Wednesday, June 23

Chapter 53: OZ

Doug Kleinman was a popular man... but this tale is not about him, but his younger brother Al.

Al Kleinman was as average as white paint in hospitals, and worked in an assembly line in a card-board box factory. It was Al's job to make sure the bundles of cardboard boxes were ready to be shipped to whoever needed the cardboard boxes, who would then assemble them there. He used to imagine all the places that the boxes were shipped, and who was opening the crate of unfolded boxes, neatly bundled in a red plastic band, and of all the uses of the cardboard boxes they bundled... but then he came back the next day and realized the certainty of it all: it was just a dead-end job making sure plastic held cardboard while it was stacked in a big shipping crate.At night, Al would go home to his dad's house, where he lived in the basement until he could afford to move out. It didn't look that promising for him at the moment, because his car had just broken down, and all his money went to taxes and a new car payment."I don't like seeing you without a girlfriend," his father said to him every morning at breakfast, and again at supper. "It's not natural for a man of your age.""I'm twenty-three dad," he said over toast or a Hungry-Person microwave meal, "it's not unusual.""You need a girlfriend, that's all I'm saying."But Al hadn't found that special someone yet. Or ever. Or maybe he had and just hadn't noticed her. That was more his style: complete oblivion."Not like your brother," his father would continue, "how many children does he have now? Six?""I'd rather not talk about Doug. He's Doug, and I'm not."His father would shrug and walk back into the livingroom to watch Wheel-of-Humility, or some such Game show while Al would sit, sigh and finish reading the morning paper.

That night as Al lay in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking about all the things he could have done that day at work – all the things he should have said, all the people he should have talked to, all the foods he should have eaten – he heard the wind picking up. It began to rattle the mini-blinds of his room, so he got up and shut the window. He was awake now, and wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.

As he trudged downstairs to get some popcorn and maybe watch a movie, he heard his father snoring on the sofa with the TV still on. Al walked over and shut off the weather channel as the anchorman said, “... in Akron. To repeat, a tornado warning has been issued for...” The man was silenced by a push of a button.
“I was watching that.” His dad mumbled.
“Time for bed pop.”
His father stood, slowly arching his back. “You know, you ought not to be at home on a night like this. Friday night. Go to the movies or something. Get out more.” His dad kept talking about what Al should do as he closed the door to the master bedroom, and Al put a bag of pop-corn in the microwave.
Maybe his father was right. It was only ten. There was still day left. The new Owen Wilson movie was in theaters, wasn’t it?
Al was back downstairs and in his dad’s car in less than five minutes, dressed in a sweater, jeans, and a blue rain jacket. He hopped in the car and backed out the driveway, turning the wipers on high because of the pelting rain.

As he waited at the light, the wind was whipping hard, and pushing the car from side to side like a hundred rowdy teenage vandals. As Al thought about this metaphor, the tornado hit.

The car was lifted into the air, spinning wildly, not just in a circle, but end over end through the air as well in a terrifying barrage of detritus. Higher and higher the car raced into the abyss of the stormy sky.

The car sailed through the air higher and higher until Al wondered if he would run out of oxygen, but just as he was starting to black out he looked in his rear-view mirror and thought he saw... no, that would be crazy... what would two fishermen be doing way up here?

The car struck the ground with incredible force, but not as much as Al thought it would, had he been conscious. But as he was passed out, the only thing he noticed was the air-bag going off in his face, waking him. He tried to open the door, but it was stuck. He tried the window, and found that the glass was broken. He would have to kick it out with his foot once he was able to relax and stop gripping the steering wheel.

After five minutes of staying still, he opened his eyes, and saw that he wasn’t in Ohio anymore. There were no little thatched cottages, but high-rise apartments painted in neon colors accented with a deep red. The street was blacktop, but unlike the pavement he was used to, for, down the center divider ran a line of... no... it couldn’t be... gold bricks?

Al kicked out the window and using his jacket as padding on the broken glass, he pulled himself out of the car and onto the roadway. He looked down the street both ways, but could see nothing, but could hear something. It sounded like a street sweeper. And it was.

The street sweeper pulled alongside, and a funny little man in bright coveralls stepped out. He was four foot tall and had pointed shoes that curled at the end.

“You’re blocking the road.” The little man said.
“My car...” Al began, “I dropped out of the sky, and...” The man looked at Al like he was drunk. “I’m not drunk – I was just going out for a drive, and...”
“Let me guess, you had a fight with your dad, ran away, and got caught in a tornado?”
“How did you know?”
“We get em all the time.”

Al looked at the car again, and saw that it was totaled. From underneath the side of the car stuck a pair of legs in striped stockings wearing ruby spats. “Woah,” the street sweeper said, “we’ll have to call the Sherif out for this one. You know, homicide isn’t looked on too lightly around here.” He looked at the spats, “nice shoes though.” And before Al could say anything, the man ran over and took the shoes off the legs. “Look, you’re in big trouble here, I say, I won’t say anything, and you just scamper off, right? Neither of us wants to involve the cops, right? If they ask me, I’ll say that you had already left.” He got back in the street sweeper and began to drive off.
“Hey wait,” Al said, “aren’t I supposed to have those shoes?”
“You snooze you loose.” He said, waving at Al as he drove around the corner.

“This is nothing like the movie,” Al said as he began walking down Golden-brick Parkway, and hopefully out of town.


As he started out of Munchkinburgh – for so the town was named – he expected to see corn fields, but instead saw row after row of condominiums, all painted green with yellow roofs. The freeway entrance was to his left, and had a large Emerald sign saying it lead to the Western Wood and Witchville, but also connected to the I-96 East towards World’s-end. He was on the 236 towards Poppy Fields, so Al figured he’d keep walking that way. There was something in the movie about poppies, right? Besides, the Wizard of Oz might be able to grant him some logic to make sense of all this nonsense.

A bright green taxi pulled up next to him, and stopped. It looked like a 1940's Buick, but was green with checkerboard across the hood and roof.
“Wow, this must be a magical land,” Al thought to himself, “Taxis actually stop for you.”
The driver rolled down the passenger window and leaned across. “Need a lift?” He was dressed in bright green overalls with a white t-shirt underneath, and he spoke with a heavy New York accent. “Name’s Chad. Where you off to?”
“Emerald city, but I don’t have any money,” Al said.
“Public transport. Free ride as supported by the TBO. Transportation Bureau of Oz.” He pushed open the back door to the cab. “Hop in.”

Al, surprised and relieved, stepped into the taxi which was much roomier inside than it appeared. Actually, it was the same size as a hotel lobby at the Ritz Carlton in New York... Al had seen it in a movie... in fact, the entire inside of the cab looked much like the Ritz from that very movie.
The concierge stepped up quickly, and in a thick, fake French accent asked him what he’d like to drink with his lunch order, and seated Al at a window seat near the band. It was a small ensemble of Munchkin players on tubas, much too large, bassoons, a piccolo, and drums. They started playing a swing tune – Fascinatin’ Rhythm, actually – that sounded more like a funeral dirge than something to dance to.
Al ordered the fish sandwich, which turned out to be an entire salmon deep fried between two halves of a loaf of sourdough bread with lettuce and tartar sauce. On the side was a carrot and a Twinkie.
“You going to eat all that?” A man to his left asked Al, coming over and sitting next to him at the table. “Big sandwich like that... and the Twinkie too?”
“Well,” Al began, watching the man ready knife and fork, “I suppose I can’t eat the entire thing. It’s huge. Would you...” Al looked around to see if it would be inappropriate to share, but seeing only a couple in the corner with what looked like a deep-fried elephant leg they were both eating, Al cut the sandwich in half, and passed the tail end to the man across from him.
“Thanks bud,” the man said, “I’ve been on this ride for two days, and they only give you one meal per trip.”
“Two days?” Al asked, stopping the sandwich half-way to his face. “Where did you start from?”
“Munchkinburgh.” The man said, taking a healthy sized bite out of the fish-tail. “If you miss your stop you just have to keep riding until you get there.”
“Don’t they warn you?”
“I was sleeping when they called it.” He said, wiping tartar sauce off his cheek with his napkin. “My name’s Lazybum, what about you?” He extended his hand to Al who shook it while trying not to choke on his bite of salmon head.
“Did you say... Lazy-bum?”
“Yep.” Lazybum said, “but you can call me LB if you want. It’s shorter.”
“So where you headed?”
“Emerald city.” LB said, “I’m hoping the wizard can give me a job.”
Al began to laugh.
“I’m just trying to get home.” Al said. “Akron, Ohio.”
“I don’t think this taxi goes there.” LB said, wrapping the rest of the sandwich up in his napkin. “But, hey, why don’t you come with me to see the Wizard, maybe he can help.”
Al laughed so hard he passed out.

When Al came to, he saw that he and LB were no longer on the taxi, but were on the side of the road near an apple orchard.
“You okay?” LB said, “you passed out.”
“How did I...” Al looked around and saw he was sitting on a community bench with a small emerald plaque which read ‘Donated by Elmer Smith in loving memory of his wife Granny.’
“Oh, the concierge and I got you off. This was our stop anyhow.” He looked around, and sighed. “Turns out the tai doesn’t take you all the way to Emerald city. You have to transfer to the bus.” He pointed at the green “Bus stop” sign over Al’s head. “I wrapped up your sandwich for you.”
Al looked around and saw a large number of apple trees on either side of the road. The apples weren’t ripe.
“Figures.” Al said. “So when does this bus come?”
“Tuesday.” LB said, sitting down. “And in case you are wondering, this isn’t Tuesday.”
“Somehow I kind of knew.” Al stood and stretched, “well, why don’t we walk then?”
LB lay down on the now empty bench. “I’m just going to wait here for the bus.”
“Fine.” Al said, then, walking up to a tree said, “excuse me, what is the shortest way to the Emerald city?”
The tree said nothing, for, even in Oz trees don’t talk back. However, it was kind enough to point the way, and off Al walked towards the Emerald city.


After a few miles of walking, Al began to tire, so he looked for a good spot to rest and eat the rest of his sandwich. There was a cliff on one side with a sign reading ‘Do not climb’ and another saying ‘Beware of falling rocks’ and another saying ‘No dirt-bike witches.’ Al pictured a witch on a dirt-bike, and smiled. Oz was nothing like he imagined.
On the other side of the road was a bench with a sign on it reading ‘Do not sit here’ and another on the grass saying ‘Don’t sit here either.’ So Al sat down in the middle of the road, as there was good visibility in all directions. As he unwrapped his sandwich, he heard footsteps from behind him, and looked to see a little girl with a picnic basket, and in the picnic basket was not Toto, but a flying monkey.
“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Al asked as she approached.
“I’m a little girl.” She said, “Why does everybody keep asking if I am a witch?”
“It might have to do with the flying monkey in the picnic basket.”
“So,” she said, “just because I have a monkey in a basket, that automatically makes me a witch? If you had a flying monkey in your backpack, would it make you a wizard?”
Al had to admit that she had a point.
“Why are you sitting in the middle of the road anyhow?” She asked.
“I can’t sit anywhere else,” he said. “The signs.” He pointed to the signs, and she read them.
“Oh.” She said, and sat down beside him, “My name is Lucy,” she said.
“I’m Al.”
They sat there in silence for a minute while each one wondered what to ask next.
“So what’s with the flying monkey?”
“I found him on the side of the road with a broken wing. So, technically he’s not a flying monkey... at present.” She patted the monkey on the head, and it grinned up at her. “I’m taking him to the Emerald city to find a veterinarian.” Al began laughing. “So what’s your story?”
“Tornado,” he said.
“Then where are your ruby slippers?”
“A Munchkin got them first.”
“I know how that is.” They sat there in the road for a moment enjoying the sunshine. “Are you going to eat all of that sandwich?”
Al broke off half the sandwich, and wrapped up what he had left. Lucy shared her half with the monkey in the basket, who thoroughly enjoyed it.
Al had a notion to say “to Oz” and link arms and skip with Lucy down the asphalt, but didn’t know if this was proper, so he offered her his hand to get up, and they began walking down the road once more.


Al stopped and looked around himself, sure that the road had led them there, but now there was no trace of pavement or civilization and Lucy, the monkey and Al found themselves in the midst of a darkening forest.
“Great, we’re lost.” Lucy said.
“Hey, I got directions,” Al said, “and the tree said it was this way.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me?”
Al was about to reply, but then again, she was right. Even in this convoluted land, there was no excuse for taking directions from a tree who had probably never see the other side of its own little grove, much less the Emerald city.
“Does this place seem familiar to you?” Al asked her as she took his arm in hers. “I think... nah, it couldn’t be...”
There was a roar somewhere in the distance.
“Nobody goes through here,” Lucy said, “we had better head back before the sun sets and we’re in real trouble.”
“Trouble from what?”
“Lions, Tigers, Bears... take your pick.” Lucy shuddered, “I’d hate to meet up with any of them, personally.”
“Now I know exactly where we are,” Al said with a smile. “There’s nothing to worry about here Lucy.”
“That’s what you think.” The voice was not Al’s or Lucy’s, and, just to make sure, Al checked the monkey, but it hadn’t said anything and was huddled under a napkin in the basket. It had come from behind them. Al turned his head slowly, and there behind them was a four-foot high badger.
“So,” the badger began, “you come traipsing through my woods without an invitation, so now I have to eat you all... unless you are ostriches.” The badger paused. “I’m allergic to ostriches.” He paused again, this time a bit longer, as if waiting for a reply; getting none, he continued; “you’re not ostriches, are you? The reason I ask is that I’m nearsighted, and can’t make heads or tails out of you.” He waited. “So, tell me if you’re ostriches now... or... I’d get sick and die from eating you.” He waited for a response, “And I don’t want to die from eating an ostrich.”
“So, you’re not a cowardly lion, you’re a nearsighted badger?” Al asked.
“I asked the first question.” The badger said, mistaking a tree for Al.
“Yes,” Lucy said, “we’re a couple of ostriches.”
“And a flying monkey,” Al added, “but he can’t fly because his wing is broken.”
“But we’re going to the emerald city to get him a veterinarian,” Lucy said.
“I’m just trying to get back to Ohio,” Al added, though he felt stupid saying it. “Hey, why don’t you come along with us, and maybe the optometrist can get you some glasses.”
“Contacts are better,” the badger said, “I already have this mask-like marking on my face. Glasses would just be white noise.”
This was all a bit much, and Al was truly trying to keep it together, but when Lucy said, “Well then, to Oz?” and the badger linked arms and said, “To Oz!” He couldn’t restrain himself any longer.
As Al writhed in tears of laughter, gasping for breath, Lucy and the badger shrugged and began walking towards the Emerald city once again.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but do either of you ostriches have anything to eat?” It was the badger who had stopped walking, and was laying on his back in the middle of the, now dirt, road. “I’m starving here!”
Doug took out the last of his sandwich and handed it to the hungry badger, who ate it quickly.
They all sat down, a bit tired of walking. Al took off his shoes to get at a pebble, and Lucy petted the flying monkey. For the first time Al noted that the sun hadn’t moved, but was still directly overhead... just as it had been when he had first dropped the Buick on the witch.
“What’s with this crazy place?” He finally asked. “I mean, there’s no sundown, there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, it’s all just... just...” He shrugged.
“Well,” the badger said, rolling onto his stomach and standing up, “I’m no expert on this whole... ‘whatever’ business, but I would say you are probably here to learn some sort of lesson about your own life.”
“That’s typically the reason,” Lucy said, “I mean, it’s usually to tell you that ‘there’s no place like home’ or ‘the grass isn’t really greener on the other side.’” She looked at Al; “so what’s your story?”
He sat down. “That’s just it,” he began, “Oz is so much better than my own life. I live with my dad who is constantly comparing me with my brother Doug. He says I need to get out more: which I do. I was taking my dad’s advice when I got sucked up into a tornado, and... wham.”
“Wait, did you say your name was ‘Al’?” The badger said, sitting up quickly.
“Yes, why?”
“Your last name is Kleinman though, right?”
Al said yes, but was starting to get a bit upset that the badger would know who he was.
“Oh.” The badger said. He began to chuckle, then fell back laughing. “Oh brother!”
“We got the wrong guy.” Lucy explained. “I figured I’d just go with it anyhow.”
Al, more confused than ever stood up, and was about to demand an explanation, when the badger took out a cell-phone.
“You see, Lucy began to explain, “this whole place... Oz... well...”
Doug could hear the badger in a heated debate on the cell with someone, and he kept pointing at Al with one of his claws, and gesturing quite a bit while Lucy struggled for an explanation, and the non-flying monkey stepped out of the basket, and took out his own cell-phone. “Get me my agent.” It said. “We had a mix-up.”
It was at this point that Al saw the world spinning, and he went down. As the world went black, he could see a field of poppies just around the next bend in the road.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“How are you feeling Mr. Kleinman?” A voice was saying. Doug’s eyes had trouble focusing, and he thought he must be pretty sick, because everything had a green tint to it. He could now distinguish the face over him: a nurse dressed in avocado scrubs.
“I’m guessing I’m in the emerald city?” He said.
The nurse smiled and patted his head. “You’re fine. And don’t worry, everything will be explained...” She turned to go, then paused, turned back and said, “...or it won’t be explained.” She saw Al turn a shade of green himself, so she smiled at him and added, “Sometimes they do though.”
Al tried to sit up, but found that he had a headache. He also noticed that he wasn’t wearing anything but a backless green hospital gown. This prompted him to lay back down.
He stared at the dark green ceiling, looked out the green tinted window at the green birds flying in a green sky over green grass. He began counting the green pits in the green walls, and had just gotten to 137 when a man with a green clipboard entered the room.
“Mr. Al Kleinman?” The man asked. “Are you related to a Mr. Doug Kleinman of 37 Appleville Road, Akron?”
“That’s my brother,” Al said, “but he moved like... seven years ago.”
“Ah.” The man said, and jotted down something. “Do you know his current address?”
“Why do you want his address?”
“That is confidential,” the man said.
“Wait, wait, wait... I think I get it.” Doug sat up quickly, making his head throb. “This is all about the accident, isn’t it?” The man in green fidgeted, but said nothing. “I remember now. Dad had a fight with Doug, and he left in the green Buick... the Buick is green, isn’t it?” The man shrugged, but Doug thought the man looked a bit more uncomfortable now. “He was supposed to come here and learn his lesson with the badger and Lucy and a flightless flying monkey and Mr. Lazypants...” The man was definitely squirming now, putting a finger to the inside of his green shirt collar to loosen the green necktie. “But somebody here screwed up.” Al lay back, relaxing. “No wonder none of this made any sense: my guess is it was all tailored for my brother seven years ago.”
“I... we... would you mind waiting here for a moment?” The man with the clipboard exited the room taking out a green cell-phone and dialing quickly.
Al took the opportunity to put on his clothes, which had been pressed and dry-cleaned and sat on a Kelly green chair next to his forest green hospital bed. He waited for the man with the clipboard to return, but instead, two official, FBI looking men in almost black suits with emerald sunglasses stepped into the room and said, “you will come with us now, Mr. Kleinman; you will not ask any questions until you arrive at the destination, do you understand, and will you comply?”
Al almost asked, ‘where are you taking me?’ but decided just to say “yes” and see what happened next – so far nothing really bad had happened to him on his trip through Oz. What could go wrong?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Al was lead down a pea green hallway, and up to some large, imposing doors. The doors opened, and the two FBI looking men stepped aside, and motioned for Al to enter the room. It looked exactly like the throne room of the wizard of Oz from the movie. As Al stood there chuckling, green flames shot out of the floor in front of him, and a large green, disembodied head appeared.
“I am Oz, the Great ans Powerful.” It said.
“Yeah, yeah.” Al walked over and pulled back the curtain, only to find a small bathroom. Now he was confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be behind the curtain?”
“Silence!” It shouted at him. “You may ask no questions!”
“Can the routine,” Al said, “look, just tell me what’s going on here and how I can get home.”
The floating head turned off, and a secret door opened behind him. “Look, Al, can I call you Al?” The voice came from a twenty-year old man in a leisure suit straight out of Miami Vice... only green. “I won’t beat around the bush, we ran into a bit of a problem a few years ago. Seven to be precise.” The man snapped his fingers, and two chairs were brought in by girls in funny, Dr. Suess type green hats, who quickly disappeared again. “You see, when the wizard died...”
“Wait, wait... what?”
“The wizard... of Oz?” He pointed to where the floating head had been. “Oz the Great and Powerful? Oz the Excellent, Magnificent, Beneficent, Wonderful and Powerful Wizard? You’ve got to help me out here...”
“I know of the wizard.”
“Good, that will speed things up.” He snapped his fingers, and another girl came out with, what appeared to be a green Martini for the man. “So, when the old man died, I was left in charge of the operation here.”
“The operation?”
“Let me explain.” He pointed a remote at the space where the head was, and a PowerPoint slide presentation began. “We here at Oz were given a task many many years ago by Belingada, the good witch of the South-East. We were to help lost children find their way again by creating an altered reality based on their own unique personalities.” He clicked through a few slides that were faces with the words ‘satisfied customer’ under them. “Started out with Dorothy, back before the great technological revolution. Anyhow, you know her story, right? I mean, who doesn’t?”
He clicked to the next slide of Doug’s face with no caption. “Surprised? I bet. You see, we had researched your brother, and saw that he was going down the wrong path, and so we set up a scenario for him involving Lucy, the non-flying monkey the badger and Lazybum... and a neurosurgeon named Horace, but he’s of no consequence to you.”
The slide changed to the words ‘seven years ago.’
“We had a civil war here in Oz: Partizan and Non-cooperatives. Long story short, Partizan won. However, in the war, a spy came in and messed up the timetables on a bunch of people we were researching, specifically on pick-up dates.” He clicked to the net slide of the car. “All we had was a date and the car make, model and color. So then they changed the dates, they changed it forward seven years... and here you are.” The slide show went blank, and the man sat back in his chair and sipped the drink he had been holding. “I’m sorry, would you like something to drink?”
Al shook his head. “I’d like to go home.”
The man grimaced. “Well, see, that’s the problem. The magic to get you home is based on your individual quest. The ruby slippers are irrelevant. Part of the arrangement of Belingada. The best we can do is wait until the next kid comes through, and send you back in their magic wake. It’s all very technical, really. Bottom line? You’re stuck here for now.”
“No, that’s where you’re wrong,” Al began. “I’ve been on a quest, and learned a valuable lesson.”
“Is that so?” The man said. “Tell me then.”
“I worked at a cardboard box factory...”
“How boring.”
“Exactly!” Al exclaimed. “I needed some fun and adventure in my life! My life was duller than a used toothpick, and I knew it, but never stepped outside of my own boredom until now. I have begun to see that I enjoy being around people who are...”
“Crazy?” The man offered.
“...Different,” Al said. “But I found I liked the interaction, and when I get home I’m quitting my job and getting one where I can interact with others. Maybe I’ll go back to school to learn a new skill... like making fish sandwiches... who knows. I’ve also always compared myself to my brother, because everybody like him. But here I learned that he isn’t perfect, and needed help too. Look, I just know I have to go back so I can fix my life.”
The man sat there in silence for a moment, then picked up his cell-phone, “let me make a few calls and see what we can do.”

Chapter 52: My First Novel

For anyone interested, my first novel is up on, and is called "Shipwright" -- it's the story of... well, you'll find out if you go to the site.

If you do go, create a profile and put my book on your bookshelf! Thanks.

Monday, September 22

Chapter 51:

In Which Elwood Attends a Meeting of Highly Illogical Proportion

Recently I attended a meeting of LISP (League of Incredibly Stupid People) in Myrtle Falls. It was advertised in the paper that they were holding their multi-annual meeting each week and it was open to the public. How could I resist? As I entered the room I overheard a man trying to become a member – however, he had a lisp, and that’s one of the rules of joining LISP: you can’t both have a lisp and be a lisp. You would have thought that merely wanting to join the organization would be enough to get you elected president, but, as I later found out, the president of LISP was actually the person not voted for. In the case of the tie, they had a belch-off.

I told the man at the door that I was there merely as an observer, and he said I would have to wear the "observer hat" – being a little frightened by what this might entail, I hesitantly said okay. It turns out that it was a small bowler cap, nothing more. The members, on the other hand, all wore propeller beanies, or pith helmets, depending on their status.

"All rise as President non-elect Jorgan enters," said a man seated on the platform. All rose as Jorgan entered wearing a black robe and a floral Easter bonnet. "This meeting of LISP will now come to order. Our secretary will read the minutes of the last meeting."

The secretary stood on the platform and began reading the minutes. "Six O’one, Six O’two, Six O’three..." when she got to seven thirty-four, she sat down, and was thanked by the President.

Meanwhile I had turned to the woman next to me and asked if the entire meeting was like this. "Oh no," she replied, "they do other things than read the minutes. That’s just the opening."
The President stood and motioned for silence in the already silent room, and waited for the noise to die down. He then paced back and forth across the stage looking like he was about to say something, but then stopped, shrugged his shoulders, said, "I got nothing." And sat down to the stilted applause of the members. The woman next to me explained that usually the President gave a speech... except when he couldn’t think of anything to say... like tonight.

Then a microphone was set up at either end of the podium, and the members were asked to come share what they had been doing that week, and how they could help. The first person got up and walked to the microphone, and said "I paid my taxes this week." And went and sat down. This might not have been odd, except for the fact that it was September, and not April.

The next person got up to complain that they bought a Starbuckle’s Coffee and spilled it on their lap, and the coffee was hot, so she was trying to sue the company for giving her hot coffee. The next person stood and said he was taking up smoking and someday would sue the tobacco company for his lung cancer. Another person went up to the mic. and said he was having trouble with spam in his e-mail. When asked why, he said he thought it had to do with his renting the billboard and putting his e-mail address on it, but he wasn’t sure. The President said they should look into it, and appointed a committee of the secretary, and the doorman (as was his official title) to look into the matter and give their report next week, but that in the meantime, he should add the words "don’t spam me" to the billboard, and that should do the trick.

Next they brought out refreshments. Chocolate cake... but they had run out of sugar so they substituted more egg-whites. Also, there were no plates, so they were served in teacups, and there were only plastic butter-knives to eat with because the person in charge of getting the utensils thought they had enough forks and spoons, so they bought more knives. "Same every week," said the man sitting behind me. "But I’m sure next week she’ll remember the forks." The people around him nodded in agreement.

"Maybe she should write it down," I suggested.

"Nah," they said, "she’ll remember next week."

The next item of business was discussing parking. Apparently it had once been a problem, I surmised as they began the discussion, then realized it had never been a problem at all, but was just the next topic. They talked about their favorite parking spots, and how many cars they had rear-ended trying to parallel park their cars, SUV’s, minivans, and even one guy with a picycle. The discussion devolved into talking about their favorite bicycle accidents, and then on to injuries sustained in busses and while waiting in lines at the DMV (I was surprised there were so many).

"Let us stand and sing our anthem," the secretary said, standing. All the people stood and faced a different spot in the room, or the person next to them. At the same time, they all began singing the anthem... but each of them sang different words, and all were in different keys. If it had been orchestrated, I thought, the choir would have had a very tough time of it, but here it was merely the fact that they weren’t paying any attention to anybody else, and so even the rhythms were off. The guy in front of me, facing the folding chair I had been sitting on, for example, sang an anthem about sitting in folding chairs. It had three verses, and actually continued for a good thirty seconds after everybody else in the room was finished singing. When this was over, everybody sat down in their chairs, and took out a piece of paper.

"It’s time to vote," the woman next to me said, handing me a piece of paper, "write the name of somebody you don’t want to be president next week." I immediately put my name on the slip of paper just to be safe, and when they passed a bucket around, I put the paper in it like everybody else. The bucket was taken to the front and all the names were read, as each name was read, the people sighed with relief that their name was called... because, apparently, nobody thinks of putting their own name down.

"Next week," the secretary said, after having crossed off the names of everybody in the room who was called, even having to write down a few extra names before crossing them off, "the president elect will be Gary Johnson." Mr. Johnson said "Dang" and walked up to the podium where the hat was placed on his head, and the robe draped around his shoulders, revealing that the previous president elect was only wearing swim-trunks.

"Meeting adjourned." Said the doorman, "see you all next week."

But I decided not to attend the next week.


Thursday, December 28

Chapter 50:

In Which Josh Shares his Christmas Letter for 2006

Blue skies echo from between the somber gray clouds, whispering softly that the dead of winter approaches on thunderous feet. I slap my arms to keep them warm as my head turns heavenward watching for signs of snow. My breath comes in long trains of steam as I begin to dance a quick shuffle in order to keep limbs from freezing. It is December, and the frosts have turned to rain – dark clouds which pass west towards Redding in their futile effort to make it over the Sierra-Nevadas.

I walk into town, not a great feat in any weather, and make my way tot he Post Office where the mail is not yet out because the Mail lady has been talking with a local man about communal friends. I hear the words “treatment” and “doctor” as I stand there patiently waiting for my box to be filled. Familiar faces enter, and one stands next to me to pass the time:

“You know that the government is watching you?” He begins – the old story with a new twist. “They have all your information in a big database on the internet where they record your purchases... and if you leave your cell-phone on, they are tracking you. They call it Big Brothers.” He nods emphatically with eyes focused on the image conjured in his head. “Sears is in on it.” He says glowering a bit. “They ask you for your phone number so they can see exactly what you buy!”

“I suppose then,” I say, looking at the conversation of the postal employee with a bit of envy, “that should make you be careful what you buy then.”

“I just don’t give them my phone number.” He says.

But that’s life up here: conspiracy theorists and big-foot sightings by un-employed and the un-employable, welfare and soup kitchen, spending every cent on alcohol or drugs, or else in a store that is soon to go out of business. It’s a feeling of apathy and non-committal death throes of the souls of folks you pass on the street.

The Assembly of God church down the road is closing its doors because there are not enough people interested to attend it. The number of people attending in winter is always low anyhow: “it’s too cold in your church,” “it’s too hot in your church,” “I don’t like hymns,” “I only like hymns,” “the power is out,” “its hunting season.” Excuses. But what’s new? People have been making excuses to not get involved for thousands of years, ever since Cain killed his brother – “am I my brother’s keeper?”

The sky clears from time to time, and the snow melts off. The clouds roll in and by leaving cold, but no more than frozen ground-frost. I can go out and enjoy it if I desire, or stay inside, because I am on winter break now from my on-line Master’s courses until the second week of January. In the meanwhile I have to edit my story and add ten more pages to it. Other than that, I grow a year older, but not the wiser – I seem to have been in stasis in that department for many years; not that I am wise, but that I haven’t become any wiser recently.

They say you become wise through years of experience of loss, gain, success and failure, but I think it is more than that. Standing here beneath the frozen sky, watching my breath, I think that wisdom is how much you have done with what God gave you, and how willing you are to accept His ways and move on.

I hear the sound of laughter in the distance, and I smile.

It’s cold out here. I think I’ll go inside.

Merry Christmas.