Sunday, October 11, 2015

Storytelling by the Seat of the Pants: Doris Speck Excerpt

It's storytime once again at The Crooked Clothesline. While preparing to take part in this year's National Novel Writing Month in November, I indulged myself by reading the results of my previous years of participation. After reading the following, written entirely on the fly, I thought, "Hey, this might actually be a good blog post for the easily amused."  I know I liked it! Please enjoy this excerpt from Doris Speck.

  Not only do the administrators of NaNoWriMo 
 challenge participants to write 50,000 words 
 in 30 days, they also encourage grown adults to 
 create covers for their yet-to-be-written novels.

Synopsis: It's 1960. Doris Speck plans to cash in on her good looks to be a Broadway actor, not for love of the craft but to prove wrong her cruel foster parents' dismal predictions concerning her future. Her plans go awry and Doris must contend with negative reviews, a mean beatnik roommate, answering phones at the funeral parlor, her employer's pet parrot, and an all-girl loanshark motorcycle gang before landing in the Australian outback as field assistant to Agatha Lovelost, an animal behaviorist living amongst the duck-billed platypuses.

     One evening, as there were no viewings on schedule, Mr. and Mrs. Ochman were preparing to head home at 6:00, leaving their nephew to finish an embalming.  Sometimes, when living customers were out of the building for the evening, Mrs. Ochman would open Motyl’s cage and let him fly around the foyer for a few minutes of freedom.  Doris found this appalling but she certainly preferred cleaning an empty cage to reaching her arm in with an agitated bird bigger than Howdy-Doody beating its horrid wings at her.  When Mrs. Ochman opened the door to the cage, Doris waited tensely until Motyl flapped off into a viewing room before she began her job.  When her heart stopped palpitating, she was able to perform her task with less displeasure.
    The phone on the desk rang.  Doris was loathe to touch the receiver while her hands were contaminated with Motyl germs but she found she was the only person in the room.  Thank goodness that by 1960 the Kimberly-clark Corporation had already introduced the Kleenex pop-up tissue carton!  Doris frantically whipped out a half dozen tissues which she wrapped around the heavy black handset before lifting the receiver to her ear.  A few minutes later, she was back in the embalming room delivering a message for the younger Mr. Ochman.  She leaned in through the doorway, hanging on to the door frame.
    “Mr. Ochman, your mother just called.  She wants you to come to dinner this Sunday.  She said to wear a tie; she’s invited...I think she said Sylvia Latham?  She said that Miss Latham attends Memorial Methodist Church,” Doris recited faithfully, “that she has just earned a bachelor’s degree in child development, her father owns a dry cleaning store in Manhattan and that she’s a great prospect.”
    Viktor’s face turned red and he almost dropped the scalpel he was holding.  Fortunately, he retained his grip and the Berenstein family’s beloved grandfather sported both ears at his viewing two nights later.  Viktor smiled more than a little sheepishly.
    “Uh...thank you, Miss Speck, for delivering that message so efficiently...and in such great detail.”  He cleared his throat. “Heh-heh!  Another Sunday dinner with Mother...dear old Mother.  Well, you know how mothers can be!”
    Doris came all the way into the room now and stood at the opposite side of the embalming slab.  Grandfather Berenstein was covered only up to the waist in a white sheet but Doris didn’t really notice him.
    “No, how can mothers be?” she asked, genuinely wanting to hear.
    Viktor mistook her curiosity as interest in himself and blushed again.  
    “Well, you know...”
    Doris shook her head.
    “Um...they can be demanding.  Case in point, my mother just called and told me to come to dinner on Sunday.” He laughed.  “They can be controlling and far too involved in one’s life as proven by the fact that my mother has taken it upon herself to scout out young ladies suitable for marriage and invite them to dinner in order to see how we might look together in the wedding photos.”
    The picture was becoming clearer.  Doris nodded her head and took a step or two closer.  Waiting to hear more, she leaned with one hand upon the surface of the embalming slab.  Viktor continued.
    “Of course, they can be manipulative,” he began to look at Doris strangely, “For example, whenever my Miss Speck.”  He gave a slight nod that seemed to indicate her hand.  She looked down to find that she was leaning with her palm on Grandfather Berenstein’s upper thigh.
    “Oops.  Sorry...”
    “No, that’s fine...I just thought it might bother you.”
    “Oh, not at all.  Why would it bother me?”  Doris gave Grandfather Berenstein a friendly pat to show that it didn’t bother her at all.
    Suddenly, an unpleasant flapping filled the air. A low-flying, rainbow-colored rat had flown into the room, swooping too close for comfort.  Wildly flailing wings beat above Doris’ head.  Caught off guard, her instincts took over and she ducked, throwing her arms over her face.
    “EEW!” she screamed, “EEW! EEEEWWW!! I hate that thing!  I hate that thing!  Get it away from me!”  Motyl had perched calmly high atop a freestanding instrument storage cabinet.  But Doris was still jogging frantically in place, paddling her hands madly in front of her face to keep beating wings from touching her.  She looked like what a television viewer might expect to see on American Bandstand after Dick Clark had just introduced a guest singing something about, “Everybody, do the Drowning Victim!”
    “Miss Speck!  Miss Speck!  You’re okay!”  Viktor called to her.  He stayed put at the other end of the embalming table since it would be impossible for him to approach her without receiving a black eye at the very least.
    “Miss Speck!  It’s okay!”
    Doris froze, her mouth still hanging open in horror, her eyes still large and frightened, her forehead furrowed.  She was embarrassed and ashamed.  More than anything, she was afraid of what would happen when Mrs. Ochman found out that Doris secretly harbored disdain for the beloved pet. Victor knew what the look on her face meant.
    “It’s okay,” Viktor said once more, “Your secret is safe with me.  I’ll get Motyl out of here.”
    Viktor was about to turn around and coax Motyl onto his arm when his aunt breezed into the room. 
    “Motyl! Zlatino! Time to go to bed, my sweetheart!”
    Doris and Viktor remained frozen staring at each other in silence.  Mrs. Ochman carried her baby out of the room, offering treats.  Motyl squawked, “My sweetheart!” before taking an orange slice from her.
    When they were alone again, Viktor smiled at Doris. 
    “That was a close call.  Now I know a little bit more about you than I did before.  I should be finished up here shortly.  When I am, may I offer you a ride home, Miss Speck?”

Friday, July 24, 2015

10 Shocking Reasons You Should Read This Post (#6 is so weird orange juice shot out my nose and I wasn't even drinking orange juice!)

Ah, gee, I feel kind of bad now. There aren't really ten reasons. There isn't even a #6. It was all a shameless ploy to lure you back to The Crooked Clothesline. It's been months since I've aired any dirty laundry and I've missed you!

I owe you an actual headline, don't I? I suppose if I hadn't lost all integrity and, instead, used my imagination, I might've come up with something like "Dogs: Just Kids Packin' Hefty Sniffers" or "Your Kid is Nothing More Than a Bi-Pedal K9."

You see, last fall while enjoying my rash and brash decision to leave my teaching position and luxuriate in delicious writing time, my cousin suggested to her friends that I might be just the person to help out with their dog-sitting business. I thought, "Eh, should be a fun way to bring in some cash until I have to get a full-time job." Oh, it was. It was also strangely familiar.

Yes, I spent the next several months noting the similarities between teaching a classroom full of kids and tending to a pack of dogs. Before you are offended, please note: I love dogs and kids. Pretty much. I was just surprised by the intensity of the similarities. Of course, if a person thinks hard enough, she can find some similarities between almost any two items. I've provided a Venn diagram to illustrate my point:

However, with dogs and kids it's more like this:

Granted, many of the similarities are positive and endearing qualities.....but this is The Crooked Clothesline.  And, really, isn't it more fun to focus on the ridiculous? So grab a glass of orange juice and let's see if anything shoots out your nostrils. 


In my experience as a teacher, blatant student disobedience was not a daily occurrence. Yeah, there was always that child who would have spent an entire math lesson folding his homework into an origami Yoda on the sly, if he could've gotten away with it (and it's possible some did.) However, the more spectacular displays of disobedience tended to be rare, such as the following incident that occurred during recess. One of my first graders had been told several times not to do such-n-such. Of course, he did it again -- simply for the pleasure of having all attention on himself. I remember the smile of glorious triumph on his face, his shoulders hunching up with each uncontrollable giggle. He hung back, just out of reach, waiting for me to call him over. When I did, his smile stretched even wider and he took off running in the opposite direction. 

As much as I would've loved to race after that kid and make him eat turf by tackling him to the ground, I knew I would never catch him. In addition, and more importantly, it was Fifties Day. I was in full costume. I could just imagine the Benny Hill theme music playing as an overweight, middle-aged lady in rolled up dungarees and cat-eye glasses chased a grinning little boy back and forth across the soccer field and up and down the play equipment while all the other first graders watched.  

So I nonchalantly blew the whistle to signal the end of recess and walked the line of obedient children toward the building with Mr. Naughty trailing along just out of reach (much like a dog!) I completely ignored him until he dared to walk within my reach. Without a word, I took him by the wrist and marched him to the principal's office.

Actor dramatization
Just like kids, most of the dogs I dealt with were mostly obedient. "Come." "Sit." "Drop it." Then, I met Roosevelt (not his real name.) Roosevelt was a fluffy yellow lab puppy roughly the size of a PT Cruiser. I had 30 minutes to get this giant baby to eat and go for a walk. He much preferred to loll around in the yard, munching away patches of the manicured lawn. Once he lazed in the grass with a bird carcass protruding from his fuzzy lips and refused to drop it. Another time, I was perusing handwritten directions left by the homeowners when Roosevelt snatched the paper out of my hand and ran away...reminding me of a certain student I once had. Roosevelt also confused my forearm with a Nylabone and left me peppered with tooth-sized bruises between the elbow and wrist.


 If you have a dog or a child, you probably already know what I'm  talking about. Both are separate entities from yourself and,  unfortunately, you cannot control either with your thought waves.  While teaching, if a mouse is spotted in the classroom, the calm,  orderly spelling test taking place will erupt into screaming and  clamoring to get a closer look. While dog-sitting, if the  homeowners leave a note requesting that you not allow their Lhaso  apsos in the pool, the landscapers will leave the pool gate open and  the dogs will jump in to ravage a poor, vulnerable lizard that you  will have to wade after in order to rescue.

Plays a Lhaso apso on tv.


Teaching can be a little scary in today's world. One mistake and your mascara-streaked mugshot may show up in everyone's Facebook news feed. The day students started bringing picture-taking cellphones to school, I got smart and emptied my desk drawer of the vodka bottles and stopped showing that Richard Pryor video for Black History Month.

I was always afraid that something I said to students would come back to haunt me. Part of my fear stemmed from my unprofessionalism. As one of my favorite first graders put it, "You're like a big kid, Mrs. Bastek." However, a problem much bigger than my leaky filter was what might be lost or gained in the first-grade translation later that night at the dinner table. 

"My dear Mrs. Jennings, let me assure you that Tommy grossly misquoted me. I did NOT say he was a brat. I said he was acting like a brat."

Being trapped in a classroom with 25 children all day drudges up all sorts of fearful thoughts. "What if I'm letting this child down?"  "Am I singlehandedly responsible for the tragic demise of cursive?" "Did Mrs. Jennings wrap up these homemade cookies herself or did she let little Booger Fingers do it?"

I never expected that during my dog-sitting jobs, I would again be poked by the cold finger of fear. Heck, dogs aren't scary. When I was around nine years old, my dad mentioned, somewhat jokingly, that I was too dumb to be afraid of dogs. Doesn't sound very nice, I know, but the man was right. For decades, I unreservedly invited any stray dog into the backseat of my car so I could track down its owners.

Not actual pit bulls
I will admit, though, that I had to put on a brave face to go feed and be company for two pit bulls. I want to say up front (so you don't get scared for me) that I got through the experience with nothing bad happening. Mitch and Micki (not their real names) appeared to be wonderful, friendly, loving dogs. They always acted happy to see me and enjoyed getting their hind ends scratched. Yet, after reading unsolicited "trending" articles on Facebook about pit bulls in the news I grew more wary. Honestly, every time I went to feed Mitch and Micki, my own brain spent the entire half hour visit inundating me with disturbing mental images featuring myself. I don't want to go into detail because they were not funny images. The result, though, was that I never bent down to pick up a dog toy in that house.

The similarity between teaching and dog-sitting is clear: one wrong move and you're dead meat.


Perhaps it is a little known schoolhouse phenomenon but it is my understanding that legends relating the mysterious appearance of poop on classroom carpets circulate amongst teachers as high up as the 5th grade. I myself have had to discreetly squat down mid vocab lesson, tissue in hand, to remove the object of horror (lest chaos ensue) and then attempt to sniff out the poopetrator.

Taking Bulldog classes at community 
So when it came to dog-sitting, one would think that as a former educator and lifelong dog owner, I would have developed a high tolerance for poo. Well, I recently had a brand new humiliating experience and for that I can thank a beautiful, gray bulldog named Layla (identity changed so the Dog Boss won't get mad at me.) While walking Layla through her apartment complex, she had a bout of the big D, in the grassy common area right outside of a semi-circle of patios. I was a little stunned, standing there with my limp and useless doggy doo-doo bag. I texted the Dog Boss to see if he had any suggestions, really hoping he would say something like, "Oh, please. Just leave, ya' goofball!" I loitered for five minutes without getting a response. Then, confident that no one had witnessed the event, I took Layla back to her home and prepared to leave. That's when the Dog Boss called all panicked, saying that the apartment management would DNA test any dog poo found on the property and that the Layla's owner would get in trouble. Now, I don't know if that claim itself was a load of caca but I found myself scooping up dog diarrhea with two red Solo cups. 

That might've been the very night I decided it was time to throw in the leash.

Messy Business

So in the past year, I moved seamlessly from one messy business to another. The overlap between teaching and dog-sitting really did strike me as funny. I remember being very nervous about the pit bulls. I reminded myself that I was also always nervous the night before a new school year started and had to put on a show for the kids of not being nervous. So I told myself to do the same with the pit bulls: just put on a show and use my teacher voice. It worked. Both jobs provided me with lots of laughs and a clientele that was 100% adorable. One major difference between the dogs and the kids is that the kids usually could tell when I was joking and when I wasn't. I hope you can, too! 

A special thanks to 
          Shawna,           Harvey,               Langdon and Sophie,               Roscoe    and     Annabelle.