Saturday, February 23, 2008


There's nothing original in this story at all, but then if Shakespeare could use well-worn plots, why can't I...we won't compare talent levels. Anyway it was fun to play with this often repeated practical joke and hopefully make it just a tiny bit less of cliché-

Mumsie gave it to them for Christmas, her face alive with expectation as Louise unwrapped the three-foot ceramic gnome. Louise and Mitch swallowed. Most years she gave them a large check and a crate of oranges shipped from a stand near her Naples, Florida home.

Mumsie clapped her hands. "Usually I don't know what to get you, and settle for a check and fruit. But on my last visit I saw that gnome book in your bathroom." Louise didn't tell her mother-in-law the book, found at a flea market, was for short term reading, not a sign of gnome-love.

While Mitch and Louise wondered how to pay their car insurance without the check, Mumsie said, "The glaze didn't come out like I wanted it. The color is off."

Louise looked at the gnome. "The color is fine."

What to do with the gnome became a game the couple played with Ellen and David, their best friends and neighbors. Regifting was unacceptable, although everyone thought it.

While playing bridge one night Ellen said, "You could make a lamp out of it. One heart."

"Who needs a three-foot ceramic gnome lamp? One spade," David said. He pushed his white hair out of his eyes. As always, he was overdue for a haircut.

"The person who needs a three-foot gnome lamp is someone who has a three-foot gnome and doesn't know what to do with it," Mitch said. "One no."

The bidding ended at three no trump and a decision not to make a gnome lamp.

On the first spring day Mitch and David took the gnome to the backyard. After trying several locations, they settled it in front of the basket-weave fence bordering the patio.

"There." Mitch said, "We can tell Mumsie we put it here so we can see it when we eat outdoors."

"With our backs to it?" Louise asked.

Their daughter, Danielle, put her Betsy Wetsy doll in the gnome's arms. "He can babysit for me," she'd said.

Ellen and Louise were stretched out in deck chairs facing the "orchardette" as Mitch called the six apple trees. In spring the blossoms scented the air, in summer the trees provided a breeze. In winter Louise loved looking at the snow frosting the trees from her kitchen window as she washed dishes.

"And we can tell her we look at it out the windows," Mitch said.

"The gnome is invisible from any window in our house," Louise said.

"Precisely," Mitch said. He took a photo of the gnome with Danielle's doll, and mailed it to Mumsie. In her next letter she thanked them for the photos and reported how much her ceramics teacher liked the fence.

The gnome witnessed summer barbecues and Danielle splashing in her plastic pool. He went almost unnoticed until his Christmas when Mitch strung him with lights.

"Tacky," said Ellen as they went inside after looking at the gnome. Louise poured eggnog as Mitch and David struggled to put Danielle's toy kitchen set together. The directions were for another set.

"That gnome is definitely Tacky," said David holding the door of the refrigerator to the frame. The holes for the screws were mismatched.

"Tacky, tacky, tacky," said Louise. "At least this year, Mumsie sent a check."

"That's it. We'll call him Tacky!" Mitch smiled the smile that told Louise he was feeling self satisfied.

Decorating Tacky for holidays became a tradition. He held an Easter basket. He wore Danielle's discarded witch costume at Halloween. Always they took photos for Mumsie.

When Mumsie visited at some point during each stay she would say, "I'm so glad I made him. You children get such fun out of him." Mitch and Louise said nothing for Tacky had become the curse of the household.

"Have you seen my blue sock?"

"Tacky took it."

Even Danielle blamed Tacky for messy rooms, spilled milk and dirty hands.

When Louise gathered forsythia from the backyard, something felt wrong. Going into the kitchen, she climbed the stepladder to reach her pewter vase on top of her cabinets. A niggling grew as she arranged the flowers, but not until she stepped back to admire the yellow against the grey did it hit her.

"Shit!" She ran down the cellar stairs through the family room and out to the patio.

"Shit!" The empty space confirmed her niggling. "Tacky's gone."

After lunch she checked the tool shed, the car and attic to see if Mitch moved the gnome. Nothing. When she phoned him, she was told that he was in a meeting. She asked his secretary to pass him a note to call ASAP, something she'd done only once when Danielle had been rushed to the hospital with a temperature of 104°.

Mitch called within ten minutes. "Who'd steal him?" he asked.

"Someone with terrible taste. He's been gone at least since last night." Louise paced as much as the phone cord allowed. Usually when she talked on the telephone, she leaned against the wall.

"How do you know?"

"The ground was wet where he was. It rained last night. If he'd been there all night there'd be Tacky footprints where he'd been."

"Aren't you a little Jessica Fletcher," Mitch said. Thank God, Mumsie isn't due until late June."

"Maybe we can get a duplicate made," Louise said. "Then again, maybe not."

"Nothing else was taken." Louise told Ellen the next day as they shared a pot of tea celebrating Ellen and David's selection by their university to attend the Burkina Faso African Film Festival. "The snow blower and hedge clippers are more valuable. They were in the open tool shed," Louise said. She tapped her spoon on her cup.

"Maybe it was a joke." Ellen pulled the tea infuser from the pot.

Louise poured milk into her tea. "I think Mitch misses him. He couldn't find his car keys this morning and started to say, 'Tacky took them.' Then stopped. He had a funny look on his face." She shrugged. "He's going to the police tonight."

"Robberies are common. Recoveries aren't," the police chief said. The chief is Louise's uncle. Mitch pulled a photo of Tacky holding an American flag from his pocket. The chief fingered it. His desk was hidden under papers. An ash tray overflowed with half-smoked cigarettes. "Probably a kid," the chief said. He held the photo to the light. "Why do you want it back? It's kinda ugly."

"Mumsie made it," Mitch said He could call the gnome ugly, but he didn't like someone else doing it.

April showers gave way to May showers. Being cooped for several days of uninterrupted rain left Danielle cranky. Louise dressed her in a yellow slicker before shoving her outside to play.

Danielle waved to the postman, who was covered head to toe in a clear plastic poncho. His sack under the poncho made him look like a toadstool. He handed her the mail.

"Take this to your Mommy," he said. She waited for a drop of water to run off his nose. When it dropped, she carried the mail in to the house.

Louise bit her tongue rather than mention wet boots or clean floors. Instead she took the letters. The phone bill was drenched. Another envelope told her she was one of three lucky people who might have won $100,000. She hadn't.

The third, addressed to both her and Mitch, bore eight stamps with portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and a London postmark. The envelope was heavy. When Louise opened it, several photos and a letter fell out. The first picture was of Tacky next to Emmaline Pankhurst's statue. "I talked with a famous feminist" was written on the back in blue felt tip pen. It must have been shot from the ground. Tacky's head was very big. In the background Big Ben was very tiny. In the last photo Tacky stood on a bar with two men, each with an arm around him, "My mates and I had a jolly game of darts." Whoever wrote on the photos didn't wait for the ink to dry. Blue spots covered the gnome's face on one photo. The letter with the photo said:

Dear Louise and Mitch...
Have gone on vacation. Am having a wonderful
time, wish you were here. Don't worry. I'll be back.
Love to Danielle and Mumsie.

Over the next few weeks photos chronicling Tacky's holiday arrived every few days. He ferried across a Norwegian fjord. He developed a taste for ompah-ompah music in Munich. Someone had loaned him a pair of lederhosen and a trumpet. A musician handed Tacky a beer. The froth was almost half the glass.

In France he took the night train from Paris to Nice and laid in his bunk under a green and red plaid SNCF blanket. A hand dangled from the upper bunk. Although Louise studied the hand with a magnifying glass, she couldn't recognise it.

Each envelope had at least one picture of a statue with whom Tacky claimed kinship as he oogled topless women in St. Tropez, but atoned for it at St. Peter's. A pigeon rested on his head. "Blessed by the bird but not the Pope," he wrote.

"That damned gnome is taking our dream vacation," Mitch said.

Mumsie arrived from Florida tanned and content to be back. She listened to the story of Tacky's disappearance. "I always wondered: why do you call him Tacky?"

"Because he's so taciturn," Louise said. Mitch flashed her a grateful smile.

"Maybe Ellen and David did it," Mumsie said.

"They're in Africa not Europe," Mitch said. "We got a letter last week."

Ellen and David returned the last week in August in time to plan a Labor Day barbecue in Mitch and Louise's backyard. It rained Saturday. It rained Sunday.

Ellen telephoned. "Think we'll be able to cook out?"

Louise was making potato salad, her eyes were wet from chopping onions. She cradled the phone between her shoulder and head. "We can always cook under the deck." She glanced at, Mitch dozing on the couch, the New York Times Book Review across his chest. Louise heard the steady putt putt of his snores.

Monday morning's sun dried some puddles, but not all. Mitch swept the rest of the water off the patio. The door to the tool shed was swollen from the rain. He moved the lawn mower to get to the barbecue. With its large wheels it rolled easily over the grass bumping over fallen apples. Half way back to the patio, he stopped. Tacky stood in his old place, a sign around his neck saying, "Hi!" He wore a child's pack back covered with travel stickers.

"Louise! Mumsie! Danielle! Tacky's back!" His women tumbled from the house.

"Tacky, Tacky," Danielle crooned hugging the statute. Mumsie caressed the gnome's cap.

"We heard Mitch hollering," Ellen said as she and David ran into the yard.

"Anything in the backpack?" David asked.

Louise opened the backpack. Four packages, each gift wrapped, had tags with each person's name. They took turns opening them, Christmas-morning style.

Tacky gave Mumsie a Royal Dalton cup and saucer. The box was stamped Windsor: a note in the cup read, "For your afternoon cup of tea."

"Well, whoever it was knows my habits," Mumsie said.

Louise and Mitch's gifts were matching champagne flutes with grape leaves and their names etched into the glass. Danielle opened a package of Gummy Bears.

After they'd eaten, after all the paper plates were thrown away and the grill left soaking in the sink, Ellen asked, "Want to see our African slides? David finished arranging them yesterday."

Mumsie tried to excused herself. "I'll just be the old lady tagging along."

David wouldn't hear of it. He put his arm around her. "Come on Lady." He never called her Mumsie, only Lady.

David opened beers. Ellen fiddled with the projector, shooting light against the bookcase until David pulled down the screen. Many of the pictures were of musical instruments. Ellen matched tapes to demonstrate the sound.

Another series showed women making beer. "Brewing beer is the way women get money. It gives them power within the tribe," Ellen said. "The next slide is of mud houses." When she clicked the clicker instead of an African mud house they saw David laying on the ground. Big Ben was in the background.

"Damn it! You guys!" Mitch said.

"David!" Ellen made it a four-syllable name. "We agreed never to tell them."

"It was too good a joke. I needed credit," David said.

"We kept telling people what we were doing." Ellen said. "There's nothing like having a three-foot gnome with you to get to know people."

Louise, who hadn't said anything, spoke. "But the letter in July from Africa..."

David grinned. "Easy. A friend from the embassy in Burkina mailed it."

Louise slipped into bed after taking her daughter a final, final, final glass of water. She wore a flannel nightgown for the first time since May.

Louise pecked Mitch on the cheek. "I'm glad he's back."

"Me too," Mitch says. "But he's still ugly."

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