Twenty-Two Two-Page Pieces (TTTPP): Magic Sticks

After months of delusional fits and starts, sketching and re-sketching mental blueprints with the aid of his Kermit the Frog finger, and summoning the requisite courage to embark on a path towards greater salvation and independence, Josiah, at one point a model home school student, began building a shelter out of branches and trash on the wooded slope of a public park that sat across the street from his group home.  When questioned by passersby who were drawn quizzically to the curious, haphazard, clamorous nature of his work, he responded in a stoic but contrived way by saying, “Uh, no man…nothing’s wrong.  I’m just building a structure to see what it would be like to live off the grid for a while, and, um, because I have to write a book report for college.”

While none of these temporary onlookers persisted with follow-up questions about which college or anything else for that matter, frightened by an unsettling, dissonant glare in his eye, accompanied by the presence of an omnipresent residue, they would move on wondering whether a call to the authorities was warranted while Josiah was left to further contemplate and concentrate on the real reason for his work: an undying, determined belief in and never ending search for magic sticks.

***

Like many of his formative experiences, Josiah’s first magic stick was discovered rather by accident after dropping his then-girlfriend Esther off at the wedding rehearsal for their cousin and being instructed to wait outside until she was done.  Feeling unusually discombobulated, unable to sleep, remotely dependent on forbidden alcohol, and battling an episode of debilitating erectile dysfunction that left him listless and unable to perform, he had hoped to find restitution on the inside of a church as opposed to mindlessly wandering the lawn outside where he came upon the thick, gnarled length sitting beneath its vibrating parent tree, almost glowing in radiance as it spoke to Josiah as if sacrificially birthed to anoint him back to glorious equilibrium.

Cradling the magic stick in reverence and feeling emboldened as he gripped the bark-covered end, Josiah was compelled to hold the rustically-striped point to the back of his neck where even the slightest hint of pressure brought on an unmistakable feeling of power and wholesome enrapture.  Suddenly with a newfound energy and very welcome erection poking firmly at the smudged crotch of his pleated khakis, he burst into the church beaming with his magic stick firmly in hand, ready to enlighten his Pentecostal family as to its therapeutic properties.  But instead of admiration and amazement at his discovery, Josiah was chastised and sternly reprimanded by Pastor Mordecai at the Highway Holiness Church of God not only for disrupting the ceremony, but for expressing faith in an inanimate object that might have looked like a serpent, but was not a serpent, and as such should not be handled like one.  When Josiah asked his mortified girlfriend whether she believed his story on the ride back to her parent’s trailer, Esther said they’d have to wait until they got home, at which point he could try his magic stick on her, out of earshot and away from the prying eyes of the fire and brimstone congregation.

Not heeding the forked-tongue lashing he’d received at the hands of Pastor Mordecai and due to an enduring compulsion to touch people with his magic stick and let them decide from themselves, Josiah was eventually shunned by the church, and summarily his girlfriend, for selfishly cherry picking elements of the Jewish mystical tradition of practical Kabbalah and its heavy reliance on relic worship, in particular medicinal amulets that were alleged to hold miraculous healing power.  When Pastor Mordecai died several weeks later from a rattlesnake bite to his bottom lip and refusal of the simple anti-venom treatment offered by paramedics, his flock was left devoutly distraught while Josiah wondered silently but without grudge whether he could have been saved by grasping the magic stick and putting it in his mouth.

***

Unshaven, unemployed, and with a jittery disposition and rotting teeth brought on by grave overconsumption of Mountain Dew and relative alienation, Josiah, who at that point was considering becoming a faith healer, continued to exercise discernment in his unwavering pursuit of magic sticks.  Having been vehemently warned against the inherent danger of false idols his entire life and despite the fact that temptation was forever at hand, he had developed out of necessity a certain savvy in separating the good candidates from the bad, including an abandoned, waterlogged divining rod which caused immediate confusion as he threw it to the ground in disgust, and a shorter stick that looked exactly like the index finger on his right hand that was not a stick at all, but instead an eroded stone from a river basin in Tajikistan that Josiah had selected from a gem and rock show bin at the local Holiday Inn and briefly entertained before tossing it back on top of the ordinary pile, causing it to splinter.

Based on astute shrewdness, the second magic stick took several years to find, finally revealing itself as Josiah sat under an overpass during a windstorm drinking Vodka out of a plastic bottle.  Resembling a stereotypical magic wand and without an apparent source of origin, it suddenly appeared upright between the legs of his soiled Carhartts, causing uncontrollable spasms and an overwhelming spell of narcolepsy as he rhythmically massaged it.  Upon groggily returning to consciousness, Josiah had an overwhelming urge to leave the cover and familiarity of the bridge to touch people with his new stick, especially those who complained of or were aesthetically stricken with aliments of various sorts.  Lurching forward each time he sensed or observed an enfeebling anomaly as if initiating a restorative knighting ceremony, Josiah’s attempts were rebuffed with both simple aversion and threats of violent backlash, meaning that a majority of the time spent with his new magic stick involved either personal touching in darkened corners or having maniacal women grab for it in desperation at the homeless shelter as they waited in line for free loaves of bread.

***

Through a prolonged, painstaking process of gradual introspection, Josiah began to unearth a ruddy path to perceived normalcy through free counseling sessions, communal living, and the aid of his magic sticks as they sat fastened to his hips in a plastic gun holster procured from the clearance section of a Family Dollar.  In more practical terms, finding a third such stick would complete the totemistic trinity he yearned for, and lead to a sense of holy completeness while also serving as the sole motivating factor in constructing the shelter, an alternative church of sorts, and penning the resulting book report, its curative, liturgical text.

As he continued to break fallen sticks for the structure, inspecting each one for magical prowess before randomly leaning them against a central support beam that spanned two trees, fruitlessly plugging the sizeable gaps with wads of fiberglass insulation, plastic wrap, and empty Hot Pocket boxes with the metallic microwave insert still in place, Josiah heard a rustling of leaves and lifted his head to see an angelic figure coming towards him holding a snarl of reflective copper wire that at once fixated his attention, causing a temporary sensation of spiritual blindness.

Reaching down as if suddenly confronted by the potential for a scrap material duel, he squinted his still blurry eyes to notice Esther descending the slope, dressed in a long wool skirt, dirty brown t-shirt, safety glasses, and fluorescent yellow construction vest with orange stripes.  Her coarse, wavy hair now graying, Josiah extended his magic sticks in a gesture of silent greeting, and Esther, who now self identified as a transient relationship welder obliged, grabbing onto them and pulling Josiah closer which much to his surprise caused the elusive third magic stick to rise heroically, unexpectedly from an otherwise flaccid landscape that had not flourished since the day of their cousin’s wedding rehearsal so many years ago.  Summoning it to fully-engorged glory with incantations spoken in tongues and the gentle caress of her copper-wrapped hand, Esther looked at Josiah hypnotically and said in a seductive but forthright tone that now that they’d found his third magic stick together, she was eager for him to try it on her again, this time in the privacy and comfort of a temple he’d designed and built for the three of them.

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Mental Light Switch

 

When he tries to visualize his

steadfast commitment to Jesus as learned

through indoctrination and participation in

almost ritualistic youth group activities

Josh pictures a large illuminated white crucifix

cast and sitting solidly in his chest

bound by heavy grease and blood-covered iron chains

where it protects his heart from evil thoughts and doers

and forms a realistic and figurative impenetrable barrier

hence preventing escape

 

It grows in radiance and size

each time he is tempted to stray from learned faith

and also comes equipped with a mental light switch

Josh consciously installed

during the imagined but highly beneficial self retrofit

so that he can either dim or

power down the relic when engaged in lewd activities

but then ramp back up to its former full and luminous glory

when in dire need of self repentance and subconscious confession

or once he feels like being holy and self righteous again

 

Twenty-Two Two-Page Pieces (TTTPP): Four Arms…Urban Cowboy, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Vaudeville Lollipops, Partial Stigmata

Arm One: Urban Cowboy

It started with a persistent and at times debilitating twitch in the middle finger of his left hand, the same one he used to defiantly flip people off with, consciously modeled after the aggressive, almost architectural, knuckle-forward style famously utilized by John Travolta in the movie Urban Cowboy.  Based on copious use, there were times he was convinced that cruel karma had arrived unwelcome and uninvited to render the offending digit useless, no matter that he’d already purchased a tiny, personalized license plate for his glossy red three-speed Schwinn with the sparkly banana seat and sissy bar.

But more than the unusual, perhaps telling vibration of muscle tissue, it was Jeremy’s recurring observation of the gradual decay and increasingly spastic movements of an aging bagger at his local grocery store that instilled a prevailing fear that one of his arms would unexpectedly die as the result of a stroke or some other life-changing health event, atrophying and attaining unsightly, pronounced liver spots as it hung useless by his side, supported by a fabric sling like a dry, listless chicken wing ready for the compost heap.

Arm Two: Tyrannosaurus Rex

Standing in line with his father, waiting for him to sign the perforated, light green check in his distinctive hand once the final bill was tallied and hoping he’d be granted permission to grab a Cherry Mash for the ride home, Jeremy would fix his attention on the wrinkled, graying, contorting figure in the white, short-sleeved dress shirt adorned with a thin black tie standing at the end of the aisle, recklessly fumbling with and punching open brown paper bags, almost fighting with himself to gently place a heavy jar Heinz Genuine Dills next to a loaf of Wonder Bread without smashing it, and appearing as though he was getting ready to uncontrollably fling the package of pork chops meant for that evening’s dinner across the store like a meat Frisbee before regaining his composure.  And yet despite the fact that the end result was orderly and bordering on the impeccable with regard to organization and efficacy, suggesting immense pride and capability in spite of awkward physical movements and compromised limb function, Jeremy could not imagine having a disabled or deformed arm, and would often stand there staring at his own and moving it back and forth in contemplation as he was nudged towards the door by the end of a metal pushcart, glancing back at the bagger once more as the man smiled, thanked them for their patronage in a warbled voice, and disjointedly waved goodbye.

On the ride home amidst small talk, laughter, and radio play surrounded by the pall of acrid cigarette smoke, Jeremy inspected his own perfectly capable arm again, drifting off into a land of potential physical and movement-based deficiencies, a space in which he often found himself.  Of all the various possibilities he’d mentally conjured since conceptualizing this largely irrational fear concerning withered and non-functioning appendages, the one he considered most inconvenient and socially damaging was something akin to a having a Tyrannosaurus Rex arm, one that was at the same time useless but also normal in appearance albeit on a greatly diminished scale.

As his father flicked another spent Winston out the window while simultaneously being attacked facially by the flapping collar of his green windbreaker, Jeremy looked towards him with palpable concern on his face.  “Dad…,” he asked somewhat meekly, “…if something happened to me where I was suddenly faced with having a dinosaur arm for the rest of my life, do you think it would be hard to ring a doorbell, or to hold things without them constantly being at chest level?”

Having entertained such inquiries before, his father looked at him but without being able to produce a satisfactory answer.  “I suppose…,” he hesitated, “…I mean I guess you wouldn’t really be able to relate unless you had a dinosaur arm or something resembling one.  But who knows…,” he added in a tasteless joke that went unappreciated, “…maybe having tiny, useless arms that always felt like they were asleep was one of the reasons dinosaurs went extinct.”  Transposing this notion to his own imagined plight, Jeremy cringed.

Arm Three: Vaudeville Lollipops

During yet another story about Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat on the evening news that night and as a decided porcine fragrance filled the air, Jeremy spoke to his father as though their previous conversation in the car had ended on a ‘to-be-continued’ note.  “You’re right that it would be hard to know without experiencing it firsthand…,” he remarked unprompted as his father grinned at the unconscious innuendo that had been unleashed, “… I mean for things like large Vaudeville lollipops, having a degenerate arm would be fine, but not realistic for jump ropes, boomerangs, or chopsticks.”

Shifting his glance from the TV and taking a deep pull from his can of Old Milwaukee Light, Jeremy’s father looked down at his son splayed across the orange and brown shag carpet and asked in a tone reminiscent of conversational surrender, “Couldn’t you just use your other arm to do that stuff?”

Feeling slightly rebuffed and now standing to walk through the dining room to the kitchen to ask when dinner would be ready, Jeremy reasoned, “I suppose…,” he paused purposefully, “…but not if it was your dominant arm”

Arm Four: Partial Stigmata

Shortly after a traumatic dream about his arm mysteriously transforming into an inanimate but functional Pawnee tomahawk, fashioned by tethering a blunt rock to a small, sturdy divining rod with strips of cured animal rawhide, the twitching that hastened Jeremy’s fear of an atrophied limb suddenly stopped, only to be replaced by an equally disturbing anomaly whereby skin started peeling off his hands, leading to open red sores on both palms and a buckled nail on the same middle finger.  Based on a family history of unsightly psoriasis, his parents took him to several doctors where creams, ointments, and medications of various descriptions were prescribed, none of which worked.  At this point, Jeremy feared something worse was suddenly upon him, namely that both arms would gradually erode, rendering them useless altogether.

Eventually diagnosed as having a partial stigmata by the Slim Goodbody-lookalike produce manager at the aging bagger’s grocery store, brought on, he was assured, by the overconsumption of Black Cherry Shasta, Swanson Turkey Pot Pies, and Flintstone Vitamins, Jeremy was urged to eat more fruits and vegetables, and was also invited to attend the week-long youth bible camp the unusually wholesome, stoic man ran each summer at the wooded YMCA retreat on the outskirts of town.

Almost delirious and at times giddy at the thought of interacting with coeds his same age as Jeremy’s hands gradually worsened, he was at first taken aback but then strangely honored when instead of being allowed to participate in normal activities like orienteering, red rover, and candlelit bible study in a dank basement area, he was sternly ordered to sit cross legged on a table beneath a dilapidated picnic shelter until he came to the realization that his wound-strewn hands held righteous, but perhaps delusional healing power.  Over the ensuring days, he came to understand that this was not accomplished by touch alone, but determined instead by things he casually came into contact with, like homemade chicken noodle soup and bologna sandwiches brought in Tupperware containers.  By silently putting the middle finger of his left hand deeply into these various lunch items, Jeremy evoked trance-like stares.

At the end of an especially busy day of wrangling sustenance-based salvation for his fellow campers while avoiding self doubt, suggestive stares, and degenerative descriptions, Jeremy would sit alone under the musty picnic shelter contemplating, rather than fearing his sacrificial hands by rhythmically turning them over and back, now anxious for camp to be finished so he could return to the grocery store with his father and lay them knowingly upon the stacks of brown paper bags stored in specially-designed compartments at the end of each checkout lane, where the unique healing properties would rest idly, waiting to be divinely transferred to one unsuspecting heretic in particular.

 

Silver Dollars

 

Doug likes big nipples

and has no reservations

about expressing this fondness

in a dead serious manner

 

Nor is he shy about his

pursuit of this quality

in women as the motivating

factor in his love life

 

“I’ll bet she’s got some

big ‘ol nipples right there”

he says in a desirous way

while looking at Becky

 

In a jean skirt with seam issues

white boots and an elastic top

she draws the attention of many

at the race track on Saturday nights

 

But she knows that Doug

is serious in his cravings

and is modeling them

for his eyes tonight

 

Taking a swing of beer

he wipes his lips and leans forward…

“Yep…I just know that bitch has got some

silver dollars on those big ‘ol titties”

 

 

Sponsored Religion

“We’re the one true religion”
that’s what Christians say
but Muslims and Jews have a similar sway

or bent on correctness
that truth is their own
except it’s nothing but an assurance loan

“Our God worketh magic”
but magic’s not real
“Death to all heathens” has strange appeal

don’t question dogma
the powers don’t fight
is it more about faith or being perceived as right?

salvation’s an advert
like that for a home
sheep stigmatize temples they’ve never been shown

Hoiberg Holiday Letter 2017: Greetings, Ye Abundant Monotheists…

Greetings, Ye Abundant Monotheists…

Several years ago, I had a hairstylist apologize to me for not knowing whether to send a Christmas or Hanukkah card.  “You know…,’ he said hesitatingly while trimming my nose hair, “…because Hoi-BERG.”  After taking a quiet moment to process the comment,  I responded simply by telling him that because ‘Hoi’ was neither a color nor precious metal that he was correct in sending a Christmas card, but frankly I couldn’t have cared less.  In fact, the HOI-bergs might enjoy getting a few Hanukkah cards each year as well as holiday greetings from a variety of other faiths because ultimately, what difference does it make?

So as to celebrate this perceptual religious ambiguity and familial indifference (it’s not just me), I’ve decided that updates on our respective activities in 2017 should be provided using obscure, and perhaps debatable factoids from a number of different religions, but without disclosing which until the end of the letter.  In other words, it’s meant to be a kind of game where you guess the faith based on the belief (indicated by #1, #2, #3, etc.), and then compare your answers with a Key located just before the closing.

Anna (21…meaning we can legally get wasted together) graduated from Iowa State in May with a degree in Kinesiology.  She remains in Ames working a couple of jobs and really enjoying herself while exploring career and graduate / law school options.  Beyond that, she spent nearly half the year being pestered by a bigoted relative concerning her online expression of a widely-held belief that disgruntled white men pose the most significant threat to our nation’s safety.  This culminated in said relative sending an envelope stuffed with ‘objective’ newspaper articles with biblical quotes in the corner (which should tell you something about their objectivity) and other assorted gems which I guess he felt supported his antebellum point of view.  And here we thought that rubbing his bald head for all those years would bring good luck when it appears now the only thing it resulted in was a gradual eroding of his moral compass.  Perhaps he should don a wig of natural or synthetic hair to conform to a modesty requirement of a certain religion (#1).  Anna, genuinely caring and enormously sarcastic also recently adopted a kitten named Cleo meaning that in addition to having a chauvinistic ‘patriot’ in her life she also has a cat, an animal towards which I possess a similarly strong bias.  Next time it comes for a visit, I plan to hold a rally where I’ll march around the living room in a cape and pointed hat made of cucumbers, balloons, and other cats, waving a dog flag, and screaming in its face that cat lives don’t matter.

Emma (17) is a senior at Omaha Central High School and plans to attend the University of Nebraska in the fall to major in either special education or speech pathology.  As has always been the case, she shares a special connection with children, so much so that she wants to make a career of it.  Over the summer and only briefly interrupted by a two-week excursion to the mystical country of Costa Rica, she worked as a counselor at the Munroe-Myer Institute, an organization that strives to transform the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  She was called back to volunteer this fall and has already been offered a job for next summer in addition to her ongoing duties at Coneflower Creamery which may very well serve the best goddamned ice cream I’ve ever tasted.  Always fun loving and spunky, she luckily doesn’t have a bigot in her life except for perhaps me and my extreme, illogical hatred of cats, some of which she’s proudly been indoctrinated with.  Forever a lover of potatoes and long a believer that our house is haunted by friendly spirits, she rests comfortably with the notion that invisible supernatural beings reveal themselves in mundane objects like food (#2) which could account for Jesus occasionally showing up on the surface of a pancake or piece of toast.

Isabel (11) started 6th grade at Lewis and Clark Middle School in August, and has transitioned wonderfully after leaving her beloved Field Club Elementary behind (meaning that after 15 years you’ll no longer see us there either…HOORAY!).  With an infectious laugh, developed sense of humor, easy-going disposition, and numerous positive referrals from teachers and administrators alike, she just started volleyball with a club team in southwest Iowa (bringing us closer to our roots), but is quietly concerned about what life will be like with Kerry and me next year after Emma leaves the house (a barrel of laughs, we’ve both assured her).   Not acknowledging or accepting bias, Isabel remains a beacon of light by naturally bringing people together and supporting them regardless of circumstance, a practice we should all strive to adhere to.  Based on her extreme dislike of caring for our three chickens, if she was bathed in sin she could symbolically transfer it and simultaneously take out her aggression by grasping the birds by their shoulder blades and moving them around her head three times (#3, appropriately).

Kerry (ageless…seriously) continues to manage a very busy household, and in addition to steady advocacy for our historic Field Club neighborhood has also recently started working as a substitute paraprofessional for Omaha Public Schools which she loves.  In October, she enjoyed another trip to Hawaii (Kona) with a couple good friends, and came back bronzed which was gift enough for me.  Sadly, we lost her grandpa Gene (90) earlier this month with whom we all, and she and the girls especially, shared an incredibly close bond.  Other than cherishing his memory, our only other hope is that he’ll spend less time in purgatory by our following the Pope on Twitter (#4…this one’s easy).  And even though he’s no longer with us, we are constantly reminded of him by his cat Josie who now resides in our home, meaning I’ve gone from a lifetime of no felines to two in the period of a month.  I don’t really know what Abyssinians are all about nor do I care to learn, but there’s just something about those green eyes and brown fur that I don’t trust.  She almost looks like an Ethiopian version of that Afghan woman pictured on the cover of a 1985 National Geographic, meaning that probably she hates Americans, injecting me with a slow-acting poison each time she claws my thigh under the guise of gaining a foot hold.

Steve (aging and soon to hit the half-century mark) is presently wrestling with a conflicted mind, drawing ever nearer to the conclusion that me might actually like cats after all, and they’re a whole other species.  It’s strange what happens when you’re exposed to something which you’ve hated all your life for no reason other than appearance, blind faith in Dog, allergies, and an unfamiliar set of values and beliefs.  But if I can change, so can you.  I still try to avoid sitting in chairs recently vacated by menstruating women (#5), but am beginning to realize that this, too, is a fruitless pursuit in that I live in a female-dominated household.

Key: All of these beliefs come from Christianity and Judaism, proving that they’re just as bizarre as the other estimated 4,198 world religions.  As for us, we’ll continue to offer praise to St. Julian the Hospitaller, patron saint of circus workers and fiddle players.

Merry Whatever You Chose,

The Hoi-BE-rgs

 

Midwest Stories: The Sticky Implement

Jeffrey had two recurring carnal desires.  The first was an insatiable longing to throw the javelin in an all-comers competition organized by the local Parks and Recreation department while the other, and perhaps more achievable was to enter into a stereotypically lecherous and contentious relationship with a bona fide slut. But Jeffrey was immensely particular, and while this defining characteristic wouldn’t deter him in his adamant pursuit of an authentic spear with which he’d regularly practice in the feedlot just beyond the metal shed in his backyard, there was a high likelihood that his finicky disposition would factor in heavily as he sought out an irresistible, elusive companion who met with his often perverted expectations.

 
“If I’ve told you this once Jeffery, I’ve told you a hundred damn times…,” said Becky, the daytime shift manager at the Dollar General, meeting him just beyond the sliding glass entrance of the store, past the polished turnstile and into the distinctly yellowish interior light and odd smell that consistently reminded him of a heavy smoker’s discolored fingernails and the clandestine pall of mortal injury. “…we don’t sell javelins, and my guess is that you’d be hard pressed to find one anywhere since they’ve been outlawed in the state of Iowa and downright frowned upon in these parts since Pastor Kleinfeld’s daughter Jackie got impaled running the 800 over in Avoca some 20 years ago.” Jeffery mournfully remembered this horrific incident and still had some of the faded newspaper clippings taped to his bedroom wall along with a pair of her weathered track spikes procured at a rummage sale that sat on the floor beneath them, thinking of her death more often than was normal in that he only really knew Jackie casually and from a distance, wondering at times if basic instinct in some strange way compelled his lust towards javelin ownership as a restrictive way of protecting the innocent and most vulnerable.

 
Having known Becky since junior high when they partnered unsuccessfully to dissect or mangle a preserved frog together in biology class under the watchful eye of Mrs. Wilson, and attending Wednesday night church in pursuit of confirmation with the same Pastor Kleinfeld, purposefully touching legs to express adolescent attraction as they sat side by side during a dinner of chopped-up hot dogs on a stale bun mixed with melted cheese and relish, served with two fruit cups and a small carton of milk, Jeffrey continued to be surprised and slightly drawn to Becky’s forthrightness and the fact she invariably entertained his redundant line of questioning and lingering suspicion that they did, indeed, stock javelins, keeping them hidden high on a plywood shelf in a back corner of the storage room and away from prying eyes.

 
Slightly enticed once again by her distinct smell of onion rings from the adjacent Dairy Stripe where she often lunched with friends from Rummikub club, Becky stood there looking at Jeffrey determinedly with knock-knees noticeable in her bulging brown polyester pants, trying to come up with alternative suggestions to satisfy his fruitless quest. “I suppose you could probably get by with a length of rebar or heavy piece of interior trim, grinding the end to a point with a coarse grit sandpaper, but as for javelins, we’re clean out,” she remarked in jest, forcing an awkward grin and chuckle that went unreciprocated. “We did get some boomerangs in a month or two before last Christmas that Pastor Kleinfeld’s wife put on manager’s special, but those things were gone in a heartbeat and much used by youngsters in town until Sheriff Torgerson got his neck sliced open with one while out shoveling, and went on a personal and successful crusade to confiscate the whole lot.”

 
The manner in which Becky spoke so confidently about hardware and related matters, combined with her unique deep fried bouquet and gravelly voice had long inspired an unusual hunger in Jeffery’s stomach, but one that went consciously unsatisfied because she wore a tool belt with her first name leather stamped on the back socially and had swollen, repulsive feet that in open-toed sandals would have landed her in jail were he to be deputized or otherwise given the authority to imprison people who did not live up to his exacting, morally-depraved standards. In rebuttal, instead of acting on any of Becky’s recommendations or resorting to an irresolvable argument, Jeffrey walked determinedly, silently to the Outdoor section of the store, grabbed a set of lawn darts, paid for them with a heavy assortment of loose change and crumpled dollar bills pulled from his camouflage fanny back, and left without so much as thanking her while Becky was left to hopelessly shrug her shoulders in customary defeat.

*****

Setting up an extended, 30-yard course for himself along the westward-facing side of his parent’s modified ranch house which included red, plastic targets at either end to better test and hone his accuracy, Jeffrey girlishly lobbed the aerodynamic darts one by one, scattering them all over the yard and far from the intended rings as though he was haphazardly flagging a gas line or preparing a booby-trapped obstacle course for his effeminate nephews. Painfully scraping his ankle against the fin of a blue dart as he went to pull another of the errant projectiles from between two panels of hail-damaged siding, Jeffrey sat down in a huff on the un-mowed grass, not dejectedly because of his utter lack of skill, not to reflect on the familiar, frustrating transaction with Becky and the confusing feelings it instilled, but to once again ruminate over the untimely passing and idealized vision of Jackie that had consumed his thoughts for far too long with no apparent end in sight.

 
Even though she was the respectable Pastor’s oldest daughter and generally behaved as such with warmth, biblically-based charisma, and a charitable constitution, Jeffery had always imagined her as having a slightly naughty side. Instead of an obedient and dedicated servant, he instead idolized Jackie in his mind’s eye as the materialistic, adorned epitome of a farm girl slut. Wearing wide swipes of sparkly purple eye shadow that she’d knowingly bat at all the boys along with a flip of her incredibly feathered hair, and with shiny, glossed lips through which she’d seductively bite her manicured index finger, demurely suggesting she might like some cookies and punch after the service, or maybe a handful of fancy salted nuts and quickly dissolving pastel mints, but certainly nothing that would make her sweat as she didn’t want heavy foundation makeup to melt into the collar of her favorite Sunday dress, Jeffery was eternally rapt.

 
In fact fantasizing about Jackie and the way she presented herself and smelled from week to week became the sole reason he continued to go to church, strategically seated across the aisle in a bank of pews towards the rear with a hymnal covering his pubescent erection while he’d stare at her longingly, catching occasional whiffs of Calvin Klein Obsession, hoping she’d turn while singing a doxology or during the meet and greet so he could fixate on the pronounced camel toe in the crotch of her pleated white pants, fashionably held up with dainty leather suspenders that pressed against supple breasts poking through her plaid blouse with a ruffled lace collar.

 
Utterly consumed by this recurring daydream to the point where he looked either sedated or under the influence of intense hypnosis, Jeffrey, still slumped against a now-dented clear plastic window well cover hardly noticed when Becky first wobbled up to him from between his parent’s house and the neighbor’s, her signature fast food scent provokingly wafting through the air, acting as resinous smelling salts in bringing him back to the here and now. Trying once again to curry favor and as another in a long line of contrived peace offerings, Becky, now dressed more casually and standing directly over him so that he could feel her bristly leg hair on his arm held out what appeared to be a wobbly spear. “Here…,” she said in a subservient but abrasive tone, handing him the javelin with a thin, gummy rust-like stain covering the middle portion, “…I found this hidden on a plywood shelf in the back of the storage room next to Sheriff Torgerson’s boomerangs when I was taking inventory this afternoon.”

 
Reaching for it, Jeffrey held the sticky implement in disbelief, running his dry hands over it as if a great discovery of culminating achievement had finally been unveiled. As she knelt in the grass like an observant track coach from yesteryear, inviting chiggers to ascend the dimpled flesh of her ghostly-white thigh, Becky bent down in an attempt to kiss him fully in a way they hadn’t since graduation night. For a fleeting moment, Jeffery thought seriously about obliging one of her advances for the first time in years both as a way of rewarding and thanking her for a totem that was rightfully his, and because he was peckish and in the mood for something sinful from not having eaten all day.
As Becky’s face drew nearer, bringing a shadow of black razor stubble into clear view, Jeffery reconsidered and abruptly turned his head causing her freckled lips to land on his cauliflowered earlobe. As if suddenly slapped back into his fastidious, uncompromising principles in terms of landing an aesthetic Jezebel, he looked at Becky sorrowfully and then considered Jackie.

 
Becky’s tool belt, though leather, personalized, and functional would never be as tempting as dainty suspenders made from the same material bisecting fabric-covered bosoms, her distended, unsightly bare feet with all their gnarled imperfections never coming close to the pure pleasure of inhaling deeply from a forgotten pair of fetid athletic shoes, her unmistakable fry grease smell never stacking up to enviable mists of Obsession and foundation makeup.

 
So far as Jeffery could tell, the only surface-deep quality Becky had over Jackie was the fact that she was still alive, but that didn’t seem to matter. Abruptly standing, brushing Becky aside, and with stiffening pole firmly in hand, Jeffrey walked briskly into his basement bedroom and squatted slowly, reverently onto the orange beanbag that sat in front of Jackie’s makeshift altar, now complete as he carefully laid the javelin down on a doily-fringed swatch of plaid fabric between his favorite sun-bleached obituary photo with the eyes colored over in purple highlighter and lips covered in a shellac of long-dried rubber cement, and the sickly fragrant insoles that her deceptively promiscuous painted toes once touched.

The End of the Earth (EOE)

The End of the Earth (EOE) is in my neighborhood. This may be one explanation for the surprising number of Vikings I’ve recently discovered living here, but it’s not as one might expect. EOE is not at the edge of a mighty cliff with a lone mesquite tree overlooking a mist of clouds, nor is it a ravine, fissure, hollow, or chasm of any description. It is not the parlor of a funeral home or loose floorboards in an abandoned house either, nor does it involve a parade with a multitude of alcoholic, bulbous-nosed Shriners in tasseled fez riding small motorcycles in figure eight patterns. More simply, EOE is a point halfway up a hill between a Mexican grocery store and my house where time simply ceases to exist.

I discovered EOE one day as I was driving home after attempting to buy canned chipotles, chorizo, tripe, and hominy which I planned to combine in an experimental burrito recipe that night, and because I was too tired to drive any further than the aforementioned Mexican grocery. While there, I’d gotten into an argument with the owner because he wouldn’t accept my check without two forms of ID. I criticized his overpriced phone cards, and the collection of ridiculous cowboy boots for sale in the produce section. He followed me to the door and called me a loony. Flustered, I remained impressed with his swell command of 1950s English, imagining that he learned it from watching ‘Leave it to Beaver’ reruns, secretly fantasizing about Juno.

As I was returning home empty-handed in a somewhat glazed-over mood, wondering what kind of guy Hugh Beaumont was in real life, I came upon EOE rather by accident. At one point during the ascent, I suddenly and unexpectedly noticed I was at EOE. I remained fully conscious and fairly lucid with low music still playing over the stereo in my car, but besides this there was nothing visible or audible save for a narrow expanse of light blue and the eerie feeling that nothingness suddenly persisted.

It was the first time in my life that I had ever been absolutely overcome and smitten with the inherent beauty in nothing, and for a moment I felt compelled to sit there and consider what I immediately came to recognize as an integral and strategic location within the framework of the world. Then a man in a large truck who was obviously not enjoying the same experience as me honked his horn, and inquired loudly as to whether or not I thought I owned the goddamned road.

Like time passage or discovery of a sacred portal, you have to be in exactly the right place and at the right time in order to witness EOE, and because I was privileged enough to find myself at this locus, however fleeting, I feel there may have been a reason for it. In siding with simplicity, though, I am not the kind of person to believe that such an event indicates significant things concerning the direction of my life, but rather that I should apologize to the Mexican grocer for criticizing his inventory of footwear, think about learning how to play the sitar, or take more naps.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the rational segment of our population has come to discount significant personal transcendent episodes largely, I feel, because the people who have them always seem bent on manufacturing a meaning that is far too significant to be taken seriously. I could have easily said that my coming to know EOE was a sign that God had a plan for my life which involved mentoring inner-city children, or that I did, in fact, own the road and should set out to prove it, but few would have really believed either of these proclamations because of their connection to the divine or monopoly status, and I probably would have never fulfilled them either. Were I to tell people, conversely, that the rare incident compelled me to mow my lawn, then I bring the event to a more relatable, believable level for everyone. To profess personal contact with God strikes others as haughty and trite. To speak instead of an existential-based inclination to paint your basement with a sealant so as to stave off water damage is somewhat easier to accept and much more realistic, a project that could easily be knocked out on a Sunday morning instead of going to church.

Sometimes I attempt to recapture this moment in time by returning to the spot unadorned after watching ‘Leave it to Beaver’ to contemplate why the lad so favored locking himself in the bathroom as a form of protest. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find EOE again despite the fact I often sit in the exact location and at the same incline for the better part of an hour, prompting large women in stained house smocks living in close proximity to come out on their porches and accusingly point at me with spatulas and the rubber end of walking canes. What I recognize now is that my EOE interlude had more to do with circumstance than with the actual location. As to what this exact circumstance is, it’s hard to say, although it likely results from a steady combination of self-criticism, uncertainty, and internal mutterings about Mexican grocery store proprietors and dead television fathers.

 

Vikings in the Neighborhood

It came as a surprise to find out last year that I have at least one Viking living in my neighborhood.

I was on the way to pick up my eldest daughter from her dance lesson. As winter was settling in it was dark at a fairly early hour, and the air was cold enough to warrant the use of a jacket. Taking the normal route, I ambled down 33rd street in my Volkswagen not really expecting anything of significance to occur, and as I approached the first major intersection it seemed this trip would be no different from the many that had come before it. As I sat there waiting for traffic to pass, the Viking walked out in front of my car, stopping to look straight at me with a combined scowl of plunder and distance that suggested many downed cups of mead.

As you might expect, he was a large man, bearded, dirty and on the brink of greasy, dressed in tattered clothing, and carrying a rather significant portion of a tailpipe as an obvious substitute for his forgotten mace. I was shocked and quite frankly paranoid for my safety, clinching the steering wheel hoping he’d find a seal to kill, hence turning his attention from me to it. The problem is that we have very few seals living in Omaha.

As he stood there staring at me ominously, perhaps trying to discern whether I was friend or foe, I half expected red beams to shoot from his eyes, or at the very least for him to raise his arm in a menacing gesture of pending triumph. Instead, he made a grunting motion with his mouth, and signaled with his automotive weapon that I was free to continue on my way.

Being Danish in ancestry, I think a majority of my insecurity came from the inability to process one of my people’s historical figures and controversial folk heroes as a threat to my immediate well-being. Granted, I’d been filled with tales throughout the years concerning the perceived security risks of certain minority groups, but never once had anyone said anything about the inherent danger of Vikings relocating to the area.

When I first moved into the neighborhood I live in now, the owner of storage facility where I kept my stuff emphatically said to me upon picking it up, “Well, I hope you like gangs and Mexicans.” The idiocy of this remark prevented a compelling response. I wonder how I would have reacted had he instead muttered, “Well, I hope you like the stench of lutefisk and furry boots made from beaver pelts and glacier lynx.” People in the United States, especially those of Northern European descent have a hard time perceiving their own kind as a threat to anything save for holiday celebrations.

The Viking was only in my life for a brief moment possibly as a reminder for me to get further in touch with my roots. Regardless, I have rarely been so frightened. So great was the fear, in fact, that I registered for a Danish class at an area community college the following week. Were I to meet him again without the shelter of a car, we could at least engage in an elementary discussion of his conquests. Sadly, no one in class believed my story about the Viking, preferring instead to discuss kringle and other Scandinavian recipes from their childhoods ad nauseam.

Upon reviewing this incident a month or so after it happened, I remembered that around the time I saw him, a man (not a seal) had been beaten to death with a blunt object on a corner towards which the Viking was headed. This realization had the potential to dampen the meaning of my Nordic episode, but for some reason it had no effect.

I’ve come to appreciate the diversity of my neighborhood for the observational points of eccentric interest and culture it offers. A simple walk around the block is almost always an interesting exercise in discovery, a claim to which few neighborhoods can lay. Whether it’s white, brown, or black people, everyone has a story, verbal or otherwise, to share. As passersby, acquaintances, or peers, we simply have to learn how to appreciate difference for what it is, whether we like it or not. The same goes for similarity. We presume to appreciate similarity based on shared physical characteristics, but this assumption is not an excuse for ignoring the differences that exist within everyone, including those who just happen to look like us.

Luckily, reacquainting myself with the pleasures of plundering beach villages and savagely ripping the meat off a turkey leg with my dirty teeth is no further than short car ride down the street.

 

Twenty-Two Two-Page Pieces (TTTPP): Two Handfuls of Peanuts

Richard admits that he doesn’t really get the storyline of most operas and thinks at best they’re silly.  In a break room at the light pole factory where he works the nightshift, just in front of a vending machine with coin-operated doors containing day-old egg salad and pimento-studded ham loaf sandwiches in cellophane wrappers, he takes center stage and makes comment once again to the blank, weary stares of colleagues from the assembly line, their fingers cracked and oily from handling industrial metal day in and day out, blue coveralls smudged at all the critical seams.  They don’t consider opera an acceptable topic of conversation, but Richard continues unabated as they sit there diverting their eyes towards the small TV hanging near the ceiling playing a grainy, soundless rerun of Matlock, thumbing through the want-ads of outdated newspapers, and trying to concentrate on aluminum thermoses of tomato soup and heavy black barn-shaped lunch boxes with wax paper bags containing leftovers from home.

“I mean a damn troop of traveling clowns runnin’ all over the place having real-life problems like bitches that cheat on them and shit?”  He painfully cups a swollen hand with welding spark burns and runs it downwards over a mangy, graying goatee to express frustration and to muzzle building anger at the thought of this.  “Who’s gonna’ believe that shit…?” he continues in a disgruntled tone, “…and they don’t never say dick neither, always singing mournfully instead and splaying their scrawny asses all over the stage props.”  He stands and points around the room with a stern warning.  “Well if one of you bastards was a goddamned singing clown wearing makeup like a girl or mime or some shit, we sure as damn hell wouldn’t sit here waiting for you to sing your troubles away, hoping we’d come to sympathize with your weak-ass plight.  We’d take your pansy ass out coon hunting or to a backwater henhouse and leave you for dead or buck naked all alone and stranded to find your own way home.”  With a natural bent towards feeling oppressed and threatened, Richard has developed mechanisms that help him cope.

He might like dramatic opera better, or at least be more accepting of the genre in general he reasons to Bucky as they drive home in the early morning sun, bouncing up and down on the compressed fabric-covered bench seat of his rusted Chevy Luv pickup listening to a Pavarotti compilation, if he was able to walk into the theater with two handfuls of peanuts, salted and still in their shells.  Not hidden clandestinely under a silk top hat he dourly reminds his friend who lives two trailers down the gravel path in Bluffs Acres next to Pat who sells used lawnmowers, not in a Ziploc bag secretly tucked away in the inner pocket of his old man’s worn, hand-me-down brown corduroy blazer, but just two big, bulging handfuls of peanuts for everyone to see with the ticket for that night’s performance held firmly between his lips, partially moistened much to the doorman’s chagrin despite the fact he might be wearing white gloves.

“They’re too damn proper at the opera,” he says loudly in a really horrible British accent.  Bucky looks at him miserably, forcing a faint grin and nodding, but really has no idea what Richard is talking about, thinking briefly that he might be trying to imitate Sherriff Andy Taylor or someone else from a fictional North Carolina town.

“I mean it would do them prim and proper fucks good, the debutants and their fag dates and whatnot, the prissy old bitches in bejeweled gowns with their Aqua Velva-wearing husbands with thin mustaches and velvet suits to see a regular fella’ like me walk into the foyer of some grand establishment with a blinking marquee outside with two handfuls of peanuts, don’t you think?”  The very notion of such a scenario has Richard flustered once again, his pockmarked face flush and pulsating while at the same time giddily optimistic as he considers the disruptive potential.

Bucky, still bumping around the cab because the shocks are going bad looks out the passenger’s side window to avoid willful participation in Richard’s scornful diatribe and stereotyped assessment of the upper crust, just as he does almost every day, and longs to be home, dreading the morrow during which this familiar scene will repeat itself both on the late-afternoon commute to the factory and back to the trailer park again as day breaks.  All he really wants is a beer, and now that he’s started working the night shift, he’s unsure about when to drink.  It used to be easier back when he worked days, with six to eight cold ones with co-workers at their favorite watering hole after getting off, and then right home to microwaveable beef stroganoff, a warm bath, and bed.  But it strikes Bucky as unnatural and downright difficult to get sufficiently buzzed only to go home and share frosted blueberry Pop-Tarts and Jimmy Dean sausage patties with his son.  His own dad used to drink Falstaff with braunschweiger and yellow mustard sandwiches on rye bread, and sometimes on payday pickled lamb tongues, but lunch is a tricky time in that he has to work in a couple hours.  He’s often tempted to show up on the job after having a few, but doesn’t want to see his emaciated visage on a workplace safety poster.

Never considering Bucky’s predicament even for a moment, and never asking because of a natural lack of curiosity except in regard to his own subjugated pursuits and foundationless ambitions, Richard rambles on, consumed by the lingering suspicion of being downtrodden by a fictionalized elite class.  “And to be right honest, I don’t mind the notion of having some real food on me, none of them high tea finger sandwiches or whatever the fuck they call them…,” he says taking his pinky off the chain steering wheel and holding it in the air, “…if I have to sit there in a lumpy-ass plush chair for two or three hours interpreting some foreign shit.

By now Bucky’s eyes are closed, feigning sleep, breathing heavily in conversational sedation, and praying for this monologue to end, but Richard is building towards his crescendo and refuses to be deterred by a slumbering audience.  Roughly nudging his shoulder and in boisterous song so off key that it makes Bucky grimace, ruining his put-up façade, Richard belts out, “The other grand thing about peanuts would be watching them damn ushers in their military dress blues step on the shells as they guide the annoyingly affluent to their box seats beyond us common peasants with their gay little flashlights,” not appreciating until this culminating line that he may have been subconsciously scripting his own strange opera since leaving the rendering plant several years ago.  “Shit…,” the fat man sings, smiling broadly to expose stained, gapped teeth, and bowing pridefully towards the dashboard as epiphany suggests that this may be his long-awaited curtain call, “…for all we know I may damn well be the melodious second coming of Upton Sinclair.”