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Non-Fiction Uncategorized

Goodbye, Dave Werner.

I am going to write a bunch of stories about my friend, Dave Werner, with the full knowledge that he would tell me to shut the fuck up. 

The year is 2010, or maybe 2011, and I am playing music with Fred Friction. We “practice” at his house every week, which usually means fumbling through tunes for an hour or so and then listening to music while shooting pool. 

“Dave Werner would like to invite you over to play some songs,” Fred says, or something to that effect. “I think you should do it.”

“Dave Werner? Fuck that guy.”

And that’s how I never met Dave Werner.


But here’s what really happened.

A few weeks earlier, I was at the Chippewa Chapel open mic night debuting a song. Dave, who I did not know well at the time, flagged me down at the bar.

“You look healthy,” Dave says.

“Thanks,” I said. There’s a long pause. I’m not sure how to take that comment.

“I mean, you clearly haven’t been missing too many meals,” he says, glancing down at my gut. 

And now, weeks later, he was inviting me over to play music — through a mutual friend. 

I think that Dave made barbecue chicken that night. I could be confusing that with another night because Dave made a lot of barbecue chicken. 

But he made some sort of food, and we awkwardly played songs for each other. Dave told me which songs he liked and which ones he didn’t care for. 

And when I left, I had agreed to play a show with at a venue called the Focal Point. I didn’t know why I agreed, except that it seemed too awkward to say no. 

The Griner Brothers Band’s album is on YouTube, and has great tracks from The Honorable Daves Werner and Hagerty.

That show went okay. The guitarist had feedback issues all night, which was common at the Focal Point. At the end of the night, the guitarist revealed that he had a pedal in his car that could have fixed the issue, but he didn’t feel like going to get it.

So that guitarist was out of the band, and I never saw him again.

We played a few other shows as Shovelbutt, a folk-rock quartet that was doomed from the start.

Eventually, the drummer, Matt, got into an argument with Dave and the band just kind of fell apart (I don’t remember what the argument was about, but I don’t think it had anything to do with music. I’m pretty sure they made up at some point).

Around this time, I start getting phone calls from Dave.

“Hey, Kraniac, I’ve got a new song. You up for recording it at your place on Saturday?”

I generally said yes, because Dave would give me $40 and a couple of Red Bulls. I’d throw up a few microphones and track him, occasionally adding keys or guitar or whatever else the tune needed. 

Most of those recordings went nowhere. Dave kept them to himself, sometimes passing the best songs to Fred Friction, who’d play them on his radio show. But one December, Dave left me a different kind of voicemail. 

“Hey, buddy, I’ve got an idea. Christmas Caroling. Call me back.”

Dave’s idea: Our friend Jesse Irwin had welcomed his first child that year. Dave, Fred Friction, and I would head to Jesse’s house dressed as three wise men, bringing gifts to anoint the child — a package of hot dogs (a stand-in for frankincense), Stag beer (gold), and Merb’s candy (myrrh). 

three grown men dressed like the three wise men from the bible, handing beer to a baby
We were not giving beer to the baby. I don’t think.

I didn’t know Jesse well at the time, but I went along with it. Jesse was delighted, of course.

I realized around this time — or maybe a few weeks later, when Dave brought me homemade cookies — that I had become friends with a gruff, sarcastic, 60-something window installer. It was a gradual process, and it had happened under my nose.


Dave Werner did not drink alcohol.

Dave the Family Man.

Not in the time I knew him. He told me why, once, and here, I’ll note that I’m recalling this from memory and some of the details may be wrong.

It was years earlier, after a birthday party for his daughter, Julia. He’d bought a case of beer for the occasion. He was aware that he was an alcoholic, so he made a deal with himself: He could drink the beers, but only after the party was over.

Minutes after the last guest left, his hands were shaking, and he sat down and pounded the beers, one after the other. When the case was empty, he made a different deal with himself: He would never drink again, but in exchange, if he was ever in a social situation that he thought was bullshit, he would leave immediately. Irish exit. 

He claimed that he chained himself to a radiator while shaking on the floor during the withdrawals. I’m not sure how much of that is a metaphor.


Dave kept both halves of that promise.

One summer, we were both invited to be members of the Focal Point’s board. At the first meeting, Dave heard something he didn’t like, so he got up and walked out. The woman who was speaking was in the middle of a sentence, and there were only about 10 people at the table.

Everyone stared as he left, waiting for him to say something. He didn’t. The door slammed shut, and nobody knew how to continue. I couldn’t stop laughing, and I quietly followed him (after excusing myself, of course).

We’d go to shows — comedy, music, open mics, whatever — and Dave would simply leave when he had enough. That might be 5 minutes into the show or in the middle of the second encore. Sometimes, he’d grumble something insulting on his way out. 


His attitude didn’t win him a lot of fans.

When I told a local artist that I played music with Dave Werner, I’d often get bad reactions:

“Well, you need to stop.”

“He told me I was too fat for my voice.”

“He told me none of my songs make sense.”

“He’s an asshole.”

To put it in charitable terms, Dave was committed to honesty. To put it less charitably, he seemed to have no filter whatsoever, and he’d tell people exactly what he thought about them at any time without considering the context of the situation. 

This didn’t change. There was no come-to-God moment where Dave suddenly started watching his behavior; if anything, his rough edges became rougher over time. 

The people close to him were not spared. Every one of Dave’s friends and family members has a story of how he would offend you in ways you’d never considered possible — then ask you why you were getting so upset.

But that’s only part of the story. Dave Werner might also arrange a Christmas Carol for your newborn daughter on a cold December night, or drop by your house unannounced so that you could take pictures with his new puppy, or  unsarcastically offer to take you on a picnic. 

All of these things happened, by the way.

Those are Dave’s work boots and pug.

And Dave’s commitment to honesty carried forward through every part of his life. Once, Jesse asked Dave about his work life: When he gave his clients a bid, what percentage of them approved it?

“100%,” Dave said.

Jesse was dumbfounded.

“That means you’re not charging enough, Dave.”

“Fuck! Well, that’s what it costs. I’ll make out alright.”


One night, I had a blockage in my sewer line.

I didn’t think I could afford a plumber, so I rented a sewer snake from the hardware store. 

I had no idea what I was doing, and after feeding about 40 feet of the snake into the line, I realized that I couldn’t get it out. I panicked. I couldn’t pay for a broken auger, and I didn’t know what I could do. I called Dave, but he didn’t pick up.

Hours later, I’d calmed down. I called a local plumber, who agreed to come out at 10 a.m. the next day for a flat rate. After I got off the phone with the plumber, Dave called, and I explained the situation to him.

The next morning, Dave was at my house before the plumber with a pair of knee pads, ready to help.


Dave’s kindness didn’t excuse his bad behavior, but frequently, it outweighed it.

I gave up trying to explain this to people who’d had bad experiences with him. 

But even when people had problems with Dave as a person, they usually saw the greatness of his art. Dave spoke in a rough, low baritone, and he was capable of singing in that range; he could also hit a high falsetto, which rang with a wide, perfect vibrato that he claimed he couldn’t control. 

When Jesse, Dave and I formed a band — the Chimps — we likened ourselves to the Traveling Wilburys of St. Louis. Dave was our Roy Orbison. I was happy to be Jeff Lynne (I’ll share Dave’s thoughts on ELO later). 

John and Jesse sit on a swingset eating bananas while Dave stands behind them.
We really leaned into the “Chimps eat bananas” thing.

Our first goal was to play at wineries for cash, but we dropped that quickly. We didn’t want to work out three-part harmonies to waste on drunk people who couldn’t care less. 

Instead, we’d play semi-annual shows at the Focal Point, which is a listening room. The Focal Point forces audiences to pay attention, so we had to come up with a setlist that rewarded that attention. 

Those first practices were electrifying. Jesse, who is by far the most engaging entertainer I’ve ever known, would grin broadly when Dave found a high harmony, or nod his head when he heard an excellent lyric. I’d noodle on the guitar, trying to pretend I was a lead guitarist, and Dave would grumble about how much better I sounded on the previous song.

We’d pitch songs at each other and get honest feedback. I think we all brought in fantastic material, but Dave was the showrunner, and he was also the least predictable. One week, he might bring in a fragile ballad about a waitress he’d fallen in love with decades ago; the next, he might sing about his mother’s farts, or who might find him if he died masturbating (“What If They Found Me Like This” went over remarkably well with the Focal Point crowd, by the way). 

But most of his songs were sad.

“Hagerty,” written for his late bandmate Dave Hagerty, contains a perfect stanza that sums up the unspoken wish of everyone who’s ever felt grief:

If Hagerty comes while we’re playing this song,
We’ll buy him a whiskey, and he’ll play along
And we’ll never mention the time he was gone
And we’ll sing and we’ll play ‘til the morning

My favorite is probably “Past It,” a tune about growing old and wondering what’s left. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and genuine. Some key lines:

I tried to find me a woman
My God, but they’re old and gray!
Maybe it’s time I put little David away.

And the chorus:

Cause it feels like a lifetime
I guess that’s just what it’s been
I don’t mind if I miss out on the next big thing.


As is true of the artist himself, Dave Werner’s songs were an acquired taste.

Unlike many St. Louis songwriters (present company included), he rarely wrote songs without at least one curveball, which might be a key change, a time signature change, an unexpected chord choice, or (most often) all three. 

He had strong opinions on everything, but especially music. He couldn’t stand any artists with “affected” voices — his term for folks like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan — with the exception of Tom Petty (and not the Jeff Lynne-produced Petty albums; Dave once noted that “everything Jeff Lynne touches just ends up sounding like fuckin’ ELO,” which is hard to argue with).

He also hated hip hop, which led to a heated discussion one night.

“Dave, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean that there aren’t good rap songs,” I said.

“Bullshit! There’s one good song, and they keep remaking it.”

“I mean, that’s not true. The music changes every year, you’re just not listening to it.”

“Well, tell me what the good shit is, then, and I’ll listen to it.”

“No, because you’re not going to like it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s still good.”

“Bullshit.”

Around that point, Jesse gently guided us back to the song that we were practicing, and I forgot about the exchange until the next morning when Dave left me a voicemail:

Hey, Kraniac. Just wanted to say…Snoop Dogg…”Gin and Juice”…that’s another good one. [Long pause] Okay, see you Thursday. Don’t eat. I’m making spaghetti.

When Dave sensed that he went too far, he’d try to correct it. His friends learned to deal with him when he was difficult and to call him out when he was being unreasonable. 

He was worth that effort, because I have never known a person with more kindness in their heart. I don’t think that Dave was rude because he hated the world; I think he was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as he thought it could be. 


For our final Chimps shows, we pulled out all of the stops.

A Valentine’s Day show featured a setlist packed with love songs — and a few depressing Dave songs about people dying, because hey, they were good songs. 

The Chimps decided to give the audience chocolate-covered bananas. That was going to be my job. About a week before the show, Dave asked how I was going to do it.

“I don’t know, probably cut up some bananas, put toothpicks in the slices, and stick them in chocolate.”

He scowled immediately.

“No, no, fucking no! If it’s not full bananas, it’s bullshit!”

So the day of the show, Dave spent the morning dipping full bananas into a tub of chocolate, then putting them on a clothesline to dry. The audience wouldn’t have cared if we half-assed those bananas — but Dave cared.

Dave presents a line of chocolate-covered bananas hanging on a clothesline in his house.

The show was a success.

We had added Katie Jones to our band, a violinist with a fantastic voice and tremendous songs. That changed our dynamic a bit, and with four singers, we had to work harder to get everything on our setlist up to speed. We also added strings to half of our set, and the string section couldn’t practice with us, so we had to play everything perfectly.

That final show — February 15, 2019 — probably should have been a disaster. A snowstorm hit St. Louis, cutting our audience significantly, and various minor mistakes were amplified by the new complexity of our setup. When we got offstage, I felt like we’d failed.

But listening back to the recordings from that night, we nailed it. And Dave had the brightest moments, including a cover of “Someday Jane,” which was written by Roland Norton, a local artist who’d died that year. 

Dave wasn’t a fan of all of Norton’s stuff, but Jesse insisted on playing him “Someday Jane” at one of our practices. By the end of the song, Dave had tears in his eyes. 

“I’m doing this one,” he said. 

His performance is tender, starting at the lowest part of Dave’s register; as the bridge crescendos, his voice rises up, his tremolo widening to cut through the strings and guitars before suddenly cutting back for the last verse:

I can’t promise the sun, the stars, or the moon
But I made up this name, and I made up this tune
And I make this promise: I will wait for you,
And I’ll finally find, Someday Jane

Playing that song, on that stage, was one of the greatest musical moments of my life. A half-dozen of the other greatest moments also happened that night.


Dave had health problems.

His hip and back pain often left him completely crippled and unable to work, and he’d take Percocet, valium, and whatever else he could get prescribed to struggle through his days. 

“I got an x-ray, finally,” Dave told me one day. “The doctor looked at it, and — I swear to God — turned to me and said, ‘You’re fucked.’”

Before his hip replacement, I took him to a doctor’s appointment. He struggled to sit, breathing heavily, and I grabbed the admittance form to help him fill it out.

“What is your pain goal?” I asked. 

Dave was quiet for a moment.

No pain,” he said. “What the fuck else would my pain goal be?”

“And how would you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?”

“10! Who the fuck wouldn’t say 10?”

In that visit, he also compared the doctor to one of the villains from Hostel. The nurses loved him.

The hip pain was constant and debilitating, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the only problem. While we were in the early stages of preparing a show one year, Dave had a stroke. He recovered, but his voice acquired a raspiness — the falsetto was still there, but rougher now. It wasn’t perfect anymore.

Months later, we were at the studio, trying to record a follow-up to our debut album. Dave brought a rock number, which leaned into the changes in his voice. He barked out the lyrics over a distorted bassline, each word sounding like it could break him. It was incredible.

I’ve still got the tracks from those sessions, but we haven’t completed them. We will. I promised Dave a few months ago, and I’ll stick to that.


When someone you love has a stroke, or gets a hip replacement, or gets treatment for depression, there’s a tendency to assume that the problem is solved.

Otherwise, we’d be worrying all the time, right?

But over the pandemic, I worried about Dave. His history made him a prime target for COVID-19 — and for vaccine disinformation. Dave would follow conspiracy theories regularly, though he never landed squarely on one side of them. I did not expect him to get vaccinated, but he did; not because he believed in the vaccine, but because his family asked him to. His love outweighed his stubbornness, as it usually did.

That was a weight off my shoulders, and it gave me hope for another Chimps project. We’d grown distant from Dave during the lockdowns, and the isolation hadn’t made him any friendlier. 

A few months back, I called him on my way to work. I left a message asking how things were going. He didn’t call back for a few weeks. Then, one day, I had a voicemail waiting when I woke up.

“Hey, buddy. Got your message, just wanted to make sure my head was on straight before I called you back. We’re having a get-together for Julia’s birthday, wanted you to come. Invite Lucy. Tell her I’m making chicken. Call me. Alright.”

I called him and we talked for a bit, and I told him I’d be there. The party was a family gathering — I was the only person there who wasn’t part of the family, I believe. That might have been awkward, but it wasn’t. If the best thing you can do for a person is make them feel welcome, the Werner clan has that covered.

We ate and discussed the Chimps tracks we’d recorded years earlier and how we should finish them. I told Dave I’d get him a copy of the recordings, warning him that they were rough. 

Then, he nonchalantly announced to the table that he was going to dig up his dead dog and put the bones on display.

Again, this would have been awkward at any other table. They were used to this sort of thing, and we discussed — with remarkable scientific rigor — how long you’d have to wait after burying a dog to make sure that it was just bones when you dug it up.

I left after dessert, satisfied in every way. 

“Bye, Krane,” Dave said. “Don’t forget about those tracks.”


I thought about calling Dave this week, but I didn’t.

I was planning on having drinks with Jesse next week, so I figured I’d call Dave after that, and maybe we’d be enroute to another Chimps show. Possibly another Valentine’s Day special, if we could figure out a way to escalate the chocolate banana gag.

But Dave passed away on Friday. I’m still in shock, and I’ll be heartbroken for a good long while.

Dave was the gentlest and most honest person I’ve known. Often, we refer to people as “complicated.” Dave was not. He showed you exactly what you were getting from the moment he saw you, and that was incredibly refreshing. 

Do not try this at home: Dave supported his honesty with genuine kindness. He was loyal to close friends and family, even when he was skeptical of just about everything else. He would ignore hip pain to lay on some knee pads and pull a snake out of your drain, just to save you a few hundred bucks. He would dip bananas into chocolate for hours, just so the people who came to his show would feel like they got their money’s worth. He’d give you a sly smile when you said something funny and gently correct you if you said something bad about yourself — or call you out if you were fishing for compliments.

There is value in honesty, and Dave practiced it, more often for better than for worse. I loved him, and he was my friend. 

And along the way, he said some really funny shit.

Below, I’ve listed a few of my favorites, because I didn’t know where else to put them.

“The guy’s got one trick, he kills the fuckin’ kid in everything he writes.”

– On Stephen King.

“How dare you say that to me? I’m a friend of the queers!”

– On being accused of homophobia.

“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”

– On Gordon Ramsay.

“I can’t stand that piece of shit.”

– On Jay-Z.

“What are you talking about? We’ve seen you naked!”

– On me, when I refused to play a song because I hadn’t finished it.

“When they start talking about their kids, all of ‘em just suck. I can’t explain it.”

– On comedians.

“How come you get better looking, and I just look like an old ballsack?”

– To my mother.

“Fuck, I could get you a hundred of those.”

– After I told him that my new dog was a good dog.

“I got vaccinated, so shut up.”

– On getting vaccinated (unprompted).

“Hey, sorry for not calling you back, my head was in the oven for a few weeks.”

– On dealing with depression.

“I went over to a guy with a puppy, and started petting it and saying, ‘Aw, isn’t he so cute?,” and I was just thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

– On using antidepressants. 

“If we were any better, we’d be good.”

– On the Chimps.

“If it was any better, it’d be good.”

On my writing.

“Bah, I’ll shut up.”

At the end of any conversation.

I don’t exactly know how to end this. Dave always had the last word, so I might as well give it to him here. He wrote “Another Chance” for a friend of his who died of cancer, and was very proud that he got to sing it to the friend in the hospital. 

Funny standing here without you next to me,

Somewhere down the road, I hope we find that harmony.

Gather up the ones you love, and give them all a kiss

I only wish we all could have another chance at this.

– Dave Werner, “Another Chance”
Categories
Fiction Humor

My Experience Quitting Facebook

Towards the beginning of 2022, I made the decision to leave Facebook. This was not a decision that I took lightly. I engaged in long, emotional discussions with friends, family, and clergymen before telling Meta to delete my account.

“Can’t you just deactivate?” my niece asked me, tears welling in her eyes. She didn’t understand. How could she? She was only 2. 

“Perhaps,” I said, stroking her long, white beard, “In another life.”

I gathered my supplies — Clif bars, Powerade, prayer beads — and set out on my journey. In only a few days, I managed to click the “delete my account” button. Now, the hard part would begin.

The Facebook account deletion process

Warning: This essay contains graphic depictions of data sanitization.

Most people don’t know that when you delete Facebook, the site begs you to stop. 

You have so many friends, it says. Without you, suicide. Plague. 

grayscale photography of crying woman
Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

You must take these words seriously; they are not entirely without merit. In my case, I had assembled enough analytics to prove to myself, with statistical near-certainty, that I was making the right decision. I fed my spreadsheets into the Facebook deletion page, typing each line and column by hand. When the website disabled my keyboard, I drew the numbers with my mouse. 

Fine, the website told me, Your reasoning is acceptable. Faulted, yes, but acceptable. Look at this picture of your dog from eight years ago. If you cannot be convinced, you may take the final step. 

The sweat on my brow stung as it worked its way through the deep gashes on my forehead incurred during the final identity verification process. I took a bite of a Clif bar and called my dog into the room. His suffering was brief; mine was just beginning.

I had deleted Facebook.

The first days were difficult.

I had some fantastic ideas for posts — my neighbor cut down a tree, and I recorded the whole event. The footage synced perfectly with Genesis’s “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (the live ‘73 performance). Several times, I had quirky encounters with restaurant waitstaff. I gave a bottle of water to my mailman and recorded the interaction with my door camera. 

None of these moments would be preserved. None would be my legacy.

My God, I thought, What have I done? I wrote the words in a Microsoft Word document, then placed the thumbs up emoji next to it. 

The diarrhea began almost immediately and did not end for five days. They had told me about the diarrhea, and I was prepared with Pedialyte and damp hand towels — but Meta had not warned me about the tooth loss, which began five days after deletion and lasted for a full 32 days.

The skin loss and bone fragmentation were probably the worst parts of the whole experience. Also, I realized that I was no longer able to find the location of my neighborhood’s Little Library Book Exchanges.

My condition began improving in mid-April. I wish that I could tell you that I turned a corner thanks to my own constitution, but this was not the case. I joined Twitter — only briefly — to stave off the worst symptoms. When the abscesses were severe, or when my body hair began self-bleaching, I would write a quick tweet to restore my reserves.

We need to talk about antisexual representation (or lack thereof) on Friends.

Hey, guys, it’s actually possible to use a public bathroom without being ableist. @ChelseaHandler @AimeeMann 

Oh, now we’re talking about Iraq again? #BoycottYoplait #TeamUpForExcellence

But my goal was not to switch from one platform to another; it was to draw attention to myself by quitting social media entirely. After a brief weaning period, I deleted Twitter (I think).

It gets better.

I have become quite skillful with my walking cane, and while my days rarely start before noon, I have learned to take joy in the “little things” in life: Beekeeping, home improvement, day trading, and water polo. Mainly beekeeping.

My life is better without Facebook. I mean this truly. While I’ve lost a tool for communicating with my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, it turns out that none of those people really wanted to talk to me anyway. 

If you’re thinking about deleting Facebook, I would not recommend it — unless you’re as strong and interesting as I am. In that case, embark upon the journey. You will darken one corner of your digital world, but the light will live on; you will find new worlds to explore, new sensations, new ways to love, and a fourth new thing. 

I will remember my time on Facebook fondly, but I will not return. I do not think my body could withstand the Account Generation; even if this were not the case, I’ve gained too much. 

Thank you for reading. Please like, share, and subscribe.

Categories
Fiction Humor

A series of YouTube comments on Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk

I recommend listening to the song while reading these comments.

Terry G.

Love this tune. Dad used to play this. He’s gone, but I still have the memories. miss you dad and those long nights in the tugboat in mississipi

GoalPost555

they don’t make songs like this anymore…brings me back to a different time. better in a lot of ways!

Geoff Richards

you’ve titled this video “baby elephant stomp.” it’s “baby elephant walk.” please re-upload with correct title

TotalChaos1995

where were u the first time u heard this???? bet you don’t remember

Terry G.

I’ll nver forget where i was. An old tugboat with a couple of leaks and a proud man looking at me in the moonlight. miss you dad

Randy Fripps

anyone else listening in 2021

Terrance Riggle

I always loved this tune. Simple, yes, but sort of profound, maybe? You hear it and you really picture a baby elephant walking. It transcends cultures. No matter where you come from or who you are, you picture a baby elephant. World would be a better place with more universal music. 🙂  – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

i don’t picture bby elephant

Terrance Riggle

What do you picture, then? I can’t imagine hearing this song and picturing anything else!  – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

ur mom

Terrance Riggle

Typical — I bet you’re Gen Z 🙂

CourtOroy2002

no i’m probably older than u 

Terrance Riggle

I doubt that very much by your failure to use the English language. And if you truly don’t picture a baby elephant when listening to Mancini, I feel sad for you 🙂  – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

i don’t care, i don’t picture an elephant 

Terrance Riggle

Without resorting to tired jokes, what do you picture, then? Genuine question. Not a “gotcha.” – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

i picture an older gentleman trying to walk down the street on a snowy day  and his feets r failin him

Terrance Riggle

Preposterous. The lilting flutes, the simple beat — it’s an elephant, my friend. Right there in the name of the tune 🙂 Take care. – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

hope y’all love this song about the old man on street in snow tryin to get to the bank an the wind’s blowin him over

Terrance Riggle

What are you “smoking”??? Mancini himself named the song for what he saw — and what we all see in our mind’s eye when we hear Baby Elephant Walk. It is as canonized as any image in any song could be. Listen again.

Okay? Now listen again as you read this: If the song was intended to show an old man walking on a snowy day, it would have horns, bluster. Something to symbolize the snow, perhaps timpani to build a powerful sense of foreboding (see “Autumn Leaves,” another classic). It would not be as lighthearted because Mancini’s generation wouldn’t find humor in the pain of elders. It would not have a carefree, lackadaisical quality. That much is clear. 

But that’s not the case, clearly. This is the sound of an elephant, a baby, learning to walk. Taking its first steps to join its mother, perhaps in a circus (I am opposed to animal exploitation, but we must understand that it was a different time). Perhaps it is enjoying a brief rest from the savage nature of the Serengeti — the sense of innocence is certainly there, if you listen hard enough, and I would venture to say that Mancini hides some elements of sadness in the gorgeous arrangement. It is, sir (or madam, or they, or whatever your generation wants to be called) a baby elephant. 😐  – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

no its not, old man on the strteet 

Terrance Riggle

Are you calling me an old man, or are you retaining your asinine premise? I genuinely can’t tell, because you can’t even write in complete sentences. What in God’s name is a “strteet?” You can’t tell me, because you don’t know. Your typing skills show your limited cognitive capacity — I have an IQ of 150, verified by three psychiatric professionals, and I can identify an idiot when confronted with one.

THIS. SONG. IS. ABOUT. AN. ELEPHANT. Maybe the capitalization will help you understand, because this is really not up for debate. 🙁  – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

lyrics: man on da street and he is walking, boy there sure be a lot of snow, it’s snooowing 

Terrance Riggle

In case anyone else happens upon this idiot’s comments, those are NOT THE LYRICS. Mancini added lyrics after the instrumental was a hit, and in my opinion, they degrade the piece. Even so, a quick perusal of the lyrical themes should end our argument (if you have brains to read them):

Make believe you’re in a jungle movie / Watch the BABY ELEPHANTS go by


Emphasis mine. I really don’t know what else I could say. Idiots abound. 

 – Terrance Riggle

CourtOroy2002

sounds like manchini knew your mom

Terrance Riggle

FUCK. YOU. THIS IS A SONG ABOUT ELEPHANTS. And I have better things to do with my time than explain them to a half-wit fucking zoomer with no fucking better thing to do than type bullshit about a great song. Have a good day. Fuck you. :((  – Terrance Riggle

DogLoverButNotLikeThat

i listen to this song every time it snows. gotta avoid tripping lke the old man from ths ong! snow 2 big for you ol timer, but ur gonna be fine :0

Terrance Riggle

I am done with all of this bullshit. Your fuckstick generation will never fucking understand what we went through to give you all your fucking iphones and shitty fucking video games. Fucking assholes grew up with trophies and think the whole world is a fucking joke. Nothing better to do than jerk off all fucking day like the cocksucking cowards you are and blaming everyone else because you can’t hold down a fucking job at a burger joint.

Meanwhile I drive a Lexus and fuck my beautiful heterosexual wife and then log on to YouTube once a day to hear Baby Elephant Stomp with a glass of scotch (not whiskey, SCOTCH) and I never fucking have to worry about Gen Z because you dumb shits don’t buy insurance so you’re never in my insurance office. Fine by me, I’ve got the music. You’ve got shit because you are shit.

My generation wins because we have the music. We ARE the music. And Baby Elephant Stomp is proof of that. The music fucking sings and you’re too shit to even hear it. It’s sad, really. I won’t be addressing this further.

Geoff Richards

it’s baby elephant walk not baby elephant stomp

RandyFripps

Who’s listening in 2022

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Categories
Fiction Non-Fiction

The Escalator of Hate

Merry Christmas, everyone. I come from the future with a message of hope. Here’s the message:

“Fucking hell, fucking stop it, already.”

-People from the future, to you.

Okay, I know that doesn’t sound especially hopeful or Christmas-y — but in the future, this is about as nice as messages get. For the past 10 years, we’ve stayed on the Escalator of Anger, which, unlike a normal escalator, runs at a reasonable speed and never breaks down.

stairs dark station underground
This is the metaphor we’ll be using today. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Otherwise, it’s pretty similar to other escalators: It’s so commonplace that you don’t really think about how it works. It makes life easier. And, ultimately, it will tear your shoes apart if you’re not paying attention. 

The Escalator of Anger is everywhere, and because it’s convenient, most people use it — very few of us would take the stairs when given the option. 

I’m asking you to take the stairs.

We’ll call them the “stairs of love.”

Actually, never mind. We’ll just call them the stairs, because I don’t want to accidentally write a Michael Bolton song.

At an extremely basic level, most of you realize that you’re too angry right now. You understand that the world sucks and it’s starting to suck more and more, and you can probably point to “anger” and “hatred” as prime reasons for that sinking feeling you get when you read the news. Importantly, you believe that the other side has more responsibility to lower the temperature.

“Gosh,” you say, probably licking a lollipop or something, “why can’t people just be nicer to each other? Especially those assholes over there?

Well, for starters, it’s difficult. It’s unrewarding. It doesn’t give you results. You can think of a thousand reasons not to do it, and all of them are perfectly valid.

To go back to our strained metaphor, you know that you’d be slightly healthier if you took the stairs instead of the escalator. But really, how much healthier would you be? Would you suddenly turn into an Adonis or a Venus or a Third Greek God With Less Gender-Specificity once you reached the top? 

Of course not. You’d be the same schlubby mess. The escalator is easy, and it’s right there. You can even look at your phone while standing on it. So today, just this time, you’ll take the escalator. You’ll take the stairs tomorrow. 

And every once in a while, you do take the stairs. You feel the strain in your muscles with every step, and when you get to the top, you’re out of breath; you wonder what the hell you were thinking 20 or 30 seconds ago. Then, hopefully, you’ll feel a little better about yourself — but tomorrow, you’ll go back to the escalator, just this time. 

Being nicer to people isn’t easy. 

That’s why Jesus Christ talked about it so much; he implored people to love thy neighbor as thyself. Emphasis mine, but also his, cause, y’know, Jesus. Loving yourself is easy (I perfected it during puberty), but loving others as much as yourself — without conditions — takes a lot of work.

A similar imploration came from Siddhartha Guatama in the Metta Sutta, who told his followers:


“Radiate boundless love towards the entire world, above, below, and across, unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.”

-The Buddha, but not the fat one.

I attended a Buddhist sangha for several years, but honestly, as a writer, I think Buddha could learn from Christ’s ability to edit Himself. Still, the message is practically identical.

Anyway.

An alien looking at Earth would find both of these commandments simplistic. Of course you must love other people, and of course you must be consistent. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” might as well be “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Easy money.

As humans, we recognize that these ideas, while beautiful, are impractical, especially when sung over piano chords in an all-white room in New York, or by tone-deaf celebrities in a misguided PSA.

Great fuckin’ idea, Lennon. Gosh, why haven’t we just tried being peaceful? We should have just told the Nazis to chill out and played them a song about a walrus, you genius Beatle. 

Setting Lennon aside: The greatest spiritual guides consistently spoke of love — not romantic love, but love towards all others, without conditions, without exceptions — because they were human, and they understood the difficulties of living in the material world.

man inside vehicle
“Get over. GET OVER.” Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

They were not immune to them. If the Buddha was alive today and a person cut him off in traffic, his first thought wouldn’t be “go in peace,” it’d be something like, “motherfucker doesn’t know how lanes work.”

The thing that we have to practice is immediately tamping down that first impulse and allowing the better expressions of our humanity to take over. 

And for consistency’s sake, that applies to anti-vaxxers. 

Weren’t expecting that, were you?

I’m writing this under the assumption that most readers (all 20 of you, according to my website’s analytic tools) are vaccinated. I have seen many of you express antipathy towards anti-vaxxers for being selfish and willfully ignorant. I’ve expressed that antipathy, too.

man in pink dress shirt
This photo is auto-titled “man in pink shirt,” but I think it should be “GODDAMN GRANDMA GET THE SHOT.”
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

There’s something to be said for the intentional application of antipathy, and I’m already bloviating, so I’ll say it: You certainly don’t have to accept the positions of someone who’s hurting society and endangering your loved ones (and to be clear, that’s what they’re doing). But you can’t get through to them by mocking them, and when you’re dunking on them at every opportunity, you lose the high ground.

There’s a subreddit I’ve followed for a while called /r/hermancainaward (I’m not linking it here). In this community, people post pictures of folks that they know who were rabidly anti-vax who eventually got COVID and got sick. Many of them have died.

I look at the posts, and part of me wants to join in the celebration of the death of another Part Of The Problem. Occasionally, there’s a post from someone who says that the subreddit convinced them to get vaccinated. That’s a good thing.

But I just can’t get behind the concept. These dead people aren’t Herman Cain — who had plenty of access to the resources he needed to do better, and who continues to deny the impact of COVID-19 from the grave via Twitter.

Yeesh. 

But look, these people aren’t that guy. They’re neighbors, friends, and family members. Sometimes, their posts allude to their interests: bowling, football, TV shows. Sometimes, all of that information is cut out, but the person’s profile picture shows them smiling with their daughters, sons, or spouses.

People are multifaceted. If you can’t love part of them, find some other part to love. 

“But what about Herman Cain himself? What about Hitler?

Oh, man, I didn’t think you were going there. You’re really coming into this hot, Person From The Past.

Okay. Well, Hitler did some nice things, too. Yes, he actually did; he financially supported his sister when she was extremely ill, an act of selfless love that is undeniably, objectively human. 

And then, y’know, he annexed the Sudetenland, and then became the most enduring symbol of hate in history. Fuck Hitler, obviously.

Fuck this guy.

And I’m sorry, but your neighbor with the Trump flag isn’t Hitler. Not yet. Mine regularly brings me vegetables, and Hitler never brings me vegetables.

My neighbor and I have argued a bit about politics and I don’t back down from my positions, but I still let her dog out when she’s working late, and she still asks how our herb garden is doing. In my experience with her, she’s a good person.

You can be consistent with your beliefs while still extending empathy and love to the people you disagree with. When their views start affecting others, this becomes difficult, and at a certain point, there’s a line; if your geriatric neighbor heads to the local trailer park to terrorize immigrants with his AR-15, the fact that he helped you build a canoe shouldn’t stop you from telling him to fuck right off.

Most of the people that frustrate us aren’t at that point yet. No, really. I know you feel that they’re irredeemable — they’re not.

People who oppose vaccinations can change their minds. People who hoist the Trump flag might change their opinions when they realize that their antifa neighbor is helping the community more than they are. 

“But what if it doesn’t work? What if being empathetic does nothing?”

That’s a possibility, I suppose, but if empathy is ineffective, I don’t like our odds. If people can’t change, we must kill everyone who has passed the point of irredeemability. 

I’m totally serious. If they’re hurting people, we don’t want them in society, and we have an ethical obligation to eliminate them. We must gather guns and go into the street and kill them, or at the very least, put them into prisons.

I’m not going to do that. Sounds pretty Hitler-y.

And anyway, I think that history does show that a practical application of empathy can be extremely powerful. Governments tend to fall when they stop helping their people; cultures disintegrate when they become self-obsessed. Empathy is fundamental to us for a reason.

I could be wrong. Maybe, on a macro scale, empathy isn’t important. All I know is that the people who study this stuff believe that the United States has an empathy deficit, and things aren’t great in your time (or here in the future, for that matter). Maybe it’s worth a shot. Might as well try it.

Now, on an individual level, I am more confident in the benefits.

I believe in empathy. When I have successfully applied it, I have seen things improve. Gradually, I think I’ve become a (slightly) better person. I’ve convinced a couple of folks to get vaccinated (and if you’re reading this on the other side of the fence, please, deeply consider your biases and read this). I have a fine relationship with my neighbor, and I’ve successfully convinced her to stop calling our Guatemalan friend “my favorite Mexican.”

Practically, you won’t notice the gains right away, so temper your expectations. After all, you’re just taking the stairs.

woman in red dress climbing the stairs
Pexels didn’t have anything for “love stairs” that wasn’t porn. Photo by Sasha Kim on Pexels.com

You might see more results by joining a local mutual aid organization or taking the day off work to help someone prepare their resume, or setting up a food drive, or spending your Christmas money on a friend’s medical bills. 

You can’t do that type of stuff every day, but you can take the stairs. 

Today — in the future — we’re all near the top of the escalator. None of us are paying attention, and we’ve all lost our shoes. There’s a lot of pushing and quite a bit of fighting.

I don’t know what’s at the top, but I know it isn’t good. The escalator runs in one direction, and I imagine we’re going to struggle with each other trying to find a way back down. 

You’re not at the bottom, but you’re not anywhere close to the top.

So please, please: Do whatever you can to get back down to the ground.

– With love, the Surprisingly Talkative Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come.

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Categories
Fiction Horror

Delivery Notification

Note: This story was featured on the No Sleep Podcast. Hear it by clicking here. The cover art belongs to No Sleep; it was created by Krys Hookuh, and I strongly recommend checking out her other work. Find her on Instagram here and on Facebook here.

“Delivery Notification,” Krys Hookuh.

Delivery notifications are convenient, but they’re disturbing when you receive them by mistake.

Carl is on the way!

That was the message I received at 12:33 a.m. yesterday. I was playing Playstation while my girlfriend cooked bacon in the kitchen.

Yes, we were eating bacon in the middle of the night. She was singing a song about it, too, set to the tune of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” The lyrics:

Late night, bacon parttayyy! (Come on, fire it up)

Late night, bacon parttayyy! (You gotta flip it up)

Bacon’s hot, sticky sweet / Oh my pig, my piggy meat! Yeahh!

She was always writing mundane parody songs that ended at one verse or one chorus — sometimes after one line. This one was set to the tune of a single lyric in Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird”:

I don’t knowww where my phone is

Stupid, I know, but it always cracked me up. 

My stomach was already rumbling when my phone dinged. We have a really small house out in a St. Louis suburb, and we have no oven fan, so the smell of bacon was everywhere. My mouth was watering.

I looked back down at the message.

Carl is on the way!

I was confused for a moment, but I came to the logical conclusion.

“Amy, you ordered pizza, too? Are you trying to make me fat so I can’t cheat on you?”

She poked her head into the living room.

“Pfft, like you could ever get another woman. But no, no pizza, just bacon. Why do you ask?”

“I just got a text from some pizza place or something. ‘Carl is on the way.'”

“Well, Carl is going to have to bring a pizza if he’s hungry, because we only have, like, five pieces of bacon, and I’m eating at least four.”

She turned back into the kitchen. I was confused, but part of that was due to the copious amounts of cannabis I’d smoked while waiting for my game to download.

I knew that the message was a simple mistake. I knew that things like this happened all the time, probably. But something was…off. I order a lot of delivery food — hey, I smoke a lot of pot — and most corporations sent texts from a five-digit number. This one was eight digits long: 8543268, and then a final digit that I didn’t recognize. It was a 9, but with a vertical line through it, the sort of digit you’d see in one of those online creepy text generators.

You could chalk that up to an issue with the restaurant’s delivery system, I guess, but that wasn’t doing anything for my anxiety.

“Alright, bacon’s done,” Amy yelled from the kitchen. “You want toast? Eggs? I’m already cooking, lemme know.”

I turned to respond.

“Yeah, I’ll — “

My phone dinged again.

Carl is in your neighborhood and will arrive shortly!

Now I was annoyed.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I said. “I’m going to be getting these notifications until Carl drops off that damned pizza. And now I want pizza.”

Amy laughed. “Well, no pizza, only bacon. And you’ll only get, like, two more messages at most. Settle down, dude, you’re not really appreciating the Late Night Bacon Party experience.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you’re right, but you’re also annoying, so — “

Another ding.

Carl is at your door!

“Man, Carl’s fast,” I said. “What delivery place texts you when the guy is there? Wouldn’t he just knock?”

“Probably a COVID thing,” Amy said.

The knocking started as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Three hard, almost mechanical knocks.

“Hey,” Amy said, “You got your wish. There’s pizza, too. Just don’t let it ruin your bacon appetite. Oh, maybe the pizza will have bacon on it?”

Again, I was quite stoned, and I am the type of person who gets paranoid easily, but something in me wanted to lock the door, barricade myself in the bedroom, and keep the lights on until morning. Granted, part of me always feels that way, but something was not right. 

I shook off that feeling. I wish I hadn’t.

I got up, dusting crumbs off my shirt and preparing to interact with another human being, something I definitely didn’t want to do that night. I looked through the window, expecting to see a middle-aged, underpaid man in a Domino’s shirt. 

“There’s…no one here.”

“Yes, there is, pothead, the fucker just knocked.” Amy walked over from the kitchen, wiping her hands on an old apron she used to wear when she cooked. It didn’t matter whether she was cooking something that actually required an apron — bacon isn’t rocket science — she always wore it and never washed it. That always drove me crazy.

She tried to peer through the top of the door, where I was looking out at our empty porch, but she was too short.

“Oh, come on,” she said, exasperated. “He’s probably standing right up against the door. The poor bastard is working at midnight, don’t make him stand around.”

Her hand reached towards the doorknob.

“No, don’t —,” I sputtered, but the door was already open. Nobody was there.

“Huh,” Amy said, “I guess you’re not a lying idiot. You’re still a regular idiot, though. Do you think he realized that —”

Another ding from my phone. I didn’t look right away. Instead, I slammed the door and turned to my girlfriend.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” I said. 

“Why?” she said, crossing her arms. “Is there a gang of satanic Domino rapists I don’t know about, or are you just worried about talking to a stranger?”

“Well, the second one,” I said, “But this isn’t right. The number in the phone, it’s, just, not normal, and the messages are too frequent. And why would a delivery driver with the wrong phone number go to the right address?”

“Okay, no more medical-grade pot for you,” Amy said, rolling her eyes. “You’re going back to ditch weed with me.”

“Look at the numbers,” I said, thrusting my phone towards her, feeling like some sort of conspiracy theorist.

She rolled her eyes again as she unlocked my phone. Then her face dropped.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “Now that is freaky.”

“The number’s all wrong,” I said, strangely excited that she was finally taking this seriously. “Like, where do you enter a 9 with a line through it on a normal phone? I have never seen that character before. It’s, like, bad mojo…number. I hate that number.”

“I don’t give a shit about that,” Amy said softly. “Look.” She handed back the phone.

Carl is in your house and will arrive shortly!

My stomach dropped, but Amy was starting to laugh.

“Oh, man, someone is getting fired for this shit,” she said. “I’ve worked in databases before — it’s a database error, or a text entry error, or —”

“You didn’t work with databases.”

“I worked at that florist shop, and they had…spreadsheets, which are a type of database,” she said sheepishly. “Anyway, dude, Carl is not in the house right now. This is just what happens when big, faceless corporations try to interact with real humans. They fuck up, scare us, and disappoint us by not bringing us surprise pizzas. So chill. Eat bacon. Drink a beer. Play your game. You are freaking out way too hard right now.”

Ding.

Carl is in the kitchen and will arrive shortly!

Amy grabbed the phone out of my hands, the veneer of her calmness disappearing instantaneously. Her eyes darted over the text, then to the kitchen, then back to the phone. She definitely wasn’t laughing now.

We slowly walked to the kitchen together. I didn’t feel great about that. I really wanted to do the whole hide-in-the-bedroom thing, but I knew that’d be a hard sell, and I definitely didn’t want to leave Amy alone. As wew turned into the room, I felt a wave of relief — then panic.

There was nothing in the kitchen. I don’t mean to write, “nobody was in the kitchen,” I mean nothing was in the kitchen. The bacon, bread, and eggs that Amy had laid out for the late night bacon party had vanished. No sign of them whatsoever. No crumbs, nothing. 

Amy looked at me with wide eyes.

“I swear, if this is one of your fucking friends trying to — “

“It’s not,” I said, looking slowly around the room. “I have no idea what the hell is happening right now.”

Ding.

This time, I didn’t look at my phone. I had a pretty good idea of what the text said; Carl is in your refrigerator. If not Carl, something was in there. We heard a screeching sound, slightly muddled and contained by the fridge, then frenetic clawing, like a raccoon going through trash, but much, much faster. It was angry. Violent.

Then, almost as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Before I could grab her, Amy ran over to the fridge and threw open the door.

Nothing there. No food, no food wrappers. Not even the three-year-old box of baking soda we kept in the side door.

“We’re getting the fuck out of here,” Amy said. She didn’t wait for me to respond; she didn’t have to. I grabbed my keys from the kitchen table as we ran to the front door. As we made our way to my car, I noted how cold it was. I can’t say for sure whether or not it was unseasonably cold — I rarely go outdoors at midnight in November — but it felt like I was breathing broken glass.

And maybe I was focusing too much on my breath, because I didn’t notice what had happened to my keys until I tried to put them into the ignition .The key was bent at a right angle; not snapped off, which would have made more sense. It was playing with us. 

I held the key up to Amy.

“What’s plan B?”

“Jesus. Fuck. Okay…let me think…”

But there wasn’t time for that.

Ding.

Carl has arrived.

I read it. My hands were shaking, and I imagine my face was pale. Amy knew immediately. Then — and this happened so, so quickly — she doubled over, letting out an anguished shriek. 

She felt it before I saw it. Her stomach — something in her stomach — was moving. Her face was pure fear, but she contorted the edges of her lips to attempt a calm smile. That was Amy. She was always the strong one.

“Honey,” she said, “I love—”

And then she was screaming. The tearing sounds were animal, yet mechanical, vicious and sadistic. Blood covered my face, the dashboard, the roof. Organs and viscera. And the panic set in, ramped up, kept ramping up, until I was screaming with a cracked, inhuman voice. I kept screaming as her screams stopped, as she slumped over in the seat, as it crawled out of her. Jet black skin glistening and wet, black teeth, sharp hands. It moved quickly, jutting out a long purple tongue to lick the blood off its razor-fingers.

I didn’t see any eyes, but it turned its head towards me and I knew it saw me. Its sneered a wide smile, a macabre mockery of Amy’s last moments.

The panic became all-encompassing until, mercifully, everything stopped.

I woke the next morning.

Well, not woke; I was suddenly there, in my car, my eyes wide open and my muscles tense. The seat next to me was ripped to shreds, but there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere. Not even on me. Later, I wondered whether the thing had crawled on me during the night, sucking each drop out of my clothes and licking my skin. 

I walked inside in a daze, hoping to see Amy standing there with bed-hair and sleep in her eyes, ready to lecture me about the dangers of medical cannabis. She wasn’t there, of course, but I looked everywhere, under the bed and in every closet, hoping dumbly for anything concrete that would stop the snarling sense of dread that was slowly spreading through my body like a warm cancer.

That was yesterday. Amy is not here. I know where she is, or at least where she was. And I am out of food. 

I need to eat, then call the police, then call her family, then, probably, go to prison. I don’t care much about any of that. Whatever happens now is unimportant. I may have gone insane and killed my girlfriend, or maybe everything happened exactly as I remembered it, but either way, I simply cannot live here anymore. 

In fact, I probably can’t live anywhere. I know it’ll come back. I hope that it comes back for me — it’s already taken everything I had — but I suspect it will wait until it sees an opportunity to twist the knife further. It likes to play with its food.

I have kept my phone off until today. I knew I couldn’t put off the things I had to do forever. I powered it on to call the police, and read the single unread text message:

How did Carl do? Give feedback and get free deliveries for friends and family!


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Categories
Fiction Horror

Do You Have Any Coupons?

I stared down at the pool of white goo slowly devouring my feet.

“Ah, shit,” I muttered, kicking a scrap of broken glass. These were new shoes. Well, nearly new, according to the lady at the thrift store. In any case, they were new to me, and I wasn’t planning on upgrading anytime soon.

“Andrews! Fuck!

I winced, waiting for the stream of Polish invectives that would stream my way any second. Allowing myself a quick sigh, I turned to see a small, muscular Polish man walking up to me with his fists clenched into tight balls.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

I didn’t recognize anything he said for the next 10 seconds or so, other than spierdolić, which roughly translates to “fuck-up.” I’d learned that word towards the beginning of my then-two-year tenure as the shelver, stock boy, and general spierdolić of Wojcik’s Grocery on Main.

“Mr. Wojcik, I’m sorry,” I said, trying to imitate remorse. Really, I was feeling massively hungover and slightly pissed off that I was there in the first place. We were supposed to be closed on the night before Thanksgiving. 

But six hours ago, I’d received a rushed voicemail with plenty of Polish phrases that I didn’t recognize, along with some classic American curses that seem to be part of every American boss’s vocabulary. I’d also heard the words I’d been dreading the night before: You must come in, we must work.

Unfortunately for me, I’d spent Thanksgiving Eve’s Eve drinking heavily with friends to celebrate the birth of Turkey Jesus, mistakenly believing that I’d have a rare full night’s sleep to mitigate any chaos I could inflict on my liver.

That had not been the case. At around 7 in the morning, I’d heard the message and rushed in, running my head under the tap in lieu of a shower and stuffing down some Alka-Seltzer and Gatorade on the way over. I wasn’t late, and for a few hours, I thought that I’d miraculously avoided the entirely predictable consequences of my actions.

But at Wojcik’s, we work 14-hour shifts, and that’s if you don’t count breaks or the time spent locking up (Mr. Wocjik didn’t). As the day went on, I realized that I hadn’t avoided a hangover; I’d gone to work while still slightly drunk. Around noon, the nausea set in. Around 2:00 in the afternoon, my head was aching. And at 7:00 p.m., I was feeling so goddamn fatigued that I dropped six jars of mayonnaise. 

No, that’s not a euphemism. 

“This stuff, it’s not growing on fucking trees!” Mr. Wojcik said, tenderly holding up a fragment of a mayonnaise jar. 

“Yeah, I know. I think it’s…eggs and cows?” I said, scratching the back of my neck. “Is that right?”

He tut-tutted, shaking his head. He looked near tears, as if the mayo was an infant that I’d just curb-stomped in the middle of the aisle.

“To you, this is your big joke,” he said. “To me, it’s my business. And to you, it should be your business, too!”

I immediately felt actual remorse, and not just from the seven or eight Jagermeister shots that were still working their way through my system. Mr. Wojcik wasn’t some sort of cruel corporate overlord. He was a good man, if a bit stingy and verbally abusive (and hey, who isn’t during the holidays?). 

My days there weren’t easy, but my boss was always fair and occasionally generous. I was making $11.00 an hour. That might not sound like much, but I knew more than he could afford. The store wasn’t doing well lately, not since Wal-Mart had put one of its bloated blue eyesores at the end of the block. 

I also knew he’d taken no pleasure in pulling me out of my hangover bed on this, the holiest of turkey-related pre-holidays. Yet here I was, standing hungover in a pool of mayonnaise and insulting him.

“I know, I am sorry,” I said. “I really am. It’s just…”

“You have the hangover,” he said, stumbling a bit over the last word so that it sounded more like hamover. Damn. I thought I’d been hiding it pretty well.

“Yes,” I said. “But in my defense, I got really drunk.”

“And this is okay, Andrews,” Mr. Wojcik said, his tone softening. “Everyone gets drunk, every single day.”

That wasn’t exactly true, but I wasn’t going to step on this heartfelt moment.

”I know you did not want to work today, and I did not either,“ he continued. He looked down at the jar fragment and watched a thick drop of mayo drop onto the floor. “But we are here now, are we not?”

“Yes.” 

“And so we must work.”

“Makes sense to me.”

He patted me on the shoulder.

“You know you are a skurwysyn, yes?”

That was another one I knew: skurwysyn is, roughly, “my close friend who is more like a son and capable of amazing things.”

Just kidding. It’s “son of a whore.”

“Yep, I know,” I said, idly wondering whether I could pass off mayonnaise stains as part of the shoe design.

He smiled, then gave me another pat.

“Tonight, you can have many good beers. Maybe drink seven.” He shot out a quick forced laugh. I wasn’t sure whether he’d told a joke that translated poorly or if he was still overcome with condiment grief. “And I tell you this right now: I will run the store tomorrow. You stay home all day.”

“Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. We’re open on Thanksgiving now?” 

“Yes, yes, it will be good day for business,” he said, looking down to show that he didn’t want to continue that line of conversation. “Not you. I will work alone, I promise you. But we must still work now, tonight. Also good day for business.”

He turned and walked away, still cradling the piece of broken glass. I wondered whether he’d try to reassemble it.

It wasn’t a good day for business.

The store was mostly empty that night, save for a few last-minute shoppers. 

Our little grocery was located in a strip mall a few blocks from main street in Templeton, Illinois, a town of about 10,000 people. Most of those folks had bought the stuff they needed for their pistachio puddings and green bean casseroles in the weeks before Thanksgiving.

That year, most of them hadn’t done their holiday shopping at Wojcik’s Grocery on Main. The store – which, again, wasn’t actually on main street – was everyone’s favorite grocer, if you asked them in person. Mr. Wojcik manned the deli, meat market, and bakery himself, often arriving early in the morning to bake chrusciki, kolaczki, and various other Polish delicacies that I have neither the memory nor the keyboard accents to type out here. 

He was a talented baker and a discerning butcher, and every person who walked into that place walked out smiling. Every kid would enjoy a free pastry or two. If someone left their wallet at home, or if they were a few days away from their next paycheck, he’d tell them to take their groceries and pay him when they could. They always came back to pay.

In Templeton, mentioning Wojcik’s in casual conversation would inevitably lead to grandiose declarations:

“There’s no better grocer around here!”

“Best pastries I’ve ever had!”

“I’d do anything for that guy!” 

“I would literally blow him!

And, most commonly: 

“I’d never shop anywhere else!”

And then, the people making those declarations would head down the street and walk right into Walmart.

I knew why they did it. Sure, Wojcik’s quality was unmatched, and he treated every customer as a friend, but what does that mean to you when you’re just looking for a can of green beans? And if you need toilet paper, are you going to go to the guy with the best kolaczki, or are you just going to head to the store with the cheapest toilet paper?

The big blue supermarket had moved in several months ago, and the change was gradual. Some people stopped coming in for their full grocery runs, preferring instead to stop by once every few weeks for Wojcik’s far-superior meat and desserts. Then, when they realized that there’s not that much difference between a great chicken breast and a sort-of-okay chicken breast, they just came in for desserts.

“I always buy local,” they’d say, holding their bag of kolaczkis. 

But the desserts didn’t yield much of a profit — in fact, I suspected he sold some of them at a loss, though he wouldn’t ever admit it. And as people stopped coming in, Mr. Wojcik had to lay off his workers (at least, the ones who made more than $11 an hour), and then he had to work in the front of the store, which didn’t give him much time to bake. 

Soon, the bakery selection dwindled to a few time-tested favorites, and when that happened, people stopped coming in at all. But ask any of them, and they’d tell you that they’d never shop anywhere else.

Spierdolićs.

Mr. Wojcik was clearly hoping that a big Thanksgiving rush would help him regain some ground, but the rush never came. Why pay 90 cents for a can of beans when you could pay 85?

So here we were on the night before Thanksgiving, with Mr. Wojcik paying me to stock shelves that were already stocked and help the occasional shopper find the weird ingredients that the supermarket didn’t have. In a few months, Wocjik’s Grocery would be an empty shell, waiting for a corporate crab to crawl into it. Maybe the town would finally get an Arby’s.

I thought about all of this while I meandered through the store’s aisles, looking for something that would draw my attention away from the aching fog of my dehydrated body. I never meandered long, because the store wasn’t especially big. That night, though, I was thoroughly enjoying my meandering.

Everything changed when I turned down aisle 7 at about 9:45 p.m.

“Andrews!” Mr. Wojcik shouted, gesturing wildly for my attention.

He was standing next to a tall older gentleman in an olive-green suit.

I don’t toss out the word gentleman randomly, but that’s what this man was. He was leaning on a freshly waxed cane that gleamed in the fluorescent lights, impeccable apart from some signs of obvious wear on the handle. His shirt was pressed and his suit was immaculately tailored, a dark red handkerchief poking out of the breast pocket. I’d have guessed that he was 80 years old, at least, but his sharp blue eyes seemed unweathered and vibrant. When he saw me at the end of the aisle, he grinned broadly, showing off a set of white teeth that seemed impossibly complete for a man of his age and era.

Something about him bothered me, but I didn’t have time to think about it. Mr. Wocjik was calling me over, his hand flailing wildly in a hurry-up gesture that reached near-comical speeds as I power walked down the aisle.

“This is Adam Andrews,” Mr. Wocjik said to the man, giving me a don’t-spierdolić look. “Adam, this is Mr. –”

“Armaros,” the man said, extending a bony hand for me to shake.

“Armaros,” I repeated. “Is that Finnish?” 

I didn’t really think his name sounded Finnish, but I’ve never been great at making smalltalk. Mr. Armaros chuckled briefly, three short hu-haws that clearly were not genuine.

“Something like that,” he said. “It’s Greek. I was wondering if you could help me find something?”

I wanted to sigh, but I didn’t. This was, after all, my job, and I knew that Mr. Wocjik spent too much time behind the store’s various counters to know the location of every single product. 

“Of course,” I said. “I’d be happy to help.”

Please, God, let all three of us drop dead right now. 

“Good, good, Adam,” Mr. Wocjik said, slapping me on the back. He only called me by my first name when customers were around. “You help Mr. Armoni, and be quick, we close in 15 minutes.” He turned to Mr. Armaros. “Thank you for your business sir, and have a very good Thanksgiving.”

If Mr. Armaros had noticed the store owner’s mangling of his name, he didn’t seem offended.

“And you, too,” he replied. His voice was small, almost meek, and seemed somehow unfit for him. He turned towards me with the same broad smile on his face. 

“Adam,” he said. “Nice name. Is that Finnish?”

I laughed and rubbed the back of my neck. “No, sir.”

He let out three more fake hu-haws. 

“Well, I’ve got a job for you Adam, and you might find it difficult. I am looking for a product called Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme. I was told by a colleague of mine that I could find it here.”

“I’ve never heard of that brand,” I said. “Or that product. Marshmallow creme?”

He laughed again, but his gaze turned strangely intense. You know what marshmallow creme is, I imagined him saying. 

But obviously he didn’t say any of that. 

“It’s a – well, I think of it as a condiment, but I suppose you might call it a bakery item,” he said. “But I wasn’t sure where your bakery aisle is, or whether you might know off-hand about that particular brand.”

My head was pounding, and I wanted to get this finished as quickly as possible.

“Yeah,” I said. “Well, you’re in the right place, sir. Follow me.”

We walked to the opposite end of the aisle, where I was dismayed to see an open pack of chocolate chips jutting off of one of the lower shelves. Some kid had hurriedly torn it open; they come in with their parents, they see the candy, and they can’t help themselves. 

I bent down to clean some of the chocolate chips off the floor, and as I did, I gestured to the shelves.

“Should be somewhere near this stuff,” I said, then realized that I was right in front of a line of marshmallow creme jars. “Oh, actually, it’s right here.”

I held one up. Mr. Armaros shook his head slowly from side to side, gazing down on me as though I were some sad, ignorant creature.

“No, my friend,” he said. “Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme. It’s an older brand. Far superior.”

I looked again. “I think this might be the only brand we carry, sir,” I said.

“That is unfortunate. I’m afraid I must check for myself, then,” he said, bending down to the lowest shelf. He moved fluidly and effortlessly, reaching past the jars of Kraft Jet-Puffed, then locked eyes with me. 

“Ah, Eureka!” he said, his voice an oddly musical squeak. He held out a jar of Mount Hermon’s Marshmallow Creme as if he was waiting for my approval. “And it seems to be the last jar, too.”

I smiled weakly and nodded, my head pounding. 

He flipped the jar in his hand, catching it by the top, then started walking down the aisle. 

“Will you accompany me for a moment, Adam?” he asked. “I’ve a few more items that I’d like to take home for the big holiday dinner, and I’m worried that I won’t be able to find them by the time your store closes.” 

Fuck no. I’m not your personal shopper.

“Sure,” I said.

“Good man,” he replied. “If you wouldn’t mind, please fetch me a cart.”

I nodded, then walked towards the front of the store, briefly wondering how he’d seen the jar of Mount Herman’s all the way at the back of the shelf. I thought for sure he’d been staring at me the entire time.

Mr. Armaros had quite the shopping list.

We started over at the butcher counter, where Mr. Wocjik hurriedly threw on a white apron to take his new customer’s orders. Armaros asked for a few cuts that I didn’t recognize, but his way-too-excited butcher was happy to oblige. 

“You can’t find these at a typical store, my boy,” he said, holding up some grey, indistinguishable organs that Mr. Wocjik had passed him across the counter. “And they’re excellent. One pound, please.”

My boss beamed with pride.

Next was the condiment aisle, which is where I started to get uncomfortable. This guy loved his condiments.

“Firmament Pickle Relish.” 

“We don’t have —” I started to say, but Mr. Armaros reached past the rows of Vlasic relish and plucked out a jar of Firmament, holding it in front of me with his long spider-fingers.

“Corson’s Barbecue Sauce.”

This one I found, sitting next to some bottles of Sweet Baby Ray’s that I’d stocked earlier in the week. Only three bottles were left, but I was sure I’d never seen them before.

Armaros stayed closed to my side and called out items, sometimes chiding me when I preemptively told him we didn’t carry the brand. After a few minutes, I stopped saying that; he was able to find everything on his list, and at times, he seemed to know the store’s shelves better than me.

Now, I should note that he also picked up a few items from well-known brands (Charmin toilet paper, Colgate toothpaste), and we get quite a few elderly customers asking for stuff that I don’t recognize. But typically, those are Polish ingredients with names I can’t pronounce or other “ethnic” foods that the big box stores don’t carry. The old man was asking for pickle relish, mayonnaise, ketchup — products that I would see every day even if I only came to the store occasionally. I worked there. I knew those aisles.

And every time he found one of his obscure products, it would be tucked away at the back of the shelf. At most, there would be one or two other jars, but most of the time, Armaros would snatch up the last one, placing it with unnatural delicateness into the now-crowded cart.

“Tell me, Adam,” he said, marvelling at a container of Orcus Mustard, “Does everyone in town shop here? It’s such a lovely store.”

“Not really,” I said. “They go to supermarkets. But they always say they’d never shop anywhere else.” I’d blurted the last part out without thinking.

“Oath-breakers,” he said. “What a shame. Well, more for me, I suppose.”

His sharp eyes flashed towards me.

“How old are you?”

“23.”

“Too young, too young,” he said, sighing. “You know, there was a time when you could have found all of these wonderful products anywhere in this town. Good, local items. Trustworthy quality. Now, it’s not so easy.”

“You don’t seem like you’re having much trouble.”

Hu-haw, hu-haw, hu-haw, fake, plastic laughs rising above the tinny sound of the buzzing fluorescents and the store’s Polish muzak. 

“No, I suppose I’m not, am I?” He grinned. His teeth seemed yellower than before, but I blamed that on the lighting. “A man your age has a lot to look forward to. But you shouldn’t forget how things used to be. How lucky you are to have a little store like this.”

“I try not to.” The muzak blaring over the store’s lone loudspeaker seemed to grow frantic.  

“At the very least, you should try Mount Hermon’s.” He dug in his cart and held up the jar of marshmallow creme. “One scoop. You won’t be able to go back.”

I laughed nervously. Fuck you, dude, I’m not eating anything you’ve touched, you elderly fuckhead.

“Maybe when I’m off work. I never creme on the job.” I smiled, confident that he’d missed my double entendre.

“Well, I hope you do try it. Speaking of which, it’s time to check out, isn’t it?”

—-

It was time to check out, indeed. 

The store was about to close, and Mr. Armaros was the last customer in the place. In fact, he was the only customer I’d seen in about three hours. Mr. Wojcik chatted happily as he rang up his elderly patron’s shopping list.

“Still, someone is making this? I did not know,” he exclaimed, holding a box of gelatin.

“I insist on the best,” Armaros said, locking his eyes on me.

That became clearer and clearer as each strange item passed under the scanner. A jar of horseradish: $7.50. Tartar sauce: $8.95. Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme: $11.00 even. Our prices were high, but I’d never consider Wojcik’s Grocery to be a boutique. 

Altogether, Mr. Armaros owed more than $300. I expected him to write a check — most older folk did — but he paid with cash and exact change. The bills were crisp and fresh. I noted offhandedly that the money matched his olive-green suit.

“Do you need help out to your car?” Mr. Wojcik asked.

“No, no,” Armaros replied, “but if you don’t mind, I’ll leave the cart outside.”

“Not a problem,” Mr. Wojcik said, “Andy will be happy to bring cart inside for you. Just leave up against the curb.”

Another smile from Armaros. 

Keep fucking smiling. Smile your way the fuck out of this store and into whatever weird-smelling house you live in when you’re not being a freaky old fuck.

“Absolutely!” I said with a big smile. “And please come back and see us again!”

—-

I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t hate our store’s customers, even when I’m hungover. 

But when I heard our new patron’s car starting up (the fucker probably drove the goddamn Dragula), I felt like I could have tap-danced down the aisles of that place for the rest of the night. He was gone. Everything was normal. No more weird condiments with mysterious origins, no more knowing smiles, no more sudden staredowns with sharp, too-blue eyes. He’d only been in the store for about 15 minutes, but those were some of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life.

To that point, anyway.

“Andrews!” Mr. Wojcik called out, happily gesturing to me with the old man’s money in hand. “This is type of sale we need every day!”

Not if you want me to keep working here. 

“I know,” I said, forcing a smile to show that I shared my boss’s happiness. “That made up for a pretty slow night, didn’t it?”

“Yes sir, yes sir,” he said. “And I am thanking you for this. You are not always skurwysyn.”

It was the nicest thing he’d ever said to me, but I couldn’t really appreciate the near-compliment.

“All I did was show him around.”

Mr. Wojcik shook his head like I’d told him the oldest joke in the book.

“No. You know my store better than me now. And I know how this happens tonight: You make these orders for new things, you spread the word. I should be angry — but this thing you’ve done, it works.”

I’d been worried that he would say something like that.

“No, I didn’t, really,” I said. “I don’t know how that stuff ended up on the shelves. Did your wife —”

“Stop, stop,” he said, his voice growing annoyed. “You know she orders same items every week. Less items some week, more items other week, but always same. And you order things, and I cannot care! Really!”

I opened my mouth to argue, but thought better of it. Mr. Wocjik’s grammar tended to slip when he was getting angry. He thought I’d ordered all that obscure stuff, and obviously I hadn’t — but we could have that discussion after Thanksgiving. After I’d had some time to sort out what the hell had just happened.

“Yeah, you got me,” I said. “But those were the only items I ordered. He cleaned us out.”

His look of aggravation faded. 

“And how much I paid for those items?”

“Fifty…dollars?”

“Ha!” he yelled. “You’re businessman, Andrews! Very good! Now we close up shop. Tomorrow, I work. You take off, you think up more good ideas. And you drink your good beers. Seven beers.”

He winked at me, then looked down at the stack of bills in his hands.

Spierdolić.

——

I went out and retrieved Mr. Armaros’s cart.

The ice-cold November air shocked my system and slightly relieved the weariness I’d felt for the past few hours. The sky was pitch black, no stars, but I looked up anyway, taking in the muted sound of a car speeding down a nearby country road.

Soon, that’ll be me. Driving home. And God, I just hope I can stay awake.

I always took my time wheeling the carts in, but there was no reason to do so tonight; I wanted to get the hell out of there. After a few deep breaths, I headed back inside to close up. 

“Clean-up, Aisle 7,” Mr. Wojcik said, laughing.

He thought that was a funny thing to say because he’d seen a comedian say it on a sitcom. The audience had laughed, so it was funny. I’d tried to explain to him that it wasn’t funny, since supermarkets are exactly where you’d use that phrase in context, but he didn’t seem to get it.

I walked over to 7, thinking about how I was going to totally demolish a Hot Pocket as soon as I got back to my house. I lived about half an hour outside of town, but I didn’t mind commuting, and I’d found a nice little rental on a rural route. The neighbors were fine, the roof didn’t leak (much), and I had a decent-sized freezer filled with unhealthy junk food. What more could you ask for?

Down at the end of the aisle, I saw the reason for the cleanup call. I wasn’t scared or creeped out — just confused.

A bag of chocolate chips had been ripped open. Chips littered the floor. 

I cleaned those up earlier…didn’t I?

I certainly remembered using my palm to sweep them up from the floor. But had I moved the bag? I thought I had, but maybe I hadn’t. Maybe I’d left the bag in place, and more had spilled out after I left to help Armaros complete the world’s worst edition of Supermarket Sweep. 

That seemed likely. I was hungover, after all, and Armaros had my full attention at the time. I grabbed the bag, threw it away, and bent down to sweep up the new chips from the floor.

That’s when I noticed that the chips were in a perfect line, all upright. They hadn’t been spilled haphazardly by some candy-crazed kid. They looked like they’d been placed there carefully.

Fuck this. I’m never drinking again. 

I swept up the chocolate chips, letting my eyes wander over the bakery inventory. I started to chuckle when I saw the marshmallow creme, thinking about the old man in the green suit scarfing it down by the spoonful in his car. It was an oddly cathartic mental image.

But any relief I’d felt stopped abruptly. Next to two lines of Kraft sat a single jar of Mount Hermon’s Marshmallow Creme, its dark-green label mocking me under the flickering light. 

He thought he got the last jar, but he missed one. He reached to the back and shuffled the jars around. 

I didn’t really believe that. 

I thought for a moment that Mr. Wojcik was playing some sort of joke, but he hadn’t been there when we’d found the stuff. I wiped sweat from my forehead and sighed. 

This is nothing, shithead. You’re not at 100 percent right now. You’ve got mayo all over your shoes because you couldn’t concentrate earlier, and now you’re freaking out over a jar of liquid marshmallows. Stop being a shithead, shithead.

I turned and walked back down the aisle, rushing back to the front of the store where Mr. Wojcik was finishing up. 

—-

“When did you mop last?” he asked, and I could tell from his tone that I’d messed something up.

“30 minutes…an hour ago, I think.”

“Good, good. And why is mop at front of store?”

He pointed to the big commercial mop bucket, which sat inelegantly towards the end of Aisle 1. I winced.

“Fuck, sorry.” Nothing strange going on here; I’d left the bucket there earlier after cleaning up the mayo. If we’d had any customers that night — any non-creepo customers — they’d have walked right by that mop on their way to checkout. Not exactly great for business. “I’m all over the place today, boss. Friday, I’ll —”

“Spierdolić.”

“Yeah, probably.”

He smiled. “You came in today, last minute, you took one break, you worked hard. Go home.”

I tried not to smile. I wanted to argue, tell him I’d stay with him until he left, tell him I’d pay more attention after the holiday. But mostly, I wanted to get the fuck out of there.

“Thank you.” I checked my pocket for my keys and started walking towards the back door. I always parked in the back.

Mr. Wojcik looked up briefly, then dismissed me with a nod.

“No problem. Oh, and don’t fucking let this happen again, or you’re out on your asshole.” 

The temperature had dropped a few degrees.

I felt that right away.

Walking to my car, I saw my breath floating in front of me, thin clouds of pent-up anxiety and fatigue I’d collected over my shift. Deep, full breaths, each one a cool balm on a hot wound.

It’s finally over, and you’re headed home. You are the greatest grocery worker in town, apart from Mr. Wojcik, and probably most of the people at Walmart. And maybe the folks at Kroger’s. And…

I stopped tempering my opinion of myself when I saw my car, or more accurately, when I saw the backseat. Suddenly, I was standing completely still, the anxiety creeping back through my chest.

Someone was sitting in my car. Someone tall and thin.

Fuck this. Go inside. Call the police. 

But I didn’t. I’m still not sure why, but I moved towards the car, my mind protesting every step I took. Part of me wanted to see who was there — why they were waiting for me. And part of me knew exactly who it was.

I threw open the back door while simultaneously stepping back, preparing to defend myself from…what, exactly? A mugger with low aspirations? A geriatric condiment aficionado? A demon from hell? In any case, I wasn’t in physical or emotional condition for a fight.

There wouldn’t be a fight (at least, not right then). The backseat was empty, save for some discarded McDonald’s wrappers and the spare jacket I kept hanging on the passenger’s seat.

Of course it’s empty, shithead. You saw the jacket, assumed it was Mr. Marshmallow Fetish, and your eyes saw what your brain expected. You’ve lost it, and it ain’t coming back without some sleep. Get thee to a nunnery. Or at least get thee to a futon. 

For the moment, at least, that worked. I let out a deep breath, trying to capture the feeling of relief I’d enjoyed only a few seconds earlier, then climbed into my car.

You’re probably calling me an idiot right now. Well, I called me an idiot first, and I’m willing to bet that you’re kind of an idiot, too.

Most people can rationalize just about anything that happens to them. It’s dishonest, busy work, and we all do it from time to time; you rewrite your memories, adding in the new elements that explain away the unthinkable ones. You alter your reasoning, smoothing out the rough edges of your explanations until they’re at least superficially plausible. Then, you mock the old you, the one that was naive and uncomfortable and scared and stupid.

That type of work takes a lot of effort, but the payoff is enormous: For a few minutes — maybe for a few days, maybe even for the rest of your life — you get to believe that you understand your world. If you can understand it, you might be able to control it. 

I felt some of that comfort as I started the engine, but with a tinge of instinctual unease that I couldn’t quite bury. And soon, I learned the fundamental problem of rationalization: It assumes that the world has a set of rules, and that breaking those rules carries consequences for the rule-breaker.

On my drive home, I learned to stop rationalizing.

—-

I don’t know what John Denver saw in country roads.

They’re awful. Maybe that’s why he flew everywhere.

Get it? Flew everywhere? What, too soon?

Anyway, if you’ve never spent extensive time driving through rural routes with gravel kicking up against the bottom of your fender, maybe you hold some romantic notions of clear country nights with acres of tall corn waving at you through the rearview mirror.

Well, the corn loses some of its romance when you’ve driven past it a thousand times, and the sound of rolling gravel becomes less entrancing when you replace your tires for the second time in a year. When you drive them every single day, country roads become unbearably boring, but you can’t afford to sit back and zone out. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get a brand-new paint job from a deer, or you’ll miss the lights of an F-150 pickup with a moonshine-drunk redneck behind its wheel. 

Normally, I don’t mind my commute. Not much. I pay close attention to every curve in the road — which isn’t difficult, as it’s mostly a straight shot from town to my house — but I’ll play a podcast or listen to talk radio to keep my brain from atrophying too much. I only live half an hour from the store, but it’s enough time to collect my thoughts and relax.

That night, I wasn’t doing much relaxing. When I’d started the engine of my 2010 Chevy Cobalt (ladies, try to contain yourselves), I noticed that my heater didn’t kick on right away. By the time I turned onto Rural Route 3, I was fiddling frantically with the temperature controls, hoping in vain that the blower motor hadn’t finally given up the ghost.

No heat. No comfort.

Well, at least it’s something you can repair yourself. And the cold air will keep you awake. Plus, you have heated seats. Stop by the gas station, if it’s open, grab a hot coffee, and you’ll…ah, fuck it, this just sucks. 

By the time I pulled onto the country road that would take me home (to the plaaaaace, I belooooong), my teeth were clattering from the cold. The heated seats helped, but they also made my ass sweat, and the only gas station on my path was closed for the holiday.

I thought that the radio would take my mind off my discomfort, but the local Hot 100 station was starting a “50-song non-stop song marathon” that started with about 30 minutes of commercials. Every other station was modern country or religious programming, so I listened to the advertisements and made snide comments to myself.

“Come DOWN, DOWN, DOWN to THOMAS CHEVROLET for GUARANTEED APPROVAL on ANY CAR ON THE LOT!” a deep voice blared from my car’s tinny speakers.

“And 20 percent interest on the loan,” I scoffed while wondering how many more payments I owed Thomas Chevrolet for my Cobalt.

My eyes were heavy, finally bearing the full weight of the day’s events, so I looked for a reason to keep them open. The drive was mostly boring, especially at night, but there were a few points of interest. The billboard was one of them.

You certainly don’t see billboards on most country roads. My route had a small one about halfway between my house and town. Evidently, some farmer decided he could make some extra cash on the side, though I doubt he got much — the billboard would occasionally show a Farmer’s Only ad for a month or two, but it usually bore the message “RENT THIS SPACE” in big blue letters.

Tonight, though, I was pleased to see the space rented. It helped break up the monotony of the drive.

Carl’s Delivery Service

First delivery’s on the house, to your house!

The text accompanied a photo of a smiling man in the front seat of a sedan — Carl, I assume — giving a big thumbs-up to the camera. His car wasn’t in great repair; the seat next to him looked like it’d been shredded by a particularly large housecat.

I smiled, allowing myself to sink deeper into my seat and relax. 

“Yeah, those $6 tips might get you out of that shitty Ford Focus, Carl,” I said as I drove past. “Eventually, if you ever stop spending money on billboards. Good luck with Redneck DoorDash.” 

The radio station finally cut away from the onslaught of advertisements, and I was surprised to hear the opening riff of Harry Nilsson’s “Down,” an old favorite of my father’s. It wasn’t exactly a hit — I’m not sure if it was on the Hot 100 back in the ‘70s, but it certainly wasn’t charting in 2020 — but the late-night DJs sometimes snuck in a few of their favorites onto the playlist. 

“I’m goin’ down, to the bottom, to the bottom of a hooole, goin’ down,” Nilsson sang, his voice slightly distorted from the FM station’s compression. “Down, to the bottom, to the bottom of a hole, goooiin’ down.”

And so on. The lyrics weren’t Shakespeare, but it was better than hearing the same damn Ariana Grande song on repeat. I cranked the volume and looked out at the rows of corn framing the curves in the road ahead. The tight rows shifted and shook in the cold wind.

Wait. Corn? It’s late November.

The corn had been cut weeks ago. That morning, I’d driven past empty fields.

My rational side immediately began offering explanations, but they couldn’t stop the panic from rising. No Illinois farmer waits that long to harvest.

Unless they’re dead, or they abandoned their farm, or they can’t harvest because of a Monsanto lawsuit. Are you absolutely sure you saw the fields cut this morning?

I was. But maybe I’d driven past my turn. That made some sense — more sense than spontaneous corn growth, anyway. And looking ahead, the road was unfamiliar. The twists and turns were a little too sharp, and the gravel seemed a little too old.

I slowed to maneuver the curves, my heart pounding. I could turn around when the road straightened out. But how long had I been driving? It felt like 10 or 20 minutes, but if I’d passed my turn, I’d been out for at least a half hour. And hadn’t I just seen the billboard? That was only 5 minutes from the store.

Past the curves, the road straightened, but it also narrowed, both sides dropping steeply into wide, deep ditches. Another billboard flanked the right side of the road.

Mount Hermon Marshmallow Creme

One scoop, and you’ll never go back! 

The last four words were underlined in bright red paint that seemed far newer than the rest of the billboard. 

I hit the gas.

  “Down, to the bottom, to the bottom, of a hole, goin’ down,” Nilsson warbled. Then the song ended, then it restarted, the opening notes slightly more distorted. I slammed my fist on the radio’s power button, then grasped the steering wheel as hard as I could.

When the radio kicked off, the car’s blower motor kicked on, blowing scorching air through the cabin. I turned the fan off, but the air kept coming, foul and hot.

Cooking me. Or just fucking with me. Or something in between.

Gravel kicked against the bottom of the car. Moments ago, the rows of corn had seemed to wave somnambulantly, calming my mind while drawing a straight path home; now, they seemed to be rows of yellow teeth, rigid and jagged. 

Like his teeth. Ready to rip me open like a bag of chocolate chips and spill me over the cold floor. They see the candy, they can’t help themselves.

Another billboard. Carl’s Delivery Service again, identical to the previous ad — no, not identical. The driver wasn’t smiling anymore. He looked terrified, his eyes wide and hopeless. 

I stepped on the gas, but the road seemed to stretch on endlessly, getting narrower and narrower by the foot. The radio clicked on again, and I wasn’t surprised to hear the ending notes of “Down.”

Then, an advertisement. A deep male voice with a near-Transatlantic dialect, the kind you’d hear on old reruns of What’s My Line?

“Hey, parents! What are you feeding your kids? Do you ever wish what made them happy would make them healthy?”

Then, silence. In spite of the situation, I spoke, my voice rasping and practically inaudible.

“Nothing healthy tastes good.”

“That’s right! Nothing healthy tastes good. Until now! Firmament Pickle Relish has the sweet, tangy taste kids love and the vitamin C that moms adore.”

A chorus of kids laughing. The sound grew louder and louder, distorting my speakers. It went on for far too long.

“And Firmament Pickle Relish is only available at Wojcik’s Grocery on Main! Only for a limited time! Get it while you can!”

The laughter was deafening. I briefly considered running the car off the road, but something told me that I wouldn’t fare better in the cornfields. The cornfields that shouldn’t exist.

The song restarted, but now it was nothing but harsh, overdriven noise.

More gas.

But that just brought me closer to the next billboard. This was for a company I recognized.

Wocjik’s General Store

You’ll never shop anywhere else!

And there was Mr. Wocjik on the sign, tied to a chair, his pleading eyes looking straight out at me. His stomach was cut open and his intestines were spilling out, the red of his blood clashing with the olive green letters of the ad copy.

Help, Andrews. Make it stop.

I only glanced at the billboard, but it’s burned into my memory. I didn’t slow down. I heard a harsh wheezing sound and realized it was me, sucking in big, shallow breaths as fast as I could.

Going faster wasn’t working — maybe it wanted me to go faster — so I slowed down. Just slightly, but I slowed down. I tried to calm my breath, tried to think clearly underneath the blaring radio and the unrelenting heat.

Another bend in the road — no, the same bend — and another billboard. I didn’t want to look, but I did. 

Wocjik was still there, but he had changed. He was chewing his own intestines, strung out from his abdomen and around his hands and mouth in a ghoulish Jacob’s ladder. He was holding them out like a piece of meat he’d show to a customer who wanted to inspect the product. 

And his eyes. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, because I’d seen it before. They still looked pleading, but he wasn’t hoping for help — not anymore — he was trying to make a sale.

Andrews, I make sale! Get your mop! Clean-up, Aisle 7! 

The cornfields drew closer, long chapped fingers brushing my windows as I sped faster and faster down the road.

“Wocjik’s Grocery on Main, where you’ll shop ‘till you drop!” a voice taunted from my radio, and I recognized its high, near-musical tone. 

I saw his figure in the road, suddenly but clearly. His yellow teeth were stained the deep red of his handkerchief, his sharp eyes locked on mine.

Hit him. Hit him. Do it. Run straight through him.

I jammed on the brakes. I’m not sure why, really, but that’s what happened. Maybe my body knew something that I didn’t.

The tires tried to grip the loose gravel, then careened towards the ditch, then back to the center of the road, then back to the ditch, and then I started to spin. I wanted to close my eyes, but I kept them open, avoiding the figure in the road while I concentrated on regaining control.

Then, I stopped. I was sidewise, or I should have been. Instead, I was perfectly positioned to take my turn onto the road that would bring me to my house.

—-

I didn’t question it or try to understand how I’d escaped.

What good would that do? I sped down the road and pulled into my driveway, expecting to see a tall man in a green suit waiting for me on the porch. He wasn’t there. 

I expected to lay in bed with my heart pounding, flinching at every odd noise until the morning. I didn’t; I fell asleep almost instantly. My sleep was restful and dreamless.

And when neither of those expectations bore fruit, I expected to wake up to a frantic voicemail from Mr. Wocjik explaining that he needed me to open up the store on the holiday after all. I was ready to delete the voicemail and deal with the fallout. I wasn’t going in again. But I didn’t receive a voicemail. 

I did encounter one more surprise when I finally gathered the courage to leave the house the next day. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just walking around for a bit, and I certainly wasn’t driving anywhere. The weather had warmed considerably, and the light exercise felt nice.

I must have missed it when I’d left the house, but I’m sure it had been there all night. A half-empty jar of marshmallow creme. The label was ripped off, so I couldn’t say for sure, but I doubt it was Kraft.

—- 

Mr. Wocjik didn’t open the store that Thanksgiving, or any other day, for that matter. Wojcik’s Grocery is a Starbucks now.

His wife says he never came home, which I suppose is true. His car was gone, along with the money from that day’s sales. The police figured he’d skipped town, overwhelmed at the prospect of his failing business and hoping to start over somewhere else. 

I’d love to believe that. I tried, I really did. The part of my brain that tries to rationalize is still working, still rewriting, still looking for ways to disassemble what happened. I try to rationalize the stuff that’s easy to explain and write the rest off as temporary insanity.

It doesn’t work, but every once in a while, I’m able to convince myself that Mr. Armaros – if that was his name – was just an old man trying to get home to see his family for the holidays. And someone drugged my beer the night before. And Mr. Wojcik, well, people disappear all the time. Maybe he’s working in a bakery somewhere.

The feeling of understanding your world — of controlling it — is warm and comforting, so I let myself indulge in it whenever I can. 

It was traumatic, shithead. The trauma let your shithead memory turn more shitty.

But the machinery of rationalization has its limits, and over the days and weeks that followed, my explanations weakened and buckled. I still have evidence, after all — and no, I’ve never tasted “one scoop,” and I don’t think I will — and wherever I’d gone that night, it was nothing that I could control or understand. There, rationality was a liability. 

So I looked for something more satisfying. I looked for something that could tell me what I saw. I haven’t found it, but I think I’m closer.

See, I moved out of Templeton about a month later, taking out as many student loans as I could to get the hell away. I ended up in California, a long way from whatever I saw on the roads of Southern Illinois that night. 

And, since I never want to work at a grocery store again, I signed up for a few college classes. I decided to major in psychology, and this morning, my professor mentioned a phenomenon that I’d heard about a few times before. I’m sure you have, too.

It’s called the “uncanny valley.” It’s what happens when you build a robot that’s supposed to look like a person, or a CGI movie that’s supposed to look real. If the simulation isn’t very good, no big deal – nobody cares.

But if the simulation is really, really good – nearly perfect – people start to freak out. Something deep in our biology starts screaming, not a person, not a person, imposter, imposter. We become defensive and afraid.

Every person in every culture feels this effect. We can all pick up on little cues that tell us that the robot isn’t real or that the film doesn’t have real actors.You can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong. You just know something’s wrong. The uncanny valley.

After explaining the phenomenon to the class, the professor asked a question, which she probably intended to be rhetorical:

“Why did we evolve this ability over thousands and thousands of years? Why was it so important to our survival to distinguish between a real person and a fake?”

I know the reason. And he’s very particular about his condiments.

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Categories
Fiction Humor

Mr. Fix-It

I was thinking that maybe today I will finally get around to screwing in that piece of drywall that has been sitting against the bare studs in the downstairs bathroom. I did not intend to let the task get away from me, but things have a way of piling up to the point where a person does not want to do them, even if they are minor things that only take a few minutes.  

I know where the screws are, and I think that they are the correct size for the job. It doesn’t matter if they’re a bit long, because there’s nothing behind those studs, just air, and it doesn’t matter if they are short, either. I don’t suspect either of us will be pulling on the drywall, trying to unseat it (can you imagine?). 

Eventually, we will sell this tiny house, and it will be up to the next person to figure out whether the drywall screws are the correct size. Fuck ‘em.

I haven’t wanted to run the drill during the day because you have been working late nights or going to the hospital, which leaves me alone. You are here, but I am still alone. You sleep endlessly, and while you are only unconscious for a normal number of hours (5-6), those are the hours when I am most capable of doing things like screwing in a piece of drywall that has been sitting against the bare studs in the downstairs bathroom for six months.

Last year, we bought this house, and we were not excited about it.

We looked at a half-dozen houses, the real estate agent preening about the laidback nature of the HOAs in the northern part of town or drawing our attention to the brand-new outlets that indicated that a particular home was move-in ready. 

“Look at this tuck pointing!” she said, and you asked me what tuck pointing was, and I shrugged and felt a little embarrassed because the real estate agent heard you. Then she explained it (and I still don’t really understand). 

Those homes were not for us. Not yet, anyway. We chose a semi-dilapidated house on the southern part of town that, in my overly ambitious estimation, was on the correct side of semi-dilapidated and capable of making us a quick buck. I would fix the home, and you would help when you could. You would work your nights, and we would be close to the hospital, which would be good for you and good for Julie. 

Is it clean enough, you asked. The doctor said… 

We’ll make it clean, is what I said. Cleaning is easy. Fixing walls is easy. What we’re going through, well, it isn’t easy, and some days I think that it’s harder for us than it is for her. I say that to myself, and it feels right, but I don’t know if it really is right. I can only speak from my own experience and sometimes it gets in the way.

For a few months, I think I did pretty well.

I did tile the bathroom like I said I would, even though I bought three separate tile cutters to get the job done. The first one was a piece of shit. It broke every single tile we fed through it. You blamed the tile I bought, but that tile wasn’t cheap — not like you said. And you gave up when the second tile cutter didn’t do any better, and you stopped helping, which was probably better for both of us.

I finally bought a wet saw and looked up videos online of people using it. They are all smiling people in nice houses that don’t really need new tiles. I pulled off each greasy piece of pull-and-stick laminate from our plywood floor, and I wondered whether I should put down some cement board, but then I looked at the clock and I heard Julie crying upstairs and I said fuck it, and I started laying down those tile. You came in and asked me if I had enough tile spacers. Yes, I said. Go see what she wants. 

She just wants more apple juice, but she can’t keep it down. 

I looked at the tile and I kept putting it down. It looks pretty good now, though I still need to seal it. And I replaced a few of the cabinets, enough of them for a functional kitchen. You’re embarrassed to have people over, but I keep telling you that they’ll understand. They’re unfinished, yes, but they don’t look that bad. They’re temporary. And shit, they hold the plates, don’t they? What else do we expect of our cabinets?

What about the office, you ask me, every time. Do they want you back yet.

The truth is (and I haven’t told you this) yes, they do want me back. They don’t need me, and I don’t really do much when I’m there. I didn’t do much before. I don’t think they know that, but they sure as hell aren’t looking over my shoulder now. 

When I do go in, once a month, I think I get more done than I used to get done all year. I just don’t like it anymore. Betty is always stopping by my desk and trying to talk about anything but that and it’s obvious what she’s doing, but I can’t tell her that. How would that even go? So we just talk about the house, because that’s what’s on my mind, and I just want to get back and start doing stuff. There’s so much to do.

I just need to get around to it.

I’m getting better about that. You should have seen the inside of that galvanized steel pipe I took out of the downstairs bathroom — I know you don’t want to look in it, I won’t make you — but the crud was so bad, it might explain the water pressure issue. I am going to put in the copper pipe to replace it. It’s just tough because I need to use a blowtorch to do it and I haven’t done that before. Fucking up is one thing, fucking up with fire seems a bit bigger.

You said it yourself, I am better at tearing things out than putting them together. Look at all of the rolls of carpet downstairs. That took weeks to pull out, and we found those wonderful hardwood floors hiding underneath the vomit-stained paisley prints. True, they’re not in the best condition, but clean them up, refinish them, and that should help the resale value. 

I also tore down that wall in the kitchen. It will be a nice, big, open space — you will be able to see right into the living room — I just need someone (cheap) to come in and tell me if I can take those studs down. They don’t look load-bearing. 

I know what you’re going to say, you don’t know what load-bearing looks like, I can hear you saying it. But the guy on YouTube explained that it’s just looking at the cross sections, seeing where the big boards are. That’s not hard. I’m pretty confident it’s fine, I just need someone to tell me for sure.

Here, I will say that I am sorry about the bedroom. I went overboard there. There was nothing wrong with the wall, and the ceiling probably could have been fixed, and — well, look, I didn’t know that the insulation gets everywhere when it drops down like that. Now I know, though, don’t I? Won’t make that mistake again. Not that I’ll be ripping out ceilings anytime soon, I learned my lesson.

The bedroom gets really hot now. I guess I don’t need to say that, but it’ll go back to normal when we get some drywall up. I really need my own truck. I’m sick of borrowing the neighbor’s F-150, and I think he’s sick of me borrowing it, too. 

Did we ever even figure out that guy’s name? It’s too late to ask, I probably drive his truck more than he does. Maybe you could invite your sister over (she’ll understand about the kitchen, I’m telling you) and I’ll introduce her to him and then he’ll have to say his name and we’ll know it, and I’ll write it down this time.

At least we don’t have much of a lawn to worry about.

I really think that our house has curb appeal. Don’t laugh, it does. Granted, that big window in the front needs to be replaced. I found a video that says it’s easier than you think, and after I get that wall up downstairs, I might take a hack at it. 

I’m sure I could at least get it out today, and then get the new one tomorrow. I’ll be committed to it this time, I know we can’t have a big open space where a window used to be. Although we could just put plastic sheeting in front of it — people do that. It doesn’t take much time to put up, obviously, and it actually insulates pretty well. Better than that shitty window, I’d bet.

How much do windows cost, do you thinky? I bet they’re more expensive than doors.I bet they’re easier to put in, though. The only reason I haven’t put the door back on the bathroom is that I think I’d fuck it up. I watched about six videos about putting a new frame on, and I’m almost ready to try it, but Jesus, there’s a lot of math involved. Not fun. Not that any of this is fun, but it needs to be done.

And I’ll do it, starting with the wall downstairs. The screws are down there, too. I just need to find the drill and that’ll be one more thing off the list. So I am sorry I don’t go with you to see her more but there’s a lot of stuff to do around here.

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Categories
Fiction Humor

emails from a car dealership

FROM: Timothy Richards
Business Development Manager
Cookman Auto Sales LLC

DATE: March 20, 2021

See “baseball season” radio spot, attached. Email Terry with questions. This has been approved by Dave and Thomas Cookman.

NOTE TO VOICE ARTIST AGENCY: Keep to under 30 SECONDS!!!! This is important and will be checked internally.

Excited to work with your team again. To reiterate our primary note: Ad MUST be 30 seconds long. At 31 seconds, we pay an additional $500 to three of the 78 local stations.

These are ANNUAL CONTRACTS, which is problematic in the baseball communications vertical.

This was partly our fault last year, though not completely.

We did not acknowledge the actual extent of the radio contract in our communications. You may be surprised, as I was: There are 162 games (baseball) per year, not counting rainouts, and almost exactly as many broadcasts! Please keep this in mind during performance.

This is our concern because an extra second can create a substantial decrease in ROI and other tracked metrics. In fact, last year, we paid over $240,000 extra for the 31-second ad your firm submitted, owing mostly to extraneous pauses and (if I may) languorous pronunciation. 

We attempted to cut out a second of audio, but were unable to recreate the natural sound of the talent with our in-office technology. Our CEO Douglas Cookman remarked that the finished product sounded “fruity,” which pertained to the quality of audio itself and was not a homophobic inference (Douglas has many gay and non-binary friends and clients). We decided to use the 31-second ad, which resulted in the aforementioned overcharge.

Needless to say, this is totally unacceptable. As mentioned last February, our budget assigns a maximum of $150,000 for production errors. Last year’s overrun resulted in a restatement of financial expectations in our internal Q4 report, which created an undue burden that forced one of our administrative assistants to work on Christmas Eve. 

As a partially family-owned company, this was a major concern for us. We are thankful for our administrative assistants and compensated the employee (Deborah) appropriately.

Despite last year’s mistake, we continue to use your firm because, frankly, you are the least expensive (but still very capable!) option in the greater St. Louis area. We also noticed better-than-average ROI for last year’s longer advertisement, which is why we sent an official “thanks” in our holiday package to your firm. 

So with that in mind, we can let these “bygones be bygones,” but to be clear, I will not sidestep or shirk the issue: We would prefer to make all creative decisions IN-HOUSE!!! This is VERY important to our CEO Douglas Cookman.

Please contact Terry if you are unable to make this ad fit into the 30-second (NOT 31 SECONDS!!!) spot. Also, we will need time for the 5-second bumper at the end of the spot.

So, actually, please keep ad to 25 seconds. 

PLEASE PROVIDE TIMING WITH COMPLETED AUDIO FILE AND PLEASE CC: TERRY.

Ad follows. PLEASE READ AS WRITTEN! Last year’s ad included an ad-lib by talent, which was not appreciated by Douglas Cookman (Cookman Auto CEO). The copy read, “That’s a great deal,” but talent read, “Wow, that’s a great deal.”

The addition of the hyperventilative “wow” may have contributed to aforementioned time issue.

Distressingly, we also received poor social media engagement as a result of this addition. Several Twitter users noted that “wow” is synonymous with, and I quote:

white middle-class feelings of subterfuge – @Proper_Yoda

This is NOT the brand we’re building at Cookman.

Our target audience is, in fact, middle-class, but we take pride in honest pricing, and we have explicitly declared in our company literature that we do not prefer customers of a particular race (see first attachment, paragraph 2, sentence 7). 

This is not a cavillous point: Voiceover performances should reflect our company values. Please review the attached materials for an even more thorough explanation.

AND PLEASE EXPRESS THIS TO TALENT, FIRMLY BUT POSITIVELY!!! We cannot allow for ANY ad-libs. To this end, I have included extensive (and explicitly detailed!!!!!!) guidance. Any performance decisions should be checked with Terry. 

If any talent has questions regarding this script that cannot be addressed internally, they MUST receive a sign-off from either Terry or Douglas (please do not contact Douglas unless Terry is unavailable for a minimum period of two days).

Script follows.

PERSONAL NOTE: Personally, I loved last year’s radio spots provided by your firm. No-Nonsense Voiceovers delivered on its promise, with the obvious exception of the unnecessary ad-lib(s), and the timing issue detailed above. We saw an increase of 18.56% ARGS and nearly 40% HTR, which I explained to Douglas Cookman in our quarterly meeting.

However, Douglas (he prefers to be called Douglas) expressed restrained consternation regarding some of the decisions reflected in the final advertisement. His concerns are my concerns.

I do not blame your firm entirely, though the fault was not wholly mine, either.

My wife had started a new job at the time, and our schedules rarely lined up, which inhibited my at-home productivity significantly from April-June. Regrettably I was unable to provide an extensive overview of the submitted materials before their publication. I have created a three-point plan to resolve this oversight over the next quarter.

This is why I have provided so many notes on this draft. Put yourself in my position; Douglas is not a micro-manager (this is noted in our company literature). He entrusts his team to “act like a real team,” or even a baseball team, if you will, and I’m sure you will. As the “captain” or “starting pitcher” of the audio marketing division, I have extensive responsibilities (and quite a bit of power) to leverage company resources as I see fit (“throw a strike”). I am expected to “knock it out of the park” and will not settle for a “single” or even a “triple.”

When a radio spot fails to meet the basic metrics (time, lack of adlibs, etc.) set by my office, this reflects on me!!! And you, to a greater extent. 

We’re happy to have you “on deck,” but please don’t “strike out!”

With that in mind, PLEASE REITERATE TO TALENT THAT SCRIPT MUST BE READ EXACTLY AS WRITTEN.

Script follows.

FINAL NOTE: Terry has not provided input on the first seven drafts (which have been forwarded to you for your preparation). Unfortunately, Terry is currently spending most of his time in the hospital with his male husband (Terry is gay, which I only note here to clarify the third paragraph of our company mission, which includes several clear — and bold — statements opposing discrimination, please review if necessary). 

Terry is still answering email and therefore should still be available for questions. Please keep questions brief, as Terry has limited time in just about every conceivable sense of the term.


PERFORMANCE NOTES

 When sentences end with exclamation points, read with excitement. NOT JUBILANCE. Some of these sentences require nuance. Please select talent accordingly.

CASTING: MAN SHOULD NOT BE OVERLY MASCULINE. WOMAN SHOULD NOT BE OVERLY FEMININE. Please listen to AT&T’s “Fiber Internet 2021 – Radio Spot” (attached) for guidance, but do not mimic. Do not strictly adhere (or shy away from) gender roles in a way that could alienate the target audience (middle-class consumers of any race who are “sick and tired” of traditional auto sales and wish to hit a “home run” with a reputable local family-friendly dealership located near the Crestwood Mall, but a safe distance away from the nearby smeltery).

Woman should not sound as though she is looking to Man for approval. Man should not sound aloof or incapable of making his own decisions. 

Woman should be confident, free, but not jubilant. Man should be easygoing, semi-confident, and curious. 

REMEMBER: We will request re-takes if necessary.

SCRIPT FOLLOWS!

MAN

Honey, that old clunker in the driveway isn’t doing too well!

WOMAN

Well, why are we keeping it around?

MAN

What do you mean?

WOMAN

Cookman Auto Sales is cutting the cost of new vehicles! We could head down there today.

MAN

Today? But the baseball game’s on!

WOMAN

Sure, but I love baseball too, and Cookman Auto is offering a real “home-run” of a sale!

MAN

A home run?

WOMAN 

Yes, a home run! Cookman Auto is “striking out” the competition with zero percent financing on all 2021 vehicles on the lot! 

[SOUND OF HOME RUN IN BASEBALL, ALONG WITH CROWD SOUND, PLEASE PROVIDE]

And the best part is that we can head there right now! The financing deal lasts all summer, so we can save on a brand-new vehicle whenever we have the time! We can even shop online!

MAN

Wow, that’s fucking great! Let’s head there now!

[END BUMPER]

Please provide FULL AD by end of day 4/10. We appreciate working with you!!!


FROM: Timothy Richards
Business Development Manager
Cookman Auto Sales LLC

April 25th, 2021

To whom it may concern,

In my previous message, I clearly explained the Cookman Auto Sales brand. I also wrote (and I have kept copies) that ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THE SCRIPT SHOULD BE REFERRED TO TERRY.

First, I will note that your firm followed most of our instructions (with one very clear, obvious, and unprofessional exception). Your talent clearly followed the guidance, and their performances were adequate, though not exemplary. In normal circumstances, I would not complain about the clear jubilance exhibited by the MAN actor in his penultimate line (“A home run?!”)

Now, for the elephant in the room. I will not skirt the issue. I admit that the typo in the script was my mistake. That is obvious. I was overwhelmed with family obligations at the time, which is why I was working from home for one day per week. I believe I had mentioned this in an earlier email (Jan. 1, 2021, “Setting Metrics for April Radio Spot”). 

This is not to excuse my mistake, as I do not make excuses.

This is simply to provide context which absolves me of any responsibility for the error.

I will not beat around the bush: If your firm is truly “no-nonsense,” I believe someone should have recognized the obvious flaw (curse word) in the final line of the copy. Leaving the errant entry in place was, frankly, unprofessional.

Playing this advertisement for Douglas Cookman, I became aware that your talent rushed the final line, perhaps (I hope not???) in an attempt to “sneak it by” us. Douglas certainly heard the error, and asked me, I quote, “what the (heck) was that?” I was able to offer an explanation, and an apology, which he accepted. To mitigate the error, I explained that your firm was no longer under contract with Cookman Auto Sales. Douglas (CEO) approved of this decision, and now I am relaying that to you.

I see no reason to hem and haw, straddle the fence, or even to equivocate: Our business relationship would likely end in litigation if you had not immediately issued a refund for the billed amount ($250). Needless to say, the advertisement (if it can be called that) was not acceptable for radio play.

We were able to use the advertisement on several fringe podcasts, which, frankly, do not fully conform with our stated brand identity. Through sheer ingenuity, I was able to recoup the moderate monetary investment (and a portion of the SIGNIFICANT TIME INVESTMENT) that we dedicated to your services.

Even so, I have several areas of disappointment.

First, I was under the impression that your firm would be more responsive. While you have provided the agreed-upon materials in a timely fashion, I have received limited interaction from your team after our initial consultation phone call. You have been absent on our firm’s proprietary communication tool (Cookman Auto Chatz, I provided 12 login tokens, only 3 of which have been used), and since last year, we have received a mere 37 emails from your firm (compare to my 113, not including Terry’s correspondence).

And this may seem “tacky,” but I kept an eye out for your firm’s holiday basket or other seasonal materials. When it arrived, I was disappointed at the lack of thought and the limited inclusivity. All items were exclusively Scandinavian. 

I cannot confirm whether you contacted Terry regarding the script, but I doubt that very much. While we have been unable to access Terry’s company account, his husband has stopped by the office several times and has relayed to me that Terry (his gay husband, with whom he surely discussed important matters) did not mention any of the script drafts prior to his (Terry’s) ultimate failure to lung cancer.

I am curious as to whether your firm has any records of such correspondence. Please forward if so. Regardless, we have moved on and will be using the services of a competing firm.

It did not have to be this way.

Timothy Richards

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