The Exhausted Umbrella of Virginia Cinnamon Roll
With a little grammar thrown in for good measure
Some of you have already read this story when it was published in Genius in a Bottle on Medium earlier this month. Since I have not had time to do much writing, and since The Not Too Long and Short of It was always intended to include a sampling of fiction, I thought I would send it out again for those who might be interested.
It is a silly little story based on a writing prompt. The challenge was to write a story with a title following this format: The [your current mood] + [object to your right] of [grandmother’s first name] + [last thing you ate]. I came up with the following adventure …
Virginia Cinnamon Roll was of the opinion that the unwieldy contraptions called umbrellas made more mess than they prevented. And if there was anything Virginia hated, it was drippy messes. That and bad grammar.
This was, of course, before it had started raining all day, every day, back on the 13th of March. It was now the first of December, the Tuesday when Virginia was scheduled to visit Mike’s Hardware Emporium in search of a new washer to fix her drippy shower. Seeing that it was a new month and that circumstances did not seem to be planning a change anytime soon, Virginia determined it was high time she take matters into her own hands and change them herself. There was only so much running in and out of stores with one’s handbag over one’s head that one could take, and given the fact that Virginia was the one who was having to take it, she decided she would take the plunge instead. It was time to purchase an umbrella.
Of course, anyone who knew Virginia knew that she could never be happy with just any umbrella. It was not that she was particular about brands or that she was particularly stylish. She was simply particular. Special or exceptional would not be the most accurate synonyms to describe her either, although her late husband Ralph Roll would beg to differ. To put it kindly, she was unique; to put it honestly, she was peculiar.
It is not surprising, then, that she combined her home repair errand with her umbrella search. Mike’s Hardware Emporium was well-known in the town of Portsmouth for carrying not only hardware but a large assortment of odd and sundry miscellany. In fact, its advertising slogan, Can’t find it there? Find it here! was printed boldly everywhere a Mike’s ad could be found. If Virginia were going to find a special, exceptional, unique, and particularly peculiar umbrella, Mike’s was the place to go.
At precisely 3:00 p.m., as indicated on her calendar, she zipped her silver Toyota Prius into her usual parking spot, extended her stick-shaped leg, covered partly by one black galosh and largely by her long gray raincoat, out the driver side door, placed her vinyl 18-inch square black handbag over her head, and sprinted into the store. Once inside, she pulled a paper towel out of her coat pocket, dried her handbag, and pitched the wet wad into the garbage. There was a reason why Virginia always purchased large, square, vinyl handbags. And she knew she could always count on Mike’s to carry needed replacements. Today, however, she passed by Aisle 8 without a thought.
After locating the washer, along with the wrench needed to unscrew the showerhead, on Aisle 22, Virginia made her way back to Aisle 20, where all of the items starting with u could be found. It just so happened that she entered the aisle from the back side, something she would have never dared had she not been a whiz at both frontward and backward alphabetization. She confidently passed by utensils, urns, and underwear before finally arriving at her destination, where she discovered five bins, each filled with fifty umbrellas of a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns. She proceeded to examine them one by one: those whose patterns did not strike her particular fancy were placed promptly back into their bins, while the two solid-colored ones that stood a chance of making the cut were opened and closed, snapped and unsnapped, velcroed and unvelcroed, tapped, shaken, and twirled, as Virginia carefully assessed them for all of the features she was looking for in a rain repellant. In the end, even the two finalists failed the test.
At a loss as to where else she might shop for a modest, hassle-free, neat, and practical umbrella, Virginia stationed herself in the central aisle, her left pointer finger tapping her left cheek and her right galoshed foot thumping the ground, and ran through her options. She was on the very verge of giving up and heading to Aisle 8 to see if she could find a newer, larger handbag when she heard a rather loud whisper coming from Aisle 16.
“Pssst … excuse me … Virginia Cinnamon Roll?”
“Yes, I am she,” she replied. “Who are you?”
“I think I may be just the umbrella you are looking for. You will find me over here with paper, plush toys, and popcorn. Come on over so that you and me can have a little chat.”
“I think you mean you and I,” Virginia corrected.
Now, it is assumed by most people that a woman with a name like Virginia is likely to be both mannerly and well-versed in grammatical correctness, and this Virginia was no exception. Her mother, Lady Cinnamon Dorsett, had seen to that fact and had begun drilling young Virginia on the proper use of first-person pronouns from the time she was just five years old. Some even say that the excessive emphasis on subjective vs. objective had contributed to Virginia’s particularly peculiar nature.
Others said that the change of name that resulted from marrying Ralph, a union her parents had highly protested, had had a profound effect on her. For someone raised to carefully parse every word of every sentence, the incongruity of having Cinnamon Roll as part of one’s name did a number on the psyche. Tall, lanky, and without a touch of sweetness, Virginia was more like a sourdough breadstick. She knew it, and so did everyone else. In fact, the discordance caused quite a few snickers each time her name was mentioned around town.
Sadly, Ralph had been the only one able to help pull the sweetness out of her, and she had even begun to plump up a little under his loving attention. Once he passed, however, she had quickly reverted not just to her old self but to a stickier version — a stick-like and rigid model with no sign of cinnamon roll stickiness or gooeyness.
“Unless you can speak properly,” Virginia continued, “I feel certain that you are not the one for me.”
The umbrella rolled his eyes. It was a good thing that Virginia had not yet reached his aisle, since had she seen him, she most certainly would not have purchased such an insubordinate, disrespectful umbrella, and this story would have ended much differently.
As it turns out, however, Virginia missed the exasperated expression and made her way to Aisle 16, where she could not miss her addressor. Smack dab in the center of the aisle, standing upright and confident on his cast iron base, stood a tall patio umbrella. He displayed his thickly woven canopy with pride and no wonder — it was crafted of a pattern-less fabric, a strikingly solid burnt umber rain repellant mesh. Virginia was drawn to him at once.
Bowing from his metallic joint, he introduced himself: “Burnt Umber Ellis at your service, Mrs. Roll, but you may call me Burt. I hope that in time you will come to discover the treasure that is me. I feel certain that you will be happy with my canopy and I.”
“You mean, ‘the treasure that is I’ and ‘my canopy and me’ don’t you, Burt?” It was now Virginia’s turn to roll her eyes.
Upon seeing the stick-like, sticky-less state of Virginia Cinnamon Roll and that she bore no resemblance to her name whatsoever, Burt felt a level of compassion that prevented him from rolling his eyes in return. Instead, he took pity on her and reminded himself of his particular mission.
“Oh yes, of course I do. Beg your pardon, ma’am. Anywho, I do believe you will find me to be the umbrella for which you have been so diligently seeking.” He tilted himself backward ever so slightly on his two solid wheels and made his way toward her, bowing just enough to demonstrate his ability to shield her from any and all falling rain.
A little flustered and a tad flattered by his attention, Virginia replied, “Well, you do strike my fancy — you are polite, practical, dignified, and ambulatory. And I do so like burnt umber. As for your grammar, we can work on that. Come along now,” she said.
With that, she promptly marched to the cash register, Burt rolling along behind her. Once the purchase was final, they proceeded to the door, where Burt tipped his canopy at exactly the right angle, shimmied out sideways beside her, and then covered her all the way to her awaiting Prius.
“Seeing that you dislike drippy messes, Mrs. Roll, and that it would be utterly impossible for me to fit in your car, I will roll along beside you as we make our way home.”
“That will be just fine, Burt,” Virginia replied. “I think you and I are going to get along quite nicely.”
Three wet and rainy months had passed since Virginia Cinnamon Roll had purchased Burnt Umber Ellis from Mike’s Hardware Emporium. It was day one of the month of March, and Jeffery Olson, the beleaguered Channel 2 weatherman, was finally able to announce to the town of Portsmouth that they could expect sunny skies in the not-so-distant future. Cheers could be heard all around town, but oddly enough, Virginia felt a deep sadness that took her completely by surprise. She had experienced a growing sense of happiness since Burt came into her life, and she could not imagine life without him and the rain.
From the time she had first brought him home, Burt had accompanied her on every journey, even when she had driven 750 miles to visit her mother in Mansion Hills. For the first few weeks, she had tried her best to teach him the proper usage of first-person pronouns. “Burt,” she would say, “just because you were told not to say so-and-so and me when starting a sentence does not mean you should overcompensate and say so-and-so and I following a preposition.” She never did get to the issue of predicate nominatives since, try as he may, Burt was unable to master even the first lesson. It was not that he was unintelligent; it was just that grammar was not what he was made for. Besides, everywhere he turned, people were speaking just as he did, and it was impossible to keep it all straight.
After three weeks of lessons, Virginia, too, realized that it was not necessary for an umbrella to have good grammar — after all, he was doing an exceptional job protecting her from the rain — so she decided to accept Burt just as he was. She did, however, suggest that he not speak while at her mother’s for Christmas.
With her acceptance of Burt and his grammar flaws, something inside Virginia started to soften. She began to enjoy his company so much that she wanted nothing more than to be outdoors, even in January. She took all of her meals on the patio, kale-free meals using recipes she had once prepared for Ralph. It wasn’t long before she began to put on a little weight.
By February, Virginia was surprised to find herself humming, then singing, and eventually even dancing. Burt followed her around her patio, smiling as she pirouetted and grande jete’d (Lady Dorsett had also insisted on ballet lessons at age 6). On occasion, Burt would attempt a few spins of his own on his back wheels, which added to Virginia’s amusement and brought out many a deep and long-suppressed chuckle.
Most significant of all, however, were the small moments interspersed among the errands and feasting and singing and dancing, when Virginia Cinnamon Roll chose to simply sit beneath Burt’s burnt umber canopy to knit a scarf or read a book or solve a crossword puzzle, as she listened to the soothing pitter-patter of the rain falling all around her. On these days, the exhausted umbrella was able to take a rest. He, too, was content, for he knew that stickily speaking, Virginia Cinnamon Roll was moving in the right direction.
Jeffery Olson’s prediction was scheduled to become a reality sometime within the next 24 hours. The rain was still falling steadily that Friday afternoon, the twelfth of March, but sunshine was solidly in Saturday’s forecast. Virginia Cinnamon Roll was sitting on her patio beneath Burt’s protective canopy, two homemade cinnamon rolls positioned symmetrically on her white porcelain plate and a cup of Twinings English Breakfast, no cream, one sugar, positioned at 1:00. It had been decades since she had eaten a cinnamon roll, but she felt she was ready at last. She lifted the swirling doughy-ness to her mouth, bit off a substantial buttery bite, and then slowly chewed until all of the gooey sweetness made its way down her throat. A warmth radiated through her body, and then through her entire being, as everything suddenly fell into place. It was as if her whole rigid stick-like, sticky-less life were being saturated with delectable drippy cinnamon roll frosting.
“Oh, Burt!” she exclaimed. “I had forgotten how very much I love cinnamon rolls! What a special umbrella you are, Mr. Burnt Umber Ellis —I am forever indebted to you for having helped me rediscover the freedom of my pre-five-year-old youth. I will most certainly miss you when the sun is back in my life.”
Expecting a response from Burt but hearing none, Virginia looked up and noticed that his canopy was hanging a little lower than usual. In order to get a closer look, she stepped out into the rain with no thought of the damage it might do to her own person. She could think only of Burt as she observed his fabric, so tattered and faded, his cast-iron stand, all splotched with rust, and his wheels, worn to the hard metal bone. He sighed deeply, lowered his canopy even further, and bent over as far as his single joint would allow him.
“Oh, Burt!” Virginia cried, this time with deep despair. “My poor, poor, exhausted umbrella! All this time, you have been caring for me without a single thought for your own condition!” She sat down beside him and wept until it suddenly dawned on her that she was the one who should have been thinking of his condition. After all, umbrellas were not made to take care of themselves.
Jumping to action now that she had a plan, she sprinted through the afternoon rain sans raincoat, galoshes, or vinyl purse, arriving at Mike’s Hardware Emporium in just under ten minutes. Grabbing a burnt umber canopy from Aisle 3 (canopies were not filed by color), a can of Ron’s rust cleaner from Aisle 18 (filed by ru and not ro), and a set of heavy-duty patio umbrella wheels from Aisle 16 (filed with the ps?), right where she had found Burt, she raced out the front door while yelling over her shoulder, “I will pay you tomorrow, Mike!” Mike had no doubt that Virginia Cinnamon Roll was as good as her word.
Arriving home soppy, wet, and most definitely drippy, Virginia gently rolled Burt indoors and laid him on his side atop her solid cream sofa. “It’s about time this thing got messy,” she told herself. Removing the umbrella’s worn canopy, she anchored the new one to his spokes with strong and loving stitches. Next, she carefully massaged the rust from his strong base and polished him up for a finishing touch. Last of all, she replaced his weary and worn wheels with the new ones she should have given him long ago. They were only supposed to last 500 miles, the package said, and he had traveled with her at least 20 times that distance.
“Dear, dear Burt. I’m so, so sorry,” she said.
Finally satisfied that she had done all she could, she collapsed his canopy and left him on the sofa to rest. After changing into the warm, dry, paisley pajamas she had purchased from Mike’s just the other day, she lay on the floor beside him, keeping watch lest he should awaken and need her.
At 7:23 am on Saturday, the thirteenth of March, Virginia awoke suddenly to birdsong and rays of sunshine. The initial flutter of happiness she experienced quickly transformed to a flailing disorientation and then to a most frightening sense of alarm as she noticed that she was on the living room floor and Burt was nowhere to be seen. She shot upright, prepared to search the entire house when she heard a deep base voice singing in the backyard. There stood Burt, his new burnt umber canopy covering her patio table, a cup of tea and two fresh cinnamon rolls prepared and waiting.
“It’s a beautiful day, Virginia Cinnamon Roll. I hope that you will accept my token of appreciation for your extraordinary care. It looks like the sun has come out today to shine on both you and I. Do excuse my grammar, but as you know, it is not what I was made for. I was, however, made for both rain and sun, so as long as you are good with our arrangement, I plan to continue in your service. You and me, we make a great team.”
“Oh, Burt,” Virginia said, “You are without a doubt the most special, exceptional, unique, and particularly peculiar umbrella!”
How Burt managed to get those two cinnamon rolls and cup of tea to the patio table on that bright March 13th morning would forever remain a mystery in the town of Portsmouth. The fact that he continued to do so every morning was simply a matter of routine in the Roll home. Some people said that his burnt umber fabric was woven together with cinnamon and tea leaves, but that was just town gossip. One thing was certain — no one in Portsmouth was snickering now. Thanks to Burnt Umber Ellis, Virginia Cinnamon Roll famously lived up to her name in both temperament and appearance for the rest of her sweet, sticky, drippy, gooey, rainy, sunny, peculiar days.
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