Category: Contest Essays

Another Day, Another Swatch (2018 Erma Bombeck winner)

A few weeks ago, my wife Sharon caught me completely off guard with the question that no man wants to hear.

“Honey, don’t you think it’s about time we did something different with the bathroom?”

Now, as your typical guy, I could go years without moving a couch cushion or a magazine, let alone walls.

Immediately, my mind races. Does the toilet flush? Check. Does the faucet still leak? Nope. We fixed that months ago. Is there anything growing in the shower? As far as I can tell, no. I say, “as far as I can tell”, because to me the shower is the most intimate place in our house. It’s the one space where I spend one hundred percent of my time naked and without my glasses. This means that my wife could rent it out to a bunch of hobbits and, as long as they were quiet and kept to themselves, I’d never know until a new Lord of the Rings movie came out featuring an overweight, naked, Irishman.

“So, what do you want to change?”

A couple hours later, I’m in a store filled with color samples, each one ever so slightly more bluish-greenish than the next one. Sharon waves a paint chip under my nose.

“What do you think of this one?”

“I like green.”

“It’s Poseidon.”

“I didn’t recognize him without the trident.”

Sharon rolls her eyes and wanders off muttering under her breath and I do what I always do in these situations. I sit down in a comfy chair off to the side and try to strike up a conversation with the guy next to me who’s engrossed in Facebook on his iPhone while his wife is sifting through hundreds of equally similar, but ever so slightly different, red paint samples.

“What are you in for?”

It soon becomes clear that Sharon has quite the project in mind, moving the toilet, the shower, and inexplicably the ceiling. There will be new fixtures (all with brand names that contain no vowels), new tile (in a color I’d call light yellow, but Sherwin-Williams would probably call something like “sad omelet”), and a home equity loan that makes me weak in the knees.

We have a couple of architect friends do the design work and call a contractor friend to come over to give an estimate. (Why are all our friends employed in making home improvements?) After listening to Sharon spend half an hour describing the project, I finally pop the question to our contractor.

“How much is this going to cost?”

His answer is the classic line from Animal House.

“My advice to you is to start drinking heavily.”

Major Matt Mason & The Alien Attack (1999 Thurber House winner)

While my wife Sharon’s youth seems almost idyllic with memories of maypole dances and afternoons climbing grandma’s apple tree, I remember the time I decided to find out what it would be like to run my tricycle off of the front porch. At top speed. With Mr. Winky our guinea pig. I was seven the summer I broke my nose for the first time. It’s not that I was a bad kid, it’s just that I was creative. Creative as in “Where’s Jeff going with that shovel and has anybody seen the cat lately?”

My parents encouraged my creativity and my interest in science and at nine years old I became the proud owner of the Major Matt Mason deep space action adventure play set (batteries included; it was 1969 after all).

Major Matt Mason was 6-inch high, rubberized, Gumby sort of thing. He was molded to look like he was wearing one of those accordion-pleated spacesuits from 2001 and could strike any one of two lifelike poses. Major Matt Mason had an evil nemesis, but my Dad got the cheaper set and Callisto (Major Matt Mason’s mysterious friend from Jupiter) became, to me, the evil green brain guy. Callisto had a gun that, when you squeezed a small red air pump, shot the most deadly weapon in the Major Matt Mason arsenal; a light yellow string with a knot at the end. Even when I was nine, this seemed like a pretty wimpy weapon, so this was soon replaced by the contents of a green ink bottle I found in my Dad’s desk. Now, even if Callisto wasn’t especially lethal, he did at least permanently stain.

Major Matt Mason had an amazing lunar command base. The base was a three-foot high, two-story white plastic affair with the top floor shielded in indestructible blue plastic. Indestructible, that is, to anyone except a nine-year-old with a geology set and a small hammer.

Major Matt Mason also had a very cool two-wheeled space walker that looked like something out of Lost in Space and was guaranteed to traverse any terrain. I innocently tested this guarantee on my dog Corky who, having been recently neutered, was none too happy with the intrusion of a motorized space vehicle into his dog house. Callisto didn’t survive the encounter and Corky’s nose was a light shade of shamrock green until the day he died 12 years later.

The space crawler also had a winch on back and, when attached correctly to the top of the space station, could haul items into the air. When attached incorrectly, the crawler made an incredibly loud and entertaining screeching sound and emitted colored smoke. When attached VERY incorrectly the crawler would pull over the space station and crush the plastic shields to bits. It was way cool.

Despite my destructive tendencies my parents continued to replace Major Matt Mason and the headless, green Callisto. Until one fateful day.

One Friday, my father stepped out of his car at the end of a long work day to a sight that, after all the lectures about the cost of Major Matt Mason toys, must have brought tears to his eyes. Major Matt Mason’s space station was standing upright and fully intact.

Dad didn’t see my friend Phil and I there, hidden behind some nearby bushes, and we didn’t see him until we leapt to our feet and tossed our Frisbees at the space station with all our might.

When the Frisbees hit the space station, the plastic shields exploded into shards of plastic. The station swayed and crashed to the ground majestically. The space crawler ($5.49 in 1969 dollars), still attached to the station, dragged the station ($7.99) and all the characters ($5.97 total) into the street and into the path of an oncoming car. The resulting crash had no effect on the car (it didn’t even slow down), but everything Major Matt Mason was destroyed. It was the greatest thing that could happen to a nine-year-old.

My father then uttered the only obscenities I heard cross his lips until I left for college.

“What the hell are you trying to do to these God dammed toys?”

Phil was, needless to say, gone. I shrugged, patted my Dad on the shoulder, and calmly explained, “Alien attack Dad.”

It was the next day that I started working for Dad, earning an allowance, and paying for my own replacement toys.

Don’t Do It Yourself (1994 Thurber House winner)

Being in the arts means a lot of things, most of them having to do with getting paid squat when you get paid at all. To my wife and I, it means living in an older house that has been assaulted by a string of do-it-yourself owners.

Our house has a lot of character. It’s a fixer upper. A challenge. These are just a few of the ways a real estate agent has of saying “firetrap that would be condemned if someone from the housing authority were willing to risk their life to set foot in it”. Some of the more interesting features of our house include a basement window that opens onto dirt (it’s about three feet below ground level and turns into a scenic waterfall when it rains) and a basement door that opens up under a solid wood deck. Obviously, the previous owners were not big on planning.

I’m a check book do-it-your-selfer. I tend to look at things very pragmatically. Is the likelihood that I’ll fall off the roof, worth the $150 dollars an hour I’d pay to have someone with no teeth (who’ll pronounce chimney “chimley”) replace those broken shingles? Invariably, the answer is “yes”. Of course, I’d hire someone to chew my food if I could afford it. It’s not like I’m stupid or clumsy. I’m basically just unmotivated.

Over the past year or so, my wife and I have been improving our house bit by bit, check by check. We now have three different colors of shingles on our roof, but at least it doesn’t snow in the living room anymore. Rainwater doesn’t run down the back windows since we had the gutters replaced. My wife, of course, was bugging me to economize and try my hand at doing some of the repairs myself. One evening, after unexpectedly stepping off of our front porch into our rose bushes, I decided that we should probably have a front porch light.

Normally, I wouldn’t even consider trying anything involving electricity, but there were a lot of clues around that told me how I should go about putting up the light. Just inside the front door, there’s a light switch that doesn’t seem to do anything. In the past I had shrewdly noticed that when you turn the switch to the “no” position (I forgot to mention that all of the light switches in our house are upside down), four things happen:

  1. the lights in the house dim
  2. there is a low, slightly ominous, humming
  3. a small puff of smoke and smell of hot plastic rise from the cheap, plastic shutters on either side of our front door
  4. the cats hide under the couch

I removed the cheap, plastic shutters and discovered a cheap, ugly, brass-like light fixture. The light fixture sported two wires, one red and one white. I turned on the light switch and got my final clues as to how electricity works. There was an impressive electrical arc and, once again, the kitties bolted.

My wife was less than thrilled with my choice of projects and, while she was dragging Katie and Gracie out from underneath the sofa, convinced me that I should probably turn off the power before going any further.

So, I went to the basement and followed the wires to a large, rusted box. I opened it and discovered a bird’s nest (we’ll talk about that some other time) and a collection of breakers marked in some form of prehistoric hieroglyphics. One breaker was marked “wnkl??” and another “wicdum!!”. I chose a switch marked “brfrt”, turned it to the off position, and hoped for the best.

Electricity is an amazing thing. What seems so simple never is. To make a long story short, our entire house was plunged into darkness. Our refrigerator let loose with a horrible squeal (sort of like Ned Beaty in “Deliverance”) and expired. Our television … well … basically exploded and now only picks up Russian educational television. The cats are not speaking to me.

My wife was pretty understanding, once she regained consciousness. She kissed me on the forehead, handed me the checkbook, and called the electrician.