Coming Home

“There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less, but Nature more.” -Lord Byron

**********

Okay, there’s Seventeenth.  Here’s Eighteenth.  Twentieth can’t be that far away.

I was late.  I hate being late.  And for all errands that life offered, I was on a mission for some lousy teeth.

There are millions of people that care about how their teeth look.  Models and actors are paid big money to have great smiles.  I am none of those things.  My teeth need to break up pieces of food and keep my tongue in check.  That is all.

My dentist is of another mindset.  She is dedicated to making every smile look perfect.  She thinks that means straight, uniform, and pristine.

“I can’t retire until I finish off your front row”, she has often told me.  You would think I would have some say in the matter.  I am the one footing the bill and all.  Plus, there are our respective sizes.

My dentist measures at four feet tall.  I grew past her in middle school.  At over six feet, I still had not gained the upper hand.

It could be because I try not to pick battles.  She is a genuinely nice person.  Let it not be forgotten, she has very sharp tools that pierce, grind, and gouge around my overly sensitive gums.  If the person in charge of the numbing agents is on a mission, you comply.  I try to stay on her good side.  She might “accidentally slip” while trying to make her point.

That is why I was spending my day off like this.  Wandering the streets that I thought I knew around a lake I had seen countless times before.  The problem is that roads in mixed residential areas tend to curve.  The roads in their square grids collide with the curve of nature and the terrain.

Eighteenth Avenue was followed by Forty-Seventh.  The sam hill?  I didn’t just skip thirty blocks in a minute, right? 

Once upon a time my dentist would do everything in house.  Or, in office, I guess.  She would drill the tooth, empty it, and plug the tooth.  Done.  If it was extreme, we would have to wait for some miniscule piece of gold to be custom crafted.  By and large though, it was nice and simple.

No longer.  “See, they have these machines that can do a three-dimensional scan of…”  “Your section of the gums needs an insert so that the teeth below don’t…”  “If I send you to the lab they can custom-shade the tooth to its neighbors giving it a more natural…”

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and took a moment to fume.  The directions from the bus stop had told me where to depart.  I had.  The directions had told me to walk a route.  I had.  So where was this dadgum place that would look at my tooth, which I did not care about, and turn it a shade that I had no opinion on?  I felt my annoyance in my jaw.

Maybe if I grind my teeth enough, there will be fewer surfaces for her to tweak.

In desperation, I made a turn onto a side road.  Yelm Street sounded peaceful enough.  I walked determinedly along its cracked concrete path as the houses crowded my peripherals.

A purple door?  Okay, if that works for you. 

No house should ever be painted entirely in bright yellow. 

But it’s still better than having a house with a three car garage.  And you have four cars parked outside!  Do your mortgage and your car insurance payments have arm-wrestling matches?  Dear word…

That is when I saw it.

I had turned off of Yelm, onto Birch, and found myself looking at a neighborhood book nook.  Normally people would make a small box, a square maybe a foot by foot in size.  The structure I was in front of was entire booth.  It was not painted.  It was stained.  The knots and rings were there for all to see and the recent rain had given it a nice texture.  There was a bench, just big enough for one person, nestled inside this creation.

I liked to see what collections of books were contained in these complimentary depots.  It seemed there was always a classical work or two, some pointless romantic debauchery, a middle installment of a series I had never heard of, and a book that had been wildly popular seven years ago.

large-black-slug-2I stood in between the bench and the books.  At my foot appeared to be a slug with its ooze trail leading towards the shelter.  I try not to kill animals in their natural habitat.  If they set foot (or whatever it is that slug “walk” on) inside my domicile, they are exterminated.  But nature is their domain.  So I lifted my shoe and tried to scoot the little guy over a bit.

The slug would not move.  I shoved and nudged, only to find that it was anchored to the floor.  I knelt down.  The” slug” was actually a carved piece of wood.  It was attached to the ground.  I brushed aside the leaves, the dirt, and the tiny bits of paper that had gathered around.  Underneath all the debris was a piece of wood.  It was a hatchway.

I looked at my watch.  I do not like to be late.  But one has to have priorities.

They’ll understand!  There’s a frickin’ escape hatch in the middle of the sidewalk!  Who isn’t going to go down a secret pathway in the middle of suburbia!  C’mon!

Tossing responsibilities aside, I grabbed hold of the knob and pulled.  The plank resisted at first.  With more effort, paired with a creaking noise, the hatch rose up to meet me.  My eyes fell upon a wood ladder and electric lights that beckoned me in.

I looked around one last time.  I pondered if some neighborhood warden or community watch group representative would jump out at me.  If I was not allowed to climb a water tower, was it okay to descend into this mysterious tunnel?

There was no one around to stop my adventure.  I lowered my legs onto the fourth and fifth rungs.  I grabbed the top rung sturdily with my right hand.  I pulled the door over my head and began my descent.

The ladder was not overwhelming.  I climbed down three or four flights and then found my feet on solid ground.  The lighting fixtures were hardly modern.  They looked like something one would find in a bunker.  They were affixed to the wall in a purely practical fashion, metal bars covering the bulbs.  The wire was strung and stapled loosely along the ceiling.  What really captivated me was the interior itself.

The floor, walls, and ceiling, were all of aged wood.  Oak, spruce, pine, cedar, it was as if an entire forest had been used to construct this space.  None of it appeared to be machine-processed.  Some of the lines were a little off.  I noticed a knot or two that jutted out slightly from the wall.  Every surface had been planed, sanded, and finished.  The walls were sealed.  The structure appeared sturdy.  Yet the craftsmanship did not yield to the demands of perfection.  I could almost hear the workers at the end of the day clap their hands together, take a step back, and say with contentment, “Yep.  That’ll do.”

Leaving the ladder and hatchway behind, I ventured farther into the structure.  I encountered a mighty hallway.  Giant oaks stood as pillars some thirty feet high.  They maintained some of their limbs, now used to hold more lights and crossbeams.  I walked and walked and the columns still stretched in front of me.

Slowly, the noise level began to rise.  What had been a soft murmuring grew into crowd noises.  A belly laugh echoed from an unknown older fellow coming from the right.  I heard a glass break to the left.  A whooshing sound caused me to duck.  I fell to the ground as something flew over my head and screamed.

From the floor I was able to get my bearings.  The hall opened up into a large space.  Immediately in front of me was a giant swing.  The rope, long enough to hold someone three times my height, was attached to a wood seat that was occupied by an ecstatic child.  Her pigtails flapped about without a care.  Each back and forth of the seat seemed to last ages.  The girl couldn’t have been happier.

“Oh, shoot.  You okay?”  A man with an apron and short curly hair rushed forward.  His plaid shirt fit with the décor, as did his strong arms that pulled me to my feet.  “We don’t get a lot of people using that entrance”, he apologized as he ushered me off to the side.

“What… what is this?”  I stammered as I tried to make sense of it all.  “Who is ‘we’?  Where am I?”

“Ah, a first timer”, the man said as he chuckled.  Taking the cloth he had tucked in the back of his belt, he did his best to brush the debris off of me.  “My name’s Thomas, and welcome to The Chapel.”

“Chapel?”  I looked up to the roof with its cathedral-like height.  “I can see that…”

“Well sure”, Thomas said.  “There’s more to it than that, though.  See, it’s an acronym of sorts.  The best we can understand it, they started listing off the types of trees that were used to make this place.  We got ourselves some Cedar, some Hemlock, a bit of Adler, plenty of Pine, lots of Evergreens—“

“Which is only the first of the flaws in the silly name of yours”, a new voice interrupted.

“You’ll have to forgive Stuart.  He… well, he has opinions.”

“I should not be listened to because of my opinions”, Stuart replied.  “I should be respected because of the factual nature of my comments and the lack of such in yours.”

black-moustache-clipartStuart took a moment for me to comprehend.  A bit shorter than average, he made up for it with a slight bulge around the sides of his shirt.  The sleeves on his white button-up were rolled up past his shoulders and creased immaculately.  His black shoes had a picture-perfect polish about them.  The moustache that took up residence on his face caught the light like only waxed areas could.  The tufts of hair threatened to overwhelm his features should the two waves of follicles ever crash into each other.  All this was less noticeable than the top hot that added a good six inches to his height.

“As I was saying”, Stuart continued as his moustache moved and jostled excitedly like two baby seals fighting for a fish.  “Allowing Evergreens as a key feature of the acronym is ridiculous.  It is more of a category or genre of tree while the other titles can be confined to a species.  Using Evergreens in a title conflicts with the others and should therefore be rejected.”

“I mean, you could always use Elm trees”, I offered.

“Elms?”  Stuart shook his head violently back and forth.  His top hat considered jumping off to a more stable resting place, but it hung in there long enough for its owner to pull it down securely.  Gesturing about the great structure, Stuart turned his gaze menacingly on me.  “Do you see any Elms here, sir?”

“Uh… no?  I have only been here about five minutes though.”

“Well I have been familiar with these grounds for over seven years”, he said with an air that was equal parts defiant and regal.  “I can assure you, no Elms were used in the construction of this majestic space.”

“Stuart thinks we should call the place ‘Chaps’.  Drop the ‘E’.”

“I think no such thing”, Stuart said as he rebuked Thomas.  “I am confident that a place like this needs no pithy name.  No label is required.  Putting a title on this building in no way enhances its existence.  Let it be.”  He nodded in agreement with his own statement and made his way to the nearby tables.

“What does the ‘L’ stand for?”

“Shh!”  Thomas rushed forward and waved his hands in front of me franticly.  “We’ve already woken the beast.  Best not to poke it with a stick.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked quieter this time, “what does the ‘L’ stand for?”

“We never really figured that out”, Thomas said as he leaned in close.  “Logs.  Lumber.  Something like that.  It drives him crazy.  ‘Chaps’ is a no-go, though.  It makes us sound like we have a mechanical bull.  Or that we’re a male strip club.  And I didn’t sign up for that.”

“Fair enough”, I said as I tilted my head and took in the people around me.  “That Stuart.  He sure is… curious.”

“Don’t pay him too much mind”, Thomas said.  “He’s our resident history buff, sure.  But he hasn’t even been here a year yet.”

“But he said—“

“Nope”, Thomas corrected.  “He’s been around the place for seven years.  As in, he came in the door once or twice before he started working here last year.  But he’s hardly the pro he claims to be.  Drops more things than any three staff combined.  That top hat keeps falling over his eyes.”

“Yeah that is quite the—“

“Affectation?”

“I was going to say ‘quirk’”, I offered.

“He’s got to keep all his opinions somewhere”, Thomas laughed.  “And they’d never all fit in a baseball cap.”

“So this Chapel”, I said.  “What is it exactly?  I mean, it’s not…”

“A cult?  Nope.”

“Did I say cult”, I asked surprised.

“Oh”, Thomas said.  “Sorry.  Some folks see us in our ‘bunker’ and start assuming.  The Chapel is a gathering place.  A restaurant that’s short on menu items and big on recreational space.  Our menu’s only one page and that’s fine with us.”

“How long has this been here?  How’ve I missed it all these years?”

“Now that’s where Stuart comes in handy.  See, we’ve got all kinds of junk and papers scattered around here.  He’s the one that who delved into all of that.  I can give you the general idea though.”

Thomas gestured towards a nearby table and pulled out a high-back pine chair.  He motioned for me to take a seat while he sat in the chair opposite.

“Near as we can figure, this place has stood for about an hundred years.  Folks came out here to start logging.  Clear the ground for new folks coming in while making a living off the tree industry in the process.  This is the early 1900’s, mind you.

“These guys, they knew that sooner or later they’d have to find a way to get their lumber out of here.  They started off clearing a long, straight path where a railway could be placed.  Chopped down all the trees for the route, got the ground nice and clear, and flattened the land for those tracks.

“The problem with that plan was that they had to find a railroad to connect to.  Then World War I comes around and these guys find that their Sitka Spruces are in high demand.  And they still have plenty of hills and rocks between them and civilization.  Happily, right about that time, logging trucks start coming around.  So they ditch their plans for the railway.  But they’ve got plenty of extra trees that they’ve cut down to get to the spruce.  And they got lots of workers that don’t want to sleep out in the cold or trek back to town.  That’s when they started building this massive place.

“We don’t know how they got away with it”, Thomas said with a shrug.  “You’d think those wars would take all the trees they could get their hands on.  But it appears that they didn’t have a whole lot of oversight.  Long as the spruce trees kept coming, the bosses didn’t worry too much about it.  Plus it seems like all the loggers’ free time was spent on building this place.

“Then they spent the years after the wars finishing this place.  They didn’t ever finish the rest of the land like they’d planned to.  Sure they built road for the trucks.  Most of them got turned into what are the neighborhood streets.  That’s why they all have tree names.  The building itself?  They let it reside comfortably in the terrain.

“It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened.  Plenty of cities have been built right over to make way for new roads and buildings.  You can go on tours underneath the new city and see all the old structures and leftover boilers and things like that.”  Thomas sat up a touch straighter and grinned.  “The big difference between those places and ours is that our place never closed its doors.  People have been using this building continuously the whole time.”

“That’s so cool”, I said, enthralled by my surroundings.  “I’m trying to figure out how I didn’t know about this place before.”

“You have to remember that progress kept going all around”, Thomas offered.  “We have houses built on all sides of us.  They rest on top of that hill over here.  Then there’s that development over there.  We still have a fair number of trees on all sides of us too.  That’s the thing about naming roads after trees.  People want those streets to be filled with the plants they’re named for.  Plus, with all the terrain and hills, about two thirds of our structure is underground.  From the street, we’re only a narrow entryway that looks like a church or an old library.  And six days out of seven, everybody’s going to drive right by this place.”

“You don’t advertise?”  I looked at the bustling staff and couldn’t comprehend it.  “No sign out front?  No online reviews?”

“We never really saw the need.  Plenty of people come through here.  You should see the nights we tie the swings up and put out our wooden bowling pins.  Floor’s not as flat as some might like, but it still draws a crowd.  It sure makes an awful echoing noise whenever someone gets a strike, though.  Every few years we get some fancy acrobats coming through and they have a grand old time, hooking up their gear from the rafters and putting on a high-wire show.  Little skinnier arena than they’re used to, but they say it keeps them fresh.

“They all found their way to our doorstop.  If too many people show up, it’ll lose something.”  Thomas pulled the cloth from his belt again and concentrated on sopping up a small puddle on the table.  “We’d get too busy.  Couldn’t have the one on one that we all like.  Or they’d try to replicate it.”

Thomas shook his head.  A tinge of frustration started to build in his voice as he rubbed at the table.

“A businessman would come across us and try to market us.  Try to recreate our structure in some mini-mall.  Then we’d have to pay for their advice.  We’d have to raise prices.  We’d have to bring in more customers.  We’d be obsessed with perspectives and expected growth and…”

Thomas put the towel behind his back and shook his head.

“It wouldn’t be worth it.  We’re doing fine.  Those that need to find us; well they make their way to our doorstop when the time’s right.  You can’t force these things.”

“True enough”, I replied.  “’When the student is ready, the master will appear.’”

“Ain’t that the truth?  Though we are saving up money to replace our septic tank.  Some improvements would be nice”, he admitted.

800px-Lid_of_a_rural_septic_tank“The first patent for a septic tank was granted in 1881”, announced a familiar voice.  “Of course, those earlier contraptions began failing in the 1960’s.  We should have addressed that years ago.  And the two-prongued outlets?  Come now.”  Stuart shook his head and sent his hat wobbling once more.  “Surely we can upgrade and simultaneously continue to provide the environment our clientele desires.”

“The man’s got a point”, Thomas agreed as he stood up and pulled a pad from his front pocket.  “I figure I’ve yammered at you long enough.  You hankering for a meal or something?  Some flapjacks?  Gritz?  First meal’s on the house.  Maybe you want to sink your teeth into a heaping plate of biscuits and gravy?”

Crud.  Teeth. 

“Sorry, I’m actually late for an appointment”, I said as I rose to my feet.  “I’ll definitely come back though.”

“Let me at least show you an easier way out of here”, Thomas offered.  “There is less of a likelihood of the swings bonking you on the noggin at the main entrance.”

I watched as the building widened out for the tables and main gathering area, then thinned itself down by a plain set of oak doors.

“Here ya go”, Thomas said as he pulled one of the door opens.  “Now you know where to find us.”

“I sure do”, I replied.  “Thanks for the tour, Thomas.  It’s been a pleasure.”

“Anytime… How about that?  I forgot to ask your name.  My bad.”

“Not a problem.  It’s Wilson.”

“Be seeing you soon, Wilson”, Thomas said as he went back inside.

I walked out to the street and turned around.  Looking at it from the outside it was an unassuming building.  The frame appeared to be tall and narrow, but altogether average.  It was wedged between houses with overturned tricycles on their lawns and parked vehicles.

I had passed the road before.  Yet I had not known what to look for.

I walked to the corner and regarded the nearby street sign.  In what I took to be a mocking tone, it declared itself boldly:  Twentieth Avenue.

Color my World

“If you want an interesting party sometime, combine cocktails and a fresh box of crayons for everyone.” -Robert Fulghum

(My sister is traumatized at losing her favorite crayon.  So this is for her.)

**********

In Owen’s world, navy blue ruled over all.  The other colors were meager pebbles in the mighty ocean of navy blue.

The blue jeans that he wore in his self-portraits were navy blue.  The ocean, the sky, the bird, the mailbox, the rays shooting out of alien spacecraft; they all had to be navy blue.  Even the goldfish.

crayon-clip-art-4T9ERzjTE“But Owen”, his mother would inquire, “why is the goldfish blue?  Shouldn’t it be, just maybe, a little more orangey?”

“Mom”, Owen protested as he rolled his eyes.  “The goldfish is in the blue lake.  That makes it blue.”

“Okay, but why are the rocks at the bottom of the lake grey and the leaves at the bottom green?”

“I’m drawing Mom”, was Owen’s reply.  His mother did not understand his artistic choices.

As it goes with all favored crayons, the navy blue had seen better days.  Even with Owen’s reluctance to share his cherished possession (“No!  You get cyan.  I’m using navy blue.  Use coral or sumthin’.”), the crayon had still lost its point long ago.  What had once been a peak or a point was now worn down to a very obvious nub.  The tip was as blunt and round as Owen’s chubby fingers.  Often, his mother would call him to dinner, interrupting his latest landscape, and find that he had just as much crayon on his hands as on the paper.

The wrapper was torn down to half its original size.  The dozens of other crayons towered above navy blue in their cardboard container.  Yet Owen’s loyalty to his treasured selection remained.

In front of him was his greatest masterpiece.  Owen scribbled in the finishing touches.  A few streaks here or there made their way to the tabletop.  In a flurry, Owen filled in the last blank spot and beamed at his work.  Two blue cars racing in front of a blue sky, around a blue lake as they passed a blue house and approached a blue stoplight.

He wiggled out of his plastic play chair.  The blobs of flesh that covered his legs and arms jiggled as he slid over and stood up.  With his artwork in one hand and his precious crayon in the other, he ran to the kitchen to show his mother.  His chin, tummy, and limbs all jostled and bobbed as he bounded across the carpet.

Then, just before entering the kitchen, an obstacle appeared.  On his over-stuffed pillow (navy blue, of course), Charles Barkley lay sleeping.  His jowls rested on his front paws while his hind legs jutted out.  Barkley knew how to use his massive frame to occupy floor space.  And laps.  And yards.  And the backseats of cars.

dog-sleeping-RcgELQ-clipartOwen had not been running to pet or play fetch.  Owen had been running to encourage art appreciation.  In his zeal, he did not notice Barkley.  But his legs did not miss tripping over the hind legs that were blocking the kitchen doorway.

Part flying, part tripping, and part flying, Owen was flung into the kitchen.  He bounced off of the linoleum, falling short of a wooden chair, and found himself at his mother’s feet.

“You okay?”

Owen nodded, more confused than anything.  He looked at his hands.  His artwork was crumpled, but otherwise fine.  His other works had survived far less.

“Whatchya got there?”  His mother kneeled down, gently took the paper from his fluffy hands, and smiled in appreciation.  “Shall we put this on the fridge with the others?” Owen’s mom pointed to the already cluttered refrigerator door and started searching for a free magnet.

It was then that Owen looked at his hands.  His eyes got wide.  Panic set in.  What should have been his mighty navy blue crayon was now a fragment of its former self.  He looked around and found another chunk of blue a few feet away.  The force of the fall and the surprise of the event had caused his thumb to snap the crayon in half.

Owen’s mom turned back to him and saw him waddle towards the crayon piece.  He very quietly, very slowly, picked up the crayon bit.  He looked at each hand.  First he observed the left one with the crayon still in part of a wrapper.  Then he looked to the right one, stubby on the top, jagged at the bottom.  A confused look loomed large on his furrowed brow.  Back and forth he moved his neck, his eyes getting wider with each turn.

“Sweetie?  It’s only a crayon”, his mother tried to reassure him.  “It will still work fine.”

Owen did not hear his mother’s words.  A thought had entered his mind.  An unbelievable idea.  A notion that changed his world.  The thought swirled and built in his brain.  It burst out of his mouth in a mighty exclamation.

“I have two blue crayons!”

“Why yes”, his mom said with a smile.  “I guess you do.”

“You wanna color with this one?”  Owen offered up what had been the bottom half of his crayon, holding his left open.

“Maybe in a bit”, his mother answered.  “I need to finish this up.  Why don’t you go put that one in a safe place for now?”

“Okay!”  Owen ran back to his coloring table, joyfully plopping the navy blue crayon chunk in its cardboard slot, secure amongst the other crayons in the box.  He then grabbed another piece of paper, more excited than ever about all he could draw with twice the crayon power at his disposal.

Bus Stops and Abandoned Backpacks

“The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.” -P. G. Wodehouse

**********

This is one of those stories.  You know the kind.  The type where you sit around a pub table at night, talking about things that you still find a little hard to believe.  Yet, you know that it is probably in your best interest to keep these sorts of stories from your Mom.  Because, well, keeping your parental figures from having heart attacks is in everyone’s best interest.  Darn it though, anecdotes want to be told.

I find it rather relaxing to take leisurely strolls.  On one particular route, I rarely encounter another person on the sidewalk.  There is only one stoplight between myself and home.  The route has trees, long stretches of pavement, and is quite low in stress.

Except for that one time.

bus-stop-1452777239g7iThere is a bus stop just as the road curves.  Rarely does a bus stop there in the evenings.  Crowds of people do not cram into that little depot.  It sits quietly, unassuming, content to be whether or not it is serving any real purpose.

On that particular day, its purpose was to play host to a backpack.  It was a rather large, black backpack.  There was no host, no people meandering about that would quickly return for the bag.  It was an abandoned item; a mysterious package.

I have found items of value before and I try to return them.  Thus I unzipped the main pouch, and found large amounts of Mike’s Hard Lemonade.  Plenty of the stuff filled into that backpack.  I really think half of the weight was made of these cans sloshing about.

I started to walk, thinking it would be easier to find some ID at home.  But the bag was heavy and I was curious.  So I opened a second pouch, moved some more Hard Lemonade, and kept trying to arm myself with more information.

Which is when I found the gun.

There are plenty of people who would be alarmed at the steps I had already taken.  “Don’t you listen to the intercom system at any airport?  Like, ever?  Report unattended items!  It could be a bomb!  See something, say something!  Call the cops!  You could have died.”

cardboard-box-155480_960_720Calm down.  People call in bomb threats to create a sense of panic.  They want a sense of fear to permeate the world.  If they can get on the news for forcing a building to be evacuated, then they win.  The world gets shaken up and they get their little excitement.  If they are really determined, then they will make an actual bomb and see how much carnage they can create.

This bag was in the middle of nowhere.  No pedestrians, no houses, located at the base of a rather bare hill.  If it had been a bomb, they would have claimed exactly one victim.  Apologies, but I am not spiffy enough to warrant my own headline, I do not care how slow of a news day it is.  There is a twisted logic to causing terror, and in my estimation, there was no payoff for anyone to leave the bag there.  So that was my thought process when I unzipped the thing.  Take precautions, sure.  But shirk panic.

I once had a woman come into my store.  She was very concerned and nervous.  She asked if I would call security or the police.  When I pressed her, she pointed to a black plastic box sitting outside our door.  It was a mouse trap.  We have them all over the building.

All that said, I do hate guns.  I had no desire to see if it was loaded.  I know enough not to handle a firearm without knowing if it is loaded and I certainly did not want my fingerprints on any more items than they had already touched.

The paranoid folks that worry about bombs will be pleased to know that my concerned side kicked in as I put the cans back in the bag.  What if the owner comes back now?  What if they see me walking down the sidewalk with their gun?  Is this a violent individual who will chase after me and might be carrying a second gun?  What if a child comes across this bag and finds the gun?  Do I need to worry about drugs or other weapons in the bag?  Do I really want to walk this a few miles home?

I wanted that bag gone.  And the closest business was only a few blocks away.

Picture if you will.  You are sitting in a residential business.  You have less than an hour left in your shift.  You have cleared off the clutter of your desk for the day.  Maybe you need to make a phone call or two, telling customers their requests have been fulfilled.  You start pining for the weekend that just cruelly ended; far too soon for your liking.

business-1067978_960_720Then a young man walks through the door.  He is carrying a large bag.  You have never seen this man before.  He comes up to you and says, “I need to use your phone to call the police.  Is that okay?”  When you point to the lobby phone and mildly ask what is happening, he tells you things you would rather not hear.  Things like, “There’s something in, I, the police need to come get this.”  You look to your supervisor, raise your eyebrows a bit, and reply, “If it is a bomb, I’m not sure I want it in here.”

Poor gal.  All the people in the city that carry phones with them and she gets visited by the one guy who does not.  I made the call brief though.  I went outside the building, as far from their business as I could, and waited for the police to arrive.

Not too much later, along came a police SUV.  A calm and pleasant officer approached me, put on her blue gloves, and took the bag.  I gave her a brief recap, pointed to the areas that my hands had touched, and made sure she knew what section the gun was in.  She took it and made her way back to the station to x-ray it.

I considered myself the good little citizen.  I had followed my Sesame Street training and called the authorities.  For all the news stories and controversies about police there are out there, I am glad that there is someone to call when weapons are found.  I decided that all was well, even if I was a little worried about the kinds of people that were out there leaving backpacks with weapons.  Were they part of some Hunger Games-esque, underground reality show where they had to kill or be killed?  Were drug runners moving in and expanding their territory?  Had a government drop off been intercepted?  No matter what my imagination contrived, the gun was off the streets.  No shootings today.

I received a phone call from the officer an hour later.  It had not been a gun.  It had been a paintball gun.  (Which, in my definition, is still a gun.  See the second word there?  Gun.  But I let the officer define terms since it is her field.)   Some ID was inside, so they were calling to have the belongings picked up.

I can sense the admiration from here.  Clearly I am a hero for the masses.  Saving the world from… getting little dots of color splattered on clothing.  Stay back Captain Kirk, I got this!  No red shirts today!  Recreational sports equipment, fear my might!  Rawr!

I shook my head and went back to my life.  The drama had resolved itself, all except for one tiny detail.  What the sam hill was with all that lemonade?

A Class Act

I never let schooling interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain

**********

Elin found herself struggling to stay awake.  She tried to sneak in a nap on her desk, but she encountered the same problem that every student at John Quincy Adams High had.  student-desk-mdThere was only one way to sit comfortably in the chair-desk combination.  If one tried to lean forward, fold their arms, and use the desk as a pillow, they quickly found that the desk was so high that it dug into their chest.  If they tried to limply slouch against the attached chair, the low lumbar frame threatened to send them falling backwards onto the ground in a majestic head-over-heels one-eighty.  Elin had seen it happen many a time.  Once, after a particularly fun weekend made up of a hot date and some movie marathoning, she had almost succumbed herself.  That’s what friends are for.

At the desk to her left was Katelyn and at the desk to her right was Stan.  The three of them made for an unbeatable team.  Katelyn was practical and organized, Stan was creative, and Elin kept them focused.  On that almost-fateful morning, Katelyn had kicked Elin awake and Stan had slid forward and quietly pushed her back into her chair when she started to tumble from her chair.  The desk had squeaked and squonked.  Elin had shrieked in surprise.  Yet, thanks to her friends, by the time Mr. Simonds had turned his attention away from the board and to her, there was nothing to see.

Mr. Simonds was quite the sight himself.  He was a flurry of energy.  Mr. Simonds was sometimes on time for his Applied Civics class.  (“It’s History, guys.  Just call it History class.  Social Studies if you want to feel like you’re special”, Mr. Simonds had said.  On the first day he removed his special occasion-fedora and took off his glasses.  Elin had heard him mutter something about “politicians” and “frickin’ board” as he breathed on his glasses and rubbed them on his wrinkled shirt.)

There was an ongoing bet as to whether or not Mr. Simonds would make it inside the door before class started.  Elin had no spare income to risk when it came to the wager.

“We want you to enjoy your youth”, her parents had cooed with matching grins.  “You have plenty of time to be an adult later.  You’ll be making money for decades.  Don’t worry about it yet.”  The no-job mandate necessitated her asking for money every time she had a date.  Which meant that she had to find out the nicest way to ask them each time.  Which invariably meant that her parents wanted to meet the guy first.  Whether or not her parents would approve of her next suitor was enough gambling for Elin’s life.

The rules were simple.  Linus, the most timid person in class, was in charge of holding the bets.  He was a threat to no one and therefore the least likely to think he could cheat the winners out of their cash.  (“Suspenders?  Really?  Oh Linus”, Elin often thought to herself.)

three-men-gambling-sitting-at-poker-table-playing-cards-betting-party-pen-ink-drawingThe odds were fifty/fifty that Mr. Simonds would be on time.  Other days he had a shot at having his briefcase open before the bell, but he always seemed extra rushed on Mondays.  The betting was always the most active then.  (Mr. Simonds often wondered why his class was always so punctual.  The truth was that no one wanted to miss out on the action; not even the never-bets like Elin.)

Monday was also coffee day.  It was guaranteed.  A sure thing.  Once Geoffrey, the mastermind behind the betting, had offered odds that Mr. Simonds wouldn’t have a cup of coffee.  Only once.  He got cleaned out that day.  Geoffrey adapted.  Now Linus held stacks of ones dependent on whether or not Mr. Simonds would spill on himself.  Those odds were pretty well set at five to one.  It was Elin who had made the best suggestion.

She saw him rush to get out of his car once.  There had been no one around him, the ground was clear, and no puppies were nipping at his heels.  Yet, Mr. Simonds proved himself to be incapable of getting out of his car without dropping half his things.  As he leaned to retrieve them, he dropped the other half.  Then, apparently out of nowhere, Mr. Simonds tripped.  Not a simple, catch the edge of one’s toe on the crack in the sidewalk, skip from one foot to the next to regain one’s balance, thus resulting in an undignified gait.   No, this had been a full-on, no coming back from it, tripping over one’s feet, arms flailing out to the sides, shoe flying off of one foot, face slamming into arm which slams onto the concrete, cavalcade of clumsiness.  Had he not left his coffee cup on the top of his car, he would have been inconsolable.  (As it turned out, he dropped it in the hallway; trying awkwardly to open his classroom door.)

129272-049-d6bf85edElin almost felt bad suggesting the bet to Geoffrey.  However it had been too delicious to pass up.  Geoffrey set the odds at an hundred to one and even let Elin name it.  She christened it “The Dick Van Dyke”, and looked around in mortification as she realized no one else had been exposed to the classics like she had.  Still, she felt the name was perfect and stuck to her conviction.  (Also, unbeknownst to them, she wanted to salute her parents’ love of the classics.)

With a payoff that high, Geoffrey had established a hard set of rules.  He and the bet-maker had to be witness to the event.  Geoffrey was a stickler when it came to an hundred to one odds.  No one had ever collected before.  “I just saw a Van Dyke”, kids would scream as they pleaded for money.  Geoffrey would only shake his crewcut-covered head.  “No really, look at him!”  “He always looks like that”, was everyone’s standard reply.  Mr. Simonds was a bit of a mess and it was on display for the school to see.  That was part of the reason why people still took the Van Dyke.  Everyone held out hope that they might see it.  The rumors would be borne out in some epic explosion of limbs and paperwork.  Perhaps there would be some caffeine splashes to top it off.  Hope ran eternal in the halls of JQA; especially where Applied Civics was concerned.

Turning to her right, she saw Stan fidgeting.  Stan’s creativeness never really came out neat and tidy.  Little sparks of creative energy shot out of him, scarring any bystanders that got too close.  He was always a sight to see.  This morning, as Stan tried to get his hair under control, he was in rare from.

“You doing okay there Stan?”  Elin spoke quietly as she checked in with her friend.  Her concern and subdued tone had a two-pronged purpose.   One, she knew Stan hated having his picture taken.  Two, she knew it must frustrate him having his ex-girlfriend watch his frustration from two seats away.

Elin had tried to be happy for Stan and Katelyn.  Quietly, and sometimes in frustrated rants to her parents, she knew that her two friends dating was never going to work.  Katelyn was pretty, contained, and organized.  Stan was a bit spastic, sometimes incoherent, and fraught with self-doubt.  Elin had been a bit confused when the two started lingering behind her in the halls, whispering a short conversation between classes or just happening to be talking when she arranged to meet one of them.  She had her suspicions, but wasn’t prepared for seeing the two of them kissing and groping each other like two octopi super-glued together.  And behind the school dumpsters?  Elin knew that sort of tackiness had to have been Stan’s doing.  She just couldn’t believe that Katelyn had gone along with it.

Sitting between the two of them, once an innocent situation; had turned into quite a chore.  A month ago it had required Elin to pass notes between the two.  Their mutual love could not possibly wait that extra fifty-five minutes to describe how they pined for the sight of each other and how they yearned to proclaim their love.  Elin had considered switching seats with Katelyn, but she was afraid that Mr. Simonds wouldn’t remember her name and his seating chart would wreck her GPA.  Sure, Katelyn’s grade was only .2 lower than Elin’s.  But when hitting your parents up for cash, every grade point counts.  So she had been relegated, quite literally, to the friend caught in the middle.  And that was only last month.

This month, she was struggling to be the post break-up friend.  And both of her friends had equal claim to her.  When Elin would ask Katelyn how she was doing, her English-loving friend would pull out a pad that she kept just for this sort of correspondence, and scribble out a detailed note, full of adjectives and adverbs, heartily fleshing out with alarming precision, exactly how she felt.  However that turned out to be the key to the three’s current status.

vector-illustration-of-two-high-school-students-sitting-at-their-desks-passing-a-note-which-is-actually-a-blank-sheet-of_16362691As Mr. Simonds had strolled up and down the aisles, trying to find the way to best present the information about the electoral college, he passed by Katelyn’s desk.  Katelyn was scribbling furiously and therefore did not notice Mr. Simonds approach as he discussed the pros and cons of Texas and California’s weighty presence.

“What’s this?”  He pulled the pad out from underneath Katelyn’s leaden arm.  She leaned on it with all her might, but offered no audible response.  Katelyn was obedient; the good one.  She might indulge in a little wager once a month, but she’d never be risky enough to take the Van Dyke.  She behaved.  So when a teacher caught her, she had one response.  She sat there like a frightened rabbit. One could almost see her nose twitch and her eyes go wide, ears flattening down as she awaited her demise.

“That’s mine”, came a voice to the right.

“Yours?”  Mr. Simonds looked to Stan with a skeptical eye.  “This”, he said, holding up the piece of paper with damning words written in feminine cursive, soft and flowing, “is yours?  How so?”

“Oh, well, that’s easy.”  Elin still remembered the look of concentration that had been evident on Stan’s face as he worked out the answer.  “See, Katelyn and I, we broke up.”

“You were dating?”

“Sure.  Everybody knew that.”

“Everybody?  Did you hold a press conference that I missed out on?”

“Huh?”

Mr. Simonds shook his head.  “Never mind.  So is this some sort of communal property?  A  hotly disputed matter in your distribution of shared treasures?”

“No, nothing like that”, Stan replied.  “See, I might have gone off on her when we broke up.  Said a few things I shouldn’t have.  You know how it can be when you end it with someone you care about, right Mr. Simonds?”

A look flashed over Mr. Simonds face.  He quickly hid it as he looked out the window, his fingers holding the note reached to adjust his tie.  Then they returned to their previous position as he remembered he wasn’t wearing one.  He took a slow breath and turned his attention back to Stan.  “I fail to see how my relationships have a bearing on this matter.”

“Well”, Stan continued.  “I was all mad saying this and that.  Katelyn was all, ‘You’re gonna eat those words, Stan!’  Got quite upset.  And now, well, I realize that I shouldn’t have said what I did, y’know?  And I tried to apologize before class.  But she got all mad.  Starting writing on that pad.  She muttered, “Oh, you’re gonna eat these words all right.”

“These words?”  Mr. Simonds, for the first time, started to look at what was written on the paper.  Katelyn’s eyes somehow got even wider before she buried them behind her hands and shrunk into her desk.

“Well lemme see”, Stan sad as he leapt up and grabbed the paper from Mr. Simonds hand.  “Jerk, selfish, not worth…”, Stan pretended to read as he nodded his head.  “Yep.  These are them, Mr. Simonds.  So now, you know what I’m obligated to do.”

“And what exactly, is that?”

“This.”

crumpled-paper-ball-14477875Stan quickly crumpled up the paper and shoved it in his mouth.  Feverishly he worked to squish the paper down, chomping and gnashing with gusto.  Incredibly, by the time Mr. Simonds had collected himself, Stan was just swallowing the paper with an audible glump-like sound.  He turned to Katelyn, but his volume was raised for all to hear.

“Are you happy now, Katelyn?  I ate those words.  Now give me back my headphones.”

The class cheered.  Rumor had it that Geoffrey had stood on his desk and even Linus had managed to clap a few times until the fear of discovery overtook him.  Elin never knew for sure; she was too busy staring at Stan.  Part of her wanted to jump up and hug him.  Another part wanted to punch him in the stomach.   She knew he would pay for his moment of valor.

“See me after class, Stan.”

“Certainly sir”, Stan replied as he victoriously sat back in his chair.

“And Katelyn.”

“Yes sir?”  She had removed her hands from her face just in time to see Stan’s performance, but the fright from before was now replaced with disbelief.

“Please restrict your writings and notes to those of a scholarly nature.”

“Yes sir.”

“And for goodness sake child”, Mr. Simonds said before shuddering.  “Give the boy his headphones back.  You don’t want to risk his questionable hygiene.”

“Yes sir”, Katelyn said with a smile.

Elin wondered that day if the two of them hadn’t dated already; would that action have been enough to get them together?  Thankfully, it served the purpose of making the three of them friends again.  Yet the former-lovers still tried to hide their inadequacies from the other.  Elin continued to have the role of mediator thrust upon her.  One does not want their ex to see them struggle with everyday hiccups.

Elin looked to Stan, former eater-of-paper, a pathetic victim of his hair.

“This little clump is out to make a fool of me”, Stan lamented.  “And I’m irked that my parents cut back my lunch money.  Stupid picture day”, he said as he attended to his hair with no result.

“What, they won’t give you three dollars for lunch anymore?”11954269361175104003moneybags_john_olsen_01-svg-med

“Well, they will”, Stan said as he licked his hand and tried to subdue his locks in a cat-like manner, “but they won’t give me six bucks anymore.”

“What in the world do you need six dollars for?”  Katelyn looked over at Stan, looking past his hair issues for now and addressing his finances.  “How many lunches are you buying?”

“I was buying two”, he said to his two friends.  “Kind of.”

“Explain”, Elin said with a sigh.

“Well, my parents are trying to get Crystal to be responsible with money.”

“Your little sister is more responsible than you are”, Katelyn retorted.

“Yes, but my parents don’t know that.  So they’ve been giving me six dollars to buy both our lunches.”

“Uh huh”, Elin replied.  “And exactly how much of Crystal’s three dollars has found their way to her?”

“Two”, Stan said quietly.

“Stan!”  His two friends showed their disbelief in unison.  Katelyn looked at Elin.  Elin looked at Katelyn.  Katelyn shrugged and then gestured towards Elin.  Elin nodded.   She then turned towards Stan, ready to attack.

“Stan, how is a teenage girl supposed to buy lunch with only two dollars?”

“I dunno.  I mean, whenever I see her in the cafeteria, she always has this group around her.  She’s always standing right by the serving area with trays heaped with food.  People are always clapping her on the back, hugging her.  Maybe her friends give her food.  She’s certainly popular enough.”

“So you think that is acceptable that her friends feed her.  And they feed her because you, her brother, her kin, her family; are too selfish?  That you’re stealing nutrients from her body?”

“Oh come on”, Stan said.  “She eats plenty at home.  This is not some starving child in a third-world country.  You should see this gal and her snack foods.  I’m only keeping a dollar.  Well, was.”

“And what”, Katelyn asked, “were you spending all these extra dollars on?  It wasn’t on me.”

“Hey, this is not an ex conversation.  This is a sibling conversation.  We agreed not to have those before class, remember?  We get all mad and yell-y.”

“Well then I’ll ask it”, Elin interrupted.  “Hey Stan, where’d all that money go?”

“I had to pay back Geoffrey.”

“And what was so expensive that you went into debt with Geoffrey?  Some cool new techno gadget?”

Stan shrank a solid two inches in posture.  A sheepish grin appeared.

“Ugh”, replied Katelyn.

Elin responded by smacking Stan upside the head.

“I think you two know me a little too well”, Stan said.

“What was it this time?  What did you have to have?”

“Elin, you wouldn’t believe it.  This is like, the coolest thing ever”, Stan said as his excitement took over.

“What?”

“It’s a remote controlled truck.  Well, kind of.  The EMC-0815 is more like a remote-controlled platform.  You should see the bed on this sucker.  It can carry anything short of a toddler.  I mean, a dog could sit on this thing.  It’s huge.  Powerful too.  This sucker can zip all over the backyard.  Well worth the money, I assure you.  This thing is like a drone, but on ground.”

“Because buying a drone would be silly.”drone-in-clear-sky

“Of course.”

“Well, at least he has some common sense”, Katelyn interjected.

“Some”, Elin quipped.

“Come on girls”, Stan said.  “You think I would buy a drone?  Pff.  No way.  At least, not until the price point comes down.  Thus suckers aren’t cheap.”

“So you’ve spent all your sister’s money—“

“Not all, Katelyn”, Stand interrupted.  “Some.”

“—on a glorified food car?”

“What’s a food car?”

“Oh come on”, Elin replied.

“The food car”, Katelyn repeated.

“No really.  What’s this food car?”

“In the cafeteria”, Katelyn answered.  “You pay five bucks and it zips your food to you?”

“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about”, Stan said.

“You eat in the cafeteria every day!”  Elin shook her head.  Stan could be very selective in what he allowed his senses to perceive.

“Lunch is thirty-five minutes”, Stan replied.  “That’s two and a half minutes to get there and two and a half to get to class.  If I scarf down my food in five, that only leaves me twenty-five minutes for video games.  I don’t look around and see what others at doing at lunch.  My guys and I have high scores to battle over.”

“You’ve never heard someone call out, ‘Food car!’ during lunch?”

“No Elin, I don’t think I have.”  Stan stopped and thought.  “Wait, you mean ‘Football!’?  That?”

“No Stan.  Food.  Car.”

“I always thought they were yelling ‘Football!’.”

“Why would they be yelling that during lunch?”

“Why would they paint half their face one color and the other half another color?”

“You know Elin”, Katelyn offered, “I’ve always wondered about that one myself.  He has a point.”

“And that’s why you two dated”, Elin responded.

“Unfair!”

“Can we get back to this food car thing?”  Stan was confused and it didn’t sit well with him.  “There’s an EMC-0815 roaming the halls of this school and I don’t know about it?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

“We thought you already knew”, Katelyn replied.

“Yeah”, Elin said.  “You pay five bucks, they put your food on the thing—“

“EMC-0815.”

“Sure, that”, Elin continued, “and it drives right over to your table.  Gives you more time to visit with your friends and you don’t have to get up.  Put your order and your money on the thing—“

“The EMC-0815.”

“Stop it.  –and it zooms your food right to you.”

“We thought you knew, what with your sister running it and all”, Katelyn said.

“What?!”  The look on Stan’s face was one that Elin would remember for years to come.  She never knew her friend’s face could go so white without a fever or plague involved.

“She really must rake in quite the tidy profit”, Elin said.

“Makes you wonder who the real scam artist in the family is, doesn’t it?”

“She’s dead”, Stan said as he started to get up from his seat.  “I’m going to her class and I’m gonna crush her.”

“Really?”  Katelyn looked across Elin and shook her head ever so slightly from side to side.

“You’re not going to do a thing”, Elin replied.

“Why wouldn’t I?”  Stan fumed with rage.

“For one thing”, Katelyn offered, “we have school in two minutes.”

“But think it out, Brainiac”, Elin ordered.  “If you want to get her in trouble, you have to tell your parents.”

“So?”

“So that would involve telling them that you bought a gizmo.”

“EMC-0815”, Stan said, much more subdued than previously.

black-and-white-vector-illustration-of-teen-arguing-with-parents_133942358“Which would involve telling them that you’ve been taking money from her.  And really, from them”, Katelyn pointed out.

A sigh was the only response Stan had.

“Although at this point, I’m pretty sure Crystal has enough money to buy her own gizmo”, Elin said.

“Yeah.  Probably one that can go up hills faster or have some sort of amphibious capabilities”, Katelyn added.

The bell rang, signaling the beginning of class and the end of Stan’s rage.  He sighed again and went back to fidgeting with his appearance.

“I think you resign yourself to calling it a draw”, Elin replied.

“And what’s with your hair today”, Katelyn asked.  “You look all, I dunno…, funny.”

“Mr. Simonds better be very entertaining today”, Stan said dejectedly.

The door burst open and Mr. Simonds, stumbling over himself, half fell into the room.  He was struggled to carry his briefcase, stacks of papers, a coffee cup, his keys, and his special occasion-fedora.  His necktie was thrown over his shoulder and one of his shoelaces had just come untied.

A look over horror swept over Geoffrey’s face.  He cast a panicked look at Linus, whose hands were quite full of bills.  Geoffrey reached for his wallet.  He worriedly kept one eye on Mr. Simonds as he scrambled to see how much cash he had brought today.

Fighting Amongst the Rubble

“War is little more than a catalogue of mistakes and misfortunes.”  -Winston Churchill

**********

Running his fingers through his thick brown hair, the soldier surveyed the terrain for what seemed like the millionth time.  Removing his hand from his thick curls, he let his eyes wander yet again over his home for the last few weeks.

14153771871721147961sewage-clipart-food-trucksWhat had once been a food truck now served as a modern day pillbox.  The tires had long ago been ripped off, and the ground it sat upon was uneven, but the brown-haired soldier still knew this was a better place to keep guard than most other options.  The smell of beans and grease still permeated the metal walls; a constant reminder of how things had been before the fighting broke out.  He couldn’t remember the last time he worried about salsa staining a white shirt.  Nothing was white anymore.  Not the clouds, not the walls on the now-crumbled houses, and certainly not his uniform.  The blood stains and muck had long ago become standard issue among his outfit.

The brown-haired man wondered how much longer he could hold out as the lone sentinel of his sector.  Relief had not come when it was supposed to, but that was hardly surprising given the state of things.  They certainly were not going to consider worth rushing for a meager soldier like him.  Bridges were destroyed, buildings had fallen, and man power seemed to be dwindling every day.  The soldier could not recall the last body that he had seen.  Well, had seen and had not shot on sight.  Such was the way with war.

He groaned as he reached for another can of tuna.  This is all the Melter’s fault, he thought to himself.

Early in the war, a new weapon had been released, one that attacked the enemy in two different ways.  Melter, as it was quickly labeled by the troops, was in reality, ToxiAlgae Compound No. 43.  It was a substance that reacted quickly with oxygen.  In a vacuum, the compound was quite harmless.  But when exposed, the results were devastating.  One part of the mass set about eating away at whatever was in its path; an acidic substance unlike anything ever seen, more destructive than any scientist had ever thought was possible.

(Galverson, the head scientist of the ToxiAlgae Project, was also the first victim.  Soldiers, not above giving credit where it was due, referred to being eaten by compound, as being “galved”.  Soon, like its pervasive substance, the phrase had grown to cover just about anything bad.)

A second aspect of the substance served to spread the compound even faster.  A nanite-based aspect of the creation, it was programmed to take whatever mass it ate away, use the broken down material, and reconstruct more of the Melter.  It made the acidic matter spread, increasing its destructive path.  There was a flaw in the programming, causing the nanites and their instructions to short out and cease functioning, but not before laying waste to their targets and a large radius of rubble.  Had it not been for that design flaw, most believed that the world would have been melted away to nothing within the initial few months of their skirmish.

Armored plating and concrete walls were disintegrated in seconds.  Nothing was Melter-proof.  When a solider saw another soldier, they somberly commented, “W.A.G.”; short hand for, “We’re All Galved.”  No building more than a story and a half remained.  A small portion placed on a skyscrapers’ foundation was enough to send the entire structure crashing down like a giant tree cut down in a forest.  And in this urban forest, structural engineers were quickly called upon to work the front lines.

stone-rubble-of-ruinOne skyscraper could be felled in such a way that it would take a row of buildings with it.  “Dominoes” was now a phrase uttered in hushed tones.  The children’s game took on a new meaning.  The word amongst the makeshift bunkers and foxholes was that in New York, eighteen blocks had been taken out by a single soldier, a careful plan, and seven grams of Melter.  The brown-haired man did not know if he believed that story, but he felt it was safer to assume such an attack had happened.

He choked down his tuna dinner, gagging at the familiar taste.  Covert agents often snuck onto enemy farms and the food chain with Melter.  They placed one tablet in a water-soluble capsule, dropped it in a feeding trough, and fled.  The mammals never had a chance.  Pre-Melter food had been the diet of choice, but the supply had quickly dwindled.

He tossed the remains of the food in the corner, unwilling to choke down the rest.  If it is like the last batch, I’ll probably throw it up soon enough.  Why add more fuel to the tank?

The tin can hit the metal wall of the soldier’s shelter and clanged loudly.  He cursed himself.  Seconds later, the reverberations finally ceased.  The brown-haired man poked his head up through the serving window.  The eerie silence returned.  With no electricity, no wildlife, and no fellow troops around, any small noise could be heard for blocks.  Metal hitting metal.  Stupid.  Just stupid.  Great way to broadcast my location.

He closed his eyes, letting his ears survey the site for him.  He let his forehead pull tight so that the tops of his ears rose ever-so slightly.  He tried to open them; taking in whatever noises he could hear with his most important sense.  He could not see an attack coming from behind, but he could listen for one.

He sat there with his eyes closed, concentrating.  Other than a light breeze he heard nothing.  Five minutes passed.  Then ten.  Twenty.  His jaw started to unclench.

Five more minutes, he thought to himself quickly.  If I don’t hear anything in five more minutes than I should be—

A pebble rolled.

The brown-haired soldier, with practiced silence, pulled his rifle closer to his eye.  He opened his right eye, aiming behind the scope while he continued to listen.

He was met with silence.

It could have been nothing.  The winds blew freer now, with no tall buildings to slow them down.  And the brown-haired man knew that buildings that had toppled months ago were still settling.  It could have merely been debris tumbling around.  The environment was only stretching its arms, yawning, and going back to sleep.  It was nothing to worry about.  Just like every other time.  There was never any reason for concern.

Except, when there had been.  He had learned his lesson from those times.

The brown-haired man felt his throat tighten as he tried to gulp down a dry breath.  He could have sworn he heard another shuffling of pebbles.  There, to his left, the sound of rubble being moved.  Is that a boot?  Is this man clomping his way to me?  He took a deep breath, willing his shaking hands to steady themselves.

I can do this.  He’s galved.  Not me.  Him.  You have the advantage.  The shelter.  This is just some pathetic loser waiting to be shot.  He doesn’t know what’s coming.

He could hear what he now knew for sure were footsteps.  Closer they came.  They tried to walk softly, whoever they were, but the boots fumbled on the rocky terrain.  The brown-haired man added slightly more pressure on the trigger.

From the corner of the food-truck’s window, a spray of dirt and rocks flew at the brown-haired man’s face.  He coughed, trying to breathe as he franticly clawed at the dirt that was blocking his vision.  Seconds later, a large rock struck above his right eye.

He fumbled with his weapon, firing blindly and receiving an outraged cry in response.

“Ow!  You galved up my leg you twit!”

“A rock?  You threw a rock at my eye?  That is how you fight a war, by giving out concussions?  That’s your plan?”  The brown-haired man hastened to see as blood began to trickle down his face.  Through his smeared vision, he could just make out a soldier in the other side’s uniform with a torn shirt.

“You judge my methods of engagement?  The Air-Animal Treaty of ’17 specifically states that all weapons are to fire a stunning shot first, and then lethal ammunition.  You are breaking the accord by trying to kill me like that.”  The man with the torn-shirt ripped a section off of his pants and set about wrapping his wound.

“You’re dictating terms of how I kill you?”  The brown-haired man shook his head.  “You guys really are a special kind of breed, aren’t you?”

“Unlike you cretins, Representative Louis would want us to fight with honor!”

“Well unlike you twerps, Representative Winston would want us to succeed.  As in, not getting shot by walking so loud the dead could hear.”

“This coming from the fellow who bangs his drum set to announce his presence.  I almost went down by the river, but you convinced me to pay you a visit.”  The man with the torn-shirt looked up and horror flashed over his face.  “Dear word man, is that gangrene?  How are you still standing?”

“There is no way I fall for that”, the brown-haired man said with a laugh.

“Oh come now.  Look at your arm.”

“You’re embarrassing yourself.  Louis must be getting pretty desperate if he wants you to use, ‘Your shoelace is untied’ as a war tactic”.

“You have the gun.  I am a ways off”, the man with the torn-shirt said.  “Why not look yourself over while aiming at me?  We are a good twenty feet apart.  Here, I will even back up another five feet.”

The brown-haired solider saw the other man back up.  He cast a glance down at his shirt.  He rolled his eyes and yelled back, “Oh come on.  That is guacamole.”

“Oh.  Wait, guacamole?  That does not look right.  How long has it been there?”13920445601430208058stain.svg.med

“I dunno, maybe a few weeks.  It doesn’t come out easily after a few days.”

“So that is what the smell is.”

“No”, the brown-haired man replied wryly.  “That’s me.  I have been in here a while.”

“That is…”  The man with the torn-shirt struggled for words.  And air.  “That is nauseating.  Truly.  How can you sleep with that sort of pervasive odor?  Rotting corpses smell better than you.”

“Right.  Insult the guy with the gun pointed at you.  Let us call that first shot my ‘stun’, shall we?  Bye.”

“Wait!”

The brown-haired man put down his gun.  “What?  Just let me shoot you.  Then I can go through your pockets, throw your body on the pile, and get back to my busy day.”

“Winston certainly rallies the finest troops with the highest morals, does he not?”

“Louis apparently rallies troops who walk around with elephant feet and no guns.  So yeah, I think our guy is the winner.  Bye.”

“Wait!”

“I did.  We did this, remember?  Now I shoot you.”

“Do you have no desire to talk at all?”

Talk?  Who is this guy? 

“I have been out here and have not seen anyone for weeks.  You?”

“Months”, the brown-haired man replied.

“Precisely.  So why can we not have the briefest of truces?  Honestly, I think we may be the last two left.”

“That would explain why no one has responded to my calls in the last year.”

“Indeed.  And look at what we have here.  I am bleeding from a major artery, thanks to your garish methods of engagement.  You possibly have a concussion.  Neither of us is in a hurry to get anywhere.  Why not take a moment to heal, engage in the merest of conversation, and then go back to waging the war?”

“On one condition.”

“Yes?”

“Say, ‘Winston is a winner, Louis is a loser’.”

“Come off it.”

“I’m serious.”

“Are you daft?  Ten year-old logic still solves your playground troubles?”

“Hey, I was perfectly happy playing King of the Castle all by myself.  You are the one who kicked sand in my face.”

“It was not sand”, the man with the torn-shirt replied.  “It was dirt.”

“Yeah, but sandboxes have sand.  Playgrounds have sandboxes.”

“What?”

“Nevermind”, the brown-haired man replied.  “Your side could never commit to anything, not even an analogy.”

“You blew up half the nation after we all agreed not to!  Why could you not commit to that simple notion?”

“You got all high and mighty, calling for a stop to the killings.  And then you shot Winston the next day.”

“Only after you shot Louis.”

“Oh please”, the brown-haired man replied.  “I heard all about it in the field.  You guys were always planning to take out Winston.”

“The only thing we were planning to do was fight the good fight.  I was in the field too.  Serving my side!  We would have won that election!”

“Bull”, replied the brown-haired man.  “Winston was for education, the environment, and jobs.  He was good and decent.  And your side went and shot him in front of his supporters.  Bad enough he was trying to talk us out of starting a war.  You had to go and shoot him in public where civilians could have been killed.”

“Balderdash”, the man with the torn-shirt said.  “Louis was the one to support.  If you had not been so pig-headed, you would not have broken up the nation ranting about how blessed and sacred Winston was.  Bad information is your problem.  You should have rallied behind the leader who was for progress, against unreasonable taxes, and supported fair pay for fair work.  And it was Louis who was shot in front of his supporters, not Winston.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Look, this is getting us nowhere.  Why not pick another topic?”

“So I can share opinions and notions with you before I blow you away?”

untitled“Ideally, yes”, the man with the torn-shirt replied.  “It is regarded in many circles as bad form to discuss politics upon first meeting a person.  Surely we can be civilized?”

“In a war zone.  As I bleed and watch the blood smear with tuna juice and guacamole stains?”

“Yes.”

“You are galved in the head, pal.”

“Some might offer that we all are, I suppose.”

“Yeah.  W.A.G.”

“W.A.G.”, the man with the torn-shirt nodded in agreement.  “Allow me to suggest a cheerier topic.  What was your wife like?  Pretty?  Homey?  Fashionable?  Do tell.”

“What makes you think I was married?”

“Oh come now.  You are living in the very definition of squalor.  And yet, that ring on your hand is the cleanest thing I have seen in a very long time.  It is obviously important to you, so she was probably more than just a carpooling buddy to you.  Am I wrong?”

The brown-haired man dabbed at his forehead, winced, and wiped the blood onto his pants.  “No, you are not.”

“Well then?  Have a go.”

Why not?  “She was short.  Not comically short, but she probably should have been.  I always thought it was interesting that a person with such a short build could have such high cheek bones.  Her face was beautiful; striking even.  And the fact that her compact frame could still contain so much beauty fascinated me.  I could never stop staring at her.  Never really wanted to.”

“Had a sort of picturesque quality about her, did she?  Sat around and made things prettier?”

The brown-haired man laughed.  “Not hardly.  No, she never had time for sitting still.  She even thrashed about in her sleep.  She was always go go go.  Back then I could not keep track of all the committees and organizations she took a part in.  Planting gardens, painting houses and mowing yards; she was a force to be reckoned with.  I kept asking if she was taking all the energy we would have put into kids and used it to raise our community.  She just rolled her eyes at me and went back to the project.  She set out to make things better, and something about her made others rush to join in.”

“Sounds like a difficult gal to keep up with.”

“I couldn’t keep up with her most days”, the brown-haired man admitted with a shrug.  “No one could.  But she’d always pause long enough in between this and that to check in with me.  She was considerate like that.  In return, I’d listen when someone wasn’t keeping up with their part of the obligation or when a task was starting to get at her nerves.  She looked after everyone and I looked after her.”

“I say, was she Melted?  That is, was she around to see all this mess?  I cannot believe she would have approved.”

“No, she wouldn’t have.  I thank God she wasn’t around to see all her world destroyed by you people.”

“Oh come now, really”, the man with the torn shirt protested.  “Can we not get past that for a bit?”

“What about you”, the brown-haired man said sullenly.  “Where’s your wife?”

“Never got married ol’ chap?”

“Just didn’t see the point?  Too busy hitting on women to get hitched to one?”

“Oh nothing of that sort”, the man with the torn shirt said as he waved off the notion.  “Simply could not get the ol’ gal to cooperate.  We had a go of it.  I thought it was proceeding swimmingly.  Then some other bloke comes along and she takes a fancy to him.  Could not see what the attraction was.  Sure he had striking good looks, quick with a joke, and arms that she could not stop caressing.  Still, why would a gal settle for that when she could have been with me?  Decidedly curious; never did figure that bit out.”

“That’s it?”  The brown-haired man shook his head in disbelief.  “One gal turns you down and you give up?”

“Well it was not as if I was allotted a great deal of free time for romantic endeavors in the last few years.   Been a bit busy, you know.  She was certainly the highlight of all my encounters.  Almost made me willing to adopt a dog.  Almost.  Blasted things always barking and drooling.  I prefer a more sophisticated way of life than the ones canines create.”

“How’s that gunshot wound doing?”

“Bleeding seems to have slowed down.  Not gushing out so profusely, which is nice.  And your head?”

“Peachy”, the brown-haired man answered.  “Vision’s getting better; I now only see three of you instead of four.”

“Terrific”, the man with the torn-shirt replied.  “Say, do you remember that dinner that Representative Louis had before this whole fight started?  He took his wife out and they danced around looking splendid as that comedian fellow ran across the floor with his shirt off?  Caused quite a stir in the papers.”

“Of course I remember it, only it happened to Representative Winston.  He was the one hosting the dinner.  The comedian went on and on about how Winston was the one guaranteed to lead us to new glory.”

“Not to be contradictory sport, but that was Louis.”

“Winston.”

“Lou-is.  I say, was your hearing damaged to?”

comedic-face-with-glasses-md“Win-ston you dolt.  They were the ones you are talking about.  It was a nice dinner, everything was going well, then the comedian ran across the stage, started pointing at all his chest hairs, and joked that Lois should be with a real man like him.”

“And then the security guards tackled him”, the man with the torn-shirt joined in.

“Right.  Except one of the guards grabbed at the guy’s pants and accidentally exposed his underwear.”

“Or lack thereof ol’ fellow.  I believe you barbarians refer to it as ‘going commando’.”

“Okay”, the brown-haired man replied.  That part I think you’re right about.  His, ‘state of undress’ as they caused it was what caused the ruckus.”

“Quite so”, the man with the torn shirt said confidently.  “Only you still have the names wrong.  Our press could not believe that Winston invited such a clod.”

“And our media thought it was Louis who should have maintained a more sophisticated atmosphere and not egged the guy on.”

“I cannot understand why you are being so difficult about this.  Lois was there too.  Surely she would not have been there if it had been Winston’s party.”

“Well of course Lois Winston was there—“.

The brown-haired man stopped suddenly.  A look flashed across his face as the confusion quickly gave way to clarity.  “Lois Winston.  Lois and Louis.”

“I say, what is that?”

“I remember now.  Representative Winston was married to a woman named Lois.  Before she died, my wife told me how cute it was that the new political couple was named Louis and Lois Winston.”

“That cannot be right”, the man with the torn shirt replied.

“I’m pretty sure it is”, the brown-haired man said.

“If this is true, if, it would certainly explain why Representative Louis continually asked us to call a cease fire.”

“And why Representative Winston kept saying how we’re all in this together; that we should unite as one.”

“And why Louis, or Winston if you like, called for peace in our time.  That this was all just some big misunderstanding.”

“Huh”, the brown-haired man replied.

“Dear me”, the man with the brown shirt said.  “How do you suppose it all got this bad?”

“Too much action, not enough comprehension?”

“It would seem so.  We were a bit hasty in taking up sides, were we not?”

“Yep.”

“Sort of, created an enemy that was not really there?”

“Looks like”, the brown-haired man agreed.  He looked at the world around him.  He saw the rubble, the demolished landscape, the wasteland that had once been an area of hope and prosperity.  There were no children on swing sets, no joggers taking in the morning air, and no bustling businessmen off to make the next big deal.  There was only destruction and desolation.

E04586The man with the torn shirt made his way towards the brown-haired man.  He picked his way over the larger rocks, wincing as he forced his wounded limb to work.  His rifle hung laboriously from its shoulder strap, clumsily hitting the soldier’s hip with each jarring movement.  The going was slow, but the brown-haired man did nothing to deter him.  In a minute, the man with the torn shirt was within two feet of his supposed enemy.

“I say old fellow”, the man with the torn shirt said as he let his weapon fall to the ground.  “What exactly have we been fighting for?”

Lawnmower Men

Battle is the most magnificent competition in which a human being can indulge. It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base. All men are afraid in battle. The coward is the one who lets his fear overcome his sense of duty. Duty is the essence of manhood.” -George S. Patton

**********

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen to an outdoor exhibition like no other. Where champions are made and the defeated are sent home with green on their fingers and shame in their hearts. I’m Bob Roberts—“

“—and I’m Bill Williams. Bob, what we have here is a true battle between styles. The two competitors could not be more different in their schools of thought, their preparations for this day, or their attitudes.”

“You’ve got that right Bill. Why, look at the machines that these two will be operating. Richie, the clear underdog in this bout, is lawn-mowergoing old-school. That push-mower of his has been in the family since before he was born. He told me earlier today that he learned how to curse by watching his father yank on the cord, swear, and yank again. It has become standard ritual for their family to pull, engage in profanity, pull harder, and watch the engine engage. Truly, Richie carries on a sort of rough, rugged, cowboy-like coarseness to his approach.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more Bob. While Richie is all white tennis-shoes stained green and classic mowers stained black by gasoline, Augustus strives to achieve sophistication and prestige in his approach. His rider-mowers are always top of the line. He seems to have a brand new mower every season, don’t you think Bob?”

“I gotta agree with you Bill. I hadn’t seen chrome hubcaps on a riding mower before the great match of 2013.”

“Wasn’t that the one where leaves of all shapes and shades of yellows and brown covered the playing field?”

“It was indeed, Bill. And Augustus made short work of those unsightly nuisances, all while cutting the grass underneath.”

“He certainly has the equipment to get the job done. Now, help me and the audience at home out. Is that a solar-cell on the back of Augustus’ mower? In his unending attempt to tame the green, has the technically savvy combatant gone green himself?”

“No Bill, but I can see where you might believe that. If anyone was going to throw in high-tech accomplishments, “just because”, it would be Augustus. But no, that is a spoiler.   He claims it takes the speed of his vehicle up a solid mile per hour, while deflecting cats and birds from his warm engine.”

“Bob, I’m not sure I have ever seen a cat try to hop onto either athlete’s mower during a match.”

“I’d have to agree with you Bill. However both men are dead-set on their techniques and will tolerate no opinions or interference.”

“Hence the lack of any sort of crew or maintenance workers for these two titans of the turf.”

“You got it Bill. In almost every other sport, you will find some sort of coach, advisor, or at least a guy with a gas can and tires. Not here. Theirs is the first and last call in all decisions. The success, and failure, rests entirely upon their shoulders.”

“But Bob, to be fair, it isn’t often that a tire-change happens during a lawn-mowing event.”

“Indeed, Bill. But you never know when you will have to top off the gas tank.”

“I can’t imagine the stress Bob. That sort of catastrophe could really send a guardian of the grass into a spiral. And yet, both of these men know that they have to tame the terrain completely; no patches can be missed by their well-honed eyes.”

“Bill, I feel that we should pause for a moment and comment on a trend that has yet to be broken.”

“I think I know what you are referring to Bob.”

“I think you do too, Bill. Once again, we have a lawn-mowing competition between two men. Women have yet to break into this sport.”

“You couldn’t be more right, Bob. I asked the family members before the match, and at least from their perspective, they, and I quote, ‘really didn’t see the point”. Harsh words. The sport has been derided by many as ‘pedestrian’ and ‘not an actual sport’ by many, and these two women are no exception.”

“Tell us more, Bill.”

“Take Richie’s mother for example. When asked if she would compete one year, she stated that mowing the yard was Richie’s chore. Why, if he didn’t take the green today, she threatened to withhold his allowance.”

“I thought that was just a rumor.”

“No, Bill. Now, there have been unconfirmed reports that Richie would lose his T.V. time, including videogames, if he made a poor showing here today. But most agree that is disinformation from Augustus’ camp.”

“Now Bob, I notice that once again Augustus’ wife is absent from this bout. Does her legendary disinterest continue?”

“It sure does, Bill. All the neighbors are well aware of Suzanne’s stance on the matter. ‘It is hardly a sport.’ ‘He is competing against a little kid.’ ‘Just mow the yard and leave me out of it.’ Surely she could put up a fight on the field here, but her lack of drive to join in appears to be as strong as ever. I do not think we will see a husband and wife team in this district anytime soon.”

“You never know, Bob.”

“You never know, Bill. That’s what we love about this game.”

“If game is the right word, Bob.”

“Agreed, Bill. Agreed.”

“Why, look at their pre-performance rituals. Richie spent hours and hours resting up. Critics have looked down on his style. They say he is, ‘sleeping in’ or, ‘slacking off’. Yet, Richie will respond to those by saying that he has to get his head right before lacing up his sneakers.”

“Whereas Augustus is up early in the mornings, ready to go. Why, if not for the noise ordinance and the long history of 800px-Early_Toro_brand_riding_lawn_mower_-_NARA_-_285450complaints against him, the man would surely have mowed some practice laps around the neighboring lawns. As we found out from 2011’s infamous three a.m. match, the community simply will not stand for lawn-mowing before a certain time.”

“Bob, the man simply has an eye for detail. He even has a specific wax that he will use beforehand, and I have heard that four coats is the minimum that he will apply.”

“Bill, the outdoors can be tough on a lawnmower. He wants every challenge he competes in to end with gear that looks like new.”

“Can we even call Augustus’ machine a mower, Bob? Experts have derided his choice. Their claims are that he has what is technically a tractor, as evidenced by the mounts on front where a snow-plow might be affixed.”

“Yes, Bill. There have certainly been many eyebrows raised, and not just at the twin cup-holders; which many feel shows a lack of endurance or dedication to the craft on Augustus’ part. Richie’s best friend, Jack, has been quite vocal that, ‘Old Man Aug ought’ta play fair’.”

“True words, Bob. Still, Richie claims that he can defeat his challenger on any mower.”

“It looks like we’re about to find out, Bill. At least, I sure hope so. But those clouds in the sky are a far cry from the blue skies we were promised.”

“Bob, the forecast today only called for a twenty percent change of rain. Even that could spell trouble.”

“Wet grass is clumpy grass, Bill.”

“Don’t I know it, Bob.”

“It appears that Augustus is ready for the clouds. One o’clock in the afternoon, and just like every other match, his headlights are on. Even the high-beams.”

“It wouldn’t be a mow-off if Augustus didn’t turn on the headlights in the middle of the day on an empty lawn. Ridiculous.”

“He certainly took it poorly when you asked him about it several years ago. Would you walk us through that, Bill?”

“Bob, I can’t. Legal says the court’s settlement is centered on my silence.”

“Crap, I forgot. Sorry. Well, no time for that folks! The men have grabbed their controls and they are revving to go.”

“Right you are, Bob. Right you are. As fans know, there is no referee. Anything goes. That includes the start time. Since we strive to have a gentlemanly sport, all matches start off with the head-nod…”

“There it is, Bill! They’ve nodded to each other and there they go!”

“Augustus’ vehicle, as always, starts at the first flick of the key. Why, I can hear the blades whirring away already!”

“Bill, Richie is having trouble getting ‘Ol Beater’ to start up. But that is nothing new to him. There’s the pull. The curse. The pull. Another curse word. The pull. Two curse words– And it’s on!”

“Bob, the one thing that Richie has going for him right from the start is turning.”

“He sure does, Bill. While Augustus may have a fancier mower, the time it takes him to turn with its length and wheel base is considerable. That really costs him in the fine detailing around trees and gardens.”

“So true, Bob. Why, look at Richie navigate his mower. He saw the small patch he missed and executed a perfect three-sixty, then was back on his course like nothing had happened. Unless Augustus has some sort of sensory program installed on his rig, he won’t be able to see missed spots until he’s making his second approach.”

“I can’t get over it Bill. Richie is really knocking out the detail work. He’s already tidied up around the elm that they planted over Sparky’s body. And that thick patch over the sewage pump is already tamed.”

“At the same time, Augustus is struggling to get around the rose bed. His wife may be the one who planted those flowers, Bob, but Augustus is the one that brags about them to any rotary club or floral shop he passes by.”

“Bill, I didn’t know that Augustus belonged to any rotaries.”

“He doesn’t. But he has often felt his wins here should be counted as contributions to the community.”

“Well Bill, his contribution to the course is substantial. He’s finally taken care of the slight hill and the garden. Now he simply has to keep mowing the big stretches.”

“Now Bob, take a gander over at Richie.”

“Yes, he has already gone to his first removal of the bag. This game is all about appearances, and that includes taking the clippings and throwing them onto the compost heap. It takes time to unfasten, carry the canvas bag off the course, and fasten the bag back on. Any other person might turn off the mower, but Richie refuses, knowing how temperamental that start-up can be. He’s already back to work, mowing over the small patch that fell from the un-bagging.”

“Bob, maybe it is for the best that Richie’s mom doesn’t observe these games.”

“Bill, I have heard rumors about Christina threating, ‘I’m gonna tell Mom!’ But so far that hasn’t happened.”

“And the sport is relieved for that small miracle, Bob.”

“Bill, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we officially have precipitation on the field.”

“Yes Bob. I can feel the rain falling on me and my lawn-chair. This could spell disaster.”desert-lightning-1408110525Yi1

“Bill, if any two champions can face the elements and rain it in, it’s these two.”

“Bob, that was a terrible pun.”

“Well this is looking like a terrible situation, Bill. I can see the wet hair and foreheads officially making life difficult for our two warriors.”

“Correct, Bob. The grass may not be soaked yet, but Richie is having a hard time with that second bag of grass.”

“At the same time Bill, Augustus is trying to keep the rain from accumulating on his brand-new mower. I’ve never seen a man try to drive and dry off his mower with his scarf at the same time.”

“This event always brings us something new, Bob. Why, this last second drama reminds us that—“

“Hold on Bill! Thunder! Thunder could be the nail in this match-ups coffin!”

“Bob, if it is up to the two men, that won’t stop them.”

“Maybe not Bill, but I have a feeling… and yes! There she is! Richie’s mom is demanding that he come inside! Trust her maternal skills to keep her child safe from pneumonia.”

“There is also the matter of the lighting, Bob.”

“You got it, Bill. Absolutely.”

“This match might technically go to Augustus now. With no refs, there really is no one to judge if Richie’s removal from the game is outside interference, or a forfeit.”

“Oh! Are you seeing this! Are you seeing this Bill!”

“I cannot believe it!”

“Bill, this is incredible! Augustus, worried about his lawnmower being out in the rain, is driving off the field without finishing! He’s already calling to his wife to bring out some towels!”

“I can’t really see his wife rushing out to help Augustus. She’s a pretty avid reader.”woman-reading-a-novel-in-the-comfort-of-her-home-361x544

“You are correct Bill. I can see her through their living room window. I can’t be sure, but it looks like she is shaking her head. Yes, yes she has officially turned her attention back to her novel.”

“Looks like Augustus will to have to dry off his machine himself. Perhaps deservedly so, Bob?”

“He did cease play of his own accord. This might be considered by many to be a disgrace.”

“His fans would argue that the lightning chased him away. He was only being prudent.”

“Bill, I have a feeling his obsessive cleanliness regarding his tractor is what stopped him.”

“You know I agree with you Bob. But either way, this match is over. No winner; a first in this region. Looks like we’ll have to wait until next year to see who will be Gladiator of the Grass.”

“Bill, it occurs to me that we’re sitting on aluminum chairs. In lightning. Care to join me for a cold one indoors?”lawn_chair_12

“Beer me, Bob. Beer me. For Bill and Bob—“

“—and Bob and Bill—“

“So long, Lawn Lovers!”

Be Kind, Rewind

The salesman knows nothing of what he is selling save that he is charging a great deal too much for it.” -Oscar Wilde

**********

“Come on folks, come on over!”

There are many intriguing sights on the waterfront.  In the early morning the construction workers begin their work.  The paper delivery man fills up the metal stands with the latest news.  The back of his van gathers more and more yesterdays, now much less exciting and imperative than they had been just twenty-four hours ago.

The second set of ferries makes their way to the pier.  Not the first ferries; those early transporters of cars and commuters are the fanatics.  They get up a little too early.  The boats after those, they are the early rising (but not too early) workers that get things ready for the rest of the world.

“It’s never too early for a good bargain!  Why be just any ol’ early bird who gets the worm when you could be the wise and savvy early bird who nabs a salmon?  Why be a boring sparrow when you can be a fearsome eagle, swooping down on only the best?  Yes, my deals are like nothing else out there!”

The water is remains calm, but also dark.  The streets shine their lights, still on a low setting so as not to waken the neighbors.  The beacons, the LEDs atop stadiums and the worker lights can all be seen across the lake.  The artificial lamps add a pleasant orange glow that tides the citizens over until the sun deigns to officially approve of the new day with its presence.  The world will wake up soon, but the bustle and drive has not quite kicked in to full speed yet.

“You say you don’t wanna be taken?  Well I’m the one who should be weeping, what with the low low, bargain-basement prices I’m offering today only!”

No one has yet informed Pete Fanstro of any of this.  In his mind, four a.m. is the perfect time to make that first big sale of the day.  Pete strives for that sale that will make his ledger happy and fill the pages with black pen instead of the dreaded red.   That is, if Pete were to keep a ledger.  He finds such matters as accounting and budgeting to be trifling, stifling, and something best worried about by—”

“Fools!  Fools, I say!  Only a fool would pass up these amazing deals!  The big chains won’t offer ya these kinds of sales!  You can’t go surf for these massive discounts online.  And why would you want to?”

Pete likes to imagine himself an entrepreneur.  He has dreams, or “schemes” as his ex-wife would call them; that he knows for certain are guaranteed hits.  Regrettably, the rest of the world is not in synch with how Pete thinks.  He believes that true happiness has already been offered up to the public and they have rushed past it.  Pete sees himself as an antique dealer, but one with a very specific market.

“VHS tapes!  As great today as they ever were!  Now on sale for your own personal enjoyment!  Relive the childhood days!  Bask in the warm glow of a screen that fast forwards and reverses before your very eyes!  No silly ‘scene selection’ or ‘menus’ to worry with!  No internet connection required!”

vhs-cassette-tape-600x400Pete spent several years trying to collect enough tapes to fill his temporary structure.  To call it a building would be charitable.  The structure is as questionable as the ripped and splotchy cardboard sleeves that adorn some, but hardly the majority, of the hundreds of video tapes.  The walls are made of a metal that resembles tin or steel, however the rust muddies up any attempt to categorize the mystery material.  The garage door entrance that rolls up and down rattles only slightly more than the walls in a rainstorm.  However the brown/gray/green building leaks enough to keep any outdoorsman content.

“High quality goods here!  Some folks would try to sell you SLP tapes at a SP price!  No sir!  I could try to sell you Titanic on one cassette, but I offer you the original two-tape set!  No shortcuts were made to the standards in our establishment!”

The “goods”, have made themselves right at home.  Embracing the waterfront setting, the VHS tapes have taken to the moisture as much as possible.  They enjoy their showers in the rain.  When the tables are bumped just right, the kids’ videos are only too happy to dive into the puddles that have accumulated on the concrete ground and bathe themselves in the grime-infested waters.  Mold makes friends with the cardboard; the two have quite the loyal relationship, never being found far apart.  Batman logos have been faded gray, Superman logos have shifted to white and pink, and Die Hard’s battered container looks the part.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  We need a little excitement this morning!  So, for the next five minutes, and only the next five, if you come up to ol’ Pete and you buy ten VHS tapes?  I’m going to offer you a dual-deck VHS player for the bargain price of ten dollars.  That’s right, only ten dollars!  These marvels of electronics used to sell for hundreds.  Now one can be yours!  Take the tapes and record back and forth.  How you say?  Well, since we want your day to start off right, I’m going to throw in this blank 120 tape, mint in package.  For you sir, free!  Yes, you put the blank in the record deck, you put the movie in the other, and you can make your own edits!”

Mr. Fanstro tends to skirt the laws and regulations.  He does not pay rent on his space outside the abandoned building.  He knows that one day he will have to move.  For the moment, landlords seem more occupied turning pristine lots into apartment buildings than worrying about empty warehouses show no promise.  Police and federal officials could crack down on Pete for not paying taxes or for encouraging patrons to violate the wavy warnings that show in black and white before each movie.  Yet, the sad truth is that patrons and profits are so unfamiliar to Pete’s stand that it is not worth anyone’s time to enforce any rules.  His is a failed business by most standards.

“I know you’ve got different standards than most!  You want a movie with all the boring parts taken out!  Well you just record and pause, record and pause… and whammo!  Your very own personal edit!  Break the little tab off the corner and it will be yours to treasure forever.  What’s that?  Change your mind?  Why, one little piece of tape over that hole and you can record again!  Make a different tape over and over forever!  Live with one tape for all of eternity and never settle for the studios cut!  The choice is yours!”

Pete is no threat to anyone.  He resembles Saturn in many ways.  He is an oddity, has a large presence in his universe, and consists of the most curious rings.  His head is almost bald, but a small friar-like ring of hair clings on in defiance.  A series of almost-circles covers his head, made up of impossibly bushy eyebrows that often court a uni-brow label, a small patch at the back of his head, and a mustache that is full and comical.

600px-Girl_twirling_Hula_Hoop,_1958Further down he has a triple chin which has slid down his neck and hangs there like a hula hoop, wobbling and swooshing around, but never going away.  His arms are constantly in motion and the way he gesticulates and spins from prospective customer to the tables behind him creates the image of a cyclone of sales spinning faster and faster.

There, in his middle, is quite possibly the biggest spare tire a man has ever had.  Pete has lost quite a few pounds over the ages and his torso shows that.  But this sizeable perimeter of mass has refused to give up the ghost.  It juts out, creating something of a shelf for Pete’s elbows to rest on in those rare moments when his arms are not flailing about.

And then there are his knees.  Rain or shine, cold or warm, Pete insists on wearing shorts.  “Only a stuck-up salesman wears slacks”, he has often said.  “Wearing shorts gives me freedom of movement and makes the people know I’m one of them.  That’s crucial!”

Yet his knees are quite peculiar.  They are quite knobby, but his skin is rather loose.  So it appears that two poorly handled mangos have taken up residence in the middle of each leg.  The pair protrudes like their own little moons, maintaining a lopsided orbit in the solar system that is Pete’s physique.

“Sights like you won’t see again!  Lost World-Jurassic Park, still with the lenticular card that came with it!  Both Schumacher Batman films; complete with their ensemble covers!   And wait’ll you see the deal I offer you on our Jim Carrey collection!  It’s only surpassed by our Adam Sandler exclusive collector’s set!  You won’t find these steals elsewhere, because I’ve got ‘em right here!”

A large percentage of passersby feel sorry for Pete.  They wonder how he can possibly feed his family.  Nearby vendors, those patient or stubborn enough to tolerate his constant huckster calls; have never seen him with enough money to make a deposit.  They do not realize that none of this is for money, it is all for fun.

“Remember fun?  GooniesBack to the FutureAladdin?  Well, we got yer fun right here!  Don’t be a fool, be a memory-maker!  Share these bits of perfection with the whole family and still have some money for popcorn!”

cup-25180_640Anyone who has ever bought a cup of soda has ensured Pete’s livelihood.  There is a plastic lid for most cups.  And those lids have a small x-shaped hole in the top for the straw to go through.  Pete invented that x-shaped slit.  Every lid made, through the wonders of patents, has helped Pete’s bank account.  One would never suspect that the curious person in front of them, sagging in odd places and wearing too-short shorts, is the richest man they’ll ever come across.  But Pete has better things to talk about than money.

“VHS stands for ‘Very Highest Standards’!  Come, embrace the joy of it!  Cherish the memories!  You’ll never come across a store quite like mine ever again!”

Halloween is for the Birds

Drama is life with the dull parts cut out.” -Alfred Hitchcock

**********

Folks might leap to the conclusion that I outright hate Halloween. That is not quite the case. If others want to craft intricate costumes and go to parties, then I have no problem with that. I simply do not have that drive myself.

But I do appreciate when decorations go inappropriately wrong

But I do appreciate when decorations go inappropriately wrong

A large part of that stems from having met my quota for costumes. I work in a movie theater. When we had a big superhero flick opening, I was the one most willing to don the outfit. I was the person that dressed up as Batman four of five times. I put on a Spidey suit more than once. And I am here to tell you that the Iron Man suit is the most comfortable getup you will ever find. (The suit itself was not overly confining and the fake muscles were like little pillows you could take a nap on. ‘twas bliss.)

That being said, I should mention that most superhero movies come out between May and July. As the summer heat starts to really kick in, costumes become more problematic. batguysFor example; consider the setting for Batman Begins. It was Father’s Day weekend. We had invited some rather well-known Batman creators to come hang out with us on a sunny day. Our lobby is an all-glass building. And there I was, in a full-body, all-black, snug-fitting Batman costume, next to creators that I admire and tried not to geek-out over, all as the sun beat down and made that suit feel like my own little oven. I believe the best descriptor would have been “toasty”.

I have met my quota. Let the others adorn silly attire. I would rather not walk through the workplace and be attacked by fake cobwebs, but I chuckle when people squeal at a fake rat or some other harmless decoration. My annoyance at low-hanging skeletons is balanced by seeing those folks freak out over a spider that is clearly not real.

No, what I hate are birds.

Popcorn. When you introduce crumbled and spilled pieces of popcorn around an area that is half outdoors, you often acquire some trouble. Trouble with a capital “T” that rhymes with “P” that stands for pigeons. Oh, how I hate pigeons.

Running after pigeons and waving my arms wildly is beneath me. I am not three. I would rather walk up to them, use my height and loud stomping feet, and lecture angrily. I maintain my calm demeanor when met by the feathery cretins. I clomp around, I yell, and I throw things in the general vicinity of their perch but never actually at them. (I would never hit the little twerps, no matter how much I want to. I believe fear of being hit will suffice just as well as being bonked on the noggin.)

I am, in all ways possible, sick of this crap.

I am, in all ways possible, sick of this crap.

Monday I came across a particularly vexing pigeon. We had just installed some very ugly perch-pokers so that the birds would no longer sit above our entry doors and atop our sign. We thought our days of cleaning gobs, lakes, and assembled masses of poop were over. Sadly, this one pigeon had found a new railing to perch on. So I did what anybody would do and chased it off.

When I ventured back outside a few hours later, there was the pigeon again. “What do you think you are doing?” The pigeon continued to sit there in a curled up feather ball. If it were a puppy or a kitten it might have been cute. But I have seen what these little fecal-factories eat and how often their feathers fall out. “Cute” is not an attribute they possess.

“Hey! Scoot!”

The pigeon looked up a bit. There were elements of sleepiness and a touch of contempt in its beady little eye. There was no trace of repentance for trespassing in that tiny-beaked visage.

I waved my arms towards him as my feet stamped their disapproval onto the floor. Closer and closer I got until it flew up the staircase. I followed it and shooed it some more. Reluctant efforts to escape my badgering were made. At last, I got the pigeon to fly off into the rain. Only a random feather or two and a collection of poop were left behind.

You understand story structure. You know there is always a third arc. You know the villain of the story must return one last time to do epic battle with that noble hero.

(A refresher: I am the hero here. Me. I tear tickets and provide customer service. Pigeons create unsanitary environments and plague my existence. Me-good. Pigeons- harbingers of death and messiness.)

I came out to what I assumed was an empty area. It was after our daytime hours. The crowds were winding down. A pleasant stillness had descended on our grounds as it often does. Everything was okay. Until I saw it.

There was the pigeon. Again. Perched on the stairway railing. Again. Asleep over a giant collection of poop. Again. This time we both played for keeps.

I made my feet beat like warning drums. It ignored me. I yelled. It gave me the look of insolence. I approached closer. That was when the real fun began.

I neglected to mention that this stairway was halfway between the second floor and the ground floor. The pigeon had options on how to retreat. This time, it went down. I chased it, it flew downstairs. I chased it again. It circled to the left and perched on the floor. I chased it again. It circled more to the left, this time threatening to go in the office door. I chased it again. It circled to the left and threatened to go into the bathroom that had its door ajar. I chased it again. The bird circled to the left (Did it know that there was more than one direction to fly? Take a right, mix things up! Further proof that pigeons are idiots) and swooped over my head. I was convinced that the ne’er-do-well was out to scratch me or open its payload doors on my face. Thankfully, I escape unmolested.

After another series of two or three chases, the bird went up the stairs, out the upper courtyard, and flapped away into the rainy night.

I chose to believe that I had really won that time. Despite its greater reluctance to flee, I wanted to believe that our story had come to a conclusion. However, a tiny part of me was still cautious. In horror films, the unstoppable killer that is “slain” often comes back once more.

Those were the sort of thoughts I had as I walked to the downstairs bathroom a few hours later. I was ready to go home. My shift was coming to a close. And if I could just go the bathroom, bide my time in the theater, and keep anything from catching fire then I would be done for the night.

I walked up the railing, hoping that I would not see the same sight as before. It was clear! (Well, the poop was still there. But the giver of gifts had fled the coop.) I had won! Victory was mine. Strutting like a peacock, I walked to the restroom.

The door to the restroom tends to have its door propped open. This is partly to make it easier to find, partly to get fresh air from the outside, and partly to avoid that whole door-opens-into-someone’s face moment. (Which is comedy gold if you are prepared for it; less so if you just want to dry your hands and get out.) I strolled up to the urinal and took care of things. All was well. Or so I thought.

I like to think I have a feel of what is going on in my surroundings. I always recommend having a grasp of any unknown people or elements around you. At that moment by the urinal, my peripheral vision sent a warning straight to my brain.

I was not alone in the restroom.

There, by the sink-counter, was a bird. At least, I was pretty sure it was a bird. It was a large mass perched on the marble surface right by the door. My heart rate shifted into gear. I gulped. I knew exactly what had occurred.

The bird had plotted my demise.

We were in a confined space. Its wings, talons, and beak gave it the distinct advantage. It had been spurned and wanted payback. In order to get out the bathroom door, I would have to get past the beast bent on revenge. I zipped up my pants and did the only thing I knew I could do.

I turned around quickly, inhaled a sharp breath of courage, and charged towards my attacker! I would meet it face to face.

Or, as the case was, face to rubber.

For it was not the dreaded enemy of the skies and discarded corn that faced me. Instead, I was confronted by a fake vulture. The prop had been left there by my coworkers in their festive attempt to liven up the place.

Only the fear is real.

Only the fear is real.

Annoyed and embarrassed, I went back to my pigeon-less existence and finished my shift grumbling,

“fr#@*^-in’ Halloween…”


Hitchcock gets it.

Too Hot To Handle (Weekly Writing Challenge)

The Weekly Writing Challenge wanted us to keep it real. Sur-real. Challenge accepted. Surreal I can do.

“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.” -E. E. Cummings

**********

“See where that tractor is pulling off? Follow him down that road.”

“Good grief, Nathan. You really do live out here.”

“Well now you can see why I didn’t want to take the bus. Thanks for carpooling.”

“Hey man, if you’re setting all this up, least I can do is give you a ride.” Grant found his gaze slide back to his rearview mirror once more. He knew that there was a certain patch near the back of his head that liked to stand up and wave to the crowd. The more Grant tried to push it down and make it obey the pattern of the other hairs, the more likely it was to come back for a command performance. For the moment, the patch seemed to be keeping a low profile.

Grant’s had been a long one and he wasn’t done yet. First off there had been the staff meeting to discuss how they might achieve greater success and team cohesiveness in the workplace. Grant did not think that being a call-center rep really needed any cohesiveness or even a dab of Elmer’s Glue. However, he had been strongly encouraged to attend. If the first three memos stating the “voluntary” nature of the meeting had not motivated Grant, the personal invites by all four of his supervisors had done the trick. Especially when his immediate boss had asked, with eyebrow raised and a dangerous tone, “We’ll see you tomorrow, right?” Freedom to attend had no felt so menacing.

Afterwards, he had worked his eight hour shift. And the customers had been an extra kind of crazy that day. Grant could not believe, in this day and age, that he still had to convince a woman that her CD-drive was not a cup-holder, and that is why it had snapped off when she had put her latte in and the drink had spilled all over her computer and keyboard.

Who even has CD-drives anymore? Grant shook his head at the memory. A Blu-ray-drive works for everyone, but c’mon, at least get a DVD-drive. Yikes. I wonder if she has all her photos saved on floppy disc. Grant knew that on his last day he would probably talk each customer through “accidentally” reformatting their hard drives.

Grant looked out the window at the pastures that lined the road and shook his head. Cows. When was the last time I saw cows? And they’re everywhere. The only thing that had made his day, and this surprisingly long commute, worthwhile was the promise of a date. Nathan had assured him this gal would show him a hot time.

“Sizzling, man. Sunga knows things you wouldn’t believe. You’ll love her.” Since Grant’s dating life was in the midst of quite the cold spell, he agreed. What did he have to lose?

“Hey, Nathan”, Grant said as he drove by a fertilizer dealer. “Why didn’t you introduce me to Sunga before?”

“Oh, well I thought you were dating Annette”, Nathan replied. Nathan was leaning as far back as the car seat would go. Staring at the car ceiling, Grant couldn’t help but envy his coworker. He always seemed a little calmer with customers than Grant. Nathan had the answers and Grant hadn’t even figured out the questions. Grant had a lovely wife and two kids. He owned a house. Even with the salt and pepper hair that dotted his temples, he still acted young. At six foot nothing and broad shouldered, Nathan was always “that guy”. He was the guy who would crush all comers at recycling can basketball. He was the employee that actually offered useful insights in meetings. The man had his act together and it gave him a confidence that both annoyed and amazed Grant.

“Annette? Who’s Annette?” Grant tried to crane his neck backwards, but he couldn’t get a good view. He would have to hope that his nostril hairs were trim and decent. Grant wasn’t unattractive, but he was no Nathan. Grant was two inches shorter and twenty pounds heavier. His blonde hair was thicker and fuller than Grant’s brunette tresses, but that only left more ways for it to flop around and generally act unkempt. Thanks to long years of programming and sitting in front of a computer, Grant’s wrists and knuckles were wrecked. Almost every gesture or move that his hands made was accompanied by the sound of joints popping and cracking. Grant had parts of his life together, but there was certainly some assembly left.

“You know, Annette. Accounts receivable? Really nerdy?” Nathan started tapping out a rhythm on his jeans as his hands slid and slapped on his jeans.

“That Annette?” The one with the chart detailing all the Star Trek boats on her wall?”

“Ships, Grant. They’re called ships.”

Nathan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Isn’t she the one that taped big blue construction paper to her office tardisdoor until the higher-ups made her take it down?”

“Yep”, Nathan said with a smile. “The woman wanted to live in a Tardis and The Man shot her down. It was a problem even a sonic screwdriver couldn’t fix.”

Grant shook his head. “Why would you think I was dating her? I barely talk to her.”

“Well, you always open the door for her. And I see you in her office quite a bit.”

“That’s because she’s always carrying too many papers and can’t reach the door. C’mon, I’m not that big of a jerk.”

“Uh huh. And the office visits?” Nathan smiled in his own sly way as he pressed.

“Dude, her account got hacked because she opened that e-mail a few weeks ago. I’ve been trying to get her computer up and running again so we won’t lose any billing information.”

“Wait”, Nathan said as he sat the car seat upright. She opened the ‘FREE RABITZ’ e-mail? The one with like, four attachments on it?”

“Yep, she was the one.”

“Dear word”, Nathan said as he went back to tapping his beat. “I really thought she was smarter than that.”

“This is the point I am trying to make. And I can’t imagine Annette and I being happy with a gaggle of bunnies pit-pattering around our place.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll like Sunga. She’s amazing, fascinating, and exotic. Oh, and they’re a colony. Also known as a nest, or my personal favorite, a warren.”

“What?”

“Turn left up here. A ‘gaggle’ of rabbits? They’re called a warren.”

“How do you know this stuff?” Grant flipped his turn signal and headed down the dirt road.

“I read. My wife tells me things. The usual. We’re the house at the very end of the block. Watch out for the tar pits over there.”

Grant and Nathan were flung forward as the car jolted to a stop.

“Grant! What the… why’d you slam on the brakes.”

“Tar pits?!?”Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

“Oh, that’s right; you haven’t been to my place. Sorry. Yeah, we’ve lost a few tires to the tar pits. A few cars and bikes too. But hey, we never have to shovel the drive.” Nathan smiled, the terrain being quirky and amusing to him.

“Tar pits. Explain.” As if to emphasize his point, Grant put the emergency brake on.

Nathan sighed and turned to the driver. “Okay, here’s the thing. We’re right above this weird geothermal zone. That’s why there are tar pits on the way. And, I might as well tell you this now, the floor of my house is made of lava.”

“I’m starting to think you belong with Annette.”

“No, you’ll see”, Nathan said with a chuckle. “That’s the only reason we were able to afford this place. I admit, it took some getting used to. Right away, we knew we’d never be able to have pets. I mean, c’mon; one misstep and those furry little suckers would get all their fur singed in the lava. That’s just cruel; we couldn’t do that to a cat. And the fumes have this effect on birds. I guess it’s like canaries in the coal mines? I don’t know, but those things pass out and don’t snap out of it. But the four of us are happy by ourselves.”

“Wait, you’re not kidding. Your floor is made of lava?”

“I know, I know”, Nathan said as he waved off the shock with a gesture of his hand. “It all sounds so insane. But dude, think about the benefits. I don’t have a heating bill. Zilch. And since it is always warm, we can keep the windows propped open. That takes care of most of the fumes. You know I’m a strong believer that kids are pampered. A toxic fume here or there will build character.”

“Hey, book guy”, Grant said as he smacked Nathan on the back of the head. “What part of ‘toxic’ is not sinking in?”

“Oh, it’s fine. Just in the ‘caution’ range, not quite in the ‘hazard area’. We got it checked.”

“Well if you’re propping windows open all over the house, how do you keep burglars out?”

“Why is that always the first question people ask?” Nathan sighed. “I’ve talked about this with Alyssa time and again. People don’t want to know how the geothermal conditions powers our electronics. They don’t want to see the cool glass studio we have out in the garage where she sculpts her art. Nope, they want to know how we keep out robbers and thieves.”

“And?”

Nathan shook his head ever so slightly. “Think about it, Grant. You’re sneaking into the house. It’s late. Sure the floor looks funny, but people pick weird carpets. So you lift one leg in through the window. The smell starts to make your nose twitch, but you continue. All is quiet. Other than the glow coming from the floor, it’s nice and dark. You swing your legs in, stand on the floor, and Wammo! All of a sudden your shoes start melting. You try to make it out in time, but then it goes after your socks, makes quick work of them, and it starts to get to your feet. You’re outta there like a shot and you aren’t coming back. I’m just glad the judge found in favor of us. For guys that make their living operating outside the law, thieves can be awfully litigious. Did you know that?”

“No”, Grant said as he tried to reclaim his bearings. “Apparently I’m learning a lot today.”

“It’s good for you.”

“Wait, how do you keep from burning? Your books, your couches, do you just float around on this constant bed of coals and magma?”

“Lava, technically.”

“What?”

“Lava is above ground, magma is underground. At least, that’s the short answer.”

“Nathan, you’re killing me here.”

“I know, but what a way to go!” Nathan had spread his arms wide but soon realized his friend didn’t share his enthusiasm. “Okay, look. The short answer is we use lots of Nomex and iridium. Lava has a pretty set temperature in our place. So we reinforce all our walls and the ground around the house with iridium and we’re happy campers. The constant flow of lava and the geothermal energy powers the array of fans we have all over; you’ll see.”

“If you’ve got it all figured out, then why is there a lake of lava in your living room!” Grant could hear his voice crack, but did not care.

“You know, that’s a question Sunga still hasn’t answered to our satisfaction. We kinda just let it go.”

“Hold on”, Grant said as he turned off the car. “What does Sunga have to do with this? What is she, some sort of Volcanologist?”

“Hmm? Oh, no she’s our neighbor.”

Grant felt a sense of dread take over. “Your neighbor who lives… where?”

“Underground”, Nathan said calmly, but with a faint trace of hesitation.untitled

“Underground. Of course, because she’s what, Lava Lass?”

“Actually, she refers to herself as a Keeper of the Crust.”

“So she’s a custodian of lava?”

“Well, I’m not sure her underlings would call her that but—.”

“Underlings? She’s, their queen?”

“No”, Nathan said with some irritation. “I told you, Keeper of the Crust. C’mon, Grant, catch up. Yeah, she’s royalty, but she’s above all that.”

“Okay, you’re setting me up with royalty. Great. How am I not going to die when I set foot insider your house!?!”

“We have iridium shoes for you, duh.”

“Where are you getting all these materials?”

“Well, Sunga helped us out. She really made the home more livable. She likes us, and wants us to stay, so she really goes out of our way to make our lives easier. She’s introduced us to lots of folks in the meteorite community. That’s how we can afford all that iridium. I’m telling you man, she’s great. Smart, wise, funny. You’ll love her. Just, y’know, keep your car keys and wallet in your pocket at all times. Five seconds after you drop anything and it’s not coming back. Alyssa loves not having to vacuum, though.”

“So when you said Sunga was hot…”

“Oh, she is”, Nathan said excitedly. “You’ll love her, I know it. She’s smart, inventive, and hilarious. Nobody works harder to take care of others than she does. She’s like Mother Teresa of the underworld. Hmm. Bad choice of words. Of the netherworld? Shoot, what did she call her realm? I’ll have to ask. It’s a much better title. Ugh, Alyssa always has to remind me.”

“But Sunga, she’s not like a Tolkein dwarf or anything? No Quasimodo hump on her back?”

“No no, she looks stunning. Think a gal from a tropic with a few differences”, Nathan said waving his hand once more.

“So, the tan to beat all others?”

“Well yeah”, Nathan admitted. “I’m not going to lie to you; all those decades around magma have made her skin a bit leathery. But man, she’s got a soft spirit. Don’t you worry.”

The car was quiet. Nathan looked to Grant, opened his mouth, and then changed his mind.

If there was one thing Grant had learned from years of fielding phone calls, it was how to read silence. He looked at Nathan. Nathan wouldn’t meet his eyes. Grant cleared his throat loudly. Nathan turned to look. Grant tilted his head and raised an eyebrow. Nathan smiled.

“What?”

“What?” Nathan adopted a look of innocence.

“Don’t give me, ‘What’”, Grant replied. “I know this feeling. Any quieter and I’m going to start seeing tumbleweeds roll across our path.” Of course here, the tumbleweeds would catch on fire and keep on rolling until it was ash. “What aren’t you saying? Does she have an extra hand? No teeth?”

“I told you, she’s gorgeous.”

“Except…?”

“Well, her eyes are all black.”

“Uh huh”, Grant said as he tapped the steering wheel. “Do tell.”

“C’mon man, she lives underground most days! She has to be able to look straight at magma, lava, and navigate dark caverns. Of course her eyes are going to be a bit different. So she has black oil swishing around in her ocular cavities, so what?”

“That…”, Grant caught himself. He was intrigued.   “That actually sounds awesome.”

“I know, right!”   Nathan leaned towards Grant as he spoke excitedly. “Alyssa doesn’t get it. She’s learned to not see it but it freaked her out at first. The kids think it’s amazing. You know, like one of those lava lamps—“

“Because you’re so lacking in lava.”

“Yeah, yeah. But between you and me? It’s incredible. Like a hula-dancer who sways hula_dancerwith her eyes. Frickin’ enchanting. Don’t tell Alyssa, though. I mean, she’s probably guessed, knowing her. But still.”

“Sunga’s fun too?”

“Oh, man, are you kidding?” Nathan slapped Grant heartily on the back. “She’s the best. A little forceful for my tastes. You know, since she’s used to commanding and ordering people around all day. For you, though? I think it’ll be great.”

“Nobody’s going to toss me into a lake of burning tar?”

“Hey, if my kids can get through their toddler years in one piece, you’ll be fine. Watch your step is all.”

“Literally and figuratively.”

“Yeah, I mean it is your first date with Sunga. Don’t say anything stupid.”

“Like, ‘Is it hot in here or—‘.”

“Exactly like that. Don’t do that.”

“Got it.”

Grant sat in his car and mulled over his situation. He had already driven all this way. He really was intrigued. The house and its strange habitat sounded interesting. More so, he was curious about Sunga. If she was half as great as Nathan said she was, it would be much more fun than another night of Celebrity Jeopardy. What did he have to lose? If nothing else, he was quite sure the evening would be memorable.”

“All right”, Grant said as he turned the car back on and removed the emergency brake. “Guide me through these hazards and pitfalls.”

“Okay”, Nathan said as he pointed up the drive. “See where the smoke is coming up from that black pool there? Drive around it, not through it.”

“Understood”, Grant said as he pressed onward. “What next?”

A Spouse Never Forgets

Love will draw an elephant through a key-hole.” –Samuel Richardson

**********

“Em, I’m home. Time to hide all your boyfriends.”

“Oh, but they brought me flowers and everything”, came the response from the dining room.

Tyler Cohn kicked his shoes off and rolled his eyes. He found the mail by the door and thumbed through it carelessly. Not seeing anything in the stack of bills and donation requests to catch his eye, he let the stack fall from his hands, most of it landing back on the table. He shrugged at the mess, tossed his keys in the general direction of the mail, and walked towards the living room.

Tyler had not been the most attractive person in high school. His odd skin tone made him stand out in a crowd, but his unruly hair had singled him out even more. It was not until college that he discovered the real him was only a few buzzes away. Coupled with a roommate who introduced Tyler to the joy of working out, and a new version was born. Tyler found that the quick, aggressive, thrilling move of hefting weights was an adrenaline rush that he loved. His muscular physique, olive skin, and shiny dome now all complimented each other. He had lost his childhood nervousness and now approached life with what his wife could only describe as swagger.

“For the record, I saw you first”, he countered as he doffed his jacket and let it land on the living room couch. In front of him was the large gray mass. He avoided looking at it, as always, and turned into the dining room. “Where are you?”

“I’m on the other side of it”, Emily called back.

An alarmingly loud trumpeting sound blared three times from the living room. Tyler and Emily both hurried to cover their ears, and by the time the noise had stopped, Tyler was almost in the dining room.

“I swear, The Moustache is going to drive me crazy”, Tyler said as he looked to his wallet and pulled out the receipts that he had collected over the day. “He keeps telling me that his business is going to get sued. I swear, that man thinks his workers are just there to collect on disability. I respond to all his e-mails but he won’t believe that we have his risks all covered. If he gets anymore up my butt, that facial monstrosity of his is going to start tickling my stomach. I wish I could get him out of my haiiiiiiiiir.”

Tyler had looked to Emily for the first time and was shocked at what he saw.

“Hey”, Emily said with a smile as she went towards him.   With her typical elegance and grace, she made every small step look like it had been planned out for months. Her composure had been the first thing that attracted Tyler to her. However, much to his delight, he found that when she went to hug him, her perfectly straight spine curved into him. Her hips ever so slightly leaned into his waist, her shoulders softened, and her long neck listed to the left, finding his nape and taking up residence there. With her normal ballerina-like stance, Emily stood a solid two inches taller than her spouse. But when they were having their quiet moments, he ended up being a bit higher up. She didn’t really care. Many of their best talks had been shared in this position, starting with when her father died. Tyler didn’t worry about being the tallest when they went out and Emily wore high heels, and Emily didn’t worry about her poise when she was alone with Tyler.

However on this night, Tyler found the embrace a little awkward. Normally he would feel her long, wavy chestnut hair against and under his chin. This was not the case tonight.   Instead Tyler felt a soft cushion of hair, then short bristliness, then another tuft of long hair. Had her entire head fit, Tyler would have felt another shaved section. And, to his great horror, sections of the hair were dyed orange and blue.

Is this what it feels like for her to kiss me when I haven’t shaved?

The only long hairs that felt familiar were the ones attached to the tail from the gray mass as it swished and brushed against Tyler’s leg from the living room.

“I got a text from Tess and Burt.”

“Are we supposed to be having them over for dinner? I don’t have enough cooked to feed us and my greedy siblings.”

“Greedy, or filled with a hunger for victory?”

“Greedy, Tyler. Definitely greedy. You play tennis with them, but you never had to share LEGOs with those two. Susan was the worst though. Leave it to the middle child to always cause the problems.”

“Em, there are four of you”, Tyler said as he tried to decide whether he should pull away from this painful dome or if it was best to keep her hair as out of sight as possible. “That makes you a middle child too.”

“Yes, but she was the first middle child”, she replied, pulling slowly out of the embrace. “You only children don’t know what we had to go through.” She kissed him, showing more passion than usual, and went back to the spaghetti on the stove.

“Regardless, your siblings want to know if we would play tennis tonight.”

“Tonight? Tyler, it’s seven p.m.”

“Right. Still daylight out there.”

“Honey, we have dinner to finish. And eat. Then, if we change into gym clothes, play several matches—“

“Then we can still be home by ten. C’mon, it’ll be fun.” Plus, knowing those two, they’ll bring up the haircut so I don’t have to.

Now out of their embrace, Tyler had the full effect. The left quarter of Emily’s hair was shaved off, except for a tiny, bristly layer of what used to be beautiful hair. That prior hair was hinted at by the next fourth, which was neon-orange and flopped around with four inches of length. The third section was the same shaved style as the first. And to finish off the monstrosity of it all was a section of long hair, looking just as it had before, only now filled with blue streaks in abhorrent strands.  

“Tyler, I know you. When we drive to the gym, under the auspices of playing tennis with my siblings, you’ll want to lift. This, as we both know, will require a change of clothes. And you’ll want me to lift with you. Honey, I just don’t have the strength.”

“You can always go swimming while we lift. The pool should be pretty empty. Maybe you’d have it all to yourself?” Maybe your new hairstyle will act like a fin that will help you steer in the water. Like a graffiti-obsessed dolphin. Or The Rocketeer on his worst day.

“Why don’t you just come out and admit that you want to see me walking around in a bathing suit?”

“Naturally”, Tyler said as he retrieved a mammoth bag of peanuts from under the kitchen counter. He took one, broke it, and nibbled on the nut while he tossed a handful into the next room. “I will always admit to wanting to see my wife in her element. You are a sexy woman and I appreciate that about you.”

“Uh huh”, she said with a look of disbelief behind her eyes. “I should never have taken you to that first swim meet of mine in college. It set a bad trend. Speaking of which, don’t go filling up on peanuts. Dinner is almost ready.”

“You don’t want me stocked up on protein before the gym? Besides”, he said as he threw another heaping handful into the living room, “how many do you think I’ll get the chance to eat?”

“We both know I’m going to be the one to clean those shells up, one way or the other. Go easy.”

“I will if you go to the gym with us. Please?”

“Fine”, she said with a feigned sigh. “But we are getting home no later than eleven. Got that? I’m still trying to get the payroll system up and running. Also, some of us don’t get to set our own hours. Twerp.”

“What can I say”, Tyler said with a shrug as he stirred the sauce, “it is truly challenging being a highly sought-after risk assessor.”

“Emphasis on ass-essor.”

“You’ll stop making that joke one day.”

“Plates please, Monsieur. And I’ll stop making that joke when it ceases to be funny.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I think you’re already cutting it too close.”

“What?” Em pulled the noodles off the strainer and carried them to the table.

Stupid, Tyler. Stupid, stupid choice of words. “Nothing. I’m only trying to defend myself against your rapier wit. You do love to cut me to the quick.” Again?!?! What is wrong with you? Dig yourself out before you get into a close shave. Tyler had to stop from slapping himself in the face. What is wrong with you? Freak.

They sat down at the table as munching noises became audible from the living room. The two often talked about eating by candlelight, but they knew that the constant threat of methane from the gray mass made that unwise. The whole situation lacked the romance that they yearned for. One day they would seek out a solution, but their everyday lives demanded their attention.

“So are we going to talk about it or what?”

“Talk about what?” Tyler filled his mouth with a forkful of spaghetti so that he would not be expected to respond anytime soon. Unfortunately, he had made the sauce hotter than he realized and was forced to take a swig of water and add it to his already full mouth.

“The hair, you twit. You don’t like it, do you?”

Tyler made a show of chewing and swallowing, trying to think of the proper response.

“All those sitcoms from my childhood and I still don’t know how to handle this”, he half-joked.

“So you hate it”, Emily replied as she set down her fork with purpose. “That’s great. You couldn’t come out and say that?”

“Risk assessor, remember? Not risk creator.”

“Don’t do that again. I’m being serious here.”

“Look, I didn’t lie to you. I just didn’t say anything.”

“Because you don’t like it.”

“Honey, it’s three different lengths and three different colors. Maybe when we were in school, but in our 30’s? I’m amazed you think people will take a human resources person seriously like that.”

As if to accentuate the finality of his argument, a large tooting noise came from the living room.

Emily turned her nose up at the new smell but was not done talking. “That, well that is a load of crap.”

“Cute.”

“Don’t cute me, it’s true. Work didn’t factor into your thoughts. You wanted someone else to tell me it was ugly.”

“Emily, that haircut isn’t you. Why would you do that?”

“Because it isn’t me.”

Tyler leaned away from the table. “Okay, well now you’ve lost me.”

“You don’t think I see how people treat you? You’re the cool one. You’re the one that travels around putting out fires. You work in crises. You get to watch cars get smashed and houses collapse. You think I don’t noticed that my siblings, my own family, they text you more than me. And why wouldn’t they? I sit behind a desk and deal with coworkers that can’t play nice with each other or decide they want to play nice in the bedroom, and then they come to me when it’s over and, guess what, they can’t play nice. You’re exciting, I’m dependable. Why wouldn’t I want a change?”

From across the table, Tyler could see Emily’s eyes tearing up. She picked up her napkin and dabbed her eyes with it. Tyler backed his chair away from the table, stood up, and slowly made his way to the other chair. He knelt down in front of his wife and put his arms on her legs.

“Because you are perfect.”

Another tooting sound came from the living room. No no, you’re timing’s perfect. Please, keep it up.

“More crap”, Emily replied sadly.

“What I’m saying is not crap. Do you know that half of the time I’m talking to Tess and Burt, I’m bragging about you? They’re the only ones who get it. They’re the ones who love you as much as I do and can’t stop being blown away.

“You? You spend forty-plus hours a week taking care of people, making sure that they get paid. In addition to all you do for me. On top of that, you make time for your church committees. It’s all I can do to get to church each week. Yet you somehow find the patience and the energy to tend to others. That is amazing to me. Why are you trying to be more like me when I’m trying to be more like you?”

“If you’re just saying this to get yourself out of the doghouse…”

“I’m not. You have this inner peace about you. I try to find little doses, little spurts of that in me. For you, it just happens. You define grace for me. I see all these people that have lost things, all these homes that have been wrecked, and while I’m trying to comfort them my brain is screaming that I should get back home to you right that second. Learning in the field is great; being away from you is not.”

“But people still like you more”, Emily said through small sniffles.

“I don’t think that’s true. They certainly love you more. Not a Sunday goes by when someone doesn’t pull me aside and sing your accolades. Even strangers, visitors to church; they talk to you for brief moments and then they meet me and tell me how blessed I am to be with you. They like both of us, sure, but they’re in awe of you.”

“Really? ‘cause this is stuff you could be telling me.”

“And I probably should. I’m sorry.”

“While we’re at it”, Emily said as the color in her cheeks, if not her hair, returned to normal. “You could also hang up your jacket when you come home instead of lazily throwing it on the couch.”

“People have been commenting on the straw odor.”

“It would also make your wife happier”, she said with a smile.

“What if I offered to shave your head? Would that help this situation or should I leave you be?”

“You know, that was what I was tempted to do”, Emily replied. “But the hairstylist said this would be less extreme.”

“I’m sorry… what?”

“She thought I might want to ease my want into this.”

“That’s ridiculous. Shaving your head is much less traumatic. I mean, you’re already halfway there, for corn sakes.”

“I said that, but she got so worked up about it”, Emily said.

“Okay, let’s try this. Do you like it? Not me, not the hairdresser; you.”

“Maybe if they had used hair dye colors that were found in nature. But as is? Notsomuch.”

“Will you let me shave it then?”

“You think you have enough expertise? I’d need someone who was used to having their hair short.”

“I think I can manage to figure it out”, Tyler said with a grin.

“All right, let’s do it. The sooner it’s over, the sooner my hair will grow back.”

“You know, I’ve never seen you with short hair. That could be cute.”

“Well, you’re going to find out. And we’re skipping the tennis and gym tonight. Now I really am too tired. And you have to help me.”

“Yes ma’am. I’ll send them a note after we finish dinner. Then you’ll get your head all shorn.”

“Where do you think we should do it, over the sink?”

“I was actually thinking the shower”, Tyler said as his smile grew. “That way, you know, we wouldn’t make such a mess.”

“I should probably take my blouse off too. It will keep the hair from getting everywhere.”

“That is an excellent point. Less clothes, less mess. And I know how you hate messes.”

“First thing’s first”, Emily said with a look in her eye. “You have some business to take care of.”

“Oh”, Tyler said as he adopted his “come-hither” voice. “Do I?”

“Yeah”, she said plainly. “Dumbo over there. He needs to be tidied up.”

“Yes ma’am”, he said with a chuckle.

“Trust me”, Emily said as she brushed her long strand away from her right eye and winced at the blue dye. “Things will all be better after we’ve dealt with the elephant in the room.”

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