Bedtime Stories . One Man's World . The Mispronouncer . Downloads . Support
HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

It Was "Horsey"

               After Coach Verck died, it didn’t take long for the other Coach Verck – Coach Verck’s widow, who was also a coach – to decide it was time to begin dating again. It wasn’t what Coach Verck would have wanted, but Coach Verck – Coach Janine Verck – didn’t care. Coach Verck was gone, and if he was up in heaven disapproving of her decision to begin dating again, then he could take that up with her when she joined him there. And maybe take it up with her new husband, too, if things went well.


               “Are you sure you’ve already completed the grieving process?” asked Janine’s youngest sister Sophie.

               “Maybe not,” said Janine. “But I don’t care.”

               The women sat on the same couch in Sophie’s family room and watched Sophie’s three-year-old daughter Norah play with stuffed animals on the carpet. Norah kept making the stuffed animals attempt to kiss each other, but then bonk their heads together instead, crying out in pain. Norah wasn’t laughing; if anything, she seemed troubled by the stuffed animals’ inability to land their kisses.

Janine took a tiny sip of her tea. She didn’t like tea, but Sophie seemed to believe it was a necessary component of their sisterly hangouts at her house.

“What if you wanting to date again is still part of the grieving process?” asked Sophie.

“So what if it is?” asked Janine. “Shouldn’t I go through every step of the grieving process?”

“No!” said Sophie. “You definitely want to skip some of the steps. And it’s good to do some of the steps twice. Or three times, even.”

“Like which ones?” asked Janine as she wrinkled her brow, making it extra wrinkly on purpose.

“Oh, I don’t know, Janine,” said Sophie. “I don’t know why you act like I’m some kind of expert. You should be in counseling if you want expert advice.”

“I’ll never go to counseling,” said Janine. She was a P.E. teacher at the same middle school where she coached girls’ cross country, and the two guidance counselors who worked there were the two colleagues for which she had the least respect. She knew all counselors probably weren’t as bad as those two, but for her the profession had been forever tarnished.

“Guidance counselors aren’t the same as grief counselors,” said Sophie, who was familiar with most of Janine’s prejudices.

“I didn’t come here to talk about counseling,” said Janine. “I wanted to have a fun conversation about how I’m going to be dating again.”

“All right,” said Sophie. She poured herself more tea. “Who are you gonna date?”

“I don’t know yet,” said Janine. “I have to figure out what I’m going to say first.”

“What you’re going to say?” asked Sophie.

“On the date or dates,” said Janine.

“Say about what?” asked Sophie.

“Anything,” said Janine. “I want to have something to say. An opinion, a perspective, something like that.”

Sophie choked on tea, her resulting coughs were small but grotesque. “You’re waiting to look for someone to date until you have an opinion?”

Janine blushed. “I have opinions! I just mean, I want to be able to make interesting conversation. I want to seem like an interesting person. And I want to be light and funny, not dour and widowy.”

The corner of Sophie’s mouth crept up into a slanted half-smile. “You’re a middle school girls’ cross country coach. You have all kinds of funny stories. Talk about that.”

“No,” said Janine. “That’s my job. That’s not a perspective.”

Sophie rolled her eyes.

Janine turned her attention to her niece on the floor, who was now arranging her stuffed animals in a line from tallest to shortest. “What are your animals’ names, Norah?”

Norah was startled at being addressed. She had been so absorbed in her play it was as if she had forgotten her mother and aunt could see her.

“What are their names?” Janine asked again. Maybe the question was so broad as to be overwhelming. She would narrow it down. “What’s that monkey’s name?”

“Um,” said Norah. She picked up the stuffed money, turned it over, and stared at a tag protruding from its furry orange armpit.

“She has so many animals she forgets their names,” said Sophie. “Too many animals, I say, but she won’t give any of them up.” She extended her hand toward her daughter. “Give it here, Norah. You don’t know how to read. I’ll read it.” Norah shuffled toward the couch on her knees and handed the stuffed monkey to her mother. Sophie squinted at the tag. “Hard to see without my reading glasses…um…Mel the Monkey! That’s what it says.” She handed the toy back to Norah.

“His name is Mel,” said Norah.

“That’s a nice name,” said Janine. “You came up with that name on your own?”

Norah was confused by the question. She looked down at Mel as if he might whisper the answer to her.

“And then your mom or dad wrote his name on the tag?” asked Janine.

“No, no,” said Sophie. “The name was printed on the tag when we got him. He was already named.”

“By who?” asked Janine.

“I don’t know,” said Sophie. “The toy company. It’s just printed on the tag. Show your aunt Janine the tag, Norah. All the new stuffed animals are like that.”

Janine accepted Mel from Norah and examined the tag. There wasn’t much to it: just the name “Mel” printed in a phony child’s scrawl, each letter a different primary color. Janine was appalled, then thrilled, relieved. “That,” she said, “is so stupid.”


Janine’s first date of her post-husband life was with the uncle of one of the new, young teachers who worked with Janine at Barvlen Middle School. When that teacher – Miss Houth, one year out of college, still parading her remaining scraps of enthusiasm, and who Janine barely knew – overheard Janine mention being overwhelmed by the options presented by dating websites and apps, she just had to put her uncle forward as a candidate. She had described him as active and successful, and had repeatedly assured Janine that he was not a coach and was very unlikely to become one. Miss Houth also showed Janine pictures in which her uncle looked handsome. He had a wide smile, uniformly gray hair but a youthful bearing. He wore the clothes of a man, say, ten years younger. “He’s my mom’s brother,” Miss Houth had said. Janine knew nothing about Miss Houth’s parents, but she gathered that Miss Houth intended this detail as another tally in his favor.

They started with texting, Janine and Miss Houth’s uncle. His name was Ronnie. The texting went well, but they didn’t go much beyond introductory questions and arranging the logistics of the date, which pleased Janine because she didn’t feel tempted to reveal her interesting opinion yet. They decided to eat at Old Mom’s Recipe Italian Restaurant, they decided to drive separately, and Ronnie really, really wanted to pay for all the food, so Janine agreed to let him.

The date started well when Janine and Ronnie parked right next to each other by coincidence. So they met for the first time in the parking lot; Janine recognized Ronnie from one of the pictures Miss Houth had shown her. So that was fun. That was funny.

They were seated quickly, too, in a small booth by a window looking out over the parking lot. They could see their cars from the booth. Ronnie said that was good because he wanted to keep an eye on his car in case the lady who parked next to him gave him a door ding. Janine laughed at that; a genuine laugh, and she could hear that it sounded attractive, she could see the attraction register on Ronnie’s face so she prolonged the laugh a little bit, just a touch extra. She reciprocated Ronnie’s attraction. What’s more attractive than being found attractive? Janine wondered if she should deploy her interesting opinion now to maintain momentum or if she should save it for a moment when it seemed like the momentum was flagging, which was bound to happen, it didn’t mean anything bad, they were just two people, two humans, it would be supernatural for a single conversation to maintain its momentum for its entire duration. Maybe Janine’s dead husband Coach Verck was having a conversation like that with an angel right now, but down here on Earth? Not possible.

But before she could decide, Ronnie steered the conversation in a different direction. “So how are you single, Janine? Divorced? Widowed? Just never found someone good enough for you?”

“My husband died,” said Janine. She was surprised Miss Houth hadn’t told Ronnie. Or maybe she had and Ronnie was being polite. Was it polite to pretend not to know a date’s spouse had died until they told you?

“My wife also died,” said Ronnie. He expressed it differently, though. His eyes went shimmery. “This is my first date since she passed.”

“Mine too!” said Janine. She tried to make it sound like an amusing coincidence, but no, Ronnie was too sad.

“It’s been tough,” said Ronnie. “How long has your husband been gone?”

“A few weeks,” said Janine.

Ronnie gazed across the table, his eyes drying up. “A few weeks? That’s it? And you’re already dating again?”

Janine didn’t want to say the wrong thing, so she opted for simple honesty. The simplest honesty. “Yes,” she said.

“Not that it’s a competition or anything,” said Ronnie. “But my wife died four years ago. And this is the first time I’ve felt ready to date. And even then, I’m kind of…well…” He trailed off. He unwrapped his silverware and clinked the tines of his fork against his water glass to give himself something else to look at, Janine guessed. “What did he die of?” asked Ronnie. “Your husband?” As if the answer might justify Janine’s rapid dating pool re-entry.

“Disgust,” said Janine. “Well, complications related to disgust. Extreme disgust.”

“I’ve…never heard of someone dying of that,” said Ronnie. His face was closing up. Doors slamming, windows latching, curtains being drawn, lights switching off.

It was probably already too late, but Janine knew she’d never salvage the date with anecdotes about her cross country girls or her PE students, the way they called the school “Barf-len Middle School” instead of “Barvlen Middle School,” the way one of them had heard about shin splints and now they all thought they had shin splints, the way a seventh-grader passed out at the sight of his own blood while trying to complete the “pull your own tooth challenge” for social media. Finding modern kids ridiculous wasn’t an interesting opinion, it was the default mode of all sane people.

“My niece,” said Janine. “She’s named Norah. She’s three years old. And my sister and her husband have gotten her – my niece – all these stuffed animals. But you know what? She hasn’t named any of them. Because the names of the animals come already printed on the tag now. That’s how all of them are. Isn’t that sad? Remember how fun it was to name your stuffed animals when you were little? But now, nope, the company already named them for you. Isn’t that sad?”

Ronnie did look sad, but it looked like the same sadness from before. Janine didn’t flatter herself into thinking her interesting opinion about pre-named stuffed animals had provoked the same level of sadness in Ronnie as thoughts of his dead wife. His sadness from before had probably just persisted. “I don’t believe that’s true,” said Ronnie.

“You don’t believe what’s true?” asked Janine.

“That all stuffed animals come with names printed on their tags,” said Ronnie.

Janine was surprised he had been listening to her, but irritated that he felt confident enough to contradict her just because he didn’t approve of her grieving speed. “It is true,” said Janine. “I saw the tags myself.” In truth, Janine had only seen the one tag, but Sophie had said it was true of the rest of them, she had said all stuffed animals were like that now, and what reason could she have to lie, or even exaggerate?

“I’ll prove you wrong,” said Ronnie. He slid to the edge of the booth, then paused to take a long gulp of his water.

“Where are you going?” asked Janine.

“Let’s go to a store,” said Ronnie. “Right now. We’ll look at the stuffed animal section. We’ll see if they all have names already on the tags. Which they won’t.”

“We haven’t eaten yet,” said Janine. “We haven’t even ordered.” But she slid out of the booth, too. She stood up, gathering her coat and purse, putting them on in that order. She found that she welcomed this challenge. Relished it, even. She just wanted to acknowledge the rudeness of the challenge even if it was more stimulating than a plate of ravioli.

“Ride with me,” said Ronnie. “That way it’s still a date. I’ll bring you back to your car when we’re done. Or maybe we can still eat here. This shouldn’t take long.”

“No, it shouldn’t,” said Janine. “It shouldn’t take long to see that I’m right, and it won’t.”

In the parking lot, Janine dinged her own car’s door with Ronnie’s passenger’s side door. It could have been funny if things had played out differently, but no, if things had played out differently it wouldn’t have happened at all. As things stood, the self-inflicted door ding made Janine slightly furious. She swallowed it, though, as she fastened her seatbelt.

“All right,” said Ronnie. “What’s the nearest store with stuffed animals?”

“I don’t know,” said Janine. “I think most people buy their stuffed animals online these days.” But that sounded like a dodge and she knew it, so she said, “Discountess’s has a toy section. It’s just down the street. Let’s go there.”

The tires on Ronnie’s car squealed as he pulled out of the restaurant parking lot. Janine thought he was showing off, but when she gave him an unimpressed sideways look, she saw that he was already blushing. “Sorry,” he said.


The toy section at Discountess’s was one half of one aisle in the back corner of the store. The vast majority of the store’s real estate was dedicated to women’s clothing. The vast majority of that clothing was billowy. Every employee looked either 13 or 83 years of age. The PA system played music from a radio station with poor reception, yesterday’s one-hit-wonders one-third buried in static.

“Do you shop here?” asked Ronnie.

“Never,” said Janine, which was almost true.

“Why is the ceiling so low?” asked Ronnie. He paused in between two racks of increasingly billowy blouses and reached up as if he might be able to touch the ceiling, but no, he was well short.

“This was your idea,” said Janine. “And now you’re losing focus. Or you’re afraid I’ll be right.”

Although the toy section consisted mostly of jigsaw puzzles, one shelf at ankle level held four stuffed animals, all of them tipped on their sides as if they’d partaken of the same poisoned feast. But one of those four stuffed animals was none other than Mel, the same monkey Janine had seen Norah playing with, the only stuffed animal whose tag she had examined at her sister’s house.

“Aha!” Janine cried. She snatched up Mel and flipped him over to examine his tag. But there was no tag protruding from his armpit. The only tag was attached to his ear, and it looked nothing like the tag on Norah’s Mel. On one side was the brand name of the company that produced the monkey – Youngjoy Toys – and on the other side was tiny print about the material the monkey was made of, how to wash it, and so on, all partially concealed by a sticker displaying a price and bar code. No name anywhere.

“Well, there you go,” said Ronnie. “Do you want to go back to the restaurant now? Or are you too bitter that I was right?”

Janine didn’t answer. She looked over the other three stuffed animals one at a time – the wolf, the flamingo, the lizard – but none of them had names. The child who received these stuffed animals would be free to name them anything he or she wished without official interference from the manufacturer. Which was good. That was the position that Janine supported. But she did not appreciate being made to look foolish. “I know what it is,” she said. “I know what happened. Discountess’s sells discounted items. It’s right in the name. Discountess’s. These stuffed animals are discounted because they’re flawed. They were accidentally made without the tags with their names on them. So they’re defective. That’s why they’re so cheap.”

Are they cheap?” asked Ronnie.

“Come on,” said Janine. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

“Where are we going?” asked Ronnie, following at her heels.

“My sister’s house,” said Janine. “It’s not far.” It was kind of far, though. But what was she going to say: We’re going to my sister’s house and it’s kind of far? Too risky with Ronnie as the driver.

“I don’t know,” said Ronnie. “I don’t doubt some stuffed animals have names printed on their tags. I just said I didn’t think they’re all like that. And I was proven right.”

“We need to figure this out,” said Janine. “Something’s off. I’ll give you directions. Let’s go.” And she kept saying stuff like that the whole way out of the store and across the parking lot to Ronnie’s car; he had no more space in which to interject his protests. And when Janine told him to turn left at the first traffic light they came to, Ronnie turned left.

               In order to distract Ronnie from how long it was taking to get to Sophie’s house, Janine decided to occupy him with a subject she suspected he would not be able to resist. “So, Ronnie – just keep going straight here – how did your wife die?”

               “No one knows,” said Ronnie, his eyes again taking on additional reflectivity. “They found her in her grave.”

               “Found her in her grave?” asked Janine.

               “Yes,” said Ronnie. “In the cemetery. We bought a family plot years ago. And when she went missing, we looked everywhere else, and then I thought, well, what if we check her grave? So we dug it up and there was a coffin in there I’d never seen before, and she was inside the coffin, all preserved and everything, wearing a nice dress I’d also never seen before.”

               “And they couldn’t do an autopsy?” asked Janine.

               “Hmm,” said Ronnie. “I guess not. I think they would have suggested it if they could have.”

               Janine decided to see how far silence could take them. She resented the fact that Ronnie had acted as if her husband dying of disgust was strange. His spouse’s death was much stranger, and she felt most people would agree, but she and Ronnie were already in the middle of one dispute, so she decided not to add another.

               It turned out that silence took them all the way to Sophie’s house. Janine told Ronnie to park in the driveway.

               “Am I coming inside?” he asked.

               “Of course,” said Janine. “You have to see the stuffed animals.”

               When Sophie answered the door after three rings of the doorbell and two texts from Janine, she was soaked from head to toe and irritable. “What do you need, Janine? Is this your date? Why are you here?”

               “Yes, this is Ronnie,” said Janine. “We need to see Norah’s stuffed animals.”

               “Now?” asked Sophie. “Why? I’m in the middle of giving her a bath.”

               “Does she like to splash?” asked Ronnie.

               “No,” said Sophie. “But she does it anyway. Come inside, the cold air is going to kill me.”

               Janine and Ronnie stepped into the front hall. Ronnie slipped on the trail of water Sophie had left behind her on the vinyl floor. He managed to stay upright by grabbing an empty hat rack mounted on the wall, but broke one of the hat rack’s pegs off in his hand. Instead of apologizing, he said, “When my daughter used to splash in the tub, I would turn off the lights in the bathroom. There were no windows so it would get pitch dark in there.”

               “And that stopped her splashing?” asked Sophie.

               “Not completely,” said Ronnie. “But it made her splashing less effective, which frustrated her.”

               “You have a daughter?” asked Janine.

               “She’s married to a singer in a band,” said Ronnie. “But he doesn’t sing, he just screams. He literally screams. Even he calls it screaming.”

               Sophie, still dripping, led Janine and Ronnie to the living room where Norah’s stuffed animals were heaped more or less where Janine had seen her playing with them almost a week ago now. Janine went straight for Mel. “See?” she said, showing Ronnie the tag with his name on it. “This is what I was talking about!” She dropped Mel and picked up a stuffed dog with crossed eyes. Its tag was identical in placement and shape to Mel’s, but read “Letitia.” “See?” Janine said again. “What kid would ever choose the name ‘Letitia’ for this dog? But they have no say in the matter, Ronnie. That’s what I object to, and that’s the opinion I was sharing with you.”

               Ronnie crouched to retrieve a stuffed parrot, his knees crackling like a campfire. “This one is named ‘Clark.’ Huh. Clark the parrot.” He reached for Letitia the dog and held Clark and Letitia so he could compare the tags side-by-side. After a moment, he asked, “Do these stuffed animals look like they were made by the same company?”

               “No,” said Janine. Why had her heart rate increased? “Completely different styles.”

               “But their tags are identical,” said Ronnie. “Isn’t that odd?”

               Janine looked around and saw that Sophie had sneaked off, probably under the guise of wanting to prevent Norah from drowning in the tub.

                Ronnie stayed downstairs while Janine went upstairs to knock on the bathroom door. “Sophie?”

               “What now?” Sophie called back through the door.

               “Where did you get Norah’s stuffed animals?” asked Janine. “Did you get them all at the same place?”

               “Who’s out there?” asked Norah, her voice muffled.

               “Shh,” said Sophie. “You know the rules. No talking during toweling or you won’t get dry. You’ll just get wetter and wetter.”

               Janine wondered why her sister didn’t try a similar lie about splashing. “So did you get them all from the same store?” she asked.

               “Probably most of them,” said Sophie.

               “Which store?” asked Janine. “Somewhere here in town?”

               “Childrenlike Wonder,” said Sophie. “It’s downtown.”

               “I want to go to Childrenlike Wonder!” cried Norah.

               “Oh, Norah,” said Sophie. “What did I tell you?”

               Janine looked down at her feet. Water ran out from under the bathroom door, wetting her shoes.


               Why was downtown Multioak so busy tonight? What reason could so many people have to be downtown at the same time? What possessed certain people to inflict their presences on certain places? Ronnie and Janine had to park two blocks away from Childrenlike Wonder, and by the time they arrived, the store was less than five minutes from closing for the night. As Janine pushed the door open, a pitiful bell jangled overhead.

               The store was narrow, but deeper than it looked from the sidewalk out front. Its walls were an unassuming blue with a few life-sized birds painted here and there. Whether from restraint or laziness, the artist had been sparing with the birds. Circular display shelves crowded the entrance with stacks of classic toy varieties, wholesome and, as Janine recalled from her own childhood, mildly diverting at best. A middle-aged woman wearing by far the best sweater Janine had ever seen stood behind a computer at the low counter with her fingers poised over the keyboard. She said, “We’re closing soon. Is there something I can help you find? A gift for children, perhaps?”

               “We won’t be long,” said Janine. “Where are your stuffed animals?”

               “Aisle two,” said the woman behind the counter. “But the aisles aren’t numbered. But there are only two of them. But knowing which direction to start counting from isn’t intuitive. So I’ll show you to the stuffed animals.” She came out from behind the counter. Based on the sweater, Janine expected excellent pants, but they were pretty average, and they suffered in comparison to the sweater. The woman may have merely lucked into possession of the sweater, or maybe it wasn’t possible for pants to reach the heights the sweater had achieved.

               Janine and Ronnie followed the woman to the stuffed animal section, which was extensive: six shelves packed full, everything from lobsters to frogs to koalas to unicorns.

               “Is there a specific kind of animal you’re looking for?” asked the woman. Her rising eyebrows heightened the sense of honest inquiry begun by her question.

               But Janine was already grabbing stuffed animals, flipping them, confirming the presence of the tags declaring the animals’ names, showing Ronnie. “Look,” she said. “‘Dottie.’ And this one. ‘Rudy.’ And this panda bear is ‘Carter.’ See? They’re all named already!”

               “I see,” said Ronnie. “But I never said I didn’t believe all stuffed animals from one certain store were pre-named. Just that I didn’t believe it was true of all stuffed animals everywhere.”

               Janine turned to the woman. “Are all these stuffed animals made by the same company?”

               “No,” said the woman. “Several different companies. You’re wondering about the names on the tags? I come up with those myself. I make the tags. I come up with the names and then I put them on the tags and then I sew the tags onto the animals. It’s time-consuming, but worth it, I think.”

               Janine narrowed her right eye only. “You do this to the stuffed animals? Who are you?”

               “This is my store,” said the woman. “I’m Bethany Sorrel, I’m the owner.”

               Janine took a step back to look Bethany up and down. She was not an imposing woman. Yet here she was, imposing her chosen names on these animals. So in that sense, yes, she was an imposing woman: a woman actively engaged in persistent imposition. “What gives you the right?” asked Janine.

               “Hold on now,” said Ronnie. He touched Janine’s shoulder. It was the first physical contact between them and it neither soothed nor reassured Janine, but who knew what Ronnie had intended it to accomplish? Maybe neither of those things.

               “What gives me the right to what?” asked Bethany. “Give the animals names before I sell them?”

               “Yeah,” said Janine. “Exactly. Is it because of your sweater? You think wearing a sweater like that means you can act with total disregard for anyone else?”

               “Huh?” said Bethany. “My sweater?” She looked past Janine to Ronnie for clarification.

               “I don’t know either,” said Ronnie. “This is our first date and we haven’t really been getting along.”

               “Kids should name their own stuffed animals,” said Janine. “That’s my opinion! My own niece can’t remember her stuffed animals’ names. My sister has to read the tags for her. You’re stifling their creativity! Naming the stuffed animal is one of the most fun parts of having a stuffed animal, and you’re depriving kids of that experience!”

               As Janine spoke, Bethany’s face turned red, then redder. It was the red of anger. “What was your favorite stuffed animal’s name when you were a kid, ma’am? What did you name it?”

               Janine hesitated.

               “You’re embarrassed to tell me,” said Bethany. “Aren’t you?”

               “Of course not,” said Janine. “I was a child.”

               “So what was it?” asked Bethany.

               “A horse,” said Janine. “A polka-dotted horse.”

               “Stop stalling,” said Bethany. “What was its name?”

               “I was very young,” said Janine.

               “You’re ashamed to tell me,” said Bethany. “And that’s exactly what I’m preventing by assigning names to the animals before they’re sold. Before it’s too late. I’m saving the stuffed animals from awful names that everyone in the family will regret.”

               “But bad names are cute when they come from a little kid,” said Janine. “Besides, who are you to decide what’s a good name or a bad name?”

               “So your horse was named ‘Horse,’” said Bethany. “Or ‘Horsey?’”

               “No!” said Janine, immediately regretting her own vehemence. Why was she here? Why wasn’t she having a normal date at a restaurant, happily ordering dessert on Ronnie’s dime? Or why wasn’t she sitting at home grieving the loss of her late husband, somehow, like however people imagined she should be doing that? Why was she in a downtown toy store evading the proprietor’s aggressive questions about the name of her childhood stuffed horse?

               “So you were one of those ‘creative’ children?” asked Bethany. “So your stuffed animals all had nonsense names like ‘Blooble’ or ‘Marmar?’ Or ‘funny’ names like ‘Pizza’ or ‘Fingernail?’”

               “That was me,” Ronnie volunteered with a chuckle. “My stuffed rabbit’s name was ‘Pizza.’”

               Janine turned to scowl at him. “Your stuffed rabbit was named ‘Pizza?’ Really?”

               “See?” said Bethany. “You don’t like it either.”

               “It’s fine for a kid to name their stuffed animal ‘Pizza,’” said Janine. “I’m just skeptical that his stuffed animal from his childhood happened to have the same name as the example you threw out at random.”

               “I didn’t throw it out at random,” said Bethany. “‘Pizza’ is a very common name that ‘funny’ children choose for their stuffed animals. It turns out that most ‘funny’ children are funny in the same ways. In the exact same ways. Everyone is better off when I choose the names, trust me. And in the very rare cases that the children are actually creative, then they don’t let my assigned names override their imaginations. They just ignore them. Even though mine are still better.”

               Janine wondered if the twinge of nausea she felt was the beginning of the same mounting disgust that had ultimately taken the other Coach Verck from her, leaving her the lone Coach Verck in town, perhaps the only Coach Verck in the world. And this stuffed animals’ names thing was just an opinion she had decided to care about, one she had latched onto out of desperation and convenience, a combination that she should have known to avoid. Imagine how sickened she would feel if someone attacked something she really felt strongly about, one of her most deeply held beliefs? Although she couldn’t come up with one of those at the moment, but she was sure she had one. Several, in fact. Didn’t everyone?

               The confrontation was losing steam. Janine couldn’t think of much more to say. The mystery of the tags had been solved; Ronnie was right and she was wrong. Janine didn’t agree with Bethany’s arguments, but didn’t feel she could effectively refute them. The remainder of the date was probably doomed. She hoped Ronnie wouldn’t go into too much detail when Miss Houth asked him how it had gone. All that was left was to leave, endure the ride back to the restaurant parking lot, and drive home feeling thwarted. Janine would have to chalk this one up as a learning experience. But what had she learned? Not to hold too tightly to her fabricated interesting opinions. Be more willing to bail.

               The front door of Childrenlike Wonder was not visible from the stuffed animal section, but the sound of the bell heralded the arrival of another customer. Bethany looked at her watch and sighed. “I forgot to lock up. I hope this won’t take-” She stopped in mid-sentence, her eyes widening. “What day is it?”

               “It’s Friday,” said Ronnie.

               “Friday evening,” added Janine. She meant it to sound conciliatory, but it sounded petty instead, as if she insisted on distinguishing day from evening.

               “I shouldn’t have let you in so close to closing time,” said Bethany. “Quick, you have to leave out the back.”

               A voice from the front counter called, “Bethany? Where are you hiding? I’m here for your three guesses. Let’s get this over with.” The voice oozed with ominous amusement, so much so that Janine could picture nothing else about the speaker.

               “I’m just taking some stuff to the stock room!” called Bethany. She grabbed Janine and Ronnie by their shoulders and hustled them toward a door on the store’s back wall, two birds painted as if perched atop its frame. She pushed the door open and dragged Janine and Ronnie into the dimly lit stock room, closing the door behind them and leaning against it, covering her eyes with her hand, drawing deep breaths. “That was too close,” she whispered. “Too close.”

               Janine took in the stock room at a glance. It wasn’t large, and most of its limited space was dedicated to shelves bearing boxes labeled things like “yo-yos” and “brain teasers” and “miscellaneous” in large, hand-written letters. But a low cot hugged the wall to Janine’s left, and it was accompanied by a desk lamp on the floor – the only current source of light – and a garbage can overflowing with delivery packaging from several area restaurants. A paperback romance novel lay face-down and broken-spined in the middle of the cot.

               “Are you living in here?” asked Janine.

               “Shh!” said Bethany. “You need to go out the service door. Into the alley. Please don’t speak and please hurry.”

               “What are you scared of?” asked Ronnie in a whisper. “Who was that who came in just now?”

               “It has nothing to do with you,” whispered Bethany. “It’s my own mess to deal with.”

               “Is someone threatening you?” asked Ronnie. His whisper was slipping.

               “Ronnie, let’s go,” said Janine. “It’s not our business.”

               Ronnie scowled at her. “You go ahead,” he said.

               “You’re my ride,” said Janine. “My car’s still at the restaurant.”

               “Just go!” said Bethany in a forceful hiss. She made one of the more violent shooing motions Janine had ever seen.

               But it was too late. A heavy knock at the stock room door provoked a childrenlike squeak from Bethany. The voice came through the door like a swarm of termites. “Bethany? Who is that I hear in there with you?”

               “Just some customers,” Bethany called back. “But they actually just left.”

               “Oh, did they?” asked the voice, and the door swung open to reveal a person who did not appear worthy of all this fuss. He was in his late 20s, probably told people he was five-foot-nine although he was not, and wore glasses like a man who had misplaced his contact lenses. The sleeves of his bulky coat were too long; the bagginess of his jeans somehow emphasized the scrawniness of the legs within them. To Janine, there was something familiar about him. “These customers don’t seem to have left at all,” he said. “These customers seem to still be here, Bethany, and on one of our special nights.”

               “Who are you?” asked Ronnie as he took two long steps toward the man. It was the first attractive thing Janine had seen him do in, oh, over two hours now.

               “Bethany hasn’t told you?” asked the man. “That’s good! She isn’t supposed to. It would violate the conditions of our game.”

               “You’re stalking her?” asked Ronnie. “You’re harassing her?”

               “Not at all,” said the man. “We are rather engaged in an ongoing battle of wits. You two may not be aware of this, but Bethany here fancies herself quite the expert on children and their stuffed animals and what they choose to name them.”

               “I should clean your clock,” said Ronnie. Janine didn’t know if she’d ever heard someone say that in real life. If she had, it had been decades.

               “Don’t,” said Bethany, reaching for Ronnie’s elbow. “It won’t help anything. It won’t help me. It’ll make things worse.”

               “Hold on,” said Janine. “I know you! You’re that kid, um, um, Adrian! You were obsessed with my husband!”

               Ronnie and Bethany turned to regard Janine with quizzical expressions, but Adrian was visibly alarmed. “Please, lady, I’m sure you’re wrong, I was never obsessed with anyone, I promise you that, and actually, this is none of your business, so maybe you and your friend here should leave now.”

               “Adrian…uh…I forget your last name,” said Janine. “But your parents started bringing you to Multioak High School basketball games at the very beginning of my husband’s career, you were barely more than a baby. But it was so funny, even from the very beginning you were fixated on him. Not on the players, but on him, the coach.”

               “Shh!” Spittle flew from Adrian’s lips as he shushed her, panic in his eyes. “Shh! Shut up!”

               “Oh, oh, oh,” said Janine. “And what was it you had? A stuffed penguin? And you had my husband autograph its foot, and then you told him–”

               “Shut your mouth!” roared Adrian, his face purpling with rage.

               “…you told him you’d named it after him,” said Janine. “But not his name. You didn’t know his name, not his first name. You just called him what almost everyone in his life called him until the very end.”

               “Do not say it,” said Adrian, his voice gone hoarse. Not one of those voices that could handle much intensity, that was for sure.

               “‘Coach Verck,’” Janine concluded. “You named your little stuffed penguin ‘Coach Verck.’ I always thought that was cute. Is that penguin still around? You didn’t throw it out, did you?”

               Adrian collapsed against the door frame, dramatically backlit by the warm light spilling into the stock room from the store.

               “I’m ready to make my guesses,” said Bethany. “Or should I say my singular guess? Your stuffed penguin’s name was ‘Coach Verck.’ It was ‘Coach Verck,’ you monster, and now I’m free! Right? Tell me I’m free, you filth, you worm, you disgusting creature!”

               Adrian said nothing, but it could not have been clearer that whatever power he had possessed mere seconds before had entirely evaporated.

               “Of course it all went south when you got into high school and tried out for the team,” said Janine. “And you were no good. So my husband had to cut you. It made him sad because he remembered you when you were little. It made both of us sad, we both remembered you. But you were just no good. He was going to have you be the equipment manager, but you reacted so poorly to being cut that he decided it wasn’t wise to allow you around the team. He thought you were too unstable. And well, look at you now. I guess he was right.”

               Bethany still hadn’t released Ronnie’s elbow, but her grip no longer seemed intended to restrain. It seemed affectionate, actually, or even flirtatious. “You can hit him now,” said Bethany. “If you want to. There’s nothing else he can do now.”

               Ronnie obliged. Janine thought it was done in poor taste. Adrian was smaller than Ronnie, and he barely tried to defend himself when Ronnie slugged him in the face. Ronnie’s fist caught Adrian right beneath his left eye and the younger man toppled backward into the store and hit the back of his head against a shelf full of magnet-based toys.

               In the end, Ronnie took Bethany with him back to Old Mom’s Recipe Italian Restaurant so he could continue his date with someone better suited for him – or at least someone who felt more indebted to him and who was undoubtedly better dressed on the strength of her sweater alone – and Janine sat with Adrian on a bench in front of Childrenlike Wonder waiting for Sophie to come pick them up.

               Adrian was woozy. He had trouble sitting up straight and his head wobbled on the end of his neck.

               “So it was kind of a modified Rumpelstiltskin thing?” asked Janine. “Bethany was stuck living in the store until she could guess the name of your childhood stuffed penguin?”

               “Why couldn’t he have let me be on the team?” asked Adrian. “I could have just sat the bench. And he was such a good coach. He could have made me good enough to play eventually.”

               “Hmm,” said Janine. “I don’t know.” She paused. “Did you know he died a little while ago?”

               Adrian managed to say “yes” before he was overcome with a fit of sobbing.

               Janine didn’t mind. Adrian was grieving enough for both of them combined. She felt the ears of the stuffed rabbit she had slipped into her purse while Bethany and Ronnie were distracted by their rapidly blossoming romance. She examined the tag Bethany had attached to the rabbit. It read, “Springer.” Janine was willing to admit it was a good name for the rabbit even as she wrapped the tag around her finger and yanked it free.

               By the time Sophie pulled up to the curb in her minivan, Adrian had lapsed into mournful silence. Janine helped load Adrian into the front seat of the van, then climbed into the middle seat next to Norah in her car seat. Norah was wearing her pajamas and looked groggy. Sophie had gotten her out of bed to bring her along because her husband was at some childish movie with a huge group of his former college friends.

               “Where are we going?” asked Sophie, masking zero percent of her irritation at being called out on this errand.

               “We’ll drop Adrian off first,” said Janine. “Then you can take me to my car at the restaurant. Adrian, where do you live?”

               Adrian heaved a sigh and buried his face in his hands. “Ouch,” he said when the giant swollen bruise under his eye made contact with his palm.

               “Give him a minute,” said Janine. “He’s having trouble thinking.” She turned and said, “Look what I got for you, Norah.” She handed the nameless stuffed rabbit to her niece. “As a thank you for helping your mom come pick me up.”

               Norah’s eyes widened. “It’s for me?” She admired the rabbit’s face for a few moments, then turned it over to look for the tag. “Where’s its name?”

               “It doesn’t have one yet,” said Janine. “You get to name it. Anything you want!”

               “I name it?” asked Norah.

               “Yes,” said Janine. “It’s your rabbit so you get to come up with its name.”

               Norah’s eyes sparkled with childrenlike wonder. “I’m going to name it…Car Seat!” She burst into laughter. She couldn’t stop giggling. “Car Seat the rabbit!”

               Janine’s smile was tight. She didn’t want to say it, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Maybe you can think of something better than that, Norah. If you think about it longer.”

               “Car Seat the rabbit!” said Norah. “That’s its name! Hello, Car Seat! Say hello to my auntie Janine, Car Seat!”

               “If you insist on naming it ‘Car Seat,’” said Janine. “Then I’m going to take it back.”

               Norah’s laughter died on her little lips. “Then what should I name it?”

               “Well, I don’t want to name it for you,” said Janine. “But I can offer a suggestion. What about ‘Springer?’”

Discussion Questions

  • What’s your go-to interesting opinion that you strategically deploy to trick people into thinking you have a unique outlook on life?

  • What’s the best sweater you’ve ever seen? What qualities did it possess that positioned it so far above all other sweaters, and perhaps even all other clothing items you’ve ever seen?

  • My childhood stuffed koala’s name was “Koaly.” But this is supposed to be a question. So how would you spell “Koaly?” ‘Cause I can’t decide.

  • Does it seem to you like I should have had a better grasp on the details of the Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale before I wrote the ending of this story? Or do the inaccuracies of my recollections actually enhance the power of the allusion?

  • To what extent should children be permitted to bestow stupid, inappropriate, random, or uninspired names upon their stuffed animals?