What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

Chiffonier

Oh, he’d waited for this day. Feeling the old man’s breathing becoming shallower and shallower as he applied all his weight to the nonagenarian until one pathetic gurgle gave way to silence filled Chiffonier with such satisfaction, he felt his joints would burst. Ever since the master had sold his family at auction one by one, Chiffonier knew it would be his duty to end that monster’s life. How many other family sets had that man broken apart, their future reduced to smoke and ashes? Chiffonier refused to think about it. He can’t harm anyone anymore.

The first time Chiffonier had even considered paying back his master in kind, he groaned inwardly. Murder? Him? It went against everything he was designed to be. Talk about going against his grain! He pushed the idea far from him, refusing to even consider it, but the more he thought about his family members being hauled off one by one, the more the idea grew like a pile of dirty clothes beneath his smooth veneer. He had to end the suffering. Yes, but how?

Years went by before Chiffonier realized his greatest strength — steadfastness. Every morning, the master would come to him, trusting Chiffonier to dress him warmly, especially as the master’s limbs grew feebler, and his hinges rustier.

It all came in a flash of recognition. The master’s trust of his unwavering devotion would be his downfall. And so it was.

That afternoon, the old man’s nurse, horrified, discovered the dresser fallen over upon him. “Squashed him flat, like an ant. I told Mr. Wallace hanging onto that dresser was dangerous. He should have sold it when he got rid of the rest of that bedroom suite. That front leg was wobbly. Only a matter of time before it gave way. From now on, nothing but Ikea for me.”

Gooooooooaaaaaaaaallllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!!

Normally, this would be the point where I mention blowing the dust off my keyboard since I haven’t updated my blog since April. Thing is, I don’t have to do that as I spent the last month working on a fiction piece as well as transcribing interviews from our trip to Arizona over spring break, which resulted in about 10,000 words. Excuse me while I stand on my chair and celebrate with my own hearty congratulations.

Ooh, bad idea. The desk chair rotates as well as rolls. Lemme get down before I brain myself.

Thing is, I can’t take the credit for accomplishing what amounts to a monster level of writing for me. Ask any of the professors from my MFA, and they’ll tell you there’s no way Jake accomplished that much work by himself. I didn’t; I stole an idea.

Every month, there’s this very nice lady who creates an event in Facebook where the invitees post mileage and other fitness goals for themselves then provide posts, documenting their progress in achieving these goals. Because those who participate in the group are wonderfully generous themselves, whenever anyone posts, they get flooded with positive support along with a modicum of ornery banter.

In addition to the support I receive from this crew, I also gleaned ideas such as running twice in a day, setting a mileage goal for cycling, and adding whole body exercise routines to my repertoire, things I wouldn’t consider myself, which results in me feeling better and being far more confident than I ever have before.

So I stole this idea of doing a monthly mileage challenge on Facebook and created a monthly writing challenge after discovering one of my fellow runners is also a fellow writer with a similar need for accountability. I set it up, invited other writers, and set a goal of writing 25 hours in June.

Which I did.

After skipping a bunch of days.

You see, I figured I could write for an hour each day. (We were less than a week into June when I created the challenge.)

I found it was harder to carve the time out than I first assumed.

Which meant I had to up my daily production.

Forcing myself to write for two hours and forty-five minutes some days.

Which sucked.

And because I created this group challenge, there was no way I was going to miss my goal, so I kept at it.

And I learned something. Three things, actually.

  1. I learned that setting a goal and sharing that goal along with progress made in achieving it with others working toward similar goals nets you many cheerleaders.
  2. I learned that slacking off early makes more work for you in the end.
  3. I learned that spending time doing something important not only creates progress, it also reveals the person I want to be more often.

So if there’s something out there you want to do, procrastinating will get you nowhere. I should know.

Set a goal, share it with others pursuing similar goals, and root each other on till the end. You might not cross the finish line first, but you will move further down the road.

Getting Past the Pain

Last week, the massage therapist reminded me of the truth of the movie quote, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Laying face up on the massage table, a clean, white sheet beneath, I slowed my breathing. The air, relieved of its outdoor duties, teased my nose with the aroma of cloves and other indistinguishable scents. With my shoes and socks paired in the corner and my shirt hanging from a hook on the closed door, I was ready to find some relief. Normally, we’d be listening to Chopin, but today a wooden flute rose, fell, and merged with cricket song above the bubbling of a stream. A Himalayan salt lamp cast a soft, pink glow, and that, combined with the few rays of sunlight slipping through the blinds, was sufficient to create a kind of twilight within the converted office.

Having taken the time to guide my legs through some stretches, bending and turning them along a few different planes, William started the real work, kneading my heal with the tips of his fingers and searching for the reflex zone associated with my lower back. As he probed, I sensed William nearing his goal, for the closer he got to one particular area, the more twitchy I became. William sensed it too, and when he’d pinpointed his objective, we both realized it, because as he applied the most pressure he could to this singularly sensitive area, I resisted the urge to jerk my leg away and commenced Lamaze. 

    The pain soon faded, no longer afflicting my heel or lower back, and William remarked, “Ahhh, Jake, you handle pain pretty well, don’tcha?”

“I suppose so.”

“If it were me, my friend, sitting in your place, I’d be wincing, cussing, and ready to get while the getting’s good. You savvy?” His last words transmuted into breathy laughter, escaping mostly through his nose and ascending the scale.

Growing up, I didn’t handle pain well. In fact, I avoided it as much as I could. With a father who could fix anything, we had cars that ran 300,000 miles or more and sinks that served us leak-free for decades. I vaguely recall a general contractor coming in to build a closet for me, but even then, Dad was at his elbow, framing and hanging drywall. That and the time when — sick of repainting the outside of the house each spring — Dad hired a company to hang vinyl siding, were the only instances I remember him paying someone to do the maintenance for him. Otherwise, Dad did the work himself. Mom often encouraged me to go give Dad a hand, but after watching for awhile with no real knowledge of what he was up to, I’d wander off. Worse were the times when he’d be lying under the car, a piece of cardboard between him and the driveway, and he’d ask me to hand him a particular tool.

“Jacob…Jacob…JACOB!”

I’d snap back to reality from wherever my mind had wandered. “Huh?”

“Don’t ‘huh’ me. Hand me that 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. And hurry up, this flange is threatening to invert on me.”

I’d look, mystified, over at his bucket of tools. “Which one?”

“I told you, the 15/17ths Jabberwocky spanner. You can’t miss it, it’s right there next to the Heimfleck calibrator.”

Eager to please, I’d pick a tool up at random. “This one?”

“No! the Jabberwocky spanner. To your right.” I’d have to take a minute to call up which hand I used to write with. Before I could, I’d hear the anger in his voice. “Jacob, did you hear me? It’s just to your right. Right there.” I could feel him pointing from behind me, but since I was facing the tools, I never saw which one he indicated. That’s when panic set in. I’d drop the tool I was holding and begin reaching for another. “What are you doing? I said to your right!” As though the metal shone with heat, I’d drop the new tool and fumble toward some others. “That’s an 11/36ths!” By then, he was reaching past me, one hand still holding the flange in place, two fingers of the other attempting to reach the desired tool.

I hope I had enough sense to finally realize which tool he wanted and hand it to him, but I’ll bet more than once, mortified at my incompetence, I just watched him struggle until he snagged the right tool for the job.

If I stuck around long enough, I’d also see what cost my father paid doing the work himself. Squatting on my haunches, I could see his furrowed brow, his mouth opened as he panted and groaned with the effort of loosening a component seized by rust. The worst was when something would give way unexpectedly. There’d be a bang, the clash of metal striking the driveway, and Dad sucking in his breath then releasing it in a series of exclamations barely discernable. He’d slide out from under the car, cradling his skinned knuckles or touching where the new gash on his forehead had just begun to bleed. There’d be grease on his hands and dirt all over the back of his blue flannel shirt. Ten minutes later, sporting a few new bandages, he’d go right back to grunting and groaning under the car. Due to experiences like these, I so associate manual labor with struggle, pain, and unpleasantness that I haven’t changed my car’s oil since moving out of my parents’ house over a decade ago, and if anything needs repaired, assembled, or installed around the house, my wife’s the one to do it. She’s the son my father always wanted.

In elementary school, I claimed I was allergic to pain, using it to excuse myself from anything I deemed too intense. Slight of build and more likely to pick dandelions than catch pop flies, I seldom participated in sports, preferring my adventures packaged in pixels or printed on paper. Even in my 30’s I scoffed at the suggestion of doing a 5K; running for more than three miles sounded like torture.

Now, after running several marathons as well as the Niagra Ultra 50K, taking a 50 mile bike ride for fun, and signing up to do the Bourbon Chase, a 200 mile relay, with a team of only six guys, I can say I know pain in ways that not many do. Even as I sit here writing, my back throbs because just yesterday, I threw it out and spent all day in bed alternating Biofreeze and a heating pad. It may sound strange, but the kid who avoided pain at all costs has grown up to become an endurance athlete, one who voluntarily endures prolonged physical activity and all the pain that brings just for the sake of doing it. Sure I get shirts for entering the races and medals for completing them, but I don’t do it for the swag. I don’t do it to punish myself or because I derive pleasure from the pain. I do it for the experience of getting past the pain.

I remember training for the first race I ever ran, the 2011 Columbus Half Marathon. I remember that months before the race, the muscles in my legs hurt so bad, I thought I’d injured myself. I remember hobbling my way to the end of the 2012 Columbus Half Marathon while other runners tried to hurry me along because, “The finish line is right there!” I remember going out fast the first half of the 2014 Freedom’s Run Marathon and how badly my legs ached the last few miles of that race. I remember a man in his 70’s telling me I was too young to allow him to get by me, and I remember the sound of his approaching footsteps forcing me to push hard at the end. I remember falling and getting back up. I remember broken toes and black toe nails. I remember finishing a 20K with a twisted ankle; the feeling of the sun beating on my neck while the heat beat up at from the blacktop on 90° days with no wind and humidity through the roof where it feels the run will never end. I also remember the needling of frostnip hours after a run in sub-freezing temperatures with shoes too thin and socks too absorbent. I recall all those awful experiences and smile because I put up with all that pain, pushing through it and letting it go out my ears to find I am capable. I can accomplish feats I once considered impossible.

I wasn’t born this way. I wasn’t ever an athlete. A friend invited me to join him for a race one day, encouraged my training, and stood beside me in the starting corral. Josh knew I could do what I thought impossible, and I began believing him.

You too can do what you deem impossible. One woman opened the Cat Café in Columbus less than a year ago and has since seen 109 felines find new families. I have a friend who wrote his first novel this year, taking a little time each day to do it. My daughter can now ride her bike unaided, and Lu Chao of China recited 67,890 digits of pi. Is there something you want to do but feel intimidated by? Find someone already doing it and join them. Keep taking steps toward it. Start small. Do a little at a time. Avoiding it will only frustrate you, convincing you that you are less than you really are. All of us can achieve the impossible. “Life is pain.” Embrace it and take the next step.

Get to Work

I know; I know. I just published a post last week, and you’re used to me waiting six months between entries, but just hang with me, I promise it’ll be worth it.

I get sweaty.  (Not quite what you wanted, was it?) Not only that, I like getting sweaty, because for me to perspire enough to put deodorant to the test, I have to be doing work. For instance, the last time I got sweaty enough for my daughter to notice when she went in for a hug was at church this morning. You see, I led children’s worship, and it’s hard work trying to lead kids ranging from four years to fifth grade into the presence of the Lord. Sure, it may have had something to do with the fact I didn’t know the songs as well as I should, and the munchkins seemed more interested in wrestling each other to the ground instead of lifting their eyes to heaven, but I gave it enough to soak through my shirt.

The thing is, it’s not that difficult for me to get my skin glistening. The wife calls me “her little furnace” and enjoys snuggling up next to me when the nights are cold, but she can’t stay there. Apparently, I give off enough heat even at rest that she can hang on only for a few minutes before retreating to her side of the bed.

I also soaked through another shirt just yesterday. No, I wasn’t accumulating miles upon a treadmill, nor did I wrap myself in layers upon layers of fleece. My buddy, Steve, and I were running the trails of Infirmary Mound Park in 30-degree weather, and I had on a pair of shorts, some running tights, and a long-sleeve tech shirt. Don’t be crazy — I prepared for the December weather. I had on my insulated running shoes, a light jacket, ear protectors, and a pair of gloves, as we were outside running for over an hour.

I never did anything like this as a kid. I hated being dirty. Smelling bad meant something was wrong, which I had to remedy immediately.

So what’s changed? Now, sweat equals accomplishment. As a middle school English teacher, I don’t get many opportunities to sweat through my dress shirt. Sure, there’s been times in late August when the cooling unit’s not doing it’s job, and I have to crack a window or face melting into a puddle, but that’s the exception.

In my day-to-day, nitty-gritty life, it’s easy to avoid working hard enough to activate my integumentary system, and I have decades of experience coming up with reasons not to face physical challenges, which made me a soft spectator.

People watching is fun; observing human behavior can provide deep insight to our collective psychological condition, but restricting yourself to what equates to a seat on the short bus means you’ll get somewhere eventually, but you’ll have surrendered any influence on your trajectory to reach a destination with which you’ll have no connection.

I sweat to exercise influence. I work to make a difference in the lives of those around me. I create music and movement to inhabit my skin and draw myself and others closer to Perfection.

Embrace those tasks that seem difficult; don’t wait for someone else to do the work for you. Surrender your life to service and discover the person you were always intended to be.

Apple

My son asked for a snack, an everyday happenstance not worthy of blogging, but this time when I gave him permission, he asked for a piece of candy. Also, not out of the ordinary. For whatever reason, I told him, “No, buddy, how about something healthy?”

Not only did Asher understand my flippant answer, he responded with excitement. The boy, at four years of age, went to the refrigerator, pulled out an apple, and asked me to cut it up for him. This is the kid who, up to a few months ago, would eat nothing but protein and carbs. I have never been more eager to remove the flesh of an apple from its core.

I too am an apple, at least that’s what my family calls me, for not too long ago, Asher overheard his mother using her special term of endearment for me, which he interpreted as a source of cider. In reality, her pet name marked me as a source of bullshit. Now due to Asher’s mistake, when Laura refers to me as “Apple,” it’s not because I’m so sweet, it’s because I’m a jerk.

Despite the new appellation, my flesh is not easily divided from my core. I mean, you could, but the knife would have to be super-sharp and my juices would literally go everywhere. Figuratively, I get stuck when trying to write about my grandfather, for his story is the story of my family, and my understanding of family history contains the seeds from which my identity grew, so every time I try to write about my grandfather, it feels like a knife slicing too close to my core.

I’ve got wounds inside that need healed. Anger seethes within as I consider the pain my grandfather’s abandonment inflicted upon my aunts and uncles. I bleed, and writing is the iodine that’ll prevent festering, but I know it’ll hurt, so I continue leaking onto the carpet. Meanwhile years go by, and I’ve made no headway either on paper or with becoming whole.

I am an apple. Holding back on the writing means I’m not becoming the husband Laura needs me to be, and I’m not the father my kids deserve. The reason I don’t write is because I’m selfish.

Not only will I be healed through the telling of why my grandfather left his family and what became because of it, others who grew up in the cult my grandfather helped create may find solace as well. Geez, Apple, get to work.

Improvisational Story – the Result

Well, it’s my own fault, asking you to contribute snippets of original text I can utilize to build a story. Your donations are pasted below, and as you can see, I face quite the challenge, taking this assortment of scraps and sewing them together into an exquisite quilt for you to draw up to your chin, cocoon within, and warm your soul while drifting off into peaceful slumber.

Wait, that metaphor sucks. Let’s try again.

I amassed a pile of limbs, teeth, and viscera to face frankensteining them together into a hulking monster of a story. Who knows if lightning will strike? My narrative may just lay there, dead on the table. Now that I’ve lowered your expectations…

No, seriously, check out all the cool Lego bricks you guys generated:

  • In a world of “No,” it is intriguing to play with “Yes, and…”
  • As he tumbled toward the ground with the box in his hands, the thought crossed his mind – how did I end up here? Was it really possible that something as simple as a haircut could result in a day like this?
  • “Geez oh man, eh?”
  • You often hear yourself saying things you never imagined could need to be said like, “Please stop kicking your sister.” or “No rappelling off the garage roof when I’m not home.”
  • These were not his shoes, he realized.
  • It is entirely possible that I have passed the halfway point of my life.
  • “So, then I says, ‘No, because you can’t park here!'” and the room erupted with laughter.
  • Just don’t call me a fool!
  • Where did she come up with a name like “Wild Goose” for a social club? Hmmm. I wonder what she had in mind?
  • What are writers good for? I didn’t think you would ever ask.
  • There are only two people in the world—everybody and nobody.
  • The day had begun brilliantly but by lunch time, he was overwhelmed with sadness. He wondered if people passing his office could see him, a tiny man with Coke-bottle bottom glasses and thinning hair. He sat behind his machine, head down, softly sobbing as his hands quickly worked the key-punch.
  • “Original text. I want original text — just a little, tiny bit.” I thought the request wasn’t too unreasonable.
    “Yeah. Well it’s gonna cost ya. You gotta pay; ain’t nothin’ free.”
    I quickly set him straight. “You’re gonna give it to me, and you’re gonna do it right now, or I’ll never publish another of your stupid novels. I’ve had it with you. I ask you for one little thing, and you raise a stink. On second thought, either you do it or you’ll never write another sentence.”
    “I think that was pretty clear. Right?”
  • If you use more words than necessary to relate something, they’d better be very good words.
  • I navigated the familiar route…
  • Blistering corpuscles festered and burst like popcorn kernels in a pot of oil. The stink of it singed her nostrils even as she exhaled the full volume of her lungs. The clock ticked down audibly, if only in her mind, a metronome counterpoint to her staccato heartbeat. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Her trembling hands fumbled. Her eyes watered. There was no choice anymore. Should she wait another instant, she’d lose her chance. No time for apology. No time for thought. Fifteen.
    “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Do it!”
    Twelve. Ten.
    “Do it!”
  • Electric wire — dark birds in flight…

Before beginning, allow me to present the ground rules I established for myself:

  1. Every contribution must be used as offered. No breaking it into smaller pieces or rearranging the components of a piece. Light editing only. Don’t turn off your internal grammar nazi, but keep him on a short leash.
  2. Contributions may be used in any order seen fit.
  3. Yes, and… Every offering must serve the story and add to the narrative.

Enough of my jabbering; please enjoy our creation:

Whenever we stood in her presence, my grandmother would say,”There are only two people in the world—everybody and nobody,” which sounds fatalistic, except Granny made it worse by pointing at my little brother when she said, “everybody” and pointing at me when she said, “nobody.” I navigated the familiar route of smiling at Granny and laughing along with her, but she never cooperated. “Children should be seen and not heard, Nobody.”

“My name’s Dwight.”

“Not in this house it isn’t. Nobody cleans up around here, and everybody just goofs around,” so that’s what we did. I reorganized her stacks of magazines and emptied her ashtrays as Huey played cards with her as Dallas blared in the background.

“Granny, what do you want me to do with this dead mouse?”

“Shhhhh! If you use more words than necessary to relate something, they’d better be very good words. J.R.’s about to confess his undying love.” I rolled my eyes. Granny often waxed poetic when she wanted to make a point. “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!—Fie, my lord, fie!”

I sighed. Time to clean Granny’s carpets.

I know it wasn’t Huey’s fault Granny always favored him. Mother said Granny acted a little funny off her medication, but I don’t think she was ever on any. When Mother dropped us off in the mornings, she ensured Granny took her tablets, watching the old bird place each pill in her mouth one after the other then draining her coffee cup and showing Mother an empty mouth. That was about the time Granny pointed at the wall clock, and Mother would run off, late for work yet again.

As soon as the door slammed shut, Granny slid her finger down her throat, and the pills and coffee all came back up again into the sink. It was my job to rinse each capsule off and put them back in their individual bottles, that way Granny could get three to four uses out of each pill. Mother had astigmatism, so she couldn’t make out that the pills’ imprints had faded, but Granny figured she was “dumber than hiring a midget to wash your windows. Just don’t call me a fool! I’ll slice you like a vagina going through Vaseline!”

Granny passed one Friday napping in her chair. I was twelve at the time, and Huey was eight. Granny always gave us strict instructions not to wake her even if, “Jesus and all His holy angels appeared to play a pick up game of hockey,” so we just left her in the chair all weekend.

All Mother could say after getting back from Vegas was, “Geez oh man, eh?” when she saw Granny sitting there slack-jawed with squadrons of flies circling for a landing. I guess they liked the chunks of cheese Huey kept dropping in her open mouth, “In case she gets hungry.”

It is entirely possible that I have passed the halfway point of my life, but I hope it wasn’t the high point. Huey never really got over Granny’s death. Suddenly, he was no longer special. Even on his best days, something was broken inside him. Take last Wednesday for example. The day had begun brilliantly, but by lunch time, he was overwhelmed with sadness. He wondered if people passing his office could see him, a tiny man with Coke-bottle bottom glasses and thinning hair. He sat behind his machine, head down, softly sobbing as his hands quickly worked the key-punch. Punching keys was his favorite part of working at the local hardware store. I guess that’s why they went out of business. Having two large storage units filled with pre-punched keys didn’t really help their bottom line all that much, so imagine my surprise when Huey showed up at my front door grinning like a pedophile at the Little Miss Texas Beauty Pageant.

“Hey, Dwight, Great to see you!” I slammed the door in his face.

When the state took custody of us, I didn’t expect Mother to fight to get us back. Maybe she’d visit every now and then, send us a present or two, maybe even call once in a while, but all we got were the postcards she’d send from Hawaii once a year telling us all about how great things were with Father since they remarried and how much she loved their new children.

In foster care, you often hear yourself saying things you never imagined could need to be said like, “Please stop kicking your sister.” or “No rappelling off the garage roof when I’m not home.” I hated being the oldest, always taking care of the litter of children that paraded through Gail and Eugene’s door, but I didn’t get a choice as they’d leave to take the “good ones” out for ice cream. That’s how Huey got so fat.

He made good use of his bulk, too. When in frustration I went to open the door to tell Huey to stop banging on it, it felt like someone unloaded a dumpster on me, and he smelled just as bad.

“Dwight, I have to speak with you!” he yelled two inches from my face.

“Huey, get off me! I have to get to work!”

“No, not until you hear me out,” Huey paused. “What do you do anyway?”

“Please! You’re crushing my spine! I’ll tell you if you get offa me!”

It took Huey much longer to get up than I thought possible, but with one final burst of exertion and a lot of wheezing, I was finally free. I tested for sore spots and injuries but discovered no broken bones.

“You got a job?” Huey stared like I was a magician asking him for a twenty.

“Of course I have a job, a ca-REER. How else did you think I could afford all those loans I floated you?”

“Dunno, just thought you won alot of contests.”

“Alot of contests? Are you seri…” I held my breath, held it all in until I could feel myself grow dizzy. Then I started gulping down air like Vodka. “Huey, I’m a publisher for a major press.” When I saw his eyes trail to stare at the blank wall over my left shoulder, I tried again. “I work with writers.”

That snapped him back. “What are writers good for?”

“What are writers good for? I didn’t think you would ever ask!”

He looked at me expectantly, but I could tell sarcasm wasn’t his native language.

“Huey, why are you here?”

“I got a letter from Granny today.”

“Huey, she’s been dead 20 years.”

“That’s why I was scared to open it.” He winced as he shoved a crumpled manila envelope under my nose.

Covered with notices of ‘Insufficient Postage’ and ‘Return to Sender,’ the envelope featured the return address of one “Anthony Zalinsky, Esq. Aturny at Law.”

“Huey, this letter isn’t from Granny, it’s from an attorney.”

“Then why’s it say her name on it, then?”

He was right. The letter was addressed to “Eula Beaula Smithe’s next of kin.”

When I tore open the envelope, Huey dove under the table. I ignored him and scanned the letter. It appeared to be Granny’s last will and testament, dated October 8, 1996. This badly misspelled document had apparently been floating through the mail system for a double decade.

My pulse quickened. I’d always assumed Granny was just mean as shit and purposely bequeathed us nothing, but she’d made a will. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all!

“Huey! It’s Granny’s will!” Before I could finish my sentence, he’d snatched the document from me.

“She left me something!” Despite his terrible track record, Huey wasn’t wrong. Granny designated him as an heir, but I couldn’t find my name anywhere. I was wrong; Granny was mean as shit.

Standing in front of the dilapidated building containing the law office of Anthony Zalinsky, my life flashed before my eyes. “Huey, just open the door already. I don’t feel like getting stabbed today.” I glanced over my shoulder once again as the vagrant approached, a broken Coke bottle clutched in his trembling hand.

Huey stared off into the clouds, “I wonder what she left me.”

“Get inside and find out!” I shoved him through the door, slamming it just as the vagrant slashed the air where we stood a breath before. Shaking, I found my voice: “I thought they bulldozed this ghetto.”

“Nope, still here,” Huey said over his shoulder as he entered the single elevator. “Electric wire — dark birds in flight…”

“What are you prattling on about?”

Huey pointed to the graffiti emblazoned all over the elevator. “Must be somebody’s grocery list.”

I sighed and jabbed the button for the third floor. The elevator groaned, shuddered, and sank a few inches with the door still open. Huey stared at me with concern. “Do we have to take the stairs?”

Huey made it, but just barely. I thought he was going to have a coronary, but every time it looked like Huey could make it no further, he muttered, “Gotta do it for Granny.”

At last, we stood before the attorney’s door. “Do I look okay, Dwight?”

We’d found him a suit and tie, and Huey insisted he wear the trilby Granny got him for his 7th birthday, which was so small, it looked like a sugar cube perched upon an elephant. I lied, “You look fine.”

“I’m so glad you agreed to come with me. I couldn’t have done this by myself; you must really love me!” He crushed me in a bear hug.

Repulsed, I resisted the urge to struggle. Whatever Granny left Huey must be worth something, and if he didn’t get it, I would never see any of the money I leant him. “Yeah, that’s good. You can let go now.” I knocked on the office door before he could grab me again.

The door swung in on the top hinge, emitting one shrill squeak, which was soon drowned out by a higher-pitched scream. An emaciated man cowered behind a desk as a cloud of papers drifted to the floor around him. The room was filled with filing cabinets, a wood chipper, and about two inches worth of shredded documents.

“Don’t shoot! I’ll come quietly, I swear!” He hazarded a glance at us, which altered his whole demeanor. “Oh! Goodness me! You’re not the police. You gave me quite the scare. Please do come in. Don’t mind the mess. Just some spring cleaning.” He bustled about the room, causing some of the shredded paper to drift into the corners, and soon produced two mismatched chairs. “Please make yourselves comfortable. How may I help you, gentlemen?”

After seeing us to our chairs, the little man settled himself behind the desk and placed his feet upon it, nearly tipping himself onto the floor. Hands folded behind his head, he stared at his feet. These were not his shoes, he realized.

I explained who we were, our relationship to Granny, and why we came. After searching his records, the little man who’d introduced himself as Anthony Zalinsky Jr. produced the original copy of Granny’s will. “Lucky for you I haven’t gotten to the older records yet.” He pointed to the wood chipper and laughed too loud. Huey joined him, confused.

Anthony Jr. compared the wills side by side, pointing out minutia I cared nothing about, including a passage where Granny expressed a wish for a social club called Wild Goose. “Where did she come up with a name like ‘Wild Goose’ for a social club? Hmmm. I wonder what she had in mind?”

I exploded: “Could you just hurry along to the important part!”

“Mr. Phlebotomy, these documents express the final desires of your dearly-departed grandmother. I can’t ‘hurry along to the important part’ as it’s all equally important.'” Anthony Jr. withered me with his gaze. I lifted my hands helplessly.

It took the man two hours to fully review Granny’s will. Huey napped through most of it, which wouldn’t have been so bad, except he asked me to sing him a lullaby, and I complied.

“Mr. Phlebotomy, would you wake your brother? I have good news for him.” I elbowed Huey in the ribs. He awoke with a snort.

“Mr. Cisero?” (Gail and Eugene adopted Huey.) “You and your grandmother must have been very close.”

Huey wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Yeah, we had a special relationship.”

“Eula Beaula Smithe named you as her sole heir, bequeathing to you, and I quote, ‘all my riches in this world…'” I sat up straighter. “‘…my prize possessions…'” Huey sobbed harder. “‘…my precious jewels.'”

I jumped out of the chair with a hoot, arms raised high in triumph. “Oh, man! I’m rich!” Both men stared at me, shocked. “Oh, man, you’re rich. Huey, I mean, you’re rich!” Anthony Jr. looked relieved. Huey still sobbed into his suit coat. I sat down and pretended to console him. “Where can I…Huey…pick up these precious jewels?”

“Ms. Eula’s file also contained this large envelope addressed to Huey.” He held it out, and I took it, doing my best not to snatch it out of his hand. The envelope was fat and heavy. I could feel metallic links through the paper.

“Huey, Granny left this for you. Do you want me to open it?” He nodded through his tears.

Finally! In a world of “No,” it is intriguing to play with “Yes, and…” Hands trembling in anticipation, I broke the seal and turned the envelope. Its contents spilled into my open palm. Glittering in the light of the buzzing fluorescent bulbs, a safety deposit box key attached to a chain forged with heavy links flooded me with the all-too familiar experience of disappointment. I couldn’t help myself: “What is this?”

“It’s a key to a safety deposit box. There should be a paper still in the envelope detailing at which bank your grandmother secured her valuables,” Anthony Jr. offered.

I reached into the envelope, and to my surprise, produced the paper. “U.S. Bancorp?”

Anthony Jr.’s eyes widened. “That’s the biggest bank in Minneapolis!”

Huey whined, “That’s all the way downtown! Can’t we wait until tomorrow?”

I grabbed him by the shoulders. “Huey, don’t you want to find out what Granny left you?”

“Well, sure, but I haven’t had dinner yet, and it’s getting late.”

Anthony Jr. chimed in. “He’s right, you know. U.S. Bancorp closed hours ago.” I stared at my watch and slapped my head into my hands. “You gentlemen should get something to eat. Celebrate a little.”

Huey perked up. “Dwight! Can we go to Chop Suey Palace? Mr. Attorney, sir? You wanna come, too? It’s the best!”

“Thank you, Mr. Cisero, but I have much work left to do. Allow me to see you to the door.” We found ourselves in the hallway with the door slammed shut behind us. It sounded like the wood chipper struggled to make its way through an entire filing cabinet.

At dinner, I tried to distract Huey from the fact that as we pulled away from the office building, the SWAT team showed up, firing tear gas through a certain third floor window.

“Original text. I want original text — just a little, tiny bit.” I thought the request wasn’t too unreasonable.
“Yeah. Well it’s gonna cost ya. You gotta pay; ain’t nothin’ free.”
I quickly set him straight. “You’re gonna give it to me, and you’re gonna do it right now, or I’ll never publish another of your stupid novels. I’ve had it with you. I ask you for one little thing, and you raise a stink. On second thought, either you do it or you’ll never write another sentence. I think that was pretty clear. Right?”

John Grisham ground his teeth in frustration. “Alright, Dwight, I’ll do it, but only because you owe me one.”

“Thank you. Now, was that so hard?” Before he could answer, my phone rang. It was Huey. I dismissed Grisham with a flick of my wrist. “Huey! How are you? Ready to  go to the bank?”

“Almost.” (Christ, why?) “I need you to take me somewheres else first.”

Blistering corpuscles festered and burst like popcorn kernels in a pot of oil. The stink of it singed her nostrils even as she exhaled the full volume of her lungs. The clock ticked down audibly, if only in her mind, a metronome counterpoint to her staccato heartbeat. Twenty seconds. Nineteen. Eighteen. Her trembling hands fumbled. Her eyes watered. There was no choice anymore. Should she wait another instant, she’d lose her chance. No time for apology. No time for thought. Fifteen.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Do it!”
Twelve. Ten.
“Do it!”

He screamed in pain even before Gwen touched the tattoo needle to his skin. I tried to talk Huey out of it, but he wanted to ‘honor Granny’s memory’ by tattooing her face just above his butt crack. I didn’t envy the tattoo artist her job. I had no idea how Gwen’d even start with Huey jerking like he was, but he soon passed out, and she did a helleuva job. No matter where I stood, it felt like Granny’s eyes followed me. I heaved a sigh of relief as Gwen covered her masterpiece with the sterile absorbing pad. Huey soon came to and perked up considerably when he saw the picture of his new ink. He blubbered, “Thank you so much,” and tried to kiss Gwen. Bruiser showed us out

Dusting myself off, I insisted we get to the bank. I’d cleared my afternoon for this, and would not be denied my prize.

“So, then I says, ‘No, because you can’t park here!'” and the room erupted with laughter.

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, could one of you fine tellers tell us how to get to the safety deposit boxes?”

The one who’d been telling jokes spoke up. “Be right wit’ you, sir.”

There it was. Number 385. Granny’s safety deposit box. Huey insisted on wearing the key around his neck. “I want to keep it close to my heart.”

“Huey? Go ahead.”

“I can’t. What if it’s too special? What if it reminds me of her all over again?”

I swallowed my anger. “Huey, she left it for you. If it reminds you of her, that’s what she would have wanted.”

He met my gaze, eyes brimming with tears. “You always know just what to say, Dwight.” He took a deep breath. “Granny never treated you right.”

The blood drained from my face.

“And Mother abandoned us after Granny died.”

I tried to interrupt, but Huey held up his hand. “No, Dwight, somebody has to say this. They always did you wrong at the foster homes, especially Gail and Eugene, making you slave all day just like Granny did. You could’ve left so many times, but you stayed. I never learned to do for myself, and you stayed to look after me.”

The hotness of the tears stung my cheeks. “And here you are again, helping me. I know you grew up feeling like you were never loved, but you were. I love you; always have, always will.”

Huey went for a bear hug, and I just let him. The frustrations and feelings of abandonment and abuse all welled up out of me. I was a snotty mess, but Huey didn’t care. He just held me and patted my back while I sobbed into his shirt. Finally, I pulled away. “Ugh, I’m so sorry. Your shirt…”

“Don’t you worry about it. I was glad to be the strong one for once.” We both laughed.

“You ready?” Huey held the key up to the lock.

“Wait. I haven’t been honest with you, Huey. I haven’t been helping you for your benefit…”

He cut me off with a wave. “Don’t you think I know that? No matter what’s in the box, I was going to split it down the middle with you then use my half to pay back all those loans you floated me.”

It took me a minute to find my voice. “Really?”

“Really. I owe you that much at least.”

I smiled. “Open it.”

As he tumbled toward the ground with the box in his hands, the thought crossed his mind – how did I end up here? Was it really possible that something as simple as a haircut could result in a day like this? Huey had told his barber all about how I was helping him preserve Granny’s memory, and when Joe the barber started laughing, Huey demanded to know what was so funny. “Isn’t it obvious?”

When Joe explained all about how I planned to cross him and take the last piece of Granny that Huey would ever get, Huey figured two could play at that game, so after getting me to lower my guard in the bank vault, Huey sprung his trap, tazing me when I turned my back. Huey figured that would give him enough time to grab the safety deposit box and get out before I came to, but he’d forgotten about the guards as well as the bank’s security system. Huey was almost at the door to the vault when three guards came charging down the steps. In his attempt to taze them, the guards knocked Huey’s feet out from under him, and the box went spinning.

I decided not to press charges, but the judge sentenced Huey to three months in jail, which he didn’t mind as he got to stamp license plates, which Huey thought was just as fun as punching keys. I visited often, and we talked about growing up the way we did and how things turned out between us. Being incarcerated gave Huey plenty of time to think about his life, and he wrote me a long letter apologizing for all that had happened. The day he got out, we returned to the bank and opened Granny’s safety deposit box together.

“Godammit!”

The box contained two skeletons, a lot of dust, and a note from Granny. Turns out, her “precious jewels” were her cats, Captain Mouser and Lady Pussington. The note contained detailed instructions for their care and feeding, including the post script: “And don’t you let nobody touch ’em!”