Bad Man Blues: A Portable George Garrett

Bad Man Blues: A Portable George Garrett

by George Garrett

Here is a new collection of stories, anecdotes, and personal essays, with a few poems added for good measure, by a writer whose first collection of short fiction was published to high praise some forty years ago. The rich diversity of voices and forms gives the reader a peek into the room where Garrett writes. As the reader progresses through the collection,…  See more details below


Here is a new collection of stories, anecdotes, and personal essays, with a few poems added for good measure, by a writer whose first collection of short fiction was published to high praise some forty years ago. The rich diversity of voices and forms gives the reader a peek into the room where Garrett writes. As the reader progresses through the collection, Garrett's inventive and engaging sensibility emerges in all its many facets.

The brief fiction section covers Garrett's extraordinary range: as a writer of Elizabethan-era historical fiction (for which he is perhaps best known), as a Southern regionalist/humorist, as a satirist, and as a technical innovator.

The second section derives from Garrett's inexhaustible store of humorous anecdotes. Darkly and wickedly comic, these glimpses into the absurdity of life in the hallowed halls of the academy approach wisdom in their use of the unexpected, the inevitable yet unpredictable misadventures of life.

The final section contains serious and reflective personal essays, mostly having to do with Garrett's family, and particularly with his father. These pieces are thoughtful, moving, and wise. With the anecdotes, they constitute a sort of camouflaged autobiography.

Bad Man Blues provides a rare opportunity to spend time in George Garrett's company, savoring his immediately accessible prose, and, at another level, indulging in the more arcane pleasure of tracing some of the mysterious sources of storytelling itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Alan L. White
George Garrett is a talented writer. . . . Readers seeking quality reading of serious short fiction, or a refreshing look away from the ordinary will enjoy Bad Man Blues. -- ForeWord Magazine
Richard E. Nicholls a mesmerizing storyteller....offers a ringing defense of the necessity of storytellers... —The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Southern Methodist University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Genius Baby

It is getting late now and finally the hospital is more or less quiet. I am now in the so-called lounge. Where people waiting to see patients gather during visiting hours to watch TV (soap operas and talk shows and game shows) or leaf through ancient copies of Time and Newsweek, Vogue and Cosmo, Field and Stream and Guns and Ammo. Together with some fairly recent issues of the AMA Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine. The latter two will sure enough scare the living pee out of you, quicker than the sight of a sadistic nurse coming straight towards your bed with a catheter in her hands. Not only scare you because of all the horrible diseases and conditions that you never even heard of until now, and from now on will be certain, as all the symptoms will clearly indicate, you have been suffering from all along. But also on account of the professional attitude openly displayed therein. The truth is that doctors are a whole lot worse than we ever imagined they could be or would be. The bad news that I have to report is that in spite of all the honor and respect and reward, no matter, they are just like the rest of us—ignorant, insensitive, greedy, and ruthlessly dedicated to the advancement and enhancement of old number one.

    But never mind. I'm not bitter. Just wary.

    During other odd hours occasional ambulatory patients (walking wounded) wander in to take a breather in the beat-up armchairs. And usually some of the orderlies and nurses, sometimes even doctors, to watchtheir favorite programs. Woe betide any patient in this place who has an emergency during General Hospital!

    Now, however, it is late. And empty except for me. I'm sitting at a table with my long, lined, yellow sheets of legal pad and with a Japanese felt-tip pen. Most of the lights have been turned off and it is very quiet here. Except for the sudden and surprising (yet always expected) cries and the long groans you can count on hearing on any given night in any hallway of any staph- and staff-ridden, dirty, crummy, poorly administered and badly maintained, typical too-expensive American hospital in the general surgery section. Where I—yes—am. Oh the hair-raising and horrible stories of hospitals, and especially this hospital, that I could tell you if I had the time and a decent pair of glasses! But, then, anyone else could probably match my stories or even top them. For, according to the numbers, one out of four of us has already experienced the mundane horror of the hospital. Well, a hospital like this one does have at least one thing to recommend it. Once having been there you won't ever want to come back. If you live through it, then you will die first, if possible, before being sent back. And that is a very important factor which has already served to reduce overcrowding in American hospitals and may have a positive effect on slowing the rising costs of health care.

    At the moment the only soul awake and about and nearby is the pleasingly plump night nurse sitting at her station, reading Cream magazine. She is a dead ringer for Shelley Winters. Her main hope, maybe her only real hope at this point, is that all of the patients under her so-called care won't dare to need a damn thing all night long. She needn't worry about it. We all really do try to live up to her best expectations of us. Most would rather die quietly than press the buzzer for her attention.

    Never mind. Let me quit complaining. Here I am, on the mend, feeling better than I ought to, ready to write all night long. If they would let me. And I do owe you some apologies and explanations. I'll be the first to admit it.

    Before getting going on all that, however, I would like to say a few things about my family. My former family, I guess you would have to say. I have not been completely fair to them, and I haven't given a completely fair and objective picture of them. Neither Annie nor Genius Baby was ever entirely devoid of human warmth. And, in all fairness, I have to admit that little Allyson, my favorite, was often a whiner and a troublemaker.

    Having attended the best schools, Annie was not utterly without intellectual interests and abilities. And—and this cannot be emphasized and reiterated too much—she was really and truly rich. I don't mean well off or well-to-do. I mean fuckin' rich. Moreover, and no denying it, pound for pound and inch by inch, she was one of the most attractive women I have ever known intimately. And (no bragging but no kidding either) I have known more than a few both pound for pound and inch by inch. That one of them happened to be your good wife, Geraldine, and that you happened to find out about it, I deem truly regrettable. I wish it had been otherwise, Ray, I really do. But that was a long time ago, as the world turns; and I can't see any good purpose in my pretending that it was different. Even for the sake of good manners. May I say, though, without malice or hard feelings, that even though your wife was very attractive in every way and could put out like a wild mink in heat when she felt like it, she really wasn't in the same class as Annie?

    Very few people seemed to realize this about Annie. And Dr. Smartheim is probably too inexperienced to fully appreciate it.

    Before continuing with my family album and the subject of Annie as a sex object, please permit me to fill you in briefly on Smartheim and what happened after we all went our separate ways.

    Is this a digression? So be it. Digression is the essence of my literary style. Besides which the medication they are giving me seems to make my mind wander.

    Smartheim was her psychiatrist all along. You probably didn't know Annie went to a shrink and needed to. But she did. Nothing really deeply serious, as far as I know. Just the usual neurotic tics and tremors. Plus one little problem that was direct trouble for me. Annie had no special hangups when it came to sex. I mean, she would cheerfully do almost anything you can think of. But ... the only thing that aroused her, the only way she could get turned on, was reading pornography. If you gave her some porn to read (it had to be half-decent porn with some mildly literary pretensions, too), she got all hot and bothered. If you didn't, she didn't. It was that simple. Problem, though, Ray, was that there wasn't all that much half-decent, mildly literary porn available in those days. At least in English. We ran through just about everything I could get hold of during the first year or so of our marriage. After that I could either wait around for the next batch of material to appear in print. Or I could do my own.

    Well, we were both young and healthy and eager. So I became a creative writer, Ray. That was the one and only reason I started writing. It may not have been a noble reason, but surely you have to admit it was a compelling one. Anyway, I was hoping that maybe Dr. Smartheim could cure her of that little problem. I heard that he finally did, too; but only after the divorce. Then they got married, Annie and Smartheim. And everything was copacetic until she had a relapse and fell back into her old ways. Smartheim may be a pretty good psychiatrist. Who knows about a thing like that? But as a writer of pornography he was a dud. You know? Nothing he wrote seemed to arouse her. So, to my everlasting joy, the son-of-a-bitch had to write me to ask if I would be willing to create some more porn. For a fee, mind you. Good bucks! Better than any publisher ever offered me. It was honestly a temptation. I needed the money. And it gave me a certain sense of artistic pride to think that I had the craft and skill to keep his marriage together. And it would be kind of like seduction by proxy. Neat idea for a short story, huh? Only thing, Ray, the bastard did steal my rich wife away from me. In the end pride and morality triumphed over prudence. I told him to go find his own pornographer.

    Where was I?

    O, yes, Annie ...

    In several ways Annie was incredibly attractive. That she had all the necessary equipment in appropriate sizes and proportion, goes without saying. But Annie also smelled, tasted, and felt so ... good! She had marvelous, utterly smooth and beautiful skin all over. Without mole or scar or blemish of any kind. She never wore any makeup because she never had to. It would have been wasted on her. Her muscle tone was equally marvelous, a perfect complement to the beauty of her skin and complexion. It is difficult to describe precisely what I mean. Do you remember a movie actress, a starlet, named Pamela Tiffin? Well, in case you don't (and why would anyone?), she was in some "B" movies and a couple of Broadway shows, and part of her talent was the adroit exposure of considerable portions of her own bare and not unremarkable flesh. A very attractive woman I know was quite startled by this. And perhaps a little jealous. "Pamela Tiffin is truly amazing," she told me. "She is like a baby's bottom only all over." I cannot comment on the aptness or accuracy of the analogy as far as Ms. Tiffin was concerned. But it suggests something. If I had to, I would describe my ex-wife Annie as like the best inside-of-thigh you ever imagined. And all over.


    But the real thing I wanted to deal with, here in this epistle, was my problems, then and now, with Genius Baby. It is true that I favored his sister in every way. And made no bones about it. But, even so, I have to admit he had some qualities, even as a little kid, that were unusual and maybe even admirable.

    I remember one time I was trying to find some efficient, if not especially humane, way to discipline the little prick with ears. I had tried just about everything I could think of. Nothing seemed to work to my satisfaction. Generally, I took my leather belt off and addressed it, as hard and as crisp as possible, across not his bony buttocks but instead his long and very skinny legs. I could tell it hurt him quite a lot and that he was afraid of it. Signs of fear—yes. But, beyond that, I never got the satisfaction of the yowls and tears you would get from an ordinary normal child. He would bite his lip and just hang in there, soundless and tearless, until my arm got tired.

    One time I asked him outright why he acted like that. Why did he do it when he knew damn well that all I really wanted from him was one good loud yell or some routine crying? Just to establish, briefly and once and for all, who was the actual boss around our house. He declined to answer. So, trying to be sly and a little bit subtle, I expressed admiration and amazement at his Spartan fortitude. I asked him how he did it.

    To which he had a cheerful answer. One which, without undue parental pride, may I say was a pretty good yarn for a seven-year-old kid. He began by mentioning the obvious things—geological and astronomical time and how, viewed against those vast scales, all human enterprises, pleasure and pain alike, from the misty dawn of history up to and through the last wham-bam of the Apocalypse, fade into pointless insignificance.

    Of course, that was the kind of answer to be expected from a kid with a scientific cast of mind. But the next thing really surprised me.

    "I think a lot about the insects, Daddy."

    "The ... insects?"

    "They keep multiplying and breeding and everything," he said condescendingly. "They already outnumber all other forms of life. And they are going to win. Man is done for."

    "So fuckin' what, Genius Baby?"

    "Well, I think about that when you're spanking me. I think how it doesn't matter anyway because the insects are winning."

    By God, that son of mine has had some fine moments. I was really proud of that one. I thought of having it done up in needlepoint. Or maybe made as a flag. THE INSECTS ARE WINNING! I would gladly climb Mt. Everest in order to plant it proudly in the eternal snows. If I were a rich fat Greek with a big huge yacht and a whole boatload of great incredible girls in teeny-weeny bikinis and opera singers all covered with jewels, I would fly that message and warning on my mast in the alphabet of signal flags. If only more people would pause in their daily and miserable pursuit of happiness and simply contemplate those wise words, it would surely be a much better world for one and all, including the insects.

    I'm not too proud to give Genius Baby full credit for it, even though I plan to use it as the title of my next novel.

    I am also not too proud to admit—especially in this context, since this started out to be a kind of confession—that it was, in part at least, my cruel mistreatment of Genius Baby which led towards the breakup of my marriage. And, let's face it, the end of my easy meal ticket. Not the belt which was, honestly, administered only on rare and drastic occasions. Such as attempted arson on our house or attempted murder of Allyson or grand theft of my most precious possessions. And, speaking of punishment by belt, I have to say that Annie was rather proud of Genius Baby's stoicism and encouraged him. You see, Annie's family, at least on her mother's side, was pretty distinguished in the land of the broad "A," which, taken together with a style of speaking which is not so much a matter of deep drawling as it is a pretty fair imitation of the initial phases of vomiting, is the hallmark of upperclass Eastern Society. I like that just fine and dandy. And so did her self-made pappy who had nothing at all but a pisspot of money to distinguish or recommend him. He liked it even if his understanding of all the shades and nuances of said society—say, for example, in Philadelphia the complete difference, evident at first sight and first remark, between the Mainline bunch and the Chestnut Hill gang—was about on the primitive level of the Updike novel. Which is a very polite way of saying that Annie's old man had the whole thing bollixed up. But Pappy liked it that way, because of his very distinguished wife. His name was to be found in The Social Register. And I liked it too. I got in there, too, by the hem of Annie's half-slip, so to speak. Of course, I got dumped when we got our divorce. But, then, so did she (ha-ha) when she married that sneaky Jewish shrink Smartheim. Which must have been a bitter pill for him to swallow.

    Anyway (never mind all that) Annie's mama was a direct descendant of one of George Washington's principal Indian agents; a gentleman from what is now upstate New York. Now, the whole thing is that this Agent made great friends, became a diehard, bunghole buddy of Red Jacket, the famous Mohawk chief. In fact, Old Red Jacket liked him so much that he would sneak off from time to time, from the tedious routine of being the tribal chief. And he would come visit the Agent's house. He especially liked to pay a call and stay for some length while the aforesaid Agent was way to hell and gone out in the boondocks doing his official bit with the savages. Well, the net and final result, the bottom line as they all insist on saying, is that every so often, like an Injun in the woodpile, somebody crops up in Annie's family who looks astonishingly like a Mohawk far from home. I have seen a portrait of Red Jacket in the Philadelphia Museum. And I can report that Annie's grandmother is an unquestionable dead ringer for Red Jacket. And (you guessed it) so is Genius Baby. I swear to you that Genius Baby's hair grew out in a natural scalp lock.

    We had one hell of a time with Genius Baby during toilet training. In spite of all his extraordinary intellectual attainments, he was still wearing diapers when he was maybe four years old. I tried all kinds of psychology on the little ratfink. Who was thoroughly enjoying all the trouble and embarrassment he was causing. You see, he loved all the cowboys and Indians stuff they had on TV in those days. One day I just grabbed him in a grip of iron to keep him still long enough to carry on a serious conversation.

    "Genius Baby," I said. "How come you won't go to the bathroom?"

    "I don't know."

    "Cowboys go to the bathroom."

    "Sure," he replied cheerfully. "But Indians don't."

    Annie loved it. She loved telling about that exchange between us. She liked the fact that he could take and bear pain like a young Mohawk brave. And there was a certain social value to the whole thing. These days we are at last far enough along so that a little chap with a dollop of Indian blood, together with a good, solid Colonial Dames background, can claim a definite social advantage.

    To tell the truth, Ray, it was a bad scene when Annie found out that I had not only been diddling your wife, but also had been caught at it, too. Not all laughing and scratching over at our house. But that wasn't the real occasion or proximate cause of my final breakup with Annie. She blamed Geraldine more than she blamed me, anyway. No, it was the problem of Genius Baby that drove a stake through the heart of our relationship. (Heh-heh! Block that fuckin' metaphor!)

    As I recall it was a Saturday morning. Not just any old Saturday morning, but the one after all the shit had hit the fan; and you had been fired outright; and I had been told that my services would no longer be required after the end of the current academic year. I was feeling fairly bad about getting the boot and even worse that Annie was adamant about staying on here in the community, job or no job; because we had such a nice house to live in, and it was good for the children to have some continuity, and she liked it and a lot of the people, etc., etc., etc.

    "Listen," I told her, "I am perfectly willing to retire from the rat race and live off of your money. I will devote my life to literary pursuits. I will do a major research project on the subject of pure leisure, a terribly important subject now that full automation is almost upon us ..."

    "What about Milton's use of dreams and dream visions?"

    That was supposed to be the topic of my, pardon the expression, dissertation, Ray.

    "Bugger Milton and his dreams and visions!"

    "My, you are being childish about this whole ... contretemps."

    "I would love to goof off for the rest of my life. It's what I have always wanted. But it's too humiliating."


    "This is a small town. I won't be able to go buy a pack of cigarettes without running into one of my ex-colleagues. Who, probably out of pure jealousy, will be thinking: `There goes that no-good lazy bum, who couldn't even make it in academe and is now living off of his sweet, kind, hopelessly indulgent and misguided wife.'"

    "Why should the truth humiliate you?"

    "Because, in spite of everything, I still have about an ounce and a half of pride left."

    "Jesus, here we go again."

    "What are you talking about?"

    "Jack, when are you ever going to grow up? When are you going to set yourself free from all that silly, defensive, pointless Southern pride of yours?"


    "You and all those creepy Erskine Caldwell relatives of yours!"

    Of course, I had no choice but to slap her face in response to that crack. But not hard. It was more a symbolic gesture than anything else.

    Just then from upstairs in Genius Baby's room came the sound of the theme of Captain Kangaroo. Coffeeless, breakfastless, paperless, and feeling guilty as hell for belting Annie even if she was asking for it, I was also about to be deprived, once again, of the Captain. And on Saturday, the day they usually dropped the Ping-Pong balls. The only other sound, besides Annie's deep breathing as she controlled her anger with me, was little Allyson crying helplessly and hopelessly because her sadistic older brother wouldn't let her in his room so she could watch TV, too.

    "Okay," I thought and maybe said out loud. "That cuts it. Enough is fuckin' enough!"

    I jumped up and ran down to the basement and got the ax. When I came back up with it, I finally got some kind of a reaction from Annie. She stood in front of me and could have posed for a nineteenth-century drawing entitled "Woodsman, spare that tree."

    I spoke as slowly and as distinctly as I could through gritted teeth.

    "I am fixing to take this here ax upstairs and to chop the door to Genius Baby's room into a neat little pile of kindling wood so that his sister and I can watch Captain Kangaroo on the only TV set in this house."

    "Wait a minute!" she said. "You could at least have the common decency to call him up first and ask him. He might let you look."

    A word or two of explanation. Because Annie hated TV (and probably still does, except for the pinko-liberal-faggot stuff they show on PBS), the only set in our house was in Genius Baby's room. He was allowed to have one so he could keep up with the latest scientific and technical developments. Second—calling him up. As a result of Annie's continual prodding, I had purchased and rigged up an old army surplus field telephone set. That way we could at least communicate with Genius Baby even after he had locked himself into his room.

    Annie's plea for preliminary negotiation seemed logical and reasonably sincere at the time; so, still holding my ax, I went to the field telephone and cranked and cranked until he finally got around to answering it.

    "Laboratory," he answered. "Do you realize you are interrupting?"

    "That's not all I am about to do."

    "Please be quick. Captain Kangaroo is on."

    "I am fully aware of that fact, Genius Baby. And that is the reason I am calling you. Your little sister and I are coming into your so-called laboratory to watch the Captain whether you like it or not."

    "Lots of luck, Daddy," he replied. "The door is locked and bolted."

    "I intend to chop the door down."

    "You'll be sorry," he said. And he hung up on me.

    Annie yelled at me as I ran up the stairs. Behind me the field telephone started ringing and ringing. I could picture the little shithead crouched down and cranking like crazy.

    I made a brand new doorway about as quick as any fireman could have. And there he was, old Genius Baby, the coward, cringing in the corner. I might have let him go. He was just a scared little boy, after all. But when he saw me hesitate and sensed my inner mood, he had to go and push me too far.

    "You're too late!" he cried, laughing in my face. "You missed the Ping-Pong balls. You already missed the Ping-Pong balls!"

    So, what could I do? I smashed the TV set and then went to work on the room. When I got through with that crummy so-called laboratory of his, the only thing left in one piece was the walls. I even managed to chop up the bed.

    At that point Genius Baby really surprised me. He started bawling like a baby. Which may have been the one thing he could have done that saved him from being chopped into bite-size chunks, himself.

    Deeply pleased, I threw down the ax and started downstairs.

    Annie (needless to say) was not deeply pleased. She soon ordered me out of her house. And she meant it. I didn't know whether to shit or go blind; so I sauntered out without another word, got into my car, and drove out to the Finlandia Sauna to sweat it all out of my system.

    Well, Ray, I probably wasn't the best father in the world. But I am pleased to be able to report that Genius Baby has grown up into a half-decent-looking young man, not unlike his old man at that age. And he seems to have done very well in school. He appears to be a shoo-in for the college of his choice. Most likely Ivy League. He has also managed to display some athletic prowess and he has cultivated the guitar. He plays folk music on a Spanish guitar and, they tell me, uses an electric bass guitar as his contribution to the cacophony of a so-called singing group which is known as "The Rednecks." Like any well brought up Connecticut youth, he is very high on The Civil Rights Movement, provided it stays in its place down South and does not interfere with his neighborhood, his privileges, or his prerogatives. He was even arrested once for biting a policeman during a nonviolent street demonstration. All of which indicates he is a normal and supremely typical product of the lower New England, privileged-class environment and background. I might add that I am absolutely certain he would not permit Allyson to marry One if she ever even met One socially and the idea ever occurred to her.

    All in all, I might be slightly disturbed that I have left no mark whatsoever upon the life of my only son. Except for the fact that for some time, though he was very good at his studies, he was, I gather, and believe also, a real high-class Disciplinary Problem. He was kicked out of several schools and the "broken home" was always cited as a factor in his antisocial behavior. At least I made that much impression on his life. I never worried about him. After all, Smartheim is an analyst. Like, why worry about cavities if you've got a dentist in the family? That's the way I put it to Dr. Smartheim. Who was not amused.

    Monster I may be—sometimes. But never inhuman. I often miss my family, even as I realize they are probably much better off without me.

    On which happy note I reckon I'm going to have to call it quits. Soon anyway. This place of the sick and the dying (and the healing, too, I hope to God) is closing down for the night. I've got MTV playing on the tube. MTV is unbelievably silly without benefit of sound. The night nurse is sitting fatly at her station now reading People magazine. My roommate, who has some kind of cancer, and is a goner I guess, is probably sound asleep by now. Asleep and dreaming. What do the dying dream about? Beats me. But I know it's bad enough, sufficiently depressing when you are well enough to allow yourself to imagine a future. As I do. I'll be out of here in a few days. And yet I can't stand the idea of going back in that room and going to sleep. Where bad dreams can always do damage.

    Not much choice, though. Night Nurse has come, even as I write this, and blinked the lights in the lounge. She'll be back again in a few minutes to put me and this place into the dark. Better finish up quickly now ...

    Did I ever tell you about the last time I saw them, my family, in person?

    It was when Allyson graduated from this swank little nursery school. Genius Baby would have been nine or ten then (I can't remember his birthday for the life of me) and Allyson was going on six. Well, I wanted to be there and tried to figure a way that I could come back and not create a big scene. I drove up and saw our minister, one of these youngish, freshout-of-seminary cats. He was supposed to go to the ceremony and read the invocation. I begged, pleaded, coaxed and cajoled and finally persuaded him to let me take his place. I would borrow a clerical collar and put on a pair of dark glasses. I did a fast dye job on my hair, and I must say I was pretty confident. I could have fooled me. All I was going to have to do was read a little prayer just before the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Then I could step aside and in my disguise and anonymity I could see my little Allyson participate in the Teapot Dance and receive her nursery school diploma. No one would ever know. And naturally they weren't expecting me.

    Everything was going along just fine. I kind of blended in with the shrubbery and saw the kids getting ready, posing for pictures, etc., wearing their white suits and dresses and their red and blue capes. It was outdoors in a garden behind the house. Miss Whitman, who ran the thing (and made plenty of moola doing it), scurrying about. Parents, dressed to kill, arriving and sitting in folding chairs facing a raised level of ground, rather like a putting green, which served as a stage for the children. Old Glory, planted on a stand on the green, fluttered proudly in the fresh spring air. Spring flowers blooming all around. And then, so pretty she might have been one of those flowers herself, there was Allyson arriving, taking her place. My heart was a muffled snaredrum. I looked, safe behind my shades, and watched the others. Smartheim impeccable, but comically littered with leather camera straps, cases, carrying a couple of cameras, light meters and God knows what else. Annie exquisite, a marvel as always, in her simple, very expensive linen dress and, for some reason, a hat and gloves. Cool and lovely. Genius Baby skulking about at the edges of things looking for whatever mischief or trouble he could find, his scalp lock bristling, his fly half open, wearing mismatching sneakers, one white and one black one. For that one moment I loved them all.

    I glanced down at the Book of Common Prayer and rehearsed my reading to myself. Then feeling a tightness in my throat and wanting not only a good dear voice, but also a controlled one which was not obviously my own, I looked around for something to drink. No fountain. No water. I saw Genius Baby over by the punch bowl (where else?), all prepared for punch and cookies afterward. Stuffing cookies and sandwiches. I strolled over.

    "Care for some punch, sir?" he said politely.

    "Why, thank you, sonny boy."

    He actually handed me a cup and I thought: The little Bastard is shaping up. Somebody has finally taught him some manners.

    Just then Miss Whitman was announcing that Reverend Perry was unable to be here today and that the invocation would now be given by the Reverend Birnham Woods. And would they all rise please and bow their heads? I belted down that cup of punch and hurried to take my position in front of the audience.

    Two steps or three and I realized the truth with horror. No wonder Genius Baby had been so polite! Something, some diabolical and fiendish substance, was in that punch. It included a lot of alum to be sure, for my lips were already puckering and wildly out of control, as if I had just taken a belt of the essence of green persimmon. My eyes were smarting and fogging my dark glasses. My throat was burning and already my poor stomach was wincing and starting to growl. What to do? I couldn't go back, ignoring the bowed heads of one and all, and just belt Genius Baby in the chops. Much as I wanted to—for when I looked back he was standing by the punch bowl grinning like a possum, and he fluttered his tongue at me in a silent Bronx cheer. A couple of restive heads were already bobbing up to see what was keeping me. Nothing to do but brazen it out. I opened the prayerbook and, offering a silent prayer of my own, began to read out loud:

O Lord Jesus Christ, who dost embrace all children with the arms of thy mercy, and dost make them living members of thy church; give them grace, we pray thee to stand fast in thy faith....

    Try that one sometime with a mouth all shriveled up with alum.

    That was as far as I got before Annie reached me, snatched off the glasses and gave me the look that kills.

    "Son of a bitch!" she whispered. "You're drunk!"

    It wasn't my place or the time to argue. I tried to twist my puckering, suffering lips into some sort of a grin. She slapped me so hard it sounded like a firecracker going off and my legs turned to rubber.

    "You rotten bastard!" she was yelling now. "You always have to show up and spoil everything!"

    The second blow was with her pocketbook. I protected myself as best I could, knocking her flat on the ass with the prayerbook, then fled to the nearest flowerbed where, my back to the uproar and confusion behind me, I barfed. Then, I jumped the hedge and ran off down the street as fast as I could go with various angry fathers in hot pursuit crying "Stop Thief!" Because, I suppose, there wasn't any other sensible cry to utter under the circumstances.

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