The Ever-Ready Tailor-Made Comeback

THERE are things in my grandparents' house that I've never seen anywhere else. The other day I was packing some of their books off to the public library, and I came across a Thesaurus of Anecdotes. As I leafed through it, the thought flashed across my mind that all the family stories I'd been hearing for years might easily have been culled from just such a sourcebook. But when I failed to find anything even remotely related to the story of my mother catching a robin with a worm on a fishing pole at 6 a.m. in her bathrobe and slippers - (I'll tell you the whole story some other time) - I was relieved to know that ours were originals. But seeing the thesaurus reminded me of a similar file I've kept on my computer, called ``Quips.'' It's full of things friends and relatives have said from time to time - things I write down in hopes of using again. But the right line is a tailor-made suit that can't be pressed into service for just any occasion.

It's hard to define what makes a line good - but you know it when you hear it. And if you love words, a skillful retort is music to the ears, even if you're the object of its barb. It's better to receive one than a bouquet of flowers. It's more fun to give one than a box of candy. Here are a few of my favorites:

A couple of years ago, in a basic oil-painting class in college, our freshman-weary instructor used to walk from canvas to canvas, critiquing his students' work in a voice that carried from one end of the studio to the other. He seldom minced words. One day, while we were working on our final projects, he approached the setup of an earnest artist who just couldn't seem to pull his painting together. The young man enthusiastically suggested redrawing certain lines, introducing a different color idea - all to no response from the nonplussed professor. ``Well,'' asked the student, ``what do you think?'' It was an ill-advised inquiry. ``You can do what you want,'' rejoined the professor slowly, with a shrug. ``I say it's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.''

A certain coed used to regale us with laughter when she told stories about dating in high school. When a boy telephoned and she wasn't interested, she'd politely listen for a moment, and then hastily interrupt with: ``Oh, my cookies are burning! I'll call you back.'' She'd hang up, and ``forget'' to call back. They were supposed to get the hint. This was fine until I asked her out one time and got what I thought was a similarly pat refusal. After some thought, I went to a local bakery and ordered a dozen - well, let us say very crisp - cookies. I put them in a box and attached a note, ``Dear Marcia, my cookies are burning too. Yours, Michael.'' All's fair....

Some of my friends were more successful in dating. A number of them are now married and having children. I know a bachelor alumnus who's grown tired of gurgling cutesy phrases over his newlywed friends' newborn babies. Anxious to please the proud parents, but out of adjectives, his standard response, in leaning over each successive baby carriage, is: ``Now that IS a baby.''

A good non sequitur will qualify for my list any day. Like the neighbor who, in a discussion about a garage sale he was organizing, distractedly commented: ``My 3-year-old son is completely obsessed with Cro-Magnon man.''

In the movies, anyone can be scripted a good line. But it takes panache to deliver it properly. I never grow tired of Grace Kelly in ``High Society,'' who is being blackmailed into allowing journalists from SPY magazine to attend her society wedding. Says one of the unwelcome guests: ``I do hope you don't mind our being here for your wedding.'' Without batting an eye, Grace Kelly purrs, ``Oh, but I'm delighted. We have so much cake.''

The wrong line at the wrong time can be a disaster. My aunt once ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. ``I haven't seen you in an age. Where've you been?'' she asked. ``Well, you see, my husband died ... '' began the other woman. ``You've gotta be kidding,'' was my aunt's unfortunate reply.

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