried about what might have happened to Margie, the love of his life. But I carried on, as they say. “It was to someone named Margie and you said you would love her all your life.” I paused and then asked the fatal question. “Who's Margie?”
      Grandpa laughed so hard I was afraid he'd choke. When he could talk, he said, “So that's why you were glad your Grandma Helen wasn't here. Don't worry, she knows all about it.”
     “Oh, that's good, but I don't see why it's so funny.” I was peeved after all the worrying I had gone through.
      “It's sort of like that Shakespeare fellow said, 'what's in a name'. Your grandma's full name is Margaret Helen, so of course everyone called her Margie. When I came back from the war, hale and hearty, God be praised, I married a woman I thought was named Margie. But in 1952 when the show 'My Little Margie' came on TV, my dearly beloved wife announced she was dropping the ditzy Margie name. She wanted to be known as the more sophisticated name of Helen forevermore. And so she has. But how did you get that locket?”
      “That's another story, for another time.”
                                                                      The End

Sunday, May 19, 2013

39. Failed Dreams

This is an excerpt from a quirky mystery novel I'm writing, "Eula May and the Flim Flam Nun".  I hope to have it ready for e-books by December 1. If you like this, please leave a comment.

I stopped in to our small, independent drugstore owned by old school friend, Orin Phillips, to pick up some calcium tablets laced with Vitamin D. I thought I might as well get a head start on preventing osteoporosis, although at 40 I was much too young. I had recently moved back to Karnak after living for 20 years—two decades, Oh my gosh that sounds so long—in Los Angeles. I was a 'tired' dancer. Not 'retired' just 'tired'.
       Orin greeted me with a big grin. “Welcome back, Judy. We missed you.”
       “Thanks Orin. I'm afraid some people in town are glad I failed to be a dancing star in Hollywood and had to come back home dragging my leotard behind me.”
      “You did pretty well for a while, there. I saw you on TV a couple of times.” “Yeah, I made it on to a few variety shows, but nothing lasted.”
      “Show business is really hard, but then it's hard to be a success in any field.” He looked sad.
       I didn't want to pry but I wondered what happened to him while I was away. “Did something crush your dreams?”
      Orin stared off into space. “I know what it’s like to want a better life. I did have a special dream one time, too. But it never panned out.”
     “Oh, Orin, did you want to go to Hollywood?” I asked, although I didn't exactly see him as a movie actor with his spiky red hair and face that turned red anytime a stranger asked him a question. 
     “No, nothing like that. I dreamed of discovering a pill that would take pounds off sensibly and safely and permanently. I was going to call them—Orin’s Life Savers. Because that’s what they would have been. But someone stole my formula and the world of the overweight is still struggling to lose pounds in unhealthy, dangerous, and temporary ways.
     “That’s so sad, Orin. Who stole it?” I never knew Orin was ambitious. I thought he was happy being a person everyone went to with questions.
     “It was one of those big pharmaceutical companies that make money from selling diet pills that don’t work, so people keep buying more and more of them. They sent a con man down here to talk me into giving it up. He said they would pay me for the rights to it. He took all my research papers. Later, when nothing else happened, I found it was all a lie. They just wanted to bury my great idea. And I had no proof of the hours I spent working on it and how successful it was.”
     “Oh, Orin, your discovery would have really been a major boon to all the people who want to lose weight.”
     “Well, I can’t do anything about it now. But that’s why I understood why you took off for Hollywood.”
    “Maybe it’s not too late, maybe you could still have your dream come true,” I tried to inspire him.
     He just shook his head and rang up my purchase. “No, it's best if I just do what I'm doing.”
     As I walked over to Jack Rockenbuck's office, I wondered if there was anything I could do to help Orin. Jack was another old friend who grew up to be an accountant. My taxes were a mess and I needed to talk to him about them.
    After Jack and I discussed what could be done to straighten up my problems with the IRS, I asked about Orin. I repeated the story Orin told me of how the big drug companies stole his effective weight loss formula. I concluded by saying, “Poor Orin, he was just trying to help people and he became a victim himself.”
      Jack’s eyes almost popped out of his head and he jumped out of his chair so fast it swirled around. “Victim!” he protested. “That’s a hot one.”
     “What do you mean? What really happened to his weight loss product?” 
      Jack pounded his fist on his desk, “That little druggist who looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth nearly killed everyone who took his pills. The FDA shut him down, as soon as the complaints started piling up. He sold the pills as a natural product, so it didn’t really come under the supervision of the FDA with all the necessary research and clinical trials, and so forth.     
      "But it turned out the pills contained a super dose of natural laxatives. And since the customers were told to take them several times a day, they were literally shitting their weight off. But they also were losing important nutrients upsetting their electrolyte balance.”
      I interrupted, “Please Jack, not a lecture. I don’t need to know the whole history of nutrition. Just tell me what happened to Orin.”
      He sputtered a bit, calmed himself and continued. “Orin pleaded innocent, said he had no idea people would be misusing them. Since the written directions didn’t say anything about taking more than one a day, no one pressed charges. I think his weight loss customers didn’t want anyone to find out how stupid they had been. Orin just made a substantial donation to help buy the new colonoscopy machine at the hospital with the stipulation that no publicity go out about the pills. He just stopped selling them.”
      I fell back on his client’s chair, sinking down into its depths. “Orin almost killed people.”
      “Yeah,” Jack agreed. “But the amazing thing about it, human nature being what it is, some people were upset he wouldn’t sell them any more pills. They were losing weight and they didn’t care if that put their health at risk.”
      Welcome back to Karnak, I thought. Land of failed dreams and failed common sense.
                                                      The End

Sunday, May 5, 2013

38. Too Hot or Too Cold?

Food and friends are always sources of fun, especially when things go wrong as they do in this story.  Based on actual events with names changed to protect the innocent.
JoAnne Simco loved to entertain. The short, peppy woman liked having friends over and treating them all as 'guests of honor'. She even made her own bread and her own salad dressings. She loved setting a table so her guests would both appreciate her creativity but also feel special that she had invested so much effort in pleasing them. However, as everyone who cooks knows, not everything always turns out as you've planned.
      One night in June, JoAnne and her husband Don, gave what she recalls as the worst dinner party in her life. It started as all her parties did, with a plan.
      “You know Don, I think it would be fun to have a circus party theme.” She was looking through one of her 113 cookbooks. Yes, she actually counted them just before Christmas so she would know if she could possibly put another cookbook on her wish list. She decided there was always room for another cookbook.
      “Ummm, whatever you want, Jo.” Don, a tall, thin and quiet young man, knew his role was to agree and just do whatever little chores JoAnne assigned him before any party. He didn't care. He knew that before dinner, he and his male buddies would be in the garage talking sports, so he wouldn't get in her way. And their wives would be chattering away in the kitchen with their offers to help that were always rejected.
      Don did his share after everyone left. He did the washing, drying and putting away of the 'good' dishes, silver, and pots and pans. JoAnne cleared up any left over food and picked up the living room. They would both fall into bed, tired but happy and with smiles on their faces. Usually it was another successful event. But not this time.
      “For fun, we could serve regular broiled steaks but call them lion steaks. You'd have to grill them but I know you like to use your new grill. I'll serve deviled eggs as an appetizer but call them ostrich eggs.”
      “Sounds good to me. How about cotton candy for dessert?” He suggested.
      “Ohhh, that would be great, but I don't know how to make it. I'll just check through my books, I'm sure I'll find something.” Everyone loved ice cream so she decided to make a frozen dessert.
      She found a circus theme children's sheet in a discount store to use as a table cloth. In the center of it she placed two large ceramic animals that were popular in the 1970s, a large zebra and a lion cub. For extra flare, she attached red and orange ribbons to the hanging light fixture over the table and taped them down to edges of the cloth covered table. Each place setting had a circus themed paper napkin that she found in a children's birthday party section. It was really fun to come up with inexpensive ways to carry out her theme.
      They had invited the three couples who were their best friends. And as good guests, when they arrived they exclaimed over the 'ostrich eggs' and 'tiger's milk chip dip'. The men had to be coaxed to try them, even though they were assured they weren't really ostrich eggs or had tiger's milk in them.
      Tonight Don was looking forward to firing up his Weber grill. Since he had 4 large sirloin steaks to grill and then slice into serving portions, he worried about making sure they were cooked to everyone's liking. He put them over the hot coals and went back into the garage to talk to the guys.
      JoAnne was getting the other dinner items ready when the phone rang. It was Gay, a new neighbor, who had just moved in behind them. “I hate to call you but I thought I better let you know.”
      “Oh, that's OK, what is it?” She wondered what on earth this neighbor needed to tell her right now when she was in the middle of fixing dinner.
      “Well,” Gay sounded apologetic, “I know some people cook in different ways...”
      JoAnne was beside herself thinking, get to the point, get to the point.
     “But, do you know,” Gay continued, “that flames are shooting out of your grill?”
      “What! What! No I didn't. Thanks, bye.” JoAnne hung up, ran out to the garage and yelled at Don, “The grill's on fire! The grill's on fire.” Don dashed to the back yard to see red and yellow and blue flames shooting almost as high as the roof. He rescued the burnt steaks and scraped off the singed surfaces. Everyone had a good laugh. It sure made for a conversation piece during the rest of the evening.
     Before they sat down to eat, JoAnne had taken the frozen dessert out of the freezer. It was a strawberry cream cake formed into a loaf. The recipe called for removing it from the freezer before dinner to give it time to soften enough for slicing.
      After the grilled (and scraped) steak, baked potatoes and tossed salad (filled with tiny pieces of red and green pepper, called circus confetti) had been eaten and used dishes taken out to the kitchen, JoAnne took a large carving knife to slice through the ice cream loaf. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't cut through it. It was still frozen solid.
      She went back to the dining room and explained it would take a while to defrost but they could 'rest' between courses. After a few minutes of conversation she went back to the kitchen and this time took out the electric carving knife and tried to use that. Still no success.
      Back to the dining room, this time she was so flustered she said, “I'm sorry it's still not ready. I'm just so glad you're all people I don't care about.” She thought about what she just said as everyone's mouth fell open and then they all laughed. She tried to explain. “No, no, what I mean is that you're all such good friends, I don't have to worry about everything going wrong.”
      “Oh, JoAnne, that puts the cap on a truly delightful evening. I guess if you serve us burned meat and no dessert, you really don't care about us.”
      JoAnne's face was bright red. Don came over to her and gave her a warm hug. “Honey, everybody loves you because you always say what you really, really mean.”
      Everyone laughed again. And enjoyed the dessert when it finally became soft enough to cut and serve.
                                                              The End