How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 7: Lessons from the Boise River

July 23rd, 2016. 11:00 AM

Waking wasn’t easy. The strain and excitement of last night’s festivities had taken its toll.  My eyelids barely lifted to expose my bloodshot eyes.  My skin looked as though it had turned a shade paler.  Even a full liter of water could do little to restore my parched throat or cure my throbbing headache.  The only vestige of salvation sat atop my lap.  I opened the shoebox and stared upon the glowing treasure inside.

A sweet, synthetic aroma lifted into the air, igniting my nostrils like a blast of ammonia.  No more hangover; zero lust for thirst. This was it, the moment I had been waiting 24 long hours for.  A run on the Greenbelt with my new running shoes and the reward of an ice-cold Rockstar energy drink at the end.  The perfect start to a perfect day—

“BZZZ.” The sudden vibration of Bill’s phone shook thenightstand, sending a slight startle through me.  A steady ringtonefollowed.  Bill jolted in his bed, wide-eyed and coming to a rise like a “Don’t Wake Daddy” board game centerpiece.

“What time is it,” he exclaimed.

“10 after 11,” I answered.  Bill peered into his phone, gravitating towards it as if his entire body was void of control.  “Don’t answer it.”  All signs pointing to a futile resistance.  “Don’t you do it…  Bill!”

“…Hello?”  I threw my hands into the air, then lowered my head into them, settling into a constant head shake.  Bill pulled the phone away from his ear, the voice on the other side overwhelming.  Within an instant, the effects of the hangover had miraculously been reinstated.

“Dude, where are you guys?  I’ve been waiting outside for 10 minutes!  We got Tubapalooza to win. Wake up!…  What’s the matter, too much to drink last night?  I bet you Zack’s hungover.  Can’t handle his booze, like usual.  Not me though—wait, is he still asleep?  He is, isn’t he?  That’s it. What’s your room number?  I’m coming up.  If Zack’s asleep I’m going to tea-bag him, right in the face!  Haha, he’s going to get it…”

***

Floating the Boise River… on a calm day

Lesson 1: Josh doesn’t know how to win a race

“Oh, my God.”  Bill uttered the phrase somewhere between a chuckle and a scoff the minute we pulled onto the grass field that acted as an overflow parking lot.  To the 1,000’s of others that had converged onto Barber Park for the advent of a 6-mile journey down the Boise river, it was the start of adventure, excitement—an afternoon of bliss.  For Gretch and Megan Mills, both leaning against their car looking to be in desperate need of an IV, it was nothing but a chore, an abysmal condition only to be exacerbated by another 90-degree roaster.

“Did they get here early?” I asked.

“No, we’re about a half-hour late,” replied Josh.  “Sort of misled them a little bit.  Whoops!

He pulled into the spot next to them and shut off the engine. I leaned into Bill with a whisper. “Ok, whatever you do, don’t say a word.”  Bill understood wholeheartedly.  The fraternity we’d developed over the years ordered us not to speak in situations like these.  Even considering the amount of bad blood spilt, both Megan Mills and Gretch deserved our respect for keeping their commitment.  Honestly, I found it amazing that they were even halfway functional.  In fact, it would take a major tool to point out their obvious shortcomings at a time like this, something Bill and I were not prepared to—

“Well, well, well. Look who decided to show up,” blurted Josh as he swung his door wide open and strutted out onto the open field. “Aww, did somebody party too hard last night?  Haha, what a bunch of rookies…  What are you waiting for?  We got a race to win!  Let’s go, chop chop!”

“…Josh, we’ve been waiting here for at least 15 minutes,” replied Megan Mills.  “We were on time, 11:15, like you told us to be.”

“Dude, Megan Mills, you always assume we’re going to be late.  I had to get the Tubapalooza tickets, pick up these yahoos, and get more booze.  I can’t believe you even showed up on time… Megan Mills, you actually disappoint me.”

 “Josh,” inserted Bill.  “Maybe we should tone it down—“

“I mean, look what I’m dealing with!”  Bill’s attempt to intervene failed, miserably.  “You know Zack was sleeping in. Really, you should be mad at him. He’s the real reason we’re late!  Besides, I don’t know what the big deal is.  I drank twice as much as both of you, and I didn’t even get drunk!”

Gretch and Megan Mills rested their heads against their folded arms that were spread across the blistering metal car frame with dreams of euthanasia.  The feeling failed to subside well into the minutes-long castigation. Though I felt for Gretch and Megan Mills in their state of misery, I couldn’t help but stand back in awe.  For the first time in my life, I had been on the periphery of a Josh Ulrich insult binge.

His vituperations mellifluously flowed, one after another, never missing a beat.  They came out of his mouth at such a rapid pace; either his mind was running Einstein-caliber algorithms at break-neck speeds, or he wasn’t thinking at all, merely relying on his natural, God-given talent.  The endurance needed for such a long string of insults, no less than child prodigy status; a talent that could be described as nothing less than… impressive.

“Still feel like crap? Here, drink some of this.”  Josh pulled out a bottle of Champaign, already halfway consumed.  Megan Mills buried her face further into the car frame, the scorching temperatures far more bearable than the sight of alcohol.  “Gretch?”

Gretch gave the bottle a savory look, then turned away.  “C’mon Gretch, you know you want to.”  Josh’s tone bordered that of a taunt.  “…Gretch?”

Gretch lifted her head and crept her gaze across the length of the car.  The taste of alcohol was on her mind; I could feel it—we all could. Josh knew it was a terrible idea; his desire for destruction fueling his persuasive tactics.  Bill looked beyond her with concern.  He remained silent, as did I, unwilling to accept the almost certain tongue-lashing that would follow if we objected.  Don’t do it Gretch…

She grasped onto the bottle and slowly raised it to her mouth, her hand violently shaking as the bubbly beverage poured from into her mouth.  Oh, Gretch…

A minute later, I followed suit.

“C’mon Bill, you’re next.”  Bill eyed the bottle with unrestricted disdain, partly driven by the pressure of his peers.  “Do you want to win Tubapalooza or not?”

According to Josh, the recipe for success so far was:

1. Show up 15 minutes late to the race.
2. Go to a public park and drink alcohol.
3. Continue doing for the next several hours, in the middle of a hot summer day, with no drinkable water.

Bill’s ultimate compliance was enough to endorse the winning strategy.  It would be another 15 minutes before the idea of floating the river reemerged.

***

Lesson 2: The Irish Goodbye is the best goodbye

Mayhem reigned as we closed in on the launch point; our group scattered amongst the heavy traffic. A steady stream of kids ran between the field separating the launch point and the pump house, a long, wooden shack lined with air hoses to inflate the inner tubes.  Josh found himself stuck in the middle of it, a headless chicken running about in an attempt to heard a group of cats.  Panic had set in, the threat of losing Tubalooza looming harder over him the longer our departure was delayed.  Yet, he artfully mended his way through the influx of patrons between the pump house and the launch point, all while keep with the tradition of issuing orders.

“Dude, Megan Mills, you’re just now putting on sunscreen? Bill, where’s Gretch—where’s you’re tube!?  You guys are killing me—c’mon Zack!  How are you going to float down the river with that thing?  You’re gonna sink to the bottom!  That’s embarrassing, fill it up with more air!  Pick up the pace, let’s go!”

“Josh, your tube is lower than mine…”

“The hole’s too big, what do you expect?”  He was correct in his assessment of the blow port.  Its large diameter made inflating an arduous task.  Though a much sturdier tube than the 97-cent Wal-Mart special we procured for our float down the Madison in Pony, Montana, the design left a pair of engineers puzzled as to how to properly fill them.

“Here, take two air hoses at the same time and fill it.  Double the air.  The volumetric flow rate into the tube will be greater than the flow coming out of the tube.”  Josh gave me a funny look.  “…Fluid Mechanics… the pressure in the hose is high enough so that the air won’t escape fast enough… you know, engineering stuff.”

“Oh, right… engineering.” Josh grabbed my air hose, on stand by for a quick transition.  I clasped the port, ready to unscrew on command.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready.” 

“You guys, there’s a smaller port on top,” butted in Gretch.  Josh and I gave her a condescending stare.  “Just unscrew that one and fill it.  The air hose fits perfectly in it… you know, the top one’s for filling, the bottom’s for deflating, right?” We looked at each other, bemused. What the hell is she talking about?

“Can’t.  It’s sealed shut,” said Josh.

“Yea, it needs some grease to loosen it.  Trust us, we’re engineers.”

Megan Mills snatched the tube from my hand.  “Yea, more like some… elbow grease!”  Megan Mills gave the top port a swift twist and popped the screw right off.  Josh and I looked at each other with bewilderment, raised our shoulders with a slight palm lift and sunk our heads into them.  Engineering brothers, I don’t know…

“That’s great Megan Mills, but finish putting on your sunscreen!  And you still haven’t… wait a minute,” Josh jerked his head between the pump house and the launch point.  “Great, what happened to Bill?  We’re going to lose Tubapalooza…”  It was rather strange, I’d admit.  A minute ago, he was right beside us, and now… gone.  His Houdini-like tactics whipped Josh into a shambolic rage.  All attempts at organization were falling apart before his very eyes.  He wasn’t the only one worried.  No way I’m floating the river alone with these guys.

Josh popped his head up like a muskrat in a crowded field, setting his attention just beyond the launch point.  “Bill… Hey Bill,” he screamed.  “…Bill?” Amongst the crowd of floating bodies, one in particular caught his eye.  This individual’s tube shared a strong resemblance to the one’s held under his own arm, and the man’s features and clothing style fit a perfect profile.  “Bill,” screamed Josh again, his hand cupped around the rim of his mouth.  No mention of the name warranted a response. “Don’t go yet, Bill!  We need to leave together…  Bill!

Too late.  I stood back, my arms folded, unable to look down the river in anything but awe.  The technique had been used several times throughout the years, from large gatherings at the skatepark to college parties where guests had long worn out their welcome. Over time, he had perfected the practice, managing to slip away from any situation through various degrees of chaos undetected.

And once again, Bill had brilliantly pulled of an Irish goodbye, and there was nothing Josh could do about it.  

“C’mon Gretch, Bill’s already in the water,” barked Josh, reverting to what he does best.  “How come you haven’t inflated your tube? We’ll double up—wait, Megan Mills, where’s your sunscreen?  I thought I told you to put it on!?  Here, turn around.  I’ll get the back, you get the front.”  Josh spread his arms with a full wingspan, working aggressively like an overwhelmed mother tending to her children’s needs at the amusement park.  One arm slopped a layer of sunscreen on Megan Mills’ back while the other held an air hose to Gretch’s tube.  “Don’t just stand there Gretch, start inflating!”

My air hose spit out from my tube, the spectacle unfolding in front of me having commanded my undivided attention.  Quickly, I screwed the top back on and pressed at the sides.  Pumped to the edge… we’re good to go.   I looked to the river.  Bill’s long gone.  Envy filled the crevices of my body among other thoughts; nefarious fantasies of abandonment.  I wonder… if I just take a small step, if he’d even notice…  I side stepped away from the pump house.  Nothing.  That was easy.  What about another?  This time I turned my body and managed to take a full step.  I gave another peak over to Josh.

“Keep pumping Gretch,” he ordered.  “Megan Mills, you’re wiping like you don’t even care.  What’s the deal?”  Still dinkin’ around.  What if I just walk into the middle of the lawn, or even a little further…

“Zack!”  the name shot out like a bullet whipping passed my ear. I had made it down the staircase of the launch point before being detected by the eye of Sauron.  For a second, I froze, one step away from the river’s entrance.  “Don’t even think about it!”

“Don’t turn around,” I told myself.  “Whatever you do, don’t you dare turn.  Don’t even give him the thought of acknowledgment.” My foot sank into the water, ignoring the attack of cool water on skin before acclimation.

“You better not—I swear to God if you leave I’m going to kick your—dude, Zack!”  I kept on walking, like a wife finally taking the brave step to walk out on her husband after years of abuse.  Once the water reached my waist level, I plopped myself onto the tube. “I’m warning you!  You’re going to regret this!  Do you hear me—Zack…”  Josh’s words faded in obscurity, being no match for the river’s current; continuously fading, further and further, until there was nothing.

***

Lesson 3: Get lost in the moment and enjoy the ride… as long as you’re in the middle.

Much of Idaho is bare. During the peak of summer, temperatures can reach well over 100°, decimating any form of plant life that had sprouted in the Spring months. However, if you know where to look, Idaho is lush with green forests, crystal clear lakes, and precipitous peaks, starting at the top of the panhandle at lake Coeur d’Alene along the border of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, down past the raging rapids in Riggins, where tens of thousands go each year to experience some of the country’s best white water rafting, and up through McCall, a resort town and home to some of the most beloved skiing in the state.  Further south, you’ll find more than your fair share of evergreen milieu, including Sun Valley and its surrounding towns, as well as other destinations unique to Idaho such as the Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh and the Craters of the Moon.  It’s no wonder the people of Idaho are amongst the most humble of statesmen. They see it as their hidden gem, the best kept secret in the States; and they’d like to keep it that way.

The Boise River is no different.  Surrounded by mounds of sunburnt foothills, the Boise River is a representation of that same attitude, a linear oasis where the masses find refuge from the sweltering sun. A long line of trees hover along its banks, perhaps the only natural ones of its kind, providing comfort and shade throughout your float.  You are one with the river, slowly mending your way back into the peak of man’s ingenuity, the thriving tech and business hub that has managed to remain under the radar, free from the common issues that infect most metropolitan areas.

Boise River from above

I leaned back in my tube, flopped my arms to the side, and gazed upon the clear, blue sky.  The sun’s rays struck me, permeating through my pores to induce a state of quasi-paralysis.  For the next couple of hours, the fouls of the world would be purged from existence, just as it had done for the smattering of others who had also descended upon the shallow river valley that Saturday afternoon.  I sensed that Bill was not far ahead, and that soon we’d—

“Hey Zack!”  My heart raced at the sound of her voice, it’s tone familiar, shrill—disturbing.  Great, I’ve been blindsided!  Letting Gretch sneak up on me like that—what was I thinking? And Megan Mills?  Forget about it!  Not after the crap I pulled yesterday.

And if Gretch was near, then so was Josh.  I could hear it all play out.  “Dude, why didn’t you wait for us?  Slow down…  Zack, go faster…  Seriously, we’re gonna lose Tubapalooza because of you!  You’re lucky I didn’t tea-bag you earlier today, blah blah blah. Get this Megan Mills, Zack sucks…” I braced myself.

“How’s it going?”  …How’s it going?  Gretch sat up in her tube, perched and poised.  Josh was next to her, removed from reality.  Subtle eye contact was made; he had nothing to say, a rare and beautiful moment; a gift given unto us by the power of nature.

“What about Tubapalooza?” I asked.

“Huh?” Josh responded, as if I had broken a deep trance.

“Tuba…  Never mind.”

Megan Mills looked to be a cadaver sprawled limp across her tube.  Asking her to move was not in the realm of possibilities—not at this time.

“Well, look who it is,” said Josh looking onward, holding the same grin given to me many times right before a smart-ass comment was to leave his mouth.  We had crept up on Bill, his head tilted back, top submerged—totally oblivious.  “Gee Bill, looks like we’re all catching up.  Haha, what a slowpoke!”

Bill whipped his head up, sending his hair forward over his forehead.  He shook it about like a wet dog, then whipped it back again, forming a nice slick—Ryan Gossiling style.  His collared shirt remained unbuttoned like the old Florida man stuck spending his hot summer days at the bayou bar, a style both coveted and admired. “No wonder you left so early.  That puny body of yours can’t even handle a float like this.  Even Zack’s keeping up!  That’s just embarrassing…”  Bill lowered his head back until the top of his head was submerged once again and shut his eyes.   “Aw, look, poor Bill.  You’re in worse shape than Megan Mills, and she isn’t even trying!”  Under normal circumstances, such an affront would’ve provoked a stinging response.  Yet, both remained stationary, still in refusal to move a muscle.  If there was a way to fully submerge his ears without falling out of the tube, Bill would’ve done so.

“But really guys, you should wake up.”  They refused to yield.  Josh’s words had fallen on deaf ears.  “Seriously, I think we’re heading towards the edge.”

“What?!” shouted Megan Mills, rising from her comatose state with an injection of adrenaline. Bill whipped his head back out of the water, repeated his wet dog routine, and worked himself into a furious paddle.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“C’mon Zack, paddle!” said Gretch.  “You’re separating.”  So, I’m a little bit by the edge.  Who cares?  Drifting away, I casually waved my sardonic goodbye.

Hmm, I guess the river actually runs kind of fast the closer you get to the edge. Those branches look kind of low too… Oh crap, I actually am a little close to the edge—OH CRAP!

“Bill, help!” I screamed. My arms swatted against the water and my feet fluttered about in non-uniformity, unwilling to get my body wet. 

“Zack, take my hand,” he said.  I twisted my body and searched through the commotion for an awesome hair doo. “Zack… my hand.  Quick, before it’s too late!”  I zeroed in.  Bill spread across his tube, his hand outstretched to grasp onto mine.  I reached out, our hands meeting under the scintillation of the sun, our fingertips barely missing in an accidental recreation of the Sistine Chapel.

“Noooo!”  I watched as Bill sailed away with the rest of the pack.  He looked at me, as if he were a soldier forced to leave his brother to die on the battlefield.  For only an instant did I appreciate the poignancy of the moment.  No time to feel sorry for yourself when survival is on the agenda.

I turned around in my tube and stared down my attackers.  Several layers of branches hung, coming right at me and eager to strike. A wall of jagged rocks flanked my right. If given the chance, they would deal serious damage.  I braced myself for impact.

My legs flew up and picked off the first wave. They were met with solid resistance, snapping upon impact; the ruthless conditions imposed by the sun, their merciless General having an adverse effect on the soldiers.  I outstretched my arms and took care of the remaining stragglers.

The second line came immediately after.  Again, my legs flew up, then my arms, catching as many as they could intercept. The branches bent, proving much stronger, much more versatile than their predecessors.  My God, the sheer volume of firepower—too much to overcome!  My defensive line, though strong and powerful, couldn’t handle sheer quantity. “NOOOOO!”

I bent me arms to cover my face.  Branches scraped the sides.  One impaled my stomach.  I shifted accordingly like a losing boxer in desperation mode.  Another smacked me across the face.  I turned and scrunched in the tube, hoping to reduce the damage. They scraped and scratched away. I reached out and caught a straggling branch—my last resort.  The tube whipped around and entered a tailspin.  My mind blotted the chaos, bracing my body for the impending doom.

Seconds later, I rose from the crash site, bruised and battered, mangled and torn, scraped and scabbed, stuck in an eddy against the rocky shore.  I watched as Bill and the rest of the group dipped into one of the many sections of shallow rapids.  With only the slightest hope of reunion, I pushed off the jagged bank and paddled in what was to be the beginning of a long and arduous trek back to the group.

***

My breaths were strained. I could feel a tendency in my muscles to cramp whenever my calves flexed. “Hey guys,” I said with difficulty. The response from the group was lethargic at best.  I cleared my throat and spoke again, ensuring my determination would be realized. “Boy, I can’t believe how long I had to paddle…”  Gretch turned her head slightly, annoyed, as if she were forced to give the unpopular girl at school acknowledgement.  Bill was sprawled, his head dipped and throat vulnerable to a devastating judo chop. Megan Mills was no better.  Josh turned his tube around for a much-wanted address.

“Dude, Zack, you were gone for a half hour.”  Really Josh?  I hadn’t noticed.  “You know, you shouldn’t have floated near the edge…”

Gee, you think?

***

Lesson 4: Watch for falling flab

The volume of manmade structures increased the further we traveled, evidence that we were heading into downtown.  Hotels and office buildings accompanied the line of trees along the river, providing further shade.  And for better or for worse, so did the volume of patrons.

A procession of splashes was heard from afar, aberrations from the natural ripples of the river. Its rhythm was inconsistent, but reliable, each new splash louder than the previous.  The commotion had yet to reach panic levels, yet a sense of caution was well congruent within the group.

We approached the first of many bridges, 10 feet high and spanning the narrow width of the river, part of the Greenbelt Trail system and apparent source of disorder.  A steady line of prepubescents stretched from the middle of the bridge to several feet past its origin, each one’s appearance strikingly similar.  Puberty had been deprived of these adolescences for the time being, their body portions not in sync with their corresponding hormones.  Though there was potential for athletic development in the coming years, much time and patience was required until they could fully fill into their fleshy figures.

One dropped from the bridge, sending a shockwave through the water.  The next boy lined himself into position.  We looked onward with agitation as he clasped onto the railing and swung a leg over the edge.  As soon as the tips of his toes set down on the edge of the wood platform, extruding mere inches from the outside of the railing, he swung the other across, just as careless. He turned his back to the railing and looked down upon the obstacles crossing his path, any consequence of collision obfuscated by the thrill of the jump.

Several times he had contemplated jumping.  He dipped every time an urge presented itself, a sinusoidal ripple bellowed across his belly, each delay a direct relationship to the continuous population of floating objects below.  Many factors were in play, all of which worked against him.  The entire weight of his body balancing on the balls of his heels, the heavy layer of sweat lubricating his grasp on the railing, the pressure of his peers, yelling, complaining, and growing more impatient with each passing second as they were forced to wait in line—all the elements for a perfect storm.  It was only a matter of time until the young boy descended upon an innocent target several feet below.  Multiple casualties were at risk.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Bill.  I thought the same as we neared the bridge.  Not only was traffic looming, but the shallow nature of the Boise River didn’t leave much room for recovery in the probable case that the jump didn’t go according to plan.  We crossed under, paddling an ample distance away from ground zero.

The boy shook uncontrollably now, knowing full well it was only a matter of time before the limitations of his undeveloped strength forced him off the ledge.  “Wait… where’s Gretch?” asked Bill.  We whipped our heads back to the bridge.  A small break in traffic surfaced, a slight chance he could make the jump and come out unscathed, if not for two oncoming obstacles—two blonde haired girls floating aimlessly down the river.  Uh oh.

“Gretch, Megan Mills, look—“  Too late.  With little warning, the boy let go, falling with the full acceleration of gravity behind him.  Our hearts stopped.  Even Josh felt a rush of distress.

Splash!” A large crater followed, the impact sending a tsunami-like wave in all directions.  It swallowed the boy and everybody in its wake.  A second passed, a second that felt like a minute. Remnants of the wave remained. Still no signs of Gretch, Megan Mills, or the boy.  We feared for the worst.

“Gretch!” yelled Bill, startled, yet with enough sense not to paddle towards the impact zone. The boy emerged from the bottom, whipped his hair around, and swam to the river bank, oblivious to the damage he nearly caused.  Gretch reappeared, looking back at us as if we were an inconvenience.

“What?” she asked.

“Where’s Megan Mills?”

“Right here!” said Gretch, pointing at the slain warrior floating a few feet behind.  Bill let out a sigh of relief.  The splash had missed her by a matter of inches.

“Oh man, did you see that?” bragged the boy as he jiggled his way up the bank and towards the back of the line, leaving a trail of water spots on the dirt path behind him.  “Man, that was a close one, haha!  Watch me next time, I’ll do a cannon ball!”

The next boy climbed over the railing and positioned himself accordingly, shaking and dipping along the edge of the bridge, waiting for the opportune moment to jump.  A faint crash sounded ahead of us, competing with the crashes coming from behind.  We floated on, knowing at least two more bridges of its kind remained along with a couple of rope swings, just as hazardous.  Lasting well into the waning fragments of sunset, day after day and all summer long, it was only a matter of time before one of these annoyed river floaters was met with a face full of flesh.

 “Dude, we should totally do that,” said Josh, his face perked. Bill and I shook our heads, hoping Josh was only joking.  Unfortunately, we knew better.

***

Some foolish boys and girls even decided to film their antics

Lesson 5: Avoid the strange animals (that’s what I know…)

“Check it out,” said Bill looking onward.

My face squinted with perplexity.  “What in the hell?”  Past the second bridge of falling flesh blobs a strange creature lurked; an animal of sorts, growling about in an unintelligible manner and staking claim on a rocky patch.  At first glance, the dark complexion suggested lineage from the sasquatch family tree, for the upright stance didn’t fit the profile of most mammals.  Behind him was a rock cove carved into the river bank for shelter.  Filled with an assortment of items that were the prime pick at the local landfill, it was appropriate to assume that this was where the strange animal took up residence. “There aren’t bears in Boise, are there?”

“It’s Jesus,” chuckled Josh.

“Very funny,” said Gretch.  “It’s just a dirty old man.”  Further inspection proved Gretch correct.

“He’s nuts!  Look at him.”  Though conceivable, I couldn’t yet agree with Josh’s assessment. If thousands of people floated past my house every day, yelling, splashing, jumping off bridges and raising hell, I’d probably be in a bad mood as well!

“He’s just an old man yelling at all the hooligans on his lawn,” I said.  “…I dare you to go talk to him.”

“Are you kidding me? Look at him!” Josh replied.

“C’mon Josh, all he needs is a friend!”

“Yea Josh,” chimed Bill. “You both like the outdoors. Sometimes you live in a car, he lives in a cave.”

“There’s so much in common—a match made in heaven!”  Bill and I laughed while Josh scoffed, struggling to find an equivalent comeback.

“Um, maybe we should swim away from him,” suggested Megan Mills.

“Yea, whatever Megan Mills.  Josh, are you going to talk to him or not?” I egged.

“What would I even say?”

“I don’t know, ask him what type of cologne he wears,” suggested Bill.

“Chances are, it’s the same kind you wear,” I added.  “That natural, hippy bull crap, heheh.”

“Screw that. You’re stupid.”

“You guys… we’re getting really close…”

“Just hang out with him a little bit.  Offer him a drink of your rum.  He’d love that!  He might just invite you into his cove—”

“GUYS!”  There was something about Megan Mills’ latest alarm that silenced us all. The animal’s words, though no more intelligible, clearly conveyed displeasure, and were clearly directed towards us.  We had been a moment too late realizing the current’s pull towards the cove.  And now, every passing second solidified the sense of urgency to remove ourselves from our petrified state.

Run for it!” screamed Josh.  Lacking the stoic nature to keep his composure, Josh took the lead and triggered us into action.

“Josh, wait!” said Bill.

“Survival of the finished,” he shouted back, making little effort to address the rest of us. We scattered like a school of piranhas interrupted from their fresh feast, kicking our legs and flinging our arms furiously against the water.  Was this man truly evil?  Hell if we would stick around to find out.

“Megan Mills, it’s not working!”  I screamed.

“Don’t stop!  Keep paddling!” she insisted.

“I’m trying Megan Mills, I’m try—“ I froze.

They say when confronted with conflict, most people possess a fight or flight reaction.  I possess neither.

His gaze pierced through mine; my body frozen, the sign of ultimate acceptance for an imminent death. A flow of obscenities spoken in a strange dialect followed.  He pointed, as if I were his next sacrifice gravitating towards his rocky altar.

“Zack,” cried out Bill.

“Forget it! he’s a goner,” yelled Gretch.  It was words I would’ve expected from Josh, though he had wasted no time making his escape when the opportunity presented itself, belting out of there faster than the infamous police run at Billapalooza, circa 2007.

“Bill, don’t leave me,” I said, unable to break eye contact.  “Bill…”

And just like that, he was gone.  Oh, how the Irish goodbye strikes again.

The animal’s voice was loud and clear now, spewing a gargle of gorilla like rumbles, part of his telekinetic powers to lure his victims.  Here I lay, a frozen body at the mercy of this dirty, hairy monster, drifting towards my fate.  It’s over.  I’m finished…

His head jerked and body twitched, the evil spell conjuring the demon trapped inside.  Then, he tilted his head and stared passed me. Something new, something more enticing.  It must be.  But what? That Boy Scout troop?  No, not nearly attractive enough, not for his taste. Besides, all their moms were around. The blondes perhaps?  Or maybe that babe in the Wonder Woman swimsuit on the paddle board… Yea, she was kind of a babe.  I bet it’s her—wait, what are you doing?  Run stupid!  RUN!

I turned to my stomach and pushed off the bottom of the river.  “OOGA OOGA, ARGHU UGA OOHH!” he rumbled.  I paid no mind—no acknowledgment.  I kicked, harder and faster than ever before, my arms swinging with a warrior’s fury while the harsh cries of the animal burned passed my ears.

Survival of the fittest…

***

The jet boat could be heard several bends down the river.  Its engine roared louder with time, until it emerged around the bend like a giant sea monster rising from the depths.  The hull lifted with each rev and gave the water a giant slap as it weaved in-between tubers, as if it were navigating down the Columbia River on the final level of the Oregon Trail.  

“What do you think’s going on?” asked Bill, casually observing the deadly potential of the machine crashing up the river.

“I dunno,” replied Gretch with a sloppy shrug.  Megan Mills lifted her head for a moment, then resumed her natural state of apathy. The lack of caution was shared among the river dwellers.  Either the scene of a giant boat evading a constant case of manslaughter was an all too common occurrence on the Boise River, or the three-hour float had temporarily drained any care for one’s life.

“Maybe somebody’s drowning?” suggested Josh.

 “Hopefully their taking care of those damn kids jumping off the bridge!  How much you want to bet they whomped on somebody?”  Nobody took me up on the bet.  “Maybe they’ll put a whomp on them…”

From the edge, the jet boat made a sharp turn across the river, threading the needle through a group of tubers to make its way back to the middle.  Two uniformed men were at the helm, most likely police officers judging by the words “Boise Police” written across the hull.  It turned again and thrusted forward, pointing the tip of the boat to the sky.  We watched as the bottom of the boat exposed itself in front of us, much like the mouth of a Great White Shark eager to sink its teeth into his next meal.  It was hard to tell if the officers could see what was directly in front of them as the tip of the boat pointed directly towards the sky like the 12 O’clock Boys of the water.  Due to our inability to react, we assumed they could, knowing full well the hull could come down and crush us at any moment.

A slight shift in the propeller jolted the boat to the right. It juked and drove up parallel to us, then continued up the river.  We looked back, observing the boat’s precise movements back and forth across the river as not to cause any casualties, then resumed down the last bend of the river.

***

A day later, we would come to find out that the strange animal had snatched two teenage girls. Literally, grabbed them from their tube and held them captive in his cove.  The police men were called upon to arrest him and save the hostages from their cove.

Nature has a funny way of dealing with us humans.  Why did God give us a conscience?  Probably has to do with that verse in the bible where he made us into his image or something like that.  I forge the exact one, somewhere near the beginning I think.  But suddenly, survival of the fittest sounded more like a bearing of guilt…

How to Clean your Conscience Chapter 6: I’m not your Buddy, Bud!

Feature Image by Alden Skeie on Unsplash

July 22nd, 2016. 11:00 PM

By signing this I am held responsible for any and all injuries sustained while riding the mechanical bull.

I understand that riding the mechanical bull may cause symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo, and upset stomach.

I am responsible for any cleanup fees up to $250.00 if vomiting occurs at any point while riding the mechanical bull.

I hereby forfeit my right to take any legal action against Dirty Little Roddy’s Bar for damages incurred while riding the mechanical bull…

The list went on for another page and a half.  Paragraphs merged and sentences blurred to form a single block of illegible characters, repeating themselves over and over again.  My body swayed and my head grew dizzy.  Who am I?  What am I doing?  I looked back, the pores on my forehead pushing out fresh droplets of sweat, desperate for answers.

There were sculpted bodies, several of them crowding this dark, manmade cavern somewhere in the underbelly of downtown Boise.  Maneuvering between them had been difficult, the close proximity of bulging flesh only providing the most narrow of corridors for navigation.  Acrid pheromones secreted from each formation, their combination of sweat and cheap cologne working in concord with the destabilizing effects of country music, a constant blare that echoed between the canyon walls… walls that doubled each time I blinked.  Josh seemed to fit right in.

Through a slice in the canyon were two figures, their blonde hair and similar profiles drawing familiarity, holding a countenance of alacrity while pushing forward with the back of their hands; a gesture of encouragement.  “Go on,” they beckoned.  I took a deep breath, filtering out the salty fragments of air saturating this less-than-ideal establishment of which we had stumbled upon, and continued.

In my hand was a card containing a set of special instructions.  Though indecipherable, having been written in a style that resembled ancient hieroglyphics, this card held power, influence—admittance to the next stage.  People would kill for such a precious artifact; there was a reason it was in my possession.  I remember…  Yes, I remember!  These girls have guided me here… on a mission.  To conquer a beast… Yes, it’s all coming back to me!  They sent me here with this… key.  Like a Mega Man or… a Mega Mills and a Gr… a Gre… a… I took another look back, my face squeezing in on itself.  “Gary?”

“HEY!” I whipped my head back.  A bouncer stood before me, drawing his beady eyes through mine with a mean mug that held firm.  “I don’t got all night.  Either sign the form or get out of the way!”  His words struck me like a bolt of lightning.  I stared forward, my body quivering.  Where the hell am I?

He changed his approach, speaking to me as a mall Santa stuck with a kid that doesn’t know what he wants for Christmas.  “Do you want to ride the bull or not?”  I didn’t answer.  Yet, I nodded my head and my hand moved back and forth, driven by fear and absent of logic, scribbling a connection of lines across the width of the page in what was interpreted as a signature.  “That’ll be 10 bucks.”

10 dollars?  Ha!  A king’s ransom!  10 dollars, I did not have.  Yet, I had something more.  A golden ticket, a rare token whose value could not be measured in dollars and cents, given to me so I could complete my journey; to be cashed in at a special moment, a moment such as this.

The bouncer studied the card with no signs of increased enthusiasm.  “Good for one free ride on the mechanical bull at Dirty Little Roddy’s.” I waited patiently, senses prevailing. No way he’d turn this down.  It’s fate. He lifted his head, affording me a moment of eye contact, then nodded to his right.  “You’re up.”

I followed his nod. Before me erected a boxing ring, dark and desolate, the air drawing colder as I ducked under the ropes. Reluctance slowed my entrance, roaming towards the middle like a trek through a congested swamp, imminent danger merely a step away.  The foam-covered floor hindered my motion further, each sinking step exhibiting the appearance that I’d been marching across the city of Boise hopped up on few doses of ethers.  Mounted atop a long, steel post and clothed in a leather saddle stood my foe, full and in the flesh.

Instinct finally reeled itself in: God had given up on this place a long time ago.

Pride kept me moving forward, knowing full well Josh was lurking about, waiting for me to cower as I stood in front of the bull, size and skill now on full display.  Duty drove me to climb atop.  I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

I was alone now, all but for this fiend I had chosen to ride.  A bright light shined down on me, blotting the entirety of this God-forsaken place from sight.  No help from the outside world; this task was mine, and mine alone to complete; a promise I had made to Megan Mills and Gretch from what seemed to be ages ago—hold on just a second, why the hell am I on this stupid Bull?  Because Gretch and Josh got Megan Mills to yell at me?  Oh, the insolence!  I unload her stupid kegs, she made me ride down with Josh—OH NO, MY RUNNING SHOES!

A sharp, winding pitch pierced my eardrums, and without warning, the bull thrusted forward.  My eyes widened and my head jerked.  As fast as it flew forward, it snapped back, thrashing my body about like a string of spaghetti.  Barely a half of a second passed and already I’d been nearly tossed twice from the raging animal.  No longer was pride on my mind.  No longer was I driven by duty, or the embarrassment felt from Josh’s berating. Survival was the only motive now.

Round 2:  The bull gave a twist and another jolt forward. My knuckles turned white while I grasped at the saddle for dear life, my only countermeasure to keep me upright.  It whipped again, this time backward and counterclockwise.  My body flung over the side, using a combination of a pull-up and a Xenia Onatopp thigh thrust to climb back to neutral.  The gears whirled, the bull dipped, and I braced myself for round 3, wondering how my simple presence could make such a beast so incensed.

The bull took an accelerated spin clockwise, pressing the newly formed calluses on my hands to a tear. A spike in G forces gave homage to the Gravitron as I had become the premiere carnival act on display, spinning round and around, forced away from the saddle.  The ring ropes conjoined together to become one, continuous string of red, quickly fading into a solid gradient with blue foam and white lights. Then, there was nothing…  nothing but black and the sensation of ripped skin from the palms.

Holding true to her incessant nature, she refused to yield, twisting and turning faster and faster, the Laws of Physics demonstrating once again they shall not be defied.  I swung to the side, losing grip on the saddle squeeze, left with only my weary fingers as a last line of defense.  One by one they broke off, first the index, then the middle.  Off slipped the ring; only a dangling pinky and a ferocious scream was left to carry the weight.  “NOOOOOOOOOO!”

I flew, long and far, sailing through the air with an aerodynamic velocity before hitting the mat.  I met the ground with heavy impact, skidding across its surface like a rock skipping on water.  Dazed and disoriented, I staggered up, unsure of which direction to go, and stumbled about the ring, my arms waving about in a frenzy to find the ropes and exit without further casualties.  The odds were heavily favored against me.

It was about at disgraceful as these guys!

If my goal was to do an impersonation of Rhonda Rousey after a fight, I would’ve knocked it out of the park.

On the other side of the ring stood Megan Mills, her face glowing against the reflection of her phone screen as if she were in possession of a winning lottery ticket.  “Oh, my God.  This is gold!”  I took a peak over her shoulder to see what the buzz was about.

“What in the…” I blurted. A clip of a figure swaying back and forth on top of a mechanical bull repeated itself on her phone.  A closer examination revealed the man’s gauche technique, clinging for dear life in desperation to stay atop the bull; a wide-eyed dingus bobbing back and forth, his body thrashed about by the slightest of directional changes… a dingus that looked a lot like… me.  Great.  I’m already on Snapchat.

“Thanks Zack,” said Gretch, putting her arm around my shoulder.  “I’ve been trying to get rid of that free bull-ride card for years!”  Oh really?! “And don’t worry, I put your shoes in Josh’s car.  I knew you’d forget em’, and I couldn’t have those ugly things tainting my car any longer.

“Gee, thanks Gretch,” I replied, unable to showcase an appropriate response that included enthusiasm. “I think I’m gonna need a beer.”

The bull ride was a difficult endeavor.  The path to the bar was no easier.  A mass of hulks converged to the bartender like an ugly tumor, her short jean shorts, midriff shirt and possible Daisy Duke ancestry being the most logical explanations for their attraction.  The rate their bodies pressed against each other had the likings of an efficiently run meat packing plant, where only the most skilled and determined could walk away unscathed.  Bill was nowhere in sight.  I feared the worst, that he had taken the risk and been forever lost, shipped away as the ham in a man sandwich.  Not even worth it.

I turned back around. “Ah man Zack, you sucked, big time!” No… please—not Josh.  “That bull totally owned you.  I could’ve held on at least twice as long, one handed, with a beer in my hand.  You should be embarrassed—I’m embarrassed!  I can’t believe you could only—“

“Screw it.”  I turned back and squeezed my way to the bar, disregarding the layer of man-sweat I’d accumulate.

“Hello, what IPA’s do you have on tap?” I asked the bartender, my head bulging from the meat market like a turtle’s from his shell.

“What?”

“I said, what’s your best IPA on tap,” I yelled, my attempt to overpower the loud combination of ambience and country music.

“Did you say Coors Light?”

“No, what type of IPA’s do you have?”

“You mean Bud Light? We have Bud Light.”

“No, I’m talking about draft beer,” I said, this time slowing my words and using acute punctuation in my speech.   “Beer that comes out of the keg.  You pull the lever and it drains from the spigot.  Aka, beer that’s not in a can or a bottle…  What type of beer do you have on draft?”

“So, a Bud Light then?” I give up!

“…Yes.  Yes, I’ll have a Bud Light.”

Miss Daisy twisted off the top of a 16-ounce single and handed me the bottle.  “5 dollars please.”  5 dollars for a Bud Light—did I hear that right?

“5 dollars, huh?” I replied with a chuckle.  Quick, make a run for it!  I turned my head ever so slyly to surveille the room, leaking a grin to hide my intentions.  She wouldn’t notice.  …I’m surrounded.  Man flesh—several walls thick, in all directions…  I’ll never make it.  I turned back.  Miss Daisy leaned over the bar, her gaze intoxicating, holding a sweet and innocent smile, pheromones and attributes in full bloom.  Babes… ughz.  I slapped a 5-dollar bill on the table, completed the transaction, and braced myself for another journey through the meat caverns, this time with a precious can of Roddy’s finest IPA on draft.

“Hey, check it out,” said Josh, nodding his head across the bar.  In the corner was a punching bag hanging at the end of a machine; flashing lights, scoreboard, money feeder and all.  I’d seen these types of games scattered about arcades before, a manhood test for those who require reassurance over their insecurities.  I never took much interest.  More so, I was drawn to other forms of competition that relied on strategy—games that tested skill, hand-eye coordination, and mental fortitude, like Street Fighter II. “You and me, right now.  Let’s go.”  Josh’s interests seem to bait him otherwise.  

“I don’t know Josh, those games are a waste of time, and money.  They’re hardly accurate, and you don’t get a good—“

“What’s the matter, you scared I’ll win?”

“Don’t even care to tell you the truth—“

“C’mon, let’s do it… I’ll pay.”

Well, if he’s willing to waste his money…  “Sure, why not,” I complied, acquiesce overcoming.

“Losers up first,” said Josh as he fed two dollars into the machine.  It was a well-known tactic Josh liked to use in competition—anything to gain an edge.  He’d study his opponent, count the reps, measure their speed and strength, then determine the amount needed to best the challenger, or forfeit altogether.  Most notably was the infamous Moscow push-up contest of 2009.

The trick to a good punch is in the hips.  It’s where the bulk of your power comes from, and a well-timed twist of the hips could deliver a jab fast and effectively, leaving your target beside itself before being hit with a reverse punch immediately after.  Ah, yes, the reverse punch,the most powerful standing punch in the style of Shotokan…  With one seamless motion, I’d pull my left fist back, thrust my right fist forward with a semi-circle revolution and ram it right through the bag, using a sudden and fierce rotation of the hips to produce an optimal strike.

The reverse punch… That would be my approach.

I set up in zenkutsu-dachi, aka “front stance” for those not trained in the art of karate: front leg bent, leaning forward and driving most of the weight; back leg straight at a diagonal, stabilized and waiting for its call to action.  My right hand sat at the side of my hip, clenched, twisted upward, ready for execution, ready to—Strike!

I sent my fist forward, threw my hips, and blasted straight through the bag.  It banged against the top of the machine, sending a fury of red numbers flickering across the scoreboard.  They increased rapidly at first.  1,000, 2,000, 3,000.  The numbers began to slow as it hit 4,000, settling as it reached its limit.  4,500.  I shrugged and stepped aside.

“Pff, 4,500 points? Pathetic, Zack.  My sister could score higher than that.”  It was a terrible insult.  Josh knew just as well as I did that his sister, aka “Big Red,” could beat the crap out of both of us at the same time, let alone punch harder. Still, he seemed a bit too giddy, as if he were all too familiar with the scoring system on this particular machine… as if he’d been waiting for this moment for a long time, investing vast amounts of time and money into the device.  And now, after months of practice, he finally had the chance to show off his progress.

Josh cocked back, sent me a smug nod, and stepped into his swing.  Disgraceful.  A haymaker, wild and untamed was delivered, a swing administered only during acts of desperation, orby the truly inexperienced of fighters.  The machine rattled upon contact, sending the scoreboard glittering with numbers.  2,000, 3,000, 4,000…  Oh c’mon, don’t go up any further… 5,000, 6,000…  Great.  Just great.  The score finally began to settle at the 7,000-point mark.

“Hold on a second, I’m not quite sure I can read that correctly.  Can you tell me what the score is, Zack?”  Josh’s stupid grin blew the cover on his poor eyesight lie.  “… I couldn’t quite hear you… what was that?” I refused to speak.  “C’mon, Zack, don’t be a poor sport.”

“…7,300 points Josh. You happy?”

“Actually, it’s more like 7,340 points, but no need to gloat.  Wait, what was your score again?”  Really, you’re going to pull this stupid routine?  “4,500? Bill, are you seeing this?”  Bill was still nowhere to be found.  “Taylor, Megan Mills, do you see the score?”

“Congratulations Josh. I’m impressed,” said Gretch, jumping into the conversation with predictable timing.  “I kind of figured you were stronger than Zack.”

“You heard her. Gretch doesn’t lie.  I’m the strongest.”

“Yep, you got me this time.  You beat me at a silly punching game.”

“Silly?”

“Josh, you know as well as I do that a game such as this isn’t a good measure of how well you punch. As an engineer, you should know better.”

“Go ahead then, explain away Mr. Smarty Pants.”

“Well, most fighters are taught to strike through your target with a punch that comes from your center of gravity.  Much more effective, quick, and doesn’t leave you as vulnerable to taking a swing. Now, from how the game’s engineered—“

“You see, already making excuses.  I see how it is, can’t admit that I’m the best.  You know, I didn’t expect you to be so bitter about the whole thing.  You talk a big game, but when it comes down to it, you just can’t accept defeat…”  Josh continued to talk, his words drowning out in the fashion like the waning voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher.  “I can’t even think of a single person who’d act this way.  Danny Dahl?  Nope, he’d be humble about it.  Kyle Scott? Please.  That kid would bow down with respect.  And Mike Gibson?  He’d be wildly disappointed with you right now.”  Oh, the nerve!  Don’t even bring Gibson into this!  “Look around, Zack.  You’re acting like a poor sport in front of Megan Mills!  All because I’m a better puncher.  Believe me when I say that we’re all disappointed.  Very disappointed…”

Within me, a prayer began to develop.  A prayer most likely built around the virtues of selfishness and desperation, but a prayer nonetheless, the words formulating inside without cognizant thought, as if the holy spirit itself were flowing through me, speaking in tongues.  God… I know I haven’t been the best Christian lately, but please, make Josh shut up.  I… I’m desperate.  I have nowhere else to go, and he won’t stop.  He’ll never stop…  Oh, the humanity!  I’ll do anything… I’m begging you, Jesus.  I’ll give to the poor, I’ll start going to church again.  Anything, please…

“…Hey Gretch, check out these puny arms on Zack,” continued Josh, squeezing my biceps and jiggling the loose sides with his thumb and index finger.  “A toddler wouldn’t even be scared of him!  And to think we were going to hang out with a bunch of babes tonight.  Fat chance, not when you’re around.  Not with—“

Ok! Ok God.  I’ll do it!  I’ll vote for Trump.  Just please, for the love of everything holy, stop this madness!  “The thing is Zack, I was even going to offer you a few pointers here and there, but because of your attitude, I’m not sure I want to now—wait, what’s that?  You gonna cry?  You gonna cry?  Ah, don’t cry…  Don’t cry—“

A loud pop came from the machine.  Both Josh’s and my heads whipped around, staring with wonder, with apprehension… with contempt.  I can’t quite say for sure what caused Josh to freeze up the way he did.  Was it the preppy attitude?  The Ben Woodward-like stature, the fact that he still wasn’t able to grow facial hair?  Perhaps a combination of the three.  But If I had to guess, I would say it was the lime green Polo that pissed him off the most. And as the final score settled, Josh couldn’t help but sit back in shock—no, with horror as the kid strutted away from the machine, akin to one of the Nazi’s in Indiana Jones after opening the Ark of the Covenant.  7,800 points.

“No.  Way.”

“Well would you look at that.  7,800 points! I think that’s a new high score, am I right, Josh… Josh?”  No answer. Josh had already found his way back to the machine, feeding another round of dollars into it.  I sat back and watched the spectacle unfold in ebullience. Man, I haven’t seen God come through this fast on a prayer since Super Bowl 49 when Malcolm Butler interceptedRussel Wilson at the two-yard line!

“Hey kid, you and me. Let’s go!”  Josh didn’t give him any time to answer, only opting to step up to the machine, forcing his opponent to answer, or be shamed.  His fail-proof strategy of striking last had been thrown out the window in his irascible fit of rage, all too eager to deliver another dose of pain to a punching bag that had long ago reached its daily quota for unjust abuse.  He set into position, took a deep breath, and delivered unto the punching bag a mighty swing. He wasn’t playing around this time. Failure was not an option.

“8,300 points. Beat that!”  said Josh with a hint of arrogance.  And who could blame him?  8,300 was a pretty good score, besting the kid’s previous one by 500.  I hate to say it, the kid is good, but no way he’s going to beat Josh, not this time. That’s barely any setup time, and that follow through?  What are you thinking?  He isn’t going to—What in the…  No way!

The kid stepped back from his punch as 8,500 points lit up on the scoreboard.  Without hesitation, Josh ran back to insert two more dollars into the machine, feeding into his personal, automated heroin dealer. “Best two out of three.”

“I guess this was worth the trip down here, don’t you think Gretch?”  I waited a brief moment for a response.  My words had no effect.  Her face was stern, holding its position as if it were a solid piece of stone; her gaze locked into position like the Death Star ray, waiting on standby to obliterate her target, a preppy looking, smug smirk wearing, lime green Polo boy from existence.  “…Never mind.”

Josh cocked back, his power fueled by an intractable fury, a strong and freshly developed penchant for embarrassing this conceited little pipsqueak who had the audacity—the audacity to challenge his dominance!  This time, he was angry, he was determined, he was to blast this punching bag into shreds with one, monolithic strike; scoring a record, prodigious score of… 7,500 points???

His face turned beat red. Rapid iterations, inhalation and exhalation, cycled through his lungs, loud and obnoxious, like the gregarious individual on the airplane who insists on speaking to you; in through the nose and out through the mouth. Steam lifted and evaporated from his head, an atomic bomb mere seconds from detonation.  I could’ve easily thrown an insult his way and gotten the reaction I’d been waiting for all my life; there was no need.

Before the lime green Polo kid threw a punch, Josh was already back at the money feeder jamming the last of his dollar bills, attempting to satisfy his insatiable fix.

Josh jumped in front of the machine, intent on pulverizing the bag.  He cocked back, took a deep breath, and… wait.  Pure focus.  For the moment, Josh had settled.

With a clear head, he knew he’d jumped the gun last round, believing wholeheartedly he could win purely on intensity, instinct… determination.  Wrong.  That’s when you slip up.  He knew intelligence was part of the game, and say what you want about Josh Ulrich, but even the most despising among us can’t deny the fact that he’s capable of showing off flashes of intellect more times than not.  He’s an engineer after all, and whether I like it or not, give the man respect where it’s due—Engineering brothers.

Set in his stance, he took one, final deep breath, and meditated his thoughts.  The art of climbing was within him, where every square inch of muscle from the legs to the finger was utilized to propel your body up the mountain.  It was essential for survival.  The same philosophy would be used now: every muscle working in sequence to deliver the ultimate blow, beginning with the legs.  Get a good step into the punch. The hips and body: solid rotation.  And finally, the arms: send the fist forward in unison with a high arcing motion, contact the bag with maximum force, and create the maximum moment possible.  

POP! The bag slammed against the top of the machine.  Each of us watched in silence as the scoreboard increased, our hearts pounding against our chest cavity.  1,000, 2,000, 3,000…  It continued, no signs of slowing.  4,000, 5,000, 6,000…  Son of a B.  He might actually pull it off…  7,000, 8,000.  The numbers slowed, still ascending at a rapid rate, though nearing the top of the peak. 8,200, 8,300, 8,400…  “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” mouthed Josh.  The numbers came to a crawl, but they wouldn’t quit climbing, wouldn’t let go of that anticipation that it had helped build so well with the final ticks.  8,570, 8,580, 8,590…  8,600 points!

“YES!” screamed Gretch with shameless delight.  Exotic fist pumps mixed with thunderous applause followed.  “WOO!  That’s what I’m talking about!”

Josh strutted back with a smirk rolling and his palms facing upward, in what had promulgated over the span of his lifetime into what was known as his “Alpha Male,” stance.  “let’s see you beat that.”  The kid strutted forward with a complete mimic.

The kid gave the bag a nice wallop and stepped back as he had done each previous time—nothing special. Josh’s face drooped and his body sank several inches.  None of us could believe it.  8,750 points.

It turns out, God makes good on his promises from time to time, even in the most spiritually deserted of climates.

“Good game,” said the green Polo kid, sticking out his hand for a shake.  Josh’s emotions screamed inside, burning in a fiery oven, begging for their release.  In front of him he saw nothing but a punching bag, brazen and abashing, tempting him to take a free shot; every logical instinct advised him to fire away.  Yet, that would only further the vindication so desired by too many of his peers.  He couldn’t give in—he wouldn’t give in… the Joker cannot win.  Mustering as much humility as he could gather from his wounded soul, Josh abated every pernicious urge within him, looked his foe straight in the eye, and met his hand halfway.  “Good game.”

I sat back, stunned.  “Wow…”

The Polo kid reached around mid-shake to embrace in a bro-hug.  Josh stood firm, steadily shaking his head left to right, never breaking eye-contact.  “I don’t hug.”  There was a special kind of terror in his voice, one that brought Megan Mills, Taylor, myself—even Gretch to a simultaneous gasp, having just witnessed a daddy hit mommy type of moment.  The kid had overplayed his hand—opened the flood gates!  We feared for the next move.  An escalation of events was inevitable.

“Dude, don’t be a douche bag,” said the green Polo kid, trying to act casual in his reproach.

“Who are you calling douche bag, douche bag?”  Josh shot back, no parse for words.

“You’re the one that’s wearing a douchy Patagonia shirt!”

“Pff.  Look at you, and your douchy Green polo!”  Judging by the reaction, Josh’s latest insult seemed to strike quite the nerve.

“Oh yea, Let’s go man! Right here, right now, for reals! C’mon, I’ll give you one free shot!” The kid stuck out his mug and pointed to his chin.  “Let’s go. Right here, right in the face!”

“I’d destroy you!”

“Not with those punches—“

“Dude… I don’t want to get blood on your nice lime green Polo.”

“Yea, that’s what I thought, you’re too afraid to fight…”

Between the repetitive use of the word “douche bag” and other forms of harsh invective, I took notice at the Polo kid’s posse, standing in the corner, each possessing a look of concern.  Someone has to bridge the gap between the two parties. I took matters into my own hands. “Well, that escalated quickly…”

“Dude, I think your friend is a little out of control.”

“What are you talking about?  They’re just a little heated, that’s all.  Neither one of them will do anything.  Trust me, I’ve seen this played out many times before.  Just let them—“

“No, look at her, man. She’s acting like an animal!”

“Wait, what do you mean her—Oh, no!”

Gretch had thrust herself between them with a fist full of lime-green Polo, grasped and twisted at the collar.  I turn my back for ONE second!

“Watch it, buddy!” She said, her eyes burning.

“I’m not—your buddy!” He replied with almost an equal amount of sass.

“Then watch it, bud!”

“Bill, quick, I think she’s back on the Steel Reserve again—Bill?”  I turned my head.  He had reemerged, somehow released from the savage grasp the meat packers had once possessed.  “You’re alive?”

Bill lifted his phone to face level, positioning it for the golden shot.  “There’s no way I’m missing this!”

Bill was rendered useless.  Not that I could blame him, but as long as a sober portion of my conscience remained, I couldn’t let this become ground zero Boise.  I looked to the Polo kid, trying to mask his fear with a straight face.  I looked back at Gretch—Pure, blackout rage. Oh my God, she’s literally going to punch him in the face—ah hell!

I jumped in and pushed the kid away from the scene.  He stumbled back, trying not to break eye-contact, then contested.  “What’s the big idea!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa—hey… I think every-body needs to cool… h-out!

“She tried to punch me!”

“She’s not going to punch you.”  Technically, I could’ve been lying.

“What are you talking about—look at her!”  I refused. I knew better.  “She’s an animal—“

“Is there a problem here?”  Both of us turned to a deep voice that commanded our attention.  Taylor towered over us, his stature menacing, and a purse thrown over his arm… confusing?

“Um… yea, I think we’re good.”  I directed my attention to the Polo kid.  “We good?”

He nodded his head. “…yea, we’re cool.”

“Good,” replied Taylor. He turned and strutted away, the purse waving across his back with each stride.  The Polo kid and I stared for a moment, then mutually addressed each other once more.

“Hey man, I’m not going to punch your girl.”  Ok, now we’re making progress.

“Don’t worry about my friends, they’re good people, they just get a little competitive every now and then, and sometimes egos get bruised, that’s all.”

“All I did was punch the bag, and he got mad—”

“I know, I know, it’s ok. It’s going to be ok.”

“You mean it?”

“I’ll tell you what. How about we all take a shot and forget this whole thing happened.”

“Ah, man…”  He thought about the offer.  “We were heading out anyway, but thanks man.”  Cardinal error.  You never refuse a shot, no matter how hammered you are.  For the sake of the meat packing plant however, I let it slide. “Your friends are lucky to have a guy like you around.”

“You’re gonna be alright.”

“Yea man, you too…”

A minute of unnecessary, back and forth compliments, a handshake, and a goodbye later, I made my way back to our table.  Josh, Gretch, and Megan Mills stood, their bodies battered and souls haggard, looking to have just walked 10 miles after a battle of which neither side was victorious. I can’t say I was very far off. Bill stood next to me, assessing the situation.  “What the hell just happened,” he asked.

I opened my mouth to explain; words fell short.  “I…  I actually have no idea.”  I threw my head down for a moment.  To my side was an open container of Bud Light.  I grabbed it and took a swig.  “Please tell me you got a good shot of Gretch…”

Bill whipped out his phone and swiped through a couple of shots.  “This is all I got…”   Two blurry, unrecognizable figures filled the width of his screen.

“God, what a shame.” I lifted my head and gave the bar one final peruse: the punching bag game, our wounded warriors, the wild, mechanical beast swinging another hapless soul through the ring, and then to the jungle, still rampant with ravaging meat packers; one last arduous trek to freedom. I took a swig of the Bud Light, Dirty Little Roddy’s finest IPA on draft, and cringed.  What a cryin’ shame.

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 5: #SMDH

July 22, 2016, 9:00 PM

It was a quiet ride to Gretch’s house… a dark and quiet ride.  Sure, I could’ve rode with Josh, if I wanted an attempted murder charge on my hands.  Somehow, by some unintentional ripple in the universe, Gretch had found herself on the lesser side of two evils.  Danger, however, still loomed.  I couldn’t figure out why, but merely out of pure speculation, there was an underlying feeling—a 6th sense that maybe, just maybe, my life was in the hands of one who was the least pleased with me.  Sweet talk and swift action were mandatory for my survival.

“Well, I’d have to say that was a pretty successful picnic, don’t you think?”  No words were afforded.  No eye contact, no head movement, no emotion.  “At least I had fun…  And boy, I can’t believe your boss let us get away with all that beer.  Two kegs!  I thought he was going to go ballistic after the crap we pulled!”

“He’s making me return them on Monday.  I had no choice.”  Her words were short, using as little jaw movement as possible to speak.  Well, at least she’s talking.

“I thought he said he wanted you in his office?  ‘First thing Monday,’ remember—” She darted her head and shot me an angry stare.  I paused for a moment and recalibrated. “The offer’s still open, you know, in case you change your mind about running tomorrow.  I’ll be up bright and early, testing the new shoes out.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” By the tone of her voice, I didn’t exactly take her at her word.

“They’re still in the back, aren’t they?”

“Haven’t moved since this afternoon.”

“Oh…  You seem a little down?  Is something the matter?”

“Gee, what possibly could give you such an idea?”  Hmm, sounds like sarcasm if you ask me.

“Hey, cheer up, Gretch! Me and Bill are in town, we got all this beer in the back, and we get to hang out with Megan Mills tonight…  We are hanging out with Megan Mills, right?”

“…Yes.  For the 100thtime, yes, we are going to hang out with Megan Mills.  She lives with me after all, which I’ve also told you several times now.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve only asked you a couple times, but whatever.  Just a little excited to hang out with my friend, like there’s something wrong with that.  I’m surprised you aren’t as excited as I am…” There was no response.  “You know, if you changed your attitude a little bit, I’m sure you’d get a little more enjoyment out of your day.  Take a look at me, for instance.  It’s been one heck of a stressful day with the restaurant and picnic and all, but I’m still chuggin’ along.  In fact, I’m in a great mood!”  

Gretch pressed her lips firmly together, widened her eyes, and cocked her head tight like she was having a seizure, containing the demon inside her body that was clawing for its release.  Must be suffering from Ben Woodward Syndrome…  “Look at the bright side.  It could worse.  It could be Josh Ulrich in this car right now instead of me.”

“Oh my… I can’t even imagine…”

“…Unfortunately, I can… Where is Josh anyway?”

“Him and Bill are at the store getting inner tubes and booze for the float tomorrow.”

“Oh yea, Tubapalooza.  What a joke. At least we don’t have to put up with—wait a minutethat means there’s still time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just keep driving. Better yet, step on it.”

“I don’t understand—“

“Don’t worry about it, just go!”  She drove on. Not another word was spoken.

Making a good impression on Megan Mills wasn’t just rational, it was crucial, each occasion being just as critical as the last.  As an ally, she would fight alongside you until the very last breath.  As an enemy, she’d make you wish you were never born, and keeping in good company could prove to be a full-time affair.

The old one’s speak of tales, ancient legends past on through the ages of her heroics.  Once during a routine campaign stop, former Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne was confronted by Megan Mills over the issue of Idaho land rights.  The exchange ended with the governor peeing his pants in front of a large crowd of elementary students.  She was 12 years old.

Weeks before Thanksgiving vacation 2013, Idaho State Senator Brandon Durst received an excoriating reply over a Facebook post regarding his flip-flopped position on human rights violations; one by a loyal constituent by the name of ‘Megan Mills.’  A series of placated responses from the Senator followed, responses just as pathetic as his original and serving only to fuel further ruthless rebuttals. Finally, after accusing her of being “misinformed,” Megan Mills called Senator Durst out at the steps of the Idaho State Capitol Building, demanding a showdown, in which she made the claim that she would turn him into a “crying, little school-boy bitch.”  

Days later, the senator resigned, stating “family reasons.”

Of course, nobody has ever confirmed if these rumors are true.  Nobody has ever had the balls to ask her.

Right or wrong, her opinion was worth its weight in gold, and anybody who was anybody in Boise knew that if you wanted to make it, you had to go through Megan Mills.  An alliance with Megan Mills was the only logical explanation for Gretch’s rise, and getting her blessing was going to be a hell of a lot easier without Josh running his mouth.  Our trip depended on it, and time was of the essence.

***

Gretch had barely pulled into her driveway before I swung the door open and jumped out, the car still in motion.  “Zack, wait!” yelled Gretch, watching as I scuttled about the driveway, nearly tripping over my own feet.  “What about the beer?”

“We’ll deal with it later.  Hurry!” I didn’t wait for her.  I ran to the porch, threw the front door open at my own discretion and stepped into the living room.  My mind was overwhelmed at the sight, much like Spicoli’s first encounter with Mr. Hand.  There she sat, looking forward, waiting for me as an arbiter, her hand cupped underneath her chin and her fingers growing like a root up her cheeks; a model posing for an Apple “Think Different” poster.

“Whoa.  Aloha Megan Mills.”  I entered.

A few soft chuckles shot out through the room as Megan Mills kept her pose.  She’s got company.  So far, so good.  Next to her was a can of Coors Original covered in beads of condensation; it’s placement on the empty table intriguing, it’s destructive contents indulging.  “Zack Andrews.  Would you like a beer?”

“You read my mind.” I took a seat across from her. She slid the can across the table. I caught it and popped it open, pressing the chilled rim to my lips and sending the beer down my throat.  That’s really good.  Gretch ran into frame, her hair, torso, and face disheveled.  Too late.  It had already begun, two mortal rivals, sitting across from each other on the brink of civil and sophisticated discourse.  Conditions of surrender were on the table.

“Meet my friends.” I did as I was told and introduced myself, first to a couple standing quietly in the corner, fighting the awkward urge to act as their impetuous selves, forbade by their shared love. Then to Laci, or at least I think that was her name, the details scuffed with a mind wrapped in fury.  In time, we were to share a deep conversation, delving into such matters like philosophy, the rapid changes in American culture, and the Smashing Pumpkins. However, now was not that time.  I turned back to Megan Mills and stared into solitary.  She did the same, vowing not to be the one to break first.  “Sounds like lunch got a little out of control.”

“An old lady got beat up. I felt like I was at the circus.  It was intense.

A snort squeezed out of her, though you could never tell from her stone face.  “In tents?” one of the guests blurted.  A few more snorts filled the room, then chuckles.  I let out a smile, a contagious reaction that turned to a full pandemic of laughter that not even Megan Mills was impervious to, though Gretch showed strong signs of immunity.

I relaxed and turned around to greet Taylor, Megan Mills’ boyfriend and all around good guy, now that it was safe to.  “Taylor…” I said, reaching in for a bro-hug. It was all we needed.  Camaraderie had been well established.

“Zack, we need to get you out tonight.  Boise babes would get a kick out of you!” said Megan Mills.  Gretch rolled her eyes.  The pressure was off.  I sat back, took another sip of Coors, and continued.

“Speaking of Boise Babes, this is how it went down.  I was showing our waitress my new pair of running shoes when all of a sudden, “PHEW!” this dude screams down the middle of the road and pops this dusty old bird in the face, four times in a row!”

“My God!” replied Megan Mills.

“That’s exactly what she said when I pulled out the shoes, which you gotta see these things Megan Mills, they’re beautiful!  Actually—hey Gretch, why don’t you bring them in and show everybody.  They should be in the same place; haven’t moved since this afternoon—“

“For cryin’ out loud Zack, nobody cares about your stupid shoes,” she yelled.

“Gretch, don’t be rude!” chided Megan Mills.  “I’m sorry Zack.  She may be my best friend, but Gretch has a tendency to get a little testy every now and then.”

“No need to apologize. Nothing I’m not used to.”  Gretch glared.

“By the way, how was the picnic?  Anything exciting happen?”

 “Oh my gosh, so get this,” Gretch busted in.  “Zack here went and ran—“

“Ran the table and won the cornhole tournament!  Beat Gretch’s boss in the finals for the win!”  Sorry Gretch, not this time.

“So, does that mean you won the corn hole set?”

“Sure does!”

“So… it’s ours?”

“Sure is!”

Megan Mills’ face lengthened as if she had just laid eyes on upon Jesus Christ in the flesh. “Oh.  My.  God. That is amazing.  Zack, you’re the best!”

“Yea, but—“

“And get this,” I butted in, once again denying Gretch the chance to speak.  “This dude named Logan was trying to swindle it from you guys, kept on pestering me the whole afternoon.  But I stood my ground.  I just knew how important it was to you guys.”

“Wow.”  That’s actually impressive.”

“That’s not exactly how it went down,” interrupted Gretch.

“What do you mean not exactly?  Did I win the corn hole tournament or didn’t I?”

“…Yea, you won, but—“

“And what about Logan?” pressed Megan Mills.

“…So, Zack told him he could have it, and then started acting obnoxious—“

“And I’m talking Ob-Nox-ious!  The guy was nearly in tears after I broke the news!”

“I didn’t mean him, I meant you!”

“Gretch, what are you talking about?  Did we or did not get a cornhole set?”  Megan Mills was through playing games.  A long and awkward silence eventually squeaked out an answer.

“…Yes, we have a cornhole game.  It’s in the back of my car.”

“Well, what are you complaining about?”  Snapped Megan Mills.

“Seriously, can I get a hashtag SDMH up in here?” I asked as I shook my damn head with Megan Mills. A round of suppressed chuckles ran throughout the room.  Hey, I’m on a role!

“I give up.” Gretch threw up her hands and lifted her chin as though she were about to cry.

“There she goes, talking to herself again,” I said.  The comment generated another string of giggles out of Megan Mills and company. “But, yea, other than the cornhole tournament and dealing with Logan the rest of the day, there wasn’t a whole lot that happened.  In fact, it was a rather calm afternoon—“

“Dude, Zack totally chased after a girl.”  The voice was unexpected, pompous, and totally recognizable.  NO! Not now!  This can’t be—no.  No. NO!

“Wait… what!?” Megan Mills straightened in her chair. Her eyebrows twitched, trying to figure out what emotion to use and what its level of intensity should be.

“Do you let yourself into every house that isn’t yours, Josh?”

“Josh can come into our house anytime he likes,” answered Gretch.  A rapid grin grew across her face, Josh’s entrance having given her second life.

“Yea, that’s right,” said Josh, his chin and pecks raised as to say, “I’m the man.”

“Hold on a second,” injected Megan Mills.  “You didn’t mention anything about chasing a girl, Zack.”

 “That’s because I didn’t really chase a girl.  Josh is just trying to blow a bunch of smoke up everybody’s butts.”

“So, by chasing a girl, you’re saying you had a crush on somebody at the picnic, right,” asked Megan Mills.

“More like Zack saw a girl running away so he physically ran after her,” said Josh.

“…You got to be kidding me,” replied Megan Mills, her voice exacerbated by the revelation.

“It’s not even that big of deal Megan Mills, honestly.”

“And she was 50 years old too! Talk about pathetic.”

“Josh!” I screamed.

“Zack!” Megan Mills screamed.

“Megan Mills!” I screamed back. “It wasn’t like that at all!”

“How is that ok?”

“You gotta believe me Megan Mills, it was all Josh’s fault!  He’s the one that told me to do it in the first place!”

“And you listened to him?”

“Hold on a second. This lady was out on a run, and him and Logan wouldn’t shut up, because they know how much I like running and wanted to try out my running shoes.  So I—“

“So you admit it. You did chase a girl.”

“Yes, but—“

“Zack… chasing a girl is never ok, under any circumstance, especially when we’re exercising.  That’s the single most, creepiest thing ever!”

“You gotta believe me Megan Mills.  I’m not a creeper!  Bill, you were there, tell her it’s not true!”  Bill hadn’t uttered a single peep the whole evening, having placed himself sheepishly and strategically in the corner.  His face turned pale and lit with excitement, but for all the wrong reasons. His head shifted back and forth between Josh, myself, Gretch, and Megan Mills, unsure who to side with in this high risk, low reward scenario.  The next words out of his mouth would be devastating to at least one member of the room, and there was no guarantee that they would please the remaining.

“I… I saw it with my own two eyes Megan Mills.  Zack saw the running babe, and in the end, he… he…”  

Bill… please…”

“He chased her.”  Oh Bill… How could you?

“Zack…  You seriously chased a woman.”

“Megan Mills, please—“

“I can’t even…”

“Just listen to me—“

“Ted Cruz would be ashamed!”  The room drew silent, the latest bombshell sucking all the oxygen from it.

“Hold that pose Zack, let me get this on Instagram,” said Josh, phone in hand.  “Hashtag SMDH.”  I sat back, stunned, while the rest of the room erupted in raucous laughter.

Getting embarrassed in front of Megan Mills’ entourage always sucks.  Bill’s betrayal was a slap in the face.  Megan Mills’ mention of Ted was a brutal truth that hit me like a sledge hammer to the stomach.  It was Josh and Gretch, however, such a dangerous pair standing next to each other, grinning such a provoking, shrill grin, such that they had just received the ultimate form of vindication; that was the stake through the heart.  I was a fool, a disgrace, a stain on the city of Boise in the eyes of Megan Mills and company.  Great.  Good luck getting any Boise babes now.

“God, I don’t even know if I feel like going out anymore,” said Megan Mills.

“Way to go Señor Buzzkill.”  What the Hell Josh?  That’s my line!

“Well, I have an idea,” mentioned Gretch, still holding on to her dirty grin.  “What if we went to Roddy’s?”

“That’s the last place I want to go.  Unless…” Gretch and Megan Mills looked at each other and shared a smile.

“Hey Zack, how would you like to ride a mechanical bull tonight?” asked Megan Mills.

“A mechanical bull? I’ve never ridden one of those before. Gee, I don’t know Megan Mills.”

“It’s easy!  I can even get you a free ride,” said Gretch.

Dude, all the babes will love it,” worthlessly added Josh. “Do it… for Megan Mills.”

I looked around the room, surrounded by eager faces, their fate determined by the next set of words to come out of my mouth.  Well, that certainly is a nice offer from Gretch.

“…Sure.  Let’s go.”  This night wouldn’t be ruined on my watch.

“Great!  First you need to unload the kegs,” said Gretch.

“Kegs?”

“Schya!  The kegs from my car, remember?  Don’t just stand there, start unloading.  Let’s go, chop chop!”  I put my head down and waddled outside like a slug.  “And while you’re at it, get those stupid running shoes out of there. They’re taking up valuable real estate—now staring at me like a grump isn’t going to get those kegs out of the car any faster…  Better hurry, Josh and Bill are waiting…  Let’s pick up the pace!  You know we can’t go the bar until you’re done unloading… C’mon, let’s get a move on, we don’t have all night…”

I rose from the chair, my head hung low and waddled myself to the back of her car. There was only one hashtag deemed appropriate for this current occasion.

#FML.

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 4: Babes on the Run

July 22nd, 2016. 6 PM

“C’mon Zack, miss it… miss it!”  Once again, Josh’s words would prove to be ineffective, relentless trash talk that had turned into pitiable mutters of desperation in the final round of the corn hole tournament.  Next to him was Gretch, her body clinched as if it were 20° below.  They watched with despair, drowning themselves in their own disgrace ever since their departure in the first round.  It was their only hope; it was all they had left.  “Miss it… please…”

And look, we actually had Josh and Gretch’s first match caught on camera!

I took a sip of beer and shuffled the bean bag around in my hand, looking for the perfect balanced of consistency.  The ritual hadn’t failed me yet; it wouldn’t fail me now.  Gretch’s boss, my opponent—my nemesis, hovered over me, fighting to destroy my dreams and fulfill Josh’s, as if his presence weren’t daunting enough.  “You got this, Zack,” hollered Bill from across the lawn.  I set my beer down and stepped into position, my left leg in front of the right.  Josh, Gretch, Bill—the entire world blotted from my mind, everything except for a tiny hole atop a slanted plank laying 15 feet in front of me, its presence my sole devotion.  I got this.

My hand swung like a pendulum, anticipation building with each half-revolution.  The feel of the swing was vital to success.  It’s a long-lost art that most competitors had taken for granted; an equation between speed and arc position to pinpoint the exact amount of propulsion necessary to send the beanbag across the field and precisely onto the board.  Back and forth it went, inching closer and closer to the moment where every force, every element was within my control; inching closer to the moment of…

Release.

An aggregate of deep breaths was pulled from the atmosphere during ascent.  Drop in air pressure.  Hadn’t accounted for that… Damnit.  Time slowed during descent, our bodies frozen in a moment of silence.  Only a steady blast of guitar power chords remained to remind us our status as finite beings in existence.

Touchdown.  The bag hit the board. My body contorted.  Maybe, just maybe, if I lean hard enough, I can control the slide… make it stop… stop—STOP!

Josh shriveled like a raisin.  Gretch’s body twisted; her mouth clinched, using everything in her power to prevent an outburst of obscenities.  The bag had come to a stop atop the board with hardly an inch to spare.  1 point.

“C’mon Chase you can do this!” yelled Gretch, a cheer that sounded much too forced.  Chase had the ability to score, and score big, having landed two bags on the board and one through the hole in the first round.  But could he close?  The wear and tear of old age seemed to best his team’s experience, as Bill and I, along with our resilience to alcohol, mounted a comeback to take the lead.  If they were to take back the game, now was the time. 

He stepped up to the plate, his prep similar to mine: a quick sip of beer, a shuffle of the bag, full concentration of the board in front of him.  He wound the pitch and let it rip.  His accuracy was his strength, consistently landing fast balls right down the middle of the plank.  His trajectory however suffered—much too shallow for a proper parabolic curve.  It would hit the board, but much too fast, the friction between the bag and board showcasing his lack of discipline.

Impact. The bag slid… and slid… and slid… right into the hole.  Perfect shot, 3 points… Damn, he’s good.

“Yessss,”said Gretch with a subtle fist pump, soft enough not to draw attention; loud enough for me to notice.

Shut up Gretch.  I didn’t say it. No room for weakness.  Bill jumped into position, angered, determined—our thoughts congruent.  This ends now.

Chase’s teammate set up to toss first, the score 15-18.  21, and only 21 points would win the game—no more, no less.  His first throw landed directly on the board, sending a large smile across Josh’s face.  “16 to 18,” yelled Gretch, as if we needed the reminder.  I looked across the lawn at Bill, and he at me.  He held a smile of his own, like Josh’s, only smugger. “They’re catching up you guys!”  I smiled back.  She’s going down.

I grabbed my beer while Bill prepped his throw.  It was imperative that ample time be utilized for an optimal toss; no need to rush things at this stage of the—what the? A rush of blood pumped through my heart.  Before I could finish my sip, the bag was already up in the air.

That was hardly any set up time!  How can he be so cocky, just lofting it up there like no big deal?  I mean, I turn my head for one second, and… and—what is he thinking?  This isn’t a game anymore!  Did he even look at the board?  Is he trying to lose?  The stakes are too way high for him to be pulling this crap!  And I refuse to lose in front of these… these monsters!  After being up 18-12?  They’d never let it down—oh God, don’t tell me you were paid off. I swear to God Bill, if you screw this up, I’m going to… going to…

Gretch threw her arms over her face as if she were about to pull her hair out and sunk into a standing fetal position.  Josh dropped to his knees, outstretched his arms and looked to the lord for answers. Bullseye.  Straight through the hole.  Once again, Bill did not disappoint.

“Good game Mr. Chase,” I said before shaking hands, both of us keeping an elevated level of composure, then turned to the middle of the field.  Bill met me halfway, our smiles radiating, hoping to burst at any second. Our bodies shook, ready to hold one another, ready to celebrate, ready too—

Mama mia we got the moolah!” I shouted.  We laughed, embraced each other, and jumped wildly in the middle of the field.

“Mama mia we got the money we’re rich!” he replied.

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute!”  I pulled him in close and puckered my lips, pretending to give him a wet smooch.

“Time to get paid—“ Bill turned his head ever so slightly; his smile disappeared.  “Ugh, c’mon Zack, knock it off!”

“What’s the big idea?  You weren’t like this in Pony—“

“God, you can be so immature sometimes.  Can’t you just—oh, hi Rebecca.”  Bill’s tone suddenly dropped an octave as Gretch’s coworker passed by, apparently a babe in Bill’s eyes.  “It’s good to see you again.”  Oh, give me a break.

“Eww.  You guys are weird,” she said with a look that bordered on confusion and repulsion.  She brushed back her long, black hair and walked away, not saying another word.

Bill threw up his hands. “Ya blew it!”

“What—”

What do you mean ‘what?’  …You know I love you buddy, but… ya blew it.”

“But… I uh, I got a little out of hand, but she’s a mom babe mom babe for cryin’ out loud!  Way out of your league.  Forget it!  …Bill?”

Bill scoffed and shook his head as he tried to come up with an answer.  “…It’s just… I loved her, alright…  Ya blew it.  Kapeesh?”

I guess this time, it was me…

Bill turned in pursuit of his damsel in distress.  What a shame, wasting a victory over a girl. Whatever.  Some people just need time to grow up I guess.  I brushed it off, turning my attention to more pressing matters.

“Oh, hey Josh, hey Gretch, good to see you again,” I said to the duo, both overcome with gloom.  “Boy, what a match, huh?  You guys were watching it, right?”

“Did you have to jump around and make a scene,” asked Gretch with an attitude.

“I don’t know.  Did you have to lose in the first round?  I mean, that had to be embarrassing, at least a little bit.”

“Dude, you got lucky, that’s all,” snapped Josh.  Great, here we go again.  And look, I’m almost out of beer.  Impeccable timing!  “There’s no other way.  We had to play Chase in the first round.  We got screwed!  Really, you should be thanking us for wearing him out…  Besides, Bill pulled all the weight for your team.  You didn’t do squat!  Couldn’t even make any shots on your own… and if it weren’t for all those shots you made in the second round, you would’ve lost, big time… Everyone you played—easy.  And you beat a grandma in the first round, c’mon!  How do you feel about yourself?”  Because surely you wouldn’t have beaten an old lady…  “They let you win.  Probably because Bill was on your team.  That’s the only way…  You’re lucky you didn’t have to play us, or you would’ve lost, big time.  I’m just sayin’.”

“Hey man, congratulations,” said an unfamiliar voice.  Josh and I turned our heads, looking for the source.  Could this be an angel, sent from heaven to put a cork in him?  Logan, a client and former competitor approached us, his shorts, t-shirt and flip-flop combination far from an angelic appearance. Well, that’ll do for now.

“Hey thanks man,” I replied with a hand shake.

“That was some good corn hole action, the best I’ve seen in a long time!”  Hmm, that was nice of him to say. “It’s like you guys were professionals!”  How flattering!  I didn’t even know there was a professional league!  “I wouldn’t even mind if you stopped by sometime to give the wife and I a few pointers…”  Ok, this is starting to get a little weird.  “…Since you know, you can’t bring the prize back with you on the plane.  After all, we did make a deal…”  Oh, right, the deal.  “You do remember, right?”  Huh?  Well gee, to think this whole time you were coming over out of the kindness of your heart just to compliment my corn hole skills…

Turns out, they actually do have a professional cornhole league…

“Yes, I remember. ‘If we win, you can have our prize,’ I said.”

“So… do we still have a deal?”  Well, he did manage to shut Josh up for a second. I suppose that’s worth something.

“Sure.  You can have our corn hole game set.”

“Ah, thanks man!”

“No problem.  By the way, you weren’t so bad yourself out there.”

“Really?”  Why sure Mr. Logan.  Sincerity works in both directions…

I leaned it and stuck my thumb towards Josh.  “I mean, you did better than this guy.”

Dude,” said Josh, acting as though he’d been stabbed in the heart.  He leaned into Logan and whispered.  “I would’ve done better, but Gretch was on my team.”

Well, he does have a valid point.  Regardless, he still ain’t getting off scott free.  “You know what they say… excuses are like butts.  Everyone has one, and they all stink!”  Logan and I shared a chuckle.  Josh wasn’t amused.

“Oh yea?  Bring it, Zack.  I’ll play you, right here, right now!”

“Ok, set it up—on second thought, I shouldn’t.”  I took a deep breath, let out a heavy sigh, and peered into the distance.  “It’d just be a waste of my time.”

“Whatever.  You just don’t want to lose to me, that’s all.”

“So, this is about competition, is it?  I got a better idea.  How about we go head to head on the Greenbelt tomorrow?  I got these new running shoes I’ve been dying to try out, and I know you wouldn’t turn down a challenge, seeing how much you fancy exercise.”

Dude… Toobapalooza’s tomorrow!”

“Toobapalooza? What the Hell is that?  I ain’t going on some grade school field trip!”

“Tubin’ down the river, racin’, drinkin’ beer—Totally Awesome!  Already signed us up,” said Josh, once again, spreading his arms and lifting his chin as the anointed one, a gesture that provoked a subconscious facepalm reaction.  

“Sorry.  Not going.”

“Dude, everyone will be there.  Bill, Gretch, Megan Mills, pretty much everybody in Boise.”

“Too bad.  Still not going.”

“That’s because you’re a looooser.”  Wait a minute?  Did Josh just do a terrible Donald Trump impression?  “Have you seen this guy Zack,” he continued as if he were talking to a large crowd.  “He’s terrible folks, he really is.  A real loser, that guy.”  Ah Hell no!

Josh knew far too well my stance on Donald Trump and the Republican primaries.  It had been a long recovery process, but bringing him back up was the catalyst for a ticking time bomb. Perhaps that was his intention?  I wouldn’t put it past the man, anything he could do to get under my skin and cause a scene.  And if I were being honest, I’d say it was a fool-proof strategy going after my weaknesses, and on any normal day, it would’ve gotten the best of me.  One thing he didn’t account for: Ted Cruz and his infamous “vote your conscience” speech at the Republican National Convention just days prior.  It had sparked new life, and if anybody had anything to say about it, I was ready to throw down.  In fact, I welcomed it.

“Logan, grab me another beer.”  Though tempered, my demand was calm and collected.  “I’m about to put the smack down on this kid, Ted Cruz style.”

“What do you mean Ted Cruz?” asked Logan, attracting what was becoming a sizeable and offended crowd.

“Pff.  Zack’s a fanboy.  Obsessed.”  Don’t push it Josh.  “News flash Zack.  Ted Cruz sucks.”  Ted Cruz… Sucks?  If there were ever a trigger warning, Josh had found it, and there he was, dancing alongside danger, foolishly adding gasoline to the fire.  I’m warning you.

“Are you talking about the Ted Cruz who just lost to Trump?” added Logan, the smile on his face revealing he had no idea who I was, or the Hell he was about to unleash.

“Yea Zack, Ted Cruz couldn’t even beat Donald Trump.  That’s just sad.  I hope you aren’t talking about—“

“Damn straight I’m talkin’ bout Ted Cruz!”  I grabbed Logan’s beer from his hand, pounded it, and slammed it on the ground, adding a quick stomp and grind as if I were putting out a cigarette butt.  “And yes, that would be the ‘God Bless the great state of Texas’ Ted Cruz!  The ‘I just slapped the entire Republican Party right in the face’ Ted Cruz!  Whoopish!”I made the sound effect in synchronization to the twist of my pelvis and the whip of my open hand swinging across my body while a series of jaws dropped.  “The ‘vote your conscience’ Ted Cruz. Whoopish whoopish!  Sorry bub, you won’t see me jumping on the Trump bandwagon.  Whoopish! Ah, what’s the matter Josh? You part of the pom-pom boys now? The Rockettes?  Not me!  Whoopish whoopish whoopish!”  I turned my attention to the crowd.  “Hey, everybody in the front row, vote your conscience baby, whoopish!”  I ran across the lawn as if I were on stage giving the entire front row a slap in the face“Pish pish pish pish pish pish pish pish!  Hey, what’s up Donald?  So glad you could come for my speech, Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba…”  I waved my hand out in front of me like I was slapping an imaginary face over and over again.  “Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba.  Hey Bernie, this is how a real man takes care of business on our side!”  I jumped in front of Josh and resumed the gesture.  “Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba!”

“Um… Zack,” I heard, a voice I could only assume to be Josh’s.

“What’s that Josh? I can’t quite hear you, Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba!”

“Zack—“

I jumped back and busted into a raspy voice and air guitar, Bob Segar style.

“Still votin’ for a Ted Cruz… (badum badummm)
Cause the country just has too much to lose!
I’m votin’ for a Ted Cruz…”

“ZACK!”  The singing came to an abrupt stop.   A scream rang out, so startling and so harsh that a rush of pee nearly entered my pants. I turned slowly, delaying the inevitable horror that I was to be confronted with.  First there was Bill, reemerging to save a friend from destroying himself.  Judging by the results, he had failed miserably.  I couldn’t fully see his facial expression, as his hand had covered a large portion of his mouth, as was the case with the rest of the crowd. Then Josh, who sat in terror.  Not even he had the gall to make the slightest of smirks.  I took a hard swallow before I met my demise.  There she stood, her face pulsating as if it held the mark of the beast. “…Hey Gretch.  Uhh, how’s it going, heheh?”

“You.  Here.  Now!”  I obeyed and approached with caution.

“Gretch, what seems to be the matter?”

“Don’t you ‘what’s the matter’ me.  You’re out of control!”

“What do you mean out of control?”

“You’re jumping around like a fool, you’re drinking all the beer…”

 “I’ve barely had a few.”

“You call 10 a few?”

“Well, considering the circumstances, I’ve been on good behavior.”

“You brought up Ted Cruz.”

“Wasn’t my fault. Josh was asking for it the whole time!”

“You’re spreading rumors.”

“That’s a complete lie!”

“You told my boss we were going to do coke tonight!”

“…Ok ok, that one was an accident.  It just slipped out—”

“YOU’RE ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL!”  Both of us stood for a moment, trembling.  “I swear to God, if you embarrass me one more time—”  

“Ok, listen, maybe we can work this thing out.”

“No more booze!”

“Gotcha.  No more booze, got it.  Comprende mamacita.”

“No more obnoxious behavior.”

“Not making any guarantees but I’ll do my best.”

“No more goofs.”

“Gretch, you can’t expect—“

“NO GOOFS!” I lowered my head, only having the ability to give short nods in the vertical direction.  “And you can start by telling Logan over there that he’s not getting the corn hole set.  That game belongs to me and Megan.”

“…Wait, are you talking about Megan Mills?”

“Of course I’m talking about Megan Mills!  What other Megan is there?”  I had no response but to keep my head lowered.  “Now go over there and tell him.  Now!”  She waited, looking down upon me like a mother who had just been disobeyed, refusing to budge until I was set into motion.  I turned and began the walk of shame, my head hung low to avoid any acknowledgment from the crowd, all witnesses to the humiliation.

Logan sat on a cement ledge, leaning in like a puppy dog expecting a treat.  God, it’ll break his heart! Clandestinely, I snuck a peak behind me. I’ll just pretend to say something.  She’ll never know—

Arms… folded. Head… tipped.  Face—Oh, that face…  Stern. She hadn’t moved a muscle.  She stood in place, her stare still terrifying and full of clarity.  Dear God…

“Hey man, what’s up with Gretch?  Is everything good?”

“…So, about that corn hole game…”  His face immediately sunk.  The phrase was all too familiar, a curse from his adolescence set upon him by a long string of crushes.

“We still get the corn hole game… right?”

“…I… I want to say yes, I really do.”

“Then do it, it’s yours!”

“Sure it is, but I…”

“But what?”  I took another look behind me, just to make sure—GRETCH!

“Sorry man.  I can’t give you the game.”

“But… but you promised!”

“I know I did… it’s just… I never consulted my teammate, and with all that liquor running through me, it came out prematurely, and…”

“But… you shook my hand… Scouts honor!”

“Sorry Logan, I screwed the pooch on this one.  What do you want me to say?”

“…You know, my wife was so excited when I told her we were going to bring home a corn hole set. I mean, you should’ve seen the look on her face!  I hadn’t seen her this excited since our wedding day… now what am I going to tell her?  She’ll… she’ll be devastated.”

“Look man, I’m sure you can just go to Wal-Mart and get one for 35 bucks.”

“That’s easy for you to say, but not for a guy with a mortgage and a family.  35 dollars is a lot more than you think it is.  But that’s ok.  I’m sure whoever’s gets it will need it more than us.”

“Logan, I’m sorry—“

“No, it’s cool. I’m sure it’ll be in good hands… I guess I’ll see you around…” Logan turned and walked away, vowing not speak to me ever again.

I took a seat on the ledge, my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, for not even the greatest of corn hole champions could overcome the guilt that laid over me.  A minute later Josh came by.  I could tell by the shadow… and the stench.

“Hey Zack, check it out.”

“Josh, I’m not really in the mood right now—“

“No look, it’s a running babe, just for you.”  The word babe sparked a reaction.  It always does, no matter the mood, how hard I resist, or who it comes from.  I took a peak.  Meh.

“Yea, I suppose she’s sort of cute.”  Really, you bugged me just for that?

“I dare you to talk to her,” said Josh, adding a stupid chuckle at the end.

“No, I’m good. I’ve already caused enough trouble for one day.”

“C’mon, don’t be a wimp Zack.  Go over there while she’s still stretching.”

“You know Josh, you don’t have to talk to every babe that walks by.  Maybe she’s just trying to mind her own business and doesn’t want some hunk bugging her, especially when she’s out on a run.”

“Dude, just go over there and talk to her for a little bit,” added Logan.  Gee, how quickly we forget our disappointments.

“You see, Logan agrees with me.”  Well, hot diggity damn Josh, looks like you just stole my new best friend.  Shucks!

“Dude, not talking to her,” I said.  “Period.”

“Oh, sorry guys, it looks like Zack’s wussing out.”

“Who?” asked a blonde girl, attracting a new crowd of clients along with her.

“Zack.  He won’t talk to that girl over there.”

“Hey, isn’t that the Ted Cruz guy?” she asked.

“Seriously Josh, shut up,” I said through my gritted teeth.

“Why don’t you just go and talk to her?” asked another.

“Because I don’t even know this person!”

“Sounds like somebody’s a little scared!”  Alright Josh, now you’re starting to piss me off!

“Um, that’s a little weird, going over to a girl when she’s on a run,” the blonde girl commented.

“That’s exactly what I—“

“That’s just the way Zack is… always creepin’ on girls.  You should’ve seen him in college!”  Just keep talkin’ Josh!  You’re on your way to getting a free knuckle sandwich, with an extra pound of flesh!  “You know, by not going over there, you’re just making it worse on yourself.”

“Yea Zack, that babe totally likes you.  You’re blowing it,” said Logan.

“I didn’t know she like’s you…  Go on, talk to her,” added the blonde girl, continuing with her unwanted commentary.

“That’s it Josh. I’m going to sock you, right in the face if you don’t shut your mouth—“

“Zack won’t talk to her. He’s just a coward, and always will be.”

“Oh, that’s it!”  I rose, primed to deliver a right hook right on the kisser.  I cocked back, stepped, and… Crap, Gretch.  Not worth it. I lowered myself.

“Yea… that’s what I thought.”  Oh, he’s going to get it—calm down…  Not going to make a scene.  Not going to make a scene… not on customer appreciation day. “Look, she’s getting away!”

“Oh, ain’t that a shame.”

“Go after her!  I bet she’ll be impressed if you pass her now.”

Dude, I’m not chasing a girl!”

“I thought you said you liked to run?” asked Logan.

“Not like this…”  Ok, this isn’t working.  Maybe a new approach.  “…Besides, I don’t even have my new running shoes.  By the time I put them on, she’ll be long gone.”

“Why don’t you just run in those?”

“Because Zack doesn’t want to mess up his ‘Gucci’ shoes,” said Josh.

“Wait, you’ve been walking around in Gucci shoes this whole time, and you can’t even give away a corn hole game?”  Oh, please Josh, give me another reason to smack you, I’m begging you.  Right here, right now!

“Typical Zack for ya. And there she goes, the girl of his dreams, up and out of his life.”

“Knock it off Josh!”

“There’s still time, hurry!”

“Seriously Josh, you’re driving me crazy!”

“Go Zack!” hollered a random client.

“Yea, do it Zack!” said another.

“Zack… Zack… Zack.” Logan and Josh started to chant. Others joined, but I was having none of it, each word driving me closer to the edge of insanity, closer to the moment Josh received a giant slug in the mouth.  Something’s got to give.

“There she goes… gone forever.”

“Shut up Josh!”

“Please!”

“I’ll pop you right in the face this time!  Go on, one more word!”

“Go get her Zack!” I can’t take it anymore!

“Yea Zack, go for it!”

“Zack… Zack… Zack!”  AHHHHHHH!!!

I took off in a sprint, my legs propelled by a mind I no longer controlled; off on a journey to catch the running babe… my babe.  This ought to shut them up, at least for a minute. Just keep running, then after 20 seconds—no, can’t do that.  I’d never hear the end about my cardio.  Gotta put in a little effort, keep going—great, I’m actually catching up now. Well, she does look kind of cute, now that I’m sort of close and all.  And what the hey?  I made it this far, might as well go a little further, just to see if she really is as hot as Josh says.  I crept up a little farther, drafting behind like a NASCAR driver ready to make a pass. Ok, here we go—HUUUURGH… uh oh.

A throng of aches shot through my legs and my stomach bubbled like a cauldron.  It yearned for an epic discharge, my body screaming furiously to stop.  Give up.  It’s over.  Yet, against the cramps, the abundance of beer sloshing about my stomach, and the incessant pestering from Josh, something pushed me forward.  I had to know.  Who was this babe?  Where is she running to… or better yet, what is she running away from?  Risking a violent reaction of oral projectiles, I kicked it into high gear until we were running abreast along the grassy knolls of the park, into the setting sun.

Alright, this is it.  Nice and easy.  Don’t make it too obvious.  Take it slow.  All you need is a peak.  And look, she doesn’t even suspect a thing!  A few more seconds, that’s it, and… and there—Wait, what the Hell? Oh God, she’s like 50 years old!

I took a hard left and came to a dead stop, my stomach screaming for a release.  I forbade it and took my time to catch my breath, letting the contents settle before the long and grueling quarter-mile journey back.

“Dude, you just stopped for no reason,” yelled Josh between laughs.  “Ya blew it!”

“She was an old lady. A dusty old bird!”  I knelt over, panting heavily between phrases.  “I’m never chasing anybody ever again.  You hear me? Never… again…”

My voice settle into silence.  The entire clientele base stared; Logan, his wife, the blonde—all of them, the latest of escapades garnishing their full attention.  Among them was Rebecca, her face oozing with disgust.  Bill stood next to her trying to impress, but unable to conceal his smile, no matter how hard he tried.  Then, there was Chase, mortified, looking as though he had just watched his entire business flush down the toilet.  So, this is what Kevin McCalister must’ve felt like when Uncle Frank said, “Look what you did you little jerk!”

“Gretch, my office. First thing Monday morning… Gretch?”

Gretch stood at the edge, repeatedly banging her head against a wooden awning post.  “Why me, God?  Why?”

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 3: It’s Not Ben Woodward. It’s Much Worse…

July 22nd, 2016. 1:45 PM

I made no effort to look either direction before stepping out into the road.  What’s the point?  My head sunk, unable to break its fixation from the asphalt.  Smooth surface, freshly paved. Ideal for jogging.  These yellow lines, bold and radiant. No wonder he ran so fast.  If anything, at least Boise’s on the up and up.

A stream of heat radiated against my arm.  I had felt this before, a system of gears, pistons and fans, turning, grinding, and working in unison to move an incredible mass with the strength of an ordinary man.  I turned my head and stared into a grille, the ugly snout of this mighty machine.  It stared back, snarling and blowing its putrid breath across my body, ready to devour me at a moment’s notice.

“HONK!” it shouted at me. I followed its turquoise frame up to the source.  It’s operator, just as livid, shot her mean mug through the windshield. The car remained stationary, barely contained by the laws against vehicular homicide.  “Get in,” it mouthed in a most violent manner, minus the sandwich of obscenities.  I obeyed.  The nightmare had just begun.

“Hey Gretch.” My greeting was far from enthusiastic.

“Hurry up and shut the door!  We don’t have all day!”

“Nice to see you too…”  I swung the door shut and Gretch hit the gas.

“God, you guys are so slow sometimes.  By the way, nice try, Zack.  I knew you were in town.”

“Gee, I wonder how that happened?”

“Yea, thanks a whole lot for the surprise, Bill.  I don’t think I could be any more thrilled.”  Bill didn’t say a word—didn’t even acknowledge the presence of dialogue; just hung his head in shame.  “Well, I mean, it’s probably a good thing you guys are here.  It just so happens I need a little help picking up some beer.”  I wasn’t sure if she meant that as a compliment or an insult, but the simple acknowledgment that I had some expertise with beer was flattering in itself.

“…Why sure Gretch, I’d be happy to help.  I’m sure I can get my hands on some good stuff.  By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, I just bought a new pair of running shoes, and I’m probably going to the Greenbelt tomorrow to try them out.  Now, I know you like to run and everything, so if you’d like to join me, you’re more than welcome to, and I’d be glad to have your—”

“No.”

“…But—”

“No.” Her answer was just as firm as the last.

“Noted. Just trying to be nice–“

“What was that?”

“…Nothing. Nothing at all.”

An awkward silence passed before Gretch threw us a bone. “I guess now that you’re here, how was lunch?”

Bill snapped out of it, ending his vow of silence.  “Oh, do we have a story to tell…”

***

Twenty minutes had passed.  The story of the Bermuda shorts man beating up the old lady had been told in full at least twice, Gretch had thrown several more insults our way, and we had gone from driving passed office buildings to strip malls, and then through neighborhoods, until now, where dried out shrubs and weeds lined a majority of the roadway.  Something wasn’t right.  “Hey Gretch, you realize we’ve just passed like, three grocery stores, right?”

“I guess I did see an Albertson’s a few blocks back…”

“…and a few liquor stores as well.”

“Um, yea… your point?”

“So… why are we driving all the way out into the boonies to get beer?”

“Oh, don’t worry.  I got a place in mind.  Special order.”

“Oh… special order.  I see…” I guess she didn’t need my expertise after all…

We pulled up to the back of a warehouse at the edge of town.  Nothing but dirt and brush surrounded this undisclosed location, not another soul in sight. In other words, a mobster’s dream. “Follow me,” said Gretch. I looked at Bill and he at me.  A stream of reluctance filled the air. “C’mon guys, we don’t have all day! Chop chop!”

We followed Gretch into a side room overlooked by a front man, sitting in his office as if he’d been expecting us.  Indeed, this was the place for beer.  The warehouse was full of it, stacked pallets of various brands lined towards the ceiling.  Gretch approached the man behind the counter.  “Well, good afternoon mam.  What can I help you with?”

“I’ve got a special pick up.  Should be under the name Gretch.”

“Gretch, of course!  I remember you from last time.”  Last time?  What kind of operation are they running here?  The man shuffled through his paperwork.  “Let’s see, what do we have here…”  Hold on, just what type of fancy stuff is she trying to get her hands on?  Sam Adams?  Rolling Rock? Don’t tell me she dragged us out here just so she could get a deal on some Steel Reserve…

“Alright, looks like we got a keg of Coors Light and a keg of Blue Moon.”  What in the—two kegs!?!?   “How would you like to pay for this?”

“Just, put in under Chase.”  Chase?  Who’s Chase?

“Oh, right. Chase.  Two kegs comin’ right up!”  The man went to the back to prepare the order.  Now was the time to take a stand.  Bill was with me.

“Gretch, what the heck is going on here?  Two kegs, really?”

“If you ever want to talk, you know, about struggles, addictions, or anything, I just want to let you know that I’m always here for you.  We’re family after all.”

Gretch tilted her head, dropped her jaw, and stared for a moment like she was dealing with a pair of incompetents.  “You guys… we’re having my work picnic today.”

“Wait, work picnic?” I asked.  “For your work?”  Gretch rolled her eyes.

“…Yes. A work picnic… for my work. Client Appreciation Day.  It’s the same thing you came to last year, Bill!”

“Oh… right. Client Appreciation Day, I remember.”

“There’s going to be burgers, and hotdogs, prizes and music, plus all this beer.”

“So, you’re telling me that all this beer is free?”  Once again, Gretch rolled her eyes.

“Yes… it’s free.”

“Well, hold on then.  Who’s this Chase guy footing the bill?” I fired back.

“That’s my boss for crying out loud!”

“Well, gee, why didn’t you say so?”  I brushed my fingers through my hair as a giant smile appeared on my face.  “Sounds like a good old time.”  For some reason, Gretch wasn’t at all impressed.

The front man and a helper returned, each rolling a keg.  “Ok miss, here are your two kegs.  Is there anything else you need?”

“That’ll be it.  Thank you very much for all the help, sir.  We’ll take it from here.”  Gretch turned to me and Bill.  “Alright boys.  Load em’ up!”

Bill and I took a long hard look at each other.  Load em’ up?  “Hey Gretch, what’s the big idea here?” I asked.

“You just brought us along so we could do your dirty work for you,” added Bill.

“Are you seriously just going to watch us while—“

“Will you guys quit being a bunch of sissies and take the kegs to the car?”

“I resent that remark—“

“Look, I don’t have time for whining.  There’s a lot of work to do, and these kegs need to get to the park ASAP.  Let’s go, chop chop!”  She turned for the door.

“But Gretch, how do we—”

“We can’t—“

“Figure it out,” she yelled as she popped the door open.

“Wait!”

“How do we—“

“GRETCH!”  Too late. The door slammed shut.

***

The park was empty when we arrived.  Bill and I stood under a large, metal canopy that covered several rows of picnic tables, imagining the aggregate of individuals that were to settle onto the site in less than an hour.  The band would play a collection of hard rock hits while the grill master would churn out steady servings of burgers and dogs to keep the clients happy and well-fed. Parents would watch their children run up and down the endless plains of grass, sipping away their nerves at every bounce on the inflatable castle.  It was peaceful now, the sun merely beginning its long decent behind this quiet piece of Earth.

“I think this is going to be a good.  You know, after everything that’s happened today,” said Bill.  I nodded my head in agreement.

“It’ll be exactly what we need.”

“I’m just glad we have the chance to finally relax—“

Bill!  Zack!” We swung around, assaulted by such a shrill voice.  “These kegs aren’t going to move themselves! Bill, let’s go!”  Bill and I gave each other a look.  “C’mon, move!  Zack, You, here, NOW!”  We moved.

We carried each of the kegs over to a spot under the canopy, its cement ground providing stability and where easy access could be achieved.  “Steady… steady…”  The second keg touched down with a modest thud, our strength having been dilapidated from previous hauls.

“Not great,” said Gretch, shaking her head and brandishing a heavy frown.  “Not… great.”  Gretch froze.  From afar, another vehicle drove through the much too long and winding path that lead to the park.

“What’s up?” asked Bill.

“My boss is coming.  Alright, it’s show time.  Whatever you do, do not screw this up!  That means no obnoxious behavior, no keg stands, no beer darts—”

“C’mon Gretch, who do you think we are—”

“Just take it easy on the kegs, will ya?”  My words seemed to be ineffective.  “Also, no swearing…”

“Coming from you?“

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” I dropped my head.

“No gay jokes, no Tim and Eric Jokes…”

“Whoa whoa whoa, Tim and Eric?  That’s a tad excessive,” Bill interjected.

“…In fact, how about no jokes altogether.”

“From me or—“

“From either of you!”  Shot down once again.  “Oh yea, one more thing.  No politics.” A long and awkward pause followed.

“Gotcha, no politics,” said Bill.

“And don’t even think about bringing up Ted Cruz, Zack.”

“Oh Gretch, give me a break!  You can’t expect me to—“

I SAID NO TED CRUZ!!!”

The old Roman gladiators used to say that death smiles at all of us.  Her fists shook, her face turned bright red, and once again, I found myself in a slouch.  We had been played, all for a little bit of beer.  I hadn’t felt so small in my entire life.

“Ok, here he comes,” said Gretch with a vicious whisper.  “Keep your head up.  Best behavior.  And don’t embarrass me!  Did you hear me?  Bill?  Zack—Oh hi Chase, how are you?”

Gretch’s boss stood with his hands on his hips, a tall stature that forced him to look down upon us.  His eyes were concealed by a pair of sporty sunglasses, as if the string of tension needed to be any tighter.  Bill and I met his gaze, anxiously waiting for the next move.  “So, you two brought the kegs, huh?”

There was a slight moment of hesitation among us.  “Well, um… I mean, we’d thought we’d help out a little, with the party and all, so uh, yea, I mean, sure, that was us…”  His answer was terrible, but thank God Bill spoke, for I could not.

“Oh man, that’s great!  I was worried Gretch wasn’t going to pull it off.  Awesome, thank you so much!“  He outstretched his hand.  “My name’s Chase.” 

“Nice to meet ya.  Zack.” I met his hand halfway for a shake.

“Bill, right? Good to see you again.”  Bill nodded and the two shared a hearty handshake of their own.  “I’m glad you guys are here.”

“So are we.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, I have some stuff in the truck; coolers, condiments, the such. After we unload everything, would you guys be willing to get the kegs going?  You know, tap em’, taste the beer, make sure all the foam’s out?  That wouldn’t be a problem for you, right?”

“Why not at all,” said Bill.

“Chase, I don’t think that’s such a good idea—“

“Don’t worry Mr. Chase, we can take care of the kegs, make sure they’re to everybody’s liking,” I quickly injected.

“Zack, do you even know how to tap a keg?”  An insult of such gravity was way out of line and deserved a harsh response.  However, I refused to take the bait.  Such behavior was beneath me, especially in front of Gretch’s boss.

“Gretch, this isn’t our first rodeo.  Mr. Chase, don’t you worry about the kegs.  They’ll be tapped, tasted, and ready to go… for the clients, of course.”

“Alright, I like your attitude!  C’mon Gretch, get with the program. Clients will be here any minute.  Let’s go, chop chop!”  Gretch shot us a dirty look.  

Yes indeed, death smiles at us all.  All we can do is smile back.

***

“How’s your Blue Moon,” asked Bill, having just taken a good swig of his Coors Light.

“Blue Moon’s good.”  It was our second taste test so far.  We took pride in our preparation, as did Gretch’s coworker who was assigned to man the grill and the band with their repetition of sound checks.

“Good! Coors Light meets my standards. A bit foamy, but not bad for a fresh tap.”

“My experience was similar.  Better try again.”  We pounded our beers, refilled our keg cups and repeated the taste test.  Bill and I nodded with approval.  “That’s good quality beer!”

“Would you like to give the Coors Light a taste test?”

“Pass it on over—on second thought, let’s finish these, then do a refill.  You know, with germs going around and stuff. No need to take any chances.”

“Good call.” We sucked down the rest of our beers’, switched places, and recommenced testing with a new variable.

“We’re good to go!”

“Make sure the Blue Moon’s still to your liking.”  I liked his suggestion, so I took it.  We traded places and refilled our cups.

“All good! And look, here some clients. Better greet em’, let em’ know the beer’s nice and cold!”

“Yea, let’s party—“

“Let’s not.” Bill and I were shaken at such an interruption, one that seemed to come out of nowhere.  We turned our heads left to right, eyeing for the source.

“Gretch… you snuck up on us,” said Bill.

“How many beers have you guys had?” asked Gretch, her inner Spanish inquisition emerging.

“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I… I sort of lost count,” I said.

“Bill?” Bill lifted his shoulders, sunk his head ever so slightly, and squeezed his lips together to make the “I dunno” face.  

“Well, no more!  I won’t have any of your antics, and I won’t have you ruin my party.”

“Oh Gretch, just try to relax a little bit.  Forget about work for a little bit and just enjoy this beautiful afternoon in the city of Boise.”  She didn’t look at all receptive to my suggestion.

“Just look at the inflatable castle over there.  Pretty soon, kids are gonna be jumping all around it, having way too much fun.”

“And the band’s about to play their first song.”

“And you know they’re gonna play the classics, just like they did last year.”

“And look at all these families showing up.  They must be stoked for all this free food!”

“And beer too,” Bill added.

“…Well, it is customer appreciation day.”  It seemed that for the moment, Gretch had let her guard down.  Now was the time to attack.

“And the customer appreciates the agent.  That means you!”  A slight smile was seen forming across her face.  Keep it up Bill.  We’re on a role!  “After all, you are my favorite real estate agent…”

“And don’t forget that—“  A terrible aberration exposed itself near the edge of the parking lot.  Evil was present, I could sense it.  “Wait a minute, who the hell is this guy?”

Out in the distance, the silhouette of a sculpted figure grew larger.  It’s shape recognizable as a man in torment, incapable of ever reaching the enlightenment of tonal divine he so much desired, no matter the number of hours spent at the gym.  It walked into the park, pigeon-toe style, careful with each step as to prevent cracks in the pavement.

“Kind of looks like a dingus if you ask me,” said Bill.  I followed up with a chuckle.

“Yea, no kidding!”

“I don’t know, he looks kind of hot if you ask me.”  God, of course she’d say that.

“How much you wanna bet its Ben Woodward?” I asked Bill before sharing a lengthy laugh.  “What do you say Bill, wanna make a bet?” I added, letting my laughter gradually settle like a logarithmic function.

“No…”  Bill’s laughter came to an abrupt end.  “It’s not Ben Woodward.  It’s much worse…”  He stared out in front of him.  I joined in his stare, the horror now in clear view.

“Oh.  My.  God.  It’s Josh Ulrich.”

“Oh no, he’s heading this way.  Quick no eye contact,” said Bill, words that were too little, too late.  Josh approached us, pecks puffed and a sense of pride beaming as if he had just accomplished some miraculous feat, like climbing a mountain or something.  I refilled my beer cup.  I had a feeling I was going to need it, and then some.

“What’s up guys,” started Josh.  “Pff, you call this a party?” Great, here we go.  Looks pretty lame so far.  It’s like I’m surrounded by a bunch of wusses.  Good thing I showed up…  Hey Bill, Fancy seeing you here.  What are you up to these days?  Me, I just got done climbing a mountain, so I’m a little beat.”  Climbed a mountain, I would’ve never guessed!  “12 hours total in the car to the Gran Tetons and back.  8 on the mountain, no sleep.  Didn’t even stop to take a piss.  Got pulled over once going 20 over, but no big deal.  I talked myself out of it, only got a ticket for 10 over; the officer didn’t want to put up a fight, not with me or anything.  I couldn’t blame him.  But how are you?  Figured you’d be too cool for Idaho, now that you’re living the high life in Austin and all.  Not me though.  I mean, I haven’t forgotten where I came from, just sayin’.  Don’t feel bad, at least you’re not one of those hipsters in Seattle, like somebody we know.”  Good, he hasn’t detected me yet.  Just keep talking Josh, as I casually… slip away…  “They suck, so bad!  But yea, how are you holding up in Austin?  Do you have a girlfriend yet?  Oh man, let me tell you, I go to the climbing gym every day—babes everywhere! Literally surrounded.  I have like, five girlfriends right now, no joke. I mean, I’m not sure exactly, I sort of lost count.  Even had to dump a couple.  I felt bad, but you just can’t please everyone, you know?”  Ok, in the clear.  Just turn and walk away.  Turn… and walk… and walk…  “Wait a minute…  No way! Zack, is that you?”  …Ahhhhhhhh crap.  “Man, what a surprise!  I haven’t seen you in ages…  You got uglier!”

“Gee, good one Josh.”  My words were barely audible over his forced chuckle.

“I don’t want to sound judgmental or anything,” whispered Josh into Bill’s ear, “but it looks like somebody’s been letting themselves go lately.”  I rolled my eyes and took a swig.

“Hi Josh,” said Gretch, losing herself in his eyes.

“Sorry I was late, I had an extended session at the climbing gym today.”  He turned to me, his chin lifted high with an extra pompous push.  “Giving some girls a couple of pointers, you know…  Yep, they’re always coming to me for help.”  Oh, give me a break.

“I’m just glad you came.”  Wait, you invited him?

“No problem, Gretch.  But seriously though, look at those flabby arms on Zack; those love handles coming out of his shirt.  He wouldn’t survive a day out on the mountain.  And honestly, not to sound pretentious or anything, but I think it may be time for someone to lay off the booze for a little bit.  Actually, I’d say it’s about time for a refill if we’re gonna put up with this crap!

“Just hold on a second, Josh.  Didn’t I beat you last time we had a push-up contest?”

“Pff, I let you win.  Besides, no way you’d beat me now, not with those puny arms.  Then again, I wouldn’t be at full strength, since I just climbed a mountain yesterday with only 4 hours of sleep.”  Oh, shut up about the mountain already!

“I’m just saying, I’m not sure you’re one to talk about arms and muscles.”

“Oh, no way,” blasted Josh, his body language providing a textbook definition of the word “offended.”  He stood next to me and flexed his chest.  “Bill, straight answer, who has the bigger pecks?”  Bill hesitated in his response, even with a thorough examination of each of our chests.  “C’mon, you don’t have to be nice.  Just tell the truth.  I need to know, right here, right now.”

“Just calm down and drink a beer, Josh, will ya? Besides, you have some catching up to do.”

“Ha!  That’s what I thought.  Don’t want to compare muscles—typical.  And now look at you, trying to be Mr. ‘I can drink beer.’  Remember those parties at my house?  Dude, I’d go through a 12 pack of Key Light, take 5 shots of vodka, 10 shots of rum, and then pound 2 glasses of whiskey; wouldn’t even get drunk.  Then, go to work on three hours of sleep, no questions asked.”

“Really?  I thought it was 10 shots of vodka and 15 shots of rum at your parents’ house?”

“I mean, I lost count after a couple, but it was over 10 shots each for sure.  Doesn’t matter, because I had a couple beers before I got here.”

“Weren’t you just at the climbing gym?” asked Bill. Josh threw up his hands in disbelief, acting as if we’d just asked the world’s stupidest question.

“Dude… they have a bar there!  What can I say?  I climb better when I’m drunk.”

“You would certainly know best.”  His fabrication required another swig of beer.

“Well, I believe you Josh.”

“Thanks, Gretch.”  The two shared a smile, and a moment.  God, this is just too much!

Josh glanced over his shoulder, waves of excitement rushing through his body.  His head perked, the scalp on his ginger head straightened, and the size of his pecks suddenly doubled in size.  He’d caught sight of several rows of slanted boards set up along the lawn, each with a hole near the top.  “Whoa… is that corn hole?”

“Well, I think the appropriate name is ‘bean bag toss,’” corrected Bill.

“I like calling it corn hole.”

“I’m sure you do,” I said.”

“Because get it?  Corn hole, like your butt?”  A pompous laugh left his mouth.

“I get it, Josh,” added Gretch, also releasing a laugh any other decent person would be ashamed of.

“There’s actually going to be a tournament a little later,” said Bill.

“Yea, Bill and I are going to be on a team,” I added.

“Well, that sucks for Bill, haha!  50 bucks says you two lose, first round!”

“Not if we play you,” I replied.

“Pff, please.  I’d crush you, easy.  If I can climb the highest Mountain in Wyoming in under 8 hours, then I hate to say it Zack, but you’re going down in corn hole.”  Josh lifted his chin and looked about the crowd as if he were giving a speech to his inferiors, Obama style.  “Yep… doesn’t seem to be any stiff competition.”

“Well Josh, I was thinking.  Since you don’t have a partner, and I don’t have a partner, then maybe we could team up?”  Ughz Gretch, now that’s pathetic.

“Oh yea, don’t worry.  We’ll win, no doubt.  Bill, Zack, we’ll talk to you losers later.  We’re going to practice.  I suggest you do the same—wait, on second thought, don’t. It’d just be a waste of time.”

Bill and I stood for a long moment, watching the repulsion of a Gretch/Josh corn hole collaboration.  Just when things were going so well…  “Wanna get a burger?  I think the band’s about to play,” said Bill.

“Sounds good…  Let me get a refill on my beer first.”

“Good call, I ran out myself.  It’s kind of weird, but it’s like Josh shows up, I take a drink or two, and the next thing I know, I’m all out of beer!”

“Yea…  I think it’s safe to say we’re in for a long weekend…”

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 2: At Least it Wasn’t Gretch After All…

July 22nd, 2016.  12:00 PM

Her voice was gentle; her tone soothing to the ears, a nice compliment to the pint of local brew we had just been served.  Bill and I had found ourselves a table near the edge of the patio, one side a prolific view of the entire street with its opposing shops, the other a front row seat to the musician’s performance—our personal enchantress.  And lucky for Bill, her innate ability to take a range of classic rock songs and transpose them into the soft style of Jewel had strayed my anger away from the cardinal error committed several minutes’ prior.  Add in a waitress flirting her way to an exorbitant tip and the Solid Café was on its way to an 5-Star Yelp review.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

“How do you like it?” asked Bill.

“Not bad,” I said with a slight shrug, followed by a gulp of beer. “We’ll see how my chimichanga is.”  In reality, the ice-cold taste of Belgian Ale provided an amiable balance to the 90-degree heatwave beating down on us, but there was no way I was letting my guard down.

“Yea, I guess we’ll see,” Bill’s response suggested disappointment.  We sat for a moment, sipping our beer and taking the time to appreciate the patio décor; the flowered planters lining the windows of the restaurant and the wood-stained decking, a sound balance between modern and rustic.

Boise Restaurant Row

Bill’s ears perked and his eyes sprang open like a brightly flicked lightbulb at the combination of notes coming from the enchantress’s guitar. “Hey… hey, I know this song!”  I turned my head to a prime position to feed my curiosity.  The progression of chords drew familiarity.  Then, a rapid rhythm.

“I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget
the time or place where we just met…”

“I know this song too!”  Bill and I drew quiet once again, attentive to each graceful note played, hoping to be the one to uncover the name of the song.

“And she is just the girl for me,
and I want all the world to see,
we’ve met.  Hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm.”

She continued, slowing her beats per minute and taking her time between lyrical phrases to showcase her smooth and elegant plucking style.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she were teasing us, driving our anticipation in a subtle way—a most enjoyable and subtle way.

“Falling… yes I am falling,
And she keeps calling… me back again.”

“It’s the Beatles!” I yelled, my face beaming with satisfaction.

“Yea! I love this song!”  Bill sprang from his seat, moved by the choice of music and added a few well-deserved dollars to the enchantress’s tip jar.

“Thank you,” she said, continuing with the song without missing a single beat, an in-song response that had been practiced several times before.  The conclusion was met with a round of soft, yet eager applause.

“Are you still mad?” asked Bill.

“Mad? Why would I be mad?”

“Well, about earlier.”

“What do you mean earlier?”

“When I accidently… never mind.”

“No, what did you do?”

“It’s nothing, I…”

“Wait a minute…” I paused.  A familiar topic, disturbing in nature nearly edged itself back into my frontal lobe. “Wait a minute…”  It hit me.  “Wait a minute, is she playing Johnny Cash?”  It was an unnecessary question.  Of course she’s playing Johnny Cash! I jumped up and added a couple dollars of my own to the tip jar.

“Why thank you,” she responded, again taking a short second to acknowledge her fan’s appreciation before settling back into an imitation of the iconic voice; not quite as low, but just as pleasing.

“What were you saying again?” I asked.

“Oh, I uh… um, actually, I don’t remember.”

“Oh well.” I shrugged my shoulders and took another sip of beer, which was near empty.  I waved the waitress over as she made a pass.

“Did you like it?” she asked.

“It was perfect!”

“Told ya.” Her smile was a bit suggestive. “How about another one?”

“I’d like that.”

“I got ya covered.  Your sandwich and chimichanga are coming right up.”  She leaned in close to me and added a wink.  “You’re going to love your chimichanga.”  Bill rolled his eyes and downed the last of his beer.

“In that case, I’m gonna need another one myself,” he said with a reply that hinted towards sarcasm.

“Same kind?”

“Uh… sure.”

“Coming right up.”  She turned, maintaining a steady grin during the entire process, then strutted back to the kitchen, moving her hips side to side in a sensual manner.

“Dude, I think this babe kinda likes me,” I whispered to Bill.

“That’s what you said about the running babe 20 minutes ago!”

“But I think this one’s for real!”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it…”  A heavy sigh left his body.  “Surely she’s not flirting to get a bigger tip,” he mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said as he tipped his glass, a reminder that we were without beer for the moment.  He stared into the empty abyss, depression taking over, though with the aid of our enchantress’s sweet melodies, he patiently waited for our waitress’s return, as did I.

And return she did, keeping true to her word with a fresh round of beers, even adding in a new set of flirtatious quips.  Then came the grand finale—two plates, one with a sandwich, the other with a giant log occupying the length of the plate, smothered with red, green, and white sauces and deep fried to perfection.  “Alright.  Here’s your sandwich, and here is your BBQ’d chimi-changa.” The presentation of our food drew a nod of approval.  A dash of hope had resurfaced.

“So… what’s in the box?” she asked, lifting her chin with a “what up” gesture, her eyes fixated beyond me.

I glanced across the table, honing in on the only object that could fit the description. “Oh you mean this?” I asked, grabbing for the running shoes.

“Yea.  What’s in the box!?” she said again, channeling her inner Brad Pitt and forcing a quick chuckle out of Bill.

“Well, check these bad boys out.”  I opened the box, revealing the newly purchased pair of shoes.  Not yet adulterated by the fouls of feet, its flashes of florescent orange shined and synthetic aroma filled our nostrils.

“Oh my God…” she replied.

“Yea, I know. I thought they were pretty sweet too the first time I saw them.”

“…Oh my God!” she repeated, staring out into the distance.  Geez, even I don’t like those shoes that much. This babe must really be head over heels—

“Oh my God!” The voice was much deeper this time. I whipped my head back to the waitress, then to Bill.  Both had contorted their bodies to face the street, gearing their attention towards the perpetual sound of pounded pavement.  The rest of the lunch patrons took notice and followed suit.

“Hey!” A scream, long and forceful, echoed through the streets.  I shot my head towards the source, barely catching a glimpse of a silhouette blasting down the middle of the road.  I turned my head again in unison with Bill, the waitress, and the rest of the patio members as if directed by a drill sergeant and zeroed in on the action.  What in the world…

His speed was impressive, especially given Birkenstock sandals as his choice of footwear.  The way he stayed on top of the double yellow lines at his current velocity through oncoming traffic suggested a heightened level of athleticism.  No doubt he had achieved success in the hundred-meter dash in high-school. It was the Bermuda shorts however that instituted his lack of care while in pursuit of the blue SUV in front of him, of which he was gaining ground at a significant rate.

“Hey Bill, isn’t that Gretch’s car?”

Bill sat for a moment in deep thought, then chuckled.  “…Now that you mention it, it could be.”

“I mean, it makes perfect sense.”

“Wait, who’s Gretch?” asked the waitress.

“Believe me, you don’t want to—oh Jesus!”

Whap! The sound of lethal contact reverberated down the street, the trigger for a chain reaction of subconscious events.  Tables shifted.  Chairs scooted backward.  Senseless chatter rang from each table, quickly converging to the edge of the patio.  All the while, a softly plucked rift of a Jewel song played in the background, unaffected by the erupting chaos.

If I could tell the world just one thing it would be
That we’re all ok…

“What in the hell was that—“

Whap, whap whap!  Three additional blows cut the waitress’s comments short. The man had sent his fist through the open window several times, delivering four unexpected punches to the head of the driver.  Bill sat back aghast, having the perfect view of the carnage.  

And not to worry, cause worry is wasteful
And useless at times like theses…

“Jesus Christ!” our waitress shouted, mixing in a colorful string of expletives between the phrase.  Due to the circumstances, her lack of professionalism was excused for the moment. An urge to conform, to join the waitress with her release of curses rose within me.  Yet, another force, built upon the siren call of a young enchantress, worked to suppress any desire to overreact.

My hands are small I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own

And they’re not yours, they are my own, and…
We are never broken…

“Looks like Gretch alright…”  I took a sip of beer and remained in my seat, clarity beaming.

A line of pedestrians stood on the sidewalk, leaning into the street as if they were barricaded by an invisible fence.  The man had positioned himself in the front of the car, obstructing any attempts of progress from the driver.  The car sat idle, its driver dazed and petrified, their identity still a mystery.

Rumors flew over the next several minutes.  Tensions rose and patrons colluded with one another, each of them bestowed with the task to gather clues as to what happened—a task that brought about many interruptions between me and my chimichanga.  

“I heard he almost got run over,” one said.

“Him and the driver got in an argument,” said another.

“No, my manager said he got in an argument with his wife,” our waitress added.

“Wait, his wife was driving?” asked Bill, trying to conceal his disappointment.

“Gosh, I hope it wasn’t,” said a random patron.

“Neither do I,” I added, shaking my head.  “…Neither do I…”

“No, it wasn’t the wife,” our waitress interjected.  “I’m pretty sure it was a…”  A sighting from inside the restaurant stalled her train of thought. Bill and I took a peak of what looked to be a flash of the manager.  “…It was a… …hold on just a second.”  She disappeared into the restaurant with the hope of uncovering new details.  Bill and I took notice of a crowd that had grown twice as large within a matter of minutes.  Cars continued to pile up, filling the length of the street.

“Ok, the police are on their way,” announced the waitress bursting back onto the scene, having found her calling in life.  Serving us longer no longer seemed to be her occupation.

“So what happened?” asked the enchantress during a break in lyrics, plucking away at her guitar as if it were the natural order of her existence.  She looked over to our waitress leaning over the railing, her attention elsewhere.  She continued plucking away, waiting for an answer.

“So, the guy got into an argument with his wife and kids across the street,” finally said the waitress, her focus undeterred.  “They were yelling at each other back and forth, and he was acting like he was going to cross the street.  But he never would, and these drivers are all getting pissed, cause he keeps giving them the wrong impression!” Her ability to speak without taking a breath was nothing short of astonishing.  “So, one of them says ‘screw it’ and turns.  Well then, this guy finally decides to step out right into the street while the driver’s turning, and then he goes ballistic—” A blip of a police siren sounded down the street, directing us to simultaneously turn to the source.  “Well, look what we have here…” she said.  There was no shame, not even an attempt to hold back the grin she had ripped at the reveal of her foretold prophecy.

Two more police cars rolled up to the front of the SUV.  An ambulance followed, maneuvering through the a completely surrounded crime scene.  Officers and paramedics exited their vehicles and began their line of questioning, starting with the man in the Bermuda shorts and trickling down to the line of observers.  Two others tended to the driver, who’s identity was still a mystery.

“So you’re saying the guy got hit?” asked Bill.

“No, he was like 5 feet away!  Not even close!”  Gee, looks like the police are questioning the wrong people.

“So who called the police?” I asked.

“He did.”

“Wait… on himself???”

“Oh yea!” she replied with the enchantress’s sweet ambience backing her up.  “He was so angry, he jumped right in front of the car and called them right up!  Man, this keeps on getting more bizarre by the minute.  “Look, the driver’s getting out!”

The phrase set off another stampede to the railing, much like the announcement of a schoolyard brawl.  Police officers worked to convince the driver to exit the vehicle, activity far from our waitress’s claim; a blunder that resulted in zero repercussions. Anticipation lingered amongst the crowd and strengthened with each passing minute as the negotiations between the police and the driver continued.

“They’re opening the door!”  A random claim brought the hundreds crowding the sidewalk and patio to whispers.  Not one among us had the gall to speak while the driver’s identity was being disclosed, nobody except for one—our enchantress, the only one worthy, still plucking away at her guitar, her source of life.  Who is this person?

An officer opened the door and outstretched his arm.  I stared and waited, my heart pounding like a jackhammer, unable to break from the moment.  Slowly, a fragile hand reached out, shaking until it met the stability of the officer’s hand.  A wave of “WTF’s,” spoken fully and without filter sparked throughout the crowd as the driver was guided into sight, a phrase that neither Bill, the waitress, nor myself could skip when it was our turn to participate.  An elderly woman, easily passed as a member of the Golden Girls emerged, her left ear the size of a grapefruit and spots of blood soaked in her curly, white hair.

The man, the young track star donning Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks, had beaten up a little old lady.

“What the F—!” The last one came from a beautiful voice.  A clatter of dropped silverware and a series of gasps followed. Bill and I turned to our enchantress, the only logical source of the foul phrase.  Our faces grew wide and petrified.  And then there was silence—an awful cacophony of silence.  The sweet, siren melodies had come to an end.

…I guess even the best among us have our flaws.

Mr. Bermuda was arrested immediately, his wife and kids nowhere to be seen.  Officers did their best to restore order to downtown Boise as he was placed under police custody, a fruitless effort in the end.  Yes, their professionalism helped calm the situation, and most of us would find a way to reintegrate back into society for the sake of our loved ones—somehow.  But to anybody near the vicinity of the Solid Café on that sunny afternoon, there was no denying that a piece of our souls had be sucked away, forever lost in the ether floating above downtown Boise.

 “Well, at least it wasn’t Gretch,” said Bill, having found the will to speak once again.  I barely knew how to respond.

“I… I suppose it’s time to grab the check,” I responded with a frozen face. I took one last swig of beer and waited for our waitress to cross our line of sight.  It had been several minutes since her last sighting.  Her presence now seemed pointless, as did my reason for my existence. Yea… at least it wasn’t Gretch after all…

How to Clean Your Conscience, Chapter 1: Ya Blew It. Kapeesh?

July 22nd, 2016. 11:15 AM

It had been a year since the road trip, that infamous trek across the heartland of the United States and into Wisconsin, aka the motherland, straight out of the vein and back.  Punch cards for derogatory language had been spent, bodies had been possessed, babes had been met and courted, and copious amounts of beer had been consumed with close encounters of the Third Eye Blind.  The purpose seemed obvious from the beginning, for attendance to Beth and Blake’s wedding was mandatory.  But the further we traveled, the more evident it became that the wedding wasn’t the only reason for our journey.  A new path had been revealed, one much darker and ulterior, directed from a higher power perhaps.  A new goal… a drive that consumed… that took over… that became our immediate life’s purpose—the absolute destruction of one’s faith in humanity.

The results, you ask?  They could not be any more pleasing; bigger and better than anything beyond our wildest imagination.

Eye witness accounts confirmed that her soul was left beaten and battered after my departure from Pony, Montana; her brain distorted, much like the physical deformations of the Elephant Man.  A week’s worth and persistence from Bill and I—one week of hell—had managed to take its toll.  And now, after a solid year of psychiatric treatment and mind-altering prescriptions, she had somehow, barely managed to make the transition back as a functional member of society.

And here I stood on a spotless, sunny day in Boise, Idaho, at the helm of a beautiful weekend, unannounced in her town, moments from taking it all away

I salivated at the opportunity, the moment those unexpected eyes crossed my sight; the shrivel of her skin, the coarse and uncontrollable expletives, the drastic aging process that would commence as soon as I walked into frame!  Yes, I’d see to it that those thousands of dollars spent on therapy sessions would be wasted, that any progress made during the course of a year was to be reversed.

And as Bill, Megan Mills, and the city of Boise as my witness, I would do everything in my power to ensure that Gretch’s weekend was completely, and utterly… ruined.

***

“Ok, you know the plan, right?” I asked Bill as we exited the Bandanna Running Store with a fresh pair of running shoes in my hand.

“We lure her down here to pick me up, and then you pop out of nowhere and walk across the street, right as she’s driving by.”

“She won’t even be paying attention!  She won’t even know what hit her!”

“And knowing her, she probably won’t even stop.”

“She’ll run me right over I bet ya!”

“It’s terrible!”

“A travesty! …It really makes you wonder, her being a danger to society with all of that reckless driving going on…”

“…It goes through my mind each and every day.  Even keeps me up at night…”  Bill paused for a moment, realizing for the first time how dangerous a world we live in. I joined him.

“Ok, snap out of it.  It’s go time.”

“No more screwing around.  This is Hollywood.”

“This is the big time.”

“Ready?”

“Ready. Make the call.”

Bill punched a few buttons on his phone and put it up to his ear.  I waited patiently, as I had ever since my unannounced arrival into town the night before.  Seconds went by, the silence between faint dial tones driving my anticipation.  Then, a break.  Bill’s head propped up, followed by a quick inhale—preparation to speak.  His posture was straight, his eyes focused.  He was alert, he was on his A-game; everything was going according to plan.

“…Hey Gretch, what’s up?”  Both of us shared a smile and a silent snicker.  “…Oh, you know, just hanging out and stuff…”  Oh man, this is going to be great! “…About to get lunch… Yea, downtown…”

My heart raced harder with each syllable, a Shakespearean sonnet spoken by the master himself.  Bill continued.  “Why don’t you come on down and meet us for lunch?” God he’s good.  A natural! “Yea, we’re by the running store.” …Oh baby, here we go!  Here we—wait, did he just say ‘we?’  Bill looked passed me with a giant grin and a solid look of confidence… perhaps a little too much confidence.  “…Yea, Zack wanted to get some new running shoes—“

“What?!”  My faced turned to stone; my body jerked and my arms swung wildly, nearly slamming the box of shoes to the ground had it not been for my Kung Fu grip.  Bill stood as if it were no big deal.  His shifty eyes said otherwise. “Bill! Are you crazy?” I mouthed.  “Quick, come up with something!  A misspeak, a lie—ANYTHING!”

“Oh, it’s Josh’s friend, Zack…”  Josh?  Of all people!  “…Yea, I met him like 20 minutes ago…”  20 minutes ago?  C’mon man! Bill bent his knees and shot me a look, his eyes wide and gritted teeth exposed.  You’ve screwed it up this time—royally!  “Josh?  He had to go to work… well, yea, he works from home, so he was out with us, but now he… he had to go back home, where he works… to do more work.

Good gravy, somebody call a doctor!  This guy’s gone mad!

My body contorted into different positions like a man trying to fight off a possessing demon, exploring the line between stomping and tiptoeing.  Stubs of shaved hair were pulled involuntarily—at least the attempt was made in all the madness.  How could he be so careless?

“Look, it’s no big deal,” Bill said, in an attempt to recover.  “Just, come and pick us up—me up.  Come pick me up! Nobody else.  Gretch, sorry, I gotta go. I’ll text you.”  He hung up, thank God.

“Are you kidding me,” I said.  “Are you freaking kidding me!” I repeated, this time screaming, the over-pressurized kettle finally getting its much-needed release.  “I love you buddy, but… ya blew it!”

“Wha—“

“What do you mean what?!  A week’s worth of planning, and you out and out completely blow it!”

“Don’t even sweat it.  It’ll be fine.  She didn’t suspect a thing.”  There was no sense of wrongdoing in his voice—not even a sense of panic.  Oh, the nerve!

“Didn’t suspect a thing?  Didn’t suspect a thing???  Your mind’s in the gutter, I know it!”

“It is not!”

“Bull crap! You got cocky, then got sloppy, and then you blew my cover!  You’ve lost your vision!”

“That’s not true…”  Bill grew quiet for a moment, guilt finally setting in, though he would shy away from publicly admit it.  “…That’s not it at all…”

“…I know what it is…”  It was a calm response, much like the response I give Mike Gibson every time I beat him in a political debate.  “It’s the babe in the running store, isn’t it?  Your mind’s been set on her ever since we left.”

“What?  Whatever. I… I don’t even know what you’re talking about—“

“I saw the way you were looking at her.  It totally makes sense!”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Absolutely not.  It’s ok, she was a cutie, I’ll admit, but you should also admit that you blew it.”

“I didn’t blow anything!  You’re the one that did all the talking in there!”

“Me? Talk—I barely spoke!”

“‘Oh, I just love running, it’s the only thing that makes me feel free.’”

“Hey!” His mocking tone was a little too sarcastic for my taste.

“’Which are your favorite trails around here?’”

“Knock it off!”

“’Maybe I’ll just see you on the Greenbelt this weekend!’”

“I’m warning you.”

“Oh, and you can show me your stride.  I bet it’s graceful, just like you.’”

“That’s it! You’re dead.  You’re dead!”

“Oh, give me a break, will ya!” he screamed and shifted backwards in a defensive position to avoid a potential sock in the face; smart move on his part.  “Like she was going to do any smooching with you anyway.”

“Sounds like somebody’s a little jealous cause they didn’t have anything to say!”

“Jealous? All that talking did was almost con into buying that stupid tank top.”

“That tank top wasn’t stupid!” I paused, realizing the need to calm myself before a bigger scene was made.  “…Well, it wasn’t the best-looking tank top… ok?  But, what’s wrong with being nice every once in a while?  It doesn’t hurt anybody, could even make their day better! And I’ll tell you what.  You’re pretty lucky I’m a nice guy, or else you would’ve been pounded by now.”  Bill threw up his hands, acting like he couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.  “And I don’t even know why you had to bring the babe up in the first place.”  He turned and glared, for some silly reason. “You’re just trying to divert from the fact that you still dorked up, big time!”

“Oh, not this again.”

“Well, what are we going to do then?”

“Listen, we’re good.  You’re just overreacting, that’s all.”

“Overreacting?  More like I just wasted hundreds of dollars on a meaningless trip…”  The last sentence was muttered under my breath.

“What?”

“It’s just… ya blew it.  Kapeesh?”

“Zack… trust me.  We’re going to be ok.”

Trust me…  The phrase failed to ease my concerns, no matter how many times it circulated through my head.  Not much else was said on our search for a restaurant—not much else could be said with a mind so clouded with rage. So, for blocks, we walked in silence, no eye-contact afforded, or deserved for that matter.

Ya Blew It!

“What about this place,” asked Bill.  He pointed to a café that shared a space in a freshly constructed town square with the name “Solid.”  Solid… looks like an overpriced Applebee’s if you ask me, but with all that organic bull crap instead.  “It has a patio…”

“Whatever,” I replied and followed him into the restaurant.  It was the only respectable response I was able to utter.  As long as it has beer.