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!

How to Clean your Conscience Chapter 8: It’s on enough. Let’s go!

Several warning signs lined the edges of the Boise River as we closed in on Ann Morrison Park.  “THIS IS THE LAST TAKE-OUT POINT!  CAUTION: DAM AHEAD,” and “SET-OUT NOW” they read in bold, red letters.  Against the fortitude of our depleted bodies, we heeded to the signs demands, avoiding imminent catastrophe.

“Dude,” blurted Josh, stupefied.  “where’s the Tubapalooza finish line?”  He emerged from the river, eyes forward, un-phased by the adolescent chaos surrounding him.  Children ran amuck across the spread of well-kept lawns and manmade landscapes that made up Ann Morrison Park, their parents in close-proximity, though too exhausted to care.  He scanned the street where shuttle buses and truck/trailer combos loaded up in a strangely efficient manner.  No race officials in were sight.

“Man Josh, looks like we’re the last ones,” said Gretch.  Her sheepish grin gave away the façade of a sincere observation.  Josh failed to respond, his eyes steady in disbelief, still waiting for the Tubapalooza Race Officials to welcome him with open arms and a fresh beer.  Blinded by his own ignorance, there was one self-evident truth he simply could not accept: we were so slow, that the Tubapalooza Team had forgotten all about our team.  They had long since packed up and left.

“Great,” I blurted, my response completely exaggerated.  “Just great. All that for nothin’!”  Josh remained silent, his head buried deep into his sternum.

“…Well, I think it was worth it to hang out with everybody,” said Bill.  “I don’t know about you guys, but I thought the float was fun!”

“Really Bill?” I replied. I knew full well the balance he was attempting, all with good intentions too.  I wouldn’t have it.  Josh was weak and vulnerable, not to mention in public, and Churchill sure as hell didn’t defeat the Nazi’s with smiles and appeasement.  “Look at yourself.  Just take a long, hard look at yourself.” Bill peered down upon his unbuttoned shirt. A wide, red stripe stretched the length of his torso.  “Was that really worth it?”  He joined Josh, head into the sternum, responseless.  “…I wish you would’ve thought about that this morning.”

“That’s the least of our problems right now,” injected Megan Mills.

“I mean, I totally could’ve gotten a nice run on the Greenbelt in if it weren’t for this.”

“Zack—“

“With my new running shoes, no less!  Yep… bet you wish you could’ve taken that one back—“

“Zack, will you shut up!” demanded Megan Mills.  I abided. “Have you even thought about how we’re getting back?…  Anybody?”  Bill, myself, and Gretch each looked at each another, hoping at least one of us had an answer.  Nobody spoke up.  “…Our cars are over 6 miles away.  Did anybody even bring any money for the shuttle?”

“Pff.  You guys are a bunch of rookies,” boasted Josh, throwing a waterproof backpack across his body and onto the ground.  “I packed your cell phone, your keys, wallets—everything else you need,” he continued, pulling random items from his back like he was handing out candy to kids.  “Lucky you have me around.”  Indeed, perhaps we were lucky.  Our pride disallowed us from admitting it.

“So, we take the shuttle back,” I suggested.

“You have three dollars?” asked Josh.

“No I don’t have three dollars!” I shot back with attitude.  “Who has that kind of money?”  I looked at a wide-eyed Bill and Gretch.  They certainly, didn’t have it.

“Alright, alright,” said Megan Mills.  “This is what we’ll do.  Josh and I will take the shuttle back, then pick you guys back up in a little bit, ok?”

“…I can go with Josh,” nudged Gretch.

“Gretch, you’re probably drunk,” I interjected, pure speculation backing my claim.

“Are you kidding me?” she snorted.

“Sorry Gretch, I believe you, but can’t take the chance,” replied Megan Mills.  Wise move, Megan Mills.  Responsibility first.  Gretch snapped a glare at me and snarled.

“Well then, c’mon Megan Mills!” said Josh.  “The shuttle’s leaving.”  He grabbed Megan Mills by the arm and dragged her towards the shuttle line.  She looked back in distress, taken against her will.

“But what about our stuff?” I asked.

“How long will you guys be gone?” added Bill.

“Just hang tight,” replied Josh as he boarded the bus.  “We’ll be back in an hour.”

“Josh, wait!  An hour?  What are we supposed to do for an hour?”  Our cries were drowned to the scuffle of a loaded bus, already packed like a can of sardines.  “Bill, do you have your wallet?”

Bill shrugged and mumbled.  “I dunno.”

“How far away is the hotel?  Do we even have our room key?  God, I don’t even have my phone!  How am I supposed to—Bill!”  Bill stood, flustered and overwhelmed.  I turned to Gretch.  “Gretch, can we make it back—“   Screw it.

Josh and Megan Mills made their way to back seat, barely visible from the pedestrian traffic loading the bus.  “Josh,” I screamed.  He couldn’t hear.  Try again.  “Megan Mills!”  Nothing. C’mon, use your head.

“Josh, look. Babes!” Josh jerked his head, a combination of words that although unclear, sparked tremendous interest.  He darted his eyes towards the window, eventually settling on the figure waving his arms wildly near the back of the bus.  “Over here!”

Josh, mildly irritated, leaned over a group of young girls and peaked his head out of the window. “What do you want?”

“My wallet, and my phone!”

“I don’t know where it’s at.”

“Check your bag!”

“You expect me to find it… now?”

“Just do it!”

“You know you can’t stick your or anything outside of the school bus.  It’s against the rules!”

“Damnit, Josh. Just once, throw me a bone!”  Josh received a slight shove from a few patrons making their way to the back of the bus.  The girls surrounding him scoffed and lifted their arms as if they were ready to administer an elbow.

“Hold on.”  Josh threw his dry pack onto the seat back and rifled through it.  “I don’t see it.”

“Keep looking.” The engine turned and the bus door shut. “Hurry!”

“I can’t find it! We’re moving—there’s no time!”

The bus pulled out from the curb.  I walked along with it.  “Check again,” I urged.  “Before it’s too late!”

I chased as Josh stuck half his body out the window, calling out the final words to his dame chasing the departing train.  The girls cowered beneath him, taking shelter from the intense power of his pecks. “It’s too late, you’ll have to manage without me!”

“I don’t even know where we’re at!” I yelled, jogging to keep pace with the shuttle.

“Check Google Maps.”

“But I don’t have my phone!  What if I want a beer?”

“Ask Gretch!  She always has beer!”

“Gretch?” I shouted, running at full speed to keep up.  “Gretch—she hates my guts!”  Josh yelled back, though his words could not be heard, drowned out by the roaring engine coupled with the growing distance between my running body and the shuttle. I came to a gradual stop, my body frozen with disappointment.  I stared at a bus I could no longer keep up with, fading into the distance.  If only I had my new running shoes with me…

I returned to Bill and Gretch in a slouch, unable to break a slug’s pace.  Sitting in an even deeper state of gloom, they had managed to find refuge under a tree, the only open source of shade and a safe distance from the rambunctious torrent children.  “Gee, somebody’s got to brighten the spirits around here,” I thought to myself.  “Bill!…  What’s going on, good ol’ buddy, ol’ pal?  How about we go explore the park, pass the time a little bit,” I suggested with a nudge to the chest.

“Ahh!” he squealed, curling his arms across his seared body.  “Take it easy.”

“Oh right, the sunburn. Whoops!  Sorry bout that, heheh.  Hey Gretch, know any good jokes?  Any good stories about Megan Mills?”  She turned and shrugged her body further away from me, the only response she was willing to offer.  “…Well, you should hear about the dream I had last night.  It was crazy!  I was taking a test in a gym, then I was driving you guys off-road on a trail by the creek.  Well, wouldn’t you know it, I crashed into the bank, got the car all wet!”  

“What kind of car were you driving,” asked Bill, a question that seemed to be out of pity rather than curiosity.

“Ford Explorer, 96. Or was it a 2004…”

“Sounds like an amazing dream,” blandly responded Gretch.  It’s hard to hold disappointment with such a poor reception when none exists whatsoever. This is going to be a long wait.

***

Minutes passed. Several of them, long and torturous. No water.  No food.  Only the sun remained, unabated and intent on desiccating the life blood of every living organism in the park.  At least the rowdy and eclectic kept the entertainment value to bearable levels… barely. It’s all we had.

“Oh, my God,” gasped Gretch, peering out along the lawn.  “Do you see that girl in the shorts?”

BIll and I turned our heads towards the water, as if this girl’s coordinates could be precisely located across the vast surface area of the park.  “What are you even talking about—ohhhhh.”  Apparently, Bill had spotted the girl with little effort.  The cheeks were a dead giveaway, bursting from a garment that resembled a pair of Victoria’s Secret panties more than a bathing suit.  Even with such a large demographic of wild kids and worn-out adults spread about the field, her fleshy figure stood out like a ginger kid at a sun tanning contest.

“Looks like mom approves,” added Gretch, pointing to the woman and her herd of kids that followed; an omen for things to come.  Their styles were similar, though the mother’s age and weight forced a bit more modesty, however subtle the changes may have been.  Bill and I shifted our eyes elsewhere, foregoing the guilt held from looking at a highly probable under-aged girl for too long.  Gretch, biologically immune to such guilt, kept a close eye.

Together, they walked towards the shuttle bus rendezvous point, flaunting their figures as though their goods were a scarce commodity in high demand.  Their man seemed to agree.  “Check out the action over here on lover’s lane!” informed Gretch.

The mother and daughter duo gravitated towards the daughter’s boyfriend, of which they found his buzzed head and rough countenance most attractive.  A meek scatter of tribal and barbed-wire tattoos covered his limbs, a collection he vowed to grow as his income allowed.  It was hard to tell whether or not his sweat-stained wife-beater was the result of a hard day’s work or a sign that the washer and dryer had been out of order.  Even harder to tell was his age, as young as 21 years old, but no older than 35.

Neither the stained shirt or his unshaven face was of concern for the scantily clad daughter as she embraced her boyfriend, holding his body against hers.  “I can’t wait to take you back to the trailer,” we could imagine him say as he prepared a trail of greasy smooches, starting from the arm and leading to the mouth.  Their display of overtly affectionate behavior triggered no sense of shame. This trailer park hunk was adamant in showing the city of Boise that this was his babe, and they were in crazy, stupid love.

Mom threw in a flirtatious quip here and there between smooches and booty grabs; a vicarious effort to bring homage to her golden years of eye candy.  She smiled and laughed, oblivious to the fact that her daughter was destined for a life of steady divorce and child support.

“Chh, God…” scoffed Bill. Like me, he was unable to resist the hands-on action for long.  Further inspection of the park mended similar results.  

“We’re… surrounded,” I said.  It turns out that amorous displays were not uncommon in Ann Morrison Park.  Couples everywhere had trouble controlling their primitive instincts.  Overwhelmed, we quickly diverted our attention to the street, our only bastion against the romantic escapades.

“Get a load of Gary over here,” said Gretch, pointing to a trailer/truck combo coming to a stop. Bill and I couldn’t help but release a quick chuckle.

At first glance, there seemed to be nothing special about this particular individual.  Under normal circumstances, nothing of merit would’ve set Gary apart from the ordinary, as many improvements could be made: a promotion at his job that at best was mediocre, an exercise plan that would cut a good 30 pounds from his waist, and a proper grooming to trim his wavy gray hair back to white collar standards among a list of others.  Having been dealt the typical hand of cards in life, Gary had done pretty much what was expected of him in his 45 years of existence. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing to suffer from but the fact that he had never become anything special.

But Gretch was on to something.  The way this Matt Groening look-alike commanded his man-machine, squabbling over the space between him and the curb was something of an anomaly… a captivating affair.

Over and over again, he flipped his head back and forth, indecisive as to what his next move was. Wait… is that a spot?…  Yes, I think it—but… oh I don’t know—I could try, but gee—what if I can’t make it? From the get go, the silent consensus was to root for Gary… or at least encourage him to give it a try.

Gary peaked into the rearview mirror—another truck approached.  Each shift was hard now, more exaggerated, his level of confidence draining with each glance.  With time waning, the window for success was diminishing.  “Nope, not worth it,” he thought to himself, relieving pressure from brake pedal.  “Not even, worth…”

He turned over to the curb one last time, slowly peering into the park.  His eyes widened, his heart stopped, and the breath sucked from his lungs brought him to a whisper.  “Scotty… my boy… my blood…”  There, his son stood, erected next to the family raft, peering back at his father, the omnipotent, the sole-provider; the hero. To turn back now… that would be a sign of weakness… not in front of the boy… not in front of my sweet Scotty…

Gary dipped his gaze back to the curb and settled into a grin.  Yes Gary, that’s quite a bit of curb there.  In fact, maybe just enough to fit a truck/trailer combo.  It’ll take swift action to back the trailer, and you just might have the skills to pull it off.  He shot his eyes forward, smiled, and with a forceful thrust, shifted the truck back into reverse.  Alright Gary, now or never.  You are the man; the man with the plan.  It’s all up to you…

Gary threw his arm over the seat, looked behind him, and cranked the wheel away from the curb.  All right. Here we go!  The trailer backed at a swift pace, for Gary be damned if little Scotty knew this was dad’s first pony ride.  “Alright Gary, looking good… looking good,” he said, using the moment to check himself out in the mirror.  That’s it, just like you’ve done it a thousand times!  Back that thing right into the curb, nice and easy.  Yea baby, you like that, don’t you?  Nice and— “AH, what the!”

By all accounts, Gary had maneuvered his truck in the correct direction.  His back wheel had aligned well, sitting abreast a few inches from the curb.  His trailer, sticking halfway into the street, unfortunately had not.  Without the aid of evasive maneuvers, all vehicular street traffic would be temporarily blocked.  Gary could only hope that for the moment, the driver’s piling behind him were patient enough to understand his predicament.

Round 1:  Trailer 1, Gary 0.

Sort of like this, but worse…
Or this…
Oh Good God!
I could watch these all night!

“All right Gary, no big deal.  Keep calm; try again.”  Gary pulled the truck back into the road, a conservative effort to straighten the trailer for another go.  “Just a little farther… a little farther—what? Wait a minute, who does this guy think he is?”  The truck behind him inched up, nearly putting the block on Gary’s park job. Only a few more feet were needed to ensure the trailer was completely straightened; a few feet Gary could not afford to give.  “Take my parking spot?  I don’t think so!”

Gary popped the car back into reverse and cranked the wheel once again, this time towards the curb. The driver behind him backed up, reluctantly… wisely.  Yea… that’s what I thought.  This is my parking spot.  My park.  I’m about to back this truck up, real good.  Slide it right in just like—Oh, what the hell?

Gary slammed on the brakes and jerked his head left to right, enough to make observation of the crowd drawing interest.  Just like his wavy hair, his truck rocked from front to back as it came to an abrupt stop, shooting high stress loads through the suspension.  It was little concern to Gary, already dealing with a trailer/truck combo sprawled in a shallow V across the road.  Without hesitation and a proper look forward, he shifted into drive and stepped on the gas.

“Oh Jesus,” cried Bill with a clear vision of disaster in his head.

Once again, the hairline and trailer/truck combo swung forward and back as the truck stopped mere inches from the bus in front of it.

“What the hell is this guy doing?” asked one of the patrons.

“Yea guy, what’s the big idea!” yelled the driver behind him, adding a few honks into the mix. Though many kept to themselves, the driver was not alone in his sentiments.

Heavy beads of sweat grew across Gary’s brow.  Each draw of breath was short and heavy.  Panic had set in, an emotion that could no longer be concealed.  “Hey, I remember the first time I parked a trailer… Hey Jim, get a load at trailer guy over here… I swear to God, if you don’t park this damn trailer…” People were talking, talk that Gary could no longer ignore.  He glanced into his rearview mirror.  The line, several cars back, was growing.  C’mon, get it together man.  Just pull out and move along.  There’ll be another day, another chance—

“C’mon Gary… C’mon!” pleaded Gretch in a soft whisper, holding back the tears.

He froze at the sight of Scotty standing near their raft.  Scotty watched his dad with concern, unsure if he was the man to complete the task.  “Scotty…” mutter Gary.  He looked back at the driver’s behind, their frustrations ostensible. All were insignificant; nothing of concern, for there was only one who truly mattered…

His heartbeat slowed and his breaths drew long and deep once again.  This… this is nothing.  None of this matters.  Parking a trailer is easy—child’s play!  He threw out a chuckle and slapped the steering wheel, turning back to the concerned crowd as if Marvin Gaye was pumping through the speakers.  He threw his arm out of the window and let it hang down the side.  Before backing up, he gave a quick check into the rearview mirror, exposing a reflection of himself. “Man, Gary, you’re looking good these days.  Have you been losing weight?  How about we back this trailer up, right here, right now and call it a day? Put the kids to bed, treat the wife to a romantic evening… yea, I like that.  And what are all these turkey’s worried about, getting all worked up over a parked trailer?  I got this all under control… That’s right Gary.  You the man.  Just take your time and back this thing up.  Nice and easy.  Nice and smooth.  Show these people how it’s done.  Do it. Do it for Scotty.  For— “Damnit!“

The return of heavy sweat, short breaths, and whipped hair was nearly instantaneous.  As part of a brilliant execution, the truck had rolled up perfectly parallel along the curb, separated by a regulation standard 8 inches of space.  Perfectly perpendicular was the trailer, an L across the width of the street serving as a roadblock for the rest of traffic.

“Hey, watch it!” screamed an angry motorist.

“Sorry buddy!” yipped Gary.

“I’m not your buddy!” Oh God, not this again…

Gary cranked the wheel and popped the truck back into drive and pulled forward far enough so that the truck and trailer were in line with one another, leaving a good, 20 feet of space between him and the open spot.  He shot a glance into the rearview mirror, the driver behind him once again inching closer.  Oh, I don’t think so!

“Oh, you got to be kidding me!” screamed the driver, adding a few select adjectives between words. He threw his hands up in disbelief, watching Gary pop his head out the window and slither his way back and forth across the road, vying his way into the open spot.

“Are you watching this guy?” asked Gretch.

Bill scoffed. Feeling embarrassed for him, he wanted to look away.  But like the rest of us, he simply could not.  “He’s drunker than a pig!”

You got this Gary.  You got this… He repeated the incantation several times, the trailer finally working in total cooperation.  Gary gave the wheel a final crank as the trailer settled towards the curb. “Now would you look at that,” he said, straightening the wheel to line the truck up with the trailer.  “Scotty, I’m a make you proud my boy!”  The trailer came to a gradual stop 2 feet from the vehicle behind him, perfectly straight.  The only thing Gary was unsuccessful at was containing his smile—or humility.  You must be so proud, Scotty.  So proud—

“You call that a park job?” screamed a driver behind him.

“What are you talking about?” Gary yelled back.  “The truck and trailer are perfectly straight—”  Much to Gary’s chagrin, several feet of asphalt stretched between his truck and the curb, the trailer/truck combo pultruding halfway between the curb and the middle of the road.  “…Ahhhhh crap…”

“Jesus Christ!” screamed the angry motorist behind him while laying into his horn.  He squeezed by, the delivery of his headshake and loud diesel engine beyond merciless.  Gary peered into the rearview mirror, exposing a line of cars far beyond the focal points of his deteriorated eyesight—not what he needed to see.  He shuffled about his seat in a panic; another task was before him, an episode of swift action, precise maneuvers.  “Just one more try,” Gary thought to himself.  He grabbed at the rearview mirror and readjusted his view.  “If I watch my corners, turn sharper, I can get it.  Just one more…”

A body revealed itself in the rearview mirror.  It’s muscle composition worn, a flimsy abdomen bulging with flab, the face drooped and wrinkled, all consequences of age and parenthood.  For a brief second, Gary stared at this reflection, sitting alone in his outdated truck, peering back into a weary set of eyes that had receded into submission behind a cloudy set of spectacles.  “Gary, it’s the best you’re ever going to do…”

 “Dad…” a voice cried out from the distance.  Nothing registered.  “Dad?”

“Damnit, snap out of it Gary,” muttered Gretch, words that could very well have come from any one of us.

“Dad!”

“Scotty!”  Gary jolted in his seat then swung his door open. The driver behind him reacted with a screeching stop, nearly ripping the door off its hinges.

“What the Hell are you doing?” he screamed, unable to make the pass.  Gary shut the door and waved him over, like an amicable traffic director.  The driver sped past, unamused.

“Scotty, where’s the raft?” asked Gary.  Scotty stood still, blindsided.  “Damnit Scotty!  I told you to bring the raft!”

“Dad, I can’t… it’s too big!”

“Arrrrrgh… Sco—“  Gary stopped mid-grunt, swung the door open and jumped out of the truck.  “If you want something done right, you might as well do it yourself—“

“HONK!” The horn blistered Gary’s ears.  “Get out of the way!” yelled the passing driver.  Gary waved and chuckled as if he were acknowledging an old friend who was giving him a hard time, then waddled over to his son.  

“Scotty!  You, here.  NOW!” he screamed, no longer holding the charade.  Scotty, head down, shuffled toward his father and did as he was told.  “Scot—“ ok Gary, calm it down.  You’re in public for God’s sake.  “Scotty,” he said with a reassessed tone.  “Grab your sister so we can load the raft.”  Scotty stared at his father with a blank stare.  “Scotty, what happened to the raft?  Where is your sister—SCOTTY!

Angry Gary reemerged. Scotty acted accordingly, joining his father by scouring the park like it was a world championship Easter egg hunt. “Son, when we get home you’re going to have to learn a few lessons in responsibility.”

“But dad—“

“Someday, you’re going to have to be accountable for your actions,” he continued.

“Dad, over here… Dad?!”

“Scotty! I told you,” he yelled, oblivious to his son’s proximity.  “You’re on thin ice, boy!”

“But dad, it’s right here!”

“Damnit Scotty! How many times… oh.”  Head down and arms lightly flinging, Gary waddled over to his son standing next to the raft, the only sign of acknowledgment of a good deed.

“Gary…” hollered his wife from across the park.  Gary ignored her nagging tone.  “Gary, grab the cooler!  Gary? Gary, you need to carry the cooler! You don’t want to forget your wine coolers—”

“Honey!”  Gary tensed his face toward his wife and mouthed a vicious phrase as he sharply pointed at the raft.

“Gary…  the cooler.  NOW!”

With a will suppressed and a conviction overruled, Gary dropped the raft and obeyed his wife’s orders. The lack of enthusiasm portrayed in his shuffle did not match the urgency required to decongest traffic.

“What the hell’s going on?” mouthed a passing driver to his friends standing next to the curb, having just squeezed through the narrowed lane.  They pointed to Gary on his second trip across the park, cooler in hand. Several times he changed directions, arms flinging, hair flapping, sweat dripping and glasses nearly falling before reaching the raft.  Little Scotty followed behind his father like an obedient puppy.  The driver shook his head and drove onward.

“Ready Scotty,” asked Gary, now in position at each side of the raft after several attempts to herd the family.  “Let’s go!” he commanded.  They marched on, Gary’s arm swinging as his hunched body pulled the raft across the lawn and towards the truck.

“Hold on…” cried Gary, a mere five feet from the truck.

Oh Gary, you were so close…” mentioned Bill.

Gary took a double walk around and fondled the raft, sticking his fingers in cracks, crevices, and other various places that bordered the line of inappropriateness before making his way back to the helm.   The violating procedure proved to be nothing short of pointless, except to add another car to the bottlenecked line.

“Ok, let’s lift,” said Gary, abruptly ending his inspection.  “One, two, Scott—SCOTTY!”  Scotty, his attention diverted, jolted into position.  “Three!”

With him and Scotty on one end, his wife and daughter on the other, they threw the raft on top of the trailer.  Laying crooked and unstrapped, Gary gave the raft a quick shake and walked away.  Surely the weight of the life vests and paddles will provide sufficient stability at highway speeds.

“Dad… dad, it’s not on…” warned Scotty.

“It’s on enough,” barked Gary back without hesitation.

“But dad—“

“It’s on enough.  Let’s go!”  Again, Gary’s words were terse; no eye-contact afforded. Gary, a man on a mission, would not be held back, not even by the plea of his own blood.  “Scotty, In the truck.  We’re leaving.”

“But dad, it’s locked—“

“SCOTTY!”

Gary hopped in the front seat and reached for the ignition—his keys were not there.  His head whipped forward, backward—in any and every direction possible.  Beads of sweat dripped onto the car’s upholstery like a sidewalk stained by the early drops of a spring shower.  He reached about, grabbing at any piece of the car he could put his hands on—the steering wheel, dashboard, seats, center console and more with no effort to hide his frantic state of existence.

“Damn it, what the hell’s the matter with you,” screamed another passing driver as Gary jumped out of the car.  Gary ignored him—didn’t even care, and speed-walked around to the passenger side.

He reached for the door—locked.  He tugged on the handle, then tugged some more.  Unconvinced, he gave it a hard yank, nearly ripping the handle of the hinges. “Okay Gary, I think it’s locked.  Think, plan B.”  He raised his head, giving notice to the open window.  “That gives me an idea!  His arm went through the open window and pulled the lever from the inside.  …Still locked.  Think Gary, think…”

3 seconds passed. “Aha!”  He lifted the lock on the door and presto, the door opened with a simple lift of the handle.  “Bingo!”

Anticipating another scolding, Scotty squeezed passed his father and jumped in the car before being told. Gary’s nostrils flared as a deep breath forced its way through the nasal cavity, his mouth sealed shut to prevent another outburst as he continued the search for the missing keys.  After another minute of finger-blasting the car’s interior, he stepped away, enraged, yet too baffled to scream.

“I give up,” said Gary as a plea to God, throwing his hands up in the air.  They fell freely, slapping at the sides of his trunks and hanging like two lifeless souls at the gallows.  “Wait a minute…”  He slapped around his pockets, the lightbulb flashing inside his head.  “Of course!”  He reached into his pocket and pulled out the prized possession, flaunting his discovery as though he was Albert Einstein the moment he solved the Theory of Relativity.  “Ok, gang, everybody in the car, let’s go!”

“Honey, where’s the cooler?” his wife asked.  “…Did you leave the cooler?”  Gary, sitting in the driver’s seat, hands at 12:00 on the steering wheel remained still for a moment, head forward, eyes dimmed, anger sulking.

“Scotty.  Out of the car!”

“Bud dad, you just—“

“OUT OF THE CAR!”

Scotty shuffled his way out of the car and followed his waddling father, preventing further admonishment his sole motivation.  Though flustered, he was still unable to shake his business casual approach to the exigency that the traffic jam demanded.  “Dad, where are the towels?”

“How would I know? Ask your mother!”  Gary grabbed the cooler and headed back to the car.

“Gary, you do this every time,” nagged his wife.

“Honey, I don’t want to talk about it,” he replied, throwing the cooler into the raft as if it were throwing a garbage bag into the dumpster.

“Every time!  And I told you to go easy on the cooler!”

“We’ll talk about it when we get home—“

“You’re so unorganized! And look at you!  You’re sweating again!  Didn’t the doctor say you should lose some weight?”

“Honey…”

“And why did you park so far away from the curb?”

“Hun!” responded Gary sharply.

“Yes, Gary?” she replied, oblivious.

“Shhhhhhhut up!!!” The world stopped.  If only for a few short moments, Gary’s criticism silenced the park.  He waddled his way into the driver’s side and hopped in the car.  His wife followed.  “What do you want me to do, huh?  What can I possibly do at this moment?  Please, tell me,” excoriated Gary as he twisted the keys and ignited the engine.

“Well, Gary, I was just observing that your park job could’ve been a little better…”

“What’s wrong with my park job?”

“Do you really want me to go there, Gary?”

“Ok, I have an idea. How about next time, youpark the truck!”  Gary thrusted the truck into drive and pulled out.  A passing car honked.  “Ah, screw you!” yelled Gary, continuing down the road.

“Well, certainly I couldn’t do any worse!”

“I happened to think I did a halfway decent job!  And you know what, I bet you Scotty agrees.  What do you think Scotty, is your old man a pretty decent driver?” There was no response. “…Scotty?”  Gary and his wife swung their heads, left, right—behind them. Their daughter sat, content in her corner of the backseat.  But Scotty… “OH SCOTTY!”  

It was the epitome of a Chinese fire drill.  The car came to a screeching halt and the family jumped out, waving their arms in wild hysteria.  Gary and his wife looked everywhere, the trailer, raft, street, underneath the car, anywhere they could think.  Their desperation landed them back to the park.  Scotty stood helplessly, all humanity removed, seconds from bursting into tears.  “Oh Scotty!” cried Gary, running towards his forgotten son. “I’m so sorry my sweet Scotty!” he pleaded, embracing his son and carrying him in his arms.

“Oh dad—“

“My Angel Boy!” screamed Gary, nearly dropping to his knees with little concern to a public persona that was already severed.  Gary threw Scotty into the car, waddled his way to the driver side and hopped back in.  The truck shook as it shifted into drive, and the family drove away to a sonata of blasting horns.

…It was that last we ever saw of old Gary.

“…What, in the hell, just happened?” asked Gretch.  Bill and sat back in silence, shock… horror.  It was a question neither of us could answer—a minimum of years before we could even begin to understand.  We sat and watched, ready for the next driver’s attempt at parking… to suffer the same fate all over again.

FYI, that’s how you back up a trailer!

***

“Ah, what’s up guys? I bet you had such an awesome time sitting in the park,” quipped Josh a few minutes later as he pulled in.  None of us made eye-contact.  Not a word had been spoken, not since the incident.  Gretch, also silent, hopped into Megan Mills car to hitch a ride back home.  “Anything exciting happen?  Bill and I gave each other a glare.  “Zack? Bill?”

“Nope.  Nothing too exciting,” said Bill.  “…Nothing exciting at all.”  Bill and I glared again.  Not even worth explaining.

“Well, that’s too bad,” replied Josh.  I couldn’t quite tell, but there seemed to be a hint of insincerity within his voice. “Dude, you realize your hotel’s only a few blocks away, right?”

“What!?” I exclaimed.

“Um, yea…” said Josh. “Like a quarter mile.  You still want a ride?”

“…Yea…”  We followed Josh to his car.  I looked over to Bill, his head down; he already knew. “Damnit,” I muttered after a deep sigh.  I threw my head towards the window, clout with despair as the last spread of Ann Morrison Park faded into obscurity.  Totally missed out on a Greenbelt run…

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 7: Lessons from the Boise River

July 23rd, 2016. 11:00 AM

Waking wasn’t easy. The strain and excitement of last night’s festivities had taken its toll.  My eyelids barely lifted to expose my bloodshot eyes.  My skin looked as though it had turned a shade paler.  Even a full liter of water could do little to restore my parched throat or cure my throbbing headache.  The only vestige of salvation sat atop my lap.  I opened the shoebox and stared upon the glowing treasure inside.

A sweet, synthetic aroma lifted into the air, igniting my nostrils like a blast of ammonia.  No more hangover; zero lust for thirst. This was it, the moment I had been waiting 24 long hours for.  A run on the Greenbelt with my new running shoes and the reward of an ice-cold Rockstar energy drink at the end.  The perfect start to a perfect day—

“BZZZ.” The sudden vibration of Bill’s phone shook thenightstand, sending a slight startle through me.  A steady ringtonefollowed.  Bill jolted in his bed, wide-eyed and coming to a rise like a “Don’t Wake Daddy” board game centerpiece.

“What time is it,” he exclaimed.

“10 after 11,” I answered.  Bill peered into his phone, gravitating towards it as if his entire body was void of control.  “Don’t answer it.”  All signs pointing to a futile resistance.  “Don’t you do it…  Bill!”

“…Hello?”  I threw my hands into the air, then lowered my head into them, settling into a constant head shake.  Bill pulled the phone away from his ear, the voice on the other side overwhelming.  Within an instant, the effects of the hangover had miraculously been reinstated.

“Dude, where are you guys?  I’ve been waiting outside for 10 minutes!  We got Tubapalooza to win. Wake up!…  What’s the matter, too much to drink last night?  I bet you Zack’s hungover.  Can’t handle his booze, like usual.  Not me though—wait, is he still asleep?  He is, isn’t he?  That’s it. What’s your room number?  I’m coming up.  If Zack’s asleep I’m going to tea-bag him, right in the face!  Haha, he’s going to get it…”

***

Floating the Boise River… on a calm day

Lesson 1: Josh doesn’t know how to win a race

“Oh, my God.”  Bill uttered the phrase somewhere between a chuckle and a scoff the minute we pulled onto the grass field that acted as an overflow parking lot.  To the 1,000’s of others that had converged onto Barber Park for the advent of a 6-mile journey down the Boise river, it was the start of adventure, excitement—an afternoon of bliss.  For Gretch and Megan Mills, both leaning against their car looking to be in desperate need of an IV, it was nothing but a chore, an abysmal condition only to be exacerbated by another 90-degree roaster.

“Did they get here early?” I asked.

“No, we’re about a half-hour late,” replied Josh.  “Sort of misled them a little bit.  Whoops!

He pulled into the spot next to them and shut off the engine. I leaned into Bill with a whisper. “Ok, whatever you do, don’t say a word.”  Bill understood wholeheartedly.  The fraternity we’d developed over the years ordered us not to speak in situations like these.  Even considering the amount of bad blood spilt, both Megan Mills and Gretch deserved our respect for keeping their commitment.  Honestly, I found it amazing that they were even halfway functional.  In fact, it would take a major tool to point out their obvious shortcomings at a time like this, something Bill and I were not prepared to—

“Well, well, well. Look who decided to show up,” blurted Josh as he swung his door wide open and strutted out onto the open field. “Aww, did somebody party too hard last night?  Haha, what a bunch of rookies…  What are you waiting for?  We got a race to win!  Let’s go, chop chop!”

“…Josh, we’ve been waiting here for at least 15 minutes,” replied Megan Mills.  “We were on time, 11:15, like you told us to be.”

“Dude, Megan Mills, you always assume we’re going to be late.  I had to get the Tubapalooza tickets, pick up these yahoos, and get more booze.  I can’t believe you even showed up on time… Megan Mills, you actually disappoint me.”

 “Josh,” inserted Bill.  “Maybe we should tone it down—“

“I mean, look what I’m dealing with!”  Bill’s attempt to intervene failed, miserably.  “You know Zack was sleeping in. Really, you should be mad at him. He’s the real reason we’re late!  Besides, I don’t know what the big deal is.  I drank twice as much as both of you, and I didn’t even get drunk!”

Gretch and Megan Mills rested their heads against their folded arms that were spread across the blistering metal car frame with dreams of euthanasia.  The feeling failed to subside well into the minutes-long castigation. Though I felt for Gretch and Megan Mills in their state of misery, I couldn’t help but stand back in awe.  For the first time in my life, I had been on the periphery of a Josh Ulrich insult binge.

His vituperations mellifluously flowed, one after another, never missing a beat.  They came out of his mouth at such a rapid pace; either his mind was running Einstein-caliber algorithms at break-neck speeds, or he wasn’t thinking at all, merely relying on his natural, God-given talent.  The endurance needed for such a long string of insults, no less than child prodigy status; a talent that could be described as nothing less than… impressive.

“Still feel like crap? Here, drink some of this.”  Josh pulled out a bottle of Champaign, already halfway consumed.  Megan Mills buried her face further into the car frame, the scorching temperatures far more bearable than the sight of alcohol.  “Gretch?”

Gretch gave the bottle a savory look, then turned away.  “C’mon Gretch, you know you want to.”  Josh’s tone bordered that of a taunt.  “…Gretch?”

Gretch lifted her head and crept her gaze across the length of the car.  The taste of alcohol was on her mind; I could feel it—we all could. Josh knew it was a terrible idea; his desire for destruction fueling his persuasive tactics.  Bill looked beyond her with concern.  He remained silent, as did I, unwilling to accept the almost certain tongue-lashing that would follow if we objected.  Don’t do it Gretch…

She grasped onto the bottle and slowly raised it to her mouth, her hand violently shaking as the bubbly beverage poured from into her mouth.  Oh, Gretch…

A minute later, I followed suit.

“C’mon Bill, you’re next.”  Bill eyed the bottle with unrestricted disdain, partly driven by the pressure of his peers.  “Do you want to win Tubapalooza or not?”

According to Josh, the recipe for success so far was:

1. Show up 15 minutes late to the race.
2. Go to a public park and drink alcohol.
3. Continue doing for the next several hours, in the middle of a hot summer day, with no drinkable water.

Bill’s ultimate compliance was enough to endorse the winning strategy.  It would be another 15 minutes before the idea of floating the river reemerged.

***

Lesson 2: The Irish Goodbye is the best goodbye

Mayhem reigned as we closed in on the launch point; our group scattered amongst the heavy traffic. A steady stream of kids ran between the field separating the launch point and the pump house, a long, wooden shack lined with air hoses to inflate the inner tubes.  Josh found himself stuck in the middle of it, a headless chicken running about in an attempt to heard a group of cats.  Panic had set in, the threat of losing Tubalooza looming harder over him the longer our departure was delayed.  Yet, he artfully mended his way through the influx of patrons between the pump house and the launch point, all while keep with the tradition of issuing orders.

“Dude, Megan Mills, you’re just now putting on sunscreen? Bill, where’s Gretch—where’s you’re tube!?  You guys are killing me—c’mon Zack!  How are you going to float down the river with that thing?  You’re gonna sink to the bottom!  That’s embarrassing, fill it up with more air!  Pick up the pace, let’s go!”

“Josh, your tube is lower than mine…”

“The hole’s too big, what do you expect?”  He was correct in his assessment of the blow port.  Its large diameter made inflating an arduous task.  Though a much sturdier tube than the 97-cent Wal-Mart special we procured for our float down the Madison in Pony, Montana, the design left a pair of engineers puzzled as to how to properly fill them.

“Here, take two air hoses at the same time and fill it.  Double the air.  The volumetric flow rate into the tube will be greater than the flow coming out of the tube.”  Josh gave me a funny look.  “…Fluid Mechanics… the pressure in the hose is high enough so that the air won’t escape fast enough… you know, engineering stuff.”

“Oh, right… engineering.” Josh grabbed my air hose, on stand by for a quick transition.  I clasped the port, ready to unscrew on command.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready.” 

“You guys, there’s a smaller port on top,” butted in Gretch.  Josh and I gave her a condescending stare.  “Just unscrew that one and fill it.  The air hose fits perfectly in it… you know, the top one’s for filling, the bottom’s for deflating, right?” We looked at each other, bemused. What the hell is she talking about?

“Can’t.  It’s sealed shut,” said Josh.

“Yea, it needs some grease to loosen it.  Trust us, we’re engineers.”

Megan Mills snatched the tube from my hand.  “Yea, more like some… elbow grease!”  Megan Mills gave the top port a swift twist and popped the screw right off.  Josh and I looked at each other with bewilderment, raised our shoulders with a slight palm lift and sunk our heads into them.  Engineering brothers, I don’t know…

“That’s great Megan Mills, but finish putting on your sunscreen!  And you still haven’t… wait a minute,” Josh jerked his head between the pump house and the launch point.  “Great, what happened to Bill?  We’re going to lose Tubapalooza…”  It was rather strange, I’d admit.  A minute ago, he was right beside us, and now… gone.  His Houdini-like tactics whipped Josh into a shambolic rage.  All attempts at organization were falling apart before his very eyes.  He wasn’t the only one worried.  No way I’m floating the river alone with these guys.

Josh popped his head up like a muskrat in a crowded field, setting his attention just beyond the launch point.  “Bill… Hey Bill,” he screamed.  “…Bill?” Amongst the crowd of floating bodies, one in particular caught his eye.  This individual’s tube shared a strong resemblance to the one’s held under his own arm, and the man’s features and clothing style fit a perfect profile.  “Bill,” screamed Josh again, his hand cupped around the rim of his mouth.  No mention of the name warranted a response. “Don’t go yet, Bill!  We need to leave together…  Bill!

Too late.  I stood back, my arms folded, unable to look down the river in anything but awe.  The technique had been used several times throughout the years, from large gatherings at the skatepark to college parties where guests had long worn out their welcome. Over time, he had perfected the practice, managing to slip away from any situation through various degrees of chaos undetected.

And once again, Bill had brilliantly pulled of an Irish goodbye, and there was nothing Josh could do about it.  

“C’mon Gretch, Bill’s already in the water,” barked Josh, reverting to what he does best.  “How come you haven’t inflated your tube? We’ll double up—wait, Megan Mills, where’s your sunscreen?  I thought I told you to put it on!?  Here, turn around.  I’ll get the back, you get the front.”  Josh spread his arms with a full wingspan, working aggressively like an overwhelmed mother tending to her children’s needs at the amusement park.  One arm slopped a layer of sunscreen on Megan Mills’ back while the other held an air hose to Gretch’s tube.  “Don’t just stand there Gretch, start inflating!”

My air hose spit out from my tube, the spectacle unfolding in front of me having commanded my undivided attention.  Quickly, I screwed the top back on and pressed at the sides.  Pumped to the edge… we’re good to go.   I looked to the river.  Bill’s long gone.  Envy filled the crevices of my body among other thoughts; nefarious fantasies of abandonment.  I wonder… if I just take a small step, if he’d even notice…  I side stepped away from the pump house.  Nothing.  That was easy.  What about another?  This time I turned my body and managed to take a full step.  I gave another peak over to Josh.

“Keep pumping Gretch,” he ordered.  “Megan Mills, you’re wiping like you don’t even care.  What’s the deal?”  Still dinkin’ around.  What if I just walk into the middle of the lawn, or even a little further…

“Zack!”  the name shot out like a bullet whipping passed my ear. I had made it down the staircase of the launch point before being detected by the eye of Sauron.  For a second, I froze, one step away from the river’s entrance.  “Don’t even think about it!”

“Don’t turn around,” I told myself.  “Whatever you do, don’t you dare turn.  Don’t even give him the thought of acknowledgment.” My foot sank into the water, ignoring the attack of cool water on skin before acclimation.

“You better not—I swear to God if you leave I’m going to kick your—dude, Zack!”  I kept on walking, like a wife finally taking the brave step to walk out on her husband after years of abuse.  Once the water reached my waist level, I plopped myself onto the tube. “I’m warning you!  You’re going to regret this!  Do you hear me—Zack…”  Josh’s words faded in obscurity, being no match for the river’s current; continuously fading, further and further, until there was nothing.

***

Lesson 3: Get lost in the moment and enjoy the ride… as long as you’re in the middle.

Much of Idaho is bare. During the peak of summer, temperatures can reach well over 100°, decimating any form of plant life that had sprouted in the Spring months. However, if you know where to look, Idaho is lush with green forests, crystal clear lakes, and precipitous peaks, starting at the top of the panhandle at lake Coeur d’Alene along the border of the Bitterroot Mountain Range, down past the raging rapids in Riggins, where tens of thousands go each year to experience some of the country’s best white water rafting, and up through McCall, a resort town and home to some of the most beloved skiing in the state.  Further south, you’ll find more than your fair share of evergreen milieu, including Sun Valley and its surrounding towns, as well as other destinations unique to Idaho such as the Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh and the Craters of the Moon.  It’s no wonder the people of Idaho are amongst the most humble of statesmen. They see it as their hidden gem, the best kept secret in the States; and they’d like to keep it that way.

The Boise River is no different.  Surrounded by mounds of sunburnt foothills, the Boise River is a representation of that same attitude, a linear oasis where the masses find refuge from the sweltering sun. A long line of trees hover along its banks, perhaps the only natural ones of its kind, providing comfort and shade throughout your float.  You are one with the river, slowly mending your way back into the peak of man’s ingenuity, the thriving tech and business hub that has managed to remain under the radar, free from the common issues that infect most metropolitan areas.

Boise River from above

I leaned back in my tube, flopped my arms to the side, and gazed upon the clear, blue sky.  The sun’s rays struck me, permeating through my pores to induce a state of quasi-paralysis.  For the next couple of hours, the fouls of the world would be purged from existence, just as it had done for the smattering of others who had also descended upon the shallow river valley that Saturday afternoon.  I sensed that Bill was not far ahead, and that soon we’d—

“Hey Zack!”  My heart raced at the sound of her voice, it’s tone familiar, shrill—disturbing.  Great, I’ve been blindsided!  Letting Gretch sneak up on me like that—what was I thinking? And Megan Mills?  Forget about it!  Not after the crap I pulled yesterday.

And if Gretch was near, then so was Josh.  I could hear it all play out.  “Dude, why didn’t you wait for us?  Slow down…  Zack, go faster…  Seriously, we’re gonna lose Tubapalooza because of you!  You’re lucky I didn’t tea-bag you earlier today, blah blah blah. Get this Megan Mills, Zack sucks…” I braced myself.

“How’s it going?”  …How’s it going?  Gretch sat up in her tube, perched and poised.  Josh was next to her, removed from reality.  Subtle eye contact was made; he had nothing to say, a rare and beautiful moment; a gift given unto us by the power of nature.

“What about Tubapalooza?” I asked.

“Huh?” Josh responded, as if I had broken a deep trance.

“Tuba…  Never mind.”

Megan Mills looked to be a cadaver sprawled limp across her tube.  Asking her to move was not in the realm of possibilities—not at this time.

“Well, look who it is,” said Josh looking onward, holding the same grin given to me many times right before a smart-ass comment was to leave his mouth.  We had crept up on Bill, his head tilted back, top submerged—totally oblivious.  “Gee Bill, looks like we’re all catching up.  Haha, what a slowpoke!”

Bill whipped his head up, sending his hair forward over his forehead.  He shook it about like a wet dog, then whipped it back again, forming a nice slick—Ryan Gossiling style.  His collared shirt remained unbuttoned like the old Florida man stuck spending his hot summer days at the bayou bar, a style both coveted and admired. “No wonder you left so early.  That puny body of yours can’t even handle a float like this.  Even Zack’s keeping up!  That’s just embarrassing…”  Bill lowered his head back until the top of his head was submerged once again and shut his eyes.   “Aw, look, poor Bill.  You’re in worse shape than Megan Mills, and she isn’t even trying!”  Under normal circumstances, such an affront would’ve provoked a stinging response.  Yet, both remained stationary, still in refusal to move a muscle.  If there was a way to fully submerge his ears without falling out of the tube, Bill would’ve done so.

“But really guys, you should wake up.”  They refused to yield.  Josh’s words had fallen on deaf ears.  “Seriously, I think we’re heading towards the edge.”

“What?!” shouted Megan Mills, rising from her comatose state with an injection of adrenaline. Bill whipped his head back out of the water, repeated his wet dog routine, and worked himself into a furious paddle.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“C’mon Zack, paddle!” said Gretch.  “You’re separating.”  So, I’m a little bit by the edge.  Who cares?  Drifting away, I casually waved my sardonic goodbye.

Hmm, I guess the river actually runs kind of fast the closer you get to the edge. Those branches look kind of low too… Oh crap, I actually am a little close to the edge—OH CRAP!

“Bill, help!” I screamed. My arms swatted against the water and my feet fluttered about in non-uniformity, unwilling to get my body wet. 

“Zack, take my hand,” he said.  I twisted my body and searched through the commotion for an awesome hair doo. “Zack… my hand.  Quick, before it’s too late!”  I zeroed in.  Bill spread across his tube, his hand outstretched to grasp onto mine.  I reached out, our hands meeting under the scintillation of the sun, our fingertips barely missing in an accidental recreation of the Sistine Chapel.

“Noooo!”  I watched as Bill sailed away with the rest of the pack.  He looked at me, as if he were a soldier forced to leave his brother to die on the battlefield.  For only an instant did I appreciate the poignancy of the moment.  No time to feel sorry for yourself when survival is on the agenda.

I turned around in my tube and stared down my attackers.  Several layers of branches hung, coming right at me and eager to strike. A wall of jagged rocks flanked my right. If given the chance, they would deal serious damage.  I braced myself for impact.

My legs flew up and picked off the first wave. They were met with solid resistance, snapping upon impact; the ruthless conditions imposed by the sun, their merciless General having an adverse effect on the soldiers.  I outstretched my arms and took care of the remaining stragglers.

The second line came immediately after.  Again, my legs flew up, then my arms, catching as many as they could intercept. The branches bent, proving much stronger, much more versatile than their predecessors.  My God, the sheer volume of firepower—too much to overcome!  My defensive line, though strong and powerful, couldn’t handle sheer quantity. “NOOOOO!”

I bent me arms to cover my face.  Branches scraped the sides.  One impaled my stomach.  I shifted accordingly like a losing boxer in desperation mode.  Another smacked me across the face.  I turned and scrunched in the tube, hoping to reduce the damage. They scraped and scratched away. I reached out and caught a straggling branch—my last resort.  The tube whipped around and entered a tailspin.  My mind blotted the chaos, bracing my body for the impending doom.

Seconds later, I rose from the crash site, bruised and battered, mangled and torn, scraped and scabbed, stuck in an eddy against the rocky shore.  I watched as Bill and the rest of the group dipped into one of the many sections of shallow rapids.  With only the slightest hope of reunion, I pushed off the jagged bank and paddled in what was to be the beginning of a long and arduous trek back to the group.

***

My breaths were strained. I could feel a tendency in my muscles to cramp whenever my calves flexed. “Hey guys,” I said with difficulty. The response from the group was lethargic at best.  I cleared my throat and spoke again, ensuring my determination would be realized. “Boy, I can’t believe how long I had to paddle…”  Gretch turned her head slightly, annoyed, as if she were forced to give the unpopular girl at school acknowledgement.  Bill was sprawled, his head dipped and throat vulnerable to a devastating judo chop. Megan Mills was no better.  Josh turned his tube around for a much-wanted address.

“Dude, Zack, you were gone for a half hour.”  Really Josh?  I hadn’t noticed.  “You know, you shouldn’t have floated near the edge…”

Gee, you think?

***

Lesson 4: Watch for falling flab

The volume of manmade structures increased the further we traveled, evidence that we were heading into downtown.  Hotels and office buildings accompanied the line of trees along the river, providing further shade.  And for better or for worse, so did the volume of patrons.

A procession of splashes was heard from afar, aberrations from the natural ripples of the river. Its rhythm was inconsistent, but reliable, each new splash louder than the previous.  The commotion had yet to reach panic levels, yet a sense of caution was well congruent within the group.

We approached the first of many bridges, 10 feet high and spanning the narrow width of the river, part of the Greenbelt Trail system and apparent source of disorder.  A steady line of prepubescents stretched from the middle of the bridge to several feet past its origin, each one’s appearance strikingly similar.  Puberty had been deprived of these adolescences for the time being, their body portions not in sync with their corresponding hormones.  Though there was potential for athletic development in the coming years, much time and patience was required until they could fully fill into their fleshy figures.

One dropped from the bridge, sending a shockwave through the water.  The next boy lined himself into position.  We looked onward with agitation as he clasped onto the railing and swung a leg over the edge.  As soon as the tips of his toes set down on the edge of the wood platform, extruding mere inches from the outside of the railing, he swung the other across, just as careless. He turned his back to the railing and looked down upon the obstacles crossing his path, any consequence of collision obfuscated by the thrill of the jump.

Several times he had contemplated jumping.  He dipped every time an urge presented itself, a sinusoidal ripple bellowed across his belly, each delay a direct relationship to the continuous population of floating objects below.  Many factors were in play, all of which worked against him.  The entire weight of his body balancing on the balls of his heels, the heavy layer of sweat lubricating his grasp on the railing, the pressure of his peers, yelling, complaining, and growing more impatient with each passing second as they were forced to wait in line—all the elements for a perfect storm.  It was only a matter of time until the young boy descended upon an innocent target several feet below.  Multiple casualties were at risk.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Bill.  I thought the same as we neared the bridge.  Not only was traffic looming, but the shallow nature of the Boise River didn’t leave much room for recovery in the probable case that the jump didn’t go according to plan.  We crossed under, paddling an ample distance away from ground zero.

The boy shook uncontrollably now, knowing full well it was only a matter of time before the limitations of his undeveloped strength forced him off the ledge.  “Wait… where’s Gretch?” asked Bill.  We whipped our heads back to the bridge.  A small break in traffic surfaced, a slight chance he could make the jump and come out unscathed, if not for two oncoming obstacles—two blonde haired girls floating aimlessly down the river.  Uh oh.

“Gretch, Megan Mills, look—“  Too late.  With little warning, the boy let go, falling with the full acceleration of gravity behind him.  Our hearts stopped.  Even Josh felt a rush of distress.

Splash!” A large crater followed, the impact sending a tsunami-like wave in all directions.  It swallowed the boy and everybody in its wake.  A second passed, a second that felt like a minute. Remnants of the wave remained. Still no signs of Gretch, Megan Mills, or the boy.  We feared for the worst.

“Gretch!” yelled Bill, startled, yet with enough sense not to paddle towards the impact zone. The boy emerged from the bottom, whipped his hair around, and swam to the river bank, oblivious to the damage he nearly caused.  Gretch reappeared, looking back at us as if we were an inconvenience.

“What?” she asked.

“Where’s Megan Mills?”

“Right here!” said Gretch, pointing at the slain warrior floating a few feet behind.  Bill let out a sigh of relief.  The splash had missed her by a matter of inches.

“Oh man, did you see that?” bragged the boy as he jiggled his way up the bank and towards the back of the line, leaving a trail of water spots on the dirt path behind him.  “Man, that was a close one, haha!  Watch me next time, I’ll do a cannon ball!”

The next boy climbed over the railing and positioned himself accordingly, shaking and dipping along the edge of the bridge, waiting for the opportune moment to jump.  A faint crash sounded ahead of us, competing with the crashes coming from behind.  We floated on, knowing at least two more bridges of its kind remained along with a couple of rope swings, just as hazardous.  Lasting well into the waning fragments of sunset, day after day and all summer long, it was only a matter of time before one of these annoyed river floaters was met with a face full of flesh.

 “Dude, we should totally do that,” said Josh, his face perked. Bill and I shook our heads, hoping Josh was only joking.  Unfortunately, we knew better.

***

Some foolish boys and girls even decided to film their antics

Lesson 5: Avoid the strange animals (that’s what I know…)

“Check it out,” said Bill looking onward.

My face squinted with perplexity.  “What in the hell?”  Past the second bridge of falling flesh blobs a strange creature lurked; an animal of sorts, growling about in an unintelligible manner and staking claim on a rocky patch.  At first glance, the dark complexion suggested lineage from the sasquatch family tree, for the upright stance didn’t fit the profile of most mammals.  Behind him was a rock cove carved into the river bank for shelter.  Filled with an assortment of items that were the prime pick at the local landfill, it was appropriate to assume that this was where the strange animal took up residence. “There aren’t bears in Boise, are there?”

“It’s Jesus,” chuckled Josh.

“Very funny,” said Gretch.  “It’s just a dirty old man.”  Further inspection proved Gretch correct.

“He’s nuts!  Look at him.”  Though conceivable, I couldn’t yet agree with Josh’s assessment. If thousands of people floated past my house every day, yelling, splashing, jumping off bridges and raising hell, I’d probably be in a bad mood as well!

“He’s just an old man yelling at all the hooligans on his lawn,” I said.  “…I dare you to go talk to him.”

“Are you kidding me? Look at him!” Josh replied.

“C’mon Josh, all he needs is a friend!”

“Yea Josh,” chimed Bill. “You both like the outdoors. Sometimes you live in a car, he lives in a cave.”

“There’s so much in common—a match made in heaven!”  Bill and I laughed while Josh scoffed, struggling to find an equivalent comeback.

“Um, maybe we should swim away from him,” suggested Megan Mills.

“Yea, whatever Megan Mills.  Josh, are you going to talk to him or not?” I egged.

“What would I even say?”

“I don’t know, ask him what type of cologne he wears,” suggested Bill.

“Chances are, it’s the same kind you wear,” I added.  “That natural, hippy bull crap, heheh.”

“Screw that. You’re stupid.”

“You guys… we’re getting really close…”

“Just hang out with him a little bit.  Offer him a drink of your rum.  He’d love that!  He might just invite you into his cove—”

“GUYS!”  There was something about Megan Mills’ latest alarm that silenced us all. The animal’s words, though no more intelligible, clearly conveyed displeasure, and were clearly directed towards us.  We had been a moment too late realizing the current’s pull towards the cove.  And now, every passing second solidified the sense of urgency to remove ourselves from our petrified state.

Run for it!” screamed Josh.  Lacking the stoic nature to keep his composure, Josh took the lead and triggered us into action.

“Josh, wait!” said Bill.

“Survival of the finished,” he shouted back, making little effort to address the rest of us. We scattered like a school of piranhas interrupted from their fresh feast, kicking our legs and flinging our arms furiously against the water.  Was this man truly evil?  Hell if we would stick around to find out.

“Megan Mills, it’s not working!”  I screamed.

“Don’t stop!  Keep paddling!” she insisted.

“I’m trying Megan Mills, I’m try—“ I froze.

They say when confronted with conflict, most people possess a fight or flight reaction.  I possess neither.

His gaze pierced through mine; my body frozen, the sign of ultimate acceptance for an imminent death. A flow of obscenities spoken in a strange dialect followed.  He pointed, as if I were his next sacrifice gravitating towards his rocky altar.

“Zack,” cried out Bill.

“Forget it! he’s a goner,” yelled Gretch.  It was words I would’ve expected from Josh, though he had wasted no time making his escape when the opportunity presented itself, belting out of there faster than the infamous police run at Billapalooza, circa 2007.

“Bill, don’t leave me,” I said, unable to break eye contact.  “Bill…”

And just like that, he was gone.  Oh, how the Irish goodbye strikes again.

The animal’s voice was loud and clear now, spewing a gargle of gorilla like rumbles, part of his telekinetic powers to lure his victims.  Here I lay, a frozen body at the mercy of this dirty, hairy monster, drifting towards my fate.  It’s over.  I’m finished…

His head jerked and body twitched, the evil spell conjuring the demon trapped inside.  Then, he tilted his head and stared passed me. Something new, something more enticing.  It must be.  But what? That Boy Scout troop?  No, not nearly attractive enough, not for his taste. Besides, all their moms were around. The blondes perhaps?  Or maybe that babe in the Wonder Woman swimsuit on the paddle board… Yea, she was kind of a babe.  I bet it’s her—wait, what are you doing?  Run stupid!  RUN!

I turned to my stomach and pushed off the bottom of the river.  “OOGA OOGA, ARGHU UGA OOHH!” he rumbled.  I paid no mind—no acknowledgment.  I kicked, harder and faster than ever before, my arms swinging with a warrior’s fury while the harsh cries of the animal burned passed my ears.

Survival of the fittest…

***

The jet boat could be heard several bends down the river.  Its engine roared louder with time, until it emerged around the bend like a giant sea monster rising from the depths.  The hull lifted with each rev and gave the water a giant slap as it weaved in-between tubers, as if it were navigating down the Columbia River on the final level of the Oregon Trail.  

“What do you think’s going on?” asked Bill, casually observing the deadly potential of the machine crashing up the river.

“I dunno,” replied Gretch with a sloppy shrug.  Megan Mills lifted her head for a moment, then resumed her natural state of apathy. The lack of caution was shared among the river dwellers.  Either the scene of a giant boat evading a constant case of manslaughter was an all too common occurrence on the Boise River, or the three-hour float had temporarily drained any care for one’s life.

“Maybe somebody’s drowning?” suggested Josh.

 “Hopefully their taking care of those damn kids jumping off the bridge!  How much you want to bet they whomped on somebody?”  Nobody took me up on the bet.  “Maybe they’ll put a whomp on them…”

From the edge, the jet boat made a sharp turn across the river, threading the needle through a group of tubers to make its way back to the middle.  Two uniformed men were at the helm, most likely police officers judging by the words “Boise Police” written across the hull.  It turned again and thrusted forward, pointing the tip of the boat to the sky.  We watched as the bottom of the boat exposed itself in front of us, much like the mouth of a Great White Shark eager to sink its teeth into his next meal.  It was hard to tell if the officers could see what was directly in front of them as the tip of the boat pointed directly towards the sky like the 12 O’clock Boys of the water.  Due to our inability to react, we assumed they could, knowing full well the hull could come down and crush us at any moment.

A slight shift in the propeller jolted the boat to the right. It juked and drove up parallel to us, then continued up the river.  We looked back, observing the boat’s precise movements back and forth across the river as not to cause any casualties, then resumed down the last bend of the river.

***

A day later, we would come to find out that the strange animal had snatched two teenage girls. Literally, grabbed them from their tube and held them captive in his cove.  The police men were called upon to arrest him and save the hostages from their cove.

Nature has a funny way of dealing with us humans.  Why did God give us a conscience?  Probably has to do with that verse in the bible where he made us into his image or something like that.  I forge the exact one, somewhere near the beginning I think.  But suddenly, survival of the fittest sounded more like a bearing of guilt…