This week finds me saluting Henry Alford, a writer who is not as well known as he deserves. In an effort to raise awareness of his work — and because this week I’m just not feelin’ it — I’m reproducing my favorite piece ever from the New Yorker magazine. Appearing under the banner of the iconic “Shouts and Murmurs” column in the August 10th, 1998 issue, this is the kind of non-ironic, untrendy whimsy that the New Yorker has abandoned in recent years in favor of tedious post-adolescent snark.
Originally titled “Shore Leave”, this piece is being lifted – er, reprinted – entirely WITHOUT the permission of New Yorker management. So, read it fast before they send their cease-and-desist letters followed closely by baseball-bat wielding goons to “persuade” me to take it down. You know how violent those bastards over at the Algonquin Roundtable were. Also, be sure to buy some books by Henry Alford. Frankly, I think he’s better than David Sedaris, though there should be room in the world for both.
In the original print version, all names in boldface were shells found in the collection of the Smithsonian. In this shameless swipe – sorry, digital reproduction – they are links leading to more information for those interested in the mollusk species being named.
First printed: Aug 10, 1998 : Shouts and Murmurs – the New Yorker Magazine
by Henry Alford
Note: all words in boldface are names of seashells found in the Mollusks Library at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Darling, You mustn’t think me a Perverse Whelk. But, stranded here at the beach house as I have been these many weeks, with nothing except Mother and a few tattered field guides to seashells to keep me company, I have allowed desolation to get the better of me. And now, my sweet, things have come to a rather tragic pass, and I fear I must relate some painful news: I am leaving you, darling. Leaving you for Ambassador Cone. Where to begin? Mother’s health, as you know, has worsened. She has a Delicate Tibia. She is riddled with Tuberculate Purpura. She has Blister-like Polygyra and a Depressed Vitrinella – the early symptoms of Conoidal Melanella. As if this weren’t enough, her psychological state, too, continues southward, causing her to appear quite the Unstable Limpet at times. I’m afraid she’s taken to wearing those damned hats again. First it was a Scotch Bonnet to the boat-club dinner dance, then a Military Turban to the Fourth of July fireworks, then a Fool’s Cap to Barbara Roger’s awful cocktail party. Two Thursdays ago, I invited her to a lunch at the Ponderous Ark that was being given for Kitten Cowrie, the electricity heiress; Mother arrived wearing a Papal Miter. Worse, Mother and Kitten took an instant dislike to each other, which was made worse by Mother’s confiding to the whole assemblage that Kitten has been dating Triton Kelsey. Mother made all sorts of disparaging comments about “that Lurid Dwarf Triton,” nattering on about how he is a Belligerent Rock Shell, and how he works as a Pea Scraper in Bridgeport. (You know, Mother, despite her many charms, can be a terrific snob.) Then she delivered her bombshell: “Well, of course a girl like Kitten would be interested in Triton, given his, uh, reputation.” “Reputation?” someone asked. “He’s said to have a Giant Date Mussel,” Mother said. “Why, you Geriatric Turret Shell!” Kitten barked. “Oh, everyone knows about Kelsey’s Date Mussel,” Mother calmly intoned. “It’s a veritable Elephant’s Snout.” Never have I felt like such an Ass’s Ear. Fortunately, that was when Ambassador Cone came to the rescue. Seated at an adjoining table, he stood and helped me quickly decant Mother from the Ark, and then sped us home. He was heroic. So, of course, last night, when it was time to celebrate Mother’s eightieth, I invited Cone. That may have been the smartest act of my life. For Kitten and Kelsey, you see, incensed by Mother’s comments at the cocktail party, had hired a gunman – a gentleman by the name of Bent-Nose Macoma – to come to Mother’s birthday part and exact revenge. Macoma, accompanied by a fellow called Shark Eye, burst into the room, brandishing a Snub-Nosed Corbula. We all shrieked with fear; my jade Rhinoceros Vase crashed to the floor, scattering large sprays of False Prickly Winkle and Hearty Rupellaria. I panicked, uncertain of what I should do. But, once again, Cone came to the rescue: running over to the wall where Mother displays her hats, he yelled, “Quick, the Flame Helmet!” He strapped on the helmet and activated it, causing the horrid intruders to flee in terror. (Actually, memory is kind; first, he grabbed the Dwarf Helmet, accidentally reducing Barbara Rogers to the size of a Very Small Dwarf Olive – most amusing. But I digress.) When the flames subsided, Mother, scared, finally agreed to let us check her in to the Chambered Nautilus, where Dr. Inman is looking after her. Meanwhile, Cone and I are off for a month at the Superb Gaza; you can write to me c/o the Embassy. This strange turn of events has caused me no small amount of anguish, my darling, and I wholly understand if you think me a terrible Greedy Dove Shell. But surely you will understand how I have been made to feel abandoned here at land’s end. However, please know that a part of me will always regret what was lost between us, and that this part of me will remain forever, Your Wedding Cake Venus