Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Getting the Last Word by Karla Stover

“Romeo’s a rage-a-holic, which means he’s often pissed off, unlike the vast majority of us gliding along devil-may-care.”

                                                              Andy Sipowicz, NYPD Blue

I have been accused of being caustic and I admit to it. Sarcasm and cynicism—what I refer to as realism—make me laugh. Ambrose Bierce, Andy Rooney, and the fictional, Andy Sipowicz are my heroes. But it’s more than being caustic; it’s also about the clever words, what the French call bon mots.

I went to see The Imitation Game with a friend last week. When the previews came on, she turned to me and said, “Did you ever wonder why movie trailers are called previews?” which I thought was pretty funny. I almost never have a clever comment when I need it—but I did have two, back when I was working, and I savor them to this day.

For quite a few years, one of my bosses read children’s Encyclopedias. He wanted to learn something about as many things as he could and, because he knew I was a non-fiction reader, he would quiz me. For example: every March 15th he would stop at my desk on his way to his office and say, “The ides of March are come.” And it was my job to remember the response: “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.” Or, on April 1st it was, “April is the cruelest month,” to which the second line is, “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” Then he hit the American history portion of his reading and one day said to me, “Karla, what is the largest piece of land the United States ever acquired and who was the president?”


So I thought about the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska and then, for some unknown reason and from unfamiliar part of my brain, I came up with, “The swath of land that includes New Mexico, and Polk was the president.” And I was right. It blew both of us away. Who even thinks about James Polk? He’s like Martin Van Buren—largely forgotten. But I was in my glory until July 14th when, alas, I forgot it was Bastille Day and couldn’t remember the response to: “The secret of freedom lies in educating people.”

The next time was at a Christmas luncheon for the bookkeeping staff. My brother had been studying engineering and at breakfast one day told Mom and me that the word, LASER is an acronym like SNAFU. There were about a dozen of us at the luncheon, sitting around a lovely table at the Country Club and for whatever reason my boss mentioned laser beams, whereupon I said, “Oh, do you mean light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation?” (LASER). People mumbled and wouldn’t look me in the eye and at that moment my reputation for not being one of them was firmly cemented.

While not quite bon mots, these were my days in the sun as far as wowing people with my remarks went—two in a life time. Perhaps, that’s why I write, so I can give my characters the final word.