Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

Chattanooga, here I come!

If you asked the me from 2008 if he would ever express the words: “I’m excited about running the Raccoon Mountain Marathon tomorrow. Actually, giddy would better define my current mood,” he’d have looked at you like your face began to bubble, but much has transpired since then.

Six days ago, I was up at 4 am–usual for a Saturday–getting my run in so as to not miss any family time. Not only are weekend runs good for building my serotonin levels, releasing endorphins, and testing the limits of my cardiovascular system, they also provide the opportunity to catch up with friends. This particular morning, five of us hit the trail together, which was quite a large group considering the temperature hovered around 25° F. (Look, I know our behavior is atypical, but when one finds friends who stick closer than brothers, you make sacrifices to spend time together.)

Since I signed up for a 50k in May, my training plan called for eight miles that morning, and when my buddies, surprised at the reduced mileage, asked what I would be running the next weekend, I surprised all of us by responding, “I’m running 26.2 miles next week.”

“Woah, a full marathon?”

“That’s what my plan calls for.”

Normally, I don’t check my calendar more than a week in advance, but for whatever reason, that day I knew what the following week held.

Then Dave asked the fateful question: “Well, are you going to run a race that weekend?”

You see, I have the equipment, fortitude, and route knowledge necessary to run a marathon all by my lonesome. I can simply step out my front door, do the distance, and be back in time for breakfast, but as a number of miles had already flown beneath our feet, a dangerous cocktail of serotonin, endorphins, and caffeine flowed through my system, and I wondered if anyone had put together a nearby marathon and scheduled it for the following week.

Alas, a quick Google search revealed no one had. Mid-March tends to be too chilly in the Midwest to warrant many marathons, but I found quite a few in Southern climes, particularly Texas.

The closest one I found meant a six-hour trip to a small town in Illinois where I could look forward to a five-mile-and-change course that looped out from a junior high school. Running that same course five times through a small town held little appeal, so I scrolled on.

What? A trail marathon? On a mountain? How far away is Chattanooga? Seven hours? I can drive that! Let’s see, it’s $100 to register, not bad for a week before the race. It’s near a campground. Let’s see what kinds of accommodations they offer… Ah, I’ll probably do better finding a cheap hotel. Looks like I can book a room at Red Roof Inn for a hundred bucks. I wonder if the wife would go for it?

All of this happened over breakfast following the eight-mile run. Then I actually checked the race website for nearby accommodations only to discover a hostel existed in downtown Chattanooga offering bunks for $35 per night. Sold! I just turned my $200 weekend adventure into a $135 weekend adventure.

Apparently my enthusiasm was infectious, because the wife approved just as long as I paid for it out of my personal funds. Agreeing to these conditions, I quickly registered for the race and booked my bunk.

I packed my bag last night after small group and stowed it in the car so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning and spent today at work smiling at my students and humming songs to myself. I made it to Chattanooga just ten minutes shy of eight hours, having made a single stop in Cincinnati for dinner and gas. I checked into the hostel, visited a local brewery, and stopped at the bar next to the hostel to sample some Kentucky bourbon one can’t get in Columbus. It’s almost 2 am now, but I wanted to share this with you before falling asleep reading Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road.

My last blog post surprised many people. Apparently, when I’m dealing with anxiety and depression, I tend to put on a happy face. So I just wanted to let you all know that once again, life is good, and I’m enjoying it.

Please don’t worry; I’ll let you know how the remainder of my weekend goes. Wish me luck!

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

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.

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!”