Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Chicken Breast or Rump Roast

Freddie and Fern were an old couple, a very old couple if truth be told, but on the matter of age, the truth seldom surfaced. Their kids were grown and gone and had families of their own. All of them lived in different cities and two of them had even asked their parents to sell the house and buy a smaller place near where they lived. But Freddie and Fern, despite all their aches and pains, were an independent couple and they liked their privacy. Seeing their grandchildren was nice but living close enough to have to babysit them, that was quite another matter.

Most evenings Fern would sit in her rocker and work crossword puzzles and Freddie would sit back in his recliner and watch whatever sport was in season. They were very different people but in 50 years of marriage they had always gotten along well. Each was solicitous of the other’s needs. Always had been. But as age encroaches, certain needs change and others remain the same, life being what it is.

Fern, for example, had arthritis pretty bad. Her back was always acting up on her. From day to day, it was just a matter of how bad it was. 

Freddie had arthritis in both legs but he could still get around pretty good for a man with his ailments, too good sometimes as far as Fern was concerned, especially when Freddie would get that look in his eye. Sure enough, he would ask her if the next time she had to go to the bathroom, she’d bring him back a Coke from the fridge. And, of course, she always did.

But Fern always knew it wasn’t just the Coke Freddie wanted. The old goat wanted to watch her walk down the hallway. He told her many times she had more bounce to the ounce now than when she was young. 

Hardly, Fern thought. Still, it was nice to hear him say that. But if Freddie looked as though he was going to be pestering her that night, Fern always wanted to go to KFC for dinner first. And if she asked Freddie to go there, he would always oblige, hoping everything would go well later that evening.

On this particular evening, though, when Fern brought Freddie his Coke, he seized the moment and asked her if she wanted to go to KFC. Fern hesitated because her back was bothering her something terrible. She didn’t think when they got home she would be able to give Freddie the dessert he was looking for. But she did like her KFC chicken, two plump chicken breasts with all the trimmings, so she agreed to go. She could just see the pond of gravy in the well of her mashed potatoes. And butter slathered all over her green beans. 

At the restaurant, Fern ordered her two pieces of breast meat, as usual, along with mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans. Plus a side of cole slaw because she had promised the doctor on her last visit that she would eat more fiber. 

Freddie, who preferred any cut of beef to chicken, asked for his usual order of gizzards and fries. A chewy gizzard was really the only part of the chicken he could tolerate. With ketchup on his fries, he was a reasonably contented diner. 

When they had finished eating, Fern knew that her back was so bad she wouldn’t be able to meet Freddie’s needs when they got home. She told him nicely in a code they shared that her back was killing her and that she was afraid there would be no breast meat for Freddie that evening.

Freddie hesitated for a moment and then asked Fern if she thought she would be able to roll over and sleep on her tummy. Fern said probably so because when her back was this bad, that’s what she usually had to do. Couldn’t sleep any other way.

Freddie smiled, sipped the last of his Coke, and said that was good to know. A little rump roast would make a fine late night snack.

Donal Mahoney

Two Old Poets, One in a Rush

Tom was having trouble with outgoing emails. Some would come back with a message from the “mail administrator” about a server problem, a message Tom didn't understand. He had no other problems with his computer that day. And he couldn’t tell from the message which server was at fault—his or the server on the receiving end.

So he decided to send an email to Bill, an old friend whose technological savvy was probably less than his. He wanted to see if Bill would receive the message and send a reply, confirming that someone, anyone, was getting his emails

It’s best to admit upfront that both Tom and Bill are less than technologically astute. Perhaps that’s because they're closer to eternity than most. Computers came late into their lives. Both are now in the home stretch, so to speak. 

According to Tom, Bill is so old he wrote his first poem with cuneiform when that was all the rage. And Bill tells their friends--those still above ground--that Tom wrote his first poem with a quill. All this may or may not be true with both men given to hyperbole in lighter moments, few as those moments now may be. 

Tom's memory isn’t what it once was, either. Nevertheless, he had high hopes of getting in touch with his old friend when he sent his email to Bill but he received no response for days. Finally Bill's answer arrived.

Bill wrote, “I got your email today when I checked my more than 100 messages awaiting my immediate response. I read two Larkin poems after breakfast."

That was the sum total of Bill's email. Tom's old friend didn’t have anything else to say. It had been 60 years since the two men last worked together putting out a print magazine, but Tom could tell from his message--the first one he had received from Bill in a couple of years--that despite his pacemaker and a couple of stents, he was doing okay. 

Bill wasn’t at all pleased when that cardiologist put foreign objects in his chest to keep him alive but he got used to the idea. And from his response, Tom could tell that life was still good for Bill. He was reading poetry and probably still writing it. Maybe a short story now and then as well. He was not a man to waste words. He always got right to the point if there was one. 

It was obvious to Tom as well that Bill was still not in a rush about anything. Backed up with 100 or so unanswered emails, Bill was instead attending to more important stuff—reading Philip Larkin’s poetry, for example, after breakfast. Retirement has its rewards and Bill was savoring every one of them. 

But then, Bill had never been in a rush, Tom remembered, except when the two of them were on deadline putting out a monthly magazine. They both were in a rush then because they were the whole staff. They had no other help. 

Bill moved pretty fast in those days. More importantly, perhaps, he had skills. He could write, as could Tom, and he knew grammar and had a sense of layout. The two of them served as their own art director. Budget constraints made this possible. 

Over the years Tom had learned a lot about layout from Bill, something that helped a great deal in other editorial jobs later in life.

In his personal life, however, Bill did very little and did it very slowly, reading good fiction and poetry and doing his best to write well himself. His writings had been published in good places over the years so he had succeeded to some degree but not to his own satisfaction. 

After giving Bill's response considerable thought, Tom wrote back to his old friend and said,

“Great to hear from you again and happy to see the world has not changed your lifestyle. I can almost hear your groan after you read that word “lifestyle” in the previous sentence. But I’ll bet lifestyle is in the Oxford English Dictionary, assuming someone is still publishing it. 

“The OED is probably not in print anymore but it’s likely online. Your old edition probably wouldn’t have lifestyle in it but the book itself might be worth quite a bit of money at a rare bookstore. I know you would rather part with your left arm than your OED. 

“Bill, I promise not to bother you again until after Memorial Day and then only to let you know I’m still alive. I promise to put the subject line in all caps so you will know it’s from me. I don’t want my email to die in cyberspace among all the others you’ve left unopened. 

"God forbid anything should happen to you in the meantime but if it does ask your sister to let me know.

"I gave my wife a stamped letter to mail to you should anything happen to me. If she dies first, I’ll guess you’ll never find out.

“Until then keep reading Philip Larkin and maybe throw in a little Wallace Stevens now and then as a chaser.”

Tom sent the email to Bill but never received a response, and he may not until he writes to him again after Memorial Day to confirm that one or both of them is still alive. By then Bill might have as many as 300 unopened emails and Tom’s may be added to that list. 

At his age, Bill is not in a rush. And Tom admits he’s slowing down a bit himself. He still writes every day to stay awake and sends stuff out to publishers. Some of it gets published, some of it not. Tom knows he and Bill won’t be around that much longer. But he hopes he has enough time left to send another email to Bill after Memorial Day—and that Bill is there to get it whether he opens it or not.  

Donal Mahoney