Thursday, December 05, 2013
Bob Wilkins' Short Short Stories
BOB WILKINS’ SHORT SHORT STORIES
His publicity photograph had his signature look. He would continue to wear the thick black frame glasses that many, including myself, wore in the 1950s (Some call it the “Buddy Holly” look). Thin blond hair and thin lips – to deliver sharp observations – were part of the man whose body seemed delicate, or perhaps it was frail from his recent years in a tuberculosis sanitarium. It seemed a little incongruous to see the small, luminously white hand holding a big black cigar.
I had no television for years and was unaware that my old college friend Bob Wilkins was in the Bay Area until I heard people talking about him; they were both puzzled and entertained by his appearance and strange, dry humor, and I was so sure that I knew who they were talking about that I asked, “Are you talking about someone named Bob Wilkins?” Among other, personal elements in his new life, a large audience loved to watch him host the late night (weekend?) broadcast of old horror films, “Creature Features,” on Channel 2, KTVU, in Oakland.
There was never a reunion after or college days as our lives had separated naturally and were too different later, but, hearing of his death, I wrote some brief memoir of Bob Wilkins on my blog (an entry on 11 January 2009, I think), but I think I failed to include some short short stories Bob wrote (below). I just came across them, and I am not even certain that I ever had a chance to share them with his family.
The Brave Bullfrog
Mary Johnson was a sweet old woman. She was very fat in the legs and was often taken to have had a case of elephantiasis. Mary was a nightwatchman in the city hospital’s eye bank. She was crazy about the job even though its salary was nominal. It gave her a chance to get out of the house once in a while. One hot humid evening in August, Mary set out for work. She carried her massive lunch in her right hand, some twenty-two sandwiches of assorted ingredients, and approximately six pounds of fruit. In her left hand she held her trusty old faded Chinese umbrella. As she neared the hospital she spit on the sidewalk as if she were imitating a truck driver with a mouthful of tobacco. She stopped for a few seconds to watch two dogs mating under a nearby tree. As she entered the hospital old Fay Foltz at the desk handed her a letter. Fay smiled as if she had read it. Mary set down her lunch and umbrella. The letter was from her son, Mac: Dear Ma, please bring back the outboard motor. All is forgiven. Signed Mac at the lighthouse. Mary smiled, Fay giggled. Mary then noticed that her lunch was missing.
Bob and I were drinking buddies for a couple of years at the end of our attending Indiana University. I was in a grim state of mind after the suicide of a favorite uncle and feeling the ever-increasing psychic weight from denying my homosexuality, and so I was a good, gloomy foil for bright, witty Bob.
Wayne was not like the other guys in his block. Wayne had rather large hands and somewhat larger ears. When December 7, 1941, rolled around, Wayne, like many other good Americans, hid in the fruit cellar. Nine years later he came out of hiding. Wayne then joined a travelling circus and was trampled to death by several elephants.
N. Wrigley was a fellow student in Professor Alan Merrill Hollingsworth’s writing group, and Mr. Wrigley shared an apartment with Bob. He and some other friends invited me to come meet Bob in a downtown Bloomington, implying that something about us would make sparks fly and be very entertaining for the others. When I got there, Wrigley introduced me, and then they continued a discussion they were having about why the best choice for Homecoming Queen would not be selected – “because she’s Black.” Bob seemed the most incensed by this injustice. To get the anticipated confrontation out of the way, I provoked with “But why do you care so much?” Bob, having the whitest skin possible, paused, for perfect timing, and said, “Because I’m Black.” Everyone laughed.
It had been a nasty winter in the small town of Strunz, Iowa. Tim Bellson was a night watchman at the Dawson Fertilizer Plant. Old Tim always carried a pint on him. The stove was broken at the plant, and old Tim should have been cold that winter night. But he wasn’t because he had his pint on him. About two in the morning it happened – several loud knocks at the door and then the sound of a speeding car leaving the scene. Tim darted to the door and found a plain note explaining, “Give him a good home.” He pulled back the small blanket and saw a pregnant walrus.
Wrigley was right to sense that Bob and I would achieve some kind of lasting rapport. We spent countless hours, mostly in drinking establishments or, on the road, at taverns elsewhere. We passed the time sharing our opposing views on life and on the human race passing by. Bob, a business major, who secretly wanted to be a professional comedian, could be counted on for an acerbic reaction to people.
The bay was foggy as the old tuna boat came into dock. Red Reed, wearing a black leather overcoat, caught the local bus and got off at Madison and 79th. Red was tired as he entered his dingy one-room apartment. There on his bed was Fay – Fay Martin, his old third grade teacher.
Something about his pale and slight appearance, but also his ability to make anyone laugh with his amusing wit, gave him a unique kind of virility that women found attractive. Memory makes me realize that I also observed the physical man while we bantered; it was fascinating to watch his small, thin fingers, tendril-like, grip his glass of beer or his cigar, or when he gestured in the air.
The Summer Rain
Clyde Simpson sat in the morning sun cutting his toenails. Mrs. Simpson, a greasy creature with massive hips, was milking a goat nearby. A hard driving rain thundered down from the sky but both held their positions as if they were glued to their spots. Then it happened – a yellow cab pulled in the driveway and Clyde knew his country was at war.
One day when I came to writing class, Wrigley had some stories Bob had asked him to pass along to me. Wrigley imitated the sardonic tone Bob wanted to convey, asking for my criticism of his “first book,” these stories. Not bothering to analyze his game, I let him know later that I love the stories, so whimsical and free, and wished he could find a place to publish them. Their Midwestern dry humor was like Dada’s liberating nonsense.
The Golden Milk Bottle
Sam Cartwright peered through the window of a downtown tavern. He spied a sign over the bar that read, “No Albinos Served.” Sam smiled, tightened his old army belt around his waist, and moved down the street. Then all hell broke loose – cars honked their horns, ladies waved and shouted, children pointed to the sky. Above, a plane flew lazily by with a large banner attached proclaiming: GENERAL MacARTHUR HAS SUCCESSFUL HERNIA OPERATION.
Some of the bars in Bloomington, Indiana, were far more educational than the classes. Besides the collegiate gathering spots, including the café where Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust,” a wonderful mixture of students, professors, and stonecutters from the nearby limestone quarries mingled in one bar that drew us in on Friday nights. People from campus productions, dressed for the opera or symphony, were elbow to elbow with unkempt students and stonecutters from the limestone quarries in their work clothes, eager to celebrate the end of the week. The music was a wild and infectious blend of music. Mostly white country musicians played music from the Black community of Nashville – the raw roots of rock before it was popularized, with lyrics gritty and amusingly sexual; every place in the United States must have a blend of whatever musicians bring as they wander the circuit of people’s bars, with a dash of zydeco on the accordion, and led by a wild piano player who sang songs that were already being pasteurized on popular records. The night always ended with a brawl that was like a brawl filmed in slow motion, everyone too drunk to land a solid punch, most of the action taken up with staggering back and forth, with people uncertain who they were fighting sometimes, as the poor elderly waitress, also drunk, bounced this way and that in the action.
The sunlight blinded me as I made my way from the kitchen to the living room. There, sitting on a pile of old Life magazines was Edie. I yelled at her in a belligerent tone, “What in the holy hell are you doing in here?” She laughed and shrugged her massive shoulders. I kicked at her and she darted into the kitchen. It was then, and probably for the first time, that I knew that I would never drive a Greyhound bus again.
In the great stonecutters’ bar and in a variety of other places, bars, Bob and I enjoyed observing and analyzing the nature of the human race, consciously comparing how it looked from a writer’s eye as opposed to how it looked to a comedian. I think we thought that our drinking habits were good training for our vague and incoherent futures. How many moral questions did other people arouse for us, and in what ways did we differ in our reactions?
We found our wisdom in wit, “that quality of speech or writing which consists in the apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise and delight by its unexpectedness….:”