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August 1981

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A Fistful of Fig Newtons (Short Story)



THE SQUAT, chunky glass nestled chill and reassuring in my hand. It was one of my treasured sets of matched old-fashioned glasses celebrating the long-past Bicentennial of our blessed land. Each tumbler bore in magnificent cut-glass bas-relief a portrait of a founding father. Thomas Jefferson, his face stern and yet patriotically inspiring, sweated slightly on the side of my icy glass. Under his portrait, etched with authority, was a quote from The Great Democrat himself: I BELIEVE IN THE PEOPLE. I stood at the window of my multi-story apartment and stared listlessly out into the gathering gloom. Far below me were hordes of wandering picketers, their signs waving in the dusk, distance muting their hoarse obscenities. Occasionally, a siren wailed, accompanied by the distant wink of red flashers. The apartment lights dimmed momentarily but struggled bravely back on, narrowly averting the third blackout of the week. The Jack Daniel's glowed deep in my interior. Going about its therapeutic work, it warmed me. I glanced down at Jefferson, whose ear was just under my right thumb. "Tom, I'm not sure it's working out." Another muttering wave of distant protest filtered through my dusty Venetian blinds. One of the problems of living 14 stories above the city is that you tend to see things too clearly, especially after a jot or two of whiskey. Down on the street, amid the pitched battles for survival, you get caught up in the fray. In the continuous pinball game of life, shouldering old ladies aside for a vacant cab, thumping children in the ribs for a seat on the subway, kneeing a nun in the groin for the last remaining hot pretzel engross you and you fail, ultimately, to see that the whole damn thing is falling apart. But high over the city, after a desperate Friday at the office with a final flurry of insulting memos to cap the day, the vision sharpens; the mind tears aside the veil of wishful thinking, and there it is. Incidentally, you can call me Dave if you like. That's not my real name, but I prefer to remain anonymous for reasons that will become obvious. I sipped more whiskey and, struck by a sudden transient urge, ripped the cover off the current issue of New York with its gleaming white headline reading: 101 FREE FUN THINGS TO DO IN THE CITY!" With smooth, practiced skill, I quickly folded the cover into a paper airplane. It was an art I had not used in many years, one I had perfected grade after grade at the Warren G. Harding School. I fished around in one of the rickety, creaky drawers of my Swedish Moderne Finish-It-Yourself desk and found a red felt-tip marker that had insolently leaked over a pile of unpaid bills. I quickly scrawled on one wing of my airplane: "Look out-I'm coming to get all of you." On the other wing, I signed: "God." It looked good. Inching my window open a crack so as not to let in too much soot and noxious carbon compounds, I launched the plane out into the darkened canyon. It rose swiftly on an updraft, banked to the left and began gracefully volplaning down, bearing with it my hopes for a better world. Down, down it drifted, until, finally lost from view, it disappeared into the mob. A few white faces suddenly peered up at me. It might have been imagination, but they seemed frightened. One face, however, mouthed a foul word. "And the same to you, Jack, with bells on it," I said. I smiled my carefully cultivated Dick Cavett smirk and settled squashily into my amazingly uncomfortable beanbag love seat. A distant phone tinkled and I knew that the elderly maiden lady who lived in the next apartment was getting the first of her nightly obscene phone calls. Even barbaric anarchy has its routine. The morning's Times lay scattered about my feet. "All the News That's Fit to Print": hostages, wars, perversions, the crossword puzzle, which had lately itself begun to reflect the age, an occasional shocking four-letter word creeping in here and there; James Reston's calm voice chastising the world for its follies. I flipped the switch on my TV set, the Cassandra of our days. Mayor Koch appeared, his white shirt rumpled with sweat, his tic hanging at half-mast. Flashbulbs popped. His eyes rolled wildly in the glare. I muttered, "By God, he still looks like Frank Perdue, the Chicken King." "I have informed the strikers' representatives that the city can no longer tolerate-" I flipped the channel. Koch again. Another flip; another Koch. On all the channels, nothing but Koches. If Karl Marx were alive today, he would have written, "ABC is the opiate of the masses." Then I knew what I had to do. Desperation has its limits. My hand turned the channel selector to that one island of total, tranquil, heart-warming escapism: 13. Public television. Where else can you relive the entire Victorian era in endless reruns, a world peopled with simple, honest maids and butlers and square-jawed English squires? Occasionally, the fare shifts even earlier back in time and Shakespeare's Henry V rides out again into battle, but such poetic battle. French chefs eternally prepare arcane treats featuring fish available only off the coast of Normandy, and then for only a fortnight out of the year, when they are running. I settled back, prepared to enjoy an hour or two of total, heavily endowed Culture. "The following PBS program was made possible by a grant from the Mobil Corporation." "Aha," I hissed, "the Petroleum Broadcasting System is still greasing the ways." A blast of atonal, formless electronic music consisting of a series of arrhythmic beeps and assorted transistorized hooting, the kind of fanfare that always precedes a "serious" program on PBS, filled the room. The credits, a series of tricky little exploding letters, unrolled endlessly. That's where most of the rich endowments go; jazzy titles aren't cheap. "America [pause; another blast of beeps] . . . the Aesthetics of Transition [pause; assorted hoots] . . . the sixth program in a series of twenty-four. [More credits exploded into multicolored space] Moderated by Alistair Cooke." I settled back deeper into my beanbag, wondering briefly why every program about America were hosted by an Englishman and knowing damn well that the reverse certainly wasn't true, that the BBC would never use Jack Lemmon to discuss the Plantagenet line. Mr. Cooke's calm face appeared. In the background, an imposing wall of heavy leather-bound volumes gave the scene weight and depth. As his cultured tones-cool, calm, unemotionaldroned, I reached down to the floor for my Jack Daniel's bottle. Several cockroaches retreated hastily. More sirens wailed, punctuated by furious klaxons bearing the wounded to Bellevue. "Our guest tonight is the distinguished visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago. . . ." Another face appeared on the screen, smiling with well-bred diffidence, a face cjearly at home amid the dusty stacks, a face obviously prepared to hold its own in the highest literary salons in the land. I leaned forward, the expensive Lima beans beneath my rump rattling and tinkling as they sought other positions of discomfort. By God, I knew that face, that cool smile, that drooping left eye, that rumpled tweed jacket with its faint growth of moss. I knew that face! Was it the whiskey? Was it another symptom of my approaching madness? "Dr. Umbaugh, we are pleased and honored to have the privilege of discussing the aesthetics of frontier courage and the emergence of-" Good Christ Almighty! Umbaugh! Umbaugh! Good God! I clutched The Great Democrat tightly and took a mighty swig, followed immediately by an uncontrolled belch. "Why, yes, Mr. Cooke, the unique attitude bred on the frontier of barbarian America was the result of many factors. Chief among them, I must say, was cosmic boredom, and...." I struggled to my feet. "Umbaugh, you son of a bitchl Tell 'em, you bastard, tell 'eml" I threw a pair of ice cubes into my glass, eager to listen to the words of the most talented, fiercely, nay, ferociously courageous man I had ever known. Dr. Umbaugh. Of course. That was inevitable, at the very least. Umbaugh was one of those to whom the academic atmosphere was milk and honey, the promised land. He fed on academia the way a whale inhales plankton, whereas I and most of my comrades back in those days when my life briefly impinged on Umbaugh's struggled ceaselessly against it, alternating between stark terror of imminent failure and crashing, utter boredom, boredom of a mind-numbing nature so palpable and real that you could almost see it growing up the walls of our poured-concrete prison. The Midwestern university that I had recklessly elected to attend on the GI Bill of Rights - a charitable outpouring of public monies that has led to the psychic downfall of multitudes of erstwhile worthy garage mechanics and plumbers' helpers - had been designed by one of those architects of the French school known, in translation, as "Art is Truth, Ugliness is always honest; hence, Art is ugly," and there are few materials in the world as ugly as poured concrete. Attending the university was much like living in a vast, glass-enclosed concrete viaduct. It was the concrete more than anything else, I suspect now, that set the wheels in motion that catapulted Umbaugh into the realm of legend. It was two A.M. of a rainy, dreary fall night when it happened; a Friday, in fact. I paced restlessly about my poured concrete cell in a dormitory ironically named after one of America's more sickeningly romantic early poets. We, the inmates, referred to it as U.S. Gypsum Hall. The twin dormitory next to us was called The Portland Cement Arms by its natives. The rain splashed against the pitted aluminum window casement, forever sealed against outside reality by modern design. Either that or some prudent administrator had had the windows protected against the threat, always present, Of suicide. I paced as much as an 81 x 6' room, a room with its poured-concrete desk, its poured-concrete bureau with its endearing little pouredconcrete knobs, would allow. I wore only a pair of sagging jockey sliorts, my Fruit of the Looms being at the laundry. I had $2.82 between me and the bottom of my financial tank. I was running on the fumes. It was ten days before my next GI check was due from Uncle Sugar. Any student who could get up the scratch had long since fled that vast concrete carbuncle in the midst of the cornfields for weekend solace in the nearest bid city. Not me. Not with $2.82 in my Levis and an organic-chemistry exam coming up first period Monday morning. The only citizens left on campus were the destitute, the about-to-be-failed and the truly zealous. I peered out the window into the sleety rain. Far below, a coed struggled against the storm, dimly lit by one of the "colorful" turn-of-tlie-century fake gas lamps that had been installed in the quad to counteract, theoretically, the plastic ivy that was attached to the exterior walls of our dorm. Real ivy does not thrive in that climate, so the alumni of an earlier class had contributed the plastic variety to our well-being. It came from Montgomery Ward and was the best-quality plastic ivy obtainable. It, at least, enabled the university legally to get away with the line: "The restful, ivy-covered walls of tradition-laden. . . ." The starlings loved it, yelling and honking amid the rattling leaves at all hours of the night, carrying on the obscene activities that set starlings apart from the rest of the more civilized bird world. The coed moved through the dim light below. I listlessly peered down at her. About five feet tall, going maybe 180 pounds, she wore skintight toreador pants that showed off her vast hams to best advantage. Her head covered with pink-plastic barrels, she was typical of the campus queens the school specialized in: corn-fed, gum-chewing home-ec majors. No wonder PLAYBOY was passed from sweaty hand to sweaty hand until its pages were limp and ragged. It was the only port in a storm. I moodily squatted on the edge of my poured-concrete bed, with its meager foam-rubber cushion. Mere inches from my nose, Principles of Organic Chemistry, a hated volume of arcane, useless, stupid lore, lay open on my desk amid a few scattered notebook pages bearing my pitiful notes. Chemistry was my Moby Dick. I had a brooding, certain knowledge that it would get me in the end. Subsequent events were to bear that out, but that is another story. Suddenly, out of the blue, a happy thought struck me. "Yeah," I muttered, leaped to my feet and dove into the minute niclie in the concrete wall that the college handbook called a "spacious walk-in closet." I pawed through the pile of accumulated junk: my old combat boots, a pair of galoshes my mother had sent me, four pairs of mismatched Japanese shower clogs, a couple of limpstringed tennis rackets, several tangled clothes hangers. Aha! Weeks before, I had hidden away from the avid, hungry eyes of my dormmates a two-pound package of Fig Newtons. I retrieved my treasure from amid the rubble and sat happily on the bed, contemplating the virgin, pristine beauty of the unopened package. I freely admit that I am a depraved Fig Newton freak. There aren't many of us, but there is a bond among the lovers of the noble Fig Newton that transcends all. The Fig Newton itself is one of the most glorious creations of man, its subtle, soft, sandhued crust of a sensuous shade redolent of the earth's bounties, its dark, rich, tart filling of ancient figs from the sun drenched shores of Greece. There are those who actually enjoy such obscenities as Newton-type cookies stuffed with cherry, strawberry and even, God forbid, chocolate fillings. What blasphemy! The very name Fig Newton describes beautifully this classic pearl of the baker's art. Legend has it that Isaac Newton himself concocted this paragon while contemplating the laws of motion. There are those who maintain that his discovery of the Fig Newton was vastly more important than that business about gravity, which any fool could have come up with. I hefted the package, with its provocative invitation, CUT ALONG DOTTED LINE, in my hand. The rain drummed monotonously. The dormitory was deathly still, except for the occasional shuddering moan of distant plumbing. With my right thumbnail, I carefully split the dotted line, savoring every moment to the full. Believe me, any break in the soft, muzzy, stifling boredom is manna to the prisoner. I have always felt that it was no coincidence that Hitler wrote Mein Kampf while in the slam. If lie had had a couple of pounds of Fig Newtons to play with, maybe the world would have been spared World War Two. Carefully, I eased the flap Upward and outward, laying bare the two compact rows of magnificent beauties. Immediately, the musty concrete smell of my room was drowned in the incomparable fragrance, the subtle, haunting perfume that is characteristic of vintage Fig Newtons. I breathed deeply. Beads of perspiration, the sweat of sensuous anticipation, covered my nose. I placed the package carefully on my desk and rose to steady my nerves. I stepped to the window to prolong this moment of ecstasy. Down below, a solitary cyclist splashed through the puddles, his soggy field jacket identifying him as another ex-GI in pursuit of Government-funded knowledge. He still wore the patches of his old division, the Ninth Infantry. I turned and carefully extracted a Fig Newton from the company of its fellows. The drama was about to begin, though, naturally, I was not aware of it at this time. Umbaugh was about to become legend. I sniffed the full-packed beauty and took a tentative nibble, savoring the rich yet somehow poignant flavor, hinting as it does of the overtones of Greek tragedy; the fig of Electra, Orestes, even Oedipus himself. A few crumbs trickled down my wrist. I finished off the first with lip-smacking gusto; a second, a third. As I settled down to my fourth Fig Newton, I became aware of a heavy clumping outside my door. "Christ Almighty, goddamn itl" I muttered, frantically attempting to hide my treasure under the pillow. Our dormitory was peopled entirely by beings whose sense of smell surpassed that of the timber wolf. Any hint of food, anywhere, was sure to bring the ravenous parasites. My door slammed open and there stood Goldberg, his hulking, blubbery form, clad in his standard sagging jockeys and shapeless T-shirt, almost filling the room. He wore pink, rubber-thonged sandals and a two-day growth of smarmy beard. "Fig Newtons. I smell Fig Newtons. Y'got Fig Newtons!" hie wheezed hoarsely. What a kick in the ass, I thought. Goldberg, whose appetite was rivaled only by that of the giant garbage disposal trucks that lurched daily about the campus, gobbling up anything in their paths, was the last person I wanted to see this night. Known as Pig-out to his friends and the Slob to all others, Goldberg was born to eat. "Hey, Pig-out, I thought you went to town.,, I struggled to appear civil and welcoming. "Nah, I'm broke. Gimme a Fig Newton." There was no way around it. The ironclad law of the dormitory mandated that we share and share alike; a stupid law, but there it was. I extended the package to Goldberg. He scooped tip three at one swoop, the poor little Fig Newtons hopelessly clinging to one another for companionship in their last moments on earth. He stuffed all three into his garbage chute. "Mmmmfff, mmmffffpli," he grunted, like a rooting hippo. What the hell, I thought, it's every man for himself now. I grabbed a Couple of Fig Newtons, barely avoiding his grasp, and chewed happily. A feeling of comradeship filled the room; peace, tranquillity. It would not last long. The silence was broken only by the sound of our steadily chomping jaws and occasional grunts of animal pleasure. "Been saving these," I said between chomps. "What for?" "A night like this, Goldberg. A night like this." The rain drummed relentlessly outside. The faint red glow of a distant neon sign transformed the drops rolling down the pane into rubies. Off and on the sign went. It was a neon arrow pointing down through the night to JACK'S GOLDEN DOylE TURNPIKE DINER. EAT ... EAT ... EAT ... EAT ... it endlessly intoned, beckoning the drivers of K-Whoppers, Macks and Peterbilts to come 'and graze at the all-night trough. EAT ... EAT ... EAT... And so we 204 did, for a few blissful moments. Again, the steady clomp of shower clogs approaching my door. Goldberg glanced up, his chin dribbling crumbs. "Whozzat?" "Hide 'em," I muttered. Too late. Blotting out entirely the light from the' outside hallway was the immense, looming, mountainous form of Big Al Dogellio, the recognized terror of Big Ten gridirons for three seasons. Football players in that neck of the woods are not students, or even ' human beings in the ordinary meaning of the term. They are bredfor the purpose. It is rumored that hidden in the remote fastnesses of the state there is a Lineman Stud Farm, where these monsters are carefully nurtured from birth, destined only to execute bone-crushing tackles and shattering blocks on their way to the Rose Bowl. Rarely seen outside the confines of their special athletes' compound, these killers can be dangerous when loose. What Big AI, known familiarly to sportswriters as Old 76, was doing in our dorm, I'll never know. Naturally, we were both awed and flattered to be in the presence of such a demigod; 287 pounds, 6'5-1/4", with a size 22 neck and a 30-inch waistline, Big Al was wedge-shaped; pure sinew and gristle covered with a thick, bristly mat of primitive fur. Numerous broken noses had reduced his nostrils to blowholes. Enveloping him , was a distinctive animal aroma, the scent that great snuffling dinosaurs of the Reptile Age must have carried, redolent of primal swamps and ancient fens. He was as imposing and as lovable as a bull rhino in heat. He extended his immense paw toward me. I had the fleeting impression that his palms were covered with hair. "Gimme cookie," he grunted. There's nothing a Fig Newton aficionado loathes more than hearing a Fig Newton called a cookie, but I 'let 'it pass. "Of course, Heh-heh, of course. Have all you want, Big AI." "T'anks," And Old 76 joined me and Goldberg in our contented chomping, My tiny cell was getting crowded, but the evening was yet young and the pieces were falling into place of a historical event that is still recounted on the campus these many years later. At least three folk songs have been written about it. About half the box of Fig Newtons had gone to that Great Cookie Jar in the Sky when the star of the evening made his entrance. I, personally, believe that he had somehow set" the whole thing up, But we'll never know. A light tapping was heard; polite, discreet. I creaked to my feet and opened the door. There stood the tall, lanky figure of one of the least-known members of our dormitory clan. He had the clammy, slug-like pallor of the true scholar, one obviously born to live only for footnotes, cross references and bibliographies, a natural writer of treatises. "Hi," his voice soft and diffident, ''I'm Umbaugh, Schuyler Umbaugh from the first floor, and it is rumored that there are Fig Newtons available. I could scarcely credit my senses when I heard of it, but...." Big Al, glancing up from his fistful of Fig Newtons, rasped, "Give 'im some." "My name's Dave, and this is, Goldberg, and--" Umbaugh, with a casual wave of his long, thin, cello-player's hand, said, "Of course, everyone knows Mr. Big AI. Indeed." He edged into the room, he, too, dressed, in the uniform of the day, T-shirt, shorts and shower clogs. "Yes, sir, Fig Newton is one of my favorite vices, and I have brought with me something that makes the Fig Newton truly sing." He produced a heavy, pregnant 12 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. He went on in his soft, precise voice: "Fig Newtons and Pabst, a combination rivaled only by vodka and caviar. Here, have a brew." We quickly dived in. Within seconds, all four of us were inhaling cooling suds, washing down the Fig Newtons, creating a taste combination that is truly indescribable. At first thought, it sounds grotesque, but no, there is something about the fermented hops mingled with the crushed fig that is dynamite. "You guys are awright," 76 muttered as he unleashed a shuddering burp that rattled the casements. Goldberg punctuated the conversation with an appreciative fart. Dormitory life was being lived to the fullest in room 303. Goldberg suddenly lurched to his feet, a can of beer in one hand and a Fig Newton in'the other, and announced: "What the hell ... I'll be right back." His room was two doors down the hall, and seconds later he reappeared, the Fig Newton gone but still bearing his beer. In his now-empty hand, he carried, its string encircling his index finger, a three-foot-long, magnificent, richly gleaming salami. "My Aunt Bella sent it to me for my birthday. I been savin' it for a celebration." Goldberg handed the salami to' 76, who promptly bit four inches off the end. He passed it to me. I bit off a luscious, garlic-laden mouthful and on it went to Umbaugh. "The history of salami is an interesting one." He addressed us in the well-modulated tones of a born teacher. "The name derives from the tiny island of Salama' off the southern coast of Sicily. The early Eighth Century saw the emergence of the first sausage of this type. Its fame quickly spread. The sausage took its name from its homeland, salami being the plural of Salaina, which is the more proper - " "Fer Chrissake, gimme another beer." Big Al was clearly not interested in theory, being purely a man of action. Umbaugh' continued: ,"Saint Pietro Salami, one of the early Christian martyrs, according to legend, added the garlic as the result of a divine revelation. His subsequent canonization A.D. nine hundred and thirty-two led to ... oh, yes, of course. Have a beer, Mr. Seventy-six." And so a happy hour was spent in my yeasty, fetid concrete room. Worries about carbon compounds and the halogen series had been banished for the moment. The gray wolves of boredom were held at bay, to skulk uneasily in the rainy outside world. A huge bite of garlicky salami, a quick slug of beer and a nibble of Fig Newton, in that order, was the routine. Salami, Fig Newtons and beer passed from hand to hand. Occasionally, low, gurgling stomach rumbles added a fitting obbligato to our debauch. Umbaugh, his mind ranging widely over the whole panoply of human experience, entertained us with 'arcane facts. "Are you gentlemen aware that the fig stands unique in the tangled world of nature's flora? It has a deep-throated blossom that must be fertilized by a tiny insect, which, flying from male blossom to female blossom, carries the minute fertilization cell that makes this luscious Fig Newton possible." "No kiddin'?" Goldberg, always eager for more sex news, listened intently. "Yes, Goldberg, but it is essentially a sad ' story, since this tiny insect, Latin name Blastophaga psenes, dies at the very instant of fertilization. The blossom closes over it and each fig absorbs the tiny body of a departed insect heroine. The Great Fig Blight that struck Turkey in 1807, due to--" "Y' mean there's goddamn dead bugs in these things?" Old 76 looked up from his Pabst, his eyes glowing with menace. "Yeggkkl" Goldberg glared nervously at his half-eaten Fig Newton. "I wouldn't put it exactly that way, Mr. Seventy-six. In a manner of speaking, that is true, but. ..." At the time, I thought that, under the influence of the beer and the bonhomie of the moment, Umbaugh was putting us on. Later, I was astounded to find that he was telling the truth. But by then, it was too late. The Fig Newtons had disappeared and we were on our last beer, with only maybe six inches of salami left to go. It was close to four A.M. and, if anything, the rain was drumming down harder than ever. At that moment, Umbaugh began to spring his trap. Big AI. who later went on to glory in the N.F.L. after a spectacular career in the Big Ten, was about to learn a lesson. "Big AI," Umbaugh said, tilting his string-bean 6'6", 105-pound frame forward slightly, bending in the middle like some intellectual praying mantis, a faint sardonic smile playing over his sallow features, "it must be truly satisfying, in a deep, primal way, to smash the Iowa line to smithereens, to crush Leroy 'Snake Hips' Johnson, Ohio State's vaurited all-American halfback, into the dust of the gridiron, to be a modern gladiator; fearless, indestructible, impervious to defeat." A flicker of confusion clouded Big AI's tiny BB eyes. "Uh ... yeah. Well, the bastard give me the knee in the first quarter, so I hadda get the son of a bitch." Goldberg and I listened to this exchange with rapt attention. Umbaugh could be on dangerous ground. One treads softly around a rutting mastodon. "Well, you certainly did get the, as you say, bastard. I happened to be passing through the student lounge on my way to the library at the very moment the TV set was displ aying the scene of his vainglorious departure from the game, on a stretcher borne by four of his humiliated teammates. The roar of the crowd as the ambulance left the arena was certainly thri!li.ng and, I might add, not a bit too soon. Ohio tends to get a bit cheeky, eh?" Big Al moodily chewed the butt end of the salami, its string hanging forlornly out of his mouth and into the rough stubble of his granite jaw. "Yeah, well, he should'na tried coming through me after givin' me that knee. Them dumb fuckers never learn." "By George, that was well put," Umbaugh smiled admiringly at Big AI's clever mot. ''I'll have to remember that. I was rather relieved, though, that after the operation, they announced that he would probably walk again. In time." Umbaugh smiled benevolently. "Yeah, well, I figured since he was only a sophomore, the dumb jerk didn't know no better, so I went easy on him." "I, for one, admire you, Big AI, for letting that fool Snake Hips off so easily. True charity. Even he must be grateful that you let him off with only a cracked pelvis, a few shattered ribs and maybe a crushed spleen." Big AI's steel-blue BBs flickered as he appeared to study Umbaugh intently. My God, I thought, if Big Al senses that he is being put down, all three of us could go the way of that Ohio halfback in an instant. "Hey, Big AI," I asked bravely, trying to change the subject, "do you always wear your jersey with the number and everything around like that?" "Nah. Only around the dorm. I can't get no T-shirts that fit. They all rip down the back." His grass-stained red-and-white jersey, with its spectacular 76, had been cut off to give breathing room to his hairy, bare midriff. But Big Al was not about to be put off by any clever conversational feint from the likes of me. His ballbearing eyes continued to stare steadily at Umbaugh. "What you say your name is, huh?" He leaned forward, his cordI ike muscles rippling, playing like sleek dolphins over his shoulders and mighty back. "Ah, Umbaugh is the name. Umbaugh. The name has an interesting derivation.Back in the early Twelfth Century--" Big Al cut him off in mid-prattle with a furious animal snort. "Uinbaugh! I t'ought I knew that name. Yeah. You're the horse's patoot that wrote that dumb fuckin' letter to that stupid newspaper." A spasm of mortal fear gripped my guts. Of course, it was Umbaugh who had written that sardonic blast that had appeared in The .Crimson Bugle, our despised student newspaper. Titled "Athletics - Boobs' Paradise," it had rocked the campus. These loutish oafs thudding into one another with all human qualities crushed underfoot. ... I demand that the English Department go on strike against this further, indeed, highly applauded display of human depravity. The name Jane Austen is known to barely one percent of the student body of this so-called institution of higher learning, but 99 percent of my alleged fellow students can give you the name, weight and record of every third-rate substitute Ii.neman in the entire Big Ten. How long will this barbaric.... Big Al stood, his crewcut lightly brushing the ceiling of my cell, his steady gaze, unblinking, boring deep into Umbaugh. My God, he's gonna charge! l thought wildly. Goldberg cringed next to my bureau. He appeared to be counting the knobs studiously. Umbaugh cleared his throat lightly. "I confess, Big AI. It was, indeed, I. However, I meant it only in jest. As an exercise in Swiftian humor and satire, I..." "Can the crap." Big Al certainiy had a way with words. "That Jane What-theFuck's'-er-Name some broad yer shackin up with?" For a fleeting instant, I had a vision of the prim, virginal authoress of Pride and Prejudice sneaking off into the night with Umbaugh for a little hanky-panky. "Or more likely you're a friggin' fag." Big Al sucked sullenly at his beer can. "Jane? Oh, of course, you mean Jane Austen. I suppose one could say, metaphysically, we have been 'shacking up,' immersed as I have been in her work for three years now, preparing for my doctoral dissertation titled 'Irony - the Last Bastion of the Beleaguered Mind.' I suppose you might say that..." Struck by a sudden thought, he paused. "By George, that is good. 'Shacking up.' I must tell Dr. Bloombuster that one, he'll--" "You goddamned eggheads are a royal pain in the butt. The trouble with you dumb shitheads is that not one of you ever could beat nobody at nothin' and you can't stand nobody who can, so you go around blowin' off." A river of sweat poured down my back. The evening had taken a nasty turn. It must have been just about then that Umbaugh decided to close the trap. It's hard to tell. AH' I know for sure is that he said nothing for a long, tense moment. The r.ain drummed steadily on my window. Goldberg appeared to be trying to draw a cloak of invisibility around his blubbery hulk. Finally, Umbaugh, in a low voice, answered Big AI's charge. "That theory perhaps has some validity, Big AI, but then, on the other hand, there are those who believe tha t deadly combat is the very soul of man, and that we all have it." Under my breath, I hissed, "Careful, Umbaugh, careful." "Every man," Umbaugh continued in an even voice, "has his own game, where he is a killer, and -." "What the fuck do you know about games, you skinny pissant?" It was then that Umbaugh struck. He casually extracted a large, flat blue-andwhite box from his T-shirt breast pocket. With cool deliberation, he removed asilver-wrapped lozenge from the box, unwrapped it and popped its contents into his mouth. Goldberg, obviously trying to ease the tension in the room, squealed nervously, "Hey, Umbaugh, you got candyl" "Not exactly, Goldberg. I am merely indulging in a Boomo-Lax tablet." Boomo-Lax, the legendary laxative that billed itself: "Tastes like a fine French bonbon; yet has the action of a hand grenade." Goldberg, the human garbage disposal, could not pass that up. "Hey, gimme one. They taste like chocolate, don 't they?" "I believe the phrase is 'a fine French bonbon,''' Umbaugh answered, licking his lips appreciatively. "Say, would you gentlemen care to join me in a bit of a contest? A game, if you will." Big Al immediately rose to the challenge. Since tot-hood, he had won everything in sight, bashing and thundering over countless opponents throughout the years. He could not allow Umbaugh's challenge to pass. "What kinda game? You wanna armwrassle or somepin'?" The BBs suddenly blazed with the fierce hot light that had ..withered the soul of many an offensive back. The thought of Umbaugh's matchstick arms cracking merrily under the onslaught of 76's concrete biceps made even Umbaugh laugh. "Oh, goodness gracious, no. The contest I propose involves true intestinal fortitude." "You mean guts?" Al snorted. "You mean guts, you skinny twerp?" "You could say that," Umbaugh answered calmly. I was to find, shortly, how truly he spoke. Goldberg, who had been busily licking the interior of the Fig Newton box for any odd crumbs, asked, "What kind of game?" Umbaugh drew himself to his full height, his thin, milky body with its knobbly knees and sunken chest looking a bit'like a hatrack wearing a too-large T-shirt. "It's quite simple, actually. I have 49 tablets of this delicious Boomo-Lax left in this package, having already eaten one, which I will throw in as a handicap. We will pass the package from hand to hand, eating Boomo-Lax tablets in turn, and the last man left in the room wins. It is as simple as that. Of course, we wiII allow three minutes between tablets, under the international rules." "Of course," I said, "rules are rules." "You tryin ' to say, you skinny bastard, that you can eat more of them dinky chocolates than I can? lvle?" AI, who had never refused a challenge in his life, was not about to begin now. Goldberg, on the other hand, had motives far simpler. He never turned down the chance to eat anything, unless it had hair on it and crawled. I, however, was like one of those poor yaps who get sucked in to a bar fight and begin swinging wildly at everything in sight, only to wind up with a broken hand from hitting the gum machine and 30 days in the can. Not only that but I thought I saw a way out of what looked like something that was going to develop into a truly bad scene. "Fifty dollars, Big AI, to make the game more sporting. I-propose a gentleman's wager of fifty dollars each, the winner take all." Big AI, his face suddenly wreathed in the same smile of Christian charity that had once graced the visage of Mighty Casey at the bat, chuckled evilly. "You're on, sucker." Numerous alumni had seen to it that Big Al never had to worry where his next supply of cash was coming from. It was said that twice monthly, a Brink's truck delivered his "incidental expenses," with two armed guards carrying heavy sacks. Linemen of his ilk don't come cheap in the Big Ten. Goldberg, sure of victory, recklessly joined the fray: "Count me in." Well, what could I do? A man has his honor:..and, after all, I can eat chocolate with the best of them. "OK, deal the cards," I barked with the assurance of Henry Fonda sitting in on a poker game with Jack Palance. "I'll bet fifty bucks out of my next GI check, which I get in ten days." "The game is afoot, men. I now declare time is in." Umbaugh's manner had become formal, almost Victorian. He consulted his watch carefully and then passed the box of Boomo-Lax to Big Al. "Take one tablet, pass it on to the next contestant and then, finall y, around to me, the dealer." Big Al grabbed a silver cube and popped it into his maw, chomping ferociously. He then spit the wrapping out defiantly. "What a stupid game. J ee-zusl" Goldberg took his hungrily and I followed suit. By God, they did taste like a fine French bonbon. Umbaugh, with great delicacy, unwrapped . his tablet and began sucking daintily. "One round, players, has been completed." " Hey, they're good. Hey, they're really goodl Can I have two on the next round?" the human garbage can asked happily. I could see that he, too, was relieved that combat had been averted. "Now, now, we must have rules. One per round." Three minutes passed in silence as the tension rose in the arena . "Round two." Umbaugh passed the box to Big Al and it quickly made the circuit. "Hey, this is dumb. I could eat the whole goddamn box. What kinda dumb game is this?" Big Al was chafing a bit. He wanted more action. He was about to get it. After the third round, I noticed that a crowd had begun to gather at the door, which had been left ajar by Umbaugh for reasons we were about to learn. "Get 'em, Big All" a freshman wearing a reel-and-white beanie yelled. "Courage, Schuyler. Steady on." A willowy English major in a chartreusesilk robe cheered on his favorite. Umbaugh passed the box on its fourth trip. The crowd grew. Rumors had spread throughout the dormitory that a thrilling athletic contest was going on in 303 and that Big Al Dogell io was being challenged by a nerd from The Literary Quarterly. Hoarse shouts of encouragement and bursts of applause echoed in the hall. Catcalls, huzzas. Betting between spectators had broken out. Partisanship was rampant. I was pleased to note that I had my share of backers, no doubt the result of the time that I had eaten an entire meat loaf in the campus cafeteria, on a dare. I was not without qualifications. Naturally, the heavy favorite was Old 76. It was known via the sports pages that he daily breakfasted on two threepound sirloins and a dozen and a half eggs (sunny-side up), seven yards of o country link sausage and two gallons of homogenized milk. We all remembered vividly a photograph that had appeared the year before in the Chicago Tl'ibune showing Old 76 at the festive board. The caption read, "Athlete devours entire turkey for Thanksgiving." Of course, Goldberg's sickening gustatorial adventures were well known. I must admit that few put their money on Umbaugh. Unfortunately, the crowd usually backs favorites, often to its sorrow. Eighteen minutes into the game, just after our sixth Boomo-Lax, Goldberg suddenly, with no prior symptoms of distress, lurched to his feet, swayed for a moment like an elephant in a hurricane, let go a mighty, quavering belch and made a staggering leap for the door. The crowd roared and parted like the Red Sea. Goldberg thundered down the hallway, his shower clogs making a mighty clatter. As he ran, a high, thin moan accompanied him. The sanitary facilities for the third floor were at the far end of the hall. The crowd bellowed a mighty cheer as Goldberg just made the door in a skidding turn and hurled himself from sight. "Many are called; few are chosen." Umbaugh smiled thinly. "One down, three to go." Big Al snorted. "I know'd plenty of blubbery guys like that before. They never last. Gimme another one a' them little bastards. They ain't bad." "Round seven." Umbaugh passed the box to Big AI, who swallowed his tablet after a quick chew. "Umbaugh, y' better quit while you're ahead," he rasped. The crowd, sensing his malevolent competitive nature, fell silent. He handed the box to me, and to this day, I can't clearly remember what happened. Maybe it was the excitement; maybe I just didn't have it. I don't know. Just as I reached for the Boomo-Lax, I had the uncontrollable sensation of becoming suddenly inflated, as though someone had cruelly blown me up like a helium weather balloon. I felt my Jockey shorts stretching and cutting into my middle. They were so tight that there was an audible thrumming sound. My arms stllck out at right angles from my distended body. I felt like a Macy's parade Donald Duck float in a high wind. I caught a fleeting glimpse of Umbaugh's lip, curled in disdain. I was beyond caring. "Yes, with 'the action of a hand grenade,' " he hissed. I bounced and skittered to the door. Through the buzzing sound in my ears, I could hear the crowd faintly, as from a long distance, as they cheered and hooted. The distance of 75 feet or so down the corridor seemed to grow longer and longer as I wildly waddled, teeth clenched, trying to hold back the molten lava that boiled inside me: a human volcano about to erupt, slaying thousands in its devastation. At last, I crashed through the door marked MEN and, moaning weakly, hurled myself into one of the blessed booths. Even in my feverish panic, I saw Goldberg's foot extending from under the third booth down, his poor shower clog resting forlornly ' 15 feet away. I heard him rumbling and crying piteousIy for help. I was busy with my own troubles. It was as though a runaway RotoRooter had gone berserk in my gut. Bits of chewed salami spurted from my ears. Never before, or since, have I had such a horrendous experience. "Oh, I'm gonna die," Goldberg moaned. I envied him, since it was obvious that I had already passed into the Great Beyond and was paying for my sins. Was I in hell? Was Satan himself squeezing me dry like a human washrag? Tears trickled down onto my knees as the ghastly melange of Fig Newtons, salami and Pabst Blue Ribbon drowned me in its engulfing flood. What seemed hours later, I tottered weakly out into the hallway, a wraith of my former self. The crowd had doubled in front of my room. They were still at it! I edged through the mob, my body sore and aching. Umbaugh still stood, as he had all evening. Big Al was casually leaning against the concrete wall next to the casement. They were eyeball to eyeball. It was the age-old confrontation; mano a mano, High Noon. The lritellectual, the Man of Ideas vs. the Beast. "Round twelve," Umbaugh barked. Spectators murmured. There was a scattered burst of applause. Umbaugh, with the maddening air of the intellectual who firmly believes that he is 'one of the very few who hold the key to the mystery of the universe, downed his deadly bit of choco'ate. The greatest defensive tackle the Big Ten had yet produced followed suit, a sneer creasing his Naugahyde features. "You dumb fuckers never learn," he muttered. A voice in the crowd murmured, "That's just the way he looked before he nailed Snake Hips Johnson in the Ohio game. Oh, God, I can't watch." Umbaugh casually waved a limp-wristed salute to his few supporters, who were mainly from the staffs of The Literary Quarterly and The Barbaric Yawp, the campus poetry rag. "Courage, Schuyler," one of them piped. Another, a short wartish person in a Samoan toga, lisped, "It's Apeneck Sweeney versus Daedalus." Umbaugh turned and withered him with a glance. "I presume you mean Icarus, you oaf. However, your thought was well meant." The wart scrunched deeper into his toga, his acne reddening. Old 76's face darkened. "Who the hell does Apeneck Sweeney play for? Never heard of him." Umbaugh smiled benignly. "I never heard of him, either, noble foe. Shall we continue?" I had edged my way through the crowd and back into my room and was now busily mopping up the gushing perspiration that ran into my eyes and dripped off my nose. Something told me that I would soon be making another trip down the hall. Umbaugh, noticing me at last, acknowledged my presence. "You fought gamely and well. Feel no shame." "Thanks." "Round thirteen." In silence, the gladiators put away their deadly potions. Somehow, the crowd sensed that we had reached the turning point. Tension was so thick that it hung like a fine blue haze in the room. The rain had finally ceased and the first faint silver fingers of dawn had touched the ancient oaks of the quad. Saturday was beginning to happen, the biggest Saturday of the season, in fact. We were playing Michigan for the Big Ten championship, the winner, of course, to go to the Rose Bowl. Umbaugh leaned forward, his washedout gray eyes peering unblinkingly into Big AI's BBs. He whispered, barely audible to any outside the room, drawing out the syllables of his words to underline their import. "Rounnnd [long, pregnant pause] four .. . teee--" Before Umbaugh could complete his announcement, Big Al stiffened. An inchoate bellow of animal intensity shook the concrete walls. "UUUUUOOOOONNNNKKKK!" He lurched forward and then began to topple slowly, like a great redwood felled in the forest. Umbaugh, moving backward with snakelike agility, his voice lashing out, warned: "Move back. This could be dangerous." 'With a muffled thud that rocked our immense dormitory building, Big Al hit the floor, his red-and-white jersey darkened with sweat. The 6 of his famous number curled weakly under his bushy armpit. Umbaugh casually hoisted his drooping shorts as he coolly stood over his fallen foe. "Jane Austen lives." It was all over. My room was never the same again, even after hosing it down repeatedly and soaking the walls and floor and, yes, even the ceiling with powerful disinfectants. Big AI lay prone, his immense bulk quivering as giant spasms shook his frame. His followers, white-faced and stricken, rallied to his aid. They tugged and pulled his almost lifeless hulk down the hall, trailing noxious fumes. It was then that Umbaugh displayed the true style of a champion. "Well, boys," he stretched luxuriously and scratched his ribs with satisfaction, "it's been an exciting evening. And, as a nameless Phoenician captain once wrote, 'When the ship sinks, you've lost the battle.' " His followers, their eyes glowing with admiration, applauded their hero. I kept my silence. After all, he had disemboweled me. From far down the hall came the sounds of rushing water and the rumble of an expiring beast. Walking to the casement window, Umbaugh squinted out into the dawn, the faint red glow of Jack's neon sign playing over his ascetic, chiseled features. "I feel like a spot of breakfast. A healthy hunger, or, as the English would say, I'm a bit peckish. A stack of blueberry buckwheats drenched with maple syrup and a scoop of butter would just hit the spot. And since I am now somewhat flush this morning, I'll treat the gang to what the old Golden Dome Diner has to offer. vVhat do you say?" I lay back limply on my monk's slab. Within moments, the room was empty. The arena was silenced. Only the ghost of the heroic struggle remained. After a few queasy moments, I crawled to the window. Below me, I saw Umbaugh', his storklike figure striding confidently toward the sun, leading his enraptured toadies, trailed by the wart in the Samoan toga. Later that fateful day, our alma mater went down to humiliating defeat. Michigan, a decided underdog, had pulled off an upset. I still have a clipping that reads: LOSS OF ALL-AMERICAN COSTLY TO STATE (State Campus, A.P.) Missing his first game in three years of all-American play, Big Al Dogellio, State's brilliant all-American tackle, was the probable cause of Saturday'S defeat. State's losing 26-20 cost the home team the conference championship and a trip to ' the Rose Bowl. The head coach refused to be interviewed after the game as to the cause of Dogellio's failure to play, stating only, "The bum lost a lot of weight." He would not elaborate. Dogellio himself was unavailable for comment and remained in seclusion today. Rumors that Dogellio had been suspended from the team were neither confirmed nor denied, leading to further speculation. --------- And here, after all these years, was Umbaugh. On TV, yet. I shifted uneasily on that goddamn beanbag love seat, which I have hated since the day I bought it. Taking a deep, inhaling suck at my whiskey, I squinted closely at Umbaugh's triumphant face on the screen. "I hope that some of our viewers today, Mr. Cooke, have come to appreciate the role boredom has played in the world's history. As a little-known Phoenician captain once inscribed: When the ship sinks, you've lost the battle: Yes, ' Mr. Cooke, it is never wise to put your bets on the favorite. As the legend of Icarus shows...." The truth, after all these years, hit me. With a hoarse cry, I toppled forward, knocking my precious Thomas Jefferson tumbler to the floor with a crash, his stony visage shattering into slivery shards, the rich amber whiskey staining the Times editorial page, thoroughly soaking a Tom Wicker column titled: "The Intellectual; America's Most Precious Asset." You Benedict Arnold. You crummy rotten quisling. Selling out State to Michigan. You son of a bitch. For the first time, I understood why the Archie Bunkers of the world, the slobs of the universe, instinctively distrusted the intellectual. They were right all along! I moaned weakly in my shame. ' I had been cruelly used by this smarmy, poetry-quoting wimp. My simple, innocent lust for Fig Newtons had led to the defeat of my beloved State by the hated Wolverines. Oh, God, if the Alumni Joumal ever gets wind of this! I took a deep swig of Jack Daniel's straight from the bottle for sustenance, courage in my hour of self-revelation. I knew then with a deadly certainty that guilt would pursue me the rest of my life. The bastard had laid a big bet on Michigan!! Goldberg and poor dumb Big Al Dogellio and I were just pawns, shills, if you will, in Umbaugh's sinister game. No wonder he had all that dough to pay for those-postgraduate credit hours, that convertible, that vintage Beaujolais, those stupid imported Egyptian cigarettes. Oh, Lord, will perfidy never end? A line from Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof came back to me in that moment of fevered illumination: Big Daddy bellowing about mendacity, "There's nothing else to live with except mendacity, is there?" I shook my head in rueful admiration, the kind of admiration that you feel for John Dean of 'Watergate fame, the little pimple pulling off the big steal and coming out of it rich. Umbaugh, you son of a bitch. Few 'people in the world know what your true talent is. The greatest Boomo-Lax hustler who ever lived. You hustled us, you talented horse's ass. Once again, I felt the terrible panging clutch in my vitals known to the trade as Boomo-Lax backlash. I staggered toward the john, flipping off the TV set just as Alistair Cooke said: "This has been a highly enlightening program. I'Ve would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Umbaugh for. .. :' I gasped out, "Them dumb fuckers never learn!" as I barely made the blessed sanctuary.


Additional Comments:
This story was reprinted in the book "A Fistful of Fig Newtons"


Copyright: 1981 Playboy Magazine

Where Shep Made Reference To This Subject
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August 1981
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August 1981
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August 1981
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