Thursday, April 30, 2015

Coming Home at Midnight to the Farm

Driving down the hill I see the same bend in the road the school bus took me around for years. I can see in the headlights the wildflowers ringing the curve like a necklace--goldenrod, cornflower, Queen Anne's Lace, God's gift to country roads in the fall. You don't see anything like that in the city but I'm getting used to living there.

I see the house ahead, one light on, upstairs. It's midnight and my father's dead and my mother's in that room praying and maybe crying, waiting for me to pull in. She knows it's a six-hour drive from the city.

The wake will be tomorrow night at Egan's mortuary. There will be 15 decades of the rosary to say and I still have trouble getting through five. Then there will be three hours of listening to my mother's friends console her, ancient ladies all, many of them widowed long before her. 

Many times my mother has been in their place so she knows what they will say but she will find some comfort in it anyway. The old farmers still alive will simply say "sorry for your troubles" which serves as both a condolence and a prayer. 

Mass will be at 10 in the morning with Father Murphy in the pulpit sounding like Bishop Sheen. My dad told me long ago that when he finally died Father Murphy would confer sainthood on him at the funeral, no need for any miracles. Father Murphy has a long history of canonizing every farmer who dies unless he committed one of the seven deadly sins in public. My father said he hoped Father Murphy would talk loud enough for God to hear.

After the procession to the graveyard and the consignment of the casket, everyone will drive back to the church hall for the funeral meal--wonderful food prepared by good women and arranged in a long buffet. 

The farmers will assure my mother they will be out to her place tomorrow and the next day to put up the hay. After the hay is taken care of, they will take turns coming to feed the cattle and they'll go to town to pick up whatever she needs. Things will work out, they will tell her. Not to worry. 

After everyone has eaten, the ladies, one by one, will rise and bow to my mother and tell her to go home now and get some rest. 

The men will shake hands with me and ask how long before I have to go back to the city. I'll say I have a week, maybe two, uncertain as to what night I'll have to leave. I know it will be around midnight. And the same light will be on, upstairs.

Donal Mahoney
Sleep Apnea or Agent Orange:
Let’s Hear It for Monsanto!

Zenobia Jackson told Officer Murphy that her husband, Rufus, was "a wonderful man when he was awake" but for years he had been jerking "something terrible" during his sleep and had kept waking her up. He'd swing his arms, she said, like those martial arts men he liked to watch on television. When the bouts were over, he'd give her a big kiss on the forehead and go to bed. 
"Oh, he was just a doll," she said, "when he was awake." 
In the last month, however, Rufus had fallen out of bed three times "fighting" in his dreams. In the morning he'd tell her he'd been dreaming that he was back in Vietnam. Sometimes he dreamt he was shooting at burglars breaking into their house in the old neighborhood. That's why they had to move to a different neighborhood and why he bought a gun, a little pistol he kept under his pillow just in case he heard someone in the house. You can't be too careful these days, he told her. He even taught her how to shoot the gun one night when no one else was on the tennis courts in Sherman Park. He said she was real good. Not many women, he said, can aim straight. They could have used her, he said, in Vietnam.
But last night, she said, when Rufus was dreaming again, he swung his arms at least ten times, like he was chopping sugar cane back in Louisiana before they moved North. He caught her with an elbow to the eye and then another to the nose just as she was ducking. “That's why I look the way I do,” she told Officer Murphy. 
Long ago, she had stopped trying to wake Rufus when he was thrashing about. It was because of the pistol under his pillow. He had reached for it one night right after she had shaken him. She had screamed and that woke him up and he wasn't too happy about it. He said he couldn't get back to sleep the rest of the night. And he wasn't lying because she was awake all night, too, listening to him grumble and curse.
Just a week ago, she had taken him to a sleep clinic where he had stayed overnight. The doctor said he might be suffering from sleep apnea but she had never heard of anyone with sleep apnea thrashing and kicking about like her Rufus. She had a lady friend in the choir at church whose husband had sleep apnea but all he did was "snore too loud," her friend said, no thrashing about.
"So that's how it happened," Zenobia told Officer Murphy, who was busy taking notes. Rufus had reached under the pillow for the pistol and she had to stop him.  
"Two in the head," she said, "and he be dead."

Donal Mahoney

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Button Workers

Since the United Nations passed the Universal Right to Work Law in 2093, Skewer International has brought back from other planets thousands of migrant workers on its company spaceship.

On the last trip, Manfred, an interloper, somehow boarded the ship even though he lacks one of the prerequisites for a United Nations green card--namely, a button in his navel that can be turned off to prevent him from speaking. 

The navel button is a requirement of companies on Earth for any interplanetary worker. Manfred talked incessantly while the company pilot flew from planet to planet taking on board hundreds of other migrant workers, all equipped with navel buttons. His job was to bring them back to Earth to work in potato fields all over the world.

"Manfred, will you please quiet down," Wally, the pilot, said. "You're keeping the others awake and it's tough on my concentration. There are lots of planets and I wouldn't want to land on one that has no workers waiting to get on board. I'd waste a lot of fuel taking off again." 

"I'll do the best I can," Manfred said. "I never got a navel button like the others so it's hard for me to keep quiet. But I'm a darn good worker. All I want is a chance."

The United Nations' version of a "green card" allows migrants to work in any nation. Talkative Manfred is unaware that he will be sent home on the next spaceship that leaves Earth to pick up more workers. Once he has a navel button installed, he can apply again to come back to Earth for a job.

"No navel button, no job," Wally whispered to himself. "A long day's journey into plight."

In 2093, the demand for button workers continues to grow among farmers in the United States, Italy, China, Tajikistan, Moldova and Belarus. Other countries are expected to begin hiring them as well. 

The workers are valued by institutional farmers because migrants don't complain about working conditions or low salaries the way domestic workers often do. And the button workers don't need health insurance or retirement benefits. If a button worker gets sick, he or she goes back to the home planet on the next spaceship. And when they are too old to work, it's back to the home planet as well. 

"They're always surprised," Wally thought to himself, "when they get sick or old and home they go, the same way they came. It saves companies a lot of money. If they die in the fields, however, they're put on a company pyre. It's a cookout, as one manager calls it."

At the present time button workers, no matter the nation in which they work, do only one kind of labor. They plant and harvest Yukon Gold potatoes 12 hours a day. During their workday, they have their navel buttons turned on so they can say yes to the foremen on horses overseeing their work and giving directions.

"Let's get a move on" is typically what workers hear from foremen. And they respond by working faster. Domestic workers don't respond like that. They're apt to protest, maybe even picket. And pickets around the potato fields won't get the Yukon Golds planted or harvested. The button workers can be counted on to get the job done. They have no idea what "unions" were before legislation led to their disintegration.

At night, with their buttons turned off, the workers head back to their sheds for a bowl of cabbage soup before they bunk down for the night. Libations are limited to water. On Sundays, each worker gets two bowls of cabbage soup and a Pecan Sandy cookie.

Monday through Saturday, reveille sounds at 4 a.m. when the foremen on horses blow trumpets, ready to lead the button workers back to the fields.

"Let's go, you buttons," the foremen yell between blasts on their trumpets. "The potatoes are calling."

Research is under way at several universities to fabricate navel buttons for domestic workers who perhaps can then be hired to work in the fields. The media remains critical of industry because the unemployment rate is so high among domestic workers. 

But, currently, domestic workers are not an attractive pool from which to seek new employees because of the tumult created for many years by fast-food workers seeking a living wage. Their wages have never gone up but the workers now get an extra sandwich for every 8 hours they work. 

"Some of them are barely skilled enough," complained one company president, "to put a pickle slice on a hamburger, never mind adding condiments as well."

Industry predicts that eventually farmers from every nation on Earth will hire interplanetary button workers and that they will soon work in factories as well. Manufacturing jobs will then be brought back to the land of the free and the home of the button worker. 

Stock Market savants say the Dow Jones average will rise dramatically as a result. What more could anyone want in a free market economy.

Donal Mahoney

Friday, April 17, 2015

Jesus, Can We Talk?

Jesus, can we talk? Some folks say you're coming back any day now but many of them have been saying that for years. They say it could happen tomorrow, or maybe next week, and they've already put their affairs in order. They believe they will be swept up and taken into heaven, leaving many others on the ground, just standing there, slack-jawed and staring at all the backsides rising in the air. 

I'd like to among those rising but my Baptist barber says he doesn't think papists will be issued passports for this trip. I've been his customer for 30 years so he plans to take a rope along and drop it down to me. If I grab hold and can hang on, he says I'm welcome to come along if Jesus doesn't cut me loose. I may be a papist, he says, but he knows from all our haircut debates over the years that I believe in Jesus and the bible as the inerrant Word of God. He even tells his Baptist and Four Square Gospel customers I'm okay, theologically speaking. 

I keep telling him papists believe in Jesus just as strongly as he does. But that's not what he heard about Catholics growing up in the Ozarks as a child. What's more, since I grew up in Chicago, I talk kind of funny, he says. I always tell him I can sound just like him with a mouth full of cornbread. 

In the meantime, Jesus, I need a favor on different matter entirely. I'm hoping you'll find time to make a quick visit to the house of a friend of mine around midnight any night of the week. He's been retired for many years and he's enjoying the fruits of his considerable labors. As I often remind him, he's enjoying the fruits of your favors as well. But he doesn't see it that way, necessarily, if you want to know the truth. 

As I see it, you've been very good to this man for more than 70 years but now he needs a different kind of help. Like me, he's old enough to find himself any day now next up in the checkout line. But he talks as though the life we both enjoy has no end in sight. If he didn't live in a far-away city, I'd take him for a haircut at my barber's shop and there he would hear the truth with a little cornbread on the side. 

Now don't get me wrong. I don't want to see my friend turn Baptist, not that there's anything wrong with Baptists, as Seinfeld might say. I just want him to get back to Mass every Sunday morning before someone has to push him down the aisle in a wheelchair. He has a lot to be thankful for and maybe not a whole lot of time to say thanks.

You see, he was a high school graduate who became a paratrooper during the Korean War. After he was discharged he found a job as a janitor. In no way dumb, he used diligence and brains to become vice-president of the same company in ten years. He got there by being a good salesman of condiments. The man can talk but then a lot of Irish-American papists can talk. Maybe we can't yodel like the Swiss but we can certainly talk. 

Not satisfied with being president of that company, he quit and started his own company. He decided to manufacture and sell products that were just catching on when Woodstock was all the rage. You remember Woodstock. That's where all the musicians and Hippies showed up on a water-logged farm in the Catskills in 1969 to celebrate free love and other developments in society at that time.

In any event, my friend figured that supplying health food to vegans and vegetarians would be a gold mine in the future and it turned out he was right. This is a guy who spent his adolescence at White Castle restaurants eating double cheeseburgers by the sack. It must have taken a conversion experience akin to the one Saul of Tarsus had to get him to try health food. I'm not sure he eats that much of it himself but he sure can sell it. 

Thirty years later, with his kids reared and on their own, he sold his company for seven million dollars. I haven't asked him yet if he had any outside help in his success or if he did it all by himself. 

He still believed in you while the company was growing but I don't know what happened after that. He's a good man, basically. He has the same wife now as when he was a janitor, a big bunch of kids now grown up and doing well and a flock of grandkids who adore him. Excess of any kind has never been a problem with him. He simply lost his faith somewhere along the road to becoming a millionaire. Other millionaires have followed the same path, I imagine, but I have never known any others, personally. 

Many decades ago in grammar school, he and I were always in the same grade and we both believed, without any doubt, that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead and opened the gates of heaven for the likes of us and maybe for the likes of the worst of us if they shaped up in time. Now my friend is living the good life but says he doesn't know if you exist or if you died on the cross or if you rose from the dead. He says he'd like to believe in you but he needs some evidence. Otherwise, he says he'll remain an agnostic, a word he says means "I don't know." 

Well, Jesus, I don't think his problem is a simple one. First he has to come to believe in God again, a belief some philosophers say a man can reach through reason alone. After all, there are the five proofs for the existence of God that many philosophers accept. But then he has to come to believe again in Jesus Christ--that God sent his only begotten Son to die on the cross for the sins of all mankind. That's the hard part. He can't do that through reason alone. That takes faith, the gift you gave to both of us, the gift he lost and I somehow retained despite being no better than he is.
Jesus, this man is 75 years old so perhaps you can sense the urgency of my request. There's not much time for him to believe again unless, of course, you step in.
That's why I'd like you to drop by his mansion some midnight when you have some free time. Just pull him out of bed by the ankles and hold him upside down for awhile before you introduce yourself. Then tell him you are Jesus Christ, a native of Bethlehem with strong ties to Galilee and Nazareth. Remind him about what you did with the loaves and fishes at Cana and ask him if he sees any parallels to that event in his own life. My hope is that before you leave, or shortly thereafter when someone revives him, he will find that he has the gift of faith again. 

You see, I don't know how he lost his faith but I can't find it for him. The nuns who schooled us in the life, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ have been dead for many years. There are a couple of them who might have been able to turn him around. They had a way of making you see the truth. It's amazing how quickly you can see the truth clearly when an old-style nun in a big habit takes time to explain everything half an inch from your nose. 

In any event, you gave both of us the gift of faith in 1938, the year of our Baptism, and I somehow still have my faith, despite not leading a noble life. I mean I was honest and was never arrested but there might be a lady or more who would take a bumbershoot to my backside if she ran into me, even at my age. 

My friend, on the other hand, has done everything according to the book but he no longer reads the book. So, please, drop by his place some midnight before he dies and yank him out of bed by the ankles. Let him know who you are and mention that you look forward to seeing him at Mass on Sunday. Remind him that he can get a spiritually nutritious bite to eat at any Catholic church in the world in case he still likes to travel. Food that will stick to his soul for the long road ahead.

By the way, this man can afford to tithe, big-time. Even though papists don't tithe the way Protestants do, they nevertheless give a ton of money to charities managed by the Church and other not-for-profit organizations. But it's probably best if we don't mention his ability to tithe to my Baptist barber. He might be tempted to get on a plane and go see if my friend needs a trim. 

Donal Mahoney

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Farmer and Toulouse Lautrec

Technology is wonderful, especially in medicine, Elmo told Opal, the day their son Brett called to tell them the good news. The doctor had told Brett and Debbie their first child would be a boy, according to the machine in the doctor's office.

Elmer never trusted machines other than the machines he used on the farm and Opal didn't either but they were happy to hear about their first grandchild.

"It's wonderful news," Opal told Brett over the phone. "Your father and I will have two cups of cocoa tonight. It's as cold as you probably remember growing up in North Dakota. I know that teaching at the university means you and Debbie must live in Florida but your father and I miss you."

Six months later, Brett called again to say the same machine in the Doctor's office now showed their grandson would be a dwarf. Brett and Debbie had seen the baby on the screen. But this was the first baby they had ever seen on a machine like that so they had to take the doctor's word that the boy would be a dwarf. All they could see was a tiny shape pulsating in the midst of a blur. 

"Mom," Brett said, "Debbie and I don't now if we want a dwarf for a son."

Opal was stunned by the news about a dwarf grandchild and began to cry before handing the phone to her husband. 

Elmo commiserated with his son as much as he could. But Elmo too was at a loss for words. Finally he mentioned to Brett, a professor with a doctorate in French art, that it was lucky doctors didn't have one of those machines before Toulouse Lautrec had been born. 

Lautrec, of course, had been a dwarf and his work and his life had both been influenced greatly by his short stature. Elmo couldn't remember for certain but there may have been some deformity involved as well. That kind of thing can happen with a dwarf.

Brett's doctoral dissertation had been on the work of Lautrec. Elmo remembered seeing prints of Lautrec's work around the house and pictures and drawings of the artist as well. He found both interesting and disturbing. 

Nevertheless, Elmo, a farmer in North Dakota for almost 50 years, had come to love the work of Toulouse Lautrec, having seen so much of it in books and slides when Brett was writing his dissertation. His son hadn't married Debbie yet and he had come home to finish the paper for his doctoral degree. 

After finishing his conversation with Brett, Elmo hung up the phone and sighed. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and scratched his head while Opal poured two cups of strong coffee. It had been kept warm on the stove since early morning.

Finally Elmo said, "Opal, who knows what kind of boy that grandson of ours would have been. He'd have been a dwarf, yes, but Lautrec was a dwarf, and he did wonderful work. I don't know if anyone ever asked him if he would have been happier not to have lived. I know our grandson wouldn't have been able to ride any of the horses but we could have bought him a pony." 

Donal Mahoney