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Last night, Sophia told me she wants to throw a surprise party for her father’s impending 75th birthday. Thankfully, she won’t ask me to pitch in. She knows my well-earned distaste for the institution. After all, my experiences with surprise parties have been universally disastrous, including the single shindig thrown for me as an adult.

My first wife, Abbie, hosted my lone adult surprise party. For my birthday after we moved in together, she arranged for friends and family to gather at our townhouse while she treated me to Sunday brunch at a posh restaurant. I would’ve gladly spent the whole morning there digging in for thirds, or even fourths. But Abbie began fidgeting after an hour and repeatedly glanced at her watch. And when another half hour passed, she suddenly announced that she’d gotten her period and needed to go home for “supplies.”

She may’ve seemed uncharacteristically edgy in the restaurant, but that was nothing compared to her patent angst when the car wouldn’t start. After I called AAA and told her a tow truck would come in an hour or two, she looked downright sick. That’s when she informed me about the guests waiting at our house.

The only enjoyable shock that day (for me) occurred a few minutes later, when my brother Frank answered our phone and heard my voice yelling “Surprise!” Though obviously nonplussed, he managed a credible reply: “Richard, who else but you would manage to screw up his own surprise party?”

Two hours later, we made it home. I soon wished we hadn’t. Moments after our arrival, Abbie’s sister (who’d spent the party’s downtime lubricating herself with our liquor supply) grabbed my head, slurred “Happy Birthday,” and planted a sloppy French kiss on me. The unexpected gesture elicited my usual reflexive response to an unanticipated object entering my mouth: I bit down … on Deirdre’s tongue. As I can attest, nothing says “let’s party” like the taste of your sister-in-law’s blood on your gums.

I knew there’d be a birthday cake, and I would’ve liked nothing better than to wash the remnants of Deirdre out of my mouth with a healthy slice. But someone had left it within reach of Abbie’s fat cat, the aptly nicknamed “Sir Crapalot.” By the time Sophia went to retrieve my dessert, Sir Crapalot had come and gone, after licking most of the icing off the top. There’d originally been a greeting inscribed:

Happy Birthday, Richard!

Thanks to Sir Crapalot’s ministrations, only three strategically-placed letters remained:

Ha         d

I couldn’t have agreed more. I’d been “had” all right, by a feline whom Abbie soon discovered fast asleep in our closet, his bloated belly resting beside my loafer – the same loafer he’d recently emptied his bowels or stomach into (I couldn’t tell which, since the detritus floating in my shoe left the orifice of origin in doubt).

Surprise!

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As I well know, every cohabitating couple owns certain items one of them detests. The objects holding pride of place on my friend’s hate list happen to be his wife’s beloved Christmas towels. Ned told me all about them today, including their untimely end this past weekend.

According to Ned, his spouse received the Christmas towels as a gift from her grandmother a few years ago. Perhaps because the grandmother passed away soon after, Susie came to value the linen cloths like family heirlooms. And she’s displayed them as trophies in their guest bathroom for the past two years.

Ned can’t stand his wife’s towels, but not because his Jewish faith takes offense at their Christmas theme, or even because the gaudy, multicolored items with Santa’s visage hang in the bathroom year round. What Ned objects to is Susie’s insistence that the towels remain purely decorative. She’s prohibited anyone from using the cloths for their intended purpose. Ned finds her ban particularly galling because he’s forced to employ paper napkins during his frequent trips to the guest bathroom, instead of the items designed for the job.

For the past two years Ned’s made no secret of his animus. Yet he now concedes his mouthing off a tactical mistake. Susie’s known exactly whom to blame should any harm befall her grandmother’s gifts. As a deterrent, she’s threatened to follow any mistreatment of her treasures with the immediate disposal of Ned’s prized golf clubs. The only way Ned wouldn’t suffer for harm to the Christmas towels would be if the guilt fell squarely on a third party.

Behold the “third party”: Susie’s brother and his five-year-old daughter, who visited over the weekend. As visitors, they occupied the guest bathroom. Ned couldn’t seek sanctuary there until the guests departed last morning. He hadn’t been in there more than a minute before he yelled to his wife: “Honey, you’re never going to believe the mess your brother made in here!”

To Susie’s dismay, her husband hadn’t exaggerated the bathroom’s sorry condition. Someone had clogged the toilet and, by the looks of things, kept flushing in a vain effort to free the obstruction. As a result the bowl had overflowed, spilling human excrement and water onto the floor. The waste might’ve flowed out the door if the quick thinking perpetrator hadn’t sopped up the advancing flood … with Susie’s Christmas towels.

Beloved heirlooms or not, even Susie won’t try to salvage shit-covered decorative items. So Ned’s finally gotten his wish, and functional hand towels once again hang in their guest bathroom. Susie blames her brother or niece for the crime; and she’ll likely do so forever, since she’ll never dare confront dearest bro about the incident.

While Susie didn’t point a finger at Ned, I feel a bit less trusting of his innocence. The timing of his bathroom discovery seems suspicious and all too convenient to me. During our videoconference this morning, I asked him if “just between us chickens” he’d had anything to do with the contamination of the Christmas towels? He denied any involvement, profusely; but I couldn’t help but notice the twinkle in his eye when he spoke.

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I completed my second mentoring session with Ernie today, this time in the school library. Having him anchored at a table (instead of running amok on the playground, like last week) provided my first opportunity to chat with him, man to man. But he acted so closed-mouth at first, I began to think I’d do better reading him his Miranda rights and interrogating him.

I guess I hadn’t asked the right questions though. Once I brought up the subject of his favorite movies, the kid’s gums didn’t stop flapping. Nor did he hesitate in the least before voicing his clear choice: Aliens versus Predators. In his not so humble opinion — as he explained at length — that particular movie as well as the entire series of Predator films represented the culmination of American cinematography.

Why did Ernie so love those particular titles? Well, as he put it, mostly because “Predators are the most bad-ass aliens in the world!” He backed up his assertion too, describing with gruesome specificity the thousand and one ways in which a Predator can eviscerate his prey. The lawyer in me admired the lad’s attention to detail and factual recall, while the concerned citizen in me chillingly noted the twinkle in his eyes when mentioning arterial spray.

After listening to my mentee wax rhapsodic about the Predator killing machine, I decided we’d chatted enough for one afternoon. I suggested playing a game and he agreed. To my relief, the library’s collection included a title we both enjoyed: “Battleship!”

Whenever I play Battleship, I’m always meticulous about recording each of my guesses and my adversary’s guesses on the boards, so I can keep track of them. I consider myself an accomplished combatant too. Nonetheless, in twenty minutes battling against Ernie I failed to score a single hit. I couldn’t understand. As I figured, my methodical system should’ve uncovered at least a couple of his ships amidst the zones I’d blanketed.

Ernie sank three of my vessels; but our time expired before he achieved complete victory. When the moment came to reveal our boards, I discovered three of his ships positioned in spots I’d definitely attacked and a fourth ship that hadn’t even been placed on the board! When I asked Ernie if he’d cheated, he flashed a shit-eating grin and said “Yep.” And when I questioned why he’d cheated, he simply responded: “I like to.”

I remember the program administrator saying she hoped each mentor and mentee would bond and continue their relationship as the child progressed from grade to grade. From what I’ve seen of Ernie thus far, I suspect it won’t be long before our mentoring sessions see a change of venue … to whichever state correctional facility the youth is sentenced.

 
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In my opinion, placing blind faith in anyone, no matter how trustworthy, can only lead to trouble. And after yesterday’s events, I think my wife’s inclined to agree.

Sophia’s convinced I’m a genius writer, so she often asks me to edit her business communications when phrasing and nuance seem critical. Yesterday, phrasing and nuance mattered.

She works for a multinational company headquartered out-of-state. Due to a recent overhaul of the entity’s executives, the CEO has decided to host a teambuilding conference. He’ll use the affair to formally welcome new faces into the corporate family and build camaraderie between the old and new officers.

Sophia’s boss asked her to draft the company-wide e-mail invitation to the conference. She in turn called me with a request to craft the most appropriate language. Naturally I said yes, but because she sounded stressed, I first thought to lighten her mood with one of my patented joke creations. I dashed off a politically incorrect gem and sent it for her amusement. Then I hunkered down to craft the serious version.

I’d nearly finished when I received a brief e-mail from the Mrs. thanking me for my timely assistance. It wasn’t her “thank you” that left me nearly shitting myself, however. She closed her communique with: “No time to review, but I trust my genius to write the perfect message. Told my secretary to send it out. You’re the best! Love, S.”

It’s been touch and go ever since, but it appears my wife will keep her job. Apparently, the CEO has a much better sense of humor than I’d figured. I’m not sure I would’ve been as forgiving had I received this e-mail transmitted under Sophia’s name:

Fellow executives. Our fearless leader, Dick Jameson, formally invites each of you to a teambuilding conference. Dick has yet to meet many of the recent hires, except of course those he personally recruited from his AA group. For the rest, the conference offers a fine opportunity to see why Mr. Jameson is the company’s number one Dick. The conference also will provide our longstanding executives a chance to learn more about your newer counterparts … than their brief biographical information contained in the list of pedophiles and dangerous criminals at the local post office.

 

Dick’s head of marketing has put together a stimulating agenda of lectures and informal commingling. Dick himself will kick off the festivities with the same forecast of cheer he offered at last year’s holiday party … to the since-downsized group of officers many of you replaced. Because a significant portion of the conference will comprise non-business activities, invitees are encouraged to bring along their significant others. In that regard, we remind the participants from our Alabama office that a “significant other” includes your sister, provided you’re married to her.

 

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I fear I’ve seen the last of my girlie car. Yesterday my 2001 silver Mitsubishi Eclipse and I took what might have been our final ride together.

We (the car and I) were headed to a courthouse south of Atlanta for oral argument on a motion. About five miles from our destination, smoke started pouring from the engine. I pulled to the side of the road and immediately dialed AAA. The helpful representative told me to “sit tight” because a tow truck would arrive “in an hour or two.” Naturally, only a half hour remained until my motion would be called.

I couldn’t have picked a worse moment for car trouble. If I didn’t make it to court, the judge would reschedule the hearing to a future date, potentially weeks away. I knew my client – whom I internally refer to as “The Nutcracker” – would never accept automobile problems as an excuse for delaying his case. In all probability, if I didn’t find a way to reach the courthouse on time, the Nutcracker would take his legal business elsewhere.

But then providence seemed to smile on me for once. Just as I began revving up a solid panic, a tow truck appeared. The driver politely offered his assistance and I gratefully accepted. Even better, when I explained my situation, the gent agreed to drop me at the courthouse before proceeding to his service station. He sheepishly informed me I’d have to pay $50 for the tow, but he also said he’d do the drop off at no extra charge! His exhibition of southern chivalry impressed me greatly.

Thanks entirely to the helpful tow truck operator, I made it to the courthouse in twenty minutes. I won the motion too! 

When a taxi drove me to the service station three hours later, my main concerns were: the car might have to stay overnight; and my wife would have to retrieve me. Unfortunately, I did need Sophia to pick me up, but not because the station kept my car overnight.

I learned a couple of unpleasant details after arriving at the service station. First, the attendant insisted no silver Mitsubishi Eclipse resided on the lot. He asked when I’d supposedly brought the car in, and I told him his truck had towed my vehicle a few hours earlier. That’s when he swore they owned only one tow truck … which someone had stolen during the night.

The sympathetic sheriff’s officer who later took my statement told me in essence to kiss my auto goodbye. He said the thief had probably taken it directly to a chop shop and that I wouldn’t recognize it in its present condition.

Well, there you have it. My faithful vehicle’s been stolen and, adding insult to injury, I paid fifty bucks for the privilege!

 
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I admit I’m a creature of habit. Give me a schedule to follow and I’m content. But change things up even a little and I’m lost – like yesterday, for instance.

Until this week, our landscapers were cutting the grass late afternoon on Saturdays. I loved the consistency, since it gave me ample opportunity to plan ahead. For instance, I knew not to grill on Saturdays, and I made sure to clear the yard of items I didn’t want eaten by a lawnmower.

Late yesterday afternoon, it hit me that the mowers I heard motoring over a neighbor’s yard were actually traversing our property, two days ahead of schedule! I hadn’t expected the landscapers, so I hadn’t bothered safeguarding the one item I could ill afford to lose: Prometheus’ squeaky ball. 

Our pint-sized puppy adores a certain brand of plastic squeaky balls. Given one, he’ll amuse himself for up to an hour (leaving me blissfully free to pursue my own objectives). The only problem is, the toys don’t last. His teeth may be tiny, but they’re needle sharp and they eventually tear gaping holes in the plastic. By Monday, he’d ravaged all but one of a four-pack. My intent’s been to purchase replacements this coming weekend, and I’ve counted on the last ball surviving till then. As of yesterday morning it still looked fine, despite Prometheus batting it about the front yard for a half hour while I caught up on e-mail.

As I listened to the landscapers mowing, I suddenly realized I’d left the surviving squeaky ball outside. I ran to the front yard, followed by Prometheus, and frantically searched for it. I couldn’t find it anywhere on the lawn. Desperate, I waved down the guy on the riding mower. I attempted as best I could to explain my predicament; however, it wasn’t easy telling the English-challenged immigrant from south of the border that he’d mowed up the single object I could not do without. Once his slightly more bilingual co-worker joined us, I managed to convey the gist of the problem and a proposed solution. Unsurprisingly, neither of them looked overjoyed at the prospect of emptying the lawnmower’s bagging unit. But I insisted!

Disappointingly, we failed to locate the missing toy amidst the enormous pile of grass clippings the Mexican lads grudgingly dumped onto the lawn. And the guys seemed less than pleased while debating the best way to re-bag the detritus. Yet their initial frowns appeared positively chipper compared to the frosty glares they fixed me a second later, when Prometheus blasted from our bushes … clutching the missing squeaky toy in his mouth. His possession of the object alone earned me the landscapers’ enmity; but he also compounded matters by racing straight through the grass pile and scattering it in all directions!

Knowing I’d been a jerk, I initially considered compensating the men with my entire collection of Taco Bell coupons. But bad enough being an asshole; I didn’t need to be a racist asshole to boot. Instead, I offered two apologies guaranteed not to offend any race, creed or nationality: the green ones, featuring Andrew Jackson’s stern visage.

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Zero Moskowitz called yesterday to follow up on my gravestone order. For the second time in as many conversations, he peevishly referenced food he hasn’t eaten in thirty-five years, thanks to a practical joke played on him at sleep-away camp. While I admittedly participated in that particular prank, I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on Zero’s claim has run by now.

“Operation Hot Buttered Popcorn,” as my Camp Cherokee bunkmates and I dubbed it, took place in the summer of ’76. The joke was planned and orchestrated by our bunk’s resident ringleader, Walter Bernstein. At his direction, I purchased a bag of popcorn from the “Canteen.” Walter and I met up with a couple of our bunkmates and all of us concealed handfuls in our pockets. Then, after ensuring Zero wouldn’t spot him, Walter snuck through the bunk and into the bathroom … where he peed on the bag’s remaining contents.

Once Zero shuffled in for rest hour, Walter sauntered out of the bathroom holding the bag in one hand while tossing the previously-removed, unadulterated kernels into his mouth with the other. I called out to Walter as if I’d just happened to notice his goodies: “Hey Walter, is that popcorn?”

Walter nonchalantly replied, “Yeah.  Why, you want some?”

When I responded in the affirmative, Walter brought the bag over. I pretended to reach inside and draw out a handful, but actually used the unsullied batch I’d previously squirreled away. I ate the portion and theatrically announced: “Man, there’s nothing like hot buttered popcorn.” After me, our two other co-conspirators likewise requested a sample from Walter, and he obliged. 

Zero had a passion for popcorn, as we all knew. And sure enough, after seeing Walter share his snack with three others, Zero screwed up the nerve to squeak: “Uh, Walter.  Do you think I could try a little of that popcorn?”

Having masterfully hooked his “fish,” Walter proceeded to reel him in with a fittingly begrudging: “I guess you can have some, Zero.” 

That did the trick. Reaching into the bag, Zero helped himself to a heaping handful. He tossed a bunch into his mouth and started chewing. At first he chomped rapidly. But then his face adopted a slightly quizzical mien. His rate of mastication slowly diminished, before ceasing entirely. At last, he mumbled: “There’s something wrong with this popcorn. It kinda tastes like pee!”

I didn’t dare glance at anyone else for fear of exploding with laughter. Even so, one-by-one, the other guys started snickering. I risked a peek and spotted blossoming grins throughout the room. Apparently, Zero also noticed. Sheer disgust crossed his face, and he spit out his unswallowed remnants. After a few moments doing his best imitation of a cat coughing up a hairball, he fled from the cabin. Tears streaming from his eyes, he yelled: “They made me eat pee; they made me eat pee!”

Let me tell you, there’s no sense of accomplishment better than the one derived from a perfectly executed scheme. Not one of us smug bastards would’ve traded the sight of Zero gobbling urine-soaked popcorn for all the Hershey Bars in the world. And despite the consequent loss of our Canteen privileges for the rest of the summer, none of us held regrets.

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Admittedly, my purchase of a bulletproof cup last month was a kneejerk reaction to Sophia’s target practice with her new pistol. I initially meant the item as a joke, for the most part; but I’ve since come to appreciate its precious value.

As expected, my wife thinks I’m nuts (actually, I could end the sentence there and she’d approve, but in this case there’s a specific context) spending substantial dollars on a functioning ballistic groin protector. And my habit of donning the cup every night before heading upstairs to bed annoys her to no end. Even so, she’s grown far more exasperated with my other bedtime habit. I announce my presence before mounting the stairs each night, calling out: “It’s your husband; don’t shoot!”

Sophia cavalierly dismisses any need for a bulletproof cup. She insists there’s no chance she’ll confuse me for a burglar and shoot me, much less aim for the nuts. Actually, that’s not quite true. She now concedes an accident could occur in either of two ways. If she comes to expect my staircase announcements and I forget to call ahead one night, she might mistake her husband for a burglar and commence firing. Equally, if my bedtime warnings persist, she may feel tempted to shoot knowing it’s her spouse on the stairs.

I’m willing to concede my bedtime antics are a bit much, but I’m a firm believer in “better safe than sorry.”  In any event, whether I truly need a bulletproof cup to protect me from Sophia seems nearly beside the point, since the object has already demonstrated its worth under different circumstances.

I usually sit on the floor, Indian style, when my puppy and his canine pal play together. Though I know they have fun, I use the word “play” in its loosest sense. Their idea of recreation mainly involves violent wrestling and maniacal biting of each other.  More importantly, Prometheus and Mr. Tootles conduct most of their wrestling and biting from within the confines of my lap. 

My vantage point affords me an excellent view of the dogs’ battles, and the sight of them flailing between my legs and baring their pointy teeth as they strike always proves entertaining. It’s also terrifying … to my pecker, Little Richard.  He’s convinced a mammal’s chomping canines will inadvertently decapitate him. Although I told him he’s exaggerating, I nonetheless stopped ignoring his pleas for protection after last week’s near miss  — when Mr. Tootles’ snapping jaws failed to make contact with Prometheus’ leg and instead clipped one of Little Richard’s golden nuggets.

Since then, I’ve donned my ballistic groin protector before every doggy play session. And I can count three occasions where one of the puppies bit down squarely on the cup, instead of on my knob or man-berries. Still, Sophia sees my latest application of the item as no more sensible than the earlier. My response to her doesn’t entirely make sense, but I’m sure she gets the point: “Wait till a dog bites you on the balls, and then tell me you think a bulletproof cup is stupid!”

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Since last night I’ve been ruminating on rumors, in particular the false but scandalous ones and how fast they spread.

I answered my sister-in-law’s call shortly after dinner yesterday, while preparing to go to my friend Jimmy’s house. After handing the phone to Sophia, I caught pieces of their conversation as I searched in vain for my wallet. She asked if Gina had met our new next door neighbor, Karen. Gina must’ve, since Sophia continued: “Isn’t she sweet?” The two then discussed the woman’s qualities as if all were well acquainted.

At that point I remembered where I’d last seen my wallet. I went upstairs and retrieved it from the pocket of the shorts I’d worn the day before. When I returned to the kitchen, I found Sophia still prattling on about Karen, but in a far juicier manner. I stopped short on overhearing a real humdinger: “Yeah, she was artificially inseminated. Those two kids were never his, but he supposedly paid her off to keep her mouth shut.”

I would’ve loved to learn more, but I was already running late. So I left without hearing the rest of the scandal. 

Naturally, the paucity of details didn’t stop me from mentioning my neighbor’s paternity issue to Jimmy and the two other guys who showed up for poker. They didn’t know Karen personally, but one of them thought his kids and hers were friends. He couldn’t wait to tell his wife about my astonishing revelation.

Apparently, news travels fast in these parts. Sophia called me from work an hour ago to complain about the gossip she’d just received. One of her friends from the subdivision had called to relate the shocking tale of Karen’s artificial insemination. The friend had obtained the story this morning from another neighborhood lady, who’d in turn heard it from someone else.

Sophia sounded vexed: “Richard, don’t these fishwives have anything better to do than blab about their neighbors? And it’s such utter bullshit too! Karen wasn’t artificially inseminated, and her ex certainly didn’t pay her off to say the kids are his when they’re not. Where do these stupid rumors get started anyway?”

She probably meant the last question rhetorically, but her comments so flummoxed me I forgot to keep my mouth shut: “What do you mean, ‘where?’ This one got started by you, when you told Gina about Karen and her fatherless babies last night.”

In her best “what have you done now?” tone, Sophia replied: “Idiot! I wasn’t discussing Karen then. Hell, I wasn’t even speaking to Gina anymore. I answered the ‘call waiting’ beep and started talking to Sharon … about the claim from Michael Jackson’s ex-wife that Michael hadn’t fathered his two oldest kids.”

It shouldn’t be long before the enticing, but probably baseless, tidbit reaches Karen’s ears. When it does, I can only hope that, like most rumors, its original source remains untraceable.

One mother and her perhaps-not-actually-the-father late ex-husband