Category Archives: Donal Mahoney

New Driver on an Old Route

According to the anchor on the News at Six, Olaf Parker was shot dead at dawn this morning delivering newspapers in his van. His body was found on the front seat, a cigarette burning near his feet, when police responded to a call from a resident who heard his van crash into a utility pole.
+++++Mr. Parker wasn’t robbed. There were a few newspapers on the seat next to his body. These were the last papers he had to deliver on the final block of his route before going home to tend to his dying wife, according to his supervisor. Funeral arrangements are pending.
+++++Mr. Parker had started delivering the route just three weeks ago. Most of his customers had never seen him or the man who had delivered the route before him, Ygor Kazinsky.
+++++Mr. Kazinsky had delivered the route for 30 years before retiring. Many customers in this quiet neighborhood had been getting the paper for all of those 30 years. Most of them were retirees.
+++++The neighborhood, like its residents, was old and stable. People seldom moved. They aged–and finally died–in their little bungalows behind perfect lawns. Any weed that sprouted was treated like a terrorist and quickly eliminated.
+++++One customer explained later to a television reporter that prior to Mr. Parker taking over the route, residents knew, almost to the minute, when their paper would arrive on their lawn, barring bad weather. Snow or sleet could mean the paper would be late by an hour or so, something every customer would understand. What they had trouble understanding, however, is why Mr. Parker did things differently than Mr. Kazinsky. Since Mr. Parker took over, every delivery had been complete chaos from the customers’ point of view.
+++++Mr. Parker had indeed made a very significant change to the way he delivered the route. Much to the distress of many customers, Mr. Parker had started his delivery of the route where Mr. Kazinsky had ended it. He did this because he would finish closer to home and he liked the shorter drive. But this meant folks who used to get the paper at four in the morning now got it at six and those who used to get it at six received it at four.
+++++“Ass backwards,” as one irate customer used to scream from his front porch when Mr. Parker would finally throw his paper on the lawn at 6 a.m.
+++++“Take it back, you doofus,” Mr. Carmody would add. “By now, it’s yesterday’s news.”
+++++The outspoken Mr. Carmody was one of the customers who for years had received his paper at 4 a.m. He wanted to read it then and get on with his day. Retired for years, he liked to hunt and fish. Unlike most in the neighborhood, Mr. Carmody had enough money to take trips abroad. He loved to join an annual safari in Africa in pursuit of wild game.
+++++“I like shooting leopards in the morning mist,” he once told a neighbor.
+++++It was the early risers like Mr. Carmody, who used to get the paper early, who had trouble adjusting to Mr. Parker’s change in delivery. Most of them acquiesced after the first week or so, but a few of them pressed on, calling the delivery service and threatening to cancel the paper if the new driver didn’t deliver it by 4 a.m.
+++++Those who called to complain were mainly people with few obligations in their day. What little they had to do, however, had become important to them. Their daily routines kept their minds off the aches and pains age had brought and helped them ignore the specter of death which hovered over all of them. They resented the way their lives had been altered by some newcomer.
+++++Some watched the news on television but that wasn’t the same as reading the newspaper. Only murders, rapes and other major crimes were reported on television and not, for example, the passing of normal folks like their friends and acquaintances.
+++++That’s one reason why the newspaper was so important to Mr. Parker’s customers. Almost to a person, they read the obituaries first.
+++++Mr. Flynn, almost 80, called the obituaries the Irishman’s Racing Form. He said that in front of Mr. Schneider at a neighborhood block party once and that was the only time anyone had ever seen Mr. Schneider smile.
+++++“That’s a good one, Flynn,” Mr. Scheider said. Flynn, of course, knew his remark had been used by others many times before him.
+++++The obituaries were important for practical reasons as well. They enabled readers to prepare for wakes and church services and reminded them to send condolence cards. That’s why many in the neighborhood still wanted their newspaper at four in the morning. They wanted to be prepared for the inevitable.
+++++Another reason was the sports scores. Some folks were big fans of their hometown teams, even if they despised the editorials in the middle of the paper that consistently called for changes to the mores of life they had always revered.
+++++“Why all the changes,” Mr. Flynn once asked of no one in particular. “Life is tough enough as it is.”
+++++As reported on the News at Six, Mr. Parker was shot and killed on the last block of his route around 6 a.m. The news anchor did not mention that for 30 years this block had been the first block on the route to receive papers before Mr. Parker had succeeded Mr. Kazinsky.
+++++Nor did the anchor mention that customers on that block had grown to expect their papers delivered no later than 4 a.m.
+++++Apparently no one had interviewed Mr. Carmody, who would have been happy to bellow about the inconvenience the deceased Mr. Parker had brought into the lives of Carmody and his neighbors.
+++++According to the news report, however, there was no cause for alarm. The killing of Mr. Parker, the police said, appeared to be a random act. As Mr. Flynn would say later, that might indeed be the case.
+++++“Maybe so, but I don’t know,” is the poetic way Mr. Flynn put it to the ever silent Mr. Schneider. “I wonder what Mr. Carmody thinks. It would be good to get his opinion. He’s not shy.”
+++++The police investigating the case were a much younger group than the people in that neighborhood. They seldom read a newspaper and had little use for obituaries. They caught their news on television or from the wife when they got home.
+++++It took almost two months for everything in the neighborhood to settle down. An interim driver took over the route for several weeks. More chaos ensued and more people threatened to cancel delivery of the paper.
+++++Then Mr. Kazinsky’s oldest son lost his job as a swimming pool salesman and offered to take over the route. In a matter of days he was hired. His father accompanied him the first day on the route and told him everything he needed to know. He showed his son precisely when and where the route should begin and where it should end.
+++++“These are the keys to your success,” his father said.
+++++In short order, people who once received their papers at four in the morning found them on the lawn at that time once again. Except for Mr. Carmody who was in Africa that week seeking leopards in the mist.
+++++“Mr. Carmody will be pleased to learn things are back to normal,” Mr. Flynn said, “once he gets back.”
+++++For the second time Mr. Schneider smiled at a remark made by Mr. Flynn.

Harry Tompkins and the Art of Forgiveness

Harry Tompkins hadn’t been to church for many years. He still believed in God but going to church didn’t interest him. Then on a warm Saturday afternoon in August, he met Jayne, a lovely woman, at a company picnic. He liked Jayne a great deal and he thought he might improve his chances with her if he accepted her invitation to go to church on Sunday morning. Jayne had a way about her that Harry liked. Besides she looked like a woman who would bear good children.
+++++“What time should I pick you up?” he asked her. She told him 9:30 would be fine. “That will give us plenty of time to get to the ten o’clock Mass.”
+++++The priest’s sermon, it turned out, was about the importance of forgiveness and that was a topic Harry knew something about. He had not made a lot of enemies in life but the ones he had made, he cherished even if their infractions had occurred decades ago. Forgiving them would never enter his mind. Enemies are enemies, Harry thought, but he could understand where the priest was coming from.
+++++Harry had spent many years of a considerable education in Catholic schools. And one of the basic mottoes in those schools was to forgive your enemies as you would want Jesus to forgive you. He didn’t want to be disrespectful to the Son of God but Jesus had grown up in Nazareth, after all, which was quite a bit different than Harry’s neighborhood in Chicago back in the 1950s. In Harry’s youth, fights were not a daily occurrence but a week seldom went by without at least one good fight occurring. Fights were always fair back then because to fight dirty was the lowest thing someone could do. You would be branded for life as a dirty fighter. If you couldn’t get the job done with your fists, then don’t fight is the way Harry looked at it.
+++++Chief among Harry’s enemies from the old neighborhood were Elmer and John. They were two boys, older than Harry by a couple of years. Decades ago they beat the Hades out of him in an alley in Chicago. Harry at that time was in the 8th grade and he was going home from school when he got jumped. The nun had been happy with Harry that day, even if that was a rare occurrence, because he had won the all-school 8th grade spelling bee, no small feat in a class where verbal skills outdistanced math skills. Besides, it was usually a girl who won the spelling bees. But Harry could always spell. He’d look at a word once and it was memorized. This time he won because he could spell “ukulele” and Barbara O’Brien, “Miss Goody Two Shoes,” couldn’t even come close and had to settle for second.
+++++His enemies Elmer and John were high school sophomores the day they pounded Harry, who though big for his age was still only an 8th grader. Elmer and John were small for sophomores but the two of them together were more than Harry at the time could handle. It was a beating Harry never forgot, perhaps because he had won all the other fights he had ever had in grammar school and would have later on in high school. Besides, it sure wasn’t easy explaining to his parents that night how he had managed to get a black eye and split lip coming home from school.
+++++“I pay the nuns at St. Nick’s good tuition,” his father had said, “to make sure you grow up right.” He wanted to go down to the school and discuss the matter with the nuns but Harry somehow talked him out of it. He explained that the kids who beat him up didn’t go to St. Nick’s. In fact, Harry said, they looked like Lutherans. His father said to tell him if Harry ever saw the boys again.
+++++Two years later, when Harry was a sophomore in high school, Elmer and John were seniors at a different high school. Harry was now 6’1″ and about 180 lbs. He’d been lifting weights on a regular basis, hoping to gain weight for the football team. Elmer and John, on the other hand, were still relative runts, perhaps 5’6″ or 5’7″ and maybe 140 lbs at best. Harry hadn’t seen either one of the boys since his throttling. But he had always remembered the beating and he assured himself that if he ever had a chance to make things right, he would do so.
+++++It so happened that around that time Harry met a nice girl at a school dance and it turned out that meeting her led to renewing old acquaintances with Elmer. The girl’s name was Margaret Mary and she lived in a wealthy neighborhood. She invited him to a graduation party that her parents had arranged. She didn’t know that Harry was only a sophomore.
+++++Harry decided to go to the party because he liked the girl despite her living in a fancy neighborhood, one that he had visited only once before when his high school basketball team had defeated the team from Margaret Mary’s school. Besides, Harry remembered that Margaret Mary had said her parents had hired a caterer to provide the food. That sure beat hot dogs, the main fare at any party in his neighborhood.
+++++There were a lot of kids at the party that Saturday night and they were all from different neighborhoods. At first, Harry saw no one he knew, certainly no one from his blue-collar neighborhood, which was just as well because with him in a suit and tie he would have had to take a lot of razzing if any of his friends spotted him. Later in the evening, however, Elmer walked in, still short and skinny but decked out in a nice seersucker suit.
+++++Harry recognized Elmer immediately but Elmer did not recognize him. When Elmer decided to go outside to have a cigarette, Harry followed him. He let Elmer take a few drags before he walked up and asked Elmer how life was treating him now that graduation was near.
+++++“You going to college, Elmer?”
+++++Elmer still didn’t recognize Harry. It was no wonder, then, that he never saw the uppercut coming. Down went Elmer with Harry on top of him. Many punches later, one of Elmer’s teeth lay on the sidewalk and he was gushing blood from his left eye. The other kids heard the ruckus and came poring out of the party but Harry, by that time, had taken off. Elmer had gotten his, Harry figured. There was no need to hang around and complicate matters.
+++++Besides, Harry figured the cops would be scouring the neighborhood looking for a kid that fit his description so he spent the five bucks his mother had given him to take a cab home. He had never told Margaret Mary his real name, just that his nickname was “Skip.” She wouldn’t have been able to tell the cops where to find him. And he didn’t think Elmer would remember who he was.
+++++And so that was one reason why in church that Sunday with the lovely Jayne–at least thirty years after pummeling Elmer–Harry found the priest’s sermon on forgiveness resonating. At age 46, he had acquired a couple of college degrees, had held a good job for many years, but had never met a woman he wanted to marry. It wasn’t that he hadn’t met some lovely women over the years. He had met a number of them and enjoyed them all but found them disposable.
+++++“Most women are like Kleenex,” he’d once told a friend who had inquired why he had never married. But Jayne seemed different. He thought right way she’d make a good wife.
+++++So Harry listened to the sermon and even prayed a little. He remembered all the words to the Lord’s Prayer. Having been raised Catholic, he knew when to kneel, stand and sit which can be confusing to someone not Catholic attending a Mass. He also thought his prayerfulness might impress Jayne, who was obviously a very spiritual person. But he didn’t join her in going up the aisle for Holy Communion because he had been living in mortal sin for years and as a Catholic he knew he should not receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin. He might be a sinner, Harry thought, but he wasn’t about to commit a sacrilege to impress Jayne. A few rules even Harry wouldn’t break.
+++++After Mass, Harry and Jayne went to a nice restaurant for brunch. She took the opportunity to ask him how he liked the Mass and the sermon–or as she called it, “the homily.”
+++++Harry said he liked the Mass in that it brought back memories of his younger years in Catholic schools but the sermon, he said, had upset him a little.
+++++“Why,” Jayne asked.
+++++Harry then told her in great detail the whole story about Elmer and John beating him up when he was in grammar school. He also told her how he had managed two years later to pay Elmer back with a good thrashing at an otherwise nice party.
+++++That’s when Jayne asked him if thumping Elmer wasn’t enough. Couldn’t he now forgive Elmer and John for beating him up?
+++++Harry said that maybe, just maybe, he could forgive Elmer at some point in his life but not now, even though it was 30 years later. Besides he still hadn’t found John. He had even thought about hiring a private detective to get his address. Harry didn’t care what city John lived in because that’s why they have planes and trains. And as he told Jayne over their last cup of coffee, when he did find John he would beat the hell out of him, worse than he had beaten Elmer at that party.
+++++“I’ll bounce his filthy skull off the concrete,” Harry told Jayne, wiping the corners of his mouth with his napkin, “if the opportunity presents itself. And I’m pretty sure that some day it will. What goes around comes around. Even Hitler found that out.”
+++++He wouldn’t kill John, Harry assured Jayne, when she finally came back from the lady’s room. “But if possible I’ll leave the schmuck laying there in a puddle of blood, wishing he were dead.”
+++++Schmuck was a Yiddish word, of course, and he wasn’t sure if Jayne knew what it meant. It would be just as well if she didn’t. Harry seldom used the word but if he started to get riled up about something, it sometimes fell out of his mouth.
+++++If he got the chance to meet John again and settle matters, Harry told Jayne, then afterward it might be time to talk about forgiving him and Elmer but he’d have to give it some thought. He didn’t like to make commitments if he wasn’t sure he could keep them. Then Harry drove Jayne home and told her he’d like to see her again. Jayne smiled but didn’t really say anything except good-bye when she got out of the car.
+++++As time went on, Harry never saw Jayne again even though he continued to call her for several months. She was never at home, it seemed, or maybe she was a hard sleeper.
+++++Finally Harry quit calling her and started going out again with different women.
+++++“The flavor of the month,” as he told another friend.
+++++He never found another woman like Jayne but as Harry liked to say, “any port in a storm.”

The Bully, the Psychopath, Libby and Lorraine

Fred was a bully who always bothered Lenny on the way to school. Fred was four years older than Lenny. One day Lenny told him that when he grew up he would kill him. Fred laughed and probably didn’t expect to see Lenny that night, twenty years later, when Lenny waited for him in the alley next to his garage.
+++++As usual, Fred got home around midnight from his work on the second shift. He lived in a different neighborhood by then but Lenny kept track of him because he knew it was simply a matter of when for Fred.
+++++When Fred got out of his car, Lenny said,
+++++“Hey Fred, remember little Lenny, the kid from grammar school.”
+++++Fred said he didn’t remember Lenny and that’s when Lenny swung the machete his grandfather had brought home from the Pacific after World War II. Then he stood there and admired his work, smiled and watched Fred’s head roll a few feet like a bowling ball.
+++++In the morning a milkman found the head and the body and the story was in the papers for weeks as people wanted to know who did it but Lenny couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t understand that it was simply a matter of a bully paying the price for what he had done years earlier to Lenny.
+++++The only person Lenny ever told about the murder was a girl he had spent a lot of money on, Libby. It was their first date even though they had known each other for years. He didn’t even get a kiss good night and that bothered him but he didn’t say anything.
+++++Libby really didn’t think Lenny was telling the truth about killing some guy with a machete. He was always exaggerating about one thing or another and Libby thought this was just another one of his tall tales. He was probably just trying to act like a big shot.
+++++Lenny knew that Libby had never enjoyed good health, living as she did with a congenital heart disease. But he was afraid that she might some day call the cops and tell them about Fred getting it with the machete. The cops keep good records about stuff like that.
+++++Still concerned that Libby might tell the cops, Lenny asked her out for a second date and when she went to the powder room, he put a dose of strychnine in her coffee. When Libby complained about feeling sick, he took her right home and didn’t even try this time to get a kiss good night.
+++++Libby’s mother found her dead in bed the following morning. The family was very upset but it was not an unexpected event what with Libby’s history of poor health. The family buried her without much ceremony after the doctor signed the death certificate. The cause of death was listed as heart disease.
+++++It was a year before Lenny dated anyone else. Then he met Lorraine, a waitress at a bowling alley. He liked her and asked her out and she said yes. After dinner and a movie and a few drinks at Lorraine’s apartment, Lenny told her all about Fred and the machete and then about Libby and the strychnine. He loved the look in Lorraine’s eyes as he rolled the stories out. Finally Lenny finished his fourth martini, leaned over and whispered to Lorraine,
+++++“And now the question is, what should we do about you.”

Henry Showed Wendy His Paintings

Henry and Wendy Throckmorton had been married a week when Henry took Wendy to his garret 100 miles south of their estate in posh Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago. Wendy thought she was going on a delayed honeymoon. Henry had never told her that he was a painter by avocation. She knew only that he was a successful patent attorney and had a large, profitable practice.
+++++There was a heavy snowfall that evening and it made the trip for Wendy, looking out the window of the car, all the more beautiful. They arrived at the garret around midnight and walked up three flights of stairs in the dark. It was good that Henry had brought his flashlight. He used three keys on a long silver chain to open three locks on the steel door. Once inside the garret, Henry turned on the light with triumph.
+++++“Voila!” he said as he turned slowly in a circle with arms outstretched.
+++++Wendy was certainly surprised. There were paintings all over the walls. Other paintings, half completed, sat on their easels waiting for Henry. He explained to Wendy that she was the first person to see his work–his work of a lifetime. He had never shown his work to anyone before but now that they were married, he felt she had a right to see it.
+++++“Wendy, you are the one person I know who is qualified to see my work and I am very happy about that.”
+++++Wendy had been curator of several art collections at prestigious museums in a number of cities. As soon as she was settled in her new home, she planned to seek similar employment in Chicago, perhaps at a small private gallery so she would have less pressure and more time to make a nice home for Henry who had been a bachelor for a long time.
+++++Wendy was an expert in watercolors, Henry’s medium of choice. With his encouragement, she walked around the garret slowly, looking at every painting on the walls and even those on the easels before she said anything.
+++++Finally, choosing her words carefully, she told Henry his work was “interesting.” She did not praise or condemn any particular painting. She spoke quietly, trying her best to say something nice when her professional assessment told her just the opposite–the work was mediocre, mundane at best. Later on, Henry thought to himself that Wendy had looked bemused after reviewing his life’s work.
+++++Henry Throckmorton earned his living as an attorney but that was simply to buy the time necessary to paint. Before marrying Wendy he had spent weekends, holidays and vacations at his garret, painting night and day for many years. He had done well as an attorney but painting was his passion. He knew now, however, that the canvases he thought so highly of had failed to impress his young wife.
+++++Henry drove home alone that night and told everyone at work the next day that Wendy had left him without notice. He called her parents and cried on the telephone about her sudden departure. He begged them to ask Wendy to call him if they heard from her and he said he would call them if she called him. He asked her mother if Wendy had ever gone off on her own before and she assured him that Wendy had not.
+++++No one ever saw Wendy Throckmorton again. Over the years, her parents had died, still worried about Wendy. Since she had been an only child, there were no siblings to ask about her. It was obvious to the staff in Henry’s office that he was in no mood to discuss her. They felt the man was brokenhearted.
+++++Once again, Henry was spending weekends, holidays and vacations at his garret painting in watercolors. No one since Wendy had seen his work nor had anyone else visited his garret. Paintings were still everywhere, their number increasing as a result of Henry’s ever-increasing frenzy for painting.
+++++A wonderful cook, Henry still stored a few steaks in a small refrigerator in the kitchen but he no longer hung big cuts of beef from hooks in the walk-in freezer at the back of the garret. That freezer had been a selling point when Henry bought the place from a retired butcher many years ago. But now Henry never went into the freezer. In fact, he didn’t know where he had put the keys to the locks he himself had installed on the freezer door after Wendy had disappeared.
+++++In addition to being good at the law and enjoying painting, Henry Throckmorton had always been handy with tools. He had hoped some day to try his hand at ice sculpture but he would have to do that outside now and not in the freezer as he had once planned.

The Hell of Agent Orange

“Throw me down the stairs a sandwich, Ollie, I’m hungry,” said Dr. Olga Sumvitch, hollering up to me from Hell again in her best fractured English.
++++Although she had spent the last 30 years of her life in the United States working for Monsanto, Dr. Sumvitch still speaks English with a thick accent. I’m one of the few Americans who can always understand her. She has trouble pronouncing my first name, Oliver. But she can always say Ollie, and I have no problem answering to that.
++++Years ago, Dr. Sumvitch emigrated from Moldova to the United States after being hired by Monsanto to fine-tune the formula for Agent Orange. There were some problems in its effectiveness and she had the expertise to work them out.
++++The day the government finally approved the formula for use in Viet Nam, Dr. Sumvitch had gotten hit by a bus coming back to work after a sumptuous lunch with her celebrating co-workers.
++++The injuries were bad. She suffered seizures in the hospital for several days and foamed at the mouth intermittently. The night nurse needed towels to sop it all up. She died at midnight on Good Friday with a groan that woke everyone in her ward. After her last groan, a deaf patient on her floor said that he could hear again on Easter morning.
++++Dr. Sumvitch and I were chemists by trade. We became friends at professional meetings. In the beginning I knew nothing about her work. In fact, I had declined a job at Monsanto right after getting my doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and I had always wondered if I had made a mistake in turning that job down. The pay and the benefits were excellent. And Monsanto had a great reputation for quality in their products.
++++Dr. Sumvitch trusted me not to talk about her work, saying it was top-secret, hush-hush by order of the government. It was the government, after all, that had underwritten the years of research and development that made Agent Orange possible.
++++Without millions in taxpayer money funneled through the government back to Monsanto, Agent Orange might never have been produced. I promised her I would never say a word about her work. That would have been hard for me to do even if I had wanted to because I honestly didn’t quite understand the true nature of the product at the time.
++++Even now, more than 40 years later, I have to ask myself why would our government be interested in producing a product that would silently decimate land and crops as well as the people who depend on both for their livelihood.
++++It sounds a lot like chemical warfare to me, and I didn’t think my country would ever engage in such a thing.
++++Right now, America is all worked up about what’s going on in Syria–poisonous gases of one kind or other. I’m happy that I’m an expert in formulating new toothpastes. It’s my job to make people smile brighter and whiter–not kill them–over a period of time.
++++Dr. Sumvitch went to Hell immediately but stayed in touch with me after she died. I was afraid to tell anybody about that for fear they would think I was hallucinating after too many years experimenting with toothpaste. Once a month or so, however, she hollers up from Hell when she gets real hungry.
++++“Food is scarce down here,” she told me, “unless one has no objection to cannibalism.”
++++On Earth, and in Moldova especially, she had developed a taste for organ meats–gizzards and livers and hearts–provided they had been harvested from beasts, not human beings.
++++Chicken gizzards piled on a mountain of rice were her favorite, although turkey hearts, if they were big enough, were almost as good.
++++Whenever Dr. Sumvitch hollers, and lately she’s been doing it more frequently, I wake up and get out of bed and head for the kitchen. I always make her a fine sandwich. I stack beef or pork, whatever I have in the fridge, on marble rye with a slice of onion and a dollop of Tabasco sauce. I top it off with a slice of Kosher pickle, wrap it in Saran Wrap and toss it down the stairs to Hell. It takes around an hour for it to arrive so I hang around in the kitchen till I hear from her.
++++“Thank you,” she yells, when the sandwich finally gets there.
++++“Believe me, Ollie, I’d ask someone else for help but no one believes in Hell any more except me and my co-workers down here. It’s like a big Monsanto reunion from decades ago. There are thousands of us.
++++“Sandwiches like yours are impossible to come by. Eyeballs, armpits and feet are plentiful, if you like your meat well done.
++++“You can always see what you’re eating because of the bright light, and that can ruin one’s appetite. Agent Orange burns night and day. It’s always High Noon down here. No one gets any sleep.”

Mike Fitzgibbons and His Morning Paper

For 35 years, Mike Fitzgibbons had never missed a day driving off at 4 a.m. to buy the newspaper at his local convenience store. Snow, sleet, hail or rain couldn’t stop him. There was only one paper being published in St. Louis at the time but Mike was addicted to newspapers. He had spent his early years reading four papers a day in Chicago–two in the morning and two in the evening. He worked for one of them and enjoyed every minute of it. However, an opportunity to earn more money as an editor for a defense contractor required his large family’s relocation to St. Louis. Mike needed more money to feed a wife and seven children.
++++ “Words are words,” Mike said at the time. “Being paid more money to arrange words for someone else seems like the right thing to do.”
++++ Writing and editing were the two things in life Mike could do well enough to draw a salary. It broke his heart to retire many years later at the age of 68 but it seemed like the best thing to do. His doctor had told him he might have early Alzheimer’s disease and that he should prepare for the future since the disease would only grow worse. Mike never told his wife or any of the children about the problem. His wife was the excitable type, and all of the children had grown up and moved away, many of them back to Chicago where all of them had been born. Each of them had acquired a college degree or two and had found a good job. Most of them were married. Mike and his wife now had 12 grandchildren and were looking forward to more.
++++ “You can never have too many heirs,” he told his wife one time. “Whatever we leave, it will give them something to argue about after we’re gone. They won’t forget us.”
++++ After the doctor had mentioned the strong possibility that he had Alzheimer’s disease, Mike decided to have the daily paper delivered to the house instead of driving to the store every morning to buy one. And on most days that seemed like a good decision. But not on the infrequent days when the deliveryman soared by Mike’s house without tossing a paper on the lawn.
++++ The first time it happened Mike called the circulation department and received a credit on his bill. He did the same thing the second time, managing to keep his temper under control. But the third time occurred on the morning after the Super Bowl. For Mike this was the last straw. Three times he told the kind old lady in the circulation department to tell the driver Mike was from Chicago originally and in that fine city errors of this magnitude did not go unanswered. A credit on Mike’s bill, while necessary, would not suffice.
++++ When his wife Dolly got up, he asked her, “How the hell can I check the stats on the game without my newspaper?” She was only half awake. Mike was a very early riser and Dolly, according to Mike, was a “sack hound.”
++++ A kind woman, Dolly had always tried to be helpful throughout the many years of their marriage, so Mike understood why she eventually suggested he drive to the QuikTrip and buy a paper. Then he could read about the game and check the stats, she said.
++++ “That’s not the point, Dolly,” Mike said. “I have a verbal contract with that paper for delivery and they are not keeping their side of the bargain. A credit on my bill is not adequate recompense.” Mike loved the sound of that last sentence as it rolled off his tongue. He always loved the sound of words whether they were floating in the air alone or jailed in a sentence or paragraph.
++++ What made matters worse, Mike told Dolly, is that without his newspaper he would have no way to check on the obituaries of the day. The obituaries were Mike’s favorite part of the paper. Back in his old ethnic neighborhood in Chicago, the obituaries were known as the Irishman’s Racing Form.
++++ Back then, many retired Irish immigrants would spend the day reviewing the obituaries in the city’s four different newspapers. Finding a good obituary primed them for conversation at the local tap after supper. The tap was run by the legendary Rosie McCarthy, a humongous widow who did not suffer any nonsense in her establishment. But she did offer free hard-boiled eggs to customers who ordered at least three foaming steins of Guinness. Eggs were cheap in those days. It was rumored that Rosie had to buy 10 dozen eggs a week just to keep her customers happy.
++++ “Rosie knows how to hard boil an egg, Dolly,” Mike had told his wife many times over the years. And his wife always wondered what secret Rosie could possibly have when it came to boiling eggs.
++++ One reason the obituaries were of such great interest in Mike’s old neighborhood involved the retirees wanting to see if any of their old bosses had finally died. Some of those bosses had been nasty men, so petulant and abrasive they’d have given even a good worker a rash. There was also the possibility that over in Ireland, the Irish Republican Army might finally blow up a bridge with the Queen of England on it. The IRA had been trying to do that for years. Many bridges had been blown to smithereens but not one of them had “Herself” on it.
++++ “The IRA keeps blowing up bridges, Dolly,” Mike would remind his wife. “You would think one of these times they’d get it right. They know what she looks like.”
++++ In addition to reading four newspapers a day as a young man, Mike had had other hobbies during his long and tumultuous life. He had bred rare Australian finches for decades and had won prizes with them at bird shows. However, after his last son had graduated from college and moved away, Mike sold more than 200 finches and 40 cages because he no longer had a son available to clean the cages. Five sons had earned allowances over the years cleaning the cages at least once a week. All of them ended up hating anything with wings. One son had even bought a BB gun and would sit out in the yard all day while Mike was at work. That boy was a pretty good shot. No one knows how many woodpeckers and chickadees he managed to pick off.
++++ After Mike sold his birds, he took the considerable proceeds and plowed all of the money into rare coins. For the next ten years he collected many rare coins but when he retired he figured he may as well sell them because none of his children had any numismatic interest. Not only that, none of them would have known the value of the coins if Mike died. Some of them were very valuable–the 1943 Irish Florin, for example, in Extra Fine condition would have brought more than $15,000 at the right auction. Mike loved that coin and kept it, along with all the others, in a large safe in the basement. Guarding the safe was a large if somewhat addled and ancient bloodhound. Mike had bought the dog from a fellow bird breeder when it was a pup. The bloodhound wasn’t toothless but he may as well have been. He wouldn’t bite anyone no matter how menacing a robber might be.
++++ “I love that dog, Dolly,” Mike would tell his wife every time she suggested that euthanasia might be the best thing. “That dog, Dolly, is as Catholic as we are and Catholics don’t abort or euthanize anything,” Mike said.
++++ When Mike finally sold all of his coins, he had a great deal of money that he viewed as disposable income. Dolly, however, viewed it as an insurance policy in case Mike died first. Mike had a couple of pensions but he had never made Dolly a co-beneficiary. In fact he convinced her to sign waivers so the payout to him would be larger. Dolly didn’t want to do it but signing was easier than reasoning with Mike. His temper seldom surfaced but when it did, things weren’t good for weeks around the house.
++++ “I get mad once in awhile, Dolly, but I always apologize,” Mike would remind her.
++++ Mike finally decided to put the coin money into guns–big guns–although he had never shot a gun in his life. He refused to go hunting because he saw no sense in killing animals when meat was available at the butcher store. The kids used to joke that maybe deer and pheasant were Catholic, too.
++++ Some of the guns Mike bought were the kind you would see in action movies. Mike always liked action movies. The more the gore, the happier Mike was. But he had to go to action movies alone because his wife hated gore but she liked musicals. No musicals for Mike, although he would always dig into his pocket to give her the money for admission, complaining occasionally that the cost of seeing musicals kept going up.
++++ “I don’t want to spend good money to see a bunch of people in costumes and wigs singing songs together when Frank Sinatra, all by himself, sings better than any of them.” Sinatra had a good voice, the kids thought, and it probably didn’t hurt that he was Catholic. One of them once suggested to Mike that it might be nice if they played a recording of Sinatra’s “Moonlight in Vermont” at church. Mike didn’t agree or disagree because he thought some sacrilege might be involved.
++++ Mike remembered his gun collection on the day the deliveryman had failed to throw his newspaper on the lawn. He decided that the next morning he would sit out on his front porch at 3 a.m. with a big mug of coffee and the biggest rifle he owned. When the delivery van drove down his street, he planned to walk out to the curb, rifle in hand, to make sure he got his paper and to advise the driver of the inconvenience his mistake of the previous day had caused.
++++ “There’s no way this guy’s a Catholic,” Mike said to himself. “Three times now he has skipped my house with my paper.”
++++ The next morning things went exactly as planned–at the start. Mike was out on his porch with his rifle and coffee at 3 a.m. when the van came rolling down the street. Mike got up and strolled down the walk toward the van, his rifle resting like a child in his arms. Mike couldn’t have known, however, that the van driver had been robbed several times over the years and that he carried a pistol in case someone decide to rob him again. When he saw Mike coming toward him down the middle of the street carrying a rifle, the driver decided to take no chances. He rolled down the window and put a bullet in Mike’s forehead.
++++ One shot, dead center, was all it took, and Mike, still a big strapping man, fell like a tree.
++++ The next day the story about the death of Mike Fitzgibbons made the front page of his beloved paper and Mike himself was listed in the obituary section. The obit advised that friends of the family could come to the wake at Eagan’s Funeral Home on Friday. It also pointed out that a Solemn High Funeral Mass would be said for Mike on Saturday at St. Aloysius Church, where Mike had been a faithful member and stalwart usher for decades.
++++ Two days after the funeral, a neighbor was shoveling snow for Mike’s widow. He happened to look up and saw the missing newspaper stuck in the branch of one of Mike’s Weeping Willow trees. Mike had an interest in Weeping Willows and had planted a number of them over the years, too many some of the neighbors thought for the size of his property. This was the first time a newspaper had gotten stuck in one of the trees, his wife said. And it would be the last time because she had canceled the subscription to the paper the day Mike died. Like her husband, Dolly was a woman of principle and she thought canceling the paper was the least she could do in his memory. She had never read the damn thing anyway.

It’s Best To Leave Cootie Alone

“Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” is all that Cootie Murphy would ever say when he sat on the last stool at the end of the bar in The Stag & Doe Inn. He wouldn’t say it very often, only when provoked by someone or stirred by thoughts known only to him. Mostly he would simply sit at the bar in silence, staring straight ahead, tapping his fingers now and then, and sipping his Guinness.
+++++Cootie had held the rights to the last stool for more than 50 years, ever since he returned from Korea in 1953 after two years spent in conflict. Some people thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, although they didn’t call it that back then. Others thought he was nuts before he went to Korea and had simply come back a little nuttier. Both sides would find their opinions confirmed on nights when the moon was full and Cootie would throw his head back and howl like a wolf. Regular customers were used to it by now and they’d sometimes join in. The bartender would only say, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
+++++The bartender also said that if Cootie ever died, his stool should be buried with him. But the neighborhood mortician, Rory McCarthy, always a customer after a funeral, had said he had never seen a casket that would accommodate both a man Cootie’s size and his stool as well. He agreed, however, that he would see what could be done if Cootie ever required his services, provided the family didn’t drive the body–as they did his mother’s–to O’Brien’s, another mortuary a few blocks down the street.
+++++McCarthy said that he knew of no law against burying Cootie upright—sitting on his stool, Guinness glass glued to his hand. That might be an option worth looking into. But it would require a customized casket of unorthodox configuration best ordered in advance. That would cost a little more, McCarthy said, but what’s money in a time of grief.
+++++There were no signs, however, that Cootie, despite his age, was a candidate for death. In fact, he took no medications. He was simply a strange and contrary fellow with many eccentricities.
+++++For example, it didn’t matter whether you were a regular customer who had known Cootie for decades or a first-time customer. He would respond in the same way. If someone asked him any question—did he have a match for a cigarette or did he know if the Cubs had won–his answer was always the same.
+++++“Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!”
+++++Regulars had no idea what he meant or why he said it. And strangers would walk away bewildered.
+++++Sometimes, however, a stranger who had drunk too much himself would take offense at Cootie invoking the vernal equinox. Over the years, several of the strangers had threatened Cootie with a thrashing. Such a threat, of course, was like a call to prayer in Damascus for regular customers who, otherwise bored, would bow their heads and turn on their stools quietly toward the commotion. They knew that as soon as Cootie would hear a threat, he’d get off his stool and put his fists up, John L. Sullivan style, and start shadow-boxing around the stranger, flicking left jabs and then a right cross, all just inches from the stranger’s chin.
+++++With Cootie circling him, the stranger wouldn’t know what to do. After all, Cootie might have been old but he stood 6’5,” weighed at least 300 pounds and he had fists like bear paws. He didn’t look his age and he moved and jabbed pretty well. Anyone could see that despite his years, Cootie looked capable of flattening anyone.
+++++Even more discouraging, when Cootie was flicking jabs, was the spinning of his eyes. His face looked like a slot machine malfunctioning. And as he danced around, his tongue would emerge quickly from the corner of his mouth, much like the penis of a younger man on the first night of his honeymoon.
+++++Cootie’s odd behavior had begun 50 years earlier shortly after his return to Chicago from Korea. He came back bearing medals galore and a Korean wife who made her own kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment consisting of pickled cabbage and a variety of spices. One regular customer once said that nothing in Chicago smelled like Cootie’s kimchi. Not even the stockyards, which back then was still in operation.
+++++Soo Loo Park, a good wife, would prepare the condiment with great care, pack it into clay pots, and bury the pots all over their small back yard. Wherever she buried a pot, she would stick a popsicle stick bearing the date the pot had been buried. How long a pot was allowed to ferment in the ground would determine the piquancy of the final product. Cootie liked his kimchi screaming hot, the cabbage leaves as gnarled as his hands, moist and glistening with red pepper.
+++++Oddly, Cootie liked to share his kimchi. He always brought a jar of it with him to The Stag & Doe to eat along with the hard-boiled eggs and pickled sausages that sat on the bar in big glass barrel jars. Give him a few sausages and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, followed by a fork full of kimchi, and Cootie was a happy man. He’d wash it down with glasses of Guinness from the tap, managing to get the froth all over his considerable mustache.
+++++Everyone was welcome to sample his kimchi. They didn’t even have to ask. Regulars, of course, wouldn’t go near the stuff but strangers occasionally did. On such occasions, the regulars would always have to suppress a laugh. Just a pinch of Cootie’s kimchi would make a Mexican weaned on jalapenos scream for a fire extinguisher.
+++++One slow evening the bartender mentioned that watching Cootie arrange his glass of Guinness, sausages, eggs and kimchi on the bar was almost like watching a defrocked priest preparing to say an aberrant Latin Mass, especially since Cootie always made the Sign of the Cross and said Grace before he ate or drank.
+++++He had been taught these and other spiritual practices by his brother, Paddy, a monk in a monastery located not too many miles away. Paddy was said to be a very holy man but maybe not a scholar.
+++++Nevertheless, he had done well in the monastery, over the years, adding pecans to the tops of fruitcakes the monks would bake and sell by mail. He knew how many pecans a cake required and where to place them. He was the only monk trained for this job. He had no understudy. If Paddy had a sick day, some other monk would just plop the pecans on the cakes without any sense of order.
+++++At communal prayers five times a day Paddy would pray for all the reprobates he had left behind in the old neighborhood. Cootie would give him a monthly update on their latest deeds when he’d visit him at the monastery. He would tell Paddy up front that none of the regulars had shown any improvement since his last visit. But, as Cootie would remind him, a lot of them had passed away and the future for the rest didn’t look too promising.
+++++Each death, of course, would force Paddy to pray even harder because he felt that half the souls in Purgatory had probably come from his old neighborhood. Who knew if there’d be room in that Halfway House in the sky when it was time for Cootie and him to check in?
+++++Cootie’s sister, on the other hand, had been quite different than her brothers. She had been a nun and was said to have been very smart. But she had died, young and unexpectedly, while teaching a third-grade English class in the parish school. She fell backwards one day, like a tree falling, and was looking up to heaven from the floor just as the bell rang. She never moved.
+++++The parish priest arrived in minutes to give her the Last Rites but she was already dead. No one had any doubts, however, that she was already in heaven, explaining to some saint weak in punctuation the difference between the usage of a semi-colon and a colon.
+++++No autopsy was performed. And it seemed as if the whole neighborhood took a shower and put on their best clothes to attend her funeral Mass. Even a few Southern Baptists chose to enter a Catholic Church for the first time to pay their final respects. Some of them were surprised to return home spiritually intact.
+++++Cootie never talked about the years he had spent in Korea, the battles he had survived, the number of enemy he had killed or the event that led to the plate inserted in his head. He never explained either what he had done to earn all those medals.
+++++And Cootie’s lack of braggadocio was appreciated because when he first came home, one of the regulars in the bar, a fellow named Stanley, a veteran of World War II, had announced to all the other customers that unlike Cootie, he had been in the “real war,” the one the United States had won.
+++++Cootie didn’t say a word. But a half hour later, after a little small talk with Stanley, Cootie asked him to get off his stool so they could finally settle a bet made in high school as to which of them was taller. Standing face to face, Cootie indeed appeared to be taller. Then he hit Stanley with an uppercut launched from his knee. It took a bucket of water, a lot of encouragement and three sober men who had just walked in to get Stanley on his feet. Two of his teeth were never found.
+++++After the Stanley incident, none of the regulars ever bothered Cootie again. And the bartender always told new patrons, “It’s best to leave Cootie alone.”
+++++But occasionally a stranger, clearly out of his element, would arrive in a suit and tie or in Bermuda shorts and white bucks. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t be long before one regular or another would engage the stranger in conversation and tell him in glowing terms about Cootie’s status as a hero of the Korean War. He had won so many medals, the stranger would be told, that he needed a suitcase to bring them home.
+++++Often the stranger, after a sufficient amount of Guinness, would stroll down to the end of the bar and extend his hand to thank Cootie for his service. Like others before him, the stranger would learn that it was best to leave Cootie alone.
+++++As every regular knew, Cootie had little to say about the war America hadn’t won. But if pressed to comment on the matter, he’d bounce off his stool and shout, “Damn the vernal equinox! Full speed ahead!” Everything else he said with his fists. And it was always a brief conversation.