Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, or You’re Probably Full of Shit but We All Were Born That Way

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I’m an awesome motherfucker who walks his own path.” — Nick August, bastardizing Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”.

That Frost poem referenced in the title of this essay gets trotted out every year at this time as we approach the generally meaningless significance of a “new year”, New Year’s Day, whatever.

The universe never heard of a calendar and shit like The Road Not Taken probably doesn’t mean what most people tell you it means.

The reason is simple: we’re all full of shit. Some more than others. Some more often than others.

Believing your own bullshit is like getting fat: it’s practically effortless. Eat more and move less. Not a problem. The same is true for mindfucking oneself. It’s practically effortless. You just think what you want and look at everything through your own prism designed to refract truth and reality in a way that’s enjoyable to think about.

But you don’t get smarter doing that. You get dumber. You get, well, full of even more shit.

A popular trope I hear implied or stated by many–hell, I’ve done it myself–is that reading is exercise for your mind. But it’s not. It’s better food, maybe. But it’s not exercise.

Reading and consuming content might fill your mind, and it might fill your mind with the equivalent of healthy food, but that’s where it stops.

“Okay, then, Mr. Asshole Smart Guy,” you may be saying at the moment, “what’s mental exercise, then?”

Congratulations. You just started a workout.

Asking questions and solving problems is exercise for the mind. It’s critical thinking.

Chances are you don’t do this very often unless you make a point to do it. Most people don’t because doing so rarely constitutes or meets an immediate biological or evolutionary need in the way, say, fight or flight does.

Our brains have been evolutionary tuned to think quickly for survival. But they’ve also been tuned to do something else to succeed.

Our brains are tuned to lie…to ourselves as much as others if not more. We are some mindfucking motherfuckers, Homo sapiens.

At the risk of proof-texting here, which is not my intention, I quickly refer to the part of the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari where he explores theories as to why Sapiens still exist but Neanderthals do not in light of the possibility that we hunted better than them and perhaps dominated them in fighting and perhaps even committed genocide to guarantee resources for ourselves. One advantage Harari posits for our ultimate triumph was our presumed superior ability to communicate, to think abstractly, to strategize at a far more advanced level, and to create stories that unified us, helped solidify a common identity.

Harari never extends that explanation in the book, so I’m going off on my own “road less traveled by” here, but there is not much of a difference between a fictionalized story, a myth created by a pre-scientific mind to explain reality, and a lie.

It’s not my purpose here to establish the validity of this line of thinking. Plenty of scholars in various disciplines have already gone there. I invoke it here only to suggest that there is a strong case to be made that we “need” or default to story telling because that is also a result of natural selection, if as nothing more than a by-product of a more highly developed ability to think in the abstract, etc.

Just as our brains are “programmed” to solve puzzles and equations, they seem similarly built to explain our experience. We’ve done that with stories (myth, religion, etc.) going back millennia. An offshoot of that is that we also tend to interpret reality in a way that appeals to us, or tell stories about events that never happened, or that did not happen in the way that we tell them.

In other words, we lie to others, and we lie to ourselves. We seem predisposed to do this. It is the easier road to travel when we’ve fucked things up. It is the mental equivalent of sitting on the couch watching television and eating snack chips, and drinking soda or beer for hours on end. Reality sucks? I’m an asshole? No problem. I’ll just use my evolved capability for abstraction and making up shit that doesn’t exist or didn’t happen to tell myself a better story.

I could use a lot of examples to illustrate this, but when I taught college literature classes for a few years during my misguided youth, nothing brought this theory home harder than when I taught Frost’s The Road Not Taken to freshmen, most of whom had already been taught the sappy bullshit interpretation in high school.

I won’t be quoting the whole poem here (and I have a reason for not laying the whole thing out here) but it’s easy enough to find online. If you read this, wait and read the poem afterward.

Most popular interpretations of that poem end up going something like this unholy, godawful pablum:

Taking the least traveled path may seem riskier and require more effort and work since people taking the more popular route have flattened the grass and cleared the way whereas the less traveled path is likely rougher, less well-marked, loaded with obstacles, etc. This is also often likened as well to enduring criticism from the popular kids (society) for not ‘going along with the crowd’ (abiding by society’s rules). The conclusion most often presented or suggested by people adopting this line of thinking is that it is better to travel the less popular “path” because ultimately it makes the difference in living and extraordinary life instead of an ordinary one.

As Penn and Teller would say, that interpretation is Bullshit!

A few quick points that will help explain why that is:

  1. The poem is titled, “The Road Not Taken”, not “The Road Less Traveled.” The emphasis of the poem and its defining conceit is spotlighting the road the speaker did NOT take (which would be the more popular, more commonly traveled one) in opposition to the road he did take.
  2. Both roads are described as being pretty much the same. There was no physical advantage to one over the other.
  3. “It has made all the difference”…not only does that not suggest a firm positive or negative benefit from taking that road, but the way Frost puts that in the context of a man looking back on his life, it has become a part of the story he tells. But does he sound like a reliable narrator here, or the way we all sound when talking about the significance of specific decisions from the perspective of twenty or thirty years down the road?
  4. Let’s go back to “decisions”. What this poem is really about is the significance of making a choice. First world moderns–and we Americans in particular–tend to talk of choices between two kinds of soap or automobiles or refrigerators. But a real choice in the existential sense means selecting one of two mutually-exclusive options: becoming a priest as opposed to a football player; marrying this person instead of that one; etc. Remember, he points out that choosing one route automatically excludes the other, and that he “doubted” he would ever make it back to this fork.

In Frost’s letters to his friend that he took walks with (at least, if I remember correctly), much of this poem was motivated by their tendency to pick one route and then encounter some difficulty (obstacles, find that it is a much longer route than expected, etc.) and always remark that they should’ve taken the other route.

Punchline: they had no clue whether the other route was easier or more difficult, having never been down that one.

The poem’s emphasis on the road that wasn’t taken indicates it’s as much about regret or wondering “what if” as anything else: What if I married that other person? What if I became a football player instead of a preacher? What if I went into the military before–or instead of–college where I majored in dumb shit like the liberal arts? What if I had taken that other road?

The final line, “And that has made all the difference”, is ambiguous, and there is a good argument to be made that Frost left it ambiguous on purpose. What is the nature of that difference, really?

Since both of those roads were about the same, any difference looking back upon the actual choice is only in the mind of the reader, of the one who is looking back. If the reader looks back with satisfaction on the road he took and with where he’s at, it will be a positive difference. If he looks back with dissatisfaction from a place he’d rather not be, that is how he will conceptualize it.

The other possibility, and one closer to what I think Frost was getting at in light of his correspondence with his friend about the poem, is that of an older, wiser traveler looking back upon the choices he’s made and where they took him, and understanding that’s why he is where he is at.

That is much more keeping with Frost’s body of work and personal commentary.

Frost was not a motivational speaker. He wasn’t a life coach. He wasn’t a guru, shaman, or preacher in the popular sense. Among other things his poetry focused on existential realities of life and relationships from the perspective of the individual experiencing those realities and relationships. The Road Not Taken is, I think, one of the best poems I’ve ever read but not because of its popular use as motivational drivel, but because, properly understood, it puts the reader in the position of his current self, or perhaps his older self, looking back on his life, understanding (or not!) how he got to where he is, and repeating the tendency we all have to look back and say, what if? Because this poem could easily have been titled, “What If?”, but that would’ve been too easy.

So what’s my point?

First, quit fucking up this excellent poem by projecting your own soy, wishy-washy motivational speaker bullshit on words that were not written as a paean to plucky individuality, risk-taking, and the cult of populist self-help.

Second, this poem isn’t a formula or song of independence (check out Walt Whitman for that bullshit). It’s, crudely put, as much about how we tend to bullshit ourselves by rewriting history as anything else. And if you bullshit yourself…you’re bullshitting other people (vett your guru). Or you can flip the script and understand it as a poem about the significance of choices as long as you don’t make the mistake and use it to confirm your own beliefs about being a radical individualist, or life advice about how to make a choice.

Third, read more poetry. Because why the fuck not?

Happy New Year, and Non-serviam.

 

 

 

The Samurai: Holiday Greetings Nightmare

Most members of the crowd held an unlit red, white, or green candle as the woman on the steps of the Episcopal church smiled broadly and called for them to gather in the fading light of dusk. Street and security lights clicked on as a dozen or so carolers shuffled closer together and closer to her, kicking up a little snow in the process.

“Welcome! Welcome all good people, and Happy Holidays! I am the Reverend Eucalypsis Wollstonecraft Meriwhether!” she announced as though she were revealing the grand finale of a magic act, then feigned a W.C. Fields-styled inside joke or backhanded secret whisper. “But most people conserve their oxygen and just call me Reverend Stoney!”

Sporadic chuckles fluttered throughout the group standing on the snow-blanketed lawn.

“Yes, there’s a story behind that name. Yes, you are perfectly welcome to ask me about it some time,” she continued. “Oh, and before I forget, they/them, and I thank you in advance,” she added with a flourish, a partial genuflect. “I’m very glad to see Reverend Eustis from the Unitarian Universalist church here with his partner, Bodi, is it? Bota? Anyway, ‘B’,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh and gesture. “I’d also like to recognize my special friend, Mitch, who is leading the singles ministry at the progressive Methodist congregation she–er, he–just helped start downtown. Please, greet everyone while manifesting the peace of the solstice.”

The members of the crowd exchanged enthusiastic, cheerful greetings of “Happy Holidays!” while Reverend Stoney continued talking over them.

“Mitch will be passing out these flame stickers,” she said, holding up her index finger to show them the orange and yellow sticker clinging to her fingertip. “Actual flames are not only dangerous but also tend to trigger anyone who ever survived a house fire or cross-burning, so please be respectful and do not light yours!”

Most of the crowd nodded although a few looked confused.

“And finally, if you look in your folders you will see that the lyrics of these wonderful carols have been rewritten to better reflect the inclusive non-religious spirituality we’ve all come to expect in these dark time–”

The sudden blaring of a sound they were not familiar with–and which was later described by a disheveled caroler as some kind of “out of control, demonic kitchen blender of the patriarchy”–announced the Samurai’s arrival.

No one saw which way he came from. Suddenly, the crowd parted and backed up forming a ragged circle with him at the center where he was recorded spinning up three perfect donuts by someone quick with their phone. What they didn’t see was the plastic charcoal lighter fluid bottle he was squeezing as he spun. The crowd gasped as he locked eyes with the phone’s owner and drew his pickled-oak katana–almost white–from the scabbard on his back. The words “Merry Christmas’ could be seen written in ragged red letters on the blade as the Samurai caught the man’s offending phone with the tip of the sword and launched it into a nearby non-binary manger scene, then pulled a several large, lit matches seemingly from nowhere and dropped them on the ground.

The lighter fluid immediately ignited causing the carolers to back up quickly. A few turned and ran.

The Samurai then executed a flying spin toward a couple of younger teenagers holding up sticks supporting each end of a “Happy Holidays” banner. “CHILDREN GO!” he yelled as he brought the sword Merry Christmas up through the banner, tearing and mangling it so that it was unusable. He slowly turned three hundred sixty degrees holding Merry Christmas in front of him at a high-ready position until he found himself facing Reverend Stoney who was staring in horror from the porch steps. The Samurai ran toward her but suddenly heard someone shout “Oh no you don’t!” as a large woman expertly covered the distance and intercepted the Samurai before he could reach the porch steps.

“Midge!” Reverend Stoney yelled. “Be careful!”

“It’s Mitch,” Midge yelled in response. “Goddammit!” Midge drove her shoulder into the Samurai from the side, her head sliding expertly in front of his rib cage. Rather than fall, however, The Samurai took the hit and let it carry him away from Midge, performing a twisting side flip with the precision and grace of a trapeze artist or olympic diver.

The Samurai landed back where the flames encircling his Kawasaki were quickly going out. He jumped on the bike and it screamed to life. He sped across the yard toward Midge, who threw a surprisingly muscled arm out in a last-ditch attempt to clothesline The Samurai who deftly ducked the arm, circled Midge, and used the centrifugal force generated by the bike to slam the katana broadside into Midge’s ample backside while shouting “NOT A MAN!” loudly and clearly through the mask. The sword emitted a loud crack as Midge fell forward into the snow.

Speeding away toward the manger scene and holding his cracked katana close to his side, The Samurai performed a perfect skid stop and looked down. A small girl doll was laying in the manger as two male dolls dressed like Mary and Joseph gazed down upon her. Three female dolls holding boxes labeled “gold”, “frankincense”, and “myrrh” were holding the reigns of camels at the edge of the display and appeared to be walking toward the manger. In the manger stall at the rear of the display, a doctor doll had been positioned sitting on a milking stool and holding a partially untwisted coat hanger.

“CONSEQUENCES!” The Samurai shouted before spinning the bike back up and doing some quick donuts and cuts in several piles of reasonable fresh dog shit that stood out vividly against the white snow melting from its edges. His rear wheel showered dog shit upon the outrageous creche with expert, almost preternatural precision, then encircled it quickly, the Kawasaki revving and screaming as he kicked it over with his foot and threw his broken sword at Midge, who had regained her wits and was sprinting at him across the lawn, kicking up snow as she ran.

The thrown sword, despite being almost broken in two, spun like a well-thrown boomerang, crashing into Midge’s legs just above the kneecap and taking her out.

“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” he yelled as he sped across the lawn on his back wheel, the front high in the air, ultimately disappearing around a row of neatly squared off hedges and out of view.

Most of the crowd was hiding behind cars and trees at this point. Several lay on the ground amidst all of the scattered candles and dog shit against the white backdrop of snow, torn grass, and mud.

Later, while giving statements to the police, the Unitarian Universalist minister was captured on video yelling, “This was a FUCKING HATE CRIME! Did you hear me? What he said? And we all heard it! I just can’t say it,” he said. “Please, someone, I can’t even say it.”

“It was, Merry Christmas!” Reverend Stoney confirmed, shouting at the officers from across the lawn. “Merry Christmas!”

###

 

 

An Heroic Tale of Bravery and Self-Defense Tits

Bree awoke in the recovery room still groggy from the anesthesia. She could tell right away that she had new big tits. Huge, heavy tits. Heavier than she had imagined. Heavier than she’d thought possible.

Her plastic surgeon, Doctor Goncalves, had tried to talk her into something a bit smaller but she wasn’t having it. At thirty-three, she told him, she deserved these tits. She needed these tits. They were a long time coming, and it had become clear years earlier as she approached her high school graduation that they wouldn’t be coming on their own.

Early adulthood became something of a challenge where dating was concerned. Without much of a second base to go to, she either had to keep her boyfriends on first base long past what felt natural or start waving them over to third base too aggressively. In order to better manage this, she became expert at handjobs and tiding them over with blowies for weeks. She told herself she was less of a slut for doing so but she was an English major and well-versed in irony so the pep talks rang hollow. She never cried herself to sleep but there were occasional tears when laying in her dorm room bed at night thinking about how much easier this would be if she had tits she could offer them and thus buy her more time to decide which boyfriends were worth letting into her pants.

It didn’t help that her younger sister Maud had clearly inherited their mother’s magnificent, perfectly-shaped C cups which Maud woke up with one morning well in advance of her 13th birthday. Bree often reminded herself that she didn’t exactly hate Maud but she did envy the life she had. The high school successes in cheerleading and student government. Even the damn Physics Club. Then college and the sorority and boyfriends who barely noticed her even though, technically, Bree was the “pretty” one.

Then the great husband who spoiled her, the kids while Bree became an event planner and simply worked and dated.

But that was all changing now even if this damned Goncalves was trying to talk her down a cup size or two with his effeminate accent. I thought these dudes were supposed to be macho or something, she thought.

“Going from, well, a flat chest to something so…er, robusto may be highly uncomfortable as well as physically taxing,” he’d said. “And while it’s certainly reversible, there’s no need to tempt fate with unnecessary risk.”

“I’ve been doing yoga and barre for some time now, as well as belly dancing. I’ve spent the last three months in the gym. I have the core of a male high diver, and I want those Ds,” she’d replied. “The kevlar jobs.”

Goncalves shifted in his chair. “You understand those are not approved in most countries, and are twice the cost?” he’d said in his weird halting, lilting voice that to her sounded like a bad performance as a vampire.

“I don’t want to have to do this again, Doctor. I don’t want anything that will burst, deform, none of that. I. Want. Kevlar,” she reiterated, her face puckered, almost pouting. “I want them to be perfect.”

“Very well,” Goncalves had said as he brushed the yacht brochures on his desk under his large calendar blotter. The surgery two days later went well and Bree awoke a new woman. In less than an hour she was sitting up and talking.

“Are they supposed to be this stiff?” she asked as she sipped water through a straw. “I mean, there’s almost no jiggle. It’s like I have two giant round noses on my chest. They just sit there.”

“You asked for kevlar,” Goncalves said with a shrug. “You got kevlar. They should loosen up just a little as your body acclimates.”

“And I’ll look great on Instagram,” she observed. She looked at him and squinted. “Why are you dressed like you’re competing in the America’s Cup?” she asked.

Goncalves smiled. “Get some rest,” he said. “And have a pleasant trip back to the states.”

As he left his office suite he whispered to his assistant, “I never want to see or talk to that crazy bitch again.”

***

“Wow!” Bree’s boyfriend Stan said when he came to see her upon her return. Flowers in hand, big grin on his face, he pushed the flowers at her and gushed. “You look amazing!” he exclaimed at first before dialing it back. “I mean, they look perfectly natural is what I mean.”

She wore a tight, thin fuzzy peach-colored sweater over tight white spandex workout pants. Her petite, athletic frame, slender and narrow-waisted as she was, made her large kevlar tits look even more exaggerated by comparison.

“Look, buddy, we need to talk,” she said.

Stan shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “Got carried away.”

“It’s not that. But it’s been over a year and you haven’t proposed. I don’t think this is going anywhere,” she said coldly. “I do love you, but more like a brother. Maybe I always have.”

“You’re breaking up with me?” he asked. “But the tits…”

“They’re not for you,” she said “They’re for me. And don’t think I don’t know about all those tit pictures on your phone, that top-heavy barista or all your visits to the titty bar when you leave here at night.”

“You followed me?” he asked.

“GPS,” she said.

“Can I at least touch one before I go?” he asked.

She sighed. “Make it quick.”

He walked over boldly and attempted a squeeze but his hand practically bounced off the. “That’s a really firm bra,” he said.

“I’m not wearing a bra,” she replied.

“Yeah, but anti-personnel tits?” he asked.

“Goodbye, Stan.”

***

Bree enlisted Maud to take plenty of pictures of her around town for a new dating profile. After a few months of constant dates, several marriage proposals, and one attempted rape/kidnapping, Bree was in a funk. She asked Maud to come over and split a bottle of prosecco and help her figure out how she felt about it.

“I’m getting bored,” she told Maud.

“I’ll bet you are,” Maud replied.

“That’s not funny!” Bree shouted, tears welling in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Maud said. “It’s the prosecco talking.”

“My boobs are so stiff most guys’ hands just bounce off when they go for a squeeze. They have to slow down a lot and then it’s just creepy. I keep thinking about that hand that used to crawl around by itself on the Addams Family,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “My nipples don’t even get hard half the time anymore. And that guy I really liked, the football player. He put his erection between them, and when I pushed them together he screamed! He had to go to the doctor and doesn’t call me anymore!”

Maud snickered but Bree was opening another bottle of prosecco and didn’t notice, and continued. “But then that Uber guy tried getting grabby and without thinking I just pushed my boobs together and he sprained his wrist or something. And I thought, what’s more empowering than tits that are for more than just for show?” she opined. “But I just don’t know.”

Maud snickered again.

“What?” Bree asked.

“What?” Maud asked.

“You laughed or something,” she said. “Are you laughing at me?”

“What? No!” Maud insisted. “I…think it’s kind of heroic. Using your tits to fuck up some asshole’s hand. I just think, I don’t know, that maybe if you have kids someday, you might want tits that are more, I don’t know, user-friendly. Maybe you should’ve just stuck with nature,” she said. “Maybe you should have another surgery, go back to normal. Or something, you know, close.”

“Easy for you to say, mom clone!” she screamed. “You’ve never been titty-shamed a day in your amazing, perfect-titted life!”

“Titty-shamed?”

“You have a perfect husband,” Bree continued, “perfect home, perfect kids!”

“Oh, honey, my life isn’t perfect,” she said, tilting her glass and swalling the rest of the prosecco as though it were a shot of whiskey. “You should see the tile in the master bath.”

“Seeeeeeee!” she said. “You have a master bath and tile to hate! What do I have?”

“Jugs,” Maud said matter-of-factly. “Big, bulletproof jugs.”

Bree ran to the bathroom and slammed the door.

***

Winter arrived early that year and Cleveland was receiving flurries every day along with the occasional lake effect snow storm. Heavy snow was falling and collecting on Bree’s windowsill as she looked down at the street below. She and Maud had not talked for days and it was bringing her down, so she thought a little shopping might make her feel better. She bundled up in her large, heavy parka and flipped up the hood as she left her apartment building, her face already stinging from the cold north wind.

A mother was standing on the corner near a free neighborhood newspaper box holding an umbrella over her daughter in the heavy falling snow and freezing wind. The girl sat on a small folding camp chair next to a small trash can holding a half dozen or so umbrellas. A sign on the trash can read “Snow Umbrellas – $10.00”.

As she passed the girl and her mother, something made her stop in her tracks and walk toward them. It was the newspaper box, the face out copy behind the display window. It sported a headline that got her attention: “Local Woman Stops, Injures Attacker”. She took a paper and quickly scanned the story.

It was about her and the Uber guy! Word had spread somehow! She remembered there had been a few people around.

“I wished she’d broken his hand,” a man who identified himself as “just a concerned male feminist” was quoted as saying. “Guys like that are why the patriarchy even exists.”

“I hope more women go there,” a young mother was quoted as saying. “I’m thinking about getting some kevlar tits myself. Maybe some for my daughter, too, when she’s older.”

They were talking about her as if she were a hero! Her mind spun with thoughts and possibilities. Crimestoppers. Oprah! She imagined herself being interviewed by Oprah herself and grew dizzy with excitement. Suddenly it occurred to Bree that she’d been thinking about this all wrong and had been silly to be so disappointed. Everyone struggled with something so why should she be different. There was always a silver lining. She realized that simply getting big fake tits wasn’t the answer, at least not the whole answer. It was what you did with them that counted.

She’d been so foolish!

As the thought of that brought the warmth back to her face, she began noticing that even in her heavy parka the big kevlar tits were prominent, noticeable. Her big thick coat didn’t hold back or hide her breasts much better than a sweater did! Everyone else on the sidewalk, from a mailman to the woman and girl selling umbrellas looked uniformly androgynous and flat-chested in their heavy coats and parkas, but not her.

Most passers-by, she began noticing, endured the whipping snow flakes just to gawk at her, male and female alike. Maybe they were even making the connection between her and the story in the neighborhood news! Was she on her way to becoming a neighborhood folk hero? This was going to look amazing on Instagram.

Oh, shit! Instagram, she thought. I’m going to need an amazing tattoo before bikini season.

###

The Coach: Online Man Spears

The bright red F-450 dually blasting Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ came a little too fast into the gravel lot of the small country store that also served meat-and-three vegetable  plates at lunchtime. Close to two dozen men were standing around lowered tailgates and sitting in the cabs of trucks parked in the shade, eating. A few looked up but most were focused on generous portions of chicken and dumplings, collards, and okra when the bright red truck skidded to a stop near the ice cooler near the door.

Trent opened his door and jumped down from the cab. His beard was thick and well-coiffed and he wore a navy blue t-shirt with the words “Consider Yourself Challenged” in white block letters on the front.

“Fuck!” he said. “This isn’t the Everglades. Better get in some push-ups.”

Screened from the others by his large truck, he did some quick stretches followed by light calisthenics then walked around the back of the dually toward the door.

“How’s that fricassee today, boys?” he said congenially while remembering to project total alpha as he passed the strangers and wondered which one was the alpha of the group. “Might have to try some before I leave.”

As before, a few looked up and stared while most continued eating and talking.

“What you haul with that dually?” asked one man wearing a “Bowhunters Do It At Full Draw” tee shirt asked. Trent stopped mid-stride and turned away from the door and addressed the man.

“Hey! I have a bow, too,” Trent remarked. “Don’t have it with me right now but I got some pics right here on the phone.” 

“That the four wheel drive with the manual hubs?” another man asked, nodding at Trent’s truck. Still another asked, “Four-fifty turbo?”

“All of the above,” Trent shouted in answer to all of the questions, then added, “killer sound system, too. You guys ever listen to Journey? I’ve been thinking of playing them next time I walk out on stage at a show.”

“Yeah? You in a band?” one young man in an orange cap asked. “You play any Jason Aldean?”

“No, not a musician,” Trent answered. “I’m a men’s coach.”

“Oh yeah?” the young man asked. “High school or college? You that new defensive backs coach for Georgia?”

“No,” said Trent, “I mean, I do coach a kids’ swim team. But my main gig is online masculinity coaching. One of the manosphere’s most challenging.”

At that the young man grew silent and stared back at Trent. A few of the other men who had been listening just looked at each other and shrugged.

“The fuck is that?” asked the bowhunter.

Trent smiled. “I’m glad you asked,” he said. “Basically I spread the good news about masculinity. It’s okay to be a man today even though society is working against you. Well, I’m helping to change that, to change the West by helping men solve their problems, challenge them to be better. Like, just yesterday I helped a man in my online community deal with how to handle a wife who’s cheating on him.”

“Throw the whore out,” said a man at the back of the group. “That’s what I did. Then I fucked her step-mama and her cousin.” They all laughed. “But not at the same time,” he clarified.

“Haha,” Trent laughed uneasily. “Well you gotta do what you gotta do, right?”

At that, the men quit listening and went back to eating and Trent went looking for the men’s room.

“Ok I’ll be seeing you boys,” he said a few minutes later on his way back to his truck. He climbed in and the big diesel engine chugged to life.

The men eating in the shade had finished their lunches and were now filing by the trash can and dropping their styrofoam plates and plastic forks. They could hear Don’t Stop Believin’ as Trent pulled out even though his windows were up.

“The fuck is ‘online man spears’?” the bowhunter asked.

The young man in the orange cap shrugged. “Some gay ass shit, you ask me.”

The rest of the group nodded in agreement as they headed back to the job site.

 

Grandma

Travis strolled down the bright and jumping Vegas strip enjoying the weirdness on parade. At one point he had to sidestep a Darth Vader who was apparently perving on a showgirl in a massive headdress who may have been a man. The showgirl shoved Vader into a family wearing matching yellow tee shirts with “Cheesehead” emblazoned across the front. The dust up resulted in his drink being spilled but he didn’t really mind. It was a nice change of pace from his typical day back home, and he had spent the afternoon gearing up for a good night in sin city. First a nap, then a long, hot bath followed by another short nap had restored his vigor after a long morning, most of which had been spent watching old women from Henderson playing video poker although he hadn’t really been watching them. He had been smoking weed and as he made his way through the casino, the combination of lights and sounds on that particular row of machines fascinated him and the women reminded him of his grandmas who were all dead. But he remembered them like it was yesterday and in his altered state he was trying to remember if he’d had two grandmas or seventeen.

He only saw five here that he was sure about.

He enjoyed weed but it sometimes made him much too paranoid and he was starting to worry a little that he might’ve killed his grandma who he was living with in Birmingham but he was almost certain that was not the case. You just need more coffee, he told himself, and go back to church.

If he worked hard enough at it when he was stoned and afraid he’d killed someone like grandma he would always remember that she’d left him the nice condominium overlooking Highland Park and her money that had previously been his grandpa’s money. Now grandpa, he remembered, was a different story. Everyone was pretty sure that she had killed him but there just wasn’t any proof because he had completely disappeared over twenty-five years earlier. The life insurance never paid off arguing that he was never seen again so he could very well be alive. His grandma Nell could have had him declared legally dead and could have fought the insurance company in court but then the policy was only for a million and a half and she inherited five times that from his estate, so she let it go. By the time she died she had turned some seven million give or take into almost twenty and had left half of that to her devoted grandson who had always been there for her.

In honor of his grandfather he had already made most of the money in her bank account disappear, around twenty thousand from a monthly annuity payment and some social security benefits. It would take a little time, the financial advisor told him, for them to liquidate her investments and get the cash to him, so he took the few thousand he had left, closed her account, and went to Vegas to pass the time where weed was supposedly legal and so was sex.

That was how you got here, he reminded himself. You would never kill your grandma. You loved her. You’ve never hurt anyone besides yourself.

If the gambling grannies were concerned about being observed by a middle-aged man in a plaid Lacoste shirt for three and a half hours, they didn’t let on. He, in turn, heard everything they talked about and remembered it all. It was just like talking to Granny Nell! he thought. By the end it was as if he’d known them for years. He knew about Ann’s hip surgery and Lila’s grandchildren. Less than a day in sin city and he’d already made friends! Though he still regretted the apparent breach of protocol for asking, “Say, do you gals ever win at this?” as the last one lost her bus fare and turned on him with blazing eyes.

“Who the fuck said that?” she had yelled. “What kind of shitass would say something like that!”

“I’m sorry?” Travis said.

“You, sir, are a dumbass. Probably a shithead!” she scolded.

“Pardon?” he replied. “No.”

“Give me some bus fare,” she demanded. “I need to get home and you queered my game.”

“But it was over,” he replied. “You know I follow Fonzie–the Fonz, remember?–on Twitter and he posts some pretty heavy shit like–”

“What’re you, some kind of retard?” she scolded. “Did you just call me a twit? Say I was some kind of twit?”

“No, I–”

“I’m an old woman and you’re talking about my twat, you bastard!” she yelled. “Bus fare or I’m calling the cops! Stiff penalties here for harassing the elderly! You have no clue, fella!”

“No, I’m not–of course!” he exclaimed. “How much do you need?”

“Forty-seven thousand dollars,” she said. “Cash.”

“For a bus ticket?” Travis asked.

“Round trip,” she said.

Travis looked around. Even though they were in an obscure, out of the way corner of the casino hemmed in by hundreds of blinking, beeping machines, he was sure security would appear at any moment. He held up two fifties. “How far will a hundred get you?” he asked.

She snatched the bills and said, “Nowhere fast, shitass,” as she walked away. Later, he saw her sitting at a Pai Gow table with several stacks of green chips and several stacks of black chips in front of her. Maybe purples, too, but he didn’t want to get close enough to see. It bothered him that he might have been scammed somehow, and she seemed like trouble.

But that was all behind him now. It was his first night ever in Vegas and he was on his way to a show. A real Vegas show! He looked and saw a cab approaching so he took a chance and hailed it. It stopped!

I should be gambling,” he thought. “I’ve got hot running luck!”

He opened the passenger door and started in when he felt a hand on his backside shoving him across to the far side where he slumped against the door. He turned and looked at his assailant. The old woman! She had climbed in behind him and shut the door.

“Paradise Pawn and Gun,” she yelled at the driver, sitting back and tightening the selt belt. “And an extra hundo if you don’t catch us in this fruit and nuts show traffic and get me there before they close.”

The cabbie floored it, throwing Travis back against the seat. “Seaside a  beltsis!” he yelled at Travis and the woman. “Put on.”

“Hey!” said Travis. “I’ll miss my show. That ticket cost one hundred forty dollars!”

The woman pulled a wad of hundreds the size of a double cheeseburger, snapped off a couple bills, and tossed them at him.

“Keep the change, rube,” she said. “Where you from, anyhow?”

“Birmingham,” said Travis. “Alabama.”

“Well that explains it,” she said derisively.

“No one in my family has ever been here before,” he said.

“Congrats,” she said sarcastically. “Money well spent.”

“It doesn’t give you the right to kidnap me and make me miss my–where I was going!” Travis protested.

“Fuck that noise. You’re not kidnapped. This is a cab for fucks sake. You can get out any time you want,” she pointed out. “You got in the cab voluntarily, genius. It’s not like you’re being held against your will.”

“Good then I want to get out,” he said to the driver.

“Hell no you can’t get out!” she yelled. “After the pawn shop. I’ll pay him to take you wherever you want to go.” She held up the massive wad of hundreds with her tiny hand. “Just sit still and shut up.”

“What’s so important about the pawn shop?” he asked.

“Never you mind, Scooter,” she said harshly.

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

She scowled at him again. “Abigail. Boulevard. Zimbabwe, the fuck does it matter?” she snapped. “Now shut up before I kick you in your box or whatever you got down there.”

Travis sighed and settled back into his seat and watched the lights and faces along the sidewalk stream by as they sped west toward the setting sun. He glanced over at the old woman but she was sitting upright with her eyes closed as though meditating.

Thinking she was asleep, he quietly pulled out his flip phone and dialed then held it to his ear. “Hey, Uncle Barney? Yeah it’s Travis,” he said in a quiet voice. “You’ll never guess where I–” But that was as far as he got. The old woman opened one eye and slapped the phone out of his hand. It hit the door handle and broke into several pieces that clattered down onto the floorboard.

“My phone,” Travis said, defeated.

“What you?” the driver said. Travis looked up and saw him looking at Travis in the rear-view mirror. “Are you her…byeotch, how you say or someting?”

“Sit still, fucker!” the old lady said. “I’m not going to tell you again. We’re almost there.”

Just as Travis settled back into his seat, the driver turned quickly into a small, run down shopping center and stopped in front of Paradise Pawn and Gun. A large clock on a roof gable read five fifty-five.

“We made it!” he exclaimed. “With five minutes to spare!”

The woman rolled her eyes and paid the cabbie.

“You want I wait?” the cabbie asked her.

“Fuck no, Al Queso” she said, giving him an extra hundred. “But take him wherever he needs to go, just get him out of here.”

Then she counted out more money, laying it on the back seat.

“Here’s an extra thousand,” she said. “For a new phone. One that was made in the last twenty years. Quit fucking up your life. Quit being a dumbass. Go back to Alabama and stay there and do something that isn’t so stupid. Go to bed at a reasonable hour. Have some fucking milk and cookies instead of weed for a change.”

“What?” he said. “Who are you?”

“Who the fuck you think, shitass?” she shouted at him. “Somebody’s grandma.”

Then she slammed the door. The cab made a half-circle and exited the parking lot. As they pulled into traffic, he turned for one last look at the old woman, but she was gone. Instead of a shopping center there was just a big empty lot on a big empty block. Travis looked at the driver but his eyes were on the road ahead. He scooped the money off the seat and folded it, stuffed it in his pocket.

“I take?” the driver asked.

Travis looked up and met the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “Take me to the airport,” he said.

“Airport!” the driver exclaimed. “Now where you going?”

“Home,” he said to the cab driver. “I’m going home.”

###

His Name is Earl

Earl won almost two hundred dollars at the craps table in Vegas that night. It was an older casino, a bit off the strip, but what it lacked in amenities it offered in service and ambience. A real “Old Vegas” feel. He had told the dealer and everyone listening that he just knew when first driving past the place that he would do well here.

“Why I don’t even believe it!” he declared to everyone around him. “I’ve never won this much money before at anything!”

A drunk wearing a shiny red shirt looked Earl up and down, and with unconcealed disdain at his stained beige field coat and worn, off-white straw cattleman’s hat said, “Well don’t spend it all at once place, and I’d avoid the O.K. Corral if I was you, Wyatt Earp.” He slurred his words while laughing contemptuously.

“Thank you kindly, sir,” Earl said as he gathered his chips. “After I conduct some much-needed business at the cashier’s window, I believe I will use my good fortune to indulge in a good cigar, one double-pour of fine whisky, and a premium steak.” Passing the man on his way to the cashier’s window, he leaned in and said in a low voice, “Beg pardon, but you know, Wyatt Earp came out on top at the O.K. Corral, friend.”

A couple minutes later at the window, Earl gently dropped the chips on the counter and addressed the cashier. “Hi there, ma’am. I’m Earl Byrd from Lower Alabama and I won one hundred eight-seven dollars at your craps table.”

“Well hi there back, Earl,” said the cashier, an older lady with gray skin and heavy makeup resembling a clown’s. Her name tag read, Dina. She looked up at him. “You certainly are a tall drink of water,” she said then quickly counted the chips. “Earl,” she continued, “I’m afraid you haven’t won a hundred and eighty-seven dollars.”

“Ma’am?” Earl asked.

She beamed, then exclaimed excitedly, “You won one hundred eighty-eight dollars, Mr. Earl!”

“Oh I don’t think so, ma’am,” said Earl. “I counted it three times.”

The cashier held her smile past its expiration per her training. “Oh now Mr. Earl, I count these chips for a living. You should trust me on this.”

“I count things too,” he said. “I’m what you might call a master sorter. Used to work at the new Korean auto plant until I got the call.”

“Oh, are you a minister, Mr. Earl?” she asked as she began re-counting, slowly.

He smiled. “Something like that.”

Dina counted out the chips slowly in front of him. “…and seven, and eight. See what I mean?”

Earl looked over the chips laid out in rows by color. “You sure are right, ma’am,” said Earl. “Are you going to call security on me now?”

“Security?” Dina asked. “Sweetie why on earth would I do that?”

“Because I must’ve stole that extra chip from the table,” Earl said matter-of-factly.

“Sir, are you saying that you have stolen chips from the craps table?” Dina asked, raising her hand to signal the head cashier over.

“I must’ve,” Earl repeated. “Because I know I only won a hundred eighty-seven.”

The supervisor as well as a pit boss from the craps area and a couple of security officers arrived. They discussed the incident inside the Cashier’s cage while Earl waited patiently at Dina’s window. Finally, a swarthy man in a gray suit left the cage and approached Earl.

“Earl, is it?” the main said, smiling and extending his hand. “I’m Mr. Sayataan.”

Earl grasped the offered hand and shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Satan,” he said. “I’m Earl Lee Byrd.”

“A pleasure,” the man replied, slightly annoyed. “And it’s pronounced, ‘Sigh-ah-tane’. Could you tell me what your problem is with Dina’s count?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t hear anything but Mr. Satan out of that pronunciation,” Earl said sincerely. “Begging your pardon.”

“Could you repeat what you told Dina for me?” Sayataan asked impatiently.

“It sure must be difficult going through life with a name like Satan,” Earl remarked lightly. “I don’t think I could ever get over that.”

The security man took a deep breath. “Yes and I could say the same thing about your name, now couldn’t I?” he replied with a contentious smile.

“About Earl?” he asked. “You mean like pearl or swirl or hurl or curl? Some people called me burly Earl when I was a kid, on account I was stocky for a few years.”

“Earl Lee Bird,” Sayataan said slowly, emphasizing each word. “Early Bird. Do you experience many people asking you if you got the worm?”

“Worm?” Earl asked. “Like for bream fishing or catfishing?”

“Nevermind. About your chips. What if I told you that all those chips were yours and you are free to cash them in and leave?”

Earl’s face went pale. “Are you trying to tempt me, Mister Satan?” he asked, a slight smirk giving his face a harder, less congenial appearance.

“What?” Saytaan asked. “Our specialists have reviewed the camera footage of your playing,” he said, “and nothing looks out of the ordinary. So I’ve claime–uh cleared you.”

“Incident?” asked Earl. “What incident?”

“The alleged theft of the one dollar chip you say might have accidentally become mixed in with your own chips,” he said with growing impatience.

“Oh I didn’t steal anything,” Earl said. “At least, I didn’t mean to if I did. Which I didn’t. But you,” Earl said. “You aim to steal something from me, don’t you?”

The security man’s eyes narrowed. “Please, if I can not be of any further service, take your winnings and enjoy your eterni–that is, your stay, sir.”

“Thought so,” Earl said confidently. Without warning he swiftly pulled a gleaming Civil War era short sword from inside his jacket and sliced through the man’s neck, swiftly and cleanly in one smooth motion. “Sic Semper, lesser demon!” he shouted as a bright light flashed, temporarily obscuring everyone in the booth and causing Earl to avert his eyes as the light intensified and enveloped the demon. Earl secured the sword in the scabbard in his coat and then turned back to confirm no trace of the demon remained.

Earl found himself alone again at the cashier’s window where Dina was counting out his money. Dina and one other cashier were once again the only people in the booth. It was as if nothing had happened.

“One-hundred eighty-five, six, and seven,” she said as she flicked the crisp bills down on the counter. “Is there anything else I can kil–do for you?”

Earl studied her for a few seconds, then smiled sheepishly and looked at her name tag. “Well, ma’am, I couldn’t help but notice you don’t have a ring on your finger, and, well now your name tag says Dinah, with an ‘H’.”

“Yes?” she said, her eyes narrowing.

“That would be ‘H’,” he said. “For Hell.”

Without warning Earl flicked his wrist and tossed a dirty, white one-dollar chip through the gap in the bars directly at the cashier’s face. Surprised and slightly panicked, her eyes flashed yellow and he quickly, smoothly drew his sword just as the demon poured itself through the bars and sprung at him.

“Goddam,” he said, swinging for her neck. “I love this fuckin’ job.”

###

 

 

 

The Samurai: Social Justice Overdrive

It was early morning just after dawn but a dozen or so protesters were already tumbling out of a dilapidated old Winnebago near a hemp shop in downtown Portland. They got out slowly, stiffly, attempting to stretch despite lacking the physical coordination to even bend at the waist and touch their toes while keeping their balance.

“I think we’re just in time,” said someone. “Driving all night was a good idea. But that weed was too fucking much. I’m thinking, breakfast tacos.”

“Where is everyone?” asked a very thin woman wearing a pink “pussy hat” and a black t-shirt emblazoned with Animals > Humans across the front. “I didn’t think it would be this cold. I was going to take off my shirt and write “SLUT” in red lipstick across my chest.”

Several “No, don’ts” erupted amongst the crowd of social justice warriors. A man in a purple sequined dress and blonde wig wearing a rape whistle on a cord around his neck checked his clipboard and said, “Something’s not right, folks. We were supposed to meet up with at least three hundred people here today.”

“Well this is the only hemp shop around here, Loretta!” shouted a fat, blue-haired woman in some kind of European military surplus camo. “I told you we shouldn’t have hit that shit ’til after.”

“You hush now, Jack,” Loretta said, setting his phone on speaker. “That road trip was epic.”

“Loretta!” a voice shouted urgently against a backdrop of crowd noise. “Where are you?”

“I’m here,” he replied. “Portland. Where are you?”

“Same!” shouted the voice. “Things are going great! We need you. The Oregon State Police just arrived and–”

He ended the call quickly, his face darkening with deep shame, cracking his makeup around the corners of his mouth.

“Did he say, Oregon?” someone asked.

Loretta stared at the ground, scratching his stubble.

“Dumbass!” Jack-of-the-blue-hair shouted. “This is fucking Maine! How the fuck do you make a mistake like that?”

“Dude!” someone at the back of the group shouted, unaware of the geographical mishap. “I see the Pacific! This is awesome!”

“No that must be a lake. You can’t see the Pacific from here,” said a chubby male wearing a black plastic trash can. Wide straps had been fastened to the front and back to fit over his shoulders and hold it up. He wore a section of a black sweatpants leg with eyeholes as a hood beneath a dented catcher’s mask.

“Everyone please simmer down for a minute,” Loretta said to the rumbling group. “Let me think.”

They stood arguing about tacos and doughnuts, weed and mushrooms until a faint sound like a swarm of bees only more mechanical began intruding on their conversation.

“Do you hear that?” black trash can asked. “Sounds like…is someone using a camera drone? Did the cops deploy drones on us? Fucking pigs!”

A man standing at the back of the group wearing a “Beachside Sushi” t-shirt cocked his head. His eyes widened at the sound. He quickly grabbed a woman dressed like Jane Fonda in Barbarella and began running away from the intersection without shouting any kind of warning or calling attention to himself or his companion. They disappeared into the nearby hemp shop just as the armored motorcycle rider known popularly as The Samurai topped the hill a quarter mile away, grabbing big air as the screaming Kawasaki landed smoothly on the downward slope and bore down on the protestors.

“What the?” Jack said as the mysterious rider known popularly as The Samurai spun around, smoothly drawing his Koa katana and lightly scraped her temple as the masked rider flicked his wrist sending Jack’s blue wig into the gutter and down a storm drain. Everyone gasped at her skull-capped head.

“REVELATION!” yelled The Samurai as he executed a quick stoppie, pivoting sharply while tilted forward on his front tire with the rear wheel several feet up off of the pavement, and changed direction.

“Fraud!” yelled Loretta pointing at Jack. “That bitch wears a fucking rug!” he continued screaming at Jack while adjusting the binding straps of his form-fitting dress.

He was beginning to sweat which was causing his foundation to run, revealing light stubble. “Jason!” he yelled at the man wearing the black trash can who was attempting to run away. “Drop!”

Jason hit the pavement hard with his knees just as the Samurai swept past and dropped a hissing ferret into the gap between the man’s soft body and the trash can enclosing it.

Jason hit the ground and raised his fist in defiant victory. “Missed me you–” he began, then let out a bloodcurdling scream as the ferret began attacking his ample flesh. Unable to reach into the trash can to remove the errant weasel, Jason’s spastic flailing caused him to fall over and roll down the hill, his head and legs protruding from the barrel, his screams fading as the barrel swung wide left, popped a curb, and disappeared from sight still rolling down the hill through a playground.

“GEOGRAPHY!” shouted the Samurai, spinning once again. The Kawasaki’s engine screamed as he pointed it toward Loretta, whose heavy, running makeup gave him the appearance of a spent Alice Cooper after a marathon show.

Running over three women and another obese individual in a Wonder Woman outfit whose biology was unclear, Loretta screamed “OUT OF MY WAY, BITCH!” and sprinted for an organic bagel shop on the far corner of the intersection as The Samurai executed a perfect spin, outflanking him on the right. He swung the sword chest-high and broadside hard into the fleeing crossdresser.

The koa katana collided with Loretta’s chest, clotheslining him with such force that the katana snapped as Loretta dropped hard onto the pavement tearing loose dozens of purple sequins from his dress.

“SAMSARA!” the Samurai yelled as he executed three perfect donuts and sped back up the hill in the direction from which he had come. Patrons streamed from the coffee and bagel shops along the street, attempting to capture the action with their cell phone cameras, but all that would show upon playback was a dark blur beneath a canopy of elm branches and the sound of a screaming motorcycle engine.

Loretta sat up, surrounded by the glittering purple sequins, dabbing at his bleeding nose with the ragged hem of his dress.

“I’m going to get that guy,” he said to Jack who was sitting up nearby. “I will make him rue this day like the strong, independent woman I am.”

“Pull the dress down, dude,” she said. “Your junk is out.”

The protests in Oregon turned into riots that lasted throughout the weekend and resulted in millions in property damage and numerous arrests. Maine remained relatively quiet and undisturbed except for the few injured protestors from Nebraska who went east instead of west, the only disturbance caused by the mysterious rider known as The Samurai, last seen speeding away back through the shadows in the general direction of the rising sun.

###

Pumpkin

Fellows, a quality woman in a happy marriage will not put up with dog shit in her kitchen, but a grievous woman thrives on discord.

I had been in the kitchen to get a drink to enjoy while watching the football game on television, and noticed a classic expression of canine shit-guilt in the behavior  of our small white and brown terrier.  Grabbing a beer from the fridge, I stepped around to the other side of the island where I spied the offending matter.

The precisely coiled excrement lay glistening and perfectly framed in the center of a single white glossy tile on the kitchen floor. That’s not the kind of thing I like seeing where food is stored and prepared, but wishing to remain in good spirits and enjoy the rest of the football game I did what any thinking man wishing to get back to his chair before the game resumed after the commercial break: I turned my back on the dog turd and walked back through the kitchen into the den, shut the sliding door to keep the laundry noise from interfering with the game, and sat down in my large, comfortable, leather chair just as the commercial break ended.

Yes, I completely ignored the dog shit in the kitchen, and I didn’t feel right about it. It felt wrong to leave it there. But I had been caving-in on everything with my wife, Pumpkin, for at least a decade, and just couldn’t abide doing so any longer. With our children grown and living on their own, mainly visiting on holidays and an occasional family vacation, I had all the time in the world. I would wait her out, force her hand. Because no woman in a happy marriage could ever abide dog shit in her kitchen!

My reasons for doing this may be childish or may be sophisticated; this I cannot judge. But the washing machine on the far side of the kitchen was running and I knew that  Pumpkin would be moving that load to the dryer soon and starting another. She would not be able to miss seeing the dog’s flagrant assault on the very floor tiles she had picked out when we remodeled the kitchen years ago, and would quickly take care of the problem.

Now, you’re probably thinking that shifting the duty on to my wife was a shitty thing to do. I will not argue that point, my good fellows, but since I worked from a home office while Pumpkin worked in an office in town, I was the prime caretaker of this animal, and I thought I was mainly in the right to expect her to take up the mantle from time to time.

My beer was about three-quarters empty when Pumpkin came through the den with a laundry basket.

“Who’s winning?” she asked as she slid the kitchen door open.

“We are,” I answered casually, never taking my eyes off the screen. “Couple touchdowns.”

She nodded and stepped through the open doorway, shutting the door behind her.

I relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief, and kept one eye on the game while listening for the back door to open and close signifying she had disposed of the problem in the usual way, by tossing it out into the side yard where Pumpkin did her business.

Did I neglect to mention that my wife and my dog had the same name at this point in our seventeen-year marriage?

So I watched the opposing team score on an impossibly successful kickoff return and that uneasiness combined with the concern I began feeling at not hearing the back door shut. I was convinced she had not because our back door sticks a little when it’s dry and has to be slightly forced (the same could be said of my wife), which usually mean Pumpkin slammed the door a little when closing it. This could be heard throughout the house.

I wasn’t hearing it. I don’t mind telling you fellows, I grew more and more concerned over what this meant.

Suddenly, the sliding door opened and Pumpkin stepped through the doorway with a glass of wine, slid the door shut, then sunk into the matching leather chair next to mine.

She smiled at me. “That’s the last load,” she said congenially. “Are we still winning?”

“Yes,” I said, “but we’re losing ground.”

She nodded and turned her attention to the game.

I don’t mind telling you fellows that my heart was pounding in my chest. I wanted to leap right up, dash across the den, fling the sliding door open with some vigor, and discover the current status of the dog shit on our kitchen floor.

Instead, I thought like a gentleman spy. My beer was almost empty, and I would continue sipping it at my usual pace but while doing so craftily take in more per swallow so I would have a legitimate excuse to re-enter the kitchen without drawing attention to my actions.

Fuck that! I thought. I stood up and announced, “Remember what happens for me. I need to hit the bathroom.” Then I walked into the bathroom, poured the rest of my beer out into the bowl, and flushed. Walking back through the den I announced, “I’m out. Need anything?” as I made for the kitchen door.

“No I’m good,” she said with a smile.

She did seem to be smiling too much. She was either truly the kind person she let on to be, or she was playing some kind of dark psy ops game that was, frankly, out of my league.

Into the kitchen I went, leaving the door open. I hit the fridge first, made sure she heard bottles clink as I pulled a fresh bottle from the twelve-pack carton, and shutting the refrigerator door loudly, twisted the cap off the beer bottle and stepped around the island towards the trash can where I could verify the removal of the dog shit.

It was still there! Pumpkin lay nearby napping, oblivious, uncaring. As I stepped on the pedal to open the trash can lid and deposit the bottle cap, Pumpkin lookup up at me with bored eyes, let out one of those little sighs dogs emit when just laying around, and watched me walk back towards the doorway.

Stepping into the den and sliding the door shut, I headed for my chair, pretty sure my disappointment and confusion was written all over my face for her to read. I avoided looking at her for that very reason until I arrived at my chair. As I sunk into the soft leather, I looked over at her. She was napping! The sound of the leather and a commotion on the television gave her a start, and she looked up and over at me with tired eyes, let out a little sigh like wives tend to do when just sitting around, and curled up tightly into the leather and shut her eyes.

This was war! Happy wife, unhappy wife, whatever, there was no way in hell I was going to cave and remove that dog shit myself. There was a principle at stake. What’s more, an existential reality. The kitchen was the Sudetenland and she was Hitler. Our house was Western Europe and I was Churchill. If I let her rule the kitchen, where would it end? Goddammit.

***

So I dug-in, fellows, and so did she. We were never in the kitchen at the same time after that though we never spoke of it or made any compacts or agreements. There was no real accord. The only way we could avoid acknowledging the dog shit in the kitchen was to never speak of it and never be in the kitchen at the same time.

We were mostly living separate lives by then anyway. Once, just a day or so after that Saturday, when unbeknownst to me her car was in the shop, I came home and headed for the kitchen to make a sandwich and caught her walking away from the other side of the island where the dog shit lay, a bottle of air freshener in her hand, heading for the laundry room. She hadn’t seen me and I quickly turned back for the den, but the kitchen smelled of lilacs and lavender for a week after that.

By day five, the dog was acting strangely. Perhaps it was the dog shit drying on her favorite side of the kitchen. Weeks passed. The dog shit slowly dried and hardened. One night I came back late after bowling league, having stuck around for beer and nachos with the boys. Pumpkin was already asleep. So was Pumpkin. The kitchen was mostly dark except for the light on the range hood, casting just enough light to navigate the table, island, and other obstacles. I grabbed a beer from the fridge and peeked over the island. There was a white cloth napkin covering the turd.

As the days wore on, Pumpkin began exhibiting a kind of malaise or depression, at least that’s how it seemed to me. I was still working from my home office and was around her the most, and was still the one who would take her out to do her business most of the time. She would pee but wouldn’t shit. Was she constipated out of anxiety? This really began to concern me. What were we doing to our dog? What were we doing to ourselves?

I took Pumpkin to see our vet, “Dr. Pete”, who I informed of the constipation issue. Naturally, he had questions.

“Anything unusual going on at home? Any unusual behavior from the dog?” he asked.

“Not really,” I lied.

“Has she eaten anything that didn’t agree with her? Anything toxic for dogs that you’re aware of?” Dr. Pete continued.

I paused to appear thoughtful for a few seconds, shook my head and said, “No evidence of that I’m aware of.”

“Getting plenty of water?” he asked seriously.

“Yes, we make sure she has plenty of water all the time,” I answered.

“Has Pumpkin been unusually anxious about anything? You know, stressed out?”

“Not sure what that would look like,” I said.

“Dogs are very sensitive to human behavior and energy,” he said. “So a dog in a happy home is generally happy, barring illness and the like. A negative environment will likewise affect a dog negatively in many cases.”

“Now see here,” I said. “I love Pumpkin. I would never want to see her hurt.”

Dr. Pete raised his hands. “Easy there, pal. No one is saying that. I’m just asking questions here. Trying to help you and Pumpkin. Relax, friend.”

But I couldn’t relax. The direction Dr. Pete was heading in seemed awfully specific all of a sudden. Did he know something? Had he talked to Pumpkin about Pumpkin?

I was starting to wonder if Dr. Pete was fucking Pumpkin.

“Let her stay with me a few days,” Dr. Pete said. “Board her, no charge over the weekend. Pick her up Monday. Let me have some time with her and see what I can do for her.”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks, Dr. Pete,” I said.

Dr. Pete grinned. “No problem, Old Sport.”

Fuck you, Dr. Pete, I thought.

I left Dr. Pete’s office and went for a couple beers. By the time I was pulling into my driveway back home, he called me.

“Good news!” he announced. “Pumpkin took a big poop in our poop yard just a little while ago.”

My heart sunk. We were killing our dog. “That’s great. Should I come get her?” I asked.

“No, no,” said Dr. Pete. “Let’s stick to the weekend plan.”

I said “ok, thanks” and ended the call.

All of a sudden, I hated Dr. Pete.

I parked in the driveway since the garage entry to the house was through the kitchen and laundry room, and I didn’t want to accidentally run into Pumpkin again. I found her in the bedroom, folding her clothes and laying them on the bed.

“Good news!” I said. “Pumpkin took a big shit at Dr. Pete’s.”

She smiled an odd, large smile, and said, “That’s great,” as she pulled a small suitcase out of her closet and placed it on the bed.

“Going somewhere?” I asked.

“Some of the girls are going to Sheila’s lake house,” Pumpkin said.

“Sheila?” I said.

“Yeah, you know,” she replied. “Dr. Phil’s wife.”

“Ah,” I said and headed for the kitchen. We were out of beer.

***

Pumpkin never came back from her weekend away, not really. Neither did Pumpkin.

I eventually changed the locks on the doors, and we made arrangements for her to come by a few days a week and get more of her stuff until it was all gone. She didn’t want the furniture. She was moving in with Dr. Pete, at his lake house, she said.

“What about Pumpkin,” I asked.

“Oh she’s staying with me,” she said. “You don’t know how to care for a dog.”

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Light Bulb

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” the short, thin bald man yelled as he waddled slowly across the dimly lit room to answer the door. He was out of breath when he opened it to find a tall, thin old man bundled in a worn pea coat and matching pea hat in the slowly fading light of dusk.

“Mikey from downstairs,” the bald man said, panting. “Mikhail himself. Why all the banging on, my friend?”

“It’s six o’clock,” Mikhail said stiffly, gesturing at the small table lamp with the dingy shade in the far corner putting out just enough dim yellow light to barely illuminate the small entry parlor where they stood. “It is our turn with the light bulb, Vlad, my friend.”

Vlad looked at his watch, a little panicked. “No, it isn’t,” he said with relief. “It’s, it’s only five. The ‘fall back’, remember they do that here? That was last night.”

“Dammit to hell but you’re right,” Mikhail replied with a soft chuckle as he turned to go. “I have been incorrect, and hasty as well! I am just returning from the public nurse and haven’t yet seen my Katerina. I shall go home and return in one hour.”

“Wait, old friend. No need to go back out in the cold,” said Vlad. “I found salt and pepper packets today. I have made a soup!”

Mikhail smiled. “Yes, I could smell it the moment you opened the door,” he said. “I would enjoy some very much, but I haven’t anything to share in return, I’m afraid.”

“Oh no matter, one day you will I’m sure,” said Vlad.

“What do you mean by that?” Mikhail asked.

“Nothing at all, friend,” Vlad assured him. “Only that our fortunes are always changing.”

“Ah, yes, fortunes,” remarked Mikhail. “We should all be…fortunate.”

The men shared a laugh as the sun continued setting and the room grew darker. A scuffling or rumbling sound, faint but seemingly close, could be heard in an adjacent room.

Mikhail cocked his head. “Have you heard that, Vladimar? That rumbling?” he asked.

“Only the rumbling of my empty stomach,” Vlad said good-naturedly. “But come. Sit down, there, by the lamp. Enjoy its light and warmth while I get our soup.”

“These light bulbs,” Mikhail said, shaking his head. “We come all this way to this land of abundance, become citizens, work all of those years, my God!” he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “And now this.”

“Yes,” Vlad agreed, holding up a finger. “But the government knows what it’s doing.”

“Of course it knows what it’s doing,” Mikhail said in an agitated, scolding tone. “You watch. First it’s the electricity. Sharing bulbs like this…shit. Next it will be the grocery stores and the petrol stations.”

“They are only acting in our best interests ,” said Vlad. “These men, Mikhail. These are smart men!”

“Ptooey,” Mikhail made the noise and gesture of a mock spit. “This is politics!” he said. Then he squinted at Vlad. “That sweater. Doesn’t that belong to Nicholaus, from the third floor, the one his daughter made for him?”

“Ah you have a good eye, my friend, even in this dim light,” answered Vlad. “If only I possessed your youth and vitality. But Nicholaus and I made a trade.”

“What sort of trade?” Mikhail asked suspiciously. “It’s torn. Practically junk.”

“For you perhaps, with your fine pea coat. But for me with nothing but old business shirts? I let him have the lightbulb six hours early,” he said. “Just the other day, in exchange for this sweater. And believe me, he got the better deal.”

Mikhail laughed heartily. “Well you have another thing coming, Vladimar my old friend, if you think I would trade my well-worn coat for a few extra hours of barely enough light to tell an ant from a rat dropping,” he said, watching as Vlad walked off and disappeared through an arched doorway.

The sound of a pan rattling against metal and some light scuffling like stiff brushes on a smooth floor could be heard along with what sounded like snorting and wheezing.

“Is everything alright?” Mikhail shouted. “Is someone in there with you? I hear some kind of a struggle. Are you well, Vladimir?”

“Calm down, Mikhail, please. Everything is fine. This damned sun is setting and pulling all of the wonderful light out of the kitchen. It’s bad enough I should have a pitch black dining room, but the kitchen! And with my lousy eyesight! So here I caught my foot on the edge of the stove and tripped, but was fortunate to have saved the pan as well as myself from falling. It will be just a few minutes now.”

The sound of struggling and sliding grew louder as Vlad stepped back into the soft yellow light carrying a mug. He set it down with a shaking hand and handed Mikhail a small, stained hand towel.

“Vladimar,” said Mikhail, accepting the towel. “I know I’ve heard something there. Are you in some kind of trouble? You appear nervous?”

“Listen to you, Mikhail. You, you are quite the philosopher!” Vlad exclaimed. “Let me get back to the kitchen before you get at that bulb so that I might first fetch my soup without falling down.”

He watched Vlad waddle back to the arched entryway and disappear around the corner. The commotion in the unseen, darkened room turned into faint snarling and growling as though it originated on the far side of a field, or pasture, rather than in the next room. Vlad shouted back, “Okay, I have made it. You should turn off the light and let your bulb cool. I will feel my way back along the wall.”

Mikhail reached under the frayed lampshade and found the switch. He clicked it and reached for the mug with his other hand only to discover that it was empty.

Confused, he turned back to call to Vlad when a light suddenly came on in the kitchen and spilled over into the small dining area where several pairs of yellow eyes burned brightly as they charged into the pitch-black parlor.

***

The pounding on the door grew louder. “I’m coming!” Vlad shouted as he made his way across the dimly lit room and opened the door. An old woman perhaps ten years younger stood shivering on the dark walkway, the moon rising slowly behind her.

“Hello, Vlad,” the woman said. “Mikhail has not returned from the public nurse and it is our time for the light bulb. Have you seen him?”

“No, Katerina,” Vlad said. “I have not. But I agree that it is your turn indeed. The bulb is in that table lamp in the far corner. Come, sit, and enjoy its warmth and light.”

###

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barfly

“No, I’m not going to church tomorrow,” I said. “Or the week after that. Also, there’s a high probability I’ll be a no-show for the rest of my life.”

“I understand,” she said. “I’m sorry. But if you would just–”

“Later,” I said, cutting her off and ending the call.

I was sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant and bar called “O’Toole’s”, a sporty Irish-themed cookie-cutter chain. It was convenient to my house, but not too convenient, the kind of bland, anonymous place you go where you’re happy if nobody knows your name and the food doesn’t suck too bad.

Inside, I took a seat anchoring one corner of the U-shaped bar.

“What can I get you, captain?” a pie-faced bartender asked.

I smiled. “How’d you know I was a captain?” I replied.

He shrugged and said wearily, “Everyone’s a captain, brother.”

“A beer. Surprise me. And a water,” I said.

“Start a tab?” he asked

“Might as well,” I answered.

He brought my beer, and settled into the bar stool, giving my attention to a basketball game on one of the large flat-panel televisions over the bar.

That’s when she came in and sat a couple stools down to my right, anchoring the terminus of one end of the U.

I looked over, smiled and nodded politely. She looked a good fifteen years older than me but smartly dressed and well-kept. Her hair was bleached and, because she was slim and petite, a bit too big I thought for her small face.

The bartender walked over with a glass of white wine.

“Hi Ronnie,” he said. “Been a while.”

“For you maybe,” she said in a quiet voice, but wryly, with a little spirit. “I was here twice last week.”

The bartender laughed. “Need a menu?”

“No, thank you, Rob,” she said. “Just a couple glasses before heading home.”

I looked back at the game I had no interest in while I thought through what to do about my marriage. Divorce wasn’t out of the question, but was certainly a last resort in my book. I had been through it as a kid and seen plenty of friends and family go through it more than once. The kids made the whole situation more complicated and I felt ashamed to admit I sometimes wished we didn’t have any, more for their sake than mine. At least that’s what I was telling myself at the time.

“Excuse me.”

A delicate, feminine voice interrupted my reverie. It was the older chick at the end of the bar, now standing a couple of feet away.

“Do you have a light by any chance?” she asked, holding up a cigarette.

I gave her my standard smirk and said, “Just a flashlight.”

She giggled and said, “You’re funny,” as Rob the bartender came over with a lighter.

“What’s your name?” I asked. If I was going to be single again, I might as well start brushing the mothballs off my game. Not that I’d ever really stopped, but kept it shallow and short for fifteen years of marriage. Now it seemed to make sense to take it a few steps further, work the kinks out.

“Veronica,” she said, extending her hand the way many older southern women still do, palm down as though I was supposed to pull a Rhett Butler and kiss the back of it. Instead, I took her tiny, almost fragile-seeming hand in mine, and gave it my standard gentle squeeze.

“People call me ‘Ronnie’ but I don’t really like it,” she continued. “Though I’ve grown tired of correcting them, so I’ve taken to playing a little game in my head where ‘Ronnie’ is a sort of female James Bond.”

I chuckled politely. “Well, that’s one way to do it,” I said. Looking her directly in her eyes I could see the age better up close. A lot of makeup but like I said she was in good shape and had kept herself together, but the air of desperation was a lot more difficult to hide than her crow’s feet. Several steps into my forties at this point, I could see more than I used to. Than I wanted to, really.

“May I?” she asked and gestured toward the stool next to mine.

“Of course,” I said politely, wondering if she could read my lie as strongly as I told it. Felt it. I watched her step back down to her seat to retrieve her purse and wine glass, then stood and helped her up into the bar stool.

“Well, chivalry is not dead after all,” she said.

“It’s not,” I agreed. “It’s just on life support with a very specific living will.”

Looking back I wish someone would have punched me in the mouth or kicked me in the shitter at that very moment, told me to quit being chivalric sycophant with women. But the friends I had were the same way. It was the water we swam in back then.

“Life support,” she repeated. “Pretty cynical.”

I shrugged. Why was I allowing her to intrude on my peace and quiet? Her crappy perfume, and wine and cigarette breath was making me sick.

“You know I was married once,” she said. “Twice, actually.” She nodded at my ring finger, gestured with her glass.

“I’m pretty sure that one day I will have been married once, also,” I said. Why the fuck did I say that? Dumbass, I told myself and looked at her mouth. Did I want a blowjob from her?

“Oh I had the big house. The Mercedes. The fancy clothes. But I wasn’t happy,” she said.

“It happens,” I said, trying to beat this thing back down. But it was too late and she was rolling now.

“Here,” she said reaching into her purse. She handed me a photograph. “This is me back in the day.”

I took it politely, still in quasi-Southern-gentleman mode, taking the odd gesture completely in stride. It was clearly her, much younger, her hair a more natural blonde, and longer. She was leaning back against a black Mercedes, her tight little body in a tighter silver sequined dress, long, with a festive but classy-length slit up the side. Smiling comfortably and widely like she was having fun posing, the angle of her lean forcing her perky tits up and forward. She was hot. I would’ve banged the chick in the picture, no question. Especially now.

“Very nice,” I said, handing it back. I was trying to decide whether I wanted to fuck her. She looked a lot older than me, but based on her next fifteen minutes of oversharing I was starting to think she was closer to my mid-forties than I’d originally thought.

She reminded me of an older aunt rather than a peer. Older women appealed to me in my mid-twenties, but the first one I got was also the last one I wanted. She had satisfied my curiosity for good. Still, she was fit, attractive enough for a guy most likely at the end of his marriage to a cheating wife. Why the fuck not, I thought?

“Why the fuck not” ended up being because of the sadness. This chick was bringing me down, big time. I thought of my wife, the mother of my kids, hanging out in a cheesy corporate fern bar in ten-or-whatever-the-fuck years showing off pictures of when she used to be seriously hot so that strangers in bars would pay attention to her.

Suddenly, I really wanted out of there. I called for my check, paid my tab, and politely thanked her for the brief conversation. She seemed disappointed but not surprised, but what did I know.

I was happy to be out of there. A few weeks and some ultimately useless marriage counseling later, the ex and I were warming toward each other a bit. She called me as I was leaving the gun range and asked me to stop and pick up some steaks and wine for dinner. I stepped into the express lane at the grocery store with my steaks and wine, and there was Veronica working the register. Fuck my luck, I thought as I stepped up and threw her a low-key smile, hoping I could limit the small talk and wishing there were people in line behind me.

“Find everything you were looking for?” she asked politely, as though she didn’t recognize me. What the fuck? I thought. Was there a subtext there? Did she still want me? Or was I reading too much into this? Did she really not recognize me? She seemed more demure and sexual in the grocery store than she had in that bar weeks ago. The heavily sprayed mane was now soft and pulled back in a simple ponytail which didn’t make her look younger, exactly, but definitely a less desperate, more girlish presence. I could almost feel that soft hair on my face.

Why was this bothering me so much? I swiped my card and completed my payment, wondering if maybe I had also lost something, if I was not as memorable as I thought I was. Why did I suddenly have zero game? Why did I suddenly want not just her attention, but her?

As she smiled politely once again, I looked at her, perhaps a moment too long. Suddenly I thought she looked good. Really good. Much better than before. Her tight cashier’s vest showed off her lean, lithe torso almost as if it were a corset, her black slacks tight enough to show off, and partially shape, a very nice ass. I could feel the blood flowing now. What the fuck was this? Suddenly I wanted to pull her hair back and brush my lips along the side of her delicate, pale nick. I could’ve fucked her all night long a few weeks ago. Images of her on all fours on a leather couch somewhere with me pounding her from behind, hearing her grunt and moan, flooded my brain. What the everloving fuck?

I almost said something but my mouth was actually dry. Instead, I took the receipt, flushing slightly when her fingers brushed mine, wondering what the fuck was going on. I thought about stopping by a buddy’s house to get his take, but what the fuck was I going to say, and what was the point?

So I went home and fucked my soon-to-be-ex-wife instead, thinking about Veronica all the while, from foreplay to orgasm. We both agreed afterward it was the best sex we’d had in a long, long time.

###