My Top 10 "Other" Christmas Songs

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

The finish line is in sight.  Christmas is merely days away, and the anticipation just keeps building!  And I for one, am looking for all the Christmas cookies, Christmas presents, Christmas dinners, Christmas parties, Christmas lights, Christmas fights, Christmas traditions of getting hammered with your friends at the bar, Christmas blackouts—hold on, too much information, heheh.

And last but not least, the Christmas music… oh, how I love the music this time of year.  The constant injection of Christmas tunes into your audiological veins that keeps you juiced up for the entire season; your blood shot eyes staying set on the prize, another sleepless night from the horror that is the little drummer boy, commanding you to keep marching, keep stumbling from store to store like a zombie as the sound of screaming children blasts through one ear and the perpetual pulse of Mariah Carey’s voice drives through the other.  “Keep marching.  Keep shopping.  KEEP ON CHRISTMASING!!!”

Bottom line, I’m looking forward to it all!  That is, if I don’t end up in the insane asylum before the big man comes to town.

Everywhere you go, it’s Christmas music, Christmas music, and even more Christmas music!  And don’t get me wrong, most of these are great tunes!  But we could really use some variety from the 25th rendition of John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas,” or another Michael Bublé cover.  And after the 10,259th time of listening to Mariah Carey’s “All I want to for Christmas,” the lyrics eerily start to sound a lot like, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas, I just want to blow my brains out…”  It’s like there’s already a spike in suicides this time of year.  Why make it any worse?

By the way, does anybody actually like the Little Drummer Boy song?  I’m sorry to any fans, but talk about BOOOOOOORING!!!  Why are we insistent to listening to this pile of lameness every year when there’s actually some other good songs out there?  I say it’s time for some change, a break from the monotony of the same 5 songs over and over again.  So, here are my top 10 “other” Christmas songs that you can put on your next Christmas playlist in order to avoid the nuthouse for at least one more year.

10. The Kinks – Father Christmas

A silly and satirical piece on the true meaning of Christmas in the eyes of a child.  A time of giving?  A time for sharing?  To be thankful for everything we have?  Naw, this song cuts through all that crap.  Of course, the smarter ones put on a good showing, but in the end, all every kid is looking for is the big payday that occurs on 12/25.  And who better to give us this blunt reminder than the classic rock quartet who rose to stardom with a song about almost going home with a transvestite?

9. Weird Al Yankovic – Christmas at Ground Zero

I promise, I have some more serious songs on this list as well, so bear with me.  But here’s another satirical piece that serves as a homage to the dawn of the nuclear age with the red scare and the constant threat of nuclear holocaust!  Well, being that I wasn’t alive back then, I can’t actually attest to the threats and feelings of the time, but I love the throwback, and I find the outlook of nuclear energy through the eyes of the public during the 50’s and 60’s quite fascinating, as well as how it was portrayed through the media.

8. Darlene Love – All Alone on Christmas

Of course, she’s most famous for her “CHRISTMAAAAAAAAAS” song, which is a great tune, but can be overplayed during this time of year, only to be beat by Mariah’s song.  However, here’s another song of hers that has the same energy, but can come off as a bit fresher, mostly because it isn’t constantly ringing into your skull while you’re standing in line at the local Macy’s.  Oh, and it also has the boss.

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

No, not that boss.  This boss.

7. Dropkick Murphy’s – The Season’s Upon Us

Another silly piece that describes Christmas more in the National Lampoon’s sense.  Family’s aren’t perfect, and if we’re honest with ourselves, this time of year can involve a lot more stress, mayhem, and putting up with insufferable family members than the calmness and peace on Earth that is falsely preached to us.  But if you look back at all those “disaster” Christmases, chances are that you wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s your family.  It’s what makes you unique, and at the end of the day, it’s why you love them as well as this time of year.

6. Jackson 5 – I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause

I don’t know if it’s because I was a white kid from Eastern Washington or what, but I had never had heard this rendition until recently.  And I was perplexed to find that our 7-year-old neighbors had never heard the song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause” in any capacity, for the name itself gave them quite the chuckle.

Now that I think of it, this song hasn’t been getting the play time it deserves during the Christmas season, no matter what version it is.  Regardless, Michael Jackson, still in his innocence, exemplifies the spirit of this song better than anybody else I’ve ever heard as a young buck catching his mom smoochin’ with the big man.  The 70’s Motown vibe it brings and Michael’s remarkable vocals puts the icing on the cake.  Oh, and the chitter chatter between the kids between versus adds a nice touch as well.

5. The Royal Guardsman – Snoopy’s Christmas

A simple rock classic from the days of the British Invasion that takes us into the world of the cartoon classic Snoopy as a World War I fighter against the Red Baron.  Though there doesn’t seem to be much to this tune and the concept is rather outlandish, the driving rhythm and the flow of the lyrics is surprisingly pleasing.  It all seems to roll together seamlessly, and in the end, your left with a smile on your face and the urge to listen again and again.  And strangely enough, when I showed this to my father, I was met with excitement as it brought back memories of him listening to this with his brothers as a kid.

4. Weird Al Yankovic – The Night Santa Went Crazy

The second Weird Al song on this list, and for good reason.  Weird Al is a comedic and musical genius.  The ideas he comes up with are like that of a prodigy, and his lyrical selections and execution are masterful.  “The Night Santa Went Crazy,” is no exception to this, and Mr. Yankovic expertly takes the grim concept of Santa going into his workshop in a drunken rage and slaughtering everybody in sight and turns it into a hilarious bit that has you laughing throughout.  I recommend giving this song at least a listen, and even if the subject matter isn’t quite to your liking, you can at least appreciate the talent that is Weird Al Yankovic.

3. Amy Grant – Tender Tennessee Christmas

2. Amy Grant – Grown-up Christmas List

In our family, Amy Grant was the queen of Christmas, and there was only one album to be played during this time—hers.  And to be honest, she actually had a good rendition of original Christmas songs, too.  Here are two of her originals, which bring back cherished memories of the Christmas season as a young boy in the corner of south eastern Washington.

Unfortunately, our Amy Grant Christmas CD suffered one too many scratches and was rendered unplayable many years back.  And for some sad reason, I can’t seem to find that particular album anywhere, which had a most superior mix of songs.  However, I am forever grateful I could at least be blessed with her oratorical beauty for at least a part of my life.  And there’s always hope that I recreate the mix later down the road someday.

The Killers – A Great Big Sled

I don’t know if anything gets me more excited for the Christmas season than this song.  “A Great Big Sled” summarizes the joy of the Christmas season.  Running around in the snow, getting excited for ripping open all our Christmas presents—the whole gambit.  Understanding that the excitement and feelings of the Christmas season fade as you get older and the sad reality that grown-ups lose the magic of the season, it encourages us to recapture those feelings of when we were young and to take some time to enjoy the season for what it is; to take some time to remember what it was like to be a kid on Christmas and how awesome that was.  And maybe, we can pass the spirit along to our kids someday, so they too can carry the torch that is the Christmas tradition.

So, there you have it.  A couple of tools to battle against the awfulness that commercial America burns into our ears this time of year.  Take this wisdom, go forth, and conquer this Christmas.  You may just survive to see another one.

Merry Christmas from Grizzly Chadams!

Christmas 2019: The Year of the Crappy Commercial

Photo by hue12 photography on Unsplash

I understand coming up with a good commercial can be a difficult task.  You have 30 seconds at the most to introduce your product/service, explain what it does, and convince an audience, who is already annoyed that their regularly scheduled programming has been interrupted, to buy said product/service.  But that’s what people get paid big bucks for.  To sell products through advertisement, despite the challenges.  And over the years, we’ve actually been blessed with some Christmas classics.  Remember the M&M guys?

And what about the Coca-Cola polar bears?  Another use of cutting edge technology (well, for its time…) to push a beloved American product.

Oh, how I miss the old 90’s computer animation…

Both are simple and heartwarming, and in the case of the M&M’s, humorous.  At the time they came out, they were recognizable, leaving a lasting impression for years to come.  And I’m not a market researcher or anything, but I’m guessing they sold a few products as a result.

So, what does 2019 bring? Surely, an uptick in quality. And with so many good examples, with such a solidified formula for success, you should at least be average, right?

Wrong.

It’s like in 2019, they decided to ignore the most basic concept of marketing: determine who your target audience is, or “who is most likely to buy this product,” and build your commercial around that. I mean, it doesn’t take an advanced physics degree to figure that one out. Take this old 90’s commercial for the board game “Crossfire” for instance:

Clearly it’s a game that appeals to young boys, and the commercial takes advantage of the fact.  Two kids, or two “cool kids” clad in leather jackets float on hover boards while gearing up for an epic battle.  Yes, it’s corny, but as a 7-year-old kid, it was intense. It was radical It had rockin’ theme song, and upon seeing it, the words that came out of my mouth were, “…I want that.”

In other words, it did its job.  It worked.

Or how about another golden rule: don’t piss off the people who might buy your product!

None of which apply to the following…

Exhibit A:  Mercedes-Benz.

Just the smug look on this kid’s face gives me the urge to deliver a knuckle sandwich!

Here we have a kid who catches Chris Cringle in the act of leaving his presents under the tree.  Now, what would your average, modest kid do if he saw Santa?  “Oh Santa, I’m your biggest fan!  Thank you so much for all the presents.  You’re the best!”

What does this kid do?  This little A-hole decides he’s going to blackmail Santa into giving away his “sled,” aka a new Mercedes-Benz Coup.

For starters, kids may think they’re smart, but they aren’t.  Sorry, but they haven’t had a job, paid taxes, been dumped by a babe, or learned any of those “life lessons.”  But let’s play along and assume he really did think this was a good idea. “So, let me get this straight.  Here’s a guy who flies around, breaks into people’s houses and leaves presents for me every year.  And you’re going to screw with him and prevent all the other kids from getting gifts, because you’re a selfish turd?  You really think that’s a good idea?  Gee, that’ll sure keep you off the naughty list for life!”

Actually, it sort of reminds me of a certain scene from a certain super hero movie…

Think, Timmy.  Think.

And to make matters worse, Santa totally capitulates!  Like, really?  Santa Claus, a man with mythical powers, who has somehow figured out how to get to every child’s house in the world in one night, gets outsmarted by this twerp?  What an insult to our intelligence!  I don’t care how jolly Santa is, he’s still a man–a bad ass mother who don’t take crap from nobody!

But really, what adult in their right mind would take crap from a chubby bastard like that!  In fact, this is a more accurate version of how Santa would react:

“Listen you little shit.  You best delete that picture and crawl your ass into bed before Old Saint Nick becomes a lot less jolly shoves a pound of coal up your ass!”  Or better yet, he’ll go all Pulp Fiction on his medieval ass.  “What does Santa look like?  Does Santa look like a bitch?  Answer me!  Say what… Say what one more time!  I dare ya!”

Warning: explicit language and violence!

Hmm, that’s actually not a bad parody… something that would make people laugh, something that might actually get people to buy your product.  Maybe, if I were Saturday Night Live, or better yet, a competing car company, I’d take advantage of the situation, just maybe…

And what the hell is a kid going to do with a car?  Not that Mercedes doesn’t make nice vehicles, and as the owner of a Mercedes-Benz, I can attest to its quality, but what the hell good does getting a present you can’t use do?  So, congratulations kid, you just got daddy a new car in which he’ll get hammered and drive to see his mistress before crashing into the median and getting slapped with a DUI, further tearing the family apart.  A bit harsh, you say?  Apparently, selfishness and screwing people over are values practiced in that household!

And does this commercial appeal to adults?  You know, the demographic that might actually be able to afford a Mercedes?  No.  This is a kid’s commercial, and I’m not anymore convinced that I should be buying a Mercedes over another car after watching this garbage.

Sorry Mercedes, but you really missed the mark on this one.

Exhibit B: The girl with the Microsoft Surface

It starts out innocent enough, thinking there will be a sweet ending with this cute little girl.  Then, she makes contact with the reindeer, using the tablet to communicate.  Quite a touching scene. “Boy, you can’t really go wrong from there.”

WRONG!!!

Suddenly, she turns into a treacherous little snoot and starts barking out orders.  “How do you guys fly!?  What does Santa do in the summer?!  Tell me!  I demand answers!”  Like, buzz off you little snot!  And calm your ass down.  Santa’s reindeer don’t have to put up with that crap!  Man, if my mom would’ve ever heard me talk to others with that type of attitude, you’d bet your ass it’d be a date with the spanking stick!  For good reason too!  The lack of disrespect in these kids today just blows my mind!  And no sense of patience either.  Just terrible!

Lucky for us, they cut the commercial right then and there, cause the next words out of the reindeer’s mouth would be, “I don’t have time for this shit,” seconds before they proceed to goring her for being such a brat.

The sad part is, this commercial had potential, by relaying the power that the Microsoft Surface has.  Unfortunately, you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth.  And to think I was about ready to make the shift back to Microsoft after years of being an Apple man.  Like, seriously, can I get a #SMDH up in here?

Exhibit C: The Snow Brawl.

Now, as a kid, I would love this commercial, a snowball fight full of unpredictable action and excitement.  It sparks the child’s imagination and gets them hyped for an epic showdown of their own!  Pretty much a mini Michael Bay movie.

Only problem is, it’s not a kid’s commercial!

Now, this isn’t a terrible by any stretch, for I can watch this as an adult and understand the filming capabilities of the iPhone.  And it’s definitely well shot, but again, to reiterate the point, they could’ve done better at defining their target audience to sell more of their product, the most important job of any commercial.

On top of that, if you’re a parent who’s going to buy their kid a brand new iPhone 11, you may want to rethink your parenting strategy.

Now, normally, I would see commercials like this, and say “well, that’s dumb,” and move on with my life.  No need to get worked up over things I can’t control. But then came the outrage…

Exhibit D: The “infamous” Peloton commercial.

A kid leads her mom down the stairs for a special Christmas reveal.  “Look mommy, me and daddy got you a Peloton for Christmas!”  She’s blown away, for that’s quite the gift.  She then begins her first workout a bit nervous, for if you’ve ever started your first anything that involves working out, spinning class, yoga, jiu jitsu, etc., the first time can be a little intimidating.  But then she does it, and is comfortable with it, keeps doing it, see’s results, meets her goals, and in the end, her and the husband are reflecting on the couch, watching her videos and reflecting on the work she’s done.  And guess what, they are pleased.

Now, this won’t be a commercial we remember for the ages, but at least Peloton did their homework on this one.  They found a target demographic, adults who have families and busy schedules who are looking for a convenient way to get a good workout in.  And low and behold, here is a device that allows you to have a workout class in the comfort of your own home at a time that’s convenient for them, without the need to travel back and forth to the studio.

In summary, they found a target audience and marketed to them accordingly.  Congratulations Peloton, a solid B effort.

But guess what?  People seemed to lose their freaking minds!  “I can’t believe the husband is forcing his already rail thin wife to work out!” or “This commercial is fat shaming!” or “Look at how miserable she is that she has to exercise,” was just a glimpse of the commentary.  And this isn’t an exaggeration.  Story after story has popped up all over my social media, the mob taking over to shame this abominable commercial out of existence! IT MUST BE DESTROYED!!!

Why, just a quick search for “Peloton” on the web yielded the following results:

And FYI, these screen shots were taken from the top of the page, first search, one day ago

So, this is the commercial America is getting worked up over?  A husband buying a workout machine for his wife?  Not the fact that we have commercials encouraging kids to act like brats, which actually may have negative behavior effects?  What the hell is going on out here?

Is it that inconceivable that there are women out there who actually want to work out, enjoy working out, and would love to have something like a Peloton?  Heck, my sister, a very successful working mother has a Peloton, and although I didn’t ask her why, I think it’s safe to assume that one of the reasons is that she values being in shape.

And is it out of the realm of possibilities that spouses communicate with each other in a loving, positive way to encourage each other to workout?  My wife and I certainly do, and guess what? We also talk about our fitness goals.  Why?  Not only do I want to look good for her because I love her and she doesn’t deserve somebody who looks like a slob, but also because I want to make sure I stay healthy for the years to come (And for those of you who are thinking, “what about all those McRibs you eat,” trust me, I run extra hard to make sure to factor those in).  And maybe she feels the same.  And maybe, just maybe, this couple in the commercial had a conversation that went along the lines of, “You know, I want to work out more, but it is difficult with the kids, work, traffic and all.  Having something like a Peloton would help me get back to the shape I’d like to be.”

Whoa!  What a concept!

And kudos to a man who buys a Peloton for his wife because she wants to work out more.   Cause those things ain’t cheap! 

And look, in some ways I get it.  You don’t work out, you don’t have a family, or maybe you have the time to go to the gym on a regular basis.  No harm, no foul, this commercial simply doesn’t appeal to you.  So, what’s the next logical step?  Say, “ok, looks like I don’t need to buy a Peloton,” and then… then… get this. You move on with your life.

But for some reason, people have the need to go out and berate the company with the goal of total destruction.  We have to assume that this guy is a total jackhole of a husband who demands his wife slave away on the Peloton for the sole purpose of looking sexy for him!  We have to get outraged to the point where we create several news stories about it!  Like, really?  Are people’s lives’ that miserable that they need to take that misery out on others?

Speaking of Misery, heheh…

This is why we can’t have nice things!  We get all pissed off about a guy buying his wife a Peloton, so we get crap commercials like the little punk blackmailing Santa.  We have to put up with bratty snoots talking down to Santa’s reindeer.

Oh, and guess what? If all that wasn’t bad enough, we have another terrible Star Wars movie coming out! Remember what happened last time (Disney has officially ruined Star Wars)? I can only imagine how bad this one’s going to be. WHY MUST YOU TAKE EVERYTHING THAT IS SACRED TO US AND CRAP ALL OVER IT JAR JAR ABRAMS? ESPECIALLY ON CHRISTMAS!? ESPECIALLY WHEN–

You know what, screw this.  Christmas is cancelled!  Good ol’ Grizzly Chadams ruined Chirstmas, again!

I’m going back to Thanksgiving for my beans.  My greens.  Potato.  Tomato.  Back to a time when the world was at peace, if only for a moment.  Where we didn’t have to put up with any of this crap!

YOU NAME IT!!!

How to Clean Your Conscience: Epilogue

August 26, 2019

I listened to an old album from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the other day.  I have been fond of the three-piece trio since the first time I listened to their emotional rock ballad “Maps” in college, but it’s their album “It’s Blitz!” that is nearest and dearest to me.  As with all albums, the replay value fades over time, and it had been years since I listened to it.  But a recent blog post that revisited some of my old, homemade skate videos retriggered it.  Consequently, it began playing itself over and over again in my head, a phenomenon that would continue and drive me further into madness until I’d decide to confront it.

As I walked toward the metro for my evening commute from work, I popped in my earphones and shuffled through my musical albums until I settled a picture of flying yoke from a crushed egg.  It would be a major deviation from my usual routine of watching Fantasy Football draft prep videos on YouTube, a late summer obsession I had developed, fueling my deeper obsession of beating Mike Gibson this year.  Yet, it was a deviation that felt absolutely necessary.  I stepped onto the green line, found an open seat, and pressed play.

A driving, electronic beat drove into my ears, and immediately I was taken back. I was a young 23-year-old on the brink of moving to Seattle.  My head was buzzed, my flannel collection was growing at a rapid pace, and I had but two desires—to skateboard and party.  As I shut my eyes, I could feel my heart pump with the energy I once had as lead singer Karen Oh’s voice opened the first verse, building the anticipation towards the beat drop.  My life consisted of counting down the days until the 2009 Sasquatch music festival, waiting for work to end so I could get my daily fix of skateboarding in at the local skatepark, and working for the weekend to get to Seattle for whatever ridiculousness I could pull off with Ben Woodward.  It was an exciting time, my first glimpse of adulthood, my first real taste of freedom, and I had the world at my fingertips.

The chorus played out until there was a break in the beat mixed with random synth blips and guitar strokes.  It signaled chaos, confusion; the calm before the storm.  I braced for it, a beat drop I had heard and yearned for on many occasions. And as the synthesizer released a high pitch squeal and the beat blasted back into play with the advent of the second verse, I reopened my eyes with illusion that I was ready to take on the world once again.

Fast-forward. My flannel collection has been replaced with dress shirts, my hair is grown and styled to form a business-friendly part, and I now have a pair of glasses that accompany my few dustings of gray hair.  In the past, my heart may have filled with despair, for part of nostalgia is grasping with the fact that you’ll never have that time back. And in many ways, the Zack of 10 years ago would’ve despised the Zack he had become.  But for some reason, on that day, things were different.  I was at peace with the past, at ease with the present, and optimistic of the future.

Who knows if I’ll ever have another chance travel across the United States with one of my best friends again.  If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be able to recapture the silliness of a ghostly possession in Montana or recreate a wild moment like we had at the 1029 bar in Minneapolis, nor would I even attempt to try!  And by miracle of the Holy Father, my brush ins with Josh Ulrich have become surprisingly cordial.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll get my opportunities to throw in a dig here and there, and he’ll be sure to do the same (I’d expect nothing less).  In fact, at the time of this writing, I am on my way back from a quick visit Boise, and I had the pleasure of seeing my good buddy Josh.  And let’s just say, we had our fair share of drinks between the two of us (of course I had more… and paid for it as well).

But I no longer crave that type of excitement, at least not on a daily basis. As a married man, my ideal Friday nights consist of relaxing with the wife and the weenie dog, watching a movie with a maybe a cocktail in hand, then turning in early for a head start on the weekend.  For how grueling it can be, I actually treasure my early morning routine of carry our little weenie outside so we don’t wake up to a puddle of piddle on the floor. And I know that someday, I may have my own little army of Zack’s running around, which will open up a whole new realm of adventure.  I can only imagine the memories we’ll create, the heartaches they’ll cause, and the love they’ll bring to this world.  And if that’s not something you can look forward to, then I don’t know what is!

Within the 10 years from which I heard that first driving beat of “It’s Blitz!” to now, there have been many great times coupled with great memories. On the flipside, there has also been a fair share of heartbreaks, lessons learned, and not so good times.  And to be honest, it often feels like those hard times not only outweighed the good times, but lasted longer as well.  I’m not sure if it’s just a trait I’m blessed with however, but human nature seems to have an easier time clinging on to the good times.  And when it’s all said and done, the bad memories seem to fade away in the wake of the cherished ones.

I thank God for that. 

How to Clean your Conscience Chapter 12: Of Piping Systems and Electrical Circuits

Photo by Crystal Kwok on Unsplash

July 24th, 2016. 10:30 AM

I worked my way up the shoe, tugging on each row of strings all the way to the top, ensuring they clasped tightly against my foot.  No room for slippage, just enough to keep the circulation flowing… just the way I like it. In front of me was a 1.5-liter plastic bottle.  At one point in the morning, it was full of purified, municipally sourced water.  Now, all that remained was a small puddle.  I pushed the lid to my mouth and sucked the bottle dry, lubricating the surface area of my mouth.  I was going to need every drop to diffuse itself into my body if I were to pull off my next feat.

I rose, standing amongst a scattered room, dark and quiet.  We seemed to be left without power for the moment, as a flicker of the bathroom light yielded no results.  To reduce the probability of a misfire, I channeled my inner Ben Woodward and peed sitting down, one of the few times in my life I made the conscious decision to do so, then quickly pushed the memory to the back of my mind and snuck out, careful not to wake Bill.

The crisp morning air filled my lungs upon my exodus from the hotel, the first step towards detoxification.  Walking across the fresh, dew-soaked lawn behind the Cottonwood Suites, the smell of hydrated grass filled my nostrils until I hit asphalt.  This was it… the Greenbelt Trail.  With the swoosh of the Boise River to my right, I took a step forward, then another, steps that eventually turned into a brisk pace.

There was a hint of pain—a degree of difficulty to each stride, every bit expected after the abuse my body had taken over the past two days.  I welcomed it, accepting it as punishment for subjecting my body to such an overwhelming amount of poison.

It was about as peaceful of a run as you’d expect on a Sunday morning, light foot traffic with the occasional cyclist.  The upkeep was impressive, provided the miles long length of trail.  I passed through a network of clean, debris-free tunnels and land bridges, accompanied by a solid strip of evenly cut grass with the occasional memorial, dedications to those who made Boise what it is today I could only presume.

Several bridges connected each side of the Boise River.  Looking towards the southwest side, several flat, dormitory style complexes lined the adjacent path.  It appeared as though I was inching closer to Boise State University.  Curiosity striking, I crossed over to explore.

Slowly, the neighborhoods turned from college residential, to academic, and eventually to business.  As I closed in on South Broadway Street, one of the main stretches connecting downtown Boise to “The Bench,” I stood amongst a large parking lot, overlooking a large oval-shaped structure.  “Albertson Stadium” it said, “Home of the Broncos.”  To many, this was the pride and joy of Boise, a nationally recognized NCAA football team often overlooked due to its geographical location.  If pressed with a choice, my allegiance to any Idaho team lies with the Vandals. Yet, I couldn’t help but appreciate the marvel of such a stadium in the middle of Southern Idaho.  I ran around it, giving it the respect it commanded before retracing my steps back to the Cottonwood Suites.

Albertsons Stadium in the Fall

The cool vapors from the river and shade from the surrounding flora combatted the rising temperatures, keeping the remaining trek back to the hotel a bearable one as my body secreted itself with the byproducts of exhausted fuel.  We were due for another scorcher… but not quite yet.  Propelled by the lyrical selections of Drake and a freshly procured pair of running shoes, I continued the excoriation against my body’s capabilities and made a heavy push towards the finish line.

I reentered the hotel room, a fresh can of Rockstar awaiting me in the fridge.  “Still cold,” I told myself, despite the lack of power.  I cracked the top and took a giant sip.  The citrusy taste of sugar and soda allured my taste buds as sweat dripped down and soaked the carpeted floor; not an inch of my body was dry.  Bill still lay in bed, a position he could remain in for at least another hour, maybe two.  Enshrouded in silence and darkness, I stood, enervated, satisfied, tranquilized… reborn.  I took another sip of my Rockstar.  “This is what I live for…”

But it was all a pipe dream.  Pat, Lea and Gretch were bound to arrive in the near future, and on top of a long, dark shower, an exorbitant amount packing had to be done before they bid us their final farewell.

It wasn’t much longer now.

***

Bill and I checked out of our room and headed outside.  Though we had been accustomed to the blinding sunlight, there was a slight hesitation amongst us as we walked across the parking lot.  “Bill” a faint voice cried out from across the parking lot.  We shot a look towards its origin, spotting an open SUV and the silhouette of three bodies, one of which was waving towards us.  Our bags in hand, we shrugged off the hesitation and headed towards them, eventually coming into focus.

“Bill, come here. I’ve got something for you,” said Pat as he waved him to the back of his SUV.  Bill followed his direction.  I was right behind him looking over his shoulder, my curiosity just as high.

Pat dug through the luggage in the back of the SUV until he found an old, weathered box.  He opened it and began pulling out what looked to be sets of model construction vehicles.  “What are those?” I asked.

“It’s all of Bill’s old toys,” said Pat.  “He’s got his truck, crane and farm equipment that he used to play with as a kid. Pretty cool, huh?”  Bill gave them a thorough inspection, too humbled to speak. “I thought it’d be a nice addition to his house in Texas.”  Pat motioned me over, giving Bill ample time to soak in the nostalgia of his childhood.  “And Zack, check these out.”  Pat rummaged through the box until he pulled out a photo album.

“Hey, these are old pictures of you guys,” I said.

“Here’s us at the cabin in Pony,” said Pat as we guided through the album.

“Oh yea, I’ve been there!”

“And here’s one me and Lea after a race.”

“Man, you were looking pretty fit back in the day!”

“Well, I suppose I didn’t have as many fried pickles to munch on back then.  Now that I mention it, I still don’t…”  He just had to put in a dig, didn’t he?   “And here’s a picture of Gretch with a can of Coors Light.”

“I guess not much has changed!”  Pat and I shared a chuckle, with a few snorts coming from Bill.

“Oh, you guys,” said Lea, trying to hold off the urge to laugh.  We managed to squeak a slight grin out of her, despite her efforts to hide it.  I caught a glimpse of Gretch through my peripheral.  She didn’t look the slightest bit amused.

“Why don’t we take a picture of you guys?” suggested Pat.

“That sounds like a great idea,” I replied.  “We’ll add another picture to the memory box!”

Bill and I moved into position.  “Hey Gretch, why don’t you hop in,” asked Pat.

“Ah, that’s ok—“

“Gretchen, right now!” scolded Lea.  Gretch moped her way into frame, barely willing to lift her head.

“Okay ready?” asked Pat with his phone in place.  “On the count of three, everybody say, ‘fried pickles!’ Heheh, just kidding Zack.  Alright, one, two and three! Great picture guys. Except you could’ve smiled a little more, Gretch. By the way, when was the last time you check the oil in your car? I think we should check it before we go, just in case you need oil. Gretch, did you hear me? Let’s add a little oil–Gretch, where are you going? Gretch, come back here—Gretch!..

***

We watched as Pat and Lea left the parking lot of the Cottonwood Suites to become one with the endless blue sky that would accompany them along their journey north.  They had given us their final goodbyes, a departure that was subdued, yet humble.  Who could blame them, given the climactic events from the previous day?  Pat blamed it on fried pickles, but it was a mood that lingered amongst all of us, judging by the lack of dialogue.  The sun was back in full force, striking from all directions as heat radiated from the asphalt.  Out of all the places in Boise that morning, the powerless Cottonwood Suites was not among the most desired.  Something had to give.

“Are you guys hungry,” I asked.  My question was met with moderate agreeance.

“You thinking Chilis?” snapped Gretch.  “Half-priced Apps on Sunday.”  I had a suspicion she’d be apt to the prospect, a coveted tradition held since the 2015 Beer Olympics.  Hence, the suggestion.  

“Let’s do it,” said Bill. With no objection, we hopped into Gretch’s car, making our way to the nearest Chilis, right across the street from Albertson Stadium.

Recognizing a song on the radio, Gretch turned up the stereo volume.  “Oh, this is a good song,” said Bill.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s the new, Blink 182, duh,” shot Gretch.

“Yea, they came out with a new CD,” added Bill.  “You didn’t know?  It’s pretty good.”

I sat in the back, pretending too like the song.  I’ve always been a big fan of the pop-punk trio, their influence only second to Modest Mouse or Kanye West, but there was something off about it.

Save your breath, I’m merely
Bored to Death, and fading fast…
Life is too short to last long…

I continued to listen and give it a chance, enduring Gretch’s emphatic rendering of the chorus.“Just listen to Gretch, singing out loud, thinking she’s so cool.  Who cares? ‘Life is too short to last long?’ That doesn’t even make sense!  Stupid—Hey, what’s that place?”  My eyes pulled towards a large construction site on the outskirts of downtown.  A massive spectacle of engineering and architecture stood near completion, its oblique, structural elements and long, transparent windows making this a more fitting destination in Disneyworld’s Tomorrowland rather downtown Boise.  Curiosity struck, hoping for the chance to set foot inside for a look into the future, a new era of technical progression.  

“It’s the new Simplot building,” said Gretch.

“Simplot… I’ve heard of that before.”

“Yea, they do a lot of agricultural work.  The new building is supposed to have all their farm equipment in there too. Should be pretty nice once it’s all finished.”

“I’d say.”

“I heard they’re looking for engineers too,” added Bill.

It was true, for Mike Gibson had mentioned it during a lecture about moving to Boise.  “Let me just throw out a couple names of some companies that have headquarters here. You know… reputable places that, I don’t know, you may have heard of…” He said in a mocking tone.  “Hewlett Packard…  Micron… Simplot…  Just a few small-time engineering firms, no big deal…”

Despite the harsh language, he truly was trying to get me to move down to Boise where he was residing at the time.  However, there could be no signs of weakness, for the Gibson cannot win.  He can never win…

“Cool.”  I responded as the sign for Chilis came within eyesight.  Simplot… I’ll remember that name…

“Well hello,” said the bartender in a peculiar manner as we settled into a high table at the bar. “Will it be the usual?  A large margarita to start?”

“A large margarita?” Bill and I shot each other a funny look.  “Gretch?”

“Uh… er… um…”  She stalled.  “Not today—I mean, Margarita?  I don’t know what you’re talking about—I never drink this early… sure, one large margarita.”

Bill and I looked at each other, on standby for a snarky comment.  We’ll just let her have this one. Just this one time…

“Do you know what else you’d like,” he asked again.  We scoured the menu, not wanting to wait a few more minutes for the bartender to return.

“I’ll do an order of Potato Skins,” said Bill.

“I’ll go for the California Flat Bread,” added Gretch.

“Those boneless buffalo wings look good, and…  and… hmm, let me see here—hey, fried pickles!

“Great,” said the waitress.  “And how are we splitting this up?”

“You can put the margarita on my tab along with the flatbread,” said Gretch.  “Unless you guys want some of this too…”

“Well, I was going to share some of the potato skins, but if you want something for yourself, then maybe we should—“

“Put it all on my tab,” I interrupted.  Bill and Gretch swung their heads in disbelief.  “…It’s just easier that way.“  They settled into a nod of agreement, quickly coming to the realization that arguing wouldn’t do them any good.

“Alright, those will be right out,” said the bartender before heading back to his post.

“Josh just texted us,” said Bill.  “He wants us to meet him at Payette Brewing after this.”

Josh… I gave the thought a short ponder.  It would be a while until Josh and I dueled again.  Besides, Bill had talked highly of the Payette Brewing Company before, and with my strong penchant towards beer, I was amenable to the idea.

“I could do that. I do like beer after all.”  Moments later, we received our food and finished out our meal, the simple communion of friends driving the experience to satisfaction.

***

Josh stood at the helm of the Payette Brewing entrance, patiently waiting as a child would, knowing full well he’d have free reign upon the opening of the candy store.  “Hey, what’s up guys?  Come on in,” he bellowed as we exited Gretch’s vehicle.  “They have some cool stuff in here!”

Check it out the Payette Brewing Company here: https://www.payettebrewing.com

We followed him into the brewery, a modern facility with an open, clean, and appropriately decorated tasting room, bridging Idaho’s historical predilection to the outdoors with a modern look that Boise was trending towards.  I toured the room with wonder, channeling memories of the Surly Brewery of Saint Paul, Minnesota, evidence that the Payette Brewing Company was quickly emerging as a staple of the Boise community.  However, I did have reservations about their incredibly high urinals, so high that I was forced to whiz on my tippy toes.

The lengthy line of taps required a brief conversation with the bartender before I could settle on my selection of the Fly Line Amber Ale.  Bill, Gretch and Josh listened in and settled on selections of their own liking. “That’ll be four dollars each,” said the bartender.

“You can put them all on my tab,” said Josh, beating us in the race to pull our wallets out.  I paused for a moment, ready to object, but regressed to a head nod out of respect.

“You guys wanna check out the brewing facility,” he asked as he motioned over to a set of glass doors behind the bar where only a steel staircase made from traction flooring and a large hopper in the background was revealed.  “Follow me,” he said, leaving his seat at the bar without looking back.  I did as I was directed, intrigued with the mystery behind the closed doors.

We came to the edge of a small industrial terrace, overlooking the peaks and valleys of brewing equipment that reached far beyond the depth of sight.  An endless network of pipes, valves, hoppers, tanks, and boilers stood before us, capable of transporting, heating, and manipulating massive amounts of water and ingredients with the purpose of creating thousands upon thousands of gallons of beer.  Josh and I leaned over the railing, taking a moment to examine each section of the brewery, like it was a lookout along one of Idaho’s highways, or better yet, a portrait taken from one of Josh’s mountain adventures.

“Hmm, that seems a little strange,” I said, fixated on a series of valves in front of us.

“What’s that?” asked Josh.

“They have three valves in a row right there.”  Each of us stared at the assembly in front of us, as if we were a pair of mathematicians attempting to solve an equation that filled a blackboard.  “One of them looks like a check valve, while the next one could be a regulator of some sort.”

“What do you use a check valve for?”

“Well, it makes it so a fluid only flows through one direction.  And if any crap tries to get in from the other way, it gets blocked and stuff.”

“Sort of like a diode.”

“A diode?”

“Yea, it blocks the flow of electrons, so they can only flow in one direction.”

I pondered his analogy for a moment, then took another sip of beer.  “You know, I think piping systems and electrical circuits have a lot in common.”

“Well, don’t they both control some form energy,” Josh asked.

“Yea, the voltage in a circuit is sort of like the pressure in a pipe.  A couple volts here and there isn’t going to kill ya, but you don’t wanna get blasted by 1000 volts or anything like it.  Same goes with pressure.”

“And the current is probably similar to the speed of water in the pipe, or flow rate, or whatever. And isn’t there a formula that relates the two?”

Josh shot me a baffled look.  “You tell me. You’re the mechanical engineer.”

“I’m talking about electrical stuff.  Voltage and current.”

“Oh, you mean Ohm’s Law.”

“Yea… I sort of remember that one from back in the day…”

“What about capacitors. What could those be?”

“…I guess capacitors could be like pressurized tanks.  They just hold a bunch of energy ready for disposal.  Or maybe it’s like a spring…”  Josh shook his head and each of us took a sip of beer at our own volition. We studied the marvels of human ingenuity for a long while, only breaking at the realization that our two friends downstairs were waiting for our company.  Given the limited amount of time I had left in Boise, it was a sacrifice we were willing to make.

Back in the tasting room, Bill and Gretch were checking out the merchandise section, doing steady work on their own beers.  A particular shirt had caught their eye, a collection of pint glasses, mugs, schooners, tankers, snifters, and more in the shape of the state of Idaho.  Unfortunately, an incorrect shirt size prevented him from making a purchase.

“Have you guys been outside yet?” asked Josh.  We turned our heads to the opposite side of the tasting room where large, glass windows revealed a courtyard full of lawn games.  “C’mon, let’s check it out.  The field held a resemblance to an old battlefield, calm and peaceful, yet filled with scars, remnants of action and excitement during a previous time.  A hammock sitting at the southwestern edge of the courtyard grabbed Bill’s attention.  Gretch followed.  Josh and I left them alone with their futile attempts to successfully lay on it while drinking beer.

“Well, look what we have here…”  Josh pointed to a pair of slanted planks standing about 15 feet apart, each with a hole at the upper edge.

“Great,” I mumbled. “Cornhole…”

“Wanna play a game?”

“Are there any bean bags?”  The question sent Josh on a bean bag hunt.  After a short search and a quick conversation with the bartender, however, Josh returned to the courtyard, his head low and shaking side to side.  I had a feeling he wasn’t able to secure any beanbags, an outcome I was completely at peace with.

“Well, that’s lame,” said Josh.

“We’ll come back someday when it’s a little more hopping.  And who knows, maybe I’ll even let you be on my team…”

“Ha, sure.  We’d probably slay the competition.”

Bill and Gretch rejoined us, having given up on the hammock.  They lobbied for a table inside, of which Josh and I were acquiescent to. Another battle for another day I suppose.

“Geez, that’s one beefy chair!” said Bill as he pried the high bar stool back from the table like he was pulling King Arthur’s Excalibur from the stone.  The struggle was real, for it even took quite the effort a muscled wonder like Josh to pull his out from under the table.

“That must be solid steel!  Stainless by the looks of it,” I said after I joined Bill in a thorough inspection of the legs.

“Nice, sturdy weld job too,” added Bill.

“How were they able to get the sides flush?” I asked.  “Look, they got the welds on the cross supports, but somehow one of its sides is solid with the vertical legs.”  I looked at Bill.  He was just as flabbergasted as I was.

“Easy, they just make a butt weld, then machine it down so it’s flush.”  Bill and I gave Gretch’s explanation extensive thought, as if we were trying to find an excuse to dismiss her argument. 

That actually makes sense…”  We took another sip of beer and sulked in the refreshing taste.

“Someday, we should do something like this…” said Bill.

“…You mean, start our own brewery?”

“Yea, why not?  I know how to make the recipes and stuff. And you guys are engineers.  You can figure out how to make all the equipment work.”  Josh and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  Neither one of us could argue.

“And Gretch could be the bouncer,” I injected.  “She’ll get in anybody’s face!”  She shot me a look.  I was unable to tell whether she was flattered or pissed.  “…In addition to your management and bookkeeping duties, of course. Those are top notch, and a necessity for the business aspect of it all!”

“It’s settled then!” fired off Bill.

“Wait a minute,” I retorted.  “What?”

“Dude, we’re gonna start a brewery!” followed Josh.

“You have a problem with that?” snapped Gretch.

“Ugh… no, I mean…” I stalled for a little bit.  Just imagine, reliving this entire weekend over and over again for the rest of our lives.  Could I deal with it?  Could they even handle it?  “…No. Not at all!  Just as long as we get one of those punching bag mach—“ The room went quiet.  Suddenly, I was met beading eyes all around.  “…I mean, an endless supply of fried pickles.”  Phew.  Close call.  I raised my glass in front of me.  “Here’s to our brewery.”

“Cheers,” said Josh.

“Cheers,” said the rest of us before we clinked our glasses together and finished off the rest of our beers.

“You guys up for another one,” asked Josh.  I looked at my watch, suddenly overcome with a wave of despair.

“Don’t know if I can. My plane leaves in about an hour and a half.”  I could see disappointment in Josh’s eyes, but received no reprimands.  He understood, with full sincerity.  We settled for a few extra minutes of conversation.

At the car, Josh and I stood a body apart, facing each other in a moment of silence.  An electronic field of anxiety filled the void, the subtlest of word combinations having the chance to spark disaster. “Josh… overall, it was a decent weekend.”  I stuck my hand out.

“Glad you could make it down,” he replied, meeting my hand halfway and grasping it with a firm handshake. I leaned, succumbing to the natural habit that once plagued the fate of a green Polo-wearing boy in Roddy’s.  There was no turning back now.  Oh, no!  Not the bro-hug…

I felt a heavy pat on the pack, followed by the thud of two pairs of flexed pectorals bumping into each other. “Engineering brothers.”

What in the…  I stood for a moment, perplexed, then embraced the gesture and returned the favor.  “Engineering brothers,” I replied.  We released, giving Josh the go-ahead to say goodbye to Bill and Gretch.

“Well, you ready to head to the airport?” asked Gretch.  I hesitated for a moment.  “No,” I wanted to say.  I wasn’t ready, not in the slightest.

“…Yea.  I’m ready,” I said, lying through my teeth.  I had to.  There’ll be another day, Boise…

We gave our last wave, took our last looks, then hopped in the car, is if on cue from the movie director of life.  I watched Josh drive away, on his way across the Boise landscape and back to normal life. Then it was our turn, starting with our journey to the airport, ample time to reflect.

…You know, maybe we’re all more alike than we actually think…

How to Clean your Conscience Chapter 11: A Baby’s Clean Conscience

July 23rd, 2016.  11:30 PM

They say your life flashes before your eyes right before you die.  I never doubted it, but never had any concept of understanding it…

Not until that night.

The sun, though millions upon millions of miles away, surely has no trouble dealing punishment to anybody brave enough to set foot in Southern Idaho. She is a relentless bully, one that’ll leave you burned, dehydrated, and if careless, completely miserable without a flinch—our sweat-drenched, energy-deprived bodies proof of its inexorable ways.  But even the fiercest of warriors require a respite between battles every now and then. And there we were, survivors of the night, still standing after everything she had thrown at us; enough fuel in the tank for one more round.

A sharp pop from my beer interrupted the faint trickle of the Boise river, a few rocks throws away from our hotel room balcony.  I took a sip then turned the can, taking the time to examine its exterior, already suffering from severe condensation.  Coors Original.  Hard to believe we considered this a delicacy once… I took another sip and melted into my chair, the taste a refreshing contrast from the IPA’s and microbrews I had become accustomed to in recent years.

Bill stepped outside, laptop in one hand and the remnants of a six-pack in the other.  To make room, he stacked his beer on top of a can that had been left on the table from the day before, as if it were the base of a beer staff, minus the duct tape.  The practice can be witnessed at your typical college party, as students and party-goers alike will walk around with staffs several cans high, adding a link after each consumed beer.  I may have participated in the ritual a few times, but not like Bill.  Every once and a while, him and Jay could be seen strutting around the University of Idaho campus, proudly wielding their staffs and causing a ruckus.  Each outing wasn’t complete until the staff towered over each of their heads—a rite of passage for any partier, the main requirement if the rank of wizard was to be awarded by the end of the night.

Jay… The name gave me goosebumps.  Bill grabbed one of the beers, popped its top, and lifted it to his mouth.  I followed his lead, taking another sip of my own.  Man, the times we used to have drinking this stuff…  I looked up to a sky littered with stars, imagining Jay’s figure forming in a cluster of them, watching over us amongst the giants. I lifted my beer to the sky for a toast—just in case.  I miss ya buddy.  You left us way too soon.

I took in a full breath of air, anticipation for a long speaking engagement. They were all too common on nights like these, especially with Gibson.  Add in a pack of cigs and a cheap case of beer, and you could count on it! Just be careful not to bring up politics.

I couldn’t count the amount of times we had staying up late with a beer in hand, exploring the reaches of each other’s conscience on a variety of topics, ranging from football, to philosophy, and every once and a while, women.  In fact, once, I discretely remember him staying up with me until 4 in the morning, just to make sure I got over a girl. The night was much colder, but similar to this…

Before I could speak, the soft plucking of an acoustic guitar came from the computer speakers; a simple rift, slow, but familiar… and comforting.  Ugly Casanova—Babies Clean Conscience.  Bill has played this before… A gem from our youth, written and performed by the front man for Modest Mouse, yet hidden for 15 years under a pseudonym.  Turns out, it’s become one of our favorites…

My words stalled, searching for the right moment to interrupt.  The rift repeated itself for a few measures, the sound of a lazy summer day, stocks of wheat brushing against the side of a barn; two friends sitting beside it, embracing youth and its eternal state.  A small break in the plucking signaled the entrance to the chorus.  I prepared myself.

…This reminds me of home.   I didn’t say it.  I hadn’t the will to speak.

I’ve got a babies clean conscience,
I walk around with my head off,
And in the state of the big sky
The ground holds on to my grandpas…

My eyes drifted down my arm as the song led into the first verse, following a contour map made from layers of perspiration and dirt, soaked, then dried, then soaked again throughout the course of the weekend.  I continued, down my sweat drenched shirt and to my dirt-stained cutoffs.  My hand, wetted with condensation sifted through my hair, separating the knotted strands adhered together by an emulsification of sweat and river-water. My gaze floated upward, eventually locking once again with the glowing night sky.

We’ve been here. Many times…

It had been over a year since we had arrived in Pony, Montana, but the sights, scents, and feels remained.  The air was crisp in that small Montana town, barely changed since the frontier days of its founding.  And with as many horses as cars and a local bar where a beer only costs you 2 dollars, granted somebody doesn’t buy one for you first, it would stay that way for many years to come.  And on the night of our arrival, Bill, Gretch and I stood outside the Dutcher cabin, gazing upon a starry spectacle, so clear that streaks of the Milky Way were visible to the naked eye.

Photo by Alan Labisch on Unsplash

Within the blink of an eye, the world had been transformed—a world enshrouded in darkness, all but for the cluster of stars above.  Atop a bed of water, we gazed upon the majestic sight, soaked in the benefits of isolation, the central tenant of the Boundary Waters experience. Protected by a solid wall of timber, a tributary of lakes, and two Boundary Babes by my side in the small corner of Northern Minnesota, we knew that nothing could harm us.  Nothing could corrupt us.  And in a world filled with evils and wrongdoings, we knew that for that moment, we could live in peace.

I took another sip, my gaze still commanded by the stars.  Here’s to you, Lauren.  The spirit of the Boundary Babe lives on…

A short gust of wind pressed against the surfaces of our exposed skin, reminding us of the soothing presence of stagnant air—one of the many comforts of an Idaho summer.  Even in the dark of night, a t-shirt and pair of shorts is all you need, much like it was at the gateway of Hells Canyon the night Jimmy Dawson, Collin Morlock and I sat and watched a shower of meteors broke the calm of a crystal-clear sky, our minds consumed with pinpointing each instance of the astrological phenomenon. Known as the deepest canyon in North America, all it takes is a few minutes inside the naturally sculpted channel, carved through millions of years of geological turmoil to forget that a world actually exists outside the canyon walls.

The memories flowed, hundreds of them it seemed, one after another as the sound of a strained guitar waned forward, one descending note at a time.  It repeated itself over the song’s original rift, a musical line that would eventually lead to a conclusion.  I listened and stared, petrified in total awe at the infinite ceiling, much like that night on the Palouse, hoping that somehow, I could be frozen in time.

It was another pounding of snow over the plot of fertile farmland that spreads across the southeast border of Washington and Idaho.  Perfectly timed during finals week at Washington State University, I furiously trotted through the snow, dead set on a mission across campus to fetch a case of energy drinks in what was anticipated to be another all-nighter.  Our thermal systems design project was on my mind, and time was running out.  “We still have calculations to do.  We’ve barely started writing the report…  There’s so much work—how in the world are we ever going to get this done?  We’ll never make the deadline—“  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Gasping for a breath, I looked up to the heavens, ready to make a desperate plea to God.  Instead, flakes of snow fell on my face as I stared up through the fog.  There were thousands of them, each making a soft puff as they hit the ground, the only audible sound throughout the neighborhood. Above it all was a bright, yellow orb glowing in the sky and lighting the snow-covered planes of the Palouse. I stayed there for several moments staring, too awestruck to move.  “Oh, my God.  What a beautiful sight.”

I savored that moment as long as I could, but as soon as that thought entered, another one sifted in.  I just hoped there was enough time fit everything in…

Cruising up Bryden Canyon Road to another summer party at Josh’s parents, an event that I was destined to get kicked out of.  “I’ve had 20 shots, and I’m not even drunk,” he’d say, believing that his farcical taunt would be enough to get me to take another shot… which it usually would.

Countless music festivals at the Gorge—one giant, three-day party smack dab in the middle of Washington State.  Overlooking the mighty Columbia River Basin and surrounded by tens of thousands of other concert goers taking it all in, it was easy to get lost in the spectacle, believing whole-heartedly that we were in the happiest, most beautiful place on Earth—and you’d be right.

Sitting in the basement of the Sanden’s house with Brandon, Shaun, and the rest of the crew after a long day of skating, wasting away with a video game after a long day of skateboarding in the Lewis-Clark Valley, waiting for the next day to do it all over again.  I took another sip and stared into oblivion, letting the familiar feeling sink in once again—the feeling of absolute bliss.

It must’ve been a night just like this when Bill and I met.  And it wasn’t just Bill.  There was Moody, the Drizzle, and a whole slew of us.  We were merely just a couple kids then—kids with nothing to lose, nothing to worry about, and nowhere to look but up.  And in that little oasis they called the Lewis-Clark Valley, two towns on the Washington/Idaho border separated by the Snake River sat a skatepark—the perfect place for a few strangers to share a common love, establish a bond of trust, and over many seasons standing atop a piece of plywood with a set of wheels, form lifelong friendships.

Too most, it was an abomination.  Its ground was crusty, the obstacles uneven—not even making sense at times. There was a rail, “Big Red” they’d call it—much too high for the amount of runway that was provided and pushing required to hit it.  Miraculously, nobody ever racked their nuts on the thing—except for Ben Woodward, of course.

But the park had personality.  We knew how to ride it, knew ever little crease—how to hit each transition to maximize pop.  It was our park, our sanctuary from the symptoms of teenage angst… thus, it was so much more than a park.  It was a place where legends were made.

We screamed and cheered at the Hot August Nights Comp when Kevin Lentz pulled a 360 kickflip over the hip, only to be outdone by Nate Pasch’s melon off the wall and over the quarter pipe.  Many a times we stood shoulder to shoulder when unwelcomed visitors tried to start trouble, or when there was a prank or two to be carried out on innocent bystanders. But perhaps most precious of all, once our bodies were enervated from a day of skating and shenanigans, we’d sit along the side of the park, imagining the thrill of sliding down a handrail, or soaring down a flight of stairs—whatever combination of flips and grinds our minds could devise.  We’d sit on a park bench without a responsibility in the world, silently scanning each obstacle spread across the crusty asphalt on a warm, starlit summer night, and we’d dream.

…I could remember it all as if it were yesterday.

Hard to believe this movie was made 10 years ago. And staring some of the finest.

The song resolved into oblivion, the dreams fading from my memory bank as the obfuscation of reality set in.  We sulked in the silence—the stillness, left frozen in the night.  Now, it seemed like an eternity, this familiar feeling, this look that was commonly donned during a simpler time and this prosperity we sought, abundant in life, but lacking in materialistic desires—the successful career or the Mercedes-Benz, all part of a life that I was forced to return to in less than 24 hours…

A life that had been slowly transformed over the last 15 years.

Suddenly, I felt numb, like a frog slowly accustomed to boiling water.  The skatepark was gone, replaced by a newer, sexier model.  It had been years since I seriously stepped on a board, unable to feel the magic of riding out a smooth transition, rediscover the thrill of grinding down a ledge. And the friends… people you’d spend every waking hour with, now lucky to see once a year, if that.

Sitting on that balcony at the advent of my thirties, gazing upon the endless sky, I couldn’t help but battle a tear, pondering a cold reality.

My God, how so much has changed…

I turned my head ever so slightly, in fear of creating disorder in the universe. Through my peripheral, Bill peered into the darkness, the ambient sound of a running river filling the void.  He wouldn’t dare move a muscle—wouldn’t dare disrupt the comforting force that gravity exerted on our bodies.  And like me, he was destined back to Texas, back to his own version of a career-driven reality.

Age does wonders to the soul.  Whether we realize it or not, it develops wisdom within us, one that makes us cringe at the mistakes of our past, better informs us for the future, and eventually, for the sake of removing ignorance, helps us realize when it’s time to move on. And after a weekend engaged in conflict between friends, enemies, and the forces of nature, it helps us realize what a rarity moments like these are… that it’s never too late to clean your conscience.  We’re never too old to sit back in wonder.

…We’re never too old to appreciate the calm that comes after a long, summer day.

And in that small pocket of time and space, overlooking a small aggregate of flora amongst the rugged landscape of southern Idaho, maybe… just maybe, Bill was thinking the same exact thoughts as me…

“Hey Bill,” I said at the risk of destroying the ambience we had carefully crafted.  It was the first words spoken since we had returned to the hotel.  He paused for a moment, cautiously waiting for the follow-up. “…Play that song one more time.”

Bill reached for his computer.  With a few clicks, the simple, acoustic rift once again blotched out the sound of running river water.  He sat back, took a sip of beer, and braced himself for another round of deep introspection.

I sat back in my chair, my head forward, staring into the abyss.  I took a sip of beer, and smiled.

…Some things will never change.

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…

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!