I am a person of great complexity and contrast. Take cleaning, for instance. I absolutely hate doing it. I’m busy all the time, so when I have a spare hour or two the last thing in the world I want to fill it up with is cleaning. At the same time, I can’t stand a dirty house. When things are in disarray, I feel the weight of clutter putting a drag on my life, slowing me down, holding me back. My aversion to cleaning versus my deep need for cleanliness creates great dramatic psychological tension: which impulse will win? Well, of course, ‘cleaning’ is the victor every time. I mean, you have to do it, right? Sigh.
My house is no mansion, but it does have a lot of rooms. I have five bathrooms. Five. Who needs five bathrooms? That’s five toilets—and yes, they must be cleaned even if they aren’t used. Anyway, I have estimated that if I clean straight through with no breaks I can deep clean the whole house in 2.5 hours. But I never do clean straight through. I allow myself to get distracted by things, and the 2.5 hour cleaning project stretches to five or six hours. My approach is really a profile of inefficiency.
So, naturally, when I was dusting my reading nook this morning I started looking through the books lining the shelves. I’ve read about three-fourths of the books in my library, but I have a fairly large set of old books I’ve picked up over the years that I have barely touched. With duster still in hand I started pulling them out, scanning their titles, leafing their contents. Next thing I knew, I was sitting in the easy chair with my feet up and the duster idle at my side.
The book that captured me was Fables in Slang, a collection of quirky little cautionary tales written in what I assume was the hip, cool, vernacular of the smart set in turn-of-the-century America. The date printed on the title page is 1899. It’s pretty short, so what do you say you put down your own duster, crab a cup of coffee, and join me for a quick read?
The Fable of Flora and Adolph and a Home Gone Wrong
One morning a man who had been chosen to preside as Judge in a Divorce Mill climbed to his Perch and unbuttoned his Vest for the Wearisome Grind. He noticed that the first case looming up on the docket was that of Flora Botts vs. Adolph Botts. The applicant, Mrs. Botts, and Adolph, the Other Half of this Domestic Sketch, were already inside the railing, each attempting to look the other out of countenance.
“Break up!” ordered the judge. “Don’t act as if you were at home. Now, what has Adolph been doing?”
It seemed that she alleged cruelty, neglect, inhuman treatment, violent temper, threats, etc., etc.
“We have no chills-and-fever music to lend effect to the sad narrative you are about to spring,” said the judge, looking down at the plaintiff, who belonged to the Peroxide Tribe. “Furthermore, we will take it for granted that when you first met the defendant your innocence and youth made it a walkaway for his soft approaches, and that you had every reason to believe that he was a perfect gentleman. Having disposed of these preliminaries, let us have the plot of the piece.”
So she told her story in a tremulous, Viola Allen kind of voice, while her lawyer wept. He was ready to weep for anyone who would hand him $8. Afterthought—make it $7.50.
It was a dark tale of how Botts, the viperish defendant, had sneered at her, called her oh-such-names, humiliated her in the presence of callers, and nagged her with sarcastic comments until her tender sensibilities had been worn to a frazzle.
Then the defendant went on the stand and entered a general denial. He had been all that a rattling good husband could be, but she had been a regular Rudyard Kipling vampire. She had continued to make his life one lingering day-after of regret. His record for patience and long-suffering had made Job’s performance look like an amateur’s half-try.
“There is more in this case than appears on the surface,” said the judge. “In order to fix the blame we shall have to dig up the first cause. I will ask Chemical Flora to tell us the story of her past life.”
“My parents were poor, but refined,” said Mrs. Botts. “They gave me every advantage. After I finished the high school I attended a conservatory, and every one said I had talent. I should have been an elocutionist. Once I went to Rockford and recited “The Tramp’s Story” at a club social, and I got a lovely notice. I am especially good at dialect recitations.”
“Humorous?” asked the court.
“Yes, sir; but I can turn right around and be pathetic all of a sudden, if I want to be.”
“I suppose that Botts, after he had lived with you for awhile, didn’t have any hankering desire to hear you recite,” suggested the judge.
“That’s just it. When I’d offer to get up in company and speak something he’d ask me please not to recite, and if I had to make a show of myself, for God’s sake not to tackle anything humorous, with a conservatory dialect to it.”
“But you wouldn’t let him stop you?”
“Not on your life.”
“I’d believe you, even if you weren’t under oath. Now, will Mr. Botts answer me one question? Has he any ambition on the side?”
“Although I am a bookkeeper for a gravel-roofing concern, I have always believed I could write,” replied Adolph Botts. “About four years ago I began to prepare the book for a comic opera. A friend of mine who works in a hat store was to compose the music. I think he has more ability than Victor Herbert.”
“Did this friend think well of your libretto?”
“Yes, sir. He said it was the best thing that had been done since Erminie. In fact, everybody liked my book.”
“Except your wife,” suggested the court.
“That’s it exactly. I wanted sympathy and encouragement and she gave me the metallic laugh. There is one Patter Song in my opera that everyone who comes to my house has been crazy to hear. Whenever I started to sing it she would talk in a loud voice. She never seemed to appreciate my stuff. I think the bleach has affected her head.”
“Has the opera been produced?”
“Well, no, the Eastern Managers were all tied up with Harry B. Smith,” replied Mr. Botts. “Then there’s a prejudice against Western talent.”
“Mr. Botts, in view of all the evidence, I have decided to give you a Decree of Divorce from Flo of the Wheaten Tresses,” said the judge.
“But look here! ” exclaimed the defendant. “I haven’t applied for any divorce.”
“You don’t have to . I give it to you anyway. As for you, Mrs. Botts, I will give you a decree also. The alimony will be $25 per year.”
“I don’t think you grasp the decision. When I say that the alimony is $25 per year, I mean that Mrs. Botts will be required to pay that amount to Adolph every week.”
“Don’t be too hasty. I further decree that Mr. Botts must pay the same amount to Flora every week.”
“That simply makes it a stand-off,” remarked Mr. Botts, who was puzzled.
“My idea of the case, neatly presented,” said the judge. “Each of you is divorced from the other, and if either of you ever marries again, he or she will be jerked before this tribunal and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in some penal institution.”
Whereupon the court took a noon recess of 3 1/2 hours.
Moral: Genius must ever walk alone.
So, there you go. Lesson learned. Now, wasn’t that a much more productive way to spend our time than dusting?
Until next time…