Modern Responsa

The Wetness Notwithstanding

“Urination,” he told the class, “may be a sign or a symptom, but it is almost never a cause. ” And as usual he felt compelled to add, “a distinct sensation of wetness notwithstanding.” Most of the things he told his students were the result of a compulsion to say them.

Moral: Learning demands obsessing whereas the reverse is as rare as an open-eyed sneeze.

The Quitting Time

When Maggie died, Terre and Suzzy were still “Roches” but no longer “The.”

Moral: It’s a terrible thing to outlive the definite article.

The Honor Just to Be Nominated

Brains and Beauty divorced after a brief marriage. Their claims of a lasting friendship and an amicable split were believed by no one. Nevertheless, on the Red Carpet at the awards event, they greeted each other warmly. Later, neither won anything.

Moral: Winning is neither everything nor the only thing, but it tries to be.

The Leader, the Blankets and the Gun

Each family got one blanket. Rules were rules. Families with more than a couple of young children created schedules. For an hour, three or four of them could be warm. Then cold while the others warmed up by at least a few degrees. In the darkest corner of the damp cellar, the Leader sat beneath several blankets and comfortably upon dozens more. The others knew about the Leader’s blankets but were afraid to demand—or take—more of them. The Leader also had the only weapon—a handgun “full of bullets,” the Leader would remind them. Any attempt to take, or even demand, another blanket meant death. One child had been sent by her parents to beg for an additional blanket. Her family, she told him, had nine children. The Leader shot her and called over to her family, “Now you have eight.” The girl’s father crawled over to retrieve the girl’s body and cover it with lime from one of the sacks beneath the slit of a window. The war cannot last forever, the mother of eight murmured to her children. One day soon, she said, there will be plenty of blankets.

Moral: Hope for warmth; expect death.

The Modicum of Care

Without books, the library seemed pointless. A place, our father explained, had to have a point to it. The point of a soup kitchen was to feed the hungry. The point of a nursing home was to provide beds and a modicum of care to the elderly. The point of house, he went on, was to provide shelter to the surviving members of a family. No books, he concluded, meant that the library’s point was gone. We had heard something like this once before when our father had wept and convulsed in the family room, howling between deep sobs that the goddam pointless hospital could not even save his wife.

Moral: Books cannot be read through tears, though they should be.

The Pink and the Red

The girls were playing Russia on the sidewalk. Bounce the pink ball, crescent kick a leg over it, catch the ball. Each time someone missed, she accumulated an additional letter—R.U.S., etc. Getting to Russia meant losing. In those days, Russia was an enormous red expanse on the school map, bigger, it seemed, than its own continent. The United States was also bigger. But no one played The United States.

Moral: Pink balls are to oppression what size is to misimpression.

The Least of Things,
The Beginning of the End,
& The Sum of All Fears

The Least of Things declared himself Emperor. It was a simple enough thing to do, though no one noticed. His son, The Sum of All Fears, was ashamed when no one at school acknowledged that his father now ruled the Land. When he demanded their respect, they mocked him, and his teachers told him to hush. The Least of Things could not understand why his declaration seemed to have made no impression on anyone. His wife, The Beginning of the End, consoled him by saying “there, there,” but to no avail. And for the rest of all their days, The Least of Things, The Sum of All Fears and The Beginning of the End were as good as invisible to the Wider World.

Moral: Don’t declare what you cannot resemble.

The Fool, His Money & the Therapy

The Fool and His Money decided to try again. Neither felt confident that things would work out much for the better, but after all they’d been through, at least they could go speak to someone. His Money suggested a therapist specializing in lists. The therapist gave them a homework assignment. “Make two lists,”  she told The Fool and His Money, “of what you want from one another and what you can realistically expect.” That night, The Fool and His Money wrote their lists. Then they threw them into the fire. After watching the lists turn to ashes, The Fool said, “It’s finished. I’m going to bed.” His Money remained in front of the fireplace, watching the ashes flutter and swirl above the burning log. “There,” His Money mused, “but for the Grace of God go I.”

Moral: Listlessness is often just the first item.

The Leper Wedding

The Lepers danced all night, with only one or two of them falling completely apart. The lone outsider was the priest who had accepted the invitation to perform the ceremony against all advice from the Bishop. He knew that he would contract the deadly disease, and it didn’t bother him. Leprosy was just another way to trudge down the road to death. What troubled him, however, was the advice he’d given the young infected couple about their wedding night. What did he know about sex, let alone sex between lepers? “Do your best, ” is what he told them. “Trust the process,” he’d added. The doomed couple said, “Thank you, Father,” as they left the tiny stone outbuilding given over to the priest for his stay. “I’m no one’s father,” the priest had thought. “And that poor young man will also never be anyone’s father. ” After he had pronounced the young people husband and wife, hugged them and their families and friends, the priest returned to the outbuilding. Removing his cassock and collar, shoes and glasses, he stretched out on the narrow cot and waited to become a leper.

Moral: Celebration is lost on the celibate.

All the Pieces

Almost no one looked up anymore. The sky was filled with debris, and the popular belief was that looking up meant something big would come down. An old satellite, pieces of space-capsules, hatch-covers, space-rivets. But Zofia was not like most people. She looked up often, hoping to find evidence of the sun.

Moral: Pieces of things are also things and vice versa.

The Proof

Einstein rechecked the math, using both long division and algebra. Same result. Time, he had just proven, did indeed have a beginning, and it was earlier than anyone had previously thought. But who could he tell? And when?

Moral: Trees fall.

Stuff & Nonsense

Stuff and Nonsense were at it again, and Oh Mother Please had heard enough. “Come down here,” she called up the stairs, “both of you!” The two of them stood at attention in front of Oh Mother Please, knowing full well that they were about get Discipline First, Explanations Later. The former consisted of sending them into the yard to find a stick, then using that stick on the backs of their hands. As for the latter, Oh Mother Please wasn’t the slightest bit interested in their explanations. “! I don’t want to hear it!,” she scolded them. “Now put ice on your hands, and go to your rooms! I’ve had quite enough of both of you!”

Moral: Mothers never satisfactorily explain their contempt.

The Cost

A Penny for Your Thoughts was being put out to pasture. “Those are euphemisms, aren’t they?” the aging thoroughbred said as its owner urged it to amble off into the grass. “Why yes,” he said, “I suppose they are at that.”

Moral: Naming a living thing is always at least somewhat embarrassing.

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