Take the Survey

A cranky old coot was Mr. Calder, and he’d be the first to tell you so. Living 84 years had taught him cynicism. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he wasn’t much better at suffering the intelligent. Mr. Calder preferred his own company and that of his dogs, Daisy and Rufus. People might have been surprised to know that crabby Mr. Calder  kissed the dogs’ silky heads and cooked them chicken livers every day.  He’d have said that was nobody else’s beeswax.

So you would think that a private, cynical person like Mr. Calder would be the last one to fill out the ubiquitous surveys that accosted him on every side. You’d think he’d snort derisively at the telephone recording when it implored him to stay on the line and register his valuable opinion. You’d expect him to throat-punch the Kroger bag-boy when he said he got extra fuel points if customers took the online survey and mentioned him. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong, because Mr. Calder filled out every survey he could find. He even bought a laptop for that purpose, and went to a class to learn to use it. (The instructor could have filled out a survey or two himself.)

“It’s a way to say what I think,” Mr. Calder told Daisy and Rufus. “Things are just goin’ to hell nowadays, and it makes me so durn mad. I could tell ‘em a thing or two, but nobody wants to listen to old people.” The dogs cocked their heads as if considering his words, and then wagged their tails in approval.

In addition to answering the survey questions, Mr. Calder always added comments. In fact, that was his favorite part. “Other” was his go-to response, and then he let ‘em have it in the little box below.

“If my opinion is so durn important to you, why not hire some live people to listen to me?” he inquired in one little box.

“You wanna know what would make my shopping experience better? Quality merchandise that didn’t fall apart in two weeks, that’s what.”

“How could you improve the store? Start with cleaning up the carts. Those things are like germ bombs on shaky wheels.”

He’d smile when he hit Send.

Another thing Mr. Calder did was rate products on the internet. He bought almost everything online. “Can’t beat the convenience,” he confided to Daisy and Rufus. “Just click the mouse and in a couple of days your order shows up at your door.”

When he received the inevitable survey in his in-box asking him to rate his recent purchase, he did so, carefully calibrating how many stars to bestow and always utilizing the comment box.

One day the UPS truck pulled into his driveway and the driver unloaded a large box. He huffed and puffed it to the door where Mr. Calder stood watching. “Might as well load it back up, son. Didn’t order it, whatever it is.”

The driver checked the label and swiped his scanner over it. “It’s yours,” he said. “Maybe you forgot ordering it.”

Mr. Calder let that remark pass, but only because his curiousity bump was itching. As soon as the truck was out of sight, he got his utility knife and carefully cut open the box. Inside was a new microwave, much nicer than the old one in his kitchen. There was a note thanking him for his many helpful survey responses. The manufacturer wanted him to try out the microwave and requested the favor of his impartial review.

And so it began. Mr. Calder became a product tester, the UPS driver became Bud, and it was a rare month that didn’t see three or four goodies delivered to his door. In came a foam mattress and a food processor, then a fancy mixer and a coffee maker. He got sheets and knives and a camera. Mr. Calder sampled each product, conscientiously writing his comments in the little boxes. But there was a limit to what a man living alone could use, and stuff piled up.

Newly-weds Carly and Jake lived beside Mr. Calder. They seemed to be short on money – as he and his wife had been at their age. He knocked on their door one day and presented the bride with a top-of-the-line mixer, very slightly used. “Don’t cook much,” he mumbled, looking at his feet. “Thought maybe you could use it. You don’t have to take it if you don’t want it.”

But she did want it. She was delighted. Mr. Calder gave them the foam mattress. He gave them the hedge clippers and the bamboo outdoor rug. It wasn’t cheating, because they used the products and told him what they thought so he could write his reviews. They began inviting him over for supper. Then one wild night Mr. Calder drove Carly to the hospital when the baby came early and Jake was out of town. In time, that little girl called him Gumpa and squealed when Daisy and Rufus licked her face.

Mr. Calder didn’t have time to fill out surveys anymore. He didn’t really miss it. Not as much to get mad about as there used to be.


Sherlock’s Secretary

Maura Pennington worked for a man who never existed. Every morning she took the tube to 221B Baker Street, where the Abbey House Building Society, which was really a bank, resided at the address made famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She’d ascend the marble staircase to her little aerie under the eaves, switch on the electric heater, remove her gray Macintosh and slip into the cardigan she kept there. She’d splurged on it at Marks and Spencer – a lovely ruby red cashmere. She wore it only at work because when she put it on, she felt like a different person: not an aging spinster at all, but someone sharp and worth knowing, someone well able to cope.

She could not believe she was fifty. Where had her youth gone? Where was the sense of wide-open possibilities with which she used to view her future? She’d thought by now she’d be a wife and mum, looking after a boisterous British family. Instead, she lived alone in a bed-sitter, being a good auntie to her nephews and nieces, and treading tamely back and forth to her job. But at least, she comforted herself, she had a good job. She began slitting open the little pile of envelopes in her in-basket.

Maura had ceased to wonder why presumably normal people wrote to a fictional character who would have been long dead had he ever lived. The fact that current mail was still delivered to Sherlock Holmes’ address was enough to convince these credulous souls that he could be reached there. Her job was to deal with the correspondence in a kind but professional manner.

The first writer wanted Mr. Holmes to assist in finding Aunt Pamela’s good pearl brooch. Everyone in the family remembered it perfectly, but no one could find it now that Aunt Pamela had passed on. Maura uncapped her fountain pen, and took out a piece of creamy stationery headed “Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker St., Marylebone, London.  In fine Spencerian script, she wrote Mr. Holmes regretted he could not take on the case since he had retired to the country to raise bees. He suggested that the family check all the pawn shops within two miles of Aunt Pamela’s house.

The next letter writer wondered if Mr. Holmes could locate her brother who had emigrated to Australia in 1995. At first, he’d written regularly, but then the letters stopped. Maura paused worriedly over that one, looking up the number of the Australian Federal Police. Again, Mr. Holmes regretted, but suggested.

Most of the letters were straightforward: people wanted something found. Some touched on the supernatural, a nod to Conan Doyle’s well-known interest in spiritualism. Maura, a faithful Church of England congregant, had trouble with those. She wanted to tell the writer to try going to church on Sundays, but she knew Holmes would never have done that.

Maura’s desk phone seldom rang. Most of her dealings with people took place via the written word. So when the phone rang at ten a.m., she guessed it would be her sister-in-law and it was.

“Maura, come to dinner tonight,” Philippa said. “We’re just having a few people in, the Smythes and a friend of theirs. Be a dear and even up the table.”

Philippa thought it bad luck when the number of men and women didn’t match. Her dinner parties were often soporific, but Maura found it easier to just go rather than cause hard feelings with lame excuses.

At five p.m., Maura capped her pen, straightened her desk, carefully removed her ruby red cardigan and reached for her gray raincoat. Then, remembering that she was going out to dinner, she looked thoughtfully at her outfit: black skirt, black tights, black boots, and a plain white shirt. Not very festive. She resettled the sweater on her shoulders.

Entering her brother’s warm living room, she immediately noticed the stranger leaning against the mantelpiece.  Maura felt a tingle of recognition when his eyes met hers. Philippa grasped his arm and propelled him forward.

“Ah, there you are. There’s someone I want you to meet. I’ve been telling him all about you and I just know you two are going to be friends. Maura, this Dr. John Watson.”



The Sojourner

“Come in, come in, children, and take your seats.”

She must be the teacher, Joseph thought. She stood at the door smiling as the children filed past her. Joseph had seen English women when he went to town with Pop, but never this close up. He stared. Mrs. Lincoln had fluffy short hair and red lips. Her dress reached only to her knees and her toes peeped out of her shoes.

He took a seat at one of the low round tables and looked around at the other kids in the room. About half of them were Amish like him: replicas of their parents. The boys had bowl haircuts and wore homemade black pants that buttoned at the waist, held up by suspenders. The Amish girls’ braids were coiled around their heads, and their mid-calf dresses were fastened together with pins because buttons were forbidden for girls and women. Joseph didn’t know how Mom and his sisters managed not to get pricked when they were milking cows or hitching up the horses.

Climbing aboard the big yellow school bus at the end of the lane had been scary, and if his brother hadn’t been there, Joseph wasn’t sure he could have done it. The bumpy ride made his stomach feel funny. It was so different from the gentle sway of the buggy behind the trotting horse. School seemed even stranger.

“Class, today is Monday, September 4, 1950. Can you say it with me?”

The children obediently parroted the date.

“Now we’re going to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Mrs. Lincoln said. “Everyone rise and face the flag.”

Joseph didn’t get it; what or who was a plejalejance? He watched to see what the others did. English was a shaky second language for him. His family only spoke Dutch at home, although over the summer his mother had tried to remember to speak English to smooth his transition to school. Added to the language difficulty was the fact that Joseph was already two years older and much bigger than the English first-graders. Like his brothers and sisters, he’d waited until he was eight to start school. English law compelled him to be educated until his sixteenth birthday, but because Amish kids didn’t go to high school, he’d repeat eighth grade until that birthday occurred. Starting as late as possible meant he’d only have to repeat it once.

His mind drifted back to the farm, where he knew Pop would have the team of huge Percheron work horses harnessed to the combine. He’d be pushing hard to get the big hay field harvested today, and ordinarily Joseph would have been helping. He’d been trailing after Pop since he could toddle, watching and learning. He couldn’t work as hard as Pop yet, but he worked as hard as he could.

Mrs. Lincoln passed out thin paper books. “These are our first readers,” she said. “Please open to page one. I’ll read the story of Dick and Jane today, but soon you’ll be able to read it for yourselves.”

Joseph listened incredulously to the adventures of Dick, Jane, Baby Sally, Spot and Fluffy. He wondered where their mom and pop were, and why the children weren’t helping with some task. Did they just play all day? Didn’t they have a garden to weed, crops to get in, livestock to feed?

Joseph felt a great lump of homesickness in his throat. The door beckoned, but he knew Pop would paddle him if he disobeyed the teacher. There’d be no running away for Joseph. He scrunched down in his seat. It was going to be a long eight years.

Mrs. Entwistle and Baby Pea

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, let him out,” Mrs. Entwhistle said to her hostess, Pearl Entwhistle.

Pearl was her sister-in-law – Floyd’s “baby sister,” as he referred to her until his dying day. Within the family she was never called anything but Baby Pea, supposedly Floyd’s early effort to say her name. But Mrs. Entwhistle simply could not utter it. Baby Pea, for a person in her seventies? No, there was no way that name would ever pass her lips.

Mrs. Entwhistle was having lunch with Pearl, something the ladies did as infrequently as possible. Despite more than fifty years as inlaws, a certain distance remained. However, they kept up a token relationship out of respect for Floyd’s memory.

Seated in Pearl’s pink dining room, they dipped their spoons daintily into cold consommé that Pearl considered a hearty lunch. Mrs. Entwhistle thought longingly of the leftover beef stew in her refrigerator at home. Oh, well, she’d have it for dinner. Early dinner.

The captive in question was Pearl’s big, black Labrador retriever, Zeus. Like many Labradors, Zeus never left puppyhood behind. He loved to romp and run in circles, splash in any available body of water and then shake himself, soaking everything within a wide radius.

That Pearl should have a dog like Zeus boggled Mrs. Entwhistle’s mind. Pearl, with her sequined toilet tissue covers, her lace curtains, her floral dresses. If ever anyone was a teacup poodle person, it would be Pearl. And yet there was Zeus, throwing himself against the basement door, baying broken-heartedly at such volume that conversation had to be suspended.

“He might as well sniff me and get it over with,” Mrs. Entwhistle said resignedly. “That dog can’t stand not to be in the middle of things.”

“I’ll just get him, then, if you’re sure you don’t mind,” Pearl said, heading for the door with fussy little steps. She opened it with a smile of delight, unleashing eighty pounds of muscles and energy. Zeus exploded into the dining room and crashed into Mrs. Entwhistle’s chair, knocking it several inches off center.

“Zeus! Bad doggie,” Pearl cooed. “Sit! Sit!”

Ignoring Zeus’s disinclination to do so, Pearl sat down herself, shook out her napkin and picked up her soup spoon, as oblivious as if the Hound of the Baskervilles lived at some other address. Mrs. Entwhistle’s napkin went sailing, victim of an enthusiastic paw. Her consommé sloshed out of the bowl as Zeus put his saucer-sized front feet on the table to check out the menu. Doggie kisses fogged her eyeglasses and her lap was thoroughly inspected.

“Now, then, Zeus,” she said, with all the firmness she could muster. “That’s enough. Sit.”

Zeus’s rear end hit the floor as he looked up at her with a grin. He recognized an Alpha human when he saw one, but he couldn’t help that his tail, revolving like a helicopter rotor, propelled him once again into action. Mrs. Entwhistle endured Zeus’s spade-shaped head pushing up under her arm. She tolerated his furry weight when he sat on her feet and leaned on her legs. Finally, tired out by his own exuberance, Zeus stretched out on his side with a long groan and went to sleep.

Pearl stepped into the kitchen and came back with dessert: her signature lemon bars and Earl Grey tea in a blue china pot. She was famous for those lemon bars, and Mrs. Entwhistle perked up.  Conversation flowed more easily, primed by sugar and relief that lunch was almost over.

Mrs. Entwhistle felt Zeus stir at her feet, but for once the dog left her alone. Her attention was firmly fixed on the lemon bars, anyway. Just as she accepted her third, she saw out of the corner of her eye that Zeus was walking around the dining room with a handbag dangling from his neck. Her handbag.

Created out of scraps from her old dresses and Floyd’s shirts, and even some of the kids’ clothes, Mrs. Entwhistle spent hours piecing, sewing and quilting that bag.  It was precious to her, and certainly not meant to be soaked in dog slobber. Zeus wore a bemused expression, but he was nothing if not a good sport. Since he found himself somehow carrying a purse – well, he’d just make the best of it. His life, after all, was full of inexplicable surprises.

The ladies’ eyes met across the table, Pearl’s wide with apprehension. They turned their gazes to Zeus, who wagged his tail vigorously, sweeping a small scatter rug into the next room. He looked from one face to the other, his teeth bared in a doggy smile, then bowed over his front legs in the classic canine invitation to play. Mrs. Entwhistle never could resist the ridiculous. She leaned her face on her hands and laughed until tears fell on Pearl’s white tablecloth.

Zeus, delighted to be the focus of such goodwill, capered around the room tossing his head. Small objects were flung forth from the bag, orbiting the big dog like satellites – Mrs. Entwhistle’s lipstick, her coin purse, her address book, her ballpoint pen.

“I’m so sorry, Cora,” Pearl said, her hands fluttering. “Zeus! Bad dog! Come here!”

Predictably, Zeus ignored her. Mrs. Entwhistle finally lifted her head, wiped her eyes on her napkin, and regained her composure except for a few stray giggles. Zeus came to sit at her feet, gazing fondly into her eyes. She slipped the purse strap over his head and restored her scattered possessions.

“Oh, my,” she said. “A laugh like that – you couldn’t buy it with cash money.”

“You’re not mad, Cora?” Pearl asked, anxiety puckering her face. “Zeus didn’t mean any harm.”

“No, I’m not mad. In fact, I don’t remember when I’ve had such a good time. It’s a day to remember, Baby Pea.”

(This is an excerpt from the book, Mrs. Entwhistle, available on Amazon.)