Shortly after Christmas this year, my wife Ashley began dropping hints that something was afoot concerning our impending wedding anniversary. In the three years we’ve been married, I’ve become accustomed to such hints. They’re an annual reminder that our February 5 anniversary is a little over a month away and it’s about time I start thinking about what I’m going to do about it. Kind of handy, really.
“I think I know what I’m going to get you for an anniversary present,” Ashley said.
“Do you, now?” I said. This is what I always say when I don’t have a similar declaration to make.
“Yup,” she said. “You’re going to like it a lot. But it’s going to be expensive.”
I take all statements of this nature very seriously. As one half of a couple that is going mind and wallet-numbingly into debt to pay for medical school, I take all financial matters seriously. I do admit, however, to having something of a blind spot when it comes to money being spent on me.
“What is it?”
“A secret,” she said. I knew it was futile to ask, but I had to try because she pesters me to no end for hints whenever I have secret gifts for her. Unlike her, though, I actually supply more of a hint than just stating I’m planning a secret present. In fact, I’m very proud of my ability to come up with perfectly structured, even layered hints that tell both everything and nothing about the gift. Nostradamus would have been proud to pen some of the hints I’ve given. To date, Ashley has yet to crack one, even though I usually give her two or three beautifully crafted hints for each gift. When it comes gifts for me, the hints get scarce. I can only assume my evil powers of perception are too great a threat, preventing her from giving me anything but the barest of hints.
“C’mon! Gimme a hint!”
“You’ll like it,” she said.
The trouble with a gift that’s expensive and likable, though, is that I feel obligated to come up with something similar for her.
Then, as if reading my mind, Ashley said, “Don’t get anything for me. I’m going to share yours.”
Hey, I liked this present already! Still, I wasn’t giving up until I got a decent hint out of her.
For most of January, I tried multiple crafty assaults upon her secret gift knowledge, all destined to failure.
“What time is class tomorrow?” I would ask in low, measured, semi-hypnotic tones.
“What time will you get home?”
“What do you want for supper?”
“What’s my anniversary present?”
In mid-January, Ashley let it slip that the anniversary present was going to be a bit late in arriving. I took this to mean it was on back-order and would be shipped later. I began dreaming up notions of DVD players, DVD Box Sets, or—dare I say it—a Panasonic Replay Hard Disk Video Recorder so I’d never miss recording another episode of 24 or the Sopranos due to having a crappy VCR that refuses to be programmed again. While these items certainly fit the expensive part of my provided hints, they didn’t seem likely. Especially after Ashley said that under no circumstances was I to schedule anything for February 9-10, a Sunday and Monday, nor was I to look at our on-line bank statements for any large purchases, nor ask any questions concerning why. Curiouser and curiouser.
Days later, while we were watching TV, Ash asked, “Have you ever ridden on a snow-mobile?”
“No,” I said. Granted we had just seen a snow-mobile on TV, so the question wasn’t exactly out of the blue.
“Well, you might get your chance some day,” she replied with a knowing smile.
I took the bait. Took it and ran with it. Between myself and the ladies at the library where I work, we managed to spin this bit of information into a ski-trip. Ash had often threatened to take me skiing, just so she could have the pleasure of laughing as I plummeted down a mountain, so it was feasible. We even had our hypothetical ski-trip’s prospective destinations narrowed down to the Snowshoe Ski Resort, the closest and nicest of the four ski-resorts within driving distance. Seemed like a mystery solved to me. That is, until Ash dropped more information on me in late January.
“Look, I don’t want to spoil this, but I need to ask you about a variable in our anniversary present,” she said. “We have a choice between something that will be very nice, but more expensive or something that will be nice but not quite as nice as the first, and less expensive.”
Ah ha!, I thought. It’s a choice between staying at the ski-lodge or a private cabin.
“It’s a choice between staying at a Howard Johnson’s or the Radison,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly realizing my speculations had just been dashed. I just couldn’t imagine Snowshoe having either a Howard Johnson’s or a Radison.
“It’s a $60 price difference,” she continued, “but that’s on top of what the actual present costs.”
“So the hotel is not the present?”
“No. I wouldn’t have even told you that, but it’s a five hour trip to get there and if you wanted to stay someplace special we can do that.”
“A five hour trip, huh? In what direction?”
She seemed to consider denying me even this tidbit, but finally said, “North.”
“Straight north or north east?” I asked, already trying to mentally calculate the distance between Lewisburg and Washington D.C., where I seemed to recall Cirque Du Soleil possibly having a permanent station. Maybe not.
“North, but slightly north-east,” she said. Well, that put D.C. out of the way. If there was a Radison in this mystery city, though, it would have to be a fairly large place. Knowing how my mind works, Ashley immediately forbid me to go on the internet to cross reference Radison and Howard Johnson’s locations nor to dig out an atlas to see what cities lie to the north, but slightly north-east. This didn’t prevent me from thinking about it, though.
On the afternoon of Thursday, February 6, one day after our official anniversary, a great heap of snow fell upon Greenbrier County. It was accompanied by a visit from Vice President Dick Cheney. You’d think it would be something of an honor to have visits by such world dignitaries as the vice-president of the United States, and maybe it should. Frankly, I think we’re all sick of it, because his visits cause nothing but problems.
You see, Cheney is a semi-regular visitor to the nearby Greenbrier Resort—occasionally with the president in tow. For those of you unfamiliar with the Greenbrier, it’s a swanky, sprawling, complex of ornate buildings located in scenic White Sulphur Springs, WV. The place has been something of a magnet for assorted world leaders and the rich and famous for the last century. I’m not exactly sure why, as I’ve been in the joint twice now and while it is quite beautiful from the outside, its interior decoration looks as though it was designed by the unholy love-child of Rip Taylor and the Joker. The attraction probably has something to do with the Greenbrier’s inherent hoity toitiness, five-star restaurants, obscenely expensive shops, a $500 greens fee-laden golf course, private bungalows, access to the refreshing natural springs of the area, and probably because there’s a massive,112,544-square-foot, Cold War era bunker located within and beneath its West Virginia Wing. This is the formerly secret bunker that members of Congress were to be stored away in in the event of nuclear war. It was outfitted with the best radiation shielding, communications technology and heaping stockpiles of frozen food supplies 1962 had to offer. To hear the locals tell it, they knew something weird was going on at the Greenbrier for decades. Kind of hard not to when the Greenbrier’s excuse for digging up 112,544 square feet of earth amounted to, “We’re putting in an indoor pool.” The bunker’s existence has only been widely known, though, since a 1993 expose in the Washington Post prompted the government to declassify and decommission it. But the bunker is still very much there.
The trouble is, whenever either Cheney or Bush pop by for a visit, traffic in Greenbrier County becomes, to use a favorite military acronym, F.U.B.A.R. They fly in to the Greenbrier Valley Airport which is 13 miles away from White Sulphur Springs and the Greenbrier Resort. The quickest way to get from point A to point B is by Interstate-64, so in order to accommodate national security, that busy interstate must be completely shut down while our leaders play connect the dots. Subsequently, any road that intersects I-64, or is just inconveniently close to it is also shut down.
Word at the library, a.k.a. information central, was that we were in for a double whammy weekend, for not only was Cheney flying in on Thursday, he was to be followed by President George W. Bush sometime on Saturday and they would all be departing on Sunday. (Which leads one to ask just how secure our leaders are if a bunch of librarians have access to their itineraries?)
At last, Sunday, February 9 arrived. Ash told me to pack only what I wanted to wear on the trip back since we would be leaving directly from church and would just wear our Sunday best to our anniversary present. By this time I had pretty much concluded we were going to a concert, but was trying to imagine what kind of concert we would wear church clothes to? I could think of very few acts from my CD collection whose concert I would feel comfortable wearing a churchy sweater and dress shoes to, unless maybe it was something from the classical section.
“By the way, are you afraid to fly?” Ashley casually asked as we were preparing to leave.
“Fly?” I asked. “That depends on what I’m flying in. If it’s a plane, fine. If it’s a jetpack, not so good.” This smelled like a red herring—something designed to throw me off an already badly marked trail. In fact, her snowmobile line was fishy too. Then again, you never can tell because my wife is a Tricksy Hobbitses.
Before leaving, I phoned our neighbor Beth and asked if she would come over and press record on my VCR that night, so I could tape the Simpsons episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio while we were gone. This is the kind of thing people with crappy VCR’s and bad tech karma have to do. As I stepped onto the back patio to walk around and give her a key, my foot slipped on a patch of the lingering ice from our recent snow deposit and I took a header into the yard. Stupid dress-shoes!
“You know that ice is really slippery,” Ash said, after determining I wasn’t injured.
We left church early, around 11:40 a.m., because Ashley was starting to suspect our schedule might be a little tight otherwise. On the way out, we hit the ATM for cash and Subway for grub, then headed toward the interstate only to run smack into the Presidential Traffic Jam.
A gaggle of state troopers had blocked off the junction of Hwy 219 and I-64. Other than the troopers, there were only a handful of cars stopped ahead of us, so the jam had probably just begun. If we’d been even two minutes earlier, we might have slipped by. Instead, we were stuck, waiting for Dubya’s motorcade to pass on its way to the airport.
With the Greenbrier Resort only 13 miles away and no traffic in between, you’d think a motorcade would be able to book it right along at a nice clip. Not so, evidently. After all, when you’re the president, everyone has to wait for you. For instance, in 1993 two runways at LAX had to be shut down for an hour, costing the airlines an estimated $76,000, all so Bill Clinton could get a $200 haircut aboard Air-Force One. In essence, the schedules of several major airlines, not to mention the people flying on them, were thrown into chaos because Bill’s `do was a bit bushy that day. Now I’d heard no such horror stories about George W. but really wasn’t in the mood to experience any when we were on a tight schedule ourselves.
During our forty minute wait I had plenty of time to consider the mind-boggling amount of money it must take for the president to go ANYWHERE. Think about it. He flies in to Greenbrier County aboard Air Force One, a jet with a fuel budget no doubt rivaling the GNP of most nations. From the specs I’ve been able to dig up since, Air Force One has a fuel capacity of 53,611 gallons, which at current jet fuel prices of around $2 per gallon, would cost $107,222 for every fill-up. Once on the ground, the president has to board a presidential limo, part of a presidential motorcade of at least three identical limos. Those limos have to be either driven there (no huge trip from D.C. to WV, mind you), or flown in on a cargo jet. (I happen to know these particular limos were flown in, days in advance, and stored at the White Sulphur Springs Fire Department. Again, proof that small town libraries are Information Central.) That’s the major cost right there, but factor in the salaries of all the people necessary to make such an event happen, plus the president’s staff, sundry entourage, air-force one crew of 26, plus the press corps and you’ve got another heap of cash to add to the pile. Add to that what it costs to send in a dozen or so Secret Service agents and sniper-nest-spotters, days in advance, to make logistical plans, do background checks on local citizens of questionable loyalty and sort out any number of other security concerns, plus the cost of flying in official secret service helicopters to scout out the area for potential security threats and to shadow the motorcade when they’re on the move. Now factor in that they had to do all that TWICE, both for Cheney and for Bush and we’re talking more money than most of us will ever see in our lives. Then consider how much more it has to cost for either of them to travel internationally and you begin to see how easy it is for our country to be $6,414,708,153,391.81 in the hole.
Around 12:30, with no Bush in sight, I was beginning to wonder if he’d stopped off for a hamburger somewhere. Then at last at 12:35 a Secret Service helicopter, official seal on the sides and everything, soared low over the area, circled around and then followed a line of big black cars headed north on 219 toward the airport. I figured we’d be in for another twenty minute wait until Bush left the ground, but traffic began to flow almost immediately and we were able to escape Lewisburg.
You might think on a trip like this the last person who should be driving is the guy who has no idea where he’s going, but drive I did. We headed west on I-64, passing into Virginia, then turning north onto I-81. We continued north through the snow-covered countryside until we passed back into West Virginia, then into Maryland and finally across the Mason Dixon line and into Pennsylvania.
We rolled into Harrisburg, capital of Pennsylvania and our mystery destination, at around 4:45. Ashley’s printed internet directions lead us right to our Howard Johnson’s. (I chose to stay at Howard Johnson’s instead of the Radison because I’ve stayed in semi-swanky hotels before and beyond being a lot more expensive and having more associated fees, like $20 a day for parking, they’re not much different from a Holiday Inn. Howard Johnson’s was more our speed and price-range and proved to be one of the more comfy hotel stays we’ve ever had.)
We settled in at the HoJo around 5 p.m. to wash up because, according to Ash, we had a long way to go yet, but didn’t have to be anywhere until 7:30. Now her comment about flying didn’t seem as fishy to me. If we were flying somewhere, though, where the hell were we flying to? And at 7:30 at night? The only thing that came to mind was some kind of air-tour of Pennsylvania Dutch country, but it seemed like this would be pretty crappy after dark—the Pennsylvania Dutch not being known for their spectacular ground to air light shows. Maybe the hint about flying wasn’t to be taken literally. The mystery event we were to attend might involve actors flying around on wires or something. Perhaps she’d hooked us up with tickets to a Peter Pan revival. I might even wear church clothes to that.
Over a tasty dinner at Doc Holliday’s, Ash offered to outright tell me what the present was. I declined to know. I’d waited over a month already, so I may as well not ruin the surprise now. I did agree to her offer of a short series of yes or no questions, though.
“Are we going to a concert?” I asked.
“Is the concert for a band, as opposed to a solo act?”
“A band, then?”
“Do I have a CD by this band?”
She thought for a bit. “No.”
That threw me good. Now I had to come up with a band that both she and I would be interested in seeing but which I did not own a CD by.
“Do you own a CD by them?” I asked, sensing a technicality.
“Is this band involved in some kind of musical production.”
“You mean, like a Broadway musical?” she asked.
There went Peter Pan, or my Plan-B choice of a revival of the Abba-member-spawned musical Chess.
We left for the mystery concert at 7:05, this time with Ashley at the wheel. She said I wasn’t to look at the marquee or at any posters in the window once we had arrived at our venue. She wanted me to be completely in the dark on the band’s identity until they hit the stage.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
“No. Not nervous. Just sort of anxious, in a pit of the stomach, Christmasy kind of way.” And it was true. I hadn’t felt this level of anticipation about a present since I was a child.
We arrived in downtown Harrisburg around 7:15 and headed to the Market Street Theater. Even among the grid of one-way streets it was easy enough to find. Empty parking spaces, however, were thin on the ground. Ironically, there were plenty of vast empty parking garages, all of which were closed and shuttered. We would have to park on the street, but doing that involved a lot of driving around the same three block area in the hope someone had vacated one.
At 7:22, eight minutes from the start of the concert, Ashley began to go into stress out.
“We have got to find a parking space! The tickets say there will be no late seating!” she said.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t behave very well under pressure, particularly in cars. So many of my life’s bad experiences have revolved around cars making me naturally inclined to lose my grip, get snippy and curse a lot. It’s almost just as bad when I’m not driving, because my inner control-freak is convinced that things would be so much better if I was driving. It’s not necessarily true, but it sounds nice. This time, though, I realized I was slipping into stress mode too, a dangerous place to be when Ashley was already there ahead of me. I didn’t want to start swearing about our situation and sour the evening before it got started. But I could feel myself getting more frustrated that we seemed to be going around the same block over and over, trying to find an alternate entrance to the same closed and locked parking garage. I also had to keep my eyes peeled for stray parking spaces while at the same time avoid looking at the Market Street Theater itself whenever we passed by it on another trip around the block. Finally, three blocks away from the theater itself, across the street from the Pennsylvania State Capital Building, we spied an empty metered space. We had no change to feed the meter, but all the other meters lining the the block read -9.57, just like ours, so we wagered we were in an after hours safe zone.
My car’s clock read 7:28, which I knew was at least 2 minutes fast, but that still didn’t give us much time to make it to the theater by curtain time. We quickly walked past a series of expensive little shops, bars and coffee houses, all closed, before crossing the street to start down the next block. There we caught a break because the corner third of that block was taken up with an open parking lot with plenty of empty spaces. We were able to cut across it, saving valuable time. In retrospect, I bet we could have parked there as the giant signs reading “Restricted Parking By Permit Only” probably only applied during the week.
By the time we had crossed the lot and retook the sidewalk I was outpacing Ashley by several feet.
“Slow down! I can’t keep up with you!”
Slow down? I thought, continuing to power-walk. The idea is to get there as fast as possible. You speed up! But before I could unwisely put this into words, I was interrupted by a voice to my right.
“Excuse me, sir. Could I interest you in taking a look at something?” The voice came from a man on the sidewalk beside us. He was dressed warmly and was standing in front of what looked like bundles of incense, lined up in rows, leaning against the face of the building beside the parking lot.
“No. We’re late,” I said, not slowing my pace.
“On the way back then?” he asked in a hopeful tone.
“Maybe,” I called back over my shoulder.
We hit the corner of the third block, across from which was the Market Street Theater itself. The theater is a very modern structure that from the front looks like two multi-story, brownish, partially-glass-fronted boxes, with slanted roofs, sandwiching a third, grayish box, rotated on its axis at a 45 degree angle to the first two. While gazing up at the theater, though, I forgot to avert my eyes and accidentally caught sight of a poster in the window before I could shift my gaze back to the sidewalk. Oh, and the image was stuck in my head now! Fortunately, the poster was for a Lewis & Clark IMAX movie, which didn’t sound at all like our concert. I was probably still safe.
There at the corner, I waited for Ashley to catch up. No use running ahead into the theater when she had the tickets. As we crossed the intersection, I reached out to take her hand in order to gauge her mood. She snatched her hand out of reach, which I took to mean she was angry at me for walking too fast. Later I found out she just didn’t want me to drag her around the street at my top speed, risking a fall. At the time, though, I was irritated. This was supposed to be a happy, joyous evening but was starting to smell otherwise. We already had enough problems with circumstances conspiring against us without getting mad at one another here in the home stretch. It was enough to make a guy angry!
Through the glass doors of the Market Street Theater we could see a long line of people. The line snaked through the lobby—or what I dared to see of the lobby, lest I accidentally spy another poster—and part way up a staircase where people seemed to be joining it. I didn’t know if this was the line for reserved tickets or just to get in the door to the theater itself, but at least there were still people waiting to get in, so we wouldn’t be shut out after all. I followed Ashley into the lobby and up the steps to join the line. Then she stopped short and turned around to look at me.
“Oh…” she said in a whimper. There was a mixture of shock and despair in her expression and her eyes had begun to brim with tears. All of my previous irritation vanished.
“What?” I said. Then it dawned on me what she was about to say before she even said it.
“The tickets… They’re in my pocketbook… in the car.”
Now it had occurred to me, five minutes and three blocks ago when we were locking up the car, to ask about tickets. However, since everything but the presidential interference and the quest for parking had gone to plan, I figured she already had them and I kept my gob shut. As the power-walker of the family, I knew it now fell to me to go back to the car and get the tickets. Even more disturbing: I knew I would never be back in time if I merely power-walked. This was going to require something that I hate doing. This was going to require running.
Let me just state, I’m not built for speed. Never have been. Other than holding the uncontested world record for repeatedly beating my cousin Cameron in a foot-race from his front door to my grandma’s doorstep across the street, I make no claims of being a runner. Maybe in college, when I was at the height of my walking regimen and could take all three flights of Carpenter Hall’s stairwell (Now-With-Extra-Gravity-For-Your-Convenience!) without even breathing hard, maybe then I could have run to the car and back without stopping. These days, though, I’m wildly out of shape. The best I could hope for was to make it to the car and back without my heart exploding or any organs being coughed up. As painful as I knew it would be, it had to be done. My bride of 3 years had gone to a lot of effort on my behalf and I was going to be damned if we would have to listen to the mystery band’s concert from the lobby.
So began my actual anniversary flight.
Out the theater doors I went and down the side-walk I ran, at top speed. Real runners would probably have advised me to pace myself for a while by merely jogging to the car and saving top speed for the return trip. And had any of them been nearby to offer this advice, I might have taken it. Instead, my logic suggested that the longer I could go at top speed, the closer I would be to the car.
“Now I’m late with no tickets!” I shouted to the incense peddler as I passed him. My legs were already beginning to tire causing my pace to slow. I was practically pooping out at the starting gate!
I came to the big parking lot, intending to cut across again. Only as I reached the entrance to the lot, a car pulled into it and I had to stop to avoid being run over. The driver slowed to give me a perplexed look before driving on past me at this new slower speed and proceeded slowly along the exact route I was going to take. I was forced to detour between the rows of parked cars where I had to dodge piles of snow and near-invisible puddles of ice.
The lot’s exit put me at the half-way mark for the next block, shaving yet a fraction more off my journey. I staggered across the street, blood pounding in my ears, my knees and ankles beginning to sob. When I reached the sidewalk, my foot hit a patch of ice and slipped, but I was able to catch myself before falling. Memories of my earlier header into the back yard returned and the sudden fear of falling, breaking my ass and having to drag myself to the car by my finger-nails gave me pause enough to stop blindly running. I tried to downshift my legs into a power-walk, but that gear was slipping, causing me to lurch along awkwardly.
I turned the corner onto the block where our car was parked—at, of course, the opposite corner—and started down the last leg toward the mid-point of my journey. I tried to start running again, but could only go for short bursts before sinking back into a wobbly stagger.
Finally, I reached the car and retrieved Ashley’s pocketbook from the back seat, but decided against fishing in it for the tickets because A) I didn’t have any time; and B) I’d probably see who the band was in the process. I slammed the car door and began shambling back toward the theater.
As much of a party as it had been getting there, the return trip to the theater was even more miserable. My knees and ankles were by then really feeling the stress of having to drag the rest of me along and they were protesting by becoming wobblier by the minute. My lungs also decided to join in the protest by burning fiercely with each intake of frozen air. By the time I had made it back to the half-vacant parking lot, I had given up all pretense of running and had broken into a less than solid hobble.
Mid-way through the parking lot, it occurred to me that I should have just driven my car over and parked in this lot, thus halving my journey and getting me back sooner. It was far too late to go back and try this now, though, so I hobbled onward through the lot and then back onto the sidewalk.
I didn’t have the lung capacity to spare on any kind of quip for the incense peddler as I passed him. I was more concerned with my schedule. I knew that 7:30 had come and gone by now, so our chances for seating were entirely dependent on there still being people in line inside the theater’s lobby. The line had been huge when I left, so surely it would take a while for the people in it to be seated.
No! That was a rationalization allowing me to walk when I should really be pouring on the speed, I thought. So I tried running again, but it seemed like far more effort than I was capable of expending. I had to explain to myself that I was going to be in pain and misery at the end of my journey regardless so I may as well run now to end that journey as soon as possible. This reasoning worked and I started moving a little faster—not in a run so much as a barely controlled, falling, stumble that carried me across the final street and toward the theater itself. I kept my eyes on the ground, avoiding the giant marquee above me and any windows, so it wasn’t until I was directly in front of the glass doors that I could see that the lobby was now empty, save for Ashley. She saw me stagger up and opened the door for me.
“We’re okay, we’re okay! We’re not late,” she said. “The tickets say 7:30 but the sign here says 8.”
I nearly collapsed then and there. All that running. All that effort. And we weren’t even late.
“Ehh… huhhh…. huff… herrgh… eheeh… here…” I managed to say, thrusting the pocketbook into her hands, followed by my coat, which had suddenly become quite hot.
Ashley guided me further into the empty lobby, where everything was a dazzling white with occasional flashes of a pinkish hue as my eyes responded to the blood surging through my skull. Ashley advised me not to mouth-breathe in front of people; we were, after all, in the North now. She pointed me toward the bathroom where I could splash water on my face, then took our coats to the check counter. Later, she told me that the check counter girl gave me the strangest of looks as I passed on my way to the can.
“He had to run back to the car for our tickets. He’s not very happy about it,” Ashley told her. Then, in unison, she and the check girl both said, “He’ll live.”
As we followed an usher to our seats within the concert hall itself, I could actually hear my heart beating. This had nothing to do with finally getting to solve the mystery of who we were there to see, though. My cardiovascular system was still in run-mode, I was still having difficulty getting enough oxygen and had returned to mouth-breathing as a remedy. Then my brain noticed a strikingly unfamiliar middle-aged white guy on the stage. Of course, there are thousands of strikingly unfamiliar, middle-aged white guys in rock & roll. This particular one didn’t have any instruments, and was wearing a suit, but for all I knew he could have been one of the Moody Blues or even Peter Frampton. I found it difficult to pay attention to what he was saying, what with having to crawl over nine people to get to our middle of the aisle but still comfortably close to the stage seats. Once seated, lungs still a-heaving, I noticed that behind the fellow on stage was a giant sheet of cloth, hung from the theater’s fly system, on which had been painted a mural. The central figure on the mural was a gigantic African warrior and surrounding him were depiction’s of the African countryside as well as such painted phrases as, “Land for all”, “Wozani Kwa-Zulu Natal”, “Free Mandella”, “End Racism”. There was also a very telling phrase that read, “Ladysmith, 200 km”.
My mouth dropped open even further than it had been. There was only one group in the world that was likely to have that painted on a mural at their concert.
I leaned close to Ashley and whispered, “Ladysmith Black Mambazo?”
She smiled and nodded.
“Coolness!” I whispered between gasps of breath.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the group I was beaming about, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a South African acapella group who sing and dance in style traditional to the Zulu tribes of the region. They have incredible, vibrant harmonies that remain pitch perfect despite their high-kicking, tip-toed dance style, present on nearly every song they sang. (And no lip-synching. Take that, Brittany!) It was a style suppressed by the South African government’s Aparteid policies of the 1980s. They’ve been wildly popular in their homeland for decades, but only came to recognition in this country after their collaboration with singer Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland and in the subsequent tour. (Ash’s hint that I didn’t own a CD by them was true. Being my generation’s hugest Paul Simon fan, I do own Graceland, in L.P, cassette and enhanced CD forms, but it’s not technically a Ladysmith album. And while I do own one of their albums, it’s on cassette so her hint was excused.)
By the time the opening act had finished, I was back to breathing through nostrils only and my pulse had slowed to a reasonable rate. My lungs continued to burn well into the concert, but it was hardly even a distraction to my enjoyment of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance. It was an amazing, funny, and touching show, particularly considering that Ladysmith’s leader, Joseph Shabalala, recently lost his wife, Nellie, in a shooting in South Africa.
After the show, as we walked very slowly back to our car, passing by the capital building and enjoying the winter beauty that downtown Harrisburg has to offer, Ashley leaned close and whispered, “Was it all worth it?”
“Yes. Yes it was,” I replied. “It was a wonderful present.”
“Happy anniversary, Poo.”
“Happy anniversary, Swee.”
We then climbed into our car and proceeded to get horrifically lost trying to find our way back to the HoJo.
Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius
Karma is a strange thing, especially technological karma. Most of my friends have bad-tech karma to one degree or another. My friend Marcus Vowell has bad tech karma which causes every new piece of technology he buys to arrive pre-broken, a syndrome he calls Marcus Got The Broke One. Spends an awful lot of time on the phone with warranty clerks. My friend Joe Evans has bad car tech karma and can’t seem to keep a car for more than three years without it self-destructing in wildly creative ways. My friend Matthew Jamison has bad personal tech karma which, combined with some rather freakish body chemistry on his part, causes his body to drain all the power out of wrist-watch batteries within hours of putting one on. As for me, I think my tech karma is merely flawed, resulting in what I call Eric Can Never Have Nice Things Syndrome. I have nice things, sure, and while they’re not exactly broken, there’s always a but. My car is nice, but the windshield washer fluid chamber leaks like an SOB. My stereo is nice, but it skips every 20 seconds when playing CDs. My VCR is nice, but it refuses to let me program it anymore. My Dish Network system is nice, but it keeps deleting some of my network channels and it can’t make the VCR do my bidding any better than I can. And don’t even get me started on my former vehicle—the blue, 1985, Chevrolet Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd—nor its many radiator problems.
I used to think that this flawed tech-karma was a result of my being a cheap bastard and my refusal to buy quality technological components in favor of cheaper, crappier ones that fell off of trucks. After some research, though, I found that it doesn’t matter how much I pay for something, or how few trucks it may have fallen of, there’s gonna be a flaw in it regardless. This is especially evident in my computer.
In 1999, before I left Tupelo, MS, I purchased a new computer, though I didn’t do it all at once. My cohorts in crime, Gordon Carskadon and the aforementioned Matthew Jamison–fellow charter members of the Manly Bladder Club and the two people who had served as almost full-time consultants for all my old computers–planned out a new and better system for me that they would assemble from new parts. They listed off all the parts I’d need and told me where to get them. A short time and several successful Fed Ex and UPS deliveries later, I had a new and wonderful computer system that left my old one in the dust. Gordon had even gone so far as to overclock the Celeron chip so that it worked even faster than it was designed to. Sure, it did need a special cooling fan, fitted snugly to the chip itself, in order to keep it from overheating, but that’s standard procedure among us computer geek-types these days. Didn’t matter. I just knew that for the first time in recorded history I owned a computer that surpassed even Matthew’s in speed and coolness. I had finally broken my flawed karma curse.
Nine months later, in my then new home of Charlotte, North Carolina, the hard-drive started crapping out on me. I ran diagnostic programs from the manufacturer’s website and the bad news was that the drive had less than a month to live. Fortunately, it was still under warranty so the manufacturer sent me a new one for free. Unfortunately, I must have caught a case of Marcus Got The Broke One, because the new drive came pre-broken for my convenience; a fact I didn’t learn until after I spent several days and nearly $300 in phone calls to Matthew attempting to format the new drive and install Windows 98 on it. The manufacturer had to replace it again, and I had to start over.
About two months ago, in my new, new home in West Virginia, my computer began making a kind of odd, repetitive noise that sounded like a 1987 Ford Festiva engine idling. It sped up and slowed down and sped back up again but never quite went away. Matthew and Gordon suggested I check the cooling fans, cause if they were bad I needed to replace them before anything overheated. Sure enough, it was the Celeron chip cooling fan, clogged with two years worth of dust and debris. I bought a can of compressed air and cleaned it out good, but it still sounded a little off. After another month, it began to sound less like a 1987 Ford Festiva idling and more like a Ford F-350 Lariat, that’s thrown a couple of rods, idling. It was time to buy a new chip fan.
Last Monday, I ordered one and I wasn’t playing around this time. I picked out a Celeron Slot 1 Heatsink with Dual Cooling Fans—which my wife contends will just be twice the parts to break, but bigger is better in my book. In order to have the fan in my computer as soon as possible, I paid $9.90 for Fed Ex 2 Day Shipping. (This is the part where Shirley the pianist plays a scary chord.) Within an hour, the parts company had e-mailed me an invoice with my correct shipping address, phone number, e-mail, etc., and said the order had been processed and would be shipped shortly. I figured the fan would probably be in on Wednesday… Tuesday at the earliest.
Here is a reconstructed diary of the week’s events:
DAY 1, TUESDAY
Not much going on. Fan still idling noisily. Have taken the cover off the CPU case to allow the cold, January, West Virginia mountain air that is constantly seeping in through the cracks around our windows to flow freely through the computer’s guts. Had to go to my library workplace at 1, but wasn’t expecting Fed Ex today anyway.
DAY 2, WEDNESDAY
Off from work today. Sat around waiting for Fed Ex but they didn’t show. My heart skips at the sound of every truck on the road, but it’s never them. Perhaps the parts company didn’t get it shipped until Tuesday morning. They were only in Ohio, though, so the new fan should be here tomorrow. Hands cold now. So very cold.
DAY 3, THURSDAY
Still no Fed Ex. Had to go to the library for work at 3, but sent e-mail to the parts company asking for the tracking number. Not sure if it got through, because I replied to their auto-responder message from Monday. Tried again before bed, sending message directly to the company’s official e-mail address. Need to find electric blanket. Damn base-board heating!
DAY 4, FRIDAY
Parts company still hasn’t written back. Busied myself making a broccoli chicken casserole for the potluck dinner we’re attending tonight at the home of one of my wife’s med-school anatomy professors. After the party, we’re supposed to go to the alumni center for dancing and booze (read, watching medical students get outrageously faced and stumble around the dance floor for four hours. And since the wife is a designated driver, we’ll have to stay till the bitter end. On the upside, at least I can take snapshots for use in future blackmail schemes.)
At 4:30, I got sick of waiting for the parts company to write back, so I phoned them. A very nice lady named Marlene answered. She said they were having e-mail server troubles, explaining their lack of e-response. She confirmed my fan had been shipped on Monday and should have been in my hands long before now. “We could have sent it ground mail and it would have been there sooner!” she said. Marlene gave me the tracking number. Fed Ex’s tracking website said my package has been in Beaver, WV, for two days. It said something about there being an incorrect address issue. Damn straight, since I live in Ronceverte and Beaver is 40 miles away.
At 5 p.m. I phoned Fed Ex to ask why my fan was in Beaver. The operator lady explained that Beaver is their local hub, so it would make sense for it to be there. She further explained that there had been some sort of mix up and that they had tried to deliver the package to the wrong address. I told her I was a bit put out that I paid $9 for two day delivery and still didn’t have my package and was wondering what sort of compensation Fed Ex was going to offer.
“Well, I don’t think they’ll pay for this,” she said. “In these cases, our drivers have until 7 p.m. to make the delivery before we consider it late. So the driver will probably be by to drop it off to you before seven.”
“That’s all well and good, but my 2 day delivery package was shipped on Monday. Today is Friday.”
After a moment of doing the math she said, “Oh.” She then apparently looked at her screen again. “Well, this says that they tried to deliver it on Wednesday the 9th, but no one was home. Did they leave a door tag?”
Was she just making this up now? She had just told me that they had the wrong address in the first place.
“No,” I said, after fuming for a moment. “They did not leave me a door tag.”
“Well, since there was no door tag, you can probably fight this and get compensation.”
“I would hope so.”
Ms. FedEx explained she would contact the Beaver Dispatcher and that he would phone me for directions to my house so the delivery could be made by seven tonight.
“Well, that’s going to be a problem,” I explained, remembering the dinner party. “I’m leaving shortly and won’t be home until late.”
“Would it be okay for the driver to leave your package there?” she asked.
“If he can find the address, sure.”
“Oh, that’s right. He’ll need directions.”
“Yeeees,” I said, nodding my head.
Ms. Fed Ex seemed at a loss for what to do, so I suggested that I leave the directions as the outgoing message on my answering machine so the Beaver Dispatcher could phone and get them. She agreed that this would probably work, but that if my package wasn’t to me before seven then it would definitely be here some time on Saturday and that the Beaver Dispatcher would be calling me for directions then.
“And who do I call about the compensation?” I asked.
“Well, first the package will need to be delivered, then we’ll reimburse the shipper who can reimburse you.”
I’m happy to report that when I called Marlene back to let her know this, she had already spoken with her boss and they were going to refund my shipping charges regardless of whether Fed Ex reimbursed them. They certainly didn’t have to do this, but it sounded like good business to me.
The dinner party was very nice and great food and booze were had by all. However, the evening was clouded for me by the fact that Fed Ex was being such a skid-mark in the underwear of my life. I decided to skip the post party drunken dancing session and head home to see if my fan had indeed arrived. It had not. Nor had either of my two working caller-ID boxes registered ANY phone calls while we’d been away. The Beaver Dispatcher hadn’t even attempted to call.
DAY 5, SATURDAY
Bad omens from the get-go. While helping clear out our extensive collection of paper piles, I stumbled upon an uncashed refund check for the amount of $6.25 from the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass. It was dated October 21, 1997 and paid to the order of my wife. Already the monolithic corporations were insinuating themselves into my day, even rising up from the far buried past in which I briefly didn’t exist. This did not bode well.
After spending the entire morning off the internet so as to allow free flow of incoming calls, I phoned Fed Ex to find out what was going on. Ms. Fed Ex #2 told me, in what I detected to be a haughty tone, that the Beaver Dispatcher had noted in my account that he had phoned me Friday night and that I had not been home.
“Uh, no. He didn’t,” I said.
“Yes. It says right here that…”
“No. He did not call because if he had it would have registered on my caller ID and there were no calls on it between 5:15 and 8 p.m. last night.”
“Oh,” she said. She looked at her screen again. She confirmed my phone number to make sure they had it right. They did. She tried again… “Well, maybe he just didn’t listen to the answering machine message for the directions.”
“That might have been the case, had he called at all. But, as I’ve mentioned twice now, he did not call.”
Ms. Fed Ex #2 said she would send a message through to the Beaver Dispatcher telling him to call me immediately. If he hadn’t phoned within an hour, she said I was to call Fed Ex central back.
I gave him an hour and a half before calling back.
Ms. Fed Ex #3 sounded like a force to be reckoned with. This was no namby pamby Fed Ex operator. She had the voice and demeanor of a large black woman who, very politely, wasn’t taking any guff from angry customers. Every time she sensed that I was getting pissed off, which was pretty much the whole call, she’d slam on the breaks, with varying degrees of success. Having worked in a call center myself, I could respect that. Still, I launched into my tale about the bastard Beaver Dispatcher and stopped only when she interrupted to make a point.
“Fed Ex doesn’t deliver to your area on Saturday.”
“We don’t deliver to your area on Saturday unless you specifically requested it.”
“I did!” I shouted.
“I don’t show that here, sir.”
“But I called yesterday and was told…”
“There’s no need to shout, sir. I show that you called yesterday and when your local dispatcher called you back, you didn’t answer your telephone.”
“NO!! He never called! I’ve got two caller ID’s and there were NO CALLS!!”
“Sir, I’m not going to get into an argument with…”
“I don’t care what he wrote there! He didn’t call!”
“Sir, I will not argue with you on this…”
“This thing was supposed to have been here Wednesday!”
“And I’m trying to explain to you that don’t deliver to your area on Saturday, unless by request. Now did you request Saturday delivery?”
“At this point, I’m requesting that it be delivered at all.”
I briefly ranted more about being promised Saturday delivery by the last two operators, but Ms. Fed Ex #3 explained that Ms. Fed Exes #1 and #2 had evidently been talking out of their asses and had not checked the local hub status or they would have seen that not only did the Beaver Hub not make deliveries on Saturday, but that it was not even open on Saturday. Bastards!
DAY 6, SUNDAY
Went to church. Prayed for patience with those more incompetent than myself, prompt delivery of my fan on Monday, and that the new year will bring a lot less Terry Bradshaw during TV commercial breaks. In other words, a miracle.
DAY 7, MONDAY
Week two of Fed Ex’s 2 Day Delivery Service, begins.
At 10 a.m. I hopped on the Fed Ex tracking site and saw that my package was still sitting on a shelf in Beaver. I wanted to call Fed Ex and yell at them. I wanted to hold the receiver into the open guts of my computer and scream, “Do you hear that hideous noise? That’s the sound of my computer slowly dying because it’s Celeron chip is over-heating! Sure, I’m the moron who keeps using it anyway, but that’s beside the point. Is it too much to ask that when you pay for a guaranteed delivery time of two days that you get it? Is it too much to ask that I not be repeatedly lied to by some guy in Beaver? It’s not like I had my package shipped by the U.S. Post Office, which openly admits their 2 Day Delivery service is merely an unrealistic goal to be ignored. You’re Federal EFFing Express! You’re supposed to be the Mack Daddy when it comes to getting people’s crap to them on time! Now somebody up there needs to get a boat, go get Tom Hanks’ and his volley ball off the damn island and bring him back stateside so he can whip your doughy asses back into shape! If this goes on any longer, I’m gonna order a new fan and have it send two day UPS and we’ll see which one gets here first, 7 day head start be damned!”
This I did not do.
Instead, I opted for the nice approach. When Ms. Fed Ex #4 answered, I asked for the status of my package. She took my number and scanned the now lengthy adventures of my non-delivery. According to her screen, the lying Beaver Dispatcher had not only added a second attempted call to Friday evening’s activity, he’d also touched up the record to include a failed delivery attempt at 5:41 p.m. on Friday. According to him, the delivery didn’t go through because “customer not available or business closed.” Someone was trying to cover his ass.
I informed Ms. Fed Ex#4 of his treachery. I was even diplomatic about it, suggesting that he may have had the wrong address and phone number. Nope. She rattled off the correct contact information to me. Again I was vindicated. By the end of the call, Ms. Fed Ex #4 said that her screen showed my package had been loaded on a truck and was headed out for delivery. She would, again, have the Beaver Dispatcher call me with an ETA. She also took down the directions to our apartment and said she’d forward them as well. While that was great, it still meant I was stuck in the house all day, with no access to the internet, least dispatcher bastardo actually phone and find the line tied up. I couldn’t even leave the house for lunch at my favorite Chinese buffet, but then I remembered that they had been closed down recently because someone found a tooth in the food. A human tooth. With pulp. A mixed blessing, really.
By 4 p.m. I had a headache from plotting my revenge against Fed Ex. Just as well, since I had to leave to pick up the wife at school. I left a note for the Fed Ex guy, giving him permission to leave my package there, as it would be just like them to turn up or call during the ten minutes I would be gone.
When I got back there was still no caller ID appearance and no package. The wife needed me to follow her as she drove her car to a nearby repair shop to get a new clutch installed–further proof that bad tech-karma is contagious–but I didn’t want to go. Fed Ex had probably let me leave once to lull me into a false sense of security so they could drop by as soon as I went out again, then refuse to deliver my package. They’d probably leave a door tag telling me to drive 40 miles to Beaver to pick it up. Why not? They weren’t making any money off this anymore, so what did they care? The wife saw the dementia in my eyes and decided to ask a neighbor to help her. It was a good thing too, because they weren’t even out of the parking lot when the phone rang. It was Mr. Fed Ex Driver. Finally!
The driver said he was on my road, albeit still not in the correct town. I laughed maniacally at him and then gave him proper directions to the house. When he arrived, I was almost surprised that he wasn’t the embodiment of evil I’d been expecting. He certainly did seem put-out that he had to trek down our narrow, winding, WV back road to deliver a package to a mere residence, though. No doubt I was a sight to behold, stalking to the door in my robe and slippers, unkempt and unwashed hair jutting in every direction, greedily snatching the package away from him. And while I was tempted to pelt him with some old UPS boxes I had lying around, I let him go back into the wild, unscathed. No use further tarnishing my karma.
There are now two codas to this story.
By the following Friday, I had pretty much settled back into my usual schedule of not obsessing about my hatred for Fed Ex when tragedy struck. I went in to the library at 1 p.m. and had not been at work for 20 minutes when a familiar face walked through the door. Yes, it was Mr. Fed Ex Driver himself, coming in to do some internet surfing on his lunch break. I logged him onto the computer and quietly pondered the many ways I could make his day a little crappier, were I the kind of guy who went around doing things to make peoples’ days crappy. His big ol’ Fed Ex truck was sitting right outside, with easy access valve stems on its tires. But that’s just not me, man. Ruining his day would in turn ruin the days of the dozens of people across the county who had stayed home from work to wait on their 2 day deliveries, and Fed Ex is perfectly capable of fudging that up without my help. I gritted my teeth and behaved myself. I didn’t even snoop to find out what sort of porn this guy might be surfing for.
Temptation to commit unethical acts was not through with me, though. Mr. Fed Ex Driver left the library a half hour later, but managed to leave his wallet behind in the process. (Them online porn sites is `spensive!) For one brief moment, I held in my hands the power to put a severe kink in dude’s life. Again, though, that’s just not me. It’s not like he was the Beaver Dispatcher himself, or anything. This was just some schmoe workin’ for The Man like the rest of us. I put his wallet in the safe-box and put thoughts of revenge out of my head.
An hour or so later, the wife came in to visit and I told her of the destruction I could have wrought, were I the kind of guy who wrights destruction. We and the library staff all stood around, laughing and loudly discussing Fed Ex’s incompetence for several minutes until Mr. Fed Ex Driver startled us by suddenly coming back. The room became suspiciously silent as the subject of our little bitch session stood before us, looking a little nervous about having obviously walked in on something not for his ears.
“You, uh… You wouldn’t happen to…”
“…have your wallet?” our librarian finished. “Sure. Right here.”
Mr. Fed Ex Driver looked incredibly relieved when we handed it back to him. After he’d had a moment to search through it he said, “Wow! And all my money’s still there! I didn’t expect that.”
Perhaps he was just doubtful of society’s good intentions. Perhaps he thought we were laughing about having lunch on him. Or perhaps I’m not the first to have contemplated exacting revenge on this lowly minion of the Beaver Dispatcher.
The second coda to the story is that during the time it took to compile this tale, the radiator of my near perfect Malibu developed a leaky gasket or two and the scent of antifreeze is once more a familiar one around Chez Fritzius. We’re taking it in on Monday. Fortunately, this car’s still under warranty. And I can always use the Power Ass. check to help pay the deductible.
Copyright © 2002 Eric Fritzius
It’s Monday, July 23, 2001. My wife and I have exactly one week to get all of our material possessions stuffed into cardboard boxes in preparation for yet another life-upheaving move to another state and I’ve only just begun to pack. We’re hitting the road once again because after years of struggle, pain and rejection, my wife has finally been accepted into medical school at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Lewisburg, West Virginia. This means for the second time this year, we have to move. And not just across town, like last time, but up a frickin’ mountain. Across several frickin’ mountains, really. And with a squalling cat, no doubt. It’s a great opportunity, though, and one we’ve been working toward for a long time. However, it does mean I have to go back to being unemployed until I can find work in my new town; a new town that is located in a particularly economically depressed area of one of the nation’s most economically depressed states. Also not boding well is the fact that whenever I say “We’re moving to West Virginia” to anyone, the universal reaction I get is one of sorrow and pity. Not exactly sure why, as Lewisburg seems to be a really nice little town, but that whole economically depressed thing might have something to do with it. Our adventures there will no doubt provide fuel for Horribly True Tales for years to come. So while waiting for bad stuff to happen, I thought I’d take a look back at some bad stuff that already happened in a previously unrevealed horribly true tale. It’s the story of the time my former beloved vehicle, the Bent Turd, broke down due to an elemental force of malfunction known as Joe Evans. This particular tale begins in the spring of 1998, mere weeks after the radiator shattering events of “The Talkin’ Utter Desperation Bent Turd Blue Tub Blues.” It may be helpful to peruse the Rules of Joe before reading this story, just to familiarize yourself with how dangerous messing around with the power of Joe actually is. You can find it at:
Joe Evans is many things to many people. But you know that already. To me, though, he’s a fellow member of the Manly Bladder Club; my former co-host for Juice & Joe’s Four Colour Theatre, our celebrated, award-deserving radio show about comic books; my fellow co-star in such classic dramatic productions as Damn Yankees, The Boys Next Door and The Disposal; and he was a former roommate in our collegiate collective residence, back in Starkville, MS, which he christened “Da Crib.” (Many many horribly true tales could and will one day be written about Da Crib. Not just yet, though.) Yup, Joe’s been one of my best friends for the past ten years or so.
Back in the late 90’s, when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, it was a rare occasion that I got to hang out with Joe. Even though Tupelo is only an hour north of Starkville, the highway between them is such a boring desolate stretch that making the drive regularly can be taxing on the soul. It can also be taxing on the auto-repair bill, especially when one’s mode of transportation is an ailing `85 Chevy Caprice Classic that drives, as I seem to recall mentioning before, about as well as a bent turd. As it so happens, mine was.
One Summertime Friday, I was blessed to learn that Joe was planning to brave the soul-sapping trek from Starkpatch for a much needed weekend of card-playin’, Babylon 5 watchin’, indiscriminant cursin’ and Outback Steakhouse eatin’ revelry. This plan was marred only by the fact that, as part of my job as morning show DJ at Sunny 93.3, I was scheduled to do a radio remote broadcast in Houston, MS, that evening. The remote broadcast was at Splash Pool & Spa, of Houston. It was a fairly important event as the Splash people were holding a drawing for a $1000 spa and the qualifiers in the contest had to be present to win. This promised to be a mad circus, but possibly an enjoyable one. Because Joe had been in radio for about as long as I had, albeit in non-commercial radio, I figured I’d drag him along and let him see what a real commercial radio DJ had to put up with during a remote.
Joe arrived in town without incident and we whiled away the afternoon goofing off. I had calculated that the hour of 4:05 p.m. would be a good time to start pestering Joe to hurry up so we could leave, but my actual target departure time was 4:25 p.m., as I knew from years of experience that it would take at least 20 minutes to get him to actually move. That would leave us plenty of time to hit the ATM, hit a fast food restaurant, get over to the radio station to pick up the Sunny 93 van at 5 and get to Houston by 5:45 with plenty of time to set up for our 6 p.m. remote, the first on-air break of which wasn’t until 6:17.
I learned several valuable life lessons that day.
Lesson #1: Never calculate anything based on the predicted behavior of Joe.
At 4:35 p.m. we were only just stepping into the driveway in front of my festering hellhole of an apartment.
“What do you want to take? The Turd or Der Stuka?” Joe asked. Der Stuka was the name of Joe’s Volkswagon Golf, christened so because its many engine and suspension problems combined to make a horrifying noise that was not unlike the German fighter plane of the same name. Being a Volkswagon Golf also meant that while the German automotive craftsmanship of its air-conditioning system was a thing of efficiency, power and beauty, door handles that actually opened from both the outside and inside of the car weren’t as big a priority for its designers.
“Let’s take the Turd,” I said, proud that my vehicle was still driving impressively well after its recent radiator replacement and catalytic-converterectomy. By my count, we still had plenty of time to hit all our planned stops even with our delayed departure.
One of the unfortunate side effects of a visit from Joe, however, was my car’s tendency to self-destruct in his presence. Perhaps it’s due to the Joe Factor; that mysterious field of energy that surrounds Joe in which normally stable objects are likely to spill, explode, combust, spoil, fall apart, spill, receive nerve damage, spill, break, spill or begin speaking in tongues. The last time Joe had come to town, the Turd’s battery went into a coma in a grocery store parking lot and we were forced to spend a blistering four hours replacing it. My confidence that we would not have any automotive problems on this visit was ill-founded.
While getting moolah at the ATM, I caught a familiar whiff of anti-freeze. Couldn’t be coming from the Turd, I concluded. I’d had that radiator fixed already. It must have been coming from one of the other cars at the drive-through teller tubes, I reasoned.
Lesson #2: It’s always the Turd.
A quarter mile down the road, just as I was pulling onto the entrance ramp of Hwy 45, I noticed a loud clicking sound that seemed to be coming from the engine of the Turd. I tried to come up with some rationalization for the sound, other than it being the same hideous clicking noise that it made the last time it overheated due to having no coolant in its radiator. The engine temperature light conspired to dash my hopes. By this time, we were already more than half way to the radio station so I figured maybe, just maybe, I could make it all the way. Nothing doing. The car was starting to over-heat and was driving slower and slower and slower as we went.
“Should we pull over and check it?” Joe asked.
“Hell no!” I shouted. From my overheating experience a few weeks back I knew if I stopped to check anything the car would never start again and we’d be stranded for sure. If I was meant to be stranded, it would have to be a lot closer to the radio station than we were, engine-wear be damned! Amazingly and against all expectation, we made it up the exit ramp for Green Street, which lead right to to the radio station’s home street of Gloster. We had nearly made it to Gloster when the Bent Turd gave up the ghost and shut itself off. I coasted the Turd along the side of the road until we reached the gravel drive of Patrick Home Center, in which we rolled to a steaming halt. Sure enough, the engine was just hissing with heat and stink of burning oil. Up to this point, I’d been cursing like an Admiral on the U.S.S. Tourettes, but as I looked down at the pinging engine I found I didn’t really have the energy to say more than a few half-hearted blistering curses. I slammed the hood and began stomping down Gloster toward the radio station in silence. Joe followed.
Sunny 93’s production director and afternoon DJ, “Clark Kent,” was waiting outside as we came wheezing up the hill, ten minutes later. (And yes, everyone, including Clark, is fully aware of how completely lame that choice of on-air names is. Marginally moreso than my choice of Erik Winston.)
“Hey, where ya been, Erik?” Clark asked. “You know you’ve got a remote, right? I tried calling your house to remind you, but you didn’t answer.”
“Car… broken… Stalled on… side of… road…. Walked here…” I managed, stomping past Clark, who was still asking questions.
I hadn’t pre-loaded the van earlier in the day, and there’s a heap of stuff we have to take to remotes. I’d been making a laundry list of it in my head during my run/hobble: I needed advertising copy, the station’s ancient bag cell-phone, the ancient bag cell phone’s power supply box, bumper stickers, T-shirts—both for giveaways and one to replace the one I’d sweated through during said run/hobble—the ice-chest, and a couple cases of two-liter bottles of woefully flat soft-drinks. I would still need to buy ice for the ice chest, though, not to mention which was yet another delay in an already dissolving master plan. We threw everything in the van and hit the road.
“I’m hungry,” Joe said.
“Me too,” I said.
There was a Hardee’s on the way to Houston in the little town of Verona. We decided to pop in there real quick.
Lesson #3: Hardee’s is never quick; Hardee’s in Verona even less so.
We pulled in behind a truck at the drive-through line at Hardee’s. After a couple of minutes we decided that it was pretty strange that the driver of the truck wasn’t actually giving his order to the speaker, but instead seemed to be waiting to be asked what he would like to order. Another minute passed before some noise was emitted from the speaker and the man began to order. The ordering process was taking an unnecessary amount of time considering that he’d had at least 3 minutes to make up his mind already. Finally he pulled around to the next window and we pulled into his place.
For a long time nothing happened. No garbled voices issued from the speaker nor was there any indication that Hardee’s even knew we were there.
“Hellooooooo?!” I shouted. After a while there was a very very low sound from the speaker. I could barely make out the words but was pretty sure they were “Hold on.” The low voice eventually returned to the speaker and said something that might have been “May I take your order” but might also have been “May a diseased rat crawl out of our freezer and die in your ass” for all I could tell. I didn’t care. I just wanted food. We gave our order to the speaker and waited.
“You get that?” I shouted. A low noise sounded from the speaker but no words could be heard. I took that as confirmation and drove around to the pickup window where our friend in the truck was still waiting for his food. A bitter, curse-bejeweled eight minutes later and he still didn’t have his food. As far as I know, he’s still there waiting for it, cause I wasn’t sticking around there any longer. It was already 5:15 p.m. and Houston was at least 40 minutes away. I pulled around the truck and, with teeth bared, waved like a madman at the Hardee’s employee in the window as I sped out of their parking lot. I hoped they would be terrified of the bad publicity I could potentially bring them as a powerful media personage, but rather doubted they had ever had any good publicity to compare it by.
Now there are several ways to get to Houston, but since I’d only been to there once and had taken the Natchez Trace to get there, that was the way I decided to go. To get to the Trace, I made a right turn in the middle of Verona. We drove for a couple of miles until we came to a giant “Bridge Out” sign that was physically blocking the road. It might have been helpful to have included a similar sign, two miles, back in Verona, preventing people from going out of their way to learn this information. Evidently, signs is `spensive so no one had done so. There were no obvious detours, so we turned around and headed back to Verona. Before we could get there, the big giant bag cell phone rang. It was Gwen, the general manager of Sunny 93, calling to inform us that we needed to get to Houston as quickly as possible because Doug, the ad-sales guy in charge of the Splash Pool & Spa account, was going to be late because he had to go pay a visit to one of the station’s many delinquent clients.
“What a coincidence, we’re gonna be late too,” I said.
“What? You’d better not be!”
I explained the situation with the bent turd, our run/hobble to the station and our mad dash to leave town, our inability to get to the Natchez Trace and the fact that after a solid 20 minutes we were still in EFFing Verona. (Of course, I omitted the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food we never got at Hardee’s in Verona.)
Lesson #4: Always omit the part about spending 15 minutes waiting for food you never got at Hardee’s in Verona. You can save time by simply saying you went to Hardee’s in Verona and everyone will naturally assume that you never received food.
Gwen said she’d call Doug and tell him to skip the delinquent client and book it to Houston pronto. Someone had to be there to assure the Splash guy that all the dough he was dropping on this remote and drawing was not going to waste.
Meanwhile, I had 30 minutes to drive at least 40 miles, I didn’t know exactly how to get there and I still had to buy ice! Earlier in the day, Clark had suggested I go to Houston by way of Okolona (“Where the Wind comes Sweepin’ Down the Pain!”), some 20 miles to the south of Tupelo. I wasn’t exactly sure which road to take to Houston once I got to Okolona, but I was gonna worry about that later. Just getting there was more of a chore than I had hoped. Being around 5:30 on a Friday meant that there were plenty of people on the road. None of them seemed to be in any kind of hurry. Despite this, we made it to Okolona in record time. There were, of course, no signs in Okolona telling how to get to Houston, so I stopped at a convenience store where I hoped to find ice and directions. Joe found the ice while I found a clerk who gave me the impression that she was just passing time as a clerk until her appearance on Rikki Lake came through. Her directions for how to get to Houston consisted mainly of pointing a finger in the general direction of the four way intersection outside and saying “Go that way.” She asked why my radio station was going to Houston, as opposed, presumably, to staying in scenic Okolona. I told her.
“Splash Pool an’ Spa?” she said with disdain, stopping short of actually ringing up my ice. The clerk turned toward a large woman sitting behind the chicken heat-lamp case. “Hey, Patricia. Ain’t that where you got yore pool?”
“I said, ain’t that where you got yore pool? At Splash Pool and Spa?”
Patricia was silent for a moment. “Yayuh. I think that was them.”
“I wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them folks,” the clerk assured me. “Patricia’s been having all kinds’a trouble with her pool and they won’t send no one out to do nothing about it. Wouldn’t give a dog’s butt for them.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah. Beats all I ever seen.”
“Crooks!” Patricia said.
I hoped she was wrong, because if there’s one thing I hate doing it’s shilling for crappy businesses. The chances that she was mistaken were actually pretty strong, since there are like four pool places in Houston, though.
The clerk finally rang up my ice, but only after I loudly dropped it on the counter to provide an audio reminder that there was business to be transacted. After further dire warnings of the crooked, dog’s butt deficient nature of Splash Pool & Spa from both the clerk and Patricia, Joe and I bolted for the door and hit the road that presumably lead to Houston. Fifteen miles later, we found ourselves stuck behind a drunken midget.
Okay, he might not have been a midget, but he was at the very least a short drunken man and at the worst a drunken child. Whichever the case, the drunken midget wannabe was swerving his beat up Lincoln all over the road at the breathtaking speed of 40 miles per hour. There was a second car between the drunken midget and our van and this guy was having an impossible time passing the drunken midget due to all the swerving. We didn’t fare any better because we couldn’t even pass the guy who was trying to pass the drunken midget. It was an infuriating situation for a variety of reasons, but—and perhaps I should be ashamed to say it—the only reason I gave a damn about at that point was that he was making me even later than I’d already made myself. Eventually the drunken midget swerved off the road and, coincidentally I’m sure, onto another road, freeing us to violate the speed limit.
As we were approaching the Houston city limits, at 6:04, the giant bag cell phone rang again. This time it was Clark wondering if we were set up yet for our first break, scheduled at 6:17.
“No,” I said. “We’re not even in Houston yet.”
“You’re not in Houston?”
“Well where are you?” Clark asked, ever the voice of calm.
“We’re… close to Houston.”
“What road are you on?”
I clenched my jaw. “I have no idea! We’re close to Houston, all right?!”
“This is the reason we tell you to leave early for remotes. You’re supposed to be there at least a half hour before they start.”
Now I knew good and well that I was at least partially responsible for our lateness due to my foolhardy attempt to wring food out of Hardee’s. But that was where it ended.
“That’s right, Clark. My car overheated and I ran a half a mile to the station, hit a fallen bridge and then had to drive behind a drunken midget the whole way for my health!”
“Nevermind! I’ll call you when I get there!”
Lesson #5: Never deal with Clark when you’re pissed. He can always find a way to make you even angrier.
After reaching down-town Houston, I began to regret not having paid attention during Doug the Ad Guy’s seminar on how to find Splash Pool & Spa. I remembered a landmark or two, but neither of them really looked like they did in my head, so I drove past them. If it hadn’t been for the mass of people standing around a spa, practically in the middle of a side street, I might have missed the place. Doug the Ad Guy was already there, running interference with the client and the herd of qualifying listeners. I breathed a sigh of relief, backed into the parking lot and tried not to run over anybody.
It should be understood that Sunny 93’s out of town remotes are accomplished through no great technical means. Essentially the DJ phones the radio station on a cell-phone, which is then piped through the sound board and sent out over the airwaves. We don’t actually need the big speakers and antennas and road rack sound system at all. That stuff’s pretty much just a glorified stereo system that lets us play our signal at the remote for ambiance and to let the DJ know when the commercial breaks start so he can get ready to call the studio. To do that, though, he needs a working cell phone. Sunny 93’s big clunky bag phone came with a plug-in power supply the size and weight of a fat brick. The power supply plugged into a standard power strip attached to an extension cord which had to be plugged into a local power outlet in order for any of this to work. The tricky part is that there are TWO such power supply bricks at the radio station, only one of which actually works more than intermittently. They’re identical in appearance, are unlabelled and are almost always in proximity to one another on the storage shelf. You can guess which one I grabbed on my way out the door that afternoon.
Joe and I dumped the contents of the van on the ground and I began hooking up the phone while Joe searched for an outlet. I hoped to have everything working by the time my first break hit. By my internal clock, I had two minutes.
Lesson #6: It’s always less than two minutes.
It was sticky and hot outside the van. The contest qualifiers, who were presumably valued listeners as well, were watching the whole process, fanning themselves with whatever paper they could scrounge. I tried to look pleasant and smile and not appear at my sweaty wits end as much as possible. One of the qualifiers came over to say hi. I recognized his voice before he could finish introducing himself. He was Lloyd the Über Listener. Lloyd loved Sunny 93 and listened to us all day, every day. He won nearly every contest we had, as often as we would allow him to. And while such listening habits are the stuff of a programming director’s dream, actually meeting someone who does nothing but listen to the radio all day is not without a high degree of creepiness. After all, it takes people of a certain stripe to be so devoted to soft hits format radio. Lloyd was their king.
I had just hooked the cell phone into it’s power supply brick and then plugged the brick into the van’s power strip, for which Joe had found an outlet, when Lloyd shambled up to shake hands. Unfortunately, despite having plugged everything up correctly, the little light on the power-supply brick had not turned on and no sound was coming from the van’s speakers. Something was very wrong. I couldn’t tell when my break was about to start without our signal through the speakers, and I couldn’t have the speakers nor the cell phone without power.
Lloyd was still trying to press his hand into mine and I realized that being a polite, smiling, friendly DJ and getting my equipment running before the first break were probably mutually exclusive concepts at my stage of sanity.
Lesson #7: Always be polite, smiling and friendly to your listeners. Unless they really piss you off.
I quickly shook Lloyd’s hand and asked him to excuse me while I went back to plugging cords. So far I was remaining calm, but I so wanted to launch into my usual fit of cursing. How could I, though, what with God, Lloyd and everyone else watching.
Lloyd, was not only an Über Listener but an amateur radio engineer as well. He was attempting to be helpful by asking if I’d hooked up our microwave antenna yet. As he understood it, that’s how things were done now-a-days. We didn’t have any such creature. But even if we had, we didn’t have any damn power to run it with.
Fortunately, Joe was there.
I know, that’s a rare combination of words to be associated with Joe, but his presence, despite the Joe Factor, was actually helpful. He noticed that a cord had come loose from the back of the road rack and that fixed our sound problem. The speakers came to life and we were in the middle of a commercial. Hearing commercials was my cue to call the radio station and be ready for my break, which occurred after all the commercials had played. Sunny 93 was mostly run by satellite feed and timing the breaks properly was essential and not easy to alter at the last moment. If I didn’t call in, we could easily wind up with a minute of dead air and a pissed off Spa guy who was paying out the nose for that time. And because I’d grabbed the broken power supply brick, the phone was dead and I couldn’t call in.
Most DJ’s faced with this situation would have simply unplugged the bag phone from the power supply, walked around to the driver’s seat, plugged the phone into the cigarette lighter jack and then turned the van on and called. Not me. My first thought was, “Doug’s got a cell phone!”
I dove past Lloyd and into the herd of listeners who were glutting the parking lot and the store’s doorway. I had to practically fight my way through them, no longer caring if they found me polite, friendly or smiling. I was expecting at any moment to hear the remote tones play over the speakers signaling my first failed remote break of the day. Inside, Doug was behind the store’s counter, using his cell phone.
“DouggetoffthephoneI’vegotabreakintwentysecondsandIcan’tcallthestationfromthevan!” I shouted.
“I need your phone! Now! My break is in under 10 seconds!” I didn’t actually have any idea how many seconds I really had, but it might have been less than 10 for all I knew. Doug got the gist if not the actual message and hung up on whoever he was talking to and passed the slim little phone over.
I made a break for the van, where I’d left my page of remote copy, frantically dialing as I ran. I fully expected that with my luck the phone line would be busy.
Dammit, Clark was probably trying to call the van phone and was tying up the line. I hit redial and this time it began to ring. At the same moment, I heard remote tones play over the van’s speakers followed by silence. The break had started without me! Then, from the phone’s receiver I heard a click. I hoped that click meant Clark had flipped the switch that opened the call to the airwaves.
“Sunny 93.3, this is Erik Winston broadcasting live from Splash Pool & Spa in Houston…” I cheerfully said into the phone. My voice came out of the van’s speakers at the same time. Whoo hoo! Clark had opened the connection just in time! Granted, it was a bit of a gamble on his part, since it could have been any old yahoo calling in and not me. For all he knew, it could have been Lloyd. Still, it had worked and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for Clark’s gamble that I nearly lost my ability to speak coherent sentences.
The rest of the remote went pretty well once I’d had a chance to cool down. Lloyd, it turned out, was not nearly as creepy as he could have been. And while he didn’t win the spa, he was happy enough to drive away with a Sunny 93 T-shirt, which he would no doubt put in a drawer next to the half dozen or so other Sunny 93 T-shirts he had won over the years. The store’s owner was also very happy with the remote and struck me as the kind of businessman I might give a dog’s butt for after all.
After the remote was finished and we had packed up the equipment, Joe and I retired to the Hardee’s of Houston, where we received our meals right on schedule and grill fresh.
As for the Turd, rather than attempting to fix it ourselves, we had it towed to my usual mechanic the following morning. The mechanic said a radiator hose had come loose but that the engine was no more worse for wear than usual. He fixed it up and gave me a knowing wink that said he knew I’d be back to see him before long.
Lesson #8: Owners of cars that drive like bent turds always come back.
Copyright © 2001 Eric Fritzius
I’m starting to think that maybe I shouldn’t be allowed to be a home owner. Or a home renter. Or be allowed in other peoples’ homes. Or, for that matter, be allowed to own appliances that are capable of generating heat of any kind. It’s a realization that has been slowly dawning on me for the past few months, though the evidence has been startlingly obvious.
This year marked the first Thanksgiving as a married couple for Ashley and me. It also marked the first time that either of us had to prepare Thanksgiving dinner, almost exclusively by ourselves. Family and friends were brought into our home and fed what turned out to be a pretty scrumptious meal, right down to the three pumpkin pies I made while attempting to make two. We couldn’t have asked for things to go any smoother, except maybe for the incident involving one of Ashley’s friends pouring every last drop of our leftover gravy down the sink. I had to go to the store on broth runs no less than five times, once on Thanksgiving day itself, to make that damn gravy, and down the disposal it went on the premise that “gravy doesn’t keep well.”
After a couple of days of gnawing on leftover Turkey sandwiches, (dry turkey, mind you, as we had no gravy; see above,) it was clear that the time had finally come to make the traditional post-Thanksgiving kettle of turkey soup. Ashley began the process of boiling the turkey off the bones one morning just before leaving the house to go Christmas tree shopping. Before she left, she informed me of the bird on the burner. Now, I presumed she told me this because she didn’t want me to freak out if the house were suddenly filled with the aroma of cooking turkey. She, on the other hand, presumed that by telling me this I would take the initiative of checking on the turkey and make any necessary burner temperature adjustments before I left for work. We both could not have been more wrong.
By chance, I did wind up in the kitchen before leaving and did note that the large, bird-filled, cast iron kettle was just a simmering away and emitting a not entirely appealing turkey smell into the air. The burner was set on medium, which seemed a little hot to me for something that was presumably going to be cooking all day, but since Ashley always knows what she’s doing in the kitchen, and because I’ve screwed up her master plans by meddling in the past, I was not about to touch the oven and risk having to sleep on the guest bed. I did turn on the ventilation fan, though, so the house wouldn’t smell of stinky bird when she came home. I went to work, safe in the knowledge that I’d done right.
An hour or so later, Ashley called me. It seems that when she returned home from Christmas tree shopping she was greeted by a house filled from floor to ceiling with thick black smoke and the incredible stench of charred bird carcass. How the cat survived, we’re still not sure. Ashley was furious with me for not turning the burner down before I left, especially since I had turned the fan on so I had obviously seen that the kettle was too hot. However, in the face of never actually having told me to do anything to the turkey in the first place, and due to the fact that she was well aware of my status as a complete goob long before she married me, she wasn’t able to back her emotions with a solid accusation. I too could not get justifiably angry with her for running off and leaving the kettle on medium because I had clearly seen that it was too hot and had not done anything about it. It took two days to air out the apartment, and nearly a month before the noticeable char-broiled turkey stench stopped sucker punching us in the nose whenever we walked through the front door. And still, on particularly humid days, it returns from within our furniture to haunt us further.
That incident should have been a valuable life lesson never to be repeated.
Last night I went to make some tea. Simple enough. I took out my favorite mug, selected a fine bag of Philosopher’s Blend tea, filled our new, stainless steel, whistling teapot with water from the tap, set it on a burner atop the stove, turned a burner on and scurried back to the living room to watch the X-Files. A short time later the sound of gently boiling liquid could be heard from the kitchen and I knew my tea would soon be ready. Sure, I could smell something burning, but I chalked this up to there being some grease on the burner from the meat-loaf dinner we’d consumed earlier.
“Do you smell something burning?” Ashley said, a couple of minutes later. Now that she mentioned it, something really did smell like it was burning. In the middle of standing up to see about my tea, my mind flashed back to when I first turned on the burner. To my horror, my mind’s eye saw that the burner I had turned on was not the one beneath the tea kettle, but was actually the one beneath the Corningware dish from the meat-loaf within which had been resting a plastic spatula. Before I was even fully upright, I was scrambling for the kitchen, uttering my favorite mantra of panic, which rhymes with “muck a funky.” Already, there was thick smoke and the flicker of flames within the kitchen. Sure enough, the spatula in the Corningware had partially melted and caught flame.
There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of the HBO series The Sopranos where mob-boss Tony’s mother, Livia, overcooks some mushrooms in her kitchen, starting a grease fire. As the flames grow higher, she just stands there looking at them, powerless to do anything except scream “Oh, the flames! It’s burning!” When I saw that episode, I wondered how anyone could just stand there and let their kitchen burn? How can you not have common sense to do something about it?” Of course, as I stood in my own kitchen, watching the flames creep higher and higher from the Corningware, the only thought in my head were the words “Fire!!!! Fire!!!! Fire!!!!” No rational impulses as to what to do next, no notions of reaching for the handy extinguisher, only “Fire!!!! Fire!!!! Fire!!!!”
After a few moments, I developed enough presence of mind to realize I needed to act, so I reached for the non-burning end of the spatula and pulled it from the Corningware. The burning end was, however, still burning as were the remnants of it within the Corningware. Great! Now I had two fires to put out. Starting with the fire that was slowly burning toward my hand, I began flapping the spatula in the air to shake out the flames, using much the same principle as shaking out a match. This worked, but only because it flung all the burning, molten bits of the spatula throughout the kitchen like little blobs of napalm. These decorated the walls, the counters, the microwave, the refrigerator, the floor and me, but I didn’t notice them right away as I was then trying to figure out what to do about the flaming Corningware. Again, my solution was to turn on the ventilation fan. The fire didn’t go away, of course. In fact, it was probably burning brighter now that fresh oxygen was being sucked into the room. I then turned off the burner, but that didn’t have much effect on the fire either. About this time our smoke detector, which isn’t even two steps from the kitchen door, finally got around to noticing the smoke and went off. Fortunately, Ashley, who is a trained fire-fighter from back in her Emergency Medical Technician days, came to the rescue, first by removing the smoke detector battery then by walking into the kitchen and calmly placing a big metal cookie sheet atop the Corningware. The fire’s oxygen supply now cut off, it died.
We then realized that our own oxygen supply was doing none too good either. The poisonous fumes from the burning, non-stick plastic had filled up the kitchen and had begun to fuse in microscopic particles to our nose-hair. We held our breaths and ran around opening windows before fleeing the apartment, Amityville-style. We stood in the freezing cold corridor in our sock feet and jammies until we thought the place had aired out sufficiently. It was only after returning that we noticed the little blobs of spatula napalm stuck to nearly every surface in the kitchen. Fortunately, they had mostly extinguished on impact and were no longer a threat to life, limb and countertop.
That my lesson had still not been learned after the first incident bodes rather ill for the future. Especially considering that we will soon be leaving the special comforts of the Sailboat Bay apartment community for what we have judged to be much better digs in a much better area of town. And where Sailboat Bay was an immense trade up from the Festering Hellhole I lived in Tupelo, our new digs will be an even better trade up from the Bay. We have agreed to move into what used to be a swingin’ bachelor pad the likes of which would near rival Austin Powers‘ London flat. It’s a two bedroom, above garage apartment, complete with giant wooden deck, spacious living room, an enormous kitchen, walkthrough closets, shelf space for days, cable TV available in every room including the tile-laden, jacuzi-tub-filled bathroom and is located in a neighborhood where you’re unlikely to find strangers masturbating at your back door, unlike here in the Bay. Complicating the move, besides my newfound fire-bug tendencies, is the fact that the new pad in question is also owned by my employer. I burn that sucker down, I lose home and job all at the same time.
Copyright © 2000 Eric Fritzius
It’s been a complete surprise to me, but the state of North Carolina has treated me remarkably well these past few months. Not the state’s government, mind you, who ran me through hoops to get a simple driver’s license in my last Horribly True Tale. No, what I mean is, it’s been unexpectedly pleasant, living in the big NC.
When I first moved here, I’d rather been expecting an upsurge in material for new and more horrific Horribly True Tales. After all, you don’t just uproot and move all your stuff 600 miles to a state where you don’t have a job and expect everything to go smoothly for you. I eventually began to wonder if I needed to take up writing non-whiny, bright happy tales of romantic bliss, since nothing bad seemed to be happening to me that would make for a good horribly true story. Even my wedding day–which, if you’ve ever been through such a thing you know how stressful and accident-prone they tend to be–went of with very few hitches. Sure, we probably needed the wedding equivalent of Cliff’s Notes since we had no rehearsal and were pretty much winging the whole thing. And sure, the minister dropped Ashley’s ring in the middle of the ceremony and had to cover for it by switching his own ring into it’s place, which might technically mean I’m married to him now, but the audience was none-the-wiser and that’s the point. And the car known as The Bent Turd, my beloved 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic and our departure vehicle for the honeymoon, got us to Gatlinburg and back in once piece and didn’t drop any of its pieces on the way. It’s also made numerous trips as we began moving our things from Hildebran into our new apartment in Charlotte without stranding me on the side of the road even once. In fact, other than having one of its taillights smashed when Ashley’s cousin backed into it with her truck, the Turd had been running in tip top condition the entire time I’d been in the state.
I think we all know where this one’s going next.
One day, a month or so after my wedding, as I was driving around Charlotte in the Turd, I happened to notice the distinctive smell of gasoline fumes coming from the air vents. My theory on this, brilliant mechanic that I am, was that I must have flooded the car while starting it and the fumes were simply lingering from that. Never mind that I had no recollection of flooding the car, that was my theory. The next evening, as I was going to the grocery store, the Turd stalled out in the apartment’s parking lot and I couldn’t get the engine to turn over at all. Ash also figured I must have flooded it, since she could smell fumes too, and she suggested that the car had some sort of gauge that shut off the starter if there was gas nearby. I thought that sounded a bit more sophisticated than `85 Chevys are generally known for being and figured it was most likely a starter problem. Then again, there were the fumes to consider.
The next day, we had it towed to Pep Boys, which I chose since I like their TV ads featuring the large craniumed cartoon mechanics, Manny, Moe and Jack, (one of whom, Manny, I think, looks a lot like Hitler with wire rim glasses.) We told the Pep Boys that we thought the starter had gone bad and that we smelled gas fumes and they went to work on it immediately. They called back shortly and said that in no way was this a problem with the starter since they had done some diagnostics, i.e. turned the key, and it started right up with no trouble. The peeps at Peps thought it was either a fuel problem or an electrical problem. Ashley told them that we really thought the starter was having problems too, but they took this with the kind of skepticism reserved for people who they don’t know are the daughters of mechanics. A few hours later, they called and said it was a fuel pump problem. Another few hours later, they called to say it was fixed and we could pick it up.
There’s a reason Manny Pep Boy looks like Hitler. Hitler couldn’t fix a car either.
The next morning, exhausted from my third-shift disk jockey gig where I basically sat on my ass and surfed the internet all night, I turned up with a groggy Ashley in tow to pick up the car. After paying the bill and waiting several minutes for my car to be brought around from the garage, I decided to go around to the garage to see what was holding them up. In the garage, was my car, still parked, its hood open and a mechanic underneath attaching a portable jump-start charger to the battery.
“Battry’s dead,” he said.
“I doubt it,” I replied. I let him unsuccessfully try to start the engine, before mentioning that the whole reason we’d brought it to them in the first place was because it wouldn’t start. I invited him to try the lights so he could see that it was not the battery at fault. They worked perfectly.
The mechanic scratched his head and said “Was we finished with it yet?”
“That’s what we understood when we were called and told we could pick it up.”
The mechanic just shrugged and then pretended someone had called him from the front office and left. I decided to go talk to someone in the front office too. The manager type on duty, whose name tag proclaimed he was called Dick, seemed plenty perplexed by it all too. Dick assured me that he would put a man on it when “a man” showed up at ten.
Meanwhile, Ashley had long since ditched me, figuring I could take care of things on my end and drive the repaired car home. She had to go upstream through morning rush traffic to get back to pick me up. While I was waiting for her, I eavesdropped on the conversation between Dick and another Pep Boy in the lobby. A customer had come in for a tune up and they told him that his car would have to wait until a bit later in the day because they didn’t trust “the man” they had coming in at ten to do the job. Wait a second, I thought. This guy can’t do a tune up, yet they’re trusting him to figure out what’s wrong with my car?!! What the hell? I was way too tired to throw a fit, though, so I let it slide, hoping that they were talking about a different “the man” than “a man.”
Turns out, it didn’t matter what “the man” coming in at ten could or couldn’t be trusted to do, because no one actually told him to look at my car when he got there. At 3:30 in the afternoon I phoned for a progress report and found there was no progress to report. No one had even given the car a glance. Dick was no where to be found and the manager on duty, Don, hadn’t been informed that anything was wrong with my car, so he just let it sit in the garage with its hood up, untouched all day.
“That’s odd,” I said. “Dick told me he was putting a man on it at ten.” If I was gonna have to put up with this crap, at least I could get Dick in trouble for it. Don assured me that he was gonna start throwing mechanics at the car until one of them stuck and would call back as soon as they knew anything. Not too long later, he phoned back to say that, lo and behold, the starter was bad. Don said that since they’d dropped the ball on that one, they were gonna throw in a “new” starter for free. We just needed to pay for the labor, which was another $72. I gritted my teeth and agreed to it. After all, it would have cost us more than that had they figured out the starter problem from the beginning and had to replace it and the fuel pump at the same time.
When they were finished replacing the starter, Don called back and said he’d like to keep it over night because he wanted “to see how it starts after sitting cold for a few hours.” Here’s how Don’s flawed theory worked: When the car was first brought in, it had started just fine due to it being all warm and toasty, never mind that it had sat cold all night and was towed over to Pep Boys without having its engine started at all. Later, after having been “fixed,” it started up just fine, cause it was warm then. But, after sitting cold in the garage all night it was unable to be started in the morning cause it was cold. Now Don wanted it to sit cold for yet another night, with its new starter, which did work, to see if it would start in the morning. I told him on the phone that I much preferred to have my car now since Ashley was working late and couldn’t drive me to work. He didn’t much like that and said he’d rather keep it. When I showed up in person and asked for my car he didn’t put up a fight. The car started fine. It got me to work, and in the morning, after sitting in the 57 degree chill all night, it again started just fine.
All this car activity, or rather frequent inactivity, spurred in me a desire to finally own a car that didn’t crap out on me quite so often. The following weekend, we went car shopping. My hope was to find a good, low mileage, mid to late 90s vehicle in the five to seven thousand dollar range. However, after shopping around at several dealers along the Car Dealership Strip, we discovered this was a pipe dream. We’d either have to pay a lot of money for a really good used car that fit the above criteria, or settle for a Kia Pet. (Kuh kuh kuh krappy!) Then, just as we turning into yet another pricey used car lot, the Turd up and died before we could even get to a parking space. Once again, the engine wouldn’t turn over at all.
Our insurance company said it would take two hours for the tow truck service to get around to us, so we called Pep Boys. They seemed skeptical that our latest breakdown could have been at all their fault, but said they could get a tow truck to us in half an hour. However, it turned out they were using the exact same tow service as our insurance company, and had just elected to lie to us about the time, so two hours it was. Fortunately, we were in the midst of used car central, so we could at least use the time to shop. Unfortunately, we were on the sharky used car salesman side of the road and after an hour of fending them off with sticks, we bravely crossed the four lane to get to the Saturn dealership on the other side.
I’ve always heard good things about Saturn and how their company is set up, (completely employee owned, big emphasis on customer service and no haggle prices.) Seemed pretty good to us. No sharky salespeople came at us with teeth bared. Instead, a guy named Calvin came up and showed us their selection of used cars. Our eye was instantly caught by a `99 Chevy Malibu with a V.6 engine and only 29,000 miles on it. We took test drives. We liked. Ash got her mother on the cell phone and had her look Malibus up on the internet. Turns out they’re good cars with great safety ratings. Better and better. The only reason we didn’t stay and hang out with the Malibu for the rest of the evening was that the tow truck finally showed up.
If you’re ever stranded in Charlotte, Ace Towing service is the way to go. My car was parked in a position that would normally make it impossible for a tow truck to get in front of it to pull it onto the tow bed without smashing up the front glass of the dealership we were stranded at, but this was no problem to the Ace man. Instead of pulling the Turd onto the tow bed, he backed his entire truck up under the Turd with a remote control system on the side of his truck. I had no idea they could do that. Out of all the times that car’s been towed, this was by far the most impressive. Even more impressive was that the Ace man drove us home after dropping the Turd off at Pep Boys.
The next day, Pep Boys called to inform us that the rebuilt starter they’d put in the Turd, to replace the original bad starter, had itself gone bad. They would be replacing it again, free of charge, and would reimburse us for the towing charges. They assured us that our experience was in no way a typical one of Pep Boys customers and hoped we would consider darkening their door in the future. He’s probably right about the atypical experience part, but I still had to resist the urge to Zeig Heil to Manny on the way out.
Over the next few days, we went to other used car places and took other test drives, but each was compared unfavorably to the Malibu we’d tried at Saturn. Still, we’d never find that bargain car if we didn’t keep looking for it. That logic kept us going for another day or two, until one morning when I stopped at Bruger’s Bagels to pick up breakfast and, after coming out with my food, attempted to start my car. When I turned the key I was met with a high-pitched roaring sound, kinda like how I imagine a velociraptor would sound while being sucked into a jet engine intake. I immediately turned off the ignition and removed the key. The engine stopped. The high pitched roar continued at full volume. Evidently, I’d set some horrific process into motion and the Turd was about to go “Christine” on me. I grabbed my bagels and got the hell out. Pep Boys could come fight the car themselves if this was how their replacement parts were going to behave! Before I had the chance to call them, though, the roar died off and the car went silent. After enough time had passed that I was fairly sure it wasn’t a cunning trick, I snuck back over to it and it started up just fine. However, the writing on the wall was clear: The Turd knew I was about to get rid of it and it wasn’t happy. Action must be taken.
Buying the Malibu was a pretty easy process. We just had to answer a whole bunch of financial questions then sign our names on 452 separate documents. This was easier for Ashley, who writes naturally in cursive. I don’t. I abandoned cursive in the sixth grade after enough teachers complained that they couldn’t make out what the hell language I was trying to write in, let alone grade it. I said screw em and became a staunch and even militant user of print. (The complaints about my handwriting never actually ceased following this decision, but at least I felt like I was taking a stand.) The only use I have for cursive these days is my signature, and even that’s debatable. Over the years it has evolved into little more than a wild scribble, resembling the words “Eric” and “Fritzius” about as closely as it does “Orville” and “Reddenbacher.” But, as I’ve detailed in a past Horribly True Tale, the state of North Carolina is not happy with only your first and last names, whether it’s at the Department of Motor Vehicles or a Retailer of Motor Vehicles. No, you must supply as many names as you can come up with, have verifiable photo-proof in triplicate and a signed letter from God. And don’t even think about just putting down an initial. That initial could mean ANYthing! You would think that the word Wade would be a fairly easy name to write in cursive considering that the letters involved are some of the most straightforward to produce in that form. However, after a couple of truly pitiful attempts at writing Wade in cursive, I again said screw em and from that point forth signed the Eric and Fritzius in my pseudo cursive scribble and the Wade in plain print. It looked incredibly stupid, but I have my principles, dammit!
Unlike many car dealerships, our only negotiation in the purchase at Saturn was deciding how little money we would be willing to take in trade for the Bent Turd. You might assume I’d practically give it to them after my scare in the Bruger’s parking lot. But the process felt a lot like deciding how little money you’d take in trade for an elderly, perpetually ill, irritable, yet very dear friend. Sure, this old friend might live for years to come, but there would be a lot of snot, vomit and passing out to deal with along with any good times. I knew the Turd wasn’t worth much cause I’d looked it up on the Kelly Blue Book website last year. In mint condition, it would go for perhaps less than $1500, so what chance did my rusting hulk with three working doors, nearly 200,000 miles, a faulty oil light, a still questionable starter and a penchant for belching blue smoke have on a trade? Saturn’s appraiser looked it over, gawked at the mileage, drove it around the parking lot for a bit, asked a few questions and then secluded himself in his office to formulate a way to let us down easy. He came back and explained that few car dealerships do trade-ins based on Kelly Blue Book and usually rely on what they could get for them at wholesale auction. He pointed out that three `85 Caprice Classics went for $50 each in such auctions in the past few months. He then asked what figure we were hoping for. Just to start the haggling off, I threw out a figure that I would be willing to accept, but which I didn’t figure I’d get, $500. He blinked for a while and pointed out the whole $50 auction price again, and how he could easily wind up losing money on the deal even at that price. He counter offered $100. I explained that it would hurt my very soul to sell my car for $100, especially since I just spent $300 to get it in enough working condition to drive it over there. We told him we didn’t want him to lose any money over this, and if necessary we’d just take the Turd over to CarMax and see if they’d give us a better deal. Dude then offered us $250. We shook our heads, and told him there were really no hard feelings on our part. If Car Max couldn’t come through, we could just put an ad in the paper and try to sell it that way. Finally, dude went off and made some calls, then came back and said he’d give us the $500 for it. (Technically, he was only giving us $200 for it, but Saturn agreed to knock $300 off the price of the car just so we’d be happy and wouldn’t have to be bothered with taking it elsewhere.) We were elated, not just for the money, but that we’d also wound up being hardball negotiators without even trying.
It was an emotion churning experience, saying good-bye to the Bent Turd. Sure, it wasn’t much to look at, and broke down a lot, but there were many times that it had held up for me, in conditions when I couldn’t have blamed it for breaking down. I transferred the jack and the can of Fix-A-Flat from its trunk to the new car’s trunk, then gave the Turd a pat on its roof and said good-bye. May it live on to infuriate other people for years to come.
A week later, I thought I had a Turd sighting. Ashley was having her hair cut at a little salon in a strip mall near our house and I was puttering around the various shops in the area while waiting for her to be finished. Exiting one store, I came face to face with the Bent Turd. At least, I thought it was the Turd. It was the same model and shade of blue as the Turd. It had the same patches of rust above each door. It’s hood ornament had been half destroyed by years of weather, just as the Turd’s had. Its wind-shield seemed to have the requisite number of cracks as well. I was even more shocked to see that it was being driven by a young couple with a small child. Oh, my God, I thought. Some poor couple had been tricked into buying that piece of shit!
I sprinted over to the salon and, in front of God, hairdressers and everybody, shouted “The Turd’s out’s there! I just saw the Turd!”
While Ashley explained her husband’s madness to the hairdressers and customers, I pressed my face to the glass to see if the Turd was still there. It was! In fact, it had been parked and the family who now owned it was walking toward the salon. I was at a complete loss for what to do. On the one hand, I wanted to warn these poor fools that their dreams of a cheap affordable family car were all for naught, for they had been woefully mislead by some shady used car dealer and had been sold the Queen of the Lemons. And on the other hand, I wanted to ask them how much they paid for it, cause I was betting it was more than $500. Mine was not a comfortable situation to be in, though. It was a lot like that story where the poor girl’s father buys her a used dress so she can go to the prom, and she excitedly does only to be ridiculed because the dress used to belong to one of her rich snobby classmates, whose mom put it up for consignment. I didn’t want to be the rich snobby classmate. I kept my mouth shut, continuing to cast side glances at the car through the window. It’s a good thing I didn’t say anything, cause it wasn’t the Turd after all. Upon closer inspection, the mock Turd turned out to have different hubcaps and lacked the huge scrape along the back left door that the real Turd acquired while I was attempting to back out of Marcus Vowell’s booby trapped driveway in the dark. It was not the Turd, merely one of its near broken brethren.
As for the new, as yet unchristened, Malibu, it’s sweet! It’s a very “Eric” sort of car, with all kinds of safeguards against things that used to cause me problems in the Turd—like alarms that sound if you accidentally leave your keys in the ignition, or an ignition that won’t turn off if you’re trying to get out of the car while it’s still in gear, or headlights that turn on and off automatically, saving me from running down my battery, and a low oil warning light that it’s perpetually on. And the whole thing’s painted almost the same shade of blue as TV’s Babylon 5, so there’s a big plus in my book already. So far there have been no major problems with it.
Just in case, though, we bought a huge extra warranty.
Copyright © 2000 Eric Fritzius
Seems most everyone has a horribly true tale about going to the dentist. One is spun by a friend of mine who tells of the time he regained consciousness in the middle of a wisdom tooth removal and how it took two large dental hygienists to pin him to his chair and keep him from destroying all the equipment with his mad thrashing. That one will send chills down your spine. Until recently, however, I had no such tale of my own. For you see, all my life I have had nice teeth. Great teeth, really. Fantastically perfect teeth with nary a cavity to be found, naturally straight and with plenty of room to spare. If I really committed to it, I could probably fit another couple of teeth in on both sides with no trouble. (And if my wisdom teeth keep creeping down, like they are, I’ll probably get the chance to try.) The ironic thing about it, though, is that I have been able to achieve this state of dental perfection without succumbing to the tedious notion that my teeth had to be brushed after every meal, or even every day.
Growing up, most of my friends had crooked teeth and in order to fix them they had to spend years in braces, retainers and, in one particularly sad case, head-gear. These chaps were forever leaving their retainers on their cafeteria trays, in full sight of everyone, just to put as many people off their lunches as possible. Then, they would forget to put them back in their mouths after lunch and would wind up having to dig through bags of cafeteria garbage to find them again. They were also the death of fun at sleep-over parties, because their moms had forbidden them to eat anything that might damage their expensive dental work, such as chips, popcorn, pan pizza, candy and just about anything else we non-crooked-teethed types might want to eat. They would have to sit in the corner and eat mashed potatoes while we lived it up on Doritos and jawbreakers. And oh what cavities they had! Root canals by the time they were 14. And their moms forced them to brush 8 times a day just to head off any incoming Cavity Creeps. Didn’t help them in the least.
The way I saw it, my friends’ downfall probably stemmed from all that brushing in the first place. The enamel is there to help protect your teeth and if you brush it all off then you’ve left yourself open to attack. This was not a problem for me. In my house, with its single-parent dad, brushing was expected but not so strongly enforced. Still my teeth might not have been especially clean, but they were straight, braceless and strong.
Annual visits to the dentist during my teen years were cookie-cutter affairs. Each time, the dentist would examine my teeth, do the X-rays then tell me that despite the fact that I didn’t have any cavities whatsoever I still wasn’t brushing my teeth enough nor correctly. And every year I got a new log of dental advice thrown on the pile. First I wasn’t brushing them enough. Then, after making an effort to brush them more often, I wasn’t brushing behind my front teeth enough. Then, after brushing more often and behind my front teeth, I wasn’t brushing the sides of my back teeth enough. Then, after brushing more often and more thoroughly, the following year I was told I needed to brush them at least twice a day, preferably thrice. With that, I was fed up. I’d done everything the dentist had told me to do, more or less, for years and it was never good enough for him. Rather than take it for another year, I told him as much, ending my diatribe with, “Brush twice a day? Doc, you’re lucky if I brush once a day. Don’t push it.”
“Now, now,” my dentist persisted. “True dental health requires that we take the necessary precau…”
“How many cavities do I have?”
“…precautions in order to maintain a state of true…”
“How, Many, Cavities, Do, I, Have?”
“Well… none,” he was forced to admit.
“Exactly my point.”
That was probably my final visit to that particular dentist. After I started college, these annual visits didn’t occur nearly that regularly. I found that once you ignored one or two of their little “friendly reminder of your upcoming appointment” post cards they stopped sending them. After college, when I had moved to another town and took a job without dental insurance or high wages, it seemed a bit on the expensive side to go bounding off to the dentist just to have him tell me that I didn’t have any cavities and needed to brush more. So I didn’t.
Years pass, I get married, and my wife turns out to be a tooth brushing freak of nature. She’s in the bathroom brushing her teeth at least half an hour out of any given day and walks around dry brushing the rest of the time. Does she have perfect teeth because of her fanatical brushing habits? No. Throughout her life she’s had dental problems that would make my friend with the headgear weep bitter tears of sympathy. If you don’t believe me, just let her tell you about the time they had to cut a hole in the side of her cheek to get a better angle for retrieving a drill-bit that had broken off and lodged deep within an abscess. Her harrowing dental history makes her ever the more protective of my choppers. Every night, before bed, the mantra rings out: “Did you brush your toofies?” Naturally, I haven’t, but am forced to get out of bed and go do so under the threat of no smooches. One day, she decided to extend her original threat to related romantic subjects if I didn’t schedule an appointment for a tooth tuneup, as she had been asking me to for months. This is how I found myself in the clutches of The Evil Dr. P.
The Evil Dr. P is not actually evil. He’s a guy in his mid 30s who’s only been in practice for six years and who is just starting to develop gray hair at his temples. He’s a nice guy. His office is nice. His receptionist is nice. His dental hygienist is nice. His dental assistant is nice, and has the added bonus of looking exactly like actress Denise Crosby, TV’s Tasha Yar from the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Come to think of it, she might be Denise Crosby. Ol’ Denise hasn’t been getting a lot of acting gigs lately.
“How long has it been since your last checkup?” Dr. P asked upon getting me in his chair. I didn’t want to give the man more gray hair by telling him that the last time I remembered being in a dentist’s chair was while playing Seymour in a high-school production of Little Shop of Horrors. So I lied.
“Oh, uh, it’s been a while. Probably around seven… or eight years.”
I should have lied better, because Dr. P frowned and gave Tasha Yar a look that read like a coded message. She immediately began stuffing my cheeks with large pieces of cardboard origami in preparation for the 18 X-rays that were to follow. Then Dr. P came back into the room and started prodding my teeth with hooks while Tasha took notes. I observed with no small satisfaction that none of the tooth prodding hurt at all. Surely, if I did have any cavities they would hurt when poked, right? Then one of Dr. P’s hooks came down in a back molar and he seemed to have difficulty disengaging it from the tooth.
“Going to need a red resin 30 on b-18,” Dr. P told Tasha. This alarmed me. One doesn’t speak of needing resin for healthy, cavity-free teeth. And as the examination continued, Dr. P mentioned needing resins of varying color classification four more times. When he was finished, they shuffled me off to the nice dental hygienist to have my teeth sandblasted and the remains sucked out through a hose. After that, Dr. P came back with the bad news: I had five cavities that were going to require filling, in addition to anything else he spied once the X-rays were developed.
My wife could not have been more gleeful. This was vindication for all her months of griping at me to brush my teeth. She practically danced when I told her the news. Afterward, she took great pleasure in describing the tooth-filling procedure I was to undergo in explicit detail, lingering on the part about the long Novocain needle stabbing deep into the hinge of my jaw and the part concerning the disgusting smell of teeth being ground up by The Drill.
I managed to put all such thoughts of pain and discomfort out of my head, until 2 a.m. the night before the procedure, when the word NEEDLE appeared in big bold letters on the backside of my eyelids. Not much sleep after that.
It was a Wednesday, at 8 a.m., when I groggily returned to Dr. P’s for the first dental repair of my life. The nice receptionist gave me coffee and Tasha Yar came out to usher me to my dental chair. Presently, we were joined by The Evil Dr. P himself, who described what he was going to do to me, pointing out the locations of my five decaying teeth on a computer screen diagram. He then reclined me in the chair, told me to open wide and quickly stuck something silver into my mouth. I assumed this was the needle and braced myself for the stab of pain in my jaw, but none came. There was a pressure in the hinge of my jaw followed by an odd taste in the back of my throat. Not too unpleasant, though.
“Was that the needle?” I asked, hoping it had been and not just some sort of jaw tenderizer. Dr. P assured me it had been the needle and I was quite relieved. The needle had been the only real dread I’d had in the first place. After all, I’ve had ingrown toenail surgery before and that was pretty painless once my toe was numb, but the anesthetic needles hurt like a mother. Now, with the needle-part over, they could drill all they wanted as long as my jaw was numbed up.
Dr. P finished my injections, raised my chair upright and he and Tasha Yar left the room to allow the Novocain to take effect. The left half of my jaw, the side with the most injections, slowly went numb. I could feel that the left side of my bottom incisors was definitely numb while the first tooth on the right was not quite so numb. Kinda neat. My tongue, too, was starting to feel all tingly at its tip. I sat there and played with my face for about ten minutes, testing and poking to get the experience down, until Dr. P and Tasha returned. They reclined my chair, wheeled their tool trays within reach and busted out the drill.
The first tooth, one of my upper right molars, filled just fine. The drill went in, ground out a hole in it and I didn’t feel a thing. Regardless, I was calm and collected during the drilling process, with my hands draped casually across my stomach. I would not be one of those patients who held a death grip on the armrests. I wanted Tasha Yar to comment on my pleasant demeanor when it was all finished.
Dr. P left the resin in the first tooth to cure while he moved on to an upper left molar for more drilling. I knew something was very wrong as soon as the drilling began. This time the drill definitely felt cold and if I could feel cold then it stood to reason I wasn’t completely numb. Having never had this done before, though, I couldn’t really say if what I was feeling was unusual. That is, until the drill poked through the tooth’s surface and into the nerve.
“Aarrrhhhhhh!” I growled as pain resonated through my entire skull and down my spine. I could tell that it was not nearly as painful as it would have been without any Novocain, but it was not something I ever wanted to feel again.
Dr. P stopped drilling immediately and he and Tasha appeared very surprised.
“I felt that,” I said.
“Looks like that tooth’s not quite numb,” he said, reaching for another needle and stabbing me in the hinge of my jaw. “We’ll just move on down the line and give that one time to numb up.” However, his idea of moving down the line didn’t mean moving to a different and number section of my mouth. He meant moving on to the very next tooth. As he started drilling, the feeling of cold was still fully present. I silently prayed that this was a normal feeling, but knew that it felt exactly like it had just before he hit the…
“AARRRHHHHH!!!!” I screamed as the drill again struck nerve.
“Whoah! Hang on there guy! What’s the problem?” Dr. P asked.
“Na rollm ithaan Ah ahb a druh bouihh inna mah nub!”
“What?” he asked, now removing the drill from my mouth.
“The problem is that I have a drill boring into my nerve!”
Dr. P was very apologetic as he broke out more Novocain needles and started stabbing again. “You growled like you were going to bite me or something,” he said. “Big guy like you must have absorbed some of the Novocain.” Great, I thought, not only is the guy doing his best impersonation of Lawrence Olivier’s Nazi torture expert in Marathon Man, but now he’s calling me fat.
“That really hurt,” I told Tasha Yar after Dr. P left the room to give me time to numb.
“It wasn’t supposed to,” she said. “We were really surprised it did. Don’t worry, you’ll be numbed up good and it won’t hurt anymore.”
I won’t go through the rest of the procedure in detail, but apparently a “big guy” like me can absorb Novocain at an astounding rate because we hit nerve two more times, once so bad that I jerked around in my chair nearly causing Dr. P to drill a nice trench through the rest of my teeth. I question whether he really believed he was hurting me at all, because he kept saying, “Now if it feels cold, just raise your hand and I can stop. Don’t jerk around like that!” I wanted to respond, “It doesn’t feel cold! It feels like a small piece of spinning metal is boring a hole in my nerve!” but to have done so would have required the ability to speak clearly, which seemed to be the only thing the Novocain had numbed. As if this weren’t bad enough, Dr. P discovered a 6th cavity that he’d missed during my first examination and had to drill and fill that too. By the time he was finished, I’d been injected with so much Novocain that I had no feeling at all in my lower jaw, I couldn’t close my mouth without unknowingly gnawing gashes in my cheeks and I had clawed deep indentions into the armrests with my grip of death.
On the way home, I noticed my reflection in the rearview mirror. My lips were hanging in a limp frown that made me look both angry and lobotomized no matter how I tried shaping it with my fingers. Even my nostrils were numb.
My wife was surprisingly sympathetic to my story of pain and torture at the hands of The Evil Dr. P and Tasha Yar. However, she made sure to twist the drill in my back by reminding me that I’ll think twice before giving her any lip about brushing my teeth in the future. I don’t see that happening any time soon. From now on, just sign me up as the Mentadent poster-boy and pass the floss cause I never want to see a drill again.
Copyright © 2000, Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd.
A few months after packing all my crap and moving from Tupelo, MS, to North Carolina, I find myself in a Sears, in a mall in the town of Hickory. I was just casually hanging out near the men’s section while my fiancée, Ashley, was off looking for pajamas, when I happened to notice some really nice chenille sweaters on sale. Now, I’m not a huge clothes shopper, and frankly I don’t know chenille from shinola, but I know what I like, and what I like are nice thick comfy sweaters and cheap. To my delight, these thick nice comfy sweaters were 50 percent off. It was a sweet deal, and I was easily able to find two sweaters that fit the above exacting standards. With my newfound prizes under one arm, I made what can be argued as either a fortunate discovery or the biggest mistake of the day, while attempting to pay for them.
These days, retail cashiers are not only assigned the task of taking your money in exchange for goods and services, they’re also charged with the unholy mission of being walking talking telemarketers. It’s not enough that you’re purchasing something from their store, they must see to it that you become indebted to their store as well.
As I attempted to pay for my sweaters with a credit card—already revealing my willingness to become indebted—the cashier informed me that were I to sign up for a Sears charge card right then and there I would be able to save a whole ten bucks on my purchase. Usually, I view such offers with the same attitude I save for actual telemarketers, which is: I don’t want your stinkin card, nor did I ask for it, so hang up and leave me alone, you cruel and heartless monsters. However, being a cheap bastard, it seemed fair enough to trade a little of my time and some space in my wallet for a free sweater. Against my better judgment, I agreed. While the cashier was firing up the credit-approval engine, she asked to see proof of my identity in the form of a driver’s license.
I should point out at this juncture that, having been in North Carolina for the better part of four months, I still had not swung by Ye Olde DMV to pick up a North Carolina driver’s license. Partially, this was because of the blood-curdling tales I’ve heard about the NC DMV, but mostly this was because I haven’t gotten enough use out of my old Mississippi license. For you see, when choosing the date of departure from Tupelo, I thought it would be cool and maybe even ironic to leave on my birthday, September 2. Easy enough to do, except that my Mississippi driver’s license happened to expire on that date as well. My father pointed out to me that if I was to be within the law while driving a moving van filled with all my crap across country, I needed to get a new one before I left. At the time I figured the $10 it cost would be a good investment. That is, until I showed up at the Tupelo DMV and discovered the state had raised the price to $20. I gritted my teeth, paid them their money, had the required really awful photo taken and left with a new license. To make matters worse, I didn’t even get pulled over on the way to North Carolina, so it was hardly money well spent. I had secretly vowed that I wouldn’t set foot in a DMV again until I’d gotten my $20 worth out of that stupid card.
Back at Sears, I dug out my crusty old brown leather wallet and dug out the thick sheaf of plastic cards stored in one of its pockets and began leafing through them in search of my driver’s license. I passed credit cards, video store membership cards, a Sam’s Club card, a United Blood Service card, some phone cards, my social security card, gas cards, a J.C. Penney credit card, a bank card, two Media Play gift cards and lastly my old expired Mississippi driver’s license—which had not been taken from me back at the Tupelo DMV. Didn’t see the new license in there, though. I must have missed it. I flipped back through the cards again and still came up empty on the new license. Next I methodically went card by card, turning each over no matter how certain I was of its identity to make sure it wasn’t my new license. No dice. Then I started searching through other pockets in the wallet, and then in the money section, and then back through the cards again and still couldn’t find it. This was not good. If it wasn’t in there, then I’ve been driving around illegally for God knows how long. And I couldn’t get my free sweater!
Ashley came to my rescue by agreeing to take on the potential debt of a Sears card so that I could get my discount and my sweaters. Minutes later, the cashier informed her that she would also have to take on actual debt on that new card since they couldn’t let me pay for my sweaters and get the discount, nor could she put it on one of her other cards. Fine. Whatever. It was the least of my worries, because I was fretting about my missing license. For in order to get to my place of employment, I have to drive an hour to Charlotte, NC, through highway-patrol invested roads. I needed a driver’s license and had no idea where my new one could be if not in my wallet. It looked like a trip to the DMV was in order. But what of the horrifying tales I’d heard about the kind of arcane requirements the NC DMV forces upon the driving public? Such tortures as requiring you purchase a North Carolina license plate and inspection sticker before granting you a drivers license were common rumors. I didn’t have any of that stuff and getting it would likely involve trips to the circuit clerk’s office and they would probably require a valid driver’s license before handing them over, no doubt. Ash suggested we drop by the local DMV and actually ask them what the requirements were before we worked ourselves into a froth.
In most DMVs I’ve been to, there is a perpetual crowd of miserable people filling the lobby, all waiting their turn on the medieval rack. Oddly, though, there was only one guy waiting in the Hickory DMV, and he might have been a custodian. One of the DMV clerks, a bald man in the standard blue highway patrol uniform, left his desk and swaggered over to the counter to get a gander at the two jerks foolish enough to darken his door. As Ashley explained that we were from Mississippi and wanted to know what the requirements were for getting a North Carolina driver’s license, the man’s mouth slowly cocked to one side in an ugly smirk.
“You’ll need to have proof of insurance and take both the written and eye exams here,” he deadpanned. “And, of course, you’ll need a Mississippi driver’s license.” Was it just me, or did he hike his smirk up even more for the part about needing a license?
“Well what if we’ve lost our license?” Ashley said.
“You’ve both lost your licenses?” he said, smirking higher. I decided to step in at this point, because it was my lost license, after all, and because this guy probably thought we were trying to obtain a license under false pretenses—like criminals were really breaking down the DMV’s door to be given the 5th degree like this. I explained what had happened at Sears and how I had only my expired Mississippi license to show for it. Officer Smirk seemed a little perplexed at this. After a while, he asked to see the expired license. I dug it out of my wallet and gave it to him. He turned it over a couple of times, smirked at it, read the fine print on the back, checked to see if I was in fact the same guy in the required really awful photo, then smirked at me.
“This only expired in September,” he opened. “It’s not been expired for over a year,” he reiterated. “We can take it if it’s not been expired for over a year,” he summed up. I was starting to think this might not be so bad. After all, their requirements didn’t seem extreme. I passed a written driving test twelve years ago, so I surely could ace one again. Plus, I had insurance and could prove it if necessary. No worries.
“But,” Officer Smirk said, breaking my reverie. “I’m gonna need to know what this doubleyew stands for.” He was pointing to the W in the Eric W. Fritzius on my expired license.
“Sure thing,” I said. “It stands for Wade.”
“Well now,” Officer Smirk said, with more evil satisfaction than absolutely necessary. “I’m gonna need some form of identification for that.”
In this country, the most common form of photo identification, surpassing even the passport, is the driver’s license. My expired Mississippi driver’s license plainly stated what my name is, what I look like and did so in a handy, difficult to illegally alter format. And now the good word of my expired Mississippi driver’s license was not going to be enough for North Carolina? Not good enough for a state that is frequently behind Mississippi and even Arkansas in standard of living, teen pregnancy, literacy and domestic abuse rankings? I very nearly growled at the man, but instead dug out my wallet and began the Quest for Wade. It was, naturally, futile. None of my cards had anything more than an initial. Not my bank cards, my insurance cards, nor any of my credit cards—not that Officer Smirk would have accepted them anyway, as he only so readily pointed out. Even my Social Security card carried only a W. Now if an initial is good enough for a federal agency like the Social Security Administration, then what kind of audacity and stickuptheassedness does it take for the Hickory, NC, DMV to demand otherwise? As a last ditch effort, I went out to my car and got the registration from the glove compartment, brought it back and pointed out the three places on it where it clearly stated “Eric W. Fritzius,” demonstrating that even the motor vehicle registration people didn’t give a rat’s ass about initials. Officer Smirk looked at it unsympathetically and shrugged. It occurred to me to point out to him that this sort of thing was the very reason why folks go nuts and start shooting up civil services agencies. Before I could, though, Ashley stepped in.
One of the most fortunate aspects of my relationship with Ashley is that when the need presents itself we operate a lot like tag team wrestlers. During stressful moments, when I’m just on the verge of verbally tearing some poor soul a new orifice, Ash tags me out and jumps into the ring in my place. She can then proceed to verbally tear them a new orifice in such a calm, polite and non-vulgar manner that they often don’t notice it until the next time they use the bathroom.
“Okay,” Ashley told Smirk. “None of his ID has the Wade spelled out. How are we supposed to fix this?” Now this may not read like a blistering verbal attack, but it was said in a tone of voice that stated, in layers of subtlety unlikely to be perceived by one such as Officer Smirk, that not only was he a complete, mouth-breathing, moron but so was his dog and so were the guys who had come up with this policy in the first place, and their dogs too. It was an award-worthy performance, and we both patiently awaited Officer Smirk’s response.
We only thought he’d been smirking before. Now the left side of his mouth lifted clean up over his brow, nearly obscuring the look of demonic glee in his eye. “Well, you could go up to the Social Security office and have them give you a printout of your file,” he managed to say through his wildly contorted lips. His tone too held many depths. They stated that even though Officer Smirk was very good at his job as an unhelpful DMV clerk, he actually aspired to be an unhelpful Social Security Administration clerk, where they really had being unhelpful down to an art form. He was only too happy to give us directions how to get there.
It was nearly four o’clock by the time we reached the Social Security office. The enormous crowd of miserable people I’d been expecting at the DMV had apparently been sent ahead of us to the S.S.—and it’s not called the S.S. for nothing. The lobby was a cramped, dingy-beige-painted little room filled with rows of mis-matched vinyl-covered chairs that were probably new during the Johnson administration. Against one wall was a little table above which were several posters of fine print and a small cardboard display holding some kind of forms. Near the table was a wooden podium atop which was a small basket full of plastic cards with numbers printed on them. Next to the basket was a sign instructing us to take a number temporarily, but not to keep it and take it home with us. Beyond the podium was a door leading to, from what brief glimpses I could get over the time that followed, a brightly lit room full of desks and worker-bees. Set into the wall by the door were three ticket-booth style windows, only one of which was open and contained a female Social Security clerk behind it.
We took a number and joined the enormous crowd of miserable people. Our number was seven. After about ten minutes, the clerk called “Number one!” and one of the miserable people stood and went to the window and conversed with the clerk lady for quite some time. The miserable people around me were muttering about how slow the service was and how long they had been there already. Others freely passed stale sandwiches, and thermoses full of cold coffee to each other and then unrolled their sleeping bags in preparation for the frigid night ahead.
After a very long time, one of the other ticket windows opened and a second clerk lady appeared behind it and called “Number two!” Opening a second window seemed like a pretty progressive move. Like when grocery store managers saw how many people were waiting in line and add a second cashier to speed things up. Alas, no. As soon as the second lady appeared, the first one went on break and disappeared. I didn’t care, though, for I was mercifully distracted from my pain and misfortune because Mojo Nixon had just walked through the door.
Okay, it probably wasn’t actually grizzled, folk-rock, troubadour Mojo Nixon, the famed singer behind such classic hits as “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-Headed Love Child” and “Don Henley Must Die”, but damn if he didn’t look exactly like him. Mojo took a number and then a seat and served as a source of entertainment for my fevered imagination as the minutes droned on.
Numbers 3 and 4 were called within a ten-minute period, and the first clerk lady did eventually come back from her break. Number 5 was actually one of the mumbling complainers from the row in front of me. What I gathered from the mumbler’s conversation with the clerk was that her mother had been having problems with her Social Security service. The mumbler had already called several times before, but had been told she would have to come there in person. As it turns out, though, the Social Security office had actually meant for the mumbler’s mother, a near blind, deaf and bedridden woman, to personally come to the office and schedule an appointment to come back later. The mumbler—no longer mumbling—explained to the clerk about the whole bed-ridden, blind, deaf thing, the impracticality of such a suggestion, and that the reason she herself had been calling them so frequently was to inform them of this so they would stop sending letters insisting that the mother had to turn up for an interview.
The clerk lady listened to all this, then said, “Well, she’s going to have to make an appointment.”
I lost track of that conversation because I was being scared out of my wits by someone else. This someone else was a very disgruntled looking fellow who came through the door wearing a knitted skull-cap and a big black leather jacket. The scary part was that one of his hands was thrust deep into the side pocket of the jacket and the pocket looked roomy enough to carry both his hand and large caliber firearm quite comfortably.
Oh damn, I thought. These twisted bureaucrats have finally pissed off the wrong guy and it’s just my luck that I get stuck here on the day he’s gonna rain hot liquid death upon all concerned! He’d probably already cleaned out the DMV!
The man didn’t start firing immediately, though, but instead took a seat directly behind mine. Great! Now I wouldn’t be able to see the hot liquid death before it was rained upon me.
“Number Seven!” the clerk lady called.
“That’s me! Right here. Me,” I said, leaping to the counter. I explained the situation with Officer Smirk to the clerk, hoping I wasn’t staring in the face of further hassle. I was wrong.
“You’ll have to fill out a form,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the cardboard display of forms on the table. At that point my ears shut down and I didn’t hear any more of the clerk’s words. All I could think was: A fudgin’ form?! I’d had plenty of fudgin’ time to fill out a fudgin’ form during my half hour wait with the miserable fudgin’ people. Perhaps if there’d been a sign letting DMVictims know that they had to fill out a fudgin’ form then maybe I’d have fudgin’ filled the fudger out ahead of time. And now I’d probably have to take another fudgin’ number! Fudge! (Okay, so I watched all 12 hours of A Christmas Story on TNT this year. Mind your own fudgin’ business!)
While I was still ranting inwardly, Ashley pulled me away from the window and toward the table with the forms. I thought maybe there would be a specialized form for DMVictims, but there wasn’t. Anything you wanted to take up with the Social Security administration was done using one stock form. The form merely wanted you to fill in your life story complete with every name, address and number of yourself and anyone you’ve ever met. Strangely, it only took me a few minutes to fill out. And we didn’t even have to take another number to turn in the form. The clerk lady let us cut in front of Mojo Nixon, who seemed only slightly put out by it, and she quickly gave us a print out of the necessary information Officer Smirk wanted.
When we got back to the DMV, there was, of course, another enormous crowd of miserable people in the lobby and all the DMV clerks, including Officer Smirk, were busy. We had to take a number and wait. Fortunately, it was number 1, and a very nice DMV clerk lady called us over within thirty seconds of sitting down. We marveled at our good fortune of having somehow broken the laws of time, space and bureaucracy by jumping ahead of all the miserable people. And even though this seemed unfair, we weren’t gonna drag ass getting to the counter.
We got everything taken care of promptly. I took my eye test and my written test and passed with 83 percent correct, so my record as a solid C student remained untarnished. The nice lady had me sign my signature on a card and take the required really awful picture and within a few minutes I had a crisp new driver’s license. For some reason, my normally illegible signature not only remained illegible on the card but had partially disappeared in the shrinking process.
“Hope you don’t have any problems with that signature,” the man who handed over the license said. His tone suggested he knew I would have trouble and that it was somehow my fault that their machine had eaten half my signature. We asked him what sort of trouble we should expect.
“Well, you’re supposed to sign your first and last name,” he answered.
“That’s what I did!”
“I dunno,” the man said. “It could be you’ll have problems… But maybe not,” he added ominously.
“Well at least we’ll know who to sue when we do,” I said, and we walked out the door.
Copyright © 1999-2002 Eric Fritzius
After two and a half years of blissful existence, living in a festering hellhole of an apartment in the city of Tupelo, Mississippi, I decided to pack it all in and leave my heaven on earth for greener northern pastures. The reason behind all of this stems from the fact that I’m engaged to be engaged to be married and I figured it would probably be wise if I actually lived in the same city as my betrothed to be betrothed. So I up and moved to North Carolina.
When moving, one of the major things you have to do, beyond securing a Ryder truck and packing up all your stuff, is contacting all your utilities companies to alert them to your departure so that they can cut you off and stop charging you after a certain date and so you can get your deposits and/or final bills forwarded to your new address. The first utility on my list was, of course, Gun Dog Comics, who agreed to forward all my books to me in NC, at least until I found a new shop. After that, it was just a matter of speaking with the Post Office, to get them to forward my mail, the phone company, the cable company, magazine subscription folks, bank, credit cards, car insurance, and finally the near legendary Tombigbee Electric Power Ass.
I decided to deal with the Power Ass. face to face, rather than through the mail, just so I could get one last whiff of the atmosphere, one that can only be the product of a building of 1963 architecture and décor, possibly even designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s less-successful brother Earl. I wanted once more to walk beneath the roof of angular teal-colored metal, turn my face toward the fine, upstanding employees within and give them an expression that quietly dared them to tell me that my account with them did not exist, as they had done so twice before. No dice. My account was still there and they didn’t even pretend to recognize me as the infamous author of the four previous Power Ass. stories. Damn. And here I had brought my Official Certificate of Power Ass. Membership, just in case they wanted a fight.
The nice lady at the counter allowed me to pay my penultimate bill with no problems and directed me to the service desk in the back where I could see about forwarding arrangements for my final bill and $70 deposit. The service department was also very helpful. I told them that I would be moving out on Sept 2, my birthday, so they should cut me off on Sept 3, just to give me a day’s worth of leeway. They said fine and agreed to forward both my final bill and my deposit. Easy enough, I thought. I went home to begin packing.
Several weeks later, I actually started packing. I waited until the final week of August, just when the deadline was looming. I had been telling myself it would only take a couple of days to do, so why do it now? After all, I’d been able to pack up all my stuff to move from Starkville to Tupelo in an afternoon. (I forgot I’d made several trips back for the rest of it over the past two years, plus bought an immovably heavy couch, chair, bed and coffee table.)
My efforts this time took considerably longer. It was during one of these marathon packing sessions that I noticed that my already elderly window-unit air-conditioner was beginning to make a kind of death-rattle sound and would occasionally lapse into a coma from which nothing but a good night’s rest could rouse it. Once in a while, it would emit a banshee wail, which I took to be a bad sign. Nevertheless, the actual packing of stuff into boxes was more or less completed by the time my woman, Ashley, arrived with me to chunk it all into the moving van. Our plan was to put all the stuff in the van, clean up the house and drive all of it to North Carolina on Thursday, unpack it on Friday and take our four-day rental van to the drop-off point on Saturday, two days early.
Those of you who’ve ever had to move all your stuff to another city can commence snickering now.
Why we wanted such a breakneck schedule is a bit unclear, except that I really liked the idea of leaving Tupelo on my birthday, plus I had Paul Simon tickets for that Sunday, in Charlotte, and I wanted to get there as early as possible. Whatever the case, our plans did not come to fruition exactly as intended.
First off, since we were aiming for a quick departure, we decided it would be best if we kept my cat Winston sealed in the apartment to prevent her from running off and hiding from us and delaying the trip. This was our first mistake, since large pieces of furniture being shoved around sideways through doorways was hardly the least traumatic image for a cat to see. We kept her locked in the bathroom and tried to ignore her plaintive mewing as best we could, but she was definitely not happy.
Secondly, as soon as we were good and hot from loading boxes, my air-conditioner gave up the ghost and died. I tried to resuscitate it, but this resulted in some very unsettling noises from the breaker box, so we decided not to push our, nor our fire extinguisher’s luck. Being Mississippi in August, though, we knew it would soon be 120 degrees in the house and we would need some sort of cooling unit in order to merely survive. Since the vacant apartment across the hall had a nearly new AC, we decided to hork it. No sooner had we gotten it unhooked from the window than my landlord, Mr. Willis, suddenly appeared in a puff of brimstone and told us he didn’t want us touching his good air-conditioner. This is a man, mind you, who’d been to my apartment exactly twice the entire two and a half years I’d lived in Tupelo and whose execution of repair requests usually occurred two months after said request was made, and only then by literally breaking into the apartment while I was gone. His sudden unexpected appearance was boo creepy. We tried to explain about my air-conditioner totally crapping out and about the menacing noises from the breaker, but he still didn’t want to let us move the other AC. We then tried to politely appeal to his sense of duty as landlord, implying to him that he should care about the welfare of his tenants and whether they’re going to die of heat stroke while trying to move out. However, our argument kept getting snagged on the whole `moving out’ part of this and the fact that we were doing it two full days after my last paid day in the joint. He didn’t actually bring this up, but it seemed to become a factor against us all the same.
Now the thing about Mr. Willis you have to understand is that he’s proposed marriage to Ashley no fewer than four times in the past already. And while at the time it mostly seemed like he was joking with her, there was also that edge of hopeful possibility in his eyes that Ashley couldn’t quite shake. After all, he’s a widower who’s getting up in years and could use a good woman to take care of him and his household. He’s not a dirty old man, per se, but he’s probably just as interested in some company and a good meal as the rest of us. This being the case, I got out of the way when Ashley went into sweet-talk mode. It worked like a charm. She promised Mr. Willis that we’d put the new AC back in the other apartment before we left and assured him that his worries of us cutting out without first cleaning the place up were totally unfounded. (He knew this was true since Ash used to live in the apartment below mine, and when she moved out she left it cleaner than it had been in decades. Since then, it had taken a good soiling from the various drug dealers and art aficionados who’d taken up residence there.) The only downside to her deal with him was that he made her promise that we’d haul off my pitiful, legless, little red chair that I’d stashed in the vacant apartment in the hope of donating it to future occupants. And with one last unsuccessful college-try at asking Ashley’s hand in marriage for himself, Mr. Willis told me I had his sympathies and vanished before our eyes.
The loading of boxes and furniture itself didn’t physically wipe us out too bad, but the dust and cat-hair, left over from my two-year boycott of house-cleaning duties, nearly killed us. By noon, our noses were aflame, snot flowed freely and we were popping Benadryls like candy. It was also more than apparent that we’d underestimated the moving job by at least a day. So, Thursday afternoon, we decided we would keep packing and do all we could that night, then finish the packing on Friday, clean up the apartment, sleep for a long time and then take off in the middle of Friday night. This being the new plan, we immediately abandoned the packing, let the cat out and fled to Outback where we feasted mightily on steak and Foster‘s.
Friday morning, we awoke, sorely, and decided to warm up to the days toil by leisurely watching Better Off Dead. We were safe in the knowledge that we had plenty of time to watch our movie, then pack up the remaining boxes and clean the apartment before getting to sleep lots and lots.
Half-way through the film, the power went out.
Neither of us spoke a word. We silently realized that the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass. had cut off our power, right on time, just as they had been told to, and the certainty of a hellish day of packing and attempting to clean a festering, dust-filled, non-air-conditioned apartment, in Mississippi, in August, without the aid of a vacuum cleaner and our noses still clogged and burning from the day before, sank into our skulls. We stood and quietly began our woeful, Herculean task.
It shortly occurred to me that I should just phone up the Power Ass. and ask them if they could cut us back on for a couple of days. Surely, if they’d only just cut us off, they could get the power back on within a few hours. Unfortunately, I had also told Bell South to cut off my phone service on September 3, and they too were being terribly efficient in their jobs. Our saving grace was that Ashley had her cell-phone.
As I listened to the ringing in the receiver, waiting for the Power Ass. to pick up, I was struck by a horrific thought. What if the person I spoke to at the Power Ass. recognized my name as the infamous author of the Power Ass. tales? What if it was Desk Boy, who I lampooned in Talkin’ Power Ass Blues Part II? What if it was the secretary who wrote the moronically mis-dated memo from Talkin’ Power Ass Blues Part III? What if it was the nice desk-lady, who admitted that her boss had printed out The Tales collection from my website and had shown it around the office, and who had told me not to write about her in my next story, and then I went and did it anyway? They held all the power now! They probably kept records of my offenses in their Devil-Computer! They could now finally exact a twisted and sadistic revenge upon me such as no human deserves, and there was nothing I could do about it! Nothing!!!
“Tombigbee Electric Power Association?” a friendly sounding female said.
In a nervous voice and as politely as possible, I explained who I was and what I wanted. The female voice offered no indication that she knew of me. And rather than pouring a boiling cauldron of torment slowly upon my head, she explained that they could have the power turned on again shortly, but that there would be a fee involved. I realized that at that moment I would gladly pay upwards of $40 for my power to be returned. Ransom or no ransom, I needed air, dammit! The fee was only $10, and I nearly wept with joy. I thanked the Power Ass. woman profusely for her assistance and hung up the phone.
We locked the cat in the house again and departed for breakfast, giving the Power Ass. time to turn us back on. When we returned, the cat dashed past us as we opened the door, ran down the stairs and into the basement, the door of which Mr. Willis had thoughtfully propped open with a bunch of junk. We hardly cared. The air was on and the apartment was cool. Still, the problem of the cat in the basement was not a small one. Neither of us were keen on actually going into the basement, which was perhaps the only prospect more terrifying than looking at the house’s wiring. Assuming we could get past the junk piled at the top of the basement stairs, we’d be met by a foot of standing water at the bottom, in which slimy things with legs no doubt were writhing. Our fear was that the cat’s little green kitty harness, which we had bought to prevent just this sort of thing, would get hung on something and she’d be trapped down there, forcing us to brave the basement in her rescue. So in between hauling loads of boxes to the van, I had the job of trying to coax the cat out of the basement by calling her from the top of the basement stairs. Several hours later, we discovered that the cat was no longer in the basement, but had turned up under the back porch, having found some alternate route out. We locked her in the bathroom.
It was a long day of packing and cleaning, but by the time we went to bed that night, round 10:30, it was all finished. All we would have to do is sleep a few blessed hours, then put the air-conditioner back across the hall, load up the mattress, gather the cat, and hit the open road.
At midnight, Ashley woke me to say we should get moving. I argued that when I signed on for getting up in the middle of the night I had assumed we’d actually be getting more than an hour and a half of sleep. We’d been working solid for two days and I didn’t think I could manage the drive without a good five hours behind me. Ashley agreed to let me sleep and decided to take the cat out on the leash and harness to let her “use the facilities,” as we’d already packed the litterbox. A few minutes later, Ash came back minus one cat. Apparently once outside, Winston had been possessed by the wandering spirit of Harry Houdini, did a little kitty escape dance and was suddenly out of the harness and beneath the back porch before Ashley could even move to stop her. After that, I knew I’d be too busy worrying about finding the cat to sleep, so we might as well get ready to go and hope that we could catch the cat by dawn. God smiled on us, for as we were preparing the window of the apartment across the hall to receive its borrowed air-conditioner, Winston came running up on the roof and right into our arms. (Well, into our arms, if you define the phrase as me reaching out and yanking her ass in by the scruff of the neck.)
We hit the road around 1:30 a.m. At 1:31 the wailing began.
To say Winston doesn’t travel well only lightly brushes the surface of the true horror. This cat was a constant meow for two straight hours. And while meowing, she clawed at the glass of the windows to get out, tried to claw the glass of the driver’s side wind-shield, clawed at the firewall beneath the dash in some sort of strange quest to get into the engine compartment, and several other maneuvers we judged as suicide attempts. And the thing is, I knew it would go down that way. I’d had a small dose of it when I moved her from Starkville to Tupelo. I’d actually begged my parents to slip me some of the kitty Valium they keep their cats doped up on, but they forgot to bring it when they came to see me off, days earlier. So I was stuck playing cat-wrangler while Ashley drove. After two hours, the cat finally quit trying to actively kill herself and settled behind the passenger seat to continue her loud meowing. Somehow, I was able to ignore it enough to go back to sleep. The cat never slept, but her meowing did slow a bit after a few hours. By the end of the trip, 13 hours later, Winston had pretty much shut down and become, forgive me, catatonic.
Other than that, the trip went pretty smoothly. I got my stuff stored away in NC, and settled into my new life in a camping trailer next door to Ashley’s grandmother’s house, got the Ryder truck back on time and enjoyed a fine concert by Mr. Paul Simon. Winston, for her part, spent three days hiding beneath a couch before coming out to explore her surroundings and seems mighty happy these days.
Gradually, as the weeks went by, my final bills did arrive from all of my utilities companies except the Power Ass. Then, in mid-October, an angry-looking note arrived from them. It didn’t come as the traditional post card bill, or in a regular envelope, but in one of those carbon-copy print through the surface envelopes, like collection agencies send. It contained a past due bill of $40 and stated that this was the third time they had sent me such a bill, that payment was well past due and if I wanted to continue living I was to cough up the dough pronto. Well, I hadn’t even seen any of the alleged three previous bills, let alone ignored them. My inclination was to call them up and suggest that A) they get a clue, and B) they do some simple mathematics, subtract the $40 I owed them from the $70 deposit that they owed me and send me the difference. Instead, just to spite them, I waited another two weeks before sending them the money. Two days after my payment check was in the mail, I received another envelope from the Power Ass., this time containing a check for the difference of what I owed them subtracted from what they owed me. Great. Now I get to wait for them to figure out just what the check I sent them is for and just what they’re going to do about it. With Y2k approaching, I’m not hopeful that their devil-computer will be alive long enough to sort it out.
Copyright © 1999 Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd
One year ago, the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass. managed to lose my account with them for two months, arguing with me that I didn’t exist when I attempted to pay them the money I owed them, and continued to supply me with power throughout the whole affair. With this anniversary knowledge at my side I should have been worried as I went in to pay my bill this month, especially considering that I had once again neglected to bring my actual bill with me when I went to pay it. As it was, though, I didn’t even think about it.
I went up to the nice lady behind the Power Ass. counter—located in the scenic, circa 1963 décor-strewn lobby of the equally impressive teal-painted-angular-metal-encrusted Tombigbee Electric Power Ass. building—and explained that I needed to pay my bill, though I had not brought the actual bill with me. She asked my name and I gave it to her, followed by the cursory spelling of my last name. I readied my pen to write out the check as the nice lady called up my bill on her computer. She stared at the screen for a few moments longer than I was expecting, causing my heart to pause with her. Then she smiled and began writing a receipt.
“That’ll be $36.69,” she said.
Ah, good. My account still seems to be there, I thought.
“Your account still seems to be here,” the woman added with a mischievous grin.
My hand stopped writing the check.
“Uh, do whuuut?” I asked.
“Your account. It’s still here,” she replied.
Oh, I thought. She must be the Power Ass. Counter Lady who waited on me this time last year. What a coincidence!
“I thought I recognized your name from the letter,” she added.
“Letter? What letter?” I said. For though I had threatened to mail the Power Ass. a copy of my original Power Ass. story in the return envelope they recently sent me, I did not actually get around to doing so.
“The story on the internet about you losing your account. I recognized your name from it.”
I felt the blood rush from my face. “You… read that?”
“Oh sure. Mr. Hawkins found it and printed it for the office staff. “
In that moment, I proceeded to move through several stages of fear, amazement and honor all at the same time. There didn’t seem to be a proper way for me to respond to this woman’s statement. I felt like a little kid who’d been cornered by his parents for drawing on the walls with crayons: scared of punishment yet rather proud of the work itself. For, while the first two Power Ass. stories were fairly kind to the Power Ass. employees, the third one called them a bunch of morons for getting the date wrong twice on a form they sent me. Sure, that name-calling was more humorous intent than any actual belief on my part that they are morons, but interpretation is an inexact science—especially for morons. (Only kidding! Bygones.) And I still didn’t know exactly which story the nice lady had read. She had mentioned a letter, though, so maybe she had read the moron story. But then again she had also made the remark that my account was still there, so she had probably read the first story as well. Who knew?
Instead of attempting any kind of formal response, I laughed nervously and quickly finished writing out my check. As I was about to leave the nice woman said, “Remember, I’m the one who told you your account’s still here, so don’t go writing any stories about me.”
I smiled what I’m sure was a perplexed smile and made a break for the car. I quickly drove home, fired up the computer and penned this missive. And if the nice lady is reading this right now… Bygones.
Copyright © 1999 Eric Fritzius
FROM: Eric Fritzius
DATE: February 4, 1999
SUBJECT: Talkin Power Ass. Blues Update
I’ve often suspected that the people who run the Tombigbee Electric Power Ass., here in Tupelo, are, in fact, morons. My evidence thus far has been the fact that last year they managed to delete me from existence in their computers yet continued to supply me with power for two months in a row and then tried to argue with me when I attempted to point out their mistake.
Those were merely suspicions.
Today I received an envelope in my mailbox that offered compelling evidence that confirms my suspicions far better than I could have imagined. The envelope contained two other envelopes, (an unmarked blue envelope and a postage-free Business Reply Mail envelope,) and a one-page voting ballot. There’s no need to reprint the entire letter here, since the first two paragraphs will more than suffice to prove my point that the Power Ass. is run by morons.
I now present the first two paragraphs of the ballot:
TO ALL TOMBIGBEE ELECTRIC POWER ASSOCIATION MEMBERS
Please detatch and mark ballot below and place in unmarked blue envelope. Place unmarked blue envelope in enclosed postage-free envelope. Sign certificate on back of postage-free envelope and return to the association’s auditor: Franks, Franks and Jarrell, CPA, who will see that the ballots are correctly counted.
All members of the Association should vote for Lee County directors and Itawamba County directors. Ballot must be postmarked no later than September 2, 1998.
If you still don’t know what the problem with this letter is, check the date at the top of this page then re-read the letter.
It was kind of nice that the ballot was due on my birthday, however the fact that the ballot was due on my birthday last year was a bit of a clue in that here there be morons.
The ballot went on to list 19 candidates from Lee and Itawamba counties, who, according to the ballot, will, when elected, serve a “Three Year Term Beginning In 1998.”
I plan to use their postage-free envelope to mail them copies of my previous Talking Power Ass. Blues stories.
Always, always, bet on morons.
Copyright © 1999 Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd