Friday, November 28, 2008
An Open Letter to Everyone Everywhere Along the Stretch of Highway 94 from Minneapolis to Chicago the Weekend of November 21, 2008:
All y’all suck. Big time. Our world has really gone to hell in a handbasket. I can smell the flames from Satan’s Rock, and I am not referring to the stone formation outside Tomah, but the fiery pit of hell from whence sulfuric and other stanknasty odors emerge. Everything is so dark-sided! Get the hell out of the upper Midwest in Jesus’ name I pray!
I don’t even know where to start on this list of grievances, ungodly horrors unleashed upon my person. I suppose that since we’re talking about the apocalypse and linear time is apocalyptic time, at least according to those damned gays, we’ll start at the beginning and go as straight as possible from there.
Which isn’t going to be easy.
Last Friday, we set off towards a competitive crossword-solving tournament in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I took five students with me, all adept wordsmiths. We travel together once or twice a month, which is lots of fun: They try to make me listen to terrible music and stories about their experiences with rifles and PCP, and I drive 120 miles per hour and tray to splat as many animals along the highway as possible.
The trip can be done on either of two highways: 90 or 94. Although the former has Medieval Times and a string of rural areas where I imagine the modern equivalent of Gilles de Rais would set up shop, we took 94 this time, since it takes us past the Dells, Racine, the Ho-Chunk, and Wisconsin Fun, the family fantasy fun experience between Hustler and Baraboo.
Before we even reached Wisconsin Fun, we saw one of those new-fangled windmills self-destruct: centrifugal force gone bad. I wasn’t surprised to see that happen, since God knows those unholy environmentalists who are always talking about clean energy and global warming and other lies are probably not capable of the craftsmanship it takes to make a nice sturdy windmill. Pieces of sharp metal flew all over the countryside; we even saw a slice lodge itself right in the middle of a cow.
Now, I don’t have a problem looking at dead animals. In fact, I once planned to go into taxidermy until I realized it required a two-year degree from the University of Phoenix (and not the online type!). But it will be awhile before I cut into a nice juicy piece of beef without remembering that windmill carnage.
“That poor cow. What did anyone ever do to him?” one of the students asked.
“Poor cow? What about the billions of women you have just violated by using a masculine pronoun. You are the one naturalizing domination and that domination is real because language shapes reality.”
“Shut up, you two-dollar ho-ass bitch-lady!” I said to the overly sensitive male student. “You’re both wrong. But you know what’s right? And right here?”
Wisconsin Fun! If loving Wisconsin Fun is wrong, I don’t want to be a gooderson. What could be more exciting than watching teenagers hoisted violently into the air by rusted-out cherry pickers equipped with ultra-powerful engines? I’ll tell you what’s more exciting: when one of those pickers bursts into flames and catapults a child three directly into a billboard advertising the Rick Wilcox Magic Experience at Wisconsin Dells.
Everything was going well until the device that connects your iPod to your cigarette lighter to your car radio to your asshole was working about as well as a liberal’s noggin. Just when we got to the rockin’ solo of a Led Zeppelin song, the bitch would short out, release a burst of noise that sounded like tortured ferret, then blast mariachi music at extreme volumes.
“This is a nice song,” one of the students said.
“I hear Air Mexico has good prices on tickets to Spain. Why don’t you go back there, you heathen?”
“I’m from Malta.”
“Same thing. Some land of dark-sided heathens putting curses on their small electronics exports so people in American can’t even drive down the fucking highway without having to listed to some Taco Bell commercial! And without that Chihuahua even.”
“Watch out for that sidecar!”
I swerved expertly, although the fat tattooed biker flicked me off. “Fuck you harder, Grandma Fuck!” I screamed. “You don’t even know me motherfucker! And what the hell is with this traffic? Is there a fucking sign that says ‘Please change lanes frequently’?”
Indeed there wasn’t. Instead, there was a sign alerting drivers to a white PT Cruiser emblazoned with the Schlotzsky’s logo which contained a child abducted by a man with a full beard and a long white dress.
“Jesus Christ!” I said, lamenting all that’s wrong with the world.
“Actually, that description does sound like Jesus Christ,” one of the students noted.
“Are you telling me some sicko would dress up like Jesus in order to win the trust of tender, delicious young children he wants to kidnap and violate repeatedly?”
They all nodded vigorously. But even so, why would someone so otherwise crafty drive such an easily identifiable vehicle?
We stopped for gas just outside the Bong Recreational Area, a place for tired motorists to relax with some Bong-related recreation activities. You can bet your crackpipe I wasn’t going anywhere near those dopers. However, we did stop at the nearby DQ, the one across from Mars Cheese Castle. Someone had mounted a cow carcass to the back of their trailer, an appetizing sight; I wondered if was the same cow vivisected by the windmill popping. Inside, there seemed to be quite a few Bong visitors hungry for Blizzards.
“Can you add some more hot fudge to that, dude?” the man in front of me asked the girl making his treat.
“I am not a dude, you rat-faced motherfucker!” she screamed, grabbing a squeeze bottle of butterscotch and assaulting his eyes with it. She jumped over the counter and assaulted him upside the head with a napkin holder, knocking him out cold.
We treated her nice, like ladies want to be treated, and were rewarded with expertly made desserts. Women really do know their way around the kitchen, and that’s where they should stay, if you ask me.
As we returned to our van, I nicely reminded the students that if they dripped in the car, I would strangle them to at least the brink of death with my malfunctioning iPod cord. From there, it was straight to Illinois and our hotel, the Hyatt Deerfield.
The Hyatt was the main hotel for the tournament, and as soon as we walked into the registration area, I saw the most feared competitor on the circuit, M. Online Reared, and his coach, Enrico Diablo. They had installed a rotating platform in the center of the room to allow them to sneer at everyone without having to move.
“Those smug motherfuckers are going to be surprised when my secret weapon anally rapes them!” I said to the coach next to me in line. He turned, revealing a priest's collar.
“Is it the new ultra-thick deluxe anal swizzle stick?” he asked.
“You’ll have to wait until Monday to find out.”
“God damn it!”
While I registered, the students ordered pizzas from a well-regarded local Chicago-style deep-dish pizzeria. We waited for the delivery while watching America’s Most Violently Destructive Yet Hilarious Bloopers. This is seriously the greatest show ever. Some guy tried to ride a bike down a steep slope of volcanic rock at over 100 miles per hour until the bike imploded and he splooshed face-first against the rock. And some kid was skateboarding down a hill, flew off his board, and landed crotch-first against a post.
“Right in the unit!” I said, laughing uproariously.
“What a nut-buster!” a student added.
“Excuse me? I have a call for Mr. Dick Hertz.”
“That’s enough,” I said. “Show some fucking respect to the poor man whose genitals may never function again.”
After watching a few more violent incidents, I realized it had been quite a while and still no pizza, so I called to see what was up. “The delivery guy was just there, and he couldn’t find you. But he’ll come back.”
“You better fucking believe he’ll come back, and he’ll take his tip of a nice sturdy silver dollar and swallow it and then call me tomorrow to describe the pain when he shits it back out. And if that ignorant fuckwit isn’t here within the next fifteen minutes, I will personally get every local Dairy Queen employee to trash your restaurant and smack the fat off your stomach.”
Eleven minutes later, it was dinnertime.
The next morning, we woke up at an ungodly hour and headed to Glenbrook South High School, the site of our preliminary rounds. All the poor fashion choices of the crossword community were out in full force: sagging pants, half-shirts, stripper heels, and B.U.M. Equipment sweatshirts. It’s so hard to deal with the assault on the senses from all that fugly. When I was choosing where to go to school, I just looked up all the girls on Facebook and chose the one with the lowest percentage of fugly.
Someone from another school came up and asked if our team was especially dressed up for this tournament. God knows why that would ever be an interesting topic of conversation, but we are talking about crossword people here and not people with even remotely acceptable social skills.
“Shut up and pull up your fucking pants!” I said. “Nobody wants to see the entirety of your boxers and the first few centimeters of your creamy, muscular thighs when we’re trying to focus on what five-letter word means ‘tweak surreptitiously.’ There is a time and a place for exposed boxers and thighs and it’s when you and your boyfriend are about to get busy in a Burger King bathroom.”
He walked away awkwardly, since there is no non-awkward way to walk when your pants are hovering just below buttock. Soon after, the first round was posted, and all the students went to their assigned classrooms to show off their verbal prowess. Between rounds, we spent most of the time marveling at the freaks surrounding us: the wolf-man lookalike, a couple making out in front of the ballot table, and the judge with unusual facial piercings who looked more like an attendee of a convention for arcane fetishists.
Our team was doing quite well, which apparently angered another coach from Minnesota, so he wrote down a list of all the ways to distract our students and passed it out to everyone in the tournament. Luckily, I had purposely fed false information that contributed to this list, and most of the items were things we spent practices desensitizing ourselves to: erotic lip-smacking, blowjob gestures, nipple tweaking, soft grunting, etc.
We returned to our hotel satisfied with our results. The World’s Most Explosive Explosions was on, but the narrator sounded kind of British, so we put it on closed captioning. Unfortunately, British people had apparently done the captioning as well. How else do you explain phrases like “Lo the dickaholic hitting thround” and “My value is that of justice?”
We changed to Lifetime, where the premiere of the original new made-for-TV movie The Thomas Dilts Affair was just beginning. The tagline was, “One paper, one argument, one enraged coach.” That also sounded like shit, so we got in the minivan to have dinner somewhere in Chicago. The traffic, though, was unbelievable. It was like a mass exodus from the suburbs. Some bitch in a red Chevy tried to cut me off before the tollbooth and I screamed, “I rebuke you in the name of the lord, Grandma Fuck!”
“No habla Ingles.”
“Then habla this!” I said, followed by a gesture meant to convey a fist going through a nostril. Just then, our stereo started blasting mariachi music, and the woman smiled, apparently assuming I was trying to be friendly. “Jesus Christ on a cracker!” I screamed, ripping off the faulty device. “On the highway of life, everyone sucks balls.”
We wound up ordering pizza again.
After a final preliminary round in the morning, the list of students advancing to elimination rounds was released. We had two in the group: not bad, but not great. One of them was in the same round as M. Reared. “What am I to do? He’s just too good for me,” the scared student asked.
“Remember this: He’s not a Christian!” I screamed. “He dabbles in dark-sided stuff. You need to be a God warrior, to rebuke his sinnin’ ass all over the room and win for the glory of the light!”
“And if he gets all up in your face, don’t back town. Look him straight in the eye and tell him, ‘Smell it! Smell it! Take it!’ If he can dish it out, he can handle it.”
Our other finalist was in a much easier group. Both of them were clearly defeated. “You’re all failures!” I told the team. “I do everything in my power to make sure you are prepared, that you can at least seem smart, that you don’t fucking suck at life, but what difference does that make? I may as well be speaking Swahili. But I bet you worthless shit lumps will understand this: What do you call a group of idiotic losers who deserve to go the way of the whooping crane?”
“A classic rock band?”
“Good guess, but the answer is: Y’all!”
They looked demoralized, but I wasn’t done yet. Far from it, in fact. But before I could continue my tirade, two coaches interrupted us with their own angry fight.
“You got more, bitch?”
“I got a lot more. Firstly, the way you treat people is some fucked-up shit. You go around with your stank face talking shit about everyone, but really you’re the one who’s shit.”
“Hahahahaha! That’s all you got, bitch? You don’t even know me, motherfucker! Let me tell you this: Talk to the fucking hand because the fucking ears aren’t listening.”
“I’ll do more than talk to your fucking hand, motherfucker!”
The argument continued as they walked further down the hall. I turned to the students and said, “Now that they’re gone, brace yourselves because it’s Daddy’s turn again.”
But before Daddy could resume, a coach from Texas approached a coach and student near us and started accusing them of some ethical shenanigans.
“How dare you call our tactics cockamamie? I’ma maim your cock if you don’t shut the fuck up right now.”
“Shit is just not right. Why you gotta act like that? You’re just making the whole community look like petty assholes.”
“Simmer down, son. I think you need to look up ‘petty’ in the dictionary because the only petty I got here is Tom Petty because, just like him, I won't back down, I’m gonna stand my ground, so you better get the fuck out my grill if you don’t want a cap to be busted.”
Everyone was enraged. The tournament had been taken over by the dark side; my own anger was useless. It was time to go back to Minnesota.
There was nothing left to do except have a hearty meal at the Machine Shed, risk assault for more delicious DQ treats outside Eau Claire, and briefly get caught in a rift in spacetime caused by the “Next Exit” advertisements for Wisconsin Fun.
It was this rift that restored my hope in a non-apocalyptic time, a new temporality that would resist the temptation to go to the dark side, that would bring us to a better time outside the cycle toward the toilet of chaos Satan seems to have us trapped in right now. I’ll say it fervently, angrily, but never surreptitiously:
Catapult us into a universe of post-linear temporality in Jesus’ name I pray!
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Sometime over the next seventeen weeks, there will be a major crisis. Nobody knows when or who or how or whether it will interfere with the Young America’s Foundation Valentine’s cruise featuring John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, and other right wing luminaries. Even if you booked your tickets months ago, you may never have the chance to watch the sun set over Vieques while listening to Ashcroft croon a lounge version of “Back That Ass Up.” That’s the nature of crises: like felons, they’re wily and unpredictable; like hooligans, they cause shenanigans—and cockamamie ones at that.
This crisis will be the first major test of Barack Obama’s ability to lead our country. Some say he lacks the experience to lead. Some say his recent comments aimed to deter young men from extensive pants sagging are disingenuous at best. Some say he is a Marxist communist socialist anti-American hater of freedom. We will finally find out when this crisis arrives.
When it does, real Americans will do what they always do: form a line from here to Wasilla and pass buckets of water down that line to extinguish the flames of the crisis. Or some metaphoric equivalent of that. Until then, real America can enjoy itself at the many fine big box establishments in suburban, urban, and exurban areas. What I love is that I can go to Cedar Rapids, or Coon Rapids, or Rapid City, and there will be Chili’s, and Applebee’s. There will also be Red Lobster, but I have a serious shellfish allergy so I normally try not to go there.
Although there are so many big box restaurants I love, I must say my favorite of them all is Old Chicago. Although there are 72 Old Chicagos in 20 states, the one in Apple Valley is special to me for three reasons. First, my favorite waitress, Shellsea, works there. She’s the one with the Sarah Palin hair and accent. Second, it’s where I completed their World Beer Tour, sampling 110 different beers from all over the globe, including Germany, in order to earn a plaque that is proudly displayed on their wall of fame. Third, without checks on government, democracy becomes impossible because the state can ignore or override what people say, making it a prerequisite to all other criteria.
Friday afternoon, I could barely contain my excitement as I headed south on Cedar Avenue. I imaged Shellsea waiting for me, holding a big grilled chicken Caesar with my name on it, and a suggestion from their exciting list of seasonal beers. Unfortunately, though, there was an accident just north of 125th Street: a minibus driven by a sad clown had collided with a school bus filled with chickens. The highway was down to one lane, and it took me 45 minutes to go 20 blocks. I would have to head straight to Apple Valley High School and wait until dinner for OC.
Apple Valley High School is unique among Minnesotan suburban schools in that its design is heavily influenced by recreational psychedelic drug use. Its interior is an explosion of angular, bright-colored design from some forgotten era in the 60s or 70s, created by a team of hippies influenced by the Source cult from Southern California, who practiced vegetarianism and poorly produced free-form psych-rock before it was co-opted by Modest Mouse fans, fashion environmentalists, and gay homosexuals. Not that I have any problem with the gay; like Sarah Palin, some of my best friends are the gay, and as long as they aren’t allowed to get married and Ted Allen is gainfully employed, I’m as happy as a former felon allowed to vote again for the first time, rejoining the community and making a positive difference in the world.
I was privileged enough to spend the day watching and judging fantastic high school debate rounds. I got to hear the brightest young minds of our generation flaunt their extensive knowledge of SAT words, foreign languages (the term “a priori” comes to mind), and that most important skill of all: the ability to present four contradictory positions in seven minutes without wasting time responding to the opposing argument directly. Needless to say, it was a spiritually and emotionally fulfilling day.
To make matters even better, I got to see some of my greatest friends from all over the country. Debate is just one of those activities where you form strong bonds with people; because everyone in the activity is fascinating, unbelievably intelligent, and pathologically competitive, these are the bonds that last a lifetime. During the off-season, we swap shirtless pictures on Facebook, chat on MSN about the housing commission whores and stray Jews in our lives, and wait for the days when we will finally be able to see each other face-to-face again.
When we do meet in person, we exchange hilarious stories about the arguments we hear in debate rounds. These are truly some of the most entertaining stories you will ever hear in your life. One time, we were debating this team from another school that we sort of have a rivalry with, and they tend to run this kind of weird argument by this one post-modernist philosopher. Their cases are based on random books or something. The argument is okay, but we just think it’s weird. Anyway, the story goes on for another 25 pages, but I’ll leave it for another day.
One of my oldest debate friends was judging a very competitive round, and I playfully told him not to fuck up the decision. Immediately, a stunningly fat man wearing a gray Adidas tracksuit ran up to me and said there was no room in the debate community for toilet language, that garbage mouths like me should go back to Mexico to keep America’s children safe from our pernicious influence. “Where are you from?” he asked, threatening to report me to the tournament’s ethics committee.
“St. Louis Park.”
“What a frickin’ surprise,” he said sardonically irreverently.
Even in the face of poorly dressed obese school administrators, hungry for food and power and always trying to impose their formal rigid moralism on us normal debate folks, debate is still the best thing next to arcane Japanese animated erotica.
As the last round of the day concluded, I was sad that the tournament was already half over, but very excited to be minutes away from Shellsea. My last round was in a classroom belonging to a teacher who, like Obama, apparently was consternated by the sagging of the pants, as well as other revealing clothing. The area above the whiteboard was covered in a row of signs with cutesy poems warning children that provocative clothing has no place in a learning environment:
If we can see your thong, you’ve dressed yourself wrong!
If too far you sag, you’ll make them gag!
Keep your ass in your damn pants.
I have to agree with this teacher. Teenagers are already sexually frustrated as it is, but at least most of them can wait until they’re home alone to spend hours surfing the web in a porn cycle, fantasizing about transsexual dwarf amputees or whatever kind of perverse filth is popular with those hairy-palmed adolescent hornbags these days. To them, I say as long as it’s done behind closed doors and does not in any way involve real animals—although stuffed ones or Animatronics are fine—then I don’t care about it and I don’t want to know about it and I don’t want to talk about it.
And don’t get me started on those emos.
Luckily, all these distractions floated away as soon as I entered Old Chicago. It was dreary outside—the coldest day of the year by far with a mix of rain and snow coming down—but entering OC was like returning to the womb, the ultimate homecoming. Shellsea had new lowlights that went well with her uniform, and she enthusiastically hugged me before showing me to my favorite spot at the bar.
“It’s a real chiller outside, isn’t it?” she said. “That’s what ya get living in Minnesota though. They say that under all this Minnesota nice is a real tough cookie.”
“Preach it to me, sister! Now let’s hear about your seasonal beer specials.”
“Ooh, we’ve got some real exciting choices this time. There’s a Winter Warmer from Rooftop Brewery in New Ulm, and of course Autumnal Fire’s always good for what ails ya.”
“Especially if what ails ya is sobriety!” I said.
She cackled with laugher as I chose a stout from Wisconsin. I once knew a man who married a stout from Wisconsin, and boy could I tell you stories about him.
Digressions aside, the evening was as great as I expected—at least until a rowdy group of high school robotics coaches came in. Apparently there was a robotics tournament at Eastview High School. Those damn robotics people always show up to piss on your fiesta. They take money away from debate teams, and they treat us like doo-doo. They’re so classless, too. All the coaches were slamming Purple Hooters and loudly talking about their favorite techniques for pleasurable robot programming. I don’t want to hear about some robot scaring burglars away when I’m trying to focus on enjoying a chicken Caesar.
So I ignored them. Dire Straits was on the stereo, the food was enticing, and I anticipated another day of stimulating debate rounds ahead. After returning home, with a full belly and some leftover buffalo shrimp fettuccini for a midnight snack, I was thankful that real America was still just what is was: real! I fell asleep immediately and had dreams about Sarah Palin baking a variety of dessert bars for an American Legion meeting.
Next day number two: It was colder than Fred Phelps at a Bette Middler concert outside, but that didn’t dampen my spirits a bit. Apple Valley High School was abuzz with competitors and coaches anticipating the first round of the day. As the preliminary rounds come to a close, there are always many epic battles, debates so good that judges have to periodically stop taking notes and simply marvel at the pure logic and intelligence saturating the atmosphere.
After round seven, the novice and junior varsity debaters returned from their respective off-site locations, and instantly the cafeteria was crowded with little kids screaming and crying and biting each other. I escaped to a remote corner of the school to talk about poker strategy with my friends. Stories about poker are almost as prevalent—and certainly as interesting—as those about debate rounds when you’re with forensics people. I was reminiscing about the time I had a big chick in the pocket and everything was looking fantastic until the river delivered a bad beat.
“That totally sucks, man.”
“Speaking of total suckage, I have a hilarious story about what happens when an open limp and a nut hand come together.”
“Is that the one with the donkey with the pocket rocket?”
“Oh, damn! I’ve already told you guys that one. That was my best story.”
And it was a great story. Real America is filled with real Americans and their great stories. If you don’t ask, though, they might not tell them.
After a delicious lunch of walking tacos and juice boxes, it was time for the announcement of which debaters had fought through the field and earned a spot in elimination rounds. The tension was incredible, but it was delightful to see the joyful reactions of those who made the cut. A novice from Scarsdale screamed out in thanks to his Rabbi when his name was announced, and another debater collapsed and started speaking in tongues.
Naturally, the elimination rounds were exciting to watch, difficult to judge, and took place in rounds filled with hygienically challenged kids. The temperature rose to Old Chicago levels, but instead of the delicious smell of pizza and beer, it smelled more like the locker room at a gym for gutter punks.
The rounds progressed toward finals, a match between two debaters that I had no interest in, so I left with my friends for our big night at Old Chicago. I always like to spend the first night there myself, for the pure experience and to reconnect with Shellsea, and save the second night for a communal blast. We sat at our usual round table, ordering several pitchers of Autumnal Fire and the app sampler with onion sticks, freedom fries, broccoli shooters, popcorn beef, and their famous spinach-artichoke dip with bacon, ranch, and corn nuts.
“Remember that time when that one debater had a value of that of teamwork?”
“What a retard!”
“Dude, I know. I haven’t heard anything that stupid since someone went for four-minutes straight Malthus good after the NC ran a spark blip after three Stav off-cases and a phil spec.”
“I haven’t seen a dump like that since the morning after my last dinner at Fogo de Chao!”
“Ho ho ho ho ho ho!”
“That reminds of the time when someone was running felon voting leads to nuke war with that Berube card, and they dropped a McIntyre a priori but still picked up two judges who thought the magnitude was sufficient or some shit.”
“That’s like when the brink overwhelms uniqueness with Wittgenstein hits someone running the gift K in front of mommy judges from Alabama.”
“Or like Mouffe. I mean, how can you take it seriously if her name is Mouffe. What’s next, Wang?”
“Better yet: Schlong.”
“Ho ho ho ho ho ho!”
It was a night to remember, a night in real America, the America we real Americans live in, where we drink American beer and eat American pizza and listen to good old American rock and roll. We are young and old, smart and smarter, men and women, straight and bi-curious, but our love of debate brings us together and keeps us that way forever.
That’s why I know that a year from now, despite how many crises occur in the interim, I will be back with my friends, my Shellsea, my grilled chicken Caesar, and a big smile on my face.
Dedicated to all my boyz in the community. Be real 4ever. Keep your RFD’s straight and your sexual relationships straighter. LOL & pz out 4-reals—
Sunday, November 2, 2008
On Halloween morning, a group of students and adult supervisors from the Twin Cities area met in the parking lot of St. Paul Central High School. They were expecting to spend an enjoyable holiday weekend in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, The City of Five Seasons. This seemingly paradoxical motto is, in fact, a reference to the Chamber of Commerce’s belief that time spent in their fair city is “a time to enjoy life, to enjoy the other four seasons.” Whether or not this makes sense is a question for the ages, like the chicken and the egg, or the Jew and the Cocker Spaniel. What is undoubtedly true, though, is that Cedar Rapids is all about enjoyment: enjoy your time, your life, your friends, and yourself. Since at least some of those are activities high school students tend to enjoy, the trip was a highly anticipated one.
That excitement only mounted—no pun intended—when their bus drove up. It was a futuristic, stainless steel bullet with white leather upholstered seats, individualized flat-screen televisions, and a talking toilet seat in its bathroom. The windows were so advanced that the diagrams instructing riders how to open and close them were completely incomprehensible. They may as well have been in Swahili. For all we know, maybe they were in Swahili. The right side of the bus had a pulsating LCD screen advertising the name of the bus company, Bus Daddy.
Before setting off toward central Iowa, the bus driver, whose nametag simply read “Justice,” laid down the ground rules. “What you got here is more than just a nice sturdy bus, the kind of bus a family could call a home away from home, away from the gridlock and shenanigans of the rat race. It’s my home away from home, and when you’re in my home or my home away from home or my home away from home away from home, you gotta follow three rules. Number wonderful, don’t throw any women’s products—if you catch my menstrual drift—in the shitter. Number two, put your garbage in the bags or the cans or up your craphole for all I care; just don’t put it on the floor. And the most important rule: for the love of all things holy, do not bring any beverage on the bus unless it is in a container with a screw-on top.”
That syntax elicited a flurry of giggles from the younger students, who misinterpreted the phrase “screw-on top” as something salacious. Just before the bus pulled away, a late straggler ran onboard, holding a large handbag and a Stein of Oktoberfest beef. “Stop it right there, young man. You are in blatant disregard of the rules. You gotta finish that drink outside before you get on the bus. Only screw-on tops!” The confused teen stepped back outside, quickly drained the rest of his brew, and threw the stein into nearby bushes. “Thank you,” Justice said, and the journey began.
The sights, sounds, and smells of late autumn in Iowa entranced and occasionally repulsed the group, or at least those who were unable to sleep through the waves of skunk odor, piercing morning sun, and horrible classic rock emanating from the laptop of some idiot who thought it appropriate to impose his taste in music on everyone else.
Just before noon, the bus pulled into an empty parking lot near the corner of 16th Street and 1st Avenue, near Pizza Daddy, a particularly ghetto Hy-Vee, the rollerblading dart players’ club, and Tobacco and Liquor Daddy, a popular store among the area’s college student and hobo populations. After a restorative meal, everyone regrouped to check into their hotel, the downtown Crowne Plaza, before heading to their tour headquarters, Franklin Middle School. One of the ninth graders attempted to get on the bus with a canned martini from Tobacco and Liquor Daddy, but Justice made him finish the refreshing cocktail before joining the rest of the screw-top rule followers.
Guy, one of the adult supervisors of the group, led his group of students to their room and quickly unpacked his various silk turtlenecks for the weekend before returning to the bus. Their departure was briefly delayed by a child wielding a juice box of wine, but Justice was vigilant as ever and the screw-on rule remained unbroken, much like the spirit of a wily felon having finished his sentence, a punishment that was necessary to respect the moral agency of the criminal, who doubtlessly chose to commit the crime knowing full well he would be caught and deservedly punished and disenfranchised, since there are no socioeconomic factors that could possibly problematize the view of crime as a totally autonomous internal choice.
Franklin Middle school was smack dab in the middle of the west side of the east half of Cedar Rapids, not far from Pizza Daddy, Washington High School, and a golf course ringed with upscale homes, decorated for Halloween with plastic glowing skeletons, devils, and Democratic politicians. Come election day, while felons are rightly reminded that they should not and do not have a say in elections, we’ll see who will ultimately, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, get the very final last laugh. Mark my words: we will see.
Built in 1923, Franklin was originally a junior high school, then a high school, then a junior high school again, and finally transitioned to its current role in the mid-70’s, after the explosive growth in the colonic health industry brought so many jobs and dollars into the once-suffering city. A stately brick building with neo-Gothic concrete details and entrances still marked separately for boys and girls, up and down staircases, and shadowy nooks and corner, Franklin’s eerie charm was undeniable.
The group convened in the theater, which was decorated for the fall musical, “Life: A User’s Manual,” based on the classic novel by Georges Perec. The stage was trimmed with large jigsaw puzzle pieces, and decorated to resemble a gracious drawing room inside an affluent apartment on Paris’s Boulevard Housemann. Ernestine Crawford, a lifelong Cedar Rapidian and feisty octogenarian with the gravelly voice of a woman not inexperienced with unfiltered cigarettes, introduced herself as their guide.
“My parents named me Ernestine after my great uncle Bootsy, who died in the great flood of 1934, when I was younger than any of you are. It happened exactly 74 years ago, this very weekend. Families were homeless for weeks, wishing the government could come in and give them a nice sturdy boat. When Katrina hit New Orleans, us survivors here knew just how they felt: like us, but far, far less white.”
Speaking of racial politics, Cedar Rapids has become quite diverse in the past couple of decades, and fully 26 percent of their black male population are unable to vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws, but there’s no way to stop racism because you would have to dismantle the entire government, and that would lead to anarchy.
“We’re going to spend the rest of the afternoon,” Ernestine continued, “watching a film about the history of Cedar Rapids, narrated by 90’s dance music star Gilette. Then you’ll have time to explore the city before you go back to your hotel for whatever illicit activities you stupid kids do when you’re away from your parents. Damn out of control juvenile delinquent fuckers. In my day, you would have been hung from a post in the town square for a fortnight, and that’s just for starters.”
The video was indeed stirring. Guy hadn’t seen anything this engrossing since the finale of Season Three of “Australia’s Next Top Model,” when Jane showed her roots as a lesbian dark-haired bitch. She and Steph H. were soy bad at modeling. A teen couple in the back of the auditorium were not as rapt, focusing instead on caressing each other’s perfect hips and thighs. Soon enough, they crept out of the theater, heading to the top floor of the school to find a deserted staircase where they could sex.
Near the end of the film, Guy thought he heard a piercing scream, but he wasn’t sure if it was coming from somewhere in the school or the video, which was covering the FBI raid of the notorious Irish strip club O’Boobigan’s, the scene of the most filthy vice Cedar Rapids had seen since the Prohibition era.
After the video, the group returned to the bus, which was finally not delayed by someone brashly violating the screw-on rule, but instead by the absence of two students: the very two students who had left the film to sex. Attempts to phone them proved fruitless, much unlike a Cher concert. The supervisors split into teams and searched the school, a search that ended with a gruesome discovery of two exsanguinated bodies. Their young lives, so full of potential and spirit, had been crushed like a pound of pancakes.
The next morning, two obituaries were prominently featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. One of them read: “Congratulations to Tina for a lifetime of accomplishments, including once going 3-3 at a high school debate tournament as a freakin’ junior, and finishing third in a statewide coloring contest at the age of eight. Tina is succeeded by her parents, Christi and Christ, and her older brother Bubba.” The other obituary was in Swahili.
At the morning meeting at Franklin, the mood was somber, tense, saturnine, sinuous, and somewhat inquisitive. Ernestine assured the group that everything was being done to find the evil killer, but there was a hint of disingenuousness in her voice, although that could have been a stray tobacco chunk lodged in her soft palate. Guy raised his hand and asked, “This situation is dead serious, ladies and germs. Riddle me this: How are we going to find who, or what, is responsible for this abortion of that of justice?”
“I made it through the Great Depression, the Great Flood, and the Reagan Era. I can make it through this, and so can you,” Ernestine said.
“Dude, that doesn’t answer my question. Stop trying to weasel your way out of a sticky wicket and—damn it, woman—put your money where your mouth is.”
“I’m getting there,” she said, sounding less than confident. “But right now, I have a more pressing need.” She excused herself and hurried to the female bathroom. A shoe, presumably attacked to a prone body, peeked out from one of the stalls. “Damn elbow-benders and their Halloween hijinks,” she muttered under her breath, expecting to find a passed out drunk bitch. But when she opened the door, what she found was far more troubling: the third victim, exsanguinated, white as a sheet, dead, gone, murdered, killed, gone to a better place, to meet her maker.
Seventeen minutes later, the police arrived on the scene, still with no leads on the first two murders. Sheriff Troons departed from his minibus and surveyed the scene. There was no visible evidence of horseplay or other shenanigans, so his deputies bagged up the body to take back to headquarters. Feeling angry and endangered, Guy asked for a ride back to the hotel, and Troons was happy to oblige. As he sped through the streets, nearly killing a jogger and taking out a lamppost, he told Guy something fascinating: Franklin was rumored to be haunted.
“To be perfectly honest,” Troons said, “I always thought it was hooey, but my daughter said she heard weird noises there, and three of her friends saw the ghost of an old woman in a wheelchair. It scared the living shit out of them, and they really seemed to believe it was real. Sometimes I don’t know what to believe.”
“In an age where felons retain the right to vote in some jurisdictions, I don’t believe anyone who doesn’t say they don’t know what to believe. But riddle me this: why the haunting? Did something happen on that site?”
“That is one darn tootin’ good question.”
“Fuck the hotel. Take me to the library.”
Troons immediately swung a u-turn, causing a hearse to careen into a ditch. “Ironical, that!” he said, laughing maniacally.
Guy spent the next several hours reading old issues of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, determined to find a story about Franklin that would explain the alleged paranormal activity there. His breakthrough came from a 1974 issue, commemorating Franklin’s 41st anniversary. It was just a sentence, a simple reference to something that happened there during the flood. “Things lost in flood” had to mean something. It had to hold the key.
With trembling fingers, Guy fed the October 1934 roll of microfiche into the machine, and scrolled to October 31. There was nothing there, so he tried November, and everything became perfectly clear.
During Prohibition, a bunch of sots and hoochers started a speakeasy in the basement of Franklin Middle School. Its unlikely location led to great success, particularly among the elderly and infirm residents of the enormous Mercy Care Center on nearby 1st Avenue. The weekend of Halloween 1934, the speakeasy was packed with drunkards, dancing and singing and having a generally gay old time, but when the flood started, the emphasis was on “old,” because the able-bodied ran for the hills—literally—while the incapacitated elderly citizens were deserted. With no way to escape, they shrugged and poured another round: a farewell toast to life, and to the great beyond.
Guy turned off the machine and realized he was ravenous, so he ordered a cab from Taxi Daddy and headed to Gringo’s Mexican Eatery for a margarita and a sizzling fajita platter. Before he could finish his drink, the phone rang with more tragic news: there were five more victims, and for the first time, an eyewitness survivor: a young girl in shock, muttering about a posse of ghosts chasing her down the hall in wheelchairs.
It was obvious there was only one thing to be done: get Troons, the police’s ghost hunting unit, and Ernestine, and make the ghosts show themselves. But first, there was a sizzling fajita platter with Guy’s name on it, written in fresh guacamole and queso, and it was time to take a big bite.
Later, at midnight on the dot, the ghost hunting posse crept into Franklin Middle School though the girls’ entrance, thinking that might be the first way to disturb the ghosts. That explained why Ernestine was wearing a men’s suit and a rubber Richard Nixon mask. They stuck together, walking down the stairs leading to the basement, shouting disparaging ageist and anti-alcoholic remarks in the hopes of getting a rise out of their nemeses.
“You dirty old boozehounds deserved to die!”
“Washed out in a flood of booze, and then a flood.”
“No offense, but I seriously hate all old people.”
A piercing noise, like broken glass and guitar feedback played backwards through blown speakers, ripped through the room. The hunters all froze in terror. A pale green light appeared from the top of the stairs, and an old man on a flying wheelchair slowly descended. Drops of water from his hair and his chair left a trail on the floor.
“We knew you would come, you who dare taunt the victims of the flood. All we want is peace, not a bunch of stupid kids walking all over our territory. We’ve shown you fair warning, yet you didn’t listen. So now you must die.”
The walls began to crumble as dozens of wheelchairs surrounded the group, creeping ever nearer. It was like the “Thriller” video, only not as popular with Filipino felons, whose disenfranchisement reflects the government’s need to exclude citizens who fail to respect the social contract. Guy opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out. A pale, bony, moist hand approached his throat.
“Wake up, Guy,” a cheerful voice said. It was Tina, Christ’s daughter, a frickin’ junior who was riding the bus to Cedar Rapids with him. “We’re already here. It’s dinner time.”
They had stopped on Collins Road to enjoy a variety of big box options before their first night in Cedar Rapids. The Perkins Guy chose was handsomely decorated for Halloween, and Sasha, the waitress, served up soft drinks and chicken Caesars with élan.
After dinner, the bus was about to leave when a latecomer ran aboard holding a goblet of red wine. “For the last time, finish that outside. The screw-top rule is not optional,” Justice said.
The bus dropped the group off at Franklin Middle School, where their tour of Cedar Rapids was to begin with a historical video followed by a Halloween derive. But Guy was too disturbed by his dream to pay attention to the video, and left to check out Pizza Daddy. There was a full moon outside and the streets were empty, save two masked trick-or-treaters running away from 1st Street.
Guy turned onto it, crossing 19th, which took him to the Mercy Center. Outside the building, behind a wrought iron fence, a row of men and women in wheelchairs, wrapped in white blankets, stared silently at Guy. The wheelchairs were lined up, single file, and spanned the entirety of the long block: behind, ahead, and right where he was. Their dead eyes stared not at Guy, but into him.
Posted by Charlie!!!!!!! at 8:04 PM