We've all heard that laughter is the best medicine, so for those of you who are struggling with cancer or are simply in need of a smile, I hope you enjoy Booker and Verlene. :)
Booker’s toupee was an exaggerated version of the pompadour Frankie Avalon wore in the 60’s film, Beach Blanket Bingo. Several sizes too small, Booker’s odd-looking hairpiece sat perched on his head like a renegade dust bunny curled-up for an afternoon nap. Booker’s idea of a good time was to rattle-off names of Texas Hill Country vegetation: “Bluestem, switchgrass, sideoatgrama, purpletop and drop seed.” Just when you thought he was finished, he’d let out a long sigh and continue with “scurf peas, lespedeza, prairie clover and Englemann daisies.”
In his younger years, Booker had wanted to be a barber, but the only job he could get was barbering in a nearby asylum where manic depressives, old folks with broken hips and autistic children were warehoused in dormitories like rolls of cheap carpet.
When I first met Booker, he and his wife, Verlene, had just been appointed by the State of Texas as trustees for Golden’s Nursing Home. Booker and Verlene bought run-down nursing homes and brought them up to compliance after they’d been shut down for failure to conform with state laws.
At first glance, there was nothing out of the ordinary about either of them; just two country folks dressed for their day in court. Verlene wore her distinctive water buffalo hair-do, parted down the middle and flipped up at the ends, and a pair of purple sequined earrings that shimmied back and forth like flashy Cocker Spaniel ears.<PREVIEWEND>
“When we first met, his eyes were so blue, it almost made your teeth hurt,” Verlene told me. She smiled and folded her hands on top of the straw handbag in her lap and nodded toward Booker as his right hand quivered in the air, swearing to tell the truth, “So help me, God.”
“He’s seen so much of the world,” she whispered in my ear. Her tiny body seemed to vibrate under her dress. “I sometimes wonder when the new wears off, what we’ll have to talk about.”
“How long have you been married?” I asked.
“Fifty years come July,” Verlene said.
Like Booker, Verlene had an appreciation for all living things: for the way an old weathered stump curled around itself, as if it were holding onto all the character it had acquired over time; the way old women can hold their head just so until they can see in their reflection, the woman of long ago. I imagined Verlene saw that woman every day.
Booker had taken his seat on the witness stand and had begun testifying about the poor conditions at Golden’s Nursing Home. I tried to focus on his words, but like Verlene, his body looked like it was pulsating under his clothes. His left shoulder jumped and twitched, then abruptly stopped as the buttons down the front of his shirt rippled one after the other. I glanced at Verlene in time to see her right breast dance and spring outward like a Jiffy Pop container on a hot burner, while long strands of hair magically emerged over the top of her pearl necklace. At the same time, a small brown foot had dropped out of the armhole of Booker’s shirt and was pedaling frantically in midair.
“Your Honor!” The prosecuting attorney shot out of his seat. “Once again, Mr. Booker has disregarded my instructions!“
As the prosecutor spoke, a tiny head peered over the zipper on the back of Verlene’s dress. I screamed, and the head disappeared. The judge glared at me and asked if everything was all right, but the prosecuting attorney ignored us both. “Your Honor, I called their lawyer and told him they couldn’t wear these things to court.”
“Wear what things?” the judge asked. “Will somebody tell me what’s going on?”
“Sugar gliders,” the prosecutor said. “The witness and his wife wear sugar gliders under their clothes.”
By now I had seen several heads, tails and clawed feet poking out from Booker and Verlene’s clothing. The animals scurried back and forth beneath their garments like little boys fighting under a blanket.
Booker stroked one of the lumps under his shirt. “Your Honor, the last time we testified in one of these nursing home cases, my wife left her sugar glider at home, and the cat ate it.”
Still not grasping what was happening in his courtroom, the judge arched one eyebrow and bent forward to scrutinize Booker. “What, pray tell, is a sugar glider?”
Booker reached in his shirt and pulled out a small brown creature, then handed it up for the judge to see. “Flying possums, your Honor. They live in Tasmania.”
“That may be, Mr. Booker, but they do not live in my courtroom!”
Court was recessed while Booker and Verlene worked at stuffing the sugar gliders into Verlene’s straw bag. “Good thing I didn’t bring my python to court,” Booker said. “He has an eating disorder.”
I hesitated to ask: “How do you know?”
“Well, he only eats one mouse a month, so I tie the front feet of one mouse to the back feet of the one in front of it until I get about four or five mice on the string. Pythons can’t chew, so it has to keep swallowing until they’re all gone.” Booker nodded and grinned. “That way, I know he’s gotten enough to eat.”
Heaven forbid we should have an anorexic snake.
I watched as Booker and Verlene wrangled the last sugar glider into the bag. On second thought, maybe it wasn't the last one... Perhaps I should take a closer look at Booker’s toupee.
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