ENTERTAINING ANGELS UNAWARE

‘Tis the season of charitable giving.  The most cheerful givers tend to
be those who’ve been on the receiving end, often quite recently.  This week, I would like to share a Christmas story that’s near and dear to my heart.  They say you cannot spread joy to others without some spilling back on yourself.  Luckily, joy won’t stain your shirt, like turkey gravy or cherry pie.  So feel free to spread and spill as much as you want:

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a young couple who lived in a drafty rental house in upstate New York with their five cats, three of which were not sanctioned by the landlord and had to be kept hidden. They dreamed of owning a home and taking in all the strays they wanted. When they learned the Air Force was moving them to Dayton, Ohio, they contacted a realtor in Yellow Springs, a liberal village that felt right to them.  There were only a couple homes in their price range.  They trekked across I-90 three times that autumn to check out the possibilities and made an offer on the best one, a small, sturdy brick ranch with a fenced backyard, located on a quiet cul-de-sac.

The bank required a thick stack of paperwork, their finances laid bare on the loan officer’s desk.  They had overextended themselves in the past:  a new car, a motorcycle, a vacation to Europe, vet bills for the cats.  They had gone through credit counseling and reined in their spending, but they were still a long way from paying off their debts.  The loan officer reviewed their forms and shook her head.  But if they were willing to jump through some hoops and obtain a VA guarantee, maybe she could swing it.  The VA packet was thicker and even more daunting, but they persevered and the guarantee was granted.  Even so, their application was iffy.  The loan officer issued strict instructions not to touch their credit cards or deplete their accounts for anything frivolous.  Just rent, utilities, food, and existing loans.  Nothing else.  Every dollar counted and the approval of their mortgage hung in the balance.  This meant there would be no tree, no presents, no trip home, no Christmas.  They sighed heavily; the thought of it was almost too depressing to contemplate.

The next morning, they took stock of their assets.  A trunk of lights and Christmas decorations.  Flour, sugar, and cookie cutters.  Miscellaneous craft supplies.  Paper, envelopes, and a book of postage stamps.  They pooled the cash from their wallets and added the change from the big Mason jar, a grand total of $64.  They obviously couldn’t buy and mail gifts to everyone, so they devised a plan.  They would fulfill one wish from the Angel Tree, spending fifty of their precious dollars on a fancy dollhouse for an underprivileged child.  The wife sent a letter to their closest family and friends explaining their circumstances.  Inside each, she enclosed a handmade angel ornament crafted from white felt and lace and buttons, a reminder that however little one might have, there is always someone who has less.  They baked sugar cookies to munch on.  There wasn’t enough left over for a tree or a holiday dinner with all the trimmings, but it didn’t matter.  All they really wanted was good news about their house.

Two evenings before Christmas, they heard a knock at their front door.  On the porch was their neighbor, Tim, wanting to know if they needed help putting up their lights.  He could lend them a ladder.  Tim peered into the living room, wondering aloud why they had no tree or decora-tions, and the whole sad story came pouring out.  He invited the couple to join his family for Christmas dinner, assuring them there would be plenty of food.  Having nowhere else to go, they gratefully accepted.

The following night, Tim dropped by again, this time dragging a lush evergreen he’d gotten for a song from a tree dealer eager to clear his lot and head home.  They retrieved their decorations from the attic.  Tim steadied the tree while they secured it in the stand.  They finished stringing up the lights and arranging the ornaments just in time for Midnight Mass.  On Christmas day, Tim and his family welcomed them, inviting them to fill their plates and grab a seat by the tree.  Little did they know, there were gifts for them, too.  Overcome, eyes glistening, they opened up packages of slippers, a throw blanket, hot cocoa mix, cashews, popcorn, and candy.  It was one of their most memorable and joyous Christmases ever.  Tim smiled ear to ear, accepting nothing but their gratitude and the promise that when they were able, they would pass it on.  He could not have imagined what he set in motion that day.

Soon after, their mortgage was approved and they moved into their very own home.  By the following Christmas, they had added a pound puppy to their menagerie and saved up enough to make good on their promise.  For twenty-three years now, they’ve been paying it forward, largely under the radar.  They’d like to keep it that way, so I’m not at liberty to say who they are or exactly what they do, but rest assured, they are real people, just like you.

There are still eight days until Christmas… it’s not too late to spill some joy.  Keep your eyes and ears and heart open; you’ll know what to do.

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JUST 29 MORE SHOPPING DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS

We were out of town for Thanksgiving, so I had little time to prepare a new post.  Enjoy this updated version of “A DOG’S LETTER TO SANTA” which was originally published in Dec 2015, before I had any followers:

I was dusting the other day and found this lying on the printer:
letter to Santa
You’ve probably deduced that parts of this post are fictional.  The part about me dusting, for instance.  Congratulations, Sherlock, well done!  Now we can move on to more perplexing mysteries, like where Tailor learned to write.  And in outline form, no less!  Do you think he knows where I keep the envelopes and stamps?  Can he reach the flag on the mailbox?  What will happen when he finds out the truth about Santa?  And discovers that my credit cards are the key to the wonderful world of Amazon.com?  What if he grows up to be a lawyer?  Like so many pet parents, I worry.  But for today, I’m content to let him revel in the magic of Christmas.  I’ll hug him tight for remembering Peaches and Callie in his letter and vouch that he’s a good boy if the North Pole should call me requesting verification.  Of course, Santa will bring him everything he asked for, except the heated indoor pool.  And that giant stick from the back yard, the one he knows he isn’t allowed to bring in the house. Maybe I’ll slip a Roomba under the tree, just because he was cheeky enough to go behind my back and ask Santa Claus for the stick!  After he and Roomba are done chasing each other, we’ll take turns bobbing for chicken, straight from the bucket, and flop down in front of the TV. From my cozy corner seat, I’ll count my blessings, beginning with the one wielding the remote control, the one sprawled across my lap, the one meowing to go outside, and the one snoring from the depths of an extra-crispy food coma.  If I start crying, you can blame it on Hallmark; those sappy holiday movies get me every time!

Wishing you a blessed season filled with laughter, love, and memories.

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ALL WORKED UP OVER NOTHING?

After last week’s post, I googled “funny epitaphs” and found these.

      Uh-oh…

Dozens of fellow hypochondriacs echoed Tippy Gnu’s sentiment:

Two-thirds of my long nursing career was spent in an office, caring for Internal Medicine patients that ranged in age from AARP to elderly.
A lot of that time was devoted to phone calls, including the triage of various symptoms.  It’s a fact that when you hit a certain age, bodies start to go haywire.  Your eyes go wonky; suddenly, your arms aren’t long enough to read a menu.  You forget things.  Your energy flags.  You get dizzy.  Your heart flippy-flops in your chest.  You get winded walking your normal route.  Your knees ache.  Your back aches.  You develop constipation.  You can’t sleep.  Etc.  It could be nothing, or it could be something.  I ended up scheduling a lot of appointments to
let the doctor sort it out.  Many of the patients consulted online sites like symptomchecker.com or diagnoseme.com before they called me.  (Who says older people aren’t computer-savvy?)  They knew what they had, or at least, what tests should be ordered.  When the results came back negative, instead of breathing a sigh of relief, they’d protest and demand a more intensive work-up.  I know from experience the flurry
of testing that one piddling complaint can set in motion.  That said, I
am hesitant to mention every little twinge.  My approach (one I do not advocate for everyone) is as follows:  if it’s minor or can be solved with a trip to the drugstore, I shut up about it.  The hours I have left on this earth are limited and I’d rather not while them away reading outdated magazines in some doctor’s waiting room.  This poem’s for you, Tippy.  Enjoy that Redbook circa 1995; the doctor will be with you shortly.

MID-LIFE HYPOCHONDRIA

Some ailments run in families;
it’s proven they’re genetic.
I’m ripe to have a heart attack
or wind up diabetic.

I found a scary-looking mole;
I’m positive it’s cancer.
But Doc will say it looks benign,
his standard go-to answer.

I’ve put on six or seven pounds,
my hair is falling out.
My thyroid must be out of whack;
too low, without a doubt.

I suffer from exhaustion
and my feet are always freezing.
According to my online search,
anemia’s the reason.

My allergies are flaring up.
I’m riddled with arthritis.
This sharp pain in my abdomen
could be appendicitis.

My check-up turns up nothing
but alas, my mind won’t rest:
I know there’s something wrong with me!
Please, Doc, just one more test?

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THE BIRTHDAY GIRL’S ADDRESS

Two score and nine years ago, my mom and dad brought forth on this planet, a new baby, conceived in January or February, and dedicated to the proposition that any child born into a Catholic family must, within a reasonable timeframe, have a sibling.  Thus, the minute I arrived home from the hospital, I already had what my older sister had waited three years for:  a friend.  I don’t recall much about our first meeting, but I’ll bet she peeked through the bars of my crib making silly faces, singing songs, or showing me her toy telephone and urging me to hurry up and start babbling so we could get our money’s worth from AT&T.  She called me a few days ago, and it was one of those rare occasions when the planets aligned and we both had time to talk.  A two-hour phone conversation might sound frivolous or decadent, but when we connect after a long hiatus, that’s how we roll.  We catch up on the day-to-day, spill our news, share our triumphs and tragedies, laugh like crazy, take
a pee break, and laugh some more.  I’m dumbstruck by how much alike we turned out, having had only haphazard contact for the past thirty years.  My solution to a front-loading washer that leaks a bit?  Shove a towel under it.  Her solution to a broken dryer button?  Turn it on and off with a pencil eraser.  Two peas in a pod, I’m telling you.  This seems like a point for nature in the ongoing nature-nurture debate, but don’t forget, we grew up together and shared a bedroom for fifteen years.  Mom would tuck us in and tell us to be quiet and thirty seconds later, we’d be chattering about something of vital importance:  what fourth grade was like, whether Santa Claus was real, what kind of dog we’d get if mom would ever let us have one.  Today, it seems like every kid has their own room.  I’m glad I didn’t because if I had, I’d have missed out on one of life’s greatest treasures.  This poem is dedicated to the world’s best big sister and my very first friend:

LIGHTS OUT

After nighttime prayers were said,
Mom would send us off to bed.

Close your eyes and go to sleep;
no conversation, not a peep!

We’d cover up, lie really still,
and summon every ounce of will

But quickly our resolve would crumble,
cautious whispers turned to mumbles

Jokes and secrets of all sorts,
muffled giggles, squeals, and snorts

The raucous chatter siblings share
drowned out Mom’s footsteps on the stair

but her command to QUIET DOWN!
cut through the din and shook the ground

Instantly, dead silence reigned,
save for the snores my sister feigned

Once satisfied she’d changed her course,
we’d carry on without remorse

On nights we earned a second warning,
talk was tabled until morning

Then, touching hands between our beds,
wordless wishes traded heads

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GEORGE, THE UNFRIENDLY GHOST

Years ago, we road-tripped to Colorado to check out an old VW Bus for sale.  After two nights sleeping at rest areas in our Jeep, we were dying to tuck into a real bed, but even the dicey-looking mom-and-pop motels on the outskirts of town cost a hundred dollars a night.  A local told us to try the older casino hotels in Cripple Creek; they offered low rates in the hope that their guests would spend the difference, and then some, at their convenient slot machines, roulette wheels, and card tables.

We settled on the Imperial Hotel.  The décor was outdated, it lacked elevators, and the bathrooms were shared, but it offered two things the other hotels did not:  rooms for $39 a night and a resident ghost named George who lived in room 64.  When we expressed an interest
in the haunted room, the clerk insisted we meet first, because “some people get along with George and others don’t.”  I sort of believed in the supernatural, for instance, I believed God answered prayers and I believed my old Volkswagen was possessed by a FahrverGremlin, but
I admit, I was dubious about George.  Until I made his acquaintance:

GEORGE
(Kyrielle)

We checked into an old hotel,
drawn in by its intriguing lore
The ghost of George was said to dwell
within its walls: room sixty-four

Enchanted by the legend’s spell,
we followed to the second floor
a clerk, who warned of what befell
detractors of room sixty-four

Blood-red carpet deftly quelled
our footfalls through the corridor
She turned the key and all was well,
dead silence in room sixty-four

The hinges creaked; a fusty smell
escaped as she threw wide the door
A headstrong aura mine repelled
and held its ground, room sixty-four

As I pushed past this psychic knell,
a pounding through my temples tore,
the migraine hit like a bombshell
screaming from room sixty-four

My skepticism thus dispelled,
prompt reassignment I implored
A far-flung room would suit me well,
one nowhere near room sixty-four

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WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE NEW YORKERS DO

Hubs and I spent a year in Rome.  Rome, New York.  It’s upstate, where winters are long and cold and snowy.  Our rental house was four floors: full basement, first story, second story, and full attic, square footage that costs a fortune to heat.  To save money, we decided we’d tough it out and not turn the furnace on until November 1.  Such an idea might pass for reasonable in Ohio, but up there, it means watching TV in long johns and a sweater.  Under a winter coat.  Wearing mittens.  I became passionate about baking, a good reason to turn on the oven and linger in the kitchen.  Precision tasks like knitting or carving a pumpkin had to be done a bit at a time so I could stuff my hands in my pockets or wrap them around a mug of hot tea to restore flexibility.  Somehow, we did it, and the memories flood back every autumn when I turn the furnace on, wrinkling my nose at the dusty-stagnant air rising from the vents.

Last year, the furnace went wonky on us.  It would run one cycle (five minutes), then quit.  It wasn’t the pilot light, so we did the only other thing we know to do:  turn off the power, wait a couple minutes, and turn it back on.  I’m told it resets the circuit board, similar to rebooting
a balky computer.  When that repeatedly failed, we called “THE GUY.”  Between diagnoses and returning to install parts and troubleshoot, he made seven trips.  We were hopeful at the outset, but soon, each new repair was regarded with wariness.  Would it work for a day?  A week?
A month?  Were we going to freeze to death before Mr. HVAC actually got it fixed?  The VILLANELLE, with its endless loop of repeating lines, seemed the perfect vehicle to drive this story home:

FURNACE VILLANELLE

My furnace has an intermittent glitch
And inexplicably, the heat goes out
I toggle off and on the power switch

the sole maneuver in my bag of tricks
I call the man and say, without a doubt
My furnace has an intermittent glitch

He reassures me HVAC is his niche
and pencils me onto tomorrow’s route
I toggle once again the power switch

Hot air escapes the vent, a little titch
The motor cycles once, then peters out
My furnace has an intermittent glitch

Qualified to sort out what from which,
the man returns with toolbox, skills, and clout
replaces flame inducer, pressure switch

unblocks a drain, addresses every hitch
It runs like new a month or thereabout,
then crashes from an intermittent glitch
I toggle off and on the power switch

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SPRING FORWARD, AUTUMN BACK?

Is it Autumn or Fall?  My husband and I have debated the name of the season for the past thirty years.  To me, fall has always been fall.  My parents said so; when you’re a kid, they’re the authority on everything.  That hit a snag when I started school.  Apparently, the last two meals
of the day are lunch and dinner, not dinner and supper, as I had always been told.  My lunch box was proof.  My parents disputed this claim.  Back in the day, when they walked ten miles, uphill both ways, to the one-room schoolhouse, they had carried dinner pails.  Ask a teenage Wal-Mart clerk where to find “dinner pails” and you’ll get a blank look, the same one you get if you inquire about canning jars or clothespins.  The 80-year-old greeter will know what you’re after; if he’s a wise-ass, he’ll snicker and direct you to the Olsen’s Mercantile in Walnut Grove.  Fall, however, was validated on the bulletin board in our classroom.
F-A-L-L, spelled out in big, official-looking letters and surrounded by a mélange of red, orange, and yellow construction paper leaves.  If a nun said it was so, it was so.  Nuns were demi-gods, after all.  Fall remained rock-solid, unchallenged until I married a man who insisted “autumn” was the correct word for the season between summer and winter.  If that were true, it would be the dinner/supper dilemma reincarnated, not to mention poor Sister Josetta having to suffer in purgatory, her penance for lying.  The librarian hedged, saying it could go either way; fall was simply vernacular for the “proper” term, autumn.  Not one to lose sleep over being proper, I used fall and autumn interchangeably
for years without really thinking about it.  Then I did think about it:

FALL BY THE WAYSIDE

Mankind was damned
by its fall from grace;
we fall off the wagon,
we fall on our face

We fall ill but we never
fall into good health
We fall into ruin,
not winnings or wealth

We fall blindly in love,
a free fall of the heart,
falling out, then away,
‘til it all falls apart

We fall over ourselves
but fall short of success,
falling victim, it seems,
to our own eagerness

Fall down on the job
or fall prey to a scam
and you’ll need to resort
to your fall-back plan

Pleas fall on deaf ears
A joke might fall flat
Fall too far behind and
you’ll fall off the map

We fall on our swords,
take the fall for a friend,
doomed to fall ‘til the big
curtain falls at the end

Connotations of gloom
are surely the reason
that AUTUMN, not FALL,
is my favorite season

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SHIFTING THROUGH THE SEASONS

Autumn moves in like an inexperienced driver, one who hasn’t quite mastered the gears that make the earth revolve smoothly around the sun.  He’s wary at first, but soon barrels ahead into sweater weather, only to backpedal into summer for two sweltering weeks in October.

Speaking of which, my nephew and niece turned sixteen and started driving this year, stirring up memories of my own early experiences behind the wheel.  I can appreciate why parents aren’t especially eager to ride shotgun while their progeny learn to navigate the open road.  Mine sent me to a two-week driving school.  My first in-car instructor was a very pregnant Hispanic woman.  It terrified me to realize three lives would be at stake if we crashed.  The teacher, blithely unaware
that I was a driving virgin who had never even backed the family Buick out of the garage, told me to “adjust the seat and mirrors” while she popped back inside to use the restroom.  She returned to find me ill-positioned and completely perplexed.  How was I supposed to adjust the seat if I didn’t know what I needed to be able to do or reach?  How could I adjust the mirrors when I didn’t know what I should be able to see?  She sighed; it was gonna be a long two hours for both of us.  We went no faster than 35 mph, circling clockwise, then counterclockwise around the block, me struggling to keep the car between the lines as
I practiced stops and right and lefthand turns.  I must have scared the poor kid right out of her; I arrived the next morning to find she’d been replaced by an easygoing hillbilly with long hair and a scraggly beard.  On the entrance ramp to the highway, he slid one foot out of his man-sandal and pulled it up onto his lap. “Turn your left blinker on,” he said.  He barely glanced up from the callus he was picking as I merged, white-knuckled, into the speeding traffic.  I learned to drive a stick shift in my boyfriend’s Mercury Lynx.  It was surprisingly easy; I can recall only one embarrassing incident.  I was first in line at a traffic light, waiting to make a left turn.  When I got the green arrow, I manipulated the pedals as I had been taught, but somehow, I stalled the car.  I tried again and again, to no avail.  Traffic backed up behind me.  Angry honks filled the air.  Stymied, I fingered the shifter, realizing as the light turned red that the car was in third gear.  More precisely, jammed in third gear.  When the light changed, I punched the gas and held on as the engine caught and the car bucked and jerked around the corner.  I managed to coast safely into a parking lot and use a pay phone to call my boyfriend, who dispatched two of his mechanically-inclined uncles to the scene.  Mark and Rich were kind enough to get me un-jammed without any snickers or snide remarks.  At least, none that I ever knew about.  It was a life lesson in having patience with beginners… both ourselves and others.

AUTUMN DRIVE

Another one of Earth’s boys
must have gotten his learner’s permit
Suddenly, the orbital ride
is downright jerky and unpredictable
Stalling out and stopping,
creeping cautiously through summer,
then punching the gas,
tossing equinox headlong into solstice,
only to jam on the brakes
and throw the spin of the entire planet
into a wobbling reverse
Trees blush in embarrassed empathy
Earth sighs and sets his jaw;
they will tackle parallel parking later

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RE-ENTRY INTO FELINE SERFDOM

Questions arose last week about whether Peaches is my first cat, my first foray into feline serfdom.  Actually, he’s not, but I’m a bit out of practice.  We took a kitten into our apartment in 1989, then another, then another…  For the past 28 years, we’ve had at least one and as many as six cats fleeing the vacuum cleaner and winding themselves around our legs.  Runty Caper set the house record for longevity, 23 years.  When she could no longer outrun our puppy, she began playing dead, proof that an old cat can learn new tricks.  As the cats aged, we moved them into a (baby) gated community in a spare bedroom that slowly devolved into a nursing home and then a hospice.  I thought my cat years were over, but during a brisk end-of-autumn walk, our dog flushed Ginger out of a corn field.  Ginger was a decidedly outdoor cat who roamed the neighborhood in weather so inclement it would stop even the postman.  She played with the local skunks, showed up every morning for breakfast, knocked on windows using her paw when she wanted to come in.  It was a new experience for me, a veteran indoor cat person.  When Peaches moved in next door, he was smitten with Ginger and followed her everywhere.  He was heartbroken when we lost her and moped around for weeks, hanging out in our flowerbed pining for her, and eagerly accepting any affection we would give him.  The neighbors (renters dismayed when the owner put the place on the market) closed on a new house last week, one near a state highway.  Afraid for Peaches’ safety and unable to keep him inside all the time, they asked if we’d be willing to take him.

Peaches was docile and affectionate.  His people said he loved being indoors, probably because it was such a rare treat.  Our new adoptee slept in his basket, basked in the sunny bay window, quickly mastered his litterbox, and licked the gravy off his canned food before finishing the tidbits.  Despite ample opportunities for escape, he never tried to make a break for it.  I figured it would be simple to transition him to a house cat.  WRONG.  On Day 5, he did a runner.  Why would he take off on such a cold, drizzly day?  I can only guess he spied his name on the calendar next to the word vet.  I spent the better part of the morning trying to find and capture the scrappy bastard, completely forgetting that since orange cats possess limited ability to camouflage, Peaches would have spent the last two years honing his feline Ninja skills and familiarizing himself with every nook and cranny in the neighborhood.  Trust me, opposable thumbs are no match for a combination like that.

Below is my account of the experience told in SHADORMA, a Spanish form with six lines and the following syllable count: 3 / 5 / 3 / 3 / 7 / 5.  Any subject is fair game; no final shift or turn is necessary.  Shadorma may be written as a single stanza or a series.

INSIDE A CAT’S HEAD

Keen instincts:
On scheduled vet day,
he slips out
the dog door,
reveling in freedom and
his own cleverness

Detailed maps
of the neighborhood:
every fence,
every tree,
spaces under decks and sheds
where he can lay low

Strategy:
outfox, outrun, hide
until owner
surrenders,
slogs home in muddy rain boots,
cancels appointment

Internal clock:
wait fifteen minutes,
reappear,
purr sweetly,
and insist the whole thing was
just coincidence

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POETRY 4220: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

Friends often ask how I became a poet.  Did I write poems as a child?  Was I a promising writer in high school?  Did I major in Literature or Creative Writing?  No, no, and no.  I was an architect of wooden blocks and Tinkertoys as a kid.  My Senior English teacher (and ACT) indicated that language was my weakest subject.  I did not begin my writing life
in earnest until I retired from nursing in autumn 2014.  Due to budget constraints, offerings at the local university were limited.  Poetry was the only writing class available and I grudgingly agreed to give it a try.

The first assignment had me in a dither: “With This Is Just To Say in mind, write a short poem based on something mundane.”  Like what?  Dust?  Chicken noodle soup?  My life?  A mere two feet away, Froggie hung from my pencil jar sending an urgent psychic message, Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick me!  He’d cost $1.99 at a Maine gift shop called The 45th Parallel.  He’s small, olive green, and has hooked front legs that allow him to hang from things.  A couple weeks after I got Froggie, hubby kidnapped him from my desk and hid him.  I found him hanging on the edge of a bowl in the kitchen cupboard, a fun surprise.  So I hid him for hubby to find, peeking out from a roll of toilet paper in the bathroom cabinet.  Moving him around became our little “I love you” game.  On several occasions, Froggie got knocked off his perch and broke a leg, but each time, we mended him with a few drops of Super Glue and the game continued.  Froggie became the subject of my (very mundane) poem, which was returned to me marked “Purely delightful!” I will be forever grateful to my teacher for not writing, “Yikes!  Is Dr. Seuss on the loose?” which would have stopped me in my tracks.

ODE TO SUPER GLUE

My ceramic frog
is a great little token
of our Maine vacation
and that’s no jokin’

He fell a few times
and has two legs broken
but with a bit of Super Glue,
he keeps on croakin’

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