Monday, July 1, 2013

Assertiveness Training for Mummies

by David Vardeman

The old lady across the street gave me the finger. She must be like a hundred and five, so what she’s doing giving me the finger is anybody’s guess. I wouldn’t be like a hundred and five and about to meet my Maker and giving the guy across the street the finger like there’s no tomorrow, I can tell you that. There’s a payday for these things, she’s got to know. You can’t live your life just any old way, giving the guy across the street the finger whenever you feel like it. If I’d done something, OK. Picked her flowers or run my car up on her lawn, or even given her the finger first. But here’s the thing. If I were like a hundred and five and even if the guy across the street was a jerk and had given me the finger first, I wouldn’t give it back to him. Heck, no. I would rise above the finger, consider the source or what have you. I would also consider my immortal soul, for the fate of your immortal soul rides on such things as whether you give the finger (first or second, it doesn’t matter which) or whether you turn the other cheek. I’m like seventeen and when this old lady that’s like a hundred and five across the street gave me the finger, I knew enough to turn the other cheek. What’s wrong with her? She gives you the finger first, which makes it pretty certain she’d give it back to you if you gave it to her first. Even at my age, I know enough not to give it second, and definitely not first.

There is no good or acceptable age at which to give anybody the finger, first or second. It is a gesture of contempt and therefore should not be given; by young and old alike, not given.

I told Mom about the old lady across the street giving me the finger, and right off she asks me what I’d done to make the old lady across the street give me the finger, like it was impossible she’d come up with it on her own. All these old ladies are not saints just because they’re old as hell. You’d think my mom, old as she is herself, would know that. I mean, she’s seen old people before. She’s seen them in action. Not all of them sport angel wings. Not by a long shot.

There were so many fish swimming around in my belly, you’d have thought my gut had turned into an aquarium when that old lady over there gave me the finger. It gave me a shock. I couldn’t believe it. I said to myself, “What just happened? Did that old lady over there just give me the finger, or what?”

She’s creepy enough as it is. She’s bony and tall and wears these black dresses that go to her knees and look like what you’d cover a coffin with if you were giving a really scary funeral. And she has this big glob of white hair she wears rolled all over her head and stuck down with spikes maybe. She wears this big key around her neck and holds it when she walks to keep it from banging against her bony chest; that is when she isn’t using that gnarled old hand of hers to give you the finger.

You’ve got to wonder what that key’s to that she has to have on her all the time and won’t leave in the house for a second. Maybe it’s to tighten her roller stakes. Who knows? Maybe it’s a magic charm that keeps her from dying. If so, it’s going a pretty good job of being a magic charm, because that old lady fears neither God nor devil nor man at this point. She sets that sharp old jaw of hers and fixes those eyes on you like two mean little pilot lights and does what she wants.

“You should go over and apologize to her,” Mom says.

For what, I’d like to know. I waved at her, and she gave me the finger back.

“She must have thought you’d given her the finger.”

The difference between a friendly wave and a stuck up finger is so big you can see it from the moon. And how’s that conversation supposed to go anyway? Am I supposed to knock on her door and say, “Excuse me. I happened to notice the other day you gave me the finger. I believe you must perhaps at that time have been under the mistaken impression that I’d given you one first. Let me assure you I would never under any circumstances do such a thing. First of all, I respect the elderly and think it’s a fine thing to be old. I have a respect for the elderly that out-Japaneses the Japanese. Furthermore, it’s a matter of the immortal soul, pure and simple, as most things are. I believe in this God, see, and this God is taking count, see, like nobody’s business. He’s a whiz at accounting, and it’s practically all He does night and day besides keeping the whole show going like popcorn and spinning this world and that world. He’s taking it all in. He’s taking it all down. He’s making note of it, even of such seemingly small things are your giving me the finger out of the blue, things that happen and that we tend to forget right away because there’s nothing to them, even though they’re mean and nasty and petty and really tend to get under the skin and make boils. I might shrug my shoulders and say, ‘Forget it,’ and go on. But you’ve enjoyed being nasty for no good reason, and in heaven that’s viewed as no small matter.”

I can tell you what would happen if I went over and started a friendly conversation like that. She’d take that key of hers and poke my eye out big time. And maybe if I didn’t react fast enough the other eye on top of it.

I tell my mom I have the feeling if I go over to that old lady’s house sporting the olive branch, I’ll come home blind, and she makes this noise that a baby makes when it’s had enough of that green stuff you’re feeding it.

I mean, we all know God loves a good laugh, but this old lady’s not it. She’s playing with fire. She’d better watch it. If in addition to giving me the finger she pokes my eyes out, she’ll have a lot to answer for. She’ll be in the hot seat. Who’d defend her up there, with God in the jury box and God in the judge’s seat and God as the prosecuting attorney? She won’t be giving anybody the finger when she’s sitting in that witness box up there under oath and cross-examination, I can tell you that.

So I’m not going over there and knock on her door and apologize for whatever she thinks I did that I didn’t do to make her give me the finger. I’m not going to let her risk piling sin upon sin by poking my eyes out in addition to everything else she’s guilty of. I’m not putting myself in that position either. We’d better not go there, is what I’m saying. I’m not about to tempt her to do what’d put her in even hotter water than she already is in.

Instead I might write her a “Hey, Look Here, Lady” letter. That’d probably be the best solution, if a solution is even possible after all that’s happened. Nobody seems to know what her name is, so I guess I’m stuck starting it out “Dear Esteemed Lady of the Finger” or “Our Lady of the Finger,” but that sounds a little bit snide on second thought, and if it’s anything I want to avoid being it’s snide. She’s got snide covered.

So it’ll be like:

“Dear Neighbor, Greetings and salutations from across the street. Perhaps you’ll remember me. I’m Charlie Halp, seventeen, from across the street who was bagging leaves last Saturday when you happened to poke your head and torso out your front door and peer at me for like five minutes and then gave me the finger when I got so uncomfortable feeling myself being watched by you for no reason that I shot you a friendly wave. Then you took that key of yours and banged your chest a couple times with it. This seemed like an extraordinary occurrence to me, so I thought I’d write you about it. I write because I can compose my mind better this way than if I try to say to your face the things I can with a calmer mind write down here for you to read. If I were to meet with you face to face, I would probably stutter and not make much sense. You would perhaps get super-frustrated and do things that need not be mentioned here.

“I hope you are still reading this and have not set fire to it. I have known people your age to set fire to themselves, so be careful.

“Assuming you’re still reading, here’s the import. I am concerned that because you are as old as whatever else is in the grave you think it’s OK and the prerogative of the ancients to do and say just about whatever they please. Even if you’re mentally ill and off your rocker as Mom seems to think you are, rampant behavior is still not a good thing. Of course you’ll be judged differently if you are mentally ill, but you’ll still be judged. But let’s assume for the moment that you’re not mentally ill but are simply cranky and don’t like young people much. Try not to be that way. We are not all bad, and some of us even have a Japanese-esque respect for those who have lived the longest on earth and seen it all happen several times over. We ourselves, the young, hope to live long enough to see it all happen several times over. In other words to get to where you are now.

“That being said, we also hope to arrive at that stage of super-familiarity with all that is and all that has been that you’ve attained without getting bitter and nasty, giving shocking, yes shocking gestures of contempt to persons to good will. For I meant by my wave only ‘Hale, Old Lady! Have an enjoyable sort of life!’ That was all my wave meant. But what did your finger at me mean? Everyone I’ve asked agrees it could only mean one thing, which shall not be written down here. It would only serve to cheapen our dialogue were I to write it down.

“Madame, it’s no secret you are about to meet your Maker, Who is God in heaven and will call you to an accounting of everything you have ever done and said and thought and intended. This should give a person pause at any age, at every moment, but particularly at the age where they’ve got a coffin carrying car reserved for them on the Celestial Railroad and have even scheduled a special run for you, The Old Lady Limited, and are even now screaming, ‘All aboard!’ In short, I write you because I am concerned for your immortal soul. If I weren’t concerned, would I have written? No. I would have shrugged the whole thing off, maybe laughed at it with my friends, if I had any.

But this finger business is just the tip of the iceberg with you, I’m afraid. It’s just one facet of a really seedy soul. How will you make it right when you can’t make it right anymore? When you’re sitting up there in court trying to explain why you gave this really nice guy the finger that day and then suddenly they trot in all these other surprise witnesses that start giving really detailed accounts of these other times you were nasty to them too. This trial’ll go on for maybe days and weeks, and after you’ve agreed to pay damages to all these people you’ve offended, you’ll be so far in debt they’ll throw you into Hades where you’ll have to shovel coal for like twenty thousand years until you’ve paid back every penny you’ve borrowed from heaven to pay damages.

“Because that’s pretty much how it’ll go. Don’t think just because you’re decrepit as decrepit they won’t make you shovel coal for twenty thousand years, because they will. If that’s your sentence, that’s your sentence, end of discussion.”

So that’s what I’ll send her. That should get her on her knees. That’s the thing too. You’re never too old to get on your knees and pray and beg for forgiveness and a change of heart. You can’t plead arthritis to Someone Who died in that kind of agony.

Half the time I don’t feel like getting down on my knees to pray, but I do it anyway because that’s what all the songs tell you to do. Well, not all of them. Not opera. But basically a lot of them of a certain sort.

What are the odds of getting this old lady that shot me the bird in response to a sunny wave to go down on her knees? The odds are not great. She’s probably the sort to think, “I wouldn’t go down on my knees if they promised me all the gold in Fort Knox.” She’s stiff-necked and stubborn. She fears neither God nor man nor the devil.


I did it. I hemmed and hawed for days, going one direction on it then the other until I had about the world’s most chafed groin. So I got off the fence. I had to if I wanted to have any skin left. After six days and seven nights of troubled sleep because of how that old lady across the street gave me the finger and went right on with her life, such as it is, as if nothing had happened, I’d had enough. My conscience was more troubled than if I’d done the finger myself. That’s because I had the burden of her soul on my conscience. If somebody does something nasty to you, your job isn’t to get even with them, like most people do. It’s to go to that nasty person and say, “See here. You did this nasty thing, and I think you should be aware God was looking on and saw the whole thing, and you’d better tell Him you’re sorry and change your dirty nasty ways.” When somebody does you dirty, it’s like God gives them into your hands to warn them about the coming judgment on them. You become their prophet. Prophet for a day, maybe.

So I wrote the old lady across the street the letter about asking God to forgive her for being nasty and about how she’d better change her ways quick unless she wants to work the furnace in Hades, et cetera. A little bit about doesn’t she hear the approaching hoofbeats of the horseman, the pale rider, which is Death Unlimited. I can be pretty poetic and evocative when I want to be. Anyway, I wrapped it up with a real kick in the hundred and five year old’s pants.

With a twist. I fudged a little for the sake of anonymity. I started the letter out this way:

“Dear Esteemed Resident of 125 Markwood Road. The other day as I was driving down your street, I happened to notice you step out on your porch and give a very friendly young man the finger as he was bagging leaves across the street. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that. I was appalled, and I decided right then and there to write you a letter and help you to see the error of your ways and convince you to mend them. My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, and you are just about there.”

I went on and on till she was bound to be in tears. And then I signed it “A Concerned Citizen.” I wanted to make it sound like I was doing my civic duty in addition to my moral duty to her as a gross offender against decency and the dignity of old age.

I addressed the envelope “A Personal Appeal to the Resident of (drop a line) 125 Markwood.” I added a lot of curlicues to my writing just in case through some weird series of coincidences and whoodathunkits she knew my handwriting. Like I don’t know how that’s possible, but on the other hand people are always saying anything’s possible.

And I mailed it. When I told my mom I’d written the old lady a letter about her past behavior, Mom said, “You didn’t!” like that could stop what had already been done. It didn’t make it any more appealing to her when I told her I’d made it anonymous.

But that old woman over there, I tell you, besides being a finger-giver must be some kind of psychic witch or other. About three days after I’d written her this appealing letter, I’m outside doing more with leaves, which is about all I seem to get around to this time of year, trees being what they are. I’m bent over this pile I’ve made and am scooping them onto my rake to dump them in the can when all a sudden it feels like the temperature drops at least fifty-five degrees in a second. Plus the birds stop chirping, the grass turns completely brown, and a cloud goes over the sun. My back goes stiff and prickly, and I straighten up and turn around with this feeling, ready to defend myself with my fists, and there she is, that old lady from across the street, standing like five feet from me, close enough I can smell the mothballs she obviously surrounds herself with and that explain why moths have yet to eat her to death from old age. She’s got this face like Death Valley and these six-inch-thick glasses with these globs of bluish pudding for eyes floating around like demented fish behind them. And her gnarled hands. They look stronger than the talons of twelve buzzards, I guess from holding on for dear life for so long.

Oh! She scared my heart. She displaced it two inches to the right. It was seismic displacement. I was the one about to die.

She was holding that letter a concerned citizen had written her about her unacceptable behavior.

I said to myself, “OK, Charlie, just hold it together now. Look innocent. Look innocent.”

Funny thing. Looking right at her I forgot what innocence was. I’d never heard of it before. No concept, no clue. The word was just nonsense syllables.

The worst was her voice. It was like a coffin lid creaking open or like your closet door creaking open after you’ve turned out the lights with God knows what creeping out of the closet toward you. She must have practiced that killer voice. It was a killer voice. And the stuff it said! I’ll give the sanitized version.

Basically it was:

“I know you sent this piece of manure letter you little piece of manure. Concerned citizen, my posterior. You can cram this piece of manure in a certain place. Mind your own fornicating hell-bent business.”

She went on and on like this till I practically turned inside out looking for a place to hide. Where’d an old lady like that learn to cuss like that or learn to give the finger in the first place? Did they have classes now for old ladies that wanted to learn to be vulgar as possible? What was it? Assertiveness Training For Mummies? It worked, I tell you. She could have taught classes in that stuff, the old frog. Man! She was like a secret weapon. The federal government would do good to hire her to scare the manure out of other governments.

She got me to apologize. I hadn’t intended to, and I really had nothing to apologize for. It was kind of an empty gesture on my part, but I felt I had no choice. You try holding your own against that bitter blast of wind and not apologizing, and see how far you get.

“I’m sorry. I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

I would have done or said just about anything at that point to get her to go back where she came from. Repeating my main points from the letter was not going to soften her any, so I bent my neck like the plow mule and asked her pardon.

She made some comment about wanting to fornicate with me, which was enough to make me want to resign from the human race on the spot, and then she turned in her very black long-sleeved dress and klunked off the curb in her very black dress and clod-hoper black orthos and glacially progressed toward home.

Boy, do you feel like a fool when you give somebody spiritual advice and then they spit in your eye. Particularly when it’s a nearly-dead old lady that could surely use the heads up. You think she’s lonely and old and dispirited and she’s surely going to appreciate the little bit of attention and the fact you care that she’s nearly roasted goat. But it ain’t necessarily so.

What a coward I am. I should have held her there. I should have used my charm to win her over and establish a closer relationship. Watching her seep across the street, I grasped at straws for a way to win a second chance with her.

I noticed the string around her neck. The key! I could start a conversation on a neutral subject, the key, and then lure her in with little crusts of bread.

“Hey! Excuse me!”

I saw her shoulders go up like guardrails. She turned at the pace of the sun moving across the sky.

She said I was not to call her Hey, little illegitimate issue that I was.

OK, I accepted that. “I was just kind of wondering what that key around your neck was for?”
She narrowed those globby eyes of hers until they were sharp as a snake’s eyes. She tensed her wrinkly mouth a couple times like she was trying to draw enough spit to hit me at twenty paces. I didn’t doubt she could do it. But suddenly all she wound up doing was breaking her face into this radiant smile and slapping her gnarly hands on her thighs and dipping her back end back like she was going to take a seat on thin air. She broke into the best witch’s cackle this side of Halloween. She was practically shrieking. In fact, she did shriek a couple of times. I thought she was going to suffocate from laughing. She was making such a fit of it, and all because I’d asked a polite conversation-starter about her key, that Mom caught wind and came out on the porch to see what was the matter.

When an old lady makes a fuss laughing like that, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the noise she’s making from gasps of panic and incapacity. I guess Mom thought the old battlefield was having a stroke standing there, and I guess maybe she might have been. I’m not that familiar with strokes. But she was having a pretty good time of it if she was.

Personally I’ve come to the conclusion she wears that key so people will rub themselves raw with curiosity and still not get an answer. She’s that kind of old lady, which is a bitchy way to be. I’m sorry to say it that way. I’m inclined to think maybe she gave me the finger just so things would eventually work out so we’d get to talking and I’d wind up asking what that key was for. And then when I asked, she was happy as if she’d made heaven because she’d got what she wanted out of me.

I don’t think that key’s to anything. I think it’s the key she takes your curiosity and locks it up within a Pandora’s box inside that house of hers. I think her name is Pandora.

She cackled on home, throwing her hands up and squawking every couple of steps, each time her gut busted again. I got pretty disgusted thinking this whole thing was set up so she could turn her back on me and laugh. Well, she picked the wrong guy to mess with. I’m going to pray her to death. By which I mean I’m going to drive myself crazy praying for that ancient Pandora night and day. She’ll feel the hounds of heaven nipping at her heels all right. She won’t have a moment’s peace till she gives in and turns over a new leaf and says, “Precious Lord,” and all that stuff they say when they finally get it. I’m going to have Old Lady Pandora in heaven with me if it kills me. You don’t just give me the finger when you’re like a hundred and five and expect me to let you go. “God, please save that wicked Old Lady Pandora’s soul from hell,” is what I’ll pray about twelve hundred times a day now that I’ve made up my mind. We’re going to live across the street from each other in heaven whether she likes it or not. And then when we’re up there being good friends and everything, talking over the good old days here on earth and how she won my devotion one day by giving me the finger, I’ll drop it casually into the conversation just what was that key for you had around your old neck anyway, Pandora. And she’ll tell me what it was for, if it was for anything. And if it wasn’t for anything, I’ll say, “I knew it all along,” and she’ll say, “If you knew it all along, Bub, why did you ask?” And I’ll say, “Well, I didn’t really know for sure. I just said that.” And she’ll say, “You can’t just say things in heaven. God! Don’t you know anything?” She’ll talk that way, saying “God!” like it’s OK to insult the stupid and telling me what I can and cannot say like I didn’t know how sacred heaven is and like she’s not the one being the vulgarian. And I’ll say to her, “Don’t get smart with me, Old Pandora. You might not even be here if it weren’t for me praying night and day for you like I did.”

And it’ll be this whole big mess, and they’ll have to separate us.

It’s a case of “in heaven as on earth,” probably. You want them there, but then when they get there you have to say, “There goes the neighborhood,” half the time.

 David Vardeman's short fiction has appeared in "Crack the Spine." "Glint Literary Journal" and "Life As An [insert label here]."  Other stories will soon appear in "Little Patuxent Review" and "Menacing Hedge."  He lives in Portland, Maine.

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