Snazzy (albeit smaller) Nostrum Graphic
Past episodes     Reader's Guide to the Nostrum Universe     Nostrum Correspondence Corner
Subscribe to Nostrum      Home

(New to Nostrum? We recommend starting at the beginning.
Totally lost? Find out who's who in the Reader's Guide or track the "Ref #" links to the previous scene with those characters.)

Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 138

Consider Yourself Part of the Family

     There are some debaters who are only in it for the joys of housing.

     The clinical name for these debaters is masochist.


     Bob Cratch, Tom Abelard and John Melvish are being led down the entryway stairs by their housing host, a short, chubby man in his mid-fifties. An unkempt puff of white hair sprouts over each of his ears, bracketing both sides of a red-splotched stretch of bald skull. He is wearing a white safari jacket and matching white cargo pants, both of which sport enough pockets to last him any jungle expedition he wishes to undertake.

     "I don't have children on the debate team," he is saying. "Martha and I don't have children at all."

     Melvish makes the comment, "That's very interesting."

     "No," the man continues, "we only do this to support our community. You boys know how important supporting your community is."

     "Yes, sir," Melvish replies. "We always support our community."

     They reach the bottom of the stairs and enter the family room. The man turns around. "I guess you boys are Northerners," he says.

     "Born and bred," Melvish says, smiling.

     The man shakes his head. "I'm sorry to hear that."

     The room they have entered is, in a word, a shrine. There are two couches on either side of a glassed-in fireplace. Above the fireplace is a portrait of Robert E. Lee, draped with Confederate flags. A pair of crossed swords hangs beneath the portrait. Three votive candles are on the mantelpiece. On all the walls of the rooms there are paintings of scenes of southern idylls, armament bric-a-brac such as rifles and pennants, and a general sense that any minute General Caleb B. Jebediah will walk in with his minions planning the strategy for tomorrow's battle.

     "I'm a southerner myself," the man continues. "But I guess I can't blame you for where you were born. You can sleep on the couches and the floor," he says, dropping down on one of the couches. "However you want to work it out." He reaches into his pocket and extracts a small cheroot. "The issue of states' rights is still viable, I would say."

     He lights the cigar.

     "Wouldn't you agree?" he asks, holding the match in front of his nose.

     Tom Abelard and Bob Cratch sit down on the couch across from him. Melvish drops his backpack and sleeping bag and walks over to the portrait. "Nice painting," he says, nodding wisely.

     "Nice painting, boy? That's General Robert E. Lee, the greatest military man ever to walk the earth. If it wasn't for the bosses in the north with their draft boards and their wage slaves and their factories, he would have put an end to the war of southern resistance back at Gettysburg. That man is as close as you can get to God."

     "Didn't he make some strategic mistakes at Gettysburg?" Melvish says. "That's what they taught us in American history."

     The man jumps off the couch. "Those are lies they taught you in that so-called American history, boy. That's the problem with this country today. The northerners won the war, and they get to make up all the stories."

     Melvish takes a step backward. "I didn't mean--"

     "You head is filled with northern bushwa, boy!"

     Melvish steps back again. "I'm sorry. I mean, it is all, like, ancient history. The war was a long time ago."

     "A long time ago? Feh! You don't know the meaning of a long time, boy." He blows cigar smoke into Melvish's face. "Strategic mistakes," he mutters as he strikes a match, which he uses to light the three votive candles. "Keep these candles lit through the night," he orders.

     "Yes, sir," Melvish says.

     "Damned Yankees," the man snorts.

     He walks up the stairs from the family room, leaving his three Quilty Prep students alone with God. Or as close as you can get to God, as they say below the Mason-Dixon line.


     The Maru sisters are housing with three girls from Toulouse-Lautrec. The five of them are sitting in the living room among their scattered suitcases and unfurled sleeping bags, organizing who will take a shower at night, and who will take a shower in the morning. Water rights are a big issue at housing venues.

     They are housing with an Algren single mother, whose own child used to debate and is now attending college. The woman is tall and thin, towering over all the girls, with a wildly disarrayed crown of black-and-white hair from the Cruella de Ville school of coiffeurism. She is standing at the edge of the living room, bemoaning her child's anonymity.

     "You don't know Zen Flageolet?" she is saying.

     "Maybe he graduated before we started debating," one of the girls says.

     "He only graduated last year," the woman says. "You must be novices."

     All the girls tremulously shake their heads, even Camellia, who in fact is a novice.

     "You do Policy then?"

     They shake their heads again.

     The woman sighs. "Figure out the shower routine," she says. "I'll be back in a minute."

     She walks away, and the girls continue bargaining, until they have finally come up with a plan they can all agree to. They begin to organize, unpacking suitcases, unrolling sleeping bags, slowly working their way into marginal dishevelment as they kick off this and unbutton that. A certain level of modesty prevails; aside from the Marus, they are all relative strangers to one another. They will wait until their turn in the bathroom to change into whatever they intend to sleep in.

     About fifteen minutes pass before the woman returns to the living room. She is carrying a picture of her son Zen, which is not particularly unusual. "I thought maybe if you saw his picture you might recognize him," she says, handing the picture to Camellia.

     The woman is totally naked, which is particularly unusual.

     Camellia gulps. "I'm a freshman," she says, staring at the woman's feet.

     "Pass it around," the woman says.

     The girls pass the picture around as quickly as is humanly possible. They agree that the name is not familiar, but the face rings a bell, since the woman will apparently not be pleased until the young Flageolet is recognized as the Master of the Debate Universe he obviously was.

     Finally satisfied, or at least as satisfied as she is going to get, she turns her unclad bottom and leaves the room.

     The five girls expel their collective breath.

     "Let's get to sleep quickly," Camellia whispers to her sister.

     Jasmine nods.

     Neither of them wants to see what comes next.


     "You must be hungry," the woman says as the Suburban pulls into the driveway.

     Hamlet P. Buglaroni, Jr., who is always hungry, and who is riding shotgun, replies noncommittally. "I could eat something, I guess."

     Trat Warner, Griot Goldbaum and the Tarleton twins in the back seat make the appropriate affirmative grunts.

     "I've got some deli," she continues. She parks in front of the back door, and her load of Nighten Dayers begins to disembark.. There is a bustle of activity visible through the windows of the house.

     The night is cold in that bright autumnal way that still surprises as you reawaken to the possibility that there might be another winter ahead. The boys splash up waves of fallen leaves as they march behind the woman in single file along a flagstone path. The door opens before they arrive.

     "Welcome," an elderly woman greets them, stepping aside for them to pass. "Welcome to Casa Grabinsky."

     They enter into a vast kitchen, which is obviously presided over by the older woman, a short, round, rouged, henna-haired grandmother. The man of the household, who bears a strong resemblance to the grandmother, is sitting at the long kitchen table staring glumly at a small half-filled sherry glass. He does not acknowledge the arrival of his housing guests, and he gives off a sense of not acknowledging much of anything in this household.

     The table is laid with enough food for the proverbial army. A half dozen plates of cold cuts, four different kinds of smoked fish, bagels, breads, three kinds of chips, assorted cans of Mountain Dew, Surge and diet crème soda next to a silver ice bucket, cakes of the chocolate, nut and fruit persuasions, apple and pecan pies….

     "I don't take any responsibility for the bagels," Grandma Grabinsky says. "This is Massachusetts, after all."

     The boys are standing, staring at the table, their backpacks and sleeping bags still hung variously over their shoulders.

     "Go ahead. Eat. Eat."

     They drop their gear and fall on the food.

     Grandma Grabinsky smiles as only a Grandma Grabinsky can.


     "You'll sleep in the living room," the man says.

     He is easily six and a half feet tall, with long, stringy brown hair and a scraggy, unbalanced beard. He is wearing a torn flannel shirt over black shirt and pants, and beat-up hiking boots that appear to have been around the world and back at least a dozen times. He is leading Chip Dwindle and the rest of the Farnsworth Catholic chino brigade up a hill from where he has parked his four-door pickup to a large, dark, log cabin. A dog suddenly barks, and there is a rush of what sounds like hooves, resolving itself into the growling visage of a large Doberman.

     "Sit, Adolph."

     Adolph sits.

     "Don't mind the mutt," the man says. "If you're with me, he won't hurt you."

     The boys, who are standing still as stones and doing their best not to smell like fear (something they read about once in an old Scholastic Magazine), collect their wits and continue to walk behind the man. Adolph growls softly as they pass.

     They walk up the steps of the cabin porch. The man opens the unlocked door and switches on an inner light. They all walk in.

     "This is the living room," the man says. He points. "Bathroom's over there. I'm upstairs if you need me. Kitchen's back there, but you won't find much in it. We leave at seven-thirty in the morning." Without another word he marches up the stairs, and leaves five Farnsworth Catholics to their own devices.

     But, to paint the complete picture, it must be noted that the Farnsworths are not entirely alone.

     There is one folding chair in the room. There is no couch. There is no coffee table. There are two large pillows in front of the cold fireplace, presumably one for the master of the house and the other for Adolph. There are no pictures on the walls, no decorations of any kind.

     Except for the aquarium. And the company that the Farnsworth will be keeping tonight.

     The aquarium is easily six feet long and four feet wide, the largest any of the boys has ever seen in a home, or even imagined would be possible in a home. It has exactly one inhabitant, slowing swimming in a clockwise circle, its narrow eyes open, watching everything. It is approximately two feet long, which doesn't give it much space to move around, despite the size of the aquarium.

     "That's a shark, isn't it?" Chip Dwindle asks.

     "That's a shark," one of the Farnsworths replies.

     "I've never seen a home shark before."

     "I don't thinkanyone's ever seen a home shark before."

     "You think he can get out of there?"

     "To do what? He can't swim on the floor."

     Around and around and around and around.

     "They never sleep. They just swim until they die."

     "Maybe he'll die tonight."

     "Maybe one of us will die tonight."

     They drop their gear. There is no question of who will get the floor, since that is all there is. They had been planning on blocking out some arguments, but they intuitively agree that the best thing to do tonight is try to sleep.

     Not one of them thinks that falling asleep will be easy, or that staying asleep will be possible.

     Around and around and around and around.

     And off in the distance, the only sound they can hear is the continuing growling of Adolph the Doberman.

     Welcome to the housing Bahamas.

Will the South rise again?

Will Zen Flageolet's mother find where she left her nightie?

Will the Nighten Day team get heartburn?

Do sharks and Dobermans sleep?

Are Cuban grandmothers the same as Jewish grandmothers?

Don't say we didn't warn you in our next episode: ", or, yes, you really did waste two million dollars on this commerical."

Go to the next episode due Feb 9, 2000.