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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Fringeville #222: A Slice of Life…

She was peeling potatoes for dinner when he got home from work. He heard her singing to herself in the kitchen and joined her there. The aroma of meatloaf filled the kitchen and his stomach growled. She was in the maternity jeans they’d picked up at the Salvation Army store the week before, and she was wearing one of his old Giants sweatshirts. She smiled and told him dinner would be ready in half an hour or so.

“I’m going to need a new suit, Sandy,” he said slowly, “I’m pallbearing.”

“Who?” she asked softly, eyebrows raised.

“Vic Booker.”

“Oh, poor Rachel! What happened?”

“Heart attack. Last night, after they laid him off.”

She sighed and said: “Well, I’m not surprised. He was always so high strung. Rachel was worried about him. She said he wasn’t feeling well lately. Oh, this is terrible. He was so young!”

“Forty-three,” he said. “His dad died young. Vic told me that once. Massive heart attack in his thirties.”

An uncomfortable silence fell between them.

“We’ll pick up a suit, then,” she said. “I have some emergency money in a coffee can.”

He’d needed a suit for a while, but it was a back-burner purchase. They’d decided to put if off until there was a wedding, baptism or funeral. They had other priorities now. A year earlier they’d have simply charged it, but with only one of them working and a baby on the way the plastic was off-limits. Cash and carry or do without. The last thing they needed in hard times was a bigger hole to dig out of.

Sandy carried the colander of potatoes to the stove and dumped them in a pot of lightly salted water to cook. She walked over and kissed him, her growing belly up against his, her hair soft on his cheek. She smelled of housework, fading perfume and sweet onions.

“Rachel must be devastated,” she said. “When is the viewing?”

“Day after tomorrow. The funeral is the next morning.”

“I’ll be at my mother’s. It’s my turn. I can’t ask my brother again. I’ll make a tray of lasagna and a salad. I was making a big batch tomorrow. I’ll send her the second tray I was going to freeze for us. It will last her and her boys a couple days.”

“I’ll tell Rachel to call you if she needs anything,” he sighed. “She knows you mom isn’t doing well. If you can just help me pick out the suit, we’ll head off a disaster. You know what will happen if I do it alone.”

“I do,” she whispered into his ear. “You’ll be dressed like a pimp. We’ll go out after supper and find you something.”


They went to the mall and picked up a suit at JC Penney, a two-button navy pin-stripe jacket and matching pleated pants. It was on sale, a good deal at one hundred fifteen dollars. Sandy handed the cash over to the clerk and they left the store, walking through the crowded mall and out to the parking lot. Their old Buick was near the mall entrance. They’d parked in one of the half-dozen maternity spots. He joked that it was a nice little fringe benefit for impregnating his young wife.

“You’re an ass,” she said and punched him playfully in the arm.

They drove home and snuggled up on the couch in the living room with small bowls of maple walnut ice cream. They watched television as she lay on her side, her head in his lap. His elbow was on her arm; his hand rested lightly on her belly. The field goal kicker was quiet so far tonight; there were no occasional hard thumps against his hand.

“What were you saving the money for?” he asked.

“I told you. An emergency.”

“A suit isn’t an emergency.”

“Everything’s an emergency.”

“I’m sorry the old one doesn’t fit.”

“I’m not. You needed to lose the weight. You shouldn’t have a big spare tire around your waist at your age. Bad for the heart.”

Vic’s substantial spare tire was left unmentioned.

“I’m not that old,” he insisted. And he wasn’t, but there was decade between them and at times it felt like more. There were moments with Sandy where he felt light, effervescent, and fully alive. Those were the moments he lived for, when he felt even younger than she, and he never knew when they were coming. They arrived without warning, and sometimes he didn’t recognize them until he saw them in the rear view.

They were quiet a minute, and then she asked: “Do you think I’ll ever get called again?”

He nodded and said: “I’m sure of it. You’re legendary. You’re the most famous first-five-minute actress in the world.”

“That I am, Robbie, that I am.”

Sandy was quite the local celebrity, with nearly a dozen television appearances to her credit. Not bad for a Scranton girl. Her roles always came in the first five minutes of various police dramas. On the credits, she was usually identified as Dead Woman – Sandra Mulhaney. She was a convincing corpse, and she’d been killed in a variety of ways. She’d been found dead on the kitchen floor, strangled. Shot in bed with a lover by a jealous husband. Twice she was discovered in a ditch, stabbed and dumped by a psychopath. She’d been executed in a car beside a wiseguy. She’d been poisoned. She’d been drowned. On it went, eleven times in all. The last death was the most promising: Blasted with a shotgun, according to the coroner, who made that pronouncement as he zipped up her body bag while the camera zoomed in for a close-up. Two long seconds of her face before zip! and she was sealed inside. It was a great shot, blood flecks and all. They’d been certain it would lead to a speaking part. And then she found out she was pregnant, and she hadn’t been murdered since.

“I hope you’re right Robbie. We really need the money.”

There was a kick under his hand, and he smiled.

“The kicker’s awake,” he said.

“What’s he doing?”

Thump. Thump.

“He’s keeking a touchdown,” he answered in a thick, mangled and unidentifiable accent.

“It’s the meatloaf and ice cream,” she giggled.

“Whatever it is, the kid’s got a hell of a leg. He’s playing for the Giants.”

“The Eagles,” she insisted.

“Anyone but Dallas.”

He bent over and kissed the top of her head, and she scrunched up a little closer to him. Law and Order came on.

“Shit. I hate this one. I’m drowned.”

He watched as they fished her out of the water.

“You’ve looked better. But the blue lips really bring out the blond hair.”

“It’s horrid. I can’t believe I dyed my hair blond. I look like a hooker.”

“You were a hooker. Well, a dead hooker.”

“Shut up and pass me my iced tea. Your little field goal kicker is thirsty.”

“Are you sure you’re not mad about the new suit? I know you were saving for something. I know you’ll never tell me what it was.”

“You needed it,” she said, smiling and keeping the secret to herself. Her heart was light, his body was warm. They watched television as their son kicked field goals. Their cat wandered into the room and jumped up to take his throne on the arm of the couch, lording over his humans. The suit hung from the coat rack, a misdirected birthday gift bought with grocery store change, couch cushion quarters and the steady perseverance of love. She felt a strong kick in her belly and made a small cry. He looked at her, eyebrows arched in concern.

“Right through the uprights,” she laughed as the coroner closed the bag and zipped it shut.


* * *

Be good to each other.

* * *


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Fringeville #221: Fractional Ham

Here's something I wrote seventeen years ago. I am still a huge fan of ham sandwiches. And I am still not dead.

When I turned forty-five, not long after a nasty little brush with my own mortality, circumstances forced me to give up a favorite snack: a big fat ham and cheese sandwich. I make mine with a quarter pound of tasty honey ham and thick slices of Muenster cheese, all bound together by huge gobs of mayo. Sometimes, boldly, I skip the mayo, slathering on horseradish or spicy brown mustard and adding thin slices of red onion. My mouth waters just thinking about the many fine sandwiches I’ve built and eaten over the years.

I was forced to abandon these delightful sandwiches when I decided to start “taking better care of myself” shortly after some emergency surgery. This odd form of self-abuse began with a trip to my doctor for something called a “complete” physical. He poked and prodded, then sent me to the laboratory where I surrendered a few gallons of blood and an assortment of other specimens for his amusement.

After reading the results, he pronounced me more or less fit.

“More or less?” I asked with some concern.

“Your cholesterol is right on the borderline. Start exercising. I’m also putting you on a special diet.”

He gave me detailed dietary instructions and sent me on my way.

I read the diet. One of the first casualties was my no-holds-barred quarter-pound ham and cheese sandwiches. Rather than make a timid, skimpy low-fat version I decided to skip them altogether. I don’t do ham sandwiches halfway. I followed my new diet religiously. I exercised frequently. Sit-ups and biking became part of my daily routine. Soon it was time for another round of pokes, prods and needles to track what I expected to be marked improvement.

“Well, your cholesterol is no longer on the borderline,” my doctor said after reviewing my test results.

“Terrific!” I cried, already envisioning a triple-decker ham sandwich smothered in half a jar of mayo. I believe, you see, in the occasional sinful reward. I’d been craving a ham sandwich for weeks. One quick sandwich, a reward for good behavior, and I could easily stay with the diet until the next round of tests.

“Not so fast, tubby. Your cholesterol shot right off the chart,” he continued, voice dripping with disappointment. “Are you exercising? Following the diet?”

My sandwich was farther away than ever. It may as well have been on Mars.

“Fill this prescription,” he said sternly, pushing a paper covered in cryptic hieroglyphics across his desk. “And start exercising!”

The diet continued, plus pills to deal with every night before bed. I doubled my daily sit-ups. Four months later we repeated all the testing again. He was expressionless as he read the results. I waited nervously for sentence to be pronounced.

“Your bad cholesterol is better,” he began. I must have looked relieved, because he hurriedly dropped the other foot: “Your good cholesterol is still out of whack. Did you start exercising yet?”

I left, fuming and worried I might never see another ham sandwich. I continued with the pills, quadrupled my sit-ups (I was doing several thousand a day by now) and biked across a few dozen states each week. I followed his triple-damned diet to the letter. I suffered like this for months. Then I awoke one morning with an intense craving for a ham sandwich. I paced the house for hours until it became clear the craving had to be satisfied. I was well past the point where a single sandwich would do the trick. Radical measures were needed.

I drove to the grocery store. In the spirit of at least trying to respect my diet I checked out the pre-packaged low-fat, low-cholesterol ham. It looked horrible: thinly sliced, faintly pink ham-like matter trapped in vacuum-sealed plastic. I’d seen more appetizing roadkill. On the shelf above the refrigerated meats the “light” mayo was prominently displayed. I grabbed a jar for my “light” ham and some fat-free cheese as well. I started for the checkout, resigned to an inferior sandwich. As I passed the deli case, a sign caught my eye: “Special: Fresh Low-salt, Low-fat, Low Cholesterol Ham…2.99/lb!!!”

I went to the counter and asked a young fellow to show me the ham. He pulled it from the display case. It looked like real ham. I asked for a sample. It almost tasted like real ham. If I buried it under enough fat-free cheese and light mayo, it just might fool my ham-starved taste buds.

“Give me three-quarters of a pound,” I said, imagining several massive sandwiches on a plate, each colorfully complimented by sliced dill pickles and barbecued potato chips. The deli clerk just stared at me.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“How much ham?”

Three quarters of a pound,” I repeated a bit louder.

“Ah…” he sighed. He nodded his head, mouth hanging open. He looked like a dying carp. After a few moments he stopped nodding and simply stood there.

Three…quarters…of…a…pound,” I said very slowly and with enough volume to turn heads in the produce section.

“Three quarters of a pound,” he repeated, smiling ever so faintly and reaching up to stroke his chin. He squinted, moved his lips softly, and the fingers of one hand extended and closed in frantic calculation. A few seconds later he stopped tabulating and fixed me with another fish-mouthed stare.

“For God’s sake, son, what’s wrong?” I asked in desperation.

“Are you sure that’s how much you want, sir? Why not a whole pound?”  

“Son, I want three quarters of a pound. I am making three giant quarter-pound ham sandwiches, one each over the next three days. I have a ham-sandwich-monkey and it will take three days…a sandwich each day…to cure me. A half pound lasts two days. I’ll have to buy more. If I buy more, I’ll probably cave in and buy real ham. I’ll fall off the cholesterol wagon, and my doctor will devise a terrible revenge. If I buy a pound, it will spoil by the fourth day and I’ll have to throw it out. Listen carefully: I want three quarters of a pound of ham. Not a hundredth of an ounce less or more.

More heads turned, and a small crowd started to form. I was agitated. I wanted my ham. I needed it. This fellow was between me and my sandwiches and I was not happy.

After a long silence, he said, “It’s just easier if you order a whole pound.”

THREE QUARTERS OF A POUND!” I shouted, frightening a small child in the crowd behind me.

He stood there, lip quivering slightly, then finally said: “See, that’s the problem. I don’t know what three quarters is on the digital scale. I know what a half pound is; that’s zero-point-five-zero. A full pound is one-point-zero. I’ve just never sliced three quarters of a pound.”

Now I went all fish-faced.

“How long have you been working the deli?” I inquired.

“Six months.”

“Six! And in all that time, no one has every ordered three quarters of a pound of anything?

He smiled. “Well sure they do, but they change their mind and order a whole pound.”

Why do they change their minds?”

“Well, I ask them to, just like I asked you.”

“They’re nitwits!” I shot back. I noticed for the first time he wore an “Employee of the Month” button on his white deli jacket.

“How did you earn that little button?” I inquired.

“I increased our deli sales by almost twenty-five percent.”

“Small wonder,” I fumed. Something simply had to be done. No one was going to shoehorn me into buying more or less of anything than I wanted.

“Did you drop out of school in the third grade?” I asked.

“No sir. I just graduated from high school. I’m going to college next fall.”

“College!” I choked. “Good lord, what will you major in?”

“I’m planning a double major:  Accounting and Government.”

I snorted and said: “Here’s what I’m going to do, son. Now I could just tell you what three quarters of a pound is on the digital scale. I’d get my ham, but it wouldn’t teach you anything. I’m going to give you a little free education. It’s like the old parable: I don’t want to give you a fish. I want to teach you to fish.”

“Fish? The fish counter is over there by the frozen…”

“Ham, son, ham! We’re talking ham! Fractional ham!”

“But you said fish…”

“Hush up and listen. You’re going fishing for ham. Do you understand? Now suppose you have a quarter in your pocket. What’s that quarter worth?”

“Compared to what, sir?”

“What do you mean ‘compared to what?’”

Inflation, sir. I’ve been reading some economics. If you’re comparing today’s quarter with a quarter in 1975…”

“Let me rephrase: What is a quarter worth in pennies right now?”

His eyebrows shot up. A piece of brain must have engaged.

“Why, it’s worth twenty-five cents!”

“Very good, Mr. Einstein. How many quarters in a dollar?”

“Why, four!”

“Now we’re making progress!” I cried. Things had taken a hopeful turn. “So, one quarter of a dollar is twenty-five cents. Is two quarters the same as a half-dollar?”

“Of course,” he replied with a hot glare, “I’m not an idiot, sir.”

“The jury’s still out. Now, how many cents are in two quarters, the equivalent of a half-dollar?”

“Fifty,” he answered. He was getting visibly annoyed.

“How many cents in three quarters?” I asked patiently.


“A miracle! Now back to food. Suppose you have a pie…”

“Well, they’re in aisle six, and….”

I silenced him with a sharply raised finger.

“Just listen. If your pie is cut into four slices, it’s like having a dollar in quarters. Four slices: one pie. Four quarters: one dollar. Are you with me so far?”

He nodded but looked unsure of himself. There was now a formidable crowd behind me, completely blocking the aisle. He was feeling the pressure.

“Now,” I continued, “One quarter dollar is the same as twenty-five cents, and equivalent to one slice of the whole pie. Half a dollar is two quarters, or fifty cents, which is two slices of the whole pie. Now tell me: What is the equivalent, in slices of pie, to three quarters of a dollar?”


“Good. Terrific! Now tell me again: How many cents are in three quarters of a dollar?”

“Seventy-five,” he answered excitedly.

“Now we’re ready to make the big leap. Think about cents on the dollar. Think about my ham. Now how much do you need to slice?”

“Seventy-five!” he exclaimed.

“Yes! Yes! That’s it! Now give me my ham!”

“But what does seventy-five cents worth of ham weigh?”

“NO, NO, NO!!” I howled. Just then the manager and a security guard arrived and escorted me out of the store for creating a public nuisance. Not surprisingly, my ham craving had evaporated. I went home and ate a high-fiber dinner, did a half million sit-ups, and bicycled half-way to Canada.

The other day it was time to visit the doctor again.

“You’re cholesterol is great,” he announced. “But you need surgery.”


“You’ve herniated yourself with all the sit-ups.”

It took three nurses to pull me away from his throat.

After making bail, I drove once again to the grocery store. I bought two pounds of the deadliest ham, a pound of Muenster cheese and the biggest jar of pure mayonnaise I could find. You can find me at home each night lazing in my reclining chair, committing suicide…one ham sandwich at a time.

 * * * good to each other

* * *