Forbidden Episodes of Cutthroat Kitchen: Episode 1

This transcript was found on the condemned set of Cutthroat Kitchen. After a court found Cutthroat Kitchen responsible for several crimes against humanity, the series was cancelled and never aired again.  During the trial, it was rumored that Cutthroat Kitchen was still filming ‘over the top’ episodes in an attempt to avoid being cancelled.  This transcript of the episode is the only evidence of the “Forbidden Season”.  It was written by a producer trying to organize the footage that had already been shot for the film editor.

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Int. Cutthroat Kitchen set

SFX:  Music of Cutthroat Kitchen

ALTON
(to the audience in opening narration)

I have one hundred thousand dollars of cold hard cash in this case.  4 chefs get $25,000 each.  If they want to leave this kitchen with any of the cash they have to survive 3 culinary challenges, and each other!  In a game is not only encouraged, it’s for sale.  And since our show is on the verge of getting canceled, our producers have really upped the stakes.  It’s a game we like to call, “Cutthroat Kitchen”.

Introduction music plays as 4 contestants enter the set.

JAMES

Hi!  I’m James.  I’m from Tulsa Oklahoma, and I’ve got my own Bar-B-Que franchise.  Hoping to get in the mix and make it spicy here in the kitchen!

LANCE

Oi. I’m Lance.  I’m from Minnesota.  I’m here to show everyone that even ketchup can be a spice.

BECKY

Hey there.  I’m Becky.  The producers told me to say something about female empowerment in the kitchen and play the girl-card.  I’m not going to, because that sounds dumb.  Can’t I – (abruptly cut off)

MARCUS

Yo. I’m Marcus. I’m going to act like a tough guy during this interview so that the viewers at home don’t know that I’m dead inside.

Contestants stand behind their cooking stations as the host ALTON addresses everyone.

ALTON

Hello and welcome to Cutthroat kitchen. Let’s get to it, for the first round, we’re making Nachos!

MID-SHOT INTERVIEW in post production (PP interview): Lance

LANCE (PP INTERVIEW)

Alton announces that we’re doing nachos. Chances are the judge won’t be someone from the North, so I can’t just serve my usual salty chips and ketchup.

MID-SHOT INTERVIEW in post production: Marcus

MARCUS (PP INTERVIEW)

Nachos? No problem. Ever since my girlfriend left I’ve resorted to bachelor pad status again. I’ve had nachos once a week for the past…um…4 years? Has it been that long?

ALTON

Your time starts now!

The contestants of the show rush off to grab their ingredients.  Maybe put in some filler about them picking the extremely obvious ingredients that go into nachos?  I don’t know.  Have the sound guy pick up something, that’s his job.

ALTON

5…4…3…2…1!  Time’s up!  Now the fun begins. I’ll be selling various methods of sabotage that you can inflict on your opponents! Whoever bids the highest gets to decide what happens to whom!  We’ll start with…

Dramatically lower an EpiPen (Epinepherine autoinjector) into the sabotage area.

ALTON

Do you know what this is?

Contestants shake their heads because they are clueless, although by looking at Lance, he should probably look into getting an EpiPen.  Diabetes has to be just around the corner for that guy, if he doesn’t have it already.

ALTON

This is an EpiPen, but it’s really just a symbol.  Whoever buys this gets to avoid our first sabotage which is…

Assistants wheel out an assortment of items.

ALTON (CON’T)
…everyone here will have to use an ingredient in their food that they are allergic to!

MID-SHOT INTERVIEW in post production: James

JAMES (PP INTERVIEW)

I have to use an ingredient I’m allergic to unless I buy that pen.  I’m deathly allergic to Tuna…I can’t afford to lose this or I might die.  Or worse yet, I’ll really disappoint the judges because Tuna is a terrible ingredient for nachos.

ALTON

I’ll start the bidding at $500!

Contestants do their best to outbid each other.

ALTON

Sold to Becky for 5,000 dollars!

BECKY (PP INTERVIEW)

I’m so glad I got this EpiPen so I don’t have to use an ingredient I’m allergic to. I saw that poison ivy in that container and knew that I’d probably lose if I served the judge nachos with poison ivy on them.  Poison Ivy has a really strong bitter taste, it’s very oily, and the scent is generally off-putting if served with acidic foods.  It’s also bad if your food gives the judge a rash.

LANCE

Hey, uh, Alton.  I’m noticing that you are handing me a bunch of latex gloves. I know I’m allergic to latex, but this isn’t even food.

ALTON

Well then someone should have bid higher, Lance.  I’m not here to hold your hand, I’m here to announce this show. If you don’t like your latex, then maybe you can go to your doctor and get a prescription for a pair of testicles.

LANCE

But…latex isn’t edible!

ALTON

Spoken like a true amateur chef.  Maybe you should have considered this before you decided to be allergic to latex.  Let’s hope the judge doesn’t share your opinion about your latex nachos! (Diabolic laugh that goes on a bit too long) I hoped you learned your lesson. Our next sabotage is sports related, because our producers are trying to appeal to sports fans of any kind. If you win this auction, you get to force one of your opponents to dribble a basketball for the entirety of the round while making their nachos!

The contestants bid wildly.

ALTON

Sold to Lance for 6,000 dollars!  Good job.  Who are you going to give this to?

LANCE

I’m going to give it to Marcus!

MARCUS (PP INTERVIEW)

Lance made me bounce a ball the entire time I was making Nachos. No problem.  I’m used to multi-tasking. Usually when I’m cooking I have a phone in my hand and I’m trying to argue some bill collectors while making my nachos.

ALTON

And our final sabotage is…

Dramatically bring out a terrarium filled with spiders.  Make sure the camera guys get the reaction shots of the contestants.

LANCE (PP INTERVIEW)

When they brought out the spiders, I looked at the other contestants. I expected Becky to be scared because she’s a woman, and women are easily scared. But it was James who was shrinking back into his cooking station in fear like a little girl.  I knew what I had to do.

ALTON

Whoever wins this gets to douse one of their opponents in spiders throughout the cooking phase.

The bidding starts. Get a few close-ups of the spiders during this, because spiders are scary.  Bidding ends with Lance triumphant.

ALTON

Sold!  For 8,000 dollars. Lance, who are you going to douse with spiders?

LANCE

Sorry buddy.

Lance grabs the terrarium filled with spiders and dumps half of them onto James.  James is severely arachnophobic.  It’s where we got the idea.  James screams and screams, but no one will help him. The spirit of competition has robbed everyone on the set of their humanity. They just laugh at James. They point and laugh at James. James is shrieking now. A better person would help him, but no one does, despite his current trauma.  Wuss. Lance keeps the rest of the spiders to surprise James with later on.

ALTON

And your cooking time starts now!

Edit together those shots we got of them all starting their nachos. Get a shot of Marcus dribbling (which he did remarkably well). Show Becky cooking and we’ll play her voice over.

BECKY (V.O.)

I didn’t get any sabotages! I’m just making my usual nachos from scratch. What’s that? No, I don’t think they ‘took it easy on me’ because I’m a woman. Why are you trying to make me say (abruptly cut off)

Show Lance while he was laughing maniacally. Get in a shot or two of James desperately trying to rinse the spiders off him with a sink sprayer.

LANCE

Hey James, your spiders are crawling over onto my cooking station. Keep them over there or else I’m dumping more spiders on you!

Show Marcus making his nachos one-handed.

MARCUS (V.O.)

I was just doing my classic nachos.  Fresh tortilla chips from scratch, mild cheddar, Frank’s Hot sauce, some El Paso salsa, sour cream…

Blah blah blah, Marcus.  Play that sound clip.  I got bored writing it.

BECKY (PP INTERVIEW)

I felt really bad for James. He spent most of the 20 minutes we had for cooking trying to wash the spiders off of him, crying while rocking himself gently in the corner, and then trying to fight the security in order to get out of Cutthroat Kitchen. But he really pulled himself together in the last three minutes.

Show James dump Doritos on a plate, dump cheese on top and splash salsa on it before tossing it in the microwave for 2 minutes.  Then maybe a montage of Lance chasing James around the kitchen with a terrarium half full of spiders.

JAMES

God no! Please no! I’m so scared! I never have been so scared! I’ll quit the competition. I’ll throw my nachos away!  Just leave me be! I have family! I can’t…my fear of spiders is already debilitating. I can’t sleep in my own bed because the spiders.  No Lance!  No!

LANCE

Who is up for some more spiders?  Come on, Lance.  It’s no fun if you don’t play along with the spirit of the game.

ALTON

And cooking time is over!  Everyone hands off your plates.  Now I’d like you to meet our guest judge. Chef Travis.  Now Travis has been in a sound proof room. He doesn’t know any of the sabotages you’ve endured, and frankly he doesn’t care.

CHEF TRAVIS

That’s right. I only care about what the food tastes like.

ALTON

Chef Becky, please present your dish!

BECKY

(no sabotages)

Here’s my take on classic nachos.

CHEF TRAVIS

Delightful. I loved that you made a “man-sized” portion of nachos for someone that doesn’t have to judge their self-worth on how their body looks. Lady nachos are so awful, because they consist only of yogurt and celery sticks. But these are real nachos with chips, salsa, cheese, vegetables, guacamole, sour cream.  Well done. It has great taste, a pleasant burn, I really enjoyed it.

BECKY

Thank you chef! But these aren’t just man nachos, these can be eaten by women as (abruptly cut off)

ALTON

Chef Marcus, please present your dish!

MARCUS

(Dribble a basketball, allergic ingredient: heavy metals)

These are my “Bachelor nachos”, made with fresh tortillas, cheese, fresh salsa, and served with utensils made out of heavy metals.

CHEF TRAVIS

I haven’t ever tried eating nachos with utensils before, especially golden ones.  That said, your dish is very well crafted and tastes wonderful.

MARCUS

Thank you chef!

ALTON

Chef Lance, would you please present your dish?

LANCE

(allergic ingredient: latex)

Yes sir.  I made latex nachos.

CHEF TRAVIS

Lance, you can’t just dump salsa on top of latex gloves and call it food.  I don’t…I can’t eat this.  I’m likely to choke and die on it. That said, it’s a very good presentation. I like how you have different nacho fixings on each of the different glove fingers, and it is consistent throughout.

LANCE

It’s not just on top. There is filling inside as well.

CHEF TRAVIS

Oh!  So there is.  That’s really ingenious.  Unfortunately I can’t try any of this.

ALTON

Chef James, would you please present your dish?

JAMES

(allergic ingredient: milk, doused in spiders)

…(muttering while never making eye contact. Slight shaking throughout his body)

CHEF TRAVIS

Okay, well what I’m seeing is very well done nachos. The taste is remarkable. However, I’m not a fan of the spiders you have. Some of them seemed to be sizzled onto the chips, and others are alive. I don’t think you could serve a plate full of spiders at a restaurant.

Show reaction shots of the contestants.

ALTON

Chef Travis, you have dined. One of these contestants did not make nachos as well as the others.  Who is that?

CHEF TRAVIS

Two of the dishes were excellent.  Two dishes could not be served because of regulations set down by the FDA. Out of those two dishes, one of them actually did remind me of nachos.  So the chef going home is

[Commercial break.]

CHEF TRAVIS

So the chef going home is…

Take awhile and show the contestants squirm. Try not to show the blood trickling from James’ nose. I’m pretty sure the FCC will have something to say about that.

CHEF TRAVIS

The chef going home is Chef Lance. I’m sorry, but even when your competition is a plate full of spiders, you can’t serve rubber to someone. It is a choking hazard.

ALTON

Chef Lance, I’ll need that money back from you.

Chef Lance leaves the set.  Show him in an exit interview.

Lance (4th Place)

Man, I should have bet higher on that EpiPen. Having to serve latex in my dish really threw me off, and I think it was the leading cause for me losing.  Oh well, I can learn from this and go on.

The Manliest Man

(Bonus Friday Post:  Day 1 of Writing for NaNoWriMo.  Just a taste of what’s to come for the rest of the month.)

Zach was born with a full grown beard and a subscription to Cosmopolitan magazine.  The doctors said that if it hadn’t been for the magazine subscription, Zach’s mom would have died from carrying around too much awesome manliness.  Zach had ordered the magazine in utero to save his mother’s life, because Zach was three fourths of the way through his doctorate in medical school and he knew of the danger he posed to his mother.  Zach was a gentlemen even then.

The day Zach was born, the hospital had driven her in an ambulance out into the forest because they didn’t want to insult Zach by implying he’d need help being born.  The assisting nurse was a lumberjack and performing the delivery was a grizzly bear.  Zach was raised by the bears until he was three years old.  When Zach left the bears he was the alpha male.

Zach’s early child hood was pretty normal.  He played the bass guitar for Led Zepplin.  He started a comic strip with Bill Watterson that ran in the local paper.  He lead the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory in 1994, and played half their super bowl winning season in 1995 before he was injured by a sudden case of puberty that hospitalized him for two months.  The puberty lasted an hour because Zach was tired of it and didn’t want to wait any longer.  He was caught off guard by how much more manly he would become during that hour, as were the rest of us.  According to the equations of the world’s top physicists, Zach couldn’t have possibly gotten as manly as he did during puberty.  Zach had to invent a new system of advanced physics to explain it.  Zach was not injured when he went to the hospital, he was just stuck flexing all of his biceps and abdominals.  It took the doctors two months to find out that this was just Zach’s natural state, so he better get used to it.

By this time, Zach was entering Kindergarten.  His education wasn’t the usual, as it was constantly being interrupted with award ceremonies such as Zach winning the Oscar for best actor, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, the Emmy for both outstanding lead actress and best director, and a whole host of other awards.  The one he was most proud of was the Nobel Peace Prize he won for Literature.  The piece he wrote for that one was just a picture of his face stapled to a box of Fruit Roll-Ups.

Zach was promoted to the rank of High School senior his second week of Kindergarten, where he took the entire female high school population to Homecoming as his date.  Zach picked them all up at their homes, greeted their fathers with a firm handshake, and promised that he’d be respectful of their daughters.  He was.  It was the most successful school dance ever.

When Zach turned 11, he enlisted in the Army Rangers and fought in the war in Uruguay.  Haven’t heard of it?  I’m not surprised.  It was all very hush-hush.  The war was looking to be a big mess, but Zach posted a billboard of himself doing pushups behind enemy lines.  The insurgent forces all surrendered.  Zach told the press to keep it quiet, as Uruguay needed some private time for self-reflection and healing.

I met Zach at the end of High School.  At this point in his life he didn’t shake hands because it was rude to imply that the person he was meeting didn’t know who he was.  Instead Zach looked me up and down and declared that we would be friends.  We went through the ceremonial arm-wrestling, in which I lost seven matches in a row.  I could have lost more, but Zach never did like to rub it in by requiring more matches than necessary.

The day I met Zach was the day that he’d have to face the greatest challenge of his life….

(I’m just joking.  This isn’t my NaNoWriMo piece.)

The 2nd Grade Mafia: Burning Down The School

[This is the 5th and last post in a series called “The 2nd Grade Mafia”.  To start at the beginning of the story, click this link.]

Edit: To assuage the fears of some of my readers, the title is metaphoric.  I was not an accomplished arsonist in 2nd grade.

Week 7, Day 1, Hour -1  My sister and I were waiting at the bus stop.  I had my minutes sheet in my hand, staring at what I’d accomplished.  Two thousand minutes in a week wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t my best.  My sister had actually beat me this time, with her two thousand three hundred minutes.  Her goal was to beat my total, but that was her being my adorable little sister.  She never liked being younger, and would often try to do what I was doing just to prove that she was my equal or even superior.  There she stood, smiling away because she liked to read and she’d beaten her big brother at his own game.  She was so proud of herself, and I was a bit proud of her also.  I couldn’t believe the girls were willing to destroy an innocent bystander in order to win a reading competition.

I had a lot of time to think my situation over.  I wasn’t responsible for the actions of the girls.  If they decided to start treating my sister terribly, that was all on them.  The trick of the girls’ hostage situation is that they tried to make it look like it was my fault if they decided to be monsters.  I wasn’t going to take responsibility for their actions.  Still, the girls had an objective, which was no longer to win the reading competition but to make me give in to their bullying.  They had one move left, and they would play it if I didn’t look like I’d surrendered.  I didn’t want to set the stage so the girls could release their inner demons on my sister.

So I told Kristen about what was happening.  She listened, tilting her head to the side as I explained the finer details of what was going on.  She looked very solemn during the entire story, until I finished with the threats made to her in the girls’ bathroom.

Kristen nodded twice when I finished, than dug around in her backpack, pulling out her minutes sheet.  She looked me in the eye and tore the sheet down the middle, folded it, then tore it again.  I tried to grab her hands to make her stop, but she wouldn’t, she crumpled them up and threw them in the air like confetti.

“Kristen!  You can’t just throw away your minutes!  You worked hard for that.  You poured everything you are into getting those minutes.  You gave up cartoons and playing with friends and recess for that.  You can’t just throw away everything you’ve earned just because some girls threatened your brother.”

Kristen walked up to me and poked me in the chest, locking eye contact with me.  I was short enough that she was about the same height, and I felt the need to step back, but I didn’t dare.  She uttered a single word with all of the wisdom her tiny self could muster.

“Exactly.”

I nodded.  She was right.

I knew what I had to do.  “Can you put up with some trouble for the next two weeks?”

“If you’ve been doing it for six, I can do it for two.  Girls don’t always need to be rescued.  I’ll be fine.  You can’t let bad people stop you from doing good things.”

I smiled at her.  “Thanks Kristen.  It meant a lot to me.  But you didn’t have to tear up your minutes.”

She shrugged at me.  “I didn’t.  Those were the minutes from last week.”

My sister was a genius.  I had a plan.

Week 7, Day 1, Hour 0  I had the bus driver sign the minute sheets for my sister and me.  Without a spare minutes sheet (I never kept track of old papers), I needed to sneak my minutes past whatever offense the girls launched and get it to Ms Hotchkiss.  I leapt from the bus and ran to my school, but was stopped short when a barricade of girls kept the doors shut.  Other students were filtering through, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to.  The girls had foreseen the obvious move.

“Hey Steve.  Have fun reading last night?”  It was the leader from the restroom, a girl named Jessica, who I had looked up in last year’s year book.

“Hello Jessica.  As a matter of fact, I did.  Would you please move so I can get to class?”

She held out her hand expectantly.  I looked at it, feigning confusion.  Jessica sighed with exasperation.  “Hand over the minutes sheet, stupid.”

I turned around and looked behind me.  “Is there someone else here that you’re talking to?  Because I don’t respond to that.  But if you want to stand out here until we both get in trouble for being tardy, I’m happy to wait.  I know it’ll be easy for me to explain why I’m out here.”

“Give me the sheet.”

“Where are my books?  I’m not giving you the sheet if you don’t hold up your end of the bargain.”  The books materialized, each of them in good shape, and held out of arm’s reach.  I looked at each of them and nodded.  “Good, you brought all of them.  Now if you wouldn’t mind, please hand over your reading sheets to me.”

The girls looked confused.  Jessica stepped forward.  “That wasn’t a part of our deal.”

I shrugged.  “We’re negotiating a new deal, a second deal.  My deal is that you can hand over my library books right now or I start screaming ‘they stole my books!’ while pointing at each of you.  There are too many witnesses for you to back out now, and I won’t take those books from you if you try to thrust them on me.

Jessica stepped on my foot, leaning over me for maximum intimidation.  “I’m not going to get bullied by the likes of you.”

I smiled at her, wincing through the pain.  “Neither am I.  You can either hand over my books or your reading sheets.  I don’t care which.  One shout from me and it’s all over for you.  You’ve still got the books in your hands. I’d hand them over quick before I just change my mind.”

Jessica shoved me and I fell backwards with an undignified yelp.  “No one goes back on a deal with me!”

She grabbed my backpack and rifled through it, but it was entirely empty except for one piece of paper.  Jessica whipped it out of my backpack and held it up in triumph.  I looked up at her from my new spot on the sidewalk.

Jessica threw my backpack back in my face.  She sneered at me, finally victorious over this nerd that had defied her for so long.  “Give him back the books.  I don’t want anyone saying I’m a liar.”

The girls quickly dropped their books off at my feet.  I placed each on in my backpack, looking up at Jessica with disdain until I had the last one.

“Alright, you pushed me over and had your fun.  I’m going to class.”

Jessica shouldered me as I tried to walk past her, but other than that I wasn’t harassed.  The girls watched me go, into the school lobby to take the first right to head to the second grade classrooms.  One look down the hallway and I knew my plan was working perfectly.  I turned around next to the corner of the hallway.  “Oh Jessica, I want you to know that I won this round, and I’m going to win this war.  You all just gave me my books back for nothing.  I’m not sure what you’re going to do with that drawing, but go ahead and keep it.”

Jessica looked at paper she had stolen from my backpack to see that it was a fake reading sheet I’d made in pencil on the bus ride over with the words “I stole this from Steve” written in the minutes section.  She ripped it while shoving her way through the pack of girls.  “You get back here and give me the real minutes sheet or I’m going to beat you up!”

I briskly took three steps to get around the corner and then stopped.  Jessica careened around the corner unable to stop herself before colliding with Ms Hotchkiss.  My sister, who was standing behind Ms Hotchkiss, poorly stifled a laugh.  Ms Hotchkiss towered over us all, and she snatched Jessica’s wrist so she couldn’t get away.  “Is this the minutes sheet you want him to hand over, Ms Jessica?  The one that Ms Kristen handed to me this morning saying ‘the bullies won’t let my brother turn in his minutes so I had to’?”

Jessica turned about face to run but only succeeding in losing her footing to swing by Ms Hotchkiss’s arm back into the grown-up’s legs.  The wrath of Hotchkiss was the likes I had never seen before.  She strode into the lobby, practically dragging Jessica behind her, and pointed at all of the girls.  “You all, in the principal’s office now!  Jessica, you’re coming with me.  We’re going to see if your mother is still in the parking lot because she’s going to be taking you home right this minute!”

Week 7, Day 1, Hour 1  It was the day of reckoning.  Parents were being called, a few of the more active members of the mob had been suspended, and other girls were tripping over themselves to confess so that they could avoid any penalties.  The ‘seven books per girl’ plot had leaked to the adults, and everyone had to return their library books immediately.  Every girl with seven books was noted as the list of suspects grew and grew.  Some tried to deny that they had taken part, but the librarian knew exactly who had seven books and who didn’t.  Those that lied got in more trouble.  The faculty were in a

PE had been suspended for the school, while the entirety of 2nd grade had been corralled into the gym to watch Reading Rainbow, while all of the 2nd grade teachers were in talks with the principal, guidance counselor, and super intendant.  All eyes were on me.

Week 7, Day 1, Hour 2  Recess was interesting.  The girls were in their usual reading circle, but none of them were reading.  They were terrified.  A vicious blame game went back and forth between them as they tried to sort out their stories and organize who would take the fall for what.  It took them awhile to realize that I was standing amongst them.  Silence fell over the circle as they looked at me with wide and frightened eyes.

“Hi ladies.  Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

A few nodded.  The rest froze like deer in headlights, with a rapidly approaching and unclear doom hurtling towards them just down the road.  No one moved, and the spectacle became eerie.  Cassie was the first to respond.  “I heard that you’re going into the principal’s office after recess.”

I nodded.  “Yes.  They wanted to talk to me about the past few weeks.”

Cassie looked at her fellow girls.  I could feel the air saturate with fear.  “What are you going to do?”

I stood there and absorbed the moment.  I had them, and they knew it.  I’d beaten everybody.  If I played my moves correctly, the entire school would be under my control, and whatever I decided to do next would shape the girls’ destiny.  I’d thought about it long and hard, and while it was appealing, it wouldn’t work.  I’d read too many books.

I shifted in my stance.  “What you all put me through was miserable.  I couldn’t sleep, my friends are all mad at me, and I’ve been incredibly lonely ever since school started.  You’ve all made me very sad.  Now when the principal calls me in, I could tell on every last one of you and get you in trouble.  Your parents will get called and you’ll probably be in detention for a week.”

The girls shuddered at that idea, a surge of panic running through the gaggle of girls.

“But,” I continued, having given them a moment of panic they so richly deserved, “I’m not going to get you all in trouble.  Throughout all of this, I’ve been the good guy, and I’ve tried hard to stay the good guy.  You ganged up on me, you fought me, and you tried to crush me.  You all were the bad guys from the very beginning.  I’m not going to sink to your level.  I’m not going to become the bad guy now that I’ve won, not at the very end after I’ve come so far.  I’m going to win, I’m going to end this, and I’m going to do that on my terms.”

Cassie swallowed hard.  “What does that mean?”

Week 7, Day 1, Hour 3  In the principal’s office, I had some explaining to do.  After the second time that a large group of girls had gotten in trouble for picking on me, the school had to take action.  Mr. Paul sat across his desk from me with a yellow legal pad and pen.  A taskforce of teachers were around his office, most leaning against his book shelves.  My sister sat next to me, swinging her feet high above the floor she couldn’t reach.

Mr. Paul was going through a long explanation of various ‘feel better’ and ‘this isn’t the way it should be’ messages designed for someone identifying as a victim in a situation that they couldn’t control.  I didn’t care to listen too much because I wasn’t a victim. I had controlled the competition quite nicely.  Very soon, I would be the victor.  Still, I looked very pleased with what he was saying, waiting my turn to speak.

After a good five minutes of Mr Paul talking to some victim that I just couldn’t locate in the room, he finally asked me what I’d like him to do to make the situation better.  My sister looked at me, I could tell that she had been drowning out the victim conversation with her own thoughts as well.  I found my voice.  “Mr. Paul, what is the minute count for our school?”

Mr. Paul blinked at me, the sudden conversation change catching him offguard.  “Uh, it’s right on track for a million.  Just a few hours shy.”

“I think what would really help is if you stopped the reading drive right now.  It’s done nothing right, and so many people have done things wrong.  It’s gotten out of hand.”

Mr. Paul blinked again.  “Steve, you worked so hard to gain so many minutes for the school.  Why would you want to give all that up?”

“Things have gotten worse every week since this started.  Today a pack of girls were tearing apart my homework and trying to beat me up.  I don’t want to see how this gets worse a week from now.  Either this stops now or I’m not coming back.”

Mr. Paul looked around at the teachers.  If he’d been alone, he’d have tried to talk me out of it.  With the audience he’d look heartless if he refused the request.  The teachers were tired of this and didn’t have the energy to go on; I could read it on their faces.  “Steve, that’s what we wanted to talk about.  Who are the people specifically that are picking on you?”

I smiled back at Mr. Paul.  “I don’t want to get into who did what.  That’ll only make things harder for me.  I’d be the tattle-tale who had to hide behind the teachers because he got scared.  If you want them to stop bullying me, I need to win on my own terms.”

“Steve, we have nine hundred thousand minutes.  You’d be losing the reading drive for everyone.”

“I know, but its worth it.”

Ms Hotchkiss stood up from her spot, leaning against the bookshelf.  “Dave, can we just do it?  My class is going to be a nightmare if we don’t.”

Mr Paul sat still, thinking hard about what to do next.  “I think you’re right.  We’re going to stop it as of this minute.  Book reading was never supposed to cause this kind of behavior.”  Mr. Paul looked into my eyes, searching for my thoughts.  “Steve, is there anything I can do to help?”

“There is one thing.  Can you subtract my minutes from the school before you end the competition?  Those are mine, and I don’t want anyone else to have them.”

My sister was quick to join in.  “Me too.  I want my minutes to go with his.”

Mr. Paul looked at the two of us.  “I can do that.  You two are dismissed to your classrooms.”

Walking down the hallway, my sister grabbed my hand and skipped along.  “You won.  You could have done anything.  You could have gotten everyone in trouble, but you didn’t.  Why not?  Why not beat the bad guys?”

I smiled at her.  “I did beat the bad guys, but picking on them after I won is something that a good guy doesn’t do.  I just had to beat them by doing to them the one thing they couldn’t do to me.”

Kristen looked puzzled.  “what’s that?”

“I took away every single last one of their minutes.  Those girls you saw picking me, they sold their souls for nothing.  Nothing.  And I want them to know that forever.”

Week 7 Reading List:  Nothing.  I played soccer all week.

Final Count:  Team Steve & Kristen with 29,682 worthwhile minutes out of 1,000,000.
Sunnyside Elementary with 0 worthwhile minutes out of 1,000,000.

The End

The 2nd Grade Mafia: Sugar And Spice And Thrice The Vice

[This is Part II of a series called “The 2nd Grade Mafia.  Read part 1 by clicking on this link.]

Week 4  I was still in the lead.  To show everyone in my class that I was going to do this with or without the boys, I put up some better numbers than the previous weeks.  The girls had gotten their act together, however.  They had read exactly one minute more than I did last week.  It was a show of dominance, their reading schedules so tightly controlled and disciplined that they could strike with such precision.  I sat there, staring intently ahead at the bar graph, carefully focusing so that the girls with their malicious smiles couldn’t see me crack.  They wanted to see the fear in my eyes, and it was there, but as long as I kept them focused on the bar graph, no one could see my shivering soul.

I was in first.  The girls were in second.  Cassie was in third.  If Hotchkiss had included Cassie with the girls, I was defeated, but no one else seemed to realize this, so I kept my mouth shut about it.

We had just started multiplication and I knew the awful truth.  Every one minute that went by, I could put up a total of one minute, but the girls could put up 14.  In one hour I could only generate 60 minutes, but the girls could accumulate 840.  If they all read 2 hours a day, I’d have to read 28 hours a day in order to keep up, which didn’t seem likely.  The girls had organized.

The recess bell rang, much to my sweet relief.  The classroom was thick with tension and I needed to kick a soccer ball around to work out my frustration, but before I could stand up from my desk I was frozen in fear.  In a synchronized motion, each girl lifted her desk and pulled out a book, then looked over at me and smiled before getting up and walking outside.  No…it couldn’t be.  I grabbed A Wrinkle In Time just in case, and fled out the door to the recess field.  There they all were.  My class of girls had formed a reading circle.  That wasn’t fair.  You couldn’t do school work at recess!  That was against America!  Yet there they sat, each happily reading away while Ms Hotchkiss watched over them to sign off on their minutes.  I did some quick multiplication in my head.  A total of 45 minutes of recess times 14 girls equaled….somewhere around a million minutes.

Breanne saw me first.  She snapped twice and pointed as I exited the school.  The girls all turned in unison and as sweetly as they could sang out “hey there, Steve.”  I stood there, nervous.  I lived to play soccer three times a day at school and once at the YMCA.  I woke up every morning and got my soccer shorts on in preparation for school.  What these girls were doing was unfair.  I had a choice.  I could either buckle down and read during recess, or I could do what I loved.

With a grave sadness in my heart, I approached the reading circle.  Maybe, just maybe we could strike a peace between us.  “Hey, uh, can I join your reading circle?”

Sarah was the only one to look up from her book, the rest went on diligently reading, although I caught a few sneaking peaks out from behind their pages.  With the utmost concern in her voice, Sarah spoke for the group.  “Oh, Steve, I’m sorry.  This reading circle is for the team that’s going to win the ice cream party.  Sorry about that.”

Sarah went back to her book; the conversation was over.

There would be no peace.

They had taken the boys’ allegiance away, they had taken soccer away, and now they had taken away any chance of readership comradery.  They had me in complete isolation and the choices were to surrender to regain everything I had, or to be systematically dismantled in isolation.  I couldn’t keep up, and they knew it.

I climbed the old forgotten slide on the playground and opened up my book.  Maybe it was out of spite.  Maybe it was out of anger.  Or just maybe this was my fight to finish, because I wanted this; I needed this.  I loved books and I loved soccer and I loved recess, and these girls weren’t going to ruin everything.  No.  For every minute I read, I took 4 seconds away from each of them.  For every hour I read, I took 4 minutes away.  Two could play at this game.

When recess ended, the harassment was relentless, not from the girls, but from the boys.  By choosing to read, I’d apparently chosen to be a girl.  The boys all made their jokes as best they could, stereotyping and sexist jokes that proved how weak their derogatory powers were, which would have been greatly improved if they actually read something.

“Why don’t you go kiss a boy, you nerd?”
“Are you growing your hair out?”
“What’s next Steve?  Are you going to have a baby?”

It seemed that the boys had no knowledge of how to do a proper insult, so they scrapped the bottom of their very shallow barrels to pull out all of the information they knew about girls, which wasn’t much.

The girls were delighted at this turn of events.  How easily they manipulated their male counterparts.  These results were more than they could have ever hoped for.  They sat back at a respectful distance and reveled in every minute of this, watching as I got ever closer to snapping.  And I did, in fine form.

“You want to make fun of me because I’m reading?  That’s the very thing that you swore to me you’d do on the soccer field!  You think I’m a girl because I read, well let me tell you something. Men keep their promises, so if I’m a girl, I don’t know what you are, but it’s something far worse.”

Everyone, boys and girls alike, stood there in shocked silence.  It was clear that the boys had come to a battle of wits unarmed.  I had Beverly Cleary, Bruce Covell, Laurence Yep, Mark Twain, and a host of other ammunition.  More importantly, I had allies. I had D’Artagnan, Henry Huggins, Shimmer, young Henry Jones, Phileas Fogg, Tom Sawyer, Basil of Bakerstreet, Robinson Crusoe, and an entire army of men and women that stuck it out alone against insurmountable odds no matter who was against them or who made fun of them.  I was an unstoppable legion.

Week 4 Reading List:  Goblins In The Castle, The Castle In The Attic, Lost in the Devil’s Desert, Dollhouse Murders, Bridge To Terabithia, A Wrinkle In Time

Week 5, Day 1  Things continued to get worse.  To mark the halfway point of Read A Million Minutes, the school held an assembly.  They announced a few figures to show that we were ahead of where we needed to be, and with some renewed effort we would prevail.  And then they threw me under the bus.

The principal wanted to recognize the leaders of our minute count and award them each with a pencil.  I was in first, Cassie was in second, Pam was in third, and Paige was in forth.  The fifth was some girl from fourth grade named Samantha.  The principal watched as we all got up from our seats in the gym.  “Hey, Ms Hotchkiss.  You’ve got the top 4 in your class?  How did you do it?”

Ms Hotchkiss beamed with delight.  “I’m running a boys vs girls competition.”

The principal nodded in approval.  “Well why don’t we do that here?  I was going to say let’s split it up by grade, but Ms Hotchkiss’s class has obviously won it for second grade.  Let’s do boys verses girls!”

Boys and girls throughout the school cheered.  I knew that the boys were doomed, for in that moment of friendly competition I heard Pam and Paige turn to the fourth grader Samantha and say “We’ve got this in the bag, the only boy we need to take down is Steve, and the rest will fall.  Next time it’ll be five girls standing up here.”

Ms Hotchkiss’s class got an extended recess for their efforts.  It stung that my effort had bought my enemies more time for them to kick their soccer ball around and laugh at me for being a nerdy girl.  However, when recess hit, the three girls that played soccer weren’t there.  The reading circle was gone.  The boys were all lost in their game of soccer, but I needed to find out what they were up to.  I ran around the recess field, and even around the school, but I could not find them until I chanced to glance into the window that led to the basement where the music room was.  Every single girl in the school was in there listening to Cassie speak.  I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but it couldn’t be good.  The mafia had branched out, and now it included every girl in the school.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART III

The 2nd Grade Mafia: Powerful Enemies Waiting In The Shadows Of The Slides

I grew up in a sleepy town in Iowa, deep in the country about an hour’s drive from the nearest interstate, but even that kind of seclusion could not protect me from the horrors of organized elementary school crime.  I was in 2nd Grade when it all started.  I lived out in the country, miles from the nearest classmate.  My parents couldn’t get far enough from everyone else, it seemed.  I was too young to bike the required distance to seek out companionship, so every summer I turned to books to get me through the lonely days.  I read a lot and at an advanced level, but I didn’t know because other than my younger sister, another advanced reader, reading the 3 Musketeers and Gulliver’s Travels in a week was commonplace.  Yet because of this isolation, I found myself ill prepared for the social aspect of a book reading competition that would crush my soul.
Ms Hotchkiss had introduced the school’s reading initiative to us, a competition called “Read A Million Minutes”.  For the next 2 months, we were to record our time spent reading and then as a school we’d combine these times to see if we could hit 1 million minutes.  Ms Hotchkiss was going to up the ante for our 2nd grade classroom.  She split the class into boys and girls, and whichever team read more minutes would receive an ice cream party.  It was an innocent enough move on her part to spark some friendly competition, but it would drive a wedge between the sexes that would last until puberty.

Week 1  Without a hitch, this was the easiest week.  The girls were ahead at the very beginning, but that was to be expected.  The girls had shown much more excitement at the onset of the competition, and more of the boys were enrolled in soccer at the YMCA, which took a good 2 hours out of our available reading time.  We were very competitive, however, and we made a pact with each other that we would buckle down and beat the girls at this competition.  School stuff was the girl’s domain, and we wanted to beat them on their own turf.

I did have my worries.  The boys were committing to reading an ‘hour’ when they got home.  I started reading as soon as I got home, took a break for dinner, and then stopped when it was time to brush my teeth and go to bed.  Sometimes I didn’t even stop when it was time to go to bed, I just kept going.  Still, I had learned about multiplication just recently, and twelve boys times sixty minutes was a lot of time, more than I could do in a day, unless that day was Saturday because I totally finished three literary classics last Saturday.

Week 1 Reading List: Around The World In 80 Days, Call of the Wild, Black Beauty, Every Henry Huggins Book, Dragon of the Lost Sea, Dragon Steel

Week 2  The boys were ahead now, which sounds like a good move to win a competition, but it was a tragic mistake.  We were 2nd grade boys, and as any parent of a son knows, 2nd grade boys are turds.  We weren’t winning gracefully.  We celebrated, we bragged, and we rubbed it in every chance we got.  The girls would never hear the end of it if we had our way.  The boys had dominated, and nothing could please our little jubilant hearts more.  Ms Hotchkiss had to resort to the school’s discipline method of writing our names on the board to keep us in line.  A name on the board was bad, but was just a warning shot fired by the teacher across the bow.  If we misbehaved again we got a check behind our name, and that meant that we lost recess for the day, and a couple of us got that check because we were monsters with no social graces.  Despite our colossal victory over the girls, the threat of losing recess was too much for us, because we lived to play soccer every day over the course of three separate recess periods.

That week we created a monster.  While we pumped our fists in the air and laughed heartily at the girls, they were gripping their little knuckles until they cracked and turned white.  This was their turf, and they were going to defend it.  They didn’t show their anger in its entirety.  Brimming with irritation they forced their revenge down to fester deep in their chests.  Decades later, I know that this is a sign that a woman is at her most dangerous, but back then I was an oblivious bungler.  I couldn’t have known.

We sucker punched them with our minute count, and that was embarrassing.  A bunch of stupid boys weren’t going to take the ice cream party away from them.  They might have lost the battle, but they would crush our souls and make us beg for mercy before this war was over.  Ms Hotchkiss’s second grade class was a house divided.

In this state of unfettered braggadocio, there was one boy who wasn’t celebrating, and that was me.  Ms Hotchkiss had drawn up a bar graph, something we were learning about in math, which showed how many minutes the boys had read vs how many minutes the girls had read.  Something looked wrong with the graph.  Could it be possible that Ms Hotchkiss had made a mistake?  Because I knew how many minutes I had read, and according to the bar graph I was looking at, I had contributed more than half of the minutes to our cause.  You might even say that the boys contributed a sliver of the minutes, a barnacle upon the whale of minutes I had slaved over.  We hadn’t beat the girls this week; I had beat the girls this week.  I had given up my entire weekend to put those points on the board.  It wasn’t a great sacrifice, I loved to read, but it took a lot of effort and I wasn’t sure if I had that in me another time around.

Week 2 Reading List: Dear Mr. Henshaw, Young Indiana Jones and the Lost Gold of Durango (and several others in that line), Bunnicula, The Celery Stalks At Midnight

Week 3  The previous two weeks, Hotchkiss had made a bar graph of boys in blue and girls in purple.  This week she had an entirely new one.  This week there were 4 bars on the graph: Boys (blue), girls (purple), Cassie (red), and Steve (green).  I was in first place, Cassie was in second, the girls were in third, and I’m not even sure if the boys were even trying.  I was floored.  How could this be?  Surely one hundred and forty hours of reading in 3 weeks wasn’t that big of an accomplishment, was it?  Yet the numbers spoke for themselves.  I had one hundred and forty hours.  Cassie had ninety.  The girls had seventy-five.  The girls and Cassie had more minutes than the boys and I had.

Ms Hotchkiss called Cassie and I to the front of the classroom.  She pronounced us the king and queen of reading, gave each of us fun pencil, and then had us turn to face the class.  Hotchkiss started clapping, and everyone else took up the cue to clap also, but I saw trouble in the sea of my fellow classmates.  The boys had already lost interest in the competition, staring off out the window at the soccer field as they absently clapped.  It was good enough for them that they had won last week, and now they didn’t care, especially now that ‘their’ victory had just become ‘my’ victory.  The girls, on the other hand, did care.  They cheered for Cassie by name, and then one by one they each turned to me.  Each had a tight, mischievous smile on their face as their eyes narrowed to pinpricks.  They knew that everything they wanted was in their grasp.  Every single boy in this chain was a weak link.  They only needed to beat me.

This was the moment that the 2nd Grade Mafia formed.

Julius Caeser himself would have been impressed with their ability to divide and conquer.  The first recess took place right after reading class.  I got ready to run out to the soccer field when another classmate named Pam pulled me aside.  “Hey Steve, take a look at this!”

I couldn’t believe it.  Written in lavender pen on unicorn stationary, I walked through a math problem.  We had just learned division, and what I saw was horrible.  The boys were reading less than an hour a day.  Their entire reading chunk was in the remainder section because one hour didn’t’ work for them.  Pam tilted her head to the side and said “they really let you down, huh.  Leaving you to do all the work for them so that they can eat your ice cream at the ice cream party.”

Pam was right, and I was livid.  I ran out to meet the boys on the soccer field.  “Hey!” I called out to all of the boys gathered at the soccer field.  “I thought we had a plan!  We were all going to read a whole bunch.”

The boys all mumbled back excuses, realizing that they had broken a promise they cared nothing about, and had probably forgotten about until this moment.  Seeing that I still cared, they were a bit embarrassed for me.
“Yeah, well you just need to read a bit more and we’ve got this.”
“We won last week.”
“Reading is boring.”
“Megan is right.  You are a nerd.”

The last one hurt, stinging right to my exposed heart.  Everyone stopped giving excuses, anger in their faces.  Megan had gotten to them.  I liked to read, but I knew it was a nerdy thing to do.  Hotchkiss’s graph had exposed my anonymity.  What I thought was a chance for me to show my passion for stories in an acceptable way had just turned out to be a source of condemnation on the soccer field, the holiest of places.  I was mad with them, or so they had already heard from Megan, so they felt no remorse in dismissing me entirely.  They weren’t going to stand by and let some nerd tell them what to do.  The captains started to pick teams, deciding that the vow we had made on the holy soccer field was inconsequential and the boring conversation was over.

I whipped around and saw Megan there on the soccer field.  There were three girls that played soccer with us: Lisa, Robin, and Megan.  They were all huddled together, smiling those vehement little smiles while appraising me with their trenchant eyes.  Was Pam a part of their plan, a way to keep me off the soccer field while Megan planted her seeds of betrayal in the minds of my allies?  I had never experienced conspiracy before in real life, but I had read about it plenty in books, and I knew what was happening.  The trouble was, I couldn’t convey that to these illiterate boys.  If they didn’t read, they lacked the capacity to understand the big picture because they were working with such a small screen.

That day, I was picked last for a soccer team, technically not being picked at all.  No one wanted an angry nerd on their team.  Cassie, on the other hand, was allowed to cut to the front of any Tetherball, 4-Square, Hopscotch, or Double Dutch line that she wanted to.  Just last week the boys had been flagrantly bragging about ‘their’ victory over the girls, but now that Hotchkiss had taken away their victory and made it my victory, reading was no longer cool and the competition meant nothing.

The girls had Cassie’s back.
The boys were too busy stabbing mine.

It was fine, I decided.  The boys were dead to me.   I’d have to walk this road alone.
Week 3 Reading List: Robinson Crusoe, Basil of Baker Street, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, The Dragonslayers, How To Eat Fried Worms

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II….

Listen To My Grandpa’s Stories Or You’ll Die

My grandfather tells a very aggressive story.  He means well; it’s clear that he wants to get some kind of moral across, but the exaggerated lengths he goes to tend to discredit his stories, and that’s why I love them.

Grandpa is a rather conservative gentleman named Colin.  Colin worked for a living, and carries his days as a miner on his sleeve wherever he goes.  He’s as Irish as you please, a bit red-faced after a drop of the ol’ whiskey….and come to think of it, I’m not sure if he’s ever not red-faced.  When convenient, he’s a very staunch Catholic.  Most importantly, in his eyes, he is a very hard worker.  He’s got a big nose and two giant ears.  When he tells stories he leans towards you and always looks at you slightly sideways so he can get you with his piercing blue eye.  Doesn’t matter which eye it is, he’ll squint the further eye from you as he talks.  My sister and I used to sit on either side and take turns asking him questions in order to see his shifty-squints.  His voice is a deep bass growl, always a few decibels above what is comfortable to listen to as he shouts his stories.  The rather cheery Irish and Minnesotan mixed accent the rest of my family has sounds harsh and accusatory when it comes from his throat.  It’s more a growl than a voice.  He once told me, at the age of five, that he had been raised by bears, and that’s where he got his voice.  I believed him.

Grandpa’s stories were always made up on the spot.  He was visiting my hometown in Iowa and was reading the newspaper.  I was 13 at the time, and I saw him eyeing me suspiciously across the room with his blue eye.  He looked at me, back at the paper, and back to me.

“What is it, Grandpa?” I asked.

He beckoned me forward and pointed aggressively at the newspaper.  It read ‘Teen Pregnancy Rate Up In Des Moines County’.  He pushed the paper to me so I could read the story.  At this point I had to fight off a fit of laughter.  Clearly he thought this was my fault, and while I appreciated his confidence in me, I knew it was misplaced confidence.  My charisma could barely handle conversation with a girl without me blushing; it was nowhere near where it needed to be to get a couple hundred girls pregnant.

“I knew a young guy that got a young girl pregnant.  Do ya’ know what happened to them?”

I did, of course.  It was the same thing that happened to all the characters in his stories.  Still, I shook my head ‘no’, because he wanted to tell me.

“They died!  She died because she made bad choices and lacked responsibility!  He died because he didn’t listen to his grandpa, and her dad shot him dead for lacking decency and morals.”  Grandpa fixed me with his icy stare, evaluating whether or not I had gotten the message to stop impregnating girls dozens at a time.

“Did they arrest the dad?”

“No!  They let him go free because the boy needed to be taught a lesson!”

I doubt the boy learned much from being shot to death, but that’s the way it was with grandpa’s stories.  Severe consequences arose from minor infractions against his blue-collar, Irish Catholic, hardworking decency.  I never heard about my family’s history from him.  The closest I’ve gotten was the story of how all my ancestors died because they didn’t have enough food due to their laziness, despite the warnings of their grandfather.  A secondary story about my great great great grandfather also surfaced.  Zachariah Benzedecker Bishop was his name, and he was a prison guard in Vermont.  One day an inmate tried to start a riot to protest the abhorrent conditions of the prison (rightfully so), and my great great great grandfather shot him dead.

“Ya’ know why he did that?”  Grandpa asked in his usual growl.

“To stop a riot?”

“He shot him because he wasn’t behaved and didn’t listen to authority, or your great great great grandfather!”

I tell you all this so I can share my grandfather’s second most entertaining story.  His first and best story was about Justin O’Reely and how he only had one testicle.  It was an uncharacteristic story for grandpa and unfortunately I wasn’t there to hear it, but he had everyone in tears that Christmas Eve dinner.  His second best story was told in his car, where I was the only witness.

Grandpa wasn’t a good driver.  He still isn’t.  I’ve told him many times that he needs to be a safer driver by either paying more attention or to stop driving altogether.  He didn’t listen to me that day like he usually didn’t.  After cutting off another driver (twice), the driver whipped around and gave grandpa the finger before speeding off down the road.

This infuriated grandpa!  Some 20-something no-good kid had dared to disrespect him, a good and honest blue-collar Irish Catholic hard worker, and he did it in front of his grandson.  I saw his knuckles go white as he tried to catch up to that car again to show him who was boss.  Grandpa had accelerated to five miles below the speed limit instead of his customary fifteen below, but that 20-something was gone.

“Did ya’ see that?”
“Yes, Grandpa.”
“That’s a bad idea.  Ya’ know why?
“No, Grandpa.”

And for once, I saw him struggle for the story.  I didn’t know if it was the multi-tasking, the frustration of being flicked off, or that he couldn’t fix me with his blue stare while he was telling the story.  His bad driving was getting worse.  I knew it was going to be a good one.  The anger was stewing in him, fermenting, because he couldn’t get even with that punk kid.

“When I was a young boy in Minnesota, my grandma died.  We held mass for her because she was a goodhearted decent Catholic lady, God bless her soul.  We loaded her up in the hearse and the funeral procession followed.”

I was enraptured by the story.  Grandpa never went into such detail, and I had fully expected great great grandma to have died to some rather common vice.  This was different.  He was drawing from himself this story that he needed to tell.

“We were in a procession a mile long, your great great grandma was so loved by everyone.  The whole town showed up.  Well, there was this one jerk, some moron 20-year old guy that got behind us and started flashing his lights at us and honking his horn.  He had no respect.  He stomps on his gas and gave everyone in line the finger!  Me, my ma, the line of everyone, the hearse driver, and even your great great grandma, God bless her soul.”

Grandpa was fuming.  At this point he’d run a red light (3 seconds after the yellow winked off) and had started speeding.  I was getting scared, I asked him to slow down and pay attention, but I also wanted him to go on with the story.  Maybe he was equating these two 20-year olds despite the 50+ years between these two incidents.  We drove on in silence, until we made it into the country of Iowa.

“Ya’ know what happened to him?”
“No, Grandpa,” I said, though I was pretty sure.
“His car broke down.  Flat tire or something.  There he was on the side of the road out in the middle of nowhere Minnesota.  Ya’ know what happened to him?”
Now I wasn’t sure.  “No…?”
“Every last one of us gave him the finger! Baam!  One after the other.  Finger…finger…finger…finger…a whole town of middle fingers except your great great grandma, God bless her soul.”

A smile crept across the old man’s face.  “And when we left the cemetery after the funeral, we all did it again!”
“Did anyone stop to help him?”
“Of course not!  He was disrespectful and crude.  Ya’ don’t swear at someone like that.”

I wasn’t sure if giving the finger was the same as swearing, but I let it slide.  Grandpa’s mood had lifted.

“So what happened to him?  This was before cell phones.”
“It was before all phones.  What do ya’ think happened?”
“He had to walk back to-“
He died!”
In hindsight, I should have seen that coming.
“And ya’ know what?  He didn’t get a Catholic mass.  All’s he got was a tombstone that said ‘Good-For-Nothing’ in the shape of a middle finger.”

I’m pretty sure that at some point, grandpa had lost the truth of his story.  He knew it, I knew it, but it was still funny.  Still, Grandpa lacked closure for this recent case of being flicked off, and he settled into a kind of a mood.  Then, I saw a familiar red car in the left turn lane.

“Grandpa, that’s him!”

The situation was something like this: we were on a two-lane highway cruising in the middle of nowhere Iowa.  The red car was in a 3rd turning lane, stopped and waiting for an open spot to drive on.  Grandpa pulled his car to a stop inches from the other vehicle.  Keep in mind, this wasn’t an intersection, it was a highway, where we were expected to be going 50mph.

Grandpa rolled down his window and reached out with his hand, thumping the red car’s passenger window twice.  The 20-something was unaware of us until that point, but his reaction as he snapped his head around was priceless.  The thumping made him jump, and his shock went to terror as he turned to see an old man and his grandson leaning out the window and flipping him the bird on four different hands.  Grandpa stomped on the gas and sped away.

It’s my fondest memory of my Grandpa, as it is the one time I heard him laugh with complete triumph and comradery.  He was a good guy, albeit stubborn and gruff in his own way.  I learned a lot from him.  Unfortunately, he died later on because he didn’t drive carefully and he didn’t listen to his grandson.

That One Time I Was In A Boy Band

This is a story about the best decision I ever made in my entire life.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The plan was to impress all of the girls, because impressing the girls was a thing that we were very bad at, and to have any hope of pulling it off we’d need a plan.  Since we were making a plan, we decided to go big.  Huge even.  We were going to impress all the girls so much that they were going to scream out our names with excitement when we were done.  We were five of the best friends a Middle School had ever seen, and for one night we were going to be a Boy Band.

The venue was the Iowa Show Choir Festival.  It was some competition between all of the High Schools in the area for some trophy I didn’t fully understand.  All of the schools performed in the day, and four were selected to go again for a championship round.  Between the two rounds there were exhibition acts to keep the crowd excited, and that’s what I signed us up for.  It was the perfect venue, because all of the girls from school were going to be there.  Half of them were in the choir, and the other half wanted to be supportive of their friends.  It was also the perfect venue because every guy that would make fun of us for being in a Boy Band was going to miss it, because they weren’t going to show up to a Show Choir Festival.  This was the pinnacle of directed advertising.

We’d never been a Boy Band before, so it was going to take some effort.  I was in it, of course, and I had most of the ideas to get the ball rolling.  We had Braum, a six-foot giant of a lanky kid who was shy but was willing to try anything once (especially after I peer pressured him into it).  I sold him the concept by telling him that he’d be the tall, dark, and mysterious member of the band.  There was Shannon, a really good singer who loved to ham it up and be the center of attention.  He was going to be the hype man, the guy just behind the lead singer that was going to get everyone to their feet (Justin Timberlake).  There was Randel, another soft-spoken guy who was far more attractive than anyone in Middle School had the right to be.  He was going to be the loveable cute one.  Finally, there was Drew, the popular guy who could sing, dance, and make the ladies swoon.  He was going to be the highlight, the main guy.  I’m not sure what I brought to all of this.  Maybe I was the manager.

The plan was simple.  We were going to do an *NSYNC song because they were way more popular than anyone else.  Also, their music videos provided all of the choreography we’d ever need.  We were going to record MTV all day with one of those 8 hour VHS tapes and hit the two times that they showed music videos.  When we got back from school, we were going to fast forward to the song of choice and learn that choreography.  Drew’s uncle had a karaoke side business, and with a quick drive over we had the background music to whatever we needed on cassette tape.  After much deliberation, we decided on the perfect song: Dirty Pop.

Dirty Pop was ideal for a few reasons.  The video had the most choreography, it was the shortest of their songs, and for an event like this it was the second best *NSYNC song, only behind Tearin’ Up My Heart.  It was fast, it was catchy, it had plenty of room to let us goof around, and it was perfect.  Tearin’ Up My Heart didn’t have all those things.  It was slightly longer, it didn’t show much choreography at all, and even though it was the better song to show off to, we didn’t have the tools between the five of us to choreograph anything or make up another gimmick.  It was beyond our grasp, so we went with Dirty Pop and set to it.

We had three weeks to get ready, and maybe with more effort we could have had a better looking product going into the concert.  Braum was about a beat late with every motion and would forget unless he was directly watching Shannon that we placed directly in front of him.  Shannon was a great dancer, but he liked to improvise between beats sometimes, which was gawkily echoed by Braum a half second later.  Shannon also forgot to put the pretend microphone (a naked Barbie doll) in front of his face about half of the time.  I thought I was doing amazingly well, but had a habit of frowning, furrowing my brow, and concentrating way too hard on the motions.  It gave the impression that I was constipated and being tortured to dance.  Randel was perfect.  He and Braum had agreed to participate as long as they didn’t have to really sing.  This left Shannon and I to be backup singers, or Drew and I while Shannon was doing his part.  Drew was great, but would often stop dancing in order to sing, breaking our symmetry and causing some infighting within the group.  Drew ultimately won out because he couldn’t breathe enough while doing the dance moves to his full ability.

On a good run through, three of us would do the choreography passably well and only one singer would forget that it’s their turn to shine.  So we kept practicing.  What did it matter if we were perfect?  The fact that we did it would be the talk of the town, and it would be so surprising that we’d do ‘well’ no matter the level or our performance.  We were going to hit them with Shock and Awe, and the rest really didn’t matter as long as we kept up the act for 3 minutes.

Three weeks we worked.  We’d gotten *NSYNC looking outfits (Good Will versions of what they wore in the Dirty Pop video).  We had the song down as good as it was going to get, which might as well have been perfect as far as we cared.  We’d adopted the motto “Sloppy is our style!”

The day of the concert arrived.  We’d watched all of the schools go, including ours.  We hadn’t told anyone about what we were going to do.  We didn’t want to build it up at all, because shock was going to carry us a long way, or at least that was the plan.  During lunch, the runners of this festival got us up on stage while the auditorium was cleared out.  We did a full run-through.  We learned that monitors are speakers on the ground that let you hear yourself (we decided that full singing volume was the right choice), and that headset microphones were a thing (we’ll take three for our five man band, please).  Naked Barbie was on the sideline cheering us on.  We felt really really really good about it.

The afternoon went by and it was time for the exhibition songs.  We all went up to stage left where the master of ceremonies was.  He gave us a few words of encouragement before we went on.  The air was electric, my hands were shaking with nerves.  We all couldn’t believe what was about to happen.  Out in the crowd were at least 10 different schools worth of choirs and choir fans.  Our school was front stage left, and we were going to pander to those girls like crazy.  Our spirits couldn’t have been higher.

And then we all heard an electric synthesizer on some kind of weird organ setting.  We looked on stage and there was a High School senior, smiling at the crowd and playing an introduction to a song we knew all too well.  It was the introduction to Tearing Up My Heart, the *NSYNC song that we had agreed would be perfect if it wasn’t impossible.  Another High School senior hopped on stage behind a xylophone, and another hopped into a drum kit.  They played an instrumental round of the introduction as the last two members of their band moseyed and then in perfect 5-man harmony the High School senior group launched into the lyrics, still playing their instruments.  When they got to the end of the introduction with a resounding, “With or without you”, the group all muted their instruments and vocals.  Each snagged the nearest carry microphone from the closest stand and they all swaggered into the famous ‘*NSYNC 5’ formation.  Despite their being no sound coming from the stage, the auditorium was thunderous.  Every last middle and high school girl in the county was on their feet and shrieking at the top of their lungs.  The five seniors just looked at each other smiling.  One looked at his watch, a funny gag about how long the screaming went.  It didn’t die down, it just kept going.  I couldn’t believe it.  That was OUR screaming!

They didn’t bother to wait for the cacophony to die.  One hit a button on a nearby tech device and the karaoke version of the song launched over the house speakers at full intensity.  The five of them launched into the choreography of the video without a hitch, five mirrored figures in perfect unison.  The screaming raised in pitch and intensity.  One of them stepped forward and launched into the first solo.  The rest all pandered to the crowd valiantly, and then the five were back in unison while in five note harmony.  One mind in five bodies.  They pointed at the girls. They winked.  They did their choreography.  The two main singers did a great job hyping up everyone as they played the entire room, bounding over the stage like they owned the entire room.  The other three started to do a series of flips during the instrumental bridges, the most intense being a guy jumping off his friend’s knee, doing a backflip, and landing before sinking into the splits.  Out in the auditorium, the mob was melting into Chernobyl.

I looked at my squad.  We were deflated and defeated.  They were so much better.  They looked better. They sounded better.  They did flips.  Most importantly, their performance caught the audience with complete shock and awe.  It was the perfect setup, and we had to follow it.  It was going to be a disaster.

I felt bereaved.  Braum was visually pale.  Drew looked conquered and upset.  Shannon took turns saying to each of us “That’s just not fair”, repeating it to our squad members a second time each.  Randel didn’t say anything.  He was so nervous coming up here that I’m not sure that it was registering to him that another group had just beaten us to the punch.

The music cut out before the song was done, right before the last chorus refrain.  Exclamations of “What?!” and other shouted disappointment bellowed from the auditorium.  The five seniors looked at each other confused, and then they all smiled and pointed at each other as if some unspoken idea had occurred to them all simultaneously.  This was my cue, my chance to save everything.  I huddled up my group and told them the one thing we could do to fix everything.

On stage, the five seniors had all taken spots behind various instruments (electric piano/organ, xylophone, drums, bass guitar, and tambourine), and they played the song live on their instruments while singing.  Ear piercing shrill echoed through the building to the point it was hard to hear the band.  They finished, they bowed, and the auditorium was a cannonade of excitement.

Before the screaming could die down, the master of ceremonies went and congratulated the seniors.  Then announced our group.

“Okay everybody, let’s hear it for N*Posters!”  Clapping erupted, but no one walked on stage.  “I said, ‘up next we have N*Posters!’”  The master of ceremonies looked confused, and pointedly looked to stage left.  He found us all sitting in the bleachers, blending in with crowd.  He made eye contact with me.  I simply folded my hands in mock prayer and shook my head back in forth, a look of pure fear on my face.

“I guess that was them, well done N*Posters, let’s give them another hand!”

It is the best decision I ever made in my entire life.

Green Chip

I live in a more run down part of New York.  Maybe back in the 1940’s it was a captain of industry and commerce, but now it is more of a run-down neighborhood bordering “slum” status.  The largest buildings in the area are all condemned, the houses could all use a fresh coat of paint, and about every eighth building has been vacated and boarded up.  Albany has its rich spots and its poor spots, and the YMCA that I go swimming at is in one of the poor spots.  It’s smashed together up against a school, library, and municipal building of some sort.  It’s across the street from a fenced in garage/shipping complex and a house that I simply refer to as “The Dispensary”.  The Dispensary is a large yellow house that reeks of pot.  It has a drive-thru of sorts, as folks will pull up, walk onto the porch, do a series of high-fives and then they’ll walk away stuffing something suspiciously into their pockets.  Not my business, so I leave it alone.

I generally don’t like the people in the area of my YMCA.  I come here to use the pool, and more people means that there are less swimming lanes available.  While driving in, there were three kids spread out evenly across the road so I couldn’t get passed them.  They were shuffling along to the YMCA, and after ten seconds I honked so they’d get out of the road like a normal person.  They turned around, gave me nasty looks that were supposed to be nasty, but I interpreted it more as a clueless idiocy.  Pre-teens with attitudes don’t scare me, but god are they stupid.  It’s common around here for kids to be biking/skateboarding/walking down the middle of the street and blocking traffic when they have two perfectly good sidewalks on either side.  Again, I didn’t say anything.  If it doesn’t bother me, I leave it alone.

In the parking lot I saw my second exhibition of hopeless humanity.  There was some guy shout/talking with some lady.  The guy was wearing blue shorts, a blue shirt, and a baseball cap probably three sizes too big for his head cocked off to the left.  His shoes looked to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 dollars, but the rest of the outfit could be purchased with a $20.  I wasn’t sure if this is how he normally dressed or if this was his workout outfit, it’s how the kids in this neighborhood usually dress.  I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation as I crossed the parking lot.

“Come on Misha!  It’s been 3 months!”
“I don’t care if it’s been 3 years!  You ain’t getting any time with those kids!”
“Come on!  I got a part-time at the station.”
“Ain’t none of mine.”
“They are my kids too!”
“Yo kids?”  Misha launched into a very lengthy list of reasons why Misha’s kids were not the same thing as What’s-His-Face’s kids.

He stood there looking tough and frustrated as the conversation progressed.  What struck me is his left hand kept reaching forward at belt level, palm up.  It was an unconscious tick he did whenever he was trying to make a point to “Misha”.  It looked like he was giving a handout, maybe offering an invisible olive branch.  Maybe he was offering his hand for his small children to hold.  I don’t know.  It looked silly.  Misha turned in a huff towards the door, which I was by at the time.  She said some things designed to dig into What’s-His-Face’s soul and burrow there.  I opened the door and held it for her, taking a look at What’s-His-Face to see what he would do next.  I didn’t trust him.  He had one prominent cheap tattoo on his outstretched forearm, his facial hair was patchy and unkempt, he smelled something like the homeless men at the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at, and he was way too young to be a father of multiple kids.  Misha power walked into the YMCA, leaving me there holding the door, watching What’s-His-Face.  He swore once, looked at me uncaring, and then stormed off in the direction of The Dispensary.  Figures.  But again, it didn’t bother me, so I left it alone.

I did have a good swim.  It was a glorious swim.  I had the pool to myself, mostly.  The lifeguard kept changing the music on the radio whenever a bad song came on, and life was grand in that pool.  That pool is what makes this place glorious.  I did a full half hour in there, free-style the whole time.  I was refreshed, a new man, heading back into the locker room.  The only worry on my mind was that there are windows from the pool to the lobby where folks can see me parade my plus-sized self along the edge of the pool to the locker room.

In the locker room I rinsed off.  While in the shower, I heard someone trying really hard not to cry.  Another example of hopeless humanity, probably.  I ignored it and did my best to get the chlorine scent out of my beard, because it’s awful smelling that for the rest of the day.  The crying was still going on when I finished.  Not my business, so I tried to ignore it while I walked over to my locker, but I snuck a glance that I shouldn’t have.

There he was, What’s-His-Face.  The tough looking punk kid I saw a half hour ago had melted.  His hat was on backwards, now looking six sizes too big.  His eyes were red and tear stained.  His power-stance earlier had devolved into a heap of a person barely maintaining balance on a changing bench.  Everything noble, if there was anything noble about him, had gone out completely.  His spirit had left him.  Except his right hand.  His right hand was clutching something in front of his face.  Fiercely.  His arm was red from the strain of clutching it, shaking in front of his face.  His eyes stared into his fist at the object he was holding.

It’s something I haven’t seen for a long time.

A series of colored poker chips dangled from a chain he was holding.  He probably had a dozen silver chips and two red chips hanging from that chain, spinning in the air, their plastic ‘ticking’ against each other.  The chain hung from the chip he was clutching with all of his desperation, a single solitary green chip.  His eyes glued to it with unbelieving shame as tears unacknowledged trickled down his cheeks.

“Hey.”

I wasn’t sure who had spoken, until I realized I was the only other person in the locker room.  It was the green chip.  That worthless piece of plastic bought him membership into a very expansive and resolute club.

“Hey.   Guy.  I know it’s none of my business, but from where I’m standing, it looks like that green chip is the only thing you’ve got going for you in the entire world.”  I took a few steps toward the corner he was hiding in, well aware that I was going way out of my comfort zone in nothing but a towel and flip-flops.  The guy turned his blood-shot eyes over to me.  I wasn’t sure if he was hearing me or not, his eyes looked so dead.

I recalled an old and dusty memory off of the shelves.  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  That seemed to get his attention, one line of poetry that let him know that he was dealing with alumni from his personal school of hard knocks.  It’s our school fight song.

“I know that this also isn’t any of my business, but you’re holding onto that coin as if you’re about to lose it, and I think I know how you’re about to lose that.  Kid, this is one of those low points.  It’s one of those things you cannot change.  But I’ve got the suspicion that you gave into your darker demons and did something foolish that you regret.  More than that, I’m pretty sure that you’ve got that darker demon in your pocket right or your gym bag right now.  That’s something, that if you really want to, you can change.”

The kid was frozen.  Other than his thumb absently rubbing against the back of his green coin, he sat stock-still.  The golden lettering had rubbed off the front of his coin and coated his thumb instead.  I’m not sure how long he’d been in this locker room.

“This moment right here…” I said, pointing at the floor as if to pin his rock bottom to the floor so that it couldn’t get him again, “…is step one.  ‘We admit we are powerless over our addictions’.  I’m seeing that right now, kid.  So how about we do something about it.  How about you give whatever it is you’ve got over to me.  I’ll carry this burden for you, because it looks like you aren’t going to get very far with it.  Let’s beat step one.”

What’s-His-Face broke down then, sobbing into the crook of his right arm, still clutching the green chip.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  He cried for a while, and I just stood there dripping dry.  I felt exposed.  I don’t like giving speeches.  I don’t fancy myself as a motivational speaker.  Monologue-ing to a stranger about their innermost demons while naked is a nightmare scenario most people only dream of.  I wanted to leave, but this moment right here was critical for What’s-His-Face, and my own personal key-ring of plastic chips demanded I see this through.  Besides, I wanted to see if he could succeed

What’s-His-Face continued to sob there, until finally his left hand thrust into his pocket and pulled out a plastic bag.  Rock bottom could be a painting of that moment.  His head hung in deepest shame, his hands both held above his head to me in complete surrender.  In his right hand was his collection of silver chips, evidence of at least a dozen attempts to restart sobriety, along with his greatest success of 90 days sober, the green chip.  In his left hand was a bag of drugs so illegal that I didn’t even know what they were, or the delivery systems that were also included.

I couldn’t see into his mind then, but I wish I could.  I wanted to dive in there and pull him back from whatever despair he’d covered himself in.  Here were both offerings.  I could take the green chip away from him, or I could take his demons.  Both hands were outstretched, palm up.  It’d looked pathetic before, but now, during the bravest moment of his past three months, he was truly offering something that’d make him a better person.

I grabbed the bag from his left hand and went straight to my locker with it.  I didn’t want him to try and take it back, and I didn’t want to be caught holding it in case someone came in.  I went straight back to him, though.  He was pressing the green coin against his head.  I crouched down with careful towel placement next to him.  “You get to keep this.  Alright?  You keep this going.  A month from now, you’re going to show me that purple chip and I’m going to be proud of you.  Okay?”

And What’s-His-Face finally broke.  We talked.  We talked for a long time.  When I was confident he was off the dark path, I went and got dressed.  As I left the locker room I just said “it works if you work it.  I want to see that purple chip.”  He smiled, and I left.  One unspecified trip to a garbage dumpster, well out of the reach of What’s-His-Face, and the demons were gone.

The Next Dimension

There were many bikini-clad college ladies at the lake that day, and they had their choices of many muscled, intelligent, and dangerous college men.  We all knew what was at stake.  We were at a private lake about a half hour away from the nearest town, and we were there for the entire weekend.  It was a summer bash where everyone was expected to make poor decisions and the probability of winding up with a girlfriend/boyfriend was pretty high.  It was a very exclusive party; the organizers only invited the social elite.  Everyone there was beautiful and well connected.  I’m not sure how I was invited; perhaps the Post Office got their Steve’s mixed up.  I was a Freshman in college, socially awkward, and I only knew three of the other guys at the party.  I was out of my element, sure, but I had a few things going for me: I looked good in a swimsuit, I had a good sense of humor, and I was a great story-teller with a fresh audience.  Still, the guys outnumbered the girls about 2 to 1, so I had to play this right.

 

I knew I had stiff competition from Al.  Al was a beautiful man, a lumberjack with bronzed muscles shining like Adonis in the sun.  He was extremely charming, quick to joke, amazing conversationalist, had a contagious laugh, knew everything about popular music and culture, and was dressed like he belonged in a Sexy Fireman Calendar.  But on top of all that, the thing that made Al irresistible is that he was a bad boy.  He rode a motorcycle, smoked cigarettes, had a reputation of sweeping ladies of their feet, and rebelled against authority at every turn.  The man was charisma incarnate.  I once saw Al walk into a liquor store with no money, charm the lady behind the counter to loan him $10, and then walk out of the liquor store with a six-pack and two dollars.    That was normal for Al.  (He did go back the next day to give her $10.  She gave him her number.)

 

The parents were all at the lake before we arrived.  It was normal for them to get the party started and then leave before sunset.  They acted as a social catalyst, getting all of their children talking to each other before they gracefully bowed out and left us to our own devices.  We were young, scantily clad, well aware of the desirability of those around us, guaranteed privacy late into the night, and we had enough beer to float a boat.

This probably sounds like a stupid idea to you, because you are intelligent.  This sounds like lighting a flare over a powder keg.  I didn’t understand why they did it at the time, but a couple of theories have surfaced.  My best theory is that this is how the powerful and wealthy elite of the county kept their circle small.  By throwing all of their children into this Petri Dish and adding significant stimulant, the rich and powerful were guaranteeing that their sons and daughters would wind up with someone else that was the offspring of someone rich and powerful. They kept all of the undesirables out of the genetic pool while exposing their offspring to the best breeding the county had to offer.  We’d all form the tightest of social bonds.  Their daughters would inspire desire, upon which I’d develop friendship that could never be betrayed because my heart would always remember that it desired them at one point.  Their sons I’d learn to respect and admire as we all competed for the affections of the same women.  We’d all be a group, our own society, and no outsider could break in because we were already so close.  We were the up-and-coming elite.  Our parents’ legacy would continue through us, but only if our parents thrust us into the fire to forge these kinds of alliances.

 

That’s just a theory.  Maybe our parents were stupid.

 

I arrived late, because I didn’t know where the location was.  This story happened before smart phones, before GPS, and before any kind of printable internet map.  I was given directions such as “go to the Smith’s old place, take a left, past the tracks, right after the Barn House (you’ll know the one I’m talking about), keep going, and then left on the dirt road before the cow fields.”  It’s a skill that MidWesterners have, giving directions using no street names, and I’m decent at finding my way around, even when I don’t know who the Smith’s are, but I needed a guide this time, and that guide was Al.  Al rode his motorcycle, and as we came onto the property he revved his engine and nodded at the ladies.  He wore gigantic sunglasses (very stylish in the 90’s), so every single one of the girls thought he was nodding at them.  He then popped a wheelie and stood on his bike, balancing it perfectly, and slowly wheeled toward where the girls were stationed.  It was a great move signifying his mastery over the motorcycle, control, care, grace, and he had to flex his arms to maintain the wheelie.  I drove to where the cars were parked and gave myself a pep speech, because I was obviously outmatched.

 

Al’s parents were not the social elite.  His father worked developing construction equipment and his mother was big into New Age trends.  Despite his pedigree, the designers of this experiment understood what Al was: an unstoppable charisma.  Al would become something big in this county with or without the help of the “Old Money”.  They needed to draft him to their side to ensure that Al would stand with their children as opposed to against them.  Al was critical to their children’s success.

 

I wound my way down to the party, which was in full swing.  I maintained a constant flex of my abs while walking; it’s something I used to do when I was younger, shallower, and much better looking.  It may sound desperate, but I knew what I was up against.  I was up against Al.  Al already knew everyone here.  I sort of knew everyone here, I went to elementary school with some of these kids, and I knew their parents from long ago, but I hadn’t kept in touch.  The girls I knew in elementary school were now women.  Beautiful women.  Some of them sort of remembered me (I was a rather boisterous class clown, hard to miss), but I was never really close friends with any of them…

 

… except Gabrielle.  While walking to the beach where everyone was gathering, I got my first good look at the ladies.  One stood out in particular.  Tan, thin, the scoliosis stance that super-swimsuit models tend to favor, designer flip flops, freshly painted pink finger and toenails, impractical sunglasses, radiant smile, calculated hair that looks like she put in three hours of effort to make it look like she put in no effort, tactical make-up, and she was very good looking.  It took me about ten seconds of absent-minded staring to finally pull myself together and wonder, is that Gabrielle?  Gabrielle was a girl who liked soccer, could run decently fast, had a list of funny jokes, and enjoyed the same games I did.  We spent many hours together when our parents had parties, and I considered her a good friend.  She was pretty much everything I was looking for as a 2nd grader.  Now that I was older and much more shallow, she was ‘interesting’.  Love-at-first-sight isn’t something I believe in.  I actually preferred ladies to be witty, snarky, intelligent, able to navigate an interesting conversation, able to tell a story, full of new and brilliant ideas, hopes, dreams, and determination.  That isn’t something you can tell by first-sight.  So maybe what I was looking for wasn’t so shallow, but that doesn’t mean that “keen-interest-at-first-sight” wasn’t a factor for me in my college days.  There was only one problem with Gabrielle standing there on the beach, and that was how she was making googily eyes at Al while casually touching his bicep.

 

The party got underway.  I introduced myself to all of the parents, giving the fathers a firm handshake and nodding respectfully at the mothers.  Word had gotten around that I taught ball-room dance, and so many of them demanded a demonstration.  I was happy to oblige, knowing that treating the mothers to a quick dance was high-elite diplomacy.  The mothers would then introduce me to their daughters, or if I miscalculated whose mother they were, I’d get introduced to their son.  The sons weren’t ever impressed by the dance, but the ladies saw from afar.  They saw that I knew how to dance, that I could make their mothers laugh and smile, and that wherever I went people were happy.

 

It’s important to note that I wasn’t letting on with my internal rivalry with Al.  Al was my friend, after all.  It’s just that I didn’t like feeling inferior to him.  I was here because Al invited me, not because I belonged.  The ladies flocked around Al as their knees became weak and their eyes became soft.  The “Old Money” all complimented Al on his start-up business and were impressed by his decision to skip college and just start being successful by owning a company that employed fifty men.  A deep and dark part of me just wanted to show that I was on the same tier as Al.  For once I wouldn’t be known as “Al’s friend”, but as “Steve, the guy worth knowing on his own”.  So the performance there on the beach was not an act to fool people into thinking I was a fun person.  That was the genuine me.  I just always felt in the back of my head that I was losing some unspoken popularity contest.

 

The party migrated into the lake.  I had formed a conversation with Al, Gabrielle, and two other gals, and three other guys.  We kind of drifted about the pond the way that MidWesterners tend to do on summer days.  The unnamed folks in our group were all interested in each other, but Al was clearly interested in Gabrielle, and she was clearly interested in him.  I just did my best to be friendly and interesting, waiting my time.  I was evaluating Gabrielle, seeing if she was any fun to be around.  She was, and it turns outs that I was to.  I could make Gabrielle laugh, smile, and most importantly, engage with the conversation.  Maybe I had a chance out here, however slim it may be.

 

We drifted to the far side of the lake, and that’s when things changed.  Al nodded to the trees and said “hey, check this out.”  We all started to swim over to the bank.  A steep hill went straight into the lake at this spot.  It was a thirty-foot incline with a flat spot at the top.  Trees were everywhere, but I saw what Al was up to.  A single rope hung down from one of the taller trees.  It was a thick hemp rope, long enough to barely grab from the shore.  It had a small circular wooden platform at the bottom where a person could sit.  This was a rope-swing.

 

The group each took a turn, except for Al.  We would climb the hill, do our best to line up a path that would avoid any trees (not easily done), and then jump.  The swing would go down 30 feet, up thirty feet, and then you had to let go and drop into the water.  Riding the swing back wasn’t a choice, as it would invariably crash a rider into the trees.  I went first, and other folks followed.  Al stayed behind, helping folks onto the swing.  After all, he had built the rope swing.

 

Conversation between the guys shifted to “The Next Dimension”.  Should we show them “The Next Dimension”?  Will the parents get mad if we pull out “The Next Dimension”?  Are we too drunk to pull off “The Next Dimension”?  This unexplained event was generating a lot of hype, until Gabrielle finally asked “What is ‘The Next Dimension’?”

 

That is what Al had been waiting for.  “Here Steve, hold this.”  At the top of this thirty foot hill, there was a tree.  Al monkey-ed his way up the tree quickly and effortlessly, his lumberjack skills displayed for all to see.  He climbed to a rather sturdy branch about fifteen feet off the ground, and walked across it, balancing with his arms outstretched.   He then turned and faced the rope I was holding.

 

No way.

 

I looked down the hill.  Directly below was a very steep drop off, and at the bottom was a collection of sharp pointed sticks and jagged rocks.  If Al missed this, he’d fall about thirty-five feet and then die.  I looked up at Al, holding the edge of the rope.  “Watch this” is all he said, winking at Gabrielle.

 

Al jumped into the air, hands stretched out above his head, thirty-five feet above certain doom.  His body completely horizontal as he crossed the necessary seven feet to even have a chance at grabbing the rope.  His hands grabbed it with ease, his feet planted squarely on the seat.  The rope snapped out of my hand, and I saw Al go.  Careening through the trees faster than I’ve ever seen a swing go, Al was a streak of brilliance.  The swing crested on the other side over the lake just as Al let go.  His feet stayed on the platform as he backflipped off the platform with practiced ease, his arms stretched out to the sides at full length, his legs fully extended with pointed diver’s toes.   At least fifty feet in the air, he rotated backwards once, twice, three times before he slowly raised his arms above his head in a perfect swan dive.

 

The other lake goers didn’t know about this.  They just saw Al comet out of the forest like some kind of aerial champion.  Everyone cheered and yelled.  The swing came all the way back to the top of the hill where I caught it.  That was incredible.

 

I looked over at Gabrielle, to find her already looking at me.  Her breath had been taken away, clearly, it was the hottest thing ever done.  But her eyes were interrogating and playful, her bottom jaw flirtatiously quirked to the side, her smile devious.  “Think you could do that?”  And with her challenge, she took one finger and stroked it alongside my arm.

 

The next thing I knew, I was struggling up a wet tree.  Al had the advantage of two years Lumberjacking and a dry tree.  I had sure determination and ego, and both were wearing out.  I managed it, but it wasn’t graceful.  It was described as “climb-humping” the tree.  I had tree bark stuck on my chest and scratches everywhere.  Gabrielle stood at the top of the cliff of certain death, holding the swing for me, smiling sweetly.  I stood on the sturdy branch, still braced up against the trunk of the tree.

 

This is where I did some thoughtful introspection of the situation.  Gabrielle clearly knew that I liked her.  Despite my clever plan of trying to remain friendly and unflirty, she knew that I was interested.  She pulled one string and I performed masterfully as her puppet.  She wasn’t being cruel though.  She was clearly enjoying that I was going to such lengths to impress her.  She was open to flirtation.  Maybe she was into me.  Maybe she was just caught in that both Al and I were interested in her.  Maybe she was just naturally flirty.  Maybe she was toying with my heart and was ready to crush it at a moment’s notice.  It was hard to tell.  Climbing the tree was probably a bad decision, and I wasn’t thinking straight, but standing on the Branch of Fate (as it was called) did clear my head a bit.

 

I took a breather because climbing the tree was hard.  From the Branch of Fate, the collection of sharp sticks and rocks looks more like a churning meat grinder.  To successfully grab that swing, I’d have to fully commit to jumping over certain doom.  Folks in the water were splashing and clapping now.  Some had started chanting “Next Dimension”.  I had somehow become the center of attention for the entire party.  They weren’t taking any more stalling.  One of the guys said to Gabrielle “Do you think he’s going to chicken out?”

And before he had finished the question, I had leapt.

 

I remember the jump very well.  In order to make it to the rope, I had to clear seven feet horizontally, and had about fifteen feet vertically to do that in.    In the air, there was no time to look at the certain doom beneath me, as all five of my senses were focused on that rope swing.  The air was electrically cool against my wet skin as I flew through it.  My muscles were all tense.  My face had the calm of Buddha, with a slight smirk that sparked when I snuck a quick peek at Gabrielle.  My hands brushed against the rope.

 

That’s when everything went horribly wrong.  Gabrielle let go of the swing early, my hands were touching the rope, but I didn’t have a grip.  I didn’t get my hand placement as high on the rope as I wanted.  Al’s previous attempt at ‘The Next Dimension’ had left the rope wet.  The platform for my feet had already started to move away and I could not wrestle my feet onto it.  Instead I just slid down about four feet of rope, my hands clutching for dear life despite the sudden rendering of flesh on my palms.  I looked panicked at the collection of death spears and rock macerators below me when suddenly my view was blocked.  The foot platform had snapped back like a whip and clobbered me in the face.  I was knocked senseless.  All thoughts of death below, the Branch of Fate, my stupid unspoken competition with Al, even thoughts of Gabrielle had been shattered by the platform collision.  Only one thought remained.  “HOLD!”

 

My hands cinched onto the ropeswing.  The foot platform stopped my slide to certain doom, and I choked the ever-loving salvation out of the rope.  My vision had tunneled to mostly stars and black, but I could still barely see, and the moment I knew that I was over water I let go.

 

I did not gracefully soar high into the clouds like Al did.  I looked more like a cat shot out of a canon.  My legs were both higher than my head in some kind of uncontrolled karate kick.  My arms flailed about, all control lost after using every last bit of strength to keep me from dying.  I rotated on three axes like a rag doll, completely out of control.  Where Al had pulled an Olympic 3-rotation swan dive, I had achieved a hideous monkey roll.  My horizontal momentum was impressive; I remember seeing the lake water flashing past as the rotation slowed.  I saw my reflection, as if I was standing in the air horizontally, my arms casually at my side.  And then I fell into my reflection face and belly first.  An audible crack reverberated through the party as I rebounded off of the water tension, which sent me hurtling through the air again spinning like a top.  CRACK!  That time my back had bounced off the water tension, and again I was sent toppling over in a flurried ball of arms and legs.  Another loud crack sounded, but this time the lake had mercy.  The water tension let me in, ending my experiment as a human skipping stone.

 

Under the water I heard laughter.  Maybe it wasn’t real, just some delusional hallucination brought about by facial bludgeoning, but I still heard it.  I remembered thinking “You know, rather than face Gabrielle, you could just die here.  It might be easier.”  I stayed for a good ten seconds to regain my composure, and then kicked to the surface. 

 

I had decided that I wasn’t beaten.

 

I broke through the surface with my hands raised in triumph.  I had succeeded!  I had survived.  I acted like this is what I meant to do.  Clapping erupted, punctuated with the staccato of cheers and laughter.  I looked up the hill and smiled.  Gabrielle was there, holding her hands over her face in a bit of horrified shock.  Her eyes were large and guilty.  I called out to her “you let go a bit early.”

 

I managed to swim to shore.  My face was covered in blood and so were my hands.  I kept my hands and face out of the water to avoid getting any more lake water into my blood stream.  Profuse bleeding was not a good way to impress any of the ladies.

 

I did not end up getting a girlfriend that trip.  At one point, Gabrielle and Al disappeared off into the woods together and I sort of gave up.  Come to think of it, Al disappeared off into the woods with a lot of the girls, which made a lot of the fellas give up.  I still had a lot of fun.

Lustrous Dolph, The Aerial Champion Of Storms

Once upon a time in a magical kingdom far far in the North, there lived a magical deer.  The deer was sentient, could talk, and more importantly it could fly like all of the other deer in this kingdom.  His name was Dolph, and he tried his very best.  This deer, however, wasn’t well received by the rest of the herd.

 

The herd had a game called “Catch Stick”.  It was a simple game, but one day Dolph decided to play with the rest.  The other deer quickly noted that Dolph was really slow and uncoordinated.  They’d throw the stick too high for him to catch, or would throw it in a way that would topple his balance, or even throw it around so fast that he got lost so that when they threw it at his face it always hit him on the nose.  The other deer laughed at him cruelly and would call him hurtful names like “Varsity Captain of the Venison Squad” or “Jerkface McJerky” or “Bucky Bonehead” or “Defected Dolph”.  The deer were cruel in their games and drove Dolph away so that he would never play them.  Dolph went away into solitude to cry.  The summer passed into fall, and the fall passed into winter.  The outcast stayed clear of the rest of the deer.

 

What was the defect that poor deer at the beginning of the story had?  A sad twist of evolution had made his snout luminescent.  Defects like this seem a bit preposterous to us humans, but we aren’t magical creatures.  In one generation, going from normal snouts to phosphorescent snouts is unheard of for us, but it happened in the magical land far far in the North all the time.  A crimson luster followed him wherever he went dazzling the unsuspecting with its brilliance.  It made him the target of ridicule.  Some of the more hurtful names picked on his nose, because the deer knew he was sensitive about it.  Some would call him “Rediculous”.  Others called him the “Blushing Buck”.  “Taupe Antelope”.  “Flaming Fawn”.  “Shiny Stag”.  “Afterglow Nostril Show”.  The deer were relentless, and it made the poor “Red-Dolph” cry.

 

Now it just so happened that, like all magical creatures, the deer in the kingdom far far in the North would exist as long as children believed in them.  The children would imagine the deer as their parents would tell stories about them.  The legends spoke of an elite squad of deer who would fly through the sky in order to grace the children with various tokens of affection.  The tokens would propagate the belief in the deer so they could live happily in the kingdom for the rest of the year.  The time of the festivus was upon the world, and the deer were ready for their flight.  Eight deer, famous for their performance in years past, were chosen to spread tokens across the world.

 

That year, however, there was a great storm.  Visibility was well below minimum flight regulations for Class E airspace as set forth by the FAA.  Deer don’t have instruments, afterall, and depend on VFR (Visual Flight Regulations) weather conditions in order to fly.  A VFR pilot is likely to crash and die if he flies into a cloud because he can’t tell if his wings are horizontal or vertical.  A small disorientation can cause the fluid in one’s ears to slowly move so slightly that one doesn’t feel it, and what feels balanced could actually be a literal death spiral.  The deer could not take off in such conditions.  Utter annihilation was at stake.  If the deer did not spread their tokens of good will to the children of earth, the children would stop believing in them.  If the children stopped believing, the deer would vanish forever.

 

The elite squad put on their gear to head out anyway.  Maybe they could just brave the storm.  Fly by what feels right, knowing the risk they ran.  Many called it suicide.  A test run was called for.  Yeager, son of Blitz was selected by the herd.  Yeager was an accomplished test pilot.  If anyone could fly blind, it would be him.  Yeager summoned his courage and leapt into the air, quickly lost into the fog.  The herd saw nothing but the swirling cloud until forty seconds later a shadow hurtled towards them.  Completely turned upside down, Yeager came crashing back onto the landing pad, severely injuring himself.  There was no hope.  That is, until someone remembered Dolph.

 

The herd spread out looking for him.  Dolph usually stayed far from anyone else, just on the outskirts of town.  The storm had driven him into the woods, but he was quickly found, for the dazzling radiance of his nose shown like a beacon through the storm.  The herd gathered around him.

 

“Dolph,” spoke Sprint, the dasher of the North.  “Dolph, we are in great need of your help.  As you know, we depend on the faith of children in order to exist.  Every year during the festivus we fly out and deliver tokens of favor upon these children so that the good children of the world will continue to believe.  However, with the storm, we are unable to accomplish our annual ride.  But your nose shines in the dark, casting away doubt and disorientation.  You can guide the squad through the fog and into the rest of the world!  You can save us all!  We will cherish and love you because of what you can do for us!  No longer will you be an outcast.  You can be a hero.”

Dolph looked at the herd as they smiled back at him expectantly.  It was everything Dolph had ever wanted: to be accepted.  Here was his chance to fly in the spot of honor.  The crux of his existence was this moment.

 

Dolph let out a small giggle.  No one said anything, waiting on Dolph’s answer.  Dolph’s giggle turned into a slight chuckle as he looked from one face to the next.  The chuckle fell back into Dolph’s throat, as it became a deep snicker.  The other deer smiled brighter as it looked like Dolph’s spirits lifted, but their faces turned to shocked horror.  Dolph’s throaty snicker became a deep-bellied guffaw ringing out through the trees.  Dolph snorted as he looked from face to face, chortling uncontrollably.  And then it happened.  Dolph whooped with delight!  The whites of his eyes showed as he threw back his head and cackled, pulling back his lips in a snarling smile revealing all his teeth, and screamed his hysteria into the forest.

Dolph screamed with madness at the herd, “No!  Your existence is plagued with prejudice.  Your mindset of petty tribalism has damned your coterie to oblivion!  Never shall I redeem the pits of unadulterated malevolent vomit you call a soul!  For when I needed just the slightest bit of acceptance from you I was forsaken.  Now you expect me to gallivant blissfully through the skies with you in your moment of need, forgetting all the offenses you have occurred on my spirit?  NEVER!  I will not acquiesce to your solicitations just because you want to use me.  You say that you are offering love, but I see through your sinister deception; it is not love that you offer, but exploitation.  I will watch every last one of you DIE!  The halls of hell will echo with my eternal laughter, because at your moment of calamity the one creature you needed was the one you rejected.  Forever will I take delight in your destruction!”  Dolph shrieked with cackling madness as the other deer looked on with horror.  All hope was lost and their doom swept them away in the storm, which left narynary a trace of the magical deer.

 

 

 

 

This is the story I told my daughter the year I forgot to buy presents for her for Christmas.