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.

Sandwich of Sin

Yesterday I went to my local sandwich shop, and you wouldn’t believe what I saw.  The guy in front of me bought a ham sandwich.  A ham sandwich!  There he was, in public, ordering a ham sandwich as if it was the most normal thing in the world.  So I tapped him on the shoulder and said “Hey buddy.  How about you eat your sandwich in private.  This is a town with good folks in it, and we don’t appreciate your kind around here when there are impressionable kids about.”

 

The guy had the gall to look at me confused.  “Excuse me?”

 

“No I won’t excuse you,” I was quick to retort.  “I don’t like your sandwich.  I want you to stop ordering that ham sandwich and apologize to everyone in here.”  I turned to face him, letting him know I wouldn’t back down from my stand on the issue.  I was sick and tired of people like him showing up and changing everything.

 

“Look, guy,” the pork-eater said to me, “I don’t know who you are or what your problem is.  Why do you care if I get a ham sandwich?  I’m not forcing you to eat one.  How about you have your sandwich and I’ll have mine.”

I looked down at his sandwich with revulsion, and back up at him, still revolted.  “Because I think sandwiches are sacred, and here you are profaning their sanctity.  You come into my town and try to change the definition of traditional sandwiches.  Well I’m not having it.  So why don’t you toss that sandwich away!”

 

The man looked back at the store clerk, trying to give me the cold shoulder.  I tapped him again “Hey buddy, I’m talking to you.”

 

“Leave me alone!” the bacon buffoon said.  “I didn’t call your sandwich evil.  I didn’t make up rules about you can eat!  I wasn’t even bothering you.  No, you decided to make my sandwich your business and get all riled up about it.  Stop it!  Let me eat my sandwich in peace!”

 

“Hey everyone!” I yelled to the sandwich shop.  “Look at this guy.  Take a good look.  Do you see what he’s doing?  He’s eating a ham sandwich!”

 

People started to murmur and gasp amongst themselves.  One mother took her kids by the hand and left the store.  They knew that this guy was a creep now, a sausage sinner if they ever saw one.  A couple of them moved to stand behind me.  The guy took a few steps back, something he wouldn’t do if he was ignorant of his sin.

 

“Folks” the hambo said, trying to appeal to the crowd, “this really isn’t any of your business.  I saw that you guys were eating your sandwiches and I wanted one too.  I don’t see why you guys get to eat the kind of sandwiches you like and I don’t, just because I like ham.”

 

A couple of people started to shout reasons why, but I quieted them down with a gesture before things got out of hand.  I wanted to humiliate this porker, right in front of everyone, and convict him of his shame.  “Listen.  We’ve all enjoyed sandwiches for a long time before your kind decided to show up.  We’re not going to sit by and let you just ruin that for everyone else’s sandwich!”

 

The man looked confused.  “How does my sandwich have any impact on your sandwich?”

 

Someone yelled from the back.  “It’s an abomination!  It ain’t a traditional sandwich!”

 

The man looked even more confused.  “People have liked ham for a long time, this isn’t a recent trend.  What makes your sandwich a traditional sandwich?”

 

The same man yelled from the back, “It’s the only kind of sandwich!”  Cheering erupted along with some clapping.

 

I quieted the shop down with another gesture.  I wasn’t about to let some anonymous voice from the back steal my thunder, because I felt the heat of god’s wrath being channeled through me.  “If you must know, a traditional sandwich is the kind that God set down.  In the book of Exodus, God set down the perfect example of what a sandwich should be.”  I smiled at him, because I’d committed this bible verse to memory in case I met a bacon-eater like this one.  “The people of Israel called the bread manna.  It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.  Moses said, ‘This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘take an omer of manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the wilderness when I brought you out of Egypt.’  That’s what a traditional sandwich is: white bread and honey.  The way god intended!”

 

Cheering erupted from the crowd.  I sneered at the boar biter.  “And come to think of it, you aren’t eating your ham on white bread!  And that’s way more than an omer!”  The crowd started to boo and hiss at the man.

 

The swine swallower turned red.  I knew I had him, but he tried to weasel his way out of God’s word where he stood convicted.  “You do know,” he started, “that sandwiches predate the bible?  The agricultural revolution took place 16,000 years ago, and their primary crop was wheat.  Bread has been around for about that same length.  It’s part of what catapulted homo sapiens into modern people.  Sandwiches have-“

It was too late for him to go on with that liberal nonsense.  People were shouting and booing the hog hankerer.  “The bible starts at the beginning of the world, 6,000 years ago!”  yelled one man.  “It’s manna and foul!  Not manna and sow!” yelled another.  I just started to laugh, and the crowd quieted.

“Look at this guy,” I guffawed, “he thinks that monkeys were eating sandwiches before the world was created!”  Everyone burst out into hilarious laughter.

 

“I didn’t say anything like that.  Humans are homo sapiens!  Monkeys are a totally different species.”  His protests were lost in roars of laughter.  A couple of people pantomimed monkeys.  One threw a banana at the guy.  I didn’t appreciate him calling me a monkey, and neither did anyone else in the town.  Still, the pigsty guy tried to plead his case.  “Sandwiches still predate the Bible!  Many cultures had sandwiches before the Bible was written down.  If anything, the people of your god learned how to make sandwiches in Egypt!  And more than that, the Bible has many DIFFERENT kinds of sandwiches in it.  Sometimes god commands bread to be flat!  Other times it is served in loaves!  Why did you decide that this one example of manna is the perfect sandwich when it isn’t proper bread for which to make a sandwich!”

 

Another shout from the back rang out.  “Because that’s the way it’s been for hundreds of years!  Who are you to question that?”

“Whatever!” the man shouted.  “I don’t even believe in Bread God.  Why should I have to eat his ideal sandwich?  I’m not going to let a ghost from the Stone Age dictate my life choices with sandwiches or anything else!”

 

The crowd quieted.  This was something worse, an atheist and a ham eater, talking out in public as if he deserved the same rights as all of the normal people.  I could feel bile rising in my throat, but I kept my temper.  “Because, you piglet poacher, god didn’t just show us what the best, traditional, and only kind of sandwich is, but he also told us what kind of sandwiches not to eat!”

I recalled to memory a couple of verses before reciting them before everyone.  “Leviticus 11, seven and eight.  ‘And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.  You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you.’  There’s also Isaiah 65.  ‘All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good…who eat the flesh of pigs…such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day!’”

 

“You’ll burn in hell if you don’t turn from your carnivorous ways!”
“God hates Pork!”
“Stop corrupting our children!”

 

“I still don’t believe in Bread God.”  The salami stranger looked exasperated.  “Why would I care that he hates pigs if I didn’t care that he likes honey?”  The oinker orderer looked confused, exaggeratedly so, like he learned in that liberal college he probably went to.  “I…still don’t believe in Bread God, even if he doesn’t like pigs.  But you do.  Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of everyone, even people that eat pigs?  There’s even a story in Acts about Peter is offered pigs to eat from god who said they were clean-“

Booing cut the man off as people yelled at him.
“Don’t you dare use the Bible if you don’t believe in it!”
“What do you know about clean animals, piggy!”
“Pigs weren’t specifically mentioned in that story, you secular swine! Only four footed unclean animals!”
“Your parents must be so disappointed in you!”
“Take Ham Reparative Therapy.  Damn the spam!”

“Listen!  Listen!” The swine-seeking stranger called out.  “The shop offers ham sandwiches, so obviously they are just fine.”

“Oh don’t you dare!” I justly accosted, jabbing my finger into his chest.  “It’s people like you, pushing your ham-eating agenda on the rest of us that have forced this good shop owner to have to carry your abomination!  I’ll have you know that we are taking this case to the highest court in the land!  There is no reason why this Bread God loving business should ever have to serve ham-eaters like you!  This shop has the right to love god and shouldn’t be forced to sink down to your level!  It goes against everything this shop believes in!”

 

The man looked confused.  “This business has a religion?  It has religious rights that trump mine and common politeness?”

 

“Don’t get clever with me!”

“I’m not!  You just said that this sandwich shop has a religion.  If anything, you’re the one that’s being silly.”

 

The people in the shop started to boo the man again.  He comes into our town, into our shop, and demands that we just treat him like everyone else, like he has a right to force us to serve him and his hellish ways.

 

“If your Bread God hates pigs so much, why did he create them?  Why did he make me in such a way that I like ham?”

 

This godless pigheaded liberal was getting on my nerves.  “No one is born liking ham!  It’s unnatural!  You turned away from Bread God and turned to sin!  You just want to do things your own way!  You want to carry out your vile cravings and snub everything that is good and right!”

 

“What do you mean it’s unnatural?  You see pig-eating in nature all the time.  Wolves, hyenas, tigers, crocodiles, larger birds, and even dingos eat pigs.  Throw a pig in the ocean and I bet a shark would eat it.  Humans have eaten pigs since ancient history.  It’s perfectly natural!  And scientists have shown that people don’t choose whether or not they like ham, it’s just the way they are.”

 

“God doesn’t make mistakes!”
“Who are you to question god?”
“Bread God didn’t make pigs, the devil did, in order to test us!”
“It’s not sinful to like ham, it’s just sinful to eat it! Abstain from ham!”

 

The man grabbed his sandwich and started to walk out of the shop.  People cheered that the abomination was finally leaving, but, just as he reached the door, he turned around.  “You guys don’t care at all about Bread God.  You just hate people like me because you are bigoted, narrow-minded, and prejudiced!  You hide behind your Bread God just so you can shrug your shoulders and say ‘it’s not me that hates you, it’s Bread God.  Take it up with him!’  And then you turn to thin air, waiting for me to talk to your imaginary friend, as if you actually expect me to carry on with your fantasy.  I won’t play this childish game with you!  I don’t follow your Bread God, and neither do you!

 

The crowd was seething in anger.

 

I stepped forward.  I wasn’t going to let him have the last word.  “What do you mean we don’t follow Bread God?  I love Bread God with all my heart and soul!”

 

“No you don’t, you miss the message completely,” the man let loose with his pigsty lie.  “I see that you are wearing mixed fabrics, which god forbids in that book of Leviticus that you quoted at me.   He calls it an abomination.  You over there, the married couple, do you force your wife to sleep in a different bed when she’s on that time of the month?  Have any of you sacrificed an animal to appease god of your sin?  Do any of you treat your wife as unclean for 33 days after she gives birth?  I’m looking at the advertising board here in the shop, and it looks like this very shop has created idols and images.  And here we all are on a Sunday, breaking the Sabbath rule.  If any of you have a vegetable garden with more than one kind of plant in it, you’re an abomination!  If you get your hair cut in the wrong way, you are an abomination!  Tattoos are an abomination!   Eating at Red Lobster is an abomination!

 

“But here you all stand, accusing me of a rule I don’t follow for a religion I don’t have, when you all are breaking MULTPILE rules from the SAME book of the Bible that you do follow.  You are all hateful hypocrites, hiding behind your Bread God so that you don’t have to come to terms with your own corrupted hearts.  You want to hold me under the law of your religion while at the same time saying that it doesn’t apply to you in the slightest.  Even if I believed in Bread God you wouldn’t accept me.  You’d say that liking ham is too big of a sin for Bread God to handle, and that’s where he draws the line.”

 

The man left the shop, got in his car, and pealed out of the parking lot.  We never saw him again.

We showed him!

Time Machine: Short story

I found a time machine.  It was sitting in the basement of my apartment complex, and I fired it up.  I thought I could cut through a lot of human suffering and misery by going back in time and educating humanity’s ancestors about science.  So I printed a few basic concepts off of the internet and went back in time.

My first stop was ancient Egypt.  I stood out, wearing clothes they’ve never seen before, dyed in a myriad of colors they couldn’t produce.  My skin deathly pale by their standards, my hair light colored, and found everywhere, not just on my head.  I must have looked like a monster.  But I tried my best to tell them about how the sun isn’t a god that is reborn every morning and killed every night.  The sun is a star, and our planet travels around it, spinning to give the sun its path.  I told them that boiling their water would eliminate parasites and germs, leading to a healthier civilization.  I told them that enslaving their neighbors is wrong, and that it eliminates foreign markets which could mutually benefit everyone.  I expected this to change life for them.

 

It didn’t.  It enraged them.  How dare I compare Ra to the tiny specs of light that take no personal interest in the personal lives of the Egyptians?  Ra breathed life into the world!  How dare I take the blessings of mother Osiris and boil it, as if it were not good enough to pull part of the river god straight form her body?  How dare I question the wise and powerful Pharaoh?  If he needed more slaves to build monuments to his glory, who was I to question that?

 

So I left ancient Egypt and went to the Dark Ages of Europe.  I told them that the Black Death that was everywhere was caused by germs that lived in fleas, which lived on rats.  Killing all of the cats because they were thought to be witches was eliminating the predator of the rat which spread the plague.  I told them that simply washing your hands before delivering a baby would greatly increase the health of the baby.  I told them that launching war after war because they believed in a slightly different ghost than the people they were fighting was a dumb reason to launch crusade after crusade.  Again I was driven out.  How dare I stand up for the witches?  What kind of evil spell was I casting on the midwives that they had to wash their hands?  Why did I spit in the face of lord and savior Jesus when he needed the armies of Europe to march and destroy everyone not like the people in Europe?  So I left.

 

I tried all sorts of places with all sorts of helpful advice.  I tried telling the Vikings that human sacrifice doesn’t do much to change barometric pressure, so it won’t bring the rain.  I told early Islam to really nail the specifics of succession down so that later tribes won’t have a few millennia of bloodshed over it.  I tried telling the surf class that they could keep the product of their labor because they outnumber the royalty 99 to 1, and they can bring down the kingdom and raise up a representative government.  I told the early Catholic Church that plundering all of the money from the poorest people in Europe in order to build lavish castles in Italy will probably send the wrong signal about what you’re trying to accomplish.  I tried to tell America’s forefathers to really consider what they were writing down when those slave owners were writing “All men are created equal”.  Didn’t matter where I went, I was constantly driven out.  So I went back home.

 

The basement of my apartment complex is also where the laundry machines are, and there was a guy doing his laundry there.  I noticed that all of his clothing looked really futuristic, and asked him about it.

 

“Oh, I see you found my time machine,” he said while tossing some socks into the wash.  “Yeah, I just kind of left it here when I found out it wouldn’t work the way I wanted it to.

“What do you mean?”  I asked him?  “I’ve been all around the world, to all sorts of times.  It works perfectly.”

“Yeah,” he agreed hesitantly.  “But I can’t accomplish what I wanted to do with it.  I tried coming here to warn folks that climate change isn’t a joke, but they responded that a creator ghost from the stone age once put a rainbow in the sky, so climate change can’t be real, the stone age creator ghost won’t let it happen.  Others confessed to being ignorant about science, but disagreed with the experts in climatology anyway because saving the planet is a liberal hoax.  I tried warning people now about how trying to legislate bigotry against gay people has consequences.  Folks here just shrugged it off, saying that it’s not their fault.  Once upon a time, two millennia ago, a ghost from the bronze age said that he really didn’t like gay people.  The ghost said a lot of other things (no tattoos, no shellfish, no mixed fabrics, etc), but we just like the verses that tell us to treat our neighbors as subhuman and ignore the ones that tell us not to do things.  I tried telling folks that education is the key to a brighter future and should be made free to anyone that wants it!   Folks here were offended.  How dare I try to step in with the time honored tradition of strapping poor people with obscene amounts of debt if they want to improve their status in life?  What would this world do with lots of smart people, anyway?  I tried telling folks that income inequality isn’t good for anyone, including the insanely rich.  People said I was destroying the American dream that only 1% of people get to enjoy while 20% go hungry.  I tried telling folks that America doesn’t need to be the world’s police man, they really caused a lot of the problems that they had to fight later on (Castro in Cuba, Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, etc…)  They stared open mouth at me at that one, saying that I should leave right now if I don’t “support the troops”.

 

I couldn’t argue, I had a similar problem.  “But why did you decide to live out your life here instead of back in your own time?”

He looked at me and laughed.  “Would you live in a world that is the result of your terrible choices now?”