Monday, April 30, 2012

A Princess And Stolen Gold

She was a real princess, an infanta of Spain, and I’d come thousands of miles to pay her homage. She wasn’t exactly pretty; she possessed those unfortunate characteristics that, had she lived a long life, would have twisted her sweetness into the grotesqueness so characteristic of her family. She was a Habsburg, and no one would remember her today were it not for the sublime brush of Velàzquez, her father’s famous painter. As I gazed upon her, I felt something peculiar happening…deep in my pants, a downward motion completely beyond my control. Princess or no princess, I was about to let loose!

I’d come to Madrid to fulfill a childhood fantasy: I’d grown up in California and had been raised on tales of Spanish chivalry and pirates of the Spanish Main. As an artist, Spain loomed large in my imagination for another reason: in Madrid, The Prado Museum contained the greatest collection of Italian and Spanish paintings on Earth. Velàzquez was one of the most accomplished painters who ever lived, and in my opinion the best portrait painter. His painting, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) was arguably the greatest picture ever painted. I’d come to check it out with my own eyes. But greed came between me and Velàzquez’ masterpiece.

I entered the Prado and stood in line to purchase my ticket. It was a chilly day in late winter and the queue in front of the ticket counter was uncharacteristically short. After handing over a dozen pesetas for my ticket (this was before Spain went on the Euro) I passed into a chamber with hooks on the walls for coats. An attendant, nose buried in a newspaper, was doing a poor job of guarding the coats. I noticed that one of my shoelaces had come undone. Plunking down on one of the empty benches, I leaned down to retie the shoelace and my eyes widened at what I saw—Spanish treasure.

Projecting from beneath my bench was a thick rubber mat with slots in it. These slots were filled with glinting Spanish coins, like a giant coin tray in a bank. Some of these coins were worth as much as five or ten US dollars. Thousands of tourists must have dropped them while struggling out of their coats. For a moment I felt like Edmond Dantès discovering the treasure of Monte Cristo.

I looked up. I could hear snoring coming from behind the attendant’s newspaper. I wish I could report that my Catholic upbringing had immunized me from such temptations but, unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Before yielding to temptation, I glanced around the room for security cameras. When I saw none, I began plucking coins and shoving them into my pockets. I figured I’d stop in a minute or two when other tourists arrived, but none did. When my pockets could hold no more, I waddled out of the chamber, feeling rich as Midas as I sought out the little princess.

The coat chamber may have been empty, but there was a crowd gathered in front of Las Meninas. I pushed my way forward and got my first clear glimpse of her. The critics hadn’t lied. She was a miracle: Velàzquez had created Infanta Margarita and her entourage from a loose salad of brushstrokes that at a certain distance, like perfect pitch in music, transmogrified into the semblance of a living breathing person.

For those who haven’t looked closely at this painting, it’s worth the effort. Hundreds of years before the invention of the camera, Velàsquez defied convention by painting nearly everything slightly out of focus. The dog in the foreground being kicked by the dwarf is blurry up close, as is everything except for the face drawing the viewer’s eye to the center of the composition, the face of the little princess. And over on the left, Velàzquez has depicted himself standing before an enormous painting (Las Meninas?) palette in hand. But what is he painting? The little princess’ back is to him. And hanging on the wall in the background; is that a mirror? Reflected in it are the images of the princess’ parents, the King and Queen. Are they the subject of this painting, or are they standing in the doorway, an impromptu visit to their favorite painter’s studio as the artist prepares to paint their daughter? Art experts have been staring at this remarkable painting for hundreds of years, asking themselves the question: What the hell is going on here? What is this magical portal to seventeen century Spain all about?

I had come a great distance to study this painting, to take my turn at solving this mystery, but I was thwarted by greed, the sort that had roiled the blood of Spanish conquistadors. The princess’ eyes seemed to lock on me, and I was suddenly filled with unbearable shame. The ill-gotten treasure in my pockets seemed to burn through the fabric of my pants, branding my skin—a short-lived agony because at that moment the stitching in both pockets tore open and coins rained down my pant legs, a symphony of clinking and clattering on the marble floor as coins piled up at my feet.

Before bolting from the room as fast as I could, I caught one last glimpse of the little princess. Three hundred year old paint is brittle yet hard as cement, unchangeable, but in that fleeting moment I swear that long-dead little girl’s face had changed. She was laughing at me.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Food For Thought

I notice that many bloggers like to write about food. I don’t follow this trend, but a fellow blogger recently asked for advice on ordering the perfect hamburger. This got me thinking about the two problems I face when dining out.

First, breakfast is Mrs. Chatterbox’s favorite meal. She cooks most of our meals but on occasion I’ll whip up one of my specialties, like egg omelets with linguica (a Portuguese sausage similar to chorizo) but on weekends she likes to let strangers prepare our breakfasts. Looking at me, you might be inclined to think I eat everything and anything; you’d be wrong. I can’t eat a fried egg unless the yolk is dippy. If you can stand a fork in a fried egg, I can’t eat it. The yolk turns into cement in my mouth and I can’t swallow. If I order ham and eggs over easy, the yolks are usually rubbery enough for a game of jacks. If I ask for eggs over very easy, they often come raw as a hangover remedy. To avoid sending eggs back most of the time, I order them scrambled. I’m not fond of scrambled eggs.

Second: I have difficulty ordering steaks in restaurants. I love steak, and for me it must be grilled with a pink center. Inevitably when ordering a steak, the server will ask, “How would you like it cooked?”

I’ll say, “I’d like it pink in the center.”

The server will say, “You want it medium rare.”

I’ll repeat, “I want it pink in the center.”

Mrs. Chatterbox, who isn’t picky about such things, usually rolls her eyes and says, “Just order rare or medium rare and be done with it.”

But when I order rare it comes oozing blood, and when I order medium rare all of the juice (i.e. flavor) is cooked out of it. If I complain the server says something like, “That’s the way were cook medium rare here.”

How do you argue with that? So I prefer to tell the server, “I want my steak grilled with a hint of pink in the middle.”

“You want it medium rare.”

“I don’t care what you call it, just so long as I see pink!”

I usually see pink before my overcooked steak arrives—Mrs. Chatterbox’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment.


Those of you who’ve read Single Ply Miracle will be happy to know that Mrs. C. has tired of the game and is no longer stocking my bathroom with single ply. After writing this post I visited my personal sanctuary and used up the last of the cheap toilet paper. Now I’m sitting pretty and treating myself to double ply, and because I’m worth it—quilted.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Lucky Meme

Thanks to all of you who have suggested I should put my stories into a book. In fact, I have. I’ve collected my favorite childhood memories and created a memoir called The Kid in the Kaleidoscope: A Chubby Chatterbox Grows up in the 50s, 60s and Beyond.

I was recently tagged by Teralyn Rose Pilgrim over at A Writer’s Journey and asked to participate in a manuscript hop called The Lucky Meme! Teralyn is a fine writer and an excellent historian. Her novel Sacred Fire, the story of a Vestal Virgin in Ancient Rome, is nearing completion.

The Rules:

#1 Go to page #77 of your current manuscript/WIP.

#2 Go to line #7.

#3 Copy down the next seven lines—sentences or paragraphs—and post them as they’re written. No cheating.

#4 Tag a few other authors.

#5 Let them know.

Background: Page #77 falls in the middle of an event that took place when I was eleven. This story is called The Monster in the Monastery. I’d been duped into thinking an ape as big as King Kong was being concealed behind the massive adobe walls of the monastery on the outskirts of our town. I’d risked my parents’ wrath for proof of the ape’s existence. My best friend, Ricky Delgado, had come along to prove that I was a gullible idiot.

Pg. #77, Line 7:

Before we could say anything else, something stirred in the underbrush and we both realized we were being hunted. It materialized before us as if from thin air. It was huge! It was black! But it wasn’t King Kong—it was the biggest nun I’d ever seen. She evidently wasn’t one of the non-talking varieties, because she boomed in a deep construction worker’s voice, “What are you children doing here?” With a cobra’s swiftness, a hand shot out from beneath her habit and locked like a handcuff around my wrist. But Ricky was too fast for her; he leapt up the wall and scurried over the top, leaving me in the nun’s grip.

Now for seven bloggers to join the challenge. Some of these writers might be too busy to participate, but at least they will know how highly I regard them.

#1 Jo Barney

#2 Nikki Broadwell

#3 Stephen Tremp

#4 Mindy Halleck

The entire short story (The Monster in the Monastery) and other stories from The Kid in the Kaleidoscope are posted under the Pages section of Chubby Chatterbox.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stupid Men Of The Sea

Time was running out and I realized I was going to die, just another amateur fisherman lost at sea. I blamed myself; I was too stupid to live.

It was the late 70s and I was employed by Mervyn’s in Oxnard, forty miles north of Los Angeles. I designed windows and dressed mannequins, often chatting with friendly Frank Diaz, the company’s youngest store manager. Frank was only a few years older than me and his passion was fishing. He’d recently purchased a boat and fished after work. He frequently gave me his catch to bring home to Mrs. Chatterbox, who didn’t relish cleaning the smelly things. Frank started pressuring me to go fishing with him after work and I finally agreed.

I met him down by the launch and was shocked by the tiny size of his boat. It was faded red and looked like a Disneyland ride. “Isn’t this a lake boat?” I asked apprehensively.

“Lake, ocean—water’s water,” Frank reassured me. “The boat doesn’t know the difference.”

I had a sinking feeling about this, but against my better judgment I climbed in. Frank started the raspy-sounding engine and off we went.

When we were only a few hundred feet from the launch I asked, “What’s wrong with this spot? Why don’t we just fish here?”

Frank rolled his eyes. “No fish here.”

“So where exactly are we going?” It was a big ocean, and it was getting bigger as we moved farther from shore.

“We’re heading towards Santa Barbara. The oil rigs over there heat up the water and attract fish. Relax, we’re gonna have fun.” He released his grip on the wheel and opened the bag of Coronas he’d brought, tossing me one. “You’ve been out on the ocean before, haven’t you?”

I nodded, even though the extent of my maritime experience centered on being packed along with a hundred other tourists for a joyride around San Francisco Bay. I sipped the Corona as we passed the Channel Islands and headed north. The wind picked up and the water turned steel gray. The swells were getting bigger when Frank turned off the motor and admitted, “It’s getting choppy. Maybe we should fish here before it gets too rough.”

It was already too rough for me, but I didn’t want to admit that my cajones were anything less than grapefruit size so I baited my line and began fishing, the Corona rising and falling in my stomach in rhythm to the swells threatening to engulf the little boat. Just as the sun was about to touch the water, something struck Frank’s hook. He struggled to reel it in. I don’t know what he was hoping for, but what he got was a shark about four feet long.

Frank struggled to net the shark and bring it into the boat, but the net was too small and ripped. He grabbed the shark by the tail, threw down his rod and reel and swung the shark into the boat. I was suddenly confronted by snapping jaws. I shrieked and kicked it as it flopped about in the bottom of the boat. I was relieved when it chomped down on the bag of Coronas and disappeared over the side, taking the beers with it. Frank’s rod and reel also went over the side, the hook still lodged in the shark’s mouth.

The shark not only took the unopened beers; it knocked over the two we’d opened. There wasn’t anything left to calm my nerves. “It’s time to go home,” I said.

Frank agreed, but when he tried to engage the engine, it wouldn’t start.

We were completely out of sight of land. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon and the wind was pushing us further out to sea. It would soon be dark. I was terrified. I’d read newspaper articles about futile Coast Guard searches, and now the ranks of idiot amateur fishermen had grown by two. My fear intensified when Frank opened the engine covering, poked his head down into the bottom of the boat and said, “I wonder what all this water is doing down here?”

The thrashing shark had soaked us. I was shivering uncontrollably. I was also experiencing the icy grip of panic. Some of the liquid washing around the engine was probably my pee. As calmly as I could, I suggested to Frank, “It’s time to radio for help.”

His expression made my heart sink before he could muster the words. “I‘ve been meaning to get a radio, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

“What about life jackets?”

“They would have been a good idea, too.”

I nearly lost it when he started praying in Spanish. “Where are the paddles? Even if it takes years we might as well start paddling, even if the first landfall is Hawaii! You do have paddles?”

He looked indignant. “Of course! What kind of a fool do you take me for?” I started to unleash a torrent of colorful epithets, but this was as much my fault as his. Nobody put a gun to my head and made me climb into this carnival ride. If there had been a gun on board I might have blown my brains out when Frank managed to produce one paddle.

I tore it from his hand and started paddling furiously, spinning the boat in circles. As I worked up a sweat I reviewed the situation: We were heading out into a rough ocean in a boat that should never have left its pond; it was getting dark and we had no supplies, no radio and only one paddle. The engine didn’t work and the boat was picking up water. We had no way of knowing how much longer we could stay afloat, and the only thing we knew for certain was that there were sharks in the immediate area. We were screwed.

Frank stopped praying and was uncharacteristically quiet. I finally threw down the worthless paddle. In the bottom of the boat I saw one of the empty Corona bottles. At least I could leave a note for Mrs. C., a message in a bottle. With a pen from my pocket and a scrap of paper from my wallet, I quickly jotted down words of affection. I was wondering what I could use as a cork when Frank spotted salvation heading our way.

A Coast Guard cutter was heading home to nearby Port Hueneme. Our fear that it might not see us quickly became a concern that the ship might run over us. Frank finally impressed me by producing a bag of damp roadside flares, and in spite of our string of bad luck one actually ignited, making us easy to spot. The little red boat was sitting dangerously low in the water by the time we were picked up. It sank shortly after we climbed aboard the Coast Guard vessel. We received a well deserved tongue-lashing from the ship’s captain for not having a proper boat, radio, supplies, life jackets or paddles.

Frank admitted to ownership of the sunken boat and was eventually fined five hundred

dollars for various maritime infractions. When we docked, I called Mrs. C. to pick us up

at Port Hueneme. Frank cheerfully greeted Mrs. C. when she drove up, acting like nothing eventful had happened. I was tempted to leave him standing there.

Frank and I managed to remain friends although we never spoke of this incident again.

That night after dropping him off at his car near the launch, Mrs. C. asked, “Did you have a good time, honey?”

I spared her the details; no point freaking her out now. “It was exciting.”

“I don’t see any fish.”

“They weren’t biting.”

“So tell me, just how drunk did you boys get out there?”

“What do you mean?”

That was when I looked down and noticed that the Corona bottle containing my message was still tightly clasped in my hand.

Have you ever thought you were going to die?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Single Ply Miracle

Last Friday I got up at 6:00 AM to go swimming at our public pool. I usually celebrate this rare act of exercise by bringing home pastries from the Albertsons I pass along the way. Mrs. Chatterbox has Fridays off and sleeps in. She works for the local police department and is always telling me where crimes occur, such as the local swim center. She’s made me promise to leave my credit card at home before heading to the pool.

Two weeks ago as I prepared to go swimming, I noticed both of our bathrooms were out of toilet paper. Anticipating how grumpy she would be on waking up without any, I decided to pick up a package on my way home, along with the pastries. Usually we buy toilet paper in bulk from Costco, massive mattress-sized packages, but somehow we hadn’t gotten around to it.

I got to the store and opened my wallet to find that I only had enough cash to purchase two pastries, with one dollar left over. I don’t believe in ATMs and can’t remember my pin number anyway. Of course the shelves were filled with various packages of toilet paper, all of them costing more than a dollar. Single rolls were also available—for a buck.

Problem: Mrs. Chatterbox is very picky. A comet needs to be shrieking into Earth’s atmosphere for her to even consider using anything less than quilted or double ply. This dollar roll of toilet paper was single ply. I took a chance, on the assumption that it was better than nothing, which was what awaited Mrs. C. when she climbed out of bed and trotted to the bathroom.

When I got home with my purchases she was already awake, and on the couch enjoying a cup of coffee.

“I brought you something,” I said.


“Yes, along with something more important.”

I reached into the grocery bag for the roll of toilet paper and tossed it to her. I expected her to compliment me for taking the initiative. In our forty years together I can’t count the number of times she’s said things like: If you were driving past the store why didn’t you stop and pick up some milk…or spaghetti…or cereal…or lunch meat…or bread…or, well you get the idea.

She eyed the roll of single ply like it was a land mine. “What the heck is this?” she asked, tossing it back at me.

“I noticed we were out. I bought some so you wouldn’t have to go without this morning.”

“This is single ply! We NEVER use single ply. And what about the jumbo package I picked up at Costco on Wednesday? The pantry is full of toilet paper. Did you even bother to check?”

The answer was obvious. I hadn’t. Stupid…yes, but she could have thrown me a bone, a little recognition just for thinking about it.

I usually frequent the downstairs bathroom near the family room while Mrs. C. confines herself to the upstairs bathroom attached to our bedroom. I marched off and placed my ridiculed and rejected single ply on the empty roller in my bathroom. So what if it was single ply and dissolved into a handful of lint the minute it got damp? I bought it, and as a matter of principle I intended to suffer through the entire roll. And so I did: I used it, and used it, and used it. That roll of toilet paper may have been cheap, but it was endless. Last week I had a cold and blew my nose constantly, and that roll just wouldn’t get any smaller.

Which made me think of catechism class when I was a kid. We were told about Jesus feeding the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes, and it seemed a similar miracle was happening with my roll of single ply. Was I experiencing a religious phenomenon? Was it time to assemble the media in my cramped windowless bathroom to experience something astonishing?

Eventually, I discovered that something less than miraculous was happening. My puckish wife had gone to the store and bought more of the cheap single ply. Without my noticing, she was replacing the roll when it got low.

Sometimes she scares me. I think she’s an evil genius.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Peculiar Picture #10

I’ve become indifferent to many of the hundreds of illustrations I’ve painted over the years. Not so with this picture. In fact, I can’t tell you if it’s an illustration or a painting. It’s just one of my favorites.

I was experimenting with fast-drying acrylic paint after years of using oils. I wanted to see if I could build up glazes like Titian and Rembrandt without waiting a week for each layer of paint to dry. Clients don’t like waiting for artwork to dry.

I gessoed a panel, sanded it smooth and started painting. To my surprise, the shadow of an airplane appeared. I set down my brushes and admired my work. The picture didn’t look complete; something was missing. But what?

A year passed, with the picture being relegated to the back of my closet. One day I rediscovered it and somehow knew what it needed. In less than an hour I added the antique globe. Why? I’ve no idea. But when the globe was added to the composition it just felt right. I’ve tried over the years to explain this image in words, but I’ve always failed. When I taught at our local art college I used to joke that if a picture made perfect sense and was easily comprehended by most people, it was an illustration. If it made no sense at all but just made you feel something, anything, it was a painting. For me, this is a painting.

Maybe you have an idea what it means.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Slapping On Paint

“The guestroom needs to be painted,” Mrs. C. said to me one day.


“We agreed to change the color when we bought this house.”

I shrugged. “That was a year ago and we haven’t had a single guest. So what’s the point?”

“We’ll do it together. It’ll be fun.”

That’s what she said about Lamaze classes thirty years ago and I still hadn’t gotten over them.
“Painting is harder than you think.”

She let out a tiny snort. “How hard can slapping around a little paint be?”

“Okay. If you’re willing to help, how can I say no?”

She told me what color she wanted and I drove to the paint store for supplies. I could tell when I opened the can that she wasn’t happy with the color. “It’ll change when it’s dry,” I promised.

“What’s all this stuff?” she asked, pointing to the supplies I’d lugged upstairs.

“This is the stuff we need to do a good job.”

She rolled her eyes while I unfolded drop cloths and covered the bed and hardwood floors.

“Hand me a brush,” she ordered.

“We aren’t ready for brushes.”

A little kid must have lived in this room because there were crayon marks everywhere. “Wax and acrylic paint don’t mix,” I explained. “The paint will peel off if we don’t remove the crayon marks. Then we need to pull out nails, spackle over the holes and sand them smooth. Then we need to tape off the moldings so we don’t get paint on them, along with the ceiling to keep a straight edge where the ceiling meets the walls.”

“How long will all of this take?”

“An hour. Maybe an hour and a half.”

There was that little snort again. “They make it look so quick and easy on the home improvement shows.”

An hour later I trudged downstairs and found her in the living room with her nose buried in her Oprah magazine. “I thought you were going to help me?”

“Are you ready to let me slap some paint around?”

“Almost. The prep work takes up the most time.”

“Call me when it’s time for some serious painting.”

I called for her a half hour later. She climbed the stairs, grabbed one of the brushes I’d laid out and began slapping paint on the wall facing the street. This wall had a large window and the least surface to cover. “You might start with applying paint to the corners where a roller can’t reach,” I said.

She slapped paint into the corners for a few minutes while I finished taping and sanding the dried spackle covering the nail holes. When I grabbed a roller and started applying paint she said, “That looks like more fun.”

“You said you wanted to slap on paint. You can’t slap it on with a roller.”

She was beginning to look like she wanted to slap something other than paint. I handed her the roller.

Her arm got tired before she’d gotten far. “I think you bought the wrong paint. I can see the old color through it. Did you buy single coat paint?”

“Like the chupacabra, single coat paint is a myth. You always need two coats, especially if you’re covering a dark color with a light, which is what we’re doing.”

Five minutes later she was back downstairs with her nose buried in her Oprah. Two hours later I finished the second coat and carried the ladder downstairs, along with the paint, brushes, rollers and drop clothes. When everything was put away, Mrs. Chatterbox looked up from her magazine and asked, “Are we all finished?”

“Yes, we’re all finished,” I said, my tone dripping with snarkiness.

That night, our guest room received its first guest—me. She never told me to spend the night there, but for some reason it seemed like a good idea.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Enough of you have been following long enough for me to lower my guard to share an intimacy. I want to introduce a member of the Chatterbox clan who, up until now, hasn’t been mentioned, the only family member who doesn’t live up to the family name of Chatterbox—Ted.

Ted speaks very little. He came to live with us the Christmas of ‘09 when we were snowed in and the only store Mrs. Chatterbox and I could reach on foot was the Rite Aid down the road. We did all our Christmas shopping there. Mrs. C. bought me a package of Metamucil cookies (yum) and a Slinky, and I splurged ten bucks on Ted because Mrs. C. still retained her little girl fetish for horses. I almost picked a puzzle of a black stallion but it came with only eight pieces and Mrs. C., a college graduate, would have been able to piece the puzzle together in less than ten or twenty minutes. So Ted trotted home with us.

But for some reason Ted never warmed up to Mrs. C. and quickly bonded with me. Isn’t this the way it so often happens? My wife named Ted, bathes and feeds him. She sees to it that he’s warm and dry, and flushes him out occasionally with garden hose enemas when he gets backed up, but Ted’s glass eyes only light up for me.

Mrs. C. tells a story about a snowy Christmas when she was six and growing up in Chicago. When the presents were all unwrapped her father asked if she’d gotten everything she wanted—a dumb thing to ask a six-year-old if you ask me—and she stamped her little foot and said, “NO I WANT A PUPPY!” So her dad trudged off into a blizzard on Christmas day and purchased a puppy that grew up to ignore Mrs. C. for the next twelve years. Now Ted ignores her.

Ted and I spend a lot of time together in the afternoon. No! We don’t nap together. Naps are for babies and kindergarten kids. Ted and I enjoy a southern European custom known as a siesta. We spoon a lot, I’m not ashamed to admit it, and we’ve come to accept each other’s sleeping habits. He is a pillow hog and I snore. He’s been known to chase jockeys in his sleep, and he whinnies. But it’s quite soft and doesn’t keep me awake. What does keep me awake is when he eats carrots, which requires us to sleep with a window open.

Unlike most horses, Ted doesn’t have any bones, which makes it possible for him to hold my bottled water when I’m using him as an i-Pad caddy. Truth be told, I think it’s a good thing Ted doesn’t have bones because Mrs. C. is frustrated by the complicated and intimate relationship Ted and I share. She’s even threatened to send Ted to the glue factory, but they won’t take him because glue comes from rending down horse bones. This makes Ted safe. I know this fact about glue because Ted made me Google it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hell Phone

I was startled from sleep late one night in February of ’72 when a phone rang in Room #362 at Hedrick Hall on the UCLA campus—the room I shared with Mel, a pre-law undergraduate. The jarring sound scared the shit out of us. We weren’t accustomed to the phone ringing. In fact, this was the first time it had rung—we’d never paid to have it hooked up, and only used it as a nut cracker. Our dorm room wasn’t the neatest of places and the phone was hard to find. It kept ringing as we ripped through piles of dirty clothes, dusty text books and empty beer bottles. We finally found it behind a pizza box.

I pulled a sour-smelling sock off the receiver and barked, “Hello?”

Wrong number.

I hung up and waited a moment before lifting the receiver and pressing it to my ear. A dial tone! Somewhere on the UCLA campus where dorm phone lines originated, an operator must have accidentally pulled the cord on somebody’s service. A mistake had been made while reconnecting the cord and service had been transferrd to our room. Mel and I were suddenly on the receiving end of free and unlimited phone service.

My propensity to chatter had been curtailed by the expense of long-distance calls, but this was like letting the genie out of the bottle. I immediately dialed my girlfriend (the future Mrs. Chatterbox) who was attending a university near San Francisco. She was also startled to receive a call in the middle of the night. When I explained about the phone, she told me to hang up quickly before the police arrived. I told her to stop being such a Tricia Nixon. There wasn’t any way we could get in trouble over this. She finally calmed down. We chatted for three hours.

The next morning, Mel called his folks in Colorado and talked with them for a few hours. Jay from down the hall—famous for his giant red Afro and never one to miss out on a freebie—knew a girl in Australia and rang her up. He let me and Mel speak to her. We took turns chewing the fat with her and laughed when she said we had cute accents. We booted Jay out of our room when he decided to see who was home at the White House.

Curly-haired Barry Ginsberg was a friend who also lived on our floor. He was battling a bad case of crabs at the time so we wouldn’t let him sit on our beds while he phoned his parents in New York. He’d been working hard to lose the nasally New York accent, but it came back thick and heavy when he spoke with his parents. He stood in the middle of our room and scratched his crotch, insisting to his parents that he only socialized with nice girls. He later told us that his folks, in the best matchmaker tradition, had a nice Jewish girl lined up for him. We hoped her daddy owned a penicillin factory.

Out of our gang, only lanky Phil Whipple refused to make any calls, claiming it was wrong to do so without paying for them. Phil was the wet blanket of our group even though he liked to smoke pot. He had his sights set on the priesthood and claimed our phone was a hotline to hell.

Ignoring Phil’s admonition that we were doing something wrong, Mel and I allowed friends to make calls to Houston, Rome, Madrid, Johannesburg, New Delhi and Singapore among others. I suppose my conscience should have been bothered by what we were doing, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the pay phones that had screwed me out of dimes and quarters while I shot the shit with the future Mrs. Chatterbox, and I could only imagine how many more times in the future I would be similarly cheated.

One morning several weeks later, I picked up the phone and the dial tone was gone, the line dead. The error had finally been caught. A part of me was relieved, but it was rough going back to the pay phone down the hall.

To this day I feel a pang of guilt when I imagine the expression on some student’s face at receiving a phone bill for ten thousand bucks.

Submitted to the guys at Dude Write.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sunshine On A Rainy Day

It was a cold and dreary day here in Portland, Oregon, when a bright spot of sunshine came my way in the form of the Sunshine Award, given to me by a great writer and humanitarian in South Africa whose blogs I’ve been enjoying for some time. Check out Sarchasm 2 ( ) or any of Roly Clulow’s other blogs. ( I particularly enjoy Beelzebug (http://beelzebug.blogspot/. )

The rules of the Sunshine Blog Award are simple…

#1 Thank the person who nominated you with a link back to their blog.

#2 Answer a few questions about yourself.

Favorite color: Alizarin Crimson (It really is a color and painters adore it.)

Favorite animal: Whales, even though I have yet to actually see one.

Favorite number: 74; for 1974, the year I got married.

Favorite non-alcoholic drink: grapefruit juice. I could drink it by the gallon if it wasn’t so loaded with sugar since I’m a diabetic.

Facebook or Twitter: Both strike me as narcissistic, but if I had to choose, Facebook.

My passion: Venice, art history and telling stories.

Favorite flower: Iris…Bird of Paradise is a close second.

Favorite movie: The Lion in Winter. Historical, but one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

Favorite painting: Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt.

And finally, nominate a few other blogs and include links to them:

#1 Abroad with a View ( )

#2 Charlotte’s Menagerie ( )

#3 In Search of Balance ( )

#4 Laurel’s Quill ( )

#5 Oddball Observations (

Feel free to paste this pretty award on your blogs to show that you’re held in high esteem. I hope I get more awards because there are other great bloggers I’d like to nominate.

Mission accomplished.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sweet and Sour

This picture was taken in Sorrento, Italy, a few years ago. Those sunglasses are large enough to fit around my big head. When I snapped this I was reminded of an incident I hadn’t thought about since the fourth grade.

My Portuguese grandpa had a green thumb and could grow just about anything. He was hard of hearing and didn’t mind me shadowing him and pelting him with questions he either ignored or couldn’t hear.

Behind his house grew a small grove of fruit trees he used for making brandies. But another tree in his front yard always drew attention; one side yielded oranges and the other side apples—Grandpa had grafted two trees together. But what always caught my eye were his lemons.

They grew on a bush near the steps leading to the front porch. The bush didn’t look unusual in any way, but once a year lemons started growing…and growing…and growing. The lemons became so big that Grandpa would steal Grandma’s pantyhose and tie them around his precious lemons to keep them from dropping from the bush.

And they’d grow…and grow….and grow, until they were so heavy that Grandpa would place little wooden crutches under the branches to prevent them from bending. When I asked if these lemons had been grown from magic beans like Jack’s Giant Beanstalk, Grandpa pushed back his tattered fedora, swiped his sweaty brow with the back of his hand and shook his head. When I pressed he explained, “These aren’t really lemons.”

“They aren’t?”

“No. They look like lemons. They smell and taste like lemons, but they aren’t. This is a citrus plant from the island were your great grandpa was born.”

“It must be a magical island,” I exclaimed. “Where is this island, and is everything big there?” A stupid question since Grandpa was of normal height.

“It’s called Madeira Island and it’s in the Atlantic Ocean near Northern Africa.”

I had no idea where this was, but it sounded wonderfully exotic.

I wasn’t one of the popular kids at school, probably because I was chubby and constantly being shushed for talking too much in class. One day our teacher, Miss Stremple, told us we had to give a presentation in front of the class. I had no idea how to tackle the assignment, but an idea came to me when the deadline arrived for us to reveal the topics for our presentations. I stood beside my desk and announced that I was going to make everyone lemonade.

The class’ lack of enthusiasm was matched by Miss Stremple’s. “I was hoping you’d pick something more interesting,” she said.

“I’m gonna make lemonade for the entire class,” I said, “and I’m only gonna use one lemon.”

Miss Stremple smiled. “I don’t see how that’s possible. There are twenty-six students in this class. It would take much more than one lemon.”

“Maybe,” I said, “unless you happen to have a magic lemon.”

She smiled at me. “I look forward to tasting your lemonade, Stephen.”

Fortunately, my presentation was the last one given, which gave Grandpa’s giant citruses more time to ripen. The day before my presentation, Grandpa helped me select the perfect one: it looked exactly like a lemon, except it was the size of a bowling ball. I pulled it to school in the Radio Flyer I hadn’t used since I was little. I also brought a pound of sugar taken from our pantry, paper cups and a plastic garbage sack to line the wastepaper basket I intended to fill from the sink in the janitor’s closet. When I pulled the giant lemon out of a grocery sack several of my classmates pointed at it in awe. The teacher had a knife and cut it into smaller pieces, and when the garbage sack was properly filled with water I asked for volunteers to help squeeze out the juice. Several hands shot into the air.

I gave a short talk about Grandpa and Madeira Island in the Atlantic near the African coast and explained that this really wasn’t a lemon at all but an exotic lemon look-a-like. Miss Stremple had ordered everyone to wait until my presentation was over before drinking from the paper cups on their desks, and as I wrapped up my talk I hoped Grandpa was right when he said this big yellow thing tasted like a lemon. If this drink tasted like underwear and everyone spit it out, I’d probably get a bad grade and be even less popular than I already was.

She gave the signal and the cups were drained. My heart was in my mouth and I nervously forgot to sample my concoction. I shouldn’t have doubted Grandpa. Chants of more…more…more rang out. The drink did taste like lemonade. My presentation got a B+. I think I would have gotten an A except all the sugar made the class unmanageable for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


In 1983 I had a stroke of genius, or so I thought.

I was unhappy with my career in retail and ready for a change. One evening after a grueling day of peddling hardware I picked up one of Mrs. Chatterbox’s decorating magazines and noticed that a few of the rooms on display had reproductions of famous paintings, not prints but high caliber oil copies. I had a degree in Fine Arts and I decided to try and make a go of it as a painter. Creating copies for rich clients might be a lucrative way to start. If somebody wanted Gainsborough’s Blue Boy hanging above their fireplace and couldn’t convince the Huntington Library in San Marino to part with it, they could call me and I’d come up with the next best thing—a superbly painted copy. And if they wanted Lawrence’s famous Pinkie hanging on the opposite wall, I could paint that as well.

Before launching my business I needed to come up with a snappy name. I chose Masterstrokes which, I believed, said it all. I checked the Department of Licenses, Permits and Registrations at the State Capital to be certain nobody was already using the name, and when I learned it was available I licensed it and had business cards printed up. I bought an ad in the yellow pages, mailed out flyers to local interior decorators and waited for the calls to pour in. I had a good feeling about this venture. I couldn’t help wondering what I’d be asked to copy first, maybe a Canaletto or perhaps a Rembrandt. But things didn’t go as planned.

No art lovers or interior decorators called to offer me fat commissions to replicate old masters; the calls I received all came late at night. The first call went something like this:

Ring. Ring. Ring.

“Er…hello?” I asked, trying to shake the cobwebs from my head.

“Hi, how you doing?”

“I’m doing all right. Who is this?”

“I’m someone calling to inquire about your services.”

“My services?”

“Yes, this is Masterstrokes, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is.”

“Good, good; that’s why I’m calling. What do you charge?”

“Well, it depends on how big a job it is.”

“Believe me when I say I have a big job.”

“That’s wonderful. Some things are harder to do than others.”

“You’re absolutely right, and what I have in mind is really hard, exceptionally hard.”

“Great. There’s nothing I can’t do; I went to college to learn my craft and I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m very good.”

“I believe you.”

“I also offer a money-back guarantee. If you aren’t satisfied, you pay nothing.”


“You can go anywhere and get the cheap stuff.”

“That’s been my experience.”

“I deal in quality.”

“Great! You know, my wife is interested in getting in on this too. Would she be extra?”


Mrs. C. was now awake and listening in. After a few minutes she looked at me like I had “moron” embossed on my forehead. She reached over to disconnect the call.

“Masterstrokes, my ass!” she mumbled as she struggled to get back to a night of fitful sleep.

Neither of us would sleep well until the new phone book arrived without an ad for Masterstrokes.

Have you ever had a business venture, or an idea for one, that just didn't work out?