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 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 3: It’s Not Ben Woodward. It’s Much Worse…

July 22nd, 2016. 1:45 PM

I made no effort to look either direction before stepping out into the road.  What’s the point?  My head sunk, unable to break its fixation from the asphalt.  Smooth surface, freshly paved. Ideal for jogging.  These yellow lines, bold and radiant. No wonder he ran so fast.  If anything, at least Boise’s on the up and up.

A stream of heat radiated against my arm.  I had felt this before, a system of gears, pistons and fans, turning, grinding, and working in unison to move an incredible mass with the strength of an ordinary man.  I turned my head and stared into a grille, the ugly snout of this mighty machine.  It stared back, snarling and blowing its putrid breath across my body, ready to devour me at a moment’s notice.

“HONK!” it shouted at me. I followed its turquoise frame up to the source.  It’s operator, just as livid, shot her mean mug through the windshield. The car remained stationary, barely contained by the laws against vehicular homicide.  “Get in,” it mouthed in a most violent manner, minus the sandwich of obscenities.  I obeyed.  The nightmare had just begun.

“Hey Gretch.” My greeting was far from enthusiastic.

“Hurry up and shut the door!  We don’t have all day!”

“Nice to see you too…”  I swung the door shut and Gretch hit the gas.

“God, you guys are so slow sometimes.  By the way, nice try, Zack.  I knew you were in town.”

“Gee, I wonder how that happened?”

“Yea, thanks a whole lot for the surprise, Bill.  I don’t think I could be any more thrilled.”  Bill didn’t say a word—didn’t even acknowledge the presence of dialogue; just hung his head in shame.  “Well, I mean, it’s probably a good thing you guys are here.  It just so happens I need a little help picking up some beer.”  I wasn’t sure if she meant that as a compliment or an insult, but the simple acknowledgment that I had some expertise with beer was flattering in itself.

“…Why sure Gretch, I’d be happy to help.  I’m sure I can get my hands on some good stuff.  By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, I just bought a new pair of running shoes, and I’m probably going to the Greenbelt tomorrow to try them out.  Now, I know you like to run and everything, so if you’d like to join me, you’re more than welcome to, and I’d be glad to have your—”

“No.”

“…But—”

“No.” Her answer was just as firm as the last.

“Noted. Just trying to be nice–“

“What was that?”

“…Nothing. Nothing at all.”

An awkward silence passed before Gretch threw us a bone. “I guess now that you’re here, how was lunch?”

Bill snapped out of it, ending his vow of silence.  “Oh, do we have a story to tell…”

***

Twenty minutes had passed.  The story of the Bermuda shorts man beating up the old lady had been told in full at least twice, Gretch had thrown several more insults our way, and we had gone from driving passed office buildings to strip malls, and then through neighborhoods, until now, where dried out shrubs and weeds lined a majority of the roadway.  Something wasn’t right.  “Hey Gretch, you realize we’ve just passed like, three grocery stores, right?”

“I guess I did see an Albertson’s a few blocks back…”

“…and a few liquor stores as well.”

“Um, yea… your point?”

“So… why are we driving all the way out into the boonies to get beer?”

“Oh, don’t worry.  I got a place in mind.  Special order.”

“Oh… special order.  I see…” I guess she didn’t need my expertise after all…

We pulled up to the back of a warehouse at the edge of town.  Nothing but dirt and brush surrounded this undisclosed location, not another soul in sight. In other words, a mobster’s dream. “Follow me,” said Gretch. I looked at Bill and he at me.  A stream of reluctance filled the air. “C’mon guys, we don’t have all day! Chop chop!”

We followed Gretch into a side room overlooked by a front man, sitting in his office as if he’d been expecting us.  Indeed, this was the place for beer.  The warehouse was full of it, stacked pallets of various brands lined towards the ceiling.  Gretch approached the man behind the counter.  “Well, good afternoon mam.  What can I help you with?”

“I’ve got a special pick up.  Should be under the name Gretch.”

“Gretch, of course!  I remember you from last time.”  Last time?  What kind of operation are they running here?  The man shuffled through his paperwork.  “Let’s see, what do we have here…”  Hold on, just what type of fancy stuff is she trying to get her hands on?  Sam Adams?  Rolling Rock? Don’t tell me she dragged us out here just so she could get a deal on some Steel Reserve…

“Alright, looks like we got a keg of Coors Light and a keg of Blue Moon.”  What in the—two kegs!?!?   “How would you like to pay for this?”

“Just, put in under Chase.”  Chase?  Who’s Chase?

“Oh, right. Chase.  Two kegs comin’ right up!”  The man went to the back to prepare the order.  Now was the time to take a stand.  Bill was with me.

“Gretch, what the heck is going on here?  Two kegs, really?”

“If you ever want to talk, you know, about struggles, addictions, or anything, I just want to let you know that I’m always here for you.  We’re family after all.”

Gretch tilted her head, dropped her jaw, and stared for a moment like she was dealing with a pair of incompetents.  “You guys… we’re having my work picnic today.”

“Wait, work picnic?” I asked.  “For your work?”  Gretch rolled her eyes.

“…Yes. A work picnic… for my work. Client Appreciation Day.  It’s the same thing you came to last year, Bill!”

“Oh… right. Client Appreciation Day, I remember.”

“There’s going to be burgers, and hotdogs, prizes and music, plus all this beer.”

“So, you’re telling me that all this beer is free?”  Once again, Gretch rolled her eyes.

“Yes… it’s free.”

“Well, hold on then.  Who’s this Chase guy footing the bill?” I fired back.

“That’s my boss for crying out loud!”

“Well, gee, why didn’t you say so?”  I brushed my fingers through my hair as a giant smile appeared on my face.  “Sounds like a good old time.”  For some reason, Gretch wasn’t at all impressed.

The front man and a helper returned, each rolling a keg.  “Ok miss, here are your two kegs.  Is there anything else you need?”

“That’ll be it.  Thank you very much for all the help, sir.  We’ll take it from here.”  Gretch turned to me and Bill.  “Alright boys.  Load em’ up!”

Bill and I took a long hard look at each other.  Load em’ up?  “Hey Gretch, what’s the big idea here?” I asked.

“You just brought us along so we could do your dirty work for you,” added Bill.

“Are you seriously just going to watch us while—“

“Will you guys quit being a bunch of sissies and take the kegs to the car?”

“I resent that remark—“

“Look, I don’t have time for whining.  There’s a lot of work to do, and these kegs need to get to the park ASAP.  Let’s go, chop chop!”  She turned for the door.

“But Gretch, how do we—”

“We can’t—“

“Figure it out,” she yelled as she popped the door open.

“Wait!”

“How do we—“

“GRETCH!”  Too late. The door slammed shut.

***

The park was empty when we arrived.  Bill and I stood under a large, metal canopy that covered several rows of picnic tables, imagining the aggregate of individuals that were to settle onto the site in less than an hour.  The band would play a collection of hard rock hits while the grill master would churn out steady servings of burgers and dogs to keep the clients happy and well-fed. Parents would watch their children run up and down the endless plains of grass, sipping away their nerves at every bounce on the inflatable castle.  It was peaceful now, the sun merely beginning its long decent behind this quiet piece of Earth.

“I think this is going to be a good.  You know, after everything that’s happened today,” said Bill.  I nodded my head in agreement.

“It’ll be exactly what we need.”

“I’m just glad we have the chance to finally relax—“

Bill!  Zack!” We swung around, assaulted by such a shrill voice.  “These kegs aren’t going to move themselves! Bill, let’s go!”  Bill and I gave each other a look.  “C’mon, move!  Zack, You, here, NOW!”  We moved.

We carried each of the kegs over to a spot under the canopy, its cement ground providing stability and where easy access could be achieved.  “Steady… steady…”  The second keg touched down with a modest thud, our strength having been dilapidated from previous hauls.

“Not great,” said Gretch, shaking her head and brandishing a heavy frown.  “Not… great.”  Gretch froze.  From afar, another vehicle drove through the much too long and winding path that lead to the park.

“What’s up?” asked Bill.

“My boss is coming.  Alright, it’s show time.  Whatever you do, do not screw this up!  That means no obnoxious behavior, no keg stands, no beer darts—”

“C’mon Gretch, who do you think we are—”

“Just take it easy on the kegs, will ya?”  My words seemed to be ineffective.  “Also, no swearing…”

“Coming from you?“

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” I dropped my head.

“No gay jokes, no Tim and Eric Jokes…”

“Whoa whoa whoa, Tim and Eric?  That’s a tad excessive,” Bill interjected.

“…In fact, how about no jokes altogether.”

“From me or—“

“From either of you!”  Shot down once again.  “Oh yea, one more thing.  No politics.” A long and awkward pause followed.

“Gotcha, no politics,” said Bill.

“And don’t even think about bringing up Ted Cruz, Zack.”

“Oh Gretch, give me a break!  You can’t expect me to—“

I SAID NO TED CRUZ!!!”

The old Roman gladiators used to say that death smiles at all of us.  Her fists shook, her face turned bright red, and once again, I found myself in a slouch.  We had been played, all for a little bit of beer.  I hadn’t felt so small in my entire life.

“Ok, here he comes,” said Gretch with a vicious whisper.  “Keep your head up.  Best behavior.  And don’t embarrass me!  Did you hear me?  Bill?  Zack—Oh hi Chase, how are you?”

Gretch’s boss stood with his hands on his hips, a tall stature that forced him to look down upon us.  His eyes were concealed by a pair of sporty sunglasses, as if the string of tension needed to be any tighter.  Bill and I met his gaze, anxiously waiting for the next move.  “So, you two brought the kegs, huh?”

There was a slight moment of hesitation among us.  “Well, um… I mean, we’d thought we’d help out a little, with the party and all, so uh, yea, I mean, sure, that was us…”  His answer was terrible, but thank God Bill spoke, for I could not.

“Oh man, that’s great!  I was worried Gretch wasn’t going to pull it off.  Awesome, thank you so much!“  He outstretched his hand.  “My name’s Chase.” 

“Nice to meet ya.  Zack.” I met his hand halfway for a shake.

“Bill, right? Good to see you again.”  Bill nodded and the two shared a hearty handshake of their own.  “I’m glad you guys are here.”

“So are we.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, I have some stuff in the truck; coolers, condiments, the such. After we unload everything, would you guys be willing to get the kegs going?  You know, tap em’, taste the beer, make sure all the foam’s out?  That wouldn’t be a problem for you, right?”

“Why not at all,” said Bill.

“Chase, I don’t think that’s such a good idea—“

“Don’t worry Mr. Chase, we can take care of the kegs, make sure they’re to everybody’s liking,” I quickly injected.

“Zack, do you even know how to tap a keg?”  An insult of such gravity was way out of line and deserved a harsh response.  However, I refused to take the bait.  Such behavior was beneath me, especially in front of Gretch’s boss.

“Gretch, this isn’t our first rodeo.  Mr. Chase, don’t you worry about the kegs.  They’ll be tapped, tasted, and ready to go… for the clients, of course.”

“Alright, I like your attitude!  C’mon Gretch, get with the program. Clients will be here any minute.  Let’s go, chop chop!”  Gretch shot us a dirty look.  

Yes indeed, death smiles at us all.  All we can do is smile back.

***

“How’s your Blue Moon,” asked Bill, having just taken a good swig of his Coors Light.

“Blue Moon’s good.”  It was our second taste test so far.  We took pride in our preparation, as did Gretch’s coworker who was assigned to man the grill and the band with their repetition of sound checks.

“Good! Coors Light meets my standards. A bit foamy, but not bad for a fresh tap.”

“My experience was similar.  Better try again.”  We pounded our beers, refilled our keg cups and repeated the taste test.  Bill and I nodded with approval.  “That’s good quality beer!”

“Would you like to give the Coors Light a taste test?”

“Pass it on over—on second thought, let’s finish these, then do a refill.  You know, with germs going around and stuff. No need to take any chances.”

“Good call.” We sucked down the rest of our beers’, switched places, and recommenced testing with a new variable.

“We’re good to go!”

“Make sure the Blue Moon’s still to your liking.”  I liked his suggestion, so I took it.  We traded places and refilled our cups.

“All good! And look, here some clients. Better greet em’, let em’ know the beer’s nice and cold!”

“Yea, let’s party—“

“Let’s not.” Bill and I were shaken at such an interruption, one that seemed to come out of nowhere.  We turned our heads left to right, eyeing for the source.

“Gretch… you snuck up on us,” said Bill.

“How many beers have you guys had?” asked Gretch, her inner Spanish inquisition emerging.

“Oh, I don’t know, I guess I… I sort of lost count,” I said.

“Bill?” Bill lifted his shoulders, sunk his head ever so slightly, and squeezed his lips together to make the “I dunno” face.  

“Well, no more!  I won’t have any of your antics, and I won’t have you ruin my party.”

“Oh Gretch, just try to relax a little bit.  Forget about work for a little bit and just enjoy this beautiful afternoon in the city of Boise.”  She didn’t look at all receptive to my suggestion.

“Just look at the inflatable castle over there.  Pretty soon, kids are gonna be jumping all around it, having way too much fun.”

“And the band’s about to play their first song.”

“And you know they’re gonna play the classics, just like they did last year.”

“And look at all these families showing up.  They must be stoked for all this free food!”

“And beer too,” Bill added.

“…Well, it is customer appreciation day.”  It seemed that for the moment, Gretch had let her guard down.  Now was the time to attack.

“And the customer appreciates the agent.  That means you!”  A slight smile was seen forming across her face.  Keep it up Bill.  We’re on a role!  “After all, you are my favorite real estate agent…”

“And don’t forget that—“  A terrible aberration exposed itself near the edge of the parking lot.  Evil was present, I could sense it.  “Wait a minute, who the hell is this guy?”

Out in the distance, the silhouette of a sculpted figure grew larger.  It’s shape recognizable as a man in torment, incapable of ever reaching the enlightenment of tonal divine he so much desired, no matter the number of hours spent at the gym.  It walked into the park, pigeon-toe style, careful with each step as to prevent cracks in the pavement.

“Kind of looks like a dingus if you ask me,” said Bill.  I followed up with a chuckle.

“Yea, no kidding!”

“I don’t know, he looks kind of hot if you ask me.”  God, of course she’d say that.

“How much you wanna bet its Ben Woodward?” I asked Bill before sharing a lengthy laugh.  “What do you say Bill, wanna make a bet?” I added, letting my laughter gradually settle like a logarithmic function.

“No…”  Bill’s laughter came to an abrupt end.  “It’s not Ben Woodward.  It’s much worse…”  He stared out in front of him.  I joined in his stare, the horror now in clear view.

“Oh.  My.  God.  It’s Josh Ulrich.”

“Oh no, he’s heading this way.  Quick no eye contact,” said Bill, words that were too little, too late.  Josh approached us, pecks puffed and a sense of pride beaming as if he had just accomplished some miraculous feat, like climbing a mountain or something.  I refilled my beer cup.  I had a feeling I was going to need it, and then some.

“What’s up guys,” started Josh.  “Pff, you call this a party?” Great, here we go.  Looks pretty lame so far.  It’s like I’m surrounded by a bunch of wusses.  Good thing I showed up…  Hey Bill, Fancy seeing you here.  What are you up to these days?  Me, I just got done climbing a mountain, so I’m a little beat.”  Climbed a mountain, I would’ve never guessed!  “12 hours total in the car to the Gran Tetons and back.  8 on the mountain, no sleep.  Didn’t even stop to take a piss.  Got pulled over once going 20 over, but no big deal.  I talked myself out of it, only got a ticket for 10 over; the officer didn’t want to put up a fight, not with me or anything.  I couldn’t blame him.  But how are you?  Figured you’d be too cool for Idaho, now that you’re living the high life in Austin and all.  Not me though.  I mean, I haven’t forgotten where I came from, just sayin’.  Don’t feel bad, at least you’re not one of those hipsters in Seattle, like somebody we know.”  Good, he hasn’t detected me yet.  Just keep talking Josh, as I casually… slip away…  “They suck, so bad!  But yea, how are you holding up in Austin?  Do you have a girlfriend yet?  Oh man, let me tell you, I go to the climbing gym every day—babes everywhere! Literally surrounded.  I have like, five girlfriends right now, no joke. I mean, I’m not sure exactly, I sort of lost count.  Even had to dump a couple.  I felt bad, but you just can’t please everyone, you know?”  Ok, in the clear.  Just turn and walk away.  Turn… and walk… and walk…  “Wait a minute…  No way! Zack, is that you?”  …Ahhhhhhhh crap.  “Man, what a surprise!  I haven’t seen you in ages…  You got uglier!”

“Gee, good one Josh.”  My words were barely audible over his forced chuckle.

“I don’t want to sound judgmental or anything,” whispered Josh into Bill’s ear, “but it looks like somebody’s been letting themselves go lately.”  I rolled my eyes and took a swig.

“Hi Josh,” said Gretch, losing herself in his eyes.

“Sorry I was late, I had an extended session at the climbing gym today.”  He turned to me, his chin lifted high with an extra pompous push.  “Giving some girls a couple of pointers, you know…  Yep, they’re always coming to me for help.”  Oh, give me a break.

“I’m just glad you came.”  Wait, you invited him?

“No problem, Gretch.  But seriously though, look at those flabby arms on Zack; those love handles coming out of his shirt.  He wouldn’t survive a day out on the mountain.  And honestly, not to sound pretentious or anything, but I think it may be time for someone to lay off the booze for a little bit.  Actually, I’d say it’s about time for a refill if we’re gonna put up with this crap!

“Just hold on a second, Josh.  Didn’t I beat you last time we had a push-up contest?”

“Pff, I let you win.  Besides, no way you’d beat me now, not with those puny arms.  Then again, I wouldn’t be at full strength, since I just climbed a mountain yesterday with only 4 hours of sleep.”  Oh, shut up about the mountain already!

“I’m just saying, I’m not sure you’re one to talk about arms and muscles.”

“Oh, no way,” blasted Josh, his body language providing a textbook definition of the word “offended.”  He stood next to me and flexed his chest.  “Bill, straight answer, who has the bigger pecks?”  Bill hesitated in his response, even with a thorough examination of each of our chests.  “C’mon, you don’t have to be nice.  Just tell the truth.  I need to know, right here, right now.”

“Just calm down and drink a beer, Josh, will ya? Besides, you have some catching up to do.”

“Ha!  That’s what I thought.  Don’t want to compare muscles—typical.  And now look at you, trying to be Mr. ‘I can drink beer.’  Remember those parties at my house?  Dude, I’d go through a 12 pack of Key Light, take 5 shots of vodka, 10 shots of rum, and then pound 2 glasses of whiskey; wouldn’t even get drunk.  Then, go to work on three hours of sleep, no questions asked.”

“Really?  I thought it was 10 shots of vodka and 15 shots of rum at your parents’ house?”

“I mean, I lost count after a couple, but it was over 10 shots each for sure.  Doesn’t matter, because I had a couple beers before I got here.”

“Weren’t you just at the climbing gym?” asked Bill. Josh threw up his hands in disbelief, acting as if we’d just asked the world’s stupidest question.

“Dude… they have a bar there!  What can I say?  I climb better when I’m drunk.”

“You would certainly know best.”  His fabrication required another swig of beer.

“Well, I believe you Josh.”

“Thanks, Gretch.”  The two shared a smile, and a moment.  God, this is just too much!

Josh glanced over his shoulder, waves of excitement rushing through his body.  His head perked, the scalp on his ginger head straightened, and the size of his pecks suddenly doubled in size.  He’d caught sight of several rows of slanted boards set up along the lawn, each with a hole near the top.  “Whoa… is that corn hole?”

“Well, I think the appropriate name is ‘bean bag toss,’” corrected Bill.

“I like calling it corn hole.”

“I’m sure you do,” I said.”

“Because get it?  Corn hole, like your butt?”  A pompous laugh left his mouth.

“I get it, Josh,” added Gretch, also releasing a laugh any other decent person would be ashamed of.

“There’s actually going to be a tournament a little later,” said Bill.

“Yea, Bill and I are going to be on a team,” I added.

“Well, that sucks for Bill, haha!  50 bucks says you two lose, first round!”

“Not if we play you,” I replied.

“Pff, please.  I’d crush you, easy.  If I can climb the highest Mountain in Wyoming in under 8 hours, then I hate to say it Zack, but you’re going down in corn hole.”  Josh lifted his chin and looked about the crowd as if he were giving a speech to his inferiors, Obama style.  “Yep… doesn’t seem to be any stiff competition.”

“Well Josh, I was thinking.  Since you don’t have a partner, and I don’t have a partner, then maybe we could team up?”  Ughz Gretch, now that’s pathetic.

“Oh yea, don’t worry.  We’ll win, no doubt.  Bill, Zack, we’ll talk to you losers later.  We’re going to practice.  I suggest you do the same—wait, on second thought, don’t. It’d just be a waste of time.”

Bill and I stood for a long moment, watching the repulsion of a Gretch/Josh corn hole collaboration.  Just when things were going so well…  “Wanna get a burger?  I think the band’s about to play,” said Bill.

“Sounds good…  Let me get a refill on my beer first.”

“Good call, I ran out myself.  It’s kind of weird, but it’s like Josh shows up, I take a drink or two, and the next thing I know, I’m all out of beer!”

“Yea…  I think it’s safe to say we’re in for a long weekend…”

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 2: At Least it Wasn’t Gretch After All…

July 22nd, 2016.  12:00 PM

Her voice was gentle; her tone soothing to the ears, a nice compliment to the pint of local brew we had just been served.  Bill and I had found ourselves a table near the edge of the patio, one side a prolific view of the entire street with its opposing shops, the other a front row seat to the musician’s performance—our personal enchantress.  And lucky for Bill, her innate ability to take a range of classic rock songs and transpose them into the soft style of Jewel had strayed my anger away from the cardinal error committed several minutes’ prior.  Add in a waitress flirting her way to an exorbitant tip and the Solid Café was on its way to an 5-Star Yelp review.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

“How do you like it?” asked Bill.

“Not bad,” I said with a slight shrug, followed by a gulp of beer. “We’ll see how my chimichanga is.”  In reality, the ice-cold taste of Belgian Ale provided an amiable balance to the 90-degree heatwave beating down on us, but there was no way I was letting my guard down.

“Yea, I guess we’ll see,” Bill’s response suggested disappointment.  We sat for a moment, sipping our beer and taking the time to appreciate the patio décor; the flowered planters lining the windows of the restaurant and the wood-stained decking, a sound balance between modern and rustic.

Boise Restaurant Row

Bill’s ears perked and his eyes sprang open like a brightly flicked lightbulb at the combination of notes coming from the enchantress’s guitar. “Hey… hey, I know this song!”  I turned my head to a prime position to feed my curiosity.  The progression of chords drew familiarity.  Then, a rapid rhythm.

“I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget
the time or place where we just met…”

“I know this song too!”  Bill and I drew quiet once again, attentive to each graceful note played, hoping to be the one to uncover the name of the song.

“And she is just the girl for me,
and I want all the world to see,
we’ve met.  Hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm.”

She continued, slowing her beats per minute and taking her time between lyrical phrases to showcase her smooth and elegant plucking style.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she were teasing us, driving our anticipation in a subtle way—a most enjoyable and subtle way.

“Falling… yes I am falling,
And she keeps calling… me back again.”

“It’s the Beatles!” I yelled, my face beaming with satisfaction.

“Yea! I love this song!”  Bill sprang from his seat, moved by the choice of music and added a few well-deserved dollars to the enchantress’s tip jar.

“Thank you,” she said, continuing with the song without missing a single beat, an in-song response that had been practiced several times before.  The conclusion was met with a round of soft, yet eager applause.

“Are you still mad?” asked Bill.

“Mad? Why would I be mad?”

“Well, about earlier.”

“What do you mean earlier?”

“When I accidently… never mind.”

“No, what did you do?”

“It’s nothing, I…”

“Wait a minute…” I paused.  A familiar topic, disturbing in nature nearly edged itself back into my frontal lobe. “Wait a minute…”  It hit me.  “Wait a minute, is she playing Johnny Cash?”  It was an unnecessary question.  Of course she’s playing Johnny Cash! I jumped up and added a couple dollars of my own to the tip jar.

“Why thank you,” she responded, again taking a short second to acknowledge her fan’s appreciation before settling back into an imitation of the iconic voice; not quite as low, but just as pleasing.

“What were you saying again?” I asked.

“Oh, I uh… um, actually, I don’t remember.”

“Oh well.” I shrugged my shoulders and took another sip of beer, which was near empty.  I waved the waitress over as she made a pass.

“Did you like it?” she asked.

“It was perfect!”

“Told ya.” Her smile was a bit suggestive. “How about another one?”

“I’d like that.”

“I got ya covered.  Your sandwich and chimichanga are coming right up.”  She leaned in close to me and added a wink.  “You’re going to love your chimichanga.”  Bill rolled his eyes and downed the last of his beer.

“In that case, I’m gonna need another one myself,” he said with a reply that hinted towards sarcasm.

“Same kind?”

“Uh… sure.”

“Coming right up.”  She turned, maintaining a steady grin during the entire process, then strutted back to the kitchen, moving her hips side to side in a sensual manner.

“Dude, I think this babe kinda likes me,” I whispered to Bill.

“That’s what you said about the running babe 20 minutes ago!”

“But I think this one’s for real!”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it…”  A heavy sigh left his body.  “Surely she’s not flirting to get a bigger tip,” he mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said as he tipped his glass, a reminder that we were without beer for the moment.  He stared into the empty abyss, depression taking over, though with the aid of our enchantress’s sweet melodies, he patiently waited for our waitress’s return, as did I.

And return she did, keeping true to her word with a fresh round of beers, even adding in a new set of flirtatious quips.  Then came the grand finale—two plates, one with a sandwich, the other with a giant log occupying the length of the plate, smothered with red, green, and white sauces and deep fried to perfection.  “Alright.  Here’s your sandwich, and here is your BBQ’d chimi-changa.” The presentation of our food drew a nod of approval.  A dash of hope had resurfaced.

“So… what’s in the box?” she asked, lifting her chin with a “what up” gesture, her eyes fixated beyond me.

I glanced across the table, honing in on the only object that could fit the description. “Oh you mean this?” I asked, grabbing for the running shoes.

“Yea.  What’s in the box!?” she said again, channeling her inner Brad Pitt and forcing a quick chuckle out of Bill.

“Well, check these bad boys out.”  I opened the box, revealing the newly purchased pair of shoes.  Not yet adulterated by the fouls of feet, its flashes of florescent orange shined and synthetic aroma filled our nostrils.

“Oh my God…” she replied.

“Yea, I know. I thought they were pretty sweet too the first time I saw them.”

“…Oh my God!” she repeated, staring out into the distance.  Geez, even I don’t like those shoes that much. This babe must really be head over heels—

“Oh my God!” The voice was much deeper this time. I whipped my head back to the waitress, then to Bill.  Both had contorted their bodies to face the street, gearing their attention towards the perpetual sound of pounded pavement.  The rest of the lunch patrons took notice and followed suit.

“Hey!” A scream, long and forceful, echoed through the streets.  I shot my head towards the source, barely catching a glimpse of a silhouette blasting down the middle of the road.  I turned my head again in unison with Bill, the waitress, and the rest of the patio members as if directed by a drill sergeant and zeroed in on the action.  What in the world…

His speed was impressive, especially given Birkenstock sandals as his choice of footwear.  The way he stayed on top of the double yellow lines at his current velocity through oncoming traffic suggested a heightened level of athleticism.  No doubt he had achieved success in the hundred-meter dash in high-school. It was the Bermuda shorts however that instituted his lack of care while in pursuit of the blue SUV in front of him, of which he was gaining ground at a significant rate.

“Hey Bill, isn’t that Gretch’s car?”

Bill sat for a moment in deep thought, then chuckled.  “…Now that you mention it, it could be.”

“I mean, it makes perfect sense.”

“Wait, who’s Gretch?” asked the waitress.

“Believe me, you don’t want to—oh Jesus!”

Whap! The sound of lethal contact reverberated down the street, the trigger for a chain reaction of subconscious events.  Tables shifted.  Chairs scooted backward.  Senseless chatter rang from each table, quickly converging to the edge of the patio.  All the while, a softly plucked rift of a Jewel song played in the background, unaffected by the erupting chaos.

If I could tell the world just one thing it would be
That we’re all ok…

“What in the hell was that—“

Whap, whap whap!  Three additional blows cut the waitress’s comments short. The man had sent his fist through the open window several times, delivering four unexpected punches to the head of the driver.  Bill sat back aghast, having the perfect view of the carnage.  

And not to worry, cause worry is wasteful
And useless at times like theses…

“Jesus Christ!” our waitress shouted, mixing in a colorful string of expletives between the phrase.  Due to the circumstances, her lack of professionalism was excused for the moment. An urge to conform, to join the waitress with her release of curses rose within me.  Yet, another force, built upon the siren call of a young enchantress, worked to suppress any desire to overreact.

My hands are small I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own

And they’re not yours, they are my own, and…
We are never broken…

“Looks like Gretch alright…”  I took a sip of beer and remained in my seat, clarity beaming.

A line of pedestrians stood on the sidewalk, leaning into the street as if they were barricaded by an invisible fence.  The man had positioned himself in the front of the car, obstructing any attempts of progress from the driver.  The car sat idle, its driver dazed and petrified, their identity still a mystery.

Rumors flew over the next several minutes.  Tensions rose and patrons colluded with one another, each of them bestowed with the task to gather clues as to what happened—a task that brought about many interruptions between me and my chimichanga.  

“I heard he almost got run over,” one said.

“Him and the driver got in an argument,” said another.

“No, my manager said he got in an argument with his wife,” our waitress added.

“Wait, his wife was driving?” asked Bill, trying to conceal his disappointment.

“Gosh, I hope it wasn’t,” said a random patron.

“Neither do I,” I added, shaking my head.  “…Neither do I…”

“No, it wasn’t the wife,” our waitress interjected.  “I’m pretty sure it was a…”  A sighting from inside the restaurant stalled her train of thought. Bill and I took a peak of what looked to be a flash of the manager.  “…It was a… …hold on just a second.”  She disappeared into the restaurant with the hope of uncovering new details.  Bill and I took notice of a crowd that had grown twice as large within a matter of minutes.  Cars continued to pile up, filling the length of the street.

“Ok, the police are on their way,” announced the waitress bursting back onto the scene, having found her calling in life.  Serving us longer no longer seemed to be her occupation.

“So what happened?” asked the enchantress during a break in lyrics, plucking away at her guitar as if it were the natural order of her existence.  She looked over to our waitress leaning over the railing, her attention elsewhere.  She continued plucking away, waiting for an answer.

“So, the guy got into an argument with his wife and kids across the street,” finally said the waitress, her focus undeterred.  “They were yelling at each other back and forth, and he was acting like he was going to cross the street.  But he never would, and these drivers are all getting pissed, cause he keeps giving them the wrong impression!” Her ability to speak without taking a breath was nothing short of astonishing.  “So, one of them says ‘screw it’ and turns.  Well then, this guy finally decides to step out right into the street while the driver’s turning, and then he goes ballistic—” A blip of a police siren sounded down the street, directing us to simultaneously turn to the source.  “Well, look what we have here…” she said.  There was no shame, not even an attempt to hold back the grin she had ripped at the reveal of her foretold prophecy.

Two more police cars rolled up to the front of the SUV.  An ambulance followed, maneuvering through the a completely surrounded crime scene.  Officers and paramedics exited their vehicles and began their line of questioning, starting with the man in the Bermuda shorts and trickling down to the line of observers.  Two others tended to the driver, who’s identity was still a mystery.

“So you’re saying the guy got hit?” asked Bill.

“No, he was like 5 feet away!  Not even close!”  Gee, looks like the police are questioning the wrong people.

“So who called the police?” I asked.

“He did.”

“Wait… on himself???”

“Oh yea!” she replied with the enchantress’s sweet ambience backing her up.  “He was so angry, he jumped right in front of the car and called them right up!  Man, this keeps on getting more bizarre by the minute.  “Look, the driver’s getting out!”

The phrase set off another stampede to the railing, much like the announcement of a schoolyard brawl.  Police officers worked to convince the driver to exit the vehicle, activity far from our waitress’s claim; a blunder that resulted in zero repercussions. Anticipation lingered amongst the crowd and strengthened with each passing minute as the negotiations between the police and the driver continued.

“They’re opening the door!”  A random claim brought the hundreds crowding the sidewalk and patio to whispers.  Not one among us had the gall to speak while the driver’s identity was being disclosed, nobody except for one—our enchantress, the only one worthy, still plucking away at her guitar, her source of life.  Who is this person?

An officer opened the door and outstretched his arm.  I stared and waited, my heart pounding like a jackhammer, unable to break from the moment.  Slowly, a fragile hand reached out, shaking until it met the stability of the officer’s hand.  A wave of “WTF’s,” spoken fully and without filter sparked throughout the crowd as the driver was guided into sight, a phrase that neither Bill, the waitress, nor myself could skip when it was our turn to participate.  An elderly woman, easily passed as a member of the Golden Girls emerged, her left ear the size of a grapefruit and spots of blood soaked in her curly, white hair.

The man, the young track star donning Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks, had beaten up a little old lady.

“What the F—!” The last one came from a beautiful voice.  A clatter of dropped silverware and a series of gasps followed. Bill and I turned to our enchantress, the only logical source of the foul phrase.  Our faces grew wide and petrified.  And then there was silence—an awful cacophony of silence.  The sweet, siren melodies had come to an end.

…I guess even the best among us have our flaws.

Mr. Bermuda was arrested immediately, his wife and kids nowhere to be seen.  Officers did their best to restore order to downtown Boise as he was placed under police custody, a fruitless effort in the end.  Yes, their professionalism helped calm the situation, and most of us would find a way to reintegrate back into society for the sake of our loved ones—somehow.  But to anybody near the vicinity of the Solid Café on that sunny afternoon, there was no denying that a piece of our souls had be sucked away, forever lost in the ether floating above downtown Boise.

 “Well, at least it wasn’t Gretch,” said Bill, having found the will to speak once again.  I barely knew how to respond.

“I… I suppose it’s time to grab the check,” I responded with a frozen face. I took one last swig of beer and waited for our waitress to cross our line of sight.  It had been several minutes since her last sighting.  Her presence now seemed pointless, as did my reason for my existence. Yea… at least it wasn’t Gretch after all…

Chapter 24: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 3 – The Emmy Award Winner

We emerged from the shallow depths of the Madison River lobster skinned and fully consumed of energy, the grueling, 7-mile journey by tube certainly taking its toll on our bodies. So thankful we were to have experienced several minutes of relaxation, to become one with the river and to exist, if only for a few hours, amongst a series of hazards that would mold us into honorary Pony natives. How thankful we were to say that we had endured the elements of the mighty Madison, our scrapes, bruises, and burns worn as badges of pride on our trek up the recovery ramp.

But perhaps most of all, we were just thankful that the whole damn thing was over.

In the backseat of the Benz laid my backpack with a new set of clothes. I grabbed for it, and then hesitated, opting to peak outside of the car for a suspicious survey of my surroundings. Bill and Gretch stood near the trunk, their undivided attention focused on deflating their tubes, something I had been ever-so prudent about since our exodus from the river, a calculated move to avoid a squall of harassment for being the last one with an inflated tube. With my backpack in hand and the coast clear, I calmly shut the door and slipped into the public outhouse undetected for a change of clothes and a quick whiz, one that was much deserved.

After my episode of relief, I dipped into my backpack and pulled out the green Old Navy shirt I had bought right before the wedding. The material was light and soft, one of those shirts that aren’t exactly a solid color, consisting of short, dark-shaded fibers of the same color scheme, but make you look both buff and awesome whenever you put it on—my favorite type. Josh Ulrich would agree, being that his whole wardrobe consists of them along with a couple of Patagonias and North Faces. Ben Woodward has a bunch of those shirts as well, but none of them make him look buff, or awesome for that matter. Sadly, the kid just kind of looks like a dingus, no matter what he wears.

With the words “Green Bay Packers” printed in yellow varsity style XXL letters however, I couldn’t help but think that this shirt was far superior to anything that Josh Ulrich ever owned (and definitely better than everything in Ben Woodward’s collection). There was no doubt that this was a one of a kind. I put it on, and dad body or not, I looked buff, and I looked awesome. It was a wonder why it had taken me until now to wear it.

I strutted out of the bathroom, giving Bill the “what’s up” nod as he folded and packed the rest of the deflated tubes into the back of the Benz. He nodded back with an impressive smile. “You guys ready to head back?”

“I think we should stop and get some more beer before we go…“ Whoa, wait—what is this? It wasn’t so much the suggestion that bothered me, but when Gretch lifted herself out of the backseat, a jolt of repulsion shot through my body. There she stood, clad in a thin green shirt with the words “Green Bay Packers” on it, written in yellow varsity style XXL letters, trying to look “buff” and “awesome,” or something stupid like that. I threw my hands up and rolled my eyes in disbelief.

“You just could resist, could you? You had to copy me. You saw the shirt I got at Old Navy, and you bought the same exact one, just because I got it. That’s unbelievable—No. I wish I could say I can’t believe it, but you know Gretch, after everything that’s happened this trip, this doesn’t surprise me; not one bit—“

“Zack, you saw me in line at the Old Navy,” she snapped back. “You knew I bought it, and you watched me pack this shirt in my bag this morning. You’re the one who copied me!”

This time, I actually couldn’t believe the words that had just come out of her mouth. I copied her? What an accusation! How dare she accuse me of copying her, after everything I’ve done for her! Oh, she likes the Green Bay Packers because of that one hunk Clay Matthews? No, she likes the Green Bay Packer because I like the Green Bay Packers. And she’s the one claiming otherwise? It’s revolting. It’s a travesty! It will not stand!!!

I stared at her with a set of impassioned eyes, brewing up a brutal response that would set the record straight, to create an embarrassment so overwhelming that the thought of an assertion much like the one she had just made would make her tremble in her sleep. I was about to make sure she’d never say anything so abominable for the rest of her life! My fists clinched and shook as I opened my mouth, squeezing every ounce of energy from my body into the ultimate comeback, a definitive insult, utter assurance that this would never happen, ever again!

“Gretch, You—I… Get—“ My mind raced with thoughts, thousands of them swirling, converging into a cloud of obfuscation. There was so much to say, any one of them warranting destructive results, yet all of them wanting to be released all at once! I opened my mouth again. “Gret…” It was a complete jam, impossible for anything to escape from my mouth’s tiny orifice. C’mon! Just say something—anything!

“Get in the car…” I said, my voice low and haunting. It was all that came out.

Gretch did as she was told and Bill followed her lead. I climbed in and sped off towards Harrison, stopping in Norris for a quick fill up on gas beforehand. We needed beer, and a lot of it.

20 minutes of Third Eye Blind and little conversation eventually led us to a local convenient store just inside of Harrison city limits. “I’ll be back in a minute,” said Gretch the moment I parked the car. She was quick to exit the car, as was I to follow her. “Why are you coming in?” she asked, confronting me with a look of perplexity spread across her face, as if she was the only one allowed in the store.

“I don’t know, I just want to make sure there’s nothing else we need, that’s all, heheh.” The truth was, I wasn’t really quite sure why I wanted to go in. Maybe it was just for the heck of it. She rolled her eyes and continued on towards the entrance.

“Oh boy, Packer fans eh?” said the attendant manning the store. “We don’t see many of you guys around here.”

“Oh yea, we’ve been fans for a long time,” I started, eager to hold a positive conversation about the Packers. “My family’s from Wisconsin, and we just love watching our boys play every chance we get, right Gretch?” Gretch was already to the back of the store, her focus totally diverted to the search of Coors Light. “Well, you know what she has her mind on, heheh.” The lady joined me in a soft chuckle.

“Oh boy, you kids must be so exited for the season!”

“Oh you betcha! She’s a big Clay Matthews fan, but you know me, I just have to root for my boy Aaron Rodgers.”

“Oh, he’s such a handsome fellow.”

“You know, I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been mistaken for Aaron Rodgers in the past…”

“I bet you have! In fact, you do look a little bit like him, if I do say so myself.”

“Haha, I know, I get it all the time… Yea, I really hope we get a chance to make it out there for a game or two this year. We just absolutely love it, and it’s always such a wonderful experience—” The sound of a 100-pound dumbbell slamming on the counter stopped our conversation dead in its tracks. We turned our heads, shaken up by the sound. There sat an 18 pack of Coors Light, and next to it stood Gretch, shooting us a short and artificial half-smile.

“That’ll be 16 dollars hun.” I reached into my back pocket to hand her my credit card, but by the time I got my wallet out, there was already a 20 on the counter. I gave Gretch a concerned look. She just shrugged back and returned a wide-eyed look like I was a moron. “What?”

“Thank you so much. Gosh, you two look so cute in your Green Bay Packer shirts.”

“Oh thank you mam. You have a wonderful day!” I replied with a giant smile on my face. Gretch nodded her head and gave the lady another forced, half-smile, squinting her eyes in a stuck up manner in the process. By the time we exited the store, her smile had disappeared and her nod had turned into a solid shake.

“What the heck was that all about?” she snapped.

“I don’t know, where the heck did you get 20 bucks from?”

“None of your business, that’s where!”

“GRETCH!”

“I found it in the parking lot of the gas station we stopped at back in Norris!”

“Gretch, that was somebody’s money! You stole!”

“What? I asked around. And it’s not like nobody you’ll be complaining later.”

She’s a criminal, just like her brother… “Whatever, let’s just go back to the cabin. This whole thing just makes me rotten.” We crawled back into the car and began the drive back to Pony.

“Alright! More Coors Light!” exclaimed Bill.

“Yep, another 18 pack,” I replied after a long sigh. “I can’t wait for steaks tonight.”

“Me neither. I think the grill’s gonna cook em’ up real good! You guys get anything else?”

“Nah, just the beef sticks we got back in Norris. I figured I might as well go in there and check, just in case. You never know, right?”

“Right—” A sudden release of pressure was heard from the backseat. Both of us looked back. Gretch had not only opened the 18 pack, but also cracked open a fresh can of Coors Light.

“GRE—“ I almost blurted it out by natural instinct, and for good reason too! She had the audacity to have an open container? In my car? While I’m driving? But as the word began to leave my mouth, I remembered the golden rule Lea had taught us merely a moon ago: You’re allowed to have a beer on the drive from Harrison to Pony. I let it slide without further mention and continued up the road back to the cabin.

Bill was quick to fire up the grill and get a start on dinner soon after our arrival, and who could blame him! If he felt anything like me, he was starved! I did my part by helping Lea whip up a few servings of “Idahoan” instant mashed potatoes, and Gretch even helped by prepping some corn on the cob! Well, at least I think she did. Who knows, she could’ve just stood around drinking more beer, which was more likely the case, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say she helped.

Each of us salivated at the sight of four thick New York Steaks, fully seasoned and sizzling over a wood tempered fire, and continued long after they were lifted from the hot, grated iron they were cooked on. Our bodies released a heavy dose of dopamine the moment the savory taste of red meat hit our taste buds, sending each of us into our own form of fantastical exultation, proof that the hours of construction put into Bill’s grill was beyond masterful, and his cooking beyond that. But it wasn’t enough. Within minutes, my entire plate of food had been devoured… and I still wanted more.

To my left was Gretch, still with a substantial amount of food left on her plate, but her position and attentive nature towards her meal meant that any attempt at her food was at best a foolish endeavor. Bill on the other hand had grown negligent over his plate. Although a hearty portion had already been eaten, there it lay unattended, resting on the coffee table and still very much edible. He busied himself, toying with a collection of beer sitting next to Gretch and ignoring his remaining slab of meat altogether. “It’s now or never,” I thought to myself. “He won’t even know, playing around with the beer and all. And the way he’s acting, he’s probably all done eating anyway! I mean, I could ask—no, can’t take the chance. What if he says no? What to do, what to do—look at him poke at Gretch, obviously trying to show her something—knock it off! Concentrate—think stupid! He’s not looking! Act. NOW!”

With a single, swift motion, I lifted my steak knife and stabbed down at the slab. My knife pierced the strip like a hot stick of butter—success. I lifted the knife once again; the steak wasn’t there. Another knife had been stuck in it. “Hiya!” Bill screamed and swatted his knife towards mine, clinking together the metal ends.

“Hiiiya!” I returned with a counter attack. It was quickly deflected by another knife swat.

“Get back!” screamed Bill with a mighty swing of his knife across my body, his eyes lifted and his face long and serious.

“It’s mine!” I shot back after leaning back and dodging his swing, Matrix style. I countered, going in with a swing of my own. Bill jumped out of his seat and positioned himself in an aggressive stance. It all happened so quickly, the series of events moving faster than our brains could function, and the next thing I knew we were both on our feet, aggressing over what was left of the steak. “On guard!” I lunged toward him with my knife, my arm extended in front and body positioned like a master fencer. He took a few scoots back and came back at me with a lunge of his own, going straight for the kill shot. I deflected and rang my knife around in a circular motion in an attempt to induce confusion upon my foe. He copied my maneuver, both of our knives swirling around in between our bodies.

“Huwaaaa!” screamed Bill, shaking his knife in random directions in front of his body. I swatted my arm in a fury of madness only to be matched by Bill’s as our knives swung about, hoping that one would eventually make contact with something—hoping that contact would be one of our opponent’s vital organs.

“Yaawwwww!” My arm moved around fast—lightning fast; swinging and swatting in an out of control manner in front of Bill’s face, neck and torso.

“Ahhhh!” he screamed back, mirroring my attack style and speed—so fast that our blades began to appear as a solid sheet of grey, hovering around in front of us, waiting for Murphy’s Law to take effect.

“WAAAAA!!!”

“HUUAAAAAA!!!”

“WHHHHOOOOOOOO!!!”

“GUUUUUUUUYYYYYYSSSSS!!!” Both of us stopped in our tracks and turned our heads at the cry of the beast. Gretch sat back with her eyes wide and body trembling in horror. “What, in the hell, is wrong with you guys!?” Neither one of us uttered a sound, except for a couple of exhausted exhales. “You guy’s are acting like a bunch of animals…”

I took a long, hard look at Bill and he took a long, hard look at me. We remained silent, and nervous for another moment, before I finally spoke again. “…Are you kiddin’ me Gretch?” I blurted out, the words naturally flowing from my mouth.

Obviously we were just joking around,” answered Bill.

“Yea, you think I want this stupid piece of meat?”

“You think we’re stupid enough to fight like this?”

“Yea, the steak was good, but c’mon!”

“Geez, way to spoil the fun, Gretch.”

“No kidding. Freaking out like we’re gonna hurt each other, give me a break—you know what, I’m not even hungry anymore!”

“Me neither. Come Zack, let us leave this Gretch to simmer in her paranoia.”

“Let’s do. I got a bunch of beef sticks to snack on anyway.” We grabbed our plates and left the party pooper outside to finish the rest of her dinner by herself. “I’m gonna need a stiff old fashioned after that one…”

 

***

 

“Psst, Zack,” whispered Bill as we finished up the last of the dishes. He whipped his head over twice, motioning it towards the bedroom.

“What?” I blurted, watching him tiptoe away.

“Shhh.” He made another head nod, this time towards the bathroom where the shower was running. A smile slowly grew on his face, causing a smile to grow on my face. He waved me over and I obediently followed. Whatever Bill had up his sleeve, it was going to be good… real good.

“Ok, here’s the plan. You lay on her bed and I’ll lie on mine. She wants to go to the Pony Bar really bad, so we’re gonna pretend to have fallen sound asleep. She’ll try to wake us up, but she wont be able to, and then she’ll freak out, really bad. What do you think?”

“Bill, you gotta know that I’m not some guy off the street that’s gonna suck up…” There was a serious look in his eyes as I spoke, ready to except any sort of news with a stroke of dignity. “…But that’s probably the best idea I’ve heard this whole trip.”

He paused for a second, acting as if he needed to hold back the tears before speaking again. “Then let’s hurry and get into position before she gets out!”

“Oh God, the shower just turned off. Quick!” We hopped into the room and jumped into position, letting a couple giggles out of our system before go time.

“Ok ok, she’s coming, shhh!”

I could hear her shuffling around the cabin, taking her sweet time wandering about, looking everywhere except for the most obvious place. “Bill? Zack? Where are you guys?” I clenched my jaw shut, doing everything I could to keep from letting out a chuckle and blowing our cover. “Is this a joke?” she asked as she continued her search, heading towards the den and asking Lea for additional help. “Mom, have you seen Bill and Zack?” I heard from a distance. Again, it took an extra effort to lock my jaw in place and refrain from making any sort of noise.

10 minutes had passed and the constant sound of shuffling continued to make waves through the cabin. It grew faint, then loud, then faint again, each iteration causing an increased stress on the muscles holding our mouths shut. The shuffling noise grew once again, and this time it maintained its presence, growing louder and louder, piercing, earsplitting, drumming into my skull—ringing over me now! Pounding and pounding, ready to explode!

Then, there was silence, but for the biological release and intake of air. The shuffling had stopped, and my heart was throbbing. A loud flick of the light revealed two bodies, completely motionless in the absence of darkness. “You guys look pretty stupid right now,” said a girl’s voice. No response was given. “Actually, you look really stupid!” Wow. It was like we were dealing with an amateur. “Oh well. It looks like I’ll just have to go to the Pony Bar all by myself then…” Gretch? By herself? To the Pony Bar? The statement in itself almost blew our cover it was so hilarious.

Suddenly, I felt a close presence next to me. It must have been Gretch, and she was up in my face, foolishly thinking she could break me. “Get up Zack. You’re faking, I know you are!” It took every muscle in my body, tensed in unison to keep me from letting out a snort. The culmination of up close and personal Gretch remarks was almost too much to bear. She hovered over my position for another minutes before walking up and taking a stab at her next victim—Bill. She had given up on me… for now.

Out of a small crack in my eye, I watched Bill, whose performance was impeccable. He even had a slight buzz under his breath, a delicate snore that sounded completely natural… almost too natural. “Bill, wake up!” she commanded in a stern and frightening voice. Yet again, she was afforded no response except for another set of rhythmic breathing. Man, Bill is good! Gretch went unphased, stepping up in her attacks.

She went straight for the face, grabbing his cheeks and squeezing them together like a bloated puffer fish. “Listen Bill, get up. We’re going to the Pony Bar, or else,” she said, speaking in some mystic dialect of evil (Actually, the conversation had much more substance. But because so many curses were used, about 90% of it had to be omitted due to personal blog standards). Yet, she continued. “If you don’t @$#$@&g get up right #$#@&% now, I’m going to beat the #$@&! out of your $&#@$ $#@, you $#@# $#*&$ $@^@&$@ @$@!(!#&^ @$%!!!!!! !!@#*$@#@!&*$^@%!*^! !^@@!*^$%!# ^$!@#^(^!%#(!^!!!!!”

To my absolute horror, the conversation went on. And to my amazement, Bill miraculously managed to keep his mouth shut and his body perfectly still. Gretch began throwing his head around like a chew toy, then proceeded to pick it up by the cheeks, giving Bill the old, cold stare down. “How can one man endure so much?” I asked myself. Then it hit me. No wonder he’s is keeping such a good cover. I think he’s actually out cold!

Gretch slammed his head down on the bed, where it bounced off the mattress and joined the rest of his limp body. She whipped her head back around and stared me down. I had seen that face before, a face where someone’s all pissed off for no reason at all—the worst kind—Ronda Rousey—screw this!

“Ahhh, oh boy, what a nap,” I said, stretching my arms and legs out. “Oh hey Gretch, what’s going on, heheh?” She continued her pissed off stare; no way of clearing my name. I leaned over and took a peak at Bill. My hypothesis was correct; he wasn’t faking, not one bit. He truly was dead asleep. As it turns out, a full day of floating the Madison mixed with a belly full of beef and beer had induced a state of sleepiness, and at this point, the poor kid wouldn’t wake up for the end of the world. “Well, I’ll leave you guys alone to deal with whatever it is you got to do for a little bit. I’m gonna see what Lea’s up to.”

I slipped out of the room, careful and light on my feet not to make Gretch even more enraged. And honestly, I didn’t want to bear witness to what Gretch was about to do next. And what was the point if I was utterly powerless in stopping her? Bill had carved his own destiny; his life was no longer in my hands.

 

***

 

Lea and I were watching the evening news in comfort when Gretch walked into the den, her head down and arms crossed. She took a seat next to her mom on the couch and shoved her arms deeper into her chest for an extra pout. “What’s wrong honey?” asked Lea, somehow unaware of the troubling events that had just taken place. Gretch said nothing, her only response being a sharp turn of her body away from her mother. By her overtly obnoxious shift, we could correctly assume that she was trying to say, “I’m mad.” Yet, her actions still warranted the obvious question. “Are you mad?”

It was another sharp shift, deeper into the couch, her face barely visible at this point; no chance of possible eye contact. Why yes, by the looks of it, it seems as though Gretch is indeed a little upset. I lifted my hand and cupped it over my mouth in a direct path towards Lea as to call out into a deep canyon and create an echo. Yet, only a whisper was uttered, barely audible as to prevent anybody except for Lea from interpreting my message, both visually and orally. “She’s a little grouchy because Bill fell asleep.”

“That’s not even!” snapped Gretch, whipping around and confronting my accusation head on. Crap! How did she even hear?   “All I wanted to do was go to the Pony Bar tonight. Bill knew that, so he went to bed—on purpose. Just to make me mad!” Well, that worked out brilliantly if I do say so myself. “What are you smiling about Zack?”

“…Um, nothing, I eh just…” C’mon, think of something. Quick! “I was just thinking, since it’s my last night in Pony and all, that I wouldn’t mind going out to the Pony Bar with you for a drink or two, even without Bill.” Good save—wait!

“Oh Gretch, that sounds like a wonderful idea! How about you two just go for a couple drinks?” Like most good ideas that are given by a mother, Gretch wanted no part in accepting Lea’s. So she stood up with her head down and slowly walked out of the den. There had to be a kink in her neck and a strain in her arms or something, for her head remained stuck in the downward position and her arms looked to be permanently attached to each other in the crossed position as she walked away. And once again, Lea and I were left in the den to watch the local news by ourselves.

“I don’t know what happened? I really did want to go to the Pony Bar on my last night for a couple of drinks!”

“Oh don’t worry Zack. She’ll come around,” Lea assured. “Gretch never passes up a chance to go out to a bar, especially in Pony.” Her words ameliorated my concerns, but only slightly. There was still much uncertainty stirring in my mind, let alone the anxiety bustling about.

Sure enough, the Gretch came back five minutes later with her shoes on and covered in a sweatshirt, dressed like she was ready to brave the elements of nature. “Alright, I guess I’ll go,” she said in a melancholy voice, doing her best not to show positive emotion. “But all I want is one beer. That’s it!”

“Ah great!” I said, and with a mighty zip in my step, I jumped to my feet and headed straight for the door. “Lea, do you wanna come too?” I asked, leaning my head back into the den, nearly forgetting my manners.

“Oh, no thank you.” She wiggled her can of Coors Light in line with her head. “I’ve got enough here to last me through the night.

“Well then, what are we waiting for Gretch?” I zipped right up and out of there. Gretch followed behind, shuffling her way to the door as if she was unable to lift her feet off the ground, forced towards a place she wanted to go to all along.

 

***

 

It was a mild night at the Pony Bar, something you’d expect for a typical Thursday in the small, rancher’s town with most of the big-time cowboys waiting until Friday to come out and party. “What will it be,” asked the bartender as we took a seat at the bar, the same one that served us a day before.

“I’ll have a Coors Light,” said Gretch after taking some time to peruse the menu, a baffling maneuver since we all knew what she was going to order all along. Whatever.

“I’ll have a bud light, draft please.”

“That’ll be two dollars each.”

I reached in my pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. “Oh check it out!” Amongst the pile of crumpled bills laid a Wooden Nickel. I showed Gretch; it looked as though she had one as well. “Here you go mam.”

“Thank you guys. Enjoy!”

Gretch and I sipped on our beer and furthered our examination of the knick-knacks lining the bar’s walls from the day before, a small respite of time before I threw a deluge of questions her way. “Don’t you have a lot of friends around here?” I asked. “Where are they all at? Don’t they like to party?”

“I dunno? They’re probably working and stuff. It’s still Thursday after all.”

“Oh yea. Where do they work?”

“At the ranches.”

“What’s so good about the ranches?”

“A bunch of rich people own em’.”

“Do they all live there?”

“Ya.”

“Really?”

“Ya.”

“All of em’?”

“I think so…”

“Do they make good money?”

“The engineers do.”

“Whoa, maybe I should work there…”

“You need connections.”

“Good thing I know you guys then!”

“Yea, sure… good luck with that…” The last comment seemed to have killed off any further discussions of Gretch’s friends and their places of work. We took another sip of beer and revisited our examination of the bar’s unique decorations, each of us choosing to remain silent until we figured out the next thing to say.

“So what the heck are all those semi-trucks doing driving by your house and spreadin’ dust everywhere? What a drag on the Dutcher Estate!”

“Oh yea, they gotta clean up all of the old gold mines.”

“What happened?”

“Back in the day this use to be an old gold mining town. It thrived, and there were all sorts of things! Town stores, inns, bars, brothels, you know, the usual stuff you find in the old west.”

“I hear ya.”

“Well, the industry started dyin’ and people moved away. So later down the road, some rich and greedy dudes came over to try and find more gold, but just ended up pouring a bunch of chemicals into the mines instead. And as it turns out, those chemicals are bad for the environment, so now they gotta go out there and clean it all up!”

“Sounds terrible…”

“Yea, but who knows? Maybe it’s good for the economy?”

“Yea, maybe.” I took another swig of beer and stared at the wall of liquor in front of me. It wasn’t a lot, but impressively large for a small bar in rural Montana. “Man Gretch, I can’t believe this is my last night here. I really starting to like this place… I hope I can come back sometime—I really do.”

“I hope so too.” Gretch’s amiable response threw me off a bit given our recent history, but I gladly accepted it after taking another sip of beer. “And to tell you the truth, I’ve had a lot of fun this trip. I’m glad we all got to go to Beth’s wedding together.”

“You know, I did too. In the end, I’m glad you decided to come with us.

“Really?”

Did I really mean what just came out of my mouth? “…Sure.” Whatever, I just needed a little appeasement to get her off my back. And once again, a mug met my lips and its contents entered my body.

“Oh look, it’s Revin’ Evan!” said Gretch, her face glowing bright as if Nickelback had just walked into the bar. I turned my head toward the entrance; in came a scraggily looking dude with glasses and curly black hair, sort of a Ben Woodward type of look.

“Revin’ Evan?”

“Yea, Revin’ Evan! He’s one of the most popular guys in Pony! He comes to the bar all the time!”

“Huh. Revin’ Evan, I would have never guessed…” And neither would’ve anybody else for that matter. His oversized black T-shirt with a creepy picture of Marilyn Manson definitely did not fit the style of fashion the rest of the patrons at the Pony Bar were wearing. However, he was quite colloquial in his dealings, immediately joining in jovial conversation with a few of the other regulars at the end of the bar.

Out of nowhere, a hard rumble sent a gasp out of Gretch’s mouth. Stumbling footsteps crept up from behind us, their lack of rhythm striking a sense of fear, reason to abstain from looking back and to instead take in another giant gulp of beer in preparation to the possibility of an unwelcomed encounter. The footsteps stopped—the deity was near. We set down our beers to a loud clink and slowly turned our heads to the left. A bulging belly enclosed by a long sleeve plaid shirt that was mere moments from bursting apart and tucked into a tight pair of wranglers covered the view of the regulars at the end of the bar. Within a matter of seconds, Revin’ Evan’s notoriety had literally been overshadowed.

“The name’s Wade,” said the deep and raspy voice next to us. “Is this seat taken?” Each of us raised our heads slowly upward towards the man whose cowboy hat and thick mustache perfectly matched the rest of his outfit, our stereotypical idea of an old, drunken rancher living in small town Montana.

“Please. Be my guest,” I said after a short moment of silence. He accepted my offer and to my luck, took a seat next to Gretch.

“Ain’t never seen none of you folks before. Where abouts you from?” asked Wade, the smell of hard liquor reeking from his breath.

“Boise,” answered Gretch, her answer short and succinct.

“Seattle,” answered I, my answer short and succinct.

“All you damn city folk are always comin’ here and visitin’ now a days,” he said, prompting each of us to take another swig of beer. Wade’s response was surprisingly welcoming, even though his intention appeared to show disgust. Whether or not he liked to admit it, I think Wade enjoyed meeting the new folk who passed through Pony on their travels. “What in the hell brought you out to a place like this?”

“My family owns the Dutcher Estate,” replied Gretch.

“Oh yea, I heard that name before. The Dutchers… Well Dutchers, looks like you’re almost outa beer.” Wade signaled for the bartender. “Hey miss, get these two another round and get me a shot of bourbon.” Despite his heightened level of intoxication, his good deed sparked further conversation, as well as a strange and mutual respect for the man we had just become acquainted with—at least for the time being. A minute later, the bartender came back with a fresh set of beers for Gretch and I and a bottle of whiskey to be poured into a shot for Wade. “Cheers,” he said, lifting his glass in the air.

“Cheers,” we replied, mirroring his gesture by raising our mugs. Wade wasted no time in drinking, already having his shot downed by the time our beer touched our lips.

“Another one,” said Wade without hesitation. The bartender wasted no time in accepting his request, most likely having previous knowledge of Wade’s drinking capabilities. We however, did not, and watched with a bit of dread as he waited for his next drink, which apparently couldn’t come soon enough. “You know, I’m a writer,” he added.

“No kidding? I’m a writer too,” I added, excited for the opportunity to talk, writer to writer. How happy I always am to speak of the frustrations our kind goes through when writing the next great novel, hardships that nobody else can understand; the months and years of preparation that goes into writing the perfect story and the reward you get after it touches somebody’s heart upon reading your work for the first time; a single gesture that reminds you that all the time and effort put into your creation was well worth it, a creation that nobody but yourself could have come up with. And with at least 20 more years of writing experience over me, I was dying to pick the man’s brain. “I’m actually in the middle of writing my first book right now!”

“Oh, you’re one of those types of writers,” he said in a disparaging tone, prompting me to take another drink of beer. “You see, I’m a song writer; a poet!”

“Oh… that’s great. Poetry’s very hard to write. I have a lot of respect for people who can do that.”

“You see, what it takes for somebody to write in 4 chapters, I can do in 4 minutes—one song. Let’s see you do that!”

“Yea, you know, I wish I could do that…” And yet again, I was overcome with the urge to take another long drink of beer.

“I even have an Emmy Award!” Ok Wade, I finally get it. You’re way better at writing than I am. Please continue to berate me with your awesomeness. “I used to write country songs for daytime television, you know. I’m sort of a big deal.” Oh yea, I bet you are. “Say, look at these guys over there. I’ve never seen them before.”

Gretch and I looked forward to the other side of the bar where a new group of young patrons sat, picking at a large pizza they had brought in. “Maybe you should go over there and introduce yourself,” I politely suggested. I’m sure they’d be just as thrilled with your drunken ramblings as I am.

“Hell no, they can come over here and have a drink with me! Are you trying to get rid of me or something?”

“Of course not, Wade.” Damn it!

“Hey!” yelled Wade across the bar, sloppily pointing to a taller boy with thick-rimmed glasses and wavy, long hair. “Come over here!” The boy acknowledged Wade, but couldn’t understand him, or at least pretended not to understand him, and understandably so. “…I said come over here!” The boy mouthed ‘what’ again, and the exchange went on for several more minutes. In the meantime, Gretch and I sucked on our beers. It was required if this madness were to keep up.

The realization must have finally sunk into Wade’s head that the boy was not going to come over to him. Thus, he succumbed to another conversation with Gretch—better her than me, I hate to say. For the next five minutes, Gretch entertained Wade by listening to one of his ‘stories’ while I happily sat at the bar, entertained by my mug of beer.

“I’ll tell you wait,” said Wade. “You guys wanna drive up to the mountains and smoke a little pot?”

Uh, gee Wade, sounds fun,” replied Gretch. “But I don’t know if we can swing it tonight—“

Oh, you guys’ll be fine. I’ll drive ya. Don’t worry, I’m a good driver, even when I’ve had a little bit to drink.”

“I’m sure you are Wade.”

“We can all crash up there till the mornin’ too. My truck’s got plenty of room, and plenty of liquor too.”

“Sounds fun Wade. We’ll let you know if we’re interested.”

“I bet these guys like to party over here. Hey, you with the glasses—yea you!”

“I think we should get out of here soon,” whispered Gretch to me. It was an opportune moment, for the boy across the bar had caught Wade’s attention again. “Wade’s starting to weird me out a little bit.”

“Ok, but let’s just take this nice and easy. No sudden moves; that’ll arouse unwanted suspicion. Just finish your beer and we’ll make a nice and quiet Irish goodbye when the time is right.” Wade sat back on his stool, having been denied a drinking request for the second time that night. Strike two. Unfortunately, that meant his attention was redirected back to us.

“By the way, did you ever watch that show Gilligan’s Island?” I heard Wade ask Gretch. Gretch slowly nodded her head, not exactly showing interest in continuing the conversation. Wade however, conveniently didn’t get the hint and continued his slurring. “I always thought that one lady on there was the best looking girl I’d ever seen. Her name was Marian, and my God was she beautiful. But then she became a lesbian…” Wade took a nice gulp of beer before continuing his tirade about Marian and her sexual preference. Neither Gretch nor I was quite sure why he thought she was a lesbian, but arguing with the man at this point would’ve led to nowhere. “It broke my heart! I hate her!! We were supposed to be in love with each other!” It all makes sense. How else could she not be in love an Emmy Award winner like yourself?

“And I’ll tell you what. I used to go to bed and look at pictures of her, and watch her on the television screen. Yea, I’d sit there, and get nice and comfortable, and I’d undress. And then after awhile, when I was all alone, I would reach down and—“

Whoa whoa WHOA! The hairs on my neck rose and my senses ignited like that of a pup sensing an intruder trying to enter the house. That is sick! What is you major malfunction Wade?! He was oblivious, and continued on with the unnecessary details of his exotic fantasies involving the Gilligan’s Island character. Are you kidding me? Nobody talks to Gretch like that, and I mean NOBODY, drunk or not—Not while I’m around! This will not stand. If there was one thing I knew at that moment inside the Pony Bar where Gretch was being accosted right in front of my very eyes, it was that Wade had to go, and it was up to me—careful now. This Wade guy is drunk, heavy, and highly dangerous. His thought process is beyond rational. Play it smart, and whatever you do, do not piss him off… not on your account.

“Hey Wade, see that guy over there?”

“The hell you talkin’ bout, boy?”

“That guy across from us, with the curly hair and the glasses. See?” Wade looked out, meeting the boy eye to eye and starting a stare down. “He said he could out-drink you anytime, anywhere.”

“That son of a B—“ Wade rose from his chair, a mightily concerted effort that involved intense concentration and coordination and stumbled over to confront the boy across from us. Words were said, inaudible due to distance and incoherence, and shots were taken. For the moment, it looked as though Wade had forgotten about us and that we were in the clear… for now.

“Ok, can we go now?” asked Gretch.

I studied the scene, watching Wade interact with the others while adding excessive forms of poisonous liquid to his already bulging belly. “I have a feeling maybe we should hang out for a little bit, just in case Wade decides to get back in his truck…” I reached over to the spot where Wade left one of his beers, its contents low and far from refreshing, and picked up two thin, wooden discs. “Besides, we have two Wooden Nickels to use.” I called over the bartender. “Miss, can we get one more round?”

 

***

 

We waited around and watched as Wade made his rounds across the bar, attempting to convince everyone in his wake to share a drink with him. Most refused, including Revin’ Evan, but that didn’t stop him from insisting. Eventually his stumble of shame sent him through the door and out of the bar. And by the looks of it, he wasn’t coming back.

“You ready Gretch?”

“Yes… Yes I am ready. I’m very ready.”

I called over to the bartender. “Mam, we’re ready for the check please.”

“You guys are good. Your Wooden Nickels took care of everything.”

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Three beers each and we didn’t have to pay a single dime.” A sense of guilt hung over me. I knew I had to compensate the Pony Bar in some sort of fashion, for never in my life had I been shown so much hospitality at any drinking establishment. It truly was a special place. I looked to my left passed Gretch and pulled out a couple of dollar bills. “You see those two babes next to Revin’ Evan? Give them each a Wooden Nickel, from me—no, from the Emmy Award Winner.”

She nodded back a most serious nod. “Will do.”

We turned towards the entrance and watched as Wade climbed into his truck and pull away. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

We kept our distance between Wade’s rig and ours on our way back to the Dutcher Estate. His truck swerved back and forth along the gravel road and we watched in terror before taking our turn off. Whether his destination was home, or to the mountains where he could smoke his pot, I just prayed that nobody else was around to meet him on that stretch of road, wherever it took him.

“Dear God,” blurted Gretch, the experience finally sinking in to its full extent. “Who in the hell was that?”

“…Wade… the one and only Emmy Award Winner of Pony. He’s famous… He’s infamous! He’s forever changing the culture. And as long as he’s in Pony, nobody should sleep safe… nobody…”

Chapter 23: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 2 – Dad Bods

The livestock vastly outnumbered the locals during my morning run. However, none of those animals came close to affording me the type of courtesy received from each car as I ran several miles up a gravel road on yet another gorgeous, sunny day in Montana. Each person who passed greeted me with a smile and a friendly wave, a pleasant rarity for someone from the city, and the same mountainous landscape that had captivated me a day earlier was again on full display, overlooking the exotically named ranches on the outskirts of town. I had a good feeling we were in for another adventurous day in Pony.

Bill was already hard at work fixing the finer details of his stone-made grill upon my return. It was pertinent that it be designed to his meticulous specifications—that night’s dinner depended on it. I walked around the yard, noticing a higher than normal weed to grass ratio, and remembered that Lea had even made mention of her dissatisfaction over the abundance of weeds that had suddenly appeared since their last visit. Looking for ways to be helpful, and being that I was already a sweaty mess, I cracked open an ice-cold Rockstar from the fridge and went to work.

“Where’s Gretch?” I asked Bill as I tugged at the base of a large weed deeply rooted into the ground. It was imperative that I pull both the weed and root in order to ensure the weed’s elimination once and for all.

“Haven’t seen her since I got up?”

“Hmm, that’s weird. I wonder what’s going on?” With one last pull, the weed released its grip on the soil, causing me to nearly fall to my backside from an excessive amount of unabated force once the roots gave way. I gathered my balance and tossed the weed, adding it to an already impressive looking pile.

“Hey guys, what’s going on, heheh?” We turned to investigate the familiar voice coming from the deck. Gretch stood there in her pajamas, holding a freshly opened can of Coors light. “Were you guys having a snoring contest or something last night? I’m lucky I got any sleep, haha,” she continued, letting out a shameful, cringe-worthy chuckle in the process. I stared back at her unimpressed with the back of my wrist resting on my hip while I used the other free wrist to wipe away the combination of sweat and dirt that covered my forehead. “Gee, it looks like you guys are breaking a little sweat. It’s about time, heehee!” Bill kept shaking his head, doing his best to ignore. Like me, he was growing much more exasperated with each subsequent syllable leaving her mouth. I worried that it would soon hit a breaking point, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d be on the receiving end of a major eruption. “Well, you guys are sure doing a great job… sort of. Keep up the good work!” Gretch walked back inside (thank God) while Bill and I turned the other check and went back to work on the yard. There was just too much that had to be done in order to get the Dutcher Estate into tip-top condition, are number one priority for the present, and getting worked up over Gretch wasn’t going to do us any favors.

A few seconds later she bursted back out of the cabin, unprovoked. “Ok, ok, I’ll help you with a couple weeds. Sheesh, no need to get all worked up over it.”

Another half hour of weed pulling and grill tinkering provided us with enough satisfaction to head in for a mid-morning breakfast. Bill and Gretch grabbed a bagel that Lea had toasted for them. I opted to pound the rest of my Rockstar, grab a change of clothes and claim first dibs on a shower.

 

***

 

A deflated piece of plastic film hit me in the chest as I stepped out of the bathroom, fresh and clean, right off of a hot shower. Bill looked at me with a mysterious grin spread across his face, the assumed origin of the plastic projectile. “What is this?” I asked.

“Blow her up. We’re floating the Madison today.”

I examined the tubes solid, pink background that had outlines of flowers drawn over it, obviously a product intended for 6-year-old girls. “How do you expect me to float down the river in this?”

“Don’t worry, me and Gretch have the same kind.”

“But I’m like 100 pounds heavier than you guys!”

“Well, we were going to get some bigger tubes, but these were only 97 cents each!” mentioned Gretch, gleeful in her response.

“Yea, no way we were gonna pay 4 bucks for the other ones!”

“Well gee… thanks a lot.” I shook my head in disbelief and began the arduous task of blowing through the plastic valve on the side of the tube.

“Are you guys almost ready? I need to take care of some things around the cabin while you’re gone,” said Lea.

“Well, me and Bill are,” said Gretch.

“Wait, I still have to get my shorts on!” I pleaded.

“Well, hurry up then,” said Bill.

“Here, finish blowing this up then.”

“No way! You slobbered all over it!” yelled Gretch. “It’s got your germs all over the place!”

“Just do it really quickly,” suggested Bill. I began to blow, really quickly, just like Bill suggested.

“You guys, I keep blowing, but nothing’s happening!”

“Just keep it up, it’ll start!”

“But, I’m… I’m starting to get a little dizzy—“

“Less talk, more blow!” snapped Gretch.

“She’s got a point. The more you talk, the less air that goes into the tube.”

“But I think I’m hypervent—“

“Zack! Just blow!” blurted Gretch again. I blew, fast and hard, and the faster and harder I blew, the faster and harder feeling left my body. “Geez, we’ll never get out of here at this rate.”

“Yea, Zack. I hate to say it, but you are blowing kind of slow.”

“Kind of slow? More like I could make a quilt faster than this slow.” It was yet another baseless insult hurled from Gretch’s mouth. My face turned beat red, wanting to respond so fiercely, yet bound by the pressure of blowing the stupid tube up in a timely manner, partly for Lea’s sake, but mostly motivated to put an end to the abuse.

By the time I had a fully inflated tube, their words were barely decipherable, my body a mere seconds from collapse. I struggled to cap the tube shut before falling onto a chair, dropping the tube on the ground beside me. “Not bad,” said Gretch during her examination. “Not good either, but not bad. I guess it’ll do. Now go get your shorts on. We’re already late.”

I looked up at Bill in desperation, a giant plea for mercy. Please.

“Zack, I’m sorry but we… we gotta go!”

“Did you fill the backpack up with beer Bill?” asked Gretch.

“I thought Zack was going to do that.”

“ZACK!”

 

***

 

We traveled 7 miles up the Madison River from the recovery ramp where the Benz was parked, looking out at the rock formations scaling the sides of the river and the 100’s of other patrons who braved the float. The intention was to make our way the entire distance back to the car by tube. I prayed we had enough beer to last the entire journey.

“Ok, you kids have fun. Do you have everything you need?” asked Lea. “Don’t forget to put on sunscreen!”

“We wont,” I replied while we grabbed the necessities out of the car and stripped down to our shorts. “Bill, hand me a cold one, and while you’re at it, lather me up!” Bill reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of sunscreen and a ‘cold one,’ which wasn’t really that cold anymore.

“Ok, I’ll see you boys back at the cabin. Hurry up now. Gretch is waiting,” said Lea before leaving us to set sail on our voyage down the Madison River.

“Ok, get my back and then I’ll get yours.” I told Bill. I turned around and felt a cold mist fall over my backside. Bill handed me the spray bottle and I returned the favor.

“Give yourself a good spray and then hand it back so I can get my belly,” he said.

“Haha, you’re gonna need a lot of sunscreen for that then, heheh.”

“Speak for yourself tubby!”

“Who you callin’ tubby, porky?”

Porky? Look at you.”

“Look at you!

We looked down at our bellies that bulged over our shorts before giving each other a long stare down, starting from the bare belly and up to each other’s blank face, shocked and appalled at the sight in front of us. Two weeks worth of burgers, brats, beer and booze had taken its toll, and the results were devastating.

“We… we have…”

“Dad bodies…”

“You guys coming or what?” Gretch’s voice was faint as she called out to us, already wading in the river.

“…Yea, Gretch. Be right there…” said Bill. We walked out into the water, our heads and bodies buried in shame; a shame that was buried deeper and deeper with each sip of beer, our solution, our temporary escape… the primary contributor to our ultimate demise.

 

***

 

“Hey, this river isn’t as deep as I thought it’d be.” I said. “I’m barely to my shins!”

“Maybe that’s why people like floating it so much. I guess you’re not gonna die if you get too hammered and fall out of your tube!”

“Good point.” I placed my tube down and sat in the middle. “Hold on Bill. I think I’m stuck.”

“I’m stuck to. Here, just push off and find the current.”

“I’m trying, but I think I’m too heavy! I just keep on sinking and hitting the ground!”

“I knew we should’ve gotten the 4 dollar tubes!”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Gretch thought it was a waste of money.”

“Well, where is she right now?” We looked forward. 100 feet down the river was Gretch, relaxed and floating with ease, having been picked up by the current and rapidly pulling away from us. She nodded at us, smiling a large smile that bordered mockery.

“GRETCH!”

 

***

 

“Hey Bill, what’s this green stuff at the bottom?”

“It looks like algae, or an underwater Christmas tree or something. But it’s like—alive…”

“Gross. I dare you to touch it?”

“Screw that! You touch it.”

“It’s too far down. I can’t.”

“Look you guys, it’s not that bad,” said Gretch, holding up a long piece of the slimy green stuff she ripped off the bottom. It wrapped around her forearm and dangled off her elbow, flapping around like a live tentacle.

“Oh Gretch, that’s disgusting!” I yelled. “Bill, hand me another beer. I can’t handle this.”

Bill reached out, holding in his hand a fresh can of Coors Light to meet my outstretched hand. “Hold on, you’re pulling away.”

“Well, what’s the matter?”

“I’m stuck on a rock. Stop for a second.”

In my path the water turned a shade lighter, indicating that shallower water was up ahead. I steered my tube towards it, eyeing down at the bottom for a rock to hold onto. The color of the surface went from blue to brown as the water became shallower. I threw my legs down, ready to anchor myself into position. “Almost ready Bill, I think I have something.” I looked down, feeling a slight tingling sensation brushing against my toes. “What the—“ The ground was no longer a rocky brown, but a solid sheet of living, parasitic, soul-sucking green fungus. “Uh, Bill… I don’t think I can stop right now…”

“What do you mean? It looks shallow where you are—“

“Um, dude, more like I think I’m in some real trouble.” The water became shallower and shallower as I nervously looked from side to side, surrounded by the slimy, green, plant-like invasive species at bottom of the river. “Uwha!” I screamed as I felt its appendages brush against my bottom, edging my backside up out of the middle of the tube. “It’s all around me man!”

“Just stay above the water, you’ll make it!”

“I’m trying man! It’s brushing against my tube!” My breaths increased in frequency and severity. I flung my legs straight out in front of me, raised high above the raft and pushed my body up off the tube, supported by my elbows, anything I could do to keep away from the field of mutant mold lying below. The friction between tube and surface became rougher and rougher, decelerating the tube towards a slower pace. “Oh God Bill, it’s slowing… it’s slowing… it’s—“

It all happened so quickly. The green scraped against the bottom of the tube like Freddy Kruger’s claw across a wall, his signature gesture before slaughtering his next, unsuspecting victim. It brought the tube to a crawl, until it was only me, stuck and stranded, and wedged atop a peak of green, solidly formed mucus. “Bill… help.” I leaned my elbow against one side, a tactic that put a heavy amount of stress on one side of the tube, hoping the pressure would create enough force for a press off, an all too risky proposition; an act of desperation, for Bill was taking way too long. “HELP—“

The tube shot out from underneath me like a fist slamming on a tube of toothpaste. My body hit the water with a splash, sending my back through the barrier of water and onto the bed of fungus. There were thousands of them, crawling, clinging onto my back with their slimy appendages, sucking the life and infecting me with a grotesque poison of which there was no cure. They worked their way up my back and onto my sides, where my abdominal muscles once lay. Soon they would wrap around my torso, my legs; my entire body, turning me into a mutant pile of scum that would forever dwell at the bottom of the Madison River.

In the middle of my turmoil, a glimpse of every tragic event that had ever occurred in my life up to that point flashed through my head: Failing my Driver’s Ed test, my date to the senior prom barfing her brains out and not making it to the dance, falling off a 12-foot rock onto my head and almost dying, waking up in intensive care and having the doctor remove the catheter, watching the Shi—Seahawks beat the Packers three times in a row… but this—this one second, down at the bottom of the Madison river amongst a company of a thousand jumbo-sized, protozoa-like creatures… this was the worst—hands down.

“OH GOD BILL, GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!” I yelled and screamed, rolling around in the water as if I were trying to put out a fire. “It’s all over me! What do I—“

“Quit rolling around, you’re getting it all over you! Get up and—YOUR TUBE!” All of a sudden I was up on my feet, driving forward, powering out of the vile platform I had mistakenly stumbled upon with a new, immediate purpose in life: get the hell out of there. Nothing else was of importance.

The water level dropped and I stepped forward, sinking into the river, face first. As quick as I was ungraceful, I popped back up, pushing through the current, only to be thrown back down into the shallow depths of the Madison once again, and again, until my body waded against the rough current above my knees, looking onward at a pink ring of polyurethane radiating against the pastels of the rocky Madison River landscape and accelerating several feet away from me with the pulling current. A new goal simmered into my head, entrapping my mind to prepare for another mad dash. I pushed off the rocky floor and high-stepped it down the river, running as fast as I could to catch the tube that was in peril of being forever lost to the mercy of the treacherous Madison. I drove through the river, my legs pushing against the current and my belly fluidly jiggling up and down, left to right; man versus a nature whose viscosity was hell bent on holding me firmly in its control. Nearly an arms length away, I reached out for the tube, only to swat at a handful of air. I trotted forward, but the force of water, now past my thighs was just too much. Spent from the hardest 100-yard dash of my life, I could only watch as my prized 97 cent possession floated away to the whims of the roaring Madison. “I didn’t work this hard for—screw this!”

I bent down, expelling every working muscle left inside of me and lunged into the air. I dove forward with my body spread, hoping meet a bed of soft plastic, but realistically anticipating a belly flop. Below me was water and rock, and then a mix of pink and white overtook my direct line of vision. My arms, head, and upper torso fell through the donut hole, flipping the tube over and under my body, and together we floated down the next stretch of the river. Finding myself back on top in the proper tubing position was a struggle just as difficult, and even more time consuming.

After several minutes of precise positioning I was back in business, my arms and legs sprawled out across the edges of the tube and my butt sunk into the middle of the hole, looking as though my entire body was being sucked down by an underwater tractor beam, an unforgiving weight that left the tube deformed—Homer Simpson style. I panted, and wheezed between spurts of water coughed up from my lungs. Looking clumsy was the least of my concerns at this point.

Another tube of lime green and white floated up next to me. I tipped my head over, also laying victim to the effects of the tractor beam, giving the impression that I had been prescribed with a heavy dose of anesthetics. It was Gretch, looking down upon me with an aura of comical condescendence. She was trying not to laugh; I know she was. I pressed my head forward, foregoing any further contact, and held my mouth taut over my tense face.

“Looks like you need a beer,” she said to me after heavily studying my depleted demeanor. I afforded her another look. She held out her hand. In it was an open Coors Light. Don’t fall for it. It’s empty. She’s playing a trick; I know she is. Another few seconds of hesitation went by. Ah, what the hell?

To my surprise (and pleasure), the beer was mostly full. I pressed it to my lips, using both of my hands as a little child would a sippy cup and took a giant swig, an action that would’ve produced a smile if it weren’t for my severe state of exhaustion. I let out a great sigh of relief and tipped my head back.

“I mean, it wasn’t like you really need a beer or anything with that dad belly and all—“

“Oh, shut up Gretch!”

 

***

 

In time we all managed to meet up and float down the river as a friendly trio, and for miles, we held ourselves together in close proximity, talking the issues of the day and marveling at the natural architecture surrounding us. Flat meadows of brush, level with the waterline stood side by side high, rock walls with ridged edges against the river, serving as coves for the weary tube traveler around each river bend. For over an hour we basked in the sun, so relaxed and so full of carelessness that the logical thought of recoating ourselves with sunscreen dissolved into oblivion, joining the rest of the worries in the world that were obliterated by a blissful drift down a short passage of the Madison River in the heart of rugged Montana.

“Hey Bill, can you pass me another beer?” asked Gretch.

“This is the last one,” he replied, holding up a full one above his head in the ‘cheers’ position.

“It can’t be—that’s impossible!”

“You’ve been drinkin’ em all up. There’s no more left!”

Gretch hesitated for a moment, a switch of tactics. “Please Bill, can I have it?”

“Dude, Gretch, I’ve had like two, maybe three this whole ride, not to mention you dropped the last one in the water and wasted the whole thing.” It seemed as though her plan had failed.

“Just… let me have a little bit.”

“Sorry Gretch, this one’s all mine,” replied Bill, motioning his beer around with his hands like he was about to open it.

“Just let me see it, for a second.” She stuck her hand out, reaching over towards him.

“Stop it Gretch!” She didn’t stop. She kept grabbing, working hard to snatch the beer from his grip.

“Gretch, be careful! You’re going to fall out of your tube!” She didn’t listen, insistent on the beer in Bill’s possession, thinking by pressing hard on one side on the tube, she could successfully balance herself on the tube while fighting for the beer at the same time.

“Bill, gimme—“

With one big swoop, the tube slipped out from under her, flying forward as she made a daring lunge for the last full can of Coors Light. Into the water she went, sending a harrowing splash that resounded down the depths of the Madison. I stuck my hand out as the tube flew past me—well out of reach. It blew down the river, picked up by an aggressive current and gaining speed with no signs of stopping.

“Haha Gretch, serves you right,” said Bill. “You got greedy and look what you got, another mile to go with no tube! Sucks to be you…” he rambled on with the insults as Gretch stood there, watching her beloved tube as it was thrown across the river by the rapids and bashed against the protruding rocks of the Madison, unrelenting with its penchant of sending light objects down the river and thrashing them about all along the way, something I had witnessed first hand. Her face turned droopy and her arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from her defeated body. It wouldn’t be long before a swell of tears broke through the barrier around her eyes.

“Don’t even think about it—why are you thinking about it?” My heart tore and twisted at the sight, like staring at a little boy as he watched his puppy run away from home. “She screwed up, it’s her own damn fault!” I watched the tube move down the river, 200 feet away… 250 feet away… 300 feet away. I looked back at Gretch; her demeanor took a turn for the worst. “That tube meant so much to her, and she’d be devastated if it was forever lost. It’s now or never—it’s never! She doesn’t deserve it!” Bill continued his relentless attacks on Gretch, only exacerbating the situation. I shifted my head down river, then back up river, and down again.

“Ah, hell!” I set my feet and dove forward onto my tube, paddling and kicking against the rough and shallow waters of the Madison in pursuit of a tube that was thought by conventional wisdom to be long lost. “I can’t believe I’m doing this… again!” There was no thought of the shear difficulty of retrieving such a silly object that for some reason meant so much to Gretch, or the amount of stress and strain that would be exerted over my body throughout the arduous journey; my concern was directed towards one goal—reclaiming that stupid 97 cent piece of plastic.

 

***

 

They emerged around the bend a quarter mile up the river. My dripping, wet body stood, battered but not broken in a steady pant, in through the nose and out through the mouth, focused on my two companions making their way towards my position. In one hand was Gretch’s tube, held high above my head, a prized trophy, a representation of will and determination over nature and adversity. The other tube was wedged against the weight of my body and the rolling river, finding comfortable leverage as I sat through the donut hole, waiting for them to finally catch up. “I got it!”

“Bring it back over here,” hollered Gretch. No offer to come to me and pick it up? Not even a simple offer of thanks? She expects me to walk all the way back there for her? News flash to Gretch: I didn’t even do this for her! In fact, the only reason I did this was so our vacation wouldn’t be ruined with her stupid pouting and cursing all over the place. This was for us, and that’s it! I don’t want to put up with that crap! I’m dealing with it! If this is how it’s gonna be, I’m not coming down anymore! And she’s got another thing comin’ if she things I’m coming back to her!

“No Gretch, you can come and get your tube yourself,” I yelled back, the distance between us calling for an unintentional screaming match.

“But I don’t want to walk that far. I might spill my beer.” Oh gee, she got her beer after all. How convenient.

“I’m not walking back there after all of that. You come here. You come here now!”

“What’s the big deal? It’s only a couple of feet. You walked all the way there, and now you can’t walk back? Sounds pretty lazy to me.”

“Gretch, I’m not going to ask you again. Come over here and get your tube.”

“Don’t be selfish… Please…”

I couldn’t take it any more. I stood up, using what was left of my worn-out body to send her a final, stern message.

“HEY! YOU GET OVER HERE! YOU GET OVER HERE AND SIT ON YOUR TUBE!” My head shook, my eyes beamed with madness, and the veins bulged out of my neck while my arms pointed in all different directions, directing orders just in case my words didn’t get the point across. “GET OVER HERE GRETCH! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I SWAM ALL THE WAY OVER HERE AND GRABBED YOUR TUBE FOR YOU AND YOU’RE ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL—“

A gust of wind blew past me and the contact felt between the tube and my buns disappeared. I turned around and watched as a 97-cent piece of pink and white plastic flew down the river, forever lost to the depths of the Madison. My face turned droopy and my arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from my defeated body. I stared out at my prized possession as if I were a little boy watching my puppy run away from home; 50 feet… 75 feet… 100 feet…

“Can I have my tube back now?” asked Gretch. I looked back. She was right behind me.

You can’t be serious…

Chapter 22: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 1

It was a decent run. Not great, and not a long run by any means, but long enough to cause the average person to break a decent sweat on a sunny, summer morning in Montana, and leave a particular individual with over-stimulated pores coated in a thick layer of the perspirated fluid, surprisingly a nice adhesive for synthetic clothing; about as good as anybody can do after a full night of spooks. And not to spoil the work I had achieved, I opted to purchase an ice cold, sugar free Rockstar that morning instead of my usual original flavor, saving me about 250 in empty calories.

“Alright, when do we head to Pony?” I asked as I burst into the room with a swift and expended strut. “Oh man, that felt good… you know, exercising and stuff? You’ve heard of it right? Gretch?” There wasn’t much of a response. It was like I was talking in a foreign language or something. “Well, you guys should do some research, and maybe consider trying it out sometime. It might actually be good for you. Definitely works for me, as you can tell.” Still, no response was afforded, even as I continued my mellow strut across the room. Man, what crawled up their butts? “So, what time’s checkout?”

“The usual,” said Bill, lying on the bed while surfing the web on his iPad.

“Well, in that case, I’m going to take my time in the shower,” I said strutting towards the bathroom, taking my sweet time, of course. “…Because I pretty much deserve one after a nice run, considering our solid night of drinking. I mean, that’s what I do in order to keep my physique. Drinking and life choices have consequences, and if you don’t do anything about it, it’s going to knick you in the butt one of these days; at least that’s what Pat says. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. He’s your dad after all… Gee Gretch, I wonder why I haven’t seen you on a run this whole trip? Don’t be getting all lazy on me or anything.”

Gretch just shrugged her shoulders and kept scrolling through her phone, pretending to ignore me (although she didn’t do a very good job). It was as if something kept grabbing her attention—something of concern, causing her to constantly look up at my direction, an offense that eventually wore me into boredom.

“Hey, what’s that sign say behind you?” she asked.

“Oh, let me see.” I quickly rummaged through the items, anticipating their low significance. “Room rate one hundred and something bucks, don’t do any damage, checkout time, no smoking… nothing really. But enough chitchat, time for a shower. Let me gather all of my stuff…” Another ten minutes of chitchat passed before I finally gathered all my “stuff” and went into the bathroom, Bill and Gretch remaining relatively quiet through the whole thing.

“Bill, what time did you say checkout was?” I heard Gretch ask through the shower door, already stripped down to my birthday suit.

“12:00. It’s always 12:00. It’s the standard at every hotel.”

“Are you sure? This says 11:00”

“11:00?” I uttered with a growing sense of apprehension.

“Well what time is it now?” asked Bill.

“It is… 11—11:20!?”

“NOT 11:20!?” I exclaimed, whipping my head out of the bathroom door. I looked at Bill and Gretch and they looked at me, and then at each other, and then around the room. It was covered in a large scattering of clothes, computers, and old-fashioned ingredients. Each of us shot up, reacting to an internal siren that suddenly went off inside our heads. Their faces were just as wide and shocked as mine. It was a disaster, a complete disaster.

“Oh God, we’re late!” screamed Bill.

“We’re all screwed! I yelled back. “It was the ghosts!”

“Gretch, stuff everything you can!”

“I can’t—I can’t fit anything else into my bag!”

“You have to! Zack—“

“Getting dressed! Where’s the supervisor? Stall her!” I hurried to cover my superfluously sweaty body with a fresh, clean pair of clothes, cringing as each article of clothing became soiled the instant it made contact with my skin.

Bill peaked his head out the door. “Super’s coming!”

“I can’t get my pants on! They’re stuck to my—“ I tipped over, falling out of the bathroom and onto the floor. Gretch began panting, which eventually led to strenuous breathing, then to hyperventilation, desperately attempting to zip up a suitcase that was well beyond its volumetric capacity.

“Zack, your pants are on backwards!” screamed Bill. “C’mon Gretch, I need that suitcase closed!”

“I’m trying, but I can’t—“

“30 seconds!”

“The Old Fashioned mix! It’s still there!”

“Leave it, we don’t have time—“

“I’M NOT LEAVING WITHOUT IT GRETCH!”

“20 seconds!”

Gretch ran across the room with a load of clothes and threw them onto a random bag. Only a quarter of the clothes made it in. The rest were thrown in random directions, flying across my face and across the beds, a frantic panic with a one in a million chance of landing in the right place.

“Gretch, quit screwing around!”

“Why are your pants on your head?”

“What do you mean on my head?”

“10 seconds!”

“Damn it Bill, get in here! We need your help! Here Gretch, throw the rest in,” I said, holding the bag open.

“Even the whiskey—“

“Everything—NOT MY PANTS! I NEED THOSE!”

“5 Seconds! Zack, get to the bathroom. Pants on, now! Gretch, it’s go-time. Wrap it up!”

“God, I can’t—“

“Gretch, do it—DO IT!”

The door swung open and in came the supervisor. “What’s going on in here?”

“Just two guys packing a suitcase,” said Bill who was standing side by side next to Gretch.

“And one guy takin’ a dump,” I said as I walked out of the bathroom with my pants on; each leg correctly placed in its correct and corresponding hole. Even the fly was zipped completely up. The supervisor perused the room, our bags packed, clothes on, and besides a couple unmade beds and full trashcans, relatively spotless. Each of us stood perfectly still. None of us dared to make a move.

“Two guys packin’ a suitcase, and one takin’ a dump… I don’t know. Somethin’ don’t seem right here…” She studied our demeanor as if she were waiting for one of us to crack.

“…Somethin’ ain’t right…” She took a good look around the room once more. She didn’t like what she saw. Yes, there was something else going on, some other presence lurking about, but no evidence to convict.

“Keys mam?” said Bill, sticking out his hand with a set of room keys. She grabbed them and turned to the door, muttering under her breath as she walked away. “Something ain’t right. Somethin’ ain’t right…”

 

***

 

It was a two-hour drive west on I-90 from Billings to Bozeman, the last harbor for modern culture where we stocked up on goods before heading out to Pony—bagels, butter, pizza, beef, beer, liquor—the basic necessities.

“Oh Zack, go ahead and put the Coors Light up here,” said Lea while we loaded the groceries into the Subaru. “And put a couple in the cooler, just so they’re nice and cold when we get to the cabin.” The idea sounded legitimate, and we had no quarrels with cold beer, so we did as we were told. “You know what, never mind, I’ll just carry the cooler myself. There’s not enough room in the back.”

“But Lea, I think I can make enough room in the trunk,” I suggested. “I mean, look at the back seat. There’s barely anything there!”

“Oh, it’s fine, I’ll take it.”

“But mom, how about you just put it in the back seat?”

“Bill, just—I don’t want it tipping over and spilling around on the ground.”

“But if you set it on the floor, it won’t. Here, you can wedge it and it’ll hold firm—“

“Bill!”

“…Ok mom, hold it in the front seat…” Bill acquiesced to the stern and alarming tone his mother directed him with. Any further objections were useless at this point, let alone dangerous, even if they were rooted in common sense.

 

***

 

The Benz had much more difficulty picking up AM radio waves as we turned onto Highway 84, and the rock cliffs scaling the Madison River between Norris and Harrison didn’t help either. Thus, we were forced to forego our usual choice of conservative talk radio for the more contemporary sounds of Third Eye Blind, not the worst consequence in the world.

Onward we went behind the Subaru, our guide to the cabin as it followed the signs from Harrison leading to Pony. “How come Gretch is driving right now—wait, is that what I think it is?” I asked, staring at a hazy silhouette of a figure lifting a cylinder to its mouth.

“Oh my God. Caught red handed!” blurted Bill. “She just couldn’t resist.”

“Unbelievable,” I said shaking my head. “I mean, that’s something I’d expect from Gretch, but Lea?”

“I wish I could say I’m surprised…” said Bill with a look of defeat spread across his face. We finished the drive to Pony, a little more solemn about the world, and a little wiser.

The first road at the onset of town led to an abandoned school. Made from bricks that were easily over a century old, it was the first of many of its kind from the community’s gold mining days. A few more gravel roads branched off like capillaries from the main drag, leading to more old building and homes sparsely scattered about with their own, unique homemade decorum. We continued on, looking up from the bottom of a valley that looked to eventually lead to a mountain peak overlooking the town, one that gave me a craving for exploration.

That exploration would have to wait however, for coming up on our left was our immediate destination as determined by Gretch and Lea. “Pony Bar,” the sign said, hanging above a set of deer antlers, sharing its property on a Main Street only a couple building lengths long. We parked and entered with a flavor of cautious excitement. The Mercedes was widely outnumbered by the horses parked along side of the weathered bar, an old, wood-stained saloon that was absent of change but for one, single renovation soon after its conception during the days of the Wild West.

“What will it be guys?” asked the bartender.

“I’ll take a Coors Light,” quickly replied Lea. Taking after her mother, Gretch ordered the same.

“What do you have on draft?” I asked. “Anything local? What’s your seasonal on rotation—better yet, what’s the best IPA you have on tap?”

“…Hun, we got Budweiser and Bud Light. Take your pick.”

“Uh… I guess… I’ll just take a Bud Light…” I hung my head, not quite in shame, and not quite in disappointment, but somewhere in between.

“That’ll be two dollars.”

“Whoa, two dollars!?”

Lea looked as if she were rather popular around the joint, greeted by each patron who came by like she was a long lost daughter of the town, all grown up and returning for the first time in years. It gave Bill, Gretch and I plenty of time to observe the array of knick-knacks decorating the bar, many of which you’d find at your grandmother’s house, an oddly fitting look for the joint. There were cowboy hats, skulls, horns, mounts for a variety of different animals, pictures of old, pictures of new, pictures of athletes and country stars that found their way into town, and even a .22 caliber rifle that was up for raffle. “I want that,” said Bill as his eyes fixated on the firearm, devising a strategy to win and bring it back to Boise with him.

“Man, there are lots of black and white pictures around here. How old is this place?” I asked.

“Pretty old,” said Bill. “Been around since the old days. I hear it used to be a brothel too.”

“A brothel? You mean, there used to be prostitutes?”

“Yep, some pretty greasy stuff.”

“There’s also been a couple of shoot outs too,” added Gretch.

“Yea, I’m pretty sure people have died here. Possibly right on top of where we sit…” I sat and wondered about the old tales of the Pony Bar, which ones were true, and whether or not I’d survive in a time like that.

The gentleman talking to Lea excused himself to the bathroom. A short window—now was my chance. “So Lea, I hate to be a narc, but I saw you participating in illicit activities earlier.” My heart pounded over the confrontation I so much wanted to avoid, but my principles disallowed it, unable to live with the heavy burden of guilt weighing me down.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about?” she replied.

“Mom, we saw you in full view pounding the Coors light in the car while Gretch was driving. That’s illegal, big time.”

“Oh, don’t you guys know? You’re allowed to have a beer on the drive between Harrison and Pony.” It’s not that we didn’t believe her; we just weren’t fully comfortable with the supposed rule. But who was I to question a Pony native? I looked forward and sipped on my beer, pondering in deep concern over Lea and her well being while I finished it.

“Don’t worry about it…” It was a tough request to swallow; my perception of Lea had just been altered, and permanently I feared. “I’ll tell you what, here’s one on me,” said Miss Social herself, flipping me a small, wooden disc. “Does that make you feel better?”

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s a Wooden Nickel.” Under further investigation, the picture of an Indian outlined with the words “Wooden Nickel” was a dead giveaway. “It came from the gentleman that was just talking to us. Good for one free drink of your choice. Go ahead!”

“Wow, I uh… heheh, gee, I’ll take another Bud Light then. A Wooden Nickel… I could get used to this.”

 

***

 

We each helped ourselves to one more beer before departing to the Dutcher Cabin, only a half-mile from the Pony Bar as the crow flies. We passed the school and a few other old structures, and then drove up a gravel drive where we parked on the outside of a wooden fence that marked the bounds of the Dutcher property. Perched up on a hill, the cabin overlooked Pony’s main street and the mountains beyond it. After a quick unpacking, Bill drew his attention to the large stone placed in the middle of the yard, sending his imagination into a creative spin. It didn’t take long before a makeshift fire pit came into production, built using spare pieces of wood, metal grating, and stone hidden around the cabin with the intention that it could eventually be used as a grill.

While Bill busied himself perfecting the details of his grill-in-progress, I couldn’t help but stare out into the precipitous landscape that surrounded the small town. On the other side of the Pony Bar laid a long, mellow hill. Up close, logic and experience deduced that the hill was made up of rough and treacherous surfaces, sharp with rocky objects and steep in unsuspecting areas. But from the distance, it looked to be a rich source of lush grass that spread down a delicate slope, sending delusions of grandeur through my head—dreams of youth and carelessness; three kids, running up to the top, racing and laughing the whole way before making our journey back, a long descent to the bottom by laying down and rolling our way to its base like the wheels of a steamroller. And when it was all over, we’d make the trek all over again, and again after that, until Lea would call us home for dinner, bringing about a bountiful amount of rest and sustenance so we could do it all over again at the emergence of another long, summer day.

And beyond those hills laid the unknown, virgin to all eyes except the mountain peaks laid directly to the west in the path of Main Street, the watchful mothers of Pony and all her surrounding land. It was a world that had yet to be explored, waiting for a group of avid explorers to finally arrive and discover it, for there was still much frontier left to be unveiled. Although the right thing to do would’ve been to assist Bill with his imaginative inception, I was rendered useless by an imagination that was running wild on its own. So I sat and sipped on my old fashioned, gazing out at the landscape in wonderment of what could be uncovered by our eyes for the very first time, while Bill, brandishing a vodka screwdriver of his own, tinkered with his grill in meticulous fashion, looking for any way to improve upon his creation.

And Gretch… well, let’s just say that Gretch did what she always does, and did so until Lea called us in for dinner…

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We gathered around a table next to the kitchen area where a box of pictures had been placed in the middle. With a plate of pizza slices in front, each of us took our turn sifting through the pictures, giggling and laughing at old photos of Gretch and Bill in their childhood sporting the typical, goofy little kid haircut, as well as family reunion photos of Bill’s parents as young adults clad in short shorts and bright T-shirts, as was the appropriate style in the 70’s and 80’s. One picture in particular showed the family before a sports run posing with matching outfits, while Pat, Bill and Gretch’s father, stood alone on the side, aloof, his outfit out of sync with the rest of the family’s. That one was probably my favorite, or at least the most memorable.

Bill took a quick trip to the bathroom while I snuck off to finish unpacking my belongings, something that none of us really put much concentration into, but not before taking a quick peak into Bill and Gretch’s room. There were two twin-sized beds with bulky, wooden frames on each side, the same one’s they had slept in as kids.   Two quilts that looked as though they had been woven by their grandmother covered each bed, and laying on them were artifacts from Pony’s past—clothes, toys, and a stack of magazines. One of them, entitled “Life,” featured a picture of their grandmother sitting with her schoolmates. By the looks of it, nothing in that room looked to be younger than 50 years.

The walls that separated each room didn’t quite reach the ceiling, meaning that privacy was not easily attained inside the cabin, proved by the distinct sound effects that were more than vivid during Bill’s private time in the bathroom. Next-door was the master bedroom of which Lea graciously offered me. It seemed as though she was content with sleeping in the den that was past the living room area on the other side of the cabin, where she could lay on the couch while she fell into a slumber to the hilarity of late night television. And really, the den wasn’t so much of a bad deal. Jimmy Fallon has been on a roll as of late!

The sun’s fading glow brought us back to the outside so us kids could revel in the beauty that dressed the final hours of daylight hovering over the west. “Hey Zack, wanna put on some tunes?” asked Bill.

“Sure, what would you like, some Modest Mouse?”

“Yea, and maybe that new Third Eye Blind CD we were listening to.”

“Coming right up.” I began to set up my computer for music, noticing a slight shiver in my fingers as I moved the mouse over the selection of artists on the screen. “It’s getting a little chilly out here! Good thing I brought that big, blue raincoat that I bought from Costco a few months ago with me.”

I ran into the house and dug through my suitcase, pulling out my big, blue raincoat that I had bought from Costco a few months ago. Being that it was a quality coat for less than half of what you would pay for a Patagonia or any of those other stupid REI-equivalent rip-offs, I was eager to put it on and show off both my fashion and bargain sense to everybody. “Alright guys, I’m ready. Let’s make ourselves another old fashioned and head out—“

I couldn’t believe it. Across the room from me stood Gretch, wearing a big, blue raincoat that she had probably bought from Costco a few months ago. Well, maybe not exactly from Costco, but nearly identical to mine, or close enough to piss me off, which I’m sure was her intention. “Come. Freaking. On.”

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Darkness overcame the Montana Sky, leaving a large splattering of stars above to entertain us throughout the night. Each of us stared up in amazement at the mysterious balls of fiery gas above us, wondering how many millions of miles away they were and if there was anything of importance among them. There were tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands lying out there in front of us to gaze upon, and millions more beyond the sight of the naked eye. Is something else actually out there? The odds on that night looked very favorable.

“Look, a shooting star!” screamed Gretch.

“There’s another one, make a wish!” I told them.

“What about that one?” asked Bill, pointing to another light moving across the sky.

“No, that’s a satellite.”

“Oh…” Each of us remained quiet for a moment. It sounded like there was a hint of disillusionment in his voice before he decided to speak again. “You know, you’re the first friend I’ve ever brought out here.”

“Really?”

“No joke.” A slight grin grew across my face. I couldn’t help but take in the statement with a nice serving of pride. “In fact, there’s only been one other person who has ever come with us to visit.”

“Who’s that?”

“…Megan Mills,” replied Gretch.

“Megan Mills?”

“Yea, Megan Mills. And you guys got in traaaaaa-ble!” said Bill in a nudging manner.

“What happened?”

“Oh nothing. We were out drinkin’ with some of the locals at the Pony Bar and then went into the mountains and got stuck. No big deal.”

“Dad was piiiiiised!

“I don’t even know why. I’ve been in worse situations with Megan Mills and survived.”

“Probably because you were with Megan Mills.”

“Yea, Megan Mills.”

“…Megan Mills,” I whispered under my breath as my eyes opened wide and my mouth hung agape, consequences of zoning out into deep space. The name was starting to become as legendary as the sea of stars above us. “Oh look, another shooting star!”

“Where?” asked Bill, darting his head across the sky.

“It flew right under the North Star.”

“Where’s that?”

“Here I’ll show you.” I came in close to Bill and hovered over his backside, pointing my arm across his cheek in an effort to guide him in the right direction. “You see, first you find the Little Dipper. It looks like the Big Dipper, but the cup is smaller and the handle looks longer. The North Star is at the end of it. See? In fact, if you look over at the Big dipper, two of the stars at the end of the dipper part line up and point right to it over there—“

“Click.”

“Wait, what was that?”

“A camera—Gretch?”

“GRETCH! Knock it off!” Gretch snickered away as she pointed her phone in our direction and snapped away. Once again, her immaturity ruined another educational moment, unable to fight the urge to snap a picture of Bill and I in a somewhat “suggestive” pose.

Bill and I looking at the stars

“Ok, ok, sorry you guys. Let’s walk down the street a little bit,” She suggested. “We’ll have a better view of the stars.”

“I mean, we really don’t need—you know, that’s actually a good idea Gretch,” I told her. The suggestion bought her some time to regain what little respect she had remaining after her antics, which were inappropriate at best. “I should probably get a flashlight, just in case.”

“No need, I already got one.” Bill and I looked at each other and nodded our heads. Impressive…

We followed Gretch a quarter mile down the road where we were free to view the sky with little obstruction. “Look there’s another one!” hollered Gretch, her reaction to another shooting star floating across the sky.

“I see it too,” yelled Bill.

“Make another wish,” I said as we focused on the last remnants of a fireball leaving a streak across the sky. “Let’s see if we can find one more. That’ll be five!”

“You know I sort of miss this type of stuff,” mentioned Gretch. “Being out here, away from it all. You just don’t get this in the city. It’s almost like you’re truly free—you get to escape, and remind yourself of what really matters… like family.”

“It’s sort of like— That’s weird…” I thought to myself. “Gretch kind of sounds like a boundary babe right now…”

“Like what?” asked Bill, catching me lost in a heavy trance among the stars.

“It’s like the Bou— never mind…” I twitched my body and threw my head in a downward direction.

“Yea… this place sure brings back some good memories,” said Bill. “Even with the crazy neighbor girls.”

“You mean the ones with the weird house made out of glass bottles that used to yell at mom and dad about snow plows?”

“Yea, they’re the ones.”

“Do they still live there? Maybe we should go over there and say hi? Maybe they’re a couple of babes now…” I added, nudging Bill with my elbow and letting out a slight chuckle.

“I really doubt that,” he fired back.

“Yea, maybe that’s not so much of a good idea,” said Gretch. Bill let out a slight chuckle, giving the impression that a reunion would simply be awkward and possibly troubling. “Too bad you couldn’t visit when we were younger, Zack. You would’ve liked this place.”

“I think I already do.” I looked over at Gretch, and couldn’t help but release a mysterious smile. Maybe she has a soul after all… “Hey Gretch, no wrong answer, but just out of curiosity, who was your favorite of Bill’s friends when we were growing up?”

“Oh, I’m not quite sure actually…” The answer should’ve been quite obvious, but I let her take her time, being that I was in such a congenial move. “I mean, I was friends with Josh’s sister, but he was always busy doing push-ups and being way too awesome for us.”

“Yes, keep going…”

“And Collin was nice, but he was also kind of weird, in the best, Collin way possible of course.

“C’mon G. C’mon G!”

“I guess I would have to say you—“

“That’s right, you—“

“Your one friend. He was kind of weird looking, but was always nice to me,” she said with a large grin growing across her face.

“Weird looking? Weird looking, like how?”

“I don’t know, maybe like an alien or something?“

“Wait, you’re not talking about Ben Wood—“

“Yea, Ben Woodward!”

“Ah Ben Wood—BEN WOODWARD?!?! Are you freaking kidding me?” I turned my back and stomped my way back towards cabin. Bill reached out for me.

“Zack, wait, she didn’t mean it—“

“Forget it! She blew it!”

I walked the quarter mile back to the cabin—alone. In the dark. All. By. My. Self. It was a risk I was gladly willing to take. My pride was on the line after all.

I stormed into the cabin, without saying another word to anybody. Immediately, I crawled back into bed, foregoing the courtesy of shutting off the lights or stripping down to my pajamas. I had nothing to say to them for the rest of the night.

 

***

 

“Oh look who’s back,” snapped Gretch, with once again, one of her overly astute observations.

“I forgot my computer, and I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

“Yea, sure you do.”

“Yes, in fact, I do. And just to let you know, I don’t need your attitude. All I need is this computer. And that’s it.” I shut my laptop and snatched it from the deck, stopping Third Eye Blind mid-track, and stormed back inside, with nothing left to say for the rest of the night.  “That’s all I need…”

 

***

 

10 seconds later I swung the door back open. “I need my power cord. I don’t want to run on a depleted battery.”

“Zack, we’re about to go in. Do you need help with anything—“

“Listen Bill, I don’t need any help, I don’t need you, and I certainly don’t need her! All I need my laptop and this power cord. That’s all I need.” I stormed back into the house. Bill followed me, or at least I think he did. I didn’t bother looking back.

 

***

 

“I don’t want to leave a mess, so I’m grabbing my old fashioned cup too,” I said to Gretch as she slid passed me through the doorway. “And don’t pretend like I need anything else. All I need is my laptop, this power cord, and this old fashioned cup.” Gretch slammed the front door shut, leaving me outside by myself.

“And that’s ALL I NEED!” I turned the doorknob.

“UNLOCK IT!”