How to Clean your Conscience Chapter 10: JENGA!

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

July 23rd, 2016.  6:45 PM

We left the pub that evening, I a bit wiser, Josh a bit smugger, and Pat with one less friend. Against her will, Gretch had left with her parents, and once again, I was back to face the world, alone but for a single ally, and even that was on shaky ground.

“What’s wrong Zack? Looking a little tense don’t you think?” I thought about it, long and hard. For the moment, I could see it with clarity, a knuckle sandwich beautifully delivered smack dab in the middle of the nose.  But Josh had the upper hand, two beer tokens in his possession… two tokens that he was still willing to give me.  And up to this point, my disdain for Josh hadn’t quite topped my affinity for free beer.

“C’mon buddy, don’t be so sour,” he followed with a firm grip clasped upon my shoulders… shoulders that clenched upon contact.  A man on man massage.  Gee Josh, you sure know how to ease the tension.  “Dude, Zack…” He switched tactics, this time putting his arm around my shoulder, making it easier to justify the knuckle sandwich. “We’re friends… buddies, right?”

“I’m not… your Buddy!”

“It’s ok bud…”  Really? You just went there again? “Hey, don’t feel bad about me and Pat giving you a hard time… You know what your problem is?  You take things a little too personally.”  Oh, he’s asking for it!  Just give me those beer tokens so we can settle this once and for all!

Josh held those tokens tight in his man sack like it was an impenetrable fortress.  It would be another several minutes before we’d make it to the Tubapalooza block party, several minutes of which Josh was unable to process that his constant contact was unwelcome, no matter how many passive-aggressive hints were given. 

A heaping sound of garbage grew in direct proportion to the density of drunken adults sporting 90’s fashion.  Scattered sightings had been creeping about since dinner, and Josh’s incessant reminders of how we should’ve participated assured us that we were heading in the right direction, at least for beer anyway.  “Dude, we could’ve done that,” was the typical response after each Spice Girl and Fresh Prince of Bel Air look-a-like we spotted.  His eyes grew with delight as he spotted a group of tacky outfits, splattered with bright colors as if they were living out the characters from Clueless.  He even had a positive comment for the girl sporting a midriff with a pair of Jenco Jeans, expressing sincere remorse for our lack of conforming attire.  Lucky for all of us, cooler heads prevailed.

A few blocks and a dozen office buildings later, we approached the 10 Barrel Brewery, the company responsible for all the racket polluting downtown Boise that evening. The entire block was roped off with a stage near the entrance, and patrons poured in and out like kids at a funhouse.  I recognized the mantra coming from the stage as we entered.  “F— you I won’t do what you tell me…” the lead singer repeated over and over again, the ultimate plight for anti-authority popularized by Rage Against the Machine.  The teenage version of Zack would’ve reveled in the singer’s stance.  Once in sight however, 30-year-old Zack wasn’t too impressed with the crapily covered, washed out cliché to pander to a crowd of intoxicants, or his exposed beer belly for that matter.  Sadly, many in the crowd thought differently, and continued to unwittingly feed the singer’s ego.

Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

To my left was Josh. I shot him a glance and he met me halfway with the same, flat expression. We were going to need those beer tokens ASAP if we were to endure this crap.

Yes, it’s inexplicable, but on rare occasions, Josh and I have been known to be on the same page a time or two  

“You know what Boise,” yelled the lead singer, his obnoxious behavior unhindered.  “We’re not supposed to play anymore.  They said our set ends at 7 O’clock.  Well you know what?”  What?  You already said it once…  “We’re gonna keep playing.  You know why?”  Oh gee, enlighten us, please… “Because we don’t give a s— about authority,” he continued, with strategically placed profanity between every other word.  “We’re gonna stand here… and we’re gonna party!”

For some reason, the crowd roared, egging him on to lift his arms and flex his non-existent muscles. He nodded his head and brandished a stupid grin across his unshaven face like he was God’s gift to the town of Boise. “More like Satan’s toilet paper if you ask me.”

“Ok, here’s a classic for you guys.”  Oh, please don’t ruin another one for us… The band got set, waiting for the lead singer to que them off.  “…Youuuuuuuuuuu know you make me want to…  SHOUT…”  Oh, MOTHER F—

It was only a year prior that Bill pulled off his epic rendition of the Isley Brothers classic at Beth’s wedding.  With a few drops of liquor in his system and the music flowing through his veins, he commanded the dance floor and led everybody in an ensemble of song and dance for a night soaked in sweat and laughter.  

Don’t remind of this though… ughz.

And within an instant, that memory was forever tainted by the drunken animal on stage, all for the sake of a few cheap cheers.  The three of us moved quickly to the closest beer vendor, a young lady sporting a sharpie drawn mustache.  It was a decision undoubtedly pressured by the event coordinators; one she was soon to regret.  As we sipped on our beers, listening to the banal band and its belligerent lead butcher the classic, it was almost as if at that very moment, every terrible deed Josh had ever done unto me could be forgiven.

 “You know what Boise…” said the lead singer… “You know what Boise?”  What?  What in the hell could you possibly bother us for this time??  “…I said, ‘you know what, Boise?” Jesus Christ.  Who does this guy think he is, Kanye West?  “Our set ended 10 minutes ago.  But we don’t care!  We’re going to keep playing!”  The more he insisted on playing, the more convinced I was that there was a reason he was asked to stop at 7:00 PM on the dot“…And just for all you 90’s kids out there, we got a classic just for you!”  …Wow, could you be any more generous???

“Dude, how much you wanna bet they play the ‘This is how we do it’ song?”  I asked Josh.

“What makes you think they’ll play it?”

“It literally happens every time I go to a party.  They even had it on that stupid insurance commercial!”  I’d seen it several times before, the college party band forced to revert to covers in order to keep the interest of the crowd.  And almost by decree, they choose the Montell Jordan classic, if that’s even a proper word to describe it.

“Naw, they won’t play it,” said Josh.  “You just jinxed it.”

“Hmm…”  Josh was right.  He knew I was always superstitious about these things.  “Yea, the band’s bad, but they can’t be this bad—”

“THIS IS HOW WE DOOOO IT…”

“Oh my God,” I scoffed, hiding my head in disgust.

“This is how we do it, yea… yea.  This… this is how… how…” the band continued to play, yet the singer stuttered into silence. He shifted back and forth, left to right, looking for relief from one of his bandmates.  Blank stares were all he received.  For the moment, it had seemed as though the once cocky singer was at a sudden loss of confidence.

“Um… this is how… we… um… Hey!” he screamed, having reached an epiphany.  “Uh, who wants to party?”  A few audience members cheered in response.  “You know what?  Let’s get some people up on stage!  They say we’re not allowed to have anybody up here, but we like to party!”  Well, well, well.  What do we have here, a rebel?  “Who else wants to party?”  He hollered with a shaky voice, screening the audience for potential partiers.  “You guys look like you want to party,” he said to a few members in the front row before waving them up.  The security team stood by in apathy.  If they were truly upset about people coming up on stage, they had a strange way of showing it.

An ordinary woman caught the lead singer’s eye on her way to the stage.  Nothing remarkable set this aging millennial apart from the rest of the crowd, though she seemed to be singing along to the music with relative ease. The two conversed for a moment while several instrumental measures passed.  The singer, wide-eyed and head nodding, ushered words of encouragement, and after a few back and forth twists of his torso and a couple of finger points from the stage, to the band, to the crowd, and to back to her, she finally nodded back.

“Ok here we go. You guys ready?”

We’ve been ready since the beginning of the damn song!”

“Why does that girl have the mic?” asked Bill.  Secretly, I think he knew the answer to his own question.  But like the rest of us, he wanted to believe otherwise.  She lifted the microphone to her mouth and began to speak.

“This is how we do it,
It’s Friday night,
And I feel alright,
The Party is here on the west side…”

“Are you kidding me?” I blurted.  “He doesn’t even know the words to his own song?”

“Lamest band ever!” said Josh, with a giant gulp of beer.  I joined him, watching this singer groove around on stage like he was still the center of attention, throwing out a “yea,” or a “c’mon” to keep relevant. We backed away from the crowd in disgust, venturing as far from the auditory sewage as possible.  At the moment, the 10 Barrel Brewpub looked to be our surest bet.

People poured in and out of brewery like wine seeping through the cracks of an overfilled barrel. No refuge was to be found.  So far, the promotion of 10 Barrel had been shoddy at best, and intolerable at its worst.  Adjacent to the brewery was a paved indent, possibly the site of a demolished building.  A brick and mortar wall stood tall, protecting us from what lay beyond—the desolate elements of the wild; dangerous, yet intriguing.  We stared out into the distance for a moment as if Idaho were daring us, calling upon us to free ourselves from the ignorance and safety nets of society.  Vacant but for a few festival vagrants, we entered.

At the edge sat an empty inflatable slide, much like an outdated carrousel ride in your typical city center.  The lack of use was relieving, for any parent who’d bring their kids to such an event are probably an incident away from a child services encounter.  In front of it laid a large sheet of astro-turf littered with hula-hoops and a few brave individuals using them.  One girl twerked her body in a smooth, continuous motion like a professional belly dancer, allowing the hoop to slither down to her knees, up past her chest, and back down to the waste with ease.  The others… well, I couldn’t exactly tell if they were drunk or didn’t mind looking lame, but judging by their lack of coordination, I imagined it was a combination of both.

“Wow, that girl’s pretty good,” mentioned Bill.

“I dare you to challenger her to a hula-hoop showdown,” I said.

“God,” he replied, speaking in a scoff.  “I suck.  None of us could beat her—“

“Hold my beer!” barked Josh, extending his arm to me, eyes locked on target.  I didn’t look to see how Bill reacted, only lifting my hand to let Josh’s beer fall into it. If he was anything like me, he was as stunned as I was.  “And if you take a drink, I’ll kick your ass!” he threatened, strutting to the nearest hula-hoop.  Immediately, I took a giant gulp, a necessary evil for the tragedy to come.

A minute was all we could take.  No matter the number of fruitless attempts, no matter how hard and how fast he wiggled, the hoop couldn’t quite wrap around his waist more than once without falling to the ground.  Bill and I took in another gulp of beer.  At least he’s fitting in…

“Check it out,” said Bill, looking over his shoulder.  Behind us was a table with a pile of wooden blocks, the remnants of a failed architecture model.  He turned around and began rearranging them, as to create his own.

“What about it?” I asked, watching as he stacked the nearly identical blocks higher and higher until it formed a large, square tower three blocks wide, each layer angled perpendicular to the layer opposite of it.

“It’s Jenga!  Wanna play?”

I thought about the proposition long and hard.  Bragging rights were on the line, and though I was confident in my skills, there was always the remote possibility—What if I lose?  Can I handle even more harassment from Josh?  Hell, even if I win, I’ll still endure a mouth full of berating.  It’s like he inevitably finds a way…  “I don’t know man.  The way I see it, I’m in a lose-lose situation, even if I end up having fun—“

“Hey Zack, I bet you aren’t man enough to hula-hoop,” yelled Josh, staring as he reached for the hoop that had just fallen to his feet.  “How much you want to bet you can’t beat me in a hula-hoop contest—“

“What the Hell,” I said to Bill before taking another swig of Josh’s beer.  “Let’s play.”

Having built the tower, Bill started the game off, as was traditionally done, pulling a block from the end of a row near the middle of the tower and setting it on top—easy pickings for the first round.  After giving me a nod, I calmly approached the tower and did the same.  No need to play it dangerously, no need to get cocky, and certainly no need to get tense… yet.  “Easy. Your turn Bill.”

Bill followed suit, finding another loose block in the middle of a row and pushing it out of the tower until it stuck out halfway.  With little care, he reached around, pulled the block the rest of the way, and set it on top.  It wasn’t so much his careless demeanor of which he completed the first row, but more of the arrogant grin he delivered that made my stomach turn.  “Your turn,” it said, standing in conceit all Tom Brady-like, as if he had the game in the bag.  I know it’s my turn.  Who cares?

I copied his favored strategy, quickly finding a loose block near the middle of the tower and throwing it on top like I wasn’t even trying.  The tower had a slight shift before it stabilized on its own, and there I was, standing before it, shooting Bill a deep grin.  He scoffed back with slight disgust and continued.

The next couple of rounds went by with relative ease.  Only a few shakes disturbed the tower’s stability, though a few irregularities in the cuts made for tricky block removal, not to mention each block was double the size of your ordinary Jenga block.  Perhaps the handicap was a blessing in disguise, enough to direct our attention away from the abomination coming from the stage… enough to distract us from the humiliation consisting of Josh and a hula-hoop.  I can’t believe he’s still trying, after all this time!

“…Careful,” mentioned Bill, letting out a sigh and a grin.  “Wouldn’t want the game to end so quick…”

“Don’t worry about me. I like to take my time, and I don’t get cocky, like some people I know.”  Bill dialed into the layer near the top of the stack, having eyed a partially removed block since last round.

“You just need the magic touch,” he said, pulling at the outside block.  “Pull it out, and—“

The tower wobbled, sending Bill into a state of petrification, his hand glued to the half-removed brick as it oscillated back to stability.  But for a sudden gasp, the sound of his heart thrashing against his chest was the only thing reminding us that he was still a sentient being.

“Ohhhhh, you looked a little nervous on that last grab,” I said as the tower finally settled. Bill muttered a scoff and pushed the brick back into position before examining the tower for a new brick to pull. He pulled for one in an untouched row near the base of the tower, removing it and placing it on top in silence. “Geez.  Not sure why you’re so serious about this,” I commented, making my way into position.  “It’s just a game…”

I stepped up to the plate as Bill stepped away, thus completed the excruciating affair.  Alright, this is it.  Now it’s personal.  No more messin’ around.

I walked around the tower for a thorough inspection, carefully feeling the edges for a brick that could easily be removed without violating structural integrity.  My head close and my grip steady, I took my time pulling an edge brick near the middle of the tower.  Provided its delicate state, the least I could do was give it the respect it deserved.  I just wished my counterpart had done the same.

It’s ok.  I’m gonna take good care of you.  The words never left my mouth, but anybody watching knew full well the amount of care on display as the brick was seamlessly freed from the tower, like a brain surgeon carefully extracting a tumor from a child.  With minimal sway, the brick lay back on top of the tower, completing yet another row of bricks.  Slowly, I stepped away.  It was odd, but Bill stepped up to the tower, not having a word to say.  Actually, he hadn’t spoken a word since last round. It was almost as if he were… nervous.

“Thank God,” he finally chimed in.  “The way this is going, we’ll be lucky if we finish the game by the time we head home.”

What a snipe,” I thought to myself.  “But, nice try, Bill.  Can’t throw me off my game, ya dingus!”

He walked around and gave the tower a thorough inspection…. that damn copycat…  He bent at his knees, settling into a squat, eyesight level with the tabletop.  He’s not attempting what I think he is… is he?  His hand crept toward the very bottom.  No… he can’t be… It was a dangerous, yet shrewd maneuver from my former road trip partner, a man I could trust with all my heart… until now.

Taking a brick from the bottom row is seen as desperate in some competitive circles, though a successful removal can reap high rewards—but not this time.  There was no way, given the uneven weight distribution of the enlarged bricks that it could be pulled off.  I was amazed, however, at how well Bill was able to keep his composure, even with the tower leaning off-kilter; slowly lifting the bottom brick as if he were an artisan baker placing the cherry on top of his latest culinary masterpiece.  The brick touched down and Bill stepped away, the tower settling back to stability.  Oh my God—I can’t believe—son of a fried pickle…  He pulled it off.  He… he—

“Whoa, whoa whoa—wait, what the hell is this?”  I blurted.

“What do you mean?” countered Bill, acting totally baffled.

Oh gee, what do you mean,” I replied in a mocking tone.  “Don’t play dumb with me!  How am I even supposed to put a block up there like that?”  I pointed to the top brick, strewn across the top of the tower diagonally across. 

“I mean, I just thought that—“

“Yea, that’s your problem.  You thought. Listen, that’s going to require extra adjustment, pretty much grounds for disqualification if you want to get technical…  Lucky for you this is all for fun, so I’m going to let it slide… this time.  But don’t you go cheating on me!”  Bill looked past me, unable to acknowledge I was right.  I shook my head in disgust.  “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s playing with cheaters…”  After a giant sigh, he adjusted the blocks accordingly. “See, that’s all I ask for.  So much for being a nice guy…

Ideal behavior? Not by a long shot, but much like Mike Gibson and politics, you have to take what you can get and move on.  It’s the only way a friendship like that survives…

I took another sip of Josh’s beer in the way Indiana Jones feels out a bag of sand before snagging his treasure.  Having found the right balance between concentration and a loose touch, I set the beer down and carefully examined the tower.  Jagged planks stuck out, crooked and non-uniform at each level with bearing loads staggered about each millimeter of contact.  It was as if I was looking at an architect hell bent on artistic expression, aka an engineer’s worst nightmare.  There was absolutely no way this was going to hold…

Below the top level sat an aberration, a small glimmer of false structure, the sleeper on the fantasy football waiver wire that everyone had overlooked.  I went in for the kill; it was my only hope.

I grabbed at the block sitting on the end—it wouldn’t budge.  “Too much friction.  Careful Big Daddy.”  I watched the tower wobble and let it settle before my second attempt, guided by a solid educational background from Washington State University. My extensive knowledge of static forces and moments would provide an advantage over Bill’s gut feel—every time. “Remember, a little force goes a long way…”

I poked at the middle block—slightly looser.  It wasn’t ideal by any means, but workable—it had to be, or I’d be doomed. I inched the block further out, using every precaution not to cause a severe disturbance.  Easy does it now, nice and slow, and…  The block stopped.  I gave an extra push—too much.  The tower leaned, a gradual crash imminent.  Quick, other side!

I ran around the table with a roll in my feet, mimicking a speed walker.  Even the slightest vibration could spell doom.  “Jenga,” Bill uttered into my ear.  The distraction failed.  “Jenga,” he repeated.  Nice try, Bill.  I reached the opposite side of the table and grabbed the pultruding block and held the tower in place.  Balance to the force had been restored.

Guiding the tower back to a rigid state, I wiggled the block into freedom, eventually gliding out of the slot like a well lubricated piston.  A giant, uncontrollable grin leaked from the corner of my face as I placed it on the appropriate spot on top of the tower.  “Your turn Bill,” I said after taking another drink of Josh’s beer, my grin undeterred.  His lips quivered, sweat drew across his brow, and his head shook side to side in disbelief, the absence of movement most baffling.

Indeed, it was Bill’s turn to act… and he was royally screwed.

He staggered forward in abject fear.  “Ohh, what’s wrong Bill?  You gonna cry?”  The heckles continued, each one more vicious than the previous, a series of invectives Bill tried so desperately to ignore as he stared at the ugly mess in front of him. It was hopeless, the mangled tower looking more like the remains of an animal carcass picked apart by a pack of hyenas, leaving only scraps for the maggots to feast.  “You gonna cwyyyyyy?” I continued.  “Awwww, don’t cwy…”

Bill’s eyes lit up with the prospect of a relocatable block in his sights—or so he thought.  He shimmied it in place, testing the limits of stability.  “Oh, here we go, he’s going in, he’s in for the move, he—“  The tower took a hard lean.  Bill reacted with a hard flinch, having severely misjudged the friction between the blocks.  “…Shanks it! AHA!”  A repulsive laugh left my mouth—a laugh representative of the most vile of heels.  Bill stepped back to reevaluate his decision, frustration mounting, barely keeping his ugly sneer contained.

“What are you losers doing?” asked Josh, sneaking up from behind.

“Don’t bother us, Josh,” I said, giving him more acknowledgement than was deserved.  “We’re in the middle something important.”

“Pff, Jenga? That’s a child’s game.”

“Right…  Why don’t you go back to playing with your hula hoop?”

“I should.  It’s better than this.”  I shook my head and took a sip of beer.  Josh did the same, staring down at his afterwards.  It had appeared that he had found an anomaly. “What is this, amateur hour or something?”

“What are you even talking about?” I responded, showing as little eye-contact as possible.

“Look, I’m almost done with my beer, and you’ve barely started yours!”

“…Yep, looks like I have some catching up to do.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a game to win.”  I redirected my attention to Bill.  “Welp, looks like someone’s about to lose.  Ahhhhhh, you gonna cry?  Please Bill, don’t cry.  Uh oh! The block is up, the tower’s set, going down… going down… going… going—”

No way…

The tower stood firm, having one block relocated legitimately from the bottom to the top. To its side was Bill, brandishing a look so smug it would make the likes of George Clooney jealous.  “Ohhhhh, looks like it’s your turn Zack,” said Josh with an emphasis on the obvious, a childhood habit I wish he’d break.

I took to center stage and studied the abominable erection for any weak points.  Very few could be found, each staggered block augmenting the intimidation factor, already abounding.  I poked around at prospects—none afforded me any opportunity, far from an ideal situation in front of the likes of Josh Ulrich. “Jenga…” whispered Bill into my ear.

“Ohh, c’mon Zack. Jenga,” Josh whispered in the other, the first in a long line of interruptions, anything they could do to break me.  “Jenga… Jenga…” The words penetrated, circulating the blood flow and driving the exhale of carbon dioxide from my lungs at rapid pace.  I could feel it as it took over, controlling all aspects of my mind.  “It’s gonna fall, Zack.  Jenga…”

“Yea Zack. Jenga…”  The phrase wouldn’t leave my head, it’s attack persistent, vicious, determined to see me fail.  “Jenga… Jenga…”  Shut up Josh.

“Jenga… Jenga…” Shut up Bill.

“Jenga… Jenga…  JENGA—”

GRETCH!

“Whoa whoa whoa, back off!” I screamed, the ferocity of my voice nearly tipping the tower on its side.  Bill and Josh took a step back, their faces long and offended, yet too afraid to show it, as if they had just witnessed a daddy hit mommy moment.  “I mean…  Just give me a little space, that’s all.  I got this…”  I took control, stepped back towards the tower, cool and collected.  “I got this…”  I spotted a block near the upper levels of the tower, already poking slightly—my best hope.  I wiggled it in place, feeling the friction between two other blocks grasping its hold on the tower.  Maybe if I just pinch the top a little bit, I can relieve some pressure, then viola!  Brick’s free.  I placed my finger at the top of the tower, applying pressure to the top of the tower and pried away.  A scoff of disgust came from my backside.  I removed the block and turned.  It was Bill.

“What?  Do you have a problem with the way I’m conducting business?” I asked, attitude abound.  Bill stood there, wanting desperately to blurt his objection, though his unwillingness to protest denied him the opportunity.  “I don’t sit here and tell you how to play the game…”  I set the free block on top of the tower and walked away, my head stuck in a steady shake throughout the entire process.  “Give me a break.  Standing there, criticizing how I play the game… no respect…”

Neither one of them could believe it.  They stood in a stupor, unsure how to respond.  If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought they were insulted.  “Go on Bill.  I’m waiting…”

He stepped up to the plate, taking several minutes to carefully examine each individual block, a tiring, yet halfway amusing affair.  He tugged at a block near the middle, near the top, near the bottom and all in between.  None gave way.  Again, he went for a block in the middle, giving it a slight push.  The rest of the tower moved with it.  “Jenga…” I teased.  Bill did his best to ignore.

Bill made his way around to the other side of the table and picked at another brick.  “Jenga… Jengaaaaa—JENGA!”  I screamed like the spokesman in the old SEGA commercials. The brick didn’t budge.  Shut up, Zack!  He wanted to say.  His dignity disallowed him from making a scene.  So, he continued in silence, picking at the crumbling infrastructure, sucking the last leaflet of life from a dying tree.  “…Jenga… Jenga…”  Each pull and push caused an even more severe tilt to the already deficient structure. Bill took his time, believing wholly in his heart that there was still a chance.  There was no room for error, not even for the most skilled of Jenga competitors like myself.

“Jenga… Jenga!” Beads of sweat dripped off Bill’s forehead.  He’s breaking, little by little…  “Jenga… Jengaaaaaa Jenga Jegna Jenga—JENGA!” Bill twitched.  The chain reaction had begun.

“Jenga…” The tower leaned towards him—too much pull.  He pushed back with an unnecessary amount of force.  “Jenga!”  The tower tilted the other way; Bill directed his attention accordingly.  “JENGA!”  He pulled it back.  The tower leaned… and leaned… and kept leaning.  “JENGAAAA!!!”

A giant mitt swatted at the tower, sending a loud crash and a wave of bricks flying in all directions like exploded shrapnel—quite the fit for my explosion of laughter.  Bill marched about the mess, pouting, sweltering, steam rising out of his ears and nostrils.  He avoided eye-contact; another look at my sardonic face would result in an ugly outburst.

“Ahahaha!  Loser cleans up!”  I couldn’t contain myself.  Bill turned to face his demon, his reputation shattered beyond repair.

“That’s bull shi—“

“Whoa whoa whoa… Watch your language how bout ya?”

“You cheated!  You totally cheated!”

“Cheated?  What an accusation!”

“It’s a valid accusation!”

“It’s off the rails! Just like you!”

“Are you kidding me? I saw the whole thing!  You held the tower down in place—”

“Hold the—“ I paused, unable to properly respond.  My head shook rapidly, as if I were trying to remove a film of dust atop my hair, for the libelous allegation of cheating would throw any honest person off guard. “Pff, that’s not cheating!  And if it was such a big deal, why’d you wait until now to say it?”

“Doesn’t matter. Cheating is cheating!  Josh even saw it.”

“Yea, Zack, you did put your—“

“Josh, your mind was still on playing hula hoop with all those little girls!  Besides, how can you have a clear head with all that beer you drank?”  Josh was speechless.  He knew as well as I that a credible response could not be drafted.  Still, I patiently waiting for a rebuttal of substance, plenty of time provided to pound the rest of my beer.  Nothing ever came.  “…That’s what I thought.  And how would you feel if you saw a drunk guy playing hula hoops with your daughter? Creeped out, I hope.  Now do me a favor and get me another beer.  Looks like you got some catching up to do.”

“Dude…” he said, lifting his chin, his pecks deflated.  I disregarded the plea and continued my case, forcing Josh to disappear into irrelevancy.  It was his only constructive move.

“Now Bill, I really don’t appreciate these aspersions on my integrity.  I mean, we’re like… almost… best friends… at least I thought we were…

Well, I don’t appreciate my ‘friends’ cheating on a game of Jenga!”

“Alright then. Let’s settle this.  Bust out the Jenga rule book and show me exactly where it says you can’t use the other hand.  Show me.  Right here, right now.”  Bill threw up his hands in disbelief.  Even if he could produce what I was asking, I could sense some serious doubt in his charge. “That’s what I thought.  Now just accept it and we can move on.  I’m the better Jenga player.”

“Nope.  Won’t do it.”

“Bill… You got outplayed.”

“Shut up!”

“I will not!”

“Because you’re a terrible friend…”

“What?!”

“Yea, I said it!”

“You take that back, you son of a b—”

“You’ve ruined this whole trip!”

“Oh, me ruin the trip?  Like you’re one to talk, Mr. Loose Lips!”

“Don’t even put that on me!  You’re mad cause Gretch is always outsmarting you!”

“How…  Dare you!”

“She does it every time.”

“Bill…”

“Every time!”

“I’m warning you…”

“I mean it.  Every.  Single.  Word of it!”

“Oh yea?”

“Yea.”

“Oh yea?”

“YEA—“

“Hey!”  A jolly voice echoed across the astro-turf. Bill and I turned to a brunette babe walking towards us wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt, potential love at first sight type of stuff.  “Are you from Wisconsin?” she asked.

I looked down. Indeed, I was wearing a similar shirt with the words “Green Bay Packers” spread across, the same shirt Gretch saw me buy… so she went ahead and bought the same exact one.  “Uh, well, um, yes—no, sort of—my family’s from—I go there—next month I… I like Wisconsin…  Yea.  I am from Wisconsin.”

“Oh no kiddin’!  So am I!”  Jenny… from Janesville.”  Jenny stuck out her hand for a shake.

“Hi Jenny from Janesville.  I… my name is…”  Now normally, I’d consider myself an honest person.  I would never, ever tell a lie, barring an admission of friendship with Ben Woodward.  Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to protect Bill from potential embarrassment, or perhaps it was something a bit more sinister. Or maybe, just maybe, the approach of a beautiful Packer babe, while heating up certain functions and elevating flow rates in the human body, has quite the opposite effect on the brain. Left in momentary petrification, I blurted the first name my mind produced.  “…I’m Josh.”

“…Josh?”

“…Jo—yea, Josh! Josh…”

“Well, what do you do Josh?”

“I… I run—“  Bill shot me a dirty look.  Don’t even start with your new running shoes…  “…I run uh… the car wash!”

“The car wash?”

“You know… the car wash… in Oshkosh.”

“Josh who runs the car wash in Oshkosh…”

“That’s right, Jenny from Janesville.  I’m Josh who runs the car wash in Oshkosh!”

A huskier man walked over to greet us, a true Wisconsinite if I ever saw one.  “Hey, Greg, I’d like you meet Josh,” said Jenny from Janesville.  “Josh runs a car wash in Oshkosh!”

I extended my hand for a shake.  “Nice to meet ya.  Jenny tells me you’re from Janesville.”

“Well, not originally,” he answered.  “Greg… from Green Bay.”

“Oh, no kidding? My friends Ashley and John moved to Ashwaubenon!”

“Right on!”

“My mom’s from around that area too!”

“Really?”

“Yea!  My mom Deb—“  An epiphany stopped me in my tracks.  Though it was true my mother grew up near Ashwaubenon where my imaginary friends Ashley and John resided, I resisted the temptation to spread the information.  What are you doing?  You can’t just give out your mother’s personal information like that! “…My mom Deb… from Detroit.”

“Oh…”  Replied Jenny from Janesville and Greg from Green Bay, unable to mask their disappointment.  “…Deb from Detroit…”  After an awkward break, Bill jumped in.

“Hi, I’m Bill.”

“Let me guess. Bill from Beloit?” inserted Jenny from Janesville.  

“…No…” replied Bill, his tone several shades somber, head drooping into his sternum before raising his chin to answer.  “North Korea,” he said with a straight face, as if he were mustering the courage to block years of torture and hard-labor from his mind.

“Oh…”  replied Jenny from Janesville, her face elongated, any excitement the two may have previously held erased from their countenance. “Well, it was nice to meet you two.”

“You too, Jenny from Janesville, and Greg from Green Bay.”  They backed away with a steady nod, each step taken in caution, not to wake a sleeping giant, until they dissolved back into the crowd under the spell of awful music.  Bill and I turned to one another, a slight smile seeping from our faces—the first one in a long time.  “Dude, did we get in a fight?”

“Did we?  I don’t exactly remember…”  A moment passed with a few shrugs thrown between the two of us. We turned back our attention towards the madness—back to Josh who had reemerged from the abyss with a fresh set of beers.

“Dude, Josh, you got another beer?  We’re about to leave!”

Josh lifted his head, opened his face, and arched his spine ever so slightly.  It was the look of bewilderment with a side of displeasure. “Dude…”

“Don’t worry, we’ll help you drink it.”  I snatched each beer from his hand and handed one to Bill.  “Just be lucky you have such good friends.”  Josh stood there in shock, again lacking the right words for a response.  “…Look, I think somebody wants to play Jenga with you.”  Josh caught a glimpse of a girl behind him, examining the oversized Jenga blocks.  He receded behind us eager to set up a game and cement his dominance.

Bill and I took sips of our newly procured, freshly brewed beer and surveyed the crowds, commenting on the spectacle before us like a pair of generals watching the final moments of a victorious battle.  “Bill, you know as well as I do that I’m not a cheater.”  Bill didn’t speak, didn’t shift his attention, didn’t show any signs of deference or derision to my words.  He remained forward and listened, like a man of honor would.  I continued.  “And honestly, if there were ever a time that I happened to break the rules, it certainly wouldn’t be wittingly.

“…I believe you,” he responded, giving a slight head nod.  I took a good sip of beer.

“I’ll tell you what. I don’t want to be a cheater.  I don’t even like the idea of being thought of as a cheater.  You know how I feel about those people.  The lowest of the low!”

“I hate em’ too.  I wish they were never born.”

“And if we’re going to be real with each other, I honestly didn’t think I was doing anything wrong during the game.  So, if any illegal actions were made, it’s wasn’t out of negligence, because let’s face it, when was the last time you played Jenga?”

“…You’re right…” Bill took a deep swallow of beer before the next words came out.  I waited patiently.  “Look, I’m sorry for calling you a cheater.  I lashed out at you, and I shouldn’t have.  That was bad on me.”

“We all make mistakes.” We both nodded and took a good sip. “I’ll tell you what.  I probably won’t go out of my way, but if I come across the rules, and I finf out that it’s an illegal move to use two hands, you’ll be the first to know.  Deal?”

Bill delivered a steady nod with an amicable smile.  “Deal.” We bumped glasses for a cheers and took a good sip.  I turned around.  Josh had taken a reprise from tower building to tend to his phone.

“Now c’mon, we better get Ulrich back here before he embarrasses himself again.  Hey Josh, I told you, there aren’t any Pokemon around here!  Get off the App!”  Josh shot his face up to a trio of babes snickering past him.  Josh’s head lifted, his chest puffed, then exhaled into a slouch, his eyes stuck in a destructive glare.  “Don’t worry about those babes. Nerds aren’t even their type.  How about we get out of here, huh?  You’re driving of course.  Obviously, you haven’t been drinking as much as we have. and you better not play any of that emo music you made us listen to earlier.  I swear if I wasn’t a teenager I’d have cut myself by now…

***

July 23rd, 2016. 10:00 PM

Grace was in the air. A few hours had past, and somehow, in the weening hours of the day, we had all made it back to each other, gathered around a pocket of cool air settled in Megan Mills’ backyard.  We laughed, told tales of the day and of previous days, and took our shot at polishing off the rest of the kegs.  Beat down from an afternoon of sun and alcohol intake, not one among us was in a position to disrupt the mellow mood percolating in Southern Idaho.  For the first time all weekend, I think everybody had a smile on their face.

Even Gretch.

And to think, Bill and I were at each other’s throat ago over Jenga… JENGA for God’s sake… The name brought back an ugly memory, one I had hoped to forget.  Oh yea… Jenga.  In my hand was the power of knowledge, with only ignorance standing in the way.  I gave Bill my word.  Damnit, why did I give him my word?  I can’t go back on that, not if our friendship is worth a hill of beans!

I surveyed the scene. Lea was next to me, the center of attention, as predicted.  I liked Lea. Heck, I still like her, to this day! And to be honest, her favorability was on the up and up as long as Pat was crying about fried pickles.  But sitting beside her was no longer an option, not if I wanted to keep the ruse of anonymity.

To the left was Gretch, sitting on one side of the two person swing.  If I make my move, she’ll surely vacate the premise!  So, I made my move.

“I think I want to sit on the swing,” I blurted, interrupting Lea mid-sentence.  The result couldn’t have been any more pleasing. Gretch jumped off the swing like a bat out of hell.  Finally, a little privacy up in here.

The conversation continued.  I pulled out my phone ever so slightly and shifted my eyes about.  Nobody had suspected a thing.  I opened Google and began searching.  Jenga Rules.  I clicked on the first link that appeared and started reading.

Gameplay:

The player who built the tower goes first.  Play passes to the left.  “Check.”

Carefully remove a block anywhere from BELOW the highest completed story. “Check.”

Use only one hand.  “…Well, that could mean anything, really.  I remove the block with one hand.  Technically, I didn’t use both hands…”  I continued with the rules.

Remove and stack only one block per turn.  Remember — only ONE hand can touch the tower at a time.  

“…Crap.”

It was crystal clear. Bill was right.  I was wrong.  “I have to tell him.”

I took a deep breath and braced myself.

“Hey Bill.”  The porch went silent.  “I… I…”  I took a gander.  Taylor and Megan Mills… hmm, I wonder if they’re still mad about that time I fed their dog Doritos?  Lea and Pat—oh, look at Pat just ready to pop like a zit with another fried pickle joke.  Then there’s Gretch—good God, not Gretch, Miss “I’m too good to sit next to Zack…” My eyes wandered even further… further down to a strand of ginger hair and sculpted pecks.  …Josh…

“What is it Zack?” asked Bill.

“Oh, I… I was just checking some of the cabs for a ride home.”

“Are you guys leaving?” asked Gretch.

“No… not yet.  I just thought… um…”

“Is there something you want to say?” asked Lea.

“Well, uh.  I just wanted to… no.”  The group shot me a funny look, expecting a follow up. “There is absolutely nothing I want to say.”  I put my phone back in my pocket and silently sipped on beer for the remainder of the evening.

Sorry Bill.  Looks like I’m taking this one to the grave…

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