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Category Archives: Ghost Hamster Chronicles

Hilarious Things To Do While You Are Driving

I don’t mean like eating cereal or changing your pants – sure, those things are pretty hilarious, but I don’t think you should do those things.

In the late summer, I like to stick the girls in the car – all of them, wife, kids, dogs – and drive down to Hocking Hills. The main highway is Route 33, and you can’t do anything very hilarious on it; the cops sit around along the side of the road every couple of miles, scowling at everyone passing them, like my nasty, horrible cat when he hangs around the bird feeder.

Route 33 isn’t all bad – it’s just one of those stretches of road where the cops are firmly in charge. You don’t want to screw around.

However, parts of it are really gorgeous, like the new bypass around Lancaster, which they blew holes right through hillsides to build.

I’m not a big fan of Lancaster, so I’d probably think the bypass was cool even if it went under Lancaster, and there were zombies attacking the whole time. Lancaster freaks me out.

But there are back roads all the way to Old Man’s Cave, if you know your way around. I can get you there from my house in Grove City without touching Route 33, if you don’t mind the occasional unpaved, gravel road, and if you don’t mind a little company – it’s not a terribly original idea.

Sure, regular people in cars use the back way, and sure, I’ll bet some of them know more efficient routes than I do, but it’s also a route taken by bicyclists, all decked out in their colorful Tron outfits, pedaling along in grimacing herds.

Then there are the bikers, out in the sunshine for a nice rip into the hills, riding in packs like the bicyclists, but not grimacing. Invariably, they are grinning, and who can blame them?

A hilarious thing to do when the girls were just a bit younger, was to pretend like the bikers were a single motorcycle gang, and that they were actually our arch-enemies from college.

The thing to remember about little kids is, practically anything makes sense to them if you can put it in sentence form. I’d reach up and tilt the mirror just slightly and mutter, “Oh, crap.”

Subtlety is key there – you want them to ask you what the problem is, not just start talking. There’s no guarantee any given time you start talking that they’re going to immediately start listening to you, and the joke is all about delivery and flow. They can really screw you up by missing the beginning.

Usually one of them would ask what the problem was, and I’d say, “It’s the Diablos. They found us.”

Marilyn would snap straight up and look a little too horrified. “What?”

“I don’t know how, but they found us.”

“Where’s the crossbow?”

And I’d glance at her grimly. “I left it on the dresser.”

What?

Then we’d spend the next half hour pretending to throw the Diablos off our trail, or talking grimly about the time we had to get in a crash-up derby with the Diablos for the deed to Uncle Marvin’s farm, or the time the Diablos captured me, but I had a knife in my boot and escaped.

“Had to cut a man that time,” I’d tell them, letting my eyes get dark and haunted. “It does something to you, when you have to cut a man.”

Like the opposite of Santa Claus, the girls would kind of understand that there was something wrong with the logic of the situation. Santa Claus is just a bit too good to be true, but they want to believe it. My arch nemesis motorcycle gang is too silly to be true and they really didn’t want it to be, but then again, just look out the window. There they are.

“Don’t look at them! That’s Wheels McGilllicuddy right there – he’s killed five men!”

It’s better than a built-in DVD player, in terms of keeping the squabbling down for an hour-long drive. Nothing brings a community together like a perceived threat.

Also, Mom and Dad aren’t a couple of squares if they’re the only thing standing between you and the Diablos.

Another hilarious thing to do while you’re driving involves longer trips, the kind where everyone has a pillow and books and snacks and blankets. The forever trip, where it’s like we live in the car, we’re shaped like the seats. I’ll bet there’s an odor associated with that kind of trip.

It’s considerably more amusing to do this to your daughter as opposed to your wife, because your daughter doesn’t have any political recourse. Your wife doesn’t like to be terrified, and she’s also capable of being sort of terrifying.

What I like to do is wait until the wife-or-daughter in the shotgun seat is asleep, then wait again until she’s starting to stir, starting to suck in a lot of air in a sleepy, nasal yawn, starting to smack her lips and sniffle and move around.

Then what I do is lean my head back against the seat and close my right eye. You can drive just fine with your left eye – in fact, it’s perfectly legal, driving with an eyepatch or only one eye – and the good thing about the left eye is that you can’t see it from the passenger seat.

People tend to think of your eyes as a pair, so if they can only see one, they assume the other is doing something similar. So I cock my head just a little, let my jaw hang open, and close my right eye, and wait. Maybe snore a little bit, through my nose.

Pretty soon, the wife-or-daughter wakes up and notices that I appear to be sound asleep like she was, going seventy-five miles per hour. Hilarity ensues.

Now, I don’t know how hilarious it would be, but if you were really looking for trouble and you either have a good lawyer or you are one, then I think you should try pretending to text while you’re driving.

Do it someplace safe, like at a stoplight, but do it right in front of a cop, just start pounding away at the buttons, laugh theatrically at what you’re typing, and don’t let on that you removed the battery before you even left your house an hour ago.

Then insist you weren’t texting, when the cop pulls you over. Then refuse to give him the phone, tell him you’ll see him in court. Then get a statement from your wireless provider, showing that there was no activity on your account for an hour, at the time of the ticket.

Put the system on trial, you know what I mean?

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2010 in Ghost Hamster Chronicles

 

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The Lunch Money Job

I have to pass another school every day, on my way to drop off my girls, an elementary school right around the corner from theirs; they’re in Junior High.

The first few times I notice the armored car parked in front of it as we drive past, I think, maybe the guy who drives it drops his kid off on the way to work. Then a few weeks later, we’re driving by it again, and there he is, a uniformed driver, carrying a bag of money right out the front door.

He’s about fifty and half skinny, half fat – definitely not a first stringer. He has charcoal hair, too long and worn in such a way that it always looks like he needs a shower, and his skin is pale and pockmarked, wide, cheap glasses straddling a lumpy nose. But he’s on duty, that’s for sure – his eyes are narrow and they dart around. Somebody try something, his demeanor says, and yes, he’s got a gun.

“What is up with that guy?” I wonder aloud.

Two daughters in the car – Ellen riding shotgun, Chrissy in the back seat.

Chrissy says, “He comes to our school, too.”

“Yeah,” Ellen agrees. “I’ve seen him in the morning, when I go in early for Math Club.”

It’s a school zone, so we roll on by nice and slow and I get to take a look in the empty cab of the armored car. When they send these things out to banks, there’s always a guy who stays in the vehicle, and one who transfers the cash, and sometimes there’s even a third guy, locked in the back, a guy trained and sworn to refuse to open the door even if there are guns to his partners’ heads.

Whatever this third stringer is doing, they don’t expect any trouble. The last thing an armored car company should do, not expect trouble.

“What is that thing?” Chrissy wants to know.

So I explain what an armored car is, how it’s bullet-proof, and explosion-resistant, and how security protocols like the one I was just thinking about contribute to its usefulness, for companies with a lot of cash to move it around.

“What doesn’t ‘make sense,” I tell them. “Is what on earth is it doing at schools?”

“Lunch money,” Chrissy says, and I look up at the rearview mirror. She has dark hair and freckles and eyebrows that look pretty sure of themselves. Her tone is like she’s answering a math question, and in a way, she is.

“You’re kidding,” I insist, but then I start checking the math.

There are close to two thousand kids in their middle school, maybe another two thousand in the elementary school around the corner. How much does lunch cost these days? Three bucks?

And that guy isn’t there every day – twice a week, near as I can figure. So let’s see, three days, four thousand kids, three bucks each.

Why not go ahead and say it out loud? “That third string security guard is walking out of there with forty thousand dollars, every time we see him.”

Ellen says, “Guess that’s why they use the armored car, since they’re impossible to rob.”

“Well, not quite, sweetheart. You just have to think it through, step-by-step. Watch the patterns, look for holes in the security. Put together the right string of guys, with the right equipment. There’s nothing that can’t be done, silly.”

“What?”

“You heard me. You see, Ellen, it’s all about having the will to do what other people won’t. Rules are for suckers, and money is for stealin’, you know what I’m saying?”

“You’re a freak, Dad.”

“You’d want a solid wheel man, someone who knows the area like the back of his hand. And at least one really big, intimidating bully, with a shotgun.”

“Dad!”

“No, no. You load it with bean bag rounds, try and avoid the Chair, in case the score goes sour.”

She’s cracking up now, shaking her head, like I’m joking around or something. Does she think this is a game?

I look up in the rearview mirror, and Chrissy doesn’t think it’s a game. Her eyebrows are horizontal, jaw working a little bit on something, probably thinking, the elementary school is the second one he stops at, so that’s when he’ll have the most cash. But he won’t have it on him. If we’re going to do this thing, we’ll have to crack that truck open.

“We need a bomb,” she says.

“That’s right, Chrissy, good job! We do need a demo man, and I think that would round out the string. I’d want to run the job, of course – planning and calculation and dominion over guilt, that’s what I bring to the table right there.”

“Oh my god,” Ellen says. “You guys are crazy.”

“Are we? Or is it YOU who’s crazy, for eating what the Man’s cooking all the time?”

“No, Dad, it’s you.”

We pull up to the right school, and get in line behind a few dozen cars – other people dropping off their kids, not discussing felonies with them, not noticing armored cars.

“Well, that’s awesome, Ellen, I guess you better get on inside then, knock out those grades. You got a whole legit life ahead of you, outside of the Family. Maybe you could be a veterinarian, or an accountant, or a nurse!”

“We’re not a crime Family, Dad.”

“You keep punching that time clock, Squaresville. One day you’re going to wake up and realize it’s been punching you.”

“For Pete’s sake,” she says – her favorite phrase. “I love you, Dad.”

And she gets out of the car, and Chrissy gets out with her, but as they walk up to the door Chrissy cocks her head back at me, gives me a squint, and the subtlest of nods – she’s in.

Yes, and Ellen’s in, too, whether she knows it or not, because this isn’t the kind of Organization you can just clock out of like a factory job. Everybody’s got to paddle the boat, and I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not going to jail for Ellen, or anyone.

Every time her mom buys a five hundred dollar dog and claims it was forty bucks, or picks up some Klondike bars and hides them under a pile of frozen vegetables in the back of the freezer, every time she does something like that, it’s pretty clear – Ellen’s not a very tough nut to crack. Lean on her even slightly, and that bird sings.

Oh, she’s in all right. We can’t have any loose ends.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2010 in Ghost Hamster Chronicles

 

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The Rototiller Okeedoke

 

My sister sends me a text message that says, “Hey can you print out all of your Future Toms and give them to Dad at dinner tomorrow?” 

Some kind of facial expression, too, with the punctuation marks.  I’m trying to cut down on those – they give me the creeps.

So I pull my car over to a safe place, watching out for children and in no hurry at all, and I get out and put my keys in my pocket, so as to be in total compliance with the law, and then I text back something like, what the hell are you talking about?

Not abbreviating anything, there’s no reason to be in a rush.  Think it through, texting’s a big deal.

So whatever my sister’s up to, she’s right there on the spot with the return text.  Something about something I must have said sometime, something that I was going to do, some kind of location I was going to arrive at, some other day.  Literally, no idea what she’s talking about.

Dad doesn’t have email or internet, is the problem.  He’s just heard about Future Tom, wants to read it, doesn’t want to get the internet.

The problem is, I don’t have printer ink.  I don’t print anything pretty much ever, but Marilyn does, and it seems like she’s been walking around a lot the last few days, growling about printer ink.  Something about, we’re out of it, she wishes we weren’t out of it.  There’s an inconvenience involved.  Something cryptic and female like that.  Who knows what she was talking about?

So whatever it is I said I’d do at whatever location, I need to get to an Office Max first, and get them to figure out what kind of printer ink I need.  Then I have to get home and give it to the tall daughter, and tell her what’s going on, and then once she gets everything printed out, go to whatever location, for whatever the hell this is all about.

So I’m already thinking, listen, you know I wrote the things, right.  I’m still writing them – and it takes a while sometimes.  You’re telling me, we don’t have anyone else hanging around, not writing stuff, who can print it out, drive it across town?

But you have to watch out for my sister.  Sometimes, you’re just saying, screw that.  And she thinks you’re saying, screw you.  All I’m thinking is, no, I’m probably not going to Office Max or probably even whatever that was you were texting me about there.  But I will agree to start over in just a little bit here, like a day or two, and figure out some kind of Red Lobster trip – next week, I imagine – and eventually, definitely get the stuff printed out, and over to Dad.

But by no means should anyone expect me anywhere with anything printed out, tomorrow.  That’s just the reality of our situation here, and I don’t make the rules. 

None of that having anything, as far as I’m concerned, to do with my sister.  Except maybe just a tiny little smidge of, listen man, it seems like I just spent sixty-five or seventy hours writing the stuff, let me just get you a chair while I print ‘em out and drive ‘em out to Dad.

Just a smidge of that, I’m telling you.  A sprinkle.  I’m pretty sure she can handle just a little sprinkle of that.

Anyway, my sister is a dark and mean-spirited person, who has a lot of enemies, so I thought that if I picked on her, I would draw a big crowd, and I have a scam that I want to report to my fellow citizens, another scam I fell for this weekend which I will call the Rototiller Okeedoke. 

I began the day literally jogging three and a half miles for the Race For The Cure, and then got home and Marilyn said, “Hey, do you think you could do me a huge favor?”

You know, not trying to blow my horn there about the 5K run or anything, just pointing out, that’s a weird time to ask someone for a “huge favor.” 

All the while, Marilyn’s doing that hand-wringing, square grin, knee-bobbing thing, like, oh man, I hope you’re cool enough to do this one favor cause I’m so screwed if you don’t.  A perfect mix of hope and hostility – don’t think I don’t know a threat when I see one.

Good lord, What?

She wants me to drive up to my mom’s, an hour away, load up a rototiller into the CRV, then drive it back home, till the garden, then clean it, and load it up, and drive it back up to my mom’s.  That’s the huge favor.  Kind of hard to believe, you’re probably thinking.

That’s certainly what I’m thinking, cause, that’s a pretty huge favor.  Not going to bang this drum forever, but I did just run in the flipping Race For The Cure, like an hour ago.

I’m not answering, but I’m not playing poker, either.  Sounds like not just a huge favor, but a series of five or six huge favors, chained together and making a lot of noise.  That sounds like maybe the wost post 5K run idea I’ve ever heard in my life.

Marilyn is able to detect this perspective of mine, and she experiences Lord-of-the-Rings-style despair.  All is lost now, but she understands.  Well, I’ll just go make dolls out of lawn clippings, sing to myself while the world burns.

For crying out loud.  Are you serious?  That’s about five hours of work, you’re just kind of springing on me here.  That’s absolutely necessary, is it?

Well, we could rent one.  It’d be like sixty bucks.

Oh, holy crap, that’s the move right there.  We have to rent that rototiller.

And that’s it, I’m just suddenly begging to go out and rent a rototiller, and then till the garden, and then clean it and take it back.  Just two and a half hours work – a steal!

Probably old news to most of you out there, like the old Nigerian money order scam, but just in case it’s not, you want to watch out for the Rototiller Okeedoke.

 

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Humpty Dumpty And His Girl (1 of 3)

She’s sixteen now – eight years since the adoption – and so that’s half her life, she’s been my daughter.   She has silky brown hair and a springtime smile, and her eyes are piercing, older than she is.  Her body is lithe and fit – she’s an athlete and eats right – and her mind crackles with ancient intensity.

 But she’s still a little girl, too.  She needs special things from the grocery store that are hers alone, breakfast bars, potato chips, a certain kind of ham.  She watches freaky horror movies that chase me out of the room, and also the same Japanese anime and old Star Trek tapes she brought with her to my house, when she was eight. 

Adult stuff, little girl stuff, adult stuff – like she’s flipping a coin.

And she carries a sadness that I recognize from my own youth, when the awkward phase slows to a secret, blooming beauty, and the high school cliques pretend to ignore what they can’t see at all.  Their judgment – the meaning of life, at one time – is rendered, and hard to reverse. 

Bethany’s curiosity is both shy and piercing; so often it reveals within her fellow souls a shallow, flipper-whacking avarice which depresses and confuses her.  The sadness is subtle.  Like a whisper of perfume, it evaporates in the slightest breeze.  But it always returns.

Lying beside my wife in our basement bedroom, I listen to the creaking footsteps across the spackled ceiling, wondering what it’s like for her at school, trying to match her with someone from my own class.  I could invent a sixteen year old and make her whoever I want her to be, but who’s that one, the tall girl, walking around up there in my house?

Does she want them to accept her, bite her on the neck like vampires?  Or does she want to rise to the treetops and dismiss them, like an angel gliding over frogs? 

The mattress squeaks as I climb to my feet, stacking the aging back muscles carefully, so as not to pop anything out of place.  I climb the stairs in the early dawn, wearing sleepy pants with street signs on them, and a yellow sweatshirt that doesn’t match. 

Bethany’s walking away from me down the hallway, a full-grown woman with confident posture, and a thumping teenager’s stomp, and her hair flips as she vanishes behind her bedroom door.

My body creaks and hisses all the way into the kitchen.  The coffee is already made, and there’s a clean blue mug next to the muttering pot, so I help myself, and I carry it into the living room, trying to figure out how cold it is without going outside.

Driving her to school used to seem like such a pain in the ass, but I did it to spare her the school bus.  Teenagers are just as annoyed by each other, as we ever are of them.  When I was her age, my mouth would get me into trouble, but she’s the type of girl keeps her mouth shut most of the time. 

I learned the same thing eventually, so maybe she got it from me; it’s a nice thought.

Yes, and now I’m looking at three cars in the driveway as I try to kill a cup of coffee before she emerges from her room.  Pretty soon, she won’t need a ride to school.  Just the first of thousands of pains in the ass that I’m going to miss as they disappear, like snow melting in the spring. 

Girls don’t fight like guys do.  Not as often.  When they do, they tend to go straight for cold-blooded murder, but it still seems rare.  I don’t think she’s ever had to worry about it.  But she comes out of her room, and I can see it – she’s got plenty to worry about. 

The television makes it no secret – it’s a sea of sex out there.  They don’t giggle in health class anymore, they offer critiques.  

So has she or hasn’t she?  There’s no way to tell, not if you remember your own childhood.  How easy the lies came, how the secrets were submerged like the bulks of icebergs.  I kept a bit of myself on the surface, for the adults to see, and what was beneath the icy water…

She wears a dress today, a nice one, and she starts to tell me why she’s wearing it without being asked.  It’s a pretty dress, but I’ve been a dad long enough to know, an unsolicited explanation is almost certainly a smokescreen.  She’s wearing it to impress a boy, and it’s going to work. 

Sixteen, I’m thinking, while she lies a little more, and I go and refill my coffee, and I put my hand on her shoulder as I come back through the room.  Look into her eyes, look at the freckles on her cheeks, while she talks.  She’s wearing a little makeup, but not too much. 

I let her finish and then tell her, “You look awesome today, sweetheart.”

And she says, “Thanks!”

We listen to NPR on the very short ride.  “My favorite,” she says.  “The Adults Who Talk And Talk.”

So I turn it, and we roll down the windows, and Rage Against The Machine changes the tone though I have to explain to her who they are. 

“You’d go to their concerts,” I tell her, “and they’d have the whole crowd flipping off the cops.”

She nods at me, not impressed. 

“And everybody would kind of, beat each other up.”

She scrunches her eyebrows, throws my own what-the-hell facial expression at me – doesn’t sound like fun to her. 

Good news, I guess.

We crawl through a little traffic, and then there we are, parked among a mass of teenaged children, and it seems like I remember them, the wise guys, the journalism chicks, the studs, the cheerleaders.  They are completely helpless if you throw the slightest problem at them, and yet they swagger across the parking lot like cops at the mall.  Invincible, until you raise your voice.

And that’s where I leave her, another womanchild joining with the swarm, scowling a little.  Molly Ringwald scowled like that in my day, now it’s my daughter Bethany, who’s never heard of her.

I tell her that I love her as she’s about to close the door, and she’s been waiting for it, like a password.  Her password is a smile, and not many people can put that on her face, but I can – it’s my superpower. 

She tells me that she loves me, too, and she shoulders her backpack, and goes inside.

Sixteen.   It was so easy to make her feel safe and strong, when she was half this old.  A bowl of popcorn and a shoulder to lean on, a little Stargate SG-1 on the television.  Fluffy koala bear slippers and a couple of dogs.

I sit in my office, trying to get some work done, and all I can think about is, how do you protect your daughter from herself, when she’s at the same age you were, when no one could?   That’s about when I decided, the hell with everybody, I’m going to do what I want.

I had a stepdad, a bitter ex-Marine, who saw my father in me and hated me for it.  Of course I did my own thing – it was either that or do his thing, and hate myself. 

She has a car to drive, and her own license, and she got a big sushi dinner, just like she wanted.  A couple of books wrapped up, some flowers.  A bunch of tiny bottles of bath oils and shit, for me to kick around in the shower.  The birthday is a wrap, and there are no complaints.

Yes but her sadness lingers, and I know I can’t stop it.  I know that sadness is a part of life, a part of joy, the other side of a coin that rises in the air and flips and turns, and you can’t have one side without the other.

She blasts in the front door around three thirty, like a giant pitcher of Kool Aid.  Not for any reason in particular, that’s just the way teenagers move, the opposite of ninjas.  I save the file I’m working on, and realize, damn it, I’m still wearing sleepy pants and a sweatshirt that doesn’t match.  It’s nice to work from home, but there’s no need to be ridiculous.

So I get some jeans on and a tee shirt, and by the time I trot upstairs, Bethany is theatrically relaxing in the living room, her feet and arms all kicked up on various things so that she looks like a spider lurking in a furniture web.  She’s eating a bowl of cereal in the middle of the day, despite my recent threat to ration it.

“Let’s go for a ride,” I tell her. 

She’s on her feet in a second, remote down, television off – a damn good kid.  “Where are we going?”

“Back in time,” I reply.  “And you’re driving.”
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(Note: this is the first of three parts – continue by clicking below)
(Continue here)

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2010 in Ghost Hamster Chronicles

 

Thirty Gallons of Death

When I was buying my six hundred dollars worth of groceries and gift cards at a fictional grocery store, and they told me I could have thirty gallons of gas for basically free from their attached fictional gas station, there was a lot that I didn’t know.   Things like how easy it is to blow up a gas station, and how much my fictional grocery store – with the fictional gas station attached – loves people who drive Hummers.

It seemed like everything was fictional that day, except me and for the most part, my wife.  It was weird.

A teenage girl explained to me how easy it is to blow up a gas station.  She was an employee who met me a few steps outside the door as I was headed inside to ask them why they had turned off the gas pump, while my wife was in the middle of pumping our last fifteen gallons of free gas.

“You can’t pump the gas into two cars,” she said, exasperated and urgent, the way she’d say it if I was smoking or welding over there.

 “Why not?”

“Because I don’t want the station to blow up,” she replied. 

Like the ominous kid in a horror movie, eyes haunted, like if only I’d seen what those eyes had seen, the gas stations blasting into the sky, women screaming, kids on fire.  All that – because of naïve gas pumpers like me.  How many people had to die?

Somebody’s mom walked past, giving me the crazy-guy-at-the-park look.  I’d only said two words – pretty early to be getting the look.

Real quick, I tried to make my face go normal.  I couldn’t tell if it was working, or if I was just looking crazier.  Don’t shake your face, I thought.

“What’s a fire hazard?  What?”

“Filling up two cars like that.  You can’t do that, sir.  It’s a fire hazard.”

Dead serious.  Imploring me.  What kind of monster was I?

Now my wife wanted to know what was going on.  She rattled the gas nozzle in the car, to demonstrate the problem.  She was trying to shoot things – energy bolts, maybe – out of her eyes.

And the teenage harbinger of doom girl was trying to catch them.  She waggled her head around, trying to look over my shoulder , but I bobbed around like a snake, to stay in her way.  I tried looking right at her, with my eyes wide, thinking maybe it would hypnotize her, and I used a soothing, level voice.  “How is that a fire hazard?  What part of that doesn’t happen all the time?”

Really wanting to know, wanting to believe her, like when someone sees Bigfoot.  You want to stay open to the possibility, keep your mind open, not wanting to push anybody over any edges.  A social situation, really, requiring tact and subtlety.

But the girl liked Marilyn better than she liked me, and that was a shame, because she wasn’t going to get anything tactful over there.   

But she was young and quick, faked to the left and then got around me like it was nothing, and told my wife, “You can’t fill up two cars on the same pump!” 

Using her outside voice now.  Marilyn rattled the nozzle again. Her eyebrows said, she didn’t like the outside voice.

 “What are you talking about?”

So the explosion-grizzled teenager again had to break some wide-eyed rube down on how easy it is to blow up a gas station, and how we’d all listen to her if only we knew.  Now her tone was even more urgent, her face like the end of Planet of the Apes – damn it, when will you fools learns?  You can’t fill up a second vehicle without first hanging up the nozzle and then beginning a different, non-discounted transaction!

Barking at us like at the end of 24.  Cut the blue wire!  There’s no time!  All that.

So sure, the girl then blipped right out of Marilyn’s perception of reality with all that crazy bullshit, and Marilyn stomped inside to find a grownup, while the girl lingered, shaking her head at me ominously – we were doomed.

And now a frosty haired lady looked up from her Blackberry just long enough to shoot me a smug, withering glare, while she filled up a pair of five gallon gas containers.  That must be the slick way around the rule, filling up five gallon containers.  

This lady was doing it while the containers were sitting in the back of her CRV, and you really can blow up a gas station that way, I remembered, from watching those knuckleheads on cable, who try stuff like that. 

Also a bald guy with glasses in a Camry, waiting behind our car now.  He leaned toward the middle of the car, where I’d be able to see him better, theatrically looking at his watch. 

But no matter what the policy was, I knew there was a twenty percent chance Marilyn would browbeat them into turning the pump back on.  She was in there popping the pin out of her mommy grenade right now.

I could even hear her voice, vectoring out of the place, as a pair of constructions workers tumbled out with two liters and chips, looking shaken and dazed.

So I just trotted on back to the car, giving the guy behind it a vague wave that wasn’t an apology or anything, just sort of, I see you, relax.   And then I leaned against the vehicle, pretending to watch the gas fill up even though it wasn’t, thinking, is it contact with the nozzle?  Is there some sort of static charge that you release, by hanging it up?  Because, they could just require you to tap the nozzle then, still give you your gas. 

The whole time, thinking, why the hell did you tell us you’d give us thirty gallons in the first place, if you only wanted us to have fifteen?  You think I wouldn’t show up, for the fifteen?

Then I started thinking about gas tanks in general, and how both of our cars held about fifteen gallons each, so the only way to take full advantage of the thirty gallons of discounted gas, is to either fill up both cars, or buy the five gallon containers.  Statistically, I’ll bet there are a bunch of folks who just fill up their cars and forget about it. 

But it’s something like forty bucks worth of gas.  They make it inconvenient – I realized – so that out of sheer laziness, some people won’t take it all.

Which means, the person in the city who is the least inconvenienced by the thirty gallon rule is the average owner of a Hummer H2, which holds thirty two gallons of gas.

So what my fictional grocery store gas station was saying was, screw you, unless you own a Hummer.  Weird niche to favor, in the gasoline market – I was thinking – if the idea is, everybody be thrifty.

The lady with the CRV and the gas cans drove away, and then the guy who’d been waiting behind me hooked around, and took her spot. 

I craned my neck to watch him use the same nozzle, trying to figure out what was so special about him filling up his car right after hers.  Looking at my wife’s car, my car, puzzled. 

Upon further investigation, I realized people were using nozzles to fill up their cars after someone else had just done so, with the same nozzle, all over the place. 

Was it magic?  Some kind of force field?  Should I call the fire department?  The cops?  The President?

It was really eating at me.

And no, when my wife came out, she gave me the thumbs down, and we left without our free gas and without blowing up the station, and the next time I drove past the place – and this happens a lot of places, after I leave them – they had put up a bunch of big new signs.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2010 in Ghost Hamster Chronicles

 

Something Huge

I watch the tanks roll into Baghdad on my computer monitor, like everybody else, clicking between news websites from around the world, clicking and refreshing, over and over.  Expecting missiles and dirty bombs and anthrax and whatever is worse.  Well past midnight, that’s what I’m doing in my computer room, my hand clapped over my chin, rubbing the stubble, imagining mushroom clouds in the Middle East, aircraft carriers blasting open, yawning in half as they’re eaten by the Gulf.

Nothing seems like it can’t happen anymore.  This is a year when people are afraid to open the mail.

When I finally stagger to bed, blinking at the ghost monitor, still hovering before me in the gray bedroom, I don’t have any more answers than I did six hours ago, when I officially began to obsess.  But I’ve got plenty of questions, and a really fresh strain of dread I’ve forgotten all about, something from childhood, when you really don’t know if there are monsters or not.

So when my wife wakes me up a couple of hours later, my eyes snap open and I suck in a mouthful of air, squinting and raising my hands before my face.  The room is a hazy shade of amber now, light spilling in from the hallway, and Marilyn’s eyes are wide and close to mine, her finger at her lips.

“Shhhh.”

There’s a kid in the bed with us, and a couple of dogs.  And what’s this, a plate?  I pull it out from under the pillow –  it’s a children’s book, the cover bent.

Okay, so all that’s normal.  I drop back to the pillow and then Marilyn wakes me up again.  She’s on the wrong side of me, not in the bed at all, but standing next to it, crouched low.

“Tom!”  The kind of whisper that’s also supposed to be a laser-guided shout, and it feels like it’s right in my ear.

“What?  What the…”

“Tom, you’ve got to come see this,” she says, gripping my forearm.  “It’s Iraq.  It’s huge!

Right back where I started, the memories return.  All of the generals were saying they expected more resistance as they reached the capitol, all the news websites had agreed.  And the missiles flying already looked like a fireworks display, just absolutely pounding a pathway into the country.

Carpet bombing – quite an image.  Wall-to-wall destruction.

What could “huge” mean, after the World Trade Center?  I remember suddenly getting the results for my AIDS test, a couple of years ago, when it was time to get life insurance, the dread you feel as you take the final steps toward the person holding the results, no matter how good you’ve been, no matter how careful you were in college. 

Take a breath and find out, that’s what I thought then, and everything was fine.  So I think it now, since the unthinkable seems so close by.  We’re safe here, just go and see what’s going on in Iraq, what’s so huge.

So I get out of bed and the dogs’ eyes follow me without lifting their heads, and my daughter’s tiny legs kick lazily in their fuzzy, one-piece pajamas, and I find myself carrying the bent children’s book with me as I follow Marilyn out into the hallway, where she passes the computer room without even glancing inside.

I pause in the doorway, sticking my head in the little office.  The screen crawls with three-dimensional pipes, growing everywhere, not making any sense.  I look at the book in my hand – it’s called Ducks Don’t Get Wet.  I toss it on a file cabinet.

 Where’s she going?  We don’t have a television, just this one computer, that’s it, that’s the news.

“Come on,” Marilyn whispers – a regular whisper again, from the hallway, but when I turn to her, she’s tiptoeing around the corner, padding through the living room, moving quickly like a burglar or a kid sneaking in, late for curfew. 

So I follow her through the house, getting more and more agitated, because if the danger isn’t on the computer screen, it’s in the house or right outside.  And that’s where I find her looking, through the window, out onto the breezeway.

“It’s huge!”  She says, talking to the curtain as she peeks around it.  Her voice doesn’t sound right, doesn’t sound dreadful, my sleepy brain tells me.

But it seems perfectly in the realm of possibility these days, that terrorists might be parachuting right into our backyard, dropping off pipe bombs in our breezeway.  Even a really huge terrorist; why not?

So I move into the spot by the window as Marilyn moves out of the way, and she holds the curtain open for me as I look outside, where the breezeway is brightly lit, and I shake my head – what am I supposed to be looking at?

Swiveling my head over to Marilyn, I see that she’s smiling big, showing me the Northern Lights maybe, or a neat card trick.  Nothing malicious, just smiling, waiting for me to help myself to a little late night joy.  Then I look back to the breezeway, where a raccoon the size of a small shrubbery is eating out of my dog’s food bowl out there.

It looks at me, a piece of dog food in its little paw.  Takes a bite, chewing, looking at me some more.

“Are you kidding me?”  I ask, my tone like an explosion – I can see Marilyn’s smile melt away, in the presence of that holy fire.

Feeling bad, even as I stomp back to bed, because it says good things about her, I guess, that she isn’t obsessed with the war coverage.  That she shelved it away and slept peacefully, while I clicked and refreshed and clicked.

But not too bad, because even on an average night, I don’t want dragged out of bed just to look at a really huge raccoon.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2010 in Ghost Hamster Chronicles

 

Checks You Can’t Cash

When the telephone rang, I was standing on my front deck in my bathrobe, watching the woods.  We had a few secluded acres, and I liked standing there, watching the squirrels and the birds and the sun through the branches.

It was a nice morning, and I’d worked late the night before, and I had the day off.  The house was empty, my dog was standing there with me, smiling at me, and the only reason I answered the phone was that it was in my bathrobe pocket.

It was a guy from the post office, asking for my wife, so I told him she wasn’t here, and who I was.

“Oh, great!”  He said brightly.  “Your checks are here.”

A beautiful day, just getting better every second.  I said, “That’s great!  Is this the main post office, in Lancaster?”

“Yes, it is!  Don’t forget to bring your picture ID.”

“Well, super, I sure won’t.  I’ll be there directly.”

My wife and I operated a small business out of the secluded house, so checks arrived in the mail all the time.  Of course, normally they showed up in the mailbox, without a formal phone call.  But the way it works when you’re self-employed is, the checks arrive and you really need them.  You’re really happy to see them, because often, they are very, very late.

So I went back inside and had an absolutely spectacular little breakfast and took a shower and put my dog in the car and we drove on across the countryside into Lancaster.  Not a very pretty place, Lancaster, so that was the thing about the morning to grin and ignore. 

Tethered the dog right beside the front door, thinking, this will just take a minute, and walked on into the post office, a real spring in my step.

The lady behind the counter wore a floral print blouse and a big, heart-shaped necklace that said, “MOM.”  Her face and eyes looked tired, but she had a nice, bright smile.

“Hello,” I said, slapping my ID down like the ace of spades.  “My name is Tom Chalfant, and I’m here to pick up my checks.”

She snapped and pointed at me, and gave me the smile I usually get when I’m walking around with one of my daughters, and people think it’s just so cute, a dad and his girl. Or when I’m lounging around the park with the dog leash tied to my foot, reading a book.  A kind of tilted-head, tight-lipped smile that says, “Awwwww.”

Which was weird.  Everybody likes to get checks in the mail, but there didn’t seem to me to be anything adorable about it.

Huh. 

Oh well, no matter, I thought.  I showed her what a good day I was having, using my what-an-awesome-day grin, and a couple of outstretched palms.

She said, “We’ve been listening to them checks all morning, just a-chattering away!”

Which caused a little hiccup in my smile.  That didn’t sound like checks at all.  What the hell was she talking about?  There was now a bit of concern growing, back in my brain someplace.  The unorthodox phone call in advance, the puppy dog smile even though my puppy dog was outside, the description of little innocuous pieces of paper as “chattering.”

Now the youngest guy in the post office, looking like someone’s teenaged son or something, poked his head out of the back room and asked a silent question just by pointing at me.

 “Yeah,” replied the woman, a little sadly it seemed.  “He’s here to pick ‘em up.” 

 But I really needed the checks to come in, because that’s how I paid for everything.  And I didn’t want to entertain any alternative theories, as to what everyone was talking about, or whether I was hearing everybody correctly.  I just wanted my checks.

And the kid vanished into the back room again, and I thought, man, does it get pretty boring at the post office, or what?

The woman smiling at me expectantly.  Was I supposed to get out my wallet, show her pictures of my kids?  Did I know her already?

So I just said, “Well.  Okay.  Great.  I’m glad you enjoyed my checks all morning, but I’m ready to pick them up now.”

A weird phenomenon, someone else hearing their version, you hearing yours, both of you speaking English.  She said, “I’ll bet you guys are going to enjoy them more!”

Well, that was certainly true, because I wasn’t going to listen to them or smile about them – I was going to take them straight to the bank.  Pick up some steaks afterward, maybe one of them four-slice toasters and some Girl Scout cookies. 

“I’ll bet we will,” I told her, and then stopped in the middle of telling her all about my plans, because now I could hear the checks chattering, too.

The young post office guy emerged from the back room with a wooden crate, which chattered like the bird section of a pet store.  I cocked my head at him as he walked up to the counter and put it down in front of me, but I made no move to touch it or acknowledge it or anything else that might be construed as acceptance of the weird, wooden crate.  With air holes in it. 

Looking around for cameras now, maybe Ashton Kutcher – it made sense at the time.

The guy smiled at me like it was a present he was waiting for me to open, while the woman gave me another puppy-dog-at-the-park smile.  I pursed my lips.  Looked at the box, and then at both of them, and then at the box again.

“What the hell is this thing?”  I finally asked.

Confusing them.  They didn’t reply, just looked at each other, and then the woman looked at the shipping label, tapped it with her finger and said, “This here’s your wife, right?”

It was, so I nodded. 

“Then that there is your box of chicks.”

That’s what it was all right, a box of baby chickens, shipped in a crate.  Chicks, not checks. 

“Didn’t your wife tell you she ordered a box of baby chickens?”  The woman asked.

“She did not.”

“You guys have a farm or something?”

“We do not.”

Now they looked a little scared, my scowl growing, standing there in the post office, where no doubt, people go nuts all the time.  I peered into the air holes, catching tiny little shadows waddling around in there, and a big feed bulb, mounted in the middle. 

“You want to accept it or not?”

It didn’t take long to do the math.  What’s louder and more irritating, a box of chickens, or a wife and three daughters, who didn’t get their secretly ordered box of chickens?  I said, “I need to sign something, or what?”

Yes, there was some kind of chicken pickup acknowledgement form, so I signed it, and then I was back in the car, my dog and I wearing similar expressions of puzzlement and alarm as we drove back home, the box of chickens getting pretty excited, in the back seat, about the bumpy car ride.

I was thinking, I might have experienced something that very, very few people will ever experience.

The surprise box of live chickens.  My advice to anyone out there, thinking about ordering one – it’s considered in most circles to be nothing but cool, running something like that by your spouse before you do.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2010 in Ghost Hamster Chronicles