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Choke By Matthew James Babcock

My partner, McCann, and I were sitting in our nasty white car, a rattling tin can of a Citroën our company, Sterne Interiors, Inc., had issued us. We were malingering on the curb of Runcorn Avenue, a dead-end street in the village of Blyth. A half mile beyond our front bumper, the sea bucked and shot froth into the March wind. Gulls tumbled across the sky. McCann, who was English, was polishing his glasses. He was the senior partner, and he had this habit of polishing his glasses instead of saying or doing what was difficult. Whenever he was bugged, he’d click open his black case and try to polish the problem away. I sat in the passenger’s seat, listening to the wind batter our car, the ritualistic whisk of McCann’s cloth over glass. A magazine slunk down the sidewalk then somersaulted out of sight. “After you,” McCann said.


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McCann was older than I was, and he had a knack for condescension that made me want to wad him up and cram him into his idiotic little case. He sat there in his seat of judgment and swabbed his vomit-colored rag over his lenses as if trying to smoke out a genie. “You’re a bottler,” he said, thumbing the cloth in quick circles. “That’s the trouble with you. You bottle out.” Which wasn’t true. I was thinking. I was looking out the windshield, mesmerized by the seaside. I was trying to find a will to work, trying to find motivation in anything. The gusty sky, the trashy street, the slogans of Sterne Interiors, the ones I’d memorized but that now rang hollow: At Sterne, we have everything for your kitchen and interior décor needs. The answer is simply Sterne. Sterne is the name, but we’re the friendly face you’ll see every morning in the mirror next to your own. So, I wasn’t “bottling”; I was trying to drum up the gumption to get out and work the street I’d chosen, and trying not to let McCann’s arrogance bore a hole through the raw contentment I was feeling on this absolutely storybook day. “The trouble, indeed,” he said. McCann was twenty-seven, but he looked forty-five. His thinning hair trailed a wisp of polluted cloud across his gleaming pink forehead. He had yellow-green teeth, like poison spearheads. Whenever he talked down to me, his corpse’s teeth would click and spray a toxic shower of spittle from his lips. His glasses were the kind that darken outside and lighten inside. I tried to think of something to say, anything, to squelch his contemptuous presence, 1


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but all I could think of was Ruth, this girl I had loved in first grade at Washington Elementary in my hometown: Jerome, Idaho. Back then, Washington Elementary sat on a scruffy hill overlooking Lincoln Avenue, across from the Jerome First Church of the Nazarene and the old A&W drive-in, where we, as little leaguers, after hitting home runs, rallied for free root beers and onion rings. In time, the Dairy Queen replaced the A&W, and the school board converted Washington Elementary to a storage facility. I laughed an exhausted laugh to myself, thinking about how the place where I’d learned about love and fighting to survive became a vault of musty shelves of glue, paper towels, and cardboard caterpillars that help you learn your alphabet. “This was your idea,” McCann said. His rag hummed over his lenses. “That’s the trouble with you Americans. You’re bottlers. You bottle out.” “I’m thinking,” I said. About anything but work, I could have added. McCann’s polishing halted. His hands raised his glasses and rag. “Might I suggest thinking more quickly?” I’d chosen to canvas Blyth that day because, on the map, it had looked like a drowsy hamlet full of harmless geriatric English men and women who were plagued with crumbling kitchen and bathroom interiors that Sterne’s work crews could upgrade for a lifetime of monthly installments. But something about the village of Blyth had sapped the work ethic from my blood. Runcorn Avenue was lined with red brick council houses. Potholes pitted the tarmac. A ragged corner shop— 2


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Mav’s Newsagent’s—waited like an opium den across the street. The usual ads hung in the shop windows: Benson & Hedges, The Daily Mirror, Kit Kat, Polo Mints. An inner restlessness plagued me. I wanted to amble up and down the streets of Blyth all day and into the evening, humming old maritime chanties, hands slung in pockets of magic candy rocks. I wanted to ditch McCann, or club him over the head with a tire iron, cocoon him in duct tape, and roll the car into the ocean. With a snap of my fingers, I wanted to vaporize his pasty body, snatch away his germ-spattered cloth, and drive my elbow through his snide parliamentary smirk. I wanted to build a bonfire on Runcorn Avenue, rip the magnetic sign off our Citroën’s door, and hurl it into the snapping red flames: Sterne Interiors, Inc. For a Brighter, Happier You! I wanted to spend the whole day in Blyth: alone. I wanted to tramp over every square foot of briny beach, chasing dogs and waving at people in lighthouses. I wanted to walk down each street and look in the faces of each English woman and man. I wanted to say to them, “Yes, I sell interior designs for Sterne, Inc., but I’m more than that. I’m interested in you. I’m American, and I’m now in Blyth. Tell me about your life, and we’ll forget the sales pitch.” “I suppose,” McCann said, clamping his cloth on a lens and glancing upward, “it would be redundant at this point to say, ‘Take your time.’” Outside, a cluster of bells jingled. I glanced at the entrance to Mav’s. A frayed mouse of a man wrapped in a tweed button-top cap, tan jacket, and whitewash-stained jeans entered the corner shop. When he exited, he carried a rolled-up newspaper under his 3


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arm. As he shambled down Runcorn Avenue, the smoke plumes from his cigarette bloomed like cartoon dialogue balloons then broke into webs of windy nothingness. His clownish gray hair poked out from underneath his cap. “Potential customer?” McCann asked. He stopped polishing. Tidily, he snapped the glasses in his case. I watched him survey Runcorn Avenue. He held his palms up, a look of laughing cynicism on his face. He meant it as a gesture of high drama. He examined the dead-end street, the brick façades, the rows of white doors like sanitarium vaults, each with a shiny brass knocker in its center. “This is, after all—Blyth.” He snorted a satisfied laugh. The leather case clicked open again like a sprung trap. His antiseptic hands began to swipe the rumpled cloth over his lenses in tight, economical circles. His tone turned unctuous with supremacy. “Know what your problem is?” he asked. “I bottle out?” He didn’t say anything, just sat there, polishing and smiling to himself. He didn’t look at me, so I knew I’d shaken him. Having anticipated our quarrel, he had dressed the part of the senior partner. He wore an olive-blue jacket, navy pinstripe trousers, and shiny black Oxfords. I was the junior partner, barely twenty-three. I stuck out in my London Fog overcoat and oxblood Doc Martens. I turned away. I watched a fog-haired grandmother shuffle down the walk like a cavewoman from a lost dimension. She waddled past, balancing an invisible milkmaid’s yoke on her shoulders. 4


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Painfully, she hitched up the two steps into Mav’s, shot us a backward glance, saw we were salesmen, and hustled inside. Soon, she exited the shop, bells tinkling in the wind. Her arms bulged with groceries. She hugged her burden to her chest, as if smuggling a kidnapped child. She passed our car and disappeared around a corner. Then the street was empty. As a defense against the moment, I imagined myself alone. The sky was a restless, unframeable portrait. Pink and blue candy wrappers cartwheeled across the street. Two children, one carrying a beheaded Raggedy Ann doll and the other chasing an anorexic Yorkshire terrier, scampered past, gave us startled looks, and then vanished into the alley that paralleled Runcorn Avenue. I watched the owner of Mav’s—a woman of about fifty—peek out and retreat into the secluded sanctum of newspapers, candy, and cigarettes. I would buy something from her shop later, I told myself. Even if she didn’t buy anything from me, I’d buy something from her. “Guess I’m scared,” I said. “That so?” McCann said, not missing a stroke. I turned to him. “Hey, McCann,” I said.. “Have you ever loved anyone?” He raised a hand. “Ah, now—” he said. “I mean it,” I said. “Like it hurt.” “You can talk to the main office. Now, if you like. I’m sure that kindly matron would let you use her telephone in the shop. I don’t have to listen—” “Listen!” I exploded. “For once!” 5


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My finger pointed at him like a revolver. His polishing halted in mid-swipe. “I suppose,” McCann said, “I could make that call for you.” “See what it’s like to listen,” I said. “Righto, James,” he said, forcing a grin. “Listening.” “See, there was this girl—” “In a sense I should be relieved,” he chortled. “At the same time, I still feel I shouldn’t have to listen—” “I’m serious!” I yelled. I grabbed the front of his coat. His eyes grew as wide as headlights. The front of his jacket felt good in my fist, bunched up and soft, like flesh. I’d never grabbed anyone in anger, but now I had his attention. His eyes marshaled an emergency plan: get out, enter shop, dial Sterne, lodge complaint. “Continue?” I said. “By all means, James,” he said. His escape route wheeled in his gaze. “I believe there was a girl?” “My name isn’t James.” “I’m English. It’s an expression.” “A girl,” I said, releasing his coat. He smoothed the wrinkles with manicured fingertips. A slash of gray sunlight made it look as if he were dragging diamonds across his chest. “First girl I ever loved. First grade.” “Now, I really should call—” But I was telling my story, and not listening to him. It was the telling that transported me over Blyth Beach. I soared around St. Mary’s Lighthouse and surveyed from a seagull’s viewpoint the perfect parabolas of sand, immaterial nets of brine, rank tapestries 6


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of seaweed. Somehow, I was lifted, and the telling drew me out of the world of the moment. As I talked, I saw Runcorn Avenue from the ocean’s perspective: I saw two men in a cheap white Citroën. The car’s antenna was a mangled coat hanger; the red brick council houses had white doors with tarnished brass numbers; the corner shop with the flapping yellow Benson & Hedges banner was empty. There were no children, no dogs. Only two stranded salesman. I saw them parked, talking, one telling something to the other. I saw, behind the car, a man in a brown trenchcoat, carrying an umbrella. He stopped before passing the white economy car, saw the magnetic sign—“Sterne Interiors, Inc. For a Brighter, Happier You!”— reversed his track, and nipped around the corner. I saw one of the salesmen in the car telling a story to the other man, telling it and trying to find the guts to move. “This girl,” I said. “You were saying—” “Ruth. First girl I ever loved.” “Carry on.” “She almost choked to death on a piece of pizza in the Washington Elementary cafeteria when I was a first grader there.” “Where?” “Washington Elementary. My school.” “In America.” “Naw, I’m from Piccadilly, me old mate!” “Sarcasm, good. America, land of the free, home of the bleeding capitalists. Bottlers, all of them.” 7


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“Right on, it’s the land of the free! Not locked up in corner shops, hawking candy and cigarettes, newspapers—” “Not trapped in company cars, scared silly of Blyth’s finest gentry—” “No dole—” “—when it was your bleeding idea—” “Shut up, will ya?” “—no perverted child molesters, still in love with first-grade girls—” “That’s not what I’m talking about.” “Well, my fine squire, what are you talking about? I’m busy. Making a living, I’m trying to.” “I’d tell you if you’d let me.” “Be my guest. The village of Blyth awaits—obviously not beating the proverbial path to our door.” “Polish your glasses. You missed a spot.” “Shut your mouth.” “Shut my mouth and tell you the story? That’s English for you. Pay people not to work and keep the economy strong. Eat four meals a day and get a full day’s work done. Give everyone free medical care and try to keep the health standards high—” “You’re bottling.” “What?” “You’re bottling out, like you always do. You Americans start something, and then you bottle out.”

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“Ruth,” I said, eyeing the street’s dead-end. “First love. First grade. On Lincoln Avenue, across from the old A&W drive-in, where the Dairy Queen is now.” “Does your president have power over this dairy queen?” “Shut up.” “Right, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Mind the steps.” “She almost choked,” I said. “On a piece of pizza in the cafeteria. Mrs. VanDerBruyn, my teacher, saved her life by pumping her arms up and down and forcing her to drink milk. Teachers and kids scattered. Some of us ran home. Some kids didn’t come back to school. I remember, Mr. Daw, our principal, had to call a special assembly, just to assure us that everything was okay. I was—one of the kids who ran home.” “Never woulda guessed.” “I was scared. Like now. I remember I was eating my lunch a few tables over from Ruth. I was—admiring her.” “Who wouldn’t have?” “She had this glow,” I said, looking out the window. “Beautiful people, they have this glow.” “Aye, aye,” McCann said, checking the rearview mirror. “She was Indian,” I rambled. “Or Hispanic. A cross, maybe. She had this dark skin that gave off light. When she ran on the playground—toward the swings, the jungle gym—her long black hair bounded. From side to side.” “Side to side, you say?” “She wore orange corduroy jeans that fit her perfectly. Her long hair was like a big satin ribbon, above her backside, just covering it. 9


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Even though I was in the first grade, I used to sit on the swings with this ache in my chest. I used to watch her run and wonder what it would be like to touch her.” “As long as you won’t be fondling my backside, I suppose. Now, I know you’re insane, Dr. Freud. You want me to call Sterne? Or should I abandon you here to be ravaged by the pygmy zealots of Blyth?” I was almost done. So I humored him. “Mrs. VanDerBruyn, my first-grade teacher, saved her life. I was sitting near Ruth’s table. All of a sudden, she starts banging on the table with both fists, hammering her hands up and down, like this! Then—aw, man—she starts reaching down her throat! You should have seen the look in her eyes. She jerked like a drowning horse. Her hand in overdrive, squirming down her mouth. Kids screamed. Her face went purple and white. I was only a first grader—like we all were—but I didn’t do anything! I just sat there, my spoon in my fist, this gob of peach cobbler in my mouth, watching the girl I loved choke to death. Then Mrs. VanDerBruyn rushed in and saved her, made her drink milk and lifted her arms up and down, like Ruth was some kind of hydraulic pump. Milk gushed down her face. That must’ve been the teacher’s training back then for choking, because now it’s the Heimlich. I guess it’s always meant something to me. Like courage. Whenever I’m scared to do something, I think of Ruth. Stupid, huh? But that’s what I think: ‘I’ve never almost choked to death. I’ve never almost died. I can do anything.’ I know you’re laughing, but seriously. At recess, I watched her from the boy’s jungle gym. No one would go near her. She sat on the lowest 10


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rungs of the girl’s jungle gym—she was swinging her foot like a busted pendulum—sweeping her sneaker toe in the gravel. It’s something you never forget, what a brush with death does to you. Just the opposite of what you’d expect. You’d think friends would scramble to your aid, but we didn’t. I didn’t. We treated her like a leper. Instead of basking in her immortality, we were afraid death would brush off on our clothes, like burrs or something. I wanted to go over and help her, but I just watched her from the boy’s jungle gym, wanting to comb my fingers through that showgirl hair, to brush a palm across those orange corduroys. So, that’s what courage is to me, and that’s who I think of: Ruth. Later that day, my folks took me to the A&W for dinner. I had a Papa burger, onion rings, and a root beer. I haven’t eaten pizza since.” McCann was staring. “So that’s it,” I said. “I, uh—after that, Mrs. VanDerBruyn, Mrs. Cooper, and Mrs. VanCamp and some other teachers circulated through the cafeteria for a year, reminding us to chew our food twenty times. So, aren’t you going to say anything?” McCann stared through me at a dot of energy in the street. His fingers worked his rag in hyperdrive ovals. Then I heard the scream. Ruth screaming out of history. Outside, a second shriek tore through the wind. It blew off the sea, distant and spiraling and ragged. I thought of Mav’s owner, but I glimpsed her face in the front window behind the Tizer ads. I looked around, listening. Runcorn Avenue was empty. “Hear that?” I asked McCann. The polishing accelerated. 11


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I grabbed his shoulder. I shoved my face in his face. “You hear that scream?’” His forehead glowed with sweat. He worked his lenses as if trying to scour off his fingerprints. “McCann,” I said. “This is weird, but—am I?—did you hear that woman scream? Like it was in the back seat!” I opened the passenger door and stepped out. Runcorn Avenue swelled with the saline tang of rowdy sea air. The surly wind tussled my hair. It blustered down the deserted streets, tugging at Aero chocolate bar posters on the bus shelters, pinwheeling shards of paper, propelling newspaper pages into corners and plastering them—flap, like carnival ads—on the sides of houses. I slammed the door. I listened and looked around. Bullied by the wind, I walked quickly toward Runcorn’s dead end. As I walked, I kept thinking about how this woman’s ghost had screamed in my ear. I hurried past Mav’s. I hadn’t been walking more than a few seconds, and already I was sweating and hyperventilating. “Oy!” McCann called. “Back here! Now!” At the end of Runcorn, fifty feet from our car, I turned and crossed to the other side. I trotted into the alley behind the houses, my hands and arms loose at my sides like those of a sideshow gunslinger. I felt as if I were watching myself walk, listening to a gypsy woman howl through the seaside gusts and spray. All along Runcorn Avenue, I glimpsed faces—a gallery of expressions in the windows. They wouldn’t buy Sterne home interiors, but they’d listen to a woman wail in the middle of the day. They’d watch the 12


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American freak in the London Fog coat jaunt like a fool marionette down a vacant street, especially after he’d sat in his car for an hour, trying to get up the courage to step outside. When I turned the corner into the alley, I saw the man in blue coveralls. But I didn’t see him without seeing Ruth, her fabulous orange corduroys, mystical midnight hair. The man’s muscular frame labored over something on the yellow-orange hood of his British Telecom service vehicle. I saw Ruth sitting alone on the bumper, swinging her foot, waiting for someone to console her, for someone to play with. The wind drove the gears of my muscles, knocked my feet forward, as if I were sitting on playground swings, dangling my feet but walking too, not feeling the weight of the walking. A glimmer of motion siphoned at the speed of light into my veins, entered me like sunshine through sea water, brightened my senses, endowed my movements with a bracing sting of life. I was cloud. I was beach. I reached beyond my own roar. I was a walking lighthouse, and Ruth was sending out her gyrating shafts of misty light to save the world from pain. I reached through another scream for Ruth’s hand of wind and advanced toward the British Telecom workman. I was fifty yards away, but I saw details. Fat claw marks of axle grease raked his coveralls. As I neared his bounding chimpanzee body, I could see his back and legs—no face. His hair was long and black, the shimmering color of oil. It was pulled back in a wet-paintbrush ponytail and cinched with a red rubber band. He was laboring over something, his shoulders strained, his elbows locked, as if trying to force a load of laundry into a washing machine. 13


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Another scream jolted me into a trot. Closer now, I saw the woman’s legs. I saw Ruth’s dark skin, and I saw the woman’s naked legs, white against the vehicle’s scuffed hood. The car was the color of summer squash with blue lettering. The woman’s limp legs hung down. The man was choking her, his filthy pig-colored fingers clamped in a deathlock on her tender throat. Instantly, I was running. I ran, thinking of McCann and his idiotic polishing. Of Ruth, the clog in her throat, that melted hunk of evil mozzerella, the killer wedge of pepperoni and sausage. As I ran, the coastal wind blew the universe through my head, its hushed music the scrape of a fender on asphalt. A cafeteria of pain. Kitchens of light. My thoughts shattered, shells on a wrecked beach. I tasted the fresh blood of the air. I inhaled the punky aroma of Old Holborn tobacco in Mav’s Newsagents. I smelled the newsprint, the trays of stale penny candy in the sugary shadows. Brick houses, each with the same withered face in the window, scrolled past. The man was choking the woman so that her bare legs dangled over the grimy hood of his vehicle. Ruth, the girl I’d loved, had dangled, too. But somebody had saved her. The harder I ran, the more the scene at the end of the alley jiggled and blurred. I accelerated to a full sprint, hurtling my flaming body toward the girl’s jungle gym where Ruth’s legs were draped over the vehicle’s front fender, orange on orange. My heart kicked my sternum. Crushed pizza boxes soured under the vehicle’s front tires in a puddle of scum. A first grader’s spilled milk dribbled over the hood, a runny white waterfall over the yellow-orange paint. The man’s choking motions fired in pneumatic bursts. The woman’s nude mannequin legs bounced, 14


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jolted by electricity. My tie flapped over my shoulder, a flag of flimsy gold cloth. My lungs swallowed seaside fire. The man saw me. He relaxed, stood up to run. “Hey!” I shouted. Then, remembering I was in England, “Oy, mate! One look, and he dragged the woman off the hood. She folded into his arms like a bag of laundry. Then she stood, staggered, and began to primp her hair. Her hair was frizzy, the color of windblown beach. Her blouse and miniskirt were the color of the smudged sky. The ruckus had hiked up her skirt, and I saw a lacy arc of pink underwear. Instinctively, she pulled her skirt down, a blue clamshell sheathing a pearl secret. She smoothed her clothing, fluffed her hair, stumbled. She examined her reflection in one of the car windows. She plumped pouty lips and checked her lipstick. Polished, I thought, running. “Hey!” I shouted. “Don’t get in—that car!” They slipped in the car together. Unruffled, nonchalant, they cast automatic glances back at me. Through the passenger window, her eyes flashed like scrubbed tiles. She looked away. The guilty orange vehicle lurched backward, like a drunken bug, ground its gears, screeched forward, and sped away, disappearing beyond the houses. “Hey!” I skidded to a stop at the bottom of the alley, panting and sweating. Doubled over, I heaved air into my lungs, hands on knees. A tremor seized my thighs. Then I stood upright. A 15


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necklace of sweat cooled underneath my collar. Bracelets of sweaty ice circled my wrists. Reeling, I looked back in the direction from which I’d run. Then I whipped around, hoping to catch sight of the vehicle. At that moment, a crappy white Citroën with a bent clothes hanger for an antenna toddled into view and parked in the space the orange Telecom car had occupied. The window rolled down. “Had enough excitement for today?” McCann called from behind the wheel. “Give over, Captain America. Let’s blow.” I jogged to the car. I leaned in. “A guy,” I huffed. “Almost choked—a girl!” “What?” “On the hood. A British Telecom unit.” “What are you, Scotland Yard? I don’t see any Telecom motor.” “Big,” I said. “This girl—in blue—on the hood, a British Telecom—car—choking her! Hands on her throat!” “That is your most widely accepted international definition of choking.” “He was gonna kill her!” “Was she pretty?” “Choking!” “Older than first grade?” “You heard it, too! And you didn’t do anything!” “Did they ask to see our catalog?” “They heard it!” I said, whirling around, arms out like those of a deranged televangelist. As I spun, I glimpsed a chorus of ancient 16


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faces shrink from the alley windows. “You all saw, and no one did anything!” “Move!” McCann barked, his face a mask of vicious crimson. “You bloody thick American. Let’s go!” But I didn’t care. I didn’t care about McCann, and I didn’t care what the village of Blyth thought. I was raving, preaching from on high. I was back at Washington Elementary on Lincoln Avenue, pirouetting on the top of the girl’s jungle gym. Ruth smiled at my side, my right hand clasping the secret design for love in her back pocket, my left hand tipping a frosty mug of A&W root beer to the blue playground of sky. “Remember!” I shouted, hands raised, facing my absentee audience. “Remember, Sterne Interiors! For a brighter, happier you!”

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Matthew James Babcock teaches composition & literature & creative writing at BYU-Idaho in Rexburg. He & his wife have four daughters & a son & a pug who apparently suffers from Prader-Willi Syndrome. Matt’s book, Private Fire: The Ecopoetry and Prose of Robert Francis, is available from The University of Delaware Press. He was a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Award recipient in 2008 & Press 53 chose his novella, “He Wanted to Be a Cartoonist for The New Yorker,” as a first prize winner in its 2010 Open Awards contest. He recently learned at his high school reunion that girls wouldn’t go out with him because he would go on & on & on & on & . . .

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