Modern Responsa

The Library Carts and The Troubles

She did it for the carts. Books were nice, as was the quiet and her self-inking date-stamp, but the two blonde oak library carts were her reasons for having stayed on past retirement age. She loved their sloping shelves, smooth rubber wheels and the way they looked perfectly placed no matter where she left them within the perfectly parallel stacks. But The Troubles had come. Despite her many layers of clothing, she shivered as she wheeled one cart into its little parking space near where her desk used to be. All the books had been needed to keep the stoves going in the cafeteria. The shelves and the little library tables and chairs had been burned for heat, and soon the Custodian would be coming for the good wood of her carts. He would try again to persuade her to join the others where it was warmer and some food remained. But she had already made up her mind to remain standing in the empty library until The Troubles were gone.

Moral: The date-stamp never really changes.

The Loved Ones, The Large & Some Others

Pliers were in short supply, as were rasps, augurs, wrenches, saws, wood-planes, clamps and putty-knives. Surgeons no longer asked for scalpels, forceps, hemostats or retractors. The few forks, spoons and tools were now hoarded day and night in the hands of The Large. When the wheels fell off the cars and tractors, before the nuts and bolts could be ‘hand-tightened’, The Large would appear and take them. Surgeons wore their fingernails long and sharp and kept them as antiseptic as they could, and without needles or staplers, suturing an incision could take hours. Before long, everything fell apart. One day, The Loved Ones and Some Others plotted to confront The Large and demand the return of the instruments, tools, and metals. That night, under the invisible new moon, The Loved Ones and Some Others crept to the home of The Large. One by one, they eased themselves through the window that Some Others had managed to pry open. But it was a trap. The Large had been waiting for them and began to crush The Loved Ones and Some Others two at a time. Incredibly, Some Others had anticipated this, and The Loved Ones had already begun to grab up the all the tools, instruments, utensils and other bits of metal hidden in every dark corner of the  room. The Large stood still and tried to disappear. But it was too late. The Loved Ones and Some Others set upon The Large until The Large was no more than bits and pieces. The Loved Ones shouldered sacks full of metal, and Some Others shouldered the dead. And they all trudged back home to bury their murdered comrades and to restart their machines.

Moral: Not all capers are for decorating the salad.

The Augur and The Sheds

Behind one shed was another, and several more behind that one. And there were plenty of acres on which to build dozens more. Each was more sophisticated than the previous shed in front of it. Better wood, more electric outlets, new shelf-designs, more clever devices for storing Equipment, Gear and Tools. He’d built the first shed at the front of his property in a day, the one behind it in two days, the third in four. Today, he’d begin work on Number 6. It would take a little more than a month to complete. Then he’d spend one day moving into the new shed the mower, edger, cutter, mulcher, trimmer, puller, lump-hammers, pliers, screwdrivers, snow-thrower, leaf-blower, post-hole digger, log-hauler, pool-skimmer, and the rusty old washer and dryer that had all been in the shed right in front of this one. He’d leave the augur in one of the older sheds because he didn’t like the spelling.

Moral: Letters used to mean more than they do now.

The Romanians & the Bishop

“En passant,” he announced. Seated at his old leather-top tea-table from which he often watched the neighboring boats bumping against the pier, he was into the morning’s second Auto-Chess match. To play, one watched as the device played both sides of the match. The aim was for the player to announce each move before Auto-Chess made its next one. Two late announcements meant the game was over, and the player had to say “Resign” before Auto-Chess switched itself off. If the player was late to say “Resign,” Auto-Chess would remain locked for 24 hours. Auto-Chess had just moved a White Bishop. In Afrikaans, he mused, the Bishop is called a Runner; in Arabic, an Elephant. The very same piece was a Tortoise to the Georgians and a Shooter to the Czechs. Czech-mate! “Second late call!”, Auto-Chess announced, “Shutting down now!” He quickly came to his senses. “Resign!” he cried out, in the nick of time. He could play again that day. And, he remembered, to the Romanians, the  Bishop was a fool.

Moral: Resignation and designation rhyme for a reason.

The Bits of Hen

Hens made of coal lined her windowsills. The marks they left when someone carelessly moved them formed a record of their travels. She knew that soon she would run out of windows. When that day came, she would take up her hens, place them in a basket, and carry them to the stove. The hens would heat her room and cook her soup, and she would wipe the marks from the sills to get them ready for the new hens.

Moral: Each hen is a record of its own demise.

The Winston & The Lucky Strike

He took up smoking at his mother’s funeral. “You smoke?,” his older sister coughed around her Winston as her brother shoveled dirt onto their mother’s casket. “Yes,” he said. His younger sister, also smoking, told their older sister, “He’s always smoked.” Their father stood staring into the open grave, his own cigarette dangling from his lips. “We all smoke,” he announced, and then took a final drag on his Lucky Strike before tossing it onto his wife’s pine box.

Moral: Death is best left to the perplexed.

More to his wife

Without international electric-outlet adapters, their phone chargers were useless. “I thought you said you’d thought of everything!,” one of the kids snapped. “Well, I guess I didn’t!,” their father retorted more to his wife than the children. “And I guess,” he sneered at his wife through his teeth, “you think this is my fault too!” She took a long last look at her family. “I have all the adapters in my bag,” she said.

Moral: When you guess, you confess.

Sam Gadeloff’s Tragedy…But

Not everyone died, but most did. The explosion had taken the building down, but not all of it. Two families survived, but it was the Gadeloff family that did it better. That’s what they would tell the reporters, but the Jamals had a story with more action and a bigger surprise ending. The Gadeloff’s apartment was damaged, but mostly intact. The Jamal’s penthouse was completely destroyed, but Murray, Selma and their two sons were miraculously uninjured. All four of them had plummeted nine stories, but the tall stacks of spare mattresses that the Super kept in the cellar had broken their fall. Sadly, their fall had killed the super himself, but his legacy would be that he saved four lives. As the dust began to settle, the police, firetrucks and ambulances began to arrive, but the rescuers could see immediately that they were not going to save anyone that day. The Gadeloffs and Jamals needed no medical attention, but the paramedics wanted to take them all to the hospital anyway. There were no fires of any significance, but the firefighters sprayed thousands of gallons of water onto the rubble. And there was no one to arrest, but the dozens of police officers wrote tickets for whatever they could think of.  Reporters were already climbing over the ruins to talk with the Jamals, but all the mattresses made their efforts more challenging than rewarding. A talk-show celebrity had been the first one to reach the Gadeloffs, but Sam Gadeloff chose that moment to have a heart attack. “This one’s dead, now” one reporter called out in the general direction of the rescuers, but the heavy equipment was louder and he turned back to his interview with Gadeloff’s wife and children.

Moral: But for the grace of language no one survives catastrophe.

The Numbers, for Example, Like Six

“Fourteen’s a good number. So is nine,” the teacher instructed. At home, Ella couldn’t remember how to distinguish between good and bad numbers. “Don’t worry, dear,” her mom said, “you just put all of that out of your head.” The next day, the teacher was beside herself when she learned that none of the children had done their homework. “You’re overthinking it,” she said through clenched teeth. “It’s simple! Twelve is a good number, so numbers like twelve are also good. Six is an awful number, so anything remotely like a six is going to be bad! Do you understand?” No one did. “Numbers are either good or bad!” the teacher nearly shrieked. “This cannot be so difficult for you to comprehend!” It was. “Listen!” the teacher shouted. “Fifty-one! Good or bad?” When no one raised a hand, the teacher cried out in anguish and ran out of the room.

Moral: In the real world, no number is like any other number.

The Butler & His Employer

The day before his execution, the butler gave it one more go with his employer. “Who, exactly, is to be beheaded tomorrow?,” he asked, “You or me?” His employer, a stickler for diction and syntax, found the question annoying. “Precisely!,” he cried.

Moral: One must be alive to be a stickler.

The Impending

“Palpable poppable pimples” he recited. “Forgettable fungible fungus.” Big night. In line for promotion, he’d be introducing the Chairman to an audience of skeptics who lived for mistakes. Tonight, he would make none. “Impossible impassible improbable,” he concluded. Every syllable had been carefully loaded onto his tongue; the Chairman would never see it coming.

Moral: Alliteration often metastasizes.

The Swallows & The Swans

The little swallows didn’t know that they were swallows; in Sunday school, they had always been taught to think of themselves as swans. At the party following their First Communion, their parents called them over. “Tell them, Martin,” she nudged her husband with her tiny beak. Not waiting, she turned to her children and explained, “We are not swans. We’re ordinary barn-swallows.” The father flapped his pointed wings and added, “We’re lucky! The most beautiful swans are Mute! And they’re not even that beautiful! They all have big lumps under their beaks. And they eat disgusting things like frogs. Be thankful that we are not swans!” “Okay,” the little swallows sang in unison and returned to the celebration.

Moral: When you tell children exactly what they are, they know you are lying.

Joseph’s Rotten Heart

Removing Joseph’s heart should have been easier. The new heart was ready for transplantation if the surgeon could just pry the rotten one from the young man’s chest. “What the hell is all this chicken wire doing in here?,” the surgeon muttered. Without having to be asked, the scrub-tech placed the wire-cutters into his waiting right hand. She’d seen it all, but no matter how many times Dr. Uk came across the stiff wire mesh around a transplant patient’s heart, he still freaked out like it was the first time. “It’s doing what it always does,” she said quietly and with just enough humor to pre-empt any retort from the renowned surgeon. “Funny,” he replied as he snipped at the rusty filaments.

Moral: Things do what they do, though not always in that order.

image: Vampyre, from The Comic Natural History of the Human Race, print, Henry Louis Stephens, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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