Chapter 13: The Punch Card

“It’s 12:50. She explicitly told us 12:47. Where is she!?”

“I don’t know, baggage claim maybe?”

“Well she’s taking her sweet time then!”

“She’ll probably be out soon. Just circle around one more time.”

“We’ve already done that—three times! We’re going to be late! What are we going to do??”

Bill took a deep, long breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth. “CALL BETH!”

Thanks to the technology of blue tooth, a dial tone sounded through the car speakers that eventually led to an automated voice telling me to leave a message for Beth’s number. “Beth, it’s Zack. It’s taking a little while longer for us at the airport, and uh… well…” I took a deep breath, then a deeper breath. It’s just… I can’t…” I began hyperventilating.

“Zack, just calm down. Breathe, nice and slow—“

“I can’t! I can’t do it man! I’m sorry, but I’m not going to put up with this. She thinks she can just lollygag about like we’re on her time? She’s already making us late, and now she’s going to ruin the whole wedding for everybody! This is an important weekend, especially for Beth and Blake, and I’ll be damn—I’ll be DAMNED if she spoils it!” I exclaimed, my fist slamming hard on the dashboard. “Look Beth, I’m sorry. I am sorry! We’re trying, we just have some set backs, and we’re getting a little stressed out… We’ll be there as soon as we can.” I ended the call. “What time is it?”

“12:52.”

“GRRRRRRRRETCH!”

“Hold up, I just got a text…”

***

There she stood next to her suitcase, waving excitedly with a giant smile on her face under the concrete overpass that housed the MKE loading zone; the sheer arrogance on display absolutely insulting. “Did she bring her entire wardrobe or something? How are we gonna fit that monster in the car?” asked Bill.

“Hi guys,” She said as we exited the car, her voice sweet and filled with glee. We didn’t fall for it, not for one second. Bill took on the grueling task of loading her suitcase, having to make multiple rearrangements in the trunk and the backseat. A million thoughts scrambled through my mind of things I wanted to say, a log jam of words that couldn’t seem to straighten out, even with the roaring current increasing behind it. I stared and opened the back door, until a lone phrase left the madness in a calm, straight manner. “Step into my office…”

She slipped into the backseat and I shut the door behind her. Bill and I looked at each other from opposite sides of the car, both shaking our heads in disappointment, “Let’s try not to make a big deal out of this; for Beth and Blake’s sake,” he said. I nodded and entered the car.

“So what’s up guys? You ready to party and stuff?”

I couldn’t take it anymore. “Listen Gretch,” I started, whipping my body around, my eyes impeding and face stern. “This whole trip isn’t about ‘partying’ or getting drunk or ‘blasted’ as you kids say these days, or any of that juvenile stuff. It’s about our friends Beth and Blake coming together and professing their everlasting love for each other. We’re talkin’ the holy sacrament of marriage.”

As a simultaneous act, Bill whipped his body around, his eyes impeding and face stern, and I whipped mine back to the front, a cycle that would continuously repeat itself. It was his turn now.

“This is the big time; sacred vows, powers invested by the Holy Spirit, people in dresses and tuxedos, and definitely not the Canadian kind.”

“That means we’re on our best behavior at all times. No screwin’ around!”

“We traveled over 2,000 miles to pick you up, and already we’re off to a bad start. We’re behind schedule, and we have a lot of work ahead of us!”

“This isn’t like Idaho. You can’t just walk around like you own the place! This is Wisconsin. This is my turf!”

“Your history of tooling out in Boise won’t fly here; not in Wisconsin. Getting 86ed from a bar is not an acceptable practice.”

“I don’t want to get kicked out of another Applebee’s! It’s embarrassing!”

“You can’t just start cussing out the bar tender just because they don’t have Steel Reserve on tap. That won’t be tolerated; not in the Midwest.”

“And no—and I mean absolutely NO Caitlin Jenner jokes! Understood?”

There was a brief moment of silence before her reply. Bill turn his head back around to the front.

“…You mean Bruce—“

“GRETCH!”

The name reverberated through the car like a loud shriek making its way through the depths of the Grand Canyon. Both of us turned, our faces taut, using every muscle in our bodies to keep our mouths shut. We gave her a cold, threatening stare, as if blood was coming out of our eyes—Megyn Kelly style. She stared back, mouth agape and eyes widened and overwhelmed. She remained quiet; a smart move on her part.

“Bill, find the directions to the nearest Wal-Mart. We need some booze.”

***

A giant load of anxiety fell upon Bill and I the moment we entered Wal-Mart on the edge of downtown Milwaukee. So worried was I during the car ride with explaining the delicate process of making an Old Fashioned, that the demographics of the superstore had totally slipped my mind, and mixing Gretch’s behavior in that type of environment—talk about a catastrophe!

“First you add ice to your glass,” I told them. “Then pour some Jim Beam about half way. Next you add a little 7-Up with a few splashes of bitters. Now here’s the most important part—you take your Old Fashioned Mix and you give a good pour into the drink. I ask for these at the bar and they screw it up every time, putting orange peels in them and crushing cherries and sugar and all that crap. You stir it all up, and presto, you got yourself an Old Fashioned. Understand?”

 

Gretch looked at me like I had just tried to explain to her Quantum Physics. Bill didn’t look any better, his countenance not providing any confidence of comprehension. “Ok, let me explain one more time. First, you pour some whiskey…”

 

It was far too late now. We were in the heart of the beast, and all we could do was fervently pray for Gretch to remain on her best behavior. The odds however, were still very much against us, for even that was a tall order way out of the big man’s hands.

“Ok, we came here for one thing, and one thing only. Follow me to the liquor.” Keep em’ on task, that always keeps em’ out of trouble. “Bill, grab some 7-Up. I’ll get the whiskey and the bitters. Gretch, I want you to look for the Old Fashioned Mix. And remember, get the ‘Jero’ brand. It’s the best. Understand?”

“What about beer?” asked Bill.

“Yes, we can get some beer too, but let’s just focus on one thing at a time.”

“But the beer aisle’s right here.” Yes, Gretch did in fact provide a factual statement, if nothing more. It was an aisle, and it had beer, but any store that has six packs of Rolling Rock tall boys in the “Premium Beer” section constitutes grounds for concern.

“Look, we don’t have to get beer here. If we get the liquor now, we can—“

“Are you freaking serious!” blurted Gretch; her eyes brightened as if she had just realized the potential of Kanye West’s rap career. “A 30-bomb of key-light for $11.50??”

“C’mon guys, let’s just stick with the—“

“No way!” interrupted Bill. “You’re practically stealing the beer at that price!”

“You guy’s, we have—“

“Gretch, call mom!”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. All this hype for an abominable beer substitute called Keystone Light? I tried reasoning with them, but it was no use, and frankly, it was starting to annoy me—big time. “Yes, it’s cheap, but seriously, there’s much better choices for beer out there, especially in Wisconsin—“

“Mom, it’s Gretch. You won’t believe it. They have a 30 pack of Keystone light for guess how much… $11.50! I know right! Hold on… Bill, mom says to send her a picture.”

“Right on it.” Bill whipped out his camera, as if he had only seconds to capture the amazing shot—a price tag that read “KEYSTONE LIGHT – $11.50”. “We gotta call Meagan Mills, ASAP!”

“Dude, screw Meagan Mills, we’ve got to get some—“
“Excuse me?” snapped Gretch with a sass so over the top you would’ve thought I had just poached an animal on the endangered species list. “Don’t talk about my best friend like that!”

“Oh c’mon Gretch! You know I didn’t it like that—“

“Zack, that’s my roommate you’re talking about! I’d appreciate it if you showed a little respect!”   You gotta be kidding me?

It was total bull crap. How dare she use Meagan Mills against me, and what was with Bill, giving me attitude all of a sudden? The Gretch situation was spiraling out of control. I needed a different approach, something big. This could not stand.

“All right look, I’m sorry, it slipped. Can we just grab the beer and go? We can even stop by the sporting goods section on the way out so we can play beer darts later.”

Gretch led the way, focused in on the mission, as I knew she would. Any game that involves shotgunning beer is nearly impossible for her to resist. Bill followed, but his progress was thwarted. I snatched his arm and furiously swung him around to the next aisle out of Gretch’s sight, my pointed finger thrust into his face.

“What’s the big idea? You totally screwed me back there throwing me under the bus like that! It hasn’t even been an hour and you’re already siding with her. What’s wrong with you?” Bill remained silent, staring a blank stare back at me, a combination of anger and shame forcing his mouth shut. “We had a plan. A PLAN! And now you’re willing to throw it all away?”

“Don’t put this all on me. You’re the one that disrespected Meagan Mills! Don’t act like I’m the one throwing everything out the window after careless statements like that!”

“You couldn’t just let that go for once? I mean, c’mon, I’m trying to keep us on task here!”

“Look, you know she’s just trying to pit us against each other.”

“Well it looks like she doing a pretty damn good job!”

“What, you thought this was going to be easy? We’re dealing with a professional here, and suddenly it’s all my fault?”

“Whoa, let’s just calm down and think this through. I’ll admit I was a bit ill prepared, but all we have to do is get her really good tonight.”

A smirk grew on Bill’s face. Whatever it was that was circulating through his mind, had to be good. “Remember that Tim and Eric episode where they go to the haunted house and they keep falling down the steps?”

“You mean the ‘Oops I forgot my suitcase’ part?

“Bingo. We take the stairs, we drop the suitcases, and then we keep falling down the steps.”

“It’s perfect. She’s gonna go nuts! But… I need your word.” A great sense of importance filled the void between our stare, as the next set of spoken words could very well have been among the most significant of our entire lives. “Promise me… on our friendship… that if we do this, we go all the way. No bailing out, under any circumstance. Kapish?”

“You have my word.” He sealed his word with a handshake. a beautiful gesture that nearly brought a tear to my eye. “Just one thing. We can’t act too suspicious. She’ll fish us out at the first sign of suspicion.”

“I have a plan. Just follow my lead…”

***

We drove away that afternoon to meet Beth, Blake and friends with a car full of the essentials: Beer, darts, and all the ingredients to make an Old Fashioned; and miraculously, all in one piece. We tried to convince Beth to let us bring more goods before picking Gretch up from the airport, but she was pretty adamant that we just stick with the booze, no matter how much I insisted.

“BETH, just wanted to give you an old update on the ol’ road trip sitch. We’re about a half hour outside of Milwaukee. Is there anything you need us to bring, food, snacks or anything? How about we bring over a few orders of triple fried pizza dough with a giant can of Velveeta to put in the nacho cheese dispenser? We can grab some appetizers, a container of French onion dip or two—and you have GOT to try my homemade ziti! Just stick in the oven for 40 minutes, get it nice and piping hot and serve it up, ready to go! And if it’s not the same to you, I got some cold cuts that I need to get rid of, maybe a pound and a half of black forest ham, OH, and what about some of those cheese sticks with the marinara sauce? You know what would be a hit with the guys is if we brought over a nice German chocolate cake. I’m talkin’ key lime pie, ‘a la mode.’ That’s what the French call, ‘ice cream on the side.’ And it wouldn’t hurt to get a bag of sour cream and onion, just as long as they’re RIDG-ED chips…”

“You know Gretch, I think we all started out on kind of a rough footing, but I gotta say, you handled yourself well in there.”

“Not a single outburst. I’m proud of ya sis!”

“So here’s the deal. We’re on vacation, we’re here to have a good time, but we know we’re gonna have to make a few adjustments here and there, which means we have a couple slip ups every now and then. Case in point, the Meagan Mills incident.”

That’s why we’re giving you a ‘Punch Card’.”

“That gives you 10 free obscenities to use whenever and wherever; in front of kids, old people, minorities, whoever. If it comes out, nobody can give you a hard time. We just clip a notch in the card, no questions asked. Understand?”

Her head lifted with a jolt of energy running through her body as though she had just been told she could cut to the front of the line for Space Mountain.

“In fact, all of us are getting punch cards, just for the sake of it. I don’t expect us to use them up of course, not even half way! It’s just more of an insurance policy, just in the case of an emergency or an accident.”

“And we’re doing this because we trust you. We’ve come a long way, and we believe you’re ready… for this… this responsibility.

We handed her the card, an emotional moment felt in unanimity. The graceful concord, the sense of belonging—maybe things were going to be ok after all…

***

Bill found himself in a violent shake, unable to control the sweat pouring out from his pale face or the bodily convulsions in the form of dry heaving, barely resisting the urge to vomit and foul the interior of my new car. The Benz was sent to the shoulder of the road, parked diagonally, having barely avoided a head on collision or two as my mind was sent into a sudden shock of paralysis. A heavy dizziness overcame me, overtaking any and all forms of motor control; I swear I could feel a solid stream of blood pouring out of my ears, a dire consequence of the utterly despicable, ineffable anathema they had been subject too…

Gretch had used up every single one of her punches. Not even a minute had passed…

My God. What have we done? What have we done…

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