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“A Child’s Garden of Curses”

Published: February 9, 2011

One evening last week I was dreaming over a drawer full of old love letters, fancy rhinestone garters, and similar trophies of the chase when I turned up a fading snapshot depicting two coxcombs of the vintage of 1922. Against the unlovely façade of the Brown University chapel, the photographer had immortalized my roommate and myself in an attitude recalling Damon and Pythias. We both wore green Norfolk jackets and Tattersall waistcoats, clenched class pipes trimmed with numerals in our teeth, and generally suggested a couple of cynical, fatigued rips who knew a hawk from a handsaw. I was suddenly suffused with a warm, boozy emotion and the sensation that a tennis ball bad lodged in my larynx. Tears the size of Malaga grapes welled down my seamed cheeks; across the years I heard again the trumpet passage from When Day is Done and the Mound City Blue Blowers in Hindustan. Automatically, I reached for my hip, half expecting to find the curved and monogrammed flask filled with gin at body beat.

Trembling with emotion, I sought out my consort, a statuesque creature compounded of fire and ice. She was in the scullery, where she was compounding some fire and ice in a glass. I informed her I was arranging a reunion with old Jim Budlong, to whom I referred with a sob as the salt of the earth and a perfect crackajack. The prospect of listening to us exhume our student pranks, while she discussed dress patterns with a total stranger, naturally electrified her. Ducking the oncoming coffee grinder with the grace of a born athlete, I sauntered negligently to the phone and called the old crackajack.

On the appointed eve, the napery was flawless and my eyes outshone the silver service as I busily shook up Martinis with imported vermouth and opened a box of choicest Havanas. The dinner had hardly smoldered to a crisp before the old crackajack entered. Beyond acquiring a set of false teeth, a paunch and a slight facial paralysis, he had not changed a whit. His wife, a vinegary soubrette with rimless bifocals, straggled in, ten paces behind. The two ladies exchanged a limp handshake and sat down, eying each other venomously. With a hearty chuckle that sounded like a man strangling on a piece of bread, I whisked out the cocktails. It developed that our guests did not indulge, though Mrs. Budlong explained that if people wanted to make a pig of themselves, that was their own business. There was a short silence lasting twelve minutes during which the Czarina and I made pigs of ourselves.

When the pressure reached forty pounds to the square inch, I could stand it no longer.

“Hiya, old sock!” I roared out abruptly, pounding my classmate between the shoulder blades.

“Hiya, old keed!” he roared back, pounding my shoulder blades. This exhausted the subject and the four of us studied our palms minutely. At length, Mrs. Budlong leaned over and informed my wife, with sweet satisfaction, that her slip was showing.

“I know it,” replied the latter through her teeth. “That’s the way I like it. I think it’s more provocative, don’t you?” The Budlongs exchanged a glance indicating that their hostess was a blend of Messalina and Little Egypt.

“How long have you two been married?” demanded Mrs. Budlong, with the crisp distaste of a social worker.

“Why, we’re not married!” my dream girl answered sunnily. “I thought you knew. He bought me down in Buenos Aires as a plaything. He’s got a wife and three children up in Haverstraw.”

As the maid kicked open the door to announce that the soup was on, a hush reminiscent of the Eden Musée greeted her. All we needed was a licensed mortician tiptoeing around placing pennies on our eyelids. Dinner was a carnival of gaiety; Mrs. Budlong spent it furtively wiping the spoons to guard against infection, and her husband kept consulting his watch like a conductor on the Rock Island road. The boiled beef set his tongue wagging, however, and he made a little talk on steam turbines lasting into the crêpes Suzette. In desperation, I began harking back to youthful didos under the elms.

“Remember the time we hoisted the dean’s cow up on the roof of the chem lab?” I giggled.

“Ho-ho, that was the cat’s cuff links! ” he chortled, turning excitedly to my wife. “Did be ever tell you about that one?”

“He did,” snarled milady, “and I still say that if you could only put it up in tablets, you’d have the biggest thing since the discovery of chloroform.”

At this juncture a world-famed surgeon named Al, who runs a small place on Third Avenue, telephoned that my grandfather was sinking fast at the Misericordia Hospital and was not expected to live through the floor show. We made a date with the Budlongs to take potluck in East Orange next Thursday, and sped like the wind to the bedside, but it was too late. Grandpa was deader than a mackerel—and that goes for a certain dinner date next Thursday, brother.

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