OPPOSITE DAY

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Submitted Date 01/04/2021
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Ol' Gary Balzac has been away for a while as my friend and I are starting an online news magazine. If interested check it out at RochRocket.weebly.com

If you have a penchant for satire writing, feel free to submit your works to us. We'd love to have your writing.

What follows is a novella I've completed, all chapters 1 - 7. Grab some wine or a fat Arizona tea and enjoy.

Opposite Day

Chapter 1

"How'd the check-up go today?" Taryn folds another shirt into a tight square and places it on the growing pile of sweatpants and button-downs, a cotton Mario Kart that is getting way too small for our son.

My wife, Taryn, ever the caring one. She and I will have been married twenty-five years this coming November. Oh, you should have been at our wedding. It was wonderful, but the outside pictures were cold as heck; what did we expect in Minnesota?

And we have four children. Clarissa, eighteen, whom we sent off to Winona to attend St. Montecito's Lutheran Seminary at the end of this summer; she's going be to another Lutheran pastor in a long lineage of Lutheran pastors; the ELCA approved that sort of thing a few years back. Tawny, our next, just turned sixteen. She has her first boyfriend, Samuel, a kid from our church, scrawny as a flagpole, but very nice. Great family – they even took the virginity pledge this year. And Sarah. Yes, another girl. She's fourteen and will be the brains of the family; she'll be taking care of me when I'm old, if I grow old. And then there's Dickie, ten, the comedian. I know, I know. How the heck could we call our son that name? I liked the ring of it, and so did Taryn, and the kid is quick-witted too as he can take a joke as well as give it back.

I was actually chatting with Dickie last week, and I'm almost embarrassed to say this because it's on the edge of what's appropriate for our family discourse. But I asked Dickie, "How did you sprout up so quickly? You're like a little dude now."

He replied with a wink as he pulled me out of the reach of his mom's hearing. "I'm a big dude, Pops." And he grabbed his crotch with a shake and a snicker.

I hand the lab reports over to Taryn as a shot rings out in the background from an old rerun episode of "Gunsmoke" on METV. She scans the papers and presses her hand to her mouth. "It's worse, Kip. Much worse." In anger, she kicks over the carefully arranged pile of clothes.

"Bypass surgery."

The heart condition took my Great Grandpa Ole by surprise. After World War II, he stayed in Italy and did missionary work. He was a Lutheran pastor and a carpenter by trade, and he worked closely with the Catholic churches to help restore cities along the enfeebled coast. He met his wife there, Great Grammy Elisa. They married, had three kids, Lenny, Robert, and Amanda, and they moved back to Minnesota where he took over as senior pastor at Wahkopahlah Lutheran. At the age of sixty-six, Great Gramps Ole suffered a massive heart attack and keeled over while serving communion at Trinity Shepherd Nursing Home. His body flopped over the railing as he gripped his chest, sending the plate and wafers waterfalling down widow Jorgerson's blouse.

Lenny, Robert, and Amanda all went into some part of the ministry, all had kids. Great Uncle Lenny died at sixty-two, Great-aunt Amanda at sixty, and my Grandpa Robert died at fifty-eight. All of them heart attacks, all of them spectacular events. Grandpa Robert actually was driving back from an ELCA conference in Minneapolis when his big one hit, causing him to swerve off the road and into a dairy farm outside of Zumbrota where he ripped through an electric fence and collided with a Holstein. Double whammy, man. The poor ol' girl's udder burst open and detonated milk all over the hood and windshield. When the paramedics arrived, Grandpa's last act as a living human was to make sure he spritzed the windshield with wiper fluid, so he could see the pastoral scene clearly before him before he died. By the way, the cow lived. She couldn't milk anymore, of course, so she was turned into hamburger patties that were eaten at Gramp's funeral. That's rural Minnesota for you, utilitarian Norwegians until the end.

My Uncle Lewis died at fifty-seven, and my Aunt Jeanine died at fifty-four. And my dad, Pastor Gene, died at fifty. My dad was preparing his Easter notes when his heart packed it in. Karen, the secretary, found him stone-dean on the floor of his office. On his desk were the haphazardly arranged statuettes of Jesus and the disciples. My dad had placed a stuffed Easter Bunny toy riding on Jesus's shoulders, and he had another bunny clutched in his hands. Presumably, he was going to place that on one of the other statues, but couldn't quite finish the job before the end.

My Brother Joseph's heart exploded when he was forty-eight. He was riding his bike to work at The Clinic when his big one hit. He, according to witnesses, clutched his chest and veered his bike sharply off the path and then off the Broadway Bridge, dumping himself into Silver Lake thirty feet below yelling, "It ain't a Holstein, but it'll do, Pops." He was dead before his body cracked the surface.

And my sister, Ruth, is in the hospital as we speak; she's forty-seven. Her heart didn't get her as efficiently as the others did, so she'll be recovering in the hospital for at least another week. She had grand words for her demise too. "Show me this thing we call paradise!" She boldly proclaimed while dropping onto the organ during first service. Her body slumped on the organ keys and made a dissonant shrill, like when terrible things foreshadow events in movies. And now she is complaining that she has to think of something all over again for when the next one hits.

So, here I am standing in our living room at the age of forty-five with four kiddos of my own and with more news about my deteriorating heart. The doctors call it a genetic anomaly that has to work itself down in age through the gene pool. The four kids are already on statins, have chosen cross-country and track as their sports of choice, and they eat a lot of green, leafy veggies and fish, though Dickie hates fish. I have been on Lipitor since my late teens, am a jogger, and I do all the right things for my body. Maybe tonight is the night that my heart explodes; it has kind of become a morbid joke in our family, a long pedigree of death. I've already run the gamut of emotions and I am prepared to go whenever that sucker hits. I even have my final words planned out, and when it hits it's going to be a grand exit.

Taryn studies the paper again. "When are we going to schedule surgery? Soon, right?"

"I'm already on it. I've got a second round of blood tests on Friday, and they're going to slice this carcass open at the end of June." I point to my chest and slice down the front of my shirt with my index finger.

Taryn doesn't appreciate the joke. "Stop being so morbid, Kip. You know it's not all about you. It's me too. And the kids, for crying out loud. And you've got a congregation and a community that relies on you."

I kneel down. "You're right. I'm sorry, Taryn. I guess I've become a little glib to the circumstance because I've lived with this generationally."

"Well, it's time that all of this stops here and now."

I know she is right, of course.

From down the hallway, Dickie tumbles in yelling, "I hate you, Sarah."

There is playfulness in his taunt, but Taryn and I do not approve of that kind of talk in the house, so I wave him downstairs with that familiar fatherly index finger. "Dickie. Over here."

With a clomp, Dickie swings hard off the banister and down to the second level. "Aw, come on. Sarah and I are playing opposite day. It actually means that I love her."

Sarah lingers in from around the corner. "In that case Dickie, I love you."

"Sarah! Both of you. Enough." Taryn straightens the pile of clothes.

"Opposite day, huh?"

"Yeah, dad. Opposite day. You're a meathead." Dickie sprints back up the stairs roaring like a jaguar. "Meathead, meathead."

I take the paper from Taryn, scan it one more time, and crumple it into a wad tossing it over my shoulder. "So often I think, what's the use? Instead of kale, maybe I should be sucking down a fat, triple bacon burger from Cows Restaurant. Maybe I should start enjoying life a little bit."

That sets off a firestorm in Taryn's eyes. "Enjoying life? Haven't we been good enough for you? Me? The kids?"

"You know what I mean, Taryn. You know I love you and the kids more than anything on this earth."

"Then start acting like it, Kip." She tosses me a pair of boxer shorts. "You can fold the rest of the laundry. And there's another load in the dryer."

****

Lying in bed tonight, I ponder the idea of opposite day, thinking that maybe tomorrow after prayer group and morning Bible Study, I am going to steal away from church and get that burger from Cows. I am going to load it up with mayo, Ranch, Moo-Moo sauce (they squeeze it into a side dish from these cool, udder dispensers), and I am going to shove that meat into my face and enjoy every second of it. Maybe my last supper, as was once said. Maybe I've been doing everything wrong my whole life because whatever I have been doing, got me a scheduled bypass surgery next month at age forty-five.

Dickie ended up playing opposite day all afternoon. He answered the phone after supper. Aunt Ruth called from the hospital and Dickie answered by stating, "Goodbye." Then he hung up on her. I had to call back and explain, of course. Ruth got him in back, though. When Dickie cooed into the receiver on the second call, Aunt Ruth stated that she was so pleased to hear his little voice, that he was her favorite of my kids, to which Dickie beamed. Then Ruth dropped the joke on him. "Hey, Dickie. Opposite day." Then she yelled into the phone "Hello!" and hung up on him. We all had a good laugh.

 

Chapter 2

This morning I wake up with a great idea for this week's sermon, the text from Galatians: 5, the verse: "The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God." We haven't had a good, old fashioned message about sin in a while, and this one should goose the congregation a little bit.

Bible Study goes well and after I clean out the coffee maker, I go to Cows and I eat that burger and it tastes heavenly, the pink meat oozes blood, the mayo drips down my chin, and I bathe the seasoned fries in salt and Ranch. And I feel terrific afterward. My body, it seems, sings in exhilaration.

The waitress, Camille, asks if I want anything else, but there is a hint of flirt in her voice. I think she is searching for a bigger tip.

I tell her I couldn't possibly have anything else.

Camille persists. She bends over and hands me the check. I have to turn away. I can't look at her open blouse, her heaving chest a creamy vanilla.

"See you next time." Her voice lilts and drips with sexual sincerity.

As I start my Honda, I'm sweating a little bit. It's probably from the secret sauce. I don't want to think that it may have been Camille as I push those thoughts to the back of my head.

Tonight, I bring home a pizza for the family to shocked faces, extra pepperoni, extra cheese, and thick breadsticks slathered in butter and garlic. Taryn wants to dump the feast, but I implore her. The grease and fat surges through my veins. It's almost like I want the heart attack to come, want the waiting over.

"This is a one-time deal, right Kip?"

"I know, Taryn. I feel great, though. And I gotta admit to you that this afternoon I had a burger at Cows, and honestly, I feel fantastic."

Taryn's jaw drops and she pulls me aside away from the kids. Her voice seethes. "Kip. Do you understand what you are doing here? And you've got blood tests on Friday."

She questions me with concern on the cusp of rebuke as her fingers dig into my arm. "I feel fine, Taryn. No, better than fine."

Tonight I skip the treadmill and watch Monday Night Football. The Vikings destroy the Lions 48-3. Taryn is asleep as I slide into bed. My hands linger over her back and then slowly down to her backside. She wakes and kisses me on the forehead.

"You understand why I was so upset tonight, right Kip?"

I nod underneath her fingers as she twirls the tufts of my hair. "I get it, Taryn. I won't do it again. Just for one night, I wanted something other than a vegetable tray." But Taryn is asleep again. She has cute, little muffled snorts as she mumbles a bar from the old sermon, "How Great Thou Art."

I wake famished around 1:00 AM, so I fry bacon and eggs, surreptitiously scrambling away, devouring them in greedy fork-fulls. I think to myself, This is it. I won't eat like this. Taryn's right, of course.

But the rest of the week, I plow through everything I shouldn't, plates of bacon, New York Vanilla with chocolate syrup and caramel (my favorite when I was a kid), and when I grill the salmon and haddock, I toss on brats and sausages and fatty pork loins and red steaks, and I shovel them into my mouth behind the garage each night before we sit down to eat together.

 

Chapter 3

The tech at the hospital, Terrence, knows me pretty well, as I have been in for dozens and dozens of blood tests. He asks me if I have fasted the required twelve hours. I have, but after last night's meal of chicken breast and spinach medley, I drove to get gas and I pounded a whole bag of Doritos and a couple of Kwik Trip Roller Bites (steak rancheros with extra cheese).

Inspecting my arm, seeking a good vein to stick the needle, noticing the pockmarks and scarring from all the other draws, Terrence plunges the needle in and draws the blood making a heroin joke. "Christ, Pastor Kip. You could do all the smack you want and nobody would ever know."

I chuckle. He's a good-natured guy. Needles used to scare me, but now I observe with keen interest the crimson syrup being sucked into the vile, knowing that my blood is full of cholesterol and thick lipids like melted wax, adhering to the scar tissue in my arteries.

A week later we get the results. Doctor Brahmbatt flips through the pages with a strange look, face pinched, eyes drawn tightly into a V-shape. I love his Indian accent.

"What have you been doing this past week, Mr. Moller? These results cannot be correct." Dr. Brahmbatt flips through the pages of results. He insists on getting the most detailed reports. And all of it is good news.

Taryn jumps in. "How bad is it, Doctor Brahmbatt?" She eyes me with scorn. "I told you we shouldn't have eaten the pizza. And you had that burger, Kip." She shakes her head on the verge of tears. "Does this mean we have to move up the bypass?"

"On the contrary, Mrs. Moller. His results are very good." He hands us the papers. "Look for yourself. His LDLs are down ten-percent. HDLs are up ten-percent. The small particles are within the range of normal – a touch on the high of normal – but they've never been this low. And all in one week. And, Mr. Moller, you've lost weight, six pounds."

"How can that be, Doc?" I'm as stunned as the doctor. Before Taryn picked me up to go to The Clinic, I slipped into a grubby gas station and ravaged two burgers and a tin of sushi. Yeah, I know sushi from a gas station. I slathered it with mayonnaise and hot mustard.

Dr. Brahmbatt shook his head in bewilderment. "I don't have an explanation. But keep doing what you are doing. I would like to set you up for an ultrasound to take a look at your arteries. Next Friday, please." He holds out the results with a smile and a wink. "You'd like a copy, I should think, to place on your refrigerator. You're now one of our star-students, Pastor Kip."

I slip the reports into my Bible. I know I can't tell them that I have been binging on junk food for the past week, so it's a little lie that I'll keep to myself. Certainly, a little thing like this, especially since my health seems to be recovering, couldn't hurt. Not just recovering but getting much better and much faster than anticipated.

Sunday after church, after the last of the congregation has left, even the Youngs, the Cranstons, and the Petersons, who always seem to dawdle into mid-afternoon and finish off any leftover pancakes before their families kindly reset the community hall and do the dishes, I sit at my desk and mull.

Opposite day.

"Shoot, shoot, shoot," I say as I pull a cream-filled doughnut from my desk drawer. I'd eaten the other five throughout the morning. I pull the results from the middle of Exodus and scan the medical reports again from Dr. Brahmbatt. "It just makes no dang sense."

Opposite day.

With trembling hands, I place the papers on my Bible, and I repeat myself.

Opposite day.

At first, I have a tough time getting the words out, but I say them anyway. "Shit." And when I whisper the word, it sounds so foreign, but I force myself to continue. "Shit, shit, shit. This makes no damn sense. It makes no goddamn sense." A wave of guilt surges through my body and my heart at the cursing. But whatever this is, seems to be working.

I continue all week cursing under my breath, of course. I lose my PowerPoint clicker on Tuesday, and while searching my office top to bottom, I call it a "son-of-a-bitchin' whore." On Wednesday, Kathryn, our secretary, forgets to lock the offices, I expel a tirade into my clerical garb.

And now it's Thursday evening after men's group, the night before my scheduled ultrasound, and I drive over to Willy's and buy a pint of Evan Williams bourbon, drink a few shots while sitting in my van at the old softball fields, and under the influence of the spirit, I let the bottle have it. "You mother-fucking twat." And it feels good. "You shit-eating, ass-licking, tit-hugging bastard of a bottle." I hold it up to the dying sunlight. "I bet you jack your knob to pig shit."

I take another swig and inspect the tip of the bottle. "I bet you wanna be jammed up a duck's asshole. Duck, Duck, Dildo." A man saunters by with his dog, his hands jammed into his pockets, and he lingers near my van. I don't know him, but I'm sure he heard my little rant, probably thinks I'm a nut-job, but this is the sanest I've ever felt. I crank the engine over and roll down the window. "What the hell are you looking at, moron?" And for added emphasis, "Why don't you go home at butt-pump your schnauzer, jizz-monkey." I peel out of the parking lot. The guy yells something and gives me the finger.

In the van on the way home, I release all the pent-up tension and I'm able to inhale and exhale full breaths, long, protracted breaths. I haven't been able to draw breath like that for years. I remember that my dad said that one of the early signs of a heart attack is the inability to get one's breath. But I am breathing freely right now.

As the liquor wears off at home, I feel remorse. I pray for forgiveness, am truly sorry, and empty the rest of the booze into the sink. Tonight it's grilled slabs of tuna and broccoli, but I also throw on a sixteen-ounce T-bone, seer it for two minutes on each side, and gobble it in ravenous chunks before we sit down.

After supper, the kids need to finish their chores. I point to the chore chart on the fridge; it's affixed right next to my results. "Dickie, it's your night to clear the table. Tawny, it's yours to do the dishes."

Dickie interrupts. "But dad. I got a paused game of Smash Bros. and my friends are waiting for me."

"Well, they can wait a little longer."

Tawny jumps in. "But I did the dishes last night."

This sparks an argument. "No. No, you didn't, Tawn. I did the dishes."

"You did not, Dick. I did them because you were at Brian's."

I intervene. "Please, kids. Just do what's on the schedule."

"But Dad… I swear I did them yesterday."

"Bull-roar I-"

"Both of you. Shut the hell up and do your fucking chores!" I lose it. I never lose it.

Taryn screams. "Go to your room! Now!"

The kids don't move. Dickie starts to cry. And as I look up, Taryn isn't glaring at the kids, she's leering at me.

Her voice grates like cold steel across winter concrete and she repeats, "Kip. Go. To. Your. Room."

Shamed beyond belief, I plunge to my knees and pray at the bedside. Taryn enters an hour later, and she has calmed. "What was that? What was that, Kip?"

"I don't know, Taryn. I'm so ashamed. I'm so ashamed."

And she stands over my kneeling body. She knows I've been praying, and as I pray she places her arms around my shoulders and pulls me into her body with a deep hug, she exhales. "I know you've been stressed lately, Kip. We all have. Your health condition is making us all a little insane."

That word, insane. "I'm so sorry, Taryn. I should never have taken it out on the kids. From this point forward, I'll come to you if I'm feeling burned out." And I squeeze tightly around her waist, and her hips feel tight underneath her jeans, and the only thing I can think of is taking Taryn to bed. I look up, then pick her off the floor, place her on the comforter, and roll her over on her stomach. Without asking, without permission, I tug off her jeans. Taryn doesn't resist.

Chapter 4

It's Friday afternoon and the doctor squirts splotches of cold lubricant over my neck and strokes the ultrasound up and down my carotid arteries. The ultrasound reveals twenty-percent less plaque buildup than six months ago. The doctors are confounded, and we decide to postpone the bypass for another month. Perfect, I think. I've got time to really clear those arteries out. But how far can I go? How far can I push it?

On Sunday evening, I tell the family that I need to go to church. Dickie wants to go with me, but I tell him not tonight. He likes to run around the sanctuary and play with the disciple figurines on the front alter. I caught him last week pretending to All-Star Wrestle with Matthew and Judas. Judas was winning the match until Jesus intervened and struck him dead with a lightning bolt.

I slip out of the house and plop down on a barstool at Willy's. The bottle of Budweiser, the bready scent and the Beechwood aging (whatever that is), nicely washes down the stale popcorn. And on the wall next to the greasy popcorn machine is a flyer for open mic night at Charley's Comedy Club in Rochester. I think maybe I could write some jokes, offend some people, use my new-found penchant for cursing. I think that if I can get booed off the stage that might help. I pull the flyer off the wall and sit down. I order another beer, Miller Light this time.

A young lady sits next to me. She has strawberry blond hair, the kind of loose wisping strands that cascade off her shoulders, strands that need constant attention by pressing and curling them back or pinning them behind her ears. I know her from St. Luke's Catholic; she's a member of Father Cameron's flock, Molly. She did an ecumenical reading last year at our annual Catholic-Lutheran summer service. She then sang a soprano "Amazing Grace." She always struck me as someone who is caring and kind. I remember her pushing the elderly in their wheel-chairs and then helping with the lawn games and races.

"Well, Pastor Kip Moller. What are you doing at a bar?" She takes a few kernels of burned popcorn from my basket and tosses them in her mouth with a grin.

I push the basket in between us and palm a few kernels of my own. I can't help but notice her low-cut blouse, revealing the freckles of an early summer tan. I stare forward at the pickled eggs. How do people eat those things? "God's work, of course. It's not necessarily the churched that needs saving. I need to go to where the sinners are, draw all people to Christ."

Molly leans in and gains my attention as she touches my forearm. "You're married, right?" Molly crunches through a half-popped kernel.

The question shocks me, so bold. I'm taken aback by it. "Yes. I'm married, four wonderful children."

"Too bad." She shifts her body weight on the stool, spreads her legs, and envelopes my stool with each of them - long, thin legs - limbs that haven't yet had to carry around squirming children or heft weekly loads of laundry.

My face begins to burn, and as I look into her eyes, I see a young woman who seems desperate, broken. I actually mean the words now as I whisper. My attention snaps to her cherubic face; she's so young. "We all need saving." And as I gaze around the room, men and women drape off one another in a desperate need for connection. A guy in a yellow construction vest near the jukebox has passed out alone, his forehead on the bar, body slouching forward, and cradling in the crook of his bare, dirt-streaked arm is a bottle of Bud Light tipping precariously forward. The guy next to him inspects the room with slit eyes and then slips his hand over and steals his tip money, greedily plunging the cash into his front pocket. An older woman, who is probably in her fifties, is flirting with some twenty-somethings at the pool tables. The young men leer over her body and paw at her, making lewd jokes.

The verse from Saint Luke comes instantly to me, and I speak it out loud to whomever, maybe Molly, maybe the bartender who taps the construction worker's arm. "And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'"

Molly winks at me as we accidentally bump knuckles going for more popcorn.

"Am I a sinner, Pastor Kip? Do I need saving?" She pins the side of her hair behind her left ear but lets the right side splash over her eyes.

"We all need the mercies, the grace of God, the transformation of Christ." And the pastor inside me is welling out now in earnest, or maybe it's the Holy Spirit drawing me back from my recent dabblings in sin. The Miller Light has warmed to a bitter wash, and I suddenly feel the longing to be home, to be with my family, to be with my kids, and I'll play Mario Kart with Dickie; he's asked for the past three nights. "I need to go, Molly. I'm sorry. I pull out a twenty-dollar bill and lay it next to her rum and Coke. "For mine and yours. Good night, Molly." As I leave, I have to sidle over her legs.

She squeezes them together on my right leg. "Your loss." Then she releases me. "Maybe next time."

But all I see in her is loss and loneliness. And the way she says it, I feel I'm the butt of a joke, a joke that the whole bar is playing on me, and I burn with regret and guilt.

"Don't forget your paper." She holds up the folded flyer.

I pull it from her hand and crumple it up. "I don't want it." I toss it into the garbage.

Before I get to my car door, the pressure hits and I know instantly what it is. It's probably genetically encoded in my family's DNA. The pain drops me to my knees and I can't catch my breath. As I grope for my keys, my left arm goes numb, and I collapse near a dumped pile of cigarette butts. I breathlessly call, "Oh Christ. Oh, Lord. Is this how it's going to end? Dead outside a bar next to a pile of discarded cigarette butts?"

My brain screams in rebellion to death. No. No! Hell no! This is bullshit! You jackhole of a body part! You worthless organ. My asshole is worth more than your weakly pumping, carrion carcass. The numbness in my arm disappears, but the heaviness lingers. I heave myself to all fours and I continue out loud this time, railing. "You shit-stealing, anal-raiding, pussy-pillaging, retard-rapist."

Some guys exit the bar and one of them sees me cursing. "You all right, bro?"

The heaviness in my chest disappears. "Hell yes, I'm all right." I tug myself up by the door handle of my van.

The guy hands me his beer, a Pabst Tall Boy. "Finish this, brah. You'll feel better."

I greedily slug it down, and I do feel better. "Thanks. I appreciate it." I pull out a ten and hand it to the kid. "Get yourself a couple more."

Before I leave, I notice that one of the cigarettes, a thin menthol with a deep, red lipstick stain on the filter is only half-smoked. I pick it up off the stained asphalt, out of the oil drips and the black gum splotches and the muddy jets of chewing tobacco, and I ask the kid for a light. He obliges.

"Bro. I can give you one of my smokes if you want." He fumbles through his front breast pocket.

"No. I want this one."

One of the other guys joins in. "This dude is bad-ass, bro."

"No shit, man."

The kid flicks his lighter and I suck the rest of the cigarette down in two deep inhales, the embers at the end glow a scorching orange. My lungs clear, free of any pressure or compression.

At home, I shower and play Mario Kart with Dickie and help Tawny revise her English paper. And all of this is becoming so clear now.

 

Chapter 5

All week I write jokes, bad jokes, and on Saturday evening I duck into my van with the notebook in my hand. It's a ninety-minute drive to Rochester. I tell Taryn that I am serving communion at Saint John's Assisted Living in Caledonia, tell her that Pastor Sorensen is sick. Usually, I do Bingo on Saturdays, so Associate Pastor Mauk Blankenship gets to do it. I set the Bingo cage up. Mauk loves the sound of the caged balls bounding off the metal. Before I leave him, I ask him how long he has been married. He tells me eighteen years. I tell him that sounds about right, that's why he likes the caged balls so much. I don't think he gets it, but I stride away chuckling to myself.

On the drive to Charley's, cruising up I-90, I review the jokes in my head. I snap open a beer and chug it down, then a second and a third. I chuck the bottles out the window into the ditch. I even aim one for an Interstate 90 sign. It shatters. Score!

I park and stand in line with the other open mic crowd as most of them bob nervously in anticipation of their sets. I'm the last one before the real comics take the stage. We are the warm-up for Cathy Tyggle, out of Des Moines (she calls herself Tyggle the Gyggle), and Ward the Sword Saperstein, a Hasidic Jew from New York. I created my stage name last night, Rick spelled with a silent P.

The guy ahead of me bombs terribly, actually gets booed off the stage. Nobody here knows me and I can't wait to bomb as well. I start sweating, but it's not from fear. My chest gets heavy, and the numbness starts in my left shoulder, and I need to get on stage. I've got some bad jokes, and I have to get them all in within the four-minute time-frame.

"Our next comedian is Rick spelled with a silent P."

I'm on the stage before he even finishes, and the symptoms subside a bit, and I feel I can start. "Hey, how the hell is everyone? Everybody doing okay? This is my first time on the stage and I asked my son, Gabey, how I should start? He told me to start with a dick joke. He said everybody likes dick jokes." The numbness disappears and my chest loosens up. "He and I wrote this joke together. What's long and thick and makes the ladies scream?" (I pause) "Not me." I wave to someone indistinct at the bar. "Hi, Gabey." The crowd searches, craning their necks to see who is back there. They're not sure what to think of me yet.

I continue. "He's five everybody." The audience chuckles a bit. "And he likes a good IPA." The audience realizes that there is no kid there and they turn their attention back to me. I see a couple of black dudes sitting in the second row with their friends or wives, so I flip to page two and plunge right in.

The jokes are coarse and demeaning but are a smash hit. Knowing that Saperstein will take the stage next, I finish with a couple of concentration camp jokes about the pride of well-endowed Holocaust survivors. I hear a deep belly laugh from off-stage. It's Saperstein.

The audience applauds and laughs, and I'm done. "Thank you, everybody. Have a great rest of your night." I clamber off stage and Saperstein greets me immediately.

He slaps me on the back. "That was a nice set, man."

"Thanks. Was it offensive at all?"

Saperstein chuckles. "It can't be offensive if there is an element of truth to it. If it's an outright lie, then yes, it's offensive to the sensibilities and intelligence of the audience. But there are so few outright lies left to tell anymore these days, don't you think?" Saperstein turns to the stage in his own musings as he slips his thumbs inside his suspenders.

He's giving me some Talmudic wisdom, and it makes sense.

"Besides," Saperstein continues. "I've seen the picture you're talking about. The guy has his hands crossed over his stomach and his dick and balls are hanging down to his knees. That's good shit man."

The stage manager pulls me away from Saperstein. "Great set. Is it true, you've never done comedy before?"

"Never." I feel physically fantastic, completely symptom-free.

"Do you think you could write some more material? We've had so many shitty open mic acts, complete flops. The audiences aren't getting fired up for the pros."

"I don't know." And I really don't. "This was kind of a one and done thing. I wanted to see if I could do it."

"Well, you did. I can find some money for you, cash of course, if you can come up with another set like this one." He knows he's pressuring me as he pressed his card into my hands. "Here's my card. Take it. If you think of something new, give me a call." He points to a spot near the bar that's reserved. "Stay the rest of the night. Drinks are free. On me."

"Unfortunately, I need to get back home. My family will be expecting me."

He perceives the inference right away. "Ah. They don't know you're here do they, Rick spelled with a silent P?"

"No. They don't know."

"Give me a call. Call me Wednesday with something." He snaps his fingers at a large-chested waitress who hurries over. "Melons. Get this man a couple of beers for his ride home, good beers." She shuffles off.

"I'll try to come up with something." I watch as Saperstein takes the stage. What did he say? There are so few outright lies to tell these days. I chuckle and I think about what I've been doing these last few weeks. It's working. It's actually working. But these deliberate transgressions are taking up more and more time. I don't know how people do it, the hiding, the seeking of decadence, but the high I'm on right now rivals the first few times I preached Sundays at my first church. The response was incredible.

On the sidewalk on Broadway, the waitress chases me down cradling a couple of IPAs in her chest. She walks with me. "That was a really funny set. I'm Melanie by the way." She holds out her free hand. "Need a bottle opener?"

"Honestly, I didn't think the jokes were that good."

A group of bar-hoppers leaves Kathy's pub just down the sidewalk. They stumble out sniggering, five or six of them, arms wrapped around each other as they hold each other's weight up. One of them detaches from the group. The kid is probably in his mid-twenties. He howls something unintelligible, and kicks over a city garbage can, spewing the wrappers and coffee cups into the gutter.

The others hoot in approval. The can-kicker picks up the garbage can, raises it over his head, shrieking "body-slam." The full weight of the steel can smashes onto the windshield of a Ford Escape. With curses and cackling, the group sprints down the sidewalk towards Melanie and me, and as they pass, Can-man the Destroyer shoves a finger in my face. "Tell anybody, and you die."

Melanie backs away like all of this is normal, and she snaps the cap off and lets it tinkle into the gutter. Then she does the other, and we walk together back to my van, each of us sipping on our beers. "Kevin, the stage manager that you were talking to, asked me to come out and make sure you get paid. Is that all right?"

A little duncy that way, I'm not sure what she means, and I've put off the symptoms for a while, symptoms that seem to be coming in stronger waves and much more frequently. "What do you mean?" I tap the button on my keychain and the flashing lights of the van let me know I'm okay to enter.

Melanie takes another sip and her lips linger over the bottle. She gets in the passenger seat. "Are you ready for payment?"

"Look. I don't think we should, but I appreciate the offer." Taryn is still my wife, after all. I can't do anything to hurt her in that way. Swearing and a little booze are enough.

And then it starts again as if it senses the opportunity. My left shoulder twitches with numbness, not radiating this time, just a little tingling, a warning perhaps.

Melanie places the bottle in the cupholder. "Are you sure, Rick that's spelled with a silent P?"

I'm about to say no, but a new sensation hits, one I haven't felt yet, like my heart is being pinched between tightening clamps. I wince, and I think Melanie takes this as my moral convictions rising within me because she persists.

"It's okay, Rick; it's just a little handy." She reaches over and fondles the front of my jeans, lingering by the top of the zipper.

"I don't have much time. Maybe I should get going." And a tingling radiates down my arm. I can't die here; how will this look?

She sees me grimacing. "It's okay Rick. Let me." She unbuttons and then unzips my jeans.

But I can't get aroused as the pain is incredible, worse than it has ever been.

"Maybe this will help." She's still smirking as she unbuttons her cocktail dress and unsnaps her bra.

I don't want to look, don't want to objectify her in this way, but my heart rebels, a terrifying pressure. I have no breath and feel like I'm suffocating. I feel compelled to look, and when I do, all of the pain, all the pressure, and all the numbness dissipates.

As she finishes with me and buttons her shirt, she grins proudly. "How was that?"

I can't say anything. Won't say anything.

Melanie doesn't need an answer. "I know." She winks at me. "I'm good, aren't I? There's no need to be ashamed." She drains the rest of her beer and takes the bottle with her. She peeks back into the car door before leaving. "See you soon, Rick that's spelled with a silent P."

It wasn't a question, it was a declarative.

At home, Taryn is playing a game of Life with Dickie, Sarah, and Tawny. I jump in even though they are halfway through.

Taryn gives the spindle a vigorous spin. "How was service?"

I'm not sure if she is testing me, maybe she knows I didn't go to Caledonia. "It went quite well."

"The kids wished you were at Bingo tonight."

Dickie jumps in. "Yeah, dad. I won a giant-sized Snickers." The wrapper lays empty and limp on the carpet.

Sarah interjected too. "I won a giant Kit-Kat."

"And I won a Milky-Way." Tawny still has hers wrapped, saving it for a snack.

Taryn beams. "That's right, Kip. All of them won tonight. It was incredible to see their faces."

"I wish I could have been there." And I really do. I've missed so many things in the past couple of weeks. After the game and some catching up on a couple of Netflix episodes, Taryn and I go to bed. She is so delighted for the kids that she is in the mood. Because of Melanie, I last more than three minutes and the sex is wonderful and satisfying, but during love-making, all can imagine are the faces of Molly and Melanie, and Charley and Willy's saloon, and the way the bourbon and those IPA's washed down my throat.

Chapter 6

Sunday's text has to be, of course, from Romans. And as Pauline reads the scripture into the microphone, I know what's coming and how it could end, and the pressure in my chest begins to build. My hands leave sweaty imprints on the lectern. They squelch off the wood as I pull them down and off.

She finishes with, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

The congregation begins "Crown Him With Many Crowns," the hymn before I give my sermon, and I need to quietly excuse myself. I motion for Pastor Mauk to stay. In back, I silently curse, but it doesn't help. I spy the wafers and wine. The numbness builds. I plunge my hand into the wafers and ram them by the fist into my mouth, then take a long drought from the silver wine chalice. The pain subsides a little, but not all the way, so I pour another cup and drink it straight down, hoping I can make it through service. And I do.

Monday evening as the sun falls below the horizon, I walk Griffin our beagle. We trot down to the softball fields. A spring rain has cleansed the air of pollutants and pollen. I breathe in the fresh air, the scent of freshly cut grass, like cut watermelon, and I cough, a violent spasm that takes me to the pavement. Griffin whines and I punch his side. A spasming yelp ejects out of his snout, but that only helps for a second. I'm standing next to the Kikowsi's new Buick. I take my key and etch an obscene picture into the hood, complete with all the attention to detail necessary to evoke true shock. For good measure, I slash the tires of the Olson's Dodge Caravan.

On Tuesday, the tightness, the pressure mounts all morning, so after another lunch at Cow's, I contact Molly, and she and I meet at Grondola's Wild-Life Management Area outside of town. She slips into the back of my van and I hold off the pain again. The attacks occur daily now. I've been drinking harder too.

On Wednesday night, I nab the neighbor's tomcat, a red tabby that wanders the neighborhood searching for treats and attention from anybody outside. I pet it gently, cradle it in my arms, and coo in its ear. As my left arm nears a complete numb, I snap its neck. I recline the carcass in the passenger seat of the Carlson's open-top, Chevy Convertible, and strap the seatbelt around the dead cat. I place a half-smoked cigarette in its mouth and cradle a can of freshly opened Budweiser in its crotch. For a whole twenty-four hours, I am symptom-free. No sweats, no pressure, no pain. I hope this is it, that I'm done.

On Friday morning the sun rises, and with it, I can barely breathe, barely move. Taryn wants to stay home and care for me. I tell her to go to work, and that I'll be fine. After Taryn and the kids leave for school, I'm on my way to see Melanie. When I call she mistakes my breathless voice for the tittering of lustful longing, and she willingly gives me her address.

On the way, my heart is pounding, and I'm sweating. The roiling, sick-scent of perspiration emanates from my underarms and a deeper odor fetidly wafts from my waistband each time I shift in my seat. I park my van about a block away from Fox Apartments in Northwest, Rochester and stumble up the steps. When I see her in the door in creamy lingerie that snugs tightly around her breasts and hips, the symptoms subside, but not completely.

She winces at my odor.

"Can we shower together? I didn't have time this morning." Which is not true at all.

She looks revolted and pulls me in. As soon as she touches my hands, she releases. They are clammy and leave an oily residue on her palms. "Are you okay, Rick? You don't look so good? Maybe we should get together another time?"

My heart feels like it's in a vice and I wheeze out, "No, Melanie. Please. We need to do this now." I collapse to the floor inside the door.

Melanie is repelled by me, frightened, disgusted. She backs away. "I'm calling 911. God, you look terrible."

"No!" And I know I sound too desperate, too quick.

She grabs the phone and punches in the numbers. I muster all the strength I have left and rise, lunge toward her, grabbing and tearing her lingerie. The phone ejects from her hand and smashes on the countertop into shards of glass and plastic as we tumble to the linoleum.

"Get the fuck off me!" She kicks the side of my face a jolting blow that snaps my head around. My neck burns.

Melanie scrambles to her feet and lunges for the kitchen knife set, scattering the blades into the sink with a dull clang.

I'm on my feet. The numbness is gone, and my heart beats thrillingly, pounding inside my chest hammering off my ribcage. I grab her by the back of her rolling hair and jerk her off her feet, slamming her head off the side of the stove. I leap on top of her like an animal, and I hear ribs crack with the full pressure of my weight. The garbles and gurgles. Grabbing her hair, I slam the back of her head off the floor, once, twice, three times.

Dazed, she is unresponsive but still breathing. I need to get out of there. My mind whirls in milliseconds. She doesn't know my real name. My van, she could recognize that. I could trade it in today after I leave. I fumble with my keys as I turn for the door.

The pain tumbles me to all fours. I spit, I cough, I hiss. Clambering back to her body, I know what must be done; the only thing that will help. Coiling my hands around her neck I squeeze, and when I do, her eyes jolt open, and there is terror in those eyes, and as she tries to roll and kick and punch and scratch, I tighten further and begin twisting. Blood vessels burst and little red asterisks form in the whites of her eyes. I squeeze and twist and twine and her neck cracks and the vertebrae turn to gravel.

I am alive. My heart is racing and there is no pressure, no pain. My arms are strong and my body is light.

When I get home, Taryn is at work and the kids are at school. I shower but the rank odor clings to my oily body no matter how much I scrub. After rubbing down, I sit at the kitchen table to pen some jokes for Saturday's open mic night. I'll try them out in front of our bedroom mirror.

I lose the memories of this morning as I write, like waking from a dream, but after an hour or two of writing, I draw a blank, hit a wall. I grill some slathery pork chops. While eating, I have an idea. I pick up my son's joke book, Jolly Jokes for Little Folks, and try a couple out but putting my own twist on them. "Why was 10 afraid of 7? Because 7, 8, 9 silly. Then why is 5 afraid of 4? Well, kooky, because 4 is a serial rapist." My pen is furiously scribbling. "What do you call a three-humped camel? Pregnant of course, silly. How about a four humped camel? Pregnant with a big, fat, Bedouin on it." I think to myself that those might make the cut.

That's when the sweats hit again and a radiating pressure fills my ribcage.

At one-thirty, I crack open the bourbon that I have hiding in the laundry room vents, but the chest pains are growing in intensity. My arm numbs. I guzzle the bitter liquid to stave the pain, but it doesn't help. I prowl around the house cursing and searching for something to break, something precious, something important. I find a stuffed cat that Sarah got on our trip to South Dakota when she was five, her favorite animal of all time, a kitten with marbled green eyes and calico fur. I rip the head off the cat, unzip my pants and piss down its neck. The pain subsides, but only momentarily, only to come back with a stronger intensity. In Tawny's room are the family heirloom necklaces and rings that Grandma gave her after Grandpa Gene passed. I snap the chains and smash the diamonds and red ruby's to dust with a hammer. Nothing is helping now. Only one thing will.

I hear a key unlatch the lock, and I position myself at the top of the stairs ready to pounce as the symptoms subside enough for me to gather my remaining strength. The front door opens and little Dickie streams in with the afternoon sunlight.

He winces. "What's that smell, Pops? You been running a marathon on the treadmill or something?"

I chuckle a peal of low rolling laughter as I balance at the top of the stairs.

Dickie tosses his school bag to the side and gazes up. His eyes flare, and he knows something's not right. "Hey, Pops. You okay?" He lingers back towards the door, coiling his hand around the knob

I know now is the time, but I hesitate. He's my little boy. My hesitation cripples me to my knees as my heart feels like it's ripping apart inside me.

Dickie forgets caution. "Dad!" He lunges up the stairs.

With a maniacal whoop, like a legion of demons, I plunge down the stairs in ambush. Both of us tumble thumping down the flight. Dickie bangs his shoulder and head off the wall, smashing a hole, scattering shards of drywall as my forehead bangs off the corner of the banister, slicing a deep laceration. I flop to the linoleum dazed, groaning, blood spilling into my eyes.

Dickie scrambles to his feet and with trembling hands, grabs his cell phone and punches 911, the very thing that we taught him to do. "Dad. Dad! I'm calling the ambulance. You'll be okay, we have time."

My left arm is completely numb and useless and my heart pounds, and I feel like I'm suffocating. The blood and the sweat obscure my vision. With my right arm, I attack Dickie's ankle and drop him to the floor. The phone discharges from his hand and bounds off the linoleum and down the stairs, cracking on the cement basement floor.

"It's okay dad. I'll get the phone. I'll call the ambulance and mom. Let go of me so I can help! You're not thinking."

But I am thinking. I clutch him in close, tugging him to my knees, then re-grip and jerk him to my chest. Through ribbons of red, I can see the blood spattering on his jeans and smearing his shirt.

The phone was tapped to speaker and the rings reverberate ominously from the basement, like a call for help.

"Dad! Let me go!"

He has no idea what's to come.

"Dad!" He screams, now desperate.

The phone's ring is answered and a disembodied female voice answers. "911. What's the emergency?"

I clutch Dickie's neck, and when I turn to him, hideous, bloodied, there is the menace of murder locked in my eyes, locked in my heart. With a terrible growl, I crush, thirsting for his annihilation.

"911. Do you need assistance? If you can't answer, don't worry. Know that help is on the way."

Gasping and gurgling, Dickie punches the side of my face. I hold tight. He pulls back and rips his fingers into the gash of my forehead, gripping and ripping the flesh wide open, revealing my bloodied skull.

The pain jolts me as a thick flap of skin folds over and slaps down to the bridge of my nose.

He punches again and again and through blood-slickened arms, I can't hold him. He squirms free, and I lunge at him one last time before he seizes a blocky, table lamp and slams it down on my forehead.

The world disappears.

When I wake, I am in the hospital, groggy, dazed, and not sure how long I've been out. My eyes open and it's like peering through cotton gauze, hazed, like a thick morning fog.

All my symptoms are gone, the numbness, the sweats, the intense chest pain, completely vanished, and I sigh. I pull air into my lungs and exhale freely. All I want to do is see my son, see if he is all right, and I know that no apology, no supplication could possibly be enough. The curtain is closed. Maybe they don't know I'm awake yet. I can't even raise my head to call. I'm weak, feebled. "Dickie?" I croak out. "Taryn? Girls?" But neither he nor my family answer.

I hear murmurings outside the room and the subtle swoosh of the door and I hope to see Taryn and Dickie, Sarah, Tawny, and maybe even Clarissa who might have made it from Winona – I know I can make this right; I can make amends. Please let it be my little boy, my wife, my family.

The curtain slashes open and two dour men in drab suits and badges glower down on me. Detectives Rickart and Trudeau, out of Winona, flash their steely eyes and poised pens and black leather notebooks in their hands. They say nothing, only hover menacingly.

I want to tell them all of this is a mistake. I didn't mean to hurt my boy. A headache begins to form in my shoulders and creeps like a serpent up the back of my neck and encompasses the scalp and forehead.

Instinctively I want to address the detective out of courtesy with a handshake, but as I raise my hand, I feel the resistance and hear the clink of cold metal and chain. I am handcuffed to the hospital bed, both wrists, both ankles.

And beyond the notebook and under the glare of Trudeau, draped limply over the detective's forearm, is a torn piece of fabric, silky, cream-colored, and stained with streaks of blood.

 

Chapter 7

With hands folded, I kneel at the edge of my cot. My Bible is open to John: 1, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Devin steps into our cell, 1st-degree murder, armed robbery, and he also got a parking ticket during the robbery, triple whammy, man. He shoved a gun into a clerk's face, blew the guy's head off, and made it out of the gas station with $16.32. Tough luck. "You still reading that shit, Luth?"

Luth is my cell name. "Yeah, Dev. I'm still reading this shit." I learned early that one had to learn how to curse, I mean really learn how to curse in prison. It's a sign of weakness if one walks around with innocent lips. Innocent lips, I learned, need to be broken in, prison-style.

They knew I was a pastor coming in, so the born-agains took me in pretty quickly, got me before the skinheads. I wish they had been just a bit quicker, though. What the hell, anyway? I deserve all of this.

"What's the good word, man?"

Devin and I get along pretty well, actually. He's sincere, has three kids of his own, and conjugal visits. I get no visitors, though I have been pen-pals with a lady from Yorkshire, England. She seems nice, plans to visit someday, and her pictures reveal a pretty lady. I asked her once in a letter why she'd want to date a guy in prison. Her reply was fantastic. She had an ex-husband who stepped out on her a few times. "At least with me," she wrote. "She knows exactly where I am all the time." How true.

"Well, Devin. The good word is about forgiveness." I rise to my feet and sit next to Devin on the cot.

Devin drops his head into his hands. "Yeah, man forgiveness."

The two of us sit in silence for a while. We do that a lot, sit in silence.

A shrill bell rings and Devin punches me on the shoulder. "Let's go, Luth. Time to clank some cups. I hear we are getting real mashed potatoes and gravy tonight."

I smile at him. He's an easy kid to smile at. He gets it. "I'll be there in a bit."

Devin doesn't wait for me. He knows he doesn't need to.

As the fellow inmates pass by, an orange deluge of hungry and grumbling men, I look in the mirror at what once was. I've lost weight in here, real weight. I've been working out in the prison gym and I also work in the laundry room. The chaplain, Father Maiwald, wants me to preach on Wednesday, but I just can't bring myself to try again.

As I stand to go, my left arm starts to go numb, and I sigh. The pain radiates up my arm, into my collar bone, and distributes a dull ache throughout my neck. The sweats come next, squeezing out oozing droplets, trickling down my back like sticky spider legs. And now my chest begins to pulsate and pound, first in rhythm, then staccato, like it can't make up its mind whether to live to die. And finally, the vice-like grip staggers me.

I drop and rap my forehead off the sink and my wound, which had nearly healed, splits open again, and the blood, in streaming rivulets, branch into crimson tributaries down my face and chin. My heart pinches and I take the pain, actually embrace the pain.

I fall to the concrete floor, my head dropping underneath the stained toilet. And this is my end, and I know I need to get the words out before I die, my famous last words, all a joke now, a farce, but I need to say them anyway, even though I know no one will hear them, but there is no breath left as I stare vacantly up to the wax-like urine stains clinging to the underside of the toilet.

 

 

 

I've never told a truth in my life.  And OJ Simpson is a killer.

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