On my previous and now-defunct page, I asked readers to come up with topics they wanted to see me write about. As a result, this “Challenge The Curmudgeon” topic came from one of the greatest and most unique writers around. Notice I didn’t say one of the greatest “bloggers” or one of the greatest writers I know personally. I said “one of the greatest writers around” — full stop. I know her name but part of the mystique of the initial exposure to her work is the sense that it comes straight out of the ether. So I will call her Orchid’s Lantern and strongly encourage you to become as big a fan as I have: https://orchidslantern.wordpress.com/. She asked me to rise to the following challenge: “I’d like to see a post on what you think it means to be sane.” Sanity is subjective, of course, but that’s a flimsy excuse for backing out of a challenge. Therefore, I attempted to illustrate my notion of sanity with a parable.
“Do you believe this shit, Irma?”
“What shit is that, Dear?”
“If you paid attention to the news instead of wasting your time knitting another afghan that nobody needs, you’d know. These crazy Muslims, got nothing better to do than blow stuff up. Must be something in the water out there. Every single one of these Arabs is goddamn loco.”
“Hmm. Well, they did invent afghans. I think that was a lovely thing for them to have done.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Afghans. Like the one I’m knitting. Invented by Arabs. From Afghanistan.”
“I think you’re getting senile, Irma. All you can think about is blankets while the whole world is going to hell because it’s overrun by Muslims. Get me a glass of water with lemon.”
Irma placed her knitting needles on the arm of the recliner and shuffled into the kitchen. She took a glass from the dish rack and filled it from the tap, mesmerized by the overflow of water circling the drain like the entrance to a subterranean vortex.
“Do you want ice, Henry?”
“Irma, for the last 42 years, I have always wanted ice in my drink. When I have a glass of water, I like it to be cold. Can you grasp that concept? Cold water? What’s 365 times 42, Irma? That’s how many times you’ve asked me if I want ice. Have I yet responded in the negative?”
“No, Dear, you haven’t. You always like ice in your beverage.”
Irma picked a lemon wedge from the yellow bowl on the counter and hooked its flesh into the lip of the glass. The bowl was yellow because lemons are yellow, so that’s where they kept the lemon wedges. She opened the freezer and popped three ice cubes from the tray, then placed them one by one into the glass.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Irma! Have you seen this Gay Pride Parade nonsense? Have you ever seen anything more insane than this? Goddamn men in dresses and women in I don’t know what – it’s complete madness! People don’t even know what they got in their trousers anymore. If they were my kids, I’d have ‘em all committed until they figured out what God gave ‘em. This whole generation – out of their goddamn minds.”
As Irma was making her way back to the living room with Henry’s water, she was struck with an epiphany. She turned around and reentered the kitchen.
“Holy crap on a cracker, Irma! I asked for a glass of water, not a damn Mojito!”
“Just a second, Henry. I got distracted looking at the birds in the feeder outside the window. They really seem to enjoy it.”
“Of course they enjoy it, Irma. It’s filled with food and they’re birds. While you’re in there practicing to join the Audubon Society, I’m in here dying of thirst. Stop being a flake and bring me my drink, please.”
Irma opened the cabinet where they kept the silverware and felt around in the back until her hand grasped the tiny pill bottle she had stashed there. It didn’t contain any pills, though it was still adorned by Henry’s blood pressure prescription label. Last month, Irma had happened upon a machine shop on her way to the pharmacist with Henry’s empty pill bottle. She poked her head into the open door and noticed that all of the machines were unattended, the workers on break. Tiptoeing over to a table next to a big noisy metal contraption, she unscrewed the bottle of benzene sitting there and poured about a dram of it into the pill bottle. Strolling nonchalantly back out to the sidewalk, she continued to the pharmacy where she told the man behind the counter that Henry had lost the bottle from his last refill.
“Irma, are you alright in there?”
“What the hell is taking you so long?”
Unscrewing the pill bottle, Irma spilled its contents into the glass of water and put the empty bottle into the pocket of her bathrobe. She returned to the living room and placed the glass on the TV tray in front of Henry.
“Irma, now I know you’re going batty. Do you see the coaster right here on the table? That’s where the glass goes, Irma. This is why we have all these rings on the furniture. I swear, you’re like a child. You’re regressing. Staring at birds, ignoring coasters, knitting enough blankets to supply an orphanage – what’s gotten into you? Are you crazy?”
“I don’t think so, Henry. It’s hard to say.”
“What kind of answer is that? ‘It’s hard to say’? It was a yes or no question, not a tongue-twister. I’m calling Dr. Evans tomorrow to check you out.”
“That’s fine, Henry. I like Dr. Evans. He has good magazines in his waiting room.”
Ignoring that last bit of nonsense, Henry picked up the glass and put it to his lips.
“Why does this taste sweet, Irma?”
“Sweet? I don’t know. It must be the lemon.”
“Lemons are sour, Irma. And at the moment, there’s only about a centimeter of it submerged in the water.”
“I’ll try to make you better water next time, Henry.”
Henry took several gulps of the water and placed the glass down on the coaster. Irma watched as his eyes widened in terror and he wrapped his arms around his flabby paunch. He began to shake and foam at the mouth as he looked at Irma pleadingly. In less than a minute, he stopped struggling, fell back into his armchair and died.
Humming a happy tune from her childhood, Irma placed the freshly knitted afghan over Henry’s knees and took the empty glass back to the kitchen. She went to the hall closet and grabbed a leftover party hat from their granddaughter’s fifth birthday party and placed it on Henry’s head, adjusting the rubber band beneath his chin. Then she picked up the telephone and called an ambulance. She asked the dispatcher to send a police officer, too.
When the emergency vehicles arrived, Irma was sitting on the front lawn sucking her thumb, mesmerized by the dancing lights and sirens. An officer approached her.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
“Oh my, yes,” Irma replied. “I’m very fine, thank you. A little while ago, I was crazy. Batty, in fact, as Henry would put it. Then I remembered that when I was a little girl, I could look at all the birds I wanted and jump and play and sing and nobody like Henry was around to call me crazy. So I let Henry go. It was the sanest thing I’ve ever done. I thought of it last month, actually, but then I forgot and just sort of fell back into the habit of doing everything Henry asked of me and listening to him go on and on about how the world has gone crazy. He always told me I was crazy for not seeing how crazy everything is, but I think it was just a matter of perspective. Pointing at everything you see and saying ‘crazy’, ‘crazy’, ‘crazy’ – now that’s what I call crazy. Yes, Officer, I’m okay. Henry’s inside in his chair with a nice new afghan to keep him warm. Can you hear the birds singing? It’s such a lovely day for an old lady to regain her sanity.”