Lessons in Patience from a Tube of Anchovy Paste

It is sometimes hard to believe the sequence of blunders life occasionally throws together in a buckled and smoking train-wreck of shortsightedness and tomfoolery. However, when we learn that “foolery” by itself is a word, we must logically deduce that Tom must have been such a supreme master of the craft that his contemporaries felt obliged to join his name to it, for the two must have complemented one another perfectly: Foolery conceptualized the concept, and Tom was the living example. All the same, from the Keystone Cops to more modern Hollywood-ized sequences of silliness, such cosmic klutziness is pretty hard to believe, whether it is alleged to occur by coincidence or by fate.

And yet, these things happen.

When I was in college, the story got around town about a local man whose car broke down in his household driveway in the dead of winter. He crawled under the vehicle to see if he could fix the temperamental starter. Just then his wife walked by on the way to her own car, and called out her intention to go to the store. The last thing she saw as she pulled away from the curb was her husband’s legs sticking out from beneath the immobilized vehicle in their driveway. Well, the man quickly realized he could not fix the problem, so he called a mechanic to come and finish the job. When the mechanic arrived, hubby stamped his freezing feet, rubbed his popsicle-purple fingers together, took a glance at the snowdrifts on both sides of his driveway, and decided to seek the comfort of his home’s central heating. His wife returned to find a familiar-looking pair of legs protruding from beneath the car, and lost control to her impishness. She grabbed a snowball and, quick as a ten-below-zero-with-wind-chill-factor wink, yanked down the zipper in the mechanic’s trousers, stuffed the snowball in, zipped him back up and ran inside — but not before she tactfully squashed the trapped snowball flat in the crotch of the man’s trousers. As you can imagine, she entered the house giggling hysterically, only to find her husband. Immediately, she lost both her breath and her facial color. One explanation and two mutual expressions of shock later, they rushed outside, only to find the mechanic had been so startled that he had tried to sit up and had knocked himself out on the undercarriage of the car. When the ambulance arrived, the attendants asked what happened. Hearing the punch-line as they stretchered the man toward the ambulance (stretchers didn’t have wheels back then), they laughed so hard they dropped him, and broke one of his arms.

True story. Or so I was told.

The thing is, almost all of us experience one or more sequences of disaster in our lifetimes, so these stories have an air of credibility to them. Mine involved anchovy paste. The tube had not been used for a few days and was stopped up with a plug of dried fish. And I’ll tell you this: I was in one of those moods where I refused to be out-muscled by a constipated tube of non-compliant anchovy paste. Oh, sure, I could have grabbed a nearby fork and reamed out the plug with one of the tines. But that wasn’t the point. The stuff is supposed to come out when you squeeze. My green salad was calling for flavor, and I needed to teach this comestible a lesson in the ways of the world. You drop a ball, gravity pulls it down. You lie to your mom, she’ll learn the truth. You squeeze a tube, stuff comes out. These are ages-old laws of reality, known to mankind since the days brontosaurus puree could be purchased in a tube from the corner convenience cave.

So I squeezed. Any harder, and I might have thrown myself into a full body crunch, neck vessels popping, wheezing and puffing like I was pulling high G’s in a performance jet. But the dam of dried anchovies burst. A stream of salty fish-mud shot high into the air. I watched in horror as the stream broke into small ribbons and fell to drape themselves like little brown worms over various kitchen utensils and machinery.  Ooo-kay. That, at least, is cleanable.

A few minutes later I had wiped up what I could see, but over the next few visits to the kitchen I kept finding little brown anchovy paste-worms I had missed in the initial cleanup. My wife was due to come home from a trip in two days, so it was with some chagrin that I found a splat of the stuff on her favorite whicker hotplate, devilishly seeped into the nooks and crannies of the weaving. By now I had learned: Let it dry, then flick it off like dry pigeon poop. And that’s pretty much what it looked like, smelt like, felt lile . . . but I don’t think that is really accurate. Truthfully, it looks more like bat guano. I’ll leave further analysis to more ardent investigators than I.

By the third or fourth visit to the kitchen, I was forced to consider the impressive force with which the stream of muck had shot from the tube. With a sudden chill I had a vile thought, and so slowly scanned upward. Sure enough, a splat of the gourmet flavor enhancer was squiggled onto the white plaster ceiling. This seemingly impossible, gravity-defying plop sat in the familiar looped pile so familiar to dog enthusiasts. Realizing I could never explain how a gravity-defying dog snuck into my apartment and squatted on the ceiling to answer the call of nature, I came to terms with the fact then that this was a splat I could never hide from my wife. But hope springs eternal, so I stood on a rickety chair that shifted with a person’s weight just from sitting on it, knowing all the time that I was stupid to trust my support to such an unstable piece of furniture. But I was impatient, tired, sick of this whole anchovy fiasco, and I wanted to wipe this stuff from the ceiling and bring this ugly episode to a close. As an added bonus, while I was precariously perched on the fickle, shifting kitchen chair, I found that one of the higher “worms” had landed on the domed shade of a hanging lamp. This deposit cleaned off easily, but the water and oils of the paste had soaked into the white plaster of the ceiling, leaving a greasy fresco stain – a disgusting reminder of the whole, unpleasant affair.

As I leaned forward to take one last swipe (it always seems to be the finishing touches that kill a person, doesn’t it?), I felt the chair shift between my feet. Without warning, it gave way. I must have broken the sound barrier in that fall, because it seemed like I found myself on the floor before the splintering cracks of the chair reached my ears.

Now, I’m 53 years old. I should know better. I landed on my feet in a crooked crouch, open-mouthed and inches from shattering my capped front teeth on a long-necked hot sauce bottle that rested on the kitchen table. These, I must point out, are the same front teeth that I already broke FOUR times in my childhood.

As you might well imagine, I straightened up and said the shahadah, fully aware that it would have been better if I had said the shahadah during the fall, and not just after I survived it. I remember the poignant story of a mid-air plane crash, in which a Muslim pilot somehow forced out the shahadah when he saw the crash was imminent and unavoidable. His rushed words of tawbah, followed by shahadah, were so lightning fast, yet complete and seemingly sincere, they stunned the accident investigator who analyzed the black box after the fatal collision. In fact, the Muslim pilot’s words made such a big impression upon the investigator that he seemed to be contemplating Islam as a result.

In the end, I promised never again to let my impatience overcome my better judgment. Of course, this is the same promise I’ve made time and again for most of my impatient and at times reckless adult life. Am I nuts? No, I’m human. And being human, I am sometimes careless, and frequently incautious. I hope my heart is in the right place, even if my anchovy paste isn’t. So I left the kitchen chastened by my own fallibility, stepped into my office to write this anecdote, and promptly tripped over an electrical extension cord I had left out, having been to lazy to put it away.

And in the end, I was discovered—my wife found a splat of the stuff nestled behind one of her kitchem machines upon her return, looked around and, as if guided by a little shaitan, glanced up at the ceiling in wonder. That is when I, tactfully busying myself about as far from the kitchen as I could manage, heard the all-too familiar querulous sing-song call, “Hooooney? … … What happened?” Of course, the answer to that question is the equally familiar, not to mention timeless reply, “Why, whatever do you mean, my Dear?”

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