Friday, December 30, 2011

700 Hoboes: Jack Skunk's New Year

Jack Skunk wasn't the worst-smelling hobo. He wasn't the second-worst-smelling hobo. Jack wasn't even in the top eleven worst-smelling hoboes. Such was the magnitude of the hobo stenches with which he had to compete. And yet, the man had a stink about him. Riot-police-grade, eyeball-melting, gag-inducing fumes emanated from his wiry frame at all times. He had few friends.

Somehow - and no one who knew him was quite sure how - he had a son, about fifteen years his junior. He didn't smell at all. At least, when in the company of his father, the boy didn't seem to have any odor. He was a Skunk, however, and his smelliness was assumed. They called him Jack Skunk Fils.

It is a well-known fact that many, if not most, hoboes embraced their meager and difficult lives as penniless drifters. Some of them, before the hobo wars, even chose to drop out and ride the rails and sleep under the stars. Jack Skunk was not such a hobo. Jack had returned from The Great War after surviving two years in the mud and blood of France, only to find that his job at Walton's Hinge Pin Factory in Evanston, IL was no more. He had held a half-dozen jobs across the Midwest over the following year, before finally losing his home, his wife and his hope, and taking to the rails with three-year old Jack Junior.

By 1931, Skunk and son were expert hoboes, not merely surviving, but thriving along the high steel of the Grand Trunk Railway, the Chicago and Northwestern and the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton. So at home as railroad vagrants were they that the onset of the Great Depression had taken them months to notice. They had gradually realized that there were more hoboes, and that the ones who could stand the elder Jack's stench long enough to converse with them had stories of bread lines and massive unemployment in the cities.

Jack Fils was about twelve years old as 1931 drew to a close, and his father was annoying him. It had become an odd tradition for Jack to annoy his son at the end of each year. Between the hobo Christmas parties to which they were never invited and the hobo New Year's parties to which they were never invited, Jack Senior moved the two of them as far east as he could, working along the Pennsylvania Railroad - sometimes even the Baltimore and Ohio - until December 31st. This New Year's Eve found them in the woods near a Pennsy yard in Wilmington, Delaware.

"Are you happy, Pop? Delaware. I don't think we could get any farther east without taking that miserable short line to Atlantic City - and we'd probably have to walk the last fifty miles." Jack Skunk Fils poked at the campfire as it struggled against a mixture of snow and sleet.

"It'll do, son. It'll do." the old man of 27 years sighed. "You gonna stay up this year, or should I wake you?"

Jack the younger grunted. "Can't I just sleep in? Or better yet - just freeze to death and be done with this stupid life?"

"Don't talk like that, boy. This is the one thing - the one thing - I ask of you each year. I've never made you eat a vegetable - ever. I let you stay up late. You've been drinking hobo beer for two years, already! Stay up with me."

"Come on, Pop. Why? Every year you drag us east on these railroads we don't know. Every year we get our rear ends beaten. We get chased by yard cops. Last year, we got arrested and held for six hours. And for what? So you can freeze us nearly to death all night, trying to stay awake for the 'first light of 1932' or whatever you call it. Why? What's the big deal?"

Jack Skunk shook his head sadly. "Never mind, son. Go to sleep."

Jack Fils happily complied, crawling under their tattered, leaking tent, wrapping himself in shreds of burlap and disintegrating Army blankets and passing out almost immediately. He slept for no more than half-hour stretches for the rest of the night, as the sleet changed to rain and eventually ended. Each time he woke, he peered outside the tent to confirm that his father was, indeed, still clinging tenaciously to consciousness, drinking hobo coffee, slapping himself or just letting the cold rain drench his face.

Eventually, the black sky turned to indigo, then to purple and finally it began to glow. Jack Junior grudgingly joined his old man by the fire and watched the sun creep over the horizon, painting the thinning clouds in blazing pink and orange as it rose. He watched his father, watching the sunrise. He had done this every January 1st for nearly a decade, but had never fully understood it - until now. This year, having been a hobo adult for three years already, he saw it. It was obvious, now. He started the declaration that his pop usually uttered, "We are very likely the first hoboes to see the dawn of 1932..."

Jack Skunk looked at his son for a moment, then smiled at the morning sky. "...Anything is possible," he concluded.

Young Jack was connected now to his strange, annoying father, united in a single emotion. It was in the man's eyes at every New Year's dawn. It was hope, and this was the one moment each year when it dared show itself. The world was born again. There was hope. The hardships and struggle of the road could end, and it could happen in this new year. A job, medicine, food, a home, a stink-free life - it was all possible.

"Anything is possible, Pop," he repeated.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

700 Hoboes: Holden The Expert Dreamtwister Bothers The Rza

Holden The Expert Dreamtwister raced from the hobo camp, chased by a stick-wielding and enraged The Rza. "Take it easy, Rza! I didn't touch you or your stuff!"

"You know what you did, you dreamtwisting little sorcerer. I told you if you did it again I was gonna kill you - now you gonna die!"

"I didn't do it, this time! I swear! Back off, man."
Holden had done it this time. He felt bad for swearing that he hadn't. He was in no immediate danger, as The Rza was not built for extended foot pursuits, what with his ingrown foot, and all.

"Liar! One second, I'm on the beach at Fort Lauderdale, untying Elizabeth Banks' string bikini. Next thing I know, I'm being tried for high treason, and the judge is a six-headed hamster..."

"It's not my doing, Rza. You got weird dreams. Some kind of issues with y'all's subconscious, I bet."

"You go to hell, you evil wizard! I know it was you. My dreams never do that. I get the girl. Every time. You done twisted that dream and you know it. I mean, those six heads. What was that? Laraine Newman? Falcor? Dean Rusk? Jack Pardee? Wendie Jo Sperber? And Judge Judy - how nice. You're the one with issues, you dream-ruining freak of nature."

"Okay, okay, okay. I'm sorry. I twisted your dream. I heard you mumbling in your sleep about 'the back door' and I lost it. I can't help it. It's not like I do it on purpose. I really am kind of out-of-body when it happens." Holden stopped and held up his hands in surrender.

The Rza paused, but kept the stick raised, ready to do some serious braining at a moment's notice. "You got memory problems, bro. You already told me how you do it. You even told me why you do it. Last year, at the Hobo Christmas Sing-along, Rhea Perlman Lookalike Contest and Lint-swap? You got drunk on hobo wine and told a bunch of us all about it. About how you can't dream for yourself, so you mess up everyone else's dreams, on account of how you can't stand to see anyone have a good dream. You told us how you pitch your voice just so and talk all low and clear and gentle-yet-authoritative into the ear of some poor shlub who's at just the right stage of shuteye. About planting characters or settings or plot devices into whatever the guy is dreaming. Any of this ringing a bell?"

"No," Holden lied. "No it's not."

"Liar! You gave us a demonstration! You found that yard cop in Cumberland, asleep in his chair, and you went up and said all your hokus pokus in his ear, and he woke up thinking he was being buried alive in Betty Boop dolls by all the US Presidents of the 20th century as Stooges and Marx Brothers. When he regained his wits, he said he had been dreaming about Betty Grable and his mother's apple crisp. You goddamn told us, man! I'm sick of it. Leave my dreams alone! They are all that I have."

"I'm sorry, Rza. I won't let it happen again," he lied. "I promise."

Over the following two and a half years, The Rza's path and Holden The Expert Dreamtwister's did not again cross. When at last they did, at a small hobo encampment outside of Gary, Indiana, Holden once more succumbed to his dreamtwisting impulse, turned The Rza's nocturnal vision of boozy hotel saloons and chorus girls into some wretched nightmare involving pickles, a dental drill and Ovaltine, and promptly died of a crushed skull.

The Rza had resumed his slumber before Holden's body was cold.

Friday, December 2, 2011

700 Hoboes: Cholly The Yegg

[Note: This is the second of what may or may not eventually be seven hundred stories, tidbits and interesting facts about author (and professional writer) John Hodgman's 700 hoboes. The list comes from his hilarious, completely inaccurate almanac, "The Areas Of My Expertise," and I do not have his permission to use them. I'd like to think he'd be cool with the idea, but let's not tell him yet - I'd like to get through a few more names, first.]

Cholly the Yegg
cracked his first safe when he was nine years old. His father, the manager of the Topeka Bank and Trust, Textiles and Feed Company, locked Cholly with a basket of bread and a quart of bourbon in the bank's vault one Friday afternoon, closed up shop and disappeared forever. Young Cholly (given name: Chollendrical Abernathy Section) was discovered Monday morning by the bank's president and caricaturist, Howling Jim Steeb, but not in the vault. Cholly had managed to defeat the locking mechanism on the vault door, and he had passed out on a desk full of bread crumbs in his father's office. Mr. Steeb promptly adopted him.

The boy didn't know much, but he quickly realized that he could not live with Jim's howling, so after a month, off he went, riding the rails in the direction of Santa Fe. He lived by his wits, moving from town to town, ingratiating himself to suckers for free meals and the occasional real bed, and stealing. He took pride in his pilfering. He made sure he stole at least one thing in every town. By his sixteenth birthday, he had mastered defeating safes and vaults from the outside, and found himself in the employ of a band of train-robbers. He plied his trade with great skill, but unfortunately for him and his mates, it was the 1920s. Trains had become well-guarded fortresses. Train robbing was a thing of the past. Cholly was obsolete.

It took getting shot by a US Marshall, captured and spending seven years in Leavenworth Prison for him to accept that those days were gone. Three days after his release, he successfully emptied the vault of the largest bank in St. Louis, making off with nearly $100,000 in cash and bearer bonds. He hit the rails again, at first as a paying passenger, and later as a penniless hobo.

The hobo years were Cholly's happiest. He was revered by most members of Hobo Nation, not merely for his thieving past - most hoboes had thieving pasts - but for the fact that he had stolen from The Man. Like most hoboes, Cholly spent much of his time alone, but when they gathered in groups, he was King Hobo, and was given the large can of beans and extra moonshine. The only other significant skill Cholly ever picked up was only useful at Christmastime. He made the best hobo eggnog anyone on the Santa Fe Railroad had ever tasted. They called it Yeggnog.

He lived to be at least ninety - a rare feat for a hobo - but no one knows his final age. He walked off into the woods outside Kansas City one fall day, and was never heard from again.

Monday, November 28, 2011

700 Hoboes: Stewbuilder Dennis

Okay, before I start on my ridiculous, doomed-from-the-start quest to tell the stories of all seven hundred of the Hoboes on this list, let me say this. The list of hobo names comes from John Hodgman's incredibly funny book, "The Areas Of My Expertise." I could not and did not invent these awesome names. Further, I have not contacted Mr. Hodgman for permission to use them. Obviously, if he catches wind of this and isn't as happy about it as I hope he'd be, I'll cease and desist. In the meantime, please buy this man's book. It's seriously funny. And yes, he's PC from the Mac vs. PC commercials. Yeah - he's pretty gifted.

[Oh, and yes, I am aware of the 700 Hoboes Project, where cartoonists illustrated all of Mr. Hodgman's hoboes. Google it. It's brilliant. I'm just not linking to it or the book here in an effort to minimize my exposure to lawyers and such.] Okay. Here we go...

So. Stewbuilder Dennis is probably not the best hobo to start this project, what with his not having anything to do with stew - or building - his name being not at all Dennis and his not being a hobo. Apart from these facts, he's perfect.

His name was, in fact, Mort. He claims not to know where Dennis came from, though it is widely believed that his mother had been a tremendous Styx fan, and had renamed him when she got home from a rollicking "Paradise Theatre" tour performance in Chicago.

The Stewbuilder moniker was the result of an uncanny resemblance he shared with Stewbuilder MacKenzie, a true hobo who was renowned for his ability to turn an old soup can, some rainwater and toad stools into rich, fabulous soups. Dennis' supervisor, a skinny fifteen-year old zit with feet named Caleb, was a hobo culture aficionado - or "Hobophile" - and had noticed the physical similarities immediately. "It's not just the face," he had said. "It's the limp, the distended belly, the missing hand, the flies. It's like looking into a time machine at ol' Stewbuilder MacKenzie, circa 1909." Dennis-- Mort? Whatever; didn't last long at Best Buy, which to him was only a desperate means of paying his bills in the months between his layoff from CitiGroup and his six-figure sales job at NetSatWebSoftWhatnot, Inc..

It was during his years at NetSatEtc. that he inadvertently earned his hobo reputation. His sales territory included the whole Northeast Corridor, and as Dennis was stricken with a paralyzing fear of airplanes (not of flying, mind you - he loved hang-gliding, ski-jumping and helicopters; he was actually afraid of the planes themselves), he traveled exclusively by train. By the time he got transferred to the deep south region - where he continued to move between appointments only by rail - he was known as the hobo Stewbuilder Dennis.

He retired in 2008 to live with his third wife, Lucille (what else) and their dog, Commission III, in the hills above Chattanooga. He never set foot in a library.

See? I told you he wouldn't be the best hobo to start with. But he had the one thing that most hoboes share - a great name.

699 to go...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lost In Translation With Bill and Scarlett -- And My Dad

I'm pretty sure my Dad knew what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of the movie. I'm also acutely aware of the fact that he probably forgot it moments later.

I have the movie Lost In Translation on DVD, but can't watch it. I have the soundtrack CD, too, but when the music comes shuffling by on my iPod, I can't listen to it. Both are inexorably linked to a memory, and even after eight years, I'm just not sure I'm ready. And I'm not usually like that. I am a very nostalgic person. I don't just remember the past; I wallow in it - the good, the bad and the ugly. I can remember the song that was queued up on the tape in my car when Lisa#1 dumped me in March of 1986 in Carlisle, PA (it was Fishbone's "Party At Ground Zero"). I remember the song playing on WHFS when I left Lisa#2 in my rear-view mirror for the last time in May, 1989 (Romeo Void's "Never Say Never"). I have no problem listening to either of those songs, or any of a host of others that are linked to traumatic, sad, stressful or otherwise icky times.

Lost In Translation is different. It's not that I can't listen to the music, and it's not that I can't watch the movie. I don't want to. My memory of the day I took my father to see that movie is a sad one - or at least bittersweet - but I like it.

In October of '03 my dad was about to turn 75. He had retired from his beloved analyst job at CIA over a dozen years earlier and despite rebounding rather well from his 1995 stroke, he was by the early 2000's - well, fading. He certainly had dementia, and by 2003 we were sure he had begun a final disappearing act into the mists of Alzheimer's.

He was actually doing better than any of us could have hoped, at this stage. Apart from failing to get dressed and eat and take his pills without being reminded, he got through his days in one piece. I don't think he had any of those traumatic episodes of wandering off - except that one time in Rehoboth Beach, and I don't count that because it was a hot day in a strange location (okay, I count it a little bit).

Still, as my dad's short-term memory deteriorated, my mother - recently retired herself - mana
ged an ever-expanding litany of nursing duties, and she needed a break. So there I was, taking my 75-year old father to the multiplex on a gray October Saturday. That's it. That's pretty much the story.

Okay, not really. I knew - feared, really - that this little excursion had a good chance of being my last constructive or remotely coherent one-on-one time with my father, so I was a little nervous. I gave him the option: "Lost..." or "School of Rock" or "Kill Bill Vol. 1," and he chose "Lost..." It was set in Japan. He had lived in Japan in the aftermath of World War II, while his father helped maintain order or whatever. Done - two, please!

His reactions to the movie, like his reactions to everything else, were muted. Tokyo looked nothing like the Tokyo he had known in the 1940s, but he knew enough Japanese that he could decipher some of the various loudspeaker announcements in the movie. "That's Japanese," he would whisper, more to himself than to me (he was already beginning to lose track of who was with him - mainly when it wasn't Mom).

He seemed to recognize the temples. "That looks like Kyoto" was repeated several times. He scoffed at the odd relationship between Murray's aging character and 20-year old Johansson's. He chuckled at the fish-out-of-water, tall-American-among-short-Japanese gags. He winced at the in-your-face strip club scene and its blaring hip-hop soundtrack. Great. Gratuitous Japanese nudity - he's gonna have a heart attack and die, right here and now. Mom will never forgive me.

Mostly, as he had for the past couple of years, he just sat there and smiled and took it all in. It was just stimuli. I know now that he was probably well aware of how much he couldn't remember, but as deeply pragmatic as he was, he oscillated between faking it and just going with the flow, living in the now. I never heard him complain about his memory loss. He just sort of kept going.

Driving him home, I was ten years old again, searching for ways to engage my father in conversation. I asked about the movie. He remembered we had seen one, but his vaguely, generically-positive assessment of the last couple of hours made it clear that he couldn't recall what we had seen. I asked about his time living in Japan, and his thoughts crystallized. He shared in vivid detail a memory of seeing the Ama pearl divers.

I asked what he thought about the Bush Administration's role in the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, which at the time was widely believed to have been a deliberate punitive action by the President's inner circle - retribution for Mrs. Plame's ambassador-husband's public contradiction Bush's arguments for US military action in Iraq. I didn't then, nor do I now, know enough about that story to converse intelligently on the subject. I just wanted to get him talking. I was taken aback at the clarity and intensity of his response. I won't rehash it all here, because it's political, but despite not being fully aware of the identity of our nation's President, he had a keen sense of the fact that there was no "administration," but rather simply a collection of cronies, half of whom didn't know what their ol' buddy George had put them in charge of (see FEMA Director Brown). He didn't know their names, but he was dead-on. I didn't realize until well after his death in 2005 just how accurate, how incisive, his analysis had been.

I left him in Mom's capable hands that afternoon and headed home, with my notions of Alzheimer's and its effects completely scrambled. He could recall 55-year old scenes from Japan, but couldn't remember the last scene of the movie. He couldn't keep track of which of his offspring was with him (he kept calling me Andrew), but he had an accurate and scathing analysis of the political scandal of the day. I was at a loss. He seemed happy enough. He was much more comfortable once Mom got home, of course, but he had spent the entire afternoon with a look of slightly-confused wonder. Upon hearing what movie we had seen, Mom rolled her eyes. "He saw that with me last week."

This was one of the last times I was alone with my father for more than a few minutes, and certainly the last time I heard him speak coherently and with conviction. From time to time, I wish I had tried some other tack to get him talking, but it's cool. I saw that spark. I heard that professional analyst's voice one last time. His opinion of the issue is neither here nor there, now. He was there, with me, sharing his thoughts.

I'm sure some of it was lost in the translation, but that's okay. Alzheimer's or no Alzheimer's, he still had words to share. I only wish there could have been more.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Final Expletive - Steroid Joe's Last Will And Testament

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. My name is Lawyer D. Esquire, and I've been retained by the family of the deceased to execute his Will, as it seems no one else would agree to do so. Your presence at the reading of the Last Will and Testament of ... [looks at notes]... Steroid Joe, was requested because each of you has been named in the document. Now, I have been briefed on the incident - for lack of a better word - that took place at this man's memorial service, and I just want to implore all of you to behave civilly. I've just had my office redecorated, and I would like to avoid any damage, if at all possible. Okay, let's begin.

"I, Joseph Userov Steroids, being of sound but rage-y mind and body, do hereby declare this document to be my Last Will and Testament, blah blah blah." It actually says 'blah blah blah,' ladies and gentlemen. "I officially, lovingly and not at all sarcastically do hereby bequeath the following:

My collection of-- Please don't interrupt; I don't see anything about a Camaro. Okay. My collection of 277 vinyl record albums - to my mother. They're in your basement anyway, Mom. Might as well keep 'em.

My driver's license - to my brother, Andrew. You can use it to get into bars, just like old times. Don't tell Mom.

My collection of DVDs - to my electronic and possibly nonexistent Oklahoma friend, Melanie, with the following exceptions:
  • "Hairspray" and "Moulin Rouge" shall go to my niece, Elizabeth, because she's a DANCER. There's a note here that says "Lawyer must read 'because she's a DANCER' the same way John Belushi says the final line of the Saturday Night Live film 'Schiller's Reel: Don't Look Back In Anger.'"
  • Also, my copy of "Hamlet 2" goes to the Ecker family, so that they can perfect their "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" routine.
  • Finally, my 'Futurama' DVDs go to my brother, John, because he's probably the only other person I know who appreciates that show.

My VHS-- No, I still don't see anything about the Camaro. Please let me finish. My VHS Rocky and Bullwinkle collection, as well as my Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams and Mark Leyner books - to my friend, co-conspirator, chemist, mason, kiln operator, spokesman, designated driver, reverse ghost writer, mentor, student, manager, bail bondsman, fry cook and guru, Godfrey Ozzenbarq III (not his real name). Mister Ozzenbarq (not your real name), whether or not that is, as you say, bullshit, is neither here nor there. I did not decide who gets what. I am reading what your friend wrote.

My cameras, lenses and accessories - to my beloved [Maris], because she's the only person I can tolerate taking pictures better than my own.

My collection of Lionel trains - to my nephew Kevin, but if he starts deliberately wrecking them, Aunt [Maris] is hereby directed to take them away from him until he is 30 years old.

Ladies and gentlemen, please stop shouting 'Camaro' at me. I am reading exactly what is on these pages. Please.

Any Patron Silver that survives me - goes to my old BossLady, who is responsible for introducing it to [Maris] and me. In the highly-probable event that she doesn't show up for the reading, give it to [Maris]. Actually, never mind - just give it all to [Maris].

My photographs are to be divided between my beloved [Maris], my mother and my sister, Mary. [Maris] is to receive any pretty ones in which the sun is shining, and Mom and Mary are to receive in equal shares all the dark, foggy, rainy or otherwise gloomy ones.

Again, if I see 'Camaro,' you all will be the first to know. Please let me continue.

The comic strip 'Adventures of the Weak, Scared Bug,' which I produced in 8th grade - to my nephew, Danny. If anyone can take that crap and make it work, it's Danny.

My collection of, I don't know, a thousand CDs? - to my friend Jill, because I know she's probably the only one of you who won't just immediately throw 90% of them away, or sell them for $.49 each on eBay.

My various neon, strobe and laser lights - to my sister-in-law, Debbie, because I'm pretty sure she harbors a secret dream of creating a disco in her basement.

People! Please! I can't do this with you chanting 'Camaro, Camaro, Camaro' at me! Thank you.

My red Swingline stapler - to Carrie, because she resisted the urge to steal it for over 3 years, and that can NOT have been easy.

My book of Zombie Haiku - to my friends Trina and Jefferson. Trina gets it on odd-numbered days, and Jefferson gets it on days that end in Y.

My HP Pavilion notebook computer - to my friend Stacy, because her fiancé is an I.T. expert, which will come in very handy since the damn thing has Windows Vista on it.

My old police radio scanner - to my nephew Matthew, because let's face it - if there's anyone in the family who needs to know when the cops are coming, it's Matt. There's a smiley face here, in the margin. What's that, Matthew? Yes, well, he also wrote 'hang in there, buddy,' if that helps.

Okay, the next person who utters the word 'Camaro' is going to be removed. Seriously. Geez. I don't see what all the fuss is, anyway. I'm a Mustang man, myself.

To my sister-in-common-law-if-they-had-that-in-Maryland-but-they-don't, Angela - I leave my margarita glasses, because I don't have any martini glasses.

My tools, power and otherwise - to my nephews Patrick, Timothy and Peter. The three of you are each to select a tool. You will then be locked together in a room. The last one of you who remains standing gets all of the tools.

My 2000 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 - to my brother-in-law, Tom, because I have every confidence that you can get another 150,000 miles out of that car.

Finally, ah - here it is. Finally, my 2011 Chevrolet Camaro convertible - to my brother-in-law, Mike, because he really likes it. Due to his height, he will only be able to comfortably drive it with the top down, but it'll still be totally worth it.

Okay, now I asked you people to be civil, so please stop swearing at me and put me down! Please! There's more! Please?

Thank you.

In conclusion, I, Joseph Userov Steroids, do hereby officially say 'PSYCHE!' All of the above mentioned stuff - everything I left behind - every last bit of it, goes to Real Joe. Duh. Who did you think would get my stuff? And if Real Joe didn't get it, wouldn't it all just go to [Maris], anyway? What's wrong with you people? Serves you right for being greedy. Good day."

Ladies and gentlemen - please calm down. Okay, Miss Collins, call 911.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Eulogy For Steroid Joe, and A Letter From The Dead

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. If everyone could please take a seat. Amy and Lara, please don't fight. Everyone will get a chance to spit on the casket once [Maris] and I are done.

Thank you.

Now, I know some of you were reluctant to come to this service, but I for one am glad you did. I also know that-- okay, family members, you're not going to be allowed to remain in the front row if you continue to throw things at the casket. Nice touch with the rotten eggplant, but please, just let me get through this.

Thank you.

Where was I? Yes, I also know that many of you are uncomfortable with having me, Real Joe, eulogize our departed friend and loved one, Steroid Joe. Yes Carrie, we all know he was a dick. But he was part of our lives for over four years, and we're going to be respectful. Stacy, please lower the crossbow and douse that flaming arrow. There's a bucket of water in the back of the-- what? That's manure? Really? Okay, who brought manure? MOM?? Wow. Okay. Mom brought manure to her own son's memorial service. Yes, I know he wasn't your "real" son, Mom. Settle down.

Thank you.

Now, I'm going to try to keep this brief and-- Jeff I am not fooling around - put the noose away! He's dead already. What? For dragging the corpse through the streets? No. We're not doing that. Gross. Look, everyone just sit down and give me five minutes, then you can do whatever you want to the body, okay?

Thank you. Okay, Steroid Joe died as he had lived. Fighting. It took nearly two hundred stab wounds to kill him. I know. I counted. But I think we all know that he was tormented, and that his hateful agitation with the world around him was simply a matter of chemistry, and . . . okay, I tried. He had his moments and you know it. He's gone now. Rejoice. Defile the corpse. Do whatever makes you feel better. But while you do what you gotta do, I must - in accordance with Steroid Joe's dying wish - read aloud this letter to Prednisone, his most loved and hated drug:

[pandemonium ensues]

"Dear Prednisone,
Hi. How are you? Sure is hot, here. Ha Ha Ha! Seriously, though. I'm sorry you're still in jail because of our little spat at the house. Maybe if you hadn't actually spat at the house...
Anyway... As I lay in this ditch, dying from a couple hundred stab wounds, some shrapnel and more than one boot in my butt, I have been given the gift of what I think must be clarity. Unfortunately, it's a clarity that escapes description, but I'll try to put it into words for you.
First, it hurts to have to say this, but I don't think I ever really loved you. I needed you. I used you. I was sick and I was scared. I'm sorry. I honestly thought you knew the score. You're a drug. I was a patient. It seemed pretty cut-and-dry to me, but obviously you did not see it the same way, and for that, I apologize."

[chaos and violent epithets aimed at the dead fill the chapel]

"Second, I'm sorry I burned all your stuff after the cops took you away. If it makes you feel any better, I received a citation for having an open fire not properly contained, and the fine was like fifteen hundred bucks. Ouch, right?
Finally, thank you. I will never forget what you did for me. Sure, I bitched up a storm over your side-effects, but they were nothing, NOTHING, compared to what I was facing without you. You are a complex drug. That's what I plan to say if anyone asks about you or our time together. I can't ever speak badly of you or color you as some sort of monster. You healed me. I am grateful. You must move on and heal others.

Now, you know how fond I am of Peter Murphy. I leave you with this, from his "Cascade" CD:
Hark and be well
Go catch the light in every cell
Let the fire take the fire, and the rain wash the pain
May your soul's waters never wain

Make Eden here
Send angels' prayers
May your garden be sweet
Let the fire take the fire
Let the fire take the fire, and the rain wash the pain

(Okay, I guess I loved you a little bit)

Steroid Joe


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Who Will I Be? (Please Say Bradley Cooper -- Or Whoever Married Zooey)

What has taken longer than "Double-barrel Unemployment," dates back to the midpoint of GWB's second term in office and is about to end? The few of you out there who know me-- who am I kidding - that's pretty much all of you -- know that my weird little midlife array of illnesses - and the subsequent chemical regimen used to treat them - is coming to an end. Specifically, after four years, two months and twelve days, my love-hate relationship with Prednisone is ending. Friday, July 1st will be my first steroid-free day since April 17, 2007. Yeah, I know - Don't Put Deadlines On Your Dreams. Whatever. It's totally happening.

Reading about someone's medical stuff when that someone isn't, you know, you is ghastly boring and downright uncomfortable. "A rash where a sexually-inactive person ought not have one," you say? Wow - that's TWO things I didn't need to know. Whoa - 11:00 already? I gotta... Um... Okay bye. So I won't bother you with details. It's a long time to have been on this stuff, getting weaned off of it is rough, blah blah blah... [yawn, pass out, hit head on kitchen table, slip into coma, end up on news when [Maris] tries to honor my wish not to be kept alive in a vegetative state - like Texas! - ZING!!]

The simple fact is that I have been Steroid Joe for so long, I don't remember how to not be on Prednisone. I have been fixated on - at times utterly consumed by - my ongoing battle with 'roid rage and all those damnable side-effects and my quest to get off of the stuff for over four years. When 7/1/11 comes and I no longer have that war to fight, where will I turn my focus? What excuse will I have for being a thoroughly dark, mean person then?

Who will I be?

I kind of already know the answer, but what fun is it to just blurt it out and say goodnight? So, let's start with who I hope I won't be.

I hope I won't be that guy who can speak of nothing but his triumph over lung disease and Prednisone. That guy is BORING. Plus, I know I could have triumphed over scurvy, explosive hemorrhoids and three kinds of cancer, and the guy next to me at the bar would scoff at my paltry victory and proceed to describe how he beat a cobra bite, five cancers and a cannon wound in his everything - and all without any sissy drugs. So let's not do that.

I sincerely wish not to be a Kardashian. Especially the fat one.

If at all possible, I would like to avoid awaking next Friday morning to find that I'm still sick. OMG can you imagine the profanity!

I don't want to be a guy with a lot of responsibility - or ambition, for that matter. I just don't think I have the energy, right now.

So. Who will I be? Will I be so overcome with joy and relief that I dance from person to person giving out hugs and giggling at everything and soaking up every good atom I can find, humming and singing and smiling like a lunatic, just thrilled to have been given a new lease on life - and pissing off everyone who sees me? Maybe.

Will I be (dun-dun-DUNNNNNN) The Same Raging Asshat I've More Or Less Been For Over Four Years? Yeesh - now we're back to who I don't want to be. It's possible, though.

Will I be David Hasselhoff, sitting shit-faced on the kitchen floor eating manwiches in front of my webcam at 3AM? Hmm... I could kind of go for a nice meat sandwich, right about now. Or a grilled cheese. I'm nothing if not easy.

Will I turn into a mature person - the adult I've yet to blossom into - full of wisdom and a calm, confident balance and, well, grip on the situation? One can dream, can't one?

Maybe I'll be Anton Corbijn or Godfrey Reggio or some other master of the visual arts. Then I can be a little "off" and nobody can say boo to me about it. Again - a man can dream.

Secretly, I'd kind of like to be Russell Brand. Not because of the career and money and pinup girl wife - although those are all selling points - but because he appears to be fairly intelligent and STILL comes across as just constantly having a simply wonderful time.

Here's the answer, though. Two answers, really. I've known them all along. In the immediate-term: I will be on Friday July 1st exactly the same man I was the night before (although possibly a little hung-over). In the longer term: I will gradually just become my old self again.

Maybe a little wiser.

Maybe a little more appreciative of my life and wife and health and the little rabbit that lives in our backyard.

Maybe a little more in love with Vicodin than I was before all this started.

But I'll be Old Joe, four-and-a-quarter years older. Those of you who knew him will be relieved. The rest of you - well, I hope you like me.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Domestic Disturbance Results In One Arrest, Bad Singing, Shots Fired, Several French Fries Wasted

June 12, 2011
Germantown, MD

Local police were summoned to the 5200 block of Marley Drive on the slightly frightening side of Germantown at 2:45 this morning to investigate reports of possible domestic violence or, at the very least, a loud and embarrassing dispute between a man and his long-time, live-in drug.

"When officers first arrived on the scene, in response to a number of complaints about a disturbance, they found the drug on the front sidewalk, next to a large pile of what appeared to be her personal belongings. She was hysterical, and was repeatedly throwing items at the front door and at a second-floor window, shouting nearly incoherent demands that the occupant of the home come out, 'Just to talk, just to talk,'" a Montgomery County Police spokesman told reporters this morning.

One officer, who requested his name not appear in this report, said that the drug - later identified as Prednisone - did not even acknowledge the presence of the responding officers for several minutes and that when she finally did, they wished that she had not. "That pill was bat-shit crazy," he said. "She was hurling all kinds of stuff from that pile at the house - articles of clothing, grilling tools, bottles of Citracal and Diovan, a vinyl copy of Synergy's Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra, Pixie Stix, boots, a lawn sprinkler - you name it, she was throwing it. She did this bizarre Hideo Nomo-like wind-up and hit the front door with a fastball consisting of several of those Hoti medallions that come with bottles of Pyrat Rum, breaking the glass on the storm door."

"That upped the charges from Creating a Disturbance and maybe Harassment to Destruction of Property and Battery Against a Dwelling," said a second officer, also speaking to us on condition of anonymity. "She was wearing a soiled, ill-fitting wedding dress over what appeared to be an Anne Taylor suit. She kept screaming at the house - 'You need me!' 'You'll die without me!' 'I can change!' 'Can't we just talk about this?' 'I love you SO much!' 'I'm sorry I made you mad at life, baby!' 'Get your ass out here - you owe me!' 'I didn't mean to hurt you.' 'If you don't take me back, I will not be responsible for what happens!' and so on. I've been on the force for 21 years, so I've seen some very M.O. people, but this was one messed-up subject."

The Police spokesman reported that Prednisone made several explicit threats against the man, insisting that if he ended their four-year relationship, she would proceed to make him hurt everywhere - not just joints, but muscles, eyeballs, head - everywhere - and that she would make his mood swing from homicidal to suicidal to punchy to melancholy and back again without reason or warning.

"Yeah - she said she would like, hurt him like listening to 71 straight hours of 'mm-bop' and make his lung shit come back and kill him over and over and leave his mangled body in a ditch, and stuff," said a neighbor who witnessed much of the disturbance. "For a while, he was in the upstairs window, all like 'You don't own me so stop acting like you do,' and 'I'm calling the cops,' and 'I thought we could both behave like grownups, but I guess I was half-wrong,' and 'Thanks for the life-saving, but you gotta GO now,' and 'Look - I gave you all the Beastie Boys stuff, can't we just call it even?' and 'Don't! Don't you dare throw that panda at the house! That was a GIFT, you heartless bitch! If you don't want it, just leave it on the sidewalk,' and there was a whole lot of 'Just go away, please,' and 'It. Is. Over,' and stuff like that. And she was all throwing stuff at the house and like 'Ohhh, you need me. You won't be happy without me,' 'You can't live without me and you know it,' and whatever. After a while, he closed the window and turned off the lights and the cops came."

Another neighbor, when asked for insight into the situation, responded with a blank look and "Who? You mean the dude with the convertible who never comes out of his house? That guy? No one here knows him at all."

The official report goes on to detail the tense standoff, including a moment near its conclusion when the suspect held a gun to her head for several minutes, sobbing and declaring her intention to kill herself if he didn't come outside, then spinning in place, shrieking "Be my young lion!" and firing as many as sixteen indiscriminate shots, striking several cars and surrounding homes, but fortunately not causing any injuries to police or neighbors.

"That was pretty intense," reported the arresting officer. "But we still felt we had the situation under control at that point - right up until she started singing - howling, really - 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' at the top of her lungs. I swear, that 'turn around, bright eyes' stuff was cracking windshields on our cruisers and putting my fellow officers directly in harm's way. I knew I had to take action. I deployed my taser device, subdued Prednisone and took her into custody without further incident, although she did resist arrest quite vigorously."

No injuries were reported, and charges are said to be pending, as of press time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excerption To The Rule About Not Posting NaNoWriMo Excerpts

The easiest blog posts are the ones already written. Sure, this bit (haha - BIT!) from my 2010 NaNoWriMo project about undead people eaters needs a little more spit and polish, but whatever. I like it. And yes, Doug is a dog...

He held the cricket bat with his right hand and one of the 9mms in his left, told Doug to stay, then crouched down and crept, cat-burglar-style, across the asphalt to what was left of the body he'd just passed. Please have the keys, please have the keys, please have the keys, he thought. There they were - about five feet beyond the space in which she had fallen and died and been mostly devoured by monsters that until recently had been regular people. Bill tiptoed past her and wrapped his fingers around the keys, scanned his surroundings again and turned back toward the Jeep. As he passed her remains again, he couldn't help but take a closer look at her. That was when he saw it. Beneath her broken, bloody, half-eaten torso - clutched with a mangled skeletal dead hand between her mostly-intact and bloody-sweater-clad breasts - was a baby. Bill glanced around him again, then bent down low and looked more closely. It was wearing a little pink dress and appeared to be in one piece, and it was dead, staring vacantly into the parking lot with dry eyes devoid of life. "Look at that and tell me there's a god," Bill whispered, his voice shaking with a mixture of heartbreak and rage.

After learning that the Jeep had only a quarter-tank of gasoline - since it had become one of his central challenges over the past couple of weeks, Bill had taken to repeatedly saying "gasoline" with an Australian accent, like Mad Max - Bill had siphoned ten gallons from the car directly behind the Jeep. He had brought the small, battery-operated pump from the boat, but still it only had a six-foot tube, so he transferred the gay-zoh-line to the Jeep five gallons at a time, using the big empty paint bucket that had been in the back, behind the baby seat. Actually, it had been full when he found it - just not of paint. It had been full of baby toys.

While the second bucketful of gas was being pumped into the Jeep, Bill took as many of the toys as he could carry over to the bodies of mother and child. He knelt next to them and scattered the toys around. When he reached in to put a ring of oversized plastic, pastel-colored keys under the mother's half-body, close to the baby, it screamed and hissed and wriggled and bit at the keys with ghastly, toothless bites. "Shit! Zombie baby!!" Bill squealed as he jumped back, covering his mouth to prevent any other loud noises from flying out of it. The undead infant was still gurgling and growling as Bill backed away. "Okay, look at that and tell me there's a god!" He ran back to the Jeep, where the pump was sputtering, having already sucked the last of the gasoline from the bucket into the tank. He shut off the motor, tossed the pump and its hose into the bucket and threw put them in the back. The handful of zombies who had been aimlessly stumbling around in front of the convention center was now a fistful of zombies who had heard the baby and/or Bill's screams and now staggered rather less aimlessly in the direction of the Jeep.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Some Notes For Your Next Breakup

To: prednisone@blessingandcurse.drug
From: joe@mostlyharmless.patient
Date: June 5, 2011
Subject: Things I'd really like you to stop doing

Hey you. How's it going? Sorry I haven't returned any of your calls. You know I totally want to, but I just can't. I know by now you know this is not a drill. I'm not bluffing. It really is *over*. And I know that sucks. I know it does. But we are both adults (well, I'm an adult - you're more of a steroid). If we can't part ways as friends - and it is looking more and more as though we cannot - then we need to just part ways. Period.

You say you want to stay friends. If that is true, then there are some things I really need you to do or, more to the point, stop doing.

  • If you're going to send flowers, here's a tip: send live ones. The stuff with which you've been flooding my life of late has been shriveled enough to adorn an Addams Family set.
  • You know I love chocolate. You know from that one Valentine's Day that those sugar-free chocolates are really quite powerful laxatives. Yet, lo and behold, that is what you sent me. I lost a half-day of work and the respect of everyone in my office. Thanks a lot.
  • Do not reenact the climactic scene from "Never Been Kissed" at the Frederick Keys game - especially on a night when I'm not even there. It's just embarrassing.
  • I'd rather you didn't drunk-dial me late at night, especially if you're too drunk to hear the beep, leaving a voicemail of mostly dead air and inebriated steroidal breathing. Or if it's karaoke night wherever you are. Or if you're drunk enough to dial my mom's number instead of mine. Just stop. Get a wing-man or something - someone to take custody of your phone until the danger has passed.
  • You know I love gifts, and you know I like cool toys for my cubicle at work, but seriously dude - a whole case of mortar-and-pestle-shaped stress balls emblazoned with "CADISTA PHARMACEUTICALS" is not exactly going to win me back.
  • Yes, I loved the 1980s - music, TV, movies, Presidents - you name it. But OMG do NOT stand in my front yard holding up a boom box bellowing as loudly as its D-cell-powered wooferlets can bellow, especially if your "come back to me" songs of choice are The Piña Colada Song or Fat-Bottomed Girls.
So. Just to recap: Stop trying to stop me from breaking up with you. It won't work. There's nothing you can do to change my mind. I get no joy from seeing you suffer, and even less from seeing you make a fool of yourself, but this is happening. PLEASE do us both a favor and move on. Please?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dear Prednisone - Don't Even Think About Quoting "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" Lyrics At Me

Dear Prednisone,

I'm no good at this kind of thing, so I'll just come right out and say it. I don't think this relationship is working anymore and I think it would be best for both of us if we just stop seeing each other. I know this is not what you want, and believe me when I tell you that it is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do, but you know as well as I do that it is time. Hell, we pretty much knew when we started seeing each other that we were never meant to be a long-term thing. Six months to a year - isn't that what EVERYBODY said? And we stretched it to over four years! Impressive.

I'm not going to try to sugar-coat this with BS like "it's not you - it's me," because truthfully, it pretty much IS you. It's you who made me all roid-ragey and emo. It's you who made me gain all that weight - presumably so no one else would look at me. It's you who made me cry at TV commercials, yell at EVERYBODY and everything, and feel guilty and crappy afterward. Did you HEAR some of the monstrous sputum I launched in the direction of my friends, coworkers and family alike? What was that?

Now, I already know what you're going to say, so I'll save you the trouble: You saved my life. Yes, you probably did, and for that I will forever be in your debt. But that does not give you the right to treat me the way you have - especially lately. The minute I hinted that I needed a little space, you went all Fatal Attraction on me. I'm not sure how many of your previous relationships that reaction has managed to save (I'm guessing none), but I promise you that it won't save this one.

Look - I don't want to fight about this. You're an amazing drug, and I have no doubt that you'll find another wonderful patient in no time. Let's just be mature, take a deep breath, and go our separate ways as friends, okay?


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Don't Put Deadlines On Your Dreams

Well, the Rapture didn't happen and the world is trudging right along, just as it was on Friday. I'm not here to make a bunch of jokes at the expense of Harold Camping or his misguided followers; that's just too easy and has been done to death already. I'm sure they continue to believe, blaming their massive public failure - as they did in 1994 - on some miscalculation or misinterpretation of the data. They'll go back and recalculate the date of the Rapture and the End of Days, then grow old and die without seeing any such thing actually occur. If they're smart, though, they won't tell anyone the date, next time.

Do NOT put deadlines on your dreams. This Rapture business must be devastating to the people who believed in it. Some of those devotees gave up all of their savings. Now, not only are they broke, not only are they still here, but they're also an international punchline, devoid of any semblance of credibility forever. In a lot of ways, they probably feel as though the Rapture DID happen, but they were not taken, and are now in some sort of hell on earth. It's really hard for me to resist making fun of that.

I don't say this because I don't believe in the Rapture (although I don't), or because I don't think the world will end (it totally will). I just don't recommend giving something so important, so utterly massive, a due date. And not just Judgment Day, either. No good ever comes from declaring that aliens are coming to take you away in exactly six years, three days and seven hours.

A few other important things for which I don't recommend a drop-dead due date:

Don't go through college telling everyone that you will make your first million by age 25. This one is a lose-lose. If you don't make it, you'll think yourself a failure when that might not even be the case. If you do make your million by 25, you'll be a douche who nobody likes. And no matter what the outcome, you'll annoy all of your college friends to no end and they will stop at nothing to keep you from succeeding.

No deadlines on life stuff. You might meet Mr. Right and have a perfect little boy and a precious little girl and live in a darling little house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a dog in the yard - all by age 30. Then again, you might meet Mr. Right and marry him, only to have him leave you for the grad student he works with at Best Buy. Or you might get stuck with two sons and no daughter. Or it could all happen, but not until you're 39.

You can't just declare that you'll learn to juggle in exactly 60 days. Recipe for disaster.

I can't tell you how many target dates for getting my first novel published have come and gone. I can't even finish reading a book in an arbitrarily-allotted amount of time.

There's no sense in telling everyone that your 1/64-scale replica of the 184-mile C&O Canal, constructed entirely of cherry tomatoes, frilly sandwich toothpicks and half-chewed Hubba Bubba gum, will absolutely, positively be finished before your middle-school "graduation." Heartbreak will ensue, trust me.

I knew a girl in college who, after breaking up with her boyfriend, told all her friends that she would be 100% over him in precisely 30 days. Guess who was still riddled with anger and drunk-dialing him almost a year later.

Two words: World Domination. Sure, it's a worthy and respectable goal, but put a deadline on it, miss that deadline, and watch the field day that Leno and Letterman and Conan have with your sorry ass.

Now, I'm not saying we should never use deadlines for any of our goals. Just try to stay away from assigning them to big, uncertain events. Keep them away from your dreams. You can't just say "I am going to be WELL, and dammit, I'm going to be well in 39 days." Try to be well, as soon as possible. Your body doesn't care one wit about the calendar - never has, never will.

It's also fine to prepare for the Rapture, if that's your thing. Just don't waste your life trying to figure out exactly when it's coming, then tell everyone in no uncertain terms that it absolutely WILL happen on Saturday only to watch as your dream fails to come true. If going to heaven is that important to you, just live your life in such a way that you're ready whether it comes tomorrow, or 540 years from tomorrow. How hard is that to do without a deadline? Is it me? It must be me.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I am stepping down from a multi-year prednisone regimen, and I am going to be done by July 1st. If July 1st comes, and I'm still on the stuff and/or not WELL, I don't know what I'll do.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

School Called. Why Must You Always Make Your Teachers Cry?

Greetings! I found a scene I kind of like, from my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel (first time reading it since I finished on 11/30/09). Enjoy... Or don't. Hahahahaha - no, really. Enjoy it...

One cold 4th-grade morning, we came into our double-wide classroom to find "SPELLING" scrawled on the blackboard. Beneath that, it said "Miss Adams." My chronically-knotted little stomach relaxed a bit. At least for now, there would be no math, and I preferred Miss Adams to Mrs. Martin, whom I found frightfully intimidating. Maybe I could survive the morning.

We sat in a circle on the floor, with all the desks shoved back toward the outer edges of the room. Mrs. Martin was sitting way back in the corner at her desk, grading tests or concocting new ways to torture us or reading a Harlequin Romance or whatever the hell teachers did when they weren't actively making us do stuff we didn't want to do. She was a big, sturdy, pretty woman in her forties, always impeccably and - I realize now - expensively-attired. Her black hair was always perfect and shellacked like one of those new non-stick skillets, and usually featured a bow or ribbon in the same color as her dress. She wasn't mean. She was just strong and firm and a little loud. She was a force in the classroom.

If Mrs. Martin was the bad cop in this double-teacher arrangement, then Miss Adams was clearly the good one. She was at least ten years younger than her co-teacher, and in many ways her opposite. She had a softness about her. She was much thinner than Mrs. Martin, her hair was wavy and usually left to its own devices, she wore simple dresses and occasionally - gasp - pants, and she had a gentle teaching style. Her southern accent probably added to that. She just always sounded sweet and encouraging and concerned. Miss Adams had the patience of a saint, so seeing her there walking slowly around inside the circle of students was comforting.

I suppose public humiliation is just a part of learning, and short of having one teacher per student in private cubicles, there doesn't seem to be any way around it. Spelling was especially brutal. Today, it appeared that Miss Adams was going to go around the entire class, counter-clockwise, starting just a few kids to my left. I could live with that. There would be plenty of little humiliations before she got to me, so any failure on my part would just be one of many by then. It was worst when you were the first kid to spell a word wrong. Looking around the circle, I was confident that at least ten mistakes would be made en route to me.

I wasn't too far off. The very first word given was misspelled by one of the girls, but she was known to be smart, so no one laughed at her. A couple of kids down the line, "mountain" was spelled wrong. To my right, one of my few acquaintances, Lewis Hardy, elbowed me.

"That was a tricky one," he whispered, "but that guy is kind of an idiot."

"Yeah." I laughed a bit too loudly, as evidenced by the glance Miss Adams shot my way over her shoulder. Lewis was the class genius and to this day is probably the most intelligent person I have known, so his casual friendship was both a blessing and a curse. It felt good to know that such a smart person valued my company, but he was extremely quiet and a little too smart to avoid the "weird" label. He was a nice guy and usually exceedingly diplomatic, so hearing him refer to someone as an idiot was kind of a jolt.

Lewis gave Miss Adams a minute to refocus on the boy who couldn't spell mountain, then he leaned in my direction. "Do you remember his Pilgrim hat from art class last Thanksgiving?"

"Yeah," I answered, much more carefully than before. "It was all pointy and cone-shaped, like a dunce cap."

"Right. And how many pictures of Pilgrims have you seen where their hats have big John Deere belt buckles on them?" he sneered.

I had to think about that for a second. I had remembered some sort of oversized buckle on that guy's construction paper hat, but it took my brain a moment to connect "John Deere," a name I barely knew, with the anatomically-incorrect dog-like monster sitting in the middle of that creation. "Is that what that thing was supposed to be? I thought it was a dragon getting blown up by an atom bomb." I whispered. "How about that diorama of the Nixon Resignation Signing he did last year? What a joke."

"I know!" Lewis chuckled. "He had Nixon signing with his left hand, and he put Earl Butz between Ford and Kissinger. Now, I don't know if Ford and Kissinger were in the Oval Office for the signing, but I'll bet you a million dollars that the Fucking Secretary of Agriculture was not! If any Cabinet members would have been there, it would have been Saxbe. What an imbecile."

I let another surprised laugh escape. I had never heard Lewis cuss before, let alone use the F-word. "Right. Saxbe. I mean, duh!" I said.

"Worst diorama ever." Lewis shook his head in disgust.

From my left, Marty Collins, Lewis' friend, interjected. "Don't act like you know who William Saxbe is, James." Marty was another smart one, but unlike Lewis, he always had an irresistible need to make sure everyone knew how intelligent he was. He wasn't brilliant - just a know-it-all, so it made me feel all warm inside when Miss Adams turned and uttered her southern little "shoosh" (She actually said "shoosh." It sounded as though there might even have been an extra O in there) squarely at Marty.

"Burn!" I whispered just as she returned her attention to the spelling torture at hand.

After a few more relatively uneventful stops around the circle of tormented spellers, Miss Adams arrived in front of Lewis. There was an expectant hush, as we all knew she'd give him a really hard word, as she always did. "Lewis, please spell 'scimitar.'"

Lewis sat up and cleared his throat thoughtfully. "Can you use it a sentence, please?"

"The dreaded pirate Blackbeard's weapon of choice was his scimitar." she said.

"With all due respect, ma'am, Blackbeard's primary weapons were the Queen Anne's Revenge and when push came to shove, his pistol." If anyone else in the class had made such a statement to one of the teachers, he or she would have been in trouble, but Lewis was always so respectful, quiet and correct that he got away with it. "May I have the word's origin, please?" he continued.

"This isn't a spellin' bee, sweetie." Miss Adams smiled. He spelled the word. Correctly. My turn.

"James," she said, "Please spell 'plowin'' - as in, 'The farmer was up early, plowin' his field." She winked at Lewis, then looked at me.

"Plowin'?" I asked.

"Plowin'." she repeated.

"P-L-O-W-I-N." I stopped. She looked at me expectantly. I heard a muted giggle from somewhere behind her.

"Almost, hon. Sound it all the way out as you think about all the letters in the word."

I was puzzled. "You said 'plowin'' - right?"

"That's right, James. Take your time." she was very focused on me and doing her best to keep me from getting upset, but it was not working.

"P-L-O-W-I-N." I said, already seeing the disappointment on Miss Adams' face. "As in, the farmer was up early PLOWIN' his field." Another giggle or two, then uncomfortable silence.

"No, sweetie. P-L-O-W-I-N-G." she said.

"Duh!" Marty blurted. A full round of laughter followed, before Miss Adams squelched it with another "Shooosh!" and a wave of her finger all the way around the circle.

"You didn't say G!" I protested.

"Well, sure I did, darlin' - P-L-O-W-I-N-G." She titled her head quizzically, then looked up momentarily, as if the next word was written on the ceiling tiles. "Okay. Let's try another one. Spell 'fishin' - as in, 'Tom Sawyer spent the day at the fishin' hole.'"

I could feel my neck and face flushing with anger. "Fishin'? You said FISHIN' - right?"

"Yes. Fishin'," she said again. Way back at her desk in the corner, Mrs. Martin had stopped working and was watching me intently.

I sighed and tried again. "F-I-S-H-I-N." Sniggering ensued and after another lengthy "are you sure you're done" stare, Miss Adams shook her head. "That's exactly what she said!" I insisted. "I spelled exactly what she said!" This only amused the class more. I'm quite certain I heard the word "stupid" more than once, out there.

Mrs. Martin had made her way over to the circle of chortling cruelty and was standing just behind Lewis, looking at me as though she were concerned that I might have been poisoned. With one sharp little stomp of her heel on the tile floor, she silenced the room. "James, let's try one more. Can you spell the word 'Spellin' for me, darlin'?" Yes, although hers was more aristocratic and a bit easier to deal with than Miss Adams' southern accent, she had one, too.

I was shaking with frustration. I spelled what I heard once more, and as the laughter started again, I looked at Mrs. Martin. She was nodding toward the chalk board across the room, where the word 'SPELLING' had been so clearly written. Just then Martin and at least two or three others started scolding me with "G! G! There's a G at the end, stupid. I-N-G!"

I leapt from my spot on the floor, knocking Martin into the girl to his left. "I know that! She didn't say 'spelling'! She said 'SPELLIN'!' There's no fucking G in 'SPELLIN' Goddamn it!! And I know how to fucking spell 'FISHING.' But she wasn't saying 'fishinG.' She kept saying 'FISHIN' - so that's what I fucking spelled. What is WRONG with you people???"

I was sent to the Principal's office, and later received a week-long grounding from my parents, for refusing to tell them where I'd heard such language because it sure as hell wasn't from them.

Lesson learned. Several, actually. Southern accents are a pain in the ass. Don't trust your ears when your brain knows better. Children are awful little predators who feast on any misstep or sign of weakness. Swearing a lot can make one a little bit cooler, if only temporarily and if only with the tough kids. Finally, it seemed that accuracy and precision were concepts in which I believed much more strongly than anyone around me.