Tales From The Grouch: “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”


Row, Row, Row Your Boat

by J.D.H.


Thelma pushed her spectacles up the bridge of her nose and studied the contents of her medicine cabinet: Pravastatin … Lisinopril … Propanolol. In the background, outside of her tidy bathroom, she could hear Henry Popkins droning on and on. Now Henry was onto the nature of God and existence.

Geezus, the man was intolerable. His visits, frequent, were a trial to her. Thelma contemplated a translucent bottle of something called Verapamil, then slammed the cabinet door shut, unsatisfied. Henry’s voice boomed out from her kitchen.

“I ask you this, Thelma: Could it be that the Almighty created all — billions and trillions of birds, bees, people and animals — because He was bored?”

Thelma shuffled back into the kitchen and eyed Henry carefully. She would get no closer to him than an arm’s length; the man’s cologne was overbearing, but that was nothing compared to his halitosis. He needed a remedy for his bad breath, and if there was a spray or a pill for that problem, Thelma would find it.




“Think about it. Jus’ say you are God. If God was a woman,” Henry chuckled at his own joke.

“You are bored. It’s just you, and nothin’ else. So what do you do? You create things. But just a few things ain’t enough. You’re still bored. You need to create billions of things, so that there are billions of things havin’ thoughts, and it still ain’t enough. On account of those thoughts, none of ‘em, are new to you, ‘cuz you already thought of ‘em ‘cuz you are the Creator.”

Thelma sighed. She pulled a chair up to the kitchen table and eased into it. Her legs objected. Her legs objected to any change of position. To take her mind off her arthritis, she studied Henry’s hair. It oozed gel, it sparkled grease, and Thelma wondered if perhaps it was Henry’s hair gel that assaulted her nostrils, and not his cologne.

She did not want to look at Henry, and she did not want to smell him. And she sure as the dickens did not want to listen to him. Her cotton skirt had hiked up around her thighs, so Thelma contemplated her own varicose veins. And Henry droned on ….




“You take the Big Bang. We are told that the universe came about from mass no bigger than a pin’s head. But what do you suppose that mass was? Could that mass have been a thought — God’s thought? Is that all we are, Thelma, just a bunch of thoughts that God came up with because He was bored?” Henry felt triumphant. He waited for some sort of acknowledgment.

Thelma issued a grunt. “You shut up for 12 seconds and listen to me, Henry Popkins.” She leaned toward him, caught a whiff of his gel, and sat back again. “This talk of life being not real, you know who always says it?”

Henry was silent, so she continued. “I’ll tell you who says it — the idle. The dreamers like you. My daddy, your daddy, my mum and all them’s that works, them’s like the migrant field hands, they don’t cotton to this ‘God’s Dream’ talk because that’s a luxury of the idle.

“When the migrant comes in at night, and his hands are blistered and his back is broken, you think he’s a singin’ ‘Row, row, row your boat, life is but a dream’? Any who sweats for a livin’ knows he ain’t a part of nobody’s sweet dream. Not even the Almighty’s.”

Henry said, “Hmmmm.”




“Know what else is real, Henry Popkins?” Henry said nothing. “That life-killin’ breath of yours, that’s what’s real. And I know I ain’t a-dreamin’ when I am forced to sit here and inhale it.” She paused, and a sly smile crept across her face. “Boom-chucka, boom-chucka, boom-chucka-boom!”

Henry smiled back at her. Softly, he echoed, “Boom-chucka, boom-chucka, boom-chucka-boom.” It was a special thing of theirs.




Thelma studied Henry again. Something was moving in his hair. Wasn’t it? She leaned forward, squinting at him … sure enough, there just above his left ear, something small was moving sporadically, struggling in the hair goop. It was a fly, trying to work its way free. This had happened before, Henry’s hair so thick with goop, insects would check in and they wouldn’t check out. Row, row, row your boat.

Thelma frowned and got up from her chair. She peered out the small window above her kitchen sink and saw movement out in her beet field. The migrants.




When she was a girl, she and all her friends did what these migrants did today, marching up and down the rows, hoeing the beets. But she and the other kids were carefree and lazy, just killing time and earning soda money. The migrants were serious about their work, it was their little piece of the American Dream.

Thelma squinted out the window. One of the migrants, Jesus she thought it was, had an erection.

“Henry, come look at this here. Jesus got him a Johnny-on-a-Pole, I knows it.”

Henry did not stir, so Thelma shuffled back into the bathroom, humming as she went: “Row, row, row your boat, gently …

“Where now, woman?” Henry barked.

“You need things, Henry. Lots of things. Let me get one thing just for you. Jesus gave me somethin’ the other day, might cure your bad breath.”

“Bad breath, you say? Crud and nonsense. It’s all in your head, Thelma. Everything’s in your head!”

“Got something right here … hold on … from Jesus. All the way from South America.”




There was a knock on the door. Thelma sat in her rocker, half-asleep and half-contemplating the veins on her chubby thighs. Whoever was knocking was persistent. With a grunt and a sigh, the old woman rose and slowly made her way to the entry.

Jesus, clad in dirty khaki pants and a striped cotton shirt, removed his tattered hat as Thelma invited him inside.

“Miss Thelma, hello. Hello.”

Thelma glanced at the man. She didn’t need to examine him, his appearance never changed. She did notice that his erection was gone.

“I have more raw cassava for you.” He removed a plastic bag from his pocket and held it before her.




Thelma’s eyes brightened at the site of the bag. “Don’t say? Don’t mind if I take it off your hands.”

Jesus peered over the old woman’s shoulder at Henry, still seated at the table and apparently studying the contents of his plate. He hadn’t budged since Jesus entered the house.

She gestured to the kitchen table. “Last batch worked good. Come see!” She ambled over to the table and stood just behind Henry.

“Problem with old people, Jesus, yours truly included I suppose,” she chuckled, “is we get set in our ways. Comfortable. Too comfortable.

“Old Hank, for example. You can’t argue with the man. He doesn’t see reason; he only sees what he wants to see. So I’d argue and argue and get nowhere. It tires you, Jesus, it really does.”




Jesus made his way, tentatively, to the table. Henry, paralyzed and half-comatose from Thelma’s serving of the South American toxin, raw cassava, blinked once.

“Henry did not believe in pain, Jesus. Old Hank thought it was all in our head!” She chuckled. “So I had to learn him. Henry knows reality now, don’t you Henry?” She punched him, hard, in the smallish goiter that was forming on his neck. No reaction from Henry. Just a soft moan.

Thelma smiled down at Henry. “Row, row, row your boat, life is but a dream ….”

Henry’s lips parted. A tear trickled down his cheek. Two flies, trapped by the hair goop above his left ear, struggled in vain to escape their final resting place.





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