Issue 6, Spring/Summer 2008

by William Walsh


Vida Tungsten had three daughters, Dirty, Filthy, and Rotten. Filthy was the pretty one, but Vida didn't play favorites. They were all good girls. She found it easy to be proud of each of them. Rotten, for instance, was good with numbers, and Vida liked to think that brains counted for something. But Dirty, Vida's oldest, had her worried.

The girl just wasn't herself lately. She was alternately dreamy and argumentative, solitary and affectionate. She was no longer the great help around the house that she had always been. She was oversleeping on school days and rising early on Saturdays and Sundays. She changed her hairstyle every other day and at the dinner table every night she expressed all kinds of contrary opinions on politics, art, and religion.

Vida wanted to be fair with the girl, and for a long while she gave Dirty the benefit of the doubt. It was a just a phase, she told herself, Dirty was bound to grow out of it. Time would make all the difference.

But things took a turn for the worse, Vida feared, when Dirty announced that she had fallen in love with a boy from town named Moper Fax.

Vida knew of Moper and his family.  Mr. Fax was long gone.  He left his wife and family when Moper and his older brother, Muz, were still young. Mrs. Fax did her best, Vida was sure, but her boys, like all boys, were not angels. Muz was, in fact, Ampersand's most famous delinquent. Longhaired, lanky, and truant, he broke and entered, boosted automobiles, shoplifted and eventually dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and moved far away.

Moper, Dirty assured her mother, was nothing like his older brother, and while it was true that Moper had kept his nose relatively clean while growing up and had even made above average grades in school, Vida found it more than odd that Moper had not gone off to college or gotten a real, grown-up job when he graduated from high school. Instead, he did odd jobs around town, mowing lawns and painting doghouses in the summer, shoveling snow and delivering things from the package store in the winter months.

Vida insisted on meeting the boy.

"No more gallivanting, running off here and there at all hours of the day and night," she said to Dirty in a cross voice. "From now on, if this boy wants to see you he can come to the front door and ring the bell."

Her words were barely out of her mouth when the front doorbell rang. Dirty must have somehow sensed that it was Moper calling, for she rushed passed her mother and flew down the stairs. Vida followed.

Rotten had already let the boy in. He stood at the center of the livingroom, looking down at the carpet, his hands pushed deep into his pockets. Rotten circled him, examining him closely, poking him occasionally, while Filthy studied him from the doorway to the kitchen.  Dirty hurried to his side and kissed him quickly on the cheek. Moper seemed embarrassed.

"Mother," Dirty said. "This is Moper."

Moper put out his hand.

Vida took it. She found it warm, small. He gave her a little smile that she couldn't help but return. His eyes were big, just a shade darker than his brown hair. He was babyfaced. He wore new blue jeans and a white shirt with a button-down collar.  He smelled of spearmint-flavored gum. He said, "Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Tungsten."

Dirty said something that Vida didn't quite hear, and the couple moved toward the front door. It was still open. Rotten hadn't closed it. Moper turned and smiled again. Then the door closed behind them.

In time Moper became a fixture around the house. He was there every day at 3:15, eager to greet Dirty when she got home from school. He usually waited outside on the back porch. But on days when he was either early or Dirty was late, Vida would invite him in. She would pour a glass of milk for Moper and he would wait quietly in the livingroom, sitting Indian style on the floor a few feet in front of the television. He’d watch whatever happened to be on—soap operas, talkshows, cartoons, old black and white movies. It didn't matter.

Vida told him he could change the channel, if he wanted.

"Thank you," Moper said, and he reached forward and switched the dial to the next station. She asked Moper if he had any favorite shows. He shook his head and said, "No. I just watch for the commercials." He went on to explain that advertisements tell us more about our culture in thirty seconds than a comedy show can in half an hour.

"Plus," he said. "I like way people smile and hold products up to their face."

Filthy and Rotten overheard this conversation, and though they made no comment then, Vida was positive they would have plenty to say to Dirty later on, after Moper went home.

Their teasing was constant and, on occasion, inventive. It was all in fun and Dirty didn't really seem to mind or take any of it to heart. In fact, Vida believed that Dirty got a measure of satisfaction out of coming to Moper's defense. What impressed Vida most about the girls' teasing was the inside nature of their needling. Somehow, Filthy and Rotten found out things about Moper, harmless little things that they twisted around and used against him. For instance, they discovered that Moper had no middle name. They reasoned that his mother and father didn't give Moper a middle name because they didn't want to force Moper to learn how to spell another word. They also uncovered the truth as to why Moper didn't have his driver's license. It seems he had a minor fender-bender with the school's driver's education car and was banned from further use. This earned him the nickname Crash.

"But the girls didn't call him Crash for long. In time they found a better, more appropriate petname for Moper. After getting ahold of a childhood picture of Moper dressed in a black tux with a tophat, cape, and a magic wand, Filthy and Rotten took to calling him Moper the Great.

Vida had to admit that it was a funny picture. A tiny version of Moper stood behind a fold-up card table that was draped with a shiny black fabric. There was a fake white bunny rabbit at the center the table, and a deck of oversized playing cards stood to the left. The look on Moper's face showed that he was a little baffled himself by his own tricks.

Rotten said, "Maybe if Moper still has his little magic wand he could make himself disappear."

“He isn't smart enough to do that," Filthy said.

"He is so smart," Dirty said. "He likes classical music."

Filthy wasn't impressed. She said, "There are retarded people who can play classical music."

It was all silliness, but Vida had to admit that she too had some reservations about Moper Fax, even though she often found herself defending him. She was reminded of her own courtship and of how her father had been so reluctant to accept the man she had chosen. Vida was already engaged to be married by the time her father finally sat down with Wolf and made an honest attempt to get to know him. Before that, her father had acknowledged Wolf's presence only once, looking over the top of his newspaper and announcing from his chair in the front room, "Wolf's at the door."

Vida supposed that Wolf would have treated Moper in much the same way her father had treated him. Now that Wolf was gone, she felt it was up to her to play that part. At times she did take the hardline with Dirty, making rules about when she could and could not see Moper and occasionally grilling them both about where they went and what they did when they were alone together.

She felt uncomfortable in this role, and she frequently caught herself wanting to hug the stuffing out of Moper. This she chalked up to something she'd once heard her mother say, "If you stare at anyone long enough you'll find something adorable about them."

So she instructed Filthy and Rotten to cut down on their teasing.

"Moper is like a part of the family now," she explained. "I want you two to treat him that way." And to make it official, she invited Moper to a special dinner. She wanted to fix all the things that Moper liked best, so she had Dirty make a list of Moper's favorite vegetables. She'd already decided on roasted chicken because she had seen Dirty wearing a t-shirt that belonged to Moper that said, "SAVE THE COWS."

Filthy and Rotten had teased the life out of their sister about the shirt. They'd get on the other line when they knew it was Moper calling and moo. They'd whisper, "Hamburger, hamburger," through the screen door when Moper and Dirty sat out on the back porch, and they had a way of saying the word vegetarian that made it sound like a criminal offense

"For your information," Dirty told them, "Moper is not a vegetarian. He just likes cows."

Moper arrived promptly at seven. He had flowers. He gave them to Dirty as he crossed the threshold, but he said, "These flowers are for everybody." 

He was dressed up a little more than usual. The sweater and pants, Vida knew, were new. Dirty had picked them out.

Vida told him how nice he looked. Moper smiled and said he thought the pants were a little baggy on him. "I feel like I'm in my pajamas," he said.

"You look very nice," Vida said again

Moper said, "At least you can't tell I have a diaper on."

At first, Vida worried that she had misheard him.  She was about to ask Moper to repeat himself when Dirty piped up, "Moper made a funny," she said. They all laughed then, and Vida herded her three girls and Moper into the diningroom.

Food was passed around the table counter-clockwise. Vida imagined that every dish was destined for Moper, who sat at the head of the long table, in Wolf's old spot. She ended up paying more attention to how Moper filled his plate than to what she spooned out for herself. He heaped big, man-sized portions of broccoli, carrots, boiled onions, homemade cranberry sauce, and green beans neatly onto his plate. Without a second thought, he took the biggest of the baked potatoes, the one Vida had meant for him. She was thrilled by the impatient clicking sound he made while he waited for Dirty to pass him the chicken. But when the chicken was finally set in front of him, Moper froze. A strange, hurt look came to his face. He stared at the bird without blinking.

Dirty said, "Moper, what's wrong?"

He made no answer.

Filthy and Rotten exchanged looks. Dirty kept her eyes on Moper.

Vida looked to the photograph of Wolf, which sat on the hutch, then turned back to Moper.

Tears came to Moper's eyes. Vida watched them run down his long face slowly.

Moper stood from the table and went into the kitchen, closing the swinging door behind himself in such a careful way that it didn't swing back.

Dirty followed after him.

"I guess Moper likes chickens, too," Filthy said to Rotten.

Vida shushed the giggling girls and told them to eat their dinner. It was quiet enough for her to hear Dirty and Moper talking in the kitchen above the sound of drawers being opened and closed and pots and pans clanging, but Vida was unable to make out any of what they were saying. One thing she could tell for sure was that Moper was doing most of the talking.

In a few minutes, Dirty emerged from the kitchen. Without a word she removed the chicken from her plate, picked up Moper's plate and disappeared into the kitchen. She came back out twice more. The first time to gather their silverware and milks, and the second to say, "Do you realize how horrible that chicken's life was? Three or four laying cycles per day. Artificial sunrises and tape-recorded rooster calls. They feed them nothing but cracked seashells to make for stronger eggs. Then it's off with their heads and into the oven."

As Dirty finished her little speech, Moper burst through the swinging door with Vida's biggest cast iron skillet. He held the sizzling pan with a potholder and approached the table to show them all what he was cooking. Vida leaned forward to see: Fried baloney.


Really, Vida wanted to know, who was this Moper Fax? Who was this sleepy looking boy with no real job who had claimed the heart of her oldest daughter? What kind of man cries at the sight of a beautiful roast chicken? She determined that she would have to pay closer attention. She would have to learn how to know this boy. She would have to learn how to understand the odd love Moper and Dirty had. She would have to learn how to meddle and spy.

Her first opportunity came the day after the chicken incident when the phone rang and it was Moper asking to speak to Dirty. Vida asked Moper to hold on for a moment and she called for Dirty. When Dirty picked up the upstairs extension, Vida did not hang up the kitchen phone. Instead, she made a sound like hanging up by touching the phone to the cradle of the receiver and slapping her hand over the mouthpiece. She brought the phone to her ear and listened:

Moper: It's me.

Dirty: I know.

Moper: What are you doing?

Dirty: Nothing. What are you doing?

Moper: Nothing.

Dirty: Do you want to do something?

Moper: What?

Dirty: I don't know.

Vida hung up the phone then with a new worry: Her snooping wouldn't help one bit. But the next day she was out in the backyard hanging the wash out on the line when Moper and Dirty spread a blanket on the lawn and commenced to gazing up at the clear blue sky. Dirty was humming while Moper whistled. They were both on different songs. Vida hid herself behind damp bedsheets and heard Moper stop with his whistling to say, "I have a headache."

There were ten or fifteen seconds of silence before Dirty said, "Moper, what are you, righty or lefty?"

Moper stood and put his right hand over his heart, then he sat down again and said, "I'm a righty."

Dirty said, "I read where this banjo player was having these horrible headaches. He was considered to be this country's greatest living banjo player, but his headaches threatened to end his career."

Moper said, "What'd he do?"

"He visited countless specialists, had hypnotherapy, acupuncture, electro-shock treatment, you name it. Still, his headaches persisted. Until a scientist in Germany, who was also a great fan of traditional American bluegrass music, suggested that perhaps the left side of the banjo player's brain was at war with the right side. He prescribed that the banjo player learn how to play his instrument left-handed, to cross the currents of brain waves between the right and left lobes. The banjoman did as the Doctor prescribed, and his headaches went away."

Moper said, "But I'd have to learn how to play the banjo right-handed first and then again left-handed."

"No," said Dirty. "Like in science class when we say something is 'given,' we could say that it's a given that you already know how to play the banjo righty."

Moper still wasn't sold on the idea. He complained to Dirty that he didn't have the money to buy a banjo in the first place.

Dirty said, "You don't need a banjo. I have a tennis racquet."

Catching on, Moper asked, "Where is your tennis racquet?"

"In the basement," Dirty said.

They stood and walked directly to the bulkhead, but before they were halfway there, Moper stopped and said, "Guess what? My headache's gone." They hugged then and Moper lifted Dirty off the ground. They spun around and around and, when they stopped with their spinning, they kissed. Vida watched them from behind the drying bedsheets. They were laughing and kissing and acting dizzy and holding onto each other to keep their balance. She let herself imagine that Moper and Dirty were two movie stars, not her daughter and a boy she had doubts about. It was such a sweet sight. Moper held Dirty firmly by the shoulders, until she was able to regain her equilibrium, and Vida saw how careful and gentle this boy was with her daughter.

Then, in a voice that was quiet and tender, Moper whispered, "I hate you."

Happy tears filled Dirty's eyes. She had the biggest smile on her face that Vida had ever seen. She said to Moper, "I hate you, too."


The next few months of the courtship were quiet ones, that is until Dirty and Moper announced their engagement a few short weeks after Dirty's high school graduation. Since Moper and Dirty never did anything the easy or ordinary way, Vida expected there would be some hitch, and, of course, she was proven correct.

Bright and early one Sunday morning Moper knocked at the back door. He had with him three new ice cube trays. He proclaimed that there would be a test. He hugged Dirty and said, "This is a special day."

Dirty elaborated, "Moper's going to teach me how to make icewater."

"But Dirty," Vida said. "We have all the fixings here already," and she went to the refrigerator and brought out an ice bucket that was filled to the top and two full ice cube trays.

"No," said Moper, shaking his head slowly and blinking. "I want her to learn how to do it step-by-step, from start to finish, beginning to end. I need to see that she's ready for marriage."

"It's a test, mother," Dirty said.

Moper asked if he and Dirty could have some privacy.  Vida left the kitchen and sat at the end of the couch in the front room. She took up her knitting and made sure that she would be able to see into the kitchen and hear everything.

"Step one," Moper said. He led Dirty to the sink and instructed her to turn on the faucet. She reached for the hot, but Moper said, "No. Use the cold. They'll freeze faster and taste better. As you know, water that's been sitting idle in the hot water heater can have a taste."

Dirty turned on the cold and waited for Moper to hand the trays to her. He did, finally, pass her the first one in what Vida took to be a very ceremonial manner. Dirty held the tray under the tap. She moved the tray back and forth, concentrating hard to fill each individual cube levelly. When she was finished, she held it up for Moper's approval. He nodded and said, "Very good. But you got your hands wet."

When the third tray was filled and safely put into the freezer and a pitcher of water was placed in the refrigerator to chill, Moper and Dirty sat down at the kitchen table. They played with each other's hands across the narrow table and waited. Vida saw Moper sneak a few peeks at his wristwatch, but at no time did the solemn, intent expression leave his face. Dirty, for her part, seemed anxious, but not at all worried. The time passed quickly and soon the ice was ready. Moper managed to hold his tongue as he watched Dirty bend and twist the ice cube trays till the very last cube popped out. He lined up five tall water glasses for Dirty and counted the cubes. "Put nine cubes in each glass," he said. "We'll leave the three that are left over to melt in the sink. One for you, one for me, and one for our first born."

They kissed then until they both began to laugh. "Hurry," Moper said, gesturing to the five glasses of icewater. "Go find your mother and Filthy and Rotten. I want to make a toast."

One year later, Dirty and Moper became man and wife. Filthy and Rotten were co-maids of honor, and a cleaned up Muz Fax was the best man. It was a small, simple wedding with not much in the way of fancy extras. But everyone who was there on that special day agreed on one thing: That the new Mr. and Mrs. Fax would live a very long and happy life together. Because some couples just last.