ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Meatball Hero" by Ricardo Nirenberg


                                           Es ist eine alte Geschichte,
                                             Doch bleibt sie immer neu;

                                             Und wem sie just passieret,
                                                  Dem bricht das Herz entzwei.
                                                               H. Heine


         But what was the event that truly changed his life?  What were the beginnings of his brilliant career?

         He stood before the bathroom mirror, shaving.  His own cry startled him, and a spreading red spot appeared under the lather, on his chin.  The second time, a few days later, he was at table, waiting for dinner, and his mother heard him from the kitchen.  “Was that you, Mumford?  What’s the matter?”  And when for the third time he uttered that childishly high-pitched cry, “Mom!” in the office, and the other employees looked at him in surprise, he knew that something had to be done without delay, for it was not becoming in a twenty-four year old man to carry on like that, unexpectedly and for no reason calling his mother, who was, incidentally, a rather nice lady if a bit pugnaciously old fashioned, a widow, living with her only son in Meminisse County.

         After mulling it over, Mumford decided that a deficient education was at the root of his problem.  Aren’t “Mom!” or “Momma!” about the most primitive cries a man can utter?  He had to learn other, more developed cries.  It was also possible that he needed a short vacation from his mother.  He went out to the garage to inspect his motorcycle: a nimble V-twin, air-cooled, the pair of black exhaust pipes ever so slightly upturned (a stylish touch he found appealing).  He put on two capacious saddlebags: his portable CD player, a few CD’s, a helmet, goggles, and money for gas, oil and provisions. One morning before dawn, he left a brief note on the kitchen counter saying he would be back in a few days, he softly kissed his mother goodbye without awakening her, rolled out his motorcycle and when he was a couple of blocks down the street turned the engine on.  In no time he was on the highway headed West; at the first mailbox he mailed the following letter to his employer: “Dear Mr. Folsom, My mother who, as you know, has only me as son, had a bad fall as a consequence of which she broke several bones.  As she will require immediate attention, therefore I will not be able to come to work Monday and Tuesday.  Truly yours.”
        The story was true only insofar as it involved his mother: Mumford would have felt badly telling Mr. Folsom an outright lie.  Soon he was in the open country, the engine running fast and smooth, the wind cresting his helmet with tufts of vectors, Ella Fitzgerald singing It's a lovely day into his earphones, and he every so often screaming, “Mom!”  Drowned by the roar, his screams could not be heard by anybody, not even by himself.  But he had not made fifty miles when he was stopped by a state trooper.

         Mumford manifested surprise when told that he had been doing 80 miles per hour.  “I didn’t know it could go so fast,” he said, with a gesture toward his machine.  Neither did he know, he said when asked to produce his license, that one needed it in order to operate a motorcycle.  Mumford smiled, hoping to sweeten the situation.  But the trooper distended his lips and bared his teeth; he probed with the tip of his tongue the gaps between incisors and canines, slitted his eyes and finally broke into a smirk that couldn’t possibly be taken for a smile.

         Once inside, sitting on a court bench, Mumford wondered what would become of his motorcycle: he had to leave it outside, unattended, and the worst was, he had not thought of buying a chain and a lock to fasten it.  How foolish of him.  Delving in his pockets, he found the sandwich he had made before his departure, wrapped in tinfoil.  This gladdened his heart a bit: at least, he thought, he wouldn’t starve.  He would save it (it was a meatball hero) for later, right now he wasn’t hungry.  In the other pocket he found a toothpick, which would come in handy after the sandwich.  He was turning the toothpick between his fingers, using it to push the dirt under his thumbnail into a corner, when an usher appeared calling his name.

         “There we go,” Mumford muttered, “I won’t get out of this one with just a slap on the wrist.”  The usher opened a door and ushered Mumford into a grand salon.  Ready to show contrition, Mumford looked around for the bar, the flag, the raised throne, the trappings of awesome justice, but of these he found none.  Cool air and marble floors, brackets between iridescent mirrors, rows of plush leather sofas.  It could have been the famous Hall of Mirrors of Versailles, where a few gentlemen with upturned mustaches founded an empire in 1871, and other gentlemen with drooping mustaches dissolved it in 1919.  In the middle of the long hall there was a wonderful machine.  It was a round-domed, bronze-and-dream contraption, with wooden knobs and manometric glass tubes.  A man in a white apron opened a sliding cover at the dome and a column of steam came hissing out; then, apparently uninjured, the man walked away, a steaming towel in his hands.

         “Hey chief, is this the traffic court?” Mumford approached him, but the aproned man returned a steamed-oyster kind of look.  Unless I’ve lost my marbles, Mumford thought, this man looks like a barber, and this place looks like a barbershop, or a barbering gallery.  Another man whom Mumford had not noticed and who was lying almost prone on a barber chair, pulled a come-here-bent finger from under a white sheet.

         “Mr. Mumford?” asked the sitting man, and with a horizontal flutter of his hand, he bade Mumford wait.  The barber wrapped the steaming towel around the man’s face.

         Ah, Mumford thought, this must be the judge, delivering justice while being shaved: not a bad idea, saves time.  He stood, watching the steam go up.  The barber meanwhile was honing his razor on the strap attached to the chair.  Sounds seem to come from the crater-like opening above the judge’s face, and Mumford leaned over to catch them.

         “Rights of men, Mr. Mumford, sacred rights,” came the judge’s voice like a rumble amidst a cloud of steam, “for which you will acquire a most profound respect the more you look into your own mind...”

         “Yes, Sir, your Honor,” said Mumford, and as no further sound came from the cavity in the towel, he hastened to explain, “but you see, I would have sworn I wasn’t going more than fifty, as a matter of fact cars were passing me all the time...”

         The voice from the crater spoke again, “Sentimental jargon, Mr. Mumford, has a pernicious effect on morals and morale... the salutary criterion of reason...”
Mumford and the judge were silent, while steam eddied up and the barber finished honing his razor.  Then the cooling towel was removed and Mumford could see the judge’s face, a dignified, benevolent face smiling at him from a full beard.  “You will of course stay with us until you get your degree,” said the bearded judge, “which shouldn’t take more than four or five years.  You will be given a small stipend after the qualifying exam at the end of the first year, if, that is, you agree to teach.”

         “But, your Honor,” mumbled Mumford.

         “Call me Professor,” said the bearded judge, smiling.

         “Professor,” said Mumford, “Sir, I’m willing to pay fifty dollars for my speeding ticket, but then I’ve got to keep going; you see, my mother is sick, really sick, in the hospital...”

         At a sign from the bearded professor, the barber caught Mumford by the nape and put his sharp razor right under his Adam’s apple.  The barber’s grin, Mumford noticed on the mirror, was remarkably like the policeman’s.

         “You wouldn’t particularly care to be shaved,” the professor said, “would you?”

         “No, Sir,” said Mumford.

         Another scalding towel was wrapped around the professor’s face, and his voice now came from the depths of Vesuvius.  “Knowledge and virtue and everything valuable must be the fruit of laborious exertions... Invention is invariably sharpened by necessity.”



         In the cubicle assigned to him there was a cot, a chair, a chest of drawers and a small desk.  His mom, far away, and his motorcycle, who knows where, called on his mind now and then; the rest of the time Mumford could scarcely believe his luck: clearly this was the ideal place to acquire the superior education he was lacking.  Other students sometimes walked down the hall and, waving their hand as they passed by Mumford’s open door, said “Hi,” to which Mumford replied “Hi.”  With one of those students he once struck a more extended conversation.  The young man, named Clip, impressed Mumford with his vast, minute knowledge of matters pertaining to the two new, emergent sciences, scissorial and forficular.  An advanced student with a class ring and an elevated pompadour, on whom much hope was being pinned, Clip told Mumford about the relevance and importance of Scissor Science.  He said that two possibilities on any issue whatsoever are basically like two opposing blades which, under an applied force, come closer and closer together until the issue is literally decided: this is of course enormously important to anybody with executive responsibilities, and therefore, needless to add, it is absolutely indispensable to the economy.  Mumford listened with keen interest, but without much understanding, since even though both worked in the general field of trichocosmetology, his own specialty was removed from Clip’s.  Pectinology is the study of combs, their physical and chemical properties, history, significance and classification: it had become Mumford’s subject, and most of the time he spent at his small desk, bent over specimens brought from the barbering gallery where they were kept in jars, dipped in a greenish antiseptic fluid.  The bearded professor or one of his colleagues would sometimes stop by and stand for a minute or two watching Mumford (who had by now grown a budding beard and mustache), while he carried out careful measurements of dental density or searched, lens in hand, for interstitial dandruff and stray hairs.

         Interdisciplinary problems were becoming the fashion, and not only Mumford but the professors too would stand sometimes perplexed before a specimen, unable to decide whether to apply to it the laws of brushes or of combs.  Clip came to Mumford’s cubicle one afternoon, all excited, holding an object which was clearly a pair of scissors, yet one of the blades was as clearly a comb.  “Check this one out, will you,” said Clip in a fervid whisper, and after giving Mumford some time to scrutinize the thing, “I’d work on it just by myself, but for my lack of experience with combs; this really needs a pectinologist, and since you and I get along well...”

         On Clip’s face there was ecstatic wonder at a glorious future, the papers, the conferences, the fame, and also a feeling of pride and surprise at his own generosity; he was ready to accept Mumford’s profuse gratitude with a congenial “aw shucks,” but Mumford responded with a high-pitched cry, almost a howl: “Momma!”  Thereafter it happened several times a day.  In the middle of a teeth count, involuntary, irresistible, the cry welled up inside his pipes and burst out, “Momma!”  His meatball grinder was still in his jacket, hanging from a peg.  Mumford noticed a reddish streak on the pocket: the juice from the meatballs had oozed out.  He unwrapped the metal foil: his submarine was diminished, roughly to two thirds of its original size.  This did nothing to lift his spirits.  The flight of time was thus more vividly thrown before his mind than by the growth of his beard, and it gave a new urgency, a new ululating harmonic to his cry.

         Thus he crept through the days, doing his best to absorb himself in his work and not always succeeding, when one morning, having wandered off through halls and marbled galleries into the Faculty Garden, there, seated on a wooden bench by a sycamore tree he saw a girl of preternatural beauty.  She had an orange-red flower on her dark hair, and two delicious dimples on her cheeks, most noticeably when she inquired, “Where’s my sandwich?”

         By a good turn of fortune it was a cool spring morning, and Mumford happened to have his jacket on; he took the meatball torpedo from his pocket, and kneeling on the ground, offered it to the girl.  Unable to say a word, his heart wildly pit-a-patting, Mumford awaited a word from her.  The girl unwrapped the meatball poor-boy, took a look at it and smiled.  Then she got up and offered her hand to the kneeling suppliant.  Mumford held the girl’s hand: it is amazing that he knew what to do in such circumstances: never before had he held a girl’s hand, but he carried his daring so far as to kiss it, and then to ask, “How did you know I had a sandwich?”
         “Why, you are Mumford, aren’t you?” said the girl, “the meatball hero: everybody knows you.”  And she laughed, friendly and seductively, before devouring the sandwich.

         Her name was Burrmaster, and she was the bearded professor’s youngest daughter.  “You’re into combs,” she calmly stated while picking the last crumbs from the crumpled foil, and then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  “If you care to go with me under the pines, I’ll show you some kinky hair in need of an expert.”

         His future was assured.  His joint research with Clip was yielding great results galore, and presently the eminent bearded professor gave his blessing on both a dissertation topic and on Mumford’s engagement to Burrmaster.  A barber chair was assigned to him in the Hall of Mirrors, with his name in gleaming golden script on the brown lush leather of the head rest, and from then on he was entitled to unlimited steaming towel service.  All these honors were not lost on Mumford, but they did nothing to diminish the frequency of his involuntary and anguished cries for Momma: this frequency, the number of “Mom!” cries per day, appeared to be a parameter independent of the circumstances, a constant of his nature.  He had found, however, a way to avoid social embarrassment.  Whether under the pines in good weather, or in a cozy room in the South Wing of the Trichocosmetology Institute otherwise, Mumford would dive between his fiancée’s thighs and bury his face into her kinky hair.  Once there, he would cry “Mom!” to his heart’s content, which reduced the portion of his screaming audible to the public to practically zero.

         It is a sunny day in October and Mumford and Burrmaster are lying under the pines when Mumford’s mother appears, riding a motorcycle.  She turns off the engine and deftly kicks the kickstand, no more than ten yards away from the amorous couple.  Mumford recognizes the pair of exhaust pipes ever so slightly upturned and the brown saddlebags: yes, it is his motorcycle.  It takes him longer to recognize his mother.  A person dressed all in black; from black riding boots up to a tight-fitting black hood; impossible to identify as a man or a woman, until she says, “So, here’s where you’ve been hiding all this time, Mumford?”

         The voice and the affect are certainly his mother’s, but Mumford has never seen her dressed all in black as if she were in mourning, not even when his father died, and the thought that she is now in mourning for him, her only child, is unbearable.  Mumford gets up, cries “Momma!,” runs to his mother and embraces her.

         “Remember,” says Burrmaster, “mine is the meatball hero!”  Hearing which, Mumford cries, “Burrma!” and runs back to his fiancée, burying his face in her lap.

         “Ha, the meatball hero!,” says Momma.  “Who made those meatballs?  It was me, me.  My special recipe.  In my own kitchen.  Did you really give her the whole hero, Mumford?”  At that, Mumford jumps up, cries “Momma!,” runs to his mother and puts his arms around her, while she sobs, “How could you, how could you?”  Then, after looking alternatively at each of the two lovers as if trying to determine what on earth her son might have seen in that girl to give her the whole sandwich, she repeats more emphatically but without sobs, “How could you, how could you?”

         “Each sub-hero needs a woman who will lift him up and allow him to be a full hero.  For Mumford, I am that woman,” says Burrmaster in the tranquil yet firm tone one acquires only by superior education and grooming.  This well-groomed tone makes Mumford’s mother angrier, and still more agitated as her son leaves her alone and runs back to his fiancée, his Burrma, to kiss her feet alternatively with devotion and with unbridled passion.

         “I know my Mumford very well.  No one knows him better.”  Each word is like a dagger thrown by Mumford’s mother at the face of his fiancée.  “And I can tell you: I don’t see that he loves you at all.”  Mumford runs to his mother to soothe her, and as he is doing so Burrmaster replies: “You don’t see it because the two blinders of jealousy and meanness obstruct your sight and prevent you from seeing what is clear to us and obvious to all,” after which Mumford runs to his Burrma and kisses her passionately on the mouth.

         In spite of his fruitful, cutting edge research and his many papers on the subject of hair thinning scissors or scissor-combs, Mumford has not succeeded in applying Clip’s scissorial model of decision making to his own, personal predicament; he is unable to cut the thread or rope that is pulling him in opposite directions.  And so the inevitable happens: Mumford collapses somewhere in between.

         The post-mortem revealed that his heart was broken in two.


R. Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse.

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