How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 9: It’s a Fried Pickle for God’s Sake!

July 23rd, 2016. 5:00 PM

Perhaps I was a bit more excited to see him than Bill or Gretch, evidenced by the giant smile that grew across my face the second we pulled into the Holiday Inn Express.

I wasn’t always sure about Pat, especially after it looked as if I made a flirtatious quip towards his wife a few years back, warranting what seemed to be a dirty look; at least that’s the impression I recieved according to Collin Morlock’s account.  However, I would never think to take such an action, especially not towards Bill’s mother.  Besides, Pat always denied it, but it was never enough to assure me his blessing—that is until last year’s Christmas vacation…

***

It was like a pair of childhood friends reunited.  Sure, I was there to see Bill, but the guy took his sweet time in the bathroom!  So, Pat and I discussed the important matters of the day—football, trucks, Mike Iupati, the University of Idaho graduate and offensive linemen for the Arizona Cardinals… you know, the stuff that men talk about.  He even offered a room in his house for the night, which I graciously accepted.  I even felt bad for Bill a little bit, taking away all that precious time to spend with his father, but I couldn’t help it! When two people connect, you just gotta let it flow!

It was the night after the Maple Bars show that sealed the deal, however.  A late night of rock n’ roll had done a number on our bodies, and of course some drinking was involved, but sure enough, I was up and at em’ before 9 AM.  I strolled into the living room where Pat and his wife Lea were already sitting, each with a cup of coffee and a copy of the Lewiston Morning Tribune in hand.  “Good morning Zack,” greeted Pat.  “Are the others up yet?”  The others… such an appropriate description.

“Not quite, I think they were planning on sleeping in a little bit.”

“Hmm… alright,” he answered with a sigh.  “They still have trouble getting up in the morning.”

“Yea, I understand. It takes a little time to grow up.”

Pat walked over to the kitchen and pulled a coffee cup from the cupboard.  “Well, in the meantime, feel free to pour yourself some coffee.  We have a fresh pot all made up for ya.”

“Ah, thanks Pat!” I took the coffee cup and made my way to the fridge where a fresh can of Rockstar Energy stood.  I poured its contents into the cup and headed back to the living room.

“Go ahead and take a couple pages of the newspaper, Zack,” said Pat.  I happily took him up on the offer and join in the reading while we sipped on our respective caffeinated beverages.

30 minutes later, in strolls Gretch, her feet dragging, head slouched, and hair all over the place, acting as if she had just escaped from a Syrian refugee camp.  Pat, Lea and I looked onward at the pitiable display before she disappeared into the kitchen.  We shook our heads in disgust, took another sip, then redirected our attention back to the paper.

“Hey Gretch, did you check the oil in your car?” asked Pat.

Gretch mumbled a gargle of unintelligible jargon that could barely be deciphered as, “no.”

“I can help you check your oil before you leave.”

“Dad, it’s ok…”

“Gretch, you should really check your oil,” I added, talking as if I were as knowledgeable as a Napa Auto Parts associate.  “It’s really important to check your oil on a regular basis.”  She ignored my comment and continued her rummage through the kitchen. I continued with my beneficial comments, my head buried in the paper with a steady shake, left to right. “…Don’t want to drive on bad oil…”

“Here Gretch, I’ll check your oil…”  The only responsive action Gretch could muster was to recess back to her room in shame, much like her pathetic emergence.  Pat and I turned towards each other.

“Kids these days,” I said.  We shared a good chuckle and another head shake before returning to the paper.

And at that moment, I knew there was something special between us.

***

“Well, how you guys doin’?” asked Pat as we hopped out of our respective cars.

“Good to see ya Pat!” I immediately responded while I walked up to the mustache-bearing, Jolly ol’ Santa Clause and went in for a hearty handshake.

“You too!  Long time no see!” he replied, both of us sharing an enthusiastic smile.  I could feel the electricity running through our hands, sending the fervent, long-sustained shake through the rest of our bodies.

“Oh Lea, I didn’t even see you!  How are you?” I asked as I detached myself from Pat’s grip and turned to give Bill’s mother a hug.  She seemed to be taken aback by my presence, but eventually agreed to the hug.  Was it something I said?

“Oh!  I’m… I’m good…  I didn’t even know you were coming down,” she replied.

“Yea, just thought I’d come down on a whim I guess, heheh.  Are you still running?  You should check out the fresh pair of shoes I just bought—“

“Zack!” screeched Gretch with offense.

Lea turned to the source, her eyes beaming.  “Oh Gretchen, how are you?”

“I’m fine mom,” she said with a shrug of the shoulders, focused on a black spot in the asphalt.

“Well, come give your mother a hug,” said Lea, her arms outspread, looking to embrace her daughter. Gretch hardly took notice, barely making the effort to walk towards her, as if her feet were glued to the ground, all the while fixated on whatever it was that was so captivating down there.  Lea wrapped Gretch around her arms, like any mother who misses her child would. Gretch remained stagnant.

“Hey dad,” Bill said with a straight face and a modest tone, extending his arm for a solid handshake. Pat returned the favor, a genuine sense of pride flowing between the two.

“Well, are you guys hungry?” asked Pat.  “We could go out for some food and drinks if you’d like.”

“Oh boy, I’m starved,” I blurted.  “I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast!  You guys wanna go to a pub or something?”

“Well…” started Bill.  “I was thinking about barbequing for you guys—“

“In fact, I think I saw a pretty good place downtown,” I interrupted. “Let’s check it out!”  Bill shot a look towards Gretch.  Both of them shrugged.  I smiled.

“That sounds pretty good,” said Pat.  Alright!  I knew Pat would be on my side.  “You guys want to head out now?”

“Uh… sure,” said Gretch, phone in hand.  Great!  Everything’s going according to plan.  “Let me text Josh and see if he wants to join us.”  Whoa whoa whoa!  Josh?  Gretch, what are you thinking?

“Oh, what a wonderful idea,” said Lea.  Oh no, Lea, not you too…  “it’d be so nice to see him.”  Apparently, Bill’s mother’s been duped, by no fault of her own.  Josh always had his way of manipulation with parents and teachers alike, of which Lea was both.

“Well, I don’t want to bother the guy if he’s busy.”  Pat, I like the way you think!

“Dad, it’s no big deal,” insisted Gretch in an attempt to impose her self-masochistic ways onto the rest of us.  “Josh would be excited to see you.”

“Well, what do you think, Bill?” asked Lea.  “You know him the best.”

I gave Bill a shallow glare, enough to get the point across.  Bill!  Don’t you—if you know what’s best for ya—

“…Sure.  Invite him along…”  Why, why… WHY!

“Alright then.  How about you guys jump into our rig so all we have to do is take one car.”  Being that Pat’s suggestion was a logical one, of which none of us could truly object to, we obliged.  “How’s the weekend been so far?”

“Well, we were tubing down the river earlier, and there was this guy trying to park his trailer. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was drunker than a pig…”

***

The waiter made his rounds with our drink order.  I went for my go-to, the double IPA.  Josh opted for some fruity type beer just like I knew he would, blueberry something or other, and Bill… now that you think of it, I don’t even remember what type of beer Bill got…

“And what can I get for you, miss?” the waiter asked Gretch.

“Um, I’ll do the Island Lager.”

“Sure.  Can I see your ID?”

Gretch froze, then tried to put on her best cute face.  “…I don’t have it on me at the moment.  I’m sorry, but I am over 21, teehee…”  Damnit Gretch, now look what you’ve done!

The waiter gazed into her eyes and smiled.  “It’s ok. I believe you.  Drinks are coming up!”  Gretch, that lucky dog!  Dodgin’ a bullet, like always!  “And can I start you guys off with some appetizers?”

Each of us scoured the menu.  It wasn’t exactly polite to take the waiter’s time like this, but if Bill, Gretch and Josh were anything like me, they weren’t exactly keen on waiting any longer for food.

“Look guys, they have a giant plate of nachos,” said Pat.

“I’m getting the chili cheese fries,” grunted Josh.  “Don’t even think about stealing any from my plate, Zack.”  Nice try Josh, but I’ll have none of that garbage.

“And for you sir?” My eyes glazed over each item, looking for the perfect plate for such an occasion—no way I was getting the same junk you can find at any ol’ bar—Wait. What’s this?  My lips moved as I silently read the bold lettering that had captivated my field of vision, then the italicized subtext below.  Fried Pickles… A plate of pickle spears deep fried in batter and served piping hot.  A local favorite.  My mouth salivated as I relived the moment I first tasted the contraption at the Floribama beach bar—Christmas Vacation, circa 2013.  The savory taste… the attack of sodium to the mouth… the… the—

“Sir?”

I jolted my head. “Sorry, I’ll have the fried pickles.”

“Excellent choice,” he replied.  I could barely contain the smile on my face.

“Took you long enough, Zack,” complained Josh.

“Oh, you boys…” replied Lea.  Thankfully, she had my back, since I decided to let Josh’s comment slide.  At least one of us had to keep it respectable in front of Bill’s parents.  They deserved better, no matter how low Josh went—

“Well, you should’ve seen him yesterday Lea.  We were at the park, and he saw this babe going on a run and started chasing her around!”  Oh no.  He did NOT just go there…

“No, it wasn’t like that at all.  You were all making a big stink about everything—“

“Whatever Zack, you went after her the minute you saw her.”

“Really…” mentioned Lea with concern.  “In your new running shoes?”  A slight giggle could be heard from the end of the table.  Bill and Gretch, no doubt.

“Well… not exactly. Josh was yappin’ his head off when she ran by, and he wouldn’t shut up!  So I had no choice but to run after her a little bit, but only to—“

“Well, Zack…” interrupted Lea with a quick scoff and eye roll, tilting her head and releasing a smirk that expressed disbelief.  “That’s no way to impress a woman, even if you were wearing your new shoes…” Great, not the Megan Mills treatment again.

“Ok, ok.  So, I messed up once or twice.  Big deal!  Would I do it again?  Probably not!”

“Probably?” questioned Lea.  Boy, this just got out of hand.

“Alright, then. No, I wouldn’t.  But that’s not nearly as bad as last night when Josh got beat at the punching bag game and almost started a fight—”

“Oh, that guy was being a total douche bag!”  Everybody in the restaurant diverted their attention to the corner of the table, where Gretch’s face was as fierce as the words that had just left her mouth.

“Gretchen!” said Lea, alarmed at the hateful rhetoric that had left her daughter’s mouth.  I shared her sentiment.  How can so much vitriol come from a single person?

“It’s true mom!  He was totally cheating at the punching bag game.” And what’s this?  Already doing Josh’s dirty work for him?  “There’s no way he could’ve beat Josh… not with his muscles…” Oh, Gretch, why did you have to mention “Josh” and “muscles,” in the same sentence?

“Yea, he was taking a full lunge before he punched,” chimed in Josh.  “I only took a half lunge.”   Well, clearly he wasn’t playing by the rules.

“Oh, and then he tries to bro-hug Josh afterwards.”

“Yea, bros don’t hug. We shake hands.”  You would know best, Josh.  “Then, get this. He has the gall to call me a douche…”  Gee, I wonder why.

“So, I grabbed him by his Polo shirt, and threatened to kick his ass,” pronounced Gretch.  I couldn’t tell who was happier about it, Gretch or Josh.  Both of them had a stupid smile on their face.  “I would’ve too, if Zack didn’t step in and make friends with him!”  Wait a minute, Now I’m the bad guy???

“Well, I guess shame on me for breaking up a fight.”

“I mean, not to put you down or anything, but I at least wanted a picture of it,” said Bill.

“Gretch… in a bar fight?” asked Pat in deep contemplation.  Finally, a little bit of reason in this sea of madness—  “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” he added with a nod and a smile.  So, both Bill and Pat are against me now?  Splendid.

“Yea, way to go Zack. And besides, you’re just mad cause I beat you.  You only got 4,000 points!”

“…You punched a bag which produced a bigger number than me.  Congratulations.”

“Whatever, just admit it. I punch harder than you.”

“Well, if you want to get technical with it, a punching bag isn’t a very good caliber of how effective a punch is,” I began to explain. “For instance, a long-developing swing over the head will create a large moment, since the bag is essentially a pendulum.  Therefore, due to the setup of the machine, a swinging punch at the right angle will develop a greater force on a punching bag than for instance, a front punch, that comes directly from the hip outward, even though the front punch is much quicker, harder to block, and more efficient—“

“Yea, yea Zack, there you go again, always making excuses.” Right, Josh.  So much for engineering brothers… “Can you believe this guy,” he asked, leaning towards Pat to try and score a cheap giggle.

Before Josh could blabber on any further, the waiter came back with our order, thank God.  In front of me sat 5 fried pickle spears.  I wasted no time digging in, and neither did anybody else with their respective appetizers.

Just a quick public service announcement. Fried pickle chips are better than spears. But when it comes to my pickles, I’m not one to complain.

“Feel free to dig in to some of our nachos!” said Pat.

“Alright!  And please, help yourself to a fried pickle if you’d like,” I answered back.

“Well, ok.  Maybe in a little bit.  They do look mighty good.”

We ate.  All the while, Josh managed to keep talking about himself, even with a mouth full of chili cheese fries.  As predicted, Gretch fed gasoline to the fire, affirming Josh’s “awesomeness.”  Normally, such an exchange of words would send me deeper into the hell I was presently suffering.  However, the succulent taste of each fried pickle left me in a state of temporary ecstasy, for not even the most obnoxious of Josh’s could disturb.

“Bill, are you sure you don’t want a pickle?” I asked.  “They’re incredible!”

“Oh, that’s ok.  I wouldn’t want to take anything away from you,” he replied.  “You seem to be enjoying them too much…”

“Alright then!” I grabbed the next pickle without hesitation, then the next.  Every time a pickle touched my mouth, a serum of sodium and grease osmosed into my bloodstream, turning once literate sentences into foreign phrases.  Josh’s words meant nothing—complete bliss, like a circle of sirens hovering over my head, their beautiful voices blotting out every obnoxious hoot coming from his mouth. For once this trip, everything seemed to be going just right…

I reached down—one pickle remained.  Oh no.  Did I actually go through all of them already?  It just didn’t seem logical.  But there were only 5 of them.  And for 6 bucks?  Can I even justify another order?  I hesitated.  You’re fine.  Just order another app.  Wings perhaps.  Yea, wings are good.  But the fried pickles… I surveyed the table—a bunch of animals gorging at the feeding trough.  To my left—Jesus Josh, that’s disgusting! I glanced to my front—Pat… at least someone’s showing a few signs of civility, and no sign of interest for the food around him.

For a minute I waited, patiently, contently, my eyes fixated on the lone spear before me.  Sure, it’s polite to see if anybody else wants a taste, but how long do I have to wait? I got Josh scarfin’ down food on my left, Gretch doing her share of guzzling on the right.  On top of all the complaining that’s going on… how much more can a man take?

The beautiful, siren call was gone.  Reality had set in once again—a life of Josh and misery.  This pickle though… my only hope. One final moment.  Pressure mounted inside my head—my mouth; my taste buds begging for that elated moment it felt once before.  I couldn’t take it any longer.

My fingers clasped the pickle—contact.  I pulled it towards me.  In my peripheral appeared another set of fingers.  I followed the appendages up the arms and to the source. It was the saddest looking Santa I’d ever seen, mouth agape and fully depleted of the jolliness he once had.  “Oh, Pat… would… would you like the last pickle?”

“Oh no… no, you’ve already touched it.”

“Are you sure?  I mean, I haven’t taken a bite out of it.”

“Oh yea, don’t worry about it.”  Well, ok then!  I clasped the pickle and pulled it towards my mouth.  “But… boy, it would’ve been nice to try one of those fried pickles…”

“Dude, Zack, you touched Pat’s pickle,”  said Josh.

“But Pat, I haven’t taken a bite out of it yet.  Didn’t even touched this side!  If you want the pickle, it’s all yours.”

“No, Zack, I don’t want your pickle.”

“Yea, Zack.  You never touch another man’s pickle.”  Gee, Josh. You must think you’re SOOOOO clever—

“Aha ha!  Nice one Josh,” howled Pat, who couldn’t help but slap himself on the knee a few times.  …This can’t be happening.

“Here Pat, I’ll split it with you.  You can have the part I didn’t touch.  How about that—“

“Oh, I’m just pulling your chain a little bit.  I don’t need a fried pickle.”  Laughter rose from around the table.  Bill, Josh, Gretch—oh, that weasely laugh!  Even Lea released a few chuckles.

“Oh, that is just too funny,” said Lea after a sigh and a recovery of composure.

“Man, Pat got you good!” Why thank you for that sophisticated analysis, Joe Buck—err, I mean, Josh.

“That pickle sure did look good though,” quipped Pat one last time.

“Don’t worry Pat, I didn’t get to have a taste either.”  That’s cause I didn’t order any damn pickles for you, you tight-assed, ginger freak!

“Here Zack, would you like some nachos?  You must be hungry and all, since you scarfed all those pickles down without any help.” With reluctance, I took a portion of the nacho pile.  Who cares?  He can’t eat all of that anyways!  I ate my personal plate of nachos and finished the rest of my beer in silence, hoping we had reached the end to any conversation that involved the word “pickle.”

“And here’s a few more appetizers for you guys,” said the waiter making his way to our table with a basket of fries and a flatbread dish.”

“Wait, don’t put it near that guy,” cautioned Pat, pointing towards me.  “It might disappear before the rest of us have a chance to try it!”

“Oh, Pat,” said Lea with a grin, giving her husband a soft slap on the shoulder.  Haha, very funny Pat.  So funny I forgot to laugh, and so did everybody else—

“AHahaha!  Oh man Zack, it must suck being you right now!” Ding ding ding.  Right on que with the unnecessary Josh comment.

“Huhuh, man, Dad’s pretty brutal on ya,” said Gretch, insistent on adding an extra blow.

“Is there anything else I can get you guys?” asked the waiter.

“Yea!” I shot out. “Another beer.  Double IPA.  The strongest you got.”  I received a slew of funny looks.  Oh, my God.  I. Don’t.  CARE!!!

“I’ll have another beer too,” said Josh, in an attempt to keep up with my pace, thought it always baffles me why people attempt challenges they know they can’t accomplish.

“Say, you wouldn’t have any more of those fried pickles, would ya?” asked Pat with a little smirk on his face.  “I think this guy might need a few more.” Good, maybe that’ll shut him up.

“…I’m sorry sir, we actually ran out.  In fact, his was our last order.”  All eyes darted towards me.

…You have GOT to be kidding me…  

It was as if at that very moment, Pat’s heart crumpled into a wad.  He curled over, his head in his hands, while the rest of us waited for the flood of tears. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought the man had just lost his job.

“Oh… my God…  My whole life, I’ve been waiting to try a fried pickle… I finally get the chance, right there in front of me!  And it’s taken away… just like that… just like that…” The incantation repeated until the waiter felt that it was his duty to interrupt.

“…Is everything alright sir?”

“Oh, sure… everything’s fine.  It’s just that—how many years do I have left on this Earth?  20?  30?  If I’m lucky, maybe more, but if I’m not… Who knows?  I could die tomorrow, and I’d go my whole life without having tasted a fried pickle…” There were looks of sympathy everywhere.  The waiter, Lea, Bill, Gretch, Josh—Oh give me a frickin’ break already!  It’s a fried pickle for God’s sake!  “…I guess I’ll just stick with my nachos, thank you.  It seems as though I’ve… I’ve lost my appetite…”

“It’s going to be ok, dad,” said Gretch with a sneer towards me.

“I can’t believe you Zack… how selfish of you…”  I could no longer see Josh, only a giant punching bag machine with the sweet spot right where his face used to be.  Just keep talkin’ Josh.  I got a 10,000-pointer waitin’ for ya.  “You know, I’d never do anything like that, Pat.  And especially not to you, Lea.” Make that 11,000 points!

“Oh, I know Josh. You were such a good kid,” said Lea. Key word.  WERE. “…So, what have you been up to these days?  I heard you moved over here.”

“Oh yea, I’m involved with software development.  Working from home, you know, doing the work it takes everybody else a week to do in about two hours.  It’s good though.  I get to get out in nature and climb mountains.  You should see my Instagram!  I have thousands of followers, and I get 100’s of likes on each picture…” blah blah blah, blah blah blah.  My name’s Josh, and I’m so awesome.  Everybody look at me!  I couldn’t believe how much Bill’s parents were eating it all up.  I don’t think Lea ever broke eye contact, just like Gretch.  This is literally the worst…

Ten minutes went by before Josh finally took another breath.  The conversation touched on the typical topics: how amazing Josh was at his job, how many pushups he could do, the size of his pecks, the biggest mountain he climbed, and a bunch of other crap I quit caring about 10 minutes prior.  I was just relieved that there was no mention of me throughout the entire oration.

“Wow, the Gran Tetons, that’s great Josh,” said Lea.  “Pat, didn’t we do some camping over in that area?”  There was just silence.  Pat wavered back and forth, his head down, fixated on the dwindling plate of nachos. “Pat…”

“…I… I’m sorry Josh,” said Pat, shaking his head.  “I have to be honest, I didn’t even hear a single word you said…”  Finally, the Pat I know is back!  I knew we’d see eye-to-eye.  Just look at that stupid look on Josh’s face.  All sad, like he just got dumped.  ‘Oh, you gonna cry Josh?  You gonna cry???  Don’t cry…’

“It’s just… I… I haven’t been able stop thinking about fried pickles…”

No. Way…

Everybody laughed. Everybody… except for me.

“Kid’s these days,” said Josh.  Pat and Josh shared a stupid snicker, shook their heads, and buried themselves in a glass of beer.

Way to go, Pat.  Worst. Dinner. Ever. We’re done. You hear me? DONE!

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