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A Short Story About Perceptions

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The store where I work has a particular customer who, every few months, will order something like eight or 10 medium-size refrigerators and maybe a half-dozen microwave ovens and have them shipped to our store for pickup or delivery. Because we imagined him to own or manage apartment buildings or other rental properties, we’ve taken to jokingly referring to him as “Slumlord.”

Whenever this happens, there’s an inevitable lag between the arrival of the merchandise and the arrangement of its handoff, which means that, until the transaction can be completed, my receiving department has to accommodate the storage of said items, rearranging their placement within our limited space every other day or so to better facilitate other incoming merchandise. We manage this intake and outflow with various other large, ungainly items, often for at least as long a time — the job is basically a continuous game of Tetris or Jenga writ large — but Slumlord’s kitchen appliances seem like the kinds of things that could be delivered directly to his properties, eliminating our role of middle man.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago Slumlord struck again: another order of 10 fridges and six microwaves, which, for the time being have formed an outcropping on one side of our dock, a peninsula of appliances that we have been working around as we await their removal or retrieval.

As a business still operating daily during the pandemic and deemed essential because we’re part of the supply chain, as it were, we’re in the weird (and, I feel, slightly irresponsible) position of still receiving daily a metric shit-ton of merchandise (not all of which I believe falls under the heading of “goods essential to daily survival”) that has nowhere to go until room opens up on our shelves or in our aisles. Which means that back in receiving, our space on any given day is tighter and tighter as we work around, among other things, Slumlord’s appliances.

So yesterday my department head looked up the contact information attached to the order and called to ask whether the customer could estimate when he might take this latest obstruction off our hands, at which point she discovered the truth about him.

He’s not a landlord or property manager at all, but rather the buyer for a senior assisted-living facility, which has had to suspend most incoming deliveries during the COVID-19 crisis and is awaiting the lifting of restrictions before the merchandise can be delivered.

And now we all feel like assholes.

This has been a short story about perceptions.

Written by Shepcat

April 11, 2020 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Life, Work

Idea Free for the Taking

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On my walk this evening I passed a couch some homeowner set out at the curb.

Now it’s one thing if one’s municipal solid-waste department has scheduled a large-item pickup day, but most of the time people are hoping someone will drive by, think, “Hey, free couch,” and carry the eyesore away. One man’s trash, another man’s treasure, as it were.

Problem is, the instant that couch leaves the house, the clock is running on exposure to the elements, wind, rain, mold, mildew, infestation by assorted insects and varmints, and vandalism by area youths lacking an acceptable outlet for their teen angst. The longer the couch sits outside, the less desirable it becomes to anyone who might have made a place for it in their own domicile.

So first, stipulate, if you will, that a couch ending up on the curb is almost never a spontaneous act of passion.

In the history of threadbare home furnishings, I doubt anyone ever suddenly exclaimed, “I’ve had it with this raggedy-ass couch!” jumped up and immediately dragged it outside.

No, it is invariably a premeditated act.

It’s, “I need to think about getting rid of this ratty old couch one of these days” or “The furniture store is delivering my new sofa next weekend. I need to make space for it.”

Solution: a poster board, some colorful markers, a wooden stake. Make a sign and post it at the curb:


Feel free to add as much descriptive detail as space allows. Hell, tape a picture of the couch to the sign.

As many people will drive past the sign as would have driven past the gradually decomposing couch. Perhaps they make a mental note. Perhaps they add an alert to the calendar app on their phone.

Then, at the appointed hour on the appointed day, any interested party or parties arrives outside your house to take a virtually uninfested used couch off your hands. Maybe it’s just one guy in a pickup truck. Maybe multiple interested parties show up and a bidding war erupts right there on your sidewalk, an opportunity to pick up a few extra bucks depending on who wants it bad enough.

Anyway, idea free for the taking.

You’re welcome, fellow citizens.

Written by Shepcat

March 29, 2020 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Life

A Tale of Heroism on an Invisible Scale

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It’s probably fortuitous that, in a quirk of supply, demand and circumstance, I had to buy 2% milk instead of my usual 1%. If this had to happen at all, I mean.

I brought home the gallon of 2% a week ago Thursday, and into the refrigerator it went behind the gallon of 1% milk that I was perhaps one cup of coffee and one bowl of cereal away from finishing. The new gallon was in there not quite four days before I opened it.

Then Tuesday morning at 4:30 I was having a bowl of cereal before work, and some milk splashed on the counter. This happens a lot on the first pour of a new gallon of milk or orange juice — too fast, too flat an angle, and you get a big splash as the liquid rushes out; ease into the pour too slowly and it dribbles down the side of the jug until you tip it to that optimum middle angle — so I didn’t think much of it, except that it was quite a lot more milk than is typical. Then as I lifted it away from the bowl, it continued to drip.

I wiped off the jug with a paper towel and put it back in the fridge, wiped the spill off the counter, ate my cereal.

A few minutes later I went back to the fridge for something and found a puddle of milk on a package of tortillas on the shelf below.

Quick. I remove the milk, set it on the counter, airlift the tortilla package from the fridge to the sink, pour off the milk, rinse off the package, wipe it dry, return it to the fridge. At which point I turn to see the milk forming a new puddle on the counter. I wipe down the counter, lift the jug over the sink.

And here I discover the leak: smaller than a pinhole, on the side of the jug, in the outer edge of that inexplicable circular impression, maybe one-eighth of an inch deep, that plastics manufacturers incorporate into the design of some gallon jugs.¹ Some, it is important to note, as if it’s an option available to them should they desire to execute it. Because it happens that the jug of orange juice presently cohabiting with that milk in my fridge has a flat circle etched on its side but not extruded into a crater like the one on the milk jug.

Now I tilt the jug back almost 90 degrees to point the hole, infinitesimal though it is, toward the ceiling and stop the stream — and yeah, tilt too far in the other direction and milk more or less streams from the jug now — while I look for some container to pour the milk into.

At this point, I’m acting solely on adrenaline and not focused on the fact of my not ever having purchased a lidded gallon container to have on hand for just such an occasion. It is now 4:40-something a.m. I’m still only barely awake, barely lucid. I’m not showered, not dressed, I have to leave for work in less than an hour, and suddenly I’m starring in the most low-stakes action movie any writer could ever pitch to a studio exec.

At one point a voice in my head literally says, “God, Shepherd, just eat the $3 and pour the milk down the sink so you can get out the door in time.”

“No!” shouts another voice.

And then a solution presents itself.

Reader, if you’re new to these chronicles, you may not yet know that I drink bourbon. And I just happened to be at the bottom of a 1.75-liter bottle — what my partner-in-cirrhosis, Pearson, dubbed “the joke bottle,” in a shout-out to oversize novelty items — of Jim Beam. And thus did fate bring my bourbon consumption and me to this precarious crossroads, perhaps for this very reason. We may never know for sure.

I need both hands free, so I lay the milk on its side, tempting fate even as fate bails me out. I pour the last remaining finger of Beam into a glass, seal the glass into a used Ziploc bag on the counter — because I’m not so drowsy and overwhelmed that I’m not considering the freshness of the bourbon when at last I get around to drinking it — then pull out the pour-stopper with my Leatherman tool, rinse out the bottle, and carefully pour milk from the compromised jug into the solid glass bottle.

But, Shepcat, the volumes-and-measurements aficionados among you are no doubt thinking, 1.75 liters is less than a gallon.

I didn’t have the time or the presence of mind to consider this fact until the milk neared the neck of the bottle. But in this instance, 1.75 liters bought me just enough grace to put the level of the milk in the jug below the not-even-a-pinhole that is the antagonist in this story.

Which brings us to the hero promised in the title of this post.

Which is most definitely not me. I am at best the comic relief. I am the Simon Pegg, if you will, to this story’s Tom Cruise. (Smaller than Tom Cruise, actually, if such a thing can be imagined.)

Sometime later, when the passage of time had slowed down to 1:1 again and I could think more clearly — as I was showering or dressing or driving to work; I don’t recall exactly when — I reverse-engineered the situation and came to the following conclusions.

Because some plastics manufacturers insist on including this extruded impression in the sides of gallon containers, the sharp top edge of that impression is particularly vulnerable to incidental contact with other sharp edges. A soft enough impact maybe just dents the edge, and it can be popped back into shape; a harder impact with a sharper edge, however, might crease that edge far enough inward to create a tiny hole like this one.

I don’t recall bumping into anything as I carried my purchases home, but the impact could have happened at any time, at any point along the supply chain — somewhere between dairy and delivery truck and grocery-store stockroom and dairy case and cashier and, yes, me, transporting it the last two miles of its journey. It may have happened in a single impact or by an attrition of multiple impacts.

Remarkably, the jug did not leak at any point along that chain, so far as I know, nor did it leak for nearly four days in my refrigerator. Only after I removed the cap, lowering the internal pressure, and tilted the jug, shifting the level of the milk and redistributing its volume, was the hero of the story removed from the equation.

Because in my mind, the hero of this story is almost certainly a microscopic volume of milkfat that in the smallest opening imaginable collided with a microscopic volume of outside air and almost instantly coagulated to stopper that opening and preserve the integrity of the container until such time as a different collision of forces removed it from its post. Had I bought the slightly thinner 1% milk in a similarly compromised jug, maybe the fat molecules don’t coalesce quickly enough to coagulate and seal that dam, and the spill happens much sooner. Again, we may never know for sure.

To the casual observer, this is a pointless anecdote about a half-awake idiot scurrying about his kitchen first thing in the morning. On a cellular level, it’s something altogether more thrilling.
¹ Why? Why is it there? Why is it necessary? I could write an entire other rant about plastic food containers with indentations that serve no apparent purpose other than making it impossible to finish off the dregs of hummus or salsa or yogurt at the bottom. But this footnote will suffice, because I’m pretty sure you feel me, reader.

Written by Shepcat

March 28, 2020 at 11:14 am

Posted in Life

Tagged with ,

One Last Regret: A Maow Story #8

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Two years ago tonight.

Two years since we spent our last day together. Two years since Adriane and I said our goodbyes through the long afternoon and evening before releasing Maow to a place beyond suffering. Two years since our final car trip and the quiet hour we spent alone in a private room, just me and Maow.

A thing about Maow is, while she was delightful company and endlessly entertaining when awake, she was mesmerizing when she slept. Whether she napped on my lap on a Sunday afternoon or just drifted asleep near me on the couch or on her tower, I could get caught up in staring at her, this perfect, drowsy little loaf, emitting whistling snores through her nose, or spasming intermittently in the throes of a dream I could only hope to imagine. I know for a fact I’ll never sleep that comfortably, that peacefully.

I often said that if I were offered decades with Maow, with the tradeoff being that her longer life meant she would spend all of it asleep, I’d have taken that deal. As much as I’d miss her little declarations and complaints and protests — just as I do now — I’d be comforted by the certainty of her presence when I came home at the end of days like this one, meditating on her soft, almost silent breathing, watching as she curled her paws into perfect little boxing gloves, waiting for the little twitches of her ears.

And so, as advertised, one last regret.

When at last we came to the end, I lifted Maow onto my lap to face the vet as she administered the injections into the line inserted in her front leg. I stroked Maow, perhaps more to soothe myself than her, and the first injection put her to sleep in a few seconds, her little head slumping over the side of my leg. The second injection worked quickly, painlessly, and just like that, Maow’s tiny, magnificent heart stopped forever.

When the vet confirmed that she was gone, I reached for my phone.

“Would you like a picture?” she asked. There was no judgment in her tone. It hadn’t even occurred to me, but I’m certain there are some who want that one final image of their beloved pet.

“No, I just …” and I let my voice trail off, but the end of that sentence would have been, “wanted to know the time.” I didn’t want to explain that I needed to know Maow left this world — left us, who loved her — at 9:44 p.m., because, among other reasons, I knew I would be writing about her (and probably, on some level, knew I’d be writing about her still). It’s what I’ve always done. If I hadn’t stopped wearing a watch sometime around 2005, the whole matter would have been settled with a furtive glance and no questions asked, but now I felt a little self-conscious and awkward, as though I appeared to have important business elsewhere.

So I sat and stroked Maow’s fur one last time, and when at last I surrendered her, the vet lifted her off my lap and carried her out of the room. And I didn’t think of it until she was already gone, but Maow had still been facing away from me, so I was denied one last look at her perfect little face in peaceful slumber.

Over time I’ve made my peace with the terrible necessity of letting Maow go, but that’s the moment I’ll always wish I had back.

Written by Shepcat

November 14, 2019 at 6:40 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

Tagged with

Requiem for a Chair: A Maow Story #7

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“We’ve made a decision,” my mother announced one evening in late July as I FaceTimed with her and Dad during a Royals game, as is our routine.

“We’re sick of looking at you in that beat-up chair. We want to buy you a nice new chair for your birthday. We’re sending you some money now so maybe you can celebrate your birthday in your new chair.”

Their check arrived in my birthday card a few days later and was more than generous. My birthday came and went, because I wasn’t going to replace my battered old friend with just any chair. I visited numerous furniture stores and searched many websites. I conducted a serious online flirtation with a deep red chair with diamond stitching, broad sloping arms and matching ottoman, similar to my old chair in its construction. But for all its grandiloquent potential as a focal point of my living room, it was upholstered in vinyl, and though I sampled some vinyl seating in my travels, I was never able to test-drive that specific chair in person to determine whether I’d want to spend hours and years lounging in it.

In the end, I settled on a wide, inviting, languorous elephant-gray chair (without matching ottoman), upholstered in real leather, in which I had actually sat during my investigations and which presented itself at a price that accommodated my parents’ largesse.

But this isn’t about my new chair.

Tipped off by a friend from work who had recently bought the same chair at a discount furniture outlet, I purchased my broad-shouldered, coffee-brown, bonded-leather command post in late May 2004. I remember the date because one of our first breaking-in engagements was Bravo’s Memorial Day airing of a West Wing marathon. I watched for 13 straight hours and left the chair maybe twice.

It hasn’t exactly encouraged better posture over the years, and while it’s not by any measure built for sleep, no number of muscle spasms or neck cricks have dissuaded me from slumping, snaking and wedging my frame into the meager space provided to do so. I have sought comfort there in ways that it denied being designed for, whether implicitly or expressly, too lazy or exhausted or obstinate to get up and move three steps to stretch out on the couch.

Since January 2006 the chair has weathered moves from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Sacramento to Seattle (and moves within those cities), with only minor wear and tear. Its slow-motion deterioration began in earnest sometime after we moved into the house we called The Silent J. Eventually the leather became unbonded, so to speak, and began to crack and flake off a little at a time, first along the arms, then the seat back, then the seat itself. Much vacuuming of the carpet would follow, but the chair and ottoman remained.

(Since the move to the apartment two years ago, small tears became larger — note the obliterated left arm in particular — and while I did shop for covers, I found none that would stretch to fit the chair’s especially wide, rounded arms, nor any small enough to conform to the ottoman. Meanwhile, every time I rose from the chair, little flakes of brown polyurethane would be stuck to my arms and calves like prosthetically applied birthmarks.)

A rearrangement of the living room furniture put the chair in a more desirable location from which to view the TV, and despite its ongoing dishevelment, I found myself spending more time in it, my shoulders thrown back against its own, the curvature of my spine tempting fate, my legs stretched out before me on the ottoman.

It is in this disposition of my semisupine form that Maow found her own preferred resting place, and the chair, she and I became one. As I have said before, one of the greatest capacities in which I shall ever serve is that of soft stationary object.

Among my favorite memories are our Sundays spent in the chair, my coffee close at hand, my computer and tablet situated for the week’s proofreading, and Maow insinuating herself atop me against the front edge of my lap desk, rendering the wrist pad moot and finding comfort where none seemed evident (or willing it through her sheer stubbornness, not unlike my own aforementioned attempts to sleep in the chair). Once my work was complete, her patience would be rewarded by the unobstructed expanse of my lap, and hours of intoxicating torpor would ensue. Baseball or football games, movies, immobility. Bliss.

Before our final car trip, en route to our last terrible appointment, we spent most of that long last day together in the chair, in the dim, cool, quiet apartment. She was smaller and weaker than she had been only a month before, and I made a cushion out of a folded bath towel to make her as comfortable as possible before lifting her onto my lap. Had I not determined that morning that letting her go was the most loving, humane thing I could do for her, I could have sat there with her forever.

So I will confess to a brief pang of defiance in the moments following my parents’ generous offer (how dare they?), precisely because this was Maow’s and my chair. The suggestion that I part with it after all we had been through together was a momentary affront, like being slapped with a gauntlet or having a glass of water thrown in my face. Had Mom and Dad not announced their gift when they did, there’s no telling how long I would have continued whiling away my downtime in the dilapidated, slowly eroding wreckage of the chair.

On delivery day I sank into its embrace for one last, lingering cup of coffee as I began writing this chronicle, before upending it and pushing it toward the exit to make room for its successor, before dragging it downstairs, pushing it across the parking lot and behind my building’s dumpster, where oversize items go to await their final journeys to the landfill. I will no doubt see it there several times in the intervening days or weeks and feel sadness and longing for the past. If you’ve read these chronicles at all, you know by now that this is who I am.

I carry Maow everywhere in my heart and still have physical reminders of her close at hand, but that chair was an island that we alone inhabited (I Crusoe, she Friday), and even though a fairly magnificent piece of furniture now occupies the space where it once stood, where we spent that last day together, it may be a while before it stops feeling like an absence, a hole in the room where something is missing.

Sometimes when I entertain thoughts of an afterlife, I imagine that a suitably perfect one might be spent in that old chair, restored to its former glory — whether situated in a meticulously re-created living room or suspended in an endless void; it doesn’t really matter — stroking Maow’s fur as she naps and purrs on my lap for eternity, like one perfect never-ending Sunday.

Written by Shepcat

August 25, 2019 at 10:21 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

Tagged with

A Madeleine 2.5

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As long as I’m on the subject of The Untouchables

My sophomore year at KU I was a desk assistant at Oliver Hall, where I lived, and in addition to working a few three-hour desk shifts each week, I worked one or two half-shifts a week sorting the morning mail, working alongside whoever was manning the front desk.

There was one girl — let’s call her Angie — whom I found especially grating to work with, particularly in the morning when I’m more people-averse to begin with. She was flighty and chatty and prone to insipid conversation, and I usually tried to power through the mail as quickly as possible so I could be done with her and get on with my day.

One spring morning the hall’s daily mail arrived — two or three big canvas drawstring bags that we’d dive into and separate before filing it in the residents’ mail slots. I happened to first open a bag full of magazines and catalogs, near the top of which was the May issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly, as it was still commonly referred to back then.

costner gq

“Hey, Kevin’s on the cover of GQ!” I exclaimed.

I have always been an avid follower of the movies, even when I didn’t yet live in an industry town, but Angie didn’t know that. And while it was certainly not unlike me to say such things, I was immediately struck by how overly familiar I must have sounded to her, so I just ran with it.

“I know him!”

Kevin Costner had appeared in a dozen movies in five years — and had semi-famously not appeared in one — but to date the only role in which he had made a strong impression was as the high-spirited gunslinger Jake in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. If that had been his breakout role, then The Untouchables, coming in June of that year, would be the film that made him a star.

Angie was into hair bands and would ramble ad nauseam about Jon Bon Jovi and David Coverdale and David Lee Roth and whose ass looked best in spandex, so I was sure she wouldn’t know any of this, and I decided to have some fun with her ignorance and gullibility.

On the fly I spun a magnificent tale about a friend in L.A. whose father was an entertainment lawyer. I had visited a few summers back, and while I was there we had hung around a party his parents had thrown at their house in the Hollywood Hills. Mingling among assorted industry types, I had met Kevin — really nice, engaging, down-to-earth guy — and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that he’d found out the day before that his entire role in a movie he had wrapped was going to end up on the cutting-room floor. This was Kasdan’s The Big Chill — Costner would have appeared in flashbacks as Alex, whose funeral had brought his college friends back together — which surely Angie was familiar with, if only for the popularity of its soundtrack album.

“Worked out OK for him, though. Kasdan felt bad and cast him in Silverado. Now look at him,” I said, referring back to the magazine cover.

I marveled at my own audacity but knew that I’d soon run out of plausible details to keep the lie going. I was trying to think ahead and wondering about cutting bait and confessing, when Angie interjected.

“Hey, wait a minute,” she drawled, her suspicion evident in the way her words hung there in the air. “You’ve never been to L.A.”

Of all the details for her to get hung up on …

But then: “No, wait, that’s right — you told me one other time about a trip to California. Was it this one?”

At which point any compunction I had about lying to Angie evaporated. “Possibly. I mean, I’ve been out there to visit more than once.”

I have no idea what became of Angie after KU, but maybe once or twice over the last 32 years the subject of Kevin Costner has come up among friends, at which point she may have said, “Hey, did I ever tell you? I went to school with a guy who met him before he was famous.”

Written by Shepcat

July 14, 2019 at 2:29 pm

A Madeleine — #2 in a Series

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My friend Colleen traveled to Chicago this week, and Thursday she posted a picture of the façade of Union Station on Facebook. Which took me back in time.

In the summer of 1987 or ’88, my best friend, Andre, and I made our second weekend trip to Chicago together (our first having occurred in the summer of ’86, after our freshman year at KU). This time we crashed on the floor of a friend’s family home in Wilmette or Winnetka — one of the W’s, very confusing, as they’re both northern suburbs, right next to each other along the same rail line — and took the commuter train into the city each day.

Our first day, after we hopped off the train, we made the short walk to Union Station, which recently had figured prominently in The Untouchables — most notably in the shootout in which director Brian De Palma shamelessly but masterfully cribs from Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

I am virtually certain Andre and I entered on the Canal Street side, at the entrance nearest Jackson Boulevard, and once inside we might have walked around a bit surveying the other entrances as we tried to single out the actual staircase on which the shootout took place.

We found it. Or thought we did, anyway. Certainly the layout looked correct, even if all the contemporary touches like advertising and modern signage clashed with spare, elegant period setting of the movie playing back in our heads.

U Master

So I went into director mode, and began blocking the scene.

“Costner’s standing here …” after he clunkily drags the baby stroller up the steps one-handed, refusing to relinquish his hold on the shotgun under his trench coat, spotting the bookkeeper and several Capone henchmen as they enter the station.

U Three-shot

“He recognizes the henchman at the entrance, pushes the mother out of the way as he raises his shotgun to fire. He lets go of the stroller …”

U Costner

I went down the steps, tracing the stroller’s downward trajectory as bystanders fall amid the crossfire. Costner follows it down, having first thrown down his shotgun and drawn his sidearm, which he quickly empties.

U Mid-Stairs

I’m at the foot of the staircase now. “Enter Garcia. He crosses into frame, tosses Costner his spare pistol, and slides in right here to catch the stroller before it pitches off the bottom step …” (For the record, I did not slide, notwithstanding my enthusiasm. … Enthusiasm. … Enthusiasm.) “… and he trains his gun on the henchman holding the bookkeeper …”

U Garcia

I aim my finger gun upward and to the right before crossing back up the steps to the third point of the triangle.

Here. … Garcia shoots.”

U Accountant

And this is the point in the story when I cross my heart and hope to die. Because as I looked at the wall there under the balustrade, that’s when it caught my eye.

Blood spatter.

Not much. Nothing like what you see in the photo above. So little, in fact, that you’d miss it altogether if you weren’t on that staircase at that time for that very purpose. But spots of pinkish red, many no bigger than the head of a pin, that could plausibly — in my mind, could only — be squib blood that didn’t get completely cleaned off the wall after filming. Filming that the Internet Movie Database informs me took place in August 1986 — not long after our first Chicago trip, as it happens — meaning that spatter had persisted a year, maybe two (again, my memory) waiting for us to discover it there.

Coincidence, you say. Some kid could have knocked his cherry Slurpee off the top of the balustrade the day before, you say.

Suspension of disbelief, I say. The magic of motion pictures.

You could never convince me otherwise.

Here endeth the lesson.

Written by Shepcat

July 13, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Movies

Tagged with