The Yugo looks a little understated next to Jimmy's flowered shirt from Dolce and Gabbana, colors of crocus yellow and cobalt blue. Jimmy is an ad-specialty salesman -- fuzzy dice, key chains, that sort of thing -- though he's not selling much of anything right now. He's standing near the picnic table where Dr. Barq's is shelling pecans and taking his pick.
"These pecans got oil in 'em," announces Jimmy Chimichanga. "They got flavor. Not like them papershell pecans. Whattya drinking?"
The choices are pepper vodka, which Jimmy sips from a KFC cup, and Dr. Barq's namesake blend, a mix of Dr. Pepper and Barq's root beer. I go with the vodka.
"So, Jimmy, you gettin' close to retirement?"
Jimmy plucks another pecan from the pile. "Funny. Just the other night, I'm complaining to my girlfriend about retiring, and she says, 'You missing a coupla prepositions. And I say, 'What?' and she says, 'Yeah. You ain't got no place to retire from and nothin' to retire with.'"
Dr. Barq's smiles as he works his silver pick into another pecan. "That's pretty astute coming from a woman with all the urbanity of Huckleberry Finn," he says. Dr. Barq's read a lot of books when he was in the Air Force stationed in Iceland, where even learning seems exciting. A lot of times, he'll let you know about the books.
"Didya hear about doc's new job? He's a Chalmette go-getter."
I don't ask, but Jimmy tells me anyways.
"That means at 9 he drives his wife to work in Chalmette and at 5 he has to go-get-her!"
Actually, Dr. Barq's has just abandoned some scheme involving sock monkeys and is shelling pecans so his wife can bake them into holiday pies at $8.75 each.
"Come on, doc. You shellin' too slow," scolds Jimmy. "You taking too much time readin' the newspaper there. Just let the shells fall on the ground. Paper's only gloom anyhow."
"On the contrary, you bedwetter!" Dr. Barq's says drolly. "The newspapers bring us all aspects of human behavior, including unintended humor. Plus, think of all those ink-stained wretches in their ergonomically correct cubicles, toiling in the hope that one day we'll notice their bylines, which we never do." He gives me a look here.
"That's why I diligently scan the world press daily," he finishes. "In search of smug stupidity. Go get my scrapbook off Jimmy's front seat."
I retrieved the five-subject college notebook with Bugs Bunny's image on the cover. Inside were press clippings taped to each page, sort of a collection of bloopers of 2001. I took the notebook over to the edge of the lagoon and sat down.
"Hey, doc!" I called. "There's a Harlequin duck here."
"You couldn't tell an emu from a fruit bat," he called back, not even turning to look.
I began the notebook. Here's part of what I found:
· Red Sox outfielder Manny Ramirez, when asked about reports he'd been tested for attention-deficit disorder because of his base-running errors: "If they did, I don't remember it."
· Headline: "Were pork chops Mozart's death knell?" No, but those buffalo wings made him mighty queasy.
· Headline: "Dead man suspect in collegian's death." Sir, can you account for your whereabouts on Sept. 17? Sir, are you listening?
· Headline: "Hunters have four days to catch elusive moose." Boris, vere ess moose?
· Headline: "Mickey, Goofy win right to clean underwear." From the Magic Kingdom, stiltwalker Gary Stevenson said, "Things have been passed around. I know I don't want to share underwear."
· Headline: "1 bullet wounds 3 men at nightclub." Was one of them Texas governor John Connally?
· Headline: "Newsweek joins diaper mess." Uh, no thanks. I'm not much of a joiner.
· Headline: "Fast-maturing girls need adolescent gynecologists." Mom, this is Wolfie -- from Spanish class, remember? Well, he's my GYN now.
· Headline: "Louisiana is setting a poor example." I didn't know we were anybody's role model.
· Headline: "Calif. woman offers $15,000 for premium sperm specimen." The woman looking for a turkey-baster dad was limiting her search to 6-foot Stanford students. She said, "I got so much response. I'm not worried."
Besotted, I stood up and walked over to the table, where Dr. Barq's was wrapping up the pecan shells in newspaper. "Doc, can I borrow your notebook for a few days?"
He looked up at me with a look that knew too much.
"You wouldn't be considering doing one of those end-of-the-year columns on newspaper headlines? One of those banal and derivative columns?"
"Maybe," I say unflinchingly.
"Well," he smiles, "remember I diligently scan the world press daily. In search of smug stupidity. Here. Have a nut."