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…”

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