How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 5: #SMDH

July 22, 2016, 9:00 PM

It was a quiet ride to Gretch’s house… a dark and quiet ride.  Sure, I could’ve rode with Josh, if I wanted an attempted murder charge on my hands.  Somehow, by some unintentional ripple in the universe, Gretch had found herself on the lesser side of two evils.  Danger, however, still loomed.  I couldn’t figure out why, but merely out of pure speculation, there was an underlying feeling—a 6th sense that maybe, just maybe, my life was in the hands of one who was the least pleased with me.  Sweet talk and swift action were mandatory for my survival.

“Well, I’d have to say that was a pretty successful picnic, don’t you think?”  No words were afforded.  No eye contact, no head movement, no emotion.  “At least I had fun…  And boy, I can’t believe your boss let us get away with all that beer.  Two kegs!  I thought he was going to go ballistic after the crap we pulled!”

“He’s making me return them on Monday.  I had no choice.”  Her words were short, using as little jaw movement as possible to speak.  Well, at least she’s talking.

“I thought he said he wanted you in his office?  ‘First thing Monday,’ remember—” She darted her head and shot me an angry stare.  I paused for a moment and recalibrated. “The offer’s still open, you know, in case you change your mind about running tomorrow.  I’ll be up bright and early, testing the new shoes out.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” By the tone of her voice, I didn’t exactly take her at her word.

“They’re still in the back, aren’t they?”

“Haven’t moved since this afternoon.”

“Oh…  You seem a little down?  Is something the matter?”

“Gee, what possibly could give you such an idea?”  Hmm, sounds like sarcasm if you ask me.

“Hey, cheer up, Gretch! Me and Bill are in town, we got all this beer in the back, and we get to hang out with Megan Mills tonight…  We are hanging out with Megan Mills, right?”

“…Yes.  For the 100thtime, yes, we are going to hang out with Megan Mills.  She lives with me after all, which I’ve also told you several times now.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve only asked you a couple times, but whatever.  Just a little excited to hang out with my friend, like there’s something wrong with that.  I’m surprised you aren’t as excited as I am…” There was no response.  “You know, if you changed your attitude a little bit, I’m sure you’d get a little more enjoyment out of your day.  Take a look at me, for instance.  It’s been one heck of a stressful day with the restaurant and picnic and all, but I’m still chuggin’ along.  In fact, I’m in a great mood!”  

Gretch pressed her lips firmly together, widened her eyes, and cocked her head tight like she was having a seizure, containing the demon inside her body that was clawing for its release.  Must be suffering from Ben Woodward Syndrome…  “Look at the bright side.  It could worse.  It could be Josh Ulrich in this car right now instead of me.”

“Oh my… I can’t even imagine…”

“…Unfortunately, I can… Where is Josh anyway?”

“Him and Bill are at the store getting inner tubes and booze for the float tomorrow.”

“Oh yea, Tubapalooza.  What a joke. At least we don’t have to put up with—wait a minutethat means there’s still time.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just keep driving. Better yet, step on it.”

“I don’t understand—“

“Don’t worry about it, just go!”  She drove on. Not another word was spoken.

Making a good impression on Megan Mills wasn’t just rational, it was crucial, each occasion being just as critical as the last.  As an ally, she would fight alongside you until the very last breath.  As an enemy, she’d make you wish you were never born, and keeping in good company could prove to be a full-time affair.

The old one’s speak of tales, ancient legends past on through the ages of her heroics.  Once during a routine campaign stop, former Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne was confronted by Megan Mills over the issue of Idaho land rights.  The exchange ended with the governor peeing his pants in front of a large crowd of elementary students.  She was 12 years old.

Weeks before Thanksgiving vacation 2013, Idaho State Senator Brandon Durst received an excoriating reply over a Facebook post regarding his flip-flopped position on human rights violations; one by a loyal constituent by the name of ‘Megan Mills.’  A series of placated responses from the Senator followed, responses just as pathetic as his original and serving only to fuel further ruthless rebuttals. Finally, after accusing her of being “misinformed,” Megan Mills called Senator Durst out at the steps of the Idaho State Capitol Building, demanding a showdown, in which she made the claim that she would turn him into a “crying, little school-boy bitch.”  

Days later, the senator resigned, stating “family reasons.”

Of course, nobody has ever confirmed if these rumors are true.  Nobody has ever had the balls to ask her.

Right or wrong, her opinion was worth its weight in gold, and anybody who was anybody in Boise knew that if you wanted to make it, you had to go through Megan Mills.  An alliance with Megan Mills was the only logical explanation for Gretch’s rise, and getting her blessing was going to be a hell of a lot easier without Josh running his mouth.  Our trip depended on it, and time was of the essence.

***

Gretch had barely pulled into her driveway before I swung the door open and jumped out, the car still in motion.  “Zack, wait!” yelled Gretch, watching as I scuttled about the driveway, nearly tripping over my own feet.  “What about the beer?”

“We’ll deal with it later.  Hurry!” I didn’t wait for her.  I ran to the porch, threw the front door open at my own discretion and stepped into the living room.  My mind was overwhelmed at the sight, much like Spicoli’s first encounter with Mr. Hand.  There she sat, looking forward, waiting for me as an arbiter, her hand cupped underneath her chin and her fingers growing like a root up her cheeks; a model posing for an Apple “Think Different” poster.

“Whoa.  Aloha Megan Mills.”  I entered.

A few soft chuckles shot out through the room as Megan Mills kept her pose.  She’s got company.  So far, so good.  Next to her was a can of Coors Original covered in beads of condensation; it’s placement on the empty table intriguing, it’s destructive contents indulging.  “Zack Andrews.  Would you like a beer?”

“You read my mind.” I took a seat across from her. She slid the can across the table. I caught it and popped it open, pressing the chilled rim to my lips and sending the beer down my throat.  That’s really good.  Gretch ran into frame, her hair, torso, and face disheveled.  Too late.  It had already begun, two mortal rivals, sitting across from each other on the brink of civil and sophisticated discourse.  Conditions of surrender were on the table.

“Meet my friends.” I did as I was told and introduced myself, first to a couple standing quietly in the corner, fighting the awkward urge to act as their impetuous selves, forbade by their shared love. Then to Laci, or at least I think that was her name, the details scuffed with a mind wrapped in fury.  In time, we were to share a deep conversation, delving into such matters like philosophy, the rapid changes in American culture, and the Smashing Pumpkins. However, now was not that time.  I turned back to Megan Mills and stared into solitary.  She did the same, vowing not to be the one to break first.  “Sounds like lunch got a little out of control.”

“An old lady got beat up. I felt like I was at the circus.  It was intense.

A snort squeezed out of her, though you could never tell from her stone face.  “In tents?” one of the guests blurted.  A few more snorts filled the room, then chuckles.  I let out a smile, a contagious reaction that turned to a full pandemic of laughter that not even Megan Mills was impervious to, though Gretch showed strong signs of immunity.

I relaxed and turned around to greet Taylor, Megan Mills’ boyfriend and all around good guy, now that it was safe to.  “Taylor…” I said, reaching in for a bro-hug. It was all we needed.  Camaraderie had been well established.

“Zack, we need to get you out tonight.  Boise babes would get a kick out of you!” said Megan Mills.  Gretch rolled her eyes.  The pressure was off.  I sat back, took another sip of Coors, and continued.

“Speaking of Boise Babes, this is how it went down.  I was showing our waitress my new pair of running shoes when all of a sudden, “PHEW!” this dude screams down the middle of the road and pops this dusty old bird in the face, four times in a row!”

“My God!” replied Megan Mills.

“That’s exactly what she said when I pulled out the shoes, which you gotta see these things Megan Mills, they’re beautiful!  Actually—hey Gretch, why don’t you bring them in and show everybody.  They should be in the same place; haven’t moved since this afternoon—“

“For cryin’ out loud Zack, nobody cares about your stupid shoes,” she yelled.

“Gretch, don’t be rude!” chided Megan Mills.  “I’m sorry Zack.  She may be my best friend, but Gretch has a tendency to get a little testy every now and then.”

“No need to apologize. Nothing I’m not used to.”  Gretch glared.

“By the way, how was the picnic?  Anything exciting happen?”

 “Oh my gosh, so get this,” Gretch busted in.  “Zack here went and ran—“

“Ran the table and won the cornhole tournament!  Beat Gretch’s boss in the finals for the win!”  Sorry Gretch, not this time.

“So, does that mean you won the corn hole set?”

“Sure does!”

“So… it’s ours?”

“Sure is!”

Megan Mills’ face lengthened as if she had just laid eyes on upon Jesus Christ in the flesh. “Oh.  My.  God. That is amazing.  Zack, you’re the best!”

“Yea, but—“

“And get this,” I butted in, once again denying Gretch the chance to speak.  “This dude named Logan was trying to swindle it from you guys, kept on pestering me the whole afternoon.  But I stood my ground.  I just knew how important it was to you guys.”

“Wow.”  That’s actually impressive.”

“That’s not exactly how it went down,” interrupted Gretch.

“What do you mean not exactly?  Did I win the corn hole tournament or didn’t I?”

“…Yea, you won, but—“

“And what about Logan?” pressed Megan Mills.

“…So, Zack told him he could have it, and then started acting obnoxious—“

“And I’m talking Ob-Nox-ious!  The guy was nearly in tears after I broke the news!”

“I didn’t mean him, I meant you!”

“Gretch, what are you talking about?  Did we or did not get a cornhole set?”  Megan Mills was through playing games.  A long and awkward silence eventually squeaked out an answer.

“…Yes, we have a cornhole game.  It’s in the back of my car.”

“Well, what are you complaining about?”  Snapped Megan Mills.

“Seriously, can I get a hashtag SDMH up in here?” I asked as I shook my damn head with Megan Mills. A round of suppressed chuckles ran throughout the room.  Hey, I’m on a role!

“I give up.” Gretch threw up her hands and lifted her chin as though she were about to cry.

“There she goes, talking to herself again,” I said.  The comment generated another string of giggles out of Megan Mills and company. “But, yea, other than the cornhole tournament and dealing with Logan the rest of the day, there wasn’t a whole lot that happened.  In fact, it was a rather calm afternoon—“

“Dude, Zack totally chased after a girl.”  The voice was unexpected, pompous, and totally recognizable.  NO! Not now!  This can’t be—no.  No. NO!

“Wait… what!?” Megan Mills straightened in her chair. Her eyebrows twitched, trying to figure out what emotion to use and what its level of intensity should be.

“Do you let yourself into every house that isn’t yours, Josh?”

“Josh can come into our house anytime he likes,” answered Gretch.  A rapid grin grew across her face, Josh’s entrance having given her second life.

“Yea, that’s right,” said Josh, his chin and pecks raised as to say, “I’m the man.”

“Hold on a second,” injected Megan Mills.  “You didn’t mention anything about chasing a girl, Zack.”

 “That’s because I didn’t really chase a girl.  Josh is just trying to blow a bunch of smoke up everybody’s butts.”

“So, by chasing a girl, you’re saying you had a crush on somebody at the picnic, right,” asked Megan Mills.

“More like Zack saw a girl running away so he physically ran after her,” said Josh.

“…You got to be kidding me,” replied Megan Mills, her voice exacerbated by the revelation.

“It’s not even that big of deal Megan Mills, honestly.”

“And she was 50 years old too! Talk about pathetic.”

“Josh!” I screamed.

“Zack!” Megan Mills screamed.

“Megan Mills!” I screamed back. “It wasn’t like that at all!”

“How is that ok?”

“You gotta believe me Megan Mills, it was all Josh’s fault!  He’s the one that told me to do it in the first place!”

“And you listened to him?”

“Hold on a second. This lady was out on a run, and him and Logan wouldn’t shut up, because they know how much I like running and wanted to try out my running shoes.  So I—“

“So you admit it. You did chase a girl.”

“Yes, but—“

“Zack… chasing a girl is never ok, under any circumstance, especially when we’re exercising.  That’s the single most, creepiest thing ever!”

“You gotta believe me Megan Mills.  I’m not a creeper!  Bill, you were there, tell her it’s not true!”  Bill hadn’t uttered a single peep the whole evening, having placed himself sheepishly and strategically in the corner.  His face turned pale and lit with excitement, but for all the wrong reasons. His head shifted back and forth between Josh, myself, Gretch, and Megan Mills, unsure who to side with in this high risk, low reward scenario.  The next words out of his mouth would be devastating to at least one member of the room, and there was no guarantee that they would please the remaining.

“I… I saw it with my own two eyes Megan Mills.  Zack saw the running babe, and in the end, he… he…”  

Bill… please…”

“He chased her.”  Oh Bill… How could you?

“Zack…  You seriously chased a woman.”

“Megan Mills, please—“

“I can’t even…”

“Just listen to me—“

“Ted Cruz would be ashamed!”  The room drew silent, the latest bombshell sucking all the oxygen from it.

“Hold that pose Zack, let me get this on Instagram,” said Josh, phone in hand.  “Hashtag SMDH.”  I sat back, stunned, while the rest of the room erupted in raucous laughter.

Getting embarrassed in front of Megan Mills’ entourage always sucks.  Bill’s betrayal was a slap in the face.  Megan Mills’ mention of Ted was a brutal truth that hit me like a sledge hammer to the stomach.  It was Josh and Gretch, however, such a dangerous pair standing next to each other, grinning such a provoking, shrill grin, such that they had just received the ultimate form of vindication; that was the stake through the heart.  I was a fool, a disgrace, a stain on the city of Boise in the eyes of Megan Mills and company.  Great.  Good luck getting any Boise babes now.

“God, I don’t even know if I feel like going out anymore,” said Megan Mills.

“Way to go Señor Buzzkill.”  What the Hell Josh?  That’s my line!

“Well, I have an idea,” mentioned Gretch, still holding on to her dirty grin.  “What if we went to Roddy’s?”

“That’s the last place I want to go.  Unless…” Gretch and Megan Mills looked at each other and shared a smile.

“Hey Zack, how would you like to ride a mechanical bull tonight?” asked Megan Mills.

“A mechanical bull? I’ve never ridden one of those before. Gee, I don’t know Megan Mills.”

“It’s easy!  I can even get you a free ride,” said Gretch.

Dude, all the babes will love it,” worthlessly added Josh. “Do it… for Megan Mills.”

I looked around the room, surrounded by eager faces, their fate determined by the next set of words to come out of my mouth.  Well, that certainly is a nice offer from Gretch.

“…Sure.  Let’s go.”  This night wouldn’t be ruined on my watch.

“Great!  First you need to unload the kegs,” said Gretch.

“Kegs?”

“Schya!  The kegs from my car, remember?  Don’t just stand there, start unloading.  Let’s go, chop chop!”  I put my head down and waddled outside like a slug.  “And while you’re at it, get those stupid running shoes out of there. They’re taking up valuable real estate—now staring at me like a grump isn’t going to get those kegs out of the car any faster…  Better hurry, Josh and Bill are waiting…  Let’s pick up the pace!  You know we can’t go the bar until you’re done unloading… C’mon, let’s get a move on, we don’t have all night…”

I rose from the chair, my head hung low and waddled myself to the back of her car. There was only one hashtag deemed appropriate for this current occasion.

#FML.

How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 4: Babes on the Run

July 22nd, 2016. 6 PM

“C’mon Zack, miss it… miss it!”  Once again, Josh’s words would prove to be ineffective, relentless trash talk that had turned into pitiable mutters of desperation in the final round of the corn hole tournament.  Next to him was Gretch, her body clinched as if it were 20° below.  They watched with despair, drowning themselves in their own disgrace ever since their departure in the first round.  It was their only hope; it was all they had left.  “Miss it… please…”

And look, we actually had Josh and Gretch’s first match caught on camera!

I took a sip of beer and shuffled the bean bag around in my hand, looking for the perfect balanced of consistency.  The ritual hadn’t failed me yet; it wouldn’t fail me now.  Gretch’s boss, my opponent—my nemesis, hovered over me, fighting to destroy my dreams and fulfill Josh’s, as if his presence weren’t daunting enough.  “You got this, Zack,” hollered Bill from across the lawn.  I set my beer down and stepped into position, my left leg in front of the right.  Josh, Gretch, Bill—the entire world blotted from my mind, everything except for a tiny hole atop a slanted plank laying 15 feet in front of me, its presence my sole devotion.  I got this.

My hand swung like a pendulum, anticipation building with each half-revolution.  The feel of the swing was vital to success.  It’s a long-lost art that most competitors had taken for granted; an equation between speed and arc position to pinpoint the exact amount of propulsion necessary to send the beanbag across the field and precisely onto the board.  Back and forth it went, inching closer and closer to the moment where every force, every element was within my control; inching closer to the moment of…

Release.

An aggregate of deep breaths was pulled from the atmosphere during ascent.  Drop in air pressure.  Hadn’t accounted for that… Damnit.  Time slowed during descent, our bodies frozen in a moment of silence.  Only a steady blast of guitar power chords remained to remind us our status as finite beings in existence.

Touchdown.  The bag hit the board. My body contorted.  Maybe, just maybe, if I lean hard enough, I can control the slide… make it stop… stop—STOP!

Josh shriveled like a raisin.  Gretch’s body twisted; her mouth clinched, using everything in her power to prevent an outburst of obscenities.  The bag had come to a stop atop the board with hardly an inch to spare.  1 point.

“C’mon Chase you can do this!” yelled Gretch, a cheer that sounded much too forced.  Chase had the ability to score, and score big, having landed two bags on the board and one through the hole in the first round.  But could he close?  The wear and tear of old age seemed to best his team’s experience, as Bill and I, along with our resilience to alcohol, mounted a comeback to take the lead.  If they were to take back the game, now was the time. 

He stepped up to the plate, his prep similar to mine: a quick sip of beer, a shuffle of the bag, full concentration of the board in front of him.  He wound the pitch and let it rip.  His accuracy was his strength, consistently landing fast balls right down the middle of the plank.  His trajectory however suffered—much too shallow for a proper parabolic curve.  It would hit the board, but much too fast, the friction between the bag and board showcasing his lack of discipline.

Impact. The bag slid… and slid… and slid… right into the hole.  Perfect shot, 3 points… Damn, he’s good.

“Yessss,”said Gretch with a subtle fist pump, soft enough not to draw attention; loud enough for me to notice.

Shut up Gretch.  I didn’t say it. No room for weakness.  Bill jumped into position, angered, determined—our thoughts congruent.  This ends now.

Chase’s teammate set up to toss first, the score 15-18.  21, and only 21 points would win the game—no more, no less.  His first throw landed directly on the board, sending a large smile across Josh’s face.  “16 to 18,” yelled Gretch, as if we needed the reminder.  I looked across the lawn at Bill, and he at me.  He held a smile of his own, like Josh’s, only smugger. “They’re catching up you guys!”  I smiled back.  She’s going down.

I grabbed my beer while Bill prepped his throw.  It was imperative that ample time be utilized for an optimal toss; no need to rush things at this stage of the—what the? A rush of blood pumped through my heart.  Before I could finish my sip, the bag was already up in the air.

That was hardly any set up time!  How can he be so cocky, just lofting it up there like no big deal?  I mean, I turn my head for one second, and… and—what is he thinking?  This isn’t a game anymore!  Did he even look at the board?  Is he trying to lose?  The stakes are too way high for him to be pulling this crap!  And I refuse to lose in front of these… these monsters!  After being up 18-12?  They’d never let it down—oh God, don’t tell me you were paid off. I swear to God Bill, if you screw this up, I’m going to… going to…

Gretch threw her arms over her face as if she were about to pull her hair out and sunk into a standing fetal position.  Josh dropped to his knees, outstretched his arms and looked to the lord for answers. Bullseye.  Straight through the hole.  Once again, Bill did not disappoint.

“Good game Mr. Chase,” I said before shaking hands, both of us keeping an elevated level of composure, then turned to the middle of the field.  Bill met me halfway, our smiles radiating, hoping to burst at any second. Our bodies shook, ready to hold one another, ready to celebrate, ready too—

Mama mia we got the moolah!” I shouted.  We laughed, embraced each other, and jumped wildly in the middle of the field.

“Mama mia we got the money we’re rich!” he replied.

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute!”  I pulled him in close and puckered my lips, pretending to give him a wet smooch.

“Time to get paid—“ Bill turned his head ever so slightly; his smile disappeared.  “Ugh, c’mon Zack, knock it off!”

“What’s the big idea?  You weren’t like this in Pony—“

“God, you can be so immature sometimes.  Can’t you just—oh, hi Rebecca.”  Bill’s tone suddenly dropped an octave as Gretch’s coworker passed by, apparently a babe in Bill’s eyes.  “It’s good to see you again.”  Oh, give me a break.

“Eww.  You guys are weird,” she said with a look that bordered on confusion and repulsion.  She brushed back her long, black hair and walked away, not saying another word.

Bill threw up his hands. “Ya blew it!”

“What—”

What do you mean ‘what?’  …You know I love you buddy, but… ya blew it.”

“But… I uh, I got a little out of hand, but she’s a mom babe mom babe for cryin’ out loud!  Way out of your league.  Forget it!  …Bill?”

Bill scoffed and shook his head as he tried to come up with an answer.  “…It’s just… I loved her, alright…  Ya blew it.  Kapeesh?”

I guess this time, it was me…

Bill turned in pursuit of his damsel in distress.  What a shame, wasting a victory over a girl. Whatever.  Some people just need time to grow up I guess.  I brushed it off, turning my attention to more pressing matters.

“Oh, hey Josh, hey Gretch, good to see you again,” I said to the duo, both overcome with gloom.  “Boy, what a match, huh?  You guys were watching it, right?”

“Did you have to jump around and make a scene,” asked Gretch with an attitude.

“I don’t know.  Did you have to lose in the first round?  I mean, that had to be embarrassing, at least a little bit.”

“Dude, you got lucky, that’s all,” snapped Josh.  Great, here we go again.  And look, I’m almost out of beer.  Impeccable timing!  “There’s no other way.  We had to play Chase in the first round.  We got screwed!  Really, you should be thanking us for wearing him out…  Besides, Bill pulled all the weight for your team.  You didn’t do squat!  Couldn’t even make any shots on your own… and if it weren’t for all those shots you made in the second round, you would’ve lost, big time… Everyone you played—easy.  And you beat a grandma in the first round, c’mon!  How do you feel about yourself?”  Because surely you wouldn’t have beaten an old lady…  “They let you win.  Probably because Bill was on your team.  That’s the only way…  You’re lucky you didn’t have to play us, or you would’ve lost, big time.  I’m just sayin’.”

“Hey man, congratulations,” said an unfamiliar voice.  Josh and I turned our heads, looking for the source.  Could this be an angel, sent from heaven to put a cork in him?  Logan, a client and former competitor approached us, his shorts, t-shirt and flip-flop combination far from an angelic appearance. Well, that’ll do for now.

“Hey thanks man,” I replied with a hand shake.

“That was some good corn hole action, the best I’ve seen in a long time!”  Hmm, that was nice of him to say. “It’s like you guys were professionals!”  How flattering!  I didn’t even know there was a professional league!  “I wouldn’t even mind if you stopped by sometime to give the wife and I a few pointers…”  Ok, this is starting to get a little weird.  “…Since you know, you can’t bring the prize back with you on the plane.  After all, we did make a deal…”  Oh, right, the deal.  “You do remember, right?”  Huh?  Well gee, to think this whole time you were coming over out of the kindness of your heart just to compliment my corn hole skills…

Turns out, they actually do have a professional cornhole league…

“Yes, I remember. ‘If we win, you can have our prize,’ I said.”

“So… do we still have a deal?”  Well, he did manage to shut Josh up for a second. I suppose that’s worth something.

“Sure.  You can have our corn hole game set.”

“Ah, thanks man!”

“No problem.  By the way, you weren’t so bad yourself out there.”

“Really?”  Why sure Mr. Logan.  Sincerity works in both directions…

I leaned it and stuck my thumb towards Josh.  “I mean, you did better than this guy.”

Dude,” said Josh, acting as though he’d been stabbed in the heart.  He leaned into Logan and whispered.  “I would’ve done better, but Gretch was on my team.”

Well, he does have a valid point.  Regardless, he still ain’t getting off scott free.  “You know what they say… excuses are like butts.  Everyone has one, and they all stink!”  Logan and I shared a chuckle.  Josh wasn’t amused.

“Oh yea?  Bring it, Zack.  I’ll play you, right here, right now!”

“Ok, set it up—on second thought, I shouldn’t.”  I took a deep breath, let out a heavy sigh, and peered into the distance.  “It’d just be a waste of my time.”

“Whatever.  You just don’t want to lose to me, that’s all.”

“So, this is about competition, is it?  I got a better idea.  How about we go head to head on the Greenbelt tomorrow?  I got these new running shoes I’ve been dying to try out, and I know you wouldn’t turn down a challenge, seeing how much you fancy exercise.”

Dude… Toobapalooza’s tomorrow!”

“Toobapalooza? What the Hell is that?  I ain’t going on some grade school field trip!”

“Tubin’ down the river, racin’, drinkin’ beer—Totally Awesome!  Already signed us up,” said Josh, once again, spreading his arms and lifting his chin as the anointed one, a gesture that provoked a subconscious facepalm reaction.  

“Sorry.  Not going.”

“Dude, everyone will be there.  Bill, Gretch, Megan Mills, pretty much everybody in Boise.”

“Too bad.  Still not going.”

“That’s because you’re a looooser.”  Wait a minute?  Did Josh just do a terrible Donald Trump impression?  “Have you seen this guy Zack,” he continued as if he were talking to a large crowd.  “He’s terrible folks, he really is.  A real loser, that guy.”  Ah Hell no!

Josh knew far too well my stance on Donald Trump and the Republican primaries.  It had been a long recovery process, but bringing him back up was the catalyst for a ticking time bomb. Perhaps that was his intention?  I wouldn’t put it past the man, anything he could do to get under my skin and cause a scene.  And if I were being honest, I’d say it was a fool-proof strategy going after my weaknesses, and on any normal day, it would’ve gotten the best of me.  One thing he didn’t account for: Ted Cruz and his infamous “vote your conscience” speech at the Republican National Convention just days prior.  It had sparked new life, and if anybody had anything to say about it, I was ready to throw down.  In fact, I welcomed it.

“Logan, grab me another beer.”  Though tempered, my demand was calm and collected.  “I’m about to put the smack down on this kid, Ted Cruz style.”

“What do you mean Ted Cruz?” asked Logan, attracting what was becoming a sizeable and offended crowd.

“Pff.  Zack’s a fanboy.  Obsessed.”  Don’t push it Josh.  “News flash Zack.  Ted Cruz sucks.”  Ted Cruz… Sucks?  If there were ever a trigger warning, Josh had found it, and there he was, dancing alongside danger, foolishly adding gasoline to the fire.  I’m warning you.

“Are you talking about the Ted Cruz who just lost to Trump?” added Logan, the smile on his face revealing he had no idea who I was, or the Hell he was about to unleash.

“Yea Zack, Ted Cruz couldn’t even beat Donald Trump.  That’s just sad.  I hope you aren’t talking about—“

“Damn straight I’m talkin’ bout Ted Cruz!”  I grabbed Logan’s beer from his hand, pounded it, and slammed it on the ground, adding a quick stomp and grind as if I were putting out a cigarette butt.  “And yes, that would be the ‘God Bless the great state of Texas’ Ted Cruz!  The ‘I just slapped the entire Republican Party right in the face’ Ted Cruz!  Whoopish!”I made the sound effect in synchronization to the twist of my pelvis and the whip of my open hand swinging across my body while a series of jaws dropped.  “The ‘vote your conscience’ Ted Cruz. Whoopish whoopish!  Sorry bub, you won’t see me jumping on the Trump bandwagon.  Whoopish! Ah, what’s the matter Josh? You part of the pom-pom boys now? The Rockettes?  Not me!  Whoopish whoopish whoopish!”  I turned my attention to the crowd.  “Hey, everybody in the front row, vote your conscience baby, whoopish!”  I ran across the lawn as if I were on stage giving the entire front row a slap in the face“Pish pish pish pish pish pish pish pish!  Hey, what’s up Donald?  So glad you could come for my speech, Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba…”  I waved my hand out in front of me like I was slapping an imaginary face over and over again.  “Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba.  Hey Bernie, this is how a real man takes care of business on our side!”  I jumped in front of Josh and resumed the gesture.  “Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba!”

“Um… Zack,” I heard, a voice I could only assume to be Josh’s.

“What’s that Josh? I can’t quite hear you, Bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba bidaba!”

“Zack—“

I jumped back and busted into a raspy voice and air guitar, Bob Segar style.

“Still votin’ for a Ted Cruz… (badum badummm)
Cause the country just has too much to lose!
I’m votin’ for a Ted Cruz…”

“ZACK!”  The singing came to an abrupt stop.   A scream rang out, so startling and so harsh that a rush of pee nearly entered my pants. I turned slowly, delaying the inevitable horror that I was to be confronted with.  First there was Bill, reemerging to save a friend from destroying himself.  Judging by the results, he had failed miserably.  I couldn’t fully see his facial expression, as his hand had covered a large portion of his mouth, as was the case with the rest of the crowd. Then Josh, who sat in terror.  Not even he had the gall to make the slightest of smirks.  I took a hard swallow before I met my demise.  There she stood, her face pulsating as if it held the mark of the beast. “…Hey Gretch.  Uhh, how’s it going, heheh?”

“You.  Here.  Now!”  I obeyed and approached with caution.

“Gretch, what seems to be the matter?”

“Don’t you ‘what’s the matter’ me.  You’re out of control!”

“What do you mean out of control?”

“You’re jumping around like a fool, you’re drinking all the beer…”

 “I’ve barely had a few.”

“You call 10 a few?”

“Well, considering the circumstances, I’ve been on good behavior.”

“You brought up Ted Cruz.”

“Wasn’t my fault. Josh was asking for it the whole time!”

“You’re spreading rumors.”

“That’s a complete lie!”

“You told my boss we were going to do coke tonight!”

“…Ok ok, that one was an accident.  It just slipped out—”

“YOU’RE ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL!”  Both of us stood for a moment, trembling.  “I swear to God, if you embarrass me one more time—”  

“Ok, listen, maybe we can work this thing out.”

“No more booze!”

“Gotcha.  No more booze, got it.  Comprende mamacita.”

“No more obnoxious behavior.”

“Not making any guarantees but I’ll do my best.”

“No more goofs.”

“Gretch, you can’t expect—“

“NO GOOFS!” I lowered my head, only having the ability to give short nods in the vertical direction.  “And you can start by telling Logan over there that he’s not getting the corn hole set.  That game belongs to me and Megan.”

“…Wait, are you talking about Megan Mills?”

“Of course I’m talking about Megan Mills!  What other Megan is there?”  I had no response but to keep my head lowered.  “Now go over there and tell him.  Now!”  She waited, looking down upon me like a mother who had just been disobeyed, refusing to budge until I was set into motion.  I turned and began the walk of shame, my head hung low to avoid any acknowledgment from the crowd, all witnesses to the humiliation.

Logan sat on a cement ledge, leaning in like a puppy dog expecting a treat.  God, it’ll break his heart! Clandestinely, I snuck a peak behind me. I’ll just pretend to say something.  She’ll never know—

Arms… folded. Head… tipped.  Face—Oh, that face…  Stern. She hadn’t moved a muscle.  She stood in place, her stare still terrifying and full of clarity.  Dear God…

“Hey man, what’s up with Gretch?  Is everything good?”

“…So, about that corn hole game…”  His face immediately sunk.  The phrase was all too familiar, a curse from his adolescence set upon him by a long string of crushes.

“We still get the corn hole game… right?”

“…I… I want to say yes, I really do.”

“Then do it, it’s yours!”

“Sure it is, but I…”

“But what?”  I took another look behind me, just to make sure—GRETCH!

“Sorry man.  I can’t give you the game.”

“But… but you promised!”

“I know I did… it’s just… I never consulted my teammate, and with all that liquor running through me, it came out prematurely, and…”

“But… you shook my hand… Scouts honor!”

“Sorry Logan, I screwed the pooch on this one.  What do you want me to say?”

“…You know, my wife was so excited when I told her we were going to bring home a corn hole set. I mean, you should’ve seen the look on her face!  I hadn’t seen her this excited since our wedding day… now what am I going to tell her?  She’ll… she’ll be devastated.”

“Look man, I’m sure you can just go to Wal-Mart and get one for 35 bucks.”

“That’s easy for you to say, but not for a guy with a mortgage and a family.  35 dollars is a lot more than you think it is.  But that’s ok.  I’m sure whoever’s gets it will need it more than us.”

“Logan, I’m sorry—“

“No, it’s cool. I’m sure it’ll be in good hands… I guess I’ll see you around…” Logan turned and walked away, vowing not speak to me ever again.

I took a seat on the ledge, my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, for not even the greatest of corn hole champions could overcome the guilt that laid over me.  A minute later Josh came by.  I could tell by the shadow… and the stench.

“Hey Zack, check it out.”

“Josh, I’m not really in the mood right now—“

“No look, it’s a running babe, just for you.”  The word babe sparked a reaction.  It always does, no matter the mood, how hard I resist, or who it comes from.  I took a peak.  Meh.

“Yea, I suppose she’s sort of cute.”  Really, you bugged me just for that?

“I dare you to talk to her,” said Josh, adding a stupid chuckle at the end.

“No, I’m good. I’ve already caused enough trouble for one day.”

“C’mon, don’t be a wimp Zack.  Go over there while she’s still stretching.”

“You know Josh, you don’t have to talk to every babe that walks by.  Maybe she’s just trying to mind her own business and doesn’t want some hunk bugging her, especially when she’s out on a run.”

“Dude, just go over there and talk to her for a little bit,” added Logan.  Gee, how quickly we forget our disappointments.

“You see, Logan agrees with me.”  Well, hot diggity damn Josh, looks like you just stole my new best friend.  Shucks!

“Dude, not talking to her,” I said.  “Period.”

“Oh, sorry guys, it looks like Zack’s wussing out.”

“Who?” asked a blonde girl, attracting a new crowd of clients along with her.

“Zack.  He won’t talk to that girl over there.”

“Hey, isn’t that the Ted Cruz guy?” she asked.

“Seriously Josh, shut up,” I said through my gritted teeth.

“Why don’t you just go and talk to her?” asked another.

“Because I don’t even know this person!”

“Sounds like somebody’s a little scared!”  Alright Josh, now you’re starting to piss me off!

“Um, that’s a little weird, going over to a girl when she’s on a run,” the blonde girl commented.

“That’s exactly what I—“

“That’s just the way Zack is… always creepin’ on girls.  You should’ve seen him in college!”  Just keep talkin’ Josh!  You’re on your way to getting a free knuckle sandwich, with an extra pound of flesh!  “You know, by not going over there, you’re just making it worse on yourself.”

“Yea Zack, that babe totally likes you.  You’re blowing it,” said Logan.

“I didn’t know she like’s you…  Go on, talk to her,” added the blonde girl, continuing with her unwanted commentary.

“That’s it Josh. I’m going to sock you, right in the face if you don’t shut your mouth—“

“Zack won’t talk to her. He’s just a coward, and always will be.”

“Oh, that’s it!”  I rose, primed to deliver a right hook right on the kisser.  I cocked back, stepped, and… Crap, Gretch.  Not worth it. I lowered myself.

“Yea… that’s what I thought.”  Oh, he’s going to get it—calm down…  Not going to make a scene.  Not going to make a scene… not on customer appreciation day. “Look, she’s getting away!”

“Oh, ain’t that a shame.”

“Go after her!  I bet she’ll be impressed if you pass her now.”

Dude, I’m not chasing a girl!”

“I thought you said you liked to run?” asked Logan.

“Not like this…”  Ok, this isn’t working.  Maybe a new approach.  “…Besides, I don’t even have my new running shoes.  By the time I put them on, she’ll be long gone.”

“Why don’t you just run in those?”

“Because Zack doesn’t want to mess up his ‘Gucci’ shoes,” said Josh.

“Wait, you’ve been walking around in Gucci shoes this whole time, and you can’t even give away a corn hole game?”  Oh, please Josh, give me another reason to smack you, I’m begging you.  Right here, right now!

“Typical Zack for ya. And there she goes, the girl of his dreams, up and out of his life.”

“Knock it off Josh!”

“There’s still time, hurry!”

“Seriously Josh, you’re driving me crazy!”

“Go Zack!” hollered a random client.

“Yea, do it Zack!” said another.

“Zack… Zack… Zack.” Logan and Josh started to chant. Others joined, but I was having none of it, each word driving me closer to the edge of insanity, closer to the moment Josh received a giant slug in the mouth.  Something’s got to give.

“There she goes… gone forever.”

“Shut up Josh!”

“Please!”

“I’ll pop you right in the face this time!  Go on, one more word!”

“Go get her Zack!” I can’t take it anymore!

“Yea Zack, go for it!”

“Zack… Zack… Zack!”  AHHHHHHH!!!

I took off in a sprint, my legs propelled by a mind I no longer controlled; off on a journey to catch the running babe… my babe.  This ought to shut them up, at least for a minute. Just keep running, then after 20 seconds—no, can’t do that.  I’d never hear the end about my cardio.  Gotta put in a little effort, keep going—great, I’m actually catching up now. Well, she does look kind of cute, now that I’m sort of close and all.  And what the hey?  I made it this far, might as well go a little further, just to see if she really is as hot as Josh says.  I crept up a little farther, drafting behind like a NASCAR driver ready to make a pass. Ok, here we go—HUUUURGH… uh oh.

A throng of aches shot through my legs and my stomach bubbled like a cauldron.  It yearned for an epic discharge, my body screaming furiously to stop.  Give up.  It’s over.  Yet, against the cramps, the abundance of beer sloshing about my stomach, and the incessant pestering from Josh, something pushed me forward.  I had to know.  Who was this babe?  Where is she running to… or better yet, what is she running away from?  Risking a violent reaction of oral projectiles, I kicked it into high gear until we were running abreast along the grassy knolls of the park, into the setting sun.

Alright, this is it.  Nice and easy.  Don’t make it too obvious.  Take it slow.  All you need is a peak.  And look, she doesn’t even suspect a thing!  A few more seconds, that’s it, and… and there—Wait, what the Hell? Oh God, she’s like 50 years old!

I took a hard left and came to a dead stop, my stomach screaming for a release.  I forbade it and took my time to catch my breath, letting the contents settle before the long and grueling quarter-mile journey back.

“Dude, you just stopped for no reason,” yelled Josh between laughs.  “Ya blew it!”

“She was an old lady. A dusty old bird!”  I knelt over, panting heavily between phrases.  “I’m never chasing anybody ever again.  You hear me? Never… again…”

My voice settle into silence.  The entire clientele base stared; Logan, his wife, the blonde—all of them, the latest of escapades garnishing their full attention.  Among them was Rebecca, her face oozing with disgust.  Bill stood next to her trying to impress, but unable to conceal his smile, no matter how hard he tried.  Then, there was Chase, mortified, looking as though he had just watched his entire business flush down the toilet.  So, this is what Kevin McCalister must’ve felt like when Uncle Frank said, “Look what you did you little jerk!”

“Gretch, my office. First thing Monday morning… Gretch?”

Gretch stood at the edge, repeatedly banging her head against a wooden awning post.  “Why me, God?  Why?”

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…

How to Clean Your Conscience, Chapter 1: Ya Blew It. Kapeesh?

July 22nd, 2016. 11:15 AM

It had been a year since the road trip, that infamous trek across the heartland of the United States and into Wisconsin, aka the motherland, straight out of the vein and back.  Punch cards for derogatory language had been spent, bodies had been possessed, babes had been met and courted, and copious amounts of beer had been consumed with close encounters of the Third Eye Blind.  The purpose seemed obvious from the beginning, for attendance to Beth and Blake’s wedding was mandatory.  But the further we traveled, the more evident it became that the wedding wasn’t the only reason for our journey.  A new path had been revealed, one much darker and ulterior, directed from a higher power perhaps.  A new goal… a drive that consumed… that took over… that became our immediate life’s purpose—the absolute destruction of one’s faith in humanity.

The results, you ask?  They could not be any more pleasing; bigger and better than anything beyond our wildest imagination.

Eye witness accounts confirmed that her soul was left beaten and battered after my departure from Pony, Montana; her brain distorted, much like the physical deformations of the Elephant Man.  A week’s worth and persistence from Bill and I—one week of hell—had managed to take its toll.  And now, after a solid year of psychiatric treatment and mind-altering prescriptions, she had somehow, barely managed to make the transition back as a functional member of society.

And here I stood on a spotless, sunny day in Boise, Idaho, at the helm of a beautiful weekend, unannounced in her town, moments from taking it all away

I salivated at the opportunity, the moment those unexpected eyes crossed my sight; the shrivel of her skin, the coarse and uncontrollable expletives, the drastic aging process that would commence as soon as I walked into frame!  Yes, I’d see to it that those thousands of dollars spent on therapy sessions would be wasted, that any progress made during the course of a year was to be reversed.

And as Bill, Megan Mills, and the city of Boise as my witness, I would do everything in my power to ensure that Gretch’s weekend was completely, and utterly… ruined.

***

“Ok, you know the plan, right?” I asked Bill as we exited the Bandanna Running Store with a fresh pair of running shoes in my hand.

“We lure her down here to pick me up, and then you pop out of nowhere and walk across the street, right as she’s driving by.”

“She won’t even be paying attention!  She won’t even know what hit her!”

“And knowing her, she probably won’t even stop.”

“She’ll run me right over I bet ya!”

“It’s terrible!”

“A travesty! …It really makes you wonder, her being a danger to society with all of that reckless driving going on…”

“…It goes through my mind each and every day.  Even keeps me up at night…”  Bill paused for a moment, realizing for the first time how dangerous a world we live in. I joined him.

“Ok, snap out of it.  It’s go time.”

“No more screwing around.  This is Hollywood.”

“This is the big time.”

“Ready?”

“Ready. Make the call.”

Bill punched a few buttons on his phone and put it up to his ear.  I waited patiently, as I had ever since my unannounced arrival into town the night before.  Seconds went by, the silence between faint dial tones driving my anticipation.  Then, a break.  Bill’s head propped up, followed by a quick inhale—preparation to speak.  His posture was straight, his eyes focused.  He was alert, he was on his A-game; everything was going according to plan.

“…Hey Gretch, what’s up?”  Both of us shared a smile and a silent snicker.  “…Oh, you know, just hanging out and stuff…”  Oh man, this is going to be great! “…About to get lunch… Yea, downtown…”

My heart raced harder with each syllable, a Shakespearean sonnet spoken by the master himself.  Bill continued.  “Why don’t you come on down and meet us for lunch?” God he’s good.  A natural! “Yea, we’re by the running store.” …Oh baby, here we go!  Here we—wait, did he just say ‘we?’  Bill looked passed me with a giant grin and a solid look of confidence… perhaps a little too much confidence.  “…Yea, Zack wanted to get some new running shoes—“

“What?!”  My faced turned to stone; my body jerked and my arms swung wildly, nearly slamming the box of shoes to the ground had it not been for my Kung Fu grip.  Bill stood as if it were no big deal.  His shifty eyes said otherwise. “Bill! Are you crazy?” I mouthed.  “Quick, come up with something!  A misspeak, a lie—ANYTHING!”

“Oh, it’s Josh’s friend, Zack…”  Josh?  Of all people!  “…Yea, I met him like 20 minutes ago…”  20 minutes ago?  C’mon man! Bill bent his knees and shot me a look, his eyes wide and gritted teeth exposed.  You’ve screwed it up this time—royally!  “Josh?  He had to go to work… well, yea, he works from home, so he was out with us, but now he… he had to go back home, where he works… to do more work.

Good gravy, somebody call a doctor!  This guy’s gone mad!

My body contorted into different positions like a man trying to fight off a possessing demon, exploring the line between stomping and tiptoeing.  Stubs of shaved hair were pulled involuntarily—at least the attempt was made in all the madness.  How could he be so careless?

“Look, it’s no big deal,” Bill said, in an attempt to recover.  “Just, come and pick us up—me up.  Come pick me up! Nobody else.  Gretch, sorry, I gotta go. I’ll text you.”  He hung up, thank God.

“Are you kidding me,” I said.  “Are you freaking kidding me!” I repeated, this time screaming, the over-pressurized kettle finally getting its much-needed release.  “I love you buddy, but… ya blew it!”

“Wha—“

“What do you mean what?!  A week’s worth of planning, and you out and out completely blow it!”

“Don’t even sweat it.  It’ll be fine.  She didn’t suspect a thing.”  There was no sense of wrongdoing in his voice—not even a sense of panic.  Oh, the nerve!

“Didn’t suspect a thing?  Didn’t suspect a thing???  Your mind’s in the gutter, I know it!”

“It is not!”

“Bull crap! You got cocky, then got sloppy, and then you blew my cover!  You’ve lost your vision!”

“That’s not true…”  Bill grew quiet for a moment, guilt finally setting in, though he would shy away from publicly admit it.  “…That’s not it at all…”

“…I know what it is…”  It was a calm response, much like the response I give Mike Gibson every time I beat him in a political debate.  “It’s the babe in the running store, isn’t it?  Your mind’s been set on her ever since we left.”

“What?  Whatever. I… I don’t even know what you’re talking about—“

“I saw the way you were looking at her.  It totally makes sense!”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Absolutely not.  It’s ok, she was a cutie, I’ll admit, but you should also admit that you blew it.”

“I didn’t blow anything!  You’re the one that did all the talking in there!”

“Me? Talk—I barely spoke!”

“‘Oh, I just love running, it’s the only thing that makes me feel free.’”

“Hey!” His mocking tone was a little too sarcastic for my taste.

“’Which are your favorite trails around here?’”

“Knock it off!”

“’Maybe I’ll just see you on the Greenbelt this weekend!’”

“I’m warning you.”

“Oh, and you can show me your stride.  I bet it’s graceful, just like you.’”

“That’s it! You’re dead.  You’re dead!”

“Oh, give me a break, will ya!” he screamed and shifted backwards in a defensive position to avoid a potential sock in the face; smart move on his part.  “Like she was going to do any smooching with you anyway.”

“Sounds like somebody’s a little jealous cause they didn’t have anything to say!”

“Jealous? All that talking did was almost con into buying that stupid tank top.”

“That tank top wasn’t stupid!” I paused, realizing the need to calm myself before a bigger scene was made.  “…Well, it wasn’t the best-looking tank top… ok?  But, what’s wrong with being nice every once in a while?  It doesn’t hurt anybody, could even make their day better! And I’ll tell you what.  You’re pretty lucky I’m a nice guy, or else you would’ve been pounded by now.”  Bill threw up his hands, acting like he couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth.  “And I don’t even know why you had to bring the babe up in the first place.”  He turned and glared, for some silly reason. “You’re just trying to divert from the fact that you still dorked up, big time!”

“Oh, not this again.”

“Well, what are we going to do then?”

“Listen, we’re good.  You’re just overreacting, that’s all.”

“Overreacting?  More like I just wasted hundreds of dollars on a meaningless trip…”  The last sentence was muttered under my breath.

“What?”

“It’s just… ya blew it.  Kapeesh?”

“Zack… trust me.  We’re going to be ok.”

Trust me…  The phrase failed to ease my concerns, no matter how many times it circulated through my head.  Not much else was said on our search for a restaurant—not much else could be said with a mind so clouded with rage. So, for blocks, we walked in silence, no eye-contact afforded, or deserved for that matter.

Ya Blew It!

“What about this place,” asked Bill.  He pointed to a café that shared a space in a freshly constructed town square with the name “Solid.”  Solid… looks like an overpriced Applebee’s if you ask me, but with all that organic bull crap instead.  “It has a patio…”

“Whatever,” I replied and followed him into the restaurant.  It was the only respectable response I was able to utter.  As long as it has beer.

So, I Wrote Another Book…

Four years ago, I wrote a story about a road trip my friend Bill and I made to Wisconsin for our friend’s wedding (posted on the left-hand column of this site).  I never intended it to be a major project, just a way to capture some of the adventures we encountered along the way.  9 months and nearly 300 pages later, I had finished what had become, “Out of the Vein,” a blog/book partly inspired by the Third Eye Blind album of the same name (we were listening to a lot of them during that trip).

By reading it, you’d think that I had as much fun writing it as I did on the actual road trip itself. Though I did (and still do) enjoy writing and telling stories, that wasn’t exactly the case. Not by a long shot. Anybody who’s ever dabbled in any form of writing knows that it can be extremely difficult, stressful, and terrifying, especially when it comes time to share it with others.

In fact, it was quite a struggle at times, devoting countless hours and long weekends to writing, all the while beating myself up whenever I got writers block or felt like I wasn’t writing fast enough.  “What was the point of it all,” I’d ask myself. “How many people have written about going on a road trip, and why was mine any more special than theirs’?”  After all, I wouldn’t say there was exactly anything profound about my words. Essentially, it was just a collection of silly stories about two friends getting into antics across the United States.

But there was something inside that kept pushing me, to go forth and finish out what I started, even if people, including myself, didn’t quite understand.  It’s like there’s some spiritual essence within all of us driving our passions, to do that one thing we’re great at; that one thing we were meant to do.  If I had to guess, I’d say it’s something that comes from the big man upstairs, aka, the great bambino, the Holy Ghost, the one and only G-O-D.

And so, I did just that.  I wrote, and I didn’t stop.

That New Year’s Eve following the trip, I received some somber news.  One of my good friends from Minnesota tragically passed away.  I remember that night vividly–me, standing outside my parent’s deck, cold and devastated with an old fashioned in hand, thinking about one of the last times we had hung out with her.  It was during our road trip, a moment that was taken for granted, yet one that was lived to the fullest, and one that I had fully captured in writing.

In that moment of despair, if only for a brief moment, I realized how powerful friendship can be.  For the first time, I realized how those small and insignificant moments you spend with your friends can become the most memorable ones of your life, and how important it is to captures those memories.  I realized that maybe there’s a bigger reason to it all, something that I may not ever fully understand, but could appreciate.  That maybe, my call to writing was a part of that.

***

One year later, Bill, now living in Texas, convinced me to meet him in Idaho for an impromptu trip to “surprise” all our Boise friends.  In a way, you could say that we’d find out what happens when the “Z” is in “Boise!”

Turns out, there wasn’t much of a surprise (thanks to Bill ruining the “plan”) and it ended up being your typical weekend in South-central Idaho.  Nothing special, just a few episodes of foolhardy fun, including winning a highly competitive cornhole tournament, watching a full-grown man punch out an old lady, listening to another grown man cry over fried pickles (believe me, it was awful), stopping Gretch from beating a kid up at the bar, chasing after a girl (I’m afraid to admit), riding a mechanical bull, floating the Boise River while running into diabolical characters along the way, putting up with Josh Ulrich’s crap, and even a strange obsession with running shoes…

And it’s hard to believe, but we even managed to schedule a face to face meeting with the legendary… Megan Mills…

Every time we turned around, some crazy event was about to unfold, a new conflict had to be resolved, and another beer had to be drunk.  But coupled with the eclectic group of personalities, it turned out to be a weekend I’d never forget.  So, I decided to write about it.

…And I ended up writing a lot.

I’m not exactly sure how I became so invested with writing.  I’m sure it’s a combination of things, but a lot of it probably stems from the fact that I have so much going on in the old noggin, and writing is one of the ways to get it out and express myself.  So much so, that it took me a few years to juggle it with other life events that include moving to DC, getting married, starting a new job, and keeping up with the blog every once and a while.

But low and behold, after three years, my second blog-book “How to Clean your Conscience,” is officially complete.  I guess you could say it’s a sequel to “Out of the Vein,” and it’s a true story too! Well, mostly true… roughly 80–we’ll say 85%… I’ll say this. The meat and potatoes are all there, and of course I had to fill in some of the details… I mean, I don’t remember every detail from every conversation, and there’s this thing called artistic liberty…

Ok, 87.5%. Final answer.

Bottom line, you can argue over the facts all day long, but what I can say with absolute sincerity is that I’m definitely I’m excited to share it with the world.

***

It’s funny looking back; one of my last summers as a bachelor, just having turned thirty, and still working on that whole “growing up” routine.  There are definitely times I cringe thinking about the things we did (the mechanical bull and girl chasing scenario among them).  At the same time, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  It was a special weekend, a time where we weren’t thinking about trying to force a memory, but simply living in the moment and enjoying the company around us, even if we acted miserable.

So, over the next several weeks, I’ll be releasing it on the blog one chapter at a time.  My hope is that you read it, have a few laughs, and remember to go out with those that are closest to you and make a memory or two this summer.

Stay tuned for more, and happy reading!

Boise Skyline

Chapter 26 and the Epilogue: Wish You Were Here…

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. 

 …all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in the rain.

 -Blade Runner

 

At the edge of my parent’s porch I sat, watching the last remnants of a purified sky, once bright with light and unscathed from impurities now fading into darkness on the last night of my trip. Pink Floyd played through my headphones, the set of soft lyrics and mild chords leaving me with a myriad of thoughts circling around in my head, as was its intention. Thoughts of the past, thoughts of the present, and thoughts of the future…

 

***

 

It was in July of 2013 when the tradition began. The city of Spokane, Washington along with its neighboring towns had strangely become overrun by a massive yellow jacket infestation, Kanye West had just released his latest album, the highly acclaimed yet controversial “Yeezus,” and the one and only Bill O’Reilly was in town, quite possibly the biggest celebrity ever to step foot in Eastern Washington since Sarah Palin’s speaking engagement with Republic High School. And the best part, my mother had somehow managed to commandeer a few tickets for my dad and I to see him at the Spokane Arena! Thus, I made the venture home for the weekend, for there was no way I was passing this up, not with such high-demand items in our possession, especially when O’Reilly’s in town!

Apart from the weekend’s political punditry, all other affairs had been pushed aside for the time at the expense of a screenplay. Over the course of a year and a half, countless nights had been spent crafting my masterpiece, a well-entrenched story with twists and turns about an eclectic pair of police detectives on a quest to put an end to a cat burglar’s reign of terror—going from house to house around Brown County, Illinois and stealing his victims most treasured possessions… and then using their bathroom… and not flushing (I know what you’re thinking, how in the world did I ever conceive of such an idea?). Like many nights before it, “Turd Burglars” had once again sucked away the majority of my focus, deeming all other matters as insignificant.

My fingers typed ferociously across the keyboard, determined to meet my next self-imposed deadline, foolishly set to be the first of many postponements, a habit I fear I’ll never break as a writer. My mind ran on overdrive, fueled by the Pink Floyd kick I had developed a few months prior as my go-to choice for running music (there’s something about having the ability to explore the city and explore your mind all at the same time that creates stimulating effects…). Every part of me, heart, body and soul was set on it—this one goal, working overtime amidst an immanent bee assault, driven by the waning synthesizer rifts of “Have a Cigar,” and pushed by the answering guitar solos, a proclamation of war between me and my screenplay, that I shall continue to press forward into the late hours of the evening, that I would not stop until one of us was utterly and physically defeated.

It was a climactic and abrupt stop followed by a soft fade into nonsensical chatter. The song ended and my head shot forward, much like a diver would to catch his breath before sending himself back into the murky depths of treasure and discovery. In front of me was a bulge of orange light, the sun’s final stand against the overwhelming forces of night. “Hmm, that’s pretty,” I said with a shrug, ready to delve back into another writing surge.

I took a sip of beer and placed my fingertips back onto the keyboard—something was different this time. Goosebumps suddenly formed all over my body; my forearm hair stood straight like a thousand tiny needles pointed outward. I attempted to strike the keyboard, to input a series of legible keystrokes that would translate into prose; it was impossible. I was completely frozen, struck by the subtle and graceful guitar introduction to “Wish You Were Here,” and gazing into that same bulge of light I had tried to ignore a moment before, lowering itself against the scattered trees of the Dischmann-Mica valley. I sat back on the deck and succumbed to the power of the moment, any more attempts at writing would be useless from this point on.

There was no other sound but the soft melody of the song, no other soul around to break the concord, and no other movement but the slow fade of the red summer sun fighting against a pure sheet of darkness until its very last breath. I watched in peace and silence, and I remembered…

So… so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell
Blue skies from pain,
Can you tell a green field,
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell…

 

***

 

Cambray and Lauren watched from a stumped log as I waded knee deep in the water, the sun’s reflection sending an ever-changing fuchsia glaze over the lake’s surface. Soft ripples broke its plane, the last account of a flash rainstorm that had left Lauren’s side of the tent drenched and the raging winds that made paddling through Sawbill Lake nearly impossible, a small sample in a number of mishaps that nearly defined our rookie Boundary Waters trip, including a failed attempt to hang our Duluth Bags out of the reach from bears. But now, nearing the end of our journey, looking out across the lake of which I stood, saturated with an array of purple haze over a stilled marriage of wood and water, we were given a new definition.

Me in the boundary waters

The constant sound of breaking water drew louder with each push, a warm presence closing in on my position—Cambray and Lauren had joined me. Bantered words were exchanged amongst us after a few splashes and missteps had caused a squirm that wetted the tips of my cut-off shorts. I assessed the damage, scanning the areas of clothing I had failed to keep dry after so much care was given, then to the source of my failure. There was something different in the water, an evident aberration—a sudden diversion to my attention. Something had overcome; something had turned.

The water gave off a blood orange tint, a counter image of the sky. A heavy build of clouds moved across it, covering the girth of the setting sun. Not to be outdone, the sun sent out beams of light, pultruding beyond edges and piercing through at any point possible. We watched as the rays widened, bursting through the cloud cover and pushing them aside, revealing a message:

BW night shot

“Welcome to the End of the World.”

In an instant, blood orange turned blood red, and the clouds regrouped, darker, denser, and ready to charge, to eradicate all of the hate, evil, and destructive forces plaguing the world for so long—further proof that God was good on his word. We stood that evening in the middle of the Boundary Waters, amongst a most beautiful sunset placed at the edge of our world…

…And we welcomed it.

Me in Boundary Waters Canoe

***

 

“I wish they were here to see this,” I thought to myself as the song’s chorus progressed. It had been two years since that evening in the Boundary Waters, and it was certainly a travesty that they, or anybody else for that matter weren’t able to see the potential on display, possibly the reason why it was so personal. Fortunately, it would only be a matter of weeks until our next reunion, where we would once again be surrounded by the unspoiled beauty that had been so captivating two years prior. I smiled a simple smile, for we were on the eve of another Boundary Waters trip.

Nearly a year later I found myself in the same position, gazing out at a similar sunset. Nate, one of my best friends from my childhood had just gotten married, following a weekend that consisted of bibulous behavior during a bachelor party (at least on my behalf) and a wedding scenario of which I got suckered into becoming a Star Wars Jedi Knight. With “Wish You Were Here” playing through my headphones, thoughts of the past swirled through my head—our many sleepovers staying up to conquer games from the many iterations of Nintendo consoles, building and destroying our creations in SimCity 2000, devising plans to cheat our way into a win at Monopoly, feasting on Pizza Hut pizza and drowning ourselves in Mountain Dew while drawn to a perfect TGIF lineup, and what kind of sleepover would it be without sneaking in a quick viewing session of the nudey scene from Titanic?

I thought about the present, how much fun it was to reunite with old friends, and wondering how in the world I got snookered into the whole Jedi Knight routine. And then there were thoughts of the future, where I was, where I was headed, and how I was going to get there. “How is my story going to play out?” I sat and wondered, watching the sun dim like a candle on its last cord of wax while listening to the simple, yet elegant progression of chords fade out, attempting to piece together another part of my life. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile.

And now, here I was, another year passed, sitting in the same place with the same tune in my head after a long journey, with much to ponder…

 

***

 

Upon my arrival to my parent’s house two days prior, I learned that a memorial service was being held for an old friend I had met in college. It had been a while since I had seen Jon; moving away occasionally causes that sort of thing happen. However, you could always expect a hug and a smile from the man, no matter the amount of time spent apart, and as an accomplished, raspy-voiced blues guitarist with a skill set that always left you in awe (and with a hint of jealousy I must admit from time to time), there was a good chance that I, as well as many others would be graced with an original song or two whenever there was a get-together of sorts. Knowing the kind-natured spirit that Jon was, coupled with the fact that I was in the area, attendance to his memorial was mandatory if there was any shred of honor left in me after such a notorious trip.

A man with a heart of gold trapped in the body of a brute, there were very few people in the world that could say they didn’t like Jon at first sight, and those who did (if any) were most likely of the bro-type, envious of his striking resemblance to a Nordic Viking. Much was the case with our first meeting.

In a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho, where an eclectic group of skateboarders and University of Idaho students were gathered, in walked Jon to the spectacle of a strange boy singing the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Can’t Stop.” For some reason or another, choosing to heed to the song’s advice instead of affording our newly arrived guest the proper etiquette he deserved, I continued with my obnoxious singing (something that never happens. I mean, c’mon!). Any normal person would’ve countered walking in on such odd behavior with a look of disturbed perplexity, but not Jon. With a stroke of brevity, he immediately stepped up next to me and began beatboxing the bass rhythm of the song. From there and for the next couple of minutes, we performed a near perfect, and well-received number for everyone in attendance, neither one of us skipping a beat, as if we had spent years in preparation for this moment. Within a matter of minutes, we had become friends.

At the young age of 28, Jon had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one that despite a fierce battle and multiple efforts to fight on, ultimately took his life a few months later. So on that Saturday in mid-July, I traveled to Princeton, Idaho and joined an already large gathering in honor of our late friend.

While some expressed excitement upon my somewhat surprise arrival at the Teeter Manor located on the outskirts of the small Idaho town, Mike Gibson brandished a look of disappointment as I drove passed and motioned his foot as if he were about to perform a curb stomp on my car’s frame with the intention of causing permanent deformation. The violent gesture put a smile on my face like no other person was capable of doing.

Arthur, an old skateboarding friend (and quite possibly the closest living reincarnation to David Bowie) started the memorial alongside Jon’s father with a procession of songs. About a hundred of us, friends and family listened as they played their guitars and sang with passion, songs about life, friends, and memories that emphasized Jon’s influence. The crowd favorite was a song about how you can “drink the beers to make it all go away,” an original written by Jon himself.

After the songs were over, a group of his closest friends, Jaired, Henry, and Destry joined Arthur to share a couple stories and their thoughts about the type of man Jon was—somebody who would never betray your trust; a man who took a promise to heart, who understood the sacred conviction of “your word.” He was quick to forgive, yet not to forget, as to ensure you were held accountable for your actions, for the better of your soul. And most of all, as elegantly reaffirmed by his mother, he was a man who always put others before himself, who would make your wellbeing his number one priority, even as he neared death.

As the evening came to an end, we made our way to the edge of the manor that overlooked the west, home to hundreds of acres of forest, rolling hills, and colorful farmland spread across an area of the Washington/Idaho border called “The Palouse.” Jon’s father led us in one last song, “Que Sera Sera,” a song that Jon would end each set with whenever he performed a show as we watched the sun set over the Palouse, bringing an even more vibrant string of colors to the already unique plot of country.

“To a life… lived without compromise!” They were the last words spoken during the sun’s final descent, a mighty and powerful toast given by Jon’s brother Mike, of which everybody accepted and drank to.

It was a celebration of life, and celebrate we did, well into the wee hours of the morning. As it had become widely known over the years in the Moscow area, there was a certain set of individuals who had developed a somewhat “infamous” reputation for partying during their tenure at the University of Idaho. Although some would view that behavior as nefarious, I contend that it simply amounted to a group of friends who enjoyed each other’s company, and expressed their sincere adulation for each other with an elevated sense of generosity whenever they were in the presence of alcohol. Many of those people happened to be in attendance, and being that Jon was a calm and collected individual, he wasn’t exactly one to participate in such outlandish behavior after a couple drinks. However, he was a friend to all and could tolerate the antics with love, no matter how unorthodox the night’s festivities would get. So the tradition continued on Jon’s behalf. As instructed by the words of his most popular song, “we drank the beers to make it all go away…”

But perhaps the thing that stood out to me that evening after all the haziness had settled were a few thoughts Jaired had shared about his late friend.

“…Jon was such an amazing person; somebody who wasn’t content with just settling. He was somebody who wasn’t afraid to follow his dreams… There were many nights that we spent out here at the manor. Jon would come sit outside for hours with his guitar, and he’d… he’d create some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. Music about life… his friends… and about living. We’d sit out with him, and we would just listen…”

 

***

Those words went through my mind as I sat on the edge of the porch that next evening after the memorial. To Create… It’s an integral part of living, almost a duty for being human. The very essence of nature demands that we create in order to survive, the most basic of these being sustenance, shelter, and tools to progress our lives.

But beyond that is a drive; an ambition to go beyond, to do things the world has never seen or even dreamed of, to prove the impossible as possible. It’s a drive that inspires revolution and ideas, ideas that turn into invention and art, the fundamental parts of us that make us human—that separates us from the rest of the animals. It’s a drive that allows us to create life… and a drive that above all, creates memories.

I couldn’t help but look back on the time I had just spent on the road, even if it were in some God forsaken place such as a Motel 6 in Rock Springs, Wyoming. What I would give to be sitting next to Shaun with a 40 in my hand, no matter how disgusting the beer was, or to be taking Saki Bombs with Eric in a new-age sushi bar in Denver. How awesome would it be to sing just one more song at the 1029, or completely drench another dress shirt in sweat by means of dance. It was barely two weeks ago that I had left for my trip, and I was already missing the very moment we had said goodbye to Megan Mills in Boise.

I missed it all; the sharp, snow-capped tips of the Gran Tetons, the comforting feeling of contentment nestled in the cornfields of Kansas, the slew of hotel antics intentionally and unintentionally pulled, the beautiful sights, the glowing stars on the crystal clear nights, and all of the magical places of which we made a solemn vow to someday make our return. Even more so, I missed the people that made those times even more special; Beth, Blake, all of the gatherings of friends and family in America’s dairy land, Cambray and Lauren, aka the Boundary Babes and everything they embody (Oh how I miss the Boundary Babes!), and especially Bill, my partner in crime through the whole thing. I wished they all were here, sitting next to me and sharing the same complication of thoughts rummaging through my head.

But I guess in a funny way, they were. And they always would be…

And only because it wouldn’t have been the same without her, and not to make a big deal out of it or anything but I, uh, I… Oh God, I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this… I kind of, sort of… miss Gretch… I mean, not like a lot or anything, don’t get me wrong! She dragged us through hell and back, almost killed us a few times, said naughty things—look, all I’m saying is that there was a lot we went through, and maybe we grew a little because of the experience. Besides, I don’t think you necessarily have to like somebody to miss them—in fact, you can probably hate em’ and still miss em’ at the same time! I’m sure it happens with people all of the time! And it doesn’t have to mean a lot either, just a thought that you keep in the back of your head every now and then to keep you on your feet, so I wouldn’t say that I exactly miss Gretch, but it’s just—

Ah, who am I kiddin’? I really miss Gretch… big time.

And while we’re at it, I might as well go out and say it. I even miss Ben Wood—

Screw that. Nobody misses that kid.

 

***

 

I think it’s natural to feel a little sad and emotional at the end of a trip, to look back at all you’ve done and created along the way. But it’s memories that remind us why life is worth living, especially through the dark times. Though they can never be recreated, they hold potential, they encourage us to move forward when the opportunity presents itself. Within weeks, I was to return to Wisconsin with the rest of my extended family to celebrate my grandpa living 90 years on the Earth, and a few months later, I would be back again, this time to Green Bay with my mother to watch the Packers finally beat the Shi—I mean, Seahawks (I swear, one of these days I’ll get it right) after years of unjust torment!

Mom and I before and after the game.

There was even another wedding on the books in Bend Oregon, another chance/excuse to drink, dance, hang out with babes, reunite with old friends, and meet new ones, all in the name of celebrating the love between our friends AJ and Lauren, and the years of memories in the making because of it.

“Wish You Were Here” had faded, and the sky was black now, with only the glittering of stars shining through as light, millions of them a million miles away, fragments of a large puzzle that would take an entire lifetime and beyond to solve. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile, feeling as though I had just solved another piece.

 

***

 

Epilogue:

 

A number of text messages were waiting for me the moment I entered the lodge at Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Northern Idaho, each one setting a more frantic tone than the one before it. I had only a few minutes to check them and make a failed attempt at a call before my phone died, the cold weather preventing the battery from staying charged properly. In walked my friend Brian, having made the unanimous decision to end our day of snowboarding with a mix of beer and college football, giving me time to recharge my phone and wonder what it was that was so important. An hour passed before I was able to make the call.

“Hey Cambray, what’s going on?” I asked.

“Where are you?”

“At a ski resort, what’s wrong?”

“…Call me when you get home. It’s better if you hear this when you’re alone…”

“…I understand. I’ll call as soon as I can…” I didn’t understand, and my imagination further intensified the severity of the situation, a fleeting thought that ran through my head during the 2-hour drive back to Spokane. I kept my composure, playing the urgency off as if everything was all right, hoping for the best, yet furtively planning for the worst.

The thought went through my head as a worst-case scenario—multiple times in fact. However, such a thing just didn’t seem plausible, and surely it wouldn’t be as bad as my mind had built it up to be.

My heart pounded a little faster than normal the moment I shut the door to my room and dialed Cambray’s number, the ongoing dial tone feeding my anticipation. Then, she spoke and my heart stopped. I took the news in shock, barely able to express any emotion whatsoever; nothing could’ve prepared me for what I had just heard. Like millions of others across the world, I too would find myself spending New Year’s Eve in an over-indulgence of alcohol, but not in celebration…

That evening, I learned that Lauren had suffered from a cardiac aneurysm. She had passed away that morning.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until the next day when the reality of her passing fully sunk in. My mind had run itself into an inextricable knot, unable to interpret—even process what had just happened. None of it seemed real—It wasn’t real… So I did the only thing I knew how to do. With Pink Floyd playing in my iPod, I ran, escaped into the forest, away from everybody and everything, looking for answers.

My feet sank with each step through the deep layers of snow, the heavy exertion of force used to trudge through quickly alleviating the chilled effects of a 14-degree New Year’s Day. The eerie introductory tone of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” converted the convolution of thoughts and frustration into propulsion, pushing me deeper and deeper into the forest. I worked on pure, animal instinct, up and over fallen trees and debris, slipping up and down slopes, breathing, sweating, moving my arms and legs back and forth, furiously and repeatedly; not thinking—just acting… moving, farther and farther away from reality, farther away from sanity.

The music progressed, as did my body, now a robotic being, its purpose pre-programmed, working with mechanical movements that could outlast any and all elements. I ran, inching closer to some unknown destination without an operator to stop the machine, running and waiting for a major breakdown or an expended fuel source, the only two logical events that could stop the madness.

The final hill was a grueling affair, one ignored by the limitations of my legs. Somehow, they kept pushing, finding ways to move passed each obstacle and gather traction through the dense and snow-packed areas of forest. I moved, faster and harder, until I reached the top where a clear opening was exposed.

I stopped and looked out across an immense valley as though the changing of songs on the album had simultaneously flicked my body’s “off” switch. Above me was a bright, cloudless sky of pure blue. In front the air sparkled, thousands of water vapor molecules frozen by the stagnant chill of a winter day, and beyond it laid a fresh blanket of snow covering the Dischmann-Mica valley of Spokane. I let the cold penetrate my skin, bringing about a strange sense of comfort as I gazed out in amazement at a sight filled with pines, firs, spruces and junipers, all buried under the white powder and lining the edges of a valley that spanned for miles, all of it untainted by any human existence except for a set of tracks I had made behind me… and I imagined she was there.

I could imagine her standing right next to me, looking out at a sight of natural beauty that no eyes had ever seen, able to realize the extraordinary view in front of us that so few had that ability to appreciate, just like we did those many years ago when we set foot in the Boundary Waters for the first time. I imagined her beside me with a radiant smile spread across her face, a reflection of a perfect sky shining over an untouched indent of the Earth. I imagined she was there, seeing exactly what I was seeing…

The well-recognized guitar introduction from “Wish You Were Here” started to play through my headphones. Suddenly, I was swallowed by reality…

…I would never have the chance to show her this.

Tears filled my eyes as my neck and face tightened. I let out a whimpered burst, followed by a string of choppy breaths that battled against my body’s natural reaction to weep. The shallow tears accumulated, turning into a steady stream that fell down onto my rosy cheeks, and I cried. Deep in the forest, miles away from the nearest form of civilization, I cried out a series of embarrassing cries—cries of desperation, cries of hopelessness… cries out to God in an attempt to find any sort of reasoning, that maybe I could find him, somewhere in the depths of the valley. “How can a world so beautiful be so unjust?” It was the first of many unanswered questions. “Why?” I simply put. “God, what must her family be thinking?” I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“…What do I do now God…?” I asked, feeling as though my life had lost all purpose, that every piece of the puzzle had been blown apart, unsure of where to start again… unsure if I wanted to start again. “What do I do now…?”

I stayed out in that open area of the forest for several minutes, staring out at the sunny, snow-covered valley, and letting the music repeat itself, waiting patiently for an answer. I remained outside, waiting until the combination of sweat and tears had formed frozen chunks onto my head and beard; my sweat-drenched shirt was only a few minutes behind. I returned home that day, having received no answers; unsure if I ever would…

 

***

 

The night of her passing I stepped out onto the porch as I had done many times before with an old fashioned in hand. It was the third one I’d had that night, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I stood out in the cold, alone, staring out into a black, lifeless night, letting the crystallized air molecules pierce my lungs like a thousand tiny needles, attacking my body with each breath—jeopardizing my survival in the bleak and frozen world. Every now and then, it takes the threat of mortality to remind us we’re alive.

There was no other sound except the occasional rattle of ice from my alcoholic beverage, no movement anywhere within the spread of the forest but for the precipitation of breath, and absolutely no soul to disturb me in my silent remonstration of justice, the still air doing nothing to untangle the web of thoughts muddling about in my head. In acquiescence to the freezing temperature, my hands dropped into my coat pockets where they clasped around a thin, metal frame. It was my iPod, a possible catalyst for clarity; at that moment, I was desperate for anything.

I pressed the home button and swiped the screen with a potential album in mind, but a song was already playing. I’ll never know quite for sure why that particular song happened to be playing at that time, whether it was by miracle or a malfunction caused by a pair of sports headphones that had been the root of frustration during my most recent runs. I contend that it was a little bit of both.

I placed the headphones in my ear and heard the soft stroke of guitar chords playing behind a familiar, raspy voice, each plucked string from the guitar cutting into my heart unlike it had ever done before. For a brief moment, I was brought back to a simpler time, a time of warmth and love; two friends singing their hearts out, an ode for a fallen friend unto an audience filled with fans, strangers, lovers, and most importantly, Boundary Babes; a complete antipodal from which I stood… a time where two friends unknowingly embraced the true meaning of life and what it meant to live…

…Two friends, simply living in the moment without fear, without apprehension… without compromise. For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…

Ain’t it funny how the night moves,
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose.
Strange how the night moves…

 With autumn closin’ in…

For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…

How lucky we are to be alive. How blessed are we to know the people we know in the places we’ve been…?

…What an opportunity we have…