Sunday, July 29, 2012

Carolin Combs: "A Bird Too Far"

        Local newspapers often have a feature out of the archives – a "50 Years Ago Today" feature that takes up the ad space that didn’t sell.  I just read one that blew me away. ~ Carolin

It’s 1949.  Imagine, if you will, a young married couple “vacationing” at the in-laws’ house; the in-laws themselves are out of town.  Maybe they’ve gone down to New York to catch something at the Met.  The young couple must live near enough to drop by for a restful weekend.  Mom and Dad catch a Friday afternoon train for the city.  Junior and his bride see them off.  Dare they sleep in the adults’ bed?

Come Sunday morning, all hell breaks loose in Leave-It-To-Beaver-Land.  Junior tells the police that he was awakened early Sunday morning “by what sounded like someone making breakfast downstairs.”  Junior is a gallant fellow in this story, and he tiptoes downstairs to investigate.  He is probably armed with his old baseball bat, because he and his bride are sleeping in his room.  He couldn’t take Mom and Dad’s bed. 

The moment he opens the kitchen door “something with wings whooshed past his head and up the stairs.” It happened so quickly that he couldn’t identify the animal.  More on this later, but what do you suppose this miscreant animal was doing in the kitchen?  It was trashing the kitchen.  That’s right, this winged beast left “a mass of broken glass, chinaware and blood.”  The beast flew into the living room and beat itself against the walls. Eventually, Junior got the critter to leave by the front door.

I’m sure you’ve noticed, as I have, that there are a few inconsistencies in Junior’s account of the attack of the house-trashing bird.  First of all, “something with wings” whooshed by his head, yet he could not identify the animal.  Okay, well, it had wings.  That sounds like a bird.  If it had whooshed any closer, perhaps it would have imbedded itself in his skull, so he could take a closer look.

This creature left a bloody mess in the kitchen.  Hitchcock notwithstanding, how many birds do you think it would take to break the dishes?  And the crystal?  And bleed all over them?  Junior does not say whether the bird was also trying to make off with the silver.  Later in the day (remember, this is Sunday morning), Junior and Mrs. Junior repeat this tale for the neighbors.  These credulous neighbors have known Junior all his life, yet they still believe him.  Even at this distance, you can hear the sympathetic clucking of tongues by good-hearted people.  Perhaps he shows them the remains of the mess in the kitchen, the dents in the living room wall.  They rally to his cause.  A duck, they proclaim.  A wild duck fell down the chimney.

Duck?  How about a swan with a shotgun?  Ah, well, there was no bird, was there?  Mom and Dad left a full liquor cabinet. Junior and Mrs. Junior had a few friends over on Saturday night.  Some of Junior’s insufferable prep-school pals with names like Chip and Spin and Poppet and their Aryan-from-Darien wives.  Everybody had too much to drink.  Somebody threw up in the kitchen wastebasket.  Spin and Poppet got into a fistfight.  Poppet’s nose started to bleed.  Spin fell into the crystal cabinet and the good French stuff came down on him like a fine rain.

Junior took advantage of the scene to make a move on Chip’s wife in the living room.  He ran a hand up her leg and made eyes at her.  His fantasy was interrupted when a heavy vase whooshed past him and left a dent in the plaster wall, where dry bits fell away from the lath.  Mrs. Junior saw the whole thing.  She threw the vase.  She picked up an ashtray.  Mrs. Chip jumped off the sofa and ran barefoot into the night.  Junior fainted.

Mr. and Mrs. Junior did not realize how much trouble they were in when they came to, groggy and hungover on Sunday morning.  Only Junior’s first trip down the stair would reveal the totality of the devastation.  Crystal and blood in the kitchen, sick in the trash can, holes in the living room wall, a terrible smell everywhere.  Oh, the despair.  How would he explain this to Mummy?

Um, a bird.  A really big bird.  Junior isn’t overly bright, but he can lie with the best of them.  His dehydrated brain is trying very hard to come up with a story at the bounds of plausibility.  Yes, a really big bird got in the house.  Trapped in the kitchen, in fact.  It was making a lot of noise.  It woke him up.

“Oh My Gawd,” Mrs. Junior says, surveying the damage from a safe distance.

“Shh, I’m working on it,” he assures her.  “It was a bird.  A dangerous bird.  It was trapped in here.”

“We shooed it out the window?” she offers.

“No, we can’t open the windows.  We shooed it out the front door.  I heard a noise and I came downstairs to investigate and it flew right past me when I opened the kitchen door.”

“Mmm, well, that takes care of the kitchen,” she says, “but what about the living room walls?”

“The bird again!” he says in triumph.  “It flew around the living room.  It hit the walls.  It was crazed.”

“Nobody will ever buy this story,” she says.  “Your parents will disown us.”

“Bet?” he says.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Carolin Combs: "Inheritance"

by C.J. Combs

            Grandfather was a tall, beaky man with translucent skin whose preferred costume was a dinner jacket and white tie.  He refused to call it a tuxedo.  "Tuxedo is a place," he would snarl.  Mother always said that he felt most like a man in his evening clothes.  She didn't say what he felt like the rest of the time.
            I have a snapshot of my grandparents taken sometime in the lost twenties.  It was a dancing evening, maybe a private ball. Grandmother looks like a Reubens portrait in her glowing satin dress.  The camera captures the contrast between Grandfather's purposeful dark eyes, brooding under a heavy brow, and the glowing pearl studs down his front.
            Grandfather became a rich man in the Yankee tradition: he inherited a lot of money.  Black Friday didn't make him poor, but he took it as a personal insult.  The strain wore on him.  He dressed for the office as usual each morning, singing to himself as he danced alone before a full-length mirror.  But then he might suddenly change his mind midway through and dress for golf instead.  He took to wandering Park Avenue in his golf knickers and house slippers, grasping the lapels of passersby and mumbling rude slogans about Jewish bankers.  The family knew something was wrong because Grandfather was a fastidious man and would not wear his golf clothes in town.
            They found a private asylum on Long Island with a bland, tranquil name that suggested a holiday destination.  Grandfather went along without evident distress.  His condition and location were never mentioned in public.
            Years later, Mother would tuck a stray hair into her chignon and wistfully say that they all missed the Depression.  She spoke as if it were a cotillion for which she had not received an invitation, or a long, slow train, pulling out of Grand Central, leaving them waving from the platform.  Except for Grandfather's absence, life went on as usual.  The maids lived in, the silver was polished, and the family decamped to the Adirondack lodge each July.
            Mother visited Grandfather regularly with treats from the Swedish bakery and neighborhood gossip.  She remarked that he was improving his mind.
            "That's the point, isn't it?" said Pearson, whisky at his elbow, his face frozen in concentration as he buffed his nails.  "I mean, we're paying them all that money to improve his mind."
            "No, silly, he's studying.  Brushing up on his German.  He's awfully keen on languages at the moment."
            Grandmother pulled a linen handkerchief from her sleeve and fanned herself slowly. "Ah, Berlin," she reminisced to herself.  "'21, wasn't it?  And Leipzig.  All very nice.  He liked the naked ladies best, you know."
            Mother and Pearson looked at each other.  Grandmother was probably dotty too, but they couldn't see having both parents in the asylum.
            "He's asked me to bring him some German books from his library.  He gave me a list."  Mother showed it to Pearson.  "Do you think those are all right?  They won't excite him, will they?"
            Pearson held the list over his head so he could read it with his head tilted fully back as he drained the last vapors from his glass.
            "Nietzsche, Goethe, Mann; sounds like a pork butchers' club if you ask me."

            Grandfather's fascination with Hitler dated to sometime in '37, when he suddenly demanded a copy of Mein Kampf.  He had read about it in some foreign newspaper and insisted that he must have it.  Mother conveyed the order to Pearson and they looked at each other hopelessly.  In what may have been the first and last bright idea of his life, Pearson ran to Schweim the butcher and bought his copy.  Schweim noted his approval by throwing in a package of liver sausage.
            Grandfather, in his not-quite-sane condition, was delighted to find a thinker like himself in Herr Hitler.  He hated the New Dealers like the spawn of Satan, and supported anyone that Roosevelt was against.  He began to write friendly letters to Hitler from the asylum.  Most of them never went any further than the staff room at the asylum.
            His one-sided correspondence went unremarked until the FBI came calling, sometime early in the war.
            "Oafish little men," Mother said.
            Someone at the asylum thought Grandfather was a spy.  The G-men waved a stack of Grandfather's recent letters at Mother, who assured them that her father was certainly insane, probably battier than Herr Hitler’s entire staff, and no threat to anyone’s war effort.
            "Father has gone quite off the deep end," she reported to Grandmother, "and it's a good thing that Hitler fellow never wrote back."
            The whole episode might have languished in family history if Mother hadn't been the one to empty Grandfather's room after he died.  She brought his books and papers home and left them in the library, where I found them.  I spent many snowy afternoons of childhood in the library, nestled among tapestry-covered pillows, turning the pages of books I couldn't read.  There was an illustrated Dickens that I never tired of, and a tiny edition of Jane Eyre with delicate line drawings.  I don't know how I came upon the shelf of Grandfather's books, but I returned to them again and again.
            I loved Mein Kampf because opening it called forth all the smells of Grandfather. Imbedded in the pages were his good Havanas, the cologne that reminded me of marzipan-covered fruitcake, and his lightly citrus hair oil, bought from an Italian barber on Staten Island.  The black, gothic script was sharp and unfaded.
            When I began to study German at school, I moved Grandfather's books into my bedroom, hoping that their proximity to my head would cause their contents to seep into my brain during the night.
            My father, who was none too impressed with the level of sanity in my mother's family, watched doubtfully as I pored over Mein Kampf at the breakfast table.  Hitler might have been my grandfather's imaginary pen pal, but he was my father's blood enemy.  His memories of North Africa were still fresh.
            "He's only a boy, dear.  He'll tire of it," was Mother's soothing explanation.
            "I suppose we should be glad your father didn't write to Stalin," Father observed archly.
            A group of us at school formed a secret Hitler fan club.  We delighted in shocking adults by decorating things with swastikas.  This activity was much more interesting than the pursuit of girls to shy and sheltered boys like us.  In the rarefied atmosphere of a sedate and expensive school, it was about the naughtiest thing we could do.
            Piggy, the janitor, finally caught Ted and me drawing swastikas on the bathroom wall.  Piggy was a large, red-faced man with a booming voice and a southern drawl whose belly overhung his belt like a bowling ball in a sack.  He was angry.  He scowled at us and his color deepened.  We dropped our markers in panic.  He yanked us by the belts and marched us to the Headmaster, who gave us detention and said that notes would be sent to our parents.
            We served our detention by following Piggy on his rounds.  He made us wash chalkboards, sweep, and empty wastebaskets in the classrooms.  Our larger trial lay ahead.  We followed him into the bathroom.
            "Swab the head," he growled.
            "Excuse me?" Ted answered.
            "Wash the toilets."
            Ted drew the line there.
            "Absolutely not," he said, his voice breaking.  "My parents would be extremely angry."
            Before he could finish, Piggy picked him up and dunked him headfirst into the nearest toilet.  I nearly wet my trousers in sympathetic dread.  Ted's hair dripped onto his shirt.
            "You'll scrub 'em with your tongue if I say so.  Now git a move on."
            We scrubbed in terrified silence.  Piggy leaned against the wall, picking his teeth with a penknife.  When we finished, he motioned us to follow him to his home in the basement.
            Piggy lived at the school in a large room beside the boiler.  There were no sexy pinups on his walls; only a saccharine pastel print of Jesus with the children.  He had an iron cot, a radio, a hot plate, and a table.  He pulled a heavy footlocker into the middle of the room.
            "Boys, there's something I want to show you," he growled.  He sat on the cot with a wooden box in his lap.  Inside, several ribboned medals nestled on a piece of velvet.  Ted's eyes widened and he drew in a whistle.
            "What did you get those for?" he asked in admiration.
            Piggy looked into the distance and grinned serenely.
            "Killin' Nazis."
            Ted forgot about our club.  "Wow!  How many?"
            Piggy shrugged.  "Maybe a hundred.  Maybe more."
            Ted and I looked at each other.  Piggy snapped the box shut and we jumped out of our skins.  His serene grin was gone.
            "Killin' one or two more wouldn't bother me," he said softly.
            Well, that was the end of the club.  Mein Kampf went back on the shelf.  We took an interest in girls.  Ted joined the Air Force.  I have a normal life and my share of the inheritance.  I put Grandfather's obsessions behind me.
            But there are times...evenings when the house is quiet and I'm alone in front of the TV with a smoky scotch, I'll flip past a black and white war movie with strong-jawed Nazis in black coats and damned if I don’t get the faintest frisson of sweet nostalgia.  I suppose that sensation comes to other men from having been Boy Scouts.
            It never lasts more than the blink of an eye because I know that there are men out there, men my father's age who may be mailmen or bartenders or cab drivers, men who lead ordinary lives; men it wouldn't bother to kill one or two more.

Carolin Combs: "The Bitch that Stole Christmas"

My cousin Patty's young son, Thomas, was making up his Christmas list. "What's that?" Patty asked, unable to read his scrawl. "You know, that green guy from that movie, The Bitch That Stole Christmas."

* * *

My Christmas was normal.  The snow was deep in Michigan and it was below zero almost every night.  Members of my immediate family behaved themselves, even my brother, who was preoccupied and worried about his first trip with a video crew to Los Angeles.  (Now that he's there, he loves it.)

No, this year, it was my long-suffering cousin Judy who had the Twilight Zone Christmas, thanks to her in-laws, who are the root of all banality in the universe.

Judy is married to a guy who looks a lot like Paul Bunyan.  Big, broad, and bearded, he is also full of odd political ideas that would probably lead one to believe there's a sizable arms cache in his barn.  I don't ask.  I don't know.  And because I don't want any calls from ATF, let's just call him Paul.

Paul has a few brothers who are just as big and beefy as he is.  I've never been to an event where all of them squeeze into one room, but it must be a sight. 

One key to following this story is to realize the importance of noodles in the Michigan diet.  To the Michigan native, there is no comfort food more comforting than a big pile of bright orange macaroni and cheese.  (Disclaimer: my family is from the South.  We don't eat that way.)

Christmas was at Paul's sister's house.  Judy, who likes good food as much as I do, tried to coordinate this part of the event, because she knows that left to themselves, Paul's family will be happy with a dinner of beer, potato chips, and bologna sandwiches.  She offered to make up a couple of tubs of lasagna.  She called various of her sisters-in-law to cajole them in to bringing something to go with it.  Salad, she suggested to one.  Make a salad.  The other was a tougher nut.

"Make a side dish," Judy suggested.

"What's that?" asked the sister.

"You know, when you go out to eat and you get something on the side?"


"Like a vegetable?" Judy prompted her.

"You mean like fries!"

Sister-in-law was proving to be a little hazy on the concept.  Judy tried again.

"Well, fries would be good with a barbecue, but not lasagna.  How about some beans?"

"Oh, Mike doesn't eat beans," sister-in-law protested.

Mike, like Paul, eats anything that isn't still bleeding when it goes in his mouth, so Judy found this hard to believe.

"Well, just ask Mike what his favorite side dish is and bring it, ok?"

You're getting ahead of me.  When the Christmas gathering happened, Judy showed up with her two tubs of homemade lasagna.  Sister-in-law #1 brought a salad - macaroni salad.

"But you said salad," she whined to Judy.  "And it even has vegetables in it."

Sister-in-law #2 brought a big pile of bright orange macaroni & cheese.

"It's Mike's favorite side dish, just like you said!"

Judy has given up trying to bring vegetables to the Michiganders.

*  *  *

The physical progenitor of her sons, the matriarch of this clan of Bunyan wannabees, is a tall, fat woman with arms like trees and the sensibilities of a cross-dressing sailor on shore leave.  If there is poker, Evelyn must play it.  If there is bourbon, she must drink it.  If there are sequins, she must wear them.  I believe she was doing all three for Christmas.

The gift exchange was set up as a crap shoot.  Literally.

Each person was instructed to bring a $20 gift.  Judy created a "night at the movies" gift that included movie tickets and coupons for drinks and snacks for two people.  The gift was supposed to be wrapped and labeled with the name of the person bringing it, presumably to keep them from taking their own gifts home.  Although Judy eventually wished that had been the outcome.

With gifts piled up, the participants rolled dice.  The first one to roll 7 or 11 got to pick a present.  If the roller hit a 2, 3, or 12, he "crapped out" and the dice went to the next guy.  Evelyn probably would have bet the Pass line, but they stuck to wins and craps, probably in order to shorten the evening and get back to the beer.

Winning on the roll, in the Chinese Exchange tradition, entitled one to select from the pile of gifts.  As each person took a gift, he unwrapped and displayed it.  The next winner had a choice of taking from the pile or taking from a previous winner, and so on, until all the goodies were distributed.

In Judy's estimation, the best goodie in the pile was a set of towels, so that shows you how the selection was running.  The gift that drew the most trades was a three-bottle set of some oddly-named (Mister Dennis?) abysmally cheap liquors.  Somebody probably picked them up as part of a quick run to the casino in Canada.  Evelyn wound up with that.  Heck, Evelyn might even have brought it.

Poor, long-suffering Judy got the booby prize.  I can just imagine how hard she had to bite her tongue when she got to select a gift and it was…a Chia Pet.  A Tweety-Bird chia pet.  She was still hopping mad when I heard the story later.

"I can't believe they still make those damn things," she said to me.  "Who the hell buys them except some idiot in Paul's family?  I mean, they're still selling them."

The idiot in question had violated one of the rules and not labeled the package.

"If I knew who put that in there, I'd have made him take it back," she said.  "That didn't cost any $20.  Those things cost $5 at the drustore.  Whoever bought it probably drank the other $15."

"What did you do with it?"

"I gave it to one of the nephews.  What's so great about it?  You smear plant stuff all over it, it grows leaves, and then it dies.  Great.  What a present.  Let the kids grow that slimy stuff."

Paul drew some kind of collectible Christmas ornament, and Judy made him keep it.

"I'm not playing next year," Judy said.  "One damn Chia pet is enough.  Merry Christmas my ass.  I hate stupid cheap gifts.  I don't have any holiday spirit this year.

"I'm the Bitch that Stole Christmas," she finally said.  "So there."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Carolin Combs: "Beginning Acting "

I am the only member of my Beginning Acting class who doesn’t want to be an actor.  I was surprised to learn this, but there are a lot of people out there in the world who lack a firm grip on reality.  It is my fate to meet all of them.

I made no secret of my modest intentions – I’m doing this to learn about giving more depth to my characters in fiction.  I suspect that my talent for acting will turn out to be roughly equivalent to my talent for ballet (i.e., none), but it is unlikely to cause me serious physical injury. 

There are 5 people in this class.  I was surprised that the instructor didn’t cancel with so few people on the list. One would-be actor is a short guy with a significant spare tire named John (or as he would say, Jaaawwwwwn).  The guy has a Boston accent you could spread on toast.  He would have made a great extra for Cheers or maybe he has a future in Dunkin’ Donuts ads.  You know, a gig where speaking Standard English isn’t a requirement.  His regular job is, um, bartending.  So I guess he saw the movie Cocktail and that whole Tom Cruise-identification thing blew him away. 

Bachelor #2 is a very tall, thin fellow named Brad, another Unemployed Web Guy.  Brad is loose-limbed and has a five o’clock shadow that’s seen five o’clock at least twice.  His story is that he was visiting friend in Weymouth and got snowed in, so he spent the night on their sofa.
Hey, whatever.  I don’t care if you spent the last two days playing Grand Theft Auto 3 with all your unemployed web guy friends and knocking back tequila shots until you passed out on the rug.  Don’t come up with a story for my sake.  At least he didn’t try to work pretzels into it. 

The third man in – who arrived late in the second exercise – is a college student named Tim.  Tim is casually unkempt, yet he sports an impressive gold watch with his untucked yellow oxford shirt and wrinkled khakis. Our instructress directed him in a production of “Rumors” at his college last spring and invited him down for, um, extra credit.  Tim may well be a success in this field.  His brain pan seems to be otherwise empty.

The other female in the group is a burned-out social worker named Elsa.  Elsa is a little older than me, a little pudgier than me, and a lot more pissed off.  I get the feeling that if she has to get ONE MORE child protection order, she’s going to make it easier on everyone and just shoot the crackhead parent on the spot.  From where she is hanging on (at the end of her rope), I guess acting looked like a pretty good second career. 

She wore a tight jumpsuit (a Fashion Don’t), decorated with a scarf at the waist, and topped off by a pair of oversized blue rubber boots.  Maybe it was a cryptic dominatrix statement.  At least there was no navel-baring – she left that to our instructress, her assistant, and Brad, who probably didn’t realize that he was wearing the wrong shirt when he left his friend’s house.

-  Carolin Combs (d. 26 JAN  07)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Carolin Combs: "A Wedding"

Carolin & I were invited to her cousin's wedding reception at a county park in southeastern Michigan.  - Bill


I felt like I was in an episode of Cops, one of those episodes where the cops have set up a sting and they invite all the local felons with outstanding warrants to come to a party and collect a prize.  It was my cousin’s wedding reception, and I expected the police and a camera crew to burst in at any moment and start cuffing the guests.  They looked that good.

The wedding itself took place the day before, in another county.  The bride & groom’s home county requires 6 weeks of pre-marital counseling in order to get a marriage license, and they didn’t intend to bother with that.

It was the second marriage for each.  The groom is a cousin of mine who is old enough to be thinking about mortality.  He’s an alcoholic. His first wife was an alcoholic who died of a heart attack.  The Pepsi bottle he takes to work is actually filled with whisky.  He was the only person in the wedding party or among the guests to wear a suit.

- Carolin Combs (d. 26 JAN 2007)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

for Mark Halliday

If the 'breath line' still counts,
it's how far your lung-truck
backs to the loading dock
to dump what it's hauled
from where it got it;
inside, stuff 

(13 JUL 12, Santa Clara CA)v5

Thursday, July 12, 2012

CHENEY & Romney

{Jackson Hole, WY}

$30,000-a-couple dinner
Romney fundraiser at his home,
after a country club reception.
Total take: ~ $4M

{Flashback: September 2011, AZ}  


"When it comes time 
to choose a VPOTUS...
I'll pick [someone like] CHENEY
[he's] the kind of person I'd like to have,
[one] of wisdom & judgment,"


Romney rarely appears in public
with CHENEY or Dubya Bush
who he calls "Obama's predecessor." 
Romney advisers: his relationship 
with CHENEY is cordial, but not
particularly close, little influence. 

(12 JUL 12, Santa Clara CA)v2