• A Day in the Laugh of Humorist H.M. Palmer

    (Inspired by S.J. Perelman)

    SCENE: 1950. H.M. Palmer, Le Penseur at his morning charge — a one-room, highly uncoveted, windowless convex corner office at 25 West 45th, NYC. There is a delicate yet rapid knock at the door followed by a ruffling of the “Use Stairs” sign obscuring the already sufficiently opaque glass.

    H.M.: (clearing his throat of lozenges) Yes, go ahead!

    Girl: (beaming) Oh, Mr. Palmer! It is you! I’m your biggest flan!

    H.M.: Don’t plump yourself up like that — swollen ankles are unbecoming to men your age.

    Girl: I’m sorry, sir — my tongue slipped and —

    H.M.: Please, don’t be remiss, Miss –?

    Girl: Bobbit! Polly Bobbit.

    H.M.: Little Miss Polly Bobbit. Has the sonority of a nursery rhyme doesn’t it? By the by, did the building’s nursery school just let out or did you lose your way daydreaming of hoops and sticks?

    Polly: (simpering) I’m actually here in hopes of collecting your autograph.

    H.M.: Autograph? Bah! Choose that word if you’re talking about a machine specialized in forgery — now where did that stamp get to? I usually store it in my most cavernous drawer along with my bread boxes — need to be prepared for size comparisons if a game of 20 Questions breaks out, no?

    Polly: I’ll just leave my copy of your book A Portrait of the Pineapple as a Young Pip on your desk while you search. You can sign it on the flyleaf.

    H.M.: (stamping the book with relish, not the condiment) There you are! Your very own signed-copy by your favorite author: Interstate Express Hat & Coat Clerk #34…Whoops! Must’ve pulled out the wrong stamp!

    Polly: Don’t worry, I’ll take it how it is! I’d wager no one else has a copy with quite the same…unique charm!

    H.M.: (igniting a Havana) Have a seat, Miss Bobbit.

    Polly: I…I would but there isn’t a chair for me to sit on.

    H.M..: Oh! I hope you didn’t think I was being a cad, calling you to my lap like a Pekingese!

    Polly: Oh, no, not at all, Mr. Palmer!

    H.M.: Good! Then have a seat on the floor indian-style if you like or keep upright like a cigar store Indian, it’s all the same to me.

    Polly: I’ll just stay where I am then. Thank you.

    H.M.: I can already sense we have some mutual sauciness that might mix well over the nineteen-cent enchilada that is the dyspeptic cosmos of publishing.

    Polly: Oh?

    H.M.: Do you boast any office skills, Miss Bobbit? A hole-punched library card indicating your attendance of Mrs. Aberdeen’s Three Hour Stenography Basics perhaps?

    Polly: I am somewhat familiar with dictaphones, but —

    H.M.: (raising both eyebrows) Abreast with the ol’ dictaphone, eh? Don’t toddle any closer. You of all people must already know my brains are an intricate matter, they branch out and then cauliflower inside of an ultra-confined space like —

    Polly: Like a bonsai!

    H.M.: I was going to say like a cauliflower, but that works too. In fact, that’s all I’ll need from you in way of evaluation — you’re hired!

    Polly: What?! Oh, wowee! You’re really just to going to hire me like that?! As your assistant?!

    H.M.: You’re fired! That is, I mean to say you’re acting too thrilled and a douse of Die Spucke, my preferred brand of carbonated water should cool you down.

    Polly: I’m sorry…but, wow, I wasn’t expecting anything like this to happen!

    H.M.: And I wasn’t expectorating, excuse me, expecting to discover my personal stock of Die Spucke to come up bone dry. You wouldn’t mind making some rounds so I could refill, would you?

    Polly: Of course I wouldn’t mind!

    H.M.: It comes in its own seltzogene bottle — and don’t show your face here again until you’ve found it!

    Polly: (going out the door) Oh, I’ll find it, Mr. Palmer! You can count on my assistance!

    H.M.: (fiddling with his cigar) That always keeps them out of my way for the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours until they get the idea and telegram me a vituperative limerick….me-oh-my how this cigar can tremolo like a Stradivarius!

    (Six o’clock in the afternoon. Our reclusive hero tosses a bad avocado down the defunct mail chute on his way out and mangles the lyrics to Louis Jordan’s Push Ka Pi Shi Pie with no regard to anyone in earshot.)

    Polly: (out of breath) Mr. Palmer! I’m glad I caught you!

    H.M.: Now look, London hags used to shove hordes of geese down their chimneys when they couldn’t afford a prepubescent sweep to do the job and what I’m doing isn’t any different.

    Polly: I don’t know what you’re talking about…but I found Die Spucke — or at least, I found a supplier!

    H.M.: I see…and are they also offering all twelve of the missing Fabergé eggs on their breakfast menu?

    Polly: Ha! Always the jokester! I was able to track down a supplier in Innsbruck. They said they’ll have a case shipped to your office if you give them a call — here’s their number.

    H.M.: (adhering the paper to the Doublemint on the bottom of his left sole) You pole-vaulted over the Alps and didn’t bring me back any apfelstrudel?

    Polly: Not quite, but —

    (Their dialogue is interrupted by a stentorian metallic clatter in the elevator shaft.)

    Polly: What was that?

    H.M.: We’ll leave that for the insurance adjusters to investigate. In the meanwhile, let’s take the fire escape — I want to feel young again! That’s what all of the kids are doing nowadays, isn’t it?

    Polly: I’m not sure, but it sounds whimsical!

    H.M.: Leaping out of an eighth-story window is whimsical too, but you probably aren’t tall enough for that ride yet.

    (The two of them make it down the entirety of the Piranesian fire escape with rusty paws and the metal grating of honor.)

    Polly: It’s beginning to snow.

    H.M.: (putting his arm around her shoulder) We should huddle close to stay warm and befuddle my assassins.

    Polly: (with studied approval) Oh, um, alright then.

    H.M.: I usually burn out the entry buzzer from overuse at the Harvard Club before hailing a taxi but since there’s a bluster, I’ll see to it you venture home without losing your sixth toe to frostbite.

    (The back half of the cab is much darker and more infernal than the outside, wafts of Balmain and Bon Ami rising as they scoot into place. The driver sneezes thrice for good luck before cutting off a Mack truck full of cloth diapers.)

    H.M.: (punching his hat inside-out and guiding Polly’s sacramental fingers over the silken liner) Feel that? That’s a slice from Faith Domergue’s negligee — I had to pay a pretty penny for that particular purloin!

    Polly: (a flux of revulsion seizes command of her muscles) Oh…my goodness…

    H.M.: But now that I’ve divulged my darkest secrets to you, I suppose this means our courtship is practically consummated…

    Polly: What??

    H.M.: Holly, Dolly, Wally…whatever your name is…(pinching her knuckle with an alligator clip) Will you marry me?

    Polly: I’m sorry, Mr. Palmer, but your humor has gone overboard now. For some reason, I thought you were more clear-headed than what your wacky writings made you out to be.

    H.M.: (nostalgically) You know, that’s just what my fifth wife said to me on the eve of our anti-honeymoon.

    Polly: Driver, let me out here — I’ll take the subway.

    (She leaves with a cement upper lip and only half-slams the door.)

    H.M.: I’m sorry you had to witness that bit of tough love, driver. Sometimes the best medicine for a fawning fan is a scalding hot bowl of disillusionment soup. I’m sure you can relate.

    (Ten o’clock at night. Le Poète in his boudoir, buffing his bunions and pleating his peshtemals with the best of them.)

    H.M.: (to himself) Let’s see…a three-letter word for ‘male or female’…a three-letter word for ‘male or female’…hmmmm….

    (The phone rings.)

    H.M.: YAK! Yaks are male or female!…Yes, hello? Who is this calling so deep into the witching hour?…Oh, it’s you! How did you get my home phone number?…Well, I must’ve listed my personal number on all of my business cards by mistake and I’ve never had anyone use one to call until now…No, I’m the only person who should be apologizing…I hope that alligator clip didn’t break skin…What’s that? You recalled the same ruse from a Preston Sturges picture?…I’ll neither deny nor confirm artifice on my part, but as you know, I rarely plagiarize…Yes, well every great thinker is more afraid of being understood than misunderstood but I’m glad we could at least arrive at some sort of an understanding…Yes, you have a good night too, Molly.

    (And so our dyed-in-the-wool defender rests his weary head upon a pillow of drug store taffy and his enervated body upon a mattress stockpiled from decades of depleted prescription bottles.)