Saturday, February 16, 2013

You Can Observe a Lot, Just by Listening

I have adapted ---some might say maladapted --- Yogi Berra’s famous observation for my own purpose today, occasioned by a pair of incidents which took place on this past Valentine’s Day. I have written before here about how observing individuals who are caught in the act of everyday life can provide fodder for literary inspiration. Today we are going to talk about listening.

My wife and I celebrated Valentine’s Day by having dinner at the restaurant where we had our first date, even scoring a spot in the very booth where we sat some eighteen years ago, though for some reason the seat has gotten a bit closer to the table, at least for me. This time, we had our younger daughter with us. I have schooled our daughter on being aware of what is going on around her at all times and in all places, and, as in so many other things, she exceeds the expectations and abilities of her father. As it happens, her hearing is better than mine at this stage in our lives. So it is that about a third of the way through our meal she leaned across the table and whispered to us, “That guy over there? He’s breaking up with his girlfriend!” She nodded at a couple seated three tables over, and, indeed, the gentleman was on Valentine’s Day, over dinner, severing connections, romantic and otherwise, with the woman seated across from him. She was crying, though nonetheless doing a halfway decent job of containing an emotional meltdown while her companion sat impassively across from her displaying about as much empathy as he might when commenting on the occasion of a fifth of a series of spring days. I could not hear much of what he said, but he did not sound concerned, not even when she raised her voice slightly ---the only time the entire evening --- and said, “But how am I going to move out by next week?!” He merely shrugged and responded in a manner that was less than helpful. There was a bit more of some back and forth; my daughter was able to hear and relay some additional information, confirming what appeared to be going on, and, indeed, fully documenting that the fellow involved was a walking waste of skin. He finished his dinner --- his soon to be ex-companion left hers untouched --- before they left the premises while he patted her shoulder in the manner one does when assuring someone upon whom disaster as fallen that this too shall pass.

The evening, however, was not over. Shortly after the couple which I described had left another couple was seated behind us. It was easy to hear their conversation. I was able to tell that 1) they had not been dating overly long and did not know each other well (though I was able to discern from some other comments that they were acquainted in the Biblical sense; obviously they were somewhere in that stage which follows the third date and precedes a six month anniversary); 2) they had taken a trip together recently; and 3) had decided to end the relationship. Neither of them seemed especially upset about the turn of events. The gentleman was interested in trying to ascertain what had gone wrong, and when, and why, but his analysis was more suited to that of a biology teacher wondering why the oscillatoria specimen on the slide under the microscope is not behaving as it should. He apparently thought he had discerned the moment when things had turned south saying, “Things were fine until the fourth day (of the trip) and then something seemed to change.” The lady mumbled a response I didn’t quite catch but which indicated, in context that a) he was right and b) she didn’t know what happened either. Whatever had happened, they had determined that the relationship was dead at some point in the very recent past and had decided to perform the autopsy on Valentine’s Day. It was apparent that while they weren’t interested in a dating relationship any more, it wasn’t as if one of them had found the other’s secret porn stash and was so utterly repulsed that they decided to put an end to things. it was just...ending. After overhearing this, we asked for go boxes and the check. Kidder that I am, I thought for half a moment about turning to my wife and solemnly saying, “Honey, now is as good a time as any to tell you, but, uh, well, I’ve decided that...” I of course didn’t do that. She would never break my heart on Valentine’s Day, but she might filet it, given good cause.



Thus, a somewhat unusual night. I ask rhetorically: what sort of a character breaks up with a live-in girlfriend on Valentine’s Day? And what sort of couple uses the romantic occasion as an auld lang syne? And on the same night, in the same restaurant, at about the same time? Feel free to incorporate them into your project, whether as a springboard or as background. There are many ways you could use them. But what I really want to ask you is: What is the most unusual conversation you have ever overheard? Was it on or during a noteworthy occasion? And did you use it in a story or novel?

40 comments:

  1. On Facebook, I have a running series called "Why I Love the Diner." I overhear the best stuff. This is my favorite and it is already partly incorporated into my WIP.

    _______________

    Reason I love the diner #437. A pair of guys came in. One was a cowboy. A real deal who has spent most of his working life looking at bovine backsides. From head to toe: grubbby well-shaped hat, bandana with silver pin, well worn heavy shirt with brands printed on it, reversible vest with the side out that matched his boots, leather duster, snug jeans tucked into green/black beat-up tooled leather boots and spurs. Not bad looking, but the miles showed a lot more when he took his hat off.

    So, he is talking on his phone. "I just want to come over and see the kids, *silence as he listens* (soft tone) Baby, don't be that way, come on . . . *silence* Okay, I'll call ya back."

    *hits speed dial, new conversation*

    "Hey, sweetheart, how bout I come over . . . " *silence, closes phone*

    To his buddy:

    "Ah, she just woke up, she got drunk last night. I think she's crazy. (response). Oh yeah, that's why I'm sleeping in my truck. On New Year's, she dumped all my stuff on the curb outside the bar. I sure do like her."

    Further topics:

    How their mutual buddy always finds the classiest women, even though they are nuttier than fruitcakes, but this new one ain't classy.

    About how the old man's trailer house should be big enough for him, his kids, her, and her kids, but his kids can sleep on the floor if need be.

    Flirting with all the waitresses while devouring a cheeseburger the size of his plate (not an ounce of fat on him)

    How, hell, he lived the last 2 months on $400 and couldn't believe his buddy lost that gambling, but he doesn't gamble 'cept for cards cuz he'd just get too drunk.

    How he messed with another girlfriend by getting into a XXX chatroom and inviting some of the girls over to the house, but they didn't want to drive to Garland, so, what the hell, he just took care of the cattle. And she shouldn't have got so upset, it's not like he was going anywhere, he didn't have his truck.

    When he got up and jingled-jangled out, every pair of young female eyes in the place looked at him like he was a ham sandwich. I dunno, ladies, is this the guy you want to fight with in child support court for the next 18 years?

    -----------------------

    Yes, I am the world's biggest eavesdropper. And it won't take that girl but a week or two and a couple of quarts of fudge ripple to realize that getting dumped by that loser is the best thing ever.

    Terri

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    1. Actually, Terri I would hope it would only take a spoonful or two. The guy was a real d.b., if you get my drift. Re: the cowboy...there are women who are attracted to bad boys and losers, absolutely. They are convinced that they can take them and not so much change them as mold them. Ain't gonna happen. And if it did, it would almost certainly result in the removal of a component of the guy's personality that they found critically attractive to begin with.

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    2. Two quarts, one alone, one shared with girlfriends is the usual recommended dose.

      As to cowboy, that incident led to this passage:
      --------------

      I was on my second cup of coffee when I looked up and saw a pair of denim blue eyes under the brim of a well-worn Stetson appraising me like I was a promising colt. Smiling inwardly, I welcomed the uncomplicated attention. In this poker game, he was broadcasting he that had a straight-flush.

      Even though, as of my last birthday, I was officially pulling thirty, the one place my parents' cage match of a marriage had synced was genetically. Dad's ice-blond ski instructor looks had blended well with mom's Mexican heritage. My long dark hair, naturally shot with red and gold, set off my ivory skin and hazel eyes. It wasn't vanity to say I had it going on. I was used to using my looks to get results.

      The cracked keycard to my grungy hideaway was on the table. At that moment, ramped by the stress of the last day and a mainline of caffeine, I had a sudden urge to take the Lone Ranger behind closed doors and roll him like a pair of dice. However, as I was about to make a move, his cell phone beeped out the theme to "The Dukes of Hazzard" and he was immediately deep into an angry conversation about a missing child support payment. His voice took on a whiney twang as he said, "Now Baby, don't be that way."

      Just then, my breakfast arrived, and as my ardor cooled, I realized an essential truth. When fate gives you a choice between men and waffles, pick waffles. They are always warm and sweet and even the bad ones go down smooth.

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  2. truth really is stranger than fiction... but it can still inspire fiction!

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    1. Indeed Sechin! Not all of the stories have been written, but they have already occurred in the real world.

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  3. Eavesdropping for a writer is a valid research tool. Once I overheard a woman sobbing outside my hotel room door. She was talking to her mother on her cell phone, and I heard the whole incident about how she'd just been fired because her boss found her together with another employee and assumed they were shacking up, but that wasn't the case, yada yada. I took this idea and it became Perish by Pedicure.

    I am sad for those couples you relate. It shouldn't be so easy to just say goodbye. We got engaged on Valentine's Day. That makes it memorable for us in a happy way.

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    1. I love that, Nancy. I had forgotten about all of the conversations I've heard through hotel room doors. Do people really think that they're all alone in a hotel corridor?

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    2. Apparently so! She woke me up in the middle of the night. It was the least that woman could to do provide me with inspiration.

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  4. Writing often in Starbucks, I get the pour over. I don't seek it out, but loudness happens. I recently overheard a middle aged guy talking about the lifestyle of his friend who had made all this money, dumped his wife, bought a boat, got a new squeeze in her 20s, did all this, all that, and had recently lost it all and was alone. It was almost a perfect backstory.

    One other time two guys were arguing, and one guy says, "But is it LOGICAL?" And the other guy says, with utter sincerity, "It's so logical it's RIDICULOUS!"

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    1. Jim, I wonder if folks who have loud conversations in Starbucks think that each table comes with a cone of silence. I've heard ladies who sip talking about their current affairs with the poolboy as if they were trying to be heard in the back of the room. Maybe they were.

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  5. My character Lyle Adams:

    See, if I was going to break up with someone, I damn sure wouldn't be spending money on dinner. He shoulda taken her to outlook on Mill Mountain and got one last squeeze, because it might be the last one for a bit.

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    1. I absolutely agree with Lyle, Diane!

      On the REALLY cold side of that, I know a gent who made it a practice of initiating a breakup before Christmas and then reuniting after the New Year simply to avoid buying his love a Christmas present. He was in one long-term relationship where he did this three consecutive years with the same woman. What was she thinking? Was she thinking?








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  6. I really enjoyed this post! My husband-to-be gave me my engagement ring on Valentine's Day, so it remains a special day for us. I once read that one should always break up over dinner at a nice restaurant, so the other person can't make a scene. That is not true in all cases, though. One time early in our dating relationship my date didn't break up with me, but said something I took as insulting. To which I replied, "Well, that's nice," and calmly dumped an entire glass of iced water into his lap. And then burst into tears. Like Jim said, loudness happens!

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  7. I would say you let the guy off easy, Kathryn. That could have been hot coffee.

    I had a one-quarter date with a woman that was a disaster from the moment I picked her up. She managed to insult the waitress twice before the lady even took our order. I excused myself for the restroom, found the waitress on the way, apologized for my date's inexcusable behavior, tipped her generously, and had her let me out of the place through a back entrance after explaining quickly to the manager what I was doing. The manager told me no worries, that my soon to be ex-date had been in before and was a pain in the posterior! I had to look over my shoulder for a few weeks thereafter (I do that anyway) but it was worth it.

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    1. I do have a red-haired Irish temper that I struggle to keep in check, lol. But I draw the line at lethal weapons like hot coffee or dining utensils!

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  8. I have no good stories of my own, but, as coincidence would have it, my wife and I also ate at the same restaurant and sat at the same table as we did on our first date. Damn if they hadn't moved the table closer to the booth at Famous Dave's as well. Must be like airlines, trying to cram in an extra row.

    I've never done what I'm about to describe, but would like to think I have the nerve for it; a character certainly will. Taking the first break-up you heard, I (or a character) would get up, step up to the woman in the booth behind me, and tell her politely not to take it too hard, she will be much better off without the piece of shit who's dumping her. Then resume my meal and listen for how that dynamic plays out.

    I'm a bit of a prick sometimes, even when have good intentions.

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    1. Dana, I totally get that reaction. I had to restrain myself from doing something a bit more dramatic. Guys like that salt the earth for those of us who are halfway decent.

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    2. Joe,
      It's funny(?) and irritating more men don't see it that way; I have since I was a young man. Don't laugh when you see or hear of a guy treating any women like that.Not only is it wrong, he's making life that much harder for you.

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  9. I certainly hope the creep who broke up with his girlfriend in a restaurant on Valentine's Day foot the bill for dinner. If I were her and he put his hand on my shoulder on the way out, he'd lose it. Have a good cry, sweetie, and count your lucky stars you're rid of him.

    I once had a boyfriend who broke up with me before Christmas and waited until after New Year's Eve, my birthday (February 3) and Valentine's Day before trying to get back together. Guess where I told him to go?

    Loved this post! I often look around at diners in restaurants and instantly know how long they've been together. The newly involved couples giggle constantly and feed each other from their plates, using the proper utensils and napkins. Long-standing couples sit quietly, speaking rarely, only to say, 'How's your steak?', 'Do you want dessert?' and 'Where's the restroom?'.

    A few weeks ago, after my bi-weekly writers' circle, a few of us went to the local coffee shop where, to our astonishment, a strange assortment of characters soon gathered. The oddballs were loud and obnoxious and took over the front of the shop all around us. We felt as though we had stumbled into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

    No, I haven't used them in a story yet, but they are forever seared in my brain, awaiting the time and place they will come back to life on paper.

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    1. Thanks, Cynthia. We have a place like that in Columbus, a 24 hour pizza restaurant near the OSU campus which has become the stuff of legend, good and bad. I have incorporated the place into my own work.

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  10. Absolutely great replies! Ya hear the darndest things out there. I should start riding the bus just to take notes. Waiting rooms are another source of inspiration. I remember one woman telling her husband what a jerk his brother was. She just let it all hang out. I've still not used any of her lines, but I will. The whole time, of course, the guy said nothing. And she just blistered him, too. Whaddaygonna do?

    Terri Lynn: Do you have any books I can get. That excerpt was a killer.

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    1. Thanks Jim! Not yet. I have some short stuff kicking around and more non-fic than I care to claim. After my obligatory trunkers, this one is feeling right.

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    2. Riding the bus when you otherwise don't have to is really bleeding for your craft, Jim. My former brother-in-law, an ex-Secret Service agent, road a Greyhound from Columbus to Pittsburgh and back and described his fellow riders as the extras from the cantina scene in "Star Wars." Good luck!

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  11. My story involves me, unawares, as the loud voice to be overheard.

    It was Biloxi, Mississippi, 1968, at the bus station outside Keesler AFB. Christmas Eve, no less.

    A crowd of GIs waited their turns, at the bank of six payphones, to call loved ones.
    As we waited, the noise of the conversations made it difficult to hear on the phones. We all understood the urgency of the calls, and each respected a unspoken agreement to keep the calls as short as possible.

    At my turn, I called my fiance to let her know when I would arrive in Kansas City. During that three minute call, she broke off our engagement and told me she had moved to Illinois. She didn't explain or answer any of my emotional questions.

    I never saw her again.

    But as I hung up the phone, I turned around to the crowd of fellow GIs and realized that the whole place was dead silent. I blinked away some tears and stepped away from the phone. Still quiet, the cownd parted in front of me to let me through.

    Although that was a lot of years ago, it still bothers me that I never found out why she did it.

    Maybe someday I'll use it in a story.

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    1. Ghod,Dave. Thanks for sharing with us what must still be a painful episode. My dentist, as it happens, had his fiance break their engagement on the night before the first day of his state boards.

      Don't worry about why she did it. Thinking about why people do things will drive you crazy. It's her loss.

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    2. I really don't think about it, except in situations like this. You're right, life's to short.

      Good post, Joe. Fun to see other's responses. When I thought about overhearing conversations, this was just what popped into my head.

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  12. Oh, here's another one I almost forgot. I was on an airplane and we're all sitting there waiting for the cabin door to close. Behind me, I here a ruckus about to unfold. Apparently, a guy moved a woman's briefcase over a couple inches with his foot.

    So right off she tells him, through clenched teeth, not to kick her briefcase. He offers some standard apology. He really did sound innocent, not trying to start something. But, oh no, she wasn't taking any mealy-mouth excuses from him. She just unloads. Threatens to poke his eye out. Stab him in the neck with a pencil. "And don't you **** with me, you ***************. "I'll take you out." Now, she's reaaaaly getting all up into his business, and it sounds like I'm facing yet another delayed flight. Whaddayagonna do? I was tempted to say something. Of course, that would have reaaaaly set her off. Eventually, they calmed down. However, all through the flight she was needling him.

    So . . . anyone every forced to sit next to some psychotic nutcase through some long drawn-out ordeal? What would you do?

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    1. That is awesome. Never anybody that neurotic, but one woman, on a tightly packed flight would just be snippy and rude any time anyone would even look her way. It was a constant, "I AM TRYING TO WORK," no matter what.

      Yet, when she needed to get up or get back in, you'd better drop it fast and jump.

      Sure, she may have had a big meeting or something. But, "I'll finish it on the plane," is seldom a good time-management option.

      Terri

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    2. Last year I had a 13 hour flight from Alaska to Atlanta with one stop. The first leg was uneventful. The second leg though I was in the middle seat stuffed between a small professorial guy who gave me a look that said "if you touch me I will stab you with my pencil and eat your soul" and a 400+ lb woman whose body enveloped the arm rests on both sides of her. No matter how I tried I could not avoid being pressed into giganto-lady's flesh without risking certain death by touching professor evil. So I spent the entire 6 hours cocked at weird angle trying to imagine what in both of these people's lives got them to their current physical and emotional states, and what in my life I did to deserve being pressed between them.

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    3. I witnessed a somewhat similar incident on my one and only time on the Long Island Railroad traveling to Bethpage from New York. It was evening rush hour. A group on men got on together; one of them didn't get a seat and was standing by an exit door reading a newspaper. A guy gets on --- thick lips, heavy-lidded, curly hair, James Dean reincarnated without the boyish charm --- and says "How ya' doin'?" and the the first guy says, "Okay kid, how are you?" James Dean goes ballistic, getting in the guy's face, yelling at him, saying he's no kid, and he ought to kick his rear end up and down the train. This went on intermittently for several stops. The guy who was the target of this verbiage didn't react at all, but instead stood stone-faced, occasionally reading his paper but otherwise doing nothing to provoke anything. James Dean eventually got off, in search of Natalie Wood; at the following stop the gent who had unintentionally and without malice provoked him stepped off the train for a moment, got a cocktail from one of the vendors, drained it in one gulp and got back on the train. The guys who were with him asked him what it was all about and he just shrugged.

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  13. I work in a VA. My IT shop is an office right off the main customer lobby. I over hear a lot of interesting stories and side conversations both among the counselors and just in the waiting room. Some true, some embellished. My favorites are when veterans run into a former battle buddy they had not seen since they were in the service together. Sometimes these guys are in their eighties or nineties like a former Filipino Guerrilla who ran into an American Army vet he'd not seen since 1944.

    Some of the things I hear are heart breaking, some are hilarious. I've heard everything from vets describing where their missing limb went, to how their wife or girlfriend left them, and watched some of them break down emotionally as they recounted their various issues.

    Twice I almost had to get into a physical altercation with an agitated vet who was getting aggressive with a counselor, usually my size calms them significantly.

    More than once guys sat there swapping stories about their favorite red light districts around the globe, sometimes with graphic details and/or advice, such as always physically verify the gender of your girl prior to copulation in certain countries, some are women...others are "women" (or as one retired Sergeant Major yelled to his mates after such a verfication in an Amsterdam club "Whoa! Men!").

    One story I overheard recently was from a Vietnam War vet talking about himself as a twenty-two year old electronic warfare specialist on a Navy C-130 with multiple SAMs (surface-to-air-missiles)on their tail. As the missiles chased them the pilot dove straight towards the ocean, pulling up at the last possible second. The missiles lost their contact and plunged into the sea and the pilot barely righted the plane before crashing, skimming waves as he levelled off. He had the whole waiting room listening as he told the story of kissing the ground and discovering his hair had gone grey within the week.

    Luckily I write military fiction, therefore a lot of these stories I hear end up immortalized in print.

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    1. I agree, the VA waiting room is a great place to hear all sorts of stories and meet an ever greater variety of people. The average civilian would probably dismiss the stories as BS, but most at least have a grain of truth. I just try to keep my mouth shut and not embarrass the wife.

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    2. The late thriller author Harold King once told me at a conference about interviewing vets for his books. One Korean War vet told him about finishing a dogfight in North Korean airspace when his jet flamed out. His partner plane saw his plane start to go down and quickly got behind his diabled plane, carefully inserted his jet's nose into his buddy's tail exhaust and literally pushed the jet out over the ocean into safe waters. The disabled plane's pilot ejected and was picked up at sea. The other pilot was commodated for heroism.

      King put that into his greatest book, Shelkagari. A great read, by the way.

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    3. I won't go into the entire thing, but . . . while working as an MP, I was sent up to the hospital in Chu Lai to guard two NVA prisoners. Anyway they were playing cards, so I sat in. Eventually, we found a game we all knew and it was a night of card playing. It took me until 0300 before I finally won a hand. Strange, eh?

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  14. "Whoa! Men!" I am howling! That sign needs to go up over Bourbon Street after 1 AM! Thanks,Basil. I bet you overhear more stories in a day than most of us do in a year.

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  15. After the Army I also spent some time working in various emergency rooms. The conversations can range from terribly depressing to laugh-out-loud funny. But very seldom did I hear both at once.

    I was in triage when a family from south of the border came in and gathered in the waiting room. The husband had arrived by ambulance only a few minutes earlier. Assuming that the lily white boy behind the desk didn’t speak any Spanish they carried on as if I wasn’t even there. More family seemed to arrive every minute and they all gathered around the mother. The doctor came out and gave the news: A third heart attack, worse than the previous two, and an outlook that did not look promising. The mother took the news as well as one could expect. She kept her head up and stood strong as the family crumbled around her. After the first round of crying was over she began to talk, just filling the silence and keeping everyone from dwelling on why they were all there. I thought she was doing great, holding in her emotions and being a rock for her family.

    I kept a straight face until she began to talk about the carpet in the waiting room. It was a dreadful pattern with multiple colors that shot off in all directions and it wasn’t the first time I had heard people comment on it. But this woman was a natural comedian. She soon had the family involved in a half-serious plot to steel the carpet, cut it into squares, frame it, and sell it to silly gringos as a modern art masterpiece. Everyone was laughing and crying at the same time, including me. Which she noticed, and I was busted.

    The night ended badly for her and her family, but I’ll always remember the woman’s strength and her unnatural ability to raise the spirits of her entire family in the face of a future she most likely knew was coming.

    I’ve managed to work the waiting room carpet into two stories so far, but I’m still waiting for the perfect spot to include the mother.

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    1. That's an interesting story, Randall, made more so by the fact that you could weave the carpet into a couple of stories of your own. Thanks!

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  16. I was sitting in the Las Vegas airport after working a trade show. The woman seated back-to-back with me was talking on her cell phone. It went a little something like this:

    "...we did it like five times..."
    "...oh he says his wife knows...she doesn't care..."
    "...I guess we go back to our own little worlds now..."

    I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Did she honestly believe that the wife knew and didn't care or was she just trying to convince herself. Did she really believe that you can just keep that seperate from the rest of your life, like a weekend break from morality? I know it's Vegas, and what happens in Vegas et al. But do adults really buy into that? Apparently so. It was an interesting experience.

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    1. I wonder who she was talking to, Ron? There are so many ways one could go with this. And I wonder how many women are sitting and reading your comment and thinking, "Hmmm...."

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