Episode LXIX – Sensory deprivation is a road trip away.

The roaring torrent of water shocked my senses back into life. Since I had been trapped in limbo for the last eleven hours, I had regarded their abandonment as a slight blessing. I was grateful that my eyes had stopped processing the meaningless unchanging blur of landscape. I was relieved that my nose had stopped absorbing the fetid odors of my teammates and a pre-broken bathroom. I was uncaring that I could not hear the constant babble of listless voices and groaning of an inherently overworked transmission.

All I had felt for that period of time was blank uncaring nothingness, as my nerve endings decayed in my under-stimulated body. As the hard individual over-sized drops pelted my body and cratered the oversaturated ground, I was finally able to recall how sweet life actually was, despite not sleeping for the last day. The team and I had been on the bus for all of that time, because after the van incident, the administration had decreed that all sports teams travel as a whole, not in component parts. It was my opinion that such a decision only ensured that the team would either survive or perish as a whole.

My first impression of the bus that would transport us had been decidedly negative. It was a decrepit overused charter with bulging tires and squealing brakes. I immediately left the parking lot, went back to my room, and quickly checked to make sure my affairs were in order, because it appeared that we were in greater danger of dying on the bus prematurely rather making a safe and secure round trip to our destination. On my way back to the bus, I again questioned the reaches of my consciousness about why I had not quit the crew team. I realized that the answer was obvious: despite my ineffectual stream of constant whining and complaining, I had been too busy with my inept dating life to actually devote the brain and will-power to leave. However, to look good, I had told everyone else that I had stayed on the team out of loyalty to my friend, Party.

Stupidly, I had kept going to practice out of some misguided routine, and had thus found myself on a no doubt rat-infested hearse of a charter bus on a worse than hellish journey. Since I was now completely drenched, despite having stood outside for a mere thirty seconds, I decided that I would head over to a convenient structure to at least retain some of my core heat and hopefully avoid hypothermia. As I squelched one step toward the building, the firm hand of the Assistant Coach corralled my shoulder, and in bellicose tones, yelled at me that I needed to help unload my boat from its traveling container.

Episode LXVIII – Being an anti-hero is a difficult job.

The slightly-slanted cracked black asphalt, full of lumps and crabgrass was spattered with blood colored rusty flakes. The connecting pins, axle, leg, and protective plate of the left rear wheel had been manhandled into a misshaped ungainly mass. The circular diameter of the wheel, if you could call it that, was pitted, scarred, and dented. It looked more like a square drawn by a clumsy child. Triangle, rhombus, or dodecahedron, it wavered. It wobbled without any provocation. It weakly eased from side to side, shaking from a lifetime of misuse and hard weather.

And without a care, it collapsed. For that split second, it remembered it was a wheel, it was round, and it was not meant to stand still even on flat ground, let alone that weak slope of a parking lot. Squeakily, it started rolling with the desperate motion of long neglected machinery. Every escape, however, requires co-conspirators. Rather than stand fast, and signal the guilty party’s flight with a squeal of rubber, its chain gang companions in the front and next to it also began to rattle off along with it.

I couldn’t hear the rattling from the opposite corner I was on. I could barely see the shaking and groaning of the escaped wheels as they bore the rusted out hulk of the broken-down shopping cart downhill. Normally, I wouldn’t have cared. Like a creature of habit, I ran the route I was on daily. My primary concerns on my jog usually were the deranged patrons who frequented the near-empty small supermarket. Frantically, they swooped in and out of the lot, disobeying all sorts of traffic laws, nearly taking my life on many occasions.

I kept running by the market because I was addicted to the adrenaline rush from not becoming road kill. It also was on a corner between two picturesque tree lined stretches of emptiness. Usually, I wouldn’t care about the metal mesh monsters. I had seen plenty of fugitive carts caroming down the grade for freedom, only to find their flight interrupted by a car door or trunk. The present desperate case I saw in the near distance was exactly the same, except that this time, instead of being absolutely empty or filled with nothing but plastic and food, this cart carried a small child still strapped in the safety restraints of the basket.

I could see all of it from my position rounding the corner on two legs. The mother was half swallowed by the car as she shoved plastic sacks of coco-crisps into its trunk. With her head jammed into the rear of the car, she could hear only the subtle, sublime rustle of bagged goods. Out on the empty tarmac of the parking lot, the cart was beginning to obtain enough speed to launch the child with a high velocity. Just thinking about the x and y motion of the child’s short parabolic flight was enough to make me wince.

I broke stride. I turned left into the lot. My eyes slid back and forth spasmodically, searching for any incoming cars. My legs hurtled over crumbed concrete parking rests. My knees ached at the sudden downhill acceleration as I pursued my weaving metal target. I had outran small dogs, squirrels, and the occasional human. I was confident that I could reach the cart before it jerked the kid off into oblivion, or overturned on his fragile head. My chest heaved, and my arms stretched out in the empty air before latching on to the dismayed escapee. Despite my sweaty, precarious grip, I dug in my feet, tearing rubber off my designer shoes, and brought the whole contraption to a rickety stop.

In front of me, the kid looked up, giggled and clapped his hands incoherently. Leave it to a toddler to not know he was in mortal peril. A wall of sound assaulted my ears. Wincing, I turned to see the mother lumbering downhill toward our position, avalanche style.

“You monster!” She said, as she greeted my face with a hefty slap that resembled a right hook, before scooping up her amused child, and rumbling back into her car, which she started frantically. In her haste, she zoomed out of the lot and narrowly avoided two other cars. I gently massaged my stinging cheek in shock, and quickly placed my feet back on their regular path, lest something else interfere with my normal life.

Episode LXVII – Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Once everything was perfectly sanitized and G-Rated, I sent off an indignant and non-salacious response. I could tolerate no more, because it had gone past a good joke, and was simply too much. In my message, I demanded that she cease from sending me messages at all. Of course, the obvious foreseeable result was that she only became more adamant about her goals and as such, I received an increasing volume of e-mails. In response, I adopted the “D for Delete” posture when it came to e-mail. I didn’t care if a mountain of one’s and zero’s spilled out of my inbox; as soon as I saw the Sender’s address, I deleted them, causing my “D” key to become prematurely weathered.

Since she was not getting the response she desired, she found my phone number, and began to call, rasping sweaty fantasies into my voicemail. The calls went straight to voicemail, because after two calls, I had unhooked the phone from the cord. At this point, all of my friends would stop by, listen to the five minute sagas, laugh hysterically, offer no cogent solutions, and leave, still howling in delight. I wanted to punch all of them in the face.

A week later, Longhorn informed me that a “freakish heathen” matching Scylla’s description had come by our room. From the moment I heard those words, I knew that I was truly prey. While I had come to that conclusion when I had disconnected the phone, it was discomforting to know that my very footsteps and haunts around campus were now being dogged. Petrified, I hunkered down in the bunker of my room. I couldn’t use the phone, because she could call. I couldn’t correspond with other people, because then I’d have to wade through a mass of her e-mails. I couldn’t venture outside the room, because she could sneak in. I was cut-off, isolated, and now incessantly mocked by my friends. It was a horrible, sick feeling.

Fate therefore found me at my door, at one of my lowest moments. At the door, I was avoiding not only a date, but mere detection. I was beginning to consider consulting the campus police for protective custody. I wasn’t sure what they could do – other than beating her phone and computer into a pulp with their six-battery double-cell flashlights. Suddenly, the phone rang with its jarring “bzzawt” clang. I jumped three feet in the air, and returned to the ground with a nasty twitch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Longhorn reaching for the receiver, despite my silent desperate pantomime to ignore its siren call. With the phone at his ear he listened at first, before grimacing and contorting his face into a revolted expression. I could tell that it was her; and that he would be passing the earpiece to me in a second.

I didn’t want to hear any more of those pestilential desires. But, rather than handing me the phone, his expression shifted, and he began to speak. I knew that tone. It was usually reserved for his friends, and it usually discussed my sins in deadly detail. Except this time, the sermon flowed toward Scylla unabated for several minutes. With rapturous attention I watched him speak. I didn’t listen, because I never really paid attention to his words, and because I was as stunned as an accident prone armadillo. With a flourish, he finished, and clicked the phone closed. With a smug expression on his face, he turned to address me.

“I don’t know what devilish enticements you and your friends have told that poor girl” He began, as my eyes widened in shock. “But you can be certain that because of my words, she has now found the path of righteousness and chastity, and that your foul scheme shall not prevail.”

Gently, I closed my slack jaw. The content of his speech was not surprising to me, because I had heard such a diatribe before. I considered explaining the events of the last weeks briefly, but decided that on this occasion, it was better to be judged if it solved the issue. Later, I unbolted the door and headed out for food. No one lurked behind corners, waiting to ravage my body. When I returned, no messages demanded my attention. That night, as I slept alone for the first time in my college career, I thanked Longhorn, because although he was a judgmental fool, he had left a great parting gift.

Episode XLVI – There are always other eels in the sea.

From my one-eyed spyglass, I scanned the hallway intently. With the door shut, I wondered if she was lurking somewhere out of my field of vision. I knew that I had to do something soon, because Longhorn was leaving, and if Sweet Cream’s move wasn’t approved, I would be alone and vulnerable. Longhorn wasn’t just vacating the room, he was leaving school. He was departing to be a father, husband, and who knew what else, rather than student. Even though I wasn’t going to admit it to him, I respected his undertaking, because I wasn’t ready to attempt anything that difficult. I was actually going to miss him and his Texas bible-thumping drawl a little.

Throughout the half semester, we had developed a grudging understanding. We had even dismantled the Blue Line partition of tape that had first divided the room. Although Longhorn overly polite attitude toward me was a façade, it was a welcome change from the total disrespect of my friends. They had first started to mock me after they heard the story of my rejection. It was my own fault for mentioning the incident in a half-inebriated state at a crowded party. Equally unfortunate, the story had gained a life of its own, and had become impossibly distorted, some versions having Helen smacking me indignantly in front of a classroom of stunned onlookers.

While drunk, my friends liked to chortle about the story. They also enjoyed proffering advice of how to “move on”. I told them that I didn’t need advice about rejection. But I did approach them when they were sober, seeking advice about my collateral problem. The problem was of course, woman related. It had to do with Scylla. Scylla was also in Advanced Classics, and if Helen was the fairest of the maids in the course, Scylla was her perfect opposite.

Scylla had a moustache, which looked a bid off on a woman. She also had deathly pale skin, quadruple pierced ears, oddly-dyed hair, a grating voice, and strange smelling clothes. While I was sure she was a perfectly nice person on the inside, I had no burning desire to be near her outside of class. However, she had other ideas.

Soon after the date debacle, she approached me, and told me in a matter of minutes that she would not refuse a date from me. In a flustered, but polite manner, I had told her that I was not seeing people socially at that moment. It was a lie, but it was a plausible lie. She nodded, and headed off. I was glad that I had dodged a bullet while maintaining a shred of dignity. I thought no more of it until I read my e-mail later that day. My inbox possessed a message from Scylla, time-stamped a mere ten minutes after our conversation.

The message asked if I would come by her room later to “study”. I unequivocally and uneasily responded that I was busy. The parentheses in the e-mail seemed to portend a double meaning that I did not want to contemplate. Later, I checked my e-mail again. There was another message from Scylla. This time there were no hidden meanings. It was a very indecent proposal. Politely, I responded that I had no interest in a “kinky all night bondage session” with her, and courteously asked her to refrain from similar messages in the future.

Since I considered the disturbing matter closed, I had gone to sleep easily that first night. The next morning, I had five new e-mails. Three were from her. All three had new lewd proposals. Grimacing in horror, I had quickly deleted them. In class that day, I could feel her eyes on me, imagining new bedroom antics. I had to return back to my dorm after class to shower, because the touch of her thoughts made me feel dirty. In my towel, I checked my e-mail and found a new crop of ramblings from her. I deleted the messages, and cleaned my keyboard and screen.

Episode LXV – The “ideal form” of rejection is easily found.

In the cave of Advanced Classics, the only light in the room appeared to shine solely on our professor, who had turned from his scribbling of Greek to ask me a question. As he paused, to cleverly obscufate the issue, I tried to look like I had been paying attention. After all, Advanced Classics was one of my better grades for the first semester of college, and one of the main reasons I would avoid being on academic probation should I not screw it up. Plus, I wanted to look good to impress Helen of Indiana who sat across the aisle from me.

I had spied fair Helen with her lustrous blonde hair on the first day of class. It was hard to miss her, because she was the prettiest girl in the class by far, making all of the other women look like mere harpies, and she had happened to sit next to me, clearly a sign from the Gods. While I did not have the looks of a Paris, I had received a further blessing from my friends in the class who had chosen a manly strong name from the Iliad which they felt suited me. Since the start of the semester, I had befriended her, and we had hung out with our mutual friends many times. Even though I had met many new faces in the sea of freshman, Helen’s was the one I wanted to spend time with in any type of symposium.

The question finally fell like a broken thunderbolt from the professor. He was perplexed by the riddle of where we were on the syllabus that he had assigned. Earnestly, I answered calmly:

“Yes, Professor, I have already read Chapter 7 of Aristotle.”

While my answer suited his sphinx-like heart, my classmates, including Helen groaned audibly. I had accidentally made their lives more difficult by making them read two chapters before we met again. As Helen kicked my leg furiously in disgust, I was showered with pen caps by my peers in a sign of gratitude. As class ended, and as we packed up, I desperately searched for the words to casually ask her on a date.

I had received word from my oracles of the various social circles that I attended that Helen would be pleased to hear my entireties, should I vocalize them. And it was not the experience with Number #5 ½ that stopped me. Since her non-fatal blow, I had been through many minor trials and tribulations in the dating realm. I had accrued stories that would weave a fascinating soliloquy that would make a comedic audience laugh and cry throughout all three acts. What stopped me was my Achilles’ heel, my ultimate weakness: I had trouble asking girls out. I stammered, I behaved in a most clumsy way, and struggled to produce the required words. Quixotically, once the deed was done, I had no problems. As I mused on my cruel fate, the room had emptied.

Quickly, I resolved that I would delay no more, and ask Helen that very day. I grabbed my stuff, and fly after her golden hair that very moment. On an abandoned tree lined path, I caught up with her, and in my most charming manner, which was probably still incredibly un-charming, managed to get out the words that I had harbored for weeks. As the last gasps of “dinner – tomorrow?” escaped my lips, I was elated, flying in the warm glow of the sun.

Analytically, and yet sadly, she stared back at me with a cold gaze that almost froze me in mid-step. With reasoning that would make Pericles himself blush, she laid out a solid case against my proposition.

“…and frankly, while I enjoy spending time with you in a large group, and find you somewhat amusing, why would I, who is obviously going places in life, date you, whose later destination is clearly to be employed at McDonald’s at best? I think not!”

My feathers melted with her scalding words, and I plummeted back to reality. I could not muster the wit to deny her sophisticated sophistry. I was left, jaw hanging agape as she receded into the distance. It was a nasty turn of fate that changed me from hero to goat herder in one swoop. One thing was clear, as I headed off: even if I was a goat herder, I was going to recover my six-pack of beer from the Oracle who had goaded me with the advice I had acted upon.

Episode LXIV – Fatigue really can bug a person.

In The Metamorphosis, a man slowly changes into a cockroach. After reading the story, and thinking on it for a half-day, I had decided that to worry about being turned into an insect, when there were more likely pressing dangers was absurd. Yet, as we made our slow and ponderous upstream turn, our boat and all of its occupants, including myself were molting into a caterpillar. I wasn’t sure why it was happening, but like Gregor Samsa, I could not fight my fate.

Our red hull was our spiny exoskeleton. Each of us, firmly rooted in our seats became legs firmly fixed in sockets. Moreover, as a recently hatched caterpillar, we had a dainty and distinctive walk that gingerly plodded across the surface of the water. We were a clumsy hatchling. Before, when we had individual minds, our oars had skimmed the surface in fleet motions. Now, our collective fatigued brain sent conflicting messages to each leg, causing limbs to become tangled, and our motion to inch forward in a jumbled foxtrot. In the past, the wind had caught our backs and blown us gently forward. Now, a gale swept down on each exposed element of flesh, driving us away from our destination. Previously, we had been lithe and full of vigor as we chopped water away from our hull. Presently, each swell threatened to capsize our forward progress, casting us underwater and possibly drowning us.

As quickly as the mirage had started, it was over. We were lurching about in an ungainly manner, turning for the second race. I shook my head in a puzzled manner, wondering if the eight minds in front of me had experienced the same bizarre dream. I was certain of one thing: it had taken us at least two lifetimes to paddle back up the river to the starting line to compete in the final heat. Next to our boat, leviathan shaped brutes with identical haircuts and expressions sat stonily in their waiting sculls. Every atom of my arms ached with tired anger. Formerly closed mostly healed blisters had opened at some point in the last fifteen minutes and were staining my oar to match the boat.

Wearily, my eyes were drifting along waves when the starting pistol fired off. My body jolted automatically and began to pull relentlessly. Impossibly, in the first two seconds, our competitors were five boat lengths ahead. I concentrated on breathing, and ignored all else. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice that our previously even rowing had disappeared. It was now as if the rear of the boat was attempting to row in an entirely different direction than all of us at the bow.

This observation caromed around in my head for five or six strokes, before I decided that it might be a good idea to listen to our coxswain for once. It was easy not to listen to him, because his attempts to motivate involved him uttering a constant stream of four letter words that quickly became white noise. This phenomenon was decidedly unfortunate, because for once, he was yelling something important.

“No! No! Turn! Pull! Port side pull! We’re going to run aground!” He pled hopelessly.

Days of practice had conditioned me to never really watch where we were going. After all, that was really the coxswain’s job. My job was to be a strong back. But when someone states that you’re going to run aground, all training goes out the window. I looked up, just in time to see the brown bank approaching. Seconds later, with a sucking non-crashing sound, the stern of our boat was aground. It was utterly humiliating. Not only were the other boats nowhere to be seen, we were way off course, and on dry land. It was exactly the sort of debacle all of us had secretly expected to happen in our first race.

For a couple minutes, all of us sat stunned and did nothing at all. Throughout all of our training, we had never covered what to do if we ran aground. Finally, we tried moving the boat with the oars. Nothing happened. The mud seemed to have set like concrete. Eventually, Party and I had to extricate ourselves from the boat, plod through the clinging quicksand silt and push the boat out into open water. Then we frantically had to swim back to the boat which was floating downstream. Eventually, mud-streaked, soaked, and utterly worn out, we crossed the finish line, twenty minutes after the competition. Afterwards, we went home in total silence reflecting on our racing record of one win and seven losses. When I got back to my dorm room, I kissed the grimy floor in delight. I swore that I was not ever going on another crew excursion again.

Episode LXIII – Victory is a harsh mistress.

White froth sprung from the resistant water as my arms and hands moved the firm cement river. The boat wasn’t moving. Spines ached to rip free from backs. Leg muscles burned like exhausted red coals. The boat wasn’t moving. Oars pivoted and swiveled in calloused hands. Torrents of sweat fell down from un-wiped brows. The boat wasn’t moving. Vile excrement-filled words projected from them mouth of our coxswain and flowed over our collective ears in ugly hatred. Our eyes moved not from side to side, but magnetically fixated on the body in front of us. The boat wasn’t moving in relation to the river. We were moving the river in relation to the boat. We were taking each molecule and tearing it aside, and forcing our very being into its place.

It was silent. The constant roar and rumble of words that had swept over us ceased. In the silence we heard four letter syllables and vowels. It was one word and one word only. Stop. Our arms trembled, and relaxed. The invisible force that had held us orderly disappeared. We blinked and looked up. To our left, there was nothing but empty river and a shore of stunned, sparse onlookers. To our right, there was nothing but abandoned water. There were no other boats.

“I can’t believe it!” Our small, gentle, foul-mouthed coxswain roared. “You dirty bastards won the race!”

Tiny ripples lapped paint off our faded red hull. We shifted uneasily in our seats and bashfully looked upstream. Cranking down the river were the bold colors of opposing boats, manned by hulking brutes of pure muscle and iron physique that appeared never to have missed a meal. As our tired minds attempted to comprehend what our eager eyes understood completely, a cacophonous shriek echoed across the water. Back on solid land, our Coach was writhing and yelling like an old-fashioned preacher at a revival, gesticulating in our direction as if we had just entered the promised land.

We were stupefied. We were petrified. We were absolutely frozen with fright. Each fact fit neatly into its supporting sub-facts. There was nothing to mentally debate or argue, and yet we refused to accept our position. It was improbable, implausible, and down-right ridiculous. There was no explanation, either, rational, irrational, or some odd third combination of the two for what had happened. The only conceivable theory was that some quirk of cosmic fate had fixed this race in every way, shape, and form. As the shock from our miraculous luck wore off, there was nothing to do but hoot, holler, and carry on in victory gyrations as the most favored group of sinners throughout time. It was at this point, that the metaphorical rug was yanked out from under our feet.

“What the hell are you guys carrying on about!” Our coxswain roared. “You guys haven’t won anything yet! That was just the preliminary round! Now move your backs, you lazy layabouts –we have to paddle back to the starting line! Move it!”

Unfortunately, in conjunction with his words, the planet started spinning again, pigs stopped flying, and the smiles vanished from our faces to be replaced by tormented grimaces.

Episode LXII –When in doubt, help yourself.

It was beyond obvious that the situation was grim. In the half hour since we had crumbled to a stop, there had been a constant stream of nothing. No cars. No people. No animals. The only thing in sight was a dilapidated farmhouse. No one had a cell phone. No one had a wallet. It was disgustingly stupid that we had listened to the Coach and his cronies, and left the important things of modern life behind. Finally, I stopped neurotically pacing, and decided to be constructive. It was clear that no one was coming to rescue us. It was equally apparent that no one else was going to do anything to better for our situation other than cast their eyes to the sky and wait for deliverance.

With nothing but my angry thoughts and a wrathful heart, I started walking to the broken down farmhouse. I mused, that perhaps, despite all outward signs, it wasn’t abandoned and there were habitants who could assist us. Sweat poured off my brow as the steamy air permeated my body. In a matter of minutes, I was contributing to the ambient heat. Rows of identical leafy plants passed on either side of me, watching me stomp up the pavement, with a slow trail of the rest of my van-mates behind me.

The farmhouse was empty. Long empty. The roof was full of boulder-sized holes and the planks were weathered and rotting. However, a little further down the road, a fresh new farmhouse stood in a cut-out of corn. I waited for the daisy chain of my teammates to catch up, and collectively, we kept trudging further away from our broken conveyance. The gravel strewn driveway was clearly posted with a myriad of superfluous signs stating that trespassers were not welcome under any condition or emergency. I looked back at the motley group. I hadn’t seen anything that could help us in the hour since our car had died. Calmly, I paused, and waited for the silent nods of assent that would indicate that we were going to venture onto this strange parcel of land or be disemboweled trying.

In a matter of seconds it was a unanimous vote, and we started crunching down the path. Fifteen feet from the house, rapid paws and breathless barks came from the corn behind us. Instinctively, we bunched into an ugly circle as two black Labradors roared and drooled their way around us in angry circles. After a good ten minutes of tireless baying, one of the occupants of the house realized that something was off, and came out. He was a long, lanky man, dressed in standard farmer overalls, and told us in no uncertain terms that he didn’t care about our problem. With shoves and kicks, we pushed Jughead to the front as a peace offering for the dogs to drag off, or to better yet, to reason with the farmer. While he wasn’t an orator, because his words came out in a fast squeak of a tortured mouse, something about his pure pitifulness thawed the cold heart of the farmer.

He called of the dogs, which severely disappointed them, and offered to drive Jughead – and Jughead alone – to Columbia, while simultaneously admonishing the rest of us to get off his property. Tiredly, we trekked back to the abandoned van, and stared at the pale blue sky while speculating on whether the farmer was actually helping us, or helping himself by selling Jughead into indentured servitude. Two hours later, as the sun was slinking down between husks and stalks, Jughead appeared at the head of a small convoy – a wrecker, and an Enterprise van that took us into the metropolis of Columbia, where, as the night rolled on, we were stranded, desperately waiting for help. At eleven in the evening, we started to scavenge cardboard from the 7-11 dumpster to sleep on when Jughead’s eightieth collect call finally reached the Coach.

The Coach grudgingly called a local Econolodge, and generously rented out one room – for all of us to sleep in, and a large pizza for all of us to eat. Four hours later, as threatened, he was pounding on our door, just after I had found a comfortable non-urine smelling spot of carpet to sleep on. Then in true law-breaking and highway patrol defying fashion, he drove us the remaining distance in a constant one hundred miles per hour blur, because despite all of our trials of the past day, it was absolutely imperative that we not miss our race at eight.

Episode LXI-A van not in motion will choose to stay not in motion.

The van was cooling slowly, pinging and ticking. Seconds before, we had been in dire peril and danger as smoke choked our lungs and obscured the highway from our eyes. But once the car had ground to a stop, seven of us flung the doors open and leaped out onto the gravely separation between road and plants. Choking for fresh oxygen, we stumbled twenty-five feet in front of the now softly smoldering van, and gasped in carcinogen free, plant produced clean air. Five minutes or so later, Jughead slowly exited the vehicle and walked over to us like a ghost, all one hundred and fifteen pounds shaking violently.

The whole situation had been a random chance for Jughead to demonstrate his quality, to inspire us to follow his leadership, and to not question his ideas. In all fairness, he had shown potential by steering us to safety. Unfortunately, that potential had vanished when he prolonged the crisis by planting the van in the middle of an empty road. I could only assume that during the incident all pistons in his brain had locked in terror, leaving him bereft of innovation, only able to follow the straight lines of previous action. My theory seemed to be scientifically sound, because on our ejectment from the van, we had yelled at him to follow, only to see him insanely sit in shock and wait for a potential explosion.

So, as he approached us, there were glances and looks of total disbelief. There were glares of frustration, and there was a common mental rumbling of discontent. In this poisoned atmosphere, he opened his mouth and demonstrated why he never talked.

“I think we have a car problem.” He said, stating the obvious in a high squeaky voice.

Corn kernels produce a slight modicum of noise as they grow in the husk. For thirty seconds, each of the seven of us processed this unique sound, and our snappy rejoinders and insulting comebacks. Abruptly, a hailstorm of insults and curses fell, a babble of angry voices roared forth against Jughead and his wide brimmed ears. The words bounced off onto broad corn stalks, and dripped coldly onto the ground. It was mutiny. The seven of us couldn’t believe that he hadn’t honked, or flashed his lights at the ignorant and now vacant convoy when our van was falling apart faster than a sinking ship. We also couldn’t understand why he had chosen to place us out of the reach of society, when passing motorists could have helped us easily.

Weakly, he held up his hands, and in his high pitched voice, attempted to soothe our nerves by promising to drive back to the on-ramp. Grudgingly, we holstered our remaining comments, walked back to the open doors of the now quiet vehicle and slammed them shut. Methodically, Jughead re-organized the keys, and once the proper one had been selected, inserted it into the ignition. With his practiced even movement he rotated it to the start position. There was a whine, a series of clicks, and then nothing. He withdrew his keys, and again went through his routine. This time there was even less of the faint sounds. Then, he tried again for a third, and then a fourth time. And it would have happened a fifth time, if the Party Member hadn’t reached over and took the keys from his pale hand.

“The car isn’t starting, guys.” Jughead whined.

The humid, cloying air of late Indian summer was too much to bear inside a van that was nothing more than an empty shell. Once again we opened the door, and marched around on the gravel. Curses again rang like heat lightening and thunder across the open expanse. The van was dead. We decided that we weren’t going to push it the mile or so back to the off ramp, because it was an utterly futile and ridiculous idea.

Episode LX-Not quite there just yet.

On many tires, and with innumerable stops, our convoy inched its way to the freeway across clogged surface streets like an ungainly caterpillar. Inside the caboose of the multi-wheeled ungainly vehicular hive mind, we found ourselves wishing for open road with earnest prayers. Eventually, with one last jerking thump through the minefield of potholes, we lurched onto the interstate, our maximum velocity reaching a window rattling fifty miles per hour. After the off-ramps and suburbs disappeared, I began to see the wondrous expanse of central Missouri.

At first, my sight caught brief swathes of forest. Those passed quickly, even at our rate of speed, and were interrupted by eye breaking expanses of even green squares. The ground was even, straight, and linear. It appeared to be the perfect place to calibrate a level. It was flat. However, calling the landscape flat seemed to insult the word. Meter after meter, acre after acre, mile after excruciating mile, everything was exactly simply identical in its desolate uniformity. The slight variations in the letters of the word “flat” at least evoke a glimmer of imagination, unlike the terrain that my tired corneas processed. After five miles, I was more bored than a dog on a dusty porch.

Even the billboards that marred the sky in fifty foot intervals had a bleak repetitiveness. In bold, chunky, un-exciting letters that failed to raise a smile or a frown, they advertised caves, beef jerky, porn, antiques, and more caves. Crankily, I shut my eyes, and tried to block out the unyielding sameness of the scenery, but only succeeded in blinking slowly, catching glimpses of alternating patches of abandoned farm equipment and farms. As the van’s engine burned diesel at a prodigious rate, and my life passed before my eyes, I sat propped against the window, mesmerized by the green crops stretching their leafy goodness under the pale blue sky.

Past Columbia, which failed to raise a flicker of interest on my countenance, the smell began. First, I thought it was my very brain decaying from boredom. Second, I thought it was a teammate’s dirty feet. Just as the third possibility began to percolate in my hypnotized thoughts, the stench poured and coursed into my nose, slapping my senses awake. It wasn’t the constant manure smell that had plagued us for fifty odd miles, but the stench of a serious, burning, flaming mechanical failure. The foul spell of silence lifted from our minds, and as one, we began to chatter our protests at Jughead, the safest shortest slowest driver.

Under siege from more words than he had heard in three weeks from everyone he knew, Jughead tapped the brakes to slow our van while wearing that same look of mute happiness. The smell soared and roared at our senses. Jughead tapped the brakes futilely, once, and then again, twice. Angrily, dark black smoke swarmed and coiled out of the air conditioning vents into our faces, pouring from every orifice of the van like angry locusts. Fortunately, the mechanical exactitude of Jughead’s driving did not falter at this unforeseen turn of events, and he did not roll us into the ditches that lined the freeway, and turn us into a fiery wreck.

Methodically, in his non-verbal manner, he only directed us to open all of the windows, so that the smoke could flee the cab faster than it flowed in. Simultaneously, he continued to pump the brakes like he was giving the van CPR, while the remainder of the convoy accelerated across the plain and headed farther out of sight. In a matter of seconds, the rest of the team had disappeared into the far-off distance. Despite this disturbing problem, Jughead kept steering and driving at a pace that diminished with each passing moment. But rather than pull over on the side of the freeway, where passing strangers, or perhaps even the Missouri highway patrol could aid us, Jughead kept driving forward to the next freeway exit, despite the increasing and thickening clouds that billowed from the hood.

Even though the next exit stated clearly in bold green and white, “No Services”, Jughead plowed the van up the mild grade of the off-ramp, and for good measure, turned left and headed at least one mile up into farm country, before signaling to the now non-existent traffic that we would be pulling off, and then placed the car on the shoulder evenly, where, once the car was at a dead stop, he turned off the clanking engine. We were now off an empty road with no appreciable prospects for help.

Episode LIX – Have nothing, will travel.

Inevitably, the time came for our first competition. The easy breeze of passing seconds, minutes, and days didn’t care about the frantic begging of the coaching staff. There was a good chance that we were rubbish at rowing, because we had lost to a High School team in a tune-up affair. Stating that we had lost was a charitable assessment of our skills. We had been completely demolished by a boat of veritable children. The aftermath of that debacle was hours of mindless crazy-eight turns on the flat surface of our practice lake. I wasn’t sure myself that the practice had made us any better at all. It was my suspicion that we had peaked, and that our best rowing effort was possibly as refreshing as the stagnant water we rowed on.

Nevertheless, our first real competition in which college age students would most likely destroy us effortlessly was the site of the ultimate destination trip for people that had never been to a city larger than two thousand people and lived four miles from their nearest neighbor. Yes, it was with irrepressible glee that we were headed to the Eastern Missouri mecca of Kansas City. What made our journey even more fantastical was that we would not hop a plane and cut the trip into a forty-five minute routine cruise. We would instead absorb the local flavor of the state by driving across it in the choicest mode of transportation, extra-large passenger vans. It was my humble opinion that the trip might possibly be the highest and most exotic excursion I had taken in two weeks. The trip was way better than going to the grocery store. In addition to my humble enthusiasm for the whole mule-train affair, Party was actually excided to get on the road.

Packing for our sojourn was easy. Since we would be rowing, we were told that it would be absolute folly to pack such mundane items as wallets. Moreover, we would also not need a change of clothes, because that would be completely overrated. We would need our green one-piece spandex uniforms, but we didn’t need to worry about packing those. Books were also a forbidden item, unless we were bordering on academic probation, and absolutely needed to study. The Coach told us that we didn’t need these things because everything would be taken care of. And since sleep deprivation had long since broken our spirits, and he was our hierarchical figure who now told us how to live, we again ignored those niggling nagging doubts of individual thought, and went along with his plan like it made perfect sense.

Specifically, the explanation was that we didn’t need these items, because we would be staying at and on the floor of a gymnasium for one night, clearly the pinnacle of resort life. As for food, it was related that some of us didn’t need to eat, because they needed to make weight for the race, and others of us who did need to eat would be fed at a proscribed time with classically healthy food that some cafeteria would serve us after our glorious Leader, I mean Coach had paid with approved school funds. Since our lodging and food was covered, there was really nothing else to spend money on, since there would be no cultural side-trips over the weekend or any deviation from the plan at all.

It truly was going to be a wondrous time. We would get to see the highlights of Missouri from the vans, which would travel in continuous formation. The convoy would begin with the Coach, towing the boats, which would be followed by our three extended cab vans. The entire complement of our boat would be in the last van. The driver of our van was Jughead, a massive fellow that was five feet, four inches tall and weighed at least one hundred and fifteen pounds, and was a feisty rowing machine that never spoke. Eventually it was Friday afternoon, and we loaded up the vans with our human cargo, and then, since we were the last vehicle, we spent half an hour watching the maneuvering of the convoy pieces to jockey to leave the campus while friendly conversation withered and died from irrepressible heat and boredom.

Episode LVIII – No sleep equals no spirit.

“Make the call.” He growled at no one in particular, before stomping over to the phone in uneven, sleep-deprived steps. I felt like I should say something, do something to stop the horror that was unfolding. But I didn’t. I had only slept in bits and snippets over the last forty-eight hours, and I was simply too apathetic to really care.

The day before, my alarm had rang and rang in banshee style at four thirty in the morning. At first, I thought it was a cruel prank or ugly dream. I groggily checked my watch. I had gone to bed at two-thirty, and slept for a monstrous two hours. Dimly, I thought about how I had classes that lasted longer than two hours. I was utterly drained. But the new routine did seem to have promise. My alarm was still shrieking, and Longhorn was writhing in angry discontent. Every easy aspect of life was trouble. I was able to get dressed, barely, but shoe tying was a six minute struggle. Finally, I trudged over to the back of the cafeteria. I was certain that no one would be standing there, and that it was all an elaborate hoax.

But, in the early morning gloam, exhaust writhed around too-bright tailpipes, and everyone was there, gloomily rubbing appendages and looking around blankly. We boarded the vans were like the undead. Rigidly, with unseeing eyes, we rode to the lake in even rows, with the bumps and permutations of the road causing people to twitch and jerk awake. Then, we rowed, cold brown water sloughing over into the boats, and onto pale flesh in the early morning. I couldn’t conceive of why I had signed up for this fun voluntarily. At a quarter to seven, I was back at my room. I had Acting at 9. I could sleep for two more hours, and get four hours, if two and two doubled still meant four. At 8:30, I turned the alarm off and skipped class, calmly sleeping until noon.

Things were exactly the same at the present. I had again foolishly stayed up inordinately late. I had slept for two hours. I had let my alarm ring extra to annoy Longhorn. The shoes were easier to solve, because I had laced them loose the night before, and merely slipped them on. However, most of the team had been missing at the pickup. Instead of simply boarding the vans with what remnant he had, the Coach had decided to call each person who was not there. Crabby roommates answered phones, woke the appropriate parties, and in a short while, disheveled parties straggled out, and in a haze, all three-quarters of the original team made the trip to the lake.

Weeks blurred. Even though I had the best intentions of getting into bed early, and sleeping, dorm life precluded that. In retaliation for my early mornings, Longhorn would open and close the door loudly, and tramp in and out, often with guests when I was sleeping at my odd times. I then refused to answer my name at roll-call one morning, causing the Coach to call my half-empty room and wake Longhorn a half hour after I had already left. Life was becoming difficult. I was misplacing things, forgetting others, and speaking in simple one syllable words. I had also taken all of my semester absences from Acting in a two week span, and been caught sleeping in another course four times.

Occasionally, Party and I would agree to skip practice. The night before, we would unhook our phones, and rest peacefully. Unfortunately, every action has a reaction. After a couple absences, the Coach sent people into our dorm to bang on our doors to wake us. I appreciated the effect this had on Longhorn, and his overall persistence. But it was still a dastardly thing to do. But, Coach had to be desperate and innovative.

When practices had started, we had enough men and women to crew eight full eight person boats. After four weeks, there were only twenty-eight survivors left. The lure of the drug of sleep was a real force that led to serious attrition. Yet, Party and I, and the remnants stayed. We didn’t know why we stayed. It wasn’t because of skill, because we could tell that we had next to none. It wasn’t because we loved rowing. We stayed, because our brains were mush from a lack of sleep and susceptible. We stayed, because despite our best efforts to avoid one, we were now members of a campus cult

Episode LVII- Absolute equality is difficult for numbers to accept.

I was Eight. There were no more than Eight. I was nothing more than my number. There was no need for a name beyond my number, because that would only cause confusion. There was no need for a name for that matter, because Eight was one of a set of numbers, a simple, closed set that resided in a collected system. In that system, I, as Eight, sat and could see the tired backs of One through Seven. At times, I could not recognize the face of Six, or the laugh of Five. But when we were in order, I could watch and time my movements by the rhythmic tired sway of the distinctive yet identical swing of their backs.

There was only one division in our mismatched group – the separation between “Even” and “Odd”. I, as Eight, was an Even. This division was only for our master, so that he could direct our whole like the articulated legs of a spider, to produce an even harmonic web of velocity. Even was no better than Odd, and Odd was no greater than Even. The collective was supposed to move as one. There was no need to think. Our master would direct us to think, in words that fell down from his skiff like pitiful blows from a defunct lash.

I was Eight and nothing mattered. I was Eight – and the world came back into focus. I was not Eight. I was a real, flesh and blood non-number. The gunnel of the boat had bored down on my partially healed and opened wounds, jarring me from the comatose state my brain adopted during the repetitive circles of crew practice. Angrily, I shook my head to clear the last threads of blind obedience. I hated being a mere appendage; and my rebellious individuality agitated for me to drop the boat in an act of pure defiance. Despite the depths of my disgust, I grudgingly kept walking. I realized that if I dropped my share, the instrument of my oppression would be fine, but I would probably break Seven’s toes. Since the whole was also trying to consume Seven’s identity as much as mine, there was no need to torture him further.

However, I mused that, if he had been the Assistant Coach, I would have dropped the boat several feet before. Roughly, I kept moving into the boat corral with gritted teeth, and released my section of boat onto the rack. Then, in a cranky manner, I gingerly moved out of the rickety fenced area. The path to the vans seemed clear. Out of nowhere, the Coach loomed and lurched in that gait of his, and blocked our exit.

“I’d like to address some rumors.” He said lackadaisically, “Practice is now going to start at six – in the morning, and now that you’re getting proficient on rowing, I’m giving each boat a coxswain. It’s going to be their job to you know, yell at you, get you amped up during a race, give directions, that kind of thing. So, be at the usual spot tomorrow morning at five. Any questions?”

I ignored the questions. I half-listened to the answers. They were the standard useless reasons, like people missing class, traffic, conflicting schedules, and many more in that vein. They were everything I had expected from the rumors Party had told me, in a state of panic, a week before. There had also been the other warning flares. The team was composed of ninety-nine percent freshman. There were almost no upperclassmen to speak of. No one had ever rowed before, and those that had rowed had left in disgust at the beginning. There was no way I could be surprised about the announcement based upon the millions of super-gigantic problems that had occurred in the limited time I had been on the team.

My molars gnashed like shifting stones in futile angst about the direction things were heading. I again contemplated quitting. The vaulted ceiling of the van was tomb silent. My desperate thoughts bounced around the padded reaches, raging against the conclusion that I had already decided upon and despised. I was going to stay. I hadn’t permanently scarred my hands and exposed myself to serpents, pollution, and dread diseases just to walk out when things got a little rough. Fortunately, Party decided to stay as well. Unfortunately, he stayed because he was the sole fervent believer of the crew propaganda, and because he liked being known as “One”.

Episode LVI –Waiting is a weighty experience.

The hot boiler voice of the Assistant Coach caromed flatly off my ears so that I failed to absorb one word of his diatribe. The Coach winced at his screeching comments, and pushed his cap lower toward his ears to block the overheated whistling that had flowed forth for over five minutes. I had always been somewhat lanky. I had never had a mass greater than that of 177 pounds. My metabolism had never failed to absorb the raw excess of calories from my careless diet. Doctors had said nothing about my physique, and for eighteen years, that had been the extent of the commentary about my weight.

But for the last six minutes of non-stop verbosity, there had been a constant stream of voluminous words directed solely about my appearance and heaviness – or lack thereof. If I hadn’t had eighteen years to build up a healthy self-esteem, and a thick layer of apathy, those six minutes might have made me cry tears of steam into the night. The short of the complaint was that, at an even six feet in height, and one hundred and sixty five pounds, I was too fat for the thin boat, and too skinny for the fat boat.

The whole conversation was not as distressing as what I had seen two days prior. Our lumbering train had gasped while we jogged around the paved edge as a snake wriggled through the breakers in easy fashion. The brown boundaries of the water lapped in miniscule tidal waves onto an inch of trampled shoreline where a dead rat ignored our feeble parade, and the air bore the stench of a three week old cesspool. This was the lake where we would practice rowing.

After our jog, we stood around in our spanking-new spandex shorts trying not to look at the hazy water, or below the waistlines of any of our teammates. The shorts had the disadvantage of providing distressing views of certain bodily areas that should have been covered by acres of fabric. This fact almost mitigated their beneficial properties, of preventing clothes from being eaten buffet style by the seat-slides. The awkwardness was broken by the Coach introducing us to the boats, which bore odd paint jobs, scars, and several decades of heavy use.

Just when we thought that we were going to touch, or perhaps even sit in the boats, we were directed to sit, and for the next several hours, we were bombarded about the theoretical and practical aspects of rowing. Once the discussion was over, we followed standard operating procedure. We did not touch the boats, and we did not hold an oar.

The next afternoon, we were back at the lake. Large, puffy tendrils stretched from cloud to cloud, and formed larger grey masses which spat hail and rain at the vans we waited in. Eventually, without even exercising, we headed back to campus.

Throughout the day prior to the rant, I had a tingling sense of anticipation. My psychic powers told me that I would actually row. I was therefore able to ignore all of the superfluous comments about how I should lose or gain pounds because I was about to do something ridiculously fun. Finally, with a sigh of resignation, the Coach signaled that I should join the lighter boat of men, and with that we were issued oars like oversized rifles, and paraded out onto the half submerged dock.

The boats rocked crazily as we stepped in and strapped in our feet. After an agonizing half-hour, we were on the water. As the Coach circled our boat in his dingy, shouting invectives at us, I was ready for the sublime experience of cruising across the water’s surface like a cool breeze. The order then came to row. With the force of eight men, the boat surged forward unevenly. And then stopped. We had lost an oar. Once recovered, we moved in an undead manner, jerking and stumbling grotesquely around the water.

After an hour, my hands began to ache. I dismissed it as a mild side effect from the constant struggle the water and I were conducting. Each stroke, every individual molecule of hydrogen and oxygen gripped my oar like cement, and attempted to rip it and my arms from my body. Conversely, my back and legs strained to move the millions of defiant particles at all costs. Sweat trickled down my sunburned neck as my fingers crushed the worn wood on my oar to prevail over nature.

Suddenly, we were drifting back to the dock. I hadn’t even realized that we had made our seventh feeble turn. My eyes had ceased to know more than the back straining in front of me. Gingerly, I unclasped my hands from the oar. Gaping, raging, raw oozing crusty dried blood open blisters looked back at me from where smooth palms with a crisp canvas of life-lines had been. I felt numb. There was no joy in my body, as I left the boat. There was only the farcical bliss of the stigmata of rowing.

Episode LV – A warning a day is easily ignored.

The next day in designer track pants and expensive shoes, we arrived for tryouts. To my untrained eye, the group looked like an odd, un-athletic bunch. However, I wasn’t in a position to talk, because my svelte waist was beginning to look like a spare tire. The tryout turned out to be a jog up and down a mild incline five consecutive times, dodging beer cans in an obstacle course manner. At the end, we were told perfunctorily by the Coach that everyone had made the team and the tryouts were over. This too seemed odd to me, but despite that second warning sign, I still showed up the next day.

At the beginning of the third day, we were shown the rowing machines, not the boats. At this point, we hadn’t seen a scull, a boat, a yacht, or even an oar or life preserver. Our glimpse of the machines was even reluctant, following an hour long talk by our Coach, a man with a ponytail, baggy shorts, an indeterminable amount of beard growth, and a dirty baseball cap. He spent most of the time rambling about how he had married his wife in three days, and that he loved his wife almost as much as crew. It wasn’t the inspirational tack I would have used to motivate the team, but I kept my mouth shut and tried to ignore the third abnormality in three days.

We also met the Assistant Coach before we viewed the broken down pieces of rowing equipment. He stood ramrod straight and liked to yell pointlessly. Nevertheless, I watched intently as he explained proper rowing technique on the rowing machine. After all, I had no idea what to do or how to do it. My new teammates then paraded onto the machine only to have their pants torn asunder by the slick slide, or their shorts consumed by the frenetic wheels. In a matter of minutes, an awkward line of men shifted uneasily next to the machine, attempting to hide their various forms of underwear. Finally, it was my turn. As I began to row, one thing was abundantly clear to me. It only mattered to the Assistant Coach if I was abysmal, because no one else knew how to row either. For those five awkward minutes, despite poor form, I actually thought that despite my total lack of knowledge, training, skill, and inability to listen to shouted criticism, I could row with the best rowers in the world.

Then, hungrily, my shorts were gone in that common afternoon clothes eating sound and I was off the machine. As I stood there, in my boxers, I realized two more simple things. I had avoided the snares of the immortal virtues, only to find myself caught in the demonic net of an inept secular brotherhood of sporting. Despite everything, it wasn’t an awful revelation, because at the moment, I actually looked good in my boxers in the public eye, because the choices next to me were much worse.

Episode LIV – Reverse psychology is a good sales pitch.

The false giant bellowed above me. I couldn’t see his face, but judging from the slight bellows of words that reached my ears, it had to be a nice bright crimson. I stared at my shoes on the forward board. The muscles in my legs then fired like cylinders in a two-stroke engine, and propelled my torso toward the moon. My flight was abruptly interrupted by my toes, feet, and ankles which were actually shackled to the forward segment of the machine. Clang! The seat barked off the end of the track and sprang forward. My knees anticipated the sudden momentum reversal and bent automatically, preventing severe and automatic injury. Bang! I was back at my shoes again, wondering just how exactly they had become so filthy.

I was then hurtling away again, causing the chain to waive erratically and the fan belt to sputter in agony. Absently, I waived the paddle that was attached to the chain and zoomed back toward my feet. From the hue and cry that was reaching a fever pitch behind me, it was obvious that the Assistant Coach had some choice words about my non-existent technique. I wasn’t really listening, because I had been on the machine for five minutes beyond any of the other conscripts, and my herky-jerky noises, while aesthetically unappealing and technically incorrect did have a nice slave-galley rhythm in my mind. Then, as my direction again shifted, my smooth velocity inhaled something outside the wind tunnel of low speed and with a massive fabric rendering roar, I came to a complete stop.

Two days before, we had followed the last faded sign to a large conglomeration of folding tables and cheery students with copious fliers, signs, and propaganda about their respective groups. The Activity Fair was an event laden with plenty of sophists extolling the virtues of their groups in eloquent flowery prose, but no food. Cautiously, we avoided these adjectives and adverbs that were laid at our feet like snares, especially from groups that we had already inadvertently met. Somewhere along the way, Secret was netted by an absolutely horrific bunch of individuals who charitably volunteered to build houses for the homeless in war-torn nations. Grimly, Party and I pressed on, trying to avoid the remaining beneficial causes by closing our eyes and blundering on.

When we opened our eyes, we found ourselves outside of the reef of babble, and in front of a small, dingy three legged table with an illegible sign. There was no talk of heavenly rewards. In fact, the table’s proprietors were as grubby in appearance as we were. Coolly, we drifted in. After a laconic exchange, we found out that the booth was offering tryouts for the Crew team. We were told we could sign up, or not; either way, things were copasetic, because the team wouldn’t miss us either way.

Before we left, we were told that if we did sign up, there would be a litany of amazing benefits, such as physical fitness, which would result in us obtaining massively chiseled physiques, which would in turn allow us to attract only the most beautiful girls on and off campus; and if that was not enough, we would travel to such exotic and wondrous locales as Kansas City, Atlanta, and Chicago, and possibly Pennsylvania without paying a single ounce of our own money, and even more fantastic, we would row in races, and win grand trophies, that would rest in the hallowed school gymnasium for eons in their brass splendor proclaiming our individual glories.

Briefly, Party and I held a conference out of marginal earshot of the promoters. Both of us agreed on two things: that we knew nothing about the sport; and that it was clearly our ticket to becoming the big men on campus, since we had missed soccer tryouts with raging hangovers. Since it was such a super-duper opportunity, we took the only conceivable course of action. We permanently committed our respective names on their roster for the semester.

Episode LIII – There’s no free lunch.

Everything becomes routine in life. At some point, even the special things, like breaking the law become as automatic as breathing. When routine becomes life, sometimes there’s nothing to do but sit back and watch the hours slip away. Hangover, party, class, late night attempted transcendental discussion, group watching of action movies, and assorted work was my routine after the first few weeks of college. It was a routine with odd hours, but still a routine.

Occasionally, some members of the cabal and I would tempt fate by venturing out of the confines of our routine. Invariably, we were inspired to scoff at our mundane lives by fliers. Simple printer-paper, Times-New-Roman-font-fliers. Occasionally, they’d be luxury fliers with bold print and a nice goldenrod hue. The opening line of these missives would always be absolutely identical – “Free Food!”. It was a state ordinance that an exclamation point had to follow those exact words, because if it didn’t, we, as lowly fresh-people, would have no idea how great and fantastic the food was that we were missing.

Randomly, we’d follow these signs like breadcrumbs to the time and place that they set out in their black letters. At the events, some people were there for the stated purpose – to learn more about how the Platonic Ideals related to the theory of crop growth. Others were there to socialize. I was always there for the food. It was why I followed the signs. Sure, I’d talk to people with a full plate, but my perspective was no food, no dialogue. After all, as cliché as it sounded, I was a starving college student. Through the signs, I went to Happy Hour at the Architecture school, where I fit in like a supporting truss because I had brought a Frisbee. The signs also misled me to several events where I didn’t fit in, with the consequence that I had to eat and run.

Despite the occasional quick escape, I was blithely unaware of the possible sinister motives of these meals. The hook, however, was readily apparent one hot afternoon where the air was sweating moisture. Secret and I were crossing back from the main campus to the South Forty. We had just stepped into the underpass when the trouble began. There was a table festooned with bright colors, and that “free” word again, attached to two other cold words – “sno cones”. Since our brains were scrambling in the solid oven of late summer air, anything below the temperature of fire sounded refreshing.

Innocently, we moved over to the table like shy cattle, and received melting, dripping frozen flavored treats. But as we left, something snagged my arm. It was the clean-complexioned gentlemen who had served me my paper cup. I paused for a split-second, noticing that he was abnormally clean. I wasn’t dirty, but my clothes had a distinct rumpled look, and I was sporting a two-day beard. That moment was all he needed in his cool iron firmness to start speaking about redemption. It wasn’t the consumer type of redemption either, it was the ultimate redemption, the real-deal type of redemption, the Book of Revelations type of redemption.

As my hot, mushy brain listened to his sugary words, and red dye dripped onto the pavement, nervousness crept into my being. I wasn’t sure what eternal salvation had to do with sno-cones, but I was positive that the two weren’t linked by any sort of primal bond. Calmly, I extricated myself from the discussion and with Secret in tow, strode through the inferno of humidity back to the dorm. It turned out that the “sno-cone incident” was just the opening salvo for all factions of faith. It was as if the influx of fresh people was equivalent of a spiritual “blue light” special.

Warily, we followed a few more signs to meals, but invariably found ourselves and our theoretical souls the subject of intense rhetoric. Given these covetous and fanatical sales pitches, we left all of the “afterlife time-share presentations” hastily. While we did possess malleable minds, we realized that if we kept following signs, we would soon be converted members of some faction. A week passed, and we lapsed back into the rut of our routine. It was boring, but at least we weren’t wearing robes and drinking drugged Kool-Aid. On the seventh day, however, the safety of normalcy was intolerable. We headed out, and vowed to follow the first sign we saw, into the danger of the unknown, with only our wits to protect us.

Episode LII – The password will be “study”.

The rusted out Death Star of the Explorer was two light years away from the store across a trash-strewn parking lot. We took two calm steps from the store door. Then, like the truly guilty, we ran like fiends. Once back in the Explorer, the Man looked at our faces and laughed.

“You’re all bad, bad, bad men.” He crooned with a smile. “And you’re all going to do hard time for the crime.” No one said anything. It was shifty grins all around, with the invisible panic disappearing in a rush of adrenaline. Laughter burst and cracked again the steel roof like hail. The invisible laurels of law-breaking victory rested on our triumphant brows. Gradually, the endorphins slipped away and silence fell over the group. We were rolling heavily over the over-inflated speed bumps, when Secret, frowning intently, addressed the next problem.

“Well, where are we going to keep it?”

“Not in the car!” The Man said simply.

It was the monkey wrench of practicality. I hadn’t even considered that the scheme would actually work. I had been busy planning my alibi, deliberating about which attorney I would call from jail, and thinking of the fastest getaway route from the store on foot. Despite my epic theoretical knowledge, and Secret’s peerless computer skills, I had thought the whole project was an afternoon’s diversion at best, one that would easily fail upon a mere cursory inspection. To adapt, I quickly opened my tool box of solutions, banishing Plato’s dialogues to the back of my mental cave. With my brow furrowed, I thought intently about where we could hide our booty.

“I know some girls in Liggett that could store it for us…” Party said slowly.

“No way. They’ll drink it.” Sweet stated calmly in rebuttal. His eyes were cast upward. Since his comment wasn’t about online gaming, it was the most relevant thing he had said in weeks.

“I’ve got an extra backpack in my closet.” I noted. “If we kept everything in there, we could put in the nether-reaches of a closet, even all of our closets on a rotating basis. Put some dirty laundry on top of it, whatever, no one’s going to go through it.”

“It could work…”

“I’ve got lots of dirty laundry.” Sweet said proudly. “I haven’t washed my clothes yet, and I’m down to going commando, baby!”

“Well, at least you don’t leave your undies in the bathroom. And, bat-boy, we know you don’t know how to do laundry. I like the backpack.” Secret said. “I just think that we’re going to need some sort of code word for it when we want to use it, so that we can talk freely in front of other people, but not let them know what we’re up to.”

“Excellent. I suggest, ‘cabal’s secret stash of booze backpack’ or ‘booze backpack’ for short.” Sweet said, cackling.

“You’re a real idiot.” The Man noted calmly.

“Wait - I have an idea. A good idea.” Secret said, interrupting a potential round of insults. “Since all of our ‘dry’ friends are always using this term to show how studious they are, we should use it for our own education.”

“Is it - the library?” I said in my most sarcastic voice. I was exhausted by those two words. I heard those letters bandied about at all hours of the day by the do-gooding responsible students that wanted to be prepared for class at all times.

“Exactly.” He replied. “For example – ‘I need to go to the library to study some Russian history...’ – really, I need to drink some vodka.”

“Or – ‘I need to study fluid dynamics at the library’”. Sweet stated, smiling.

“Excellent.” I said quickly, before I heard seven analogies from different disciplines about ‘studying’ or ‘research’. “So that will be the code, and let’s keep it secret to the cabal for now.”

Unlike everything else, it remained secret. The library remained hidden under my bed for several weeks, because I had the most books. But because of Longhorn’s erratic crusading coming and going, and because no one liked him, the library moved. Eventually, going to the library meant hefting its weight of knowledge down three flights of stairs to the cracked cement of the tree shrouded back dorm slab, where many a pint of facts was digested.

Episode LI –Quintet Concerto in the Key of Grocery.

As the harpsichord clanged out a bright sprightly baroque melody, I leaned over Secret’s shoulder and offered slight aesthetic adjustments from my stash of knowledge. Secret had insisted upon musical accompaniment before any work actually transpired on the project. Before I could speak any theoretical words of wisdom, we had conducted a lively debate about what our ears would absorb while our brains worked. Secret had preferred a slow, stately piece from Brahms. I had argued persuasively that such music would cause the project to be abandoned in favor of sleep. The compromise therefore pounded away in the background as we made the smooth shifts and alterations that the fake document required.

Secret and I made a great team on the project, an excellent point and counterpoint to each other. I had abstract ideas on exactly how the final version needed to appear. Secret had the requisite technical skill to translate my theory into a serviceable, working version. I also wasn’t there for mere moral support. My smiling mug had a one in two chance of appearing on license as one “A. Smith” from Iowa City, Iowa. The second option out of the dual choices was Secret. Since one of us would be brandishing our handiwork in a quickstep of deception to suspicious third parties, we wanted it to look good, if not excellent, to prevent getting clapped in irons or sent to the stocks.

Secret and I had obtained this dubious distinction from the cabal after a careful process of elimination had occurred. The Party Member had a constant shifty grin that was inherently suspicious. Sweet was just too gangly and tall to be credible. The Man was always busy with football, basketball or church. He also had a steady girlfriend who already felt neglected. Moreover, he didn’t drink at all, because he was simply bored by the whole concept of loading his pores with an intoxicating substance. The very honor of our criminal enterprise would have been lost if we had asked him to do something for us with no real benefit for him.

This left me and my purported ageless face that could grow heavy stubble in a matter of minutes. The cabal argued that this made me look older; I argued that it merely made me appear my age, with unkempt stubble. Secret was the best choice. A random survey of people not involved in the conspiracy placed his age between 18 and 25. The most compelling evidence was the final document production from Secret’s printer. On the left, Secret’s face smiled serenely up at us. On the right, my crooked grin looked suspicious from a distance, without even looking at the surrounding text. There really was no comparison. We took the copies down to a friend at the architecture school, promised him some liquid compensation, and had him laminate the two fraudulent licenses, one for use, and the other for after-hours laughs.

Once laminated, we assembled the cabal and piled into the Man’s 1970 Ford Explorer that only received Marine Band and had no 8 Track at all. In the hulking steel monstrosity, we rumbled over to the local grocery store. Outside, all of us pooled our odd crumpled dollars into a wrinkled pile which Secret pocketed while ignoring the myriad separate requests for different varieties of liquor. Rather than wait for him to enter the store calmly and normally, we pushed him out the car door. Then, with unnatural trepidation, we followed him inside in two second intervals. We dispersed throughout the store to different aisles to examine different items that we had no intention of buying. With our furtive glances and shifty behavior we were at greater risk of suspicion for shoplifting than purchasing liquor with a fake license.

I had point. I could see Secret in the liquor aisle. He made a selection. He was in line. He displayed the fraudulent document calmly. I looked down at the catnip. I looked up. He was at the exit, items safely stashed in brown bags. No alarms rang. No bells were sounded. No secret store police followed him out, and briskly escorted him back for incarceration. I let out my breath with noisily. I then sauntered back to Sweet and Party, and we strode quickly and loudly out of the store.

Episode L – The hypotenuse of a felony is based upon leg gossip.

Towers of tiny plastic cartons of crisp nuggets separated the table. No-man’s-land was occupied by paper cartons of milk that sweated a moat of condensation next to the salt shakers. In front of me, tiny tankers of rice crackled and sank, polluting the white sea into a brown sludgy morass. I threw back the sugary dregs, and opened my second container. Bright neon unnaturalness radiated out and highlighted the text of the front page of the newspaper. I squinted at the loops angrily. I was only able to handle the glare because of the undercoat of coco puffs in my hung-over stomach. I avoided the multicolored shine by spooning the hoops abstractly while focusing my discontent gaze on the headlines.

Sometimes, my plastic spoon banged against the table errantly. I would then pause, mid-mastication, mid-line, mid-headache, and devote my full attention to darting cereal into my mouth like a blue heron. Despite our earlier pleasantries, during brunch Secret and I would not attempt further conversation. Eventually, the fortified minerals that enriched the tiny multicolored grains separated, and enough sugar to power an army of hummingbirds surged through our veins, providing us with enough energy for at least four hours.

“You’re a jackass!” He said truculently.
”Moron!” I said snidely back. We laughed, and slowly put down the paper. “Ready to break the law?” He nodded, and we began the complex slow trudge back to the dorm, treading delicately as to not disrupt the complex balance between digestion and regurgitation.

The combination of double my daily value of vitamins, lack of sleep, and sugar powered the rusty sectors of my memory into alertness. I remembered everything, even all of those things that I desperately wanted to forget. Ruthlessly, I stomped through the underbrush of regrets and embarrassments. Abruptly, the memory I desired appeared, buried along with everything I knew about Geometry. It was clear that I would be able to assist Secret effectively, because everything I needed to know, I learned in school.

Geometry was an educational experience for me. I learned that a blackboard wouldn’t necessarily crack when a fifth year senior threw the teacher against it because he was out of his gourd on crack. I also learned how to identify the ugly withdrawal effects of meth, and how to differentiate the bloodshot eyes of an alcoholic from the pink eyes of a pot addict. I also learned some math, but on my own time. In class, I had to keep one eye on my wallet, and the other eye on my personal security.

Since the dregs of the school were working every angle during class, I made some odd acquaintances. The only one that I didn’t have to covertly worry about sat next to me for about a month. He had the baggiest pants, and an impressive wad of bills. Best of all, no one bothered him. So, as long as he talked to me, no one bothered me, which I liked, since I was a lightweight in the heavy-weight ring. My immediate assumption was that he was a dealer. But I was wrong.

Cash, as I called him, wasn’t dealing anything. He was in sales. And he was an entrepreneur. He had a top of the line computer, printer, scanner, and software. As twice failed addicts tried to formulate the proper x’s and y’s for their proofs, he would regale me with the details of his business, and relate the particulars and exactness which he tried to imprint on his finished products. He liked to view himself as an artist. He was always altering and perfecting his craft. His handiwork was simple and good. Each period, I would see his face, with a different name, a different age, and a different state. His business, aside from being illegal, had one flaw. Cash was always sailing close to the sun – he wanted perfection.

Mathematical certainty is a good thing. The same precision in an illegal activity is a bad idea. Cash got burned and busted while attempting to buy the holographic tape to seal his fake licenses in order to make them exactly similar. His conviction and trip to the big house was as accurate as the Pythagorean theorem. But by that time, he had passed along enough of his lore to me. The useless knowledge had percolated in my head for years. But with the dorm door shut, my flawed education was beneficial, as all of the details flowed forth in a surreptitious manner.