"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Thursday, December 18, 2014

WHAT GOES AROUND (Some Of The Names Have Been Changed To Protect The Innocent, haha)

The other night I was sitting on the floor finishing trimming my parents' Christmas tree, when my father, who had been relaxing quietly in his recliner looking around, asked, “Doesn't anybody ever get appendicitis any more?” We are quite used to my father suddenly coming out with things that he has apparently been musing about. (Once while he was getting dressed in the hallway he quietly pondered "I wonder how many people in the world have just one leg in their pants right now?") I turned to look at him. “I mean I had it,” he said (he did, before I was born, shingling the roof on a hot summer's day...he seemed to do an awful lot of shingling, I think he likes heights). “Bob got it,” he said with some emphasis (Bob is my brother and he had one nasty case of appendicitis). “Well, I don't know,” I said. “I suppose they do.” “But you never hear of it, do you?” he said.

That night I was discussing this with Steve, my Significant Other. He thought it over. “I think it's because we have so much other stuff now, a lot stranger stuff than appendicitis,” he said. “More interesting to the doctors.” I sighed. “I wish we could go back to those days when the only things you had to worry about were appendicitis and tonsillitis and stuff like hay fever; my uncle had hay fever and he had ulcers for awhile – I remember the doctors telling him to drink milk.” In fact my uncle got in the habit of drinking milk with every meal. “But now they've found that bacteria is the cause of ulcers,” said Steve, “and it doesn't matter what you eat.” True, I said. In fact I'd heard that eating hot peppers when you have ulcers is not necessarily a bad thing at all. The stomach is full of hydrochloric acid, caustic, and if you can trick it into thinking it's already peppered with hot stuff it manufactures less of that acid.  I haven't looked it up but it sounds right.

“And by the way when you have the puke virus, yogurt is good,” I noted, “plain yogurt.” Steve, agreeing that yogurt's good for pretty much anything, wanted to know where I'd heard that. “Well, from this guy Jimmy,” I answered. “Jimmy Westcott.”  "Oh, tell me this story," Steve said.  

Jimmy, I told him, was a guy from New York City who came up to town on weekends. In New York he worked for the telephone company and liked to call the young girls in our town toll-free.  He, his mother, and his brother Alan lived in this big, half-finished house out by the lake. Jimmy and the mother would only come up on weekends; Alan stayed there all the time and didn't go back to New York with the other two. He was a painter. His works were incredible. I have never seen the like. Alan probably could have been very rich; he really didn't show his stuff in galleries, though, and was just an unassuming goofball like us (though of course we thought we were hot shit), and our gang would often go out to the house to party with Alan during the week, when Jimmy and the mother were gone.

The place was primitive – a big wood stove for heat and cooking – a crude bathroom – no TV or phone. It was barely lit at night and seemed a little ghostly but at the same time a little other-worldly cozy, one of our favorite places to hang out, and Jimmy, who fancied himself as somewhat of a pioneer cook, made homemade elderberry wine. Yes, of course we drank it, what do you think? There were jars and jars of it stacked on floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves in the kitchen. We'd rearrange the jars afterward and hope he wouldn't notice.

Jimmy was definitely Not Right.  He was a Viet Nam vet and whether or not he'd seen combat was debatable, but without question he suffered from something - shell shock, they used to call it.  I'm grateful to all our armed forces members who stand ready to defend us against all enemies.  That's no lie.  But Jimmy...who knows, maybe he had shell shock from childhood. We thought we might embarrass Alan if we asked him though.  And we weren't too interested, to be honest.

Across the street from the Westcotts a family originally from the outskirts of Boston lived in a big brick house which had recently been occupied by a Mr. Thompson – a good guy who once broke up a fight between my older brother and Jimmy who accused my brother of taking Alan out and getting him drunk (like Alan needed help) when in fact my brother had only given Alan, who never had a driver's license, a ride home from somewhere.  (Mr. Thompson had then brought my brother home all bloodied up, which scared the hell out of me as I was alone watching “Creature Features” at the time.) Anyway, this new family – mom, dad, and four young kids – were all hellions and a whole bunch of us started hanging out over there, too, including an old pal of mine, Pete Prentiss.
Pete and I were strictly vertical friends – I was the sister he never had. Though he's gotten somewhat surly of late, back in the day Pete was a hoot. Sometimes relatives from Massachusetts would come to visit and we'd all stay up playing setback until 4 in the morning. I have fond memories of that house; I was sitting in the living room the very first time I saw “Saturday Night Live.” (I was smoking pot at the time and thought Chevy Chase was doing a real newscast.)
Pete Prentiss worked with his father, Mr. Prentiss, doing pest control. Mr. Prentiss had his own business and a good name, and was grooming Pete to take over when good old Jimmy from across the street came to make the acquaintance of his neighbors. In chatting with Pete, Jimmy thought it might not be a bad idea for him to get his exterminating license too. He wanted to sever ties with New York and bring his mother to the country to live full time but he needed a job. He proposed that he would work for Mr. Prentiss for next-to-nothing after he'd learned the trade from him. Instead, after he got his pest control license, Jimmy set up his own exterminating business and began competing with Pete and Mr. Prentiss who had been so good to him. (He also began keeping a large pig in his yard.) There was not much welcome for Jimmy at the brick house any more. Needless to say.

Jimmy had also become somewhat of a political gadfly and once took it into his head t0 run for office against my father, who served our town as First Selectman for 22 years. (Jimmy lost.) Nonetheless he liked my dad and every so often he would bring us a huge braided Swedish coffee cake which he had baked in that wood stove. These tasted great. We didn't have much else to do with Jimmy except he did ask my father, who had grown up in town, to help prove that the Westcotts were actually part Indian and if so, apparently Jimmy would possibly have a stake in the proceeds from the local casino. (He insisted on wearing a bear claw necklace with his exterminating jumpsuit. This wasn't as absurd as it may sound since we do believe that he was indeed part Indian.  Native American, for the politically correct.) 
The Westcotts had lived in town for several generations; in fact Jimmy's father, Jimmy Sr. (no one ever knew what happened to him later) went to school with my dad. They chummed around now and again but not often, because Jimmy Sr. was kind of a “bad actor,” as Dad put it. Once Jimmy Sr. had stolen a pack of Listerine cigarettes from some local store and urged Dad to go with him to some hiding place and smoke them. Dad got very sick. But he did know the Westcott family pretty well and had been to Jimmy Sr.'s house, and knew his mother. “I recall she always seemed to be sitting in a rocking chair,” Dad said. He didn't know how he could help Jimmy prove that he was part Indian, except he did write a letter stating “Grandma Westcott had a very dark complexion.”

I was a little surprised one day when Jimmy asked me if I'd like to go with him to see a play at the local summer stock theater, where big names had often played in the 1940s. Jimmy got comp tickets because he'd gotten the exterminating contract there. I had been to a couple of plays in the past and loved it, so I said sure, why not?
Jimmy and I went to several shows that summer, the most memorable being Sondheim's “Into the Woods” which we gave a standing ovation. There was no debating, however: these were not dates. I never had the slightest inclination to go out with Jimmy on a date. In fact I quite disliked him, though I never acted like a bitch, or anything; but by the same token, not once did I flirt with Jimmy or lead him on. “Maybe we'll go see a few movies when the theater season ends,” he told me. I honestly was not very enthusiastic about seeing more of him, but what the hell else was I going to do, sit home and twiddle my thumbs? Besides, a lot of good movies were out right about that time, not the least of which were “Philadelphia,” “In The Name Of The Father,” “The Pelican Brief,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” And again I never thought of these as dates. I believed Jimmy wasn't thinking in that light either. Truly.

One night when we were headed to a movie I asked if we could stop for a few things at the local grocery store and drop them at the doorstep of my pal Gary, who was awfully sick with a bad stomach virus and to make matters worse was taking care of his 2-year-old daughter that weekend, who was also sick. I picked up the usual suspects: ginger ale, saltines, chicken noodle soup, tea, and Jell-o. Jimmy then brought up the matter of yogurt. Plain yogurt is exceptionally good for digestive problems, he maintained, and would do Gary and his daughter a great deal of good. Though I didn't know it then (which is beside the point) he was absolutely right – yogurt does replace the good bacteria in your gut that are taken down by infections, viruses and various medications, especially antibiotics. I indeed bought the yogurt. (I also bought some Spam as kind of a joke.)

The night was cold and the winter air was still as we left the store. I pictured poor Gary as I hustled through the parking lot headed for Jimmy's truck. I was glad it wasn't me for a change. I thought how much I missed summer weather and wondered vaguely what the movie would be like; and then Jimmy, of all things, suddenly broke the silence and let one rip. Loud and two syllables.  It reverberated in the still night air and I'm grateful we were outside because in fact it sounded like it would be foul. I had no doubt, in fact.
Well, I was greatly taken aback and quite offended even though Jimmy did say “Oh, excuse me,” in his corncob-pipe-smoker's voice. Excuse him hell. You have to earn the right to fart in front of people, I believed, and Jimmy wasn't familiar enough with me to have been so uncouth. Though I like a good fart as well as the next person (especially if it's my own) I just felt that Jimmy had taken too much license. I was not pleased.

So when Jimmy pulled into the parking lot at the theater, though I was grateful he hadn't done another one in the heated truck, I was not feeling very friendly to him. Unfortunately he was feeling overly friendly toward me. He declared that he had romantic feelings and knew that I had been going through some stressful times of late but he figured that by now I would be more amenable to going further than just a box of popcorn on the seat between us. I was not. 
He tried to kiss me and I leaned away, saying what you always say in cases such as this: “Gee, I'm flattered, Jimmy, but I'm sorry, I just don't feel that way about you.” Smile. Jimmy wasn't happy. He kept leaning over and I kept leaning away. As far away as I could without getting out of the truck. Finally he stopped and we went in to the movie. I forget now which one it was. It seemed to be a regular sort of evening after that but guess what? Jimmy never called me again. I was okay with that. I was tired of always attracting nuts, as a matter of fact.

A couple of years went by. I saw Jimmy occasionally in the store, sometimes with his mother, who was a beautiful woman with long grey hair. We – Jimmy and I – avoided each other. At least I avoided him. Then, I got a call from my friend Heather, whom I've known for so long it's almost embarrassing. Heather was getting married! Everyone was so pleased for her and her intended, Dan. I bought a lovely wall plaque for them as a wedding gift; it had a pink background (one of Heather's favorite colors, and mine too) and said “Bless This House.” A couple of weeks before the wedding I called to ask if I could drop it off at their house. “Sure, you can come out,” she said. 
Heather and her two grown daughters were sitting at the dining room table. Dan was in watching TV and Heather was on the phone, rather frantic, it seemed to me. When she hung up from whoever it was she said “Listen to this. Dan and I are having a hell of a time getting somebody to marry us. I called Jimmy Westcott because he's a Justice of the Peace, and he won't do it.” I was surprised; Jimmy was a cousin of sorts to Debbie Hammond, who had been a longtime foster sister to Heather and her family after her own parents died. It was only natural for Heather to think of calling Jimmy. “Why won't he?” I innocently asked. “He asked me, is Laurie Blair going to be at your wedding? I said of course she is, she's one of my best friends. And he said I'm not doing it then, because Laurie broke my heart, you know. She ran away with that goddam Pete Prentiss.”

That's right; Pete Prentiss the exterminator, whose father had taken Jimmy under his wing only to have Jimmy break away and become, in fact, his arch rival in the bug business.  (Weasel.) Apparently Jimmy thought there was more here than met the eye.
Heather did succeed in finding someone to officiate at her wedding, thank goodness.  I went.  It was at the house, and the reception was outside.  My skirt was too short, the food was great and Heather, her sister Lisa and I linked arms after a few drinks and sang "My Guy" together.  All went very well.  Of course I never ran away with Pete Prentiss but let Jimmy think that if he wants. Karma, Jimmy! I am just glad Heather didn't hold it against me that I broke Jimmy Westcott's heart  and consequently he'd refused to do her wedding (though I think he drove by during the reception).  I have no interest in whether or not he still has his appendix.

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