Ella, The Man and The Dog

An original short story by Becky Fine-Firesheets

Motherhood filled Ella’s days with meaning yet also made them meaningless, made the whole world meaningless. How much this little creature needed her, how every task served a clear purpose of keeping him alive, yet how unimportant this actually was, how it absolutely didn’t matter to the greater planet or its billions of inhabitants if her baby lived or died. Late at night when she was awake despite the fact her baby and boyfriend were sleeping, this awareness of her own smallness and futility terrified her. But most of the time, it was relieving. Freeing, even.

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— ◊ —

The sharp yip of the neighbor’s dog. Ella came to and immediately scanned the room for Dylan, found him on the floor nearby with his manic grin, his fat hand clutching a Lego.

“Oh my God, oh my God, honey.” She stood up – a rush of vertigo. Fighting through the dizziness, the fog, the fear, she stumbled to her baby and collapsed around him. He screamed and kicked; she’d interrupted his game. She released her grip and rolled onto her back, heart pounding so hard she could feel it banging against the hardwood floor beneath her.

It had been over a decade since she’d lost time like this, and then only once and only because of The Man.

— ◊ —

After it had happened, after The Man had leaned in for a goodnight kiss but instead forced himself into her apartment and then into her body, she dreamed of poisoning him. It would have been so easy, just a quick dash of almond syrup in his morning latte would have been enough to trigger his allergy. The key would be to fix her lips into the same tight food service grin she faked every day, to control her shaking hand as she offered him the drink, to turn to the next customer like nothing was out of the ordinary. But she felt sure she could pull it off – her anger gave her confidence – and she even came close enough once that she’d unscrewed the cap and gripped the bottleneck in her fist.

He was asking for it, she would say afterward, just like she’d overheard him say about her. But doubt rushed through her, and then she lost time and her job and never saw him again.

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 — ◊ —

The relentless barking. Her head pounded with it. The dog had barked all day long before the baby, but Ella was working a 9-5 office job then and hadn’t noticed. Now that she was a stay-at-home mom, her life split into blocks of play, eat, sleep, repeat, the barking was ruining her life.

My God, she thought, how much did I lose? Misty, her old therapist, had sworn this wouldn’t happen again, but here she was after all these years, and alone with the baby no less! If only the dog would shut up so she could think. Ella pulled back the curtain of her kitchen window and scanned the neighbor’s yard – watching the poodle shake in desperation, completely immersed in his own anxious hell, gave her some satisfaction (at least he, too, was miserable) – but she didn’t see him anywhere. So why the hell could she still hear him so clearly?

— ◊ —

Of course the original time loss had coincided with a double at the cafe. And of course she got fired for running off and never explaining herself. But she was okay with that; brewing the espresso, steaming the milk, pouring it out into the shape of a flower then handing it over to The Man with his reeking cologne and thick fingers was killing her day by day, and she knew that despite the holes in her plan (what if he spat it out? what if he had an Epipen?), she was going to try it one day. And then what? Losing the job was for the better.

Still, it took three months to mention the time loss to anyone. It wasn’t meant to be a confession, just a distant, asking-for-a-friend kind of thing during her annual gyno exam, but the doctor’s probing fingers, the questions about her sex life, the sticks and brushes twisting inside of her unleashed a flood of anxiety and suddenly she was rambling like a child about the missing hours. The doctor suggested she find a therapist then said that otherwise, she was well and healthy. Ella was shocked; she was sure the markers of her pain were glaring from every pore, much less the inside of her vagina.

Another month passed before she mustered the courage to go to Misty. Their first appointment was strained, but Misty was naturally kind and her cardigans and baggy pants, hoarse yet soothing voice, her wrinkled hands and eyes, made Ella feel safe enough to let it all out by visit number two. She hadn’t spoken about The Man to anyone, hadn’t even allowed herself to think of it as a rape, and the realization that this had actually happened to her was nauseating and exhausting. By the time she got around to the missing hours, she’d gone numb.

“This kind of thing is scary, yes, but also within the range of normal. Many people disassociate when they’ve experienced a trauma like yours. Together, we can work through it,” Misty said with so much certainty Ella almost believed it.

But later that night, as she rolled the word ‘disassociate’ around her tongue, examining its different parts and what they meant for her, Ella did not believe. She tried out the idea that her brain had become disjoined, dispartnered itself from itself, and now it was her job to bring it back together. But how? She stared at the two shitty choices splayed out in front of her – to get over it or to get lost in it – and the fear of succumbing to the latter while attempting the former left her paralyzed.

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— ◊ —

A knock on the door, aggressive, urgent. Ella opened it to find the poodle’s owner, a well-intentioned but neurotic old woman frantically turning a wrinkled napkin over and over in her fingers. “I can’t find Moxi she’s been missing for hours have you seen her?” she asked in one rapid question.

Ella felt high, fuzzy; only bits and pieces of the words reached her brain. She focused in on the patch of blue nail polish remaining on her thumb, tried to slow down her pulse.

“Did you hear me? Moxi is missing!”

“That’s awful,” she replied, voice steady despite the knot gripping her throat.

“She’s never run off before, never. And the craziest thing is that I haven’t even heard a peep from her. For hours now! I just don’t know what I’d do without my dog.”

Ella opened then closed her mouth. The dog was still barking, she could hear him barking. What the hell was going on?

“Dog!” Dylan shouted from the floor, a word he’d never said before. “Dog dog!”

“I’m so sorry. I’ll keep my eyes open,” Ella managed to say.

“Please do, I’m just desperate. You have my number, right?”

Ella nodded and shut the door, leaned her back against it, slid down to the grainy welcome mat covered in ink from the pen Dylan recently broke.

“Dog dog dog,” he repeated. Then, “Mama. Mama dog, mama dog.”

— ◊ —

Eventually, Ella believed. She talked and sobbed and shouted her way through it, and even though the missing hours never came back to her, she emerged with The Man safely in her past and the shocking ability to fall in love with another man when she wasn’t even looking for it. Motherhood was similarly unplanned, but she was tough, a survivor, and her boyfriend was the good kind who massaged her feet and brought home flowers and cooked lasagna, her favorite, at least once a week, so Ella allowed herself to relax and balloon up with hope.

When Dylan first heaved out from between her legs, slimy and pruney and shrieking, Ella felt the strange twist of unconditional love deep inside her gut. Becoming a giver of this kind of love transformed her so intensely that she was positive everyone she came in contact with would also be transformed in its presence. But no one, not even her boyfriend, reacted to it, and the long stretches of motherhood with so much downtime yet also no break sent her mind on a freefall (thus the ruminations on meaningful meaninglessness), and then one day not so long ago, she found herself in a ball on the kitchen floor, absolutely repulsed by the fact that she’d still love Dylan even if he raped someone.

— ◊ —

Ella scooped up her baby and slid him into his high chair. She had no answers to any of her questions (how long was she gone? why had she gone? where the hell was the damned dog, and why could she still hear him barking?), and the anxiety was getting harder and harder to breathe away. She turned to the island in the middle of the kitchen, grabbed an apple from the silver fruit bowl and instinctively reached for her favorite knife in the block, but its slot was empty. She looked in the sink, the dishwasher, on all the countertops. Where the hell could it be?

Yip yip yip, throbbed in her ears. “Just shut the fuck up!” she shouted, then, turning to Dylan, “I’m sorry baby, I’m fine, we’re fine. I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her with an unfazed smile and said, “Mama dog, Mama dog, Mama dog.”

Photo credits:

  1. 39: Høgevarde by Norefjell / Creative Commons”
  2. Futile by ~Morgin~ / Creative Commons”
  3. “Toaster Oven” by Me 🙂

Quick Actions – Take Three Minutes Right Now to Resist!

Quick, easy ways to take action and resist right now:

piaraymond.jpgCall and email your state and national congresswomen and men. Don’t know who they are? Go to Find My Senator and Find Your Representative or just do a quick Google search. You can email or leave messages about specific bills and issues, or you can be more general and say something like, “I am urging you to vote for more money for public schools.” If this still seems daunting, follow me on Facebook for regular updates on specific reasons and ways to make calls/send emails.

Use the Resist bot – text RESIST to 50409 to contact your officials. “You’ll be prompted to provide your name, zip code, and a message you’d like to send to your senators. Once you’re happy with your message, Resistbot will format it to look professional and fax it to both of your senators.” (Thanks Aviva Buivid of #100Daysofgoodstuff for the tip – check out her site if you’re looking for some hope right now).

Share your ideas, opinions and ways to resist on social media. Don’t fall into the trap of keeping politics off your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat feeds. This is exactly where politics should be. We need to unite and spread the word, and this format makes it easy. Tip: When you want to share someone else’s post on your Facebook feed, copy/paste the message instead of using the sharing button – it reaches more people this way.

Get educated. Know your rights and spread this info. Knowledge is power.

Donate! Pick whatever organization you want (like Planned ParenthoodACLU, American Refugee Committee – you’ve got a plethora of choices when it comes to organizations under attack right now!), go to their website, and give some money. Even just $10 helps.

Host a fundraiser. If you’re an artist of any kind, turn your next gig into a way to support an organization you can get behind. The NYCLU even has a DIY kit!

Participate in local elections. Do a quick Google search on your local government and candidates. Find one you like, support him/her, and vote in your local elections. Your voice is louder at this level and you’ll directly see more of the effects of your vote. If you’re in Brooklyn, let me make this even easier for you: vote Pia Raymond for City Council (pictured)She’s a badass activist, organizer, social worker, and mama, and she’s exactly what our government at all levels needs more of.

Stay strong and keep it up! We’ve had some important victories so far, including the latest Supreme Court ruling that shut down Muslim Ban 2.0, and there are only many more to come. 

“Too Black, Too Strong…”

Jeffery Renard Allen’sjeffrenardallen most recent essay is stunning. Urgently Visible: Why Black Lives Matter is a powerful and important must-read that masterfully combines thoughtful commentary on race, politics, and economics with well-researched, academic analysis and haunting personal narrative. It’s long yet I found myself rereading sections, my brain and heart rearranging themselves with each pass (yes, this essay is simultaneously cerebral and guttural), only to return days later to read the entire piece once more, eager to gleam new insights and understandings from Allen’s poetic, painfully honest prose. Original artwork by Anthony Young using bleach and gunpowder only enhances the message, the multiple messages, Allen is giving us. It’s a valuable read for everyone, but I urge all progressive white folk out there to read it, really truly deeply read it, and learn.

“Home Grown” Was a Blast – The Resistance Is Strong!

What an inspiring and motivating night! Many thanks to poet Terence Degnan, novelist Nora Fussner, blues/rock band JSanti, and folk/country group Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues for killin’ it this past Saturday, and to Sidewalk for having us. And thanks to all of YOU for supporting us artists and the NYCLU! We raised over $200, wooo! Stay strong, ya’ll, and check back every Friday for a new post + info on all the happenings with The Brooklyn Players Reading Society.

Brain-Picking Becky #7: The Cat Bardo

“And when we have to let go, something else becomes possible.”  –Pema Khandro Rinpoche

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A few weeks ago, Dave and I put down our old lady cat Blacula. She’d been howling every night for half a year at least, a long, drawn out wail from somewhere deep inside of her. The sound had found its way into my subconscious, pushed my already strange dreams into new realms of oddity and confusion, and I’d wake up all anxious and sweaty, only to realize it was the damn cat again.

She woke the baby up, too. I’d stumble into his room at three in the morning and he’d stand up in his crib and meow at me. Except his version of a meow mimics the senile, eighteen-year-old cat version, so he’d say it like the word “why,” drawing out the space between the ‘wh’ and the ‘y’ in a dissonant tone reminiscent of old-timey folk laments. This became a nightly occurrence, and he started calling cats “gwhys,” a combination (we think) of the Spanish word “gato” and the cat wail “why.”

Blacula was never easy. Dave’s former roommates adopted her despite his being allergic, and she was one of those terrified-by-life kind of creatures. Always hid. Never let anyone touch her. Drew blood within seconds of being picked up. Her ovaries became infected and then she gnawed at her post-surgery stitches and infected those, too. Like cats tend to do, she fell in love with the one person who wanted nothing to do with her, so therefore Dave was the only one she’d let handle her during all of this. He nursed her back to health, and she fell even more fiercely in love with him. The roommates moved out, leaving the cat they’d selected to the person she’d selected, and poor Dave, being the kind soul he is, accepted the committed he’d been straddled with. Still, despite her obsession with him, holding Blacula was not allowed. Dave has a scar from the top of his pinky finger all the way down to the bottom of his palm from a particularly difficult visit to the vet.

Years later, Dave and I met and moved ourselves and our two cats in together then rescued two dogs soon after (yep, we’re nuts). Blacula quickly assumed the role of evil dictator who controlled her underlings through fear. She regularly bloodied our 80-pound Boxer dog’s nose, once so badly she left a small piece of skin hanging from its tip. She’d also do things like scratch the other animals’ faces when they were sleeping, watch them scramble awake in terror, then simply strut back to where she’d been resting and curl up in a tiny, black-and-white ball, satisfied with the disruption she’d caused. Or she’d sit in the middle of the narrow doorway that divided our railroad apartment in half, make herself as big as possible and growl at the other pets, smacking them into submission if they dared pass through. One of the dogs, Basil, took to lying on his stomach and singing for her, a strange version of a hound-like howl reserved just for these encounters. After a few minutes of this, she’d finally allow him to walk around her and into the other side. No one else could pass, though, until she got hungry and left her post, most likely to eat their food before finishing her own.

bexnblaBlacula and me when we first moved in together back in 2008.

Dave and I put Blacula down together while Lew was in daycare. I wanted to be there, to witness her death, to take responsibility for a decision I helped make, to ease her out of this life, to support Dave. But even more so, I wanted to be there to get some answers. I wasn’t even sure what my questions were, but I was positive that watching a creature die would give me some kind of insight. I was expecting a moment, a heaving sigh and shift in the air, something big and profound. I wanted to be able to say, “Aha, now I understand.” When the vet injected the medicine that would kill her, Blacula was dozing and drooling from the sedatives, motionless on the table as I pet her cheek and Dave scratched her head. We told her we loved her then I thought maybe she’d passed but I wasn’t sure and I wondered if that was really it or if the big moment was yet to come, and then the vet listened to her heart and confirmed it had stopped.

I’d felt only enough of something to wonder if I’d even felt it at all.

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With Blacula’s history of abusing the others, Dave and I were obviously scared when I was pregnant. We imagined her attacking our precious newborn baby in the middle of the night, perhaps even scarring or disfiguring his perfect little body. And what would we do? Who would take a cat like her? It would be horrible to have to put down a healthy cat because of something like that.

To our extreme surprise, she loved Lewis. From day one. She sniffed him and sat near him and purred loudly. His earliest attempts at petting the animals were rough smacks with his chunky hands up and down against their bodies, and while everyone else would complain or run away, Blacula would just sit there and let him smack her. Each morning after we transitioned Lew into his own room, she’d enthusiastically run in to greet him as soon as we opened his door, sometimes even jumping into his bed. He was the only person who could ever give her a hug. He’d wrapped his arms around her torso and lay his cheek down on top of her and my heart would leap into my throat, and she’d just sit there calmly, happily even. If I’d done this, she would have scratched my face, my chest, any skin that her claws could reach until I’d let her go.

Unless they’re asleep at the time of death, animals die with their eyes open. Seconds after her heart finished beating, I was shocked that she still looked alive. “It just seems like she’s resting,” I said aloud, then leaned down and stared deep into her dead eyes. I swear they looked back at me. Something was still in there. Then they began glazing over, just a bit at first then more and more until about a minute later, they had transformed into cloudy, turquoise mirrors reflecting the fluorescent light above us.

Blacula took to hiding under the futon for most of the day and night about six months before we put her down. The final weeks were pathetic – she was confused and scared, wasn’t able to properly clean herself, rarely came out from her hiding spot. But the strangest part was how the other animals ganged up on her. The dogs began chasing and nipping at her whenever she did manage to venture out, and Frida, the other cat who’d mostly avoided her in the years since we’d moved from the railroad to a more spacious apartment, began guarding the water bowl and litter box and attacking her whenever she tried to use either. We thought this was an instinctive version of payback and did our best to make it easier on Bla, but then immediately upon returning home with the empty carrier after her final appointment, the other pets relaxed, became much friendlier and more easygoing – Frida even cuddles with the dogs now – and we wondered if these attacks were their way of telling us it was her time, that perhaps they weren’t enacting payback but instead trying to end her suffering, a suffering that was distressing them all.

In the movie The Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson shares a story about asking her Tibetan Buddhist teacher whether or not to put down her very sick dog. The teacher told her that we humans do not have the right to end another creature’s life, to take away its time of suffering, time it can learn and gain knowledge from, knowledge it will then use in the bardo, or the space between this life and the next.

laurieandersonLaurie Anderson by Maria Zaikina / Creative Commons

Part of me agrees with this sentiment. It didn’t feel quite right to end Blacula’s life. I took a power that didn’t belong to me, and she didn’t even have the capability to let me know if this was what she wanted or not (side note, I think about this a lot when it comes to eating meat, but I only have two hours here so the vegetarians days of my past and the omnivorous ways of my present are for another essay). On the other hand, however, I felt like I was giving her a gift. She’d suffered for such a long time already. Her mind was gone and her existence was miserable. She would not be missing these days. If I were in that position, I would want Dave to release me, too.

And, to be honest, we were wrecked. We’re parents, we work a lot, we both make art, and we weren’t sleeping because of the freaking cat, the difficult, mean, malevolent cat who’d been a challenge since the day other people picked her out and brought her home and left her to Dave, a person who never wanted a cat in the first place. We tried so, so many things to help her, but it didn’t matter; she just got worse by the day, and we were exhausted. More than wanting Dave to release me from this burden, I would want to release him from it.

We were sadder than we thought we’d be. It turns out you get used to a creature, even an evil creature, after sharing a home with it for years. “I want gwhy,” Lew repeated many times that night and the following morning. We did our best to explain it to him beforehand, used phrases like, “We have to say goodbye to Blacula because she’s going to die,” and, “Dying means your body is all done and you go to sleep,” and, “Blacula is going away forever but we’ll still have her in our memories.” We had these conversations a handful of times and each would end with him saying, “Bye bye, gwhy.” But it obviously didn’t translate. He’d look under the chair in his room, the place she deemed second best to under the futon, and say, “Gwhy? Gwhy?” then cry when we reminded him that she was gone. It only took two days, though, and he moved on.

img_6207_15446367261_oBut for me, days later, I was still upset. Yes, it took me four whole days to realize that through this experience of putting down the cat, I’d actually been looking for some kind of insight into my mother’s death. What happened to her when she moved from dreaming into dying into being dead? What kind of moment did she experience? What did the room feel like when/if this moment happened? Where she is now? We will never know, not even my father who was sleeping beside her.

So, I wanted this controlled experience with death, with choosing to end a creature’s suffering, watching the injection, feeling the moment, to inform me, to comfort me, to give me something. Instead, a million new questions ran through my head as I gazed into her mirror ball eyes. What happened during that minute between her heart stopping and her eyes turning? Where was she then and where was she now? Did she know I was there looking deeply into her final moment? Could she see me or hear me or sense me in some way? What do we even mean when we use words like “she?” Who or what was she? Who was my mom? Who am I?

Of course there are no real answers. But in letting go of my mom, in letting go of Blacula, in letting go of these questions and my expectations and my ruminations, something else becomes possible.

I Know This Is a Wonderful Moment

tnhI first came to Buddhism as a twenty-year-old when I lost everything I owned in a house fire (including my cat). A professor and mentor of mine introduced me to the book Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (pictured), and through reading, studying with my mentor, and developing my own meditative practice, I not only discovered ways to explore and grow from my pain and loss, but I also discovered that my anxiety and eating disorders were becoming manageable for the first time ever, even in the midst of this trauma.

I practiced regularly for a few years after that then trailed off as my work and academic life picked up. Every now and then I would sit to meditate and was surprised by how positive the effects were despite my inconsistency, but it was still difficult to find a routine. But then when my mom died, absolutely everything about my life was upended. It was like I’d suddenly and shockingly been teleported to another world, a sad, scary, dangerous world that seemed completely incongruous with the one I was physically living in. I had no idea what to do, but good ol’ Thich Nhat Hanh was there waiting for me.

Three years later, when I checked the news on my phone at 4 am on the morning of November 9th, 2016, I once again felt like I’d been teleported to a scary, dark, dangerous place that just didn’t match up with reality, a place in which women are not in charge of their own bodies and instead are told they exist to please men, a place in which good honest people who happen to have been born in the Middle East are threatened with violence, a place in which children can’t go to the doctor because their employed parents are too poor, a place in which the politicians in charge say that they and their rich friends can have anything they want, and can take more of it, while the rest of us must give and give and not have. But this time, I knew what to do: breathe.

peaceiseverystepIn the years since my mother passed away, I’ve embraced myself as a Buddhist and have regularly practiced meditation and mindfulness. But you don’t have to be a Buddhist or experienced in meditation in any way to utilize the gift of breathing. So, for those of you who can relate to the feelings I described above, I want to share a passage that I believe will help you stay centered, calm and focused, because we cannot resist if we give into fear and hatred. Stay strong, my friends, and breathe.

From Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment!

‘Breathing in, I calm my body.’ Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of cool lemonade on a hot day—you can feel the coolness permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel my breath calming my body and mind. ‘Breathing out, I smile.’ You know a smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Wearing a smile on your face is a sign that you are master of yourself. ‘Dwelling in the present moment.’ While I sit here, I don’t think of anything else. I sit here, and I know exactly where I am. ‘I know this is a wonderful moment.’ It is a joy to sit, stable and at ease, and return to our breathing, our smiling, our true nature. Our appointment with life is in the present moment. If we do not have peace and joy right now, when will we have peace and joy— tomorrow, or after tomorrow? What is preventing us from being happy right now? As we follow our breathing, we can say, simply, ‘Calming, smiling, present moment, wonderful moment.'”

We the People: Meet Alma

granny-1Name: Alma Massey
Age: 91
Lives in: Mt. Washington, KY
Ethnicity: English, Cherokee
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Chocolate

“I remember Henry Reynolds – he owned the farm – and that’s where I was born. There was a lady my mom knew that helped her when I was born so they named me after her. I never inquired about where she was from but I did always think it was a peculiar name.

By the time I was eight- or- nine-years-old, I was helping to set plants and so on. When the two oldest boys left, I guess I must have been fourteen, I started milkin’ the cows and helpin’ out with the other animals. And well, if we wanted a chicken to eat then someone had to go kill one. I didn’t always have to do it – the other boys helped with most of it – and we didn’t have one very often. But I took care of ’em, fed ‘em every night, so I did have to get one a few times. You had to catch hold of its neck, grab ahold of it real tight with your finger and thumb and then wring it around and around until about the third time when its head would pop off. It didn’t take much for the head to come off. It wasn’t too messy – most of the time it would just go floppin’ on the ground. I don’t remember ever liking the brains. The other kids did. My older sister, Helen, loved to eat ‘em with scrambled eggs. But I never wanted them – I don’t know why but it just didn’t feel right.

grannyheleninjailPretty much every time there was something to do, I was out there with the boys. Settin’ the tabacca and all. We’d set the plants out, battle the worms, and then pick the leaves later on. It was a pleasant life, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed just livin’, the time, that’s all.

My brother, Elman, he’d play the guitar and Helen would sing. My grandfather and my uncle played the fiddle, all the time, every day. Yep, they enjoyed it. I liked listening to it until it went on long enough, but now I’d give anything to hear it again. They played well, they really knew how to play. When it was pretty outside, they’d be on the porch, but a lot of times they’d be in the house playing. I never did play for real. I used to chord the guitar and sing, but that wasn’t much, you know. Elman could play the guitar really well.

I hadn’t really thought about my favorite part of working on the farm. But the Bill Monroe concert was a big event. We all had a big time there. He was a favorite for a long time. They came to the school and played, if I remember right. It didn’t cost much, maybe a fifth or sixth of what it would be now, you know, just a few dollars. I got to go with Elman and Helen and it really was one of the best nights of our lives.”

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