Safari – The Elusive Napkindebeest

While visiting a state park recently, I deposited myself on a bench while my wife went inside a small “mercantile” to purchase some dish towels. After a short while, another man approached the bench, requested permission to sit on the other end, which I granted, and together we watched his wife join mine.

Living in the Midwest, small talk comes easily, and in less than two minutes we had commenced on a conversation that encompassed the weather, our children, our grandchildren, the latest hot-button topic on the news, and of course, our wives. Towards the end of our discussions, a very upright, impeccably-dressed man walked past us.

“See that man?” inquired my new friend.

“Sure. What about him?” I asked.

“I think he’s counting rocks on the sidewalk, or blades of grass. At any rate, he’s calculating something in his head. Know what I mean?”

I chuckled. “Yep, I believe I do. Accountant?”

“Darn right. No doubt. Reminds me of an accountant I had at work years ago. Anthony Backus was his name. We called him Abacus. Dry as the desert at noon. No personality whatsoever. Unable to cultivate relationships. And talk about strange.”

He paused and I pondered.

“Strange?” I finally asked. “How so?”

“Well,” my new acquaintance resumed, “you know how most people have habits and routines they follow? At least many people do.”

I shook my head in the affirmative.

“Oh, you know what I mean,” he continued. “For instance, I have a routine I faithfully employ as soon as I walk in the door. First, I go directly to my office, where I get out my wallet, my keys, and my cell phone, and I put them in the exact same location on the corner of my desk. Then, I take off my shoes and put them in the same spot I always keep them. So on and so on. I’m not officially at home until I perform all my routines. I do that for a purpose, so I will never lose anything, like my keys or my wallet.”

“Yeah, I do something like that,” I replied. “Pretty routine. And you know what drives me crazy sometimes? When somebody takes it upon themselves to clean up for me. Then, I can’t find what I’m looking for.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Woe to those who mess with our stuff.”

“There’s one thing that absolutely drives me crazy,” I resumed, “and that’s something that happens in our kitchen table.”

He looked at me quizzically.

“Napkins,” I replied.


“Yes. It seems like there’s a place for every little item on our table. The salt, pepper, seasoned salt, hot sauces, and everything like that is always in the exact same spot, no matter when I go in the kitchen. However, if I venture in there during an off time, when we’re not sitting down to eat, and I’m getting a snack, I always have to face the task of tracking down the mobile napkin basket. One time it’s right in the middle of the table, the next time it’s down at the far end where nobody sits. Still another time it may be simply sitting in a chair. Later the same day, it may not even be at the table, but on a counter or sitting on top of our ice maker. Sometimes I give up searching and just grab a paper towel – they’re always hanging in the same place underneath a cabinet. I tell you, there’s no rhyme or reason.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I used to have t-shirts that grew legs. Sometimes I would wear them once, and then it’s like they entered the witness protection program. Never saw them or heard from them again.”

“Underwear,” I said. “Same thing. Almost got to the point where I thought I was going to have to purchase new underwear weekly.”

“Now that’s tough,” he replied.

“Fortunately, I discovered the problem. My wife loves to hang things out on the clothesline. She likes the smell of clothes dried in the fresh air. That works until someone in the neighborhood decides to burn leaves or start a small bon fire. That’s not often, though.

“When the children were young, my wife would frequently have them retrieve things from the line, a task which a couple of my children disapproved of. One day, I had to go on the roof to take care of some things – loose shingle and clean out the gutter. When I got up there, what do I find? You guessed it – underwear. Seems one child in particular so disliked bringing in the laundry that he would just toss items up on the roof, and he loved my underwear the best.”

“I’m really curious about the napkins,” my friend said. “Have you ever had any resolution of this? Why did your wife move them around all the time?”

I shook my head back and forth.

“I’d like to say she was just in the habit of cleaning the table, and when she came to the basket of napkins, simply moved it to clean. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense, for why wouldn’t other things be mobile as well? But it’s just the napkins. Sadly, the only conclusion I come to is, she just does it to aggravate me. I haven’t said anything about it for a long time. It’s not worth the effort or potential argument. But I think she senses my frustration and just keeps on doing it. When I go into the kitchen to get a snack, sometimes I want to take a toy gun and pretend that I’m on an African safari in search of the elusive Napkindebeest. It does amuse me, though, because it appears as if they move not just every day, but multiple times per day.”

“Maybe…” he began. “No, that’s too stupid.”

“What?” I said.

He laughed at himself. “I was thinking maybe they’re doing it on their own.”

“I’ve had that thought,” I replied. “More than once.”

At this moment, each of our wives came out the door, chatting. They commented on our being involved in a discussion as well. Each family was staying at the inn, and we made plans to enjoy dinner together that night.

“Hopefully we won’t have to search for napkins,” I said so that he could hear, but my wife couldn’t. We both chuckled.

“One more thing,” I said. “What about the accountant?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “About the most obsessive-compulsive person I have ever encountered. He was not like you or me or any ordinary person. We deal with things. He couldn’t. Finally married, but it wasn’t a good match. She was rather messy, and he couldn’t take having many things being out of place. He eventually tried to poison her. Divorce wasn’t enough for him. He had to eliminate this gene pool pollutant – his wife—from all living creatures. He believed he was in the right and was doing a service to humanity. He’s been in prison for eight years.”

They Don’t Want Me, But I’ll Stay

She had turned her head away,
Now she turned it slowly back again.
It was crimson
And there were tears in her eyes.

She spoke now with all the childishness
Back in her voice:

“Why should I go away?
And be made to go away?
They don’t want me,
But I’ll stay.
I’ll stay and make everyone sorry.
I’ll make them all sorry.
Hateful pigs!”

Found poem from The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Jeff’s Leap from Cowardice to Bravery

Note: this story originates from a Creative Writing class I taught for middle school students. Its object was to identify conflicts. There are at least 4 conflicts able to be easily identified.

We told Jeff it was too far. There was no way he could make it. Jimmy Landers told him. Marc Coomer told him. I was at the point of tears, begging him not to try. Even Monte Sidebottom, the one boy who cared for no one, told him it was impossible.

“Please, Richard,” the tears were streaming down my face. If you miss…you’ll…you’ll…”

Jeff looked down at me from the tree limb at least 40 feet off the ground. He smiled slightly.

“You think if I miss, I’ll die?” he said. “That’s what it looks like from here. I suppose you’re right. What’s life, though, without chances? The people who do the most are the chance takers.”

There are certain moments that carve images and memories into our brains like a wood burning set. For the remainder of our lives, when we think of those moments, we replay the event. Whenever we go to the physical place where it happened, we replay the event. Smells, sights, sounds, the weather, and the various other parts of the moment make us replay the event. It is indelible.

For Jimmy, Marc, Monte, and me, this event became the fulcrum of our lives. Everything from this point revolved around it. No matter how much we have tried to remove ourselves from it, we just went in a circle and ended up at the same place.

Monte Sidebottom is more to blame than anyone else. His incessant taunting and teasing of Jeff over weeks or months drove Jeff to the top of that tree. When Monte had made fun of Jeff and told him he was nothing more than a momma’s boy earlier that day, and that he was even afraid of his own shadow and let his momma take care of everything for him, that’s what pushed Jeff to climb to the top. He wanted to prove he was not a coward, simply nothing else.

True, Jeff came up with the idea himself, not Monte, but Monte drove him to it. At heart, Monte was a bully, and he enjoyed watching people suffer.

There was a legend among the neighborhood boys that someone had climbed to the top of the same tree years previously and had leaped from one of the highest branches to the roof of what used to be Hodge’s Drugstore, but was now an “antiques” store filled with junk. None of the floors above the first floor were used anymore. The building was four stories high.

Although none of us had ever contemplated such a foolhardy thing, Jeff suddenly announced this particular day, after goading by Monte, that he was going to prove his bravery in a way no other boy had done in years. He was a small, cute little boy, usually shy around strangers, and soft-spoken, even around us. A small birth mark on his neck stood out. When he explained that he was going to make the leap from the tree to the roof, everyone told him not to do it.

It was no use. He began his ascent up the tree, slowly weaving his way through branches. Twice he looked down at us, and each time I believe he nearly talked himself out of continuing. Monte did not make fun of him now. I thought I saw traces of fear on Monte’s face. Certainly, he understood that if anything happened to Jeff, he would be the one people would blame.

Near the top he came. All of us were yelling at him, begging him to stop. Jeff perched on a limb. He was calculating the distance and how much effort he would have to give.

Now bawling, I frantically yelled one last time, something Jeff ignored, just as he had ignored all our pleas. I turned and ran. Not because I was fearful of watching, but because I wanted to get some adult help, someone to talk Jeff out of this leap to death. Monte called me. I did not hear all he said, but there was fear in his voice.

I ran down the street and around the corner to Mr. Stevenson’s house, where I pounded on the door. Mr. Stevenson answered—he was always home during the day—looked quizzically at me, deduced the gravity of the situation after I spouted some incoherent words, and he said, “Take me to him.”

When we got in view, Jimmy and Marc were standing next to the building, wailing great sobs. Monte was nowhere to be seen. As we got closer, we could also see Jeff’s broken body on the ground. Mr. Stevenson somehow summoned help. Police and an ambulance came, but it was no use.

Jimmy, Marc, and I rarely see each other anymore. We never quit being friends after that day, but we also never spent time together like we had in the past. I do not know what became of Monte. His family must have moved out of town. I have not seen him in more than 30 years.

Jeff had proven he was not a coward, but that act that provided the proof removed any reason for proving it. In finality, all it did was condemn Jimmy, Marc, and me—and I suppose Monte—to a lifetime of horror and regret. What a terrible thing for eleven-year-olds to have to witness.


Marigolds Are Happy Souls

Marigolds are happy souls,
Faces turned to Heaven with smiles.
Mirroring like the moon the radiant sun,
Reflecting from ground upward.

This spring I added a single marigold
To each usual bed of
Purples and reds and whites,
Turmeric tinge of seasoning.

My garden is more joyful this year,
My heart along with it.
Thanks to the marigolds,
The happiest soul of flowers.

Ten Pin Smithers

I stopped in a small town near Akron, Ohio, to chance a lunch in a small diner along the main street. The diner was situated next to a bowling alley, and outside of it, right along the street, was a statue. Having to walk past the statue, I became interested in it, for it was a man, down on his knees, his hands over his eyes, and in front of him was a lone bowling pin. I read the plaque at the base of the statue. It read, “Dedicated to Ten Pin Smithers and His Almost Perfect Game. January 9, 1974.”

I chuckled, shortly after which I heard a voice. I turned and saw an older man with short hair and glasses sitting on a bench just a few feet from the statue.

“Bet you never heard of Tin Pin Smithers before, did you?” he asked.

“No, can’t say I ever have,” I replied. “This statue seems a little odd, though.”

“Ten Pin Smithers,” the man said. “If you’ve got a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you his story. It’s rather sad.”

A story. Just what I wanted, and right in my line of work, which is reporting human interest stories for the newspaper and a local online magazine site back home. This was the reason of my trip. I was looking for something interesting.

“OK,” I said, “Mind if I sit down beside you?”

He jumped right in as I was finding a seat.

“Back in ’74, as the plaque says, a company was staging a bowling tournament right here,” He pointed over his shoulder to the bowling alley. “A hundred dollars to the winner, but there was a huge bonus if anyone bowled a perfect game. You know what a perfect game is, don’t you? Twelve strikes in a row for the game and a perfect 300 score. Worth a million dollars. A million dollars.

“Ten Pin Smithers had been home from Vietnam for about a year, and he had found getting back into society challenging. He had some emotional issues from Vietnam, plus he couldn’t find a job. However, he loved to bowl, and he was pretty good at it. So, he entered the tournament. All he really hoped for was winning the hundred dollars. At worst, second place, which was fifty dollars.

“Well, he made it all the way to the championship match. The place was packed, and the entire thing was being recorded so it could be shown on TV. His opponent was some out-of-town guy named Larkin, or Larabee, or something like that. Guy had a real unusual delivery when he bowled, and every time he released the ball he yelled out, ‘Come home to Papa!’ He wasn’t much of a bowler, though somehow he managed to make it to the championship.

“The final match was over pretty quickly. Larkin or Larabee was awful, while Ten Pin rolled strike after strike. The excitement grew, the tension grew, the crowd got real excited, but that didn’t seem to bother Ten Pin. When it was his turn to bowl, he calmly took his bowling ball, lined it up, and rolled it down the alley. Like I said, strike after strike.

“In fact, his first eleven rolls were strikes. He had just one roll left in the game, and if he got a strike there, he would win the million dollars. Everybody was cheering for him. Still, he did not appear nervous. The last roll, he did the same as all the others, calmly lining up his shot, and then he rolled it down the alley. It appeared to be a perfect hit, right in the pocket. Wouldn’t you know it, though? The six pin, which is supposed to knock down the ten pin, went around the ten pin and left it standing, the only pin left.

“That statue you see there? That’s the exact representation of Ten Pin Smithers when he lost that million dollars. Just dropped down on his knees, put his hands over his face, and finally ended up staring at that lone pin still standing.

“People always wondered how that affected his life. How would his life have been different? He remained here, but has been obscure ever since. Seldom talks to people about it. Seems to have no regrets. Says it’s the best memory of his life. For once, he was in the spotlight, everybody was cheering him on, and he ended up with a hundred dollars.”

The man stopped speaking. I got up, thanked him, and told him I was going to use that story—whether it was true or not—in the next column I wrote. He said that was fine with him. He didn’t think anyone would object. I asked him if Tin Pin Smithers was still around.

“Yeah, he’s around somewhere,” he said. “You might be able to find him if you ask around. That was 45, 46 years ago. He’d be in his upper sixties by now. Doesn’t look anything like the statue anymore.”

He wished me a good day, rose from the bench, and started walking towards the bowling alley door. When he was about 20 feet from the door, a man came out and yelled to him, “Hey, Ten Pin, lane number 7 has a problem. Could you go back and fix it?”